Thursday, December 23, 2010

the essence of conservatism

paecon | In a previous issue of the Review, both Thomas Wells and Bruce Elmslie argue that I got it wrong when I pointed out in “Free Enterprise and the Economics of Slavery” that in The Wealth of Nations, Smith treated slaves as property. I argued that since they were property—one could buy and sell them—one could ignore their human misery. I used Smith, as well as John Locke, to illustrate this peculiar Anglo-American tradition of basing freedom (free enterprise) on property and property rights. (On the European continent, freedom was generally based on the human will (Rousseau) or the moral will (Kant). So, did Smith treat slaves as property in The Wealth of Nations or did he not?

In Civilizing the Economy, where I provide more details about Smith’s treatment of slaves in The Wealth of Nations, I quote his comparison of the treatment of cattle and slaves:[1]

In all European colonies the culture of the sugarcane is carried on by negro slaves . . . . But the success of the cultivation which is carried on by means of cattle, depend very much upon the good management of those cattle; so the profit and success of that which is carried on by slaves, must depend equally upon the good management of those slaves, and in the good management of their slaves the French planters, I think it is generally allowed, are superior to the English.[2]

Comparing the management of cattle and of African slaves, of course, expresses the full meaning of “chattel slavery,” since chattel has the same root as cattle. Furthermore, just as cattle were treated as property, so were slaves.

Elmslie makes much of Smith’s argument that free labor, in most cases, is superior to slave labor. Smith does write this, but I think he is thinking about this much like one would think about getting the most from what one has purchased. As Patricia Werhane has pointed out, for Smith, labor is property. The difference between whether it is free or slave labor depends on who controls it. She writes:

Because that property [one’s productivity] is one’s own, to which one has a perfect right, and because productivity is exchangeable, one should be free to exchange this commodity, and others should be free to employ it. Thus one can sell one’s labor productivity (but not one’s strength and dexterity) without thereby selling oneself into serfdom. If one is not paid for one’s productivity, one’s property rights will be violated. Worse, because one’s productivity is an outcome of one’s own labor, if it is not recognized as an exchangeable commodity, one thereby will be treated as a slave.[3]

Slaves, in other words, were not free to exchange their labor, but were exchanged as labor. So when Smith argues that free labor is usually more productive than slave labor, he is merely calculating how to get the best return from one’s investment.

It is true that I do not give much credit to Smith’s statements against slavery in his other writings, although I do recognize them. The issue, however, is not Smith’s view of slavery as a moral philosopher, but his view as an economist. When he thinks economically, if we may call it this, he treats slaves as property. This is significant because we live in his legacy of this uncivil economics. In this tradition, we can be quite civil, in our religious, legal, and political life, but uncivil in our economic life. As we see the commercial gaining control over the civic today, we need not only to expose this tradition of treating people and the planet as property, but also to switch to a economics based on civic relations, rather than on one based on property and property relations.

conservative echo chambers

CSMonitor | Add the coffee shop to an ever-growing list of places ghettoized by conservatives. Conservatives can attend ideologically friendly colleges like Hillsdale or Bob Jones University to avoid the influence of liberal professors. They can tune into conservative radio stations and marinate in hours of right-wing chatter. They can even consult Conservapedia, the right-wing encyclopedia site embracing "a conservative approach to education." (A taste: the first header under the entry Barack Hussein Obama reads "Obama is likely the first Muslim President.")

The proliferation of conservative-only institutions isn't new. In the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the newly formed conservative movement perceived a need for alternatives to institutions they believed were riddled with liberal bias. To some extent, they were right. By the 1960s, the majority of Americans were liberal, supporting unions, civil rights, and government programs for the middle-class and poor. Media, universities, and government agencies tended to reflect this.

But conservatives have transformed a solid argument about liberal bias into something else entirely. They argued that institutional liberalism was not a reflection of the zeitgeist but rather a result of a liberal elite forcing everyone in its reach to march in ideological lockstep. Based on this argument, the right built an ever-growing network of conservative media, foundations, universities, and organizations – what liberal commentator Sidney Blumenthal called the counter-establishment.

The counter-establishment's foundation on the idea of an entrenched liberal elite colors the mission of today's conservative enterprises, which tend to assume anything not labeled conservative is liberal by default. Conservapedia, which proclaims itself "The Trustworthy Encyclopedia" warns that the founders "do not allow liberal bias to deceive and distort here," implying all other encyclopedias do.

Likewise, A Conservative Cafe's owner insists that coffee houses are "havens for liberal ideas and decaying social values." Yet modern coffee houses are hardly liberals-only. Starbucks, for instance, flourishes in GOP strongholds, be they in northern Virginia or the reddest reaches of Idaho. Orange County, Calif., is littered with latte peddlers.

Liberals, too, have carved out spaces for themselves – places such as the website DailyKos or The Nation magazine – but they have not created a set of replacement institutions.

Some may say that there is no real harm done by conservative self-segregation; that those who choose it are not likely to change their political stances anyway.

But shared experiences are a key component of democratic culture. Without the cross-pollination of ideas that occurs when people with opposing views come in contact, ideologies harden, extremism flourishes, and prejudices grow.

Sustaining a common political culture is tough enough when Americans share less public space and participate in fewer organizations. To limit commerce and conversation and even cups of coffee to political comrades leads us further and further from a united America. Fist tap Arnach.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Video - Phil Collins In the Air Tonight

The Scientist | The air is teeming with microbes, and scientists are finally starting to understand how they influence everything from meteorology to epidemiology. Every cubic meter of air holds up to 100 million microorganisms, but the diversity and behavior of these microbes remains masked to microbiologists — until recently, that is.

