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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Welcome to the Hotel Relativity

Scuba dive down to your hotel’s lobby; spend a luxurious night in a palace made of ice; have the concierge find you an astronomer for an evening of stargazing. All are part of the expanding universe of science and exploration travel. Restaurants and bars are in on this trend too, with chefs using the laws of chemistry to whip up great meals and engineering students getting drunk on Ein-Stein beer. We’ve turned up some places well worth a visit. So take a look. Near or far, chances are our paths will cross, and when they do, we’ll grab a drink to toast—what else?—science.

Icehotel
Village Jukkasjärvi, Sweden
If your idea of comfort is to bundle up in thermal underwear and jump into a sleeping bag, then book a stay at this igloo hotel, which is kept at –5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit). Don’t worry, though; you won’t freeze. When you check in you receive a full set of winter clothes. And anyway, every bit of chilliness is worth it: The entire hotel—including the reception desk, chandeliers, chairs, sculptures, and rooms—is made of ice. Built from scratch each year, the resort requires 30,000 cubic meters (40,000 cubic yards) of snow and 2,000 tons of ice from the nearby, frozen Torne River. During the day, be sure to pull yourself away from dogsledding for a field trip to the Esrange Space Centre, where scientists study the northern lights. Later, look into the night sky and see the lights yourself, then end the evening with a drink in the hotel’s Absolut Icebar. The next morning, spend a quiet moment in the spectacular Ice Church.
www.icehotel.com


Astronomers Inn
Benson, Arizona
Is the cosmos your thing? Stay next door to Vega-Bray Observatory’s headquarters in the comfort of a hilltop bed-and-breakfast. Bring your telescope, set up on the patio, and hire an astronomer, if you like, for a guided journey into the night. Or go inside and use the observatory’s equipment. You can even buy time on the 20-inch f/10 Maksutov in the dome. Book a room that suits your mood—choices include the romantic Garden Room, the Egyptian Room, and the Galaxy Room with its Star Wars decor. There’s more to this place than sleeping and stargazing. After breakfast you can rummage through collections of dinosaur bones, go bird-watching, or hike in the hills. If you can’t wait until night to use a telescope, the hotel offers one that lets you safely view the sun.
www.astronomersinn.com

Jules Undersea Lodge
Key Largo, Florida
To reach the lobby of this small underwater hotel, you have to scuba dive 21 feet straight down. If you don’t know how, an instructor will teach you; then suddenly you’re in mangrove heaven. Formerly a research lab, this lodge is now available to anyone wanting to live out their underwater fantasy. The sea-bottom resort has two cozy bedrooms resembling cruise-ship cabins. If you feel claustrophobic, just look out of the 42-inch windows to watch the fish swim by. For those certified at scuba, the hotel offers unlimited diving. If it’s luxury you need, wait until the 2009 opening of the Hydropolis, a hotel 66 feet under the Persian Gulf off the coast of Dubai. It will feature plusher cabins, along with a marine biology lab. By the time you check out, you’ll feel like Jacques Cousteau.
www.jul.com

El Bulli
Costa Brava, Spain
Restaurant magazine calls this science-based restaurant the best in the world. But it’s open only six months each year, because chef Ferran Adrià Acosta spends the other half year traveling to research his innovative cuisine. Once home, he tests his concoctions in a Barcelona laboratory, because his vaunted epicurean magic is really no magic at all—it’s all science. He employs molecular gastronomy to play with temperature, texture, and taste. Without a doubt this renowned chef, who has written extensively about the philosophy of food and published a series of cookbooks, is challenging our concept of taste. El Bulli’s menu features dishes such as salty ice cream, liquid olive, and a pistachio truffle cooled with liquid nitrogen.
www.elbulli.com

uWink
Woodland Hills, California
Inside a Los Angeles mall, Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, has opened the first “Chuck E. Cheese for adults”—and a prime dating spot for geeks. UWink revolutionizes the way we play and eat by bringing technology to the table. Each table has a computer with a touch screen on which you order your food, picking and choosing ingredients as you go. The computer is more than a menu; it’s called “iCandy” for diners, offering screen games you’ve probably played in bars when the conversation ran dry. Here, the games are interactive; you can even play against people at other tables. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get noticed by the real eye candy across the room.
www.uwink.com

