Friday, November 07, 2008

Monsoon link to fall of dynasties

Page last updated at 20:58 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Monsoon link to fall of dynasties

Wanxiang Cave, China
The record came from a stalagmite found in Wanxiang Cave, China

The demise of some of China's ruling dynasties may have been linked to changes in the strength of monsoon rains, a new study suggests.

The findings come from 1,800-year record of the Asian monsoon preserved in a stalagmite from a Chinese cave.

Weak - and therefore dry - monsoon periods coincided with the demise of the Tang, Yuan and Ming imperial dynasties, the scientists said.

A US-Chinese team report their work in the journal Science.

Stalagmites are largely made up of calcium carbonate, which precipitates from groundwater dripping from the ceiling of a cave.

Chemical analysis of a 118mm-long stalagmite from Wangxiang Cave, in Gansu province, north-west China, told the history of strong and weak cycles in the monsoon - the rains that water crops to feed millions of people in Asia.

It also shows that, over the last 50 years, greenhouse gases and aerosols have taken over from natural variability to become the dominant influence on the monsoon.

Death of dynasties

Small variations in the forms, or isotopes, of the stalagmite's oxygen composition reflected variations in rainfall near the cave.

Proportions of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium in the deposit allowed the researchers to date the stalagmite layers to within an average of two-and-a-half years.

Stalagmite sample (AAAS/Science)
The stalagmite grew continuously from 190AD to 2003
By comparing the rain record with Chinese historical records, Pingzhong Zhang of Lanzhou University in China, and colleagues, found three out of five "multi-century" dynasties - the Tang, the Yuan and the Ming - ended after several decades of weaker summer monsoons with drier conditions.

"Summer monsoon winds originate in the Indian Ocean and sweep into China," said Hai Cheng, co-author from the University of Minnesota, US.

"When the summer monsoon is stronger, it pushes farther north-west into China."

These moisture-laden winds bring rain necessary for cultivating rice. But when the monsoon is weak, the rains stall farther south and east, depriving northern and western parts of China of summer rains.

This could have led to poor rice harvests and civil unrest, the researchers speculate.

"Whereas other factors would certainly have affected these chapters of Chinese cultural history, our correlations suggest that climate played a key role," the researchers write in Science.

But a weak monsoon could also be linked to changes further afield. The researchers say a dry period between 850AD and 940AD coincides not only with the decline of the Chinese Tang dynasty but also with the fall of the Mayan civilization in America.

Human influence

Subsequent strengthening of the monsoon may have contributed to the rapid increase in rice cultivation, a dramatic increase in population and general stability at the beginning of China's Northern Song Dynasty.

The monsoon record also matched up nicely with the advance and retreat of Swiss glaciers.

Scientists say the natural archive shows that climate change can have devastating effects on local populations - even when this change is mild when averaged across the globe.

In the cave record, the monsoon followed trends in solar activity over many centuries, suggesting the Sun played an important role in the variability of this weather system.

To a lesser extent, it also followed northern hemisphere temperatures on a millennial and centennial scale. As temperatures went up, the monsoon became stronger and, as they dropped, it weakened.

However, over the last 50 years, this relationship has switched. The researchers attribute this to the influence of greenhouse gas emissions and sulphate aerosols released by human activities.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Helping the dying with living

Nov 5, 2008
Helping the dying with living
Instead of discussing euthanasia, the focus should be on helping terminally ill live with less pain, says expert
By Radha Basu, Senior Correspondent
Dr Shaw with Ms Joyce Neo Soh Hoon, 54, at St Joseph's Home and Hospice. Communicating with the dying can be taught and learnt, Dr Shaw believes. Often, what doctors need to do is simply to listen. -- ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
Dr Rosalie Shaw, 70, is executive director of the Asia Pacific Hospice Palliative Care Network, which helps develop services for the terminally ill in Asia. She is also a consultant at the National Cancer Centre and a visiting consultant at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital.

EUTHANASIA is the wrong conversation to have in a nation concerned with dying with dignity.

The focus instead should be on care - how to help the terminally ill live with less pain, says Dr Rosalie Shaw, a palliative care specialist who has helped hundreds here live out their last days over the past 16 years.

'Euthanasia is not about allowing the terminally ill to die with dignity and without distress,' asserts the Australian, who moved to Singapore from Perth in 1992 to help set up hospice care here. 'That is what palliative care does. Instead, it is an act with the intention to kill.'