Thanks to next-generation sequencing techniques, scientists are finally uncovering the details of the biodiversity and biogeography of this largely unknown ecosystem. They are discovering airborne microbes do much more than just ride the wind transmitting disease — microbes also help create the intricately beautiful designs in snowflakes and facilitate the formation of clouds, for example. Studying them, researchers say, could give insight into how to better monitor global climate change, as well as predict and track weather cycles and disease and allergen outbreaks.

"There's going to be an explosion of studies using these new techniques," said Jessica Green, microbial ecologist at the University of Oregon.

Recent research published in PNAS suggests that the diversity of microbial life in the air is on par with the soil, at least in urban areas, yet the air remains vastly understudied in comparison.

"Just seven or ten years ago we didn't realize bacteria existed in clouds," said Anne-Marie Delort, professor of microbiology and organic chemistry at Université Blaise Pascal in France. Now researchers know microbes act as a surface for the condensation of water vapor in the atmosphere, thus forming clouds. Recent research publish in Science shows microbes also play the same role during snowflake formation and other types of precipitation. The next step, Delort said, is to uncover their metabolic activity in clouds and influence on atmospheric processes. If they are metabolically active, she added, microbes could not only be acting as cloud condensers, but affecting the carbon and nitrogen cycles as well.

p.s. This cat I been following for a decade on yahoo groups has known all about aerobiology and atmospheric electrodynamics and has been sharing this knowledge with a tiny group of interested correspondents for over a decade.

ideas of the microbiome and the virome...,

Sciencemag | Humans have been doing battle with bacteria since the 1800s, thwarting disease with antibiotics, vaccines, and good hygiene with mixed success. But in 2000, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg called for an end to the “We good; they evil” thinking that has fueled our war against microbes. “We should think of each host and its parasites as a superorganism with the respective genomes yoked into a chimera of sorts,” he wrote in Science in 2000.

His comments were prescient. This past decade has seen a shift in how we see the microbes and viruses in and on our bodies. There is increasing acceptance that they are us, and for good reason. Nine in 10 of the cells in the body are microbial. In the gut alone, as many as 1000 species bring to the body 100 times as many genes as our own DNA carries. A few microbes make us sick, but most are commensal and just call the human body home. Collectively, they are known as the human microbiome. Likewise, some viruses take up residence in the body, creating a virome whose influence on health and disease is just beginning to be studied.

Their genes and ours make up a metagenome that keeps the body functioning. This past decade we've begun to see how microbial genes affect how much energy we absorb from our foods and how microbes and viruses help to prime the immune system. Viewing the human and its microbial and viral components as intimately intertwined has broad implications. As one immunologist put it, such a shift “is not dissimilar philosophically from the recognition that the Earth is not the center of the solar system.”

This appreciation has dawned gradually, as part of a growing recognition of the key role microbes play in the world. Microbiologists sequencing DNA from soil, seawater, and other environments have discovered vast numbers of previously undetected species. Other genomics research has brought to light incredible intimacies between microbes and their hosts—such as a bacterium called Buchnera and the aphids inside which it lives. A study in 2000 found that each organism has what the other lacks, creating a metabolic interdependency.

One of the first inklings that microbiologists were missing out on the body's microbial world came in 1999, when David Relman of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and colleagues found that previous studies of bacteria cultured from human gums had seriously undercounted the diversity there. Turning to samples taken from the gut and from stools, the researchers identified 395 types of bacteria, two-thirds of them new to science.

In 2006, Steven Gill of the University at Buffalo in New York and colleagues did a metagenomics study of the gut, analyzing all the genes they could find in the 78 million bases sequenced. They found metabolic genes that complemented the human genome, including ones that break down dietary fiber, amino acids, or drugs, and others that produce methane or vitamins. This and a more comprehensive survey in 2010 by Jun Wang of BGI-Shenzhen in China and colleagues provided support for the concept of the microbe-human superorganism, with a vast genetic repertoire. Now, large-scale studies have surveyed the microflora in the gut, skin, mouth, nose, and female urogenital tract. The Human Microbiome Project has sequenced 500 relevant microbial genomes out of a planned 3000.

Some of these microbes may play important roles in metabolic processes. In 2004, a team led by Jeffrey Gordon of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, found that germ-free mice gained weight after they were supplied with gut bacteria—evidence that these bacteria helped the body harvest more energy from digested foods. Later studies showed that both obese mice and obese people harbored fewer Bacteroidetes bacteria than their normal-weight counterparts.

The microbiome is also proving critical in many aspects of health. The immune system needs it to develop properly. What's more, to protect themselves inside the body, commensal bacteria can interact with immune cell receptors or even induce the production of certain immune system cells. One abundant gut bacterium, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, proved to have anti-inflammatory properties, and its abundance seems to help protect against the recurrence of Crohn's disease. Likewise, Sarkis Mazmanian of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena showed that the human symbiont Bacteroides fragilis kept mice from getting colitis. And inserting bacteria isolated from healthy guts restored the microbial communities, curing chronic diarrhea in a patient infected with Clostridium difficile.

Herbert Virgin of Washington University School of Medicine finds a similar role for the virome. In mice, his team found that dormant herpesviruses revved up the immune system just enough to make the mice less susceptible to certain bacterial infections.

The ideas of a microbiome and a virome didn't even exist a decade ago. But now researchers have reason to hope they may one day manipulate the body's viral and microbial inhabitants to improve health and fight sickness.

ruining genetics

TechnologyReview | In 2009, a group of researchers based in the Netherlands published a stunning study on the genetics of human height—stunning because it failed to find much of a genetic component in one of the most obvious of inherited human traits. The group analyzed 54 recently identified genetic locations that statistical analysis suggested were the main contributors to height and discovered that all of them together accounted for only 4 to 6 percent of the height variance in thousands of subjects.

