All posts by Aidan Nicholson

Couldn’t Be Me: What’s the right way to quit your job?

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Burning bridges at your old crappy job can feel cathartic, but there are always consequences.

Welcome to Couldn’t Be Me, a weekly advice column where I solicit your personal dilemmas and help out as best as I can. Have something I can help you with? Find me @_Zeets.

This week we deal with quitting your job. Whether you’re going on First Take to trash your former coworkers, or you’re considering quitting your job to do more fulfilling things while separating from a long-term partner, leaving a job can be an emotionally fraught time. Sometimes the immediate satisfaction of leaving, or being petty, only creates more problems in the long-term.

Then again, sometimes it really does feel good to unload.


I was hired by one of my best friends to help run her family business, where I used to work in my younger days. It seemed like a wonderful situation, working with a close friend and giving back to the people who gave me so much. But soon after starting there, I realized that one of my coworkers, who was hired at around the same time as me, was backstabbing me and saying hurtful things about me and my work ethic. While it’s true that I wasn’t as present for the job as I should have been — they knew that I had other ventures — I couldn’t believe the coworker would do such a thing.

Along with the backstabbing, I felt that I wasn’t empowered in my role. I quit suddenly, and soon after, I went public with all the problems with the business. Some people are saying that I shouldn’t have done so, that it’s a betrayal of my friend’s trust, but I felt that I had no choice considering that my reputation was on the line. Was I right in going public?


Considering that I love drama and pettiness, I would say that you were perfectly right in both quitting suddenly and going public with the internal problems of the business. But of course, there are also things to consider beyond the immediate satisfaction of being petty.

It seems that the company has real organizational problems that run deeper than your time there, and your exit won’t change anything on that level. In fact, you may have made things even worse if it’s to be assumed that the person who was doing the backstabbing now has more power with you out of the way. And I can only imagine that there are more actors behind the scenes who are vying for power.

So in that sense, you going public with the mess of the company didn’t make the nature of the mess any better. You simply gave the world a snapshot of what many people inside the company likely already know.

There’s a personal concern here for you, too, that your friend, whose family has given you so much, might not be as warm to you as they used to be. Even if what you did doesn’t really harm the company, they may still look at your actions as betrayal. There might be too much of a distance between you two to fix the relationship. At least for now.

I understand why you went public with your grievances, but it might have been a tad bit too impulsive. In what you hoped was a cathartic act, you may have created a new set of problems for yourself.


I’m in a good job in a company that I’ve worked at for 10 years working my way up. I’m on a good salary but me and my long term partner are in the process of splitting.

We’ll have to sell our house and I don’t know if I can risk moving jobs (for maybe less money but a more fulfilling job) while trying to save for a new place.

Also I live in Dublin and the rental market is bullshit. So the thought of living back with my parents, being alone, and working a job I’ve grown weary of is depressing the shit out of me.

So basically should I stay or should I go?


I’m sorry to hear about the split with your partner. There’s a natural grieving process that follows a separation like that, which will surely be made even worse if you’re in a job that makes you unhappy.

But also, moving jobs while going through a split seems like a bad idea. There’s a combination of stresses there that can easily become overwhelming.

The last thing you need at this moment is more struggle. I imagine that the best way to go through such an emotional time is to maintain some semblance of control in other aspects of your life. Dealing with finding housing and a new job could make your life feel messier than it already does.

It may seem demoralizing to move back home with your parents, but that’s what a good set of parents and a childhood home are for: to help you when you need it. There’s no shame in that. You’re still their child, and sometimes the world is too much, so you need people to care for you and a safe place before you can go back out on your own. You should never feel bad about taking your parents’ help, especially in such an emotional circumstance.

Your parents, if they’re the compassionate and caring type, will also help with that feeling of loneliness. And hopefully you have a strong group of friends who can also take care of you. It really takes a village to help someone heal from such separations.

In time, when you feel strong enough, you can begin working towards a more fulfilling life. But you will need time. There’s no need to rush into changing every unsatisfactory aspect of your life. You’ve given a lot of time at your job, and it sounds comfortable enough that you can do it well without too much thought. And you may have coworkers who know what you’re going through on a personal level, and will be willing to grant you some grace if you’re struggling. That wouldn’t happen in a new situation.

I think you should save up as much as possible, go to the people who love you, and gather your strength before deciding who you want to be away from that relationship. Life is hard, heartbreak makes it feel like hell, but there’s always a chance to be reborn from it.

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The 7 best things that will happen in the WNBA this season

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From left to right: Liz Cambage, Katie Lou Samuelson, Diana Taurasi

All of these predictions are totally coming true.

The 2019 WNBA season tips off on Friday night, and it’s set up to be one of the best season ever. The best-of-the-best teams are STACKED this time around, making the champion virtually unpredictable. Four teams stand out with similar title odds — Mystics, Sparks, Aces and Mercury — and each is equipped with multiple All-Stars.

Liz Cambage, the league’s leading scorer, is a Vegas Ace now. Chiney Ogwumike, an All-Star center, joined her MVP sister Nneka AND Candace Parker in Los Angeles. The Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne is (hopefully) healthy again and can team with elite scoring big Emma Meesseman, who’s back in the league after a one-year hiatus. Once Diana Taurasi returns from a back injury, Phoenix will roll.

This is going to be FUN!

To ring in the new season, I won’t give you the usual awards prediction list, because frankly, it’s hard to guess and I’m not trying to get things wrong. Instead, here are seven moments I’m confident will happen at some point.

