Archive | February 2014

Efficiency Matters!

My latest article for Midwest Energy News examines economic studies criticizing Ohio’s energy efficiency standards. One big point the critics missed: You don’t have to pay for electricity you don’t use.

Reports criticizing Ohio efficiency law limited in scope

Posted on 02/26/2014 by Kathiann M. Kowalski

Two economists who favor scaling back Ohio’s energy efficiency standard admit they did not consider all potential benefits in their recent reports criticizing the current law.

Last week, an industry group released two reports finding fault with an analysis that projects billions of dollars in costs and thousands of job losses if Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards are rolled back.

The new reports conclude that the costs of energy efficiency programs outweigh one benefit—lower wholesale energy prices. The reports’ authors acknowledge, however, that they did not calculate any other potential benefits.

Read more. . .

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”

snowyBrrr! This been a bitterly cold winter in the Midwest. The deep freeze has stuck around for most of the last two months too. Yet strange as it seems, this winter’s weather is consistent with climate change.

So says Jennifer Francis, a climate researcher at Rutgers University. Yes, this winter has indeed been very cold here in the United States. But that’s not all. “The bigger story, if you sit back and look at the whole northern hemisphere, is warmth,” she says. Sweden, for example, has been unusually warm this winter.

Arctic warming might explain why, suggests Francis. Earth’s overall average temperature has risen only slightly over the last 100 years. However, the most dramatic warming has taken place in the Arctic. The Northwest Passage that explorers sought over 200 years ago has already opened up, at least in the summer months. Meanwhile, scientists are seeing dramatic losses in sea ice and impacts on ecosystems throughout the Arctic.

When the Arctic is less cold, there’s less difference between it and the mid-latitudes that include much of the United States. The difference between the two regions is one of the things that drives the westerly wind known as the jet stream. When there’s a bigger difference between warm and cold regions, the jet stream is faster and flows pretty directly from east to west.

Reduce the temperature difference between the two areas, and the jet stream should flow slower. And slower flow could let the jet stream meander northward and southward in a wavy pattern.

“I like to think of it as a river,” says Francis. A river flowing swiftly downhill tends to follow a fairly straight course. Once it comes to a more level plain, it’s more likely to meander along a winding course around whatever obstacles are in the way.

Picture that happening throughout the northern hemisphere with a huge river of air. Air flowing up from the south would bring warmer weather. Air flowing down from the northernmost parts of the wavy pattern would bring colder weather.

The phenomenon is relatively new, says Francis. And with only about 15 years of data, she’s not yet ready to say this winter is definitely due to Arctic warming. But, she says, what we’re seeing is consistent with her hypothesis.

Francis discussed her research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Chicago on Saturday. She and colleague Steve Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin initially published their hypothesis in 2012 in Geophysical Research Letters. Francis also presented information about the research at the 2011 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. New data collected since then continue to support her hypothesis.

Not everyone accepts Francis’s view, though. One challenge came last year from Colorado State University researcher Elizabeth Barnes. She argued that the results found by Francis and her colleagues could have had been a weird result, an “artifact” of their research. Francis disagreed, although she admits that there’s not yet enough data to get to the 95 percent confidence level that most scientific researchers look for. Nonetheless, she and other scientists have been collecting more data. And, Francis says, it’s “getting close.”

Perhaps just as importantly, no one has offered any better explanation for some of the phenomena we’ve seen this winter. Nor has anyone come forward with any evidence to contradict her hypothesis.

Francis and other scientists will continue to collect and analyze data to determine how much of an effect Arctic warming is really having on lower latitudes. Meanwhile, be sure to button up your overcoat—at least if you’re in the Midwest. As the old song goes, “Baby, it’s cold outside!”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

roseThe Suffocation of Marriage” doesn’t sound terribly romantic or upbeat. Yet a new research paper—issued just in time for Valentine’s Day—isn’t nearly as negative as its title suggests.

