Sunday, 18 February 2018

#30: Coffee

‘Coffee strengthens memory and intellectual capacity’, says this sugar sachet. Is this true? I was all set to dismiss this as a marketing ploy, but there does seem to be some evidence to support the claim.

Overall, the results about the effect of caffeine on memory are mixed.

In the short term, caffeine can ‘strengthen intellectual capacity’, particularly in sub-optimal conditions – i.e. if the drinker is feeling tired or working at night. If the drinker is working on more complex tasks, there are still positive results linked with caffeine consumption but it’s not so easy to say that this is actually down to the caffeine, rather than other factors. And in some studies, caffeine was even found to impair memory.

This 2002 literature review in the Archives of Medical Science in the US National Library of Medicine states that regular caffeine users have higher mental functioning (!), although again this may not be down to the coffee on its own.

An article from the same source  says that caffeine improves reaction time but has no effect on long-term memory.

To my surprise, drinking coffee in midlife is linked to reduced incidence of  dementia, although this may not be down to the coffee – correlation does not mean causation, of course, and it’s not clear what the exact mechanism might be. Randomised controlled trials (isolating caffeine as far as possible as the only variable) are lacking.

Commentators agree that the safe limit for coffee is 400 mg a day – about 4 cups. ‘It seems safe to inform the general public that coffee drinkers need not fear for their health’, says this 2017 article. Reassuring, but certainly no good for a sugar packet slogan.

So how should that sugar packet slogan be rewritten to be more rigorous? Something like: ‘studies show that coffee might strengthen memory and intellectual capacity in the short term’. Not as catchy, but still… surprising, I must admit.

And let’s not forget the other benefits of coffee – the way it brings people together, offers a break from work and is of course is a good procrastination tactic. So here’s Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 surrealist work Luncheon in Fur to highlight the cuddly side of coffee.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

#29: Museum of Almeria

‘I hope it’s a girl. She might have more children and we’ll be able to add to the tribe,’ says a kneeling figure, part of a group clustered around a woman giving birth. This tableau of wire sculptures is upstairs in Almeria Museum, encircled by grave goods like shell necklaces from this south-east corner of Spain in the 3rd millennium BC.

This is one of the ways the museum has enlivened collections of pots, buckles and shells excavated in the area. Other ways are pictures, maps and well-lit and arranged displays – objects which stood out for me were an intricately carved bone knife handle, a small comb with tiny delicate teeth and a charming crumbling sculpture of an ‘hombre de caballos’ (pictured), a man with two horses kneeling each side of him looking like they are eating out of his hands.
Man with horses, 5th or 6th century BC
As in many Spanish museums, the library is just as accessible as the displays, its open door immediately opposite the reception desk.
It’s a shame the leaflet isn’t as user-friendly: ‘the ground floor, where your tour begins, has one of the most interesting museographic resources to be found in the museum and one of enormous educational value.’ Groan. This stuffy abstract generalising language does no favours to what it is describing, a vertical column rising up through the stairs showing in 3-D form the strata where the artefacts were found – another creative way of representing archaeology to people who, like me, have no expertise in it.

The museum also looks at Roman society in the area and Islamic Almeria. I recommend a visit – and don’t miss the horse whisperer.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

#28: Pet

'OK, so I'm gorgeous – get over it'

The recent media-fuelled row about whether Parliament voted that animals were not ‘sentient beings’ stirred up a lot of people. But of course they are sentient. Anyone who has had a pet knows this. 

But I was wondering recently about the effects of pets on our lives. Are they actually good for us? I asked a few of my friends how their lives would be different if they did not own pets, and they quickly they came up with negatives as well as positives. Here are some comments:

Sarah and David (six dogs, two cats)
Sarah: ‘They give me a nervous breakdown on a regular basis. If I don’t keep them, they’ll die. That’s why we have so many. I’d get a lot more done if I didn’t have them – be free to go on holiday.
They are understanding of me. I’m the centre of their pack – their lives revolve around me. I only get to be away for five or six hours and then have to go back to them. I have a particular relationship with Bandit, my first dog. We are close. You can’t get a fag paper between us – he talks to me.’
David: ‘It would be a lot cheaper. I wouldn’t have to replace so many computer screens because the dog kept chewing them – the first one cost €300.
The dogs are good companions and good entertainment. They give you unconditional love – no matter how much you upset them, they’ll always come back and give you a cuddle. They helped me integrate into the community here – you get talking with people when you’re out walking.

Tim (two cats)
‘It would be so much easier – perpetual whining and clawing – want, want, want, – I say ‘can’t you open a can yourself?’ We have them because they foisted themselves on us – they’re squatting. But they’re a diversion if you’re a couple.

Janet (four cats)
I would travel more if I didn’t have them – that’s the thing that disrupts our lives most.
The house would not be a home without the pets – you wouldn’t have so much reason to go back. I think your blood pressure falls when you stroke cats. It was very important when the children were growing up that they had animals; they learn responsibility. The cats give affection unconditionally – they also teach children something about death.

Claire (two dogs, three cats, two donkeys, two guinea pigs)
Life would be more lonely without them. And all our animals are useful – the donkeys are good strimmers, the dogs guard the house, the cats catch mice. The guinea pigs are for the children.

