There is NO risk-free level of smoking

negative-effects-of-smoking-on-brain-function

❝ Light smoking and not smoking every day are perceived by many to be effective strategies for reducing the health risks associated with tobacco use, but results from a new study appear to confirm that there is no safe level of exposure to cigarettes.

❝ Long-time, low-volume smokers — even those who smoked less than a single cigarette a day — had significantly higher mortality risks compared with individuals who had never smoked and smokers who had kicked the habit, according to a prospective, cohort analysis that included more than 290,000 middle-age and older participants in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.

Compared with never smokers, long-time smokers who reported smoking less than one cigarette a day had a 64% increase in mortality over the study period, and those who reported consistently smoking one to 10 cigarettes a day had an 87% greater chance of dying.

“In support of the 2010 Surgeon General’s Report, our results provide further evidence that there is no risk-free level of tobacco smoke exposure,” Maki Inoue-Choi, PhD, of the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Md., and colleagues…

‘Nuff said?

RTFA for details and more scary stuff than I need reminding of. So glad I quit smoking 58 years ago.

Tim the robot — monitoring the Large Hadron Collider

❝ Hundreds of feet below the French-Swiss border lays the Large Hadron Collider. The 17 miles of strange tunnels accelerate particles at close to the speed of light before smashing them together to see what happens.

That’s an oversimplification of a complicated process, one where a lot can go wrong. Someone has to monitor the miles of concrete, plastic, steel, and glass below the earth to avoid disaster and keep science moving. Someone does, someone called … TIM.

A case study in crap data put to meaningless use

❝ On Monday, I cast doubt on the many stories about how Black Friday retail sales were off to a disappointing start. This is an important story because retail is such a critical part of the U.S. economy, and because such a large share of the industry’s sales occur during the roughly five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the more important point — at least for my purposes — is that the initial reports, thanks to the National Retail Federation, are a case study in how to obtain meaningless data and then put it to bad use.

❝ The NRF reported a 3.5 percent drop in spending. “Average spending per person over Thanksgiving weekend totaled $289.19, down slightly from $299.60 last year,” the organization said in a statement. This information was based on asking consumers how much they figured they would spend this year versus a year ago…

A lousy guess turns out to be wrong. Q’uelle surprise!

❝ I make a big deal about the retail trade group’s record of inaccuracy every year for a few reasons: it is important for investors — and indeed, citizens — to be grounded in reality. Most human progress is the result of the work of scientists, technologists and logicians who rely on facts and testable theories…

❝ This is crucial because retail sales are such a big deal. Almost 16 million people work in retail, or about 10.9 percent of the U.S. labor force. It accounts for a huge percentage of the overall economy. Retail sales provide a window into consumer sentiment, as well as corporate revenue, profits and investment decisions. By some measures, consumer spending counts for almost two-thirds of gross domestic product.

❝ …It is of course way too early to have the final retail sales data, but we do have some early numbers based on actual sales. First Data Corp., a point-of-sales transaction processor, says that it examined data from almost 1 million merchants and concluded that sales so far this holiday shopping season are up 9 percent from a year earlier. Furthermore, perhaps in a sign of the state of the industry’s health, sales of electronics and appliances rose 26.5 percent, compared with a lackluster 2.3 percent gain last year. First Data also found that the average transaction grew by more than $41 year over year.

Oh.

❝ First Data noted that its analytical methodology “is based on actual consumer transactions rather than surveys or speculation.” The company has access to this information because it processes actual credit-card and debit-card transactions.

RTFA. We’re in an extended season of mediocre surveying, surprising results, poor planning afflicting anyone making decisions based on “truthiness”.

Barry is speaking to investors; but, his point of view on hard data needs to be taken to heart across the spectra from politics to Giftmas shopping.

Thanks, Barry Ritholtz

Scientists map safe locations for wastewater injection in Texas and Oklahoma


Jens-Erik Lund Snee

Stress maps of Texas and Oklahoma, with black lines indicating stress orientation. Blue-green colors indicate regions of extension in the crust, while yellow-orange areas are indicative of crustal compression.

❝ Stanford geophysicists have compiled the most detailed maps yet of the geologic forces controlling the locations, types and magnitudes of earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma.

