Archive for January, 2011

Want to make you brain more effective and efficient? Trying to counteract the effects of ageing on your brainpower? This Liferhacker article by Adam Dachis provides some answers.

 


 
While we’re always using our brains, we’re not necessarily doing much to keep them in good shape. Here are the top ten sites and tools to train your brain and exercise your mental muscles.
 

10. Sudoku

By now you’re probably familiar with Sudoku, but just in case it’s a number puzzle game with the objective of filling up a grid of numbers. Check out these instructions to learn how to play. Most people find Sudoku a fun and addictive game, plus it can help improve your problem-solving skills (just not your overall brain health). You can play online, on your iOS device, on Facebook,Android, and pretty much any other platform you can think of.

9. Wikipedia:Random

Wikipedia:Random is simply a means of randomly stumbling on a Wikipedia article. Why is this good for your brain? You can use it to find a new topic to learn about every day. Qwiki, a visually rich, mini Wikipedia that reads to you, is another good starting point. Learning something new every day can keep your brain healthy, so grab a random article and make it a new way to start your morning.

Wikpedia:Random

8. Practice Simple Maths Every Day

Americans of a certains age remember (fondly or otherwise) a school procedure known as Mad Math Minute, where you’d need to solve as many maths problems as possible in 60 seconds. While it may have seemed annoying then, it was excellent practice that you can still make use of now. While it’s easy enough to create your own Mad Math Minute worksheets, since you’re basically just writing out a bunch of simple maths problems on a piece of paper, I found a Mad Math Minute generator for Mrs. Boguski’s 5th grade class. It probably wasn’t intended for mass consumption on the web, so here are some alternative printable worksheets. The bottom line is this: a minute of simple maths can help get your brain in shape and make you far less reliant on a calculator.

7. Write Instead of Type More Often

We love our keyboards. They’re much more efficient at getting words on the page than your hand, a pencil, and a notebook. Nonetheless, you can learn more effectively by writing longhandand so you may want to ditch the laptop when you’re acquiring new knowledge. This happens because your brain’s filtering system (the reticular activating system, or RAS) processes what you’re actively focusing on at the moment. Writing triggers the RAS and lets your brain know it’s time to pay attention.

6. Act Like You’re Teaching

You can utilise the skills you already have more effectively by acting like you’re teaching. Rather than just recalling the steps needing to complete the task at hand, act as though you are teaching yourself how to do it. This will help you recall the necessary information better and avoid making stupid mistakes.

Photo by Renato Ganoza

5. Tell Yourself Stories

Storytelling can be a good way to exercise your brain. First of all, it makes things easier to remember because it puts what you want to remember in a more compelling framework. It gives you a chance to focus on important details and associate emotion with what you’re trying to remember. Even if you’re not telling yourself a story to help retain the information, you’ll still improve your memory just by telling stories in general. Storytelling has been used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. If storytelling can help an Alzeheimer’s patient improve their memory, chances are it can help you.

Photo by Stacy Z

4. Lumosity

Lumosity is a webapp that provides specialised brain-training activities. You can use it for free, but premium accounts (which you can try free for five days) have a wider range of training options. All the exercises are pretty simple to understand and are fun to play. All of my initial exercises had to do with memory, likely because I selected better memory as one of my goals when I signed up. That’s to say that Lumosity’s exercises may vary for you based on the information you provide. When you’re done, you get a rating and your goal is simply to improve with each day you practice.

Lumosity

3. Meditate

Nothing kills your ability to use your brain effectively, as well as your brain’s overall health, like too much stress. What’s a great way to reduce your stress levels? Meditation—and you don’t need to do it with incense and yoga pants. Check out our guide on meditation for the rest of us for some simple ways to get started.

