Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

This image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech shows a simulation of asteroid 2012 DA14 approaching from the south as it passes through the Earth-moon system on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. The 150-foot object will pass within 17,000 miles of the Earth. NASA scientists insist there is absolutely no chance of a collision as it passes. But next time? (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A simulation of an asteroid approaching from the south. The kilometre-wide object will pass close to the Earth. NASA scientists insist there is absolutely no chance of a collision as it passes. But next time? (AP Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A massive asteroid, capable of wiping out an entire country, or maybe the entire planet, is on a near-collision route towards Earth. Once again, the world will be completely focused on our complete inability to deal with a giant asteroid hitting the surface of the planet.

The 1000-metre wide mammoth asteroid has sparked fears of an unprecedented disaster, as it travels at a speed of more than 23,000 mph.

Small meteorites pass by Earth regularly, but one of this size is an occurrence that only happens once in 5000 years.

The impact would reportedly trigger earthquakes, tsunamis and devastating changes in climate.

If the asteroid, called 2014-YB35, did collide with Earth, it would unleash an explosive force equivalent to more than 15,000 tonnes.

“Smaller scale events like Tunguska (see below) are absolutely a real risk, largely they are undiscovered and so we are unprepared,” Bill Napier, professor of astronomy at the University of Buckinghamshire, told the Daily Express. “With something like YB35, we are looking at a scale of global destruction, something that would pose a risk to the continuation of the planet,” he continued.

If an asteroid this big was to hit Earth, it is possible that plumes and debris thrown into the atmosphere would change the climate and potentially make the planet uninhabitable.

“The real risk is from comets, which even if the Earth passes through the tail, can generate a massive plume of smoke with hugely significant consequences,” Napier said.

NASA has said they expect the YB35 to pass within 2.8 million miles on Friday.

The rock was detected by the Catalina Sky Survey last year and has been closely watched this week.

And astronomers have named June 30 as Asteroid Day to highlight the dangers of potentially dangerous asteroids.

“It just takes one asteroid to completely destroy life, not just humanity, but all species,” said initiative co-founder Grigorij Richters.

Keen observers of the issue will remember the Hollywood movie Armageddon when Bruce Willis and assorted other heroes used the Space Shuttle to blow up just such an asteroid before it wiped out the species. Sadly, no actual plan to do that – or anything else – exists. So if an asteroid was on collision course, we would all be well advised to remember the crash landing instructions heard on most commercial jetliners.

“Lean on the seat in front of you, grasp your knees firmly, and kiss your arse goodbye.”

OK, we added the last bit.

But we don’t have to experience an “Extinction Level Event” to see an unprecendented disaster. Imagine a Tunguska-style event took place over …. Melbourne? New York? Rio? Munich?

The year is 1908, and it’s just after seven in the morning. A man is sitting on the front porch of a trading post at Vanavara in Siberia. Little does he know, in a few moments, he will be hurled from his chair and the heat will be so intense he will feel as though his shirt is on fire.

That’s how the Tunguska event felt 40 miles from ground zero.

And after more than 100 years, scientists are still talking about it.

“If you want to start a conversation with anyone in the asteroid business all you have to say is Tunguska,” says Don Yeomans, manager of the Near-Earth Object Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It is the only entry of a large meteoroid we have in the modern era with first-hand accounts.”

Trees felled in the Tunguska event

Trees felled in the Tunguska event

While the impact occurred in ’08, the first scientific expedition to the area would have to wait for 19 years.

In 1921, Leonid Kulik, the chief curator for the meteorite collection of the St. Petersburg museum led an expedition to Tunguska.

But the harsh conditions of the Siberian outback thwarted his team’s attempt to reach the area of the blast. In 1927, a new expedition, again lead by Kulik, reached its goal.

“At first, the locals were reluctant to tell Kulik about the event,” said Yeomans. “They believed the blast was a visitation by the god Ogdy, who had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing animals.”

While testimonials may have at first been difficult to obtain, there was plenty of evidence lying around. Eight hundred square miles of remote forest had been ripped asunder. Eighty million trees were on their sides, lying in a radial pattern.

“Those trees acted as markers, pointing directly away from the blast’s epicenter,” said Yeomans. “Later, when the team arrived at ground zero, they found the trees there standing upright – but their limbs and bark had been stripped away. They looked like a forest of telephone poles.”

Such de-branching requires fast moving shock waves that break off a tree’s branches before the branches can transfer the impact momentum to the tree’s stem. Thirty seven years after the Tunguska blast, branchless trees would be found at the site of another massive explosion – Hiroshima, Japan.

Kulik’s expeditions (he traveled to Tunguska on three separate occasions) did finally get some of the locals to talk. One was the man based at the Vanara trading post who witnessed the heat blast as he was launched from his chair. His account:

Suddenly in the north sky… the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash. The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled.

see captionThe massive explosion packed a wallop. The resulting seismic shockwave registered with sensitive barometers as far away as England. Dense clouds formed over the region at high altitudes which reflected sunlight from beyond the horizon. Night skies glowed, and reports came in that people who lived as far away as Asia could read newspapers outdoors as late as midnight. Locally, hundreds of reindeer, the livelihood of local herders, were killed, but due to the sparse population in the area there was no direct evidence that any person perished in the blast.

“A century later some still debate the cause and come up with different scenarios that could have caused the explosion,” said Yeomans. “But the generally agreed upon theory is that on the morning of June 30, 1908, a large space rock, about 120 feet across, entered the atmosphere of Siberia and then detonated in the sky.”

It is estimated the asteroid entered Earth’s atmosphere traveling at a speed of about 33,500 miles per hour. During its quick plunge, the 220-million-pound space rock heated the air surrounding it to 44,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At a height of about 28,000 feet, the combination of pressure and heat caused the asteroid to fragment and annihilate itself, producing a fireball and releasing energy equivalent to about 185 Hiroshima bombs.

“That is why there is no impact crater,” said Yeomans. “The great majority of the asteroid is consumed in the explosion.”

Yeomans and his colleagues at JPL’s Near-Earth Object Office are tasked with plotting the orbits of present-day comets and asteroids that cross Earth’s path, and could be potentially hazardous to our planet. Yeomans estimates that, on average, a Tunguska-sized asteroid will enter Earth’s atmosphere once every 300 years.

“From a scientific point of view, I think about Tunguska all the time,” he admits. Putting it all in perspective, however, “the thought of another Tunguska does not keep me up at night.”

We’re not so sure about that.

wasp nest

The European wasp Vespula germanica is native to Europe, North Africa and temperate Asia. Records show that the European wasp first reached Tasmania in 1959, where it soon became well established. However, it was not until 1977 that the European wasp was first recorded on the mainland in Melbourne.

About a year before the European wasp reached Tasmania, the English wasp Vespula vulgaris was recorded in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It is a close relative of the European wasp and has very similar colour markings. The English wasp has not enjoyed the same success as the European wasp and has only spread to the eastern parts of Melbourne and Gippsland. But for all practical purposes (venom potential, nesting position, biology etc) the European and English wasps may be considered as the same. In the remainder of this article, we only refer to the European wasp, however, many of the comments are equally applicable to the English wasp.

Research has shown that the spread of the European wasp has been greatly aided through hitching rides on human transportation. So the European wasp probably arrived in style by boat or plane!

At present, the European wasp distribution appears to be restricted to the cool and wet climates of coastal southern Australia. It occurs throughout most of Victoria and Tasmania. In country New South Wales, nests have been located at Coonabarabran while several nests have been recorded in south-east Queensland. In South Australia, the European wasp is well established throughout the hills surrounding Adelaide and Adelaide itself. And in Western Australia, it has been recorded from Perth and Albany.

Unfortunately, the European wasp is here to stay in Australia and eradication of this annoying pest is no longer an option. Despite early frantic reports labelling it as a ‘Killer Wasp’, no human deaths have been recorded in Australia. However, we must learn to live with this nuisance or pest and take precautions when eating and playing outside.

First aid

From personal experience, the sting from a European Wasp is more painful than a sting from a honey-bee. We were once stung on the leg when a wasp flew up it when we were making a major presentation at the Studley Park BoatHouse. Needless to say, the event was paused while ice was applied.

For most people, a painful reminder of the sting, sometimes lasting several days, is the only after-effect they will suffer.

