The health benefits of being a cool kid

September 30, 2009

The results of a new Swedish study find that popularity as a teenager is correlated with long-term health. The findings show that those who reported lower levels of social status in adolescence were at a higher risk for health problems as an adult.

The research team used data from The Stockholm Birth Cohort Study, a longitudinal study that followed 14,000 children born in 1953 until the year 2003. The research team examined the levels of popularity reported by the participants who were in sixth grade in 1966. Then, using mainly hospital discharge records, the researchers compared the participants’ health over a period of 30 years (from 1973 to 2003) to the earlier reported levels of social status.

Here are the findings according to HealthDay News:

  • Children who were the least popular and powerful at school were more than four times as likely to require hospital treatment for hormonal, nutritional and metabolic diseases as their most popular and powerful classmates.
  • They were more than twice as likely to develop mental health and behavioral problems, including suicide attempts and self-harm.
  • They were more than five times as likely to be admitted for unintentional poisoning.
  • They were also significantly more likely to develop drug and alcohol dependency problems, and nine times more likely to develop heart disease.

Ylva Almquist, lead study author, and her team have developed theories as to why social status seems to have an effect on long-term health. They hypothesize that it is most likely a combination of several factors, explaining that low social status can lead to lower self-esteem which could then influence future choices. Almquist says:

“For example, health behaviors such as smoking may be a relevant explanation as to why peer status influences ischemic heart disease. Stress and coping abilities may also be potentially important aspects.”

It’s important, of courser, to remember that cause and association are not the same. In fact, it could be that kids who are depressed or have that tendency also have more difficulty fitting in with the crowd.  According to The Guardian:

“Another theory is that more popular people can draw on more resources throughout their lives, perhaps by earning more money, or getting more help from friends.”

The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Pharma and crime (it’s not what you think)

September 29, 2009

A notable drop in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s, particularly violent crime, appears to have been mirrored by the introduction of new and more effective drugs to treat mental illness. That’s the conclusion of an intriguing National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, which takes as its starting point the fact that many of the presumed social, economic, and policy determinants of crime actually had little impact on this change, and so other factors may be responsible. As the authors note,

“One factor that has so far been ignored in the attempt to explain this recent drop in crime is a period of dramatic technological advances in the treatment of mental illness. As we summarize below, mental illness is a clear risk factor both for criminal behavior and for victimization. The decline in crime rates occurred during a period when many new pharmaceutical therapies became available to treat mental illness, resulting in exceptionally large increases in medical treatment of mental illness. For example, during the last two decades the use of antidepressants and anti psychotics has become increasingly common following a series of drug innovations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The new drugs were marked improvements over the previous therapies in terms of side effects and efficacy, and their use has subsequently become widespread. Anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medications are now the 6th and 7thlargest therapeutic classes of drugs sold globally (IMS Health 2006), and by 2005 there were enough newer anti-depressants sold in the U.S to treat every man, woman, and child with a daily dose for almost two months.”

As the authors point out, it has long been established that people likely to engage in criminal behavior respond to incentives, but any such assessment of the risks and benefits may be undercut by mental illness.

“Mental illness may cause the afflicted to substantially discount the future, thereby lowering the deterrent effect of established punishments. This possibility is substantially related to Becker and Mulligan’s (1997) formulation of impatience. They observe that many people recognize their high rate of time preference as a weakness, and allocate resources to overcome that weakness. One might think of mental health treatment as just such an allocation. The expansion of treatment for mental illness can then affect crime not by changing the certainty or severity of punishment, but by changing the behavioral response to established costs.”

Given that severe mental illness is associated with delusional thinking, poor impulse control, narcissism, and altered perceptions of risk, it is not surprising to find correlational studies showing that those with severe mental illness are much more likely to be incarcerated in the past six months than comparable people in the general population. A study that followed all the children born in Dunedin, New Zealand over the course of a year found that those with mental illness were twice as likely to be violent.

So how much of an effect has the psycho-pharmacological revolution had on crime? The authors note that their paper is only a first step in an area of limited data, but they did find that “prescriptions for stimulants and antipsychotics [were] associated with relatively large reductions in violent crimes: 0.129 percent and 0.085 percent for every 1 percent increase in stimulants and antipsychotics, respectively.” The findings were statistically significant.

They also tested their model with the increased use of statins for cholesterol, to see if there findings might be confounded by broader changes in health care.  As the authors note, the growth  of drugs such as Lipitor and Crestor “was likely shaped by some of the same social, economic and policy conditions that led to the rise in pharmaceutical treatment of mental illnesses.”  The relationship between crime and statins was insignificant (and in some cases, positive).