In no particular order:

1. There will be a new Liz Cambage meme

If you don’t know Liz Cambage, it won’t take you too long to learn how entertaining she is. The 6’8, three-point shooting, league-leading scoring center is incredible to watch on the floor, and she matches that energy off it.

Liz went viral when she fixed a nail on the bench:

And when she told a ref to open her eyes:

She danced on a bus when her technical foul got rescinded:

She twerked with hummus:

And with a speaker:

And did whatever this is:

Liz, we’re ready for more!

2. Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell will cross someone up

Don’t mess with the Fever’s No. 2 pick from last season As a rookie, Kelsey shattered the ankles of anyone in her path in embarrassing fashion.

Imagine Kelsey in Year 2!

3. Gabby Williams will make The Pass, Part 2

If you haven’t seen this pass from former UConn star and current Chicago Sky forward Gabby Williams yet, please stop reading and watch:

Part two is coming. I promise.

4. Odyssey Sims is going to hit a buzzer-beater over the Sparks

The L.A. Sparks and Minnesota Lynx have storied beef and an addiction to playing nail-biting close games. They can’t help themselves. It’s only right that the rivalry between teams who split to back-to-back Finals in 2016 and 2017 enters a weirder chapter.

In the offseason, Minnesota traded trade for Sims, a point guard who was once their mortal enemy. Former Lynx player Lindsay Whalen flagrant fouled her and called the fine she received the best $200 she ever spent.

Now, Sims is her replacement! It’s only right Odyssey becomes a Lynx legend.

5. A Diana Taurasi dagger will ruin someone’s night

Taurasi is known for landing knife-to-the-chest daggers in crunch time for wins. It’s what she does, and always has. Last year’s semifinals was no different.

Taurasi will miss some time due to a back surgery, but when she returns, she’ll be back in business.

6. A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage are going to do something hilarious on the court

Teaming two of the best talents in the world and two of the league’s most hilarious personalities off it is an absolute dream for fans. If there’s one thing other than play basketball that these two know how to do, it’s HAVE FUN.

They’ve been teammates in Las Vegas for a week, and already we have this:

7. The famous Katie Lou Samuelson meme will make a return

Real UConn fans will remember this meme that Gabby Williams used of her then-teammate, Katie Lou:

It’s hilarious and perfect.

I’ve tried using it, and you should too:

Now that Williams and Samuelson are reunited as members of the Chicago Sky, it has to come back, or else I’ll make it.

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Is ‘win now’ mode in the NFL real or a myth?

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In this week’s mailbag, retired lineman Geoff Schwartz takes a look at the urgency to win in the NFL, as well as which teams can go from worst to first in 2019.

Happy Memorial Day weekend everyone! Hope y’all can enjoy the time off with family and friends, while eating everything in sight. Before you hit the water this weekend, check out my mailbag!

As a reminder, if you have a question for next time, you can DM me on Twitter or Instagram.

Is there such a thing as “win now” mode in the NFL? I see a lot of talk about how the Chiefs have a short “window” to get to the Super Bowl before they have to shell out big money for Patrick Mahomes. Do teams really have that mentality, or is it just a sports media misperception? — @RobstaLobsta22

This answer is different depending on your role with the team. For the coaching staff, they are always in “win now” mode. Coaches are judged on wins and losses, and player development. They often go hand in hand. Coaches must win. They crave winning. They don’t spend countless hours at the facility, sleepless nights focusing on the game plan and time away from their family to lose games. They WANT to win, all the time. If they don’t, bye bye job.

Just look at last season for an example. The Raiders were 2-10 and heading toward the first pick in the draft. We can all agree having the first pick, or even a top-three pick for Nick Bosa and/or Quinnen Williams, would have been more beneficial to them than drafting fourth. They should have lost down the stretch. Instead, the Raiders won two of their last four games and ended up with the No. 4 pick. There are many other examples of this throughout the NFL — teams that could have benefited from losing or tanking, but they win too much.

Players are wired the same. When you’re between those white lines, you better show out. The film is your resume and no one evaluating the film is saying, “oh wait, that team is trying to lose. It’s OK player X isn’t playing well.” Ha! No chance. So when players are on the field, they are trying to win every single rep.

Now, front offices aren’t always in “win now” mode. They are team builders in the facility. They need to look ahead. They project out their rosters, the salaries, and the future cap number. They often keep their gigs through multiple coaching hires. They have job security.

With that being said, I do think teams as a whole, including the front office, understand the value of trying to win with a franchise quarterback under a rookie deal. Whether it’s the Seahawks, Eagles, or Rams, it’s clear this formula can get you into the big game and win.

For the Chiefs, I do think there’s a sense of urgency within the organization to win now, but mostly because windows close quickly in the league, even without having to pay a top quarterback. It’s freaking hard to win and keep winning. One or two injuries can derail a season and so can free agency. Bad luck in games can happen and the ball doesn’t bounce in your direction. Winning is tough.

So the short answer: Mostly, everyone is trying to win now for various reasons.

Which team is most likely to go from worst to first this year? @Sirris

Looking over the standings from last season, there’s one potential team that could go from worst to first in its division: the Jaguars. And even then, I wouldn’t bet on it. Adding Nick Foles is a huge bonus for them, but their division is tough and I can’t really see it happening.

