Fukushima

A good article from the Guardian: Quiet voices must be heard to avert a future Fukushima. Some excerpts:

Japan's part-natural, part-human disaster is an extraordinary event. As well as dealing with the consequences of an earthquake and tsunami, rescuers are having to evacuate thousands of people from the danger zone around Fukushima. In addition, the country is blighted by blackouts from the shutting of 10 or more nuclear plants. It is a textbook case of how technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side-effects.

Yet there had been early warnings from analysts. In 2006, the Japanese professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from a nuclear power advisory panel, saying that the policy of building in earthquake zones could lead to catastrophe, and that design standards for proofing them against damage were too lax. Further back, the seminal study of accidents in complex technologies was Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents, published in 1984.

Perrow, a Yale professor, analysed accidents in chemical plants, air traffic control, shipping and dams, as well as his main focus: the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Things can go wrong with design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies and the environment. Occasionally two or more will have problems simultaneously; in a complex technology such as a nuclear plant, the potential for this is ever-present. Perrow took five pages to sketch what went wrong in the first 13 seconds of the incident. He concluded that in complex systems, "no matter how effective conventional safety devices are, there is a form of accident that is inevitable" – hence "normal accidents".

Unfortunately, such events are often made worse by the way the nuclear industry and governments handle the early stages of disasters, as they reassure us that all is fine. Some statements are well intentioned. But as things get worse, people wonder why early reassurances were issued when it is apparent that there was no basis for them. It is simply too early to say what precisely went wrong at Fukushima, and it has been surprising to see commentators speak with such speed and certainty. Most people accept that they will only ever have a rough understanding of the facts. But they instinctively ask if they can trust those in charge and wonder why governments support particular technologies so strongly.

Industry and governments need to be more straightforward with the public. The pretence of knowledge is deeply unscientific; a more humble approach where officials are frank about the unknowns would paradoxically engender greater trust. Likewise, nuclear's opponents need to adopt a measured approach. We need a fuller democratic debate about the choices we are making. Catastrophic potential needs to be a central criterion in decisions about technology. Advice from experts is useful, but the most significant questions are ethical in character.

I've had Normal Accidents on the shelf for a while and figured now was a good time to finally read it. Perrow also published a sequel that just came out in paperback last month: The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our vulnerabilities to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.

Michael Sandel on Genetics and Morality

"It is tempting to think that bioengineering our children and ourselves for success in a competitive society is an exercise of freedom. But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world. It deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are."

– From the Reith Lectures given earlier this year by Michael Sandel, quoted at Biopolitical Times blog.

Sandel's book about the ethics of genetic engineering just came out in paperback: The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering.

Despite Warnings, Drivers Talk and Text (NYT)

The New York Times has an excellent article today about driving while talking or texting on a cell phone and how difficult it has been to legislate against it, even with overwhelming evidence of the dangers: Drivers Dismiss Risks of Multitasking on the Road.

They also have a little video game that lets you test your ability to control a car while texting. Good call by the NYT to make a game, given how few people will read a 5000-word newspaper article these days.

New Books

Some recent books I've bought or spotted:

Peepdiaries Hal Niedzviecki's The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors
looks at oversharing in the digital age. Naturally he has a blog, a twitter account, a webcam, a forthcoming documentary, and much more at the book's site.

From the book description:

We have entered the age of "peep culture": a tell-all, show-all,
know-all digital phenomenon that is dramatically altering notions of
privacy, individuality, security, and even humanity. Peep culture is
reality TV, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, over-the-counter spy
gear, blogs, chat rooms, amateur porn, surveillance technology, Dr. Phil, Borat,
cell phone photos of your drunk friend making out with her
ex-boyfriend, and more. In the age of peep, core values and rights we
once took for granted are rapidly being renegotiated, often without our
even noticing.

[…] Part travelogue, part diary, part
meditation and social history, The Peep Diaries explores a
rapidly emerging digital phenomenon that is radically changing not just
the entertainment landscape, but also the firmaments of our culture and
society.

Richard SennettCraftsman's The Craftsman, just out in paperback, seems like a broad hybrid of sociology, psychology, history, cultural studies and philosophy. I've only read a couple chapters, and while it's not the quickest read, I'm finding it compelling as it combines a lot of things I'm interested in. In the book's prologue (about half of which you can read in the Amazon preview) he says that the book is the first of a planned "Pandora" trilogy. It sounds ambitious, though he seems mightily prolific. He writes:

This is the first of three books on material culture, all related to the dangers in Pandora's casket, though each is intended to stand on its own. This book is about craftsmanship, the skill of making things well. The second volume addresses the crafting of rituals that manage aggression and zeal; the third explores the skills required in making and inhabiting sustainable environments. All three books address the issue of technique–but technique considered as a cultural issue rather than as a mindless procedure; each book is about a technique for conducting a particular way of life. The large project contains a personal paradox that I have tried to put to productive use. I am a philosophically minded writer asking questions about such matters as woodworking, military drills, or solar panels.

