Peak wellness

Another Monday has rolled around. We all feeling well?

We’ve reached peak wellness. Most of it is nonsense.
Nourishing these interrelated dimensions of health, however, does not require that you buy any lotions, potions, or pills. Wellness—the kind that actually works—is simple: it’s about committing to basic practices, day in and day out, as individuals and communities.

Unfortunately, these basics tend to get overlooked in favor of easy-to-market nonsense. That’s because, as many marketers (including in the self-help space) are fond of saying, “You can’t sell the basics.” I think that’s naive. We’d be much better off if we stopped obsessing over hacks and instead focused on evidence-based stuff that works.

Mindfulness has been reduced to a ‘hack’ these days.

The problem of mindfulness
A third line of attack can be summed up in the epithet ‘McMindfulness’. Critics such as the author David Forbes and the management professor Ronald Purser argue that, as mindfulness has moved from therapy to the mainstream, commodification and marketing have produced watered-down, corrupted versions – available via apps such as Headspace and Calm, and taught as courses in schools, universities and offices.

My own gripes with mindfulness are of a different, though related, order. In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.

Maybe we just need to cheer up! Let’s put on a happy face and fake it till we make it.

Against cheerfulness
Whistling while you work might be worth defending, but forcing yourself to smile when you don’t feel like it amounts to lying to the people around you. ‘Fake it till you make it’ has brutal consequences when applied to the emotions. When conceived as the attempt to trick others into thinking that you feel cheery, cheerfulness is far from a virtue. It’s a vice.

[…]

Giving up a commitment to cheerfulness would mean risking judgment for being ordinary, human, mortal. If, however, we could learn to share in the misery of others without trying to cheer them up and send them packing, and if they could do the same for us, then we’d have a shot at true fraternity, the kind that Aristotle prescribed when he said we should live with our friends. … Profound human connection and communion – in other words, love – has no use for forced cheer, and is often sabotaged by false faces. If we want to love better and seek true happiness and friendship, it’s time to cultivate honesty instead of cheer.

Brainy people

After reading about Terry Gilliam’s views on one of his old gang, I came across this moving article from a couple of years ago about two others — Terry Jones and Michael Palin discussing dementia.

Terry Jones: ‘I’ve got dementia. My frontal lobe has absconded’
The pair still regularly have lunch together. “We chat – well, I chat,” added Palin. “But when the meal is over he makes it clear he has to move. He has to get to the next thing on his agenda and he just puts his head down and goes. I have never felt discomfited in his presence, however. There is no embarrassment. He doesn’t shout or show his bottom.”

Only taxis cause problems. “He always wants to give directions and he hates traffic,” said Sally. “That is nothing new in a sense. He always knew a better way and would always let the taxi driver know that very early on in the journey.” At this point, Jones nods vigorously.

I wonder what he’d make of this new restaurant.

The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders
The servers at The Restaurant of Mistaken Orders, a series of pop-up restaurants in Tokyo, are all living with dementia, which means that you might not receive what you ordered.

[…]

“It’s OK if my order was wrong. It tastes so good anyway.” We hope this feeling of openness and understanding will spread across Japan and through the world.

And then coincidentally I read this, about another hero to many in declining health — Linda Ronstadt on living with Parkinson’s.

Linda Ronstadt has found another voice
In the documentary, you say, “I can sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.” That sounds either comforting or excruciating.

Well, it’s a little frustrating when my family comes over from Arizona, because we would all sing together. That way we don’t have to talk about politics. It makes for harmonious—I don’t mean the pun—relations. But I can’t do that anymore, so I just invite the ones who are Democrats.

I don’t know much about Linda, but I adore her singing on Philip Glass’s Songs From Liquid Days album. (She’s on ‘Freezing’, with words by Suzanne Vega, and ‘Forgetting’, with words by Laurie Anderson.) Her voice is so just strong and pure, it cuts right through you. I was looking for something for something on YouTube from that album, but all I could find was this clip. Remember Kenny Everett and Hot Gossip?

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes. They say that brains are the most complicated things in the universe. You’d never be able to do something as crass as grow one in a lab, right?

Cerebral organoids are becoming more brainlike
At what point does a mass of nerve cells growing in a laboratory Petri dish become a brain? That question was first raised seriously in 2013 by the work of Madeline Lancaster, a developmental biologist at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, in Cambridge, Britain. That year Dr Lancaster and her colleagues grew the first human-derived “cerebral organoid”.

[…]

Since then, Dr Lancaster’s work has advanced by leaps and bounds. In March, for example, she announced that her organoids, when they are connected to the spinal cord and back-muscle of a mouse, could make that muscle twitch.