The "missing heritability" in the height study typifies many recent research reports in which large-scale genetic screens, known as genome-wide association studies, have identified a multitude of genes (or at least genetic neighborhoods) that are statistically associated with a biological trait like height or a disease like obesity, yet account for mystifyingly little of its propensity to run in families. What is interesting about Nadeau's findings is that even though they diminish the significance of single genes and the DNA sequences of individuals, the research preserves—and in some ways increases—the significance of family history, since even the genetic variants that parents and grandparents don't pass down through DNA seem to influence the traits of their children or grandchildren.

Nadeau, who is silver-haired and cheerful, has been investigating what he sometimes calls "funky" genetic results ever since sophisticated sequencing technologies became available about 10 years ago. Some of those results have been hinted at by traditional epigenetics, which has begun to trace changes that are transmitted from one generation to the next in animals even though the basic DNA sequence remains the same. (For example, researchers have found that rats whose cognitive performance was improved through environmental factors can pass those improvements down to offspring.) But where that field has typically focused on chemical modifications of DNA, Nadeau's work expands the notion of epigenetics to include genetic effects that may be transmitted by different molecular players: ribonucleic acids (or RNAs), which exert powerful regulatory effects on DNA.

Key evidence for Nadeau's general views on unconventional modes of inheritance grew out of a dissertation project that one of his students began around 2001. In the long tradition of misguided doctoral advice, everyone told Man-Yee Lam that her project was boring, derivative, and hardly worth doing; for five or six years, nothing in her results suggested otherwise. The focus of the project was testicular germ-cell tumors. It didn't become clear until much later that the experiment represented the first rigorous demonstration of a transgenerational effect, showing that genetic variations in a parent—even though they were not passed along to offspring—could dramatically change disease risks in those offspring.

Lam set out to see if she could identify interactions between several "modifier" genes—interactions that would increase susceptibility to testicular cancer in mice. She found lots of these interactions (some quite strong), completed her thesis, and graduated. Then, when the group started to write up the results for publication, they noticed something very peculiar: the effects had also occurred in some of the control animals bred from the same original population. In other words, males that had been bred so as not to inherit the disease mutations still had a statistically significant increase in their risk for testicular cancer, simply because the parents possessed a particular genetic variant. The results suggested that there could be patches of DNA in parents that affected the traits of children, even if the children did not inherit this bit of parental DNA.

Even before publication in 2007, Nadeau began describing the findings—to decidedly mixed reviews. He says, "If they were geneticists, there were all sorts of technical [objections] or 'It's not fair to talk about this in public. This is just too complicating, too—it's too everything!' One even said, 'Are you trying to ruin genetics?' "


Video - Ajit Varki talks about glycobiology in the context of evolution

Naturally Selected | Ajit Varki, distinguished professor in the departments of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine at the UCSD, was one of the first researchers to recognize the importance of glycans—the sugar molecules that decorate the surface of cells. He is profiled in the December issue of ASBMB Today, with a focus on the larger context of his work as co-founder of The Center for Academic Research in Anthropogeny (CARTA), which promotes transdisciplinary research into human origins.

Varki believes that sialic acids be responsible for major evolutionary advances. As he states in his interview with ASBMB, equating human evolution to a murder mystery, “every single cell in a human is covered with sugars, and research has now shown biological roles for glycans that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. So if you mess around with sialic acid biology, you end up changing a lot of functions.”

In this video he talks about the importance of, and his hopes for, the field of glycobiology.

genomic dark matter

Sciencemag | It used to seem so straightforward. DNA told the body how to build proteins. The instructions came in chapters called genes. Strands of DNA's chemical cousin RNA served as molecular messengers, carrying orders to the cells' protein factories and translating them into action. Between the genes lay long stretches of “junk DNA,” incoherent, useless, and inert.

That was then. In fact, gene regulation has turned out to be a surprisingly complex process governed by various types of regulatory DNA, which may lie deep in the wilderness of supposed “junk.” Far from being humble messengers, RNAs of all shapes and sizes are actually powerful players in how genomes operate. Finally, there's been increasing recognition of the widespread role of chemical alterations called epigenetic factors that can influence the genome across generations without changing the DNA sequence itself.

The scope of this “dark genome” became apparent in 2001, when the human genome was first published. Scientists expected to find as many as 100,000 genes packed into the 3 billion bases of human DNA; they were startled to learn that there were fewer than 35,000. (The current count is 21,000.) Protein-coding regions accounted for just 1.5% of the genome. Could the rest of our DNA really just be junk?

The deciphering of the mouse genome in 2002 showed that there must be more to the story. Mice and people turned out to share not only many genes but also vast stretches of noncoding DNA. To have been “conserved” throughout the 75 million years since the mouse and human lineages diverged, those regions were likely to be crucial to the organisms' survival.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

a physicist solves the city

NYTimes | “We spend all this time thinking about cities in terms of their local details, their restaurants and museums and weather,” West says. “I had this hunch that there was something more, that every city was also shaped by a set of hidden laws.”

And so West set out to solve the City. As he points out, this is an intellectual problem with immense practical implications. Urban population growth is the great theme of modern life, one that’s unfolding all across the world, from the factory boomtowns of Southern China to the sprawling favelas of Rio de Janeiro. As a result, for the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in urban areas. (The numbers of city dwellers are far higher in developed countries — the United States, for instance, is 82 percent urbanized.) Furthermore, the pace of urbanization is accelerating as people all over the world flee the countryside and flock to the crowded street.

This relentless urban growth has led to a renewed interest in cities in academia and in government. In February 2009, President Obama established the first White House Office of Urban Affairs, which has been told to develop a “policy agenda for urban America.” Meanwhile, new perspectives have come to the field of urban studies. Macro­economists, for instance, have focused on the role of cities in driving gross domestic product and improving living standards, while psychologists have investigated the impact of city life on self-control and short-term memory. Even architects are moving into the area: Rem Koolhaas, for one, has argued that architects have become so obsessed with pretty buildings that they’ve neglected the vital spaces between them.

