Category Archives: Mars

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Saturday 26th November 2016

RTÉ is a ‘failed monopoly’ and the Dáil is full of ‘half-wits’, says Michael O’Leary

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Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary  (left).

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has claimed RTÉ is a union-controlled “failed monopoly” which should be privatised.

Speaking following a business breakfast in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, yesterday, Mr O’Leary expressed his belief that “RTÉ should have been privatised years ago”.

His comments came after the national broadcaster announced that it would be outsourcing its young persons’ programming. “I think the best thing that could happen to RTÉ would be to privatise it. Break it up and sell it and allow it to compete openly and fairly with Newstalk and the private sector media,” Mr O’Leary said at the Business in the Midlands event.

“It has been a failed monopoly for many years. It has not served the country well and the sooner it is broken up and sold…the better.”

Speaking to a crowd of around 600 in Mullingar Park Hotel, the Ryanair boss also took issue with the coverage of industrial relations matters by the broadcaster. “It is always unions, unions, unions because they control RTÉ,” he said. “Can we continue to afford to have this publicly subsidised TV monopoly that just panders to the trade union agenda all the time?”

Mr O’Leary expressed his belief that no organisations should be subsidised. Singling out Radió na Gaeltachta and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, he said if they can’t survive independently they should go. He suggested people should also spend less time worrying about the “minority voices” from the likes of the ‘Irish Times’ and RTÉ.

Mr O’Leary said he believed Irish Rail was “doomed”. He urged the transport company to cut its fares to encourage passenger numbers. “It needs to bring down rail fares to really low levels. If I can fly people for nine quid across Europe, why does Irish Rail charge them 30 and 40 quid to get from Dublin to Cork?” he said.

He also had some choice words for the current Dáil, which he said was the “worst assembly of half-wits and lunatics”, but said the electorate had to take responsibility.

“We, when given the opportunity, chose to vote in the worst assembly of half-wits and lunatics,” he said. “I am referring to the Anti-Austerity Alliance and the Independents in the Dáil, and then we wonder why we do not have decent or strong government.”

However, he ruled out any suggestion that he would ever run for political office.

“The answer is no. I am unelectable. Even I wouldn’t vote for me if I was running. On the other hand, if we decided we were going have a right-wing dictatorship for maybe six or seven years, I would be up for that. I would happily take on that job,” he remarked.

‘A Brexit deal is not possible in two years’ says Enda Kenny

Image result for 'A Brexit deal is not possible in two years' says Enda Kenny  Image result for 'A Brexit deal is not possible in two years' says Enda Kenny

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said he believes it would be “impossible” for the UK to thrash out a Brexit deal with the EU within two years, in a move that put pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Mr Kenny said such a deal will take “longer than expected” and will not be signed within the two-year period that begins once Article 50 is triggered.

M/s May was criticised by both the North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for failing to turn up at the British Irish Council summit in Cardiff.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire represented Downing Street.

The issue of the Border was top of the agenda at the meeting – with Mr Kenny warning of serious difficulties if any change is made to the current structures. “Clearly the imposition of tariffs and border checks would be of enormous inconvenience – time-wasting, delays, lack of investment and costing jobs at the end,” he said in an interview with ‘Sky News’.

Meanwhile, tensions resurfaced between Mr Kenny and the North’s First Minister Arlene Foster. The DUP leader took a swipe at Mr Kenny following remarks he made about the issue of a United Ireland. The Fine Gael leader is said to have signalled the prospect of such a scenario unfolding.

At a press conference yesterday following the sitting of the council in Cardiff, Ms Foster described the issue as a “non-story”. Pointing towards Mr Kenny – who was sitting three seats away – M/s Foster remarked that “Enda loves it” when the issue is brought up.

Mr Kenny shook his head in disapproval and said: “I don’t”.

“Periodically this comes up and I’m sure Enda loves it coming up…The reality is the test has not been met and therefore a Border poll will not be called,” Ms Foster said.

The Taoiseach went on to rule out the prospect of a border poll in the near future. “There is no indication that a Border poll would succeed now. We have enough on our plates at the moment to deal with Brexit and the many challenges that arise from many other issues,” he said.

The invisible people of Ireland who live very public lives on our streets

Rough sleepers deal with death, illness, violence and humiliation day in, day out.

Image result for The invisible people of Ireland who live very public lives on our streets  Image result for poverty of Ireland who live on our streets

There’s over 6,000 homeless people living in Ireland. Rough sleepers also face a long winter with temperatures already falling below zero.

Outside Eddie Rockets on Dublin’s Dame Street, a friendly 46-year-old called John describes how he keeps warm in shop doorways using newspapers when he doesn’t have a sleeping bag.

He’s sipping on a cup of tea which Simon Community volunteers have given him. He has been homeless for 10 years. He was in prison in England and, afterwards, nobody wanted to hire him or rent a flat to him.

Sometimes he has neither a sleeping bag nor newspapers. How does he stay warm then?

“I sing myself a song,” he says and laughs.

A man walks up and puts his hand on his shoulder as we are talking.

“John, we’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he says.

“You have?” says John.

“I have bad news for you,” says the man. “Your mother passed away.”

“My mother,” John says. He says her name, to make sure there’s no mistake.

The man repeats the name.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you like this,” he says. “They’re laying her out tomorrow.”

“My mother is dead,” John says, and he blinks away some tears.

He starts to spill his tea and one of the Simon volunteers gently takes the cup from his hand.

People have been out searching for John. The man works at the sheltered housing unit where John’s partner lives and tells him to go there this evening where he will help arrange transport home.

After the man leaves, John stands in the middle of the footpath crying softly. It’s unclear if he has a place to stay.

Martina Bergin, an outreach worker with the Simon Community, calls a number and explains his situation, but they don’t have a bed.

“I can’t believe she’s gone,” says John. He last saw her two years ago. “Life is one bad thing after another,” he says.

Bergin calls a colleague who says he will drive John to the unit where his partner is waiting but the soup run has to move on.

Tragedies

Homeless people have to live in public. Their profoundest tragedies unfold in front of strangers. Dublin city centre has around 162 rough sleepers (based on last Friday’s Simon Community count) who populate the city’s shop-fronts, alleys and 24-hour cafes as the night-time temperatures drop below zero.

At the Simon Community’s offices on Capel Street, volunteers pack bags with sandwiches, Kit Kats, Pot Noodles and warm clothes.

They fill flasks with soup, tea and coffee and then five teams set out in different directions.

I’m with a team on “route one” which goes along Capel Street, Dame Street, George’s Street, Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street. They offer food and warm clothes, but they can’t offer beds.

On December 9th, extra beds will become available, as part of the Cold Weather Initiative. In the meantime, there’s a free phone number people can ring to request emergency accommodation.

“You ring it early and then you ring back at 4.30pm and then you ring again at 10.30pm,” explains Jay, who is sitting outside a Spar on Parliament Street. “And then they tell you they have no places and to get a sleeping bag.”

He sighs and replies?

“When you’ve two sleeping bags, it’s not so bad.” and as we talk, an ambulance pulls up and a paramedic rushes into the Spar where another homeless man has been slumped.

Bergin, who says she has “sleeping bag radar”, recognises him and goes inside.

“He’s fine,” she says when she comes out. “He just hasn’t slept in days . . . I suppose it’s good they called an ambulance.”

Afterwards we pass by several places where Bergin knows homeless people sleep. Due to the cold weather, Bergin says, people move around more. Some walk through the night. Others sleep sitting up in 24-hour-internet cafes. The latter turn up at Simon’s mobile health clinic with circulation problems.

Many suffer from bronchitis and kidney infections.

“We’re seeing more people homeless due to financial difficulties,” says Bergin. “A lot more people sleeping in cars. A lot more people sleeping in tents. At this time of year you encounter a lot of anxious people hoping to get a place for the night or somewhere for Christmas.”

Abused & assaulted?

A day later, Bergin introduces me to 22-year-old Karl Fields whom she met and began helping after he had been assaulted.

“He filled out the forms with bloody tissues in his nose,” she says.

“Martina’s the only person I have to talk to,” he says.

Fields has the words “mam” and “dad” tattooed on his hands and “only the strong survive” on his shin. His late parents were drug addicts and he was put in care at 13 where he was abused by a female staff member.

“It f***ed me up a bit,” he says. He started staying out on the streets.

He prides himself on helping people worse off than himself, of avoiding hard drugs (“I’ve seen what they do to people”) and on being presentable and clean.

“You can shower in the Applegreen garage for two euros,” he says.

But he feels looked down upon and he is often frightened. He hates the shorter days, the constant cold and the ever present threat of violence.

“You never feel normal,” he says. “And time is meaningless. I don’t even have the time set on my phone.”

Where does he sleep?

“All over,” he says. He’ll find an alley or a doorway and set up a little hut made of cardboard, “wherever I feel safe”.

Sometimes acquaintances let him stay in their homes but the free phone number, he says, rarely leads to a bed. He’s on a council housing list but has been told he’ll be waiting eight years.

“It wrecks my head even talking about this. That’s why I like horses.”

He works for free,

Horses, he says, saved his life. He knows people who own ponies and he works with them for free.

“Three little ponies. I clean out the stables and feed them and look after them. I just love them. It takes your mind off being on the streets.”

He dreams of having a place in the country with his own horses.

“I mean, why not?” he says. “I’m just a human being. There’s nothing stopping me having a dream.”

Back at the top of Grafton Street, a woman called Mary says she has been homeless since breaking up with her husband.

“He took the house,” she says and now she sleeps in doorways, sometimes with a sleeping bag, she says, sometimes without. Sometimes she walks all night.

In the morning, she goes to McDonald’s – “if they let you in” – to wash in the bathroom and sit for an hour with a cup of tea.

She doesn’t like hostels, she says, because she doesn’t like being around drugs.

“My whole family died from drugs. And I’m trying to keep away from drugs,” she adds, “because I’m pregnant.”

Up the street, at TGI Fridays, a 26-year-old man named John Rohan gratefully accepts a cup of tea from Simon volunteer Veronica Cullen.

“Any [homeless person] who says they’re going hungry in Dublin is lying,” he says.

Three groups have come by with sandwiches just this evening, he says. The problem isn’t food, he says, it’s a lack of beds.

Embarrassing

Rohan’s father was a heroin addict and, six years ago, after his mother died, Rohan couldn’t afford the rent on their home and ended up homeless with her dog (“He died a few years later”).

Rohan has a bag of dry clothes stashed in Stephen’s Green and another across the river. He usually sleeps in a doorway on O’Connell Street where a “security guard is kind to me”.

Other people aren’t so kind, he says.

“I got pissed on last month. Another man kicked me in the face.”

He begs on the street which makes him feel ashamed.

“I was a plasterer once,” he says. “Today, you’d be lucky if you made €20 in a day. There are triple the amount of people tapping than there was.”

He has family members he can occasionally stay with and is hoping to stay with this Christmas – “I was out last Christmas night and it was so lonely” – and he goes to St Mark’s Church every Sunday.

“I believe in God,” he says and does it help?

He just laughs.

He tells me he had a stroke two years ago. His security guard friend found him and called an ambulance. He spent six months in hospital and he’s meant to get regular checkups, but he finds it embarrassing being in the hospital smelling so badly.

“So, I stopped going . . . You can still see it on the left side of my face a bit when I smile.”

Rohan had his stroke on the street. Mary is going through her pregnancy on the street. Karl tells me about violent attacks he has witnessed. John was told of his mother’s death in front of me and Simon Community volunteers and other random passers-by.

Rough sleepers live in public and yet, they remain invisible most of the time.

Michael Ward, a former builder with a sleeping bag over his shoulders and a paper cup of coins in his hand, lives in a tent and has given up on having a normal life.

“I wouldn’t know where to start,” he says. “I’m not on the housing list. I’ve no ID. I’ve no bank account. I’ve no PPS number. No one can find me. I don’t exist on paper. I don’t exist at all until someone gives me some money.”

Pimco accused of misleading Nama and the Public Accounts Committee

On the €1.6bn Project Eagle deal

Image result for Pimco accused of misleading Nama and the Public Accounts Committee  Image result for Pimco accused of misleading Nama

The National Asset Management Agency Treasury building in Dublin

The US law firm Brown Rudnick, which played a central role in the controversial €1.6bn Project Eagle deal, has accused original bidder Pimco of misleading Nama and the Public Accounts Committee about its knowledge of proposed “success fees” to be paid to fixer Frank Cushnahan.

In correspondence seen by the Irish Independent, Brown Rudnick chief executive Joseph R Ryan has written to the Public Accounts Committee disputing claims made by Pimco to the Dail watchdog as well as statements made by Tughans solicitor Ian Coulter.

In an 11-page letter, Ryan says that contrary to “repeated curious statements” by Pimco, senior bosses at the US fund were made aware five months before its withdrawal from the bidding process that a proposed success fee structure would have seen Nama’s former Northern Ireland Advisory Committee member Cushnahan sharing a €16m payment with Brown Rudnick and Tughans.

His account contradicts what Pimco legal officer Tom Rice said to the PAC in a letter dated November 8th last.

Pimco maintained the law firm first sought a fee in June 2013 and confirmed that this would be split between Mr Cushnahan, who was then a member of Nama’s Northern Ireland Advisory Committee, and Mr Coulter. Mr Rice said the company refused and asked if Nama was aware of its adviser’s involvement.

Mr Ryan, in his letter to the PAC states: “Pimco knew from the outset of the proposed transaction both that Mr Cushnahan would be involved in the deal and that it was contemplated he would split a proposed success fee with Brown Rudnick and Tughans (at least until a different structure was discussed in February 2014).”

“We are unable to reconcile Pimco’s statement that it “identified” Mr Cushnahan’s involvement and compensation in 2014 with the unassailable fact that it was aware of his involvement, and his proposed compensation, since the spring of 2013,” he adds.

“Notwithstanding the fact that no binding agreement was reached for the compensation of Mr Cushnahan, either on a success fee or asset management basis, it was always understood between Pimco and Brown Rudnick that Mr Cushnahan’s role and potential compensation would be disclosed to Nama at a time mutually agreed between Pimco and Brown Rudnick.”

Brown Rudnick’s account is consistent with Nama chairman Frank Daly’s account of his understanding of events.

In this letter to the Dail’s Public Accounts Committee, Ryan says that although the matter of Cushnahan’s success fee “remained unresolved”, on February 27, 2014, Brown Rudnick sent a ‘Letter of Offer’ for Pimco’s consideration “in response to a request from Pimco that the compensation structure for Mr Cushnahan no longer be based on a success fee, but rather take the form of an asset management agreement predicated on contributions post-closing to the management of the portfolio”. This ‘Letter of Offer’ proposed the “creation of a Special Purpose Vehicle and a put option along with certain management fees for assisting in the management and disposition of the Northern Ireland loan portfolio.”

Nama has insisted repeatedly that it was responsible for Pimco’s withdrawal from the  Project Eagle process after it became aware of the alleged success fee for Frank Cushnahan.

Pimco for its part has always insisted it withdrew from the deal only after it “discovered” the proposed success fee for Cushnahan.

Efforts to reach Pimco at the time of going to press were unsuccessful.

Low social status damages the immune system function

Image result for Low social status damages the immune system function  Image result for Monkeys show that Low social status damages the immune system  Image result for Low social status damages the immune system function  

Poverty and poor health are known to be linked

“Simply being at the bottom of the social heap directly alters the body,” BBC News reports. The headline is based on a study in which researchers used female monkeys to simulate social hierarchies.

Monkeys of low social status were found to have biomarkers indicating poor immune function and possible increased vulnerability to infection.

The researchers arranged the monkeys into social groups and observed behaviours for two years to determine the social hierarchy. They then “mixed-up” the groups so that some of the monkeys were introduced into other groups as the “new girl”. This effectively meant that the “newbie monkey” was stripped of all social status.

They then took blood samples to look at any effect this had on the immune system. The study found that social rankings in the monkey groups had an effect on white blood cells involved in fighting off disease. These findings suggested that the stress of a lower social ranking may increase inflammation and reduce resistance to infection and illness.

Although this study was specific to monkeys, the researchers argue that these findings are also applicable to humans. We do, after all, share much of our DNA with them.

Still, social status is a subjective concept not an objective fact. It only matters if you let it matter. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from a number of international institutions in the US, Canada and Kenya, including Duke University, Emory University, the Universite de Montreal, and the Institute of Primate Research in Nairobi.

It was funded by grants, including one from the Canada Research Chairs Program.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Science.

BBC News and the Mail Online’s reporting were fairly accurate. Although both outlets were quick to apply the findings to humans without highlighting the fact that social hierarchies, and their resulting influences in primates, may be different to those found in humans.

It could be the case that the primates in question – rhesus monkeys – were more sensitive to loss of social status than humans would be.

What kind of research was this?

This was an animal study which aimed to investigate how social status influences the immune system in captive adult female rhesus macaques.

Evidence has shown that social status is one of the strongest predictors of disease and death in humans. As rhesus macaques naturally form linear hierarchies (social groups where there is a clear pattern of rank), this study wanted to investigate the potential effects of social status by further exploring if and how it alters the immune system on a genetic level.

Animal studies are useful early stage research, especially in primates due to their biological similarity to humans. However, the social hierarchies observed in monkeys are not necessarily representative of those seen in humans.

What did the research involve?

The researchers conducted their investigation using 45 adult female rhesus macaques in captivity. In captivity, it’s possible to manipulate the social hierarchies formed in these monkeys by the order in which the monkeys are introduced to new social groups. The monkeys were all unrelated and had never met each other before.

Nine groups containing five monkeys each were formed and these groups were maintained and observed (phase one). The monkeys were ranked where a higher status corresponded to a higher value. Social status was determined by observing whether an individual female was groomed by other monkeys (seen as a sign of high status) or conversely, harassed by other monkeys (a sign of low status).

After a year, these groups were rearranged by introducing the females one-by-one from phase one from either same or adjacent ranks into new groups (phase two). These were again followed for a year.

Alongside this qualitative observation, blood samples from the monkeys were analysed before and after each phase. The blood samples were analysed for any changes in the composition of white blood cells.

What were the basic results?

This study found a positive association between a monkey’s rank and the activity of two specific types of white blood cell: T-helper cells and natural killer (NK) cells. T-helper cells play an overall role in regulating the immune system, while NK cells destroy infected or abnormal cells.

