Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Educational Presentations" for Big Pharm

Pharmaceutical companies have long been notorious for giving gifts to doctors, hoping to increase prescriptions of their drugs. Some states, including Vermont, have put severe restrictions on this practice. However, it remains perfectly legal for the companies to "employ" the doctors to give talks on the benefits of their drugs, paying them up to $200,000 a year, as reported by WNYC. Some of these doctors had even lost their practicing license because of convictions by some health departments, and "teaching" became their primary profession.

But if a doctor thinks a drug is effective, there's nothing wrong with him or her letting others know what he or she likes about it, right? It's win-win because the doctor gets paid and the drug company gets an "expert" giving recommendations, rather than just a spokesperson. However, it's not just candid advice.
[A presenting doctor] shows up at a restaurant in front of a group of doctors and leads them through a PowerPoint presentation about the benefits and side effects of Geodon. All of the almost 80 slides are written by Pfizer. Pfizer and other companies say they need to make sure all the content complies with Food & Drug Administration regulations. The rule is Schloss [the doctor] can’t go off script, even if he may know a lot about the drug that isn’t mentioned on the slides.
Some of the paid doctors even admit this. “A monkey can read the slides at this point. Well, a monkey that can read can read the slides,” said Stephen Friedes, a psychiatrist who was paid for several years to advise an antidepressant. He eventually quit for this reason, saying “there’s no freedom of speech and I have to say the party line, and it took away all the fun and all the educating aspects of it.”
Others defend the practice. Frank Lowe, of Columbia Medical, claims that
“When new drugs come out, the general doctor has no clue about the new product,” said Lowe. “You know, when I go out to Wichita, Kansas or Kansas City or Asheville, North Carolina, where there are no significant medical schools associated with them, I actually provide a real service in terms of education -- even if the talks are scripted.”
Of course, if the doctor has no clue about the product, how is he or she a voice of authority? And if the talks are scripted, then why does an expert need to present them? Why can't a drug company advertising agent, or even a monkey who can read?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wasted Food

Science Friday recently had an episode about Americans' eating habits. For one, we don't eat enough fruit and vegetables. But also, we waste a lot of food: 27% by the estimate of one of the guests. This is similar to the third of food thrown away by Britons; the difference is probably largely in the methods of estimation and definitions. Since food production take no small amount of fuel, the SciFri guest estimates that 2% of all energy use in the U.S. goes to food that is thrown out. This not may seem like a lot, but there being 50 states, it is equivalent to the entire energy consumption of the "average state." Or as they say on SciFri, more energy than the output of the whole ethanol industry.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Taxi Ride-sharing to Expand in NYC

The New York Times has an article about new taxi sharing in midtown New York. Along 3 cross-town routes that are not serviced by a subway ride without a transfer, "up to four passengers will be able to share a yellow taxi ride, car-pool style. The flat fare will be $3 or $4 a head, significantly less than the regular metered rates, and riders can ask to be dropped off at most points along the route." (The current taxi fare is $3 plus $2/mile.)

This seems like it's good for the riders (they pay less), for the environment (more people traveling in each vehicle), and the cab drivers (larger total fare). However, since it's decreasing the demand for taxicab trips, some cabbies are complaining:
“Every additional passenger that gets into one cab, that means a second cab is left empty,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “It’s horrible to implement a program like this in such hard economic times.”
While it's arguably bad for some drivers, it is very good for passengers, so the second argument doesn't make a lot of sense (except that in general, midtown taxi riders earn more money than taxi drivers).

What is interesting about this new plan is that the fare is not particularly higher than the $2.25 single ride on buses or subways operated by the MTA. So if there's such demand, I'd think the MTA could start running 8-to-13-passenger vans along these routes just charge the $2.25 base fare. Once you start adding more people to the vehicle, all the starting and stopping starts to add delays, but I bet most people are just going the full distance anyway so they could eliminate the midway stops.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rotifers and the Pausing of Time

If you're like most people, you've never heard of rotifers (right). I'm not going to go and say these little creatures determine our way of life or anything, but a mystery about them has recently been solved. They've been examined ever since the microscope was invented, and have a couple interesting traits. For one, they have little spinning arms that propel food into their mouth – see the two furry things in the picture. For another, as reported on Science Friday, they don't have sex.

How do we know there never comes a point when two rotifers love each other very much? Well, not only has it never been observed, but also in 300 years of watching rotifers through microscopes, no one has ever even seen a male. There is additional modern genetic evidence that there are only female rotifers.

What's the big with not doing it? Well, the genetic exchange that occurs during meiosis greatly enhances variability of individuals within a species, speeding up evolution. Eliminate sex and a species basically freezes form.

Why is a static genome a problem? Everyone else is evolving, including your enemies. Say there's something in your blood that gives your species a resistance to certain parasite. Well, those parasites are having sex all the time, and eventually one might come about that happens to have a resistance to your blood. Since your species hasn't been having sex all this time, you have almost no genetic variation, and no one has any resistance, and you all die out and go extinct.

So that's why sex is good. There are even species of animals that under favorable circumstances skip the males and just have female offspring and basically clone themselves. However, once the environment turns sour, there starts being males born who then have sex with females, increasing variability, with the evolutionary "hope" that some new individuals will happen to have a greater tolerance to dry weather, or smaller size, or whatever. These species will skip sex for several generations, but eventually do it.

But bdelloid rotifers haven't done it in 35 million years. How do they get away with such genetic similarity? One possibility is that they don't have enemies. Oh, but they do. As researchers at Cornell University showed, certain species of fungus will decimate rotifer populations. As in, kill every single active rotifer.

