Monthly Archives: August 2014

Topping out – lets rock this slow news day

The Exeter Science Park is starting to take shape with the Science Park Centre recently holding a ‘Topping Out Ceremony’. If you’re not sure what this ceremopny is or what it means for the progress of the project then blog by Exeter Science Park’s Project Officer Samantha Chidley will explain…

The much anticipated Topping Out Ceremony for the Science Park Centre recently took place to the delight of the parties involved.

Delegates gather at Exeter Science Park for the 'Topping Out' ceremony

Hard hats in place – delegates gather at Exeter Science Park for the ‘Topping Out’ ceremony

For those of you who do not know what is involved in this ceremony then let me explain through the medium of wikipedia:

The practice of ‘topping out’ a new building can be traced to the ancient Scandinavian religious practice of placing a tree on the top of a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits of their ancestors that had been displaced in its construction.

So on the day in question we gathered, donned the hard hats and marched to the roof of the Science Park Centre for the tightening of a bolt!

The tradition marked an important stage in this project which is central to achieving ongoing prosperity for the region. The Science Park Centre will attract and support science and technology business to grow and collaborate with other research institutions across the city and further afield, which will ultimately provide more skilled jobs in the area (estimated 3,000 – 4,000 throughout the entire Science Park).

If you are interested in finding more about the Science Park – which is genuinely an excellent initiative for the City then please post below or contact me on

Can fashion ever be sustainable?

To celebrate World Fashion Day Dr Clare Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics, writes about the darker side of fashion and the problem with fast-fashion. Dr Saunders also discusses her new project which explores whether teaching people to make or mend clothes encourages sustainable clothing choices…

There is a new buzz-phrase in fashion circles: ‘sustainable fashion’. A number of Universities now offer Masters courses in the topic. But can there ever be such a thing as ‘sustainable fashion’?

Fashion, by its very nature, encourages a buy-now-discard-tomorrow culture. Most fashion trends last less than a season. High street retailers are motivated to produce clothes that will fly off the shelves, but which the consumer will need to replace in a short period of time. Economic drivers encourage cheap production of clothes and rapidly changing high-street window displays. The relatively low cost of high-street fashion items and the fast turn-around of trends works against sustainability. People are no longer motivated to mend that worn pair of baggy jeans when drain pipes replace them as a trend. Fashion, therefore has huge sustainability implications. The environmental, social and even psychological effects of fashion are increasingly coming to light.

The environmental consequences of the fashion industry are well-documented. The resource demands are no small deal: the water resource required to grow and process cotton for just one T-shirt is estimated at around 600 litres (Turley et al 2009). Intensively grown cotton also produces toxic waste. It accounts for a quarter of all pesticide use in the US (Claudio 2007) and has negative effects on eco-systems and food chains as recently suggested by the controversy over bees and neo-nicotinoids.

Irene Griffin (left) from Falmouth University and Dr Clare Saunders (right) with exhibits from the Fashion Footprints travelling exhibition at the launch of their new research collaboration.

Irene Griffin (left) from Falmouth University and Dr Clare Saunders (right) with exhibits from the Fashion Footprints travelling exhibition at the launch of their new research collaboration.

Clothing is also considered to make a significant contribution to anthropogenically induced climate change. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has identified clothing as the biggest single material contributor to carbon emissions, producing twice the carbon emissions associated with producing aluminium. Around 90 per cent of clothes in the UK market are imported, mainly from Asian countries, attractive to industry for low costs, with high ‘clothes miles’, associated pollution and inequality.

The 2013 disaster in the Rana Plaza building, Bangladesh, brought the social externalities of fast-fashion into sharp relief. There, low paid textile workers were ordered to work in a building visibly structurally damaged on the day it collapsed, injuring over 2,000. In return for hard labour, workers are paid a pittance. Fashion also contributes to insecurity, psychological illnesses and eating disorders. Moreover, individuals remain unskilled in making and mending clothes for themselves, resulting in a sense of powerlessness.

