The Cable Companies Want to Control our Internet Access. We are so hosed.

If you’re reading this, you care deeply about net neutrality - even if you don’t know what it means. How would you like to pay 2, 3, or maybe 10 times as much to access all the websites you frequent? Think it can’t happen? Well, think again.

The cable TV companies that control most of America’s access to the Internet want to change your online experience - for the worse. If we allow them to destroy net neutrality, here’s how your Internet service might look very soon:
Try out “Basic Internet” package! For only $49.99/month, we’ll set you up for super-fast Internet, with 100’s of websites available - but wait, there's more!

Do you like Gmail? Get Gmail service for just $8.99 per month extra! Want to watch Netflix movies? Just $29.99/month for speeds almost as fast as you enjoy now! And try our “News Xtra” package featuring CNN for another $29.99! Sports? Of course! Our Active package, including ESPN, is just $49.99!

But wait! Our special SuperNet package gives you all these websites and more for just $129.99/month!*
*Don't expect us to really explain what the * means.

This is no joke: the cable companies already deliver television this way, despite years of complaints from consumers about high costs and bundles with hundreds of useless channels. When you have a monopoly, you don’t have to listen to customers.

As bad as it might be for Google and Netflix, the end of net neutrality will be far worse for the countless small entrepreneurs and innovators who can’t afford to pay fees to the ISPs. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that YouTube video stars fear that “the end of the world is near.” These are independent video artists who make a modest living from the small amount of ad revenues they earn from their content. If net neutrality goes away, they’re toast.

Net neutrality is very simple - it’s how the Internet works now. Basically, all traffic is treated the same, just bits and bytes zipping around on the network. Net neutrality says that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data equally, just as they do now. The ISP just provides the pipes.

One of the best explanations of net neutrality that I've found is here. Check it out.

The FCC can safeguard net neutrality by simply declaring that Internet service should be regulated as a utility, like electricity or gas. But FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has other plans; he wants to try self-regulation first. 

Let’s see how that works out. 

The issue goes beyond simply the cost of net access. Free speech is under threat too. Suppose Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, or Verizon decides it doesn’t like the content of, say, Fox News. Or The Huffington Post (this cuts both ways). They can just increase the costs to access those sites, and viewership will crumble. 

The possibilities for limiting or even censoring content providers are endless.

FCC Chairman Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the cable industry; thus it’s no surprise that he is sympathetic to the cable companies. His latest proposal would allow ISPs to charge us more for Netflix (say) as long as it’s “commercially reasonable”. This could be the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

The ISPs must be salivating over the prospect of how much more they're going to charge us. This will be almost pure profit: they'll just monitor our web traffic and send us the bill.

All is not yet lost. The FCC had a policy in place to guarantee net neutrality until January of this year, when a federal court ruled it had exceeded its authority. The court made it clear, though, that the FCC could simply re-classify broadband Internet service as a “telecommunications service” (which is precisely what it is) and it could then re-impose the previous rules. But the cable companies have jumped into high gear and are lobbying furiously for Wheeler - who used to lobby for them, remember - to proceed with his “commercially reasonable” discrimination policy.

Wheeler’s proposed policy will be a disaster. The FCC needs to take action before irreparable damage is done. If you want to express your opinion, has an easy way to do so. [Note: that link no longer works (as of 2019), but you might try this instead.]

The cable industry is famous - almost laughably so - for bad customer service. Indeed, Comcast won the “Worst Company in America” competition this year, followed closely by Time Warner, Verizon, and Monsanto. I can’t think of a worse collection of companies to control our Internet access.

Let's speak up for research that saves lives

In this week’s Science magazine, former Republican Congressman John Porter calls on scientists to “speak up for research.” Well, I’m all in.

We’re in the midst of a remarkable stream of scientific and medical advances, spurred by dramatic advances in biotechnology, computing, and miniaturization. Our knowledge of biology has led to amazing leaps in our understanding of aging, immune responses, inherited diseases,  and brain function, to name but a few. And yet we're cutting science funding, year after year. As Porter writes,
“the general public, and in particular elected officials, have failed to embrace the promise of cutting-edge science as a means to improve health and the economy.” 
Somehow we found (or borrowed) $2 trillion dollars to spend on wars in far-off countries whose citizens don’t like us - a cost that will at least double before we’re done paying the bills. And some politicians this past week were demanding that we invest billions more in Iraq, money that we don’t have. It's touching how concerned they are for the citizens of Iraq.

Meanwhile, eight of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. are diseases that we might cure through better research, including heart disease (#1), cancer (#2), Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and kidney disease. We already have far better treatments for these diseases than we had a few decades ago, thanks to our past investments in biomedical research.

In this column over the past few years, I’ve highlighted just a tiny sample of the remarkable advances coming out of the scientific world, such as

Curing these diseases will not only save lives - it will also save money. A nonpartisan study revealed that publicly-funded research generates returns of 25 to 40 percent a year. And former Congressman Porter explains,
“If a treatment became available in 2015 that delayed the onset of Alzheimer's disease by 5 years annual Medicare and Medicaid spending would be $42 billion less by 2020.”
Without investment in research, though, these treatments will never arrive. Meanwhile, we’re spending $400 billion (13 times the entire annual NIH budget) on a new fighter plane that won’t even be ready to fly for another 5 years, after which the Pentagon says it will cost $850 billion to keep it going. We’re spending billions more on military equipment that even the Pentagon doesn’t want, such as the Global Hawk drone program, which Congress is forcing the Air Force to keep.

