Risks Digest Outreach

Peter G. Neumann, editor of the long-running Risks Digest newsletter, writes about reaching a broader audience:

My note in RISKS-23.96 on 20 years of putting out issues of the ACM Risks Forum has led me to reflect further on what we have accomplished in the way of progress and what remains to be done.

The basic problems considered here keep recurring. Whatever progress might be made in computer-related technologies and their applications has not been reducing the threats, vulnerabilities, and risks related to the systems upon which we individually and as a civilization depend most. Overall, this leads me to a sense of frustration that the Risks Forum has been largely preaching to the choir, and that our message is not getting through to those who really need it most. All of you regular RISKS readers are likely to be totally unsurprised by the items that you read here — they are just more of the same. Occasionally we might gain a new convert in the understanding of the depth of problems of what is wrong and what is needed to meaningfully address those problems.

Somehow we need to be able to reach out professionally and effectively beyond the RISKS audience. […]

Go read the rest here and contact him if you can help: Risks Digest Volume 24: Issue 2 — The Time Has Come: Taking Our Issues to the Public

Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau

038550965001thumbzzzThis week I finally got around to reading Joel Garreau’s book, Radical Evolution : The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human.  Garreau explores the potentials for radical human enhancement via what he calls the GRIN technologies — genetics, robotics, information, and nanotechnology.  I found the book entertaining for its profiles of the main players, but was disappointed at the lack of depth. 

Are we headed for a fantastic new stage in human evolution?  Posthumanists and singularity enthusiasts say yes.  Garreau presents their views as the "Heaven" scenario, a representative character being Raymond Kurzweil.  Others, such as Bill Joy and Francis Fukuyama, have been more critical (the "Hell" scenario) — they say the risks of out-of-control bio- or nano-technologies are too great.  Garreau himself claims to take a more middle-of-the-road view (the "Prevail" scenario).

The strongest parts of the book come when Garreau is profiling people — particularly Raymond Kurzweil, Bill Joy, and Jaron Lanier — their personal histories and how they came to hold the views they hold.  But when it comes to weighing their arguments, Garreau sides mostly with the post-humanists without much critical analysis.  At times, such as in an early chapter about DARPA, he seems wholly under the spell of the scientists and the writing devolves into breathless techno-porn.

The book is valuable for its profiles of these important thinkers and as a launching pad for further reading.  For the real goods you’ll want to check out the original sources and more in-depth analyses, such as (for the "Hell" side): Bill Joy’s Wired essay and Bill McKibben’s Enough.

More evidence against cell phone use when driving

It seems like a lot of studies have come out lately showing pretty conclusively that cell phone use while driving is dangerous (hands-free or not).  Hopefully this will renew efforts to ban the activity.  From The Globe and Mail today:

Listening — not just talking — appears to have an impact on a driver’s ability to navigate a vehicle safely, according to a new study on the impact of cellphone use behind the wheel.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois,
found that drivers have a greater difficulty maintaining a fixed speed
or keeping their vehicle safe in a lane when they performed tasks that
simulated those of talking on a cellphone.

Surprisingly, researchers also discovered that both talking and listening were equally distracting.

Link: The Globe and Mail: Hear this study: cellphone listening distracts drivers.

Are tech-cautious doctors a “travesty”?

From CNET’s blog:

The medical industry has long been considered a major frontier for information technology growth, a notion reinforced by Intel this week with an array of prototypes for physicians, nurses and administrators. So promising is the business that even foreign companies
are moving into the arena, recognizing the logical win-win synergy
between what medical professionals need and what computers can provide.

But one thing needs to happen before this technology fulfills its
potential: Doctors have to use it–something that, historically, has
proven much easier said than done. For some reason, despite all the obvious benefits, many physicians have shown reluctance–sometimes even phobia–toward
PCs and PDAs, even though they regularly use some of the world’s most
sophisticated technological equipment in treating their patients.

And until they get over it, we may all lose out.

Link: The travesty of techno-phobic doctors | News.blog | CNET News.com.

Why are medical practitioners cautious about new technologies?  Um, perhaps it’s because people’s lives are at stake?  Indeed they do use some of the "world’s most sophisticated
technological equipment" — but not before it’s been proven safe and effective.  In few other professions is it so crucial to analyze the risks before adopting new techniques.  It shouldn’t be any other way.

