Battle of the Sexes – a movie review

I was invited to see a preview screening of “Battle of the Sexes” by the Elton John Aids Foundation, a charity that is fighting against both the disease and the stigma of HIV around the world (there are still 72 countries in the world where were being gay is illegal). Elton is close friends with Billie Jean, who sits on the board of his charity. 

The movie focuses on the build up to a tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, a former number 1 (male) tennis player. Since I was only 4 years old when the match was played, I wasn’t familiar with the story. It’s a story of discrimination against steely grit, and in this game, I’m glad to say that the right team won. 

Billie Jean King was forefront in the fight to get equal pay for woman tennis players, and at great professional risk formed her own breakaway tennis association. The movie plays out her refusal to accept winning payouts eight times less than her male counterparts and then go on to success, both in her own tennis organisation as well as her sport. 
The movie has Billie Jean’s first kiss with another woman and touches upon the difficulties this caused her at the time, being already married to Larry. She seemed to still be in a state of confusion at the end of the movie after the tennis match. In one of the most poignant moments of the movie, after she’d cried her eyes out alone in the minutes after the tennis match, her gay dressmaker (played by Alan Cumming) whispered in her ear “Don’t worry, times change. But you know that – you just changed them. There will be a time when you can love who you choose.”  
The tennis match takes place at the end of the movie, and I had to resist the urge to shout and burst into applause all the way through the game. Most artsy dramas are slow moving and I can find my attention waning. This movie grabs your attention and holds it all the way throughout the film, much the same as Speed or Lord of the Rings, probably because, like those other movies, it’s a simple battle of right over wrong, and the victor’s strength and determination holds strong in the face of many a challenge. I urge you, go see this movie! 


Impact of increasing the Immigration Skills Charge in the UK

As the CEO and Founder of an international business, I feel the need to comment on the current policy of the party likely to be elected to government in the forthcoming general election, the Conservatives, on the way that businesses will be able to hire skilled migrants from abroad.

The proposal, as stated in the manifesto released today, is as follows:

“we will double the Immigration Skills Charge levied on companies employing migrant workers, to £2,000 a year by the end of the parliament”

This is effectively a tax to deter companies from hiring skilled migrants from outside the UK. Migrants usually require a visa for at least five years, meaning that a company would need to pay £10,000 to the government to hire a skilled individual from outside the UK, an increase of £5,000 from the current level.

It’s important to remember that UK companies can only hire skilled individuals from other countries if a number of conditions are met – the most important condition being that the skills are not already available in the UK workforce. Jobs need to be advertised in the UK for at least 6 months before the position could be open to a skilled individual from abroad.

This policy will result in less skilled individuals coming to the UK. As the CEO of a business that operates within the global economy, this decision does not make sense. Skilled migrants are valuable to the economy and offer a net gain to the countries finances. Other countries are fighting hard to attract the brightest and best individuals to work within, and boost their economies. A direct result of this policy will be that UK businesses will lose out to their competitors from other countries, who can more easily attract skilled workers. Sadly, the impact will be felt more by small and medium sized businesses who will struggle to afford this increase. This policy will ultimately result in slower UK economic growth and loss of business to other parts of the world.

More details can be found in the following articles (and I am glad to read that I am not the only person who finds this policy unhelpful):


Putrified shark anyone?

I’ve been spending a few days in Iceland with a few friends and came across this interesting little place – Iceland’s Shark Museum – that I thought you might like to hear about. The highlight of the museum is that they offer tastings of putrified or rotten shark, a local specialty, apparently. 

Original shark hunting boat (1860)

There’s a seven minute video presentation that is narrated, in real life, by the most cheerful-looking Icelandic chap you can imagime. He looks like he might have a little of the local elf-blood in his heritage and wears a wide, cheeky grin from ear to ear. 

We learned that shark physiology is quite different from humans, having huge livers a tenth their bodyweight but tiny kidneys. Urine is dissipated around their body as an antifreeze, which makes fresh shark meat unsuitable for human consumption. 

Shark skin: like a jagged rough grade sandpaper

Our guide’s family have been hunting sharks for generations. The oil from sharks’ livers was used as a lamp oil – it burned slower and was less sooty than other oils. However, demand for the oil disappeared in the 1950s with the introduction of mass produced electricity. 

At some point around 400 years ago, someone in Iceland discovered a method for making the shark meat edible. The shark is gutted and cut into 10kg chunks. It’s packed into crates making sure the skin is on the outside to protect the flesh from the elements and from flies. Apparently flies LOVE rotting shark flesh. Luckily Iceland’s climate is so cold most of the time there are hardly any flies. 

