Coffee to the rescue

It’s Monday, so put the kettle on.

How coffee protects the brain
Scientists have now proved that drinking certain types of coffee can be beneficial to brain health, but how does this popular brew support cognitive function? A new study identifies some of the mechanisms that allow coffee to keep mental decline at bay.

Medicinal museums

In a nice follow-up to those posts about art as therapy from Alain de Botton, here’s news from Canada about putting that into practice.

Doctors in Montreal will start prescribing visits to the art museum
“In the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” predicts Nathalie Bondil, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts director general, in the Montreal Gazette. … Now, it’s joining forces with Médecins Francophones du Canada, an association of French-speaking doctors, to allow member physicians to prescribe art. Hélène Boyer, vice president of the medical association, explained to the Gazette: “There’s more and more scientific proof that art therapy is good for your physical health. It increases our level of cortisol and our level of serotonin. We secrete hormones when we visit a museum and these hormones are responsible for our well-being.”

It’s ok to just be ok

Here’s a piece from the New York Times on what might be putting people off taking up hobbies — we might be a bit naff at them.

In praise of mediocrity
If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you? […]

Especially when it comes to physical pursuits, but also with many other endeavors, most of us will be truly excellent only at whatever we started doing in our teens. What if you decide in your 40s, as I have, that you want to learn to surf? What if you decide in your 60s that you want to learn to speak Italian? The expectation of excellence can be stultifying.

I enjoyed reading this, and found it personally quite encouraging. Photography is a hobby of mine, and I’ve enjoyed documenting family life for many years now. I like taking photos much more than I like looking at the photos I’ve taken, however. I’m often disappointed that they never quite match the ideas in my head. But that’s fine.

And I guess this blog is another hobby of mine that I enjoy doing but aren’t really that good at, judging by my blog stats. But you know what, that’s fine too.

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AI to the rescue

In 2016 the RNIB announced a project between the NHS and DeepMind, Google’s artificial intelligence company.

Artificial intelligence to look for early signs of eye conditions humans might miss
With the number of people affected by sight loss in the UK predicted to double by 2050, Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and DeepMind Health have joined forces to explore how new technologies can help medical research into eye diseases.

This wasn’t the only collaboration with the NHS that Google was involved in. There was another project, to help staff monitor patients with kidney disease, that had people concerned about the amount of the medical information being handed over.

Revealed: Google AI has access to huge haul of NHS patient data
Google says that since there is no separate dataset for people with kidney conditions, it needs access to all of the data in order to run Streams effectively. In a statement, the Royal Free NHS Trust says that it “provides DeepMind with NHS patient data in accordance with strict information governance rules and for the purpose of direct clinical care only.”

Still, some are likely to be concerned by the amount of information being made available to Google. It includes logs of day-to-day hospital activity, such as records of the location and status of patients – as well as who visits them and when. The hospitals will also share the results of certain pathology and radiology tests.

The Google-owned company tried to reassure us that everything was being done appropriately, that all those medical records would be safe with them.

DeepMind hits back at criticism of its NHS data-sharing deal
DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has said negative headlines surrounding his company’s data-sharing deal with the NHS are being “driven by a group with a particular view to peddle”. […]

All the data shared with DeepMind will be encrypted and parent company Google will not have access to it. Suleyman said the company was holding itself to “an unprecedented level of oversight”.

That didn’t seem to cut it though.

DeepMind’s data deal with the NHS broke privacy law
“The Royal Free did not have a valid basis for satisfying the common law duty of confidence and therefore the processing of that data breached that duty,” the ICO said in its letter to the Royal Free NHS Trust. “In this light, the processing was not lawful under the Act.” […]

“The Commission is not persuaded that it was necessary and proportionate to process 1.6 million partial patient records in order to test the clinical safety of the application. The processing of these records was, in the Commissioner’s view, excessive,” the ICO said.

And now here we are, some years later, and that eye project is a big hit.