Photo by Cornelia Kopp

2. Learn About Your Brain’s Faults and Account for Them

In a previous top ten we’ve taken a look at ways your brain is sabotaging you and how to beat it. We’ve also looked at how to avoid burnout from addictive technologyhow you can become a lot smarter by realizing you’re not that greathow to use your natural inclination towards quitting to your advantagehow imagining eating more can lead to eating lesswhy it’s okay that you and everyone else is an asshole, and many more. Basically, your brain does a lot of things very, very well but sucks at plenty of others. You may not be able to fix the things your brain is bad at in all cases, but at least being aware of your inherent faults can make sure you’re taking advantage of your brain’s full potential.

1. Exercise and Eat Well

While probably a little obvious, I’d bet that the number of people who believe this is common knowledge is very close to the number of people who don’t follow that common knowledge. If you’re not exercising and eating right simply because you don’t know how, well, check out this15-minute daily workout from 1904 and structure your daily diet like a pyramid. Anything you do to keep your brain sharp can be easily thwarted if you don’t keep your body healthy. A little physical activity and a smart diet will make it much easier for you to your brain in top shape.

Photo by Lululemon Athletica

The following Ars Technica post by John Timmer emphasises the importance for children of learning self-control, a strategy to postpone immediate gratification, resulting in long-terms postive effects on physical and mental wellbeing as well as success in adult life.

 

 

The events of our childhood can help influence the trajectories of the rest of our lives. The economic status of a family, as well as factors like a child’s IQ, have been correlated with various forms of adult welfare, from health to financial stability. But factors like these tend to be difficult to change; why do some people overcome a difficult background, and how might we enable more people to do so? That’s the question asked by a research team that has followed over 1,000 children from birth until they were 32, and the results are pretty straightforward: teach the kids a bit of self-control.

The kids in question were born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and enrolled in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study; 32 years later, a full 96 percent of the initial cohort were still checking in. Along the way, the children, their parents, teachers, and friends reported in on their physical and mental status. Professionals also performed medical and psychiatric evaluations, giving a remarkably complete perspective on the children’s development. Hundreds of papers have been produced using the data in the last decade alone.

The latest study focuses on self-control, which seems to be a major interest of the authors. “The need to delay gratification, control impulses, and modulate emotional expression,” they note, “is the earliest and most ubiquitous demand that societies place on their children.” That sort of self-control remains a major factor throughout adulthood, as we expect individuals to pay their debts, avoid substance abuse, and so forth. And, as the authors also note, there are some indications that self-control can change during an individual’s lifetime, and may possibly be learned.

So, they used a battery of tests and surveys—from the children, their parents, their teachers—to generate a composite self-control score for the children at two-year intervals, from ages 3 through 11. They then correlated this score with a variety of measures in adulthood, including general measures of health, substance abuse, financial well-being, and criminal activity. In addition to testing for a direct correlation, they ran a statistical model that controlled for the impact of IQ and the socio-economic status of the child’s parents.

Recurrent depression was just about the only thing that didn’t correlate with childhood self-control. A health index that covered everything from periodontal disease to STDs showed that low self-control correlated with adult health problems; it also correlated with substance abuse issues. Kids with low self-control were more likely to end up raising kids as single parents, had lower savings, and less put away into retirement or home ownership. Finally, a scan of all the police records in Australia and New Zealand showed that criminal convictions also correlated with low childhood self-control. In some cases, IQ and socio-economic status had more profound effects, but the impact of self-control persisted after these were (ahem) controlled for.

(One amusing aside here is that a lack of childhood self-control didn’t seem to make the kids any less likely to still be enrolled in the study at age 32. So, one potential confounding factor didn’t seem to play a role in the results, but that seems like a somewhat odd result in itself.)

To strengthen the case for a potential causal relationship, the authors divided up the data in two different ways. They split the total population into fifths based on how much self-control they exhibited as children, and found that the degree of self control also predicted the results of the measures of adult well-being. That is, kids in the middle range of scores tended to have intermediate levels of adult health. They also identified individuals who, over the course of their childhood, had improved their self-control as they transitioned to adulthood. In these cases, the adult outcomes improved as well.

