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Monthly Archives: October 2015

When was the last time an argument changed your mind?

I mean, really.

Imagine you are watching a debate for the presidential candidates and you go into the debate with certain opinions on how things should be run – say: tax code. Then, after sitting and watching the candidates outline their rationale (right?! I know I’m reaching here) you think to yourself, ‘huh. Well, that guy just changed my mind.’

Does this ever really happen?

Fairly certain this guy has never been persuaded to a different opinion

Fairly certain this guy has never been persuaded to a different opinion

Can people who believe in a ‘flat tax’ be persuaded that a ‘progressive tax’ structure is more fair and more worthy of their support? (I threw in the ‘and’ there because you can be shown the rationale for something and agree with it without changing your position)

Can proponents of a ‘pathway to citizenship’ be convinced that it’s simply too impractical to actually be enacted?

Can pro-lifers be converted to pro-choice by the right argument?

(as a side note, I wrote the above statements in a completely arbitrary manner, because I recognize that people also seek out ‘echo chambers’ for their own ways of thinking, which may be a part of the problem as a whole. Anyway, I don’t mean to deter a reader because they see words like ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’.)

Kepler could have applied himself better...

Kepler could have applied himself better…

Sometimes I question whether the Greeks were just wasting their time spending all that energy thinking about rhetoric. They didn’t persuade the Romans to stay out of their lands and to not steal their whole pantheon of gods. Maybe if they spent a little more time practicing their phalanx formations and a little less worrying about whether there was really a place filled with Perfect Forms (I’m looking at you, Plato) that we vaguely remember from before the time we were born, they might have effected a more sturdy border guard.

Nevertheless,

I changed my mind today about something. (I’m still working on changing it about some other things that would make my life easier, but I’m off to a good start) I got an email pointing me to the following post by Brett Berry on Medium this morning.

https://static.medium.com/embed.jsWhy 5 x 3 = 5 + 5 + 5 Was Marked Wrong
My first reaction was to be upset with the teacher who gave this kid points off for correct answers. I opened the article in order to satisfy my own desire for hearing an echo chamber of my thoughts only to find that the author took a different stance.

I kept reading because I was determined to write a comment to express my ire – but, you know, wanted to make sure that I could point out the best examples of the author’s flawed thinking first. I first saw that he was making a reasonable argument, but felt like it was still wrong. Then I saw how his examples supported his way of thinking and was starting to lament that he was making it more difficult for me to undercut him. Finally, he added that, depending on the order that things were taught, the answer could be considered correct under some circumstances, but that it was better to teach the meaning of the maths stepwise in order to law the proper framework for future lessons.

I give up. You win, Math Guy.

Not only did you change my mind on this issue, but you also laid the framework for me to re-examine my whole approach to Common Core.

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Posted by on October 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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A Short Film About Adjunct Educators

I just stumbled upon this short film today. It discusses the issue of adjunct instructors teaching at community colleges and even state universities. If you are unaware of what an adjunct is, it’s a part time teaching position that pays instructors on a per-course schedule. Taking an adjunct position in the past was a mixed blessing for me. On the one hand it enabled me to step into a teaching position with little barrier to entry, but on the other, the pay is extremely low and jobs come with no benefits.

To make matters even more complicated, the people for whom I was directly working had no power to alleviate this situation as they were mandated to schedule and fill certain courses without the funding to do it properly (by that, I mean with full time faculty). While I was settling for a sub par wage, they were dealing with the uncertainty that their instructors would come back for another semester. In fact, since most contracts were not finalized until halfway through the semester or later, it is not unreasonable that an instructor might back out of teaching a month or two into a course in order to take full time employment somewhere else.

Given this situation, very few instructors are able to support themselves on these wages. Those who try, struggle. Most only teach because they enjoy it. So, the next time you enroll in a college / university class and are writing a good-sized check, remember that your education is being provided by someone’s hobby and hope that their interests don’t suddenly change.

The film, Professors in Poverty:

After the film, check out the website to learn what you can do to effect change.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Back from the Dead

Halloween seems like a good time to resurrect old blog posts that haven’t seen the sunlight for several years. Creeping out of the tomb is my first blog post about Genes, DNA, Memes, and GMO foods. Rather than post it here, I decided to post it over on my Medium site to see if it can catch some new eyes.

