Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Biofuel Mess

Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, have been a hot topic recently in political circles as a tool for combating climate change. They could create tons of agricultural/processing jobs while also doing a good thing for the environment...what's wrong with that?

Well, lots. First comes this article here, from the Financial Times, showing the ridiculous subsidies for biofuel production. Including as much as $1/litre in Europe for ethanol. The most fascinating chart, however, shows how much subsidized biofuel production has pushed the growth of corn consumption:

Theoretically, this focus on biofuel production has other effects, distorting food markets and driving up prices. Well...that world is a reality now. To the point that the UN independent food rights expert called for a 5-year freeze on biofuel production.
“It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel.”

Even The Economist has weighed in, with an article on higher food prices. They too note the effect of biofuels, but also note the contribution of continued market liberalization, combined with an inordinate number of floods and droughts. It remains to be seen what will happen next, but reducing the distorting effect of biofuel subsidies would go a long way to helping everyone.

Friday, November 2, 2007

More on TV and the internet

Since my last post on this, much more has come to pass.

NBC and FOX launched their own video streaming site called Hulu, which is still in beta.
And in general the issue of TV and the internet has been much talked about. Well, as always, The Economist does the best wrap-up and summary of the complex issue here.
The penny has finally dropped. Broadcasters have realised they can earn more
from selling advertising slots in shows given away on the internet, than they
can from selling episodes for downloading online.
Better still, rather than
erode their viewing figures still further, letting people watch episodes of
popular TV shows on laptops or other devices seems to increase audiences for the
broadcasters’ conventional programming. Offering free access apparently
reinforces the broadcaster’s brand and boosts viewer loyalty—one of the first
pieces of good news the networks have had in ages.

Well, duh! Meanwhile The Economist also needled the wireless companies for their inane 20th-Century style monopolistic utility model.
But what about watching TV on a mobile phone? The phone companies would prefer
you didn’t know about free internet television. They want to make you pay a
hefty sum for receiving television shows on your phone via their proprietary
cellular networks, rather than from the internet for free.

Oh how wonderful they are! Google and Yahoo don't think like that! Nintendo doesnt think like that! This is old-style AT&T 'damn the consumers...full-speed ahead!'.
All it takes is one competitor...please let it be google. The wireless industry is due for a massive upheaval, and complete retooling of the standards of competition. Everyone hates their wireless company....but it doesnt have to be that way! Anyway, maybe people will vote with their feet (as they have with iPhones, supposedly 250K have been unlocked, and last week Apple limited iphone purchases to 2 per person, and only with a credit card).
Will subscribers tune in? That all depends on what price the wireless
carriers charge, and how much control the television networks are prepared to
surrender. The way both parties have been behaving of late does not bode
well.
With Apple having upped the ante by including a WiFi connection in its
iPhone, sooner or later all mobile phones will have to do the same. That will
allow users to connect direct to the free and open internet as well as to their
carrier’s pricey and closed proprietary network. That means free phone calls
from the likes of Skype whenever the phone is used in WiFi hotspot. It also
means free access to internet TV.
The betting is that mobile viewers won’t
limit their video fare to just “walled gardens” like Hulu that broadcasters are
erecting. By insisting on controlling the content, how long it is made available
and what users can add to it, Hulu and its ilk will almost certainly drive
potential viewers to the open country of YouTube and MySpace, or even to the
bootleg haven of BitTorrent.
What the mobile generation of 18 to 34 year-olds
finds so attractive about social networks like YouTube and MySpace is that it is
they, the users, who are in charge. They not only assemble the content, but they
also curate it. And in so doing, they create a seductive sense of community.
That’s what makes such sites so successful.

Friday, October 26, 2007

TV going the way of music?

How do people want to consume music? The answer, it is increasingly clear, is that people want SONGS, not albums. As Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics notes:

It strikes me as ironic that a new technology (digital music) may have accidentally forced record labels to abandon the status quo (releasing albums) and return to the past (selling singles). I sometimes think that the biggest mistake the record industry ever made was abandoning the pop single in the first place. Customers were forced to buy albums to get the one or two songs they loved; how many albums can you say that you truly love, or love even 50% of the songs — 10? 20? But now the people have spoken: they want one song at a time, digitally please, maybe even free.

How do people want to consume television? The rise of TV and DVR has increasingly shown tv execs that people, as always, want to consume shows on their own time, at their own pace, in their own way (TV, ipod, computer, etc.; without ads, in a row, 10-minutes at a time etc.). This is why NBC's decision to begin putting their shows for free online is genius....except the shows are only available to US IP addresses, which kind of misses the point (since the rest of the world is more wired than the US anyway; see this article about the US ranking 15th in internet connectedness).

Well, my favorite free tv website online, the late TV links, was shut down last week. In a move reminiscent of napster and its fight with the record industry, the site was shut down by the FACT (Federation against copywright theft) group. See this UK article: "One of the world's most-used pirate film websites has been closed after providing links to illegal versions of major Hollywood hits and TV shows."

HAH. Once again, they've missed the whole point, which is that online file-sharing and the essentially unlimited consumption freedom it confers is the future of entertainment, all entertainment (moreover, as this link notes: "On the facts that we know so far, it is difficult to see how the providing of links to infringing copies of TV shows gives rise to a civil or criminal liability under UK law").

Well, the article that got me all started on this is here, and is worth a full read. My favorite section is this:

It’s just stunning to see that the TV and film world haven’t sorted themselves out by making their programmes available for people to watch online - in the time between then and now. The end result? People are bypassing the owners of the content and going to any source where they can find the programmes. Hence the rise of sites like TV-Link and AllUC. Again we’ll see large media organisations shouting “FOUL!” and insisting that “Something must be done about this.” If they hadn’t spent so much time worrying about trying to get DRM working - treating their customers a thieves - and more time getting the content ready to be available to their customers, they might not have been in this position.

I would add that it is not only stunning, but frankly inexplicable. While music in the digital age requires a fundamentally different business model, it is not difficult for TV content providers (HBO through NBC, ABC, CBS etc.) to provide streaming video of all their programming. This can be done with advertising (even with embedded commercial breaks). The TV business, unlike the music business, is built like the internet!

Record labels have to change the way they sell music, but since most TV (with obvious exceptions) is provided free-of-charge, or at a nominal cost, with revenue earned through advertising, how does TV not jive with the internet? Free content, with revenue from advertising.....where have I heard that before? sounds familiar.......

Oh yeah! This is how GOOGLE is run, the kingpin of the internet! The internet is constructed on this model, where is internet TV!!!!!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More New York Times mediocrity

So some of you may know that I no longer read the NY Times, after years of diligently plowing through the A section every single weekday (it was free in college). I remember being vaguely perturbed by the breathlessly credulous way in which the Times supported the Iraq war (I feel like I plagiarized that phrase from someone; apologies if i did), and most recently the papers' shameful portrayal of the Duke Lacrosse Case was even more directly sobering (see the AP's Aaron Beard for some real reporting).

Well, the NY Times has never been well-known for its sports coverage, but this gem from August is thigh-slappingly hilarious (from Slate):
"Charlie Weis has returned Notre Dame to relevancy. Just two years ago, as Notre Dame spiraled toward mediocrity under Ty Willingham, a shot at a national
title seemed improbable. But the schemes and the discipline Weis has installed have
revived past glories. The only question on the Irish offense comes on the line.
But considering the way Weis turned castoff linemen into solid starters with the
New England Patriots, that should not be a huge concern."— New York Times, Aug.
27, 2006
Two months after writing those immortal lines, Notre Dame is now 1-7, spectacularly bad. Nice prediction.

Cali Fires


Maybe I'm a closet pyro, but I am fascinated by wildfires and wilderness firefighting of late. Check out this awesome google mashup by the San Diego Union-Trib.

Monday, October 22, 2007

On the danger of factions

Great little observation here about single-issue, high-powered ethno-religious lobby groups. Namely Armenian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, and the famous/infamous Israeli lobby. Fallows pulls a great quote from the Federalist papers, about 'Factions'

"By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a
majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common
impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or
to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."

