Author Archives: Alexandra Gerea

About Alexandra Gerea

Alexandra is a naturalist who is firmly in love with our planet and the environment. When she's not writing about climate or animal rights, you can usually find her doing field research or reading the latest nutritional studies.

Netflix and no chill? Users are increasingly overwhelmed by too many streaming services

We never thought we’d say this, but maybe there are a bit too many options here.

With the world on hold for one pandemic year and with more people than ever forced to stay home and work from home, streaming services were bound to bloom — and that they did.

Streaming services are already mainstream. Already, two in three Americans use their smart TV’s built-in software to access such services, and about half rely on connected devices (such as Apple TV or Fire TV) — which suggests that a significant proportion of Americans use both. In fact, Americans rarely settle for only one streaming service.

According to a recent survey conducted by Verizon Media and Publicis Media, consumers access five services on average, and cord stackers (people who use both streaming services and cable TV) use seven streaming services on average.

With such bewilderment of options, it’s not hard to understand why some users may find themselves confused and uncertain what to opt for. The same survey mentions that 56% of the surveyed users say they are overwhelmed by the number of streaming services to choose from. Granted, this is better than the alternative (and it’s quite a first-world problem to have), but it is becoming a problem — especially since you’re never gonna watch everything that a single streaming service has to offer, let alone half a dozen. As ScreenBinge points out, the educational content on Netflix alone could keep you busy for years.

As Rachel Soloff in PittNews comments, “there are way too many streaming services at this point”. The appeal of the first streaming services was that you could watch your favorite shows when you wanted it. But more and more competing services are popping up and purchasing content from each other, forcing people to subscribe just to watch one or two of their favorite shows (without realizing they don’t care about the other shows on the platform).

As The Guardian explains, these can become quite expensive. In and of themselves, streaming services aren’t really expensive, especially considering the mountain of content most of them offer. But when you add them up (and a lot of people do), the cost also increases substantially. Almost half of the American users are reportedly worried by how much they are paying for streaming.

There’s also little communication between competing services. If you want to see your favorite show, you either have to look up what platform it’s on or just search through all of them. Of the respondents that accessed five or more streaming services, 80% said they wished there was a “universal search” feature.

So where does this leave us? The streaming industry may be at a turning point. Having matured and grown, it’s become more competitive than ever, but unlike other industries, this isn’t necessarily making things better for consumers. A confusing streaming war is making users feel overwhelmed and oversaturated. When it comes to streaming at least, more choice may not be better.

The sound of music: violins could soon be designed by Artificial Intelligence

Ever since the first violins were made some 500 years ago, the process of violin-making has changed surprisingly little. Traditionally, violins are “bench-made” — by a single individual, often a master maker (or “luthier”). More recently, “shop-made” instruments, where many people participate under the supervision of a master maker, have become more common. But in both instances, the layout is designed by a master violin maker — either from scratch, or copied from the old masters.

That may soon change. According to a new study, Artificial Intelligence (AI) could soon take part in the process.

Image credits: Providence Doucet.T

A violin is a surprisingly complex object. Its geometry is defined by its outline and the arching on the horizontal and vertical section. In a new study, the Chilean physicist and luthier Sebastian Gonzalez (a postdoc) and the professional mandolin player Davide Salvi (a Phd student) showed how a simple and effective neural network can predict the vibrational behavior of violin designs — in order words, how the violin would sound.

The prediction uses a small set of geometric and mechanical parameters from the violin. The researchers developed a model that describes the violin’s outline based on the arcs of nine circles. Using this approach, they were able to draw a violin plate as a function of only 35 parameters.

A drawing from the workshop of Enrico Ceruti showing the outline as a series of connected arcs of circles, image courtesy of the Violin Museum of Cremona, Italy. Image credits: Gonzalez et al.

After starting from a basic design, they randomly changed the parameters they were using (such as the position and the radii of the circles, the thickness, the type of wood, etc) — until they obtained a database of virtual violins. Some of the designs are very similar to shapes already used in violin making, while others have never been attempted before. These shapes were then used to predict what the violin would sound.

“Using standard statistical learning tools, we show that the modal frequencies of violin tops can, in fact, be predicted from geometric parameters, and that artificial intelligence can be successfully applied to traditional violin making. We also study how modal frequencies vary with the thicknesses of the plate (a process often referred to as plate tuning) and discuss the complexity of this dependency. Finally, we propose a predictive tool for plate tuning, which takes into account material and geometric parameters,” the researchers write in the study.

Left: example of an historical violin. Credit: 2008 Stoel, Borman. Right: examples of three violins in the dataset. Credit: Politecnico di Milano

The algorithm was able to predict how the violins would sound with 98% accuracy — far better than even the researchers expected.

The innovative work promises to save a lot of work for violin makers, and it also paves the way for new, innovative types of designs to be tried. For the future research, the team will also look at how to select wood that is most desirable for the violin design.

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

New 3D bio-material could help reverse arthritis

A 3D biomaterial scaffold that gradually releases stem cells can relieve pain and even reverse arthritis. It was only shown to work in mice knee joints so far, but researchers are optimistic.

Researchers with the Department of Orthopedics at the Union Hospital designed a 3D biomaterial scaffold to slowly release stem cells to ensure the process of pain relief and to reverse arthritis in mice knee joints. Credit: Wei Tong, Union Hospital, Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

Osteoarthritis affects 7% of the global population — more than 500 million people. In some countries like the US, the rate is even higher, with arthritis affecting 23% of all adults (over 54 million people). The main symptoms of arthritis are joint pain and stiffness, which vary in intensity (but can get worse in time).

There are no real cures on the market for the condition, and doctors typically focus on relieving the pain. But stem cell therapy offers important hope to finally deal with the disease. Finding the right dose, however, remains a problem.

Too much of a dose can cause swelling and scar tissue to the patient; too little, and the therapy is only successful for a period, and then problems may reappear. To overcome this challenge, researchers at the Union Hospital of Huazhong University of Science seeded umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells on a special type of biomaterial called a cryogel.

Mesenchymal stem cells have emerged as a popular type of stem cells because of their abundant supply, non-invasive harvesting procedure, and because they pose almost no ethical problems. Meanwhile, a cryogel is a gel matrix formed at subzero temperatures. Cryogels have interconnected pores much like a sponge, and these holes allow the transport of small particles.

The cryogel helps solve the dosage problem because it ensures that the implanted stem cells stay in the knee join for a longer time, without causing the risk of an overdose. When applied to mice, researchers found that the treatment was effective at reducing joing pain.

“It takes about two weeks for half of the implanted cells to leave, but their regenerative effects stick around for longer,” said corresponding author Wei Tong from the Department of Orthopedics of Union Hospital. “So it is possible that the therapeutic result comes indirectly, via the stem cells secreting epidermal growth factors, which stimulate cell proliferation and healing, rather than directly becoming newly formed cartilage in the joint.”

Still some way to go

Depiction of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, compared to a joint without inflammation. Image via Wiki Commons.

It’s an exciting development and it may start clinical trials not too long in the future, but for now, the study has only been demonstrated on mice. Researchers first want to test the proof of concept in non-human primates, and then move on to humans.

In the meantime, if you think you may be suffering from arthritis, it’s always advisable to seek professional help, especially. Hospitals or clinics such as Everest Rehab clinics can offer much-needed expertise and advice. While there is no direct treatment, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables (and low in meat and processed foods) can help reduce inflammation and pain. Other foods like fish and nuts can also help reduce inflammation.

Extra kilograms can also cause extra problems when dealing with arthritis, as they put added weight onto your knees. Overweight people are far more likely to develop osteoarthritis than those of a healthy weight. Diet and exercise can help keep your weight in a healthy range.

In time, innovative treatments like the one from Zhang and colleagues can help finally reverse arthritis and ease the lives of millions of people.

The study was published in Chemical Engineering Journal.

A new food pyramid could help people eat healthier, while also tackling climate impacts

A new report claims that a dietary tool can be used to simultaneously reduce unhealthy eating and climate change impacts. The “double-pyramid”, which takes into account cultural differences in the consumption of food, has already been used with success in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, researchers say.

“The resulting Double Health and Climate Pyramid is offered as a tool to inform daily food choices and encourage dietary patterns that are healthy for humans and more sustainable for the planet. The Health Pyramid orders food according to frequency of consumption, with the base including those that should be eaten more often (fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains). Legumes and fish are the preferred sources of protein, while red meat and high glycemic foods should be consumed in moderation. The Climate Pyramid shows that the production of animal-based products makes the highest contribution to climate change, while plant-based products make the smallest. As a result, the Double Pyramid corroborates the message that through a varied and balanced diet we can promote our health, longevity, and wellbeing, while reducing our carbon footprint. In fact, foods that should be consumed more frequently for our health also have a low climate impact,” according to a statement from Barilla.

Food affects pretty much every aspect of our life, from our health and wellbeing to our environment and economic development. But we’re not being exactly responsible when it comes to our food. Over 690 million people lack sufficient food, and economic projections say that the pandemic may add up to 132 million more people may join their ranks.

Meanwhile, food waste is rampant. We’re wasting 1.3 billion tons of food every year, and 38% of our total energy consumption is related to agriculture, contributing to our greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change. At the other end of the spectrum, child and adult overweight and obesity are increasing at alarming paces — oftentimes, due to financial constraints.

Calorie-rich but nutrient-poor foods are often cheaper than healthy counterparts, and on a global level, the cost of a healthy diet is five times higher than an energy-sufficient diet. You don’t need to be a certified nutritionist to know our food system is broken, but thinking of ways to fix it is a whole different problem.

According to Marta Antonelli, the head of research at Italy-based Barilla Foundation, if we truly want to address the problems in our food systems, solutions need to consider the food and health aspects together. Antonelli is a co-author of a new report that proposes a double-pyramid system to help people visualize what they should eat both for the sake of themselves, and for the sake of the planet.

African food culture is very varied, due to the vastness of the African continent and the
various influences that have been absorbed by the different regions of the continent. However, some common food trends can be found. Image credits: Barilla Foundation.

The use of aids such as food pyramids or food plates is not new. However, these approaches have one major shortfall, Antonelli says: they don’t consider cultural food trends. You can’t have the same food recommendations for places like the central US, the Middle East, or central Africa — it’s just not gonna work. So Antonelli and colleagues clustered the world’s most common foods into 18 groups of items that have similar nutritional impacts. They also formed a second climate pyramid by calculating the average carbon footprint of these foods, using a European Union database.

The new tool also considers things like snacks or street food, offering daily as well as weekly perspectives. It doesn’t include drinks, but it mentions some recommendations (about drinking water, for instance) at the bottom.

The idea is to eat things that are best for you and least impactful for the climate. For instance, while it doesn’t advise people to give up on meat, the report does mention that meat consumption should be reduced:

“The Health Pyramid is consistent with scientific evidence indicating that, overall, in the adult population, diets with a higher intake of plant foods are associated with a substantially better health profile compared with diets including predominantly animal foods; therefore, they should, in general, be preferred. In particular, regular consumption of fruit, non-starchy vegetables and wholegrain cereal foods should be specifically promoted to prevent cardiovascular diseases, and, more generally, to improve health; these are, therefore, placed at the bottom of the pyramid.”

“Conversely, processed meats, associated with a high risk of cardiovascular events, should not be consumed frequently and are therefore placed in the top layer of the food pyramid. In between are foods to be consumed with intermediate frequencies.”

The tool is already trialed in some areas. In Africa (where it’s known as the African Double Pyramid), it focuses on the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania. Researchers hope that the model will be picked up in communication campaigns and based on the demographics of these countries, a wider strategy could be deployed for the entire Africa.