However, there are two teams that finished near last place that I can see winning their division in 2019. The Packers were 6-9-1, one game out of last place in the NFC North. With a healthy Aaron Rodgers, a new offense, and an improving defense, the Packers can totally win the North.

Sticking in the NFC, the 49ers finished 4-12 and in third place in their division. We know their offense under Kyle Shanahan is legit and adding Jimmy Garoppolo back into the mix will only take it to another level. They have a formidable pass rush now with Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, but their defense will still need to greatly improve for them to win the NFC West.

What type of pass rusher should an offensive lineman fear more: technicians with good hands, speed rushers, or power rushers?@ltBeJP

The answer is someone who can do all three — and plenty can. If you have one pass rush move, any good offensive lineman can shut that down. Speed rush? OK, I’ll set to take that away knowing you have no counter move. Power rusher? I’ll set ready to anchor on the bull rush.

If a pass rusher has two moves, then linemen need to set accordingly. But when a guy has three moves, it’s so darn tough. What do you set to take away? If you take one away, and even the counter, then pass rush move No. 3 can get you.

However, if you’re asking about a single move, I’d have to go with the hump move. It was a Reggie White special. You’re setting for the speed rush and while the defender is rushing up the field, he slows down just enough to use his arm to throw you out of the way and go inside. This works because you can pressure up the field. The hump move starts with that fear. It’s almost impossible to stop.

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What Kawhi Leonard has that Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn’t

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The Toronto Raptors are the verge of reaching the NBA Finals because Kawhi Leonard has been there before.

We have learned so much about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and the Milwaukee Bucks as they have completely lost control of their series against the Toronto Raptors. What we have learned is really what they have not learned: how to finish off wounded prey.

Toronto was down 0-2 a week ago and running out of options. Kawhi Leonard was limping. Pascal Siakam wasn’t quite himself. Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Toronto’s bench weren’t reliable every night. Milwaukee had a chance to win Game 3, which went to overtime. But Giannis couldn’t get his offense going with Kawhi and all of the Raptors watching his every move. And Kawhi did get going to the tune of 36 points in the slugfest win.

Two more hard-fought wins later, the Raptors are on the brink of making the NBA Finals for the first time ever.

It won’t be the first time for Kawhi, though, and as cliché as it sounds, the fact that he has been there before is a big reason he’s on the verge of going back. This is what Kawhi took from the Spurs: resilience, chill, patience.

Kawhi won Finals MVP in 2014 as the Spurs smoked the Heat. But that was Kawhi’s third long playoff run: the Spurs had gone to the Finals the prior year and made the Western Conference finals in Kawhi’s rookie season. His experience built up naturally, and he didn’t have to lead the way until he was ready in that third year. He learned at the feet of Gregg Popovich, who’d already had four championships by the time Leonard showed up. He had experienced champions in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker around him. Everyone knew what to do in the critical moments under bright lights in front of crowds boisterous or hushed. They had been there before, and that had to ease the way for Kawhi (and his partner then and now Danny Green, as well).

Now, it didn’t always work. The Spurs’ poise didn’t translate to victory late in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals, for instance, or in that epic first-round series against the Clippers in 2015. Sometimes the other team is just better or luckier. But even in defeat the experience of being there matters. It impacts you. You learn from it.

Kawhi has been able to learn from lots of high-pressure situations in his career. Giannis and the other Bucks’ stars have not.

This is Milwaukee’s first deep playoff run of the Giannis era. That they got this far is incredible. This is an amazing learning experience for Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon, even if they lose on Saturday or in a Game 7. They will be stronger next time because of what they learned about themselves and high-pressure NBA basketball from this moment.

Consider the arc of the pre-KD Warriors. We imagine them as a fully formed superpower that stormed into the spotlight and never looked back. But their 2015 title run was preceded by two other playoff experiences: a first-round loss to the Clippers amid the infamous Donald Sterling saga and a second-round loss to the Spurs in 2014. Being in those crucibles tested Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and taught them something ephemeral. They applied those lessons in 2015 and beyond. (Also, the coach was upgraded, Draymond Green was freed, and the front office added veteran pieces around them.)

We saw something similar with the Denver Nuggets this postseason: for all but Paul Millsap, being in high-pressure NBA games with real stakes was a new experience. Sometimes, the young Nuggets overcame that to beat the Spurs and then Blazers. But in the end, they couldn’t finish the job against Portland (which had some more experience). Next year and beyond, Denver will be better off for the experience it had this year. The same goes for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Kawhi has been there. Danny Green has been there. Kyle Lowry has been there. Marc Gasol has been there. Serge Ibaka has been there. Experience isn’t everything, but it’s something, and it looks to be making a difference in the magic moments with the ultra-close series on the line. You can see the difference watching Kawhi calmly execute on the critical possessions (whether it goes in or not) while Giannis and the Bucks get a little flighty, a little disorganized, a little panicky. That’s the experience differential. And sometimes, that’s the only separation one superstar needs over another.

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What’s your favorite Hail Mary in NFL history?

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Aaron Rodgers ripping out Calvin Johnson’s heart? The Fail Mary? Drew Bledsoe’s backup not named Tom Brady?

The NFL is leaning toward allowing coaches to challenge pass interference calls and non-calls in the final two minutes of each half. And that means the league may soon be turning a little extra attention to the most exciting play in football — the Hail Mary.

