Friday, November 7, 2008

Killer virus on the loose!

Yet another awful virus from Africa.
A new virus that causes fatal hemorrhagic fevers has been discovered in southern Africa. It killed four people in South Africa and sickened a fifth, but health authorities believe the outbreak has been contained.
Sounds pretty virulent:
The first victim was Cecilia Van Deventer, a safari tour booker in Lusaka, Zambia, who fell ill on Sept. 2 and was airlifted to Johannesburg. She apparently infected Hannes Els, the paramedic who accompanied her, and Gladys Mthembu, a nurse tending her at the Morningside Medi-Clinic in a Johannesburg suburb.

The fourth to die was Maria Mokubung, who cleaned the room where Ms. Van Deventer died on Sept. 14. According to South African news reports, the last death was originally misdiagnosed because the victim had tuberculosis and meningitis and was hemorrhaging and confused when her family sought medical care.

A fifth victim, a nurse who cared for Mr. Els, was in critical condition but responded to early treatment with the antiviral drug Ribavirin.

Need another reason to spurn ethanol?

Ethanol from corn is under assault from all sides these days, blamed (unfairly, I think) for food shortages, decried (fairly, I think) as an inefficient use of resources. Now we have news from the Washington Post that it may be the reason for an increase in E. coli poisoning:
Last year scientists noted an uptick in the prevalence of potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in beef products. Frequently found in the digestive tracts of cattle, the bug can wind up in ground beef during the slaughter and grinding process.

There were 21 beef recalls in the United States in 2007, compared with eight the year before. About a third of the recalls were prompted by reports of human illness, while none of the 2006 recalls were.

This year, meat inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have continued to see more contaminated beef samples. Through mid-October, they had recorded 50 percent more than at the same time last year.

Officials have assumed that these numbers reflect an overall increase in the prevalence of the E. coli strain in cattle, but no one has been able to explain why the dangerous bacteria have become more abundant.

Now scientists are looking into a possible explanation -- one that's related to alternative fuels and the economics of farming.

The link is distillers grain, the stuff left over after starch is removed from corn. With corn prices up, cattle ranchers rely more heavily on distillers grain as feed. The relationship isn't clear, however, with some studies confirming it and others showing the opposite.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Nearly perfect

One of the drawbacks of silicon photovoltaics is the poor absorption of light from oblique angles owing to reflection. To get around that, solar cells are often mechanized to follow the sun. That requires energy, and it's also liable to breakdown.
An untreated silicon solar cell only absorbs 67.4 percent of sunlight shone upon it — meaning that nearly one-third of that sunlight is reflected away and thus unharvestable. From an economic and efficiency perspective, this unharvested light is wasted potential and a major barrier hampering the proliferation and widespread adoption of solar power.
Now researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a nanostructured anti-reflective coating that enables solar cells to absorb 96.21 percent of the incident light, no matter what direction it comes from.
Typical antireflective coatings are engineered to transmit light of one particular wavelength. Lin's new coating stacks seven of these layers, one on top of the other, in such a way that each layer enhances the antireflective properties of the layer below it. These additional layers also help to "bend" the flow of sunlight to an angle that augments the coating's antireflective properties. This means that each layer not only transmits sunlight, it also helps to capture any light that may have otherwise been reflected off of the layers below it.

The seven layers, each with a height of 50 nanometers to 100 nanometers, are made up of silicon dioxide and titanium dioxide nanorods positioned at an oblique angle — each layer looks and functions similar to a dense forest where sunlight is "captured" between the trees. The nanorods were attached to a silicon substrate via chemical vapor disposition, and Lin said the new coating can be affixed to nearly any photovoltaic materials for use in solar cells, including III-V multi-junction and cadmium telluride.

change and hope

or, accentuate the positive:

“It is clear that a majority of Americans have chosen the Democratic Party to lead the country in a different direction,” said Bill Allmond, SOCMA’s Director of Government Relations. “With control of the White House and solid majorities in Congress, Democrats will wield significant authority but also have an enormous responsibility. These results will create historic challenges for our industry’s priorities, but they will also offer some opportunities as well,” he said.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

team work

I'm impressed, although the little guys are as often as not a menace when I take my lunch in the park.

The cheeky greys decided to team up when they realised the swinging cylinder would not stay still long enough for them to reach inside and grab food.

One clambered up the tree to hold the container, while his pal happily swiped seeds down below.

They then swapped positions when the diner had eaten enough.

via Gene Expression

Monday, November 3, 2008

Deal me out

If you think we need another FDR during these economically troubled times, take a look at this article, which describes work by two UCLA economists, Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian:
"Why the Great Depression lasted so long has always been a great mystery, and because we never really knew the reason, we have always worried whether we would have another 10- to 15-year economic slump," said Ohanian, vice chair of UCLA's Department of Economics. "We found that a relapse isn't likely unless lawmakers gum up a recovery with ill-conceived stimulus policies."

In an article in the August issue of the Journal of Political Economy, Ohanian and Cole blame specific anti-competition and pro-labor measures that Roosevelt promoted and signed into law June 16, 1933.