Sound familiar?

NASA withholding vital survey safety data...for no good reason

Recently, I have been very impressed with the Associated Press. They continually break new stories, provide truly balanced, unbiased fact-based reporting. Good stuff. Unlike the NY Times...

Anyway, the AP has been trying for 14 months to get access to a 4-year NASA survey of airline pilots that the agency repressed the report "fearful it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits".

WHAT!!!
WHAT!!!

As an economist and fan of free markets, I am hardly knee-jerk anti-corporate, but the thought that a public agency run by the government, payed by taxpayers money, and tasked with public service goals could possibly cite instigating panic and protecting corporate profits is unconscionable. In fact, I can't think of a single, defensible reason to ever suppress this kind of data. In the final letter from NASA to the AP denying their FOIA request, a NASA administrator actually wrote (and should be fired for it):
Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey
......(blink).....(go slack-jawed)......(start feeling overwhelming blood-boiling rage).....(serenity now).

Luckily the AP then decided that if they couldn't get the actual results, they could definitely find some disgruntled employees who could summarize them off the record. Go AP! Check out the link for full detail.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Generics not the same? Oh dear me..

Any sort of even minor groundswell against generics could lead to a catastrophic disintegration of the global healthcare system. Generics are cheaper, not just a little, but A LOT cheaper, like 90% or more than the branded versions, and their existence lies at the very core of the modern capitalist-patent innovation system.

We (society) agree not to copy a pharmaceutical company's innovations for a specified period of time (the length of a patent), as long as the details of said invention are published and made openly available after the end of the patent. In the meantime, the innovator enjoys a monopoly on his/her invention and can therefore price and market it at will, thus enabling the innovator to recoup their capital, and society to enjoy the innovation's benefits during the length of the patent. Obviously a key element of generics, once the expiry of the patent, is to exactly copy the original drug. Specifications are of course provided in the original patent, in addition to the fact that most small-molecule drugs can rather easily be reverse-engineered.

Well, this smoothly running deal between society and innovators that underpins the entire innovation paradigm of modern healthcare, while providing the obvious answer to future concerns over skyrocketing drug costs, is being called into question. Apparently, generic versions of GSK's Wellbutrin (bupropion, see label here) have been called into question.

New test findings by ConsumerLab.com that were released to MSNBC.com showed that one of a few generic versions of Wellbutrin XL 300 mg, sold as Budeprion XL 300 mg, didn't perform the same as the brand-name pill in the lab...


...For the testing, ConsumerLab.com purchased both the original Wellbutrin XL
300 mg sold by GlaxoSmithKline and the generic version sold by Teva, the same
one that Douglas took and that many other readers complained about, and had six
samples of each drug analyzed. While both drugs contained the stated amount of
the active ingredient, bupropion, "dissolution testing" showed that the generic
drug, which has a different time-release mechanism, released the active
ingredient into a solution at a quicker rate. "The Teva product released
nearly half of its ingredients in the first four hours," says Cooperman. "The
original Wellbutrin released 25 percent." Within the first two hours, 8
percent of the original Wellbutrin had dissolved, compared with 34 percent of
the Teva product, according to Cooperman. By 16 hours, both drugs had released
all the medicine.


WOW. A few quick-hit thoughts:

1. Teva isn't just some fly-by-night sketchy generics operator, it's one of the world's premier generics manufacturers (in fact, it even has one or two of its own branded drugs, like the oral MS drug Copaxone).

2. The MSNBC article, and none of the other articles I've seen, make any mention of the potentially enormous economic and social ramifications of loss of patient faith in generic drugs.

3. While the article notes it briefly, the test done by consumerlabs.com is highly suspect, in that it was an in vitro test ('in glass' i.e. in a test tube) and thus is not as rigorous as FDA testing. The FDA tests 'bioequivalence' which measures the actual drug biology in healthy volunteers, and is thus far more realistic than some test tube. Nonetheless, the words of this pharmacist stick in my head:
"the combination of anecdotal evidence and the conclusions of the in vitro study
would lead one to believe that patients might receive a different therapeutic
outcome from the two medications."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Alcohol as a therapeutic?

From Australia (where else?) comes this gem of a story about alcohol being used therapeutically:

DOCTORS used a case of vodka to help save an Italian tourist being treated for poisoning in a Queensland hospital. And hospital authorities later proved very understanding about the booze bill. The 24-year-old man was brought to Mackay Base Hospital, in north Queensland, two months ago after he had ingested a large amount of the poisonous substance ethylene glycol, found in antifreeze, which can cause renal failure and is often fatal.

Well I got curious, of course, as to how exactly it was possible for alcohol to be GOOD for you (asides from red wine, but then its not the booze in red wine that's helping you, but some of the other stuff). I also got curious, however, because this story directly relates to the Chinese Poison Toothpaste Fiasco that has been leading headlines this year (you may recall, ethylene glycol is similar to glycerine and was substituted in toothpastes made in China).

Luckily, the beauty of the modern 'radiated library' known as the internet has merged with the 1980s/90s 'evidence-based medicine' movement to let average Joes like me access lots of free medical information. Here, you can find "Methanol and ethylene glycol poisoning: a case study and review of the literature" which neatly summarizes (in fairly penetratable medspeak) exactly what happens with ethylene glycol poisoning.


Essentially, ethylene glycol and alcohol go through the same metabolic pathways in the body, and thus are broken down by the same compounds. Ethylene glycol itself is not poisonous, it is its after-molecules that cause trouble. Oxalate acid in particular has a tendancy to build up in certain bodily tissues, especially the kidneys. This 'oxalate crystal deposition' is a primary mechanism of ethylene glycol's toxicity, and leads to kidney failure (and potentially death). This is ethylene glycol's metabolic pathway:



Treating ethylene glycol poisoning is really easy, you first have to block the molecule's metabolic pathways, to prevent further harm. This is usually accomplished with IV ethanol (alcohol) or fomepizole, and seeks to block the action of ADH in metabolizing the compound. Fomepizole simply inhibits the ability of ADH to do its work, while ethanol 'competes' with ethylene glycol for ADH floating around in your system. It turns out that booze is 100 TIMES more able to soak up ADH than ethylene glycol, so putting just a little bit of alcohol into your system quickly takes up all the available ADH, simply preventing ethylene glycol from breaking down while you are drunk. In the meantime, while ADH is being blocked, ethylene glycol is simply floating around, not dangerous, but not going away. Simple hemodialysis (filtering of the blood through an external machine) can accomplish the task of scrubbing your blood of the ethylene glycol.

This is why the docs gave the guy 3 drinks an hour for 3 days, because they essentially needed to keep him long-term buzzed , to prevent his kidneys from failing, while they scrubbed his blood. I guess he took so much, that it took them a while. HAH.

Also check out wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

More cool architecture

I've been seeing some pretty cool buildings lately, in a sort of 21st century modernism based on glass, steel, aluminum and totally unconventional vertical aesthetics. It's funny how much our impression of buildings is rooted in our deep reliance on the functionality of buildings, as solid structures whose stability protects us from the element. It seems that we therefore prize solid, secure aesthetics, namely the importance of 90 degree angles. Even the Bilbao Guggenheim ascribes to this innate need for secure stability. Despite its titanium sides and smoothly fluid lines, it is fundamentally squatly anchored in the ground.



Newer 21st century architecturs even seem to challenges this, I have been noticing. This new architecture seems to revel in illusions of instability through leaning, slumping, and surging at angles neither paralell, nor perpindicular to the horizon. Three examples:


Stata Center, MIT


The new crystal addition to the Royal Ontario Museum:



And my personal favorite, the new Central Chinese Television Tower (CCTV), being built, in Beijing:





Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Prophetic futurists from the past

Check this out:

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.


Sounds kinda like computers and the internet right? Well that was one hell of a prophetic dude, from back in 1934 (check it out). Ridiculous.

What crazy idea have you heard of recently that will actually become the future?

Why I love the View

I think Barbara Walters is secretly a genius. Let's review.

