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Our brains adapt and change

I hope 2017 has started well for you and your loved ones. I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions but believe that there’s always a room for improvement. So, in any day of any month, I try to deal with my faults and weaknesses. These imperfections make me wake up in the morning wanting to do something better than yesterday.

As you can see on the above photograph, I got a trophy 3 weeks ago for finishing 2nd among adult female participants at a chess tournament in Marange-Silvange, a commune 20 km from where I live in Moselle department in north-eastern France. From time to time, I join this kind of competition because it makes my avid-chess playing son happy and proud of his mum. As well, I find the atmosphere festive amid rivalry characterised by fair play, respect and camaraderie.

What pleases me most is watching children, as young as 5 years old, sitting for some time thinking, analysing and making decisions which pieces to move to corner their opponents’ Kings. For me, all players are winners because they learn and exercise discipline, accept or manage their wins and losses, and try to improve their future performances. Furthermore, spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon playing and socialising is more productive, with long-term benefits, than being a couch potato — which is likely when the outside temperature is -5°C.

Though there’s been a widespread use of computer and video games, Internet entertainment and online socialising, individuals and families still get involved in group activities. According to http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-popular/the-top-10-most-sold-board-games-ever), the following are the most popular board games ever: 1. Chess 2. Checkers 3. Backgammon 4. Scabble 5. Monopoly 6. Clue (or Cluedo) 7. Othello 8. Trivial Pursuit 9. Pictionary and 10. Risk.

Except for Clue and Othello, I’ve played them all; and when I was at university my favourite was Scabble which was responsible for my many sleepless nights. During the first decade of my professional life, I used to play Risk with 2 close male friends who either tried to persuade me to form an alliance to get rid of the other player or accused me of being unfair for showing leniency to the other.

On the other hand, except for a few hours of self defense lesson required by my father and membership to a local gym, I’ve never been in any sports club or group. Sometimes I play lawn tennis with my family and bowling a few times a year, and wish I could ski.

As you probably know, football (US ‘soccer’) is the most played sports in the world. Cricket and field hockey come next then tennis, volleyball, table tennis, baseball, golf and basketball. (http://www.mostpopularsports.net)

Whether you are a board game or sport enthusiast, you are doing something that helps develop or strengthen your mind as these activities train you to be patient and resilient in the face of difficulty or inconvenience. Likewise, being with other people widens your social network that can also have a flow-on effect on your professional life; and of course, it entertains you that has positive psychological and health benefits. It’s never too late to start a leisure activity or hobby, and why not a board game? Most towns and cities have local clubs that welcome new members.

I’d spoken with many chess players during tournaments and they told me that they started playing at home with their relatives or friends (or friends of friends) during family gatherings, through encouragement by teachers and classmates, watching the game or sport live on TV/movie/online, and living near the club or tournament.

Whatever game or sport we decide to do, let’s bear in mind that, as Dr. Doidge has said, not all activities are equal. “Those that involve genuine concentration—studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading, and dancing—are associated with a lower risk for dementia. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration. Less intense activities, such as bowling, babysitting, and golfing, are not associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s.” (Dr. Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher and author at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry and New York’s Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research).

Dr. Doidge has also said that “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” (http://www.azquotes.com/author/18876-Norman_Doidge).

PS:My website was down for a while for reasons unknown to me, and it took a few days to fix it.MS EchecsJanuary15 2016

Surprises, wonders and hope

Happy New Year!

December 2016 was an unusual Christmas for me because I had received an unexpected, generous gift from someone who’s not a friend or relative. When I opened the envelope, I thought it was handed to me by mistake, so the next time I saw her I tried to return it. With the sweetest smile, she said “it’s not a mistake, it’s for you from Santa.” A week later, I still couldn’t believe and accept such a present. What did I do to deserve such kindness? This act of generosity propelled me to do the same, and I was even more blessed. I was so joyful to see the sparkling eyes of contentment and happiness of those I shared my blessings with.

