Archive for the ‘Ancient and Medieval History’ Category

Feeding The Informal Learner’s Brain

August 13, 2008

Since Ancient Times Walnuts Have Been Considered Brain Food

Since Ancient Times Walnuts Have Been Considered Brain Food

If you’re like me you’re sorta dubious about a lot of claims made about nutrition… by both the pros and the amateurs.
Here’s one from an amateur. I once sat down to an evening meal with a gaffer on a very large live TV shoot. It was close to 5pm and she was trying to get through her meal quickly. I asked her if she had some kind of work deadline to meet. “No,” she replied, “to keep my figure I try not to eat any protein or fats after 5pm.” I’m sure I looked at her like she was nuts. After all, what about the many Spaniards who eat their biggest meal at perhaps 8pm or later and still manage to stay perfectly svelte?
What she was talking about is a variation of the aphorism that says you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at noon and a pauper for the evening meal. But what about all the French men and women who eat nothing more than a croissant and an espresso for breakfast their entire adult life?
Or this one from a medical source. When my wife was pregnant with our first child her doctor gave her a prenatal nutrition brochure that urged her not to eat spicy foods because it might upset baby’s digestion. It made me wonder what Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan mothers manage to eat when they’re expecting.
Remember when eggs were bad and so was butter? Now margarine is an evil transfat and eggs are a ‘sustainable’ nutrition-rich food.
In my view, a lot of what passes for sound nutritional advice is probably just an expression of cultural bias and scientific faddism. In the U.S. it’s accepted wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But do French dieticians agree?
All that said, this blog is about the brain, the mind and informal learning. What I’d like to hear about is a ‘brain food’ diet where I don’t have to check my brain at the door.
For instance, in ancient cultures, the state of the art thinking was that brain food was anything that physically resembled the human brain. And so walnuts, cauliflower, and even brains themselves were thought to be brain food.
So, when I came across the following diet said to be healthful to the body and high cognitive function, my ‘skeptometer’ went on high alert. I found the diet on the Franklin Institute website via the always helpful sharpbrains.com website.
Fats
Include foods that supply essential fatty acids. Raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds are one source. These would ideally include fresh, raw, refrigerated walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds or flax meal, along with all the other nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils of these nuts and seeds would also be good. Eat products such as seaweeds and fish that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids – salmon, sardines, trout, tuna (only small amounts), herring, and mackerel. Avocados, fresh coconut, and extra virgin olive oil are also good sources of fat. Avoid trans fats .
Animal foods contain variable amounts of fat. To maximize the essential fatty acid content (and consume a healthier food), try to get the meat and dairy products of animals that were raised as naturally as possible. “Free-range” animals are allowed to forage on green grasses, so their diet – hence their meat, milk, and eggs – are rich in essential fatty acids and superior to that of caged animals. Look for wild fish, rather than farmed.
Proteins
Animal foods, including eggs and milk products, are excellent sources of protein and, thus, the amino acids that come from the breakdown of protein. Other foods supplying many of the essential amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production are dried beans (legumes), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Carbohydrates
To maintain adequate levels of the brain fuel glucose, it’s important to eat often enough. For some people, this means eating snacks as well as main meals. For others, it just means eating at least every five hours. Poor concentration and low energy levels can be a sign that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Nutritious foods can also be high on the glycemic index . These include starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, winter squash, and cooked or juiced carrots and beets. Whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers are also healthy high-glycemic foods.
One formula for avoiding blood sugar spikes from these carbohydrates is to combine them with protein foods. For example, have an egg with your piece of toast; a tempeh burger with your ear of corn; a serving of salmon along with your potato. Mix high-glycemic fruits or fruit juices in a blender with nuts and whey protein powder. Non-starchy vegetables are also stabilizing to blood sugar levels. Eat them steamed or raw, in salads or stir-fried.
Micronutrients
Most foods contain some vitamins and minerals, but micronutrients are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables. To ensure a plentiful supply of these antioxidants, include at least the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. (Better yet, the ten servings sometimes advocated for cancer prevention.)
A serving is generally a small fruit or half a cup of cubed fruit; a cup of raw green leafy vegetables or half a cup of cooked greens; a half cup of other cooked or raw vegetables. These fruits and vegetables should be of wide variety and color – preferably in season, organic, and locally grown.
The preceding comes from Debra Burke, who, we are informed has a masters degree in nutritional science. I won’t lift Ms. Burke’s suggested menus, too, but you can find them here.
Is this brain food? Who knows?
I do know that I’m not likely to eat too many tempeh burgers or kelp powder, which she suggests in one of her menus. But I do appreciate her calls for a high fiber diet and a balance of high-glycemic foods against strong protein sources.
But here again my inner skeptic comes out. Anytime someone starts talking about glycemic levels I wonder why it is that people in South America and Asia… whose diets are loaded with rice or potatoes… don’t evidence high levels of diabetes or obesity.