All done in the best possible taste.

Want a better holiday?

Time away from work is great, but is a break from your phone even better?

Leave your phone at home this holiday and you’ll feel better (after you feel worse)
Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashion manner, navigating using a printed map, talking to strangers, and reading printed bus timetables. Two of our participants even gave up at this stage as they found the emotional experience unbearable.

Those that stuck it out were glad they did.

Our participants overcame the initial emotions and then started to enjoy the digital-free experience. They found themselves more immersed in the destination, created more valuable moments with their travel companions, and had many more memorable and authentic encounters with locals.

They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved. One participant said: “I feel quite good that I made it this far without technology. I feel quite liberated.” Without the disruptions of digital technologies, they were fully engaged with their holiday experience, demonstrating that a digital-free holiday can contribute to wellbeing.

But if it’s a relaxing holiday you’re after, why not take a trip to Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Kellogg’s medical spa and birthplace of the corn flake?

Dr. John Kellogg invented cereal. Some of his other wellness ideas were much weirder
Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths. With a device he cobbled together from telephone parts, he began to administer mild doses of electrical current directly to his patients’ skin. Kellogg claimed these “sinusoidal current” treatments were painless and wrote that he’d tested them in “many thousands of therapeutic applications.” While electrical stimulation is used to this day for certain medical purposes, the ever-optimistic Kellogg maintained that it could treat lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and, when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs, a variety of vision disorders.

Happy metal

Did you know that music has the power to affect us physiologically, as well as just emotionally?

Here’s what happens in your brain when you listen to music, according to science
Music can also have a strong effect on your emotions by, in a sense, manipulating your body. For example, a 2009 study published in the scientific journal Circulation found that autonomic responses, such as your heart rate, can synchronize with the music you’re listening to, especially if it includes a number of crescendos.

But how about something more two-way?

Our brain-computer interfacing technology uses music to make people happy
For instance, imagine a device that can detect when you are falling into a state of depression (as evidenced by, for example, an unusual spiking activity in the EEG), and use this information to trigger an algorithm that generates bespoke music to make you feel happier. This approach is likely to be effective. Indeed, recent research has shown, in a large meta-analysis of 1,810 music therapy patients, that music can reduce depression levels.

You wouldn’t think something as aggressive-sounding as metal could help here, but you’d be surprised.

Heavy metal
When fans of metal listen to the music, they don’t feel rage, anger, or despair, but “power, joy, peace, and wonder,” according to research published last year. In fact, a huge survey in 2010 sought to categorize people by their musical tastes, and found a significant overlap between metal and opera fans, who shared “similarly creative and gentle personalities.”

Heavy metal music can have health benefits for fans
Despite the often violent lyrical content in some heavy metal songs, recently published research has shown that fans do not become sensitized to violence, which casts doubt on the previously assumed negative effects of long-term exposure to such music. Indeed, studies have shown long-terms fans were happier in their youth and better adjusted in middle age compared to their non-fan counterparts. Another finding that fans who were made angry and then listened to heavy metal music did not increase their anger but increased their positive emotions suggests that listening to extreme music represents a healthy and functional way of processing anger.

I used to listen to a lot of metal when I was younger. This quick summary of the genre brought all the good vibes back.

20 iconic metal riffs

Want to learn more? You can get a PhD in it now (kind of).

University offers PhD scholarship in heavy metal
The University of Newcastle in Australia is offering a scholarship of $27,596 per annum (assumedly that’s AUS dollars, meaning $19,232 USD or £15,139) to two domestic students and one International student, to study social geographies across a series of cultures. The subjects being studied are Homelessness and Mutual Aid, Vegan Geographies, Unschooling and The Possibilities of Childhood, and of course, Heavy Metal Geographies.

Any study of heavy metal geography is bound to look at Finland…

Finland’s Heavy Metal knitting championship is the real purl jam
While combining heavy metal music with knitting might not seem an obvious match, the organizers say it’s similar to other unusual events in Finland, such as world championships in air guitar, swamp soccer, and wife carrying — Finnish ways of goofing around and making the most of the long summer nights in these northern latitudes.

“We have such dark and long winters,” said Mari Karjalainen, one of the founders of the event. “This really gives us lots of time to plan for our short summers and come up with silly ideas.”

Purl jam: Finland hosts heavy metal knitting championship

Well that’s not something I remember seeing Lemmy do!

Playing to your strengths

Being at school can be stressful, as this study from Ireland shows, and students’ well-being seems to steadily decline as they make their way to their final exams. But are some children better at maintaining good mental health than others? The key might lie with whether students are in touch with their character strengths.

