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Comment Re:It runs benchmarks real fast (Score 1) 125

Have the Chinese done anything of interest with their supercomputers yet?

Not in the area of biology/biochemistry, as far as I know. Basically all of the high-performance codes used for that purpose are written in the usual handful of countries (US/EU/Japan) and/or work just as well on distributed systems, and all of the really cutting-edge work I've seen has been done in the same countries. The big advantage that the Chinese have is cheaper labor (although getting steadily less so) and large amounts of money to through around (without any accountability), but I haven't seen any results that couldn't have been obtained just as easily by Western nations. (Whereas I've seen many cases where the reverse is true, because the Western world still has technology and expertise in many fields far beyond anything in China.)

Comment Re:Supercomputers are pretty useless (Score 1, Insightful) 125

there are some things supercomputers can do well, but the same effect can be reached with distributed computing, which, in addition, makes the individual CPUs useful for a range of other things. Basically, building supercomputers is pretty stupid and a waste of money, time and effort.

That's a bit of an overstatement. There are plenty of simulations that really do benefit from a monolithic supercomputer rather than a distributed system, such as protein dynamics, global climate, etc. And the level of detail which can be attained (without approximations which diminish accuracy) increases with the size of computer.

I do think however that it's reasonable to question what the real-world impact of such systems is, and whether there are better approaches. My field is life sciences, where the applications are indeed limited. In the molecular dynamics field, for instance, specialized hardware is potentially superior for both performance and efficiency (although this has some tradeoffs too). For genomics a supercomputer is completely unnecessary, and cloud computing is quite adequate. Ditto for most other analyses of experimental data, protein design, and so on.

Furthermore, the economic impact of supercomputer simulations tends to be greatly overstated. A common example is studies of drug binding to proteins - supercomputer centers love to put out press releases about how "new simulations tell us how to cure cancer/AIDS/Alzheimer's". But anyone familiar with pharmaceutical development will tell you that lack of supercomputers is by far the least of the problems faced by the field. Simulations aren't a magical substitute for actual benchwork, unfortunately - and clinical studies are vastly more expensive than supercomputers.

The main reason why having the biggest supercomputer is a status symbol is that it's traditionally tied to nuclear weapons research, and therefore the importance to the country in general is inflated by the politicians, the media, and of course the people who build and use supercomputers. A secondary reason is that it indicates the overall level of technical competence of a country, although as noted China is still using Intel CPUs. (This is not a trend specific to supercomputing; the Beijing Genomics Institute famously uses equipment entirely designed and built in the US and UK for sequencing.)

Comment Re:In Japan?! (Score 4, Informative) 71

You seriously think the academics were more concerned about prestige than lined pockets?

You haven't met many academic scientists, have you? A long-term job at a major research institution pays enough for a comfortable, secure, upper-middle-class 1st-world lifestyle (and equally comfortable retirement), and most scientists are entirely content with that as long as their job description basically involves geeking out over obscure theory for days on end. If they wanted to line their pockets there are far better ways to do this - the people who really care about money figure out very early that staying in academia is not the most efficient way to get rich. (One of the scientists who used to work on the project I'm on ended up at Goldman Sachs.) But some academics will do pretty nearly anything short of murder for a Nobel prize if they smell an opportunity.

Comment Re:Yes! (Score 2) 143

That's not what he is taking about. Have a look at this video of Steve Jobs is hacking together a database app by some drag&drop on a NeXTStep machine 20 years ago to get a sense of what he is getting at.

It's not like the computing world hasn't made any progress, as a lot of the stuff demoed back then is now more or less common place in every OS, which wasn't the case back then, but at least as far as desktops are concerned we haven't really made much progress beyond that. Human/computer interaction is still much the same as demoed back then.

Comment Re:Read the Cited Article to the End (Score 1) 135

we are corrupt moslem third world-ers, that might be better off to just die already or to pay you for everything for eternity forgetting we already past the colonialism and whatnot for decades already

You are misrepresenting my opinion and putting words into my mouth. If you're going to attribute such views to me when I'm attempting to discuss the issue in good faith from a disinterested perspective, why should I believe anything you say about the motivations of the Indonesian (or Saudi) government?

Comment Re:Cuts both ways (Score 1) 135

it's very clear that patents and IP rights generally are behind the whole problem

I wouldn't be so sure in this case. The Saudi official who has been complaining the loudest admitted (to a journalist who actually bothered to ask pointed questions) that the Dutch claim hasn't actually held up research in Saudi Arabia. He also admitted that the most bothersome aspect of this mess wasn't the lack of access, it was the fact that the Dutch were even claiming commercial rights that should have belonged exclusively to Saudi Arabia. (And I agree to the extent that the Dutch are behaving somewhat unethically here.)

As I've pointed out elsewhere in this thread, an MTA of some sort is standard practice, and in this case, where the material is a known human pathogen, some legal documentation and waiver of liability is absolutely essential. Even more so when the sample is being distributed internationally. Any researcher who would send a virus like this to a lab in another country without some kind of legally binding agreement should be fired for incompetence. Whether IP rights are involved or not does not affect this.

