Saturday, 28 March 2015

Why It's Important That Employers Let Staff Personalise Their Workspaces....

The sparring mitt, yellow stitches spelling "SLUGGER" casually lying on the desk. The Mathlete trophy on a high shelf. A Ganesh statue, slightly chipped. Why do people bring these kinds of personal objects into the workplace?

Researchers Kris Byron and Gregory Laurence found answers by consulting 28 people in a range of jobs and workplaces. They used the "grounded theory" approach, starting with a clutch of more open-ended interviews and then pursuing the lines of inquiry that emerged, in every case inventorying the person’s workspace and exploring the significance of each object.

The conventional understanding is that personal objects are territorial markers used to communicate who we are to co-workers. And indeed many interviewees emphasised this function, a "unique fingerprint" that expresses difference. This might be an indicator of character - I’m a happy-go-lucky person - but participants also used objects to emphasise their organisational roles. A framed MBA certificate reminds others that this cubicle bunny is made of management material, thank you, whereas doodles show that the person is part of the creative class. An event planner explained that the thank-you notes pinned to their board were to reassure others of her reliability - a core requirement in her role.

As well as showing differences, personalisation can also affirm shared identity. Star Wars memorabilia across multiple desks shows that "a lot of us have, you know, that techie background". Similarly, some items were inside jokes, with meaning only apparent to those sharing in its history. And although personalisation could emphasise status - think of that MBA certificate - some managers attempted to de-emphasise status differences by presenting everyday objects that made themselves more approachable.

Interviewees raised another reason for personalisation: to build relationships. These items were seen as icebreakers or ways to find "common ground", whether through the contents of a bookshelf, or a photo denoting parenthood. Byron and Laurence photographed every desk-setup from the perspective of an outside visitor, and found that 75 per cent of such conversation-starters were positioned to be clearly visible from that view. Many participants felt that these personalisation functions were vital and companies prevent them at their peril: "They want to have such strong relationships with customers but they’re taking away the personal elements that I think can lend towards building those types of relationships with clients."

In contrast, a certain proportion of personalisation objects - about a third in all - were positioned to only be visible to the owner themselves. These exemplify a final function of personalisation - not to communicate to others, but to remind ourselves of our identity.

This could be an aspirational symbol - the poster put up by a designer that showed "the kind of design I eventually want to do", or the gift from an inspiring role model. Or it might be a way to put work into a larger context, so on the tough days, "you can look at your picture (of children) and realise this is only a job."

Many objects had multiple functions - communicating difference, starting conversations, and reminding oneself of identity. Byron and Laurence conclude that "organisations would be unwise to put excessive limits on employees’ personalisation of their workspaces," as an innocuous paperweight may turn out to carry a lot inside.

The A Team That Tracks The Poisonous Additives In Our Food....

Some groceries are not what they seem. Just ask Mitchell Weinberg. As head of a firm called Inscatech, he specializes in the dirty details of adulterating edibles - shortcuts and substitutions that can lead to disaster. Business is booming: Reports of tainted food climbed 60 percent between 2010 and 2013, according to the non-profit US Pharmacopeial Convention. Inscatech is a sort of food A-Team, the outfit brands hire when they suspect their supply chains have been compromised.

Dubious about the cocoa in your cake mixes? Weinberg will recruit local operatives with backgrounds in intelligence to track the ingredient from its source. Working incognito, his agents scrutinize equipment, staff, and methods. “Whatever legal and ethical techniques can be employed, we employ,” Weinberg says. He is also amassing a library of genetic and chemical fingerprints, a tool for spotting abnormalities. Quick tip: Don’t eat jam in Taipei.

Melamine The cause of China’s infamous milk crisis, melamine mimics protein in lab tests, so it’s an easy way to push diluted milk products that seem like the real deal. It has caused kidney damage and death in infants.

Phthalates Clouding agents like palm oil add smooth mouth feel to jams, and they’re legal. But not phthalates, a chemical substitute—and suspected endocrine disrupter—that’s been found in Taiwanese jam.

Chlorophyll Derivatives Olive oil is often diluted with lower-quality vegetable oils or spiked with chlorophyll derivatives, which impart the greenish tint that some consumers associate with quality olive oil.

Chloramphenicol When honey is harvested too early, it’s watery and prone to spoilage. So some Southeast Asian honeys are treated with chloramphenicol, an antibiotic known to cause liver damage.

Dust Low-quality tea means a mix with more dust and scraps and fewer actual leaves—which consumers can’t easily inspect if they’re buying pre-bagged teas. Better loose-leaf than sorry.