And how glad I am to know that nuts have made a comeback as brain food.
If you’re like me you’re sorta dubious about a lot of claims made about nutrition… by both the pros and the amateurs.
Here’s one from an amateur. I once sat down to an evening meal with a gaffer on a very large live TV shoot. It was close to 5pm and she was trying to get through her meal quickly. I asked her if she had some kind of work deadline to meet. “No,” she replied, “to keep my figure I try not to eat any protein or fats after 5pm.”
I’m sure I looked at her like she was nuts. After all, what about the many Spaniards who eat their biggest meal at perhaps 8pm or later and still manage to stay perfectly svelte?
What she was talking about is a variation of the aphorism that says you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at noon and a pauper for the evening meal.
But what about all the French men and women who eat nothing more than a croissant and an espresso for breakfast their entire adult life?
Or this one from a medical source. When my wife was pregnant with our first child her doctor gave her a prenatal nutrition brochure that urged her not to eat spicy foods because it might upset baby’s digestion. It made me wonder what Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan mothers manage to eat when they’re expecting.
Remember when eggs were bad and so was butter? Now margarine is an evil transfat and eggs are a ‘sustainable’ nutrition-rich food.
In my view, a lot of what passes for sound nutritional advice is probably just an expression of cultural bias and scientific faddism. In the U.S. it’s accepted wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But do French dieticians agree?
All that said, this blog is about the brain, the mind and informal learning. What I’d like to hear about is a ‘brain food’ diet where I don’t have to check my brain at the door.
For instance, in ancient cultures, the state of the art thinking was that brain food was anything that physically resembled the human brain. And so walnuts, cauliflower, and even brains themselves were thought to be brain food.
So, when I came across the following diet said to be healthful to the body and high cognitive function, my ‘skeptometer’ went on high alert. I found the diet on the Franklin Institute website via the always helpful sharpbrains.com website.
Fats
Include foods that supply essential fatty acids. Raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds are one source. These would ideally include fresh, raw, refrigerated walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds or flax meal, along with all the other nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils of these nuts and seeds would also be good. Eat products such as seaweeds and fish that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids – salmon, sardines, trout, tuna (only small amounts), herring, and mackerel. Avocados, fresh coconut, and extra virgin olive oil are also good sources of fat. Avoid trans fats .
Animal foods contain variable amounts of fat. To maximize the essential fatty acid content (and consume a healthier food), try to get the meat and dairy products of animals that were raised as naturally as possible. “Free-range” animals are allowed to forage on green grasses, so their diet – hence their meat, milk, and eggs – are rich in essential fatty acids and superior to that of caged animals. Look for wild fish, rather than farmed.
Proteins
Animal foods, including eggs and milk products, are excellent sources of protein and, thus, the amino acids that come from the breakdown of protein. Other foods supplying many of the essential amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production are dried beans (legumes), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Carbohydrates
To maintain adequate levels of the brain fuel glucose, it’s important to eat often enough. For some people, this means eating snacks as well as main meals. For others, it just means eating at least every five hours. Poor concentration and low energy levels can be a sign that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Nutritious foods can also be high on the glycemic index . These include starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, winter squash, and cooked or juiced carrots and beets. Whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers are also healthy high-glycemic foods.
One formula for avoiding blood sugar spikes from these carbohydrates is to combine them with protein foods. For example, have an egg with your piece of toast; a tempeh burger with your ear of corn; a serving of salmon along with your potato. Mix high-glycemic fruits or fruit juices in a blender with nuts and whey protein powder. Non-starchy vegetables are also stabilizing to blood sugar levels. Eat them steamed or raw, in salads or stir-fried.
Micronutrients
Most foods contain some vitamins and minerals, but micronutrients are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables. To ensure a plentiful supply of these antioxidants, include at least the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. (Better yet, the ten servings sometimes advocated for cancer prevention.)
A serving is generally a small fruit or half a cup of cubed fruit; a cup of raw green leafy vegetables or half a cup of cooked greens; a half cup of other cooked or raw vegetables. These fruits and vegetables should be of wide variety and color – preferably in season, organic, and locally grown.
The preceding comes from nutritionist Debra Burke. I won’t lift Ms. Burke’s suggested menus, too, but you can find them here.
Is this brain food? Who knows?
I do know that I’m not likely to eat too many tempeh burgers or kelp powder, which she suggests in one of her menus.
However,  I do appreciate her calls for a high fiber diet and a balance of high-glycemic foods against strong protein sources.
But here again my inner skeptic comes out. Anytime someone starts talking about glycemic levels I wonder why it is that people in South America and Asia… whose diets are loaded with rice or potatoes… don’t evidence high levels of diabetes or obesity.
And how glad I am to know that nuts have made a comeback as brain food.
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Informal Learning on the Street Where You Live

