Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mouthwash: A case of disrupting the balance of the human-hosted bacterial ecosystem

It is well known the our bodies are inhabited by billions of microorganisms, mostly bacteria. The majority of those are benign and don't pose any threat to us, provided that we are reasonably healthy. Having said that, current thinking suggests that maintaining one 's health is tightly connected to the maintenance of properly functioning bacterial communities in our bodies.
'Vintage 80's Scope Mouthwash'
by twitchery under a CC license

Most of the things we do in our normal life affect the microorganisms living within us. Whatever we eat, for instance, affects our gut flora. Eating food with lots of fibre equals giving more food to the microrganisms of the gut - it may be even possible to fine tune gut flora this way. Showering and bathing alter the composition of our skin microbiota (there are times when clean skin becomes too clean, in a risky kind of way). Brushing our teeth changes the bacterial demographics of the oral cavity, etc.

Some - and, hopefully, most - of those changes have negligible effect of human health. Major disruptions, however, may lead to more pronounced outcomes. For instance, courses of antibiotics strongly reduce the gut flora populations, leaving ground for more resistant species to settle in and, if the are pathogens, to cause trouble to their host.

A common practice with potentially detrimental effects, which seems to go unnoticed, is the use of mouthwashs. Some of those, strongly impact the baterial populations within the mouth. That is a good thing if we are talking about bacteria that cause cavities or gingivitis but probably not so good if we are talking about the bacteria that can reduce dietary nitrate to nitrite.


OK, let's have a quick close look at that.

The topic of dietary nitrite (which originates from the nitrate that exists in foods, mostly leafy vegetables, which is converted to nitrite by the mouth bacteria) is still a bit controversial. The reason for that is that nitrites, which are further converted to nitrous oxide in the acidic environment of the stomach, can have good properties but also, possibly, some bad ones.

The good ones have to do with the function of the immune system, especially the organism 's defence in the gastrointestinal track against pathogens, the function of the cardiovascular system (improving blood flow, lowering blood pressure) and also the improvement of performance in moderate aerobic exercise. The bad ones are associated with cases where nitrosamine is formed, which is a carcinogen. The latter is, of course, of great concern. Nitrosamine can be formed by nitrites in the presence of secondary amines under the effect of high temperature or strongly acidic environment. Adding antioxidants (such as ascorbic acid) or keeping food processing temperature at lower level can help reduce considerably foodborne nitrosamine. Practically, nitrosamine levels from food intake are very low, though (e.g., considerably lower than the nitrosamine smokers receive from tobacco products).

So what is the bottom line?

As usual, it is a question of the right balance (as in the case of nutrition). Some mouthwashes can have an effect on nitrate-reducing bacteria and that may be not-so-good. But there may be very good reason to use them. Dental or gum problems pose considerable risks both in the long and in the short term. Really, a dentist should be the one to advise. Under normal circumstances, however, I thing that not overdoing it is quite important!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The copy-and-paste approach of modern "journalists"

The internet together with the increasingly easy access to the online world have changed considerably the expectations we have from news and content providers, in general. Once upon a time, getting the daily newspaper and, perhaps, a weekly magazine was all it took to satisfy our hunger for news. Alas, not any more.
'What's the news' by ¡kuba!
under a CC license

The internet gave the power to news sites to add content dynamically, e.g., to post news as they happened. That has fuelled the page-refresh urge of ours to extents that, sometimes, may come close to clinical addiction.

The internet also gave the chance to a large number of people to get into the news or content-providing business. An increasing number of news sites has been appearing, some without a corresponding printed publication, which, together with the ever increasing number of blogs have created a universe with the sole purpose of propagating "fresh" information.

That's a good thing, isn't it? Well, not necessarily.

Many of news sites are, in fact, just collection of re-posts of news items. A simple copy-and-paste job. Often, without even commentary or, worse, with the original commentary and, sometimes, even worse, without attribution to the original source, too. There are also cases of circulating redacted, shortened or unfinished stories, which can lead to confusion.

