Modern science tackles a biblical secret – the mystery ingredient in holy incense

 The ingredients of incense were detailed 
in the Old Testament. Shutterstock/wideonet

A predatory sea snail could be the source of a mystery ingredient in a holy incense recipe detailed in the Old Testament. Murex whelks were just one of many suspected sources, but there was no evidence to support the claim. Until now.

In a paper published today, my colleagues and I report how we captured and analysed the fragrant chemicals in the smoke of whelk opercula – the trapdoor lid that protects the snail inside the shell. This provides evidence to help establish it as the most likely source of onycha, one of four major ingredients that make up holy incense.

Pile of opercula collected from sea snails. Kirsten Benkendorff, Author provided

The ingredients are detailed in Exodus 30:34, where Moses is tasked with making incense:

Take fragrant spices – gum resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts.

The origin of three of the ingredients are well known essential oils or resins of botanical origin. But the onycha of antiquity had not been identified with certainty and there was much controversy over its proposed animal versus plant origin.

What is that smell?

Defined as fingernail or claw, onycha is a Greek translation from the original Hebrew word shecheleth, which derives from “a tear, distillation or exudation”.

Whelk opercula are a protein exudation, similar to fingernails, and have to be torn from the flesh before further processing. Ancient texts refer to “Unguis odoratus” (sweet hoof) as the shell or scale of snails from the Red Sea that emit a pleasant smell when burned.

But shells – and opercula – do not smell nice when burned!

So after detaching the opercula from the flesh of the snail, it has to be processed. Ancient and modern practices include rubbing with alkaline solution or soaking in vinegar followed by strong wine, before burning the dried ground powder.

In our experiments, we replicated these procedures using clean acetic acid and alcohol. This helped remove the “fishy” smell from the opercula before drying and grinding into a powder for chemical analysis. We found that this pre-cleaning treatment was also important for removing pyridine – a toxic compound – from the opercula smoke.

The ‘unclean’

The main argument against the identification of sea snail opercula as the onycha of antiquity is that creatures such these were described as “unclean” animals in the Bible. Even their carcasses were considered “unclean” or “an abomination”, depending of your translation of Leviticus 11:9-12.

Six species of purple dye-producing Muricidae molluscs. Kirsten Benkendorff, Author provided

But one particular group of sea snails, the Muricidae or murex, were highly regarded as a source of Tyrian purple (shellfish purple) and tekhelet (biblical blue). In biblical times, these shellfish were the only known source of an insoluble purple dye.

The incorporation of purple and blue dyed yarn is prescribed for use in the tabernacle and garments worn by high priests (Exodus 26 and 28).

This indicates that the spiritual leaders of the time were not opposed to using products from these sea snails for holy purposes.

The lost knowledge

It is likely the specific ingredients and process for making sacred incense was a closely guarded secret. The scriptures dictate that its use was purely for holy purposes. It was not to be made for personal use, at the risk of being cutoff from the entire community.

Until recently, the secret of dying with biblical blue from the snails was lost, as a consequence of destruction of second holy temple in Jerusalem in 70CE and the subsequent dispersal of Jews from their homeland.

Furthermore, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD, the purple shellfish dying industry collapsed and the tradition was lost in the Mediterranean region for many centuries.

A modern analysis

So how did we go about trying to provide chemical evidence to support the use of opercula from dye producing sea snails in holy incense?

Kirsten Benkendorff preparing extracts from the opercula for analysis by gas chromatography mass spectrometry. Craig Sillitoe, Author provided

We used a purpose built apparatus to burn the opercula in glass tubes. We then trapped the smoke in solvent using a vacuum, before drying down the extract for chemical analysis using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.

Our analyses revealed that when burnt, the opercula releases aromatic phenols – compounds that are often used in the fragrance industry as antioxidants. We also detected chlorinated phenols that have a medicinal scent at very low concentrations.

These smoke compounds are consistent with reported use of the opercula contributing to the long-lasting smell of incense. The medicinal fragrance of opercula smoke is also highly compatible with the use of sacred incense for purifying the holy temple and ritualised cleansing during spiritual ceremonies.

Stages of processing the opercula (left to right): The opercula still attached to the foot of purple dye-producing sea snail Dicathais orbita; freshly detached opercula; opercula after crushing and soaking in acetic acid; dry ground opercula powder and vials contain extracts of the opercula smoke.Kirsten Benkendorff, Author provided

It is impossible to conclusively identify the biblical onycha, without original samples for retrospective comparative analysis. But a multi-disciplinary perspective that takes into consideration the historical use of these snails – along with our new chemical information on the scent qualities of the smoke – provides strong support for the opercula from dye-producing whelks.

Species decline

Archaeological evidence indicates that the ancient demand for dye-producing sea snails led to over-exploitation and an associated decline in the populations of some species.

Piles of shells from a purple dye producing Murex sea snails in a processing factory in Tuticorin, India. Kirsten Benkendorff, Author provided

Similarly, modern demand for the shellfish dyes in regional artisan industries and the worldwide fishery for food and ornate shells, is placing pressure on natural populations.

While the opercula can be obtained as a byproduct from other fishing activities, many regional shell fisheries are not effectively monitored. This problem is exacerbated by uncertainty surrounding the impacts of ocean climate change and worldwide mass mortalities in shellfish resulting from disease events.

It is therefore essential that all sea snail fisheries are carefully managed and new opportunities for aquaculture are explored to ensure a sustainable supply to meet future demands.

This article was written by:
Image of Kirsten BenkendorffKirsten Benkendorff – [Associate Professor in Marine Biology, Southern Cross University]





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Debauchery on the fatal shore: the sex lives of Australia’s convicts

 A chain gang of convicts in Hobart. 
State Library of NSW

In 1787, when Arthur Phillip was preparing to lead the First Fleet to establish the British colony in New South Wales he wrote to his superiors to sort out what powers he would have over convicts and the soldiers sent to guard them. At one point, he addressed his power of life and death. Only two offences, he thought, deserved the death penalty – murder and sodomy:

For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal until an opportunity offered of delivering him to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him. The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.

