February 27, 2007

Words of the day

A.Word.A.Day is a dictionary mailing group. Here are their words from yesterday and today:

misology (mi-SOL-uh-jee) noun
Hatred of logic or reason.
[From Greek miso- (hate) + -logy (science, study).]

virga (VUHR-guh) noun
Rain or snow that evaporates before hitting the ground.
[From Latin virga (rod, streak).]

For example. Today's misology started after I rode my bike to work in rain and snow. Had it only been virga.

February 25, 2007

Proactive Investment

One of the ideas that came through quite clearly while reading Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers is that sequestration of carbon is temporary, and it can be risky. One of the best ways to store carbon is underground, in its pure elemental form, and nature has already put away a lot of it in the form of coal. Of the fossil fuels coal is worst in terms of producing carbon dioxide since it has little hydrogen. This makes oil and especially natural gas better alternatives. The best thing to do with coal is leave it underground where it keeps carbon away from the atmosphere for millions of years, no fuss, no muss. Coal is made of plant material produced by photosynthesis from atmospheric CO2 millions of years ago. One of the worst ideas is building new coal fired power plants since investment in this infrastructure commits us to emitting CO2 for the lifetime of the plant, over half a century.

This article in today's New York Times tells the story of TXU corporation, a Texas utility that planned to build 11 new coal-fired power plants. Goldman Sachs helped to arrange a buyout of the company that will mean an about-face in their environmental policy. The deal, the largest leveraged buyout ever, will mean that 8 of the 11 new plants will not be built. The investment team asked the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense 'what it would take' to gain their support for the deal.

February 23, 2007

Saturated fat

Anonymous asks, Can Dr. Ralf Sundberg give some examples of peer-reviewed scientific work that recommends a diet high in saturated fat?

Well, Dr. Ralf can and does. His letter (translated below) gives more than a few references to scientific studies and it would not be hard to dig them out given a few hours in a research library. (Specifically, work of Bengt Vessby, studies of margarine-eaters and milk-drinkers, commentary on work by Keys, ten studies on cholesterol, studies of diabetics, dissertation in Gothenberg).

There are reasons to be sceptical of the received wisdom that saturated fat is necessarily bad. Here for example is some information about saturated fat. It is important to distinguish between natural saturated fat found in dairy products like cream and cheese (and breast milk), and trans fats which are mainly made on an industrial scale by the catalytic hydrogenation of plant oil. Trans fats are neither required or beneficial for health, and their consumption is linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Another good source of information is The South Beach Diet written by cardiologist Arthur Agatston. And an article in The New York Times, 'What if it's all been a big fat lie'.

Shall I write a disclaimer? I am not a doctor, but I do eat food on a regular basis and sometimes I try to inform myself about what is good to eat. I have noticed a considerable improvement in my metabolism since switching to the 'South Beach Diet' (fat and oil are good sources of energy giving a Long Burn, avoid fast carbohydrates)-- by this I mean my digestive system now runs like clockwork, I have lost weight, I have more energy and I can go for long periods without thinking about food.


I bought a violin kit through the internet and have started working on it now and then. I have no illusions that I will be able to produce a masterpiece or anything close-- I'll be happy if I can use it to play Twinkle Twinkle or maybe a crude Sailor's Hornpipe. For now I am just learning the process and if it's not perfect, well, let the chips fall where they may. The first step is to put in the purfling along the edge. I have had to make some new tools including a micro-chisel (made by grinding a small file) and a cabinet scraper. Scrapers are great to work with-- they produce a much smoother surface much more quickly than sandpaper. Here are some instructions I found that I used to turn a small putty spatula into a handy cabinet scraper.


Here is a picture from my son's Judo practice. They have a lot of fun. That girl in the puma shirt is going to go far.

Snowed in

We had a nice snowstorm two days ago, smack in the middle of the elementary school's winter vacation. All public transportation was cancelled so I worked at home for a couple of days, and took a chance to work on a snow fort and go cross country skiing with F. I am sure that I caused the whole thing because last weekend I took the snow tires off our bikes.

The snowstorm was fun to watch-- strong winds out of the east (very rare), bringing cold air from Russia over the warm waters of the Baltic Sea.

Today I made it into work though. It was a wild and sloppy bike ride-- sometimes you need speed to get through a snow rut, sometimes you need to go slow because you took off the snow tires. When I got into work my eyeglasses were thoroughly spotted from riding behind some other bikers in Copenhagen. My coworker proclaimed an old Danish addage: Don't eat cherries with the big people if you can't take getting pits in your eyes.

