Month: August 2018

Ubuntu Budgie Whistles Up a Better Remix

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If you have yet to try the developing Budgie desktop, the latest release of Ubuntu Budgie is a perfect opportunity to experience a classy and user-friendly computing platform.

Budgie is one of the first home-grown Linux distros to release its latest version based on Ubuntu 18.04. The independent developer announced Ubuntu Budgie 18.04 last week, coinciding with Canonical’s release of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS.

Canonical also offers a Budgie desktop option in Ubuntu Linux. However, the two Ubuntu-branded distros are not the same thing.

Ubuntu Budgie is maintained by a UK-based developer community. Formerly Budgie Remix, the Ubuntu Budgie distro is a desktop Linux distribution featuring the simple Budgie desktop. Ubuntu Budgie is not from Canonical.

The Solus community originally developed Budgie from scratch and tightly integrated the desktop user interface with the GNOME stack. Solus also offers the GNOME and MATE desktops. Ubuntu Budgie only comes in one flavor.

Ubuntu Budgie 18.04 is the community’s first Long Term Support release good for three years instead of the nine-month release cycle. This new release comes with numerous new features, fixes and optimizations.

The improvements include more customization options via Budgie Welcome, more available Budgie applets, dynamic workspaces, hot-corners and Window shuffler, plus a new GTK+ theme called “Pocillo.” You also get new applets as standard in the panel or available to be added via Budgie Settings.

Ubuntu Budgie Welcome Screen
Ubuntu Budgie’s expanded Welcome Screen makes it very easy for new users to find what they need to get up to speed quickly.
Showing Progress
I have used the Budgie desktop with several Linux distros on and off over the last few years for a change of pace on a few of my secondary work machines. At first, I found Budgie to be a bit limited in what it offered.

However, with each new major upgrade, Budgie became more useful and flexible. It has now progressed to the point that it does not sacrifice performance in favor of simple design.

Ubuntu Budgie desktop settings
Budgie desktop settings are easy to apply and provide an expanded set of options.
I am particularly pleased with the latest release of Ubuntu Budgie. This distro’s implementation of the Budgie desktop has shown substantial growth in features and usability.

The developers are dedicated to mastering the user experience with just this desktop environment. That attention to detail has paid off.

Distro at a Glance
Ubuntu Budgie comes with a choice of three stable releases. Besides the latest 18.04 LTS edition, you can install version 17.10.1 and the 16.04.4 edition.

The latest edition (18.04) has Long Term Support until Apr 2021. The previous edition, 17.10.1, is a standard stable release and follows the Ubuntu support cadence for three more months. The oldest available edition, 16.04.4, will receive community support only until the end of this July.

Ubuntu Budgie is available in 64-bit and 32-bit versions. Given the short support period remaining on the other two choices, go with the latest edition to get the best experience with the Budgie desktop.

The 64-bit latest edition works well with computers running 4 GB or more of RAM on both Intel and AMD processors. It also works on modern Intel-based Apple Macs. If your hardware has UEFI support, be sure to boot in CSM mode. In other words, turn off Secure Boot in the BIOS settings.

Minimum system requirements invite a wide range of legacy computers to the Linux party, including the following:

Pentium Dual Core 1.6 Ghz
2 GB of RAM
16 GB disk storage
For better performance, your hardware should match these recommendations:

Pentium i3
4 GB of RAM
80 GB disk storage
What’s Inside
Out of the box, Ubuntu Budgie provides a complete set of applications for your daily basic computing tasks. The software center makes adding or removing applications quick and simple.

If you are inclined to be a software purist, you can spare yourself the manual labor by choosing the minimal installation option. It will give you a stripped-down install with just the Chromium Web browser and a few key utilities to get started.

You can elect to install third-party software for graphics and WiFi hardware components, along with MP3 and other media. You also can choose to download updates while installing the operating system.

If you bypass the minimal installation, you will get the latest version of the LibreOffice suite. Thanks to some tightly knit cooperation with Canonical, the installation process also bundles some useful Ubuntu-based applications:

spice-vdagent to improve performance in VMs such as GNOME Boxes and QEMU GNOME 3.28 applications;
Nautilus 3.26 to ensure desktop icons support is maintained throughout the LTS period;
Linux Kernel 4.15 to give you many fixes throughout the Ubuntu stack.
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Working With Budgie
Budgie is designed for the computing experiences of modern users. Its display presents users with a simple and elegant design. It has a plain and clean style and is easy to use.

The Budgie desktop is not a fork of any other desktop project. Its designers planned for an easy integration into other distros, and it is an open source project in its own right.

Many of the limitations in earlier iterations of the Budgie desktop have been removed. Of course, those limitations were a tradeoff to simplify the user experience.

Budgie has an uncluttered design with little software bloat. To keep things simple and elegant, you still can not fully alter Budgie’s look and feel.

For instance, the desktop view remains uncluttered partly because you can not stick application icons anywhere. Another annoying feature of sorts is the inability to fully resize application windows.

One of my standard screenshot settings for distro reviews is to arrange a collection of interesting system tools or other running applications on the desktop. I still can not do that for the Budgie desktop. It is nearly impossible to squeeze in two reduced windows, especially if I combine the view with opened menu panels.

I still miss the ability to use favorite keyboard shortcuts, but I am much happier with the improved features for navigating among virtual workspaces.

So, there is a balance of good and not-so-good. Notice that I have not described these remaining limitations as bad things. Budgie just requires adjusting my workflow slightly.

Lay of the Land
Parts of the screen layout resemble GNOME 3. A quick launch dock, called a “Plank,” hangs on the left vertical edge of the screen. You easily can pin application launchers there or remove them.

A panel bar sits across the top of the screen. It has a few nifty icons to drop down handy things like QuickNote, Night Light, and some standard system icons typical for most Linux distros. You easily can add applets to the panel.

Ubuntu Budgie desktop settings
Ubuntu Budgie’s screen design includes a simple applications menu and functional top panel bar.
Ubuntu Budgie’s main menu drops down from the top left. The menu is just as simple and uncluttered as the rest of the user interface.