Star Jones. 'nuff said.
Rosie's Trump feuds and loud radical lesbo-feminist crassness.
Barry Manilow hating Elisabeth Haselbeck (yup, he's definitely gay)
Whoopi Goldberg saying Michael Vick should be excused because black culture doesn't care about dogs.
And now, Barbara Walters has finished the latest version of the view cast.....Sherri Shepherd.

It inspires speechlessness.

And then she tries to make me feel bad for daring to think such airy thoughts as 'why does the sun rise in the east but set in the west' while she slaves away providing for her children? That's rich.

Freedom for the Burmese

I have been following with great interest and hope the ongoing events in Burma, and I still don't know what to make of it. Generally speaking, revolutions require a uniting of disparate lesser power sources with the common people. This generally involves something like radicals and moderates finding common cause (see French, Russian, or Iranian revolutions), or previously neutral parties joining in (Turkish or maybe Burmese with the monks?). There is an important distinction, however, from many overthrows of corrupt tottering regimes and superpower client states like the revolving door of Pakistani/Bangladeshi governments, the Afghanistan cold war saga, or even the Indonesian 1998 revolutions.



This is a totalitarian state. Burma isn't some carefully sown together balance of power between conflicting factions like ethnic groups (see Lebanon), sectarian parties (see Iraq), ancient political families (see Bangladesh/Indonesia), or any of the other traditional pedestrian power centers that must be carefully managed in many traditional governments. This is hard-core, orthodox totalitarianism. Kickin'-it Stalin style, if you will. Belarus and the old N Korea are close competitors for truly worst places on earth. In a vacuum, they would simply not exist, but would collapse under the weight of their own oppression. They only exist as client states of major powers-ironically more useful the more oppressive they are-because they are more annoying to the open democratic societies of the world.



In this kind of state, revolutions aren't quite simply a matter of aligning domestic power interests, but removing the external sources of power. Without Russia, Belarus would not exist the way it does today, without China, their would only be one Korea and no Myanmar-Burma. Pressure on China is the key, but where can this come from? Considering how important image is to China these days, maybe simply public pressure from its customers (us) can bring the pressure? Sign this petition.

Harmonious societies

China's current domestic social policy is oriented towards the construction of a 'harmonious society', very nice buzzwords of which even Karl Rove would likely approve ('surge' anyone?). Check out this delicious anecdote:
My neighbor Feng, a postal worker with a lazy eye and unerring sense of
humor, had consumed an inharmonious amount of baijiu, the official firebrew of
China. Late into the evening he stood up and announced: "The Beijing government
is always talking about building a harmonious society, but we already have a
harmonious society right here in this courtyard!" The assembled guests roared
their approval. A few minutes later Feng puked in the corner, and our
celebration of harmony was over for the night.

Slumping

This is one of my favorite pieces of architecture that I've seen in a while.
Feels to me like the silver parts of the building are slumping up against the brick, like an idle laborer smoking a cigarette, or someone waiting on the streetcorner to meet a friend. Nice. From a nice Slate slideshow.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Apple Evilness

So I was wondering what exactly was going on with Apple of late...what with the iPhone tanking, and then this weird pricing thing. Well...my favorite sports columnist (who isn't a sports columnist, but an academic who writes one for fun) has hit the nail on the head: the New Apple is becoming the Old Microsoft:
Last week, many owners of the iPhone, whose value is falling faster than
American housing -- "iPhones now on sale for 20 cents," a mall announcer said in
the background of the latest "Simpsons" episode -- were dismayed to realize that
downloading the latest software update from Apple permanently disabled their
phones. Apple planned it that way! It seems iPhone buyers had been using patches
and switch resetting to circumvent the electronic lock intended to prevent the
phone from working with any carrier other than AT&T. This people-oriented
approach seems like exactly what the Old Apple would have encouraged. But the
New Apple seems to want to become the Old Microsoft, so the company decided to
punish its own customers. When Apple offered a software update for the iPhone,
buried in the disclaimer was a warning that if you had unlocked your iPhone to
dial in a service other than AT&T, the software update would permanently
ruin the phone. No one would ever click "I Accept" if aware that clicking "I
Accept" would destroy his or her property! Apparently, Apple not only assumed
that no one ever actually reads corporate disclaimers but was hoping no one
would actually read the disclaimer.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Freedom

...comes at a brutal price.Burma...two days ago. more on this later.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

This will make you laugh for days

Some guy got rejected by the Jockey Club when he asked to name is thoroughbred Nutzapper. Well, Slate is all over that, and according to them they rigorously review every name:
prospective names are screened by a team of censors, matched up against urban
slang dictionaries, and run through phonetics software to ensure they don't
sound different than they look

Sounds kinda like what states and provinces do when you apply for a vanity plate. Seems fairly straightforward. Well, it turns out the Jockey Club is HILARIOUSLY incompetent at this screening process. Some of the names that Slate turned up:
  • Blow Me (1945)
  • Get It On (both 1971 and 1986)
  • On Your Knees (1977 and 2005)
  • Spank It (1985)
  • Go Down (1963) - whose sire was named Service
  • Jail Bait (1947 and 1983)
  • Barely Legal (1982 and 1989)
  • Date More Minors (1998)

Are these guys even awake when they are approving these names? The list goes on.

  • Cunning Stunt (1969)
  • Golden Shower (1955)
  • Cherry Pop (1961 and 1978)
  • Cum Rocket (1969)
  • Ménage Á Trois (1974)
  • She's Easy (1978)
  • Adultress (1979)
  • Strip Teaser (1980)
  • Rhythm Method (1982)
  • Bodacious Tatas (1985)
  • Tit'n Your Girdle (1988)
  • Kinky Lingerie (1991)
  • Hard Like a Rock (1995)
  • Sexual Harassment (1997)
  • X Rated Fantasy (1999)

OMG....and they rejected Nutzapper?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Mattel apologizes to China

...but not exactly for the reasons you think. See this Time article. In the words of the Mattel CEO:
"Our reputation has been damaged lately by these recalls, and Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people, and all of our customers who received the toys."

The company took ownership of most of the toy recalls this year due to 'design flaws'. The message of a lot of observers is that Mattel needs China as much as China needs Mattel, and that the company is smoothing things over to maintain its manufacturing position in the country. I'm not so sure, and in fact, I think China called out Mattel for some shifty business, by trying to connect their magnet recall with the defects of Chinese manufacturing that has been so well documented this summer (see The Consumerist for thorough coverage on the 'Chinese Poison Train'). Check out these numbers here:
Of the 19.6 million toys that it has recalled this year globally, 2.2 million were due to lead paint; the remaining 17.4 million (11.7 million in the U.S.) were toys recalled not because of lead paint but because they were made with super-strong magnets. If they come loose and are swallowed in multiples, those magnets can come together with force enough to tear through the intestines of a young child. (Mattel's announcement noted three such serious injuries that required surgery.) The magnet recall was unusually large because it includes toys sold as far back as 2002, before Mattel changed its design to encase the magnets in plastic to make them more secure.

Hmmmmm. So there are two seperate, completely unrelated issues: lead paint and loose magnets. Lead paint was only 11% of the total recalls, and that was the China part, but the other 89% was all Mattel's fault. Let's go back to Mattel's original recall back on August 14 (can be found here):

First, Mattel has voluntarily recalled one toy from the CARS die-cast vehicle line, manufactured between May 2007 and July 2007, containing impermissible levels of lead. The recall of the “Sarge” toy results from Mattel’s ongoing testing procedures. In response to our recent issues with lead paint we have immediately implemented a strengthened three-point check system: First, we require that only paint from certified suppliers be used and we require that every single batch of paint at every single vendor to be tested. If it doesn’t pass, it doesn’t get used. Second, we are tightening controls throughout the production process at vendor facilities and increasing unannounced random inspections. Third, we’re testing every production run of finished toys to ensure compliance before they reach our customers. We’ve met with vendors to ensure they understand our tightened procedures and our absolute requirement of strict adherence to them.


