A Diatom’s Response to Three Levels of CO2

Phaeodactylum tricornutum is a marine diatom that is also a potential alternative energy source due to its high growth rates and lipid (fat) content, the latter of which – according to Wikipedia  – constitutes about 20 to 30 percent of total dry cell weight under standard culture conditions. Given as much, this species is of interest to scientists, such as the seven-member research team of Wu et al. (2015), who recently conducted an experiment to determine how this potential biofuel responds to different levels of atmospheric CO2. More specifically, the group of Chinese researchers studied the response of P. tricornutum to three levels of CO2 (150, 350 and 1500 parts per million (ppm)) over a period of seven days. 

For comparative purposes, a CO2 concentration of 150ppm is around the threshold value required to sustain plant growth on this earth. We came perilously close to this at the nadir of the last ice age. 350ppm is the concentration from a quarter-century ago (we’re around 400ppm now) and 1500ppm is quite a bit higher than even the most optimistic forecasts can get it to around 2100.

And what did they learn? As shown in the figure below, diatom growth rates rose with the level of CO2 treatment. The growth at 350 and 1500 ppm treatments were approximately 70 and 192 percent greater than that observed in the lowest CO2 treatment (150 ppm). And those values may be conservative, given that growth rates at the two higher CO2 concentrations appear to still be rising at the end of the experiment on day 7 (i.e., the green and red lines have not peaked). Similar trends were seen in culture dry weights, where the mean dry weight values reported for the medium and high CO2 treatments were 31 percent and 195 percent greater than in the low CO2 treatment. Lastly, lipid content, expressed as a percent of dry cell weight, amounted to 33, 36 and 54 percent in the 150, 350 and 1500 ppm treatments, respectively.

In discussing their findings, Wu et al. note their results are “consistent with numerous previous studies that higher levels of CO2 support higher growth rates.” And, they further demonstrate the possible viability of using P. tricornutum as a biofuel, which many persons today consider an added benefit.



Wu, S., Huang, A., Zhang, B., Huan, L., Zhao, P., Lin, A. and Wang, G. 2015. Enzyme activity highlights the importance of the oxidative pentose phosphate pathway in lipid accumulation and growth of Phaeodactylum tricornutum under CO2 concentration. Biotechnology for Biofuels 8: 78, DOI 10.1186/s13068-015-0262-7.

Vermont Official Foresaw Collapse of ObamaCare Co-Ops

The Daily Caller has an excellent article recounting that it wasn’t just opponents who saw trouble ahead for ObamaCare’s health-insurance cooperatives, of which more than a dozen have now collapsed. 

Susan L. Donegan was commissioner for Vermont’s Division of Insurance in 2013 when she refused to issue a license to the proposed Vermont Health CO-OP, saying it failed to meet state standards. Her action barred the Obamacare non-profit from selling health insurance in the state…

Today, she looks like a prescient state official who likely saved thousands of Vermonters from buying their health insurance from a doomed insurer.

That’s because 13 of the 24 co-ops set up under Obamacare have collapsed, costing the federal treasury $1.3 billion. More than 800,000 co-op customers now find themselves without health insurance coverage and are scrambling to find new policies due to the co-op failures. 

Turns out that some of the biggest problems she identified two years ago in her state also doomed co-ops across the country…

Denying a license to the health co-op was not an easy decision for Donegan, who first joined Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration as a deputy insurance commissioner in 2010.

First, she already knew when the co-op’s application arrived at her her office that federal officials in Washington, D.C., had pre-approved the co-op’s plan and allocated to it $33 million in taxpayer funds.

Second, she knew the co-ops were an important part of President Obama’s signature health reform effort. Obama is extremely popular in Vermont, having garnered 67 percent of the vote in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns…

Donegan sensed trouble as soon as she read the co-op’s application. There were optimistic and questionable forecasts, a board filled with friends, sweetheart deals, high salaries, deep conflicts of interest and a staff with little business expertise.

The failure of more than a dozen other ObamaCare co-ops suggests these problems were not limited to Vermont’s proposed co-op. Yet regulators in those states, not to mention CMS, nevertheless approved them.

