RTE’s Big Science Debate Podcast

I’ve been spending way too much time in my car lately, and this has led me to exploring the world of podcasts.  One of the better ones I happened upon is the Big Science Debate, produced by the Irish RTE public radio network.  Each week they bring together a few experts to debate a controversial issue and take questions from the audience.  So far they’ve covered human enhancement, organ donation, and DNA databases, and they seem to do a decent job of keeping the debates lively and intelligent.

Techno-Globalization Hype — from the 1920s

"Machinery is accomplishing in the world what man has failed to do by preaching, propaganda, or the written word.  The aeroplane and wireless know no boundary.  They pass over the dotted lines on the map without heed or hindrance.  They are binding the world together in a way no other system can.  The motion picture with its universal language, the aeroplane with its speed, and the wireless with its coming international programme — these will soon bring the world to a complete understanding.  Thus may we vision a United States of the World.  Ultimately it will surely come!"

The writer is Henry Ford, in his memoir My Philosophy of Industry, published 1929.  The quotation is printed in David Edgerton’s excellent book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, which I just finished reading.  On the next page Edgerton quotes George Orwell’s response to such claims, from a 1944 column:

"Reading recently a batch of rather shallowly optimistic ‘progressive’ books, I was struck by the automatic way people go on repeating certain phrases which were fashionable before 1914.  Two great favourites are the ‘abolition of distance’ and the ‘disappearance of frontiers’.  I do not know how often I have met with statements that ‘the aeroplane and the radio have abolished distance’ and ‘all parts of the world are now interdependent’.

Edgerton goes on to show that in most cases the hype has not been borne out, and in fact sometimes the opposite happens — many such technologies foster self-sufficiency and isolation instead.

Wednesday is Take Back Your Time Day

From timeday.org:

TAKE BACK YOUR TIME is a major U.S./Canadian
initiative to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and
time famine that now threatens our health, our families and
relationships, our communities and our environment.

This year the group is focusing on vacation time, with an initiative to pass a minimum paid leave law in the United States.

They recently hosted a conference in Washington, DC called What’s The Economy For, Anyway?, which featured an impressive list of speakers on progressive issues.  I haven’t been paying much attention to blogs lately (or news for that matter) so I missed this when it came around.  I’m hoping they put conference videos online or publish a book based on it. 

Public Nanotech Forum

Next Tuesday and Wednesday (October 23-24) there will be an online public forum about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, hosted by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnology and Consumers Union.  From the description:

Nanotechnology—the ability to measure, see, manipulate and manufacture
things between 1 and 100 nanometers (1 billionth of a meter)—is seen as
the driver of a new industrial revolution emerging with the development
of materials that exhibit new properties and potential new risks and
benefits at this tiny scale. However, according to recent polls, the
majority of Americans have heard little or nothing about
nanotechnology, even as consumer products containing nanomaterials are
entering the marketplace at a rapid pace. There are already over 575
nanotechnology consumer products available to the consumer, with
nanoscale materials now in use in cosmetics, clothing, sports
equipment, electronics, automobiles, and home furnishings.

We decided to launch this dialogue in order to provide an easily
accessible venue for the public to discuss information and share their
thoughts about the usage and potential benefits and risks of consumer
products made with nanomaterials. It is aimed at exploring key issues
surrounding the ways that consumers, citizens, students, researchers,
policymakers, scientific experts, and the media learn about and respond
to nanotechnology consumer products. Participants in the dialogue will
have the opportunity to ask questions of expert panelists about
nanotechnology, to examine its use in consumer products, to discuss who
is responsible for oversight, and to brainstorm with each other on
needed future actions.

We hope to use information that emerges from this conversation to
inform policymakers about how consumers perceive the use of
nanotechnology in products that they can buy in the stores or over the
Internet and what consumers think about related risks, benefits, and
uncertainties. We also hope that consumers will bring to our attention
additional nanotechnology consumer products that are not contained in
our on-line inventory, which is available at http://www.nanotechproject.org/consumerproducts.

It sounds like a very interesting event.  To participate in the discussion you just need to complete a free registration.  There’s much more information at their site: Nanotechnology and the consumer: A public dialogue.

Update: They’ve posted summaries of the event, as well as archives of the discussions, at the same link: Nanotechnology and the consumer: A public dialogue.

Involving People in Medical Device Design

An article in MD&DI (Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry) magazine discusses the rise of human factors methods among designers of medical devices.  Excerpt:

Only a few years ago, human factors was a discipline virtually ignored
in the medical device world. Device design was a field dominated by
engineers, and their main concern was whether the device functioned
properly or not. How easy it was to use, how well it fit into a
caregiver’s workflow, and whether the design contained the potential to
prompt use errors were factors considered secondarily, if at all.

But that is changing. More device companies are incorporating
principles of human factors and ergonomics into their designs. Some are
hiring human factors experts for their staffs, while others are using
consultants. More devices go through some form of usability testing
before hitting the market. And FDA has begun refusing to accept “it was
a user error, not a design problem” as an excuse for problems in the

Take Hospira (Lake Forest, IL). Its practices are becoming more the
norm than the exception, it seems. “Human factors is an integral part
of our device development process,” says Steven Pregulman, MD, medical
director of device development. “We work with end users early and often
before we even have working prototypes. We work with focus groups and
single users.” In fact, to ensure that all user feedback is accounted
for, Hospira’s policy is to document each and every comment and note
whether it was heeded or disregarded, he says. “If we did not have a
system like that, it would be too easy to sweep everything under the

There are a number of reasons why the human factors discipline is
finally catching on in the medical device industry. Unfortunately,
there are an equal number of reasons why it still hasn’t caught on in
parts of the sector. What follows is a look at some of the trends that
are forcing medical device manufacturers to change their design
practices, and should force those who haven’t to reconsider.