It might not look like it, but Phillip was expressing a rather liberal point of view here. In Britain at this time, there were hundreds of offences that attracted the death penalty. In reducing his list to two he was flying in the face of all common sense. But it is striking that sodomy is on his little list.

While the administration took a dim view of same-sex desire, sex between men and between women flourished in Australia’s convict system – and thanks to the watchful eye of the colonial government, we know much about it.

Crime and punishment

Phillip’s views on sodomy were not an unreasonable position at the time. The Christian Bible was very clear that men who lay with men as with women were deserving of death; and the law – which had been instituted by Henry VIII, that great defender of the nation’s morals – agreed.

As it happened, Phillip, who served as governor until 1792, never got to put his policy into practice. There were no executions for sodomy; nor was anyone shipped off to New Zealand. Watkin Tench, a First Fleeter, opined that there were few “crimes of a deep dye” in the first four years of the colony and that “murder and unnatural sins rank not hitherto in the catalogue of [the convicts’] enormities”.

The convict ruins at Port Arthur.

The first prosecution only came in 1796 when Francis Wilkinson, a labourer, was charged with “that most horrid detestable and sodomitic crime (among Christians not to be named) called Buggery”. We don’t know his fate. The first execution for sodomy that we know of was of Alexander Brown in 1828. This execution is perhaps the first sign of a coming storm. Historian Robert French estimates that about 20 men were executed as sodomites between 1828 and 1863.

By the 1830s, the free settlers in NSW were desperate to put an end to the transportation of convicts to the colony. There were many reasons for this, but one most forcefully put was that it was undermining the moral development of the colony. In the thinking of the time, criminality, including sodomy, was seen as a physical degeneracy passed from generation to generation. So convicts were seen by very nature to be poor stock with which to colonise the country.

And the disproportion of men to women was seen as leaving the convict classes prey to the temptation of sodomy. The Chaplain of Fremantle Prison wrote in 1854,

What will ensue when we have thousands of men cooped up in the colony without wives and unable to seek them elsewhere. Evil will be the result – too humiliating for the mind to dwell upon– too revolting to name. … That moral evil of far greater magnitude, which has of old brought down the signal judgment of Heaven, will result.

Love in plain sight

But if the anxieties of the authorities had unleashed a wave of debate and discussion about the dangers of debauchery, it is important to be aware that there is another way of looking at this – recognising that sodomy was also part of the lived experience of convict men and women, and that their experience was not at all the same as that of the horrified authorities.

Where respectable colonists saw filth and moral evil, there is evidence that convict women and men experienced companionship, affection and attachment, which included sexual love. Consider this letter, written by a convict in 1846 on the eve of his being hanged:

I hope you wont forget me when I am far away and all my bones is moldered away I have not closed an eye since I lost sight of you your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack I value Death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you … The only thing that grieves me love is when I think of the pleasant nights we have had together. I hope you wont fall in love with no other man when I am dead and I remain your True and loving affectionate Lover.

The convicts’ barracks at Hyde Park in Sydney. Adam Jones/Flickr

We know quite a lot about love between convicts because they were being constantly monitored by the authorities. In 1841 there was an inquiry into a riot at the Launceston female factory (prison/workhouse) which discovered that sexual relationships between women were common – “depraved” behaviour, “unnatural connection” and the like.

One witness identified six female couples by name; others suggested there were anything from eight to 30 such couples. It was said that there were cases where a woman, sent out of the factory and into private service, would reoffend, so as to be sent back to where her lover was. When the authorities tried to break up couples, women would refuse to leave their cells, or even riot.

The medical superintendent of the Ross female factory – who habitually intercepted the women’s letters – reported on “warmth and impetuosity of the feelings excited in women towards each other, when allied in such unholy bonds”. (It is highly likely that he used the term “unholy bonds” having in mind the “holy bonds” of matrimony, suggesting that these women saw themselves as married).

An 1837 British parliamentary inquiry into the transportation system heard much evidence of the extent of debauchery among the convicts. The inquiry came to be believe there was a semi-underground subculture (a “demi-monde”) in existence.

New arrivals at the Hyde Park barracks, including younger men, put themselves selves under protection of older men – and adopted names such as Kitty, Nancy, Bett. On Norfolk Island, Robert Stuart reported as many as 150 male couples, who referred to themselves openly as “man and wife”. (Same-sex marriage is not as new as we might think).

Relationships among the convicts were of course many different things: situational – a desire for sexual outlet in the absence of the other sex – or coercive, expressing power over someone lower down the pecking order.

They may have been about the more desirable trading sex and affection for protection and advancement. All of these applied, of course, just as much to heterosexual relationships. But as with these, love between men or between women was often enough just that – love.

This article was written by:
Image of Graham WillettGraham Willett – [Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne]






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Facebook’s new Messenger Kids app could be good for digital literacy

 Facebook’s Messenger Kids has sparked debate about 
what age children should be using messaging apps.

Facebook is trialling a new Messenger Kids app in the United States.

The standalone app is aimed at under-13s, who aren’t currently eligible for a normal Facebook account. Parents are responsible for setting up the account and approving any contacts their children add. Kids can then use the app to video chat – both one-on-one or in a group – and send photos, videos and text messages. Currently only available in the US on Apple devices, Facebook expects to extend it to a wider audience in the coming months.

In the week since the app launched, headlines have focused on its potential downsides, amid concerns about data privacytech addiction and kids’ well-being.

But I argue that there is another side to this story: the fact that teaching kids about messaging at a young age is essential to preparing them for the hyper-connected world they will need to navigate in the future.

It’s already happening

At the moment, there is relatively little research in Australia about toddlers’ and children’s use of digital technologies. But studies in the UK and emerging Australian studies suggest that kids are going online at ever earlier ages, and doing a much wider range of activities.