As a consultant at the National Cancer Centre and visiting consultant at KK Women's and Children's Hospital, she tends to the terminally ill. As executive director of the Asia Pacific Hospice Palliative Care Network, she helps train doctors and nurses in end-of-life care all over Asia.

Weighing in on the euthanasia debate, which was sparked off here when Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan raised the issue last month in response to letters on euthanasia in the Chinese press, she says most terminally ill people do not really want to die.

Yet, once every few months, a patient asks her for help to end it all. 'When people ask to die, what they really mean is, 'Do you know how difficult this is?',' she says.

The plea is usually a cry for help. 'As their bodies break down, they hope that they will not linger long, but they don't expect doctors to do anything but listen.'

Her zeal in opposing euthanasia resonates with that of Catholic Archbishop Nicholas Chia who last weekend called on his flock, including Catholic doctors, to reject euthanasia.

Dr Shaw declines to discuss her religion, saying it is a 'private matter'. The grounds on which she opposes euthanasia are both professional and personal, she says. As a doctor taught to heal or cure, the 'intent to kill' is anathema.

Listening to hundreds of terminally ill people has taught her that the wish to die is not always due to physical pain. Very often, distress is made more acute by mental turmoil - caused by social isolation, depression, anxiety or sorrow.

Dr Shaw has distilled 16 years' worth of experience caring for the dying here into a book, Soft Sift In An Hourglass, now available in book stores.

It offers haunting portraits of how different people face the inevitable.

There is the unmarried violin player dying of bowel cancer, still in love with the married man she spent one weekend with 30 years earlier.

There is the frail housewife with two young children, angry at leaving the world before her time.

'The book is not meant to be didactic,' she says. 'It merely opens windows into issues we must all confront some day.'

While no two people face death exactly the same way, she has noticed broad similarities.

Such as how the dying often lose their appetite as their organs shut down, yet their families continue to force-feed them in the hope that they will recover.

And how some embrace religion before death, hoping for a miraculous recovery, but feel let down by God as death closes in on them anyway.

Often, those who have the hardest time accepting death are successful men in their 50s and 60s 'who seem surprised that wealth cannot buy health'.

In general, she has found that most people cling to life, rather than want to end it.

Studies bear this out. One by Melbourne University's palliative care professor David Kissane examined cases of seven cancer patients who had sought euthanasia when the practice was made legal for eight months between 1996 and 1997 in Australia's Northern Territory.

'It showed that some people asked for euthanasia not because death was imminent, but because they found life intolerable,' she says.

Singapore, she says, should not be taking a short cut and legalising this form of killing. 'A society that allows euthanasia devalues life,' she maintains.

Sanctioning it could pressure the elderly and terminally ill to want to end their lives. They may feel compelled to 'shuffle off' so they do not become burdens to society.

It could lead society down a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia, where others make such choices for patients no longer able to decide for themselves. The Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legal since 1984, has reported many cases of involuntary euthanasia.

Dr Shaw warns that doctors may also be inclined to take the easy way out when they are unable to control difficult symptoms. And families may make decisions on behalf of patients who are unconscious or have dementia.

What Singapore should work on instead, she feels, is improving end-of-life care.

Currently, home hospice services reach nearly three in four cancer patients here. But for non-cancer patients, such care is limited. Only about one in four patients who died last year had subsidised hospice care.

The network of home care services for the elderly is also limited. Both need to be broadened.

Back home in Victoria, Dr Shaw's father had heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and prostate cancer. Yet he lived alone. His meals were brought to him and his home was cleaned by state-subsidised home care professionals.

'He loved the people who came. We need more of that here,' she says.

Keeping the elderly out of hospitals and nursing homes would not only make them happier, but could be cheaper too.

At the same time, doctors need to be better trained both in how to control symptoms such as pain, and how to help the gravely ill face death.

Often, young doctors are reluctant to discuss openly with patients how little time they have left.

'They interpret death from their own perspective,' she says. 'Because they are not ready, they feel their patients may not be.'

During a training course she conducted, a young doctor asked how he could avoid lying to his patients.

Dr Shaw's reply: 'Often, what is required is not for doctors to talk but to listen.'

Communicating with the dying is an art which can be taught and learnt, she believes.

Some doctors ramp up treatments during their patients' last days, even though it is futile, because they do not know any other way to help. 'They don't have the heart to explain how ineffective the treatment is likely to be.'

