Henry VIII’s favourite fool – a new book draws a portrait of the man the Tudor court loved to laugh at

Henry VIII is notorious for his willingness to lop off the heads of anyone who crossed him, including a string of former friends and intimates –even two of his wives. So you might think that, to keep your head on your shoulders at his court, you would need to have your wits about you and to watch your tongue.

And yet, one figure who sailed on apparently effortlessly through Henry’s bloody later years and the equally violent reigns of his successors was Will Somers, the court fool.

Somers died peacefully under Queen Elizabeth I after a long and successful career at the Tudor court. It is this survivor’s tale that the Swedish historian Peter Andersson set out to tell in Fool: In Search of Henry VIII’s Closest Man.

In writing a book about Somers, Andersson faces two pretty serious problems. One, we know almost nothing about Somers. We have a series of off-hand mentions, hackneyed anecdotes and accountants’ notes, none of which add up to much.

Secondly, what we do know is that his purpose was to make people laugh – but Tudor comedy has, to put it kindly, not aged well. The punchline to a number of the jokes remembered here is that a man pisses in his pants. As Andersson says rather apologetically, “you had to be there” – but perhaps you’re glad you weren’t.

Conjuring up a 200-page book out of what little there is on Somers is a tall order, and at times the performance sags. Andersson does invoke quite a lot of historical and literary scholarship to interpret Somers’ world – and while it is learned it is about as entertaining as a Tudor joke-book. He has to cast his net pretty wide, searching not only for solid facts, of which there are precious few, but for “things that ring true”, an alarmingly capacious category.

Still, he’s on to something. The court fool was, as he shows us, a weird category of being. Quite distinct from the clown, who sets out to make people laugh and is in on the joke, the point of the fool was that he stumbles into comedy by mistake. Anyone who wants to know about this oddly central figure in Tudor life will find Andersson’s book worthwhile.

The king’s pet

Like many court fools, Somers had a reputation for being hot-tempered, sometimes lashing out at the wrong person when tormented. He also, more unusually, had a reputation for falling asleep at inopportune moments. Neither of those things would be tolerated for a moment in a normal courtier, which is presumably the point. He was an anti-courtier, his misbehaviour indulged like a pet’s. Indeed, there is a story that says he slept with the king’s spaniels. He was, the account books tell us, only an intermittent presence at court, since presumably little foolery goes a long way.

William Somers is depicted on the far right of this portrait of Henry VIII and his family.

Somers was, the portraits tell us, beardless like a boy, with his hair close-cropped like a madman. Sadly, he wouldn’t have worn the cockscomb headdress with bells that we imagine, but expensive and distinctive clothes were made for him, to mark him out visually from the normal humans at court.

Somers mostly wore green and his clothes were apparently covered in brightly coloured silk buttons, which were bought for him by the hundred. As that suggests, he wasn’t there chiefly for his witty banter, but to be looked at, laughed at and mocked.

And, it seems, kicked and punched. This was not sophisticated comedy. One of the later sources has Somers say that the king “gave me such a box on the ear, that struck me clean through three chambers, down four pair of stairs, fell over five barrels, into the bottom of the cellar”. This is Looney Tunes stuff.

As Ian Holm’s Napoleon says in Terry Gilliam’s film Time Bandits: comedy is about “little things hitting each other”. No wonder Henry VIII’s court musician and playwright John Heywood had sour grapes about his own commissions drying up while the court still guffawed at this sort of thing. It would be like Shakespeare being sacked and replaced with a troupe of dwarf-wrestlers.

Nobody’s fool

But what made Somers so memorable was that courtiers could never quite make up their minds about him. Was he, they repeatedly asked, truly a “natural fool”, or was he an “artificial fool”? Was the joke on him, or on them? Although Andersson’s book is heavy going at times, this central puzzle animates it and keeps the reader guessing to the end.

Princeton University Press

Take Somers’ most famous witticism. One day when the king was lamenting his poverty, Somers told him it was because he employed so many “frauditors, conveyors and deceivers”. Was that play on the words “auditors, surveyors and receivers” something that someone had taught him, like teaching a parrot to swear? Or was he sharper than he let on?

In the end, Andersson doesn’t buy it. He reckons Somers really was a “natural fool”, “saying what came into his mind, now and then inadvertently stumbling upon a humorous phrasing or unwittingly saying something that could be imbued with comedy”. I’m not so sure. If those who knew him couldn’t make up their mind what he was, it seems foolhardy for us to make a judgement.

By far the best-attested saying of Somers’, for which we have three independent witnesses, is that he would abide by nothing that he had said: warning us, in effect, not to believe a word from him. It’s worth remembering as you read this book. Is the joke on him, or on us?

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How AI and AR could increase the risk of problem gambling for online sports betting

Sometimes referred to as the “crack cocaine of gambling”, electronic gaming machines (EGMs) such as slot machines allow bets to be placed as quickly as once every 2.5 seconds, delivering a rapid and immersive gambling experience. Similar features are now being used to transform online sports betting, significantly increasing the risk of problem gambling.

Sports betting is one the UK’s most popular forms of gambling. Traditionally, people have placed sports bets in the same way they play the national lottery: betting on the final result of a match or race during the week and often waiting until the weekend to discover the outcome of the event.

