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January 27, 2010

McDonald\’s unfairly dismissed worker for giving a colleague free cheese, says Dutch court

McDonald’s unfairly dismissed worker for giving a colleague free cheese, says Dutch court

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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A file photograph of a cheeseburger
Image: US National Cancer Institute.

A court in the Netherlands ruled yesterday that the fast-food company McDonald’s over-reacted in dismissing an employee who added a piece of cheese to a colleague’s hamburger without charging for it. McDonalds has been ordered to pay compensation since, the court ruled, “The cost of a slice of cheese is not comparable to a severe step such as redundancy”.

In March 2009, a waitress in Lemmer sold a hamburger to a colleague, and then added some cheese when her colleague asked for some. McDonald’s said that this made the meal a cheeseburger, not a hamburger, and so she was sacked for not charging extra for the cheese. Rules for staff, the company argued, prevented them from giving food away for free.

Now a court in Leeuwarden has ordered McDonald’s to pay her more than €4,200 (about US$5,900 or £3,700), since it decided that a written warning would have been a more appropriate reaction. The compensation is for five months of lost earnings, with holiday pay and interest.

The court noted that the manager of the branch had not asked the employee for an explanation before firing her, nor had McDonald’s considered taking action against the colleague who asked for the cheese. “The dismissal was too severe a measure. It is just a slice of cheese,” said the court.



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January 26, 2010

Scientists improve cancer research techniques

Scientists improve cancer research techniques

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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Researchers at the University of Oxford, England, have published details of an improved method for growing cancer stem cells in the laboratory. They hope that the news will lead to faster progress in developing cancer treatment drugs.

Learning how to tackle cancer stem cells is important for scientists because these cells may be the reason that tumours grow back after standard treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, as they can self-replicate or develop into other cell types. Trevor Yeung, one of the researchers from the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, explained the importance of tackling cancer stem cells: “It’s like trying to weed the garden. It’s no good just chopping off the leaves, we need to target the roots to stop the weeds coming back.”

Cquote1.svg If we could target treatments against [cancer stem] cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate cancer completely. Cquote2.svg

—Trevor Yeung, University of Oxford

The approach until now has been to take samples of cancer from a patient, then improve the number of stem cells in each sample before seeing whether tumours were produced in mice. Not only was this a slow process, but the samples could only be used once. In the new method, details of which were published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, researchers have learned how to extract samples that have high numbers of cancer stems cells from bowel cancer cell lines (cells grown in a laboratory). Working with laboratory-grown cells enables drugs to be tested on them more quickly and repeatedly.

The research also showed that the proportion of cancer stem cells varies between bowel cancers, with more aggressive tumours having a higher proportion. It had previously been thought that cancer stem cells were only a small part of the cells within a tumour.

Sir Walter Bodmer, who led the study, said “We can now evaluate anti-cancer drugs better to see whether they attack cancer stem cells. If you don’t attack these cells, the cancer can grow out again.” Yeung said “If we could target treatments against these cells specifically, we should be able to eradicate cancer completely.” He added that the research “should allow the development of more useful, safe and specific drugs targeting cancer stem cells.”

Bodmer, 74, is a former Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. He was later Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and has been a professor at Oxford as well as Stanford University. He was knighted in 1986.



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Wales railway upgrade proposals would cost £5bn, says expert

Wales railway upgrade proposals would cost £5bn, says expert

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Cymru / Wales
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A file photograph of a Welsh train service in Cardiff
Image: Chris McKenna.

A committee of Welsh Assembly politicians has called for an extensive programme of works to upgrade the railways in Wales, saying that Wales is not being treated fairly in comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom. However, one academic who gave evidence to the committee says that the proposals, if implemented in full, would cost about £5 billion (more than US$8 billion), and it is unclear whether this level of public finance will be available.

The Enterprise and Learning Committee made a number of recommendations to improve the rail service within Wales, and between Wales and England. It calls for better links between the north and south of Wales, high-speed links from Wales to other parts of the UK, and light rail systems for the southern cities of Cardiff, Swansea and Newport.

Other suggestions include upgrading the Severn Tunnel between south Wales and England, electrifying the line along the north Wales coast, and new carriages, especially on routes serving the valleys of south Wales. Improved access for passengers with disability is another area where the committee wants action. It also calls for more decision-making powers about railway matters to be transferred to the devolved government in Wales.

The committee, which took two months to look over the report, said that it was concerned that passenger satisfaction with the service was lower in Wales than elsewhere. In addition, investment was needed to meet an anticipated increase in demand for passenger and freight services. It wants the possibility of reopening closed lines, or building new lines, to be examined.

