I read blogs

Alright. I am, admittedly, not an economist or health care expert. But I’ve spent an above-average amount of time drinking with people of both persuasions. And I read the same Derek Lowe post as Megan. But I was struck with a pretty different thought as I read it, which I will now bore you with.

The question at hand is whether it would be a good idea to give the U.S. government the power to bargain on behalf of prospective drug buyers. Right now Europe may be getting a free ride thanks to the relatively high prices we pay in non-monopsonistic system, the thinking goes. Empower U.S. consumers (by, uh, de-empowering them), get them lower domestic prices, and perhaps European prices will be driven up to compensate.

Megan and Dr. Lowe both say that’s silly, and I buy their arguments — it’s more likely that the total market size would shrink rather than automatically rebalancing itself in a zero-sum manner. But Megan also says this:

What we are losing through Europe’s refusal to pay higher prices for drugs is not help covering the cost of the drugs that our buying funds; it is the never discovered drugs that a larger and more lucrative market would have supported.

So, alright, I’m willing to believe that there’s a socially optimal size for the pharmaceutical market. If the drug companies get more money they can spend more on R&D and we’ll get better drugs. Conversely, if they get less money (because we’re paying less per pill) we’ll be able to give the currently available drugs to more people who need them..

But here’s the thing: if you’re a regular reader of Lowe’s blog, you know that the drug industry has been doing terribly at coming up with useful new drugs recently. At ITP this is usually expressed in terms of concern over what big companies are going to do when their blockbuster patents expire and they have nothing to replace them with. But it also means that recently the social benefit we get from each dollar of pharma R&D has been relatively low. In the past few years a lot of new drugs have proven to be dangerous, or less useful than the ones they were supposed to replace, or have failed in the final stages of the regulatory process.

The line about drug companies profiting off of publicly-funded research is a canard — Lowe has convincingly explained this again and again. But all the indications are that the admittedly intensive process of turning “basic research” into usable drugs has been working less well than usual recently — from failed inhaled insulin to cholesterol-lowerers that don’t affect artery blockage to weight loss pills that make patients want to kill themselves, it’s been a pretty dismal period. So dismal, in fact, that at the moment it seems that, if anything, we’re spending too much money on drug development — if there’s a real tradeoff here, it sounds to me like we should be foregoing some of that expensive and currently unproductive research in favor of buying generic statins by the truckload.

If the progress of the related science occurs in a perfectly linear order then I suppose there’s an argument for pushing through this dry spell. But it seems likely that it doesn’t; that instead the aforementioned “basic research” informs the drug development process, and that if we just sit back and wait for a bit we might end up getting more bang per buck across time.

UPDATE: Also, this seems crazy:

So the most probable outcome of introducing monopsony power here [in the U.S.] is that the market for drugs shrinks to the point where it will support few-to-no new drugs.


pull shapes remix

I’ve been meaning to link to this but kept forgetting: RAC has a characteristically catchy remix of “Pull Shapes” that’s worth a listen. I know, I know — why touch a song that’s already so great? Well, they wisely don’t do too much to it. But it’s at least a somewhat novel take on a well-worn track, and may be marginally more dance-friendly by virtue of having fewer slow parts (although clearly I’m not really qualified to judge).

Unfortunately the song doesn’t seem to be available anywhere except iMeem (I tried to buy it! Honest!). I can vouch for this software, should you want to grab the mp3 from their streaming-only clutches.

cablemodem bleg

The Comcast installation guys came by yesterday, and I said a sad goodbye to our beloved DirecTivo. The Comcast DVR seems pretty lame, but it’s indisputably hi-def. I can see the marks on Michael Chiarello’s cutting board! I can see the mottled horror of Fox 5 special correspondent Logan 3! It looks great, even if the software doesn’t have a very consistent idea of what the “back” button is supposed to do (you might think the answer would be “go back”, but that just betrays your lack of imagination).

We haven’t got internet service yet, though. I thought I had a cable modem kicking around, but so far haven’t been able to find it. The Comcast guys offered me a modem with an integrated router, but that would’ve cost us an extra $2 per month. More importantly, it would’ve brought the total number of active, transmitting wifi routers in the apartment up to five*. Even I realize that’s too many.

So: if you happen to have a spare cablemodem lying around that you wouldn’t mind parting with for an eBay-ish price, please let me know. I admit that I’m not too keen to begin using Comcast’s internet service after reading (and writing) so much about their Bittorrent-throttling shenanigans. But — chalk up another vote for custom Linux firmwares — my Linksys router runs iptables, which means that adding this to its startup scripts should make it ignore the forged RST packets that Comcast is using to stymie seeders. I think it’ll still be a step up from our decrepit Verizon DSL.