Their conclusion of this long and fascinating paper are noteworthy:

“Our evidence suggests that, in particular, sales of new generation antidepressants and stimulants used to treat ADHD are associated with rates of violent crime, with weaker evidence that anti-psychotic medications played a role in declining crime rates. The magnitude of the elasticities estimated here are clearly small. We estimate that a one percent increase in the total prescription rate is associated with a 0.051 percent decrease in violent crimes. To put this in perspective, doubling the prescription rate would reduce violent crimes by 5 percent, or by about 27 crimes per 100,000, at the average rate of 518 crimes per 100,000 population. While doubling the prescription rate seems like a large change, it has been estimated that 28 percent of the U.S. adult population in any year has a diagnosable mental or
addictive disorder, yet only 8 percent seeks treatment (USDHHS 1999). Doubling the treatment rate would still leave a substantial portion of the ill untreated.”

hat tip – Andrew Sullivan

Richard Armstrong on Algae and Alternative Energy

September 28, 2009

Originally posted on our collaborative site, Ourblook.

OurBlook interview with Richard Armstrong, president of Renewed World Energies.

What do you see as the pros and cons of the American Clean Energy and Security Act?

RA: I am glad to see this country making positive steps to control our emissions and begin the long process of switching to renewable energy … and this will be a long process. Personally, I see passing the American Clean Energy and Security Act as a first step that should have happened long ago. We need to do something and this is a great start, but it’s only going to work if the majority of the public will embrace the ideas.

20/20 initiative:

The Pros are helping us and the utility companies begin creating good workable solutions in power generation with renewable sources that are not from fossil fuels, which when burned, gasified or refined have less Nox, SOX and particulate matter.

The Cons are the loopholes; as it is written now, the utility companies are allowed to reduce the 20 percent power from “green” sources by getting the individual state governors to petition a reduction to 12 percent and energy savings to 8 percent. The energy savings can be easier to come up with than purchasing green energy. The energy mandate, as it has been suggested for years, is that we can individually do much for reducing our electrical demand, but until the “green” products that are available to consumers are affordable, they won’t be bought by many. This as in many products that start out being expensive will be reduced through competition and further cost saving developments. Carbon reduction: I will be very interested in seeing the final outcome of this.

Do you see alternative energy playing a major role in the U.S. or is it likely to always play a minor role? Will it ever be able to stand on its own two feet or will it always need a subsidy to compete with traditional energy?

RA: This is actually humorous, in that oil companies get plenty of subsidies: Greenpeace believes Europeans spend about $10 billion or so (USD equivalent) annually to subsidize fossil fuels. By contrast, it thinks the American oil and gas industry might receive anywhere between $15 billion and $35 billion a year in subsidies from taxpayers.

Why such a large margin of error? The exact number is slippery and hard to quantify, given the myriad of programs that can be broadly characterized as subsidies when it comes to fossil fuels. For instance, the U.S. government has generally propped the industry up with:

  • Construction bonds at low interest rates or tax-free.
  • Research-and-development programs at low or no cost.
  • Assuming the legal risks of exploration and development in a company’s stead.
  • Below-cost loans with lenient repayment conditions.
  • Income tax breaks, especially featuring obscure provisions in tax laws designed to receive little congressional oversight when they expire.
  • Sales tax breaks … taxes on petroleum products are lower than average sales
  • tax rates for other goods.
  • Giving money to international financial institutions (the U.S. has given tens of billions of dollars to the World Bank and U.S. Export-Import Bank to encourage oil production internationally, according to Friends of the Earth).
  • The U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
  • Construction and protection of the nation’s highway system.
  • Allowing the industry to pollute … what would oil cost if the industry had to pay to protect its shipments, and clean up its spills? If the environmental impact of burning petroleum were considered a cost? Or if it were held responsible for the particulate matter in people’s lungs, in liability similar to that being asserted in the tobacco industry?
  • Relaxing the amount of royalties to be paid (more below).


While it’s easy to get bent out of shape that the petroleum industry “probably has larger tax incentives relative to its size than any other industry in the country”, according to Donald Lubick, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s former assistant secretary for tax policy, remember that subsidies are important across all sectors of the energy industry.

I believe that algae in particular can be a very real solution in power generation, green gas, JP8, green diesel and green lubricants and a great deal more. America has always been able to come up with solutions, this is just another opportunity. The subsidies will be required for a short time, perhaps 10 or 15 years, but I know that some of the alternate energies will continue to get less and less expensive. Solar panels used to be more expensive and less efficient than the ones currently available. We will strive to reduce our costs and raise yields until it is not only commercially viable but far cleaner; this will happen!

