Sunday, October 02, 2005

Flu, cancer and Microsoft—the plagues of civilization

We always knew it was the little bastards’ fault—If you want to know how flu epidemics spread go visit you nearest pre-school or kindergarten. At many homes, the little tykes are simply known as the “vectors” because they are the ones who walk the viruses into the house. Now, it turns out, they are crucial to the spread of influenza. The finding could mean a change in who gets flu vaccine first. Researchers in Boston—Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital—found that flu epidemics begin with kids aged 3 to 4, sometimes as early as in late September. Like now. It then spreads a week later to the little darlings aged 0-2, and then the older kids. Adults get the spread only in November. Not only that, you can measure just how lethal the flu is going to be (pneumonia and flu deaths) in the general population by measuring the incidents in the under-5 age group. “The data suggests that when kids are sneezing, The elderly begin to die," one researcher said. Isn't that cute? That means, of course, that by watching 3 to 4-year-olds, you can see just how bad things are going to be. The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology and vastly under-reported in the media (that’s why you come here, isn’t it?), points out that the present policy is to immunize the youngest kids first. Maybe a better idea is to hit the pre-schools.

When the canary in the mine starts coughing fast—The use of PSA (prostate specific antigen) testing to detect prostate cancer is controversial, which is surprising. It has its flaws, both false positives (which could make a guy get a biopsy which, I'm told, is no fun at all) and false negatives (it fails to detect a percentage of prostate cancer), but it does tell us something useful, and while the data still is unsettled, it has to have saved lives. In recent years, the raw numbers have been subject to considerable skepticism and most attention has been placed on the movement of those numbers from a baseline. In other words, it matters less what the count is than how fast the count got there. A relatively rapid rise in number can be more important than what the number is. New research out of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston suggests that you can tell just how much shit you in after radiation and hormone therapy by how fast the PSA level rises after treatment. A rapid rise—how fast it doubles—could be a good predictor of what they euphemistically described as “clinical failure,” or more specifically, the cancer will return or spread. Patients whose PSA level doubled within eight months after treatment failure were more likely to have clinical outcomes that are unhappy. It’s published in a journal with a terribly long name but you can get it here.

And while we’re discussing cancer we might as well bring up Microsoft—Microsoft is not having a good time. Oh, they are still shovelling in profits in obscene amounts, but one gathers they are not having fun. They certainly can see some clouds out there. For one thing, the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has pulled Microsoft Office off its PCs and replaced it with open, non-proprietary software, like software made by Sun, one of Microsoft's former arch-enemies (former because they beat them to death). The state released a final version of its Enterprise Technical Reference Model on its website, announcing it will support the newly ratified Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocuments. That means, no Word—or WordPerfect for that matter. Instead, state agencies will use OpenOffice, StarOffice and IBM Workplace. Massachusetts is not the first to dump proprietary software (read Office) and the company is running around putting out similar fires all over the world. Additionally, there is growing evidence that the company’s Achille's heel is showing. The web, the technology that Microsoft at first ignored and then pulled out the artillery to dominate, is looming as its next challenge. You see, the web is capable of becoming a full-fledged platform that could eventually challenge Windows. The threat is no secret to Microsoft; one of its engineers wrote a memo five years ago warning it could happen and there are signs it is. Worse, the enemy is probably Google and even Microsoft now takes Google seriously. They ain't Netscape. And finally, no company in the world likes to dominate its environment as much as Microsoft does so imagine how pissed Bill Gates must be to: a) notice that Apple dominates 80% of the downloadable music market; b) to admit that it’s newest version of Windows (named Vista) won’t be ready for another year and even then will probably contain an awful lot of features that look an awful lot like the Mac operating system (0S-X-Tiger) I've been using for almost a year and will even look like it, and c) when Steve Jobs announces a new innovation the press goes wild, and when Microsoft does—well, Microsoft doesn’t. It reminds me of the old joke: how many French generals does it take to defend Paris? Wouldn't know. It's never happened.

L’Shana Tova—This site will be down Tuesday and Wednesday for the Jewish holidays. For those of you who are members of the tribe, may you have a sweet and healthy new year, and for those of you who aren’t, well, you go and have one too.

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