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The Health Edge

Early Substance Use Linked to Lower Educational Achievement

May 17th 2012

Premature Baby

Researchers have found evidence that early drug and alcohol use is associated with lower levels of educational attainment. Studying male twins who served in the military during the Vietnam era, they found that those who began drinking or using drugs as young teens or who became dependent on alcohol, nicotine or marijuana, were less likely to finish college than those who didn't use alcohol or drugs until later in life and never became dependent.

The study was conducted by investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System. "We can't say that substance dependence or early substance use causes lower educational achievement, but we do see a strong association," says lead author Julia D. Grant, PhD, research assistant professor of psychiatry. "Even after we statistically controlled for the genes and the environmental factors that twins share, we found a relationship between substance use and educational achievement." Past studies about the relationship between substance use and education have delivered mixed results. But this study of 6,242 twins shows a link between fewer years of schooling and the onset of drinking before age 14. Read more ..

Mexico on Edge

Horrific Violence in Mexico Likely to Affect July Presidential Election

May 16th 2012

Mexican Drug Police2

The discovery of 49 decapitated and handless corpses on a highway near the city of Monterrey, in Mexico's northern Nuevo Leon state on Sunday, has drawn attention once again to the brutal drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives in that Latin American nation during the past six years.  Shortly before the discovery in Monterrey, dozens of bodies were found in the border city of Nuevo Laredo and in the central city of Guadalajara.

In Nuevo Leon, authorities are investigating the brutal slaughter of 43 men and six women, whose identities are difficult to establish, according to state public security spokesman Jorge Domene.

None of them have heads, he explains, and the bodies are so mutilated that forensic experts might not be able to establish who they were. Domene says signs left near the bodies indicate that credit for the mass killing is being claimed by Los Zetas, a paramilitary group that started out a decade ago as part of the Gulf cartel in northeastern Mexico, and then went into drug smuggling on its own. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Drugs from Lizard Saliva Reduces the Cravings for Food

May 15th 2012

Obese man

A drug made from the saliva of the Gila monster lizard is effective in reducing the craving for food. Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, have tested the drug on rats, who after treatment ceased their cravings for both food and chocolate.

An increasing number of patients suffering from type 2 diabetes are offered a pharmaceutical preparation called Exenatide, which helps them to control their blood sugar. The drug is a synthetic version of a natural substance called exendin-4, which is obtained from a rather unusual source – the saliva of the Gila monster lizard (Heloderma suspectum), North America's largest lizard.

Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, have now found an entirely new and unexpected effect of the lizard substance, reducing the cravings for food. In a study with rats, Assistant Professor Karolina Skibicka and her colleagues show that exendin-4 effectively reduces the cravings for food. "This is both unknown and quite unexpected effect," comments an enthusiastic Karolina Skibicka: "Our decision to eat is linked to the same mechanisms in the brain which control addictive behaviours. We have shown that exendin-4 affects the reward and motivation regions of the brain. Read more ..

Broken Economy

Americans are Still at Sea and Underwater with Debts

May 15th 2012

consumer debt

As the country emerges from the Great Recession, a substantial number of U.S. families are underwater—and not just with their mortgages. According to a new University of Michigan report, about one out of every five U.S. households owe more on credit cards, medical bills, student loans and other noncollateralized debts than they have in savings and other liquid assets.

The report also predicts continuing trouble ahead for home mortgages, with 1.7 percent of families surveyed in 2011 saying that it is "very or somewhat likely" that they will fall behind on their mortgage payments in the near future. This represents an improvement from 2009, however, when 1.9 percent of families had such expectations.

"Our data suggest that the mortgage crisis will continue for the next few years, although a somewhat smaller share of families will experience mortgage distress," said Frank Stafford, an economist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and co-author of the report with U-M researchers Bing Chen and Robert Schoeni. "And even though average savings levels have gone up since 2008, our data show that there has been no improvement in financial liquidity between 2009 and 2011, except among families with more than $50,000 in savings and other liquid assets." Read more ..

The Edge of Autism

Evolution's Gift May Also Be at the Root of a Form of Autism

May 15th 2012


A recently evolved pattern of gene activity in the language and decision-making centers of the human brain is missing in a disorder associated with autism and learning disabilities, a new study by Yale University researchers shows.

"This is the cost of being human," said Nenad Sestan, associate professor of neurobiology, researcher at Yale's Kavli Institute for Neuroscience. "The same evolutionary mechanisms that may have gifted our species with amazing cognitive abilities have also made us more susceptible to psychiatric disorders such as autism." 

Kenneth Kwan and other members of the Sestan laboratory identified the evolutionary changes that led the NOS1 gene to become active specifically in the parts of the developing human brain that form the adult centers for speech and language and decision-making. This pattern of NOS1 activity is controlled by a protein called FMRP and is missing in Fragile X syndrome, a disorder caused by a genetic defect on the X chromosome that disrupts FMRP production. Fragile X syndrome, the leading inherited form of intellectual disability, is also the most common single-gene cause of autism. Read more ..

The Urban Edge

Urban Landscape's Power to Hurt or Heal

May 15th 2012

Urban farming

Research shows that street furniture, barriers, parks, public spaces and neighbourhood architecture can stir up powerful emotions in local residents. This should be taken into account in programmes designed to reduce tensions and foster community cohesion.