Applying an ice-pack to the sting site helps reduce the pain and swelling. The ice-pack should contain a mixture of ice and water rather than placing ice directly on the skin.

Some sting victims may have a hypersensitive reaction, while others who have suffered several stings, may develop an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions to a sting may involve puffiness of the skin extending well beyond the sting site, or the development of an asthma-like condition making breathing difficult or, in severe cases, the heart may stop beating.

wasp applying ice using inhaler

If a victim is suffering breathing difficulties, then a salbutamol inhaler (‘Ventolin’) should help breathing. Needless to say, if this does not settle the problem, an ambulance should be called immediately.

When a known wasp-allergic person is stung on a limb, the recommended first-aid treatment is the same as for snake bite, ie. the pressure-immobilisation technique.

The limb is kept still while a bandage is wound around the sting site. Wrap the bandage around the limb a few time away from the heart side of the sting (ie. towards the fingers or toes), then firmly wrap as much of the limb as possible bandaging upwards to the groin or shoulder.

applying bandage applying bandage

The wrapping pressure should be firm but not constrictive. Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Never apply a tourniquet.

Locating a Wasp Nest

The easiest way to confirm a European wasp nest is to see a stream of yellow and black wasps flying in and out of some site.

European wasp nest site

European wasps usually forage for food within 50 to 250 metres of their nest, although in some instances they have been recorded flying several kilometres for food. If you have a large number of European wasps interrupting your outdoors activities, then you can probably assume you have a nest nearby.

Whatever the wild-eyed amongst us might say, do not, under ANY circumstances, seek to deal with a wasp nest yourself, unless you want to risk spending time in hospital from hundreds of stings. Just call a pest control company, for goodness sake.

About 80% of European wasp nests will occur in the ground with the remainder usually found inside buildings.

Why are there so many wasps about right now? In all probability it’s because we’ve had a dry winter followed by a mild, dry summer. No underground flooding has happened to restrain their lifecycle.

Remember, Europeans live with these wasps and have done for centuries. Their sting is nasty, but not deadly. Ice really will help, as will any well-known anti-sting ointment, and if the swelling bothers you perhaps an anti-histamine tablet.

Four key tips:

Stay still.

If you’re afraid of bees and wasps, this may sound as reasonable as eating jelly with chopsticks. But the worst thing you can do when a wasp flies around your head is swat at it. What would you do if someone took a swing at you? Right. So if a wasp comes near you, just take a deep breath and stay calm. It’s just trying to determine if you are a flower or some other item useful to it, and once it realises you’re just a boring, un-tasty person, it will simply fly away.

Think about your garbage.

Wasps love sweet things, like empty soda and beer bottles with dregs in them, and will check out any food waste in your garbage, too. So don’t let food residue build up on your garbage cans. Rinse bottles before throwing them away, rinse your bins well now and then, and always make sure your bins have tight-fitting lids on them to keep wasps away from your garbage. This will substantially cut down on the number of wasps hanging around your home.

Feed your pets indoors

Wasps nests can live on the food you put out for Fido, and his bones. Bring his food bowl inside, and any bones you give him to chew, at least during peak wasp season. It will make it less likely he’ll get stung, too.

Think about what you wear

Wasps are mainly looking for flowers stuffed with lovely nectar. Don’t wear floral prints outside. Dur. There’s a reason bee keepers and pest exterminators wear white: flying insects tend to ignore the colour.

In summary

wasp trapWasps are with us, bugger all we can do about, basically.

It’s essentially pretty simple. Don’t make your home attractive to wasps, and they’ll go elsewhere.

If that’s too hard, then build your own wasp traps with old soda bottles and one-way entries.

The ‘net is full of examples, just look around, or you can buy them at hardware stores, too.

Be aware that spraying wasps with some knock-down glop may or may not help defend you. They don’t succumb as quickly to popular insecticides as flies, for example. And you should be aware that a downed wasp may or may not be dead, and their stinging mechanism is one of the last things to decline as they die. Also, the Queen is popping out new wasps much faster than you can kill them, so it’s probably a fruitless effort, unless you can locate the nest and remove it. Ignoring them may take resolute willpower, but it’s probably the way to go.

One old wives solution is possibly good advice, as it they often are. If you’re picnicking, and there are wasps around, then locate a small quantity of something sweet and attractive 25 yards or so from where you’re sitting. My Mum always used to use a piece of cardboard with jam smeared on it. Worked a treat.

Just be careful out there.

 

In a story that really will cause all fair-minded people to pause and wonder, a photograph has captured what is believed to be the ghost of a little girl who drowned at a popular swimming hole in Queensland 100-years-ago.

The image shows three children and two adults playing in the water at Murphy’s Hole near Helidon in 2014. But a strange fourth child’s face appears to be in the picture, too.

 


 

The bizarre image was posted to the Toowoomba Ghost Chasers Facebook Page. The eerie white figure can be seen in the water between two women swimming with their children.

It is thought by some to be the face of 13-year-old Doreen O’Sullivan, who drowned in that exact spot in 1915.

Jessie Lu, who is one of the subjects in the photo, said the image had been examined by experts.

“At the time of taking this photo there was nothing between us,” she said.

“There was only three children there on that day. Two adults in the water and two adults on the bank.”

Oddly, Ms Lu added: “The older girl had trouble in the water on two occasions that day.”

Doreen’s death was reported in a local newspaper in 1915 and a grave belonging to a 13-year-old girl by the same name has been found.

Was Doreen returning to the scene to warn the children of the dangers of the spot? Is it a trick of the light? What’s your opinion, Dear Reader?

And do you have any real life ghost stories of your own to share?

Her

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) takes his artificial intelligence lover on holiday with him. In his pocket.

Recently, Dear Reader, we were much taken with a movie called “Her”, a thought-provoking, rather touching, well-crafted and occasionally funny fantasy comedy-drama about a man who falls in love with the “Artificial Intelligence” character inside his computer.

Written and directed by Spike Jonze (his first full-length screenplay), at the 86th Academy Awards, “Her” received five nominations, including Best Picture, and won the award for Best Original Screenplay. Jonze also won awards for the screenplay at the 71st Golden Globe Awards, the 66th Writers Guild of America Awards, the 19th Critics’ Choice Awards, and the 40th Saturn Awards. The movie was both a critical and financial success.

Given the burgeoning growth of online relationships and megamultiplayer online environments it had the smack of a reality that could well arrive reasonably soon. Of course, the idea of an iterative pseudo-intelligence that grows and learns as it goes along is a regular in science fiction – think Data from “Star Trek, Next Generation”, or even the on-board computer in “2001 A Space Odyssey” – and “Her” took that to its logical conclusion, including a very clever ending which we are far too kind to spoil.

Anyhow, although it is still essentially driven by human brainpower, now a man from the United States has created a mobile phone app that gives users a ‘relationship’ at the touch of a button.

For just $30 – a lot less than your drinks tab for an evening hanging around in a singles bar – you can buy a significant other through the new Invisible Boyfriend/Girlfriend app.

You can even choose the specific details and characteristics to make up your dream partner.

Every customer is promised at least 100 texts, 10 voicemails and a collection of handwritten notes.

“Recovering lawyer” and co-founder Matthew Homann says the app enables people to convince others that they are in a relationship and save themselves from awkward questions.

He says there’s a wide range of reasons why people sign up.

“They might be getting tired of getting hit on at the office. Or they might have grown weary of people asking if they are single.”

The ‘relationships’ are managed by a team of 500 employees in the US.

Mr Homann says they hope to expand the service to include deliveries, so people can get gifts brought to their workplace to impress their colleagues.

It would be easy to scoff at such an idea, but we view it sympathetically. There are a lot of lonely people on this planet, and there is great social pressure to be considered desirable. If people choose to engage in a small subterfuge to relieve them of that stigma, well, so be it.

It might be a bit embarrassing, though, when their friends beg to be allowed to meet the gorgeous person who sends them flowers to the office.

And we do wonder what level of self-delusion might develop as the text messages ping into their inbox. Might they imagine they are actually in a real relationship with whoever is sending the text, even when, simultaneously, they know logically that they are not? The mind is perfectly capable of such mental gymnastics.

scarlettPart of the attraction of the movie “Her” was that the voice of the artificial intelligence was played by Scarlett Johannson. Regular readers will understand when we say that we think we’d fall in love if she was the voice of our computer, too.

