Monthly Archives: April 2003

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Chilling effects 

No one denies that there are difficult issues raised by the breakneck pace of development in the life sciences. It doesn’t take much foresight to see that techniques for potentially dangerous genetic manipulation (designer viruses, anyone?) will be widely available in the not too distant future. Dystopian visions like the mis-named Bill Joy’s are the result.

A recent paper by the University of Maryland’s John Steinbruner concisely sums up the problem. “The capacity to alter basic life processes is not remotely matched by the capacity to understand the extended implications. For the foreseeable future, moreover, that imbalance in the state of comprehension is much more likely to accelerate than to diminish. It is not realistic to expect that the current momentum in fundamental microbiology will extend to the many other disciplines necessary to assess the evolutionary process as a whole. As a result, the human species is relentlessly acquiring power far in excess of tis vision and is thereby posing monumental problems of prudential judgment — problems that it is not yet conceptually or institutionally equipped to handle.”

Interestingly, Steinbruner believes the dangers come far more from dangerous unintended consequences of research than from terrorism.

But what would be the consequences of an international science police, as advocated by Steinbruner? “The University of Maryland arms control expert is calling for an international body of scientists and public representatives who would authorize scientific research that carries potential for grave social consequences… The oversight system he envisions would be mandatory and it would operate before potentially dangerous life sciences experiments are conducted. Even if the line of inquiry wins approval, access to results could be limited to those whose motives had passed muster under the proposed framework.”

A licensing scheme would have “a devastating chilling impact on biomedical research,” according to American Society for Microbiology president Ronald Atlas. He advocates self-regulation. Atlas’s assessment of the “chilling” effect on research seems right, but I fear in the febrile state of global policymaking circles in response to terrorism, Steinbruner’s scientific Big Brother may be realised.

Fighting near an end?  

Al Jazeera is reporting the end of the Saddam regime. The BBC reckons the regime has crumbled. Their reporter in Baghdad, Andrew Gilligan, says, “The tipping point has been reached.”

“Weblogs are the offense” 

Dave Winer’s take on some recent history: “We push forward with weblogs with work that would make Jefferson and Franklin stand up and cheer. JFK would love what we’re doing. We’re not asking what the Internet can do for us, we’re doing good works for the Internet.”

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Catch 22 

Apparently the CIA is going to classify its report on scientific openness. “Last week, [the National Research Council’s] Kerry Brenner sent an e-mail to participants, passing along the message that CIA would be ‘assembling a short, classified summary’ of the meeting, and touching off a torrent of questions from the scientists. Several had spoken at the meeting about the necessity for biosecurity consultation to take place in a new, open model of interaction between researchers and security agencies, one that would replace the secret dealings of Cold War days.”

Aux armes, citoyens 

Duncan Campbell: “If you were quietly flicking between channels and English was not your first language, it would be easy enough to get the impression that the US was indeed at war with France.”

Rah-rah self-righteousness 

Nicholas Kristof: “Fundamentally, the administration’s overseas efforts resemble those of the Chinese Communist Party: excellent effort, lousy execution. The Bush administration knows how important this issue is (which the Clinton administration never did), but there’s a Beijing-style rah-rah self-righteousness, too earnest by half, so the propaganda fizzles, even from a $250,000 stage.”

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BBC rules  

Kevin Hinde from the BBC explains its policy of maintaining archives. It makes me glad to be living in Britain.

“Everyone is in Kuwait” 

Josh Marshall makes a valuable point: “Some day, and perhaps some day in the not-too-distant future, someone will write this book. How much of the Washington foreign policy politics of the last decade got compressed into this scrum at the head of the Persian Gulf, how everyone who has a theory about what the next government of Iraq should look like, everyone who wants to make money off it — in short, the level-headed, the hopelessly idealistic and the utterly craven — all descended on Kuwait City to jockey for position.”


Richard Gayle is surely right that, at best, The New York Times has its priorities backwards. A new web policy at the Times means that after 30 days, links to Times articles will direct to a page requiring payment to view an article. Gayle comments, “This could be the end of the Times as a source of links in the Internet. I will no longer link to any of their pages since no one would be able to see anything after 30 days. Why tell anyone else about something interesting if they will have to pay 3 bucks to read it? …What is funny about this is that scientific journals are going exactly the opposite direction. It costs money to read the current issue but many are making all their work open to everyone after a period of time. PNAS, for instance, allows open access to anything 6 months older or more. So, at least here there is a benefit to having a subscription. You can get access to 6 months of material at a reasonable price. But, if you can wait a while, you will eventually get older material.”

Update Dave reports that the Times has reversed its policy. If this proves true, it’s excellent news and a tribute to the power of webloggers decrying a ridiculous policy.


I like Rhetorica’s elitism, in response to Washington Monthly’s survey of the books presidential candidates are reading. “Brent Kendall asks: ‘So what can we learn about the current crop of Democratic candidates from their favorite books?’ To which I answer, not very much unless the journalists asking the questions know something about the topics and the books. Otherwise, they risk engaging in pop-psychobabble at the expense of the candidates and the voters.”

Tough agenda  

Tony Blair’s task won’t be made any easier by declarations by Paul Wolfowitz that Anglo-American rule may last for six months.

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I wouldn’t have expected Akamai to be as feeble as the New York Stock Exchange. While you might argue with Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war, independent media like the Qatar-based broadcaster is exactly what the Arab world needs.

Motherhood and apple pie 

We all know that China is the world’s factory. I didn’t know, however, that it was also becoming a force in agriculture. “There are so many apples in China — which over the last two decades turned itself into the world’s biggest apple grower — that the world price for apple juice concentrate has been depressed for nearly five years.”