These new “stress maps…provide insight into the nature of the faults associated with recent temblors, many of which appear to have been triggered by the injection of wastewater deep underground…

❝ To create these stress maps, Mark Zoback and his graduate students Jens-Erik Lund Snee and Richard Alt interpreted data from different parts of Texas and Oklahoma donated by oil and gas companies…

When combined with information about the faults present in a given area, the scientists were able to assess which faults are likely to be problematic and why. In the areas where induced earthquakes have occurred in Texas and Oklahoma, the Stanford scientists show that a relatively small increase of pore pressure – the pressure of fluids within the fractures and cavities of rocks – would have been sufficient to trigger slip…

❝ In a related paper…graduate student F. Rall Walsh and Zoback present a methodology for assessing which faults are susceptible for earthquake triggering and which are not.

❝ The Stanford scientists also found that many of the recent earthquakes in Texas that have been suspected as being triggered by wastewater injection occurred on faults that – according to the new map – have orientations that are nearly ideal for producing earthquakes. Hence, doing this kind of study in advance of planned injection activities could be very helpful.

Useful, that is within the context of oil and gas well drillers actually making use of this information. Unless attitudes have changed greatly from the days when I was involved with that industry – I don’t expect much of a response to this study. This is an industry concerned, first and last, with easy profits, comparatively cheap costs – even when they don’t seem that way to mere mortals who worry about household budgets and even the occasional mid-strength earthquake.

Example: I got a call one sunny autumn morning in New Orleans from a Texas driller – in Dubai. Doesn’t matter what broke on what machinery. He had to stop work.

He told me he’d already spoken to one of our warehousemen and parts were now waiting outside the front door of my office in a taxi. Waiting for me to accompany them to New Orleans International Airport. I walked downstairs and got in the cab. At the airport I picked up the few boxes of parts and walked to the tarmac next to the air freight terminal. There was a full-size Boeing air freighter waiting and I placed the boxes inside an open doorway along with appropriate paperwork. The hatch closed. The jet took off headed for Dubai. No other cargo on board besides the $300 worth of parts I’d delivered.

Part of the cost of doing business. To be passed along to consumers.

Ready for silicon-carbon lifeforms?


Click to enlargeLei Chen, Yan Liang

❝ A new study is the first to show that living organisms can be persuaded to make silicon-carbon bonds–something only chemists had done before. Scientists at Caltech “bred” a bacterial protein to make the man-made bonds–a finding that has applications in several industries.

❝ Molecules with silicon-carbon, or organosilicon, compounds are found in pharmaceuticals as well as in many other products, including agricultural chemicals, paints, semiconductors, and computer and TV screens. Currently, these products are made synthetically, since the silicon-carbon bonds are not found in nature.

Well – not on Earth. As far as we know.

❝ The new study demonstrates that biology can instead be used to manufacture these bonds in ways that are more environmentally friendly and potentially much less expensive…

The study is also the first to show that nature can adapt to incorporate silicon into carbon-based molecules, the building blocks of life. Scientists have long wondered if life on Earth could have evolved to be based on silicon instead of carbon…Carbon and silicon are chemically very similar. They both can form bonds to four atoms simultaneously, making them well suited to form the long chains of molecules found in life, such as proteins and DNA…

❝ In the new study, the goal was not just to improve an enzyme’s biological function but to actually persuade it to do something that it had not done before…

After only three rounds, they had created an enzyme that can selectively make silicon-carbon bonds 15 times more efficiently than the best catalyst invented by chemists. Furthermore, the enzyme is highly selective, which means that it makes fewer unwanted byproducts that have to be chemically separated out.

Evolution is an opportunist process. To me, it seems logical that elements with solid mutating capabilities are as likely to evolve into life forms as readily as carbon given a realistic setting.

Seabirds are eating plastic because it smells like food

❝ Plastic pollution in the sea gives off a smell that attracts foraging birds, scientists have found…The discovery could explain why seabirds such as the albatross swallow plastic, causing injury or death.

The smell, similar to the odour of rotting seaweed, is caused by the breakdown of plankton that sticks to floating bits of plastic…About 90% of seabirds have eaten plastic and may keep some in their bellies, putting their health at risk…

❝ Scientists think seabirds associate the smell of plastic with food – and are tricked into swallowing plastic waste…

“We found a chemical on plastic that these birds typically associate with food, but now it’s being associated with plastic…And so these birds might be very confused – and tricked into consuming plastic as food.”

