NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

...In which I "Hulk-out" on a conspiracy theory... [Full link to blog for email clients.]

I *really* try not to get drawn into discussions like this... as the man said, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry...

However, a friend posted this: 

[Image by the Skeptical Meme Society, shared by Dr. Mehmet Oz on Facebook.]

...and immediately ended up with people saying that there *were* conspiracies, and all it took was a few people at the top of the company, or a few peer reviewers, or sprinkling around some of the billions in profits...

So, I got a bit heated.  Here is my response:

First, most pharma companies have minimal laboratory facilities for advanced drug testing. If it takes animal research these days, it's largely done via Material Transfer Agreement and a Research Services contract to a university lab. In the long run, it is cheaper to contract out the work on a fee-for-service basis than to invest in the infrastructure and personnel to maintain all of the possible labs that are needed in the course of testing.

So there's no secret underground lair in the heart of an extinct volcano where the demon Big Pharma threatens investigative journalists with the piranha tank in order to keep the deep dark secret cures away from the public! To believe otherwise is really a condemnation of one's own rationale thought processes and education.

Those same universities have a research publication policy - if you've ever heard of "publish or perish" it applies to the research contracts, too. No university would agree to contract terms that prevent a scientist from publishing *any* results they obtain - it doesn't matter if they are positive or negative. I was once in a contract negotiation where the funding company wanted a 36-month embargo on publication to protect their process trade secrets - the university would not agree to the terms, and we did not get the contract. You see, agreement to the terms would have jeopardized the tax-exempt/non-profit status of the university.

So, no, there's no big conspiracy to keep cures away from the public. ...And no, it's not possible for only the people at the top to know about a cure and keep that secret - frankly, the people at the very top don't know that much - they are upper level managers. The scientists that do all of the development work are in middle management, with lab techs under them (who know of the results) and bosses above them (who also know the results).

As for Big Pharma profits - someone in the facebook thread read a profit-loss statement and commented on billions in profits - they do not go into some huge Scrooge McDuck giant vault where the CEO can sleep on a bed of gold coins at night! Profits go back into the company - they pay dividends to shareholders, they pay bonuses - yes, to the CEO - but also to most everyone who works for the company.

For John Ringo's The Last Centurion, I gave him a number (in 2007) of $2,000,000,000 to bring a new drug to market. Today, that's more like $10,000,000,000 (that's ten *billion* dollars, just for one new drug). That money has to come from someone-somewhere. It doesn't come from the president's magic pocket where he keeps "his" money to pay for all of those special programs like the so-called "Obama phones" (actually, he keeps those in his *other* pocket). No, that money comes from the sales of other products by the company - and that means the prior profits. Those profits are what exists after taxes, and thus reported on annual financial reports. Capital investment in the company is *also* post-taxes, so you have to really dig down to find out how that profit is distributed and re-invested in the next stage of the company.

Oh, and by the way, the shareholders are not money-grubbing elites eating up all the wealth stolen off the backs of the laborers - A company has a stock issue when they want to do something that requires investment - build a new lab, hire more people, try a new market - and they don't have the cash *now* to do it. So, they sell stock to people who *do* have the cash *now*. That way they raise way more cash than they could get with a bank loan. Later, once the investment pays off, they pay out to the investors - with interest, because that's what you do when people loan you money. However, in the public sector - when someone loans you money, they need some form of collateral to hold until the loan is paid off. In the case of stock, that is a small ownership share in the company. Stockholders are not merely investors, they are *owners* (and in many cases, they are also employees) and so they *do* deserve a cut of the profits (and frankly, it's a pretty small cut per stock).

What's also not obvious in the profit-and-loss statements is the cost of doing business in the global community - see, governments like to minimize prescription costs when *they* are paying - foreign aid, nationalized medicine, Congressional perks - any time a lower-than-cost price is negotiated. When a drug is new, the cost is high to recoup that $10 billion investment. Once patents expire and the drug goes generic, or *competitive drugs are released, all chance of recouping costs are over - so it makes sense to recoup those costs early. But international agreements often limit drug costs - plus Pharma companies are often "encouraged" (or blackmailed) into provide free or steeply discounted drugs for humanitarian reasons. China, frankly, steals the formula and copies it - and they aren't the only ones. Even our dear friends north of the border (i.e. the government of C-eh?-N-eh?-D-eh?) are on record as having told several U.S. pharmaceutical companies that they *would* provide drugs at the price the Canadian governemnt demanded - or else they government would allow Canadian generics manufacturers to violate the International Patent and produce cheap (in more ways than one) drugs.