The year 2016 has just ended, and it’s quite a challenge trying to find words to describe it. It has been a tough year for several people whose friendship I value (i.e. losing parents and family members, colleagues, etc.) This reminds me, as in other gloomy situations, that I should not neglect my family and friends, and be greatly grateful for what I’ve.

As well, I should look at the glass half full, and not half empty, even in surprisingly polarising events, such as Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election as the US president. The situation in Syria’s Aleppo is dehumanising and unbearable, and how can peace and security be restored there? Last month’s terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East resulted in the loss of many lives, which have contributed significantly to making the fear of migrants and refugees even worse. Consequently, insecurity in many facets and from different directions besets our society. On the other hand, there were inspiring events last year that have left a positive imprint, such as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with its Refugee Team (the first time in its history).

What could we have done better in 2016? There are things that we definitely can’t undo, however, these can serve as hard-earned lessons to be a good or better person. I won’t seek for perfection as “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” (Stephen William Hawking – born 8 January 1942, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author who has a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and uses a speech-generating device to communicate).

But, I’m persuaded that the following actions can make life more fun, fulfilling and challenging:

If you’re not happy with today, do something about it (i.e. willing to change).
Bury experiences that make you angry.
Be honest: the truth is easier to remember. The so called ‘white lies’ or an economised truths distort and can cause emotional pain to others.
Cultivate or have a sense of gratitude.
Stop making excuses and blaming others.
Avoid being cynical and defensive.
There are always two sides to every story, so listen to both.
Forgive
(What else?)

The above statements are easier written (said) than done; however, they are worth giving a go. If we don’t succeed the first time, let’s try again and again.

May you experience lots of love, joy, peace and good health in 2017 and beyond.
Take care!

Living charitably and wisely

It was a rainy day in the morning of November 5, and there was already a queue at our local theatre hall. A young lady opened the door and helped me find the umbrella rack. She said, “I’ve never seen these many people eager to donate blood, especially on a gloomy day like this.” I remarked, “It might be the warmth and dryness that have brought them here.”

After over an hour of waiting and filling in the 4-page questionnaire, the doctor told me politely that I could not donate blood because I’m less than 50kg. I was surprised and disappointed thus as soon as I got home, I checked online to make sure that it had nothing to do with reasons other than weight.

Yes, it’s true that donors are required to have the minimum weight of 50kg for a minimum of 400ml of blood for the blood bag to contain the sufficient therapeutic dose (as the doctor had explained to me).

I was really looking forward to it that I had ample breakfast to help me avoid feeling unwell or fainting; consequently, I had to delay lunch.

The Etablissement Français du Sang – EFS (French National Blood Service) is responsible for the collection of all types of blood donation and takes all precautions to ensure that donations (whether they be whole blood, platelet, plasma, and bone marrow or cord blood) are done in high quality and safety conditions for both donors and receivers.

While queuing I heard that about 14% of the French population donate blood annually. People between the ages of 18 and 70 can donate blood. After the age of 60, however, all donations require the approval of an EFS doctor.

I should have found out first about requirements for donors. I didn’t because I was certain I could as I’m in good health and don’t take any medication. If I had checked, I would have not gone there and written this blog.

One of the questions was: “Did you visit or live in Great Britain from 1980 to 1996?” Well, I couldn’t remember, so I ticked the “don’t know” box. (Blood donation is prohibited for people who have lived in Great Britain for over 12 accumulative months between 1980 and 1996 due to a theoretical risk of transmitting bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow’s disease”).

A friend later that night asked me why I wanted to donate blood. She nodded vehemently when I told her that it was one of the ways I could show my sons how to be caring, generous and considerate of others. Donated blood saves lives of many people and it’s a privilege to be part of this. As well, it has good health benefits.

One of the most-cited health benefits of donating blood is reduced risk of cancer and hemochromatosis (condition that arises due to excess absorption of iron by the body). Furthermore, donating blood helps reduce the risk of damage to liver and pancreas, reduce obesity and may improve cardiovascular health.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs279/en/):
• About half of the 112.5 million blood donations collected globally are from high-income countries (home to 19% of the world’s population).
• The rate of blood donation in high-income countries is 33.1 donations per 1000 people; 11.7 donations in middle-income countries and 4.6 donations in low-income countries.
• Up to 65% of blood transfusions in low-income countries are given to children under 5 years of age. In high-income countries, the most frequently transfused patients are over 65 years of age (up to 76% of all transfusions).