Right-clicking on the desktop opens a limited menu with the ability to create a new folder, change background, open terminal window and organize icons.

The application menu has no cascading views. It is a two-column design.

The left column lists the application categories. The right column lists the individual apps in that category. A search window at the top of the two columns makes it easy to quickly locate any installed program.

Ravin’ Design
At the heart of the Budgie desktop is Raven — an applet, notification and customization center. Combined with the system settings panel, it is the key to controlling the user experience through easy customizations.

To access Raven, use the super key + N key combination. You also can click on the Raven icon on the top panel bar. It slides out from the right screen edge much like the GNOME 3 virtual desktop display.

Within the Raven applet, click the Applets tab to access the controls for calendar, speaker and microphone. Click the Notifications tab to see unread system notifications.

Click the Setting gear wheel to open the Budgie settings panel. There you find two tabs: General and Panel.

Ubuntu Budgie strictly enforces the simplicity rule. Even the settings panel and the desktop right-click menu are neat and clean.

Bottom Line
The Budgie desktop lacks the glitz and glitter found in more seasoned desktop environments. Animation is nonexistent.

However, this latest release makes good on Ubuntu Budgie’s promise to provide simplicity and elegance along with functionality. It goes further down the development pathway to improve on the simplicity to make Budgie a solid desktop choice.

Want to Suggest a Review?
Is there a Linux software application or distro you’d like to suggest for review? Something you love or would like to get to know?

Please email your ideas to me, and I’ll consider them for a future Linux Picks and Pans column.

And use the Reader Comments feature below to provide your input!

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Microsoft Gives Productivity Tools More AI Chops

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Microsoft on Wednesday announced new artificial intelligence features and functionality for several of its flagship products and services, including Office 365, Cortana and Bing, at an event in San Francisco. Harry Shum, EVP of Microsoft Artificial Intelligence and Research, demonstrated some of the new capabilities

Building on the progress the company has made in integrating AI over the past year, the new enhancements are designed to help users perform increasingly complex and complicated tasks.

“AI has come a long way in the ability to find information, but making sense of that information is the real challenge,” said Kristina Behr, a partner design and planning program manager with Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence and Research group.

One of the advances, machine reading comprehension, will improve an AI-based system’s understanding of context — for example, recognizing that one’s cousin is a family member.

Pearson Education – Click For More

Search Benefits
Bing users will get more personalized answers, Microsoft said, such as restaurant recommendations based on travel destinations, or a greater variety of answers to offer different perspectives on a topic.

AI guidance might help users figure out the exact questions they want to ask if their search queries are too vague to deliver meaningful results.

Bing will utilize visual search as a way to help people seek information about items or objects in photos. This functionality will comprise the use of object recognition along with machine reading comprehension.

An Office AI
Microsoft announced improvements in AI integration with its Office 365 tools as well. The spreadsheet program Excel, for example, will employ machine learning as a way to analyze data and predict trends via pivot tables and charts. The new AI tools also will be able to extract insights from smaller sets of data.

Importantly, use of the new AI functionality won’t require more advanced training in Excel for users to determine which sets of data should be used to gain deeper insights.

More Conscious Cortana
Microsoft’s virtual assistant Cortana will get an upgrade as well, allowing it to make use of machine reading comprehension to summarize search results. Cortana also will be able to sort through a user’s emails to identify the most important ones and even read them aloud during a commute, for example. Use of that functionality will extend to emails from multiple accounts, including on competing services such as Gmail.

Cortana also has been enhanced with “skills chaining,” allowing it to suggest additions to one’s calendar after tickets have been booked, for example.

Astute AI
These AI advances likely will be subtle and may go unnoticed by many users.

“AI will creep more and more into our lives,” said Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.

“Ideally it will help to make tools like Bing, Cortana and Office 365 more userful,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“This is the good AI, not the Terminator AI,” noted Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“In most cases, AI functions will be transparent to users just like they are in search engines today,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The AI functionality simply makes the tools more efficient and useful.

“Think of this as reducing some of the simple tasks — not the human part of the equation,” McGregor suggested, “and think about intelligent digital assistants and word predictors or spell checkers that are more reliable than the ones we have today. This will be the most common form of AI — embedded solutions that make the tools we use better, from search engines to scientific research.”

How Far to Take It
Although the most extreme AI danger may lie in the rise of machines that overpower human controls, there are more subtle menaces to consider when it comes to the place it will take in our lives.

“It is upon us to draw a line,” said Entner.

“Examples like Google and its all-encompassing ‘data kraken’ make it clear how blurry the line is between really useful and really creepy — like when your Android phone constantly asks you if you are actually shopping at the store you are at,” he pointed out. “Big brother [could be] watching all the time.”

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Oracle Releases Second Half of Autonomous DB

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A lot of people might have thought Oracle’s announcement of the autonomous database at last year’s OpenWorld and its subsequent release earlier this year were the whole story, but there’s a lot more, and Tuesday’s webcast featuring Larry Ellison was proof.

Ellison must find his CTO role — since he handed the CEO reins to Safra Catz and Mark Hurd — to be stimulating and liberating at the same time. Being CTO gives Ellison the ability to be highly creative in a part of the industry that plays to his strengths. It’s a highly technical field where few septuagenarians make a mark, and it gives him access to lots of smart people to trade ideas.

His evident joy was on display Tuesday as he introduced the second part of the autonomous database. The announcement this spring focused on autonomous data warehousing, or ADW. Tuesday was all about autonomous transaction processing, or ATP.

Oracle vs. Amazon
Some of the messaging was the same: The database provisions, maintains and repairs itself, for example. “There’s nothing to do,” Ellison said more than once, suggesting that database administrators’ jobs surely will be redefined by the announcement.

Nothing to do extends to nothing to break, and an embedded expert system very well might do a better job than the average DBA.

Toward the end of his talk, Ellison showed a graphic that provided all the proof you might need to accept the efficacy of the automation. It involved the NetSuite database. After 20 years, it has been well refined — yet even for it, the expert system found ways to improve performance.