Artificial intelligence equal to experts in detecting eye diseases
The breakthrough research, published online by Nature Medicine, describes how machine-learning technology has been successfully trained on thousands of historic de-personalised eye scans to identify features of eye disease and recommend how patients should be referred for care.

Researchers hope the technology could one day transform the way professionals carry out eye tests, allowing them to spot conditions earlier and prioritise patients with the most serious eye diseases before irreversible damage sets in.

That’s from UCL, one of the project’s partners. I like the use of the phrase ‘historic de-personalised eye scans’. And it doesn’t mention Google once.

Other reports also now seem to be pushing the ‘AI will rescue us’ angle, rather than the previous ‘Google will misuse our data’ line.

DeepMind AI matches health experts at spotting eye diseases
DeepMind’s ultimate aim is to develop and implement a system that can assist the UK’s National Health Service with its ever-growing workload. Accurate AI judgements would lead to faster diagnoses and, in theory, treatment that could save patients’ vision.

Artificial intelligence ‘did not miss a single urgent case’
He told the BBC: “I think this will make most eye specialists gasp because we have shown this algorithm is as good as the world’s leading experts in interpreting these scans.” […]

He said: “Every eye doctor has seen patients go blind due to delays in referral; AI should help us to flag those urgent cases and get them treated early.”

And it seems AI can help with the really tricky problems too.

This robot uses AI to find Waldo, thereby ruining Where’s Waldo
To me, this is like the equivalent of cheating on your math homework by looking for the answers at the back of your textbook. Or worse, like getting a hand-me-down copy of Where’s Waldo and when you open the book, you find that your older cousin has already circled the Waldos in red marker. It’s about the journey, not the destination — the process of methodically scanning pages with your eyes is entirely lost! But of course, no one is actually going to use this robot to take the fun out of Where’s Waldo, it’s just a demonstration of what AutoML can do.

There’s Waldo is a robot that finds Waldo

Will you still love me when I’m physiologically 64?

Is the end nigh? New blood tests can reveal your life expectancy
“We showed that even among people who have no diseases, who are presumably healthy, we can still pick up differences in life expectancy. It’s capturing something preclinical, before any diseases present themselves,” she said.

“It’s picking up how old you look physiologically. Maybe you’re 65 years old but physiologically you look more like a 70 year old, so your mortality risk is more like that of a 70 year old.”

This is either going to end up as the next must-have app which we’ll all happily throw our medical data at, or a compulsory part of arranging life insurance that we won’t have any choice over.

Illustrating good mental health

In support of Mental Health Awareness Week earlier this month, several freelance illustrators discussed their own experiences with anxiety, depression and a range of other mental health issues, with the aim of supporting and encouraging others that may be facing similar issues.

‘None of us need to be alone’: Illustrators’ raw and honest accounts of how they’ve coped with mental illness
“My experience is that many creative types often have hermetic tendencies. Working for yourself, by yourself will see you spend perhaps an unhealthy amount of time alone — sometimes this is even fetishised and encouraged with the suggestion that one isn’t really ‘hustling’ unless they have what amount to terrible habits,” says Canadian illustrator, designer, and founder of Poly Studio, Jamie Lawson.

“This is, of course, nonsense. Though it’s an attitude that I see changing in the culture, it still bears repeating that developing healthy social habits is as important for a freelancer as their technique, professional practices or work ethic.”

There are links to a range of resources and suggestions, but I think the interviews with the dozen or so artists on their issues and successes is most inspiring.

Tobias Hall on how mindfulness helped with insomnia and anxiety
What did you find helped your situation? “Mindfulness was and is the single biggest reason behind my recovery. It taught me a completely new way of looking at what happens in the mind. Over time I have learnt to identify the ‘my mind’ and ‘me’ as two separate things – I accept that I’m not always in control of the noise which goes on up there. I understand that behind all of that noise, my mind is only ever looking out for danger, as it’s evolved to do. And as such, it means I buy into thoughts and feelings a lot less than I did in the past. For sure, I still get caught up in negative thought and anxiety is still a part of my life, but my relationship with it has fundamentally changed and it’s no longer a big problem for me day-to-day.

