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Daily Archives: February 6, 2022

Bank of England Hikes Rates to Fight Inflation, But Not by Enough for 4 Officials

Andy Bruce and David Milliken wrote . . . . . . . . .

The Bank of England raised interest rates to 0.5% on Thursday and nearly half its policymakers wanted a bigger increase to contain rampant price pressures, which the British central bank warned would push inflation above 7%.

In a surprise split decision, four of the nine Monetary Policy Committee members wanted to raise rates to 0.75% in what would have been the biggest increase in borrowing costs since the BoE became operationally independent 25 years ago.

A slim majority, including Governor Andrew Bailey, voted for a 0.25 percentage point increase.

The pound briefly jumped above $1.36, its highest level since Jan. 20, and touched a two-year high against the euro before falling back after the European Central Bank raised the possibility of a rate hike of its own.

British government bonds sold off, with the 10-year yield at its highest since January 2019.

The BoE, which in December became the first major central bank to raise rates since the pandemic, flagged further modest tightening “in the coming months” even though growth will be hurt by global energy and goods price inflation.

But Bailey told investors not to assume the BoE was embarking on a long series of rate hikes, and said there would have to be a trade-off between strong inflation and weakening growth as many households see their incomes squeezed.

Earlier, finance minister Rishi Sunak detailed measures to help households cope with a leap in energy prices in April, when taxes for workers and firms are due to rise. read more

Bailey said he had a “hard message” for the public.

“We have not raised interest rates today because the economy is roaring away,” he told reporters. “An increase in Bank Rate is necessary because it is unlikely that inflation will return to target without it.”

Britain was facing an “extreme example” of an economic shock that would raise the cost of living for everyone, Bailey warned.

Some analysts said the BoE risked adding to the financial pain.

“We think that they are effectively cracking a supply side nut with a demand side hammer,” Richard McGuire, head of rates strategy at Rabobank, said.

James Athey, investment director at abrdn, said inflation expectations in financial markets were little changed by the BoE’s announcement.

“The Bank seemingly cannot win in such a scenario as the market is essentially saying that if they don’t create a recession then inflation won’t come down far enough,” he said.

Thursday’s move marked the first back-to-back increases in Bank Rate since 2004.

After the BoE’s announcement, investors priced in Bank Rate hitting 1.0% by May and 1.5% by year-end.

“It would not be surprising if we see a further increase, but please don’t get carried away,” Bailey said.

SPLIT DECISION

The BoE said consumer price inflation – which was 5.4% in December – should peak at around 7.25% in April, which would be the highest rate since the recession-ravaged early 1990s and miles off its 2% target.

High inflation meant post-tax income for working households would fall by 2% this year and 0.5% next year, while weakening demand would push unemployment up to 5% in three years’ time.

The BoE said it will start to unwind its 895 billion pound ($1.2 trillion) quantitative easing programme by allowing the government bonds it holds to roll off its balance sheet as they mature. It will sell its much smaller stock of corporate bonds.

Price pressures look set to persist for much longer than forecast in November by the BoE, which trebled its forecast for wage growth this year to 3.75%.

Inflation in a year’s time is now seen above 5% based on the market outlook for interest rates.

But in a sign the BoE thinks investors have priced in too many rate hikes, it predicted inflation in three years’ time would be below target at around 1.6%.

Bailey, his deputies Ben Broadbent and Jon Cunliffe, Chief Economist Huw Pill and external MPC member Silvana Tenreyro all voted for a 25 basis-point rate hike.

The BoE said they recognised the risks of strong price pressures but also the potential for inflation to fall faster if global energy and goods costs ease as markets expect.

They warned a larger rate hike could have an “outsized impact” on expectations for borrowing costs.

Deputy Governor Dave Ramsden and external members Michael Saunders, Jonathan Haskel and Catherine Mann voted for a half-percentage-point rate rise to reduce the risk that recent pay growth and inflation expectations became more firmly embedded.