The researchers found that improvements in social status were reflected in the gene activity of these cells.

  • The gene activity of NK cells was the most responsive to social status. Researchers identified 1,676 genes that were responsive to rank. This was closely followed by the gene activity of T-helper cells (n=284 genes).
  • Weaker links were identified between monkey ranks and the activity of B-cells that produce antibodies (n=68 genes), and cytotoxic T-cells, another type of cell that targets and destroys abnormal cells (n=15 genes).
  • There was no detectable effect on the expression of purified monocytes – a type of white blood cell that develop into macrophages that “eat” or engulf dead and damaged cells.

Additionally, they found the rate of received harassment contributed a considerable proportion of the gene activity of T-helper and NK cells (17.3% and 7.8% respectively). Grooming rates (how often, or not, an individual monkey was groomed by other monkeys) had more influence on the activity of NK genes (33.4% of all rank-responsive genes).

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say their results suggest that most effects of social status are immune cell type–specific. They conclude: “Our findings provide insight into the direct biological effects of social inequality on immune function, thus improving our understanding of social gradients in health.”

A conclusion

The negative effect of social deprivation on health has long been recognised. This has often been attributed to an increase in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, poor diet and being overweight.

However, this study looked at a slightly different aspect – observing the effects of social status through relationships with others – and suggesting this may have wider health effects than just influencing our lifestyle and health behaviours.

They found that a monkey’s rank changed the gene activity of specific types of white blood or immune cell, and altered their numbers. Therefore, social status or social deprivation could directly influence the body’s resistance to infection and disease.

One of the researchers, Dr. Noah Snyder-Mackler, told the BBC: “It suggests there’s something else, not just the behaviours of these individuals, that’s leading to poor health.

“Our message brings a positive counter to that – there are these other aspects of low status that are outside of the control of individuals that have negative effects on health.”

These findings are interesting, but even though primates are generally quite similar to humans in both genetic make-up and social interactions, they aren’t exactly the same.

Nevertheless, these results could help further our understanding of the effects of social factors on health in humans.

If social mobility does impact on human health by lowering feelings of self-esteem, there are other methods of increasing your self-esteem, that don’t involve money or status.

These include connecting with others, learning new skills and taking time to help the less fortunate.

Scientists uncover new evidence for life on Ancient Mars

The Spirit rover exploring Home Plate.   Image result for Scientists Uncover New Evidence for Life on Ancient Mars  Image result for Scientists Uncover New Evidence for Life on Ancient Mars

In 2007, NASA’s unmanned Spirit Rover wheeled across Mars, taking photographs and data, until it eventually got stuck in soft red soil two years later. Photographs of hot spring silica deposits were seen, but was thought to be just another geological structure. That is until quite recently when two geologists discovered similar deposits here on Earth, and found that these structures are made by tiny organisms—now suggesting existence of the organisms on the Red Planet.

Arizona State University geologists Steven Ruff and Jack Farmer’s research is detailed in Nature Communications. They contrasted the Spirit’s study on the Mars Home Plate with their findings in the El Tatio Chilean hot springs, a place known to be the best“Mars analog” because of its high elevation, extreme freeze-thaw temperatures, and high exposure ultraviolet rays. Ruff described the mineral outcrops found in El Tatio to be “the most Mars-like of any silica deposits on Earth.”

The finger-like silica deposits found in Home Plate were poorly misunderstood. Now, the geologists have determined that microbes play a major role in forming the silica deposits, suggesting that the same has been occurring on Mars.

FUTURE EXPLORATION?

The ASU researchers’ discovery prompts future explorations to search specifically for the possible biosignatures in the silica structures. NASA has announced plans to send a new rover to Mars in 2020, and this new mission, which is yet unnamed, could be specifically instrumented and prepared for the search for microbial life.

Today, continued study about Mars’ dynamic system is ever-imperative as plans to send humansthere loom closer to materialization. These discoveries could greatly alter preparations from SpaceX and NASA before we can finally set up camp on the Red Planet.

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News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Friday 8th July 2016

As much as 48 charities are directly involved with suicide care in Ireland

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Ireland has some 48 non-profit organisations which are directly involved in some form of suicide care including counselling, prevention and information.

Of these, 31 are registered, and have a reported 153 staff.

One of these organisations is Console – which will be closed down shortly following revelations of financial irregularities.

Nearly half the charities are based in Dublin, with significant numbers also in Cork and Kerry.

Financial data was available for 29 of the suicide charities after the filing of accounts with the Companies Registration Office in 2014.

Pieta House had the largest turnover in 2014 with a reported income of €5.4m.

Six reported an income of €500,000 in 2014.

Public funding for several of the suicide organisations comes from a range of sources including the HSE, the National Lottery, Tusla the child and family agency, county councils and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

HSE Grants

Other funding was given by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Environment.

The HSE’s National Office for Suicide Prevention spent €4.4m in 2014 with the largest grant given to the National Suicide Research Foundation.

It gave €582,998 to the Samaritans, €548,000 to Console and €503,000 to Pieta House.

Shine received a grant of €303,506.

Ivan Cooper, director of advocacy at The Wheel, which supports charities, said: “The charity sector cannot continue to lurch from controversy to controversy – the work of the sector is much too important for that.

“It is the people and communities supported by charities that suffer every time a controversy occurs. We must end this cycle.

“Charities embody an immensely positive social value in Ireland.

“They result from a culture where people take initiatives to address social issues in their communities, and this approach is supported by the public and State entities.

“This vital work must be placed on firm footing, one that provides the necessary transparency and accountability for the public while supporting the trustees, staff and volunteers of charities to do their work.

“In short, we need a coherent policy framework for charities to operate in. We need effective and proportionate reporting for charities.”

Sick leave rates still very high in parts of the Irish public service

Reforms of sick leave arrangements see costs fall by more than €104m to €317.9m

     

Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said the number of days lost to sick leave per full-time equivalent jobs across the public service had fallen by 1.0 days to 8.5 days.

Rates of sick leave in parts of the public service remain high, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe has said.

However, reforms to sick leave arrangements introduced in 2014 had generated significant savings for the exchequer, he added.

New figures released on Friday by the Department of Public Expenditure showed that, overall, the level of sick leave across the public service has fallen below 4 per cent for the first time.

The figures published by the department revealed that, on average, 10.2 working days per full-time employee were lost in the Civil Service in 2015.

However, the department figures showed that within the Civil Service, areas such as the Irish Prison Service, the Department of Social Protection, theNational Council for Curriculum and Assessment and the Revenue Commissioners all reported higher levels than the average.

A spokeswoman for the Minister said that across the wider public service “areas such as the health sector and the Civil Service have higher average rates of days lost, but management in all areas will be working to further reduce rates of sick leave and absenteeism through the development of targeted strategies”.

Significant savings

Significant savings have also been achieved through changes. The department said that since reforms to sick leave arrangements were introduced in 2014 – which effectively halved entitlements – the cost to the State had fallen by more than €104 million to €317.9 million.

The department said the number of days lost to sick leave per full-time equivalent jobs across the public service had fallen by 1.0 days to 8.5 days.

The new figures cover about 250,000 full-time equivalent personnel across the public service, including the Civil Service, education, health, justice, local government and defence sectors.

In a statement, Mr Donohoe said: “While there has been a significant improvement since the reform, the rates of sick leave in areas of the public service remain high and need to be reduced further.

“To achieve this, management in each of the sectors must focus on the proactive management of absenteeism, and policies designed to assist employers in managing cases of prolonged or frequent absence proactively will be required.

“This will be a key recommendation in the review of the operation of the sick leave scheme, which is being undertaken by the department.”

He said his department would be establishing a public service sick leave management forum “to provide ongoing support for each of the sectors in managing sick leave in their respective sectors, including the identification of the underlying causes of sick leave and the development of targeted strategies aimed at further reducing sick leave absences.”

He said a target for the rate of sick leave would be set within each of the sectors and this would be monitored on an annual basis.

“It is also intended for the sectors of the public service to publish sick leave absence rates on an organisational/regional basis, where figures are available,” he added.

The number of new cars licensed in Ireland up 23.9% in first half of 2016

Volkswagen was the most popular make of new car licensed with 10.9% market share

   

Volkswagen was the most popular make of new car licensed in the first half of 2016, with 10.9% market share.

The number of new cars licensed for the first time rose by 23.9% in the first six months of the year, figures show.

Data from the Central Statistics Office indicates 97,490 new cars received licenses in the period January to June.

The number of used imported cars rose by 25% compared to the same period last year.

A total of 4,143 new private cars were licensed for the first time last month, an increase of 5.6% compared with June 2015.

A total of 5,459 used cars were licensed, representing an increase of 45% on the same month last year.

Volkswagen was the most popular make of new car licensed in the first half of 2016, with 10.9% market share.

Toyota was the second most popular car make with 10,384 new private cars licensed and a 10.7% market share, followed by Hyundai, Ford and Nissan.

In the first half of 2016, seven out of every ten (70.3%) new private cars licensed were diesel fuelled.

Statins may cut the risk of dying from four common cancers, scientists now believe?

      

Statins may significantly cut the risk of dying from four of the most common cancers, evidence suggests.

Scientists found “striking” reductions in death rate among cancer patients diagnosed with high cholesterol.

Treatment with the cholesterol-lowering drugs taken by millions of people in the UK is the most likely explanation, they believe.

A high cholesterol diagnosis was associated with a 43% lower risk of dying from breast cancer, 47% from prostate cancer, 30% from bowel cancer and 22% from lung cancer.

The findings support previous research indicating that statins may offer protection to cancer patients.

A study published last month in the journal Breast Cancer Research showed that breast cancers can manufacture a tumour-boosting molecule from cholesterol.

Dr Paul Carter, from Aston University in Birmingham, UK, who presented the new findings at a meeting of heart experts in Florence, Italy, said: “Our research suggests that there’s something about having a high cholesterol diagnosis that improves survival and the extent to which it did that was quite striking in the four cancers studied.

“Based on previous research we think there’s a very strong possibility that statins are producing this effect.”

He added: “These findings are likely to be seen in other cancers as well but this is only speculation and would need to be confirmed by studies in different types of cancer.”

The scientists analysed the health records of almost a million cancer patients admitted to UK hospitals over a 14-year period between January 2000 and March 2013.

Clinical information was compared with mortality data obtained from the Office for National Statistics.

Out of a total of 929,552 patients, 7,997 had lung cancer, 5,481 breast cancer, 4,629 prostate cancer, and 4,570 bowel cancer.

After adjusting for factors which might influence life span, including age, gender, ethnicity, and the ten most common causes of death, the scientists found that patients were less likely to die if they had a diagnosis of high cholesterol as well as cancer.

The new research was presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology meeting in Florence.

Curiosity finds unique ripples in Mars Planet dunes

      

Though both Mars and Earth possess wind-blown sand dunes with very similar characteristics, it seems Martian dunes have a little something extra.

Mars is a planet shaped by aeolian — or “wind-driven” — processes. So it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to know the Red Planet also sports some pretty big sand dunes.

From afar, these dunes strongly resemble the dunes we have on our planet. But in a new study carried out by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, an active dune field on Mars has revealed that, though many of the processes that shape Martian dunes are the same processes that shape terrestrial dunes, there’s an extra ripple that can only form in Mars’ atmosphere.

“Earth and Mars both have big sand dunes and small sand ripples, but on Mars, there’s something in between that we don’t have on Earth,” said graduate student Mathieu Lapotre, of Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., in a NASA statement.

On both Earth and Mars dunes can be as large as a football field and consist of a gently-sloping upwind face and a steep downwind face that is shaped by continuous sand avalanches as the prevailing wind keeps pushing material over the apex of the dune. Classical arc-shaped barchan dunes can often result on both planets and Mars satellites have captured some stunning observations of these types of dunes from orbit. Just look at them, they’re amazing.

On Earth, the surfaces of these dunes are often rippled with peaks and troughs spaced around 30 centimeters (12 inches) apart. These rows of ripples are created by wind-carried grains of sand colliding with stationary grains, eventually creating a corrugated texture on dunes covering sandy deserts and beaches.

Until Curiosity started its approach to the active dark Bagnold Dunes six months ago on the northwestern slopes of Mount Sharp, scientists didn’t know whether these small-scale “impact ripples” existed. From orbit, larger ripples measuring around three meters (10 feet)from peak to peak could be seen and it was generally assumed that these larger-scale ripples were equivalent to Earth’s impact ripples, only much larger owing to the thin Martian atmosphere and lower gravity.

But when Curiosity arrived at Bagnold, the rover didn’t only see the 10 feet-wide ripples, but it also saw the small-scale ripples just like Earth’s impact ripples.

“As Curiosity was approaching the Bagnold Dunes, we started seeing that the crest lines of the meter-scale ripples are sinuous,” said Lapotre, who’s also science team collaborator for the Curiosity mission. “That is not like impact ripples, but it is just like sand ripples that form under moving water on Earth. And we saw that superimposed on the surfaces of these larger ripples were ripples the same size and shape as impact ripples on Earth.”

So it turns out that Mars dunes have an added complexity that could only be proven by rolling up close and taking photos. Mars dunes have the small impact ripples, plus medium-sized “sinuous ripples” that can be resolved from space.

Interestingly, though Earth’s dunes don’t possess sinuous ripples, they can form underwater — on a riverbed, for example. Rather than particles colliding, these sinuous ripples are created as flowing water drags particles, causing them to settle in a rippled pattern.

Lapotre, who is lead author of a study that was published on July 1 in the journal Science, thinks that the Martian sinuous ripples are being driven in a similar way, but it’s the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere that’s dragging the particles to form the medium-sized ripples on the sand dunes. Lapotre’s team have nicknamed them “wind-drag ripples.”

“The size of these ripples is related to the density of the fluid moving the grains, and that fluid is the Martian atmosphere,” he said. “We think Mars had a thicker atmosphere in the past that might have formed smaller wind-drag ripples or even have prevented their formation altogether. Thus, the size of preserved wind-drag ripples, where found in Martian sandstones, may have recorded the thinning of the atmosphere.”

But after studying observations (carried out by Curiosity and NASA’s veteran rover Opportunity) of Mars’ sandstone dating back to 3 billion years ago, the researchers found evidence of these wind-drag ripples preserved in the material of the approximate same size as the ripples that exist in today’s Martian dunes. This means the planet lost most of its atmosphere early in its geological history and for the past 3 billion years the atmospheric pressure has remained fairly constant — a finding that fits with other Mars atmosphere evolution models.

“During our visit to the active Bagnold Dunes, you might almost forget you’re on Mars, given how similar the sand behaves in spite of the different gravity and atmosphere. But these mid-sized ripples are a reminder that those differences can surprise us,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

It’s pretty amazing to think that a fairly simple observation of an active sand dune on Mars can reveal so much about Mars’ current and ancient atmospheric conditions. But as the sophisticated wheeled robot continues its quest to seek out past and present habitable environments, and this is all in a day’s work.

Mars plays host to a huge number of dune fields — regions where fine wind-blown material gets deposited to form arguably some of the most beautiful dunes that can be found on any planetary body in the solar system. Using the powerful High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, planetary scientists have an orbital view on these features that aid our understanding of aeolian (wind-formed) processes and Martian geology. Here are some of our favorite Mars dunes as seen by HiRISE. Pictured here are shell-like “barchan dunes” in the ancient Noachis Terra region of Mars.

Dunes of many shapes, sizes and formation processes can be found on the Red Planet. Shown here are elegant “linear dunes” with deposits of larger rocks and possibly ices in their troughs.

These slug-like dark dunes are striking examples of “dome dunes” — elliptical accumulations of fine material with no-slip surfaces. These domes contrast greatly with the often jagged appearance of barchan dunes. Found at the bottom of Proctor Crater, they are darker than the surrounding crater floor as they are composed of dark basaltic sand that was transported by the wind.

Looking like a wind-blown silk sheet, this field of “star dunes” overlays a plain of small ripples, another aeolian feature. The ripples move more slowly across the bottom of Proctor Crater, so the large dune field will travel over the smaller ripples. Dunes are continuously evolving and moving with the wind, ensuring that the Martian surface is never static.

These “transverse dunes” are undergoing seasonal changes. Likely entering Mars summer, this region of dunes is stained with pockets of subliming ices — likely carbon dioxide. As the ices turn from solid to vapor, dune material slumps, revealing dark, sandy material underneath.

Resembling the mouths of a shoal of feeding fish, this is a group of barchan dunes in Mars’ North Polar region. Barchan dunes betray the prevailing wind direction. In this case, the prevailing wind is traveling from bottom right to top left; the steep slope of material (plus dune “horns”) point to the downwind direction. The HiRISE camera monitors barchans to see if they move between observing opportunities, thereby revealing their speed of motion across the Martian plains.

This is the same barchan dune field, zoomed out, a “swarm” of dunes covering the plains.

Not all barchan dunes “behave” and form neat “horny” shapes. They can become muddled and overlapping, creating “barchanoid dunes,” as shown here.

This very fluid-looking collection of barchans is accompanied by a wind-blown ridge in the Hellespontus region of Mars but…

…only when zoomed out does the true nature of this fascinating region become clear. The prevailing wind is eroding the mesas (small hills) to the right of the image, carrying fine material downwind (from right to left), creating a startling pattern of barchans and a viscous-looking trail of sandy ridges across the plains.

The band Train sang about the “Drops of Jupiter” — what about the “Drops of Mars”? Sure, they’re not made of any kind of fluid, but they do make for incredibly-shaped dunes. These raindrop-shaped dunes are found in Copernicus Crater and are known to be rich in the mineral olivine, a mineral that formed during the wet history of Mars’ evolution.

These craggy-looking dunes are old barchanoids eroding away through seasonal processes (sublimation of sub-surface ices) and the persistent Martian wind.

These linking barchan dunes are at the leading edge of a dune field — grains of dust have been blown across a plain, deposited and left to accumulate in elongated arrow shapes.

Dome-shaped dunes and barchans seem to “reach out” and touch their downwind partners with slumped material.

Barchan dunes inside Arkhangelsky Crater in the southern hemisphere of Mars reveal a wind direction from top left to bottom right. Note the tracks of Martian dust devils over the dune slopes.