But our recent research indicates that the online environment has massively transformed sports betting. It has now become instantly accessible, offering a multitude of features and betting options that pose a significantly greater risk of addiction than in the past.

And with technology rapidly advancing, the future of sports betting could be even more worrying as gambling companies look to artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) to enhance their offerings.

More harmful sports betting has been linked to new features that are similar to those found in EGMs. Countless “in-play” and “micro” sports bets can now be placed on the shortest intervals within a sporting event, such as a bet on the next free kick in football. Although not quite as fast as EGMs, the increased speed at which in-play sports bets can now be placed is linked to problem gambling.

Another similarity between EGMs and online sports betting involves “losses disguised as wins”. This is when a player receives a payout that is less than their original wager but is still celebrated with visual and auditory feedback, making it feel like a win.

The “cash-out” feature also allows players to settle bets early, often for less than the original stake, to minimise potential losses. This is particularly profitable for bookmakers when large sums are involved and could also disguise overall losses as wins. Using the cash-out feature is also associated with problem gambling.

Sports betting in the near future

It’s possible to see how sports betting products that incorporate AI and AR could evolve before they are commercially available by analysing patents. This is a useful strategy for researchers like us because potential areas of harm can be identified before new products hit the market.

Our recent research identified three patents that aim to add augmented reality (AR) to the sports betting experience. AR typically uses goggles or mobile phones to overlap computer-generated imagery onto a player’s view of the real world. Big tech firms such as Apple (Apple Vision) and Samsung (Galaxy Glass) are currently racing to assimilate augmented reality into many aspects of our daily lives, with the potential for very positive results such as when used to provide information to surgeons during operations, for example, or to maintenance staff fixing complex equipment.

But integrating AR with sports betting could have disastrous consequences. In a sports betting context, this would probably involve aiming the goggles or phone at a live sporting event both on TV or at the stadium and having real-time betting opportunities shown in your field of vision as the event unfolds. Research shows immersion is pivotal in fuelling problematic gambling behaviour and disengaging from an AR sports betting session could be very challenging.

We also identified three patents that seek to introduce competitive in-play sports bets between players rather than against bookmakers. These patents involve people joining online tournaments, and competing for rewards based on entry fees and wager pools. Leaderboards track bettor rankings, and players can communicate with each other in a similar fashion to poker.

However, introducing such competition in online sports betting might exacerbate “tilting” – when a person makes poor betting decisions in response to loss or pressure. This may be made worse when gamblers can chat and taunt each other. The companies involved in the above patents did not respond to requests for comment.

Bookmakers are already using AI to improve predictions and odds-setting processes. The UK government is aware of the risks associated with AI, but regulating this rapidly growing technology will continue to be challenging.

Augmented and virtual reality headsets and goggles offer an immersive experience.

Regulation and policy

Gambling regulation is notorious for its lack of foresight. The 2005 Gambling Act was only revised this year to recognise the growth of online gambling, which has existed for nearly 20 years. So while more forward-looking regulation and policy is needed to protect consumers from the harmful evolution of sports betting, the uncertainty and complexity surrounding new sports betting technologies only adds to the challenge of regulating this industry.

But there are current harms that researchers and policymakers do understand. Our research shows that reducing the speed and ease of online sports betting makes most sense.

Regulatory measures should not impede the freedoms of those who do gamble safely, however. Australia provides a good example: regulations there allow in-play bets, but legally require them to be made via telephone call rather than instantly via apps or websites. This provides friction for the good of public health, rather than complete restriction.

Thanks to new technology such as AI and AR, this industry is already evolving at a faster pace than regulation can keep up with. As a result, sports betting could be dominated by a growing web of harms that are currently unforeseen and difficult to comprehend. Läs mer…

Traditional downtowns are dead or dying in many US cities − what’s next for these zones?

The hollowing out of U.S. cities’ office and commercial cores is a national trend with serious consequences for millions of Americans. As more people have stayed home following the COVID-19 pandemic, foot traffic has fallen. Major retail chains are closing stores, and even prestigious properties are having a hard time retaining tenants.

The shuttering of a Whole Foods market after only a year in downtown San Francisco in May 2023 received widespread coverage. Even more telling was the high-end department store Nordstrom’s decision to close its flagship store there in August after a 35-year run.

In New York City, office vacancy rates have risen by over 70% since 2019. Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, a stretch of high-end shops and restaurants, had a 26% vacancy rate in spring 2023.

A recent study from the University of Toronto found that across North America, downtowns are recovering from the pandemic more slowly than other urban areas and that “older, denser downtowns reliant on professional or tech workers and located within large metros” are struggling the hardest.

Like many U.S. cities, Portland, Oregon, is losing downtown businesses. This is cutting into urban revenues and creating a perception of decline.

Over more than 50 years of researching urban policy, I have watched U.S. cities go through many booms and busts. Now, however, I see a more fundamental shift taking place. In my view, traditional downtowns are dead, dying or on life support across the U.S. and elsewhere. Local governments and urban residents urgently need to consider what the post-pandemic city will look like.

Decades of overbuilding

U.S. downtowns were in trouble before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s overhang of excess commercial space was years in the making.