After the flesh has been left for two months, the 10kg chunks have drained most of the toxins and now weigh around 2kg. At this stage, our guide says the meat smells absolutely terrible, and he has to have at least two showers a day, but usually 3. Any clothes worn when handling the meat need to be discarded as the smell can’t be washed off. 

Don’t sniff, just pop it in!

The drained flesh is then hung up for another 4 months to dry, during which time it develops a hard brown crust around the white meat. This crust also helps prevent against attack from flies. The family has a saying: “When it smells bad enough, it smells good”. This is how they know it’s ready to eat. Our guide joked that it’s “Pure shark – gluten free and everything”, adding that it’s super healthy and full of protein – too rich to eat a lot of. 

Putrified shark & rye bread

We then had a chance to taste the putrified shark. As a hardcore vegetarian I gave it a miss, but I did have a good sniff. The smell was fishy ammonia that left me feeling nauseous for hours. Some of our travelling companions tried it and a few seemed to like it. Surprisingly, it looked fresh and tasters reported it had the consistency of paneer cheese. I asked one of the tasters what it tasted like and the reply was “Like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. There’s a bizarre aftertaste of ammonia that you get in your nose a few moments after popping it in your mouth”. 

Stuffed seal on display

As well as the local delicacies on offer, there’s also a museum showing shark bones, lots of taxidermy from the local wildlife and other shark paraphernalia. They’ve found some incredible things inside sharks’ stomachs, such as sealskin but even more surprisingly, polar bear skin (by the way, apparently polar bears occasionally swim all the way from Greenland and end up on Iceland). 

Polar bear skin from a shark’s stomach

There’s lots to see in the local area. Obviously volcanoes, lava fields and bleak snowy landscapes are everywhere. The fjords that have been carved out by ancient glaciers form beautiful valleys and lakes. There’s also a load of folklore associated with Icelandic literature that’s been written in a geographically correct way. Reading the Sagas whilst exploring the landscape would make a very fun break. 

Where to find the shark museum

The “Lunatic Express”

The old colonial train that chugs daily from Nairobi to Mombasa and back is colloquially known as the “Lunatic Express”. When I told my local colleagues that I was taking the train from Nairobi to Mombasa, they were intrigued. Why would anybody choose a rickety old train with broken fans that takes 18 hours when you can jump on an air conditioned bus that drives down the highway and be there in 8 hours. Of course it’s more practical to take the bus or even fly, but where’s the fun in that?

I travelled on the “Lunatic Express” during a weekend inbetween visiting the new local PHASTAR offices that we’ve been setting up during 2016. It’s a relative bargain – first class including dinner and breakfast is $60. Considering that gives you a bunk bed and you save on a night’s hotel, it seems a steal.

On arriving at Nairobi’s train station, we settled down with a cold bottle of Stoney (the local ginger beer) in the station cafe. There weren’t many platforms or trains at Nairobi station but it wasn’t that obvious which train was ours. After a while, we worked out that the boarding pass that had been issued by the “Upper Class Booking and Ticketing” hall had a coach number on it, that did match a coach in the station, so we embarked and found our compartment.

The first class compartments are very similar in design and layout to those of The Simplon Orient Express that travels between Venice and London. Unfortunately, the train hasn’t quite had the same level of upkeep. None of the fans on the train work. You need to bring your own bottled water as I wouldn’t trust the drinking water taps in the room (ours only shed a few tears). The leather on the seats seems original – is ripped in places and very tired. The windows and mosquito grids sometimes open and sometimes don’t – a drop of WD40 might help! The shared toilet was an Armitage Shanks loo on one side with no seat and the lock on the door didn’t work. The other side was a hole-in-the-wall affair but with no running water. Everything needs a bloody good clean!

One of the staff members introduced himself as our host, told us when and where meals were served, and said he’d be making up the beds while we ate. He also reassured us that it was safe to leave our bags in the unlocked compartment (there are a couple of security guards with AK47s, though I’m unsure whether this is a deterrent to potential thiefs!). Our host also explained there was a good chance of seeing animals as we crossed both the Nairobi and Tsavo National Parks.

A platform announcement went out (in English) saying the train would be 20 minutes late to depart as there were unavoidable circumstances. Looking on the platform, there were a load of bails of hay that still had to be loaded. An elderly lady carried one along the platform on her back, with a strap tied around her forehead. Another local explained to me it was grass for her animals. When I said it looked heavy, she shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.

