Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Sen. Frist: Many Antimodernists Are Brainy...

We've been wandering around a bit, quagmired in contemporary politics. I regret that, but the news just keeps on throwing in our faces examples of the Culture War. I do hope soon to finish my linear thoughts about "Modernity and its Enemies", before launching into a new topic... "Science and Religion in the 21st Century."

(That one ought to be provocative enough for anybody!)

First, as I try to clear the decks, let me call attention to Senator Bill Frist’s paper on "BioShield" issues at the Harvard Medical School on June 1. http://frist.senate.gov/_files/060105manhattan.pdf

Why would I call attention to a recent speech presented by a man who, if he were president, would probably make George W. Bush look like Nelson Rockefeller?

Because we will never get modernism moving again so long as we give in to a bad habit encouraged by indignation junkies of both left and right - screaming at strawman caricatures of our enemies, instead of engaging those opponents, as they are. Take the fellow you despise most. He (probably) does not envision himself as evil, or even unreasonable. Rather, he feels he is a very likeable and intelligent and generous soul, with a clear bead on what is needed in order for civilization to thrive.

Read Sen. Frist's speech. You'll find that you agree with more than 90% of what he says in this piece. Despite the "culture war", there is a lot of shared moral consensus. So how can we be far apart?

Well, for one thing, he never mentions other parts of his agenda, so let me spend just one paragraph addressing those ghosts at the banquet, before going back to what's actually in his speech.

Take, for starters, a value system that begins by defining his opponents as baby killers, thus ensuring that, no matter how much good they have done in the world - civil rights and all that - Jesus will never like them. Then there is the ritual debasement of words like "freedom," "patriotism" and "free enterprise" so that - purified of any context, they can serve as amulet-totems of just one political faction. (Implying that opponents must hate them.) Add to this a clear insistence that market capitalism is best operated not by small business, but by an elite aristocracy, freed of all accountability. Also, a belief that Planet Earth is just a temporary, expendable stage set for a scripted apocalyptic play that will soon draw to a close. (And that's a goooood thing).

(In fairness, Frist would surely dislike the way that I described these views, though it's all pretty much on target.)

But hold. None of those things are in his speech.

Rather, there is a very clear and intelligent portrayal of the increasing fear, shared among many public health experts, that we are about to see a breakout of
Asian Bird Flu
into the general human population.

Even if such an outbreak does not take place naturally, a deadly and virulent pandemic is clearly just the sort of thing that our civilization's enemies will seek to achieve, sooner or later, as we enter the Biological Century. Conjuring images from the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, Frist talks about a far worse version, spread through a much more crowded world by rapid air travel - or disseminated deliberately - starting with a fatality rate more than triple what it was in 1918.

Yes, modern civilization has weapons for fighting back. We have better medicine. We have the tools of biological science, which are becoming more adept at rapidly detecting and characterizing new viruses and creating vaccines to combat them. Frist admires this trend. (This despite the fact that many of Frist's neoconservative colleagues, such as Francis Fukayama, are waging a general assault upon science.) In any event, medicine and science do not, at present, seem ready to cope with such a pandemic. Not if it hit tomorrow.

Frist wants a "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century" to help get us ready for the day after tomorrow.

Frist does a very good job of ringing alarm bells, so I want to comment carefully. First on what he leaves out and then on what he is really after.

We have an image that citizens in teeming cities will react to such an event with panic, breaking emergency isolation protocols (if public health officials had the guts to use them), scurrying about spreading illness, the way it happened during the Black Death. At best, a major urban outbreak will shut down cities and trigger economic breakdown or starvation. In a moment, I will speak to how this patronizing image serves the interests of the 'Protector Caste'. But first, is it really true?

I'm no pollyanna. The scenario painted by Frist and many other worriers is daunting and horrible. But we are also better off now, in ways that go beyond the benefits of modern medicine.

