Saturday, April 26, 2003

The boys and their toys -- gender and war in Iraq

Although there has been much comment about the jingoistic nationalism, triumphalism and lack of balance in American news coverage in the war in Iraq, little notice has been given to a feature that oozed from just about every story -- the heavily macho undercurrent in much of the journalism. The following excerpt from the Daily Telegraph offers an interesting commentary on this dimension of the shabby reporting characteristic of today's brain dead news troops.

Kate Adie attacks 'macho' Gulf war coverage

By Sarah Womack, Social Affairs Correspondent
(Filed: 19/04/2003)

Kate Adie, the former BBC chief news correspondent,
has criticised the "macho" coverage of the Gulf war,
which she said ignored rape, rarely sought out a
woman's viewpoint and patronised female soldiers.

Miss Adie, who made her reputation as a war
correspondent in the last Gulf war, said the conflict
was a determinedly "Boy's Own area", with tabloid
newspapers in particular retaining an 18th-century
view of women.

"Time and again I have been conscious of a
wholesale concentration on the technical, tactical
aspects of warfare, the anorak syndrome, small
boys' fascination with toys," she told a Royal Society
of Arts debate in Manchester.

"It means that those things which conventionally
interest the male audience are concentrated on, and
women disappear from a landscape in which tanks
are rolling and missiles shooting."

Miss Adie said women who were not soldiers were
frequently depicted as miserable, helpless victims. A
typical camera shot was of elderly women in
shadows sitting forlorn next to ruined houses.

"Women fade into the background of the actual
action but they might have opinions that they wish
to add. But there is noticeable embarrassment if
women intrude into what is conventionally a male
playing field still."

Friday, April 25, 2003

Questions on the origins of the SARS virus

The excerpt below comes from an essay published recently by the Institute of Science in Society.

SARS and Genetic Engineering?

The complete sequence of the SARS virus is now available, confirming it is a new coronavirus unrelated to any previously
known. Has genetic engineering contributed to creating it? Dr. Mae-Wan Ho and Prof. Joe Cummins call for an investigation.

The World Health Organisation, which played the key role in coordinating the research, formally announced on 16 April that a
new pathogen, a member of the coronavirus family never before seen in humans, is the cause of Severe Acute Respiratory
Syndrome (SARS).

"The pace of SARS research has been astounding," said Dr. David Heymann, Executive Director, WHO Communicable Diseases
programmes. "Because of an extraordinary collaboration among laboratories from countries around the world, we now know with
certainty what causes SARS."

But there is no sign that the epidemic has run its course. By 21 April, at least 3 800 have been infected in 25 countries with
more than 200 dead. The worst hit are China, with 1 814 infected and 79 dead, Hong Kong, 1 380 infected and 94 dead, and
Toronto, 306 infected, 14 dead.

A cluster of SARS patients in Hong Kong with unusual symptoms has raised fears that the virus may be mutating, making the
disease more severe. According to microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, at the University of Hong Kong, the 300 patients from a
SARS hot spot, the Amoy Gardens apartment complex, were more seriously ill than other patients: three times as likely to suffer
early diarrhoea, twice as likely to need intensive care and less likely to respond to a cocktail of anti-viral drugs and steroids.
Even the medical staff infected by the Amoy Gardens patients were more seriously ill.

John Tam, a microbiologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong studying the gene sequences from these and other patients
suspects a mutation leading to an altered tissue preference of the virus, so it can attack the gut as well as the lungs.

The molecular phylogenies published 10 April in the New England Journal of Medicine were based on small fragments from the
polymerase gene (ORF 1b) (see Box), and have placed the SARS virus in a separate group somewhere between groups 2 and 3.
However, antibodies to the SARS virus cross react with FIPV, HuCV229E and TGEV, all in Group 1. Furthermore, the SARS virus
can grow in Vero green monkey kidney cells, which no other coronavirus can, with the exception of porcine epidemic diarrhea
virus, also in Group 1.


Coronaviruses are spherical, enveloped viruses infecting numerous species of mammals and birds. They contain a set of
four essential structural proteins: the membrane (M) protein, the small envelope (E) protein, the spike (S) glycoprotein,
and the nucleocapside (N) protein. The N protein wraps the RNA genome into a ‘nucleocapsid’ that’s surrounded by a
lipid membrane containing the S, M, and E proteins. The M and E proteins are essential and sufficient for viral envelope
formation. The M protein also interacts with the N protein, presumably to assemble the nucleocapsid into the virus.
Trimers (3 subunits) of the S protein form the characteristic spikes that protrude from the virus membrane. The spikes
are responsible for attaching to specific host cell receptors and for causing infected cells to fuse together.

