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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 14, 2006

Vox Populi

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Posted by Derek

When I meet people with no particular scientific background and they find out what I do for a living, it seems that there are several things that they're usually surprised about. For one thing, many people seem to think that doctors discover new drugs. Some of them don't even think about the drug companies or their role - and if they do, they imagine a lot of doctors working there. Actually, as my readers in the industry can confirm, the only time that physicians really get involved is when the drug is headed into the clinic and dosing in humans. There's not an M.D. in sight while we're validating drug targets, screening compounds, and working to fix their selectivity and activity. (And there's that noisy subset that think that all drugs are discovered in NIH-funded academic labs, but we'll leave that one alone for now).

Another surprise is when people find out that I've been doing this since 1989 without getting any drug on the market. I think that some folks are just being polite when I tell that that this isn't unusual, thinking to themselves that I must be some kind of hack. But the general public has, as far as I've been able to see, a very exaggerated idea of how quick and easy it is to find a drug. When I say that if I found a wonderful new compound tomorrow that it might be on the market in about 2015, they think I'm delusional. I wish I were.

There are others. I've met people who didn't realize that patents ran out eventually, that we don't find all our drugs by computer modeling, and that we always have to run clinical trials before we can sell something new. I have to think that the industry would be in better shape if people understood what drug discovery is like. I appreciate that various ads that companies have run over the years, but it's clear that most people mentally tune them out immediately. What's unclear is how this could be fixed, because I don't see how more advertising is going to do the trick.

Comments (45) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Why Everyone Loves Us


1. Novice Chemist on June 14, 2006 10:06 PM writes...

There was a recent article in the NYT science section suggesting that science needed a Science Movie:

"...doing what "The Godfather" did for crime and what "The West Wing" did for politics, accurately reproducing the grandeur and grit of science while ushering its practitioners into the ranks of coolness."

I'm not sure I agree, but I think that this would certainly be a way of introducing 'our facts' into the media. (Al Gore seems to think so, too.)

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2. Jeff Bonwick on June 15, 2006 12:52 AM writes...

Indeed. The public suffers from two big misconceptions:

(1) The evil Drug Companies have already developed a cure for (you name it), but they're hiding it because chronic care is more lucrative than a cure. Anyone who's ever tried to keep a secret between three people should know better, but this crap never dies.

(2) The human genome was massively oversold. In software terms, it's a hex dump -- with no symbol table, no instruction set, and no documentation. It really doesn't tell us much at all. But the public impression is that now that we have the genome, all you guys do is type "Parkinson's" into Droogle and out pops the drug.

We face the same problem in software (my field). The moment you have an idea, it's already late. Expectations are infinite because intellectual labor is invisible. You look at a skyscraper and you intuitively understand why it's hard to build. But you look at the CD for your favorite operating system, and it's just impossible to comprehend that over 100 million man-hours have gone into its creation.

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3. Jan on June 15, 2006 3:32 AM writes...

Most people know how to make a working drug. It is shown to them by Hollywood et al. Just babble some gibberish, turn on your computer and mankind is saved from a supervirus in 24h...By the way: Is your analytical division as good as the guys at CSI?
You have to face it, real chemists are loosers because they are too slow. Needing days for an analysis, weeks (or months or years) for a new synthesis and decades for new drugs. Shame on us.

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4. LNT on June 15, 2006 5:30 AM writes...

I disagree Derek -- I think more advertizing is exactly what we need. The public mainly sees us advertizing our specific drugs. They need to see us advertize our business itself -- how many lives that drugs save, how many hospital stays are avoided, how many sick days are never used because of modern pharmaceuticals. They also need some basic understanding of the process of discovery & clinical trials & the failure rates. Only a MAJOR PR effort on the part of the pharmaceutical industry would be able to pull that off -- but I think they could (and should) do it. Replace half of the "direct to consumer" ads with pharmaceutical "infomercials" about our industry. Within a couple years I think people would have a much better appreciation of what we do.

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5. Bubba Zinetti on June 15, 2006 6:47 AM writes...

So true Derek, often when I tell people what I do (cloning and expression of enzymes in yeast) they reply "how exciting". While there are exciting moments, most of my time is spent doing tedious tasks like collecting and analyzing data. Taking samples every hour and measuring cell weight, doing assays and running a spreadsheet is pretty much an everyday occurance for me.