The autonomous database is an important economic milestone of sorts too. Database technology solidified in the 1970s and there has been little progress in automating the tasks of keeping a database operating — until now.

Automation, which this product offers in spades, is a sign that we’re late in the life of a disruptive innovation (i.e., the relational database). It’s a sign of commoditization, and an indicator that we’re dealing with the biggest quantities — and market share is essential for turning profits.

That’s why I think Ellison took such delight in making invidious comparisons between Oracle’s database and Amazon’s.

A Few Caveats
Amazon has a market share lead, and Oracle badly wants to reverse the situation. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on price and performance.

For example, Oracle has introduced a guarantee that it can lower a customer’s Amazon bill by half, and Ellison has boasted that his database competitors all use Oracle for their own data.

There’s no doubt this market has been commoditizing, and that only the biggest and most efficient producers will survive. Naturally, Oracle and Ellison expect to be in the winner’s circle.

It takes more than software to deliver the 99.995 percent up time promised. All of the autonomous database functionality requires Exadata hardware, and because it is fault tolerant, multiple servers are at the ready.

In the cloud configuration supported by Oracle data centers, customers experience serverless conditions — meaning that when the database is not in use, it uses no server time and incurs no server costs. Oracle also has made provisions for big customers that can afford all of the hardware and who wish to keep all data processing in-house.

That said, the autonomous database represents a new era in IT, in which the default position is cloud. The assumption is that business will be unimpeded, or at least less impeded, by IT systems that are slow or hard to change.

With the full release of the autonomous database and its associated security capabilities announced earlier this year, we’ve reached the end of the line for common legacy applications. They will be around for years, but it’s hard to see how very many new ones will be made or sold

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Farsight Security COO Alexa Raad: ‘Be Your Own Champion’

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Alexa Raad is chief operating officer of Farsight Security, based in San Mateo, California. Farsight Security is a provider of real-time actionable Internet threat intelligence solutions.

In this exclusive interview, Raad discusses methods of curbing cybercrime by tracking bad actors through the trails they leave in the domain name system. She also offers some encouraging advice to women and girls interested in breaking into the cybersecurity field.

Farsight Security COO Alexa Raad

Alexa Raad

Chief Operating Officer

Farsight Security

TechNewsWorld: What is Farsight Security’s mission?

Alexa Raad: We believe that everyone is entitled to a safer Internet, and so everything we do starts out with that mission in mind. What we do is provide Internet defenders with very valuable data that they can use to get some context around nefarious acts.

As an example, if you think about Internet threats like phishing and botnets and malware — all of those start with a DNS — a domain name system. And so every kind of nefarious act leaves footprints and fingerprints in the DNS. That’s something that cannot be faked. We provide information that is contextual.

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To give an example, a lot of the new domain names that are registered are typically registered with bad intent, meaning criminals are going to use them to commit some sort of act, like phishing attacks, etc. When a domain name is registered, it’s fine, but when traffic starts going to those sites, it becomes much more dangerous.

When people start actually going to a phishing site, it raises the threat level. We have a global sensor network that picks up these resolutions. We collect this data, but without any personally-identifiable information, which is important.

That information allows people to see what’s actually got some traction, and we also add additional information for guilt by association. If a phishing site is actually hosted where there are lots of other bad actors or bad sites, that provides you with some context. You start to follow that and get a better picture of that attack than you would otherwise.

We provide real-time and historical information, and both are contextual. The real-time data is important, because you have to fight these battles in near real time. The historical information is important because you want to know if this was the first time we ever saw this URL or domain name. A lot of these patterns repeat themselves. It is unlikely that a site was bad six months ago and all of a sudden it’s reformed. Having that contextual information is important.

TNW: Why do you have a passion for cybersecurity? Why do you think it’s an important and vital field?

Raad: I believe in the mission of cybersecurity. I want to leave our kids with a safer Internet. The Internet is such a utility — we all rely on it, and we have to have some modicum of expectation that the Internet is safe.

The DNS is a fabric that’s equalizing. Regardless of where you are on the Internet, you have a voice. We’re learning that if Internet is not taken care of, there will be unintended consequences.

TNW: What are some of the key cybersecurity issues today? What are some prevalent or common problems that we face?

Raad: There’s an increasing number of attacks with the Internet of things. The number of Internet-enabled devices is increasing, and all of these connected devices provide vectors for cybersecurity attacks. The race is on for cheaper devices, but the race isn’t necessarily on to create more secure devices.

TNW: What advice would you give to girls and women wanting to get into the cybersecurity field?

Raad: It’s the ideal field for women. To be really good in cybersecurity, you have to have an inquisitive mind, be a problem-solver, and see things holistically.

For a problem that’s complex, you need to think holistically, you can’t compartmentalize. You have to think, how would a criminal look at your DNS architecture? Women tend to think holistically, and if you do, you will excel in this field.

The other piece of advice I would give is that you have got to be your own champion. Don’t wait for anyone to propose something to you or to give you the promotion that you deserve. You have to speak up. You have to be your own advocate, and you have to lay out the business case.

If you want to be promoted, for instance, you have to say, this is what I’ve done, this is what I’ve accomplished, this is what I can do more of, and this is why it’s in your own best interest to promote me. There is an imbalance in the number of women in power, and it’s also at the executive level. Very few women are CEOs or in the c-suite or on the board, and there is a lot that women can offer and do.

Whether it’s because companies recognize the need to hire more women or they have a policy to do so, the opportunities for women are there. The security industry is growing. There aren’t enough people to fill the jobs available, and a lot of them are high-paying, with good benefits. You just need to be your own champion.

TNW: What new cyberthreats are emerging, and how can businesses prepare themselves to face them?

Raad: You see a lot of ransomware. Just a few weeks ago I was at my dentist, and he told me that he had just been the victim of a ransomware attack, and he ended up paying it. You wouldn’t have thought he would be the victim of an attack like that, but someone in his organization had clicked on a link, and all of his patient records were frozen until he paid the ransom.