Reversing fast-fashion is no simple matter. Many are aware of the dark side of fashion, but they get caught in a value-behaviour gap because low quality disposable fashion dominates the market; and ethical clothing is considered unfashionable/unattractive, is a niche market and is expensive. Low quality fast-fashion items are more readily available in the market place, making it difficult to behave in an alternative manner. Furthermore, clothing has deep connections with individual identities, socio-economic status, emotions and lifestyles, and is rooted in socio-cultural attachments.

In the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, I’m working with textile artist Sue Bamford on a project that seeks to understand whether teaching people to make and mend clothes helps them to develop more sustainable clothing choices. Given the nature of the fashion industry described above, we prefer to talk of ‘sustainable clothing choices’ than ‘sustainable fashion’.

We will be offering four free half-day clothes-making workshops to interested individuals. The research element involves conducting interviews with participants prior to and after their clothes-making workshops to monitor any changes in their clothing choices. Individuals interested in participating in the project should email me on

Comparing Hamas to biblical cult of child-killers is neither accurate nor helpful

Should a provocative advert comparing the actions of Hamas to a biblical cult of child killers have been censored? Dr David Tollerton, a Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Contemporary Biblical Cultures in the College of Humanities, discusses the positive and negative implications of the advert.

This blog first appeared in The Conversation

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From debates concerning the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to the 1967 Six Day War’s titular reference to the days of creation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has often been made to resonate with biblical images and language.

In an advert published last week by The Guardian the Nobel Prize-winning writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel contributed to this tradition by provocatively comparing Hamas’ treatment of Palestinian children in Gaza with child sacrifice described in the Hebrew Bible.

Was The Guardian right to print this?
Jewish Values Network

The advert, organised by This World: The Values Network, has been reproduced in a variety of prominent US newspapers but was rejected for publication by The Times. In response The Guardian ran the advert on Monday August 11, provoking a range of critical responses. These included a group of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors and victims distancing themselves from Wiesel and the Stop the War Coalition asking for signatories to a letter condemning The Guardian for printing the advert.

Child sacrifice

The advert itself should not be dismissed out of hand even if it is problematic. In his attack on Hamas, Wiesel is careful not to come across as Islamophobic, praising the wisdom, learning and peaceful nature of “true Muslims”. And, in highlighting the danger Hamas is placing Palestinian children in, he cautions us to consider the profoundly difficult ethics of not only indiscriminately targeting Israeli citizens but also bringing the population of Gaza into the firing line of Israel’s counterattack.

But to frame the debate in terms of biblical descriptions of child sacrifice is unhelpful. In one passage, Wiesel creates a three-way comparison between Hamas, the child-sacrificing Moloch-worshippers of the Hebrew Bible, and the mass-murder of Jewish children during the Holocaust.

Hamas and the Nazis, he concludes, are “death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites”. The problem is that it is in fact really quite easy to distinguish between the actions of these three groups.

The worshippers of Moloch are presented in the Bible as sacrificing children as part of religious rituals designed to gain divine favour (the work of my colleague Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou is helpful in highlighting the complexities of trying to uncover the historical backdrop behind this presentation). The Nazis murdered Jewish children as a result of their racist desire to produce a Europe wholly free of Jews. Hamas endangers Palestinian children because of a tactic centred on firing rockets at Israel from built-up civilian areas.

Each situation is quite distinct. Although drawing an analogy between the three is possible, you just end up with an analogy so loose that it initially seems virtually useless.

But encompassing ancient child-sacrifice, the Holocaust and Hamas in a single category does nonetheless have its use for Wiesel in creating the vision of a vast evil that transcends particular points in history. Such a vision has an evocative, quasi-mythic power, but unfortunately it does little to help us make sense of the specific motivations and strategies of Hamas.

Rather than seeing Hamas fighters as human beings driven by varying mixtures of rage, desperation and extremist ideology, they become players in an ongoing battle between good and evil that is epic in scope and primordial in origin. Israeli soldiers become agents of light, and Hamas becomes a force of unqualified darkness. Using the Bible to render the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in such terms offers a comfortingly simple narrative, but it provides little insight into messy realities.

Should Guardian have run the ad?