The coronavirus genome is a an infectious, positive-stranded RNA (a strand that’s directly translated into protein) of
about 30 kilobases, and is the largest of all known RNA viral genomes. The beginning two-thirds of the genome contain
two open reading frames ORFs, 1a and 1b, coding for two polyproteins that are cleaved into proteins that enable the
virus to replicate and to transcribe. Downstream of ORF 1b are a number of genes that encode the structural and
several non-structural proteins.

Known coronaviruses are placed in three groups based on similarities in their genomes. Group 1 contains the porcine
epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV), porcine transmissible gastroenteritis virus (TGEV), canine coronavirus (CCV), feline
infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV) and human coronovirus 229E (HuCV229E); Group 2 contains the avian infectious
bronchitis virus (AIBV) and turkey coronavirus; while Group 3 contains the murine hepatitis virus (MHV) bovine
coronavirus (BCV), human coronavirus OC43, rat sialodacryoadenitis virus, and porcine hemagglutinating
encephomyelitis virus.

Where does the SARS virus come from? The obvious answer is recombination, which can readily occur when two strains of
viruses infect a cell at the same time. But neither of the two progenitor strains is known, says Luis Enjuanes from the
Universidad Autonoma in Madrid, Spain, one of the world leaders in the genetic manipulation of coronaviruses.

Although parts of the sequence appeared most similar to the bovine coronavirus (BCV) and the avian infectious bronchitis virus
(AIBV) (see "Bio-Terrorism & SARS", this series), the rest of the genome appear quite different.

Could genetic engineering have contributed inadvertently to creating the SARS virus? This point was not even considered by
the expert coronavirologists called in to help handle the crisis, now being feted and woed by pharmaceutical companies eager to
develop vaccines.

A research team in Genomics Sciences Centre in Vancouver, Canada, has sequenced the entire virus and posted it online 12
April. The sequence information should now be used to investigate the possibility that genetic engineering may have contributed
to creating the SARS virus.

If the SARS virus has arisen through recombined from a number of different viruses, then different parts of it would show
divergent phylogenetic relationships. These relationships could be obscured somewhat by the random errors that an extensively
manipulated sequence would accumulate, as the enzymes used in genetic manipulation, such as reverse transcriptase and other
polymerases are well-known to introduce random errors, but the telltale signs would still be a mosaic of conflicting phylogenetic
relationships, from which its history of recombination may be reconstructed. This could then be compared with the kinds of
genetic manipulations that have been carried out in the different laboratories around the world, preferably with the
recombinants held in the laboratories.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

A dark week in our common humanity

Here's a follow-up from Gray Brechin on cultural desecration in Iraq.

To all scholars, librarians, archivists, curators, humanists:

Deeply embedded in an article entitled "Iraqui elite pledge free nation," the San Francisco Chronicle (April 16) allotted two brief paragraphs to the burning of Baghdad's National Library and Koranic library. The article quotes Abdel Karim Answar Obeid, whom it identifies as "an administrator at the religious ministry, where thousands of Korans - many hand-written and some thousands of years old - were lost," as saying that books which survived the 1252 sacking of Baghdad did not make it through the early days of the U.S. occupation of 2003: "If you talk to any intellectual Muslims in the world," says Obeid "they are cyring right now over this." More than Muslims, of course, are crying at the scale and significance of destruction permitted within the past week by soldiers who, according to reporter Robert Fisk, stood aside while the libraries burned. But the editorial board of the Chronicle apparently considered the ruin of those undefended libraries just days following the looting of the National Museum too unimportant to merit an article or photograph of its own, and I suspect that the same is true elsewhere. If this could happen in Baghdad, then the pillaging of Mesopotamia's archaeological sites is probably proceeding as I write - just as international archaeologists warned that it would prior to the outbreak of war.

Like the social, economic, and long-term environmental costs of this war, the cultural loss is buried by prevailing triumphalism in U.S. mass media, as well as by Donald
Rumsfeld's assurance that the near total trashing of Iraq's cultural resources was an unfortunate accident and a regrettable "untidiness." And like the recent oil spill off the Spanish coast, I expect that even what has been reported will fade quickly from public consciousness as we in the U.S. move on to the next new thing. For those of us who use scholarly reseources, the loss is forever. I would like to call on museums, archives, and libraries everywhere to hang black banners or bunting of mourning for a
month from their buildings to remind the public of what has been forever and needlessly destroyed and to express the grief that we feel not only for those weeping Muslims but for our species. This is the very least that we can do to commemorate this exceptionally dark week in our common humanity.