Urban property markets are speculative enterprises. When the economy is booming, individual developers decide to build more – and the collective result of these rational individual decisions is excess buildings.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration allowed a quicker depreciation of commercial real estate that effectively lowered tax rates for developers. With financial globalization, foreign money flowed into the U.S. property sector, especially to very big development projects that could absorb large pools of liquid capital looking for relatively safe long-term investments.

Years of low interest rates meant cheap money for developers to finance their projects. City governments were eager to greenlight projects that would generate tax revenues. In many downtowns, office space now takes up between 70% and 80% of all real estate.

A former office building at 160 Water St. in New York City’s financial district undergoing conversion into 600 apartments in March 2023.
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The pandemic push

COVID-19 finally burst this 40-year bubble. During pandemic lockdowns, many people worked from home and became comfortable with virtual meetings. Telecommuting grew as conventional commuting declined. Workers with the resources and job flexibility moved from cities to so-called “zoom towns” where housing was more affordable and parks and outdoor activities were close at hand.

Now, many employers want their staffs to return to the office. However, workers are pushing back, especially against spending full five-day weeks in the office. New technologies have made it easier to work from home, and a tight labor market has strengthened employees’ bargaining power.

There are significant knock-on effects. A range of businesses, including restaurants, retail stores and services, rely on downtown office workers. At least 17% of all leisure and hospitality sector jobs are in the downtowns of the 100 largest U.S. cities.

In San Francisco, for example, a typical office worker used to spend $168 near their office per week. Now, with nearly 150,000 fewer office workers commuting downtown, about 33,000 people in the service and retail sectors have lost their jobs.

Terminal decline?

Today, many cities are confronting the prospect of an urban doom loop, with a massive oversupply of office and retail space, fewer commuters and a looming urban fiscal crisis. Washington, D.C., is an illustration.

In December 2022, the city had approximately 27,000 fewer jobs than in February 2020, and it faced a growing financial shortfall from declining property taxes due to downtown business closures and fewer property purchases. The District of Columbia DC government projects that city revenues will decline by US$81 million in fiscal year 2024, $183 million in 2025 and $200 million in 2026. Washington’s Metropolitan Transit Authority faces a $750 million shortfall because of a sharp decline in ridership.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously wrote that under the pressures of dynamic capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.” They could have been describing the ever-changing built form of the United States, with people and money flowing to Main Street stores through the 1960s, then to suburban malls in the 1970s and 80s, then abandoning malls for revived downtowns and online shopping. Now, traditional downtowns may be in similar terminal decline.

Repurposing office space

What can cities do with their surplus office spaces? In some cities, such as Columbus, Ohio, investors are purchasing deeply discounted buildings, demolishing them and finding more profitable uses for the land, such as residential and mixed-use buildings. Other options include converting commercial space into residences or more specialized applications such as biotech labs.

But conversion is no panacea. There are many regulatory hurdles, although cities are changing zoning laws to make the process easier. Many office buildings have large internal floor spaces that makes it expensive to divide them into individual residential units that all receive outdoor light. And glass-sheathed buildings with windows that don’t open are prone to overheating.

Another approach is making downtowns more alluring, through steps such as waiving fees for food trucks and small businesses, offering free parking at night and on weekends and promoting events and eateries. The city of Columbus gives out lunch coupons for downtown restaurants.

Worcester, Massachusetts, offers financial aid for small businesses that move into vacant storefronts. San Francisco is considering a proposal to convert its downtown Westfield Centre Mall, formerly home to Nordstrom and other retailers, into a soccer stadium.

In my view, the growth of commercial offices complexes that has long been promoted by investors, developers and federal and city governments has probably come to an end. The nation no longer needs so much office space. It will require more community involvement to find out what people want instead. Some communities may focus on housing, while others opt for more recreational opportunities or green spaces.

The downtown filled with acres of banal office blocks, with accompanying ground-level retail stores and shopping malls, is a relic of the 20th century. It’s daunting but exciting to envision what will take its place. Läs mer…

Kwame Nkrumah: memorials to the man who led Ghana to independence have been built, erased and revived again

Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park lies at the centre of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Recently renovated, it is dedicated to the memory of Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana’s independence struggle and its first president. Marking the spot of his final resting place at the park is a massive statue.

The statue has been continuously contested since its original commission in 1956 and its unveiling at the first anniversary of independence in 1958. As a social anthropologist who has researched and written about Kwame Nkrumah themed monuments, I have explored the contradiction that generally characterises monuments: built as lasting memories, they remain embedded in social and political conflict.

Nkrumah is heralded as one of the most influential African political leaders of the modern era. His vision of a liberated and united African continent influenced politics on the continent in the 1950s and 1960s. But that’s only one view of a man who was deposed in a coup in 1966 and died in exile in 1972.

In Ghana, there was vociferous criticism of “personality cult” and “hero worship”. Alongside presentations of him as the country’s “redeemer” were descriptions of him as a “dictator”.

The idolisation of Nkrumah began even before the country became independent. It had all the hallmarks of a new nation state trying to establish a charismatic national “founder” to stabilise its creation. But, as I have shown, Nkrumah’s story shows both the limits and dangers of doing this.