So yeah, drug companies make profits, and still Americans pay higher prices for drugs than Canada, Mexico, China, Japan - but that's largely because our legal system limits the extent to which the government and healthcare can criminally extort those same companies.

Regarding those "magic" cures out there - I fight this all the time with medical marijuana claims. Let me state right out, that there are many positive medicinal benefits that the Medical Field can develop using components derived from Cannabis sativa. Smoking pot is of limited use - and really only medicinally sound in cases where the euphoria induced by smoking pot is one of the desired effects - for all other uses, synthetics and extracts are much more scientifically and medicinally sound - mainly because of control of dosing and route of administration. Ingestion is a *lousy* route of administration - and burning, baking and boiling alters the chemical compounds.

Hemp Oil is NOT a cure-all - half of the things it is claimed to do (the half that actually refers to scientific publications) is a result of using pure extracts or synthetics! - not street pot! I once had someone cite several papers at me concerning medical marijuana effects on cancer cells - one of those reported on the cancer that took my Father-in-Law's life - at a time when I was actively researching cannabinoid effects on brain cells. I pointed out that in each publication, the cannabinoid used was a *synthetic* - not occurring in nature, and considerably altered from the 63 different cannabinoid compounds found in marijuana smoke. Hemp Oil, Charlotte's Web*, and "pick-your-favorite-bud-at-the-medical-pot-shoppe" are the modern day equivalent of snake oil - yes, some people will see positive effects, but in the end, it's due to many more factors than just the medMJ.

Another such example is the recent craze for claiming medical marijuana treats (or cures) autism.  I was recently asked about the actual published research on the topic.  A Google search shows hundreds of search results on marijuana and autism, with sources such as "Natural News" touting the beneficial effects - but they are *all* anecdotal, and not based on scientific research.  It turns out that in 2013, there was an article in the scientific journal Neuron (volume 78, Issue 8, pages 498-509) that showed that one of the autism-related mutations (Fragile-X) caused a change in brain cell-to-brain cell signalling that involved the brain's normal neurotransmitter that acts at the same location as marijuana (known as the endocannabinoid 1, or CB1 receptor). These receiving sites for signals can operate in two modes - always on, or in pulses. It turns out that the autism-related condition does not have an always-on mode, only the pulse mode. The assumption from this study is that it is not the receptor that is faulty, but the cells producing the endogenous marijuana-like chemical normally present in brain. Thus, people surmise that replacing this chemical with medical marijuana would restore normal function. The truth is very likely that no, it won't, but that doesn't stop "Natural News" and other sources as claiming that Big Pharma is withholding evidence that marijuana cures autism. The authors never said this - and in fact, the endogenous cannabinoid signalling and receptors in the brain are tied into almost every brain function - such that if it really were the "root cause" of autism, or the cure, then the autistic brain wouldn't function at all (and we know that is not the case, it just functions differently).

Another article from 2013 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Vol. 43, Issue 11, pages 2686-2695) found that there is an excess of a different type of endogenous cannabinoid receptor in the blood of autistic patients. This "CB2" receptor occurs in high quantities than it normally does. In many cases, this pattern called "receptor upregulation" means that the receptors are being under-stimulated (hence too little of the triggering endogenous marijuana-like chemicals).

Again, this was latched onto by medMJ proponents as something that could be "treated" with medMJ. Two problems with that - (A) CB2 doesn't really react to THC - the main active ingredient in marijuana, and (B) CB2 and the cells in which the receptor is present are involved in immunity, not brain function.   

There is a tendency for the medMJ crowd - or frankly any group touting the latest miracle cure - to shout back at scientists urging restraint that "just because it isn't scientifically proven doesn't mean its not true." 

