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The Amazing Angela Belcher
I was happy to see “Adventures on the Intellectual Playground” in the November/December 2013 issue. The article was a perfect encapsulation of the amazing person that is Angela Belcher. Having earned my PhD in her lab, I can attest that she’s a great collaborator who is very receptive to other researchers’ ideas. She is also willing to pursue research in areas beyond her lab’s core expertise, which makes her lab a fantastic place to work.

In the end, she’s more interested in what the impact is going to be, rather than what field it is or what the sets of knowledge are.

Roberto Barbero, PhD ’12
Washington, D.C.

Water That Doesn’t Just Look Clean
Reading Kate Clopeck’s article on the work of her nonprofit cleaning up water in Ghana in the November/December 2013 issue was a pleasure (“Ghana’s Water Women”). It’s an excellent project, and it’s great to see things being done properly, with both the health and financial well-being of the locals equally in mind.

It instantly brought to mind my own trip to Ghana in 2002. Not far from the city of Kumasi, in a village that was beside a small lake yet lacked a water supply, I watched drinking water being cleaned up with a sponge. Nothing more than a bath sponge squashed into a big plastic funnel.

Or at least the budding entrepreneur preparing “ice water” for sale thought he was purifying it, simply by passing the source water (from what source I don’t want to know) through a tattered, discolored sponge before bagging it up in small plastic bags and tying them off with a knot. For sale—without floating twigs and leaves at least—for not very much money. It goes without saying, I didn’t drink that water. Maybe well-trained Ghanaian stomachs can tolerate the bacteria, parasites, and other nasties that it surely contains, but for those who can’t, Ghana also has bagged-up “pure water”—the two varieties found everywhere, side by side.

Pure water has been cleaned up and packaged professionally, in packages sealed by machines rather than with balloon knots. But that makes pure water expensive by local standards, so now it’s great that Kate is able to offer pure-water quality at ice-water prices. That’s going to help a lot of people, and not only the women selling it.

I guess it won’t do a lot for bath sponge sales, but we needn’t worry too much about that. The ice-water entrepreneur wasn’t doing much for sponge sales either, with the ugly state of that thing. More important, he wasn’t doing a lot for the health of his customers. If only pathogenic bacteria were a lot more visible. Fortunately, Kate’s Water Women are surely helping to get the word out.

Anthony England, PhD ’95
Utrecht, the Netherlands

The Swartz Report
It seems clear from some of the comments [posted on the MIT Technology Review website in response to Hal Abelson’s column on the Aaron Swartz Report (“The Lessons of Aaron Swartz,” November/December 2013)] that there are drastically different viewpoints on some fundamental issues, such as “What is stealing?”

Comments range from “information should be free” to “stealing articles is like stealing someone’s credit card information.”

For perspective, I offer this viewpoint:

“There’s a battle going on right now. A battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading the webpage over and over again like a peaceful, virtual sit-in? Or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom [to] connect like freedom of speech? Or like the freedom to murder?” —Aaron Swartz

Scott H. Williams
Omaha, Nebraska


After reading Hal Abelson’s column about the Aaron Swartz report, I note that my son, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia, has to submit two papers (20 to 50 pages each) as part of his capstone project, which is similar to a bachelor’s thesis. One paper is to be on the technology underlying his research, and the other on the societal implications. Perhaps that’s an approach worth considering.

We often have discussions in my family regarding not only whether we can do something, but whether we should. (With website tracking, for example, I still find it somewhat creepy the amount of information that advertisers must have about me, judging from the suggestions I receive.)

I remember my time with Professor Weizenbaum (Computer Power and Human Reason is still on my shelf), when we used to ask those kinds of questions.

Thanks for your work here.

Karl Nyberg ’79, SM ’81
Sterling, Virginia

 

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