You will see more of this because it pays well, and it targets people who aren’t well-versed in security hygiene. We’ll see more and more of the security issues and attacks that come because of insecure devices like wearables and Internet-connected devices.

There isn’t an incentive for manufacturers to create more security. The economic incentive is more toward creating devices that are cheaper and more affordable than more security, but it really has to be both. It requires both better engineering and better policy

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Tinder founders sue parent companies Match and IAC for at least $2B

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A group of Tinder founders and executives has filed a lawsuit against parent company Match Group and its controlling shareholder IAC.

The plaintiffs in the suit include Tinder co-founders Sean Rad, Justin Mateen and Jonathan Badeen — Badeen still works at Tinder, as do plaintiffs James Kim (the company’s vice president of finance) and Rosette Pambakian (its vice president of marketing and communications).

We’ve reached out to IAC for comment, as well as Pambakian, who’s served as our main contact at Tinder. We’ll update the post if we hear back.

The suit alleges that IAC and Match Group manipulated financial data in order to create “a fake lowball valuation” (to quote the plaintiffs’ press release), then stripped Rad, Mateen, Badeen and others of their stock options. It points to the removal of Rad as CEO, as well as other management changes, as moves designed “to allow Defendants to control the valuation of Tinder and deprive Tinder optionholders of their right to participate in the company’s future success.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Greg Blatt, the Match CEO who became CEO of Tinder, groped and sexually harassed Pambakian at the company’s 2016 holiday party, supposedly leading the company to “whitewash” his actions long enough for him to complete the valuation of Tinder and its merger with Match Group, and then to announce his departure.

In response, the plaintiffs are asking for “compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at trial, but not less than $2,000,000,000.”

“We were always concerned about IAC’s reputation for ignoring their contractual commitments and acting like the rules don’t apply to them,” Rad said in the release. “But we never imagined the lengths they would go to cheat all the people who built Tinder. The Tinder team — especially the plaintiffs who are currently senior leaders at the company — have shown tremendous strength in exposing IAC/Match’s systematic violation of employees’ rights.”

Update: We’ve just received the following joint statement from IAC and Match Group.

The allegations in the complaint are meritless, and IAC and Match Group intend to vigorously defend against them.

Since Tinder’s inception, Match Group has paid out in excess of a billion dollars in equity compensation to Tinder’s founders and employees. With respect to the matters alleged in the complaint, the facts are simple: Match Group and the plaintiffs went through a rigorous, contractually – defined valuation process involving two independent global investment banks, and Mr. Rad and his merry band of plaintiffs did not like the outcome. Mr. Rad (who was dismissed from the Company a year ago) and Mr. Mateen (who has not been with the Company in years) may not like the fact that Tinder has experienced enormous success following their respective departures, but sour grapes alone do not a lawsuit make. Mr. Rad has a rich history of outlandish public statements, and this lawsuit contains just another series of them. We look forward to defending our position in court.

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What are the long-term side effects of birth control?

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Hormonal methods of birth control are considered safe for most people. But is there a limit to how long you can safely use birth control?
Some people take the birth control pill for much of their adult lives without a break. Others use long-term hormonal contraception devices, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), that can stay in place for several years.

The safety of using long-term hormonal birth control may depend on a person’s risk factors, age, and medical history.

Read on to find out the short-term and long-term effects of birth control.

Short-term side effects
woman holding birth control and wondering about the long term effects of birth control
Short-term side effects of birth control may include headaches, nausea, weight gain, and mood swings.
Hormonal methods of birth control contain artificial progesterone or estrogen and progesterone. They affect the hormone levels in a person’s body, so many people experience side effects shortly after taking them.

Not all people will experience side effects. Some side effects will go away within several months as the body adjusts to the hormones. Other side effects may develop after taking hormones for some time.

Possible short-term side effects of birth control include:

bleeding between periods, or spotting
headaches
nausea
breast tenderness
weight gain
mood swings

Long-term side effects
For most people, using contraceptives for a long time does not cause significant problems.

Many people use hormonal birth control for contraception. But, others take hormonal birth control to manage long-term medical conditions. Conditions include heavy or painful periods, endometriosis, and menopause symptoms. Doctors approve the use of the pills for these conditions, so they should be okay to take.

A doctor can advise individuals about the safety and risks of using long-term birth control according to their medical history.

There are several factors and possible side effects to consider when taking long-term birth control:

Birth control and cancer
According to the National Cancer Institute, there is mixed evidence that hormonal contraceptives may increase the risk of breast and cervical cancer but reduce the risk of endometrial, ovarian, and colorectal cancers.

The hormones in birth control, including progesterone and estrogen, may stimulate the growth of some types of cancer cells and reduce the risk of others developing.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that people who have taken birth control pills are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than those who have never used them. However, this risk goes away when people have been off the pill for 10 or more years.

The ACS also report that taking birth control for more than 5 years may increase the risk of cervical cancer. The longer people take the pill, the higher their risk. However, the risk should go back down gradually when someone stops taking the pill.

A large-scale study published in 2018 looked at the cancer prevalence in over 100,000 women aged 50 to 71 who were currently taking birth control pills. The study indicated that long-term use of birth control decreased the risk of both ovarian and endometrial cancer.

Researchers are not sure why birth control pills may lower the risk of certain cancers. It may be because the pill decreases the number of ovulations a person has in their lifetime, which exposes them to less naturally occurring hormones.

10 most common birth control pill side effects
10 most common birth control pill side effects
In this article, we take a close look at hormonal birth control pills, including the side effects, risks, and alternatives.
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Birth control and blood clots
A 2013 meta-analysis of 26 studies indicated that the use of oral contraceptives containing both progesterone and estrogen increased people’s risk of developing a blood clot.

Blood clots increase a person’s risk of a stroke and heart attack. People who smoke may be especially at risk for developing blood clots when using birth control pills.

Is it safe to use birth control indefinitely?
Most people can safely use hormonal contraceptives for many years, provided their doctor has recommended it.

