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Letters: April 2001

Letters from the April 2001 issue.

Apr 1, 2001 6:00 AMMay 9, 2023 6:29 PM


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Paying the Piper Jaron Lanier's commentary on copying music files from the Internet ["A Love Song for Napster," February] is fundamentally wrongheaded. He holds up the big media companies as villains, but nothing could be further from the truth. Companies and artists have a right to demand payment for their work; denying them that right is stealing. Lanier seems to believe that just because technology makes something possible, it should be legal. That's a slippery slope. The idea that we should throw out several hundred years of copyright protection law because hackers can crack security codes is identical to the notion that we should throw out the concept of private property simply because burglars can break into houses and steal things. The appropriate remedy for illegally copying copyrighted material is to have music and video content covered as software under the 1997 No Electronic Theft Act. A few highly publicized convictions of particularly egregious offenders would squelch 90 percent of the behaviors Lanier presents as faits accomplis and preserve the right of creative people to be paid for their work.

Geoffrey James Hollis, New Hampshire

Jaron Lanier responds: I certainly do not propose that we abandon intellectual property law. The entertainment industry hopes for absolute control of information now that it's technically possible, while I argue for a nuanced balance of the kind we see in patent law: Artists would own the material and control its commercial use in exchange for sharing their output with the general public. This means you could listen to someone's music for free, but you couldn't include it in any commercial activity. Anyone who benefits financially from reusing someone else's materials would not fall into this category. Will there be any commercial music if files can be freely shared? Of course. Most of the time people will pay manageable fees or in some way engage in commerce in exchange for music without a lot of hassle. It's up to the market to find the right formula. I will say that many of my musician friends are doing better financially now because they are being forced to become more entrepreneurial, and it turns out they're good at it.

Heated Debate The problem with John Christy ["The Gospel According to John," February] is not religion. It is his willingness to utilize his expertise as an atmospheric scientist on global warming as a platform from which to make pronouncements about issues he does not understand. The model of energy use Christy recommends for third-world countries is by no means "cheap." One needs only to look at Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to see that revealed in the extreme. A relatively small investment in solar technology could easily render electricity generation from the sun price-competitive even in the industrialized world. And it would cost much less in countries like Kenya, where the true price of implementing capital-intensive energy consumption like coal-fired plants is the cost of directing scarce resources away from more socially productive uses, such as education and health care.

Ron Hodges Montgomery Village, Maryland

John Christy responds: In poor countries, burning wood for energy destroys forests, contributes to erosion, is inefficient, and emits toxic pollution. Women, mostly, do the chopping and hauling. Solar power is expensive, unreliable in places like Kenya with rainy seasons and considerable cloudiness, and requires large deforested areas. Cheap energy creates economic, educational, and health care opportunities, along with the enfranchisement of women. Relatively clean power plants burning fossil fuels today— and something better tomorrow— are feasible now.

Additionally, there is one thing I would like to correct: The article's subtitle says I insist that "there's no such thing as global warming." In fact I have said publicly that Earth's temperature has risen, and that I think part of the 20th-century warming is most likely human-induced.

Save the Whales "Sea Sick" [February] made me recall the time I had my parents buy me an "orca adoption" kit. The whale I was sent (figuratively speaking) was named "Granny," and she was the matriarch of one of four sub-pods in the J pod. I had been curious to see how "my" whale had survived the six years that have passed since I last received information on her, and I was immensely relieved to see that she was still alive. Included in the whale adoption kit was a picture of her dorsal fin, so I am confident it is the same animal. Unfortunately, her daughter "Sissy" (J12) has since passed. I encourage you to print the Web address of the Whale Museum so that more families can have the opportunity to adopt an orca and support research and education to end whaling and poaching. [Editor's note: See www.whale-museum.org/adopt.html.]