These debates have been matched by unfolding dramas around various efforts to commemorate him – before and after his death. Attitudes have shifted from straightforward veneration to confrontation and destruction and, finally, to more subtle forms of remembrance.

The birth of a monument

With thoughts of Ghana soon celebrating 25 years of independence, then military ruler Ignatius Kutu Acheampong intended to publicly honour the memory of Nkrumah. The deposed leader had passed away in 1972, in exile. After his overthrow, several of his statues and images had been destroyed by the military government. His memory was taboo.

Acheampong discussed the possibility of creating a mausoleum, adorned with an imposing new statue, on the grounds where the ex-president had declared independence. The statue was commissioned in Italy but before it could be erected the Acheampong government was toppled by Flight Lieutenant Jerry J. Rawlings in 1979.

In addition, the continued economic crisis militated against any large-scale investment in the monumental landscape.

The memorial project was finally realised in 1992 based on the design of Ghanaian architect Don Arthur. The heart of the memorial is the mausoleum, surrounded by water basins, with fountains and figures of Asante elephant-horn blowers that traditionally accompany royal processions.

The mausoleum stands in a landscaped park that is successively greened by commemorative trees planted by important international visitors. It is complemented by a museum that exhibits a collection of Nkrumah memorabilia. These include the famous smock he wore to declare independence, his desk at the seat of government and numerous photographs.

The mausoleum itself, made of Italian marble, evokes a gigantic tree stump, but also draws on the imagery of Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. The whole ensemble celebrates Nkrumah as a kind of chief. The shining large bronze statue erected in front of the mausoleum shows Nkrumah clad in royal kente cloth, not the humble smock of the original sculpture.

Opponents of Rawlings regarded the mausoleum project as an attempt to exploit the growing nostalgia for Nkrumah in his electoral campaign and to style himself and his party as worthy heirs of Nkrumah’s ideas. Another major motivation behind the project was to show the world that Ghanaians, after many years of neglect, respected Nkrumah as a great African leader. This was actually the first time since his overthrow that Nkrumah was publicly commemorated with such splendour. The memorial park conferred on Nkrumah an indisputable place in the national narrative.

This status, however, did not mean that his political legacy was now without contest. When the anti-Nkrumah New Patriotic Party won the elections in 2000, they, unlike the 1966 coup-makers (who removed all images and monuments of Nkrumah), made no attempts to destroy the Nkrumah monument. However, the new government found other ways to correct, or at least complement, Nkrumah-centred nationalist narratives.

For instance, in the course of preparing for the golden jubilee of Ghana’s independence in 2007, the John Kufuor administration created a series of monuments that commemorate the political heroes of his party, the New Patriotic Party. Most prominently, J.B. Danquah, Nkrumah’s most noted political opponent, was honoured by a renovated sculpture at a busy traffic roundabout in the capital.

This proliferation of historical monuments can be read as an attempt to neutralise the commemoration of Nkrumah. This was done not by eliminating existing statues of him, but rather by reducing Nkrumah’s status to being only one of several national founders.

Strong memories remain

For the masses of Ghanaian students and foreign tourists who come to the park, the statue of a triumphant Nkrumah has become the dominant icon of the national hero and of Ghana’s independence. It has been reproduced over and over again on thousands of private photographs, and is marketed on postcards, posters, calendars, T-shirts, bags, towels, tea cups and similar souvenirs.

However, there are still limits to the depoliticisation of Nkrumah’s memory. Heated debates over whether Nkrumah was a “democrat” or a “despot” flare up periodically. National heroes, as the case of Nkrumah shows, can divide people just as much as they can unite.

Developing the mausoleum into an attractive tourist site, as happened in the renovation and re-inauguration of the park in 2023, adds another intriguing twist to the long history of the commemoration of Kwame Nkrumah – another attempt at depoliticising and nationalising memory. Läs mer…

The Supreme Court’s originalists have taken over − here’s how they interpret the Constitution

Today a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices are either self-described originalists or strongly lean toward originalism. Yet less than 50 years ago, originalism was considered a fringe movement, hardly taken seriously by most legal scholars.

So, what is originalism, and why is it so influential today?

Originalism is the theory that judges are bound to interpret the Constitution as it would have been interpreted in the historical era when it was written. Understood this way, originalism is the idea that judges must follow the law as written and not merely ignore it or reinterpret it to their liking.

Why, then, aren’t all judges and legal scholars originalists?

How to read a constitution

There is no real controversy among judges or politicians about many provisions of the Constitution, for example that the president must be at least 35 years old or that each state gets exactly two senators.

But the challenge arises with certain passages in the Constitution – for example, the Fifth Amendment guarantee of “due process”, that is, the right to some sort of legal procedure when the government attempts to deprive someone of “life, liberty or property,” or the 14th Amendment’s principle of “equal protection of the laws.”

A majority of these justices embrace originalism to a greater or lesser degree.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

What these have in common is that they are written in vague, open-ended language, with no concrete guidance for interpreting the law. Few if any people would deny that all Americans are entitled to the equal protection of the law. But what exactly does that mean?

Does a law providing for marriage only between a man and a woman violate equal protection, because it excludes gay marriages? Does a law that prohibits bigamy violate equal protection, since it excludes plural marriages? How is a judge to decide, given the vagueness of the text?

