Posts about commentary

Fixers Collective

Very cool. I like everything about this idea. I like the reuse (very environmentally friendly). I like the humanity and psychology of connecting with others. I like the tinkering/learning/fixing attitude and behavior. I like the very well done use of the internet to help fund such efforts. I like the exploration of the products and object we use. I like the rejection of a disposable attitude (just throw it away). I like the appropriate technology attitude. I made a donation, you can too (see what projects I am funding).

Related: Fund Teacher’s Science ProjectsScience Toys You Can Make With Your Kidscharity related posts

Are you ready for a world without antibiotics?

Are you ready for a world without antibiotics?

[Professor Tim Walsh] “This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing enterobacteriaceae. We have a bleak window of maybe 10 years, where we are going to have to use the antibiotics we have very wisely, but also grapple with the reality that we have nothing to treat these infections with.”

And this is the optimistic view – based on the assumption that drug companies can and will get moving on discovering new antibiotics to throw at the bacterial enemy. Since the 1990s, when pharma found itself twisting and turning down blind alleys, it has not shown a great deal of enthusiasm for difficult antibiotic research. And besides, because, unlike with heart medicines, people take the drugs for a week rather than life, and because resistance means the drugs become useless after a while, there is just not much money in it.

“The emergence of antibiotic resistance is the most eloquent example of Darwin’s principle of evolution that there ever was,” says Livermore. “It is a war of attrition. It is naive to think we can win.”

I have been writing about the huge risks we are talking with our future for years. The careless misuse of antibiotics is very costly (in human lives, in the future). Bacteria pose great risks to us. We need to take antibiotics to fight serious threats. The misuse of antibiotics by doctors, patients, agri-business… is the problem. And we are all living a much riskier future because far to little is being done to reduce the misuse of antibiotics.

More and more antibiotic treatments are losing effectiveness as bacteria evolve resistance. The evolution is accelerated by misuse. This costs lives today, but is likely to costs many thousands and hundreds of thousands and possible more in the next 50 years.

The NDM-1-producing bacteria were highly resistant to all antibiotics except tigecycline and colistin. In some cases, isolates were resistant to all antibiotics. The emergence of NDM-1 positive bacteria is potentially a serious global public health problem as there are few new anti-Gram-negative antibiotics in development and none that are effective against NDM-1.

Related: Antibiotics Breed Superbugs Faster Than ExpectedAntibiotics Too Often Prescribed for Sinus WoesBacteria Race Ahead of DrugsFDA May Make Decision That Will Speed Antibiotic Drug ResistanceRaised Without AntibioticsWaste Treatment Plants Result in Super BacteriaHow Bleach Kills BacteriaCDC Urges Increased Effort to Reduce Drug-Resistant Infections

Vaccines Can’t Provide Miraculous Results if We Don’t Take Them

Vaccine preventable diseases used to ravage our health. In the USA, we are lucky to live in a society where those before us have taken vaccines and reduced to very low levels the attack vectors for these diseases. If nearly everyone is vaccinated for polio, even if it crops up with one person, most likely it won’t spread. As more people chose to risk the health of others in the society by failing to vaccinate, an infection can spread rapidly. There are some people who can’t be vaccinated for one reason or another (normally dangerous allergies) and vaccines, while very effective are not 100% effective. So any person that fails to vaccinate their kids endangers society and those who cannot be vaccinated.

Six Top Vaccine Myths

Myth 1: It’s not necessary to vaccinate kids against diseases that have been largely eradicated in the United States.
Reality: Although some diseases like polio and diphtheria aren’t often seen in America (in large part because of the success of the vaccination efforts), they can be quite common in other parts of the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that travelers can unknowingly bring these diseases into the United States, and if we were not protected by vaccinations, these diseases could quickly spread throughout the population. At the same time, the relatively few cases currently in the U.S. could very quickly become tens or hundreds of thousands of cases without the protection we get from vaccines. Brown warns that these diseases haven’t disappeared, “they are merely smoldering under the surface.”