Children younger than 13 are already using social media, and messaging functionality is increasingly built into the “communicative ecology” of families.

On a recent overseas work trip, I shared photos and messages with my nine-year-old daughter via her dad’s Facebook Messenger account. Like most kids her age in Australia, she has daily access to a mobile phone or tablet.

Social media communication is a good way to keep in touch with family. Philippa Collin, Author provided (No reuse)

And like the average Australian household with children younger than 15, we have seven internet-enabled devices in our home. But we don’t have a landline, so web apps, including social messaging apps, are becoming more central to our family communication.

Messaging is also embedded in multi-player games used by older children, such as Minecraft and Clash of Clans.

There are both challenges and benefits associated with kids connecting with others via games and apps, but the functionality is not going to go away. Learning how to navigate social media together is now a key feature of childhood and parenting.

Messaging can be good for kids

The Facebook app is an interesting innovation in the social media space precisely because it promotes learning about and using social media together with kids. The focus is on developing online skills by supporting communication with known relatives and friends, because kids can only connect with parent-approved contacts.

The app has parental controls built into its functionality that allow parents to approve contacts through their main Facebook app. Facebook

As leading kids and tech commentator Anne Collier has written, the most significant thing about the app is that while it has plenty of parental controls built into it, the app itself is not actually a parental control tool. Rather, it is a service that kids and their families and friends will need to learn to use – and use well – together.

Evidence already exists to show that social media can be good for mental health, building friendships, and resilience.

The app will evolve over time as kids and parents use it. What is important is that parents do not become complacent about the app as a “silver bullet” solution to educating children about the internet. Rather, we need to see it as just one tool to foster healthy, respectful relationships with our kids, and learn through the technology.

Bullying and data privacy

For now the Facebook Messenger Kids app features no ads, in-app purchases or sharing of data with other apps on the same device. But as with all websites and apps, this one will be fallible. Learning to think about what we share and how we share it (just like when you meet someone in a park) will still be important on this app.

Bullying can happen anywhere and it is possible – as we’ve seen before – that the app could extend bullying beyond the schoolyard. But all contacts in the app must be pre-approved by parents, and it has reporting features with pop-up feedback, dedicated content moderation, and notifications to parent Facebook accounts. Those features should enable parents to stay better abreast of how kids are using it. Unlike Snapchat and other apps, content can’t be deleted. This will also help kids and parents review communication, and take necessary steps if someone is being mean or harassing.

There are more than 2 billion Facebook users worldwide, and the chances are that our kids will soon add to those statistics. Facebook and other major platforms should be part of a broader effort to help kids and parents learn how to communicate safely and respectfully in a world saturated with social media.

And we should all develop critical digital literacy skills by learning about who is behind the apps and platforms we use, and what happens to our information and data. If using the Facebook Messenger Kids app helps to promote these conversations, that is a very good thing.

This article was written by:
Image of Philippa CollinPhilippa Collin – [Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University]






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Older people now less likely to fall into poverty

 The incidence of poverty among people over 65 
is decreasing in part because of increased labour force participation. 
Col Ford and Natasha de Vere/Flickr

The risk of people past retirement age falling into poverty is now decreasing. There has been a substantial improvement compared to 15 years ago, when the incidence of poverty among the elderly was 32.4%.

People past retirement age are much more at risk of poverty compared to people of other ages. In 2014, 23% of people over 65 were identified as experiencing poverty, while among the general population this was 10.1%.

If we look at poverty in older age using three alternative, well-established, definitions: the Henderson Poverty Line, the OECD 50% poverty line and the OECD 60% poverty line, they all lead to very similar conclusions.

The OECD 50% poverty line is defined as 50% of median household equivalent disposable income. Equivalised household income allows for differences in household composition, like the number of adults and children who live in the household. It therefore makes income comparable between households of different sizes. Someone is counted as poor if their equivalised disposable household income falls below this poverty line.

Applying this to data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) survey shows clear differences between ages. There’s a much larger incidence of poverty among people over 65, as well as a larger decrease in the poverty rate among those over 65.

Between 2000 and 2014, the prevalence of income poverty among older people declined by more than 9 percentage points, well above the decline of other age groups.

There are a number of reasons for this decrease in the poverty rate. One is the increase in labour force participation from 6.9% to 12.5% for this older group, whereas for other age groups labour force participation has remained quite stable.

Another reason is the larger increase in pension rates (which is the typical social security payment for people over 65) compared to allowance rates (which is the typical social security payment for working-age people). From an already high base, the payment rates for the oldest age group clearly increased by the most.

These two reasons combined account for over 75% of the decrease in poverty incidence. Increased private pensions account for a further large part of the decrease (nearly 41%), while changes in investment income would have increased the poverty rate.

Why pensions are so important

This shows just how important public and private pensions are for the standard of living of older people. Given that more and more people will be covered by superannuation, we expect that poverty rates will further decline in the future. However, maintaining the value of public pensions is equally important as a substantial proportion of people over 65 will remain dependent on these payments.

Those dependent on the age pension include people with a disability during their working life, and many women, as they remain the ones who are more frequently out of the labour force and working part time to raise children. As a result, these groups have less opportunity to build up sufficient superannuation. However, the age pension may perhaps be better targeted.

Although the largest increases in income support are for those classified as poor (with the largest average increase observed for those over 65), the non-poor population over 65 also receives a substantial increase in income support.

The increase in payments for people who aren’t poor and over 65 is nearly as large as the increase for those classified as poor who are aged 15 to 64. Payments for working-age people have only been increased with inflation, while pensions increased at the same rate as average earnings which has generally been higher than inflation.

To better alleviate poverty for our whole population, government payments for working-age people need to keep up with average earnings like the pensions do. If the government is not prepared to direct more resources to income support payments, they need to treat different age groups more equally. This means better targeting payments among our older population and using any savings to increase payments for the working-age population at a similar rate as pensions.

