Sep 30, 2007

Exercise can cause miscarriage - study

WOMEN who exercise intensively during the first phase of pregnancy are 3.7 times more likely to miscarry than pregnant women who don't break a sweat, according to new research.

Women who practiced high impact sports - such as jogging and racquetball - or exercised strenuously for at least seven hours a week during the first trimester of pregnancy ran the highest risk, according to the study, published in The International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.

The risk dropped off almost entirely after the 18th week of pregnancy.

Women who swam during any phase of pregnancy also showed no increased danger of miscarriage, noted the study, based on interviews with 92,671 pregnant women in Denmark analysed by Anne Marie Nybo Andersen and colleagues from the University of Southern Denmark.

Expectant mothers should not necessarily be discouraged from taking mild to moderate exercise, and the results must be interpreted with caution, says study, cited by the British magazine New Scientist.

But the findings do argue in favour of a review of exercise guidelines for pregnant women, the authors suggest.

Sep 26, 2007

Neil Osterweil: Depression Management by Phone Called Win-Win

An aggressive workplace program for identifying and treating depression is both good medical practice and good business, investigators here said.
Action Points

* Explain to patients that the telephone based care management system described here provided recommendations to clinicians and encouraged patients to seek treatment for depression, but treatment choices were left up to clinicians and patients.

Depressed workers randomized to a managed care plan emphasizing screening, telephone-based outreach, and care management had lower symptoms scores, were more likely to stay on the job, and worked about two weeks more per year than those given usual services, reported Philip S. Wang, M.D., Dr.P.H., of the National Institute of Mental Health, and colleagues.

"The results suggest that enhanced depression care of workers has benefits not only on clinical outcomes but also on workplace outcomes," the investigators wrote in the Sept. 26 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association.

The findings indicate that the added costs to employers of mental health benefits may have an even bigger payoff in terms of worker health and productivity, commented Kenneth B. Wells, M.D., M.P.H., and Jeanne Miranda, Ph.D., of the University of California at Los Angeles, in an accompanying editorial.

"The monetary value of the increased work time under the program exceeded the direct intervention costs and likely exceeded or was within the range of cost increases due to greater mental health specialty use under the intervention," they wrote.

"While formal estimates of cost-effectiveness and employer return on investment are pending, it appears to be in the business interests of many employers to implement such programs to protect their investments in the retention and productivity of workers they have hired and trained."

The intervention described by Dr. Wang and colleagues involved 604 workers from 18 companies with coverage by a managed care behavioral health program. The workers were tentatively identified through a workplace health appraisal, with those who screened positive for possible depression receiving further screening via a telephone-based structured interview.

Employees identified as having significant depression but not bipolar disorder, substance disorder, history of recent mental health treatment, or suicidality were eligible for randomization.

IT enrolments in dramatic decline

A DRAMATIC drop in information technology enrolments has cost universities about $100 million in four years, according to a study.
From 2002 to 2005, as overall university enrolments increased by about 7 per cent, IT suffered an 18per cent crash, says the study, The IT Education Bubble, by Ian Dobson of Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research.

Undergraduate enrolment fell by 23.6 per cent from 57,596 to 44,022.

Overall enrolment, including postgraduate, fell from 73,402 in 2002 to 59,819 in 2005, a drop of 18.5per cent.

And federal Department of Education, Science and Training figures for 2006 not included in the study show the drop is accelerating: last year there were 9000 fewer IT enrolments than in 2005, a one-year fall of 18 per cent.

The study says: "Losses (from 2002 to 2005 amounted) to 8570 equivalent full-time student load, or 15.5 per cent.

"To gauge the extent of this loss, if one presumes that one EFTSL is worth between $10,000 and $15,000, the loss to those departments teaching information technology subjects could be valued at between $85 million to $128million."

IT lost about 1000 international enrolments or about 3.3 per cent. Domestic enrolment fell by 13,626 or 29 per cent.

Australian Council of Deans of Science president John Rice said the higher proportion of international students in the IT field did not solve Australia's IT skills shortage.

International students made up 48 per cent of the IT enrolment in 2005 (from 40.5 per cent in 2002).

ID-Certify Workflow

A self-service workflow engine allows business users to request and authorize security changes directly, without involving security administrators. This is a key feature of any successful identity management system.

Configuring a workflow engine can be challenging. As an identity management or user provisioning system deployment scales up to support hundreds of target systems, with hundreds of kinds of updates supported on each one, the workflow engine must scale to appropriately validate and authorize thousands of types of transactions.

With a traditional workflow engine, this would require either thousands of flow charts or thousands of state tables (either way -- unmanageable).

To address the challenge of arithmetic explosion in the number of required workflow objects, the ID-Certify® workflow engine is dynamic, in the sense that a single, powerful state machine is used to track authorizations for every possible change (transaction) on every target system. Plug-in programs alter the behavior of the state machine, using business logic to validate inputs, route requests to the appropriate authorizers based on requested resources or the identity of the requesting principal and so on.

Rather than requiring organizations to define one flow chart for every supported type of user profile change on every target system, a single, built-in flow chart is used to track change authorization for every possible change type, on every system. Organizations are instead asked to define business logic for a small number of control points in the master flow chart: input validation, authorizer routing, reminder timing and automatic escalation routing. The same workflow engine, implementing the same change authorization process, applies to every possible user update. Shared business logic ensures that appropriate decisions are made for validation and authorization in every case.

This approach eliminates the need for organizations to graphically draw out and maintain thousands of flowcharts (who wants to do that?), with blocks of business logic (programming) embedded in each one. Instead, M-Tech customers use a programming language of their choice to write 4 or 5 blocks of general-purpose business logic, for tasks such as input validation, authorizer routing and escalation. The same logic applies globally, which makes dynamic workflow faster to develop, easier to maintain and

Why Krakow Still Works for IBM

Krakow, Poland, is a nice place to live and work, with a charming old quarter and a lively club scene driven by the city's population of more than 150,000 students. In fact, Krakow seems almost too nice to compete with the raucous, traffic-jammed cities of India as a location for outsourcing—especially when wages are quickly catching up to Western European levels. Yet IBM (IBM) is one of several large corporations massively building its presence in the historic city in southern Poland. IBM's commitment to Krakow is particularly surprising considering that the Armonk (N.Y.)-based computing and services giant is well established in Bangalore and other Indian cities where labor costs remain much lower.

Since 2002, IBM has boosted staff in Krakow tenfold, to more than 900 people, at a facility that provides finance and accounting services to business customers. Another 200 people work at an IBM software lab founded in 2005. Part of the reason Krakow makes sense for IBM, as well as for Cap Gemini (CAPP.PA), Motorola (MOT), KPMG, and other multinationals is that the university town churns out a steady supply of well-qualified graduates. They include not only computer scientists but also accounting and business grads able to manage accounts payable or tax compliance for customers in countries such as France and the Netherlands.

Salaries, which are lower than in Western Europe but rising 7% a year, are only part of the equation. "Cost may make your investment decision sweeter, but today you really invest in skills," says Pawel Molenda, manager of IBM's software lab in Krakow. The fact is, major outsourcers have learned that no one location provides everything they need to be competitive against Indian outsourcing juggernauts such as TCS (TCS.BO) or Wipro (WIT)—and even the Indian companies are setting up operations in Europe and the U.S. "You need a multi-geography footprint," says Peter Schumacher, chief executive officer of offshoring consultancy Value Leadership Group in Frankfurt. The best companies, he says, are those that can draw on expertise around the world.

Chloe Albanesius: Xerox to Deliver PARC Magic to Startups

In an effort to collaborate with more outside talent, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) on Friday announced the formation of an incubator that will provide PARC research expertise to technology startups. The venture, dubbed Startup@PARC, will bring in selected companies to partner with PARC researchers, with the intent that the teams fully develop their products and connect then with venture capitalists for additional funding, said Mark Bernstein, president and center director of PARC. PARC was founded in 1970 as part of Xerox Research and was incorporated as an independent research business in 2002. Its work has led to the development of technologies like laser printing, Ethernet and the graphical user interface (GUI).

PARC has traditionally developed its products in-house, but recent work with two successful startups prompted inquiries from other interested parties. "We thought the best thing to do would be to create a formal program to invite entrepreneurs to talk with us and see if there is a good fit between competencies and whether we can accelerate what it is they're trying to bring to market," Bernstein said. Starting Friday, interested startups can go to the PARC Web site and fill out a submission page for consideration, according to Bernstein. PARC will be looking for companies on which PARC can "have a significant impact," he said.

Powerset’s search technology scoop, may scare Google

Powerset, a San Francisco search engine company, will announce Friday it has won exclusive rights to significant search engine technology it says may help propel it past Google.

The technology, developed at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in Silicon Valley, seeks to understand the meanings between words, akin to the way humans understand language — and is thus called “natural language.” It has been thirty years in the works.

The deal is significant because practical use of linguistic technology has eluded Google. The giant search engine has said it wants to implement language-understanding technology one day. However, tests of linguistic approaches haven’t made any difference in Google’s results so far, it says (see our Q&A with Google Director of Research Peter Norvig below; also see his speech last year about this at Berkeley). Google has shunned reliance on word meanings, instead focusing on finding the most popular pages that contain the keywords. As for relationships between words, Google relies on statistical relationships, such as frequency they appear together, but not on linguistic relationships.

