Does anyone know how to get in touch with Laura Poitras?

I have a kid who is taking a gap year and wants to learn about documentary film making.  She’s multilingual, speaks German, French, some Italian and is teaching herself Mandarin. Also, was enrolled in Stanford Online High School for some of her classes. She’s a weird kid with many talents and probably destined to take an unconventional path to professional success so I need some advice on how to steer her in the right direction.

Any help is gratefully appreciated.

Krugman and I differ on Obamacare

This is sad.  I really like Paul.  We agree on so many things.  He’s one of the few people who is getting a clue about the myth of structural unemployment.

But with Obamacare, he’s hopeless.

I think it has to do with his own social isolation.  He lives in Princeton surrounded by some of the most successful individuals in the world.  Of course, all around him is the detritus of 6 years of dismantling of the R&D industry.  He only has to cross Route 1 to visit the now shuttered lab where I worked for 15 years. Some of the smartest people I know are having a really hard time figuring out what just happened to them.  But it’s unlikely that Krugman knows many of them, or any of the less accomplished people I know.

Here’s the part of Paul’s latest Conscience of a Liberal post on Obamacare that I resent most:

The current state of public opinion on health reform is really peculiar. If you’ve been following the issue at all closely, you know that the Affordable Care Act is one of the great comeback stories of public policy: after a terrible start, it has dramatically exceeded expectations. But hardly anyone seems to know that.

It’s easy to understand how that happens for Fox-watchers and Rush-listeners, who are fed a steady diet of supposed Obamacare disaster stories.

Um, I HATE Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  I consider them to be on the same par as pneumonic plague.  They spread misinformation quickly and the effect is always malignant.  I don’t watch cable news of any kind and I don’t listen to Rush.  So, where could I have possibly gotten the crazy idea that Obamacare is a disaster waiting to happen??

Maybe it’s from my own data and observations.  Maybe it’s because the plans are not so great for the price.  Maybe it’s because some of us could afford the lousy premiums if we could get a subsidy but our incomes are too low to qualify (could someone please explain how that even makes sense??).  Maybe it’s the persistent feeling that Obamacare is leading to a less secure job market.  Maybe it’s because for some of us, it’s a choice between cashing in some of our IRA and facing a steep tax penalty to pay for our premiums or being forced into Medicaid where the state may collect our estates from our heirs when we are dead.  There are a million reasons why Obamacare might not be working so well for the rest of us, 40 million approximately.  If Obamacare is only reaching 7 million new subscribers, doesn’t that leave most of the 47 million uninsured still uninsured?

Here’s my take on Obamacare: It’s full of poison pills.  There’s just enough in it to help people with pre-existing conditions and some self-employed people to thrill the cockles of the liberal’s heart.  For everyone else, cost controls are not in place, there are no mechanisms to force competing carriers in a local market to cooperate with each other leaving the unsuspecting facing steep out of network costs, the unemployed are still mostly not covered (and they can’t afford the premiums anyway without a subsidy) and to get any kind of public option, aka Medicaid, you have to give up nearly everything you own and have spent your whole life working for.

This is not a good plan, Paul.  Most people do not live in Princeton or NYC.  They live ordinary lives with ordinary wages and this plan seems to have bypassed many of them.  Obamacare was cobbled together by a chief executive who seemed to want to wag his penis around instead of actually pushing for a well crafted piece of legislation.  Then it was severely compromised by Congress, first by Republicans who are malignant narcissists and then by Democrats who repeatedly sold out their constituents in a desperate attempt to prop up a guy who was not ready to be president.  Why the push to ram this extremely flawed piece of legislation through so quickly?  Why was it more important to save Obama’s ass than to ask him to do a good job?  Why aren’t enough liberals asking those questions?

Don’t insult us, Paul, especially those of us who are die-hard liberals who find the right wing utterly repugnant.  It’s not going to make Obamacare better and won’t help the party.  It reminds me of the days when anyone who saw through Obama in 2008 was called a racist.  It’s not fair and it’s beneath you.

