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Post in a hurry

Weather here in Pittsburgh is right up there with Edinburgh, Scotland this spring.  The forsythia still have yellow flowers on them.  The magnolia tree was in full bloom when we got a hard, hard frost a couple of weeks ago.  That turned all of the blossoms brown.  That same frost killed the flowers in my planter.  Don’t you love to spend money on plants to watch them die?


Cate Blanchett as Hedda Gabler

I noticed that someone was reading my Mad Men post from a couple of years ago.  I still stand by the Ibsen connection but I have a couple of revisions, as well as some theories about a secondary theme on the submission of the creative forces in business to the forces of convention and money.  Heads up: it doesn’t end well for the creative types.  But if you’re wondering how it is Americans celebrate the MBAs and their values to the detriment of everyone else, Matt Weiner may have an idea about how that happened.  I’ll try to map that out later.

Betty Draper as Hedda Gabler

In the meantime, what is the real world consequence of the defeat of the creative?  We may be about to find out when it comes to infectious diseases.  The NYTimes reported yesterday on the first case of MERS in the US.  MERS is a respiratory disease that is related to SARS.  It has a lethality rate of around 30%.  That’s scary high.  It doesn’t mean that MERS is going to take off like the pneumonic plague but I’m betting that fellow passengers on the flight with patient zero are sweating buckets right now.

MERS is a viral infection but resistant bacterial infections are the ones to really worry about.  Viral infections require vaccines and they’re trickier to treat once you get an infection.  For example, what do you take if you get the flu or ebola?  Cat’s out of the bag at that point.  You don’t have a lot of options but to wait it out and hope your immune system kicks in before you die. But we know how to make antibiotics.  We just aren’t making a lot of new ones these days.  Those kinds of drugs aren’t profitable because patients don’t take them for long periods of time so the shareholders aren’t getting a high enough return on investment.  The antibiotic projects get dumped from the portfolio in favor of cancer drugs and orphan disease drugs.  Maybe that’s reassuring to the cancer patients out there but how does it feel to be the shareholders’ cash cows?  And what about the patients with resistant infections, psychiatric illnesses and other illnesses that are difficult and expensive to discover drugs to treat?

In the meantime, the creative types are busily writing their resumes in the wake of another M&A announcement.  That’s the way the world works these days.  The research divisions are viewed as unpredictable and expensive weights on the bottom line.  The hardworking creative geniuses are at the mercy of the bean counters and MBAs.

And so are the rest of us.

Lame article but at least we’re getting somewhere

Check out this article at the NYTimes about the impact of the H1B visa increase on tech workers.  A Bill Allowing More Foreign Workers Stirs a Tech Debate gives me mixed feelings about the state of journalism.  It feels like the author is starting to ask the right questions and is no longer simply accepting the business community’s excuse that it can’t find good help anymore but he/she isn’t going quite far enough.  I only regret that journalism majors aren’t required to take a bunch of science courses so they could figure this one out.

Here’s the thing the author is missing: if a business brings in cheap foreign labor to do its heavy lifting in science and math and tech, that business still has to train those workers.  Oh, yeah. You don’t think they come off the boat knowing how to create the perfect data tables or design drugs do you?  F^&* no.  That takes practice.  Ask anyone who’s actually done the work.  In fact, for the pharma industry, it takes at least one good, long lasting project before you get the hang of what the hell’s going on and one project could easily stretch on for several years before it’s killed in some bloody MBA massacre.

As for older tech workers who have not been able to keep their skills fresh, that’s certainly true if you don’t have a job.  Just getting our hands on papers is a logistical and economical nightmare.  The ACS charges $35.00 for 48 hours of access to a single paper and when you are not affiliated with a lab or college, that kind of money is just nuts.  As a result, the unemployed can’t keep up with changes that are happening rapidly in their fields. That’s why so many of us will take part time work, or adjunct work or no pay at all.  But it *IS* possible to teach old dogs new tricks.  I learned structural biology and molecular biology lab techniques in my last year of work.  Was I perfect?  No, but I was able to do my job and correct my mistakes, and since I really enjoyed my work, I was looking forward to getting better at it.  I was about on par with a H1B visa worker with one year of experience in structural bio when the layoff happened.  Plus, I was able to translate what I learned in the lab to my drug design work, which was the real bonus in my move back to the lab.  Frankly, I don’t know why more labs don’t try retraining but they don’t.   Since it’s not the ability to learn new things that prevents older tech workers from being retained, it must be something else, right?