Dr. Gray Brechin
Research Associate Department of Geography
U.C. Berkeley

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

What caused the cultural desecration in Iraq?

Gray Brechin, environmental historian and author of Imperial San Francisco sent the following letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. It raises some disturbing questions about the recent sack of Bagdad.


Because of the unconscionable callousness or outright malice of the Bush
yahoos, what we knew about Mesopotamian civilization a few days ago is
about all that we will or can ever know. Joan Ryan asks precisely the
question that the civilized world wants answered: "Why no tank at the
doors?" Prior to the attack on Iraq, the Chronicle reported that leading
archaeologists warned the U.S. of the probability of looting of museums and
of the many world-class sites throughout the country. If the National
Museum can be looted and Baghdad's libraries and archives burned while U.S.
soldiers stand aside, then those unique sites are being pillaged right now.

In the last week, we have seen acts of cultural desecration equivalent to
the burning of the Alexandrian Library and the sack of Constantinople by
the Fourth Crusade. Like Ryan and much of the world, I find it hard to
believe that this outrage was simply an unfortunate accident. We are all
now complicit in one of history's epochal acts of barbarism.


Gray Brechin

Friday, April 11, 2003

Nanotech first, ethics later?

Preparing for my testimony before the House Committee on Science, I heard this story from a friend.
It certain rings true. All names have been deleted.

"I was on the phone with the guy who does business development for [a nanotech Institute]
within the....[well-known professional society],
seeking support for a study I'm trying to get funded, to probe the psyches
of young engineers and see how ethically prepared they feel for the
challenges of their working lives. I asked whether there was any kind of
professional code of ethics for the nanotech field. He said, 'Oh no, we're
still trying to develop the technologies. Ethics comes later. But we'd be
really interested in anything you figure out.' Doesn't that sound like part
of the problem?"

Best regards,
(name withheld)

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Yesterday I testified before the House Committee on Science. Most members of the committee seemed genuinely interested in finding ways for the emerging field of nanotechnology to be adequately evaluated for its possible social and environmental consequences. Interactions between witnesses and committee members were usually cordial. I was the only witness to question the basic the rationale for supporting nanotechnology as compared to other national needs. The main suggestion I made for legislation was to include citizens panels as one method for technology assessment.

My web page has links to the testimony and an archived webcast of the hearing.

Here's a story from USA Today on the hearings.

USA Today, April 10, 2003
Experts: Research needed on nanotechnology consequences
By Susan Roth, Gannett News Service,

WASHINGTON — Congress should require research into the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology as the new field of science develops, experts told a House panel Wednesday.

The social and physical scientists said the march of nanotechnology — the manipulation of individual atoms — cannot be stalled because their peers around the world see it as the next major scientific revolution.

But they warned of dangers that should be considered as Congress weighs a measure that would create a $2.1 billion national research initiative on nanotechnology. The bill by House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-New Hartford, and Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., would allocate the spending over three years for research and development programs.

The Bush administration has proposed spending $849 million in fiscal 2004 on a National Nanotechnology Initiative involving 10 federal agencies. The Boehlert/Honda bill would spend $645 million in fiscal 2004 but more in the next two years. A similar bill has also been introduced in the Senate.
"The one thing we can be sure of is that nanotechnology will be neither the unalloyed boon predicted by technophiles nor the unmitigated disaster portrayed by technophobes," Boehlert said at the opening of Wednesday's Science Committee hearing.

The measure, which the committee expects to approve at the end of the month, would allow some funding for research on societal and ethical consequences of the science and require that research to be integrated with the physical science research.

Langdon Winner, a political science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., urged the panel to consider setting aside some money specifically for social
and ethical research and to ensure that the public is included early in the debate.

Winner and other speakers pointed to the current problems of the biotechnology industry with genetically modified organisms. "The European Union is now refusing to buy genetically modified foods because of a failure to have an open discussion at the start," Winner said. "Late in the process, it does very little good to tell them they're being irrational."

Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and head of a software development firm near Boston, agreed. Kurzweil also pointed to the fact that while biotechnology still holds such promise for humanity, it can also empower bioterrorists.

Nanotechnology raises "a new type of safety concern," Kurzweil said, because the technology is so small that it can "get in our tissues, our bloodstream, our brains.... Most importantly, we need far greater resources for the defense of this technology," to protect it from those who would use it to do harm.

Saturday, April 05, 2003


A Canadian friend and colleague, a person well known in academic and political life in Ottawa, recently quit an organization to which we both belong. He said he would no longer be able come to meetings because he refused being continually hasseled at the USA/Canada border. At a gathering last fall he sighed, "I'm deeply puzzled. You Americans seem completely addicted to entertainment."

