Are dogs trying to tell us something with their expressions?

 

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Shutterstock

Jan Hoole, Keele University

Dogs have been part of human social groups for at least 30,000 years. So it’s not unreasonable to suppose that we might have had some influence on their behaviour, and perhaps their understanding, during that time. We certainly know that dogs have developed ways to communicate with us, for example by whining when they are distressed or barking to alert us to intruders.

Many dog owners would probably say their pets can even tell us things using facial expressions, just like humans do. But is that really true? Perhaps they are just showing emotion without meaning to communicate (just like humans also sometimes do). New research published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests it might be, but there are still reasons to be sceptical.

In a rather elegant experiment, the researchers set up four scenarios. They offered a dog food (a guaranteed way to get their interest) while the human handler was facing towards and also away from the dog. They also had the handler face towards and away from the dog without offering food. They found that the animals showed facial expressions more often when the handler was facing towards them than away, regardless of whether or not food was involved.

Until now, there has been little work on whether or not facial expressions in dogs are involuntary. You might be able to see when a dog’s happy, angry or sad from their face, but that doesn’t mean they are purposefully trying to tell you how they felt.

The new paper suggests that the expressions may be a means of communicating something to the person. It is certain that the expression is more frequently displayed when the human is facing towards the dog, even though the handler did not look directly at the dog during the trial, and that humans respond to that expression.

If I make this face, will you stop shouting?
Shutterstock

That dogs are able to understand when a person is paying attention to their behaviour is well documented. We also know that dogs show different facial expressions when in the presence of humans, especially in the case of that “guilty” look that every dog owner knows. That particular expression doesn’t actually mean they are feeling guilty. It’s more an attempt to appease the owner who is angry for some, to the dog, unknown reason.

But there are some questions about the particular facial expressions the dogs made in the new study that mean the evidence isn’t conclusive. For example, one of the expressions the authors noticed was the raising of the inner end of the eyebrows. This increases the size of the eyes and makes the dog look more puppy-like.

Studies have shown that humans prefer animals that look like infants. This explains the popularity of breeds with short noses and large eyes, such as boxers and pugs. Dogs that raise their eyebrows more frequently seem to be more popular with people than those that don’t. This could have led to the breeding of dogs that are more likely to show these more attractive expressions alongside those that have childlike anatomical features.

Tongue wagging

Another important indicator that the authors noted was when the dogs showed their tongues. Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t separate tongue movements that indicate stress, such as licking the nose or lips, which can be an appeasing signal, from those that indicate pleasure, anticipation or excitement, such as panting or hanging the tongue out of the mouth. Without this distinction it is difficult to draw conclusions about the emotional state of the dogs.

Previous research also suggests that dogs are aware of when a human is paying attention to them and may change their behaviour accordingly. It is possible that these dogs, aware that the human is facing them felt a level of anticipation, excitement and possibly some anxiety which affected their facial expression. The fact that the food produced no extra interest when the person was turned towards the dog or away from them, could be influenced by the fact that the dog was not actually given the food.

The authors suggest that the dog’s facial expressions may be partly a result of their emotional state and partly an attempt to actively communicate with the handler. Without any evidence about the effect of the expression on the behaviour of the handler, it is difficult to say if that is true.

The ConversationIf further research could make distinctions between the type of tongue movements involved in these expressions, as well as the raising of the eyebrows, we might be able to say with more certainty. But whatever the outcome, many dog owners will probably continue to swear their pets are trying to tell them something.

Jan Hoole, Lecturer in Biology, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rocket debris is a risk to Inuit food security

 

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Marine waters are an important source of food for Inuit.
(Judith Slein/Flickr), CC BY-SA

Tiff-Annie Kenny, University of Ottawa and Tad Lemieux, Carleton University

When the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a satellite into orbit on Oct. 13, it did so despite opposition from Inuit leaders in Canada and Greenland over its potential to contaminate an important Arctic area.

Most, but not all, of the rocket’s highly toxic fuel is burned during the launch. So, when the second stage of the rocket detached and fell back to Earth, it may have contained up to a tonne of unburned hydrazine fuel that was “deliberately deposited” into the North Water Polynya in northern Baffin Bay, between Nunavut and Greenland.

The polynya, or Pikialasorsuaq in Inuktitut, is an area of open water surrounded by sea ice. It is a critical habitat for Arctic species such as narwhal and seals, and is one of the Arctic’s most biologically productive areas. It is also considered to be an important part of the food supply for the Inuit communities who fish and hunt there.

Prior to the launch, the former Prime Minister of Greenland, Kuupik Kleist, called the deposit of potentially dangerous rocket fuel into the Pikialasorsuaq “unacceptable.”

According to a study published earlier this month, at least 10 similar launches have discarded rocket stages in Pikialasorsuaq or in the Barents Sea, off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia, since 2002.

Article 29 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples asserts that states must ensure hazardous materials are not disposed in Indigenous territories without their consent. However, last week’s launch — like the others before it — involved no prior consultation with Inuit.

For Inuit, the rocket launch transcends geopolitics. It strains their ongoing concerns over food safety and food security. It also raises tensions over the rights of Indigenous peoples in contemporary Canada, including their right to food.

In Nunavut, food security remains a serious public health issue. More than two-thirds of Inuit households lack reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Climate change, environmental contaminants, high food prices and low income all
affect food security.

The average cost of healthy foods in Nunavut is considerably more than the average in Canada, including chicken ($13.54 vs. $7.17 per kilogram), apples ($6.70 vs. $3.85 per kilogram) and carrots ($5.93 vs. $2.03 per kilogram). Meanwhile, employment income in small Nunavut communities such as Arctic Bay is less than half the median income of $32,800 that is the norm across Canada.

What if something goes wrong?

Hydrazine is an extremely toxic chemical now rarely used by space programs due to its immediate dangers. Researchers know little about how humans may be affected by long-term exposure to hydrazine, nor have they studied its behaviour in Arctic marine environments.

Hydrazine was used in last week’s ESA atmosphere-monitoring satellite launch from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. The ESA has denied the rocket stage presents any threat to the Arctic environment and Global Affairs Canada deemed risks to the marine environment as “very low.”

Yet Micheal Byers, Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, has highlighted that no information currently exists on how much unused hydrazine actually hits the water.

The Sentinel-5P satellite was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia on Oct. 13, on a rocket using highly toxic hydrazine fuel.
(ESA/Stephane Corvaja)

In theory, debris from the rocket will burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and never reach the surface. But what if something goes wrong?

The Government of Nunavut has said the likelihood of fuel reaching the Earth remains low. But there should be no risk at all. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) has demanded that space agencies use less toxic alternatives.

When governments evaluate risk, they must evaluate the probability of an event and its potential consequences. History shows they could do better.

When Nunavut Justice Susan Cooper struck down the Eastern Canadian Arctic Seismic Experiment in August 2010, she acknowledged these consequences. Inuit communities feared irreparable harm to the animals vital to their food system if the experiment went ahead. In her decision, Justice Cooper wrote that while only the “potential for harm” was established by the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, such potential was sufficient to grant an injunction due to the degree of harm, which equated to a “loss of culture… no amount of money” could compensate.

As Inuit have repeatedly pointed out, any risk associated with the Arctic environment may have an impact on their food security, nutrition and health, as well as on their livelihood and culture. To what extent have the potential harms to Inuit food systems been taken into account when governments evaluate the risks associated with falling rocket debris or other industrial activities?

‘This is our home’

Even though much of the Arctic is far removed from the world’s industrial centres, global pollution is having a profound effect on the North. Contaminants can travel long distances along ocean currents, rivers and streams, and in the atmosphere, reaching high levels in Arctic ecosystems.

Inuit generally prefer to eat food obtained through fishing, hunting and gathering, collectively called country foods. It is mostly through these country foods that Inuit are exposed to environmental contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals such as mercury. Studies show that Inuit living in Nunavut have higher levels of contaminants in their blood than the general Canadian population.

Contaminants are among many contemporary pressures on Inuit food systems.

In July 2017, the Nunavut hamlet of Clyde River won a bid against the National Energy Board (NEB) in the Supreme Court of Canada to halt a seismic survey in Baffin Bay. The hamlet’s lawyer argued that the potential impacts of the seismic survey on food security, which had been dismissed by industry representatives and the NEB as minimal, were a central concern.

“Hunting and gathering, this is how we live. This is our humanity,” said Jerry Natanine, the former mayor of Clyde River. These mounting pressures on marine ecosystems highlight how country foods are an existential matter for Inuit.

Inuit food systems can no longer simply be an afterthought to international sovereignty disputes and risk assessment. Indigenous Peoples in Canada and globally have drawn attention to the false imagination of their homes, lands and waters as a terra nullius – an empty no-man’s land.

The ConversationAs Okalik Eegeesiak, former chair of the ICC, has said of previous launches: “This rocket will not be falling into no-man’s land… This is our home.”

Tiff-Annie Kenny, Nereus Program Fellow; Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Ottawa and Tad Lemieux, PhD researcher in sovereignty and rhetoric, Carleton University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why you need to get involved in the geoengineering debate – now

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Atakan Yildiz/Shutterstock.com

Rob Bellamy, University of Oxford

The prospect of engineering the world’s climate system to tackle global warming is becoming more and more likely. This may seem like a crazy idea but I, and over 250 other scientists, policy makers and stakeholders from around the globe recently descended on Berlin to debate the promises and perils of geoengineering.

There are many touted methods of engineering the climate. Early, outlandish ideas included installing a ‘space sunshade”: a massive mirror orbiting the Earth to reflect sunlight. The ideas most in discussion now may not seem much more realistic – spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, or fertilising the oceans with iron to encourage algal growth and carbon dioxide sequestration through photosynthesis.

But the prospect of geoengineering has become a lot more real since the Paris Agreement. The 2015 Paris Agreement set out near universal, legally binding commitments to keep the increase in global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and even to aim for limiting the rise to 1.5°C. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that meeting these targets is possible – but nearly all of their scenarios rely on the extensive deployment of some form of geoengineering by the end of the century.

Some geoengineers take their inspiration from supervolcanic eruptions, which can lower global temperatures.
patobarahona/Shutterstock.com

How to engineer the climate

Geoengineering comes in two distinct flavours. The first is greenhouse gas removal: those ideas that would seek to remove and store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The second is solar radiation management: the ideas that would seek to reflect a level of sunlight away from the Earth.

Solar radiation management is the more controversial of the two, doing nothing to address the root cause of climate change – greenhouse gas emissions – and raising a whole load of concerns about undesirable side effects, such as changes to regional weather patterns.

And then there is the so-called “termination problem”. If we ever stopped engineering the climate in this way then global temperature would abruptly bounce back to where it would have been without it. And if we had not been reducing or removing emissions at the same time, this could be a very sharp and sudden rise indeed.

Most climate models that see the ambitions of the Paris Agreement achieved assume the use of greenhouse gas removal, particularly bio-energy coupled with carbon capture and storage technology. But, as the recent conference revealed, although research in the field is steadily gaining ground, there is also a dangerous gap between its current state of the art and the achievability of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement – and its implicit dependence on greenhouse gas removal – has undoubtedly been one of the most significant developments to impact on the field of geoengineering since the last conference of its kind back in 2014. This shifted the emphasis of the conference away from the more controversial and attention-grabbing solar radiation management and towards the more mundane but policy relevant greenhouse gas removal.

Geoengineering measures.
IASS

Controversial experiments

But there were moments when sunlight reflecting methods still stole the show. A centrepiece of the conference was the solar radiation management experiments campfire, where David Keith and his colleagues from the Harvard University Solar Geoengineering Research Programme laid out their experimental plans. They aim to lift an instrument package to a height of 20km using a high-altitude balloon and release a small amount of reflective particles into the atmosphere.

This would not be the first geoengineering experiment. Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have already begun experimenting with various ideas, several of which have attracted a great degree of public interest and controversy. A particularly notable case was one UK project, in which plans to release a small amount of water into the atmosphere at a height of 1km using a pipe tethered to a balloon were cancelled in 2013 owing to concerns over intellectual property.

Such experiments will be essential if geoengineering ideas are to ever become technically viable contributors to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. But it is the governance of experiments, not their technical credentials, that has always been and still remains the most contentious area of the geoengineering debate.

Critics warned that the Harvard experiment could be the first step on a “slippery slope” towards an undesirable deployment and therefore must be restrained. But advocates argued that the technology needs to be developed before we can know what it is that we are trying to govern.

The challenge for governance is not to back either one of these extremes, but rather to navigate a responsible path between them.

How to govern?

