Posts Tagged TED

Finito, Alberto, La Musica

This was one of my mother’s favourite phrases, uttered when things had come to their inevitable conclusion. Had she been a fan of Douglas Adams she could equally have said, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

After three years of moaning, complaining and, hopefully, educating and entertaining I have decided to bring this blog to its inevitable conclusion. It has been an interesting foray into the world of social media, so different from the world I grew up in. The ability to connect with so many people from all over the world is truly amazing and should continue to shrink the world’s boundaries and bring us all closer together. Disaster and misfortune no longer occur in far off places to people we neither know nor care about. Even though we have never met them everyone is a potential friend, acquaintance or colleague with beliefs, hopes and ideas that are not so dissimilar to our own. Surely this can only help to break down our prejudices and barriers and make it more difficult to continue injustices and demonise people from other countries. With easy access to so much data each of us has a duty to be informed and act rationally. Irrational hatred based on race, nationality or religion can no longer be excused on the basis of ignorance.

Even this little blog has attracted almost 100 followers (modest, I know, compared with many others but intimidating enough for me when I think how many people are reading these words) and readers from 76 countries. I would like to thank everyone for reading, commenting and liking and I depart with one final request coming, of course, from another TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/myriam_sidibe_the_simple_power_of_hand_washing). Wash your hands! With soap! Do it frequently! Do it properly! Do it now!

Hand washing alone has a dramatic effect on infant mortality. It can reduce the incidence of diarrhoea by half, respiratory infections by a third and mitigate the spread of flu, trachoma, SARS, cholera and even Ebola. Regular hand washing with soap will allow 600,000 children to see their fifth birthday.

In conclusion, it is probably appropriate to finish with a line from Get Smart, one of my all time favourite TV shows.

Pausing to leave, Kubacheck utters the immortal words to Smart, 99 and the Chief, “As George Washington said in his farewell to his troops “Farewell, troops!””

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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Needle Free Vaccination

How good would this be? According to a recent TED talk by Mark Kendall it could soon become reality (http://www.ted.com/talks/mark_kendall_demo_a_needle_free_vaccine_patch_that_s_safer_and_way_cheaper.html).

Instead of using a needle and syringe the vaccine is applied via a patch that is placed on the skin. The patch contains thousands of projections that release the vaccine into the top layers of the skin. As well as being pain free the administration of the vaccine into the skin, rather than the muscle, also generates a more powerful immune response. This means that much less vaccine is required (up to one hundredth of the traditional dose) lowering the cost and decreasing the possibility of undesirable side effects.

The vaccine that coats the patch is in a dry form. Therefore, it does not need to be refrigerated, unlike traditional vaccines, and will retain its potency at 23 C for up to a year. This makes it much more feasible to use in countries where electricity and refrigeration are difficult to guarantee, such as Papua New Guinea which has only 800 refrigerators. Patch trials are due to start there soon.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Cooking With Gas

Recently I watched a TED talk by Suzana Herculano-Houzel (http://www.suzanaherculanohouzel.com/lab) entitled, “What is so special about the human brain?” (http://www.ted.com/talks/suzana_herculano_houzel_what_is_so_special_about_the_human_brain.html). In this presentation she makes the intriguing assertion that our brain is as large as it is, at least in part, because we cook our food.

Size, as in brain size, is not as important as neuron number when it comes to intelligence. Although the elephant brain is three times as large as the human brain it contains 23 billion neurons, compared with 86 billion in the human brain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_animals_by_number_of_neurons).

Unfortunately the human brain is incredibly expensive to run, 25% of the energy consumed daily goes to fuel the brain. It costs around 6 kCal to run one billion neurons per day. Despite great apes being physically larger than us, their brains are smaller. Herculano-Houzel proposes that this is because they cannot consume enough calories on a daily basis to run a bigger brain. They do have a fairly low energy diet consisting predominantly of high fibre plant material with a few fruits and, in the chimpanzee’s case, some meat. This may be why the chimpanzee can afford to run 5.5 to 6.2 billion cerebral cortical neurons compared with the gorilla’s 4.3 billion.

However, humans maintain between 19 and 23 billion cerebral cortical neurons. Herculano-Houzel believes we can feed this number because of cooking, which effectively predigests our food releasing more energy and allowing us to more completely absorb our food. She depicts a graph, which correlates the increase in brain size of our ancestors with the invention of cooking.

