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Tsundoku

I used to suffer from tsundoku but now I am almost cured…  Tsundoku is a Japanese word meaning ‘the constant act of buying books but never reading them’.  I still find it hard to walk into a good bookshop and leave without buying a small pile of books.  I did it early this month in the Camden Lock Books and left with ‘The New Leaders‘ by Daniel Goleman, ‘What we talk about when we talk about love‘ by Raymond Carver and ‘The Fires of Autumn‘ by Irène Némirowsky.  I will probably read all of these three books over the coming months so it was not really an act of tsundoku.  But, it’s perhaps only because there are so few really good bookshops left that I don’t  buy more in a year than I can read.  Although this is not quite true in my professional life, because I have started buying books on-line and the pile of unread books in my office is growing; so I am not completely cured of tsundoku.  Actually, all researchers are probably suffering from it because we collect piles of research papers that we never read – in part because we can’t keep up with the 2.5 million papers published every year.  And, it’s growing by about 5% per annum, according to Sarah Boon; perhaps, because there are more than 28,000 scholarly journals publishing peer-reviewed research.  Of course, that’s what happens if you measure research productivity in terms of papers published – it’s a form of Goodhart’s law [see my post entitled ‘Goodhart’s Law‘ on August 6th, 2014].

Walking through exams

As a student, in the run up to exams, I used to enjoy going out walking in the hills on my own.  This approach to exam preparation probably surprised my fellow students.  While other walkers that I came across probably thought I was mad because, in an age before mobile phones, they would see me talking to myself; because, as I walked, I was reciting material that I needed to learn for the next exam.  This technique worked for me but I have hesitated to recommend such behaviour to my students.  Now, I’ve discovered that psychologists have found that cognitive performance is improved in young adults while walking at a comfortable, relaxed speed.  This is probably connected to the neurogenesis that I wrote about in my post entitled ‘Gone walking’ on April 19th, 2017.

So, as the examination season is underway in many universities, I thought I should pass on my rather eccentric approach to exam revision.  No doubt, I’ll discover that I wasn’t so eccentric after all but none of us dared share such an unconventional approach to exam preparation.

Sources:

Schaefer et al, Cognitive performance is improved while walking: differences in cognitive-sensorimotor couplings between children and young adults, Euro J Developmental Psychology, 7:371-89, 2010.

Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016.

Cities: a sense of belonging

While we were walking in the Lake District [see my post ‘Gone Walking’ on April 19th, 2017] I read ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebank.  Rebank describes how his flock is hefted to the land.  ‘Heft’ is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, and means to become accustomed and attached to an area of pasture.  In our modern society people tend to become accustomed and attached to cities.  A few weeks earlier Nilanjana Roy, writing in the FT Weekend on April 8/9, wrote about the growing belief that national identity is an outdated and insufficient concept, whereas cities reflect the common identities of their inhabitants and have been home to peoples of diverse origin and belief for centuries.  Many of us who travel frequently have a map in our heads of cities in which we feel comfortable, happy to return, accustomed or ‘hefted’.  Roy calls it ‘a map of belonging’ – the cities that your spirit chimes with the most.  Mine would probably include Liverpool, Ottawa, Santa Fe and Taipei [see my posts entitled ‘Out and about‘ and ‘Crash in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue‘ on December 7th, 2016 and November 19th, 2o14 respectively].  To which cities do you feel ‘hefted’?

Sources:

James Rebank, The Shepherd’s Life, Penguin, 2016.

Nilanjana Roy, How cities reject the insularity of nationalism, Financial Times, 8/9 April 2017.

Gone walking

Background and lock-screen pictures have become a feature of modern life.  Your computer and mobile device were probably delivered with some pre-loaded scenes from nature and some of us personalize our devices by up-loading photographs taken on holiday or a recent excursion into the countryside.  Perhaps, we do this intuitively, because recent research has shown that immersion in nature, even at the superficial level of viewing a picture can improve brain function.  Brisk walking stimulates the production of new neurons and, when you do it in an environment enriched with natural stimuli, the connectivity and stability of connectivity between neurons is increased.  For those us whose biological systems are in terminal decline, the opportunity to retard this decline by walking in the wild is too good to miss.  I have gone to the English Lake District to produce and connect some more neurons.  I’ll be back next week – feeling hopefully creative and empowered, as well as, probably rather damp but what else can be expected from northern England in April!

For those of you who want to immerse themselves vicariously in the damp natural environment of England in the rain could read ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather‘ by Melissa Harrison.

Sources:

Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016.

Atchley RA, Strayer DL & Atchley, Creativity in the wild: improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings, PloS One, 7:e51474, 2012.

Yao S et al, Physical exercise-induced adult neurogenesis: a good strategy to prevent cognitive decline in neurodegenerative diseases? Biomedical Research Intl., 2014, 403120.

Olson KA et al, Environmental enrichment and voluntary exercise massively increase neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus via dissociable pathways, Hippocampus, 16:250-260, 2006.

Attribute triplets

It’s curious how we latch on to three-word lists, or attribute triplets.  There’s the famous one attributed to Julius Caesar in a letter to the Roman Senate about one of his military victories: ‘Veni. Vidi. Vici.’ – I came. I saw. I conquered.  In my forthcoming MOOC on Understanding Super Structures, I cite the Roman architect and engineer, Vitruvius who recommended that structures should have ‘Firmatas. Utilitas. Venustas.’ – Durability. Utility. Beauty.   Perhaps these were the original soundbites.  In modern times, the concept has been taken down-market by realtors (estate agents) who talk about ‘Location. Location. Location.’  And, by my leadership coach at the Center for Creative Leadership, who told us that the three laws of leadership were ‘Communication. Communication. Communication.’  This seems to represent trading content for impact . So, I was surprised to see, on the frontpage of our weekend newspaper in large type, the following:  ‘Knowledge. Integrity. Discretion.’  I thought perhaps they were describing the attributes of a college tutor or a life mentor.  However, they were part of an advertisement for a realtor, who was claiming ‘to have unrivalled knowledge [and to] provide a trusted and personal service’.  Sounds like a college tutor again!  Maybe as college professors, we should promote ourselves as having ‘Knowledge. Skills. Understanding.’  Of course, we don’t offer these attributes to our students, only the opportunity to learn how to acquire them – a subtlety that’s missed by a substantial number of our students.