Friday, December 13, 2013

The problem of evil

I know that the problem of evil is not new. Indeed the question "why is there evil?" is one that religious people who believe in a God who is supposed to be on our side, has been asked since as long as anyone can remember. Why has the question stuck around for so long? Because the only answer religious people can come up with is because "God works in mysterious ways".

Indeed they want us to believe that when good things happen to us it is because of divine intervention, but when natural disasters hit and children die God is being coy. No wonder the problem of evil is still around when that is the proposed solution...

I was reminded of the problem of evil when I watched a short youtube video from Sam Harris. Rarely is the problem of evil depicted with such power...

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Review of Drinking Water: A history by James Salzman

We all depend on water. Without water we die. Unclean water kills about 3.4 million people per year and is among the leading causes of death in humans today. This book accomplishes the rather impressive feat of giving the reader a broad introduction to various issues associated with drinking water. In one book he manages to cover the history and myths associated with water, justice and economic issues (who gets to drink and can you charge for water), safety and health issues, terrorist issues, and last but not least, how you can help bring water to those who do not have it today.

This tendency to associate powers with water is as strong as ever in our modern society, which is partly why it is extremely profitable for companies to sell bottled water. These companies rarely shy away from shouting out grandiose claims about the properties of their water. The fact is that, with some exceptions, tap water is as good or better than bottled water which may come from contaminated springs.

In chapter 2 and chapter 7 Salzman discusses the often forgotten but extremely important issue of whether water should be considered to be an essential human right or whether it should be considered a commodity, or perhaps rather a little bit of both. Humans who don’t get water die is one very good argument for why water should be a human right. However, should we say therefore that it is not ok to sell water. It is after all not free to transport water from those who have it in excess to those who have too little. If people are allowed to earn money on water they might even work hard to build systems that allow them to transfer their commodity to their potential customers. Salzman, even if he may not say so explicitly seem to argue that a combination of these two approaches is best. The romans developed a very efficient system for delivering water to all their people, but that would not have been possible was it not for the money they earned by selling privileges (e.g. water directly into your house), to the rich. There are few things that motivate people and businesses as much as money and often the best products are achieved if people are allowed to earn money when they do deliver.

Another thing that become evident when reading this book is that there is really no such thing as clean water, only water that is clean enough. Water taste different depending on where it originates from. Almost all water, including tap water in western nations, also contain certain small concentrations of poisons such as arsenic and lead. As if that was not enough there are many kinds of bacteria that also live in our water sources. To eradicate every kind of contaminant completely from the water we drink would be excruciatingly expensive, and it would really not be worthwhile given that the human body is generally quite good at handling small amounts of contaminants (this why I am rarely convinced by alarm report saying potential carcinogen found in x - it is often (not always) negligible amounts). I guess the lesson that should be learned is that our tap water is clean (again there are exceptions), but that does not mean that it is devoid of any microbes

Apart from being a good book, it also made me realize the importance of providing clean water to those who do not have it (in comparison with other types of charity). The benefits go very far, because not only does unclean water kill people and make them sick, it also uses up people’s time when they have to walk, sometimes several miles to get water (dirty water). Often girls in Africa have to quit school at an early age in order to spend their days fetching water. Indeed in Africa alone people spend 40 billion hours per year, fetching water. This book has inspired me to create a profile on where you donate money or even start your own fundraiser that helps build wells and bring water to those who need it. How about for your next birthday, wish for a donation in dollars equivalent to how many years you become.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

You cannot tell if someone is lying from their eye movements

Proponents of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claim that you can tell if someone is lying based on how they move their eyes. This claim has also become popular in the public. For example, according to this web page, Bandler and Grinder, in their book on NLP say that right handed persons tend to look up to the left when they construct visual images such as when they are asked to imagine a purple buffalo. Since lying often involves construction of visual images (as opposed to things that have actually been witnessed), one should be able to tell if another person is lying by observing eye movements.

However, no experimental tests of this claim had been done until Richard Wiseman (who by the way have an excellent blog and youtube channel) and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh did a series of experiments on the topic. In the first part of the study (read the entire study here), they instructed participants to take a mobile phone, go into an office and then either put it in their pocket or put it in a specified drawer in the office. 

Participants were then interviewed about their behavior. Everyone were told to say that they put the mobile phone in the drawer (which of course means that 50% would be lying). The interviewer did not know who was lying and who was telling the truth. Participants were filmed during the interview and subsequently two persons who were also blind to the different conditions estimated eye movements of the participants. If lying involves a specific pattern of eye movements, it should have been detected here. As it happened, there were no significant effects to be found anywhere. That is, there was no difference between the eye movements of participants who were lying and those who were telling the truth. 

The study included two more experiments. In one subjects were told about the cues for detecting lies as taught by NLP proponents and were then asked to rate if the people from the first part of the study were lying or telling the truth. Their assessments were compared to those of subjects who had not learned about NLP rules. Again there was no difference in the accuracy of participants to determine whether someone was lying or telling the truth. 

All in all, this study (I think), shows quite convincingly, that there is no truth to the idea that you can tell if someone is lying by observing their eye-movements. 


Wiseman R, Watt C, ten Brinke L, Porter S, Couper SL, & Rankin C (2012). The eyes don't have it: lie detection and Neuro-Linguistic Programming. PloS one, 7 (7) PMID: 22808128

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Frontiers for young minds

I just stumbled upon a nice new initiative called frontiers for young minds. There is by now a relatively large collection of frontier journals that cover most fields of science. All their journals are open access which means that they are available to everyone for free when published and the authors maintain copyright. Their peer review system is also different in that the identity of the reviewers is revealed when a paper has been published. This probably reduces ad hominim attacks and instead encourages a respectful tone, which is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted.

The frontiers for young minds is a new journal where children, together with scientists, review the articles. This has the benefit that it forces scientists to write in such a way that children can understand it. I think that having such a journal could really help children and also adults who find it hard to read traditional science journal, get into science in the first place. I am not arguing that traditional journals only contain unessecary jargon, but rather that this type of journal is probably needed. I will keep checking the page and probably read some of the articles as well.

As an example, see this article: Do you feel lonely? You are not alone: lessons from social neuroscience.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review of The Universe Within by Neil Shubin

From my list of book reviews it will be blatantly obvious that I like non-fiction, especially non-fiction science books. I therefore naturally thought that The universe within by Neil Shubin would be a perfect match. A little bit of geology mixed with astronomy and evolution combined with reportedly good writing. It felt like a safe bet for me. I was wrong.