This article was written by:
Image of Guyonne KalbGuyonne Kalb – [Professorial Research Fellow and Director of the Labour Economics and Social Policy Program, University of Melbourne]




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Is Your Oral Health and Heart Health Connected?

Dentist in theatre room

There is an association between bad gums and heart disease.

gums and heart disease diagram

Image Source

From the time we were very young, we have heard that flossing and brushing our teeth every day was important if we wanted healthy gums and fewer problems with tooth decay.

Is it possible that healthy gums may also be associated with a lower risk of heart problems, including a heart attack?

For more than 100 years, doctors have been talking about the fact that our oral health is linked to the health of our heart. In more recent years, however, those doctors have begun to look closer at dental care and have begun recommending caring for oral health in order to reduce heart disease risks.

Gingivitis is the very beginning of the disease and it causes the gums to become swollen and red and when you brush your teeth, they are more likely to bleed. When dental plaque is permitted to build up in the area where the teeth meet the gums, gingivitis occurs.

If you want to maintain a strong general health, then strong teeth in good condition are imperative.

Gingivitis gum disease

Gingivitis should be treated professionally but when it isn’t, the bacteria can begin to collect in pockets that exist between the gum and the teeth and it leads to a more serious issue known as periodontitis. When periodontitis occurs, the tooth structure at the gum begins to weaken and it can lead to additional information. The teeth can become so loose that they actually fall out.

Gum disease does not always cause painful and noticeable symptoms so many people don’t recognise that they have a problem until it is advanced. According to Ivan Darby, a professor of periodontics from the University of Melbourne, the issues with periodontitis happen quickly. Teeth get loose, abscesses recur more frequently and the teeth start to move when the issues are advanced.

How is this associated with your heart?

Coronary arteries and heart

Many people who are at a greater risk for gingivitis and periodontitis live lifestyles that could put them at risk of heart disease. This includes excessive alcohol drinking, smoking and eating a poor diet.

It goes beyond those factors, however, and if you have one issue, the other problem is not typically far behind.

According to a cardiovascular health expert and associate professor at the University of Sydney, people with gum disease are twice as likely to develop heart disease.

What’s on your mind?

Is it possible to wake a sleepwalker? What makes a person grind their teeth and how do they stop doing it? If a serious health question has been plaguing you, it is likely you’ve also wanted to know the answer.

The real question is, is it a causal link or is it a link that is clearly defined?

Doctors feel that gum disease is associated with heart problems due to 2 mechanisms.

The first issue is what happens when your gums experience inflammation. This is a natural occurrence associated with the immune system and the inflammatory molecules that are causing redness and swelling in the gums may also travel elsewhere in the body. They may cause the arteries to become inflamed and that could result in fatty acid deposits that line the walls of the arteries.

The second issue is associated with the bacteria that could lead to gum disease. The bacteria may have access to the bloodstream when gums bleed. It could facilitate the fatty plaques lining the arteries near the heart, leading to a problem with heart disease.

According to Professor Darby, a link may exist but there may only be a small incident of heart disease being caused by gum disease.

That being said, there are many different factors that could lead to heart disease. Gum disease is certainly on the list but it is probably not the primary factor in most people.

Why is it still a mystery?

It is difficult to say if gum disease directly causes heart disease due to the fact that a link is almost impossible to establish. There may be an association between the two, but it can’t truly be said if one always affects the other.

In order to see if there is that direct link, two groups of people would need to be monitored. One group would have gum disease and the other would have healthy gums. The group that did not have gum disease would need to allow the disease to develop to see if it increased the risk of heart disease.

Professor Darby agrees that if somebody has a disease, it needs to be treated. He says that it’s just “one of those things that’s going to be very hard to prove.”

You can prevent gum disease

You can reduce the risk of gum disease by maintaining proper oral hygiene. According to Professor Darby, genetic factors may also be associated with how oral health affects your heart health.

Bexley Dental states, “To avoid plaque build up it is important to thoroughly clean your teeth and gums at least twice a day. Remember, each tooth has five surfaces – a front, a back, two sides and a top. The only one sure way to prevent dental disease is to clean every surface”.

Riding in cars with dogs: millions of trips a week tell us transport policy needs to change

 Having a pet dog turns out to be a highly 
car-dependent affair. 

Dog owners depend very heavily on their cars to transport and care for their pets. Our recently published study estimates that dog owners make about 2.4 million dog-related trips a week in Sydney. We also found pet owners overwhelmingly want to be able to travel on public transport with their pets. So why are they still excluded?

Our study, involving more than 1,250 Sydney dog owners, looked at popular activities owners do with their dogs and how often these require a trip by car. Typical activities include:

  • walking
  • visiting the park or other recreational areas
  • dog training
  • going to cafés, bars or shops
  • visiting family, friends or the vet.

On average, we found people walk their dog twice or more a week. While this confirms existing research, we found that one in four dog walks actually began with a drive in a car. Of the more than 75% of dog owners who go to a recreational area twice or more a week, 45% get there by car. And of the two-thirds of people who go to the dog park three times a week, more than half travel by car.

This demonstrates a surprisingly high reliance on private cars for dog ownership. The table below clearly shows this.

Activities undertaken by dog owners and the number of dog-related car trips each week.

The survey also found that, on average, people visit a vet three times a year. They use a car for 86% of those trips.

However, 14% said lack of transport had prevented them from taking their dog to a vet. People who did not own a car were more likely to fall into this category.

So, why does this matter?

Our results indicate that enjoying and caring for a dog in Australian cities – which has proven health and social benefits – is a relatively car-dependent affair. And car dependency is something urban planners want us to leave behind for many reasons, including sustainability, health and liveability.

If we are trying to reduce car use, understanding activities that lead to car dependence is important. We are particularly interested in the unintentional, often negative, consequences for individuals who, by choice or circumstance, do not have access to a car. A compromised ability to enjoy and care for a dog is one such consequence.

