Turns out that Virginia Commonwealth University has a Sponsored Research Contract with the tobacco company Philip Morris. The problem is not [necessarily] accepting tobacco money for research; it’s the secrecy of the contract itself and terms limiting disclosure of research results.

What’s worse is that VCU has gone to lengths to keep the agreement secret.

Unfortunately for VCU, it’s the cover-up or appearance of the cover-up which makes this story look so bad. (Even faculty didn’t know about the significant money received by VCU from Philip Morris which funded some of their research.)

You may recall ~2 months ago, that Cornell University was in the spotlight for accepting tobacco money in funded a clinical trial on CT scanning and lung cancer. From the portrayal in The NYT, it appeared that a separate “non-profit” was established to hide the source of funds. NEJM and others were outraged that complete disclosure was not made.

At One University, Tobacco Money Is a Secret – New York Times
On campuses nationwide, professors and administrators have passionately debated whether their universities should accept money for research from tobacco companies. But not at Virginia Commonwealth University, a public institution in Richmond, Va.

That is largely because hardly any faculty members or students there know that there is something to debate — a contract with extremely restrictive terms that the university signed in 2006 to do research for Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest tobacco company and a unit of Altria Group.

Posted by: shoji | May 21, 2008

Biodegradable does not mean “green”

This CNN/Money article (The high cost of a green dream – May. 21, 2008) is about a 30-something couple in DC building a “green home”. The point of the story was a money makeover, but this excerpt caught my attention:

Seth had planned to install energy-efficient polyethylene tubing called PEX, but the plumbers who could work with the material would be too expensive. The couple had to settle for nonbiodegradable plastic pipes instead.

Though it doesn’t say it, it is somewhat implied by the context that “biodegradable plastic pipes” would be preferable to the nonbiodegradable kind. I beg to differ: who wants their pipes to degrade?

Let’s not equate “green” with biodegradable. There is great value in lasting, durable goods.

Posted by: shoji | May 19, 2008

Jet bike (not-yet Darwin Award)

I’ve been bike commuting– sort of. Riding to the local T-stop and taking the subway the rest of the way to work. It makes for a nice commute, other than the times I’ve gotten stuck in the rain.

Here’s a crazy inventor who decided to strap a jet engine onto his bicycle. I guess he doesn’t realize that you could buy a motorcycle. (Even more crazy, it doesn’t look like he made any modifications to the brakes– the old-school side-pull kind, not even mountain-bike disc brakes.)

Via GizModo

I’m all for alternative energy, however, I’m a bit leery of boastful claims to large-scale win/win technologies. In the Examiner article, below, a study showed that wind energy could be scaled in the near term to produce as much as current nuclear power plants.

But what are the unintended consequences?

Remember in the recent past how corn-based ethanol would reduce the US dependence on oil? One obvious impact has been on food prices.

Getting back to wind: How would such a large number of mega-turbines affect wind patterns throughout the US… and world? Would this impact the weather patterns? change precipitation? etc.?

Use of wind energy expected to grow dramatically – Examiner.com
To reach the 20 percent production level, wind turbines would have to produce 300,000 megawatts of power, compared to about 16,000 megawatts generated today. Such growth would envision more than 75,000 new wind turbines, many of them larger than those operating today. About 54,000 megawatts would be produced by turbines in offshore waters.

Posted by: shoji | May 13, 2008

Old school meets new school

Missile Command adapted to a wall-sized multitouch: this is a classic video game reborn with new technology. Of course, the computer graphics of the demo directly mirror the original graphics and haven’t been upgraded to the whiz-bang (sorry, bad pun) of contemporary computer graphics.

It’s interesting to see one of the cultural influences of that era compared to today: the nuclear threat is less about ICBMs and more about “rogue states”.

From Gizmodo.

Posted by: shoji | May 12, 2008

Flowering trees

Allergies have hit– thankfully there are anti-histamines, and fortunately they work quite well for me.

Nevertheless, I love the spring. The pastel colors from the flower trees have, for the most part, been replaced by the bright, young green. There are still a few trees with their flowers, and here’s one from our yard this morning.

Posted by: shoji | May 6, 2008

New Google Reader Function (updated)

I love Google Reader– I don’t know why anyone would use a reader client. (Get Google Gears if you want off-line access!)

