Month: June 2011

Twitter Updates for 2011-06-17

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Twitter Updates for 2011-06-16

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Green Scolding and Media Victim Blaming

Dracula Lurks in Your Set-Top Box –

Most Americans are guilty of a similar if less costly squandering of
energy when it comes to their cable or satellite TV boxes. A new study
released on Tuesday by the National Resources Defense Council shows that
set-top boxes in the United States consume nearly as much energy when
not in use as when they are on, costing a cumulative $2 billion a year.

Dear media, let’s break down the choices consumers have with regards to set top boxes:

  1. Not get one, and hence lose access to encrypted channels, digital cable, etc, which are now de rigueur
  2. Get one, and unplug it every time, which means reaching behind (as you kindly mention), unplugging, and waiting for restart, etc. My Telus box usually takes a couple of minutes at least to reinitialize, and behaves a bit weirdly for another minute afterwards. So how many people will do this?
  3. Be scolded by you for not being environmentally friendly.

Now, let’s see what would happen in a real, and properly regulated market.

  1. There would be little connection between the set top box and the content. You would get a box, or use your computer, and just put in a card from your cable company for decryption. While cablecards kinda exist, the reason you haven’t heard of them is because cable companies want you captured by their expensive hardware. separate the two, box manufacturers are free to sell you fancy boxes like this one that can manage all your media, have a friendly interface, cost less, look cool, and consume less energy, and can use all these as marketing points.
  2. There would be sensible regulation on ALL electric devices to include standby mode, with automatic sleep mode. So, if something is not in use, it shuts off in 15 minutes. Seems difficult? Computers do this all the time, routinely. A set top box is just an underpowered computer.

So, let’s not blame the consumer here, shall we? If anyone is guilty, it is media and telecommunication oligopolies that don’t let us actually have free choice, while simultaneously claiming that any regulation is anti-Β  free market.

Twitter Updates for 2011-06-15

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Twitter Updates for 2011-06-14

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Indian firms push down global vaccine prices – Lessons for Canada

Cheaper vaccines from India are forcing global giants to slash prices. GSK announced its rotavirus vaccines at $2.50 per dose — or $5 to fully immunise a child — in response to a current tender administered by UNICEF.The offer is a 67% reduction in the current lowest available public price.

Hindustan Times

This is good news for many reasons. Preventable diseases kill over a million people every year, and one of the biggest factors in getting vaccinated is cost. India’s healthcare spending was estimated at US$ 40 billion in 2008, going up to 300+ billion in 2023. Forty billion is less than $40 per person, so saving 7-8 dollars on vaccinations alone for every one of the 26 million children born every year is a huge deal.

Development costs of vaccines and drugs are high and success is often uncertain. Pharmaceutical companies have used this to justify government enforced monopolies and per dose prices that are sometimes a 1000 times higher than the incremental cost of production. While this makes for good profits, it means severe lack of access in India, many African countries, and many excess deaths that could have been prevented. For years, India had what was called a process patent, not a product patent, which meant that if you could make a drug with a slightly different process, it would not get patent protection any more. How did this help India?

  1. Affordable drugs – Indian companies could make and sell drugs at a fraction of the cost without paying for drug development.
  2. Pharmaceutical Industry – This enabled the industry to grow and mature.

Of course, this also meant that India was considered an outlaw, and Indian pharmaceutical industry came under great pressure from the WTO to tighten patent laws, which it did. At the time, the concern (rightly) was that tightening patent restrictions would harm India’s pharmaceutical industry and reduce access to drugs. Has this come to pass? In some ways, yes. But the Indian pharmaceutical industry has also matured, and with government help, has been able to do its own development, clinical trials and production (which it was always good at). The focus on tropical diseases like rotavirus also means that US, European Companies, which have since moved away to treating chronic conditions like high cholesterol, erectile dysfunction, etc., have much more competition in the tropical diseases area and cannot charge premium prices to poor people any more.

So dear Canada, while you are negotiating with Europe about “free trade”, and trying to give European companies much greater patent protection for their drugs, know that this will very surely raise costs in the short term. Two important questions:

  1. Will Canada’s drug companies benefit?
  2. Will Canada’s consumers benefit?

Um, let’s take a look at Canada’s top 10 in 2009:


Rank Leading Companies Country Market Share (%)
1 Pfizer US 13.4
2 Apotex Canada 7
3 AstraZeneca UK 6.6
9 Merck US 6
4 Johnson & Johnson US 5.3
6 Novopharm (Teva) Israel 4.2
7 Novartis Switzerland 4
5 GlaxoSmithKline UK 4
8 Abbott US 3.9
10 Roche Switzerland 3.1
Source: IMS Health

There is one Canadian company in the top 10, and four European companies. Our pharmaceutical industry is not well positioned to be independent, or work to reduce Canadian drug prices, especially if laws strengthening patent protections for European companies come into effect. This will serve to weaken Apotex, and Canada does not have a big independent pharmaceutical company network born out of years of “isolation” to take advantage of any competition, or competitive advantages. So, while patent “reform” seems to not have hurt Indian industry as much as feared, it sure will hurt Canadian consumers.