Four cities - Amsterdam, Beirut, Belfast and Berlin were chosen as the location of the research as each has a different social history and underlying tensions. The project was undertaken by Dr Ralf Brand of the University of Manchester and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Dr Brand found that tensions between different social groups (ethnic, religious or political in nature) and radicalisation can have a significant impact on the urban landscape, and vice versa. This does not mean that urban environments cause, or prevent, these political positions. But some architectural and urban design features were identified that at least played a part in raising community tensions as well as those that reduced divisions. Read more ..

The Edge of Food

Hong Kong Activists Protest Shark Fin Trade

May 14th 2012

Shark fin soup

Shark fin has been considered a luxury in Chinese cuisine since the Ming emperors first demanded the delicacy more than 400 years ago. However, unsustainable and barbaric methods of harvesting the fish mean shark populations are increasingly endangered. More than 150 activists recently braved oppressive heat to deliver a letter calling on the new head of the Hong Kong government, CY Leung, to ban the use of shark fin at official government banquets.

According to Rachel Vickerstaff of the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, the southern Chinese city is the destination for over half the shark fin traded globally—a market worth more than $500 million a year. “Our objectives are to get some public awareness of what we’re trying to do and to let CY know why he needs to see why sharks need saving,” said Vickerstaff.

Sharks are afforded some protection by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, Vickerstaff calculates that up to 70 million sharks are killed each year to feed the growing demand for shark fin among increasingly affluent Chinese consumers. “The Hong Kong government has hidden behind CITES, which is pretty ineffective. CITES only has international trade restrictions on three species of shark. But the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists well over 100 species as threatened or near threatened with extinction,” added Vickerstaff.

Nowadays, shark fin is served in soups at business and wedding banquets as a symbol of status. Depending on a specimen’s quality, a bowl of shark fin soup can cost more than $100, while a dorsal fin of the prized whale shark can retail for up to $20,000. Conservationists say the over-fishing of apex predators has a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem. But they say there is some good news. Younger generations in China are increasingly reluctant to partake of shark fin. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Flooding out Terror? Turkey’s Ilisu Dam Project

May 14th 2012

Ilisu Dam
Ilisu Dam project

You may have heard of dams being built for water management purposes or electricity production, but probably not one being built for counter-terrorism purposes. Turkey’s proposed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River would satisfy just that end. When Ankara completes the proposed construction on the dam in 2013, a large artificial reservoir would flood canyons across the rugged terrain of southeastern Turkey, thus effectively flooding out the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) from the area and scoring a rare “hydro-victory” against terrorism.

The Ilisu Dam project is part of the government-funded Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which traces its origins to the early days of the Turkish republic when plans to utilize the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for energy generation and irrigation were first developed. However, GAP it still awaiting completion. Major fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military has prevented completion of the project since the 1990s. Read more ..

Nigeria on Edge

Nigerian 'Gold Rush' Poisoning Children

May 13th 2012

Nigeria Polio vaccination

The international aid group Doctors Without Borders says at least 4,000 children are suffering from lead poisoning as a result of artisanal gold mining in Zamfara State in Nigeria. The group says emergency federal funds are needed to prevent many of these children from dying.  Activists say the funding has been approved, but none of it has been made available to help the people in Zamfara. Zamfara State is literally sitting on a gold mine.  Nigeria's Doctors Without Borders head, Ivan Gayton, says since gold prices surged in recent years, small time miners can sometimes sell their gold for as much 70 or 80 percent of its international market value. This means villagers who were living on a few dollars a day, are now living on $10 or $15 a day. But unsafe mining practices are releasing so much lead into the community that it is killing local children.  Roughly 400 children have died in the past two years, thousands are awaiting emergency treatment, and nobody knows how many others are in need of urgent care. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Bed Nets Sharply Reduce Malaria Deaths Among Sudanese Refugees

May 12th 2012

mosquito biting

The United Nations is reporting that malaria has dropped from being the leading cause of death among refugees living along the Sudan border. Among the locations where the new malaria-reducing strategies are being employed is the Kakuma Camp for Sudanese refugees in northern Kenya. Not long ago, malaria killed more Sudanese refugees than any other disease. But now, while it is still deadly, the U.N. reports it is only the fifth leading cause of death among the estimated 50,000 Sudanese refugees living in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. 

The reason - a five-year campaign called Nothing-But-Nets run by The United Nations Foundation. Nothing-But-Nets is the largest grassroots campaign in the world and it hopes to end malaria deaths by 2015. Now, Nothing-But-Nets has launched an emergency appeal to send 100,000 life-saving bed nets to help thousands of South Sudanese refugees fleeing conflict and violence along the Sudan border.

Thirty-seven-year-old Achol Deng is a mother of three from Jonglei state. She is among thousands of new arrivals in the Kakuma refugee camp. Deng received mosquito nets that she will need to save her young family during the rainy season.  Read more ..

