Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lethal Profit Machine

I recently was directed to an article that Vanity Fair ran back in January of this year entitled “Deadly Medicine”. It’s a pretty good article, but the problem is that it’s quite long, which means that most people won’t invest the time to see what it actually says.

And that's a shame, because people need to know what it says.

With that thought in mind, here are some of the most telling – and in some cases the most disgusting – quotes from the article. I haven’t commented on them since they pretty much speak for themselves, however, please note that bolded passages reflect my own emphasis on items that I believe deserve a few extra moments of mental digestion:

Prescription drugs kill some 200,000 Americans every year. Will that number go up, now that most clinical trials are conducted overseas—on sick Russians, homeless Poles, and slum-dwelling Chinese—in places where regulation is virtually nonexistent, the F.D.A. doesn’t reach, and “mistakes” can end up in pauper’s graves?”

“All of this is taking place when more drugs than ever—some 2,900 different drugs for some 4,600 different conditions—are undergoing clinical testing and vying to come to market.”

“Around the time that drugmakers began shifting clinical trials abroad, in the 1990s, they also began to contract out all phases of development and testing, putting them in the hands of for-profit companies.”

“The F.D.A. gets its information on foreign trials almost entirely from the companies themselves. It conducts little or no independent research.”

“In 2008 seven babies participating in drug testing in the province suffered what the U.S. clinical-trials community refers to as ‘an adverse event’: they died.”

“In all, at least 14 infants enrolled in clinical trials for the drug died during the testing. Their parents, some illiterate, had their children signed up without understanding that they were taking part in an experiment. Local doctors who persuaded parents to enroll their babies in the trial reportedly received $350 per child.”

“In the mid-90s, Glaxo conducted clinical trials on the antidepressant Paxil in the United States, Europe, and South America. The clinical trials showed that the drug had no beneficial effect on adolescents; some of the trials indicated that the placebo was more effective than the drug itself. But Glaxo neglected to share this information with consumers; annual sales of the drug had reached $5 billion in 2003. In an internal document obtained by the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the company emphasized how important it was to “effectively manage the dissemination of these data in order to minimize any potential negative commercial impact.” The memo went on to warn that “it would be commercially unacceptable to include a statement that efficacy had not been demonstrated.”

“It turned out, however, that AstraZeneca had been less than candid about the drug’s side effects. One of the most troubling: patients often gained weight and developed diabetes. This meant a new round of drugs to treat conditions caused by Seroquel.”

If you’d like to read the whole thing, you can find it here: Deadly Medicine, Vanity Fair Jan 2011

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Bag of Popcorn and a Bag of Hammers

I’m always amazed at how ignorant I can be, especially when it comes to food.

Like the first time I made butter a couple of years ago by taking the cream I skimmed from the raw milk I get and shaking it up in a mason jar.

That’s all you have to do. Just shake it up. It’ll turn into butter all by itself. Who knew? I sure didn’t. Talk about feeling dumb.

Even after making my own butter every week for two years now – I still get a kick out of it, by the way – I’m still amazed that there was ever a time when I didn’t know how easy it is to make. But there was.

Well, color me ignorant once again. This time concerning popcorn.

I’ve always thought I was pretty familiar with popcorn. I know what air poppers are, I’ve operated the same types of machines that are used in movie theaters, and I’m old enough to remember those Jiffy Pop commercials on TV.

But the two main ways I’ve always made popcorn at home have always been by either microwaving pre-packaged bags of popcorn or – because I’m turning into an old-fashioned, self-righteous, crotchety old goat when it comes to food – buying the bags of cheap, loose popping corn and cooking it on the stove with a little oil in a big pot.

That’s how I rolled, and all was well in my little tunnel-visioned world for 45 years.

And then a friend of mine made an almost off-hand comment one day about cooking that cheap, loose popcorn in the microwave. All you had to do, he said, was to put some popcorn in a brown paper bag, stick it in the microwave, and nuke it.

And just like that I suddenly felt about as intelligent as a bag of hammers, because it had never even occurred to me that you might be able to do that.

I’m not exactly sure why. I guess I always thought that you had to have a “special microwave bag”, or “special microwave popcorn”, or “special microwave popcorn sauce”.


