Sunday, October 24, 2010

Technology frustrations

1. Kindle - finally broke down and got one but it wasn't all I was expecting it to be - sure all that great viewing and all that but:

a) What mattered to me was the native PDF viewer that I was perhaps expecting too much of - I could barely make out the page and had to rotate it to landscape except that it became the default for everything else. Can I just have it landscaped for PDF documents and not for MOBI or Kindle files?
b) Copying books from my computer to the Kindle was another frustration: Can't I create pointers and folders on the Kindle and have it actually obey what I created? For instance, I created a folder called Philosophy and moved some books into it. Except when I turn Kindle on the folder isn't what Kindle calls a Collection and I have to manually move it into a Collection called Kindle. And I have to do this one at a time! Can I move multiple books into a Collection? This is something I've still got to find out.

2) Touch screens and fat fingers - yeah, that's me. I got a Palm Pre which I'm pretty happy with. The reviews panned its battery life so I knew what I was getting into. Except that what I thought was the future of interface suffered from the obvious defect of the fact that a mouse pointer isn't quite as precise as a finger. I also got a chance to try the touch screen interface on an HP Touchsmart and a MSI Wind and found that minimizing a window using the upper right icons (which is what I'm used to doing) was harder than I thought. There is probably an easier way to minimize such as tapping on the menu bar or something but I suspect most people will gravitate to what they're most familiar with. One the plus side the price has come down from the $1000 or so to the $600 price range.

3) I'm in the market for either a desktop with low end dual core processor, 4GB RAM, 500 GB hard drive, DVD RW and TV Tuner and I cannot find it for under $400! Call me crazy, but I
would have expected that the price point was reasonable.

4) So with a new phone I have new plan - $29.99 for data and $39.99 for voice and I figured that I would be paying another $10-$20 for taxes etc but Verizon is also adding another $40 for "other charges"! Come on! This is crazy. To top it off I switched from ATT and had to endure two additional months of bills because of "retroactive/prospective" billing - I can't figure out which. Why can't bills stop when I cancel the service? These telcos are a bunch of ripoffs.

5) I'm also in the market for a portable hard drive and when I was back in Penang over the summer, the recommendations were either a Hitachi or a Samsung. Of course retail i.e. Best Buy/Office Depot/Staples only seem to offer Seagate or Western Digital which from the reviews I've read are not glowing. These guys seem to have the retail market locked up, so perhaps I'll go online and get another brand.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Necessary conditions for bubbles

What are they? In a previous post I had suggested that the seeds to financial crises were sown by governments - the post singled out biotechnology and the War on Cancer. Lately, there have been signs that infrastructure such as gas lines, roads and bridges should be upgraded. In a previous post there were thoughts that the fiscal stimulus should have a larger infrastructure component. Meanwhile, Jeremy Stein points to renewable energy and its (futuristic) financing structure as a plausible scenario.

I would suggest only that some kind of government intervention in the form of subsidies or commissions are a necessary but not a sufficient condition. This is true in the current crisis as well in the form of the GSEs and despite strong protestations to the contrary. Something else is needed - just what it is would be good to know.

P.S. Some may claim that the Internet bubble occurred without any government intervention and I may have to concede on this point since I have not found any evidence of such. My response only would be that when the dot com boom was happening, the government fed the bubble by proclaiming that the high valuations were possible due to an increase in productivity (the so-called New Economy). Likewise, Bernanke's claims of a global savings glut was just a way of ignoring the problem.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two books on biotechnology

I discovered two very different books on the biotechnology written in two different styles, yet each compelling in its own way. One was Gene Dreams by Robert Teitleman and the other was The Billion Dollar Molecule by Barry Werth. Teitleman's book is more of a narrative style about one company: Genetic Systems. The company was formed more or less from scratch by 'venture capitalists' who recruited a big name to build up the company: Robert Nowinski to find a cure for cancer using monoclonal antibodies. However, its dream of finding a cure for cancer was constantly being undermined by the need for cash-flow resulting in licensing deals and other projects that compromise on its original mission. All the while, venture capitalists and founders were waiting for the right time to either take the company public during the biotechnology fever that had swept Wall Street or to find a buyer for the right price. (See one review here. )

Written in a fly-on-the-wall manner, The Billion Dollar Molecule was a more compelling read. It is to biotechnology what Tracey Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine was to the mini-computer industry. Like Teitleman's book, the company, Vertex was founded to create cures through molecular structural design. It began with the dream of using FK-506 to build a molecule that would suppress the body's immune response to increase the likelihood that transplant patients could survive. Through all this the clash of personalities between the founder Joshua Boger and the academic community consisting of Harvard researcher Stuart Schreiber, Carnegie Mellon's Thomas Starzl who first used FK-506 and FKBP on transplant patients and was convinced (without clinical trials) of its efficacy reads like a novel.

Along the way, we find that finding that a molecule works is just the first step. The person who controls the synthesizing process and manages to produce the the synthetic product becomes one of the keys to the success or failures of the marketing of a molecule. Then finding how the molecule works is the next step: which receptor does it bind to, how does it bind, or what enzymes triggers the binding reaction all becomes part of the keys to finding (or not finding) a cure. Or perhaps its not the molecule but the protein that the molecule is part of - or perhaps its how the protein expresses. Here Werth also recounts the difficulties in trying to do molecular design – that a great deal of guesswork is involved in filling in the structure of the molecule through crystallography and other cutting edge methods. Everything sounds great in theory until we actually try to get it to work. Like Genetic Systems, the need for cash resulted in the company changing its direction mid-course: getting funds from Japanese companies required it to license its findings on FKBP and its structure and to go into AIDS research to see if it could yield technologies and findings that could be licensed. Two reviews are here and here.)