Wendy (two dogs, hens)
Life would be empty and and more boring without pets, even if it would be a bit easier. Dogs are very faithful. Some of our hens are so old they have stopped laying. But I couldn’t kill them.

Marjan (no pets)
We shouldn’t forget that pets are a threat to the environment – eating birds and geckos.
And what does the research say? It turns out that ‘animal-assisted therapy’ has long been used, for example with animal handlers taking dogs into prisons to help relieve inmates’ stress and encourage social skills, or into care homes to offer meaningful interactions for people with dementia. More broadly, maybe we all get a bit of ‘pet therapy’ when cuddling our cats or talking to our dogs at the end of a long day. 

As for evidence that pets are good for us, there is plenty, but it’s not always of the highest quality and results are not always clear-cut. Some experiments have shown that dog walkers have healthier hearts (but don’t dogless walkers too?) and that even a fish tank in the dining room can encourage elderly people with Alzheimer’s to eat more. Time magazine cherry-picked some of the clearest positive results in an article this year, but this gives the misleading impression that owning a pet is ‘officially’ and unequivocally good for you. A 2005 review of research in the British Medical Journal concluded that recent research into the effects on health was intriguing but contradictory.  

It is also difficult to separate out the effect of pet ownership from other factors. For example, a 2016 Korean experiment found that a group of 40-odd people over 65 given a cage of five crickets to look after had better psychological health at the end of eight weeks than a similar sized insectless group. This sounds clear enough, but can we be sure the results are down to the crickets? Could it be that simply having an aim or a small responsibility – doing some gardening, for example – would have the same effect?

But perhaps trying to isolate ‘the pet effect’ is missing the point. The point is that they are connected to many different aspects of our lives – part of our daily routines, of giving and receiving. They don’t work in isolation, but integrate us into society – who has not started a conversation with a fellow dog walker or patted a homeless person’s puppy instead of walking past? 

Different models for the effects of pets on health, from the British Medical Journal article quoted below

Likewise, it may also be missing the point to look for measurable health benefits of pet ownership, such as lowered blood pressure or stress levels. It could be more useful to look at how they are plugged into our lives more widely. The 2005 article mentioned above recommends a broader definition of health to mean physical and mental well-being, and social integration:

The main issue may not be whether pet ownership per se confers measurable physical benefits but the role that pets have in individual people's lives—namely, the contributions of the pet to quality of life or the costs to wellbeing through a pet's death.

We could also think of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set in a future world where real animals have mostly disappeared and the bar-coded replicas which have replaced them do not fulfil the need to have and hold a real furry friend. The hero Rick Deckard uses his wages from bounty hunting to buy a precious and expensive sheep to keep on his rooftop (I saw a large herd of them last weekend in the mountains, flowing from one terrace to another, like a sea). Sentient beings, for sure.
'A cat is a cat's best friend – sometimes'

Saturday, 14 October 2017

#27: exam

‘Exam’ is not exactly a dirty word among liberal educationalists, but the idea of testing people and ranking their performance is viewed with suspicion by many, despite decades of research into how to assess academic performance and today’s fairly true-to-life exam tasks in many subjects. 

For example, in Museum Studies courses I have worked on, students may have to mount an exhibition, design questionnaires, assess a workshop and carry out many other practical things likely to be just as much help in future jobs as researching, clarifying and expressing ideas by means of an essay (also a much maligned task, which I will look at in a future blog post).
So, as someone who plans to take an exam of her own free will (Spanish B2) here I would like to list a few reasons to – not exactly love them, but to appreciate what they do:

1.     They make students work. That old and good pedagogical command ‘focus on learning and not teaching’ is a constant reminder that activities, materials and curricula should have that as an end goal. I wonder sometimes how much time is spent on improving teaching as compared to encouraging and enabling learning, and if teachers spend too much time on the former (since it is under teachers’ control). The powerful stick or carrot of an exam are as valuable for the work the student does in preparation, as for the achievement afterwards.

2.     They are a target to aim at. Learning a language is in some ways an endless process, but an exam is an achievable objective.

3.     They test things which may not come up in other contexts. Imperfect subjunctive, anyone? Exams are a wider context to use skills and knowledge that you might never get the opportunity to in real life.

4.     At least in language exams, they are one of the few contexts where accuracy is important. Once you can make yourself understood, people you talk to are unlikely to correct your language mistakes. An exam makes you attend to your verb endings and prepositions.

5.     A qualification is evidence which is standardised across industries, countries or universities. For example, the A1-C2 language scale is from the Common European Framework of Reference for modern languages (CEFR).

6.     They can powerfully improve your work or higher education prospects. Some people say they shouldn’t, but they are a kind of shorthand which contributes to your overall educational or professional profile.

Rejection of exams just won’t wash for all subjects. Would you like to be seen by a doctor who had failed their medical exams, or be on the road alongside people who had failed their driving test? Obviously exams can’t cover all the skills needed in any profession, but are a standardised indication of competence. So I'm not sure why language competence should be exempt from examination.

‘Any critical approach to education… is bound to take a sceptical view of exams, whether viewed as a measure of achievement and potential, or in the context of their potentially limiting impact on teaching.’ So says Scott Thornbury, an education theorist I admire, whose language teaching blog is the best I have come across.

But do exams always have to have a limiting impact? Can they not sharpen and expand the range of areas which students study?

Thornbury, S. and Meddings, L. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.