Of course, this won’t change the food crisis and it won’t solve anything overnight. But with improved awareness, the authors say, it could get us one step closer. Being aware that we live in an interconnected world is essential — our food decisions can have strong impacts the world over.

“As a brief conclusion, with awareness and knowledge, clear and precise information, a supportive social environment, available and accessible healthy and sustainable food items, and the implementation of related policies, individuals have a great potential to achieve healthiness and environmental sustainability by choosing healthier and more sustainable foods,” the report concludes.

The ageing population and long-term care: a problem for many countries to deal with

Ageing is increasingly affecting developed (and even developing) nations. As the demographics of countries continue to change, governments will find it harder and harder to

Earlier this month, China released its once-in-a-decade survey. At first glance, it wasn’t all that striking: the country’s population is still growing, though at a slower rate. But one part in particular alarmed Chinese officials: the working people/pensioners rate. China’s population is increasingly looking like that of a developed country, with fewer workers to support more retirees in the years to come. It’s not just the financial problem, but also the long-term care and healthcare that comes with this demographic shift.

Ageing is affecting many OECD countries, and governments have yet to discover the secret sauce to fighting this trend (or at least a clear way to compensate it). A new OECD report looked at what systems have in OECD and non-OECD countries for long-term care and health care, as well as the types of insurance products that are made available in these countries. The main focus was to see how national systems and the private market can work complementarily to ensure the long-term care of retirees.

“Many countries are or will struggle with how to reform their care system to bring these costs under control, while ensuring that those in need can access the necessary care of quality,” the report starts off.

The OECD defines long-term care as paid care for people in need of support in their day to day life — support that is not provided by a medical doctor. Long-term care can be financed through a mix of financing arrangements, including government spending, some form of social insurance, as well as voluntary private insurance or private funds. Oftentimes, however, it is provided by communities and families, which was not considered for the purpose of the report.

To launch the project, the OECD circulated a questionnaire to delegates of countries about the management of long-term care. The questionnaire showed that already, many insurance companies are already stepping to provide long-term care. Most countries that responded (18 of 21 respondents) named the ageing population as one of the main factors impacting long-term care. Across the board, the increase share of elderly population brings challenges that governments are struggling to adapt to, and companies are starting to move in to fill the gap.

Many countries are already working on reforms to change social security and/or the insurance sector with regards to long-term care. The Czech Republic, for instance, is working on streamlining the provision of services across the welfare and health system. Meanwhile, Japan wants to publish a new blueprint on social security, while Korea is introducing a community care program for the elderly to receive care at home from the local community. Countries like Israel, Lithuania, and the UK are also working on major reforms.

The countries were also asked if estimates have been made on the future expected expenditure on long term care. Most countries have some sort of projection about future expenditure based on different scenarios, but how realistic those scenarios are is still unclear.disclosed the estimates on future expected expenditure on LTC (some relying on EU reports) based on different scenarios.

The method of covering for this care is typically direct payments from insurers, but other methods like fee-for-service are also common. In some countries, out-of-pocket payments are required for long-term care, even if an insurer exists. For instance, in Japan, individual financial status is taken into account when deciding how much the patient would need to pay, while in Korea, once an income threshold is reached, 1% of a person’s assets are used for payment calculations.

All countries in the report have reported considering the financial sustainability of the healthcare system. Long-term care and its sustainability is a major topic everywhere you look, with countries increasingly looking at private insurers to compensate for government shortcomings. But too great of a reliance on these insurers can cause more problems than it solves, as is the case in the US, which spends far more than other countries for equivalent services.

Ultimately, it seems that most if not all developed countries have some sort of plan to deal with the ageing population and provide care to their ageing population. It seems that all these plans include some level of cooperation between government action and private insurers, with varying degrees of coverage. However, plans on paper are one thing — whether or not they will hold up is another.

Still, countries have one ace up their sleeve: per capita productivity is increasing steadily. With the aid of robots, computers, and other non-human aids, people are producing more and more value. So while the number of workers is decreasing relative to retirees, those few workers can produce more.

But it’s a tricky race. Just one wrong step could lead to a long-term uphill battle, where countries find it impossible to cover the necessary care for their ageing population. The future is full of challenges — hopefully, we’ll be up to them.

The tech industry is adopting futuristic data processes in response to COVID-19

As the industry emerges following an incredibly chaotic and stressful year, the tech sector will embark on a direction that will undoubtedly shape the upcoming years. In fact, recent expert forecasts have identified 2021 as the year where technology gains a significant critical mass. Here are just a few of these trends we expect to see.

Image credits: Alexandre Debiève

Artificial Intelligence (AI) Process Automation

First and foremost, artificial intelligence has enabled professionals in technology to automate repetitive, time-consuming processes.

In 2021, AI is already being used to power virtual personal assistants, self-driving vehicles, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications. In addition, many tech experts are leveraging these solutions to optimize online shopping, advertising, and machine translation. In fact, AI applications have even been recently employed to power smart infrastructure, homes, and cities. Other popular use cases fighting cybersecurity and disinformation. When properly deployed, this helps to enhance customer experiences, streamline business continuity, and resolve complex problems.

Certainly, AI process automation is certainly a new method taking over the technology sector.

Leveraging Innovative Programming Tools

It’s not just the hardware and the algorithms — it’s also the day-to-day tools that allow everything from our computers to the websites we use to run smoothly. Teams have begun adopting various innovative programming tools to maximize productivity, efficiency, and agility during COVID-19.

To more effectively manage development and keep things running, programmers are using a variety of tools. Of course, this also empowers software developers to gain deeper insights into issues and automate the product engineering process. Surely, leveraging the right tools and developing new tools where it is needed will continue to be a top priority for programming tools..

Growing Reliance On Cloud Computing

At the same time, COVID-19 has promoted the growing reliance on cloud computing across the technology sector. Cloud computing architecture uses internet connected networks to safely manage, store, and process data. More people are working from home, data is increasingly stored online instead of our hard drives — and the cloud needs to handle this.

Naturally, this technology helps maximize quality control, reduce costs, and improve online security. Simultaneously, adopting cloud computing will increase flexibility, mobility, insight, and sustainability.

Of course, this will enhance standards for disaster recovery and loss prevention. Absolutely, cloud computing could change business in 2021.

Learning New Coding Frameworks

Next, learning new coding frameworks has empowered many IT teams to remain productive and combat the negative consequences of COVID-19.

New computing architectures such as Kotlin, Swift, and Rust have gained significant traction in 2021. Similarly, many expert programmers have begun adopting TypeScript, Python, and Scala. At the same time, Ruby programming language works as an open-source framework that is easy to use, copy, modify, and distribute.

Mastering these new innovative frameworks, professionals in tech can promote career flexibility, maximize earning potential, and better prepare for success. Indeed, learning new coding frameworks and architectures has allowed information technology teams to remain competitive amidst the global pandemic.

Enforcing Standards For Cybersecurity

Of course, the pandemic has encouraged many IT departments to enforce their standards for cybersecurity.

For a start, teams need to establish, enforce, and regularly revisit password standards. In addition, professionals need to regularly update products, retire unused services, and leverage existing security options that are already in place.

At the same time, executives should consider implementing virtual private networks (VPNs), which promote privacy, remote access, and anonymity. Of course, this helps users to escape data-throttling, shield their private information, and avoid censorship on region-blocked services.

Definitely, the outbreak of the global pandemic has influenced many teams to reimagine their cybersecurity.

The technology industry has made several significant changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. First off, many teams have begun automating processes through artificial intelligence. In addition, developers across the globe have continued leveraging the top programming tools.

Next, learning new coding architectures allows teams to enhance productivity, build better products, and guarantee consistent quality. At the same time, the global pandemic has caused explosive growth in the cloud computing market.

Moreover, this crisis has obliged many teams to revisit their cybersecurity protection standards. Follow the points highlighted above to learn about how the tech industry has adopted new processes in response to COVID-19.

What will restaurants look like after the pandemic? It’s complicated

For the better part of the last year, most restaurants have had to work only on deliveries, rely on outdoor seating, or (at best) ensure some level of distancing for their indoor seating. Many have (temporarily or completely) shut down — the price to pay for a ravaging pandemic.

With the meteoric rise of COVID-19 vaccines, however, we may be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, we should be careful and avoid easing lockdowns too quickly (we’ve seen just how quickly that can lead to disaster) — but with enough vaccines, a careful reopening may just usher in the return of our favorite restaurants. Here’s what to look for.

Image credits: Nick Karvounis.

More takeaway and deliveries

It’s probably safe to say that 2020 was the worst year in history for restaurants in the US (and in most parts of the world). The ones that did survive often did so with the aid of delivery. With so many delivery companies becoming popular, takeaway and deliveries were already commonplace — but with restaurants shut down, they’ve boomed.

Restaurants that emphasized a vibe or the eat-out experience itself had the most to suffer, while those that quickly pivoted to pickup and delivery thrived. As a result, many restaurants adjusted their menu and staffing to the requirements, and there’s a good chance this will be long-term or permanent change.

With more people than ever working from home, takeaways may slow down a bit, but it’s unlikely that they will return to pre-pandemic levels. As a result, we may also see more streamlined menus, and changes to menus are likely also here to stay.

A slow return

But even with rising demand for takeaway, it’s clear that those restaurant chairs will be filling up once restrictions are eased. But it may not happen all at once.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry, and it will take time to recover. In addition to the business that have gone under, even those that survived will have to face increased distrust from some consumers.

“There’s been a lot of damage done to restaurants. Not just financially, but also from a public standpoint,” said said Edward Lee, chef, restaurateur and co-founder of the philanthropic The Lee Initiative, to Huff Post. “There was a lot of restaurant-bashing that was being done during the pandemic, and a lot of people created this unfair narrative where restaurants were reopening simply out of profit, and that just wasn’t the case.”

It will take a time for people to get used to going out again, but this will probably happen over the next few months.

More emphasis on cleanliness

When consumers will be returning to restaurants, there’s a good chance they’ll pay more attention to how clean everything is. Presumably, there will be more emphasis on the restaurant being thoroughly clean, and this may prove to be a challenge for some.

With all the extra attention on washing and cleaning over the past year, clients may prioritize neat restaurants over eclectic ones.

More outdoor dining, less indoor, and more spaced tables

It’s been strange socially distancing for more than a year — but it’s not all bad. Not rubbing shoulders with your table neighbors is pretty pleasant feeling, and many have taken a liking to new, socially distanced setups. Even after everything (hopefully) returns to some form of normal, many consumers will likely still prefer setups that aren’t too crowded. This is not to say that crowded pubs will go away anytime soon — but there may be a shift.

For restaurants which rely on having as many tables full as possible, this may prove a challenge.

When the weather’s nice, outdoor dining can also be very pleasant, and since many restaurants are already so heavily invested in outdoor dining, they may continue to emphasize outdoor seating. Since indoor eating may still be restricted even if you’re vaccinated, outdoor may be the best we can get for a time, at least in some areas.

It’s hard to say just how many of these changes will revert back to pre-pandemic levels in time. But it’s like that at least some of these will be long-lasting, potentially permanent changes.

Science-backed ways to keep your brain sharp at any age

Take care of your body

You probably weren’t expecting this one — but the first way towards a healthy mind is a healthy body. Physical exercise can help your memory and brain stay sharp in more ways than one. The benefits can come both in the form of direct and indirect benefits. For instance, exercise can reduce insulin resistance, inflammation, and stimulate chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and blood vessels in the brain.