The key to defining a responsible way to govern geoengineering experiments is accounting for public interests and concerns. Would-be geoengineering experimenters, including those at Harvard, routinely try to account for these concerns by appealing to their experiments being of a small scale and a limited extent. But, as I argued in the conference, in public discussions on the scale and extent of geoengineering experiments their meaning has been subjective and always qualified by other concerns.

My colleagues and I have found that the public have at least four principal concerns about geoengineering experiments: their level of containment; uncertainty around what the outcomes would be; the reversibility of any impacts, and the intent behind them. A small scale experiment unfolding indoors might therefore be deemed unacceptable if it raised concerns about private interests, for example. On the other hand, a large scale experiment conducted outdoors could be deemed acceptable if it did not release materials into the open environment.

Under certain conditions the four dimensions could be aligned. The challenge for governance is to account for these – and likely other – dimensions of perceived controllability. This means that public involvement in the design of governance itself needs to be front and centre in the development of geoengineering experiments.

A whole range of two-way dialogue methods are available – focus groups, citizens juries, deliberative workshops and many others. And to those outside of formal involvement in such processes – read about geoengineering, talk about geoengineering. We need to start a society-wide conversation on how to govern such controversial technologies.

Public interests and concerns need to be drawn out well in advance of an experiment and the results used to meaningfully shape how we govern it. This will not only make the the experiment more legitimate, but also make it substantively better.

The ConversationMake no mistake, experiments will be needed if we are to learn the worth of geoengineering ideas. But they must be done with public values at their core.

Rob Bellamy, James Martin Research Fellow in the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sex versus death: why marriage equality provokes more heated debate than assisted dying

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While fear suppresses talk about dying, marriage equality involves sex.
AAP/Danny Casey

Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford

The Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote:

Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.

We are in the midst of two great ethical debates: marriage equality and assisted dying. The results of the marriage equality postal survey will be announced on November 15; meanwhile, the Victorian parliament is this week debating a new law to allow doctor-assisted dying in the last year of life.

What is striking is the volume of the respective public debates. Everyone is talking about marriage equality; very few are discussing assisted dying.

Given that the ethics of assisted dying are more complex than marriage equality, and what happens in Victoria is likely to provide a template for other states, why is it receiving so much less attention?

How fear of death affects public debate

Public ethical debates are fuelled by emotion and psychological biases on both sides. In the case of assisted dying, most of us are not like Epicurus: we fear death. We hate talking about it.

Despite the fact that polls show that 73% of Australians favour assisted dying, it is not clear whether the legislation will pass, although the mood seems to be leaning slightly in favour: 40 out of 87 MPs in the Legislative Assembly told the Herald Sun they would vote yes.


Further reading: As Victorian MPs debate assisted dying, it is vital they examine the evidence, not just the rhetoric


So, there should be an enormous impetus to show MPs the level of public support. But it has been rather muted. Perhaps for similar reasons we post photos of weddings on Facebook, but not funerals: both are important, but only one makes good dinner party conversation.

Terror management theory, evolution and social signalling

Our fear of death might even be linked to our love of marriage, according to terror management theory (TMT). Neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre writes:

When we’re faced with the idea of death, people defensively turn to things they believe will shield them from death, literal or otherwise. Thinking about death also motivates people to indiscriminately uphold and defend their cultural world views, whatever those may be.

TMT has been linked to our development of regulation and rituals around sex.

In evolutionary terms, sex is more important than death, which is one of the reasons marriage equality provokes such heated debate.
Shutterstock

So, a fundamental commitment to marriage being between a man and a woman may be more of an immovable foundation on which group membership is based to guard against our shared fear of death than an ethical position that can be defended or rebutted on rational grounds.

While fear suppresses talk about dying, marriage equality involves sex. People are intensely interested in love and sex. And sex has been more important than death in evolutionary terms.

As evolved animals, we were only here to survive long enough to reproduce. Reproduction is evolution’s goal, and so practices around its rituals and norms are hugely important in evolutionary and religious terms.

Religions and societies seek to control reproduction. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, sex was to occur within marriage between one man and one woman. Death at an old age is of much less evolutionary significance.


Further reading: To Christians arguing ‘no’ on marriage equality: the Bible is not decisive


We are social animals, motivated to support our in-group and reject out-group members. Tribalism can help explain our devotion to football teams, for example. We have developed social signalling to show our group which side we are on and maintain trust.

Add to that a status quo bias, and public debates where the topic in question is seen to express something foundational about ourselves can become little more than cheering for our own team.

Anchoring

Anchoring is a psychological bias that means we evaluate how good or bad something is relative to the anchor of existing examples.

In the UK, the 2013 same-sex marriage legislation was fairly uncontroversial. One reason could be that civil partnerships – same-sex marriage in all but name – were created back in 2004. Each step in the UK’s progress towards marriage equality was a short step from the previous state of being.

In contrast, the Australian campaign against same-sex marriage portrays the choice as a paradigm shift in our culture, extending far beyond marriage. Former prime minister Tony Abbott linked the debate to political correctness, gender fluidity and even the date of Australia Day, saying:

This isn’t just about marriage … there are lots and lots of implications here and we’ve got to think them through before we take this big leap into … the dark.

A better approach

For assisted dying to be an appropriate activity for medicine, we should show that death can be an appropriate therapeutic end and in a patient’s best interests. That is, that their life is no longer worth living.

That is an extremely difficult case to prove, and I haven’t seen any good arguments for how to evaluate that. Why wouldn’t we just go on what a competent person says? If a suffering person believes they’re better off dead, they’re probably right.

But here is another way to think about it. The Victorian legislation will provide assistance only to those in the last year of life from a physical illness. They are effectively in the process of dying.

While palliative care may be able to control pain and suffering, it cannot do everything.
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One major objection to the assisted dying bill is that we don’t need it because good palliative care is sufficient. Relief of suffering is very important, and more should be spent on end-of-life planning and palliative care.

But this objection is complicated for several reasons. If palliative care is outstanding, people won’t request assistance in dying. So there is no need to ban it.

More importantly, while palliative care may be able to control pain and suffering, it cannot do everything.

Together with colleagues at Barwon Health and Oxford University, we surveyed 382 people from the general population and 100 attendees at an advance care planning clinic, where people think about and express their values relating to end-of-life care. We didn’t ask them about assisted dying, but we did ask them to rank four factors at the end of life: pain relief, dignity, independence and living as long as possible.

The highest proportion of both groups ranked the relief of pain and suffering as the most important value, followed by maintaining dignity and remaining independent.

Living as long as possible was ranked as most important by the lowest proportion of participants – only 4% of palliative care patients and 2.6% of the general population (30–35% regarded this as either not important or not very important).

People care not only about pain relief, but also about dignity and independence at the end of life. These are much more subjective and less amenable to control by palliative care. So while palliative care can address part of what people care about, it may not be able to address all their values.

Moreover, people can already shorten their lives by more than a year for any medical condition, or no medical condition at all, by refusing to eat and drink by mouth. It takes around ten days to die of thirst. Such people could be given palliative care to relieve their suffering during this period of suicide.

But surely the Victorian law offers a better way to die? As with the palliative care, this kind of death does not provide the dignified death, or the independence, that people value.

As distressing as public debate on heartfelt, emotive issues like assisted dying and marriage equality can be, it is an important collective exercise. Like many other people, I thought the marriage equality survey was a waste of money. But on reflection, this idea maybe misplaced. When the views of one part of the community are deemed politically incorrect and suppressed, they foment, then erupt in a Brexit or a Trump.

Debate is vitally important to democracy. What we should hope is that people engage in these debates with their heads, not their hearts. It will take considerable effort on both sides to overcome the psychological obstacles to finding the most fair and reasonable policy.

As Epicurus also said:

The ConversationThe art of living well and the art of dying well are one.

Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, Visiting Professor in Biomedical Ethics, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Distinguished Visiting Professor in Law, Melbourne University, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What can be done to improve treatment for PTSD after a loss

 

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People who unexpectedly lose a loved should be identified early enough and appropriately counselled.
Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters.

Lukoye Atwoli, Moi University

The unexpected death of a loved one can cause severe distress to relatives. It can lead to mental complications including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A world mental health survey shows that about 5.2% of people who lose loved ones suffer from PTSD. But how do you know who suffers from PTSD after a traumatic loss so that you can give them the care they need?

Unfortunately, in Africa most people go undiagnosed. This is because only two countries on the continent have carried out national surveys on mental health – South Africa and Nigeria. Concerning trauma and PTSD, the only significant data emanated from the South African Survey, since the Nigerian one did not have a high enough prevalence rate to enable detailed analysis.

The recent global survey identified a number of predictors that significantly increase the risk of PTSD after a loss. These include: whether the deceased is either a spouse or child, being female, believing that one could have done something to prevent the death, prior exposure to a traumatic event and having a previous mental disorder before the trauma.

Using these predictors it was possible to construct a model that can be used to determine those with the highest risk of developing PTSD after the unexpected death of a loved one. This model makes it feasible for clinicians helping people who have suddenly lost loved ones to develop interventions that are evidence-based and with high probability of success. This should provide opportunities for affected people being able to be provided with the appropriate care after this traumatic event.

PTSD and death

PTSD happens after a person is exposed to an event that poses a threat to their life. It is a group of symptoms that include re-experiencing the event, changes in emotions and cognitive functions. Irritability, reckless or self-destructive behaviour, sleep problems and low concentration are common.

Families and caregivers can recognise PTSD in a loved one because the symptoms are a change from their usual behaviour. These signs and symptoms begin within a month of experiencing the traumatic event like the unexpected death of a loved one.

The person may experience nightmares or flashbacks, will avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings associated with the traumatic event.

Due to the trauma, the person may also develop memory problems and feelings of detachment from friends, colleagues and family are common. The person may also display exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves, others or the world. In some cases, depression and drug abuse is noted.

People who have unexpectedly lost a loved one are at a higher risk of getting PTSD so they should be identified early enough and appropriately counselled.

The high prevalence and meaningful risk of PTSD makes the unexpected death of a loved one a major public health issue. Due to a collaborative initiative under the World Health Organisation (the World Mental Health Surveys Initiative) it is now possible to predict the occurrence of PTSD after a traumatic event such as the unexpected death of a loved one.

The resulting screening assessments will be useful in identifying high risk individuals prone to PTSD for early interventions.

Data deficit

Raising relevant data is one of the biggest challenges to tackling the issue of PTSD in Africa.

African countries should carry out national mental health surveys because they provide information that can be used for planning care and rationally allocating resources in mental health. They also provide information necessary in policy formulation and mental health interventions.

The ConversationWithout a national survey, countries often misallocate resources, ending up with situations in which they neglect the most important problems and intervene disproportionately in low priority areas. This is responsible for the current situation in which what is probably a silent mental ill-health epidemic which is sweeping across the continent.

Lukoye Atwoli, Dean, Moi University School of Medicine, Consultant Psychiatrist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Mental Health, Moi University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Designing suburbs to cut car use closes gaps in health and wealth

Jerome N Rachele, Australian Catholic University; Aislinn Healy, Australian Catholic University; Jim Sallis, University of California, San Diego, and Takemi Sugiyama, Australian Catholic University

This article is one in a series, Healthy Liveable Cities, in the lead-up to the Designing Healthy Liveable Cities Conference in Melbourne on October 19 and 20.


Large health inequalities exist in Australia. Car ownership and its costs add to the health inequalities between low-income and high-income households. The physical characteristics of neighbourhoods influence our transport use and, in turn, make health inequalities better or worse.

Rising housing prices have forced many low-income families to live on the fringes of Australian capital cities. Residents of these sprawling outer suburbs often have worse access to public transport, employment, shops and services. They need one or more motor vehicles simply to get to work and take children to school.

Buying and maintaining vehicles in Australia is expensive. These costs have a large impact on household budgets. Household finances then affect health in two main ways:

  • through the ability to access health-related resources, such as healthy foods, health care and high-quality living conditions (like heating and cooling)
  • through stress caused by financial difficulties, insecure incomes and exposure to poorer environments such as crowding, crime and noise pollution.

Living in the car-dependent urban fringes also often dooms residents to long sedentary commutes.

Four scenarios of transport costs

The following four hypothetical households demonstrate the costs of varying levels of car ownership and transport behaviours.

Scenario 1: A household with two cars that are 15,000km and 10,000km, respectively, per year. The car that is driven 15,000km is assumed to be less than three years old, bought new and financed with a loan. The other car is assumed to be 10 years old and owned outright. This household aligns with estimates by the Australian Automobile Association.

Scenario 2: Scenario one, minus the used car and substituting five return public transport trips a week to the Melbourne central business district from the outer suburbs.

Scenario 3: No cars, substituting 10 return trips to the CBD from the outer suburbs.