All European cities allow dogs on public transport but most cities in the US and Australia do not. TIF Fotos/Shutterstock

A policy solution would be to allow dogs on public transport in Australian cities. Unsurprisingly, our survey of dog owners found an overwhelming 95% support this.

More than half indicated they would do more activities with their hound if this were allowed. And 20% said they would even consider getting by without one of their cars if they could take their dog on public transport.

What are the rules in other countries?

With these findings in mind, we investigated public transport policies on pets in 30 cities across Europe, the United States and Australia. We found all European cities allowed dogs on public transport. Most cities in the US and Australia did not.

The policies allowing dogs vary. Some apply limits on where on the train, tram or bus a dog may travel, on travel during peak hours, and on the size of dog. In cities such as Paris, dogs must pass a “basket test” for riding in a carrier or small bag.

Most cities charge a fare for dogs at a concession or child price. Zurich has gone a step further by offering an annual travel card for dogs.

It is interesting that in cultures where private cars are dominant – such as Australia and the US – dogs are restricted from riding on public transport. In Europe, where car ownership and use are less common and public transport use is more the norm, dogs are welcome on trains and buses.

This perhaps says something about how we see public transport in Australia: it is for predictable and “clean” trips, such as the journey to work.

In reality, our lives are made up of messy trips, and to reduce car dependence we need to plan for this mess. This might include measures such as changes to timetables, making the interior of trains and buses more suitable for people carrying groceries, or allowing people to use the train to take their dog on an outing or to the vet. If public transport is for travel for all citizens and dogs are an important part of so many people’s lives, why should dogs be excluded from public transport?

This article was co-authored by:



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No, most people aren’t in severe pain when they die

 Symptoms of an illness usually improve the 
closer a person gets to dying. Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Many people fear death partly because of the perception they might suffer increasing pain and other awful symptoms the nearer it gets. There’s often the belief palliative care may not alleviate such pain, leaving many people to die excruciating deaths.

But an excruciating death is extremely rare. The evidence about palliative care is that pain and other symptoms, such as fatigue, insomnia and breathing issues, actually improve as people move closer to death. More than 85% of palliative care patients have no severe symptoms by the time they die.

Evidence from the Australian Palliative Care Outcomes Collaboration (PCOC) shows that there has been a statistically significant improvement over the last decade in pain and other end-of-life symptoms. Several factors linked to more effective palliative care are responsible.

These include more thorough assessments of patient needs, better medications and improved multidisciplinary care (not just doctors and nurses but also allied health workers such as therapists, counsellors and spiritual support).

But not everyone receives the same standard of clinical care at the end of life. Each year in Australia, about 160,000 people die and we estimate 100,000 of these deaths are predictable. Yet, the PCOC estimates only about 40,000 people receive specialist palliative care per year.

Symptoms at the end of life

For the greater majority of those who do receive palliative care, the evidence shows it is highly effective.

The most common symptom that causes people distress towards the end of life is fatigue. In 2016, 13.3% of patients reported feeling severe distress due to fatigue at the start of their palliative care. This was followed by pain (7.4%) and appetite (7.1%) problems.

Distress from fatigue and appetite is not surprising as a loss of energy and appetite is common as death approaches, while most pain can be effectively managed. Other problems such as breathing, insomnia, nausea and bowel issues are experienced less often and typically improve as death approaches.

Contrary to popular perceptions, people in their final days and hours experience less pain and other problems than earlier in their illness. In 2016, about a quarter of all palliative care patients (26%) reported having one or more severe symptoms when they started palliative care. This decreased to 13.9% as death approached.

The most common problem at the start was fatigue, which remained the most common problem at the end. Pain is much less common than fatigue. In total, 7.4% of patients reported severe pain at the beginning of their palliative care and only 2.5% reported severe pain in the last few days. Breathing difficulties cause more distress than pain in the final days of life.

These figures must be considered in relation to a person’s wishes. It’s true for a small number of patients that existing medications and other interventions do not adequately relieve pain and other symptoms.

But some patients who report problematic pain and symptoms elect to have little or no pain relief. This might be because of family, personal or religious reasons. For some patients, this includes a fear opioids (the active ingredient in drugs like codeine) and sedating medications will shorten their life. For others, being as alert as possible at the point of death is essential for spiritual reasons.

Not everyone gets this care

Patient outcomes vary depending on a range of factors such as the resources available and geographical location. People living in areas of high socioeconomic status have better access to palliative care than those who live in lower socioeconomic areas.

The PCOC data demonstrate those receiving care in a hospital with dedicated specialist palliative care services have better pain and symptom control (due to the availability of 24-hour care) compared to those receiving palliative care at home. There is now a national consensus statement to improve the provision of palliative care in hospitals. This needs to be extended to include death at home and death in residential care.

Although there are national palliative care standards and national safety and quality standards, each state, territory, health district and organisation is responsible for the individual delivery of palliative care. Subsequently, differing approaches to delivery and resources exist in the provision of palliative care.

Recent reports by the New South Wales and Victorian Auditor-General Offices highlight the demand for palliative care services and the need for appropriate resourcing to support patients, carers and families as well as for more integrated information and service delivery across care settings.

Australia can do better

The Australian Palliative Care Outcomes Collaboration holds information on more than 250,000 people who have received specialist palliative care over the last decade. Although participation in the data collection is voluntary, there has been steady uptake. The collaboration estimates that information on more than 80% of specialist palliative care patients is being reported each year.

Australia is in a unique position internationally as it has a national system to routinely measure the outcomes and experience of palliative care patients and their families. These data can help clinicians to measure the effectiveness of their care and help providers adopt best practice. This information is also critical evidence that can be used to inform public debate.

The evidence is Australian palliative care is effective for almost everyone who receives it. But the problem is that many thousands of people die each year without access to the specialist palliative care they need. As a country, we need to do better.