"President Roosevelt believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services," said Cole, also a UCLA professor of economics. "So he came up with a recovery package that would be unimaginable today, allowing businesses in every industry to collude without the threat of antitrust prosecution and workers to demand salaries about 25 percent above where they ought to have been, given market forces. The economy was poised for a beautiful recovery, but that recovery was stalled by these misguided policies."

...In the three years following the implementation of Roosevelt's policies, wages in 11 key industries averaged 25 percent higher than they otherwise would have done, the economists calculate. But unemployment was also 25 percent higher than it should have been, given gains in productivity.

Meanwhile, prices across 19 industries averaged 23 percent above where they should have been, given the state of the economy. With goods and services that much harder for consumers to afford, demand stalled and the gross national product floundered at 27 percent below where it otherwise might have been.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Iran's economic stimulus package

With the price of oil crashing, look for an "incident" to scare it back up, says Galrahn at Information Dissemination:
As the price of oil drops, the pursuit of nuclear power doesn't justify the economic costs to the autocratic driven economy in Iran. The loss of government revenue due to lower oil prices comes at the same time the UN is discussing the next round of sanctions. It also comes at the same time that Iran's biggest supporter Russia suffers a stock market crash, which is noteworthy because the Micex is where a lot of Iranian autocrats go with their investments.

So what will Iran do? Raise the price of oil, and they have a time tested strategy for doing exactly that.

unique elegance and nimbus

For your next holiday, China's own Dead Sea: Yuncheng Salt Lake. "Compared with the bath place at the Dead Sea in lsrael,it is endowed with more vitality and unique elegance and nimbus." Perhaps so:

From the November 30, 2002, Ottawa Citizen:
The potential of Yuncheng Salt Lake as a tourist area was not spotted until the president of the Nanfeng Chemical Industry Group, which mines the lake for salt, read an article about the Dead Sea.

Wang Mengfei flew to Israel last year and returned with mineral compounds which were subsequently found to be similar to those at Yuncheng.

But tourism experts said the similarities with the Dead Sea ended there, and predicted bosses of the Yuncheng Salt Lake resort would struggle to capture the public's imagination.

Zhang Guangrui, director of the Tourism Research Centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: "Shanxi has few tourist attractions in comparison with Israel's appeal as the birthplace of Jesus.

"It is also far from big cities. Affluent Chinese people will travel to nearby places for recuperation, but not hundreds of kilometres."
Wang was not discouraged.

Apparently Nanfeng is Nafine these days. Their Chinese website is much more fun; be sure to have the sound on. Here you'll find commercials for their many household products.

Friday, October 10, 2008

All your translation are belong to us

From the quality control page of Shanghai Ju Peng Translation Co., a representative sample:
★1.We have a sound and stable pool of translation team, tasks of translation are strictly selected and assigned in accordance with languages and specialty fields.

★4.We track up and monitor text pieces in the course they are being translated, and deal with and resolve all the way those key points and pitfalls involved; project team is so created whenever for any large project of translation work and senior translators, professors or foreign experts are initiated to be in charge of jobs of aligning, tuning glossary and of ensuring texts consistent to the style of overall work translated.

★5.Once pieces of translation completed, there are other translators assigned to conduct follow-up proofreading in order to eliminate occurrences of usual errors as letter omission, mistranslation, wrong figures and improper typeset.
If you need work, offer to clean up their copy....

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More piratey stuff

If you thought my pirate post was interesting, check out EagleSpeak, who really gives the topic a working over.

And if Pirate Jack Muller (at right) catches your fancy, go here.

HPV isn't cervical cancer

An AP story today says 1/4 of all US teen girls have received Merck's vaccine against human papilloma virus, Gardasil. HPV causes genital warts; it also predisposes a woman to cervical cancer, hence the recommendation that girls be vaccinated. But just how do you think /women are exposed to HPV? Holding hands with other females? Sex with men, obviously; who almost certainly were exposed via sex with women. So: why aren't boys asked to get the vaccination?

I think it's odd that feminists haven't made anything of this.

The question becomes even more pressing when you consider that as of July, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service requires girls and women between the ages of 11 and 26 looking for permanent residence to be vaccinated against HPV. The requirement does not apply to males. As a consequence, women must fork over $300 to $1400 more than men, according to this article.

Worse, the committee responsible for the new regulation was unaware that "Under a 1996 immigration law, any vaccination recommended by the U.S. government for its citizens becomes a requirement for anyone seeking permanent residency in the U.S." when it recommended Gardasil for girls ages 11 through 26 in 2006.
Officials at the CDC say that the agency’s Gardasil recommendation was not meant to make the Gardasil vaccine mandatory for immigrants. A CDC spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that the vaccination committee did not realized the way its Gardasil recommendation would impact immigrants.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Arrrrrgh! Avast! D'oh!

