I love this ad campaign. I was in Toronto last week and saw it on a billboard. More at the ad agency's page: Ogilvy Toronto.
Inspired by the process of creating a library for his fifteenth-century home near the Loire, in France, Alberto Manguel, the acclaimed writer on books and reading, has taken up the subject of libraries. “Libraries,” he says, “have always seemed to me pleasantly mad places, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been seduced by their labyrinthine logic.” In this personal, deliberately unsystematic, and wide-ranging book, he offers a captivating meditation on the meaning of libraries.
Manguel, a guide of irrepressible enthusiasm, conducts a unique library tour that extends from his childhood bookshelves to the “complete” libraries of the Internet, from Ancient Egypt and Greece to the Arab world, from China and Rome to Google. He ponders the doomed library of Alexandria as well as the personal libraries of Charles Dickens, Jorge Luis Borges, and others. He recounts stories of people who have struggled against tyranny to preserve freedom of thought—the Polish librarian who smuggled books to safety as the Nazis began their destruction of Jewish libraries; the Afghani bookseller who kept his store open through decades of unrest. Oral “memory libraries” kept alive by prisoners, libraries of banned books, the imaginary library of Count Dracula, the library of books never written—Manguel illuminates the mysteries of libraries as no other writer could. With scores of wonderful images throughout, The Library at Night is a fascinating voyage through Manguel’s mind, memory, and vast knowledge of books and civilizations.
Orion magazine has a review by John Galvin of James Howard Kunstler's new novel, World Made by Hand. An excerpt:
Islamic Fundamentalists have blown up Los Angeles and DC. That puts the global economy into a smoking tailspin. A flu pandemic has wiped out a good third of the population, maybe more. Oil, or access to what’s left of it anyway, is as good as gone. The Chinese have reportedly landed a man on the moon, but that’s probably more legend than fact in these paranoid times. The federal government has retreated to Minnesota, of all places (because who would attack them up there?), and with resources limited, race wars have erupted across the South. The globe is no longer flat (sorry, Tom Friedman!). It’s as round and as large as it’s ever been.
Such is the fictionalized world envisioned by James Howard Kunstler in his new book, World Made by Hand. This isn’t a sci-fi view into a future one hundred or fifty years away. It’s anti–sci-fi, set maybe ten to twenty years out.
Link: World Made by Hand.
Kunstler is best known for his non-fiction. His most recent is The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.
The FDA has announced that cloned food is safe to eat, but many groups are still concerned.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest says the FDA has "satisfactorily answered the safety question" but:
Congress should hold hearings on the animal-welfare, ethical, and environmental implications of cloning. [...]
If companies begin using clones to breed food animals, they need to explain why. Will it make any food product better, safer, cheaper or more sustainable? Clear evidence of benefits must be generated if consumers are going to accept cloned animals and their products.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says:
“Animal cloning is a controversial technology with few, if any, benefits to consumers. [...]
“The agency's risk assessment is long on assumptions and short on hard data. It fails to address ethical issues associated with cloning, including the role of animal cloning as a steppingstone to human cloning.
“Nor does the risk assessment resolve trade concerns revolving around this controversial technology. Other countries have more rigorous regulatory systems and take ethical concerns into account. We can afford the time to do additional studies.”
The Center for Food Safety is harsher:
"The FDA's bullheaded action today disregards the will of the public and the Senate - and opens a literal Pandora's Box," said Andrew Kimbrell, CFS Executive Director. "FDA based their decision on an incomplete and flawed review that relies on studies supplied by cloning companies that want to force cloning technology on American consumers. FDA's action has placed the interests of a handful of biotech firms above those of the public they are charged with protecting."
Link: FDA Opens "Pandora's Box" by Approving Food from Clones for Sale.
William Saletan at Slate lists his Top science-and-technology privacy threats of 2007. A few (numbers 2, 3, and 4: the wars on smoking, trans-fats, and salt) seem like a bit of a stretch.
I'm starting to catch up on blogging after a lull because of a move and a new job. Here are some links that have been festering in my feed reader for a while:
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.
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 contamination.
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 anything.
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.
Davis was also interviewed on Fresh Air last week: Fresh Air October 4, 2007.
