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Archive for April, 2009

With flu the incubation period ranges from 24 hours to four days, meaning people often are infectious before they have symptoms. Unless already feeling ill, the majority of people assume they haven’t been infected and behave accordingly. Perhaps, instead, they should act as though they are infected until proven wrong. If a person knows they are infected they will certainly not shake hands or kiss. They will wear a mask (masks are more effective in preventing transmission than in preventing reception of the virus) when they need to go into public areas. They will be more fastidious with this mindset than by assuming they are not sick. (It is not suggested that people stay home from work as that cure might be more harmful than the disease.) This interruption behavior could drastically reduce the transmission rates.

Changing the mindset could change the outcome.

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Dendreon has developed two interesting avenues in the fight against prostate cancer. The first is a therapeutic vaccine that in just released Phase 3 study results increased survival time by 4 months. The second is a small molecule that induces apoptosis in prostate cancer cells.

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Despite hundreds of billions of dollars appropriated for cancer research, as well as the efforts of thousands of the world’s best minds, progress in preventing or curing cancer has been almost non-existent. I find this unacceptable. We should be doing better. We need to be doing better. So what’s the problem? and more importantly, how can we fix it?

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[EDITED 05/08/2009: see here] The majority of people I’ve talked to like the idea of revolutionizing angel funding. Among the skeptical minority, there are several common objections. Perhaps the weakest is that individual angels can pick winners at the seed stage.

Now, those who make this objection usually don’t state it that bluntly. They might say that investors need technical expertise to evaluate the feasibility of a technology, or industry expertise to evaluate the likelihood of demand materializing, or business expertise to evaluate the evaluate the plausibility of the revenue model. But whatever the detailed form of the assertion, it is predicated upon angels possessing specialized knowledge that allows them to reliably predict the future success of seed-stage companies in which they invest.

It should be no surprise to readers that I find this assertion hard to defend. Given the difficulty in principle of predicting the future state of a complex system given its initial state, one should produce very strong evidence to make such a claim and I haven’t seen any from proponents of angels’ abilities. Moreover, the general evidence of human’s ability to predict these sorts of outcomes makes it unlikely for a person to have a significant degree of forecasting skill in this area.

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A friend pointed me to a doubly prescient talk given by George Soros in 1994 about his theory of reflexivity in the markets.  Essentially Soros notes that there’s feedback in terms of what agents believe about the market and how the market behaves.  Not groundbreaking, but he takes this thinking to some logical conclusions which are in contrast to standard economic theory:

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Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of the melding of the computational speed of computers with the awesome software of the human brain is one step closer. The Blue Brain Project is an attempt to reverse engineer the brain with the goal of “creating a physiological simulation for biomedical applications.”

At the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague they announced a “detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains.”

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I’m giving my “2009 Q1 award for most concise, lucid comment” to Paul Phillips for this gem:

Viewed from a thousand miles, the financial system has a incalculably large incentive to fail catastrophically as frequently as it can do so without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

As long as there is such a thing as “too big to fail” and trillions of dollars are available for siphoning, according to what logic can this cycle be dampened? Nobody has to explicitly pursue this outcome (although there are many who will) for it to be inevitable; the system obeys its own logic above all else.

[ commenting on Alfred Hubler on Stabilizing CAS ]

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