Well-being of students starts to decline from the moment they enter secondary school
But our study also found that the biggest predictor of lower levels of well-being was when students did not regularly use their greatest strengths of character. Strengths of character can be measured using a survey like this one by VIA. The survey identifies teenagers’ top strengths that they can use during their daily lives.

But just because someone’s top strengths might be honesty, prudence and perseverance, does not mean that they use these strengths frequently. Those who scored the highest for using their strengths daily, also had the highest scores on their levels of well-being. Therefore, using character strengths every day could help secondary school pupils to maintain higher levels of well-being.

You can learn about your character strengths through questionnaires like this one, from the VIA Institute on Character.

Bring your character strengths to life & live more fully – VIA Institute
When you discover your greatest strengths, you learn to use them to handle stress and life challenges, become happier, and develop relationships with those who matter most to you. What are your strengths?

I worry sometimes that I’m too cynical with such things. Is the secret to better emotional health and well-being really as straightforward as completing a 10-minute questionnaire, being told what your strengths are (or rather, what you want them to be), and acting on them?

Maybe I should give this a go. This emphasis on strengths of character does chime with what I’ve been learning about Stoicism, after all.

Less of us in Leeds

Some good local news for a change.

Leeds becomes first UK city to lower its childhood obesity rate
Almost a third (28%) of all children aged two to 15 in England are overweight or obese. … The obesity rates there and across the country have not shifted. “For England it’s absolutely flat,” said Jebb, who added that the dropping rate in Leeds appeared to be a trend. “This is four years, not one rogue data point,” she said at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow where she presented the research, also published in the journal Paediatric Obesity. “Everybody is going around saying Amsterdam is doing something amazing. Well, actually, Leeds is too.”

Jebb, a former government adviser, says they cannot be sure what has turned the tide in Leeds – but it could involve a programme called Henry that the city introduced as the core of its obesity strategy in 2009, focusing particularly on the youngest children and poorest families. Henry (Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young) supports parents in setting boundaries for their children and taking a firm stance on issues from healthy eating to bedtimes.

Here’s some more about that, from GOV.UK.

Health, exercise, nutrition for the really young (HENRY)
In Leeds, where HENRY is part of the city-wide obesity strategy and delivered in children’s centres across the city, obesity rates at reception stage have fallen from 10.3% to 8.7% over a 7-year period. The national trends have remained almost static. The gap between obesity rates at age 5 in the least deprived and most deprived areas of Leeds is narrowing, with obesity rates dropping from 13.8% to 9.7% in the most deprived areas over the last 5 years.

Stop neglecting the users

This is a great breakdown from Joe Clark — not quite tipping over into a rant — of all the iPhone user interface issues Apple is happily ignoring.

iPhones are hard to use
Observing what are dismissively called “normal people” (or “users”) for more than a decade, the one thing iPhone owners are proud they know how to do is force-quit apps. They also know how to set a ringtone and choose atrocious wallpaper. And that’s it. But they aren’t to blame.

People kind of don’t know that they can swipe up or down from top or bottom of screen. As an example, I certainly almost never see anybody turn wifi on or off that way (it’s almost always through Settings). They certainly don’t know what Control Center and Notification Center are by name. (They also don’t know what their iSight camera is. They don’t know what Springboard is, and shouldn’t have to. But do they know what the home screen is?)

It’s not just an issue with iPhones, I don’t think. It certainly frustrates me too, when I see people struggle unnecessarily with a task on any smartphone, though no fault of their own.

Seniors love iPads, but seniors and unhealthy people in general have a serious pressing need to fill out the Medical ID section (not obvious) in the Health app (also not obvious). Exactly the people who need this function are the least likely to use it. We cannot, and should not, rely on these seniors’ grandkids or caregivers to do it for them.

Fill out these fields and not only could a paramedic, or just a bystander, learn what medical conditions you have if you’re unconscious, they can phone your emergency contacts (and also call an ambulance via 911 or local equivalent).

Ok, I admit that’s something I hadn’t done until reading this. We’re really not making full use of these devices. And Apple (and I’m sure all the others) aren’t really, either.

You really need to tell the phone, and/or Siri, who you are and who your family members are. This involves creating a contact card (what’s that?) for yourself and linking to it. Then all your family members need their own cards, and you have to laboriously specify their relationships to you.

I insist this is not an optional or nice-to-have feature. If you have chest pain, you have to be able to hold the button down and say “Call Charlie” or “Call my wife.” (God help us if Siri asks which Charlie to call.)

