Archive for November, 2010

Comcast is trying to destroy the Internet

| November 30, 2010 | 2 Replies
Comcast is trying to destroy the Internet

Today I received the following email from Free Press on the issue of net neutrality:

In the past 24 hours, Comcast has been caught abusing its massive media power, stomping on competitors and violating Net Neutrality.

The New York Times reported last night that Comcast threatened to cut off Netflix streaming video unless the company that carries the traffic paid huge tolls.1

Earlier in the day, Comcast was exposed for trying to bar cheaper cable modems from its network — a clear violation of Net Neutrality.

This is what a media monopoly looks like in the Internet age — one company, consolidating its media power to squash competitors, stifle innovation and price-gouge consumers.

Such outrageous abuse comes just days before FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to finally propose new Net Neutrality rules to come up for a vote in December. It’s never been more crucial that he hear from you.

If the FCC stays on the sidelines, Comcast will turn the Internet into cable TV, where it gets to pick the channels, overcharge you for them, and decide what downloads quickly and whose voices are heard.

Comcast is the same company that wants to take over NBC Universal in one of the biggest media mergers in a generation. It’s not just the Internet at stake here. It’s the future of all media: television, radio, social networks… and our democracy itself.

If you find this information disturbing, you can do something about it. Sign this message to the FCC: “Don’t Let Comcast Kill the Internet.”

Oh, and the malicious actions of Comcast go far beyond what Karr outlined above. See the article of Timothy Karr of Free Press in the Huffington Post. In that article you can read the Eight Count Indictment Karr levels against Comcast. It includes counts for anti-competitive activity regarding modems, the inexcusable request to merge with NBC Universal, censoring the speech of Vinh Pham, who dared to criticize Comcast on his blog (Comcast contacted the company that hosts Pham’s blog and demanded the entire blog be censored) and blocking public access at a public hearing regarding public access to the Internet. Comcast needs to be slapped down big time, and the FCC needs you to ferociously pressure them to do what is obviously needed.

For more information:

1. New York Times, “Netflix Partner Says Comcast ‘Toll’ Threatens Online Video Delivery.”

2. Free Press, “Zoom Complaint Against Comcast a Reason for FCC to Act.”

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Whence Wikileaks?

| November 30, 2010 | 21 Replies
Whence Wikileaks?

At Democracy Now, Amy Goodman presents a fascinating discussion regarding the most recent of a series of leaks by Wikileaks. But first, her summary of the leaks:

Among the findings, Arab leaders are privately urging the United States to conduct air strikes on Iran; in particular, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called on U.S. to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear program, reportedly calling on American officials to “cut off the head of the snake”. Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, also said they support a U.S. attack. The cables also highlight Israel’s anxiety to preserve its regional nuclear monopoly; it’s readiness to ‘go it alone’ against Iran, and its attempts to influence American policy. The cables also name Saudi donors as the biggest financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al-Qaeda. The cables also provide a detailed account of an agreement between Washington and Yemen to cover up the use of U.S. warplanes to bomb targets in Yemen. One cable records that during a meeting in January with General David Petraeus, the Yemeni president Abdallah Saleh said, “We will continue saying these are our bombs, not yours.” Among the biggest revelations is how the U.S. uses its embassies around the world as part of a global spy network. U.S. diplomats are asked to obtain information from the foreign dignitaries they meet including frequent flier numbers, credit card details, and even DNA material. The United Nations is also a target of the espionage with one cable listing the information-gathering priorities to American staff at the UN headquarters in New York. The roughly half a dozen cables from 2008 and 2009 detailing the more aggressive intelligence collection were signed by Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. The New York Times says the directives, quote: “Appear to blur the traditional boundaries between statesmen and spies.” The cables also reveal that U.S. officials sharply warned Germany in 2007 not to enforce arrest warrants for CIA officers involved in an operation in which an innocent German citizen with the same name as a suspected militant was abducted and held for months in Afghanistan. The cables also document suspicion of corruption in the Afghan government. One cable alleges that Afghan vice president Zia Massoud was carrying fifty two million dollars in cash when stopped during a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Only 220 cables were published by WikiLeaks on it’s website on Sunday with hundreds of thousands more to come. The Obama administration has been warning allies about the expected leaks since last week. A statement from the White House on Sunday said, “We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.” It also said the disclosure of the cables could, “deeply impact not only U.S. foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.”