One might even say the rule is that government regulators either were unable to spot these co-ops’ looming insolvency, or worse, allowed political considerations to trump their judgment; and Vermont is the exception, where regulators both identified the problem and had the courage to pay the political cost of denying that carrier a license. Something to keep in mind when contemplating the costs and benefits of government regulation of insurance-carrier solvency.

Any count of failed ObamaCare co-ops should be sure to include Vermont’s.

H/T: Greg Scandlen.

Ted Cruz’s Mixed Record on Immigration Reform

Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both impressed audiences in the last debate.  Senator Rubio’s positions on immigration are discussed frequently, but Senator Cruz is normally viewed as an immigration restrictionist – an unfair characterization.  It’s more important to look at Senator Cruz’s actions when he offered amendments to the 2013 “Gang of Eight” comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 744) than it is to cherry-pick a few quotes.  Senator Cruz did end up voting against S. 744, but only after he offered many amendments.   

Senator Ted Cruz was a tremendous supporter of skilled immigration and supported massively expanding the size of those programs, even beyond what was proposed in S. 744.  He offered four amendments (1324, 1326, 1586, 1587), to expand the number of employment based green cards to over a million annually.  Senator Cruz offered two amendments (1325 and 1585) to increase the number of H-1B visas issued annually to 325,000 while S. 744 allowed an upward bound of 180,000 annually (with some upward adjustments possible).  In other words, Senator Cruz’s amendment intended to practically double the number of H-1B visas over that which was proposed in the Senate’s 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill.  Amendment 1587 also increased the number of H-1B visas and employment based green cards.  Senator Cruz’s amendments would have also allowed the spouses of all H-1B visa holders to work legally – going beyond President Obama’s actions to increase work eligibly for those spouses.  Expanding the number of green cards and H-1B visas for skilled workers would have been a tremendous boost to the U.S. economy.   

Border Patrol Slowrolls Body Camera Deployment

Today, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced that the agency would spend three additional months studying whether body-worn cameras (BWCs) are suitable for deployment by CBP. The agency has been studying BWC deployment since 2014, and the effort comes after years of intense pressure by non-governmental organizations over a pattern of lethal use-of-force incidents since 2010.

The draft feasibility report released by CBP appears to give federal employee unions virtual veto power over the deployment of the cameras, stating “Successful union negotiations are required prior to implementation.”

The report also makes clear that the cameras are being sold to CBP agents as a shield against public complaints, and less as an officer accountability tool:

Officers and agents must be willing to wear and operate their BWCs, without fear of reprisal. Officers and agents must have the confidence of knowing that the primary purpose of BWCs is to corroborate their sworn testimony, not create frivolous punishments. They also must be assured their privacy will be protected from unnecessary review and release.

In addition, the report outlines a number of factors that “may adversely affect CBP officers/agents, operations, and mission (sic).” However, upon closer examination many of these factors are easily addressed and need not impede the deployment of body cameras.

For instance, the working group writes:

The BWCs increase the cognitive load experienced by officer/agents, causing them to redirect their attention towards the operation of the camera versus allowing them to focus on the encounter. BWCs may also cause an officer/agent to second-guess a course of action.

Body cameras may take some getting used to, but the fact that some officers find operating the cameras difficult or distracting should not prevent the CBP from deploying body cameras. After all, dash cameras also presumably increased officers’ “cognitive load” and caused some officers to second-guess their actions. And yet, dash cameras as now considered perfectly normal law enforcement tools. During a press call on November 12, CBP officials conceded that it was a mistake on their part not to have conducted a dash camera review as part of the initial BWC evaluation process, an oversight that will allegedly be corrected during the upcoming follow on evaluation process.

Managing Federal Government IT

My blog on a federal computer project that went six times overbudget prompted an expert on information technology (IT) to send me an interesting email.

In this study on government failure and this study on cost overruns, I discussed some of the reasons why $100 million projects end up costing $200 million.

Bob Charette, who is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum, has related views based on his decades of federal and private technology experience. He pointed me to some very useful articles he wrote on costly IT projects, including federal projects. He’s also penned numerous articles on chronic problems in the military acquisition system.

