Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Real life needs Moneyball

Disclaimer: I possess NO knowledge of baseball whatsoever. Neither is this a baseball-related post.

Moneyball is a concept used in sports, especially baseball, and has an eponymous movie starring none less than Brad Pitt. It is something that apparently is being taken up by other sports too.

To all my real-life  friends: Yes, I saw the movie. Twice. On TV of course!

Money + balls = Moneyball... wait, what?

You probably know how the league system in today's professional team sports runs. I think it is a great lesson in mixing people's interest in something and generating commercial benefits out of it, not necessarily in a bad way. Here's my stab at it. The word team is equivalent to sports club, the word mostly is equivalent to.... uh.. mostly.

Different teams playing the same sport at the same level in a playing hierarchy play against each other. See an example of hierarchy as I meant it, called the system here. Winning means gain of points for the winners, and losing mostly means the losers' points stay as they were. Teams are mostly (always?) defined according to their geographical location, more specifically the location of their venue (mostly stadium). Each team plays each other team twice: once at their venue and once at the other team's venue. At the end of the season (mostly of near-annual duration), the points of each team are calculated and the one with the most points wins the league/trophy etc.

Most leagues, especially the professional ones, work in a way that teams can trade players for money and sometimes other things.

At higher levels in league hierarchies/systems, there is a lot of money involved in terms of players' and other staff's wages, marketing, TV rights, player-named shirts and other merchandise etc. This money comes from fans. As one of my friends, the great and funny Hemant Dhir, who was quite active in college politics once told me, a few people are always interested in the thing (here it being some particular sport), but are neutral when it comes to picking sides (read teams). These people are the ones all marketing tries to lure, because more fans means more money. The best way to gain such followers is to win more. Since  (playing is all about winning, and also since) money (or the lack of it) is the root of all evil, all teams want to win more and more. That is, winning more is the best marketing strategy for teams to attract more fans, and by extension, more money.

Now, like any kind of business, all teams know that in simplest terms, the best way to make more cash is to invest more cash. Teams invest in players, non-playing staff and facilities for players like kits and equipment etc. It goes without saying that mostly players are the most  costly to get, and the most well paid part of a team. So, teams spend the most on players. And of course, the teams with the most money end up buying the best players!

But, again, since it is business, teams need to be sure of the players they are investing in. For this, a set of heuristics is considered according to the sport and a player's specific attributes in terms of skill and physical prowess. The problem with this approach is that while every team wants a good player, only one can have him/her at a time. So, there are two ways to get a player: either pay more than others, or change the way you measure players.

The second way seems a bit odd, but it is exactly what Billy Beane did at a team called Oakland Athletics, building on the theoritical foundations laid down by Bill James.

I don't know much about baseball, so if you are interested in it, please use internet search. About a bit of moneyball in soccer, see this page that I linked before too. Or, you can just watch the movie :-)

Sports aside, what is Moneyball?

The world loves statistics. Any and every consumer product that we use has at least some part of  its time, effort and/or budget allocated to statistical research. Apparently, getting the right balance between minimum quality and maximum payoff from customers is a big deal. 

Statistics in itself is a pretty useless thing. What is useful is the inferences that can be drawn from the loads and loads of data that is with us. Archives lying in a big library or in a database on some server need to be analysed in order to find patterns in it. These patterns can be extrapolated to get useful insights, which can be used to improve existing processes for better results etc.

It might seem too complex, but we as individuals do the same thing. When we need to get tickets to some game, we first contact friends who watch too many games and are cooperative. If these ones can't get it, we look for the ones having either one of these qualities. And if it still does not work, we just contact as many friends as possible and hope we get tickets anyhow. By the way, this was just an example, and not the best one. Buying tickets, either online or offline works too :-)

The catch here is that like in life as usual, perspective matters more than actual information. Sometimes we keep worrying about silly, nonexistent things, while other times, ignorance is bliss and it helps us coast through almost anything.

In the same way, in statistics, what you look at and what you ignore will be different from what someone else looks at and ignores. This difference will ensure that what different people learn from the same information and how they use it will be different. (I am trying to shorten my sentences, its a work in progress)

For example, the amount of time that we spend on working or studying etc. is a heuristic. The more it is, the better results we expect to get. But is this heuristic accurate? Mostly: Yes, always: No. For someone trying to uproot weeds off their garden, the amount of time spent on it is a very good indicator of progress. But for someone researching on something, it might not be as good an indicator because it usually takes a few weeks to a few months (sometimes even years) of work just to know that you've been wasting your time on a dead end.