However, many long-term birth control methods contain hormones. This can cause problems depending on a person’s medical history, age, and overall health. Doctors may advise some people to avoid using certain types of birth control.

If a birth control pill causes side effects, people can speak to their doctor and change pills until they find one that works for them.

People with a history of blood clots may prefer progesterone-only birth control pills or the hormone-free IUD.

Long-term contraception options
contraceptive pills iud and vaginal ring
Long-term contraception methods include birth control pills, intrauterine devices, and the vaginal ring.
There are several long-term birth control options. All hormonal methods of birth control, including the pill, patch or implant, may cause similar side effects and long-term risks.

There is no one “best” method of birth control. The best option depends on a person’s lifestyle and medical history.

Most long-term birth control options involve the use of hormones. The hormones work in two main ways: stopping ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus, which makes it difficult for the egg and sperm to meet.

Long-term non-hormonal options are also available, including the non-hormonal IUD.

Long-term contraception methods include the following:

Birth control pills: Contraceptive pills often contain both artificial progesterone and estrogen. People can also use progesterone-only pills.
Contraceptive shots: Contraceptive shots contain progesterone and prevent pregnancy by stopping ovulation. A doctor can give a contraceptive shot every 3 months.
Contraceptive implants: An implant is a small, thin rod that a doctor inserts under the skin in the arm. It releases hormones that prevent ovulation. The implant protects from pregnancy for up to 4 years.
Vaginal ring: A person inserts a vaginal ring inside their vagina. The person leaves the ring in for 3 weeks and then takes it out for 1 week. The ring releases hormones, which prevent ovulation.
Contraceptive patch: The patch contains hormones that prevent pregnancy. A person sticks the patch on their back, bottom, or arm. The person changes the patch weekly for 3 weeks then takes the fourth week off. They must repeat this every month.
Intrauterine device (IUD): An IUD is a small device that a doctor inserts in the cervix. Currently, IUDs last anywhere from 3 to 12 years. People can get hormonal or non-hormonal versions of the IUD.
Surgical Sterilization: Options are available for both sexes. However, these are permanent methods. They are completely hormone-free.

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Mass hysteria: An epidemic of the mind?

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An outbreak of fatal dancing fits among members of the same community, men suddenly gripped by the sickening fear of losing their genital organs, and teenagers having mysterious symptoms after watching an episode of their favorite TV series — these are all instances of what we often refer to as “mass hysteria.”
overhead shot of crowd
What is mass hysteria, and how does it manifest? We investigate.
“They danced together, ceaselessly, for hours or days, and in wild delirium, the dancers collapsed and fell to the ground exhausted, groaning and sighing as if in the agonies of death. When recuperated, they […] resumed their convulsive movements.”

This is a description of the epidemic of “dancing plague” or “dancing mania” as given by Benjamin Lee Gordon in Medieval and Renaissance Medicine.

These events were spontaneous outbursts of uncontrollable dancing motions that gripped people in communities across Europe in the Middle Ages.

Those affected would often reportedly be unable to stop dancing until they were so worn out and exhausted that they died. These events are typically cited as some of the first known instances of what would come to be referred to as “mass hysteria.”

Mass hysteria is a phrase that is used so often and so imprecisely to refer to anything from giving in to fashion fads to participating in riots and raves that it has become something of a fluid concept, synonymous with anything with a negative connotation that involves the participation of a large group of people.

However, though sometimes contested as a useful, valid concept, mass hysteria — in its more restrictive sense — lives at the intersection of psychology and sociology.

As such, it has received some rigorous attention from specialists over the years.

What is mass hysteria?
In order to provide a clearer definition of mass hysteria, to outline it as an event of potential clinical interest, and to distance it from any unduly negative connotations, researchers have actually advised referring to the phenomenon as “collective obsessional behavior.”

Specialists who have taken an interest in this phenomenon say that it is a type of “psychogenic illness” — that is, a condition that begins in the mind, rather than in the body. Physiological symptoms, however, are often not illusory but very much real.

Mass hysteria is also described as a “conversion disorder,” in which a person has physiological symptoms affecting the nervous system in the absence of a physical cause of illness, and which may appear in reaction to psychological distress.

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Because mass hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior, can take so many different forms, it is very difficult to provide a clear definition for it, or to characterize it with confidence.

In a seminal article he published on this topic, Prof. Simon Wessley — from King’s College London in the United Kingdom — also notes that mass hysteria has been used to describe such “[a] wide variety of crazes, panics, and abnormal group beliefs” that defining it is particularly tricky.

Still, he suggests that in characterizing a phenomenon as an instance of mass hysteria, we should aim to guide ourselves by five principles:

that “it is an outbreak of abnormal illness behavior that cannot be explained by physical disease”
that “it affects people who would not normally behave in this fashion”
that “it excludes symptoms deliberately provoked in groups gathered for that purpose,” such as when someone intentionally gathers a group of people and convinces them that they are collectively experiencing a psychological or physiological symptom
that “it excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots”
that “the link between the [individuals experiencing collective obsessional behavior] must not be coincidental,” meaning, for instance, that they are all part of the same close-knit community
Prof. Wessley also believes that mass hysteria should not be confused with “moral panic.” This is a sociological concept that refers to the phenomenon of masses of people becoming distressed about a perceived — usually unreal or exaggerated — threat portrayed in catastrophizing terms by the media.

Different types of mass hysteria?
In his article, Prof. Wessley goes even further, arguing that — based on the instances of mass hysteria documented in specialized literature — this phenomenon actually refers to two “syndromes” with somewhat different characteristics.

He calls these two types of collective obsessional behavior “mass anxiety hysteria” and “mass motor hysteria.”

The first kind, he says, is marked by physiological symptoms consistent with those experienced in the case of anxiety. These can include: abdominal pain, chest tightness, dizziness, fainting, headaches, hyperventilation, nausea, and heart palpitations.