February 19, 2007

The importance of fat

This is my translation of a commentary by Dr. Ralf Sundberg that appeared in our newspaper, Sydsvenskan, on Saturday February 17.

Recently Nils-Georg Asp, Professor of Industrial Food Science, wrote that it is too early to declare that milk fat is safe. Professor Asp believes that reduced heart-related mortality in recent years is due to reduced fat consumption.

There are other explanations for the trend, for example better heart surgery and heart attack care, but it is a common mistake in research to interpret parallel tendencies as if they were causally connected. How does the professor explain the violent increase in heart disease in the US between 1910 and 1960? During the same period consumption of margarine and vegetable oil increased dramatically, while the American's consumption of pork, eggs and milk products decreased.

And how does the professor explain the epidemic of obesity and diabetes that has arisen in parallel with reduced consumption of fat? Swedes eat less fat than ever but more calories, according to government statistics.

Professor Asp names a few recent studies that show some advantages of milk fat, but advises us not to put too much faith in these recent fashions. Asp's colleague Bengt Vessby at the National Food Agency doesn't even trust himself. He has shown that consumption of milk fat reduces risk factors for heart attacks including abdominal fat, but none of this appears in the Agency's dietary advice for the general public, diabetics or school children.

Neither are the American studies mentioned, studies showing that margarine-eaters have a greater risk of heart attack than those who choose butter. Or that studies of more than 400,000 individuals have shown that milk-drinkers have the lowest heart-related mortality rates.

The idea that saturated fat is dangerous originated with Ancel Keys, an American professor who in 1953 published a study from six countries that showed a correlation between the number of heart attacks and the consumption of fat. However it was revealed in 1957 that Keys had data from six more countries that he choose not to include in the publication because they did not support his conclusion. Pure scientific fraud.

Nobody reacted, but when his results could not be reproduced by other researchers, he chose instead to focus on saturated fats and chose seven new countries. Anyone who has read his study Seven countries will have a difficult time coming to the same conclusion, but the myth concerning the danger of saturated fat has unfortunately taken on a life of its own.

It is claimed that saturated fat increases cholesterol. However there are ten studies that have shown that cholesterol levels are unaffected by a diet that contains less carbohydrates and two to five times more saturated fat than what is recommended by the National Food Agency. Such a diet did however result in a dramatic decrease in triglyceride concentrations, which is another important risk factor.

Further, it is asserted that saturated fat can lead to diabetes. However all studies of diabetics in which the amount of carbohydrates in the diet was reduced and the amount of fat, especially saturated fat, was increased, have found a significant improvement of the condition of the patient.

That dietary fat makes you fat is a myth that has taken on a life of its own. A recent dissertation from the University of Gothenberg showed that four-year-olds who ate the least amount of fat had a higher risk of being overweight and contracting diabetes, while those that ate the most fat were thin and healthy. This may seem like a paradox but is actually completely in line with what biochemistry and physiology know about how the body's metabolism works.

The scientific studies that support the idea that milk fat is healthy are extremely well anchored.

February 13, 2007

January 2007

-Data from NASA

'The policy choices that lie ahead are more daunting than political leaders or the media have thus far been ready to acknowledge. In a sense, twenty years of frustrating trench-warfare with the sceptics has prevented a rational discussion about what needs to be done from even taking place.'

-Quotation from the journal Nature, 8 February 2007.

February 12, 2007


I am fighting a cold and brought a thermos to work to be close to a good supply of hot tea. I learned the importance of good tea one summer working at a boy scout camp in northern England. With a good cup of tea you can face anything-- driving mist; camping in ankle deep mud; a breakfast of white beans, french fries and toast; west Lancashire accents: anything. And good tea is foolishly simple to make: the only requirement is boiling hot water. It's amazing that tea gets screwed up so often, like by restaurants that give you a bag and a cup of lukewarm tapwater. As Paul Westerberg sang, 'I bought a headache!'

There is a 'Lipton's Assortment' box of tea bags in the lunch room and I am vexed that you can have 20 different kinds of tea but no 'tea'. There's Strawberry Delight and Citrus Heaven and Tropical Punch, but where have the good honorable load-bearing teas gone, like Earl Grey, dammit, or even English Breakfast? The closest thing I could find to something drinkable was 'Persian Earl Grey', which is the usual Earl Grey plus Jasmine, which is now skirmishing with Bergamot in my frontal lobe.

I hate this spineless idea that more is more. Less is more, get it? We are awash in pointless choices instead of mastering the fundamentals and appreciating the virtues of simplicity.

