Thursday, April 20, 2006

Can you say Adalimumab?

That’s right, I knew you couldn’t!

Although most new prescription drugs have snappy brand names like Viagra, Zoloft, Effexor, and Celebrex, their generic counterparts are all but unpronounceable. Drug companies spend millions on naming their products, so this can’t be an accident.

According to the FDA, drug names should use an established stem, or group of letters, that represents a specific drug class. For example, Adalimumab, the generic of Humira, uses the suffix “mab”, which is an abbreviation of “monoclonal antibody”.

If this makes so much sense, why can’t you pronounce it? Hmmm, sounds like marketing. An impossible word is just one more reason to buy the brand name instead of the less expensive generic.

There’s a pattern to the brand names too. Marketers especially like emphatic sounding letters like X, Z, C and D. They sound high-tech and easy to remember. These names seem to imply results, but they can’t go too far. The FDA won’t approve names that promise a cure. For example, the hair re-growth product “Re-Gain” had to be changed to the less suggestive “Rogaine”. (Strangely enough, Rogaine's active ingredient, minoxidil, was first identified in rat urine.)

[This article was sponsored by STIGMATOR® (bagafacine HCI).]

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Triangle Puzzle

Here's a good puzzle.

Each of the pieces is exactly the same size in each triangle. The grid is regular and to scale. Where does the "hole" come from?

Here's the answer:
The hypotenuses of the triangles have slightly different slopes. This very slight difference accounts for enough area to leave the “missing” square.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

1492 And All That

It's about time that someone wrote a decent history of America. I don't mean a scholarly well researched history that puts things in perspective and makes sense of complicated events. I don't mean an uplifting story of the birth of our great nation. And especially, I don't mean a history that has any educational value whatsoever. No, a good history would capture the random, unplanned, and inexplicable series of events that got us to where we are today.

"The world today doesn't make any sense,
why should the past?"

American history begins.

American history begins in 1492 when an Italian named Columbus, sailing a Spanish ship, discovered the Bahamas on an expedition to India. This event is known as “The discovery of America”.

There is much confusion and controversy surrounding this simple beginning. These seemingly elementary facts are disputed by a wide range of competing groups, each claiming the distinction for themselves. In this chapter we will address and dismiss each of these claims, and establish the truth of this momentous historical event.

Figure 1, Columbus discovering America: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to Neil Armstrong on the first lunar landing.)

In the 1480's, Christopher Columbus, an Italian cartographer and sailor, developed a plan to reach India by sailing West around the earth. Experts agreed that it wasn't a very good plan but in 1492, he convinced King Ferdinand of Spain to give him support. Columbus embarked in August and after about a month sailing, he sighted land. He made landfall on October 12, discovering a tropical paradise populated by peaceful, friendly natives. This land was probably Watling Island (a godforsaken island in the Bahamas), but Columbus was completely lost, and believed he was in India.

After discovering the Bahamas, Columbus branched out and discovered Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, and most importantly, Puerto Rico. Although not really America, most historians agree that this was close enough. Had Columbus failed to discover Puerto Rico, he also would have lost out as “discover of America” on a technicality. The honor would have gone to Juan Ponce de Leon.

How lost was Columbus?

Unlike today, in 1492 most people knew that the earth was round. European trade with China and Japan was extremely valuable, but the goods had to come thousands of miles overland by camel caravan. In addition to being expensive and being very slow, this made everything smell like camels. There had to be a better route! To sail East towards the orient, you first had to travel south around Africa, then East to India. Nobody had tried it, but it was a really long trip.

Sailors realized that if you sailed West across the Atlantic, you would eventually reach Japan. They assumed there was no substantial landmass between Europe and Asia. Anyone foolish enough to try that trip would die of thirst and starvation long before they got there. They guessed it was 10,000 to 15,000 miles across the ocean. On the other hand, by Columbus's highly inaccurate calculations, it was only 2400 miles to Japan – a reasonable journey. King Ferdinand was foolish enough to sponsor the trip, and Columbus was foolish enough to try.