The Way We Are

Home on the Rails: Ringling Brothers’ Rolling Community

May 12th 2012

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus train, 1992
The circus train in 1992 (credit: James G. Howe)

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is America’s longest-running circus company. It began performances in the early 1890s, and more than a century later, the company maintains many of the traditions of the circus, including travel by train, which is home to hundreds of performers. Its newest show is called “Dragons.” Ringmaster Jonathan Iverson, a former opera singer, joined the circus about 10 years ago. He was drawn by the history and mystique of the company which calls itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

“The part of that mystique is the world’s largest privately owned train. I love the train,” Iverson says. “Three hundred fifty performers and cast and crew and animals are actually traveling on rails across America. That is the world’s greatest carpool.” That car pool—with 60 cars—is more than a kilometer-and-a-half long and crisscrosses the country for 11 months a year.

Iverson shares his train car with his wife, a dancer in the show, and their two children. Like the other families on the train, they cook and eat, take showers and do laundry—live their lives—in the privacy of their own car. “It is so much fun. It gives us sort of like a mini-vacation every week,” Iverson says. “We really see the country. America is really, really beautiful.” Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient Mayan Artwork, Calculations Discovered

May 11th 2012

Mayan Art

Archeologists working among the ruins of a 9th century Mayan town in Guatemala have discovered a room filled with extraordinarily well-preserved artwork. The colorful wall paintings provide new insights into how Mayan astronomers charted the cosmos. 

Xultun was the largest city in the ancient Mayan empire in Central America, where, at its height, an estimated 90,000 people lived and worked among pyramids, inscribed monuments, water reservoirs and sport fields. But by the 14th century, the Mayan civilization had collapsed and this great city fell with it. In 1920, Xultun was rediscovered, overgrown with vegetation. Work to map the 31 square-kilometer site and decode the myriad inscriptions on its monuments continues to this day. In 2008, Boston University archeologist William Saturno was exploring tunnels in the Xultun ruins that had been opened by looters in the 1970s.  One day his student assistant, Max Chamberlain, discovered the entranceway - close to the surface but hidden by vegetation - to a room-like structure. “Max thought he saw the remnants of paint on the walls of this fairly small Maya structure,” Saturno says.

Significant Lives

Vidal Sassoon, Streetfighter

May 11th 2012

Vidal Sassoon

Rabbi Israel Elia, head of the venerable Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London’s Maida Vale district, remembers the day when he met Vidal Sassoon, one of the congregation’s most celebrated sons. Elia had been quietly working in his office on a spring morning two years ago when an anxious colleague relayed the news that a film crew had gathered outside the building. The rabbi went to investigate.

“At the head of the crew, there was a smartly dressed man with delicate, graceful features,” Rabbi Elia recalled yesterday. “He walked over to me and introduced himself as Vidal Sassoon. He was making a film about his life and career.” Pointing to an annex at the side of the synagogue, Sassoon explained that the building had housed the orphanage where he spent his childhood. “So, I took him inside,” Elia said. “He told me, ‘I want to show you where my dormitory was.’ We entered a room and he looked around. He was excited: ‘Yes, this was it, this was the dormitory.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Vidal, your dormitory is now my office.’ He threw his arms around me and hugged me, telling me about the kindness of our community, how his accomplishments would not have been possible without that generosity.” Read more ..

The Health Edge

Revenue-Driven Surgery Drives Patients Home Too Early

May 11th 2012

Face Transplant Surgery

Revenue-driven surgery and poor planning drive some surgical patients home too early, concludes a pair of logistical studies conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. The studies show a correlation between readmission rates and how full the hospital was at the time of discharge, suggesting that patients went home before they were healthy enough.

The researchers recommend better planning and other logistical solutions to avoid these problems. "Discharge decisions are made with bed-capacity constraints in mind," says University of Maryland Professor Bruce Golden, the Smith School's France-Merrick Chair in Management Science, who conducted the research with Ph.D. student David Anderson and other colleagues.

"Patient traffic jams present hospitals and medical teams with major, practical concerns, but they can find better answers than sending the patient home at the earliest possible moment," Golden adds. In the studies, Golden and Anderson tracked patient movement at a large, academic medical center located in the United States. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Vitamin K2--New Hope for Parkinson's Patients?

May 11th 2012


Neuroscientist Patrik Verstreken, associated with VIB and KU Leuven, succeeded in undoing the effect of one of the genetic defects that leads to Parkinson's using vitamin K2. His discovery gives hope to Parkinson's patients. This research was done in collaboration with colleagues from Northern Illinois University (US). "It appears from our research that administering vitamin K2 could possibly help patients with Parkinson's. However, more work needs to be done to understand this better," says Patrik Verstreken.

Malfunctioning power plants are at the basis of Parkinson's. If we looked at cells as small factories, then mitochondria would be the power plants responsible for supplying the energy for their operation. They generate this energy by transporting electrons. In Parkinson's patients, the activity of mitochondria and the transport of electrons have been disrupted, resulting in the mitochondria no longer producing sufficient energy for the cell. This has major consequences as the cells in certain parts of the brain will start dying off, disrupting communication between neurons. The results are the typical symptoms of Parkinson's: lack of movement (akinesia), tremors and muscle stiffness.

