Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Move 'em on. Head 'em out. Rawhide!

You got it: a round-up post. Three newsworthy (not to mention, eclectic) observations on matters of science and technology ...

Circuses (we're out of bread)
Last May I ranted about the slow, lingering death of any American space program (see "Crocodile cheers"). In particular, I admitted, "I've progressed from bemused to troubled to angry at the spate of breathless headlines heralding some 'final' activity of a space shuttle." Last week saw new breathless coverage about the Washington DC flyover bringing the shuttle Discovery to its final resting place at the Smithsonian.

Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer gets it. From his essay last week, "Farewell, the New Frontier," here is the opening passage:
As the space shuttle Discovery flew three times around Washington, a final salute before landing at Dulles airport for retirement in a museum, thousands on the ground gazed upward with marvel and pride. Yet what they were witnessing, for all its elegance, was a funeral march.
The shuttle was being carried — its pallbearer, a 747 — because it cannot fly, nor will it ever again. It was being sent for interment. Above ground, to be sure. But just as surely embalmed as Lenin in Red Square.
Is there a better symbol of willed American decline? The pity is not Discovery’s retirement — beautiful as it was, the shuttle proved too expensive and risky to operate — but that it died without a successor ....
The full essay is spot-on, eloquent, and well worth the read. 

And now on to a completely different topic ...

In case of hacking, push here
The world has seen years of cyber skirmishes: see my January 2011 post, Cyber War. In the interest of avoiding an all-out cyber conflict -- at least an accidental one -- it has been reported that US and China engage in cyber war games. From the article in the UK paper The Guardian, a noteworthy snippet:
"China has come to the conclusion that the power relationship has changed, and it has changed in a way that favours them," said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow and director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) thinktank in Washington.
"The PLA [People's Liberation Army] is very hostile. They see the US as a target. They feel they have justification for their actions. They think the US is in decline.
The war games have been organised through the CSIS and a Beijing thinktank, the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. This has allowed government officials, and those from the US intelligence agencies, to have contact in a less formal environment.
And also:
The need for the meetings has been underlined in recent months as the US and the UK have tried to increase pressure on China, which they regard as chiefly responsible for the theft of billions of dollars of plans and intellectual property from defence manufacturers, government departments, and private companies at the heart of America's national infrastructure.

Analysts say this amounts to "preparation of the battlefield", and both the UK and the US have warned Beijing to expect retaliation if it continues.
Shape of breakfasts to come?
And to conclude today's post, this time drawing from the Associated Press, I note that the ever-proactive (not!) FDA proposes rules for nanotechnology in food.

Why the snarky parenthetical? Because in 2008, in the nonfiction article "Follow the Nanobrick Road" (originally in Analog; now, updated, in Frontiers of Space, Time, and Thought), I wrote:
Toxicologists are starting to consider effects unique to the nanoscale.  For example, it’s been noted that materials long deemed safe could never before—until formed into nanoparticles—reach the most sensitive parts of the lungs.  The Environmental Protection Agency recently asserted the authority to regulate—as pesticides—the nanoscale silver particles some new clothes washers release to kill bacteria.
During a conference lunch, an insurance-industry representative brought up asbestos.  Asbestos is a useful material whose health implications (asbestosis and mesothelioma) went unrecognized for decades.  Related health science was behind the curve.  Insurers were taken entirely by surprise.  Class-action suits bred like, well, poorly designed replicators.  Dozens of companies somehow linked to asbestos went bankrupt, some perhaps deservedly, but others perhaps the victims of junk science and improper litigation.

Let’s hope nanopollutants aren’t this century’s version of the asbestos surprise.
It should be no great leap (I think ) to speculate that nanoscale particles in food might be metabolized -- or find their way through intestinal walls or past the blood-brain barrier -- in ways or degrees that differ from food more traditionally processed.

As an author, I often write about nanotech, including nanotech-based food synthesizers (don't leave your home solar system without one). So: I'm not predicting that nanoparticles in food will cause health issues. Nanotech-produced, -enriched, and  -preserved food may even prove to be health boons. I'm simply saying We Don't Know -- and that we should have had some inkling by now.

I may develop a Cassandra complex.

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