Saturday, February 01, 2003

The loss of the seven Columbia astronauts brings back memories of Challenger. I remember exactly where I was when the shuttle crash of 1986 was announced; in the office where I worked as a technical writer, at the Massachusetts General Hospital Laboratory of Computer Science. One of the physicians who worked in courseware development stepped into the office and told me, right after I returned from a project meeting. But this morning's news came over the Internet, a much more solitary medium for sharing a sad story.

I have to admit to not following the stories of space missions any more, though I was an enthusiastic Mercury-era kid. I don't know much about the astronauts who were killed, except for their short online biographies. I have mixed feelings about the U.S. space program; on the one hand, I think a multitude of militaristic sins lurks behind it, while on the other, it appeals to our (including my) well-inculcated national sense of adventure admixed with science. Maybe that crew was in space for purely scientific purposes (as officially stated), and maybe it wasn't. All we know now is that seven highly educated, adventurous people in their forties were killed. They could have been my college classmates. We can't help but miss them. Damn.

In other news: A group of software security experts is now excoriating Microsoft for poor security. (Well, duh.) As a not-so-proud user of many of Microsoft's monopolized products, I understand that Big Bill's equivalent of Chicago's Daley Machine is here to stay. I was happy to read, near the end of the article, that several consultants described Macs as having better security, but annoyed that no one took this thread one step further into a discussion of why diversity is important.

Okay, I love my Mac, so I'm biased, and we don't know from the article exactly who pays these consultants. But, take it from an evolutionary biologist, guys. You need some cyberdiversity out there. Maybe Macs and Unix machines have much better security than Windows-based systems. But, some idjit will find ways to hack them. (Most likely, it won't be one of those well-organized terrorist cells we're led to imagine is so pervasive ; it'll be some bored twentyish hobbyist with more know-how than sense and entirely too much time on his hands.) When too many people are relying on exactly the same computing platform, no matter what it is, we'll have the electronic equivalent of multiple generations of enforced brother-sister marriage.

Yes, we need interoperability of computer systems for compatibility, but where there's no variation, there's no resilience to change. Even my favorite inbreeding wasp species outcrosses with considerable regularity. Take a hint from the arthropods, guys. They've been around for half a billion years. Fine, the trilobites aren't around any more, but they had a much longer run than the Apple Lisa or the IBM PCjr. And when an outbreak of parasitic mites decimates the local honey bee population, native pollinators can save your orchard and your ass. Computer-platform monopolies aren't just an unfair business practice; they're a disaster waiting to happen.


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