UPDATE: Crap, nevermind. It looks like Comcast sends reset packets in both directions, which means that iptables-based fixes won’t do anything unless they’re implemented for both you and the person with whom you’re exchanging data — and the odds of that being the case aren’t very good. Boo.

* hacked WRT54G running Sveasoft, generic Netgear WDS box, hacked Fonera running DD-WRT, regular Fonera, Comcast box

iPhone presence detection

I have a post up over at EchoDitto Labs talking about detecting the presence of an iPhone over a wifi network.

The basic idea is pretty simple: you set up your router so that it always gives the phone the same IP address (you *are* running a custom Linux firmware, right?). Then you run a script every minute or so that pings the phone’s assigned address (the script can also be run on the router). Depending on whether the ping is successful, you perform an action — in the post I just log the results and then graph them, but it’d be just as easy to have the router load a given webpage. I’m thinking that it might be neat to have my router and Emily’s router both report to this site whenever they see me. I could use that data to populate a little box on the sidebar indicating whether I’m in Philly or DC. Or at work, I suppose.

But I’m not sure what granularity I want to provide for such a display, or if it’d actually be useful to anybody. It is, I admit, pretty creepy.

NBA League Pass, from across many leagues

A couple of days ago Kriston hit me up with a question on behalf of Matt, who’s in Germany and found himself stymied by NBA League Pass Broadband’s insistence that he be in America in order to watch the games he’d paid for. I suggested he give Tor a try and hey! Somewhat to my surprise, it actually worked. For those of you facing similar problems, here’s Matt’s advice:

Tom, great recommendation on Tor. It’s not 100% perfect, but I’ve found a way to do what I need to do. The key is that you can view the Tor Network Map and monitor where the final Relay, as they call it, is located. For my specific problem I just had to make sure that last relay was in the U.S.

More specifically, to get it to work, I just had to keep trying connections until the series of relays ended in a computer in the U.S. Then I just loaded the NBA League Pass Broadband, it thought I was from the States, and I was able to launch the streaming RealPlayer app. The quality of the feed seemed to synch up with the bandwidth readings I was getting from Tor — it was still slow, mind you, but if all three of my Relays had high bandwidth, the streaming video worked fine. It also proved to be a good idea to leave the connection uninterrupted (you can switch from one live game to another normally), in case Tor switched Relays on you.

A screenshot is attached. This technique is also probably really useful when trying to stream radio over the internet. I’ve run into similar problems out here where stations weren’t allowed to stream their station outside the U.S. Don’t ask me why.

Oh, and for Tor to have been perfect, the feature I would’ve liked is to be able to specify which country was the final chain in the Relay, obviously, instead of a guess and check method.

If you’re running into similar problems, it might be worth giving this a try. But Tor isn’t anything magic. In this context it’s just an unusually slow (and unusually reliable) proxy server — it encrypts everything and sends it through multiple servers to better ensure anonymity, which slows everything down. You can try to find a single-hop proxy for better performance (be sure to pick one in the right country), but it may take some effort to find one that works: it’s safe to assume that most of the proxies on that list don’t know their systems are open to relaying traffic from the world. The proxies tend to disappear as their owners become aware that they’re being used.

In either case you’ll end up needing to edit your network settings so that they include the address of the HTTP or SOCKS proxy (depending on which type of server it is — HTTP’s more common, SOCKS can handle more types of applications). Exactly where to do this may vary. Standalone apps like Realplayer or IM will likely have their own settings. Things like Flash will probably inherit your browser’s proxy settings (here’s a handy Firefox extension for changing proxy settings quickly). In some cases you might need to hunt down your operating system’s network settings and make the change there. You can find more detailed instructions at the Tor project.

But where ever you need to make the change, it’s a useful technique to know. Proxies are the best, simplest way to hide where your traffic is coming from (from private system owners — you certainly shouldn’t count on it for anything more serious, particularly if you don’t know who’s running the proxy/Tor exit node; nor should you send any sensitive information across such a link unless using a free-of-error-warnings SSL session). Whether beating DRM, stuffing an online ballot box or leaving an intemperate blog comment, this is something that the enterprising web user will find handy surprisingly often.

we were dead before the ship even blew all its money on a useless superbowl commercial

Walking ghost phase

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The walking ghost phase of radiation poisoning is a period of apparent health, lasting for hours or days, following a dose of 10-50 sieverts of radiation. As its name would suggest, the walking ghost phase is followed by certain death.