Shubin starts out by describing a geological expedition to Greenland. It was indeed interesting to learn about the hardships associated with finding stones that were formed during the time you are interested in. Shubin quickly moves on (it is a rather short book) to state that all living creatures on earth are related to one another and then he also takes it one step further, saying that we are also related to distant stars because had it not been for supernovas of massive stars the elements on which life depends, would not have formed. This, I suppose, is a profound fact, but I guess that a few paragraphs is not sufficient to convey a feeling of awe.

The book proceeds on a wild journey through space and evolution. Shubin writes about the origin of life and about the formation of stars as well as the entire universe. He frequently diverts from the main story (if there is one) and discusses other things such as the circadian rhythm. The part I personally found most interesting was the one about earth’s climate on a geological timescale. Did you know that before the Himalayas formed 40 million years ago (due to the collision of the Indian and Chinese landmasses), earth was considerably larger than it has been since then. At some points there were not even any ice caps over Antarctica. The Himalayas, Shubin explains, drained carbon dioxide from the atmosphere which was flushed into the oceans which in turn reduced the greenhouse effect of our atmosphere which cooled earth. We should expect more such drastic changes of the earth’s climate in the future and we better hope that we humans are able to adapt to such changes.

This is not a bad book but I feel that if suffers from trying to cover too broad an area in too few pages. It reminds me of when my supervisor was going to give a talk about “cognition and evolution”, which he felt was already stretching what you could cram into one talk. The arrangers however felt that this was too modest, can’t we change the title to cognition, evolution, and the cosmos to raise interest? I don’t know how that episode ended but I can imagine that, like this book, the result would lack focus.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Writing pace, normal keyboard vs Swype

I frequently use my smartphone for typing emails as well as notes when I am listening to audiobooks. In the past I used the keyboard swiftkey but since about a year back I switched to swype which is much faster, especially when using only one hand, which I am frequently forced to do. Swyping seem hard at first but as you learn the benefits are quite noticeable. I was curious to see how fast my Swyping was compared to my writing pace on a normal keyboard. To do this I tried writing three paragraphs (see below) with a keyboard and my swype keyboard, measuring the time with an online stopwatch. 

As expected, writing on a keyboard is faster, but by how much? In my not very professional study it took 104s, 105s and 106s to write on keyboard and 156s, 135s and 145s on Swype for the three paragraphs respectively. Since the paragraphs were about the same length (and since this is not being sent for peer review), we simply take an average which is 145 seconds for Swype and 105 seconds for the normal keyboard. This means that for me it was approximately 40 percent faster to write on the normal keyboard. Keep in mind though that I have been writing on a keyboard almost since I was a baby = lots more training.

In sum I think that even though swyping is 40% slower than the very fast keyboard, it is a great tool and I will continue to use it. I wonder how swype would do against an old school pencil. I see a tournament in the brewing... =)

Paragraphs (taken from my own blog) and times

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

Swype: 2.36 = 156s
Keyboard 1.44 = 104s

The bottom line is that vaccinations save lives, many many lives. Still people in Sweden are now raging over the suggested link between the swine flu vaccine and narcolepsy in which less than a hundred extra cases may have occurred due to vaccination. Of course, I sincerely sympathize but no sane human being should question the value of vaccination in general because of this potential misfortune

Keyboard 1.45= 105s
Swype 2.15 =135s

In the end I guess it all comes down to what your values are. Is it worth it to sacrifice laboratory animals in order to develop medicines that can cure us as well as animals. My answer is yes, but I don't think it is entirely obvious, so think for yourself. Perhaps we should be content with just living 48 years instead of around 75 years, and perhaps we should just accept that some diseases will kill us (I am not being sarcastic here).

Keyboard. 1.46 = 106s
Swype 2.25 = 145s

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an amazing scientist. I have always thought so and this first part in his autobiography trilogy do reinforce my favorable view on Dawkins. His greatness, in my opinion, primarily lies in his unequaled ability to convey science to the general public using a language which should make him eligible for the Nobel prize in literature (seriously!). His book, the selfish gene is probably the book that have meant the most to me personally, all categories, and reading excerpts from it in this book made me remember what a great book it was, and still is. In fact, reading “An appetite for wonder”, made me decide to re-read Dawkins original best-seller (which I am now doing).


Yes, Dawkins is a fantastic writer and scientist, but this book, on the whole, did not live up to my admittedly high expectations. Perhaps others will disagree with me but I am not personally very interested in great people’s childhood, unless it is truly extraordinary. Yes Dawkins grew up in Africa and that was probably interesting, however, I would personally have preferred if this section was significantly shorter or left out.

The book gets more interesting when Richard gets into Balliol college, Oxford. As a University teacher one of my favorite sections of the book was Dawkins description of the education system in Oxford. Their system in which students each week study a new topic by reading up on the scientific literature and try to form hypotheses, and then discuss what they have learnt with tutors who are also leading scientists made me, well… jealous. He claims that students at oxford never asked the question, “will this be on the exam?”, which is a question I get all too frequently…

Following his description of the education system in Oxford a semi-interesting description of his early years in academia follows. The book, in my opinion reaches its climax towards the end when Dawkins discusses and reads excerpts from the Selfish Gene. I realize it may sound nerdy but just hearing a few lines from that book can increase my pulse significantly, and it was interesting to get to understand how the book came about. I was also pleased to find out that, like myself, the great writer Richard Dawkins does not write his book in one go. Rather, every sentence that he writes have been written and re-written many times. Like the natural selection of biological organisms, this way of writing should lead to evolution of better sentences and in the end a better book. This is certainly the case with the Selfish Gene.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Quote from the Selfish Gene

I am currently re-reading the Selfish Gene which is a book I think everyone should read. Few books are simultaneously beautifully written, clear in thought, and dense with information at the same time, but the Selfish Gene is certainly all this. As a teaser, take this often cited quote from the end of chapter two. Dawkins is talking about ancient molecules capable of making copies of themselves (replicators). These replicators are the rulers of the world, whereas we humans are just their machines that they build to benefit their own survival. Take it away Dr. Dawkins...

“Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators?

They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control.

They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of the world until yesterday by Jared Diamond

Up until a few tens of thousands years ago all humans lived in bands consisting of up to a few dussin people. Thus during almost our entire evolutionary past we lived in an environment very different from the one we live in today. To understand the evolutionary pressures that have shaped our behavior and our cognition we need to look at the way our ancestors lived. This is of course more or less impossible because written history did not appear until very recently. However, there are people alive today, who live in a manner we think is very similar to the way all humans used to live. This book is about these peoples. How do they live and think, what are the similarities and differences between us and them? What can we learn from the way they live?