Well, it's not scientifically proven, there's no support for their claims, and in fact, it's probably *not* true.  As I wrote last year ( and what is difficult in science is proving something to be *true* - proving it to be false is actually quite easy - and many such claims are proven to be false.  In the case of many "quack" cures, there's even a fair amount of evidence that they could be harmful.

Frankly, people need to learn to read scientific papers - it's not hard to learn how to do, but it would require people to *work*, to *think* and to *read* more than 140 characters on their phone screen!

[*Charlotte's Web is a strain bred for high levels of cannabidiol, to enable use as a treatment for juvenile epilepsy and other disorders sensitive to CBD. It is a step in the right direction - selecting for the desired chemicals. However, *any* tetrahydrocannabinol content in the compounds shown to be *effective* against epilepsy negates the beneficial effect. Thus Epidiolex - the drug developed by medicinal cannabinoid research - is a pure extract, which known, controlled dosing and preparation. Charlotte's Web does NOT meet this standard. Epidiolex is in an oil-based spray absorbed through the mucus membranes in the mouth; however, it is *not* burned, smoked, baked, boiled, or digested. Any and all of those alter the drug - leading to much less certainty in effects!]

See, I *told* you that you wouldn't like me when I was angry!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Operation Baen Bulk 2015 [Full link to blog for email clients.]

[EDIT:  UPDATE: Thank you Instapundit and Insty's readers!!!]
[EDIT:  Clarified the history of the Operation Baen Bulk]
[EDIT 5/15/15 - Continuation of above clarification and an apology have been included at the end of this post.]

If you've been a reader in past years, you may have heard about Operation Baen Bulk, a charitable effort that yours truly has taken part in since 2009.

Here's a website that explains what we do:

Operation Baen Bulk started out in 2009 when Keith Glass heard of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan who had little to access to "comfort items" that would be sold in the Post Exchange.  That was because his unit was forward-deployed, their PX was a tent, and many shelves were empty more often than not!

Keith made a plan (with the participation of several members of the Baen's Bar discussion groups - including your truly, who would complete the third OBB campaign in Christmas of 2010 and go on to lead the fundraising efforts ever since) to send shampoo, body wash, toothbrushes and toothpaste, hand sanitizer, wet-wipes, etc. - in bulk - so that the whole unit could share.  In addition, winter had just set in and this unit had to patrol in the mountains, so some more friends raised money, got measurements, and sent multiple pairs of warm winter hiking socks for every member of the team.

Next we heard about an ammo supply platoon that had to pull stock and make deliveries at all hours of the day and night.  Ammo was stored in large "conex" containers (think semi-sized truck trailer without wheels) and those things are dark inside, even during the day. Our contact asked if we could send flashlights and replacement batteries, because they just didn't have enough issue flashlights.  We sent several cases of the super-bright Surefire flashlights, and several months worth of batteries.

By this time, the winter holidays were approaching, so with out friends at Baen Books, we sent books, cookies, candy, small gifts and holiday decorations to as many troops/units as we could contact.

But back to the Ammo Supply Platoon... Since the unit had to make those middle-of-the-night deliveries, they asked if we knew of any travel coffee mugs that could stand up to being bounced around in military vehicles.  So we designed and ordered stainless steel mugs (picture at right), and raised the funds by selling a mug to our friends - for each mug purchased, we could have three manufactured - thus we sent 2 mugs to any of the troops we were supporting for each one sold.  The campaign was so popular, we had to have a second run of mugs made.  We sold over 200 mugs, and sent nearly 500 mugs to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Korea and Germany.

Fast-forward six years, and we have run 6 almost-yearly campaigns to send "comfort items" - snacks, books, personal hygeine supplies, unusual requests that are not readily available to deployed troops.  In many cases, we've also sent regional favorites to give the troops a "taste of home" while they serve our country abroad.  We have supported more than 10 units in 6 countries, plus other individual requests as they come in.  Donation support trickled in, with each campaign able to support a higher volume. [Many times with the assistance of Instapundit and our friends at PJMedia, Vodkapundit, PJ Tattler, Otherwhere Gazette, and others.]