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Illustrator Sharmelan Murugiah on coping with depression
How have these experiences stemmed from, or been tied to, the life of being a freelance illustrator? “I do feel the life of being an illustrator can be quite lonely. I am set up in a solitary home studio. I made my way into this profession via architecture and then design so I have not had those early connections with folks in the industry. The growing effect of social media on my work can also make you feel pressured. Seeing work pour out of other artists social accounts even though I know we use social media generally to present the best of ourselves online.”

Happy, smokey days

Ah, those were the days, puffing away around a burning maypole without a care in the world.

The vibrant world of vintage tobacco and alcohol ads
“This is a great example of the lush illustration used at the time and it shows a kind of surrealistic, whimsical approach with people dancing around a giant cigarette,” said Jim Heimann, author of 20th Century Alcohol & Tobacco Ads.

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Everything is out to get us

Following on from that post about how technology is deliberately addictive and seemingly out to get us, here’s a wider view of the problems we face and “the price we have to pay for being born in modern times”.

How the modern world makes us mentally ill
The modern world is wonderful in many ways (dentistry is good, cars are reliable, we can so easily keep in touch from Mexico with our grandmother in Scotland) – but it’s also powerfully and tragically geared to causing a high background level of anxiety and widespread low-level depression.

Thankfully, for each area of concern there’s a solution of sorts. For instance:

The media has immense prestige and a huge place in our lives – but routinely directs our attention to things that scare, worry, panic and enrage us, while denying us agency or any chance for effective personal action. It typically attends to the least admirable sides of human nature, without a balancing exposure to normal good intentions, responsibility and decency. At its worst, it edges us towards mob justice.

The cure would be news that concentrated on presenting solutions rather than generating outrage, that was alive to systemic problems rather than gleefully emphasizing scapegoats and emblematic monsters – and that would regularly remind us that the news we most need to focus on comes from our own lives and direct experiences.

It can all seem quite overwhelming, but we need to stay positive.

The forces of psychological distress in our world are – currently – much wealthier and more active than the needed cures. We deserve tender pity for the price we have to pay for being born in modern times. But more hopefully, cures are now open to us individually and collectively if only we recognise, with sufficient clarity, the sources of our true anxieties and sorrows.

The trick is remembering all this when we’re caught up in the moment and wrapped up in our day-to-day troubles. They ought to produce and sell a little cheatsheet we can carry around in our wallets or something.

Dry January, by the book

Don’t know why we make such a fuss over Dry January, it’s not as if there’s a problem, right?

From mother’s ruin to modern tipple: how the UK rediscovered gin
There are 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. According to figures collected by HM Revenue & Customs, which hands out licences to produce spirits, nearly 50 opened last year, while just a handful shut up shop. Demand for interesting gins, made by small scale craft and artisan producers has driven a near-20% rise in the total amount of the juniper-flavoured spirit sold.

Not content to just drink it, there is now “the UK’s first gin spa, where visitors can indulge in a juniper foot soak and a gin tasting menu.”

But anything that’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for me.

The place of gin in Orwell’s 1984
One of the few permitted vices in Nineteen Eighty-Four is Victory Gin, which oils the outer party and offers suggestions of Englishness and party power: it’s always served with clove bitters, implying that Oceania’s boots are on the ground in Asia. Chemistry professor Shirley Lin wrote an interesting post about gin’s place in Orwell’s dystopia.

Oily gin: a chemist’s perspective on 1984
Can one shed tears of gin? Orwell describes one of Winston’s childhood memories involving an old man who “reeked of gin” to such a degree that one could imagine “[tears] welling from his eyes were pure gin” (page 33). In the last paragraph of the book, Winston’s tears at the end of the book are also “gin-scented” (page 297). While I was unable to find any studies examining the presence of alcohol in human tears, ethanol in the sweat of continuous drinkers has been detected and quantified.

