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.

Radiation Treatment Errors and Bad Design

The New York Times has an excellent investigative report into radiation treatment errors. They tell the story of two patients who died due to errors, and report on the frequency of these events. Sadly the errors usually look preventable in hindsight. And predictably, manufacturers of the machines blame the technicians who operate the machines, when in truth a main cause is bad software design without proper attention to safety and usability practices.

Link: Radiation Offers New Cures, and Ways to do Harm.

The article is the first in a series called The Radiation Boom. This kind of deep reporting is what makes the NYT and organizations like it so valuable.

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.

Scientists debate dangers of AI

From the New York Times:

Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

Their concern is that further advances could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.

As
examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as diverse
as experimental medical systems that interact with patients to simulate
empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and
could thus be said to have reached a “cockroach” stage of machine
intelligence.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a
long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001:
A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that
technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a
widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with
machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.

The researchers
— leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and
roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay
in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly
centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might
spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots
that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

[…]

A report from the conference, which took place in private on Feb. 25, is to be issued later this year. Some attendees discussed the meeting for the first time with other scientists this month and in interviews.

Link: Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man

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.

Dan Lyons on Singularity Man Ray Kurzweil

Dan Lyons (formerly Fake Steve Jobs) has an article about Ray Kurzweil, who is behind the new Singularity University and whose book The Singularity is Near will soon be a movie, in Newsweek. Excerpt:

Ray Kurzweil's wildest dream is to be turned into a cyborg—a
flesh-and-blood human enhanced with tiny embedded computers, a
man-machine hybrid with billions of microscopic nanobots coursing
through his bloodstream. And there's a moment, halfway through a
conversation in his office in Wellesley, Mass., when I start to think
that Kurzweil's transformation has already begun. It's the way he
talks—in a flat, robotic monotone. Maybe it's just because he's been
giving the same spiel, over and over, for years now. He does 70
speeches annually at $30,000 a pop, and draws crowds of adoring fans
who worship him as a kind of prophet. Kurzweil is a legend in the world
of computer geeks, an inventor, author and computer scientist who bills
himself as a futurist. The ideas he's espousing are as radical as
anything you've ever heard. But the strangest thing about Ray Kurzweil
is that when you sit down for a one-on-one chat with him, he's
absolutely boring.

Listen closely, though, and you may
be slightly terrified. Kurzweil believes computer intelligence is
advancing so rapidly that in a couple of decades, machines will be as
intelligent as humans. Soon after that they will surpass humans and
start creating even smarter technology. By the middle of this century,
the only way for us to keep up will be to merge with the machines so
that their superior intelligence can boost our weak little brains and
beef up our pitiful, illness-prone bodies. Some of Kurzweil's fellow
futurists believe these superhuman computers will want nothing to do
with us—that we will become either their pets or, worse yet, their
food. Always an optimist, Kurzweil takes a more upbeat view. He swears
these superhuman computers will love us, and honor us, since we'll be
their ancestors. He also thinks we'll be able to embed our
consciousness into silicon, which means we can live on, inside
machines, forever and ever, amen.

Link: Ray Kurzweil Wants to Be a Robot.

See also this companion article by John Horgan: Ray Kurzweil's Science Cult.

Galileo Goes To Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion

Galileo Interesting new book edited by historian Ronald L. Numbers: Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. From the publisher's page:

NYT on “The Coming Superbrain”

John Markoff writes about AI, Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity, and other such things in a New York Times article. Excerpt:

Today, artificial intelligence, once the preserve of science fiction
writers and eccentric computer prodigies, is back in fashion and
getting serious attention from NASA and from Silicon Valley companies like Google
as well as a new round of start-ups that are designing everything from
next-generation search engines to machines that listen or that are
capable of walking around in the world. A.I.’s new respectability is
turning the spotlight back on the question of where the technologymight be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly. […]

Profiled in the documentary “Transcendent Man,”
which had its premier last month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and with
his own Singularity movie due later this year, Dr. Kurzweil has become
a one-man marketing machine for the concept of post-humanism. He is the
co-founder of Singularity University,
a school supported by Google that will open in June with a grand goal —
to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to
understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing
technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address
humanity’s grand challenges.”