Forty Six
Kannapolis, North Carolina
Named for the number of chromosomes in the human body, this restaurant carries the science theme to an extreme: Wall art includes chemical symbols for the likes of chocolate and caffeine, and lab beakers serve as vases. It’s no surprise that this upscale restaurant, located across from the North Carolina Research Campus, attracts scientists from the surrounding universities. Buy your date a Blinded Me With Science cocktail, and try the Peach-tri Dish Martini for yourself. And take note: The girls’ room is marked XX and the guys’ is XY.
Image courtesy of Joshua Ellington/Croft Institute

The Croft Institute
Melbourne, Australia
You may have to hold your nose to get here, if you find it at all. The bar is hidden in an alleyway that’s often littered with trash. Inside, this three-story hangout looks more like a laboratory than a pub, since it sports one of Melbourne’s largest private collections of equipment, including beakers, Bunsen burners, industrial sinks, and reaction vessels. The second floor resembles a hospital waiting room, complete with bathrooms labeled “The Departments of Male and Female Hygiene.” Tip for weary women: Take a rest on the hospital bed inside the Dept. of Female Hygiene.
www.thecroftinstitute.com.au

Miracle of Science Bar & Grill
Boston, Massachusetts
It’s as if you’ve walked into a small chemistry lab: The bar and tables are topped with lab-style fireslate, and patrons sit on uncomfortable stools surrounded by old microscopes, scientific equipment, and pictures of Albert Einstein. The best chemistry is on the menu, though, written as a periodic table on a chalkboard: It’s Cb for cheeseburger and Vb for veggie burger, and the prices are written where the atomic weights should be. Regulars include Nobel Prize winners, whose star power outshines that of Paris Hilton at her nightclub-hopping best. Be sure to try the UFO beer.

Ein-Stein Café and Pub
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
There are two mottoes here: “Don’t drink and derive” and “Where great minds drink alike.” Just across from the University of Toronto, the Ein-Stein Café is the best place to enjoy an Ein-Stein lager and pick up engineers. Sometimes when the patrons have had a little too much, they write equations on the walls. For the mathematically talented, there’s a chance to win a free platter of wings and beer—all you have to do is map out the equation of special relativity.
www.ein-stein.ca

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Secret underground warehouse in Tokyo (video)

In this video, a camera crew follows a city official to a trapdoor hidden in a Tokyo sidewalk, which opens to a narrow stairway leading to a giant underground warehouse stocked with emergency supplies. (Watch it.)

Located 20 meters (65 ft) underground, the 1,480 square meter (16,000 sq ft) space contains emergency supplies to be distributed to the public in the event of a major earthquake. Items include 5,000 blankets, 8,000 rugs, 4,000 candles, 300 cooking pots, 200 t-shirts, and emergency medical supplies. A conveyor belt system is installed to help transport the supplies up to street level.

The underground warehouse is connected to an unnamed station on the Oedo line, Tokyo’s deepest subway. Apparently, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government maintains more than one of these warehouses, but the locations are kept secret.

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Mouth-to-mouth wild hyena feeding in Harar, Ethiopia

There is an ancient tradition of wild hyena feeding in Harar, Ethiopia, which is still being practiced today. As far as I understand, this is a rite of peace-offering. The wild hyenas enter the city in great numbers during the night, and they are quite capable of snapping limbs from poor fellows sleeping on the streets. Those wild beasts are really strolling through the city in the dark, I saw them myself!

Hyena Feeding in Harar, Ethiopia
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For several centuries the rite of hyena feeding has been performed by a single family. Fathers were passing the skill to their sons, and so on.
The guy on the first photo carries a basket full of rotten meat outside the city wall and summons hyenas with scary inhuman shouts. The beasts come and get their portion of stinking meat. For the greater effect the feeding is done mouth-to-mouth style...

Hyena Feeding in Harar, Ethiopia
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Don't know why, maybe because of the brutal expression on my face, but this guy called me from the crowd of onlookers and asked if I wanted to perform the rite together with him. Next day Ethiopian drivers who worked as our guides greeted me with extra warmth, friendly hugs and handshakes, invited me to their families, offered me the best women. They told me they never saw a white guy feeding hyenas.