Hail Marys, the low-percentage heaves deep downfield to a throng of outstretched arms and defenders being screamed at to “just bat it down,” would present a major hiccup for any interference challenges due to the jostling and jockeying that goes into the final stages of the potentially game-changing play. But while the league tackles — probably poorly — what may or may not constitute a Hail Mary, we’ve been stuck here thinking of our favorite ones.

The league’s been littered with outcomes turned 180 degrees thanks to a big arm, some unshakeable receivers, and a lot of luck. Aaron Rodgers turned the last-ditch deep ball into an art. Joe Flacco played Slim Pickens in 2012 when he rode a bomb — this one to Jacoby Jones — to a road AFC title game win and an NFL championship. And Tom Brady’s most memorable Hail Marys came in Super Bowl defeats.

Which of these longshot passes were the best? We have some ideas.

Aaron Rodgers throws a football to the damned moon to roast the Lions

So what if it was set up by a 15-yard facemask flag on a penalty that didn’t actually happen? After seeing Rodgers turn himself into a human trebuchet, I’m approximately 50 percent sure he would have found a way to bend time and replay the would-be game-ending sack that nearly sunk the Packers in Detroit.

The former MVP has regularly impressed with amazing feats of arm strength, but none may have been better than this pass that seemed to scrape the rafters at Ford Field before falling to Earth like a whistling mortar and into the hands of backup tight end Richard Rodgers.

There weren’t any stakes attached to this game other than an NFC North rivalry — Green Bay was going to the postseason even with a defeat in Detroit — but it did extend Rodgers’ dominance over the poor, poor Lions. With the win, the Packer QB improved to 10-3 all time against his division rival (he’s 13-5 now).

It also turned Calvin Johnson into a puddle and sapped his will to play football — he retired after the season ended weeks later.

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Unmute! Calvin Jonhnson is out ✌(Original: @cjzero)

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Michael Bishop throws a Hail Mary on his first career pass attempt

There have been plenty of famous Hail Marys in NFL history, but my favorite is also one of the more random — simply because of how random it was. In 2000, Drew Bledsoe was the Patriots starting quarterback. The team spent a sixth-round pick on Tom Brady earlier that year, but the previous year it had invested a seventh-round pick in Kansas State quarterback Michael Bishop.

The Patriots carried both on their roster that season behind Bledsoe. Brady made his debut in Week 13, completing 1 of 3 passes for six yards. Meanwhile, Bishop made his debut in Week 2. After three rushing attempts in his second and third games, the Patriots brought Bishop in at the end of the second quarter against the Indianapolis Colts. He took the snap and completed his first career pass, a 44-yard Hail Mary touchdown to wide receiver Tony Simmons to close out the half.

Over the rest of the season, Bishop completed 2 of 8 more pass attempts. At the time of the Hail Mary, many fans viewed him as the better prospect than Brady. Bledsoe struggled much of that season and there was grumbling to give Bishop a chance. However, he never got a significant shot after the Hail Mary. Outside of a brief offseason with the Packers, he didn’t set foot in the NFL again. And the rest is Brady history. — David Fucillo

The Patriots were gifted a phantom pass interference call

Maybe this is cheating because it wasn’t really (at least, at first) a successful Hail Mary. But this is one of those moments from watching football as a kid that has been seared in my mind forever.

In an important 1998 game between two playoff contenders, the Bills had a 21-17 lead over the Patriots late in the fourth quarter. Drew Bledsoe got New England to Buffalo’s 26-yard line, but with only six seconds left he dropped back and hurled a Hail Mary into a swarm of players in the end zone. For some reason, a flag for pass interference was thrown that really didn’t look justified.

The Bills were dumbfounded and then-Patriots coach Pete Carroll was pleasantly surprised to have another chance. New England got a free play near the end zone and Bledsoe took advantage with a game-winning lob to tight end Ben Coates in the back of the end zone.

Buffalo was so pissed by the turn of events that they marched off the field instead of sticking around for the extra point. Carroll — being the eccentric goofball he is — excitedly told Adam Vinatieri to go for a pointless two-point conversion. So the Patriots kicker jogged into the end zone with no defender in sight.

I was 8 years old at the time and found the whole situation hilarious. Two decades later, it’s still hilarious. — Adam Stites

The Jaguars completed a Hail Mary in the most Jaguars way possible

The Jaguars are a magical franchise. Even when things go right for them, it still looks hilarious. David Garrard’s Hail Mary attempt that was intended for Mike Sims-Walker, but ended up in the hands of Mike Thomas is a perfect example of that.

In 2010, Jacksonville and Houston were tied at 24 when Garrard launched a 55-yard Hail Mary as time expired. Houston’s defensive back played the Hail Mary exactly how it’s coached in practice — don’t try to catch it, bat the ball straight into the ground. He spiked the ball towards the ground, but Jacksonville’s smallest receiver — 5’8 Mike Thomas — just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I still remember watching this clip over and over and over again right after it happened because I couldn’t believe two things: the sheer amount of luck involved in this play and something that lucky happening to the Jaguars.

Everyone is set up for some good fortune even once in a while, even the Jaguars. — Charles McDonald

Jay Cutler going full Jay Cutler on the Chargers

Both of my favorites (Rodgers annihilating the Lions and Bishop’s, surprisingly) were already mentioned, but since my brand is “everything is bad” to begin with how about my favorite … worst Hail Mary?

Once upon a time, there was a quarterback named Jay Cutler. He was pretty good at football sometimes and laughably bad at others. He was mostly famous for the expressionless look on his face at all times, which helped cultivate the “does Cutler even care what’s happening?” question that was asked so, so many times.