But you don’t. All you need is some popcorn and a brown paper lunch bag. What you get is a bag of fluffy, hot popcorn and nothing else. Add your own salt & butter to taste.

Not only is making popcorn this way far less expensive than regular microwave popcorn, it’s also healthier and faster because you’re not eating – nor having to heat up – all the other “stuff” that comes with pre-packaged microwave popcorn (which in my test sample included: partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, natural & artificial butter flavors, lecithin, and beta-carotene coloring).

How cool is that?

I guess even a bag of hammers can learn something new.

Dissection of a pre-packaged 3.5 oz. bag of microwave popcorn. There are 3 ounces of popcorn and .5 ounces of "stuff" that looks vaguely like butter but isn't. (Nasty - even the Honey Badger doesn't want to eat that!)

Cheap popcorn and cheap lunch bags . . .

. . . cover the bottom of the bag . . . .

. . . nuke as you normally would (but be ready, it will cook faster than you're used to) . . .

. . . eat straight from the bag or pour in a bowl. Season / butter to taste. And yes, it tastes as good as it looks!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Pareto Principle

(Originally published in The Casey County News in February 2011):

In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noted that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. Over the years, his initial observation morphed into what has become known as “the Pareto Principle”, or what is more commonly referred to today as the “80/20 Rule”.

The 80/20 Rule can be – and is – frequently applied to just about anything that can be measured; 20% of the population controls 80% of the wealth, 20% of the workers perform 80% of the work, 20% of the inventory takes up 80% of the stockroom space, and on and on.

In short, the 80/20 Rule states that – regarding pretty much anything – 20 percent is vital while the remaining 80 percent is relatively trivial, and while anything that is “measured” by the 80/20 Rule is obviously a generalization, it is also a generalization that has been repeatedly shown over the years to be surprisingly accurate.

The 80/20 Rule is well known in the business world because, by its principle, 80% of a company’s profits are generated by only 20% of its customers. Corporate America knows this very well, and dedicates their efforts toward making that elite 20% very, very happy, since they constitute the core of their entire business.

And what about the remaining 80% of customers who generate the other 20% of their profits? Well, to be brutally honest, it just isn’t worth it for big companies to spend much time on that segment of their business. Not enough “bang for the buck”.

I know this is true because I worked for years at one of those big “global” companies, and that is exactly what we were instructed to do; get rid of the “little guys” as fast as possible so that we had time to create & nurture “personal” relationships with the “whales” (i.e., the big spenders).

For the people in that upper 20%, this system works out pretty good; they have direct access to real people, their phone calls are returned quickly, and things actually happen if & when they complain.

But for the rest of us – the average consumers that make up the other 80% – it’s not so much fun. We have to call 800 numbers, navigate phone trees, wait on hold for minutes or even hours, and, in many cases, simply get pushed to conduct all of our inquiries through a cold, impersonal on-line interface.

If it sometimes feels like no one really wants to help us, it’s because no one really does.

Looking at all of this from a strict business perspective, it does make sense. However, there is an extremely important element that gets overlooked when business is conducted in this manner: the human element.

What I mean is that there is a certain human dignity that each and every one of us deserves to have, and by submitting ourselves to companies who view us as no more than an account number, credit card swipe, or line item on a spreadsheet, we deny ourselves the privilege of that most basic right: to be treated like a human being.

When dealing with a large business, it’s hard to get around that. But when dealing with a small business – a local business – it becomes a whole lot easier.

If I have a question about my insurance, for instance, I don’t have to dial an 800 number and follow the directions of an automated attendant. I know my insurance agent personally; he lives and works here in Liberty. I can call him up directly, stop in to speak with him face to face, or even walk down the street and knock on the front door of his house.

The local grocery store down the street from my home started carrying Altoids 5 years ago simply because I told them I would buy them if they did (I've been a loyal customer ever since).

Doing business locally has a different feeling, and it’s a good one.

I like the way it makes me feel when I walk into a local business and everyone there knows me personally. I appreciate the fact that when local business owners ask me a question, they really want to know the answer. And there’s something genuinely pleasing about seeing people that I do business with everyday also attending church with me on Sunday mornings.

They’re my neighbors. They’re my friends.

I understand that in the grand scheme of things I am not that important, and I also realize that I will probably never be a “whale” on any business’ top “20 percent” list. But I also know that when I do business locally with people I know and trust, they never treat me as if I were something trivial.