Additionally, Mattel is voluntarily recalling certain toys with magnets manufactured between January 2002 and January 31, 2007 that may release small, powerful magnets. The recall expands upon Mattel’s voluntary recall of eight toys in November 2006 and is based on a thorough internal review of all of our brands that have toys with magnets, and analyzed the ways in which magnets come loose. Since January 2007, all magnets used in our toys have been “locked” into the toy with sturdy material holding in the edges around the exposed face of the magnet or completely covering the magnet. We now believe it is prudent to recall our older toys with magnets that do not meet our latest retention system requirements. The safety of children is our main concern, and we are confident that our new requirements work, based on our continued testing and consumer experience. The risk if magnets are swallowed is serious, and we believe all of our toys with magnets should have the safety benefit of our new standards. (my bolding)


WOAH. First of all, notice how the lead paint leads, and is followed by the magnets, even though Mattel recalled WAY more toys due to the magnet issue. Notice the careful wording around "voluntarily recalling certain toys" that "may release small magnets." Oh, so it's not that big a deal you think. I dunno...sounds like Mattel may have tried to cleverely pin the blame for the magnet-design flaw on Chinese manufactures...despite the fact that Mattel had already recalled 8 toys back in November of last year for the magnet issue, way before the 'Chinese Poison Train' got rolling. Check out the press release from August 14 (the stuff quoted above is from a different document from the same day)
Mattel is recalling 18.2 million magnetic toys globally (9.5 million in the U.S.); however, the majority of the toys are no longer at retail. Beginning in January 2007, Mattel implemented enhanced magnet retention systems in its toys across all brands.

So you NO LONGER SELL the toys with bad magnets, and implemented new standards EIGHT MONTHS AGO, AND YOU TELL US NOW!!!!! WHY DIDN'T YOU RECALL THEM BACK IN JANUARY? I wonder why? Maybe because the whole world is hysterical about Chinese manufacturing standards, and another recall will automatically cast the Chinese in a bad light, deflecting blame from your incompetent company?

I think the Chinese picked up on this, and said 'hey, you're trying to pull a fast one here by putting all the blame on us, when 90% of your recalls were your own fault! No way. We'll call you out on it if you don't apologize to us. And do it publicly.'

More on change

Sullivan has been monitoring people examining the now-free NY Times archive (see here and here for my posts), and picked up this gem. It's literally the first NY times article about the web (from 1993). The first thing that jumped out at me was the fact they still capitalized Internet. Its also surprisingly prescient, at least about the need for increasing bandwidth.

This last passage however, is amusing, especially in the context of my rant about paying for internet info.
Rethinking Free Information
Barry Shein of Brookline, Mass., is a
battle-scarred Internet veteran who is rethinking the idea of free information.
Mr. Shein is president of the World, a commercial service that provides Internet
access to almost 6,000 users for a small monthly fee.
Last November, on
Election Day, the World teamed up with a local newspaper to offer updates every
half-hour on the Presidential and local elections. The small company was not
prepared for the deluge -- tens of thousands of electronic queries from Internet
users in more than 40 countries. The average system load, normally between six
and eight at any one time, jumped as high as 300. Only by quickly rewriting
parts of his computer's software was Mr. Shein able to patch together a system
that could temporarily handle the load without crashing.
A Silicon Valley
entrepreneur who sees vast market opportunities in the Internet is Steve Kirsch,
an engineer in San Jose, Calif. His new company, Infoseek, plans to begin
offering a commercial version of the information retrieval systems that are now
free in the Internet early next year.
Acting as a clearinghouse for
newspapers and other electronic publishers, Infoseek would bill customers based
on their use of the network. Mr. Kirsch believes that his pay-as-you-go services
will be immune from any gridlock
"The more customers we have using
information," he said, "the more money we have to spend to handle the load."


Infoseek then started in January 1994 as a fee service according to this site. By August it was free. ha! Kirsch did make a bundle by selling the company to disney.

The World Changed Yesterday

By now most people know that yesterday, the Canadian dollar officially reached parity with the US dollar. While a nice little story, I'm not sure people appreciate the magnitude of this event. 20 years from now, I think we will look back on yesterday and mark it as the date that the euro offically overtook the US dollar as the world's reserve currency-of-choice. The UK's Daily Telegraph notes:

Saudi Arabia has refused to cut interest rates in lockstep with the US Federal
Reserve for the first time, signalling that the oil-rich Gulf kingdom is
preparing to break the dollar currency peg in a move that risks setting off a
stampede out of the dollar across the Middle East.


On an even more macro scale, however, it may be one of the first harbinger's of the end of American hegemony (RIP 1991-2007ish). See Krugman and The Big Picture.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Psychoness

lol.
from FOUND magazine.

More on the cheating Pats and Belichick's take on J. Edgar Hoover and Nixon

So I wrote about how I didn't think this whole Pat's cheating scandal was that big a deal here. Well here's a completely different take on it from one of my favorite football columns, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, written by Gregg Easterbrook. While I think he goes a little bit overboard, especially because I believe the heart of the NFL's popularity is how its rigid salary-cap and profit-sharing system maintains parity, Easterbrook raises some scary rumors about Belichick.

And the Patriots' cheating might have been more extensive than so far confirmed. Fox Sports reported that former NFL players believe Belichick had microphones installed in the shoulder pads of defensive linemen so the Patriots could tape other teams' offensive audibles and line calls. Needless to say, putting microphones on players violates NFL rules. Andrea Kremer of NBC reported that several teams might charge the Patriots this week with having stolen playbooks from the visitors' dressing room. The convenient "malfunction" of visiting teams' headphones at the Patriots' two fields under Belichick seems to have happened far too often to be an IT department error. The rumor mill says Belichick, Richard Nixon-style, has file cabinets of info on opposing coaches and assistant coaches – some gleaned honestly, some obtained by cheating.

That last bit sounds like Hoover to me, hence the title. Anyway, read his article, I'm beginning to feel myself shifting camps here.

Barry Manilow is a petulant child

...and corrosive to the fabric of an open, democratic society.

Apparently, Barry Manilow backed out of a scheduled appearance on the View, the best of daytime TV, because he didn't want to be interviewed by Elisabeth Hasselbeck because of her political views. Yeah. You read that right. Hmmmmm. Who else can I think of who only allows himself to be interviewed by people he agrees with....oh yeah....a certain president who has a single-letter nickname? Hmmm? Manilow, by the way, is a solid left-winger, as can be seen here, at the NYTimes' political donations search engine (I know I just dissed them yesterday). He donated $2,300 each to Obama, Hillary, Edwards, Joe Biden, and surprisingly, Ron Paul. I also seem to remember him being associated with some sort of left-wing causes, but I can't recall exactly.

Anyway, so Manilow's a leftie while Hasselbeck is pretty conservative, so here's what his website says:
Hey guys,

I wanted to let you know that I will no longer be on The View tomorrow as scheduled. I had made a request that I be interviewed by Joy, Barbara or Whoopi, but not Elisabeth Hasselback. Unfortunately, the show was not willing to accommodate this simple request so I bowed out.

It’s really too bad because I've always been a big supporter of the show, but I cannot compromise my beliefs. The good news is that I will be on a whole slew of other shows promoting the new album so I hope you can catch me on those.

Love,
Barry

OMG that makes my blood boil. 'This simple request'...what?! How is it possibly a 'simple request' to ask a show (any show) to not have one of their main hosts present while you are a guest? At best it is impossibly misguided or ignorant, while at worst it is slimy, repulsive, and arrogant. Then, he tries to make it seem ok, by saying 'but I cannot compromise my beliefs.' What beliefs? That differing views are beneath your discussion? That you will somehow be physically compromised by your proximity to a conservative (albeit a gorgeous one)? That like-minded liberals will think less of you because you dared speak with one of the others?