But West wasn’t satisfied with any of these approaches. He didn’t want to be constrained by the old methods of social science, and he had little patience for the unconstrained speculations of architects. (West considers urban theory to be a field without principles, comparing it to physics before Kepler pioneered the laws of planetary motion in the 17th century.) Instead, West wanted to begin with a blank page, to study cities as if they had never been studied before. He was tired of urban theory — he wanted to invent urban science.

For West, this first meant trying to gather as much urban data as possible. Along with Luis Bettencourt, another theoretical physicist who had abandoned conventional physics, and a team of disparate researchers, West began scouring libraries and government Web sites for relevant statistics. The scientists downloaded huge files from the Census Bureau, learned about the intricacies of German infrastructure and bought a thick and expensive almanac featuring the provincial cities of China. (Unfortunately, the book was in Mandarin.) They looked at a dizzying array of variables, from the total amount of electrical wire in Frankfurt to the number of college graduates in Boise. They amassed stats on gas stations and personal income, flu outbreaks and homicides, coffee shops and the walking speed of pedestrians.

After two years of analysis, West and Bettencourt discovered that all of these urban variables could be described by a few exquisitely simple equations. For example, if they know the population of a metropolitan area in a given country, they can estimate, with approximately 85 percent accuracy, its average income and the dimensions of its sewer system. These are the laws, they say, that automatically emerge whenever people “agglomerate,” cramming themselves into apartment buildings and subway cars. It doesn’t matter if the place is Manhattan or Manhattan, Kan.: the urban patterns remain the same. West isn’t shy about describing the magnitude of this accomplishment. “What we found are the constants that describe every city,” he says. “I can take these laws and make precise predictions about the number of violent crimes and the surface area of roads in a city in Japan with 200,000 people. I don’t know anything about this city or even where it is or its history, but I can tell you all about it. And the reason I can do that is because every city is really the same.” After a pause, as if reflecting on his hyperbole, West adds: “Look, we all know that every city is unique. That’s all we talk about when we talk about cities, those things that make New York different from L.A., or Tokyo different from Albuquerque. But focusing on those differences misses the point. Sure, there are differences, but different from what? We’ve found the what.” Fist tap ProfGeo.

michael hudson goes subreal...,

Video - Why government is more afraid of debt than depression.

RealNews | JAY: So President Obama's deficit commission has reported. The press, the media, and most of the political punditry all seem far more worried about government debt than depression. Why?

HUDSON: Because they're essentially appointed by the banking interest. When the government runs into debt, it has to borrow off the banks. They want to scale down government debt in order to scale down government taxes. So it's part of a one-two punch against the economy, basically. To the deficit commission, a depression is the solution to the problem, not a problem. That's what they're trying to bring about, because you need a depression if you're going to lower wages by 20 percent.

JAY: And why do they want to do that?

HUDSON: Because they have the illusion that if you pay labor less, somehow you're going to make the economy more competitive, and the economy can earn its way out of debts--meaning their employers, the banks and the companies--and make more profits and pay more bonuses and stock options, and somehow their constituency, Wall Street and the corporate economy, will become richer if they can only impoverish the economy. So essentially you can think of it as between a parasite and the host economy. A smart parasite in nature actually is in a symbiosis with the host and tries to steer to new food. It wants the host to find new food, doesn't want it to get bigger; the parasite wants itself to get bigger. But to do that, it has to take over the host's brain and make the brain think that the parasite, in this case the host, is the industrial economy, the real economy, production and consumption. The parasite is basically the financial sector. That's the deficit commission. That's the largest financier of the Obama administration. Obama appointed Wall Street lobbyists for the deficit commission, and basically their mind is a one-track mind: reduce labor's wages. So what we have here is a dumb parasite, not a parasite. That's the problem that's facing the American economy today. The problem is that the parasite's not only taken over the brain of the economy, which was supposed to be the government, but it's taken over its own brain in the process. And it actually imagines that corporations can make larger profits and the industrial--the financial system can survive if they just bring on a depression. In fact, it'll be the exact opposite.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"c"onspiracy vs. "C"onspiracy in american history..,

MorrisBerman | American history can be seen as the story of a nation consistently choosing individual solutions over collective ones. One American who did dissent, however, was Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions he wrote: “The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin.”

And “ruin” is the operative word here. While there is certainly an upside to these four isms–the sunny side of technological innovation and the Yankee “can-do” mentality, for example–in the long run these unconscious mythologies, in dialectical fashion, began to turn against those caught up in their magic spell. It surely cannot be an accident that 25% of all the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in American jails (1% of the entire US adult population); that two-thirds of the world’s consumption of antidepressants occurs in the United States; that 24% of the American population say that it’s OK to use violence in the pursuit of one’s goals, 44% support the torture of alleged or suspected terrorists, and 39% want Muslims in the US to be required to carry a religious ID on them at all times (why not just make it a yellow star, and be done with it?); that the country has the greatest percentage of single-person dwellings in the world, the highest homicide rate, the largest military budget (by several orders of magnitude), and the greatest number of square feet of shopping malls on the surface of the planet. The data on ignorance, which I have documented elsewhere, are breathtaking, and Robert Putnam’s description (in Bowling Alone) of the collapse of community, trust, and friendship is one of the saddest things I have ever read. Dialectically, and ironically, American “success” became American ruin; the crash of October 2008 was merely the tip of the iceberg.