The second kind of mass hysteria, on the other hand, is characterized by seizure-like events (pseudoseizures), apparent partial paralysis (pseudoparesis), or other symptoms that alter a person’s motor function in a specific way.

Are women most affected?
Medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew has reviewed some of the most prominent cases of mass hysteria in his book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics.

woman with broken mirror
Are women more likely to be affected by collective obsessional behavior?
His research seems to indicate one thing: that instances of mass hysteria are most prominently experienced by groups of women.

But why would that be the case? And does it mean that women are somehow “hardwired” to fall prey to such mass “epidemics?” Some researchers argue that women may be more exposed to collective obsessional behavior because they are typically exposed to more stressful situations.

Physical symptoms of disease could provide a nonconfrontational way out of an overwhelming situation. Bartholomew notes, for example, that in a stressful or even abusive work context, mass hysteria and its accompanying symptoms can provide a means of putting up resistance and forging a way out.

Similarly, Christian Hempelmann — from Texas A&M University-Commerce — who has taken an interest in mass hysteria, suggests that these group manifestations are effective and nonconfrontational.

“The way […] to get out of [an oppressive situation] is to show symptoms of disease and to be allowed not to have to endure the situation any longer,” he believes.

However, the word “hysteria” itself is fraught with problems and has a “bumpy,” highly controversial history. It is derived from the Greek word “hystera,” meaning “uterus,” thereby attaching the condition specifically to women.

Uses of the word have historically been so imprecise, and the term has gained such negative connotations — used to describe any violent outburst of emotion — that it was “retired” by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952.

“Hysteria” is no longer used to describe any existent psychological condition, and more specific terms are instead employed to refer to a wide range of conditions that fell, in the past, under the large umbrella of this name.

As a consequence of this, any claims that mass hysteria could be a phenomenon that applies most prominently to women becomes questionable, especially considering the heterogeneous nature of such events and how difficult it is to categorize them.

Recent instances of mass hysteria
Though occurrences of mass hysteria have been documented throughout history, they do not seem to have become less common with the passage of time and the advent of technology that supports the rapid flux of information.

A number of intriguing events involving collective experiences of psychological and physiological symptoms have been referred to as instances of mass hysteria over the past 50 years or so. And some of the most recent occurrences have even been tied to the perils of social media.

Laughter epidemics and penis panics
In 1962, in a village in Tanganyika — now Tanzania — a girl at a boarding school suddenly started laughing…and was unable to stop. Her laughing fit quickly produced a “laughing epidemic” among her schoolmates, which became of such magnitude that the school had to be shut down.

children laughing
A ‘laughing epidemic’ that started in a school in 1962 ‘eventually spread to the larger population.’
Upon sending all the girls home, the epidemic spread to the wider community, and it only began to fade after 2 years from the start of the outbreak.

Notoriously, in Singapore in 1967, hundreds of men became convinced that eating pork meat taken from a series of vaccinated pigs would lead to penis shrinkage or disappearance, and potentially death.

This “penis panic,” or “koro,” required a concerted effort from the country’s government to educate the male population about their genital organs to convince them that their conviction was not, and could not, be true.

In autumn 2001, children in elementary and middle schools across the United States experienced a strange symptom: their skin would break out in rashes, but only while they were in school. At home, their symptoms would promptly disappear.

In the media, this phenomenon was linked to the impact of the tragic events of September 11, and the children’s symptoms were taken as a mass psychosomatic reaction to the feelings associated with trauma that permeated the U.S. at the time.

The impact of mass media and social media?
More recently, in 2006, teenagers in Portugal started to present to hospital with dizziness, rashes, and breathing difficulties.

phone illustrating social media concept
Nowadays, social media may contribute to the spread of collective obsessional behavior.
After the doctors could find no physical cause for these symptoms, some investigative work found an intriguing parallel: these were the same symptoms that were experienced by a character in a popular soap opera for young people, Strawberries With Sugar (Morangos com Açúcar, in Portugese).

This is why the phenomenon came to be known as the “strawberries with sugar virus.”

Finally, the most fresh instance of alleged mass hysteria took place as recently as 2012, when teenage girls from the small town of LeRoy, NY, started to exhibit symptoms similar to those seen in Tourette’s syndrome — such as uncontrollable jerks of the limbs and verbal outbreaks — though the doctors were unable to find a clear cause for them.

This epidemic started when a girl posted a video of herself on YouTube, in which she documented an episode of such symptoms. Until recently, this girl had shown no sign of Tourette’s.

The video went viral, and many more teenage girls started to display the same symptoms. A teenage boy and a 36-year-old woman were also “infected.”

When the woman explained that she started having these symptoms after she learned of the girl’s story on Facebook, this led to speculation about social media’s potential role in advancing mass hysteria in the present day.

So, is mass hysteria an epidemic of the mind, leading to symptoms in the body, which is spread via social contact? This question is still under debate, but if it is so, the advent of social media is a likely vehicle for the spread of such “viruses.”

In any case, instances of reported mass hysteria do highlight one consideration: that it is just as important to preserve our inner well-being as it is to look after our physical health.

And the messages we ingest — through what we read, watch, or hear — may affect our well-being in unsuspected ways.

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Vitamin D: Recent research uncovers new benefits

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As much of the world experiences a record-breaking heat wave, this Spotlight turns its attention to vitamin D, the so-called sunshine vitamin. Here, we inspect the latest research.
Tropical sun
The “sunshine vitamin” has a range of surprising benefits.
Vitamin D is a hot topic currently, with a raft of studies proclaiming its benefits for a variety of serious conditions.

Conversely, other recent studies have been more cautious, questioning its perceived usefulness for treating some illnesses.

Vitamin D is a nutrient that is synthesized in our skin when it is exposed to sunlight, and it is also present in some foods.

Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, but in the winter months, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend topping up vitamin D levels by eating vitamin D-containing foods each day. These include oily fish, fortified milk, beef liver, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified breakfast cereals.

What does vitamin D do?
Scientists know that vitamin D is essential for many aspects of maintaining good health and that deficiency is linked with problems for both physical and mental health.