For example, the average person is more fit and healthy than even young soldiers were in 1918, with fewer "dings" on their health cards. Moreover, would people scurry about and flee, as in the Middle Ages? Or seek shelter in the safest place of all, their own modern, spacious homes, offering plenty of room for voluntary self-isolation during a pandemic.

Many necessary tasks, farming, trucking and even stocking supermarket shelves can be done without elbow-to-elbow contact, and packaged foods, while ecologically wasteful, offer real barriers to disease transmission. Moreover, while we are not yet in the era of true telecommuting, people may accomplish a lot with today's crude methods, especially if offices are visited in shifts that keep the population densities in any room relatively low.

Moreover, reported death rates from Asian Flu are misleading. Viruses tend to mutate to forms that ensure best spreading. In the case of AIDS, this tendency made a plague worse, by increasing its symptom-free latency period. But in the case of any flu bug, the same trend will likely push it toward lower - or more normal - levels of lethality.

None of which makes me complacent. Having said all that (and there is much more that could be said), let me turn and add that I agree with Sen. Frist's main point. We should, indeed, be spending more on research! Much more. A prudent civilization - one that is rushing pell mell into an uncertain tomorrow - should be poking sticks into the road ahead, to find the quicksand pits and punjee stakes.

Science is our best "stick". It not only assists the protector caste at its job of *anticipation* but also helps the great mass of citizens to do *their* job... becoming robust and resilient, so that they can calmly step in when the paid protector caste inevitably fails.

Which it will, inevitably, sooner or later, as it did on 9/11. As it has been doing more and more, lately. (Elsewhere see how I point out that citizens, rather than acting like sheep on 9/11, were the only ones who reacted swiftly, effectively, and got it right, that day.)

Certainly much good skill would arise from the application of money and moral impetus toward pre-fighting 21st Century diseases, but what is missing from Sen. Frist's speech are the details about his proposed "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century". We do not hear what kind of agency he would establish, how it would operate or who would control it.

Alas, given the track record of Frist & co., we can already tell what traits the effort will have.

It will be a closed shop of the Security-Industrial Complex, controlled by a consolidated hierarchy of interlocking directors from biotech and government, many of them switching chairs in choreographed (and profitable) rhythm.

It will be obsessed with secrecy.

While supposedly emphasizing science, it will keep "boffins" in their place, isolated from the top tiers of authority. Diverse or conflicting viewpoints will not be welcome.

It will have a wing that explores weaponized disease "just in case," in order to better understand possible enemy methods. A combination of obsessive secrecy plus inevitable leaks will result exaggerated, sensationalized or scandalous revelations and rumors, with the result that nobody on Earth will believe any peaceful assurances. Thus, other nations will quickly follow suit.

Discoveries that lead to intellectual property and patent rights will somehow slide into the hands of the corporate partners of this vast enterprise, while costs are accrued by the taxpayer-financed side. (The famed effect: "privatization of benefits while costs are taken public". Some tricks just never seem to get tired.)

Above all, the interests of the protector caste will be favored. Those possible palliatives and solutions that involve stimulating an increasingly competent and self-reliant and knowledgeable citizenry will - unconsciously or consciously - be squelched.

This last aspect will continue, even after the inevitable scandals result in Sen. Frist's enemies taking over the "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century". Even if (at the extreme) lefty radicals like Ralph Nader sweep into power. (Shudder.) Because patronizing philosopher kings of the left are little better, in their hearts, than those of the right. The same drives and temptations are there, given different terminology. And indeed, many on the far left are just as anti-science as neocons are. Even when pushing a supposedly scientific endeavor, they would commit many of the same mistakes, especially if they were as flushed with total power as Sen. Frist's side has become.

In summary: I do not expect to stop something like Sen Frist's "Manhattan Project for the 21st Century" from coming about. I do not even want to. We probably need it.

But when the day finally comes that we are hit hard by something terrible, I will bet you whatever spare change that you and I have left, that it will be the man and woman on the street who not only do the suffering, but who will carry the weight of getting us through all the crises and to the other side.