AndThenTheresThis Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper's and apparently the inventor of the flash mob, has a new book called And Then There's This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. From the description:

And Then There’s This is Bill Wasik’s
journey along the unexplored frontier of the twenty-first century’s
rambunctious new-media culture. He covers this world in part as a
journalist, following “buzz bands” as they rise and fall in the online
music scene, visiting with viral marketers and political trendsetters
and online provocateurs. But he also wades in as a participant,
conducting his own hilarious experiments: an e-mail fad (which turned
into the worldwide “flash mob” sensation), a viral website in a
monthlong competition, a fake blog that attempts to create “antibuzz,”
and more. He doesn’t always get the results he expected, but he tries
to make sense of his data by surveying what real social science
experiments have taught us about the effects of distraction,
stimulation, and crowd behavior on the human mind. Part report, part
memoir, part manifesto, part deconstruction of a decade, And Then There’s This captures better than any other book the way technology is transforming our culture.

AtLeastInTheCity Wade Rouse's (third) memoir At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life tells the story of his trying to become a self-described “modern-day Thoreau.” Sounds fairly amusing, and I like the cover.

In a slightly similar vein is One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World by Gordon Hempton. Hempton is an "acoustic ecologist" and writes about his experiences recording the quietest places in the country. The book comes with a CD and is an outgrowth of the One Square Inch project, which seeks to preserve a quiet space in Olympic National Park.

Dispatches journal – free copy

I've got a spare copy of the latest issue of Dispatches that I will mail to anyone interested (just email me your address — US only, please). This is volume 1, issue 4 with the theme "out of poverty" (table of contents).

Dispatches is a quarterly political/cultural journal with long-form articles that launched last year with headlines like "Dispatches magazine prefers print over Internet" (see previous post). That was enough to warm luddite hearts like mine, so I gave them a try and bought a subscription. I read the first issue all the way through and I liked it, but I'm probably not going to renew. I appreciate what they're trying to do, but it's pricey at $100/year and they seem to have big distribution problems (issue 2 didn't get sent to some or all subscribers, including me, and everybody apparently got two copies of issue 4, thus the giveaway). I also just have way too much other print piling up to read.

My wavering support notwithstanding, I do like that there are magazines like Dispatches and Lapham's Quarterly keeping high quality nonfiction alive in print magazine form (if only barely).

In Mortal Hands

InMortalHands This new book sounds very interesting: In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke. From the book description:

This provocative history of nuclear power is perfectly timed for today,
when Americans are gravely concerned with nuclear terrorism, and a
nuclear renaissance is seen as a possible solution to global warming.
Few have truly come to terms with the complexities of an issue which
may determine the future of the planet. Nuclear weapons, it was once
hoped, would bring wars to an end; instead, they spurred a massive arms
race that has recently expanded to include North Korea and I ran. Once
seen as a source of unlimited electricity, nuclear reactors breed
contamination and have been used as covers for secret weapons programs,
from India and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran. 

The evolving
story of nuclear power, as told by industry insider Stephanie Cooke,
reveals the gradual deepening of our understanding of the pros and cons
of this controversial energy source. Drawing on her unprecedented
access, Cooke shows us how, time and again, the stewards of the nuclear
age—the more-is-better military commanders and civilian nuclear
boosters—have fallen into the traps of their own hubris and wishful
thinking as they tried to manage the unmanageable. Their mistakes are
on the verge of being repeated again, which is why this book deserves
especially close attention now.

The author has a web site for the book at In Mortal Hands.

Book Notes

UnpluggingPhilco Jim Knipfel's Unplugging Philco
is a great little Vonnegut-esque scifi novel set in an America where surveillance technology and terrorism paranoia have reached extremes following an event referred to as "The Horribleness." The protagonist is Wally Philco who starts to rebel against the technology of the system and ends up working with a gang of "Unpluggers" who quote Ned Ludd and plan a revolution. The humor is a bit cheesy so don't expect high art, but it's still worth your time.

Novelist Mark Helprin wrote a provocative op-ed two years ago in the New York Times called A Great Idea Lives Forever, Shouldn't Its Copyright? (An inaccurate title, for which he blames the Times editors, as he says he never endorsed the idea of perpetual copyright.) That article provoked "three quarters of a million nasty comments" and he has now published a book called Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto that is sure to provoke plenty more. NPR featured a short interview with him today as well as a response by Lawrence Lessig: 'Digital Barbarism' wages Online Copyright Battle. I just picked the book up so I don't yet have an opinion on it… I'm sympathetic to the basic argument, I think (that copyright is important but it shouldn't be forever, and that "free culture" is problematic).