This book shows that the life of our ancestors was not, as some people (especially Disney employees) like to think, all romantic and in harmony with nature etc. Personally I would never switch my life in a civilized western nation for a life in the jungles of New Guinea, and I think that any informed person would be inclined to make the same choice. The life expectancy is about half of what I have now. They are also much more likely to be murdered because crime rates in such societies is extremely high compared to any state nation. Also they have no Wi-Fi, and that would suck too.

In short, life was not better before, it is better now, much better. With that said, there are many lessons to learn from traditional societies and lifestyles. Jared Diamond in “The world until yesterday” goes through many aspects of life, including but not limited to health, crime, diet, child rearing and care for the elderly. Consistently, there are things that we do better in modern western societies and to his credit Diamond points this out. However, there are also lessons to be learned from people living in traditional societies.

The justice system is good example. Crimes in traditional societies are dealt with by the community. There are no absolute laws. For example, murder is sometimes seen as justified and therefore not punished. If someone accidentally causes the death of another person then it may be sufficient for the perpetrator to pay sorrow money to the victims family. Western societies on the other hand see crimes as committed against the community and a perpetrator cannot walk away even if the victim forgives him (yes it is usually “hims”). What lessons can we derive from this. It is probably the case that we can learn things from traditional societies about finding common ground between perpetrator and victim. Grudges are usually resolved one way or another. However, in traditional societies it is also much more common that people take justice into their own hands, which can and do have fatal outcomes.

In some areas the conclusion that progress have been made is inescapable. One perhaps unexpected example of this is wars. The first time I heard about the relative casualty rates in traditional and modern “total” wars I was rather surprised. I had always thought that the second world war was the worst war in the history of mankind, however, if one compares the casualty rate in the second world war with the casualties in wars between traditional tribes it is actually much higher in the latter. In some traditional wars the casualty rate reaches one percent of the population annually whereas Germany and Russia (the two worst hit nations) saw casualty rates of about 0.16 percent annually during the second world war. In other words, you would be much more likely to die in a “traditional war” than in WW2… One factor here is also the fact that whereas children in western societies are taught that killing is wrong and often feel bad after having killed another person (even in wars), children in traditional societies are sometimes taught to feel pride upon killing an enemy. Taking into account wars as well as violence that occurs between wars, it is crystal clear that we are much better off in our modern world. As Jeff Niehaus, who was teaching developmental psychology at UCSB once said, downtown Chicago is actually really peaceful if you compare it to traditional societies.


guess that it is clear to the reader that I feel quite fortunate that I live in a modern society and not in the jungles of New Guinea. In a few respects however the sometimes cannibalistic tribes outperform us. One obvious example is language. An average New Guinean knows five languages, which is rather impressive. I personally know only three and I think that is probably better than the average person in modern societies. Diamond argues that we should try and preserve languages which are otherwise bound to go extinct. I was not entirely convinced by his arguments. I accept that bilingualism is associated with performance on other types of tasks, delayed dementia etc, however, I also think that it would be desirable if communication between different peoples of the world was easier. Maybe there is a compromise between extinction of all languages except english (or chinese), and the ability of people to talk to each other (I’ll have to return to that topic).

In one of the last chapters Jared Diamond compares the health of people in modern and traditional societies, with mixed conclusions. Once again it is absolutely clear that we live longer in western societies. This ought to be problematic to explain for those who like to claim that a “natural” lifestyle is preferable and more healthy in general. Even though we are using more and more “chemicals” (everythings is chemicals really), we also live longer and longer. If chemicals kill us, then why do we live longer? In some respects our modern lifestyle is not so good however. We do consume too much salt and sugar. Diabetes is pretty much unheard of in some traditional societies, and high blood pressure (which occur if we eat too much salt), is also extremely uncommon. So one lesson we can learn is to eat less sugar and salt.

There are many more interesting topics in this book. One that I found particularly interesting was child rearing practices where people in traditional societies spend much more time which their kids and have much more skin to skin contact, an approach I personally do believe in to a certain extent. I also liked the discussion about treatment of the elderly which ranges from leaving them to die when they go dement (this was the practice of Swedish natives), or killing them when they are no longer of any use, to chewing their food for them when they have no teeth (yuk).

Overall I liked this book. It was 20 hours well spent although I think Diamond could have excluded certain parts that were personal and not so interesting if you are not extremely interested in Diamonds personal life. However, I did learn a lot that I did not know before and it gave me some new perspectives and it even made me want to change a few things in my own life. Above all however, the book reminded me of the privileged life I live. I live in peace. I have a family that I love (and I am under the impression that they like me too). I have a stimulating job that I like, and I am able to explore the world in a way that would be completely unimaginable to 99.99% of all humans that have existed on this planet. I really did win the lottery in the most important sense. Lucky me =)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Flynn effect, explained

The flynn effect refers to the substantial increase in average IQ seen in western societies since Binet started testing IQ scores in the 19th century. An average person living one hundred years ago would score about 70 on a modern IQ test, which happens to also be the cutoff score for mental retardation. Were our ancestors really retards?

How can this be the case given that we know that IQ is highly heritable (60 to 80 percent of the variance is explained by genes)? I believe (and I believe others believe this), that IQ is highly heritable given a relatively modern environment. What distinguishes our modern society from the society a hundred years ago is that today we deal with abstractions and categorizations all the time. Computers and the internet is based on interactions with representations of things i.e., abstractions.

Similarly, according to James Flynn (see video), there has been a notable shift in tasks that children encounter in school. A hundred years ago, tasks and examples were almost entirely based on concrete examples about things the students would encounter. Today, almost all tasks are abstract, requiring imagination of things you may or may not have seen.

The shift is also evidenced by the fact that many people living in traditional societies, whose lifestyles are more similar to that of our ancestors, are unwilling or incapable of thinking about abstract things. In the video, James Flynn talk about a conversation between an anthropologist and a native of some traditional society (cannot remember which). The anthropologist asks the man to imagine that in a country where there is always snow, bears will be white. If there is always snow in Greenland then what color will the bears be? Despite this relativeThe native insisted that to know this he would have to go and take a look or send a trusted associate to have a look. Thinking in what if terms was not a possibility...

IQ tests are to a large extent a measure of our ability to think about abstract things. This ability is undoubtedly a product of both nature and nurture. I would predict that if we could send a modern baby back a hundred years and be raised in that environment, that child would not get a great IQ score. Still this does not mean that IQ is not heritable. The variance in a population where all individuals encounter abstractions frequently (this is definitely the case in modern western nations), is likely to depend on genes. It is simply easier for some individuals.