Take a look: Linked Memes

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Skinny on Cancer Immunotherapy: focus on CAR T Cells

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 9.47.44 AMOne of the more interesting modern therapies being used to fight cancer aims to coax, or engineer a patient’s own T Cells to fight disease.
In very basic terms, the principle is not dissimilar to vaccine strategies used against infectious disease. That is, they direct and boost the patient’s immune system against target cells. One reason vaccinations have been so successful in fighting disease is that they leave much of the hard work to nature – the same nature that has been keeping you and your ancestors healthy enough to successfully reproduce for millions of years. Give the immune system a push in the right direction with a well designed, safe vaccine and the body does the rest leading to (at least theoretically) life-long protection. At this point, the most limiting factor to how long protection lasts is because we live so much longer than humans have ever lived before.

William-Coley_206x236Immunotherapy against cancer has been an area of interest since the 1890s, when William Coley observed that cancer patients who had infections at the site of surgical resection fared better than those without infections. Rather than dismissing this observation as uninformative, he speculated that the immune system plays an active role in preventing or regressing tumors.

In fact, the immune system is constantly performing ‘immune surveillance’ to prevent newly-generated cancer cells from developing into tumors. Direct evidence for this involves ‘knocking out’ elements of the immune system and watching for cancer. As predicted by the theory, immunodeficient animals develop spontaneous tumors at a higher rate, and earlier than do immune-competent animals.

The pudding: (from : http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1857231/)

Evidence for Immuno Surveillance

Evidence for Immuno Surveillance

But vaccinations used against infectious diseases are given before the patient is infected (known as prophylactic vaccination).

How can we immunize people against all the cancers that may crop up in all their various forms?

The answer is – we don’t. In the case of cancer, we perform vaccinations ‘therapeutically’, or after disease has started. Otherwise there really would simply be too many possible targets.
So, we wait, and help the body to fight the challenges that actually do arise.
A number of methods have been developed and tested to accomplish this, here, I want to specifically address a personalized therapy that takes cells from the patient, ‘aggravates’ and expands them, and then re-infuses them into the same patient.
Currently, there are several ways this is being done with various outcomes.

One method involves immunizing the patient against killed cancer cells isolated from the themselves (via surgery), then harvesting the reacting cells and expanding them to numbers much higher than those reached in vivo, and then re-administering to the patient as a jump-start to immunity. The advantages are that these immune cells are ‘self’ and therefore do not have to be ‘matched’ to the recipient a la transplantation surgery. It is also possible to remove any regulatory cells (T regs), that often impair immune responses, prior to re-administration.
A more engineered response has been investigated by investigators such as Carl June, of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. These cells, known as CAR T Cells express ‘Chimeric Antigen Receptors’ directly target tumor cells using transgenic antibodies that incorporate the intracellular signaling domains of up to three immune-activating receptors. See the illustration below for details of this receptor’s design (taken from ‘Breakthroughs in Cancer Immunotherapy webinar by Dr. June )
Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 7.20.04 PM
In the case of CAR T Cells, most have been made to fight B Cell Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (B Cell CLL). These cells are a good test case for the technique for a number of reasons, including the fact that they uniformly* express a marker called CD19 on their surface and also because they are a ‘liquid tumor’ – meaning that the cancer cells are individual cells moving through the body (at least many are). Treatment of solid tumors can bring added complications such as the need to infiltrate the tumor in order to find target cells.
As I said, CD19 is a common protein expressed on these cells. Therefore, at least the CAR receptor part is standardized between patients – this is the piece that is added to cells transgenically so that they will bear a receptor known to engage the target cells with high affinity. Because it must be added to the patient’s own cells, this is accomplished using a viral vector that infects the T Cells in culture and provides the DNA required to make the receptor. (In case you’re worried about the virus, these are engineered to only infect the first cell they encounter, they cannot reproduce themselves and continue an infection)
So, let’s walk through it:

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 7.20.04 PM
1. Blood cells are isolated from a patient
2. T Cells are purified (i.e. isolated)
3. T Cells are infected with virus in culture.
4. T Cells grow up with the chimeric antigen receptor expressed on their surface
5. These cells are then re-injected into the patient via I.V. drip over about 30 minutes time.
6. Let the cells do the work

Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 10.33.53 AM
This therapy has an impressive track record so far with studies with success rates from ~60%- 90% of patients responding and remaining disease free for years (Maude et al).
Following the initial infusion of cells, CAR T Cells proliferate in vivo to very high numbers and can even form immunological memory cells to come to the rescue in the event of a relapse.
So, what next?
A number of startup companies have emerged to tackle the logistics of bringing this type of therapy – an extreme example of personalized medical care – into being. Unlike traditional drug therapies where a single compound is mass produced and distributed world-wide, each patient must have their own cells processed and returned to them for infusion. This therapy is much more of a service, and as such, will require physical locations across the country that can manage the handling of cells.
The up side, however, is potentially transforming fatal diseases into manageable ones with a high quality of life after therapy.
Just ask Emma:
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*Well, most do, anyway.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Read this book

51PyX60-j3L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_I just finished Ross McCammon’s ‘Works Well With Others’, which is an easy, fun read with a lot of practical advice that beats the hell out of the typical ‘self-help’ book. It could easily have been titled ‘Get over that nagging impostor syndrome, and learn to look people in the eye and not take yourself so seriously,’ but his title is shorter, so it’s easier to find on Amazon.

McCammon is a senior editor at Esquire magazine who describes himself as wearing a perpetual scowl and a penchant for under dressing for that key interview. (Note: shirt + Tie – blazer or jacket = Walmart department manager) Nevertheless, he churned out this lighthearted look at life and sports a natural smile on the back cover leaf that makes you think he’s full of it.

By the way…

Today’s the future – well, ‘The Future 2’

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 6.01.31 PM

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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VW in Detroit?

This American Life just solved Volkswagen’s Branding PR debacle free of charge.

I’ve been thinking about VW’s diesel fraud a lot lately. Why? Because I was one of the VW faithful – one of the tribe. I drive a VW Jetta TDI and have felt betrayed by a friend. And every day that I drive my car I wonder if the person behind me at the stoplight is looking at the “TDI” emblem and shaking their head thinking ‘you poor sap.’

My interest has also been sparked by attending some Branding Seminars at our local business center, The Enterprise Center of Johnson County, and following classes on Marketing and Branding on Coursera, specifically ‘Brand Management: Aligning Business, Brand and Behavior, by the London School of Business’ Nader Tavassoli.

For Tavassoli’s class we had an assignment where we were to look at a brand we were interested (typically that of the company you work for, but in my case, VW) and ask people what they think of the brand in one word (apparently a mantra of Brand managers is: Distill, distill, distill). Fortunately for me, I don’t even have to go looking for answers. Every time I open the paper there’s an article like this one on the correction that VW is going to be using in new cars going forward. Every time I listen to the news on the radio, I hear reports like the All Things Considered report I mentioned in my last post.

So, what words are people using today to describe Volkswagen? Fraud. Liar. Arrogant. Mistrust.

What other companies have faced PR debacles like this and survived (or not) in the past?jack

  1. TylenolI talked about this one before. The message here being that if you get in front of the problem and make your product even better than before, you can come out on top.
  2. Ford Motor Company – Remember the Pinto? The New Yorker just did a brilliant piece in The Engineer’s Lament.
  3. Nixon – well. There might not be a lot to learn here, but the country did recover once Tricky Dick resigned. Sometimes heads have to roll.
  4. Jack in the Box – This one got used in the This American Life piece – and, I’m not sure if I can really get behind their decision to take the offensive. Let’s just say that there are various solutions to any given problem.
  5. Bridgestone Tires – Tread separation led to as many as 200 deaths and 700 injuries.
  6. GM, Ford, and Chrysler CEOs– We learn that sometimes it’s a bad idea to fly your private corporate jet to Washington DC to ask for $25 Billion in bailout funds. In this case, the shaming was personal and was ‘rectified’ by driving hybrids to all future government meetings.