I’m not here to weigh in on that for his entire career, but if I know any Cutler well, it’s the one that definitely did not give a damn with the Dolphins in his final season. That year — in 2017 against the Chargers — Cutler gave us one of the worst Hail Marys ever.

This other angle is even better if you really want a look at just how poorly that ball was thrown. I’m sure there are many who would argue that Cutler intentionally threw it out of bounds to be safe, but look at that wobble! That, my friends, is one ridiculously bad pass! — James Brady

The Fail Mary

This was, to paraphrase Mike Tirico’s call, one of the most bizarre endings to a game that we’ll ever see. It was ridiculous. It was controversial. It was infuriating but also kinda funny. It involved the Seahawks getting weird on Monday Night Football.

In September 2012, rookie Russell Wilson gave Aaron Rodgers a taste of his own medicine when he threw up a desperation heave in the final seconds against the Packers. Golden Tate didn’t get flagged for pushing off and M.D. Jennings wasn’t credited with an interception. Instead, the poor, overwhelmed replacement refs decided to call it a touchdown for a Seahawks win:

(Conspiracy theory time: Slip on your tin foil hat and consider the idea that it was all a Roger Goodell plot to end the referee lockout.)

(OK, it probably wasn’t — but you still thought about it for a second!)

Nothing else that season quite captured our collective “YOLO” consciousness at the time like that play. But it doesn’t just belong to 2012, or Seahawks and Packers fans. It belongs to all of us — then, now, and in the future. As this decade winds down and the years start blending together, this is one NFL moment that won’t fade from our memories. — Sarah Hardy

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Bafana Bafana Squad Reaction

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Bafana Bafana coach Stuart Baxter has named an initial squad of 28 players ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

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The continental showpiece kicks off on 21 June, and Baxter has wasted little time in announcing his initial squad, with that number set to be whittled down to 23 players 10 days before the start of the competition.

However, the provisional squad could be expanded to 30 players if foreign-based duo Nikola Tavares and Joel Unteresee receive their passports in the near future.

Are you happy with the squad? We’d love to hear your thoughts as well, have your say in the comments section below!

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Rapid water quality tests better protect beachgoers

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Fast tests can help keep people out of the water when it’s unsafe, and let them back in sooner once the coast is clear. Paul Fisher, CC BY-ND

Planning a trip to the beach? Along with looking forward to some summer fun, beachgoers may be thinking about the safety of their waterfront destination. Will the water be clean enough for swimming, surfing, wading and all the other ways people enjoy the nation’s shoreline?

Across the United States, county, city and state water quality managers measure levels of indicator bacteria to gauge water quality. When bacteria such as E. coli – used for monitoring freshwater beaches like the Great Lakes – and Enterococcus – used for marine beaches – are present, so might other dangerous bacteria and viruses that are trickier and more expensive to measure.

High levels of the indicator bacteria signal that microorganisms that are a concern to human health, such as Salmonella and norovirus, may also be in the water. Viruses and bacteria that can make you sick sometimes enter beach waters through stormwater runoff, accidental sewage spills and even failing septic systems. When the numbers of E. coli or Enterococcus in water samples from the beach exceed a certain threshold value, officials either post a sign advising the public not to swim, or close the beach altogether.

Elevated levels of indicator bacteria mean troublesome ones might be present too.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

The system generally works well, but one serious current drawback is the time it takes to get the results after water samples are collected – nearly 24 hours. This means that if a beachgoer checks the reported water quality at her favorite beach on a Tuesday, the results she sees would be from a water sample collected on Monday morning. Even though water quality is generally good across the nations beaches, tens of thousands of advisories are issued each year.

Water quality conditions can change rapidly at beaches because of tides, wind and storms, so 24 hours is a long time for the public to wait for accurate notification. Beach managers are looking for more rapid, cost-effective ways to stay on top of water quality. I’m an environmental microbiologist who’s developed and patented one such solution.

The author collects a water sample in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina.
UNC Chapel Hill

Faster test, quicker results

Here’s how it works. A user collects about a cup of the water of interest, and passes the sample through a filter about the size of a 50-cent piece that captures the bacteria. With the traditional methods, that filter would be placed in a petri dish specially formulated to help bacteria grow. The user would incubate the plate around 20 to 24 hours and then count the bacterial colonies that grew. He or she can then report those final concentrations and give an assessment of whether the water was clean or not – yesterday.

With the newer methods, including the versions I’ve developed, the operator places the same kind of filter in a tube. Instead of waiting for bacteria to grow, she purifies the DNA in the tube and adds a series of chemicals and enzymes. Then a machine performs quantitative polymerase chain reaction, a technique that copies the DNA many times over. Clinical laboratories have widely used this technology for over a decade to rapidly test for bacterial infections, influenza and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The qPCR machine heats and cools the sample, allowing the enzymes and chemicals to copy the DNA; one copy of E. coli DNA in the water sample becomes two, then four, then eight, then 16 and so on. Each incorporates a chemical that acts as a fluorescent tag in the new DNA strands. Then the machine can measure how much fluorescence is present in all the copies combined. The greater the fluorescence means more bacteria were in the original water sample.

Users receive visual read outs of the test results.
Rachel Noble, CC BY-ND

It only takes about 45 minutes to an hour to make these measurements, and the machine spits out an easy-to-use spreadsheet of the results. Overall, the water quality testing process takes only an hour or two, which is a big time savings.