The exact cause of this neurodegenerative disease is not known. In recent years, however, scientists have been able to describe several genetic defects (mutations) found in Parkinson's patients, including the so-called PINK1 and Parkin mutations, which both lead to reduced mitochondrial activity. By studying these mutations, scientists hope to unravel the mechanisms underlying the disease process. Read more ..

Human Trafficking

Film-Makers use Girls Gone Wild to Stop Human Trafficking

May 11th 2012

girls gone wild

A creative pair of Dutch film makers are taking on one of the world's worst crimes: human trafficking. Konraad Lefever and Duval Guillaume directed a video (see here) for YouTube to promote StopTheTraffik - a human rights advocacy group based in the UK that seeks to criminalize the sale of human beings, who largely end up in the international sex trade.

Set in Amsterdam's infamous Red Light District, the pair filmed scantily clad young women who posed behind glass at street level as passersby to evaluate them as prostitutes. For decades young women, and some men, have posed at the street-level brothels in displays reminiscent of department store windows. The film-making pair used this to another purpose as they filmed six women who at first appear to beckon the men who pass by on the street with come-hither glances and beckoning gestures. Read more ..

Turkey on Edge

Kemalism Is Dead, but Not Ataturk

May 11th 2012

Turk flags

Kemalism may be dead, but Ataturk's way of doing business appears to be alive and kicking in Turkey. Has Turkey's twentieth century experience with Kemalism—a Europe-oriented top-down Westernization model—come to an end? To a large extent: Yes.

Symbolically speaking, nothing could portend the coming end of Kemalism better than the recent public exoneration of Iskilipli Atif Hoca, a rare resistance figure to Kemalism in the early twentieth century. However, even if Kemalism might be withering away, ironically its founder, Ataturk, and his way of doing business seem to be alive in Turkey.

But first the story of Iskilipli Atif Hoca: In November 1925, Ataturk carried out perhaps the most symbolic of his reforms, banning all Turkish males from wearing the Ottoman fez in order to cement his country's commitment to European ideals. Ataturk wanted to make Turks European head to toe, and the abolition of the fez embodied this effort. Most Turks acquiesced to Ataturk's reforms, not just to the "hat reform" but also to deeper ones such as the "alphabet reform," which changed the Turks' script from an Arab alphabet-based one to its current Latin-based form, further connecting the Turks to European culture. Read more ..

The Ancient Edge

Ancient American Ball Game was a Life or Death Proposition

May 10th 2012

Mexican playing ulama
Modern version of ancient Mesoamerican ball game.

George Washington University Professor Jeffrey P. Blomster’s latest research explores the importance of a rough and tumble ballgame to ancient Mesoamerican societies. Dr. Blomster’s findings show how the discovery of a ballplayer figurine in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca in Central Mexico demonstrates the early participation of the region in the iconography and ideology of the game known by its Mixtec name 'ōllamaliztli'.' This is a point that had not been previously documented by other researchers. Dr. Blomster’s paper, "Early evidence of the ballgame in Oaxaca, Mexico", is featured in the latest issue of Proceedings in the National Academies of Science (PNAS).

Dr. Blomster, GW associate professor of anthropology, has spent 20 years researching the origin of complex societies in Mesoamerica. The participation of early Mixtec societies in ballgame imagery is a new aspect of his research. For the journal publication, Dr. Blomster worked with undergraduate students Izack Nacheman and Joseph DiVirgilio to create artistic renditions of the figurine artifacts found in Mexico.

While early versions of the Mesoamerican ballgame used a hard rubber ball, the ballgames Dr. Blomster researched bear little resemblance to today’s Major League Baseball. The games and the costumes or uniforms participants wore were tied to themes of life and death, mortals and underworld deities or symbolizing the sun and the moon. In some instances, the ballcourt itself represented a portal to the underworld. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Smart Phones Are Changing Real World Privacy Settings

May 10th 2012

smartphone user

Smart phone users are developing new concepts of privacy in public spaces. With endless applications, high-speed wireless Internet access, and free messaging services, smart phones have revolutionized the way we communicate. But at what cost? According to researchers at Tel Aviv University, the smart phone is challenging traditional conceptions of privacy, especially in the public sphere.

Dr. Tali Hatuka of TAU's Department of Geography and Dr. Eran Toch of TAU's Department of Industrial Engineering have teamed to measure the impact of the smart phone phenomenon on privacy, behavioral codes, and the use of public space. Their early results indicate that although spaces such as city squares, parks, or transportation were once seen as public meeting points, smart phone users are more and more caught up in their technology-based communications devices than their immediate surroundings. Smart phone users are 70 percent more likely than regular cellphone users to believe that their phones afford them a great deal of privacy, says Dr. Toch, who specializes in privacy and information systems. Read more ..

The Gender Edge

First Waitress Hired in Gaza since Hamas Take-Over in 2007

May 10th 2012

Gaza city skyline
Gaza City

For the first time in Gaza, since Hamas seized control in 2007, a woman has been allowed to work as a waitress in a restaurant, serving men food and drinks. Ranad al-Ghozz, 24, from Gaza City recently made local media headlines in Gaza, when she began working at the coastal A-Salam restaurant last month.