I often hear that IQ is just "one type of intelligence" and it is often suggested that IQ doesn't matter. While IQ is not all that matters, there is a lot of evidence showing that IQ scores correlate with performance on a number of tasks and work. Your score on an IQ test is also one of the best predictors of life happiness. Our improved ability to think in abstract terms is likely to be have many positive effects. James Flynn takes about an older relative of his, who was incapable of thinking about hypothetical situations that people could encounter in other parts of the world. Our ability to reason abstractly allows us to take the perspective of other people in other parts of the world. I believe that this is a crucial ingredient in the improving global society we are seeing.

Were our ancestors retarded? Probably the answer is yes and no. If they had grown up in our society they would have become as good as us at reasoning abstractly, but since this was not the case they were probably somewhat retarded, at least in certain areas

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review of Naked Statistics by Charles Wheelan

"Statistics is like a high caliber gun, very useful in the right hands but potentially disastrous if misused."

This book will not teach you the mathematics behind statistics. This book is about making you understand what you are doing when you are doing statistics. Thus it is a great complement to a university course where you might learn how to plug in numbers in SPSS or MATLAB and get a p-value but don't really understand the assumptions involved and the potential pitfalls that must be considered.

Though I have studied some statistics at university level this book still provided a fresh valuable perspective on many statistical issues. It also gives examples of many, often costly mistakes scientists made in the past using statistics.

The analogy I used in the title (taken from this book), really captures an important aspect of statistics. If used properly statistics can tell us if a medication, or a certain policy is effective. If used improperly, it can lead to erroneous medical advice with fatal consequences, in the literal sense.

I would recommend this book if you are taking statistics but often don’t know what you are really doing or how what you are doing relates to real life issues. Alternatively, this book can also be read by people who don’t know any statistics but want to understand what it is all about without having to learn to do the actual math. If you are already an advanced student in statistics and know what you are doing (and know what not to do), then this book might not be for you.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Removing Pdf/A protection in adobe acrobat

Are you also annoyed with the fact that you cannot highlight text or insert comments in certain pdf files i.e., pdf/a? The following two steps will allow you to get rid of this protection.

1. Export the pdf A file as a Postscript
2. Open the Postscript file and print it as a pdf file

And there you go, open the new pdf file and make all the highlights/comments you like.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Benefits from playing action video games

I just finished reading a recent review by Dapne Bavelier about the benefits of playing action video games. This review does not address the controversial issue of whether video games cause people to become more violent or not (I am personally on the fence on that one).

Rather, this review focus on the effects on more basic perceptual processes, and how playing video games affects these abilities. All this is put within a "learning to learn" framework. That is, will playing action video games help you find patterns or gain knowledge when you are not playing video games as well.

The pattern is very clear here. Video games will help you in a number of different ways. People who play action video games (sim city or civilization won't do), are faster at identifying objects, without making more errors, there are not as easily distracted by irrelevant stimuli, and they have greater contrast sensitivity. It seems as though video games enhances eyesight in general.

There are also substantial benefits in certain cognitive functions. People who play action video games enhance their ability to perform mental rotations (ex determining which 3D shape matches another 3D shape). Mental rotation in turn correlates with improved mathematical skills. Multi-tasking is another cognitive function that is improved in video game players.

Significant improvements have also been seen in decision making and reaction times. These factors may determine whether you brake in time to prevent a traffic accident or whether you die.

Thus in general, playing action video games improve a broad range of perceptual/cognitive abilities which probably helps the individual find relevant information in the environment, even though that environment does not involve war.

The objection which I am sure that some of you have thought of already is the classic "correlation does not equal causation". Maybe people who are good at all of these perceptual/cognitive tasks to begin with like video games more and therefore play more. Indeed, it you are slow, you get killed a lot in many of these games which can be very discouraging (I have played a little bit online and it sucks when you get shot 30 times over by a ten year old).

Researchers of course anticipate this objection and therefore conduct controlled studies. For instance you can take a random group of student with equivalent video game experience and then pay them to play either call of duty or civilization (a turn based game) for a few hours per day for a week or so. Differences between these groups after the intervention are probably due to the different treatments. Such controlled studies support the conclusions above, video games really do improve perceptual/cognitive functions.

So depending on whether you think action video games will increase aggression (like I said, I think the jury is still out on that one), if your child is playing violent video games and still not missing out of school etc, then you might even want to encourage this.
Bavelier D, Green CS, Pouget A, & Schrater P (2012). Brain plasticity through the life span: learning to learn and action video games. Annual review of neuroscience, 35, 391-416 PMID: 22715883

Monday, August 19, 2013

How fast are audible books read?

Since my life involves many tasks that are very tedious, but can be done in an incognizant state of mind I tend to listen to many podcasts and audiobooks. That tedious work such as cleaning, washing up or walking the dog becomes an opportunity to learn instead of just a waste of time. I recommend this approach to every dad who feels under-stimulated when at home (not a prerequisite to be a dad of course).

Anyway, I was curious to know how many pages one hour of listening corresponds to and therefore I decided to do a small study on the books that I have listened to the past year. You can find the complete list of books that I have listened to below. The first column gives you the title of the book, the second gives you how many pages the book is (gathered this data from The third column gives you the reading pace for that particular book i.e., pages per hour.

I will give the most important statistics here. In total I have listened to audiobooks for a total of 284 hours this past year. This amounts to 5.5h per week or 0.8h per day. These 284h were spent listening to a total of 24 books, totalling 8469 pages. This amounts to 163 pages per week or 23 pages per day.

So what about the reading pace? To get the average number of pages you get through in an hour one can merely divide the total number of pages with the total listening time, 8469/284 = 30. That is, the average reading speed of audible readers is about 30 pages per hour, with a range from 22,2 (The 2nd world war by Anthony Beevor), to 54 (The science of evil by Simon Baron Cohen). The standard deviation was 7.79 pages per hour.

Here is the entire list of books I have listened to the past year, as well as the number of pages, the duration of the audibook and the average reading pace of that book:

Blood and thunder 499 21 23,76
Energy for future presidents 305 9,5 32,11
The Universe within 191 6,5 29,38
How pleasure works 223 7 31,86
Thinking fast and slow 483 20 24,15
We are anonymous 428 14 30,57
Half the sky 259 10,5 24,67
Bad astronomy 259 9,5 27,26
Naked statistics 257 11 23,36
Drinking water 320 8 40,00
Genghis Khan 352 14,5 24,28
The Moral Lanscape 320 7 45,71
At home 592 16,5 35,88
Radiation 288 7,5 38,40
The world until yesterday 512 18,5 27,68
Complications 269 8 33,63
The undercover economist 265 8,5 31,18
The willpower instinct 272 8,5 32,00
The science of evil 272 5 54,40
A history of the world in 6 glasses 311 7,5 41,47
God is not great 336 9 37,33
Incognito 304 9 33,78
The Second world war 880 39,5 22,28
Who's in charge 272 8 34,00

ps: An assumption of this analysis is that the number of words per page is approximately the same for different books - an assumption that is likely to be false for some books and may therefore bias the results.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Energy for future presidents by Richard Muller

I will start by admitting that I am a fan of Richard Muller. Before I even went to university I watched every lecture in his "Physics for future presidents" course at UC Berkeley, which was one of the first courses to become available online as a free webcast. I would describe Muller as an honest and rigorous scientist who is not afraid to speak his mind even when his views are controversial. He is also very critical of the way that different energy issues are portrayed in the media, something which you will realize if you read this book.