This article was co-authored by:
Image of Kathy EagarKathy Eagar – [Professor and Director at Australian Health Services Research Institute University of Wollongong, University of Wollongong];
Image of Sabina ClaphamSabina Clapham – [Research fellow, Palliative Care Outcomes Collaboration, University of Wollongong]
Image of Samuel AllinghamSamuel Allingham – [Research Fellow, Applied Statistics, University of Wollongong]





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Listen To Older Voices – Carol Cochran: Part 1

Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, a program produced by Rob Greaves 
for Uniting Melba and podcast through the Toorak Times and Tagg.

Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principal of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

This is the first part of a 3-part program featuring the Life and Times of 71-year-old baby boomer, Carol Cochran. Carol is a natural storyteller and her manner in which she tells of her life is most engaging. In this program we learn about her early life and in doing so are introduced to her parents. Being the oldest girl in the family, the task fell upon her to help look after the home and siblings when her father passed away from cancer.

In unravelling her early lifer carol gives us an insight into the many everyday activities that kids did in the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s. This was a time when the baker and the milkman delivered to the door, and, kids at primary school were given milk to drink, milk that was often left out in the hot sun. These are stories of a lifestyle now long gone.

Click to hear Carol Cochran – Part 1

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 




[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

Travelling these holidays? Follow tips the Socceroos use to conquer jet lag

 Managing sleep and time zones 
can take the fun out of Christmas travel

Long-haul flights over several time zones present two main challenges:

  1. travel fatigue – the effects of sleep loss, restricted movement and dehydration associated with spending many hours on a plane, and
  2. jetlag – the effects of the mismatch between your body clock and the time in your new location.

However, there are ways to minimise disruption to your sleep patterns and body clock when you travel.

The guidelines shown below are similar to those recently used by the Socceroos to help them overcome the jet lag associated with back-to-back games in Honduras and Australia. The result is that they’ll be heading to next year’s World Cup.

Research suggests that there are several things you can do to facilitate adjustment to time zone changes. These include:

  • exposure to, and avoidance of, light at certain times
  • intentional scheduling of sleep and wakefulness
  • use of drugs that can alter sleepiness and/or the timing of the body clock
  • timing and type of food eaten.

As detailed below, we have prepared schedules for exposure to sunlight and low light to follow for 4-5 days after arriving in your new location.

What to do on the flight

The main difficulties with long-haul flights are dehydration, physical discomfort, and sleep loss. To address this, you should:

  • minimise your intake of diuretics, or fluids that increase urine production, such as alcohol, coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks
  • drink water regularly, at least 100ml per hour
  • stretch regularly when seated
  • take a walk every hour when awake.

It can be difficult to get good sleep on a plane. The best strategy is to target sleep during night time in your departure city, and stay awake at other times.

To help sleep aboard the plane, recline your seat, keep your head stable with the headrest, use eye masks and ear plugs if required, and ask flight attendants not to disturb you.

Try not to miss sleep due to playing computer games or watching movies during your sleep target zones.

Medications and food

Melatonin is produced by your brain during the night to signal that it is time to be asleep, and it can be taken as an effective sleeping tablet in controlled circumstances. However if you don’t get the timing right, it can have unanticipated effects on your body clock.

Sleeping tablets can be effective, but can also impair concentration, coordination and alertness the next day, and issues of tolerance and dependence may arise. However, if required, short half-life non-benzodiazepines are preferred to benzodiazepines as they tend to have less negative impact on waking function the next day. Consult your doctor for advice on how to use these, and for a prescription if you think they are suitable for your needs.

Eating white bread may be helpful if you want to sleep on a plane. from

Research shows that diet can also be used to promote sleepiness at night time and alertness during the daytime. These effects of food usually last for 2-4 hours.

To promote sleepiness, eat foods with a high glycemic index (GI), such as white rice, pasta, bread, potatoes, carrots, starchy treats like donuts, and some breakfast cereals.

To promote alertness, eat foods that are high in protein, such as meat, eggs, fish and beans.

Changing your light exposure

Staying inside and going outside at the right times can be hard, as your plans may prevent you from doing this.

If you can’t be outside in the sun, another way to achieve light exposure is to use lighting products that can provide bright light at will.

These products typically use a series of LED (light emitting diode) globes built into the frames of a pair of glasses. This setup delivers bright light directly to the eyes without the need to bother others – it’s what the Socceroos recently used while flying.

Bright light glasses are made by several companies. Another alternative is bright light boxes. These can be useful when the optimum light exposure times occur during the dark in your destination port.

For the reverse situation – that is, aiming to remove light exposure – normal dark sun glasses can be used if you’re outside at a time when ideally you need to be in the dark to adapt. So-called “blue-blocker sunglasses” are another alternative.

Sample adaptation schedule for East-West travel

This example is for travel from Australia to Europe across around eight time zones, but it would work equally well for travel from the United States to Australia. We’ve used a 24-hour clock to indicate times – so for example, 2300 is 11pm, and 0400 is 4am.

We use the term “body clock minimum” to refer to the time of day when it is the easiest to be asleep, and hardest to function effectively if you are awake. For most people who are in bed from 2300–0700h, your body clock minimum occurs at about 0400h.

On the first day in Europe (after a time zone change of 8h West), you have not adapted to the new time zone, so your body clock minimum will be at 2000h local time, which is 0400h in Australia.

You want your body clock minimum to delay – that is, to gradually shift later each day from 2000h to 0400h.

I’m dreaming of a London Christmas. from

Light: Maximise light in the three hours before 2000h and avoid light in the three hours after 2000h. If it is summer in Europe, you could go outside in sunlight from 1700-2000h (no sunglasses). Otherwise you could use bright indoor light, or a portable light box, or bright light glasses; then dim light inside and blue-blocker glasses until bedtime.