Obviously, the military-industrial complex has better lobbyists than we in the biomedical research world have.

We don’t invest in research just to make money, though. Make no mistake: biomedical research saves lives. We’ve effectively cured many types of childhood cancer such as retinoblastoma and Hodgkins lymphoma, but there are over 200 types of cancer, most of them still needing far more research.

We need elected leaders with the vision to re-examine our priorities and invest in the future. The U.S. scientific research enterprise remains the envy of the world, but it won’t stay that way long if we keep cutting it as we have been.

How much should we invest in biomedical research? Let me put some numbers on the table - not that we can get there overnight, but we could set these as goals and and then figure out how to get there.  How about allocating 2% of our total budget - $75 billion - for all of our biomedical (NIH) and basic science (NSF) research?  NIH’s budget is currently about 4 times the size of NSF; if we keep that ratio then NSF would get $15B and NIH $60B. That’s about twice what we spend now. We've done this before: Congressman Porter and his colleagues advocated a doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003, and we could do it again.

Congressman Porter wants us to speak up for research. Let’s start now.

Fox News expert with mail-order degree blames “homosexual impulses” for Santa Barbara mass shooting

Robi Ludwig, media commentator
In the wake of the mass shootings by a disturbed man in Santa Barbara, California last week, Fox News featured comments from Robi Ludwig, a self-described psychotherapist, who blamed the shooting on the “homosexual impulses” of the shooter. Her comments caused an immediate firestorm, and a few days later, real estate company Coldwell Banker, for whom she consulted, announced “we feel it best to part ways with her as our lifestyle real estate correspondent.”

As’s Sarah Gray pointed out, it is unethical to diagnose a patient whom you’ve never met. This didn’t seem to stop Ludwig, who also claimed that the shooter might have been in the early stages of schizophrenia. Ludwig later attempted to take back her comments on her Facebook page, claiming she was misunderstood.

Does it matter if Ludwig, who uses the title “Doctor” in all her media appearances, is a real doctor? It's presumably why we are supposed to take her seriously when she diagnoses a mass murderer on television.

The title of doctor also matters to the thousands of people who have spent years of study and research to earn a Ph.D. or an M.D. Robi Ludwig, it turns out, has neither. 

Ludwig previously hosted a reality TV show on TLC where she offered marriage advice. Her listing at Psychology Today shows “School: University of Pennsylvania” and lists her graduation year as 1990. Sounds legitimate, right? U. Penn is an Ivy League school; a doctorate from there is certainly impressive.

Her website reveals a different story.  Her “doctor” title, which she uses in every mention of herself and the name of the website itself (, is based on a Psy. D. degree from Southern California University for Professional Studies, an online-only, for-profit correspondence school,  which changed its name in 2007 to California Southern University. 

Note to readers: an online degree is not a doctorate. Any online, for-profit college that claims otherwise, and this obviously includes Cal Southern, is just trying to fool people.

I’ve known hundreds of scientists and scholars who’ve put in the sweat equity required for a Ph.D.: years of course work, mastery of a specialized area of study, and additional years doing original research and writing a Ph.D. dissertation. The Cal Southern Psy.D. requires nothing more than course work - no dissertation required - and the courses are all online. This falls grievously short of a real doctorate. Taking a bunch of online courses at a third-rate online school does not earn one the right to be called “doctor.”

I checked the American Psychological Association’s site to see if the Psy.D. program at California Southern is accredited. It is not. (Very few Psy.D. programs, which are much less rigorous than Ph.D. programs, are accredited. Most clinical psychologists have Ph.D.s.)

In other words, “Dr.” Ludwig has a mail-order degree from an unaccredited program. Her undergraduate degree is from Cedar Crest College, a small women’s college in Pennsylvania. So how can her Psychology Today profile list the University of Pennsylvania as her only school? Apparently she does have a master’s in social work from U. Penn, but her undergrad and Psy.D. degrees are from far less prestigious institutions. Her Psychology Today profile also lists a license number, without saying what the license is for. Apparently it’s her license as a social worker, not as a clinical psychologist. 

Being called a doctor is obviously important to Ludwig. But it wasn’t important enough for her to spend the years of study required to get a Ph.D.

Let’s return to Ludwig’s Psychology Today profile. Does she claim to be a psychologist there? No: although she uses the title “Dr.”, she is listed as “Clinical Social Work/Therapist.” Psychology Today explains that 
Clinical social workers commonly hold a master's degree in social work (or the equivalent) and have completed two years of supervised practice to obtain a clinical license. They may use a variety of therapeutic techniques, including psychodynamic therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy.” 
So Ludwig is a licensed social worker who has an unaccredited Psy.D. from an online university. Not to criticize social workers, who provide valuable services to society, but they are not doctors.

Fox News probably doesn’t care that Ludwig isn’t a real doctor or a licensed psychologist, or what the “Dr.” in her title means. But that’s just a guess.

Having a Ph.D. is no guarantee of competence. Plenty of people with Ph.D.s make stupid comments on television, especially when they are spouting off about subjects outside their expertise. But the Ph.D. degree does mean something, which is why so many people work so hard to earn them. But an online Psy.D. degree from California Southern University isn’t even remotely comparable to a Ph.D. If Ludwig wants to earn the title Doctor, she has a long way to go.