Insights and opinions from our readers.
Making Sense of Sensemaking’
The juxtaposition of information technologies for homeland security in M. Mitchell Waldrop’s article (“Can Sensemaking Keep Us Safe?” TR March 2003) reveals a conceptual flaw. On the one hand, Waldrop argues for the need to integrate information from many sources without centralizing control over it. This would imply that no single agency would have access to the whole collection of data. On the other hand, the article also proposes making sense of the information via a prior step of taxonomy building-a step that would be possible only if an entire body of information were centrally amassed. In other words, a taxonomy-building approach conflicts with decentralization.
Waldrop cites a reluctance of various agencies to share sensitive information. This is not an unjustified concern. One of the most important things to know about any threat-detection system should be who is accessing it and why. How do we assure that the information will not be misused? A system that records a complete history of data-what was requested, by whom, and when-could help us detect dangerous abusers and would perhaps be more acceptable to investigative organizations guarding their informational turf.
Missile Defense Defended
Robert Buderi’s column in support of missile defense R&D (“Leading Edge,” TR March 2003) is a brave statement that has needed saying for some time. The slings and arrows are surely on their way.
Buderi’s rationalization for developing a missile defense technology is not convincing. A missile defense system wouldn’t have prevented September 11. Our defense against future threats will rely more on diplomacy than on building a strategic dome over the country. The only smart approach to missile defense is to scrap this failed, wasteful government boondoggle held over from the cold war. The billions of dollars being spent on this project would be better spent on technology and education instead of an ideological weapon that doesn’t work against a threat that doesn’t exist.
Instead of trying to completely protect ourselves from intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, wouldn’t it make more sense-and save an enormous amount of money-to adopt a policy of destroying, after fair warning, any facility on foreign soil that our intelligence indicates has the capability of launching such weapons? Our satellite-based imaging systems are already in place; our drones and similar weapons have shown they work.
Thomas C. Ehlert
Buderi draws a faulty analogy between the missile defense program and the development of radar prior to World War II. Radar gave the British defenders all-weather capability to detect approaching German aircraft. With the advantage of early warning, fighter interceptors-a proven defense system-were able to win the war of attrition against the German bomber fleet. In contrast, successful missile defense of the United States demands that multiple components, many still unproven, work together in near perfection to achieve the desired objective.
Steven M. Sussman
Your column on missile defense is excellent. Any discussion of this topic must assume a range of political and technological possibilities and probabilities. At the maximum, we have to plan counters to a major nuclear attack and even Earth’s collision with an asteroid. At the minimum, we should be prepared to deal with a rogue attack from a lunatic. Identifying an appropriate response for such a wide range of situations is a major part of the problem.
Daniel Charles’s suggestion that Pioneer is somehow threatened by the potential use of apomixis technology (“Corn That Clones Itself,” TR March 2003) is not true. Pioneer plans to utilize this technology to make our hybrid production more efficient. Apomixis also has the potential to help developing countries that do not have the infrastructure for hybrid-seed production. This is one reason we are collaborating with CIMMYT, offering expertise, funding, and in-kind research.
Pioneer Hi-Bred International
Recharging the Power Grid
The flow batteries described in Peter Fairley’s article (“Recharging the Power Grid,” TR March 2003) might be a reasonable solution to blackout problems at Columbus Air Force Base, but not for the utility industry in general. The inefficiency of flow batteries causes the overall efficiency to go down. A typical application, where half of the power comes from the battery and half directly from the power plant, requires 30 percent more electricity. This requires 30 percent more fuel. How is this going to help solve our fossil fuel dependency problem?
Your interesting article on the electric power grid suggests another approach, involving pumped storage. Suppose that a utility sets up an electrolysis plant to separate hydrogen from oxygen. It sells the oxygen and then the hydrogen is piped up to a high hill where it is burned to generate electricity. Not much pumping power is required. The by-product, water, runs downhill to generate hydropower at strategic times. Finally, the water is sold for irrigation. In addition, some heavy hydrogen might be recovered. Could this achieve several desirable objectives economically?
Charles I. Clausing
Thank you, Michael Schrage, for writing about something that has irritated me for years (“Flaming Ideas, TR March 2003). I’ve participated in the forums offered by several newspapers, magazines, and Web sites, but I became disenchanted by the poor grammar, bad spelling, and irrelevance of the commentary-to say nothing of the name-calling. You said what I have always wanted to say, and you said it well. I hope your comments don’t fall on deaf ears.
Leonard A. Magazine
Battle Ground, WA