Sep 24, 2007

Smorgons in online pharmacy push

ONE of Australia's richest families is moving into the online pharmacy market with the creation of the Health and Beauty Club brand, launched this week.
Escor, an investment division of the Smorgon family, has decided to take on the might of category leader Coles and a half-dozen other players in the market with the club concept, led by former staff of the Priceline chain.

But the move comes as the Pharmacy Guild raises the stakes in the battle against the encroachment of online pharmacies with a new advertising campaign.

WPP Group advertising agency Ideaworks designed a single shopfront for the new online retailer during the past few months. It uses a central "big box" store model, based in the outer Melbourne suburb of Noble Park, that will service a national customer base.

Health and Beauty Club managing director Simon Burrow said: "Pharmacy Direct (an online pharmacy owned by the Coles Group) has been very successful, with a reputed (annual) turnover of $54 million, and the most popular beauty (web)site in Australia is Strawberrynet.

We took the best of Strawberrynet in terms of beauty products, skincare products, and attached that to a model of Pharmacy Direct."

Mr Burrow said that while online stores were growing in favour with consumers in the Australian market, the difference lay in the group's decision to build a traditional bricks-and-mortar outlet as well to support the brand.

"Really, it is a fulfilment thing. Multi-channel is what is working best around the world as opposed to straight online or straight retail. It just makes sense to us that instead of picking things out of a warehouse, let's pack the orders out of a store.

"It is a model that has worked very successfully for the music business and works successfully for pharmacy in America."

Tomio Geron: Is Semantic Technology the Answer?

A growing number of entrepreneurs and investors promise a next-generation Internet that is organized, simple to use and makes it easy for people to find things. The so-called semantic web will be based on search technology that will enable people to type in their questions using everyday language. Developers of next generation search engines say their technology will “understand” the language within those queries—much more precisely than Internet giant Google’s technology.

The new search engines will then scour databases that have already “read” documents from across the web to find the best matches. Specific answers can be found for queries such as “Which is the best oil company in the world?” or differentiate between “movies by women,” and “movies about women.” That’s the goal of a handful of semantic search startups that hope to change the way people look for information online. But their greatest challenge will be taking on Google, which vaulted to the forefront of the Internet search market by creating the simple but sophisticated engine that now processes roughly half of all U.S. searches.

The challenge may be great, but the rewards are worth it because search results these days go hand in hand with advertising dollars. Don Dodge, who heads business development for Microsoft's emerging business team, estimates that 1 percent of the U.S. search market is worth more than $100 million in annual revenue and $1 billion in market cap.

New York-based hakia has already launched its semantic search engine, with positive reviews for its ability to quickly find very specific information. The company also released a browser plug-in that lets users find exact sections of documents that contain the answers to searchers’ queries.

Search engines like Google rank search results mainly based on popularity without much understanding of what is on each page, according to Melek Pulatkonak, hakia president and COO. At hakia, "a lot more analysis has been done offline to extract meaning of what each page is about," she said.

The company is also building a "chat box" that will allow users to ask a question in an instant message format that hakia believes is more in tune with young people. hakia currently uses's advertising system, but it is expected to launch its own ad platform next year.

The most hyped of this emerging group is San Francisco-based PowerSet, even though it has not yet launched its search engine yet.

It is backed by prominent investors such as Esther Dyson and the Founders Fund, it has earned a reputation for poaching Google engineers, and it has licensed sophisticated language technology from Xerox. Still, getting a computer to understand natural language—and find the appropriate search result—is a difficult process.

Sep 23, 2007

New Clue To Why Eating Fewer Calories Can Help You Live Longer

US scientists appear to have discovered a cellular mechanism that explains why eating fewer calories can help humans and other mammals live longer.

The study is published in the 21st September issue of the journal Cell and is the work of researchers at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, National Institute on Aging, Institutes of Health, Baltimore, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston.

For the best part of the last 100 years scientists have known that restricting calories prolongs life. This is true for all living creatures, from yeasts to primates, including humans. Lifespan can be prolonged by as much as one third through restricting calorie consumption.

But the underpinning biological mechanisms have to date eluded us.

Not any more, it would seem, for the researchers in this latest study have discovered two mammalian genes called SIRT3 and SIRT4 that are directly involved in prolonging cell life.

They showed that when cells are put under stress, such as when calories are restricted, the two genes go into action and protect cells from the diseases of aging.

Dr David Sinclair, senior author of the study, and associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, said:

"We've reason to believe now that these two genes may be potential drug targets for diseases associated with aging."

Mitochondria are the "battery packs" inside cells, thay provide energy for the various functions that cells perform. Previous research has suggested they play a role in keeping cells healthy and alive, which in turn prolongs the life of the organism.

When the mitochondria "run down", the cell begins to deteriorate and is more vulnerable to DNA stress, and eventually apoptosis, or cell death, is triggered.

The mechanism that triggers cell death is depletion in NAD+, an important enzyme involved in cell signalling that is found inside mitochondria, and also in the cell's nucleus and cytoplasm (the thick liquid that fills the cell).

By observing laboratory rodents that had fasted for 48 hours, Sinclair and colleagues showed that when calories are restricted, a protein called Nampt is activated, which in turn catalyzes the production of mitochondrial NAD+ which in turn revs up the pathway that produces enzymes coded by SIRT3 and SIRT4 genes.

These enzymes restore mitonchondrial health and help to restore the delivery of energy to the cell, thereby delaying apoptosis and slowing the aging process.

Apparently the mechanism is similar to that produced by exercise.

Sinclair said they were not sure exactly what mechanism is activated when levels of NAD+ and SIRT3 and SIRT4 go up, but they could see that:

"Normal cell-suicide programs are noticeably attenuated."

"This is the first time ever that SIRT3 and SIRT4 have been linked to cell survival," he added.

Another surprising discovery was that even when the NAD+ in the cytoplasm and nucleus of cells was depleted, the mitochondrial NAD+ levels stayed viable enough to keep cells alive.

Slice food bill, avoid drought: grow vegies

RIP out your camellias and plant carrots instead.

That's the advice of the Australian Vegetable and Potato Growers Association, which says growing your own vegetables could help combat rising food prices and a potential shortage of fresh produce because of the drought.

"We're seeing a shortage of carrots and we could potentially see a shortage in potatoes. Lots of growing areas are very short of water," said the association's chairman, Michael Badcock. "While there's a bit of product around, you might want to put some away for the future. I think Australian families should be freezing their spare vegetables, and planting some of their own in the backyard."

Mr Badcock said food companies McCain's and Simplot (which produces frozen and tinned vegetable brand Edgells) are unable to get enough supply to meet their orders. "This means they will not be able to utilise their entire factories, and this makes for a more expensive product — and retailers who have to charge more for the product," he said.

Calls to McCain's media office were not returned.

Sergio Canale, executive general manager of supply chain at Simplot, would not say outright if there was a shortage, or which products were affected. "It's not as simple as more demand than supply, but we think we can cover it for the moment. In another few months it may be a different case. If need be we will source from overseas and this can be sourced at competitive prices."

Mr Canale added the company "has other options" but wasn't prepared to divulge them. He said: "We do try to use local product as much as possible, but not all crops are available in Australia."

Ausveg has had a long-running gripe with Simplot and McCain's over wholesale prices — and the fact that so much overseas stock has, for years, been used in canned goods.

Mr Badcock describes the state of vegetable growing as "not a pretty picture". Winter rains provided hope, and there was a boost in leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower. "But there is not enough rain to sustain many of those crops and irrigation restrictions don't help, either. We won't lose total production, but we will experience a fluctuation in prices."

As for his grow-your-own advice, Mr Badcock notes that it's a good time for planting.

"Vegetables that grow above the ground such as cabbage and cauliflower will tend to get eaten by bugs. But if you plant vegetables such as potatoes, parsnip and carrots, they will absorb the moisture and continue to grow. "

As for freezing your produce, he advises: "Blanch your vegetables and then freeze them on a tray before putting them in a plastic bag. Your vegetables should last for up to 12 months."

Sep 19, 2007

Growing pains for e-crime buster

TODAY's computer forensic guys follow the electronic trail of suspects through a company's systems, gathering evidence along the way to help nail the perp.
Growing pains for e-crime buster

Identity fraud and theft are very difficult to combat, says Bryan Sartin
But, as data breach investigator Bryan Sartin explains, tracing criminals across borders is one thing, getting other nations to prosecute is quite another.

Figuring out how the breach occurred and ensuring it doesn't happen again is probably a more realistic outcome, he says.

Sartin heads a team of systems engineers, law enforcement agents and military intelligence personnel that has investigated many of the world's largest data compromises, providing expert evidence in both civil and criminal cases.

He is now managing principal, investigative response, for Verizon Business Security Solutions. The US-based telco picked up Sartin's team as part of its acquisition of Cybertrust in July this year. Verizon has also taken over management of Cybertrust's seven security operations centres worldwide.

Sartin is building a new investigations response team here, with eight people already involved in forensics work in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

How has the acquisition by Verizon influenced your role?

It's a very complementary fit from my perspective. There aren't many changes at all. However, if you look at what that larger organisation brings to bear, their level of access, particularly from a network intelligence perspective, gives us a great deal to offer law enforcement, banks and other customers about the sources of security breaches.