Committee chairman Gareth Jones said that the report “examines the long-term future of the rail network in Wales”, adding, “The evidence we have gathered indicates that freight and passenger traffic on our network will increase over the coming years. The objective hopefully will be that Wales benefits from this extra traffic so that we are better placed in terms of high speed link connections with the rest of the UK and Europe. It is important that the Welsh government provides for that extra demand.”

Commenting on the report, Profesor Stuart Cole from the University of Glamorgan said that although the plans were ambitious, the committee had “set out very clearly what is required if you’re going to get a 21st century railway”. The 21 recommendations would cost £5bn in total, with the three light rail schemes taking about one-third of that total, in his view.

Other improvements, for example between the north and south of Wales, could be achieved at a lesser price. Cole, who gave evidence to the committee, says that “for an expenditure of £50m spread over three years we could get the journey time from Llandudno to Cardiff down from four hours to three hours and 20 minutes.”

The Welsh Assembly Government will give its full response to the report at a later date. A spokesman said that a modern railway was “crucial” for Wales, and commented that the Assembly Government agreed with many of the recommendations. Network Rail, which manages railway tracks in Wales and elsewhere in Great Britain, said that it would already be spending more than £1.5bn on infrastructure over the next five years, with improvements to over 120 stations planned.



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Welsh air route in difficulties, call for funding cut

Welsh air route in difficulties, call for funding cut

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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Highland Airways, which runs flights between Anglesey in north Wales and Cardiff in south Wales, has said today that it is business as usual, despite suspending online booking yesterday. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats have called on the Welsh Assembly Government to withdraw the £800,000 annual public subsidy for the route (about US$1.3 million) and use the money on “green public transport” instead.

Logo of Highland Airways, the troubled company running the north–south service in Wales.
Image: Highland Airways.

Although flights were continuing and passengers were told to “check in as normal”, the company stopped taking bookings for future flights yesterday, blaming “technical difficulties”. However, it also said that trading conditions were “difficult”. The company’s commercial director, Basil O’Fee, explained that the company’s problems had been “exacerbated by the severe winter and resultant reduced flying and reduced income.” He added that the board was in talks with potential new investors, and hoped for a outcome of these discussions to be known “within days rather than weeks”.

“It is now time to end this costly debacle before even more public money is poured into a service that is both economically and environmentally unsustainable,” according to Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. She wants the money spent on improving rail transport in Wales.

However, Ieuan Wyn Jones, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru and the Assembly member for Anglesey, said that the service was an “essential link”. He hoped that the company would be able to keep going, or in a “worse case scenario”, that the route would be run by administrators while the Assembly Government looked at other options.

The company has carried 37,000 people on its twice-daily service since it started operating. According to Jones, this showed that that the service “has been a huge success with passenger numbers far exceeding expectations”.

Bidding for the next contract with the Assembly Government to provide the route closed last week, with Highland Airways thought to be the only entrant. The lack of other bids was “particularly worrying”, commented Jenny Randerson, Welsh Liberal Democrats transport spokesperson. “This does suggest that despite huge public subsidy, this service is still not seen as a viable, profitable, and green solution to this key transport need”, she said.

Highland Airways is based in Inverness, Scotland, where it operates passenger and freight services for island communities. The news that the company was in difficulty was said to come as a surprise to business and transport leaders in Scotland, where it is regarded as a “Highland success story”.



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John Constable painting location mystery solved after 195 years

John Constable painting location mystery solved after 195 years

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

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The place where Constable painted The Stour Valley and Dedham Church has been found after 195 years.
Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The mystery of the location of a viewpoint used by English painter John Constable has been solved, after nearly 200 years. The Stour Valley and Dedham Church was painted in Suffolk, England, between 1814 and 1815, but changes to the landscape meant that the spot he chose was not known, despite the best efforts of historians and art experts.

Now the puzzle has been answered. Martin Atkinson, who works for the National Trust as property manager for East Suffolk, used clues from the painting and looked at old maps to track down the viewpoint. Trees had grown, a hedgerow had been planted and boundaries had moved or disappeared, but Atkinson eventually worked out where Constable had stood. He said, “When I discovered that I had worked out the location where Constable painted this particular masterpiece, I couldn’t believe it. All the pieces of the jigsaw finally fitted together.”

Atkinson used an 1817 map of East Bergholt, where Constable grew up, as a reference point, but found that the view would have changed not long after the painting was completed. “The foreground didn’t fit at all, it was quite unusual as we know Constable painted it in the open air so he would have been standing in the scene. The hedgerow in his work no longer exists and there’s another hedgerow that runs across the scene today which wasn’t there. When you stand on the road on which he would have stood, and use the oak tree as a reference point, you see the same view. It’s great to see where an old master stood – and be inspired by the same view,” he said.

Suffolk, where Constable painted many of his finest paintings, is often called “Constable country”. Most, but not all, of the locations that Constable depicted are known. The picture is now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.