Ethiopia
They took me to a back room in the market to a woman who sells khat leaves. We sat down around her and chew the leaves. All that day I was glowing from inside out. My brain was crystal clear. I felt so good I loved everything and everybody around...

Well, enough about khat. Here is a couple of more images of hyenas:
Hyena Feeding in Harar, Ethiopia
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Hyena Feeding in Harar, Ethiopia

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Masturbation 'cuts cancer risk'

Prostate scans
Researchers were assessing prostate cancer risk
Men could reduce their risk of developing prostate cancer through regular masturbation, researchers suggest.

They say cancer-causing chemicals could build up in the prostate if men do not ejaculate regularly.

And they say sexual intercourse may not have the same protective effect because of the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, which could increase men's cancer risk.

Australian researchers questioned over 1,000 men who had developed prostate cancer and 1,250 who had not about their sexual habits.

This is a plausible theory
Dr Chris Hiley, Prostate Cancer Charity
They found those who had ejaculated the most between the ages of 20 and 50 were the least likely to develop the cancer.

The protective effect was greatest while the men were in their 20s.

Men who ejaculated more than five times a week were a third less likely to develop prostate cancer later in life.

Fluid

Previous research has suggested that a high number of sexual partners or a high level of sexual activity increased a man's risk of developing prostate cancer by up to 40%.

But the Australian researchers who carried out this study suggest the early work missed the protective effect of ejaculation because it focussed on sexual intercourse, with its associated risk of STIs.

Graham Giles, of the Cancer Council Victoria in Melbourne, who led the research team, told New Scientist: "Had we been able to remove ejaculations associated with sexual intercourse, there should have been an even stronger protective effect of ejaculations."

The researchers suggest that ejaculating may prevent carcinogens accumulating in the prostate gland.

The prostate provides a fluid into semen during ejaculation that activates sperm and prevents them sticking together.

The fluid has high concentrations of substances including potassium, zinc, fructose and citric acid, which are drawn from the bloodstream.

But animal studies have shown carcinogens such as 3-methylchloranthrene, found in cigarette smoke, are also concentrated in the prostate.

'Flushing out'

Dr Giles said fewer ejaculations may mean the carcinogens build up.

"It's a prostatic stagnation hypothesis. The more you flush the ducts out, the less there is to hang around and damage the cells that line them."

A similar connection has been found between breast cancer and breastfeeding, where lactating appeared to "flush out" carcinogens, reduce a woman's risk of the disease, New Scientist reports.

Another theory put forward by the researchers is that ejaculation may induce prostate glands to mature fully, making them less susceptible to carcinogens.

Dr Chris Hiley, head of policy and research at the UK's Prostate Cancer Charity, told BBC News Online: "This is a plausible theory."

She added: "In the same way the human papillomavirus has been linked to cervical cancer, there is a suggestion that bits of prostate cancer may be related to a sexually transmitted infection earlier in life."

Anthony Smith, deputy director of the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University in Melbourne, said the research could affect the kind of lifestyle advice doctors give to patients.

"Masturbation is part of people's sexual repertoire.

"If these findings hold up, then it's perfectly reasonable that men should be encouraged to masturbate," he said.

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The diet that can treat epilepsy

Giving drugs to children with epilepsy is often ineffective and can have terrible side-effects. But there is an alternative - a high-fat food plan that dramatically reduces seizures
The diet might have spared him 24,000 seizures' ... Emma Williams with her son Matthew. Photograph: Martin Godwin


Emma Williams was told her son Matthew wouldn't make it to the age of 12 on account of his severe epilepsy, or if he did he would need to be placed in a care home. He was only six when Emma heard this from the doctors treating him at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). But thanks to a specialised diet he is now a happy 14-year-old with a normal life expectancy. "Before the diet he was having a hundred seizures a week," says Emma. "I knew that every seizure longer than five minutes causes brain damage - sometimes his lasted for an hour. He was regressing, losing his speech and ability to walk. My child was slipping away and we were all powerless to stop it."
Matthew was one of the few to be placed on a medical trial at GOSH studying the effects of the Ketogenic diet in the treatment of childhood epilepsy. It is similar to the Atkins diet, in that it is high fat, with some protein and very low carb. This puts the body into a fat-burning state called ketosis, during which it produces chemical compounds called ketones, which stop the seizures. The diet had been used to treat epilepsy for many years but, with the arrival of epileptic drugs, it was sidelined. Now, thanks to this randomised control trial by paediatric neurologist Professor Helen Cross, it is undergoing a resurgence.

Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder characterised by recurrent seizures when the normal working of the brain is interrupted. It affects around 200,000 children in the UK, a third of whom will be resistant to medication. "There is no doubt that this diet works in a significant amount of children," says Cross. "If you fail with the first two drugs then the likelihood of any other drug succeeding is about 10%. In those cases parents should be offered the diet before proceeding with other medications. Our trial, where all the children had not responded to medication, showed that 50% got more than 50% improvement in seizures, which shows a significant benefit over drugs."

Families such as Matthew's live with the daily trauma of seizures, drop attacks (when a child loses muscle tone and falls to the floor) and absences (where they appear conscious but are not aware of anything around them). Epilim, benzodiazepines and Keppra are all commonly prescribed for epilepsy but, in Matthew's case, they did little to stop the seizures. According to Emma, the "benzos", a tranquiliser, left him like a drooling zombie and the Keppra made him violent and highly disruptive. "I was desperate. We were running out of options. I knew I might lose him for good. I'd asked our neurologist, when Matthew was two, if we could try the diet but was told it was too difficult to implement and they had no resources.

"Matthew was eight by the time he got to try the diet. His first MRI brain scan at two showed he had no brain damage and they couldn't detect where the epilepsy was coming from. When he had his second MRI scan, before going on the diet, it showed that his brain was badly scarred from the seizures, which caused further seizures as well as brain damage. It's due to the brain damage that Matthew now can't walk. If he had got the diet in the first place, I worked out he might have been spared over 24,000 seizures."

Within two weeks of being on the diet Matthew's seizures had reduced by 90%, and his behaviour had completely calmed down. "For the first time ever, aged eight, he said 'Mama'," recalls Emma. "It was the most amazing feeling. I now have what's left of my boy back."

Emma is not the only parent to have met with resistance when asking for the diet. According to Cross, this is more likely due to lack of dietetic resources than lack of confidence in the diet. "There is knowledge among paediatric neurologists that it works. The problem is, we don't have enough resources and we need to have dedicated dieticians to implement it. I have the resources to have 30 children on the diet at any one time but I've still got a huge waiting list."

Paula and Ian Yates from Bedfordshire found they had a fight on their hands when they wanted to put their son Harry on the diet. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy at the age of three. At first he had a seizure every couple of weeks, but once he started on the medications, he had seizures daily. "It was as if the drugs made him worse," says Paula. "Every time they upped his dose his seizures became more severe. Harry was losing his speech and the ability to walk. Within a few months he was having up to 50 drop attacks a day, he'd knocked seven of his teeth out falling down and had black eyes and a lacerated chin.

"I was told by Harry's neurologist that he would never walk or talk, and that I couldn't expect anything from his life. But I had been told by other parents that after using the diet their children got better. One father contacted me through a support network for parents of children with this type of epilepsy and told me that his son had gone seizure-free and drug-free from this diet."

Harry's condition continued to deteriorate. He had up to 100 seizures a day and was either completely floppy or twitching constantly. Paula went back to the consultant, asked again for the diet, and this time refused to take no for an answer. "Within three weeks of being on the diet Harry was happier and became more verbal. Once he was weaned off the drugs we saw an even bigger improvement. His seizures are reduced by 80% and, contrary to his prognosis, he can walk, talk and, better still, play in the playground with the other kids.

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Look, no scars: organs removed via the mouth

THE minister charged with overhauling the NHS is testing a new form of scar-free surgery in which diseased organs are pulled out through the patient’s throat.

Professor Lord Darzi, chair of surgery at Imperial College London, has conducted preliminary experiments with the technique in which robotically controlled instruments are lowered into the patient’s stomach.