When Columbus reached the Americas, he thought he'd made it all the way to India. Columbus was very, very lost. He was so lost that he thought he knew where was. What's more, Columbus never figured it out. He died thinking he had discovered the route to Asia. Columbus discovered America, and never even knew it.

Native American Claims

Figure 2 Native Americans discovering Columbus: “They look harmless, but I've got a bad feeling about this.” (Strangely enough, these words are very similar to those spoken by Luke Skywalker when he first saw the Death Star.)

At the time of their discovery, several million persons inhabited “The Americas”. At the time, these people knew exactly where they were, and did not realize the significance of being discovered. Why didn't the Native Americans discover America first? To understand this requires a careful look at how history is understood and recorded.

First we must examine the Native American's claim: that they had lived here since the beginning of time, so they are the true discoverers of this great land. Although at first glance this seems like a plausible claim, the careful historian quickly sees the weaknesses of this position. First, if the Native Americans had always been here, they would be disqualified – for you cannot discover a place you have always been. To discover something, you must first go somewhere, and the Native Americans already lived here.

Perhaps the most important argument against the Native American's claim is that they hadn’t written anything down, and therefore didn’t have any history. History itself implies the continuous methodical
recording of important public events. The difference between history and prehistory is writing things down. (This was just the first in a long series of lessons where native persons learned the importance of writing things down.)

The Norwegians Want a Piece of the Action

Figure 3 The Vikings discovering America: “Hei fremmed, hvor er ølhallen?”
(Trans: “Ahoy stranger, where's the mead hall at?”)

Could the Vikings have discovered America? The Norwegians claim that Leif Ericson’s led an expedition west around the year 1000. He claimed to discover a rich land, teeming with animals and wild grape vines. He called this new land “Vinland”. It was inhabited by savages he called “Skrælings” (further evidence that Native Americans didn’t discover America). Like Columbus, the Vikings were lost - they thought they were in Greenland. Actually, scholars believe they were actually in Newfoundland, Canada.

How do we know about this? It was passed on from Norse Sagas
[Long monotonous songs sung by Norse warriors in a drunken stupor] . The Norwegian claim can also be easily dismissed. First, the Vikings also forgot to write things down so they can’t prove it (Sagas don’t count). More importantly, nobody but a few rabid Canadians care who discovered Canada.

Other claims, hardly worth mentioning

The Chinese claim that Zheng He took a fleet across the Western Ocean around 1400 AD. The Irish claim that Saint Brendan crossed the Atlantic around 500 BCE. Other claims include the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Polynesians, and even Indians [It's interesting to note that if the (Asian) Indians had discovered America, they may have mistakenly thought it was England. If they were so smart, why didn't they write it down? [If this had happened, Native Americans would have probably been called “English” instead of “Indians”] .

America - the brand

Even though Columbus gets credit for discovering America, he messed up the name. Thinking that he had discovered India, he called his discovery the “Indies”. As anybody with marketing savvy will tell you, this was a major branding mistake. Had Columbus been on the ball, he would have proclaimed this new land “Columbia” and immediately applied for a trademark.

As things turned out, Columbus lost out to another Italian named Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci didn’t get to the America until 1499, and even then, visited South America, not the real America. Unlike the secretive Columbus, Vespucci published an entertaining (and exaggerated) account of his voyage, backdating the journey to before Columbus. This ploy paid off and won him naming rights. European mapmakers read his account and decided to call the new world “America”, instead of the more proper “Columbia”. Most historians agree we narrowly avoided the humiliation of being called “Vesupccia”, and instead acquired the proud dignified title of “America” which has served us so well throughout the years.