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Monday 04th July 2016

Happy days as Ireland’s Tax receipts for this year to end June are €742m ahead of target

Exchequer data show public finances continuing to benefit from surge in corporation tax

   

Happy reading for the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

The latest returns resulted in an exchequer deficit for the period of €1.14 billion compared to a deficit of €292 million for the same period last year, albeit last year’s figures were flattered by a €2.1 billion payment generated from the sale of Permanent TSB shares, and a transfer from the national pension reserve fund.

Tax receipts for the year are now €742 million ahead of target, according to the latest exchequer returns.

The figures show the public finances are continuing to benefit from a surge in corporation tax, which came in at €2.67 billion for the six-month period to the end of June, some €505 million or 19 per cent above profile.

Overall, the Government collected €22.5 billion in tax revenue, which was €1.9 billion up on the corresponding period last year.

The other strong-performing tax head was excise duty, which amounted to €2.76 billion for the period, some €401 million or 14.5% ahead of projections.

This was linked to increased imports of cigarettes ahead of the introduction of plain packaging, which is expected to unwind later in the year.

Income tax, the largest of the Government’s four main tax heads, came in at €8.77 billion, in line with department projections.

This represented a year-on-year increase of €462 million or 5.6% and reflects ongoing recovery in the labour market.

VAT, a key indicator of health in the retail economy, generated €6.2 billion, which was €230 million below profile.

On the monthly basis, VAT receipts were also €110 million or 36% behind expectations.

Repayments

A department spokesman said the VAT figures reflected a large level of repayments going out in a non-VAT month.

He also said the underlying trend was consistent with the latest retail sales figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

Total net voted spending came in at €20.8 billion, which was marginally below projections.

The department said spending in 12 of the 16 government departments was below targets set at the start of the year.

Of the four exceptions, the largest overspend was in health, which was 2.1 per cent or €137 million above target.

With new EU rules restricting the use of supplementary budgets, the Government will not be in a position to roll this over into the following year as it did last October.

The latest returns resulted in an exchequer deficit for the period of €1.14 billion compared to a deficit of €292 million for the same period last year, albeit last year’s figures were flattered by a €2.1 billion payment generated from the sale of Permanent TSB shares, and a transfer from the national pension reserve fund.

Appeal to HSE to ensure Console services are secured in wake of controversy

The Health Minister has described an audit into the charity as a “harrowing” read.

      

Above (middle picture) Paul Kelly rogue director of the charity CONSOLE.

The Health Minister SIMON HARRIS has confirmed that he is meeting with the HSE tomorrow to discuss its internal audit of the charity Console.

Harris said that he had read the report of the audit and that he had found it “disgusting and disturbing”.

Meanwhile, interim chief executive of the charity David Hall has told TheJournal.ie that he will be writing to Harris tonight to secure funds so that Console’s services for people affected by suicide can continue.

“I am engaged with the HSE and will be writing to Minister Harris seeking the HSE’s support for the existing services,” he said this evening. “We need to secure services and the services cannot continue in absence of support from the HSE.”

He said that a decision on this needed to be made before the case appears before the High Court on Tuesday.

Hall took possession of some of the charity’s assets, including two cars, yesterday.

He said that he took a forensic security firm with him which took possession of the files on computers which were handed over to him. The cars were taken to an auction house to be valued. A report on the assets is expected to be given to Hall in court.

Harris told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics this afternoon that the HSE Console audit is ”a harrowing read”.

He said he was “not satisfied” with how HSE funding of the charity was being managed.

“I’m very concerned about this and I’m not satisfied in relation to it,” said Harris.

He said that he had read a report of the internal audit of Console and that it was “a harrowing read”.

“There are elements there that are quite frankly disgusting and disturbing,” he said.

I’m really not pleased and it needs to be published as quickly as possible.

However, Harris said that in terms of the HSE’s relationship with Console he was satisfied that it had received the service that it had paid for.

“The HSE procures a service from Console,” he said.

“It grant-aids Console to provide bereavement counselling and the operation of a helpline.

“And the one thing I can say… we are satisfied that the service we paid for we did receive.”

Harris said that he will be meeting with the HSE tomorrow to discuss the report.

The HSE is to appear before the Public Accounts Committee in relation to its funding to Console and other charities, its chairman Séán Fleming told the Marian Finucane Show today.

Saint John of God report?

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has published an investigation today into top-up payments made to more than a dozen senior managers at taxpayer-funded charity Saint John of God.

In a statement, Saint John of God Hospitalier Order said:

We are of the view that the once off payments made to senior managers in 2013, which were based on professional advice, was the correct thing to do. The payments  were made by the Order to discharge contractual obligations with managers. The payments did not impact in any manner or at any time, on the provision of services and supports.

While The Order believes it is in compliance with public pay policy, it welcomes any review by the HSE into this matter. The Order is keen to fully co-operate with such a process, as soon as it is initiated. It has already shared with the HSE, the independent professional advice it received in 2013.

Finian McGrath, Minister of State for Disabilities, told RTÉ Radio One’s This Week that the HSE is investigating the report.

With regard to the regulation of charities, he said ”we have to up our game”. McGrath said that the HSE is in talks with the order on this particular issue and they will be reviewing and responding to the issues that were raised.

He said that part of his objective as a minister of state is to “clean up that whole sector and ensure all children and adults with disabilities get the taxpayers’ money into their frontline services”.

McGrath said allegations made in the Daily Mail report regarding top-ups and Saint John of God are ”not acceptable“.

   “I will be demanding action,” said Finian McGrath.

Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said that with regard to this story, “we will want to know exactly what happened”.

Speaking to This Week, McDonald said that there was “fairly intensive correspondence between the HSE and indeed the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform requiring these organisations including Saint John of God to compel with public pay policy”.

She said that she would like to see the trail of correspondence between the State and Saint John of God.

“I would like to know what measures [there were] to ensure compliance,” she said, adding that the situation”raises every question that we have raised before around how active, how vigilant, how attentive is the HSE in terms of the very substantial funding that goes to these organisations”.

McDonald said she also thinks it raises a question for government.

She said that successive ministers for health have been aware that there were problems in the charitable sector around complying with public pay policy, and “we find ourselves now many years on back at square one”.

She said that poor governance and poor practice is “very annoying and very disappointing for the public”.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc Mac Sharry has called on the HSE to publish audits which it carried out on 27 charities “to ensure greater transparency within the sector”.

He commented: “There are hundreds of charities across this country which provide excellent services to vulnerable people and we must ensure that these organisations are protected.  The scandal at console risks damaging their reputations, as well as that of the charity sector as a whole.

Meanwhile:-

Irish charities are responsible for vetting directors and staff? says the HSE

   

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy (above picture) has criticised the HSE for its handling of the saga and said more could have been done to protect the integrity of the charity sector.

Carrying out background checks and Garda vetting was solely the responsibility of staff and directors at Console, it has emerged.

The HSE said organisations such as the suicide-bereavement charity are responsible for reassuring it that staff had the necessary Garda clearance before they received State funding.

This is despite director Paul Kelly being served with the Probation Act for impersonating a doctor for three weeks in 1983.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy criticised the HSE for its handling of the saga and said more could have been done to protect the integrity of the charity sector.

“I don’t understand how the HSE didn’t do a greater piece of due diligence . . . The charity regulator needs to be given more power,” Ms Murphy said.

Have recent revelations put you off donating to charities?

She said the HSE needed to be more responsible when allocating funding to charities.

“They should have looked at the health of the board, who was on it and who the directors were. There is a bigger piece of work the HSE must do if they are going to be funders.”

The HSE has defended the security structures it has in place to monitor charities such as Console.

It said it was led to believe Console was financially compliant and that all of its staff, including Mr Kelly, had the appropriate Garda clearance to carry out a public service.

However, the HSE has failed to confirm whether Paul Kelly’s history, which includes impersonating a doctor and a priest, was ever taken into consideration when Console was being allocated State funding.

The HSE completed an internal audit of the charity last year and is considering Console’s response to the findings and recommendations before making a decision on any future arrangements.

Breathing seaweed fumes is good for your health, research now shows

Two-decade study finds iodine deficiency much lower in seaweed-rich coastal areas

  

Johnny Cloherty harvesting seaweed near Carna in Co Galway.

Taking a coastal stroll makes one feel better, but it’s not just the fresh air that lifts the spirits. Newly-published research has found breathing iodine emitted by seaweed has physiological benefits.

The research published in the Irish Medical Journal says iodine intake, which is essential to brain development in children, is improved by continued exposure to a seaweed-rich environment.

The two-decade study, led by Prof Peter Smyth of both University CollegeDublin (UCD) and NUI Galway, was sparked by his interest during his time in UCD medical school in iodine deficiency and its effect on the thyroid gland.

Research in the 1940s in south Tipperary had linked large goitres and associated learning difficulties in children with iodine deficiency.

Ireland and Britain lack the salt iodisation programmes introduced in other developed countries to ensure diets of expectant mothers are not iodine-deficient. “Seaweed shares properties with the human thyroid, in that both concentrate iodine; the thyroid from the diet, seaweed from seawater,” Prof Smyth says.

His study over 20 years compared urine samples taken from schoolchildren and women in three separate environments: the seaweed-rich coastal area of Carna, Co Galway; the coastal cities of Dublin, Galway and Belfast; and the inland areas of Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and Mullingar, Co Westmeath.

The seaweed “hotspot” of Carna scored highest of all, with 45.6 per cent of schoolchildren and 43 per cent of adults having iodine intake above the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation. Between 2.3 per cent and 16 per cent of those tested in inland and low seaweed-abundant coastal areas met the WHO standard.

“The benefits are associated with not just being near the sea, but being able to take a good lungful of air near a seaweed-rich beach,” Prof Smyth says.

The findings may prompt local authorities to think twice about regularly clearing city beaches of seaweed.

In Galway, an estimated 60,000 people visited the third national SeaFest over the weekend.

China completes the world’s largest radio telescope to find aliens from outer space?

   

Work has finished on the world’s largest radio telescope, which will hunt for extraterrestrial life and explore space.

China fitted the final of 4,450 panels into the centre of the 500m-wide Aperture Spherical Telescope, or FAST, over the weekend.

The telescope, which cost $180 million (£135 million) and took five years to build, will be switched on from September this year.

“The project has the potential to search for more strange objects to better understand the origin of the universe and boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life,” Zheng Xiaonian, deputy head of the National Astonomical Observation under the Chinese Academy Sciences, which built the telescope, told Xhinua news agency.

Around the size of 30 football pitches, the 500m-wide radio telescope is significantly larger than the current record holder, Puerto Rico’s 300m-wide Arecibo Observatory. And it is 10 times more sensitive than Germany’s 100-metre-wide steerable telescope, according to Xinhua.

From September, the telescope will be open for two or three years of early-stage research while it also undergoes trials and adjustments.

Before then 9,000 people that live within a 5 km radius of the centre will be relocated to ensure radio silence in the area.

After September, the telescope will be made available to researchers across the world, and will help detecting pulsars and gravitational waves. FAST is expected to eventually be able to detect amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which would signal life on other planets.

Researchers as far as 2,000 km away from the site in Pintang County, Guizhou, can use the telescope for remote observation and control.

President Xi Jingping is determined to establish China as a space power. Its ambitions include putting a man on the moon by 2036 and building a space station, the first module of which will be launched in 2018.

The country recently unveiled the world’s most powerful supercomputer that is almost three times as powerful as its nearest competitor.

China’s rival to space exploration, Nasa, will this week reach Jupiter with its Juno spacecraft. If the mission is successful it could solve the mystery of the swirling storm clouds and whether the planet was the first in the solar system.

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Monday 27th June 2016

‘There is no going back on water charges for Ireland’ says the EU

    

Micheal Martin, and Enda Kenny.

There is no going back on water charges, the EU Commission has said in its clearest statement on the controversy to date.

Ireland is breaking EU law if the Dáil seeks to abandon charging as is expected after a nine-month consultation period agreed in the Programme for Government.

In reply to a Parliamentary Question from MEP Marian Harkin, the European Commission said Ireland  “made a clear commitment to set up water charges” and there  is no provision “whereby it can revert to any previous practice”.

The statement is the clearest yet on water charges and suggests that Ireland could be left open to significant EU fines unless a billing system is implemented.

The Commission said that Ireland is signed up to Article 9(4) of the Framework Directive which sets down “strict conditions”.

It says that a member state wishing to avail for flexibility under this provision needed to take a decision on what constituted an “established practice”.

“On the contrary, in the said plans, Ireland made a clear commitment to set up water charges to comply with the provisions of Article 9(1).

“Ireland subsequently applied water charges and the Commission considers that the Directive does not provide for a situation whereby it can revert to any previous practice,” the Commission said.

The statement is likely to reignite the war of words over water charges.

Fianna Fáil has claimed that it has legal advice which says that Ireland can legally scrap water charges.

However, Fine Gael continues to say that water charges cannot be reversed and recently Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that despite all the protests people will eventually end up paying for domestic water.

Legislation that allows for the suspension of water charges for nine months is to be debated in the Dáil later this month.

It will allow for the setting up of a Commission which will make recommendations on the future of water charges.

European Union must reprise role of ‘social champion’

Says Tánaiste Fitzgerald

  

Frances Fitzgerald warns of setback if UK withdraws from European arrest warrant or Europol.

The Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald said membership of the EU “led to real changes for women through removal of the working ban for married women and the equal pay directive”.

The European Union must change its focus and be identified again with making people’s lives better, the Tánaiste has told the Dáil.

Frances Fitzgerald said the EU began as a peace project by promoting economic co-operation and it became a “social champion”.

Citing benefits to Ireland, she said membership of the EU “led to real changes for women through removal of the working ban for married women and the equal pay directive”.

During the day-long debate on the UK decision to leave, Ms Fitzgerald said in recent years the union “is seen by too many people as a restricting rather than an enabling force, focused on economic theory rather than social progression. That must change and now is the time to begin.”

She said “the European Union must again be identified with making people’s lives better”.

Echoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s view earlier in the debate that it was the Government’s priority to maintain the common travel area between the United Kingdom and Ireland, Ms Fitzgerald said it was also “clear that the UK share our view that it should be preserved”.

Security

The Tánaiste, who is Minister for Justice, said she had spoken on Monday to the UK minister of state for security and immigration. This was “a first step in this process and we agreed to have ongoing contact and further detailed discussions while maintaining our excellent relationship on security issues”.

She said a border normally had significant implications for the movement of people. But “ours will be geographically isolated from the rest of the European Union and in particular it will be outside the Schengen area so the integrity of the border controls of the Schengen area will not be affected in any way”.

Ms Fitzgerald also warned it would be a setback if the UK withdrew from the European Arrest Warrant process or from Europol, the body set up for co-operation among police services across Europe.

The Tánaiste said the arrest warrant system had replaced the traditional extradition process and had proved very successful. Europol had enhanced police co-operation between the member states and “now is a standard part of many investigations with several thousand queries a year going to and from the Garda Síochána and Europol”.

Controlling immune response ‘could ease dying’

     

Controlling the immune response of people dying from cancer might help save them from pain, fatigue and loss of appetite, according to researchers.

Experts hope by using existing drugs to control symptoms, people in their last few weeks of life can have a more comfortable time before they die.

Edinburgh University worked with the European Palliative Care Research Centre.

They studied the progression of cancer in more than 2,500 patients in Europe.

They used blood tests to assess inflammation levels in patients with many different types of cancer, including lung, breast, and bowel cancer.

Reduce inflammation

They found a person’s level of inflammation appeared to have a direct effect on the way they felt – causing pain, fatigue, loss of appetite and nausea.

The researchers believe this may be the first time such symptoms have been shown to develop as a result of the body’s immune response to cancer, and not simply as a consequence of tumours spreading.

Lead researcher Dr Barry Laird, of the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre at Edinburgh University, said: “This study challenges the assumption that certain symptoms are an inevitable consequence of advanced cancer, and there is nothing doctors can do to make patients feel better.

“If we can understand what causes symptoms such as pain, fatigue and nausea, we can begin to tackle them.

“We already have drugs that target and reduce inflammation, so using these drugs specifically to treat symptoms may make a real difference to people living with cancer.”

He said clinical trials were now under way to test this.

The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Almost a quarter of Irish men admit they’ve probably driven while over legal alcohol limit

  

Survey shows that drink driving experiences are more prevalent among men.

64% of Irish people say they know somebody who has knowingly driven a car when above the legal alcohol limit in the past five years, a new study has shown.

1,015 adults were interviewed during the Red C survey for Newstalk. It looked at attitudes towards drink driving here in Ireland, as well as personal experiences of drink driving.

More than one in four people stated that they may have been a passenger in a car driven by someone who was over the limit.

Meanwhile, 15% think they themselves may have driven while over the legal limit – a number that rises to 24% among men.

The study also shows that drink driving is perceived to be more of a problem in rural areas than urban ones – with 77% agreeing that people in rural areas are more likely to drive when over the limit.

Meanwhile, more than a quarter of respondents said they believed that the legal drink driving limit is too low.

Tune in to the Pat Kenny Show today and tomorrow for more about Irish attitudes towards drink driving.

Great news for children’s parties and doctors as new helium source discovered

   Ebony Taylor with Senior Radiographer Helen Browne demonstrate the new 3T MRI scanner at Sheffield Children's Hospital which was funded through donations to The Children's Hospital Charity.

Don’t panic party-goers because scientists won’t be restricting helium balloons just yet as a new discovery could solve a shortage of the gas.

Reserves of the gas have been running out and doctors a year ago were calling for a ban on its use in party balloons, branding it frivolous.

But scientists have found new helium sources in Tanzania, which could be critical to the role helium plays not only in fun, but in life-threatening medicine.

Helium does not just make voices go squeaky, it’s extremely low boiling point means it is used for super-cooling and is critical in MRI scanners, nuclear power and leak detection.

Until now helium has been found accidentally during drilling for oil and gas.

But a team from Oxford and Durham Universities, working with the Norwegian firm Helium One, applied the expertise used in oil and gas exploration to find how helium was generated underground and where it accumulated.

Their research showed that volcanic activity provides the intense heat necessary to release the gas from ancient, helium-bearing rocks.

Within the Tanzanian East African Rift Valley, volcanoes have released helium from deep rocks and trapped it in shallower gas fields.

Professor Chris Ballentine, of the department of earth sciences at the University of Oxford, said it was estimated there was probably 54 billion cubic feet (BCf) in just one part of the Rift Valley – enough to fill more than 1.2 million medical MRI scanners.