“Keep Going”

The kitchen is painted.  I’m going to hurt the person who used oil based glossy paint on the walls.  The first coat of Zinsser primer peeled off.  That’s right.  The primer peeled off.  (Yes, I checked on the oil/water-based compatability first.  It didn’t matter.) We had to scrape the walls down and start over.  Grrrrr.  But it’s done now and I’ll post some pics soon.  It’s an amazing transformation.  There was a little gem of a kitchen underneath all that gloomy paint and broken cabinetry.



Fully Raw Cannibals and My Obamacare Nightmare

Re: Conservative reactions to marriage equality, Atrios wrote the following last week:

Marriage equality was supposed to be a “conservative” gay rights issue. And, yes, more lefty queer people (speaking generally) weren’t initially thrilled with it becoming the central gay rights issue of our time. As homophobia is the last truly acceptable bigotry (deeply held sincere beliefs!!!), conservatives were never going to be on the correct side of that issue, no matter how many times Glenn Reynolds tells us that Dick Cheney was a gay marriage pioneer.

Unfortunately, homophobia is not the last truly acceptable bigotry. It is far more likely that fully raw cannibals will achieve acceptance and equality before women do.


Now that Sebelius has taken the fall for the fiasco that is Obamacare, I thought I’d relate my own experience with it. Disclaimer: I am not a Republican. I don’t hate Obamacare because it is a government program that saps “freedom” (aka tax money) from Jahb Creaturz. No, I am in favor of a national health care policy that uses the best practices that other industrialized countries have put in place. You know, universal mandates for individuals AND employers, cost controls on the medical industry, public options. I was brought up on military medicine and if it was good enough for my sister with chronic severe asthma, by golly, it’s good enough for me. I don’t need frills.


I recently attended a younger cousin’s birthday party. My relatives sat around and compared plans. This group was a mix of ages, employment situations, number of dependents, personal wealth. The bad news for the Democrats is that no one likes Obamacare. Not one of them. In Pittsburgh, the effect of Obamacare is pronounced because two major insurance carriers in the region are battling and one of them, UPMC, refuses to contract with Highmark BC/BS. That leaves Highmark customers scrambling to find new doctors and praying that if they do have an emergency, they don’t get carted off to one of the ubiquitous UPMC hospitals where they will get socked with a massive out of network price structure. They played nicely before Obamacare but no more.

The problem of insurance plans is particularly acute for those of us who fall into the precariat class and Obamacare falls severely short there. Let me explain from my own experience.

Last year, I got a full time job. Unfortunately, it was a temp position. Temp positions mean no benefits and because it was pre-Obamacare, I paid premiums that were out the wazoo. Because it was a position in an academic lab that was facing economic stress from the sequester, it only lasted until December. Thank you, House of Representatives, Senate and Executive branch. At that time, I could no longer afford the $992/month premium on my health insurance policy. Fortunately, my now non-existent salary meant that kid now qualifies for Medicaid. Ok. Kid taken care of. Great. Now for me.

I went on the Obamacare website and looked for a new policy from my existing carrier. By the way, my carrier called me to tell me the “good news!” that due to Obamacare, they could shave the cost of my old policy down from $992/month to $750/month! Isn’t that great?? The new policy came with supercool new features too. I tried to explain to the customer service rep that I was between jobs and $750/month for a healthy person my age was out of the question but I don’t think she was really listening. I decided to try for a subsidy.

On the site, I saw some policies in the $400-500 range with reasonable $1000/year deductibles. Great! With the amazing subsidies I’ve been hearing about, I should get a pretty reasonable rate. But I found that there’s always a glitch to these sites or something that needs to be explained to a real person so I decided to apply on the phone instead. This was a mistake.

The navigator asked me questions about my income, (um, non-existent? but only temporarily) and started going through the plans. They weren’t anything like the ones on the website. They were more expensive, had higher deductibles and even the silver plans sounded much more like the bronze plans. It was like the online site and the phone assistance sites were totally different. He quoted me a plan that was similar to the one I already had but it was a more restrictive HMO and the deductible is $3750/year. This was a silver plan. I asked him the price and as we were talking the price of the plan went up. Yeah, it was like buying a plane ticket. The price was changing before his eyes.