Another friend really did have chest pain in a foreign country and it never occurred to him to call anybody. So in fact, Apple, a trillion-dollar corporation, has to put considerably greater resources into telling people how to set up their phones for emergencies so they will actually use those phones then. Again, this means forcing people to do it upon setup and making it exceedingly clear, in writing and in video, what their phones can do for them when they need their phones the most.

This is obvious, when you think about it. I hope someone from Apple reads Joe’s blog.

I’m still quite reluctant to talk to my phone (rather than talk with) but I gave it a go after reading this article, with mixed results. I just wanted to know what was in my calendar later on.

Doing what?

What? Let’s try again.

Doing what?

OK, never mind.

How much is too much?

Screentime, I mean.

I know I’ve asked this more than once or twice before, but the answer still seems to be ‘it depends’. Take this article, for example, on the trend for music concerts to impose a no phones rule. It sounds eminently sensible.

The simple joy of “No Phones Allowed”
The no-phones policy illuminated something about smartphone use that’s hard to see when it’s so ubiquitous: our phones drain the life out of a room. They give everyone a push-button way to completely disengage their mind from their surroundings, while their body remains in the room, only minimally aware of itself. Essentially, we all have a risk-free ripcord we can pull at the first pang of boredom or desire for novelty, and of course those pangs occur constantly.

Every time someone in a group of people deploys a screen, the whole group is affected. Each disengaged person in a crowd is like a little black hole, a dead zone for social energy, radiating a noticeable field of apathy towards the rest of the room and what’s happening there. […]

I imagine that in another decade or two we’ll look at 2010s-era device use something like we do now with cigarette smoking. I was born in 1980, and I remember smoking sections on planes, which is unthinkable today. I wonder if today’s kids will one day vaguely remember the brief, bizarre time when people didn’t think twice about lighting up a screen in the middle of a darkened concert hall.

Yes, but what about the children, I hear you cry. How much screen time should we let them have?

A philosophy professor argues kids should use more technology, not less
Kids aren’t losing themselves in their devices, but potentially finding themselves. What’s more, they’re doing exactly what generations of kids have long done: Immersing themselves in the toys and objects of the moment that reflect the society they inhabit, and which will help prepare them for the future.

Shapiro, an assistant professor of philosophy at Temple University and a respected thinker on education, childhood and technology, presents his case in the new book The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World.

Ok well never mind the philosophy professors, what do the real experts say?

Screen time not intrinsically bad for children, say doctors
Spending time looking at screens is not intrinsically bad for children’s health, say the UK’s leading children’s doctors, who are advising parents to focus on ensuring their children get enough sleep, exercise and family interaction rather than clamping down on phones and laptops.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has produced the first guidance for parents on how long children should spend on their laptops and phones, which throws the ball firmly back into the parents’ court.

Worry less about children’s screen use, parents told
It said there was no good evidence that time in front of a screen is “toxic” to health, as is sometimes claimed. The review of evidence found associations between higher screen use and obesity and depression. But the college looked at this and said it was not clear from the evidence if higher screen use was causing these problems or if people with these issues were more likely to spend more time on screens. […]

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the RCPCH, said phones, computers and tablets were a “great way to explore the world”, but parents were often made to feel that there was something “indefinably wrong” about them. He said: “We want to cut through that and say ‘actually if you’re doing OK and you’ve answered these questions of yourselves and you’re happy, get on and live your life and stop worrying’.

Stop worrying? That’s not a phrase you come across in the news very often.

Stop scaremongering about kids spending time on their phones
Still, the screen time scaremongering continues. Partly it’s the fault of scientists and journals, for doing and encouraging shoddy, shocking science; and partly it’s the media’s fault for overhyping weak and uncertain results. “It’s a lot easier,” says David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster who specialises in the psychological impacts of technology, “to get the press to cover something about how tech is having a bad effect, than something which says it’s having very little effect.” The RCPCH’s guidelines are a refreshing change.

So we need more research on the quality of the research?

Screens might be as bad for mental health as … potatoes
“Researchers will essentially torture the data until it gives them a statistically significant result that they can publish,” Przybylski says. (Not all researchers who report such results do so with the intention to deceive. But researchers are people; science as an institution may strive for objectivity, but scientists are nevertheless susceptible to biases that can blind them to their misuse of data.) “We wanted to move past this kind of statistical cherry-picking. So we decided to look for a data-driven method to collect the whole orchard, all at once.” […]

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

The kids (who use tech) seem to be all right
“This is an incredibly important paper,” says Candice Odgers, a psychologist studying adolescent health and technology at the University of California, Irvine, who wasn’t involved in the research. “It provides a sophisticated set of analyses and is one of the most comprehensive and careful accountings of the associations between digital technologies and well-being to date. And the message from the paper is painstakingly clear: The size of the association documented across these studies is not sufficient or measurable enough to warrant the current levels of panic and fear around this issue.”