Global consumption was around 8 BCf a year and the US Federal Helium Reserve, the world’s largest supplier, currently held around 24 BCf.

Prof Ballentine said: “This is a game-changer for the future security of society’s helium needs and similar finds in the future may not be far away.”

Professor Jon Gluyas, of the department of earth sciences at Durham University, who collaborated on the project, said the price of helium had gone up 500% in 15 years.

The inert gas escapes gravity and leaks into outer space.

Prof Gluyas said: “We have to keep finding more, it’s not renewable or replaceable.”

Curiosity sees hint of Earth-like atmosphere on ancient Mars planet

    

NASA’s Curiosity took this selfie while conducting science at the “Windjana” site on Mars, in April and May of 2014. Its investigations turned up evidence of an oxygen-rich atmosphere in Mars’ distant past. 

Monday, June 27, 2016, 5:51 PM – Did Mars once have an atmosphere rich in oxygen, more akin to what we have here on Earth? That’s what the latest find from NASA’s Curiosity rover is pointing to, but if so, where did this oxygen come from?

As NASA’s 1-ton, nuclear-powered robotic rover trundles across the rocky Martian terrain, it pauses at times to conduct some science – scoop some sand, drill down into rocks or shoot things with a high-powered laser – which has yielded up some truly remarkable discoveries.

One of these discoveries found that Gale Crater, where Curiosity is roving, once held a large lake of fresh water, with just the right conditions that it would actually be drinkable for us.

Now, according to the latest news from NASA, scientists working with data from one of the rover’s science “pauses” have found manganese oxide minerals – a type of mineral that only forms in one of two ways:

1) In the presence of liquid water and high concentrations of oxygen, or

2) From microbial life.

“Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars,” Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a NASA statement. “And we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

“These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions,” Dr. Lanza explained. “Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

According to NASA, here on Earth, manganese oxide minerals are used as a kind of historical marker, since they only appear in the geological record after the atmosphere became oxygen-rich due to organisms using photosynthesis.

This isn’t even the first time that manganese deposits have been located on Mars. In 2014, “the jelly donut” rock that the Opportunity rover accidentally dislodged turned out to have manganese in it, and more recently, a combination of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Opportunity investigations found high concentrations of manganese on the ridge of Endeavor Crater, where Opportunity has been investigating.

Given that Endeavor Crater and Gale Crater are roughly on opposite sides of the planet from one another, this lends good support to the idea that these minerals are quite wide-spread.

Drill holes made by Curiosity on May 11, 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The fact that there was oxygen on Mars in the past isn’t the truly remarkable find here. Given the iron oxide dust that gives Mars the nickname The Red Planet, oxygen had to be there in the past. Studies prior to this have even shown that the planet could have had abundant oxygen in its atmosphere long before Earth did.

According to Dr. Lanza, though, manganese oxide minerals require much higher concentrations of oxygen to form than are needed to oxidize iron – higher levels than were ever thought to have existed on Mars.

So, what could be the source of such high concentrations of oxygen?

Although it’s fun to speculate that the high oxygen levels, or even the minerals themselves, may have been produced by ancient Martian microbes, there’s probably a safer and simpler explanation.

Since Mars lacks a strong magnetic field now, even if it was stronger in the past, as it weakened, it would expose Mars’ surface to an increasing bombardment by high energy particles from the Sun and from space. Now, this bombardment apparently sterilizes the surface to some depth, but back in the ancient past, these particles would have plunged into the oceans, splitting apart water molecules into their component atoms.

Mars’ gravity wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep the hydrogen around. Even Earth’s gravity – at 2.5 times stronger than Mars’ – is not particularly good at that, with hydrogen only found in the far upper reaches of our atmosphere. The free oxygen, on the other hand, was heavy enough to be bound to Mars longer, thus being around to produce both the iron oxide dust and these manganese oxide minerals.

One thing to note is an important point made by Dr. Lanza: “It’s hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred. But it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated.”

This may be a new piece of the puzzle to add to our overall knowledge of how planets and their atmospheres form, or it may actually be a step towards the discovery that life actually existed on the Red Planet at some point in its past.

The next step, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is for the researchers to see if there is any discernible difference between manganese oxides produced through biological processes and those that arise from simple geological processes.

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Saturday/Sunday 11th & 12th June 2016.

Why ‘Brexit’ really matters to the half a million Irish living in Britain

    

Irish people ‘have a good thing going’ in London and are ‘better off in a connected world’, according to a Dubliner who was recently voted Chef of The Year and runs four of the hottest restaurants in the British capital.

Chef Robin Gill and his wife Sarah – who works with him in their restaurants – believe a ‘Leave’ vote in Brexit could seriously affect their business.

‘Why we’re voting to remain’ – ‘Chef of The Year’ Irishman and owner of four London restaurants

“It looks like the economy could take a big hit if the vote is for leave. But more importantly for us, we employ over 60 people and a lot of them are from all over the EU,” Robin told Independent.ie.

“What happens if Britain votes to leave? Will they need work visas? Will they have to go home? London needs talented people to come here from all over the world, I really hope the vote is for staying in.

“We’ve lost really good people with the visa situation in Australia and Canada. I can’t imagine what it would do to our business,” he continued.

“We’re doing well, the economy is doing well, we’re better off in a connected, globalised world. We’re voting Remain”.

Brexit is the biggest political decision to face the UK in four decades – should they stay or should they go?

Upwards of half a million Irish citizens could have a big say on the referendum – on whether Britain should remain in the European Union – on June 23rd.

The Irish living in the UK are in a virtually unique position – they are the second biggest migrant group, standing at around 500,000 and only outnumbered by the 800,000 Poles.

And, due to the historical quirk which sees us still counted amongst former commonwealth or Empire dominions, only the Irish, Cypriots and Maltese get to vote in the referendum.

Irish economists, businessmen and politicians have already had their say, with Enda Kenny causing a bit of a stir when he arrived in London for a Mayo GAA game recently and took the chance to remind the Irish in the UK to vote ‘Remain’.

Bob Geldof and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair have also been loud pro-EU voices.

‘We don’t have a negative view of the EU like the Brits do’ – Irishman and owner of London pop-up bar Six Yard Box5

The Irish in London today are different from their parents and grandparents generation, those who came in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, often with low skills and low expectations.

The New London Irish are typically young, very well-educated and making the most of the city’s booming, globalised economy.

For Irish entrepreneurs like Seb O’Driscoll, a 35-year-old Corkman who runs The Six Yard Box, a hip, pop-up sports bar in Elephant & Castle, there’s no doubt how most Irish will vote.

“The Irish are everywhere in London, and most love it for being a multi-cultural city with huge diversity and a real international feel,” says Seb.

“The sense I get, from guys coming into the bar here, from my friends and the Irish you meet, they’ll all be voting remain. We don’t have a negative view of the EU in the way a lot of Brits do. And we don’t know what’s going to the happen to the economy if we leave”.

UK Chef of The Year Robin reiterated Seb’s comments and said the opportunities for Irish in London are endless.

“I’ve tried to leave eight or nine times and then another opportunity comes across. From that point, it’s just uncontrollable,” he said.

Brexit: The issues Ireland faces if Britain leaves the EU

If Brexit is the result of the referendum, there will be many unknowns for Ireland both economic and geopolitical.

One of the big issues for Ireland will be how the Republic and North of the country interact with the re-establishment of borders a possibility that has already been highlighted by British chancellor George Osborne.

Not since the long-fought for peace process has this issue arisen and we don’t know what the outcome would be.

From an economic perspective, while Ireland’s dependence on the UK as a trade partner has waned in the most recent past, depending on what kind of trade deal Britain would establish with the EU then that could have repercussions here.

Currently the UK, like other member states, has access to 500m people through the single market.

However, the remain side argues that there’s no guarantees that any kind of free trade agreement between the UK and the EU would be an option if Brexit were the outcome.

One of the upsides of a Brexit, of course, would be a likely influx of foreign direct investment with our low 12.5pc corporation tax rate already attractive for multinationals.

On the flip side, the spotlight is on Ireland’s tax treatment of many of these firms and if, for example, Donald Trump was elected US president he has already warned that countries like Ireland are outsmarting the US and taking jobs by attracting American firms here and he has vowed to stop this.

Investigation under way into discovery of ‘angel dust’ in cattle

Department of Agriculture confirms positive test result for illegal growth hormone clenbuterol

    

The Department of Agriculture is investigating a case of alleged unauthorised use of the illegal growth-promoting drug clenbuterol, or angel dust, in cattle.

The Department of Agriculture is investigating a case of alleged unauthorised use of the illegal growth-promoting drug clenbuterol, or angel dust, in cattle.

It confirmed the investigation followed a positive test result for one animal in a random sample but would not identify the location of the farm from which it had come.

The Sunday Times reported that a farm in Monaghan was under investigation and that the animal had been slaughtered at a meat processing plant.

Investigators are understood to be attempting to identify and trace products in which meat from the animal had been used.

In a statement, the department said the random sample was taken as part of the National Residue Control Programme, which tests sheep, pigs, cattle and poultry across the State to ensure they have not been given drugs that may be dangerous if consumed.

The department said it had placed all animals on the farm under restriction pending the completion of the investigation.

“The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is fully aware of the case and has concluded that there is no risk to public health from meat that is on the market.”

Isolated

A single isolated incidence of the use of clenbuterol was uncovered during sampling in 2011 – the first time it had been found since 1999.

On that occasion, two beef cattle tested positive for the banned hormone during an investigation on a farm in Co Monaghan.

The farm was being investigated by customs officials looking into alleged diesel laundering when evidence of the substance was discovered.

The National Residue Control Programme is a component of the State’s food safety controls and is implemented under a service contract with the FSAI.

More than 19,000 samples were tested in 2014, across all eight food-producing species as well as milk, eggs and honey.

Just 42 (0.2%) out of 19,095 samples tested in 2014 were positive. The results were comparable to those returned in 2013, 2012 and 2011.

Last year the department said the “consistently low levels” of positive samples reflected the responsible approach adopted by the vast majority of farmers.

“The extensive testing under the NRCP indicates the absence of illegal administration of banned growth promoting hormones and other banned substances to food-producing animals in Ireland, ” it said publishing figures for the NRCP last year.

“Overall the small number of positives detected related mainly to residues of authorised medicines.”

Big upsurge in judgments and repossessions feared as ‘vulture funds’ close in on debtors

     

More than €4bn worth of court-ordered debts have been registered against 3,243 borrowers since 2010, with Danske Bank obtaining the largest value in judgments once non-bank entities such as Nama and the former Anglo Irish Bank are excluded.

Danske tops the league of banks pursuing Irish debtors in the courts.

Danske obtained almost €56m in registered judgments against 110 debtors in the first five months of the year alone according to credit agency Stubbs Gazette.

Danske was followed by Allied Irish Bank which obtained judgments valued at just over €38m against 34 debtors in the same period.

Since 2010, toxic loans agency Nama, which last week reported profits of €1.8bn in 2015, obtained just under €1bn judgments against 34 borrowers.

The agency’s annual report shows that it generated €9.1bn in cash during 2015, with €8.5bn coming from asset disposals.

It has registered judgments of almost €682m against 814 borrowers since 2010.

Bank of Ireland has pursued a larger number of borrowers (957) during that time, although the value of judgments is significantly less, at some €377.42m

State-owned AIB has pursued 523 borrowers since 2010, securing judgments valued at €422.43m, followed by Ulster Bank which secured judgments valued at some €344m against 211 debtors.

James Treacy, CEO of Stubbs Gazette, said that he anticipates a “huge upsurge” in judgments and repossessions over the coming years as vulture funds move on distressed borrowers whose loans it has bought.

The so-called “vulture funds” own over 40,000 principal homes and investment properties here in Ireland.

It is understood that a fifth of mortgages sold to ‘non-bank’entities are in arrears.

To date, only two judgments valued at 1.8m were secured by one such fund, Goldman Sachs, through Ennis Property Finance, one of its special purpose vehicles, according to Stubbs data.

However, this is expected to rise now that loans are being actively managed.

“The funds have a reputation for being very tough but pragmatic when it comes to doing deals,” said Mr Treacy.

“Presently it would appear that their preferred approach is to negotiate deals outside the courts but that is not to say that this will not change if they are not achieving their forecasted return on investment.

“If their pre-legal strategies are not profitable I would expect to see a huge upsurge in both judgments and repossessions over the coming years.”

David Hall, Director of the Irish Mortgage Holders Association, said that borrowers including professionals such as lawyers, doctors and accountants whose loans have been transferred to vulture funds have been operating under a “false sense of security” for the last 18 months.

“It will be carnage,” said Mr Hall, who said dealing with vulture funds will be a “nightmare” for many borrowers.

“It’s like fighting with Conor McGregor with your hands tied behind your back”.

As much as 4,500 diagnosed with diabetes every week, warns a charity

      

Every week 4,500 people are diagnosed with diabetes across the UK, the charity Diabetes UK has said.  it said that in the last year 235,000 people have been diagnosed with the condition.

The figures, released to mark Diabetes Week, highlight the scale of the “crisis” surrounding the illness, charity chief executive Chris Askew said.

He warned that many people are not aware of the seriousness of the condition.

“This Diabetes Week we are setting the record straight and focusing on the realities of living with the condition,” said Mr Askew.

“There is still a lack of understanding when it comes to people being aware of the seriousness of diabetes and this worries us at Diabetes UK.

“There are over four million people living with the condition in the UK. The fact that 4,500 people will discover they have diabetes over the next seven days is deeply concerning, and highlights the current scale of the crisis.

“Diabetes Week is a time to share our concerns about the scale and seriousness of diabetes, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to highlight that with the right healthcare, support and management, diabetes doesn’t have to hold anyone back.”

Diabetes is a condition where there is too much glucose in the blood because the body cannot use it properly. There are two forms of the condition – Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body cannot produce insulin. Around one in 10 people with diabetes have Type 1 and it usually affects children or young adults.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or the insulin produced does not work properly. Type 2 diabetes is linked to lifestyle factors such as being overweight.

If diabetes is not properly managed it can lead to serious consequences such as sight loss, limb amputation , kidney failure and stroke.

This is how Nasa thought we would be living in 2100

     

IF you believe that dreams of moving to another planet to escape to impending doom of our dying Earth is something knew, then you’re wrong.

Nasa thought we would be living in outer space by 2100

Recently resurfaced images shows how in 1975, space agency Nasa thought we would be living in 2100.

Illustrations commissioned by the US agency, and carried out by Don Davis and Rick Guidiceto, show several different concepts of how humans might live in the now-near future.

Following 10 weeks of research, led by Princeton professor Gerard O’Neill, the team came up with three possible scenarios as to how we might be living at the end of the century.

One idea is the Cylindrical Colony which would be similar to that shown in the 2014 Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar could be home for up to one million people.

  • NASA launches spacecraft to STOP Earth-bound KILLER asteroid
  • Hubble telescope captures baby star BURNING through gas cloud

Another idea is the Bernal Sphere which would be a structure rotating around a large spacecraft and finally the Toroidal Colony.

All three of the designs had artificial gravity that was created from centrifugal force, and powered by solar energy.

Professor O’Neill had hoped that work on these structures would begin in the 1990s, but that time has passed without it happening, and he has since passed away.

  1. Artificial greenery was also a concept
  2. The colony might have looked cylindrical
  3. A circular tunnel may have revolved around Earth

However, Nasa contractor and space settlement expert Dr Al Globus said that it will be possible to do so in the future.

He said: “Whether it will happen or not is really hard to say. Whether it can happen, absolutely.

“If we as a people decide to do it, we can do it. We have the scientific capability, financial capability, there is simply no question we can do it.

“In two or three decades we might have a couple of small hotels [in orbit], and people moving in on a regular basis.

“All that is on a time scale measured in decades, or in the worst case centuries.”

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Saturday 28th May 2016

LÉ Róisín helps and saves more lives in rescue of 688 migrants off Libyan coast

   

The LÉ Róisín rescues 123 migrants off the coast of Libya.

Some 668 migrants were saved from boats in distress in the Mediterranean off Libya on Saturday, officials say.

They were rescued by Italian coast guard and navy ships, aided by Irish and German vessels and humanitarian organisations, Italian and Irish officials said.

The rescues are the latest by a multi-national patrol south of Sicily that has saved thousands this week.

The Defence Forces said the vessel Le Roisin, deployed earlier this month in the humanitarian search and rescue mission, saved 123 migrants from a 12-metre-long dinghy and recovered a male body.

Immediately afterwards, the LÉ Róisín was re-tasked to rendez-vous with an Italian ship, ‘Bettica’, and a further 101 migrants were transferred it to the LÉ Róisín.

Then the German ship ‘Karlsruhe’ asked the LÉ Róisín to transfer a further 123 migrants onboard the LÉ Róisín.

A spokesperson said all three taskings have now been completed and the LÉ Róisín currently has 347 migrants on-board.

The LÉ Róisín left Haulbowline, Cork on May 2 to help the Italian Authorities with humanitarian search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

A German ship, part of the EU Navfor Med deployment on patrol for migrant smugglers’ boats, was also involved in what was a total of four separate rescue operations, the Italian coast guard said.

Meanwhile, with migrant shelters filling up in Sicily, the Italian navy vessel Vega headed toward Reggio Calabria, a southern Italian mainland port, taking 135 survivors, along with 45 bodies, from a rescue a day earlier. The Vega was due to dock on Sunday.

Under a European Union deal, tens of thousands of those rescued at sea and seeking asylum were supposed to be relocated to other EU nations from Italy and Greece, whose shores have received most of the migrants in recent years. But with resentment building in some European countries about taking in migrants, the plan never really took off, and only a small percentage have actually been moved.

At the Vatican on Saturday, Pope Francis told several hundred children, among them many migrants, who came from the Italian south to see him, that migrants “aren’t a danger but they are in danger”.

The pontiff held a red life vest, given to him recently by a volunteer, and told the children it was the vest used by a Syrian girl who died while trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. “She’s in heaven, she’s watching us,” Francis told his young audience.

Among those in the audience was a Nigerian youth, who lost his parents in 2014 as the family tried to reach Italy by sea. Francis has repeatedly expressed dismay that some European nations have refused to accept migrants fleeing poverty or war, and have even thrown up fences and other barriers to thwart the arrivals from journeying northward after reaching the continent’s southern shores.

