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Monday, November 14, 2005

If you're who they sent to save me, then I don't want to be saved

I was listening to NPR the other day. Several scientists were discussing the development of the atom bomb and its effect on the world. Asked who brought us the bomb, the answer was unanimous: scientists. Asked who kept us from blowing up the planet, the answer - paradoxically - was again, scientists. A couple years ago I read an article on BBC news about scientists who want to send humans to colonize Mars before we ruin this planet. And who ruined the planet? The scientist had to acknowledge that it was them.

In the hilariously and non-ironically named article, Saving the Planet (Or, how science education is good for everyone's future), Seth Shostak makes precisely this contradictory argument, though he focuses on scientific solutions to truly natural disasters like asteroid strikes, pole realignment and ice ages. Shostak proposes a series of massive technological projects (while, typically, failing to address the consequences of such production) beginning from the somewhat facetious proposition that "the dinosaurs would be around today if they only had a space program." Perhaps, but without science, the dinosaurs were much more successful than humans have been, having walked the earth for tens of millions of years compared to modern human's pathetically miniscule 100,000. And in just the tiny fraction of that history that humans have had science we have already managed to drive ourselves to the verge of self-destruction. Who's better off with science?

On a similar note, we have a story from LiveScience.com that reports that "[i]f humans don't curb use of fossil fuels, the planet will warm 14.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2300. The polar ice caps will disappear and oceans will rise 23 feet (7 meters)."
Today's level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is 380 parts per million (ppm). By the year 2300, the model predicts that amount would nearly quadruple to 1,423 ppm.

Forests would cover the North and South poles.

The carbon dioxide eventually ends up in the oceans, which would become more acidic as a result, the scientists say.
Incidentally, an ocean rise of 23 feet would put vast sections of the planet underwater.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently on the danger nanotech may pose to human health. While unaccountable scientists in labs across the country forge ahead with their research, some are speaking out against the technology. One doesn't have to buy apocalyptic scenarios, like nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler's grey goo, to be concerned. Nanotech, "machines so small -- measurable in nanometers, or billionths of a meter -- that they'd be invisible to the naked eye," is already being used in such "consumer products as machine lubricant, tennis balls, wrinkle-resistant clothing and sunscreen." This is potentially very troubling since "an increasing number of lab researchers have reported evidence of certain nanomaterials' toxic effects on living organisms."
In the latest example, nanoparticles of carbon -- which, some speculate, could be used as drug-delivery vehicles inside the body -- can "promote blood-clotting," scientists at the University of Texas Health Science Center and Ohio University reported Oct. 21. In a forthcoming article for the British Journal of Pharmacology, a team led by Dr. Marek Radomski plans to report finding in experiments with anesthetized rats that the clumps grew big enough to block the rats' vital carotid arteries.
What will become of nanotech remains to be seen, but there is good cause for skepticism. As UC Santa Barbara Professor W. Patrick McCray points out, "utopian ideals crept into the rhetoric of people advocating for technology [in the past]... Why do people still continue to do this (today), despite the fact this utopian rhetoric often disappoints in the long run?" Good question.

Speaking of the apocalypse, the BBC provides us with another example of the way that humans have come to accept as normal the death culture that surrounds us. In the modern technological era, mass death and destruction are never far off, as suggested by the recent listing for sale of a former British government bunker. Meant to insure the survival of various bureaucrats and politicians in the event of a nuclear holocaust (an event these same folks were likely to have had some hand in), the real estate features many amenities, including "huge generators to provide power that might have been needed for weeks, boxes of paper and files, and enormous kitchens [and]... [o]ne of the largest telephone exchanges ever built." The article reports that two serious bids have been received.

Three related stories show the way technology facillitates increased surveillance of even mundane tasks. BizIntelligencePipeline reports that "[t]he Richmond (Va.) Police Department is installing on Friday a map-based software application that forecasts locations most likely to experience crime in a specified time period based on historic and current criminal statistics."
The data to analyze where the local law enforcement agency should best deploy officers is pulled from records management systems and database repositories. These platforms hold information from citizen complaints received by 911 operators to crime reports. The data is processed and imported into the new framework built on SPSS' Clementine predictive analytics tool and Information Builders’ software.
Similarly, in the article IBM to analyze digital scuttlebutt, CNET News.com staff writer Martin LaMonica reports on a new service IBM is utilizing to scour "reams of blogs, news stories and other material to distill useful information for companies." IBM says it discovered that "some customers were keen on learning what outsiders were saying on the Web about a given corporation." Lastly, InformationWeek reports that Google has begun offering its web analytics service for free to anyone.
Web analytics is the analysis of the data generated by visitors to Web sites -- the pages they visit, the ads they click on, and various related metrics -- for the purpose of marketing and content optimization.
On one hand there is a democratic argument to be made here that offering this service levels the playing field for small companies and individuals. But, is a world in which surveillance technology is available to all really a better one?

Finally, NewScientist.com posted a story, US military sets laser PHASRs to stun, about a new "non-lethal" weapon developed by the military. Called The Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response (PHASR) rifle, the weapon uses a laser to "dazzle" opponents, temporarily blinding them. Though similar weapons in the past have risked causing permanent damage, researchers claim that this weapon is risk-free in that department. The article cautions, however, that
the same US military research lab developed another laser weapon more than a decade ago, called the Sabre 203. This device attached beneath the barrel of a normal rifle and emitted a low-power laser light over a range of 300 metres. It was used by US forces in Somalia in 1995 but later shelved because of concerns over safety and effectiveness.
In a curious take on "non-lethal," DOD suggests the weapon may be used "to temporarily blind suspects who drive through a roadblock."

Finally, in another case where rampant over-medication of kids may hurt rather than help, Stanford University published on their website an article linking bipolar disorder and creativity. In what may elicit the largest collective "no DUH" since watching FOX news was linked to misinformed viewers, the article reports that
Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown for the first time that a sample of children who either have or are at high risk for bipolar disorder score higher on a creativity index than healthy children. The findings add to existing evidence that a link exists between mood disorders and creativity.
Surprised researchers also found that kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also scored high on creativity. Summing the findings up, Terence Ketter, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a study co-author put it this way: “In this case, discontent is the mother of invention.” Imagine that.

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