Oh Oprah!

Cover headline from “O, The Oprah Magazine” (June, 04):

The Wrinkle Report: Treatments that actually work (science finally does something good for women!)

What, anti-biotics weren’t enough? And what is Oprah saying about what women value? Reminds me of the Barbie that whined “Math is hard,” when you pulled the string out of her back.

I know, I know, Oprah is a saint but even saints ought to be questioned.

Markets in everything – Korean women edition

This time courtesy of the ever-insightful Randall Parker. Here is one juicy bit:

Chinese men may buy so many North Korean wives that North Korea will either become militarily aggressive or collapse from within. This is not implausible. Those 30 to 40 million single men in China in the year 2020 mean there wil be 3 to 4 times more single men in China than there are women in North Korea. The Chinese will be more affluent than the North Koreans unless radical changes happen to North Korea’s economy. North Korea is the place where Chinese men will have the best competitive advantage in angling for wives. The other East Asian countries are not nearly as poor as North Korea and North Korea shares a long 1,416 km land border with China.

China’s economy is growing rapidly. The buying power of Chinese men is rising. Even poor Chinese farmers can afford to buy North Korean women.

And what is Randall’s prediction?

Expect the hostility of North Korean men toward China to increase.

Good call, Randall!

Update on my whereabouts

Today Paris is lovely; I would sooner say I am enjoying the French than arguing with them. My airport terminal was intact, my jet lag minimal, and my goat cheese salad excellent. I continue to flirt with the idea that the French, of all Europeans, are most like the Americans. Both, for instance, have a missionary impulse toward other cultures. And both are obsessed with quality, albeit in differing directions. The saddest thing for me here is that in the 1970s, they replaced Les Halles, the old food market where much of French cuisine evolved, with a soulless shopping mall. I will never get over that loss. On the other hand, it is remarkable how many shops you can find that will sell you a bar of dark chocolate for $5 or more; I never feel I am overpaying.

Tailor made pharmaceuticals

Better genetic information is beginning to reveal why some drugs work for some people but not for others. (Here’s a CBS Marketwatch story, requires free subscription). In addition to the heath benefits, there are some political-economic benefits to better understanding of how drugs interact with personal chemistry.

Drugs that benefit a minority of the population are sometimes not approved by the FDA because their side-effects for the majority are deemed to outweigh the expected benefits. But if we can identify more clearly who the drugs will benefit and who they will harm, more drugs will be deemed safe and will get through the FDA process. As a further result, the costs of drug development will be reduced.

Genetic information can also help to avoid the opposite error. It often happens that in a clinical trial a drug doesn’t look beneficial overall but does appear to work in some subpopulation (e.g. African-Americans with disease of type X that has progressed to stage y). The danger is that some results like this are bound to occur by chance alone and thus do not necessarily imply true efficacy. If we can show that the subpopulations do (or do not) have systematic genetic differences from the majority population, however, we can rule out (or rule in) chance as an explanation and better separate the wheat from the chaff.

Thanks to Jim Coomes (a long-time reader from Pattaya, Thailand!) for the link.

Girls’ names are more inventive

Her parents called her Apple Blythe Alison Martin, hardly a common moniker. The trend, however, is more general:

…the “mutation rate” in names is higher for girls than for boys. Parents, in other words, are more liable to be inventive when choosing a name for a baby girl. The researchers have found that for every 10,000 daughters born in America there is an average of 2.3 new names. For sons, the figure is 1.6.

Why might this be?

One possibility is that in a society where family names are inherited patrilineally, parents feel constrained by tradition when it comes to choosing first names for their sons. As a result, boys often end up with the names of their ancestors. But when those same parents come to choose names for their daughters, they feel less constrained and more able to choose based on style and beauty.

Here is the full story. Here is another summary, with a link to the original research. African-Americans appear to be much more creative in naming than others, see Alex’s discussion.

The bottom line:

Most new parents copy existing names when naming their babies, say Bentley and his colleague Matthew Hahn of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Nonetheless, the overall distribution looks like a product of random copying, they demonstrate. Bentley and Hahn modelled the allotment of baby names in the United States during the twentieth century. The names follow a pattern called a power law: most names are present at a very low frequency, while a small handful are very common.

That being said, it remains a mystery why parents take more chances with the names of their baby girls. But here is the best part of the article, a paean to the leadership abilities of my parents:

But that does not explain the rise of Tyler, which first appeared in the top 1,000 in the 1950s, and reached the top ten in 1992.

I can remember a time when the only other “Tyler” in my mental universe was Henry Kissinger’s dog.

Purchase Elephant

Here is the text of what may be the oddest spam that I have ever received.

Dear Sir

Let me introduce to you about myself and my Company. I am the Crops and Horticulture Manager in a Company dealing with dairy products having its own Dairy Farm situated in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

We are interested in purchasing a pair of baby elephant to our Zoo inside the Farm for the purpose of exhibition for school children and visitors who visit the Farm. The elephant should be of quite and not wild type.