The power of isms, certainly in the American case, derives from the fact that they are unconscious, embedded deep in the psyche. They constitute Conspiracies in that those who hold them are like marionettes on strings, screaming “Obama!” (for example) without realizing that the new president can no more buck the elites running the country than he can dismantle the mythologies that drive its citizens–himself included. As for the individual, so for the nation: the only hope is to see ourselves as we are seen, from the outside, as it were. And therein lies the paradox. For the four Conspiracies close in on themselves, forming a kind of mirror-lined glass sphere that does not permit any dissonant information to enter. Sandel, Mills, Rothkopf, Bellah, Mead, Leach, Appleby, Putnam–America’s finest, really–will never become household words, and if they did, it would probably be as objects of contempt. For this is finally the most terrifying thing about isms or Conspiracies: we do not choose them; rather, it is they that choose us.

sizing up the egregore....,

RawStory | WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange denounced "business McCarthyism" in the United States after the Bank of America halted all transactions to the website Saturday.

The Australian, who was spending his second full day on bail, vowed the whistle-blowing site would carry on releasing controversial leaked US diplomatic cables as he insisted his life was under threat.

Bank of America, the largest US bank, halted all transactions for WikiLeaks, joining other institutions that have refused to process payments for the website since it started to publish the documents last month.

"Bank of America joins in the actions previously announced by MasterCard, PayPal, Visa Europe and others and will not process transactions of any type that we have reason to believe are intended for WikiLeaks," it said in a statement.

"This decision is based upon our reasonable belief that WikiLeaks may be engaged in activities that are, among other things, inconsistent with our internal policies for processing payments."

Assange said there was a fiscal witch-hunt against the website.

"It's a new type of business McCarthyism in the US to deprive this organisation of the funds that it needs to survive, to deprive me personally of the funds that my lawyers need to protect me against extradition to the US or to Sweden," Assange told AFP.

The term, referring to allegations of treason or subversion without proof, was coined to describe the anti-communist pursuits of former US senator Joseph McCarthy from the late 1940s to the 1950s.

131 arrested last week at the white house...,

Video - Veterans for Peace Protest at the Whitehouse.

Examiner | Each veteran answered why they had had gone to the gates of the White House to get arrested. The first veteran, out of the military for two and half years, answered:

"I can't sit by anymore and let these atrocities continue. I was with 10th Mountain Division in New York in the initial surge..deployed August 6, 2006. I was injured.. came back stateside... deployed back, wounded."

There to be arrested was what the veteran said was "very difficult and at the same time, very easy" because of the others standing with him.

"Hope has a cost," Hedges told those soon to be arrested. "Hope requires personal risk."

"It is not about the 'right attitude' or 'peace of mind.'

"Hope is action. Hope is doing something.

Hope which is always non-violent... knows that an injustice visited on our neighbor is an injustice visited on all of us."

A second veteran said he knew when he went to Iraq, "it wasn't right."

"You can't come home from that... You can't know you took human life and not want to do something... being there five years... blowing their homes apart and watching the infrastructure degrade instead of improve.

"There was nothing going on benefiting the people of Iraq," he said. "Consistent night raids, check points and harassment was the daily routine of what we did in Iraq. From a moral standpoint, nobody would agree with that."

Hedges oration included:

"Be afraid, they tell us. Surrender your liberties to us so we can make the world safe from terror. Don't resist. Embrace the alienation of our cheerful conformity. Buy our products. Without them you are worthless. Become our brands. Do not look up from your electronic hallucinations. No. Above all do not think. Obey."

The resisters at the gathering chanted loudly as they resisted police orders to get away from the White House fence: "They say, "Get back." We say, "Fight back.

"Hope, from now on, will look like this," Hedges said. "Hope will not come in trusting in the ultimate goodness of Barack Obama, who, like Herod of old, sold out his people.

"It will not be realized by... attempting to influence the Democratic Party. It will not come through our bankrupt liberal institutions -- from the press, to the withered stump that is the labor movement.

It is not having a positive attitude or pretending that happy thoughts and false optimism will make the world better.... Hope does not mean that our protests will suddenly awaken the dead consciences, the atrophied souls, of the plutocrats running Halliburton, Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil or the government.

"If the enemies of hope are finally victorious in this station, the poison of violence will become not only the language of power but the language of opposition. And those who resist with nonviolence are the last thin line of defense between a civil society and its disintegration.

"When you put your body on the line and you say you won't let this happen anymore and you'll do whatever it takes to make that happen, it's something spiritual," explained a Veteran for Peace.

"I did things I'll never forgive myself for. I did my job. Those were just people trying to defend their homes. not have the intestinal fortitude to stand up when I knew I should have refused to serve."

private manning's cell life....,

Independent | The harsh prison detention conditions endured by Bradley Manning – the US soldier who is alleged to have supplied classified government documents to WikiLeaks – have emerged.

For the last seven months, Private Manning, 23, has been kept in a cell six feet wide and 12 feet long, in solitary confinement at a maximum security military jail at Quantico, Virginia.

Lieutenant Colonel David Coombes, the lawyer defending him, pointed out that his client, who faces a 52-year sentence if convicted, is still being held on "Prevention of Injury Watch" for those deemed to be at risk of self-harm.

Friends of Private Manning say that this has become a means by the authorities to pressurise him into giving evidence against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

A typical day for Private Manning begins with being woken at 5am in the cell, which has a drinking fountain and a toilet. He is then allowed to put on his clothes, which he surrendered on going to bed the night before.

Under the rules, Private Manning is not allowed to sleep at any time between 5am and 8pm; if he does so, he is made to sit up or stand by the guards. He is allowed just one hour of exercise a day, even then not in the fresh air, but an empty room where he can walk in figures of eight. Any attempt by him to keep himself busy by, for example, doing press-ups, or sit-ups, is forbidden.

He is not allowed to associate with his fellow inmates and has never seen them, although he does occasionally hear their voices.