BOND SALES

The BoE said the unwinding of its asset purchases would start next month when a British government bond held by the central bank matures. The 27.9 billion pounds of proceeds will not be reinvested, the BoE said – and nor will future gilt redemptions, worth around 70 billion pounds over 2022 and 2023.

The BoE will consider actively selling gilts once Bank Rate hits 1%.

It said it plans to reduce its 20 billion pounds of corporate bond holdings to zero no sooner than end-2023, by not reinvesting maturing bonds and a sales programme.


Source : Reuters

Humour: News in Cartoons

How Regular Exercise Restructures the Brain

Ross Pomeroy wrote . . . . . . . . .

Physical activity can do wonders for the body. Exercise can trim weight, chisel muscles, and strengthen the lower back, among many other benefits. Less overt, but no less consequential, physical activity can also buff up your brain. Science is increasingly revealing that the brains of those who regularly work out can look very different compared to the brains of people who don’t.

Changes can start to occur in adolescence. Reviewing the scientific literature in 2018, researchers from the University of Southern California found that for teens aged 15-18, regular exercisers tended to have larger hippocampal volumes as well as larger rostral middle frontal volumes compared to healthy matched control teenagers. The hippocampus is most commonly associated with memory and spatial navigation, while the rostral middle frontal gyrus has been linked to emotion regulation and working memory. Studies suggest that these structural changes translate to improved cognitive performance and better academic outcomes.

Exercise’s brain augmenting qualities extend into adulthood, even though the brain tends to be less ‘plastic’ (easily changed) as we get older. Rutgers University scientists beautifully demonstrated this in a study published early last year:

The researchers recruited older African Americans, all previously sedentary, to complete twenty weeks of twice-weekly cardio-dance exercise classes held at local churches and senior centers. As compared to the control group comprised of community members of similar age and background who did not exercise, those in the program showed significant improvements in dynamic brain connectivity (or “neural flexibility”) in their hippocampus and surrounding medial temporal lobe, as measured using resting-state functional MRI.

In another study, published in August 2019, scientists looked at 45 sets of adult identical twins, who, within their pair, all differed greatly in physical activity levels. “More active co-twins showed larger gray matter volumes in striatal, prefrontal, and hippocampal regions, and smaller gray matter volumes in the anterior cingulate area than less active co-twins,” the researchers found.

The scientists also probed the twins’ cognitive abilities.

“More physical activity may expedite preconscious processing of visual stimuli and, in somatosensory domain, improve selective attentional processing by dampening the strength of unattended deviant somatosensory signals,” they added.

The brain alterations do appear beneficial, but current twin studies are too small, and the participants too young, to find whether exercise-induced changes can actually reduce the risk of cognitive disorders or improve outcomes such as education or income.

Researchers have also tried exercise interventions on much older adults, even those with Alzheimer’s disease, to see if physical activity could repair their stricken brains. In 2016, a team of scientists recruited 68 older individuals with probable Alzheimer’s disease to determine whether moving more could help with their symptoms. Some subjects aerobically exercised for 150 minutes per week while others underwent a less rigorous control regimen of stretching and toning for 26 weeks. Compared to the control group, the aerobic exercise group improved more on the Disability Assessment for Dementia at the study’s conclusion. Boosts to cardiorespiratory fitness were also linked to improvements in memory and reduced atrophy of the hippocampus.

Working out also augments the brains of otherwise healthy older adults. Getting thirty minutes of physical activity each day does seem to preserve brain volumes in adults over age 70 compared to sedentary individuals, according to a study published in August of last year. Moreover, higher cardiorespiratory fitness was linked to lower levels of brain atrophy in the research.