It is here in these moments that the originalists and their critics part ways.

For the critics, the only way to interpret the abstract principles such as “due process” or “equal protection” is to look to the overall values and purpose of the Constitution as well as evolving societal values – after all, the very words “due” and “equal” are value terms.

When the Constitution was written, for example, only men were eligible for public office. Thus, the Constitution uses “he” 26 times, in reference to the president, vice president, citizens and others, and never uses “she.” Do these rules now apply only to males?

Of course not.

When the Constitution was written, it was assumed that the sexes had separate spheres. Men belonged in politics, women to the domestic sphere. When that fundamental value judgment shifted radically in the 20th century – as expressed in the 19th Amendment giving women the vote – it meant that the Constitution had to be read in a new way so that “he” is now interpreted as inclusive.

Flexible originalism

Now compare the equal protection clause and its application to sexual orientation.

For the originalist, the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection was clearly not intended to protect gay rights, given that sodomy was a crime at the time. For the non-originalist, societal values have changed radically on this issue, so they believe that now the Constitution should be read in a new way, such that equal protection extends to sexual orientation as well.

For the originalist, allowing such interpretive freedom is to abandon the Constitution altogether.

Yet, as a scholar of law and philosophy, I believe that flexible interpretation was the original intention of the framers.

Future President James Madison wrote that laws may not have a determinate meaning until they are tested by experience.
AP Photo

James Madison, for example, wrote in Federalist 37 – part of a collection of essays by Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay endorsing adoption of the Constitution – that all new laws will always be “more or less obscure and equivocal, until their meaning be liquidated and ascertained by a series of particular discussions and adjudications.”

That is, the meaning of these phrases are not fixed at the time of the passage of the Constitution. That meaning is only “liquidated,” that is, made determinate, in light of future experience involving debate that Madison called “particular discussions” and judicial decisions that he called “adjudications.”

Laws, for Madison, may not have a determinate meaning until they are tested by experience: Just what level of process is “due,” and what does “equality” require?

Hence, in Madison’s view, faithfulness to the original understanding actually requires that laws be interpreted in light of changing values and new circumstances. Principles in the Constitution like “due process” and “equal protection” were deliberately left vague and open-ended precisely so they could evolve in the future.

Ironically, I believe, it is the non-originalists who can claim to be the true originalists.

Why then is originalism so influential? The answer is that the movement arose in the 1970s and 1980s among conservatives, in response to the liberal decisions of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Originalism began not as a neutral theory of interpretation but as a rallying cry for conservatives. It is no surprise that the originalists on today’s Supreme Court are also the conservatives.

The central and plausible core of originalism is the idea that judges should not impose their own personal values on the Constitution. But the real debate, I believe, is not about originalism versus the freedom to ignore the Constitution, but rather it is about just what the true, original meaning of the Constitution is. Läs mer…

Aerobic and strength training exercise combined can be an elixir for better brain health in your 80s and 90s, new study finds

People in the oldest stage of life who regularly engage in aerobic activities and strength training exercises perform better on cognitive tests than those who are either sedentary or participate only in aerobic exercise. That is the key finding of our new study, published in the journal GeroScience.

We assessed 184 cognitively healthy people ranging in age from 85 to 99. Each participant reported their exercise habits and underwent a comprehensive battery of neuropsychological tests that were designed to evaluate various dimensions of cognitive function.

We found that those who incorporated both aerobic exercises, such as swimming and cycling, and strength exercises like weightlifting into their routines – regardless of intensity and duration – had better mental agility, quicker thinking and greater ability to shift or adapt their thinking.

Using a well-known cognitive screening tool called the Montreal Cognitive Assessment that provides a balanced view of many aspects of cognition, we found that people who didn’t engage in any physical exercise scored lower than those who did both cardio and strength training. This difference was slight but significant even when controlling for other factors like education and how much people exercised. In addition, the group that did both types of exercises did better in specific cognitive activities, like symbol coding, beyond just the screening results.

It’s important to note that while our study establishes a correlation between a mix of aerobic and strength training exercises and higher cognitive test scores, the design of the study did not enable us to determine a causal relationship.

Nonetheless, the results suggest that a varied exercise routine is associated with improved cognitive functioning in people who are in their late 80s and beyond. We conducted the study as part of a large, multisite collaboration with the McKnight Brain Research Foundation, which has institutes at the University of Florida, the University of Miami, the University of Arizona and the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Why it matters

The aging of the global population makes cognitive health a pressing issue. The number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. is projected to reach almost 14 million by 2060, up from just over 6 million as of 2020. Our findings not only offer hope for healthier aging but also present a practical approach to maintaining or even enhancing cognitive health in the last decades of life.

These results are not just numbers; they represent real-world thinking abilities that can affect the quality of life for those entering their golden years.

The fact that nearly 70% of our study participants were already engaging in some physical exercise prior to signing up for our study challenges the stereotype that old age and physical inactivity must go hand in hand.

Our findings provide an evidence base for health care providers to consider recommending a mixed regimen of aerobic and strength exercises as part of their patients’ wellness plans. Studies show that when cognitive decline is slowed, people spend less on medical care and experience a higher quality of life.