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6. NJBiologist on June 15, 2006 6:51 AM writes...

Jeff Bonwick has it right, except that whoever is doing the overselling does it repeatedly and doesn't learn. Were antisense oligos ever going to live up to their initial hype? Did that stop anyone from making pretty much the exact same claims for siRNA?

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7. RET on June 15, 2006 8:18 AM writes...

More pharmaceutical advertising? You mean like "Today's Medicines Finance Tomorrow's Miracles." How about truth in advertising?

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8. Coracle on June 15, 2006 9:17 AM writes...

Jef's comment No. 1 has it spot on, this is such a frustrating perception and it's very difficult to contradict because to do so one has to proove a negative.

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9. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on June 15, 2006 9:24 AM writes...

The closest thing I can think of to a drug discovery story from Hollywood is "Lorenzo's Oil", which is a good story but not exactly one that gives any shine to pharma.
A good read that tells a taley is "Human Trials" by Susan Quinn, which tells the story of Autoimmune Corp. The good thing for the uninitiated is that the drugs in question ultimately failed. I wonder how often people think drug failures have some part in the nefarious plots perpetrated by big pharma.
It's not, however, a story that would make a great movie. Can anyone think of a drug dev story from the last 20 years that would?

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10. Timothy on June 15, 2006 9:26 AM writes...

Hey, there's "Race For The Double Helix", a riveting tale of Watson & Crick finally cracking the structure of DNA! It even stars Jeff Goldblum as Watson.

You mean like "Today's Medicines Finance Tomorrow's Miracles." How about truth in advertising?

No, that is truth in advertising. The cash to discover new drugs for the future very much comes out of drug sales today, in the same way Toyota uses cashflow from cars sold today to make the Yaris less ugly (one hopes) in the future.

This non-scientist sees one other wrinkle: all of the easy drug discovery has been done already. People tend to extrapolate from anecdotes with which they're familiar, so they think everything is as easy as discovering that a bread mold kills bacteria. We're basically down to cancer, viruses, genetic disorders, and heart disease which are not really as simple as "isolate the naughty microbe and blast it".

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11. ss on June 15, 2006 9:34 AM writes...

I think that the fiction novel by Arthur Hailey ( strong medicine ) could be used as a basic plot for some soap on drug discovery, though the novel had a medical rep as the protagonist. The focus and the story line of the novel too needs a big dose of facts about the reality behind drug discovery . If the story and the characters are handled right, a good soap as novice chemist mentions might just do the trick.

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12. RET on June 15, 2006 9:38 AM writes...

"The cash to discover new drugs for the future very much comes out of drug sales today."

Maybe, but what percentage of drugs leads are discovered elsewhere are licensed in? Moreover, is Big Pharma really targeting tomorrow's miracles.

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13. Jonathan Quince on June 15, 2006 9:40 AM writes...

The real issue is understanding of how science works---something that inherently resists traditional techniques for reduction to a glitzy ad or a glib sound bite. Perhaps interest in science and learning could more easily be promoted through advertising; but without better science education from the ground up, the public is actually incapable of understanding the message you wish to convey.

Add in the fact that your typical Madison Avenue ad firm will happily bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate your message (whilst charging you handsomely). They don't understand science, either. This problem is general, too: Most (lay) people credit CSI for raising a renewed interest in science. (Yeah.)

The flip side of the coin---that scientists generally misunderstand how people work---cancels out most guerrilla advertising ideas. Hence, the disconnect is from both sides. Fixing this disconnect is an interesting subject in sich; I have a beautiful proof for how it could be achieved, but unfortunately it will not fit in the margin of this blog comment.

By the way, I am surprised nobody so far has mentioned those chemistry ads that were airing in the U.S. a few months ago. (Were they from the ACS, or somebody else?) I liked them, and I hope they met with some broad success; but they were poo-pooed by some people as "arrogant scientists taking credit for everything under the sun". Which goes, I suppose, toward showing how far and how deeply intellectual jealousy and willful ignorance can run.

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14. GATC on June 15, 2006 9:54 AM writes...

None of this should come as any big surprise. Just consider the current hysteria about human-induced global warming, pandemic flu, and the fact that someone like Al Gore could actually get a movie produced and in the can. And the NIH couldn’t shrink a hemorrhoid much less develop a drug………………

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15. RET on June 15, 2006 10:08 AM writes...