-----------------

PS... I just can't take my mind off that novel I recommended earlier. JITTERBUG by Mike McQuay (1984), a somewhat paranoid novel about a future world devastated by a horrible disease controlled by terrorists. It is so creepily on target that I doubt you'll find a copy. Certain interests have probably bought up all the used copies floating around. If only someone would reprint.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Amazon.com can direct you to dozes of copies of Jitterbug for sale by various folks, some for literally a penny. "Certain interests" need to get their act together!

Anonymous said...

As can bookfinder.com (nice because it specializes in independent booksellers).

A.R.Yngve said...

About the evolution of plagues...

If evolution is at work on bacteria and viruses (and I have no reason to think otherwise), then the most successful germs will be those that spread the most, but don't kill the host organism too quickly.

Ergo: the flu. Airborne, spreads very fast across large populations, passes quickly, leaves most victims alive, returns every year.

Face it, folks: with this setup, the pattern ain't gonna change.

If only we could get the flu viruses to do something FOR us, we'd have a mutually beneficient symbiosis...
;-)

-A.R.Yngve
http://yngve.bravehost.com

reason said...

a.r.yngve,
Who said flu epidemics don't do anything for us. They reduce the insolvence of our pension systems.-)
(Sorry about the black humour for those of you who aren't Aussies)

Frank said...

"Viruses tend to mutate to forms that ensure best spreading."

And causing the death of carriers is disadvantageous to any natural virus. But of course what terrorists want is to continually design and spread new types of (very unnatural) viruses with as high a killrate as possible. It may even be possible to design a virus with an increased ability to withstand mutation agents in order to stop it from evolving itself out of existence. (an aside: it might be interesting to see how the population of 'natural' viruses and bacteria respond to the presence of such invasive 'artificial' viruses)

"We should, indeed, be spending more on research!"

More research usually leads to more knowledge. Who should have access to that knowledge? I'm sure terrorists will want it and the only way to stop them from getting it (well, most of it) is appointing the 'protector cast' you mentioned. Genetic knowledge should not be public domain. Tinkering with genes must be left to the professionals. At least then when something bad happens there's only a few suspects to interrogate.

"Those possible palliatives and solutions that involve stimulating an increasingly competent and self-reliant and knowledgeable citizenry will - unconsciously or consciously - be squelched."

Competency, self-reliance and knowledgeability do not equate morality. The more people have access to genetic knowledge the more often it will be abused. A whole new class of crimes will appear.

Jacare Sorridente said...

When it comes to high technology there is a dangerous line to tread between secrecy and sharing. I think that Dr. Brin generally has it right, however. The entire reason that our technological society is so successful is due to the degree to which information is shared. When technology evolves to the point where any college graduate with a chip on his soldier and a few thousand bucks can develop a killer virus, the continued existence of our way of life will hinge completely on lightning fast and accurate communication between a wide community of experts. It is better that such a community should be built soon and become accustomed to working together and sharing information.

Frank said...

@Jacare Sorridente:

It will take a lot more than 'lightning fast and accurate communication between a wide community of experts'. A viral agent (or for that matter: a nanotechnological agent) that a certain villanous 'community' has spend perhaps years to develop will take a very long time to neutralize.

The more 'free' genetic knowledge is spread over the world, the less time terrorists have to spend doing their own research.

Just an idea: maybe a solution to the global virus threat would be to purposely introduce artificial viruses and bacteria into the natural world and thus create some kind of preventive global immune system.(or would that just make the situation worse ?)

Anonymous said...

Frank said:

"The more 'free' genetic knowledge is spread over the world, the less time terrorists have to spend doing their own research."