The aging body is like a machine that needs more upkeep and maintenance to stay intact.

What’s next

Some of the next questions we hope to answer include: What types of aerobic and strength exercises are most effective for cognitive health? Is walking as effective as jogging? Does lifting weights have the same impact as resistance band exercises? And how much exercise is needed to see noticeable cognitive benefits?

Another critical question is the potential of exercise as a treatment for neurocognitive disorders among older people. Our results suggest that physical activity is a preventive measure. But could it also be an active treatment for cognitive decline? This is an exciting development and one that is opening up all sorts of new possibilities for helping people live fully across their entire life span.

The Research Brief is a short take on interesting academic work. Läs mer…

Flesh-eating bacteria infections are on the rise in the US − a microbiologist explains how to protect yourself

Flesh-eating bacteria sounds like the premise of a bad horror movie, but it’s a growing – and potentially fatal – threat to people.

In September 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory alerting doctors and public health officials of an increase in flesh-eating bacteria cases that can cause serious wound infections.

I’m a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, where my laboratory studies microbiology and infectious disease. Here’s why the CDC is so concerned about this deadly infection – and ways to avoid contracting it.

What does ‘flesh-eating’ mean?

There are several types of bacteria that can infect open wounds and cause a rare condition called necrotizing fasciitis. These bacteria do not merely damage the surface of the skin – they release toxins that destroy the underlying tissue, including muscles, nerves and blood vessels. Once the bacteria reach the bloodstream, they gain ready access to additional tissues and organ systems. If left untreated, necrotizing fasciitis can be fatal, sometimes within 48 hours.

The bacterial species group A Streptococcus, or group A strep, is the most common culprit behind necrotizing fasciitis. But the CDC’s latest warning points to an additional suspect, a type of bacteria called Vibrio vulnificus. There are only 150 to 200 cases of Vibrio vulnificus in the U.S. each year, but the mortality rate is high, with 1 in 5 people succumbing to the infection.

Climate change may be driving the rise in flesh-eating bacteria infections in the U.S.

How do you catch flesh-eating bacteria?

Vibrio vulnificus primarily lives in warm seawater but can also be found in brackish water – areas where the ocean mixes with freshwater. Most infections in the U.S. occur in the warmer months, between May and October. People who swim, fish or wade in these bodies of water can contract the bacteria through an open wound or sore.

Vibrio vulnificus can also get into seafood harvested from these waters, especially shellfish like oysters. Eating such foods raw or undercooked can lead to food poisoning, and handling them while having an open wound can provide an entry point for the bacteria to cause necrotizing fasciitis. In the U.S., Vibrio vulnificus is a leading cause of seafood-associated fatality.

Why are flesh-eating bacteria infections rising?

Vibrio vulnificus is found in warm coastal waters around the world. In the U.S., this includes southern Gulf Coast states. But rising ocean temperatures due to global warming are creating new habitats for this type of bacteria, which can now be found along the East Coast as far north as New York and Connecticut. A recent study noted that Vibrio vulnificus wound infections increased eightfold between 1988 and 2018 in the eastern U.S.

Climate change is also fueling stronger hurricanes and storm surges, which have been associated with spikes in flesh-eating bacteria infection cases.

Aside from increasing water temperatures, the number of people who are most vulnerable to severe infection, including those with diabetes and those taking medications that suppress immunity, is on the rise.

What are symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis? How is it treated?

Early symptoms of an infected wound include fever, redness, intense pain or swelling at the site of injury. If you have these symptoms, seek medical attention without delay. Necrotizing fasciitis can progress quickly, producing ulcers, blisters, skin discoloration and pus.

Treating flesh-eating bacteria is a race against time. Clinicians administer antibiotics directly into the bloodstream to kill the bacteria. In many cases, damaged tissue needs to be surgically removed to stop the rapid spread of the infection. This sometimes results in amputation of affected limbs.

Researchers are concerned that an increasing number of cases are becoming impossible to treat because Vibrio vulnificus has evolved resistance to certain antibiotics.

Necrotizing fasciitis is rare but deadly.

How do I protect myself?

The CDC offers several recommendations to help prevent infection.

People who have a fresh cut, including a new piercing or tattoo, are advised to stay out of water that could be home to Vibrio vulnificus. Otherwise, the wound should be completely covered with a waterproof bandage.

People with an open wound should also avoid handling raw seafood or fish. Wounds that occur while fishing, preparing seafood or swimming should be washed immediately and thoroughly with soap and water.

Anyone can contract necrotizing fasciitis, but people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to severe disease. This includes people taking immunosuppressive medications or those who have pre-existing conditions such as liver disease, cancer, HIV or diabetes.

It is important to bear in mind that necrotizing fasciitis presently remains very rare. But given its severity, it is beneficial to stay informed. Läs mer…

Why does a plane look and feel like it’s moving more slowly than it actually is?

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.

Why does a plane look and feel like it’s moving more slowly than it actually is? – Finn F., age 8, Concord, Massachusetts

A passenger jet flies at about 575 mph once it’s at cruising altitude. That’s nearly nine times faster than a car might typically be cruising on the highway. So why does a plane in flight look like it’s just inching across the sky?