Mr Wellthisiswhatithink is only human, when all’s said and done.

If Mr Homann can arrange for voicemails from Scarlett to be delivered to our phone, we’re in.

childs-white-oblong-casket

We despair at the gullibility, the laziness, and the downright stupidity of “internet generation parents” who continue to think their children are more at risk from being vaccinated than they are from catching horrible – and 100% avoidable – childhood diseases.

As a result, anti-vaccine parents throughout the world, but recently noteworthily in America and Australia, are taking decisions that are killing their children – not to mention infecting other persons via their un-protected children.

Los Angeles resident Derek Bartholomaus, who runs an excellent fact-based website called “The anti-vaccine body count” is keeping count of preventable illnesses (144,886), preventable deaths (6,312), and number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccinations (0) since June 3, 2007. He admits it is hard to convince the anti-vaccination crowd, despite research that vaccination leads to autism being totally and comprehensively debunked.

“It’s really hard because it gets into the conspiracy theorist mentality,” he said. “If it were just a rational and logical discussion, there’s no debate. Vaccines are safe and effective.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Jasjit Singh, associate director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, says she has seen her share of children die from a preventable infectious diseases.

“There is nothing more heartbreaking,” she said.

Key facts

  • Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
  • In 2013, there were 145,700 measles deaths globally – about 400 deaths every day or 16 deaths every hour. By no means all of these were in developing countries.
  • Measles vaccination resulted in a 75% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2013 worldwide.
  • In 2013, about 84% of the world’s children received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday through routine health services – up from 73% in 2000.
  • During 2000-2013, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 15.6 million deaths making measles vaccine one of the best buys in public health.

Parents need to know this.

Chickenpox can leave your child scarred for life.

Measles can kill them.

Whooping cough can kill them.

Most children are infected with whooping cough by their own unvaccinated parents.

Stories that kids can be hurt by vaccines are LIES. A proportion of all children will develop autism whether they are vaccinated or not. It’s sad, but there it is. We just want everyone to consider these statistics from the World Health Organisation.

Immunization averts an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths every year from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), and measles. Global vaccination coverage—the proportion of the world’s children who receive recommended vaccines—has remained steady for the past few years.

During 2013, about 84% (112 million) of infants worldwide received 3 doses of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP3) vaccine, protecting them against infectious diseases that can cause serious illness and disability or be fatal. By 2013, 129 countries had reached at least 90% coverage of DTP3 vaccine.

IF THESE VACCINES WERE HARMFUL AND CAUSING AUTISM, WHY IS THE WORLD NOT DROWNING IN AUTISTIC CHILDREN?

Yet as anyone with Google and three minutes to spare can read here, autism is NOT increasing.

If you know anyone NOT vaccinating their children (especially against Measles and Whooping Cough) we urge you to ask them to do so. Be prepared to back up your opinion with facts. Because it’s this simple: children’s lives are at stake.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk, we are old enough to have lost relatives to preventable disease within our lifetime. Forgive us, therefore, being so blunt. We’re over it. Yes, it is conceivable that there is a tiny – TINY – risk in vaccination simply because anything that is done to the human body can cause a reaction. But simply being alive is dangerous. Breathing is dangerous. The point is that we KNOW the risk from preventable diseases and it exceeds the risk from vaccination by such a large factor that we should ignore any miniscule risk and protect our children.

Did I hold my breath for an hour or two when my daughter was given her various vaccinations? Yes I did. Would I make the same decision again? Yes, 100 times out of 100.

turkey

 

The Ocellated Turkey exists only in a 50,000 square mile area comprised of the Yucatan Peninsula range which includes the states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan — as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala.

The Ocellated Turkey is easily distinguished from its North American cousin in appearance. The body feathers of both male and female birds have a bronze-green iridescent color mixture, although females sometimes appear duller in color with more green than bronze pigments.

Unlike North American turkeys, breast feathers of male and female ocellated turkeys do not differ and cannot be used to determine sex. Neither male nor female birds have a beard.

We reckon Mr Ocellated Turkey would have the lady turkeys in quite a tizz. Simply beautiful. Although the chappie here seems to be working awfully hard and putting on a great show only to be ignored by ladies that appear more interested in eating their dinner. We feel his pain.

climate change effects

Last year was Australia’s third-hottest on record, the country’s well-respected Bureau of Meteorology says.

The BOM’s annual climate statement, released on Tuesday, said 2014 was the third-warmest year since reliable climate records began in Australia in 1910, with mean temperatures (taking into account both maximum and minimum temperatures) 0.91C above the long-term average.

A rise of two degrees will not be catastrophic, but polar bears will become extinct.

A rise of two degrees will not be catastrophic, but polar bears will become extinct. We’re halfway there now.

This is already halfway to the two-degree limit in global warming that Governments are supposedly seeking to achieve this century. Whilst change up to two degrees is expected to cause some problems, especially as regards species extinction, agriculturalists, public health, and fire danger, any warming above that level is expected to bring catastrophic climate change. And we’re already damn near 50% there.

BOM Climate Information Services assistant director Neil Plummer said 2014 was a year that included six significant warm spells or heat-waves with a notable reduction in colder weather.

The warmest year on record occurred the previous year, 2013, when the mean temperature was 1.2C above the long-term average.

“Particularly warm conditions occurred in spring 2014, which was Australia’s warmest spring on record,” Mr Plummer said. “El Nino-like effects were felt in drier and warmer conditions in much of eastern Australia during 2014.”

The World Meteorological Organisation is collating data but believes the world experienced its hottest or among its hottest years in 2014, Mr Plummer said.

The Climate Council’s Professor Will Steffen says climate change is a major factor in the near-record warmth recorded in 2014. He said 2013 and 2005 were the hottest and second-hottest years on record, and most notably 29 of the past 35 years were warmer than average.

“It is worrying that these sort of records are now being broken so regularly,” he said. “The impact of climate change on these trends is very clear. Climate change is making Australia hotter and more prone to bushfires.” (See our story on South Australia, yesterday.)

Meanwhile, Australia’s Government has scrapped the carbon trading scheme which was put in place to provide a market mechanism for reducing carbon dioxide emissions – a curious decision for a party committed to free market economics.

An astonishing and exhaustive list of anti-environment moves made by the Abbott Government appeared on precariousclimate.com back in September last year. If you were ever in any doubt that our Federal Government are a bunch climate troglodytes, check it out. It is a carefully compiled and damning document.

Whether it is cutting the money allocated to solar energy conversions to homes, (from one billion dollars to $2 million), repealing the “carbon tax”, abolishing climate change bodies, appointing climate change deniers to key Government positions both here and overseas, denying the link between climate change and bushfires, refusing to commit any climate finance for poor countries, (after Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines and the Filipino delegation to a climate change conference called for urgent action), cutting research funding, slashing jobs in the Environment department, or hugely increasing assistance to fossil fuel industries, it is a sad, sad story.

 

Looks like the bulk of people in Africa will need to move to Canada. Hope they're ready.

Looks like the bulk of people in Africa will need to move to Canada. Hope they’re ready.

 

Of course, as this chart (representing a ‘best case’ scenario) on possible changes to agricultural productivity shows, the effects of climate change will fall hardest on the world’s poorest countries, where drought and starvation are already endemic. That will also be of little or not interest to the Abbott Government, which has just cut, in real terms, overseas aid, to address what is largely a mythical crisis in Government spending – the same Government, remember, that has ordered nearly 60 new fighter bombers with a maximum range of 200 miles. Massive projected changes to the main agricultural areas of Australia are very worrying. With the sole exception of south-eastern Australia, (where production will likely remain unchanged, although some cropping changes may be called for), the collapse in agricultural production is up to 25%. Given that the Liberal-National Party Coalition depends on rural seats for it’s existence, this will inevitably come back to bite them. When farmers realise that “green” policies are good for their business, look out.

Let us hope it really is #onetermtony before the country gets much hotter and our world changes beyond recognition.

Bushfire season has hit again, a combination of dry conditions, steady winds and plentiful fuel lying on the ground providing the perfect environment for devastating conflagrations. Worst hit have once again been the wooded, charming Adelaide Hills, scene of the deadly Ash Wednesday fires that are seared in the minds of all Aussies.