It’s this time of the year (i.e. December) when we give or exchange presents. This traditional show of generosity and friendliness should extend beyond material possessions. Why not spend a few hours helping charities raise funds, feed the needy, etc.? How about donating blood? (If you’re a blood donor, you’re a hero to someone, somewhere, who received your gracious gift of life. https://viralknot.com/top-10-quotes-on-blood-donation-to-promote-blood-donation/).

May the rest of 2016 be peaceful and joyful for you and your loved ones. I greet you good health and happiness throughout 2017; and that all your needs be fulfilled and most of your wants granted.

They mean the same thing, don’t they?

What’s the difference between concentrate and focus? When do we use courier, and not carrier? How about comment and remark, fine and penalty, etc.? I quite enjoy responding to these questions without hesitation. Last week, however, when my colleague asked me whether or not optimism means happiness, it took me a while to say that optimistic people are not necessarily happy individuals (i.e. optimism doesn’t equate to happiness, and vice versa).

I’m a “half full glass” person, so I often see a plus rather than a minus that even in a negative situation, e.g. missing my bus by 2 minutes, I think “Every cloud has a silver lining.” I’ve always been like this, which helps me deal with the present. On the other hand, when it comes to the future, I’m a rational optimist.

Though I take responsibility for my decisions and actions, I believe that I’m not the only person involved in a situation that goes wrong. Likewise, I accept the reality that this ‘thing gone wrong’ has inconveniences (but only temporary – optimistic again).

Are optimistic people (“me” included) happy?

Optimism is a style of thinking and not a genetic attribute or permanent attitude, so it can be changed and learnt (as well as taught). Since optimism has good effects on mental health, professional success and personal gain, we don’t want to replace it with negativism (pessimism); do we?

Negativism leads to helplessness and undesirable self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. expectation/thought that affects one’s behaviour causing this expectation/thought to come true). It, too, can be changed and learnt (as well as taught). But, who wants to be negative (pessimistic) knowing that it derails you from meeting your needs and achieving your goals?

“Research shows that happy and unhappy people generally have the same number of adverse events in their lives. The difference is in their interpretation of unfortunate life events. Optimistic people are willing and able to make positive life action plans to counteract negative events in their lives, while pessimists are more likely to do nothing, then find themselves sinking into negativism, lethargy, perhaps even depression.” Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology (http://www.bettyphillipspsychology.com/id15.html seen on 16/10/16).

Being optimistic is a state of mind that has a positive effect on many aspects of our lives — e.g. you’ll live healthily and efficiently. Optimistic people are hopeful for a better situation or result.

Happiness, on the other hand, is an emotion (like sadness, anger and disappointment) and is biological in nature; it reinforces optimism.

Optimism is a by-product of happiness rather than a cause of it. (Optimistic individuals don’t give up easily; they are resilient).

I’m a rational optimist and not always happy. When I’m sad due to difficulties caused by other people, I keep my optimism high by motivational and inspiring quotes, which I use in any given opportunity, e.g. writing these on note pads and flip charts (sharing them with my students).

Going to the gym at least twice a week makes me happy and relieves tensions. I find it relaxing to watch movies at home or in the cinema/theatre once a week.

My job gives me a lot of satisfaction and joy. Every day, there’s something that makes me smile and gratified. This can be from simple to unusual gestures, such as giving and receiving words of thanks and appreciation, eating something I really fancy or have never tried before, reading, writing or having a drink with someone I like.

There are tons of write-ups on how to be happy and optimistic, thus I won’t replicate these here. However, I’d like to point out two issues that are relevant to any discussion about happiness and optimism. First, we’ve to go an extra mile to sleep at least 7-8 hours every night because a lack of sleep makes us moody, impatient and less energetic and alert. Second, it’s not easy to leave a gloomy past behind, which creates unhappiness and interferes with our efforts to become a better person, so how about getting rid of those associated with our toxic past?

