Sunday, May 20, 2018


Clearly, it's not for everyone, but new research shows that if you consistently exercise for 30 minutes or more four of five times per week, chances our your heart and major arteries will stay young and flexible as you age. While less frequent exercise still has many health benefits, it seems to take high freqency exercise to keep the biggest arteries in the body from stiffening with age.

 Cardio-box class; one form of heart-healthy exercise
Credit: Universidad Europea de Madrid

The new research, published in the Journal of Physiology, studied the lifelong exercise patterns of 102 men and women 60 years old or over. The researchers divided the participants into four groups--sedentary, casual exercisers, committed exercisers and master athletes, based on how frequently they had exercised over time. The results were clear--casual exercisers (two to three times per week) showed some heart and artery benefits, but it took four or more exercise sessions per week to be associated with preserved flexibility of the major vessels such as the carotid artery.

Human heart and major blood vessels
Credit: Bryan Brandenburg 

Of course, these findings alone can't pin down cause and effect, or sort out other factors that might influence heart and arterial health, such as the type or intensity of exercise, diet or social and economic factors. However, they strongly suggest that consistent frequent exercise can help keep a person's heart and central arteries healthy and flexible into the later decades of life.

The researchers are using these preliminary findings as a guidepost towards exercise programs that can make a positive difference to people who don't have a lifelong history of frequent and consistent exercise. Benjamin Levine, at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas in Dallas, hopes not just to preserve heart health, but to turn back the ravages of age. "Our current work is focusing on two years of training in middle aged men and women, with and without risk factors for heart diseases, to see if we can reverse the ageing of a heart and blood vessels by using the right amount of exercise at the right time."


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Friday, May 18, 2018


At its peak, in 1923, the US coal industry employed 863,000 people, just over two percent of US workers at that time. Today, coal employs just 50,000 workers, less than .04 percent of the current workforce. Despite Trump's claim that his administration has "ended the war on beautiful, clean coal," and will ". . . put our miners back to work," those jobs are no more likely to come back than those of the blacksmiths and farriers who shod the 25 million horses that plowed furrows and pulled wagons in the US in 1920.

The reason is simple:  coal not only is not only dirty, dangerous and a huge source of greenhouse gases, it can no longer compete economically with oil, natural gas or renewables. Forbes reports that by 2020, power generated by wind farms or large-scale solar installations will market at an incredibly low price of three cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Compare that to the 10 to 14 cents per kWh for coal-generated electricity. You don't need an economics degree to foresee the results.

 Four Corners coal generating plant, San Juan, New Mexico

This isn't the case just in the US. According to CleanTechNews, the renewable energy sector employed 10.3 million people worldwide in 2017, adding 500,000 new jobs in the previous year. Large renewable energy projects are currently being bid and contracted at three cents per kWh or less in Dubai, Chile, Abu Dhabi, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, utilities closed 30 coal-fired plants in 2017 in the US alone, and more in the first months of this year--more than 270 since 2010.

High desert wind farm
Credit: Winchell Joshua, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sorry, Donald, neither the US nor the rest of the world is going back to coal, no matter how many clean air and clean water regulations you remove.

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Thursday, May 17, 2018


Last year, Elon Musk made the State of South Australia an offer they couldn't refuse. He promised to install the world's largest lithium-ion battery in 100 days and at a bargain price in order to store surplus power from the Hornsdale Wind Farm and use it to stabilize South Australia's power grid.

The crash project has been enormously successful. In the first four months of operation it saved the state government $35 million (Australian dollars, equal to $26.3 million US). That's an amazing return on investment, given that the project cost them just $50 million (37.5 million US). It looks as though it will more than pay for itself within its first six months.

Hornsdale Power Reserve battery with three of the Wind Farm's 99 turbines in background
Credit: David Clarke 

The giant battery's primary function is to stabilize the frequency of electricity coursing through the state's power grid. When a generator or transmission line goes down, the frequency drops until backup power can fill the gap. If there's insufficient backup, disruptive brownouts or blackouts occur. But even if a backup plant comes on line or power can be purchased from a neighboring grid, the price of that stopgap power can soar. A grid operator might have to pay $10,000 or more per megawatt-hour, compared to a normal price of $150 or less.

Most of the $35 million that the huge battery saved the South Australian government came from its ability to switch on and re-stabilize the grid extremely quickly--within 200 milliseconds--far faster than other kinds of backup power plants. According to RenewEconomy, the battery now commands 55 percent of the stabilization market in South Australia, and has reduced the cost of back-up power by a stunning 90 percent.

Critics of renewable energy tend to view intermittency--the fluctuating supply of energy from wind and solar--as a major obstacle to the urgently-needed transformation to renewables. Although the Hornsdale project shows convincingly that batteries can solve the back-up power problem, it can't store enough energy to make non-renewable coal or gas power plants obsolete. But it's clearly a step in the right direction. South Australia agrees, with two more giant battery projects being developed in the state, and several more in other parts of Australia.