❝ The chemical – dimethyl sulfide – has a characteristic sulphurous odour associated with boiling cabbage or decaying seaweed…It is also produced in the oceans through the breakdown of microscopic algae or phytoplankton, which collects on plastic.

Seabirds with a keen sense of smell, including albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, can detect this odour, which they associate with food.

What a species we are. Most critters are smart enough not to crap in their own nest. But, the world is our whole nest, folks. We need to require those who despoil our oceans and continents to take responsibility for their mess. And, better yet, stop them from making a mess in the first place.

Gun control laws actually work – both ways, unfortunately

In this week’s obvious news, laws that allow people to kill other people with guns have led to more people killing other people with guns. According to two new research papers, stricter firearm laws are associated with fewer firearm homicides, and the implementation of Florida’s stand-your-ground law was associated with increased firearm homicides.

These findings, released today by the JAMA Internal Medicine, may sound obvious. But since Congress has essentially withheld all funding for gun violence research for the last 20 years, large-scale studies of this sort have been few and far between. As The Atlantic reported, “In the mid-1990s, Congress declared that funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shouldn’t be used to advocate for gun control, and it effectively blocked funding for the study of gun violence at the agency.” Despite studies showing that gun violence is a threat to human health and safety, the CDC, a federally funded public health agency with a seven billion dollar annual budget, still withholds support from gun research. Perhaps these new findings will bolster the case for federal funding.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for chickenshit Congress-critters to act.

One paper released today, first-authored by Lois K. Lee of Harvard Medical School, examined five types of gun laws: “those that (1) curb gun trafficking, (2) strengthen background checks, (3) improve child safety, (4) ban military-style assault weapons, and (5) restrict firearms in public places and leniency in firearm carrying.” The researchers found strong evidence that laws strengthening background checks and purchase permits helped decrease gun homicide rates. Interestingly, the researchers did not find strong evidence that laws focusing on trafficking, child safety and assault weapons decreased firearm homicides. The evidence for the effects of laws regarding guns in public places was not conclusive either way. On the whole, though, they found that, “stronger gun policies were associated with decreased rates of firearm homicide, even after adjusting for demographic and sociologic factors.”

Another paper released today, also in JAMA Internal Medicine, tracked the effects of Florida’s stand-your-ground law since its implementation in 2005. This law allows a person to use deadly force instead of retreating from what they believe to be a life-threatening encounter. To conduct this research, David K. Humphreys of University of Oxford and his colleagues examined gun death data for the years leading up to 2005 and the years after, then compared them to other states’ data for the same years. They found that gun homicides increased in the years following 2005, while prior to 2005 they had remained relatively stable. The comparison states (New York, New Jersey, Ohio, and Virginia) which don’t have stand-your-ground laws, did not have similar increases, strengthening the evidence that this is a Florida trend associated with stand-your-ground laws, not part of a national trend…

Informed discussion requires sound data. When public bodies, from the Republican Party and Blue Dog Democrats to the NRA oppose the collection of any data at all they only illuminate their cowardice, their fear of law and public practice reflecting conclusions about best practices. Ideology trumps evidence quite easily when evidence collection is forbidden.

Here’s a mosquito bite you don’t want to look forward to!


James Gathany

Most people hate mosquitoes, and who could blame them? At best, we associate mosquitoes with itchy red bites. They also happen to be our most deadly animal adversary: 400,000 people died of malaria alone in 2015, which was a huge improvement from death tolls in recent years. The recent spike in Zika cases — and the spread of the disease into new regions like North America, thanks to global warming — has researchers working even harder to understand how the insects got so good at transmitting pathogens and how we might stop them.

❝ But if you think Zika sounds bad, just imagine contracting that virus and another exotic ailment from the same irritating little mosquito. According to new research from Colorado State University, that’s totally possible: The scientists were able to infect mosquitoes with both Zika and chikungunya, a virus that causes fever and joint pain in humans. And when they tested the amount of mosquito spit that would usually go into a single bite, they found enough copies of those viruses to simultaneously infect a human host. The team also confirmed previous reports that chikungunya and dengue virus could shack up in the same mosquito. It remains to be seen whether a nasty trifecta is possible, but all three of these viruses have been spotted in North America in recent years…

❝ The findings, Greg Ebel readily admits, are still preliminary—and the results don’t suggest that these concurrent outbreaks are common. In fact, he and his team aren’t even sure what would happen if a human was simultaneously infected with Zika and chikungunya at the same time…

But while it’s tempting to freak out over the possibility of a double or triple viral infection, Ebel and his colleagues are more concerned with how the viruses might interact inside mosquitoes than they are with theoretical human symptoms. The human scenario is a little too far-fetched to prompt immediate concern, but if the viruses behave strangely when they end up in the same mosquito, that could have implications for the transmission rate of any of those illnesses in humans.