One way exercise can induce changes in the brain is by increasing levels of the protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the blood, which is linked to neurogenesis. More BDNF may mean more new neurons in the brain. Regular exercise also increases the growth of additional blood vessels in the brain and helps maintain current ones, leading to boosted blood flow for the oxygen-hungry organ. Lastly, physical activity seems to keep microglia in good working order. Microglia “constantly check the brain for potential threats from microbes or dying or damaged cells and clear any damage they find,” Áine Kelly, a Professor in Physiology at Trinity College Dublin wrote for The Conversation.

Regularly moving one’s body may be the closest thing there is to a health panacea, for both outside the skull and inside.


Source : Real Clear Science

Macular Degeneration Can Rob You of Sight: Know the Signs

Early diagnosis and care can often stop the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause of vision loss in older Americans, the American Society of Retina Specialists (ASRS) says.

As part of AMD Awareness Month in February, the society urges people to pay attention to their vision and learn more about AMD.

Age is the main risk factor for AMD, and people with a family history have an increased risk. Other risk factors include: smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, excessive sun exposure, and a diet low in fruits and vegetables.

It’s important to be aware of the symptoms of AMD.

Watch for altered or wavy lines that should be straight. Cover one eye at a time and look at a door frame or a checkerboard. If the lines look wavy or warped, it may be a sign of AMD. Or you can use an Amsler grid, which has black lines on a white piece of paper with a dot in the middle.

Pay attention to blurred central vision that can make it difficult to see a friend or loved one’s face clearly.

Look out for colors that appear washed out or dull. You should get your eyes checked if you notice any decrease in the intensity or brightness of color.

“The earlier we see patients experiencing symptoms of AMD or any retinal condition, the sooner we can determine the cause of the symptoms and monitor the issue or use breakthrough treatments to safeguard sight,” ASRS President Dr. Philip Ferrone said in a society news release.

“Advances in imaging technology and newer treatments including eye injections with anti-VEGF medications mean, quite often, vision loss and blindness can be prevented when patients team with a retina specialist, so seek care at the first sign or symptom,” Ferrone said.


Source: HealthDay

How to Make Snow for a Winter Olympics in a Dry City

Ye Ruolin wrote . . . . . . . . .

Wang Feiteng has spent much of his career keeping an eye on China’s glaciers, making arduous treks into the mountains every year to study how to slow their decline in a warming world.

More recently, however, his work has involved a different kind of ice formation. Wang and his team are in charge of the artificial snow needed for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, set to start on Feb. 4.

Beijing and the mountains to its north — where some of the events, including skiing and snowboarding, will be held — are notoriously arid and see very little snowfall in winter. Moreover, temperatures in February could rise below freezing, and there’s a risk of storms that will dust the top layer of snow in sand. As a result, the Beijing games will rely entirely on artificial snow.

As global snow coverage declines due to climate change, more winter sports events are adopting artificial snow. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, host city Vancouver experienced an unusually warm winter that forced organizers to bring in artificial snow. The Games in Russia’s Sochi and South Korea’s Pyeongchang also could not rely on natural snow.

A recent study, which assumed current global greenhouse gas emissions, concluded that only one of the previous 21 Winter Olympics host cities would have the right climate condition to host the games again by the end of the century.

China does not have a rich history in winter sports. They have only recently become popular among the wider public, picking up only after Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Games, in 2015, and pledged to “motivate 300 million people to become involved in ice and snow sports.”

Two years later, in 2017, an expert team of the International Ski Federation — the organization responsible for several major Olympic skiing and snowboarding competitions — toured several ski resorts in China and found they didn’t have any pistes that met their standards.

Better artificial snow was needed for the Olympics. Wang, 32, is a glacier researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and one of a handful of people in China who study how snow changes over time after it falls to the ground. He has spent years observing snow on glaciers and researching how to best preserve snow to slow down glacier melt. But prior to joining the Olympics snow service team in 2016, Wang didn’t know much about making artificial snow — as did barely anyone else in China.