"And the NIH couldn’t shrink a hemorrhoid much less develop a drug…"

I suppose you give BMS the credit for developing Taxol. It never would have happened without the NIH.

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16. tom bartlett on June 15, 2006 10:28 AM writes...

"Maybe, but what percentage of drugs leads are discovered elsewhere are licensed in?"

Does it matter? Big Pharma has the resources to buy something from the biotechs and get it through the expensive trials and on to the shlves.

"I suppose you give BMS the credit for developing Taxol. It never would have happened without the NIH."

They screened some yews. NIH and NCI are good at that. What's your point? Science all has to be done in one place? Doesn't happen that way.

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17. MolecularGeek on June 15, 2006 10:31 AM writes...

At the risk of returning to an earlier discussion, maybe "Billion Dollar Molecule" updated to reflect the period between publication and the approval of the first drug in 2000, would be a good source for a realistic movie about the pharmaceutical industry I know that some of the principals in the book aren't completely happy with their portrayal, but it sets up a few of the important truths that we would want to get out. If nothing else, it captures the long hours and sheer drudge work involved in the process, and the ultimate fate of amprenavir is a good example of the risks involved in bringing even a good drug to market.


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18. JSinger on June 15, 2006 10:35 AM writes...

For one thing, many people seem to think that doctors discover new drugs. Some of them don't even think about the drug companies or their role - and if they do, they imagine a lot of doctors working there.

Well, what happens when a Phase III trial yields a succesful result? The pharma company sends a press release to business journalists and holds a conference call with analysts. The universities and medical centers of the lead clinicians send press releases to science journalists and bring reporters in to film or photograph Dr. Whitehair holding up a mouse in front of a blood analyzer.

Is it any surprise why most people think the doctor discovered the drug?

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19. RET on June 15, 2006 10:49 AM writes...

"Does it matter? Big Pharma has the resources to buy something from the biotech"

Exactly...thus venture capital plays a significant role finances those "tomorrow's miracles"

NIH did a lot more than screening for taxol. If I remember correctly they took into early clinical trials and there was a lot discussion about tax dollars being used after BMS took over.

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20. Waiting4Data on June 15, 2006 11:02 AM writes...

I have worked at two big pharma companies, and neither one invites the scientists who discovered the drug to the big, expensive, elaborate launch parties held at fun / exotic destinations. If our own companies don't give us credit once a compound makes it out of Discovery, why should society?

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21. anon on June 15, 2006 11:10 AM writes...

Waiting...yes, that certainly seems to be the case here as well. The clinical trial people, sales/marketing, etc. seem to get the glory and perks, while the rest of us are dealing with shrinking budgets.

Regarding the main topic: Has anyone else read this book? It seems to give a pretty good picture of how things are like. Granted, it is from a much earlier time period, but people are still the same.

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22. John Johnson on June 15, 2006 11:48 AM writes...

Hey anon - don't say the clinical trial people get all the glory. Some do, but not as a group. When I get wined and dined at Cancun or Rio, then I might change my mind ;)

At any rate, Derek, if your wonder drug you discover tomorrow makes it to the market in 2015, I'll have to congratulate you. My understanding is that it might make it in 2020, but only if we use those worthless, standard-lowering noninferiority trials. (Yes, I'm feeling a little snippy about Grassley's line of questioning.)

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23. S Silverstein on June 15, 2006 12:16 PM writes...

Jeff Bonwick wrote: "But the public impression is that now that we have the genome, all you guys do is type "Parkinson's" into Droogle and out pops the drug."

This is what I've termed the Syndrome of Inappropriate Confidence in Computing, and I see it not just in the public but also in pharma where I saw it in droves - particularly in the leadership.

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24. daen on June 15, 2006 12:39 PM writes...

Maybe "Billion Dollar Molecule" ... would be a good source for a realistic movie about the pharmaceutical industry.

They managed to turn "Barbarians at the Gate" into a pretty reasonable TV movie, with that nice Mr Rockford as F Ross Johnson, so it certainly doesn't seems so far-fetched to do the same for "BDM". Who would get to play Josh Boger? First person to say Liam Neeson gets a slap. Ditto Tom Hanks.

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25. Anonymous on June 15, 2006 1:21 PM writes...

I'm reading this thinking that RET, based on his/her comments, represents exactly the misconceptions Derek is talking about.