Electricity prices In Ireland way above the EU average “So says Eurostat”

    

Electric Ireland reduced its standard rates by 6% from this month after its parent company, ESB, made operating profits of €630m last year.

Householders here pay the third highest electricity prices in the European Union, despite having seven suppliers in the market.

And new figures from Eurostat also show that domestic electricity charges here are the second highest in the EU, once taxes and levies are stripped out.

The European Union’s statistics agency found that prices here were way higher than the average across 28 countries.

A statement from the European Commission office in Dublin confirmed the new figures show that Irish households pay more for their electricity than anywhere else in the EU except Germany and Denmark.

When taxes are excluded, Irish households pay more than anywhere in Europe, except the UK.

The EC spokeswoman said: “The picture is somewhat better for gas, with Irish households coming in ninth place in the rankings.

“When taxes are discounted, domestic Irish gas prices are the sixth highest in the EU.”

However, the figures for the second half of 2015 show that domestic energy prices here fell in contrast to many EU countries.

Electricity prices fell by 3.2% in the second half of last year compared with the same six months in 2014. Gas prices were down 2.8%.

Energy companies have been heavily criticised for failing to cut prices more at a time when wholesale gas prices, the main input here, have fallen by half.

Electric Ireland reduced its standard rates by 6% from this month, in a move that will save the average household €58 a year. It came after its parent company, ESB, made operating profits of €630m last year.

But the other six suppliers have yet to announce price cuts.

Mark Whelan of price comparison site Bonkers said: “This news will undoubtedly lead to more calls for suppliers to cut their prices. However, suppliers will likely point to the statistic that Ireland actually had the third largest decrease in electricity prices in 2015, at 3.2%.”

He said householders can save €235 by switching electricity suppliers, but 1.9 million electricity customers didn’t do so.

Former Tánaiste Ray MacSharry defends Irish politicians’ pensions

The ex- FF minister says he is in receipt of ‘quite a number’ of payments in a new interview

      

The former Fianna Fáil tánaiste Ray MacSharry has said he has “quite a number” of pensions and he does not begrudge retired politicians the money they are paid.

Mr MacSharry, who served as a minister for finance and an EU commissioner during a 30-year career in politics, was in receipt of a State pension just in excess of €41,000 as of 2014.

He also has a separate “small” income from Europe.

In an interview on Saturday, he was asked how many pensions he was currently receiving.

“Oh quite a number. I am doing fine. I am very happy,” he said.

“But I can say this. I would not begrudge the Taoiseach, the Ministers, or all the TDs and Senators the monies they are getting because let’s face facts.

“The fact is that every TD . . . there is something going on in all the parishes in his or her constituency, the first person asked to support the £100 raffle or the £50 raffle is the TD.”

Speaking on the Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ Radio 1, Mr MacSharry said politicians paid taxes on their salaries.

“And what they have left, they have to live,” he said.

Mr MacSharry was also questioned on the issue of the Ansbacher accounts?

Mr MacSharry was named as an Ansbacher account holder under Dáil privilege by Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald in 2015, following claims in the disputed “Ansbacher dossier” that former ministers had used offshore accounts to evade tax.

Mr MacSharry had subsequently instructed his lawyers to write to the Public Accounts Committee (Pac) seeking access to the dossier in question.

“I didn’t know ever about Ansbacher accounts. I don’t know really where theCayman Islands are,” he said.

“I can say from my point of view it was rubbish and untrue. And I’ll say to Deputy Mary Lou MacDonald or anybody else that if they can find an account associated in any way with me, anywhere in the world, I’ll gladly give it to charity,” he said. “I know it doesn’t exist.”

Innuendo

Mr MacSharry said there was a broader issue of innuendo and falsities being applied to those in public life.

“Obviously there are always people running around making up stories and rumour and gossip and innuendo becomes established as fact . . . particularly in relation to public figures,” he said.

“Those who know the people concerned know that most of that rumour, gossip and innuendo is not fact, it’s nothing but lies.”

Irish farmers paid the sixth highest R3 heifer price in Europe

   

Irish farmers were paid the sixth highest R3 heifer price in Europe last week, according to figures from the European Commission.

During the week ending May 22, Irish R3 heifers made 406c/kg, almost €1/kg cheaper than the highest priced market.

Swedish beef farmers were paid 504c/kg for R3 heifers last week, while R3 heifers in Greece made 442.9c/kg.

However, when compared to the lowest priced market, Latvia, Irish farmers where paid 221c/kg more for R3 heifers than farmers in the eastern European state.

Gap Widens Between Irish And UK Heifers

The price gap between Irish and UK R3 heifers widened last week, figures from the European Commission show.

Last week, an Irish R3 heifer traded at 406.9c/kg, while UK farmers received 416.3c/kg for the same heifer.

Over the past month, UK heifers were cheaper than Irish heifers on a number of occasions,mainly due to a weaker Sterling and lower UK beef prices.

But, there are some signs that the UK market is starting to stabilise, with European Commission figures showing a 11.4c/kg price increase last week.

Northern Irish Heifer Price

The price gap between Northern Irish and Irish heifers narrowed last week.

The narrowing of the beef price has occurred as Northern Irish farmers seen the price paid for R3 heifers jump by 9.41c/kg last week.

During the week ending May 22, Irish R3 heifers made 9.4c/kg more than Northern Irish heifers, on a 280kg heifer carcass this is a price difference of €26.

However, back in the last week of April a 280kg Irish heifer carcass was €42 dearer than a Northern Irish heifer carcass.

Some Movement On The Continent

There has been some movement in the main European beef markets in terms of R3 heifer price, with German and Italian R3 heifers falling by 2.8c/kg and 3.5c/kg respectively.

But there was little movement in the Spanish R3 heifer markets with prices unchanged, while prices in Poland declined by 0.1c/kg.

Contradictory nutritional advice gives consumers food for thought

   

It appears that the best approach to being the perfect home maker in this modern age is to complete a doctorate in food nutrition.

How else to responsibly nourish yourself and your family given the masses of conflicting advice that exists, varying almost from day to day, and added to this week by a UK report which appeared to turn much of what we have previously been told over decades on it’s head.

Fat is now actually your friend apparently. The old advice to stick to a low fat diet in order to lower your cholestrol is “flawed science” and has resulted in “disastrous health consequences” according to the report from the National Obesity Forum (NOF) and the Public Health Collaboration. Rather than the desired result this advice, the report argued, had actually seen an increase in the amount of carbohydrates and junk food consumed.

Our fridges and cupboards should be stocked with “whole foods” such as fish, meat, and dairy, as well as healthy, high fat foods like avocados. In further contradiction of the advice that has been shoved down out throats for years we were told that saturated fat does not in fact cause heart disease, while full fat dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese, can actually protect the heart. Recommendations, they rather appealingly suggest, should focus on the health benefits of eating food in its natural form. This was no sooner in the public space than it was massively contradicted.

There was the sound of crashing plates as nutritionists, scientists, doctors, and other experts had a highly serious disagreement. Public Health England thundered that the advice in the report was “irresponsible and misleads the public” and most of the public health establishment agreed with that. The public as ever was left in a state of confusion, even for something as basic as whether we should now be opting for full butter on our morning toast, or a low fat spread?

There is a pattern here. Who will forget the shambolic manner in which the World Health Organisation last October announced the cancer risks from eating processed meats and red meat? The combination of poor communication and a media looking to hype dangers meant we saw headlines equating the risk of eating two rashers a day with smoking.

On top of all of that was the news this week that we are not apparently eating enough salt. In our house the salt cellar is kept on the top shelf, but it turns out this may now actually be poor parenting. A study published in the Lancet, which was co authored by Prof Martin O’Donnell of NUI Galway, is a further example of traditional advice being turned on its head. it suggests that most people are actually consuming the right amount of salt and actually warns against the dangers of low salt diets saying they may increase the risk of heart disease and death.

On the same day I saw the Professor of Food and Health at UCD, Mike Gibney argue that a tax on fizzy drinks is a waste of time in terms of curbing obesity. If you look at the data around national food intake, he says, you see that in terms of foods with added sugar it is the contribution of table sugar and jams that is usually the main culprit in driving high intakes.

The quantity contributed by carbonated sugary beverages shows little variation as a proportion, no matter how great or small a person’s sweet tooth, he argued. “So where is the risk-assessment report that looks at all sources of added sugars and, taking everything into account, opts to focus solely on sugar-sweetened beverages for taxation? None exists.”

We are planning on introducing such a tax here, says Prof Gibney, simply because it is a global fashion built on dubious science and popular prejudice. Mexico did introduce such a sugar tax but according to The Wall Street Journal just 18 months later faced a return to pre-tax soda intakes.

Prof Gibney expressed his concern about public health nutrition credibility being set back decades by a sugar tax. He makes a strong and cogent argument. But the problem here for the punters, who feel powerless in the face of all of this conflicting information, is just who to believe and exactly what to put in our mouths.

Prof Gibney also touched on an aspect of all this which really shocked me when I first read of it elsewhere earlier this month.

It is the fact that the body defends its prevailing weight vigorously, which is why conscious weight loss through dieting is so hard to maintain. It turns out that the problem is not our will power, or lack of it, but in fact it is down to neuroscience.

A study released in the US earlier this month, concentrating on the contestants on the reality TV show Biggest Loser, over a six year period, added futher to the evidence that in the long run dieting is rarely effective. It is frightening to see the manner in which the body battles against weight loss. The brain uses metabolic suppression to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. That range is determined by genes and life experience. If you drop below that weight not only do you burn fewer calories but you also produce more hunger inducing hormones and want to eat more.

In their contentious report the chairman of The National Obesity Forum Professor David Haslam pointed out that current efforts to reduce and prevent obesity have failed and the proof of that is obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists. But it is also fair to point out that maybe the current guidelines are failing because not enough people are following them.

The controversial UK report also touches on how vested interests have been responsible for the spreading of poor dietary advice. The food lobby internationally is massively powerful, as is the diet industry which would go out of existence if we were all at our ideal weight.

Even the introduction of something like a traffic light system which would make it easier for us shoppers to tell at a glance which foods on the supermarket shelves are healthiest are blocked.

The Australian Government censored a Global Climate report

   

It’s no secret that the Great Barrier Reef is in the midst of a mass die-off, nor that scientists believe the coral bleaching event is related to climate change. But apparently, Australia could not bear the thought of putting these inconvenient facts together on paper. The country’s Department of Environment censored a major global climate report just before publication this week.

The report, “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” was a joint collaboration between Unesco, the UN environment program, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Given that Australia is home to some of the most celebrated World Heritage sites on the planet—including the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmania’s old growth rainforests—you might expect some mention of how these ecosystems are faring in a changing climate. Oddly enough, Australia is mentioned nowhere in the entire document.

But when the Australian Department of Environment saw a draft of the report, it objected, and every mention of Australia was removed by Unesco. Will Steffen, one of the scientific reviewers of the axed section on the reef, said Australia’s move was reminiscent of “the old Soviet Union”.

No sections about any other country were removed from the report. The removals left Australia as the only inhabited continent on the planet with no mentions.

Explaining the decision to object to the report, a spokesperson for the environment department told Guardian Australia: “Recent experience in Australia had shown that negative commentary about the status of world heritage properties impacted on tourism.”

Ah, okay! So Australia was concerned that people might not be so keen to go scuba diving if they knew that a post-apocalyptic scene awaited their eyes.

A Nightmare Is Unfolding in the Great Barrier Reef

If scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list, you might want to book tickets…Read more

The thing is, it takes a special kind of willful ignorance to pretend that your land isn’t on fire when people can see the smoke from a thousand miles away. Gizmodo and many other outlets reported on fires that devastated Tasmania’s World Heritage Forests earlier this year, which most scientists agree were made more likely by climate change. About a month later, the worst global coral bleaching event on record hit the Great Barrier Reef, causing more than 90 percent of the northern reef to turn a ghostly white. Much of the reef isgoing to have difficulty recovering. This news, too, has been broadcast far and wide.

But sadly, Australia’s latest actions are far from an isolated event: less than a year ago, the government lobbied Unesco not to list the Great Barrier Reef as a “World Heritage Site in Danger,” perhaps so that it could proceed with a plan to turn the reef into a shipping lane for one of the world’s largest coal mineswithout the international community raising eyebrows.

If you were hoping to read the censored section of the report on the Great Barrier Reef, Guardian Australia obtained a copy of it late yesterday.

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Thursday 26th May 2016

Fianna Fáil must explain decision to side with the Government on Irish Water, says Sinn Fein

     

Sinn Féin TD Eoin O’Broin said Fianna Fáil has broken its promise to abolish Irish Water.

Sinn Fein has accused Fianna Fail of acting in coalition with Fine Gael by abstaining in a motion to scrap water charges.

This gave Fine Gael a comfortable winning margin to push through the deal reached with Fianna Fáil during negotiations to form a new minority government.

Under this deal – water charges will be suspend for the moment, to allow for the establishment of an independent commission.

“They’re supporting the Government and they’re supporting this Government’s policy, and they are supporting the continuation of Irish Water, despite clear election promises to the contrary,” he said.

“And they’re supporting a motion that leaves the door open to water charges in the future, so Fianna Fáil have to explain to their electorate why they promised to abolish Irish Water and water charges before the election and now are siding with the Government on these issues after the election.”

Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins defended the decision not to vote against the abolition of Irish Water., saying his party plans to support future legislation to abolish water charges.

“There will be, through legislation, a suspension of water charges and a commission to look into the whole issue of water in this country,” he said.

“So we’ve played a progressive part in this, unlike other political parties, and what we saw in the Dáil, spearheaded by Sinn Féin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and indeed the People Before Profit was just simply petty politics.”

Leo Varadkar does a U-turn on child benefit

     

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has ruled out any linking of the payment of child benefit to school attendance, despite a commitment in the programme for government to do so.

Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Mr Varadkar said while there is a requirement to disclose attendance records for children over the age of 16, at present there is no such requirement for those younger than that under current legislation.

He said the monitoring of children is beyond his remit and is a matter for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.

The programme for government states that monitoring of child benefit will be reformed by amalgamating two existing monitoring systems, to address poor attendance within some families.

This initiative has been spearheaded by Communications Minister Denis Naughten. However, Mr Varadkar yesterday ruled out any move to link the payment to attendance.

“Child benefit is a payment that is not means tested nor is it taxed and I have no intention of changing that. For those under 16 it is not linked to school attendance,” he said.

“I had some discussions with [Children’s Minister Katherine] Zappone and [Education Minister Richard] Bruton and our view is that those involved in monitoring truancy do not believe the further tool to enforce attendance would be useful. I see no reason in changing the law.”

Fianna Fáil social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea said concern had been raised following media reports about the inclusion of the measure in the programme for government, but that he welcomed Mr Varadkar’s ruling it out. “We are happy with that and I thank the minister,” he said.

Mr Varadkar was also pressed about the €2.5m cost to the taxpayer in meeting the statutory redundancies at Clerys in Dublin.

He said legal action could be instigated in order to reclaim the monies from the company, which was folded in controversial circumstances last year.

He said the redundancies were paid out of the Social Insurance Fund from PRSI contributions to 134 former employees at Clerys.

He said: “Arising from the Clerys liquidation, the Department of Jobs examined protection law for employees and unsecured creditors to see that limited liability or company restructuring is not used to avoid obligations to employees or creditors.

“It is my firm view that companies should stay true to the spirit and letter of company law. My department is now examining how the monies can be recouped.”

Mr Varadkar said legal action would have to take into account any burden of proof involved, the cost of taking such an action, and the level of assets in the company.

Labour TD Willie Penrose criticised the response, saying it reflects the conservative nature of bureaucracy. He called for Mr Varadkar to make the most of existing law to recoup monies for the taxpayer.

Mr Varadkar was also asked about his decision to scrap the Job-Bridge scheme. He told the Dáil he felt the scheme was now “out of date”.

Ten times more cyclists treated in Irish hospitals after crashes than official figures show

    

Today’s findings also showed far more people were hurt in road accidents

Ten times more cyclists are injured and treated in hospital than official figures show, it has been revealed.

Today’s findings also showed far more people were hurt in road accidents.

Researcher Brian Caulfield said: “New injury indicators are clearly needed since the existing data do not capture the gravity and extent of the problem.”

A team from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Engineering combined data from the Road Safety Authority, hospital records and the Irish Injuries Board.

The study into figures from 2005 to 2011 found there were 88,000 traffic injuries. Hospital figures reveal RSA data only includes around 30% of an overlap with patients admitted for road crashes.

The researchers said: “The evidence the numbers are far greater than the official data indicate implies that reducing injuries needs to play a more important role in road safety strategy.

“Policy measures under consideration to reduce fatalities could obviously also contribute to reducing injuries. Among these are helmets for cyclists, lower urban speed limits, stronger measures to protect pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.”

A spokesman for the RSA said its figures relating to collisions and injuries come from gardai and not hospitals or the IIB.

The lack of one comprehensive dataset has previously made it difficult to assess the extent of the problems in Ireland.

But the Trinity researchers got around this problem by linking figures from three separate sources.

Dr Jack Short, ex-secretary general of the International Transport Forum at OECD, said: “The total social costs of road traffic injuries are greater than the cost of fatalities, so this subject merits increased policy attention and a higher priority in the Irish Road Safety Strategy.”

€500,000 fintech start-up fund announced by Enterprise Ireland

L-R: Geraldine Gibson, Managing Director, AQ Metrics; Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Leo McAdams, Divisional Manager ICT & International Services, Enterprise Ireland; Brett Meyers, CEO, Currency Fair  

Enterprise Ireland has created a new €500,000 fund for fintech start-ups, with ten spots to be filled as part of the IFS-2020 strategy.

Announcing a new start-up fund for fintech start-ups today, Minister for Jobs, Mary Mitchell O’Connor claimed the support was a “key part” of the current government’s push to help key sectors.

Providing €50,000 in equity to ten selected start-ups in the fintech area, applications open at the start of June, closing after just two weeks.

Open to early stage companies that can either be providing technology into the financial services industry, or consumer end-market solutions, blockchain, IoT, AI and ‘data intelligence’ are area encouraged.

Aside from the equity fund on offer, successful applicants will also receive membership to Dogpatch Labs, access to the Ulster Bank Innovation Solutions team, as well as talks from members of the FinTech and Payments Association of Ireland (FPAI).

