Fruit, Vegetable, Malaria, Quality, and Politicz

IBM runs commercials (embedded below)about how  they help other businesses.  The TV advertisement focuses on some other non-electronics related business, and then at the end of the ad, plugs IBM in as, "surprise", the brains behind the business.

Two IBM ads I saw recently had a bizarre angle.   They take something which has been in the press recently, and without directly acknowledging the controversy, seem to run a political ad in support of the client.   It is a general "pro IBM" message for the rest of us, but is probably particularly popular with the specific big business client.  It's kind of like "product placement" inside of a TV program.  The ad is for IBM, but the derivative product placed in the ad gets kind of a boost.

Two cases in point:  TASTELESS TOMATOES and COUNTERFEIT PHARMACEUTICALS.   Both have been featured in the press (the latter in a New Yorker article that I was reading sitting somewhere).

The "Tracking Food Through the Supply Chain to Ensure Quality and Safety" ad is a bittersweet defense of commercial tomato farming, enforcing the positive side of the story that fewer tomatoes are lost to spoilage between harvest and plate.

I grew up spending every summer in the Ozarks, where my family roots are in hillbilly farming (Land of Taney is a book written by my dad's uncle Elmo Ingenthron, who we visited every summer). Part of my job this time of year - late July - was to devour huge, fat, delicious tomatoes which populated every windowsill in my grandparents homes.  The bumper crop of tomatoes every summer amounted to such plenty that folks down there ran from house to house with "gift boxes" of zucchini, corn on the cob, and tomatoes, trying to give them away before they could spoil.

Ripe, plump, perfect tomatoes.   I absolutely grew up passionately loving this.  Big as my palm, biting and sucking the juice like a vampire, salt shaker in hand.  Finish one, have another.   My first orgasm in my brain repeated over and over with every bite of cool flavor.  A cornucopia of plenty, delicious and good.  But despite my best efforts, some of the tomatoes went soft and would wind up in the compost hill.  Sucking tomatoes obviously meant inhaling the seedy pulp juice before it could stain your shirt.

Tomatoes now just suck.  They are bred to survive a truck journey from Florida.  Theyare harvested green, like tennis balls, and bred to decrease loss of transport.  The tomato farms which do this have less loss per dollar investment, making their tomatoes cheaper.  We buy them because they are cheaper, and now there is not a delicious tomato to be found.   Like starlings from Europe displacing bluebirds in North America, the pinkish tennisballtomato is ubiquitous, year round.   But they are a sad reminder of my first 20 summers, which made tomatoes worth living for.

I heard Terry Gross interviewing Barry Eastabrook about this sad state of affairs on NPR "Fresh Air" this week.  Easterbrook wrote a book about the marketplace displacement of quality with quantity.  Now everyone can afford the tomatoes I grew up with.  But we seem to buy them out of habit.  They are the daytime programming of farming.

When I lived in Cameroon, mango season was a bit like Ozark tomato season.  You didn't have many mangoes most of the year, but when they all became ripe on the trees at once, they rained.  Kids everywhere, with trays on their heads, hocked mangoes for pennies.  Luxuriously ripe (avoid the skin on your mouth, it's poison ivy like), there was nothing more delicious for a few weeks a year.  Pennies.  Mere pennies per mango.

Let's hope western progress doesn't solve the mango perishability the way IBM helped solve tomato perishability.   Mangoes available year round, more affordable than ever for northerners, with a starling tomato bargain of firm polystyrene tastelessness.

The IBM ad about counterfeit medicine caught my attention because I am usually defensive of accusations of counterfeiting, as applied to the "good enough" market.   I've often written here about the fine line between enforcing legitimate defenses to counterfeiting (which defraud both consumer and OEM) and "planned obsolescence in hindsight" or patent extension vs. patent exhaustion.  IBM's history of allowing PC clones (loose copyright enforcement) vs. Apple crosses into the debate over whether generic malaria medicine is good or bad.   Generic malaria medicine is cheap and saves lives.  Fake malaria medicine sells false hope and robs the person trying to save their dying child.

The New Yorker article focused on counterfeit medicines, which kill people.  Selling sugar pills inside of legitimate looking malaria drug packages is a crime of murder first (the child dies) and theft second.   The counterfeit packaging is getting horribly efficient, and use of holographic logos has failed as Chinese and Vietnamese fake drug makers use shelf technology to fake the holograms.  (I can't find New Yorker online, here's a short article by NYT 2008).

What is silently bothering me is how the same campaign may not only net fake sugar pill malaria medicine, but also affordable generic malaria medicine.   It sounds like paying the Chinese to enforce only against counterfeit ink cartridges in 2002.  They also took out repair, refill, refurbish, generic shops.   Will IBM's tracking system also help lawsuits to raise the barrier of entry to generic malaria drug manufacturers?  Will raising the price of malaria vaccine kill as many people through the free market as fake sugar pill malaria drug sales kill through fraud?  If I was a lawyer, which case (against criminal or against competitor) would pay my bills?

Seeing an electronics manufacturer like IBM use product placement for their anti-counterfeit pharmaceutical client is a twist I felt like writing about.   PC clones were IBM's response to Apple in the 1990s... Apple took the approach of controling the hardware manufacturer (largely with patent and copyright) while IBM decided on a laissez faire approach, allowing the (mostly Taiwanese) contract manufacturers to make cheaply license the IBM and Intel technology, hoping hardware costs would lead to more money for IBM in the long run.

Of course, the Taiwanese won on both fronts.  Some of the richest people in the world are from Taipei.  They made money making IBM clones with permission, and they made money as contract manufacturers for Apple.  Virtually all Apple products are made by Chinese contractors, some in the same Wonka factories producing android, palm, and other tablets and MP3 players.

The free market is a clash of competition, both in the marketplace and in the courts.  What Americans don't quite understand is how the "courts" fight in emerging markets boils down to corruption at the government level.  Counterfeit drug makers bribe regulators.   And ink cartridge OEMs bribe regulators.  In the same way our own court system can produce bizarre and counter-intuitive outcomes, bribes and leverage of regulators is a crude and ubiquitous counterpart.  Both sides play the game.

Home grown tomatos, non-commercial mangos, and repaired and refurbished computers by local geeks, these bring flavor to life.  Whether we are killed by commercial producers at the top or by criminals at the bottom, we are in a cross-fire.  I used to smoke pot twenty five years ago and make connections between things that my friends couldn't see the connection between, they'd be all whoa wild but then couldn't remember how I had connected bad tomatoes to mangos to PC clones (for example).   I keep making these connections.  When I do it verbally, it's easy to attribute that to bad communication or past pot use.

When I do it in a journal, or in a blog, I can openly fascinate how companies like IBM make the same connections.  It's 4 am, and ABC news is (as we write) covering counterfeit Apple Ipad sales in China.

This is about balancing quality, availability, and freedom against using regulator, police, and court enforcement against abuse.   Politics are about balancing greed and fear, desire and apprehension.  The same battle between reuse and abuse of e-waste exports happening here in the USA (and Europe) is taking place around the world, with software EULAs, pharmaceuticals, patented tomatos and yet-to-be patented mangos.  Allowing USA corporations to patent and copyright strains of DNA in plants and foods will one day seem as arbitrary as allowing Chinese contract manufacturers to import based on permits from Chinese government authorities with opportunity to trade influence.

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