Interestingly, both books point the catalyst for the boom in the stock market for biotechnology to Nixon's War on Cancer which makes me wonder whether the role of the government in economic booms and crashes may have been over-discounted. Is there a role for the Human Genome Project in a later biotechnology rush? After all, the role need not be large – the formation of a commission to study a subject may be enough to trigger an entry into a segment of the industry.

The future is woman (?)

This article on whether we are on the verge of man's demise was interesting. At the risk of sounding inflammatory however, it could only have come from an American woman. It is easy to look around the devastation brought about by Men In Charge – the wars, financial crises, and countless other disasters like global warming from minivans and say that the time for women has come. We can look further than American shores and see the successes that women have had when they were in charge – the Indira Gandhis, Golda Meirs, and Chandrika Kumaratunga and ask if women have truly been more successful than men.

In contrast, in a separate article, Caitlin Flanagan's reading of Anita Shreve's Testimony leads her to write about today's adolescent women:

Today’s teenage girl—as much designed for closely held, romantic relationships as were the girls of every other era—is having to broker a life for herself in which she is, on the one hand, a card-carrying member of the over-parented generation, her extended girlhood made into a frantically observed and constantly commemorated possession of her parents, wrought into being with elaborate Sweet 16 parties, and heart-tugging video montages, and senior proms of mawkish, Cinderella-dream dimensions—and on the other hand she has also been forced into a sexual knowingness, brought upon her by the fact that, beginning at a relatively tender age, she has been exposed to the kind of hard-core pornography that her own mother has probably never seen; that her earliest textbooks on puberty have included, perforce, eye-opening and often upsetting information on everything from the transmission of HIV to the range and expression of sexual orientations; that she has been taught by her peer culture that hookups are what stolen, spin-the-bottle kisses were to girls a quarter century ago. She is a little girl; she is a person as wise in the ways of sexual expression as an old woman.

I found the celebratory feeling in one article and the despondent feelings in the other somewhat confusing. (More reaction to Caitlin Flanagan's article here.)

Summer reading

I'm not sure why certain books are considered summer reading versus non-summer reading but let's just call these what I managed to get through over the summer.

1. Arlington Road by Rachel Cusk
2. Mitford series by Jan Karon
3. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
4. Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
5. China Road by Rob Gifford

Rachel Cusk's Arlington Road about one day in the lives of four women was riveting even though nothing really “happens”. This is truly the most remarkable example of what my writing professor always advised: “Show not tell” and through the events of the day, and how the women react to them, Rachel Cusk was able to show us their personalities and biases. I had this recommended via Half Changed World who unfortunately isn't blogging as much anymore.

The first four books in the Mitford series were enjoyable. (I bought the pack.) I kept having this strange nagging thought though: What if “terrorists” did not come from the mountains of Hindu Kush but from from places like Mitford, and instead of saying “God is Great” they would say “Peace be with you”.

Frances Mayes' Under a Tuscan Sun was disappointing though it's hard to say what I was expecting. Her tale of renovating a house in Tuscany and all the obstacles that came up were delightful yet it is difficult to say how really difficult it is – is language really that tough a barrier? From what I can tell it can't be all that difficult otherwise the renovation would have been even harder. In all the book left me feeling rather flat. Perhaps I'm just not as enchanted with Tuscany as I thought I would be.

Penelopiad was funny in parts (she calls Odysseus a liar) and enjoyable (and it was short!)

China Road is the only book I've read so far on China's transformation and it was extremely interesting. I had heard some of Gifford's podcasts/broadcasts on NPR and knew that he was a fluent Mandarin speaker. (I had caught the segment where he stands in for a preacher in a small town and delivered the Sunday sermon in Mandarin.) His travels across China and his recounting of his experiences were very well written. The only issue that I had was his very Western perspective on the plight of Uyghurs. While its true that the Uyghurs are being assimilated at an increasing rate – in order to move socially within the Han Chinese society, as well as due to Han immigration into traditionally Uyghur towns, their plight really isn't that much different from what happened to the Welsh or the Scots as Gifford points out. Yet why does he feel that the Uyghurs are being oppressed by the Chinese but the Welsh or Scots are not oppressed by the British or the Anglo-Saxons (or whatever?) What does he think of immigrants who begin to 'lose' their culture as they assimilate into the population of their host country? In many ways, I thought that his take on the Uyghurs was not so much an appreciation of these issues but more of a way to criticize the Chinese government.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Mark Bowden's article on the Conficker virus was fascinating except that it left out one important part and I searched for it but couldn't find it: How does it deposit its payload? Is it via exe, jpeg, scripting or what?

It seems like the Atlantic standards are starting to slip. See another question I had about an article here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Megalomaniac industrialists bent on taking over the world

Every time I see this theme in James Bond or some Hollywood movie I have to suppress a chuckle. This scenario seems so highly unlikely yet Hollywood continues to pursue it. Then I read something like this New Yorker article on the Koch brothers and I pause. Do I revise my belief or should I perhaps think that the article is over the top?