July 2, 2008

\Imagine if thought balloons appeared above people’s heads that told you exactly what they were willing to teach someone like you. 

  • Maybe the gentle-looking white haired fellow you pass in the aisle at the grocery store could teach you about the miracle of forgiveness.
  • Maybe the tattooed and be-pierced kid at the library texting her boyfriend could help you work through a thorny CSS challenge.
  • Maybe the well-dressed woman in the Lexus in front of you could help you understand the Upanishads. Or, belly dancing. 

Now it appears that a Seattle outfit called TeachStreet is doing just that. (Though not exactly with thought balloons).

 

Presently in beta, TeachStreet links together teachers who are willing and presumably able to teach students in Seattle. They claim to have in their database 25,000 classes, teachers, coaches, instructors and schools just in the Emerald City.

 

Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re a student who wants to learn, say, conversational Italian. You plug in the term ‘Italian language’ into the site’s search engine. When I did 86 results popped-up. Currently you can narrow the search by geography, class size, ability, schedule, and price.

 

I selected personalized lessons, evening classes, and beginner status, which left me with a more manageable six results. I clicked on the one taught by a Valentina Preziuso… whose name sounds wonderfully Italian… and it took me to her biographical area. So far Valentina has yet to post anything about her background. There’s a review section as well, but for Valentina that too is blank.

 

At the page for the class, I found a link to Amazon products and a Google Ads column, as well as information about the class and cost, times, days, etc.  

 

The class and teacher profiles are free to registered users.

 

TeachStreet is the brainstorm of Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO, and a director at Amazon from 1998- 2004, who was, as his bio says, a driving force behind Amazon’s marketplace platform.

 

So far TeachStreet is only in Seattle, but plans are in the works to expand the concept to “San Philayorkizona,” the website reports.

 

The Buddha is supposed to have said; “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

 

Time will tell if there are enough students ready for 25,000 teachers in Seattle.

Learner’s Journals

June 25, 2008

Vitruvian Man was just another entry in da Vinci\'s JournalSo you’re an Informal Learner. You listen to books on tape and instructional recordings, go to lectures, play brain games, read magazines and books, watch documentaries, use certain software, crack open reference works when you need to, and observe the world and its inhabitants. But how do you seal the deal? That is, how do you keep what you’ve learned in your noggin, or at least within reach?

 

If you’re like Informal Learners since time immemorial you record what you learn from life in a Learner’s Journal or notebook. I’m not talking about a diary necessarily. A diary is typically more internally directed, although Michelangelo’s journals were famously both about what he thought and felt in addition to what he was learning.

 

Instead I’m talking about a journal that serves as a kind of repository for what you’ve discovered in your learning as well as a sounding board for your ideas.

 

This post is about two celebrated Informal Learners who rigorously kept Learner’s Journals; the Renaissance men Leonardo da Vinci and Buckminster Fuller.

 

Leonardo was called da Vinci because as the illegitimate son of a Florentine Notary he wasn’t allowed to take his father’s name. da Vinci is the name of the town in northern Tuscany where he was born in 1452. He was an inquisitive child and showed great promise as an artist. At age 14 he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, a Florentine master and polymath who gave Leonardo a broad and first-rate training in all the arts and endowed the younger man with many good habits and a few bad ones. 