One good example of what can only be called overblown media reporting is what followed the BP oil spill in the Mexican gulf. When it happened the media was reporting on little else and many high standing politicians described it as one of the worst (sometimes the worst) environmental disasters in the history of mankind. What happened next? Suddenly the media moved on and I was surprised to learn (from this book) that though the initial explosion killed 11 workers, the subsequent oil spill only caused 6000-30.000 bird deaths. "Only" is indeed the appropriate term here, considering that glass windows kill 100.000.000 birds annually and power lines kill many million more. The BP oil spill was unfortunate, and it cost human lives, some birds and a lot of money to fix it, but it is clear that the media and the politicians got a bit carried away with this one.

Another so called " disaster" which got an unfair treatment in the media was the Fukushima power plant accident. To date not a single person have died from the radiation released and the prognosis is that a few hundred extra cancers, some of which could have a fatal outcome, will be the result of this “disaster”. My Fukushima headline would have read: “No deaths from breakdown of old nuclear power plant even though it was hit with an 8.0 earthquake and a tsunami”... (also see my pre-fukushima post on the irrational fear of nuclear power as well as my Review of the book “Radiation”).

Richard Muller spends a good deal of this book discussing the ever controversial topic of Global Warming. He was at a point very critical of the methodology used by climate researchers when they calculated the rate of global warming. For example it is not appropriate to use weather stations in populated areas because as population grows so does temperature. He also found some of the mathematics used... funky...

For this reason he did his own study, and unlike IPCC researchers this study was/is completely transparent with all data freely available for anyone who desires to make their own calculations. What did Muller find? Basically he says that the IPCC, despite their sometimes flawed methods, are correct. In other words, according to Muller the globe has warmed, and this warming has been due to human caused increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. While backing their overall conclusions about the temperature increase on earth Muller does not seem to share many peoples sense of pending disaster due to this warming. Models that predict the future climate of earth tends to have a lot of uncertainty associated with them, and it is almost impossible to know if we are able to come up with technologies that will significantly alter the future climate.

He also says that if we really want to prevent increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we should turn our efforts to China. For quite a long time they have been building one coal plant per week spewing out not only CO2, but also huge amounts of other pollutants such as lead and arsenic. Convincing them to use clean energy sources such as solar or nuclear power (by paying them if necessary), makes a lot more sense than going for expensive alternatives in the west. That is, if you aim to achieve the maximal reduction of CO2 release per dollar, that dollar should be invested in China. Muller also reiterates several times throughout the book that energy conservation will be a huge part of the future. Proper isolation of houses, driving efficient cars etc can drastically reduce energy expenditure.

I have really only touched upon some of the issues that are discussed in this book. Muller offers a perspective on many other energy related issues such as Shale gas/oil, electric cars, fusion, wind/solar/water energy, etc etc. All in all this book is both very educational and at the same time a page turner (keep in mind though that I am kind of a nerd). If you are even just a little interested in the technologies and politics related to energy issues this book is a terrific buy!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In one of the most memorable examples in The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris reflects on his own thoughts after his wife told him that another man had openly flirted with her in the gym, even though she had said she was a happily married woman. Sam Harris imagines how men in certain cultures would have reacted to this information. The first thing a man should do if he want to keep his pride is to beat the rivaling male, perhaps kill him too. In some cases it would also have been culturally appropriate to punish the wife for.... well I don’t know... sub consciously tempting the man to approach her? In extreme cases it would have been appropriate to also kill the wife, just to emphasise the way in which your property is not to be meddled with!

Sam Harris admits that he initially did feel hostility towards the other male (something which I think men world wide will sympathise with). He felt that his behavior was wrong. However, having been brought up in a western society he did not follow through on these feelings. He realized that killing the other person would not lead to positive outcomes for anybody, and he realized that it was certainly not his wife’s fault. In addition, he also thinks that his wife is attractive and can understand that another man finds her attractive too.

The main thesis of Sam Harris book is that just like statements about the world can be right or wrong (for example, it is wrong to say earth is flat), moral statements can also be right or wrong. What makes an act/policy/moral guideline right or wrong? Well according to Harris this is determined by the degree to which it increases/decreased the well being of humans. For those who remember their philosophy, this is in essence a utilitarian argument. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that there are no categorical imperatives (as Kant said). Whether something is good or evil depends on the consequences. Thus it can be good to lie if it prevents sadness in a lot of people. To calculate the effect of a certain act on the well being of the rest of the world is of course more or less impossible. For example, frequent lying can ruin relationships leading to divorce, leading to depressions etc etc...

Harris acknowledges that there is large gray area where it is hard to say if a certain action or moral guideline aids general well being or not. This does not mean however, that anything goes. However, some acts, such as killing another man and your wife because of minor flirtation is really unlikely to lead to greater well being. It is comparable to arguing that the earth I'd merely 6000 years old - not entirely impossible but really really unlikely.

Simply put, some moral guidelines or cultural norms are more conducive towards human well being than others.

Still many people (perhaps mainly academics living comfortable lives), would argue that cultural norms are merely cultural and that we should not criticize other cultures for holding certain values, because values are subjective etc. However, even among cultural relativists there are few people who argue this way when discussing terrible acts. Can people who consider themselves to be cultural relativists abstain from judgement and condemnation when they hear about say Josef Fritzl or the genocide in Rwanda. Would they be indifferent to whether their children were raised in Josef Fritzl's basement, or in a Tutsi family experiencing mutilation from Hutu militia. Are these alternatives merely an interesting cultural alternative? What sane parent would not prefer their child to grow up in a western society with individual rights and a police force that protects their citizens?

Can we not say that the genocide in Rwanda was wrong? Can we not deplore the ethical code of the catholic church when they excommunicate a doctor for performing an abortion on a girl raped by her father and pregnant with twins, while not excommunicating a single Nazi? If we can it follows that we can say something about which norms are good and bad.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Google swype keyboard censorship

A few months back I switched from using Swiftkey's keyboard for android to using Google's native keyboard. The reason was that there was often an annoying delay from when I pressed a letter to the time it appeared on the screen. This was particularly annoying when I had pressed many letters in a series which I often do when taking notes.