So, for the purpose of this blog post, Moneyball is an approach to look into better heuristics rather than the statistical status quo. The rest of this post is me coming up with some examples on use of better heuristics.

Decisions we make as individuals

It is obvious that the amount of work we put in, or the money we invest, or the things that we do are directly related to the result that we get.

What is not really obvious is something that Paul Graham says: if you are doing what everyone else is doing, you will get what everyone will get. Too bad I was unable to locate the exact place where he wrote that, so no link and not an exact quote.

Going against the wind, or doing something that most people are not doing, is normally thought of as something silly. And it sometimes is. But it is the only way to get unusual results. Had Mark Zuckerberg and his friends joined some silly software company after graduating, instead of continuing on their dorm room project, we would have no facebook. They would be a normal programmers, working for a paycheck and blogging about ruby-on-rails or something on weekends. And I would have saved a lot of time from not having facebook. Not exactly right, because in that case some other social website would have come up.

This is the reason why politicians and advertisement campaign managers always want something different in terms of content. Same old stuff never gets attention. 

The need for reinventing ourselves

A big corollary of trying-to-do-different is the need to constantly reinvent ourselves. In most sports, a new player will play their heart out, but get out of form after a few games. Reason: they have now been analysed by other teams/players. 

You know something thats really good at reinventing itself? Viruses. Almost everyone has heard that flu has no medication. Some say existing common cold medication is just an attempt at fighting the symptoms and waiting for the virus to subside by itself. You know why this happens? Because every organism has a certain genetic structure. It usually takes some time (a few hundred generations at least) before any organism evolves. But in case of viruses, it happens within a few generations. Add to that a few days' or weeks' lifecycle, and drug research, something that takes at least a few years for a drug to come up, just can't keep up.

Decisions we make when we choose other individuals

Here are two situations when we get the chance to choose other individuals: choosing a suitable mate and choosing a employee,coworker or business partner.

The choosing-a-suitable-mate part makes me seem like a student of anthropology, but all I know about it is the spelling: a-n-t-h-r-o-p-o-l-o-g-y. Apart from that, have you ever noticed how animals, including humans choose mates for reproduction? We all have some heuristic or a set of heuristics that we look for. In humans, the most used factors are beauty and resourcefulness in that order. While these would have been good about two hundred years before now, these are not exactly deal makers or breakers now, at least to me. In this time of technology and knowledge, intelligence and understanding should matter more, but what the hell.

Same goes for situations when we choose people to work with. This does not look like an exact science, more like a work in progress. Some people just want trust to be the sole factor for choosing employees, coworkers and business partners, while some others consider only skill or expertise. Yet some more consider previous reputation of individuals as the most important factor, and there certainly are factors I am not even thinking of. While I don't know what exactly the deciding thing should be, it is funny that people and organisations with very different choosing and hiring ideologies are successful across different fields. So, this is something that needs more thinking, certainly more than the coin toss or dice roll (take your pick) we have been doing upto now, especially when success is an important thing, or just an assumption.

Analyzing police performance

Police and its role in India has been a point of debate since British times. While people might argue about the role of police everywhere, here is something I think about them.

Police in India at least is judged on the basis of the number of cases they get and the number of cases they solve. This means that a police station getting lesser cases is one in a place with good law and order credentials. But what if the police at that place are insistent on not registering any cases just to look good? What if instead of solving cases, the police just focus on getting the opposing parties to a compromise, mostly by the use of force?

What can be a better way to judge the police's work? For one, just like the government tries to audit everything, it should audit police work too. If the crime statistics in some area are just too good to be true, they probably are. If it takes a media report or public pressure to get a case registered, surely there are more such non-cases that need attention at that place.

Funny thing, the Supreme Court's ruling in the 2006 PIL, Prakash Singh vs. the Union of India looks to be full of Moneyball-like points, but has been gathering dust in almost all states. (I can't even think of any state that is implementing it)

Two pointers, both stolen

First, Siddhesh Agashe, in a blog post titled The Over The Top Economist, writes about economics:
.. Firstly, it is highly theoretical with no applications in the real world. Even the basic supply demand relationships do not work in the real world. Ask any baniya(businessman) in Delhi and he will give you a simple economics law – “The price of any good is determined by the bargaining (not purchasing) power of the consumer” If the store keeper finds you to be a new one time customer not adept at bargaining, he will charge you exorbitant prices covering his entire margins so that he can provide huge discounts to the not so friendly aunty of the neighborhood (who is also a repeat purchaser btw). This philosophy of the local kirana stores is responsible for kicking ass of all fixed price modern retailers. 
Clearly, it is Moneyball at its best.