Stupid stupid stupid, or desperate. Pirates off the Somali coast have become such a problem that major shippers are refusing to transit the Gulf of Aden. Tankers make easy pickings. Unless they're military tankers. It's too bad the US Navy's too humane to sink the pirates outright.
Heavily armed Somali pirates have hijacked more than 30 merchant vessels of the Horn of Africa country this year, with attacks off its coast and the Gulf of Aden almost every day.
Ordinary tankers are completely unarmed. Apparently it's cheaper to pay ransom and lose product than to keep a viable security team on board.

Intertanko, the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, isn't too happy:
INTERTANKO’s Executive Committee meeting recently has expressed its extreme disquiet over the escalating number of violent attacks against shipping in the Gulf of Aden. They are especially concerned at the apparent failure of the Coalition naval forces to protect merchant shipping and seafarers in the vicinity of Somalia and their relative ineffectiveness in intercepting the terrorist groups involved.

The Committee noted that UN Resolution 1816 (2008) calls upon states to ‘Use, within the territorial waters of Somalia, in a manner consistent with action permitted on the high seas with respect to piracy under relevant international law, all necessary means to repress acts of piracy and armed robbery;’ and further ‘Calls upon all States, and in particular flag, port and coastal States, States of the nationality of victims and perpetrators of piracy and armed robbery, and other States with relevant jurisdiction under international law and national legislation, to cooperate in determining jurisdiction, and in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for acts of piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia, consistent with applicable international law including human rights law.’
Information Dissemination has an interesting story, bizarre and disturbing, actually, where the pirates seem to have gotten much more than they bargained for from an Iranian cargo ship.
The MV Iran Deyanat was brought to Eyl, a sleepy fishing village in northeastern Somalia, and was secured by a larger gang of pirates - 50 onboard and 50 onshore. Within days, pirates who had boarded the ship developed strange health complications, skin burns and loss of hair. Independent sources tell The Long War Journal that a number of pirates have also died. "Yes, some of them have died. I do not know exactly how many but the information that I am getting is that some of them have died," Andrew Mwangura, Director of the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program, said Friday when reached by phone in Mombasa.

News about the illness and the toxic cargo quickly reached Garowe, seat of the government for the autonomous region of Puntland. Angered over the wave of piracy and suspicious about the Iranian ship, authorities dispatched a delegation led by Minister of Minerals and Oil Hassan Allore Osman to investigate the situation on September 4. Osman also confirmed to The Long War Journal that during the six days he negotiated with the pirates members of the syndicate had become sick and died. "That ship is unusual," he said. "It is not carrying a normal shipment."
Go read it, really.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ranbaxy? Wow.

The effluent has finally hit the fan. Ranbaxy has stonewalled the FDA for ages to keep records relating to quality audits at its manufacturing facility in Paonta Sahib secret, but the FDA seems to have lost patience: yesterday it banned the importation of anything produced at Ranbaxy's plants at both Dewas and Paonta Sahib. From an FDA press release:
The Warning Letters identify the agency's concerns about deviations from U.S. current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) requirements at Ranbaxy's manufacturing facilities in Dewas and Paonta Sahib (including the Batamandi unit), in India. Because of the extent and nature of the violations, FDA today issued an Import Alert, under which U.S. officials may detain at the U.S. border, any active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) (the primary therapeutic component of a finished drug product) and both sterile and non-sterile finished drug products manufactured at these Ranbaxy facilities and offered for import into the United States....

Earlier today, the FDA informed Ranbaxy that until it resolves the deficiencies at each of these two facilities and the plants come into compliance with U.S. cGMP requirements, FDA's drug compliance office will recommend denial of approval of any New Drug Applications (NDAs) and Abbreviated New Drug Applications (ANDAs) that list the Paonta Sahib or Dewas plants respectively as the manufacturer of APIs or finished drug products.
That's shocking. As the FDA's press release says, Ranbaxy is one of the biggest importers of generics into the US. The action casts doubt on the standards of all Indian drug manufacturers, who have worked for years to improve their reputation. It was only months ago that the heparin disaster raised the possibility that offshoring might be proceeding to quickly. Anyone considering outsourcing the manufacture of their API to India will factor this example into their calculation of risk. They will already be considering the rising costs of India and China, where inflation is over 10%.

I wonder how Daiichi Sankyo feels about their acquisition now-- as if it hadn't been hard enough to get Japanese to use generics....

Monday, September 15, 2008

Not for the naked eye

Via David Thompson's great blog, this spectacular view of the sun joined to music.

Brilliant Noise from Semiconductor on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"That's enough %#@ from you Yankees!"

Is this a reference to a b-movie? No, just a b-dictator. My favorite international provocateur, Hugo Chavez (henceforth "Ooogo"), is clowning for the cameras again, this time by kicking out the US ambassador. Click the video and hear Ooogo shout "Yankees de mierda vayanse mil veces al carajo," to the crowd ("Shitty Yankees, go 1,000 times to Hell" -- translation and link via Devil's Excrement, the best place for news of Venezuela).

Only yesterday, his bud Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, did the same thing, claiming that the ambassador to Bolivia has been stirring up trouble. Ooogo didn't try to get original or anything, saying: "They're trying to do here what they were doing in Bolivia. That's enough %#@ from you, Yankees." Whatever. He's still got to sell his oil to us or nobody, and those oil revenues seem to be the only thing standing between coffee rationing (in Venezuela?!) and economic collapse.

