Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Tay Tay's girl gang at the MTV Awards in 2015

Tay Tay’s ‘girl gang’ at the MTV Awards in 2015

 

If you’ve got more than a handful of friends, it seems you may need to kick some to the kerb as science reckons our brains can’t handle more than five besties at a time.

A study by the MIT Technology Review looked at a theory by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who noticed that there was a direct correlation between people’s brains and how many friends they have – basically the bigger your brain the bigger your friendship group and the smaller your brain, the less friends you’re bound to have.

According to Dunbar, humans are only able to have FIVE best friends, with maybe another 10 close friends, 35 acquaintances, and 100 additional contacts, due to the size of our neocortex.

And if you were having doubts about his theory, Dunbar actually tested out it out recently by examining 6 billion phone calls made by 35 million people in an anonymous European country.

“The team assumes that the frequency of calls between two individuals is a measure of the strength of their relationship,” the MIT Technology Review states. The study found that Dunbar’s estimate wasn’t too far fletched: “The average cumulative layer turns out to hold 4.1, 11.0, 29.8, and 128.9 users,” researchers found — again, that’s besties, close friends, acquaintances and “contacts” respectively.

So maybe Katy Perry and Rihanna had the right idea when they chose a girl squad of two as opposed to Tay Tay’s massive army? And who are Taylor’s best besties from among the girl gang? We think the people should be told.
We reckon we’ve got at least six friends, Dear Reader. Coz we’re really, er, you know, brainy. You know who you are.

Everyone knows Australia’s legendary reputation for things that bite, sting, chew and generally act in an anti-social manner. Great White Sharks, innumerable venomous snakes, an entire nightmare full of horrid spiders, jellyfish, even an octopus that kills people paddling in rock pools.

 

Australia's redback spider

Redback spider bites are relatively common in Australia, with around 2,000 people bitten each year.

But this one takes the, er, biscuit.

An Aussie has taken himself to hospital after a venomous redback spider bit him on the penis. Yup, you read that right.

The tradesman was using a portable toilet on a Sydney building site on Wednesday morning when he was bitten.

A spokesperson for St George Hospital confirmed that a 21-year-old man was treated for a redback bite.

The redback spider, closely related to the black widow spider, is distinguished by a long red stripe on its abdomen. And its bite causes severe pain, sweating and nausea.

The BBC spoke to the owners of the property who confirmed that the man had been bitten on the penis, as described in various media reports.

He was later discharged from hospital in a stable condition.

Although there are recorded cases of deaths from redback bites, none have occurred since the development of anti-venom in 1956.

Still, no. No thanks. Nu-uh. Nope. No.

judgement

We are indebted to Vox for this brilliant little video, which apart from anything else is just very interesting. It also bears showing to everybody you know who believes in the Biblical account of Creation. The stupid is strong in many of them, of course, and literal belief in Creation is as much a tribal cultural construct as it is actually a matter of faith. So they will probably reject your good intentions out of hand. Still, such battles are won an inch at a time.

And God said: “Lo, I have given thee a brain, that thee might wonder at the beauty of my creation, and revere me for my genius.”

And man sayeth, “not only that, but you did it in seven days. You’re the real deal, God.”

And the Lord sayeth, “well actually it was over a few billion years. I used a little trick I called Evolution.”

And Man sayeth, “Fuck that’s some complicated shit Lord. Explain it all again please?”

And the Lord sayeth, “there are none so blind as those who choose not to see.”

devil

And the Devil piped up and said “You go for it Man, you argue about Creation back and forth while I fuck up the world and organise your children dying every three seconds from starvation and illness, and arrange it so you destroy the very planet, and I’ll get Kim Kardashian to be Queen of the World and take her clothes off regularly so you won’t have time or need to worry.”

And the Lord cried out, “Man, I have given you Science and Rational Thought so you can come to marvel at the Universe around you!”

And Man said, “Sod that Lord, we prefer to Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

And God saw what Man had done with his Creation, and wept.

So God despaireth of Man, and sent him Donald Trump and nuclear weapons at the same time. And as the night followers the day, soon all was silent. And God turned to the cockroaches and said, “For so it is written, in the End of Days thou shalt inherit the earth.”

And after a few more billion years, a new race stood on the Earth and marveled at God’s bounty, and it came to pass that there rose among them peoples who chose to believe the God had created the entire Breadbasket in just seven days, and had put the holes in the floorboards at exactly the right level for the cockroaches to find the leavings on the kitchen floor, and Lo was it not a miracle that the holes and the cockroaches were exactly the same size? Surely this was evidence of a great Home Design Architect?

And God did express a little frisson of irritation and sayeth unto the cockroaches, “We’re not going to do all this shit again, right?” And the cockroaches had a think and said “Er, no, Lord, sorry, and did fiercely bind the “Creationists” mouths with fly paper until their voices could no longer be heard. And peace reigned on the Earth, and everyone got on with something more important.

coffee (1)

In another confirmation of what we have always fervently believed, you can chalk up another benefit to downing your favourite morning brew: drinking coffee may protect your liver, research from the our old alma mater the University of Southampton in the U.K. has found.

After analyzing data on 432,000 people from 5 separate studies, the researchers concluded that people who drank one cup of coffee a day were 22 percent less likely to develop cirrhosis—scarring of the liver that eventually causes it to fail—than those who didn’t drink any.

But it gets better. The more coffee they consumed, the better their livers fared: People who drank two cups a day were 43 percent less likely to get the disease, while those who drank four cups a day had a 65 percent lower risk of it.

The study didn’t separate between decaf and regular coffee. But it’s likely that the caffeine does play a protective role, says study author Oliver Kennedy, M.D.

Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors in your body, which are responsible for activating certain liver cells that lay down scar tissue. If this process is hindered, scar tissue—and eventually cirrhosis—may be less likely to occur, he says.

Still, it’s possible that there’s something in coffee itself that may be responsible for the beneficial effects, too.

For instance, one component called diterpenes — found in both regular and decaf coffee — may tamp down inflammation in the liver, reducing the risk of cirrhosis, Dr. Kennedy says.

So if you want to keep your liver safe, consider adding a cup or two of coffee to your day, as well as maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol consumption, says Dr. Kennedy. And stick to no more than two alcoholic drinks a day.

We’re not sure about that last one, frankly, and we’d love to stay and talk, but right now we’re off to make another coffee.

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Sarah Tait (L) alongside rowing partner Kate Hornsey. Photo: Getty Images.

Olympian Sarah Tait (L) alongside rowing partner Kate Hornsey. Photo: Getty Images.

 

When it comes to breast cancer and skin cancer prevention, you know the drill: Feel yourself up to make sure there are no unwanted guests and spot check your bod for any suspicious activity. But there’s another sneaky cancer you should keep tabs on just as much — and this one’s not so easy to spot.

800 new cases are diagnosed annually, according to Cancer Australia. Almost all cervical cancers are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually-transmitted virus so common that almost all sexually active women will get it at some point in their lives.

And here’s the kicker: most women with cervical cancer have no signs or symptoms of the disease, says David Cohn, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of gynecologic cancer research at Ohio State University.

 

cervical cancer postop

 

What makes this cancer super tricky is that symptoms don’t start cropping up until the disease has already progressed, and those can include watery or bloody vaginal discharge, spotting after sex or exercise, and periods that may be heavier and longer lasting than normal. And some of those symptoms can be ignored.

That’s the bad news. The good news is cervical cancer is the easiest gynecologic cancer to prevent. In fact, there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself. Here, five prevention tips that could save your life – and the biggest one is quite simply, don’t wait till you think you may have symptoms!

1. Get Screened

The most important thing you can do is get a pap test regularly. “There’s a significant risk for the development of cervical cancer if a woman doesn’t get screened for the disease as recommended,” says Cohn. “Many women with cervical cancer have not had cervical cancer screening in the 10 years prior to diagnosis. The earlier the diagnosis is made, the higher the rate of cure.”

Typically, women should start getting pap tests at age 21. Women between the ages of 21 and 29 should have a pap test done at least every three years, while women between 30 and 65 should have both a pap and HPV test done every five years.

2. Get Vaccinated

One step before cervical cancer prevention is protecting yourself against HPV, says Cohn. Luckily, vaccines are available that can protect against the HPV subtypes that have been linked to cervical cancer. (They are now part of the standard vaccination regime for Australian teenage girls.) Women aged 13 to 26 who haven’t been vaccinated need to get “catch-up” vaccinations. That said, they don’t help combat an infection that’s already there. That’s why regular pap tests are so vitally important.

3. Have Safe Sex

Besides lack of screening, a good portion of other risk factors relate to HPV exposure, says Cohn. Statistically speaking, women who start having sex at a younger age and have multiple sexual partners will face more exposure. While more partners equals more exposure, don’t think monogamy gets you off the hook: it’s still possible to end up with HPV even if you’re only sleeping with one person.