Google's keyboard in contrast is much faster. I have now started using the swype technique where you simply swipe your finger from letter to letter on the keyboard and then some clever software can predict which word you are trying to write with an impressive accuracy. The improvement, once you have learned the technique, is noticeable to say the least. I am writing much faster on my smartphone (I have a Galaxy Nexus), than I ever have before.

I frequently put my daughters to sleep in the pram in the evening, which is perfect because I can walk the dog at the same time. Now, thanks to smartphones in general and apps like audible and swype keyboards in particular, I can also listen to interesting books/podcasts and take notes. All at the same time! I really cannot overstate how lucky I feel to be living in this age where boring walks can be replaced with fascinating books read aloud to you.

One thing is kind of annoying with Google's swype function however, and that is the censoring part. I am currently reading a book about the situation for women in the world (review coming in a few weeks). In this book there is naturally a lot of talk about prostitutes, brothels, sex, pimps, etc etc. The problem is that google censors these words so that when I swipe them, even if I am very accurate in my gesture, the word does not show up.

I can understand why Google have some censoring since you might not want your kids to accidentally swipe inappropriate words like fuck or cunt or shit and then send it to granny because they don't read it b before sending it away. Still there should be a way to turn it off for adults who wish not to be hindered when taking notes on a book. It also seems that their censorship is a bit too strict. I am OK not to be able to swipe the words above but it is very annoying that I cannot swipe words such as prostitute, brothel, feces, or even sex..  I have of course tried to find solutions to this on different forums but so far I have not found any. Note that the problem is not that Google don't have these words in the dictionary, they do! The problem is that when you swipe them they simply do not appear. Please Google, fix this so educating myself does not involve unnecessary frustrations.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

When people use social media to obtain news...

One problem with using social media to get your news is that sometimes news that aren't really new start being spread on a social media. If the news item is sufficiently catchy it can get huge attention in a short amount of time. This is a problem because repeated exposure to a news item tends to make people less critical and to believe that the news item is trustworthy. If all your facebook friends post the same item you assume that they cannot all be mislead. The mistake here is that all your friends don't independently do background checks but rather just re-tweets or re-posts something they have heard elsewhere.

One month ago my wife called me to tell me about a study they had just talked about on the radio (thankfully, this was not the publicly funded radio which would have been very disturbing). According to this study, done by Dr. Weatherby, watching big boobs on a regular basis could add several years to your life. Dr. Weatherby, a Harvard medical scientist published this paper in the prestigious journal: New England Journal of Medicine.

So what is the problem with this? The problem is that it is completely made up. There is no study and there is no Dr. Weatherby! Indeed, this particular story first hit the media in 1997. Back then it was published in a newspaper that publishes funny, but fictional, stories. However, since this original publication it has been re-published several times, apparently by people who thought that there was a real study. Following these re-publications, the story has then gone viral which in turn lead to occasional mentions in uncritical mainstream media outlets.

A few days back another similar thing happened here in Sweden. An article from 2008 about the black widow spider having established itself in Sweden was shared a few times on facebook. Because it was not mentioned (perhaps because it was not noticed) that the article was old, people assumed that it was fresh news. Soon it was all over facebook. According to one report I heard it was shared more than 200000 times. Some Swedish newspapers jumped onto the train and published versions of the 2008 article as if it was fresh news. They had clearly not done their research since even a simple background check would be sufficient to discover the problem.

For all of those who simply skip to the last paragraph (like I do sometimes), looking at big breast does not increase your life span and the black widow spider is not established in Sweden.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Religion car analogy and visit from Jehovah's witnesses

Not too long ago I was visited by two charming young members of Jehovah's witnesses. They wanted to discuss some "deeper thoughts". I immediately came clean saying that I was a member of the Swedish humanists, that I was an atheist and that I had a blog that was critical of religion. Summing up I explained that if they wanted to recruit members they were probably wasting their time.

The two missioners, upon my short introduction, acknowledged that many Christians had performed abominable acts in the past. At this point they introduced an analogy saying that there are many bad drivers but that this does not necessarily mean that there is anything wrong with the car. In other words, the fact that some religious people commit bad act does not mean that religion is bad. I agreed with this statement but the next day I had one of those George Costanza moments where you say to yourself "I should have said THAT". What I should have said of course is that the proper analogy when it comes to Christians is that their car is pretty awful, especially if you insist on a literal interpretation as Jehovas witnesses, but that there are many good drivers which, despite their convictions, live good lives and contribute to their society around them.

Though I don't know the two missioners that knocked on my door, they did seem like genuinely nice people who were interested in my best, which in their view is converting me to their religion. I admire their ability to live good lives (if they do), despite claiming to follow a book that advocates slavery, stoning of women who aren't virgins on their wedding night, and if God says so, massacre an entire populations (including infants and animals). Their accomplishment equates doing a east to west road-trip across the United States in a old school Trabant...

What happens when you get a bad driver in a bad car? Well that is when you get people like Usama Bin Laden, Kone (the Uganda general), or just your average intolerant religious person...

PS: I actually did bring up the Amalekite genocide, asking the two witnesses how they could associate themselves with a God who ordered the killing of an entire population. Their answer? They said that you had to look at Gods motives and also that God would not order such a thing today. In my mind, there is no possible good reason whatsoever, for wiping out an entire group of people. It is genocide and it is a crime.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book review: The Willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal (PhD)

Everyone thinks that their willpower fails them, often on a regular basis. Those people who say they have a lot of willpower often have the least. Willpower is undeniably good to have and in studies it is correlated with all kinds of positive outcomes.
Dr.McGonigal thankfully does not teach the reader never to “give in” to the things you like. Rather you should ask yourself what it is that you would like to stop/start doing and then focus on that goal. She refers to these goals as willpower challenges. Typical willpower challenges are to go to bed in time, to exercise more, to work instead of checking facebook updates, eat less snacks etc etc.