I approve of these leaks by Wikileaks. We the People supposedly run this country, but we are kept totally in ignorance regarding many of our nation’s foreign policy adventures. Our mainstream media should be gathering this sort of information by aggressively reporting by doing investigative reporting, and by reporting when our government fails to be forthright. But they have failed miserably. This is thus what it has now come to: massive dumps of “unauthorized” information that embarrasses our government and should embarrass our government. But instead of seeing our mainstream media praise Wikileaks, we continue to see scurrilous attacks on Wikileaks and Julian Assange. Glenn Greenwald understands why:

Focusing on the tabloid aspects of Assange’s personal life can have no effect — and no purpose — other than to distract public attention away from the heinous revelations about this war and America’s role in it, and to cripple WikiLeaks’ ability to secure and disseminate future leaks.

It’s not hard to see why The New York Times, CNN and so many other establishment media outlets are eager to do that. Serving the Government’s interests, siding with government and military officials, and attacking government critics is what they do. That’s their role. That’s what makes them the “establishment media.” Beyond that, the last thing they want is renewed recognition of what an evil travesty the attack on Iraq was, given the vital role they know they played in helping to bring it about and sustain it for all those years (that’s the same reason establishment journalists, almost by consensus, opposed any investigations into the Bush crimes they ignored, when they weren’t cheering them on). And by serving as the 2010 version of the White House Plumbers — acting as attack dogs against the Pentagon’s enemies — they undoubtedly buy themselves large amounts of good will with those in power, always their overarching goal. It is indeed quite significant and revealing that the John Ehrlichmans and Henry Kissingers of today are found at America’s largest media outlets. Thanks to them, the White House doesn’t even need to employ its own smear artists.

Our federal government and our mainstream media could put Wikileaks out of business in a heartbeat if only they could stop being such liars and manipulators of information. Our government and most of our popular media seem to be under the impression that their sole purposes for existing are to maintain power and make money. This is the perfect storm for the creation of an organization like Wikileaks, because there are many of us who have strong hunches about what is going on out there in the real world and we want to see virtually all of that information made public.

George Carlin exactly expresses my sentiments tonight:

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Human imperfections as proof that we evolved

| November 29, 2010 | 11 Replies
Human imperfections as proof that we evolved

Rob Dunn of the Smithsonian highlights ten human perfections as evidence that we evolved. “From hiccups to wisdom teeth, the evolution of homo sapiens has left behind some glaring, yet innately human, imperfections.” What human features made the list?
1. The fact that mitochondria became the prey for our cells.
2. Hiccups. The original function? Our ancestors who were fish and early amphibians “pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down.”
3. Backaches. Learning how to stand up gave us the ability to see farther, and it gave us freedom to make better use of our hands. But the resulting “S” shaped back is not a good design for supporting our considerable weight.
4. Unsupported intestines. Standing up made them hang down “instead of being cradled by our stomach muscles.” this often leads to hernias.
5. Choking. In most animals, the esophagus is below the trachea. This allows us to speak, but allow falling food and water “about a 50-50 chance of falling in the wrong tube.”

6. We’re cold in the winter. We lost our fur, and this proves that evolution is blind as to where we will end up.
7. Goosebumps. They are good for making our fur stand up when we look bigger to scare away a potential predator. But See #6: we lost our fur.
8. Our brains squeeze our teeth. Bigger brains left less room for big jaws. I’m not convinced that the big brain came first, however. I’ve read accounts that suggest that fire lead to less need for big jaws to chew uncooked food, which lead to more room for the brain.

9. Obesity. Those strong cravings for sugar, salt and fat were great when we lived on the savanna, where these things are scarce. In our current food-rich environment, these ancient cravings are toxic for most of us.
10. Rob Dunn makes this the miscellaneous category. He includes male nipples, blind spots in our eyes, and our coccyx (a bone that used to be our tail).

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A complex cell’s best friend

| November 29, 2010 | 2 Replies
A complex cell’s best friend

When I first studied mitochondria, back when I was a high school student, I didn’t appreciate their importance or their origin. I got a lot smarter recently, especially after reading “The Energetics of Genome Complexity,” by Nick Lane and William Martin, in the October 21, 2010 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers). I now realize that Mitochondria are organelles that generate energy in the form of ATP, and that without mitochondria, humans wouldn’t exist.