Frequently, I note the unforeseen successes that roll out of basic research. Scary stuff happens as readily, perhaps more often. All the more reason to continue searches simply to extend human knowledge.

China has an Arctic commercial and scientific partner in remote Iceland

In a remote valley near the Arctic Circle where the wind whips the coarse yellow grass, China and Iceland are preparing to look to the sky — and a shared future.

Construction workers are building a research facility to study the Northern Lights, whose spectacular streaks of color light up Iceland’s winter skies. Funded by China’s Polar Research Institute, the facility will house Chinese, Icelandic and international scientists when it opens next year.

This cement shell is a concrete achievement in the burgeoning relationship between the rising Asian superpower, population 1.37 billion, and this tiny North Atlantic island nation of 330,000 people. It may seem a lopsided friendship, but both countries perceive benefits…

“It is better to be a friend to everyone when you are small than be an enemy to anybody,” said Reinhard Reynisson, director of the nonprofit company building the Aurora Observatory.

Reynisson speaks with the confidence of a country that has weathered earthquakes, volcanoes, famine and financial meltdown since it was settled by Vikings in the 9th century…

Iceland was nudged in China’s direction by financial calamity. When the global credit crunch hit in 2008, Iceland’s banks — whose debts had ballooned to more than 10 times the country’s GDP — collapsed. Iceland’s currency nosedived, unemployment soared, and Iceland was forced to go the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for bailouts. It also began looking for new economic partners to help it rebuild — and China was willing.

In 2010, the two countries agreed currency swaps between Iceland’s krona and China’s yuan, and in 2013 they signed a free trade agreement — the first between China and a European country.

With Iceland’s support, China was granted observer status in 2013 at the Arctic Council, whose core members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the United States and Iceland.

It also attends annual Arctic Circle Assemblies hosted by Iceland — gatherings of politicians, officials, scientists and businesspeople to discuss the future of the region…

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The colorful phenomenon is caused when a magnetic solar wind slams into the Earth’s magnetic field.

Scientists hope the observatory will help them learn about the interaction between the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field, which could help predict space weather…

Reynisson said the initial local skepticism about China’s intentions has faded.

Trade in commerce, ideas and science? Seems to me to be an example of the best kind of global cooperation. 21st Century foreign policy between nations with intense respect for long-lived culture.

Alaska Airlines flew a 737 across the country using wood chips

❝ On Monday morning, Washington state-based Alaska Airlines started the week off right. It sent a Boeing 737 jet on the first commercial flight partially fueled by tree limbs and waste wood from forests.

❝ The alternative jet fuel used on the flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. was produced through the efforts of the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) and Gevo Inc., a private renewable technology company…

❝ Like corn, trees also produce sugars through the process of photosynthesis. These sugars can be converted into alcohol and then into kerosene or jet fuel. Wood is more expensive to convert, but it can be made into isobutanol, a particular type of alcohol that gives fuel more suited for aircraft engines.

The wood-based blend also brings some additional advantages. It doesn’t compete with food crops or the land used to grow them. Instead, it uses forest clippings that are typically gathered into a pile and burned. And if the conversion process gains more support, it could create new employment in areas that have lost timber industry jobs.

❝ Renewable jet fuel must compete on cost with petroleum-based fuels before airlines consider it for anything but the occasional stunt, but biofuel technology is fast catching up. And several airlines around the globe have committed to keeping the net carbon emissions from aviation neutral starting in 2020. That’s significant because jet fuel remains a huge source of carbon pollution.

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Remember that song. Our politicians serenade us with it every few years when elections roll around. Most especially re-election, eh? Still seems to me our intelligentsia and outsiders with higher-than-a-6th-grade social pass are doing a better job at trying to fill the gap between quality jobs and minimum wage…than our bought-and-paid-for Congress.