DigitalBarbarism

The Expanding Invasion of the Naked Body Scanners (TSA)

William Saletan at Slate has an update on those full-body imaging scanners the TSA assured us would just be used here and there (surprise — now they'll be everywhere) and which had a special "privacy algorithm" to blur your privates (surprise — not any more, apparently). Excerpt:

When we first checked in on them two years ago, the scanners, which see through clothing, were being deployed at a single airport. A few months later, they were upgraded to millimeter-wave technology, which delivered similar images with even less radiation—"10,000 times less than a cell phone transmission," according to the Transportation Security Administration. At the time, TSA assured
us that the scanners would be used only as a "voluntary alternative" to
"a more invasive physical pat-down during secondary screening." Only a
few passengers, the ones selected for extra scrutiny, would face the
scanners. The rest of us could walk through the metal detectors and
board our planes.

Surprise! Two months ago, TSA revised its position.
It began testing millimeter-wave scans "in the place of the
walk-through metal detector at six airports." At these airports,
everyone—not just people selected for secondary screening—would face
the see-through machines. Anyone who objected would "undergo metal
detector screening and a pat-down." You might even get the "enhanced pat-down,"
which includes "sensitive areas of the body that are often used by
professional testers and terrorists," such as "the breast and groin
areas of females and the groin area of males." Show us your body, or
we'll feel you up.

Now the plan is going nationwide. Joe Sharkey of the New York Times reports
that TSA "plans to replace the walk-through metal detectors at airport
checkpoints with whole-body imaging machines—the kind that provide an
image of the naked body." All passengers will "go through the
whole-body imager instead of the walk-through metal detector,"
according to TSA's chief technology officer, and the machines will
begin operating soon after orders are placed this summer.

[…]

Why should I care what the government says or depicts about its latest
scanner image or blurring technology, when the technology and the
depictions keep changing? The lesson of the escalating body scans, like
the escalating pat-downs, is that TSA will do whatever it thinks it
needs to do.

Link: The expanding invasion of the naked body scanners.

Previously: Invasion of the Naked Body Scanners.

Chris Hedges on Atheism, Science, and Moral Progress

Chris Hedges's When Atheism Becomes Religion* might be of interest to readers of this blog for its critique of the scientistic thinking underlying recent books about atheism by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens.

The book is not a defense of religion (and Hedges wrote a previous book criticizing Christian fundamentalism) but a defense of moderation. He sees these new figures as scientific utopians who have an irrational belief in moral progress and are just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists.

A quote from the last chapter:

The contemporary atheists, while many are noted scientists, are deluded products of this image-based and culturally illiterate world. They speak about religion, human progress and meaning in the impoverished language of television slogans. They play to our fears, especially of what we do not understand. Their words are sensational, fragmented and devoid of content. They appeal to our subliminal and irrational desires. They select a few facts and use them to dismiss historical, political and cultural realities. They tell us what we want to believe about ourselves. They assure us that we are good. They proclaim the violence employed in our name a virtue. They champion our ignorance as knowledge. They assure us that there is no reason to investigate other ways of being. Our way of life is the best. They indulge us in our delusional dream of human perfectibility. They tell us we will be saved by science and rationality. They tell us that humanity is moving inexorably forward. None of this is true. It defies human nature and human history. But it is what we want to believe.

*This is the title of the new paperback edition of a book published in hardcover with the too-clever title I Don't Believe in Atheists. He should have retitled his War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning while he was at it.

There's more info about Hedges at Truthdig, where he writes a column.

Wired for War

Wiredforwar
Everything I've read or heard about Wired for War by P.W. Singer has been excellent. Here's a blurb about it from Singer's website for the book:

An amazing revolution is taking place on the battlefield, starting
to change not just how wars are fought, but also the politics,
economics, laws, and ethics that surround war itself. This upheaval is
already afoot — remote-controlled drones take out terrorists in
Afghanistan, while the number of unmanned systems on the ground in Iraq
has gone from zero to 12,000 over the last five years.  But it is only
the start. Military officers quietly acknowledge that new prototypes
will soon make human fighter pilots obsolete, while the Pentagon
researches tiny robots the size of flies to carry out reconnaissance
work now handled by elite Special Forces troops.

Wired for War
takes the reader on a journey to meet all the various players in this
strange new world of war: odd-ball roboticists working in latter-day
“skunk works” in the midst of suburbia; military pilots flying combat
mission from their office cubicles outside Las Vegas; the Iraqi
insurgents who are their targets; journalists trying to figure out just
how to cover robots at war; and human rights activists wrestling with
what is right and wrong in a world where our wars are increasingly
being handed over to machines. 

Links to some good interviews with Singer last week about the book: Fresh Air, The Daily Show.

Update: Singer has an article in The New Atlantis, adapted from his book: Military Robots and the Laws of War.