I’m important to them, and that’s important to me.

So treat yourself to some human dignity this week; Shop local. Be local.

Monday, February 7, 2011

How a Bailout Works

Note: I found this fascinating anecdote posted as a comment to an online news article; the author is unknown. I took the liberty of modifying it to reflect a U.S. setting rather than European one. Conceptually, it reminds me very much of M.C. Escher’s “Waterfall” lithograph, except that if “Waterfall” is simply an illusion, how is it possible that the below could be “real”?:

The rain beats down on a small Kentucky town. The streets are deserted. Times are tough. Everyone is in debt and living on credit.

A rich New Yorker arrives at the local hotel, asks to view its rooms, and puts a $100 bill on the desk. The owner gives him a bunch of keys and he goes off for an inspection.

As soon as he has gone upstairs, the hotelier grabs the bill and runs next door to pay his debt to the butcher. The butcher hurries down the street to pay what he owes to his feed merchant. The merchant heads for the bar and uses the note to pay off his tab.

The bartender slips the note to the local hooker who’s been offering her services on credit. She rushes to the hotel to pay what she owes for room hire.

As she puts the $100 bill on the counter, the New Yorker reappears, says the rooms are unsuitable, picks up his $100 bill, and leaves town.

No one did any work. No one earned anything. Everyone is out of debt. Everyone is feeling better.

And that is how a bail-out works.

Monday, January 31, 2011

USAD Debate Hits Wall

WASHINGTON - In the small but controversial world of men’s problems, a new menace affecting over 90% of the male population has recently pushed erectile dysfunction aside to become the prominent topic of the day. The issue? Urine Stream Accuracy Disorder, commonly referred to as USAD.

While the issue is not a pretty one, it is widespread, and sources say it has existed in relative obscurity for decades. “The problem has always been there,” said longtime urinal user Kent Shute, “but up until now, nobody wanted to talk about it. It’s just something we all wished would go away by itself.”

USAD is a disorder which causes men of all ages to relieve themselves on the walls next to, above, or even underneath bathroom urinals. But while everyone can agree that the problem exists, there is huge debate as the to actual cause of the malady. In one corner is the healthcare industry, which insists that USAD is a biological condition easily treatable with prescription drugs.

Just last year, pharmaceutical giant Plaxico-Burress, Inc. received FDA approval of it’s new super pill “Tak-āme!”, the first medical approach to combating USAD. But public acceptance has been slow, due in part because initial marketing efforts were directed at the wrong demographic; women between the ages of 18 – 45.

“That problem has been corrected,” said PBI Chairman Tony Bruschetta. “We cleaned out the whole marketing department. Whacked ‘em all.”

But while PBI may have cleared that particular obstacle, what they haven’t yet overcome is the other reason for lackluster sales, namely the severe side-effects associated with Tak-āme!, most alarming of which is permanent blindness in over 16% of those treated, a condition which many think actually exacerbates the problem of urine stream accuracy. PBI has refuted the claims, saying the numbers are inflated, and has taking legal recourse in it’s effort to fight what it calls “a smear campaign”.

“It’s all smoke & mirrors,” Bruschetta said. “Nobody knows how many of those guys were blind in the first place. It’s not something we checked upfront. And even if those numbers were correct,” Bruschetta continued, “it certainly doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of Tak-āme! on the problem of urine stream accuracy disorder. Blind or not, guys hit the target. Our product works, and we’re confident that people are going to start forking over the cold hard cash to get it.”

On the other side of the USAD controversy is the International Coalition of Urinal Providers who counter that USAD is not a biological problem at all, but is instead due to engineering defects in urinal design.

“If you look at what’s out there today,” says I.C.U.P. spokesman Seymour Butts, “what you’ll see is that there’s no standardization. You’ve got [wall urinals of] different shapes, different heights, different materials, different colors; it’s just insane. And don’t even get me started on troughs. How’s a guy supposed to handle all that and still be able to concentrate?”

However, Butts admits that while all member organizations of the I.C.U. P. may concur that standardization is the key, there is discord within the group when it comes to agreement on a comprehensive solution. Some industry insiders think that special UWP’s (urinals of wide proportions) will relieve 95% of the problem, while others argue that only a combination of UWP’s coupled with other devices such as self-cleaning floor grates will be truly effective.

