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    • Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 22, 2019
      by Tony Wikrent Economics Action Group, North Carolina Democratic Party Progressive Caucus Strategic Political Economy How Powerful Ideas Can Shape Society: Aaron Director and the Triumph of Nihilism Matt Stoller [Pro-Market, via Naked Capitalism 9-18-19] Director is the key founder of what is now known as the Chicago School of law and economics, which resha […]
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My problem with Hillary in 2016

istock_000017338712xsmallThis is a bit of a followup post from yesterday. The NYTimes article on how difficult women over 50 have it in the job market these days really hit home with many people. There are over 1000 comments on that article now.

This one from A. Davey  in Portland sums up why I have been utterly unmoved by Hillary’s campaign this year:

A. Davey

Portland 19 hours ago

There but for the grace of God goes Janet Yellen.

You would think that the plight of women over 50 would be a natural issue for Hillary.

Apparently not. She’s the champion of the Ted Talkers, the winners in our so-called meritocracy, the brilliant young executives who spread their pearls of wisdom from cushy corporate jobs that come with employment contracts and golden parachutes. They’re the ones telling displaced older workers to become self employed. That’s rich.

Exactly.

The week after I was laid off in 2011 from my job, I went to a seminar series by the American Chemical Society where the crusty old dudes that ran the local chapter tried to sell us on throwing whatever severance money we had into a start up company that was 80% likely to fail. If there was even a smidgeon of hope that the new drug entities we found were likely to succeed, we could look forward to vulture capitalists showing up on our doorsteps, offering to pay our debts in return for giving them 99% of any profit we made on the patent they wanted to license.

Swear to god, you can’t make this stuff up. Start ups for divorced parents are not an option. That’s a shame for the start ups who have to train younger people to reinvent the wheel and for the rest of us with valuable research experience and no labs.

IT is different than pharma or just about any other industry where you can just start a company. You can literally do it out your garage and all you need is a good idea. In pharma, good ideas need to be tested, repeatedly. But it seems like Hillary is only interested in looking out for these independent guys. Yes, they are almost all guys. Who else could afford to live on the edge, jumping from start up to start up, thriving on the adrenalin that comes with whether or not you’ll get funding or go public? People with responsibilities can’t do that. Young guys with an average age of 28 can.

I can’t figure out why Hillary would choose to abandon her natural constituency. They’re not all laid off and poor. If I manage to hang on to my job this year, I’ll pitch in my share. Oh, sure, you have to appeal to younger voters but women over 50 are a HUGE group of people and they vote. In fact, I don’t think Hillary can win without at least trying to appeal to them.

But she hasn’t.

This once stalwart champion of women’s rights, treats them like they were invisible too.

So, I am definitely non-plussed this year. And more than a bit angry. I stuck my neck out repeatedly and still think she was the best candidate in 2008. But she really shouldn’t take my generation of women for granted. The danger is not that they will vote Republican, it’s that the situation for some of them is so bleak they might not show up at all.

Is that what Hillary wants? To have a shortage of voters on election day? Maybe she should rethink whoever the hell is doing her data models. If I were her, I would make a specific appeal to these women even at the risk of pissing off some gawd awful sexist Silicon Valley asshole who will flirt with Rand Paul in 2016.

The problem is not lack of profit sharing or the barriers to self employment.

It’s income instability, stupid. 

Put that sign in your war room, Hillary.

If the NYTimes wanted to drive a stake through Hillary’s campaign, they couldn’t have picked a better pain point.

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Re: Vaccine and Silicon Valley

Digby has a post up about lack of herd immunity in Silicon Valley schools. Note from the graph that the biotechs (Gilead, Genentech) are pretty much up-to-date with their vaccines. They’re over 90% vaccinated. It’s the Googles, Ciscos and Pixars that are slacking.

Ahem, I would just like to say that those IT people are probably the same people who think that drug discovery would be so much more efficient if we all just worked for little start up companies and removed all the complexity from the process.

{{rolling eyes}}

They really haven’t got a clue. Of course, my ability to code is minimal, though I can hold my own in the hardware area.

In the IT world, Moore’s Law is pretty easy to understand. The physics of electricity, magnetism, doping, transistors and the like is fairly well understood. It’s all perfectly straightforward, mostly. There’s very little ambiguity. That’s what science is like for the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Knowing that the physics is understood and no longer very complex makes it sooooo much easier to “innovate”. So, what’s the problem with pharmaceuticals?

It’s little surprise to me that they don’t get their kids vaccinated. For all their bravado about how to innovate in the realm of science, to them the cell is still a “sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic”. You put vaccines in your body. You don’t inject chips. (It’s coming) They want to give the illusion that they’re geeky types but just like every other animal on earth, they fear what they don’t completely understand and many of them didn’t study quite enough biology.