Scenario 4: No cars, substituting three return trips to the CBD (i.e. occasional public transport use), with walking and cycling as the main forms of transport.

Table 1 shows how reducing household car ownership, even after adding the cost of public transport, can improve household finances.

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Moving from a two-car household to a one-car household cuts weekly costs by as much as A$41, even after increased public transport use adds a A$41-a-week cost.

Moving from a two-car household to having no cars can improve weekly finances by as much as A$237, after adding 10 return trips to the CBD.

The fourth scenario, emphasising walking and cycling, shows the greatest improvement in household finances. These families are $294 per week better off.

The impacts on households of each of these car ownership and transport scenarios differ depending on their incomes. To illustrate this, we’ve taken the median disposable household income from the lowest, middle and highest quintiles from the ABS in 2015-16.

Figure 1. Proportion of disposable household income remaining after transport costs for four scenarios of car ownership.

Although becoming car-free will increase disposable household income after paying for transport, the largest proportional differences are for the lowest-income households. This means these households will benefit most from reducing car ownership and switching to more active and affordable forms of transport.

Urban design can boost household health and wealth

So how do we help households make the transition from private car ownership? The answer lies in the environments we live in.

The evidence from research suggests several strategies to improve uptake of active and affordable transport, while reducing car dependence and related health inequities. These include local urban design features such as:

  • connected and safe street networks (including pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure) that reduce exposure to traffic

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  • residential areas mixed with commercial, public service and recreational opportunities
  • public transport that is convenient, affordable, frequent, safe and comfortable
  • higher residential density with different types of housing (including affordable housing) to support the viability of local businesses and high-frequency public transport services
  • cycling education and promotion
  • car-free pedestrian zones, traffic calming measures, signage and accessibility for all (including wheelchair and pram access).

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Australia has yet to fully realise the potential of promoting active transport and reducing car dependency as a way to reduce health inequities.

For example, the Victorian government recently announced 17 new low-density suburbs for Melbourne’s outer fringes (up to 50 kilometres from the CBD). It did so with a goal of creating more affordable housing. But urban planning experts have criticised these plans for increasing car dependence and commute times – due to the lack of nearby destinations and amenities – which have been shown to be bad for health.

In another case, the Planning Institute of Australia described the proposed A$5.5 billion West Gate Tunnel as a “retrograde solution”. The institute expressed concern about “entrenched inequality for those in the outer suburbs”.

Changes to city transport environments can take years or even decades, and funding is often limited. Phased interventions that target lower-income neighbourhoods should be considered first as these are likely to produce the greatest gains in health equity.

This approach does have some caveats. Urban renewal projects carry a risk of gentrification, whereby higher and middle-income households displace those on lower incomes. Place-based government investment, such as improvements to public transport, has been shown to increase local housing prices. That could force lower-income households to relocate, often to car-dependent neighbourhoods on the urban fringes.

In these scenarios, a lack of government policies that safeguard against displacement of low-income residents can make health inequities worse.


You can read other articles in the series here.

The ConversationThe Designing Healthy Liveable Cities Conference is being hosted by the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities in Melbourne on October 19-20. You can register here.

Jerome N Rachele, Research Fellow in Social Epidemiology, Institute for Health and Ageing, Australian Catholic University; Aislinn Healy, PhD Candidate, Institute for Health and Ageing, Australian Catholic University; Jim Sallis, Professorial Fellow, Institute for Health and Ageing, Australian Catholic University, and Emeritus Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego, and Takemi Sugiyama, Professor of Built Environment, Institute for Health & Ageing, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What Theresa May and her pals are doing to me and others

In my opinion, her government is breaking the law and is encouraging and even forcing British citizens to break the law too.

Why? While Brexit is not a reality yet, the British government has ramped up its anti-foreigner campaigns and is introducing procedures that are clearly discriminatory in nature.

As an example of what I mean by “anti-anti-foreigner campaigns”, a few days ago, health minister James O’Shaugnessy very cleverly suggested that foreigners in the UK do not pay tax. As what he said was not an outright lie, merely extremely suggestive, it is hard to call him out on it. He did not respond to a tweet from me about the matter.

It is lies and suggestions like these that fan antagonistic attitudes toward foreigners in Britain.

Also, media should take responsibility for what they report. The Standard quoted O’Shaugnessy without correcting him.

The Equality Act 2010 explicitly states that it is against the law to treat any person unfairly or less favourably than someone else because of a personal characteristic.

Those personal characteristics include race and according to the Act, the term “race” includes nationality, colour and national or ethnic origins.

  • The practice currently being introduced at hospitals, in which patients with foreign-sounding names and looks perceived as foreign are treated differently – and on occasion refused treatment on the basis of the assumption that the person is not British or not permanently based in Britain – is discriminatory in nature (a violation of the Equality Act). Note that this is also affecting British people.

The existence of NI cards means that there is no reason for this discrimination. It would be  very normal, expected even, to ask everyone to present their NI cards when using NHS services.

This verification could include a copy of the latest water or council tax bill if the government wants to make sure that someone is not using an old card but does no longer live in the UK if it worries about that. It could also serve to ascertain that the medical records contain accurate information. (I have missed appointments in the past because appointment letters continued to go to an old address.)

As an EU citizen in Britain, I underwent an interview process and submitted all the documentation that was required as part of applying for an NI number. NI numbers are not automatically assigned to anyone who shows up.

Asking this from everyone who uses NHS services would not be discriminatory.

(The new banking regulations coming into effect in January may not be discriminatory in nature, but I don’t have enough details to be able to assess that. The idea seems to be that the UK government wants to be able to freeze the bank accounts of foreigners it thinks it may want to deport. The usual errors can be expected. So I advise foreigners to keep sufficient funds in foreign accounts. Better safe than sorry.)

  • Information being sent to the Home Office when it concerns patients who do not have or are perceived as possibly not having the British nationality causes problems for medical staff as well as it forces them to violate doctor-patient confidentiality.
  • Theresa May also forces and encourages exploitation and discrimination of EU citizens, because of the stance she continues to take with regard to the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK (and the deportation threats and notifications many foreigners have been exposed to). This has also appalled many EU officials.

By refusing to guarantee the continuation of the existing rights of EU citizens (*see below), Theresa May ensures that British employers cannot afford to hire foreign nationals for critical functions or functions that require (expensive) training. As we’ve recently been able to read, it also leads to exploitation of EU citizens currently in the UK.

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Verhofstadt is currently President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (@ALDEGroup). Among other things, he has been prime minister of Belgium. He is a member of the European Parliament and is the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations.

I find it highly deplorable that the British government continues to set such an appalling example in the area of tolerance, inclusion and equality.

Successions of British governments (including for example Blair’s) have done this with regard to large proportions of the British population as well.

Many of the British may be astonished to see that EU citizens – all coming from nations with much greater equality than Britain – loudly object to how the British government is currently not only abusing their rights but also encouraging widespread violation of their rights (thereby perhaps also stepping up for some of those Britons).

 

PS 27 October
*I have meanwhile realized that I need to explain this further for the benefit of some.

Yes, Theresa May – she of the “go home or face arrest” campaign as I was reminded of this evening, and I have also read in the past that according to her, refugees come to the UK to kill and eat British swans – keeps saying that EU citizens who are currently here legally will be able to stay. The problem is that “legally” is redefined every other week, so to speak, and that the government picks and chooses bits of legislation depending on which outcome it wants.

Until very recently, I was no longer sure if I was still seen as being here legally or not, even though some legislation says that I have had the same position as British citizens for eight years now (namely after I had been here for five years, legally). With all the people being deported or threatened with deportation, even though most of that appears to have happened in error, I haven’t known what to expect for a long time.

If the UK government saw me as an illegal immigrant, however, it wouldn’t have admitted me back into the country on my recent trip to the continent, I reckon. Since then, I have been breathing easier. The idea that you can be arrested any time and instantly dumped into an immigration detention centre with no more than the clothes and anything else you had on you at the time of arrest and without there being any time limit to that detention is not one that puts a person at ease.

After my last trip out of the country, more clarity has been given – indeed! agreed! – but it still is not fully clear what “legally” means. Theresa May deliberately forced this limbo not just on EU citizens in the UK but also on British citizens abroad, so I understand. Most of them, too, seem to be mere “chicken shit” to her.

More and more young people are falling into debt – but it’s not their fault


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Paying the price.
Derwent Living/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Alex Simpson, University of Brighton

The UK has a consumer debt crisis and it is young people, aged 18 to 34, who are most vulnerable. National unsecured debt – which includes credit cards, overdrafts and car loans – has topped £200 billion for the first time since the global financial crisis struck in 2008. But the concentration of debt, and the experiences of vulnerability, are not shared out equally.

Andrew Bailey, the head of the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), has warned that there is a “pronounced build-up of indebtedness amongst the younger age group”. He was responding to the FCA’s Financial Lives Survey which showed that 55% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 63% of 25- to 34-year-olds are in debt, owing on average over £8,000.

These numbers alone are cause for alarm, and that’s before even considering the harms and vulnerability that over-indebtedness brings. Any debt organisation will tell you about the damage which debt causes to mental and physical health. And yet so many young people are forced into debt, often before they start any meaningful form of work.

This problem should not be seen as a product of “binge” culture, and young people should not just be told to rein in their spending. Rather, this is a problem of affordability.

A house and a car? Keep dreaming.
Oscar F. Hevia/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Rising housing costs; an increase in zero-hours contracts; inflation outstripping wages; the rapid rise in student loans – all of these issues are creating a cage of debt around young people. While the older generation retains financial security through assets (usually in the form of housing) and enjoys greater security in work, the younger generation is more likely to be exposed to the risks of private renting and job insecurity.

How did it come to this?

Amid the global panic arising from the 2008 financial crisis, the UK government propped up a failing banking sector with £1,162 billion in support. At this moment, the private financial crisis turned into a public state crisis.

Crises are usually defined by change, signalling an end to the unstable conditions of the past. Yet the enduring legacy of the financial crisis has been a transformation of the role of the state and public finances, which has left young people in an even more precarious position.


Read more: Period poverty: why one in ten young women struggle to afford pads and tampons


Ten years on from the financial crisis, and eight years after the introduction of the welfare-stripping austerity agenda, one thing still holds true: it is the people who contributed the least towards the crisis who are paying the highest price.

A raw deal

As the UK government continues to pay back its own debts by cutting costs and squeezing out savings, it is really young people who are carrying the burden of debt. What’s worse is, they don’t really have a choice.

In the years since the crisis, fiscal responsibility has been transferred from the state onto the individual. In other words, rather than the state providing services to ensure a basic level of well-being for everyone, it’s increasingly up to individuals to pay the price for their own education, housing and health care.

Students protest against £9,000 tuition fees, London 2010.
Binary Ape/Flickr, CC BY

Nowhere is this clearer than in higher education; whereas the state once invested in the futures of the young, it now saddles university graduates with an average debt of £25,505 each.

Even the government’s flagship apprenticeship scheme uses young people for cheap labour, with 18-year-olds paid as little as £3.40 an hour.

All this means that, unless young people have the financial support of a parent, they are forced to rely on an increasingly punitive and complex benefit system or (more likely) be pushed down the pathway to debt. In these circumstances, it’s unsurprising that debt has become a “lifeline” for so many.

The ConversationDebt is a major political instrument of control, and it should be seen as such. Individuals shoulder the burden of debt, but it is not an individual problem; it is a problem of society. It is no accident that the young are indebted in the way that they are: it is the product of years of neglect and a lack of investment by the state. The political choices of the UK government got young people into this mess. Now, political action should be used to help them out.

Alex Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to behave at a zoo – according to science


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What are you staring at?
Shutterstock

Samantha Ward, Nottingham Trent University

With October half-term approaching, millions around the world will head to their local zoo to indulge in the Halloween activities and get a little fresh autumnal air in the presence of some extraordinary animals. At this time of year, the animals are still wonderfully active and there’s plenty to see and do. But there are certain things you should be doing as a visitor to ensure that the animals are able to act as naturally as possible within their environments.

With advances in zoo enclosure design, there are now more opportunities for you to get up close and personal with the more exciting animals, with walk-through exhibits and animal feeding sessions. In zoos, animal welfare research is carried out frequently to ensure the animals’ lives in captivity are at their best – and we now understand the impacts that human-animal interactions have on the animals housed in them.