Contracting other STDs, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, also ups your risk of HPV. It all points to the same message: the best thing you can do is practice safe sex by always – always! – using barrier protection, such as condoms. Having sex means the risk factor will always be there, but the more vigilant you are, the better.

4. Stop Smoking

Ditching cigarettes can help prevent an HPV-related infection from morphing into cervical cancer, says Cohn. When you smoke, the nasty chemicals are absorbed through the lungs and carried in the bloodstream throughout your bod. According to the ACS, women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer. Plus, smoking messes with your immune system, making it harder to fight off an HPV infection.

5. Be Aware of Your Family History

If your mother or sis had cervical cancer, your chances of developing it are two to three times higher, according to the ACS. Obviously, you don’t have control over your family history, but you do have control over how often you’re screened and how well you’re protected against HPV.

“Since there’s a long time between the development of the precursors to cervical cancer and developing the disease, detection of precursors — and then treatment— will prevent cervical cancer,” says Cohn.

Don’t die for the sake of a pap smear. That’s the essential message.

As the Australian public health message says, “A little bit of awkward for a whole lot of peace of mind.”

We are indebted to the BBC for this fascinating story. Australia is rightly famous for its scary fauna – now it appears it might have been an even scarier place to inhabit in the distant past.

 

An artist's illustration of Thylacoleo carnifex, Australia's marsupial lion

Source: Museum Victoria / Artist: Frank Knight An artist’s illustration of Thylacoleo carnifex, Australia’s marsupial lion.

The discovery of claw marks in a bone-filled cave in Australia suggests an extinct, “anatomically bizarre” predator was able to climb trees and rocks, meaning it would have been a threat to humans, writes Myles Gough.

Apparently, Australia’s extinct marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, was the continent’s top predator at the time of human arrival 50,000 years ago.

Weighing more than 100kg, the animal had sharp claws and a powerful jaw, and shearing teeth that could rip through the flesh of its prey, which included giant kangaroos, rhinoceros-sized herbivores known as diprotodon, and possibly early humans.

But while experts agreed on the marsupial lion’s fearsomeness, whether or not they could climb rocks and trees has been a source of scientific contention. Some have speculated that the lions’ anatomy would lend itself to climbing, while others argued they would have been too heavy to clamber up to high places.

Now palaeontologists at Flinders University say they have found the answer in a cave in Western Australia where marsupial lions left thousands of scratch marks.

A reconstructed skeleton of the marsupial lion, which weighed up to 100kg

Image copyright Gavin Prideaux, Flinders University A reconstructed skeleton of the marsupial lion, which weighed up to 100kg …

‘Significant threat to humans’

The scratch marks, mostly made by juveniles and clustered on a near-vertical rock surface leading to a now-sealed exit, suggest two things about the lions: they were skilled climbers, and they reared their young inside caves.

“[Our findings indicate] the [marsupial] lions were running up and down these rock piles to get out of the cave, and they weren’t using the lower-gradient, longer route,” says associate professor Gavin Prideaux, who supervised the research.

“We can be confident now and say that they could climb.

“And if they could climb really well in the dark, underground, there’s no reason they couldn’t climb trees.

“They would have been a very significant threat to people when they first arrived in Australia.

“What we’re dying for are different lines of evidence that shed light on the behaviour or ecology of these animals, and that’s what we’ve been presented with in the form of these claw marks.”

The team’s findings, which reinforce some contentious ideas about the behaviour of these “highly adapted” and “anatomically bizarre” predators, have been published in Nature’s open-access journal Scientific Reports.

Identifying the scratch marks

An almost complete skeleton of a marsupial mammal was discovered inside Western Australia's Flightstar Cave

Image copyright Gavin Prideaux, Flinders University An almost complete skeleton of a marsupial mammal was discovered inside Western Australia’s Flightstar Cave

The claw markings were found inside the Tight Entrance cave near the Margaret River.

In the mid-90s, bones inside the cave were identified as belonging to extinct megafauna, dating from 30,000 to 150,000 years old, says Prof Prideaux. Between 1996 and 2008, he went on numerous expeditions to the cave to collect fossils, and during that work discovered the scratch marks.

“We had the feeling that they were probably Thylacoleo scratch marks, but we had to test it,” he says.

Prof Prideaux and his honours student, lead author Samuel Arman, established a list of seven species of animal that could have been responsible.

It included the extinct marsupial lion, as well as Tasmanian tigers and Tasmanian devils, which used to live on the mainland, wallabies, koalas, possums and wombats.

Mr Arman left scratch pads inside zoos and wildlife parks, and collected tree bark to get sample claw markings from the living animals, which he compared to those inside the cave.

Lions and devils

This helped the researchers narrow their list to two key suspects: marsupial lions and Tasmanian devils. But they needed another clue.

 

Tasmanian Devil

Image copyright Getty Images Zoo tests helped the scientists rule out Tasmanian devils as being behind the scratches

 

“We went through the more than 10,000 bones we collected from the cave to look for evidence for bite marks or little chewed-up bones [which are] absolute hallmarks of devil dens,” says Prof Prideaux. “We found zero of that.”

“This is more consistent with what we’ve inferred about the behaviour of Thylacoleo from its dental morphology, and that is, it was primarily a meat eater and not a bone cruncher.”

Mr Arman also reconstructed a skeletal hand of the marsupial lion and made mock scratches on modelling clay that “perfectly matched” the large ones found in the cave.

The animals, which went extinct around 46,000 years ago, lived all across the vast continent. Prof Prideaux suspects similar claw markings exist in caves elsewhere, but have yet to be discovered.

Dr Judith Field, an expert in megafaunal extinctions from the University of New South Wales, says “the methods used to determine the size of the animal making the marks appear well conceived and well executed”.

“It is highly likely these marks were made by Thylacoleo,” she told the BBC. “They are probably the only animal with claws large enough to effect these scratch marks.”

Still, Dr Field expressed some reservations about the study: “Most of the conclusions are speculation,” she said. “Great discovery, and a neat story, but these assertions about their behaviour have yet to be substantiated by empirical data.”

We await more news with interest. Meanwhile, back to killing red-back spiders, swimming with sharks, being bombed by homicidal magpies, avoiding blue-ringed Octopuses, and staying away from Zika virus and Dengue fever -bearing mozzies. Sheesh.

Group of older men

Sixty-five to 79 is the happiest age group for adults, according to the British Office for National Statistics research.

The survey of more than 300,000 adults across the UK found life satisfaction, happiness and feeling life was worthwhile all peaked in that age bracket, but declined in the over-80s.

Meanwhile, those aged 45 to 59 reported the lowest levels of life satisfaction, with men on average less satisfied than women. That age group also reported the highest levels of anxiety.

Researchers said one possible reason for the lower happiness and well-being scores among this age group might be the burden of having to care for children and elderly parents at the same time, the financial pressures that places on a family, and emotional and social pressure.

The struggle to balance work and family commitments might also be a factor, they said. Meanwhile, those who were younger or retired had more free time to spend on activities which promoted their well-being, the researchers suggested.

Happiness and well-being dropped off again in those over 80, however, with researchers suggesting this could be down to personal circumstances such as poor health, living alone, poverty and feelings of loneliness.

The survey asked people to rate out of 10 how happy and how anxious they had felt the day before, how satisfied they were with their life generally, and how much they felt what they did in life was worthwhile.

 

Graffiti saying happiness

The published results have been broken down by age, ethnicity, religion, marital status, employment status, religion, and where in the country people live.

They suggested:

  • Married people reported the highest levels of happiness, averaging 7.67 out of 10, higher than people who were co-habiting, (perhaps due to perceived “security”?) followed by single, widowed or divorced people
  • Hardly surprisingly, people with jobs were happier than unemployed people, with part-time workers the happiest. Of those who were not working, retirees had the highest levels of happiness, followed by students.
  • Of those who followed a religion, Hindus were marginally the happiest on average, followed by Christians and Sikhs, while those who followed no religion reported being the least happy.
  • Women on average reported higher levels of anxiety than men, but were more likely report better well being and feel their life was worthwhile.
  • People of Arab ethnicity were found to be the most anxious ethnic group, with people of Chinese ethnicity the least anxious.

Reflecting the age-old adage “at least you’ve got your health”, researchers found a strong link between health and well-being.

People who said their health was very good reported an average life satisfaction rating of 8.01 out of 10, compared with people who said they were in very bad health, whose average rating was just 4.91.

UK life satisfaction map. The darker the green, the happier people are.

The over-90 age group reported by far the lowest levels of feeling their life was worthwhile, even though their reported levels of happiness and life satisfaction were comparable to those in their 20s and 30s.

Understanding how people of different ages rated their personal well-being could help policy makers target issues to improve lives, the study added.