Then I asked him what kind of subsidy I was going to get. The answer: none. I was startled. Why am I not getting a subsidy?? Because, he said condescendingly, you don’t have an income and aren’t paying taxes.

I have to stop for a second, oh best beloveds, because I suddenly became livid remembering the decades past where I paid more in taxes in a year than I expect to make in income this year. That really scorched my oatmeal. Apparently, to this smug asshole, I am just a deadbeat.

Then he recommended that I just pay the penalty and skip signing up for a plan. That made me really mad. So, now I am going to be a burden on the taxpayers if my conversation with this navigator gives me a stroke and I end up in a UPMC hospital.

I considered my options. I don’t want medicaid for myself because I don’t want my heirs to end up penniless when the state of Pennsylvania swoops down to recover assets from my estate to cover the medicaid premium. This scenario reminds me of the starving Irish who had to give up the last quarter acre of land before they could get food in a workhouse. I worked very hard for decades for the house that I have. I do have money from the sale of my house in NJ in savings but due to the nature of the job market, I have to hold on to that money to pay for the now perpetually temporary nature of making a living. I have TAXES to pay to my municipality for trash pickup, libraries, roads and schools, all of which I am happy to finance.

I reluctantly signed up for the $500 plan. Then I found a job. BUT it’s only part time and, of course, it doesn’t come with bennies. I don’t know if I can get a subsidy now and until my job situation improves, I’m very reluctant to pay the premium on this crappy plan. I am now without health insurance for the first time since 1986.

But wait! There’s more!

It turns out that temp jobs and part time work is very in fashion this year. It is extremely difficult to get a full time job with benefits. There are such jobs to be had but getting through the HR filters is like tilting at windmills. (If anyone in the Pittsburgh area has an opening, let me know. I have great references.) I think I got my current part time job because I aced the online assessment test. Unfortunately, not enough sites have such assessment tests so we are forced to mind read what most job posters have in mind.

So, my relatives and I compared plans. It turns out that I have the worst plan at the highest price. One cousin had to change her doctors completely. Another cousin has a serious heart condition but hasn’t landed any work yet, so, no coverage. When his prescription from another state expires in August, he’s screwed. Another cousin just lost his job. He’d been working for 6 months but just when his health benefits were supposed to kick in, he was laid off. How conveeeeenient. Ironically, it is my self-employed cousins who have the best policy. We share the same insurance carrier but, for some mysterious reason we can’t figure out, he pays something like $450/month for 4 people and has a low deductible. It makes me wonder how the rates are determined.

The relatives that are doing well under Obamacare are the young, single male relatives. Their rates are something under $100/month. The ones who are doing the worst are the ones 45-65 and who don’t have steady jobs. The number of relatives with crap jobs is steadily rising. If you own your own business, rates seem to be fairly reasonable when obtained directly from the carrier.

And here is where the rumors start. We are all convinced that the reason there is so much part time and temp work with impending layoffs just when you reach the bennies mark is because employers do not want to have to pay benefits and Obamacare means they don’t have to. The mandate only applies to the individual. It won’t kick in for employers for another year- if ever. BUT if you can only get part time and temp work, you do not have the money to pay for the premiums. It’s a catch 22 scenario.

Was there no one running the models when this law was written??

I really wish Paul Krugman would stop crowing about Obamacare. It’s a conservative Republican plan passed by Democrats and it now has a “liberal” sticker on it, whether it is deserved or not. It has opened the door to a race to the bottom in terms of benefits and it’s going to damage the Democratic party. It was an ill considered, poorly implemented plan with long ranging consequences to the working class (that is, everyone not making an income from their investments). AND since I read the new Michael Lewis book on compromised stock exchanges, it has dawned on me that the health care exchanges are equally prone to exploit the unaware. We don’t know what our neighbors are getting in terms of plans but it seems like each premium is calculated to optimize profits for someone.

You don’t have to be a Republican to hate Obamacare. Democrats should be very afraid.