This remarkable photo shows the fire, currently running along a 238 km front, as dusk falls, the flames lighting up the early evening sky.

Terrible. Awe-inspiring. And all too real.

Terrible. Awe-inspiring. And all too real.

Fire is, of course, a natural part of our Eucalypt environment, but that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier to bear, especially for the couple of dozen homeowners (so far) who have lost everything. The day of most danger will be tomorrow, Wednesday, when a cool change will bring strong winds to fan the flames before any quenching rains will help to put it out. The temperature in the south of the state is currently around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Our thoughts and prayers are with all residents in the Hills, and with the brave men and women from all over the country who are fighting the fires.

We're coming to get you.

We’re coming to get you.

The Wellthisiswhatithink household has been experiencing a sudden rush of cockroaches. (Insert horrified scream at regular intervals here.)

This is an unusual infestation for us. We frequently have to deal with invasion of ants (whenever we get consecutive days of rain they move indoors) and sometimes mice (now seemingly dealt with by chucking inordinate amounts of “Ratsak” into the cavity under the house). Mice and ants frequently reach plague proportions in Australia. But we have, thus far, seen very few ‘roaches, until this year. This year, it seems every time we move an item, something dark and vaguely menacing scuttles rapidly away.

When you think of cockroaches, you’ve got to admit you think filth and squalor. Certainly Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink does. She is mortified at every appearance.

But are these traditional beliefs that cockroaches are dirty, disease-spreading bugs actually entirely accurate? As always, the worldwideinterwebs thingy is our friend.

Apparently there are nearly 4000 species of cockroaches in the world, but only 25 to 30 actually have a pest status.

And yes, cockroaches love to live in filth — but does that make them dirty?

You want to know why we like big spiders in Australia? This is why.

You want to know why we like big spiders in Australia? This is why.

An interesting test has just been completed to see just how dirty cockroaches are in relation to a human being and other things we have daily contact with.

The researcher took two swabs of germs. Firstly, a cockroach will run across a dirty surface, such as the kitchen floor, and will then be left for two hours before a swab is taken of its’ er, feety little things. The a human set of fingers will then walk across the same surface and he won’t wash his hands for two hours before his swab is taken.

Both samples are then put into separate Petri dishes, then turned upside down and put into an incubator at 37 degrees to be left overnight. If there are any germs, they’ll easily be seen in the morning.

Twenty-four hours later it’s time to compare the cultures to find out who’s the king of clean.

First swab: a control swab was added to the experiment to guarantee the experiment is accurate. There is no bacteria growing on this plate.

Cockroach’s swab: There are a few colonies of bacteria there.

Human swab: There’s a lot more bacteria on the plate where the human hand was swabbed.

The cockroach is actually cleaner than human.

Why? Because cockroaches actually clean themselves fastidiously — all the time.

“Most species of cockroaches are kind of like cats. Cats are considered to be a very clean animal because it’s always grooming itself. And cockroaches do that also,” says bug collector Darrin Vernier. He lives in the US state of Arizona and is crazy about creepy crawlies.

Darrin’s got 10,000 roaches in his personal collection and he claims that his roaches are invaluable in breaking down dead and decaying matter in the eco-system.

So cockroaches could be seen in the insect world as the obsessive compulsive fastidious cleaner?

Darrin says this is a great way to look at it: “Sometimes I walk in from the outside and I track in dirt under my feet accidentally. That’s really the only thing the cockroach does that has any relation to filth at all and it’s because we’ve already left it there. If we clean it up it’s not a problem.”

So if roaches are so clean, what sort of dangers do they really pose?

Dr Noel Tait is an honorary professor in invertebrae zoology at Macquarie University. He says the problem with cockroaches are those nasty little deposits they leave behind.

“The allergens are cockroach allergens themselves. They are in the faeces because they are chemicals from the bodies of the cockroaches. And people who are susceptible to allergic situations can become hyper-sensitised to them,” says Dr Tait. So regular cleaning reduces the possibility of an allergic reaction to roach faeces. (Reaches for a Chux and the disinfectant.)

There are no available Australian statistics, but in the United States, up to 60 percent of asthma sufferers are affected by cockroach allergens.

If you’re one of them, you could get skin rashes, watery eyes, nasal congestion and even asthma attacks.

Cockroaches can, indeed, spread disease. And even quite frightening ones, like salmonella, staphylococcus and even leprosy. Entomologist David Rentz says the dirtiness of a cockroach is entirely dependent on where it has been.

“Studies have shown that they pick up these things on their feet and move them around that way and when they are feeding, of course they get bacteria and such on their mouthparts,” he said.

“If they have not been any place where they can get germs, well they are not germy at all.”

Luckily most homes are free of really nasty germs. A quick whizz round with an airborne disinfectant spray will help.

Dr Rentz is quick to point out that it’s only the six or eight introduced species of cockroach in Australia that are worth killing.

The more than 500 species of native Australian roaches are unlikely to survive long in an urban environment and are important to the native ecosystem.

“It’s just a very small percentage of the total number of cockroaches that give the whole group a bad name,” he said.

womanscream

So if you don’t want cockroaches taking up residence at your house — clean up. Cockroaches in homes are only as dirty as the environment they are living in. If you have a filthy house, they will spread that filth around your kitchen, but if your kitchen is clean and hygienic, you won’t be providing them with a food source and they won’t bother so much. But if the odd cockroach does show up, at least you know they’re not that bad. They’re actually quite hygienic.

Cleaning up regularly is the best bet. Chances are the roach will be hungry and go looking for richer pickings next door.

Some common cockroach hiding spots.

Start by attacking these areas with a combination of insecticide (the barrier kind will help) and loads of hot soapy water and a broom.

Cockroaches thrive in warm, humid conditions. They prefer to live in kitchens and other food preparation areas, so they can feed off food spills. But cockroaches can eat just about anything, and can survive without food for long periods of time. Cockroaches are scavengers. While most roaches prefer sweets given a choice, in a pinch, they will eat just about anything: glue, grease, soap, wallpaper paste, leather, book-bindings, or even hair. Worse yet, a cockroach can survive a remarkably long time without food. Some species can go as long as 6 weeks without a meal! These traits make cockroaches in our homes tough to control. But in nature, cockroaches provide an important service by consuming organic waste. They’re the garbage collectors of their habitat. So patience in getting rid of them helps, too.

Hiding spots for the household cockroach include:

  • Cracks in walls.
  • Confined spaces, such as behind the refrigerator, in a pantry or underneath a stack of magazines, newspapers or cardboard boxes.
  • Any furniture items that are generally left undisturbed.
  • Kitchen cupboards.
  • Below sinks.
  • Around water heaters.
  • In drains and grease traps.
  • Gardens.

But what about the one about cockroaches being able to survive a nuclear war? Well, it’s true, they can. For humans, a lethal dose of radiation is about 800 rems but some roach varieties can withstand doses up to a hundred times bigger, and as long as they’re not in the blast zone, they’d survive the radioactive fallout of a nuclear explosion.

As Fruit Of One’s Loins remarks, “that’s just creepy; that’s why I hate them”. (Cute horrified scream and gallons of soapy water.)

roach panSo how to deal with the sudden appearance of a cockroach in your life?

Chances are a rolled up newspaper or a fry pan won’t cut it. Those little suckers are fast. Measurably fast.

Cockroaches detect approaching threats by sensing changes in air currents. The fastest start time clocked by a cockroach was just 8.2 milliseconds after it sensed a puff of air on its rear end. Once all six legs are in motion, a cockroach can sprint at speeds of 80 centimeters per second. And they’re elusive, too, with the ability to turn on a dime while in full stride. Whacking them with a sizeable burst of insect spray will give you a better chance.

Except the little buggers often scuttle off anyway. Are they resistant to that, too? They’re superhero insects.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, cockroaches can be conditioned. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first documented the concept of classical conditioning, famously demonstrated by his salivating dogs. The dogs would hear a ticking metronome each time they were fed. Soon, the sound of the metronome alone was enough to make the dogs salivate in anticipation of a meal. Now Makoto Mizunami and his colleague Hidehiro Watanabe, both of Tohoku University, have found that cockroaches can also be conditioned this way. They introduced the scent of vanilla or peppermint just before giving the roaches a sugary treat. Eventually, the cockroaches would drool – yes, drool – when their antennae detected one of these scents in the air.