Except that if the terrorists are using the 'free' genetic knowledge to develop their viral weaponry, then the presumably much larger entities that will be working on vaccines and cures will be able to isolate the virus(es) and develop countermeasures more easily, since they will have access to the root genetic codes that the terrorists modified (if they didn't modify the genes at all, then this is even less of a problem). Look, my dad's a prof. in biochem and genetics at a Teir 1 research university, so I have some "over-the-dinner-table-talk" type-knowledge about this sort of stuff (as well as a fair bit of personal investigation, aided and abbeted by my father), and I don't think you know how powerful modern genetic analysis techniques are. Combine our ever-increasing ability to rapidly assemble genomes with a genetic database that includes the unmodified precursor genetic material used in its development, and not only would we be able to identify the viral agent quickly, we'd also know exactly how it is different than the original genetic material. No, trust me, we'd be much worse off if these hypothetical terrorists sent a few dozen "martyrs" through the biochem and genetic engineering graduate programs at our research universities and then had them do original research that stayed off the scientific radar.

Portlander said...

Frank:

Please go back and re-read our host's postings on modernity, with respect to his comments on secrecy and openness.

The cure to the coming (and it is coming, just a matter of "when") bio-attack is having a decentralized network of effectively identical researchers who can tackle the problem in parallel. The researchers can't be identical when information isn't shared. The researchers can't be decentralized when only a select group holds all the cards. And there can't be massive parallel research in either case.

It's not like universal information implies a universal threat. A fission bomb requires only a critical mass of appropriate fissionable material. Give someone enough plutonium, and he can wipe out your city. If he is a suicide bomber, he needs nothing else: just bring together the critical mass of fissionable material in a bucket and wait for the afterlife. Almost everything we think of as an atomic bomb is really just a way to keep a critical mass from coming together until the desired time. You can do the same thing by hand, if you need to.

So, it isn't lack of knowledge that is preventing nuclear explosions. Other factors are at work. In bio-warfare, as in nuclear warfare, we will need to rely on (and somehow reinforce) those other factors. Some of which (such as motive and perceived gain) are being addressed in our host's essay(s).

David Brin said...

Sayeth Yngve: "If only we could get the flu viruses to do something FOR us, we'd have a mutually beneficient symbiosis...
;-)"

See my short stoty "The Giving Plague." Reeeelly apropos!

Oh, I don't mind certain types of secrecy or exclusivity for the "protector caste." Certainly specific details of technique, for example. (I also don't want civilians driving tanks around). None of which has anything to do with the fundamentals of:

1 - accountability. The caste (consisting of humans) will naturally try to evade it. Secrecy that evades accountability of policy or behavior is wrong.

2 - empowering an agile, resilient citizenry with whatever tools may be positive-sum, with benefits far outweighing dangers.

"Competency, self-reliance and knowledgeability do not equate morality. The more people have access to genetic knowledge the more often it will be abused. A whole new class of crimes will appear."

This is the logic of the protector caste... and while it can be right in the short term and tactically, here and there, it is dead wrong on a strategic, secular and long term basis. The entire enlightenment experience has shown that empowered citizens become better at RECIPROCAL accountability. A result is that creative efforts are additive while harmful competitive modes to a large extent cancel.

Sayethe Jacare: " When technology evolves to the point where any college graduate with a chip on his soldier and a few thousand bucks can develop a killer virus, the continued existence of our way of life will hinge completely on lightning fast and accurate communication between a wide community of experts. It is better that such a community should be built soon and become accustomed to working together and sharing information."

i could not have said it better. (Frank gets it, too.) This is our only hope. Yes, this is a gamble, but paternalistic protection cannot possibly succeed over the long run.

The difference will ultimately hinge upon the ratio of citizens to sociopaths. Doesn't it ALWAYS hinge on that? All evidence suggests that this ratio HAS BEEN RISING DRAMATICALLY since the enlightenment. Anecdotal evidence of criminality in the past, etc. Plus the steep decline in violent bullying in our schools. Lots of evidence.

Indeed, this ratio is the only reason our cities function at all, with teeny police forces.

Overall, our only chance is that this trend can continue and extend around the world. If so, the RATIO of problem-solvers to would be terrorists will make up for the terrorists' inherent advantage of surprise and momentum. We had better hope so.