A hole is made in the lining of the stomach, then the organ - usually an appendix or gall bladder - is cut out and pulled up through the throat before the hole is stitched, leaving the patient with no external scars and a reduced risk of infection because the wounds are not exposed to the air.

The technique, called natural orifice translumenal endoscopic surgery, has been successfully used on patients in America, France and India. Darzi, who became a health minister last year, is one of the first surgeons in Britain to use the technique in experiments on pigs, before the first human tests.

While admitting it was still “early days”, Darzi believes the probe could eventually be used to remove cancers.

The main after-effects include a sore throat and an unpleasant taste in the mouth from having a diseased organ pulled through it.

Other orifices could be used but Darzi said he believed the mouth was the most promising. He said some aspects of the procedure needed perfecting.

“If we are going to enter through the stomach we need to develop the appropriate tools to make sure we can close the hole properly,” he said.

Darzi’s team are developing a new surgical robot called the iSnake, which they hope will assist in the new procedure and in keyhole surgery.

Other research projects on the new procedure are under way at hospitals around Britain. The first operations on patients in Britain are expected in three to four years.

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The daily pill that can stop you snoring

Common complaint: Snorers, and their loved ones, could soon be saved by a pill which if taken daily can cure the sleep disorder

It is the cause of marital strife in the bedroom and many a lost night's sleep.

Now scientists claim that taking a daily pill can curb a common snoring disorder affecting thousands of Britons. Researchers have begun trialling a drug which helps manage obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome (OSA).

The condition causes people to stop breathing intermittently during sleep and often snore very heavily. It can also make sufferers excessively tired and moody.

About one in 20 middle-aged men and one in 50 women lose sleep because of severe forms of OSA.

Typically, when OSA takes place, the upper airway becomes narrow as the muscles relax during sleep.

This reduces oxygen in the blood and impairs restful sleep.

The pill, known only by the codename BGC20-0166, is a combination of two existing drugs that affect areas of the brain associated with muscles in the airway and airflow.

In the trial of 39 OSA patients, participants were given a placebo, one of the two drugs that make up the new compound, or one or two doses of BGC20-0166 daily for 28 days.

The apnoea-hypopnea index - a measure of the frequency and severity of breathing pauses through the night - was recorded in overnight studies after 14 days and again after 28 days.

Those who were taking the new pill showed a 40 per cent reduction in symptoms - with patients suffering no side-effects.

Three out of ten people on the new drug had a 50 per cent reduction in symptoms.

The drug is being developed by BTG, a life sciences company based in London and Philadelphia.

Thomas Roth, director of the Sleep Disorders and Research Centre at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and an advisor to the BTG, said: "The results from this trial demonstrate the potential of this drug to decrease sleep apnoea in some patients and normalise it in others.

"Future research is needed to precisely define the role of the drug."

Current treatments for the syndrome include breathing masks worn in sleep which have recently been approved for use on the NHS.

Michael Polkey, a specialist in sleep and respiratory medicine at the Royal Brompton Hospital, in London, said the initial results from the trial were encouraging.

He said: "This is the first drug therapy which may have an affect without changing sleep architecture."

However Marianne Davey, director of the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association, issued a warning. She said: "At the moment, the consensus is that there is no drug therapy that would be completely successful in treating OSA."

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Study: Boomers to Flood Med System

Millions of baby boomers are about to enter a health care system for seniors that not only isn't ready for them, but may even discourage them from getting quality care.

"We face an impending crisis as the growing number of older patients, who are living longer with more complex health needs, increasingly outpaces the number of health care providers with the knowledge and skills to care for them capably," said John W. Rowe, professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.

Rowe headed an Institute of Medicine committee that released a report Monday on the health care outlook for the 78 million baby boomers about to begin turning 65.

The report from the institute, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said:

•There aren't enough specialists in geriatric medicine.

•Insufficient training is available.

•The specialists that do exist are underpaid.

•Medicare fails to provide for team care that many elderly patients need.

The study said Medicare may even hinder seniors from getting the best care because of its low reimbursement rates, a focus on treating short-term health problems rather than managing chronic conditions and lack of coverage for preventive services or for health care providers' time spent collaborating with a patient's other providers.