Private Manning is allowed to watch local television channels, for up to three hours on weekdays; sometimes more at weekends. But he does not have access to wider news coverage. He is allowed one book and one magazine at a time, from an approved list of 15, and is allowed approved visitors at prescribed times. Lt Col Coombes said the guards have, at all times, behaved correctly towards Private Manning. But, under the regulations, their conversations with him must be minimal.

The guards have to check every five minutes that Private Manning is ok, and he has to verbally confirm that he is alright. The same checks are continued during the night, and, if the guards cannot see Private Manning because he has pulled a blanket over his head (he is allowed blankets but not sheets or pillows) then they wake him up.

When Mr Assange was released from British custody on bail last week, awaiting extradition to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual assault, he vowed to continue leaking classified documents on WikiLeaks.

will assange regret wikileaks?

Guardian | Not everyone who decides to leak manages to escape the harsher penalties. Mordechai Vanunu, the technician who leaked details of the Israeli nuclear weapons programme to the Sunday Times in 1986, was pursued to England, lured to Italy by a female Mossad agent, kidnapped, and jailed for 18 years, and spent 11 in solitary confinement. He also remained convinced that he had done the right thing. If he has regrets, it is about the way he chose to leak the story.

"It was a mistake to go with one newspaper, but I didn't have any experience with the media," he said in an interview in Jerusalem after his release; significantly, WikiLeaks worked with five separate publications in five different countries. "My target was to bring information to the world, so the best way would have been a press conference or to send it to 20 newspapers so that it would not be controlled by anyone. Now things have changed and the internet has made it much easier for information to be passed on."

Vanunu had plenty of opportunities to decide whether it was all worth it. "There was a lot of pressure, a lot of attempts at brainwashing," he said. "I decided from the beginning that they could have my body in prison but my spirit, mind, brain, I would keep free, under my control; that would be my way out."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

science: the breakthroughs of 2010 and insights of the decade

AAAS | Until this year, all human-made objects have moved according to the laws of classical mechanics. Back in March, however, a group of researchers designed a gadget that moves in ways that can only be described by quantum mechanics—the set of rules that governs the behavior of tiny things like molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. In recognition of the conceptual ground this experiment breaks, the ingenuity behind it, and its many potential applications, Science has called this discovery the most significant scientific advance of 2010.

Physicists Andrew Cleland and John Martinis from the University of California at Santa Barbara and their colleagues designed the machine—a tiny metal paddle of semiconductor, visible to the naked eye—and coaxed it into dancing with a quantum groove. First, they cooled the paddle until it reached its “ground state,” or the lowest energy state permitted by the laws of quantum mechanics (a goal long-sought by physicists). They then raised the widget’s energy by a single quantum to produce a purely quantum-mechanical state of motion. They even managed to put the gadget in both states at once, so that it literally vibrated a little and a lot at the same time—a bizarre phenomenon allowed by the weird rules of quantum mechanics.

Science and its publisher, AAAS, have recognized this first quantum machine as the 2010 Breakthrough of the Year. They have also compiled nine other important scientific accomplishments from this past year into a top 10 list, appearing in a special news feature in the journal’s 17 December 2010 issue. Additionally, Science news writers and editors have chosen to spotlight 10 “Insights of the Decade” that have transformed the landscape of science in the 21st century.

Science’s list of the nine other groundbreaking achievements from 2010 includes:

Synthetic Biology. In a defining moment for biology and biotechnology, researchers built a synthetic genome and used it to transform the identity of a bacterium. The genome replaced the bacterium’s DNA so that it produced a new set of proteins—an achievement that prompted a Congressional hearing on synthetic biology. In the future, researchers envision synthetic genomes that are custom-built to generate biofuels, pharmaceuticals, or other useful chemicals.

Neandertal Genome. Researchers sequenced the Neandertal genome from the bones of three female Neandertals who lived in Croatia sometime between 38,000 and 44,000 years ago. New methods of sequencing degraded fragments of DNA allowed scientists to make the first direct comparisons between the modern human genome and that of our Neandertal ancestors.

HIV Prophylaxis. Two HIV prevention trials of different, novel strategies reported unequivocal success: A vaginal gel that contains the anti-HIV drug tenofovir reduced HIV infections in women by 39% and an oral pre-exposure prophylaxis led to 43.8% fewer HIV infections in a group of men and transgender women who have sex with men.

Exome Sequencing/Rare Disease Genes. By sequencing just the exons of a genome, or the tiny portion that actually codes for proteins, researchers who study rare inherited diseases caused by a single, flawed gene were able to identify specific mutations underlying at least a dozen diseases.

Molecular Dynamics Simulations. Simulating the gyrations that proteins make as they fold has been a combinatorial nightmare. Now, researchers have harnessed the power of one of the world’s most powerful computers to track the motions of atoms in a small, folding protein for a length of time 100 times longer than any previous efforts.

Quantum Simulator. To describe what they see in the lab, physicists cook up theories based on equations. Those equations can be fiendishly hard to solve. This year, though, researchers found a short-cut by making quantum simulators—artificial crystals in which spots of laser light play the role of ions, and atoms trapped in the light stand in for electrons. The devices provide quick answers to theoretical problems in condensed matter physics and they might eventually help solve mysteries such as superconductivity.

Next-Generation Genomics. Faster and cheaper sequencing technologies are enabling very large-scale studies of both ancient and modern DNA. The 1000 Genomes Project, for example, has already identified much of the genome variation that makes us uniquely human—and other projects in the works are set to reveal much more of the genome’s function.

RNA Reprogramming. Reprogramming cells—turning back their developmental clocks to make them behave like unspecialized “stem cells” in an embryo—has become a standard lab technique for studying diseases and development. This year, researchers found a way to do it using synthetic RNA. Compared with previous methods, the new technique is twice as fast, 100 times as efficient, and potentially safer for therapeutic use.