And of course, this all hinges around the word "sanity"...

...another topic for this blog...

Doorintosummer said...

Excellent and thought provoking post, Dr. Brin. Among many nuggets o' goodness, I was struck by this:

Because we will never get modernism moving again so long as we give in to a bad habit encouraged by indignation junkies of both left and right - screaming at strawman caricatures of our enemies, instead of engaging those opponents, as they are. Take the fellow you despise most. He (probably) does not envision himself as evil, or even unreasonable. Rather, he feels he is a very likeable and intelligent and generous soul, with a clear bead on what is needed in order for civilization to thrive.

This is pragmatic common sense utterly rejected in political discussion. See our 'enemies' as fellow human beings?! Preposterous! Ridiculous! Treasonous! Mrfl-Kloof! (Means something really nasty in Rigelian.)

I've found that this is most prominently illustrated in anarchist discussion, anarchism being about as radical on the political scale as such things can get, other than totalitarianism, but I don't think they have discussions.

But guess what? Same damn thing. Moronic 'left vs. right' arguments. The leftist anarchists (aka 'True Anarchists', 'Syndicalists', 'An-Socs') raging at the rightist anarchists (aka 'True Anarchists', 'Rothbardians', 'An-Caps') with great fervor and passion and almost no recognition that they are all fellow humans who work for their bread, love their kids, and more than likely refrain from beating up old ladies on the street.

And their differences are almost entirely semantic.

This is my rambling and roundabout way of saying that I quite like your concentrated intellectual attack on the left-right paradigm, and your reframing the debate in terms of modernist vs. nostalgist. :)

It would be a shame if the first intersteller scouting expedition to arrive in Sol System found the Earth a burnt husk and recorded our existence with:

"Curious species. Spent several thousand years arguing semantics based on a physiological bilateral symmetry trait before destroying itself. No legacy of note other than a few footprints on the moon."

I'll be reading and discussing from now on. Wonderful blog. Thanks for taking the time.

Doorintosummer said...

When technology evolves to the point where any college graduate with a chip on his soldier and a few thousand bucks can develop a killer virus, the continued existence of our way of life will hinge completely on lightning fast and accurate communication between a wide community of experts.

But when technology evolves to that point, wouldn't any college graduate without a chip on his shoulder and a few thousand bucks be able to synthesize a defense for said virus, and market it for a low cost?

Wouldn't lightning fast and accurate communication be a given in such a situation?

Technology is not an either/or proposition. As Dr. Brin points out, it revolves around the ratio of sociopath to citizen, as it always has.

And damn Heinlein for ruining me as a kid, but I'm a human race optimist. :P

Tony Fisk said...

I had a look at Frist's paper and, yes, it is a reasonably worded document (although the language, at times, seems more appropriate for the senate floor. OTOH: the 'ev*ln' word, from the heart of the red states!). It suggests no explicit measures, only laying out the problem of emergent diseases and saying that the US should make an effort to do something about it.

Being ignorant of internal American politics, I can't comment on what associates of Frist might explicitly propose...but I get the point.

There are some telling passages which inadvertently play to Brin's theses eg: 'As majority leader, I was in China to study the SARS outbreak at its height and the government’s confused, deceptive and
inadequate response.
' (cf Brin's 'Elsewhere see how I point out that citizens, rather than acting like sheep on 9/11, were the only ones who reacted swiftly, effectively, and got it right, that day.)'. (Well, maybe Frist was thinking about the basic resilience and 'can do' of the US citizen ;-)

Another thing that came through (and I've seen this in other american writers whose heads clearly know better, as does Frist) is a tendency to treat global issues as if America is the only country on Earth. Thus, Frist talks about how stocks of Tamiflu are insufficient to vaccinate the american population, and doesn't mention the more effective response, which is to vaccinate the people of SE Asia to lower the initial contagion rate, thereby buying time.