But was Stop the War right to argue that Wiesel’s advert should not have been published by The Guardian at all? The matter is not straightforward, but if we follow a principle that says the burden of proof always lies with the party aiming to curtail free expression, it is hard to make a compelling argument that Wiesel’s advert should have been suppressed.

Nobel laureate: Elie Wiesel.
EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

We might cynically conclude that The Guardian’s reasons for including the advert amounted to little more than trying to flag up its own commitment to free speech in comparison to a rival newspaper, but that in itself is not a sound reason to censor the advert. A more substantial argument may be that it invokes indiscriminate hatred.

However, as I have already noted, Wiesel is at pains not to target all Palestinians with his criticisms. Furthermore, when included in the pages of The Guardian I am not convinced that many readers would actually be swayed to start seeing the current conflict as a war between the unequivocal evil of Hamas and the morally spotless actions of the Israeli Defense Forces. The paper has repeatedly presented stern criticism of Israel and it is unlikely that many regular readers will have been convinced to wholly abandon these condemnations as a result of Wiesel’s clumsy rhetoric.

And there are, I suggest, positive aspects to publishing the advert. Wiesel is an influential and often admired thinker, particularly in the US, and is described by This World: The Values Network as “one of the most respected human beings alive” and “the living face of the Holocaust”. While it may be questionable for one person to singularly encompass the meaning of the Holocaust for current affairs, the undoubted extent of his reach renders his a voice worth wrestling with.

Witnessing Wiesel’s stark vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides a window through which to view an influential, and in some quarters pervasive understanding of the situation. Beyond all of this, reading rather than suppressing his provocative advert helps to show up the toxic potentials of mixing contemporary warfare with the Bible.

This issue of censorship is difficult and certainly publishing Wiesel’s advert has the potential to throw up all manner of complainants asking: “but if this can be printed, what else is permissible?” But each case must be treated on its own terms and the bar for invoking censorship must be set higher than we are always comfortable with.

The Conversation

David Tollerton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Stan Laurel returns home to Scotland for Fringe festival

This blog was written by University of Exeter English lecturer Dr Lisa Stead. Dr Stead is a Lecturer in British and American Cinema and her research primarily focuses on the relationships between silent and early sound cinema, literature and gender.

This blog first appeared in The Conversation.

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Any show exploring the life of early film comedian Stan Laurel could be forgiven for focusing solely on Hollywood glitz and glamour. Across a film career that spanned some 34 years with his partner Oliver Hardy, Laurel won an Academy Award, successfully navigated the tricky transition from silent to talking film, performed for the Queen, and achieved a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But the new one man show …And This is my Friend Mr Laurel – co-written by Gail Louw with actor Jeffrey Holland – gives audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe a look behind the scenes.

Born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in June 1890, Laurel moved to Glasgow as a young boy, working for his father at the Metropole Theatre. It was in Scotland that he made his break into music hall at the age of sixteen, by nabbing a slot in the Friday night amateur section at the popular Britannia Panopticon and winning over Glasgow’s notoriously difficult audiences. In Glasgow, Laurel nurtured a talent that was to soon take him to America. There, he teamed up with Fred Karno’s Barmy Army, and understudied for none other than Charlie Chaplin before he got his early break in film in 1917.

Some seven years later, Laurel found himself partnered with fellow comedian Oliver Hardy. As a pair, they went on to become one of the most famous comedy duos of all time. Together, they pedalled a mix of visual and verbal slapstick comedy that combined the child-like, effeminate innocence and clumsiness of Laurel with the heavy-set, harder, and more pompous Hardy character. Their skills in visual and physical comedy resulted in some of the great comic films of the early sound era, including The Battle of the Century (1927), notorious for its anarchic and ridiculously lengthy pie-fighting climax.

Yet their off-screen personas were in many respects the reversal of their on-screen characters. Laurel was not just a performer – he was the driving creative and technical force behind their routines and their films. Like his comedic contemporaries Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Laurel also wrote and directed, honing his technical skills behind the camera for some ten years before partnering with Hardy.