The Return of the Rat. Mice rule the world of laboratory animals, but for many purposes researchers would rather use rats. Rats are easier to work with and anatomically more similar to human beings; their big drawback is that methods used to make “knockout mice”—animals tailored for research by having specific genes precisely disabled—don’t work for rats. A flurry of research this year, however, promises to bring “knockout rats” to labs in a big way.

Finally, to celebrate the end of the current decade, Science news reporters and editors have taken a step back from their weekly reporting to take a broader look at 10 of the scientific insights that have changed the face of science since the dawn of the new millennium. Here are their 10 “Insights of the Decade”:

secrets of the axolotl

Spiegel | The axolotl is one of a kind in nature: It can regenerate severed limbs, organs and even grow back its spinal column after injuries. At a new research center in Hanover, Germany, researchers are trying to unlock the Mexican salamander's secrets -- and whether they can be applied to humans.

They appear to be quite content. Around 100 salamanders are bobbing around in the aquarium at the Hanover Medical School in Germany. Their brachial gills sprout like hair from their heads and their tiny mouths seem to smile as they press their tiny front feet against the sides of the aquarium.

They don't all look the same, however: Some are missing an arm or a leg; others have a stump where a limb is in the process of growing back.

These are no ordinary amphibians. Many have had flaps of skin removed or parts of their limbs cut off -- under sedation of course -- by scientists investigating their regenerative capabilities. "Coagulation sets in instantly", says scientist Björn Menger. "You can almost watch the healing process happening." It only takes a few months until the body part has regenerated completely -- "the younger ones are even faster," says molecular biologist Kerstin Reimers-Fadhlaoui.

It is this incredible ability to regenerate that makes the axolotl so important to science. Limbs grow back as do parts of organs and even sections of their brain and spinal column. They are unique in the world of higher vertebrates.

In September 2010, molecular biologists, surgeons and amphibian experts set up a center for axolotl research in Hanover. Their hope is that they can unlock the healing secrets of the axolotl to help burn victims and amputees in the future. They also believe the animal may hold the key to longer life and prolonged youth and health. The axolotl lives extremely long for a salamander -- ages of 25 years have been documented. But it never really becomes an adult, remaining at the larva stage of development its entire life. Fist tap Big Don.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

rms - rejection of control

Guardian | The Anonymous web protests over WikiLeaks are the internet equivalent of a mass demonstration. It's a mistake to call them hacking (playful cleverness) or cracking (security breaking). The LOIC program that is being used by the group is prepackaged so no cleverness is needed to run it, and it does not break any computer's security. The protesters have not tried to take control of Amazon's website, or extract any data from MasterCard. They enter through the site's front door, and it just can't cope with the volume.

Calling these protests DDoS, or distributed denial of service, attacks is misleading, too. A DDoS attack is done with thousands of "zombie" computers. Typically, somebody breaks the security of those computers (often with a virus) and takes remote control of them, then rigs them up as a "botnet" to do in unison whatever he directs (in this case, to overload a server). The Anonymous protesters' computers are not zombies; presumably they are being individually operated.

No – the proper comparison is with the crowds that descended last week on Topshop stores. They didn't break into the stores or take any goods from them, but they sure caused a nuisance for the owner, Philip Green. I wouldn't like it one bit if my store (supposing I had one) were the target of a large protest. Amazon and MasterCard don't like it either, and their clients were probably annoyed. Those who hoped to buy at Topshop on the day of the protest may have been annoyed too.

The internet cannot function if websites are frequently blocked by crowds, just as a city cannot function if its streets are constantly full by protesters. But before you advocate a crackdown on internet protests, consider what they are protesting: on the internet, users have no rights. As the WikiLeaks case has demonstrated, what we do online, we do on sufferance.

In the physical world, we have the right to print and sell books. Anyone trying to stop us would need to go to court. That right is weak in the UK (consider superinjunctions), but at least it exists. However, to set up a website we need the co-operation of a domain name company, an ISP, and often a hosting company, any of which can be pressured to cut us off. In the US, no law explicitly establishes this precarity. Rather, it is embodied in contracts that we have allowed those companies to establish as normal. It is as if we all lived in rented rooms and landlords could evict anyone at a moment's notice.

Reading, too, is done on sufferance. In the physical world, you can buy a book with cash, and you own it. You are free to give, lend or sell it to someone else. You are also free to keep it. However, in the virtual world, e-readers have digital handcuffs to stop you from giving, lending or selling a book, as well as licences forbidding that. Last year, Amazon used a back door in its e-reader to remotely delete thousands of copies of 1984, by George Orwell. The Ministry of Truth has been privatised.

In the physical world, we have the right to pay money and to receive money – even anonymously. On the internet, we can receive money only with the approval of organisations such as PayPal and MasterCard, and the "security state" tracks payments moment by moment. Punishment-on-accusation laws such as the Digital Economy Act extend this pattern of precarity to internet connectivity. What you do on your own computer is also controlled by others, with non-free software. Microsoft and Apple systems implement digital handcuffs – features specifically designed to restrict users. Continued use of a program or feature is precarious too: Apple put a back door in the iPhone to remotely delete installed applications and anotherin Windows enabled Microsoft to install software changes without asking permission.

I started the free software movement to replace user-controlling non-free software with freedom-respecting free software. With free software, we can at least control what software does in our own computers.

The US state today is a nexus of power for corporate interests. Since it must pretend to serve the people, it fears the truth may leak. Hence its parallel campaigns against WikiLeaks: to crush it through the precarity of the internet and to formally limit freedom of the press.

States seek to imprison the Anonymous protesters rather than official torturers and murderers. The day when our governments prosecute war criminals and tell us the truth, internet crowd control may be our most pressing remaining problem. I will rejoice if I see that day.

wikileaks - the idea and the man

Guardian | It is nearly three weeks since the Guardian and a handful of other news organisations began publishing stories and selected US state department cables based on the 250,000 documents passed to WikiLeaks. In that time the world has changed in a number of interesting ways. Millions of people around the world have glimpsed truths about their rulers and governments that had previously been hidden, or merely suspected.