The Olympic snow service team has spent the past four years racing to figure out how to make snow good enough for world-class sporting events that will be held in climate conditions unlike others. Different competitions require various snow textures, and it took the team several winters, numerous experiments in frigid weather, and a trip to Pyeongchang to work out the recipes for the best artificial snow.

Since last November, Wang and his team had been loading cannon-like snowmaking machines with water. These cannons shoot out ice crystals and water droplets, which combine to form snow when it lands on the ground. Mounds of human-made flakes are now piled up near the venues that will host races such as big air, ski jumping, and alpine skiing. Over 70 gold medals will be handed out for games on snow during the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Wang’s work now consists mostly of meticulously checking on the snow piles, measuring their grain size, temperature, and density to make sure they are optimal for the Games ahead.

Speaking with Sixth Tone over the phone from Beijing, Wang discusses the technology involved in making snow for the Games, how climate change poses a challenge, and how his Olympic job compares to his usual research. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: What do you need to make artificial snow?

Wang Feiteng: All that’s needed is water, which is put through the snow cannons where the water combines with air to make snow. But different games require different snow densities.

For games like cross country skiing and Nordic combined, we want snow that’s the most similar to fresh, natural snow, which has a density of around 200 kilograms per cubic meter. For big air events, we want less powdery snow with a density of around 400 to 500 kilograms per cubic meter.

Snow for alpine skiing events, including downhill and slalom, is the most difficult because its density has to reach 650 kilograms per cubic meter. We call this type “icy snow,” for it is almost as hard as ice so skiers can race at their top speed, but needs to remain snow so skis and snowboards can still carve into it.

To make icy snow, we use pumps to inject water into the artificial snow on the ground to produce snow grains of the right size to reach the desired snow slope density. The process is harder than it sounds because multiple environmental factors such as temperature and wind can affect the snow quality. We spent years running tests to figure out the optimal combination of parameters for the weather in Beijing, like water pressure and injection time.

Sixth Tone: Is all the snow for the Games already made?

Wang Feiteng: Yes. The games are about to start, so we had all the snow made last November and December, during the coldest time of the year.

One reason is that snowmaking cannons work the most efficiently when the temperature is below -10 degrees Celsius. More snow could be produced with the same amount of water compared to slightly warmer weather. Beijing is beginning to warm up, so running the cannons now would be more resource-intensive.

All the snow is stored outside in empty spaces near the venues and covered with large reflective pieces of cloth, so sunlight doesn’t melt the snow.

The snow density changes as the snow is piled up because of factors like changes in temperature and gravity. We have taken that into consideration when we make the snow. For example, if we’re making snow to be used in two months, we will make snow that’s lighter, which will become denser as it sits in a pile. I have studied how snow on glaciers changes over time for years, so this is where my expertise comes in.

Wang Feiteng’s team test creating most suitable snow conditions for alpine skiing at the National Alpine Ski Centre, Beijing, December 2021. Courtesy of Wang Feiteng
Wang Feiteng’s team test creating most suitable snow conditions for alpine skiing at the National Alpine Ski Centre, Beijing, December 2021. Courtesy of Wang Feiteng

Sixth Tone: Does Beijing’s climate pose a challenge to maintaining snow quality for the Games?

Wang Feiteng: We have designed contingency plans for different weather events like snow, rain, and sandstorms. If any of that happens, it will change the snow condition on the slopes’ surface. We will need to scrape the top layer of snow off and replace it with a new layer of stored snow.

Fresh, natural snow isn’t actually good for the competitions except for events like cross-country skiing that use a more natural snow track. For high-speed alpine skiing, the fluffy natural snow is actually dangerous. Because of the differences in density, the natural snow layer would have low friction against the icy snow layer underneath, increasing the risk of an avalanche.

Sixth Tone: Does climate change bring challenges to snow service?

Wang Feiteng: Certainly. For one, a warming climate means there’s less time for snowmaking cannons to work efficiently. The majority of ski resorts in the world use artificial snow, so the impact is significant. Ski resorts would also have to shorten their open season, because snow melts quickly. It’s not great when we want to encourage more people to participate in these winter sports.