As opposed to just saying the hackers came from this IP address, and geographically this area, now we can say here are all the other things that this IP address has been tied to in the past, and maybe provide a sweeter set of information to set the stage for prosecution.

My side of the business is computer forensics, the IT investigative and incident response practice. Our clients are commercial and government organisations that perceive some sort of computer emergency, but we often work directly with law enforcement.

Within individual industries, people are really starting to get a firm handle on the scope of e-crime, and the cost of data security breaches.

Concern over the magnitude of the problem is further fuelled by some of the large disclosures we're hearing about from countries where notification of data breaches has become a legal obligation.

Data breach notification laws have been mooted here, but not received with any great enthusiasm to date.

There are some huge shortcomings to disclosure regimes. In the US now, unless there's 20 or 30 million consumer records compromised, the situation receives little to no attention at all.

At first, even a small breach tied to a company's name would receive huge attention, but nowadays there's as many as five or 10 a week.

But I expect the situation here will change in the very near future. The capabilities we're building in Australia is in direct reaction to requests for services, particularly in the incident response and forensics arenas.

If you look at the payments industry, for example, where they track security compromises by consumer record and by country, by and large the people being affected now are outside the US and Canada; instead it's people in the Asia-Pacific region and Australia. As much as 50 per cent of my team's work is on matters outside North America.

What are the big issues down here?

Security breaches targeting consumer information are definitely on the rise, particularly in relation to financial institutions, retailers, service providers and data processors.

Hackers are after data they can easily convert into cash. The most valuable commonly handled data involves consumer details about personal cheques, credit cards, debit cards and payment-related information tied to an individual's name.

Even more valuable is having what it takes to counterfeit a cheque or credit card, and tying that to personal identity information: name, home address, phone number, things like that.

More information helps to set the stage not only for identity fraud but identity theft in extreme circumstances, and all that information pertaining to an individual can be very valuable on the black market.

Retailers and businesses that accept credit cards have always been the classic target, and it's no exception here. Online merchants, people who sell things through a website shopping cart, will have your shipping information as well as your billing information.

Because of that, it's critical that Australian businesses adopt the Payment Card Industry data security standard.

The new anti-money laundering regime will require many organisations, especially smaller ones, to collect and keep their customers' personal information. Is this safe?

From the forensic investigator's perspective, I would say the more organisations and people that have access to your data, the more vulnerable you become. I would certainly caution consumers about releasing information into places they might find suspect.

Marriage of BPM and SOA?

BPMS vendors love to throw a bone to SOA, and if you weren’t paying attention you might even think that BPM on SOA was real. I’ve written at length about how BPM and SOA aren’t enemies but natural allies, but they are allies with distinctly different goals and aspirations and mental models of the world. Kind of like America and France.

Following his post on the subject, I’ve been having a side conversation with Jesper Joergensen of BEA about what real BPM on SOA would look like. I admit I’m still trying to figure it out. Here’s where I am so far.

Let’s start by acknowledging the inherent Mars/Venus-ness of BPM and SOA. For example:

  • BPM is top-down. It starts with the end-to-end process in mind. SOA is bottom-up. It starts by factoring the world into atoms and molecules of reuse — business services — that can be consumed by any number of processes or applications.
  • BPM is business-driven. A “model” created by the business drives the implementation. SOA is IT-driven. Technical architects define the scope of business services based on their own notions of “abstraction” rather than business need.
  • In BPM, success is measured by business metrics and KPIs at the end-to-end process level. In SOA, success is measured by architecture, logical consistency, ease of integration. Performance goals do not extend beyond the individual service level.
  • BPM is project-oriented. The goal is solving a real business problem today. SOA is enterprise infrastructure-oriented. The goal is creating a foundation for solving many business problems a few years down the road.
  • In BPM, what is reused is the process model, i.e. the “abstract” design of a process fragment. It is inherently transparent — you see its steps and their individual performance parameters. In SOA, what is reused is the service implementation. It is inherently opaque, defined simply by its interface. Its internal steps and performance parameters are invisible, except for an overall SLA for the service as a whole.
  • In BPM, a business process is inherently hierarchical, composed of nested and chained orchestrations. In SOA, services are inherently independent. An end-to-end process is more likely to be implemented as a spaghetti-like SCA assembly than a nested hierarchy of BPEL orchestrations.
  • In BPM suites based on service orchestration, process activities are bound to service endpoints. In SOA (supposedly), orchestrated services are supposed to be abstract, with connection and mapping to endpoints mediated by an ESB. The ability to swap out endpoints performing the same abstract service is the effective definition of loose coupling. I don’t know of any BPMS offerings oriented to this mode of orchestration.

If you accept most of the above, you might ask why try to save this marriage anyway? But the goals of BPM and SOA are not opposed, just different. Bringing them together is mostly a question of timing. BPM, trying to solve real business problems today, starts by acknowledging that the refactoring of the enterprise into “business services” — macro-scale units of reuse — doesn’t yet exist, so the best approach for now is simply to incorporate service-oriented middleware here and there — mostly in application integration – in the BPMS.

In SOA, BPEL orchestration in reality is mostly used to assemble business services out of low-level APIs. They call that “BPM,” even though it’s not what the business means by that term. Eventually, there will be enough of those business services in the registry that BPM can orchestrate them in end-to-end business processes. That’s the end state that makes bringing BPM and SOA together worthwhile. We’re just not quite there yet.

So let’s wind the clock forward a bit to a time when, in some organizations at least, the set of defined, built, deployed, registered, and governed business services is significant enough to form the basis of key business processes. What would a BPMS layered on that infrastructure look like?

First, it seems that in such a world, BPM and SOA likely each have their own enterprise repository/registry. The SOA one would hold opaque service implementations - IT assets - bound to physical endpoints, SLAs, and perhaps other “contractual” aspects of the provided service. These services are not “abstract,” but real services offered by real service providers. The BPM one would hold transparent process models - specifications of business services - in which activities can be mapped to services in the SOA repository to create an executable instance of process model. Processes (including process fragments, or abstract business services) in the BPM repository could be reused throughout the enterprise to provide standardization and consistency with best practices, mapping model activities to different service providers in each instance.

Where superstition trumps science

Hold the front page: ‘There is no change in the government’s policy towards GM crops’, says Hilary Benn of Britain’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Benn’s statement was a reaction to yesterday’s scaremongering frontpage story in the UK Guardian. The Guardian headline said ‘The return of GM’, and the report claimed that ‘ministers back moves to grow crops in UK’ (1).

It is hard to remember now, but in 2000 environmental campaigners were protesting all over the country, organising meetings and debates and breaking into premises, all to draw the public’s attention to the dangers represented by… genetically modified organisms - crops, mainly. Lord Melchett, himself a former Labour cabinet minister turned Greenpeace activist, tore up GM crops. (My grandfather slaved away for his father at Imperial Chemicals Industries, dying young, as many did, because of the way the chemical fumes tended to accelerate your heart rate, leading to the ‘Tuesday death’. GM crops would help alleviate the need to use these kinds of chemicals.)

The GM debate was remarkable. In quite a short time, environmental campaigners brought to the surface intense public anxieties about the industrialisation of the food chain. Just before the debate about the introduction of GM foods, there had been another public health scare when one government scientist, Dr Robert Lacey, warned that by 1997 one third of Britain could be infected with the debilitating brain illness Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD), from eating beef contaminated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)-inducing prions. As it turned out, you were about as likely to die of CJD as you were to be struck by lightning, and there is still no proven link with it and BSE – but public distrust of authority was at an all-time high.

There was no real argument against GM food. But people felt very disconnected from the authorities, having little faith in the public pronouncements that there was no risk. That alone was enough to make most people alarmed. Opportunistically, environmental campaigners realised that they could gain influence by stoking public fears.

Activists like journalist Andy Rowell, language-school head Jonathan Matthews of the Norfolk Genetic Interest Network, the Open University academic Mae-Wan Ho, and the Guardian’s George Monbiot stirred up a fantastic picture of rogue genes causing all kinds of extraordinary mutations as they passed through the food chain, or as they were carried on the wind from test-beds into ‘healthy’ British meadows.

Of course, there was no scientific evidence whatsoever. The absence of even one example of a negative health impact from the introduction of GM crops in the US put some pressure on the greens. They latched on to examples that really did not demonstrate any danger. Some oil was contaminated, leading to deaths – but it turned out it was nothing to do with GM. And then the Rowett Research Institute’s Dr Arpad Pusztai did some experiments on GM lectins in potatoes that seemed to show negative consequences in rats. The press and the environmentalists latched on to the case – except that it only showed that the introduction of poisonous lectins into potatoes was bad for rats. When Pusztai was sacked for overstating the implications of his tests, GM campaigners adopted his case as a cause célèbre, only slowly coming to the conclusion that they had indeed overstated the dangers highlighted in Dr Pusztai’s tests.

Sep 18, 2007

IT shenagans abound

ALMOST a third of female IT professionals say they have been discriminated against on the basis of gender.
The Australian Computer Society's annual employment survey shows that 28 per cent of female respondents felt they had been discriminated against, compared with 1.5 per cent of men.

The survey also shows women are more likely to be hourly contract employees or students seeking work.

