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Phone Calls on Planes? You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me.

December 9, 2016, 6:36 PM UTC

Major U.S. air carriers flew 7.6 billion miles in 2014 with no fatalities, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The odds of dying in a plane crash today are reportedly as low as 11 million to one. The odds of getting into a shouting match on a plane, however, just went up.

That’s my studied conclusion after reading the Wall Street Journal’s reporting this morning on the increasing likelihood that U.S. aviation regulators will eventually allow airline passengers to make in-flight calls. The Journal is quick to point out that individual airlines can veto any such allowance, that a “substantial majority of individual commenters” have already (and no doubt vociferously) opposed the idea, and that the Association of Flight Attendants has called the notion “reckless.” (Right they are.)

Still, the mere possibility of a change in policy on this front ought to raise concerns—if not for reasons of etiquette and old-fashioned customer satisfaction, than for public health. That’s because, while flying is among the safest means of mass transportation today, it is also—increasingly—becoming one of the most stressful. Natasha Geiling at Smithsonian magazine offers a slew of eye-opening stats on why—from longer boarding times to the sheer loudness of the cabin. (Decibel levels by seats near the engine can reach 90, which can conceivably cause ear damage if sustained for eight hours or more.)

Seats have shrunk, legroom is disappearing, and so, unbelievably, is headroom—a combination that is making sitting in the typical economy class seat feel as claustrophobic as getting a CT scan.

Now, imagine the guy in the seat next to you—the one who brought on the bratwurst and sauerkraut sandwich for a snack, the one who’s elbow is in your side and who keeps thinking your seatbelt is his—is on the phone with his cousin for an hour. Imagine the person in front of you—the one who tried to jam his oversize wheelie into the overhead bin for 20 minutes, the one whose seat was sent into full recline shortly after takeoff—is on an epic phone call with a work colleague. (The reception is bad—as bad as the WiFi connection usually is—and so he’s shouting to be heard.)

What’s your stress level now just thinking about that?

Well, should this happen to you midflight, one simple way to de-stress is to put on an eye mask and take a nap.

Oh wait—the passenger in 12D is on the phone with his broker.

Some (real) news below.

Clifton Leaf


IBM Watson made the same recommendations as cancer docs 90% of the time. A new study unveiled at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in San Diego finds that IBM Watson's oncology platform largely lined up with a cancer board's recommendations for breast cancer treatment. In fact, in the 638 cases analyzed, Watson made the same recommendation as the panel of experts 90% of the time. This figure dropped 73% overall when considering older cases, and the level of concordance between Watson and the doctors also varied depending on just how complex the specific breast cancer was. “Including HER2/neu cases opens up many more treatments and variables for consideration,” said S.P. Somashekhar of Manipal Hospitals in Bengaluru, India, where the study was conducted. “This increases the demands on human thinking capacity. More complicated cases lead to more divergent opinions on the recommended treatment.” Still, Watson has no plans to supplant expert oncologists. "It’s always going to be the decision of the treating oncologist and patient to determine what is truly the best option for the patient,” said Somashekhar.

Could Alere be the new Theranos? My colleague Jen Wieczner asks a provocative question: Could Alere be the next Theranos, or Valeant—or both? Earlier this week, Abbott Laboratories moved to officially nix its $5.8 billion deal to buy the diagnostics and device firm, citing a drop in the company's value and a number of road blocks involving its products, including a diagnostic meant to monitor blood thinner levels which have inaccurate results. “Alere is no longer the company Abbott agreed to buy 10 months ago,” Abbott spokesperson Scott Stoffel said in a statement explaining why it wants to back out of the merger. Stoffel went on to say that these “numerous negative developments are unprecedented and are not isolated incidents brought on by chance,” and that "Alere has blocked every attempt" by Abbott seeking more information on the various problems, which have led to investigations by the SEC and Justice Department. (Fortune)