Then in 2013, we changed direction, slightly.  There were fewer troops deployed, but a record number of soldiers recovering from combat injuries.  Since we are a loose affiliation of Science Fiction fans, we decided to buy Kindle eBook readers, pre-load them with free books, and send to facilities where troops were recovering from combat-related injuries. Since those injuries could involve limbs and eyesight, we choose eBook readers that could adapt to large-print and one-handed, stand-alone operation.

Once we had the idea, we started asking for donated books directly from the publishers and authors...

The response was astounding, and we were able to load the readers with over 500 titles - science fiction, fantasy, adventure, reference and classic literature.

We raised over $5000 and sent 80 Kindles, divided among 5 facilities.

This year, we are at it again.  In previous years, we asked strictly for donations, and were able to gave a limited number of thank-you gifts out to top contributors.  This year is a little different, since contributors can get an immediate token of our appreciation if they buy a 2015 Limited Edition Operation Baen Bulk Challenge Coin. You can see the front and back of this coin at the left.  It is 2" diameter, 1/8" thick, minted from antique brass and feels nice and weighty in your hand.  All of the coins in this minting are engraved with the year (2015).  There was a previous, serial-numbered minting exclusively for the 2009-2012 OBB teams, but we're making this coin available to anyone and everyone for $27.50. We're using the same cost model as the OBB mugs above, so 2/3 of the cost of the coin will go directly to OBB, with only 1/3 of the cost going to minting, shipping and handling.

We're taking straight donations, or you can order an OBB coin directly from http://obb.teddroberts.comPlease note that while Teddy's Rat Lab, Brain&Brain Press and are hosting the website and merchant site, we are not receiving any profit from the sale. 

Here's a lab rat... just because... well, see below!

While we were at it, we made a few other coins, and the proceeds from those sales will also go to support OBB2015.  For fans of author Sarah A, Hoyt and may be familiar with the Sarah's Diner Facebook group and/or the Baen's Bar Sarah's Diner conference, we have a Sarah's Diner coin featuring artwork by Robert A. Hoyt.  The Dragon flipping pancakes refers to the iconic sign of The George Diner in Sarah's fictional town of Goldport, CO.  Some of you may also know that Sarah is heavily influenced by the work of Robert A. Heinlein, (note similarity in the naming of her eldest son, above) so the back side of the coin features one of Heinlein's famous phrases: TANSTAAFL - "There Ain't No Such Thing As a Free Lunch." 

Fans of John Ringo's recent series starting with the 2013 novel Under A Graveyard Sky - may recall that the philosophy of the key scientist in that novel could be paraphrased as What part of Mad Scientist did you not understand? That phrase, and a few other characteristic utterances of Mad Scientists have been captured in the Mad Science coin for Teddy's Rat Lab and fans a/k/a "Speaker's Lab Rats."
Artwork for the front face of the coin is by Speaker, and is also available in a slightly modified version as a button from Mystik Waboose Clothier.

These additional coins are available at, once again, all profits will go to Operation Baen Bulk.  These coins are 1&3/4" in diameter, 1/8" inch thick and finished in gold-plated brass.  Both the Diner and Mad Science coins are serial numbered from 1-200.  For an extra charge, customers can request a specific S/N or the lowest available numbered S/N [Be advised, as of this writing, S/Ns below 24 are taken, with numbers below 50 going fast.  S/Ns 1-23, 26, 31, 42, 50, 51, 69, 86, 87 and 100 are already reserved.]    

[EDIT 5/15/15:  Clarification and Apology:

An earlier version of this blog appeared as if I was claiming credit for Operation Baen Bulk:  I would like to issue a clarification and an apology.

I have been the "front man" for Operation Baen Bulk for many years. I am the person whose name gets associated with it, but I am far from the only person or even the most important person in the effort.

Keith Glass started OBB in the Fall of 2009. There were lots of little efforts going on, but Keith took on the task of herding cats and got us all organized - he's a logistics type, and he's done it extremely well.