Paradoxically we are now moving away from cooking and processing back to a more unprocessed diet because we appear to have overdone it, consuming too many calories and becoming extremely obese in the process. If we could only divert all those extra calories to our brains instead of our bodies imagine how incredibly intelligent we could become.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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Charity Begins At Home

But it does a lot more good outside the home. The trouble for me has always been how to decide which charities to support and which ones to ignore. There are so many stories of aid being wasted because of ineffective programs that don’t address the needs of local people or corrupt bureaucrats that use it to line their own pockets that I sometimes wonder if I should bother doing anything at all. But that is just being lazy and selfish. All it takes is a bit of research, diligence and commitment. And remember that aid does not always have to be considered in terms of money. Many charities desperately need volunteers to help with their various activities.

I watched a recent TED talk by Peter Singer entitled, “The Why and How of Effective Altruism” (http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_singer_the_why_and_how_of_effective_altruism.html) that helped clarify things for me.

One site he recommended is Give Well (http://www.givewell.org/). Give Well appears to be a group that reviews charities and recommends the ones they believe should receive support based on transparency, accountability, cost-effectiveness and a strong positive impact on people’s lives. At the moment they list only three: Against Malaria Foundation (http://www.againstmalaria.com/), GiveDirectly (http://www.givedirectly.org/), and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/schisto).

Another similar review group is Giving What We Can (http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/). Interestingly their top two recommended charities are also the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which gives me a bit more confidence that they may actually be worthwhile. They also have a second tier they call the “Opportunities for Leverage” group. These contain Project Healthy Children (http://projecthealthychildren.org/), and Deworm the World (http://www.dewormtheworld.org/). While the dewormers didn’t make the top cut it’s hard to argue with a great name like that.

Giving What We Can is part of a group called The Centre for Effective Altruism (http://centreforeffectivealtruism.org/), which also contains 80,000 Hours (http://80000hours.org/), a site that provides career advice for people who want to make a difference, and The Life You Can Save (http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/?utm_expid=72587378-8&utm_referrer=http%3A%2F%2Fcentreforeffectivealtruism.org%2F), an organisation started by Peter Singer that encourages people to pledge at least 1% of their income to global poverty charities.

As a veterinarian this article would be incomplete if I did not say something about animal charities. Effective Animal Activism (http://www.effectiveanimalactivism.org/) is a similar group to Give Well and Giving What We Can but they assess animal related charities. Their top ones are the Humane League (http://thehumaneleague.com/), and Vegan Outreach (http://www.veganoutreach.org/).

Unfortunately none of these charities focus on wildlife or conservation and are all very USA-centric, which makes it difficult for those of us who live in the rest of the world. For a more Australian view of the world you could try Everyday Hero (http://www.everydayhero.com.au). They don’t appear to critique any of the charities but they have certainly come up with an impressive list crying out for your support, all 1640 of them.

In the end it all comes down to your own priorities, which is why I support Vets Beyond Borders (http://www.vetsbeyondborders.org/). The important thing is to make sure the bewildering array of “good causes” does not lead to inaction, because that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Extinction Is Forever?

I was watching yet another presentation about the possibility of reviving extinct life forms (http://www.ted.com/talks/hendrik_poinar_bring_back_the_woolly_mammoth.html). Now that we appear to have the technology, at least in theory, to extract DNA from long dead animals and place it in currently extant species there seem to be more and more articles about how terrific it would be to bring them back from oblivion. This particular talk concerned reviving the woolly mammoth but I have seen similar ones suggesting restoring the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, to life.

Technology has been astonishingly uninspiring when it comes to saving the world’s current long list of endangered species. While there have been a few cases of successful artificial insemination or an embryo from an endangered species being reared to term by a surrogate (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=cloning-endangered-animals), the majority of effective conservation programs have relied on natural breeding to create enough animals to sustain a population, along with addressing the causes why the species became endangered in the first place. There are too many unknowns when it comes to artificially breeding wild animals: how best to harvest the eggs and collect sperm, how to freeze gametes and embryos, synchronising reproductive cycles, carrying a foreign species to term, providing appropriate milk, etc, etc. All these difficulties, and more, apply to the resurrection of extinct species.