“We know that the UK population is ageing. There were more than half a million people aged 90 and over living in the UK in 2014 – almost triple the number 30 years ago,” it said.

“This shift towards an older population will impact on important policies and services including the labour market, pension provision, and health and social care demand.

“Understanding more about how the oldest age groups rate their personal well-being will help focus on issues that are fundamental to a good later life.”

A woman smiling

Serves you right for being middle aged

The “U-shaped” pattern of happiness, which sees people’s happiness dip in middle age, has been observed globally.

  • It has been documented in more than 70 countries, in surveys of more than 500,000 people in developing and developed countries, although the age at which happiness is lowest differs between countries.
  • Previous studies found happiness hits rock bottom at 35.8 years in UK; the low point in the US comes a decade later; in Italy, happiness is lowest at 64.2 years.
  • Starkly, US citizens have become less happy with each passing decade since 1900, whereas in Europe, happiness declined until 1950 and has been increasing steadily ever since
  • Women are at their least happy at 38.6 years on average; males hit low point at 52.9 years
  • Apes, like humans, may also suffer from midlife melancholy – that’s according to a study of 508 apes in which their human care-givers assessed their well-being

In good news, Dear Reader, in just a year we can start feeling happy again.

death bed

Our days are filled with a constant stream of decisions. Most are mundane, but some are so important that they can haunt you for the rest of your life.

A recent study from Columbia University found that we’re bogged down by more than 70 decisions a day. The sheer number of decisions we have to make each day leads to a phenomenon called decision fatigue, whereby your brain actually tires like a muscle.

A new study from the University of Texas shows that even when our brains aren’t tired, they can make it very difficult for us to make good decisions. When making a decision, instead of referencing the knowledge we’ve accumulated, our brains focus on specific, detailed memories.

For example, if you’re buying a new car and trying to decide if you should go for the leather seats, even though you know you can’t afford it, your brain might focus on memories of the wonderful smell and feel of the leather seats in your brother’s sports car, when it should be focused on the misery you’re going to experience when making your monthly car payments. Since you don’t have memories of this yet, it’s a hard thing for your brain to contemplate.

Some decisions appear to be minor, such as what to eat, which route to drive to work, or in what order to tackle tasks. Nevertheless, they can be very significant in the overall span of our life.  Others are more obviously difficult and significant, such as choosing between two job offers, whether to move to a new city for someone you love, or whether to cut a toxic person out of your life. Regardless of the magnitude of the decision, our brains make it hard for us to keep the perspective we need to make good choices. And my word, how important those decisions can be.

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” – Stephen Covey

Bronnie Ware spent her career as a palliative care nurse, working exclusively with people who were 3 to 12 months from death. She made a habit of asking them about their greatest regrets, and she heard the same five regrets time and time again. By studying these regrets, you can make certain that you make good choices and don’t fall victim to them yourself.

#1 – They wish they hadn’t made decisions based on what other people think.

When you make your decisions based on other people’s opinions, two things tend to happen:

  1. You make a poor career choice: There are too many people out there who studied for a degree they regret or even spent their lives pursuing a career they regret. Whether you’re seeking parental approval or pursuing pay and prestige over passion, making a poor career choice is a decision that will live with you forever. So choose carefully – and if you choose wrong, change.
  2. You fail to uphold your morals: When you get too caught up in what your boss thinks of you, how much money you think your spouse needs to be happy, or how bad you will look if you fail, you are at high risk of acting while violating your own morals. Your intense desire to make yourself look good compromises your ability to stay true to yourself and, ultimately, to feel good.

The best way to avoid falling prey to the opinions of others is to realise that other people’s opinions are just that – opinions. Regardless of how great or terrible they think you are, that’s only their opinion. Your true self-worth comes from inside you.

#2 – They wish they hadn’t worked so hard.

Working hard is a great way to impact the world, to learn, to grow, to feel accomplished, and sometimes even to find happiness, but it becomes a problem when you do so at the expense of the people closest to you.

Ironically, we often work hard to make money for the people we care about without realising that they actually value our company more than money. The key is to find a balance between doing what you love and being with the people you love. Otherwise you’ll look back one day and wish you’d focused more on the latter. As the famous old saying has it, no one on their death bed ever said “I really wish I’d spent more time with the company accountant.”

#3 – They wish they had expressed their feelings.

Regrets-2-300x199We’re often taught as children that emotions are dangerous and that they must be bottled up and controlled.

This usually works to keep the world controlled at first, but boxing up your feelings simply causes them to grow until they erupt. The best thing you can do is to put your feelings directly on the table. Though it’s painful to initiate, it forces you to be honest and transparent.

For example, if you feel as though you don’t make enough money at work, schedule a meeting with your boss and propose why you think you’re worth more. As a result, she will either agree with you and give you a raise or disagree and tell you what you do need to do to become more valuable. On the other hand, if you do nothing and let your feelings fester, this will hinder your performance and prevent you from reaching your goal.

Learn how to express emotional matters un-emotionally. It will stand you in great stead.

#4 – They wish they had stayed in touch with their friends.

When you get caught up in your weekly routine, it’s easy to lose sight of how important people are to you, especially those you have to make time for.

Relationships with old friends are among the first things to fall off the table when we’re busy. This is unfortunate because spending quality time with friends is a major stress buster. Close friends bring you energy, fresh perspectives, and a sense of belonging, in a way that no one else can.

And remember, they may need your company, too.

#5 – They wish they had let themselves be happy.

When your life is about to end, all the difficulties you’ve faced suddenly become trivial compared to the good times. This is because you realise that, more often than not, suffering is a choice. Unfortunately, most people realise this far too late. Although we all inevitably experience pain, how we react to our pain is completely under our control, as is our ability to experience joy.

Learning to laugh, smile, and be happy (especially when stressed) is a challenge at times, but it’s one thing we can do in our lives that’s worth every ounce of effort.

In the Wellthisiswhatithink family this is known as “Play the Glad Game.” Or to put it another way, “Count your blessings”. Be grateful for the little things that surround us – not living in a war zone, for example, having enough to eat, the joy of having company – is excellent advice. There always are blessings to count, we just often fail to recognise them.

Don’t wait for life to be perfect, enjoy the way it is, right now.

Bringing It All Together

Some decisions have repercussions that can last a lifetime. Some of these decisions are made daily – how we conduct ourselves, our own health, our behaviour to others – and they require focus and perspective to keep them from haunting you, sooner or later.

Take time out to make important decisions, don’t make them on the run. And take time out to work on yourself. It is rarely wasted.

(Forbes magazine, with additions by us.)

One of the truly interesting things about taking a vacation is the opportunity to observe another culture closely.

Port Vila on Vanuatu itself is a surprisingly compact town, with its few dusty main streets offering up a supply of souvenirs next to bright, busy clothing and fresh food markets, and waterfront restaurants and cafes.

You can do the whole place in half an hour. So on our recent trip we made arrangements to get away from the markets and tourist traps to visit an indigenous village – Ekasup. The village was on land owned by the tribe. All tribes in Vanuatu have their ancestral lands on their original island, and also some land on the main island, Efate, for them to utilise when they visit from their home.

On arriving at Ekasup, there is a short 5 minute walk through the tropical forest. This is itself was a wondrous experience, ducking under low branches and surrounded by lush vegetation. We were delighted to have been told that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Efate. It was interesting to ponder that such a walk in Australia would be extremely unwise without sturdy boots and all skin covered.

This was a great opportunity to learn and experience traditional life which has hardly changed in centuries. We learnt how to prepare products from the world around us, like using native herbs for medicine, clever techniques for food preservation and roasting, how to make fishing and hunting traps using local plant materials, not to mention weaving mats, hats, and baskets.

Three moments in particular gave us deep cause for contemplation.

girlsThe first was when the most adorable child imaginable walked into our midst clad in nothing but a grass skirt, and shyly wandered up to the Chief who was telling us about bush medicine. He casually mentioned that this was his six year old daughter and she had been sick when she was first born and her mother had died in childbirth, but she was healed using local knowledge of plants and herbs.

It was a stark reminder not only that There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy, but also that maternal health care is still a major problem in the third world, and that such countries still struggle with life-threatening situations that are largely forgotten in the West.

It also, simultaneously, caused us to pause and wonder how many “bush medicines” will be lost as climate change, habitat change, and increasing urbanisation separate us from the wisdom of centuries.