Most people have many willpower challenges. One important lesson from this book is that you do not have unlimited willpower. Therefore you should not take on too many willpower challenges simultaneously, because that will result in failure.
So what strategies does Dr.McGonigal propose for increasing willpower? This book includes a wealth of advice and I feel pretty confident in claiming that most people will find at least one strategy that helps them. Her first proposed strategy is meditation, which is just not my cup of tea (for me doing meditation would be a willpower challenge on its own). After taking about meditation and breathing exercises she moves on to more obvious candidates: exercise and sufficient sleep. I am sure that you have all heard it before but I will reiterate: exercise is good and getting enough sleep is important for all kinds of things, including willpower. Regarding sleep she also points out that people have started sleeping less in recent decades, and in the same time people have become more obese. In is not inconceivable that the rise in obesity in the recent decades in part is related to reduced willpower which in turn is due to the fact that we sleep less. After all, those evening snacks that we consume in the evening after a stressful day can contain quite a lot of calories.
Dr.McGonigal introduces plenty more strategies for overcoming willpower challenges. The ones I feel were most useful include the following: (1) If you really want say a snack, wait 10 minutes, and then, if you still want it, go ahead and take it. (2) Thinking more about your future self. People are often prone to ignoring the needs of their future selves I don’t care so much how their actions may affect their future selves. (3) Focusing on what you should do rather than what you shouldn’t do. Don’t think of pink elephants! Hard right? Similarly constantly telling yourself not to eat that snack will draw your attention to it, making it harder to resist. It is better to focus on what you should and do.   
There are many willpower traps. Perhaps the most obvious one is exposing yourself to the thing you try to avoid. If you want to eat less snacks, don’t keep them in the home cause if you are like me you will eat them, sooner or later. Another trap which I personally used to fall into, is rewarding yourself after a strenuous exercise i.e., now that I have exercised so much I deserve to eat several large burgers and some candy after that =). I am not saying that such a reward in undeserved, only that the calorie intake from a large meal is much larger than the calorie output during exercise. Yet another trap is the “what the hell effect”. Having succumbed to temptation many people say to themselves - what the hell, now that I have started eating this snack I might as well eat the rest...
I sum, this book provides an accessible introduction to willpower, what it is, how it works, and what you can do if you face a willpower challenge. Regardless of whether you decide to utilize any of Dr.McGonigal proposed strategies I believe that merely starting to think and learn about willpower will help you reach your personal goals. It is also nice to know that more or less everyone has willpower issues, and very few (sickly?) people never succumb to temptation.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Book review: Spillover by David Quammen -

This is the best book I have read in a long time. It is like a mystery thriller played out in various exotic locations around the world, that simultaneously, gives the reader intriguing and accurate knowledge about various exotic but dangerous pathogens that have the potential to forever change life as we know it. In other words, if you would put the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, a travel diary book by Bill Bryson, and an Agatha Christie thriller in the mixer, you would get something like this. It just doesn't get better than this!

David Quammen’s writing is accessible and throughout the book I was amazed by his ability to explaining difficult scientific concepts in a way that makes the reader understand... even crave science. Though I have read many scholarly articles, no single text I can recall have given me  such a deep understanding and appreciation for a scientific subject. I have always been fascinated by bacteria and viruses, however this book multiplied my fascination and my appreciation for the scientists that study viruses and other pathogens in humans as well as in other species.
This book is about spillovers (surprise!). A spillover is when a virus or a bacteria which normally live in one species transfer to a different species. Normally this transition spells the end for the pathogen because they evolved to live in their host species and not in the new species, but sometimes the pathogen survive or even thrive in their new host, which is typically bad news for the new host.
Think of pathogens such as Ebola, rabies, HIV, SARS, and the Spanish flu, all of which are spillovers from other species, and you will understand that pathogens that have the potential to spillover a.k.a zoonotic viruses can result in disaster.
Be assured, you will learn much about these intriguing pathogens, however, this book is not just a review of what we know about zoonotic viruses. On the very first page Quammen takes us to a sunny idyllic farm in Australia. Recently a number of horses have died following under mysterious circumstances. Worse still, several humans that came into contact with the horse also died. What caused these deaths and from where did the horses acquire it? Quammen instantly grips the reader. It was an instant page turner, with real science in it! You must know how these horses and humans died and you gladly, eagerly, follow Quammen when he takes you on a journey in the scientific literature as it develops over time, with frequent field visits that Quammen personally joined to understand the subject better.

Quammen cover several different pathogens, including HIV, Ebola, malaria, and SARS, and he travels accordingly. We get to follow scientists (and Quammen) into crowded Asian markets where hundreds of different animal species, each with their own set of nished pathogens, can be bought for that evenings dinner. We get to visit Bangladesh to analyse date-palm-sap to see if bats have pooped deadly virus into this popular drink. We visit the Congolese jungle where Ebola have completely eradicated large populations of gorillas as well as some smaller human populations. We go to caves filled with snakes, bats and guano. Of course we also get to visit high tech laboratories around the world to talk to researchers who try to understand these zoonotic viruses and predict where the next big pandemic will strike - because if or when “the next big one”, capable of killing us by the millions, comes, it will almost certainly be a spillover from another species.
The human species is vulnerable. We are around seven billion people. We are an urban species meaning that we tend of cluster in large groups (cities), which provides pathogens with the perfect springboard. We travel extensively, and could thus easily spread a virus around the globe in a short amount of time. We also continually mess with new ecological systems which may or may not have a deadly virus just waiting for a new host...

Put another way. Human population growth is an typical example of an outbreak i.e., explosive population growth. Just like with outbreaks of crickets that sweep across Africa eating everything it encounter, humans are sweeping across the entire planet, interfering with lots of ecological systems along the way. Indeed the most massive outbreak of any species that the world had ever seen is not a cricket or a larva, it is homo sapiens. And when there is an outbreak of a particular species what typically halts it? You guessed it - pathogens.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sports and superstitions

I have a confession. Even though I feel that "sophisticated scientists" such as myself should be spending their free time analyzing their environment or reading philosophy or something else that is just so intellectual, I cannot help the fact that I love football (or soccer if you are an American).

Since I was four years old and my role model at the time, Peter Schmeichel played at the club I have been a loyal Manchester United supporter. I probably watch at least ninety percent of their games live on TV and have seen them once in real life. Much to my wife's distaste, the perfect Saturday for me involves crisps, beer, feet on the table and Manchester United performing one of their amazing comebacks in Fergie time against a rival such as Manchester City.

I acknowledge that there are many things you could potentially dislike about sports in general and football in particular. The extremely childish supporters is the first thing that comes to mind. Though Manchester City is of course a despicable and arrogant team that would be nobodies had it not been for oil money (;)), I would never dream of starting a fight or a brawl because another person were supporting them. I really don't see the point of that. Yet many people apparently do not see it that way and gladly put themselves in harms way to get a chance to best supporters from the other team. My own hypothesis is that such people merely use sports as am excuse to be able to do stupid things they would have done anyway.

