Wednesday, 23 February 2005
CNN ran a Reuters article yesterday on the discoveries made surrounding Ötzi the Iceman ("Alpine iceman reveals Stone Age secrets"). The discoveries reviewed were no surprise to anyone following this story, but the article ended with an interesting section on the alleged "Iceman Curse."
The article makes a big deal of the deaths (or near-deaths) of a small handful of researchers who have studied Ötzi, from cancer, car crashes, avalanches, and severe weather. Typically, the article fails to mention — let alone examine — the expected incidence of deaths by such causes before resorting to the paranormal explanation of a curse.
In our everyday, ordinary experience, we expect various percentages of the population to die from various causes each year. In the years since Ötzi's discovery, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people have studied his preserved body, either through direct contact and examination or through materials produced by others (e.g., X-Ray films, photographs, etc.). It is perfectly normal and expected that some of those people would die over time from cancer, car crashes, avalanches, or severe weather. It would be unusual, and fairly interesting, if nobody in that group had died.
We should always examine probable natural causes first.
I used to consider myself reasonably well informed about the issues surrounding privacy and information technology. I admit to feeling a little smug when I read Bob Sullivan's article on MSNBC yesterday, about breaches of consumer privacy admitted by ChoicePoint ("Database giant gives access to fake firms"). Mostly, I felt smug about one consumer whom Sullivan quoted as saying she had never heard of ChoicePoint — the data mining company that tries to collect and organize information about every consumer, business, and transaction that occurs in the United States.
However, my smugness vanished when I clicked through to a linked article, by Robert O'Harrow, Jr., of the Washington Post, that describes ChoicePoint in some detail ("ChoicePoint finds wealth in information"). I had no idea the company had reached such an enormous size and was still growing so fast. It was pretty humbling.