Our guide mentioned herbal cures – prolifically growing all around us, apparently – for ailments such as kidney stones, hepatitis B, accidental poisoning, and other serious illnesses for which invasive operations or expensive medicines are the norm in the West. It is clear that this voluminous knowledge is being blindly ignored or wilfully discarded by the world, and that is a tragedy. He explained how every island has its own bush medicine repertoire, and guards this knowledge fiercely, as it is, to an extent, the equivalent of money. It can be traded with other tribes and communities, making a meaningful difference to their lives. It also follows that if an island or area becomes depopulated, (for example if poverty forces the people into urban areas), and the people scattered, then these traditions will die, and possibly as quickly as within a single generation.

spiderThe second moment was when the Chief showed us how he kept a pet spider, who was encouraged to weave its web between the V of a cleft stick, thus creating a de facto fishing net. As he talked, he allowed the spider to wander all over his upper body, as we might play with a kitten or puppy. To say the spider was fearsome looking would be an understatement – some lily-livered members of our party could hardly watch – but it was clearly quite at home and he resolutely assured us it was both amiable and not poisonous.

We weren’t about to pick him up, mind you.

The Chief’s intimacy with his natural world was fascinating and rather humbling.

The third moment was when he described the typhoon that had hit the country some nine months before, Cyclone Pam, with winds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour demolishing many homes and other structures.

The damage left behind had been obvious everywhere as we drove around. Around 75,000 people were left in need of emergency shelter, and 96 per cent of food crops were destroyed.The island had been denuded of mature trees and virtually all the crops that many islanders relied upon for their living, especially coconuts, and tropical fruits, simply vanished.

Immature replacement trees were springing up everywhere, to be sure, but one could so easily imagine the depressing sight that must have greeted these very poor people as they came out of wherever they were sheltering when the storm had passed, to see their cottage gardens or farms simply obliterated. Luckily aid from nearby countries, especially Australia, arrived very promptly. We were proud to hear that an RAAF Hercules had arrived with emergency supplies even before the local Parliament had met to make a response. “You got here the day after,” he smiled, “we love Australia.” It was a nice moment.

banyan_tree_5The chief’s tribe had sheltered from the howling storm in the hollowed interior of an ancient banyan tree, his ancient bushcraft judging it safer than wandering around outside, or even staying in any of their flimsy homes, which are designed to survive tropical storms but which sometimes get destroyed anyway.

He laughed – he laughed a lot, and shrugged – as he explained “If the banyan tree die, we die.”

It was a fatalistic response from a man who knew, because of his daily closeness to the natural environment, that in a life and death struggle with the planet, when “push comes to shove”, humans will always lose out to the planet. The banyan tree was a refuge of last resort. Some things in the natural world are simply un-survivable, and if the banyan tree was going to go, well, there wouldn’t be all that much left around to survive for, so, under the tree, everyone, and it is what it is.

It was a striking demonstration of how different their “stone age” attitude is to that in the developed world. (For such it is, essentially un-changed since before the arrival of technology, and “stone age” is not intended to be in any way a dismissive moniker as used here.)

In the “civilised” world we like to believe we control everything, everywhere, and nothing is insurmountable. How wrong we are. As we looked around at this environment – which was as different to our day to day experience of life as if we had been miraculously transported to the Moon – we thought about the current debate about climate change. And how, if we tip the planet too far in one direction, we are taking a risk that we have no idea how to survive. And how the damage wrought will damage things we don’t even properly realise exist.

turtleIn another spot, a rather battered but fascinating turtle sanctuary, one woman quietly told us with great dignity how they had retreated inland as the giant typhoon approached, and when they returned, her home had simply vanished. But homes can be rebuilt, even if somewhat higgledy-piggledy in style or with salvaged materials. A roof is a roof even if it’s made of corrugated iron and held on by scattered bricks that used to be in your kitchen wall. What seemed, though, to make her even more sad, was when she said “We used to have many big sharks here, they would come and we would feed them, but since that night, they all gone. All gone.” “Will they come back again?” we asked, curiously “I don’t think so, she said, almost in a whisper. “Think they dead.” If was as if she had lost relatives.

As we sailed away from the islands a few days later, and neared our home port of Sydney, we heard that Vanuatu had again been swideswiped again, this time by Cyclone Ula. Part of an uptick in typhoon activity which has been very in evidence thanks to a warming world in recent years.

We hope the banyan tree made it through.

Bobbing along

 

Well, Dear Reader, a very Happy Christmas and a Bonnie Hogmanay and 2016 to you.

We have been a little remiss in not posting much in the last few days due to two simple and conjoined facts: one, Mr and Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink are officially on holiday, (on a swanky cruise ship, no less), and two, the internet is so cripplingly expensive that we decided to hold off a few days before plunging headlong into our usual travel-ese. That this has kept us off the all-consuming Facebook has been a relaxing coincidence.

We are, in fact, swooshing up from Sydney to Vanuatu and New Caledonia for a brief and – trust us – well-deserved break, and so as we write we are somewhere south of Lougainville and north of Port Vila in international waters off Vanuatu. It’s easy to work out that we’re in international waters, because the casino is open.

There, a bunch of dour Chinese and one cheery Brit will take your money with remarkable rapidity if you absolutely can’t think of anything else to do at all, and you have to be somewhat desperate as there are at least three trivia competitions running concurrently 24 hours a day, and the brain training they offer is free – and we simply luuuurve trivia competitions – so you’d have to be dead keen on the masochism of cards, craps and roulette to spend too much time buried there in the bowels of the vessel.

Then again, we did notice some other people actually winning, which is somewhat of an alien concept to us, so maybe we just haven’t got the knack of it yet. After thirty years playing Blackjack, and almost invariably losing, we are close to assuming the knack will never arrive. Or that there is, in fact, no knack to be got. But we are not quite at that point yet.

And then again, again, there do seem to be a large percentage of young couples in there, with her gazing adoringly up into his eyes, as he rashly slams down another $20 to buy a card on twelve, and ends up duly eviscerated with 22. It’s as if, time after time, the young lad is saying to his belle, “there be no dragons around for me to slay on your behalf, sweet Princess, so have a look at how painlessly I can lose a week’s wages while you watch”. Maybe it’s not masochism but rather machismo that’s on display. Indeed, it deserves it’s own word. Masochismo works.

As first time cruisers, we have been simultaneously entranced, horrified, and sometimes simply bemused by the experience.

It’s hard, for example, not to simply sigh with pleasure when this greets you as you sit down to write.

 

IMG_4966

 

Cruising is gaining rapidly in popularity around the world as the new “go to” middle class vacation. We say “middle class” because the upper classes only cruise in uber-luxury mini-liners with 20 guests and 437 crew, either on a bateaux of their own or at a pinch a ship owned by a friend or even a discrete tour company called something like BlueOcean Wanderer – the name chosen to imply “unhurried, un-shackled, off the beaten track, and above all, daahling, no middle class people”. (We apologise in advance to the owners of BlueOcean Wanderer, which no doubt exists somewhere.)

The poor can’t afford anything more than a quick trip up and down their local capital city waterway on a Sunday. Even if they plumped for an interior cabin and no drinks package* – of those, more later – they couldn’t chuff up the vast sums cruise companies charge for all-you-can-eat corned beef hash** – more on that later, too – and hot and cold running 70s music trivia.

Which leaves us ensconced with our fellow middle-class pretend-riche, some of whom are very nice, and some of whom are utterly horrid. A bit like life in general, really, but with waves.

We have discovered that we can ascertain someone’s status back on dry land pretty accurately by the grade of orange in their fake tan – the more orange, the more entre nous – and their level of bling.

Bling is in inverse proportion to social status. A discrete golden chain married to a demure and only half-awful pair of what used to be called Bermuda shorts suggests an accountant in training, or a teacher. Especially with a tired looking wife and squalling toddler in tow.

When blinded by what looks like half of Australia’s national debt coiled round and round a neck the size of a small bull matched with a disturbingly tight pair of bathers revealing, as it were, a substantial package, you can pretty much assume “delivery driver who earns twice what you do, but who missed out on Mrs Dalyrymple’s finishing school”. And that’s just the girls.

Most of the passengers are white. Most of the staff aren’t. Many of the staff are from the world’s low-income countries –  Indonesia, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, China, South Africa, Mexico – and they work very long hours and extremely hard. It’s also easy to assume that they get paid the best part of bugger all, as the cruise line charges a quick and easy 18% “gratuity” charge on everything you spend on board – although one has no way of knowing whether that gratuity charge actually gets to the workers, or if it does, whether that simply makes up a substantial portion of their wages, thus reducing the wage bill of the employer.

One is also encouraged to tip exceptional service directly, which means that 95% of the staff are obsequiously gracious, ineffably cheery and obsessively intrusive the entire time.

This is due to a number of factors – including their quite and innate genuine niceness – but also very clearly their desire to get tipped.

To an egalitarian Aussie eye it appears forced, and demeaning, for both staff and customer. It is, of course, the “American way”, a country where a campaign to establish a national wage of just $15 an hour has been met with furious opposition from employers happier to pay $6-10 an hour. To put that in perspective, Miss Wellthisiswhatithink gets A$25 an hour for babysitting/nannying, and wouldn’t accept less, nor would it be offered.