RWE does have a solution and our business plan does not include subsidies or tax incentives, which means that we are standing on our own two feet without them.

Tell us about algae processing … what are the pros and cons of it, what does your bioreactor system do, where and how can it play a role in our energy system, is it a nice-to-have wishful dream or is it a practical reality?

RA: As in any emerging technology, the first few to come along are incredibly expensive … algae systems are not immune to this; however, we are continuing to decrease cost, just as other algae companies are doing.

Our system, which consists of three to four acres of algae bioreactors at Georgetown, S.C., will produce 1.6 megawatts of power, enough energy supply for about 1,280 homes.

Our bioreactor systems, because they are a closed system, can retain the algae strain purity much better than an open pond design, which keeps the product consistent. We use the biomass or harvested algae to create electrical energy. This is done by processing the biomass in a biorefinery, which produces both a gaseous fuel and a liquid fuel (green diesel).

The gaseous fuel is burned in a gas turbine generator, the liquid fuel is burned in a turbine as well, because the generators are Duel Fueled Generators and can use either fuel source. The turbines then produce electrical power which is fed to the grid system. Most power companies purchase “green energy,” which helps with the 20/20 initiative. So power generation is most definitely a practical reality.

(Editor’s note: the RWE web site notes that algae is a plant, has a rapid growth rate, exists worldwide with numerous species and can be grown on property undesirable for other commercial uses.)

Can you give us an idea of the potential of algae processing … i.e., can it provide as much energy as wind power or solar power in the U.S.? How do you compare it to other methods?

RA: I believe all of these technologies will be an integral part of the overall solution. Solar power can be as much as $8 per watt or $8,000 p/KW and as low as $3,500 p/KW capacity (capacity, I mention is the capital cost to build the facility); wind $3,500 p/KW capacity … however, wind generators are not the best technology everywhere, especially low wind areas.

Algae … at least RWE is closer to $2,500 p/KW capacity.  We are working hard to reduce this to under $1,000 and we, unlike wind and solar, can consume the Nox and CO2 produced by existing coal fired generation plants. The limit to how much energy can be produced with algae is land mass, which to replace all imported oil would require approximately 17 million acres; however there are in New Mexico and Arizona alone about 48 million acres of land that is not used or cannot be used for farming, which makes it ideal for our systems.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about algae processing or alternative energy?

RA: If America is to ever be successful in completely or partially switching to renewable energies, I think it’s going to have to be a joint venture with big oil companies. The competitiveness between the two must cease, but it will be difficult, as there is a tremendous amount of money at stake and some of the organizations do not like to share.

It is an exciting time to be an American, in that we have a great many opportunities in renewable energy and America has been able to meet challenges with ingenuity.

Pens versus keyboards: which is better for cognitive development?

September 25, 2009

The assumption that new technology is always better than the process it replaces takes a hit with a new study which shows that when it comes to learning how to write, the pen is mightier than the keyboard.

The study, published in the journal Learning Disability Quarterly, tested groups of students, some with transcription disabilities, to write the alphabet, sentences, and essays using both a pen and a keyboard.

They found that when composing an essay, second, fourth, and sixth graders (with and without handwriting disabilities) were able to write at greater length and faster with a pen. It was also discovered that fourth and sixth graders wrote more complete sentences when using a pen to write an essay. There were mixed results for writing sentences, and solely for the alphabet did the researchers find a keyboard was better.

The widespread use of computers in education has meant that typing has been steadily supplanting handwriting as the principle method of composition, and while there are clearly benefits in legibility, this new study adds to a small body of research showing that typing, as the primary means of composition, may not be qualitatively or quantitatively superior to the process it supplants – at least among children.

Author, philosopher and critic Umberto Eco also draws attention to the typing’s formal deficit: it is not, nor can be, an art. As he notes in a piece discussing an Italian newspaper article on the lost art of handwriting. He writes:

“…writing by hand obliges us to compose the phrase mentally before writing it down. Thanks to the resistance of pen and paper, it does make one slow down and think… The art of handwriting teaches us to control our hands and encourages hand-eye coordination.”

Will “fat mass index” measure a fatter or thinner America?

September 22, 2009

Athletes – particularly athletes who do a lot of weight training – have long exposed a key qualitative flaw in the way medical researchers calculate whether a person is overweight or obese. Body Mass Index (BMI) is determined by dividing your weight by the square of your height.  But because BMI cannot distinguish between fat and muscle,  many athletes – in fact, many people who simply lift weights regularly – are likely to be classified as overweight or possibly even obese (the National Institutes for Health defines a person as having a normal weight if his or her BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9, and as being obese if their BMI is 30.0). To further complicate matters, BMI doesn’t account for gender or ethnic differences either.