We are currently working out how to use this information to rid us of urban cockroaches once and for all by creating a new roach trap which will excite them into getting caught all on their own, and which will make us millions. Watch this space.

Photo: Getty

Aussies – who suffer the highest rate of skin cancer in the world – are acutely aware of the need to guard against skin cancer. We lead the world in both prevention and cure.

Aussies all know the sun-safety adage slip, slop, slap, seek and slide - excellent advice, Dear Reader –  and now new Australian research has now found another surprising way to protect your body from skin cancer.

In a study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, researchers from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Queensland have found that over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and aspirin can decrease your risk of developing squamous carcinoma – the most common for of skin cancer.

According to study authors, these particular drugs could work as preventative agents in high-risk people.

While studies have previously linked aspirin with a lower risk of colon cancer, this is the first time it has been connected to skin cancer prevention. After a meta-analysis of nine studies, researchers found that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) had an 18 per cent reduced risk. Non-aspirin NSAIDS had a 15 per cent reduced risk of squamous carcinoma.

We would like to think it may be another way to reduce your risk of developing these cancers,” study co-author Catherine Olsen said. “Of course, the best way is to reduce your sun exposure – that will always be the number one preventative action for skin cancers – but this might be a supplementary skin cancer control measure.”

Bad. Bad. Stupid. Dumb. Idiotic. (Only coz it's Christmas did we spare you pictures of people with half their nose removed.)

Bad. Bad. Stupid. Dumb. Idiotic. (Only coz it’s Christmas did we spare you pictures of people with half their nose removed.)

Skin cancer accounts for around 80 per cent of all newly diagnosed cancers in Australia, and the rate of incidence is higher than anywhere else in the world.

If you’re over 40, Cancer Council Australia recommends doing a full skin check every three months – more if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Look out for changes in shape, colour and size of any moles or sunspots and if you’re concerned about any changes – see your GP or dermatologist.

We suspect this is just the beginning of yet more reveals about the health-promoting properties of buffered aspirin in particular. We munch our little red pill daily. Needless to say, take your doctor’s advice.

As for the Wellthisiswhatithink household, we have had more than our fair share of cancer-y things removed from our collective skin. We have this to share.

“Shade. It’s a wonderful thing.”

We all

I cannot strongly enough recommend that you watch this two and a half minute video. If you do nothing else this year to improve yourself as a person, do this. You will change your life, and make a hugely positive to the lives of those around you. Personally, we are going to watch it again and again.

In this beautifully animated RSA Short, Dr Brené Brown reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities. It has reached nearly three million views on YouTube. I frankly wish it could be seen by everyone on the planet. What a change it would make in our societies. Perhaps you could share this blogpost, on your Facebook page, your own blog, or wherever, and help that happen?

Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.

Her 2010 TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched talks on TED.com, with over 15 million views. She gave the closing talk, Listening to Shame,  at the 2012 TED Conference in Long Beach.

Brené is the 2012 author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. She is also the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), and I Thought It Was Just Me (2007).

Brené is also the founder and CEO of The Daring Way – a teaching and certification program for helping professionals who want to facilitate her work on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness.

Brené lives in Houston, Texas with her husband, Steve, and their two children. You can find out more about her at http://brenebrown.com/

Look at her. Bright, beautiful, intelligent, her whole life ahead of her. And dead.

Georgina Bartter, 19, was found unconscious and convulsing at the Harbourlife festival at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair this Saturday.

Friends reported the teenager, one of 5200 people at the festival, took one and a half pills, before she died of organ failure.A “beautiful, outgoing girl”, Georgina would not have taken drugs knowingly, her family told 7News.

Superintendent Mark Walton says a report is being prepared for the coroner. “(A post-mortem) is a matter for the coroner and the family and that will be determined next week,” he said.

An autopsy would find what was in the pill that contributed to her death.

The teen from Longueville on Sydney’s north shore was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital just before 5pm, but suffered multiple organ failure and died.

Police arrested 78 people at the waterfront dance party for drug offences.

Superintendent Mark Walton said he’s concerned large electronic dance parties are closely associated with illicit psychoactive drugs. “It does not matter what location they are held in, there is no doubt the nature of the entertainment is intrinsically linked to that drug use.

“She fell to the ground more or less and then people started waving down the security and paramedics,” witness Andrew Demetriou told 7News. “Quite simply, you do not know what you’re taking.”

In a statement, Harbourlife organisers said their thoughts were with the teenager’s family.

“We can hardly imagine the pain and heartbreak they must be feeling and they have our deepest sympathy,” a statement on Facebook said.

Organisers said a paramedic was with the girl just one minute after she collapsed. A first-aid tent at the festival included paramedics and an emergency doctor.

Police are asking anyone with knowledge about synthetic substance sellers to come forward.

The Bartter family has told 7News Georgina would never have taken the drugs knowingly althugh they later apparently said it was “very out of character”. But whether or not she did, she certainly didn’t expect to die.

Ms Bartter was the eldest of three children and graduated from Wenona private school last year, where she was a top student.

Simon Bartter with his daughter Georgina at her 18th birthday / Picture: Instagram

Simon Bartter with his daughter Georgina at her 18th birthday / Picture: Instagram

Schoolgirl Anna Wood died after taking ecstasy in 1995

She had only just returned from a dream holiday to Europe during a study break from university.

Her close friends said they were “completely shocked” by Ms Bartter’s death and were receiving counselling last night.

“She was really lovely to everyone at school. She was the life of the party,” one friend said.

“Everyone’s in shock. She had so much potential and it was way too early.”

Schoolgirl Anna Wood died after taking ecstasy in 1995

Schoolgirl Anna Wood died after taking ecstasy in 1995

Ironically and sadly, Ms Bartter was born in 1995, the same year Anna Wood, 15, who became the face of the anti-drug war after she died from popping an ecstasy tablet at a rave party.

We have a message for the young of our country and all countries.

When you take illicitly supplied drugs you have no idea what is in them. The people who create these drugs and profit from them have no quality control, and no care for what damage they may or may not do. They simply want your money. Cocaine, for example, is regularly cut with poisons and other drugs (such as veterinary) that are not intended for human consumption. Psycho-active drugs can be a cocktail of whatever the drug maker has at hand.

You have no idea how your body will react to any illegal drug you ingest. Worse: just because you had no bad reaction last time does not mean the same will be true next time, because different drug batches contain different substances and mixtures.

We are not wowsers, by any means. We’re not talking here about the occasional puff on a joint. We are talking about the vast range of party drugs that have swept the world in recent years. You simply can’t know what’s inside what you are taking. And they can kill. Anyone. Suddenly, and without warning.

You pick which one will kill you. We can't.

You pick which one will kill you. We can’t.

We have long argued that proper quality control is the strongest reason why illicit drugs should be legalised and regulated.

The other advantages of this approach would be a generalised harm minimisation regime, fewer casualties, more immediate access to advice for drug users, better and more freely available drug information, an inflow of tax dollars to fund better prevention and care provisions, and above all draining the criminal underworld of their vast financial wealth generated from illegal sales.

Prohibition has failed, and has little or no effect on the quantity of drugs illegally entering our society. Whole countries, like Mexico, are now in thrall to the trade, with over 100,000 deaths in that country directly attributable to it in recent years.

Many leading police officers and politicians around the world agree with us that a new way must be found, and fast.

Alex Wodak is a physician and the director of the Alcohol and Drug Service, at St Vincent's Hospital, in Sydney, Australia. Wodak is a notable advocate of drug reform laws.

Alex Wodak is a physician and the director of the Alcohol and Drug Service, at St Vincent’s Hospital, in Sydney, Australia. Wodak is a notable advocate of drug reform laws.

Meanwhile the president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, Alex Wodak, said the tragedy highlighted the need for a shift away from a “criminal- ­justice ­approach” to illicit drug use.

“Instead of relying heavily on law-enforcement measures like ­sniffer dogs we should be doing what they are in Europe and be providing pill testing,” Mr Wodak told The Australian.

“You can get the pills tested at these sorts of events and they will tell you what is in them – it turns it into a less dangerous practice.”