In an article in today's New York Times, Denise Caruso (author of Intervention) writes about new "BioPharma" crops and how the current processes for assessing risk are inadequate. Excerpts:
A new generation of genetically engineered crops that produce drugs and chemicals is fast approaching the market — bringing with it a new wave of concerns about the safety of the global food and feed supply.
The plants produce medicinal substances like insulin, anticoagulants and blood substitutes. They produce vaccine proteins for diseases like cholera, as well as antibodies against tooth decay and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Enzymes and other chemicals from the plants can be used for a range of industrial processes.
Once the rogue seeds are replanted, could the plants thrive in their new home and possibly overtake native varieties or wild relatives? Could the pharma trait increase in frequency and concentration, until it reaches a “dose” that causes health effects in those who consume it unwittingly? The probability for any one of these situations may be low, Professor Ellstrand said, but the scientific answer to each question is yes.
What is most worrisome is that the Agriculture Department seems to reject such reasonable, science-based public safety concerns. Agency policy allows developers to withhold data on pharma crops from the public as confidential business information, and the public is not allowed to comment on biopharma planting applications until after an official risk evaluation is completed.
Scientists often dismiss the idea that people without technical knowledge can help them make risk assessments. As a result, biotech scientists and regulators have long made safety determinations from within an opaque system of their own design, using only the evidence they accept as valid.
But scientific evidence is not a constant, like the speed of light or pi. Especially in biology, where we still know so little, “evidence” is often just a small circle of light surrounded by the darkness of the unknown. Decisions about risk cannot safely be made in a private club that accepts only its members’ notions of scientific evidence.
The best research on risk declares the opposite to be true: that risk evidence is particularly subject to distortion by conflicting interests, and that the best foil for such distortions is to ensure that the people whose fate is at stake participate in the analysis.
We need a new policy framework for scientific evidence that is built on this foundation. If developers want to sell their products, they must subject their inventions to the helpful scrutiny of people outside the club — before radical technologies like biopharma are brought to market.
There's more about the article at Denise Caruso's blog, HybridVigor.net.
A couple of minor stories this week illustrate how the Internet enables unthinking hordes to react en masse to hoaxes or erroneous information.
Case 1: Home stripped bare after fake online ad / Craigslist post told people to come take all they wanted (SF Chronicle). The ad was only up for two hours before it was tagged as a hoax and removed, but this was too late to prevent people from showing up and removing everything from the house, including the front door.
Case 2: Jamba Juice gets hit with intermob outrage after it's reported on BoingBoing that their non-dairy drinks actually contain milk. It turns out that Cory Doctorow just can't read/see (probably too distracted multitasking). He started the whole thing by trying to find out what's in their "Non-dairy 'Dairy'", which is not even an ingredient; it's a heading in their printed ingredient book, referring to their sorbet and soymilk (see photo here). Unfortunately a confused Jamba Juice employee, when called by one of Cory's minions, thought the question was about their "low-fat dairy" and so gave the ingredients for it, which of course includes milk. Jamba Juice later tried to clarify that there is no such thing as "non-dairy dairy" but Cory still doesn't get it, leaving countless internerds to accuse Jamba Juice of a cover-up, conspiracy, etc. This kind of thing happens frequently with BoingBoing and similar blogs.
Scott Rosenberg (whose book Dreaming In Code I'm currently reading and enjoying) has an excellent interview in Salon with Denise Caruso about her book, Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet. From the intro:
"Intervention," Denise Caruso's new book about biotechnology, is all about unknown unknowns. It's a stark survey of how little we know about the risks of genetic engineering -- and, further, of how ignorant we are about how little we know.
"Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet" offers a profoundly persuasive and endlessly disquieting portrait of the risks our species is blindly taking with biotechnology. Could the introduction of genetically modified products into our environment be responsible for seemingly disconnected problems -- like, say, the strange disappearance of much of the honeybee population? Is meat from cloned animals really as safe as the Food and Drug Administration maintains?
Caruso doesn't claim to have answers; rather, she credibly argues that we should distrust anybody (including, or especially, regulators) making such a claim. And we ought to face that uncertainty head on, not deny it until some irreversible catastrophe forces our eyes open.