To provide a somewhat stronger control for environmental influences, the researchers also looked at a twin study that had performed a self control test at five, and had data on the individuals when they had reached 12 years old. Already, the kids with less self control were displaying antisocial behaviors, performing poorly at school, and more likely to have started smoking. The authors term these last two “traps,” where the lack of self-control early helps lock the kids into habits that will damage their future health and prosperity.

The only obvious weakness of the study is its use of composite scores for some of the correlations. So, although a lot of the health measures are very objective—you don’t “sort of” get an STD—the composite health scores lump the STDs in with heart disease and gum disease to create a single value. That runs the risk of accentuating the correlation by pooling a few values that aren’t independent. For example, periodontal problems are often associated with heart disease. It also may gloss over some important differences in health risks; STDs, for example, would seem to be a classic self-control issue. But, overall, the work looks pretty solid.

What might set people a bit on edge, however, is the fact that the authors take their work and use it to make policy suggestions. Since it’s cheaper to have a healthy, productive member of society, they suggest, governments might consider developing programs that help develop self-control in children as investments in a country’s future. In addition, they suggest social programs like retirement savings be made opt-out, since those without self-control would be less likely to bother to skip them, and more likely to need them in their later years. These sorts of policy recommendations aren’t typically mixed in with most research papers, which tend to focus on arguing for the direct conclusions from the work.

The West and in particular the US like supporting dictatorships when they can economically and in terms of strategic power benefit (and those two objective are often synonymous). One way to support dictatorships is to sell them biliions of dollars worth of weapons, and America’s support of Egypt over the last few days has been highlighted in this regard by the Egyptian police’s use of teargas produced in the US. The Ars Technica article below by Nate Anderson looks at what those teargas canisters contain and what the health effects are.

 

A protestor holds a used tear gas canister (Atlantic)

 

If you’ve been watching any coverage of the Egyptian protests, you’ve no doubt seen the tear gas plumes as canisters are shot at protestors—often to be picked up and hurled back moments later. Many of those tear gas containers falling on the bridges and streets of Cairo aren’t local products, however; they come from Jamestown, Pennsylvania, home of Combined Tactical Systems.

Several reporters in Egypt have commented on that fact this week. ABC News ran a story on the gas today in which it quotes a protestor saying, “The way I see it, the US administration supports dictators.”

It’s no secret that Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US foreign military funding, much of which is designated to purchase US-made weapons; it’s just that Americans don’t often see Egyptians holding empty tear gas canisters stamped “Made in USA” up to a TV camera.

 

But what’s in those canisters?

A wide array of shiny new canisters

 

The US government requires most chemical compounds to have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) outlining the ingredients, the risks of contacting those ingredients, and cleanup procedures in case of an accident. Combined Tactical Systems helpfully makes puts these MSDS files on its website.

The tear gas grenades and canisters are largely filled with a fuel mixture that burns to disperse the tearing agent. The Model 5220 CN Smoke grenade (PDF), for instance, has a small starter mixture of potassium nitrate, silicon, and charcoal. This in turn in used to light the “CN smoke”—a form of tear gas.

The CN smoke is 71 percent fuel, made up of potassium chlorate, magnesium carbonate, nitrocellulose, and… sucrose. The other 29 percent of the smoke is the tearing agent, chloroacetophenone, which has been around for nearly a century and causes severe irritation of the mucous membranes. (Combined Tactical Systems also sells the commonly used “CS smoke” tear gas version, which is powered by chlorobenzalmalononitrile.)

A tear gas cartridge spec sheet

 

Both kinds of tear gas have a “pungent odor,” according to the MSDS. Those handling them should wear a “full face respirator with organic filter cartridge” and should “wash thoroughly after handling.”

That’s because, as the protestor went on to tell ABC, “Your eyes tear up a lot so you can’t see, and you feel like you’re suffocating. You can actually breathe but you feel like you are suffocating so you try to run, but when you run you inhale more.”