Moving on from the topic of rampant killer viruses brandishing the Qu'ran meme*, Groklaw posted this article concerning PubPat's Executive Director Dan Ravicher's testimony to the US House of Representatives (Jun 8) on proposed patent reform.

Interesting excerpt that seems to resonate with one of the themes of this posting (italics mine):

'... the interests of the non-patent holding public are almost always absent from any meaningful participation in decision making about the patent system, despite the fact that they bear the brunt of its burdens. The lack of representation of the public's interests is due in part to the fact that the patent community culture tends to dismiss the opinions of those it sees as outsiders, but it is mostly a result of the public not yet realizing how the patent system affects them.'

--------
*Or should that be 'rampant killer memes brandishing Qu'ran viruses'? DB has been talking about 'Jitterbug', and I've just remembered a short story about 'enlightened' but nonetheless devout muslims who reverse encode the word of God into their DNA (as you do: the ultimate mantra, it seems), and then realise that this presents a perfect vector for tailored viruses. I won't spoil it by telling you how they solve their dilemna!
(Sorry! Can't remember the title)

Frank said...

Anonymous:
"and I don't think you know how powerful modern genetic analysis techniques are."

Technology has always been a double-edged sword. Arms races are the natural consequence of this. I'm sure terrorists would love to get their hands on such powerful techniques as you describe... and then we will just have to invent other more powerfull techniques and so on. Meanwhile people die in the streets.

"No, trust me, we'd be much worse off if these hypothetical terrorists sent a few dozen "martyrs" through the biochem and genetic engineering graduate programs at our research universities and then had them do original research that stayed off the scientific radar."

Well, it would limit the number of suspects and their research would only stay under the 'public' radar.

Portlander:
"a decentralized network of effectively identical researchers who can tackle the problem in parallel"

Sounds good, but even a network has its borders. There are people inside the network and people who never get to enter it. Sharing information *within* the network is of course essential, but it doesn't need to go anywhere else. (in time the network may be expanded and encapsulate even the entire population, but slowly not radically)

"Other factors are at work. In bio-warfare, as in nuclear warfare, we will need to rely on (and somehow reinforce) those other factors."

I completely agree.

David Brin:
"This is the logic of the protector caste... and while it can be right in the short term and tactically, here and there, it is dead wrong on a strategic, secular and long term basis."

Ah, the long term... Well, as I am an optimist, who believes in the improvement of mankind, I must agree to this.

Jacare Sorridente said...

Doorintosummer said:
But when technology evolves to that point, wouldn't any college graduate without a chip on his shoulder and a few thousand bucks be able to synthesize a defense for said virus, and market it for a low cost?

Well, this is the hope. Unfortunately, it is almost always easier to destroy things than to protect them. In this case I imagine something rather like computer viruses of today- a hacker releases a virus of some sort which causes a fair amount of damage in the short term. The experts anlyze the virus and release a patch that renders it effectively harmless (for everyone who has easy access to the patch).

David Brin said...

Sayeth Tony: "I've just remembered a short story about 'enlightened' but nonetheless devout muslims who reverse encode the word of God into their DNA (as you do: the ultimate mantra, it seems), and then realise that this presents a perfect vector for tailored viruses. I won't spoil it by telling you how they solve their dilemma!"

Tell us!

Ah but while we theorize...


Buried in the 700-plus page energy bill currently under debate in the U.S. Senate is a provision that provides hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal loan guarantees for a power project apparently to be built by four former Enron executives. One of
the former executives is Thomas White, former head of Enron's retail and energy trading in California during the energy crisis who later served as President Bush's Secretary of the Army.... The federal loan guarantee makes taxpayers responsible for repaying the loan if the company defaults, or if the project ends up not being
economically feasible after its construction.

Meanwhile, the Justice Dept has unilaterally reduced the major federal civil judgement against the Tobacco industry by 90%.

Imagine the howls if a similar level of blatant bribery and corruption had occurred in the Clinton Administration. But this is normal today.