“By introducing a specific start-up fund targeting the fintech sector,” said Enterprise Ireland’s Leo McAdams, “[we are] leveraging our strong international financial services reputation and our world-class start-up ecosystem to allow ambitious entrepreneurs to start, scale and succeed – providing valuable jobs here into the future”.

Enterprise Ireland has been fairly active of late, pouring €2.5m into ArcLabs at Waterford Institute of Technology in a move that will double the capacity of the incubation hub.

The expansion is hoped to help achieve the goal of a 30pc increase in the number of start-ups in the south-east.

Meanwhile last November a €500,000 specifically aimed at female-led start-ups was created.

Mars is emerging from an ice age that ended about 400,000 years ago

Climate change affects the Red Planet as well as us on earth?

the-red-planet  marsnasa.jpg  NASA-9.jpg

Mars is emerging from an ice age, according to a new study. Studying the Martian climate and how it changes over time can help scientists better plan future missions to Mars and even understand climate change here on Earth, the study authors goes on to say.

Models had already predicted that Mars underwent several rounds of ice ages in the past, but little physical measurements ever confirmed those predictions. Today’s study, published in the journal Science, is the first to map the ice deposits on the north and south pole and confirm that Mars is emerging from an ice age, in a retreat that began almost 400,000 years ago. The researchers also calculated just how much ice accumulated over the poles; the amount is so big that if it were spread throughout Mars, the entire planet would be covered by a 2-foot thick layer of ice.

STUDYING CLIMATE CHANGE ON MARS IS IMPORTANT FOR MULTIPLE REASONS?

Studying climate change on Mars is important for multiple reasons, says study co-author Isaac Smith, who studies sedimentary systems on Mars at Southwest Research Institute. By understanding ice ages, we can get a better understanding of how ice — and water — behaved through time on the Red Planet. It can help us figure out how Mars went from being a wet world to the barren, frigid land it is today. And it can tell us where ice deposits can be found. That’s key if we plan to send humans on Mars. “We want to know the history of water,” Smith says. “At some point, we’re going to have some people there and we’d like to know where the water is. So there’s a big search for that.”

The Martian climate can also inform scientists about climate change here on Earth, Smith says. Mars is the most similar planet to Earth in the Solar System and it provides a good testing ground for climate research, because there are no people burning fossil fuels and pumping global warming pollutants into the atmosphere. “Mars is a very good laboratory for what happens on Earth,” Smith says. “Climate science actually has a very simple but perfect laboratory in Mars, where we can learn about the physics of climate change and then apply what we learn to Earth.”

Ali Bramson, a planetary scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Arizona, who did not work on the study, agrees. “I think it’s a really great study and I think it’s very timely,” she says. “I was really excited to see it. … Climate change is obviously a very salient topic on Earth, but understanding the distribution of water-ice on Mars is also something that’s of great interest because there’s a lot of interest in sending humans one day to Mars. So if we know where there are reservoirs of water-ice, that could potentially be useful for future human exploration.”

MARS “IS NOT A DEAD, STATIC WORLD. THINGS ARE GOING ON AND CHANGING.”

Just like Earth, Mars undergoes cycles of climate change and ice ages. But unlike Earth, climate change on Mars is affected primarily by how “tilted” the planet is. Every planet has an axis around which the planet rotates. Earth’s axis is tilted 23.5 degrees and it’s pretty stable, varying only a couple of degrees over time. Mars’ axis is currently tilted 25 degrees, but it wobbles between from 10 to 40 degrees. That happens for two reasons: first, Mars doesn’t have a moon as big as ours to stabilize its orbit; second, it’s much closer to Jupiter, and Jupiter’s gravity affects Mars’ rotation. When the Red Planet’s axis is more tilted, the poles receive more sunlight and get warm — so the ice to redistributes to the mid-latitudes, just above the tropic. That’s when Mars undergoes an ice age. “The impact is pretty dramatic,” says Peter Read, a physics professor at the University of Oxford.

Today’s study was based on predictions that 400,000 years ago such a shift in the planet’s axis took place. The researchers used radar instruments onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA spacecraft that’s orbiting Mars. They analyzed the radar images of the ice deposits within the planet’s polar ice caps, looking out for signs of erosion and other features, like so-called spiral troughs that are created by the wind. Tracing these features can reveal how ice accumulated and retreated through time. The researchers confirmed that around 400,000 years ago an ice age ended. Since the end of that ice age, about 87,000 cubic kilometers of ice accumulated at the poles, especially in the north pole. That’s exciting, because 400,000 years is pretty recent when talking about planets in the Solar System.

The study is “another bit of evidence that climate is still actively changing on Mars,” says Stephen Lewis, a senior lecturer at the Open University, who didn’t work on the study. Mars “is not a dead, static world. Things are going on and changing.”

News Irelanddaily BLOG by Donie

Sunday 22nd May 2016

Ireland’s wounded bank structure will need more than a few quick small patch-ups

It must be acknowledged that high variable rates are a symptom of deeper problems in the system,

      

Micheal Martin with his front bench colleagues outside Leinster house. The FF Bill empowering the Central Bank to cap certain mortgage lending rates will please mortgage borrowers but will hardly appeal to the Central Bank, which has not sought these powers.

Ireland’s retail banking system comprises the patched-up remnants of the dysfunctional and swollen structure which arose during the bubble. There were spectacular collapses, every single bank had to be rescued, some remain in majority public ownership, several disappeared and a well-functioning system has yet to re-emerge. As is true in many countries, the banks remain burdened with non-performing loans and there are reservations about balance sheet quality. Customers complain about credit availability and cost and there is an evident lack of competition. There continues to be an over-concentration on housing finance.

The Fianna Fail Bill empowering the Central Bank to cap certain mortgage lending rates is an understandable response to borrower concerns and may succeed in reaching the statute book. It will please mortgage borrowers but will hardly appeal to the Central Bank which has not sought these powers, may decline to exercise them and cannot be forced to do so.

Variable rates on mortgage loans in Ireland are about 1.5% higher than the average in Eurozone countries, and in some cases the excess is even greater. Banks which owe their survival to the taxpayer are reporting profits, promising to resume dividends and able to afford pay increases and pension fund top-ups. Borrower discontent is hardly a surprise.

The problem with variable rates reflects the structure of the banking system which emerged after the crash and rescue. The survivor banks have scrambled to rebuild net interest margin, the excess of what borrowers pay over the cost of bank funding. A highly competitive, indeed excessively competitive, mortgage market has been replaced by a small handful of lenders willing to offer mortgages and in a position to expand margins at the expense of captive legacy borrowers.

There are just five active mortgage lenders, AIB, Bank of Ireland, Permanent TSB, Ulster and KBC. The latter is reviewing its involvement and could exit, following the departures of National Irish, Bank of Scotland (Ireland), Irish Nationwide, Educational and others. Just over half of the performing Irish mortgage loans are at variable rates, ranging from 3.5% to 4.5% and even higher, but the remainder are trackers charging 1% or thereabouts and they lose money for the banks. Trackers, which locked the banks into long-term lending at tight margins, are no longer profitable and are no longer offered.

The banks cannot borrow cheaply enough, even with deposit rates near zero.

The lending rate on trackers was set at a modest margin, around 1pc in most cases, over the ECB’s main lending rate at a time when banks could borrow wholesale funds at roughly the ECB’s figure. This rate has been reduced steadily through the crisis and is now zero.

But the Irish banks have been paying well above the ECB’s rate for wholesale funds and are stuck (the margin on trackers is contractually fixed) with the huge book of tracker mortgages issued in the years 2004 to 2008. They made an unhedged bet on the indefinite availability of cheap financing and they lost (or rather, the taxpayers lost).

The resulting hole in their annual revenue has been filled through their ability to expand margins at the expense of captive borrowers, principally variable-rate mortgage borrowers. The ability to expand margins reflects the weakness of competition in the post-crash marketplace.

Irish banks are not substantial lenders to small business – their principal activity consists of mortgage lending and lending to housebuilders and holders of residential land. For AIB and Bank of Ireland, about two-thirds of lending activity is related to housing, for Permanent TSB an even greater portion. Some of this (the trackers) is unavoidably loss-making. Margins on lending to farmers and SMEs have also been edged upwards but the expansion in spreads on variable-rate mortgages is the principal driver of the profit recovery, more than compensating for the losses on trackers.

Bank profits would fall substantially, or in some cases disappear, if variable rates were cut severely. The banks have been rescued through a huge, once-off bailout by taxpayers. They are being rescued every day through a further and continuing subsidisation of their loss-making tracker loans by other borrowers, notably those on variable rates.

A well-functioning market competition, or the threat of competitive entry, would discipline the lenders against overdoing it, since borrowers can switch. But there is limited competition and the weakness of, in particular, the UK banking system has dissuaded potential entrants. The Central Bank is caught in a dilemma and the Government in a conflict of interest.

The Central Bank is doubtless pleased to see the banks restored to profitability, since profits (unless dissipated in dividends) help to rebuild capital. Healthier banks are able to borrow on better terms and are less likely to go wallop again. But the Central Bank has responsibilities to bank customers, too, and cannot be unaware of the cross-subsidisation going on in the mortgage market.

The Government owns a large slice of the banking system and hopes to recover some of the bailout costs through selling off bank shares. Profitable banks able to pay dividends are reassuring for shareholders, and the Government is the biggest shareholder. Awkwardly, the variable-rate borrowers are voters, and their interests diverge from those of the Government as shareholder. It is hardly an accident that the highest variable rate is charged by the bank in which the Government has the smallest stake.

There is a second conflict of interest for the political system. Mortgages are secured loans, collateralised through the lender’s right to repossession. Without this security, housing finance would be much more expensive – check out the interest rate on personal or small business loans to see the difference! Politicians of all parties are sympathetic to the plight of underwater mortgage borrowers, and have been chipping away at the entitlement of banks to repossess.

As a matter of social policy this is perfectly understandable, but it has consequences. One consequence is that the appropriate lending rate goes up, not down, when the collateral value of the loan security is diminished. A draconian regime of instant eviction for non-payment with no sensitivity shown for delinquent borrowers is the one likely to offer the lowest borrowing rates.

It would be nice to have a competitive, profitable, well-capitalised banking system charging low rates to borrowers, paying decent returns to savers, slow to realise collateral from defaulters, yielding generous dividends and offering high returns to departing shareholders. We had a banking system which looked like this for a while and you know what happened next. It is not possible to whistle up these conflicting features by political fiat in the wounded structure of post-crash Irish banking.

The Fianna Fail Bill will now go through a deliberative process in the Oireachtas, presumably the first task of a new committee on banking and finance. This committee will need to acknowledge that high variable rates are a symptom of deeper problems in Irish banking and to address the longer-term structural issues.

Brendan Walsh, formerly the chairman of UCD’s economics department, passed away suddenly last Thursday at the age of 76. Brendan was the outstanding Irish economist of his generation, a gifted teacher, prolific researcher and contributor to public policy, and a wonderful colleague. Ni fheicimid a leitheid aris

Irish Government now to replace jobBridge internship scheme, says Leo Varadkar

The Minister for Social Protection says a more targeted scheme needs to be introduced

  Gone? >

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar said he would replace JobBridge with a scheme more suited to the current job market and will be replaced by another that is more fit for purpose. This will not be before the end of September however.

The JobBridge scheme, which provided internships for unemployed graduates, is to be replaced with a more targeted scheme, Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has said.

The Minister said the scheme, introduced in 2011 by then minister for social protection Joan Burton to provide work experience to graduates, had served its purpose. He said he would introduce a new scheme more suited to the current job market.

Under JobBridge, interns work for between six and nine months, 30-40 hours per week, for an additional €52.50 on top of unemployment allowances. About a third of the 46,500 people who signed up to the scheme have gone on to secure full-time employment.

Since its inception, the scheme has attracted criticism from politicians, trade unions and other bodies, including the National Youth Council of Ireland.

In April this year, trade union Impact called for the scheme’s abolition following reports it had been used to fill hundreds of positions for State agencies and multinational corporations.

Recurring exploitation?

Deputy general secretary of the union Kevin Callinan said many of those who welcomed the scheme in 2011 have been troubled by the recurring reports of abuse and exploitation, “which have dogged its reputation and greatly undermined its many positive outcomes”.

“While the scheme undoubtedly served a useful purpose when youth unemployment and emigration was rocketing at the height of the economic crash, it’s now time to move on,” he said.

The most frequent user of the scheme has been the HSE, which took on 399 JobBridge interns over five years, followed by the GAA with 249 interns. Global IT firm Hewlett-Packard brought in 176 JobBridge interns.

Last week, Minister of State for Training and Skills John Halligan, also spoke against the scheme and said it should be scrapped.

Last week, the Department of Social Protection said decisions on the future of the scheme would only be made after the publication of a review, being undertaken by consultancy Indecon. The report was expected to be ready in September.

Welcoming Mr Varadkar’s announcement, Fine Gael TD for Dublin North-West Noel Rock said there was ample evidence to suggest that the abuses of the JobBridge scheme were outweighing any good that it did.

“As the economic recovery widens and deepens through all sectors, we are thankfully seeing the rate of youth unemployment fall,” he said.

“As such, the JobBridge scheme is now past its sell-by date. I welcome the speed with which Minister Varadkar has recognised this fact, and look forward to further reforms.”

Independent TD Dr. Harty denies his support for new Government is guaranteed 

      

The Clare TD Dr Michael Harty.

The future of the new Government has been thrown into doubt this weekend after an Independent TD warned he may not support Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s administration on crucial votes.

Clare TD Dr Michael Harty has insisted he will approach any future votes on a strictly case-by-case basis in a move that suggests his support is far from guaranteed.

But Dr Harty, who is one of eight Independent TDs who is voted for Kr Kenny, rowed back on remarks that suggested his support had been pulled.

Dr Harty said today he was not part of the Government and said he will approach all votes including any motions of no confidence in either the Taoiseach or his ministers on a strictly case-by-case basis.

The TD said he backed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach because he believed the country did not want to go back to the polls but insisted he never committed to full-time support of the Government.

However, he rowed back on his statement when his stance came under the media spotlight.

The Clare deputy said he will now back Mr Kenny on motions of no confidence and budget votes.

“When I said on case-by-case basis I meant votes in the Dail and not votes which could bring down the Government,” he said.

Dr Harty also insisted he is a “wholly Independent TD” despite pledging to back Mr Kenny in crucial votes.

When the contradiction in this statement was pointed out, Dr Harty said: “Obviously, if the vote (of confidence) on cataclysmic, unforeseen event it will depend on the issue at hand.”

The doctor said he never sought a position in government from Fine Gael and insisted he is not “throwing his toys out of the pram” because he was not appointed as junior minister.

There is now speculation that Fine Gael may seek to back Dr Harty as chairman of a powerful new Oireachtas health committee.

A Fianna Fail source said last night that Dr Harty’s decision leaves the Government in a “very tenuous” position.

“Our aim is not to pull it down unless we are adamantly against something, but if he loses another vote things will become very volatile and Kenny will have to watch every vote,” the source said.

Last week, former Independent Alliance member Michael Fitzmaurice also ruled out supporting the Government, despite the rest of his political grouping backing Mr Kenny.

Each member of the Independent Alliance has been given a ministry, as was Denis Naughten, who was part of the so-called Rural Five along with Dr Harty.

Another Independent TD, Katherine Zappone, was given a senior Cabinet position.

The only other Independent TD who supported Mr Kenny for Taoiseach and was not given a position is Tipperary deputy Michael Lowry.

Fine Gael has sought to distance itself from Mr Lowry, but now his support is more essential than ever.

He has claimed he has an understanding with Fine Gael in return for his support, but the party has denied any such arrangement is in place.

Low-salt diets may not be beneficial for everybody, a study suggests

Salt reduction only important in some people with high blood pressure

    

A large worldwide study has found that, contrary to popular thought, low-salt diets may not be beneficial and may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death compared to average salt consumption. The study suggests that the only people who need to worry about reducing sodium in their diet are those with hypertension (high blood pressure) and have high salt consumption.

Risks associated with low-sodium intake — less than three grams per day — are consistent regardless of a patient’s hypertension status.

A large worldwide study has found that, contrary to popular thought, low-salt diets may not be beneficial and may actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and death compared to average salt consumption.

In fact, the study suggests that the only people who need to worry about reducing sodium in their diet are those with hypertension (high blood pressure) and have high salt consumption.

The study, involving more than 130,000 people from 49 countries, was led by investigators of the Population Health Research Institute (PHRI) of McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences.

They looked specifically at whether the relationship between sodium (salt) intake and death, heart disease and stroke differs in people with high blood pressure compared to those with normal blood pressure.

The researchers showed that regardless of whether people have high blood pressure, low-sodium intake is associated with more heart attacks, strokes, and deaths compared to average intake.

“These are extremely important findings for those who are suffering from high blood pressure,” said Andrew Mente, lead author of the study, a principal investigator of PHRI and an associate professor of clinical epidemiology and biostatistics at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

“While our data highlights the importance of reducing high salt intake in people with hypertension, it does not support reducing salt intake to low levels.

“Our findings are important because they show that lowering sodium is best targeted at those with hypertension who also consume high sodium diets.”

Current intake of sodium in Canada is typically between 3.5 and 4 grams per day and some guidelines have recommended that the entire population lower sodium intake to below 2.3 grams per day, a level that fewer than five per cent of Canadians and people around the world consume.

Previous studies have shown that low-sodium, compared to average sodium intake, is related to increased cardiovascular risk and mortality, even though low sodium intake is associated with lower blood pressure.

This new study shows that the risks associated with low-sodium intake — less than three grams per day — are consistent regardless of a patient’s hypertension status.

Further, the findings show that while there is a limit below which sodium intake may be unsafe, the harm associated with high sodium consumption appears to be confined to only those with hypertension.

Only about 10 per cent of the population in the global study had both hypertension and high sodium consumption (greater than 6 grams per day).

Mente said that this suggests that the majority of individuals in Canada and most countries are consuming the right amount of salt.

He added that targeted salt reduction in those who are most susceptible because of hypertension and high salt consumption may be preferable to a population-wide approach to reducing sodium intake in most countries except those where the average sodium intake is very high, such as parts of central Asia or China.

He added that what is now generally recommended as a healthy daily ceiling for sodium consumption appears to be set too low, regardless of a person’s blood pressure level.