In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended the use of rapid methods for beach water quality testing, but most of the methods released to date have been tedious and complicated. There has been a need to simplify the tests so that the rapid results can go directly to the water quality manager who determines if a beach has exceeded the recommended safety level or not.

Rapid benefits at the beach

Faster results allow the public to be knowledgeable of beach conditions that are more related to the timing of their visit.

Another important advantage is that rapid tests can be used immediately following a storm or accidental sewage overflow event to ensure that the water quality at the beach has returned to normal and recreation can resume.

Quicker results also allow beach managers to understand the conditions that typically drive the water quality at their beaches – things like river flows, stormwater inputs and wind mixing and direction. They can become adept issuing warnings during particular conditions that are frequently dangerous to public health.

Currently, some individual states – including Wisconsin, California and Hawaii – use the rapid methods. Despite the EPA promoting the use of these kinds of rapid tests that rely on analyzing DNA rather than waiting for bacteria to grow, though, their adoption has not been widespread. This is because most of the tests recommended to date have required technical ability and have been relatively expensive.

I’m currently collaborating with private industry to try to make the rapid tests even faster and simpler to use. I’ve developed one rapid test for E. coli that’s good for freshwater beaches. Another version looks for Enterococcus bacteria and is used at marine beaches. Ultimately, my aim is to get these tests to be easily portable. Beach personnel such as lifeguards could do quick water sample collection and analysis, feeding the data by mobile phone to reporting websites.

Busy beaches have economic benefits.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Beach water quality has an impact not only on the public, but on businesses dependent on beach visitation such as restaurants, shops, parking, rental vendors and snack bars. The use of the rapid testing approaches to ensure return to good water quality and reopening of a high-use beach with thousands of beachgoers each day can be a boon for beach economics, keeping restaurants and shops open and active.

But most importantly, fast water quality results would reduce the number of illnesses associated with swimming at recreational beaches.

The Conversation

Rachel Noble works for UNC Chapel Hill Institute of Marine Sciences who patented the rapid tests described.

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Doping soldiers so they fight better – is it ethical?

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A waxwork of Captain America on display at Madame Tussauds in Bangkok, Thailand. Nuamfolio/

The military is constantly using technology to build better ships, warplanes, guns and armor. Shouldn’t it also use drugs to build better soldiers?

Soldiers have long taken drugs to help them fight. Amphetamines like Dexedrine were distributed widely to American, German, British and other forces during World War II and to U.S. service members in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1991, the Air Force chief-of-staff stopped the practice because, in his words, “Jedi knights don’t need them.” But the ban lasted only five years. DARPA, an agency that does cutting-edge research for the U.S. Department of Defense, is trying to make soldiers “kill-proof” by developing super-nutrition pills and substances to make them smarter and stronger. New drugs that reduce the need for sleep, such as modafinil, are being tested. Researchers are even looking into modifying soldiers’ genes.

As a professor of health law and bioethics, I began studying the use of drugs to enhance performance in sports, and I soon became interested in the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the military. Most people think doping in sports is harmful cheating; shouldn’t that be how doping in combat is viewed? The answer, I decided, was no: Doping in sports doesn’t produce any meaningful social benefit, but using drugs to improve performance in the military could save lives and make it easier to complete missions.

But the military still needs rules for how performance enhancements should be used.

Mandatory use

Can soldiers be ordered to take enhancement drugs? What if the drugs have dangerous side effects? What if there hasn’t been a lot of research on their long-term effects? It’s also important to realize that the risks from performance-enhancing drugs are not only to the soldiers who use them; in 2004, pilots in Afghanistan who accidentally dropped a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers blamed their mistake on being hopped up on amphetamines.

Soldiers generally have to follow orders, so it’s important for their commanders to carefully think through whether use of these drugs should be mandatory or voluntary. Applying a set of principles that I developed to guide bioethical decision-making in the military, superiors should force troops to use enhancement drugs only when the advantages that the drugs provide and the importance of the mission outweigh the risks to the user. Soldiers in the Gulf War were required to take drugs that hadn’t been approved for the purpose for which they were given, which was to try to provide some protection in case Saddam Hussein’s forces resorted to chemical or biological warfare. Congress stepped in and said that troops could be ordered to take drugs for such “off-label” purposes only if the president authorized it directly or declared a national emergency.

Opponents of doping in sports maintain that athletes who win races by doping should not be rewarded. Should we adopt the same policy in the military? Should soldiers who act bravely or shoot straighter with the help of drugs get promotions or medals? If the soldiers are ordered to use the drugs by their commanders, I suggest the answer should be yes, since it doesn’t seem fair to punish them for doing something about which they had no choice, especially if the drugs they were ordered to use could have serious side effects.

Should soldiers take steroids to bulk up?

Voluntary use

What if soldiers take performance-enhancing drugs on their own, or if using them is illegal? A study in 2014 reported that 67% of active-duty service members in all branches of the military took dietary supplements. In special forces like Navy SEALS, the percentage increases to over 75%.

What if these substances actually gave users a performance boost? The most popular doping drugs in sports are anabolic steroids, which are Schedule III controlled substances that can be purchased legally only by prescription. In most states these can’t legally be prescribed for enhancement purposes.

You might think that the military should test soldiers to see if they were illegally using steroids just like athletes are tested in the Olympics, but currently the military is not allowed to do random drug testing or “unit sweeps” for steroids. In short, the jury is still out on whether the military should reward or punish military success achieved with the aid of self-help drugs.