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth Brin:
'Meanwhile, the Justice Dept has unilaterally reduced the major federal civil judgement against the Tobacco industry by 90%.
'


I'd say burn 'em, except it would probably be just what they wanted!

PS: that story is 'Written in Blood' by Chris Lawson. It appears in 'Centaurus: The Best of Australian Science Fiction' (and I believe it originally appeared in Asimov, June 1999). I'll hold off the solution for a bit, other than to say that it is pretty obvious when you look at the problem: I suppose that's what makes it satisfying (I still think it's a strange thing to want to do though!).

Tony Fisk said...

Quoth Brin:
'Buried in the 700-plus page energy bill currently under debate in the U.S. Senate is a provision that provides hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal loan guarantees for a power project apparently to be built by four former Enron executives...'

Let's see:
- hidden away
- jobs for the boys
- public can carrying

Ye-es, I think that covers most of your bases.

Now, for a demonstration of how 'clarification' can become a weasel word, go and google the news for "Philip Cooney".

Of modifications he made to offically approved White house documents:
'The dozens of changes, while sometimes as subtle as the insertion of the phrase "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties", tend to produce an air of doubt about findings that most climate experts say are robust.'

Clarification.

As Simon & Garfunkel said: 'the Man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.'

Meanwhile, some interesting comments on counters to backsliding at WorldChanging

Ken said...

"Well, this is the hope. Unfortunately, it is almost always easier to destroy things than to protect them. In this case I imagine something rather like computer viruses of today- a hacker releases a virus of some sort which causes a fair amount of damage in the short term. The experts anlyze the virus and release a patch that renders it effectively harmless (for everyone who has easy access to the patch). "

Well, more widespread knowledge and access to genetic technology and medical technology would make possible not only faster counermeasures, but cheaper, better, individually owned life support measures to forestall death until (a) the immune system beats the pathogen on its own or (b) countermeasures are made available.

Imagine if, during a flu epidemic, you didn't have to get to overcrowded hospitals and be tended to by overworked doctors, but instead pulled your own life support unit out of your closet and hooked yourself up? That's the kind of decentralized response we're forestalling by our current "leave-it-to-the-professionals" attitude toward medicine.

Also, back to IT for a moment, the platform whose inner workings is proprietary is plagued by viruses, while the platform where everything is open-source may look more vulnerable, but is actually far less susceptible since the knowledge to create quick countermeasures is extremely widespread.

Jacare Sorridente said...

Imagine if, during a flu epidemic, you didn't have to get to overcrowded hospitals and be tended to by overworked doctors, but instead pulled your own life support unit out of your closet and hooked yourself up? That's the kind of decentralized response we're forestalling by our current "leave-it-to-the-professionals" attitude toward medicine.

Also, back to IT for a moment, the platform whose inner workings is proprietary is plagued by viruses, while the platform where everything is open-source may look more vulnerable, but is actually far less susceptible since the knowledge to create quick countermeasures is extremely widespread.


Good analogy. The technology is currently under development to make it cheap and easy to sequence DNA for everyone. The impact for health care could potentially be as big as the advent of the internet for information technology. What it also means is that it could also potentially become cheap and easy to sequence disease causing agents. How cool would it be to pull out your home laboratory, sequence the virus, bacteria or prion that is making you sick and tailor a vaccine or remedy to blow it away? Already we are witnessing a small shift in the way people diagnose their sicknesses based on websites like WebMD. Providing more information for people to make informed decisions sounds like a good idea to me.

Frank said...

"Good analogy" ???

If so can you explain to me why not everybody is writing their own antivirus programmes ? Most people (millions and millions of them) leave that to professionals like Symantec or McAfee. Isn't that because it's just to darned hard ? And genetics doesn't seem any easier to me. Maybe genetic engineering can be automated and we can let machines do all the hard work for us, but can they really compete with human creativity ? Why can't I buy an antivirus programme today that doesn't need any updates or upgrades?