Gender and age discrimination were higher in Queensland, and gender discrimination was also high in Western Australia.

The ACS survey reveals mature age workers are being ignored despite the hi-tech unemployment rate dropping to a five-year low of 3.84 per cent. Unemployment in IT is below the national average for the first time this century.

Almost three quarters of respondents say they have not been unemployed in the past five years.

The sector cannot afford to overlook older, experienced professionals, ACS president Philip Argy says.

In other results, the ACS finds 62 per cent of respondents have worked more than 10 years in the Australian tech sector and that almost all (94 per cent) had undertaken training recently.

Almost 80 per cent said they needed training and retraining every one to three years to keep their skills current.

The internet remains the best source of new ICT positions, with newspapers and recruitment agencies ranked lower. Networking and word of mouth remain important sources of employment.

When Ford Sells, Who Will Buy Volvo?

After the Ford Motor Company's abrupt sell-off of Aston Martin last March, there's been much discussion about possible sales of Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo, too — and a lot of talk about buyers. Sources have reported that BMW has been mulling over a purchase of Volvo, but apparently the Munich company's new CEO, Norbert Reithofer, isn't mincing words: "Let's put it this way, BMW is known as a rear-wheel-drive car company, a certain Swedish manufacturer makes front-wheel-drive cars, so where are the synergies?" Still, drive-axle synergies aside, it's tough to ignore the huge advantages of a BMW-owned Volvo. Despite the likelihood that it will part ways with Ford, which has owned Volvo since 1999, the Swedish automaker is in rare form these days, with a well-regarded lineup and a fiercely loyal fan base — not all that dissimilar from BMW, in truth. BMW could profit from Volvo's famed commitment to occupant-protection technology, and Volvo could certainly use a dose of BMW-style dynamics and quality control.

Call me Fishmeal

Thirsty bees, hungry zancudos, yapping mutts, boozy and belligerent gringos -- they're all part of the salty life of a sailing blogger.

Yes, I blog from a sailboat and cruise the azure waters of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Mexico. "Call me Slogger," to borrow from the opening line of that saga of the sea, Moby Dick.

But whales are not my game. I chase lesser creatures. Specifically the men, women and issues involved in the $3 billion California state stem-cell agency -- the world's largest single source of funding for human embryonic-stem-cell research. On the other hand, perhaps my quarry is something of a great white whale.

But I digress. Stem cells are not today's topic. Blogging is. More particularly, the high times of blogging from the high seas.

First, an introduction. We -- my wife, Sally, and I -- have lived on a 39-foot sailboat (a Freedom cat-rigged ketch) for nine years in Mexico. We sold our house in Sacramento, California, along with her florist shop, her white 1990 Toyota 4-Runner and my yellow 1974 VW Thing. We abandoned the dirt life (life on land) and moved onto Hopalong, which is named after Sally's childhood TV hero, Hopalong Cassidy.

Life was good -- pretty much. We prepared our vessel, sailed out beneath the Golden Gate in 1998, and turned left. We visited ports where Spanish galleons were built hundreds of years ago, danced at tourist traps, sampled bootleg tequila, ate the flesh of barnacles at a hilltop restaurant in Zihuatanejo, and saw whales cruise beside our sailboat not 20 feet away. But lollygagging was not enough.

The sad or not-so-sad fact was that we remained deeply interested in many of the issues concerning our compatriots north of the border. Then I ran across a new word: blogging. A year later, a visit to the States provided an opportunity to blog on the California gubernatorial recall election.

But we soon returned to our watery pursuits. Time passed, and along came the fall election of 2004. I read -- online of course -- that California had passed Proposition 71, an unprecedented measure that put the state on the cutting edge of science, medicine, big business, big politics, religion, morality and ethics -- not to mention life and death. Voters decided to fund a new agency, unlike any in California history, to give away $3 billion for research involving human embryonic stem cells. I wanted to know more, but information was scarce.

So like some cyberchicken, I began to scratch around the internet for morsels involving the new agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Gathering and analyzing the information was hard work. Mainstream-media reports were shallow and infrequent. Writing the blog items, however, was comparatively easier. I benefited from a previous life in the newspaper business, where I worked as a reporter (politics and education beats among other things), an editor (business, special projects) and a gubernatorial press aide in California (two years and one week with Jerry Brown).

Thus emerged the California Stem Cell Report, now almost three years old. Nearly 1,300 items have been posted. It is the No. 1 item on Yahoo search results for the topic "california stem cell." It's No. 2 on Google (right after the agency itself). Writing on the respected blog American Journal of Bioethics, Jim Fossett, director of health and Medicaid studies at the Rockefeller Institute, described the blog as "the ultimate source for all things California." And the subject of my blog, the stem-cell agency circulates the report among its 29 directors.

Writing and reporting the blog has been wrapped around maritime matters, such as rebuilding the devilishly unreliable marine toilet on our boat (call me the "prince of potties") and climbing the five-story mast to replace light bulbs. But like some cyber dope fiend, making my connection to the internet consumes me. When you move from place to place in a foreign land, the ease of fast broadband connections found in the Old Country (the U.S.) begins to appear a fantasy.

The California Stem Cell Report has been filed from Mexican saloons and south-of-the-border internet cafes, which can be found nearly everywhere in Mexico at rates ranging from from 80 cents to $6 an hour. Of course, if you're anchored out in a bay, getting to an internet cafe can be a dampening experience. It means wrapping the laptop securely (we have a Pelican case and dry bag), jumping into our little dinghy (the equivalent of a car for a "dirt" person) and motoring to shore, sometimes through nasty chop and wind.

In one bay near Guaymas, however, we encountered two young Mexican men who started a new business onshore, beaming wireless signals out to anchored boats a mile away. Of course, you did have to have your boat in the right spot, and with more than one boat seeking a hookup, it sometimes became a bit competitive.

Does public art make sense?

Like many members of the uncultured, Cheez-It-consuming public, I am not good at grasping modern art. I'm the type of person who will stand in front of a certified modern masterpiece painting that looks, to the layperson, like a big black square, and quietly think: ''Maybe the actual painting is on the other side.'' I especially have a problem with modernistic sculptures, the kind where you, the layperson, cannot be sure whether you're looking at a work of art or a crashed alien spacecraft. My definition of a good sculpture is ''a sculpture that looks at least vaguely like something.'' I'm talking about a sculpture like Michelangelo's ''David.'' You look at that, and there is no doubt about what the artist's message is. It is: ''Here's a naked man the size of an oil derrick.''

I bring this topic up because of an interesting incident that occurred recently in Miami. When people ask me, ''Dave, why do you choose voluntarily to live in Miami?'' I answer, ''Because interesting incidents are always occurring here.'' For example, just recently (digression alert) federal agents here arrested two men on charges of attempting to illegally sell weapons.

''Big deal!'' you are saying. ''Federal agents in many cities regularly arrest people for illegally selling weapons!''

Right. But these were nuclear weapons. I swear I am not making this up. The two suspects are Lithuanian nationals; they were allegedly working on a deal to sell undercover agents some Russian-made tactical nuclear weapons.

Call me a Nervous Nellie, but I am concerned about the sale of nuclear arms in my general neighborhood. I say this because of the popular Miami tradition, which I am also not making up, of celebrating festive occasions by discharging weapons into the air. I am picturing a scenario wherein some Miami guy chugs one too many bottles of Cold Duck at his New Year's party, and when the clock strikes midnight, he staggers over to the closet where he keeps his tactical nuclear weapon -- which he told his wife he was buying strictly for personal protection -- and he says to himself, ''I wonder how that baby would sound!''

But my point (end of digression alert) is that Miami tends to have these interesting incidents, and one of them occurred a little while ago when Dade County purchased an office building from the City of Miami. The problem was that, squatting in an area that the county wanted to convert into office space, there was a large ugly wad of metal, set into the concrete. So the county sent construction workers with heavy equipment to rip out the wad, which was then going to be destroyed.

But guess what? Correct! It turns out that this was not an ugly wad. It was art! Specifically, it was Public Art, defined as ''art that is purchased by experts who are not spending their own personal money.'' The money, of course, comes from the taxpayers, who are not allowed to spend this money themselves because 1) they probably wouldn't buy art, and 2) if they did, there is no way they would buy the crashed-spaceship style of art that the experts usually select for them.

The Miami wad is in fact a sculpture by the famous Italian sculptor Pomodoro. (Like most famous artists, he is not referred to by his first name, although I like to think it's ''Bud.'' ) This sculpture cost the taxpayers $80,000, which makes it an important work of art. In dollar terms, it is 3,200 times as important as a painting of dogs playing poker, and more than 5,000 times as important as a velveteen Elvis.

Fortunately, before the sculpture was destroyed, the error was discovered, and the Pomodoro was moved to another city office building, where it sits next to the parking garage, providing great pleasure to the many taxpayers who come to admire it.

I am kidding, of course. On the day I went to see it, the sculpture was, like so many pieces of modern taxpayer-purchased public art, being totally ignored by the actual taxpaying public, possibly because it looks -- and I say this with all due artistic respect for Bud -- like an abandoned air compressor.

So here's what I think: I think there should be a law requiring that all public art be marked with a large sign stating something like: ''Notice! This is a piece of art! The public should enjoy it the tune of 80,000 clams!''