Research has shown that zoo animals are able to tell the difference between unfamiliar (visitors) and familiar (keepers) people and that, in some cases, visitors can have a negative impact on them. For example, increased visitor numbers have been associated with increased levels of aggression in mandrills, mangabeys, and cotton-top tamarins (monkeys), more time spent alert towards visitors in sika deer, gorillas and Soemmerring’s gazelle, less time visible to the public in jaguars, orang-utans and siamangs, and increased stress hormones (glucocorticoid concentrations) in spider monkeys, blackbuck and Mexican wolves. This can be managed by responsible zoos, but everyone must play their part.

Research has also shown us that keeper-animal interactions have a positive impact on the animals’ behaviour. This should always be kept in mind.

Don’t crowd them out.
Author provided

The following tips will help ensure that you don’t disturb the animals and have a negative impact on their behaviour.

What you need to know

There is growing evidence to show that excessive noise levels cause stress in animals and so when you are around the animals in their enclosures, try to be as quiet as possible.

Many animals, including great apes, such as gorillas and chimpanzees, are also extremely receptive to eye contact as it is a form of communication between individuals within the social group. This may make them sit with their backs turned – and can make them less likely to engage with you. Try not to stare at the animals if they are facing you – and avoid shouting or banging the glass to get their attention. Respect the animal’s privacy and space.

Primates may see eye contact as a threat.
Shutterstock

Animals in the wild are always more cautious when they have young. In zoos, baby animals are very popular, which encourages more visitors and heightened reactions from the crowds. Currently, there is no research investigating the impacts of visitors on the mother-infant relationship but it is crucial to respect the animals even more just in case there are negative implications.

The animals are likely used to their enclosure and the continuous stream of visitors surrounding it, so they might not notice you as an individual. But this does not mean that you should try to encourage them to do so by throwing food or other objects into the enclosure that have not been provided by the zoo keepers. These can cause the animals serious dietary problems. Zoo animals are on a carefully measured and specific diet and other food can be detrimental to their health and welfare.

Safety first

Health and safety in zoos is paramount. The barriers and windows are there for both your and the animals’ protection. Zoos now use a variety of designs so that you can view the animals clearly and take good photos – but if you cannot, never scale the barriers or reach out to the animals and avoid placing children on or over fences. There are a surprisingly high number of injuries, and worse, due to this each year – zoo animals are never tame and should never be treated as such.

Good zoos create educational and engaging signage to educate you during your visit. The signs may be for health and safety reasons or to enable you to learn about the animals in front of you, their wild environment and their conservation status. Signage may also be there to tell you about particular animals who may be shy or nervous or to inform you of research being undertaken. Please pay attention to the signage – it will help ensure that you get the most out of your visit.

Keep your snacks to yourself.
Shutterstock

The ConversationStick to these rules and you can be sure that your trip to the zoo will be beneficial to the animals, you and your family. Zoo animals are mostly now all captive bred and so are used to being housed in their enclosures and being provided for by their keepers. It is your job as a visitor to respect this, the animals and their homes to ensure that your own behaviour does not negatively affect the animals living there on your visit.

Samantha Ward, Lecturer Zoo Animal Biology, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why is it so hard for the wrongfully jailed to get justice?

Linda Asquith, Leeds Beckett University

Imagine for a moment you are wrongfully convicted of a crime. You get sent to prison, where you start to serve out your sentence – every minute of every day knowing you are innocent. Then the unthinkable happens and you are released. You are elated – this is the moment you’ve been waiting for.

But those feelings of elation and happiness quickly turn to fear and despair as you realise you have nowhere to go. Your old life as you knew it is gone, you have no way of supporting yourself, your relationships have broken down and you have nowhere to turn to for support.

Sadly, this is the reality many exonerees face when they are trying to put their lives back together. Many of these people – who have in some cases spent years behind bars – find upon release that their problems are only exacerbated. Wrongfully wrenched from their families, homes and communities, they struggle to reintegrate into society when they return.

And things seem to be made worse because unlike prisoners who have access to support to help them resettle when they are released from prison, those who suffer a miscarriage of justice do not get this.

“Rightfully convicted” individuals are provided with a plan for release from prison – often starting months in advance. This involves a range of activities, all of which are aimed at helping the person to resettle back into the community. But exonerees have none of these preparations – and often receive very little notice of their release.

Victor Nealon, for example, served 16 years in prison after he was falsely charged with rape. He received three hours’ notice of his release, and ended up in a bed and breakfast on his first night as a free man – he had nowhere else to go.

An unfamiliar world

The wrongfully convicted don’t receive any preparation for their release because of the way the prison system works. Prisoners have to show they are “tackling their offending behaviour” to gain parole. But if you haven’t committed the crime in the first place, this is not possible. The end result is that a person may spend longer in prison than if they had committed the offence and admitted it.

Upon release, the wrongfully convicted are thrust into a world they are unfamiliar with – and they have zero support or guidance. It’s common for exonerees to develop PTSD as a result of their wrongful conviction, alongside other mental and physical health problems requiring significant support.

This in part happens because as soon as the conviction is quashed, these people are no one’s responsibility. They are no longer a prisoner, or an ex-offender. There is no standard programme of support which is triggered at the point of release. And while probation would be well placed to support the wrongfully convicted, they cannot as they are not ex-offenders – ex-prisoners, yes, but not ex-offenders.

Say I’m innocent

There are only two specific organisations that provide support to exonerees. They are the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) based at the Royal Courts of Justice, and the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO). This was founded by Paddy Hill – one of the six men wrongly convicted of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings. He set it up in an attempt to provide the support to others that he was not given when released in 1991.

But both services are restricted by funding and staffing limitations, and while both organisations do superb work against a backdrop of austerity measures and extremely limited resources, both are at best a piecemeal response to what is, in reality, a government responsibility.

A recent BBC documentary called Fallout highlights these issues. The the director of the documentary Mark Mcloughlin has launched the “Say I’m Innocent” campaign, and is now fighting for all the services that are available to guilty prisoners on release to be made available to exonerees. The campaign is also calling for a public announcement of a person’s innocence upon their release. As well as other measure including a transition centre in both the UK and Ireland to allow them time and help to reintegrate into society.

The ConversationThis is important because the key issue here is responsibility. The state assumed responsibility for these individuals when they were wrongfully convicted. It is therefore only right that the state continues to take responsibility for them once exonerated.

Linda Asquith, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Leeds Beckett University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Whales and dolphins have rich cultures – and could hold clues to what makes humans so advanced


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A pod of spinner dolphins in the Red Sea.
Alexander Vasenin/wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Susanne Shultz, University of Manchester

Humans are like no other species. We have constructed stratified states, colonised nearly every habitat on Earth and we’re now looking to move to other planets. In fact, we are so advanced that some of our innovations – such as fossil fuel technologies, intensive agriculture and weapons of mass destruction – may ultimately lead to our downfall.

Even our closest relatives, the primates, lack traits such as developed language, cumulative culture, music, symbolism and religion. Yet scientists still haven’t come to a consensus on why, when and how humans evolved these traits. But, luckily, there are non-human animals that have evolved societies and culture to some extent. My latest study, published in Nature Evolution & Ecology, investigates what cetaceans (whales and dolphins) can teach us about human evolution.

The reason it is so difficult to trace the origins of human traits is that social behaviour does not fossilise. It is therefore very hard to understand when and why cultural behaviour first arose in the human lineage. Material culture such as art, burial items, technologically sophisticated weapons and pottery is very rare in the archaeological record.

Previous research in primates has shown that a large primate brain is associated with larger social groups, cultural and behavioural richness, and learning ability. A larger brain is also tied to energy-rich diets, long life spans, extended juvenile periods and large bodies. But researchers trying to uncover whether each of these different traits are causes or consequences of large brains find themselves at odds with each other – often arguing at cross purposes.

One prevailing explanation is the social brain hypothesis, which argues that our minds and consequently our brains have evolved to solve the problems associated with living in an information rich, challenging and dynamic social environment. This comes with challenges such as competing for and allocating food and resources, coordinating behaviour, resolving conflicts and using information and innovations generated by others in the group.

Primates with large brains tend to be highly social animals.
Peter van der Sluijs/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

However, despite the abundance of evidence for a link between brain size and social skills, the arguments rumble on about the role of social living in cognitive evolution. Alternative theories suggest that primate brains have evolved in response to the complexity of forest environments – either in terms of searching for fruit or visually navigating a three dimensional world.

Under the sea

But it’s not just primates that live in rich social worlds. Insects, birds, elephants, horses and cetaceans do, too.

The latter are especially interesting as, not only do we know that they do interesting things, some live in multi-generational societies and they also have the largest brains in the animal kingdom. In addition, they do not eat fruit, nor do they live in forests. For that reason, we decided to evaluate the evidence for the social or cultural brain in cetaceans.

Another advantage with cetaceans is that research groups around the world have spent decades documenting and uncovering their social worlds. These include signature whistles, which appear to identify individual animals, cooperative hunting, complex songs and vocalisations, social play and social learning. We compiled all this information into a database and evaluated whether a species’ cultural richness is associated with its brain size and the kind of society they live in.

We found that species with larger brains live in more structured societies and have more cultural and learned behaviours. The group of species with the largest relative brain size are the large, whale-like dolphins. These include the false killer whale and pilot whale.

To illustrate the two ends of the spectrum, killer whales have cultural food preferences – where some populations prefer fish and other seals. They also hunt cooperatively and have matriarchs leading the group. Sperm whales have actual dialects, which means that different populations have distinct vocalisations. In contrast, some of the large baleen whales, which have smaller brains, eat krill rather than fish or other mammals, live fairly solitary lives and only come together for breeding seasons and at rich food sources.

The lives of beaked whales are still a big mystery.
Ted Cheeseman/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

We still have much to learn about these amazing creatures. Some of the species were not included in our analysis because we know so little about them. For example, there is a whole group of beaked whales with very large brains. However, because they dive and forage in deep water, sightings are rare and we know almost nothing about their behaviour and social relationships.

The ConversationNevertheless, this study certainly supports the idea that the richness of a species’ social world is predicted by their brain size. The fact that we’ve found it in an independent group so different from primates makes it all the more important.

Susanne Shultz, University Research Fellow, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Solutions for Britain’s 12.4 billion pounds’ worth of unclaimed benefits

And what do we do about that? (See this for more info.)

I don’t know. British government is utterly useless in this respect. Everybody knows that.

Could local government be better? Instead of city councils sending out e-mails that encourage people to buy lottery tickets (!!), could they include a list of potential benefits people may qualify for? It might even stop those people from getting into arrears with their council tax, for example.

Other than that, I have no solutions. Anyone?

 

I got that in response to this:

Ladies, gentlemen,

Some time ago, the tone of your council tax payment reminders changed considerably. The letters can now be seen as condescending toward socioeconomic minorities.

Most people do not choose to ignore their council tax bills, after all. They are forced to.

You know as well as I do that people who are on any kind of benefit to do with the DWP often suffer from delays, sanctions and errors in their payments. Their income is not such that it can bridge those income gaps and the income gaps usually mean that people are not able to carry out bill payments.

This situation is going to get worse as a result of the roll-out of the universal credit system which currently results in payment gaps of 6 to 8 weeks.

May I suggest that instead of chiding people for being of the wrong class, you offer support and solutions?

One solution for bridging income gaps caused by the DWP could be to set up small local networks that offer peer-to-peer interest-free lending. Each individual might for example lend £5 or £10 to the person left in the lurch by the DWP, which would limit each individual’s risk. This could enable people to continue paying their bills instead of getting in arrears. When the delayed DWP payment finally arrives, they would have to return the loaned money. If they don’t, they’d be kicked out of the network. Any new delays would have to be covered through a new loan.

I know that Britain distinguishes between lesser and higher human beings, but that is against the law, even in Britain, and your letters could be perceived as discriminatory in nature.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kind regards,

Angelina Souren

Of course, the above also holds for other situations, such as cleaners whose get their wages late or whose paid wage amount was incorrect. Benefit payments have been in the news a lot lately, however.

Solutions for the Universal Credit income gap

As most people in Britain know by now, the roll-out of universal credit leaves recipients without income for 6 to 8 weeks. Recipients of universal credit are not able to bridge such gaps, which means they develop arrears, often for the first time in their lives, and sometimes lose their homes as a result.

One solution for bridging these income gaps could be to set up local peer-to-peer interest-free lending networks. To be able to bridge the gap left by universal credit, such networks would have to include people with higher incomes (whereas smaller loans of, say, £50 to £100 can be provided by small networks of people who each lend a fiver or a tenner).

As soon as the delayed payment comes in, the recipient would have to pay off that loan.

This could be a solution that empowers people and prevents arrears.

I am aware that this would be a highly thoroughly un-British solution, but the usual endless whining of so many lone individuals – regardless of whether they write in the Guardian or not – does not help anyone bridge that monstrous income gap either.