Ponce de Leon discovers Florida

In recognition of his deeds Columbus was made an “Admiral of the seas”, and made hereditary governor of all the new world territories. Columbus was a better explorer than he was a Governor. His attempts at colonization were unsuccessful and his treatment of the natives and colonists was brutal and incompetent. The Spanish government wasn’t very impressed with Columbus’s administrative ability, and they appointed one of his subordinates, Juan Ponce de Leon as Governor of Puerto Rico.
[Ponce de Leon was second only to Cabeza de Vaca in being the explorer with the silliest name. ]

Figure 4 Ponce de Leon discovers the fountain of youth. "Yes, it is smaller than I expected. I guess we’ll have to settle for smoother, younger looking hands.”

In 1512 Columbus’ son, Diego Columbus replaced Ponce, and he found himself unemployed. The wealthy conquistador outfitted three ships, and he headed north in 1516, searching for gold, slaves and the fountain of youth . On April 2 1516 he made landfall on the northeast coast of Florida. Ponce had sound marketing sense, and named the new land “La Florida”, or the flowery place. Despite the appealing name, his expedition to Florida was not successful on any of its three objectives. One of the first things Ponce learned was that unfit for human habitation without air-conditioning.

[The belief that the fountain of youth is in Florida persists to this very day. The discovery of air conditioning has allowing millions of senior citizens migrate from Michigan and New Jersey, continuing Ponce de Leon’s quest.]

Trade with the Native Americans

Mostly the Spanish were looking to make big bucks for minimal effort. This meant stealing gold from the Indians. The Spanish excelled at this, but the Indians soon ran out of gold, so the Spanish had to explore Central and South America for more Indians to plunder.

In addition to lots of gold, the early explorers brought back many wondrous things from the New World. Among other things, they brought home such staples as corn, potatoes, peanuts, the tomato, squash, and the chili pepper. Indeed, without the new world, Europeans would never have know the French fry, corned beef, or pizza. Another critical, but underrated discovery was the hammock. This incredible piece of technology was a critical event in maritime history – enabling sailors to sleep soundly without fear of falling out of bed.

In return, the explorers introduced the native Americans to Smallpox, Syphilis, and the plague. The native Americans had few infectious diseases to trade in return, so they introduced the Europeans to tobacco.

The riches plundered from the new world made Spain the richest nation in the world. The consequences of Columbus' journey forever changed the history of Europe, and the world. Because this is article is about “American” history, we'll skip that part.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Umbrella Machine

A few years ago I was traveling in Bergen, Norway. Bergen is a beautiful city, but the weather can be, well, unremittingly rainy. There's an old expression about weather : "Everybody talks about the weather; nobody does anything about it." The Norwegians have such awful weather, they seem to have tried fixing it.

One useful innovation is the umbrella vending machine". Insert a few Kroner, and out pops a compact umbrella. (It also dispenses disposable cameras.) The only better thing would be a machine that sells dry socks.

When we left the city, we went on a railroad/ship/bus tour known as "Norway in a nutshell". For what seemed like the first half hour, there was no scenery at all - the train runs underground to avoid the snow and ice. I grumbled to my family that the tour should be called "Inside Norway." Fortunately, we finally got aboveground. The rest of the tour was spectacular.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Low-Tech Thermometer

Since man first invented shelter, no single question has occupied the human imagination as: “Do I need a coat today?”

Back in the old days, you had to poke your head outside and see for yourself. If you got cold, you needed a coat. In the 20th century the outdoor thermometer revolutionized personal meteorology by making it possible to know the temperature without risking discomfort. The thermometer provides an objective measurement of the ambient temperature, but it can completely miss on subjective factors. Wind-chill is a useful calculation, but it doesn't really capture the “brrrrrr!” factor of an unexpected breeze.

With the exception of web-cams, the Internet doesn't really help, and the cheerful icons on the local TV weather never provide the real information you need.

I prefer the low-tech "human thermometer". I look out the window. If people are wearing jackets, I wear a jacket. If they are carrying umbrellas, I pick up my umbrella. What’s it like in Moscow? The weather channel says 34º F and partly cloudy. What should I wear? The web-cam shows a warmly dressed people hurrying about their business. I'll bring my coat.
© 2008 Raoul Rubin