Fuelled by his dedication to producing the best results for his audience, Laurel would attend previews, adjusting the length of individual shots or sequences in response to crowd reactions, maximising the laughter. Laurel’s appeal to cinema fans was obvious from the outset. Numerous early trade papers report the great enthusiasm of their audiences for Laurel and Hardy pictures, while fan correspondence shows a huge range of letters, artworks and illustrations dedicated to the pair across their careers.

Laurel cultivated this relationship with an unusual level of devotion to his audiences. He was a hugely prolific letter writer. He spent much of his retirement after Hardy’s death in the mid-1950s answering fan mail personally. He kept his home telephone number publicly listed, and went so far as to invite individual fans to visit him at his home. Speaking in 1957, Laurel remarked that in writing back to fans, he “included their name and everything, and I think that they brought a closeness for people. They felt that they were our friend, we were their friend.”

Lasting appeal

The lasting appeal of Laurel and Hardy is as much about their off-screen friendship as their onscreen chemistry. This sense of them as “friends” of their audiences, able to provide laughter and chaos with the sense that Stan and Ollie’s own friendship would outlast every misadventure, would seem to account for their continued ability to find new audiences.

Television was responsible for generating a whole new fan base for the pair, when their back catalogue of comedies was broadcast for the small screen in the 1950s. Into the digital era, platforms like YouTube offer a seemingly ideal home for the Laurel and Hardy short, bringing new viewers to their material and generating hundreds of thousands of hits as their gags are ripped, shared and redistributed. Hardy’s infamous fourth-wall breaking, direct to camera glances are now meeting 21st century eyes.

If Laurel still matters today, it is as much for his technical contribution to the history of early film comedy as for the diverse meanings he continues to carry for cinemagoers all over the world. Laurel and Hardy are woven into the fabric of contemporary global popular culture. Their likenesses are used in commercials and on album covers. They can be found immortalised in all manner of weird and wonderful cinema ephemera; from ceramic busts to kitchen trays to their own Laurel and Hardy magazine series.

But they are also woven into distinctly local histories, offering a tangible connection between old time Hollywood glamour and the legacies of regional media. In Laurel’s home town of Ulverston, for example, a statue of the duo erected in 2009 leans up against a lamp-post in the town centre; over on Brodgen Street stands the Laurel and Hardy museum. Venture a little further into the town and you will find the Stan Laurel Inn, named after “Ulverston’s most famous son.”

Holland’s show presents another opportunity for the marrying of the global icon to regional heritage. Laurel’s father, Arthur J Jefferson, had originally hoped his son would take over management of the Metropole – a career path that would have kept him rooted in Glasgow, behind the scenes, and away from the cameras. But Laurel’s ambition exceeded the confines of this one theatre. Even so, it is fitting, perhaps, that Stan Laurel should return to Scotland – the birthplace of his own particular brand of comedic genius, where he fostered a talent that would eventually lead him to Hollywood, to Hardy, and to a permanent place in film history.

The Conversation

Lisa Stead does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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In an Imagine Cup finalist’s shoes

University of Exeter Business School student team Vanguard took their social networking app ‘Ripple’  to the Microsoft Imagine Cup world final in Seattle. Ripple’s Co-founder Guillaume de Boisséson has written a blog to give us all the backstage information about competing on a global scale.

It is always amusing to see how little things, once considered of no importance, can turn a life towards a radically different way. When Mikky Adedeji sent me: “Do you want to do this Microsoft thing?” I was walking around campus. Probably wondering about the way I would balance revisions for my exams and fun, I was opting for an afternoon under the sun. After all, we were first years and statistics lectures could still wait.

The ‘Microsoft thing’ in question is the Imagine Cup, the biggest student competition in the world. Every team must invent something with a Microsoft technology.

Then I received: “Meet us at 4pm in the Forum.” It was three.  This was upsetting my new plans in a very unpleasant way. I went anyway.

One month later and against all odds, we were the Microsoft Imagine Cup UK winners. What are the chances of three first year business students with a one-month project against mostly third year computer science students with twelve-months projects in a tech competition?

