Tag Archives: Use

Macaque tool-use patterns help us understand how early humans went about it

A new study on macaques at Thailand’s Ao Phang Nga National Park is helping us understand how early humans developed the use of stone tools.

Image credits Heiko S / Flickr.

Macaques tend to rely pretty heavily on stone tools, especially percussive (striking) tools, during their daily forage for food. This allows them access to more varied food sources — shellfish, in the case of the two groups of macaques that made the object of this study. The results indicate that while the environmental context definitely plays a part in tool use and development, cultural factors also matter.

Cracking oysters

“We observed differences among macaques on two different islands, in relation to tool selection and the degree of tool re-use when foraging for marine prey,” says co-author Dr. Tomos Proffitt from the University College London Institute of Archaeology.

The study assessed a total of 115 stone tools recovered from two islands (Boi Yai Island and Lobi Bay) located about 15 kilometers apart in southern Thailand, and are both part of the national park. Each island houses a population of wild long-tailed macaques, provides virtually the same tool-making resources (primarily limestone), and harbor the same prey species.

In such a context, the team expected both populations to develop similar, if not identical, tools. However, they found that the macaques on Boi Yai Island select heavier tools than their counterparts on Lobi Bay, while the latter’s tools show signs of repeated use on several species of prey.

Stone tools used to crack open oysters on Boi Yai tend to be larger than those used on Lobi Bay. While the team notes that oysters on Boi Yai Island are, in general, larger than those Lobi Bay, they believe that this is a learned rather than practical behavior.

“The theory is that if the environmental factors are the same—the only reasonable conclusion is that one island has developed its own tool using culture either through genetics or through passing down through a learning mechanism. While the other group exhibits a tool use culture which is more ephemeral and ad hoc,” says Dr. Proffitt.

Seeing how other primates develop and use tools today can help inform us about how our ancestors went about the same process. Lead author, Dr. Lydia Luncz (Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford), said:

“That we find a potential cultural behavior in macaques is not surprising to us. The interesting part is that the same foraging behavior creates distinct tool evidence in the environment. This might be useful to keep in mind when we look at the archaeological record of human ancestors as well”.

The paper “Group-specific archaeological signatures of stone tool use in wild macaques” has been published in the journal eLife.


Use of antibiotics without a prescription is an understudied but serious issue in the US

Antibiotic use without a prescription is a “prevalent public health problem” in the US, according to a new metastudy.


Image via Pixabay.

The use of antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription is an understudied but “prevalent” problem in the US, according to researchers from Baylor College of Medicine and the Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness, and Safety. The team carried out a review of 31 previously-published studies on the topic to determine how frequent such use of antibiotics is in the US, and to examine the factors that lead to such usage of antibiotics.

Casually antibiotic

“Nonprescription antibiotic use is clearly a public health problem in all racial/ethnic groups, but many aspects are understudied,” the authors write. “The need to focus on nonprescription antibiotic use in community-based antimicrobial stewardship programs is urgent.”

The team, led by Larissa Grigoryan, M.D., Ph.D., from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, started with a body of 17,422 studies which they screened down (for relevance to this topic and other inclusion criteria) to 31. From these studies, the team report that nonprescription antibiotic use varies from 1% (among people who regularly visit a clinic when needed) to 66%, which was reported among Latino migrant workers. Another study found that around one quarter of its participants intended to use antibiotics without a prescription.

These antibiotics were sourced through various avenues, from saving leftover prescriptions, getting them from friends and family, or obtaining them from local markets “under the counter,” the authors explain. Findings from a scoping review are published in Annals of Internal Medicine. Anywhere from 14% to 48% of people — depending on population characteristics — store antibiotics for future use.

People turn to nonpescription use of antibiotics mainly due to lack of insurance or health care access, because they can’t afford the cost of a physician visit or prescription, due to embarrassment about seeking care for a sexually transmitted infection, or from not being able to get time off of work to visit a clinic or physician’s office, among several other reasons.

“In 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that each year, 2 million infections caused by antimicrobial-resistant pathogens occur in the United States, resulting in 23,000 deaths,” Dr. Ayo Moses, a family physician with CareMount Medical in New York, told Healthline.

One of the main risks to public health regarding the nonprescription use of antibiotics has to do with the rise of bacterial antibiotic resistance. According to the European Antibiotic Awareness Day website, “if we take antibiotics repeatedly and improperly, we contribute to the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one of the world’s most pressing health problems,” adding that “if at some point in time you, your children or other family members need antibiotics, they may no longer work,” and that nonprescription use of antibiotics “is not a responsible use of antibiotics”.

On a personal level — if you’re don’t consider drug-resistant diseases a personal threat, that is — taking antibiotics isn’t guaranteed to make you feel better, and may actually cause side-effects. Antibiotics only work against bacteria, not against viruses, so diseases such as colds and flu will be totally unaffected. Taking antibiotics will not reduce the severity of your symptoms and will not help you feel better faster, while other over-the-counter medicine can. Taking antibiotics without a doctor’s supervision can even cause an infection to become more powerful.

On top of that, it’s important to keep in mind that any antibiotics you may stockpile can lose potency quickly — meaning they might not work anyway by the time you get to use them. So don’t rely on it!

The paper “Use of Antibiotics Without a Prescription in the U.S. Population” has been published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

Plastic cup.

It’s official: single-use plastics have been banned in the EU

The European Union effectively banned single-use plastic items this Wednesday.

Plastic cup.

Image via Pixabay.

Straws, cutlery, cotton buds, and other single-use plastic products have no place in Europe, EU legislators have decided. Following a crushing vote (560 votes for to 35 against), they ratified the proposed ban of these products in an attempt to limit plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. While the EU is not the biggest source of plastic waste, it hopes to set an example that other countries can follow — and, as an important economic actor, perhaps coax new behavior into manufacturers worldwide.