“An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity” — Winston Churchill

Donating and volunteering: For love of self and others

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ― Winston S. Churchill

In the first week of September, in Luxembourg, I had lunch with the funding member of ‘Dress for Success’ and my student who wants to join her in helping and empowering women. A few days later, I bumped into an acquaintance who has been teaching French to new arrivals in our region without financial remuneration. Two weeks ago, I attended a fundraising dinner and dance in a town about 10km from my city. It was a friendly atmosphere with men, women and children making sure that we would have a fantastic time, in addition to being busy collecting money for local charities and NGOs. Last week, through the encouragement of a friend, I went to the nearby park and was mesmerised by about a dozen tents with generous and smiling individuals selling and entertaining people for good causes.

As I write this article, I think of my friend who has always time for her environmental group doing information dissemination, pancake making and coordinating Christmas stalls; as well as my ex-student who founded ‘United by Dream Onlus,’ a humanitarian organisation aiding impoverished children and their families. Sometime in our lives, we are volunteers; however, some do more than others.

Why do we volunteer? Research and individual testimonies have revealed that volunteering has benefits for individuals and societies, and the main ones are: i) It gives the volunteer a sense of achievement and belongingness to a community; ii) Offers opportunity to meet diverse range of people and experiences; iii) It enhances social and relationship abilities; iv) Enables development and/or practice of new skills, hobbies and interests; v) Can boost your career; vi) It’s a rich resource for organisations to carry out their missions, thus helping less fortunate than we are or those in need.

When I was young, every time I thought about volunteering, going overseas flashed immediately into my mind. Well, there are plenty of occasions to do this locally, i.e. local service clubs, social centres, non-profit service associations, schools, etc. The first step is knowing what you want to do (taking into consideration your personality and interest) and match this with the organisation or cause.

According to the World Giving Index 2015, a research done by Gallup and Charities Aid Foundation, the five most generous nations in the world are: 1. Myanmar (92% of its inhabitants donated money in 2014. Although they gave a small amount, they did it daily as this is part of their Buddhist faith); 2. US (12th in the world for charitable donation but 76% of its population helped strangers); 3. New Zealand (4th in volunteering and its charitable money giving increased by 6%); 4. Canada (44% of its population offered time to volunteer); and Australia (Its charitable donation increased by 6% and time spent on volunteering by 3%). They are followed by The UK (6th), The Netherlands (7th), Sri Lanka (8th), Ireland (9th) and Malaysia (10th)(www.theguardian.com seen on 27/09/16).

Last year, Wealth-X and Business Insider produced the Generosity Index, a list of 20 most generous people in the world that included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (No. 1) donating US$27 billion in lifetime donations as of October 2015. The leading causes supported by the world’s biggest individual donors are education, health and medicine, social and humanitarian services, community development, and arts and culture (http://www.wealthx.com/articles/2015/worlds-20-most-generous-how-they-give/ seen 30/09/16).

Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing, with US$1.4 billion in donations to date, has reportedly spent over US$770 million to establish and support Shantou University, the only privately funded public university in China. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made education one of his primary causes; his first act of large-scale philanthropy was donating US$100 million worth of his Facebook shares to Newark, New Jersey public school system in 2010.

Retail magnate Charles Francis Feeney, who has donated US$6.3 billion to date, has pledged US$177 million to the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and Trinity College Dublin to create the Global Brain Health Institute aimed at battling the quick rise of dementia.

Pierre Omidyar, co-founder and current chairman of eBay, started the Omidyar Foundation with his wife Pamela in 1998; and this couple have reportedly invested US$115 million in Humanity United (under the Omidyar Foundation umbrella), which supports 85 anti-slavery nonprofit and on-the-ground projects in five countries, including Nepal.

Eight of 20 philanthropists on the list included community development among their principal causes, e.g. Bloomberg’s $42 million “What Works Cities” project aims to help 100 mid-sized American cities enhanced their use of data to improve the lives of residents and boost government transparency.