We created a location based social network called Ripple. We want to link users to their direct environment by allowing them to share and receive texts and images in a chosen range around them. Using Ripple allows users to know what is happening around them, to seize opportunities and meet new people. When you walk around your university campus, Ripple could help you know about Google’s presentation on employability skills or get vouchers for the next night out, according to your interests.

Team Vanguard took part in the Microsoft Imagine Cup world final

Team Vanguard took part in the Microsoft Imagine Cup World Final

The excitement we felt was however shadowed by two major issues. Femi Awomosu and Mikky had full time jobs in different cities at Google and Seven Energy. Working exclusively on Skype, late at night and during hours was our new life. We worked hundreds of hours and got to the world final as prepared as a three month old project can be. The second issue was that we were business students, with no developing skills, in a tech competition. That’s why we hired Daniel Brown to work on the project for three months.

In Seattle, everything is excitement and full of energy. ‘Awesome,’ is the most used word and is often reinforced by the adverb ‘super,’ to create the very dense ‘super awesome’.  Days were spent going from amazing breakdancing shows to interviews, briefings, pictures and pitch preparation with the last 30 out of 500,000 participants.

The panel of judges included the human-computing design legend Bill Buxton, the technology reporter Mary Jo Foley; Microsoft Ventures head Rahul Sood and others. A pitch is 10 minutes long and we can easily count five hours of work for every minute.


Teams from across the globe came to Seattle for the Imagine Cup world finals

Teams from across the globe came to Seattle for the Imagine Cup world finals

Steven Guggenheimmer

Right after the pitch, we received an email about a private meeting with Steven Guggenheimmer – corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Developer & Platform Evangelism (DPE) group. We had the strict order to be on time, and we were. After being briefed about the way the meeting was going to happen, we followed the secretary inside the office. There were two rooms; a living room and what seemed like a big empty space with a desk at the back. Between huge coaches, desks, a huge TV with an Xbox, servers, this room was the perfect playground, finding an amazing balance between the efficiency business requires and a playroom.

Steven was on the phone for a short moment. He had a weird green and white can only Americans drink in one hand and the latest Nokia Lumnia 1520 in the other. Femi started our elevator pitch and Steven stopped him after the first sentence: “I know what you do, I read it. What’s your business plan?”

We were surprised by so much efficiency, but started answering. Every time he understood, he stopped us by saying: “Ok, I get it,” commented shortly and went on with the next question. “What’s your market?” How do you reach it? How do you make money?”

Once we answered everything, he simply added: “And one last thing: where did you find the French guy?” We talked for about ten to fifteen intense minutes. We had to go back to the showcase in which we were pitching our project to Microsoft employees and the press.

The next day was the ceremony. It was the week’s most impressive event. We entered by the back of the room, applauded by 5,000 people, filmed by the press and dazzled by big projectors pointed at us. We managed to be in the first row, in front of the stage. Next to my seat was a line of empty chairs with a paper on them: “Reserved for Satya, Guggs, Alexey and Brad” (As in Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft; Steven Guggenheimmer, Corporate Vice President and Chief Evangelist; Alexey Pajitnov, inventor of Tetris and Brad Smith, Executive Vice President and General Counsel.) I think we picked the right places.

The three first places were not for us this time but we believe in Ripple and decided to go on with this app.

Don’t worry, you will hear from us, soon!

Guillaume de Boisséson

Cofounder of Ripple

Imagine Cup UK winner and world finalist

Explainer: who are the Yazidis?

This blog is by Professor Christine Allison from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies; it first appeared in The Conversation.

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In 1918, the Yazidis of Sinjar mountain received an ultimatum from Ottoman forces – to hand over their weaponry and the Christian refugees they were sheltering, or face the consequences. They tore it up and sent the messengers back naked.

The Sinjaris are the “Highlanders” of the Iraqi Yazidis – tough and proud. After suffering terrible casualties and appealing to the allied forces for help they were able to survive the subsequent attack and live out the war in their mountain homeland.

But 100 years on, even these proud warriors are not immune to modern weaponry and face yet another threat of genocide as the bloodthirsty militias of the Islamic State threaten to wipe them out.