I know it’s not strictly screen time that us parents worry about, but will all this stop the scaremongering in the media about too much of it being bad for us and our children? I’ll certainly be glued to my phone, waiting to find out.

Don’t just sit there

I blogged ages ago about Colin McSwiggen’s loathing of chairs: “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.”

According to Guardian, they’re going to be the death of us.

Sit less and move more to reduce risk of early death, study says
Previous research from the same team found people should move at least every 30 minutes to reduce the chance of premature death, but now the researchers say simply breaking up sedentary periods is not enough – overall time spent seated must be cut to lower the risk.

Here’s the Independent’s write-up of that previous research from 2017.

Desk jobs double the risk of premature death, finds new study
Whether you sit down all day long or prefer to put you feet up periodically, racking up prolonged inactive time increases your risk of early death, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

I like to go for a walk during my lunch break, but what about those of us tied to our desks all day? Not a problem!

I’m old, sedentary and slouch a lot – will standing up at my desk help me live longer?
The posture and physical ergonomics need fine-tuning. I have got my screen balancing on one pile of books, keyboard on another, mouse on a third. I’m going to find out who’s in charge of desks, and then I’m going to actually physically go and see them about getting one of those proper standy-uppy ones. Don’t forget that movement, remember?

But this is just about what it’s like to not sit down all day. And, you know what? It’s really not so hard. A touch of the museum/art gallery squirms creep in after two hours. But I’m finding I can shake them off by thinking of all the extra time I’ll be getting at the end.

Or you could try some of these exercises from the oddly-named Art of Manliness website.

7 simple exercises that undo the damage of sitting
These dynamic stretches and exercises are designed for loosening tight hips that come from sitting too much. I try to incorporate a few of them in my daily workout warm-ups or even sneak some in when I’m hanging out with the kids (who think their dad is pretty odd). Every now and then I also dedicate an hour on Saturdays to just hip and glute work, along with some intense foam rolling.

I don’t know what that means.

If you’re really tight, take it nice and easy. As physical therapist Kelly Starrett says, “Don’t go into the pain cave. Your animal totem won’t be there to help you.”

I don’t know what that means, either. But I like the illustrations, so why not give it a go?

dont-just-sit-there-1

Wake up! Time for school!

As a parent of teens, this news story caught my eye.

Sleepless no more in Seattle — later school start time pays off for teens
“This study shows a significant improvement in the sleep duration of students, all by delaying school start times so they’re more in line with the natural wake-up times of adolescents,” says senior author Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington researcher and professor of biology. The study also found an improvement in grades and a reduction in tardiness* and absences.

It’s a topic that’s been doing the rounds for years, though, as these articles from just the Guardian show. There are no doubt others.

Major study of teenage sleep patterns aims to assess impact on learning
Pupils to start lessons at 10am in effort to see how neuroscience might improve school performance and exam results [October 2014]

Start school day at 11am to let students sleep in, says expert
Paul Kelley says young people are losing 10 hours’ sleep a week, and calls for 8.30am starts for primary pupils and 10 or 11am for teenagers [September 2015]

Children struggling to concentrate at school due to lack of sleep, MPs told
Sleep deprivation highlighted in inquiry into role of education in preventing mental health problems in children [March 2017]

Sleep-deprived pupils need extra hour in bed, schools warned
Shift school day back by an hour to tackle poor results, anxiety and obesity, say experts [January 2019]

The regularity of these articles suggests a lack of motivation to actuality change the system, with the later start time remaining a ‘nice-to-have’, rather than the ‘must-have’.  But, as that NPR article says,

while only a handful of school districts nationwide have switched to later start times, that is changing “as counties and cities like Seattle make changes and see positive benefit.”

(* ‘Tardiness’ is such a great word. I remember, when I was a university Deputy Registrar, feeling very pleased with myself that I could use that and the term ‘laggards’ in our procedures around coursework submission and so on.)

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.

Yes, I know this is one of those health pendulum stories — coffee/bacon/red wine is good for you one week, bad for you the next — but I’m happy to think of all this coffee I’m drinking as an investment for my future.

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.

ok-to-be-ok-2

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.

illustrating-good-mental-health-2

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.

happy-smokey-days-2

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.