At the same time exercise improves mood and sleep, reducing stress and anxiety — all problems that can hamper brain activity. Many studies have found that parts of the brain that affect thinking and memory have a greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.

A special mention for high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of cognitive decline. It’s not just being fit — having a healthy lifestyle also helps keep your brain in check. Having a healthy body weight, normal blood pressure, and avoiding alcohol and smoking all help.

It’s hard to say what exercise is best to improve your cognitive power. Some studies suggest that even walking briskly for two hours a week can help, thought standard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity at least 4-5 hours a week. But in truth, every bit helps, and even a few minutes a day can make a world of a difference. So if keeping an active brain the goal, the body is a good place to start.

Education helps

The brain isn’t exactly a muscle, but it works like a muscle: the more you train it, the better it gets. Education — and by this, we don’t just mean school or university, but any form of organized learning — is crucial.

A higher level of education is associated with better cognitive ability in old age, and is also inversely correlated with problems like Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s not exactly clear how many years of education are required for the best cognitive results, but in general, the more, the better.

Embrace mental challenges

The link between brain games and cognitive ability remains unclear. Studies suggest that playing brain games alone won’t prevent dementia, but they can help in sharpening certain thinking skills such as planning skills, processing speed, and decision making.

Novelty is important. If you’re already good at one thing, you may really enjoy it, but your brain won’t be stimulated as much. You need to constantly learn new things and embrace new challenges to keep your brain sharp. It’s a bit like going to the gym: if all you do is dumbbell curls, you’ll have big arms, but you won’t necessarily be healthy. Luckily, regardless of what type of brain teaser you’re looking for, you’ll probably find it online, and maybe even free. There’s lichess for chess, Duolingo for new languages, unscramblex, a word unscrambler for word games, plus a million websites for puzzles. There’s an entire world of brain games out there just waiting to be explored.

Manage your social ties

There are multiple types of intelligence — and social intelligence is one of them. Maintaining an active social active may also help keep your brain in tip top shape.

Studies looking at brain connectivity during social interaction have found that our brains react strongly to social cues, suggesting that our social networks and interactions also help shape the brain. Besides, talking to people can make you feel better and loneliness, on the other hand, can increase the level of cortisol and the level of stress, which can hamper brain activity.

Find a hobby

As previously mentioned, diverse activities are excellent for keeping your brain active. But finding a hobby (or a few) helps in a different way. For starters, you’re much more inclined to do something if you enjoy it. Pursuing a hobby can improve your mental health, which in turn, can have positive effects on your cognitive ability.

If that hobby happens to have an intellectual component — even better. Although even something like gardening or yoga can help.

Eat well, sleep a lot

There’s no substitute for a good meal and a good night’s sleep. Staying fit and working out is essential, but if you don’t eat or sleep properly, you’ll be bound to suffer. Smoking and excessive drinking are major risk factor for dementia, as is a lack of sleep.

Eating a healthy diet (low in saturated fats and sugar, high in vegetables and fruits) and getting a good night’s sleep will help keep your brain active.

Care for your emotions

Lastly, we like to think of matters of brain and the heart as being separate, but they’re more intertwined than you’d think. Anxiety, depression, and exhaustion tend to take a toll on cognitive power, so make sure you also keep your emotional health in check.

Taking care of your mind isn’t a singular activity. You need a holistic approach that involves working out, a healthy diet, and good habits.

The 1.9 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Will be Paid for with a Corporate Tax Hike

At the end of March, Biden unveiled a $2.25 trillion proposal called the “American Jobs Plan” focused on infrastructure. This bill would include updating roads, bridges, and public transit and having items outside of classic infrastructure, including semiconductor manufacturing and funding to fight climate change, as well as additional relief for American families.

What is the Issue?

The infrastructure bill is moving forward in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are moving forward with their accounts, with Republicans claiming that the Biden Administration is overstepping its boundaries by adding non-conventional infrastructure to the Bill.

The Bill plans to put  $621 billion into transportation infrastructures such as bridges, roads, public transit, ports, airports, and electric vehicle development. The White House wants to inject more than $300 billion into improving drinking-water infrastructure, expanding broadband access, and upgrading electric grids.

These dollars are what many republicans believe is classic infrastructure. The Biden Administration also wants to add $400 billion to care for elderly and disabled Americans. It also wants more than $300 billion to build and retrofit affordable housing and construct and upgrade schools. The White House also said it intends to invest $580 billion in American manufacturing, research and development, and job training efforts.

How Will the Infrastructure Bill be Paid?

In 2020, the Trump Administration pushed through 3 COVID relief bills, and the American public did not seem to care much how the borrowed money be returned. Since the outlays were for relief, the overwhelming popularity of the measures made officials focus less on a plan to pay for the stimulus — the stimulus required to fight the recession that occurred in the wake of the pandemic was understandably a top priority.

The Biden Administration also pushed through a relief bill, but this received pushback from Republicans concerned that additional stimulus would be challenging to pay back and wanted to wait and see how the economy faired before voting on a new bill. The Democrats moved on their own and pushed through the Bill.

In mid-April, the Commerce Department reported Retail Sales that were much better than expected, primarily based on the most recent stimulus bill’s passing. Advance retail sales rose 9.8% for the month, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. That compared to a forecast of a 6.1% gain. What is clear is that Americans are spending their stimulus checks and that the need to expand the U.S. economy is working.

The White House is now trying to keep the economy growing and accelerate this growth. To do this, they propose a $1.9-trillion infrastructure bill. To pay for the bill, the president proposed raising the corporate tax , a measure that both Republicans and moderate Democrats regard with concern.

Biden plans to fund the spending by raising the corporate tax rate to 28%, which would not be unprecedented — the corporate tax used to be even bigger, but Republicans slashed the corporate rate to 21% from 35% as part of their 2017 tax law.

If the corporate tax rate was moved up to 28% from 21%, it would make the U.S. country with the highest corporate tax in the developed world, according to CNBC. Even a 25% rate would place it at the high end of the OECD spectrum. There could also be changes to the income tax rate, but for now, the administration also wants to boost the global minimum tax for multinational corporations and ensure they pay at least 21% in taxes in any country.

Republicans were working on their own infrastructure proposal and said there could be bipartisan support for a package of $600 billion to $800 billion, far smaller than what Biden has in mind. Republicans say the Administration plan is dominated by spending unrelated to traditional infrastructure, and they reject a proposal to finance the initiative by raising taxes on U.S. corporations.

How Will The Infrastructure Plan Impact the U.S. Economy

An Infrasture Bill will help the U.S. economy over the long-term but raising the corporate tax rate to pay for it will hurt it but only mildly. Fiscal policy will help generate economic growth and increase jobs, which will offset by higher taxes that will impact online trading of stocks and the bottom line. The effective tax rate will not be as high as the corporate tax rate as companies are very adept at sheltering their taxable income. In the long run, a infrastuture bill will help the U.S. economy gain traction and accelerate to the poin that it can be self sustaining.

What Is A Physician-Scientist And What Do They Do?

As technological advances and new medical discoveries cause the worlds of medicine and science to collide, there’s an increasing need for a hybrid breed of medical researcher: the physician-scientist. These specialized, medically trained researchers conduct important studies into potential causes, treatments, and preventative measures for existing diseases, work with world leaders to advice on public health issues, and help to identify any new health threats that may arise for the general population. While physician-scientists are less commonly known, they play a critical role in bridging the gap between medicine and science. 

So, what is a physician-scientist, and what exactly do they do?

What is a physician-scientist?

In simple terms, a physician-scientist is an individual with an MD degree, who spends the majority of their time completing medical research projects. A physician-scientist may also hold a degree in science, a PhD, JD, or MBA in addition to their MD, although it’s common for the MD to be the only degree.

These health professionals may be employed in various settings, from a Pain Physician Practice to a laboratory, or even at a college as a lecturer or researcher. Physician-scientists use their expertise in both medical and scientific fields to investigate everything from designing new ways to treat or prevent disease, to testing hypotheses on real patient cases.

How do you become a physician-scientist?

There are multiple points of entry into a career as a physician-scientist, with the US providing some of the most accessible pathways at more than 40 colleges nationally. US students wishing to pursue a career as a physician-scientist can apply for a dual degree program (MD/PhD), which will prepare them for a career in medicine. While taking part in this dual degree, the majority of US physician-scientist students are also supported by the National Institute of Health (NIH) Medical Scientist Training Program, which provides them with the skills required to conduct medical research.

Students can also get an MD and complement this with fellowship training. This combination of clinical practice experience and scientific research applications prepares students to enter into various laboratory or clinic-based roles.

What do physician-scientists do?

Physician-scientists may work in a variety of professional settings, from colleges to hospitals, and they typically focus on medical research. Here are some examples of what a physician-scientist may focus on day-to-day:

  • Detecting new threats to human health

As many physician-scientists are free to choose their area of work (assuming they have reasons compelling enough to receive funding), some choose to work on detecting newer health threats that may affect the wider population. As an example, the link between sugar and diabetes or smoking and lung cancer may not have been proven without the intervention of a physician-scientist. Generally, a physician-scientist working on this type of research will form a hypothesis and develop experiments or studies designed to either prove or disprove a link between a substance or behavior and a potential health threat. This type of research is common in college laboratories, and generally requires the lead physician-scientist to apply for research grants in order to complete the investigation.

Some physician-scientists are privately employed, and may have their research subjects and goals assigned by their employer, potentially to benefit the employers’ best interests. While private employment can be more lucrative, and research may be better funded, a physician-scientist may be unable to pursue research that they deem important, and will likely need to justify their research to executives who are not in the medical or scientific fields.

  • Developing potential new therapies and treatments

One of the most critical types of work that physician-scientists’ may complete is developing new treatments and identifying preventative measures for existing diseases. A physician-scientist may specialize in a certain area of study, from futuristic electroceutical studies to more common interests, such as:

  • Hematology
  • Immunology
  • Microbiology
  • Transfusion medicine

A physician-scientist will generally identify potential areas of research themselves, within their chosen discipline. As an example, if they specialize in diabetes research, they may identify a possible new treatment option, and request funding to test it. The most common way to do this is through clinical trials, which can be overseen by a trained physician-scientist, sometimes in conjunction with a fully qualified physician.

In a clinical trial, there are generally two groups of participants—one who is given the experimental treatment, and one who receives a placebo, with neither group knowing who received which. A physician-scientist will monitor and report on the results of this trial and publish their findings, confirming whether the treatment did or didn’t work, or whether the results were inconclusive.

Bridging the gap between scientists and doctors

One of the major benefits of physician-scientists is their ability to discuss both scientific and medical notions fluently, enabling them to communicate with and understand both sides effectively.

While some organizations, such as The Markey Trust, have launched multiple programs to provide cross-training benefits for scientists and medical professionals, a trained physician-scientist already has the advantage of being capable in both fields. Being able to understand principles of both science and medicine, and to communicate these effectively, may allow physician-scientists to complete research more independently. They typically don’t require as much outside consultation as a researcher who has only trained in one discipline.

Helping to guide important policy decisions

Physician-scientists play an instrumental role in guiding major policy decisions, both within the medical system and the wider political arena. Roughly 60-70% of policy guidelines that dictate a patient’s diagnosis, treatment, and recovery time have been influenced by the work of a physician-scientist. If new research shows that some treatments are outdated or less effective than new treatments, or that recovery time for some procedures is longer than previously thought, these findings may influence hospital management when dictating patient-care guidelines.

