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Insights and opinions from our readers.

Surveillance Nation

In “Surveillance Nation” (TR April 2003), Dan Farmer and Charles C. Mann write this chilling sentence: “But the rise of omnipresent surveillance will be driven as much by ordinary citizens’ understandable-even laudable-desires for security, control, and comfort as by the imperatives of business and government.” It is understandable, yes; but in what sense is it laudable?

Daniel Stroock
Cambridge, MA

Rocket Planes

The aerospace industry (“Countdown for Rocket Planes”, TR April 2003) must convince the public that it represents a resource to be strengthened and not a profit-grabbing industry that diverts national resources from more important endeavors. While the industry possesses advanced technology resources to help solve many of our social and civil problems, this is only part of what must continue to be a balanced application of science and technology. If this balance is to be achieved, the ingenious aerospace chiefs have to find ways to direct more of their skills to down-to-earth problems, and the government will have to scratch up more resources to retain their workers. I write as a former insider in this industry: I was a senior scientist at Lockheed Engineering and Management Service.

Jordan C. Fan
Upper Marlboro, MD

Paperless Medicine

Electronic medical records would be a godsend, but they have remained impossible to achieve (“Paperless Medicine,” TR April 2003). First, a doctor needs to sign off on everything that comes in, and information is easier to process on paper than on a computer. Second, paper documents need to be scanned into a system, which is expensive. Ideally, each document would carry a universally formatted tag encoding its identity. However, there are no standard machine-readable markers for documents to code the identity of the patient, the type of document, and its source. Solve these problems, make the system work with accurate freestyle voice recognition, keep the cost down, and the industry will have a winner.

Jeffrey L. Kaufman
Springfield, MA

Life Made to Order

We should be concerned about potential effects of creating new or chimeric organisms using novel, synthetic DNA (“Life Made to Order,” TR April 2003). We don’t want to realize in 50 years that we inadvertently created new classes of compounds that accumulate in the biosphere because no naturally occurring organism can metabolize them. Consider the pesticides that, decades later, turned out to be hormones in most animals, as well as in the insects originally targeted.

Duncan Rhodes
Cerrillos, NM

Writing Software Right

The article “Writing Software Right” (TR April 2003) missed the boat. Not once does the article mention the design portion of software creation-the most time- and cost-saving point at which to catch structural bugs. The article ends by quoting a Microsoft employee who suggests that poor software quality is due to a lack of testing tools. This is absolutely incorrect. One can’t slap code together willy-nilly, subject it to some testing tools right before a production release (no matter how good the testing tools are), and then expect the code to be bug free while meeting the user’s requirements.

Carrie M. Smith
Delaware, OH

Big Ivory Takes License

Columnist Seth Shulman advocates radical changes in the licensing practices of U.S. universities (“Big Ivory Takes License,” TR April 2003). He compares the license income of academia with that of IBM, praises the fact that IBM primarily licenses nonexclusively, and based on a single lawsuit concludes that universities shouldn’t grant exclusive licenses on the patents they create. Shulman ignores the fact that his approach was tried for 30 years-and didn’t work. Only since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 have universities been free to license their patents on terms appropriate to each invention. New industries have been built on academic research. Let’s not return to the dark ages.

Ashley J. Stevens
Director, Office of Technology Transfer
Boston University
Boston, MA

Correction: In the April 2003 article “Surveillance Nation,” we misstated the relationship between exabytes and gigabytes. In fact, 200 exabytes equals 200 billion gigabytes.

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