Those stranded on the mountain would rather face death there than the forced conversion and massacre which the Islamic State routinely gives those Yazidis it captures.

Meanwhile, reports come in of Yazidi villages in Shikhan, on the fringes of the Kurdish region, being abandoned, of Kurdish cities crowded with refugees, of huge queues at the Turkish border. A shocked world is asking: who are these people and why are they so scared?

Seven angels

Like all religions, Yazidism can’t be explained in a sentence, but it has two key characteristics that can help us understand it. Firstly, there is a belief that divine beings (the “Seven Angels”) can reincarnate themselves in human form, most recently in the ancestors of their leading religious clans.

These people are called by the Arabic word “khas”. Saints and prophets from other religions – among them Jesus from the Christian faith and, Hasan al-Basri, the companion of Mohammed – have been claimed as “khas”. And since God is a remote figure, it is the chief of the Holy Beings, the Peacock Angel, who rules the world.

Supreme being: the Peacock Angel.
Dee Finney, CC BY-SA

Yazidism also has a strong preoccupation with purity in all areas of life. Different categories should not be mixed; thus certain foods are forbidden and Yazidis are not allowed to marry outsiders.

Yazidi society is divided into castes: sheikhs, pirs and murids – who must marry among themselves. Modern Yazidis are no longer ostracised for living outside the community, but still like to live close to each other.

In Ottoman times they flatly refused to join the army and serve alongside Muslims (to the great chagrin of the government), though they have usually lived in harmony with Christians. Their taboo against reading and writing probably came about from a reluctance to attend school alongside others.

Exotic, bizarre and strange

Some have made much of the Yazidis’ “exotic” customs, “bizarre” myths and “strange” taboos. But these make perfect sense in a rural community using oral tradition.

Zazidi Kurds have been targeted by Islamic State fundamentalists.
EPA/Mohammed Jalil

Thus Yazidis would not tolerate the word “Satan” (which is often used by others to insult the Peacock Angel) or even any words that sounded like it. Their famous ban on eating lettuce can be explained by the fact that the Kurdish word for lettuce happens to be “khas”, which the Yazidis use to denote their saints. Over the years such customs have been ridiculed to belittle and promote hostility towards Yazidis.

Seventy-two persecutions

Yazidism, as we know it today, began in the 12th century, when the Muslim sheikh ‘Adi bin Musafir settled in the Kurdich hills north of Mosul, where he was acclaimed as a “khas” by locals who followed an older religion from Iran, the origins of which are still debated.

Yazidism at first expanded, stretching from Syria across northern Iraq and eastern Turkey, but by the 18th century a long decline had set in and what Yazidis call their “seventy-two persecutions” had begun. The Kurdish word they use is from the Ottoman word for “decree” which helps to explain the official nature of many of these persecutions.

Visitors to Kurdistan are often shown the spectacular gorge called Geli Ali Beg, but not all of them learn that it is named after a Yazidi leader killed in 1832 by the Kurdish “Blind Prince” of Rawanduz. Unlike Jews and Christians, Ottoman Yezidis were not protected as “People of the Book” and were the regular victims of pogrom.

Under British diplomatic pressure, they were given some legal status under Ottoman law in 1849, but that did not protect them from disaster in 1892, when Omar Vebi Pasha, an official sent by Istanbul, launched a “convert-or-die” campaign against them.

Natural beauty and religious significance: Geli Ali Beg waterfall in Kurdistan.
Ara Qadir, CC BY-SA

The Sinjaris repelled the army’s attacks, but in the agricultural villages of Sheikhan many women and children were massacred. The Yazidis’ holiest shrine of Lalesh was appropriated as an Islamic property and the unfortunate Yazidi prince converted to Islam under duress.

Such were the formative experiences of Iraq’s Yazidis as they entered World War I. During the 20th century, Yazidis have often been active in the Kurdish nationalist movement and were a particular target – along with the Kurds – of Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation policies. This is despite the fact that they were already officially classed as Arabs.

