Sunday, September 30, 2007


I'm glad that I didn't read this until my applications were done. Not that I was oblivious to the quagmire that is the NIH funding system.

While training more medical scientists than we can realistically support (and then having them drop out of research) is certainly a concern, another equally unfortunate scenario that could result from a glut of MD/PhD graduates would be if all of the promising candidates ended up in industry. Biotech is booming, and many predict it will be a juggernaut by the time I graduate, so they may indeed end up picking up the slack for a lack of government funding. Of course this is not inherently bad; many great things come out of industry research. But it would be a shame if industry consolidated too great a share of our biomedical capital, much as the pharmaceutical industry has done. Many very bright medicinal chemists and pharmacologists (and probably a few other specialties) have virtually no choice but to work for the overlords of Big Pharma.

Many of them do good work, but it's no secret, for example, that urinary incontinence is a very active area of pharmaceutical research. Why? Obviously, this is not a pressing medical issue. However it is a fairly common problem and, more importantly, one which won't kill you. If a drug were developed, a patient might well take it continually for 20 years. I won't belabor that it is a terrible disconnect when treating an innocuous "disease" is incentivized over one with a high mortality rate. It would indeed be a shame if many of our best and brightest physician-scientists were beholden to such a system of crass bottom lines. The people who will make the greatest innovations in medicine over the next several decades need only to have their patients' best interests at heart, not their stockholders.

Commercially viable research is driven by profit potential, and this end does not always square nicely with medicine's obligation to treat even the toughest, most unrewarding of cases. That is why we must maintain a strong backbone of government supported investigation into the difficult, ugly, never-gonna-make-anybody-rich-but-could-save-many-lives problems. Further, there is an important synergy here; basic academic research lays a foundation of knowledge by which industry can judge if there is potential for a commercial solution, and run with the promising ideas that academia has illuminated. So much preliminary investigation is involved before an idea can even be considered for the industry pipeline that industry would virtually never produce anything new if they had to do all the research in house. The fact of the matter is that an unbelievable percentage of promising research turns out to be a clinical dead-end, so the risk is simply too great for any company to sustain active R&D in that kind of field. That's why we need to have plenty of NIH money: everyone depends on it.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Ignorance of Crowds

Here is an excellent article by Nicholas Carr that assesses the hype over the new fad of "open-source" everything. In short, those who believe that collaborative, wiki-type projects will revolutionize corporate production philosophy are probably out of touch with reality. While wikis make for a popular encyclopedia, that product is so successful not because it lacks flaws --even its most adamant proponents would surely admit that Wikipedia is lacking in many areas-- but because it's free. The open-source model, left entirely to its own devices, will likely produce many more Wikipedias, and you can't sell one of those for much.

But even as the corporate world has begun to embrace the idea of the bazaar as a forum for innovation, software programmers have continued to debate the strengths and weaknesses of peer production. The open source model has proven to be an extraordinarily powerful way to refine programs that already exist — Linux, for instance, is an elaboration of the venerable Unix operating system, and the open source Firefox browser builds on Netscape’s old Navigator — but it has proven less successful at creating exciting new programs from scratch. That fact has led some to conclude that peer production is best viewed as a means for refining the old rather than inventing the new; that it’s an optimization model more than an invention model.
Here I'm reminded of one of the early successful open-source models: the cryptographic doctrine of security through transparency. (Lo and behold, I looked for something to link for that concept and ol' Raymond is in the article. Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on Wikipedia after all. And maybe I shouldn't link a Wikipedia article to support my thesis that Wikipedia is pretty crappy.) Anyways, the theory basically says that encryption algorithms that rely on a secret in the algorithm itself (i.e., the algorithm is not known) are not as secure as those in which the algorithm is public, and only the key is secret. By the way, The Code Book is a fantastic lay explanation of basic concepts in cryptography.