Also engaged in the fray are service organizations such as Gentlemen’s Helper, LLC, who argue that labeling USAD as either a simple biological or mechanical issue is a rush to judgment.

“It’s a behavioral condition,” insists GH president Lucy Cannon. “There’s just no quick fix for this type of thing, and we certainly don’t intend to provide one. We’re in this for the long haul.”

What GH proposes are specially trained on-site bathroom consultants, whose services range from simple recommendations & tactical advice, to actual “hands-on” assistance for those suffering from advanced stages of USAD. But while behavioral counseling holds promise to many, most analysts think these guys are way out.

As the controversy continues to rage and a real cure remains as of yet just a distant hope, the vast majority of men seem to be content just with that fact that the topic is finally getting some attention.

“People suffering with USAD are just like everybody else,” concluded Shute. “We just want to be able to pee straight.”

Rest assured, Mr. Shute, anyone using a public toilet wants that for you too.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pole Position

If you love to speculate as I do, here’s something that you might find worthwhile to consider. As a lot of my personal speculation has a tendency to do, it involves the merging of science and religion, but even if you don’t subscribe to “God”, you may still find it an intriguing topic.

Scientists have discovered that the North Pole is on the move, and they’ve been tracking its advance for several years now. Not only is the position of the North Pole moving (which is pretty fascinating all by itself), but its rate of travel is actually speeding up.

Take a look at the below National Geographic article from 2009:

North Magnetic Pole Moving Due to Core Flux
"The magnetic north pole had moved little from the time scientists first located it in 1831. Then in 1904, the pole began shifting northeastward at a steady pace of about 9 miles (15 kilometers) a year.

In 1989 it sped up again, and in 2007 scientists confirmed that the pole is now galloping toward Siberia at 34 to 37 miles (55 to 60 kilometers) a year."

Maybe it’s just me, but I sure think that fits the definition of “fascinating”. I mean, how often do you hear scientists use the term “galloping” as a description?

As interesting as this documented phenomena is all by itself, however, and despite its possible contribution to noted weather pattern and ocean current changes currently being attributed to “global warming”, I can’t help but wonder if it is part of something even bigger.

By “bigger”, I mean something that very few people would think of in the first place, and almost nobody would even begin to believe could be included within the realm of realistic possibility.

But isn’t that what makes speculation fun?

So there’s the documented science; now switch gears with me for a minute.

There’s an interesting and entirely ridiculous passage in Revelation where John is describing (as best he can) a vision he is seeing of the future.

It’s important to remember here that John is not a “high-tech” guy. He lived 2,000 years ago; he has no idea what weather satellites, carbon dating, or combustion engines are. He’s never surfed, tweeted, or emailed. Submarines, aircraft, and microwave ovens are beyond the borders of his imagination.

If we are to believe what he wrote in Revelation, he’s being shown a vision and simply describing it in the best way he can with the knowledge that he has.

So with that in mind, here’s the passage in question that I’m referring to:

“and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. The sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.”
- Revelation 6:13-14

Like I said, pretty ridiculous.

We know today – obviously – that there’s no way that the stars could ever fall to the earth. It only takes a cursory reading of that passage to understand that John has no idea what stars are, or how big they are, or that they’re all varying degrees of distance from the earth (and literally “astronomical” distances at that).

Ridiculous. Dismissed. A “busted” myth that doesn’t even merit a test.

Or is it?

Granted, if John is thinking the way we think today – with the knowledge that we have today – it would be. But remember, John doesn’t know what we know; he’s only writing what he sees in the best way he can with the knowledge and understanding that he possesses.

Imagine this as a possible hypothesis for what John is seeing in his vision: John is looking out at the Southern horizon at night when suddenly the earth starts to quickly rotate directly back towards him.

What would he see?

Because he is standing on the earth in a fixed position to the horizon and because of his limited knowledge, it would appear to him that the stars in sky – all of them – were falling towards the horizon. Falling to earth.

And if the earth did actually rotate quickly in that manner, could we expect the atmosphere to undergo violent changes (perhaps clouds “rolling up like a scroll”) as the earth spun inside? And would not every mountain and island truly be in a different position?