Apparently the two amigos are feeling their geopolitical oats. Just last week, Morales was in Iran, getting chummy with Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs. Coincidence? Jeff Kouba at Peace Like a River suggests it isn't. He quotes a report from IRNA that says:
Morales, who arrived in Assalouyeh on Wednesday to visit South Pars gas field facilities in Bushehr Province, told reporters, “I have never been a US supporter and my nation has a background of 500 years of struggle against colonialism.” “The huge installations of gas and petrochemicals here impressed me and I admire such progress of Iranians,” Morales added.

He said, “Imposing sanctions against us pushes our countries to work better and harder and to develop our territories.” The Bolivian president continued, “I feel sorry that I did not contact with Iran earlier.” He said, “I intend to take advantage of created opportunity and work with Iran seriously and promptly.” Morales also called for transfer of Iran’s experiences in the fields of oil, gas and petrochemical industries to Bolivia.

"Did Morales discuss expelling the US Ambassador with Iran?" asks Kouba. "Did Morales expel the Ambassador as a sign of his willingness to “resist pressure,” as a good-faith sign to encourage the Iranian experience and assistance he covets?"

Ooogo has already visited Iran, and he's also cozy with Vladimir Putin, who sent two Russian strategic bombers on a visit to Venezuela this week. Don't I mean Medvedev? Yeah, right.
"The presence of those Russian planes in Venezuela is a warning," Chavez said. "There's nothing better to keep yourself from being attacked than to dissuade."
Uh, can't argue with a tautology, now can you?

Anyway, the bombers are only the start. In November, the Russians will send a small naval force for "exercises." Is this the Cuban Missile Crisis redux? Ooogo only wishes he could stir up so much trouble. Galrahn at Information Dissemination writes: "Hardly surprising, Hugo Chavez is making a big deal out of it, but also hardly surprising, the US is shrugging shoulders saying 'so what?'" He quotes an article in the Navy Times:
The Defense Department seemed unaffected Monday by an announcement from Venezuela and Russia that Russian warships would sail to the Caribbean this winter for exercises with the Venezuelan fleet — the first-ever such move by the Russian navy.

Pentagon officials did not express particular concern over the announcement from Caracas. “We’re aware of the announcement made in Venezuela,” said Navy Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, “and we’ll see how it goes.”
Galrahn puts an interesting spin on the visit of the Russians:
This development should be seen for what it is, a response to the Russia's objections to humanitarian response and naval activity in the Black Sea. While Russia will be sure to hype it, and Hugo Chavez will be part of the over hype, it is very much a good thing because it is one of those small steps towards Russia saving face. Sometimes this type of non-escalation - media escalation stuff is necessary to bring about the normalization of relations.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Starved for ideas, he says.

"The rumor seems to be going around that Pfizer might be making a bid for Bayer (aka Bayer/Schering). That sounds ridiculous to me, and if Pfizer actually does such a thing, then its management is even more starved for ideas than its nastiest critics could believe," says Derek Lowe, a very smart guy who knows what he's talking about. His explanation is convincing. If you're interested in pharma, his blog is a must-read.

Friday, September 5, 2008

...and tell them that we love them!!!

Last month I commented on the people terrorizing researchers who work with animals. If I didn't convince you then that those "activists" are mentally ill, check out this video of some sort of Earth First retreat.

Close to psychotic, don't you think? Earth First is a cult.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"A sort of disaster"

That's what one banker doing business in Russia says of his investments there.
"I have assets in both Georgia and Russia and I'm going to get out. What seemed a great idea at that time has become a sort of disaster," said a 31-year-old banker at one of the world's top 10 investment banks, who -- like most here -- spoke on condition of anonymity.
An article in the NYTimes examines the effect of the invasion of Georgia on the Russian economy, suggesting that, however weak the official Western response to Russian aggression has been, the country could pay big in regard to foreign investment.
Russian shares have lost about a third of their value since hitting record highs in May. Russian and Western bank analysts polled by Reuters have cut forecasts for Russia's gold and foreign exchange reserves.

As much as $25 billion in foreign capital may have left Russia since the Georgia conflict started, they said: while their growth forecasts were little changed at 7.5 percent, the crisis sharply cut the liquidity of the banking system.

BP's experience in the country doesn't recommend putting your money there, and this latest bullying only supplements the case against it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Pain is a growth market

I'm not going all existential on you, don't worry. Pain is a growth market for pharmaceuticals; and this is good news for fine chemical companies that have a DEA license to manufacture controlled substances, as Steve Klosk, CEO of Cambrex, pointed out in the company's recent earnings call:
The control substances market in the U.S. is far and away the most significant controlled substance market in the world. It is dominated by a small handful of domestic players that have been qualified by the DEA to produce or sell these substances and whom have little or no competition from foreign manufacturers due to DEA requirements.