Anyway, the reason the analogy is (hopefully) apt is that strong encryption algorithms are not developed by democratic collaboration; they are developed by the same isolated, eccentric geniuses as ever. But they are then scrutinized by the masses in a process that confirms and ensures their security. The wiki-digm may lead to better critics, but that's a far cry from producing better authors. In a production sense, the creation of material for them to improve upon is still rate-limiting. This is the invention vs. optimization distinction, and it's one of the primary reasons this "revolution" will end not with a bang, but with a whimper:
What makes the open source model so well suited to finding and fixing software flaws is that debugging is a task that requires little coordination among workers. Debuggers are able to sift through chunks of code in isolation — whether “splendid” or not — without knowing or caring what their fellow bug finders are doing. “Debugging,” as Raymond puts it, “is parallelizable.” All the debuggers have to do is communicate their findings and fixes to some central authority, like Linus Torvalds. The central authority takes care of synthesizing the work of the crowd, choosing the best contributions, melding them together into a coherent product, and then redistributing the work to the crowd for the next go-round.

But in Raymond’s observation, we also begin to see some of the limitations of the bazaar. First, peer production works best with routine or narrowly defined tasks that can be pursued simultaneously by a big crowd of people. It is not well suited to a job that requires a lot of coordination among the participants. If members of a large, informal group had to coordinate their efforts closely, their work would quickly bog down in complexity. The crowd’s size and diversity would turn from a strength to a weakness, and the speed advantage would be lost. Second, because it requires so many “eyeballs,” open source works best when the labor is donated or partially subsidized. If Linus Torvalds had had to compensate all his “eyeballs,” he would have gone broke long ago.

Third, and most important, the open source model — when it works effectively — is not as egalitarian or democratic as it is often made out to be. Linux has been successful not just because so many people have been involved, but because the crowd’s work has been filtered through a central authority who holds supreme power as a synthesizer and decision maker.
The take home:
The bottom line is that peer production has valuable but limited applications. It can be a powerful tool, but it is no panacea. It’s a great way to find and fix problems, to collect and categorize information, or to perform any other time-consuming task that can be sped up by having lots of people with diverse perspectives working in parallel. It can also have the important added benefit of engaging customers in your innovation process, which not only allows their insights to be harnessed but also may increase their loyalty to your company.

But if peer production is a good way to mine the raw material for innovation, it doesn’t seem well suited to shaping that material into a final product. That’s a task that is still best done in the closed quarters of a cathedral, where a relatively small and formally organized group of talented professionals can collaborate closely in perfecting the fit and finish of a product. Involving a crowd in this work won’t speed it up; it will just bring delays and confusion.

Ultimately, the hitch is the same as it ever was: the judicious selection of the talented few who possess the discretion to separate the wheat from the chaff. And we can't rely on the wisdom of crowds for that.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007


Microcredit is an amazing idea. And with the advent of decentralized financial transactions provided by the web, it has really begun to come into its own as an efficacious method of socioeconomic change. Kiva is leading the way in realizing this idea's potential. It's amazingly simple. It works like this.

Even those of us who have very little money can make a substantial contribution. After all, you're almost certainly going to get your money back, so it's really just an issue of living without part of your paycheck for a bit. I am stunned at the power of such a simple idea.

Update: A fantastic example of the way people in undeveloped countries are really lacking only for seed capital, rather than intelligence, ingenuity, or desire, is here. There are several other case studies in the enabling of the destitute and their amazing capacity for technological achievement (which sounds -- and is -- naively chauvinistic to say in light of these examples) in this book.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Healthcare Reform

RSU's got it figured out.

"You know, a lot of sick people think they deserve to get better. Bullshit. I don't see nothin like that in the Bill of Rights."
"We'll give sick people just enough to stop 'em from bitchin."


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On Reality

Read this. Wow, that's good. Here's a taste:

The rumored totality of America's cynical scorn for politics and leaders notwithstanding, this country has many citizens who still believe, even after what has happened, that if the president of the United States says it, then it must be true. This isn't a conscious thing; it happens way back in the slushy part of the brain, where unpleasant facts or disquieting fears are submerged and drowned like rats in an applesauce vat. Bush and his crew counted on that, using TV news messaging to furrow the field in preparation for seeding time, and their trust in the trust of Americans was shown to be well-placed.