All current medical treatments are palliative, largely pain management.

Cause of death

A painful death, marked by delirium and coma, inevitably awaits any recipient of such a dose of radiation, between 2-10 days after the completion of the walking ghost phase of radiation poisoning.

Over time a number of internet strangers have started following me on Twitter. Usually these are robots and I block them. But sometimes they seem to be humans, and in those cases I usually start following them, too, out of a mixture of courtesy and curiousity (I should clarify for any potential readers: if I have ever met you in real life, I am not referring to you).

Unfortunately, so far they’ve all proven to be truly insufferable net startup aspirants. Their tweets are filled with self-aggrandizing accounts of (unsuccessfully) pitching venture capitalists, and intense discourse about the best way to pitch Walt Mossberg (you can be quite sure none of them ever have), and whether a TechCrunch writeup is really all you need anyway.

I don’t know why I don’t unsubscribe. I’m sure I will, soon. But every time I get one of these communiques, I think about the subject of the article quoted above. They’re all doomed, but they don’t know it yet. Maybe they suspect the truth. But that’s even worse, because it means they’re knowingly spending their last days on earth in stupid, unoriginal ways. It’s like a death row inmate asking for his last meal to be from McDonald’s. C’mon, you people are supposed to be geeks! Didn’t you see how Spock went out at the end of Star Trek II? That guy had class.

libertarians under the sea

Emily, continuing an impossibly long streak of being great, sent Charles and me some Xbox games as a thank-you for the use of his car when getting her moved back to Philly for the new semester. One is “The Darkness”, which I haven’t yet played but apparently revolves around a demonically-possessed mob hitman who uses his supernatural powers to exact brutal revenge upon his enemies, including eating their hearts to increase his occult abilities (or, as summed up by Game Informer’s review: “Players are immersed in an adventure that brings out the best of humanity”).

The other game is Bioshock, which has received a lot of “Game of the Year” nods and which Charles popped into the Xbox 360 last night. It’s pretty amazing. It’s been out since September, I believe, but for those who don’t keep up with the state of the art in nerdery: set in 1960, the game begins with the player swimming toward the surface of the ocean. You emerge, gasping, amidst the flaming wreckage of a plane. After swimming into the blackness of the waves you find a mysterious tower. Inside is a bathyscope that carries you beneath the sea to a fantastic art deco city filled with super-science, Objectivist folderol and a society that’s in the process of catastrophic collapse. So far the shooter mechanics seem to be fairly ordinary (though fun!), but it’s fascinating to watch the city and its story reveal themselves. The mysterious founder, Andrew Ryan (anagram alert!) is equal parts Ayn Rand and Charles Foster Kane — it’s fantastic to listen to the recordings of his crazed idealism that are scattered through the game, even as you realize that the game’s ultimate means of grappling with his philosophy will likely involve firing rockets at it.

I spent a little time this morning googling for the inappropriately cerebral magazine articles that I expected such a pop-Libertarian exercise to spawn, but so far I’ve come up mostly empty-handed. There’s this Wired review, but it mostly makes it sound like another game where the creators have included a continuum (frequently available by pressing “start”) between obvious good and obvious evil and then called it “moral complexity”. This Onion AV Club piece makes it seem like that may actually be the case in terms of play mechanics. But the comments on this Hit & Run blog post (which points at the Onion review) make it clear that the underlying story isn’t so simplistically interpreted.

The creator of the game has given a number of interviews touching on what he thinks and intended, but I’m surprised that none of the tech-savvy Libertarian journalists I know have taken the chance to write up a review. I should say that although it seems to be a pretty fantastic videogame, I’ve got no illusions about Bioshock’s ultimate philosophical relevance — I get the feeling that most of the Libertarians I speak to consider Rand something of a weight around their necks in terms of how they’re popularly perceived, and it seems unlikely that a video game designer who explicitly bills himself as unserious will have any genuinely new ideas to contribute. But it still seems like a decent hook for an article, and a potentially excellent way to get your employer to pay for an Xbox.

DC taxis

Matt’s concerned that Mayor Fenty’s reduction of proposed metered fares for D.C. taxis will make it harder to hail a cab. I’m not so worried. Have a look at the comments in this DCist thread. It’s full of stories of cabbies refusing to take fares because of the requested destination or because a surcharge wouldn’t apply to the trip.