Most parents do follow government recommendations: U.S. national immunization rates are high, ranging from 85 percent to 93 percent, depending on the vaccine, according to the CDC.

See the 2010 Child & Adolescent Immunization Schedules from the CDC and protect your children and society. The suffering caused by preventable diseases like polio and small pox was huge. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that those diseases are not dangerous. They are. We have been protected by all those taking vaccines. If people in the society don’t take vaccines that increases the health risks to the society at large.

Routine smallpox vaccination among the American public stopped in 1972 after the disease was eradicated in the United States. The United States government has enough vaccine to vaccinate every person in the United States in the event of a smallpox emergency (mainly due to concerns about bio-terrorism).

U.S. Adults Dying of Preventable Diseases

Diseases easily preventable by adult vaccines kill more Americans each year than car wrecks, breast cancer, or AIDS.

“We have a chronic disease epidemic in the U.S. It is taxing our families and taxing our economy,” the CDC’s Anne Schuchat, MD, said at the news conference. “We have a need for culture change in America. We worry about things when they are really bad rather than focusing on prevention, which can keep us out of the hospital and keep our families thriving.”

In other parts of the world the danger is not from those who chose not to vaccinate their children but those who are not provided the opportunity to.

Bill Gates’ war on disease, poverty is an uphill battle
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Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

The USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the USA Don’t Know How Long it Takes the Earth to Circle the Sun.

Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

I completely agree. People have the right to their opinions. But those opinions which are related to scientific knowledge (whether it is about evolution, the origin of the universe, cancer, the speed of light, polio vaccinations, multi-factorial designed experiments, magnetic fields, chemical catalysts, the effectiveness of antibiotics against viral infections, electricity, optics, bioaccumulation, etc.) are part of their scientific literacy. You can certainly believe antibiotics are affective against viral infections but that is an indication you are scientifically illiterate on that topic.

2006 NSF chapter that included the results
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Unless We Take Decisive Action, Climate Change Will Ravage Our Planet

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park photo by John Hunterphoto by John Hunter at Glacier National Park.

Tomorrow 56 newspapers, in 45 countries, are taking the unprecedented step of publishing the same editorial. The editorial will appear in 20 languages, as the United Nations Climate Change Conference is set to begin in Copenhagen.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

Climate change has been caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west. Climate change affects everyone, and must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years.

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the arrival of President Obama in the White House and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of American domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until the US Congress has done so.

the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of all carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now take a lead, and every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within a decade to very substantially less than their 1990 level.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance — and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing.

Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. The era of flights that cost less than the taxi ride to the airport is drawing to a close. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

Most of the newspapers have taken the unusual step of featuring the editorial on their front page. Even with the overwhelming evidence and tremendous consequences I don’t expect politicians to make the right decisions. We know full well what the choices are. We just decide to avoid the unpleasant choices. To bad so many that don’t get to choose are going to suffer. The politicians will be weak. They will play to those that pay them money. They will delay taking important steps now. We have chosen to elect non-leaders for quite some time. We can’t really expect them to act with courage, vision, wisdom and leadership given who we elect. The politicians are responsible for their failing but we are more responsible for electing them. Some politicians, even now, do possess fine qualities but not nearly enough. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it.

Related: What’s Up With the Weather?Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free StateScientists Denounce Global Warming Report EditsDeforestation and Global WarmingMIT’s Energy ‘Manhattan Project’Global Installed Wind Power Now Over 1.5% of Global Electricity DemandBigger Impact: 15 to 18 mpg or 50 to 100 mpg?Solar Thermal in Desert, to Beat Coal by 202076 Nobel Laureates in Science Endorse Obama

Scientific Illiteracy Leaves Many at Risk in Making Health Care Judgements

Scientific literacy is important for many reasons and that importance has increased greatly over the last century. Medical research is often difficult to interpret. Often various studies seem to contradict each other. Often the conclusions that are drawn are far too broad (especially as the research conclusions are passed on and people hear of them overly simplified ways).