Roll on February. I think.

Happy feet?

Get up and move. It may make you happier.
Of course, this type of study does not establish causation. It cannot tell us whether being more active actually causes us to become happier or, conversely, whether being happy causes us to move more. It only shows that more activity goes hand-in-hand with greater happiness.

I’m not sure if it’s the walking that’s making me happy, or seeing my Fitbit’s step count climb to first place on the leaderboard.

All strapped in?

Nearly 16% of US consumers now own wearables
“Fitness bands continue to outsell more advanced smartwatches,” reported Lauren Guenveur, Consumer Insight Director for Kantar Worldpanel ComTech. “In the fourth quarter of 2016, just 35% of wearables purchased in the US were smartwatches, a decline from 40% in the third quarter of 2016.

Well, I’m very happy with my fitness band, though it feels like we’ve all voluntarily bought electronic tags like a load of criminals.

All the graphs you can eat

What’s better than data and loads of graphs? Data and loads of graphs about food and drink, of course!

Britain’s diet in data
The British diet has undergone a transformation in the last half-century. Traditional staples such as eggs, potatoes and butter have gradually given way to more exotic or convenient foods such as aubergines, olive oil and stir-fry packs. Explore the changes across four decades and hundreds of food and drink categories in this interactive visualisation, featuring data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Whilst I’m not surprised to see the fall of lard and the rise of olive oil over the last 40 years, why is nobody buying marmalade anymore? Goodness me.

A fascinating look into what it’s like reading with dyslexia

This is very clever, a great use of Javascript.

Dsxyliea
A friend who has dyslexia described to me how she experiences reading. She can read, but it takes a lot of concentration, and the letters seems to “jump around”. I remembered reading about typoglycemia. Wouldn’t it be possible to do it interactively on a website with Javascript? Sure it would.

Much obliged to Christopher Hallas, over on Linked In, who pointed me in the direction of this pdf from the British Dyslexia Association, full of great advice for clear, accessible documents production.

Dyslexia Style Guide (pdf)
The aim is to ensure that written material takes into account the visual stress experienced by some dyslexic people, and to facilitate ease of reading. Adopting best practice for dyslexic readers has the advantage of making documents easier on the eye for everyone.

Couldn’t agree more. And here’s another take on recreating the exasperation​​ ​of reading with dyslexia.​​

This font shows you what it feels like to be dyslexic
“What this typeface does is break down the reading time of a non-dyslexic down to the speed of a dyslexic. I wanted to make non-dyslexic people understand what it is like to read with the condition and to recreate the frustration and embarrassment of reading everyday text and then in turn to create a better understanding of the condition”.​​

Never thought about chairs this much before

Colin McSwiggen explains why he’s so against chairs. I have to admit to not giving them a second thought, other than the times at work when my recline lever slips and I end up suddenly horizontal. The problems seem much deeper than temperamental office furniture though.

Against Chairs
I hate to piss on the party, but chairs suck. All of them. No designer has ever made a good chair, because it is impossible. Some are better than others, but all are bad. Not only are chairs a health hazard, they also have a problematic history that has inextricably tied them to our culture of status-obsessed individualism. Worse still, we’ve become dependent on them and it’s not clear that we’ll ever be free.

History, ergonomics, politics, it’s all in there.

And here’s another take on the chair, which I guess backs up his point. Make of it what you will.

Should I be here?

Presenteeism
Presenteeism or working while sick can cause productivity loss, poor health, exhaustion and workplace epidemics. While the contrasting subject of absenteeism has historically received extensive attention in the management sciences, presenteeism has only recently been studied.

Certain occupations such as welfare and teaching are more prone to presenteeism. Doctors may attend work while sick due to feelings of being irreplaceable. Jobs with large workloads are associated with presenteeism. People whose self-esteem is based on performance, as well as workaholics, typically have high levels of presenteeism.