Today I read Margaret Atwood's, "What Happened To America?  A Letter, A Lament," that comments on America's strange, sad slide into the abyss.

"You're gutting the Constitution. Already your home can be entered without your knowledge or permission, you can be snatched away and incarcerated without cause, your mail can be spied on, your private records searched. Why isn't this a recipe for widespread business theft, political intimidation, and fraud? I know you've been told all this is for your own safety and protection, but think about it for a minute. Anyway, when did you get so scared? You didn't used to be easily frightened."

For Atwood's entire letter see:

As I watch news reports from the war in Iraq, I’m reminded of the computer games popular during the past decade and a half. For many U.S. troops, the house-to-house combat in which they are engaged was foreshadowed in “Half Life,” “Wolfenstein,” “Soldier of Fortune,” and countless other best selling first person shooter games from their childhood years. Kick down the door; draw one’s gun, get ready to waste whatever leaps out from the shadows; on to the next room, next house -- Boom! Boom! Boom! BOOM! (We still play these games for hours on end.)

Does this mortal combat appear to today’s soldiers as something long promised, an apotheosis, the fulfillment of the violence routinely celebrated in our culture? Or is there enough humanity in them to ponder the nature of this carnage and its meaning? Eventually, of course, many of them will be troubled by such reflections. But for now they behave like the digital robots they embraced as children.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

I’ve been invited to testify at a Congressional hearing on the societal implications of nanotechnology.
The Charter for the hearing can be found at:

Some of the details, excerpted from the hearing Charter, are given below.



The Societal Implications of Nanotechnology

Wednesday, April 9, 2003
10:00 a.m. - 12:00 Noon
2318 Rayburn House Office Building


On Wednesday April 9, 2003, the House Science Committee will hold a hearing to examine the societal implications of nanotechnology and to consider H.R. 766, The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, in light of those implications.


Mr. Ray Kurzweil is Founder, Chairman and CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, Inc., a software development firm. A pioneer in artificial intelligence, he is the author of The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). He received the 1999 National Medal of Technology and in 2002 was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, for his 1976 invention of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first device to transform print into computer-spoken words, enabling blind and visually impaired people to read printed materials. Since 1973, he has founded nine companies.

Dr. Vicki Colvin is the Executive Director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology and Associate Professor of Chemistry at Rice University. Research underway at the center focuses on nanomaterials’ behavior in the environment and the body and considers risk assessment and safety factors.

Dr. Langdon Winner is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York where he serves as co-director of the newly founded Center for Cultural Design. He is a political theorist who focuses on social and political issues that surround modern technological change.

Ms. Christine Peterson is cofounder and President of Foresight Institute. She focuses on making nanotechnology understandable, and on clarifying the difference between near-term commercial advances and the “Next Industrial Revolution” arriving in the next few decades. Foresight Institute has developed guidelines that include assumptions, principles, and some specific recommendations intended to provide a basis for responsible development of molecular nanotechnology.


The hearing will address the following overarching questions:

1. What are the concerns about existing and potential applications of nanotechnology?

2. How is it possible to anticipate the consequences of technology development?

3. How can research and debate on societal and ethical concerns be integrated into the research and development process, especially into projects funded by the federal government?


a. Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating and characterizing matter at the atomic and molecular level. It is one of the most exciting fields of science today, involving a multitude of science and engineering disciplines, with widespread applications in electronics, advanced materials, medicine, and information technology. The promise of nanotechnology to accelerate technological change has prompted some to advise caution about pursuing rapid innovation without some understanding of where it might lead us.
Questions for Dr. Langdon Winner: What factors influence the successful adoption of new technologies into society? What questions should be asked during the research and development phase to help minimize the potentially disruptive impact of transformational technology developments?

• What are the current concerns about existing and potential applications of nanotechnology science and engineering?

• How can research on the societal and ethical concerns relating to nanotechnology developments be integrated into the research and development process?


Once there was a flock of geese. They were kept in a wire cage, by a farmer. One day, one of the geese looked up and saw there was no top to the cage. Excitedly, he told the other geese:

“Look, look: There is no top. We may leave here. We may become free.”

Few listened, and none would turn his head to the sky.

So, one day, he simply spread his wings and flew away – alone.

-- Soren Kierkegaard

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Welcome to Technopolis.
Technopolis, a weblog by Langdon Winner, offers occasional reflections
on historical, philosophical, and contemporary questions that involve
the perplexing intersection of human ends and means. Not a
minute-to-minute news blog, it includes stories, poems, personal
observations, and scholarly references posted every now and then, but at
least every two weeks.