TMZ originally broke the story here. Apparently he said to the site in a statement that he thought Hasselbeck's views were "dangerous". Well, let me fill you in on something Barry, in an open society, when we think views are dangerous, we don't run away from them and don't listen to them....what kind of message does that send? to anyone....friends, allies, enemies, even your children? In an open, free society Barry, we debate and argue and discuss, we share different experiences and points of view, and we TRY TO CHANGE THE OTHER PERSONS MIND. If you find her views dangerous...go up there and tell her! Lay out a reasoned, civilized argument as to why she is wrong, and why her beliefs are counterproductive (disclosure, I actually do think she is a little loony, and some of her views are quite disgusting). don't run away like a petulant child. it's juvenile and corrosive, and possibly evil. don't make ridiculous and impossible demands to satisfy your self-righteousness. WIN THE ARGUMENT.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Of course, the times isn't all bad

In my research for my previous post, a diatribe against the new york times, I of course ran across something really cool, just to prove myself wrong. Well, check out this slideshow of 17thC Dutch art, so awesome. This is my favorite:

New York Times comes full circle, makes website totally free...again

I used to like the NY Times a lot, unfortunately I've come to regard it with a little bit less respect, actually a lot less respect, in recent years. In fact, I don't even have any more NYT RSS feeds anymore. I do finally see what my conservative friends are talking about when they say 'liberal media bias', especially with the Times, which really is just too biased sometimes. These days I prefer my news from Slate, the Globe & Mail, and the BBC (not exactly a fantastic recent record either, but whatever).

First was the Blair scandal, with the guy who made up all the stories, which the paper itself called "a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper." Some of my favorites from the Wikipedia article:

  • In the February 10, 2003 piece "Peace and Answers Eluding Victims of the Sniper Attacks", Blair claimed to be in Washington, stole quotes from a Washington Post story and made up quotes from someone he had not interviewed. Blair ascribed a wide range of facts to a man featured in the article, almost all of which the man in question denied. Blair also published information that he had promised to the man was off the record.
  • In the October 30, 2003 piece "US Sniper Case Seen as a Barrier to a Confession", Blair wrote that a dispute between police authorities had ruined the interrogation of suspect John Muhammad, and that Muhammad was about to confess, quoting unnamed officials. This was swiftly denied by everyone involved. Blair also named certain lawyers as having witnessed the interrogation who were not present
Classy, real classy. The next event that eroded my confidence in the "paper of record" was Judith Miller, and her amusingly pathetic role in convincing the world that Saddam had nukes. My personal favorite piece on the matter is Maureen Dowd's scathing, vicious, and totally awesome hack-job on "Judy" (to use Dowd's patronizing moniker of choice). You can find it here.

Further erosion of my faith in the paper has come from its pathetically biased coverage of the Duke Lacrosse case...covered in detail at Durham-in-Wonderland and other blogs, and also in KC Johnson's new book, (which I havent read yet).

Maybe the final straw, however, to me, was back in 2005, when they made the entire online paper a subscription service, when it was all free before. It ran so counter to the obvious trends of the internet, of openness and of sharing data. We are clearly moving towards news organizations becoming a nexus of information, and subscription is counterproductive. Check out the "Ten Things Google has found to be true" here, its kind of part of Google's mission statement and vision. Google NEVER would've done what the Times did. It seems to me that had someone at the Times asked a Google exec what they thought back in '05, they would've told em not to go subscription.

Well, of course it failed and the Times went back to open content, but kept 'TimesSelect' for its op-ed contributors. They're the only ones I want to read at the Times anymore, so I was further driven away from the paper. Finally, oh finally, however, things have come full circle.
The New York Times Co said on Monday it will end its paid TimesSelect Web service and make most of its Web site available for free in the hopes of attracting more readers and higher advertising revenue.
TimesSelect will shut down on Wednesday, two years after the Times launched it, which charges subscribers $7.95 a month or $49.95 a year to read articles by columnists such as Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman.
Hah! Take that! I'm still sticking with Slate and the BBC thought, the only time I'll be on the NYT is for Brooks and Friedman now.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Patriots 'cheating'

Ok, so many of my friends will think that I am probably going to go off here about the Patriots' camera incident last weekend, but I frankly don't think its a big deal. I mean, coaching signals are coded for a reason, we worried about it in high school! Second of all, a certain amount of gamesmanship is expected in football, especially at the highest level. Finally, their has been a certain elevated hysteria in the discussion about this video taping of the Jets' signals, including most headlines with "spying" in them. As noted by King Kaufman from Salon:
What the Pats are accused of doing is "spying" on the Jets coaches as they sent signals to the defense. My understanding of spying must be different from the NFL's. Watching a guy flapping his arms while standing in the middle of 70,000 people and in front of a national TV audience doesn't qualify. Even if you point a camera at him.
I agree. The original offense on the face of it seems not that big a deal.

I also question whether it would work. I already assume that all teams change their coding every game, and simple protective systems rotating every series should defend against even videotaping. They could have a two-signaller system. You have two coaches doing slightly different signals, but each series only one coach is giving the real signal (which the defensive captains already know), while the other sends in a similar dummy. Then in the second half, you use different coding, and still use the same two-signaller system. All the work done cracking the first-half code is useless. Shouldn't teams be using this anyway?

On the other hand, the Pats stand accused of specifically being warned about this offense. Check out what nlf.com has to say:
Patriots under investigation for following rules, guidelines violations ...
1. Page 105 of the Game Operations manual says: "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game." It later says: "All video shooting locations must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead."

2. And, a memo from Ray Anderson, NFL head of football operations, to head coaches and GMs on Sept. 6, 2006 said: "Video taping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game."
There aren't really any two ways about that (by bolding). While I don't think their was any major effect of the taping, including even in the Jets game (I expect Tom Brady and Randy Moss will continue to torch opponents all season long; and as noted above, there are easy measures which seem to me like they could frustrate reading defensive signals), it is a rather blatant violation. The Sports Guy has a discussion with Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders with a long bit of Patriot fan self-loathing, that I think even goes over the top a bit, but this bit struck me as true:
Here's the thing that shocks me: I always thought Belichick cared too much about his legacy to risk tainting it like this. He's a history buff and someone who allowed Halberstam to follow him around simply because he understood the intrinsic value of a great writer capturing his 'brilliance' in a widely read book. The whole thing is just bizarre.
Why oh why did the Pats do it? Especially since it seems to me particularly easy to defend against (just rotate between dummies rapidly and irregularly; or worst comes to worst, simply sending in the play call with a player). And they had already been warned? As Schatz put it:
What on Earth was Belichick thinking? The team had been warned by the league multiple times. They were playing the Jets -- did they think Eric Mangini had suddenly forgotten everything the Patriots had done when he was their defensive coordinator? Could you guys be a little more obvious with your cheating?
The crime seems irrelevant, and barely qualifies as cheating to me. The very act of trying to crack another team's signals is still considered sacred; nobody is disputing a team's right to have five guys staring at the other coaches writing down all their signals on a clipboard. Video might make it more effective and faster, but it is only a matter of one level of magnitude, and still the same act (cracking the other team's signals). So really it comes down to breaking the limits on rules, which seems hardly less ethical, just stupid. Petty, minor, irrelevant, stupid. But everyone is getting way to worked up about it I think.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In the Valley of Elah - my TIFF review

So I went to my first film festival movie today at the Toronto International Film Festival. I saw Paul Haggis's new piece In the Valley of Elah. The general plot focuses on the father of a soldier in Iraq (played by Tommy Lee), and follows his quest to find his son after the soldier returns from Iraq but goes awol. Before launching into it, I should disclaim the fact that I really like Crash (not loved, just liked).

Well, this was just as heavy and preachy as Crash, without the cliches, and with Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron channeling their raw, concentrated emotions into you. It was brilliantly acted; really, really, well acted. My friend AB is sure TLJ is going to get the oscar nod, and I have to say, i could see this happening. Susan Sarandon briefly appeared a few times as the mom, and cried a whole lot. I deride her because I find most of her performances one smidgen over the top, but she did well here, with one particularly poignant moment when she sees her son's remains "is that it?..." she asks. Oscar nomination for TLJ, maybe directing nomination for Haggis, but no best picture I would say, the script was too loose for me. A few times I screwed up my face and went: huh? A few times the symbolism or dialogue felt too preachy, and at other times the clever humor felt inappropriate.