Numbers, policy and advocacy

I got into a twitter discussion with Andrew Leach, who writes thoughtfully about energy policy and economics at his blog and occasionally for the globe and mail. The topic of discussion was a number put up by Bill McKibben of stating the following:

By some calculations, the tar sands contain the equivalent of about 200 parts per million CO2

Now this was a throwaway line in an article warning us that the Obama administration was not doing anything to stop runaway carbon emissions from coal and petroleum. But Prof. Leach made the point that this was a bit dishonest because at the current (and future) rate of oil extraction, it would take over 1500 years, and wasΒ  ridiculous. But let’s look at the calculation itself. 200 ppm seems like an outrageously large number. After all, the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 393 ppm. Is Bill McKibben actually saying that the taroilsands (I can’t pick on tar vs. oil, and I will campaign for taroil) can contribute half of what’s currently in the atmosphere? That can’t possibly be true. I mean, it is a huge project and all, but still, only 6.5% of Canada’s emissions in 2009.

But, if you follow the mathematics:

  1. 1.75 trillion barrels of bitumen in place , as opposed to the 10% of that deemed recoverable in 2006 assuming 2006 prices and current technology.
  2. One Barrel is approximately 0.5-0.7 metric tons CO2 if you take into account both the production and the combustion. Note that there is a lot of uncertainty in this estimate because most of the data come from the Canadian and Albertan governments, and from the producers themselves, very interested parties. Let’s use the 0.7 for an upper end.
  3. 2.13 GT Carbon emitted adds 1 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere.

This gets us to approximately about 160 ppm. Note that the 0.7 MT of CO2 uses a number for land use that takes into account the current devastation of the boreal forest and peat bog. If all the oil needs to get out of the taroil sands, the land use number would explode and likely account for the remaining 40 ppm. Anyway, a rough calculation puts the 200 ppm number in context.

But it is an unrealistic number, because taroilsands extraction is very energy and water intensive, time consuming, and promises to remain that way. Barring some magic technology that makes cheap energy possible, in which case, we’d just use that and avoid all the mess, we won’t ever get to that number.

To summarize, 200 ppm is a reasonably accurate mathematical calculation that is wildly out of context. Sounds familiar?

The larger point is that advocates of all stripes, politicians, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, industry interest groups, corporations, and organizations pushing against them use numbers to make things sound scary and big. People who rail against government spending routinely talk about Canada’s deficit being in the billions of dollars, but when we look at it as a deficit/GDP ratio, the numbers are under control, and there’s no need to panic. In advocacy, it’s great to find a number that makes a fantastic point, somehow to bring a message home. I am sure you remember this one in the wake of the BP oil mega spill. Businesses do this all the time as well, with much greater success. I’m sure you’ve heard this trope about small businesses being the engine of job creation based on just the gross number of jobs they create. Yes, but they’re also the engine of job destruction because they go under a lot, but we don’t see that often.

As someone who has all their training as a scientist, and who does not like numeric misleading, being an activist/advocate is tricky. You work with people who are (rightly in many instances) trying to fight bad policy, and bad outcomes. The taroilsands are terrible, especially given that we’re cooking the planet and we’re deliberately spending billions of dollars investing in them. Regardless of whether they’re going to be responsible for 20 ppm, or 200 ppm, the trajectory of investing in an especially inefficient fossil fuel extraction when we should be phasing out all fossil fuel use is the big egregious wrong here. You are also trying to influence a public that finds it very hard to put numbers in context. No one will ever see a billion dollars, there’s no perceived difference between a million barrels and a trillion barrels, it’s all big numbers! So, the temptation is to use big numbers to scare people. I can understand how that happens, but I can’t bring myself to necessarily be okay with it. I will tolerate it, I guess, because the corporations, governments who produce the raw data underlying these numbers know what they mean, but distort them continuously to serve their agenda, and the media, some of whom are number literate abet this misleading. So some push back is necessary, but I will roll my eyes when it happens.