Cambrex is one of the few companies situated to produce a wide range of APIs for sales to end markets. Last year, we sold approximately $15 million worth of controlled substances and have already sold a little over $10 million through June of this year. Our current products are focused on the attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder market and pain management.

Pain management is the key therapeutic growth area and we intend to develop more products to this segment of the market.
Western fine chemical companies have been focusing on technology and other capabilities, such as a DEA license, to differentiate themselves from low-cost Asian competitors. Later in the call, Klosk says that the company will be relying on controlled substances and proprietary drug delivery technologies (like its taste-masking Camouflage) to bring gross margins back to the 30% range.
I think the key, Mike, is we have talked about is driving the mix toward products that are influenced by our IP. So the two key strategic initiatives in terms of growing the controlled substance business and growing the drug delivery business are frankly going to be the biggest key towards driving the margins back toward the mid-30s. And hopefully higher than that as we go out in the later years.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

That's "shining at night" for you and me

Have you ever heard of "noctilucent clouds"? Apparently they're quite a mystery. First observed in the 19th century, in the aftermath of the eruption of Krakatoa, they are much higher than everyday clouds, on the very edge of space, in fact. If you want to more, there's a good piece from NASA, which the blog Watt's Up With That pointed me to. Either way, you ought to check out this gorgeous photo gallery of noctilucent clouds, where I got the image above.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How would you like to live in Hyderabad?

Rob Bryant, a fine chemicals consultant based in the UK, had a provocative essay called Can Asia innovate? published in Scrip in January.
Given the far lower margins to which most Asian companies operate (bar those in Japan) compared to their European counterparts, improving the efficiency of processes would seem to be a good idea. Yet the majority of Asian pharmaceutical manufacturing processes remain inefficient, often polluting and generally second-rate.
Bryant suggests that Europe benefits from an innovation-friendly culture that is absent in Asia.
It is certainly intriguing that Asian social traditions tend to avoid intellectual confrontation and that people are educated to respect the status quo to a degree that Europeans could not tolerate.... Perhaps a talent for asking difficult, and even annoying, questions is one of Europe's competitive advantages in the pharmaceutical industry.
If that's so, it hasn't stopped pharma fine chemicals manufacturing from migrating to Asia. Companies in India and China can easily undercut Western companies on cost. However, Bryant notes, competition among Asian companies has cut even their margins to the bone. He says the only room for reducing costs is improved processes, and he suggests that Asian companies will have to turn to Western technologists for that.
Europeans must be quick-witted enough to take advantage of this opportunity to continue to participate in API manufacture in this way. By inventing better processes to replace the older ones employed in Asia, they can participate actively in these countries' success and, where scale of manufacture allows, even compete successfully from a Western production base.
If not Hyderabad, how about Shenzhen?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Perpetual motion

Here's an exciting story about materials: UK defense and technology firm QinetiQ has built a solar-powered plane that could fly indefinitely. Called the Zephyr, it recently flew for over 80 hours after being launched from the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground.

Says QinetiQ:
Launched by hand, Zephyr is an ultra-lightweight carbon-fibre aircraft. By day it flies on solar power generated by amorphous silicon solar arrays no thicker than sheets of paper that cover the aircraft's wings. By night it is powered by rechargeable lithium-sulphur batteries, supplied by SION Power Inc, which are recharged during the day using solar power.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Apropos of nothing, I want to emphasize.

Monday, August 18, 2008

China: a growth market for... psychotherapy?

An article in Psychology Today describes China's "little emperors":
When China began limiting couples to one child 30 years ago, the policy's most obvious goal was to contain a mushrooming population. For the Chinese people, however, the policy's greater purpose was to turn out a group of young elites who would each enjoy the undivided resources of their whole family—the so-called xiao huangdi, or "little emperors."
These kids are the subject of enormous pressure to succeed. Being only children, they will be solely responsible for the support of their parents in old age:
With only one child to carry the load, parents' fortunes are tied to their child's, and they push (and pamper) the little ones accordingly. "In China, the term for a one-child family is a 'risky family,'" says Baochang Gu, a demography professor at Beijing's Renmin University who advises the Chinese government on the one-child policy. "If something happened to that child, it would be a disaster."
That this has taken place in the wake of China's cultural revolution heightens the stakes:
The pressure to succeed was all the greater given that his parents' own dreams had been dashed during China's Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong closed schools and sent difficult-to-control intellectuals to be "reeducated" by working the fields. Wang's father spent eight years herding goats. His own dreams destroyed, he poured all his hopes and ambitions into his son. "Because of the Cultural Revolution, my parents literally wasted 10 years," explains Wang, 29, who was among the first Chinese only kids born under the one-child policy. "I was explicitly told that they had lost a lot in their lives, so they wanted me to get it back for them."
Parents sacrifice everything to give the little emperors a competitive advantage over their peers:
Bringing up a high-achieving child in a crowded and impoverished city like Hohhot, parents sometimes have to get creative. Since the government issued minuscule rations of milk, for instance, Yu Wang's parents scraped together the money to buy a sheep and kept it with relatives outside the city. Every day, Wang's father cycled 40 minutes to fetch fresh milk for his son. Out of his parents' meager monthly salary of 45 RMB (about $6), 35 RMB went to Wang's education—including a packed slate of piano, painting, guitar, and even dancing classes.
Everything rests on a single test called gao kao, or "tall test," that will determine whether the kid gets into a university. Even if they do get in, however, and even if they get their degree, there aren't enough jobs for the highly educated:
The country now churns out more than 4 million university graduates yearly, but only 1.6 million new college-level jobs. Even the strivers end up as security guards. China may be the world's next great superpower, but it's facing a looming crisis as millions of overpressurized, hypereducated only children come of age in a nation that can't fulfill their expectations.

