Wednesday, January 14, 2009

If big Internet companies like AT&T and Verizon remain unregulated, will they control access to information?

They Say We Know Nothing About the Internet
Jan 13, 2009

The internet is the most complex and far-reaching system ever developed by man -- without it, modern society would essentially grind to a halt. Yet it is about as regulated as a pick-up basketball game...

That so much about the internet is unknowable doesn't necessarily mean that it is in trouble. But it does mean that if it were in trouble, we might not know about it until it was too late.

This is what really bothers Kimberly Claffy and Dmitri Krioukov, two internet researchers at the University of California, San Diego's Supercomputer Center. ...They say, as long as there is such scant oversight, the information highway is likely to get more expensive, less accessible and more vulnerable to viruses and cyber crime in general.

In their wildest dreams, the academics and U.S. Defense Department scientists who designed ARAPNET in the late 1960s did not envision YouTube, MySpace or iTunes. Yet their design remains the basic foundation of the internet.

And decisions were made throughout the internet's development in the 1970s through the 1990s not to regulate it, and fierce debate has raged over those decisions for decades. The explosion of data -- mainly video -- traveling over the internet in recent years has brought these issues closer to a head.

This is why Claffy and Krioukov say there needs to be some kind of regulation. Claffy said a good start would be something akin to an international bureau of internet statistics, some kind of bird's eye view of the entire system. Even the most basic data collection would allow researchers to see bottlenecks and other potential problems that can't be seen now.

But in order for such and entity to be created, those who own the largest networks in the internet -- internet providers like AT&T and Verizon -- would have to agree to share their data, something they have no incentive or requirement to do.

"The global structure of internet is the cumulative result of local decisions by individual organizations (owners)," Krioukov said. "There are about 20,000 of these owners -- and no one is requiring that these organizations play by a set of rules."

Many researchers are concerned that the lack of regulation and the self interest of the large owners will combine to intrude on what is essentially the freedom of the internet.

For example, the overload of data the internet is experiencing requires bigger, faster and much more expensive routers. And it is likely that the large providers will pass these costs down to consumers. The result could be a tiered service model in which the level of someone's internet access to depends on how much they are able to pay.

Others, especially business interests, say such advocacy for more regulation is a solution in search of a problem. Claffy believes the truth is somewhere in between. And she has spent her career trying to get at that truth.

The 39-year-old earned a bachelor's from Stanford University in 1989, and received a Ph.D. in computer science and engineering from UCSD in 1994. Three years later she founded the data analysis association, dubbed CAIDA. Krioukov, also 39, is a native of St. Petersburg, Russia. He received a Ph.D. in physics from Old Dominion University in 1998, and came to work at CAIDA in 2004.

An hour long conversation with the two can cover just about all things great and small on the internet. Recently they've been working on great rather than small. The paper they co-authored for Nature Physics (along with Marian Boguñà, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, Spain) focused on the internet and how it relates to other complex networks.

The three researchers developed a mathematical model, called "hidden metric space." The model offers an explanation on how both man-made networks like the internet, and natural networks, like the human brain, are similarly affected by what is known as the "small-world phenomenon," in which two locations in any given network are, on average, no more than six steps from each other...

If developed further, this research could be an answer for the rising number of so-called internet "black holes," which happen when routers become so overwhelmed by information that they can't keep up, and links to parts of the internet end up severed. These black holes are slowing the work of researchers and other high-level users of the internet. And researchers say if not dealt with, black holes will ultimately affect the average user.

When will this day come, and how bad will it be? Good question.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hiring at Bush Justice Department was based on politics

Report Cites Politicized Hiring at Justice Dept.
Published: January 13, 2009

WASHINGTON — A former senior official at the Justice Department routinely hired conservatives, Republicans and so-called RTA’s — “Right-Thinking Americans — for what were supposed to be apolitical posts and gave them plum assignments on important civil rights cases, an internal report found Tuesday.

The former official, Bradley Schlozman, who helped lead the civil rights division from 2003 until he resigned in the fall of 2007 amid a political uproar over broad charges of politicization at the department, also gave false statements to Congress in denying that he had taken politics into account in his hiring and personnel decisions, the report found.