The widespread use of sniffer dogs could be counterproductive and encourage risk-taking behaviour, Mr Wodak said. “People who are carrying substances they have bought off the streets illegally might swallow ­excessive quantities in order to get rid of the evidence quickly and sometimes this has led to death.”

We say: Until drugs are legal and quality-controlled, or until someone can tell you everything that is in a pill and you can make an informed decision about what you are putting in your body, avoid them. Unless you think seeking a good time buzz is worth risking dying for.

Rest in peace, Georgina. Our deepest sympathies to you and all who knew you.

abbottdutton

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (L), and Australian Health Minister Peter Dutton (R) during a press conference in Sydney, Australia, 5 November 2014.

 

As we have pointed out before, Australia has been slow and mealy-mouthed in sending aid/health workers to try and control the Ebola outbreak at source.

Yet even now some small move has been made, as PM Abbott and Health Minister Dutton have been dragged kicking and screaming to the table, people around the world, and indeed at home, could be forgiven for being a little confused about Australia’s response to the Ebola crisis.

The government has been sending out somewhat mixed signals over what help it can offer, as is now pointed out for the world to read on the front page of the BBC website in the UK. Nice.

First, the Abbott government refused to send any official medical or military personnel to West Africa, a decision for which he was widely criticised on this blog, inside Australia, and overseas, at the same time as President Barack Obama was saying the US should be encouraging health workers to volunteer to go to the frontline.

Mr Abbott has now bowed to pressure and announced Australia will be contributing A$20m (£11m; $17m) to help fund a British Ebola response clinic being set up in Sierra Leone. However, the prime minister has been vague about who will be staffing it.

The Australian side of the operation has been contracted out to the private health provider Aspen Medical and Abbott suggested most of the staff would be recruited locally, but contradictorily health officials in Sierra Leone have said the principal thing they are lacking is qualified local doctors.

Meanwhile, the managing director of Aspen Medical, Glenn Keys, has said around 350 Australians have registered with the company to go and help.

What is clear is that the prime minister is sticking by his line that no government medical teams or military personnel will be dispatched.

Mr Abbott said the decision to contract in Aspen had been reached after Britain agreed to treat any Australians who become infected while in West Africa, something the Australian leader had said was his principal concern.

It’s now emerged though, that the European Union had already made a similar offer to treat Australian staff that Mr Abbott had rejected.

 

How many innocent lives could Australian workers have saved in the last few weeks? We will never know.

How many innocent lives could Australian workers have saved in the last few weeks? We will never know.

 

Yet the media in Australia have been perfectly silent in asking him “Why?”, and still are. Especially as the end result is Australia’s response has looked very tardy and been delayed by crucial weeks. Meanwhile the poor of West Africa continue to face death rates from Ebola of up to 90% of all those infected.

Add to that the strong criticism Australia has faced after it became the first developed country to ban the issuing of visas to anyone from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. The Sierra Leonean government called the move “discriminatory” and “counter-productive” suggesting it created a climate of panic.

As the BBC say, anyone who’s visited Australia will know they take a tough line on bio-security. There are strict rules about bringing in food products due to fears of bringing in disease.

But given that only a handful of people have been tested for suspected Ebola in Australia and all have tested negative, the government here risks being accused of showing a lack of compassion in the eyes of many around the world.

What is more important is that if this outbreak is not stopped AT SOURCE, and somehow transmits itself into other poor areas of the world with bad sanitation and inadequate health services – the rest of Africa, India, Pakistan, Central and Southern America, great swathes of South East Asia, even China – then we would be looking at an Armageddon scenario. In the face of which, Abbott and Dutton looked nothing more nor less like rabbits stuck in the headlights. So much for “strong leadership”, eh?

obama in churchMeanwhile, the political and media beat up worldwide on the outbreak has continued, with near hysteria levels, in the USA in particular.

A couple of weeks back we predicted that there wouldn’t be another Ebola case in the USA in the next seven days. It’s now 14 and counting.

But has the fever of commentary died down? Hardly. And why is so annoyingly obvious. The Republicans knew that by making Obama look “weak” on Ebola, by terrifying the population, in simple terms, then they would hurt the Democrats. And so they did, as seen in their “wave” of wins in the mid-terms on Tuesday just gone.

In fact, as is widely acknowledged, Obama’s response has been a small miracle of intelligent healthcare policy.

That he has not received the credit for acting smartly, promptly and effectively – not just in the USA, but in West Africa – is truly sickening.

clown

 

There is a curious and well-known phobia where otherwise sane, rational people are scared of clowns.

The phenomenon is relatively recent, as the white-faced red-nosed version of clowns that some people find so alarming is a construction of the 20th century. Before that people with anxiety found something else to fixate on.

Now it seems there’s good reason to be worried. At least in Europe and the USA.

Clowns attack passers by

Freakish aggressive clowns, some allegedly armed with knives, pistols, and bats are driving French towns crazy, chasing down and attacking people.

In the southern port town of Agde, about 15 ‘clowns’ were arrested in a high school car park for ‘laughing manically’ while chasing people. In nearby Marseillan, a clown was detained for damaging a car.

In Montpellier: a ‘clown’ beat a man 30 times with an iron bar and then stole his wallet. Three motorists in the area also complained of “scary clowns.”

The French freak-clown wave began in the north a couple of weeks ago, in suburban Douai. In Bethune, a fake clown got a six-month suspended jail term for threatening passers-by.

A French police statement blames the web. “Since mid-October, a rumor inspired by videos published on the Internet has created the presence of threatening and aggressive clowns in France. Symptomatic of the impact of the Internet, this phenomenon can lead to damaging individual acts and disturbances to public order”.

The ‘clown craze’ is thought to have been triggered by a viral YouTube video and a recent episode of American Horror Story featuring a killer named Twisty.

Clown attack cases didn’t begin in France though: London’s Metropolitan Police dealt with 117 clown-related incidents in 2013.

In Portsmouth, UK, a masked figure began stroking passers-by in the city streets with a single red-gloved finger. As we come from Southampton, we’d believe anything of people in that particular locale.

US police have also made dozens of clown-related arrests, most prevalent in California.

Fear of clowns? It’s understandable.

But why be scared of the very look of a clown?

Coulrophobia – fear of clowns – is difficult to understand. They straddle a cultural nexus between fear and entertainment, but are generally intended to be affectionate, especially towards children.

The phobia may grow from the fascinating concept of “the uncanny valley”. The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some human observers.

The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as something moves toward a healthy, natural human likeness but does not become entirely indistinguishable from a human. Examples of the effect can be found in the fields of robotics and 3D computer animation, among others. Unless the simalcrum is perfect, some people find it disturbing – and some find it so in the extreme.

The term was coined by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in 1970. The hypothesis has been linked to Ernst Jentsch’s concept of the “uncanny” identified in a 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”. Jentsch’s conception was then elaborated by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay entitled “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche”).

Mori’s original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some human observers’ emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from that of a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly “strange” to some human beings, will produce a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

For robot, read clown. But why would humans react this way to something which is “almost” human, but slightly different, like a clown? The science is fascinating.

 

"What do you mean you don't want to have sex with me my pretty?"

“What do you mean you don’t want to have sex with me my pretty?”

 

A number of theories have been proposed to explain the cognitive mechanism underlying the uncanny valley phenomenon:

  • Mate selection. Automatic, stimulus-driven appraisals of uncanny stimuli elicit aversion by activating an evolved cognitive mechanism for the avoidance of selecting mates with low fertility, poor hormonal health, or ineffective immune systems based on visible features of the face and body that are predictive of those traits. Put simply, we avoid mating with weird looking people.
  • Mortality salience. Viewing an “uncanny” person elicits an innate fear of death and culturally-supported defences for coping with death’s inevitability.
  • We don’t want to get sick. Uncanny stimuli may activate a cognitive mechanism that originally evolved to motivate the avoidance of potential sources of pathogens by eliciting a disgust response. The more human someone looks, the stronger the aversion to its obvious defects, because (1) defects indicate disease, (2) more human-looking organisms are more closely related to human beings genetically, and (3) the probability of contracting disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and other parasites increases with genetic similarity. To some people, clowns look sick. We don’t want to catch whatever they’ve got.
  • They mess with our brains. Thanks to a concept called “Sorites paradoxes”, when we see a character with both human and nonhuman traits it undermines our sense of human identity by linking qualitatively different categories. That’s why quasi-human monsters like vampires are simultaneously attractive and scary. And why some Halloween costumes scare the bejeesus out of some people.
  • They just don’t measure up to our expectations. There is a concept of “violation of human norms” which says that if someone looks “almost” human, they elicit our model of a another human being and we have detailed normative expectations of how they will behave. Their non-human characteristics will be more noticeable than if they were trying to be something totally non-human, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness. In other words, a clown stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a clown doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.

