Kurzweil & Joy: Recipe for Destruction

In a New York Times op-ed, odd couple Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy tell us it’s extremely dangerous to have published the genome for the 1918 flu virus:

AFTER a decade of painstaking research, federal and university scientists have reconstructed the 1918 influenza virus that killed 50 million people worldwide. Like the flu viruses now raising alarm bells in Asia, the 1918 virus was a bird flu that jumped directly to humans, the scientists reported. To shed light on how the virus evolved, the United States Department of Health and Human Services published the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus on the Internet in the GenBank database.

This is extremely foolish. The genome is essentially the design of a weapon of mass destruction. No responsible scientist would advocate publishing precise designs for an atomic bomb, and in two ways revealing the sequence for the flu virus is even more dangerous.

Link: Recipe for Destruction – New York Times.

Joseph Rotblat Dies

Of all the many scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, only one of them quit the project on moral grounds — Joseph Rotblat.  He died Wednesday in London.  The New York Times has an obituary: Joseph Rotblat, 96, Dies; Resisted Nuclear Weapons.  Excerpt:

Sir Joseph Rotblat, a physicist who was the only scientist to quit
working on developing the atomic bomb for moral reasons and who won the
Nobel Peace Prize a half-century later for his worldwide campaign to
eliminate nuclear weapons, died Wednesday night in London. He was 96.

His death was announced by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which he and other scientists founded in 1957.

Rotblat, a Polish-born physicist, was 87 when the Nobel committee
awarded the 1995 peace prize to him and the Pugwash conferences for
convening scientists, scholars and, later, political leaders, from both
East and West "to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in
international politics and in the long run to eliminate such arms."

"We have been trying for 40 years to save the world, sometimes against the world’s wishes," Mr. Rotblat said.

The Pugwash website is very informative: Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently showcased a 1985 article Rotblat wrote to explain his actions.  It’s available in PDF format: Leaving the Bomb Project.

I recently read Jennet Conant’s book, 109 East Palace : Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, and recommend it if you’re interested in the story of the community that grew up around the project.

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

More $100 Laptop Discussion

Over at WorldChanging there’s a huge continuing discussion about Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 Laptop for kids in third world countries.

[…] the evidence
is strong — and getting stronger
all the time — that cheap, functionally-ubiquitous information and
communication devices help to accelerate development.

Link: WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: Negroponte’s Hundred Dollar Laptop, via SmartMobs.

From what I can tell, nobody has yet presented evidence to support the claim that laptops will help these kids learn better than if they were given better books, teachers, or other more traditional development aid.  This is a crucial question, yet people seem to believe it on faith.

On a side note, I think it’s interesting that MIT has the following disclaimer at the top of their $100 Laptop Project web page:

Please note: these laptops are not in production.
They are not—and will not—be available for purchase
by individuals.

Obviously if somebody makes a cheap, rugged, laptop designed for a long life, everyone will want one!  How will they deal with this?  How will they prevent a black market from emerging that sells these back to Americans?

Previous posts by me about the $100 laptop are here and here.

Salon on Miller: You poor readers just don’t get it!

"Many — including
many Salon readers — refuse to rally behind jailed, controversial New
York Times reporter Judy Miller. But anyone who truly supports freedom
of speech needs to."

So goes the intro to an article by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon today called Imperfect martyr, in which Salon tries to explain their readers’ discomfort with earlier stories supporting Judith Miller’s refusal to name her source.

They’re right that some people are over-the-top about Judy Miller.  And maybe some readers are indeed swept up in that whole media distrust meme ("Journalism as a profession is facing a crisis of public confidence" yada yada…), though I think Salon readers are more independent-minded than that.

It’s all about freedom of the press, apparently, and readers just aren’t grasping it:

On one hand, many
members of the public — especially liberals who ought to be staunch
defenders of the Bill of Rights — seem unable or unwilling to grasp
the idea that a matter of fundamental principle might be at stake, even
in the murky and seemingly bottomless waters of the Miller-Plame-Rove

On the contrary, I think people have heard this argument loud and clear and they don’t buy it.

This letter that they published states it well:

Oh, how I wish our press could distinguish apples from oranges…

Can members of the
press truly not distinguish between protecting a source of genuine,
good-faith news, and protecting someone seeking an accomplice willing
to facilitate a criminal act?

The outing of Plame
had nothing to do with news. The intent here was criminal revenge and
the willful endangerment of national security. These are not protected
by the First amendment.

But please, members
of the press, continue your feckless hand-wringing. As you go to jail
with chin up, whining about the "chilling effect" of it all, you have
my thanks for, once again, utterly missing the point.

— Patrick Cunningham

There’s lots of huffing in the press about "oh, it’s such a very complicated issue; we’ll tell you what the story really is," and they offer up these simplistic narratives like in this Salon article.  People are smarter than that.

In contrast, yesterday Slate published an excellent article by Jacob Weisberg that I think does a much better job at digging deeper.  Here’s an excerpt:

Journalists make a fetish of anonymous sources. They do so for
reasons ethical, psychological, and anthropological, including genuine
principle, the lure of heroism, and—especially in Washington—a culture
of status based on access to inside information.

But let’s
ignore the ulterior motives and focus on the principle Judith Miller
has so forcefully asserted by going to prison. To Miller and the Times,
confidentiality is the trump value of journalism, one that outweighs
all other considerations, including obedience to the law, the public
interest, and perhaps even loyalty to country.

This is indeed a
strong principle, but it is a misguided one. In the Mafia, keeping
confidences is the supreme value. In journalism, the highest value is
the discovery and publication of the truth. When this paramount value
comes into conflict with others—such as following the law, keeping your
word, and so on—hard choices have to be made.