The next fitness trackers could be made of silly putty. Scientists have mixed together homemade silly putty and carbon form graphene in a combination that they believe could be used to make heart rate monitors, fitness trackers, and intruder detection systems. The new concoction, dubbed "G-putty," is reportedly 10 times as sensitive as other sensors and can ascertain everything from a spider's footsteps to human pulse and breath. G-putty relies on graphene's unique combination of strength and superconductive properties. But the researchers still need to see whether or not it can withstand various external stimuli like temperature changes before the product can hit the market. "We’re interested in the monitoring of human vital signs," said lead researcher Jonathan Coleman. "It’s looking pretty good as we start." (Fortune)


6 former Insys execs arrested for allegedly bribing docs to prescribe a powerful opioid. FBI agents on Thursday arrested six former Insys Therapeutics executives—including former CEO Michael Babich—for allegedly taking part in a "nationwide conspiracy" to give doctors bribes and kickbacks in exchange for prescribing a powerful and extremely addictive opioid called fentanyl to people who didn't need it. The product in question, Subsys, is meant for cancer patients who are in severe and uncontrollable bouts of pain. But federal prosecutors allege that Insys worked to convince doctors to prescribe the painkiller for non-cancer patients, too, and even set up a special reimbursement unit to sway insurers and benefits managers to cover those uses along the way. The former executives are being indicted for racketeering, conspiracy, mail and wire fraud, and other charges. (Fortune)

Eli Lilly still hasn't given up on the Alzheimer's space. After the devastating late-stage failure of its investigational Alzheimer's drug solanezumab, Eli Lilly was forced to abandon the therapy and announce a spate of job cuts. But that doesn't mean the pharma giant is giving up on the notoriously tricky Alzheimer's space. In fact, it's decided to partner with the U.K.'s AstraZeneca on another experimental treatment, MEDI1814, that targets the same brain plaque that many researchers believe is a key reason that people develop Alzheimer's. But there's not a whole lot of information on the collaboration just yet—Lilly is paying $30 million upfront for the partnership. In other Alzheimer's related news, leaked data about Biogen's own experimental therapy aducanumab circulated social media yesterday, and it looks impressive at first glance (although side effects persist to be a problem). (Endpoints)

Will SCOTUS weigh in on the 6 month biosimilar delay spat? Biosimilars, the generic copycats of pricey biologic drugs, haven't been in the U.S. for very long. In fact, the first one, Novartis' Zarxio, which imitates Amgen's bone marrow-booster Neupogen, was only approved last year. And there are still plenty of questions regarding the regulatory and legal issues surrounding biosimilars. Those issues can only be settled by the Supreme Court, according to the U.S. Solicitor General, who asked nation's highest legal authority to examine exactly how companies seeking to make biosimilars must interact with the firms whose products they are imitating. At question is whether or not (as Amgen contends) a biosimilar maker has to give the branded product manufacturer six months' notice after receiving FDA approval for a copycat, essentially giving branded drug makers another half year to rake in sales from the expensive products. (FiercePharma)


A former Bayer VP is suing the pharma giant over alleged sex discrimination. Irene Laurora, once a vice president at Bayer, claims that she was sacked for defending a pregnant colleague. The colleague in question was reportedly taken off of important projects because she'd wanted to use her afforded maternity leave; Laurora claims that, after defending her, the VP was denied an advancement opportunity and asked to settle for a job which would have essentially been a demotion. Laurora refused and was subsequently let go. (Fortune)

What will the Surgeon General's warning on vaping mean for the e-cig industry? U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a stark warning against the use of electronic cigarettes on Thursday. "The key bottom line here is that the science tells us the use of nicotine-containing products by youth, including e-cigarettes, is unsafe," he told the Washington Post while discussing his new report on the increasingly popular products. That could put added strain on an industry that's already been facing mounting regulations restricting use of their products—a reality that industry representatives have argued will benefit tobacco giants like Reynolds American at the expense of smaller manufacturers. Still, a number of popular e-cigarette makers told Fortune that they absolutely agree with Murthy's assertions that minors under the age of 18 shouldn't be using the devices—which they currently are in record numbers. (Fortune)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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