Physician-scientists may also be consulted in matters of public health. In most cases, the FDA will not approve a new drug or treatment for public use until it’s been proven safe in clinical trials, which can be created and overseen by physician-scientists. Additionally, in situations where an unfamiliar disease or condition is spreading, as seen recently with Covid-19, government officials will generally consult with medical professionals for information on how to keep the public safe; the information that these medical leaders offer may well have been discovered by physician-scientists.

Teaching medical or science students

Physician-scientists are not limited to niche experiments and research; some may take on a teaching role, and impart knowledge to science or medical students. Clinical trials either partially funded by a college or taking place in a college-based laboratory may often utilize medical or science students for some elements. Clinical trials or research projects can provide college students with practical experience in their chosen field, while remaining under the supervision of a qualified professional. College students may complete some components of the research programs on their own, and have their work checked by the physician-scientist at a later date. A trained physician-scientist may also decide that lab work is not for them, and transition into teaching either medical or science units at a reputable college, in a lecture or classroom environment.

Could your project benefit from a physician-scientist?

If you manage a clinic or laboratory, considering a physician-scientist as a full or part-time staff member may be a good choice. Any business where there’s a high crossover of medicinal treatment and research could benefit from a professional who’s trained in both. If

you work in pharmaceuticals, or you’re considering having some research completed which relates to a health concern, a physician-scientist may be able to complete this for you; this can minimize the need for expensive medical or scientific consultations down the line.

Declining physician-scientist numbers

Concerns have been raised consistently over the last few decades that the physician-scientists are becoming an endangered species in medicine. As far back as the 1970s, leaders in the medical profession have questioned whether it’s possible for academics to master both science and medicine in a meaningful way, calling for more resources to support budding physician-scientists. The existing pool of physician-scientists is getting older and smaller as time goes on; the NIH has reported that the number of young professionals applying for research grants is reducing, and the average age of those seeking research support is now 43 years of age—an increase of four years in the last decade. Those in the medical community have raised the issue that more support and awareness of the physician-scientist career path is necessary to ensure that critical medical research continues to flourish.

The American Physician-Scientists Association (APSA) aims to solve this problem by being a leading advocate and voice for physician scientists based in the US. APSA aims to support new and existing physician-scientists in:

  • Improving educational opportunities for trainees
  • Advancing patient-oriented research
  • Advocating for biomedical and translational research

Conclusion

Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of having health professionals trained in both science and clinical medicine available and ready for critical public health issues. In a world where disease can spread rapidly around the globe, supporting our future medical leaders and funding important public health research has never been more important. As we learn more about scientific and medical advancements, physician-scientists will continue to be a critical part of our collective public health plan.

Biden has canceled over $2 billion in student debt. Here’s what that means

In two fell swoops, president Biden has canceled student loans amounting to $2.3 billion. First, he canceled student loans for 72,000 borrowers who attended colleges that used deceptive or predatory practices — particularly now-defunct for-profit colleges like ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges. Then, he canceled another $1 billion for 41,000 borrowers with total and permanent disability.

In a sense, this is a continuation of policy started during the Obama years when many high-profile for-profit colleges were found to have misled students and were forced to shut their doors. The schools lied to prospective students about things like job placement numbers. At first, any students were granted 100% loan forgiveness if they attended a school that had committed fraud. But under President Trump, that changed, and only partial debt relief was offered, depending on how much money applicants earned. This decision essentially reverts things to the initial Obama decision, ensuring that all students who attended fraudulent schools are completely forgiven of their loan.

For Biden, these actions are starting to define his position on student loans in general. Student loans have grown drastically in the past 15 years, with debt reaching $1.6 trillion in 2019 — a whopping 7.5% of the country’s GDP. Around 45 million people are currently in debt with student loans and unlike other forms of school-related financial aid like grants or scholarships, loans have to be paid back.

The matter has grown into a full-blown crisis, particularly as many who took student loans aren’t doing all that well financially. A 2018 Brookings Institution study claimed that “nearly 40 percent of students who took out loans in 2004 may default by 2023. As a result, leading Democrats have called on Biden to take decisive action and cancel $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

This would be an unprecedented measure, but Biden seems to favor a different approach. The $2.3 billion of forgiven debts, while striking at first glance, represent only a small fraction (about 0.1%) of the total student debt. Biden has shown he is willing to address the problem of student loans but in a more cautious way. At most, Biden said he’d be open to canceling $10,000 per borrower but has said that government shouldn’t forgive debt for people who went to “Harvard and Yale and Penn.”

Biden’s focus has also most been on federal student loan cancellation — not private loans. However, in one of his first acts in office, Biden extended the pause on student loan payments and interest, a measure put in place by Congress last year. Furthermore, in the 2021 stimulus package, Congress also included a provision that would make student loan cancellation tax-free for the borrower, hinting that Congress may be looking at ways to also cancel private loans.

For now, at least, the Biden administration’s approach seems to be to chip at the student loan problem rather than take it head-on. A memo from lawyers at Harvard’s Legal Services Center may offer some indication as to how the administration may proceed. According to the memo, the Department of Education already has more targeted debt cancellation policies in place, focusing on defrauded students as well as disabled veterans.

By simply expanding those programs, Biden could provide relief for hundreds of thousands of more borrowers. This would also address one of the main criticism against debt relief programs: that they’re not targeted and too many wealthy Americans could benefit from them. In fact, Biden’s main idea seems to be finding ways that reduce student debt for those who most need it. The two measures taken so far are relatively small, but they could be an indication of what’s to come.

Biden has also asked Congress to make legislative changes to make it harder for future administrations to revert these plans.

Why researchers want to keep ratsnakes out of electrical lines

Eastern ratsnake slithering down a tree at Shenandoah River State Park. Credit: Virginia State Parks.

On June 26, 2020, Kevin Hamed of Blacksburg, Virginia, while out enjoying a summer day, spotted a snake on the road in the vicinity of Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm. As he waited for the vehicle in front of him to pass by, Hamed was certain he would catch the snake and add it to his collection at Virginia Tech.

What Hamed did not expect was for that vehicle to swerve as if to hit the snake on purpose. The snake turned out to be a completely harmless Eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). Hamed reports that for each ratsnake he happens to catch in rural Montgomery County, there are two more that are killed.

Unfortunately, the vehicle Hamed witnessed, backed up and ran over the snake two more times, and then one final time. Hamed admits this is common, but it is actually illegal under Virginia law.

According to Hamed, who is part of the Virginia Herpetological Society and a Virginia Tech wildlife conservation professor, “you hear it a lot: the only good snake is a dead snake.” What people might not realize is that snakes are an important component of ecosystems, as well as playing a role in the economy.

One of the reasons Hamed and his associates have been collecting snakes all summer is to closely observe their climbing behaviors. The study, sponsored by TE Connectivity, a business making electrical utility components, has allocated $8,400 to help Hamed develop devices that help keep these Eastern ratsnakes from making their way into electrical lines and transformers.

Power outages that occur as a result of wildlife cost utility companies upwards of $10 billion each and every year, according to statistics from TE Connectivity. Birds can be blamed for about 50 percent of these outages, but Lori Lyons, company spokesperson, reports that snakes are not far behind.

The reason for this is that snakes regularly prey on the birds that nest in electrical equipment and on poles. They are well known for their climbing ability and they are able to make their way up these poles to prey on birds and raid the nests for eggs. Most of the time the snake dies in the process, while also short-circuiting the equipment, simultaneously being electrocuted and knocking out the power in many homes and businesses.

Each of these outages can cost $10,000 to repair and can result in fines for companies that are not doing enough to protect the local wildlife. Preventing this damage has become a top priority for many utility companies.

According to Hamed, it is vital to protect the ratsnakes for conservation reasons because the snakes help control the rodent population, thereby helping to prevent damage to local crops and controlling the spread of tick-borne diseases.

“Farmers will automatically tell you their value,” Hamed told Roanoke Times. “They are consuming things that most people would consider pests. They’re consuming rodents and small mammals,” he adds.

Mice and chipmunks are carriers of ticks that cause disease so controlling their numbers is beneficial for the entire community. Hamed reports that studies have found that low snake populations often coincide with high rates of Lyme disease, which is a bacterial infection that attacks the nervous system and is caused by ticks.

Another benefit that ratsnakes provide is their diet of invasive bird species, including starlings and house sparrows, both of which came from Europe and can displace species that are native to the area. Snakes also provide a food source for owls, eagles, and hawks.

These snakes are not a threat to humans, even if they are in a person’s house. They are able to bite, but don’t have fangs and are not venomous. According to Hamed, they also strike slowly, giving you time to dodge a bite, should it occur. “They’re the Labrador Retriever of the snake world,” he says.


Recently, a three-foot ratsnake was given to Hamed by Aidan McCarthy and was subsequently placed on a utility pole. The snake remained calm, both in Aidan’s hands and on the pole and its tail had to be touched to elicit movement. The snake slithered its way to the top of the pole twice, taking a different route each time. Sam Van Noy, senior wildlife conservation student, filmed the snake’s movements for later study.

The snake, called Ratsnake 19, is one of 24 ones being used in the study, says Hamed. Filming will continue for three days and then the snakes are returned to the location in which they were caught. Both McCarthy and Van Noy say they have felt a kinship with snakes since they were children.

Van Noy says he spent much of his childhood in the woods “flipping over rocks to see what was under them.” McCarthy, who grew up in Fairfax, says it was not so easy for him. “I would see them on TV, and go out and try to find them,” he reports. Since he made the move to Blacksburg, he says “they’re a lot easier to find.”

There is very little common ground when it comes to snakes. Hamed reports that surveys on the subject find that people either love snakes or they hate snakes. He is hoping that the work of his study helps educate others about ratsnakes and how important it is to protect them.

According to Hamed, “snakes are critical components of the ecosystem. Often that’s a hard sell for people who might have a fear of snakes.” He goes on to say, “yeah, a snake gets on your deck occasionally and scares you, but it’s beneficial to you.”

In addition, Hamed says that keeping ratsnakes away from power source ensures the power stays on.

Are Progressives Lenses Good For Your Eyes?

If you are over forty and wear glasses, the odds are you’ve heard about progressive lenses. Progressive lenses are regarded as an upgrade to traditional bifocal or trifocal glasses, but they also come with a new challenge. Whereas the old faithfuls had clear lines between each different lens, progressive lenses blend seamlessly into each other. But are they good for your eyes?

Progressive and multifocal lenses come with a lot of benefits. Rather than having to switch to reading glasses every time you want to read, or taking off your glasses when you want to see something in the middle distance, you simply have to adjust your line of sight.

They are essentially three prescriptions into one pair of glasses, allowing you to do both close-up work and distance viewing without needing to change glasses. This is why they’re regarded as advantageous, although it does take some time getting used to switching the line of sight. However, they are relatively easy to get used to. While some individuals never end up liking them, most users of progressive lenses are happy with their choice.

However, there are those who worry about the effect of progressive lenses on their eyesight. Optometry has not always been the perfect science, and so there are conflicting ideas as to how to maintain or even improve eyesight. Here are some of the reasons people are skeptical of progressive lenses, along with why you have no need to worry.

Staring into the distance

Anyone who has been wearing glasses or contact lenses for a long time has probably been told that staring into the distance is a good idea. It is supposed to naturally improve eyesight, according to some sources.

You’ve at least been told to spend some time looking into the distance if you work in front of a screen all day. There is even a ‘rule’: the 20-20-20 rule, which states that if you stare at your screen, every 20 minutes you should spend 20 seconds looking at something that’s 20 meters (or more) away.

