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Your thoughts about the memory of the state, genetic obesity, and more
September 1, 2005

Letters from our Readers

Fading Memory
In his article (“The Fading Memory of the State,” July 2005), David Talbot writes, “Saving the text of e-mail messages is technically easy; the challenge lies in managing a vast volume and saving only what’s relevant. It’s important, for example, to save the e-mails of major figures like cabinet members and White House personnel without also bequeathing to history trivial messages in which mid-level bureaucrats make lunch arrangements.”

Even assuming the existence of a politically neutral way to mark certain messages as unworthy of archiving, this seems like a really bad idea to me. Historians and archaeologists have extracted understanding of policy, culture, and daily life from such minutiae from ancient Mesopotamia forward. Those lunch arrangements could someday shed light on shifting alliances within a bureaucracy or a change in the status – as marked by the watering hole – of a bureaucrat. They could even offer a statistical test of the “late-night pizza” hypothesis about government war planning and other major policy initiatives.

Even given the enormous volumes, it seems only sensible to keep as much data and metadata as possible, and to figure out how best to use and display it as it becomes of interest, rather than to circumscribe the archive before anyone even knows what uses future generations will make of it.

Paul Wallich
Montpelier, VT

I enjoyed David Talbot’s article but was surprised that there was no mention of the ongoing court battles with the National Archives over electronic-record retention. As a District of Columbia resident, I have followed the occasional articles in the Washington Post about this litigation over the past decade or so. Exclusion of this aspect of federal electronic-record retention issues was a notable omission from what was otherwise an excellent piece.

Scott W. Langill
Washington, DC

Genetic Obesity?
It is plausible that obesity has some genetic roots (“Wired to Eat,” July 2005). However, it is irresponsible to imply that the obesity epidemic in this country might, in any significant part, be related to genes. It is akin to walking into a room of smokers, discovering that a couple of them are genetically prone to lung cancer, and blaming the cancer on genes. It’s very possible that some people are more prone to being obese, just as some are more prone to getting cancer. In a small percentage of people, these genes are probably more significant than environmental factors, and those people may have little control over their situation. But for most of us, eating healthy and exercising are enough to keep obesity in check. However, in a world where people will fight over a parking spot 50 feet closer to a store entrance, the news that obesity is caused by genes will simply be another excuse not to walk that extra 50 feet to McFatty’s Hamburgers.

Jim Tierney
San Francisco, CA

Digital Properties
The debate about intellectual property (“Who Will Own Ideas?” June 2005) reminds me of the time when all inventions were owned by the English crown or by individual inventors in the United States. This distinction propelled the U.S. creativity force, to which some attribute the current world status of these two countries. Behind the invention surge is the entrepreneurial spirit – that is, the hope of financial reward. The work of Star Wars: Revelations is neither original, creative, nor financially risky. It is, rather, parasitical. It would not exist but for the work of others – work that cost a lot of money and carried a huge risk.

Jose F. Solis
Atlanta, GA

Pong Redux
Cell-phone games that detect motion (“Pong Redux,” July 2005) are not the only gaming applications of that concept. There is a game by Nintendo that does much the same thing. Players of Nintendo’s WarioWare Twisted control the action on the screen by tilting or turning a handheld console, due to motion sensors in the cartridge. In addition, IBM ThinkPads with motion sensors have been hacked so that the same concept can be used to play PC games and navigate the operating system.

Josh Jidov
Las Vegas, NV

Second-Mover Advantage
Jason Pontin’s editorial raised the question about “second-mover advantage” (“The Rules of Innovation,” May 2005). There is no question that this exists. Look at electricity: it was Tesla’s later idea of AC power – not Edison’s original DC technology – that prevailed. One can’t easily predict which market will respond to technology or where the future leverage will be. Take maglev trains. This technology has been tried and rejected for economic reasons. For a new train technology to make economic sense, it must be compatible with existing tracks. Moreover, maglev has not proven to be anywhere near cost competitive with conventional steel rail. I guess the second-mover advantage goes to wheels and axles and to those who stuck with them and kept developing that technology.

Lloyd Weaver
Harpswell, ME

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