 

Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, "Breakfast".

Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, “Breakfast”.

 

The other outcome of this low wage environment is that all staff – and we mean all staff – seem utterly preoccupied with selling drinks packages*, whereby one (outrageously expensive) daily charge covers all your drinks, except top shelf stuff, but where that tariff is set so high that you basically have to set out determinedly to drink your weight in rum and coke from about 10am every morning to get your money’s worth. Selling a package equals kudos, and job security.

For the delivery van drivers this temporarily-arranged alcoholism isn’t a problem, so long as there’s going to be a decent break between them getting off the ship and getting back behind the wheel, and they are all cheerfully smashed pretty much 24-seven. For those who don’t wish to be unsteady on our feet by lunchtime, or who want to avoid falling overboard, it’s an egregious waste of money.

But every time one orders a drink or a bottle of wine – which are triple or quadruple what one would pay in Australia for very average drops – one is incredulously asked “You don’t have a package, Sir?” and the sales spiel starts again while you feel obliged to dream up new excuses for your parsimony. It is, in a word, bloody annoying. Two words.

 

"Hello Ladies."

“Hello Ladies.”

 

The English language skills of the staff also often leave much to be desired, but the effect is also frequently very funny.

Watching a diminutive high-pitched Chinese waiter go up to a table full of six giant buffed Aussie blokes and start with a squeaky “Hello, Ladies, my name is Kwan and I am your waiter tonight … now, ladies, I just need to tell you about our wine special for this evening” has it’s own wonderful schadenfreude.

Needless to say, the Aussie blokes are both too polite and too anal to correct him, so night after night the cabaret repeats.

The world that is today intrudes on our idyll every time anyone wants to get on and off. Security is as fierce as at any airport, with sniffer dogs checking for bombs, and machines that go ping scanning us all on at initial embarkation and on and off whenever there is a shore excursion. I am not sure what they think we’ll be bringing back on board – nerve-gas-infused coconuts? – but it seems churlish to object and no one does. This is the one place that all the smiles disappear to be replaced with rapt attention and scowls. We are not aware that the South Pacific is a key target for terrorists of any ilk, but “you can’t be too careful nowadays”. The security officer busting a quick dance move to SuperTrooper by Abba which was blasting out to keep us amused was a welcome and timely diversion from pondering just how depressing much of the world has become. Before we left from Sydney we happened across two Border Force (customs) personnel taking snap after snap of the Sydney Opera House on their iPhones from an upper deck of the ship. “Refuse to believe that’s security focused” we opined. “Nope,” said one, “We just don’t get up here much.”

Somehow their extra-curricular casualness made us feel safer, rather than worried. But somewhere, as we write these words, we know this very scene will be stolen by a hack writer in Hollywood and coming soon to a screen near you will be pictures of the soul-less terrorist or brutal bank robber unknowingly snapped by a bludging Border Force officer, which happy chance is the vital clue that leads to their discovery and arrest. You heard it here first.

 

Corned Beef Hash

All hail the Hash

 

Which leads us, tortuously but inevitably, to the corned beef hash**. Which delightful concoction, as we haven’t traveled all that much in the USA, was a very pleasant and new experience for us, and which we have been devouring assiduously since Day 1. Corned beef, (yes, like the stuff that comes in tins), onions, and potatoes. Hashed. And fried. From the French, hacher. (Never let it be said our writing is not educational.) Or as the civilised world would call it, mashed.

Despite being a cholesterol bomb it is, quite simply, delicious, and goes perfectly with eggs and bacon and baked beans and tomatoes and fried bread and anything else one can squeeze onto one’s all-you-can-eat breakfast plate. Or plates. And it is matched very well with scaldingly hot American coffee, too, which actually isn’t anything like as bad as everyone else likes to pretend. Provided one adds lashings of milk. When drunk black it is indeed unpotable bitter mud and would be better used as tar on the bottom of passing leaky native canoes.

What is really interesting about the corned beef hash – beyond its Satanic moreishness – is that it appears to be comprised of at least 50% salt.

As was the buerre blanc on the escargots, the bifteck minute which was cut so thin that anything over thirty seconds would turn it into leather, and the beouf bourgingon which had no discernible red wine in it (not even the cheap crap; it hadn’t even had an open bottle of cheap crap waved anywhere near it) but plenty – plenty – of salt.

We are most grateful that our arteries are only temporarily being loaned to America. God knows how anyone there over the age of 50 ever survives their middle age – their blood pressure must be at least 200 over 120. In all seriousity, the difference between the two cuisines is stark. The food quality is genuinely pretty good, especially considering the number of people being fed, (nigh-on constantly), but the salt content of many dishes would put the Dead Sea to shame. We reckon someone, somewhere, as we speak, is injecting honeydew melons with salt water.

The cheese is, needless to say, inedible.

Anyhow, tonight is New Year’s Eve, meaning we are now going off to be dragooned into a mass party (all dressed in formal clothes, no less), by our talented and relentlessly cheerful MC/Factotum/Trivia Quizmaster/Tour Director, who will cram us into a small and sweaty space to shout “Ten, nine, eight, seven …” before what seems like ten thousand yellow balloons are dropped on our heads, and everyone starts kissing each other frantically.

As the outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships has led them to placing hand sanitisers everywhere – Heaven forfend that you would try and get into a restaurant without the cheery chappy from Indonesia squirting germ killer onto your hands – “Time for Washy-Washy! Time for Washy-Washy!” – there’d be a bells going off and a near riot if you tried to sneak past un-washy-washied – one would imagine that thousands of extremely drunk and hot strangers kissing each other repeatedly might not be the wisest activity. But hey, when in Rome.

More tomorrow. After the trivia, natch.

Speed-of-Light

Every now and then, a revolutionary technological advance comes along and changes how we live our daily lives.

Li-Fi might just be the next one.

This amazing idea is like Wi-Fi, but much, MUCH, faster.

LI FI

Having just been trialled for the first time in real life, Li-Fi was found to live up to scientists’ claims that it operates up to 100 times faster than Wi-Fi technologies.

And if you picture such genius inventions to have been born of a ‘light-bulb moment’, well this one most certainly was.

Li-Fi is a wireless technology that transmits high-speed data using visible light communication (VLC).

It means, within the next five years, you could be accessing the Internet using the light-bulbs in your home.

This would reportedly be safer from a data security perspective as well, protecting the data being sent, because light cannot pass through walls.

The technology was brought from research labs – where scientists achieved speeds of 224 gigabits per second – to real life by an Estonian start-up company, Velmenni.

Estonia? Yup.

“Currently we have designed a smart lighting solution for an industrial environment where the data communication is done through light,” Deepank Solanki, CEO of Velmenni, told IBTimes UK.

In another project, the company has set up a Li-Fi network in an office space to provide Internet access for a private client.

The man who invented Li-Fi, Professor Harald Haas from the University of Edinburgh, said that current infrastructure is suitable for integration of Li-Fi.

In a Ted talk broadcast in 2011 he demonstrated how, by flickering the light from a single LED, he could transmit far more data than a cellular tower.

“All we need to do is fit a small microchip to every potential illumination device,” Haas said.

If it does all turn out to be that easy, you really could be downloading that favourite movie or TV series of yours in a flash – a flash of light.

More exciting news about our nearby Universe has come to light, if you will pardon the pun, Dear Reader.

 

A newly discovered exoplanet has a lot of astronomers excited, and for good reason.

The exoplanet, dubbed GJ 1132b, is about the size of Earth and lives in a solar system roughly 39 light-years from Earth, a team of scientists reported in the November 12, 2015, issue of the journal Nature.

Furthermore, the exoplanet is the closest rocky Earth-sized exoplanet ever discovered, by far.

 

The exoplanet 'GJ 113b' is about the size of Earth. Photo: Dana Berry/ NASA

The exoplanet ‘GJ 113b’ is about the size of Earth. Photo: Dana Berry/ NASA

The planet is a real near neighbour, just over the garden fence in celestial terms. The next closest is about three times farther away.

GJ 1132b’s size and distance are what have astronomers like Drake Deming at the University of Maryland — who was not part of the study — saying that this planet is “arguably the most important planet ever found outside the solar system,” he told The Guardian.

The reason is because GJ 1132b is close enough for astronomers to point their telescopes at it and sniff out any traces of an atmosphere.

Atmospheric signatures of life

Studying the atmospheres of exoplanets for signs of life is the next big step in the search for extraterrestrial life beyond our solar system.

But it’s an extremely difficult project because most Earth-sized planets — the exoplanets that astrobiologists think are most likely to harbor life — are too distant to study in any detail.

One of the ways astronomers determine the chemical composition of gases on planets in our own solar system is by studying the light passing through their atmospheric layers, like Earth’s shown in the photo below with our crescent moon in the foreground.

