Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Piracy Bill Walks The Plank

So that's what a digital revolt looks like. A million-and-a-half emails and almost 90,000 phone calls to US Congress. Public complaints from Google and Facebook. Even a few thousand old-fashioned letters to the US House of Representatives.
This internet ire, marshalled under the banner of American Censorship Day on 16 November, came in opposition to the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), legislation aimed at tackling the online trade in copyrighted movies and music.
Claims that the act, if passed, will "break the internet" helped persuade several big companies, including a trade group which represents Apple and Microsoft, to withdraw their support. Then, last week, SOP& backers in the House said they were open to changing the bill. Internet Activists 1, Big Media 0. But elsewhere the media barons appear to be winning. Over the past few years, several countries have debated or enacted laws that in the name of tackling piracy, have handed more power to large companies.
In the process, say activists. the movie and music industries have gained the ability to censor websites. The recent revolt was louder because SOPA is one of the more radical new proposals. It would give copyright holders the legal right to have sites which they deem to be peddling stolen content shut down a controversial power the European Court of justice has just ruled against Concern here is less about blatant piracy, which gets limited sympathy from activists, and more about sites on which copyrighted content is used in creativeways.
 YouTube, for example, is packed with satirical remixes of songs and films. "If SOPA were enacted, just one such mash-up could bring down an entire site," notes Eric Goldman, a technology lawyer at Santa Clara University in California. '"Talk about collateral damage," he says," The bill also gives copyright holders the right to force search engines to expunge infringing sites f rom search results." Google and others know that it is often impossible to determine whether a site is engaging in piracyor creative reuse or some combination of the two. That'sone reason why the search engine teamed up with Facebook and other sites to run a full-page advert opposing the bill in The New York Times.
Other moves by copyright advocates have been less crude and more successful. This July, five big US internet service providers committed to repeatedly caution - and then potentially disconnect - subscribers who share copyrighted material. The measure had limited opposition, but Goldman and others warn that it is not sufficiently overseen.
That's a fear shared across the Atlantic, where British activists have warned that any proposals to speed up processing of industry requests will erode courts' ability to assess claims of copyright breaches, In Ireland, judges have already been sidelined. After a legal battle in 2009 with a recording industry group, eircom, the country's largest ISP said it would no longer contest blocking requests from the group. None have yet been submitted. There is a lot of copyright theft online, and content creators have a right to demand protection. Yet the reusers of content, from music remixers to bloggers, are also creators. Striking a balance between the two will prove important if politicians want to stop the angry emails.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Leaks, Hacks and Science