Actually, the full title of the paper by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago is “The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without Enough Oxygen.” Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who explored how people seek to fulfill a hierarchy of needs. Lead author Eli Finkel presented the researchers’ findings at a briefing at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago today.

The institution of marriage in America has gone through three distinct phases, say the study authors. In each phase, partners have sought to fulfill different needs through marriage.

The first phase focused on subsistence. During America’s early years, you’d look for a partner who could help meet your basic needs for food, safety, and shelter. “The idea of marrying for love seemed a little ludicrous at the time,” says Finkel. If you wound up liking or even loving your spouse, that was great. But that wasn’t the main goal, he says.

Starting around 1850, companionship became the top focus in marriage. “That model stayed dominant for probably over 100 years,” notes Finkel.

Now marriage in America is patterned on a “self-expression model.” People still want a mate who can provide for basic needs and be a companion. Beyond that, we want “someone to help us on our voyage of self-discovery,” says Finkel, so we can “become the ideal version of ourselves.”

So, where does suffocation come in? Well, helping your mate become the best he or she can be takes time and effort. You have to get to know and understand your partner, and you need to invest part of yourself in traveling that road of self-discovery together. Unfortunately, the amount of time people are investing in their marriage has been declining.

“People are spending less and less time than in the past alone with our spouse,” says Finkel. And that’s taking a toll. The divorce rate among Americans is up, especially among less-educated Americans. In other words, Finkel and his colleagues suggest, people aren’t investing the time and resources to meet the expectations we now place on marriage.

Having insight into the problem offers strategies for avoiding such suffocation. First, couples can make a conscious effort to invest more time in their marriage.

Second, couples can reevaluate how they use that time. Instead of watching reruns on old sitcoms, perhaps they can do something that involves more direct communication and personal sharing. “Most people have some amount of freedom to use the limited amount of time with their spouse a little more productively,” notes Finkel.

And if someone really doesn’t have that time, Finkel says it’s sensible to recognize the limits and address them. “All of us aren’t going to be able to have the best possible marriage at all times,” he says. For those periods, he suggests, couples can temporarily dial back their expectations. “Let’s be realistic,” he suggests. Communicate about the issues, cope with the present, and work towards a better future.

Ultimately, Finkel says he’s optimistic about this era of marriage. “The best marriages today are flourishing more than the best marriages in earlier years.” The trick is finding the time and committing the resources to really understand your spouse.

So, go ahead and celebrate Valentine’s Day this February 14. If you’re married, though, don’t stop there. Aim to celebrate at least a little bit every day with your spouse. Then your love story doesn’t have to end.

Exploring Diabetes—With Mice

My latest gym reading is Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Usually two or three of his humorous essays are perfect for my time on the exercise bicycle. It beats watching the talking heads that are usually on the gym’s TV screens when I’m up there.

Now an announcement from San Francisco’s Gladstone Institutes says its researchers have been exploring diabetes with mice.

Coincidence? Of course.

Yet my gym reading did make me sit up and take notice of the new study. It turns out that Ke Li, Sheng Ding, and other biochemists have come up with a way to reprogram skin cells into cells that can make insulin-producing pancreas cells. The body’s inability to make insulin causes Type 1 diabetes. Up to 3 million Americans have the disease, reports JDRF.

The cell reprogramming process worked in a petri dish. The cells also worked when they were transplanted into mice with hyperglycemia. That condition’s high glucose levels are a key indicator for diabetes. Within a week, the test mice’s glucose began approaching normal levels.

The findings might eventually translate into treatment for people with diabetes. They can also help scientists understand better how defects in certain cells lead to the disease.

The research is published in Cell Stem Cell. Cell—Stem Cell would probably be a better way to write the title, but that’s not how they do it.

Meanwhile, it’s good that the mice responded well to the process. I just hope no one feeds them to owls.