However, while there are proponents of the idea, just about all research has shown no impact. There is certainly a benefit to not staring at a screen all day, but actually looking into the distance is not going to miraculously improve your eyesight.

Progressive lenses are therefore not going to do your eyes any harm in this regard. You can stare into the distance with lenses on and actually see properly without straining. If you still want to spend time looking into the distance without the correction of the lenses, take them off for a few minutes and give your eyes a well-deserved rest.

This supposed method of natural vision correction is no reason not to get progressive lenses. After all, even if this technique can help you see a little better, it won’t help nearly as much as the lenses do.

Will progressive lenses improve your eyesight?

In terms of actually improving your eyesight, progressive lenses are as effective as anything else barring laser surgery. They can only work as any glasses do, allowing you to see without straining, ensuring your eyes are not negatively impacted.

The reality is that, unless you have a degenerative problem that needs to be treated by an ophthalmologist, there is no reason to try to naturally improve your eyesight, and there is not much any lens can do in this regard (unless we’re talking about children). You can put in the effort, but it is unlikely to help. Think about whether you really need to see any better than you currently do, considering you have glasses to fix the issue.

Progressive lenses can help you switch more comfortably from far to close distance. Your eyesight won’t magically improve, but that should never be your expectation when choosing glasses.

VR companies create interactive virtual offices and event solutions for a new era of remote work

Since the beginning of the pandemic, millions of office workers have been working remotely from home, their only contact with colleagues and managers through emails, daily Zoom meetings, and conference calls. As much as employees initially welcomed the freedoms remote work afforded, such as relaxed clothing during meetings or spending more time with family, many now find themselves missing a physical space with their colleagues.

Amid COVID-19 restrictions, virtual reality (VR) technology offers a fascinating opportunity to safely return to the office and provides a sense of camaraderie that was missing due to isolation and social distancing.

“People have valued the fluidity of working remotely, but what’s really lacking is the culture aspect. It feels isolating because the only time you’re interacting with your coworkers is during formal meetings,” said Niall Carroll, Chairman of CG Tech’s The Virtulab, the creators of Virtuworx, a virtual platform that hosts virtual remote conferences created by CG Tech’s The Virtulab team.

Carroll further described VR as a “silver lining” arising from the pandemic, since companies are using it to recreate physical events and conferences, allowing employees the possibility to enter a virtual office where they can socialize in a way akin to real life.

“[In Virtuworx] you have the sense that you’re in a real meeting, you can meet as avatars with your other coworkers, and you can collaborate on projects in a spontaneous and informal manner,” Carroll asserted. 

From Concept to Actuality

The idea of VR began in the 1960s, but it was in the last decade that technology such as smaller CPUs, powerful game engines, and AI-image rendering software has finally allowed VR to assert its dominance as a practical tool. 

Between 2016 and 2017, combined venture investments in VR, AR, and mixed reality (MR) exceeded $1.25 billion, and attracted around 90 million active users. The user base nearly doubled to 171 million in 2018 and investments increased threefold to more than $4.1 billion, with expectations that within the next few years the VR market will reach $44 billion.

There are numerous benefits in developing this virtual world, especially after the pandemic. The financial sector, in particular, is considering how VR can save money by moving events and training online, in addition to the benefits arising from cutting carbon emissions from reduced business travel.

A study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s largest professional services network firms, found that advances in immersive and VR technology could save banks as much as $1.5 trillion by 2030, and virtual reality applications alone could save nearly $500 billion.

Moreover, VR is increasingly viewed as an efficient trainer for new employees. In early 2019, Walmart experimented with around 10,000 employees through VR-based skills management tests, and they discovered that learning modules that once took 45 minutes only took a fraction of the time. A year later, Walmart expanded this training to a million employees, with reports that it has improved employee performance by at least 10 percent through the help of VR.

The VR experience is still not affordable for everyone right now, although the growing interest in using VR for the work environment will likely accelerate improvement in technology, encouraging more competition, and creating cheaper products. Numerous industry experts suggest that even after the pandemic, an immense part of our working experience will revolve around virtual worlds. 

It is as part of that trend that The Virtulab’s Virtuworx seeks to make its mark.

Enter into Virtuworx’s Metaverse

The story of Virtuworx would not have been possible without its parent company, CG Tech and its chairman, Niall Carroll.

CG Tech is an investment holding company focused on industrial and event-related services, with a growing list of portfolio companies, creating and managing cutting-edge solutions for complex projects across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the United Kingdom. Niall Carroll, CG Tech’s chairman based in London, brings with him three decades of expertise in the financial services and natural resources sectors, and since 2012, he and his partners have gradually built a portfolio of industrial services businesses, now housed in CG Tech, that includes The Virtulab.

Through Carroll’s support and funding, and with an eye on market needs arising from the pandemic, The Virtulab team rapidly adapted their in-house, avatar-based software to build Virtuworx, an immersive avatar platform that can connect remote teams through captivating metaverses. The platform is particularly relevant for MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions), remote office work, and education and training.

In its current form, The Virtulab’s Virtuworx is not your usual VR tool since users do not require headsets nor gloves, rather the platform is viewed and used through a screen on a desktop or tablet, tapping into the “gamification” of the remote-work experience.

This combination of customizable worlds and “gamification” proposed by the Virtuworx’s creators to induce an enriching experience and ferment creativity for employees is quite inspiring. 

“The gist of the platform is that it allows you, through a digital avatar, to move between conversations just as you would in real life,” explained Wayne Strydom, Virtuworx’s chief innovation officer. “So if you have a group of more than eight people, for example, you can split off into different groups and move between the conversations just like you would walking around.”

Moreover, due to its customizable nature, a user can find themselves playing a game of football or flying among the clouds during their breaks, or conducting a meeting on Mars or within a lush jungle. Virtuworx’s possibilities, like the virtual worlds within it, seem endless, with the limits based on what the clients desire and what The Virtulab’s team can build with current technology.

Aware of the platform’s immense potential, CG Tech recently announced further funding to buttress the Virtuworx’s capabilities, including further “gamification” features like voice recognition capabilities and rewards systems, further customizable environments, more robust server capacities, as well as features to compress the download size of the platform to allow more commercialization and better accessibility to users worldwide.

CG Tech reports thousands of users from across the world have used Virtuworx, and more are likely to join over time. Moreover, this past November the platform successfully hosted TEDx’s first virtual-reality event to showcase its capabilities to the world. 

It is very clear, through platforms like The Virtulab’s Virtuworx, that virtual reality is on the cusp of being a real, practical, and revolutionary tool for our future. One key question still remains, how soon will we all plug in?

Love your dental hygienist, and your teeth will love you back for it

Image credits: Bofu Shaw

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) reports that of adults between the age of 20 and 64, a whopping 92% have some form of tooth decay. Of that, 23% leave the problem untreated. This cascades into more problems down the lines, as is obvious in those 65 and over, which have an average of 3.28 decayed or missing teeth and 13.65 decayed and missing permanent surfaces.

Most people are afraid to visit their dentist because, well, it’s scary (and sometimes painful). Some also fear that dentists will lecture and browbeat them because of the bad conditions of their teeth, while others claim dentists are abrupt and unkind, making the whole experience an overall drag.

Whether these claims are true or not, Dr. Igal Elyassi, DDS., suggests that the best way to minimize this is by having a good relationship with your hygienist by practicing good dental hygiene. Elyassi owns the Wilshire Smile Studio in the Los Angeles area and has a degree from the University of Southern California School of Dentistry. He says that if you do your part as efficiently as you should, you may not have to deal with the dentist. Well, almost at all.

A good relationship typically involves work and some compromise — and the dentist is no exception. If you keep your hygienist happy by taking care of your teeth properly, they will keep you happy with brief, pain-free appointments, and minimal intervention. Here are 4 things you can do to improve your dental hygiene and reduce your interactions with the dreaded “drill” and its operator, the dentist.

Brushing

The first thing Dr. Elyassi mentions is the way you brush your teeth. Brushing your teeth is an active way of dislodging any debris in your mouth, while preventing cavities. Seriously, brushing your teeth is not something you should ever skip on.

But there is also some degree of skill to it. A common mistake people make while brushing is what Dr. Elyassi called, “scrub brushing,” or brushing too hard. Too much pressure actually damages the enamel of the teeth. You need moderate pressure with a soft toothbrush and not apply too much pressure.

In addition, the correct way to brush your teeth is to hold the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle with a medium grip. When stroking your teeth, you should use circular motions. This should be done at least twice a day — preferably once in the morning and once before bed. Using a proper toothbrush also helps.

Flossing

Flossing should be done daily before you retire for bed. A common mistake that is made when flossing is not flossing beneath the gums. If a person flosses only between the teeth, this leaves leftover bacteria in your gums — where it usually causes the most damage.

Doing this is more important than you probably think. Your oral health is connected to your overall health in more than one way, and improper dental hygiene could even lead to health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and premature birth to name just a few. It’s very important to keep up with brushing and flossing daily.

Careful with what you eat

The third thing to keep an eye on is what you eat — and of course, sugar is the biggest culprit. Certain sugars such as glucose, fructose, and most commonly sucrose (which is table sugar) are converted into acids through a process called fermentation. Other things you put in your mouth are more directly damaging to the enamel (like very cold rinks, for instance).

Soda has a pH level of around 2. To demonstrate how low that number is, soapy water’s level of pH is 12, while the acidic, lemon juice sits at a low 2. Gastric fluid has a pH of 1, and battery acid is just below 0.

Soda also has citric and phosphoric acid in it making it one of the most dangerous things you can expose your teeth to.  Dr. Elyassi suggests that if you’re going to drink soda, do so sparingly. He also mentions not lingering with the same can or bottle of soda for hours – drink it down quickly to limit how much time you expose your teeth to such an “acidy” liquid.

Fluoride and Mouthwash

If you want to go the extra mile, you can also use fluoride and mouthwash. Mouthwash is best used in unison with the morning brushing of your teeth, which makes your breath fresh and cleans out the loose debris in your mouth. He emphasized that it’s only effective in collaboration with brushing and flossing and absolutely does not substitute for brushing your teeth.

Furthermore, Dr. Elyassi mentions fluoride, which he recommends using in harmony with the nightly flossing and brushing of your teeth. He explains that fluoride helps in preventing cavities by building enamel, and it keeps working in your mouth overnight while you sleep. Most kinds of toothpaste contain a healthy amount of fluoride.

If you do all of the above, you’ll likely be an “A-plus” patient without having to see much of your dentist at all. It’s all in this healthy personal dental routine that will ensure that you have a good relationship with the dentist. Truly, the most efficient way of avoiding your dentist is not by skipping your regular checkup appointments — the more you avoid seeing the dentist, the more time you’ll have to spend with him in the end.

If you are in a situation where your dental health is a bit precarious, you should take care of your problems as soon as possible before they get any worse — and then stick to the routine.

A Basic Guide to Navigating Online Learning

Online learning is convenient in that students around the globe can access any college regardless of its geographic location. This means that online learning has opened doors for more opportunities than there were before. This, however, doesn’t mean that it’s a walk in the park. There are serious considerations you need to make, and dedicated effort on your part. The following is a basic guide to navigating online learning.

Image credits: Green Chameleon.

Conduct Online Research

Before you consider distance-learning, you need to dedicate some time to research. It’s important to know the various colleges that engage in online learning and the resources that they provide. For instance, you need to compare the costs of the different colleges. This will help you to determine a budget and to choose colleges that are aligned with that budget. Online costs vary; they may include tuition fee, program maintenance fees, and technical fees. Once you have an idea of how much you are willing to spend on online learning, you can go on to assess the colleges that are within your price range.