So there you have it. If you’re frightened of clowns, you may have deep biological reasons to be so. Although frankly, we think having your new iPhone nicked by a hoodlum is the best reason to view with alarm someone approaching you in the street looking like a refugee from Billy Smart’s circus.

Thanks to Mix FM for gathering together people’s photos of the monstrous electrical storm that hit Melbourne in the wee small hours of Monday morning and to Colin for alerting us to them.

It was a real doozey, and the traffic and train chaos from power outages and flooding the next morning was astonishing. It is only a matter of time, of course, before some religious nut blames it all on God being angry over homosexuality, abortion, or the Australian cricket team. Actually, looking at the result against Pakistan, I think the cricket team were to blame.

The Wellthisiswhatithink household was certainly bleerily woken up, with candles lit in advance of the expected blackout which for some reason didn’t occur, unplugging computers from the wall etc. We’re only sorry we couldn’t take our own photos, but the new camera hasn’t arrived yet … of that, more soon!

 

lightning melb 1

 

lightning melb 2

 

lightning melb 9

lightning melb 8

lightning melb 7

lightning melb 6

lightning melb 5

lightning melb 4

lightning melb 3

 

 

Ebola in Liberia

Watching the world go into collective meltdown over the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is highly instructive for anyone who is interested in how the media works, how politics works, and how groupthink works.

The media are rubbing their collective hands with glee. Suddenly they have a new and potentially terrifying threat to wax lyrical about: ISIS terrorism is so last week, right?

Now a “deadly” virus that most people have never heard of, that’s escaped from the nasty, mucky, dark continent of Africa, and threatens us nice white people in our impeccably clean western societies, offers the media a chance for wall-to-wall coverage, most of it hysterical and uninformed.

Politicians now fall neatly into two camps. Those who give a shit about tackling the outbreak, and those who simply give a shit about blaming someone else, and always on the other side of the aisle.

And groupthink has merely descended into group terror. You can’t blame people for being scared, but the level of fear has reached ridiculously high proportions astonishingly quickly.

So here’s a few facts.

ebolavirusEbola can be and is deadly, (with morbidity rates as high as 70% in some of the countries currently under attack), but the vast majority of people infected (perhaps upwards of 90%) will survive IF they receive proper medical care, such as simple matters including rehydration.

This is actually higher than some other much more common severe illnesses.

The huge death numbers in West Africa are because the sanitation, medical and social systems there are completely inadequate to deal with the illness.

The strain of Ebola affecting Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia is not airborne. You HAVE to have an exchange of bodily fluids to catch it. The rapid transition rate in West Africa is because poor people are caring for sick relatives in their own homes, and avoiding contact with saliva, blood and bodily wastes (or surfaces contaminated with them) is extraordinarily difficult in those circumstances.

In reality, as you can see here, the spread rate of Ebola against other serious illnesses is very slow. This is partly, tragically, because in poor countries the sick don’t live long enough to pass the virus on to very many people. Ebola is actually a very inefficient virus. It kills its victims too quickly.

The solution to the Ebola crisis is very simple. By all means isolate the very few cases that will occur in advanced countries, and treat those people with all due care for the treating staff as well. The majority of infected people will recover, especially if they are treated early. Impose travel bans if you wish, though it would be much more sensible to implement heat screening of in-bound passengers, such as was used during the SARS crisis in China.

There is also evidence from previous outbreaks that educating the local community about how to handle patients and reduce infection-risk is an effective way to slow or end outbreaks. This is another area of activity that should be ramped up.

In the meantime, though, whatever else we do, we must DRAMATICALLY increase aid to West Africa. We should be FLOODING the area with capacity to deal with the crisis, AND to deal there with any aid workers from advanced countries who become infected, keeping them there instead of repatriating them to their home country. Although conditions in these countries are extremely difficult, it is not beyond the wit and wisdom of mankind to isolate and treat the virus there. What IS needed is willpower and decisive action and plenty of fast money.

If this was a war, an immediate and resolute response would be found.

Well, this is a war. A war to save potentially hundreds of thousands of poor victims worldwide. This is not a war to protect the West. It was and is and will be a war to protect countries in Africa (and possibly elsewhere) from being set back 25 years in their development, through the avoidable death of countless innocent people.

Rabbit caught in headlights? Pretty much.

Rabbit caught in headlights? Pretty much.

In this regard, the failure of the Australian government to yet send staff to the area is staggeringly weak and vacillating.

Health Minister Peter Dutton waffles on about not knowing where to treat any staff who contract the virus.

Well, here’s a question to answer, Mr Dutton. If Ebola gets into the slums of the poorer countries of Asia (such as especially the Philippines and Thailand) or the favelas of South America, it will then GENUINELY be too late to stop a worldwide humanitarian disaster. What will you do then?

If you are genuinely concerned about the safety of our aid workers or troops, (and not simply trying to save money and hope someone else does the heavy lifting) then explain the situation simply and clearly, and ask for volunteers.

Action, this day. Nothing else is acceptable.

PS Don’t expect to see the commonsense in this article reported in mainstream media, so feel free to share it.

 

sleepy pilotWhen we first arrived in Australia some 25 plus years ago, our first experience of flying inside the country was from a small airport in Cairns, when we were heading to the very pretty Dunk Island for a few days unashamed luxury.

A small bunch of us sat and sat, and sat, and sat some more, until in the end they actually paged the flight crew. They duly wandered out of the bar. As one of our fellow passengers commented, “Well, they might have been drinking orange juice.” He didn’t look convinced, though.

It was a very small plane. Our communal confidence was not increased when the co-pilot (who was flying) asked the pilot which way to go. The pilot scrabbled through his maps for a minute, before admitting he’d left the maps behind. “Look out of the window, follow the road” was his advice to the co-pilot. Which is exactly what the co-pilot did: opened the window and stuck his head out. As you do.

Anyhow, an ex airline pilot wrote an interesting article on Yahoo about the stuff that goes on in the cockpit that passengers really don’t want to know about. This segment of article jumped out at us, especially the last bit (in bold). Seems like good advice to us:

Prior to 1978, each airline worked out schedules with its pilots to accommodate the routes the airline flew while protecting the pilots from undue fatigue. But after 1978’s deregulation, all that changed. Competition between airlines became so fierce that pilots were forced to fly more hours with less rest. Fatigue led to accidents. At the beginning of this year, new rules established by the FAA and supposedly based on scientific study, went into effect which gave pilots a reasonable amount of uninterrupted rest between days of flying, but increased the number of hours a two-pilot crew could fly per day from eight to nine hours!

Under these new pseudoscientific rules, a pilot who reports for duty at 7am can be on duty for 14 hours. That may sound reasonable until you consider that being at work at 7am may mean getting up at 3am, leaving home at 4am, and driving two hours to the airport. That allows only 20 minutes for traffic and 40 minutes to catch the bus from crew parking to the terminal. Your pilot can be forced to work until 9pm, 18 hours after waking up — if lucky — from five to six hours of sleep.

According to research done in Australia, a person who has driven more than eight hours has the same ability to function as a person with a blood-alcohol level of .05. The research also showed a person who has been awake for 18 hours function like a person with a blood alcohol of .05. What does that say about your pilot who is landing the plane after flying nine hours or being up 18 hours?

Pilots are stuck with the new rules, and no matter how fatigued a pilot may be, refusing to fly means big trouble. As a pilot, you don’t fly fatigued, you can’t keep your job. Don’t expect things to get better.

So, if you want a pilot who is fully awake after a full night’s sleep, don’t fly earlier than 10am.

If you want to be sure your pilot’s performance is better than a drunk driver, steer clear of short flights after 7pm.