As the MSDS puts it, rather more clinically, the gases cause “tearing of eyes, irritation of respiratory tract and mucous membranes,” and asthma may be “aggravated by exposure.”

There is a wide-spread perception that in our bit-size world deep reflections have fallen out of favour. Clive Thompson in a Wired post begs to disagree:

By Clive Thompson Email Author – December 27, 2010  | 12:00 pm  | Wired January 2010

 Illustration: Thomas Ng

Illustration: Thomas Ng

We’re often told that the Internet has destroyed people’s patience for long, well-thought-out arguments. After all, the ascendant discussions of our day are text messages, tweets, and status updates. The popularity of this endless fire hose of teensy utterances means we’ve lost our appetite for consuming—and creating—slower, reasoned contemplation. Right?

I’m not so sure. In fact, I think something much more complex and interesting is happening: The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation.

When something newsworthy happens today—Brett Favre losing to the Jets, news of a new iPhone, a Brazilian election runoff—you get a sudden blizzard of status updates. These are just short takes, and they’re often half-baked or gossipy and may not even be entirely true. But that’s OK; they’re not intended to be carefully constructed. Society is just chewing over what happened, forming a quick impression of What It All Means.

The long take is the opposite: It’s a deeply considered report and analysis, and it often takes weeks, months, or years to produce. It used to be that only traditional media, like magazines or documentaries or books, delivered the long take. But now, some of the most in-depth stuff I read comes from academics or businesspeople penning big blog essays, Dexter fans writing 5,000-word exegeses of the show, and nonprofits like the Pew Charitable Trusts producing exhaustively researched reports on American life.

The long take also thrives on the long tail. Whereas a tweet becomes dated within minutes, a really smart long take holds value for years. Back in the ’90s, my magazine articles vanished after the issue left the newsstand. But now that the pieces are online, readers email me every week saying they’ve stumbled upon something years old.

The real loser here is the middle take. This is what the weeklies like Time and Newsweek have historically offered: reportage and essays produced a few days after major events, with a bit of analysis sprinkled on top. They’re neither fast enough to be conversational nor slow enough to be truly deep. The Internet has essentially demonstrated how unsatisfying that sort of thinking can be.

This trend has already changed blogging. Ten years ago, my favorite bloggers wrote middle takes—a link with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they’d update a few times a day. Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer, more-in-depth essays. Why?

“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.

Even our reading tools are morphing to accommodate the rise of long takes. The design firm Arc90 released Readability, an app that renders website text as one clean, ad-free column down the center of your screen—perfect for distraction-free long-form reading—and it got so popular that Apple baked it into the current version of Safari. Or consider the iPad: It’s been criticized as “only” a consumption device, but that’s the whole point; it’s superb for consuming long takes. Instapaper, an app created by Marco Arment to time-shift online material for later reading, has racked up nearly a million users with hardly any advertising. “It’s for reading,” Arment says, “when you’re ready to be attentive.”

Which, despite reports to the contrary, we are. We talk a lot, then we dive deep.

I have not researched the facts presented on this website I happened to stumble upon. The author Jess Anderson says:

Begun in early 1998, this page gathers information to alert decent people everywhere to the activities and philosophies of these groups, whose common aim is to make the United States a society and a government ruled by apartheid.

His facts, statements and conclusions seem to make sense, and I thought they might provide further background to my previous post: American hypocrisy: the killer mentality of the American soul.

The Radical Right: organized hatred in America

 

This is not a long, profoundly philosophical or sociological essay on the American psyche nor is it a simplistic, generalising reflection on the nature of ‘all’ Americans. This post also does not neglect the role violence based on colonialism, racism, religious fanaticism and material/economic greed has put shame on other nations, from the distant past to the present. All I want to do is is to contrast America’s ideological billboard, describing that nation as the shiniest of all beacons of freedom, democracy and human rights with a small list of facts (and that list is small indeed and by no means representational – there is for example an endless number of social and global justice issues I’m not even touching on).

