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