“Low sodium intake reduces blood pressure modestly, compared to average intake, but low sodium intake also has other effects, including adverse elevations of certain hormones which may outweigh any benefits. The key question is not whether blood pressure is lower with very low salt intake, instead it is whether it improves health,” Mente said

Dr. Martin O’Donnell, a co-author on the study and an associate clinical professor at McMaster University and National University of Ireland Galway, said: “This study adds to our understanding of the relationship between salt intake and health, and questions the appropriateness of current guidelines that recommend low sodium intake in the entire population.”

“An approach that recommends salt in moderation, particularly focused on those with hypertension, appears more in-line with current evidence.” The study was funded from more than 50 sources, including the PHRI, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

NASA DOES NOT WANT YOU TO SEE THIS GIANT HOLE AT NORTH POLE THAT PROVES THE HOLLOW EARTH THEORY,

AS CONSPIRACY THEORISTS CLAIM

The Blue Marble    

Conspiracy theorists claim to have stumbled upon NASA images that prove the controversial Hollow Earth theory. The Hollow Earth theory claims that the Earth is hollow and consists of an “inner Earth” populated by people and animals.

The inner Earth, according to Hollow Earth theorists, has a Sun and a technologically advanced civilization.

Hollow Earth conspiracy theorists claim there is a hole at the North Pole, as well as at the South Pole, through which the inner Earth can be accessed.

Conspiracy theorists also claim that the government and NASA are aware of the presence of a gaping black hole at the poles, but have tried to cover up the evidence by obscuring the hole in satellite images of the poles. Thus, most satellite images of the North Pole have a “dark zone or blackout region where no information is available.”

But according to the YouTube alien and UFO hunters Secureteam10, in a video uploaded online on May 20, 2016, titled, “NASA Caught Hiding Something At North Pole! Hollow Earth?” new, uncensored and never-before-seen satellite images of the North Pole allegedly prove that NASA and the government have been hiding evidence that there is a hole at the North Pole that leads into the “inner Earth.”

“Every single satellite image that we have of the North Pole shows a massive hole or a blackout hole put there to hide whatever’s underneath,” according to Secureteam10.

NASA, according to conspiracy theorists, quickly delete from their websites all images showing a massive hole at the North Pole when, occasionally, they are uploaded unintentionally. Thus, the only images of the North Pole available to the public are those showing a “blackout” region at the North Pole designed to hide from the public the fact that there is a gaping hole at the North Pole.

Images of the South Pole are also obscured to hide the hole there.

Hollow Earth conspiracy theorists claim that testimony by the few people who have seen the hole at the North Pole and entered the inner Earth are being suppressed by government.

It is claimed that the polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd, found the hole and traveled into the inner Earth. His missing diaries from the late 1940s, according to conspiracy theorists, contain an account of his journey in the inner Earth covering about 1, 700 miles, during which he saw lush vegetation, lakes, mountains and animals, such as woolly mammoth.

He also encountered advanced civilizations.

A German sailor, Karl Unger, also allegedly entered the inner Earth in 1943, during a U-boat expedition to the South Pole. Unger encountered an advanced civilization on an island called “Rainbow Island.”

Adolf Hitler is also rumored to have escaped to the inner Earth.

One of the earliest known proponents of the Hollow Earth theory was John Symmes, who proposed a “theory of concentric spheres and polar void.”

According to Symmes, the Earth is “hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees.”

Symmes toured the U.S. in the 1820s, campaigning for support to equip an expedition to “explore the hollow.” He petitioned the U.S. government to finance an expedition to find the hole at the North Pole.

According to the Telegraph, on March 7, 1822, Senator Richard Thompson proposed a bill in Congress to provide Symmes “with the equipment of two vessels of 250 to 300 tons for the expedition, and the granting of such other aid as Government may deem requisite.”

But the bill failed after a long debate.

Symmes died in May 1829 without achieving his life-long ambition. Rodney M. Cluff is regard widely as Symmes’ successor in the quest for the entrance to the inner Earth. The author of the World Top Secret: Our Earth Is Hollow! claimed to have been introduced to the idea as a teenager while employed at a farm in New Mexico.

After reading “the Scriptures, history and science,” Cluff became convinced that the Earth “as well as all the planets and the moons and even asteroids” are hollow.

In 1981, he traveled with his family to Alaska to “find the way to the Hollow Earth.”

But after the initial attempt in 1981 failed, he tried again in 2003 in partnership with Steve Curry, who managed a travel firm. But after setting up a plan to charter a Russian nuclear ice breaker and a plane to fly over the pole to locate the legendary hole, Steve Curry, leader of the expedition, died before the date selected to start the journey.

The team appointed a new leader, Dr Brooks Agnew, and chose the summer of 2014 to start the journey. But Agnew resigned before the date due to business issues.

And after another member of the team died in a plane crash, Cluff begin to fear that supernatural forces were trying to scuttle the planned expedition.

More recently in 2002, Dallas Thompson, from Bakersfield, California, became convinced, after a car accident in which he nearly lost his life, that the Earth is hollow and that there is a hole in the North Pole that leads to the inner Earth.

His car had plunged down a ravine but he survived miraculously. During the near-death ordeal, he received insights about the inner Earth and the opening in the North Pole.

He appeared on Coast to Coast on October 4, 2002, to discuss his plan to find the hole.

He told Coast to Coast’s Art Bell that the hollow Earth has “cavern systems and caves that traverse the whole mantel.”

He claimed there were huge herds of mammoth and a civilization in the inner Earth. But he couldn’t explain how he came about the knowledge.

Thompson claimed he had secured funding to find the hole. He revealed a bizarre plan to descend into the hole using a helicopter backpack and said he planned to depart on May 24, 2003.

News about the planned expedition spread and soon his book, Cosmic Manuscript, in which he described his Hollow Earth theory, became a bestseller.

But suddenly, and inexplicably, Thompson disappeared after posting to his Yahoo Group on January 11, 2003.

It is claimed that he went into hiding to avoid lawsuit following an allegation that the material in his book Cosmic Manuscript, was plagiarized.

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Wednesday 11th May 2016

The priorities for the new Irish Government’s first 100 days in office published

   

The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has published the Programme for Government document agreed with Independent TDs in what he called an “ambitious and optimistic plan”.

Among the priorities for the government’s first 100 days in office are:

* The drawing up and publication of an Action Plan on the housing crisis.

* The establishment of a broadband task force for rural areas.

* Agreement with the Oireachtas on a reformed Budget process including the publication of a Spring Statement and a new National Economic Dialogue.

* The reactivation of the National Treatment Purchase fund to reduce hospital waiting lists.

* The preparation of a new winter plan for Emergency Department overcrowding.

* The between Government and education partners on new after-school care arrangements

The document is entitled ‘A Programme for Partnership Government’.

“The Programme for Government published today is extensive but at its core is a simple objective: to make people’s lives better in every part of Ireland,” Mr Kenny said.

“This government is ambitious and optimistic.  Politics is always about what is possible.  That sense of possibility is the touchstone of this Partnership Government for a Fairer Ireland.

“The government will work with all Members of the Oireachtas and with wider society to deliver real and positive change for the people of Ireland.

“The Irish people have worked hard for the progress the country has made and together we can build a better future for all our people in a fair society underpinned by a strong economy,” Mr Kenny said.

Here is why the latest rate cuts from AIB and KBC Banks don’t go far enough

The move will benefit 50% fewer AIB customers than last rate cut and the banks’ customers are still paying considerably more than European norms.

     

AIB’s rate cut will please its customers, but has the bank gone far enough?

AIB customers got some welcome news when the bank said it would make a quarter percentage point cent cut to its standard variable mortgage (SVR) rate. At 3.4%, the new rate is now one of the most competitive in the market, just behind of the 3.3% offered by KBC Bank, and it is expected that some 76,000 AIB mortgage customers will benefit from the move.

KBC followed suit within hours, lowering its standard variable rate for new customers to 3.2%.

But is this enough?

Firstly, despite this latest cut, Irish mortgage rates remain extremely expensive in a European context. As of December 2015 for example, the typical new business rate on an Irish variable rate mortgage was 3.76%, according to Central Bank figures, compared with a euro zone average of just 1.99%.

The rate cuts by AIB and KBC mean they may now be the most competitive on the Irish market, but both are still charging considerably more than the euro zone norm, and far above the average rate charged in Germany (2.62%); Spain (1.68%) and France (1.98%) in March of this year.

It is an anomaly that persists despite political pressure. Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath is hoping to exert even more pressure on this front. He said on Monday that he hopes to publish a Bill within two weeks which will propose giving the Central Bank extra powers to help it to coerce banks to cut rates.

The move to fixed rates

Furthermore, the number of people who will benefit from the cut is much less than in previous rate cuts. Last August for example, AIB said that its SVR cut would benefit some 156,000 mortgage account holders.

Monday’s announcement, however, only applies to AIB, and not to its Haven and EBS subsidiaries. That means it will help just 76,000 customers cut the cost of their mortgage, or some 50% less than in previous rate cuts.

The exclusion of Haven and EBS in the announcement will clearly be unwelcome to variable rate customers with those lenders. Another factor limiting the numbers benefitting may be the very concerted effort by banks to switch customers onto fixed rates, by offering their best rates on these products.

Ulster Bank for example, recently came together with One Big Switch to offer its lowest rate of 3.29% over a four-year fixed term – while earlier this year Bank of Ireland announced cuts of up to 0.35%, but just to new fixed mortgage interest rates.

Bank of Ireland, which continues to have a stubbornly high top rate SVR of 4.5%, has perhaps achieved the strongest shift to fixed rates. In the second half of 2015, for example, fixed rate products accounted for two-thirds of all its mortgage lending, up significantly from about 30% just a year ago.

This has also had a significant impact on its entire mortgage book, with 16% of its mortgage book on fixed rates as of end 2016, up from 9.0% in 2014.

AIB itself has seen more of its mortgage book switch to fixed rates – from 8% in 2014 to 11% at the end of 2015 – although it should be noted that its latest rate cut means that its SVR is now the lowest rate it offers.

Having more customers on fixed rates may offer a bank more stability but it also makes it more difficult for customers to switch, with banks typically imposing expensive break fees for customers looking to move off a fixed rate.

This makes switching offers, such as AIB’s €2,000 contribution towards legal fees, or Bank of Ireland’s 2% cash back, sound attractive but limits take-up, with factors such as the number of mortgage customers still on trackers, or those unwilling to go through the whole mortgage process again, precluding many from switching to save.

Figures from the Banking & Payments Federation for example, show that just 130 property owners a month switched their mortgage in the first quarter of this year. And this represented a dramatic increase on the same period in 2015 when just 56 customers a month switched.

Here’s what the Irish Government plans to do about housing and mental health

These are two of Ireland’s major issues and here’s how they will be tackled?

housing, opposition, government, buildings, cabinet, ministers    

They are two of the biggest issues facing the country and the new Fine Gael-led minority government made a swathe of pledges on housing and mental health?

With an ongoing housing crisis, it is no surprise that it is the second item tackled in the 155-page document.

To start, the government wants to build 25,000 new houses a year every year by 2020.

Last year, building on just 8,000 homes was begun and to do that, the building will be ramped up to 18,000 a year by 2017.

New Housing Minister Simon Coveney today told Sean O’Rourke that he needs to “continue and intensify” the work done by his predecessor Alan Kelly in relation to building houses and working with local authorities to increase the supply of social housing.

I’m not afraid of being radical if that’s what’s necessary.

He said that he would use legislation to fast-track planning and committed to an “immediate response”.

“I regard what’s happening in housing, and in particular for families that are homeless, as a national emergency and we need an immediate response.”

The document also pledges two major initiatives in the government’s first 100 days: An Action Plan on Housing and a new model of affordable rent.

The programme also promises to end the use of hotels and B&Bs as long-term emergency accommodation and a scheme to help first-time buyers.

Mental health problem?

The subject of mental health, which has been the focus of much discussion, received its own section in the document.

In it, the government pledged to tackle the crisis in the area, not just by using the health service.

The stigma associated with mental health remains and will require a wider and more concerted effort across all aspects of society, not just focussed upon our health services.

On the health side, the government says GPs will play a key role in tackling the area.

They have also committed to an expert review of current status of response to mental health issues in Ireland will advise on how to increase 24/7 support.

The government also wants to ensure that every Emergency Department has a team of clinical nurse specialists in psychiatry to provide rapid response to cases of self-harm.

In order to make the conversation around mental health more open, Wellbeing will be made a Junior Cert subject in 2017.

Speaking today, Health Minister Simon Harris said mental health would be addressed in the community.

“We will continue to support the provision of mental health and disability services within the community, where appropriate.

“The more intervention we can have for patients at the earliest possible stage, the more likely a better outcome is for patients.”

Basic power breathing trick could help to calm your anxiety in seconds

It could help you feel calm and collected again in a short space of time.

      

Anxiety sufferers will know how much the feeling of panic can take over your life, and often it can feel like it’s overwhelming and uncontrollable, which only worsens the problem.

It can start with a shortness of breath, sweaty palms and having the shakes, and end in a full anxiety attack. But a new technique devised by Big Think has a suggestion for how you can bring yourself back to a state of calmness in a matter of moments, and it could make a big difference to sufferers.

It sounds basic, but it’s all down to breathing; ‘power breathing’ to be precise. In a video, Jane McGonigal, author of the personal growth app SuperBetter explains what makes power breathing so different and effective in comparison to the ‘deep breaths’ people with anxiety are often told to exercise.

And it’s actually really simple. All you do is focus on exhaling for twice as long as you inhale. “So you might inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of eight,” McGonigal explains in the video.

Apparently, this technique calms our nerves by counteracting the ‘flight or fight’ adrenalin response we experience when stressed or nervous. The flight or fight response occurs from the sympathetic nervous system, but power breathing reportedly switches this to parasympathetic ‘rest-and-digest’ response instead, which slows down our heart rate and relaxes our muscles.

The method has apparently been used to prevent panic attacks, so if you feel one coming on, it might be worth trying to take a step back and give the power breathing a go.

It’s also reported to reduce the symptoms of migraines.

So we’d suggest giving this breathing technique a go; whether you’re a regular sufferer of anxiety or even if you’re just feeling nervous about something you’ve got coming up like a presentation or a meeting, it’s worth trying it out to make you feel all kinds of zen.

The resolve of the Dunne’s Stores siblings cannot be underestimated

     

This year, Checkout commemorates its 40th anniversary and with this in mind, every week, Retail Intelligence is going to ‘reel in the years’ and publish a story from our extensive archives. This interview from February 1976 with Frank Dunne records Dunnes Stores’ first foray into the cash and carry business.

Dunnes Stories has been busy always in expanding its belief in being the top retailer in Ireland.

Dunnes Stores has spent tens of millions of euros – perhaps even over €100m at this stage – to get shoppers through its doors.

By offering customers €10 off for every €50 they spend, its generous voucher deal has done what it was designed to do. But previous anecdotal evidence from insiders has suggested that when Dunnes turned off the voucher tap, that it was noticing a marked fall in sales at stores.

It’s easy to wonder if it has got itself into a vicious, rather than virtuous, circle.

And that long-running money-off campaign must certainly have dulled profits at the notoriously secretive retailer that’s headed by Margaret Hefferan and her brother, Frank Dunne.

But it seems to be the price they’re prepared to pay to regain Dunnes’ footing.

Coupling that strategy with a push towards providing shoppers with fancier goods could also help it to retain customers who might otherwise have gone elsewhere if not for the vouchers.

And Dunnes has been busy expanding its offering.

Last year, it bought the small, Dublin-based coffee chain Cafe Sol, with a view to opening outlets in its busier stores around the country.

Earlier this year, it bought Whelan Food and Meat Processors. The business was owned by Pat Whelan, a renowned Tipperary butcher, with the firm having concessions in three Avoca stores. It would have been unthinkable a few years ago that Dunnes would have chased the kinds of shoppers who’d be willing to splash out on refined products such as those that Whelans offers.

But it takes a long time to change mindsets and images (unless you happen to be Ryanair, it seems).

Dunnes could do it, but it can’t alienate its traditional customer base.

The person who does his or her shop at Dunnes probably isn’t the same person who could just as easily opt to pop into M&S for the bulk of their groceries.

So knitting together a coherent strategy, rather than cobbling something together and hoping it will work, will be hugely important if the notoriously media-shy Dunnes is to chase a different kind of shopper while holding on to its core.

Margaret Heffernan and Frank Dunne are no doubt eyeing a return to glory days. Being number one in Ireland is surely their goal. If SuperValu can beat Tesco and do it, then surely Dunnes can too, they probably figure. The last thing they’ll want is a pyrrhic, short-lived victory that costs a fortune.

Both are also no doubt keenly aware of the advance of time. Margaret Heffernan turned 74 back in March. Frank Dunne will be 73 this month.

It may still leave them with many years at the helm, but may also have focused their minds on their legacy at Dunnes Stores.

They surely will not want to leave the ship gliding behind SuperValu and Tesco.

And one thing is certain: despite Dunnes being in third position on the podium, the resolve of the siblings to make it number one should never be underestimated.

NASA Astronomers have found more than 1,000 new Planets

The Kepler mission’s announcement of 1,284 worlds previews the overwhelming number of planetary discoveries to come?

    

This week astronomers using NASA’s Kepler space telescope announced that the planet-hunting spacecraft had increased its catalogue by an additional 1,284 worlds. This is the greatest number of planets ever announced at one time, swelling Kepler’s confirmed planetary haul to more than 2,000 and the number of indisputably known planets beyond our solar system to more than 3,000.

Like nearly all of Kepler’s worlds, the latest discoveries come from a single star-filled patch of sky in the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus. That’s where the spacecraft began to stare after its launch in 2009, looking for telltale dips in the light from 150,000 stars as planets flit across their faces. Kepler stopped monitoring that particular region of sky in 2013, after hardware malfunctions forced its operators to change its observing strategy. It now seeks planets around a smaller number of stars in a narrow band of sky around the sun in a new phase of its mission, dubbed “K2.”

Mission scientists have long known that some fraction of the dips in starlight that Kepler saw during its primary mission were due to imposters—double stars, variable stars and other astrophysical phenomena that can masquerade as the shadowy passages of planets. To narrow its findings down to real planets, Kepler’s team relied on painstaking, time-consuming observations from other telescopes on the ground and in space.