But explaining that, and stopping the treatment, may prove liberating.

Just last week, one of her patients was told by a cancer specialist that she had reached a stage where neither chemotherapy nor radiation was likely to work.

'It was like a cloud of confusion had lifted. Now she knew what to do - go home, eat just what she wanted and enjoy life,' said Dr Shaw.

Not all patients, however, like to discuss death or say their last goodbyes. Dr Shaw's own mother, who died of heart disease in 1991, was reticent till the end.

'When I asked her how she was feeling, she said she did not want to talk about it. But she was prepared and had sorted out all her drawers. We have to be sensitive to what patients want.'

Either way, listening is key.

When a patient in great pain asked for help to end her life some years ago, Dr Shaw asked why.

The woman revealed that she had never told her husband - or anyone else - that their child was actually fathered by another man.

'All I did was listen. All she did was cry,' Dr Shaw recalls. 'And the pain just melted away.'

The woman died three days later, unburdened and at peace.

TV shows link to teen pregnancies

Page last updated at 09:53 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

TV shows link to teen pregnancies

Sex and the City
Shows like Sex and the City were linked to teen pregnancies

Teenage girls who watch a lot of TV shows with a high sexual content are twice as likely to become pregnant, according to a study.

Boys watching similar programmes, like Friends and Sex and the City, were also more likely to get a girl pregnant, the research in Pediatrics found.

The study authors said limiting exposure to sexual content on TV might reduce teen pregnancies.

Experts urged parents to talk more openly with their children about sex.

Study author Dr Anita Chandra of the RAND Corporation said adolescents received a considerable amount of information about sex through television and the problem was that programmes such as these typically did not highlight the risks and responsibilities of sex.

Sexual content on TV has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research. We found a strong association

Lead researcher Dr Anita Chandra

She said:"Our findings suggest that television may play a significant role in the high rates of teenage pregnancy in the US."

According to Dr Chandra, hers is the first study to show such a direct link.

The researchers interviewed 2,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17 three times between 2001 and 2004.

Teens who watched larger amounts of sexually charged TV shows were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy in the subsequent three years, compared with those with lower levels of exposure.

Sexual content

By the third interview, 744 of the teenagers said they had engaged in sexual intercourse and 718 of the youths shared with the researchers information about their pregnancy histories.

Of that group, 91 teens - 58 girls and 33 boys - were involved in a pregnancy.

Dr Chandra said: "Sexual content on TV has doubled in the last few years, especially during the period of our research. We found a strong association."

The US has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates among industrialized nations, with nearly one million adolescent females becoming pregnant each year, with the majority of these pregnancies unplanned, according to RAND.

Britain has Europe's highest teenage pregnancy rate.

The idea of parents sitting down with their children and talking about the issues raised in these television programmes is a great one
A spokeswoman from Brook

Tory MP Nadine Dorries said it would be interesting to see if a similar study in the UK revealed a trend.

"Information such as this empowers parents when making difficult decisions as to what they do and don't allow their daughters to watch," she said.

Psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family said many teenagers relied on the media to act as sex educator.

Dr Walsh said: "If you have a kid who no-one's talking to about sex and who then watches sitcoms on TV where sex is presented as 'this is what cool people do', the outcome is obvious.

"The message to parents is to talk to their kids about sex long before they become teenagers."

A spokeswoman from Brook said: "The causes of teen pregnancy in the UK are quite complex.

"There are a range of ways we can try to reduce the teen pregnancy rate, such as providing sex and relationship education and outreach and community services for young people.

"The idea of parents sitting down with their children and talking about the issues raised in these television programmes is a great one."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Councils ban use of Latin terms

Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Councils ban use of Latin terms

Statue of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius
Several councils have banned the use of Latin terminology

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people.

Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like "vice versa", "pro rata", and even "via" should not be used, in speech or in writing.

But the ban has prompted anger among some Latin scholars.

Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University said it was the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

Some local councils say using Latin is elitist and discriminatory, because some people might not understand it - particularly if English is not their first language.

Bournemouth Council is among those which has discouraged Latin. It has drawn up a list of 18 Latin phrases which its staff are advised not to use, either verbally or in official correspondence.

The council denies that it places a ban on Latin words.

A council spokesman said: "We advise against using certain words, particularly when staff are writing to those whose first language may not be English.

"The advice is intended as a guide only, not a direction."

However, the council's Plain Language Guide lists Latin under the heading "Things To Avoid".