After setting off we passed through a number of Nairobi’s suburbs. There are a number of fancy apartments which look like they’ve been recently developed, sitting alongside shanty towns and local markets. It’s fair to say that the amount of refuse – especially plastic-based refuse – is alarming. It seems to be becoming part of the topsoil in places. I can’t see how this isn’t then being sucked into the ecosystem in a harmful way.

Shortly after leaving, the train skirts along the boundary of Nairobi’s National Park. I’ve been on giraffe watch all week, as my hotel overlooks the park. There’s one major problem with the views into the National Park. China is funding a new Nairobi to Mombasa rail link, which reputedly will take only 4 hours. However, much of this new construction obscures the view from the existing train line. Saying that, I did manage to see various grazing type creatures. Sadly, still no giraffes.

After leaving the park, which was around sunset time, dinner was served. Another cold Stoney accompanied options of rice, veg (mostly carrot – looked like heated up coleslaw), roast chicken, or beef stew. Chunky chips and sliced bread were dished out (sadly I resisted the urge to combine these!). There were just enough seats for everyone at 4-seater tables, which meant we had to share. We met two sole travellers- Michelle, a Nairobi based entrepreneur (Instagram @thefemalenomad), and Dani, a digital artist, in Kenya for a project looking at recycling old electrical equipment (Instagram @daniploeger). After an entertaining hour or so, we returned to our cabin, and tucked in for the night.

One piece of advice. Ear plugs are essential for this trip! I was trying to persevere without earplus and had strategically placed our bags to stop doors  rattling around. A few pieces of rolled up paper were also strategically positioned in various places to minimise rattling noises, and the sink cover also needed to be closed. The rhythmic clanging noises coming from the underbelly of the train were still annoying me, but popping in a couple of ear plugs sorted this out. Next thing I opened my eyes and peeked at my phone. It was 5am and we had stopped bang in the middle of Tsavo National Park.

I jumped out of bed and looked out of the window. Other than a spatking view of 1000s of twinkling stars, there wasn’t much more to see. I was hoping the driver deliberately stopped there so we could see some big animals when the sumn came up. Shortly after, a freight train pulled up alongside, and although it took a while, I think we’d stopped to allow the other train to pass. Frustratedly, I waited on the sun to rise whilst looking at some vague shadowy shapes, hoping to spot an obvious giraffe or elephant.

Tsavo National Park is mostly famous for the man-eating lions from the time when the railway was getting built. Two lions terrorised the Indians building the railway and killed 35 before they met their deaths, at the hand of British guns.

Tsavo did deliver. At first, I could see various wilderbeast and antelopes, but shortly afterwards, I spotted a lone elephant in the distance. Over the next hour, I saw around 10 elephants, some in small families. Sadly, I noticed near the end of Tsavo that I didn’t have my memory card in my camera, but I still managed to get a few shots of the elephants.

Breakfast was served in the dining car after the manual ceremonious ringing of a bell by our host. We joined Dani and Michelle again, for our beans, (yokeless), sausage and bread. Michelle helped me negotiate a no-sausage option (thanks!). We were served pineapple juice that tasted just like orange juice, but it was cold and tasty nevertheless. After looking at photos of Michelle’s ascent of Mount Kenya, discussing the benefits of spontaneity when travelling, and the spiritual design of the Aloe Vera plant, we swapped contact details (i.e. Instagram accounts) and went back for a post-brekkie nap.

On the outskirts of Mombasa, the scenes resembled those of Nairobi, albeit with more shipping trailers and brightly coloured outfits. Our host pre-organised taxi to meet us. We arrived around 13:00, a couple of hours late. The train seemed to go at near walking pace for the last 50km into Mombasa. But then again, if we were in a hurry, this wouldn’t have been a good choice of transport. What a fun trip!

PHASTAR listed in the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table – A personal note of thanks

Phastar-2The company I founded in 2007, PHASTAR, is today listed on the prestigious Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table of Britain’s fastest growing companies. 2015 Fast Track 100 logoThis award recognises the extraordinary growth of the company, due to hard working staff, as well as satisfied and loyal customers returning with repeat business.