The majority of Gaza women cannot be found in the workplace as traditional norms are against women working out of the house. If women do work, it is in the public sector specializing in education and health fields. Hamas, the religious Palestinian Sunni Islamic political party rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, basing its governance upon Islamic fundamentalism, has passed laws that curb women’s status and rights since its takeover of Gaza. Women are not allowed to ride motor scooters and hairdressers for women are banned in Gaza.

Twenty-year-old Asmahan Nasser works as a hotel waitress at the upscale Al-Deira, where she must wear a hijab uniform. According to a report in Haaretz, Nasser says she must deal not only with disapproving male patrons, but also disapproving women as well. In one incident, a woman patron left in protest of the hotel’s employment of a waitress and refused to allow Nasser to bring her coffee. Read more ..

The Archeaological Edge

The World’s Oldest Kitchen

May 10th 2012


Deep in a large cave—the size of an airplane hangar—in South Africa, four Israeli scientists were part of an international team that made an astonishing find: the world’s oldest kitchen. There’s no hearth or blender or refrigerator here, but it does contain the oldest evidence of fire use by mankind. Dated to one million years ago, the cave predates the earliest accepted case of humans using fire by about 300,000 years. The size and scope of the remains found in the dark, somewhat damp cave are so compelling there’s no doubt about it, says Liora Kolska Horwitz, a co-director of the research project.

As a zooarchaeologist, she helped reconstruct the general layout of the cave environment and the fauna that may have inhabited it or been eaten there. Her Hebrew University colleagues Ari Matmon and Ron Hagai, and Naomi Porat from the Israel Geological Survey, established with good certainty the age of the cave and the activities that went on inside it.

Sitting around the campfire

The team of international scientists co-led by Kolska Horwitz and Michael Chazan from the University of Toronto looked at microscopic traces of wood ash found near animal bones in the Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape province. Alongside these remains were stone tools dating from about one million years ago. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Research in United Arab Emirates Pinpoints Indoor Air Quality Risks

May 9th 2012

dubai buildings

The rapid shift from nomadic life to modern-day culture in the United Arab Emirates has exposed residents to significant indoor air quality risks that can lead to respiratory illness, according to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With the swift modernization of the country, UAE governmental agencies have not performed the research required to pinpoint health risks, the study reported. The need to develop governmental research capacity makes collaborations with U.S. research teams vital, but the studies must be conducted in a culturally appropriate way.

"This is an important area of investigation, and the UAE is completely under-researched," said Karin Yeatts, Ph.D., lead study author and assistant professor of epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. "There are many good scientific questions that need to be answered, and this area of the world is very deserving of science and public health work. "Knowing about indoor air quality risks is important, Yeatts said, because people in the UAE spend 80 percent to 95 percent of their time indoors escaping the high temperatures. Read more ..

Greece on Edge

Greek Leftists Seek Coalition, Reject EU Austerity

May 9th 2012

Greek and EU flags

The leader of Greek’s leftist Syriza party is beginning talks with other parties on forming a coalition government to reject what he calls "barbaric" austerity measures imposed by the European Union. Voters failed to give any party a majority in Sunday’s election, plunging Greece into more uncertainty. The result is part of a wave of anti-austerity feeling that is building momentum in Europe.

At Syntagma Square in front of parliament, the epicenter of so many anti-government protests in recent years, Greeks gathered to read the newspaper headlines that point to a future once more filled with uncertainty. If none of the elected parties can form a coalition, the country will have to go to the polls once more. Athens resident Dimitros Gletzakos voiced the fears of many Greeks. He says he believes that new elections will again bring a mix, a contradictory and reactionary result. He says Greeks can no longer take such a result - either emotionally, economically or practically. Read more ..

The Health Edge

Income Inequality Leads to More U.S. Deaths

May 8th 2012

Unemployment Line in California
Unemployment Line

A new study provides the best evidence to date that higher levels of income inequality in the United States actually lead to more deaths in the country over a period of years. The findings suggest that income inequality at any one point doesn’t work instantaneously - it begins increasing mortality rates 5 years later, and its influence peaks after 7 years, before fading after 12 years. “This finding is striking and it supports the argument that income inequality is a public health concern,” said Hui Zheng, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

Many other studies have examined the impact of income inequality on mortality and have come up with mixed results, according to Zheng. But he thinks that this study overcomes problems in previous research by using a different data structure and statistical model (called a discrete-time hazard model). Zheng used data from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 1986 to 2004 with mortality follow-up data from 1986-2006. His final sample included more than 700,000 people aged 30 and up. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Cafe Conquerors Use High-Tech Gadgets to Make Public Spaces Their Own ... For Hours

May 8th 2012

Starbucks Wireless

Increasingly "plugged-in" customers are grabbing extra seats, counter space and table tops by using cell phones, laptops and cups of steaming hot coffee to shield others from seemingly public spaces, according to two marketing professors who've studied this brewing consumer clash. Just the act of purchasing a cup of coffee emblazoned with the café logo is enough to give customers territorial rights, which can lead to decreased space turnover and discouraged customers who can't find a place to sit, the researchers found. It's a café conundrum, according to marketing professors Merlyn Griffiths, of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and Mary Gilly, of the University of California, Irvine, who report on the latest territorial consumer behavior in the current issue of the Journal of Service Research. Nowhere is the premium on space to sit and sip greater than in cafes and coffee shops, where establishments like Starbucks, Peet's Coffee and Tea and Panera Bread have invited their customers to linger a while and enjoy the atmosphere along with their coffee beverages. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Best Websites Balance Self-Expression and Functionality