Here are the facts:

  • since so-called white settlers set foot on what is seen as American soil, it’s people have been involved in 26 wars from colonial times to the present
  • this number does not do any justice to the victims of the military history of the United States that has seen at least 294 extra-territorial and domestic military operations between 1775-2009; apart from a few internal ones, these operations took place in countless countries on the European continent (including Russia), in Asia (including India and China), Africa (from Morocco to Somalia), Central and South America and even Greenland – in other words; there are not many places on this planet that in the last 230+ years have not seen American military operations – always in the name of freedom and democracy of course, but mainly driven by America’s economic and hegemonic interests
  • the above facts do not include the 50+ wars against and massacres of American Indians, military actions in slave rebellions, inter-state and county wars, local feuds, combats with internal paramilitary groups and guerilla forces, interventions against striking workers, riots, ‘disorders’ and ‘miscellaneous’ events ranging from smaller internal wars to the Mormon War, the Texan revolution, American embassy bombings, hostage crises, wars on drugs or the Waco siege (see Timeline of US Military Operations for details)

Without jumping to simplistic conclusions, it surely cannot be coincidental that

  • 40% of Americans own a firearm
  • the US had a homicide rate of 6 per population of 100,000, which is three times higher than that of Canada, four times as high as in Australia, six times higher than Germany and 12 time as high as in Britain and Japan
  • the unofficial figurehead of the unofficial Tea Party, Sarah Palin, tweeted after the passing of the healthcare package: “Commonsense conservatives and lovers of America: Don’t retreat, instead – RELOAD”; her website featured prominent Democratic politicians and maps of their districts in the crosshairs of rifle sights; one of those politicians was the US senator Gabrielle Gifford, one of the recent Arizona shooting victims
  • misguided Tea Party patriots, bent on taking back ‘their’ country, are extremely militant and openly violent
  • a country with a history of murdering its presidents has right-wing politicians and Fox News commentators calling Obama, who actually is firmly entrenched in the country’s conservative ruling elite and establishment, a “socialist ideologue”, a Muslim, accusing him of “deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and of “Kenyan, anti-colonial” world views; that these commentators can get away with such baseless propaganda is not surprising in a nation in which 25% of Americans believe or think it to be likely that Obama was not born in the US (and therefore was not eligible to become president) and also believe that he (a nominal Christian) actually is a Muslim; Obama gets 30 death threads a day
  • Fox radio personality Rush Limbaugh called for pressure to: “give [Fox News president Roger] Ailes the order and [then] there is no Assange, I’ll guarantee you, and there will be no fingerprints on it”; or that The Washington Times’ Jeffrey Kuhner titled a column “Assassinate Assange” and captioned it with a picture of Assange overlayed with a gun sight and the words “Wanted: dead or alive” with “alive” crossed out

We’re talking here not about a sub-culture of fringe lunatics but about the official America: leading news journalists and leading politicians openly and with impunity promoting the killing of others in their own country and outside of it. All this happens in the same nation that has a long history of hatred, bigotry, aggression, committing colonial and post-colonial atrocities, and inflicting war on other nations and their people. And while there are of course Americans who are peace-loving, tolerant, inclusive and humane, it is hard not to conclude that aggression, violence and hatred are an essential part of the American soul.

Deepening crisis traps America’s have-nots

The US is drifting from a financial crisis to a deeper and more insidious social crisis. Self-congratulation by the US authorities that they have this time avoided a repeat of the 1930s is premature.

A tale of two shoppers – Louis Vuitton has helped boost the luxury goods stock index by almost 50pc since October, yet Walmart has languished.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph, London

THERE is a telling detail in the US retail chain store data for December. Stephen Lewis from Monument Securities points out that luxury outlets saw an 8.1 per cent rise from a year ago, but discount stores catering to America’s poorer half rose just 1.2 per cent.