I am an aerospace educator who relies on the laws of physics when teaching about aircraft. These same principles of physics help explain why looks can be deceiving when it comes to how fast an object is moving.

Moving against a featureless background

If you watch a plane accelerating toward takeoff, it appears to be moving very quickly. It’s not until the plane is in the air and has reached cruising altitude that it appears to be moving very slowly. That’s because there is often no independent reference point when the plane is in the sky.

A reference point is a way to measure the speed of the airplane. If there are no contrails or clouds surrounding it, the plane is moving against a completely uniform blue sky. This can make it very hard to perceive just how fast a plane is moving.

And because the plane is far away, it takes longer for it to move across your field of vision compared to an object that is close to you. This further creates the illusion that it is moving more slowly than it actually is.

These factors explain why a plane looks like it’s going more slowly than it is. But why does it feel that way, too?

A passenger’s perception on the plane

A plane feels like it’s traveling more slowly than it is because, just like when you look up at a plane in the sky, as a passenger on a plane, you have no independent reference point. You and the plane are moving at the same speed, which can make it difficult to perceive your rate of motion relative to the ground beneath you. This is the same reason why it can be hard to tell that you are driving quickly on a highway that is surrounded only by empty fields with no trees.

Watching the speed of a plane’s shadow can help you assess how quickly a plane is moving.
Saul Loeb/AFP via GettyImages

However, there are a couple of ways you might be able to understand just how fast you are moving.

Can you see the plane’s shadow on the ground? It can give you perspective on how fast the plane is moving relative to the ground. If you are lucky enough to spot it, you will be amazed at how fast the plane’s shadow passes over buildings and roads. You can get a real sense of the 575 mph average speed of a cruising passenger plane.

Another way to understand how fast you are moving is to note how fast thin, spotty cloud cover moves over the wing. This reference point gives you another way to “see” or perceive your speed. Remember though, that clouds aren’t typically stationary; they’re just moving very slow relative to the plane.

An airplane passes over thin, spotty cloud cover.

Although it can be difficult to discern just how fast a plane is actually moving, using reference points to gain perspective can help tremendously.

Has your interest in aviation been sparked? If so, there are a lot of great career opportunities in aeronautics.

Hello, curious kids! Do you have a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com. Please tell us your name, age and the city where you live.

And since curiosity has no age limit – adults, let us know what you’re wondering, too. We won’t be able to answer every question, but we will do our best. Läs mer…

’Design of Coffee’ course teaches engineering through brewing the perfect cup of coffee

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course:

The Design of Coffee: An Introduction to Chemical Engineering

What prompted the idea for the course?

In 2012, my colleague professor Tonya Kuhl and I were drinking coffee and brainstorming how to improve our senior-level laboratory course in chemical engineering. Tonya looked at her coffee and suggested, “How about we have the students reverse-engineer a Mr. Coffee drip brewer to see how it works?”

A light bulb went off in my head, and I said, “Why not make a whole course about coffee to introduce lots of students to chemical engineering?”

And that’s what we did. We developed The Design of Coffee as a freshman seminar for 18 students in 2013, and, since then, the course has grown to over 2,000 general education students per year at the University of California, Davis.

A student uses a microscope to look at coffee beans in The Design of Coffee lab.
UC Davis

What does the course explore?

The course focus is hands-on experiments with roasting, brewing and tasting in our coffee lab.

For example, students measure the energy they use while roasting to illustrate the law of conservation of energy, they measure how the pH of the coffee changes after brewing to illustrate the kinetics of chemical reactions, and they measure how the total dissolved solids in the brewed coffee relates to time spent brewing to illustrate the principle of mass transfer.

The course culminates in an engineering design contest, where the students compete to make the best-tasting coffee using the least amount of energy. It’s a classic engineering optimization problem, but one that is broadly accessible – and tasty.

Why is this course relevant now?

Coffee plays a huge role in culture, diet and the U.S. and global economy. But historically, relatively little academic work has focused on coffee. There are entire academic programs on wine and beer at many major universities, but almost none on coffee.

Many students who don’t like coffee develop a taste for it over the course of the class.
UC Davis

The Design of Coffee helps fill a huge unmet demand because students are eager to learn about the beverage that they already enjoy. Perhaps most surprisingly, many of our students enter the course professing to hate coffee, but by the end of the course they are roasting and brewing their own coffee beans at home.

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

Many students are shocked to learn that black coffee can have fruity, floral or sweet flavors without adding any sugar or syrups. The most important lesson from the course is that engineering is really a quantitative way to think about problem-solving.

For example, if the problem to solve is “make coffee taste sweet without adding sugar,” then an engineering approach provides you with a tool set to tackle that problem quantitatively and rigorously.

What materials does the course feature?

Tonya and I originally self-published our lab manual, The Design of Coffee: An Engineering Approach, to keep prices low for our students.

Now in its third edition, it has sold more than 15,000 copies and has been translated to Spanish, with Korean and Indonesian translations on the way.

What will the course prepare students to do?

Years ago, a student in our class told the campus newspaper, “I had no idea there was an engineering way to think about coffee!” Our main goal is to teach students that there is an engineering way to think about anything.