As candidate planets piled up, however, this authentication process became a bottleneck, too slow and inefficient to keep up with Kepler’s flood of data. Yesterday’s announcement came from a new, more automated and statistical approach to validating Kepler’s candidates, pioneered by the Princeton University astronomer Tim Morton. “Planet candidates can be thought of like bread crumbs,” Morton explained at a press conference. “If you drop a few large crumbs on the floor, you can pick them up one by one. But, if you spill a whole bag of tiny crumbs, you’re going to need a broom. This statistical analysis is our broom.”

The technique analyzes the shapes of each possible planet’s dip in starlight and, based in part on the estimated frequency of various astrophysical imposters, calculates the probability that an actual planet produces each dip. Based on this analysis, each of the 1,284 worlds announced yesterday has a better than 99 percent chance of being an actual planet, and an additional 1,327 Kepler candidates are probable planets that failed to exceed the 99 percent confidence level. The analysis also dismissed 707 candidates as likely false positives.

About 550 of the newly announced 1,284 worlds could be rocky, based on their estimated size. And of these, nine orbit within their stars’ habitable zone—the not-too-hot, not-too-cold region where liquid water and life as we know it could exist. This brings Kepler’s total haul of potentiallyhabitable worlds to about two dozen.

According to Kepler’s Mission Scientist Natalie Batalha, extrapolated to the entirety of the galaxy this suggests there could be 10 billion approximately Earth-size planets in the habitable zones of stars throughout the Milky Way. The nearest, Batalha said, might be as close as 11 light-years away—practically right next door in interstellar terms.

Tellingly, these estimates are scarcely different from those produced earlier in the Kepler mission from smaller sample sizes and more piecemeal analyses of the data. Astronomers, it seems, are at last getting closer to learning the true frequency of the occurrence of potentially habitable planets throughout the cosmos. Yet the most exciting and arguably more meaningful questions remain out of reach: How many of our neighboring potentially habitable planets are actually habitable, and how many of those are actually inhabited? No one yet knows.

Finding answers to these questions will be a key task for the future of astronomy. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018, as well as its follow-on Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) slated for the 2020s, each have slim-but-significant chances of probing the atmospheres of a few nearby small planets for signs of habitability and life. Additionally, a new class of ground-based 30-meter telescopes set to debut in the 2020s could perform similar observations. Beyond that, astronomers dream of building and launching one or more next-generation giant space telescopes custom-built to take snapshots of alien Earths, although such observatories presently seem unlikely to fly until the 2030s at the earliest.

In the meantime the most remarkable thing about the ongoing surge in planetary discoveries from Kepler and other missions is that it shows no sign of slowing down. A decade ago the announcement of even a dozen planets at once was considered sensational; now the bar has been raised, and announcing hundreds or thousands at a time is not guaranteed to be front-page news. Not even experts can keep up with all the planets that now fill the catalogues.

Soon the exploding field of planet hunting will become even more overwhelming. Kepler’s final catalogue is slated to appear in late 2017, potentially adding hundreds or thousands more confirmed worlds to the tally. Meanwhile, automated, all-sky, ground-based surveys are ramping up that could deliver Kepler-like numbers of planets. But the real flood of discovery will probably come from space telescopes.

WFIRST is projected to find a few thousand planets in a survey of the Milky Way’s star-rich galactic bulge, and NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, launching in 2017, will perform an all-sky survey of nearby stars that is projected to net at least 1,500 planets. Even bigger numbers could come from other projects: Both the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft as well as its PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) mission, a sort of supersize Kepler set to launch in 2024, are likely to find tens of thousands more apiece.

Perhaps 10 years from now—and certainly 20—getting excited about a thousand new planets will probably seem positively quaint.

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Friday 6th May 2015

Hurrah Hurrah finally after 70 days we have a new Irish Government at a cost?

    

Enda Kenny receives seal of office as Taoiseach from President Michael D Higgins.

We finally have a government at a cost of €38,500 a day in TD salaries over the 70 days since the General Election?

An agreement has been reached at long last as Enda Kenny finally scraped in as Taoiseach this afternoon with 59 votes.

However, in the 10 weeks of government negotiations, the 158 elected TDs and the 10 acting ministers who lost their seats have pocketed substantial sums of taxpayer money.

Despite failing to keep their seats in the General Election, Acting Communications Minister Alex White and Acting Children’s Minister James Reilly have taken home pay packets of more than €10,000 each since the end of February.

Although the eight junior ministers who lost their seats in February are no longer collecting their TD salaries, they are still in receipt of a collective €52,893 in additional allowances.

A basic salary is paid to all TDs beginning on the date of the election result, and those with specified positions such as cabinet ministers or ministers of state also receive an additional salaried allowance.

A review of ministerial salaries shows:

•  Backbencher TDs have received approximately €16,780 since February 26, amounting to €2.1m for 126 TDs over 70 days

•  Although Acting Communications Minister Alex White and Acting Children’s Minister James Reilly failed to keep their seats, they have still taken home €13,515 each as they continued to fulfill ministerial duties

•  The 11 re-elected cabinet ministers have been paid €30,295 each, a collective sum of €333,245 over 10 weeks

•  Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been paid €35,644, while Acting Tánaiste and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has been paid €32,943

•  The eight junior ministers who lost their seat, including Kathleen Lynch, Aodhán O’Riordan, Ged Nash and Paudie Coffey, have collected individual sums of €6,611, amounting to a total of €52,893

•  The seven ministers of state who kept their seat, including Simon Harris, Michael Ring and Sean Sherlock, have each been paid €23,391 for their work

According to dissolution guidelines from the Houses of the Oireachtas: “Ministers and Ministers of State continue to be paid their Ministerial salary by the Departments throughout the dissolution period.

“The payment continues until the successor of the Taoiseach (who was in office on dissolution date) is appointed.”

All salaries are subject to tax, PRSI, the universal social charge, pension levy and pension contribution.

In addition to their salary, ministers also receive a number of other entitlements, including a mobile phone allowance and the Parliamentary Standard Allowance (PSA).

The PSA is comprised of a public representation allowance of up to €20,350 for expenses such as office utilities, stationery and advertising, and a travel and accommodation allowance.

The travel and accommodation allowance is intended to cover the costs of transport to and from Leinster house, overnight stays and other travel expenses, and ranges from €9,000 per year for those living in Dublin up to €34,065 for those living more than 360km from Dublin.

A Government spokesperson told Independent.ie: “The Taoiseach and Ministers continue to be paid their salaries as they continue to discharge their constitutional duties as cabinet members and heads of their departments.”

‘The story of 70 million Irish’ told at new Dublin visitor centre

EPIC Ireland in CHQ building curated by company behind Titanic Belfast

    

EPIC Ireland opens its doors to a new visitor experience which tells the story of 10 million journeys and the roots of 70 million people.

The story of the 70 million people who claim Irish heritage across the globe will be told in a new interactive visitor centre which opens its doors in Dublin on Saturday.

Former president Mary Robinson officially opened the EPIC Ireland centre in the CHQ Building in the docklands.

Designed by Event Communications, the company behind the hugely successful Titanic Belfast exhibition, the centre tells the story of the “global Irish family” in 20 interactive galleries.

Included in the stories of 325 people with Irish heritage, are revolutionary Che Guevara whose ancestors emigrated from Galway to Argentina and actor Grace Kelly whose grandfather was a bricklayer from Mayo.

The centre was funded by former Coca-Cola chief executive Neville Isdell, who emigrated from Co Down with his parents to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the mid-1950s.

Mr Isdell spent €10 million on the CHQ centre, a former 19th century warehouse, in the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC). Converted by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority into a shopping centre just before the economic crash, the CHQ building was only a quarter occupied when Mr Isdell invested.

Visitors will be issued with a personal “passport” before they take their tour through the galleries, which are organised into four themes. The first is migration, offering an introduction to Ireland and the arrivals and departures that have shaped the country.

The second is motivation, exploring why so many people left Ireland over the centuries, for reasons including famine and war.

The third theme is influence, examining what Irish people have done overseas and the impact they have had in their adopted homelands. The fourth theme of connection allows visitors to share their own stories of Irish connections throughout the world.

Visitors may also explore their family backgrounds with the help of genealogists based at the Irish Family History Centre on the site.

Opening the exhibition, Mrs Robinson recalled her decision as president to put a light in the window of Áras an Uachtaráin for all those who had to leave the country. She said that light had taught her the “power of symbols”.

As president, she also had a real sense of representing the 70 million people of the diaspora, such was the interest of those of Irish descent in seeking and cherishing their Irish heritage.

But she also recalled her disappointment at the “lack of enthusiasm” with which members had greeted her second address to the Houses of theOireachtas as president.

“My address completely lacked humour – there were no jokes at all. And the tone sounded preachy to the Oireachtas members, who responded with rather limp applause at the end. I was quite devastated by the lack of enthusiasm. But almost immediately I got a different reaction from those in the disaspora. Messages came pouring in expressing joy and tears that they had been recognised at last,” she said.

The EPIC Ireland centre opens to the public on Saturday. Entry costs €16 for adults and €8 for children, with discounts available for families, groups, pensioners, students and the unwaged.

Epilepsy related seizures can be predicted by measuring heart rate variability

   

Epilepsy related seizures can be predicted by measuring heart rate variability. The findings come from researchers in Japan who found that epileptic seizures may be better predicted using electrocardiogram to measure fluctuations in the heart rate than by measuring brain activity. This is also effective because wearing a heart monitor is much easier.

Epilepsy is a chronic disease that affects roughly one percent of the population. The disease is characterized by recurrent seizures, which are a result of excessive excitation that suddenly occurs in nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.

Anti-epileptic drugs allow majority of patients to live a normal life, but some patients are drug-resistant, meaning their seizures cannot be controlled by medications, leaving the patients living in constant fear of an impending seizure. Being able to predict seizures can offer these patients greater peace of mind.

Previous studies to predict seizures through heart rate were unsuccessful, and practical application was challenging as well. Dr. Toshitaka Yamakawa explained, “We analyzed heart rate fluctuations in the electrocardiographic data of 14 patients who had been hospitalized for long-term EEG video monitoring using a novel technique.”

The researchers used a Multivariate Statistical Process Control (MSPC) to analyze the heart rate variability. The results produced accurate predictions of seizures 91 percent of the time. Furthermore, predictions were made up to eight minutes prior to seizure onset. The difference between normal and preictal (before seizure) heart rates was very clear, and there were just a few false positives. The results show that it is possible to accurately predict seizures using heart rate.

Dr. Yamakawa continued, “The next step is to develop a wearable seizure prediction device. With that kind of device, patients would be able to ensure their safety before a seizure occurs and since the envisioned device would be attached to the chest, where it’s invisible externally, they would be able to have normal daily lives while wearing it. They wouldn’t need to be afraid of sustaining injury due to an unexpected seizure.”

Additional clinical trials of using wearable devices to predict seizures are now underway.

Brain implants may help predict seizures

An alternative study found that a brain implant may help to better predict seizures. In a small pilot study, 15 patients were tested. The patients were implanted with electrodes between the skull and the brain, connected with other electrodes in the chest. The data from the implants was then transmitted to a handheld device that patients could reference. High risk of a seizure is indicated by a red light, medium risk is a white light, and low risk is blue.

The devices successfully predicted seizures with a “high warning” sensitivity of over 65 percent. Some patients did experience negative side effects, including chest pains as a result of the chest implant moving. Two of the 15 patients did have the device removed.

Lead researcher Dr. Mark Cook said, “Knowing when a seizure might happen could dramatically improve the quality of life of people with epilepsy by giving them back some independence in their lives. A lot of patients with epilepsy will tell you it’s not the seizures themselves, but the fact they don’t know when they will happen, that is the worst part of their condition.”

Dr. Ashesh Mehta, director of epilepsy surgery at the North Shore-LIJ Comprehensive Epilepsy Care Center, added, “This study is an important first step. The next step would be to implant these in a larger sample of patients. And you need to see which groups of patients might be good candidates for this.”

Thousands to walk from darkness into light for Pieta House Ireland

    

Thousands will give up their Saturday morning lie-in this weekend to take part in Darkness Into Light fund-raisers all over Cork city and county.

 The fund-raiser, the most important one staged annually by suicide and self-harm prevention centre Pieta House, is described as ‘the lifeblood’ of the charity’s work. As much as 90% of its annual funding comes via public donations, with Darkness Into Light by far the most substantial source.

Starting at 4.15am, at nine different locations in Cork, thousands will walk and run a 5km route in solidarity to show support and raise funds for the charity.

More than 10,000 people took part in the walks in Cork last year, joined by a further 100,000 people at sites all over Ireland. It shows a remarkable growth for the event, which had just 400 participants in Phoenix Park in 2009 at its first outing.

The feat will be repeated this year at nine Cork sites: UCC, Clonakilty, Mallow, Ballyvolane, Carrigaline, Midleton, Inchigeelagh, Mitchelstown and Castletownbere.

Since opening the doors of its Bishopstown centre in December 2014, Pieta House Cork has supported more than 1,400 clients and 350 families. It has provided 232 emergency appointments. The service in Cork is the busiest in the country, seeing between 50 and 54 people per day. The youngest client to Pieta House Cork was just six, while the oldest was in their late eighties.

Angela Horgan, funding and advocacy coordinator at Pieta House Cork, paid tribute to the ongoing support of the public which has contributed generously to fundraising since the charity’s launch.

She said: “This year, Cork will be a sea of yellow as individuals, families and communities don their yellow T-shirts and walk in a sea of hope and solidarity through nine different venues across city and county.”

For more information on Darkness Into Light and the important work done by Pieta House, see www.dil.pieta.com.

Mercury to pass in front of the Sun next Monday,

And it should be an incredible sight to watch?

    

It happens around 13 times a century: From our perspective, Mercury – the smallest planet in our solar system – will pass in front of the sun. Most of the world, on next Monday will be able to see the planet as a tiny black dot passing slowly in front of its host star. You shouldn’t stare directly into the sun (ouch), but by watching online or using a telescope with a special filter, you can see Mercury in all its tiny glory.

Warning? If you have your own telescope, you can watch the event using a safety filter to protect your eyes from the sun. If you don’t have a filter handy, you can use a sheet of paper to rig up a safe viewing method – you can project the image of the sun (in the form of a white disk) onto a sheet of paper, then watch the black dot of Mercury crawl across it. You can also check out NASA’s websites and social media accounts for live image updates. If you live near an observatory or science center, you should check out their plans – you may be able to pop in and take a peek on their telescope.

But why should you care? Because it’s a very special event for a very cool little planet.

Mercury has an orbital period of just 88 days, making it by far the fastest orbiter in the solar system. And while Mercury is orbiting, so are we – at a completely different pace. So for our planets to line up just so for us to see the other world sweep over the sun is an uncommon event. This is the first Mercurian transit since 2006, and we won’t see another until 2019.

Wait, you say – that’s a lot of transits to have in just over a decade. How do we average out at just 13 for every 100 years? Mercury passes between the Earth and the sun every 116 days, but its orbital plane is skewed away from our own by a few degrees. It orbits the sun on a tilted trajectory, by our perspective. So its intersection with our orbit has to happen when it’s also intersecting with our orbital plane.

That combination of factors makes for some pretty wonky math: There’s a pattern to the frequency of Mercury’s transits, but it’s not as simple as “every x number of years.” It’s more like “every x number of years for awhile, then y, then z, then y again, and then z three times because why the heck not.” Orbital resonance is weird.

Venus – the only other planet between us and the sun, so also the only other planet that transits from our perspective – orbits much more slowly and on a plane slightly less skewed than Mercury’s. Venusian transits are more rare, but also a little easier to keep track of: They happen in pairs separated by eight years, with each pair separated from the next by a century and some change. If you missed the 2012 transit, you’re out of luck. The next one isn’t coming until 2117.

Transits outside our own neighborhood are pretty cool, too: We use the transits of exoplanets in front of their host stars to detect their presence, and even to measure them and analyze their atmospheres for signs of habitability.

Now that we’ve got the orbital positions of our neighboring planets down pat, transits aren’t the grand scientific opportunities they used to be.

“Scientifically, this was much more important a few hundred years ago,” Nancy Chabot, who served as lead imaging scientist for NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging mission (MESSENGER), told The Post. The MESSENGER spacecraft wrapped up its mission last year when it crashed down onto Mercury’s surface.

But scientists can still get something out of the transit. They’ll be able to analyze Mercury’s scant atmosphere – the thinnest in the entire solar system – in the same way that scientists use the passage of light through molecules in exoplanet atmospheres to search for signs of life. They can even use the event to calibrate instruments on spacecraft, because the timing and positioning of Mercury’s transit over the sun’s surface is so reliable. Telescopes can be pointed in the right direction based on Mercury’s placement, and some instruments can even correct their vision based on the event.

“It’s like getting a cataract – you see stars or halos around bright lights as though you are looking through a misty windshield,” NASA scientist Dean Pesnell said in a statement. Mercury should appear totally black against the sun’s light, but the way instruments scatter light may cause it to look slightly lit up. Scientists can use the event to try to retune those instruments to see Mercury in its true colors, which could prevent mishaps when observing more mysterious objects.

Chabot hopes the event will inspire the public to look up into the sky and think about our planetary neighbors. On Friday, she and the rest of the MESSENGER team released the first ever complete topographic map of Mercury.

“It’s really well-timed,” she said. “People will be looking.”

Her team learned plenty of fascinating things about Mercury during the mission. Chabot said she “didn’t want to pick favorites,” but found three features to be particularly intriguing:

“One is that it’s got these giant areas of volcanic lava that have flowed across the surface in ancient times, which takes up an area more than half the size of the U.S. The epic volcanic events that must have occurred to cause that are intriguing,” she said.

Mercury also has features called “hallows” that have never been seen anywhere else. The small depressions appear to be spots where rocks – ones unable to stand up to Mercury’s environment – sublimate away like snow on a warm day.

“Rocks don’t usually just disappear into space, but they do on Mercury.” Chabot said.

Chabot spent most of her time focusing on the water ice that forms at Mercury’s north and south poles, which are permanently shadowed. Finding it there was great, she said, but it raises new questions. How did it get there, when, and what might it tell us about how water found its way to Earth?

“You answer one thing in science and you’re left with all these intriguing new questions,” she said.

Seeing Mercury as a tiny dot in front of the sun isn’t going to answer any of those questions — or even allow you to see those alien features. But you should still consider checking it out.