Having news-hungry readers and a system that can disseminate news stories fast is certainly a good thing. At the same time, however, publishing, even online, has costs. Person-hours that need to be compensated, bandwidth costs, hosting costs, software development costs, intellectual property costs, legal services costs, etc., depending on the type of the site and the group behind it. Then there is the quality factor. Getting the story in the first place, cross-checking it, getting more data, writing the original article, reviewing and proof-reading it, updating it if needed, etc., need resources. All those,  are essential parts of the so-called "investigative journalism" thing that we, the public, are desperately in need for. Similar things also apply for non-professionals, too, who also devote part of their free time, energy and enthousiasm into preparing and publishing content, despite the fact that they may not always be after revenue, per se.

The copy-and-paste journalism, usually, has little to offer. Contrary to that, despite the apparent additional publicity of the original content, it twists the income model original content providers typically aim for, i.e., traffic converted to advertising revenue. To make things worse, it discourages readers from visiting the original sources, even if those is referenced in the copy-and-paste posts. That is because such news sites tend to offer quick turnaround of posts and, thus, are better suited for our continuous news-check addiction, much better than, say, a newspaper site, where published articles persist for longer. Additionally, there is little reason to visit the news source, if the reader has already read the article. Plus, reading online, nowadays, has its own challenges, too - as I have written previously. Social media, with their sharing capabilities, can - sometimes - make things even worse for the original content creators.

To be clear and fair, the rationale above does not apply to sites that quote and link to discrete news items or articles and provide further commentary, additional content, etc. Those are actually providing derivative work, which would normally be legally (and ethically) OK. Also, copy-and-paste journalism can be found in the printed media, too. And, finally, online journalists do face challenges that may encourage less thorough practices, including, but not limited to, the mandate to hunt for readers' clicks that can bring the much-needed advertising income.

Is copy-and-paste posting useless then? It depends. 

Copy-and-paste sites and their use of social media are particularly handy when one needs to distribute information as widely as possible. A good example is press releases, especially anything related to consumer safety. Overall, however, I would feel that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages - but that 's a personal opinion.

Can things improve? Possibly. 

One could try enforce the copyright legislation but this varies vastly from place to place and it costs, sometimes a lot. It also creates a negative overall feeling amongst content providers and readers, which would certainly not be of help. A better option would be to raise the journalism bar: readers should learn to ask for more investigative journalism, while at the same time original content providers should try to adapt to the fast publishing rate the online communities want. Content replicators will, of course, always have the right to upgrade their status to content creators or contributors.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

When pictograms use icons of the past...

'YVR Pictograms' by
Tom Magliery under  a CC license
A pictogram is an image, often depicting a physical object. that conveys a specific message. Pictograms are meant to facilitate the perception of a message, regardless of the language skills of the people exposed to them. Well, the latter in some cases is rather optimistic. Of course, in the case of widely used pictograms, such as road signs, very high positive recognition rates can be expected. But is that the case for all pictograms?

Pictograms have been increasingly used everywhere. The chances are that the ones we come across daily go much beyond the Public information symbols (of ISO 7001:2007), the laundry symbols or the chemical hazard symbols (GHS 2013 revision). Indeed, remote controls, televisions, software programs, smartphones, etc., rely a lot on the use of pictograms, rather than descriptive text, in order to be operated by the user as intented.

Some symbols are abstract so we get to learn their meaning. For instance, the volume level symbol on a remote normally looks like that:

Although the displayed symbol on a laptop might be like that:


Other pictograms are more interesting. For instance, the symbol for saving a file:

That is a 3.5'' diskette and while I have used plenty of those, the new generations may have never held one in their lives. The same goes for opening a file. The filing system depicted is still in use in many places but is becoming increasingly uncommon sight:

The paste function is associated with a clipboard icon. Clipboards are still in use but, again, they are not that common amongst young people. Palettes are not a common sight, too, although they are in use by professionals. Still, they are used in several pieces of drawing software.