The American Medical Association responded that seniors' access to Medicare in coming years "is threatened by looming Medicare physician payment cuts."

"This July, the government will begin steep cuts in Medicare physician payments, and 60 percent of physicians say this cut will force them to limit the number of new Medicare patients they can treat," the AMA said in a statement.

The report found there are about 7,100 doctors certified in geriatrics in the United States, one per every 2,500 older Americans.

Turnover among nurse aides averages 71 percent annually, and up to 90 percent of home health aides leave their jobs within the first two years, the report said.

But while today's elderly tend to be healthier and live longer than previous generations, people over 65 to have more complex conditions and health care needs than younger folks.

The report urged that all health care workers be trained in basic geriatric care and that schools increase training in the treatment of older patients.

The federally required minimum number of hours of training for direct-care workers should be raised from 75 to at least 120, the report said, noting that more training is required for dog groomers and manicurists than direct-care workers in many parts of the country.

And it said pay for geriatric specialists, doctors, nurses and care workers needs to be increased.

A doctor specializing in elderly care earned $163,000 on average in 2005 compared with $175,000 for a general internist, even though the geriatric specialist required more training.

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FOOD PRICES RISING AT FASTEST RATE IN 17 YEARS

SQUEEZING POOR IN NEW YORK CITY

Steve Tarpin
Steve Tarpin
Story Bottom


NEW YORK -- Steve Tarpin can bake a graham cracker crust in his sleep, but explaining why the price for his Key lime pies went from $20 to $25 required mastering a thornier topic: global economics.

He recently wrote a letter to his customers and posted it near the cash register listing the factors - dairy prices driven higher by conglomerates buying up milk supplies, heat waves in Europe and California, demand from emerging markets and the weak dollar.

The owner of Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies in Brooklyn said he didn't want customers thinking he was "jacking up prices because I have a unique product."

"I have to justify it," he said.

The U.S. is wrestling with the worst food inflation in 17 years, and analysts expect new data due on Wednesday to show it's getting worse. That's putting the squeeze on poor families and forcing bakeries, bagel shops and delis to explain price increases to their customers.

U.S. food prices rose 4 percent in 2007, compared with an average 2.5 percent annual rise for the last 15 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And the agency says 2008 could be worse, with a rise of as much as 4.5 percent.

Higher prices for food and energy are again expected to play a leading role in pushing the government's consumer price index higher for March.

Analysts are forecasting that Wednesday's Department of Labor report will show the Consumer Price Index rose at a 4 percent annual rate in the first three months of the year, up from last year's overall rise of 2.8 percent.

For the U.S. poor, any increase in food costs sets up an either-or equation: Give something up to pay for food.

"I was talking to people who make $9 an hour, talking about how they might save $5 a week," said Kathleen DiChiara, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. "They really felt they couldn't. That was before. Now, they have to."

For some, that means adding an extra cup of water to their soup, watering down their milk, or giving their children soda because it's cheaper than milk, DiChiara said.

U.S. households still spend a smaller chunk of their expenses for foods than in any other country - 7.2 percent in 2006, according to the USDA. By contrast, the figure was 22 percent in Poland and more than 40 percent in Egypt and Vietnam.

In Bangladesh, economists estimate 30 million of the country's 150 million people could be going hungry. Haiti's prime minister was ousted over the weekend following food riots there.

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12 Tips to Improve the Quality of Your Free Time

20071218-Hammock.png

Are you happier at your job, or during your free time? Unless you’ve followed the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi you would probably be surprised at the actual answer. He conducted studies which recorded peoples current levels of happiness at random points both during work and off-hours.

The surprising conclusion? People felt happier on the job, even though they said they would rather be at home.

Csikszentmihalyi believes that this is because, even if they dislike their job, work provides a constructive environment. It has rules, challenges and can be formatted to focus your otherwise wandering attention. Leisure, without any structure, can become to boredom and apathy.

A good portion of lifehack.org is devoted towards productivity. That means improving the quality of your working hours, so you can work less, get more done and achieve more on the job. But, what is the use of freeing up extra time from work if it will make you less happy?

