Friday, May 21, 2010

Russian Roulette on the Laptop

Just got off the phone with a nice Indian man who has done his best to resuscitate my practically brand-new laptop which has been randomly shutting down pretty much since I bought it two months ago.
He had me drain the power from it, which involved pulling the battery and holding the power button down for about 20 seconds. It doesn't take much to drain power.
He walked me through a couple of simple steps to reset the machines bios -- whatever that means. Whenever I see "bios" I think "life." It does seem that this machine has a mind of its own, so why not a life of its own as well.
Which brings to mind the announcement yesterday that scientists have created a cell from whole clothe. Well, that's not exactly correct. The New York Times reports it this way:
The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

According to the Times article, the environmental group Friends of the Earth (whose KSU chapter I was an officer in a long time ago and in a strange set of circumstances not worth going through here), condemned the achievement as "dangerous new technology," and urged an end to the research.
Of course that is unlikely. Technologies, once out of the scientific bag, seldom get put back in.
Those who pull them out of the bag, Venter in this case, almost always trumpet their discoveries or achievements with promises for valuable advances for humankind. Venter spoke of new energy and medical advances that might emerge from synthetic cells that could be invented in the future using the technologies he has pioneered.
Sometimes -- often? not so often? too often? -- the technological advances have profound unintended consequences that the scientists, in their drive to discover, overlook.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was almost an exception, or, at least was cognizant enough of the consequences of his scientific work to say, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."
The edge of science is often a kind of Russian Roulette, although some of the bullets really are magic while others are deadly.
I'm playing my own small blogging version right now. I have no idea whether or not the fixes my Indian friend recommended will work. If not the laptop will shut down with no warning and I'll lose whatever I'm working on. So I'm pausing regularly to save it -- not because it's worth any great effort, but because I'm spending the time so I might as well have some pixels to show for it at the end of the day.
I would hope that scientists working in Venter's field would likewise take enough time along the way -- pausing to save, as it were, the rest of us from unforeseen shut downs.
Wow! All the way through a brief post without a shutdown. I hope the work that Venter is pioneering does a whole lot better than that.

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