The words "science" and "censorship"clo not sit easily together. And yet over the past decade, science has come to occupy an increasingly important role in debates over free speech. This is partly due to public clashes between science and politics, from the censoring of climate science in the US under the Bush administration to David Nutt's dismissal as the UK government's adviser on drugs after voicing his views on the safety of ecstasy.
But it also reflects a revolution in access to information which has exposed every sector of society to an unprecedented level of scrutiny. From WikiLeaks to phone hacking, the tension between openness, privacy and confidentiality has become one of the defining issues of our time. Scientists have unexpectedly found themselves at the heart of this debate, as the latest round of leaked climate email s makes abundantly clear.
In recognition of this trend, the award-winning magazine Index on Censorship, which explores challenges to freedom of speech, has dedicated its latest issue, "Dark Matter", to science. One well-documented clash between science and censorship is in the use of libel actions to try to silence scientists and science writers; the journal Nature and Richard Dawkins are among the most recent to face suits. Scientists and science writers have emerged from some of these battles as free speech champions Wilinshurst and NASA climate scientist lames I lansen. There have also been striking incidents within science itself, perhaps most notoriously during the original "climategate scandal at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.
The hacked emails revealed a reluctance to comply with freedom of information requests and possible attempts to conceal data. The information commissioner recently ruled that UEA should release its data, and partly in response to climategate. the UK's Royal Society has set up an investigation into openness. Not surprisingly there are debates about the proper course of action. Our special issue explores two opposing views. Fred Pearce, the leading chronicler of climategate, makes the argument for open access for the benefit of science and public discourse. Michael Halpern of the US Union of Concerned Scientists warns about freedom of information being deployed as a form of harassment.
He is calling on legislators to consider whether there is sufficient protection of academic free speech. This view has been echoed in the UK by Royal Society president Paul Nurse, as well as in the House of Lords during a debate on the proposed Protection of Freedoms legislation. The bill includes an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act which will oblige public authorities to release data sets in reusable electronic form and extend the range of FOI to the wider public sector. Two of the academics in the Lords. historian Paul flew and philosopher Onora O'Neill, raised concerns about the consequences for research. flew has suggested including an exemption for unpublished research (which already exists in Scottish WI legislation), warning of the possible harm that may be caused if data is released before it has been peer-reviewed.
However, even if an exemption is included in the bill, the combination of hackers, leakers and the sheer momentum of the open-access movement is likely to limit its scope, particularly for politically sensitive research. The leak of a further 5000 climategate cmails last week is a case in point. So there may be no other choice but to embrace full transparency. Any discussion about access to information cannot ignore the suppression of data within the drugs and medical devices industry. Lack of transparency in drug trials has left doctors dangerously ignorant of potential side effects. This is nothing new, but the demand for openness here too may become irresistible. As Deborah Cohen reports In our Issue, Thomas Jefferson of the Cochrane Collaboration believes that open access should be the default setting for drug trials once a drug is registered. Yet despite the backing of all the most eminent scientific institutions for openness there has been limited success. For now the focus remains on libel.
The pressing need for reform has resulted in an unprecedented campaigning alliance between free speech groups and science. For the past two years, the organisation Index on Censorship has been working on this with Sense about Science and the writers' association English PEN. There is no doubt that libel's chilling effect on scientific research and discourse has been a pivotal factor in the success of the campaign. While politicians are suspicious of giving any further freedom to the media, when presented with evidence of the extent to which scientists and science writers have been silenced and bullied by individuals, interest groups and industry, they have found it impossible to ignore. Reform that makes it less easy to use the law as a tool of intimidation and that introduces a robust public interest defence will be of critical importance for the future open discussion of issues of scientific concern. As Wilmshurst and Singh have demonstrated in their own costly and exhausting libel battles, all too often the fight for free speech depends on the courage of individuals. Both the law and the culture within the science establishment have to change in order to safeguard open debate. Freedom of expression depends on it.

Airbursts Trigger Martian Landslide

THE surface of Mars may be cold and desolate, but it is not unchanging.  New images show that avalanches of dust scour dozens of Martian sites each year. Without the abundant water and plate tectonics that keep Earth's surface in motion, the surface of Mars is much slower to change. But in one way it is more active.
While Earth's atmosphere shields us from asteroids smaller than 30 metres across, which burn up or shatter too high above the ground to have much effect on us, Mars's atmosphere is just I per cent the density of Earth's. Even rocks less than a metre across make it to the ground and gouge out craters. NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spots about 20 new craters between 1 and 50 metres across on Mars each year -scars that were not present in earlier images.

Now closer scrutiny of these images has found thousands of small avalanches near i6 of the craters. The avalanches appear as dark streaks on the hilly terrain that surrounds the craters (a similar but more dramatic avalanche is shown in the image). They show up only in areas where there is a lot of light-coloured dust on the ground.To form, it seems the surface's dust coating was shaken loose and slid downhill, revealing the darker rocks beneath, says a team led by Kaylan Burleigh of the University of Arizona in Tucson (Icarus, DOI: 10.10 /6/ jicarus.2011.10.026).
The team carried out computer simulations that showed that, surprisingly, the avalanches do not seem to be caused by meteorites hitting the ground, but by the shock wave generated by a rock's passage through the atmosphere. This spreads across an area about a million times larger than the craters. "It was astonishing that a relatively small impact could affect a large area," says team member lay Mclosh of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
 In one case, a cluster of 20-metre-wide craters is surrounded by thousands of dust avalanches in an area 4 kilometres square. The many small avalanches give the whole area a darker hue, like a giant black eye around the craters— except for a narrow light zone shaped like a curved dagger. That light zone is telling. As a rock tears through the atmosphere at supersonic speed it generates a shock wave, before triggering a second blast when it hits the ground.
The team's simulations show that the second shock interferes with the first, reinforcing it in some places and cancelling it out in others. Where it is cancelled out, a narrow curved strip of relatively undisturbed ground is left behind - just like the light zone seen around the crater cluster, says Melosh.
The Martian surface may be the best place in the solar system for recording the effects of these shock waves, since fewer impactors are blocked by its atmosphere than on Earth, says Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rut they do occasionally causc devastation closer to home. The atmospheric shock wave from a 30 to 50-metre asteroid or comet levelled 2000 square kilometres of forest in Siberia in 1908. Studying shock waves on Mars might help us predict their effects on Earth, says Boslough.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ravens Use SticksTo Attract Attention

