The Hightower Lowdown

This is the Chronicle debut of a weekly column written by Austin political commentator, author, and radio talk show agitator Jim Hightower (

It's the paranoid's worst fear.

They really are watching you. We've learned in recent years that privacy is passé in practically every aspect of our lives, as corporate and governmental snoops track our movements at work, in schools, walking down the street, browsing on the Internet -- and now, even while we eat.

The New York Times reports that some of the city's finest restaurants have installed cameras to monitor your meal. You wouldn't notice, unless you happened to look up at the ceiling, where a small camera lens is peering down at you, conveying the image back to a screen in the kitchen. New digital surveillance cameras provide remarkably clear pictures of your dining habits, and they have zoom lenses that can capture such up-close details as what you're writing on a check. They also allow "remote access," meaning a chef away from the restaurant can tune into the dining room through a computer ... and watch you eating.

The rationale is that these peek-a-boo systems allow chefs to know when you're finishing your appetizer so the entrée can arrive right on time. But, the cameras also pick up your intimacies, including if you and your date get a little smoochy, providing voyeuristic fun for the kitchen staff. Also, if the chef can catch the action online, so can any 12-year old computer whiz who wants to take a peek around the tables.

In addition to the cameras, the Times reports that more and more restaurants are building personal profiles on their customers, compiling databases that include your phone number, address, profession, eating preferences, how much you drink, etc. Again, this nosy bit of data collection is done in the name of efficiency and meeting customer's desires -- but the bottom line is that your intimate dining experiences are being watched, recorded, stored, and used without your permission.

Eat a Flalomon

I've got a fish story for you. It's about "the really big one" that got away. I'm talking about a salmon that's more than double the size of the standard variety salmon.

Unfortunately, this big whooper is not a natural creature of the waters, but a freakish creature of the labs -- a genetically modified "Frankenfish." Scientists in Massachusetts have patented a process of splicing a flounder gene into the growth-hormone gene of the salmon, causing the resulting fish to grow twice as fast and more than twice as large as normal. At first, this would seem to be a bonanza for fish farmers -- double the fish in half the time.

But it's not nice to try to fool Mother Nature, and the scientists' genetically engineered super salmon comes with a devastating flaw: Its eggs have a much lower rate of survival than their natural cousins. This is a case in which bigger definitely would not be better, for many scientists see this genetically engineered fish as a biological time bomb that can devastate wild populations of salmon and other fish.

You see, domesticated fish routinely get loose from their watery pens, escaping to breed with wild species. If even a few of these Frankenfish escape, the damage could be extensive. In this case, the "oops! factor" of science comes into play, for the genetically enhanced, super salmon males are most attractive to females, who naturally look for size when choosing mates. It's a survival-of-the-species thing. But -- oops! -- this big stud would pass on its genes that produce inferior eggs, thus threatening the long-term existence of the very species. As a Newsday writer put it, "males engineered to be big might win the mating battle but lose the survival war. ... The fish would breed themselves into oblivion."

Pet Cemetery

Consider the uncharted universe of eternity, where time stands still, and you can live forever.

Well, maybe you can't, but your dog, cat, and all your other pets can. At least Richard Denniston thinks it's possible. The Associated Press reports that Denniston's beloved Scottish terrier was soon to die, but the owner is an expert in reproductive physiology, so he took a tiny skin sample from the dog, cultured it, and froze this bit of DNA in liquid nitrogen -- saving it for the day when dog cloning will let him bring his terrier back, genetically speaking.

Can it happen? Mark Westhusin, head of a dog cloning team at Texas A&M thinks it will happen -- and soon. Remember Dolly, the sheep that was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell in 1997? AP notes that cattle, goats, mice, and monkeys have likewise been cloned in labs since, and pets are likely to be next. Westhusin is hard at work on it, having received a $2.4 million grant from a wealthy dog-owner to advance canine cloning, and experts say a successful clone is only about five years down the road.

Already, entrepreneurs are leaping at the financial opportunities of this technology. Richard Denniston, for example, has launched Lazaron BioTechnologies, which will collect your pet's DNA for $500 and store it for a monthly fee of $10. Also, professor Westhusin has created a company with the clever name of Genetic Savings & Clone. But the pet-cloning company that has the best name is one called perPETuate.

Endangered Loopholes

Well, the barons of global corporate power wished with all their might that they could have the WTO. As they envisioned it, this World Trade Organization would be a secretive, autocratic authority based in Geneva, with the power to overrule any national, state, or local laws that they think interfere with the holy right of "Free Trade." The global corporate traders could then use the WTO to strike down environmental laws, labor laws, human rights laws, and other laws that sovereign citizens like you and I have gotten passed.

And, lo, it came to pass. The WTO is now in place, and, yes, it's already being used by corporations to nullify our people's sovereignty. The American Powers That Be thought this was wonderful ... until the WTO rose up and bit them on the butt! In a case pushed by European corporations, the WTO has ruled that a little-known U.S. export subsidy program violates the WTO's free-trade rules.

Oh, such a ruckus ensued! Boeing, Microsoft, GM and other giants that get some $4 billion a year in tax subsidies from this giveaway are up in arms about the audacity of the global trade czar for messing with the lucrative loophole they had quietly lobbied through our Congress. What a hoot to watch them rush to Washington to demand relief from the WTO, shouting "Save our loophole!"

The WTO's ruling has inadvertently generated loads of unwanted publicity for this outrageous example of corporate welfare. The subsidy loophole allows GM, Microsoft, Boeing, and others to set up paper subsidiaries in such tax havens as Barbados -- then run all of their foreign sales through this bookkeeping gimmick, thus avoiding paying any taxes on those sales.

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