February 04, 2007

Moving forward

1. Don't believe the hype. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions does not mean the economy will collapse. The first piece of evidence is that per capita CO2 emissions in Sweden are 1/4 per capita CO2 emissions in the USA. Its a big country so Swedes need long distance transportation. Its cold, so they need heat. A large part of the economy is based on energy intensive basic industries like paper and steel. Swedes have a good quality of life without emitting a lot of CO2. How do they do it? Hydroelectric, wind power, nuclear, bio-fuels AND energy efficiency. Reducing CO2 emissions would have many positive effects besides preventing climatological disaster: efficiency saves money, and reducing dependence on foreign oil increases security.

2. A lot of the emissions are due to driving automobiles. So, you could buy a hip new hybrid and improve your gas mileage by a factor of 3. Not bad! Or, you could jump over the fuel economy question altogether by leaving your car in the driveway and using your bike or the internet for your errands. Or, you could buy CO2 emissions offsets. Using emissions offsets it is DIRT CHEAP to turn your car into a zero emissions vehicle. Just a couple of bucks a month. The going rate for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is somewhere between 4 and 20 dollars per metric ton. Here is an overview of the market.

February 01, 2007

Everybody's Talking


Stay tuned: UN's The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release the new Assessment Report, 'Climate Change 2007' on Friday February 2. An advance peak from EN: Two days ago we had a seminar about it, by a paleoclimatologist that is one of the (over 200) lead authors. There will be a new chapter about paleoclimate. He said that there will be more about the past (long timescales) than there has been before. Obviously knowledge about ocean circulation has improved recently, and this could lead to some new conclusions in the report. His general comments were that many formulations regarding climate change will be much stronger, with more evidence, than the 2001 report. But that conclusion I find kind of obvious.

The Primate Brow writes, In Southern Australia the ground is so dry that the soil is contracting and sucking moisture out of homes enough to crack nearly half of those surveyed by an architectural service. Drying lakes and ponds are slowly revealing a wealth of long submerged relics, from houses once drowned by man-made dams to rusty guns tossed away by fleeing criminals. Police are dutifully collecting the weapons and taking a new look at old crime files. Water levels in Lake Corangamite have dropped so much that authorities were astonished last year to spot a missing World War II plane in the lake bed.

(Background information: Global warming leads to intensified Pacific El Nino phenomenon which causes Australian climate change. Farmers driven off the land.)

Annie Dregge writes, On NBC news last night they broke a story about government officials doing things to supress scientific info related to global warming. A survey of professors showed many being pressured to soften wording. I think it would be nice to see a blog with your perspective on this.

OJ sent me this: House Committee Holds Hearing on Political Influence on Government Climate Change Scientists

So, what do I think? Over the years I have been accused of being thick-headed, overly intellectual and a true believer. That's fine. I believe in establishing facts and theories* through the scientific method. Once this has been done the work should be turned over to the public and politicians. We live in a democracy, and whenever possible policy decisions should be based on the best science available.

Yes there has been an atmosphere of extreme caution in the scientific world with regards to climate. I am speaking here of the world of professional scientists, not environmental organizations or lobbyists or the entertainment industry-- they have different norms. Its proper to be careful about what you say and publish and it puts the scientist at a disadvantage in a political debate. But hopefully the great care scientists use translates into credibility. In a preemptive strike scientists have been accused of ostracizing researchers who don't 'tow the party line' on global warming. As I've written before, I have a PhD student who is checking out an alternative theory of global warming, the idea that a fraction of climate changed is caused by clouds affected by atmospheric ions generated by cosmic radiation mediated by the heliosphere. So far the results have been inconclusive but I firmly believe someone should check and double check this mechanism, just to be sure. There has not been any trouble getting funding for the project. But to be fair the scientific climate is a little different in Europe and Scandinavia than in the US. The global warming debate is a good example of why it is a bad idea to try to influence the scientific endeavor with ideology, whether the agenda is neo-con or conservative Christian or Marxist or what have you. Why is it a bad idea? Because eventually the truth will come out, and in my opinion the sooner the better.

*What is a fact and what is a theory? From my letter to Maureen Sheard, Global warming is a fact. If you and I were to look at a thermometer I think we could agree on the temperature. An observation like this is called a fact, and it's a fact that the global average surface temperature has increased by 1 F, give or take a few tenths, over the last hundred years. Theories are used to explain facts, and scientists use the word 'theory' in a special way. A scientific theory is not a guess or a hunch, but something supported by logic and evidence, and something that can be tested by experiment. Examples include the theories of gravitation and thermodynamics, and circuit theory. Current theories do a good job of explaining the global warming that has been observed since the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

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