Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Wull Oi Dort Know 'Bout Tha' Rum Ole "Accent Reduction" Do

Oi see ORNL huz cancelled 'as "Suthern Accent Reduct'n" clarse.
Wull, Oi come frum Nawfolk in the UK, 'an um 'av'n fun 'ere tryun ter wroite  loike how Oi use ter speak over thar.

If yew can't picter ut 'ere's a video link ter 'ow 'ar Nawfolk Dumplin accent go.
Ass a sawng whut sold more 'an the Beatles or the Rolling Stones down our way..

Ar go'a say Oi wu'nt a gart no-where if Oi'd a kept that accent, so I s'pose I sor'a did a bit a accent reduc'n moiself - dort know zakly when, tho. Prob'ly at Leeds Uni, coz they sure as hell couldn't understand a good ole Nawfolk Dumplin dialect even there. So I s'pose the Suthen Accent Reduct'n thang at ORNL moite a bin a good thang - did summon loike 'ut moiself, yew see.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Special Pill Just for You

One of the many significant acts of my former advisor, Martin Karplus, was to help set up, in 1989, Vertex Pharmaceuticals -  one of the first companies to use a design strategy based on "rational", structure-based approaches.  Now, Kalydeco, designed by Vertex, is a glimpse into the future of personalized medicine. It is the first cystic fibrosis drug to treat the underlying cause of the disease, and works for those ~4% of patients with a certain mutation of an ion channel, which is potentiated by the drug. 4% amounts to about 2,000 patients, for whom this a wonder drug.  However, Vertex has slapped a $300,000+  yearly price tag on this drug, making it one of the most expensive in existence, and this has led to an understandable outcry from various sources, including some scientists involved in the development of the drug itself. In retort, Vertex point out that they have spent $6.5 billion on R&D that needs to be recouped and that it has only two drugs on the market.

Given that personalized medicine is aimed at ever smaller numbers of patients,  many fear that this approach will lead to ever more expensive drugs. But the one facet few seem to be talking about in this context is the origin of that  $6.5 billion number above. Most of that outlay will have been researching failures. Many of us are now trying to develop fast and efficient ways of finding drug candidates that are more likely than before to have high efficacy and safety.  This will get more personalized medicines to market quicker, with less R&D outlay. It stands to reason that if Vertex had discovered Kalydeco earlier, when its total R&D outlay had been only, say, $1 billion, then the price tag would have been lower.

It's not written in stone that personalized medicines will have to break the bank.

The Cost of Doing Business

Baudoin Prot: CEO BNP Paribas. Financier of the Year 2006, Recipient of the 'Social and Corporate Responsibility' Award of the Foreign Policy Association,  2007.

I like to see two sides to every story, but I have never really been particularly enamored of Western institutions aiding and abetting genocide. Recent examples of this include government support of East Timor, Guatemala, Kurdish Iraq and elsewhere, but the very latest in the news concerns the French bank BNP Paribas. According to the UN, between 2003 and 2007 the genocide in Darfur resulted in at least 200,000 deaths, principally civilians massacred by Sudanese government forces and the Janjaweed militia they supported.  The US had countering sanctions in place,  but these were flouted by  BNP Paribas for whom the lure of oil money was just too great. BNP  became the 'de facto Bank of Sudan', playing a 'pivotal role' in helping the Sudanese government sell oil in violation of the sanctions, funneling billions of dollars to the government, most of which bankrolled the military thugs. BNP covered it up for years. Eventually found guilty, the bank settled with the US for  $9bn a few days ago. BNP states it has ample funding to cover this. It's not going to perturb them too much. No individual has been charged. They will sleep soundly at night. As Forbes magazine states, banks  call this merely "the cost of doing business".

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How to Waste Taxes

Don't you love it when bureaucracy goes nuts? 

Here are  two cute examples from this week starring yours truly, both concerning travel reimbursements. 

No point in naming the organizations responsible;  one was state and the other federal;  nor in criticizing the administrators I interacted with, who were only following the rules, but; 

(1) A form was returned to me as invalid because I had claimed ONE CENT less than the amount on the receipts. 

Moral: Make sure we spend $100 of effort to correct a 1 cent mistake.

(2) A travel claim that has been bouncing around for two years (!) was finally definitively refused because, in a  attempt to save taxpayers' money on a flight, I had purchased a  round trip international ticket for $184 on a low-budget airline (Ryanair) that had only one  class. As no class was specified on the ticket this meant it couldn't be reimbursed. 

Moral: Let's make sure we discourage personal initiatives to save taxpayers' money.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Don't Ban Suarez!

So Luis Suarez has been biting again.  A 7-match ban for a nibbling Bakkal in 2010, a 10-match ban for nipping Ivanovic in 2013, and now he does it to Chiellini in the World Cup.

And everyone is screaming to lock him up and throw away the key.
Take the English pundits.

Robbie Savage claims "He should never play international football again."
Alan Shearer says "Three bites and you're out. They should absolutely hammer him".
Danny Mills: "It has to be the longest ban in football, ever".

No, gentlemen! No! Why?

Biting is childish and, indeed disgusting. But the physical injury caused was minor - just a few toothmarks. Compare that to players head butting the referee, as did one of my team mates in Knoxville last year, deliberately trying to breaking legs, such as Roy Keane against Alf Inge Haaland in April 2001, or the sickening forearm smash of Ben Thatcher that knocked out Pedro Mendes in 2006. In 2010 an English Sunday League player was jailed for 6 months for a horrific tackle, shattering an opponent's leg in two places and ending his playing career. Those are acts of extreme violence, and players try to perpetrate them in nearly every professional match. Put yourself in the victim's shoes, Mr. Shearer: of which indiscretion would you prefer to be on the receiving end?   Suarez's regressive behavior offends us culturally. But the punishment will not be  objective, I'm afraid.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Insane Science

So I was on a team judging some insane science last week. Here's what these crazy nut cases  did.

First, they built a two-kilometer long tube in California.

Then they built the ultimate death ray in it - you know, Star Wars and all that - an X-ray laser.

Then, just for fun, they smashed things up!

Credit: Gregory M. Stewart/SLAC

First, they fired it at a piece of aluminum, reducing it to a spot of plasma hotter than the center of a star. Unhinged, but, I concede, fun.

But now here comes the totally bonkeroony bit. They put a tiny protein molecule at the end of the gun, generated a huge pulse of X-rays, and blew it to smithereens! (Guffaws, rolling about on the floor laughing, pointing fingers).  What these deluded loons thought was, that in the teeny-weeny bit of time time after the pulse hit and before the delicate little biological molecule  vaporized into eternity, the X-rays would scatter off it and form an image of the protein. Then, they could use the structure to understand biology, design new medicines etc. Totally Tonto, I tell you!

Thing is - looks like it might be working........

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


The Mittelstand is the historical heart of the German economy. Small firms, with about 50-100 workers, say, that we have never heard of, still make quality products sold all over the world. Eberhard Voit, a Professor at Georgia Tech who models metabolic systems in the Bioenergy Science Center, gave me a cute example of this in the bar last night.

Eberhard comes  from a town close to Luedenscheid in North-Rhein Westphalia. During the industrial revolution  folks there started working with metal, and someone found out how to make nice buttons. They made more and more of them, saturated Germany, then started exporting. By 1860 millions of Luedensheid buttons were being sent everywhere, equipping even the Chinese military.

Did workers in this small town, as 100 years ago they were packing boxes full of buttons to be sent to some "exotic" location,  dream of what it would be like to actually go there?