Since 2009 it's been a group effort. We've run 6 different campaigns in 6 years - not including the current one. At various times, there have been other people involved - identifying sources for supplies, *buying* those supplies, shipping, donating, etc. There are times Keith has been too busy, and times I have been too busy. During much of this time, Keith has done the "heavy lifting" - like 2013, when he configured and loaded over 80 Kindles with >500 free books.

It has never been my intent to claim credit in place of, nor to supplant Keith. I call myself the "front-man" because basically, that's what I have done - write announcements, shill for funds, help coordinate. Keith is the founder and the one behind the scenes making it work. Any use of the pronoun *"we"* was never intended to usurp credit, but merely to take the attention off of persons involved with OBB, and *onto* the troops whom we supply.

Operation Baen Bulk will likely undergo some changes in the future. We are currently funded with an ongoing campaign. There are funds coming in and we *will* deliver what we promised. There may be a name change, there may not. There is currently a personnel change, but I would like to resolve that and get back to serving the troops.

As always, "we" appreciate your support.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

News from the World of Neuroscience [Full link to blog for email clients.]

This week,an article appeared at NOVA-Next, the companion web site for the PBS NOVA TV series.  For those of you who have followed this blog in the past, you will recognize some of the key personnel, and the project they are working on.

Here is the latest in the quest for a memory prosthetic:

Inside the Memory Machine

"Sam Deadwyler and Robert Hampson had spent the 1980s and early 1990s studying how neurons behaved in the rat brain while they performed a simple memory task. Two levers sat side-by-side on one wall of the rat’s cage. After the rat pressed one of the levers, it had to run over to the other side of the cage and stick its nose into a tiny opening. Then, to get its reward, the rat had to go back to the levers and press the other lever. In all of this running back and forth, the rat had to remember both which lever it had pressed and which lever it still needed to press.

"While the rats performed this task, Deadwyler and Hampson, both neuroscientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, recorded neural activity in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped structure deep in the brain that is the headquarters of learning and memory. They had designed a device containing 16 tiny electrodes and implanted it into the rat’s brain to record electrical activity. Up until that point, the best scientists could do was measure single neurons, but this device could record the activity of a whole group of neurons, giving Deadwyler and Hampson a much more detailed and accurate picture.

"They focused on two regions of the hippocampus: CA3, which showed the highest activity when the rat pressed the first lever, and CA1, which showed highest activity when the rat had to decide which lever to push at the end of the task. After hundreds of repetitions, Deadwyler and Hampson noticed that when the rats pressed the first lever, they found that a group of neurons in CA3 fired in a specific pattern. Then, when the rats had to decide which lever to press the second time, they also found that CA1 patterns fired in a specific pattern.

"'This pattern was the code of the memory, and it was nearly identical from time to time to time—and the system worked from rat to rat to rat,' Hampson says. Based on the activity they observed, they could even tell when the rats were going to make an error. 'The rats are not making mistakes randomly. They’re responding the way they are because the hippocampus encoded the wrong information,' he adds."

Read on at the NOVA Next website!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Of Politics, Puppies and Professionalism [Full link to blog for email clients.]

First off, I am grateful and proud of the Hugo nomination of my article "Why Science is Never Settled" in the category of Related Work.  Do I think it is my "best"?  Well, I think my best article was the one published 3 years ago, so certainly not eligible this year.  My best last year?  Certainly.  Related Work?  By all means.  Science is a process, not a conclusion, pronouncement or law.  There are all too many instances of misrepresentation in SF and public media, and they fall on all protions of the political spectrum.  Sadly, there is politics in science, but in my opinion, it has no place there.

Do I think my work is the Best Related Work this year?  Not necessarily.  There are two entries that really talk about the nuts-and-bolts of writing, another explores some common themes in futurist writing regarding the nature of humanity.  The fourth Work is a collection of snarky emails, FB posts and tweets.  Seems to me that a collection of blog posts and pithy responses to hate mail won in this category a few years back.  Still, my Work talks about the Science part of the name: "Science Fiction" I am proud of it, and hope that the Work speaks for itself.