And even if the gap were to be reduced to 4 weeks, this would still be too much to bridge.

The main motivation for universal credit appears to be a concealed benefit cut (without calling it that). “We want to make sure people who work get more money than people who depend on benefits”, the government has said. In a low-wage country, that is very bad news.

Iain Duncan Smith – he who laughed loudly when he heard of suicides and other forms of suffering among particularly disabled and chronically ill people as a result of benefit cuts – has said that the 6-to-8 weeks wait is actually a Treasury thing, not a DWP thing. If that is true, then the only reason that I can think of for the delay is the interest the government can make on the delayed UC payments. (This – interest – is the reason why many big corporations pay all their bills late.)

(I realize that UC is only still being piloted and running behind big time, but it’s about to push into its next phase and there are no signs that the government is going to remedy the mess.)

Britain’s unclaimed benefits: four million families miss out on £12.4 billion


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Why aren’t people entitled to benefits claiming them?
via shutterstock.com

Dan Finn, University of Portsmouth

Up to £12.4 billion of means-tested benefits – including pension credit, housing benefit and jobseekers and employment support allowance – were left unclaimed in 2015-16, according to new data released by the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions.

Means-tested benefits are designed to ensure a minimum standard of living for Britain’s poorest families. But not all those people eligible are claiming them – in comparison to the near universal take-up rate of the basic state pension and widespread take-up of child benefit (which is taxable only for high earners).

Annual average amounts unclaimed by eligible families vary from an estimated £5,000 per year for those eligible for employment support allowance (for those with a disability or long-term illness), to £2,000 per year for those eligible for pension credit. In a parallel data series HM Revenue & Customs estimates take-up rates for tax credits – which are paid directly to qualifying low paid workers.

The latest data for 2014-15 adds further to the scale of unclaimed entitlements. The central estimate is that £2.3 billion of child tax credit and £3 billion of working tax credit went unclaimed by 640,000 families and 1.2m families respectively.

Improving take-up rates of means-tested benefits directly reduces poverty. Research also suggests that families who top up their income with benefits also have higher levels of health, family well-being, and employment participation and retention.

Why people don’t claim

The failure to claim benefits stems from a mix of social and economic circumstances, administrative structures, and complex eligibility rules. It may, for example, reflect a lack of awareness about the availability of the benefit or a potential claimant’s expectation that the costs involved in applying for the benefit outweigh the value of any payment.

But there is much evidence that a key factor undermining take-up is the poor design and delivery of the benefits system. Take-up has also been implicitly discouraged by policy changes targeted at some working age groups, especially the short-term unemployed. An increase in conditions and related sanctions are designed to get people into work as quickly as possible and, as a result, make their claims to benefits relatively short-lived.

Plus, the tenor of contemporary media narratives on welfare dependency has increased the stigma attached to claimants, especially people of working age. Research suggests this stigmatisation is linked to reductions in take-up and a reluctance to claim among potential beneficiaries, notably among pensioners.

The British government is unique in Europe in publishing robust annual estimates of benefit and tax credit take-up. The data for 2015-16 gives an insight into which families are at risk of poverty and claim the help from the state that they are entitled to, as the graph below shows.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/aa2BQ/1/

Take-up rates vary depending on the type of household. For example, while the overall take-up of housing benefit was 77%, it ranged from over 90% for singles with children to only 64% for those eligible in private rented accommodation. And while the main estimate for working tax credit was 65%, only 33% of eligible households without children were claiming it.

The data implies that those with greater entitlements are more likely to claim. A significant change since 2012-13 was a decrease of 11% in means-tested jobseekers allowance caseload take-up – people who are entitled to a benefit but who do not claim it. This may have been due to high employment rates, more stringent conditions attached to claiming unemployment benefit and the early impact of the new universal credit, which for working age people rolls most means-tested benefit entitlements into a single monthly payment.

Universal credit take-up must be measured

There are no estimates or commitment yet given to publish take-up data for universal credit, even though it is now claimed by 1.5m people and will, it is estimated, be claimed by nearly 6m households in 2021. One of the supposed principal benefits of universal credit is that it will improve take-up rates by making the system less complicated and easier to deliver.

The evidence on take-up suggests these assumptions are over optimistic. It will take time for awareness to develop about the new rules and regulations involved.

It is unlikely that public and voluntary sector organisations will be able to invest in the additional effort needed to inform potential claimants, front line delivery staff, and related intermediary organisations that assist more disadvantaged groups and communities. There is also a risk that the “default digital delivery” (which means that most universal credit claimants must apply and self-manage their claims online) may reduce and deter take-up among people without access to computers or the skills to navigate digital channels.

Means-tested entitlements will likely remain at the centre of the British welfare system, including for many pensioners. And measures to improve take-up will remain central to national and local poverty-reduction strategies. It’s therefore vital to continue publishing take-up data to gauge the future impact of universal credit and related welfare and pension reforms.

The ConversationIf universal credit take-up rates do not improve as anticipated, the government should establish and state what percentage of eligible people eligible it expects to take it up. Measuring take-up rates would provide an important way to assess the impact of universal credit and help establish a transparent benchmark to measure whether the new system is achieving its objectives of reducing poverty and incentivising work. The government might also consider investing some of the £12.4 billion unspent means-tested benefits to develop new ways to increase take-up.

Dan Finn, Emeritus Professor of Social Inclusion, University of Portsmouth

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thank you, Theresa May, for the hate you encourage

(But not really.)

Another example of what Ms May’s reign is resulting in:
http://metro.co.uk/2017/10/21/pregnant-woman-denied-nhs-treatment-after-taking-polish-husbands-name-7016266/

I have a hospital appointment next month and I will likely cancel it and go to an optician instead, and pay for my examination. My eyes require an examination every six months, and my eye condition (pigment dispersion syndrome) makes me very angry and powerless because it really hampers what I can do with my life. It tethers me to fridges, pharmacies and hospitals. (It makes me particularly angry because I was finally free from having to have periods and I was so enjoying that freedom.)

I hate that stupid class system that only the British have and that classifies human beings into lesser and higher humans. I too will never be anything but fourth-rate in Britain. I have tick marks in so many “negative” boxes against me. I will never even be second-rate here and this is currently actively driven by the government here.

After reading what it says in that Metro article, I will definitely cancel my hospital appointment. I have had plenty of state-driven hatred and human rights violations in Britain and am sick of it. I won’t put up with any more of it. Enough is enough.

And I’ll get my eye meds some other way too. (That’ll be the modern variety that does not require refrigeration, by the way.)

Yes, of course, there are worse things than having a stupid eye condition that in itself is quite interesting/funny. But I don’t get to choose whether I have it or not.

So Theresa May wanting to subject me to discrimination on account of it is something I will not stand for. If I put up with abuse without protesting, I become a party to it and just as guilty of my own abuse.


Appointment cancelled. Strangely enough, the message I received in response was “We are grateful for this questionnaire response based on your experience of our services. All completed questionnaires are completely anonymous. Thank you for your support.” The form I used requested many personal details.


For those of you who don’t know that, we foreigners go through an interview process before we get our national insurance number and card. We need it for all sorts of things. It is also on our tax papers, for instance. (But apparently, I can cut the thing in two and throw it out now.)

Bees in the city: Designing green roofs for pollinators


File 20170926 11782 1s6vryo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Bees living in cities often have to seek out green space like parks, ravines and gardens. Green roofs could offer them some habitat.
(Shutterstock)

Catherine Howell, University of Toronto; Jennifer Drake, University of Toronto, and Liat Margolis, University of Toronto

Declining bee populations have been widely covered in the news. It is a pressing issue worldwide as one in three bites of food that we eat relies on bee pollination.

A key factor that affects bees is increasing urban development as people flock to cities. As cities develop, they sprawl into their surroundings, fragmenting animal habitats and replacing vegetation with hard surfaces such as concrete and asphalt. Insects, including a multitude of native bees, rely on soil and plants for foraging and nesting.

Bee habitat and foraging opportunities become smaller and more distant from each other. These segments of green space have become known as “habitat patches,” disconnected pieces of habitat that animals can move between to achieve the effect of a larger ecosystem.

These patches occur in cities and can take the form of ravines, parks, gardens and so on.

Despite the fact that pollinators such as birds, bees and butterflies are better at moving between patches than less mobile species, a continuous habitat is always preferable. Green roofs are seen as a way to make up for ecological habitat fragmentation. But studies and guidelines about where and how to best construct green roofs for pollinators are just emerging.

A wild, non-native bee forages for pollen on the green roof of the University of Toronto’s GRIT Lab.
GRIT Lab

Though domesticated bee species such as the well known European honey bee (Apis mellifera) tend to receive greater attention when it comes to declining population, wild bee species are often found to be even more threatened. Wild bee species are most commonly “solitary” as opposed to “social” and nest in the ground or in existing cavities, not hives.

Of the 20,000 or so known bee species, 85 per cent or more are solitary. Rapid urbanization, through paving extensive areas of our environment and loss of vegetative cover, is having a widespread harmful impact on their habitat.

Cities are beginning to recognize the importance of creating and enhancing healthy habitats for pollinator populations that support resilient ecosystems and contribute to a rich urban biodiversity.

The City of Toronto is in the process of developing a Pollinator Protection Strategy intended to raise awareness, develop new education and training, evaluate and investment in green spaces, as well as reexamine city maintenance practices.

Green roofs are mentioned in the Protection Strategy as one way cities can compensate for the loss of ecological habitat and provide valuable foraging opportunities for urban wildlife.

Native or non-native?

Research on the topic of green roofs as pollinator habitats has been fairly limited, but with cities like Toronto adopting bylaws that mandate green roof implementation, there’s an opportunity to study what design decisions are most critical to their success.

Green roof planting choices have been shown to play a part in attracting specific bee species. Sedum species, which are drought-tolerant succulent plants, have always been the most popular choice for green roofs due to their hardiness under extreme conditions, long flowering period and low maintenance requirements.

In fact, in Toronto, a great majority of green roofs are planted with sedum.

Research by University of Toronto Prof. Scott MacIvor and colleagues at the Green Roof Innovation Testing Lab (GRIT Lab) shows that when individual native bees visited sedum, their pollen loads contained other herbaceous flower sources, whereas non-native bees had more full pollen loads of sedum more often.

These findings suggest that if the majority of green roofs are planted strictly with non-native sedum varieties, it could result in a lost opportunity to bolster precious habitat for native pollinators.

It’s important to note that roughly 92 per cent of Toronto’s bee species are native. So, favouring non-native plants can provide habitat for non-native bees over native bees, and could consequently lead to increased competition for those native bees.

Site matters

Despite many green roofs being opportune places for bees to inhabit, research has shown that the location of the green roof matters. The higher the roof, the fewer bees were found there. Green roofs implemented above the eighth storey would not benefit from any additional nesting resources or attract bees.

This doesn’t mean that green roofs atop skyscrapers are useless, but that they should focus on other benefits such as rainwater retention, air quality improvement and thermal cooling.

In large cities like Toronto, many new high-rise buildings are being built with a “tower and podium” configuration, whereby the first few floors of the building have a wide floor area, often covering most of the block (podium), and the tower is set back from the edge of the building.

The roof of the podium is often used as communal space for the building’s occupants and presents a good spot for a biodiverse green roof that could serve bees’ needs. The study further shows that a decline in green space area within a 600-metre radius around each rooftop results in decreasing species richness (diversity) and abundance.

Toronto’s Old City Hall is seen from the green roof planted on the podium of the new City Hall.
(Shutterstock)

Therefore, those designing pollinator habitats on green roofs should consider green space in the surrounding landscape and other features outlined in the City of Toronto Guidelines for Biodiverse Green Roofs.

Considerations and recommendations

Though the appeal of planting green roofs with sedum is evident, limiting the plant palette solely to sedum species could be a lost opportunity to promote native plant and pollinator species in urban environments.

At its worst, this practice could cause non-native bee species to have a leg up on natives as both groups compete for pollen.

It’s important to not only consider plant communities on green roofs, but also the building height and its proximity to other habitat patches to provide as much foraging habitat as possible for bees.

The ConversationWe still need new research into nesting opportunities for ground-nesting bees in the green roof growing medium, as well as the connectivity between ground level landscapes and green roofs, to better understand the ecological value of green roofs in sprawling urban regions.

Catherine Howell, Research Assistant, GRIT Lab, University of Toronto; Jennifer Drake, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Toronto, and Liat Margolis, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture , University of Toronto

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sent to Haiti to keep the peace, departing UN troops leave a damaged nation in their wake

Siobhán Wills, University of Ulster; Cahal McLaughlin, Queen’s University Belfast, and Ilionor Louis, Université d’Etat d’Haiti

On Oct. 15, 2017, the United Nations will withdraw its peacekeeping troops from Haiti, ending its 13-year mission there.