The investigation, conducted by the department’s inspector general and its office of professional responsibility, is the fourth and last in a series of reports since last year detailing the use of improper political considerations in hiring decisions at the department. The investigations grew out of the controversy over the firings of eight United States attorneys, which led to the 2007 resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Mr. Schlozman was a senior political appointee in the civil rights division who eventually became the acting head of the division, which is responsible for enforcing federal laws on voting rights, racial and gender discrimination, fair housing and other issues. Investigators found that his own e-mail messages, along with interviews with more than 120 current and former employees, made clear that Mr. Schlozman tried to re-shape the office in a more conservative bent by hiring some 64 people — two-thirds of all the hires in the division — who were considered Republican or conservative.

He would also steer important assignments to lawyers he considered conservative. In an e-mail message about an appellate case, for instance, Mr. Schlozman said he did not want certain lawyers on the case. “The potential stakes are too great to entrust this to either a lib or an idiot,” he wrote.

Mr. Schlozman declined to speak with investigators as part of the review. Because he left the department, he is not subject to internal disciplining. Investigators referred the matter for possible criminal prosecutions based on accusations of false statements to Congress, but prosecutors last week declined to bring charges, the report said.

The department said Tuesday that it had taken internal steps to correct the “institutional problems” identified in the report and was confident they would not recur.

“The mission of the Justice Department is the evenhanded application of the Constitution and the laws enacted under it, and that mission has to start with the evenhanded application of the laws within our own department,” said Peter Carr, a department spokesman. “As today’s report makes clear, Mr. Schlozman deviated from that strict standard.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Yeast engineered to produce rare malaria medicine

Jay Keasling--Saving the World, One Molecule at a Time
By Jeneen Interlandi
Dec 20, 2008

Ever since Alexander Fleming noticed a clump of blue-green mold destroying a neighboring culture of bacteria in a nearly discarded petri dish, scientists have searched the most unlikely of places for cures to human disease. Eventually, Fleming's serendipitous 1928 discovery led to the development of penicillin. Today's scientists have taken a more proactive approach.

Oftentimes, their starting material is still as counterintuitive as a moldy plate...a new subset of scientists known as synthetic biologists are trying to turn single-celled organisms like bacteria and yeast into tiny chemical factories that can build these compounds from scratch...Jay Keasling, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, is leading the pack...

Keasling's first target was malaria—a disease that kills more than 1 million people every year, mostly infants and young children from the world's poorest regions.

With a 90 percent cure rate, artemisinin is easily the most powerful antimalaria drug on the market. But extracting the clunky molecule from the sweet-wormwood plant that produces it is slow and expensive. In fact, the medication is so scarce that most of the world's 3 million malaria patients are dying for want of it.

Keasling's team inserted wormwood genes into a simple yeast cell, and then reprogrammed some of that cell's own genes to create a microorganism that can spin sugar into artemisinin...reducing the manufacturing costs from dollars to pennies per dose.

To make sure that patients actually saw those savings, Keasling ensure that no one, including him, could profit from his newly patented system.

"It's not that we're against companies making money," he says. "We just don't want them to gouge the poor." In March, Sanofi-Aventis signed on to scale up production of Keasling's customized yeast cells. The company expects to start churning out artemisinin by late 2010; it will sell the drug at cost...

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Evolution is making some animals weaker

Theodore Roosevelt and another hunter hold the heads of kudus they killed on an African safari in the 1910s

It’s Survival of the Weak and Scrawny
By Lily Huang
Jan 3, 2009

Researchers see 'evolution in reverse' as hunters kill off prized animals with the biggest antlers and pelts.

... The phenomenon has been most apparent in harvested fish: since fishing nets began capturing only fish of sufficient size in the 1980s, the Atlantic cod and salmon, several flounders and the northern pike have all propagated in miniature.

If being smaller is safer, this might be a successful adaptation for a hunted species. After all, " 'fitness' is relative and transitory," says Columbia University biologist Don Melnick, meaning that Darwinian natural selection has nothing to do with what's good or bad, or the way things should be.

Tusks used to make elephants fitter, as a weapon or a tool in foraging—until ivory became a precious commodity and having tusks got you killed. Then tuskless elephants, products of a genetic fluke, became the more consistent breeders and grew from around 2 percent among African elephants to more than 38 percent in one Zambian population, and 98 percent in a South African one. In Asia, where female elephants don't have tusks to begin with, the proportion of tuskless elephants has more than doubled, to more than 90 percent in Sri Lanka. But there's a cost to not having tusks. Tusked elephants, like the old dominant males on Ram Mountain, were "genetically 'better' individuals," says Festa-Bianchet. "When you take them systematically out of the population for several years, you end up leaving essentially a bunch of losers doing the breeding."