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Saturday, May 05, 2018


It turns out that Finns and other sauna lovers have been right in touting the health benefits of frequent sauna bathing. A long-term study that followed more than 1600 middle-aged Finnish men and women for 15 years found that people who took saunas 4 to 7 times a week had roughly one-third the risk of stroke of  peers who took just one sauna a week.

That risk reduction was similar for men and women, for people of different ages and social-economic status, and for people with other medical conditions.

Modern sauna

Most people associate saunas with Finland, where it dates back at least to the year 1112 and is still extremely popular. However, we know that the ancient Romans also valued similar heat treatment, as shown in the caldaria  or hot rooms in the public and private baths found throughout the Roman Empire. Many traditional societies also valued heat treatments, often combined with aromatic herbs, as part of healing ceremonies. Examples can be found in the temazcals found throughout Mesoamerica in archaeological sites, codices, and in current use, as well as in the sweat lodges traditionally used by Native Americans.

Prehispanic temazcal

Reduced stroke risk is not the only benefit from sauna bathing. You can read about a wide range of research-supported physical and mental benefits here. This seems to be one area where ancient, traditional knowledge is holding up under current scientific scrutiny.

I don't know about you, but after my next workout, I'm heading for the sauna.


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Monday, April 30, 2018


Portugal, home to 10 million people, surged to the front of the pack in terms of renewable energy in March of this year. Using a combination of hydro, wind and solar generation, it produced more than enough electricity to power its 3.6 million households, plus businesses, industry and transport. It exported a surplus of 4.8 percent of its electricity--878 gigawatt-hours--to other European countries.

Portugal's use of renewable energy in March kept 1.8 million tons of climate-destabilizing CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Many other countries, including Sweden, Costa Rica and Germany, are moving rapidly towards meeting all or most of their power needs with renewables. You can read about Scotland's successes here.

Portugal's Alto Minho Wind Farm Under Construction
Credit: BBC News

Portugal's per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $30,300 per year, just about half that of the United States ($59,500). If they can do it, why can't we?


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Thursday, April 26, 2018


Just a quick link to let you know about a beautifully done interactive virtual reality video taking you to six of the thousands of exoplanets astronomers have discovered. While you explore, conditions on each planet are explained by a researcher studying it. Produced by the University of Exeter in the UK with the help of animators Engine house VFX, it's been viewed by more than a million people so far. Great fun.

What the surface of Trappist 1f migh look like


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Wednesday, April 25, 2018


The contrast couldn't be greater. When Canadian police officer Constable Ken Lam tracked down Alek Minassian, the suspect charged with running down multiple pedestrians in Toronto on April 23, Minassian did everything he could to provoke the officer into shooting him. Minassian held an object that looked like a gun in his hand and pointed it towards the officer. He twice reached towards his pocket, then quickly raised his hand as if he were pulling and pointing a gun.

Minassian tries to provoke Canadian police officer to shoot him

"Kill me," Minassian demanded.

"No. Get down," the officer replied.

"I have a gun in my pocket."

"I don't care," said the officer. "Get down."

You can view the video here.

In it, the officer calmly turns off his car's siren, holsters his gun, advances towards the suspect with his baton raised, and arrests him. No shots fired. No violence. Absolute professionalism.

I can't help but compare this with the dozens of videos I've viewed of similar situations here in the United States. Videos in which far less threatening situations escalate in seconds and conclude in a barrage of shots and a dead body, often found to be unarmed. Here's an example, one of far too many.

The US has about ten times more citizens than Canada. Canadian police kill an average of 25 people a year. US police kill more than 1000 people every year. According to a recent study, that represents more than 50,000 years of life lost (YLL), most of it by the early deaths of young Black men. Clearly, something is very different about police-suspect relations in the US and Canada (and most other developed countries). Clearly something is very wrong about how our militarized police view the rest of us.


You can read earlier posts about police killings in the US here and also here.


I finally get it. To use the current phrase, I'm "woke." I've come to understand what Trump and his supporters mean when they shout "Make America Great Again!"

I've been confused since I first started seeing MAGA on signs and baseball caps and hearing the chant. What Trump was selling--fear, anger, belligerence, racism, xenophobia--didn't seem great to me. But something obviously resonated with his fans.

To me, great is the superlative of good. When I think of something great, it evokes images of the best of something positive, creative, constructive, beautiful; Usain Bolt is a great sprinter, the Beatles were a great band, Moby Dick is a great novel, Casablanca a great movie. You get the idea.

But what I've come to realize, to Trump and his friends great has a very different meaning. Synonyms would be powerful, dominant, commanding, controlling, top dog, boss. To him and them, a great nation doesn't have to be democratic, just, equitable, prosperous, peaceful, inspiring, sustainable or anything else good. It just needs to be powerful--ready, willing and able to throw its weight around. The biggest bully on the block.

So when Trump tweets, "Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart,'" his supporters love it. He's demonstrating his and, by reflection, their dominance.

Or for another data point, check out this list of despots and dictators whom Trump admires.

Or this tweet:

"North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

Our nukes are bigger and more powerful than yours. MAGA.