Hackers' revenge
The cables have revealed wrongdoing, war crimes, corruption, hypocrisy, greed, espionage, double-dealing and the cynical exercise of power on a wondrous scale. We feel some sympathy with the poster on a Guardian comment thread this week who complained of Wiki-fatigue. The revelations have flowed at such a rate that it may be months, or even years, before the full impact of what has been disclosed can be fully absorbed. It is all too easy to feel defeated by the sheer scale of the blurred torrent of information unleashed on the world.

During these three weeks the man who kicked this particular hornet's nest, Julian Assange, has been arrested, jailed and freed. Hackers have taken revenge on huge corporations accused of aiding those who would dearly like to choke off the organisation he founded and runs. The US government has announced a thoroughgoing review of the principles on which it shares the intelligence it collects. The porous nature of the digital world has been driven home to those in charge of international businesses, banks, armies, governments – and even news and gossip websites. The implications for large state databases are as yet unknown. And now Assange is promising to speed up the release of the documents and to scatter them more broadly around the world.

Though the global implications of what has happened are far reaching, there is an inevitable sense in which the story is, indeed, being reduced to a biopic – the life and times of Julian Assange. In some ways this is a fair representation of events, but it is also limiting, and highly diversionary. There is no question that Assange has a missionary zeal, technical skill and high intelligence, without which the whole WikiLeaks project would never have gained its present prominence and/or notoriety.

In last Sunday's Observer Henry Porter compared him to the 18th-century libertine, John Wilkes. Wilkes is remembered now as the fearless publisher, editor and politician who fought crucial skirmishes in the journey towards a free press in Britain. He risked exile, imprisonment and death for the right to publish – including the proceedings of parliament. But in his own times he was also regarded as a rake. One biographer has noted how "the reports of his sexual liaisons – both factual and fictitious – leaked from the private realm to fuel the hectic debate over his qualities as a public man".

The parallels with Assange are hard to ignore. He found himself in Wandsworth prison, not for breaches of the Espionage Act, but because he is wanted for questioning in Sweden over sex offences relating to two women he met earlier this year. To many (though doubtless not to the women) this is a side show to the main event. To others – including Assange and his legal team (who have disparagingly referred to the events as a "honeytrap") – this is a dark conspiracy to frame him, in much the same way that Al Capone was put out of circulation for tax offences.

case against assange impossible without manning

Antiwar | The Obama Administration is reportedly offering a possible plea bargain to the detained Pfc Bradley Manning, if he agrees to testify against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that Assange pressured him to release the various classified documents.

Manning is facing several decades in a military prison over his alleged role in the releases, but as an active duty member of the military he is being charged under the military’s legal code, not the civilian one.

Which makes charging Julian Assange, who seems to be the administration’s primary target, considerably more difficult, as he is neither an American citizen nor a member of the American military, nor indeed were any of his alleged misdeeds committed on American soil.

This makes the Justice Department’s hopes of prosecuting him extremely difficult, but right now those efforts seem to be centering on claims Assange could be charged with conspiracy for “encouraging” Manning. The only evidence to that effect is a chatlog, and would almost certainly be dismissed as hearsay unless they can convince Manning to testify as well.

Sources say that the administration has yet to determine exactly what sort of plea bargain it is planning to offer Manning for incriminating Assange, but the bidding may well begin with a pillow and sheets, both of which Manning has been barred from having in detention. Amid reports of his deteriorating health, it remains to be seen how the administration may be able to coerce him into cutting a deal.

reigning in a superpower not following the rule of law...,

Guardian | Speaking to reporters outside Ellingham Hall, the Norfolk house at which he is staying on bail following his release from prison, Assange said WikiLeaks faced "what appears to be an illegal investigation ... certain people who are alleged to be affiliated to us have been detained, followed around, had their computers seized and so on".

He said he believed it was "80% likely" that the US authorities were seeking to prepare an attempt to have him extradited there to face charges of espionage.

He added that he was reliant on public opinion to rein in "a superpower that does not appear to be following the rule of law".

"I would say that there is a very aggressive investigation, that a lot of face has been lost by some people, and some people have careers to make by pursuing famous cases, but that is actually something that needs monitoring," he said.

He criticised the way Swedish authorities have sought to have him extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault – the reason he was held in jail for 10 days.

"That is something that actually needs monitoring, it needs scrutiny," he said. "We have seen this with the Swedish prosecutor in representations to the British government here, and the British courts say that it did not need to provide a shred of evidence – said this three times – and in fact has provided nothing, not a single shred of evidence in its extradition hearings, in the hearings that ended up putting me in solitary confinement for 10 days.

"Similarly, in the United States, what appears to be a secret grand jury investigation against me, or our organisation – not a single comment about what is actually going on."

The bulk of WikiLeaks' efforts were currently devoted to fending off various attacks, including technical assaults on its website, Assange said.

"Over 85% of our economic resources are spent dealing with attacks – dealing with technical attacks, dealing with political attacks, dealing with legal attacks, not doing journalism," he said. "And that, if you like, is attack upon investigative journalism."

Assange said he was worried about the prospect of being sent to the US, adding: "There have been many calls by senior political figures in the United States, including elected ones in the Senate, for my execution, the kidnapping of my staff, the execution of the young soldier Bradley Manning ... that's a very, very serious business.

"The United States has shown recently that its institutions seem to be failing to follow the rule of law. And dealing with a superpower that does not appear to be following the rule of law is a serious business."

US efforts to prosecute Assange appear to rely on connecting him to Manning, the presumed source of the leaked cables.