You need to see whether the available colleges are accredited, the courses that each of them offers, how long these will take to complete, and the grading/certification systems. You must compare all the various aspects of distance learning, so that you enroll in the best possible program for you personally.

Invest In Quality Equipment

Once you’ve decided to take part in distance learning, you need to make sure that you have the equipment required for quality service. You’ll need a quality internet connection as well as an efficient laptop. Slow internet connections or laptop devices may disrupt your lessons and impede your overall progress significantly. You should also make sure to have stationery for note-taking and revision, as you might benefit more from writing down your notes by hand.

Create A Conducive Environment

You’ll need to create a conducive environment for your online studies. Conducive environments differ between individuals, and you’ll have to figure out the type of space in which you are most productive. This may be in the form of a desk-set in your room or lounge, a favourite spot on the couch or even an outdoor space. You should try out different settings to figure out which one works best for you.

Figure Out Your Productive Hours

The advantage of distance learning is that it’s a more flexible mode of study. You can fit learning hours into your schedule and lifestyle, rather than the other way round. Different hours of the day may be more productive for you than those dictated by traditional educational institutions. Perhaps the early morning hours when it’s quieter work well for you. You may discover you work better when there’s noise and distraction around you, or you prefer to learn just before you go to sleep at night. You will have to try out different schedules before you get comfortable with a certain set of hours.

Discover Your Favorite Mode Of Learning

Online platforms provide multiple learning options. You can enjoy your lessons via video chats, live online sessions, audio and text for example. This allows you to explore the different learning modes and to decide which one work best for you. A combination of a few is ideal, depending on the subject and topic. It will take some navigating to get used to the different styles and material available.

Get Technically Comfortable

You need to get used to learning digitally. Spend some time experimenting with different apps and learning websites that you’ll have to use in the future. If there are group settings that you’ll need to operate when interacting with teachers and fellow students, you should practice using these before you’re required to do so. Getting comfortable with the various technical demands of online learning means that you’ll save time when you’re in-session.

Make The Most of the Platform

Most online learning platforms implement various features to make the process as easy for you as possible. For example, you may be encouraged to download certain apps on your computer for easier access. Explore these options, and make the most of the channels provided for easier use. Make use of the help or support centres that are set up to attend to any queries that you may have. You shouldn’t feel as if you don’t have any assistance, as these platforms are designed specifically to cater for the students.

Making the most of the platform includes seeking extra academic help. You’ll likely have access to online tutors, who can help you with difficult concepts. Your college might be creative, and include non-academic programs also. For example, there may be a wellness program in place, or an arts and culture section for recreational purposes. You should join these sub-communities, and make use of all the programs that are available to you.

Close Irrelevant Tabs

When you’re engaged in online learning, you need to make sure that you don’t have any distractions open on your laptop. This means closing any other active tabs, so that you’re not drawn to them. For instance, it isn’t advisable to have your Facebook page running while you’re logged into your student portal. The minute that you receive a message, you’ll be tempted to go and reply to it, meaning you’ll be distracted for some time. Make sure to separate social media from your learning time.

Form Study Groups

The one downside to online learning is that you may feel as if you’re isolated, compared to traditional learning where you’re surrounded by classmates. However, you can still form study groups using the online tools available. These groups help you to see other perspectives of a topic or theme, understand objective points of view and get extra help from those who’ve grasped concepts that you may have struggled with. You’ll feel less isolated when you have a group of friends that you can interact with in your own time.

Check-In

On days when you’re not online, you should make it a habit to log in regardless and check-in. There may be important notices, reminders and instructions that you could miss out on if you don’t log in for a few days. This doesn’t mean that you should log in for hours every day and check everything meticulously. It’s just a practice that will ensure that you’re up to date with important announcements on a daily basis.

Manage Your Time

The fact that you’re in charge of your schedule means that you need to manage your time. It’s easier than you’d think to procrastinate to the point where you suddenly realise that your finals are soon, and that you haven’t studied. This means that you’ll need to catch up on learning and studying materials rapidly to prepare for your exams. Time management requires assessing your schedule and prioritizing your obligations. You should always keep study close to the top, so that it won’t be overlooked.

Be Self-Motivated

Online learning requires high self-motivation. You need to be driven, and committed to following the schedule that you’ve made for yourself. Some of the ways in which you can motivate yourself when you don’t particularly feel like learning include listing your goals, watching or listening to motivational videos and engaging in activities that motivate you to work. Exercise in the morning is a fantastic way to motivate you for the day ahead.

Hold Yourself Accountable

The results of your online learning are up to you. You won’t be in a position to cast blame on an inefficient platform, unavailability of material or lack of communication as this is hardly the case. Institutions that provide online learning make sure that the system is efficient and encourages only the best results. You need to hold yourself accountable for your successes and drawbacks, because the tools to help you excel are available, and if you find that one isn’t then you have the entire internet in which to find it.

Communicate Efficiently

Make sure to communicate with your teachers and tutors when you need to. Unlike traditional set ups of colleges where teachers may not even notice your absence, online learning requires you to communicate. Your teachers may think that you’re up to date with the material when that might not be the case, and move on; you need to learn to speak up when you don’t understand something.

Consider The Time Difference

When you are communicating on a platform that caters to people all around the globe, you should consider the time difference. You may need to contact a teacher who can only get back to you the following day, and knowing this will help you to plan for it by contacting them earlier. There are, however, twenty-four-hour support services where you can communicate and get responses at any time of the day, depending on the system’s set-up. Being mindful of this dynamic will help you in your communication strategies.

Be Physically Active

Sitting hunched over a computer for long periods of time is not healthy for your body. You

may experience swollen feet as a result of inactivity, a painful back and shoulders as well as worsened eyesight. Make time for activities such as stretching, going for a walk or doing exercise. Make sure that your chair is a comfortable one; consider getting a desk with a footrest.

Rest

It’s easy to binge on learning when studying from the comfort of your home. You need to remember that rest is just as important as studying. If you don’t rest, you may experience mental fatigue and fog. Make sure to get quality sleep, stay hydrated and engage in activities other than online learning. When you are rejuvenated, your mind gets into a state where you can more efficiently process the information that’s being given to you.

Revise your Work

Online learning doesn’t mean that the only time you dedicate to studying is the few hours in which you’re actively engaged on the school portal. You also have to look over what you’ve learned outside class-time. Find the revision methods which work best for you. Some of these methods include flashcards, past exam papers, audio work and looking through your notes. Revise your work continuously throughout the semester, as it will help you to avoid last minute panic-revision when the exams roll around.

Manage Stress Levels

Online learning can become overwhelming. You may get stressed over the amount of information and material presented to you. You must find ways to manage your stress levels; otherwise, you’ll experience a burnout or mental fatigue. Some of the ways in which you can manage stress include meditation/breathing exercises, taking a nature walk, socialising, enjoying entertainment or – if you find yourself particularly overwhelmed – seeking professional help through therapy and counselling.

Persevere

Always persevere to the end, even through times when it seems like there’s no end in sight. The journey of academics isn’t always easy, but it is doable. Keep your goals in plain sight, and do everything that it takes to reach them.

Conclusion

The convenience of online learning is such that you can learn at any institution that you wish. When you consider online learning, you should dedicate time to doing quality research. Once you’re committed to a program, invest in quality material and equipment for a productive learning process.

Create a conducive environment and figure out your most productive hours. Discover your best modes of learning, and make sure to explore the technical side of online platforms before having to use them. Make the most of the experience, and close irrelevant tabs on your computer. Form study groups, check in with your teachers and manage your time. You have to be self-motivated and to assume responsibility for your progress. Efficiently communicate with your team and teachers, keeping in mind the possible time-difference.

In terms of your wellness while engaging in online learning, make sure to stretch as you

study, to rest and to revise your work when you have time to do so. It’s crucial to manage your stress levels, so that you maintain good mental health. If you’re experiencing intense stress levels, anxiety or depression, then you should seek professional guidance and take a well-needed break.

The best reusable water bottles (as a gift or for yourself)

It’s the 21st century and single use plastic bottles will just not do. We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is single-use plastic, not to mention that constantly buying new bottles can make a significant dent in your budget. Plastic bottles aren’t just bad for the environment and your pocket, but they’re also bad for your health (unless you like ingesting small pieces of microplastic).

This all boils down to one thing: reusable bottles can be very useful. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of them on the market — if anything, there’s almost too many to choose from. You can find reusable bottles from multiple materials and with various functionalities: from the ultra-fancy self-cleaning ones to the basic, sleek, and cheaper bottles.

So I thought I’d make your job easier and scoured the internet, analyzing different bottles and seeing which ones work best. Here are some of my favorites.

1. The smartest water bottle: Smartech LARQ ($90)

This is almost without a doubt one of the best reusable bottles you can find on the market — and it has the price to show it.

We all know how annoying it is to take care of your bottle, and probably most of us forget to wash it every once in a while so it gets a bit dirty and, in time, the water starts tasting a bit fishy. Well, you don’t have to worry about that at all with the new LARQ bottle. This ingenious bottle has a self-cleaning system that intelligently turns on every 2 hours to keep your water and bottle fresh. Besides cleaning your bottle it also purifies your water, using UV-C LED light in order to eliminate 99.99% of bio-contaminants. You can even use it for outdoorsy adventures if you want to drink from a spring. I mean, how cool is that?

The bottle comes in two sizes and several colors and there are a few models out there. It’s also pretty sturdy and looks sleek, you shouldn’t have any problems fitting it into your bag or backpack. If you’re willing to pay a premium to have an innovative long-lasting and self-cleaning bottle, the LARQ is the way to go.

2. The best collapsible water bottle: Stojo water bottle ($25)

When convenience is the name of the game and space and weight are your main concerns, this might be the water bottle to go for.

It has a very modern and elegant style, but the best thing about it is that is really lightweight and collapsible, so after finishing your drink, it won’t take up much space from your luggage, it’s small enough to fit in your pocket.

When full, the bottle is very well balanced and it feels sturdy so you won’t have to worry if you keep it on your desk. With the lid attached to the bottle you also won’t have to worry about losing the cap ever again and the silicone material is not only BPA free but it also doesn’t taint the water’s flavour. Come to think of it, even without being collapsible it’s just a good all around bottle.

3. The best stylish thermos bottle: Teabloom bottle ($25)

If you are the kind of person that wants something stylish, a bit more eco-friendly, with maybe more functionality so you don’t have to buy more than one bottle, it seems like Teabloom is right for you. This water bottle is BPA-free, and made of stainless steel and 100% organic bamboo which makes it incredibly stylish. It keeps your water cold for 24 hours and hot for 12.

The functional accessories allow you to infuse the water with fruits, brew tea, and even cold-brew coffee. You can take this bottle with you to your yoga practice, at the office, or even for outdoor activities. It’s the perfect mix of practical and stylish — it doesn’t get much better than this.

4. The best everyday use filter bottle: Brita Fill & Go ($21)

I’ve been using my Brita Fill & Go bottle for a couple of years now and I simply cannot imagine my day to day life without it. It’s made of BPA-free hard but light-weight plastic is super durable which makes it suitable for traveling or taking it to the office/gym. I’ve dropped mine several times and it’s still intact but the cap suffered some damage throughout time and unfortunately, you can’t find replacements for that, which is probably the only downside I could find. The filtering is done while you drink the water through the nozzle, and you have to replace your filter every 4weeks or so, but even so, it’s still so much cheaper than buying bottled water.