Perhaps most notably, vitamin D helps to regulate the levels of calcium in our bodies, strengthening our bones and preventing bone-weakening conditions, such as osteoporosis.

Increasingly though, studies are also suggesting that vitamin D might have protective benefits against heart failure, diabetes, cancer, respiratory tract infections, autoimmune disease, and even hair loss.

A surprisingly large number of people have insufficient levels of vitamin D. For instance, according to one study, more than 40 percent of adults in the United States are deficient. Because of its prevalence, it is important to determine what the public health implications of this epidemic might be.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency can vary between individuals, but they typically include pain in the joints, muscles, or bones; fatigue; breathing problems; and low mood or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Below, we run through a number of intriguing recent studies that investigate associations between vitamin D and an assortment of illnesses.

Vitamin D and heart failure
Several studies have suggested that vitamin D could offer protective benefits against cardiovascular illness, but scientists have yet to pinpoint what mechanisms are driving this association.

Recently, though, Medical News Today reported on a study that used a mouse model to investigate how a type of vitamin D, called 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3, affects heart cells. In particular, the researchers looked at the cells responsible for developing scar tissue following a heart attack, called cardiac colony-forming unit fibroblasts (cCFU-Fs).

cCFU-Fs are an important area of study because, when heart tissue is scarred, the heart has a harder time pumping blood, which can lead to heart failure.

The researchers behind the study found that vitamin D inhibited the action of cCFU-Fs, which prevented scar tissue from building around the hearts of the mice in the study, potentially preventing blockages in the cardiovascular system.

“With further study,” wrote the authors, “vitamin D could prove to be an exciting, low-cost addition to current treatments, and we hope to progress these findings into clinical trials for humans.”

Vitamin D and cancer
Breast cancer and bowel cancer have both been linked with cases of vitamin D deficiency in recent studies. One of these analyzed data from two randomized clinical trials and a prospective cohort study.

The researchers found that high levels of vitamin D were inversely associated with risk of breast cancer among women who were cancer-free at baseline.

Pink ribbon blue background
Studies suggest that vitamin D impacts breast cancer risk.
According to the study results, the higher the levels of vitamin D, the lower the risk of breast cancer.

This relationship remained significant even after the results were adjusted for confounding factors, such as age, body mass index (BMI), intake of calcium supplements, and smoking habits.

Although a link between vitamin D deficiency and colorectal cancer has previously been reported, not all studies have been able to replicate these findings. A new, large-scale study attempted to settle this by drawing on data from three continents, including 5,700 colorectal cancer cases and 7,100 controls.

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The researchers calculated that people whose levels of vitamin D fall below those specified in the current guidelines have a 31 percent increased risk of developing bowel cancer. By contrast, those with vitamin D levels above the current recommended levels were 22 percent less likely to develop this cancer.

Vitamin D and belly fat
Another recent study examined a previously observed link between obesity and lower levels of vitamin D, focusing in particular on how different types of body fat might interact with vitamin D.

The study authors reported that having excess belly fat was linked with lower levels of vitamin D:

“[T]he strong relationship between increasing amounts of abdominal fat and lower levels of vitamin D suggests that individuals with larger waistlines are at a greater risk of developing deficiency and should consider having their vitamin D levels checked.”

However, the study was not able to prove whether a deficiency in vitamin D causes fat to be stored around the belly, or if having belly fat somehow contributes to a deficiency in vitamin D. The researchers say that future studies will attempt to determine cause and effect in this relationship.

Vitamin D and Alzheimer’s disease
A systematic review from researchers in Australia recently attempted to settle the debate surrounding vitamin D’s ability to protect against Alzheimer’s. The systematic review analyzed more than 70 studies looking at the association.

They concluded that there was no significant association between vitamin D deficiency and risk of Alzheimer’s.

Intriguingly, the authors did suggest that — based on their systematic review — there may be an association between exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays and protection against multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s, but that this may be independent of vitamin D production.

The authors said that further studies would be needed to confirm these links and identify the mechanism responsible for such associations.

Vitamin D and chronic pain
Over the years, some scientists have theorized that low levels of vitamin D might cause or worsen chronic pain.

So, in 2015, a group of scientists set out to collate existing evidence to examine the relationship.

Woman in pain
Could vitamin D ease chronic pain?
The resulting Cochrane review, updated in 2015, explains that:

“Observational and circumstantial evidence suggests that there may be a role for vitamin D deficiency in the etiology of chronic painful conditions.” The team scrutinized the findings from a number of studies.

Following the analysis, they concluded that the available scientific evidence is not strong enough to support a connection between vitamin D deficiency and chronic pain.

The authors write, “Based on this evidence, a large beneficial effect of vitamin D across different chronic painful conditions is unlikely. Whether vitamin D can have beneficial effects in specific chronic painful conditions needs further investigation.”

So, as ever, more work will be needed to finally close the lid on this interaction.

We hope this article has enhanced your understanding of the latest scientific thinking around this fascinating chemical. Please remember, however, that over-exposure to sunlight — especially the hot, midday sun — can result in skin damage and increase risk of skin cancer.

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Diets ‘devoid of vegetable matter’ may cause colon cancer

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A new study emphasizes the importance to gut health of eating plenty of vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale.
selection of greens
Eating brassicas such as collards, kale, and broccoli may protect against colon cancer.
Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute in London, United Kingdom, found that keeping mice on a diet rich in a compound known as indole-3-carbinol (I3C) — which comes from such vegetables — prevented the animals’ intestines from becoming inflamed and developing colon cancer.

They report the study in a paper now published in the journal Immunity.

“Seeing the profound effect,” says study senior author Dr. Brigitta Stockinger, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute, “of diet on gut inflammation and colon cancer was very striking.”

Our digestive system produces I3C when we eat vegetables from a “large and diverse group” of plants known as brassicas.

Brassicas include, but are not limited to: broccoli, cabbage, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, swede, turnip, bok choi, and mizuna.