Link: Catching the Human Factors Fever,

via Putting people first.

It might seem like a no-brainer that you should try out your products on real people to ensure that they work well, but many industries are just now catching on to this idea.  The field of human factors engineering is sometimes called human factors psychology or industrial psychology, and overlaps with the related fields of ergonomics, usability engineering, human-computer interaction, and cognitive psychology (among others).  Human factors has its origins in the aerospace industry.

Secret History of the War on Cancer

Salon has a good interview with Devra Davis, whose new book The Secret History of the War on Cancer
is causing quite a stir (well, it’s a good interview if you ignore the snide, dismissive title and introduction): Life Will Kill You.

Some excerpts:

Davis, who is a professor of epidemiology at the University of
Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and formerly served in the
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, argues that the United
States’ $40 billion "war on cancer" has focused far too much on treatment, and not nearly enough on prevention. […]

Davis argues that again and again, from tobacco
to benzene to asbestos, the profit motive has trumped concerns about
public health, delaying, sometimes for decades, the containment of
avoidable hazards. And, as in the current scientific "debate" about
global warming, the legitimate need for ongoing scientific research
about many possible carcinogens has been exploited by industry to
promote the idea that there’s really no need to worry.


How have recent court rulings made it harder to try to prevent cancer?

We have gone backward since the ’70s. In the ’70s, in the decision
on lead in gasoline, the court said we could use experimental evidence
that something was a threat to human health in order to prevent harm.
The court repeatedly ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency
could use theories, models and estimates to prevent harm.

Now, we have to prove that harm has already happened before taking
action to prevent additional harm. In the area of cancer this is a
travesty, since most cancer in adults takes five, 10, 20 or 30 years
[to develop]. It means that we have no opportunity to prevent cancer,
because we must prove through human evidence that it’s already
happened. I think that is fundamentally wrong public policy. Ninety
percent of all claims now for toxic torts are denied.

What the court decisions have done is to make the burden of proof
close to impossible when it comes to human harm and environmental


Why are you concerned about cellphones?

I can’t tell you that cellphones are safe, and I can’t tell you that
they are harmful. That’s the problem. The reason I can’t is that there
isn’t really independent information, and the cellphone industry has
been so quick to spin information.

Studies that you hear about that don’t find a risk are often extremely limited, like the Danish Cancer Study.
That’s a ridiculous study. Anybody who used a cellphone for work was
kicked out of the study, which is crazy, because those are the highest
users. And they put all of these people together who were not using it
for business — the high users, the low users — and they didn’t find

A study
just released from France showed that people who used a cellphone for
10 or more years have double the risk of brain cancer. And people who
owned two or more cellphones had more than double the risk of brain
cancer. The level of this increase wasn’t what we call statistically
significant, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important.

I do advocate that people use them with speaker phones, and with a
head piece, and that children not use them. In Bangalore, India, and in
Scandinavia, they recommend that children not use cellphones. It’s
illegal to sell a cellphone to someone under the age of 16 in
Bangalore, India.

A cellphone is a microwave, and basically the reason your ear gets
hot is that you’re warming it with a microwave. You like cooking your
brain? How would you like to cook the brain of your child? We’re not
cannibals. We shouldn’t be doing that.

Link: Life Will Kill You (Salon)

Davis was also interviewed on Fresh Air last week: Fresh Air October 4, 2007.

The Googlization of Everything

Siva Vaidhyanathan has launched a new blog to go with his "book in progress," The Googlization of Everything: How One Company is Disrupting Culture, Commerce, and Community — and Why We Should Worry.

From his introductory post:

Hi. Welcome to my new book. Well, it’s not a book yet. In fact, it will not be a real book for a long time.

As you can tell from the title of this blog, the book will be about
Google and all they ways that Google is shaking up the world. Google is
a transformative and revolutionary company. I hesitate to use terms
like that. We live in an era of hyperbole. So I try my best to discount
claims of historical transformation or communicative revolutions.

But in the case of Google, I am confident it is both.

Now, I am approaching this book as both a fan and a critic. I am in
awe of all that Google has done and all it hopes to do. I am also wary
of its ambition and power.

As I use this site to compose the manuscript (an archaic word that I
love too much to discard) for the book The Googlization of Everything,
I hope to do so with your help.

This is the latest in a series of “open book” experiments hosted and guided by The Institute for the Future of the Book.

Link: Hi. Welcome to my book.

(Via Michael Zimmer.)

Don Norman on Filling Space with Technology

Design and user interface guru Don Norman writes in a recent column about how we rush to fill empty spaces with new technology, when sometimes those spaces are better left unfilled.  Excerpt:

Holes, gaps, and voids are essential to civilized life. They give us
respite from the press of modern civilization, returning us to
ourselves, with our own thoughts and our own resources. It is the space
between things that allows us to be at peace with the world, to be in
silence, to be undisturbed. Many things need to be done by people, by
us. Doing gives a sense of accomplishment, of participation, of
belonging, Doing, thinking, dreaming: all are needs best left unfilled
by products and designs.

We need more unmet needs, not less. How
many times do the never-ending ethnographic studies coupled with
ever-eager design groups lead to unwanted, unnecessary, overburdening,
and environmentally insensitive products? How many times are these
unmet needs best left unmet? Why must we rush to fill the essential
voids in our lives?

Link: Filling Much Needed Holes