Now, researchers using new data from the National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES), an ongoing, nationally representative health survey, have estimated reference values for a range of body composition parameters. The most notable is “fat mass index,” (FMI) which they believe could replace BMI as a more accurate way of assessing obesity. As they write:

“At age 25, the FMI data in Table 3 indicates that there are substantial differences in adiposity between genders, with mean values for women ranging from 8.9 to 10.9 kg/m2 and mean values for males between 5.6 to 6.8 kg/m2 for the three ethnic groups. From these data it appears likely that lacking gender or ethnicity adjustments, BMI may be overestimating obesity in some groups and underestimating it in others.”

OurBlook talks with Thad McIlroy

September 21, 2009

Originally posted on our collaborative site, Ourblook.

(Author-editor Thad runs The Future of Publishing, Inc. …… what better guy to ask than him about the future of books?)

Newspaper circulation is declining, and fewer people are watching the TV networks’ evening news. What is the situation with books? Are any segments doing particularly well; any particularly badly?

TM: Book publishing is not suffering nearly as heavily as most other media segments. As another example beyond newspapers and TV news, after years of rapid sales increases, the computer gaming industry saw June 2009 sales decline 31 percent (emphasis mine) from the same month last year. (I consider all forms of publishing and media in my studies on, as I believe that there are very important interrelationships between different media industries).

According to the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), total U.S. book publishers’ net revenues reached $40.32 billion in 2008, up 1.0 percent over 2007, while 2008 unit sales reached nearly 3.1 billion, down 1.5 percent over 2007.

Children’s book sales are often down when it’s not a “Harry Potter Year,” although Stephanie Myers and her vampires are picking up the slack. According to the BISG, sales of professional books showed strong revenue growth, posting a 4.0 percent increase between 2007 and 2008. Sales of Elhi and College books also continued to grow in 2008, seeing an increase of 4.5 percent in net revenue for each category. Meanwhile the religious segment underperformed the book publishing industry as a whole in 2008, with revenues declining 10 percent.

Book review sections at some major newspapers have been eliminated or curtailed. Your thoughts?

TM: I don’t see this as a major problem because the web is providing probably several thousand times the coverage of books beyond what newspapers ever did, and is engaging readers more deeply than just reading reviews. When you look at a web site like Canada’s largest newspaper The Globe and Mail, while its print coverage of books is down, its web site has greatly enhanced book coverage, of course in a far more engaging way.

It is easier than ever to write a book … if it’s ever easy to write one … in that e-mail makes interviewing and research more convenient, and word processors make adding to, deleting or shuffling content as efficient as possible. Yet many great books were produced in the past with laborious quill pen handwriting. Is there much of a correlation between the type of process and the quality of product? Are books better than ever or worse than ever or neither?

TM: Great question; tough to answer.

I recall that when the use of personal computers first exploded in the 1980s, many authors insisted they would continue to use pen, pencil or typewriter … that the ease of making changes made them worse writers, not better ones. I still occasionally encounter that sentiment in author interviews today.

I argue that creativity in writing exists completely apart from the tools used to create. All writers must use the tools that they are most comfortable with … good writers will produce good work; bad writers the opposite.

With nonfiction, there’s a significant distinction to be made. Probably more than two categories are required here, but to simplify the argument let’s say that there is literary nonfiction and there is informational nonfiction. As with fiction, literary nonfiction requires great skill with language, grammar, and also great intelligence in formulating arguments and presenting them persuasively.

Informational nonfiction is tasked mostly with being clear, comprehensible and accurate. The very good (and best-selling) computer journalist, David Pogue (from the New York Times), dictates all of his books using Dragon Naturally Speaking … excellent transcription software. I write a great deal, but find that my conversational voice is very different from my writer’s voice, and so stick with the computer (not however with pencil or pen!). I find that I type at roughly the pace that I compose reasonably clear sentences and am a great believer in rewriting and in good editors.

The extraordinary growth in self-publishing .. I estimate one million titles were self-published last year (although a significant portion were reprints of out-of-print books) … means that a lot of not-very-skilled writers are getting their work into print, generally without bothering to pay a good editor to help, so there is a lot more dross on the market than ever before. But the dross does not inhibit great writers to continue in their work, and while the largest publishers are cutting back on their total title output, I’d argue that any fine author can find a publisher who will bring their book into print. Marketing on the Internet: well that’s still a relatively new and developing skill (which even the largest publishers have yet to master).

Do you foresee any social media techniques … i.e., Twitter, texting … being used by people writing books in either seeking or receiving material?