Many health care options are not obviously all good, or all bad, but instead a mix of benefits and risks, both of which include interactions with the individuals makeup. So we often see contradictory (and seemingly contradictory) advice. Without a level of scientific literacy it is very difficult for people to know how to react to medical advice.

We have numerous posts on the scientific inquiry process showing that acquiring scientific knowledge is complex and can be quite confusing in many instances. While understanding things are often less clear cut than they are presented it is still true that most often strategies for healthy living have far better practices that will provide far better results than alternatives.

The scientific illiteracy that has some think because their are risks no matter what is done that means there is no evidence some alternatives are far superior is very dangerous. As you can see in action now with those that risk their and others lives and health by doing things like not vaccinating their children, or driving when drunk, or driving when talking on a cell phone.

Without a scientifically literate society even completely obvious measures like not using antibiotics on viral infections are ignored.

Related: Long Term ADHD Drug Benefits QuestionedHow Prozac Sent Science Inquiry Off TrackLifestyle Drugs and RiskCorrelation is Not Causation: “Fat is Catching” Theory Exposed
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Merck and Elsevier Publish Phony Peer-Review Journal

Elsevier is one of those publishers fighting open science. They try to claim that the government publishing government funded research in an open way will tarnish science. The argument makes no sense to me. Here is another crazy action on their part: they published a “journal” funded by Merck to promote Merck products. Merck Makes Phony Peer-Review Journal:

Merck cooked up a phony, but real sounding, peer reviewed journal and published favorably looking data for its products in them. Merck paid Elsevier to publish such a tome, which neither appears in MEDLINE or has a website, according to The Scientist.

What’s sad is that I’m sure many a primary care physician was given literature from Merck that said, “As published in Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, Fosamax outperforms all other medications….” Said doctor, or even the average researcher wouldn’t know that the journal is bogus. In fact, knowing that the journal is published by Elsevier gives it credibility!

As I have said the journals fighting open science should have their credibility questioned. They are putting their outdated business model above science. We should not see organizations that are focused on closing science research through deceptive publicity efforts and lobbying efforts as credible.

Related: From Ghost Writing to Ghost Management in Medical JournalsMerck Faked a Research JournalMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)The Future of Scholarly PublicationFresh questions raised about prominent cardiologist’s role in “ghostwritten” 2001 meta-analysis of Vioxx trialsScience Commons: Making Scientific Research Re-usefulPublishers Continue to Fight Open Access to ScienceMisleading or Deceptive ConductPeter Suber Response to Rep. Conyers

Keeping Out Technology Workers is not a Good Economic Strategy

The barriers between countries, related to jobs, are decreasing. Jobs are more international today than 20 years ago and that trend will continue. People are going to move to different countries to do jobs (especially in science, engineering and advanced technology). The USA has a good market on those jobs (for many reasons). But there is nothing that requires those jobs to be in the USA.

The biggest impact of the USA turning away great scientists and engineers will be that they go to work outside the USA and increase the speed at which the USA loses its place as the leading location for science, engineering and technology work. This is no longer the 1960’s. Back then those turned away by the USA had trouble finding work elsewhere that could compete with the work done in the USA. If the USA wants to isolate ourselves (with 5% of the population) from a fairly open global science and engineering job market, other countries will step in (they already are trying, realizing what a huge economic benefit doing so provides).

Those other countries will be able to put together great centers of science and engineering innovation. Those areas will create great companies that create great jobs. I can understand wanting this to be 1960, but wanting it doesn’t make it happen.

You could go even further and shut off science and engineering students access to USA universities (which are the best in the world). That would put a crimp in plans for a very short while. Soon many professors would move to foreign schools. The foreign schools would need those professors, and offer a great deal of pay. And those professors would need jobs as their schools laid off professors as students disappeared. Granted the best schools and best professors could stay in the USA, but plenty of very good ones would leave.