Sleep: If you go to bed a little earlier than usual (around 2100-2200h), it should be easy to fall asleep because you will be going to bed just after the time of your body clock minimum. You may not get a full night of sleep because your body clock may wake you up earlier than usual. If you have a nap during the day, make sure you set an alarm to limit it to one hour.

Melatonin: You should not need melatonin to help you fall asleep because you will be sleepy in the evening. However, if you chose to use it on the first one or two nights, it will not cause any harm because it will help your body clock to delay.

Sample adaptation schedule for West-East travel

This example is for travel from Australia to the US across around eight time zones, but it would work equally well for travel from Europe to Australia.

For most people who are in bed from 2300–0700h, your body clock minimum (the time it’s preferable to sleep) occurs at about 0400h.

On the first day in the US (after a time zone change of 8h East), you have not adapted to the new time zone, so your body clock minimum will be at 1200h local time, which is 0400h in Australia.

You want your body clock minimum to advance – that is, gradually shift earlier each day from 1200h to 0400h.

Christmas lights at Chicago zoo. from

Light: Avoid light in the three hours before 1200h and maximise light in the three hours after 1200h. Stay inside with dim light and blue-blocker glasses until 1200h; then go outside in sunlight for at least three hours until 1500h (no sunglasses); then do whatever you wish.

Sleep: You might find it hard to fall asleep until quite late, so you should sleep in in the morning if possible – this would have the added advantage of avoiding light in the morning. If you need a nap, do it before 1200h, or after 1500h, so you don’t miss out on sunlight from 1200–1500h. If you have a nap, make sure you set an alarm to limit it to one hour.

Melatonin: You should not use melatonin to help you fall asleep in the evening – it will make your body clock delay, which is the opposite of what you want.

If you arrive rested and with an adaptation plan ready to go, your holiday should be all you had hoped for.

This article was co-authored by:




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Sunday essay: monsters in my closet – how a geographer began mining myths

 Mount Mazama, a volcano in Oregon.Indigenous 
stories preserve tales of its eruption more than 7,000 years ago.

So you think the Loch Ness Monster never existed? That the story is a cunningly cobbled-together fiction intended to boost tourist interest in an otherwise unrelentingly dull (only to some) part of mid-Scotland? Think again.

The embryonic science of geomythology is breathing new life into such stories, legitimising the essence of some and opening up the possibility that other such folk tales might not be pure fiction but actually based on memories of events our ancestors once observed.

Lacking the scientific understanding available to us today, people in the past contextualised such observations in ways that made sense to them. Keen that their descendants should know what had happened, not least should it happen again, many such stories were passed on (commonly orally) from one generation to the next. Invariably cloaked in multiple layers of embellishment, some stories have survived until today.

‘Nessie’ may not be a real being, but the stories about the Loch Ness Monster may contain a kernel of geological truth. Wikimedia

Science has long vilified those who argue for the existence of giant saurians lurking in the depths of Loch Ness, but there has been some rehabilitation of these “monster sightings”. The geologist Luigi Piccardi, who has done much to make the novel field of geomythology respectable, has argued that observations of “Nessie” are no more than the unusual agitation of the lake’s water surface during an earthquake.

The first written mention of the Loch Ness Monster, in the seventh-century Life of St Columba, notes that the “dragon” appears cum ingenti fremitu (with strong shaking) before disappearing tremefacta (shaking herself). And Piccardi has noted that the most seismically active sector of the Great Glen Fault, along which periodic earthquakes occur, runs along the axis of Loch Ness.

Piccardi also argues that many temples built during the Classical period in the eastern Mediterranean were intentionally built over geological fissures from which escaping neurotoxic gases might cause those sitting above them – like Pythia in the Oracle at Delphi– to go into a trance in which they could reputedly foresee future events.

The Pacific Islands, the focus of most of my research over the past 30 years, has stories about past natural events – massive eruptions and earthquakes, giant waves, for instance – that have traditionally been regarded as largely apocryphal. I have focused on some of the stories from Pacific Island cultures about “vanished islands”, stories that come from almost every part of this vast region – nearly one-third of the earth’s surface. The idea of an entire island disappearing suddenly seems instinctively implausible, the stuff of Atlantean fantasy, yet there are many such stories in the Pacific that seem quite believable at their cores.

Take the example of Teonimenu, which probably disappeared some 400 years ago, between the islands of Makira and Ulawa in the central Solomon Islands. While most local traditions remember its disappearance as the act of a vengeful cuckold, the details about the accompanying series of tsunami waves and the location of Teonimenu on the crest of a steep underwater ridge suggest this might really have happened as a result of an earthquake-induced landslip.

Similar stories have been collected from central Vanuatu, where an island named Vanua Mamata abruptly disappeared about 1870. This was probably a result of an eruption-linked landslide on the underwater flanks of the giant Ambae Island volcano (which today is once again threatening to erupt). With great difficulty, it is said, the survivors saved themselves, paddling north to settle on the island of Maewo where today they recall the loss of Vanua Mamata bifo bifo yet (long long ago).

Of course, there is a limit. And that limit has been crossed when you confront many of the stories about “sunken continents” in the Pacific, perhaps Mu or (Pacific) Lemuria dreamed up by some of its early European explorers who struggled to rationalise the existence of such a large, almost landless, ocean. Some of them, like Dumont d’Urville and the geologist Jules Garnier, were convinced there had once been a continent spanning the Pacific that had sunk, leaving only the former mountaintops poking above the ocean surface.

The lost continent of Mu as proposed by James Churchward in 1927. Wikimedia

This theory allowed 19th-century Europeans to deny the manifestly extraordinary maritime abilities of Pacific Islanders who were portrayed as the fortunate survivors of the cataclysm, stranded on their isolated islands. Yet stories suggesting the entire Pacific (or indeed the entire Indian Ocean or the entire Atlantic) were once occupied by a single continent are demonstrably false. We’ve looked.