What, you ask, is an inactive rotifer? Well, that's what the Cornell scientists figured out. Rotifers have the ability to dehydrate themselves, completely expunging any water from their body. They go into a state of suspended animation, essentially stopping time for anywhere from a few weeks to ten years. But when the rotifer comes back from its stasis field, won't the infecting fungus also reanimate?

Rotifers have extremely robust DNA that is good at reassembling itself after it gets broken when the rotifer dries out. The fungus does not have the same ability and the drying period kills it. The Cornell scientists even determined how much of the fungus was killed after 2, 3, 4, and 5 weeks, and found that a month was all the rotifer needed to purge the fungus from itself.

So rotifers can isolate themselves from the fungus in time. They can also do it in space. When they become dehydrated, they become little dandelion seeds (from an aerodynamics point of view anyway). That means that they are easily picked up by breezes and carried to a new, happy, fungus-free home.

One thing I didn't understand is that they program mentioned there are several hundred species of rotifers. But isn't sex and genetic variation the driving force behind evolution and speciation? Any thoughts?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cane Toads

Cane toads, also known as Giant Neotropical Toad, are five-inch long creatures with poisonous skin glands, originally from Latin America. Until 1935, they were not found in Australia. That year, they were introduced to control a beetle infestation, and have themselves become a plague. You can see this all, in stunning clarity, in Cane Toads: The Conquest (in 3D!). In the documentary, they cover a variety of methods the Australians are trying to control the toads.

However, some people think that the toads are a resource. As covered in the Outback edition of Bizarre Foods, there are clubs that go out at night and cook frog legs, taking care not to put any poison in the food. A game meat processor is even hoping to export the frog legs to the Chinese.

The frogs are not only a possible source of food, but also of drugs. The venom can be extracted, dried, and then smoked. The frogs can also be simply licked, although the effect is not as pronounced. The cane toads are not alone in their ability to create "sense of wonder and well-being". Many poisonous amphibians, including several found in the US, can produce similar effects, and "a healthy toad can fetch up to $8" in California. However, one should be careful about entering this trade, as a proposed law in South Carolina would "sentence violators [of amphibian trafficking] to 60 hours of public service in a local zoo."

And interestingly, humans are not the only species to use toads as a drug. There is at least one story about a dog repeatedly licking frogs, and then wandering about, all "disoriented and withdrawn, soporific and glassy-eyed." The toads are incredibly tough, as evidenced by cane toad that was swallowed by a dog and hung out in its stomach for 40 minutes. It now lives in the animal hospital where the dog was taken and given an injection to vomit it up.

Indestructible, poisonous, and everywhere. Clearly the only way to get rid of the plague of frogs is to tell Moses that we'll let his people go.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

South Korea Turns Off the Lights

One Wednesday a Month, offices in South Korea will shut off their lights early in the evening. No, they're not trying to look like North Korea when viewed from space. Instead, they want all their office workers to go home.

Why? Well, I've written how some countries have high birth rates that lead to food and resource shortages. South Korea has the opposite problem, with the world's lowest birth rate. At only 1.2 kids per couple, their population is actually in decline. This means that a comparatively large portion of the population are elderly, and there will be greater pressure on people of working age. And of course with less workers, the country has less manufacturing capacity. Therefore, the Ministry of Health hopes that by getting people out of the office, they might go into the home and make babies.

In order to make this truly successful, I think that the government also needs to shut down all TV broadcasts on those same evenings, at least based on the Indian government's assumption that getting people to watch television at night will stop them from making babies.

Friday, January 22, 2010

R2-D2 flies against the laws of physics.

A professor from Southeastern Louisiana University has analyzed the mechanics of R2-D2 flying using his thrusters. Using a free-body diagram, set up all the forces (not Forces) acting on the droid as it flew through the air at an apparently constant velocity. Without acceleration, the sum of the forces must be zero. So Prof. Allain used gravity, air resistance, size, and angle of thrust to estimate the only unknown quantity remaining in the equation: mass. And how many kg is R2? Check the end of the article, but here's a hint: it doesn't make a lot of sense.

Oh my gosh! Something in Star Wars not making scientific sense? Shocking. Well, I guess it's no worse than the constantly changing lateral force applied by the floating house in Up on the walkers below. (Apparently, the folks at Pixar actually calculated how many balloons would be needed to supply sufficient vertical force, and after finding it took a kagillion balloons said, 'artistic license.')

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Data Centers in Iceland

It takes a lot of power to run the internet. Keeping all those servers going took 1.5% of total US electricity demand in 2006 (as much as all of Massachusetts) and just keeps rising (it doubled from 2000 to 2005). A quarter of that energy is used to keep the servers cool (which improves performance in addition to not letting the server chips melt). To help with this, some internet companies are building data centers in cold locations, such as Microsoft in Dublin, and Yahoo in Buffalo, NY. Buffalo has the additional advantage of being located near Niagara Falls, the third largest hydroelectric plant in the US.

A focus on cheap, carbon-free electricity and cold climate make it no surprise that Verne Holdings and Wellcome Trust are funding construction of a data center in Iceland. It will be built in an old NATO base, powered by hot geothermal electricity, and cooled (in part) by the island's icy air. Iceland's currency collapse shook its economy and a 2008 earthquake shook the ground, delaying construction slightly. However, things are scheduled to get started by the middle of this year, and the high unemployment might mean savings for operating costs, another similarity with Yahoo's center in Buffalo.