Personally, while I might be inclined to vote for myself (who wouldn't?) I do have sufficient honor that I choose not to do so.  If I voted today, my vote would likely go to Letters from Gardner, by Lou Antonelli. It's about writing - the process, learning to edit, how to handle rejection, and ultimately how to get published.  It's not a collection of fanfiction, self-congratulatory pats on the back or "challenges to the conventional wisdom" which are neither challenges, conventional nor wisdom.

Now on to the political part of this post - association with the Sad Puppies campaign.  I do not apologize for being associated with the group.  They are not the people calling names.  They are not the ones who silence dissent by mangling and distorting words. They are not the ones who publish legally actionable falsehoods and then weasel into a correction and retraction that is neither.  They are not the ones who would rather trade on feelings in contravention of facts. They are the not the ones who don't even bother to look up the facts.   They are not the ones who can't bother to see that the SP recommendations include females, non-whites, non-privileged, liberals, libertarians, moderates - and yes, conservative white males.  Frankly, there is not a single one of them who had so much privilege as to spend their college years traveling Europe couch surfing and living off of rich friends.

The thing is - I always thought it was the work which was nominated.  The author produced it, but the vote was supposed to be based on the quality of the book, story, article, 'zine, movie and/or TV show.  Thus, I don't claim, that I was nominated, but that my ARTICLE was nominated. If all that you-the-voter are basing your decision on is me, then by all means, don't vote for me or my article, because that very bias indicates that you have no idea what I've written. 


At this point, I was going to say that I have friends on both sides of the divide - SP or otherwise.  Unfortunately, that is not true.  I do have friends with multiple positions regarding politics, sexuality, firearms, education priorities, favorite Pratchett character (Vimes, of course) - and whether Putin memes are funny.  I do have friends among the Sad Puppies nominees.  I do not have friends among the shrill harpies.

Case Closed.

See, I am a professional.  I have been in the field of science in one job or another for 35 years.  I have been a fully-credentialed (PhD) scientist for 28 years.  I have lived in ghetto housing and worked 22 hour days to complete experiments, grant proposals, manuscripts and presentation slides.  I used to take bread, peanut butter and jelly with me to scientific meetings to save on meal costs.  Yet, during all of that time, there is not a single year which I have not published in my field, performed experiments, written grant proposals and directed others in the pursuit of science.  There is not a single year that I have not put forth 100% effort into science.  - Well, actually, that's not quite true.  In 1999 I nearly died of a raging infection that went septic.  That was July, and I spent the remainder of the year in a hospital bed.  On the other hand, during that >6 month recovery, I still managed to submit two grant proposals (one of my own, own with a colleague) and both got funded.  We also submitted two papers - both published - with one of those in Nature.   [So, maybe 90% dedication that year, with the remainder devoted to staying alive.] 

I stand here with a nominated work. I wrote it professionally.  Yes, I use a pen-name.  That way my peer-reviewed experimental and academic work can always be distinguished from my work in the SF/F field.  You can look me up, Google will likely provide both names, but I'm not going to do your homework for you. 


Judge my Related Work on it on its merits, not on me.  If you like the Work, fine.  If you don't like it, also fine.  But don't pre-judge me without reading the Work - and don't ever assume you know all there is to know about me.

Let me close with an example that I think epitomizes this current culture war regarding the Hugos.  This year, Best Fanzine includes The Revenge of Hump Day, edited by Tim ("Uncle Timmy") Bolgeo.  You may know the name from the Archon controversy where the convention rescinded his invitation to be Fan Guest of Honor.  It was due to a malicious campaign started by an individual who called him racist because of a tacky, tasteless joke in The Revenge.   The person who started the campaign actually tried to cause a disturbance at Archon and had to be removed by Con Security.  So essentially, the person claiming that someone else would cause a problem - was the problem.

There's too much false accusation, lies and rabble-rousing in this campaign.  It needs to end, and this year's vote on these nominations is a battlefront.  The people screaming loudest, most shrill-y, most vehemently --- are the problem. 

Where do you stand?

Stand my ground, I won't give in / No more denying, I've got to face it / Won't close my eyes and hide the truth inside / If I don't make it, someone else will / Stand my ground. 

-- "Stand My Ground" - Within Temptation.