The biggest news this week (that is, if SpaceX doesn’t pull off a first-stage landing this evening) has to be FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s decision to recommend to the FCC that it reclassify both landline and mobile broadband as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Because it’s a little technical, I’m going to spend just a little bit longer than usual trying to explain.
The History: In 2010, facing growing concerns about threats to the neutrality of the internet, the FCC tried to strike a “balance” between the needs of consumers and the desires of the major internet service providers. The Open Internet Order was supposed to prevent service providers from charging content providers to have their data transmitted to users faster (or slowing the data from those who refused to pay), without submitting ISPs to full regulation as telecommunications services. Verizon leveled a lawsuit at the FCC, and last year the net neutrality provisions were struck down. The reason: the FCC was trying to regulate ISPs as though they were telecommunications services without actually labeling them as such. Cue this week, when FCC chairman Tom Wheeler decided that the best way was to do what we all said he should have done in the first place: reclassify ISPs as telecommunications services, regulated under Title II.
The Argument: I’m not going to try to explain why net neutrality is important. It’s been done so many times already. But it’s virtually certain that AT&T, Verizon, and others will launch lawsuits against the government to try to stop them. We know why: it’s far more profitable to be able to charge everyone for everything all the time, and this prevents that. What you’re interested in is their attempts at justification. As the right-wing loony bin The Heritage Foundation tells us, it’s bad for consumers (though bear in mind it’s the same people who brought you such articles as “Can Gays Force Michigan to Marry Them?” and “Five More Reasons to Completely Repeal Obamacare in 2015“) because it’s “a threat to internet freedom” (unlike, of course, the threat posed by only the rich being allowed to be heard). Verizon and AT&T’s argument is a more specific one: the FCC doesn’t have authority because ISPs are an “Information Service” and not a “Telecommunications Service.” The courts await, but Wheeler is pretty sure they’re wrong.
Why would they be wrong? Simple: look up. That definition there is the one for “information service,” and it includes a very important caveat. An information service is not an information service when it includes “any use of any [information service] capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system”. The argument the ISPs are using is basically, we’re not a telecommunications service because we don’t just send data back and forth, we make information available. Except in making it available, it’s pretty clear they also manage and control a telecommunications system, because the very thing they want to do — “paid prioritization” of data — is management of data on a telecommunications system. Telecommunications, by the way, is “the transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing”.
What next? On February 26 the FCC will vote to accept Wheeler’s recommendations or not, many of which — including how Title II will be implemented — have not been made public. After that the ISPs will sue, and hopefully (though not necessarily because the Supreme Court is supremely messed up) pass it into law. Long story short: this could take a while to take effect.
Check out Ars Technica for the latest analysis, and Wheeler’s own article in Wired from this week for explanation of the proposal.
This week, the UK took a major step toward curing mitochondrial disease, by voting to allow a procedure that critics decried as ultimately leading to “designer babies” or allowing “three-parent children.” Both of those criticisms are, of course, absurd. The procedure, called cytoplasmic transfer, involves taking the nucleus from the mother’s egg and transplanting it into a donor egg whose nucleus has been destroyed. This can be done before fertilization or after (the latter is what is depicted above). Doing so changes something important about the child: the mitochondria. Unlike almost every other part of your cells, which come from the genetic material in the DNA of the nucleus, the mitochondria (the little power-generators inside your cells) just hitch a ride, almost like they’re symbiotes (technically, since they can’t live outside our cells and trade information back and forth with the nucleus they’re organelles, but they might’ve been symbiotes once upon a time). They come entirely from the mother and are in every cell in the child’s body, which means that if something goes wrong with them it goes wrong badly. Cytoplasmic transfer allows parents whose children are very likely to have mitochondrial disease to swap out the mitochondria for those in a donor egg who doesn’t pose the same risk. Even better: any child born this way will have the donor’s mitochondria, and therefore won’t be passing the problem on to their children. Rather than “three-parent” babies (or really even “three-person” babies) one researcher preferred to think of them as “2.001” parent babies, because the amount of genetic information involved in the swap is so small. While there are still a few more regulatory hurdles to jump, doctors and patients alike are hoping to get started soon, with the first children born under the new law coming into the world next year.
Also, in case you’re wondering, there are some people alive today because of the procedure, because it was used in the US until it was banned in 2002 due to concerns that have since been cleared up by scientific progress. You can find out about the vote here, and about Alana Saarinen, a girl with “three parents” (she won’t use the term) here.
Taking Pictures of Pluto
That picture above is the first one of Pluto taken by the New Horizons spacecraft as it started its first imaging run last week. Right now, as you can see, it’s around two hundred million kilometres away from Pluto (124million miles), roughly four times as far away as Mars is when it gets as close as it can. So it’s a long way off still. But it’s going to get much, much closer. Travelling at roughly 31,000 miles per hour, that distance should close pretty quickly. As has been said before, these first shots are for navigation, and on March 10 the first course adjustments will be made on the basis of these observations. It’s going to be an exciting year for fans of the (classical) ninth planet. Check out NASA.gov for more.
“Mother” of The Pill
News broke last week that Professor Carl Djerassi, a man instrumental in the development of oral contraceptives, had passed away. In the 1950s, when working in Mexico at a company called Syntex, his team was the first in the world to synthesize artificial norethisterone, which would go on to be an ingredient in the first birth control pills. Though he was often called the “father” of the pill, he confided once that he’d much rather be called the mother of the pill. And though he never won a Nobel Prize for his work, he received many many others. If you have the time and the inclination, check out this interview with him from 2011.
Updated Sleep Requirements
Are you getting enough sleep? Now you can know, thanks to updated recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation. The new guidelines for the most part widen the recommended amounts — for instance suggesting that teens should get 8-10 hours, rather than 8.5-9.5 — but they also added two new categories (18-25 and 65+). If you check out the list you may also notice that less than seven hours a night isn’t recommended for anyone. Yes, I’m talking to you, “I’m fine with five hours no really” people. So go on, get to bed, or at least have a nap in the afternoon.
Best of the Rest
Once again the week was packed. Here’s things I didn’t get to talking about: SpaceX is trying to land again (tonight!); support is growing for a NASA mission to Europa (in the 2020s); materials scientists have come up with a steel that might be a cheaper alternative to titanium; Opportunity is probably going to be shut down to make room in the budget for other space science; scientists may have found a way to make plants more drought tolerant; FactCheck.org is now checking science statements made by US politicians (this should be fun); and a new calculation has predicted that there will be a WHOLE LOT of “earth-like” planets… leading once again to the question “where is everybody?”
That’s all for this week. As you go, check out this great narrated video about the dark side of the moon from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio.
Have a great week.