I was, of course, delighted that Columbia University invited my good friend Mahmoud to speak there, and dismayed only by the tedious introduction by President Lee Bollinger. (“Having demonstrated conclusively that today’s featured speaker is a murderous tyrant with no more right to partake in the civilized world than Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun, let me now, without further ado…”) However long your speaker’s list of achievements, crimes against humanity, etc. might be, I think talk introductions should be two minutes tops.
But since this particular event has already been covered on more blogs than the Monster has subgroups, today I thought I’d roll out an occasional new Shtetl-Optimized feature — in which, for want of anything better to blog about, I discuss some books I’ve read recently.
Like many in the US, I once “knew” that drug companies have to charge such absurd prices here because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to fund their R&D. This book reveals the hilarious truth about what drug company R&D actually consists of. My favorite examples: coloring Prozac pink instead of green, marketing it for “premenstrual dysphoric disorder” instead of depression, and charging three times as much for it. Inventing new drugs for high blood pressure that are less effective than diuretics available since the 1950’s, but have the advantage of being patentable. Proving in clinical trials that a new drug works better than an old one, as long as you compare 40mg of the one to 20mg of the other.
The book paints a picture of the pharmaceutical industry as, basically, an organized crime syndicate that’s been successful in co-opting the government. It trumpets the free market but depends almost entirely for its existence on bad patent laws that it helped write; it bribes doctors to prescribe worse expensive drugs instead of better cheap ones; it waits for government-funded university researchers to discover new drugs, then bottles them up, makes billions of dollars, and demands credit for its life-saving innovations.
Among the arguments put forward by the rare negative reviewers of this book on Amazon, the following was my favorite (I’ll let you supply a counterargument):
Who do you folks think are paid higher, scientists in the Unis and government programs, or scientists in the industry? … Marcia saying the Universities and the NIH are more innovative in developing drugs than the Pharma Industry is like saying (using sports analogy) Minor League baseball is better than the MLB. Which players do you think are paid more? Common sense my friends.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.
This book has received a lot of attention lately, and deserves all of it. The topic is: if humans disappeared tomorrow, how long would it take for the world’s forests and coral reefs to regenerate, garbage to decompose, excess CO2 to wash out of the sky, giant land mammals to reappear in North America, etc.? Of course this is just a different way of asking: “exactly how badly have humans screwed up the planet?” Weisman’s key insight, though, is that it’s less depressing to read about the world regenerating itself than about its being destroyed.
It’s hard to identify a clear thesis in this book, just lots of interesting observations: for example, that African elephants weren’t hunted to extinction whereas woolly mammoths probably were because only the former evolved to fear humans; and that, if North and South Korea ever reunite, it will be a disaster for the dozens of endangered species that now survive only in a four-mile-wide demilitarized strip between the two. The prose is beautiful throughout, and sometimes reaches heights rarely seen in environmental writing. After explaining the role of volcanoes in climate change, Weisman says: “the problem is, by tapping the Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky, we’ve become a volcano that hasn’t stopped erupting since the 1700s.”