Anyway, the talk about this movie beforehand billed it as "one of the first films to explore the effects of war on the families of soldiers." Or something like that. Well first of all I disagree with the premise, in that it seems to me a lot of war films are about the effects of war on the families of soldiers. Second of all, the movie wasn't at all about the 'family effect' anyway, which is a good thing because that sounded kind of boring (although it was an enduring subtheme). To me the movie was about how this war morally corrupts those involved. Without a clear moral grounding, a real us vs. them, good vs. bad struggle, war quickly devolves into an all-consuming leviathan. Vietnam was like that. World War I was like that.

SPOILER ALERT





The climax of the movie, to me, was an amazing scene where a soldier confesses to killing Tommy Lee's son, not without remorse, but with a chilling detachment from the morality of the event. It was like he realized what he did was wrong, but wrong in the way that shoplifting a candy bar is wrong, or shooting a squirrel with a BB gun. His conception of the magnitude and gravity of the act of killing another human being had been totally skewed. The overwhelming power of the scene derives from the juxtaposition between the horrified shock of Charlize and Tommy Lee, and the almost cheerful narrative of the soldier. Awesome stuff. I would say a must see.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Memo to the NFL - get rid of the green dots!

So I sat down to my first solid wasted Sunday's worth of NFL football, only to discover that my beloved (and much maligned) league had snuck an obnoxious new feature into my favorite sport. The green dot on the back of QB's helmets. The first thing I realized was how often I saw the back of a quarterback's head, and therefore how often I was staring at an incongruous green blemish on otherwise pristine helmets (particularly egregious was the Spot on the chargers' white helmets).

For the 2007 season, apparently, the NFL has put large green dot stickers, about 1.5 inches across, on the back helmets of every quarterback on the field. The reason, apparently, is "to indicate which helmets have built-in headphones to receive play calls".

Ok, well this is amusing for several reasons. First of all, according to this Packers website, the rule was instigated:
because the league felt offensive teams had an unfair advantage on these plays because they could call in a fake at the last second, by having two quarterbacks (with communication ability with coaches) on the field at the same time.
What? What?!!! When does this happen? What examples of egregious manipulation of radio communications have unbalanced a game since these technologies were introduced? Did this happen last year? If not, are they just speculating? Should we maybe spread nets across the top of all open NFL stadiums in case Al-Qaeda/North Korean/Iranian/French paratroopers attempt to leap into a game in progress?

I have to stare at these stupid Spots for the rest of the season because someone fixed somethin that wasnt broke. So many other things about the NFL could be improved (see: HgH use, criminality, concussions, care of retired players), and some flunky at the league office chooses this. It wouldn't bother me so much, were the moronic dots not so conspicuous.

Ok, so lets take it as given that the Spot is necessary, for the one play a year in the many thousands of plays in which a team attempts to manipulate radio communications. For this one event, less than 0.1% chance of occurring, cant we just have refs paying attention? What does the dot ensure anyway? Couldnt you just have a functioning radio without the sticker anyway? If you're going to cheat, why is having to put a sticker on your helmet going to stop you? This is so stupid, Im putting it in the idiot file. And my blood is going to boil every time I see it this year.

Friday, September 7, 2007

On the nature of art

How pompous a title is that? Perhaps I should delete this post before I write it. Anyway, good piece from Slate, my favorite online mag, about Jack Kerouac's On the Road Again. While I haven't read the book (much to my friend MQ's disgust), my general point is simply not about the book, but on the general thesis of the piece:
Which is why it's no wonder that On the Road, a book that we've termed an
American Sacrament, is almost as widely and passionately viewed as an American
Sham. This started around the time the novel was published, when Truman Capote
insulted Kerouac's prose as "typing not writing," and has continued until this
afternoon, as shown by the profusion of readers' spitballs aimed at our rather
reverent discussion here. (One of these can be found under the heading
"Kerouac's 50 years of Crap," and it's not even the unkindest.) Would the novel
have been better as a memoir, you asked in your last note. Don't know. What I do
know is that there are countless detractors out there who don't regard it as a
novel at all but as a load of pretentious mental slobber. It might or might not
reflect true-life events, but it's still, to the skeptics, a bucket of foamy
word-slop that, for some devious or self-seeking reason (canny marketing by its
publishers? The doltishness of our nation's youth? The narcissism of baby
boomers who see the novel as their own creation myth?) has been borne along like
a chalice all these years and deserves, at long last, to be tossed back into the
gutter where its shiftless characters so often slept.

This discussion to me, while seemingly tangential, is actually the very heart of what the book was about. Or any book, movie, painting, poem etc. is about. It is not what the book says, or how it says it, or the detail of its prose, or the power of its central theme, or the detail of
its characters, or the passion of its writing. While all of these are independently worthwile, interesting, and engaging, to me the essence of art is simply that it got us going in the first place. I reject the notion that there is an objective 'good' or 'bad' about human art, yet I relish the argument about whether it is good or bad!

Even the haters in the above paragraph have emerged as better, more informed, more dynamic, more human after reading the book....even if they thought it was a huge piece of shit. People are thinking, and talking, and feeling, and debating about this book. They argue endlessly, and take positions, and think of new perspectives and new concepts. None of the actual opinions are material (at least to me), but it is the creation of those opinions that warms my heart, and makes me confident that the human race is in good hands. We'll be all right.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Before anyone gets too cheery

Here's a more sobering moment. From City Boy blog,

The young girls were raped before execution,
so they would not go to heaven.

A crime against humanity

Never even heard of this before...but now I have.

FDA shuts down company for illegally marketing their product as a drug....nice

Well, this is exactly what it is designed to do, grats to the FDA. From here:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a Warning Letter to Brian Manookian, owner of Melanocorp, Inc. in Hendersonville, Tenn. for the illegal sale and marketing of the product Melanotan II, which is not FDA-approved, on Melanocorp's Web site.

The website www.melanocorp.com is currently a blank page. Luckily we have the internet wayback machine.

The FDA letter is here. A great read. Essentially, they got nailed for saying their product was a drug, but more than that, by saying it was a NEW drug. Looking through the archive above, you can see they claimed it worked when it was "not generally recognized as safe and effective for its labeled uses"(fda words, great phrase).
But the FDA letter is worth a read more because it is so harsh, and they clearly dont believe the company have any valid claims, and have any chance of recovering.
Within fifteen working days of receipt of this letter, please notify this office in writing of the specific steps you have taken to correct violations . Include an explanation of each step being taken to prevent the recurrence of violations, as well as copies of related documentation. If you cannot complete corrective action within fifteen working days, state the reason for the delay and the time within which you will complete the correction. If you no longer manufacture or market Melanotan II, your response should so indicate, including the reasons, and the date on which you ceased production.
That bold part is my favorite. they're saying, "If this letter caused you to shut down, let us know". The height of FDA bureaucratic arrogance, however, and frankly hilarious to me, is the very last paragraph in the letter, which I feel is kind of like "ok buddy, nice try. If you want to make a real drug, you can learn all about that online at this website or write to these kind folks and they'll answer your questions":
A description of the new drug approval process can be found on FDA's internet website at http://www.fda . ,gov/cder/rep-ulatory/anplications/default htm . Any questions you may have regarding this process should be directed to the Food and Drug Administration, Division of Drug Information (HFD-240), Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville, Maryland 20857 .

Favorite Seinfeld Moments

Part three

"The bus was out of control!"

Genius Kramer story, one of the best michael richards deliveries EVER.
My personal favorite moment, right at the end, is going to have to be:

Kramer -"....I kicked him [mugger] out the door at the next stop"
Jerry - "You kept making all the stops?"
Kramer - "Well...people kept ringing the bell!"