Chickens…Roosting…Palbociclib (slightly geekish)

Palbociclib. Who names these things??

See poll below on job posting at the NYT.


Pfizer recently announced a new drug for the treatment of cancer.  When I saw the article on the NYTimes, I immediately recognized it as a kinase inhibitor.  That’s a class of proteins I worked on in my former life.  There are a bajillion of these little suckers in the cells and they fall into different categories.  They’re important to cancer research because they are some of the culprits that go awry and cause uncontrolled cell growth.  I have never worked on the particular kinase that Pfizer targeted with Palbociclib but just looking at the structure of the drug told me a little bit about how this new drug worked.

First, all kinases have a “hinge” between the two lobes of the protein.  It’s where ATP binds in the native state so that’s where most drug discovery efforts go first to design a drug to block the interaction of ATP with the hinge.  Some drugs bind directly to the hinge in a manner similar to ATP.  I haven’t seen the binding mode of this particular drug so I don’t know that it is a hinge binder.  There is a significant limitation to developing hinge binders and ATP competitive inhibitors: if every kinase has a hinge, isn’t it just as likely that your drug will affect more than one kinase?  Yes!  This is called a selectivity problem and it’s a common obstacle to overcome in kinase projects.  The likelihood that your drug will hit something else that it shouldn’t is higher with ATP competitive inhibitors.  Drug design in this area requires precision.

Second, the article says that the effect of the drug is nothing short of amazing – at first.  Unfortunately, survival time is not significantly increased for the patients.  Now, why is that?  There could be a number of reasons.  The cell is really complex and has a lot of moving parts and cancer cells have a tendency to pump drugs out of themselves.  If you know of anyone who’s been on multiple rounds of chemo, it’s probably because the cells have been able to become resistant to the first line of defensive drugs.  But there are other possibilities  besides the cell pumping the drug out.  The lack of selectivity could be affecting a closely related kinase directly upstream of the kinase that is targeted.  Or it could be that the inhibition of the kinase you are targeting causes the upstream kinase to overcompensate causing up regulation (over expression) of your targeted kinase, which kind of defeats the purpose.  So, you may get some real quality time with your family for most of the length of the time of your treatment but then the whole thing goes FUBAR very, very quickly.

Sound complicated?  That’s because it is.  And that, oh best beloveds, is why cancer is so damned hard to cure.  There are multiple moving parts in the cell and they play with each other in complex ways.  It makes high frequency trading flash bombs on the stock market look simple by comparison.

There are some other interesting features of this drug structure.  I see that it has a protonated nitrogen in the piperazine, which is likely making a H-bonding interaction with a carbonyl or carboxylic acid at the lip of the binding site under the glycine rich loop.  I find the cyclopentane ring intriguing.  I’d love to see the structural biology related to this series to see if I could tweak the residues in the glycine rich loop close to the hinge or push the gatekeeper residue to open up the back pocket…

Oh, wait, that’s right.  The industry laid most of us off, “because we are too menny“.  And besides, I don’t have a PhD and, therefore, I am unemployable in the area that I have decades of experience.  Oh well.

On the other hand, it’s a bit weird to see that in the 3 years since I worked on drugs very similar to this one, there hasn’t been a lot of progress.  It’s very likely that Pfizer has already moved on to a new series or maybe it just gave up on this kinase and this is the best you’re going to get so they decided to stop beating on it and develop this lead.  Hard to say.  One thing is for sure.  Cancer patients make very good customers.  They’re desperate, willing to sell their first born for a potential cure and they aren’t likely to sue you for side effects. So, many companies have decided to focus on cancer and orphan drugs, another potentially lucrative area, while abandoning less profitable areas like antibiotics and CNS drugs that come with the tricky blood-brain barrier problem.

Billionaires are starting to get into the act now.  The high tech billionaires seem to think they can apply the lessons learned from Silicon Valley to the biotech industry.  Yup, just make the whole process of drug discovery more efficient so it can go faster.  Or something.  Just ignore the complexity of the cell.  If we incentivize the geniuses, they will be stop dawdling and get the drugs to market.