The gambling aspect of the sports world is perhaps equally ugly. Gambling is of course intrinsically attractive to the human mind and winning a bet feels rewarding in the same way that taking drugs is rewarding. I am confident that people would gamble independent of sports but I still get a bad taste when I think of the way that sports and soccer in particular gets associated with gambling. This actually takes me to what I really wanted to write about here. Sports association with gambling and violence is very is unfortunate even if sports may only be the current outlet for basic human instincts.

What annoys me most however is all the superstitious sport stars out there. Today, when Bayern M√ľnchen take on Barcelona in the champions league semi final it is a fair bet that Lionel Messi will score a goal, because that is what he does. Who will get the credit if he does indeed manage to dance past 10 german goliats? You can be assured that Messi will point to the sky as if to say that it is God who awarded him the goal. If we grant for  a moment that God really does exist, would he really care who won the game and if so would he use his divine powers to interfere in a game and award one team a goal. If he is prepared to let innocent children starve to death every day, would he really use his powers to interfere in a soccer game? Messi is not the worst though. Javier Hernandez flamboyant religious displays makes Messi seem discrete. Before every game, Hernandez goes down on his knees on the midline, closes his eyes, raises his arms and brings his thump and index finger together. He sits there for about half a minute, then gets up and plays. Now if I was a soccer player I would feel quite odd at this sight, and judging by the look of his Manchester United team mates, they do too (a feeling that is probably shared by the other 70.000 people attending the game, plus another 50 million people at home). Thankfully, Hernandez is a so called super-sub which means that he only starts a minority of all the games (is this because Fergie thinks it is stupid too?).

Why do so many sport stars continue believing that they are benefactors of divine intervention? Apart from not having thought it through, my guess is that they are victims of schedules of random reinforcements. If a rat is rewarded with sweet tasking food every time he/she presses a lever, it get boring quite soon. If the rat gets a reward after a specified number of lever presses, he or she will keep going a bit longer. However, if the rat is rewarded after a randomized number of lever presses they will keep pressing that lever for a very long time.

For anyone who is giggling, thinking "silly rats", I want to immediately point out that humans are the same. If you go to Las Vegas or Macao (which I learned have casinos that earn six times as much as Las Vegas), you will see many people pressing levers for rewards that come after a randomized number of trials. Oftentimes, these rats... no I mean... humans, will spend all their money to perform these lever presses.

So back to sport stars. On some occasions Hernandez prayers will coincide with scoring a goal or even two goals. It does evidently not happen on every occasion, but sometimes. In other words Hernandez is really just like a rat pressing a lever... Whenever he gets the reward (such as a goal), it will be hugely rewarding, thus reinforcing the behavior. This explains all sorts of superstitions in sports (I only used Hernandez as an example). For instance, swedish hockey player usually don't shave throughout the end-season, and I have even heard rumors that they don't wash their underwear, which makes me look like a pretty good husband despite my love for football


Monday, April 15, 2013

Review of The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

Why is coffee so expensive on train stations? Which type of illegal activity gives the best profit? What are the benefits and the downsides of free markets? Is natinal health insurance good or bad? Should you feel bad when purchasing products made in countries where workers do not enjoy the same rights as in your own country?

In The Undercover Economist Tim Harford deals with these as well as other economic issues that we encounter on a daily basis, often without being aware of it. The book is generally easy to understand and have a subtle humorous tone which keeps you engaged. Like almost all economist (that I have encountered anyway), Harford favors a more or less free market. Whether this should be seen as a bias or if this is because free markets are intrinsically good is a question I cannot answer. In any case the book is definitely pro free market which may be a dealbreaker for some potential readers.

Harford begins by introducing the concept of scarcity power. He claims that the scarcity of a product or any type of asset will determine the price of that asset. In the case of a coffee stand on a busy London train station the price can get very high indeed which ultimately results in high coffee prices. In my mind scarcity is simply part of the supply and demand equation. If the supply is very small, and demand very high prices will be high. Perhaps there is something I do not understand...

Harford moves on to discuss the implications of this principle in the society. For instance, if you own a maffia, one of the most lucrative paths to take is to start a legit business and then threaten competition to increase scarcity power (reduce supply). With the competition gone you can charge what you want and make a nice profit.

One of the most interesting things I learned from this book was that sales, rebates, special prizes for students and seniors, class seating on trains and airplanes etc, are often just ways for a business to charge customers as much as they are willing to pay for any particular product. A coffee stand may earn a profit by selling coffee quite cheap but would of course like people with a lot of money to pay as much as possible. To get rich people to pay allot while not scaring off poor people or students you can offer large cups or alternative types of coffee such as coffee mocha coco bozo with cream, ice cream etc etc. Such fancy product are really not much more expensive to produce but you can charge much more for it (and if you check out the prizes at your local cafe this is exactly what they do).

Similarly if you own an airline company it makes sense to have different types of seating because then you can charge insane amounts of money for a little bit more leg space and a little better service which many people are willing to pay to feel just a little bit more special. To increase the gap you can also consciously make standard seating slightly uncomfortable.

While being a free market proponent Harford acknowledges that markets can run into trouble. For example, the insurance industry is very susceptible to the problem of imperfect information. If people only get insurance once they are sick, or if insurance companies only offer insurance to those who are completely healthy and have a tiny risk of getitng sick, then the market will not work. As Tim puts it, insurance industry is dependent on mutual ignorance. In the case of health insurance one practical solution is to have universal health insurance, which erases these issues. The only problem with this is that people are likely to consume more health care than they really need...

Harford also offers an analysis of what makes poor countries poor. The short answer is high tariffs (which reduces trade with the rest of the world), and corruption. These two factors can be particularly detrimental in small countries which are extremely dependent on international trade. There is nothing preventing poor countries from developing into richer countries and there are in fact many examples of such a transition. One particularly striking example which is discussed in the book is South Korea which used to have many “sweat shops” where working conditionins were poor compared to the rest of the world. However, because they could offer cheap products they achieved impressive growth and a rapid switch from an agricultural to a manufacture economy. Today, South Korea is a highly technological society with a high standard of living and sweat shops have moved to other countries, because today there are better jobs available to Koreans. Harford makes it clear that boycotting a county’s products because their workers do not have the same job security or pay as our own workers does not help that country, even though it people think they are doing a good deed.

To illustrate what freer markets can achieve Harford looks to China, a country which has seen an improbable economic growth in recent decades. As a result of this development, 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty in China. This number is so high that it is difficult to comprehend what it really stands for. When a natural disasters kills tens of thousands of people it is also easy to lose sight of the fact that every person is an individual with his or her own personality, feelings, food preferences, etc etc. Similarly when hearing that that 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty it means a very significant improvement in the lives of these individuals and that is something worth remembering!