Twenty five percent of those in the “Most Generous” list have supported arts and culture, which is ahead of the environment (four out of 20) and religion (3 out of 20). KB Home co-founder and former SunAmerica CEO Eli Broad has been an active patron of the arts, and recipients of his generosity include the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It’s easy to give when you have a lot.. a surplus. However, not all those who have surpluses give significantly for the world’s betterment.

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”
― Charles Dickens

Is computer literacy a life’s necessity?

A few weeks ago, while researching for information on technological jargon for my intermediate class, I fell into a test on computer knowledge. I sometimes get into this spur-of-the-moment kind of thing and forget it in a blink. That test, however, turned out to be more than just an extemporaneous ego exercise. The result indicated that I only have average knowledge of computers (I’m being generous with myself as the average score on that day was 7.3/10 while I got only 7). For someone who has a website and blog regularly, has self-published a book and is active online, I thought I would be above average. I may not be a power user of new and advanced technology, but I’m certainly a computer literate.

Computer literacy (CL) refers to the ability to use computer applications rather than programs. How literate do we need in order to succeed professionally and make the most of life?

Australian public and private schools have computer science as a subject. For instance, the New South Wales public schools’ Year 6 students (their average age is 12 years) are taught and expected to have the following computer skills: Using computer-based technologies to manipulate, create, store and retrieve information to express ideas and communicate with others (Word Processing, Graphics and Multi-media); Using computer-based technologies to locate, access, evaluate, store and retrieve information (Spreadsheets and Databases) and to express ideas and communicate with others (Internet and Email); Downloading copy of document; Identifying hardware components,such as keyboard, mouse and screen (http://www.schools.nsw.edu.au/learning/k-6assessments/csa6ictskills.php).

Not long ago, I read a report saying that in the USA as much as 60% of schools issue laptops or tablets to their students.

There was no computer science or information technology subject in my high school days (and we didn’t have electronic gadgets at home). To date, there are still children in developing and developed countries who don’t have the privilege of being taught this subject at school. Unlike in developing nations (due to lack of or inadequate funding), however, having computer subjects and labs in schools is a choice in developed countries.

In the French public education system, the absence of computer in the majority of classrooms is more cultural than monetary. The pedagogy is still traditionally based on memorisation, writing (with its famous regular dictée and use of handwriting analysis for employment purposes) and centralised curriculum.

According to the Guardian, the London Acorn School bans its pupils from using smartphones and computers and watching TV at all times, including during holidays. Children of this school “are not allowed television at all before the age of 12, after that they are allowed documentaries that have previously vetted by parents. They cannot watch films until they are 14; the internet is banned completely for everyone under 16 at home and at school – and computers are only to be used as part of the school curriculum for over 14s” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/sep/29/the-no-tech-school-where-screens-are-off-limits-even-at-home).

The Guardian quoted the finding of a global study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that investing heavily in computers and new technology in the classroom did not improve pupils’ performance, and frequent use of computers is associated with lower results. As well, there have been concerns about the disruptive effect of the use of mobile phones and iPads in the classroom and the potential negative impact of social media on young people.
On the other hand, we’ve heard a lot about how technology and the use of computer have broadened minds, have enhanced teachers’ skills, strategies and knowledge, and are more fun and interesting for students.

I believe that, in our current society, we need to be computer literate to be able to accomplish specific tasks; simplify (but not complicate) life; save (but not waste) time; improve communication and interpersonal skills (but not limit or jeopardise these); and encourage creativity (but not illegality).

Accordingly, my mediocrity in computers and information technology is not a handicapped but an opportunity as I don’t fully depend on it for my personal, social and professional satisfaction and happiness.

Nice in France

(This is dedicated to the people of Nice and those who were in this radiant and splendid city on the 14th of July 2016)

We lived in Nice (the capital of the French Riviera with about 344,000 inhabitants) for over one year and have unforgettable moments there, including visits of our Australian nephew and friends who jogged at the Promenade des Anglais (7-kilometre walkway along the sea) in shorts and sleeveless t-shirts in winter. They were amazed by the very narrow streets of Vieux Nice (Old Town of Nice) aligned with colourful (mainly yellow-brown) houses that have laundry hanging from the windows and specialty shops, such as the butcher that sells alive-looking pheasants (with heads and feathers, of course).