How do you capture a raven's heart? Arrest its attention by showing it a twig or stone. Ravens use referential gestures — one of the foundations of human language —to initiate relationships. From an early age we learn to use referential gestures such as pointing to direct another's attention. "People think that this pointing forms the basis of language," says Simone Pika at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. "It has also been linked with mental-state attribution — the idea that you understand what I am pointing out." Apes raised in captivity can learn to use referential gestures to communicate with their human caregivers.
 Now Pika and Thomas Bugnyar at the University of Vienna, Austria, have recorded common ravens (Corvus corax) using them for the first time. The researchers observed seven pairs of wild ravens showing and offering stones, twigs and moss to each other — by holding the object  in their beaks — in an apparent attempt to grab the attention of another bird and initiate a relationship. Importantly, the ravens made these gestures only when another bird was watching, and the items they show and offer are not food. They usually gesture only to members of the opposite sex (Nature Communications, DOI: io.1o38/ncomms1567). Like humans, ravens form monogamous pairs that will defend a territory and raise their young together. They  even develop a repertoire of vocalisations that are exclusive to the couple. This high degree of cooperation may be what prompted the evolution of referential gestures in both humans and ravens, Pika says. "If communication is governed by cooperation, then this could be what prompted the evolution of language."
Rachel Shaw of the University of Cambridge says that the conclusions, although fascinating, should be viewed with caution. Although it might look like the birds are attempting to redirect the attention of another bird, the behaviour might simply be a mating or nesting ritual triggered by a peak in hormones, she says. Alex Kacelnik at the University of Oxford would like to know whether the ravens have as much flexibility as humans in their range of gestures and responses,” If both sender and receiver use a small, rigid set of targets, and fixed actions for responding, then the interactions could have more in common with classic avian communication systems than with human attention-sharing .”


Tilt The Head To Pick Up Brainwaves

Getting a more accurate picture of someone's brainwaves could simply be a case of lying them down. The boost this gives to the electrical signals that can be read from the brain could improve diagnosis of brain disorders and enhance control of brain-machine interfaces.
 Electroencephalography, or EEG, is a relatively cheap, non-invasive way to measure brain activity using a cap of electrodes. But the signal it picks up can be weak, as it must pass through a layer of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and the skull before it reaches the scalp and electrodes. It was assumed that the skull was the biggest obstacle in the signal's path. But Justin Rice at The City College of New York wondered whether the depth of the CSF might also be a problem. To investigate, one member of his team took 16 MRI images of his own brain. For half of the scans, he lay on his back, while in the other half he lay on his stomach. As suspected, the brain shifted slightly with gravity.
"The brain is heavy — it's going to move up and down," says Rice. What's more, the depth of the CSF layer changed depending on the researcher's position. "There was an average 1.55 millimetre difference in the thickness" between facing up and down, says Rice. The group then used EEG to monitor the brain activity of 14 volunteers as they carried out five visual tasks. Each repeated the task three times — once sitting down, once lying on their back and once lying on their front. Because the visual cortex is at the back of the brain, Rice's group expected to see a stronger signal when each person was lying on their back — allowing the brain to drop towards the back of the skull, thinning the CSF layer here. Sure enough, in four of the five tasks, this position boosted the EEG signal by around 30 per cent. In the fifth task, the signal was up to 200 per cent stronger. Rice presented the work at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in Washington DC in November.
CSF appears to have an impact on the signal because of its conductivity. "The current takes the path of least resistance, [moving laterally] through the CSF rather than the skull," says Rice. A thinner CSF layer means that more current reaches the skull, creating a stronger signal. The simplicity of head-tilting is likely to make it an attractive option. "People buy huge copper rooms to limit interference with the signal, and they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," Rice says. This is much more cost effective." The discovery should be taken into account by clinicians, too, says Rice.
"With neurodegeneration or just normal ageing, the brain shrinks, resulting in a thicker layer of CSF," he says. "This could result in a weaker EEG signal!' Enhanced signals could also be useful in brain-machine interfaces that allow people to move robotic limbs or wheelchairs by thought alone. The same is true for thought-controlled computer games. Jonas Obleser, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human and Cognitive Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, says the findings are a "worthwhile and creative demonstration".


