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

AMJAD MELHEM

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.

Why so many perfect games in baseball?

…in the first 60 years of the 20th century, there were 4 perfect games in baseball, a game where a pitcher pitches a complete game and no one on the other team reaches first base. In the next 45 years, there have been 11, so the rate of perfection has roughly quadrupled.

Of course Randy Johnson just pitched a perfect game this last week.

Michael Coffey, of The New York Times, claims that higher returns to celebrity have increased the returns to extraordinary performances. But the more general fact is one of declining variance across athletic performances. Wilt Chamberlain dominated his contemporaries (one year he averaged fifty points and twenty-eight rebounds per game), but now basketball talent is more tightly clustered. Many runners can do a four-minute mile, and so on. So I doubt the Coffey explanation. It is now harder to stand out from the crowd, especially as we consider longer time frames of achievement.

Nor can you argue that pitchers are gaining on hitters across the board. Home run totals have skyrocketed. Russ Roberts makes a good point; he cites better fielding, which boosts the chance for a perfect game but doesn’t stop home runs. And of course we are simply playing more games of professional baseball [Richard Squire tells me about twice as many].

Or consider a statistical explanation. Yes, more excellent performers will mean that overall achievement is more tightly bunched. But at the same time, the flow of one-time “outlier performances” can rise. You have more “perfect game capable” pitchers trying to pitch perfect games than ever before. No one of them will achieve the lifetime dominance of Cy Young, but today’s best pitch or best pitched inning is better than Cy Young’s. This holds, even though batters have improved as well. We are dealing with the extremes of the distributions, not the bunching of the means as calculated across lifetime achievement. So we get more perfect pitches today than we did eighty years ago. Now just inch up the temporal unit from “pitch” to “game” and you can get to the required result…

What really impresses me:

A perfect game, nah. A sherpa just made it up Mount Everest in less than thirteen hours; even very good climbers can require at least four days.

Ten percent of the world’s music market

That’s cell phone ringers. I doubt if the estimated numbers measure the true “world” market, but the point remains that this is an important and growing revenue source.

And how is this for a marketing question?

The rise of the ringtone throws up some puzzling questions for the music industry. “One of the things we have to look at is why kids are perfectly happy to spend £3.99 on a ringtone, but they think a similar amount is too much to pay for a single,”

Phone users will buy different ringers and change their ringer, depending on the time of day or their social circle. And did you know that there is a Ringtone magazine.

Auctions in everything

A California town just sold on ebay for $700,000:

A Southern California financial adviser is the proud new owner of what he called an “absolutely gorgeous” 32.8-hectare (82-acre) piece of land among the redwoods, about 435 kilometers (270 miles) northwest of San Francisco and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Pacific Ocean.

“There’s a mile and a half of river frontage. It’s very green and beautiful. Great weather,” said Krall, of Laguna Hills. “In San Francisco, $700,000 doesn’t buy you a one-car garage.”

But selling a whole town is not as easy as you might think:

In December 2002, Bridgeville became the first town “sold” on eBay. Almost 250 bids were cast during the town’s month on the electronic auction block. Bidding started at $5,000 and went well beyond the asking price of $775,000 to close at $1,777,877.

But no buyer ever appeared, no check arrived and the deal fell through.

A dozen more potential deals failed, prompting real estate agent Denise Stuart to post the property last year on more standard listings that brokers routinely share.

Would you want this place?

Bridgeville, which dates to the early 1900s, includes a post office, a cemetery and more than a dozen cabins and houses. It needs a new well and several buildings need to be renovated.

The town, which once had 100 residents, has been “severely neglected,” Krall said. His associates plan to move this summer to start cleaning it up, and will live there as caretakers.

Here is the full story. But that’s not my style. If I had the money, and the acquisitive instinct, I would buy a whole island.

Total information awareness everywhere

According to this article, a database firm sent the Feds a list of 120,000 “potential terrorists” based on a “terrorism quotient” developed by scoring over 4 billion records.

The scoring incorporated such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, credit history, “investigational data,” information about pilot and driver licenses, and connections to “dirty” addresses known to have been used by other suspects.

According to Seisint’s presentation, dated January 2003 and marked confidential, the 120,000 names with the highest scores were given to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, FBI, Secret Service and Florida state police….

Of the people with the 80 highest scores, five were among the Sept. 11 hijackers, Seisint’s presentation said. Forty-five were identified as being or possibly being under existing investigations, while 30 others “were unknown to FBI.”

“Investigations were triggered and arrests were made by INS and other agencies,” the presentation added. Two bullet points stated: “Several arrests within one week” and “Scores of other arrests.” It does not provide details of when and where the investigations and arrests took place.

I’m somewhat suspicious of these claims – my regressions are never that accurate! – but let’s pass on that question for now. What I find especially interesting is that the same firm is selling similar sorts of information to private buyers as well as to the government. SmartJury, a division of Seisint, provides:

…real-time access to public record information on potential jurors. Within seconds of entering potential jurors, you will receive reports including information such as: Criminal Records; Political Party Affiliations; Bankruptcies; Corporate Affiliations; Real Property Ownership (including value); Motor Vehicle Registrations; Web Site Domain Names; and 2000 Census Information (including median household income, average age, average years of education, and median home value).

Helpfully, SmartJury also provides demographic information from survey results to predict how each juror will vote! Part of the appeal of the jury system is the idea of drawing from a random/representative sample of the population – is that no longer possible? (And remember, the technology only needs to be good enough for the plaintiff to systematically identify just 1 juror who will push for acquital.)

And here is more meat for the conspiracy minded. The board chairman of Siesint is the former Director of the United States Secret Service and the board of SmartJury is littered with well-placed government types like Jack Kemp, William Bennett and Robert Kennedy Jr.

Thanks to Carl Close for the pointer.

Question about blogging software

Does anyone know of blogging software that allows blog posts and blog comments to be rated with the comments rising to the top the higher they are rated? I am thinking of something much like Amazon’s book pages where readers can rate both the books and the comments. The software would have to be flexible. Alternatively, can anyone out there write or modify existing software to perform these sorts of tasks? Email me with leads. Thanks!