Voice messages are often behind a pictogram that depicts a magnetic tape:

E-mail clients and webmail services typically use the old, common snail-mail envelope:

Some older e-mail clients used the US-style mailbox with the flag:

Many sound-processing-capable programs use the old-style microphone symbol to indicate record:

There are numerous other cases. For instance the old-school phone handset pictogram (that means "make a call"), the bookmark symbols, the calliper symbols (for measuring distances in photo-editing software), the gear or wrench symbols in software (usually leading to the settings sections), the film reel symbol (indicating video), the album symbol (indicating, well, a digital album), the binoculars and the magnifying glass symbols (search function - OK - both of these are in regular use), etc. But I think I'll end this section with the rabbit-eared TV symbol:

Similar problems exist in other fields, as well. Language expressions may refer to objects or practices of the past that are no longer used. That includes jargon, too (e.g., "radio buttons" in questionnaires that allow the respondent to select only one option). There are also sounds we don't hear often any more (such as the typewriter clicks in the typewriter song).

Employing pictograms to convey messages is not an easy task. Sometimes, they are artistic (e.g., pictogram movie posters). Sometimes they are fun but sometimes not so much. In some cases, if the pictogram fails to be understood, it could even be dangerous. This is particularly important when posting pictograms that will stay in place for tens or hundreds (or more) of generations, such as the warning signs in nuclear waste land burial sites.

It is clear that our world will continue to rely - increasingly - on pictograms. I'm sure that, as time passes, designers will get better in conveying messages in a graphical way and we will become better in interpreting in-context symbols.

Note: Clipart symbols obtained from CLKER (and are thought to be in the public domain).

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Doing good

Doing good or, at least, doing something good, is very much within the spirit of these days (Christmas, New Year's Eve, Epiphany). People are willing to be more open, to give to those in need, to contribute to good causes and to feel that they are doing their (little) bit to make world (or, even, a tiny part of it) a better place.
'Donation box' (cropped
and size-reduced), originally
by Yukiko Matsuoka
under a CC licesne

I won't say that doing good is in our very nature, while - to some extent - it most probably is. Altruism is a characteristic that has been examined by many different viewpoints (scientific, evolutionary, philosophical, religious, etc.) and, while not unique to humans, it has contributed to what humanity is today.

Instead, I'll stick to the simplistic view that, given the right chance and the right environment, most people would choose to do good, regardless of the exact reason behind their choice.

Indeed, our social ecosystem includes numerous local, trans-regional and international organisations devoted to good causes. Charities, as non-governmental organisations, have a recognised status in many countries, giving them privileges, such as tax exemptions or administrative simplifications, so as to facilitate their work. Some doing-good-oriented organisations go after a higher profile (and have catchy names, e.g., the Do Something Great Today Foundation, Doing Something Good, DoGoodVolunteer, etc.). Some are lucky enough to have lots of resources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and can, thus, work on diverse projects and places. Others, like the Medecins sans frontieres are much more "thematically" focused.

There are also non-governmental charity organisations that are contributing to society in a very different way. Think of the Mozilla Foundation (that is behind the Firefox browser), the Wikimedia Foundation (which is behind Wikipedia), the Electronic Frontier Foundation, etc. These are organisations with a mission that is relevant and has an impact to the public' s normal, everyday life.

There also non-profits that provide funding mechanisms to help those in need. Kiva, for instance, facilitates people to provide microloans to people all around the world. While those are not donations but loans (i.e., people will have to return the capital + interest) they are thought to help local development since they address "investments" that are not within the core business of typical banks. They may provide, for instance, the money a farmer needs to get fertiliser for this year's crop, i.e., they normally provide small amounts of money.

Microcredit organisations are not the only type of crowdfunding. The crowdfunding category is very diverse and, altogether, as an alternative way to get funding is becoming increasingly available and popular. Although not a clear charity mechanism, crowdfunding platforms allow people with a vision to address the wide public and ask for support. The rules of the game vary greatly amongst the different platforms. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are popular examples for individuals (you can also have a look at the 7 most supported Indiegogo campaigns and at the most funded Kickstarter projects) but there numerous other services with very different operation styles, some of which are best suited for businesses.

In other cases, there are business entities that include charity support in their business model (e.g., Humble Bundle Inc.). And, of course, there is the - thankfully increasing - trend of corporate social responsibility, where enterprises - of any size or business sector - give back to the society.