One might expect mixed feelings about the soldiers’ departure. After all, since the arrival of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) in June 2004, after former President Jean-Bertrande Aristide was forced out by a coup, the island has seen neither war nor armed conflict.

Crime and violence levels also remain high in Haiti, particularly in the capital of Port-au-Prince, and until January 2017 the country was leaderless due to repeated delays in holding its presidential election. Haiti is also still recovering from Hurricane Matthew, which caused famine in some hard-hit areas in 2016.

Despite these challenges, reports from the island suggest that most Haitians are ready to see the mission depart. That’s because, beyond stabilizing the country during a period of political tumult, the U.N.‘s troops have also done harm in Haiti.

The international organization has admitted that its peacekeepers introduced cholera to the island after the devastating 2010 earthquake and sexually abused women who lived near U.N. camps.

What it has not yet acknowledged is that during early efforts to take out gangs in crime-riddled neighborhoods, U.N. troops also unintentionally killed more than 25 of the same citizens they were deployed to protect.

MINUSTAH soldiers, here seen in November 2016, have occupied Bois Neuf, Cité Soleil, for over a decade.
Siobhán Wills

Keeping the peace?

This lethal violence, which has garnered little international press, is the subject of our new film, “It Stays With You: Use of Force by U.N. Peacekeepers in Haiti,” a 50-minute documentary released in Port-au-Prince in June 2017 and set for its U.S. release on Oct. 30.

Between 2004 and 2007, MINUSTAH carried out at least 15 heavily militarized operations against criminal gangs living in Cité Soleil, a seaside shantytown of 300,000 to 400,000 people. In these crowded neighborhoods, where most homes are made of scavenged sheets of corrugated metal and other scrap materials, the U.N. troops battled local organized crime groups using heavy weaponry, including automatic rifles and grenades.

During Operation Iron First, for example, which took place in the Bois Neuf section of Cité Soleil on July 6, 2005, the U.N. reports that it used 22,700 bullets, 78 grenades and five mortars and killed seven gang members.

But, according to some residents interviewed in “It Stays with You,” unarmed civilians also died in this raid. Douglas Griffiths, then deputy U.S. ambassador to Haiti, has also confirmed that “credible sources” have accused U.N. peacekeepers of killing “more than 20 women and children” in the operation.

Some were shot inside their homes by U.N. soldiers in helicopters, whose bullets easily penetrated their metal rooftops. These accounts have been substantiated by witnesses and international aid workers interviewed for our film, including by one American doctor who saw bullet holes in the roof of a home that he visited while treating a young girl for gunshot wounds.

Some homes in Cité Soleil were completely destroyed by MINUSTAH gunfire and shelling.
Siobhan Wills

Other Cité Soleil residents were killed by machine gun fire by U.N. troops from armored personnel carriers, shooting from guns mounted on the vehicles’ roofs. Witnesses state that during Operation Iron Fist, sustained firing over several hours destroyed entire homes, killing some of the people inside them.

In 2005, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who was then the U.N.‘s undersecretary general for peacekeeping, essentially confirmed these reports. At a press briefing at the U.N. headquarters in New York, he said, “A number of operations have been conducted by MINUSTAH… I have to be honest with you, there may have been some civilian casualties.”

The following December, just before Christmas in 2006, the U.N.’s Operation New Forest went through some 10,000 bullets over two days. Numerous people with no connection to gangs, including children, were killed or injured in this raid.

The exact number is unclear, however, since the U.N. has carried out no investigations involving a visit to the neighborhood into this raid or others in Cité Soleil. The Haitian police have conducted no investigations, either.

No accountability

These accusations are not the first to damage the reputation of the U.N.’s vast peacekeeping operation, which currently has soldiers stationed in 15 countries around the world. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are an endemic problem in multiple missions.

Even so, MINUSTAH has a bad record. In Haiti, 134 Sri Lankan soldiers set up a child sex ring, exploiting boys and girls as young as 12 years of age. There is little accountability for such violations. The Sri Lankan troops were sent home, but none have been jailed; the U.N. was criticized for its inadequate response. It also took five years for the U.N. leadership to take responsibility for the cholera epidemic.

It is not surprising, then, that the international organization’s response to the killings in Cité Soleil has been lackluster. The end of the Haiti mission this month offers an opportunity for an independent investigation into the unintended harms of U.N. operations in Cité Soleil, particularly in Bois Neuf.

Based on our on-the-ground research, we believe a full accounting would find that the repeated military raids not only killed innocent bystanders but also exacerbated the precariousness of residents’ already marginal existence. Poor families lost their breadwinners; homes were destroyed; children were made orphans and had to be taken in by neighbors.

Evelyn Myrtil (here with granddaughter) and her family were caught in the crossfire between gangs and MINUSTAH troops. Myrtil’s brother did not survive.
Siobhan Wills

After a pot-maker, Nelson Ti Lari, was inadvertently killed in his workshop in 2005, his wife, Veronique, told us that she repeatedly visited the U.N. base at Camp Delta with a photograph of her dead husband, seeking acknowledgment that the breadwinner of her family had been killed. But, she says, the staff there sent her away every time. Eventually, she gave up.

Failing U.N. support – such as medical assistance to those injured in raids or financial support to people who lost their homes or livelihoods in the crossfire – people were compelled to seek help from the cohort of international NGOs that have provided the bulk of citizen services in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake.

There is a growing body of international literature, including research by Dr. Ilionor Louis, co-author of this article, demonstrating that such forced dependency is itself a form of indirect violence. And in a country like Haiti, where post-disaster aid is big business and oversight of NGOs is almost nil, this will be another lasting legacy of the U.N. mission.

In making our documentary, we found that Cité Soleil residents aren’t just sad for their losses – they’re also angry that the U.N. hasn’t taken responsibility for its actions. MINUSTAH may be pulling out of Haiti on Oct. 15, but the the agency’s misdeeds will live on in Cité Soleil long after the last peacekeeper departs.

The ConversationThe film “It Stays With You: Use of Force by UN Peacekeepers in Haiti” is available for streaming (password Haiti17).

Siobhán Wills, Professor of Law, University of Ulster; Cahal McLaughlin, Professor of Film Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, and Ilionor Louis, Sociologist, Ethnology Department, Université d’Etat d’Haiti

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘You all look the same’: non-Muslim men targeted in Islamophobic hate crime because of their appearance


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Men with beards have been called terrorists.
via shutterstock.com

Imran Awan, Birmingham City University and Irene Zempi, Nottingham Trent University

There has been a 29% rise in recorded hate crimes in the UK in the past year according to new figures released by the Home Office, which also showed a spike in offences following the EU referendum.

The consequences of hate crime are widespread. While Muslims in Britain are increasingly subject to Islamophobia, some non-Muslims are also being targeted because they are perceived to be Muslim.

In new research presented to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims we looked at the experiences of non-Muslim men who reported being the target of Islamophobic hate crime.

We interviewed 20 non-Muslim men of different ages, race and religion, based in the UK. Our group included Sikhs, Christians, Hindus and atheists. Although their experiences were all different, they believed that their skin colour, their beard or turban meant that they were perceived to be Muslim – and targeted for it. We decided to only interview men in this study because we understand from our community work that men are more likely than women to be victims of Islamophobia due to mistaken identity.

Our findings backed up our previous research showing that a spike in hate crime is often triggered by a particular event. The men we interviewed, whose names we have anonymised here to protect their identities, described how they felt “vulnerable” and “isolated” after the EU referendum. Vinesh, a 32-year old, Indian British Hindu, told us:

People have been calling me names on Twitter like ‘You’re a p**i c**t’. I have also been threatened on Facebook like ‘Today is the day we get rid of the likes of you!’ I feared for my safety when I read this.

Some of the men noted how terrorist attacks including those in Manchester and London also triggered more Islamophobia. Others also noted how the Trump administration and its stance towards Muslims had promoted anti-Muslim sentiments globally.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/XkO0U/2/

In some cases, hate crimes are targeted at people’s homes or workplaces, with property damaged with Islamophobic graffiti because the perpetrators believe the victims are Muslim. In a recent case in Liverpool, “Allar Akbar” (sic) was painted on a Hindu family’s future home.

One 37-year-old man, called Paul, a white British atheist who is perceived to be a convert to Islam due to his beard, told us how he had been targeted:

I live on a rough estate. I had dog excrement shoved through the mailbox. They also threw paint over my door.

Nobody stepped in to help

Some of those we interviewed felt that their beard was a key aspect of why they were being targeted for looking Muslim. One 19-year-old, called Cameron, who is black British, said:

It’s happened to me ever since I grew a beard. I’m not a Muslim but people stare at me because they think I am.

Many of those we interviewed reported that they suffered anxiety, depression, physical illness, loss of income and employment as a result of being targeted. Raj, a 39-year-old British Indian, told us:

We live in fear every day. We face abuse and intimidation daily but we should not have to endure this abuse.

Such feelings of insecurity and isolation were exacerbated by the fact that these hate incidents usually took place in public places in front of passers-by who didn’t intervene to help. Mark, who is white and Christian and perceived to be Muslim due to his beard and Mediterranean complexion, said:

I was verbally abused by another passenger on the bus who branded me an ‘ISIS terrorist’ while passengers looked on without intervening. In another incident, I had ‘Brexit’ yelled in my face … I feel very lonely. No one has come to my assistance or even consoled me.

Identity questioned

The men we interviewed constantly felt the need to prove their identity, and differentiate themselves from Muslims in an attempt to prevent future victimisation. Many described it as emotionally draining. Samuel, a 58-year-old black British Christian, said:

My identity is always questioned because I look like a Muslim. It does make me feel low but I got used to it. As a black man with a beard you always get associated as being a Muslim terrorist.

The men we interviewed said they wanted much more public awareness about hate crimes and better police recording of these kind of offences. They also called for training for bystanders and people such as teachers who may need to deal with more of these situations. They also thought that an app, through which all types of hate crime could be reported in real time, could offer support for victims.

The ConversationThe rise in Islamophobic hate crime has made many Muslims live in fear. But this kind of hatred is pervasive, and can affect anyone perceived to be Muslim. “You all look the same”, one man was told after explaining that he wasn’t Muslim to somebody who abused him on the train. British society needs to get a better grip on understanding this often “invisible” form of hate crime and what to do about it.

Imran Awan, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology, Birmingham City University and Irene Zempi, Director of the Nottingham Centre for Bias, Prejudice & Hate Crime, Nottingham Trent University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

PS
Hate crimes against disabled children, however, are also on the rise in Britain. – AS

Why the Indigenous in New Zealand have fared better than those in Canada


File 20171005 15464 f7v6kb.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Maggie Cywink, of Whitefish River First Nation, holds up a sign behind Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a summit in Ottawa in support of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Dominic O’Sullivan, Charles Sturt University

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent speech to the United Nations brought Canada’s genocidal story to the world stage.

It gave historical context to an enduring colonialism.

The impact is widespread, but neatly summarized in a life expectancy differential between Indigenous and other Canadians of five to 15 years for men and 10 to 15 years for women. In New Zealand, by way of contrast, the differential between Maori and non-Maori is 7.3 years for men and 6.8 years for women.

These figures summarise the story of the power gap between Indigenous peoples and the settler state in both countries. Policy solutions lie beyond the liberal welfare state, beyond egalitarian justice. The origins of the persistent power gaps in each country are different, however, and reflect different understandings of relationships among sovereignty, citizenship, nationhood and self-determination.

The Indigenous peoples of Canada and New Zealand share similar experiences as subjects of British colonialism.

Yet there are profound differences both in the situation for Indigenous peoples in both countries and in the opportunities for resistance they’ve been able to pursue.

Maori have always held a greater share of the New Zealand national population than the Indigenous in Canada. Maori share a common language, and New Zealand’s smaller land mass makes resistance simpler to organize. Yet their place in the body politic is always contested, as state and public strategies of exclusion compete with the claim to self-determination.

‘Lead the lad to be a good farmer’

Historically, the greater Maori capacity for resistance did not dampen colonial resolve. But it did mean that assimilation, rather than genocide, was the intent of government policy. The purpose of New Zealand’s non-residential native schools, for example, was to “lead the lad to be a good farmer and the girl to be a good farmer’s wife,” as the director-general of education put it in 1931.

