Archive for May 4th, 2010

FCC caving on net neutrality

| May 4, 2010 | 1 Reply
FCC caving on net neutrality

Josh Silver of Free Press is reporting terrible news on the issue of net neutrality:

On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to abandon its pledges to protect Net Neutrality and to ensure universal, affordable broadband. The story cites anonymous insiders confirming that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is “leaning toward” siding with the most powerful phone and cable lobbyists on a crucial decision: whether the FCC will have any authority to protect an open Internet and make it available to all.

It is a testament to the phone and cable industry’s overwhelming influence that they seem to have convinced the nation’s communications agency to swear off authority to protect Americans’ right to open communications. But it is stunning that Genachowski would even contemplate allowing it to stand, given President Obama’s repeated pledge to ensure fast, affordable, universal Internet broadband for every American.

The FCC has the power to correct the damage done by a recent Court of Appeals decision that has heightened this crisis. Josh Silver explains:

In early April, a a federal appeals court ruled that, based on decisions by the Bush-era FCC, the agency lacks the authority to regulate broadband providers. In so doing, the court effectively handed control of the Internet to companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon — allowing them to slow down or block any website, any blog post, any tweet, any outreach by a congressional campaign. The FCC no longer has the power to stop them. Fortunately, the FCC does have the power to easily fix the problem by “reclassifying” broadband under the law. All it would take is a vote by its five commissioners — and Genachowski already has the votes.

This is your chance to take action–it will take you 3 minutes to write to Chairman Julius Genachowski–remind him that he represents the People of the United States, not the telecoms. Or as Art Brodsky of media public interest group Public Knowledge says,

The telephone and cable companies will object to any path the chairman takes . . . He might as well take the one that best protects consumers and is most legally sound.

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No, you are not smelling metal

| May 4, 2010 | Reply
No, you are not smelling metal

You know how you can smell metal after handling it? Well, you can’t smell metal, according to this article at BioEd:

After you’ve grasped an iron railing, a door handle or a piece of steel cutlery, your hand often gives off what seems to be a metallic odour. But Dietmar Glindemann of the University of Leipzig, Germany, and his co-workers say that you’re not smelling the metal at all. They have found that the musty odour comes from chemical compounds in your skin, which are transformed

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Biology is drowning in data and complexity

| May 4, 2010 | 2 Replies
Biology is drowning in data and complexity

In the April 2010 edition of Nature (available only to subscribers online), you can read a counter-intuitive story of illustrating that more information is sometimes add confusion, rather than making things simpler. Maybe another way of putting it is that the path to understanding can often take one through phases of disorientation resulting from new influx of accurate data. This particular story, by Erika Check Hayden, titled “Life Is Complicated,” considers what has happened in the field of biology subsequent to the Human Genome Project. Prior to the Project, many biologists guessed that the human genome contained about 100,000 genes that coded for proteins. At the conclusion of the project, however, we found out that only about 21,000 human genes code for proteins.

One might think that this would simplify the field of biology, especially since biologists now know what many of these genes are. Many people thought that we were going to have for ourselves a clearly understandable “blueprint,” of the human species. The opposite is happening, however: “It opened the door to a vast labyrinth of new questions.” What kinds of questions? This article really surprised me with the vast scope of new territory opened up by the Human Genome Project. It can be summed up by Hayden’s quote from biochemist Jennifer Doudna: “The more we know, the more we realize there is to know.”

Hayden explains that sequencing the genome undermined “the primacy of genes by unveiling a whole new classes of elements–sequences that make RNA or have a regulatory role without coding for proteins.” It turns out that “much non-coding DNA has a regulatory role “that we are just beginning to understand.” To illustrate how complex things have gotten, Hayden discusses what we’ve now learned about a single protein, “p53,” which for many years was simply known as a tumor suppressor protein. Consider what we know now:

In 1990, several labs found that p53 binds strictly to DNA to control transcription, supporting the traditional Jacob-Monod model of gene regulation. But as researchers broadened their understanding of gene regulation, they found more facets to p53 . . . [R]esearchers now know that p53 binds to thousands of sites in DNA, and some of the sites are thousands of base pairs away from any genes. It influences cell growth, death and structure and DNA repair. It also binds to numerous other proteins, which can modify its activity, and these protein-protein interactions can be tuned by the addition of chemical modifiers such as phosphates and methyl groups to create through a process known as alternative splicing. P53 can take nine different forms, each of which has its own activities and chemical modifiers. Biologists are now realizing that p53 is also involved in processes beyond cancer, such as fertility and very early embryonic development. In fact, it seems willfully ignorant to try to understand p53 on its own. Instead, biologists have shifted to studying the p53 network as depicted in cartoons containing boxes, circles and arrows meant to symbolize its maze of interactions.

Hayden reminds us that the p53 story is one of many similar stories in post genomic-era biology. She explains that we now know that many of the signaling pathways that we thought we were close to understanding are not simple and linear but organized in vast complex networks that sometimes appear fractal. She quotes James Collins, a bio-engineer: “Kevin made the mistake of equating the gathering of information with a corresponding increase in insight and understanding.”

Here’s another counter-intuitive result of this new dilution of information: many of our models have gotten too complex to be useful.

In many cases the models themselves quickly become so complex that they are unlikely to reveal insights about the system, degenerating instead into mazes of interactions that are simply exercises in cataloging.

The genome project has made biologists into kids in a big candy store: a candy store with unending aisles and endlessly deep bins of dazzling, disorienting candy, much of which is currently out of our reach. Such is the horizon of new knowledge, equal parts frustrating and tantalizing.

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To the woman who answered the phone at Senator Kit Bond’s office today

| May 4, 2010 | Reply
To the woman who answered the phone at Senator Kit Bond’s office today

Today I saw this post at Huffington, indicating that Kit Bond is not a “yes” for any proposal to audit the Federal Reserve. I believe that the secret workings of the Fed need to be exposed. Where did all of the TARP money go? Who knows? Let’s find out.

I called the Washington DC Office of U.S. Senator Kit Bond [phone number: (202) 224-5721] to determine Bond’s position. A woman answered the phone. “May I help you?”

“Yes, I’d like to know Kit Bond’s position on the current proposals to audit the Fed. I read in the Huffington Post that he has expressed support to audit the Fed.”

“Oh, well THAT ought to tell you something. What a ridiculous website . . .”

“Hold on . . . That’s a huge website with legitimate news. What is Kit Bond’s position?”

“He’s in favor of auditing the Fed.”

“I don’t see his position in writing anywhere. It’s not on his website. How do I know that he’s in favor of auditing the Fed. It’s a huge secret society needs to be examined closely because it controls national monetary policy without any accountability.”

“I’m with you on that.”

“I need to know Kit Bond’s Position and I’d like to see it in writing.”

“I will relay that.”

[end of call]

Note: I’ve shortened the call a bit, but this was the substance of the conversation. My bet? She wrote nothing down at all, and that Bond is against an audit of the Fed. We’ll see . . .

BTW, you will rarely see such vapid platitudes of policy as you will see on Bond’s website. It really makes you wonder whether Bond knows much of anything about the real world. It’s also clear that Bond has never seen a war that he’s against. Thank goodness he’s retiring soon.

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