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!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review of Radiation by Robert Gale and Eric Lax - and why we should probably build more nuclear power plants.

Since the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima radiation has achieved an even worse reputation than it had previously. To what extent is this reputation deserved? Speaking more broadly, how great a risk does radition pose to us, and in what ways does it help us?

Robert Gale and Eric Lac, the authors of Radition, starts by stating a few facts that everyone should know but which many people probably do not know. First, radiation is present everywhere. It is in the ground, in the air, in the food that we eat, and in ourselves. There is no way you can avoid radiation (this holds true for non-ionizing as well as ionizing radiation). Second, raditation can kill you. Depending on the type of radiation and the dose received radiation may cause a cell to turn into a cancer cell if mutations occur to an “unlucky” set of genes. If a higher dose is received radiation can kill cells and induce radiation sickness. The powers of radioactive material can also be used to cause substantial explosions as with the atom and hydrogen bombs. What I suspect many people don’t know is that radiation can also save you. Radiation therapy have saved millions of people, and emergency exit signs which shine even when there is no electricity have save many more people still. CT scans allows us to detect cancers and other things inside the human body which helps doctors enormously.

Radiation is generally categorized as either ionizing or non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation have enough energy to rip away charged particles or molecules. If that molecule happens to be in the DNA in one of our cells, that cell may become a cancer cell. Non-ionizing radiation, such as microwaves form cell phones, or the visual part of the spectrum that we can actually detect with our eyes, cannot cause this type of damage to cells. Ultraviolet is right on the border between these two, with some ultraviolet rays containing enough energy to rip apart molecules which is why you can get skin cancer from overexposure to the sun. This also means that there is no plausible scientific theory explaning how microwave radiation, which has less energy than ultraviolet rays, from cell phones cause cancer. Togehter with the fact that brain cancer has not increased since cell phones came into use is why I have no problem with letting my children use cell phones. The authors however, focus mostly on ionizing radiation

Gale and Lax starts with the basics, desrcibing what alpha, beta, and gamma radiaiton is and then going into depth about the amount of radation that an average person receives and the interesting discussion on whether exposure to small amount of radiaiton is bad, neutral or even good for you (hormesis). Regarding exposure the authors note that people are quite inconsistent in their fears. For instance, taking a CT scan which many people even demand will give you the same does of radiation as being 6km from ground zero in Hiroshima. Also people tend to be skeptical about being scanned with x-rays on airports, forgetting that they will receive much more radiation during the upcoming flight...

But what do the authors say about the hot topic of nuclear energy. In short they say, while there are of course safety issues, it is better than coal generated power in pretty much every aspect. Renewable sources (sun, wind, water) also have problems associated with them, mainly that they are expensive and that they cannot provide a steady stream of electricity without which our economy cannot function.

What about nuclear accidents though? Lets start with the most recent accident, Fukushima. It is certainly interesting to note that, though some people did receive a large dosis of radiation not a single person have died from radiation expsure till this day. According to wikipedia, the predicted number of Fukushima related cancers range from 0-100, many of which will be possible to treat. The tsunami on the other hand killed approximately 20.000 people. The media coverage often suggets that the Fukushima accident was the big news. This simply reaffirms that people (and the media) have substantial biases in their fears. It is of course more or less impossible to tell people to stop being afraid of shark attacks or flying or anything that has radiation in its name, but lets not base public policy on irrational fears...

Wait you say, what about the Thernobyl accident? Well partly because that reactor exploded (due to a clear design flaw), 10 times more radioactivity was released compared to Fukushima. However, this should also be copared with atmospheric atom bomb tests which releases 200 times more radioactivity than the Thernobyl accident did. These are now banned, however, prior nuclear tests have caused high levels of radioactivity in the environment on a global level.

Estimates of the number of casualties following Thernobyl vary widely and largely depends on whether one thinks that exposure to low doses of radiation increases cancer risks, which is a controversial topic. We are also dealing with a very high basal rate of cancers. Since 38% percent of all women and 45% of all men will be diagnosed with cancer sometime in their life, even say a 0.5 percent increase mean thousands, or millions of people... Bottom line, Thernobyl was a bad accident, and similar mistakes should of course be avoided in the future, however, should we abandon a cheap energy source that almost zero pollution because of one poorly designed reactor and one reactor which was only almost able to survive a major natural disaster?

No one who disputes that nuclear power is associated with some risks. However, what are the alternatives? It is striking how many people simply ignores this question. I often hear environmentalist say that they want the entire society to be based on renewable energy. I fully share that ambition, however it is currently not a feasible alternative which means that we have to chose between nuclear energy and burning of fossil fuels to get sufficient energy. If we don't use nuclear then we have to generate or buy fossil fuels. Yet no one talks about what type of pollutants are released from fossil fuel burning power plants. The authors convincingly show that pollutants from coal burning power plants induce much more harm than waste from nuclear power plants. In one year one coal burning power plant releases 720 tons of carbon monoxide, a toxic gas, 50kg of lead which is poisonous to us as well as to the fish in the lakes where a lot of smoke lands, 80kg of mercury, 10.000 tons of sulfur dioxide which results in acid rain, and 3.7 million tons of CO2. This waste is released directly out into the environment, not burried in a mountain like nuclear fuel. In addition, coal plant workers as well as coal miners develop lethal lung cancer much more often than other people.


To sum up the argument for building more nuclear power plants; Yes, there are risks associated with nuclear power but taking into account energy costs and the waste produced nuclear power is currently the best feasible alternative available.

The authors also discusses another controversial issue, namely whether or not we should radiate food to kill of pathogens. In a single year there are 2 billion cases of food poisoning in the world, mainly in the developing world. This number could be drastically reduced by radiating the food which would kill of the bacteria. Yes, some nutrients would be lost but food lose more nutrients when you cook it and that is not controversial. The bottom line is that radiating food can save many lives, particularly in the developing world and there seem top be no rational argument against doing this, if there is I hope that someone will enlighten me.

All in all, radiation is a great and accessible introduction to the field of radiation, a field associated with a substantial lack of knowledge and as a result many irrational fears among the public.