Following the Canadian Supreme Court ruling in 1997, Canada’s concern for “the reconciliation of the pre-existence of Aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown” was minimized by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper but rhetorically aligned with the “new beginning” that Trudeau spoke of at the United Nations.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with a Maori elder as he and his wife, Laureen, watch an official Maori powhiri during a visit to New Zealand in 2014.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Trudeau proposed that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples would now be Canada’s policy guide. It would rationalize stronger nation-to-nation, or government-to-government, relationships. Yet at the same time, the 2016 Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling, handed down a year after Trudeau’s election and urging the government to address discrimination against Indigenous children on reserves, has yet to be heeded.

Trudeau expressed concern at the UN about the self-determination of First Nations in Canada, but he didn’t speak of the individual Indigenous citizen’s self-determination.

He did not speak to the child on the reserve whose poverty is a direct result of lesser access to services that others in Canada take for granted as rights of citizenship.

Similar circumstances do exist in New Zealand where racism in schooling, health, the labour market and criminal justice compromise citizenship. However, Maori in New Zealand can demand better with reference to the Treaty of Waitangi and the “rights and privileges of British subjects” that it confers.

Maori protected under treaty

That treaty gave the British Crown the right to establish government. In return, Britain offered protection of Maori authority over their own affairs and natural resources.

The promise has not been consistently kept, but the treaty does give moral and increasingly political and jurisprudential authority to the Maori claim to self-determination. The treaty means that Maori do not contest the post-settler presence, but they do contest the Crown exercising a unilateral sovereign authority.

In 2015, the Waitangi Tribunal, which hears claims against the Crown for breaches of the treaty, found that the agreement was not a cession of sovereignty as the Crown had always claimed. While the government does not accept the finding, and it’s not legally binding, it affirms the Maori position on self-determination.

It also affirms a Maori way of thinking about contemporary politics. It raises possibilities for deeper introspection about Maori as nations, and Maori as citizens, in ways that are not apparent in Trudeau’s interpretation of the UN’s Indigenous declaration as it pertains to Canada.

There is an argument that nation to nation relationships respect the fact that sovereignty was never ceded. Perhaps an argument that indigenous Canadians claiming the full rights and capacities of state citizenship requires accepting the moral legitimacy of Crown sovereignty. However, if sovereignty means the capacity to function as a self-determining people one needs to think about the relative and relational character of political authority, and the sources of political possibility. These exist both inside and outside the state. They exist simultaneously. Neither is a site of political possibility for self-determination that can reach its potential without the support of the other.

Sharing sovereignty does not mean assimilation

Political authority and self-determination can’t reach their full potential without the support of each other. They exist both inside and outside the state. They exist simultaneously.

If the Crown is sovereign, it exercises that sovereignty only as the people’s agent. The UN declaration is insistent that, if they wish, Indigenous peoples have a right to share that sovereignty.

Sharing sovereignty is not dependent on the Indigenous person’s assimilation into an homogenous body politic, but on the capacity to contribute to society as an Indigenous person.

That could include the ability to receive public education in one’s own language, to be elected to Parliament by one’s own people (as is the situation in New Zealand) or to receive health care in ways that are responsive to cultural preferences.

In these ways, state sovereignty is not an authority that exists over and above Indigenous citizens. Nor does state citizenship exist at the expense of the Indigenous nation. It complements and supports self-determination.

In the only book-length comparative study of Indigenous politics in Canada and New Zealand, Roger Maaka and Augie Fleras imagine Indigenous peoples as “sovereign in their own right yet sharing sovereignty with society at large.”

New Zealand continues to work out the terms of this kind of system.

The ConversationCanada does not give it substantive thought, and that’s a serious constraint on the goal of self-determination for First Nations.

Dominic O’Sullivan, Associate Professor, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sugar in the diet may increase risks of opioid addiction

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As North America’s opioid crisis worsens, schools across Canada are purchasing naloxone anti-overdose kits. Research suggests that risks of opioid addiction could also be addressed through attention to children’s nutrition.
(Shutterstock)

Francesco Leri, University of Guelph

Could a diet high in refined sugars make children and adults more susceptible to opioid addiction and overdose? New research, from our laboratory of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Guelph, suggests it could.

Approximately 20,000 people died of fentanyl-related overdoses in the United States last year and in Canada there were at least 2,816 opioid-related deaths. During 2017 so far, over 1,000 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia. High schools are stocking up on the overdose-reversing drug naloxone and universities are training staff to administer the drug.

Nobody is talking about sugar.

And yet there is substantial experimental evidence that refined sugar can promote addictive behaviours by activating the brain’s rewards centres in much the same way as addictive drugs. Opioid abuse is also associated with poor dietary habits, including preferences for sugar-rich foods, as well as malnutrition. These connections have led to questions of whether excessive consumption of refined sugar may affect vulnerability to opioid addiction.

To explore the possible role of a sugar-rich diet in opioid addiction, we investigated whether unlimited access to high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) altered rats’ neural and behavioural responses to the semi-synthetic opioid, oxycodone.

Our findings suggest that a diet high in corn syrup may dampen the reward associated with oxycodone and may therefore encourage consumption of higher quantities of the drug.

Opioids, high fructose corn syrup and addiction

High fructose corn syrup is a refined sugar that typically includes more fructose than glucose. It is a commonly used food additive in North America, produced by chemically processing corn. Although it is employed in many processed foods, its use in soft drinks appears to have the biggest impact on health. In fact, there is a significant relationship between increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain, metabolic syndrome and hypertension.

Recently, our laboratory has been exploring the impact of HFCS on behaviours and brain markers of addiction in laboratory rats. In one study conducted by my PhD student Meenu Minhas, animals had unrestricted around-the-clock access to bottles containing a water solution sweetened by HFCS. After about a month of voluntary drinking, the bottles were removed and, after a few sugar-free days, animals’ behavioural and neural responses to oxycodone were assessed.

Similar to other opioids, oxycodone induces pharmacological effects that include analgesia, euphoria and feelings of relaxation. Some common street names include: “hillbilly heroin,” “perc,” and “OC.” Oxycodone is the active ingredient in a number of formulations which include intravenous injections, immediate release solutions/capsules (Percocet, Percodan, OXY IR, OXY FAST), and extended release preparations (OxyContin).

Oxycodone is also highly addictive and has impacted the lives of numerous North Americans. There are estimates that its consumption increased by almost 500 per cent from 1999 to 2011. The U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that approximately 27.9 million people aged 12 or older used oxycodone products. Moreover, 4.3 million people aged 12 or older reported misusing oxycodone-containing products in the past year.

Dampening drug’s reward may increase use

At the neural level, HFCS exposure decreased oxycodone-induced release of dopamine, which is a desire-promoting neurotransmitter active in the brain’s reward circuits.

Furthermore, at low doses, sedative drugs like opioids and alcohol normally interfere with inhibition and stimulate a variety of “psychomotor” behaviors — such as sociability, extroversion, talkativeness, sensation seeking and interest in novelty. Our study in rats found that exposure to the high fructose corn syrup reduced this psychomotor stimulation induced by oxycodone.


(Shutterstock)

Our experiments show that chronic exposure to high fructose corn syrup had an impact on both the neural and behavioural responses to oxycodone, resulting in changes likely to affect drug-taking and drug-seeking behaviour. They suggest that a high sugar diet may dampen the reward associated with a given dose of oxycodone. And that this may cause people to consume more of the drug.

These results suggest that nutrition, and high fructose corn syrup intake in particular, can influence responses to opioids — a finding that may be relevant both to clinical uses of opioids and to treatment of addiction.

The ConversationWe can win the war on opioid addiction only if we tackle the problem from multiple angles. Our findings, and those of other laboratories, strongly suggest that prevention of unhealthy diets may not only help reduce the obesity epidemic, but also reduce environmental factors that may predispose to opioid addiction.

Francesco Leri, Professor of Psychology, University of Guelph

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Are energy efficiency programmes all they seem?

Ross Gillard, University of York and Carolyn Snell, University of York

The cost of energy in the UK is once again a hot topic. During the party conference season, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, announced that the Scottish government will set up a publicly owned, not for profit energy company. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn restated his wish to nationalise utility companies to “stop the public being ripped off”. And the Conservative prime minister Theresa May promised to fix the “broken” energy market, in part by imposing a cap on some domestic energy prices.

The UK government swiftly followed this season of rhetoric with two supporting policy announcements. It has drawn up draft legislation to set an energy price cap, although this may take until the winter of 2018/19 to be enacted. Second, it has published a clean growth strategy, which promises “cleaner air, lower energy bills, greater economic security and a natural environment protected and enhanced for the future”.

It’s not easy to address the social, environmental and economic dimensions of domestic energy in one go, as these different goals interact with each other. For example, a price cap clearly makes energy more affordable, but it doesn’t reduce the amount of energy needed or used. While the sheer price of energy is problematic for many people, so too is inefficient housing which increases bills and associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The clean growth strategy addresses this by reconfirming a commitment to require large energy companies to install efficiency measures such as insulation and heating systems. This scheme, the energy company obligation (ECO), now has £3.6 billion in funding through to 2028. It aims to help 2.5m fuel-poor households. Alongside stricter regulations within the private rented sector, the ECO is intended to upgrade all fuel-poor homes to a decent standard by 2030.

But it’s worth putting the rhetoric and promises of these policy announcements into context. Help for people in fuel poverty has decreased since 2010, largely due to the coalition government abandoning publicly funded schemes in England in favour of privately funded energy supplier obligations like ECO. Though social and environmental policies do add to fuel bills, policymakers assume that this increase is more than offset by people using less energy thanks to efficiency savings.

How much heat is escaping out of your windows?
Ivan Smuk / shutterstock

In our research we are currently looking at whether ECO is an effective way to address affordability and energy efficiency in vulnerable people’s homes. England is the only one of the four UK nations that relies solely on this market-driven scheme, so it’s important to evaluate its impact. We recently highlighted a number of potential problems, and solutions. To begin with, only certain people are eligible. Proxies such as welfare benefits, demographics and postcodes are used, but they can arbitrarily exclude households on the margins of these measures who may indeed be vulnerable.

People also struggle to upgrade their homes if the work does not enable a certain amount of carbon savings at a certain price. In other words, private companies are likely to prioritise meeting their statutory obligations rather than findings and helping the most vulnerable households. Even for those that do secure funding, it’s at best a long and complicated process. Some upgrades are never completed because installers are not equipped to manage the needs of people with, for example, disabilities or mental health conditions.

What is clear from our comparative research of the UK nations is that state funded schemes, such as nest in Wales and home energy efficiency programmes in Scotland, are better able to target, and respond to the needs of, vulnerable households. Market driven schemes are different as they will, by definition, seek out the most cost effective work. But this ceases to be an asset once the low-hanging fruit has all been picked, and those with the greatest need (and potentially higher costs) are left subsidising other people’s housing upgrades.

The ConversationAn energy price cap will certainly provide some initial relief. But unless it is continually ratcheted down or extended to more customers it will not provide long-term savings or wider benefits. Increasing investment in energy efficiency ticks more social and environmental boxes, but the regressive approach to funding such a scheme in England means it will continue prioritising cost-effective carbon savings over helping those most in need.

Ross Gillard, Research associate, University of York and Carolyn Snell, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, University of York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

AI can predict whether your relationship will last based on how you speak to your partner


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I’m TALKING.
Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock

Ian McLoughlin, University of Kent

Any child (or spouse) who has been scolded for their tone of voice – such as shouting or being sarcastic – knows that the way you speak to someone can be just as important as the words that you use. Voice artists and actors make great use of this – they are skilled at imparting meaning in the way that they speak, sometimes much more than the words alone would merit.

But just how much information is carried in our tone of voice and conversation patterns and how does that impact our relationships with others? Computational systems can already establish who people are from their voices, so could they also tell us anything about our love life? Amazingly, it seems like it.

New research, just published in the journal PLOS-ONE, has analysed the vocal characteristics of 134 couples undergoing therapy. Researchers from the University of Southern California used computers to extract standard speech analysis features from recordings of therapy session participants over two years. The features – including pitch, variation in pitch and intonation – all relate to voice aspects like tone and intensity.

A machine-learning algorithm was then trained to learn a relationship between those vocal features and the eventual outcome of therapy. This wasn’t as simple as detecting shouting or raised voices – it included the interplay of conversation, who spoke when and for how long as well as the sound of the voices. It turned out that ignoring what was being said and considering only these patterns of speaking was sufficient to predict whether or not couples would stay together. This was purely data driven, so it didn’t relate outcomes to specific voice attributes.

How a tone of voice can change the meaning of a few words.