And relocating.  The author says that the H1B visa workers add to the higher salaries in the economy where they are employed.  But the reason why businesses are bringing them in is because they are cheaper than the people they are displacing.  So, I don’t think I buy this, or anyway, it’s relative to what the local economy was before the massive layoffs.  But if high tech/biotech companies really want to save money, they could abandon the coasts for the midwest from whence many of them came.  It’s cheaper to live here and there is this thing called the internet.  I guarantee, your researchers won’t miss a thing.  They won’t miss out on seminars and new information as long as there is wifi.  They won’t miss the outrageous cost of housing and, believe it or not, they have Starbucks, Thai food and all the Broadway touring shows you can eat.  There is culture and music and all kinds of things to keep you entertained.  There are colleges and universities that are not called Harvard or Stanford out here.  It’s true.  They even teach real educational stuff and have research facilities.  So, verily I say unto the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in Cambridge, MA, go west!

There is no good reason for the biotechs to be spending money holed up in Massachusetts and South San Francisco, forcing their workers into more and more precarious existences and stressing them when they should be thinking about science.  Since the trend is to keep following the herd to these outrageously expensive places to live in search of get rich quick schemes, then I can only conclude that good science is not the goal with the H1B visa quota.  Cheap, exploitable labor is.  In other words, the MBA class will do whatever it’s allowed to do until someone tells them it’s not allowable anymore.

So, kudos to the NYTimes for looking into the problem but you need to keep digging.

The problem with pharma in 5 whys (plus unrelated complaining)

It’s pretty much the same problem we have with the financial sector, the auto industry, political consultants, marketing…

Actually, this scenario already feels anachronistic for some reason.

When did lawyers decide to become arrogant assholes? I’ve had to consult a couple lately and they all have a tendency to talk down to you, cut you off in the middle of a sentence when they jump to the wrong conclusion and generally act like you’re taking up their precious time.

Is it just New Jersey or did they all decide to become insufferable pricks at the same time?
About iPhone maps that atrios wrote about this morning: I have an iphone. It’s my only phone. I am rarely separated from it. When I’m in the car, I use my TomTom to navigate but when I’m in the city, I use my iPhone to figure out where the nearest metro station is and to locate restaurants and other businesses. So, when I heard that apple was replacing the google maps app with its own mapping app, I was initially optimistic that it would be as good or better.

As it turns out, it’s not. That’s too bad. I was really looking forward to the transit information being on the new app. Apple says it will be eventually as more transit systems add their data.

But just because we’ve grown used to looking stuff up on our iPhones doesn’t mean that we’re incapable of using a schedule. My grandfather was a bus driver and even he made me learn the hard way how to navigate the PAT system in Pittsburgh. You just gotta do it and figure it out as you go along.

Nevertheless, taking the transit and business information out of the app is a giant step backwards. Sure, you can still figure stuff out the hard way by sitting for an hour for the next bus when you might have just walked or called a cab or another ride. But when the information is out there and isn’t incorporated, well, it’s just a missed opportunity to get more people to take mass transit.

Somehow, I don’t think Steve would approve. The app isn’t ready for release yet and I don’t care how many times the phone bugs me, I’m not updating to the new version until I hear that apple is taking the issue seriously.

UVa disaster continues: One of the top 13 professors has resigned

Read the resignation letter from University Professor Bill Wulf (Computer Science).  It’s a beauty.  It reminds me of one of those letters that your write in a fever and then debate whether to send or not.

Here’s a snippet:

Dean and Interim President Zeithaml,

By this email I am submitting my resignation, effective immediately. I do not wish to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVa. A BOV that so poorly understands UVa, and academic culture more generally, is going to make a lot more dumb decisions, so the University is headed for disaster, and I don’t want to be any part of that. And, frankly, I think you should be ashamed to be party to this debacle!

 [rather impressive bio goes here]

In short we have extensive experience that spans academia, executive positions in the private sector, government, and board memberships. So we deeply understand the proper conduct of academic administration and the proper oversight of that administration by a board, In my opinion the BOV has perpetrated are the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen.