When the serious push came, it came fast and furious. Dick Cheney declared that the Vice President's office no longer existed within the Executive branch because he didn't want to give any of his documents to the National Archives as is required by law, and actually went on to defend the legitimacy of his astonishing, arrogant, galactically mistaken declaration, and he got away with it.

Bush's lawyers put forth a claim of Executive Privilege that was the very living essence of overheated hubris run amok - a claim that for all intents and purposes declared Bush and his people to be fully and completely above the rule of law, and he got away with it. Subpoenas issued by Congress were either utterly ignored or smugly slapped aside, and the lawyers got away with it.

Another piece of draconian surveillance legislation aimed at shattering our remaining rights arrived in Congress, so the Bush folks brazenly bullied the majority into passing it by threatening to blame them for the next terrorist attack to come, whereupon the majority instantly wilted like orchids in a snowbank, the bill passed with room to spare, and once again they got away with it.

Cheney's chief of staff was convicted for lying about lying about lying about outing a deep-cover CIA agent and sentenced to federal prison, initiating the single most observably crooked bag-job in modern political history: Libby took the bullet for his boss, got rewarded for his service with a presidential get-out-of-jail-free card, and they all got away with it.

All of this was deployed in rapid succession, presenting the American people with a sudden feast of gibberish that has redefined incoherence across the board: the VP is not in the executive branch, and the executive branch is above the law, and the majority in Congress is actually the minority, and obstructing justice to protect Cheney from being prosecuted for annihilating a CIA operative isn't anything to get in a snit about. If that is not prima facie evidence that a new reality has been imposed upon us, then I don't know what is.

Slowly but surely, the eerie prophecy of Ron Suskind's iconic piece on the Bush presidency has been realized. Recall:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''



Tuesday, September 18, 2007


This is why I love the ACLU. They stand on their principles, even for the assholes who openly contemn them.

Exoneration will obviously not salvage Craig's political career. After all, he pleaded guilty to the minor charge of "disorderly conduct." The calls for resignation are not because he's a criminal, they're because he's gay. The scandal isn't that he tried to have sex with a policeman, it's that he tried to have sex with a man.

Nonetheless, the ACLU is exactly right: in the same way that I can walk up to a woman at a bar and proposition her, a man may do the same to another man. And the same speech that's constitutionally protected in bars is constitutionally protected in bathrooms. They are also correct in pointing out that it would be quite easy to stop people from having sex in an airport bathroom, especially since airports are already crawling with uniformed officers. So this sting operation is, in effect, an extortion scheme that fails to accomplish its ostensible goal of keeping guys from getting busy on their layovers.

On a tangent, Daniel Gilbert's blog contains an excellent remark that embodies the cause celebre of the ACLU:

We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.


Why We Should Leave

It hurts when a 3-star general and former head of the NSA under Reagan thinks the president is a madman. This op-ed is old, but not a bit dated. (That shouldn't be surprising, as any serious debate of the Iraq conundrum has been stifled by rhetoric and temporization.)

The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq starkly delineates the gulf that separates President Bush's illusions from the realities of the war. Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result. In this critical respect, the NIE, the consensus judgment of all the U.S. intelligence agencies, is a declaration of defeat.

Its gloomy implications -- hedged, as intelligence agencies prefer, in rubbery language that cannot soften its impact -- put the intelligence community and the American public on the same page. The public awakened to the reality of failure in Iraq last year and turned the Republicans out of control of Congress to wake it up. But a majority of its members are still asleep, or only half-awake to their new writ to end the war soon.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Americans do not warm to defeat or failure, and our politicians are famously reluctant to admit their own responsibility for anything resembling those un-American outcomes. So they beat around the bush, wringing hands and debating "nonbinding resolutions" that oppose the president's plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

For the moment, the collision of the public's clarity of mind, the president's relentless pursuit of defeat and Congress's anxiety has paralyzed us. We may be doomed to two more years of chasing the mirage of democracy in Iraq and possibly widening the war to Iran. But this is not inevitable. A Congress, or a president, prepared to quit the game of "who gets the blame" could begin to alter American strategy in ways that will vastly improve the prospects of a more stable Middle East.