Bonus: germanic subtitles (indeterminate language)

More on healthcare issues

So I wrote about the incredible burden of complex bureaucracies on the US healthcare system here, well, here's a really cool piece from Slate about same-day appointments at family doctor practices, something called an 'open access' model. There are huge difficulties in setting up such a system, not the least of which is the process of actually switching over from your appointment system. Another big issue:
Doctors also have to make sure their practices don't take on more patients than they can handle. The total number of patients in a practice, called the panel size, is crucial because it determines the demand for service on a typical day. Obviously, the larger the panel, the higher the number of expected daily appointments, and if demand outstrips supply, waits are inevitable. Yet many doctors have no idea whether their panel size is too large. They track only the patients they see, not the patients who wanted an appointment but didn't get one. That's a formula for underestimating actual demand for service.
Sound like we need more business and economics in medical schools.?..come on people!! Every time I mention this to someone in healthcare, or med school, they tend to enthusiastically agree. Anyway, luckily (or not) some academics are on the case!
Taking into account the total number of appointment requests is the first step to open access, but it doesn't do the trick on its own. It seems like common sense to balance the number of daily appointment slots with the average daily number of appointment requests. But a mathematical model built by operations researchers at Columbia University shows this intuition to be wrong.
Interesting. So I checked out the article, it's published online because they want to make the results as freely available as possible. In fact, they even have a spreadsheet where docs can enter variables about their practice size to get assistance on operating an open access practice. They summarize the above situation in a different way, and I think a little better:
A fundamental feature of patient demand for primary care
is its random nature: the actual number of patients
requesting care on any particular day will vary around the
average daily value, sometimes substantially. It is this
inherent randomness that makes it difficult to determine
the answers to questions such as: “How large a panel size
can be served by a given physician practice?” If not for this
variability in demand, the answer would be obvious—the
panel size would be the one that made the daily demand
for care equal to the daily number of physician appointment
slots available. However, with this variability, making supply and demand equal on average would create chronic backlogs for care and waits for appointments that would likely get longer and longer.
Really, really interesting. I'm looking for a doctor, I need to find me an open access doc, that would be awesome.

My ipod dilemma

So those of my paltry few readers who know me know that I am a born contrarian- socially, ideologically, politically, economically, but above all, technologically. In fact, I distinctly remember passionately arguing the merits of tapes over CDs in a soccer practice stretching circle when I was 10. I have thus resisted cellphones, Facebook and innumerable other important, major innovations since then. Each of these has been overcome in turn. It is a major, major flaw. I'm working on it.

Now comes the last one....I dont own an ipod. In fact, I dont even own an mp3 player of any kind. It's been on my to do list forever...buy ipod. Well, the announcement of the new iPod touch is obviously turning everything on its head.

I'm wondering....I love the touch, but the nano is also interesting. They've redesigned it and it now has video. On the other hand, the touch is the future! I cant decide. Size or coolness? Portability or wireless?

On a separate note, Apple cut the price of the iphone by $200!, which pissed everyone off who had already bought one. Check out the Consumerist:
Early Adopter Syndrome can strike anyone—our fancy N95 is less than six months old and has just been kicked to the curb by Nokia for a new version that works with US 3G—so we sympathize with all of you who just shelled out $600 for that great iPod/so-so phone combo from Apple. The Unofficial Apple Weblog offers the following five suggestions on how to fix your little $200 problem.
Apple however, has frankly done A+ PR damage control on this. When I first heard this, I thought big deal, I frankly didnt have a lot of sympathy for the early adopters. The blogosphere and internet went wild though, as seen above. To their credit, apple decided to contain the damage and are now offering $100 rebates to everyone who already bought one. Wow. Check out the letter one dude wrote to Steve Jobs from the Consumerist:

The business behind your idea is quite clear, and makes sense I admit. Introduce a product with a higher price and let those who will buy it at that price do so, and then decrease the price after you have saturated demand at the higher price. Despite the good business behind it, even as an owner of Apple stock I am still offended, and disappointed with your decision at the lack of integrity, and penny-pinching which this reflects on you and your company.

Decreasing the price of the 8 GB iPhone without offering some sort of refund or even Apple store credit to the faithful who rushed out to support your product and made it the sensation that it has become is a disservice to your followers; and leaves this fanboy for one not only feeling taken advantage of, but also at least a little less enchanted with you and your company.

I hope that you will take steps to make this right by your loyal followers who feel that they have been taken for fools.

Impressive argument. I have to say it also illustrates that the iphone sales are probably sluggish, largely due to apple's idiotic decision to only go with AT&T, buggy issues, and its lack of true revolutionary stuff. The ipod price only got cut today, after they introduced their own successor. The ipod touch, however, seems pretty awesome to me.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Now a real sign of the rosy future

From my buddy TF comes this amazing video:

Completely mind controlled!!!
To use the system, a person wears a lightweight sensor band around the neck. The band picks up the larynx nerve signals and transmits them wirelessly to a remote computer (don't worry about "mind wiretapping" -- the transmission is encrypted.) The remote computer uses NI LabVIEW and signal processing algorithms to interpret the nerve-impulse patterns and translate them into the right commands.

The system is not plug-and-play. It does require some training until its algorithms learn to "read your mind" (accuracy is above 70 percent). But at least it doesn't require Matrix-style brain interfaces or a tangle of EEG electrodes wrapped around your head

There are some links about it:

Spectrum Online

Company website: Ambient

Today's sign of a rosy future

Clearly, reports of the increasing crappiness of world airlines have been overblown (see all Indonesian airlines, all US airlines...etc.). From Nepal, comes this gem. And I am all for religious freedom, being a hybrid abrahaimic-atheist-agnostic-animist myself, but this seems to lead me to ask MORE questions about the company, not instill deep confidence:
Officials at Nepal's state-run airline have sacrificed two goats to appease Akash Bhairab, the Hindu sky god, following technical problems with one of its Boeing 757 aircraft, the carrier said Tuesday.
What if Alitalia had a technical problem and then they trucked the pope around to all the planes in the hanger and had him bless each one? That would be funny.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Quote of the weekend

"Now is the time for all good men to come to"
Walt Kelly

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Lies everywhere

I ran across two completely unrelated, yet seemingly identical instances of data manipulation recently that I thought I would call out.

The first, from the NYT, suggests that the Pentagon and Bush Administration revised upwards the casualty totals from last winter, to retrospectively show a decline in violence during the much ballyhooed Surge-that-will-win-the-war (who the f calls a military strategy a surge? Eisenhower or Roosevelt would've laughed in his face).
"There were significant revisions to the way the Pentagon’s reports measure sectarian violence between its March 2007 report and its June 2007 report. The original data for the five months before the surge began (September 2006 through January 2007) indicated approximately 5,500 sectarian killings. In the revised data in the June 2007 report, those numbers had been adjusted to roughly 7,400 killings – a 25% increase. These discrepancies have the impact of making the sectarian violence appear significantly worse during the fall and winter of 2006 before the President’s “surge” began."
Another example comes from the publicly reported filings of Overstock.com, which have been analyzed by Sam Antar, reformed white-collar criminal. Overstock has been engaging in similarly sketchy machinations, this time with its inventory. In accounting, you track the value of your inventory-on-hand by estimating the lower of two numbers: either its cost, or its current market value. IF you don't sell your inventory, and it sits around and becomes unfashionable etc., then your inventory reduces in value. Typically companies will institute 'inventory reserves'. I'm going to use Sam's example:

In the first quarter, a company buys merchandise for $120, its books and records will reflect $120 of inventory.

In the second quarter, the company, under GAAP, reduces the value of its merchandise by increasing inventory reserves by $50 to reflect diminished future demand and market conditions. Therefore, in the second quarter, the company reduces its gross margins by $50. The net inventory book value on its balance sheet is reduced to $70 (original cost $120 less $50 inventory reserves).

In the third quarter, the company sells the merchandise for $90. Since the net value book value of the merchandise was previously reduced to $70, (as a result of taking a $50 reserve against its original purchase price of $120 in a previous quarter), the company recognizes gross margins of $20 (Sales $90 minus net book value $70).

The company, under GAAP, had gross margins of $20 in third quarter after selling the previously written down inventory. It would seem on its face to be an improvement over the reduction of gross margins by $50 in the second quarter resulting from the inventory write down. However, in reality the company lost $30 on its merchandise. The original cost of the merchandise was $120 and they sold it for $90.