Fight HIV with Muscle Antibodies

HIV doesn't play by the rules: instead of dodging the immune system it attacks it head on. Now it seems our best hope for a vaccine against the killer virus might also involve tearing up the rule book — by fighting an infection without help from the immune system. Using this approach, mice can keep HIV at bay even when given loo times the virus that would be needed to cause a lethal infection. Conventional vaccines work by exposing the body to safe versions of a pathogen or parts of it, which primes the immune system to fight off future infection.
But like other failed attempts to tackle HIV (see page 4) this approach has yet to deliver significant success — perhaps in part because HIV targets and ultimately weakens cells of the immune system that we rely upon to mount a strong defence . David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and colleagues are among a group of  researchers who have decided on a dramatic change of tack. Instead of trying to hone the immune system, Baltimore's team has ignored it altogether.
Their approach — part vaccine, part gene therapy — is to turn muscles into factories that churn out potent antibodies against HIV. Because muscle isn't on HIV's hitlist, it will continue to generate antibodies even after an HIV infection, making the strategy potentially better than one which tweaks the immune system to produce the antibodies. "We produce a similar effect to a vaccine, but without ever calling on the immune system to do any of the work," says Alejandro Balazs, a member of Baltimore's team also at Caltech.
The team loaded a harmless, cold-related virus called adeno-associated virus (AAV) with genes that make potent antibodies to HIV. Then they used them to "infect" the leg muscles of mice with genes that pump out the antibodies. "The idea here is to basically supply the body with its own factory for making anti-HIV antibodies," says Baltimore. The mice continued to make the antibodies throughout their lives, and stayed healthy despite the researchers best efforts to overwhelm them with HIV. "We expected that at some dose, the antibodies would fail to protect the mice, but there was no infection even when we gave mice 100 times more HIV than would be needed to infect seven out of eight mice," says Balazs (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/naturei0660).
Because the mice in the experiment were equipped with human immune systems, Baltimore's team could check that the therapy fought off HIV before the virus was able to weaken the conventional immune system. They suspect that people would react in the same way to the vaccine/gene therapy approach — but they won't know for sure until they begin clinical trials. Baltimore says such a trial could start in one to two years. "As soon as we manufacture clinical grade materials, get regulatory approval and organise a trial, we hope to get going," he says. Another team led by Philip Johnson at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, could beat them to it.
Johnson and his colleagues used almost exactly the same strategy two years ago to protect macaques against Sly, the monkey equivalent of HIV (New Scientist, 22 May 2009, p 12). "We're gratified to hear that our work in the macaques has been confirmed in a humanised mouse model using HIV," says Johnson. "We're moving ahead with our plans to test the concept in human trials." For the trial, Johnson's team will also be using AAV injected into muscle, loaded with the gene for making a potent antibody.
Baltimore's trial has confirmed something else. that the potent antibodies produced by the mouse muscles in the new trial are exceptionally formidable against HIV. Called "broadly neutralising antibodies", they were first isolated from people with HIV in 2009. Lab tests show they are typically active against at least of go per cent of all known strains of HIV. "The results of this study are further evidence that broadly neutralising antibodies could confer high-level protection against HIV infection," says Wayne Koff, chief scientific officer at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Koff says that we now know of 20 broadly neutralising antibodies, with 17 new ones reported only this August.
 Although the AAVs injected into the mice each carried genes to make only one antibody, people could be given broader protection by injecting their muscles with several AAVs that each make a different antibody, Baltimore says. "There's no reason why we couldn't make two or more antibodies by using multiple AAVs simultaneously." Lucy Dorrell of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford, UK, says that one of the major obstacles conventional HIV vaccines face is priming the body to make broadly neutralising antibodies, so a method that delivers them "off the peg" has great potential. "However, the key issues are whether the vaccine will work as well in people, and whether it will be safe to use," she says.
 Koff stresses that, encouraging though the new results are, they should not be used as an excuse to abandon the quest for a conventional vaccine that primes the immune system. "This latest approach should certainly be studied further, but doesn't negate the need to continue research for an HIV vaccine," he says. "All approaches should be supported in efforts to prevent  and control HIV, which still infected an estimated 2.7 million people last year alone." Cate Hankins, chief scientific adviser at UNAIDS, agrees, pointing out that in September at the AIDS Vaccine 2011 conference in Bangkok, Thailand, models based on sexual behaviour showed that RV 144, the best performing conventional vaccine so far, could still prevent thousands of infections, even though it reduces the overall risk by just 31 per cent.