Is Your Free Time Boring?

If Csikszentmihalyi and his research on the state of flow is any indication, the quality of most peoples free time is pitifully low. Worse, you might not even realize that your time off needs a checkup. This problem made me wonder how I could improve the quality of my own free-time.

The solution for some people is just to fill their entire time with work. By making themselves incredibly busy, they never have to face boredom or the possibility of an unstructured environment. However, the downside of this is that this often becomes a deathmarch as commitments overload the amount of time you have in each day.

The Art of Laziness - How to Be Happily Unproductive

My solution to Csikszentmihalyi’s dilemma was to become better at structuring my free-time so it can be engaging, but doesn’t become more work. Here were a few of the ideas I’ve found successful in trying to master the art of laziness:

  1. Get a Hobby - Pick up a creative activity that doesn’t have any goals attached. This is something that you enjoy doing, but doesn’t have the looming deadlines, schedule or to-do lists that is common to your workplace. I know corporate executives that manage to squeeze twenty minutes a day into their hobby and love it.
  2. Learn a Skill - Learning can be incredibly enjoyable when there is no GPA, performance evaluations or letter grades. Try learning a new language, take up martial arts or learn public speaking.
  3. Store Opportunities - How often do you see a flyer for an event or activity, but dismiss it because you don’t have the time? My suggestion is to save those interesting activities so that you can apply them when you do have time. Prepare opportunities for your time off in advance.
  4. Write Your Book - I’ve heard statistics that say 8 out of 10 people would like to write a book in their lifetime. Perhaps now is the time to start working on the first draft. I’ve found personal projects like these can be an enjoyable diversion from the externally imposed goals of work or school.
  5. Exercise - If you don’t like running or going to the gym, don’t force yourself. But there are many different interesting sports and activities that can move your body. Exercising can releases hormones in your brain which improve your mood.
  6. Always Have a Book - Unsatisfied with channel flipping? Having a book (not just reading blogs) requires you to use your brain. Light reading can be a great way to stay engaged without burning yourself out.
  7. Use Your Social Circle - Csikszentmihalyi noticed that flow didn’t only come from work and mental tasks, but socializing as well. Conversing with friends is actually a fairly complex mental task, requiring you to read signals and body language, think fast and respond to comments.
  8. Games - Games have been around long before Nintendo came around. The prevalence of games in most cultures is probably because playing games is a challenging mental task that produces a state of flow. Learning and playing a game can provide an engaging environment without the stress.
  9. Create Something - Creativity is often seen as having good ideas. But if you look at the root word of creativity, create, then creativity can be seen as simply building something new. Pick something small, but meaningful, to create. Spending an hour or two working building something can be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable.
  10. Appreciate - I’m sure I’m not alone in that I like listening to music to relax. Improving upon this would be trying to go deeper into the music you are listening or the art you are looking at. Try to appreciate how different elements work together and build on each other. This can be a more engaging experience than simply building off your first impression.
  11. Be in the Now - Focus on whatever you are experiencing in the moment. This sounds trivial at first, but it is actually incredibly difficult to sustain. Being in the now is what Eckhart Tolle believes to be the secret to happiness. Concentrating on your muscles, senses or the environment around you takes mental effort when buffeted by distracting thoughts.
  12. Work on Yourself - I’m sure few of us can claim that 100% of our time is used exactly how we would like it to be. Commitments with work, family and school can mean that a sizable portion of your time is working on goals that aren’t entirely your own. Spending your free time working on yourself, your habits, your goals and your projects can take more energy but can ultimately make your free time more rewarding.
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Council uses criminal law to spy on school place applicants

A council yesterday admitted using laws designed to track serious criminals to spy on a family for nearly three weeks to find out if they were lying about living in a school catchment area.

The family are angry after Poole borough council, in Dorset, revealed it had followed them and watched them at home to check whether they lived in the correct area for one of their three children, a three-year-old girl, to be accepted at a local school.

The council used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to draw up a list of the mother's movements from February 13 to March 3, showing the times and exact routes of school runs with her children. She told the Bournemouth Echo that the record, shown to her by a school admissions manager, included detailed notes such as "female and three children enter target vehicle and drive off" and "curtains open and all lights on in premises".