Methanol Implicated in recent counterfeit booze scares in the UK and Czech Republic, it’s one of the most dangerous alcohol adulterants, a toxic and undetectable addition that can cause blindness and death.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Most Alzheimer's patients not given diagnosis by their doctors....

In the 1950s it was cancer. Hush, hush, whisper, whisper.

"They called it the 'C' word, and it didn't get talked about in doctor's offices," said Beth Kallmyer of the Alzheimer's Association. "It certainly wasn't talked about in the general public, it was whispered."
Today it's Alzheimer's, and 55% of patients and their caregivers say their doctors never told them they have the devastating disease, according to a special report of the Alzheimer's Association released this week. Compare that to one of the big four cancers - breast, colorectal, lung and prostate - more than 90% said their doctors had no problem giving them the diagnosis.
"Alzheimer's is not being talked about, many doctors are not giving the diagnosis," added Kallmyer in a webcast. "We need to change that. It's a disease, it's nothing to be ashamed about."
"These are very current, very well done, and pretty dramatic findings, let's be honest," said Dr. Pierre Tariot, director of Banner's Alzheimer's Institute. "I am reminded of the rather sobering fact that as many as 60% of people who have a dementia die without the dementia having been diagnosed by their doctor."
Why the silence?
This is not the first report to show doctors are sidestepping this tough conversation. But why? That's been studied too, and the reasons doctors give range from diagnostic uncertainty and fear of causing emotional distress to time constraints, lack of support, and stigma.
"There is an element of stigma here towards brain and mental health problems in general," said Tariot. "I would call it professional awkwardness. I can't really help this condition, why invest time and energy talking about it, it makes me squirm."
"I think the comparison of Alzheimer's to cancer is appropriate," said Dr. Tom Price, Medical Director for Emory University's Geriatric Clinic. "I give patients a new diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease many times a week, and every time it is uncomfortable, and I've been doing it for over 10 years. It is easier to talk about cancer now that there are so many new and effective treatment strategies, and cause of optimism with survival from cancer at an all-time high."
What's at stake
Alzheimer's brain
Alzheimer's advocates stress the importance of giving a patient all the facts, as early as possible, so they can work with their family to organise legal and health directives and have time to fulfill life-long desires. It's just as important for the caregiver.
"Imagine it's your spouse," said Tariot. "Personality changes, memory is different, language and communication is different, you don't know what is going on. Then you start getting answers, and you get a sense of how to play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Here are travel tips, communication tips, and safety issues; here are ways to stay happy and joyful, even though this is a new chronic illness."
There's another critical factor as well: access to clinical trials that might help slow the illness.
"Right now, the big studies that are underway in prevention are really looking at people in the early stages of Alzheimer's," said Kallmyer. "So by waiting, they can lose out on clinical trials as well."
Addressing the 'gap'
"We want to be clear that we believe physicians are well meaning, but there's a gap there somewhere," said Keith Fargo, Director of Scientific Programs for the Alzheimer's Association. "We saw doctors say lack of time, lack of resources, so we think the answer to this mostly has to do with education and providing more resources."
The people experts spoke to agreed.
"As a field, we have failed," Tariot said. "It isn't just the doctors in the trenches. Medical schools, professional organisations and health care systems have not recognised the importance of identification and management of people with dementia."
"I think that medical school curriculum does need to update to include neurodegenerative diseases in their 'giving bad news' training - Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, for example," said Price. "We do need to educate all providers to be aware that hesitance to give the diagnosis reduces the ability of the patient and family to make some choices and planning that is essential for emotional and financial well-being."

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Warm Oceans on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Could Harbour Life.....

The Cassini mission that has investigated Saturn since 2004 has revealed much about the giant planet and its many moons. Perhaps most tantalizing is the discovery that the moon Enceladus is the source of strong geysers ejecting plumes of water and ice.

A new study of Cassini data published in Nature by Hsiang-Wen Hsu and colleagues reveals these plumes are laced with grains of sand. This indicates that hydrothermal activity may be at work in Enceladus’ sub-surface ocean, and propels this tiny moon into the extremely exclusive club of locations that could harbor life.

The club’s only current member is Earth, of course – although it’s very possible that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is, like Enceladus, also a candidate. What they have in common is that they host liquid oceans of salty water that exists in contact with a rocky, silicate seabed from which the oceans can absorb complex minerals and elements.