In an email, Bob provided some thoughts on why we often see delays and cost overruns on federal technology projects. If I am summarizing accurately, he observed:

  • Government IT projects are often harder than commercial projects, so government projects may have more opportunities to fail than commercial ones.
  • It is much, much harder to get an IT project approved in government because of all the hoops and stakeholders involved. So once it is, keeping the program alive is “Job One” for everyone involved. That also helps motivate vendors to not only bid low, but also government acquisition folks to accept unrealistic low bids, as well as put out unrealistic requirements because they believe shortcomings can always be fixed later.
  • Part of the problem is “Hubble Psychology,” which the NASA IG defined as an “expectation among NASA personnel that projects that fail to meet cost and schedule goals will receive additional funding and that subsequent scientific and technological success will overshadow any budgetary and schedule problems.”
  • For federal employees, to proactively identify risks (i.e., potential problems) is the kiss of death not only for individuals, but for the projects themselves. You don’t want to publicly admit there is uncertainty associated with your project without getting hammered by Congress and much of the press. So risks are actively hidden until not only do they become problems, but full-blown crises.

Towards a Balanced Budget Amendment

I’ve previously written about the Compact for America, an organization that advocates a balanced budget amendment (BBA) to the Constitution through an interstate compact.  (Full disclosure: I’m on the CFA Council of Scholars.)

Not surprisingly there are several organizations and grassroots movements out there pushing BBAs. They all have their pluses and minuses, and they’re all trying to mobilize states to get behind their efforts to get Congress to call an Article V amendment convention.

As I’ve detailed before, CFA’s procedural advantage is that once a state has acted, it’s done; there’s a cascading turn-key operation that goes into effect once three-quarters of the states have passed the enabling legislation and Congress has acquiesced. CFA currently has four states signed up – Georgia, Alaska, Mississippi, and North Dakota – with various others considering the relevant legislation (I testified before the Texas legislature earlier this year). 

Other efforts claim to have more states signed up but the problem is that the BBA idea has been around for so long that the existing state resolutions are so different that they can’t be considered together as one unified call for Congress to call a convention under Article V. I’ve always known this intuitively, but recently I was sent a study that shows why the various resolutions are irreconcilable. It was put together by Jeff Kimble, a West Virginia attorney who dabbles in legal theory and public policy. As you can imagine, I get plenty of queries from amateur constitutionalists, but this looks pretty thorough. Judge for yourself: here’s the appendix that shows all 27 BBA resolutions that have been passed to date, grouped into the 9 categories that Kimble has devised.

In sum, there are no short cuts to a BBA – and that’s even before you consider the economic merits of the different kinds of BBAs.

Paul vs. Rubio on Pentagon Spending

Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul scored points with their respective supporters during their brief but spirited exchange over military spending in Tuesday evening’s debate.

Paul scolded Rubio for his profligate ways. “How is it conservative,” Paul asked, “to add a trillion dollars in military expenditures? You cannot be a conservative if you’re going to keep promoting new programs that you’re not going to pay for.”

Paul’s approach appealed to Katherine Timpf at National Review Online, who called it “refreshingly logical and level-headed.” The American Conservative’s Dan McCarthy praised Paul’s brand of “conservative realism.” 

Rubio, for his part, called Paul “a committed isolationist.” “The world is a safer place,” Rubio explained, “when America is the strongest military power in the world.” As sound bites go, Rubio scored. But the statement conflates the safety of the entire world with the safety of the American people. And his claim that vast increases in military spending are needed to make the U.S. military the strongest in the world imply, falsely, that it is not already. 

As I and others have noted elsewhere on numerous occasions, Rubio’s name-calling reveals the shallowness of his understanding of history and world politics. Defenders of the status quo can be counted on to shout the “isolationist” epithet whenever they want to discredit any challenges to it. Despite his relative youth, Rubio has adopted the foreign policy of men nearly twice his age. He seems blissfully unaware even of recent history. His campaign slogan calls for “A New American Century.” Sound familiar?