Also, if there happens to be an abandoned air compressor nearby, it should have a sign that says: ''Notice! This is not art!'' so the public does not waste time enjoying the wrong thing. The public should enjoy what the experts have decided the public should enjoy. That's the system we use in this country, and we're going to stick with it. At least until the public acquires missiles.

Coz you've got personality - to some extent

At some point in your life, you've probably filled in a personality questionnaire ("Do you see yourself as....?"), and wondered as you ticked the boxes if there can really be any validity to such a simplistic way of assessing people. Surely the scores just reflect your mood on the day, or what you want the investigator to think. Surely everyone gives the same answer, which is "it depends". Or even if the scores measure something, surely it is how the person sees themselves, rather than how they actually are.

In a new book, I examine what the extent of the science underlying personality psychology really is. The answer is: more than you would think. While it has always been popular in business and pop psychology, and within academic psychology, personality research has been a poor relation to the parts of the discipline with experiments and hard objective measures. However, this is changing fast. The field of personality is undergoing a renaissance.

The reasons for the renaissance are several. Academics now have some really good long-term studies of the same individuals, and it turns out that those brief, simplistic, pencil-and-paper questionnaires have surprisingly useful properties. They produce a wide range of self-descriptions. The responses are fairly repeatable over intervals of many years. They also correlate quite well with ratings of the person given by their spouse, friends or colleagues.

Much more importantly, though, the responses turn out to predict objective events. For example, in a famous cohort of gifted Californian children recruited in the 1920s, and who are elderly or deceased now, personality "scores" – numerical representations of answers to questions – are significant predictors of life expectancy. In another long-term study, this time of American married couples, the quality and duration of the marriage is predicted by the personality scores of both parties prior to marriage.

There are many other examples, with personality scores predicting substance addiction, problem gambling, and the onset of psychological illnesses. Of course the prediction is a statistical one – you can assign odds, not make oracular pronouncements – but this is how it always is in psychology. Humans are such complex systems that you are happy to explain a portion of the variation in outcomes, and never expect to explain it all.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in personality assessment. This has been greatly aided by the fact that there is now a consensus on what the key variables are. Its early development, the field was greatly hampered by every investigator having his or her own scales, often using different names and measures for what turned out to be the same thing, or indeed the same names for what turned out to be different things.

But over the last 20 years, many studies in several different cultures have shown that much of the systematic variation in personality can be reduced to scores along five dimensions (the "Big Five"): Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Openness. It's important to stress that these are all continuous dimensions. That is, there are no discrete "types" of person. Personality dimensions are like height or weight, which vary continuously, not like being a left- or a right-hand writer. Your score on one dimension is independent of your scores on all the others, so there is an almost infinite diversity of different overall profiles possible.

Sep 17, 2007

'Two-thirds of people take too little exercise'

If it were a medicine, it would be branded a wonder drug. If it were a new therapy with an exotic name, people would be queuing for a session. No treatment in the history of medicine has achieved what moving your arms and legs about can achieve. Yet more than a decade of effort to persuade us to up our dose has failed.

Someone dies every 15 minutes because they don't take enough exercise. Two thirds of the population fail to do the minimum to maintain health – 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five times a week.

The British Heart Foundation, which published the figures, is launching a three-week TV advertising campaign aiming to get the nation off its rear end. A survey it commissioned found that fewer than four out of 10 people said they would take more exercise even if their life depended on it.

Exercise is known to cut the risk of heart disease and diabetes, protects against breast cancer and colon cancer, builds up the bones and reduces the risk of dying before your time by 30 per cent. It improves mood and brings a sense of wellbeing. Yet despite its benefits, the number of miles walked and cycled since the mid-Seventies has fallen by a quarter.

Sep 12, 2007

Taking Vitamin D Supplements Seems To Lower Risk Of Death

After following up on individuals who took vitamin D supplements for six years, researchers have concluded that it does lower one's risk of death from any cause. The researchers looked at 18 previously published articles and wrote a report which appears in Archives of Internal Medicine (JAMA/Archives), September 10 issue.

Previous studies had indicated that there is a link between a higher risk of death from heart disease, cancer and diabetes for people with vitamin D deficiencies. In developed countries, these illnesses make up 60-70% of all deaths due to illness, the writers explain. They write "If the associations made between vitamin D and these conditions were consistent, then interventions effectively strengthening vitamin D status should result in reduced total mortality."

In this study, Philippe Autier, M.D., International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon, France, and Sara Gandini, Ph.D., European Institute of Oncology, Milano, Italy, looked at randomized controlled vitamin D supplement trials published prior to November 2006. This led them to 18 different trials involving 57,311 participants. They evaluated the doses of vitamin D - this ranged from 300 to 2,000 international units, the average dose being 528 international units. Most supplements one buys in the high street are around 400-600 international units.

4,777 of the participants died during an average follow-up of 5.7 years. The authors wrote that those who took vitamin D had a 7% lower risk of dying compared to those who did not. Blood samples were taken in nine of the trials that the researchers examined. They found that people who took vitamin D supplements had 1.4 to 5.2 times the level of vitamin D in their blood compared to those who did not.

The authors explained that the mechanisms by which vitamin D supplementation would decrease all-cause mortality are not clear. Vitamin D may undermine some mechanisms which help cancer cells proliferate, on the one hand, or it could boost the function of blood vessels or the immune system, they added.

The authors concluded that "..the intake of ordinary doses of vitamin D supplements seems to be associated with decreases in total mortality rates. The relationship between baseline vitamin D status, dose of vitamin D supplements and total mortality rates remains to be investigated. Population-based, placebo-controlled randomized trials in people 50 years or older for at least six years with total mortality as the main end point should be organized to confirm these findings."

Sep 11, 2007

Database error give offence

Hundreds of Dutch Israelis, some of whom have been living in the Jewish state for more than 30 years, were accidentally wiped off the National Insurance Institute's computer database last week following a technical glitch, The Jerusalem Post has learned. "Since last Tuesday we have been receiving complaints from our members that they were suddenly notified by the NII that they were no longer recognized as Israeli citizens and were not eligible for social security benefits or health insurance," said Hanoch Weisberg, head of the Dutch Immigrant Organization in Israel, which represents more than 1,400 former residents of the Netherlands. "While on the one hand this is laughable, on the other it is very sad. Many of these people are over 65, they have been living here since the 1960s, have been to the army and paid their dues to society. It is very upsetting that a government body can let this happen."

According to Dutch law, depending on the individual's date of birth, some of its citizens are not permitted to hold dual nationality. In the past, Weisberg said, many Dutch Israelis opted to live here under a special permanent residency status that affords them the same rights as other Jewish immigrants, except voting or holding Israeli passports. "These people, some of whom have lived here since the 1960s, are inhabitants of Israel in every sense," he said. "They have many of the same rights and contribute to Israel in the same way as other citizens." Weisberg said the organization's lawyers had already asked that the National Insurance Institute immediately reinstate these people's rights as citizens and issue an official apology.

Vitamin D increases life expectancy, study finds

In intriguing new study finds that those who take vitamin D supplements can increase their life expectancies by one to two years. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is just the latest to add to the growing body of evidence that "the sunshine vitamin" is not just good for strengthening bones but also appears to increase survival.

Past studies have suggested that vitamin D deficiencies might be associated with a higher risk of death from cancer, heart disease and diabetes -- illnesses that account for 60 to 70 per cent of deaths in high-income nations. This study finds that taking extra vitamin D brings health benefits, even in the short term. This study looked at the results of 18 previously published studies involving a total of 57,311 participants.

Dr. Philippe Autier, of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, Lyon, France, and Sara Gandini, of the European Institute of Oncology, Milano, Italy, analyzed the studies and evaluated doses of vitamin D ranging from 300 to 2,000 international units, with an average dose of 528 international units. Most commercially available supplements contain between 400 and 1,000 international units. After an average of 5.7 years, those participants who took vitamin D had a seven per cent lower risk of death than those who did not.

"We had a reduction in all-cause mortality after a follow-up of about six years. So it means that may represent something like an increase of two to three years of your life expectancy," Autier told CTV News. "With vitamin D, you could say yes, finally, if there is one supplement to take, with all the evidence so far, the best is to take vitamin D -- ordinary doses of vitamin D, not high doses." The editorial that accompanies the article points out that the study did not consider specific causes of death. The studies were generally short, so the impact of vitamin D was seen on diseases that express themselves in a shorter period of time. For chronic diseases that have a long period of time to develop, the impact of vitamin D would be underestimated by this analysis.

The authors note that it's not clear how vitamin D supplementation lowers death risk. They say it could be that the vitamin inhibits some mechanisms by which cancer cells multiply and grow. Or, it may boost the function of blood vessels or the immune system, they note.

Michael Sainsbury: Microsoft predicts 'health revolution'

MICROSOFT'S research chief Craig Mundie has signalled a "revolution" in health care, underpinned by a massive increase in computing power.

Mr Mundie, who will take the reins as Microsoft's brain trust from founder Bill Gates next year, told the APEC Business Summit at the Opera House yesterday that health care and technology would converge.

And this would mean medicine undergoing “its biggest change in decades, if not longer, by being a data-driven process at a very personal and institutional level”.

He was referring to the increasing ability of people to have their own multimedia medical records, including doctors' reports, x-rays and even internal video examinations.

