Sunday, 20 November 2011


'Water walker' by Navdeep Raj
under a CC license
What do you ask for when you feel thirsty?
Water, maybe?

It doesn't take much thought to reply to that, does it?

A couple of days ago (on 18/11, to be precise), The Telegraph featured an article titled "EU bans claim that water can prevent dehydration". The article comments negatively on legislation that follows an EFSA opinion, which rejects a health claim on the potential of water consumption against dehydration. The EFSA opinion is not a very new story but it seems to have resurfaced. The said article was also in slashdot yesterday, so I assume that it has received plenty of attention world-wide by now.

Interesting article, with negative bias, regardless of the fact that both quotes and facts are provided. The article suggests that EFSA's opinion and the subsequent legislative act are really against common knowledge and are, thus, wrong. Apart from that, according to the article, the whole process has been rather expensive (for the taxpayer). Only at the very end of the text does a supportive (for EFSA) opinion appears, with no further comments given.

Well, let's see where this case stands. The claim that was submitted to EFSA for their opinion was "regular consumption of significant amounts of water can reduce the risk of development of dehydration and of concomitant decrease of performance". It was submitted by two German professors (some internet sources say they are consultants for the bottled water industry) under Art. 14 of Regulation EC/1924/2006, which covers claims for the reduction of disease risk.

EFSA said (and repeated) that the submitted claim did not meet the requirements of Art. 14 for the reduction of disease risk. The European Federation of Bottled Water seems to agree. Dehydration is a state of the body and - itself - is not a disease, although it can be a side-effect/ symptom of various diseases. I admit, however, that EFSA's opinion has been written in a rather complicated way, where they seem to somehow accept dehydration as a disease before concluding that the requirements of the Regulation are not met!!! Strange....

To make things interesting, the responsible EFSA's panel had given favourable opinions on the role of water for "maintenance of normal thermoregulation" and for it being a "basic requirement of all living things" - both claims falling under Art. 13 of Regulation EC/1924/2006, which includes claims on "the role of a nutrient or other substance in growth, development and the functions of the body". In order words, it seems plausible that the claim was filed under the wrong classification. If that was really the case, EFSA should not be the one to blame for that.

It is clear that all nutrition and health claims submitted for consideration should be rigorously processed. That 's what the law foresees and that 's what is needed in order to protect the consumer and maintain a competitive - but fair - market. Submitting obvious (or stupid) claims doesn't mean that they won't go down the processing pipeline. And although that this comes with a price-tag, there's no safe way to go around that; there is no "obviousness" clause that would allow the EC (or EFSA) to accept or reject a proposed claim.

Going a bit beyond, I really wonder, what is the reason of having a health claim supporting that water can help against dehydration? If it is common knowledge (which it is), why apply for it? In any case, the EU law would prevent such a claim phrased in a way that it would benefit a particular product, since the beneficial function is performed by any drinkable water (yes, including tap water :-)

Was it an effort to prove that the system is broken? If that was it, then point taken. And then immediately, point put aside. Every system that is open to all and is committed to dealing with all has similar weaknesses. I've got nothing against improving a system, if that is needed, but passing the obvious through formal channels so as to see what happens is a questionable practice...

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The many faces of photography

'Sunset writ small' by
bgblogging under a CC license.
This is not supposed to be a regular post. It's rather an addendum to my previous one, 'Photons & imagination'. You see, while I was going through that a second time (a hard-to-explain masochistic thing that I find myself sometimes doing), I felt the urge to add several other things on photography. No, the lot of additions I had in mind would hardly make the topic complete but, also, that was never my original intention.

Photography is one of the things that has many different functions in our lives. For some, it is art. For others, science. Also, it forms a kind of expression, in a way an equivalent to speech, in the sense that it can convey messages to specific (or not-so-specific) audiences. Some consider it a visual tool merely accompanying written or oral speech. At the same time, photography is a means for art, science and communication. And, on top of that, there are the ones that embrace photography as passion.

A few days ago, I made a reference to light field photography, which seems to be slowly emerging as niche in photographic consumer-oriented products. I described it as exciting and challenging but also divergent from the traditional spirit of photography that most hobbyists and professionals carry. I now consider that I may have been a bit too harsh on that.

It's no secret that the photography world features considerable diversity: a variety of technologies are being used for a variety of applications by a variety of people. Photography seems to me as a mainstream skill/ hobby that hosts an overwhelming number of hard-to-ignore niches. Just a couple of examples I recently came across:

a. Revisiting the old times of photography, a case of which is the resurrection of instant film cameras (Polaroids). The Polaroid (corporation) having itself shifted a bit to the modern era and seeing the entire film-based world slowly making the leap towards digital media there were voices that asked otherwise. The SavePolaroid movement (archived site: here) lobbied for the preserving the option to use Instant. "It grows up with you and becomes a part of you", as a visitor of said. I can see what she meant, although - myself - I was never an instant film user. That is passion! Now, the Impossible project offers the chance for people to meet or continue to use instant film Polaroids.

'Lomo' by
under a CC license
Lomography is another retro photography passion that is very much alive and still burns. Understandably perhaps, since it applies no specific rules for photography (apart for the 'there are no rules' rule) making it really dynamic, potent means of expression. Beyond that - I'm sure - there are many oldish photography branches that still enjoy support.

b. "Small world" photography. To be fair, that's by no means mainstream. Capturing images from the "small world" often requires specialised equipment and some skills in sample preparation. Especially when it comes to techniques like TEM (transmission electron microscopy), AFM (atomic force microscopy), BAM (Brewster angle microscopy) or - even - confocal microscopy, one needs specilised equipment that is (very) unlikely to be found outside the lab walls, in the hands of hobbyists. An encouraging exception to the rule has been a recent boom in the marketing of USB microscopes (such as VEHO or Reflecta), although I tend to believe that the trend doesn't persist much anymore.

Photos from the small-scale world, however, always attract attention. Be it insects, snow flakes, bacteria, crystals, phases of matter or molecules, the images of the world at such size-scale have always been associated with a certain kind of "cool factor". There several interesting sources out there. Apart from what one can find in Flickr or Picasa, Nikon "Small World" is certainly worth a visit. It is a corporate-supported website (Nikon Instruments) hosting several galleries with photos from the "small world", which were selected by open competitions. In most cases, the photos there are accompanied by (brief) information on the sample and the technique used to get the picture. As an example, a favourite of mine:

Charles Krebs, Wing scales of Urania riphaeus (Sunset moth) (100X),
available in the "2008 Winners" gallery of Nikon "Small World"

I guess that the bottom line is that the photography scenery is - fortunately - beautifully complex. It's certainly unlikely to feel bored there!