Over at In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe’s most excellent blog on the ups and downs (mostly downs) 0f working in pharma R&D, I found a link to a recent article in Forbes by analyst Matthew Herper called “Three Misplaced Assumptions That Could End the Biotech Boom“.  The biotech sector has suffered a shock lately.  It seems like investors are having an “Oh $#*^!” moment as they are starting to realize that outsourcing everything for shareholder value, hiring all of China and India with all of the rapid turnover and falsified data that goes with it, and pushing the small pool of brilliant geniuses in Cambridge and San Francisco to “go faster” isn’t working very well.  The failure rate of drugs advanced for approval is still something like 90%.

Herper cites three reasons why biotech is suffering, the most important one is that in spite of all of the shareholder, billionaire and MBA interventions, the decline in R&D productivity hasn’t slowed.  I’m going to guess that this is directly related to the new revolution we are facing in biology.  The more we know, the more complex the system has become.  It is going to take a lot of time and many minds to sort through all the data to figure out how best, and safely, to put it to use.  Short term profit making is incompatible with this kind of R&D research.  Investors are going to have to sink a lot of money into the system and wait a relatively long period of time for results.  There are no shortcuts, as many of them are discovering.

Duh.  We could have told them that before we were laid off en masse.  What a shame.  All those millions of hours of experience in hundreds of thousands of researchers have been sitting on the shelf for several years while the billionaires attempt to reinvent the wheel and the MBAs apply the latest schemes to split up the R&D units and have them all compete with each other in order to maximize shareholder value.



In other news, the kitchen is almost done.  I’m painting, Ok??  I have to paint over high gloss oil based paint (curse the former owners).

But while I was procrastinating, I found a very interesting link to a job opening at the New York Times in my Twitter stream. It’s for a “Writer, Opinion App Job”.  Except for the preferred three years of journalism experience, I could do this job.  Should I apply?  Take the quiz.


And now for something Hot and Naughty from Titli Nihaan:




Stabbings in Murrysville

Murrysville is about a 15 minute drive from my house.  It’s the scene of a stabbing rampage in a high school today.  Pretty terrifying.  (We don’t live in Murrysville’s district.) When Brook started school here last fall, it was at a brand new, beautiful suburban high school – with metal detectors, hand searches and wandings at each entrance.  Imagine having to pass through airport security every morning.  Yeah, not fun.

But it is pretty safe, no doubt about it.

It’s interesting that the suburb where I chose to live in Pittsburgh has a reputation for having a bad school district.  I haven’t found this to be true. The guidance department is superb, compared with the mean and nasty guidance department I dealt with in NJ.  The crime rate in my district is actually lower than in the city of Pittsburgh.  I checked before I bought the house here.  The problem is that the worst section of the city is adjacent to my district and the students are bussed in.  Actually, bussing in is not the problem.  These students have as much of a right to a decent education as anyone else.  But poverty and a less than stellar local elementary school system in their part of the city has led to some educational deficiencies that require intensive remediation in the high school.  The lower test scores and metal detectors in the high school make an otherwise beautiful suburb look like a dodgy place to live.

I hate to say it but the metal detectors have made a difference in the high school here.  Does the recent incident in Murraysville mean the entire suburb is dangerous?  No, but let’s face it, teenagers are special creatures.  Their brains are undergoing radical changes and they can careen out of control in a nanosecond.  Short of putting them in a state of suspended animation until they’re 21, maybe we should bring out more metal detectors in the middle and high schools.  That doesn’t violate my free range philosophy very much.  I still object to the silly expulsions and suspensions for playacting and bringing butter knives in packed lunches.  But stopping an idea at the door and giving hot headed students a cooling off period?  I think I can live with that.

It could happen anywhere. My district feels a teensy bit safer than Murrysville today.

Flash Boys Review- From someone who has actually read the book

It’s pretty amusing, and alarming, to read the reviews of Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt from people who have not actually, you know, read it.  The cynicism and snobbery just oooooozes.  I’m not sure where this is coming from.  Yes, everyone knows the stock market is rigged.  Yes, we all know that the bonus class is busily finding even newer and more clever ways to rig the system.  But I think the non-reading reviewers have missed the bigger themes- because they haven’t bothered to read Lewis’s books.