Mr Mundie, the top researcher at the world's biggest software company, said mankind's ability to study genomics (the study of DNA) and proteomics (the study of gene-based proteins and their functions) had been boosted by the arrival of super-computing power that allowed the throughput and analysis of information on a scale never before seen. “This really does create the potential for a revolution,” he said.

He likened this to countries measuring the development of telephony to the number of landlines connected, and policies driven towards that were effectively thrown out the window with the arrival of mobile telephony.

He urged APEC countries to look at “transformational technologies on the relatively near-term horizon” and try to figure out how the union of these systems “allows us to approach these questions in a different way”.

“That is where the real opportunity is,” Mr Mundie said. “It's wrong to continue to have to think we have to take the traditional model of medicine or education and try to drive it farther down into the global population.”

However, renowned Australian immunologist Ian Frazer - who was sharing a discussion panel with Mr Mundie - warned that despite a vast increase in understanding of disease and how to prevent it in many areas, as well as quantum leaps in the distribution of information, people still continued with complacent behaviour such as smoking and overeating.

“It's not just a matter of knowing what to do, it's getting information out there and getting people to change their behaviour,” Professor Frazer said.

“We gather information using information technology across a whole area of medical research that wasn't even conceivable 20 years ago. The knowledge of the human genome translated into practical outcomes will make a major difference to health care if we can teach people to make use of the information.”

Professor Frazer also raised the issue - very relevant to APEC with its mix of first and third world countries - of a divide between rich and poor nations in terms of health care resources. “We have this problem of inequity of distribution of the resources that we already have, and we really will have to address this somehow,” he said.

Mr Mundie said that in order to overcome these inequities, he believed there was “no strategy other than the mass-produced information technology to be used as an amplifier to traditional teaching methods ... in order to be able to expand the reach of the delivery systems”.

Aerobic, muscle-strengthening activities essential

"GIVEN the breadth and strength of the evidence, physical activity should be one of the highest priorities for preventing and treating disease and disablement in older adults."

Last month, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) released one of the most significant joint statements in public health in recent years.

Based on the research evidence to date, the statement is a recommendation on physical activity for older adults (Circulation 2007;116:000-000).

Representing the most rapidly growing age group, the recommendations target men and women aged 65 years and over, as well as adults aged 50 to 64 years with chronic health conditions or physical limitations.

The document highlights concerns that current activity levels in this age group are well below the level required to promote or maintain healthy living.

"Regular physical activity, including aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening activity, is essential for healthy ageing. This preventive recommendation specifies how older adults, by engaging in each recommended type of physical activity, can reduce the risk of chronic disease, premature mortality, functional limitations, and disability."

While the recommendations draw on research that demonstrates how exercise works as a therapy to combat both age-related and lifestyle-related conditions, it must be noted that these recommendations outline the minimum activity required for health benefit.

The document emphasises that many adults should exceed the minimum recommended amount of activity.

Aerobic activity:

To promote and maintain health, older adults need to perform moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 minutes, five days each week or vigorous intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 minutes on three days each week. Combinations of moderate and vigorous intensity activities can be performed to meet this recommendation.

On a 10 point scale -- where sitting is 0 and an all-out or maximal effort is 10 -- moderate-intensity activity is a 5 or 6 and results in a noticeable increase in heart rate and breathing.

On the same scale, vigorous-intensity activity is a 7 or 8 and produces dramatic increases in heart rate and breathing.

It should also be noted that these recommendations are in addition to routine activities of daily living, such as household tasks, walking or shopping.

Muscle-strengthening activity:

Older adults should perform strength training activities for a minimum of two days each week.

The recommendations include eight to 10 exercises utilising major muscle groups performed on two or more non-consecutive days per week.

A weight should be used that allows 10 to 15 repetitions per exercise. The level of effort for strength training should be moderate to high. On a 10 point scale -- where no movement is 0 and maximal effort is 10 -- moderate effort is a 5 or 6, and high intensity is a 7 or 8.

Flexibility (or joint range of motion) activity:

At least 10 minutes of flexibility activities are recommended at least two days each week and preferably performed on all days that aerobic or strength training is performed.

A general stretching routine should address major muscles, with 10 to 30 seconds for a static (still) stretch and each stretch repeated 3 to 4 times.

Balance exercises:

Older adults living in the community and at risk of falls (mobility issues or a history of falls) are advised to perform balance exercises three times per week.

These balance specific exercises complement the muscle strengthening exercise recommendations to reduce the risk of falls and fall-related injuries.

Activity plan:

Older adults with a chronic health condition should have an activity plan developed to ensure that the program works optimally as a treatment or therapy. Certain risks including falls, injury and other adverse events need to be addressed with specific tailored exercise prescription from a healthcare provider.

So with the warm weather approaching, there is no better time to start routine physical activity, and enjoy its benefits for a better quality of life.

Before commencing exercise or moderate intensity activity, consult your GP for a medical assessment and see your local exercise physiologist for an activity plan that includes specific exercise prescription and advice.

Dave Barry : Needling the birthday boy

I turned 50, which is really not so old. A lot of very famous people accomplished great things after 50. For example, it was during the post-50 phase of his life that the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein produced the vast majority of his drool.

But still, when you're 50, you're definitely ''getting up there,'' so I decided I had better go in for my annual physical examination, which is something I do approximately every seven to nine years. I keep my physicals spaced out because my doctor, Curt, who is ordinarily a terrific guy, has a tendency to put on a scary rubber glove and make sudden lunges at my personal region.

Also Curt has some ladies who work with him -- and again, these are charming people -- who belong to some kind of Druid-style cult that has very strict beliefs under which they are not allowed to let you leave the office with any of your blood. They get you in a chair and distract you with charming conversation while they subtly take your arm and insert a needle attached to a long tube that goes outside to a 50,000-gallon tanker truck with a big sign that says ''BLOOD.'' When they're done draining you, they don't even have to open the door to let you out; they just slide you under it.

Somehow I got through my physical OK. But then, about a week later, Curt was working late one night at his office -- perhaps going through the Official Catalog Of Supplies For Doctor's Offices, which lists needles in sizes ranging all the way from Extra Large to Harpoon, as well as an extensive selection of pre-1992 magazines with the last page of every article torn out -- and he happened to glance up at his framed copy of the Hippocratic oath. This is an oath that is named after an ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who is considered the Father of Medicine because he invented the following phrases, without which modern medical care would be impossible:

``Do you have insurance?''

``We're going to have to run some tests.''

``You may experience some discomfort.''

``We're going to have to run some more tests.''

``The tests were inconclusive.''

Anyway, Curt was looking at the Hippocratic oath, which all doctors are required to take, and he noticed the sentence that says:

``And I swear by my Lexus that if a person comes into my office for any reason, whether it be for a physical examination or simply to deliver the mail, I will find something medically wrong with that person.''

And so Curt -- realizing that if he let me get out of my physical scot-free, burly agents of the American Medical Association Ethics Unit would come and yank his stethoscope right out of his ears -- called me and told me that the cholesterol level in my blood was a little high. I tried to argue that this was no longer my problem, since all my blood was in the possession of the Druid ladies, but Curt insisted that I had to change my dietary habits.

To help me do this, Curt sent me some informative medical pamphlets that explain to the layperson, via cartoons, what cholesterol is. Technically, it is a little blob-shaped guy with buggy eyes and a big nose who goes running through your blood vessel, which is a tube going to your heart, which can be seen smiling in the background. Sometimes the blob guy gets stuck, causing him to get a grumpy expression and have a balloon come out of his mouth saying, ''I'M STUCK.'' If too many cholesterols get stuck, your blood vessel looks like a New York subway train at rush hour, and your heart gets a sad face, and surgeons have to go in there with a medical device originally developed by Roto-Rooter.

To prevent this from happening, you need to be very careful about your diet, as follows:

Food groups you cannot eat: Meat, milk, cheese, butter, desserts, processed foods, fried foods, foods with skins, restaurant foods, foods your mom made, foods from packages, foods shown in commercials, foods containing flavor, foods being carried around on trays at wedding receptions, appetizers, snacks, munchies, breakfast, lunch, dinner, takeout, drive-through, pina coladas, and any food with a phrase such as ''GOOD LUCK HERB!'' written on it in frosting.

Food groups you can eat: Water (unsweetened), low-fat celery, wood chips.

This diet has been difficult for me to follow. The worst part has been giving up cheese. I love cheese. I'm the kind of person who, while merely rummaging through the refrigerator to see what else is available, can easily gnaw his way through a hunk of cheddar the size of the late Sonny Liston. But I've been pretty good so far, and I'm hoping that my blood cholesterol will be a lot lower, if I ever develop blood again. Curt wants me to come back in and have it checked. He'll never take me alive.

Sep 10, 2007

The sinister side of social networking

More and more of us are sharing our personal details and chatting about our private lives on social networking Web sites, but what if these "chats" are not as private as we thought?

Social networking site Facebook boasts 39 million users.

Even listing something as innocuous as your favorite movies may leave you open to unwanted marketing, and your date of birth could even be a key for fraudsters to steal your identity.

Social networking sites are comparable to a global electronic village, and using them is akin to chatting to your neighbors over the back fence, sharing photos, gossip and updates about your social life. One such site, Facebook, now has 39 million users.