No task is more important to the well-being of the United States. We face great peril in that troubled region, and improving our prospects will be difficult. First of all, it will require, from Congress at least, public acknowledgment that the president's policy is based on illusions, not realities. There never has been any right way to invade and transform Iraq. Most Americans need no further convincing, but two truths ought to put the matter beyond question[.]

As Congress awakens to these realities -- and a few members have bravely pointed them out -- will it act on them? Not necessarily. Too many lawmakers have fallen for the myths that are invoked to try to sell the president's new war aims. Let us consider the most pernicious of them.

1) We must continue the war to prevent the terrible aftermath that will occur if our forces are withdrawn soon. Reflect on the double-think of this formulation. We are now fighting to prevent what our invasion made inevitable! Undoubtedly we will leave a mess -- the mess we created, which has become worse each year we have remained. Lawmakers gravely proclaim their opposition to the war, but in the next breath express fear that quitting it will leave a blood bath, a civil war, a terrorist haven, a "failed state," or some other horror. But this "aftermath" is already upon us; a prolonged U.S. occupation cannot prevent what already exists.

2) We must continue the war to prevent Iran's influence from growing in Iraq. This is another absurd notion. One of the president's initial war aims, the creation of a democracy in Iraq, ensured increased Iranian influence, both in Iraq and the region. Electoral democracy, predictably, would put Shiite groups in power -- groups supported by Iran since Saddam Hussein repressed them in 1991. Why are so many members of Congress swallowing the claim that prolonging the war is now supposed to prevent precisely what starting the war inexorably and predictably caused? Fear that Congress will confront this contradiction helps explain the administration and neocon drumbeat we now hear for expanding the war to Iran.

Here we see shades of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy in Vietnam: widen the war into Cambodia and Laos. Only this time, the adverse consequences would be far greater. Iran's ability to hurt U.S. forces in Iraq are not trivial. And the anti-American backlash in the region would be larger, and have more lasting consequences.

3) We must prevent the emergence of a new haven for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But it was the U.S. invasion that opened Iraq's doors to al-Qaeda. The longer U.S. forces have remained there, the stronger al-Qaeda has become. Yet its strength within the Kurdish and Shiite areas is trivial. After a U.S. withdrawal, it will probably play a continuing role in helping the Sunni groups against the Shiites and the Kurds. Whether such foreign elements could remain or thrive in Iraq after the resolution of civil war is open to question. Meanwhile, continuing the war will not push al-Qaeda outside Iraq. On the contrary, the American presence is the glue that holds al-Qaeda there now.

4) We must continue to fight in order to "support the troops." This argument effectively paralyzes almost all members of Congress. Lawmakers proclaim in grave tones a litany of problems in Iraq sufficient to justify a rapid pullout. Then they reject that logical conclusion, insisting we cannot do so because we must support the troops. Has anybody asked the troops?

[T]he strangest aspect of this rationale for continuing the war is the implication that the troops are somehow responsible for deciding to continue the president's course. That political and moral responsibility belongs to the president, not the troops. Did not President Harry S. Truman make it clear that "the buck stops" in the Oval Office? If the president keeps dodging it, where does it stop? With Congress?

Embracing the four myths gives Congress excuses not to exercise its power of the purse to end the war and open the way for a strategy that might actually bear fruit.

The first and most critical step is to recognize that fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy. Getting out of Iraq is the pre-condition for creating new strategic options. Withdrawal will take away the conditions that allow our enemies in the region to enjoy our pain. It will awaken those European states reluctant to collaborate with us in Iraq and the region.

Yeah. That's what I was gonna say.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Fear and Disgust

...may not bode well for travelers, but lets try and stick to detecting things like weapons and explosives first. This is a stupid idea.