Chemical compounds and molecules interact differently with different energies of light, and, as a result, each molecule leaves a unique fingerprint that scientists can see when they map out the light over what is called a spectrum.

But when an object is hundreds of light-years away, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the light that’s passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere from the light that’s emanating from the larger, brighter host star.

 

Photo credit: Reuters

A significant stepping stone

Now, GJ 1132b has changed that, offering astronomers a perfect specimen to test their instruments and methods for detecting life.

“It’s nearby, it’s Earth-like, and its star won’t interfere,” Deming told The Guardian.

This newly discovered exoplanet is, however, just a stepping stone.

The possibility of finding life on it is practically zero. GJ 1132b might be only 16% larger than Earth, but it’s surface temperature is a balmy 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Our ultimate goal is to find a twin Earth, but along the way we’ve found a twin Venus,” David Charbonneau, a co-author on the new paper and an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a press release.

“We suspect it will have a Venus-like atmosphere, too, and if it does we can’t wait to get a whiff.”

The reason for these toasty temperatures is because GJ 1132b sits just 1.4 million miles from its host star — 26 times closer than Mercury is to our sun.

It takes just 1.6 days for GJ 1132b to complete a single orbit around its star, which is very different from our sun.

The most common star in the galaxy

The star is what is called a red dwarf, which astronomers suspect is the most common star throughout our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

Red-dwarf stars are cooler, smaller, and dimmer than our sun. The one that GJ 1132b is orbiting is about one-fifth the size of our sun and only emits about 1/200th the amount of light.

 

Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here (Gliese 229A), would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, which would change their habitability, probably inducing tidal lock, for example. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

Relative star sizes and photospheric temperatures. Any planet around a red dwarf, such as the one shown here (Gliese 229A), would have to huddle close to achieve Earth-like temperatures, which would change their habitability, probably inducing tidal lock, for example. Credit: MPIA/V. Joergens.

Just because they’re different from our sun, however, doesn’t mean life couldn’t spawn around them. It just means that the habitable zone — the region in space where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface — is closer to the star than it is for our sun, as seen above.

Some astronomers estimate that red-dwarf stars comprise 75% of all stars in the galaxy. This means that most of the exoplanets in our galaxy are likely orbiting red-dwarfs.

Whether any of those planets are habitable, however, is a subject of intense debate, which is why the discovery of GJ 1132b is so exciting. And while GJ 1132b is not likely habitable, it’s possible that it has some neighbors that are.

To first spot GJ 1132b as it passed in front of the star, scientists used the MEarth-South array, a group of telescopes at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Now that they know it’s there, the researchers have requested time on the Hubble Space Telescope (which observes the same type of light we see with our eyes) and the for sky gazers (which observes longer wavelengths than Hubble, in the infrared range) to study GJ 1132b more fully.

With the viewing powers of Hubble and Spitzer combined, the scientists could get a much broader spectrum of light to study even more chemical compounds than they otherwise would with just one of the telescopes.

With the recent discoveries on Mars, these are exciting times for sky gazers!

(With thanks to Yahoo UK)

Potentially deadly.

Potentially deadly.

Dungeness and rock crabs in California have been found to contain toxic levels of an acid that can kill.

The authorities in California are advising people to avoid consumption of crabs contaminated by a natural toxin that has spread throughout the marine ecosystem off the West Coast, killing sea mammals and poisoning various other species.

Kathi A. Lefebvre, the lead research biologist at the Wildlife Algal Toxin Research and Response Network, said on Wednesday that her organization had examined about 250 animals stranded on the West Coast and had found domoic acid, a toxic chemical produced by a species of algae, in 36 animals of several species.

“We’re seeing much higher contamination in the marine food web this year in this huge geographic expanse than in the past,” Ms. Lefebvre said.

She said that the toxin had never before been found in animals stranded in Washington or Oregon, and that there were most likely greater numbers of contaminated marine mammals not being found by humans.

The guilty algae’s growth has been exponential recently, largely because of record temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Warm water causes the toxic algae to divide more rapidly and to outcompete other species in the water. The algae then becomes a more prominent element of local plankton, a kind of marine trail mix made up of tiny particles that various species of aquatic wildlife subsist on.

The California Department of Public Health recently advised people to avoid consumption of certain species of crabs because of potential toxicity. Razor clam fisheries in Washington have been closed throughout the summer for the same reason.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the California department said that “recent test results” indicated dangerous levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and rock crabs caught in California waters between Oregon and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that in severe cases can cause excessive bronchial secretions, permanent loss of short-term memory, coma or death in humans, according to the California department’s statement. Milder cases can result in vomiting and diarrhea.

A release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries specified that “commercial seafood remains safe and state public health agencies monitor recreational fisheries for algal toxins.”

Pseudo-nitzschia, the type of algae that produces the acid, is a single-celled organism consumed directly by marine wildlife like anchovies, sardines, krill and razor clams. Those species are then eaten by larger predators, and the acid makes its way up the marine food chain.

This summer, the West Coast experienced the largest algal bloom that scientists have on record. Ms. Lefebvre said that though there was not a lot of monitoring for species that had consumed domoic acid in Alaska, it was likely that the blooms reached the Alaskan coast as well.

Michael Parsons, a professor of marine science at Florida Gulf Coast University, said there were several hypotheses for why Pseudo-nitzschia produces acid.

“We’re not sure exactly why they do it,” he said. “Maybe it’s meant to keep things from eating them. It might be a result of stress.”

If acid secretion is meant to deter predators, it is clear that it is a failing strategy on the part of the algae. Ms. Lefebvre expressed concern that the acid poisoning of sea life would continue to spread.

“My concern is that we’re going to see an increase in the number and geographic range of marine mammals being affected,” she said.

Or in other words, global warming is killing the seas, and now it can kill you too. And that’s before we even return to the topic of ocean acidification and its affect on our food chain. Or how this news will affect commercial fishers, and restaurants.

But don’t worry, everyone, go back to sleep, go back to sleeeeeeep ….

(NY Times and others)

mork

 

When Robin Williams killed himself in August 2014, depression was considered the culprit.

But the beloved film star and comedian was in fact struggling with a demon even more sinister: Lewy body dementia, a little-known and often misdiagnosed disease that manifests as a combination of the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Robin Williams’ widow, Susan Williams, shared this diagnosis, which was revealed in an autopsy, Tuesday in an interview with People magazine and ABC.

A few days after Williams’ death, his media representative, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement: “He has been battling severe depression of late.”

rubberNow we know that wasn’t the full story: “Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms, and it was a small one,” Susan Williams said Tuesday, in her first public interview since her husband’s death.

Lewy body dementia, she said, “was what was going on inside his brain, the chemical warfare that no one knew about.”

And even if the 63-year-old had not ended his own life, the disease would have killed him within a few years, she said.

Lewy body dementia usually strikes at age 50 or later. Like Parkinson’s, it begins with abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies, which disrupt brain cells’ normal functioning and later cause them to die. The disease’s plethora of terrifying symptoms start slowly but worsen over time, and include: Alzheimer’s-like memory loss and dementia; Parkinson’s-like tremors and loss of balance; and terrifying, schizophrenia-like hallucinations. The symptoms “present themselves like a pinball machine,” Susan Williams said. “You don’t know exactly what you’re looking at.” Perhaps worst of all, at least at first, the patient can be fully aware of his or her own decline.

After it is diagnosed, Lewy body dementia usually kills a person within five to seven years. There is no cure or effective treatment.

Despite the fact that it is little known, Lewy body dementia is not rare; in fact, it is one of the most common forms of dementia, affecting more than 1 million Americans, according to the National Institute on Ageing. But because it bears many similarities to other degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, it is frequently misdiagnosed. It can take more than a year and visits with multiple specialists to get a correct diagnosis. According to Susan Williams, a coroner’s report revealed signs of Lewy body dementia, as well as early-stage Parkinson’s.

Although Williams didn’t know he was suffering from Lewy body dementia, he seemed to know he was losing his mind.

“He was aware of it,” Susan Williams said. In her opinion, she told People and ABC, his suicide was his way of taking control of an impossible situation. “He was just saying no,” she said. “And I don’t blame him one bit.”

The news may reignite the ongoing debate about “dying with dignity”. For a man of the intellectual and emotional depth of Robin Williams, the perception – even if not yet formally diagnosed – that he was losing his cognitive function would have been unbearable. Especially as we know he had concerns that his career was faltering and he faced certain financial pressures.

It may be that depression contributed to his death, or it may be that it was a carefully-considered and rational response to an awful situation that he felt would only get worse. As his wife says: “taking control”.

We will never know, but it is something to ponder … It is also worth considering that a different cultural response to chronic illness and dying might have encouraged him to hang around a little longer, and to end his life more gently, in the bosom of his family, with the people around him given an opportunity to say goodbye.