This culture of pressure and frustration has sparked a mental-health crisis for young Chinese. Many simmer in depression or unemployment, unwilling to take jobs they consider beneath them. Millions, afraid to face the real world, escape into video games, which the government considers a national epidemic. And a disturbing number decide to end it all; suicide is now China's leading cause of death for those aged 20 to 35.
The Chinese have been spared Freud, but neither have they much access to any more useful psychotherapy. According to the article, mental health problems were viewed from a purely political perspective during the Mao era.
When Mao cracked down on intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, he decimated the nation's already thin psychological establishment. "Back then, every mental problem was seen as anti-socialist," says Kaiping Peng, a University of California Berkeley professor who was among the first generation of Chinese psychologists to receive formal clinical training, in the late 1970s. "If you were depressed, they thought you were politically impure and sent you to a labor camp."
Not exactly encouragement to admit you have problems. But the situation is changing, says PT. Not only are more university-trained psychologists entering the work force, but also the government is trying to depressurize the situation:
Schools no longer publicly announce each student's exam scores and class rank, for one, and the government is also asking parents to let their precious little emperors actually play every once in a while.
Image: Patrick Lee

Friday, August 15, 2008

Oh, and by the way....

From microbiologist Richard Lenski's reply to Andrew Schlafly, a creationist who found it difficult to accept that a population of E. coli maintained by Lenski's group for 20 years had evolved the ability to metabolize citrate:
It is my impression that you seem to think we have only paper and electronic records of having seen some unusual E. coli. If we made serious errors or misrepresentations, you would surely like to find them in those records. If we did not, then – as some of your acolytes have suggested – you might assert that our records are themselves untrustworthy because, well, because you said so, I guess. But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren’t very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it’s not that we claim to have glimpsed “a unicorn in the garden” – we have a whole population of them living in my lab! And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion.
Definitely worth checking out a description of the affair at rational wiki. The letter also includes this tasty postscript:
P.S. Did you know that your own bowels harbor something like a billion (1,000,000,000) E. coli at this very moment? So remember to wash your hands after going to the toilet, as I hope your mother taught you. Simple calculations imply that there are something like 10^20 = 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 E. coli alive on our planet at any moment. Even if they divide just once per day, and given a typical mutation rate of 10^-9 or 10^-10 per base-pair per generation, then pretty much every possible double mutation would occur every day or so. That’s a lot of opportunity for evolution.
Via Chemistry Blog

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


It's becoming increasingly apparent that engaging in chemistry as a hobby is unacceptable behavior. Earlier this year, a kid in South Hadley, Massachusetts, was raided by the ATF, which descended on his home in force, removed his basement lab and blew it up at a nearby landfill.

Now a retired chemist -- in Massachusetts again -- has drawn the ire of the Man. Firefighters responding to a call about a burning air conditioner on the second floor of Victor Deeb's house found a well-stocked laboratory in the basement. (Once a chemist, always a chemist?)
Vessels of chemicals were all over the furniture and the floor, authorities said. The ensuing investigation involved a state hazardous materials team, fire and police officials, health officials, environmental officials and code enforcement officials. The Deebs were told to stay in a hotel while the slew of officials investigated and emptied the basement.

The result of their investigation?
None of the materials found at 81 Fremont St. posed a radiological or biological risk, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. No mercury or poison was found. Some of the compounds are potentially explosive, but no more dangerous than typical household cleaning products.
It's not clear why the "authorities" thought they should dismantle Mr. Deeb's lab. In fact, it they hadn't even figured that out themselves. It seems the mere practice of chemistry is enough to signify that a law has been broken, whether you can identify the specific law or not:
Pamela A. Wilderman, Marlboro’s code enforcement officer, said Mr. Deeb was doing scientific research and development in a residential area, which is a violation of zoning laws.

“It is a residential home in a residential neighborhood,” she said. “This is Mr. Deeb’s hobby. He’s still got bunches of ideas. I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation. … There are regulations about how much you’re supposed to have, how it’s detained, how it’s disposed of.”
I love that "somewhere". And the "we". Wilderman has no idea what's going on there, but it scares her, and that means something's wrong with it! Not that she's ignorant. Science!!!! "Research and development"!!! Horrors. Do you think they ever raided Julia Child for doing research and development? It's not like she wasn't doing exploratory chemistry too. But then only someone who knew what chemistry is would understand that it's fundamental to cooking.