#6 doesn’t really fit the mold of brand problems, but it was a PR problem for these CEOs. Why? Irony. That’s why. And this is the problem that VW is facing: VW’s brand was built on Trust. When Nixon lost the country’s trust, he had to resign from office. There was no saving his brand. People like to see perpetrators pay for the problems they cause.

#1 – Tylenol. That had irony too. A medicine that kills. There was a good chance that it would be the end of that brand, but instead, they doubled down and said, ‘Not only are we going to make our product safer. We’re going to make all medicines safe.’  What could VW learn from this? Perhaps incorporating software to make the driver aware of their car’s emmissions just as many cars now show instantaneous MPG readings. Perhaps by inventing a product that can improve all diesel engines. Perhaps by bringing in a third party regulator to ensure that all VW standards are upheld across the board.

Then…

Today, while raking leaves from the front yard, I listened to the new This American Life podcast by Ira Glass that brought up the problem of VW’s brand. And, as fast as that, they solved it by going to ad execs and asking for ways to stop the bleeding of trust. 1-2-3.

  1. Invite an outside group to do some ‘All Access’ reporting on the way that VW goes to solve its problem.
  2. Crowdsource the solution – and keep their mouths shut and their ears open (my least favorite idea)
  3. Move their headquarters to Detroit, Michigan, own the problem and make a solid investment in a city that needs it right here in America (my favorite idea – it’s a big one, and costs a hell of a lot – but at least the property itself will be cheap)

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Posted by on October 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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He’s going on about branding again….

I drive a VW Jetta TDI.
The TDIs are interesting cars in the US because they use diesel engines rather than gasoline. Diesel has long been used in cars and trucks, but it was dirtier and louder than gas engines. Recently, however, diesel has made a comeback with the advent of high milage ‘clean diesel.’ VW has been a big promoter of this trend offering TDI models of many of its cars.
We’ve been happy with the performance of our car for the past six years in many ways. It isn’t loud, like earlier diesels, it gets great milage (typically around 40mpg) and it has a lot of power for a small engine.
Then the news broke.

VW was found to have manipulated its onboard computer in a manner than outmaneuvered emissions tests. How is VW going to solve this problem? This meant that it wasn’t as clean as it was thought to be and owners are now wondering whether fixing the emissions problem will hurt the milage or performance of their cars. Also, will resale values plummet?

NPR’s All Things Considered looked into this with a number of TDI owners…
http://www.npr.org/player/embed/444719948/444790918

From All Things Considered, “Volkswagen owners wonder where a fix will leave them”
Previously, I’ve talked about brand image and how this scandal will affect VW’s brand identity. Judging from the NPR clip, a number of TDI owners are struggling with the same thought. None of them – or rather, us – want to drop our identity with this brand so quickly. And this pause gives VW a moment to make it’s move to save the brand.

And, at this moment, the brand is what’s at stake. Business is important, but short term planning could kill the long term prospects for the company.  Will the company listen to short term investors that have been dropping the stock:

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 9.01.41 AMOr, will they take a long view and rescue the brand at the expense of short term profits?

In the news article above, Steve Berman is a lawyer who filed a class action lawsuit on the day of the news and has since had 8000 inquiries about the case.

Already, the window of opportunity is closing of VW. It needs to look into itself and ask, what is it about us that has made us successful? What is our brand about?
Originally conceived as a ‘car for the people’, VW offered a sturdy, dependable car for an affordable price. VW has cultured a brand over many decades to target customers who think of themselves as slightly out of the mainstream. These are customers that want their brand to be something they can be proud of – they (we) are a tribe.

The solution is for VW to own this problem.Regardless of price, it should devote itself to implementing a fix that does several things:
1) reassure its customers (the tribe) that the company will make it right . Then…
2) control emissions
3) maintain gas milage
4) maintain power
-or-
If 2-4 can’t all be done with these cars, then it should offer to take/buy back the cars (which it could fix and then resell with whatever hit to 2-4 is necessary) and replace them with a refined model that does provide a real fix. And it should do this at cost or below. It doesn’t have to be free. Killing the company doesn’t help anyone. But it should not be making money on this either. After all, the short-term stockholders are already gone. A quarter – or two, or three – without profits is acceptable in order to keep VW customers coming back in the future with the knowledge that they can rely on their tribe’s leaders to take care of them.

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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