Sixth Tone: Is making snow for the Winter Olympics difficult work?

Wang Feiteng: It isn’t compared with glacier research. Even though we have to conduct experiments outdoors in winter, we usually work at ski resorts, which are very close to cities and have modern amenities.

When I go on expedition trips to glaciers in China’s northwest in the summer, which is also frigid cold, we go to regions that are usually uninhabited and undeveloped. Most of the time, we have to hike on ice for hours, sleep in tents, and spend days without a phone signal.

So, compared to that, working on snow service for the Winter Olympics is not very hard work.

Sixth Tone: What makes you proud?

Wang Feiteng: To be honest, before I’m tasked with snow-making for the Games, I simply assumed there would be no obstacles in hosting the Winter Olympics, especially considering our country’s economic strength. But after I started working in this area, I realized China had barely any experience, no talent, and no technology to provide snow service for the Games. We have institutions for training professional skiers and snowboarders, but no one researched snowmaking scientifically.

We had to start from scratch. But now, I’m proud to say that we are the first team in China to study snowmaking, including snow storage, for sporting events. We published the first scientific papers in this area in China and trained the first group of graduates to do research in the field.


Source : Sixth Tone

CDC Expands Wastewater Data Collection to Track COVID’s Spread

Dennis Thompson wrote . . . . . . . . .

It’s less enchanting than reading tea leaves, but federal health officials announced Friday that they are expanding nationwide efforts to track COVID-19 by monitoring virus levels found in raw sewage.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects to add an additional 250 surveillance sites over the next few weeks to a list of more than 400 places that already regularly test their wastewater for bits of COVID-19 virus, Amy Kirby, program lead for the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System, said during a morning media briefing.

“Because increases in wastewater [virus] generally occur before corresponding increases in clinical cases, wastewater surveillance serves as an early warning system for the emergence of COVID-19 in a community,” Kirby said. “These data are uniquely powerful because they capture the presence of infections from people with and without symptoms, and they’re not affected by access to health care or availability of clinical testing.”

The CDC is also adding wastewater surveillance data to the agency’s COVID Data Tracker site, so people can see trends in their communities, Kirby added.

Estimates suggest between 40% and 80% of people infected with COVID-19 shed viral RNA in their feces, whether or not they’ve developed symptoms, Kirby said.

“The shedding in feces starts very early after someone is infected. It’s in fact one of the first signs that we see of infection, which is really important for this early warning capability for wastewater,” Kirby said. “We see those rates go up very, very high, so lots of virus shed in feces very early in the infection, and then it tails off.”

With this in mind, the CDC started the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) in September 2020 to forewarn communities facing a future COVID-19 surge. The NWSS now collects more than 34,000 samples daily representing approximately 53 million Americans, Kirby said.

Public health agencies can use COVID wastewater tracking to plan where to place mobile testing and vaccination sites within communities, as well as warn local hospitals to brace themselves for an upcoming surge, Kirby noted.

Some states are also performing genetic sequencing on their wastewater samples, she added, to track the potential emergence of new COVID variants.

New York City’s wastewater tracking program recently detected COVID-19 fragments with unique mutations never before seen in human patients. These “cryptic lineages” could be evidence of new variants, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Nature Communications.

“Many of our states are sequencing their wastewater samples, and that data will be coming in to CDC within the next few weeks. We will have that available to monitor as well,” Kirby said. “That’s a very powerful method for tracking variants of concern in wastewater.”

Tracking sewage for virus isn’t a new concept, Kirby said. Locales overseas use wastewater as part of their polio eradication efforts, for example.

And while the NWSS was created as part of the COVID-19 response, the CDC is working to expand the system’s ability to track other pathogens.

Future targets will include antibiotic-resistant germs, foodborne infections, influenza, and emerging fungal pathogens, Kirby said.


Source: HealthDay