I think it's only a matter of time before biotech patents really do start to inhibit potentially life-saving research; I've seen it argued that personal genomics research is essentially violating gene patents in bulk, because that's the only way they can do any research at all! If our ability to get diagnostics from genome sequencing were held up by patents, or (more likely) if the $1000 genome became a $10,000 genome again because of all of the licensing fees, that would be genuinely tragic. But I think this case is simply a multi-national spat over IP rights; it has nothing to do with actually curing the disease.

Comment Re:Patent are not holy cows (Score 1) 135

So where is the problem?

The only problem is that if someone makes money off this, the House of Saud might not get a cut. No one is preventing their government (or anyone else) from researching a cure; it's simply another excuse to bash Western pharmaceutical companies, as if any more excuses were needed.

Comment Re:Read the Cited Article to the End (Score 2) 135

The Indonesians, and the Saudis, want to put the lives of their "throw-away" citizens (third-worlders, Muslims, riff-raff, you know) ahead of the profits curing only those who can afford the cure and sucking off funds of charities to pay the margins their patents etc. add on, may provide them.

I was going to respond to this, but another comment already made my point. The Indonesians and Saudis are grandstanding, because everyone hates Western pharmaceutical companies (I don't like them either) and they make easy targets. There is still nothing stopping them from making their own cures if they so desire. I think Erasmus University is being pretty stupid about this (and probably unethical as well), but most of the controversy is being manufactured by corrupt third-world governments. As usual.

Comment Re:Bill them then... (Score 1) 135

You keep claiming this. Please provide a cite.

Actually, sorry, previous reply was incorrect - I did in fact have a citation:

Memish, in an interview with ScienceInsider yesterday, says that he had not seen the MTA himself. "I spoke to many scientists that said they were not willing to take the virus because the MTA was too restrictive," Memish says, but he did not give specific examples. "I made my comments on this assumption," he says. But Memish says that the issue has not impeded research in Saudi Arabia itself, where most cases of the virus have been found.

Memish says that his main gripe is with the fact that Zaki sent a virus sample taken from a patient in Saudi Arabia to Rotterdam in the first place and that Erasmus MC has been able to file for patents as a result. "Samples were shipped outside of the country without the knowledge or permission of the Ministry of Health and I cannot believe that any country on this planet would allow this to happen," Memish says. Zaki says that he gave a sample from the same patient to the Saudi Ministry of Health first. "They tested for swine flu and did not continue," he told ScienceInsider yesterday. Only then did he reach out to Fouchier.

all parties agree that the virus was originally isolated in Saudi Arabia. Thus, the real question behind the discussions is whether Saudi Arabia should benefit in some way from whatever comes out of research on the virus

It's refreshing to see that Science magazine actually did some genuine reporting.

Comment Re:Nevermind the epidemic (Score 1) 135

the Saudi Health Ministry said the patent was hindering the fight against the outbreak.

I repeat: they have not provided a shred of proof for this allegation. Based on everything else I've read, the Saudis probably have grounds to have the patent overturned on the basis that Erasmus obtained the material illegally, and as a national government, they can do pretty much anything they want if there is a genuine public health emergency. Everything points to the Saudis being unhappy that a) the research is now out of their control (and remember, this is a government that really, really likes to control everything that happens inside its borders, unusually so by modern standards), and b) someone else might make money off it. But complaining about this to the WHO probably wouldn't get as much sympathy as if they claim that the Dutch IP claim is preventing a cure.

Comment Re:Bill them then... (Score 1) 135

After which I can't see how anyone can claim that this MTA doesn't slow down research.

But an MTA of some sort is totally standard practice - I know because I've worked in biomedical research labs - and absolutely essential when dealing with samples of a lethal virus. Even if the MTA did not specify any limitations on commercial use, it would still slow down the transfer of viral material. Any time there's an issue of legal liability the lawyers will get involved. It's not as simple as throwing a sample into a FedEx pouch and sending it off.

Think about the fact that producing and selling a vaccine is a "commercial purpose". Pharmaceutical companies do not operate as charities.

Okay, so hypothetically, if a pharma company wants to obtain the samples and intends to profit from them, why shouldn't they have to sign an agreement like this? If they're unhappy, they can always ask the Saudi government instead. No one is forcing them to go to Erasmus, except that the Saudis seem remarkably reluctant to cede any control.

Comment Re:Bill them then... (Score 1) 135

You keep claiming this. Please provide a cite.

It's an assumption, but an entirely reasonable assumption under the circumstances. Conversely, the people complaining about this haven't pointed to a single instance where the Dutch university has actually held up research for a cure, which is what this article is claiming. MTAs are completely standard and it would be absolutely insane to instantly mail out samples of a lethal virus without some sort of legal agreement.

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