Then there is volunteering (e.g., Global Volunteer Network, International Volunteer Programs Association, etc.. As a means, it has been used extensively both at times/ places of need and as an additional assistance to the normal mechanisms in place.

So, are we having enough charity to make sure that our world is enjoying a life that meets - at least - the minimum "acceptable" standards?

No. Really, we are far from that.

The resources made available through our current charity ecosystem, together with the resources allocated by governments, international organisations, etc., cannot meet the actual demand, which is substantial, even in middle- and high-income countries (albeit for different things than low-income countries).

Yes, there are also concerns regarding efficiency in the mechanisms used to channel resources from those who provide them to those who need them. Fraud is another concern that occasionally arises.

But that doesn't make giving, donating, volunteering and supporting good causes pointless. Despite current shortcomings, doing good always counts!

Even if it helps a single individual for a finite amount of time...

Full disclosure and disclaimer: As of writing this post, I have not been affiliated to or have been supported by any of the organisations mentioned in this post. Also, I have not specifically enquired for or used their services. Thus, I am in no position to endorse them (or not) and my mentioning them herein is not meant to constitute an endorsement. Any organisation or organisation type mentioned in this post is for information purposes only. Most likely, there many similarly-minded organisations out there. If you want to donate or contribute to a cause or if you want to receive assistance, do take the time needed to find and compare the alternatives suitable for you.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

(Now is the) Time for Reflection

People say that defining goals in life is important. I agree but defining, aggregating and putting those goals on a list at a finite moment in time is not necessarily the way for me to go. At least not until I give myself some time for reflection. After all, it seems that there is some scientific evidence supporting that reflection helps self-improvement.

'Tree Reflection' by Doug Wheller
under a CC license
It is amazing how my self-criticism for events and experiences of my recent past often matures as time passes and, while my initial views are rarely overturned, I end-up having personal case-study "packages" that include the event, the reaction (of myself and the others) and its immediate and long term effect. This may sound a bit pompous (and tediously complex) but it really isn't.

I'll give you an example.

The person that tends to point out a project's difficulties and risks is, usually, not too popular in a group. One would think that identifying shortcomings at the early stage would be useful for a project's ultimate success. However, one should also take into account the psychological impact of this activity on the others. In a balanced group of co-workers, where ambitious planners and careful analysts coexist, discussing on potential difficulties works as intended. In poorly populated teams, however, that is not the case. Talking about the risks could discourage the entire group in the same way that, had there been no careful analyst in the team, the group would have been carried away into selecting over-ambitious objectives.

During 2014 I had the chance to find myself into several different groups and had the opportunity to see the effect of interventions of group members and me at the various stages of different projects. The "carry-home" messages I ended up with are:
  • In group work, it's always good to talk about potential problems at an early stage, ideally, when a project is being planned. At later stages, it is still necessary but a group talk may not be the best way to do it. Discussing with the group leader may be better. Openly highlighting risks when the work is in progress can contribute to a toxic environment, especially when the project is behind schedule and the team has not been properly formulated. Toxic environments are not good. Not good at all!
  • If the one talking about potential risks receives no feedback or constructive criticism or no discussion on mitigation measures takes place, that is an indication that the group cannot properly process the information. One should then try to guide the group into addressing the issues raised. Sometimes the latter is more productive to be discussed bilaterally with the group leader.
  • One-sided discussion on a project's risks and difficulties need to be balanced by documented optimism. If there is none to present the latter then it would be of great value if the same person would think on and present both sides. It is not always easy, though.
  • Collective memory is important in work groups, too. Team members should be given the chance to reflect, even informally. It helps learning and, besides that, helps identify group dysfunctions or tensions that may need to be resolved.
  • Never ignore the emotional impact that words and actions have on people. Or, in other words, constructive criticism works constructively when spoken in a polite and encouraging way.
None of the points above is really rocket science. To the contrary, most are common-sense really. However, experiencing them and then reflecting on them is what really adds to the individual 's skills.

Thursday, 1 January 2015


'Fireworks' by Jeton Bajrami
under a CC license
Happy New Year!

May it be peaceful, creative and productive!