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Letters from Our Readers

October 20, 2009

Alarming Innovation
Our profile of TR35 Innovator of the Year Kevin Fu (“2009 Young Innovators under 35,” September/October 2009) explored the possibility that a hacker could interfere with the implantable cardioverter defibrillators that are designed to stop heart attacks in cardiac patients. One reader wondered if we weren’t doing more harm than good in publicizing this aspect of Fu’s work.

I am familiar with these devices and would like to provide some basic information to calm any fears among readers who might have one in their chest. Traditional devices use decades-old communication links that require an inductive coil over the chest, requiring physical proximity to issue commands. The notion of a roaming attacker with a hidden inductive host is far-fetched; the limits of the near-field link would require the hacker to hug the victim. Newer devices include an additional short-range RF link for remote monitoring, but if you interview manufacturers you will learn that these devices are “read only” in this mode.

Mr. Fu’s efforts are impressive, and his work in this area is extremely important and valuable. I hope his feedback to device manufacturers motivates improvements, and that together they can engineer even better solutions. However, I strongly believe this sort of feedback should occur off the pages of your magazine.
Mike Timmons
St. Paul, MN

Google’s New OS
Commenters on our website had a lively debate over Google’s announced operating system (“An Operating System for the Cloud,” September/October 2009). One commenter wondered how Google plans to support it:

Today’s workers have been using Microsoft’s OS since school; it was second nature to many by the time they entered the workforce. Google may not charge anything for the OS, but it will cost employers money to train support staffs and users. Cost of user support and interoperability with other applications are some of the challenges facing the Linux OS in the desktop market. Is Google ready to commit the required resources for an OS it will be giving away?
Patrick Opaola
Jersey City, NJ

Local Solutions for Global Problems
Our September/October Briefing focused on the prospects for renewable power.

In “Solar Power Will Make a Difference–Eventually,” the author presumes that ubiquity is a condition for a valid global solution, but the maps of the “energy belts” are clear enough evidence that each region must respond to energy issues in its own way. Solar power, particularly, is now an economical solution in our sunniest climes. This fact has been disguised by–among other factors–an energy pricing scheme that defeats the investment value of on-site solar energy and other energy management strategies. We can’t blame the tardiness of technology while we remain tardy in implementing transparent and equitable economic systems. The answer to the rather silly question in the opening section–”Can Renewables Become More than a Sideshow?“–is not only “Yes!” but “They must, and soon.”
Paul Symanski
Seattle, WA

The Way We Read Now
One reader was intrigued by the potential of a new pressure-sensitive touch screen (“A Touch of Ingenuity,” September/October 2009) that could be used in e-readers.

I wonder if in the future we might need a new word to differentiate the kind of reading we do on computer or e-reader screens from the kind of reading we do on paper. I have heard a few new terms being bandied about on the Internet: screen-reading, browsing, skimming, scanning, even “diging.” Reading is reading, of course. But we might not be “reading” the new and improved newspapers and magazines of the future. We might be “screening” them.
Dan Bloom
Chiayi City, Taiwan

Converting Coal
A few readers wrote in response to Andrew Perlman’s Notebook describing the process that his company is using to convert coal into natural gas.

Although Andrew Perlman provides a compelling argument about the viability of the technology for hydromethanation, the statistics cited for the reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions discount the energy expended to convert coal into methane. Unless the energy for the process is derived from a renewable source, it would be disingenuous to claim that burning natural gas made from coal can reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, a central part of the argument involves carbon sequestration, but perhaps direct sequestration from a coal-fired power plant is a more efficient way to reduce emissions.
Han Sen Soo
Berkeley, CA

CORRECTION: The TR35 profile of Shwetak Patel misstated his affiliations; he is assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Washington.

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