According to literature, Nice was founded by the Greeks, and during the 19th-century it was a famous destination for Europe’s elite. Today, it attracts travellers and artists from all over the world due to its sunny weather and liberal atmosphere, splashy markets, alluring restaurants and proximity to other well-known places (such as Cannes, Monaco and Saint Paul de Vence).

Its library, the Bibliothèque Louis Nucéra, was our second home. Almost every day, I found myself relaxing on its colourful small chairs between bookshelves and audio-visual stands. We made the most of the free artistic workshops and film showings on Wednesdays and Saturdays. I often mingled with retirees wanting to learn or improve their computer skills. Once I had to help a well-groomed woman in her mid/late 60s who was struggling to upload information on pages of an introduction website.

My then 5-year-old son and I had fun in the premier voyage of the city’s 8.7-kilometre, single-line tramway on November 24, 2007. Actually, Nice had a tram (but horse-drawn) in 1879 which was electrified in 1910. In the 1920s, the tram network had 11 lines, but was replaced by buses on some lines in 1927; and on 10 January 1953, the last tramway stopped running.

During school holidays and on weekends, after some hours at the library, we went for a stroll at the Promenade des Anglais then relaxed at the nearby beach. Very wealthy Englishmen, who spent winter in Nice, were the origin of this Promenade or La Prom. It was first called by the locals (Niçois) Camin dei Anglès (the English Way). In 1860, when Nice became part of France, it was renamed La Promenade des Anglais. It has since been a remarkably pleasant and friendly place full of walkers, bicyclists, baby strollers, in-line skaters and skateboarders.

Nice is not only beautiful but convenient too. Once before dawn, I had to rush to a chemist at Place Masséna because my son had a stomach ache. Place Masséna is the main city square bordered by red ochre buildings of Italian architecture that reminded me of my trips to provincial Mediterranean places. Though the surrounding shops and boutiques were not opened yet, there were already fascinating sounds and smells due to either the remnant of last night’s party or early creativity and activity.

Next time I’ll visit Nice, I’m certain to find it still a lovely city I’ve always known; but such a trip will likely to trigger a different souvenir.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches.

Common sense (or lack of ) on expired medication

(Last June 23, the British people voted to leave the European Union after being a member for more than 40 years, which is historic and has implications in the world politically, economically and socio-culturally. The 2016 Euro Football is on and the excitement will surely go beyond the finals on July 10. Ten percent of Island’s population of about 330,000 are currently in France cheering for their national team. However, neither is the subject of my July article).

There were more rainy than sunny days in my region last month. As in previous spring months, I took the pleasure organising not only my wardrobe but cabinets and cupboards. I was heartbroken putting outdated medicines in a paper bag. I thought of bringing these to the chemist (UK)/pharmacy (US) on my way to work, but the queue was half a kilometre long and my bus was about 5 minutes from departing, so I ended up bringing this with me to a nearby country (where I work) that does not legally obliged chemists to take unwanted or expired medicines.

Arriving in the classroom, the first thing I did was to ask my students if they knew of the nearby chemist that accept expired drugs. Co-incidentally, one of them actually took an expired aspirin that morning and she said that she had done this before and it was effective in getting rid of her headache.
The other two students asked me if we can still consume drugs after their use-by date. The Harvard Medical School has reported Psychopharmacology Today’s advice that a drug is absolutely 100% effective even when the expiration date has passed a few years.

According to Psychopharmacology Today, most of what is known about drug expiration dates comes from a study conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration for the military, and this study found that 90% of more than 100 drugs (both prescription and over-the-counter) were perfectly good to use even after 15 years of its expiration date (except nitro-glycerine, insulin and liquid antibiotics), and placing a medication in a cool place (such as a refrigerator) will help drugs remain potent for many years.

(Do you wonder about the role of manufacturers and those in the market chain regarding the use-by or expiration date?)