Lane and Martin begin their article by asking: “Bacteria made a start up virtually every avenue of eukaryotic complexity, but then stopped short. Why?” As I indicated, in this article, I learned many things about mitochondria. I have inserted excerpts from the Lane/Martin article in several locations.

Mitochondria formerly existed as their own independent life form (they were proto-bacteria), but they now reside within other cells. This combining of mitochondria happened only once about four billion years ago and all eukaryotes descended from that symbiotic occurrence. All Eukaryotes had mitochondria (or once did but lost them).

All eukaryotes share a common ancestor, which arose from prokaryotes just once in 4 billion years. Genomic chimaerism points to the origin of eukaryotes in an endosymbiosis between eukaryotes. All eukaryotes either possessed mitochondria, or once did and later lost them, placing the origin of mitochondria and the eukaryotic cell as possibly the same event.

The host mitochondria were also prokaryotes. This was determined by Russian botanist Konstantin Mereschkowski in 1905 and, as you might expect, he was not believed.

[More . . . ]

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God as a scientific explanation

| November 28, 2010 | 17 Replies
God as a scientific explanation

Whenever I consider the magnificent structures of cells, I wonder “How could this possibly be?” There is no answer forthcoming, despite the incredible insight offered by scientists. What is, simply is, and I don’t have a reasonable answer for how such exquisite complexity can arise from a cosmic explosion and a showering of stardust. I […]

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Books, books and more books

| November 27, 2010 | 21 Replies
Books, books and more books

I love libraries. More to the point, I love books. My wife also loves books, though now prefers her phone app to read when she gets the chance. I do read texts occasionally on my phone, and used to on my Palm, and I reluctantly read on/offline docs, but I prefer tradition.

There are many reasons for going to libraries. I rarely use them for research anymore. I only go for a specific book maybe 20% of the time. I delight in taking in the experience and seeing where it leads me. I might have an objective in mind, but there are so many opportunities awaiting me, it’s hard to choose just one, or two, or several!

My own library is not dissimilar from a public or university library in that respect, save perhaps its scale. That and it also serves as a music room (drum set, guitars, keyboard…) and an occasional media room. We have more than 5,300 books, though about 1,000 of them are for very young children (and mostly packed away now) and another 500 for young adults – combination homeschooling and love of books. I was putting books away the other night and looking for some references on homeschooling for a couple of pieces I am writing and went on a mini-adventure (every re-shelving trip up to my library results in armfuls coming back down with me)….

…I rediscovered Masters of Deception, compiled by Al Seckel, is a wondrous collection of works of optical illusion by such well-known artists as Escher, Dali, and Arcimboldo, but also including Shigeo Fukuda’s incredible sculptures, and Rob Gonsalves’ realistic paintings. Scott Kim (whose work I first saw in Omni magazine in 1979) and his ambigrams, Ken Knowlton, Vik Muniz, Istvan Orosz, John Pugh, and Dick Termes are also among the 20 artists featured in this visual treat. The foreword was written by Douglas Hofstadter, which led me to…

Gödel, Escher, Bach, from which I first gained consciousness of the math in music, and of the music in math (math was something you do, not appreciate, even though I was quite good at “doing” it.) It’s been more than 25 years since I first discovered Hofstadter’s gem, and it occurred to me that I don’t recall finishing it…so that goes on the list; maybe sooner than later.

Ooh! There’s John Allen Paulos, and Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences – a fantastic book of concepts, although at times disjointed like many of his works (A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up, and more – all most excellent, if a little scattered). And Friedman’s “The World is Flat”…

Hmm, Mark Tiedemann wrote a note on Heinlein recently (Robert A. Heinlein In Perspective)…but I only have six Heinlein books, and I promised myself I’d read Asimov’s entire Foundation series from I, Robot to Foundation and Earth before I re-tried Heinlein. And I really do love Chalker, Farmer, Clarke, …

… and Jared Diamond, and Richard Dawkins, and Martin Gardner, and Stephen Hawking,…

…Michael Shermer, Bart Ehrmann, Uncle Cecil, Gary Larson…

No matter whether you get your education from electronic or print means, aural or visual, don’t ever stop.

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The health care “free market”

| November 26, 2010 | 4 Replies
The health care “free market”

Many American conservatives argue that we need to step back and allow the “free market” continue to offer the most efficient health care system in the world. The facts on the ground starkly conflict with this way of thinking.