The second small thing became clear to me while I was sitting with two people who were arguing over something. Now, they were polite and both seemed right as each spoke their points, but the equal or bound-for-a-tie nature of their arguments bought me to something: it is not the right point that wins an argument, it is the louder person. Not something I would like to stress too much, but the older I get, the more office politics and yelling bosses I see, the more I support this one.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Randomness is a pattern in itself

"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don’t much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn’t matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you’re sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough." 

                    - Alice and the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland.
In short, if you don't know where you want to go, all roads will take you there. You would think I read the book, but you would be wrong :-)

I wonder what Lewis Carroll's blog would have looked like if he lived in our times. Maybe minimal or no design but great content. (Him having a blog is almost axiomatic to me)

Wikipedia defines randomness as lack of pattern or predictability in events. 

But a way to think of randomness, in any field or manner of thought is not being able to predict what lies in front of you.

At the most basic level, there are only two choices or possible outcomes: either there will be some thing, event etc. that we expect, or something else. The something else part can be anything. Maybe the opposite of what we expected, or (a bit recursively) something else.

So, what does this mean?

First a Punjab Police joke:
How do you catch a tiger without a gun or any other trap for that matter? 
 - Newton's Method: Run faster than the tiger in the direction it is running, and you will eventually get close to it and catch it. 
 - Einstein's Method: Run in the direction opposite to the tiger, at the speed of light. Due to some obviously obvious relativity physics thing, you will end up in front of the tiger. Cool! 
 - Punjab Police's Method (refer to their service rules for further details): Catch a kitten, and beat it up until it says, "Yes, I am a tiger!"

And yes, I have no idea about relativity, but since it is "said" that only 12 people understood Einstein at that time, I am in the majority! Consensus can.... lets just keep it at that.

What I am trying to say here is that true randomness is something that eludes and will continue to elude us, just like the speed of light or something.

What the hell does it really mean?

It means that whenever we try to predict things without a good enough knowledge of what will happen, we will fail. What is good enough knowledge? To be sure about something, I think we need to be sure of what that thing will be. Cent percent surety would mean being witness to that situation beforehand, and assuming such a thing is possible, we wouldn't need predicting then, no?

Some might think on the lines of when do we predict.. A better question would be on the lines of when do we not predict?

As people, we think if we could pass a test, or if it would rain today, or what that person from the opposite desired sex thinks about us. Where should we invest our money, when should we get out from an argument, or why read blog posts from people who do not even know what they are writing about. If you are thinking about the last part of the last line right now, you are probably right :-)

Organisations/governments need to predict the weather, know about the economy 6 months into the future, and whether or not they are going to be victims of silly bomb blasts targeting normal folks rather than the leadership or the military.

Even if we had proper or sufficient information/knowledge/data, could we guarantee about using it properly?

What now?

As Russel Peters says in a made-up Indian accent, nothing!

As I already wrote before, randomness is a pattern in itself. If we don't know what might happen, it does not matter what the outcome is. The problem is choice. And it will take a few years of medicine research to fight the mental problem called "what if".

As far as I am concerned, I am gonna take all my predictions with a grain of salt from now on. At least the ones I make consciously.

Randomness, predictability, disorder, entropy, probability et. al. can ... again, lets just keep it at that.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Whats worth what

As a soon gonnabe 23 year old who wants to further their career, there are a few things I would love to remind myself all the time. Here they are:

  1. There is no hard work, only small goals. The more I am experiencing life, the more this resonates with me. The only way to keep at something is to divide it into smaller things and do them one at a time. Like with making small points in this blog post and writing them one at a time.
  2. If you are working too hard, something is wrong. Maybe you are only looking at the big picture, forgetting the nitty gritty details. Or maybe you are working too much or too hard on a small goal. For example, in a test worth 100 marks, no matter how much or how good you try attempting a 5-marks question, the most you will get is 5 marks. And most probably you are missing out on time and mental capacity for the other 95 marks.
  3. If you are not enjoying what you are doing, try taking a break. In computer programming, there is the more-psychological-than-real problem called just 5 more minutes. Can't find the error/bug, no matter, I'll just have it by the next 5 minutes. And you are still banging your head after 2 hours! Not because you are an idiot, but because you have spent not one but many 5-minute cycles. Try taking a walk, chatting to a friend, reading something (preferably not on the web, lol) or anything else that is different from what you are doing, but is not addictive enough to make you forget what you were doing.
  4. If you are still not enjoying what you are doing, is it worth doing? Worth a bit of introspection. Many times, it is our subconscious telling us about something else that we should be doing. The mind thinks in infinite terms, while there is only so much that a person can do. Mostly not enjoying what one is doing comes with that particular thing not being in sync with the big picture. 
  5. If you don't have a big picture, you have bigger problems. Because you are letting yourself be tossed around by your job, other people or just life. Slacking or not doing anything (except when on a break) is an example of being tossed around by your own laziness.
  6. The world does not care, and that is a good thing. Some people think positively, the world wants me to succeed. Others, not so much, the world wants me to fail. In truth, the world just does not care. What matters is what you think and do together. Only thinking/doing as individual acts are not good enough.
  7. Always remember what AI is at the most basic level. (1) Doing something systematic, and (2) making progress towards your aim, in no matter how small amounts, will get you somewhere. Just keep at it.
  8. Make sure there is only wheat, no chaff. Do I really need to remember the lyrics for every song I have heard till now? Only if I am going to play antakshari. Other than that, it is just bullshit taking space (as in a hard drive) in my mind. Do I need to remember what that girl told me about politics in her office? Should I be thinking about how hard it is to be an international level athlete, when I have to read about the stock market and invest? (From what I've heard, stock market people need to make really thought out and well informed decisions or risk losses)
  9. Don't underestimate the value of human contact, and don't overestimate it. Talking to a friend about some issue you are facing, even though they do not know even a bit about it, always helps. Talking to strangers about themselves helps even more (personal experience). But making sure that the talking/meeting/chatting/mailing etc. does not take you off your focus is also important. Maybe talking to a college crush in time of disappoint is not the best thing.
  10. Know your triggers, both ways. For example, if you are a good cook and promise me something, I will do anything for you. But, if I have some good, tasty food lying around and need to do something just now... let us say it is not gonna happen.
  11. Try to keep your dependencies to a minimum. If it needs loud verbal encouragement from your coach to just stay in the fight, maybe you don't like amateur wrestling as much as you think. If you need to ask permission before doing the smallest of things, maybe this company is not worth it. If you need to look out for your roommate agreement before everything, maybe you should rent a room for yourself.
  12. Fake it till you make it. Amy Cuddy Zindabad! And not only in terms of power poses. Thinking that you can do something before trying can make the difference between actually being able to do it and failing. Faith can move mountains.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why depend on Big Pharma? And work, and fun, and decisions, and the proverbial long term

A few weeks back I was telling I-HEARD-YOU about not splitting posts, and here I find myself guilty for the same. But I think it is fine, since I got some new ideas after publishing the previous post.

To read further, make sure that you know about the Novartis issue in India. I would prefer if you could read the post I wrote a few days back, but it is not required. Here is another post on the issue, more like an editorial.

Before I start the post, remember that there are two ways to hold your right ear. The first is to bring your right hand up and hold the damn ear (simple). The other is to take your left hand across and use it to hold your right ear (somewhat complex). Believe me when I say that I am writing this post according to the second way.

Customary sex/hierarchy/work/fun joke

If there is one thing I learnt from noticing (only noticing, not listening or reading etc.) the Presidential debates in US, it is that you should open with a joke when starting some kind of presentation or writing. So, here goes:
An Indian Army Colonel is dining with a Major and a Lieutenant. The Colonel purposes: "I think sex is 20% fun and 80% work." The Major says: "No sir, I think you are mistaken. Is is actually 50-50." The Lieutenant chips in: "Sirs, in my experience, it should be 80% fun and 20% work." 
Just then a Sahayak comes around the room. The Colonel asks him the same question. His answer: "Sirs, it is 100% fun and no work. None at all." 
Other three (somewhat surprised): "How can you say this? What is your logic?" 
Sahayak: "Sirs, if there was even an iota of work in it, you guys would have me doing it in place of your honorable selves!"
I do not remember where I read it from, but it is a great joke. By the way, as of April, 2013, the sahayak system is a system in the Indian Army under which trained non-commissioned soldiers are made to do the personal work of seniors. (Sahayak: orderly, from British Army.) The funny thing about this system is that all the armies of the world have abolished this system, including even the Pakistan Army a few years back. Kudos, Pak Army! In the meantime, our Indian Army has the distinction of being the only Army in the world to still follow this tradition.

From what my Sainik School friends tell me, people in the Army are kind of serious when it comes to traditions. I thought of another word in place of serious, but there is only so much profanity I can handle in a blog post I am writing, especially when I live under the illusion that maybe someday, I will be able to persuade my parents to come and read it. They made me read to them the SSC interview post with interest, the rest of the blog, not even a cursory look :-)

What was that all about?

First some groundwork.

We all work in life. For the purpose of this post, even slacking/not-working is work, like zero work or something.