There's a great post at Make:, a magazine for amateur technologists. Here's a noteworthy passage:
There's a lesson here for all of us who do science at home, whether we're home schoolers or DIY science enthusiasts. The government is not our friend. Massachusetts is the prototypical nanny state, of course, but the other 49 aren't far behind. Any of us could one day find the police at the door, demanding to search our home labs. If that day comes, I will demand a warrant and waste no time getting my attorney on the phone.
For all you subversives out there, a samizdat download.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So you think you travel a lot, do you?

For the details.

"It's in the national interest"

It's no secret that Beijing's primary objective for the Olympics is to show the world how far it has come. However, the country's efforts to present a "perfect" event ironically highlight exactly what continues to hold China back -- a systemic focus on appearances over substance. The opening ceremonies offered an interesting example. The organizers wanted a child to sing "Ode to the Motherland," but while 7-year-old Yang Peiyi was judged to have the best voice, she did not have the best looks, so they had 9-year-old Lin Miaoke lip sync the song. "The audience will understand that it's in the national interest," said Politburo member Chen Qigang, expressing the delusion, common to the totalitarian mindset, of complete control of perception. Apparently the fireworks weren't good enough for the Politburo, either, according to the same piece:
The news follows reports that some footage of the fireworks exploding across China's capital during the ceremony was digitally inserted into television coverage, apparently over concerns that not all of the 29 blasts could be captured on camera.
As a friend of mine who sent me the piece observed, the philosophy of development in China seems to be "just look the part". He added: "This is evident every time you hear about lead poisoning, food poisoning, water poisoning etc. They even think they can get away with mimicking drugs because one chemical *appears* to have properties like another completely different chemical."

The problem is fundamentally one of leadership. Until the Politburo rewards substantial value and rejects mere appearance, "made in China" will continue to inspire suspicion.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Drug shortage in India?

According to the Indian Drug Manufacturers Assoc., Olympics-related shutdowns of key raw materials suppliers in India are going to mean drug shortages in India in the next few months. Says DNA India:
India imports as much as 80% of its pharma raw material requirement, including APIs, from China because it is 10-40% cheaper, said Swati A Piramal, director, Piramal Healthcare.

Shinde says the shortage is not being felt today because medical stores are coping with pre-clampdown inventories.

“But after September, the shocks will be felt everywhere. The current stock will be consumed by then.

People will find it difficult to source drugs they would desperately want,” Shinde warns.

Domestic manufacturers are hurting, too, because shortage is spiking raw material prices and price control has become a bigger headwind.

“After the clampdown, prices of raw material have risen by 30-50%,” Piramal said. About 40-60% of the total costs of a pharma company is accounted for by raw material.
Indian manufacturers blame price controls in the country for driving them to outsource so much raw material manufacture in China, although it's hard to imagine why they wouldn't go to the cheapest source even absent the price controls.
Tapan Ray, director general of Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI), says companies have primarily been sourcing raw material from China because the low cost offsets the price control in India.

Up-and-coming Chinese CROs

Seeking Alpha today notes an interesting development that highlights two up-and-coming Shanghai CROs. Morningside Venture, Lilly Asian Ventures and Pfizer Venture Investments have all put their money behind the Shanghai-based, bio-focused CRO HD Biosciences Inc. HD seems to have a close relationship with Sundia, another Shanghai-based CRO that focuses on drug discovery chemistry. The two announced a service alliance with Novasecta in February, and with United PharmaTech in 2007.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Lonza's new engineering business

Lonza is starting up a new engineering business that will focus on China. It'll offer engineering, design and maintenance. Quite an interesting way of embedding the company in an expanding market and supplier base. Lonza will raise the production standards of any company they work with. They'll know exactly how the Chinese customer does business, and whether they'd make a good partner (or even acquisition...) for the Swiss fine chemicals leader. It'll be interesting to see how widely the service is engaged. Considering Lonza's reputation, compared with that of Chinese producers, I would think that the main limiting factor will be the price tag. Being able to point to a relationship with Lonza should be a valuable selling point for Chinese companies looking for business in abroad, particularly in the West & Japan.

“This new business unit is a very logical expansion of our existing strengths in manufacturing of complex products. We have built chemical and biotech plants around the world, at very high levels of quality and regulatory compliance,” remarked Lukas Utiger, Head of Life Science Ingredients. “We have built strong project management and maintenance experience in China since the mid 1990’s for the construction and maintenance of cGMP and Food GMP plants which have been certified by global regulators. Our talented and highly qualified staff of 130 technical experts has a strong drive to capitalize on this new business opportunity.”

Oh, that's where the food went.

Earlier I wrote about a report on NPR radio that tried to show the superiority of Britain's National Health Service to the US system of healthcare. The NPR piece offered a flimsy argument based on the experiences of one patient in the UK and one in the US. Within a few days, an article in the Daily Mail detailing how 30,000 patients had been left "starving" on NHS wards showed how foolish NPR's piece was.