I never liked the IT department at work. I had to interact with those guys but it was my group that found it necessary to learn their trade, mostly in order to figure out how to circumvent it. They seemed to be completely clueless when it came to the core science that actually paid their bills. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of power in IT. We all use it and we’re all at their mercy. Resistance is, to some extent, useless. We will be subject to their obtuseness during epidemics as well.

Random Shtuff

Things that have crossed my mind lately:

1.) We had a right wing troll this weekend who doesn’t know this blog.  I’d just like to point out that many of us didn’t vote for Obama precisely because we could smell the corporate schmoozer on him from a light year away.  He is not, nor ever has been a liberal.

2.) It occurred to me, and probably to many others lately, that one of the reasons Obamacare is such a fiasco (and I think we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg) is because it is a private solution to a public problem.  One of the first clues that this is the case is the IT catastrophe.  It sounds like HHS is completely at fault and, sure, they can take a fair portion of the blame.  But those of us who work in proprietary industries know how difficult it is to get access and permissions to different parts of a database or servers, or even know who to talk to to get a job done.  That’s because there are legal and control frameworks all over the place to keep people from the outside from seeing what’s on the inside.  It makes it very difficult to get work done when that work is circumscribed by a bunch of NDAs to keep private contractors out.  If I had been writing this law, I would have made sure that the whole IT infrastructure was kept in-house and that only American programmers were hired to do the work.  Why?  Because it is damn hard to manage an effort like this when the team members are spread out all over the world and each person operates on a “need to know” basis.  But, like I said, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with Obamacare.  The outrage over the plans themselves are only beginning.

3.) I don’t buy for a minute that the White House was so intimidated by the Republicans that implementation of the program was hindered by trying not to upset the wingers.  That’s utter bullshit.  This White House has no problem playing hardball when it wants something.  It cut its own party in half to get the nomination in 2008 and the Obama campaign did not play delicate flowers that wilted under criticism back then.  Besides, any corporate sales person who has taken the power dynamics seminars their company offers, and there are many of these types in the Obama White House, knows how to apply push pull marketing techniques and how to use the passive-aggressive scale to get what he (and in this WH, it’s almost *always* a he) wants.  The administration knew way in advance that the wingers were going to be apoplectic about Obamacare and they still dropped the ball.  Well, it was a private solution and in the hands of the contractors.  Their job was done.  And it’s only 5% of the population, or so they think.  So, you know, no biggie.  Sucks to be laid off in the Little Depression but what can they do about it?

5.) Donna Tartt’s, The Goldfinch, is a pretty good listen.  It was a bit long and the last half hour had a bit of an Ayn Randian hero-goes-on-too-long-about-stuff feel to it, not that the subject matter has anything to do with Objectivism.  But the characters are memorable, unique and entirely human.  It’s like Dickens meets Age of Innocence meets The Cat in the Hat.  One reviewer says the main theme is loneliness.  But I’m not so sure.  I think it’s a pretty good exploration of crippling anxiety brought on by PTSD and social-familial insecurity.  I loved the fact that so much of it has to do with art because Brook and I like to go to museums just like the main character and his mother did.  I could almost smell the Met in this book.  Tartt makes good art accessible.  I can’t say that I’ve had the same kind of obsessive love for a painting that the main character does, although I’d take anything in Kykuit that wasn’t nailed down.  My favorite piece of art is by an unknown artist who painted an acrylic of a flower in 8th grade.  It’s not for sale.

 

 

Friday: Anthony Nicholls amazing rant


Will the last one out please turn off the lights?

Today is my “Release from Wage Slavery!” day.  There’s a bottle of bubbly in the fridge left over from New Year’s.  I’ve debated whether to drink it now or wait until I land another job.  The most ironic thing about being laid off for me was that I got so busy after it happened.  In fact, I didn’t get it all done.  There’s a structure that needed a few more steps of refinement and at least a day of tweaking.  Nah-gah-happen.  Then there’s that threonine that’s taunting me.  Arggghhh, it kills me to leave it all hanging like this just when I thought I was onto something.

Last night, I followed a link from Derek Lowe’s blog, In the Pipeline, to a cathartic post from Anthony Nicholls who runs OpenEye.  Here comes some geek speak:  I’m a big fan of OpenEye.  They make an application called ROCS that allows for shape based searching of chemical structures in 3D databases.  I’d put ROCS right up there with SMILES in terms of computational chemistry innovations.  Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, it’s hard to see how you can live without it.  It’s versatile like an iPad.  There’s no one way to use it.  The variations are endless.  This was brought home to me yesterday as I was closing out my notebooks (yes, I’m one of the few modelers who even keep the damn things).  I was indexing the entries and couldn’t help but notice how many times I had used ROCS, OMEGA and most recently, BROOD.  Excellent tools.  I’m really going to miss using them.  Next to some more bloated software suites, OpenEye is cheap.  A great bang for the buck.  But I can’t afford even a single user license on a severance package budget. (There might be a business opportunity for Anthony in that for the newly independent modelers who need to keep their skills fresh until they land their next gig.  hint, hint)  Ok, enough of that geeky stuff.