Old world, new tricks

“Even though our share of the pollution is relatively limited, our change of the economic model has a global impact,” said EU Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. “Asian countries are very much interested in what we’re doing. Latin American countries too.”

According to the EU Commission, the products banned following today’s vote represent 70% of the waste that pours into the world’s oceans, posing a threat to wildlife and fisheries, and  86% of plastic litter on beaches, being the “10 single-use plastic products most often found on Europe’s beaches and seas.”

The text had already been approved in negotiations between Member States and EU officials and it will now be rapidly implemented into law. The ban comes into effect from 2021.

“The proposed Single Use Plastics Directive delivers on the commitment made in the 2018 European Plastics Strategy to tackle wasteful and damaging plastic litter through legislative action – a move that has been welcomed by the European institutions and citizens alike,” reads a press release put out by the EU Commission.

Aside from the ban on a dozen kinds of disposable products for which alternatives exist, member states are encouraged to reduce the use of plastic packaging and introduce stricter labeling rules. Before the vote, members of European Parliament added oxo-degradable plastic products and expanded polystyrene food and beverage containers to the list of banned plastics; this move, they explain, was caused by a lack of convincing evidence that such products break down in a reasonable timeframe in landfills, despite being labeled as biodegradable.

In addition to this, the voted ban also includes a 90% target for recycling for plastic bottles (by 2029) and a change in their composition — they have to be produced with at least 25% recycled material by 2025, and 30% by 2030. Legislation extending producer responsibility is also a big part of the law package. It forces polluters to pay the costs of clean-ups has been beefed up — particularly for cigarette manufacturers, who will have to support the recycling of discarded filters.

In addition to the straight-up ban of some types of plastics, the European Parliament proposes that countries slash the use of several other items by at least 25% by 2025. These include single-use food (burger boxes, sandwich boxes) and one-person portion-sized food containers of fresh or processed food that does not need further preparation, such as fruits, vegetables, desserts or ice cream, sold in single units.

‘We have adopted the most ambitious legislation against single-use plastics. It is up to us now to stay the course in the upcoming negotiations with the Council, due to start as early as November,” says Frédérique Ries, the rapporteur for the new Directive.

“Today’s vote paves the way to a forthcoming and ambitious Directive. It is essential in order to protect the marine environment and reduce the costs of environmental damage attributed to plastic pollution in Europe, estimated at EUR 22 billion by 2030.’

Now, the ball rests in the court of the EU Member States, who will have to transpose the ban, reduction targets, and measures to encourage multiple-use plastics into national laws. They only have until 2021 to do so.

Google used DeepMind to cut their electricity bill by a whopping 15%

Google is putting DeepMind’s machine learning to work on managing their sprawling data centers’ energy usage, and it’s is performing like a boss — the company reports a 15% drop in consumption since the AI took over.

Image via brionv/flickr

Google is undeniably a huge part of western civilization. We don’t search for something on the Internet anymore, we google it. The company’s data servers pretty much handle all of my mail at this point, along with YouTube, social media platforms and much more. But even so, it’s easy to forget that the Google we know and interact with every day is just the tip of the iceberg; it relies on huge data servers to process, transfer and store information — and all this hardware needs a lot of power.

So much power, in fact, that the company decided to do something about it. On Wednesday, Google said it had proved it could cut the energy use of its data centers by 15% using machine learning from DeepMind, the AI company it bought in 2014. These centers use up significant power to cool and maintain an ideal working environment for the servers — requiring constant adjustments of air temperature, pressure, and humidity.

“It’s one of those perfect examples of a setting where humans have a really good intuition they’ve developed over time but the machine learning algorithm has so much more data that describes real-world conditions [five years in this case]” said Mustafa Suleyman, DeepMind’s co-founder.

“It’s much more than any human has ever been able to experience, and it’s able to learn from all sorts of niche little edge cases seen in the data that a human wouldn’t be able to identify. So it’s able to tune the settings much more subtly and much more accurately.”

Suleyman said that the reduction in power use was achieved through a combination of factors. On one hand, DeepMind is able to more accurately predict incoming computational load — in other words, it could estimate when people accessed more data-heavy content such as YouTube videos. The system also matched that prediction more quickly to the required cooling load than human operators.

“It’s about tweaking all of the knobs simultaneously,” he said.

Ok, so Google’s electricity bill just went down; good for them, but what does this have to do with us? Well, a lot, actually. Data centers gobble up a lot of energy, and that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions — combined, data centers have emission levels similar to those seen in aviation. When Google first disclosed its carbon footprint in 2011 it was roughly equivalent to Laos’s annual emissions but since then they claim they upped their game, getting 3.5 times as much computational power for the same amount of energy. Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year.

Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year. They haven’t released the exact amount of power their data centers use, but claims that in total its activity makes up 0.01% of global electricity use (and most of that probably goes towards the data centers.)

But DeepMind is leaving a considerable mark on their energy efficiency. It cut energy expenditure for cooling by 40%, which reduced the company’s overall power consumption by 15%.

“I really think this is just the beginning. There are lots more opportunities to find efficiencies in data centre infrastructure,” Suleyman added.

“One of the most exciting things is the kind of algorithms we develop are inherently general … that means the same machine learning system should be able to perform well in a wide variety of environments [think power generation facilities or energy networks].”

Sophia Flucker, the director of Operational Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that advises data centers on their energy use, said it was feasible that Google had achieved such a big reduction.

“I’ve worked with some award-winning data centres, which still had plenty of room for improvement,” she said.