Again, we will never know.

(Slate and others)

So Hurricane Patricia has come and gone without causing the widespread chaos in Mexico that was feared. Thankfully not a single fatality has been recorded, and surely the weather forecasters and the Mexican Government deserve credit for better forward planning and better disaster management protocols.Thousands of residents and tourists ended up in improvised shelters, but many felt they had escaped lightly. Nice to have some good news to report for a change.

The 1959 hurricane killed 1800 people.

The 1959 hurricane killed 1800 people.

With past experiences in mind, Mexico prepared for the worst as Patricia approached. Before and after the hurricane, warnings blared on radio and television broadcasts across the region, and government pickup trucks with loudspeakers made their way through neighborhoods.

Tens of thousands of people along the coast were evacuated into shelters and out of the danger zone. Some piled into cars and buses; others took government-provided flights and ground transportation.

States of emergency were declared in Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco states, which include the tourist resorts of Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

About 3,000 soldiers and more than 800 federal police officers were dispatched to the area. More than 1,200 shelters were set up, able to accommodate 240,000 people. Schools were closed and three airports shut down.

The alternative was starkly demonstrated the only other time a Category 5 hurricane hit the area.

The 1959 Mexico hurricane was the only other Pacific storm in recorded history to make landfall at Category 5 intensity. In addition, with 1,800 fatalities, it was the deadliest eastern Pacific tropical cyclone on record.

First observed south of Mexico on October 23, the cyclone tracked northwest. It intensified into a Category 3 hurricane on October 25 and reached Category 4 intensity the following day. After turning toward the northeast, the hurricane attained Category 5 status and made landfall near Manzanillo, Mexico. The system continued on that trajectory prior to dissipating on October 29.

Impact from the hurricane was severe and widespread. Initially forecast to remain offshore, the system instead curved northeast and moved ashore, becoming one of Mexico’s worst natural disasters at the time. Up to 150 boats were submerged. Countless homes in Colima and Jalisco were damaged or destroyed, large portions of the states were inaccessible by flash flooding, and hundreds of residents were stranded. All coconut plantations were blown down during the storm, leaving thousands without work and instating fear that it would take the economy years to recover.

Torrential rainfall across mountain terrain contributed to numerous mudslides that caused hundreds of fatalities.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, convoys delivering aid were hindered by the destruction. Residents were vaccinated to prevent the spread of disease. Overall, the hurricane inflicted at least $280 million (in US$ 1959 value) in damage.

It’s good to know we’re getting better at predicting and handling severe weather events. As climate change kicks in, they will become increasingly common, and increasingly deadly.

Clinton makes an ill-advised pitch for the youth vote.

Clinton makes an ill-advised pitch for the youth vote.

 

Hillary Clinton inspires me. But not for the reasons you might think. No, not because I’m a bit of an ironed-on old leftie and she’s the likely small-l liberal winner in 2016. No. In point of fact, Hillary’s probably a bit right wing for my taste. I’d prefer Bernie Sanders (who despite his populist appeal is not going to beat her), or perhaps Elizabeth Warren, who chose, sadly in our view, to keep her powder dry this time round.

No, she inspires me because the very likely next President of America is 68 today.

As we all live longer – and not just longer, but more healthily, too – the cult of youth that has pre-occupied the Western world since the youth revolution of the later 1950s and 60s appears increasingly silly and unwise.

Other sixty plus leaders still doing the rounds include the impressively successful Angela Merkel at 61, the forceful Vladimir Putin, who is 63, and Tunisia’s first freely-elected President Beji Caid Essebsi really leads the way, being just a month from 89.

And at the eye of the perfect storm, Mahmoud Abbas is still the President of Palestine – juggling one of the most difficult jobs in the world – at nearly 81.

And with age does come a certain perspective. As Clinton herself has said: “I think that if you live long enough, you realise that so much of what happens in life is out of your control, but how you respond to it is in your control. That’s what I try to remember.”

Which is why it is more ludicrous than ever that businesses often discard employees in their fifties and sixties, or don’t employ job-seekers in that age group.

It could be argued, one supposes, that younger employees have more energy or ambition than older ones, but with those traits can also come impulsiveness, foolishness, or simple lack of knowledge. They may also have more distractions, one supposes.

So whilst I would dearly love not to have a sore shoulder – gardening, grrrr – and a bung knee – too much sport as a kid, I fear – and I do not always take the counsel of my own body gracefully – I am not so curmudgeonly as not to recognise that I am, despite myself, improving as a person. Late in the day, mayhap, but unmistakeably.

At 58, I am not the same cantankerous person I was twenty years ago, when I thought I probably knew everything. Or even ten years ago, when I was sure I did.

And largely, the late changes in my character have been improvements that make me much more useful organisationally.

I am slower to anger. Later in life, I discover that anger is always exhausting, and rarely useful. So I look for alternatives.

I also have less need to always be “right”. (It’s now honestly more important to me that the group is right.)

I now find it easier to see other people’s point of view, whilst still maintaining my own politely if I think it’s justified. I can discuss, more often, and more easily, rather than argue.

I have also found dealing with inter-personal conflict easier in recent years (which has always been a thorny area for me) as I have gradually realised that though it feels like personal conflict it is actually very rarely truly personal, in reality.

People turn conflicts personal because they are not taught how to resolve them less antagonistically. Once I realised this, it was easier to learn how to de-personalise conflicts and resolve them more easily.

I am not sure that was an option when my testosterone levels were at their tippty-top. Nowadays, my gradually but inexorably appearing pate is evidence that they are dropping, and as they reduce so I have definitely become more skilled at defusing grumpy colleagues or customers.

I have also given up the need – at least in part, I am trying, Dear Reader – to control every last feature of my life. Sometimes, letting go of overt control can reduce not just your blood pressure and anxiety levels but also increase your chance of resolving a problem successfully.

Not everything matters equally, and sometimes stepping back can let things meander their way to a good conclusion without one having to be personally involved. As you gradually reduce the sheer number of items you’re worrying about – and let someone else worry about them – you can do a better job of resolving the ones that really matter.

Additionally, everyone has problem-solving skills. If you try and control every solution all the time you unsurprisingly tend to get the same sort of solution all the time, when other answers may in fact be preferable, but other people will never use their problem-solving skills – that might be better or different to those you exhibit – because you’re always pre-emptively using yours. Dumb.

 

Chopped-Key-Lime-Lamb-Chop-with-Carrots_s4x3.jpg.rend.sni18col

 

And then there is always the point that we shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”. It’s easy to say, and hard to do. But look: whether one has carrots or peas with that evening’s lamb chops doesn’t really matter, in the scheme of things. Does it? Really? Do you have to have an opinion? Do you have to dominate the planning?

You like both carrots and peas, yes? Or at the very least you can tolerate one or the other. Far better to focus instead on the things that we have to solve, because only we can solve them.

Just go with the flow. “Hey, it’s carrots tonight? Yay!”

Last but by no means least, when one is in one’s 20s or 30s, the sheer amount of time hopefully stretching ahead of one rather oddly creates an impatient and insistent pressure to “achieve”. With no apparent reason why we can’t do everything on our bucket list, ironically the extra time available just makes us anxious to make sure we “do it all”.

When one gets a little older, it’s obvious that one can’t do absolutely everything one could possibly imagine because one literally doesn’t have the time left, so one becomes more selective and thoughtful about what one does do with one’s life. And as one subtly becomes more “on purpose” with ones deepest needs and desires, one’s sense of well-being duly improves as well, and we become nicer – and more productive. We become better people.

This is not by any means an argument against younger leaders. Quite the opposite. Younger people have much to recommend them, including a mind less ossified by past experiences – Einstein remarked that he never had an original idea after 21 – and, of course, that ebullient energy mentioned earlier.

But it is an argument that we discard productive people to their metaphorical pipe and slippers far to quickly, and that we are very foolish to do so.

So thanks Hillary. We might run for Prime Minister yet.

And Happy Birthday.

This fascinating series of photographs shows what happens when humankind abandons its structures. They have an eerie beauty, modelled, moulded and affected by weather, and the natural world around them.

It is an interesting idea, in an idle way, to wonder how long it would take for most or all of humanity’s structures to be overtaken by the natural planet should we all somehow suddenly disappear. We reckon within a couple of hundred years you almost wouldn’t know we’d been here at all. For those afflicted by human hubris, that’s a sobering thought.

Our favourite is the Hotel in Columbia. Yours?