To repeat_- I resign. I want no part of this ongoing fiasco.

Bill Wulf

Wm. A. Wulf University Professor, Dept. of Computer Science University of Virginia, and President Emeritus, National Academy of Engineering

Bill Wulf is not a slacker.  It’s unclear whether his wife intends to follow him.  There are other tweet rumors that the Vice Rector, Mark Kington was also in the process of has resigned. The vice rector is the second ranked member of the Board of Visitors who forced Sullivan to resign.  Governor McDonnell of Virginia,  appears to be cautiously critical of the board’s actions.  But half of the board members are his appointees.

And what of the interim president who was appointed today to take Sullivan’s place?

Zeithaml will take a leave of absence from the McIntire School during his tenure as interim president. In March, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked the McIntire School as the No. 2 undergraduate business program in the country, and the No. 1 MBA feeder school.

He specializes in the field of strategic management. He joined the McIntire School in 1997.

It sounds like the university community knows *exactly* what’s going on, who is doing it and why.  This isn’t about change.  It’s a corporate coup of MBA management assholes who are going to restructure the University to be more attentive to their needs.  They know nothing about academia but they have a lot of experience with management techniques.  Gawd help UVa.  They’re going to need it.

If UVa doesn’t have an Occupy group, now’s a good time to start one.  If they were located closer to a major metropolitan area, they’d be getting recruits to help make some noise.  But Charlottesville is kind of isolated.  Nevertheless, I hope the protestors get the attention they deserve.  When it can happen at UVa, no university is safe from the bonus class.

Update: the more I read about the forced resignation of Sullivan, the weirder this story gets.  A couple of sources (Here and here) are reporting that the board of Visitors did not meet to take a vote to get rid of Sullivan, that there was no unanimous vote and that Rector Dargas has been planning this resignation for months in secret without any faculty input.

Thursday: Stupid MBA Tricks

Who here is sick of all Palin all the time?  Raise your hand.  Yeah, me too.  Neither side of the aisle will ever convince me they’re right.  I’ve got my opinion, mercifully untainted by media spin.  And like I have always said, you can’t get anything of value from cable news gasbags on TV going after each other.  Turn them off.  Once you do, you can form your own opinion without all that crap cluttering up your analytical thought processes.  Let the right and left fight it out while you focus on more important things.

On to more important things:

Yesterday, Derek Lowe at In The Pipeline posted on the absurd number of meetings that those of us in the corporate world have to attend:

Here’s a problem that I’ve seen at every company I’ve worked at, and there are good reasons to believe that it afflicts every company out there. That’s because I think it’s grounded in human nature: dog-and-pony-itis.

That’s the phrase I use for what happens to meetings over time. Many readers will be familiar with the process: a company gradually accumulates regular meetings on its internal calendar – project team meetings, individual chemistry and biology meetings inside that, overall review meetings, resourcing, planning, interdisciplinary meetings. . .everyone who’s anyone, in some companies, has to be calling a meeting of their very own.

Eventually, someone says “Enough!” and purges the schedule, replacing the tangle of overlapping meetings with A Brand New Meeting or two. These will actually discuss issues, for once, and people are encouraged to actually say what’s really going on with their projects. For once. And who knows, maybe that’s the case (for once) – but it doesn’t last.

Because every time, in my experience, the Brand New Meeting itself starts to collect barnacles. Over time, it becomes less useful, and more of a show. The music starts up, the Pomeranian dogs start hopping around and barking, and the trained horses make their entrance from the wings. It becomes more expedient to just get up and tell people the broad strokes of a project, especially the broad strokes that are actually working, and leave the messy details out. And gradually, other meetings spring up to try to take up the slack, since nothing ever seems to get done at the Brand New. . .