I just don’t think the idea of closing off the companies in the USA from using foreign workers will work. We are lucky now that, for several reasons, it is still easiest to move people from Germany, India, Korea, Mexico and Brazil all to the USA to work on advanced technology projects. The advantage today however, is much much smaller than it was 30 years ago. Today just moving all those people to some other location, say Singapore, England, Canada or China will work pretty well (and 5 years from now will work much better in whatever locations start to emerge as the leading alternative sites). Making the alternative of setting up centers of excellence outside the USA more appealing is not a good strategy for those in the USA wanting science, engineering and computer programming jobs. We should instead do what we can to encourage more companies in the USA that are centralizing technology excellence in the USA.

Comment on Reddit discussion.

Related: Science and Engineering in Global EconomicsGlobal technology job economyCountries Should Encourage Immigration of Technology WorkersThe Software Developer Labor MarketWhat Graduates Should Know About an IT CareerRelative Engineering Economic PositionsChina’s Technology Savvy LeadershipEducation, Entrepreneurship and ImmigrationThe Future is EngineeringGlobal Technology Leadership

The Software Developer Labor Market

With the economy today you don’t hear much of a desperate need for programmers. But Dr. Norman Matloff, Department of Computer Science, University of California at Davis, testimony to Congress (Presented April 21, 1998; updated December 9, 2002) on Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage is full of lots of interesting information (for current and past job markets).

The industry says that it will need H-1B visas temporarily, until more programmers can be trained. Is this true?

No, it’s false and dishonest… The industry has been using this “temporary need” stall tactic for years, ever since the H-1B law was enacted in 1990. In the early- and mid-1990s, for example, the industry kept saying that H-1Bs wouldn’t be needed after the laid-off defense programmers and engineers were retrained, but never carried out its promise. It hired those laid off in low-level jobs such as technician (which is all the retraining programs prepared them for), and hired H-1Bs for the programming and engineering work.

Unlike Dr. Matloff, and many readers of this blog, I am actually not a big opponent of H-1B visas. I believe we benefit more by allowing tech savy workers to work in the USA than we lose. I understand people fear jobs are being taken away, but I don’t believe it. I believe one of the reasons we maintain such a strong programming position is due to encouraging people to come to the USA to program.

I also do believe, there are abuses, under the current law, of companies playing games to say no-one can be found in the USA with the proper skills. And I believe those apposed to H-1B visas make reasonable arguments and this testimony is a good presentation of those arguments.

This obsession with specific skills is unwarranted. What counts is general programming talent – hiring smart people – not experience with specific software technologies.

Very true.

What developers should do.

Suppose you are currently using programming language X, but you see that X is beginning to go out of fashion, and a new language (or OS or platform, etc.) Y is just beginning to come on the scene. The term “just beginning” is crucial here; it means that Y is so new that there almost no one has work experience in it yet. At that point you should ask your current employer to assign you to a project which uses Y, and let you learn Y on the job. If your employer is not willing to do this, or does not have a project using Y, then find another employer who uses both X and Y, and thus who will be willing to hire you on the basis of your experience with X alone, since very few people have experience with Y yet.

Good advice.

Related: IT Talent Shortage, or Management Failure?Preparing Computer Science Students for JobsEngineering Graduates Again in Great Shape (May 2008)What Graduates Should Know About an IT Careerposts related to computer programming
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Cardiac Cath Lab: Innovation on Site

photo of Cath LabPhoto of John Cooke at the Cardiac Catheterisation Labs at St. Thomas’ hospital in London

I manage several blogs on several topics that are related. Often blog posts stay firmly in the domain of one blog of the other. Occasionally the topic blurs the lines between the various blogs (which I like). This post ties directly to my Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog. The management principles I believe in are very similar to engineering principles (no surprise given this blog). And actual observation in situ is important – to understand fully the situation and what would be helpful. Management relying on reports instead of seeing things in action results in many poor decisions. And engineers doing so also results in poor decisions.