At individual as well as organisational levels, people have two natures with  respect to work. Some people like to take initiative and decide what to work on. Others like to be told what to do, whether because of their lack of initiative or plain old laziness. For the most part, I belong to the second category :-)

Again at individual and organisational levels, we do not exactly belong to one of the two natures. This is because it is not possible to define a fine line between the two.

How we think or act in a situation, whether we stand back or bite the bullet depends on a lot of things in addition to our nature, like previous experience and prejudices, the gravity of the situation and our mood at the time.

Similarly on an organisational level, the same things matter in almost the same way. Some organisations take risks and succeed once in many tries, some others just don't take as much risks as they can, settling for less but sure returns every time.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the thing I called prejudice that can be considered as a factor in a person or organisation's short-term or long-term decisions. It is something that comes from the group, demographic, area or industry or some other unifying/opposing factor that defines a person or an organisation. For individuals, it will look like I am creating stereotypes, but it is very easy to see this for organisations.

Suppose that a person swears a lot. This person will not think badly of some other person, who swears as much or more than him/herself. But someone who does not swear, might take offense to another person swearing at the top of their voice. Here, we are talking about the group of people who swear a lot, and belonging or not belonging to that group might be a major factor when you try to judge someone who swears. (I personally swear a lot, mostly in Hindi/Punjabi, but am fighting it currently and hopefully will get over it in some time)

For private companies, it is normally about the industry they belong to and the target group, or customers/clients. For example, Novartis (a Swiss company) and Bayer (a German company), both a part of what we call Big Pharma, have a similar stand on most issues, like pricing and patents etc., but Cipla and Ranbaxy are Indian companies that have a similar stand on pricing and patents, but one different to Novartis and Bayer etc. For governments, you will see that the considerations are mostly of the politics and business-approach kind. North Korea is near to China/Russia and South Korea is near to US/Europeans, because of left and right-wing governing ideologies, respectively. (My personal view, as of April, 2013, is that there are only two kinds of governing ideologies: wings and center. You see, both left and right wings try to focus on providing all power to a few people while making others dependent on their whims and fancies, groups called the politburo and the capitalists, respectively. Again, as of April, 2013, as you might have noticed, I am the king of sweeping generalisations)

That is fine, but what does it have to do with the pharmaceutical patents issue?

Something about decisions that I probably should have mentioned earlier, but did not in order to keep the flow of nature, is that these are broadly of two kinds: short and long term decisions. A morally and logically consistent person or organisation will try to keep their short term goals in sync with their long term goals, unless it is an emergency or otherwise unusual situation, like, you know, a few months before elections.

And as with everything, logical/moral consistency between short and long term goals again depends on things like prejudice, gravity of the situation and mood or mental state (and a few other factors I cannot think of). For example, you are likely to get your weird-noise-making vehicle checked next Sunday (short term) so that you can drive it comfortably for many weeks to come((relatively) long term). But sometimes we just keep eating like animals (short term), even when we know we will have a hard time losing the excess weight (long term).

The million-tablet question

Since we had work and fun in the beginning of this post, now it is actual decision time.

What to do? Should I/we even be doing something? When should I/we start? To what limit am/are I/we to proceed? Questions, questions. Where are the decisions answers?

A big question is, should I/we even start? This one is normally simple. You feel hungry. Should I eat? Yes. Your company is making losses. Should we cut losses? Hell yes! Your government is not exactly the most liked one. Should we be doing something about our public image? Duh!

An even bigger, rather biggest, but more ambiguous question is, should I/we do it myself/ourselves, or let someone do it for me/us?

In the software industry, Joel Spolsky takes care of it in a great post: In Defense of Not-Invented-Here Syndrome. Quoting him:

The best advice I can offer:
   If it's a core business function -- do it yourself, no matter what.
Pick your core business competencies and goals, and do those in house. If you're a software company, writing excellent code is how you're going to succeed. Go ahead and outsource the company cafeteria and the CD-ROM duplication. If you're a pharmaceutical company, write software for drug research, but don't write your own accounting package. If you're a web accounting service, write your own accounting package, but don't try to create your own magazine ads. If you have customers, never outsource customer service.

The million tablet answer

Master Oogway's short answer: There are no accidents answers.

Long (and not really an) answer:  Lets consider two kinds of organisations: private ones and governments. What is the difference between the two? 

Both exist to serve people. Both want to stay the longest. Both exist according to the people's pleasure (Not exactly true for governments, but remember, companies need to be thrown off like authoritarian regimes too. What am I trying do with Novartis (albeit unsuccessfully) right now?)