Geyser Activity

With a diameter of just 310 miles Enceladus is nevertheless the sixth largest of Saturn’s more than 60 moons, orbiting at a distance of just two planet-widths. Cassini has shown that Enceladus is the source of huge geysers of neutral water-rich gas and ice grains erupting at a rate of 220-660 lbs per second. This makes Enceladus the second most active object, after Jupiter’s moon Io which ejects 2200 lbs per second of sulphur-rich material.

Gravity measurements have shown that there is at least a local and possibly a global ocean under Enceladus’ icy crust, and some of the emitted grains are rich in sodium salt, which indicates the presence of a salty ocean. Now we also discover that some are silicate-rich, and analysis shows that these may have been produced close to hydrothermal vents at temperatures above 194°F. This raises the interesting comparison with hydrothermal vents on Earth, which may have played a role in the origin of life on our planet.

Recipe for Life

For life as we know it to exist, four key ingredients are important: liquid water; the right chemistry involving the elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur; a source of heat; and enough time for life to develop. While we know these conditions exist on Earth, planetary research throughout the solar system shows that it may exist on other objects too, and the details from this paper pushes Enceladus towards the top of the list.

Cassini flyby shows Enceladus venting.

We know liquid water oceans exist on several objects in our solar system. These include Earth with its surface oceans, and Jupiter’s moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, and Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus where the oceans are below the surface. Water has also played a vital role in Mars’ history: Geronimo Villanueva and colleagues recently showed that there may have been enough water on Mars to cover the planet in an ocean 137 meters deep around 3.8 billion years ago – about the time when life was starting on Earth.

There may also be water on the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, Neptune’s moon Triton, and several other objects in the solar system – but only further investigation will tell. Two other objects have lakes and oceans, but not of water. Titan has lakes of methane and ethane, for example – the only extraterrestrial object we know of with liquid on the surface – and volcanic Io has a subsurface ocean of liquid magma.

A Shortlist for Extraterrestrial Life

So where are the best places to look for life in our solar system? The short list now seems to be Mars, Europa and Enceladus. At Mars the most likely time for life to have existed is 3.8 billion years ago when water was present, so the ESA-Russia ExoMars rover due for launch in 2018 will focus on drilling six feet below the present surface’s harsh oxidizing and radiation-rich environment to search for buried evidence from the past. It carries our PanCam instrument which will provide context for the mission.

As for right now, Mars may be a less good candidate for life. Following a catastrophic collision about 3.8 billion years ago the planet underwent massive climate change, volcanic activity stopped, and the planet’s magnetic field disappeared. But the recent confirmation by Curiosity of the presence of methane is tantalizing. At Europa, ESA’s JUICE mission and the proposed NASA Europa Clipper may bring more clues in the 2030s, but further missions to Enceladus have yet to make it past the proposal stage.

Nevertheless, this leaves Europa and Enceladus as prime sites where conditions may be suitable for life to exist now – but who knows which other solar system objects could be the next to join the club.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Can Monkeys Get Depressed.....?

According to a new study from Chinese neuroscientists Fan Xu and colleagues, some monkeys can experience depression in a similar way to humans.

The researchers studied cynomolgus monkeys, also known as crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), a species native to Southeast Asia. Cynomolgus monkeys are highly social animals. Xu et al. previously showed that isolating a monkey from its companions caused it to develop depression-like behaviors. In their new paper, the authors say that they’ve noticed that some monkeys seem to become depressed naturally, without any human intervention.
They observed the monkeys in a large primate breeding facility in Suzhou, China:
From April to November 2010, by means of a scanning method on a total population of 1007 adult female cynomolgus monkeys across all 52 enclosures, we identified subjects displaying depressive behavior using the following operational definition: slumped or collapsed body posture, diminished interest in feeding and sex, and diminished communication and reciprocal grooming with others. In total, 50 subjects met these criteria.
Here’s Xu et al.’s illustration of the slouched posture of two “depressed” monkeys as compared to a happy one:
Some of the descriptions of the behavior of the pessimistic primates are rather poignant:
NOD subjects more often selected safer and more remote places to feed (i.e., ‘feeding while hanging’) to avoid confrontation. Second, in terms of resting behaviors, NOD subjects selected safer and more remote areas to rest… NOD subjects spent more time on solitary huddling or embracing a conspecific (i.e., ‘huddling’ / ‘embracing’).
Xu et al. argue that the melancholy macaques represent a close analog of human depression because
Similar to many modern human societies, scarce resources that form the basis of stress-inducing social competition (e.g., food, sex) are unevenly distributed among different social classes…  our model involves chronic mild psychosocial stressors that are randomly distributed throughout daily social life that accumulate over time.
Hmm. The analogy between modern society and a monkey enclosure does have a certain face validity. But who are we to say whether these monkeys are suffering from “depression” (pathological) as opposed to “sadness” (normal emotional response)? This is a notoriously difficult distinction to draw in humans, let alone in monkeys! While these animals certainly appear to be miserable, maybe they are just a model for human misery, not human mental illness.