Whoa. Not quite so ridiculous anymore, is it?

Of course, for all of that to occur, the earth would need to physically rotate very quickly, like what might occur if the North and South Poles were to suddenly switch positions. Is that even a remote possibility?

Going back to the above National Geographic article: “Geologists think Earth has a magnetic field because the core is made up of a solid iron center surrounded by rapidly spinning liquid metal. This creates a "dynamo" that drives our magnetic field.”

I’m not a physicist, but I have played with magnets before, and without exception, if I try to “move” the pole of a magnet using another magnet or piece of steel, the entire magnet follows the pole.

So the question is, “If the earth’s core is essentially a giant magnet, and the north pole is now moving away from the axis about which the earth spins, and that spin is what is keeping the earth in it's current orientation instead of following the pole (much like a gyroscope), what happens if & when the pole moves beyond the point that the earth's rotation can continue to hold it in position?"

Well. Like I said, it’s all just speculation.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

You Are The Market

There’s an old saying regarding consultants: “If you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.”

It’s kind of funny; and it’s kind of not.

Over the past few years there has been an increasing amount of distrust, skepticism, and anger regarding healthcare in general and vaccines in particular. More and more people have “opted out” of having their children vaccinated; a movement whose wake is creating a large divide between two sides:

People are concerned over mercury based preservatives, while the medical establishment assures us they are safe.

People are concerned about possible side effects of vaccines (including the fear that they may cause autism), while the medical establishment insists that there is no clinical proof of any such connection.

People are questioning the number of vaccinations that children now receive (an average of 36 vaccinations through age six, as opposed to only 10 in 1983), while the medical establishment assures us that they are all necessary.

Who do you believe? Who can you believe?

No loving parent would intentionally cause their children to suffer pain or to inflict a lifelong debilitating injury upon them, so with so many organizations (CDC, NIH, WHO, FDA, etc.) telling us that vaccines are perfectly safe, why are so many people questioning this authority?

Maybe a better question is, “Do they have a valid reason to question it?”

Consider the follow excerpt from the current issue of Forbes magazine (don’t ask me why I have a Forbes magazine; I’m not exactly sure either). The following is from an article about a new DNA decoding machine, with the author exploring its potential future:

“Cancer is the biggest near-term market. Today treating a cancer patient costs hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars. Some breast cancer patients already get a specialized gene test to help determine what treatment is right for them. If similar gene tests become routine for all 4 million cancer patients in the U.S. and Europe, as many oncologists expect, this alone could be a $20 billion market. Some patients might be sequenced multiple times as a tumor spreads and mutates.”
- Forbes magazine (pg. 72), Jan 17, 2011

It’s hard for me to imagine a more telling statement, and straight from the horses mouth, no less.

To me, that paragraph exposes the core problem with our entire healthcare system: it’s run by people who have no intention of being part of the solution. They understand – very clearly – that there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.

Your health is of concern to them only if it turns a dollar, and let’s face it, healthy people don’t spend a whole lot of money on healthcare; sick people do. To put the above example into perspective, if a cure for cancer were found, a $20 billion dollar market – just for this new DNA decoding technology, mind you – would disappear. That’s a lot of money.

Regarding vaccines, how big is the vaccine market today? How much money would be “left on the table” if tens of millions of people “opt out” and stop getting them? Do you think that’s not cause for concern?

We are told that vaccines don’t cause autism, but we are not told what does cause it or how to prevent it. We are given treatments for it instead. In fact, we have treatments for everything, but not too many cures. With a cure, treatment stops. And so does the money.

You might say, “Well Blaine, those are businessmen; of course they’re only interested in profit. But the CDC, NIH, WHO, FDA, etc., are non-profit government organizations dedicated to serving the pubic interest.”

On the surface, that’s true. But who are the people running those organizations? Where do the come from?

Is it surprising to know that many of the people who work in executive positions for those organizations are “subject matter experts” who used to work in the “for-profit” healthcare field? Is it also surprising that many of them return back to the “for-profit” healthcare field when they leave those organizations?

Isn’t there a potential conflict of interest in that?

Upton Sinclair was quoted as saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

I would also suggest that it is difficult for a business to find a cure for a disease when the very existence of their business depends upon not having one.