Ask the Grumpy Luddite

Q. Can a digital audio file ripped on a PC play on a Mac?

Stop saying "ripped".  It’s stupid.  Use a real word like "recorded".  Same goes for other invented geekspeak like "mash-up" or "remix" when referring to a web page or a Cory Doctorow novel.  Or "podcast".  You’re not impressing anyone.

Q. Do podcast shows play only on Apple iPods?

Yes, podcasts are produced by and for the anti-corporate (except for Apple) techno-hipsterati, each one of whom owns an iPod, or several.  If you don’t own an iPod you’re not cool enough.  The rest of us listen to the radio.  You’re not missing anything important.

Q. What is involved in taking a college course online?

Much technology-induced frustration and pain.  Why are you considering this?  Are you nocturnal, painfully shy, and/or hideously ugly?  Even so you can still get in to a good school (I did).  Do you not have the time?  Find a syllabus and buy the books instead.  Study it on your own time and avoid all the administrative and technical hassles.

Q. Is it legal to listen to a digital-music player with headphones while driving?

Absolutely not.  It’s unsafe.  Never wear headphones while driving a car or riding a bike.  Don’t talk on the phone either.

(Apologies to the NYT for stealing the questions.)

Look, Ma, Repetitive Stress Injury!

Wired/AP has a story about the latest school to shun physical textbooks and use laptops only:

Students at Empire High School here started class this year with no textbooks — but it wasn’t because of a funding crisis. Instead, the school issued iBooks — laptop computers by Apple Computer — to each of its 340 students, becoming one of the first U.S. public schools to shun printed textbooks.

School officials believe the electronic materials will get students more engaged in learning. Empire High, which opened for the first time this year, was designed specifically to have a textbook-free environment.

Link: Wired News: Look, Ma, No Schoolbooks!


APA: Violent Video Games Increase Aggressive Behavior

The American Psychological Association has issued a new resolution concerning violent video games.  From USA Today/AP:

Violence in video games is bad for children’s health. So says the American Psychological Association, which is calling on the industry to cut it back.

Research indicates exposure to violence in video games increases aggressive thoughts, aggressive behavior and angry feelings among youth, the association said in a statement issued Wednesday. […]

Link: USATODAY.com – Psychologists call for reduction of game violence.


  • Teach media literacy to children so they will have the ability to critically evaluate interactive media.
  • Encourage the entertainment industry to link violent behaviors with negative social consequences.
  • Develop and disseminate a content-based rating system that accurately reflects the content of the video games and interactive media.
  • Developers of violent video games and interactive media address the issues that playing these games may increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors in children and adolescents and that these effects may potentially be greater than the effects of exposure to violent television and movies.

Cheap Laptops Lead to Violent Mob Scene

This is insane.  From Wired/AP:

A rush to purchase $50 used laptops turned into a violent stampede Tuesday, with people getting thrown to the pavement, beaten with a folding chair and nearly driven over. One woman went so far to wet herself rather than surrender her place in line.

"This is total, total chaos," said Latoya Jones, 19, who lost one of her flip-flops in the ordeal and later limped around on the sizzling blacktop with one foot bare. […]

People threw themselves forward, screaming and pushing each other. A
little girl’s stroller was crushed in the stampede. Witnesses said an
elderly man was thrown to the pavement, and someone in a car tried to
drive his way through the crowd.

Link: Wired News: Laptops, Cheap: Come and Get ’em.

Update: Photos and more at the Richmond Times Dispatch, via BoingBoing.

Hotels dumb down alarm clocks… Why?

From USA Today:

How difficult can setting an alarm clock be? That’s a question of much
interest in the hotel industry. Responding to guests confused by the
numerous unexplained buttons on their alarm clocks, hotel companies are
introducing simpler models designed to be more user-friendly.

Don’t people use wake-up calls any more?  I still do that when I need to be up extra early to catch a flight.  The article mentions wake-up calls only briefly:

Even with the alarm set — does the dot signify AM or PM? — many guests have never come to trust them and instead ask for wake-up calls just in case.

What’s wrong with that?  I don’t get it.  Are wake-up calls a huge burden for hotels? (I have no idea)  Or is it that people don’t want to talk to a live person?

Link: USATODAY.com – Hotels dumb down alarm clocks for weary guests.

Via Techdirt.