 

Abandoned Blade Mill, France

Abandoned Blade Mill, France

 

 

Abandoned city of Keelung, Taiwan

Abandoned city of Keelung, Taiwan

 

Abandoned dome houses in Southwest Florida

Abandoned dome houses in Southwest Florida

 

Abandoned 1886 mil in Sorrento, Italy

Abandoned 1886 mil in Sorrento, Italy

 

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

 

Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy

Christ of the Abyss at San Fruttuoso, Italy

 

Abandoned train depot, Częstochowa, Poland

Abandoned train depot, Częstochowa, Poland

 

El Hotel del Salto, Colombia

El Hotel del Salto, Colombia

 

Fishing hut on a lake in Germany

Fishing hut on a lake in Germany

 

Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay, USA

Holland Island, Chesapeake Bay, USA

 

Kolmanskop. Namib Desert, Namibia

Kolmanskop. Namib Desert, Namibia

 

Miiltary rocket factory, Russia

Military rocket factory, Russia

 

Maunsell Sea Forts, Redsands, Thames Estuary, England

Maunsell Sea Forts, Redsands, Thames Estuary, England

 

Sunken yacht, Antarctica

Sunken yacht, Antarctica

 

The remains of the SS Ayrfield in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia

The remains of the SS Ayrfield in Homebush Bay, Sydney, Australia

 

Car graveyard, Chatillon, Belgium

Car graveyard, Chatillon, Belgium

 

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Seafood-buffet

 

Wellthisiswhatithink’s Mum used to scoff oysters with cheerful excess until one day she ate a bad one. She was so crook she never touched another one for the next thirty years till old age carried her off.

Well, oysters now appear to be an important link in the transmission of norovirus among humans, according to new research from China.

Norovirus — better known as “cruise-ship flu,” “stomach flu” or “winter vomiting flu” — is one of the world’s most common causes of gastrointestinal distress. Although most patients recover after a few days of misery, and sometimes ruined vacations, the virus can sadly be lethal to infants, older adults and people with weak immune systems.

It is highly infectious — especially in confined environments like ships — but exactly how it is transmitted has been a mystery.

The unwashed hands of food workers have been blamed. But recently, scientists at North Carolina State University built a “vomiting machine” that showed tiny infectious droplets of vomit can fly through the air to infect other people, just as droplets from a sneeze will do.

In the current study, published last month in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, researchers analyzed the genetic sequences of 1,077 samples of noroviruses found in oysters. Some sequences had been stockpiled in genetic databases since 1983.

The scientists found that 80 percent of the known human noroviruses matched those found in oysters. The majority of the matches were in oysters from coastal waters, more likely to be contaminated with human sewage.

Noroviruses mutate very quickly, as do influenza viruses, and big outbreaks usually begin after a new strain emerges. There was a “convergence” between new strains circulating in oysters and those circulating in humans, the researchers also found.

Yongjie Wang, a food science specialist at Shanghai Ocean University and lead author of the study, concluded that oysters were an important reservoir for human noroviruses — a place where they can hide between outbreaks and mutate. They also can be transmitted back to humans, presumably when oysters are eaten raw. A way to detect noroviruses in oyster flesh and in the beds where they grow needs to be developed, Dr. Wang said.

Alternatively, avoid enclosed spaces where people are vomiting, and go easy on the seafood buffet.

(NY Times)

Hidden remains of an extraordinary neolithic monument that could be unique have been found buried about 1.5km from Stonehenge. More than 4500 years ago, at least 90 huge stone monoliths lined an impressive “arena” that may have been used for religious rites or solstice rituals.

Now lying on their sides covered by three feet of earth, they remained undiscovered until archaeologists equipped with ground-penetrating radar probed the area around the famous stone circle on Salisbury Plain.

An artists impression of the neolithic monument that was found beneath the surface near Stonehenge. Photo: AAP

They are the most important find to emerge so far from the Hidden Landscapes project which is using state-of-the-art technology to map “invisible” archaeological features embedded in the Wiltshire countryside.

The stones, some measuring nearly four and a half metres, were placed along the south-eastern edge of what later became the Durrington Walls “superhenge” — a circular enclosure ringed by a ditch and bank that at nearly 1.5km across is the largest earthwork of its kind in the UK.

An artists impression of the neolithic monument that was found beneath the surface near Stonehenge. Photo: AAP

Experts believe the stones, which may have been imbued by local people with magical properties, were not originally part of the henge but were deliberately toppled before being incorporated into it.

Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University of Bradford, one of the archaeologists leading the project, said:

“We’re looking at one of the largest stone monuments in Europe and it has been under our noses for something like 4000 years.

“It’s truly remarkable.

“We don’t think there’s anything quite like this anywhere else in the world.

“This is completely new and the scale is extraordinary.” He added: “We presume it to be a ritual arena of some sort.”

“These things are theatrical. They’re designed to impress and impose; to give the idea of authority to the living and the dead. It really does create a massive impression and was clearly important enough to have been drawn into the developing landscape.”
Ninety stones have been discovered so far and there may be more. What kind of material they are made of is unknown but they could be similar to the giant sandstone “sarsens” of Stonehenge.

Stonehenge as we know it. Photo: Getty

Prof Gaffney believes the stones may have been planted by the same people who built Stonehenge, but is sceptical about a direct link between the two monuments.

They were placed along a steep slope, or scarp, cut into a natural dry valley to form a C-shaped feature. But precisely why the stones were put there remains a mystery.

Part of Durrington Walls is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, which may be significant.

The archaeologists believe that at some stage the stones were pushed over and incorporated into the emerging henge.

An aerial view of the Stonehenge we see today. Photo: Getty

This was not an act of vandalism but a deliberate attempt to preserve whatever it was about the stones that seemed so important.

“There was a transformation in the landscape that we do not understand,” Prof Gaffney said. “The stones had significance.”

“These are special places. Societies are mobilised, as with the great cathedrals, to create these things.”

(Yahoo7)

Three storms have been found simultaneously belting their way through the Pacific Ocean for the first time in measured history. And although tropical storms Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena haven’t made landfall, they’re making part of the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii resemble a scary version of a Van Gogh painting.

 

Here’s a photo showing Hurricanes Kilo, Ignacio, and Jimena from left to right. Photo: NOAA

 

This is the first time three Category Four storms have been seen in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean at one time, according to The Weather Channel. Category Four hurricanes have wind speeds anywhere from 209 to 251km per hour.

Hurricanes are categorised primarily by wind speeds: the higher the sustained wind speed, the stronger the hurricane.

A Category One hurricane has winds up to 119 to 152km per hour, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says even those are typically expected to cause some damage to buildings as well as power outages for a few days. These aren’t Cat 1. They’re ALL Cat 4.

A Category Four hurricane is considered catastrophic, with severe damage to buildings and power outages for weeks if not months.

 

cccccyclone-3

 

Climate Change Deniers like to find any random fact they can to debunk the reality of climate change. Why is a more complex question to answer, as they and their children are threatened just like everyone else.

Recently they have taken to noting that the year 1934 was a very hot year in the United States, ranking fourth behind 2012, 2006, and 1998. Skeptics like to point to 1934 in the U.S. as proof that recent hot years are not unusual.

However, this is yet another example of “cherry-picking” a single fact that supports a claim, while ignoring the rest of the data.

Globally, the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998, with 2005 and 2010 as the hottest.

Remember, global warming takes into account temperatures over the entire planet. The U.S.’s land area accounts for only 2% of the earth’s total surface area. Despite the U.S.heat in 1934, the year was not so hot over the rest of the planet, and 1934 barely holds onto a place in the hottest 50 years in the global rankings – in fact it ranks 49th.

global_warming3The fact that there were hot years in some parts of the world in the past is not an argument against climate change. There will always be regional temperature variations as well as variations from year to year. These happened in the past, and they will continue. The problem with climate change is that on average, when looking at the entire world, the long term trend shows an unmistakable increase in global surface temperatures, in a way that is likely to dramatically alter the planet.

In fact, the recent uptick in hurricane activity is consistent with recent climate-change-affected El Niño predictions. What climate change deniers (like most of the Liberal Government in Australia, and virtually everyone on the right of politics in America) fail to understand is this simple equation:

The scientific community agrees (well over 95% agreement across a variety of scientific disciplines, not just climatology but also biology, oceanography, geology and so on – way in excess of the agreement we should need to feel “certain”) that humanity’s activity in the last 250 years or so has caused the planet to get hotter.

  • Yes, the planet has warmed in the past, but never as fast, never as consistently, and never like this during the period of human civilisation.
  • Global Warming causes Climate Change.
  • Climate Change doesn’t mean everywhere will become warmer. It means some areas will be colder, some hotter, some wetter, some drier, some windier and some less windy.
  • In addition, the seas will become more acidic, reducing biodiversity in the oceans, affecting the food chain, and threatening a widespread die off of species.

This is just the latest example of “extreme weather events” becoming more common, emphasising the need for concerted international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from “dirty power” generation, heating, vehicles, farm animals, and industry.

So what’s your latest head-in-the-sand response to these storms, Dear Climate Change Denier?