You’ve been there, right?  If you have any suggestions, send them to Derek.  My pet peeve is borg like IT departments who seem determined to make you fit into their one-size-fits-all computer build, forcing you to do endless workarounds that  impact productivity, which the MBAs are always screaming about.  What I find really annoying about this is that MBAs are constantly reshuffling the deck chairs to (try to) make us more productive (without any real inkling of what their business is about or how it really works) but they weirdly seem to overlook the IT department.  Selective pressure is constantly applied to the rest of us in a sort of Malthusian catastrophe scenario, taking out the good with the bad and making us to (even) more with fewer people (than we had when it was just merely difficult but is now next to impossible) but the IT department is given some miraculous exemption so that they may continue on as the neanderthals they are without ever having to evolve.  I heard similar complaints from people from other pharmas at the conference I attended last week but in this case, misery did not add to a sense of comraderie but continued frustration and despair.  There is simply no getting around the IT mafia and they are making our work so hard to do that some R&D users at other companies have literally begged the sys admins to disconnect them from the corporate network.

I don’t know what the IT department has on the MBAs (take that back.  I *can* imagine what they have, actually) but the ongoing ability of the MBAs to overlook the IT mafia is baffling and counterproductive.  As one colleague of mine noted yesterday, we’re constantly under threat of being outsourced if we don’t perform but IT never is.  Why can’t we shop around for out own IT vendors, especially if our business unit performs a particular kind of function with our computers that is 95% different than the typical Microsoft Excel user?  Good question.  I’m going to bring it up at the next Town Hall meeting.  It sounds innocuous enough.  You can’t *possibly* be fired for asking something like that.  Right?  RIGHT??

What are your pet business bugaboos or latest MBA Bull from on high that has your knickers in a twist?

In other news:

Commence the Kabuki!  In a sign of things to come, the House has repealed the Health Care Reform Act passed last year annnnd the Senate refuses to put it on the agenda.  From the NYTimes:

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Senate have said that they will not act on the repeal measure, effectively scuttling it.

While conceding that reality, House Republicans said they would press ahead with their “repeal and replace” strategy. But the next steps will be much more difficult, as they try to forge consensus on alternatives emphasizing “free market solutions” to control health costs and expand coverage.

{{snort!}} Republicans just kill me with their sense of humor.  The health care reform bill passed last year *was* a “free market solution”.  It was about as free market as you can get and still call it reform.  Once again, Democrats have failed to capitalize on this fact.  They should be playing up the free market aspects while everyone comes to hate, hate, HATE the bill.  That way they can say, “See?  This is what Republicans say they wanted.  It’s free market.  They didn’t want competition from a public option or anything that would actually make it less expensive and more efficient for you, the consumer.  Why are the Republicans whining about it now?  What do Republicans want??”  Anyway, the reality is that open enrollment is over for the year so we’re stuck with the increased costs of coverage without any significant increases in, er,  coverage.  Well, except for the coverage of kids until they’re 26, which will be great for Brooke but sucks for all of those kids who just aged out and who weren’t covered in the past several years.  No soup for you.  It’s particularly tough on girls whose cost for insurance on the free market is absurdly high for minimal coverage.  I suppose that goes with the risk of pregnancy, which could be avoided if the health insurance plan covers the cost of birth control and abortion.

Speaking of abortion, the recent discovery of the abortion clinic from hell in Philadelphia invalidates any argument the antiabortion crew can come up with.  An abortion clinic was closed down recently when a raid conducted for illegal drugs unintentionally uncovered aseptic conditions so horrific it makes the stomach churn.  This excerpt of the grand jury indictment from Jeralyn is not for the squeamish:

The clinic reeked of animal urine, courtesy of the cats that were allowed to roam (and defecate) freely. Furniture and blankets were stained with blood. Instruments were not properly sterilized. Disposable medical supplies were not disposed of; they were reused, over and over again. Medical equipment – such as the defibrillator, the EKG, the pulse oximeter, the blood pressure cuff – was generally broken; even when it worked, it wasn’t used. The emergency exit was padlocked shut. And scattered throughout, in cabinets, in the basement, in a freezer, in jars and bags and plastic jugs, were fetal remains. It was a baby charnel house.

The people who ran this sham medical practice included no doctors other than Gosnell himself, and not even a single nurse. Two of his employees had been to medical school, but neither of them were licensed physicians….Among the rest of the staff, there was no one with any medical licensing or relevant certification at all. But that didn’t stop them from making diagnoses, performing procedures, administering drugs.