Longer domestic flights and international flights that depart after 7pm are not a problem in this regard because on such flights pilots are usually beginning their work day.

We are, in general, wary of politically-active actors or musicians. Too often the luvvies are just promoting themselves via the causes they’ve latched onto, and achieving some spurious cachet while doing so. There are honourable exceptions of course: George Clooney on Somalia, Angelina Jolie on breast cancer and poverty, and Bob Geldof, Midge Ure and Bono on poverty. There will be others.

And now we have Leonardo Di Caprio on climate change. And he nailed it.

This short and poignant speech should be played to every politician and climate change denier on the planet. Please share this post widely and share the speech.

We absolutely need a worldwide carbon trading scheme with an agreed price on carbon, and we need to stop supporting polluting industries (especially coal and oil) with taxpayers’ funds, so people pay the real price for using these products. And we need a massive investment in effective new technologies, accepting that they may not pay their way immediately as they are perfected.*

Nothing else – nothing else – is acceptable. We cannot and must bequeath this crisis to our children.

Well done Leo. Wot he said. With a wrecked ecology we will have no economy worth speaking of. While the world agonises over IS and other terror threats, THIS is a real, immediate existentialist crisis.

*Australia’s Liberal-National Government (read: Conservative) have just scrapped the carbon emissions trading scheme and reduced investment in “green” technologies.

A woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease holds the hand of a relativeAccording to a report emanating from Paris (carried by AFP) long-term use of drugs commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleeplessness is linked to a greater risk of Alzheimer’s, a study said on Wednesday. Whether chronic use of benzodiazepines actually causes the brain disease is unknown, but the link is so glaring that the question should be probed, its authors said.

Dementia affects about 36 million people worldwide, a tally that is expected to double every 20 years as life expectancy lengthens and the “baby boom” demographic bulge reaches late age.

Researchers in France and Canada, using a health insurance database in Quebec, identified 1,796 people with Alzheimer’s whose health had been monitored for at least six years before the disease was diagnosed.

They compared each individual against three times as many healthy counterparts, matched for age and gender, to see if anything unusual emerged.

They found that patients who had extensively used benzodiazepines for at least three months in the past, were up to 51 percent more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The risk rose the longer the patient had used the drug.

But the investigators admitted the picture was foggy.

Benzodiazepines are used to treat sleeplessness and anxiety – symptoms that are also common among people just before an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In other words, rather than causing Alzheimer’s, the drugs were being used to ease its early symptoms, which could explain the statistical association, they said.

“Our findings are of major importance for public health,” and warranted further investigation, said the team.

“(…) A risk increase by 43-51 percent in users would generate a huge number of excess cases, even in countries where the prevalence of use of these drugs is not high.”
The paper, published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), is led by Sophie Billioti de Gage at the University of Bordeaux, southwestern France.

In a comment, Eric Karran, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the study gathered data over a five-year period only, whereas Alzheimer’s symptoms often appear a decade or more before diagnosis.

“It is difficult to tease out cause and effect in studies such as this,” he said. “We need more long-term research to understand this proposed link and what the underlying reasons behind it may be.”

If you are concerned

Your first step, of course, is to ask your GP or health professional. Benzodiazepines are a class of drug commonly known as tranquillisers and sleeping pills. Benzodiazepines are available on prescription only in Australia, and are mainly used for problems relating to anxiety and sleep.

Approximately 10 million scripts are written annually in Australia. Apart from a fall in prescribing in the early 1990s, prescribing rates have remained fairly constant, with a slight increase in the last few years.

It is estimated that one in 50 Australians are currently taking a benzodiazepine and have been taking the drug for longer than 6 months.

Women are prescribed benzodiazepines at twice the rate as for men, and older people (over 65) receive most of the benzodiazepine scripts for sleeping problems.

The most common benzodiazepines prescribed in Australia are Temazepam, Diazepam, Alprazolam and Oxazepam.

The following is a list of oral benzodiazepines available in Australia. Benzodiazepines are often produced by different drug companies and there may be different trade names for the same drug.

Long Acting
Generic Name Trade Name
Diazepam Valium
Ducene
Antenex
Diazepam Elixir
Diazepam –DP
GENRX Diazepam
Valpam
Clonazepam Rivotril
Flunitrazepam Hypnodorm
Rohypnol
Nitrazepam Mogadon
Alodorm
Clobazam Frisium
Short Acting
Generic Name Trade Name
Alprazolam Xanax
Kalma
Alprax
Alprazolam
Alprazolam –DP
GENRX
Zamhexal
Temazepam Normison
Temaze
Temtabs
Oxazepam Serepax
Murelax
Alepam
Lorazepam Ativan
Bromazepam Lexotan
Triazolam Halcion

More information about benzodiazepines, their uses, and their brand names can be found here.

We stress we do not intend this article to cause alarm, or to encourage anyone to stop taking drugs they have been prescribed. Articles of that kind abound on the internet, and to the contrary we are of the belief that one of the reasons these drugs are prescribed so often is because they are inexpensive and effective. If you have any concerns, speak to your health professional.

However we do agree with the report’s writers that any possible causal link between them and Alzheimer’s needs to be investigated if only for it to be dismissed.

Dealing with sleeplessness

Chronic use of any drug is likely to have uncertain effects. Where benzodiazepines are prescribed for assistance with sleeplessness, we would opine that other ways to address the problem should be tried as well.

These include ensuring you have adequate physical exertion during the day (as people age they tend to become more sedentary), avoiding TV and other stimulants like smartphones and computers for at least 30 minutes before sleep, seeking to calm anxiety about whether you will go to sleep with positive awareness of your overall wellness, employing relaxation exercises, (simple deep breathing can make a huge difference), meditation, and keeping the bedroom at a mild temperature, neither too hot nor too cool. It is unwise to eat a large meal to close to bed-time. Better to eat a snack that is large enough to satisfy your hunger and then enjoy a more substantial breakfast. Reading a book is a classic and successful way to calm down before sleep, but be aware that reading a book on a Kindle or iPad can have the opposite effect – the bright light confuses your brain into thinking you want to still be awake. Similarly, lighting for reading books should be bright enough to let you see, but not too bright.

A positive decision not to worry about life issues overnight is a wise move to combat sleeplessness as well. Write down a list of everything you feel is unresolved in your life, and make a determination to tackle it the next day. Nothing can be done while you lie in bed anxiously awake anyway. This simple act of intention can result in better sleep.

It is a sad fact that sleeplessness creates a vicious circle in our lives – tiredness creates anxiety and sense of worry about our achievement and problem solving ability – the anxiety thus created keeps us awake – we get more tired and more anxious – and so it goes on … For some people it can be a devastating cycle, resulting in deep depressive episodes during which their life can be at risk, and in our observation benzodiazepines are often employed by health professionals to break the cycle. But the natural state of the human body is to sleep, and it appears that we need to find natural ways to encourage it to do so instead of simply popping a pill.

 

 

So, if you’ve going to Germany to experience Oktoberfest for beer and sausages this European autumn, chances are you might want to stay away from the wild boar while you’re there: sausages and stews made from which are a delicacy in the forested areas of Europe.

A new study from the German government, reported by The Telegraph, shows that more than one in three wild boar killed by hunters in the region are too radioactive to be safe for humans to eat.

Since 2012, hunters in the Saxony region of Germany have had to get any wild boar they kill tested for radiation. In one year, the state reports that 297 of 752 boar tested contained more than the safe limit of 600 becquerels of radioactive material caesium-137 per kilogram for human consumption. Some boar tested had radiation levels dozens of times higher than the safe limit.

Saxony is 700 miles from Chernobyl, where a 1986 explosion at a nuclear plant sent radioactive material into the atmosphere.Subsquent rain and wind carried the radioactive material far and wide across Europe.

It’s thought that boar are more susceptible to radiation contamination because their diet consists of mushrooms and truffles that are buried in the ground and hold radiation longer than other vegetation. As a result of the contaminated meat, the German government has paid out thousands of euros in compensation to hunters, which have to destroy anything that tests as unsafe and cannot sell it for profit.

Even though it has been 28 years since the Chernobyl disaster – we remember it like it was yesterday – The Telegraph points out that experts say the radiation could be around in unsafe levels for another 50 years. Yummy.