Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Perils of Progress

Continuing on what seems to be a theme this week:
Edward Tenner's new book, Why Things Bite Back, is subtitled Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. And that, in a nutshell, is Tenner's message. When we apply our technologies to the world around us, things do indeed bite back.

In other episodes (e.g., 81, 457) I talk about the way a new safety device lulls us into carelessness and increases accidents -- how pesticides and germicides breed new and tougher insects and diseases. Tenner's idea isn't new, but he does a fine job of rearticulating and re-emphasizing it. Tenner's Revenge Effect means that, if we mess with the natural order of things, things bite back.

He takes care not to be simplistic in his examples. New technologies certainly do improve the quality of our lives. Medical procedures have reduced the time we spend in hospitals and hastened recoveries. Yet the number of procedures and medications a patient undergoes has risen astronomically. Laparoscopic gall bladder removals, for example, are much less invasive than old-fashioned surgery. The result is, far more people are having their gall bladders removed and insurance costs are rising. Worse still, we now find surgeons making more mistakes when they use a grainy fiber-optic image on a TV screen to guide miniaturized instruments.

Medicine has been shot through with routine hi-tech medications, catheterizations, injections, IVs ... Errors in a tiny percentage of these procedures cause widespread harm because so many are done.

We suffer so many revenge effects in medicine because the human system is terribly complex and still poorly understood. Two hospital procedures combine to produce effects that wouldn't be produced by either one alone. Three or more procedures can lay impossible demands on any doctor's knowledge of side effects.
The same thing carries over into engineering systems as they become more complex. Complex devices that interact with our human system always produce revenge effects. Tenner talks about computers -- the way they've made our work routines less straightforward than handling paper. We lose enormous time and money learning software that never stands the test of time. Meanwhile, eye strain, neck strain, and carpal tunnel syndrome all increase.

So does this mean we should reject new medicine and turn away from computers? Hardly! New technology is bred in our bones. The day we quit pioneering, we quit being human.

The answer is as subtle as the problem itself. Nature demands a wearing-in process. We have to be alert to early warnings and ready to back off. Wanting too much is what causes us to ignore those warnings and react too slowly. And every time we fail to listen, nature will forcefully get our attention.
Things Bite Back - John Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity
In 2010 we saw how even the most secure “air gap” can be breached when the Iranian nuclear reprocessing plant at Natanz was infected with the Stuxnet virus. This appears to have been achieved when an operator plugged in an infected USB stick to an isolated PC that was used to communicate with the embedded computers that controlled and reported upon the centrifuges producing enriched uranium. The Stuxnet virus simultaneously caused the centrifuges to malfunction whilst reporting that all was well to the operators.  Leave a USB stick lying around with what looks like a free game, and you’d be surprised how many users will plug it into the nearest computer.

Since this incident there has been a growing realisation that various elements of a critical national infrastructure are similarly vulnerable.  They use similar, if not identical, embedded computer systems as were used at Natanz. The initial thought was one of defending the realm against foreign aggressors. After all, it was an obvious way to cripple a country without firing a physical shot. Why launch missiles if you can switch out the lights and turn off the water.  It’s cheaper too. So much so that this form of attack has become a great leveller, allowing small nations to potentially punch well above their weight.
For a while there were detractors who have said that this type of threat is nonsense, and that it simply could not happen.  However, tests were already being conducted at research institutes such as the Idaho national laboratories (known as Aurora) by the time Stuxnet was released.  Such tests showed that access to these SCADA systems could not only turn off equipment that we all rely upon but it could cause the equipment to self-destruct.

Hence, embedded computing needs to be kept updated and have protection just as much as the computers with which we are all more familiar. Unfortunately, keeping embedded computers updated can be problematic. Perversely, although they may be vulnerable to remote attacks, updating their software (known as firmware if it cannot be accessed routinely by a remote computer) can require visits to the physical devices.  This takes time and effort, and when coupled with a history of complacency about their risk of attack, many systems remain vulnerable for significant periods after a vulnerability is reported.
The Unexpected risks of Intelligent Infrastructure (Scientific American)
What’s inside your new walls might be even more dangerous. While the flame retardants commonly used in sofas, chairs, carpets, love seats, curtains, baby products, and even TVs, sounded like a good idea when widely introduced in the 1970s, they turn out to pose hidden dangers that we’re only now beginning to grasp. Researchers have, for instance, linked one of the most common flame retardants, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, to a wide variety of potentially undesirable health effects including thyroid disruption, memory and learning problems, delayed mental and physical development, lower IQ, and the early onset of puberty.

Other flame retardants like Tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate have been linked to cancer. As the CDC has documented in an ongoing study of the accumulation of hazardous materials in our bodies, flame retardants can now be found in the blood of “nearly all” of us.

Nor are these particular chemicals anomalies. Lurking in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, for instance, are window cleaners and spot removers that contain known or suspected cancer-causing agents. The same can be said of cosmetics in your makeup case or of your plastic water bottle or microwavable food containers. Most recently, Bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic chemical used in a variety of plastic consumer products, including some baby bottles, epoxy cements, the lining of tuna fish cans, and even credit card receipts, has been singled out as another everyday toxin increasingly found inside all of us.

Recent studies indicate that its effects are as varied as they are distressing. As Sarah Vogel of the Environmental Defense Fund has written, “New research on very-low-dose exposure to BPA suggests an association with adverse health effects, including breast and prostate cancer, obesity, neurobehavioral problems, and reproductive abnormalities.”

Teflon, or perfluorooctanoic acid, the heat-resistant, non-stick coating that has been sold to us as indispensable for pots and pans, is yet another in the list of substances that may be poisoning us, almost unnoticed. In addition to allowing fried eggs to slide right onto our plates, Teflon is in all of us, according to the Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency, and “likely to be carcinogenic in humans.”

These synthetic materials are just a few of the thousands now firmly embedded in our lives and our bodies. Most have been deployed in our world and put in our air, water, homes, and fields without being studied at all for potential health risks, nor has much attention been given to how they interact in the environments in which we live, let alone our bodies. The groups that produce these miracle substances — like the petrochemical, plastics, and rubber industries, including major companies like Exxon, Dow, and Monsanto — argue that, until we can definitively prove the chemical products slowly leaching into our bodies are dangerous, we have no “right,” and they have no obligation, to remove them from our homes and workplaces. The idea that they should prove their products safe before exposing the entire population to them seems to be a foreign concept.
You are a guniea pig: americans exposed to biohazards in uncontrolled experiment (Naked Capitalism) see also: Roundup, An Herbicide, Could Be Linked To Parkinson's, Cancer And Other Health Issues, Study Shows (Reuters)

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