The International Federation of Health Plans recently released its 2010 Comparative Price Report detailing medical costs per unit. The study starkly illustrates that health care costs are much higher in some countries than others. The average U.S. prices for procedures are the highest of those in the 12 countries surveyed for nearly all of the 14 common services and procedures.

For example, total hospital and physician costs for delivering a baby are $2,147 in Germany, $2,667 in Canada, and an average of $8,435 in the United States. The survey shows that the cost for a hospital stay is $1,679 in Spain, $7,707 in Canada, but these costs can range from an average of $14,427 to $45,902 in the United States. The survey also found that the cost of a widely prescribed drug like Nexium can range from $30 in the United Kingdom to $186, the average cost in the United States.

In addition to providing comparative cost data across the countries, the survey provides information about the wide range of costs being charged in the United States for common services, procedures and drugs. One example from the survey is hip replacement surgery which cost $12,737 in the Netherlands, but ranged from a low of $21,247 to a high of $75,369 in the United States. Five percent of U.S. prices are higher than $75,369.
The differential between unit prices was greatest for surgery, according to the survey data. One of the highest differentials was for cataract surgery hospital and physician costs. The range for cataract surgery ran from $1,667 in Spain to an average of $14,764 in the United States.

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Life manufactured in space

| November 26, 2010 | 5 Replies
Life manufactured in space

Every once in a while, I would read an article that claimed that life originated somewhere else and then came to earth on an asteroid. This claim puzzled me, because it sounded like an eternal regress. If life began on some other planet and then came to earth, how did it originally develop on that other planet? It turns out that I misunderstood the claim, and I have been set straight by a recent article called “Cosmic Blueprint of Life,” by Andrew Grant, published in the November 2010 edition of Discover Magazine (this particular article is not yet available on the Internet).

The claim is not that life developed on some other planet and then eventually came to earth on asteroid. Rather, the claim is that many of the basic chemicals necessary for life were manufactured in space, and then showered upon earth (and presumably other planets where–presumably–life exists). In this article, Grant writes that:

[The notion that the] underlying chemistry of life could have begun in the far reaches of space, long before our planet even existed, used to be controversial, even comical. No longer. Recent observations show that nebulas throughout our galaxy are bursting with prebiotic molecules. Laboratory simulations demonstrate how intricate molecular reactions can occur efficiently even under exceedingly cold, dry, near vacuum conditions. Most persuasively, we know for sure that organic chemicals from space could have landed on Earth in the past–because they are doing so right now. Detailed analysis of a meteorite that landed in Australia reveals that it is chock-full of prebiotic molecules. Similar meteorites and comets would have blanketed earth with organic chemicals from the time it was born about 4.5 billion years ago until the era when life appeared, a few hundred million years later. Maybe this is how Earth became a living world.

According to Grant, there’s two ways to look at the famous 1953 experiment by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey. They prepared a closed environment with the gases they assumed constituted the early Earth atmosphere (methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water). They then simulated lightning strikes through the use of electric sparks. Within a week, the process had produced a variety of prebiotic compounds. As Grant points out, however, the experiment did not show that “all the building blocks of life could have emerged on Earth from non-biological reactions.”

Even the simplest lifeforms incorporate two amazingly complex types of organic molecules: proteins and nucleic acids. Proteins perform the basic task of metabolism. Nucleic acids (specifically RNA and DNA) encode genetic information and pass it along from one generation to the next. Although the Miller-Urey experiment produce amino acids, the fundamental units of proteins, it never came close to manufacturing nuclear bases, the molecular building blocks of DNA and RNA.

Grant points out that space was long considered to cold and too low-density to form molecules, but this has now been disproved. Scientists have now found ammonia molecules near the center of the Milky Way using a radiotelescope. They have also found formaldehyde, formic acid and methanol. Laboratory simulations of the environment of outer space had produced “dozens of prebiotic molecules, among them the same amino acids that Miller and Urey found.” Further, these experiments have produced “intricate molecular rings containing carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen: fatty acid like molecules that look and behave like the membranes protecting living cells; and nucleic acids or nucleotides, the primary components of RNA and DNA.

[More . . . ]

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AM radio shows as broken windows

| November 23, 2010 | 3 Replies
AM radio shows as broken windows

In an 1982 article, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling announced their “broken windows” theory of crime:

Broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the normsetting and signalling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime.

Here’s more from Wikipedia:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

[More . . . ]

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