From the ease of subscription management to tagging to sharing…

But there’s been an obvious hole in its functionality: I always wanted the ability to comment on my shared items. And the commentary was one reason I started this blog, hence the random and varied assortment of items. (I know some of this functionality is captured in Facebook, perhaps del.ici.ous, probably others, but I like the “blog” format offered by Google Shared Items.)

Yesterday, I noticed a new function on my Google Reader: “Share with Note”.

I don’t know if anyone follows my shared items (Thanks, Mom!), but I like the idea of commentary with shared items. The ability to “comment” on blogs, post reviews on Amazon.com, etc., is a real-time function that has transformed news/information. Share-with-Note puts that idea on its head: making the commenter (who shares with notes) central, rather than the story commented upon.

Will this blog come to an end? Probably not, since I’ve decided to supplement my infrequent posting with semi-regular photo posting. I also find news and ideas around the web to which I haven’t subscribed.

Which means for you Google Reader Programmers:

Please add a function where someone (i.e., me) can important non-subscribed into their Share with Notes section. A simple bookmarklet would be great.

If I’ve missed some obvious other application, Firefox Add-on, etc., please let me know in the comments.
(Easy with the fan-boy comments and flames.)

Note: Minutes after posting, I found the Google Reader bookmarklet that enables notes and pages to-be added from around the web. Check out my GReader items for short commentary!

Posted by: shoji | May 1, 2008

Factory-farming practices

It’s called “externalities”. (See news article below from the Seattle Times.)

I’m a free-market guy, but we all have to realize that some costs are not accounted for in the price of goods. Externalities are where informed policy and government are necessary; sadly it’s typically policy and government without the “informed” part.

Nation & World | Report urges huge changes to factory-farming practices | Seattle Times Newspaper
Factory farming takes a big toll on human health and the environment, is undermining rural America’s economic stability and fails to provide the humane treatment of livestock, concludes an independent, 2 1/2-year analysis that calls for major changes in the way corporate agriculture produces meat, milk and eggs.

The report, sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and released Tuesday, finds that the “economies of scale” long used to justify factory-farming practices are largely an illusion, perpetuated by a failure to account for associated costs.

Among those costs are human illnesses caused by drug-resistant bacteria associated with the rampant use of antibiotics on feedlots and the degradation of land, water and air quality caused by animal waste too intensely concentrated to be neutralized by natural processes.

Posted by: shoji | April 29, 2008

Tank Cake

When I turned three, I had a glorious fire-truck birthday cake. It was a large sheet cake decorated with colored frosting and piping.

We’ve come a long way with creations like you’d find on Ace of Cakes. But look at this labor of love: Tank Cake– the turret even moves! For next year, the master chef will have to add munitions capabilities.

via GizModo.

Posted by: shoji | April 29, 2008

Interpretations of Clinical Trial Results

Philip Boffey, editorial writer of The New York Times, authored a [mostly] thoughtful editorial on medical research and the interpretation of clinical trial results. In this case, he focused on the news reports that a landmark (and controversial) study on lung cancer screening using CT scans was funded by the Liggett Group, a tobacco company.

He does a fine job explaining control groups and the important distinction between early diagnosis vs. lengthened survival– points that are not well understood by the general public or even “experts”. (If you consider all physicians as “experts”.)

My one gripe with his editorial is on his descriptor of academic [medical] research: “pokey pace”.

The best hope for an answer to the screening puzzle lies with a large federal trial of 50,000 current and former smokers that is comparing spiral CT screening with standard chest X-rays to see which saves more lives. The National Cancer Institute needs to do everything possible to expedite the researchers’ analysis of their data. The usual pokey pace of academic research seems inadequate when many thousands of lives could be at stake. [emphasis mine]

Pokey pace implies that medical researchers are performing their duties in a leisurely manner. But there are challenges that could be explained (or at least not dismissed as inherent to medical research). Clinical trials do take work: (i) designing the clinical trial; (ii) creating the back-end systems for running the trial; (iii) enrolling 50,000 patients (who must all meet stringent characteristics such as years of tobacco use); and (iv) analyzing the data.

And one more thing: if the clinical trial of interest is looking at the most important outcome of survival data (e.g., how many years, if any, lung cancer screening would be expected on average to add to a patient’s life), then there is the insurmountable challenge of time.

Take a guess: what is the minimum number of years required to assess a five-year survival?

The pace of research, of any kind, can sometimes be pokey. Unfortunately, expediting the researchers’ analysis for this lung-cancer screening trial is a case of “hurry up and wait”.

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