The global village and our poor estimation of risk

I am reading Risk by Dan Gardner. It is largely about how rubbish people are at estimating risks. This is nothing new, we have had good data how badly we estimate risks for decades. And arguably politicians and marketers have been exploiting it for a lot longer.But the book is well written, and is clear on why we should expect this: because we are the product of evolution.

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Naturally sweet

Stevia-rebaudiana-totalAfter years of being dimly aware that there are two types of diet Coke*, the Coca-cola company has decided to further confuse me by launching a third: Coke Life. Coke Life’s tag line is “sweetness from natural sources”. The source is shown to the left, it is the stevia plant. This produces an extract, also called stevia, that contains a bunch of molecules called steviol glycosides, that taste very sweet, so only small amounts are needed to sweeten drinks. So although if you drink Coke Life your body will metabolise the steviol glycosides and so produce energy, as such small amounts are needed these calories are pretty negligible.

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You are safer in hospital on a weekend

The UK’s Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, spent part of last week annoying those working in the NHS. He quoted a couple of numbers in support of his contention that the contracts of consultants should change. One was from a 2012 paper by Fremantle et al. in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. In his speech he said: “You are 15% more likely to die if you are admitted on a Sunday compared to being admitted on a Wednesday.” Compare this with: “Thus for every 100 deaths among patients admitted on a Wednesday, we would expect 116 among otherwise similar patients admitted on a Sunday”, from the discussion section of Fremantle et al.. The number refers to deaths within 30 days of admission to hospital. So Hunt’s sentence is a fair reflection of something Freemantle et al. said. Continue reading

Celebrating the class of 2015

Our physics students graduated, in Guildford Cathedral, on Wednesday afternoon, and I was one of the physics academics in the academic procession (= academics that file in two-by-two up the aisle after the Chancellor and other dignitaries). It was great to see our students graduating. We took them in as fresh-faced teenagers three or four years ago, and now there they were in suits/posh-frocks, and gowns, getting their degrees. For the graduates, it is a reward for the all the report writing, tedious exam revision, and for academics it does make all the tedious exam marking seem worthwhile. So good all round.

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Lobster every two years, always on a Thursday

2005-12-31 - Hummer2The week before last I was at a conference on crystallisation, held in Maine, USA. It was run by Gordon Research Conferences, who run many conferences in the summer in New England (far north-east of the USA). The local specialty is lobster, which is caught off the coast of Maine, so lobster is on the menu for the conference dinner on the last day of the conference. The conference runs every other year, so every other year I have lobster. Always on a Thursday (last day of the conference). Thanks to this conference, my lobster eating is very regular.

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Physics is wonderful, its applications are sh*t, Engineering is sh*t, its applications are wonderful

I’ve spent the week in a sunny Dublin, at a workshop on crystallisation. The workshop looked especially at using computer simulations to understand the fundamentals of crystallisation, and on applications to crystallising drugs. Most drug tablets, like aspirin, paracetamol, etc, are crystals. So at the workshop there was a mixture of physicists, chemists and chemical engineers, and some of us were from universities and some from drug companies.

It was really interesting to hear about all the challenges involved in making a drug tablet that works, in the sense of delivering the drug to you in a safe form while dissolving in your stomach and/or intestines. I did not realise that some drugs are so insoluble in the water inside your intestines that not only is it hard to get them to dissolve there, but even once they are dissolved they can reform crystals inside you – which of course is very undesirable. Continue reading

Boosting the economy by discouraging rent seeking

“Rent seeking” is an technical term used by economists. There is a good Wikipedia page, but roughly speaking it means investing money to make more money via ways that do not grow the economy, i.e., do not increase the sum total of a country’s wealth. The idea is basically that if someone invests money by say buying a house and renting it out, then they are making money for themselves without making the country wealthier. On a bigger scale, if say a utility such as electricity is supplied by a oligopoly with minimal competition, then the companies of the oligopoly can make a lot of money from their customers by charging high prices. But if anything this profit making harms instead of boosting the economy. Both these are examples of rent seeking; rent seeking in this sense can involve literal rents such as for houses, but it does not have to. In contrast if money is invested, say, to make a better, more fuel-efficient engine for airliners, then the company makes profits from selling the engines, but cheaper air travel could then boost the economy, making others richer too. This is the econmially good, non-rent-seeking way, to make money.

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