Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tidbits from the Economist

During my long plane flights this week, I used some of my time to catch up on reading back issues of The Economist. Here were a few of the stories I found particularly interesting in the January 6-12, 2007 issue:

"Medicine at the Top of the World"
(p. 65):
LYING in an intensive-care ward is a world away from climbing Everest, but a connection will be drawn this spring when 45 scientists and 208 volunteers tackle the mountain to bring back information about oxygen deprivation. The reason they are going is that hypoxia (a lack of oxygen in cells, which can lead to death) is the one thing that links practically all patients in intensive-care wards—and there is no better place to study it than in the thin air of the world's highest mountain.
The story describes the Xtreme Everest expedition, which will take 250 people up Mount Everest, setting up mobile labs at various elevations to study hypoxia. The volunteers will climb up to 5,300 meters, and 16 climber-scientists will ascend to the summit to become the first to have blood drawn at the top of the world's tallest mountain.

The research will be used to try to identify the genetic basis of people's ability to handle hypoxia, which couldn't be easily be conducted on patients in intensive care due to not having enough of them in one place at the right time.

"The logic of privacy" (pp. 65-66):

A group of computer scientists at Stanford University, led by John Mitchell, has started to address the problem in a novel way. Instead of relying on rigid (and easily programmable) codes of what is and is not acceptable, Dr Mitchell and his colleagues Adam Barth and Anupam Datta have turned to a philosophical theory called contextual integrity. This theory acknowledges that people do not require complete privacy. They will happily share information with others as long as certain social norms are met. Only when these norms are contravened—for example, when your psychiatrist tells the personnel department all about your consultation—has your privacy been invaded. The team think contextual integrity can be used to express the conventions and laws surrounding privacy in the formal vernacular of a computer language.

Contextual integrity, which was developed by Helen Nissenbaum of New York University, relies on four classes of variable. These are the context of a flow of information, the capacities in which the individuals sending and receiving the information are acting, the types of information involved, and what she calls the “principle of transmission”.

I'm always interested in the intersection of philosophy and information security, since the former was my field of undergraduate and graduate study, while the latter is my profession. The article briefly describes how Adam Barth is attempting to apply linear temporal logic to codify conditions of information transmission into rules that can be used by computers.

"In praise of mess"
(p. 69):

This is a book review of Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman's book, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. The Economist reviewer admits to the bias of having "easily the most untidy" office at the magazine, and I have a similar bias. The book argues for the benefits of disorder and procrastination, and the reviewer notes that the authors "are witheringly contemptuous of the bogus equation of tidiness and morality--for example in corporate 'clean desk' policies." Yet the reviewer notes that the book overstates its case ("the case for tidiness in some environments--surgery, a dinner table or income tax returns--is really overwhelming") and suffers from repetition and disorganization that reduce the pleasure of reading the book. The reviewer concludes: "Even readers who love mess in their own lives don't necessarily like it in others."

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