Thursday, September 13, 2007


Bush and Petraeus have tried to attribute their agreement to begin drawing down forces next April to a success in Iraq. But, ignoring the fact that there are no indications whatever that this is the case, everyone already knew that we HAD to bring home about 30,000 troops at that time anyway. So let's not try to spin a military necessity as a policy move, eh fellas?


This WILL NOT Change The World

As for the cancer part, exciting nanoparticles with otherwise innocuous radiation is actually a great idea. The problem is selectively delivering the particles to cancerous cells and not healthy ones. If you just give someone a mouthful of gold dust, that won't happen. (Antibody-based delivery is promising, though.) That idea is not exactly original, although it is certainly very clever. As for the radiation, though, radio waves will never work. Electromagnetic radiation will only interact strongly with objects or particles that are comparable in size to the waves' length, and radio is at a very long wavelength. For instance, AM radio at 1000KHz, which is the same kind you can pick up in your car, has a wavelength of about 300 meters, or 1000 feet. [Speed=Frequency X Wavelength, so: (3*10^8 m/s)/(1*10^6 s^-1) = 3*10^2 m] We are too small for radio waves to mess with and that's exactly why, as he demonstrates in the video, you can put your hand next to an RF generator and nothing happens. That's not true of the magnetron in your microwave! It's also why dinghies and canoes won't make a blip on a battleship's radar.

Anyway, the point is that nanoparticles require wavelengths of nanometers to excite them. The visible spectrum runs from around 400-800nm, with shorter wavelengths being in the UV range and longer being infrared. UV is obviously quite harmful, but it turns out that we can make particles tuned to resonate at the low range of the IR spectrum, which is otherwise harmless glowing warmth, and this causes tumors to cook. It's a therapy with beautiful potential, but again its primary limitations are in making sure that the particles are where they're supposed to be. So the idea is great, but he should know that radio waves are out of the question; the EMR must be from a much shorter part of the spectrum.

And as for the water combustion solving an energy problem, well, that's just retarded. Why do you think he can't find a buyer for the idea? Hydrogen fuel will never solve ANY problem, because the reason it burns in oxygen is that water is more stable than its component elements. That is, the amount of energy released by burning hydrogen is equal to the amount of energy required to split water. So if you split water and burn it you could, at very best, hope to break even. Unfortunately, even this is impossible; the laws of thermodynamics forbid perfectly efficient energy transfer, so it will always cost more energy to split water than can be released by burning it. Entropy * is a bitch.

*The video for the link is obviously apropos of nothing. It was the only link I could find to that ridiculously awesome MC Hawking song.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Awwww Snap

Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York) lays into Petraeus.

"Optimism is great, but reality is what we really need."

True, and I suppose I should probably applaud his restraint in phrasing it so delicately, but for once I'd like to hear a congressman just say "Bullshit. You are full of shit. Stop lying to me."

The one piece of evidence he offers in support of a continued occupation of Iraq is an absurd fact by which to bolster the case for staying there: he says that Iraqis are taking losses several times higher than our own. That's supposed to be good news? Sure, on the one hand you could interpret that as them standing up so we can stand down, but on the other, more obvious hand, it means at the very least that there's a shitload of violence going on over there. And since our mission is a stable Iraq, that would seem to suggest we're not doing a very good job. So I wouldn't bring that up if I were him. (By the way, if that statistic is at all based on reality it is only counting a select group of combat-trained Iraqis, because Iraqi citizens are undoubtedly dying at a MUCH higher rate than that.)

Like a good military man, Petraeus just wants to do his job to the best of his ability. Fortunately then, he is not really in charge; civilians are. So let's give him his new mission: bring us home.

Robert Wexler (D-FL) makes the point:

PS: Petraeus toes the party line masterfully. He is intelligent and well spoken, and carefully crafts statements that don't smack of PR-firm talking points. He seems sincere in his beliefs, or at least he is not brazenly disingenuous. I guess what I'm saying is that after Gonzo, it is an honor to be lied to by a man of Petraeus's caliber.

PPS: Veracifier is the awesome.