Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tour de Irrele-France

The big headline today is that the ASO (the company that owns the Le Tour) has decided not to extend an invitation to theo 2008 tour to team Astana. In my opinion, this is just one more punchline in the comedy of errors that the sport of cycling has become.

In the cycling offseason, many changes happened with some teams folding, others starting up, and many strong riders choosing to change teams. What I think has resulted is a greater parity between teams across the board, but clearly, Astana came out quite well and have one of the strongest (The strongest?) teams. Their top 3 riders consist of last year's Tour winner (Contador), the 3rd place finisher (Leipheimer), and another who I think had the talent for a podium spot in Andreas Kloden.

For all these riders to be absent from all ASO events (most notably the Tour) and the Giro d'Italia will call the legitimacy of the winner of all those races into question.

Now don't get me wrong, I understand some of the motivation behind these decisions: the sport simply can't handle more scandal! But is this decision not a scandal in itself? The only commonality between this year's Astana & last years is that both teams had ugly outfits. Entirely new staff and riders have been brought in. If the current squad resembles anybody, it's the Discovery team! Nobody in the current squad is under investigation for any doping-related offenses. I've got no doubt that Cofidis has their invite in the mail already, and they have a worse record than nearly anbody!

The real source of all this scandal is that there is no unity or consistency within the sport. Every race has a different organizer, and the UCI's ProTour seems to have ended up being more of a divisor than the unifier it was supposed to be. What the sport truly needs is one governing body, and one union to look out for the interests of the riders (who must be starting to think getting the shaft is in their job description).

Almost as muich as it needs a scandal-free season, cycling needs to legitimize itself again, and having the world's top riders laying on the beach rather than racing isn't going to accomplish either.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cost of poor diet more than just grocery bill

I was shocked yesterday when I came across the cost of type 2 diabetes in the US each year: $132 billion!

In my opinion, the dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes over the last decade or so is very much attributable to changes in our choices in food, activity and lifestyle. This got me thinking: how much of our medical costs overall are self-inflicted?

It's estimated that obesity directly costs Americans another 50+ billion each year, and that smoking costs approximately 160 billion more.

To be conservative, let's assume there is some overlap in the numbers I've just quoted... in fact let's be very conservative and assume there is $100 billion worth of it. That still leaves us with around $250 billion each year spent covering the medical costs of smoking, inacivity and poor diet alone.

In 2002 total medical expenditure in the US was approximately $1 trillion. Based on what I've come up with above, that's a full 25% of medical costs on spent on very avoidable diseases, if a little preventative care were taken.

I think I've got a great idea on how the upcoming presidential election can be won. Promise to squash the above diseases, and to use the remaining medical budget to write each American a personal cheque! That would be about $750 per person, and if $300 was enough to get GWB back in office then Hillary should have no problem.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

World of Reality v. World of Warcraft

According to Dr Maressa Orzack, founder and coordinator of Computer Addiction Services, 40% of people who subscribe to World of Warcraft choose the latter.

In a recent interview she estimates that 40% of those that play the game exhibit addictive behaviors. A staggering number when one considers that many activities considered to be addictive show rates of only 5-10% addiction. Granted, 40% is only an estimate. But, if we are very generous and assume that the actual value is just half of that, we're still talking about 20% of 6.5 million subscribers (and growing) that are hooked.

According to Dr Orzack, addiction to video games is nothing new, but has skyrocketed with the advent of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG's) like Worlds of Warcraft and others. She explains how video game addiction is very real, and is analogous in many ways to gambling addiction. Orzack says that both gambling and video game addictions are addictive because the rewards are presented as variable ratio reinforcement. This is characterized by a system that has the player (playing the slots, or a video game) continuing to play despite failures until they've achieved a goal. But, once that goal has been achieved, they'll still keep playing.

Games that were once stored entirely on a cartridge or DVD, by nature, had to have an end. So regardless of how addictive the gameplay may have been, the games that I grew up playing could only keep me roped in for a finite amount of time. However, with online games, the gameplay is potentially ever-changing. Because developers are now able to add new content to their games post-purchase, there need not be any end to the game.

I'm no expert in the field, but I'm of the opinion that people become addicted to behaviors (not substances) to cope. There is some coping skill that they need to get by in the world, but lack; so the solution is to engage in a different reality (the casino, or the internet) in which that missing skill is not required in order to get by. I don't think that record addictions to internet gaming is a sign of corporate brainwashing. However, I do think it is such a perfect illustration of our times, that this much of our younger generation are so thoroughly unprepared to handle the real world, that they opt to live in another one.

"World of Warcraft: like the real world, only easier".

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Blame somebody else

Listening to CBC radio's Quirks & Quarks show the other day, Steven Heine of UBC's social psychology dept was speaking about a recently published study of his investigating whether there truly is a sex difference between male's & female's math abilities.

The observation is that men generally do better than women in math, and science related fields. The question is whether that difference is a result of some sex differences (for some reason(s) the male brain is better equipped to solve math problems than the female's) or whether it's due to women being socialized to do poorly with math.

Heine took two groups of women, and had them read one of two articles before writing a difficult math test. Both articles were fabricated for the experiment, but were presented to the women as real. The first told the women that females performed worse on math tests because there is a gene on the Y chromosome (which men have and women do not) responsible for improved math performance. The other article told them that their historically reduced performance was due to social mechanisms holding women back. On average, the women that read the second article got twice as many questions correct on the math test written immediately afterwards.

This result doesn't rule out the idea that there is some sex difference in math performance, but it clearly indicates at least that there is a social component as well.