The difference is in terms of their target. No matter what they tell you, companies' primary target is profits mostly, and secondary target is people's happiness (there are non-profits/NGOs etc. too, but let us ignore them for this post). Government's primary target, on the other hand is people's happiness (responsibility towards people), and the secondary target is revenues.

I know both the targets are the same if we forget which is primary and which is secondary. So, here is an example. Going by their prices, Novartis want money. They sell medicines for that. But if an epidemic comes up, will Novartis consider selling their drugs cheaply? I think not. Because some parts of Asia and most parts of Africa are in a perpetual state of epidemic, and Novartis have not done anything for anyone there. But this does not absolve the governments of these nations from their responsibility of helping their people. And therefore the governments will do what they can, hopefully. What it means, in the end is that when they need to change their priorities, different people/organisations are more likely to ignore their secondary targets than primary.

See, two birds with one arrow: explained my point and made fun of Novartis while doing it!

So, what I am saying is that it is upto the governments to decide what they should do and what not, and that by deciding to not create medicines themselves, the governments are in a way outsourcing this by accident. According to Joel's logic and my (admittedly sparse) common sense, I think that it should be upto the governments to research and develop medicines etc. And I am not talking of silly NIPER thingies. Just making institutions does not do the trick, what does it is actually doing it.

A lot of people would like to point out Left wing countries that have public health as one of their core things, and no private health infrastructure etc., and still have bad overall health. The reason is that these countries too take public health as seriously as we Indians take it. Also, when a country like North Korea has problems feeding its people, do you really think they would invest properly in the people's health?

I do not know about the rest of the world, and for a while forget about competing with GPS, GLONASS and Beidou. When a country like India can invest in IRNSS, spending I don't know how much, then I think it should not be a problem for our government to invest in medicine as much as in space programs. I know we have companies like Cipla and Sun and Ranbaxy and many more, but still, due to any reason, what if these companies try to increase their rates? Obviously, these companies did not enter the market for charity.

Is it over yet?

The point I am trying to make here is not just about Novartis. It is about our governments and the way these governments make decisions.

What is the Indian government doing for protecting farmers against Biotech seeds? For our tribals, whose natural resources are being mined and used by foreigners. I am as much a foreigner in a tribal area as an Indian or foreign mining/timber company. What kind of an example is the government setting by not helping Ashok Khemka?

So, in conclusion, it is probably most definitely a good idea to create cheap heart disease hospitals, but not a good idea at all if the the government is using people's money to build a new spa for rich people.

Feeling guilty

I spent the last 4 hours writing this post, and on weekends I go to the Rebol room and tell the great people there that I did not do any rebol over the week. Kind of sucks.

I wrote this post, with almost 75-80% part as the introduction, but am gonna sleep just when I came to the actual thing.

One thing I do not feel guilty about is writing about economics without knowing anything about it. There was an economics class in college, but we took it more like an aerodynamics or aeronautical class, making paper planes and all :-)

And I did not even talk about the proverbial long term, mostly since I don't know what the hell it is. Especially when everybody thinks in terms of 5 years!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Novartis: Confusing R&D with Patent Trolling, marketing with FUD, and justice with "my ball, my rules" aka polite-bullying

Oh, and it is not even their ball. Maybe that is the best form of bullying. It is like me telling Rahul Gandhi to return the 2 Lakh Rupees he owns me since the last 5 years. Or else....

At least that is what the Indian legal system told them.

Maybe I am a bit harsh on the marketing/FUD part, but who cares as long it makes for a cool-sounding but rather long heading? Long headings <--> credibility!

The whole thing has been documented in our newspapers, like the Hindu and the Indian Express, even with timelines and all, so its better I take to rant-mode sooner rather than explaining the whole thing.

For what its worth, the term Big Pharma will sound similar to the term Protection Racket to me for some time.

The judgement

It is very easy to go on and criticise our system, the polity, the electricity dudes, the TV channels, the bureaucracy, the traffic police, (my favorite) the IRCTC website, the neighbor's dog, pretty much everybody. And our judiciary too.  But have a look (or just see the headings on different pages) at the 112 pages long judgement in this case (something I have not been able to do, its beyond my capabilities I think), and maybe, like me, you will feel good about it.

I think its fair that I did not read the judgement in its entirety, because I did not read the patent applications either. And I am sure neither did the owners of Novartis.

It is not an isolated case. The SC's recent bashings of Punjab and Bihar state governments against unnecessary force against a young woman and agitating teachers respectively, and another ongoing issue in the court against the use of police as security for petty politicians, some even with a criminal past is appreciable too. As far as looking at the Supreme court goes, we are living in interesting times.