Interestingly, the full video recordings of the therapy session were then given to experts to classify. Unlike the AI, they made their predictions using psychological assessment based on the vocal (and other) attributes – including the words spoken and body language. Surprisingly, their prediction of the eventual outcome (they were correct in 75.6% of the cases) was inferior to predictions made by the AI based only on vocal characteristics (79.3%). Clearly there are elements encoded in the way we speak that not even experts are aware of. But the best results came from combining the automated assessment with the experts’ assessment (79.6% correct).

The significance of this is not so much about involving AI in marriage counselling or getting couples to speak more nicely to each other (however meritorious that would be). The significance is revealing how much information about our underlying feelings is encoded in the way we speak – some of it completely unknown to us.

Words written on a page or a screen have lexical meanings derived from their dictionary definitions. These are modified by the context of surrounding words. There can be great complexity in writing. But when words are read aloud, it is true that they take on additional meanings that are conveyed by word stress, volume, speaking rate and tone of voice. In a typical conversation there is also meaning in how long each speaker talks for, and how quickly one or other might interject.

Consider the simple question “Who are you?”. Try speaking this with stress on different words; “Who are you?”, “Who are you?” and “Who are you?”. Listen to these – the semantic meaning can change with how we read even when the words stay the same.

Computers reading ‘leaking senses’?

It is unsurprising that words convey different meanings depending on how they are spoken. It is also unsurprising that computers can interpret some of the meaning behind how we choose to speak (maybe one day they will even be able to understand irony).

But this research takes matters further than just looking at the meaning conveyed by a sentence. It seems to reveal underlying attitudes and thoughts that lie behind the sentences. This is a much deeper level of understanding.

The therapy participants were not reading words like actors. They were just talking naturally – or as naturally as they could in a therapist’s office. And yet the analysis revealed information about their mutual feelings that they were “leaking” inadvertently into their speech. This may be one of the first steps in using computers to determine what we are really thinking or feeling. Imagine for a moment conversing with future smartphones – will we “leak” information that they can pick up? How will they respond?

Congratulations. Changes in your voice, pulse and pupil size all indicate you’ve found a romantic match.
Astarot/Shutterstock

Could they advise us about potential partners by listening to us talking together? Could they detect a propensity towards antisocial behaviour, violence, depression or other conditions? It would not be a leap of imagination to imagine the devices themselves as future therapists – interacting with us in various ways to track the effectiveness of interventions that they are delivering.

Don’t worry just yet because we are years away from such a future, but it does raise privacy issues, especially as we interact more deeply with computers at the same time as they are becoming more powerful at analysing the world around them.

The ConversationWhen we pause also to consider the other human senses apart from sound (speech); perhaps we also leak information through sight (such as body language, blushing), touch (temperature and movement) or even smell (pheromones). If smart devices can learn so much by listening to how we speak, one wonders how much more could they glean from the other senses.

Ian McLoughlin, Professor of Computing, Head of School (Medway), University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Investing in people’s futures

“IMF research has shown that excessive inequality hinders growth and hollows out the country’s economic foundation. It erodes trust within society and fuels political tensions.”

In the past three decades, economic inequality between countries has declined sharply, said Christine Lagarde at her recent public speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“But if we look at inequality within countries, especially some advanced economies, we see widening gaps and an increased concentration of wealth among the top earners.”

There are no lesser human beings and higher human beings. That idea is a fallacy. Greater equality brings greater happiness, particularly if it lifts everyone who is in deep poverty out of it, and even benefits those at the top.

In 1981, the average top marginal tax rate in advanced economies was 62%. In 2015, it was 35%. New IMF research (which will be published next week) suggests that some advanced economies could raise their top tax rates without slowing growth. “Worth considering.”

“What is not yet done is only what we have not yet attempted to do.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

Foie gras

It was a woman in Sarasota who e-mailed me a few years ago at the recommendation of someone else in Florida who made me aware of the problem with foie gras.

Essentially, it is the product of disease and torture, which is why its sale as well as its production is against the law in many countries. The disease is called hepatic lipidosis. Fatty liver disease. It is deliberately inflicted on geese and duck for the production of foie gras.

Many celebrities have spoken out against it and actively campaigned against it. The woman in Sarasota – not a celebrity – was campaigning to stop its use in local restaurants.

I made a (semi-mock) campaign for a course I was taking in 2010, and I also boycotted Amazon until Amazon banned its sales.

Since then, I’ve been boycotting eBay UK. Ebay is stubborn and still allows its sales, although it depends on the country. I’ve never seen foie gras offered from the Netherlands, but eBay.nl does accept offers from the UK, France and Germany.

Occasionally, sellers still try to sneak it in on Amazon by calling it a book, when they sell tins of the stuff packaged in cardboard, I later saw. When I spot it, I report it.

In Britain, Viva! is a very active campaigner against foie gras.

How to tackle bullying

In January, a 12-year-old British boy called Louie Tom Fenton killed himself after prolonged bullying because he was vegan. Among other things, kids threw meat at him at school. “He loved the sea and was deeply committed to conservation, the environment and sea life.”

Adults and kids bully. There are cultural differences, but the essence of bullying seems to be the same. Why do bullies bully? In many cases, to gain significance that they apparently lack.

The significance derived from bullying has two components and here is where culture may make a bigger difference.

  • Being applauded by one’s surroundings for being a bully.
  • The power – physical and psychological – that comes from bullying.

If you want to change anything in society, starting with young people is often best and as bullying particularly affects children…

On Twitter, someone pointed out to me that it used to be okay for drunk people to get into their cars and drive and that this has changed. Society’s views on the acceptability of drunk driving have changed.

Now people look after each other and stop each other from getting behind the wheel when drunk. We also have designated drivers.

I was thinking that stopping bullying should begin with the parents of bullies and the staff at their schools, but if bullies bully to gain significance, chances are that the lack of significance they are feeling is connected to those parents or the school staff. (Or that their parents one way or another are teaching the bullies that bullying and ridiculing others is the only way to gain significance, for instance during their dinner table conversations, in which they talk about relatives, neighbours and colleagues.)

Focusing energy in that direction has a low chance of success.

So why don’t classes start anti-bullying teams of five or more kids who sign up to the responsibility of preventing bullying? They can function like the people who stop the drunk from getting into his or her car.

Because let’s face it, adults don’t understand much about the kind of bullying that goes on among kids and are often completely unaware of what happens in digital media. Peers have much better access to that, and a much greater understanding, both of how it works and what the effects can be.

Depending on the culture the bullying occurs in, there can be a strong tendency to blame the targets of bullying for what is being done to them. The bullies are usually ignored, tolerated, respected or applauded. But it is the bullies who have the problem. It is the bullies who need to be stopped. (I am not sure that admonishing bullies or punishing them would solve the problem. Maybe some of them feel frustrated because of, say, undiagnosed dyslexia.)

Getting bullied is not really any different than being hit in traffic by a drunk driver. If you aren’t in a certain place at a certain time, you won’t get hit. It is the thing that sets you apart – being in a location at certain time, or being vegan – that makes you a target and that thing that sets you apart is essentially no more than the mere fact that you exist.

There is nothing wrong with existing. But there is something wrong with bullying.

So, schools, let’s get those anti-bulling teams started, shall we?

In fact, that too may give the bullies the significance they crave. Early intervention makes it possible to teach bullies that there are other, better ways to gain significance.

Of course, we only hear about the schools that are not able to get a grip on bullying. Sometimes they are hampered by the law. How do schools address bullying?

https://www.inlander.com/Bloglander/archives/2013/12/05/an-inlander-cover-story-changed-the-way-central-valley-high-school-addressed-bullying

https://www.inlander.com/spokane/it-gets-worse/Content?oid=2154821

https://www.myhorrynews.com/news/local/loris/daisy-elementary-participates-in-anti-bullying-campaign/article_4c86a13c-6397-11e4-aad4-0017a43b2370.html

http://www.communitynews.com.au/joondalup-times/news/beat-beats-bullying/

http://www.familylives.org.uk/about/press/bullying-continues-to-impact-on-wellbeing-of-pupils-parents-and-professionals/

http://lanetwork.facinghistory.org/one-school-addresses-bullying/

https://changingfaces.org.uk/adviceandsupport/anti-bullying-info/anti-bullying-policy-guidelines

Why (ex)Hurricane Ophelia took a wrong turn towards Ireland and Britain – and carried all that dust

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Met Office

Alexander Roberts, University of Leeds

Hurricane Ophelia, by then downgraded to Storm Ophelia, reached Ireland on Monday October 16. At the time of writing there had already been three deaths and countless reports of severe damage to buildings and fallen trees. Unlike other severe storms to reach Ireland and Britain, such as the 1987 Great Storm, Ophelia was in many ways a typical tropical cyclone with a tight spiral of cloud, powerfully strong winds, and a cloud-free eye.

But what set it apart from other Atlantic hurricanes was its direct route to Europe. While hurricanes do sometimes take a circuitous route westward across the ocean and loop back again towards Europe, this one took a short cut.

Ophelia began as a rather innocuous looking group of clouds in the Atlantic Ocean, several hundred miles south-west of the Azores and roughly on the same latitude as Morocco or northern Florida. Yet even at this stage it was unusual. Most named storms in the Atlantic are generated in warmer waters much further south and, as such, they are generally driven across the ocean by the easterly (blowing westwards) trade winds. They eventually dissipate as they curve north into the Atlantic or make landfall in the Caribbean, Mexico or the US.

Tracks of all Atlantic hurricanes from 1851 to 2012.
Nilfanion / US National Hurricane Centre, CC BY-SA

In Ophelia’s case, moderate atmospheric shear (changes in direction and strength of wind with height) and relatively cool sea surface temperatures meant it took several days to develop the well-defined low pressure centre, strong winds and spiral clouds of a hurricane. Then, instead of travelling west, like most Atlantic hurricanes, Ophelia began to head north-east.

This can be explained by the position and strength of the mid-latitude jet stream, an atmospheric feature that plays a major role in determining the weather over Western Europe. When its path loops north over the UK it can produce stable warm conditions in the summer (as in the record-breaking heatwave of July 2015), and bright cold days in the winter. When its path west to east is more direct, it guides low pressure storm systems across the UK and Ireland and can be responsible for the rapid strengthening of storms in a short period of time (described colloquially by forecasters as a “weather bomb”).

https://giphy.com/embed/uDOWJ8J8zD1fy
A northwards loop of the jet stream (far right) guided Ophelia from the Azores to Ireland.

It is this that produced such a rapid change in direction for Ophelia. Such waves on the mid-latitude jet stream are not unusual, however, the combination of both the jet’s and Ophelia’s position produced the conditions to guide the ex-hurricane toward the British Isles.

Adrift in the Azores

Tropical cyclones that form in or travel to the region near the Azores can become trapped. Stronger vertical wind shear to the north and south as well as colder sea surface temperatures in the surroundings can lead to storms that travel very slowly and eventually dissipate due to unfavourable conditions.

If there is no external force that can help to steer the storm, but conditions remain favourable, then tropical cyclones can persist for a long time. An example of this was Hurricane Nadine which circled the same part of the ocean where Ophelia formed for almost a month in 2012, the fourth longest-lived Atlantic hurricane on record.

First part of Ophelia’s journey. Compare to the map above – very few hurricanes take this route.
US National Hurricane Centre

That may have been Ophelia’s fate too, had it not been for the mid-latitude jet stream which instead guided the hurricane directly toward Ireland. It is partly due to this behaviour that the forecasts have been so accurate. Jet streams are generally well represented in numerical weather models, and so their influence on a storm’s path can be well predicted.

Ahead of Ophelia’s arrival the UK had a weekend of unseasonably balmy temperatures thanks to warm tropical air driven northwards. This is partly due to the winds circulating around the Ophelia low pressure centre, but also the positioning of the jet stream helping to draw air up from the tropics.

What about that dust?

On Monday much of the UK looked far less like a hurricane had arrived, and much more like the whole country had been put through a rosy Instagram filter. The sun was particularly red at dawn and throughout much of the day the whole sky glowed a yellowy-orange.

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This effect was partly thanks to the southerly winds on Ophelia’s eastern side, which transported Saharan dust and smoke from Iberian forest fires. In fact several flights over the UK were forced to make emergency landings when smoke could be smelt in the cabin. Increased number of particles in the atmosphere then scattered light preferentially from the blue end of the spectrum, leaving the more orange and red colours to reach our eyes.

The ConversationBut Ophelia also produced a layer of upper level clouds, thick enough to block out much of the sun’s rays directly but thin enough to allow a large amount of diffuse, scattered light to pass through. On a day when the sky was not full of smoke and dust particles, this would have appeared like a run-of-the-mill white skied, overcast day. However, on Monday it led to Facebook feeds being filled with photos of a bright orange sun at midday and yellow clouds.

Alexander Roberts, Researcher, Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science (ICAS), University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.