Tiffany & Co, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue are booming. Sales of Cadillac cars have jumped 35 per cent, and Porsche’s US sales are up 29 per cent.

Cartier and Louis Vuitton have helped boost the luxury goods stock index by almost 50 per cent since October. Yet Best Buy, Target and Walmart have languished.

Such is the blighted fruit of Federal Reserve policy. The Fed no longer even denies that the purpose of its latest blast of bond purchases, or QE2, is to drive up Wall Street, perhaps because it has so signally failed to achieve its other purpose of driving down borrowing costs.

Yet surely Ben Bernanke’s trickle-down strategy risks corroding America’s ethic of solidarity long before it does much to help America’s poor.

The retail data can be quirky but it fits in with everything else we know. The number of people on food stamps has reached 43.2 million, an all time-high of 14 per cent of the population. Recipients receive debit cards – not stamps – at present worth about $US140 a month under Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

The US Conference of Mayors said visits to soup kitchens are up 24 per cent. There are 643,000 people needing shelter each night.

Jobs data released on Friday was again shocking. The only reason that headline unemployment fell from 9.7 per cent to 9.4 per cent was that so many people dropped out of the system altogether.

The actual number of jobs contracted by 260,000 to 153,690,000. The “labour participation rate” for working-age men over 20 dropped to 73.6 per cent, the lowest since the data series began in 1948. My guess is that this figure exceeds the average for the Great Depression (minus the cruellest year, 1932).

“Corporate America is in a V-shaped recovery,” said Robert Reich, a former labour secretary. “That’s great news for investors whose savings are mainly in stocks and bonds, and for executives and Wall Street traders. But most American workers are trapped in an L-shaped recovery.”

The long-term unemployed (more than six months) have reached 42 per cent of the total, twice the peak of the early 1990s. Nothing like this has been seen since World War II.

The Gini Coefficient used to measure income inequality has risen from the mid-30s to 46.8 over the past 25 years, touching the same extremes reached in the Roaring Twenties just before the slump. It has also been ratcheting up in Britain and Europe.

Raghuram Rajan, the International Monetary Fund’s former chief economist, argues that the subprime debt build-up was an attempt – “whether carefully planned or the path of least resistance” – to disguise stagnating incomes and to buy off the poor.

“The inevitable bill could be postponed into the future. Cynical as it might seem, easy credit has been used throughout history as a palliative by governments that are unable to address the deeper anxieties of the middle class directly,” he said.

Bank failures in the Depression were in part caused by expansion of credit to struggling farmers in response to the US Populist movement.

Extreme inequalities are toxic for societies, but there is also a body of scholarship suggesting that they cause depressions as well by upsetting the economic balance. They create a bias towards asset bubbles and over-investment, while holding down consumption, until the system becomes top-heavy and tips over, as happened in the 1930s.

The switch from brawn to brain in the internet age has obviously pushed up the Gini count, but so has globalisation. Multinationals are exploiting “labour arbitrage” by moving plant to low-wage countries, playing off workers in China and the West against each other. The profit share of corporations is at record highs across in America and Europe.

More subtly, Asia’s mercantilist powers have flooded the world with excess capacity, holding down their currencies to lock in trade surpluses. The effect is to create a black hole in the global system.

Yes, we can still hope that this is a passing phase until rising wages in Asia restore balance to East and West, but what if it proves to be permanent, a structural incompatibility of the Confucian model with our own Ricardian trade doctrine?

There is no easy solution to creeping depression in America and swathes of the Old World. A Keynesian ”New Deal” of borrowing on the bond markets to build roads, bridges, solar farms or nuclear power stations to soak up the army of unemployed is not a credible option in our new age of sovereign debt jitters. The fiscal card is played out.

So we limp on, with very large numbers of people in the West trapped on the wrong side of globalisation, and nobody doing much about it. Would Franklin Roosevelt have tolerated such a lamentable state of affairs, or would he have ripped up and reshaped the global system until it answered the needs of his citizens?