A final concern is when performance-enhancing drugs give troops advantages over civilians. Soldiers in the reserves, and those who serve on bases but reside with their families, have both military and civilian lives. What if they compete in sports or intellectual contests with civilians? One solution is to require them to disclose that they are taking enhancement drugs, but this could violate military secrecy and help enemies figure out ways of combating the drugs’ effects.

Some commentators argue that the effects of the drugs must be reversible, but soldiers may regard the advantages they get from the drugs as one of the benefits of being in the service; it could even be a recruiting incentive, like the prospect of being trained in a skill that can land them a good civilian job later.

Proper use of performance-enhancing drugs in the military could shorten wars and save lives. But with the development of more powerful drugs that increase strength and endurance and reduce the need for sleep and food, commanders need to carefully consider the risks to soldiers as well as the benefits for them and their mission.

The Conversation

Maxwell Mehlman receives funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the ethical, legal, and social implications of using genomic technologies to enhance warfighter performance. He also was part of a team funded by the Greenwall Foundation that studied ethical, legal, and social implications of performance enhancement in the military.

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Mathematics of scale: Big, small and everything in between

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How many lakes are in Alaska? Thermokarst lakes on Alaska’s North Slope are self-similar and fractal. Painting by Cherissa Dukelow, CC BY-SA

Breathe. As your lungs expand, air fills 500 million tiny alveoli, each a fraction of a millimeter across. As you exhale, these millions of tiny breaths merge effortlessly through larger and larger airways into one ultimate breath.

These airways are fractal.

The branches within lungs are an example of self-similarity.
Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary/Wikimedia

Fractals are a mathematical tool for describing objects with detail
at every scale. Mathematicians and physicists like
me use fractals and related concepts to understand how things change going from small to big.

You and I translate between vastly different scales when we think about how our choices affect the world. Is this latte contributing to climate change? Should I vote in this election?

These conceptual tools apply to the body as well as landscapes, natural disasters and society.

Fractals everywhere

In 1967, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot asked, “How long is the coast of Britain?”

It’s a trick question. The answer depends on how you measure it. If you trace the outline on a map, you get one answer, but if you walk the coastline with a meter stick, the result is quite different. Anyone who has tried to estimate the length of a rugged hiking trail from a map knows the treachery of the large-scale picture.

Satellite image of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

That’s because lungs, the British coastline and hiking trails all have fractality: their length, number of branches or some other quantity depends on the scale or resolution you use to measure them.

The coastline is also self-similar – it’s made out of smaller copies of itself. Fern fronds, trees, snail shells, landscapes, the silhouettes of mountains and river networks all look like smaller versions of themselves.

That’s why, when you’re looking at an aerial photograph of a landscape, it’s often hard to tell whether the scale bar should be 50 km or 500 m.

Your lungs are self-similar, because the body finely calibrates each branch in exact proportions, making each branch a smaller replica of the previous. This modular design makes lungs efficient at any size. Think of a child and an adult, or a mouse, a whale. The only difference between small and large is in how many times the airways branch.

Self-similarity and fractality appear in art and architecture, in the arches within arches of Roman aqueducts and the spires of Gothic cathedrals that mirror the forest canopy. Even ancient Chinese calligraphers Huai Su and Yan Zhenqing prized the fractality of summer clouds, cracks in a wall and water stains in a leaking house in 722.

Scale invariance

Self-similar objects have a scale invariance. In other words, some property holds regardless of how big they get, such as the efficiency of lungs.

In effect, scale invariance describes what changes between scales by saying what doesn’t change.

A sketch from Leonardo da Vinci’s notes on tree branches.
Fractal Foundation

Leonardo da Vinci observed that, as trees branch, the total cross-sectional area of all branches is preserved. In other words, going from trunk to twigs, the number of branches and their diameter change with each branching, but the total thickness of all branches bundled together stays the same.

Da Vinci’s observation implies a scale invariance: For every branch of a certain radius, there are four downstream branches with half that radius.

Earthquake frequency has a similar scale invariance, which was observed in the 1940s. The big ones come to mind – Lisbon 1755, San Francisco 1989 – but many small earthquakes occur in California every day. The Gutenberg-Richter law says that earthquake frequency depends on the size of the earthquake. The answer is surprisingly simple. A tenfold bigger earthquake occurs roughly one-tenth as often.

Society and the power law

A 19th-century economist Vilifredo Pareto – famous in business school for the 80/20 rule – observed that the number of families with a certain wealth is inversely proportional to their wealth, raised to some exponent. Pareto measured the exponent for different years and different countries and found that it was usually around 1.5.

Pareto’s wealth distribution came to be known as the power law, ostensibly because of the exponent or “power.”

Anything self-similar has a corresponding power law. In an April paper, my colleague and I describe the corresponding power law for lungs, blood vessels and trees. It differs from Pareto’s power law only by taking into account specific ratios between branches.

The sizes of fortunes then are akin to the sizes of tree twigs or blood vessels – a few trunks or large branches and exponentially more tiny twigs.

Patterns in an oak’s branches.

Pareto thought of his distribution of wealth as a natural law, but many different models of social organization give rise to a Pareto distribution and societies do vary in wealth inequality. The higher Pareto’s exponent, the more egalitarian the society.

From understanding how humans are made up of tiny cells to how we affect the planet, self-similarity, fractality and scale invariance often help translate from one level of organization to another.