May 8th 2012

Frustrated computer user

Giving people the freedom -- but not too much freedom -- to express themselves may help designers build more interactive web portals and online communities, according to Penn State researchers. The researchers found that people increased their interactivity and developed a greater sense of community when they could write their own blog posts, change the look of their site and add gadgets, such as weather and news feeds, to personalized websites or portals. However, the researchers noted that interactivity and satisfaction dropped if participants had the option to choose from a large number of functional gadgets.

"Interactivity is more about user psychology, rather than the more-is-better approach that some engineers and designers choose to take," said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory. "We need to strategically use interactive tools to help people interact in ways that are beneficial to both the users and site owners." Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iran Prohibits Banks From Sending Statements To “Foreign” E-mail Addresses

May 8th 2012

Reza Taghipour
Reza Taghipour

Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information technology, Reza Taghipour has sent a letter to the head of the country’s Central Bank, Mahmud Bahmani, asking him to instruct banks to refrain from sending bank statements to e-mail addresses administered by foreign providers. In his letter, Taghipour says that banned foreign e-mail providers include Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, and MSN.

The communications minister has called on banks to only accept national e-mail addresses from customers when they open accounts. Taghipour has requested that banks provide access to the Internet for customers to be able to create national e-mail accounts at their premises. The move appears to be aimed at forcing citizens to join the national e-mail system, which many Iranians have been reluctant to use.

Some Iranian websites have reported that the use of the national e-mail is obligatory for those working for the government and state institutions. Iranians have complained several times in recent months that access to their Gmail and other foreign e-mail accounts has been disrupted. These complaints came at a time when the Iranian media reported that the national e-mail system had been also disrupted. Officials did not provide any explanation for the disruption, which angered many. Read more ..

The Way We Are

Brain Scans Unleash Canine Thoughts

May 8th 2012

Callie practices for fMRI

When your dog gazes up at you adoringly, what does it see? A best friend? A pack leader? A can opener?

Many dog lovers make all kinds of inferences about how their pets feel about them, but no one has captured images of actual canine thought processes – until now. Emory University researchers have developed a new methodology to scan the brains of alert dogs and explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species. The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain.

The Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) is publishing the results of their first experiment, showing how the brains of dogs reacted to hand signals given by their owners. “It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” says Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project. “As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”

Key members of the research team include Andrew Brooks, a graduate student at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a professional dog trainer and owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta. Two dogs are involved in the first phase of the project. Callie is a two-year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog. Berns adopted her at nine months from a shelter. McKenzie is a three-year-old Border Collie, who was already well-trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate. Both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity.

The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand? Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Bandwidth Caps Create Uncertainty, Risky Decisions

May 8th 2012

Hand on Mouse

Recently, many U.S. Internet service providers have fallen in line with their international counterparts in capping monthly residential broadband usage. A new study by a Georgia Tech researcher, conducted during an internship at Microsoft Research, shows such pricing models trigger uneasy user experiences that could be mitigated by better tools for monitoring data usage through their home networks.

Home users, the study found, typically manage their capped broadband access against three uncertainties—invisible balances, mysterious processes, and multiple users—and these uncertainties have predictable impacts on household Internet use and can force difficult choices on users. Given the undeniable trend in both Internet norms (such as cloud-based applications) and home-entertainment delivery toward greater broadband requirements, the study seeks to create awareness and empathy among designers and researchers about the experience of Internet use under bandwidth caps.

Marshini Chetty, a postdoctoral researcher in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, interviewed 12 households in South Africa, a country in which broadband caps were universal until February 2010. Typically, the caps set by South African ISPs are severe, with some plans only offering 1 GB of data per month. At the time of the study, the caps ranged up to 9GB of data, far lower than the 150GB-250GB caps set by U.S. providers. Read more ..

The Edge of Health

A Place to Play: Researcher Designs Schoolyard for Children With Autism

May 7th 2012


A Kansas State University graduate student is creating a schoolyard that can become a therapeutic landscape for children with autism. Chelsey King, master's student in landscape architecture, St. Peters, Mo., is working with Katie Kingery-Page, assistant professor of landscape architecture, to envision a place where elementary school children with autism could feel comfortable and included. "My main goal was to provide different opportunities for children with autism to be able to interact in their environment without being segregated from the rest of the school," King said. "I didn't want that separation to occur."

The schoolyard can be an inviting place for children with autism, King said, if it provides several aspects: clear boundaries, a variety of activities and activity level spaces, places where the child can go when overstimulated, opportunities for a variety of sensory input without being overwhelming and a variety of ways to foster communication between peers. "The biggest issue with traditional schoolyards is that they are completely open but also busy and crowded in specific areas," King said. "This can be too overstimulating for a person with autism." Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Unconscious Racial Attitudes Playing Large Role in 2012 Presidential Vote

May 7th 2012

Click to select Image

After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, many proclaimed that the country had entered a post-racial era in which race was no longer an issue. However, a new large-scale study shows that racial attitudes have already played a substantial role in 2012, during the Republican primaries. They may play an even larger role in this year's presidential election.