It is hardly surprising that so many now want to leave Iraq and there are Yazidi communities elsewhere, particularly in Europe, Russia, Syria and Turkey. But Yazidism is so closely linked to its land that any rupture of that link might well be catastrophic for its survival. Sinjar and Sheikhan, all that remain of the heartland of this ancient religion, must be kept safe for Yazidism to survive as it adapts to the challenges of the 21st century.

The Conversation

Christine Allison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Can we improve the wellbeing of people with dementia without the use of drugs?

Dementia is a growing global health priority, with 7.7 million new cases identified each year. As research efforts begin to improve our understanding of this irreversible syndrome, there is growing consensus that patient wellbeing can be improved without the use of drugs. Interventions that focus on the use of therapeutic spaces are gaining momentum but what evidence exists to support their use?

A team at the University of Exeter Medical School, supported by the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula (NIHR PenCLAHRC), has been conducting research into the various aspects of dementia care. Here Rebecca Whear, a specialist in health services research, describes their recent work and how it sits in the context of the growing dementia care debate.

Associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities, symptoms of dementia include memory loss and a reduction in thinking speed, language use and understanding. In 2012 David Cameron pledged to increase funding for research into dementia health and care as part of the UK’s National Dementia Strategy and since then there has been a steady flow of research findings and recommendations.

The majority of people living with dementia in the UK are supported by their close families, friends or more formal carers in their own home. However, a third live in residential care homes and at this stage are likely to be displaying more severe and challenging symptoms of the disease. Almost half of the elderly people living in residential care have dementia or dementia symptoms, a figure which increases to more than three-quarters in nursing homes. Antipsychotic medications are commonly used to manage the behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, but some research has suggested a clear link between this treatment and increased risk of illness and death.

Consequently there is now important and increasing interest in exploring opportunities to help people to feel better without the use of (or by reducing) medication.  Such opportunities might include changes in the environment and design of the residential care setting, engagement in other activities such as spending time in a garden, and improved training for care home staff.  Such changes may be able to help calm and relax residents with dementia and may also benefit other residents and the staff around them.

The new Devon Garden for patients with dementia, which is currently in development at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust.

In some of our most recent research we analysed how spending time in a garden can affect the wellbeing of people with dementia in care homes. We also examined the perspectives of families and carers about the use of a garden as part of the care setting in order to identify information that would help in the design and use of care home gardens in the future.

Our systematic review, which analyses all available evidence on this particular question, critically assesses 17 small studies from the US, UK, Australia, China, Canada, Sweden and Finland. Most of this research looked at the impact of gardens on the wellbeing of people with dementia, but three looked at the impact of horticulture therapy. The results suggest that use of a garden may lower levels of agitation in residents with dementia but that impacts on emotional wellbeing, sleep, changes to medication and risk of falls were less certain. The views and experiences of the garden for residents, families and staff give us further insights into how the gardens are used and the impact they can have. Families said they valued somewhere pleasant to meet that stimulated interest and conversation with their loved ones, and care home staff reported the calming effects the gardens had on residents.

Importantly, our research also highlighted some barriers to using gardens, such as the perception of the garden as a hazard and limited staff time for supervision, leading to gardens being effectively inaccessible for residents.

Another area of our research looked at a range of measures that could improve the experience of mealtimes in residential care – in order to improve the nutrition and behaviour of residents with dementia. Looking at all the available research we found that a number of factors, such as playing music at mealtimes, could result in improved food intake among the elderly and better mealtime behaviour in those with dementia. We also found that introducing changes such as a wider choice of menu and more pleasant eating environment could reduce the risk of malnutrition and agitated behaviours.

Similar pieces of research have also been conducted on a range of therapies to improve the psychological and behavioural symptoms of dementia including light therapy, music therapy, reminiscence therapy and validation therapy. All of which report inconclusive findings due to the low number and poor quality of research studies conducted so far. This is characteristic of studies in this area, small study sizes, use of a variety of tools to measure the same points of interest and poor reporting of studies make it difficult to draw together a common understanding of the evidence.

Despite some positive findings, it is clear that the use of non-pharmacological interventions for people living with dementia are currently understudied and undervalued by policy makers. We really need more high quality evidence to establish clear results and ensure benefits for those living with dementia.