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Letters From Our Readers

October 20, 2008

Political Cover
Before even getting into my current issue of Technology Review, I am gravely disappointed to see an unmistakable signal of political favoritism. The cover of the September/­October issue featuring Senator Barack Obama, the article on his campaign’s Web strategy, and the profile of his economic advisor Austan ­Goolsbee combine to form a clear message: Technology Review is a liberal rag. I read further and now see that Obama is at “the brink of the presidency” and that he’s “a new kind of presidential candidate.” Posing as innocuous subheaders, these sound bites are consistent with Obama’s campaign rhetoric. Such favoritism has no place in your magazine: it is inconsistent with your mission.
Ben Pember
Spartanburg, SC

Editor in chief Jason Pontin responds:
With great respect, Technology Review is neither liberal nor a rag. We are not political partisans. As for the stories to which you object, they were legitimate subjects for us: Senator Obama’s campaign made novel use of emerging social technologies, and Austan ­Goolsbee is a technology-­inspired, MIT-trained econo­mist who made his name thinking about the Internet. Finally, whatever else the senator may be as I write these words in October, he is certainly at the brink of the presidency (he is, after all, the Democratic nominee), and he certainly is, for reasons such as his race, a new kind of candidate.

Austan Goolsbee
I enjoyed reading Mark Williams’s thoughtful portrait of Austan ­Goolsbee (“Obama’s Geek Economist,” September/­October 2008), which was several cuts above typical profiles of “great” men. Austan is indeed skilled and has sensible economic priorities. The problem that any economist faces in the political arena is this: economics is fundamentally about balancing trade-offs among competing objectives (e.g., better schools vs. lower taxes), whereas U.S. political debate is largely about telling voters that there are no trade-offs. Mainstream economists believe in the virtue of free markets. Mainstream politicians appear to believe in free lunches–and their economic advisors adopt this view. Hence, the essential qualification for a presidential economic advisor should not be economic genius alone but also strength of character–a commitment to telling the president that we cannot get something for nothing. If Austan’s resolve to speak truth to power is even roughly equal to his intellect, he will be an excellent advisor.
David Autor
Professor, MIT Department of Economics
Newton, MA

Obama’s Social Network
As president of the Voter Genome Project, I was interested to read political strategist Joe Trippi’s views on Barack Obama’s campaign, as reported by David ­Talbot (“How He Really Did It,” September/October 2008). In large part because of the technology-­friendly nature of Obama’s younger, better-­educated supporters, his campaign used Web tools to gain an edge in fund-raising. However, we have seen ­little evidence that this effort pulled in voters who would not have voted for Obama otherwise. Furthermore, the focus on social-networking tools has contributed to a lack of concern for a national voter database that is failing badly.
Ron Turiello
Redwood City, CA

Innovator of the Year
JB Straubel is a good pick for Innovator of the Year for his work on the electric Tesla Roadster (“The TR35,” September/October 2008). Years ago, AC Propulsion wanted to hire JB, but business was down, so we couldn’t. I recommended him to Tesla cofounder Martin Eberhard, and Martin had the good sense to hire him. We helped Tesla by lending it our lithium-ion-battery Tzero electric sports car and providing patents on motor and inverter designs. Tesla has since developed impressive engineering capability. After 16 years of developing electric vehicles and drive systems, AC Propulsion is doing well: we’ll deliver more drive systems than Tesla this year. But JB’s innovations could put Tesla ahead in 2009.
Tom Gage
President and CEO, AC Propulsion
Sunnyvale, CA

Technology in the Operating Room
Neurosurgeon Katrina Firlik’s essay on the difficulty of overcoming the “fiddle factor” inherent in medical technology (“A Messy Art,” July/August 2008) will be required reading at our company, a developer of intraoperative MRI systems. Out of concern for the safety of their patients, surgeons are often wary of new, unfamiliar tools and methods. For this reason, the medical-equipment industry must make sure its equipment features intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces.
Stephen G. Hushek
Milwaukee, WI

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