No Smoking Zone

An old George Carlin routine made fun of pharmacies for promoting and selling “DRUGS!” In most cases, of course, drug stores sell helpful medicines. Yet many also sell addictive substances in the form of tobacco products.

That won’t be the case much longer at CVS stores. The company will stop selling tobacco products throughout its stores. The announcement appears in the online version of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article, co-authored by CVS’s chief medical officer explains:

Although the sale of tobacco products in CVS pharmacies produces more than $1.5 billion in revenues annually, the financial gain is outweighed by the paradox inherent in promoting health while contributing to tobacco-related deaths. As a result, CVS has decided to cease tobacco sales in a phased approach over the next year.

Smokers will probably seek their cigarettes elsewhere, note the authors. Nonetheless, I’ve long thought it hypocritical for businesses that claim to promote health to sell cigarettes at the same time. And if more stores take the same approach, maybe people will get the message that smoking and a healthy lifestyle really don’t go together.

The scientific evidence of tobacco’s ill effects is overwhelming. More than 440,000 tobacco-related deaths happen every year in the United States. That’s about out of every five deaths, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality for smokers is about three times that of people who never smoked.

The evidence continues to mount. In December, researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden reported found that smoking literally changes people’s genes. It causes epigenetic changes—alterations in the DNA’s chemical make-up. This methylation is likely linked to smokers’ increased risks for cancer, diabetes, impaired immune system abilities, and lower sperm quality.

Another report released in December found that smoking explains up to three-fourths of the difference in death rates for the Central South states and other parts of the United States. Those states generally have lower taxes on tobacco than other states do. The report appears in Population and Development Review.

And just last month, another study found that a mother’s stress and smoking make it more likely her daughter will eventually become dependent on nicotine. The study appears in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

My own mother puffed on smoke after smoke after smoke while I was growing up. Yet she had jars and jars of vitamins in the house. She was something of a self-styled health food nut, too. And, like most parents, she told us all not to do “DRUGS”—except she wasn’t joking like Carlin was in his routine. She died of cancer almost five years ago.

So, good for CVS. Its stores will still sell “DRUGS.” But at least they won’t be selling cigarettes.

Urban Fare

Bain Park. Copyright Kathiann M. Kowalski. All rights reserved.

Bain Park.  Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

A couple of months ago, I chanced upon a couple of women in long dresses and head scarves harvesting food. I wasn’t in a foreign country, and I wasn’t even in a rural area. I was just down the block from my own suburban home, walking by the park my kids played in when they were little.

“What are you doing?” I asked—not to hassle the women, but because I was curious. The overgrown bushes they were picking from were at the edge of the playground, growing by a slope near a curve in the road. Another 100 feet down, the park turned into a woods with trails.

The bushes were actually grape vines, and the women were picking leaves to make stuffed grape leaves. I’d had them at Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants and food festivals, but it hadn’t occurred to me before to wonder where the grape leaves come from. If you’re cooking them at home, you don’t necessarily have a grape vine growing in your backyard.

And while the sight of women picking grape leaves was new to me, gathering “wild” food in urban areas is really not rare. Indeed, a new study confirms that foraging for food is common among different groups in various cities in the United States. The study appears in the current issue of Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.

The researchers examined urban foraging in New York City, Baltimore, Seattle, and Philadelphia. Foraged foods include nuts, berries, shoots, fruits, and more.

Just as diverse are the people who gather wild foods. Some were relative newcomers to the United States. Others had been born or lived here up to eight decades. Ethnic and national origins included countries from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Annual income levels covered a wide range too—from less than $10,000 to more than $250,000.

Urban foraging wasn’t in the forefront when landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted planned parks in the late 19th and early 20th century. That should change, say the new study’s authors. Gathering wild food can and should be part of our planning for sustainable cities, they say.

And, as some of the subjects of the study noted, it’s one way to get just the right ingredients for prized family recipes.

Have you ever gathered “wild” food in your neighborhood? If so, what did you collect, and how did you use it?