Colon cancer typically starts as a growth, or polyp, in the lining of the colon or large intestine. It can take many years for the cancer to develop from a polyp and not all polyps become cancerous.

Cancer of the colon or rectum is the third most commonly diagnosed in both women and men in the United States, not counting skin cancer.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimate that there will be 97,220 new cases of diagnosed colon cancer in the U.S. in 2018.

‘Concrete evidence’ of hidden mechanism
Despite a lot of evidence about the benefits to our digestive system of a diet rich in vegetables, much of the underlying cell biology remains unknown.

The new findings are the first to give “concrete evidence” of how dietary I3C — through its effect on a cell protein known as aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) — protects the gut from inflammation and cancer.

AhR has several roles, and for it to work properly, it has to be activated by a compound that binds to it uniquely. I3C is such a compound.

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One of AhR’s jobs in the gut is to pick up environmental signals and pass them on to immune cells and other cells in the lining. These signals are important for protecting the digestive tract from inflammation-promoting signals that come from the “trillions of bacteria” that live in it.

Another important role that AhR plays is helping stem cells convert into specialized gut lining cells that produce protective mucus and help extract nutrients from food.

When AhR is absent or does not work properly, the stem cells do not convert into working cells in the gut lining but “divide uncontrollably.” Uncontrolled cell division may lead to abnormal growths that can become malignant, or cancerous.

Importance of ‘plant matter’ in diet
Dr. Stockinger and her colleagues saw that normal laboratory mice that ate “purified control diets” developed colon tumors within 10 weeks, while those that ate standard “chow” containing grains and other ingredients did not develop any.

Purified control diets are tightly controlled to include precise amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrate, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. They are designed to exactly match nutritional requirements without including germs, allergens, and other substances that might introduce spurious variables in experiments.

The new study suggests that because purified control diets contain less plant matter, they have fewer compounds that activate AhR, compared with standard chow diets or diets enriched with I3C.

Dr. Chris Schiering, of Imperial College London, remarks that “even without genetic risk factors,” it would seem that “a diet devoid of vegetable matter can lead to colon cancer.”

‘Significantly fewer tumors’
The researchers used mice and organoids, or “mini guts,” grown from mouse stem cells, in their experiments. These revealed that the ability of intestinal epithelial cells to replenish themselves and repair the gut lining after infection or chemical damage was “profoundly influenced” by AhR.

The team also found that genetically engineered mice whose intestinal epithelial cells had no AhR — or could not activate the protein — failed to control an infection from a gut bacterium called Citrobacter rodentium. The animals developed gut inflammation and then colon cancer.

“However, when we fed them a diet enriched with I3C, they did not develop inflammation or cancer,” remarks first author Dr. Amina Metidji, also of the Francis Crick Institute.

Additionally, notes Dr. Metidji, when they switched mice that were already developing colon cancer to a diet rich in I3C, they found that those animals developed “significantly fewer tumors” and that those tumors were less likely to be malignant.

In discussing their results, the researchers raise the issue of whether it is the high fat content or the low consumption of vegetables in high-fat diets that explains the link to colon cancer.

The scientists now expect to continue the work on I3C and AhR with organoids grown from human gut tissue extracted in biopsies. Eventually, they expect the work to lead to human trials.

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Urea dysfunctions in the liver may signal cancer

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A new study, now published in the journal Cell, suggests that the way in which the human body processes nitrogen may be key to finding new ways of detecting and destroying cancer.

Nitrogen is a gas that is vital for all organisms. Both plants and animals need it in order to make proteins.

When our body processes nitrogen, it generates a substance called urea as waste; the body later eliminates this substance through urine.

This metabolizing process is called the urea cycle, and it takes place in the liver.

New research suggests that dysregulations in the urea cycle could be a marker of cancer. The new study was led by Dr. Ayelet Erez, from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Studying urea dysregulations and tumors
Dr. Erez and colleagues altered the genetic expression of urea cycle enzymes in the colon cancer tumors of rodents and compared their urea levels with those of control mice.

The mice whose urea cycle had been interfered with had lower blood levels of urea and higher levels of a substance called pyrimidine in their urine.

The scientists also examined the medical records of 100 children who had been diagnosed with cancer at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.

“We found that on the day of their admission to the hospital,” explains the lead researcher, “children with cancer had significantly decreased urea levels in their blood, compared with documented levels of urea in healthy children of the same age.”

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Finally, the researchers also analyzed large genomic sets in search of DNA mutations that could indicate disruptions in the urea cycle.

They found mutations in DNA, RNA, and proteins, which indicates an excess of pyrimidine. This is produced through the synthesis of nitrogen and can, in turn, promote the growth of cancer cells.

Overall, the findings suggest that dysfunctions in the urea cycle may be a good indicator of cancer.

“Standard laboratory tests check for high levels of urea in blood, but we are now showing that low levels can also signal a problem,” says Dr. Erez. “Cancerous cells don’t waste anything, they make use of as much nitrogen as possible instead of disposing of it in the form of urea, as do normal cells.”

Making tumors vulnerable to immunotherapy
As the researchers explain, high levels of pyrimidine represent both good news and bad. The bad news is that it could make the cancer spread faster and more aggressively, but the good news is that the mutations that are related to excessive pyrimidine could make cancer cells more vulnerable to an attack from the immune system.

Therefore, malignancies characterized by a dysregulated urea cycle could be destroyed more easily with immunotherapy.

To test this hypothesis, Dr. Erez and colleagues examined melanoma tumors and found that the tumors that had dysregulated urea cycles responded better to immunotherapy. Dr. Erez and colleagues conclude:

“Taken together, our findings demonstrate that [urea cycle dysregulation] is a common feature of tumors that profoundly affects carcinogenesis, mutagenesis, and immunotherapy response.”

Moreover, say the researchers, the results could lead to better tools not only for diagnosing cancer, but also for treating it.

“Yet another possibility worth exploring,” Dr. Erez says, “is whether genetic manipulation of the tumor to induce such dysregulation prior to immunotherapy can increase the therapy’s effectiveness.”

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