This is almost certainly the best value for money you can get. It’s a no-fuss reusable bottle that just gets the job done. Use the Brita Fill & Go water only with fresh potable tap water, it is not safe to use in areas where the water is not safe to drink as the bottle’s carbon filter won’t filter out bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms.

5. The best outdoors filter bottle: Grayl Geopress Purifier ($69)

If you like hiking and traveling, this is probably the bottle for you. The bottle holds 720ml (24 oz) of water, and is not only incredibly durable but it also filters out 99.99% of bacteria, viruses, and even heavy metals. It has a very good grip, so it won’t slip while venturing outdoors and with the SimpleVent cap your water stays protected from cross-contamination.

It feels very nice in the hand and the pressure surface makes it easy to drink from on the run or while cycling. It’s sturdy and excellently suited for any form of outdoor activity. If you have an active lifestyle, this is probably the bottle for you.

6. Best glass water bottle: Ello Syndicate with one-touch flip lid ($17)

Probably one of the most versatile water bottles out there due to its looks, this glass water bottle comes with a silicone sleeve that protects the bottle from any chips and cracks, a very important aspect to keep in mind when it comes to glass bottles. The touch flip lid is super convenient and lets you drink directly from the glass without touching any plastic or silicone. Even though it is a bit heavier than a normal plastic bottle, some customers declared that the water tastes better with no plastic/metal aftertaste whatsoever. Don’t let the glass bottle fool you: the silicone casing makes it far sturdier than you’d expect.

This is also one of the better value bottles out there, as you’ll get it cheaper than most on this list, while making no compromise on quality.

7. Best stainless steel water bottle/flask: Vacuum Insulated Hydro Flask ($44)

This easy-to-carry flask will help keep your water cold and thanks to its wide mouth you can also add some extra ice cubes for those super hot summery picnics or outdoor activities. It keeps water icy cold for 24 hours, and it can also hold hot drinks for up to 12 hours, in case you need a cup of tea or coffee on the go (especially considering this period’s weather).

What I find very convenient about this bottle is that it has interchangeable caps, and you can choose between a wide mouthed cap or a straw cap, which makes it even more versatile for a variety of activities.

8. Best infuser bottle: Pressa Bottle ($38)

If you find plain water simply boring (I feel you), the Pressa Bottle upgrades your tap water to a super fruity and healthy version with its built-in juice press. How amazing is that?

This dishwasher-friendly bottle comes with a silicone sleeve, which will protect the bottle from any breakage and it’s also BPA-free as it is made of glass. The bottle is a bit heavier compared to other reusable bottles, but this makes it also sturdier and more durable. The only problem that you’ll have with this bottle is thinking of the perfect combination of fruits and aromatic plants to enjoy the most with your water.

9. Best water bottle for kids (plastic): Eddy Kids by CamelBak

When looking for kid’s water bottles, you need something that is both resistant and lightweight and also looks fun. The Eddy Kids water bottle by CamelBak has both of these plus a very cute design that’s bound to make the little one love the bottle.

It comes with their signature Big Bite Valve, which helps to eliminate spills when drinking by allowing the kids to bite down the straw to get the water out. The integrated loop is a very nice feature that makes the bottle easy to carry for children’s small hands. It comes in a variety of designs for any taste and I am glad to say that most of the designs and colors are gender-neutral.

10. Best water bottle for kids (non-plastic):Hydro Flask Kids ($37)

If you worry a lot about the micro-plastic particles that are ingested by your children every day (and you should, given that studies have shown we all eat and drink a lot of microplastic) you might want to know what options you have in terms of non-plastic alternatives for your child.

To my eye, the Hydro Flask is not only excellent for adults, but their small children variety is also great quality. As is the case with the normal-sized version, the kid’s flask is made of stainless steel and it has interchangeable caps including one with a straw. The color variety is also nice to suit everyone’s needs.

11. Best (cheap) sports water bottle: Gatorade water bottle ($11)

I believe a good water bottle is a good investment. I really do. But let’s face it — some of these are expensive and sometimes, you just want something cheap that works.

When it comes to sports water bottles, well the variety is huge, and the prices vary greatly as well. This bottle’s design doesn’t say much but it has a very interesting characteristic: you can only drink water from this bottle when you squeeze it and it won’t leak in your bag otherwise. Pretty basic, but really useful if you don’t want to get all your gym gear soaked. It appears that this bottle is not only really good for holding water, you can also add some electrolytes to the water with no problem, and even add some protein powder. The Gatorade water bottle is both versatile and cost-friendly.

12. Best water bottle for your handbag: Memobottle ($36)

Let’s face it, a normal water bottle can be annoying if you want to carry it with you in a normal handbag, or a small backpack. This is where the Memobottle, the flat water bottle, truly shines. It’s made of BPA-free plastic, and it comes in a variety of notebook sizes (A4, A5, etc) to suit your needs. You can simply put it in your bag along with your notebooks and even laptop, without making your bag bulkier or taking up too much space. How ingenious is that?

It looks fancy and stylish and it’s one of those small design things that can really make an important difference, especially if you’re looking for something a little more different.

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Disclaimer: Purchasing these products may earn ZME Science a commission. This helps support our team at no additional cost to you. We will never advertise products if we don’t think they’re good. If something is here, it’s because we like it — period.

Prices may change based on factors outside of our control.

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Satellites are becoming important tools for agriculture

Technological innovation in agriculture is nothing new. For millennia, hand tools had been used in agricultural activities, but the industrial revolution gave birth to the cotton gin. In the 1800s the first elevators, chemical fertilizers, and the first gasoline-powered tractor appeared, offering unprecedented progress. And by the late 1900s, farmers had started using satellite imagery in the planning of their agricultural activities.

The so-called precision farming technologies were designed to facilitate and optimize the management of different processes. In the last 5-7 years, the agro-industrial complex has experienced a boom in technology: automated agricultural equipment, integration systems, digital technologies for optimizing the operation of machines. Those innovations are now called smart farming technologies. Let’s see what they include.

Data from the European Space Agency’s Copernicus project, showing agricultural crops over Brazil. Image credits: ESA.

Smart Farming Technologies

Smart agriculture is a concept based on the use of various innovative solutions by farmers to automate agricultural activities, increase yields, and improve financial performance. Currently, society is on the verge of a new era in agriculture, which is digital farming. That means the technologies allow managing fields remotely with the use of different devices or via the analyzed satellite imagery, like the Crop Monitoring tool by EOS Data Analytics.

Smart farming technologies that study agricultural covers often involve the use of GPS-controlled agricultural equipment and other specialized sensors. In a number of countries, remotely controlled equipment is already on the market. Tractors with such equipment successfully operate in the fields, and farmers confirm better precision as a result. 

However, modernized “smart” tractors and combines are not the only novelty offered by the manufacturers. According to SuccessfulFarming, even drones have become widely used in agriculture. Equipped with cameras and sensitive sensors, they can inspect fields and monitor crop health. Such devices, along with tractors, will be able to collect information for the development of maps, help make up a fertilizer application schedule, and even guard fields.

Different sensors are also actively used for obtaining various information from the fields. The basis of the system for determining the characteristics of the soil are sensors that are installed in the ground at control points. The sensors are able to detect the changes in soil content and the weather, identify the number of weeds and pests, and more.

Another big part of precision agriculture technologies is satellite imagery. Let’s see how it can be used to help farmers.

Satellite Data in Agriculture

Space monitoring is one of ag technologies that make it possible to effectively track various aspects of agricultural activities. It allows for doing inventories of agricultural lands, maintaining operational control of the state of crops at various development stages, as well as identifying land degradation processes and potential threats to crops.

The application of space monitoring in the agro-industrial complex opens the following possibilities:

  • Determining the exact fields borders
  • Doing the inventory of agricultural lands
  • Lands mapping (arable land, meadows, orchards, perennial plants, fallows and unused lands);
  • Crop rotation mapping
  • Identification of areas affected with erosion, waterlogging, and other manifestations of land degradation
  • Remote crops health monitoring through their lifecycle based on vegetation indices

Besides, satellite monitoring can help even in legal aspects:

  • Identification of unaccounted sown areas
  • Obtaining accurate information about the state of crops and land for agricultural insurance purposes
  • Help in resolution of disputes related to land use

The easiest way to access the benefits of using satellite data is via the online tools with already built-in algorithms that analyze this information on-the-fly. One of such tools is EOS Crop Monitoring

Crop Monitoring

This tool leverages satellite data to help farmers manage their fields easy, effectively and remotely . When making decisions, they can rely on vegetation indices, fields zoning by productivity, weather data (historical and current), automatic detection and notification on negative vegetation changes, identification of plants growth stages, access to crop rotation data,  remote scouting management among other useful functions

Most importantly, all this information is accessible on one screen, allowing to manage several fields simultaneously , saving resources on their monitoring, increasing yields and revenue.

Here are the main advantages of this tool when it comes to solving agricultural problems:

  • Efficiency. Satellite images show the most relevant and up-to-date information on the field, allowing farmers to make decisions in a timely manner
  • Accuracy. The information obtained from satellite images is highly reliable and reflects the actual picture of the state of agricultural land and plants
  • Visibility. Access to high-resolution imagery for deeper research
  • Scale. Possibility of obtaining information not only on huge areas but also observing several distant lands simultaneously

Satellites are already helping farmers assess the health of their crops and monitor their change easier and faster. The application of this technology has already proven its value and economic benefits by helping reduce crop losses due to the lack of nutrition or other issues and increasing efficiency by cutting the use of expensive agrochemicals.

This goes to show that the future of agriculture might greatly depend on the use of satellite imagery, attracting more and more farmers to precision technologies. Agriculture is on the verge of a true revolution. With the world population continuing to grow, we need every bit of help we can get.

Could A Buckwheat Pillow Help You Sleep Better? Here’s What We Know

Sleep is essential to your overall health. Your efforts to stick to a balanced diet and exercise regularly won’t be able to give you the best results if you regularly deprive yourself of sleep or sleep in uncomfortable positions. Sleep allows your body to repair damaged muscles and tissues, and replenish lost energy, so you’ll be ready to accomplish tasks on the days ahead.

While it’s common knowledge that the mattress you use can affect the quality of your sleep, are you aware that your pillow is just as important? The kind of pillow you use every night can affect your ability to sleep, as well as the comfort your body feels when sleeping. If you want to get the best sleep possible, consider investing in buckwheat pillows.

What Is A Buckwheat Pillow?

Buckwheat pillows aren’t a new idea. The buckwheat pillow (also called a Sobakawa) has been used in Japan for centuries. The traditional Japanese pillow is made from the hulled skins of buckwheat. The hulls cover the seeds, and when compressed, they create a smooth, springy material that supports good neck and head positioning, as well as proper rest. This pillow can also be referred to as a ‘hull pillow.’ It has the unique ability of contouring properly in the shape of your face, and being able to support a full neck or head while providing soft comfort.

Today, you can easily find companies selling buckwheat pillows from different parts of the globe. There are plenty of modern alternatives you can find on the market to fit your needs. PineTales Sobakawa Pillow, for example, is made from the finest buckwheat hulls and comes with a skin-friendly pillowcase. Many are fully adjustable so you can adapt them to your sleeping style, and they’re experiencing a resurgence in recent times. Especially, as they’re sustainable and recyclable.

What Are The Benefits Of Using A Buckwheat Pillow?

Unlike other types of pillows, those made from buckwheat hulls are usually more expensive. However, the price of these pillows could be worth it in the long run because buckwheat pillows can provide significant benefits.