The study, led by psychologists at the University of Washington, shows that between January and April 2012 eligible voters who favored whites over blacks – either consciously or unconsciously – also favored Republican candidates relative to Barack Obama.

"People were saying that with Obama's election race became a dead issue, but that's not at all the case," said lead investigator Anthony Greenwald, a UW psychology professor. Read more ..

The Medical Edge

Multiple Thought Channels May Help Brain Avoid Traffic Jams

May 7th 2012

traffic jam

Brain networks may avoid traffic jams at their busiest intersections by communicating on different frequencies, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, the University Medical Center at Hamburg-Eppendorf and the University of Tübingen have learned.

“Many neurological and psychiatric conditions are likely to involve problems with signaling in brain networks,” says co-author Maurizio Corbetta, MD, the Norman J. Stupp Professor of Neurology at Washington University. “Examining the temporal structure of brain activity from this perspective may be especially helpful in understanding psychiatric conditions like depression and schizophrenia, where structural markers are scarce.”

Scientists usually study brain networks — areas of the brain that regularly work together — using magnetic resonance imaging, which tracks blood flow. They assume that an increase in blood flow to part of the brain indicates increased activity in the brain cells of that region. Read more ..

The War on Terror

What Ever Happened to Victory Day?

May 7th 2012

victory in europe day

May 8 marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of VE Day, marking victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. On that day Americans poured into the streets, horns blared, factory whistles shrieked, and churches filled. President Harry S. Truman proclaimed over the radio, “The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.”

Since that day, we have known plenty of wars, but no VK Day, VN Day, VI Day, or VA Day marking conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why? What changed?

For one thing, people grow war-weary. U.S participation in World War II lasted three years and eight months. By contrast, the Iraq War lasted eight years and nine months. Afghanistan has gone on for ten years and seven months and still counting.

Further, the scale of warfare has changed. VE Day ended a conflict fought between massive, uniformed armies, with enemies easily identified and battles clearly demarked: Anzio, Normandy, the Bulge. Since then, we have fought diffuse wars against foes who strike and melt into the local population and landscape, with lines so porous and ill-defined as to present wars without fronts. And they end, or drag on, in ambiguous victory, stalemate, or even defeat. Their battles are remembered by those who fought and bled in them -- Heartbreak Ridge in Korea, Hamburger Hill and Hue in Vietnam, Fallujah in Iraq, Kandahar and Kunduz in Afghanistan -- but recalled by few others. Read more ..

Islam on Edge

Foreign Policy Magazine Puts the 'Sex' into Islam's Treatment of Women

May 6th 2012

Muslim woman says they hate us

One of the most revered journals on the political front has taken a cue from Sports Illustrated: Foreign Policy now has a sex issue, indeed what is billed as “the sex issue.” Someone forgot to tell the editors that there is such a thing as “gender,” since there is very little bedroom-variety “sex” revealed in the articles. If a review of “Women in Politics” is about “sex,” then the journal misses out on the real sex going on, like politician John Edwards cavorting while running for President and several secret servicemen strip clubbing the night away in Columbia. And if what is going on from India to Iran is “the new politics of sex,” it looks a lot like the old. The reader might even accuse the journal of false advertising, since the seductive pose of a model clad in hijab black on the cover suggests more politically incorrect eye candy inside.

The lead article by journalist Mona Eltahawy has launched a barrage of commentaries and counter commentaries in the academic community. Echoing the cover tag, she asks “Why do They Hate Us?” with a less than subtle subtitle of “The Real War on Women is in the Middle East.” Read more ..

Azerbaijan on Edge

Azerbaijani Government Awarded Gold-Field Rights To President's Family

May 6th 2012


Novruz Allahverdiyev, 40, lives in a mud house in the village of Chovdar, a small mining town in the mountainous region near the border with Armenia. He is one of 800,000 internally displaced persons from the war with Armenia that battered his native Nagorno-Karabakh region in the early 1990s. Allahverdiyev and members of 60 other displaced families found shelter and a place to farm in the mountains around Chovdar. Like many in his predicament, Allahverdiyev is patriotic, and the walls of his poor home are plastered with pages from an aging calendar featuring portraits of President Ilham Aliyev and his late father, former President Heydar Aliyev.

Allahverdiyev's family now faces yet another problem. A British mining company has taken over some of his land and has blocked one of the two streams his village relies on for water. Allahverdiyev is sure President Aliyev will help him and his community. But his faith may be misplaced. What Allahverdiyev doesn't know is that the president and his family own a stake in the new mine. The U.K. company is actually a front for the first family. Read more ..

The Edge of Food

Coffee Grounds used in Taiwan to Produce Fabrics, Clothing, and Shoes

May 6th 2012

Coffee tasters

Coffee grounds have helped turned a once struggling Taiwan firm into a thriving business - one that reports annual earnings of more than $6.6 million. Since 2009, Singtex Industrial Company of New Taipei City has taken the waste from two major coffee store chains, for free, and used it to make shoes, jackets, pants and handbags.