As you have wide knowledge in this field, we would like to get some vital information on the following subjects:

1. Is it advisable to buy a pair of elephant or a single?

2. How to train the elephant to be playful with people. Please note that we have requested a person from India for the training of elephants.

3. Full details of price including freight charges from your destination to Dammam Port in Saudi Arabia. The required document formalities in Saudi Arabia will be arranged by us.

We would like to hear from you soon, and hoping to have a good business relationship with you. Should you have any queries please don’t hesitate to contact us through E-mail.

Thanks and best regards


Crops & Horticulture Manager
00966 – 55921141
00966 – 3 – 532 0000 (Ext. 304/295)

Guest blogger

Tyler is off to Paris once again to argue with the French. Knowing Tyler, however, he will continue to blog at only slightly reduced frequency! We are pleased that the great Fabio Rojas, sociologist at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, is back again as our guest.

You may have noticed we have a blog ad – support our advertisers and you support MR! And don’t forget that if you reach Amazon by clicking on the Amazon link at the bottom of the right sidebar or any book link then any purchases you make will also help to cover our costs. Thanks!

Buying academic collaboration

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an Ebay auction conducted by a certain William A. Tozier of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Mr. Tozier, a consultant who specializes in artificial intelligence research, auctioned off an opportunity to co-author a scientific paper. The winner of the auction would get 40 hours of Mr. Tozier’s time and if the work produced an interesting scientific finding, the auction winner and Mr. Tozier would submit a paper to a scientific journal. The benefit to the winner? Aside from producing some science, the winner would have an Erdos number of 5 (click here for an explanation of the Erdos number).

Unsurprisingly, this event has lead to some outrage. The winner of the auction, a mathematician named Jose Burillio, refused to employ Mr. Tozier because he thought Tozier was auctioning off a paper he had already written. If that were the case, then the auction winner was simply buying the opportunity to put his name on work he had no hand in producing – a form of dishonesty. Even when Mr. Burillo found out the truth, he still opposed the auction on the principle that collaboration should not be induced with pay. Mr. Tozier then declared a new winner – the second highest bidder, the owner of a company that makes online course materials.

This incident raises an interesting question – why can’t someone pay for an academic collaborator? In other walks of life, we often pay for crucial knowledge in a field we don’t have expertise in. In the consulting world, research reports are routinely written with individuals who have been paid for their services. It seems that pay for collaboration should be prohibited only when it threatens the integrity of the work. For example, it should be prohibited when the work has already been produced and wealthy individuals are seeking only to attach their name to scientific work in an attempt to buy prestige. This seems to have been the case for the calculus theorem known as L’Hopital’s rule, which some believe to have been discovered by Johann Bernoulli, who might have been paid by the wealthy aristocrat Guillaume de L’Hopital (click here for the story).

But if there is no conflict of interest, or damage to the integrity of the work, then it might be worth considering. It is often common for a researcher to realize they have no knowledge in an area which is crucial to completing their research. One option is to completely master a new field. Another is to hope that a specialist in that area will collaborate out of the goodness of their heart. While these are desirable and preferable outcomes, they are also difficult to obtain. It might also be useful to simply hire someone to help solve a particular problem. As long as the payment is acknowledged at the beginning of a scientific paper (“Professor X has been compensated for his assistance in this work…”), collaboration for pay might be a form of scientific cooperation worth considering. Readers are invited to email me pros and cons of scientific collaboration for pay. Summary of the discussions will be posted later this week.

Network Holes and Creativity

One of my favorite theories in sociology has been Ron Burt’s “structural holes” theory (click here to read about the book). Burt says that individual success often comes from taking advantage of “holes” in your personal network – gaps between two groups which represent opportunities. For example, if somebody in the marketing department discovers that consumers want X, then that person could go to research and development and ask for X. In other words, creativity is about crossing boundaries.

The NY Times has a nice article on Burt’s latest research showing that managers in a large engineering firm (Raytheon) are more likely to come up with new ideas when they cross group boundaries in the firm. Managers at Raytheon who didn’t have “holes” in their networks were much less likely to come up with ideas deemed as innovative. Burt concludes that creativity is all about combining ideas and closing gaps.

My big criticism of the idea is that holes may be great for creativity, but lousy for the mundane daily operations of corporations. Most organizational life is not about coming up with dazzling new ideas, but it’s about efficiently accomplishing routine tasks. This is probably best done when networks are dense – people will share the same goals and have the same knowledge because they are in constant contact with each other. It’s probably the case that corporations that depend on innovation for their success have separate think tanks where individuals are encouraged to experiment and span boundaries, such as the famed Bell Laboratories.

Smart people live longer

Earlier I discussed the evidence from Oscar winners that higher status leads to better health. Steve Sailer alerts me to a good article from Forbes challenging the status explanation in favor of an effect of IQ on health.