Now, perhaps these cabs are refusing to provide service (illegally, I might add) because they’re already perched on the brink of financial ruin, and taking anything less than maximally lucrative fares would send them tumbling into bankruptcy. But I have my doubts. By all accounts the taxi commission in this city has been unusually powerful for an unusually long time. And although I don’t know how hard D.C. cabbies work relative to their peers in other cities, I can say with certainty that cabs in Philadelphia are cheaper, easier to hail, more convenient (you can pay with credit cards!) and generally better maintained. I could be mistaken, but it certainly seems like D.C. cabs have been operating as a cartel, isolated from true competitive pressure and, in general, enjoying something of a sweetheart deal.

I admit, I’m a little hesitant to make this criticism. Although I strongly suspect that driving a taxi in D.C. is a better job than driving one elsewhere, I’m absolutely positive that being a software developer in D.C. is a better job than either. But although I’m sorry to advocate making cab operators’ lives harder, I also have a pretty strong sense of resentment over how many times I’ve emerged from a Washington taxi feeling ripped off — I’d put it at about 50% of my trips, whether from dubious surcharges, phantom zones springing to life or the driver’s insistence that he only ever carries $2 in change.

The obvious caveat to all of this is Washington’s size. It’s a small city — maybe expecting an efficient taxi system in such a small space is unrealistic. But although the city is small, the metropolitan area is large. If D.C. cabbies really can’t make a living charging New York prices, the answer is simple: start allowing Virginia and Maryland taxis into the District and, if possible, vice versa.

At that point you might have an efficiently operating market for taxi service — and at that point I think it’d be safe to start worrying about the system reacting to manipulation in straightforward economic ways. But at the moment I seriously doubt that the factors constraining the supply of taxis in this town have anything to do with price.

the writer’s strike

We’re now ten weeks in, and I have to say that I don’t think things look very good for the writer’s strike. The late night shows are back on the air and beardier than ever. The country is contemplating a canceled Oscar season, and is not happy about it. We had an understanding: citizens will be subjected to Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and jokes written by Bruce Vilanch for one (1) six hour period per annum. It’s like tossing a virgin into the volcano — a nasty business to be sure, but better than the alternative. With the telecast canceled, who knows where that banality will erupt? We’re living in fear, and all because of those greedy writers and their obsession with receiving “fair” “compensation” for their “work”.

Perhaps even more damning to the writers’ cause, American Gladiators has successfully relaunched without them — and given a beleaguered nation hope. It’s impossible to watch an episode without wondering whether any profession successfully excluded from the series’ production really has anything to do with American Greatness at all. They really do get along fine without writers: it turns out that you can just hire a few new “associate producers” from a given pile of spec scripts, tell them to do their best, and then fill in the gaps in Mr. Hogan’s dialogue with the word “brother”. Layla Ali’s lilting monotone is impossible to pay attention to anyway, and viewers can be counted on to be distracted by the contestants’ varying but always-present personality disorders. It’s a winning formula.

The strain is beginning to show in some other areas, though. Last night I saw an ad for Jessica Alba’s The Eye. When considered in the context of Eliza Dushku’s Tru Calling and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Ghost Whisperer, it seems that, as Charles put it, “All of the girls we thought were gorgeous when we were 15 are now psychic.” I’m not complaining, mind you; I’m simply noting that there’s a wide variety of wrongful-death-avenging superpowers that a writerless Hollywood is currently neglecting.


The new television has arrived, and it’s pretty cool. I’ll try not to dwell on this piece of especially conspicuous consumption, since even my gadget-addled brain is still dimly aware that doing so is kind of tacky.

I will note, though, that it’s already making me considerably dumb (UPDATE: -er! dumber! See what I mean?) . Last night I found myself watching an unusually stupid episode of an unusually stupid/successful television show — CSI. This particular episode centered around a semen-wrangling-operation-gone-awry (as they inevitably must) within the glamorous world of professional bullriding. It was immediately apparent that this is the sort of show where “character development” means “having a character grow a beard”. Worst of all, I watched it after having voluntarily given up the ability to skip commercials.

And yet! It was so entrancing. The CGI bull skeleton? Magnifique! And look, you can make out the lettering on the electrical ejaculation stimulator! How could I turn away? Who was I to think I might be able to turn away?

We settled in and ate our delivery pizza without ranch sauce, but it was not for lack of trying.