The engineering skills and mindset we teach equally prepare students to design a multimillion-dollar biofuel refinery, a billion-dollar pharmaceutical production facility or, most challenging of all, a naturally sweet and delicious $3 cup of coffee. Our course is the first step in preparing students to tackle these problems, as well as new problems that no one has yet encountered. Läs mer…

How to create a college internship where students actually learn − and don’t want to quit

When Angelica landed a prestigious internship with a major corporation just outside of Houston, she was ecstatic about the opportunity to launch her career in finance.

Such optimism was warranted, as research shows that students with internships are almost twice as likely to graduate college, have a 12.6% higher likelihood of being invited to job interviews, and earn 6% higher wages than noninterns once they graduate.

But even with a decent paycheck and scholarships to cover her rent, Angelica considered leaving the internship within weeks. What went wrong?

As part of the three-year College Internship Study at the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we found that interns can have a tough time adapting to the culture of a new city, organization and work environment.

In Angelica’s case, the shock was partly about geography. She was the only intern in a group of 17 from out of town, and she felt “alone and in a big city where I didn’t know anybody.”

But more alienating was the fact that she knew of only one other Hispanic woman in her intern group, and the company itself, she said, was mostly white. Ultimately, she believed that “none of these people really have anything in common with me.” She felt excluded and started to believe it would be impossible to work full time at the company.

Angelica’s story demonstrates that not all student interns have positive and productive experiences. In fact, research shows that internships can reinforce gender inequalities in the workplace, create unrealistic expectations for career advancement and even exploit student labor.

Common internship pitfalls

Interns are learners as much as they are workers earning a paycheck. Unfortunately, the educational aspect of internships frequently gets overshadowed, with interns assigned mundane or repetitive tasks unrelated to their academic or professional interests. This can hinder their career development, for example by diminishing their motivation to pursue a career in that field.

Another problem, which our own research revealed, is that too often supervisors adopt a hands-off strategy. They expect interns to define and complete tasks independently.

While this may work for long-term or mature employees, it is unsuitable for most interns who are new to professional life. Interns typically have a shorter tenure, limited authority and less access to resources. This makes it difficult to complete complex tasks with little supervision. The lack of structure and guidance can also cause significant stress that weakens their learning and job performance.

And, finally, unstructured internships can alienate students who are already marginalized – particularly those who are first-generation, low-income or students of color. That’s because the lack of structure or supervision can make students feel overwhelmed, pushing them to seek guidance from family or friends. These students may not have family connections in prestigious or professional occupations and therefore lack support systems to deal with their challenging workplace situations.

Based on our research, we offer four strategies for designing effective and welcoming internships for college students.

Peer mentors and organized social events can help college interns feel like they belong at a company.
Creative Credit/iStock/Getty Images Plus

1. Set clear learning goals

In order to ensure interns acquire new knowledge and skills, supervisors can establish both long-term and short-term learning goals. This is required in countries like France, where internships with companies are fully included in college curricula, but not in the U.S..

Learning goals can include specific tasks the intern will be expected to perform, technical knowledge they will gain and transferable skills like communication or teamwork that they should develop through the internship.

Ideally, they are developed in collaboration with faculty advisers, students and employers. We especially emphasize the importance of engaging students in these conversations. Different interns will likely have unique objectives for their own internship experience.

Documenting these goals using forms like this one from the University of Minnesota can help students discern where to concentrate and hone their skills during the internship.

2. Structure assignments from easy to hard

A well-known theory in educational psychology shows that people learn best when they are gradually introduced to new tasks or subject matters. In our own study, we found that interns also benefit from starting their jobs with easier tasks and gradually transitioning to tasks that require less oversight.

When internship tasks are structured progressively from easier to harder, it gradually increases students’ understanding over time. Our research also shows that interns benefit from assignments that have clear expectations and deadlines and pose minimal consequences if performed incorrectly.

3. Keep communication open

Research confirms the importance of clear, regular and open lines of communication between interns and their supervisors. This became especially important during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when online internships suffered from infrequent and virtual communications. Many interns were left feeling unsatisfied and neglected.

Whether the internship is in-person or online, an effective communications strategy involves regular meetings to review progress, discuss new tasks and ideas and provide students with an opportunity to voice their concerns. Open communication can be especially important for interns who are new to a job, company or city.

4. Connect interns with appropriate mentors

Employees in general benefit professionally and psychologically from having workplace mentors with similar backgrounds and identities to their own. Yet, workers from marginalized groups – especially women – often have a harder time finding supportive and relatable mentors.

However, simply pairing mentors and interns based on characteristics like race or gender may not be the best approach. Different interns – and supervisors – have varying needs, experiences and capabilities. Companies can first survey interns on their values and preferences regarding mentoring and supervision, and then match them in accordance with their mentorship needs and preferences.

Additional strategies to enhance interns’ sense of belonging include peer mentoring and frequent social events – methods that have been proven to help newcomers adapt to new environments.

We believe internships must be seen as more than a part-time job where students simply need to be hired, onboarded and shown a desk. Internships are learning opportunities and, as such, require careful design. Done right, internships can help interns gradually get more acquainted with the culture where they work and the jobs they will be expected to do. Läs mer…