The authority said it had used such "physical surveillance" on six occasions under RIPA, which allows councils to carry out surveillance only if they suspect serious crimes, including terrorism.

The mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "I have had nothing to say how long the information will be kept for, who holds it and what the implications of having an RIPA order executed against you are. I'm absolutely incensed. To be following us around for nearly three weeks, apart from being very creepy, is a huge infringement of my liberty. They could have contacted us or come and knocked on the door rather than opting for surveillance, which is completely underhand." The woman, who lived in the Parkstone area of Poole, said her daughter was having trouble sleeping because she feared "a man outside watching us".

The surveillance took place because the family put their house up for sale but lived in it until the end of January to ensure their youngest daughter would qualify for the school. They later moved to another area of the town and their daughter was accepted at the school.

The civil rights group Liberty called the spying "disproportionate" and "intrusive", while Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne called for council powers to be reduced. He said: "Using criminal powers to spy on parents is ridiculously over the top. Poole council officials should lie down in a darkened room until the urge to play James Bond passes. These powers are all too easily abused by the 653 public authorities entitled to use them. Their use should be reined back and restricted to important cases only."

Tim Martin, Poole council's head of legal and democratic services, said: "The use of RIPA procedures ensures that surveillance is properly authorised and provides protection for the subject of the investigation. The council is keen to ensure that the information given by parents who apply for school places is true. This protects the majority of honest parents against the small number of questionable applications.

"An investigation may actually satisfy the council that the application is valid, as happened in this case." The council said that on the six occasions it had used surveillance, three had related to suspected fraudulent applications for school admissions and two offers of school places had been withdrawn.

The Home Office said the RIPA legislation did not appear to have been used inappropriately.

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Man (Re)Builds Mexican Island Paradise on 250,000 Recycled Floating Bottles

If you can’t afford to buy your own tropical island paradise, why not build your own? That is exactly what Richie Sowa did back in 1998, from over a quarter-million plastic bottles. His Spiral Island, destroyed years later by a hurricane, sported a two-story house, solar oven, self-composting toilet and multiple beaches. Better yet, he has started building another one! His ultimate goal? To build the island bigger and bigger and finally float out to sea, traveling the world from the comfort of his own private paradise.
The original Spiral Island was (as its successor will be) built upon a floating collection used plastic bottles, all netted together to support a bamboo and plywood structure above. Located in Mexico, the original was 66 by 54 feet and was able to support full-sized mangroves to provide shade and privacy, yet also able to be moved from place to place by its creator as need with a simple motorized system.

An environmentalist to the core, Sowa is also an artist and a musician. More than just the universal dream of an island retreat, Spiral Island is also his vision for low-impact sustainable living. The next version of the island will be built to withstand more treacherous weather than the first and will also be located in a more sheltered part of Mexico’s waters.

The Above Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not video is a great introduction to the island, which conjures images of Gilligan-done-right. Spiral island is able to exist and move about in Mexico in part because it is classified as a ship, not an island, like an atoll out of WaterWorld (only much much cooler). On September 7, 2007 the new Spiral Islander social network utility was opened to the public to allow visitors, Spiral Islanders and friends of Richie Sowa to connect and communicate about the history of Spiral Island and to learn more and discuss Richie Sowa’s new Spiral Island. Want more islands? See these 7 Island Wonders of the World from WebUrbanist.

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Sony "Foam City" Ad Turns Miami Into World's Biggest Bubble Bath

In Sony's new "Foam City" ad, Miami becomes a soapy free-for-all when 120 million gallons of bubbles are unleashed in the streets. The world's largest foam machine was custom-built for the shoot, and pumped out over 500,000 gallons of foam per minute. The commercial is for Sony's cameras, and locals got Alpha DSLRs, Cyber-shots, and Handycams to shoot the experience. The amateur footage wasn't in the ad, but you will eventually be able to see it in an online gallery. While it follows the same urban pwnage theme of the Bravia ads—think clay bunnies and Superballs—we can't help but wonder, "Where's all the color?" See the making-of video after the jump. [Sony]

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