Monday, October 17, 2005

Don't worry, no penalty on nonresponse!

Today I got in my mail (snail mail) a survey invitation. It says "you have been selected by your institution ... to participate in a survey...". Not random, huh? That is not what led to this blog. The letter also says "... Though your participation in this study is voluntary and there are no penalities for not participating, your participation will help ..." I just felt that the letter was crying out "hey, say it only when you really really feel strong about it!"

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Employment conditioning on DNA tests?

I am not a basketball fan but this story caught my attention today, thanks to Feng.

Today, the Hawks center Collier died. In the news, analysts are speculating the cause of death being heart arrest. I remember from my junior high biology class that there is a genetic condition for extrordnary tall people. With such condition, their heart blood vessels have a different structure than normal people, which makes them grow taller but on the same time make their hearts more stressed and more subject to heart arrest. I remember my biology teacher told us several famous atheletes were known to have died of this condition. I don't know whether this is something related to those speculations but this is what I can speculate.

I think the reason why I can remember so vividly what the teacher said is because I found it very sad. A condition can give one the physique to pursue in sports can also kill him/her young.

Now, the focus is not actually on the dead but rather the center of Knicks newly acquired from the Bulls. The story is here. Long story short. The center, Eddy Curry felt chest pain and irregular heart beats during training camp in 04 and the Bulls wanted him to have DNA test in order to decide whether he is susceptible to some fatal heart defects. Curry refused to do so, citing his privacy rights. The Bulls said that they will sign a big contract with Curry if the test returned as negative, otherwise,

Paxson, speaking during the team's media day, told reporters the Bulls had offered Curry $400,000 annually for the next 50 years if he failed the genetic test.

When I first saw it, I thought, "oh, it is not about money". Or, isn't it? If someone knows that he has such a defect and can't live long, would he want to have the big/short-term contract or the small/long-term contract? Of course, he would like to get as much money as possible in as short as possible time. However, what stirs the controversy is not the money this time. Reading along, another news article says:

"Think about what's at stake here," said Alan Milstein, Curry's attorney. "As far as DNA testing, we're just at the beginning of that universe. Pretty soon, though, we'll know whether someone is predisposed to cancer, alcoholism, obesity, baldness and who knows what else.

"Hand that information to an employer," he added, "and imagine the implications. If the NBA were to get away with it, what about everyone else in this country looking for a job."

This lead me to think about how the information we extraced from genetic codes should be used. I know this is a very heated topic nowadays. It never really occurs to me that it is so current.

If an employment can be based on whether someone is mentally sound, should high-risk genetic disorders be treated similarly? If an employment search can not discriminate against people with disabilities, should genetic defects someone was born into be treated similarly? Sure, it is time to decide the privacy rights on DNA information of inidividuals and the regulations on the use of such informations. But I am having a hard time thinking of a way this can be decided unbiasedly.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Time overdraft alert?

Today, after faculty meeting, I was rushing to my second lecture of the day. I met Dr. Dave Krantz when waiting for the elevator. He said he was running to the next meeting. I asked whether he had a lot of meeting on Tuesdays and he made a face, and I got it "you just have a lot meeting everyday".

Then I told him about a student project done by one of my former students. In that project, people filled out surveys on the amount of time they spend on different activities every week (studying, commuting, shopping, etc). The most interesting finding of that project was that people had a wrong perception on how many hours in a week. People tend to overestimate the number of hours in a week by a large margin.

I said:"maybe this is why we are very much overcommitting ourselves."

Dave said that another reason we are overcommitting ourselves is because that when making commitments on something, we are committing time in the future. Since the future is unlimited, we tend to think or feel there will always be time.

Then I said:"maybe there should be something like the credit companies that prevent us from overdraft our future time too much. " Dave said:"That would be a good idea."

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Foxes and Hedgehogs

Following a link in Andrew's blog post on 10/06. I found the interesting article. Part of the article read as follows:

Great scientists come in two varieties, which Isaiah Berlin, quoting the seventh-century-BC poet Archilochus, called foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are interested in everything, and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are interested only in a few problems which they consider fundamental, and stick with the same problems for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs, most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things, foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein was a hedgehog; Richard Feynman was a fox.

Many readers of The New York Review of Books are more likely to have encountered Feynman as a story-teller, for example in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, than as a scientist. Not many are likely to have read his great textbook The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which was a best seller among physicists but was not intended for the general public. Now we have a collection of his letters, selected and edited by his daughter, Michelle. The letters do not tell us much about his science. For readers who are not scientists, it is important to understand that foxes may be as creative as hedgehogs. Feynman happened to be young at a time when there were great opportunities for foxes. The hedgehogs, Einstein and his followers at the beginning of the twentieth century, had dug deep and found new foundations for physics. When Feynman came onto the scene in the middle of the century, the foundations were firm and the universe was wide open for foxes to explore.

If the science of the 20th century was physics, and the science of the 21st century was said to be biology. Is now a time for foxes or hedgehogs?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Statistical Genetics

In building our group website, I designed the logo below.

  1. It uses the double helix structure of the DNA as the theme
  2. The words "statistics" and "genetics" are parts of the two strands of the DNA, while the bonds between are binary codes that represent digital data. It is designed to indicate that our research is trying to build the bonds between these two fields through new computational tools for analyzing data.
  3. To add more taste of statistics, in the center, a segment of the DNA strand is replaced by Greek letters (common parameters and notations in statistics) and also the upper (kinda) strand is shaped close to a normal curve.
  4. The binary digits in the middle represents data, it originates from "genetics" and lift up "statistics". Later, hopefully, some programmer can make an animated version of this logo where the binary codes will move like in the movie matrix.