TM: Certainly social networks are a great mechanism for reaching out to people, whether to source information, solicit input or comment, and to publicize the final product. Narrative is not well-served if constructed a sentence or two at a time; it favors more comprehensive forms. Yet apparently in Japan writers are finding some success with novels sent as numerous short text messages.

The overriding point is that the novel is as much an accident of history, technology and economics as the feature film is. The LP, cassette tape and CD in the music industry were convenient formats to manufacture, market and distribute and led to a particular form of music called “the album.” Wikipedia defines this as “a collection of related (emphasis mine) audio or music tracks distributed to the public.” But now that people can easily download single tracks from an album (CD, mp3, whatever), the concept has been revealed for the essential fraud that it was. Relatively few albums had any thematic consistency. They were just collections of music that could fill about 60 minutes. Back then selling “singles” was not as profitable, and so they were priced too high to become as popular.

There’s no question that the Internet and the web will create numerous remarkable opportunities for creative expression. The book has no monopoly on creativity.

Books have always been fixtures in our culture because they are personal, physical products that are lovingly kept in one’s home. Do electronic reading devices such as Kindle threaten that or augment that?

TM: Years ago one of my mentors, Neil McLean, began referring to books as “artifacts.” It was a prescient recognition that the physical object is just that; what’s contained within is what truly matters. At the same time, “book arts” should not be neglected. Designers are self-interestedly inclined to overemphasize the value of design and manufacturing in a book. But consider the alternative. What is “Alice in Wonderland” without the superb illustrations of Sir John Tenniel? What are the great dictionaries without their very fine and carefully-selected woodcuts? Many authors and designers feel that choices in typography can enhance the meaning or impact of their text.

The current e-reader offerings tend to drop illustrations and do a great disservice to typography (amongst other small crimes). Of course technology can address these issues over time. But I just do not think that the notion of dedicated eReaders makes any sense. Those who read almost always are interested also in some combination of film, music, e-mail, phone, texting, Web-surfing, etc. The winning technology will find a single device to offer optimal user-experience for each of these varied but connected interests.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the past, present or future of books?

TM: When the U.S. media look at the changes in media consumption trends, naturally enough, they tend to focus on the United States. This is terrifically misleading. Newspapers are thriving in countries such as India and China. Pirating is a even larger challenge in those countries than it is here. The increase in literacy in the Third World drives greater demand for books: on what medium remains to be seen, although paper is currently most cost-effective in those countries.

On my thefutureofpublishing web site, I focus on the interconnectedness of all media and on many external influences. Right now a lot of the energy driving the demand for e-books is a belief that electronic books are more carbon-neutral than paper books, although this argument is highly suspect when you consider the power demands of the enormous computer server farms that facilitate their distribution, and the non-biodegradability of most of e-reader components. But of course it’s easy for people to think that digital = eco; paper = destruction.

I say to my friends and colleagues: “You should feel blessed. You are part of a revolution in how information is distributed far greater than the invention of the printing press, and certain to have more far-reaching effects. Yes, it can be wearying to keep up with it all, but think of it as adventure, not as threat.”

(Thad says about himself: “Writing and publishing are in my blood. My father, Kim McIlroy, was an author, playwright and broadcaster. My great-uncle, Gordon Hill Grahame, was a novelist (his first novel, “The Bond Triumphant,” won Hodder and Stoughton’s Canadian Prize Novel Contest in 1922). My great-great-great (etc.) uncle was Kenneth Grahame, author of the children’s classic “The Wind in the Willows” (remember Toad of Toad Hall?).” For the rest of his bio, go to … )

Living next to road rage

September 18, 2009

Location, location, location. Always an important factor when buying a home, but it turns out it might be even more important than we think. A new study out of Lund University Hospital in Sweden finds that those living near a noisy road are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure.

The study sample was made up of 24,238 Swedish adults between the ages of 18 and 80. The research team used health survey questionnaires and then compared this information to where the respondent lived. A geographic information system was used to determine average road noise.

The researchers found that those who lived close to loud roads were more likely to report having high blood pressure than those living in quieter areas. According to BBC News, it was concluded that daily sound exposure at above 60 decibels increased the risk of high blood pressure by at least 25 percent.

Theo Bodin, head researcher, tells Science Daily:

“We found that exposure above 60 decibels was associated with high blood pressure among the relatively young and middle-aged, an important risk factor for cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke.”

However, these effects were not seen in the elderly. Bodin explains:

“The effect of noise may become less important, or harder to detect, relative to other risk factors with increasing age. Alternatively, it could be that noise annoyance varies with age.”

The study is published online in the journal Environmental Health.

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