Experts maintain that use-by or expiration date is an easiest and most conservative way of ensuring the safest way of selling and consuming medicines and food. Generally, current informed opinion is that most drugs are classified as out-of-dated two years after their manufacture and this expiration date is only valid for unopened product. There are ample write-ups on this topic, such as the one published in http://www.emedexpert.com/tips/expired-meds.shtml that says contrary to common belief, there is little scientific evidence that expired drugs are toxic. “There are virtually no reports of toxicity from degradation products of outdated drugs.”

It’s in developed countries that reimburse medication as part of their social security and health systems where unused and expired medicines are in abundance. In the Third World, where treatment is not subsidised or/and reimbursed by the State and quite expensive, medicines are bought only when in dire need and on limited quantity.

This is what I said to my students: “I’d take expired medication for a minor ill-health, like hay fever (which I’ve at the moment) or headache. However, I’ll definitely not take it for a chronic and potentially life-threatening disease, e.g. seizure or heart problems.”

If expired drugs are safe for human consumption, why not donate these to charities at home and abroad? It’s not that simple. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and some individuals and associations are against the donation of expired medicines because they believe that there shouldn’t be a double standard when it comes to donation, i.e. if the quality of an item is unacceptable in the donour country, it is also unacceptable in the receiving nation as outlined in the Guidelines for Medicine Donations Revised 2010. (http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/guidelines_for_drug_donations).

If in doubt, just bring your expired drugs and medicines to your local chemist/pharmacy. If your local chemist doesn’t accept this, ask him/her if s/he knows one that does this (i.e. sorts and stores them in specific boxes to donate to charities and NGOs, and/or deposits unsuitable drugs on sites with approved incinerator where these are burned at 1200°C to avoid the risk of pollution or reuse).

We should never throw expired medicines in a bin at home (as I was about to do due to laziness), sink, toilet or elsewhere because traces of these will likely to end up in our groundwater and agricultural fields endangering our environment and health.

Language, identity and global necessity

Language is a cultural, political and economic tool, and English has shown great success in this domain. The spread of English internationally has been aided and abetted by the advancement in technology, forging of international organisations, and bare economic and political necessities. On the other hand, languages have been (and can be) taken over by one which is spoken by those from an economically, politically and socially dominant nation.

People who speak English as a second language do so because either they want or are obliged to (it is imposed from the outside). These days, they represent more than two-thirds of English speakers in the world, and the distinction between native and non-native speakers is not that significant anymore.

In the Philippines, for example, English is used in government, private and public dealings. Although Tagalog is the official language, English is the medium of instruction in schools and universities and is used lavishly in the mass media. This country was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years; however, it’s the Americans who have had the recent influence on its culture. Its proximity to Australia – another native English speaking country – has been a convenience. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines has the largest population of English-speaking inhabitants (over 102 millions).

The majority of this year’s Eurovision songs were in English. Even the winning title by Jamala of Ukraine has more English than Tatar words. For the first time, Spain’s entry was also in English which aroused criticisms from its Royal Academy of Spanish Language (RAE), the official body that oversees language use. The French entry was also mainly performed in English. (In Eurovision’s earlier days, contests were dominated by francophone nations – e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg & Monaco – and by entries in French). These days, contestants believe that English gives them a better chance to win because it is more widely understood than other languages; as well, successful songs have English lyrics.

Language is part of our identity, i.e. we identify and communicate with each other through it. Without language, a society and its culture do not have strong and unifying foundation upon which to exist. It is sad that sometimes this identity is sacrificed in favour of financial gain and/or career ambition.
Bilingualism or multiculturalism is definitely advantageous, particularly to access job and education, improve relationships or open opportunities. What is disconcerting is putting aside our native language (heritage) in favour of another; for example, parents insisting on their children to speak only the language of their new country or place of residence. Without practice, the ability to speak a language (native or acquired) gradually vanishes.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the most spoken languages in the world are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk.languages seen 30/05/16) has reported that there are 7,000 different languages in the world; 90% of these are spoken by less than 100,000 individuals; of which 2,200 are in Asia and only 260 in Europe.