Getting to Gemba – a day in the Cardiac Cath Lab by John Cooke

I firmly believe that it is impossible to innovate effectively without a clear understanding of the context and usage of your final innovation. Ideally, I like to “go to gemba“, otherwise known as the place where the problem exists, so I can dig for tacit knowledge and observe unconscious behaviours.

I didn’t disgrace myself and I’ve been invited back for another day or so. What did I learn that I didn’t know before? The key things I learnt were:

  • the guide wire isn’t just a means of steering the catheter into place as I thought. It is a functional tool in it’s own right
  • Feel is really critical to the cardiologist
  • There is a huge benefit in speeding up procedures in terms of patient wellbeing and lab efficiency
  • Current catheter systems lack the level of detection capability and controllability needed for some more complex PCIs (Percutaneous Cardiac Interventions)

The whole experience reminded me that in terms of innovation getting to gemba is critical. When was the last time you saw your products in use up-close and personal?

Related: Jeff Bezos Spends a Week Working in Amazon’s Kentucky Distribution CenterToyota Engineering Development ProcessMarissa Mayer on Innovation at GoogleBe Careful What You MeasureS&P 500 CEOs are Often Engineering GraduatesExperiment Quickly and Often

USA Losing Scientists and Engineers Educated in the USA

The USA continues to lose ground, in retaining the relative science and engineering strength it has retained for the last 50 plus years. As I have said before this trend is nearly inevitable – the challenge for the USA is to reduce the speed of their decline in relative position.

A new open access report, Losing the World’s Best and Brightest, explores the minds of current foreign science and engineering students that are studying in the USA. This is another in the list of reports on similar topics by Vivek Wadhwa and Richard Freeman. And again they point out the long term economic losses the USA is setting up by failing to retain the talent trained at our universities. It is a problem for the USA and a great benefit for countries like India and China.

“Foreign students receive nearly 60% of all engineering doctorates and more than half of all mathematics, computer sciences, physics and economics doctorates awarded in the United States. These foreign nationals end up making jobs, not taking jobs,” said Wadhwa. “They bring insights into growing global markets and fresh ideas. Research has shown that they even end up boosting innovation by U.S. inventors. Losing them is an economic tragedy.”

According to the study’s findings, very few foreign students would like to stay in the United States permanently—only 6% of Indian, 10 percent of Chinese and 15% of Europeans. And fewer foreign students than the historical norm expressed interest in staying in the United States after they graduate. Only 58% of Indian, 54% of Chinese and 40% of European students wish to stay for several years after graduation. Previous National Science Foundation research has shown 68% of foreigners who received science and engineering doctorates stayed for extended periods of time, including 73% of those who studied computer science. The five-year minimum stay rate was 92% for Chinese students and 85% for Indian students.

The vast majority of foreign student and 85% of Indians and Chinese and 72% of Europeans are concerned about obtaining work visas. 74% of Indians, 76% of Chinese, and 58% of Europeans are also worried about obtaining jobs in their fields. Students appear to be less concerned about getting permanent-resident visas than they are about short-term jobs. Only 38% of Indian students, 55% of Chinese, and 53% of Europeans expressed concerns about obtaining permanent residency in the USA.

On the tonight show yesterday, President Obama said

we need young people, instead of — a smart kid coming out of school, instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide they want to be an engineer, they want to be a scientist, they want to be a doctor or a teacher.

And if we’re rewarding those kinds of things that actually contribute to making things and making people’s lives better, that’s going to put our economy on solid footing. We won’t have this kind of bubble-and-bust economy that we’ve gotten so caught up in for the last several years.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, recently expressed his frustration with the policies discouraging science and engineering graduates staying in the USA after they complete their education.

That is a brilliant [actually not brilliant at all] strategy take the best people hire them in American universities and then kick them out” It happens. “Its shocking.” It happens. “I know we are fighting against it.” “We America remain, by far the place of choice for education, particularly higher education.”

Related: Invest in Science for a Strong EconomyScience, Engineering and the Future of the American EconomyUSA Under-counting Engineering GraduatesLosing scientists and engineers will reduce economic performance of the USADiplomacy and Science Research