Tricia Mitchell Johnstown, Pennsylvania

The Battle Over El Dorado The first on your list of "the most thought-provoking and important science books of the year" ["The Year in Science," January] is Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon by Patrick Tierney. This is not a "science book." It is a work of questionable journalism. Tierney alleges, among other things, that the recently deceased geneticist James Neel exacerbated a measles epidemic among the Yanomamo in order to test a eugenic theory. Anyone can consult the National Academy of Sciences' Web site (http://national-academies.org/ nas/eldorado), however, for evidence that this and other allegations are thoroughly false and reckless.

William Irons Professor of Anthropology Northwestern University Evanston, Illinois

You appropriately identify Darkness in El Dorado as one of the most thought-provoking books of the year. Indeed it has provoked numerous investigations in Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States, including one by the American Anthropological Association. If any of the allegations in the book hold, then in the opinion of many this is the ugliest scandal in the history of anthropology. Patrick Tierney alleges scientism, careerism, and egotism to an extreme that included numerous and diverse violations of the professional ethics of anthropology over several decades, which in turn resulted in serious human rights abuses of the Yanomamo. Because some of Tierney's allegations and criticisms have been made before on several occasions by different combinations of anthropologists and indigenous persons, including the Yanomamo, they simply cannot be ignored or readily dismissed by partisans.

Leslie E. Sponsel Department of Anthropology University of Hawaii Honolulu, Hawaii

Out, Out, Damned Spot "Rocket Science and Art Restoration" [January] was an exciting article. I am pleased that atomic oxygen is being used to restore priceless works of art, but human beings are far more valuable. Is it possible to use atomic oxygen in dermatology processes to remove birthmarks, scars, and perhaps tattoos? There are many people who would gladly pay to have these kinds of marks removed. If atomic oxygen can work on paintings, why not on people?

Gerry Forbes Bangkok, Thailand

Bruce Banks, chief, electro-physics branch, NASA Glenn Research Center, responds: We have, in fact, explored the possibility of using atomic oxygen to remove skin lesions but have found that the process is too slow to be practical for safe use on human tissue. Some heating is associated with the process as well as the formation of ozone, which would make it difficult to safely remove moles, birthmarks, tattoos, or scars. We could cool the atomic oxygen beam, but the length of exposure needed would increase, and ozone exposure would become a problem. This may be resolved in the future, but for now it remains a problem needing a solution.

The Long and the Short of It "The Year in Science" [January] was fascinating and informative, but I have a question regarding an apparent discrepancy in the genetics section. On page 51, an illustration shows chromosomes "ordered by length from the largest (chromosome 1) to the smallest (chromosome 22 in humans)." Yet on page 59, one of the year's highlights describes a panel of scientists who published "the completed sequence of chromosome 21, the smallest of all the human chromosomes." After a bit of research, I learned that chromosome 22 is the second smallest chromosome and that 21 is indeed the smallest. Therefore, the graphic on page 51 would be inaccurate. It seems obvious that the numbering of the chromosomes was done according to descending size, but 21 and 22 throw a wrench into this lineup. Was it simply that further study proved chromosome 21, originally thought larger than 22, to be smaller?

Kelly Bumbarger Westlake Village, California

Reporter Rabiya S. Tuma responds: You're an astute reader. The length of chromosome 21 is 44,524,000 base pairs, while the length of chromosome 22 is 47,205,000 base pairs. The chromosomes in the karyotype were numbered decades ago based on microscope observations and the chromosomes' apparent size. Based on those observations, 22 was thought to be the smallest. Now that we have sequencing technology and higher resolution microscopes, it is possible to see that 21 is the smallest.

Fantastic Voyage The article "Lights, Camera, Guts" ["The Year in Science," January] caught my attention. Had I not read about such a photographic venture some time earlier? A check of my library revealed a remarkable book: Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera by George S. Chappell, published in 1930 by the Frederick Stokes Company of New York. The book is a comical record of the adventures of four individuals, including a cameraman, who explore and carefully document the sights and perils of the body's internal organs. One feature described is the Great Divide of the Diaphragm, which was encountered after "coasting at lightning speed down into Cardiac Bay."

Richard Randall Washington, D.C.

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