Personally, this achievement means a huge amount to me, as I do not get much time to take a step back and realise that the company I have been working tirelessly on for the last 8 years is now a success. Coming from a working class background – I grew up on a council estate in the suburbs of Glasgow – with no initial capital added additional hurdles in establishing a successful business. There have been many challenges along the way, and there have been numerous occasions when I considered progressing the business an impossible task. Running a company can be an emotional roller coaster, with fantastically rewarding days but also occasions when you have to face some really tough challenges. Without the support of everyone around me – friends, family, staff members and loyal customers – the business would not be a viable proposition. I want to recognise the efforts that everyone has made, and express my sincere thanks for support over the years.

This achievement is absolutely a team award. There have been many contributors involved over the years whose support has been instrumental. My partner, Mardi, who has not only put up with my long working hours, but has also been a great support along the way, and has always been there in good times and bad. Since day 1 of setting up the company, there has been a marked change in the effort I am able to make socially, with friends and family. I used to be a social organiser, but don’t get the time these days. I am very grateful to all my friends and family who have put up with my pitiful efforts over the last 8 years, but are still there when I need them.

The team at PHASTAR amaze me. I always revel in the fact that I have personally chosen most of the people at PHASTAR, which has the pleasant side effect that I really like the team of people I work with. I was deeply touched earlier this year when we had a challenging deadline – working on a revolutionary drug for lung cancer – which had been developed from the laboratory bench to being approved for sales in a record time. The team rallied, with most of the company stepping in to help, and we delivered what had seemed like an impossible task, in the wee hours that morning. I was amazed at the level of dedication that everyone in the company demonstrated that day, and continue to demonstrate each and every day. I want to sincerely thank all PHASTAR team members – each of you have contributed to the success of the company, and to achieving this award.

There are quite a few ex-employees who have moved on to fresh pastures, but have made a significant contribution to the company. Many of these individuals I still consider to be friends, and I absolutely value the work that was carried out when they were at PHASTAR, and am happy to have remained friends through thick and thin.

Particularly in the last few weeks, I have spent a significant amount of time talking to our current clients. I am overwhelmed by the positive feedback I have received – that our work is head and shoulders above our much larger competitors. As well as the quality of our work, I hear that we are much more flexible and easier to work with than most other suppliers of statistical and medical writing services. It is certainly my ambition to focus on delivering the best quality work with the minimum of fuss and administrative overhead. Without the support and repeat business from these customers, we would not be a growing and successful company.

Every year at PHASTAR I learn new skills, face new challenges, welcome new staff and work with new customers. I relish and look forward to facing the future challenges, with your help and support.

Thank you so much!


Lamivudine in Ebola

On the internet, I came across a story that a doctor in Liberia who was desperate for Ebola treatments, tried lamivudine, an anti-viral used in hepatitis and HIV on 15 patients infected with Ebola. This caught my attention, as there’s currently no approved treatments for Ebola.

I checked the estimated death rates on the WHO Ebola Factsheet page. They have a table of the number of people infected with Ebola, and the number of subsequent deaths. Although there are lots of references to this table with an estimate of a 50% death rate, I calculate that there were 1590 deaths in 2387 Ebola cases, giving an estimated death rate of 67%.

The statistical analysis from this point is fairly easy – it’s a simple binomial distribution. If the “true” death rate is 67%, then the probability of seeing only 2 deaths or less out of 15 is 3.2 x 10^5, which would usually be represented as p<0.001. In other words, it would be extremely likely that the lamivudine is having a beneficial effect.

Another way of looking at the analysis is using a 2 by 2 table – whether the patients survive or not, and whether they received lamivudine or not. Using the previous Ebola outbreaks data (1590/2387), and carrying out a Fisher’s Exact test to see whether the lamivudine data come from the same underlying distribution, gives p<0.001. The odds ratio for surviving ebola is 13.0. Using the numbers from this outbreak (3865/8033), gives a Fisher’s Exact result of p=0.008 (odds ration 6.0).

If these results are confirmed, then it would appear that this is very strong evidence that lamivudine is helpful in saving lives in the fight against the Ebola virus, and should be investigated in further trials as a matter of urgency.

There has been a paper published in the Lancet online that details the reasons why randomised clinical trials, the usual gold standard for collecting medical evidence on the effectiveness of drugs, is difficult and potentially unethical in the current Ebola situation. Given this report of some effectiveness of lamivudine, I expect there will be other reports of success or failure of the treatment of patients with other drugs. It seems imperative that a global resource is set up to capture this information and ensure that each patient treated with Ebola contributes information and knowledge to the treatment of subsequent infected patients. A global registry of information on treatments given and survival outcome is needed as a matter of urgency.