That said, there is plenty to stoke the imagination – and even a few disingenuous geoscientists happy to add fuel to the fire. Take the “sunken city” off the coast of Yonaguni Island in southwest Japan, which numerous people will assure you was once part of the continental empire of “Mu” that spanned the entire Pacific. There is no shred of real evidence of human structures off the Yonaguni coast (any more than there is of Mu), but for those untutored in the ways that sandstones and shales weather, it might appear there are giant “carved” steps and suchlike.

True legends

My involuntary introduction to geomythology came in mid-2000 when I was working at the international University of the South Pacific, based at its main teaching campus in Suva, Fiji. Having won some research funding and engaged three research assistants to accompany me to the Lau Islands of eastern Fiji, there was a coup; by far the nastiest of the four I have survived.

It seemed the wrong time to do fieldwork so I set the research assistants to work in the university library’s Pacific Collection, searching for any published stories about Pacific Islander traditions of memorable geological events. The haul they recovered astonished me and turned my attention to how oral traditions might illuminate the geological history of the Pacific.

One early example of this concerned myths about the formation of Nabukelevu (or Mt Washington), a striking volcano at the western end of Kadavu Island in Fiji. Long regarded by geologists as having last erupted tens of thousands of years ago, a legend from the people of nearby Ono Island suggested otherwise. Their story goes that the chief of Ono, who was accustomed to watching the sun set from a beach on the island, found one day a mountain (Nabukelevu) had appeared at the end of Kadavu to the west and blocked the view.

Livid, he flew to western Kadavu and battled the chief of Nabukelevu but was overwhelmed. The appearance of Nabukelevu suggests the growth of the volcano within human memory, which means about 3,000 years in Fiji.

Nabukelevu, or Mount Washington, a volcano in Fiji. Fijian legend suggested the volcano erupted in human history. Wikimedia/Jaejay77, 

So did the legend invalidate the science? It seems it did at the time for, years later, when a road was cut around the foot of Nabukelevu, a section through the volcano’s flanks was exposed and showed buried soil with pottery fragments (a sure sign of human occupation) overlain by freshly deposited scoria. Clearly the legend was a more accurate indicator of the age of this volcano than science had once been.

Most Pacific Islanders who have shared such stories with me are surprisingly indifferent to the news that they may be true. It was never a concern to them that Western science might have once judged these stories to be fictional; they always knew otherwise.

In the last 15 years, my interest in geomythology and respect for many oral traditions have burgeoned. Moving from the Pacific Islands to Australia in 2010 inevitably led me to educate myself more about Australian Aboriginal stories. What I found was beyond my wildest dreams.

It began in the library of the University of New England where I read many works by linguists who had studied Australian Aboriginal languages. While focused on the structure of the languages, many of these linguists also recorded – generally as illustrations of how language was used in storytelling – ancillary details of the oral traditions of many tribes.

And for several of the coastal tribes, some of the most popular stories recalled times when the ocean surface – sea level – was far lower than it is today and coastal lands were consequently far more extensive. It now seems clear that Aboriginal groups in at least 22 locations all around the coast of Australia have preserved stories for more than 7,000 years; in a few cases, perhaps more than 10,000 years. That is 280 to 400 generations.

Aboriginal stories recall a time when Fitzroy Island in northern Queensland was connected to the mainland 10,000 years ago.

Now if Australian Aboriginal cultures were able to preserve stories so long, could not others of the world’s cultures also have done so? One well-documented example is of the Klamath tribe in Oregon, USA, which seems to have successfully preserved a story about the eruption of Mt Mazama – the predecessor of Crater Lake – for some 7,700 years.

Still, there are not many examples, which suggests two things. One is that Australian Aboriginal society was especially adept at inter-generational knowledge transmission. Undoubtedly true. The other is that in other cultures perhaps we have been too quick to discount the lingering fragments of memory for what they really are. A bit more contentious.

Cities drowned

Yet from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu in India, and in Gaelic cultures from Brittany (France) to Cornwall and Wales (UK), there are stories about the consequences of the ocean rising across low-lying areas of coast. Many stories recall the “drowning” of iconic cities and narrate the very human causes to which inundation was attributed.

For instance, there are persistent stories in parts of northwest Europe about the city of Ys that once existed on the coast, efficiently defended against the sea, perhaps in the Baie de Douarnenez in Brittany. Dahut, daughter of the ruler of Ys, King Gradlon, became possessed by a demon and wilfully opened the tide gates when the sea was high, causing the city to be drowned.

It is possible that this story recalls a history of sea level rising across coastal lowlands, forcing coastal cities to build and manage sea defences. Then, as sea level continued its post-glacial rise, one day, perhaps several millennia ago, the defences gave way, the ocean rushed into the city, “drowning” it and condemning its history to myth.

Flight of King Gradlon, by E.V. Luminais, 1884, shows the ruler of the city of Ys fleeing from the encroaching sea. Wikimedia

Such stories, celebrated in art and literature, are often regarded as integral to cultural identity. For this reason, attempts to explain them by science are sometimes resisted.

Yet, viewed dispassionately, it seems possible that stories from both sides of the English Channel (La Manche), for example, recall times when it was much narrower than today, as was indeed the case several millennia ago.

Not only are there stories like that of Ys from the north coast of Brittany and parallel stories from that of Cornwall, but also folk tales from the Channel Islands about how people were once able to walk, crossing a few streams, from there to the French mainland. This is exactly what you would expect a few millennia back, when sea level was 5-10 metres lower than it is today.

What research is showing is that knowledge can be transmitted orally and with a high degree of replication fidelity for thousands of years. Using phylogenetic analysis, Jamie Tehrani has demonstrated that many popular folktales, like Little Red Riding Hood, are at least 2,000 years old.

This remarkable fact does not mean of course that all oral knowledge is that old, but it does open up opportunities for understanding the minds of our ancestors that we never dreamed possible. Or did we?

This essay was written by:
Image of Patrick D. NunnPatrick D. Nunn -[Professor of Geography, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast]





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