From the internet and the newspapers, it looks like our SC took a broad perspective and provided the Novartis judgement on the ground of the latest application being a case for evergreening. Another aspect was scolding them for expecting a favorable decision just because they had a well drafted appeal and all.

Looks like there is hope for infrequent, grammatically-and-politically-incorrect writers like me, after all. If only I could lay my hands on a law degree...


So, turns out patent trolling is not something that only Big Pharma deals in. It happens in lots of other fields.

Software is one of such fields. And one of the motivations for me writing this post (apart from other bloggers, SethTheWizKid and I-HEARD-YOU, and some friends telling me to write, overtly and covertly) was a recent post by Joel Spolsky, on the issue of trolling in software patents. This post by Joel was widely discussed on hackernews.

There is a company called Rackspace that is fighting against a patent troll. You might want to read their declaration of war on their blog, and another story elsewhere regarding the same troll's head, some Erich guy.

The above text aside, what surprises me is the overall pattern that rich (or soon-to-be-rich) people follow in bullying others is the same, more or less.

Novartis, and profits, and the need for bullying, almost in the same order

What I lack in economic knowhow, I am gonna make up in terms of fun that I have while writing.

Getting to basics of any kind of business, business is nothing but the process of doing something for others, or fulfilling a need, and expecting them to pay you for it. Some would call it the art of doing something that was not required, or fulfilling a need that was not a need in the first place, and then expecting others to pay you for it.

Doing something or fulfilling some need is not as simple as a YES or NO thing. It has two other aspects in my opinion, how important it is in the opinion of the user, and how important it is in reality. Which is which does not really matter, what matters is that both the aspects boil down to essentially one thing: desperation. 

The thing about the importance of something is that it is not a one-way thing, unless it is. Which turns out to be mostly. I might be desperate for getting people to my blog via advertising, but I am not desperate enough to pay for advertisements. So, no go, advertisements. But what if I have a bet with a friend about getting to, say, 10,000 views? My desperation will get a bit real. What if somehow I wind up jobless and hopeless, and the only way to get going is to make money from this blog? Now we are talking!

What you will pay for something, or whether you will pay at all, depends on how desperate you are for that thing.

Another desperation example: if a random dude had a hundred bucks, and he wanted to buy some chocolate, he would use some of the money. But if he had to walk a mile just to buy chocolate, he might not do it. This is because his desperation in this case is offset by the fact that he would have to walk a mile. But if he had a girlfriend and she wanted a chocolate, and he did not have any money, and the nearest shop or store was 10 miles away, he think he would crawl to the place and loot the shop/store and crawl back. Not the best example, but you get the point.

What happens if we were to up the stakes? What if it was a life and death matter for a near family member, and you were told that taking some magical pill might save them? Most people will do anything to get that pill and save that family member. That is where Big Pharma, or in this case, Novartis comes in, their superpower being your desperation!

There are very high chances that your family member can survive if you are willing to shell out a lot of money for them, to Novartis. A great company that works its ass off day in, day out, for the sake of the sick people in the world. But wait, if they really were that serious, they could have decreased the costs for their medicines. Looks like they are more desperate for money than most of us are for our lives.

What do you do to ensure that you have profits? Simple, make sure others cannot rip you off. We have something called patent law for that. This law means 2 things:

1. for 20 years, no one can copy your thing and make profit for it, unless,
2. they have (written?) permission from you.

This is necessary to make sure that the innovators get their due. But, the 20 years thing means that will only happen for a fixed time, and then it is a kind of free for all. Since Novartis is more desperate for money than you are for your family member's life (shame on you), they will do anything and everything to make sure they have the selling rights in exclusivity, even after the time limit.

How do you get a patent on something that you had patented a few years back? Simple. Show that the something you have now is better than the one before. For this, part (d) in Section 3 of Chapter II of the (Indian) Patents Act, 1970 reads something like the following:
3. What are not inventions? The following are not inventions within the meaning of this Act
(d) the mere discovery of a new form of a known substance which does not result in the enhancement of the known efficacy of that substance or the mere discovery of any new property or new use for a known substance or of the mere use of a known process, machine or apparatus unless such known process results in a new product or employs at least one new reactant.
Explanation. For the purposes of this clause, salts, esters, ethers, polymorphs, metabolites, pure form, particle size, isomers, mixtures of isomers, complexes, combinations and other derivatives of known substance shall be considered to be the same substance, unless they differ significantly in properties with regard to efficacy;
The last paragraph kind of kills it for the purpose of evergreening by Novartis and Big Pharma in general. But wait, why would Novartis want to evergreen its patent on this medicine? The reason is the big generic drug industry in India, which caters not only to Indians, but to others too in the subcontinent and more importantly, Africa. One of these companies, Cipla, has been working really well in this aim of reaching to everybody (for profit of course). According to wikipedia, in 2001, when they reduced the cost of their AIDS medicine to $350 per patient per month, they led the the International Aids Society to state after a decade:
Cipla’s dramatic price reduction, which received widespread media attention, hammered the message home that many of the multinational drug companies were abusing their market monopoly in the face of a catastrophic human disaster.
(Too bad the wikipedia reference to that page returns a 404)