Insider’s Guide to London for #PHUSE14

I’m excited that this year’s PhUSE conference is in my hometown of London. As I know there are lots of people coming from outside the city, I thought it would be helpful to give a few hints and tips from someone local of what you could do when not learning about the latest developments in pharmaceutical programming. If you have other tips, then please share them by commenting below, or on twitter using the conference hashtag #PHUSE14, where you can also find me @kevin2kane.

If you would like a nice walk, the South Bank of the river has been redeveloped in the last few decades and is bustling with activity. If you arrive early on the Sunday, cross over the river on Tower Bridge and turn right. You will pass many interesting sights – City Hall, home of the London’s Mayor office and the Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe, HMS Belfast, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (unfortunately it looks like the shows are all sold out). When you get to the south side of London Bridge, pop in to Southwark Cathedral (click here to learn how to pronounce Southwark), which has been a place of worship since the year 606 AD, and has been used in a scene from Doctor Who. The Cathedral has a large stained glass window dedicated to William Shakespeare, depicting various scenes from his plays. You can stop at the Millennium Bridge to take a photo of St Paul’s Cathedral on the other side of the Thames. A little further along, there’s a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hinde that he used to circumnavigate the globe in 1577-80. For the more active amongst you, there’s a bike hire place at Gabriel’s Wharf, which also has nice little cafés and art shops (the artist run print shop here is great value for money).

Lovely Sunny Day on the South Bank!

Lovely Sunny Day on the South Bank!

In the conference hotel, you are only 30 minutes walk from one of the biggest collections of contemporary art in the world – Tate Modern. I always think of it as a home for conceptual art, and it does have plenty of that, but it also has its fair share of figurative, although modern art as well. You’ll find Dali, Picasso, Ernst and Bacon here. You can also see Derek Jarman’s last movie, “Blue”, which is a 75 minute movie of a single monochromatic (blue) shot, inspired by Yves Klein painting IKN 79. Don’t miss the Mapplethorpe photographic portraits on the 6th floor, and of course, the view from the cafe’s balcony.

Don’t pay a fortune for a river tour. Instead, take one of the Transport For London (TFL)boats that travel regularly up and down the Thames for a fraction of the price. If you have an Oyster card, you can use that on-board. There’s a stop just in front of Tate Modern that will drop you at Embankment for an easy walk to Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Soho and Chinatown, or you can take the Tate Boat that will drop you at Tate Britain (where there’s more traditional British art, particularly Turner). The TFL website also has a great journey planner that will tell you how to get anywhere in London.

Bike Hire in Gabriel's Wharf

Bike Hire in Gabriel’s Wharf

If you have an hour to spare during the conference, the historic Leadenhall Market is a 12 minute walk from the hotel, and well worth a visit. The market dates back to the 14th century and was gifted to the City of London by the Lord Mayor “Dick” Whittington in 1441.

There are lots of bars and restaurants around St Katherine’s Docks, including the Dicken’s Inn that includes a traditional British pub and restaurant. Tom’s Kitchen in St Katherine’s Docks is owned by celebrity chef Tom Aitken, but would be a little more expensive and frankly, there are more interesting, quirky places to visit. For quirky, visit Les Trois Garçons, which has an interesting set of owners (check their website for more details). The food and wine is delicious, and the venue is beautiful, full of interesting and arty objects such as a stuffed giraffe to entertain you whilst eating. It’s a 20 minute walk from the hotel, but would only be a few pound in a black taxi. If you are looking for an Indian Curry, then I recommend Red Chilli on 137 Lehman Street, which is only a 3 minute walk from the hotel.

While you’re in St Katherine’s Docks, you’ll see HippopoThames, a giant floating hippopotamus sculpture created by Florentijn Hofman.

For beer drinkers, there’s a traditional local pub called the Oliver Conquest. They have draught ale on tap, and a huge gin selection. There’s a Bavarian beer house near the conference if you fancy a German selection. If you prefer cocktails, then my favourite cocktail bar is in trendy Shoreditch (as recommended by Hermann from Pro-Clinical). It’s called Lounge Lover and has a feel of being somewhere that only those in the know would go to. It’s owned by the same team as Les Trois Garçons. I wouldn’t recommend going in your business suit – that’s the least favoured outfit in this area. An ideal night might be to start at Lounge Lover, have dinner in Lew Trois Garcons, followed by a stroll around Shoreditch, investigating the many bars in the area – try Book Club, Callooh Callay or Bar Kick for a game of table football?