Today I encountered another item from the UK in the same vein. Check this out:

Figures released by the Conservatives show that 70% of NHS Trusts brought in pest controllers at least 50 times between January 2006 and March 2008.

Vermin were found in wards, clinics and even operating theatres. A patients' group said the situation was revolting....

One had wasps in a neo-natal unit, and flying ants on the main wards, while another reported rats in their maternity unit, and wasps in operating theatres.

A children's A&E was infested with flies, and main wards were also home to mice, silverfish, biting insects and beetles.

Other common problems included bedbugs, fleas and cockroaches.

Apparently the bugs aren't starving.

The US "system" has problems, but I don't believe you'll ever have to worry that your newborn might be stung by a wasp, or that you'll wake up to find a roach checking you out. Again I wonder, where does NPR get off foisting such garbage on its listeners? -- and why do NPR's listeners think of themselves so highly for swallowing it?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Don't you know I'm loco?

I'm inclined to regard people like these bomb-throwing animal rights fanatics as mentally ill. They suffer a tunnel-vision so complete that they don't recognize other human beings, only the need to satisfy their compulsion.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The elephant in the pill bottle

A US Senator is hot and bothered about outsourcing by big pharma, says a piece at Outsourcing-Pharma, and the Congressional Record may shortly feature some interesting info:

Sen Brown has asked for specific information on the mechanisms Merck uses to track the chain of custody for reach ingredient used in its products, procedures to check that each facility in the supply chain adheres to its operating procedures and standards, and whether the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “periodically inspect every facility” that makes ingredients for the company.

He also asks for a detailed breakdown on the percentage of production that is outsourced to US providers, a ranking of the top 10 countries the company outsources to, and the estimated average and median wages paid at companies producing active pharmaceutical ingredient s(APIs) for Merck in each country.

He's done the same thing to Pfizer, apparently scandalized by something he found in the 2Q results, specifically a big hike in profits “due in part to cost-cutting measures,” Outsourcing-Pharma notes. Maybe he can't be blamed. According to the website, an FDA official made a serious accusation.

In April at a meeting of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, says Brown, an FDA official “acknowledged that American drug companies outsource operations due to cost factors and the existence of weaker drug safety standards abroad.”

Or maybe Brown just didn't understand what he was being told at the time. He certainly doesn't seem to understand the drug industry. He seems to think that Pfizer's 17% outsourcing should be called "heavy reliance". Has he looked at the generics industry? Obviously no, because he probably would have had a stroke over 100% outsourcing.

Who needs food?

Here's a story from NPR purporting to compare Britain's National Healthcare System with healthcare in the US. It actually compares only two cases, one in the US and one in the UK. That would be okay if they were used to illustrate statistical data, but there is no such data provided. The reporter, Joanne Silberner, instead tries to create the appearance of statistics by offering a "scorecard":

So the scorecard comes to this.

Linda Oatley of Buckland, England, had several months' delay in getting coverage for a new treatment. She also has to pay a small fee for weekly physical therapy. Overall, she's happy with the National Health Service.

"In the end, if you ask the right questions, go to the right places, you can get the care you need from the get-go," she says.

And the scorecard for Jeff Rubin? A year and a half of cutting drug dosages, a repossessed house and bankruptcy.

A few years ago, he wouldn't have supported a British-style system, with its slower drug approvals and limited ability to pick your own doctors.

Now, he feels differently. He says his healthy friends might not agree, but the free care from the start that Linda Oatley got and the ability to focus on his illness and not his finances sound pretty good.

Overall, it's a long piece full of meaningless color that could easily have made space for real information, but NPR is more interested in propagandizing.

Ironically I encountered this piece in the UK's Daily Mail within a day or two of the NPR report. The juxtaposition is pretty devastating. Here are the first few paragraphs, which demolish the "argument" of the NPR piece.

At least 30,000 patients were left starving on NHS wards last year, despite ministers’ pledges to make proper nutrition in hospitals a priority.

Last year, Health Minister Ivan Lewis admitted that some patients were given a single scoop of mash as a meal.

Others were ‘tortured’ with trays of food placed just beyond their reach while nurses said they were too busy to help them eat.

And now, official figures show that between 2005 and 2007, there was an 88 per cent rise in reported cases of poor nutrition leading to a serious deterioration in a patient’s health.

Last year, NHS whistleblowers reported 29,138 such errors to the National Patient Safety Agency – up from 15,473 in 2005.

They refer to elderly patients who are not properly fed and those given the wrong types of food, causing their health to worsen.

Let's do a little editing to make the NPR story more accurate:

A few years ago, [Jeff Rubin] wouldn't have supported a British-style system, with its slower drug approvals, limited ability to pick your own doctors and starvation.
But that wouldn't suit Silberner's agenda, would it.

I love this comment beneath the Daily Mail story:

Most of you are missing the point. You are blaming the inept nurses etc.

The government caused inept nurses and the current lack of money, decent food and lack of proper care. A government gets what it pays for. What it wants, it gets.

If, on the other hand, you consider that current hospital climate results in the death of many elderly pensioners, "useless eaters", then it all begins to make sense.

Doesn't it.