If we are able to successfully impregnate a surrogate that takes the pregnancy to term, then what? We have a single individual being reared by an individual of a different species. If this works what do we then do with our mammoth or thylacine? Apparently appropriate mammoth habitat exists in Siberia. But what would our solitary mammoth do in such a place? We would need to produce at least 50 mammoths (probably more like 500: http://www.eoearth.org/article/Minimum_viable_population_size?topic=58074), to create a self-sustaining population. Given the paucity of genetic material available to play with, these mammoths would be virtual clones with very little genetic diversity. All conservation programs seek to maximise genetic diversity to avoid the problems that now occur in inbred populations e.g. Tasmanian devils and their contagious cancer.

What would be the point of bringing back one species? The mammoth will be no more than a curio, devoid of any real value, unless you bring back its entire ecosystem. This ecosystem would need to include not just all the extinct animals but also all the plants it shared its former existence with.

There is more logic in restoring the thylacine as it only became extinct in the 1930s, not 4000 years ago, but even there the Tasmanian ecosystem has changed in the past 70 years. Would it not make more sense to invest all that time, money and expertise into preventing other species from heading down the same extinction path, instead of wasting it on frivolous projects whose only purpose seems to be to let scientists marvel at their own cleverness?

Dr. F. Bunny

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Don’t Worry – Be Happy

Long tendrils of black smoke curled up into the sky. All around lay charred bodies and burned buildings. Dresden 1945? No, just the six o’clock news. We are bombarded on all sides with images and messages of doom, destruction and death.

The world is heating up causing firestorms of ever greater ferocity. Global warming will produce more violent hurricanes (See http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/08/0804_050804_hurricanewarming.html). (Apparently it will also decrease the temperature gradient between the poles and the equator because the poles will heat up proportionately more. This will mean less wind, a failure of wind turbines and less intense wind related storms? (See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101109095314.htm). I’m not sure how you can have both, but never let logic get in the way of hysteria). Avian influenza will jump from birds to humans wiping us all out. Extremists will turn the infidel lands into radioactive wastelands. Depending on which gloom merchant you read anywhere from 20 to 200 species go extinct every day. The world population has already grown by nearly 12 million people this year (See http://www.worldometers.info/world-population), and we topped seven billion in October last year.

I’ve heard it all before. You’ve heard it all before. What we’re not hearing is the fact that we are also living in the best of times, because good news doesn’t sell. Last year the second major disease, after small pox, was eradicated from the planet. Rinderpest, a serious disease of cattle, has become extinct, and polio seems likely to follow. Deaths from malaria, one of our biggest killers, are down. We are living longer than any of our ancestors. According to Harvard University social scientist Steven Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature) we are less likely to die violently now than at any time in our history. According to his statistics the murder rate of 14th century Oxford was 110 per 100,000 people. The murder rate for mid-20th century London was one death per 100,000 people. In prehistory approximately 15% of people died in wars, compared with 0.7% of the population in the 20th century. If we add disease, famine and genocide to that we can get it all the way up to 3%. Still, that’s little consolation for the 180 million people who contributed to that statistic.

Nevertheless, contrary to what our friends in the media would have us believe, violence is decreasing, partly because of the formation of nation states with their state sanctioned punishments, shifts in attitude resulting in people thinking less selfishly and the simple fact that violence and war are bad for business. Why hammer someone into submission by force when you can pillage them financially and make a huge profit as well?

Cynicism aside, however, for most of the people reading this life is pretty reasonable but we appear to be hard wired to focus only on the negative, conveniently blanking out the positive. We need to change that attitude. Recently I viewed a TED talk by Shawn Achor on this very topic. If you’re not aware of TED it stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, can be found at http://www.ted.com and is well worth a visit as it contains a myriad of talks on a huge range of topics.

Shawn Achor’s (http://www.shawnachor.com) attempt to change the way we think focusses on meditation, exercise, writing down three things each day that we are grateful for, writing down one positive experience each day and performing one act of kindness each day. Do this for 21 days and your brain is retrained. Does this really work or is it just hype? Does it really matter? Best case scenario: if you’re a doctor you’ll be more intelligent and creative and make accurate diagnoses 19% faster, if you’re a salesperson you’ll outsell your pessimistic counterparts by 56%, and the rest of you will receive up to 25% higher job performance ratings than your unhappy colleagues and you’ll be more productive, perform better, earn more money, take fewer sick days and be less likely to burn out (according to Shawn Achor’s statistics). Worst case scenario? You’ll be no worse off than you are now.

So you may as well give it a go and, as the very much alive Bobby McFerrin (not that Guy Sebastian rip off merchant) said, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Dr. F. Bunny

“Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the “ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” (Stephen Jay Gould -palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and science writer)

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