The AP story says that women from the NJ suburbs were ushered into slightly cleaner areas of the clinic for their late term abortions because they were wealthier and more likely to file a complaint.

It’s outrageous that women get treated like subhuman animals by these criminals and by the states themselves that force the more desperate and poor to wait until it’s too late before they have the money to undergo these unsafe and unsanitary procedures.  As the indictment says, “Pennsylvania is not a third world country” but this is where the antiabortion fanatics are taking us.  And it’s not like they don’t know better.  Many of the most fervent antiabortion foes are women my mom’s age who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and have no illusions about what they are forcing on younger, desperate women.  You have to wonder what is motivating them to force us back to the bad old days.  But abortions will never end no matter how illegal they are.  This clinic gives us living proof of what is to come.  It is inevitable and Roe v. Wade can not stand in its way.  Ironically, Roe may be exacerbating the situation because it is easy to chip away at the exercise of reproductive rights without actually taking Roe away.  Roe is an incredibly weak and polarizing law. Women have to stop relying on it and refight this battle all over again using stronger arguments, laws and even an equal rights amendment.  Until then, expect to find a lot more of these clinics showing up in the news.

Joe Lieberman is retiring.  yay.  This news is anticlimactic.  He’s done his bit for the insurance industry and now he can leave.  Great.  Don’t let the door hit ya’:

Lieberman’s decision “enables him for the next two years to be an honest broker between Democrats and Republicans on issues that matter to him (stop laughing)— on national security, the debt issue and the environment,” said a Lieberman aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a formal announcement had not been made.

Kent Conrad, a blue dog from North Dakota, is also retiring.  Stu Rothenberg says that this will make it harder for the Democrats to keep their majority in the Senate.

What majority?  Last session, they had a filibuster proof 60 seats and it *still* wasn’t enough.  To have a real majority, any party has to out number the Republicans by a ratio of roughly 2:1. (Sorry, Tea Party lurkers.  You can’t join with Republicans to make them listen to you.  They are not on your side and haven’t been in about a century.) So, the loss of Lieberman and Rothenberg doesn’t mean squat.  The Democrats and the country has to get really serious about tossing Republicans out if they want to get stuff done for average Americans.  Prophylactic:  If you don’t like Democrats that much in majority, there’s no law that says you can’t start another party that can form a coalition with the Democrats to make Republicans a minority party for generations to come.  It’s a given that there will be substantial push back from both parties but, realistically, what choice is there?  You can either whine about it or do something about it.  Don’t like to vote for either party?  Field your own candidates.

In more promising news, Roche and Plexxicon have developed a new melanoma drug that significantly prolongs life, at least temporarily.  Of course, the clinical trials come with a price.  Some of the most desperately ill patients were given placebo.  This is a harsh but necessary reality in the discovery of new drugs.  The good news is that the FDA asked the companies involved to expedite the analysis of the trials so that patients in the placebo arm of the trial could cross over and receive the therapy.  So, kudos to Plexxicon and Roche- for now.  Don’t look over your shoulders, guys. Oncology R&D is very competitive right now and we’re all very busy.  Bwahahahahahhhhhh!

The NYTimes has a photo essay on the unemployed of Rockford, Illinois and links it to a story on how the White House is right on that unemployment thing!  uh-huh.  Where have I been hearing that the SOTU address is going to emphasize the deficit and shock doctrine solutions?

LOTs of good stuff in science today:

Nanopolymers can twist themselves into braid like structures.  Tres cool.

A new paper in Nature uncovers the process of transcription from DNA to RNA in the cell:

The main way the genome is “read” in a cell is through its transcription into RNA, the researchers explained. Until now, scientists have been able to detect which RNAs were produced, but have had a limited view of how much of the genome was being decoded, or “transcribed,” or what controls how fast these RNAs are made. The new technique enables them to watch this process directly.

“This lets you capture the cell in the process of turning the DNA into RNA at unprecedented resolution,” said Jonathan S. Weissman, PhD, a professor in the UCSF Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology and senior author on the paper. “Before, we were typically studying the end product. Now, we can directly watch how these RNA messages are produced in vivo.”

And astronomers are busily coloring the night sky.  Coming soon to an app near you!

And now for something musical to get your mind humming throughout the day:

Please note:  This is a Palin free post and thread.