Climate’s Dark Dawn

AS THE latest round of United Nations climate negotiations began in Durban, South Africa. on Monday. expectations could scarcely have been lower. A globally binding deal is further away than ever. That makes considerable warming from climate change inevitable. In the last few weeks major reports by the International Energy Agency and the UN Environment Programme (UN EP) have concluded that we can still meet the UN's target ofl imiting warming to 2°C above preindustrial levels. But climate scientists are far less optimistic.
Many say the chance to avoid a 2°C rise has been and  gone, and we must now prepare for the damage to come. To have a fair chance of keeping below 2°C, global emissions would have to peak by 2020 or so before falling. There's no sign of that: they made their biggest-ever leap in zoto. Many countries promised to cut their emissions at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, but modelling carried out by climate consultancy Ecofys, based in the Netherlands, shows that even if those cuts were implemented in full we would still see 3.5°C of warming by 2100. To meet the 2°C target, even bigger cuts are needed.
According to UNEP, nations must emit the equivalent of no more than  44 gigatormes of carbon dioxide each year by 2020, but current pledges are 6 to 12 gigaton nes short. A UNEP report published last week says we can bridge this "emissions gap" by combining faster uptake of renewable energy, improved energy efficiency, and cuts to other greenhouse gases. A second UNEP report points out that it is much easier to cut short -lived greenhouse gases like methane, and fine atmospheric particles like soot from inefficient stoves.
Cutting these emissions could keep the thermostat from rising by 2°C until the middleof the century, buying us time to deal with CO,. It is the inertia in our society that is the problem, says the International Energy Agency in its 2011 World Energy Outlook report. The lifespan of existing power plants and factories commits us to 8o per cent of the total emissions that will take us to 2 °C. Construction over the next five years commits us to the rest, so unless we switch our investments from fossil fuels to low-carbon technologies within five years, 2°C of warming is inevitable. The reality is that the 2°C target is technically and economically feasible, but politically impossible. Saleemul Hug of the International Institute for Environment and Development says that countries would have to go to a war footing to do it.
If we compares the situation to the second world war, when nations like the UK transformed their economies to deal with an overwhelming threat. This single-minded commitment can work miracles, but no country has any such plans. The UK's secretary of state for energy and climate change, Chris Huhne, says the deadline loran international deal is 2015. Other countries, like the US and India, want to delay even discussing a deal until then, leaving scant time to the desired emissions peak in 2020. And as Durban talks got under way this week, Canada announced it would not be participating in any successor to the Kyoto protocol.
What should we do if we cannot hit emissions targets? First, do not give up on cutting emissions, says Brian Hoskins of Imperial College London. We don't fully understand theclimate, so we might emit more than is currently deemed "safe" and stay under 2°C by sheer luck. And don't change the 2°C target. It's too early, says Corrine Le Quer& director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK. The next IPCC report, due in 2013, could show that society can cope with a warmer world. If it does, a small increment in the target in ight be just i liable, she says, but until then shifting goalposts would be premature and send the wrong message. "I haven't seen anything to suggest that 2 °C is less dangerous now than it was when it was adopted," Le Quere says. At all costs. I loskins adds, we must avoid 4°C. Indeed, this could wipe out the Amazon rainforest and halt the Asian monsoon. Finally, some form of geoengineering may be necessary. "We are going to have to look at CO, removal," says Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter, UK. Trees are already being planted to act as carbon sinks, and prototype technologies exist for sucking CO, from the atmosphere. Hoskins says they could be essential later in the century to keep temperatures down.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Affiliate Network Reviews