Sadly, many of these languages (e.g. Romani in Europe, Austral in French Polynesia and Native American Hupa) are disappearing, which has global consequences. Reports published by UNESCO have expressed concerns that if nothing is done, half of the languages spoken today won’t exist anymore by the end of this century; and with their disappearance, humanity would lose cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages. This is an absolute worry because local knowledge, which is mainly transmitted orally, is linked to timeless wisdom on health, wellbeing and biodiversity (i.e. their wise understanding of the environment can be lost during the change in language).

Therefore, there is an urgent need for well-planned and implemented policies on maintaining or revitalising mother tongues and pass these on to younger generations. Every small effort in this regard is an extra mile. UNESCO’s “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” is a useful guide in monitoring the status of endangered languages and creating awareness on the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. On individual level, let’s continue teaching and speaking with our children and family our native language as this is a heritage issue and not a hindrance to life’s success.

The words in our language

“How was your staycation?” my student asked her colleague.
“It was relaxing,” he answered.

Another young woman sitting next to him raised her hand. “What did you say? What was it?” “stey-key-shun?”
He replied, “Ah.. you were not with us last year. Staycation means vacation spent at home doing something you enjoy. In the beginning, I also thought it sounded funny.”

Then he added, “holiday in UK and vacation in US English.”

I couldn’t help smiling and was glad that my student remembered something from our previous course. Languages evolve, appear and disappear to adapt and cater to the changing needs and developments (e.g. technology) in our society. Often, new words are created by: 1) putting together letters from 2 different words (e.g. ‘Brexit’ – British/Britain’s exit from the European Union. There’s a referendum on this issue in June 2016); 2) shortening words (e.g. company representative = company rep); 3) borrowing from other languages (e.g. French ‘chef’ – cook); and 4) even from mistakes or words of celebrities (e.g. Gwyneth Paltrow’s conscious uncoupling which describes divorcing or separating couple who find the source of unhappiness in themselves and refrain from blaming each other).

According to Betty Birner, many changes in a language begin with teens and youngsters. As young people interact with each others, their language grows to include words, phrases and constructions that are different from those of the older generation. Some of these new words and phrases have a short life span, but others remain and impact the way we speak and write (http://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/english-changing).

Three of the new words I recently saw in https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2016/02/08/new-words-8-february-2016/ are: farecasting (noun) predicting the optimum date to buy a plane ticket, especially on a website or using an application; unsend (noun) – deleting an email after it has been sent; and digital diet (noun) – deliberate reduction in the amount of time spent on the Internet.

Hangry (a combination of hungry and angry, i.e. feeling irritable due to hunger) has been added to OxfordDictionaries.com. According to this website, if you want to talk about an adequate sauce for a tasty meal, you can use “awesomesauce.” If you had been disappointed standing in a moving passenger bus while someone occupied two spaces, you could have told him to stop manspreading (sitting with his legs wide apart encroaching on an adjacent seat or seats depriving other passenger/s of their seats. (http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/08/new-words-update)

Sometime last year, I saw an online newspaper article that used Mx. (as a gender-neutral title) in the same way as Mr., Miss, Mrs. and Ms. before a person’s name.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my Aussie friend with a Youtube link of Mr. George Carlin (1937 -2008), an American comedian who coined “soft language” to describe euphemistic words and phrases that, according to him, are used to conceal reality or truth. Some euphemisms he mentioned have actually become politically-correct words, e.g. physically-challenged instead of crippled, visually-impaired for blind, and individuals with learning disorder for “stupid” (his word) person.

I can’t tell you which of this year’s new words will remain in the English language and how long for. Hence, I suggest you stick to established English words and phrases, either British or American, appropriate to the situation.

Likewise, we should avoid the widespread use of jargon (specialised language often used by experts, business people, company staff and bureaucrats) because we communicate to understand and be understood, and not to impress. I’m an avid fan of Plain English (or any language) – i.e. clear, simple and direct, both in oral and written forms.

Happy Labour (US – labor) Day!