Specialization (which is a synonym for professionalization) has always been a valuable tool to the human race. Different people do different jobs and we all try to work together acknowledging each others value in society. (Well, that's true for most of us anyway)

BTW, testing an antivirus programme for a computersystem is not exactly the same thing as testing a possible cure on a human being. Who will you volunteer to ?

Anonymous said...

Other points of difference are (1) that it's both possible and often desirable to turn the computer off until a cure for the virus is found, and (2) sometimes the cure is to zap the whole system disk and rebuild the system software from scratch. Obviously neither applies in the human realm.

As for the relative general complexities of biological versus computer virology, I think microbiology and genetics in the human case is far more complex, but I can't actually prove it by deriving the two relavent complexity measures, proving that they are comparable, and exhibiting the comparison.

Two interesting web sites and associated books re the computer virus case are:

http://www.peterszor.com/

http://www.cryptovirology.com/

I think an interesting discussion, if someone knew enough about both biology and computer science, might be biological analogs of computer cryptoviruses and polymorphic and [oh, hell why not?] cryptopolymorphic viruses. But that would take us way off the topic of this blog.

OK, so the stuff is hard to do -- duh! But unless I've really missed the whole point, I guess Brin and anyone who generally agrees with him [like me, for instance] has to say something like "OK, so it's hard -- do we throw up our hands and 'abandon ship'? Hell, no -- we solve the problems anyway!"

Joel said...

I think the real benefit of widespread sequencing will be more targeted, rational, and humane quarantine procedures.

For instance, anyone with a natural immunity to HIV can safely go into a plague house, without any risk of bubonic or pneumatic infection. There is a relatively straightforward genetic test for this sort of immunity.

There will likely be countless more examples of analogous traits as our knowledge of contagion increases.

Those of us fortunate to have complete immunity to something (or, less likely, to several things) may feel the need to take a few classes in paramedic procedures. In this case, people to whom the quarantine does not apply (and this will be different for every attack) can go in and do some help. The larger a population we can draw from for such a response, the better off we will be.

Ken said...

"Other points of difference are (1) that it's both possible and often desirable to turn the computer off until a cure for the virus is found, and (2) sometimes the cure is to zap the whole system disk and rebuild the system software from scratch. Obviously neither applies in the human realm. "

Not yet. Turning people loose and letting them play with genetic tools, medical tools, and so forth will make this restriction (and others) more likely to fall to new technologies.

"Most people (millions and millions of them) leave that to professionals like Symantec or McAfee."

Of course these "professionals" needed no permission or license to sell their solutions. They simply needed to prove to the satisfaction of paying customers that they knew what they were doing.

Licensing does nothing other than create shortages and increase the income and status of the licensed class. Forget using laws to force people to "leave it to the professionals" - they're perfectly capable of choosing their own professionals when they have a vested interest in doing so.

Frank said...

"OK, so the stuff is hard to do -- duh!"

I didn't mean that people are not intelligent or creative enough. It's also a matter of what you spend your time, energy and
money on as people only have a limited supply of these resources. The human race generally solves this problem by dividing
tasks between inviduals ergo specialization. All that then remains is holding the specialists accountable for any wrongdoings
they may commit. And that is a task that in the end can not be divided. It's everybodys responsibility.

"Licensing does nothing other than create shortages and increase the income and status of the licensed class."

Getting a license is not easy (or it shouldn't be). It takes an education (hard work for most) and an examination by people who have already proven themselves as skilled and trustworthy. Getting a license granted is a challenge and those who overcome it should be rewarded. I like to think that the most satifying reward is the trust and respect of the community, but for some reason a high salary is prefered by most licensees.

fpoole said...

This post was brilliantly written and on point. Your comment about "extreme" lefties irks me only because the United States is farther to the right than any other Western nation. This inevitably means that the perspective of many Americans on what is "normal" or "centrist" will be significantly to the right of what, f.e., many Swedes may think of the same. I don't think Ralph Nader is a good example of the left wing in any case, but rather he is proof that the United States doesn't have a real left wing at all.