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Letters from our readers.
December 1, 2005

Digital Cartography

Your excellent cover story (“Killer Maps,” October 2005) captured the developing landscape of competition between the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo over new location-based browsing, searching, and visualization. It’s appropriate you began the article by describing the highly interactive nature of Google Earth and its 3-D interface for showing the earth.

Although mapping applications like Microsoft’s Virtual Earth and Yahoo Maps have APIs for customization, Google Earth uses a standardized XML-like interface allowing both simple and complex database enhancements, which tens of thousands of people have used to share many new innovative data sources, among them 3-D flight tracking, spread of avian flu, and collections of panorama images.
Frank Taylor
Raleigh, NC

Digital cartography, because it offers the ability to give title to land, may prove especially beneficial to the poor. The principal havens for illicit activities are, after all, poor nations, where criminals and terrorists frequently take land that is not theirs. Modern cartography technology could be used in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Peru to better see how land is being used. This would aid not only in helping to establish basic rule of law but also with efforts to move farmers away from cultivating narcotics, since new cultivations could be detected within days, if not hours.
Walton Cook
Boalsburgh, PA

Food Fight

I read your editor’s letter on sous vide and other new cooking techniques with interest (“Technology and Hypercuisine,” October 2005). But I think Dry Creek Kitchen chef Michael Voltaggio is mistaken when he says, “But chefs and diners got bored….Now that people can buy restaurant-quality grills and ovens, anyone can braise veal cheeks. I want people to ask, ‘How did he do that?’”

The question is really, Why did he do that? I have eaten at Chez Panisse on a regular basis since its opening 25 years ago and have yet to see the same menu twice. Its chefs have come and gone, but as Pontin says in his column, what has remained is founder Alice Waters’s insistence on the use of “fresh, seasonal foods” that are “simply but perfectly prepared.”

I might stop at Voltaggio’s restaurant one of these days, but I won’t make a special trip, even though I often bicycle in that neighborhood. I will, however, be eating at Chez Panisse tonight, and I anticipate a wonderful dinner, one derived from an aesthetic of simplicity rather than one of complexity.
David Nasatir
Berkeley, CA

As the holder of a food handler’s license in Multnomah County, OR, I can tell you that if an inspector from the state of Oregon came into a restaurant and found food being kept “hot” at 58 degreesC, he would cite the establishment for not maintaining a temperature of 60 degreesC or greater for hot food. Until the law is changed to reflect sous vide, I do not think the inspector would be swayed to approve that temperature.
Michael Kay
Portland, OR

The End of Cheap Oil

Bryant Urstadt’s review of James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency pits one man making a living from writing against another (“The Get-Ready Men,” October 2005). Kunstler’s popular tome offers the worst-case scenario of the world minus cheap oil, the production of which was long predicted to peak between 2000 and 2010 by the late geologist M. King Hubbert. But Urstadt’s muddling-through scenario is hardly an adequate response. He himself admits that the bell-shaped curve of fossil fuel availability may well spell trouble, including social unrest of unprecedented proportions. The trouble may turn out to be serious, indeed. It may lead to a bell-shaped curve of human population, too. The flexibility and creativity of humanity, which Urstadt invokes in his review, may be of little solace to those at the tail end of that curve, let alone to those at its collapsing bulge.
Ranko Bon
Motovun, Croatia

The U.S. government has recently announced that it would use some or all of our strategic oil reserves to alleviate the shortages that have been brought upon us by Hurricane Katrina. I am writing to suggest that this should only be a first step in the managing of the strategic reserve.

What better time could there be than now to focus our long-range planning by taking advantage of existing technology and funding its improvement? Using a test portion of our 400-year supply of coal and/or the 600-year supply of shale, we could refill, say, 25 percent of the reserve by means of technologies created by Germany during World War II, and used by South Africa after the war.

While in the 1970s the cost of such a conversion process was not competitive with the price of crude (around $14 per barrel), the cost of a barrel has now reached $70. Cost discrepancy, therefore, should no longer be an issue, and thus immediate attention would be invaluable to our country for both the short and long term.
Gerard Mosseri Marlio
Marion, MA

Debating Immortality

In February 2005, we published “Do You Want to Live Forever?,” a cover story by physician and writer Sherwin Nuland that took a skeptical view of the claims of Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biologist at the University of Cambridge who believes human aging can be “fixed.” What follows is a letter to de Grey, care of our editor, from Richard Miller, a professor of pathology at the University of Michigan and a biogerontologist.

Dear Aubrey,

I saw you on TV the other day and was hoping that now that the aging problem has been solved, you might have time to help me in my publicity campaign to solve a similar engineering challenge: the problem of producing flying pigs.

A theoretical analysis of the problem shows that there are only seven reasons why pigs cannot, at present, fly:

1. They do not have wings.

2. They are too heavy to get off

the ground.

3. The so-called “law” of gravity.

4. They cannot climb trees.

5. Hair, instead of feathers.

6. They do not wish to fly.

7. They do not tweet.

Although I have been too busy in my day job to find time to work in a laboratory, I have been able to show clearly that these problems can be solved, using an approach I call Plan for Engineered Porcine Aviation, or PEPA.

1. No wings: Genetic engineering will be used to alter Hox-box promoters and micro-RNA gene enhancers to reactivate the pre-wing somite program. A dab of stem cell therapy might help here, too.

2. Too heavy: Although the average pig cell is a chunky 20 microns in diameter, microbiologists have recently documented free-living organisms as small as .8 microns in diameter. By the inverse-cube law, a reduction in mean cell diameter of 25 will lead to a reduction in volume of 253 = 15,625, with a corresponding drop in pig weight.

3. Gravity problem: This one’s easy. Move the pig to Phobos, one of the low-gravity satellites of Mars, where people are going anyway.

4. Can’t climb trees: Who says pigs cannot climb trees? Because so far most of their food has been placed in troughs or in the undergrowth of French forests, pigs have not previously been motivated to climb trees.

5. No feathers: The Drosophila antennapedia gene (for which a Nobel Prize was recently awarded) allows the transformation of bristles into legs or antennas.

6. Lack of motivation: Easy – LSD.

7. Tweet problem: Implantable helium sacs, just under the armpits, so whenever they flap their wings helium gets squirted into their vocal cavities.

Although each of these strategies is based upon sound scientific precedent or fantasy, nonetheless some of my conservative critics here on the local faculty have argued that no one has yet proven that any one of these methods has been shown to convert porkers to parakeets. But no one has yet tried all seven of them together, don’t you see!

Amazing though it may seem, I believe that we are now at what I call a “cusp” in the history of either porki-culture or -aviation or both. Pigs born before April 14, 2009, will be destined to a life on the ground, rooting about for scraps, grunting unpleasantly, and constantly getting their curly little tails entangled in low-lying shrubs. Pigs born after April 15, 2009 (or perhaps a few days later), will in contrast waft lazily through the lambent skies, tweeting merry greetings to one another, nibbling at the occasional air truffle, and enjoying panoramic views of either Cambridge or Phobos, depending.

Aubrey de Grey declined our offer to print a short response. Find his full response here.

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