I’ve long argued that the efforts of the rich north to prop up its agricultural industry are (to choose an appropriate word) fruitless. The developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa, can have a real comparative advantage in agriculture. Economic growth through agriculture for developing nations would be a benefit for the whole world.

There will continue to be opportunities for clever agriculture in the north. I like visiting the National Fruit Collection, where you can walk through orchards and see over 2,000 varieties of apple, over 500 varieties of pear and over 300 varieties of cherry. Some of them don’t taste very good, but huge numbers of them taste far better than the anodyne Red and Yellow Delicious (sic) that China seems to be majoring on.

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How to take Baghdad  

Peter Jones offers the definitive guide to taking Babylon (sorry, Baghdad) in the Financial Times. “In 539BC, the Persian king Cyrus besieged the city. Herodotus tells us that Cyrus was on the point of giving up when a soldier suggested diverting the Euphrates north of the city until it became so shallow that the Persians could enter Babylon along the river bed under its mighty walls. That was the first capture of Babylon — an example of lateral thinking that the Americans could take heed of as they attack Baghdad.”

And that’s as nothing compared to how Darius succeeded in 523BCE. Read it.

Cheer up 

“The average European says, with dread: ‘How do we stop people doing x?’ The average American says with excitement: ‘When will I be able to do x?’ For x, read ‘test myself for future dementia risk’, ‘change my unborn children’s genes,” or even ‘fill my blood vessels with nano-robots to enable me to live to 150’.” Matt Ridley provides a welcome antidote to europessimism.

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“This is not to pretend that there is a single American ideal, still less a single US foreign policy, maintained unbroken since 1776. There are, instead, competing traditions, each able to trace its lineage to the founding of the republic. But what’s striking is that George Bush’s war on Iraq is at odds with every single one of them.” Jonathan Freedland, who has a track record as a hugely pro-American writer in The Guardian, makes clear that the Bush administration is exceptional, in a wholly perjorative sense.

Fruit and veg 

Fruit and veg stamps: The Royal Mail's latest stamps are a do-it-yourself collection. Users are encouraged to stick moustaches, hats, glasses, etc on to create their own, unique stamps

Stickers: The set of stickers for the fruit and veg stamps

I’ve written before on how seemingly small things characterise a country. The latest issue from the Royal Mail sums up a lot of the best of Britain: witty, domestic, deftly executed. I’m trying to find more reasons to send letters so I can use my do-it-yourself fruit and veg stamps.

Not free  

A scary April Fool’s prophecy brings home the absurdity of current intellectual property debates. “But why was it so expensive to borrow a book? ‘Do you want to deprive the authors of all incentive to write?’ she asked rhetorically. ‘They have to be fairly compensated for their work.’ I was tempted to ask why writers had been writing for so long in spite of free libraries.”

Actually, in the UK authors can receive payment for books borrowed from libraries under the Public Lending Right. In 2002 the government paid out £4,505,758 to 17,581 authors on the basis of loans of their books.

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Separated at birth 

Robert McNamara: Former US defense secretary Robert McNamara Donald Rumsfeld: US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld

McNamara and Rumsfeld. How much difference does 40 years make?

Light relief 

“His art also appears to run on several parallel paths. There are severe canvases and wobbly wooden things, implacable rectangles and watercolours of undressed women watching TV. There is grey pipe smoke and roaring colour; there are throwaway things and tightly worked-out plans. The conflict between the blob and the straight edge is never resolved.” Adrian Searle on Blinky Palermo. British newspapers maintain some wonderful traditions even in wartime.

Not now  

The World Economic Forum has postponed its China Business Summit because of the SARS virus scare (although the news hasn’t yet reached the Forum’s own site). I reckon SARS was probably the last straw for the summit, which was supposed to start in two weeks. The war must have trimmed the number of foreign CEOs that would travel to Beijing (or anywhere else), and the virus would have pushed the number of no-shows to unacceptable levels.

Second superpower 

According to James Moore, the second superpower isn’t China or even Europe. It’s the “will of the people” in a global social movement. I think this is a revealing way to look at the emerging power of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the ad hoc groupings that coalesce around a temporary issue.

There’s no doubt that Internet-enabled social movements are an important force, but I question their ability to become a significant, continuing power. First, agreement on issues can be very thin. The anti-war movement may be clear — stop the war — but the anti-globalisation movement was comparatively muddled. Some in it were against capitalism. Others, like the trade unions, wanted to safeguard jobs in the rich north. Still others sought to ensure the developing world shared in economic bounty. What these fractures meant is that opposition faded as other issues — 9/11, the war — loomed larger, partly because there was no positive programme of action. And, to my mind, there couldn’t be given those divisions.

I’m also concerned about promoting the benefits of the “will of the people”. The will of the people may well be to curb immigration, enact harsher treatment of asylum seekers and reinstate the death penalty. Representative democracy, rather than direct democracy or the increasingly vogue term emergent democracy, is often an appropriate shield against the less desireable aspects of populism.

Still, Moore has codified some important ways of looking at an emerging phenomenon.

Pax Americana 

Hugo Young in The Guardian: “Even if we’re prepared to grant the existence, deep in American purposes, of more idealism than is usually admitted, its fulfilment has become unattainable. America’s understanding of the world has become so self-centred, and its reputation so corrupted, that its ability to export liberal democracy either by example or by force now looks to be non-existent.”

Young makes some important points, even if, to my eyes, he idealises the Kennedy era (when American involvement in Vietnam began). The notion of spreading democracy is a good one, but just about every step the Bush administration takes seems to disqualify them from the task.