Not content with the development of
superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea
that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be
translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality
possible — within his lifetime.

That has led to no shortage of
raised eyebrows among hard-nosed technologists in the engineering
culture here, some of whom describe the Kurzweilian romance with
supermachines as a new form of religion. […]

“Kurzweil
will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the
‘great dawn,’ ” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s
not fair.”

Link: The Coming Superbrain

Revisiting Snow’s Two Cultures

New Scientist asked several prominent people for an update on C.P. Snow's Two Cultures: Science and Art: Still Two Cultures Divided?  I finally got around to reading Two Cultures a few months ago. What I liked best was Stefan Collini's historical introduction (which takes up about half the book and is worth the price).

Collini is the first respondent in New Scientist's article:

C. P. Snow intended to call his lecture "The Rich and
the Poor" – and regretted not doing so. This title points to what
remains valuable about the essay now. Helping the world's impoverished
majority meet their basic needs remains an obligation of richer
societies, and applied science is a vital tool.

In
other ways, though, Snow's lecture is superficial and misleading.
Despite its subsequent reputation, it does not make useful distinctions
between types of enquiry or discipline, making a thin contrast between
"physicists" and "literary intellectuals" (mostly modernist poets and
novelists, not scholars in the humanities). It also identified a rather
outdated element of English cultural attitudes and snobbery, rather
than a true divide between disciplines. It makes better sense to talk
of "two-hundred-and-two cultures" than of "two cultures". […]

The
more damaging influence of Snow's lecture has been to encourage the
prejudice that natural science is the only reliable source of
"objective" knowledge, and to support the misguided belief that science
and technology are undervalued in the UK and so should receive
preferential treatment.

Update: Seed Magazine has a similar feature about Two Cultures, but theirs is video  because Seed is all hip and youthful: Are We Beyond The Two Cultures?

The Complexities of Dying in a High-Tech Era

I thought this recent Fresh Air interview with Robert Martensen was very good: End of Life Care in America, A Doctor's Diagnosis. Martensen discusses the problem of medical intervention in the very final stages of life.

He has written a book called A Life Worth Living: A Doctor's Reflections on Illness in a High-Tech Era.

From the book description:

Critical illness is a fact of
life. Even those of us who enjoy decades of good health are touched by
it eventually, either in our own lives or in those of our loved ones.
And when this happens, we grapple with serious and often confusing
choices about how best to live with our afflictions.
 
A Life Worth Living is
a book for people facing these difficult decisions. Robert Martensen, a
physician, historian, and ethicist, draws on decades of experience with
patients and friends to explore the life cycle of serious illness, from
diagnosis to end of life. He connects personal stories with reflections
upon mortality, human agency, and the value of “cutting-edge”
technology in caring for the critically ill. Timely questions emerge:
To what extent should efforts to extend human life be made? What is the
value of nontraditional medical treatment? How has the American
health-care system affected treatment of the critically ill? And
finally, what are our doctors’ responsibilities to us as patients, and
where do those responsibilities end? Using poignant case studies,
Martensen demonstrates how we and our loved ones can maintain dignity
and resilience in the face of life’s most daunting circumstances.

Novelist Jim Harrison's blurb gets to the heart of the matter:

A Life Worth Living is a deeply engaging book. It can be read
as a self-defense manual. In fact it should be read by, say, anyone
over forty-five because we are all destined to do battle with the
medical industrial complex which seems quite confused about helping us
out of life. Martensen, who is both an M.D. and an historian of
medicine, gracefully illumines the problems we all face.” – Jim
Harrison, author of Returning to Earth

ALifeWorthLiving