"We are actually a giant biology experiment, this planet, right now," Caruso says. "There's no control."
Caruso, a veteran technology writer (full disclosure: I've known her as a media colleague for years) who now runs the Hybrid Vigor Institute, is no know-nothing, nor does her knee jerk. Her quarrel with the processes that have swept transgenic foods and products into our farm fields and onto our dinner tables rests not on anecdotes or emotional appeals but rather on solid scientific research.
"Intervention's" scrupulous refusal to sensationalize only makes the alarms it raises more harrowing. But the book also offer readers a lifeline. Drawing on the work of the National Academies (like the 1994 "Understanding Risk" report), "Intervention" outlines a better approach to assessing the risks of new technologies. Under this "analytical deliberative process," interested experts from different fields assess risks from a broad perspective, asking questions rather than deliberately ignoring blank spots in our knowledge for want of data.
The whole interview is well worth reading. I've mentioned Intervention before and hopefully will get around to posting a review here one of these days. I'm quite behind on my reading...
John Tierney writes about Stewart Brand in today's New York Times:
[H]e feels guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power. Alternative energy and conservation are fine steps to reduce carbon emissions, he says, but now nuclear power is a proven technology working on a scale to make a serious difference.
“There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,” he says. “Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don’t know where it is and you don’t know what it’s doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody’s atmosphere.”
Mr. Brand predicts that his heresies will become accepted in the next decade as the scientific minority in the environmental movement persuades the romantic majority. He still considers himself a member of both factions, just as in the days of the Merry Pranksters, but he’s been shifting toward the minority.
“My trend has been toward more rational and less romantic as the decades go by,” he says. “I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.”
I have lots of respect for Stewart Brand, but his simplistic division of environmentalists into "romantics" and "scientists" is grossly unfair. It's quite possible to make valid, rational -- even scientific -- critiques of science and technology, and there are quite strong ones to be made with respect to GMOs and nuclear power. Of course there are important economic and political considerations as well.
The Center For Food Safety has set up a handy e-mail form for you to submit your comments to the FDA (they're accepting comments from the public until April 2). CFS's suggested letter begins:
I oppose FDA approval of food products from animal clones and their offspring. Cloning carries unknown food safety risks, increases animal cruelty, and threatens the image of U.S. dairy and meat products. Many Americans object to animal cloning on moral or ethical grounds, and there is no need for cloned foods.
I don't know if e-mail form letters really make a difference, and I'll admit that there's a lot of hysteria about cloned foods that doesn't necessarily help matters. But I think the CFS is right: the risks don't seem to have been studied enough to warrant going ahead with this now.
(Image from the Center for Food Safety.)
The UK nonprofit group Sense About Science has made the press recently with a new initiative to fact-check celebrities who make controversial claims about science. They've distributed a leaflet that purports to correct statements about topics including organic food, alternative medicine, and animal welfare made by the likes of Madonna, Jamie Oliver, and Heather McCartney.
It makes for a good story (aren't those celebrities dumb! let's stamp out bad science!) and the media has dutifully eaten it up. But here's the thing: Sense About Science is arguably a public relations front group for industry. Fact checking for celebrities? How about fact checking for journalists. Aren't they supposed to be the professionals?
My primary source for telling you SAS is biased is the non-profit Source Watch's article on the group. (I've written about Source Watch previously here.) For more background on SAS, here's an article by George Monbiot from the Guardian: Invasion of the entryists.
I first read about the Sense About Science Celebrity campaign in the January 6 edition of New Scientist magazine (the article is also online here: Celebrities Should Watch What they Say). It also got written up elsewhere:
None of these articles mentions the industry connections of Sense About Science. Whether celebrities speak the truth or not is beside the point and is hardly newsworthy. It's plain as day that SAS is pushing certain pro-industry viewpoints in some of this material.
Of course this isn't a unique occurrence. Companies and PR firms go to enormous lengths to spin science reporting and public opinion in their favor. With a little knowledge it's really not that hard to spot. One good book on this subject is Trust Us, We're Experts by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber. I recommend educating yourself as the best defense -- especially if you're a journalist.