This reminds me of a particular model in Sport Psychology, in which attributing failure to some extrinsic factor results in greater future success than attributing a failure to an intrinsic factor. Regardless of whether there is a sex difference of not, women's performance on math tests will be best if they believe that their ability is high. And given a poor performance on one test, they will perform better on future tests if they attribute that failure to something outside themselves, like the professor, or social mechanisms, than if they attribute it to themselves, by saying "I'm just not good at math" or "my sex limits my math ability".

Maybe, just maybe, this can be a watershed for relations between nerds and jocks across the nation: the same guiding principles for the captain of the soccer team, and for the captain of the Reach team.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Kissing hands and Shaking babies

Municipal elections are fast approaching here in London, and candidates are turning up the heat in their campaigns. After classes today, I got out for a quick bike ride, and on two separate city corners, I came across throngs of sign-waving supporters. More surprisingly, the actual candidates were with them on the street corner, petitioning Londoners for their votes.

It's been said many times that actions speak louder than words, probably because it's true. Nothing a candidate can say on the radio or television will convince me that he/she cares about London (or wherever) more than coming and speaking with the public.

Howard Dean said on last night's Daily Show that he attributed part of the Democrat's success in the recent Mid-terms because they went to classically 'red' states and agressively campaigned for votes. They went out into Republican territory and asked people to vote for them. To get out of the office and into the community, particularly into a community that's unsupportive, I think shows tremendous respect for the voting public, and says to me that "this candidate understands that her power comes from the people".

When I see politicians pounding the pavement it reminds me of the above photo of Adlai Stephenson, and how he wore through the soles of his shoes along the campaign trail. I rarely see in politicians today, the humility and determination that I see in that photo. I'd be glad if I would see it more often.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The three O's: Omentum, Oz and Oprah

Last week Dr Mehmet Oz (and his colleague Dr Michael Roizen) appeared on Oprah. The two M.D's have written two fabulous health & wellness books (You: The owner's manual, and You: on a diet), the latter of which is a new publication. The docs are very enthusiastic but very non-sensensationalist which is a nice change in the world of health information.

The first book is great for the person that wants to lead a healthier life, as it gives accurate, no nonsense information, and (unlike most books it will compete with) gives the reader an understanding of what 'health' means, and is.

The second I haven't yet read, but I'm sure it's more of the same, with a focus more on how our bodies metabolize what we eat, and how that impacts our health.

What impressed me most is how Dr Oz made the focus of his presentation health, not weight loss, not aesthetics. For example, everybody wants to have their waistline under control, but Oz let the viewer visualize why that's so important. The omentum is an organ that sits underneath your stomach, between your abdominal muscles and your digestive system. The classic beer belly is really a beer-omentum. I'm no expert on the organ, but my understanding is that it works like a kind of filter. The omentum is able to absorb toxins and particles that are taken up by the intestines. Fats, and trans-fats in particular, are readily absorbed by the omentum, and as they lie inside the actual torso (not under the skin) they represent a huge health risk.

The viewers were able to visualize how McDonalds and french fries impact their bodies by showing them two human omenti, one from a heathy person and one from an overweight person. The first was looked like a dishcloth; the second omentum was about as big as my book bag. This person who was about 30 lbs overweight, was carrying 10-15 of that right on top of his/her liver & intestines. 30 lbs overweight isn't a huge amount by todays standards either. It corresponds with about 25% of the population of the US. Even as someone with a concept of what that type of fat can do to a person's health, to see it was shocking.

I don't ever watch Oprah's show, but I do realize how many people do watch it, and what a hugely influential woman she is. For example, in 1994 Oprah ran the New York City Marathon, the biggest marathon in the world, with 90 000 participants last year. That year 20% of the runners were women. The following year, 45% of the runners were women. Without knowing how many total participants there were in 94 or 95, even extremely conservative estimates are that 10 000+ women ran a marathon because they saw Oprah do it.

Rundown on our 3 O's for today:
Omentum: know what it is, and if yours could kill you, do something about it

Oz: Check out either one of his books and learn how to treat yourself better

Oprah: You don't have like her or her show, but appreciate that she does a lot more with her good fortune (and financial fortune), than most in her shoes

Friday, November 03, 2006

Save the Earth: Buy a Segway

According to his latest publication, Karl Ulrich (Researcher at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania) might have us all slugging down tequila & whizzing around on motorized scooters for the sake of the environment. Okay, that's a little unfair, but Ulrich does have a very novel take on our efforts to save the world.

Admittedly, I've only had time yet to read the abstract, and a summary written elsewhere, but the gist of his paper is that riding your bike to work takes a greater toll on the environment than driving to work. Sure, you small-picture thinkers might disagree, but those Pennsylvanians are big-picture people! While you might save energy & emissions immediately, there are side effects to regular cardiovascular exercise: weight management, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced risk of cancer, reduced risk of osteoporosis, improved mental status. These factors all conspire to keep bike-riders alive for up to a decade longer than their chain-smoking, binge-drinking counterparts.

And what are our health-nuts doing for those 10 extra years? Consuming energy, that's what! The improved longevity of bike-to-work-ers results in a net overconsumption of energy when compared to commuters, who do the whales and penguins a favor by dying in a timely fashion.

The real cuprit to blame for our energy crisis though isn't bike commuters. It's recreational cyclists: the worst of both worlds. They still drive to work, but afterwards they zip around reaping the health benefits of pedaling that will keep them consuming well into their 70's, 80's & 90's.

While it's an interesting persepctive on the topic, I can't say I buy Dr. Ulrich's logic.