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January 25, 2010

People limited to 150 friends, despite Facebook, says academic

People limited to 150 friends, despite Facebook, says academic

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Monday, January 25, 2010

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Human brains cannot manage more than 150 friendships – even with the advent of social networking websites like Facebook, Bebo and Myspace. This is the conclusion of Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. Dunbar originally carried out research in this area in the 1990s, looking at social groups from modern offices back to ancient villages. He found that the neocortex in the brain, used for thinking and language, cannot cope with more than 150 friends – a conclusion known as “Dunbar’s number”. Groups of people tend to be limited to about 150 as, beyond that, social cohesion suffers. Revisiting the topic, Dunbar’s view is that this number has not increased even with online methods of keeping in touch with friends, like Facebook.

Dunbar compared the online activity of those with thousands of internet friends and those with hundreds, before concluding that there was no appreciable difference in their levels of activity. He defined a friend as someone that the individual cared about and made contact with at least yearly. “The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world. […] People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they’re unlikely to be bigger than anyone else’s”, he observed.

Another conclusion of his study was that women were better at keeping friendships going on Facebook than men – “girls are much better at maintaining relationships just by talking to each other. Boys need to do physical stuff together”. The full results of his study are due to be published later in 2010.

Dunbar, 52, has been an Oxford professor since 2007, having previously been Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Liverpool. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.



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Ambidextrous children more likely to have problems at school, say researchers

Ambidextrous children more likely to have problems at school, say researchers

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Monday, January 25, 2010

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Researchers say that ambidextrous children are at greater risk of difficulties at school, language problems, and disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than those who are left-handed or right-handed. Dr Alina Rodriguez, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College, London, and a team of researchers from various European universities studied nearly 8,000 children from the north of Finland; 87 of these were ambidextrous (mixed-handed). Parents, teachers and the children themselves assessed language skills, academic achievement and behaviour. At ages 7 and 8, the ambidextrous children had double the rate of language problems and were twice as likely to have problems at school. At age 15 and 16, the proportion of those with ADHD symptoms was twice as many in the ambidextrous group, and their ADHD symptoms tended to be worse. Ambidextrous children in the study also had a higher rate of language problems.

The number of people who are ambidextrous is unclear, with estimates ranging from 1% to 5%. Scientists do not know why some people use both hands when the majority of people prefer to use one predominantly. The theory is that there is something different in the brains of ambidextrous people, although Rodriguez says that more work in the area is needed.

A person who prefers using their right hand will have a more dominant left hemisphere of the brain, which is the part of the brain for language skills. Rodriguez and her researchers have suggested that the right hemisphere of the brain of an ambidextrous child is weaker compared to that of a right-handed child, increasing their susceptible to problems with attention. Previous suggestions about the causes of ADHD include the possibility that a person’s right hemisphere has weaker function. Earlier studies have drawn links between dyslexia and being ambidextrous, and other studies are looking at the part that differences between the two sides of the brain play in language skills and psychosis.

Rodriguez emphasised that the research, published in the journal Pediatrics in the United States, did not show that all ambidextrous children would have such problems, pointing out that most of the children in the survey did not develop them. “Our study suggests that handedness is really a marker for atypical foetal brain development — showing that the brain is working in a different way to the norm”, she said, adding that other studies have shown atypical brain development to be associated with extraordinary creativeness. She also suggested that the results may assist schools and health care workers in targeting children at risk of problems.



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Iraq executes \”Chemical Ali\”

Iraq executes “Chemical Ali” – Wikinews, the free news source

Iraq executes “Chemical Ali”

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Monday, January 25, 2010

File photo of Ali Hassan al-Majid at a hearing in 2004.
Image: U.S. Air Force.

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Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein convicted in Iraq of genocide and crimes against humanity, is dead. “The condemned Ali Hassan al-Majid has been executed by hanging until death today”, said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.

“Chemical Ali”, as he was known, received a death sentence on January 17, 2010, for ordering the 1988 gas attack on the town of Halabja in northern Iraq; 5,000 people are thought to have died in the assault on the Kurdish area. Majid, 68, had also received the death sentence at earlier trials for his part in attacks on Kurds in 1988, for suppressing a revolt by Shia Muslims, and for killing Shia Muslims in Baghdad in 1999. He was regarded as one of the most brutal figures in Saddam Hussein’s regime, ordering killings of opponents, as well as mass deportations. He was captured after the fall of Saddam in 2003.

According to the government spokesman, “[t]he execution happened without any violations, shouting or cries of joy.” The Iraqi state television, al-Iraqiya, broadcast images that it says are of the hanging. Reactions from Iraqis to the news varied – one person from Tikrit, Majid’s home town, said that he had been “killed by traitors and hooligans,” but other Iraqis said that they were pleased.



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