The Conversation

Mitchell Newberry receives funding from US National Science Foundation.

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Water stays in the pipes longer in shrinking cities – a challenge for public health

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How long has that water already been in the system? mike.irwin/

The geographic locations where Americans live are shifting in ways that can negatively affect the quality of their drinking water.

Cities that experience long-term, persistent population decline are called shrinking cities. Although shrinking cities exist across the U.S., they are concentrated in the American Rust Belt and Northeast. Urban shrinkage can be bad for drinking water in two ways: through aging infrastructure and reduced water demand.

Major federal and state investments in U.S. drinking water occurred after the World Wars and through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund created by the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Many of the pipes and treatment plants built with those funds are now approaching or have exceeded the end of their expected lifespan. Shrinking cities often don’t have the tax base to pay for maintenance and replacement needs. So the infrastructure, which is largely underground, out of sight and out of mind, deteriorates largely outside of the public eye.

Water systems are typically designed for growth, not shrinkage. Oversized water treatment and distribution systems are common in shrinking cities that experience less water demand than they did decades ago. Consequently, shrinking cities can have drinking water sit in their old and corroded distribution system pipes longer than desired. The water age, or time water spends in pipes from treatment to consumption, increases. As engineers, scientists and public health professionals, we are studying the health effects of drinking water and concerned that not enough attention is being paid to what high water age can mean for public health.

More time in the pipes

In the early 2000s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a report about how high water age causes undesirable changes in the chemical, microbiological and physical quality of drinking water. Examples of water quality factors that can deteriorate with increased water age include levels of disinfection byproducts, corrosion, microbial growth (including pathogens) and nitrate. Each of these factors can directly affect public health.

As an example, there’s been a major shift in the type of microbes that cause waterborne disease outbreaks in the U.S. since the EPA report was published. In 2002-2003, two-thirds of these outbreaks involved bacteria that cause diarrhea, and approximately a quarter of outbreaks were due to pneumonia that can occur when vulnerable people breathe in contaminated water while showering, for instance. In the most recent report, covering 2011-2012, the statistics reversed, with pneumonia (mostly due to Legionnaires’ Disease) accounting for two-thirds of all outbreaks and 100% of all waterborne deaths during the monitoring period.

High water age contributes to low chlorine concentrations and corrosion, which can result in high levels of metals, such as iron. When these conditions occur during warmer summer months, growth of Legionnaires’ Disease bacteria increases. Low levels of disinfectant can also increase total bacteria in drinking water and support growth of some bacteria that can be unhealthy for the youngest, oldest and most ill consumers.

Importantly, routine monitoring of microbiological indicators in U.S. drinking waters hasn’t changed much since the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974. It still centers on detecting organisms that can cause diarrhea, not respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, and it is assumed that treatment methods that address the former will remove the latter.

Overall, there is still much that scientists do not know about the impact of water age on water quality conveyed through distribution systems and household pipes.

Flint has become emblematic of shrinking cities’ water problems.
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Individuals working on a societal problem

This infrastructure crisis in water has contributed to a nationwide trust crisis. Polls show that the U.S. public is increasingly worried “a great deal” about polluted drinking water, up to 63% of Americans in 2016, and it is the top concern among environmental factors that Americans care about.

The problems in Flint, Michigan have become notorious, but the condition of Flint’s water system is not unique. It’s a shrinking city that already had high water age before corrosive water was passed through its pipes. The corrosion event in 2014-2015 leached lead into drinking water delivered to consumers. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that is problematic for children’s developing brains.

As exemplified by Flint, lead remains in some pipes, solders and “lead-free” fixtures that are not actually free of lead. Schools and residents are increasingly turning to point-of-use filters where water is treated to remove lead just prior to leaving the faucet. While helpful, these treatment options may not remove all contaminants of concern and may cause water quality to deteriorate if filters are not maintained.

School administrators and private citizens aren’t water quality experts but need to ensure their water is safe.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Residents and school principals aren’t experts in water treatment, yet are forced to become more involved with ensuring good drinking water quality in buildings. This requires them to rely on utilities for information on water quality – and water age is not routinely considered. Utilities are increasingly trying to convey technical information that has a high level of scientific uncertainty around it. Requests for more openness create a communication challenge for utilities – and run counter to the high-security practices and mindsets put in place in the aftermath of 9/11.

Greater transparency requires greater trust between water officials, public health officials, community members and water experts. At the same time, officials serving shrinking cities need to provide safe drinking water for those consumers who remain.

Despite all its accomplishments, the Safe Drinking Water Act is an imperfect law. Simply relying upon and then communicating about a water quality parameter that “meets all regulatory standards” – as per the law – is an inadequate way to communicate about water quality, as you can see in Flint.

The Conversation

Nancy Love receives funding from the National Science Foundation (Award No. 1632974) and the State of Michigan through a subcontract from Wayne State University. She is also a member of the Flint Technical Advisory Committee administered through Flint’s City Hall, and appointed by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to the Flint Water System Advisory Council.

Richard Jackson served as a senior public health official at both the CDC and in California. Other than salary and prior service on public health and National Academies Committees, he has no conflicts to disclose.

Shawn P. McElmurry has received funding related to this topic from the State of Michigan; National Science Foundation under award numbers 1832692 and 1633013; and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under award numbers R21 ES027199. He is also a member of the Flint Technical Advisory Committee administered through Flint’s City Hall, and appointed by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to the Flint Water System Advisory Council.

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