Choosing to buy and using buckwheat pillows allow you to experience the following benefits:

Extremely Moldable
Different people have different sleeping positions. While some like to sleep on their backs, others are more comfortable to sleep on their sides — and, while you can easily fluff your pillows to ensure that your sleeping position is properly supported in your sleep, doing this every single time you lie on your bed can become a struggle. Over time, continually using a pillow that doesn’t adjust to your sleeping position can become the reason why you’ll toss and turn every night, and wake up with a sore neck and back.
You won’t have to worry about any of these problems because buckwheat pillows are

extremely moldable. Using these pillows will save you time and effort from fluffing because the buckwheat inside will naturally move around and mold perfectly to the shape of your neck and head. The ability of buckwheat hulls to be extremely moldable will provide the best support to your body, allowing you to maintain the right posture as you sleep.

Toxin-Free
Buying pillows is an easy task today as you can find countless companies that sell them. Regardless of your location or the kind of pillow you’re looking for, you can easily find one that fits the bill.

Pillows made from synthetic fibers might be easy to clean, but these are actually sprayed with flame retardants that can help prevent the start and growth of the fire. According to studies, long-term exposure to flame retardants can damage one’s immune, nervous, and reproductive systems. Some studies even suggest that exposure to flame retardants can lead to cancer.

Buckwheat pillows, on the one hand, are organic and all-natural, which means that they don’t contain any toxins that can take a toll on your health and safety. Using buckwheat pillows will give you peace of mind, knowing that you’re not inhaling or coming in contact with toxins as you sleep.

Better Temperature
You’ll have to consider many different things to ensure that you get enough sleep every night. Aside from having a high-quality mattress, the temperature of your room also affects your ability to fall and stay sleep. Regardless of how tired you are during the day, it’ll be challenging for you to get some shuteye if you feel too warm or cold.

If you often wake up in the middle of the night because of extreme humidity or coldness, using buckwheat pillows can help. This kind of pillows is actually breathable and works well in controlling temperature as you sleep because its material allows optimal air circulation and movement. This is something that you can’t experience when you use regular pillows because their material will eventually feel hot and sticky as you sleep on them.

If you want to take your buckwheat pillows up a notch, you can even put them in the freezer for hours, and then put them back in their pillowcases during bedtime. The buckwheat hulls will stay cool for a couple of hours to keep your head cool as you sleep.

On the other side of the coin, you can also put the hulls in the microwave before sleeping so your head will feel warm when you’re trying to sleep in a chilly night.

Smell Good
Aside from the temperature of your environment, its aroma or smell can also make or break your ability to sleep. How can you sleep well at night if your bedroom smells bad? Do you think you can relax at the end of a stressful day if you’re going to sleep in a room that smells foul?

Buckwheat pillows have a natural smell that can help you feel more relaxed. The strength of the aroma that you can smell from buckwheat pillows will vary on the type and size, but, generally, buckwheat hulls exude a fresh and soft scent that won’t overpower your

slumber.
Filling your bedroom with several buckwheat pillows will surely make the space smell good, making it very easy for you to relax and sleep.

Reduce Snoring
According to statistics, over 45% of adults snore occasionally, and another 25% snore regularly. Snoring is not usually treated as a serious problem, but leaving this problem untreated can lead to many complications, such as daytime sleepiness, difficulty in concentrating, and a greater risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and heart diseases.

Using buckwheat pillows can work to reduce snoring. This works because buckwheat pillows can improve your posture as you sleep, and allow your airways to remain open throughout the night. You’ll be able to get better sleep at night when you’re not snoring.

Support Muscles
A lot of people wake up with a sore neck and back every single day. The pain and discomfort associated with a sore neck and back can become the reason why a person will become irritable and unproductive during the day. Even moving around or doing basic tasks can be a major challenge in this state.

If waking up with a sore neck and back has become a routine to you, start using buckwheat pillows as soon as possible. Buckwheat pillows can correct your posture as you sleep, and provide support to your neck and back so your spine is properly supported. Over time, the use of buckwheat pillows will allow your muscles and tissues to collaborate with each other in order to keep your spine properly aligned.

Your spine is one of the most important parts of the body, and making sure that it’s properly supported as you’re sleeping will prevent neck and back pain, and ensure that your nervous system is functioning properly.

Relieve Migraines
Migraines can become the reason why people lose sleep every night. It’ll be challenging for anyone to get some shuteye if they’re experiencing a pulsing sensation or throbbing pain in their head. Some might even experience nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to lights and sounds when they have migraines.

Using buckwheat pillows can help relieve migraine and encourage you to sleep easier. This works because buckwheat pillows can provide the right amount of support to your soft tissues and airways, while providing soft pleasures to very specific points of your neck and skull. Once these pressure points are targeted, relaxation begins because the blood is regulated and endorphins are released, which can help you feel good.

Dust- And Mite-Resistant
People with weak immune systems or those diagnosed with asthma will find it hard to sleep in a room full of dust and mites. The presence of dust and mites can cause their allergies to act up and can become the reason why they’ll experience runny nose and itchy skin. If you’re one of them, fret not because buckwheat pillows can help.

Unlike regular pillows, buckwheat pillows are hypoallergenic because their materials aren’t a food source for insects and bugs. Using buckwheat pillows won’t attract mites nor create an environment that allow them to thrive and multiply. And, because

buckwheat pillows provide outstanding airflow, you won’t have to worry about dust and dirt being trapped in the material. It’s also very easy to clean them: if you ever suspect the pillow has mites, all you need to do is freeze it.

Better Sleep
As mentioned, getting eight hours of sleep every night can affect the quality of your life. Getting healthy sleep can boost your mental and physical wellness, allowing you to do more things in life.

Buckwheat pillows can improve the quality of your sleep. Aside from the benefits mentioned above, buckwheat pillows can also provide optimal support to the gap created by the arch of your neck when you sleep on your back and stomach. Side sleepers, on the other hand, can also benefit from buckwheat pillows as these can hold their head high by filling the gap between their head and shoulders.

Regardless of what your preferred sleeping position is, buckwheat pillows can certainly help you get better sleep every single night!

Durable
Buying pillows can net you quite a bill in the long run. Regardless of what you’ll choose, you’ll always have to spend money. Buying cheaper options isn’t always truly cheap, because it may mean you’ll need to buy more pillows, and this may cost even more in the long run.

If you’re looking for a pillow that can stand the test of time, buckwheat pillows could be the answer. As long as you properly take care of them—using a high-quality pillowcases, washing your pillows with a damp cloth, and keeping the pillows dry and well-aired—you can expect that your buckwheat pillows can last for at least 20 years.

Buckwheat hulls are durable materials because it takes many years for them to start breaking down. And, if you notice that some of your hulls are deteriorating, you can immediately refill your pillows with new hulls to extend their lifespan. This is a great way of saving money as you won’t have to buy a brand new pillow every now and then.

Versatile
You’ll be using pillows for many different things aside from sleeping. More often than not, you’d choose to use a pillow when driving for hours, or while using your computer in your office or home study. Fortunately, buckwheat pillows are very versatile and can be used in many different ways and scenarios.

Because buckwheat pillows are extremely moldable, you can use one to rest your wrist as you’re using your laptop or computer, or as a neck pillow during long car rides. You can even use buckwheat pillows as you’re sitting down in your desk to promote proper posture.

Consider Options

Buckwheat pillows are very common today, and can be purchased in many online and offline stores. This kind of pillow also comes in many sizes and price tags, making it easy for you to find one that fits your needs and budget.

If you want to end up buying the best buckwheat pillow, take the time to look and compare several options. The more sellers you consider, the easier it’ll be for you to find the best deals when buying buckwheat pillows.

Texting and watching TV at the same time? It might make your memory worse, according to this new study

Are you proud of your ability to text, scroll through your Instagram feed, and watch Netflix at the same time? So are many young adults, but a new study published in the journal Nature found that this common habit might not be good for your memory in the long run.

All those screens aren’t good for your memory. Image credits: Scheier

You think you’re good at multitasking, but you’re not

As humans, we are genetically inclined to pay attention to one source of information at a time, whether that’s looking closely at foliage to see if there’s a dangerous animal nearby or carefully watching a prey’s every move. It’s an old cognitive mechanism that’s served us well for thousands of generations, but that’s now starting to be challenged by modern-day screen overload.

The average American has access to more than ten connected devices in their household, and each of these devices is competing for our attention, which they eventually get, most of the time. This brings us to a situation where we’re multitasking between multiple phones, TVs, and laptops, and scientists say that this can have concerning effects on our brain health, particularly on memory.

Carried out by researchers at Stanford University, the new study used 80 subjects aged between 18 and 26 to monitor attention lapses in relation to their memory. While the subjects were performing memory-related tasks, such as recalling a situation they had previously heard about or spotting changes to items they have studied, researchers measured their brain activity through electroencephalography (EEG).

At first, participants were shown objects on a computer screen, and they were asked to rate their size and pleasantness. Then, they took a 10-minute break, and they were shown a series of objects again, and asked if they were new or already classified. By analyzing the subjects’ brain and eye responses while they were recalling, scientists could identify lapses in their attention. The findings were later compared to the results of a previous questionnaire, where participants questions about attention, mind wandering, and media multitasking.

What researchers found was that participants who reported high levels of media multitasking tended to have more lapses in attention and decreased pupil diameter, which signals reduced attention. Also, participants who had attention gaps just before remembering were more likely to forget the images they had seen earlier.  

According to head researcher Kevin Madore:

“We found evidence that one’s ability to sustain attention helps to explain the relationship between heavier media multitasking and worse memory.”

However, as Madore also pointed out, the study only demonstrates a correlation (not a causation) between heavy media multitasking and memory failures. After all, some media forms, such as video games, have actually been found to boost attention span, so it’s not yet entirely clear how media and screens affect our brains. Instead, the study shows that the human brain needs to prepare to remember because it depends on goal-directed cognition. According to Anthony Wagner, from Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, “the things that happen even before you begin remembering are going to affect whether or not you can actually reactivate a memory that is relevant to your current goal.”

In a real-world scenario, if you’re texting a friend while your TV show hits you with a plot twist, you’re less likely to remember what your friend was talking about or accidentally confirm a meeting without knowing. We have ways to fix that, of course. You can always go back to old conversations and read them, or use a tool that allows you to restore the deleted text messages. You can dig up screenshots or unwind what you were streaming, but, ultimately, what scientists are trying to point out is that we’re distracted by too many screens, and that we should learn to use them more mindfully.

Improving memory and attention is within our control, researchers say

So, should you go ahead and get rid of all your screens? That won’t be necessary because, according to Stanford researchers, the strategies needed to improve memory and attention are already within our control – we just need to be more disciplined and prepare our brains for remembering. For example, you can increase your readiness to remember by limiting distractions or changing your surroundings so that you can be focused on one screen at a time. Scientists are also exploring “closed-loop interventions”: targeted interventions that can help you stay more engaged with a single task.

When doing media multitasking, it can be easy to forget that there may be another person at the end of the screen. In time, this can weaken personal connections. For example, while texting may be popular thanks to its convenience, it can make it hard to determine the true meaning behind a conversation. Add the extra distraction of a TV or laptop, and it’s not hard to imagine why you don’t feel too connected with the person you texted for two hours last night. So what can you do? Look away from the other screens, of course, or you can just call. Phone calls may not be too popular these days, and they’re almost obsolete among young adults but, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they can create stronger social bonds and help you reconnect with old friends better than texting. Also, even if participants in the study anticipated the phone calls to be awkward, they felt much better after hearing another person’s voice.