Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Foreign Policy" issue (end of 2012) has important essays on bio risks, financial stability, cyberwar, and leaks

It may seem a stretch to call an issue of a magazine a book, but every issue of “Foreign Policy” comes across as a book of important essays.  The November/December 2013 issue is particularly interesting.
The essay that got the most attention from me was Laurie Garret’s “Biology’s Brave New World: The Promise and Perils of the Synbio Revolution”.  Garret, remember, authored “The Coming Plague” back in 1995, in which she described some of the world’s most deadly pathogens, including a detailed account of how a man recovered from Ebola virus, to become quite bald everywhere. Here, Garrett compares life itself to “4-D printing”, and then goes on to examine the ethics of experiments that test the contagiousness of diseases, with particular emphasis on the controversy over experiments (and publication thereof) regarding increasing the transmissibility of H5N1 and then H7N9 “bird flu” viruses.
If these viruses were readily transmitted among mammals through the air, rather than from bird to mammal, they could become pandemic very quickly. On p. 42, Garrett speculates on the idea of this being tried with HIV.  The problem with this speculation is that idea led to the rhetoric from the “Dallas Doctors Against AIDS” in the 1980s, in an attempt to propose a particularly vehement ant-gay law (just before the HTLV-3 aka HIV virus was announced).  Such speculation could have a drastic impact on individual rights.

There follows a companion essay by Ronald K. Noble, “Keeping Science in the Right Hands: Policing the New Biological Frontier”.

On p. 88, Alan Greenspan delivers “Never Saw It Coming: Why the Financial Crisis Took Economists by Surprise” where he talks about the Jessel Paradox and “morbidly obese fat tails”.  But it seems pretty obvious that by late 2007 the housing market was unraveling and that so many middle class consumers to expect so much house for nothing would lead to disaster.

On. P. 97, Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber discuss  “Why Banking Systems Fail: The Politics Behind Financial Institutions”.  There is an explanation of why unit banking developed on the American frontier.  When I moved to Dallas in 1979, I found out that Texas was a unit-banking state. The authors compare American banking to the much more stable system in Canada.

On p. 77, Thomas Rid, in “Cyberwar and Peace” argues “Hacking Can Reduce Real-World Violence”. The author points out that cyberattacks have killed no one, and would seem to support the idea that a cyberattack can bring down a properly secured power grid is very fanciful (see “Grirdlock” (Sept. 5).  A physical attack with an EMP weapon would be a different matter.

On p. 22, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue in “The End of Hypocrisy: American Foreign Policy and the Age of Leaks” that the main result of the leaks by Edward Snowden and Bradley (Chelsea) Manning are that the U.S. will have to learn “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and it can no longer deny engaging in the very behavior that it accuses authoritarian countries of.  On the other hand, what about compromising civilian and ground sources overseas and putting them at risk of retaliation?

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