Anyway, back to Anthony’s rant, What’s Really Killing Pharma, I think Nicholls nails it- almost.  There is something he left out that puts the whole demise of pharma into perspective.  (For those readers out there who are lifelong enemies of pharma for ideological reasons, please don’t get in a snooty snit over it or you will be missing the point of Nicholls’ post.  This problem goes beyond the misperceptions about “me too” drugs and outrageous pricing.)  The whole post is worth a read but some parts stand out for special attention.  It’s almost as if Nicholls has been spying on us (it’s funny how he can’t resist adding references even in a blog rant):

But what has actually happened? First, a lot of senior scientific talent has moved on—some through retirement, others preferring to work at smaller companies with less of the “world-class management” big pharma can provide. But what has shocked and distressed me is the number of people in their fifties who have been let go. These are the people who actually have a working knowledge of the fifty years of pharma Witty mentioned, people who have done their “10,000 hours” [2] refining unique and irreplaceable skill sets, people who can pass these skills on to others. If you accept that making drugs is more art than process, then these are the last people you let go.

But even this travesty pales next to my next point: the danger of management fads. Because your modern big pharma CEO knows next to nothing about science, I have to assume they think they are adding value by imposing management schemes they do know about. Let’s consider one such disaster of a fad: lean thinking and six sigma. Originally developed at Motorola by Bill Smith but based on earlier concepts from Genichi Taguchi and others, the concept is simple enough: apply statistical modeling to an industrial process so that one can gradually improve that process. Actually, this principle is not dissimilar to my decrial of the lack of statistics in molecular modeling—if you don’t know where you, are you never know if you have improved. The problem, though, is the process being modeled here—drug discovery—doesn’t lend itself to this method. As any senior medicinal chemist or molecular modeler would be happy to explain to management, an embarrassingly large fraction of drug discovery involves serendipity—while you’re looking for one thing, you find another. And serendipity is, of course, the complete antithesis of a Taguchi robust process [3] where variance, i.e. a standard deviation, can well defined- we work in the domain of the unexpected, the domain of the “Black Swan” [4]. Now that the method has been applied and failed, it seems ridiculous to have ever thought it might have succeeded. But not only was it applied with great vigor, it often came to be seen as a much more secure employment path than the vagaries of drug discovery. Not a little talent was wasted on these meaningless exercises and not a few careers lost to management bullshit.

Another good one: empowering IT departments to make scientists use the same infrastructure as the guy at the front desk. Rather than see that scientists often have different computing needs than other parts of the business, IT demands obeisance to the corporate norm. In doing so, they hinder the kind of innovation (e.g., Linux, GPU solutions) that used to regularly occur because scientists are quite computer literate, thank you. Instead, IT departments make it impossible for competent people to manage their own resources. They create obstacles instead of removing them. Machine was made for Man, not Man for the Machine.

More fads? How about metrics and cross-charges? In this Through-the-Looking-Glass world, scientists have to account for everything they do, with the cost of each and every action weighed and accounted for. Work done by other groups is counted as “services” that have to be expensed. In other words, upper pharma management—convinced, perhaps, that scientists don’t know the real-world cost of operations—are ruining the one indisputable advantage of a big company: the fact that you can just walk down the corridor and get the another person’s expertise to help solve a problem. They are building walls that turn a large company into a thousand little independent entities with all the problems of communication and lack of shared vision that implies. That’s the newest, most amazingly dumb-headed, most disastrous strategy. Now tell me, does this empower your researchers? Does this “remove obstacles”?

That was orgasmic.  I need a cigarette.

I have *been* there, especially with respect to fighting the corporate IT department.  How much money and wasted time has been spent hiring contractors, who don’t have the security clearance to get the sys admin password, to manage our linux workstations and clusters to corporate IT standards.  I can remember when I first started my current gig when we were transitioning from IRIX to RedHat and I had to deal with some pretty clueless borgs in IT purchasing who weren’t going to let me order the new workstations for our group because the only computers we had a contract to purchase had to have Windows on them.  We finally got the workstations and had to have Windows removed, which violated a warranty.  It was ridiculous.  So much time and email spent trying to get the IT department to understand why we needed a different operating system.  If pharma wants to save money, they will get rid of the bulk of their useless, paper pushing, “we only do one thing”, IT bureaucrats and give in silico sciences the things they desperately need- their own sys admins and private networks separated from the rest of the accountants and salespeople.  And for God’s sakes, get rid of IE6.  No one uses it anymore.  Please don’t tell me you’re only interested in security when you shut down my Chrome browser and then force me to do BLAST searches on IE6.  No amount of fencing the campus and card swipe enabled portals are going to keep determined bad guys out of your databases if you can’t keep up with the latest security features of your old Windows operating system.