The information that we post about ourselves on the Web, called "digital litter" by technology experts, is a bonanza for fraudsters and marketing companies.

Details such as date of birth and where you work provide valuable clues for identity thieves, while status updates saying you are going on vacation could be tantamount to giving burglars the key to your house.

More information on your sexuality, religion, political leanings and favorite movies can provide a depth of detail to marketers that they previously could only dream of.

Issues of privacy and social networking sites are being addressed with some urgency by advocacy groups.

A soon to be added public search feature on Facebook will mean that user profiles can be found through search engines such as Yahoo and Google.

What was once a cozy world between friends (you had to join Facebook before you could access such information) is now available to anyone.

Facebook hopes the move will drive more users to the site and boost advertising revenues, which analysts believe are being under-realized.

Technology expert Om Malik wrote in his blog this week: "This move transforms Facebook from being a social network to being a quasi-White Pages of the Web."

Project Management Software is Hot

Software that manages corporate projects over the Internet is gaining momentum, leading software startups from around the world to relocate to the United States -- the biggest business market.

One such company is Clarizen, an Israeli software startup, that moved to Silicon Valley earlier this month to tap the growing demand for project management software. “Being close to the market is not only a statement, it’s something that you need to commit to do,” said CEO Avinoam Nowogrodski.

Project management software helps companies manage resources, time, people, and budgets. According to research firm Gartner, the project management market is worth $750 million a year worldwide, and is growing 11 percent annually.

Companies like Clarizen offer this software as a service over the Internet for a monthly subscription fee per user. The online delivery medium helps employees working remotely log into their company’s system from anywhere.

Although Clarizen’s software development will remain largely in Israel, Mr. Nowogrodski and the company’s sales and marketing staff are based in San Mateo, California. Clarizen has yet to unveil a commercial version of its software but says more than 1,000 customers have signed up for its beta version that was launched in June.

Because the project management software market has heated up, venture capitalists are also showing interest in the world of on-demand software. Clarizen, for instance, received $7 million in first round funding last December from top tier VCs Benchmark Capital and Carmel Ventures.

Competitors in this space are also attracting funding. Seattle-based eProject received a $12 million second-round funding last May from Bay Partners and Kennet Partners. Orem, Utah-based AtTask received a $7 million first-round funding from OpenView Venture Partners in June., based in Bellevue, Washington, is a company that provides an on-demand version of Microsoft’s Excel software. The company announced last June that it received $4 million in a first-round funding led by Madrona Venture Group.

Women are not less fertile, they are just waiting longer

THERE were many alarming headlines this week about infertility, some focusing on couples apparently spending £4,800 trying for a baby. They were based on a magazine survey claiming that more than a third of couples who want a baby are struggling to conceive.

The implication is that problems with conceiving are far more widespread than commonly accepted; 16 per cent of couples is the commonly quoted figure. We have to take this new infertility figure with a large pinch of salt. First, since the survey sample was taken from readers of women’s glossy magazines, we have to ask how representative it was.

Secondly, there is a danger of forgetting what is normal. Fertility in women falls from the age of about 30, and by 40 a woman is likely to be about 25 per cent as fertile as she was at 25. A partner’s fertility also has to be factored in.

Although we spend our school lives being told that it takes only one stray sperm and a nanosecond to cause unwanted pregnancy, it actually takes about six months for the average couple to conceive. About 90 per cent of couples conceive within two years. The problem is that we become twitchy if we haven’t conceived by three months and desperate by six. This is partly because there is so much publicity on infertility and, more importantly, because increasing numbers of women are having babies late. If you’ve left it until your late thirties to try for a baby, there’s a sense that time is running out.

Faced with a choice of waiting for two years, and trusting that you will be one of the 90 per cent who conceive, or opting for IVF, many couples decide to go for the latter. Thus it is that many normally fertile couples are having unnecessary and expensive IVF and becoming part of the infertility statistics.

It’s normal to have babies in our twenties; it’s not normal to have babies as late as we do now. But because we choose to do so, we are in a vulnerable position, which is exploited by the IVF industry, now worth £1.7 billion. IVF does not have to be so expensive, but there is no evidence base for many of the numerous treatment options.

This is not to diminish the experience of those couples experiencing infertility who are poorly served, if not totally abandoned, by the NHS. A Department of Health report this week says there are huge variations in the provision of NHS fertility treatment. But if we looked at 25-year-olds, would we find that they were less fertile than their mums were at 25? I doubt it. Had their experiences been recorded separately in the magazine survey, its findings would not have been so skewed or so scary.

Unix sucks the most

Microsoft is frequently dinged for having insecure products, with security holes and vulnerabilities. But Symantec (Quote), no friend of Microsoft, said in its latest research report that when it comes to widely-used operating systems, Microsoft is doing better overall than its leading commercial competitors.

The information was a part of Symantec's 11th Internet Security Threat Report. The report, released this week, covered a huge range of security and vulnerability issues over the last six months of 2006, including operating systems.

The report found that Microsoft (Quote) Windows had the fewest number of patches and the shortest average patch development time of the five operating systems it monitored in the last six months of 2006.

During this period, 39 vulnerabilities, 12 of which were ranked high priority or severe, were found in Microsoft Windows and the company took an average of 21 days to fix them. It's an increase of the 22 vulnerabilities and 13-day turnaround time for the first half of 2006 but still bested the competition handily.

Red Hat Linux was the next-best performer, requiring an average of 58 days to address a total of 208 vulnerabilities. However, this was a significant increase in both problems and fix time over the first half of 2006, when there were 42 vulnerabilities in Red Hat and the average turnaround was 13 days.

The one bright spot in all of this is that of the 208 Red Hat vulnerabilities, the most of the top five operating systems, only two were considered high severity, 130 were medium severity, and 76 were considered low.

Then there's Mac OS X. Despite the latest TV ads ridiculing the security in Vista with a Matrix-like Agent playing the UAC in Vista, Apple (Quote) has nothing to brag about. Symantec found 43 vulnerabilities in Mac OS X and a 66 day turnaround on fixes. Fortunately, only one was high priority.

Like the others, this is also an increase over the first half of the year. For the first half of 2006, 21 vulnerabilities were found in Mac OS X and Apple took on average 37 days to fix them.

Bringing up the rear were HP-UX from Hewlett Packard (Quote) and Solaris from Sun (Quote). HP-UX had 98 vulnerabilities in the second half of 06 and took 101 days to fix them. Sun, though, really dragged its feet, taking on average 122 days to fix 63 vulnerabilities. It wasn't doing much better in the first half of 06, either. It took 89 days to fix 16 vulnerabilities.

Cyberattacks outstripping defences

Cyberattacks today have become so complex that there may be no real way to completely protect against them, internet security researchers have warned.

Speaking to the media in Kuala Lumpur at this week's Hack in the Box Security Conference, Lance Spitzner, president of the Honeynet Project, said malicious software writers have been producing sophisticated codes, motivated mainly by the prospect of making millions of dollars from their exploits.

"The techniques used by criminal hackers are changing so rapidly now that it's difficult to keep up with them," Spitzner said. "In the end, it's all about returns on investment [for the hackers] because, by changing their attacks, there is so much more money to make."

An organisation dedicated to improving the security of the internet, the Honeynet Project employs a network of "honeypots", internet-attached servers that behave as decoys to lure potential hackers in order to study their techniques and monitor malicious activities.

Spitzner said that, in the past, security threats on the internet were motivated more by the desire for notoriety, creating chaos or fame, rather than by the desire for profits.

But he noted that hackers, since 2003, have become extremely organised and it is all about the money now.

"We are dealing with sophisticated attacks that are constantly adapting and changing, with the end goal of making as much money at the lowest risk levels possible," Spitzner said. "In the past 18 months, what has astounded me is not how sophisticated the tools are but how fast they have adapted and changed."

A good example of how fast criminal hackers are adapting is evident in the recent resurgence of the Storm Worm — first discovered in January — last month, which lured unsuspecting web users into downloading malicious codes onto their PCs, he said.

Like Do-gooder Trojans, these codes are then used to steal valuable data, such as bank account numbers and passwords, he added.

Spitzner noted that users can best protect themselves by observing basic security practices. "Prevention is the best policy," he said. "For instance, make sure your browsers have the latest patch and stay away from dodgy websites. Our research has shown that taking such steps will dramatically reduce the risks of being infected."

Dana Blankenhorn: HIPAA, end it or mend it?

HIPAA has become an all-purpose excuse against automating medicine.

In practice HIPAA protects no one. The first thing every patient must do on arriving at any doctor’s office today is sign away their rights under the law. No one wants to be sued over a paperwork issue.

HIPAA has also destroyed the competitiveness of small practices. Because it had a loophole making small practices immune from its controls, hundreds of thousands of doctors have simply refused to switch from paper records.

Conservatives will say “I told you so” and call for scrapping HIPAA. That’s an ideological argument, however, which assumes the flaws in the law can’t be fixed and lawlessness is preferable.

I believe the flaws can be fixed, if we start with a new privacy policy which states, simply, that your medical data belongs to you. Your data is yours, and your right to that data can’t be transferred or limited by contract.

Instead each time a doctor or hospital you’ve given data to wants to share it, you must be notified. This can and should be done electronically. Those who’ve resisted EHR because of HIPAA will now have an incentive to convert.