So, the second problem in the Big Pharma model, after the evergreening one is the urge to serve only a few people with expensive drugs rather than everyone with cheap drugs. What difference does it make? Well, no apparent difference. You can serve one person for $100, or 10 persons for $10 each, or 100 people for $1 each.

The real reason is that big multinationals drive on scarcity, and desperation. Except that after the time limit of 20 years, this option leaves itself out. I am sure you have heard/read the following- We did all we could, spent every last dime on his/her treatment, but to no avail.

Now to the need for bullying. Novartis India CEO saying something on the lines of No multinational drugs company is going to invest in India, you are all gonna die like dogs, you are all doomed, hahahahaha is, in its simplest form, bullying. (I don't think I get a copyright on stating his words in the simplest form, do I?)

This statement, whatever it was (I don't feel like quoting it exactly), is nothing but telling us to suck it up and just do what they want us to do, in terms of innovation and judging and our buying choices etc. Such statements are like poison to people suffering from rare forms of diseases who are normally told by doctors about a new drug in testing phase. And, our record as a nation on clinical trials is not very good, but the Supreme Court is working on that too, and more importantly, making the respective ministries work on that too.

(By the way, there is this great book, called Big Pharma, that I will read someday)

Who stands to benefit?

Something I learnt after working for a while, was that companies have three groups of people: owners/shareholders, management/employees and customers/clients. (Considering outsourcing as employees only)

Companies' allegiances lie only with the owners/shareholders. I don't think it is fair enough, but that is what happens. In this aspect, pharma companies are a bit good, with the concept of sweat equity and all.

But the problem is the only people who will benefit from the evergreening fad are the owners, when it should have been a case of patients benifitting from the drugs. If Novartis wants so much money, they should really try the recreational drug market!

Another party that really benefitted was the lawyers, but I saw how Jolly got beat up by other lawyers, so I am not gonna say anything about them. :-)

Wrapping up

The fun of writing on Novartis has now given way to boredom, so, here are a few points that I would like to write before I go on and do something else.
  1. Novartis, and all big western multinational pharma companies are evil.
  2. The need greed for generating more money is more important to them than the lives of the people their drugs can save.
  3. Somehow, these companies find ways of overestimating their investment and therefore making the costs for drugs skyrocket. Examples include showing marketing expenses as genuine R&D expenses.
  4. What is it with the time required to produce a drug? Is it really 10-15 years? How much is it excluding marketing? Also excluding the initial, no-research, only documentation phases etc.?
  5. India is not the only such nation, Indonesia is too. And I am sure others will follow.
  6. All big companies, irrespective of their field or lobby-ability must remember that India is a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic, and that at least in the near future (40-50 years), we are going to take a left-of-centre approach on most issues.
  7. Getting your management officials to say silly things does not really change anything. Ditto for your silly organisations in US or elsewhere.
  8. If you are so good at lobbying and R&D at the same time, you should try getting the government to change the patent law, and get a patent for testosterone occurring in its natural form. That way you might be able to control the whole world in terms of reproduction. And countries like India, with so many people and growing will be like little kittens in your hands.
  9. Maybe it is their drugs talking, but Novartis seems to have forgotten a basic business thing: if you won't provide something people want, someone else will. So, cry all you want, some other (preferably not similar to you) company will fill the void that you leave after you move out from India. Or, you will not move out, because we are such a huge fricking market!

To Novartis: this was me having some fun at your expense. If you feel this was not the best thing to do at my (a random person's) part, you have got bigger problems than patent issues and all. If you do not like it, please consider changing your tactics. I hope you won't sue me, but if you do, remember that I am kind of bankrupt. 

Also, if you intend to keep on with these silly, over the top court cases, consider providing a free medicine for vomiting, at least to me :-) :-)

In any case, remember that you are serving the market, it is NOT the other way around.

Feel free to have me as a researcher or a lawyer or a marketing professional or as a strategic guru. Then maybe we can delete this post :D