And don’t even get me started with the charge backs to other departments scheme.  It’s stupid beyond belief for research.  And here’s why: research happens by trial and error.  Sometimes many trials and errors. (Actually, I’m encouraged that statistics and  “design of experiments” is starting to catch on in protein engineering and expression but even using “design of experiments” is going to take trial and error.  There’s no getting around it.)  Yes, it can be expensive but if you have to limit your trials because a.) your budget has been unrealistically reduced or constrained and b.) negotiating every transaction takes away from your time at the bench, then you have effectively strangled the baby before it has a chance to grow.  I’ve already seen this in action.  Project teams want and need your expertise but the company is forcing them to pay for it out of a vastly reduced budget and they have to weigh every choice very carefully.  What happens next?  The project team is either forced to forgo this vital knowledge or pay an outside company to do it.  But an outside company is constrained by science as well.  THEY need to go through a process of trial and error too in order to deliver what the project team has ordered.  And that means the project team will get a limited number of attempts to get the information they need because otherwise, the outside company is going to start charging them for everything that goes out of the scope of the negotiated contract.  AND, here’s the real kicker, the outside company can sell that protocol to some other company.  If your project team wants to keep the information exclusively, there is an additional charge.  How is this cheaper than going down the hallway to ask if the hard working little department (that is getting laid off) if they can do it for you?

BUT, there is one aspect of this problem that Nicholls has missed (or maybe it’s in his next missive on the subject).  The problems that Nicholls has illustrated are not unique to pharma.  Maybe they have a disproportionate effect on pharma because some parts of the process are more sensitive to external pressures.  But in general, the effects of mismanagement by the MBA Bonus Culture can be seen in every industry from banking and finance to automobiles and chip manufacturers to television and cable media companies.

Here’s my theory about how it all went south since the 90’s: It’s the 401K.  Yep.  It puts the whole dismal phenomenon in the proper framework.  But how could something that appears to be so innocuous bring the country’s scientific and industrial framework to a screeching halt, you ask?  Think about it.  MBAs and executives are hired by corporations to “increase shareholder value”.  Before the rise of the 401K, that meant building a better mousetrap and finding a better aspirin.  Now, the only thing that matters is pleasing the finance guys who rate your stock from buy to hold to sell.  And those same finance guys have a stake in the outcome.  They set their own terms of compensation as well as service large institutional investors and mutual funds that we get to choose from in our 401K plans.  Corporations are now driven to serve the finance industry and the shareholders, which are us.  They’re not in it for the new products anymore.  And once you start hiring executives whose goal it is to optimize the ROI, well, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from anymore.  It’s just money, numbers on a spreadsheet.  It doesn’t matter if those numbers represent people with families and caloric intake requirements and 10,000 hours of expertise.  It doesn’t matter if there are fewer products to sell.  Once the patent is dead and the money is gone, the investors will follow the money to the next hot thing.  There’s nothing mysterious about this.  It’s not personal.  It’s just the reward system we have set in place since pensions became too old-fashioned for those up and coming 30 somethings in the 90’s (um, that would be us).  We’re like rats pushing a pellet bar for another shot of cocaine.  We can’t help ourselves and will keep doing it until we die from the pure pleasure of getting that next teeny bump to our retirement accounts.

Now, is the 401K the only reason why pharma and other industries in the world are starting to topple and fall like Ozymandius?  No, of course not.  There are other forces at work here, like the FDA that really needs to get its act together and out of control lawsuits that are affecting everything from pulling pretty safe drugs off the market but leaving stuff like Tylenol available for anyone to buy off the supermarket shelf to potentially destroy a liver or two to making it impossible for school age kids to have a normal life of scabby bruised knees after a vigorous afternoon at the playground.  We lefties are partially to blame for the overly litigious nature of American culture where everyone has an opportunity to plunge their hands into the deep pockets of someone else’s bank account or insurance policy for the slightest of injuries.  How many of us realize that the money guys just pass the costs onto the consumer and keep on partying?

But I have run out of time this morning.  I have to go to work, for the last time in what may be a very long time, and finish transferring my files.  Then, I will drop my keys, SecureID, credit cards, dosimeter and employee badge into an envelope and say good-bye to the best job I ever had.