The company says coffee grounds cut odors, help fabrics dry faster than normal and resist ultraviolet light. The came from the existing use of coffee grounds as odor eaters, says Singtex brand manager Chiang Po-wei. People normally consider coffee grounds as garbage, he says, but they can actually be used effectively to cut odors in shoe cabinets, even refrigerators and smoking areas. Chiang says taking that idea to the next level, Singtex spent four years carrying out research to make it work in fabrics.

Singtex was founded in 1989 and ventured into China in the 1990s to cut manufacturing costs until the company found that its poorly trained workers were making low-quality fabrics. After pulling out of China, Chief Executive Officer Jason Chen decided to go up market, using his staff of 220 to make more expensive fabrics with a pro-environmental focus. He has done that since 1994. Read more ..

The Education Edge

Are Educators Showing A “Positive Bias“ To Minority Students?

May 5th 2012

Mexican minors

Remember that teacher you grumbled about back in your school days, the really tough one who made you work so hard, insisted you could do better, and made you sweat for your A’s? The one you didn’t appreciate until after you graduated and realized how much you had learned? Minority students in the U.S. might have fewer of those teachers, at least compared to white students, and as a result they might be at a significant learning disadvantage.

A major study, led by Rutgers-Newark psychology professor Kent D. Harber, indicates that public school teachers under-challenge minority students by providing them more positive feedback than they give to white students, for work of equal merit. The study involved 113 white middle school and high school teachers in two public school districts located in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, one middle class and white, and the other more working class and racially mixed.

Teachers read and commented on a poorly written essay which they believed was composed by a student in a writing class.  Some teachers thought the student was black, some thought the student was Latino, and some thought that the student was white.  Teachers believed that their feedback would be sent directly to the student, in order to see how the student would benefit from their comments and advice. In fact, there was no actual student, and the poorly written essay was developed by Harber and his team.  The real purpose was to see how teachers would respond to subpar work due to the race of the student who composed it.   As Harber and his team predicted, the teachers displayed a “positive feedback bias,” providing more praise and less criticism if they thought the essay was written by a minority student than by a white student. Read more ..

The Education Edge

‘C’ Isn't Average Any More

May 5th 2012

Father and son reading

There’s an old, but often-played, song by the late Sam Cooke whose lyrics go, in part: Now I don't claim to be an "A" student But I'm trying to be. And so are millions of other American children each school term. Being an “A” student signifies being the best, the smartest, the highest achiever. “B” means good but not best, “C” stands for average, “D” for below average, and either “E” or “F” for unsatisfactory, or to put it more harshly, failure.

But in hundreds, maybe thousands, of American schools, nobody’s an A student any more. And the idea of getting “straight A’s” - and thus being the best of the best - is gone as well. There aren’t B or C or F students, either. Thanks to something called “standards-based” report cards, these students are receiving a numerical rating - a number instead of a letter - for their performance in each class.  Those numbers - usually 4 for best, down to 1 - reflect a lot more than just mastery of the subject matter. In a math class in New York State schools, for instance, a 4 means the student can not only add and subtract but has, in the new terminology, displayed high skill in “number sense and operations.” Read more ..

The Health Edge

HPV Vaccine Completion Rate Among Girls Poor, Getting Worse

May 4th 2012

Talking girls

Girls who receive the first dose from a gynecologist/obstetrician more likely to complete series. The proportion of insured girls and young women completing the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine among those who initiated the series has dropped significantly – as much as 63 percent – since the vaccine was approved in 2006, according to new research from the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston. The study reveals the steepest decline in vaccine completion among girls and young women aged nine to 18 – the age group that derives the greatest benefit from the vaccine, which should be administered in three doses over six months.

"The first generation of women that could benefit from the only HPV-related cancer vaccine in existence is missing the opportunity," said lead author Abbey B. Berenson, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Women's Health (CIRWH) at UTMB. "This vaccine prevents one of the most devastating cancers in women."

Researchers examined a large health insurance company's records of 271,976 female patients aged nine and older who received the first dose of the HPV vaccine between 2006 and 2009. Of this full sample, just 38.2 percent received all three doses within 365 days. In all but one age group (27 and older), researchers uncovered a marked drop in the number of females who completed the vaccine series. Read more ..

Inside Somalia

Somalia PM Plans Constitutional Government

May 4th 2012

Somalia Prime Minister

Somalia's Transitional Federal Government is making preparations to hand over power to an elected government in August. The surprising development is being engineered by a Somali-American technocrat intent on ending his native country's reputation as a failed state.

Somalia's Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali is a man with a mission. The Harvard-educated Ali could easily go back to his wife and four children and his career as an academic in the United States.  A month ago, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt that killed two of Somalia's top sports officials. Instead he has chosen to take on what some might call “mission impossible,” returning stability to Somalia after more than 20 years of lawlessness and conflict. Just a few months ago, southern Somalia was in the grip of drought and famine. Much of the countryside was controlled by al-Shabab, an Islamic extremist group that refused to allow Western aid agencies to provide life-saving food aid. As a result, thousands of Somalis died. Read more ..

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