"Maybe, but what percentage of drugs leads are discovered elsewhere are licensed in? Moreover, is Big Pharma really targeting tomorrow's miracles."

This comment is actually laughable. I've worked in big pharma for a decade and I've yet to be involved with a project for which there was a reasonable treatment on the market at the time we were working on it. These projects represent major investments of time/money to find treatments for unmet medical needs like cancer, Alzheimer's, etc. Unfortunately, I've also yet to be on a project that has led to a marketed drug. This is Derek's point. If you don't see this day in/day out you have no idea the amount of money spent on finding treatments for these diseases.

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26. secret milkshake on June 15, 2006 1:22 PM writes...

8 years from a lead preclinical candidate sounds about right. But if you talk about from initiation of the project, it is more like 10-15 years.

I joined Sugen around 2000, they had what now became Sutent already finished and I got to work on its backups. Sutent (SU 11248) was approved this year. Before SU11248 it there were 2 structuraly-related candidates from Sugen in the clinic - and both failed (one for terrible solubility that made developing a non-toxic IV formulation an insurmountable problem, the other due to super-high protein binding in human plasma.)

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27. Anonymous on June 15, 2006 1:23 PM writes...

Who would get to play Josh Boger? First person to say Liam Neeson gets a slap. Ditto Tom Hanks.

Well, Mike Myers (a la Dr Evil) could play Stuart Schreiber...

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28. tom bartlett on June 15, 2006 2:12 PM writes...

"Well, Mike Myers (a la Dr Evil) could play Stuart Schreiber..."

Maybe Mike Myers could play Hal Myers. :)

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29. Petros on June 15, 2006 2:27 PM writes...

Well Derek that's probably par for the course. In 19 years working as a Med Chemist in the same company the best I managed was one drug into phase II. It might have gone further had development been given a higher priority- one problem was its lack of toxicity wrecking early development time lines. And one class that failed in early tox.

I did make a significant contribution, but not as a chemist, to one drug that is marketed, albeit only in Japan.

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30. GATC on June 15, 2006 2:48 PM writes...

I thought RTI International (RTP, NC) discovered taxol. I knew the NIH had it on study for ovarian cancer at some point. And wasn't it actually a fungus symbionant infecting the yew that produced the compound?

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31. MolecularGeek on June 15, 2006 3:00 PM writes...

Who would get to play Josh Boger? First person to say Liam Neeson gets a slap. Ditto Tom Hanks.

But Tom Hanks WOULD be a decent choice for Rich Aldrich. *duck*

If only Steve McQueen were 20 years younger...


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32. MicroLabMark on June 15, 2006 3:11 PM writes...

Re: #21 anon

I have read that book, in fact I own it. It is pretty good at laying out the history and process of penicillin's development. My non-scientist brother enjoyed it, if that's worth anything.

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33. MolecularGeek on June 15, 2006 3:19 PM writes...

re: 31

Of course! Chevy Chase as Josh Boger.

MG (who is now getting ready to duck process servers from the inevitable libel suit to follow :-)

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34. RET on June 15, 2006 3:30 PM writes...

Taxol was discovered by scientists at RTI isolated in the early 60's as a part of an NCI funded screening program. After the discovery of a unique mode of action (1979) NCI used isolation to get enough material for the early studies. They filed an IND in 1983.

The fungus connection, as far as I understand, was never fully established.

As far as the "Anonymouns" comment...drug discovery is difficult but I do not equate high failure rates with high risk taking.

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35. Demosthenes by day on June 15, 2006 3:38 PM writes...

Really the problem with any PR campign is that what we do can't be reduced to a snappy little sound bite or thirty-second vignette. I actually thought the commercials were pretty good.
Whenever I am forced at a dinner party or some other kind of gathering to be the designated defender of the drug industry I can usually make the big pharma case fairly coherent and understandable. The only problem is I can't do it in thity seconds. That's always the problem with complex issues the negative/ anti view can always just reduce their argument to "you're bad". To prove the "we're not THAT bad" argument takes time and effort. Which in this short attention span world you usually don't have.
I would love some clever advertising company to get ahold of the PhMRA account and do us proud but I don't think its that easy, unfortunately.

As for the "Billion Dollar Molecule" movie we're casting I nominate the Lex Luthor-looking Kevin Spacey as Stuart Schrieber. Although he will have to wear Stuart's dork-errific leather baseball cap.