Sep 9, 2007

Vitamin D and adult bone health in Australia

For people living in Australia and New Zealand, the main source of vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight. It has been shown that whole body exposure to 10–15 minutes of midday sun in summer (about 1 minimal erythemal dose [MED], or the amount of sun exposure which just produces a faint redness of skin) is comparable to taking 15 000 IU (375 μg) of vitamin D (cholecalciferol) orally.2 On this basis, exposure of hands, face and arms (around 15% of body surface) to around 1/3 MED should produce around 1000 IU of vitamin D (cholecalciferol). The amount of sun exposure to produce 1/3 MED varies with latitude, season, time of day and skin type (Box 1).

Less vitamin D is synthesised in winter, in those who have dark skin or are older, and in those who dress with little potential for skin exposure to sunlight for cultural reasons or for sun protection. Therefore, serum vitamin D levels are lower in winter than in summer.5 Short exposures may be more efficient at producing vitamin D. Once previtamin D3 (a chemical precursor of vitamin D3) and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) have been formed, continued exposure to UV results in their degradation to relatively inert over-irradiation products.2

It is therefore prudent to expose hands, face and arms to 1/3 MED of sunlight most days.

Michael Stonebraker: One Size Fits All - A Concept Whose Time Has Come and Gone

The current major relational DBMSs (DB2, SQLserver, Oracle) all share the following characteristics:
1. They are direct descendents of System R and Ingres and were architected more than 25 years ago
2. They are advocating "one size fits all"; i.e. a single engine that solves all DBMS needs
In the 1970s when System R and Ingres were architected, the DBMS market had the following characteristics:
1. There was only a single DBMS application area - business data processing (OLTP
2. Hardware characteristics were very different from today
Since the 1970's, new DBMS application areas have emerged with very different requirements than OLTP. These include data warehouses, scientific and intelligence DBMSs, text and semi-structured data.

In addition, hardware has become radically cheaper. This has changed the major cost of DBMS applications from iron to people. In addition, it has led to applications requiring previously unthinkable features, such as high availability and disaster recovery.

In short, the world of 2007 is radically different from the world of the late 1970s. However, none of the major vendors have performed a complete redesign to deal with this changed landscape. As such they should be considered legacy technology, more than a quarter of century in age and "long in the tooth".

In every major application area I can think of, it is possible to build a SQL DBMS engine with vertical market-specific internals that outperforms the "one size fits all" engines by a factor of 50 or so. Vertica is an example of this claim in the data warehouse market. It achieves blindingly fast warehouse performance by:
o Column orientation - i.e. rotate your thinking 90 degrees
o Aggressive data compression
o Query executor runs against compressed data

In addition, it provides built-in features appropriate to the needs of 2007 customers. These include:

o Linear scalability over a shared-nothing hardware grid
o Automatic high availability
o Automatic use of materialized views
o "No knobs" -- minimum DBA requirements

As such Vertica can be set-up and data loaded, typically in one day. The major vendors require weeks. Hence, the "out of box" experience is much friendlier. Also, Vertica beats all row stores on the planet - typically by a factor of 50. This statement is true for software only row stores as well as row stores with specialized hardware (e.g. Netezza, Teradata, Datallegro). The only engines that come closer are other column stores, which Vertica typically beats by around a factor of 10.

Hence, my prediction is that column stores will take over the warehouse market over time, completely displacing row stores. Since many warehouse users are in considerable pain (can't load in the available load window, can't support ad-hoc queries, can't get better performance without a "fork-lift" upgrade), I expect this transition to column stores will occur fairly quickly, as customers search for better ways to improve performance.

In the longer term, I expect a transition of the same sort to occur in other markets where there is great user pain and the possibility of radical performance improvement from a specialized software architecture.

Sep 8, 2007

It's No Delusion: Evolution May Favor Schizophrenia Genes

Schizophrenia, the psychotic disorder marked by hallucinations, multiple personalities and cognitive disorganization, affects roughly 1 percent of the U.S. population. Many of those afflicted, however, also have reduced reproductive fitness, which means they are less likely to pass a genetic profile associated with the condition onto their offspring.

"It's sort of a genetic paradox," explains Steve Dorus, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Bath in England. "Why is this disease found at such a high prevalence?"

Schizophrenia may be a side effect of complex brains

A naive view of schizophrenia might leave someone wondering why it persists in human populations. The disease has a strong genetic component, and it strikes individuals during their peak reproductive years, radically reducing their ability to function socially. Selective pressures would be expected to have reduced its incidence, yet it persists at a prevalence of nearly one percent in a broad range of societies. A new analysis in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that the disease may simply be a consequence of genetic features that are useful in building and maintaining a complex brain.

The clearest models for this sort of behavior are the mutations that affect the hemoglobin genes, such as the one that causes sickle cell disease. In these cases, mutations that can be debilitating persist because they provide a strong selective advantage—resistance to malaria. The researchers set out to find out whether some of the genes implicated in schizophrenia were also under positive selection by looking for evidence of both selective sweeps and positive selective pressure on protein sequences. The authors looked at a panel of 76 genes that have been linked to schizophrenia; a set of 300 neural genes acted as controls. They also looked broadly at primate evolution, comparing values across the human/chimp split, those two vs. other primates, and among primates in general.

Fourteen of those genes showed signs of having undergone a recent selective sweep; this was about double the rate of the control set of neural genes; a few others showed signs of more ancient sweeps that occurred prior to humans forming a distinct lineage. One gene, DISC1, also showed powerful evidence of positive selection at the protein level. Just this week, evidence was published that suggests that this gene helps new neurons integrate into the mature brain, something that might help make sense out of the adult onset of the symptoms.

Futuristic Boat Made for Multitasking

Pity the fisherman or sailor who staggers on deck in the morning and through bleary eyes sees a 100-foot-long water strider coming at him, buzzing ominously. No cause for alarm, however. It's just Proteus, a so-called Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel designed for everything from military uses to biological studies, ocean exploration and sea rescue.

Daniel Basta, director of the National Marine Sanctuaries for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said the lightweight, low cost and modular craft is well suited to scientific and environmental purposes. The spindly catamaran can travel 5,000 miles — farther than across the Atlantic — on one 2,000-gallon load of diesel fuel.

Mark Henderson: What we really, really want

The creation of embryos by injecting human DNA into empty cow eggs was always going to be an emotive subject. Such cytoplasmic hybrids, or “cybrids”, are 99.9 per cent human in genetic terms, it is illegal to implant them in the womb, and they can be used to make valuable cell models for investigating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But they also carry a “yuck factor”, conjuring up images of half-man, half-cow monstrosities.

So when the national fertility regulator decided to launch a public consultation to test ordinary people’s opinions before deciding whether to approve such work, many scientists were nervous. While such exercises are fashionable in government, they do not have a good track record in fields such as science and medicine.

The main problem is that people who consider themselves neutral, open to persuasion, or too uninformed to comment rarely bother to take part. Those who do are loud minorities whose opinions are well-known. With GM crops, that meant green campaigners; when the Department of Health consulted on fertility law reform, it was the embryo-rights lobby. In each case, the project gave a misleading picture of public concerns.

The cybrids issue had all the hallmarks of heading the same way. The fear was that arguments from scientific utility would be drowned out by emotion, and the process would be hijacked by highly motivated religious and antigenetic engineering groups. Such worries turned out to be misplaced. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority’s consultation report, published on Monday, cleverly avoided falling into past traps. In doing so, it has laid down a valuable model for involving ordinary people in scientific policymaking.

Consultations have traditionally used two main tools: asking anybody who wishes to participate to make written submissions or to attend a public meeting. The HFEA did both and, taken on their own, the results suggested cybrids were deeply unpopular. Some 494 of the 810 written submissions were hostile, as was 47 per cent of the audience at the event.

Careful use of questions, however, revealed targeted lobbying at work. Poll after poll has shown that a majority accepts some human embryo research, yet 70 per cent of the written responses were from people who oppose it in all circumstances. When this group was excluded, a different picture emerged: 65 per cent of the respondents who were open-minded about embryo experiments also backed cybrids.

An even more nuanced picture emerged from two extra elements that were added to this consultation. First, a poll of 2,060 people found that while 34 per cent supported cybrids when asked the question in isolation, 61 per cent were in favour for improving the scientific understanding of disease.

Then there was “deliberative work”, a pair of workshops in which 44 randomly selected people took part in detailed discussions. The initial reaction was often “instinctive repulsion,” but when given full explanations of the nature and purpose of the work, “the majority felt more comfortable with the idea”. At the outset, 18 participants approved and 13 objected, with 13 people neutral. By the end, 27 approved and 5 objected.

The poll and the deliberative work made clear that the views expressed in the traditional consultation were not representative. Ordinary people, indeed, turned out to think quite differently. On Wednesday, the HFEA was thus able to approve cybrid work in principle, from a position of strength. It knew it was not going against the grain of public opinion.

The cybrids consultation cost £150,000, much more than is usual. But the extra spending was worth it. Not only has it allowed a deeper exploration of what the public really thinks, but it has exposed the folly of the old-fashioned approach, which just canvasses the known opinions of the deeply committed. Public consultations like this can be helpful, but they should be done properly or not at all.