Journey North: Tracking the Stories of Survival with Citizen Science....

This is how the story is told.....
It was a crisp morning following a cold night in Goleta’s Coronado Monarch Butterfly Preserve. As Luke crossed a beam that had been dropped across a swampy area, he looked up at the Eucalyptus grove and sighed quietly. “Where are the butterflies Dad,” he asked me - with one part expectation and one part disappointment.

“They’re meant to be roosting up there in the leafy branches,” I motioned before adding, “hopefully.”

But we didn’t immediately see any monarchs in the trees - instead we noticed a few on the ground, here and there. Our eyes became accustomed to the early morning gloom, and we realized an inordinate number of brightly coloured insects were scattered on the ground throughout the grove. As we walked and photographed them, stepping carefully, I realized why so many were to be found there - with a windy night, many had blown off their perch; and with it also being a cold night, they had not been able to stretch their wings and fly. They were waiting for the caress of the first rays to erase the stiffness from their limbs.

About two hours later, when the grove was bathed in a strong warm light, swarm after swarm began to burst into flight, not unlike the sudden release of a thousand balloons filled with helium. “Now I get it,” said Luke. This was what we had come to see - generations of golden-winged insects in a grove of grey-leafed trees - returned to where a generational lifecycle had begun.

This migration was what inspired Elizabeth Howard to found Journey North in 1994. Her interest piqued by the early Internet-based projects in which school children tracked human expeditions, for example across the Arctic by dogsled, or Africa by bicycle, Howard saw what she describes as “a clear and exciting parallel between these expeditions, and the wildlife migrations that cross the globe with the seasons.” Both were for her, the ultimate survival stories. “The same challenges encountered on a remote expedition - changing weather, lack of food, insufficient time - have always challenged migratory species as they travel across the globe or pass through our own backyards.”

Journey North tallies the first-of-year sightings of hummingbirds, robins, monarchs, blooming tulips and gray whales, amongst others. This month, the Gray Whales Count  recorded 40 northbound whales on March 7 alone for a total of 266 so far, compared to 153 on for March 7, 2014. “We do not expect these numbers until maybe the fourth week in March,” says Michael Smith, the director of Gray Whales Count. “I don’t know if it is population increase, great weather and observation ability, and/or whales deciding to use this route more than in the past. It’s fun to speculate.”

Journey North offers an easy entry point to citizen science. They focus on high interest topics, a simple protocol, and real-world applications, which results in a large network of participants who are currently based at more than 50,000 sites across North America.

They have two goals - scientific research and education, and the data is used as follows:
Scientific – to document how migratory species respond to climate and the changing seasons. The long-term data set allows for valuable year-to-year comparisons, while  also providing for real-time analysis. This is particularly useful for the question-generating step of scientific inquiry. With observers spread across a large range, unusual and remarkable observations are made that raise valuable questions.

Education And Outreach -
equally important is the educational and outreach components of the project. Journey North began as a school-based initiative, but over time, as citizen science and technology grew in importance, participation spilled over to the general public. Participation is now only 30 percent school based and 70 percent non-school.

Elizabeth Howard says, “As part of our outreach effort, we produce weekly news for each featured species. The news is based on the data that citizen scientists’ contribute, as well as the descriptions and images they provide from the field. We incorporate comparative maps, graphs, and scientific analysis.” For educators, Journey North provides a rich array of resources, images, video clips, articles, activities, and lesson plans all of which enable teachers to build interdisciplinary studies into the curriculum.

Journey North has published nine papers based on the monarch butterfly, and one on the ruby-throated hummingbird. “For monarch butterflies, our findings have revealed fall migration pathways to Mexico, the rate of spring re-colonization into the breeding grounds, and the variable presence of monarchs wintering in the U.S. Gulf coast states, for example,” adds Howard.

“We also regularly provide data to scientists, resources managers, and conservation planners who need information about the spatial temporal dynamics of a species distribution.” This online effort today supports the program and lends Journey North the authority and authenticity that educators value.