Now, I’m no expert on the stock market but having been in the research industry for a couple of decades, I have come to terms with the fact that even PhDs don’t know everything.  (Particularly PhDs.)  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, science is big.  Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.  People have to specialize. You become an expert in one sliver of an area and some of the rest of your expertise begins to atrophy.  Not that you can’t get it back but, just like anything else, it takes practice.  So, it is possible to be a wizard with protein structure and be a complete idiot when it comes to some new reaction mechanism.  There’s only so much gray matter real estate.

So, it is with people in the financial industry.  It’s possible to be good at concocting collateralized debt obligations to screw pension funds out of billions, for example, while being a complete moron when it comes to High Frequency Trading (HFT).  As it turns out, the protagonist of Flash Boys, Brad Katsuyama, runs a trading department of the Royal Bank of Canada.  He describes the departments of his bank as highly compartmentalized.  This compartmentalization is one of the themes running through the book and we shouldn’t be surprised that it exists and serves the purposes of the predators.  The finance industry is all about competition.  Information is on a “need to know” basis. Asymmetric information can give you an edge to make you billions.

To make a long story short, Brad figures out what the HFT guys are up to and deconstructs their mechanisms of predation to ensure that the new stock exchange he creates, IEX, eliminates as many loopholes for exploitation of the investor as possible.  This theme of the book, the self correcting nature of the market, is both promising and depressing.  It’s promising because there are still people out there who realize that their own self interest is better served when trust and accountability is restored to the stock market.  It’s depressing because it demonstrates how completely compromised the major stock exchanges are and how the government regulatory agencies have adopted a laissez faire attitude towards predation and exploitation.

And let’s make it clear that we are talking about major investors who were the prey.  The people who were screwed by these middle men HFT’s were big pension funds as well as everyone else.  Everyone is in on the take from the stock markets that lease space in their data centers to HFTs to benefit from colocalization, to the big banks that kick back money to the HFTs trading in their “Dark Pools” to the fiber optic companies that supply the speed.  If big players can be brought down like slow antelope, the small day traders haven’t got a prayer.

But there’s another theme in this book that feels eerily familiar to a former Big Pharma researcher.  It turns out that the financiers see technologists as something akin to day laborers.  They’re a lower status class of employees.  Not only are they not respected, it seems like it’s perfectly Ok to ruin their lives to prevent their expertise from being used by other people.  Lewis’s account of what happened to computer science genius Sergey Alenyikov isn’t getting nearly enough attention but the result of Goldman Sachs’ relentless prosecution of Alenyikov is chilling.  It has a damping effect on innovation since the consequence of ruining Alenyikov’s reputation is that other companies may be wary to hire him to do coding of any kind.

Michael Lewis is a gifted writer.  You may have little or no expertise in the financial industry but he lays out the strategies and game in such precise detail that even the novice will “get it”.  The characters in this book are not ivy league grads with pedigrees.  They’re insiders from the gray area between technology and the front office.  And what makes them able to beat the predators is the ability to sit on their own egos and work as a team.  That might be one of the secrets to surviving predation.

One complaint I have about this book is it is almost completely devoid of women.  There is one mention of a woman on Brad’s team, his personal assistant.  She gets about a paragraph.  Brad tries to discourage her from leaving RBC to join him at IEX because he can’t afford to pay her.  What’s weird about that is he manages to recruit other people with modest salaries so why is it so hard for him to justify paying the only woman in his group a living wage until he got IEX up and running?  It’s a conspicuous little nugget to have survived the editing process.

Lewis ends the book on an ominous note.  Technology will advance and we will all need to be vigilant to keep one step ahead of it.  It’s pretty clear that the current administration is not going to stop the predators.  We need to protect ourselves from exploitation or elect people who will crack down.

They’re going to have to be a lot more clever and less self serving than the current crew in government.

Five sponges.



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