Therefore, taking inventory reserves increases future gross margins.
Sam has put together a 3-part post (warning, pretty technical part 1, part 2, part 3) on the sleight-of-hand being done by the company behinds the scenes. In recent conference calls, the Overstock.com company executives have been touting their recently high margins. Well, as is convincingly demonstrated by Sam, overstock.com cooked the books by taking too many inventory reserves in previous quarters, which reflects positively on margins when they actually sell the inventory in later quarters, but is still a net loss for the company. Sound familiar? Like...maybe what the Bush Administration just did?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My First Wonky Post

Most people who read this blog know I'm a ridiculous policy wonk, all the more so when it comes to health care. Well, I'm going to make my first pharma-healthcare post, so feel free to skip if you are already glazing over. That being said, as the Economist put it (to paraphrase): 'what the 20th C was to physics (you know, the discovery of the atom, nuclear bomb, space etc.), the 21st C will be to biology'. (with the central premise that DNA really means very little, compared to RNA).

Sack-up, it's coming. The next generation will get 'risk reports' evaluating their lifetime potential of developing every major cancer and chronic disease known to mankind, and then will quantify each diet or lifestyle change that can quantitatively reduce your individual risk to develop any specific disease. Personalized medicine is here; Selzentry (Pfizer's new HIV drug, maraviroc, which my infectious-disease-specialist friend CS thinks is unimpressive) requires a genetic test to determine the eligibility of the specific mutation of your virus for the therapy. All right, technically that's not that personalized...but targeted.

Anyway, what got me started is this post here at a random blog. The CMPI (Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, great blog here at DrugWonks; not to be confused with those morons at Nader's Public Citizen, who have proclaimed doom on innumerable drugs which have subsequently proven their worth), originally sent me there through their blog.

In general, the blog summarizes a typical situation for americans dealing with their insurance companies. These are companies steeped in processes and bureaucracies, each instituted originally to pry 1% off a specific subgroup of customers, or limit costs from rare procedures, or limit customer interaction with out-of-network providers. In the end, they are comedically inefficient. See this article that originally started the blog I cited:

Imagine American healthcare spending as a dollar bill divided into 100 pennies. How many pennies do you think represent spending on prescription drugs? Sixty? Eighty? Wrong. The answer is 10.5. The other 89.5 represent everything else—from doctor visits and hospitalization to administrative charges and insurance.

WAYYYYY toooo much money is being spent in ALL healthcare systems (not just the US) on useless administrative fees. The NewsOverCoffee blog from Pennsylvania (cited above) notes a personal experience:
Most recently for service in May I got a bill in August for close to $7000.
  1. I called the doctors billing and was told it was rejected by my insurance.
  2. I called my insurance, Capitol Blue Cross, and was told they had no record. The doctor, whom we've had and been receiving treatment from for nine years, was in Philadelphia, though, and must first be submitted to Independence Blue Cross who forwards to Capitol Blue Cross. The woman at Capital took my information and said she'd call me back.
  3. Insurance investigates by calling Highmark Insurance.
  4. She called me back and said that Highmark and Independence joined and Highmark handles professionals. She called them and they told her that the doctor's office was waiting for me to provide information to them.
  5. I called the doctors' billing and explained what I was told.
  6. Doctors' billing called Highmark and was told it was rejected for more information by Highmark, who then never asked anyone for more information.
  7. The doctors office then called me and said they would walk Highmark through the code, happens all the time.
Previously we had a payment that went a year without being paid and on the very first phone call I had explained to Capitol what the problem was, but the customer service rep wouldn't believe me. A year later and several levels up we got it resolved and the problem was what I'd indicated in the beginning and the bill was paid in full.
This is intolerable. I would highlight the part played by administration costs in this article here (may have to register), from a doctor on the Medscape called "Breaking Even on 4 Visits a Day."

Essentially, this doctor came up with a novel practice concept, which I think perfectly illustrates how far away current systems (be they single-payer or fully private) have gone from providing true healthcare:
Seven years ago, I began exploring ways I could practice medicine without the hassles and pressures of managed care. I also wanted to find a way to reduce fees significantly for uninsured and underinsured patients.Here's how it works:
  • We charge our patients a flat rate for office visits. Currently, the fee is $45.
  • We do not file insurance; our patients pay at the time of their visit.
  • We do not sign contracts with insurance companies.
I call this the "Access Healthcare" model, after my practice's name. The model is based on the idea that by significantly reducing overhead and improving collections to nearly 100 percent, you can charge much lower fees, improve access for patients who might not otherwise be able to afford care, avoid excessive patient volume and still have a profitable practice. We've been practicing this way for more than five
years, and we are thriving.
Great plan. Seems like the plan any family doc would want. The article's well worth a read, but a few things jumped out at me, that I'd like to highlight along with the theme of this post:
Our overhead has been consistent at 25 percent of total revenue. That compares favorably to the typical practice's overhead of 40 percent to 60 percent of total revenue.
WHAT? AT TYPICAL PRACTICE'S OVERHEAD IS 40% to 60%!!! With all due respect to the incredibly smart doctors who own and work in these practices......WTF!!! Are you kidding me? This is why healthcare costs are so high! OVERHEAD! man.
Our charges average $82 per patient visit. This includes the $45 office visit fee and an average lab and supply charge of $37. We require our patients to pay their full balance at the time of service. As a result, our collection rate stands at better than 99.5 percent, and we have shed many of the costs associated with trying to collect unpaid balances.
Another telling statement. How many healthcare costs are associated with the convoluted multi-party nature of the payment system? Check this out:
With one staff person and two providers, our ratio of 0.5 staff per provider is considerably lower than the national average of 3.9 staff members per FTE provider
Oh man...I'm beginning to think that not only should economics be taught in high school, but maybe in med school too. This is utterly preposterous and untenable. I cannot fathom an economic rationale for four staff per provider. Check out what this guy has done though, in leveraging his cash-up-front advantage:
Lab companies are willing to negotiate lower lab rates with me because their payment from us is guaranteed, and they realize savings from not billing patients or insurance companies. Discounts may be as much as 50 percent to 90 percent off list price, meaning that a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test has cost me as little as $4. Other tests have cost even less. Most patients pay an average of $25 for lab tests that would have cost more than $100 if the lab company billed the patient or the insurance company directly.
Even taking his conservative number, he's saying that local labs will CUT HIM, A STOREFRONT 1-MAN PRACTICE, A 50% DEAL on tests because he does not present the administrative challenges of insurance companies. OMG. OMG.

Brilliant post from one of Andrew Sullivan's honeymoon replacements

My absolute favorite blogger in the world (and the favorite blogger of like 1 million people), Andrew Sullivan, recently got married and is away from his blog, however his guests have really stepped up to the plate. Check out this diatribe about Democrat cowardliness based on a Washington Post editorial. My favorite quote:
Dear God, Democrats: grow a spine. Figure out that if there's no principle for which you would willingly lose your office, then you don't deserve to hold it in the first place. The liberties enshrined in our Constitution matter more than your political careers.
my italics

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Real Word Sydney...looking interesting

So I just finished watching the real world sydney premiere, it was pretty interesting. First, the girls:

KellyAnne is the smoking hot brunette is is definitely a little crazy
Then there's a blonde who's already buddy-buddy with KellyAnne, her name's Trisha and is really a nice, classic valley girl air-headed blonde stereotype....bravo mtv.
There's one other blonde, Shauvon, she was pretty amusingly narcissistic, and long-winded which makes for great idiot quotes.
Then there's Parisa, who seems like the tomboy who revels in pissing off the valley girls, a perfect instigator for all sorts of bitchiness, cattiness, and hilariously petty feuds.

guys:

First, Cohutta, or something, which is a bizarre name. He is hard-core southern, from like deeeeep Miss. A unique character for the real world, I think he might join parisa to start some fun.
There's a shaved headed guy, Isaac, who was hard to read, other than he was the silent type with a crazy eye who's going to have to be placated every once and a while.
Lastly is a dude with the classic long-term gf, Dunbar. I cant tell it he's a tool yet, or if he's going to be the detached player-type who stirs things up.

all in all, looks like an excellent season to look forward too.