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36. Novice Chemist on June 15, 2006 4:02 PM writes...

The troubled X-ray guy? Definitely BD Wong.

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37. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on June 15, 2006 4:29 PM writes...

I often say the coolest part of my job is that sometimes I get to be the first person to look at the unblinded results from clinical trials. I could think of a number of ways of writing up this experience that would engage a reader but I have a hard time envisionning it on film that doesn't remind me of Keanu Reeves on the rooftop in The Matrix dodging the bullets and saying "Whoah!".

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38. Jeremiah on June 15, 2006 6:01 PM writes...

This Taxol debate is addressed in significant detail in The Truth About Drug Companies Link.

It's important to keep two things in perspective: Firstly, a very significant portion of NIH funding went to develop Taxol and, more importantly, BMS has a reasonably long history of ethically questionable decisions. If you look at the pipelines of many modern companies (and I *DO* consider 'me too' drugs very worth while) they were developed in house. Further, drug companies have funded many research groups over the past 20 years without getting anything they could put on the market from them.

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39. Palo on June 15, 2006 6:05 PM writes...

Derek, you keep promising your rebuttal to the "noisy subset that think that all drugs are discovered in NIH-funded academic labs". I think you actually did some time ago, in a post humblingly titled something like "They way it works". If I remember correctly, you essentially claimed that the only contribution NIH research does to drug discovery is publishing 'a paper in JBC'. I hope when you really take on the issue you give your readers a fairest analysis.

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40. Doc Bushwell on June 15, 2006 7:17 PM writes...

Re: 31 and the rest of the "Billion Dollar Molecule" as film yammering.

In fact, a small film was made about Vertex but it was for internal use only. It premiered at the Agenerase launch party which is now the stuff of legend (oh the tales I could tell). The film is an X-Fileish send-up and shows Josh chomping down on a stick of Chapstick.

I still have the videotape.

Mike Myers as Stu-Bob is inspired.

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41. MTK on June 16, 2006 7:08 AM writes...

Back when I was a grad student(late 80's) my lab partner and I had a complete chemistry movie mapped out, "Top Beaker". It's the story of a talented but reckless hotshot young chemist nicknamed "Gonzo", whose father was also a chemist. Gonzo, who is always doing crazy stunts like throwing sodium out the window during a thunderstorm, one day gets his best friend and lab partner, "Ducky", killed while trying to run a reaction he shouldn't have. He then struggles to regain his will to do chemistry, but gets it back thanks to his graduate advisor telling him a story of another talented, but reckless, hotshot young chemist he once knew, Gonzo's old man. All this, of course, is intertwined amongst the story of Gonzo trying to get inside a hot postdoc's hood, if you know what I mean. I think we can all see where this ends, as Gonzo gets his redemption when he completes a total synthesis running a reaction no one thought would work.

For those of you who aren't chemists, you might guess that there's a lot of time for free thought when running four flash columns per day.

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42. robopox on June 16, 2006 8:21 AM writes...

MTK, give me a break!.

My lawyers will be contacting you.

The movie plot you have so artfully stolen
from me was originally called "Top Germ",
and it was about a troubled bacteriologist,
whose friend dies during the isolation of....
and his advisor reminds him of the virologist
who was much like him, and the hot Rene' Russo-ish
post-doc he was trying to
helps him to find the unknown agent causing
the creeping crud.....

there's alot of free time as you wait for a growth curve
to finally reach stationary phase...................

Stop stealing my fantasies from the mid-80's!, you

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43. MTK on June 16, 2006 11:25 AM writes...

But Robopox,

Did you go so far as to have the soundtrack down?

Top Beaker has "Highway to the Metastable Zone" and the Oscar-winning "Take My Waste Away".

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44. Bernie on June 16, 2006 7:04 PM writes...

Advertising....nooooooo....concepts and disciplines the likes of economics, statistics, finance, scientific method, genetics, logic, sentence structure, criticism, debate and intellectual rigor have to be taught at an early age.

So much of the public now have college degrees, you would think that the level of general would be much higher.

The beginning of a solution would be to stop closing the schools during the Summer. Another piece would be to encourage children to work in teams at a very early age. More advanced pupils would probably be more helpful as coaches than many parents or baby-sitters.

So there's two nutty ideas!!!

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45. robopox on June 18, 2006 11:26 AM writes...


"Take my waste away".


I concede.
can't beat that no-how.

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