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Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Maybe Google isn’t perfect
The dangers of out of control technology
Silence is golden
Skip this one
It’s another guy who knows one tenth as much as you do trying to be philosophical about the web. I mean When Marshall McCluhan said the medium is the message he didn’t mean that people use the medium to write and write and write messages about the medium.

I have spent most of the past few days on the web searching for new information on the USA-Iraq crisis. I mean most of my web time not most of my total time (5th amendment on the ratio web/total). This means I read the same thing 10 times looking for a tiny twist in say inspections or security council deliberations in spite of the fact that I am pretty sure that neither has any importance because Bush is determined to invade no matter what happens on either of those fronts (not to mention whether or not US soldiers will have to fly to the Northern front).

However last night I decided to do something completely different.I surfed for information on golden rice. First I should say I am a fanatical enthusiast for genetically modified foods and golden rice in particular. Golden rice is rice modified to make beta carotene ( a precursor to vitamin A so named because there is a lot of it in carrots). Developing golder rice was a monumental effort of two small university based groups. I for one would not have guessed that any project so complicated would be completed for decades. They chose to make rice make beta carotene not vitamin A directly because vitamin A is toxic in large quantities (this is why you should never ever ever eat polar bear liver which is definitely an unsafe food). They did it with rice because rice contains very little vitamin A and poor people who eat mainly rice often suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

The reason I was surfing is I have encountered two different claims about a simple question – how much golden rice do you have to eat to get enough Beta Carotene to produce the RDA of vitamin A. I have read a wide range of numbers 11 kilos, 9 kilos or 200 grams. Well I read the 200 grams in an interview of one of the inventors of golden rice who would be biased. As far as I can tell based on half an hour of surfing, it seems one would have to eat absurd amounts to get the RDA. As you will notice from the disclaimer above I found this disappointing. I also found the very good point that people with vitamin A deficiency are not getting 0 vitamin A in their diet but maybe 80% of the minimum healthy amount (which is less than the RDA). That is a supplement that gives less than the RDA can still push a lot of people up over the line and into better health. Also it might be possible to increase Beta Carotene production with something like conventional plant breeding. My guess is that the issue between the 9 kilos and the 200 grams might be partly disagreement over the RDA but is mainly related to the difference between beta carotene in the rice and beta carotene absorbed by the intestine of the person who eats the rice.

My current main concern is the strange experience of surfing. Well this will be familiar to any of the few people who reach this obscure site. Thus what follows must be pointless as I bet any of the maybe 2 or 3people who read it have read it hundreds of times and written it at least once or twice.

I am not a very adventurous surfer and mainly just go for the news of the day. There the alarming point is that it is the same in all US sites and the same in all Italian sites but different in the US and in Italy. The AP/ANSA difference is not a difference in ideological slant (see AP exam above). With a google search for golden rice the weird thing was the opposite. As any surfer knows there are contradictory claims of points of fact which are on the public record. With the news the weird point is that the sameness. With a google search the weird thing is the differences. The news I check all manages to appear neutral and unbiased – the topic search web pages are mainly wildly ideological.

I didn’t do anything like a careful search By now I’ve spent more time writing than reading (wait is that just my problem or are there other people like me spewing ignorant nonsense on the web).

The first few pages on the list were from GMfoodphobes. There was no attempt to let biobucks companies have their say. There was no attempt to let university based researchers in the field have their say.

Then I got to something totally different. A libertarian. Still totally idealogical but totally opposed to all regulation on principal. Here there was an odd claim of fact which I have no intention of checking. The claim was that all golden rice seeds are locked up under guard in Germany to protect them from eco terrorists. Huh ? Another search (of Nature a world leading general science journal and sister pub Nature Biotechnology (repeat add) came up with a story Feb 2001 about how golden rice seeds had been shipped to the International Rice Research Institute. Well I’m not going to bother checking anything but it seems to me that a clearly false claim has been posted on the web (wow what a shock) . I could rewrite that to make sure it’s true -- a false claim whose falsehood can be proven with a little searching has been posted on the web. There now I’m safe. Maybe the false claim in question is the sentence before last, but there sure is one.

Now wait. Maybe there is something a tiny bit wrong with Google. It ranks pages by how many links into them there are then by sum of rank of pages that link in and iterates. Now that they are HUGE they have to work very hard to keep people from tricking them. Clearly their counter strategies are secret. But there is a problem with the Google approach. It favours mutual appreciation societies. Now it is clear that GMfoodPhobes are very numerous and feel strongly about the issue, and it is also clear that libertarians are strangely attracted to the web (note the obvious ironies of technophobes on the web and libertarians attracted to something which was mainly developed by the US defense department with important contributions from CERN). Still I think the Web promotes mutual ideological reinforcement. It enables people to get in contact with other people all over the world (with a strong bias for rich countries and for rich people within countries). It could be used to dialog with people with fundamentally different world views. Many people prefer to use it to dialog with people with as close as possible to exactly the same world view. Freedom is freedom to participate in the debate but it is also freedom to run away from it to talk without listening etc etc. It seems to me that the Google approach favours groups of like minded people. It rewards opinions which get the reaction “yes yes exactly I can save time by making a link to this site and not writing the same thing myself” not ones which get the reaction “what is this guy getting at. He isn’t one of us. He isn’t one of them. He’s sometimes like one of us sometimes like one of them sometimes like one of THEM (ugh) and sometimes incomprehensible (anyway he sure is self indulgent but isn’t dumb enough to hope that anyone hasn’t guessed that I like to see myself as “this guy” above). Hmmmm

OK I think I’ve already posted something about the web and the policy debate. I think the web has only rarely had an effect on the policy debate. I think this might be temporary. Most people in positions of power are a little too old to be web surfers. Also they have aides and stuff find and digest and present information to them. I wildly guess that the web debate is still pretty marginal. It might affect a few votes in elections, it might help relatively rich people have an even slightly greater advantage in making their views know to their elected representatives. But might the world change when powerful people start surfing on their own ? There is one case of a powerful person who referred to what he personally found on the web when discussing policy. The person was Thabo Mbeki and the information was that AZT had side effects. This was the first step I remember that President Mbeki took down the path to concluding that AIDS is not caused by HIV (or might very well not be) that AIDS drugs are worse than worthless and that the South African government is not going to have anything to do with them. Not necessarily the very worst policy decision in recent memory but a very surprising horrible decision with an unclear connection to ideology, self interest, interest groups, sectarian fanaticism, or any of the usual suspects. Except for this Mbeki seems to be rather a good president and definitely one of the best in Africa (ok the competition isn’t stellar). What went wrong and did it go wrong when he was surfing ? Maybe Thabo Mbeki is the first politician of the cyber age. Uh oh.


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