Other local councils have banned "QED" and "ad hoc", while other typical Latin terms include "bona fide", "ad lib" and "quid pro quo".

But the move has been welcomed by the Plain English Campaign which says some officials only use Latin to make themselves feel important.

A Campaign spokesman said the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g. with the word "egg".

Pope urged to admit common ground

Page last updated at 01:15 GMT, Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Pope urged to admit common ground

By Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs Correspondent

Pope Benedict XVI
Efforts will be made to persuade the Pope of the shared origins of religions

When 138 senior Muslim scholars and clergy tried to establish the common ground between Islam and Christianity last year, they said the very peace of the world hung on the outcome.

On Tuesday, a high-ranking delegation is beginning a rare visit to Rome in an effort to persuade the Pope to endorse what they say are the shared origins and values of the world's two biggest religions.

Their letter, A Common Word, cited passages from the Koran which the scholars said showed that Christianity and Islam worship the same God, and require their respective followers to show each other particular friendship.

The document examined fundamental doctrine and stressed what it said were key similarities - such as the belief in one God and the requirement for believers to "love their neighbours as themselves".

Significantly the letter acknowledged that the Prophet Muhammad was told only the same truths that had already been revealed to Jewish and Christian prophets, including Jesus himself.

After a year using the Islamic principle of seeking consensus, the letter has developed into a "manifesto" and is backed by almost 300 leaders from Sunni, Shi'ite, Sufi and other Muslim traditions.

'Out of hand'

The initiative was welcomed promptly by several Christian leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The Vatican has, however, responded more cautiously to the prospect of identifying common beliefs.

There has been renewed urgency among Muslim leaders to forge new bonds with Christians since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

A lecture by Pope Benedict quoting a 14th Century Byzantine emperor's accusation that Muhammad encouraged the use of violence in spreading Islam led to a furious reaction among Muslims and contributed to the sense of a widening gap between the religions.

The high-ranking delegation going to Rome includes the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, an Iranian Ayatollah, a Jordanian prince and British converts to Islam.

The Vatican
The Vatican is cautious about the prospect of identifying common beliefs

They are also aiming to work out practical measures for resolving crises in Muslim-Christian relations, such as the angry controversy that followed the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark in 2006.

Dr Ibrahim Kalin, a Turkish scholar who will be among the Muslims who meet the Pope on Thursday, said the dispute about the cartoons showed how important it was to establish regular dialogue.

He said: "Things got out of hand very quickly. A line of communication is needed where we can issue a statement and mobilise resources as a pre-emptive act."

Some of those behind the Common Word initiative believe it has been too easy for radical or extremist Muslims to use the media to promote a distorted view of Islam. One of their principal aims is to create a body that can speak authoritatively for mainstream Islam.

'Agree to disagree'

Although the Pope can speak for about a billion Roman Catholics (roughly half of the world's Christian population), Islam has no central authority able to represent its 1.3 billion faithful.

Apart from practical mechanisms to cope with disagreements, the Pope's Muslim visitors are hoping for a measure of agreement on matters of fundamental belief, and for an exchange of reading-lists - each side providing the names of the books that most accurately describe their values and traditions.

They also want to extend the Christian-Muslim conversation to include that other Abrahamic religion, Judaism.

The Pope is on record as seeking dialogue with Muslims, and is reported to favour a franker, more robust, approach. He is likely to have his own priorities, including a discussion of religious freedom.

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams (left) and Grand Mufti of Egypt Dr Ali Gomaa at a conference on A Common Word
A Common Word is backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury

It is a sensitive issue, not least because some Muslim-majority countries forbid conversion, and oppress their Christian minorities.

Last month a formal meeting of Catholic bishops in Rome said the conversation should stress the need for equal rights for women. Some Islamic states - such as Saudi Arabia - limit women's rights.

Other awkward issues could include the need for democracy.

There is plenty that both sides are clear they cannot agree. Muslims regard Jesus as an important prophet, for example, but they do not believe he was crucified.

Another of the big differences between the religions centres on how God is understood.

Ibrahim Kalin says the Christian belief in Jesus as part of a divine trinity with God the Father and the Holy Spirit conflicts with Muslim doctrine.

"The Trinity is currently not accepted by Muslims as explaining the infinity and oneness of God," said Dr Kalin.

"We don't agree on that, so we shouldn't try to sink these differences into a warped theology, but talk to each other on the basis of agreeing to disagree."