Why is it that, all around the world, those with more income, education and high-status jobs score higher on various measures of health? ….The traditional answer to these questions has been that greater wealth and social status mean greater access to medical care. But even ten years ago, when this magazine last delved into the topic (FORBES, Jan. 31, 1994), the available answers seemed inadequate. If access was the key, then one would have expected the health gap between upper and lower classes to shrink or disappear with the advent of programs like Britain’s National Health Service and America’s Medicare and Medicaid, not to mention employer-sponsored health insurance. In fact, the gap widened in both Britain and America as these programs took effect. The 1994 article cited a study of British civil servants–all with equal access to medical care and other social services, and all working in similar physical environments–showing that even within this homogeneous group the higher-status employees were healthier: “Each civil service rank outlived the one immediately below.” How could this be?

Today the standard answer–or, at least, the answer you are guaranteed to get from the WHO and other large health bureaucracies–is that inequality itself is the killer. …

[But a new theory has been put forward by] Linda Gottfredson, a sociologist based at the University of Delaware, and psychologist Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh. Their solution to the age-old mystery of health and status is at once utterly original and supremely obvious. The rich live longer, they write, mainly because the rich are smarter. The argument rests on several different propositions, all well documented. The crucial points are that (a) social status correlates strongly and positively with IQ and other measures of intelligence;(b) intelligence correlates strongly with “health literacy,” the ability to understand and follow a prescription for disease prevention and treatment; and (c) intelligence is also correlated with forward planning–which means avoidance of health risks (including smoking) as they are identified.

The first leg of that argument has been established for many decades. In modern developed countries IQ correlates about 0.5 with measures of income and social status–a figure telling us that IQ is not everything but also making plain that it powerfully influences where people end up in life. The mean IQ of Americans in the Census Bureau’s “professional and technical” category is 111. The mean for unskilled laborers is 89. An American whose IQ is in the range between 76 and 90 (i.e., well below average) is eight times as likely to be living in poverty as someone whose IQ is over 125.

Second leg: Intelligent people tend to be the most knowledgeable about health-related issues. Health literacy matters more than it used to. In the past big gains in health and longevity were associated with improvements in public sanitation, immunization and other initiatives not requiring decisions by ordinary citizens. But today the major threats to health are chronic diseases–which, inescapably, require patients to participate in the treatment, which means in turn that they need to understand what’s going on….

Deary was coauthor of a 2003 study in which childhood IQs in Scotland were related to adult health outcomes. A central finding: Mortality rates were 17% higher for each 15-point falloff in IQ. One reason for the failure of broad-based access to reduce the health gap is that low-IQ patients use their access inefficiently. A Gottfredson paper in the January 2004 issue of the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology cites a 1993 study indicating that more than half of the 1.8 billion prescriptions issued annually in the U.S. are taken incorrectly. The same study reported that 10% of all hospitalizations resulted from patients’ inability to manage their drug therapy. A 1998 study reported that almost 30% of patients were taking medications in ways that seriously threatened their health. Noncompliance with doctors’ orders is demonstrably rampant in low-income clinics, reaching 60% in one cited s tudy. Noncompliance is often taken to signify a lack of patient motivation, but it often clearly reflects a simple failure to understand directions.

Although I doubt that IQ explains the longevity of Oscar winners relative to nominees I think it does explain a great deal – indeed, it would be astonishing if IQ didn’t impact health. By the way, I recommend Deary’s Intelligence: A Very Short Introduction and here is an even shorter introduction.

The power of retailing

…the gap between the United States and the other advanced economies is large and has been growing over the past ten years…it is likely that the gap will continue to grow over the next ten years…at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the U.S, economy seems to be in a class by itself. Why is that?

…I think the reasons go a long way back. The United States adopted the view that the purpose of an economy was to serve consumers much earlier than any other society. The United States continues to hold this view more strongly than almost any other place.

Retailing isn’t simply the final step at which goods are sold to consumers. Retailing is the stage where an economy elicits informationa about what consumers really want. Retailing stands at the heart of rational economic calculation.

For a much longer expansion on this theme, see William Lewis’s The Power of Productivity. This is the last time I will be covering this fascinating book, so here is my final pitch: buy it and read it.

Public choice question for the day: Why do no governments seem to view retailing as a strategic industry?

The organ trade

The NYTimes tracks a kidney from Brazil to Brooklyn, via a transplant center in South Africa, brokered by agents in Israel. Ain’t globalization grand?

The kidney was sold for $6000 by a poor Brazilian to be transplanted into what is, by world standards, a rich American. I understand, of course, that this trade is upsetting to many people. The trade is illegal and the Brazilian and South African government have made arrests – sadly, including some of the organ donors. I am upset too, but less by the trade than by the grinding poverty that make the ability to sell an organ an opportunity.

Think of it this way: It is a tragedy that the poor of many third-world countries must scavenge in garbage dumps for survival but it is no solution to fence in the garbage dumps.