 

At age 20 or so Leonardo painted one of the children Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ, now in the Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo’s work was so stunning that according to legend after seeing the completed form Verrocchio swore he would never paint again. Apparently he never did.

 

da Vinci then went on to spend his rest of his life and career in service to a series of wealthy patrons. But if you thought you were hiring an artist what you got with Leonardo was something more like a free-ranging thinker. Oh, he’d do paintings… although less than 20 survive… and sculptures and such. But he’d also produce plays for the court. In fact he apparently built the first spotlight for just such endeavors. It was a time of war and Leonardo designed siege engines, portable bridges that were built, along with war machines that weren’t like scythe-equipped war wagons, a tank, a parachute, a bike, and a helicopter. 

 

How do we know all this about a man who died almost 500 years ago? We have a number, but not all, of da Vinci’s Journals or notebooks. For instance, the famous Vitruvian Man wasn’t a commissioned work; it’s something he undertook as a personal challenge and drew in one of his notebooks. Same with all the stuff listed above.

 

He was an acute observer of birds and bats and fascinated with the idea of human flight. His drawings on flight seemed to go through two phases; where he tried to imitate birds, and upon realizing that humans didn’t have the necessary strength to weight ratio when he turned to more glider-like apparatuses that may have actually been built.

 

All that’s in da Vinci’s journals, too. da Vinci’s nine surviving journals called codices (the plural of codex) are spread all over the world. Bill Gates owns one. The biggest chunk of them are in Britain.

 

The surprise perhaps is that the da Vinci’s Journals are in all different sizes; they’re not regular. Vitruvian Man, which was separated from a journal and is now housed in Venice, is about 13.5 by 9.6 inches. Others were closer to 8×6.

 

He certainly could have constructed the journals himself. But considering their irregularity, da Vinci may have just wandered into local binderies and bought them off the shelf when he needed a new one!

 

 

R. Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895 in Massachusetts and left it nearly 89 years later with 28 patents, the best known of which was the Geodesic Dome. Fuller, like Bill Gates, was a Harvard dropout. 

 

He married, but led a knockabout life mainly as a laborer. In 1927 at the age of 32 bankrupt and suicidal after the death of his daughter due to meningitis and polio, he decided to embark upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

 

Taking a page from da Vinci, Fuller had began documented his life in 15 minute segments from 1917 ‘til his death in 1983, more than 65 years. The result was 270 feet of journals he called the ‘Dymaxion Chronofile.’ (In addition to his many other gifts, Fuller had a wonderful knack for creating neologisms.)

 

What’s to be learned from these two great learners? If you’re serious as a learner you need to capture what you’ve learned or rather what you’re learning. What do you put in it? Fuller put everything in his, including household bills and the like! da Vinci used both drawings and words, all in his tight and fluid mirror-script, written such that you need a mirror to read it.

 

Do you really need to write it down in this electronic age? Well only if you want to preserve it in an accessible way.

 

A week or so ago I was talking to a book binder who is well-enough versed in the Internet Age to own an Internet company. But he’s also has enough gray hair to remember when the Library of Congress told libraries to preserve their collections on microfiche, much of which is now just goo in a can.

 

Then the preferred storage was old reel-to-reel tape drives, then audio cassette tapes, and 5 inch floppy drives, and Zip drives, and on and on. If you had an early TRS-80 from Radio Shack, and stored all your journal entries on its cassette drive you’d be hard pressed to access any of it now just 25 years later.

 

A good acid-free and lignin-free paper journal with the right ink, will be around until well after your great-great-grandchildren are born.  

Knowledge as a Goal of Informal Learning

June 18, 2008

I\'m a Serious Shakespearean Actor Dammit, Why Do I Have to Wear this Ridiculous Getup?“Far too many people—especially people with great expertise in one area—are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.” Peter Drucker

 

One of the great fictions of modern American educulture is that it’s enough to know how to learn. That the purpose of education isn’t to ‘memorize meaningless facts’… that’s what the Internet’s for, after all… but to learn how to learn.

 

In such a paradigm who cares what Metternich said about power or what the account in the Gilgamesh Epic says about the civilizing of Enkidu? Who wants to go to a party where people are talking about that kind of nonsense anyway?

 

But to everyone silently nodding their heads right now it pains me to say that Drucker is exactly right. Here’s why:

 

With wider knowledge comes the ability to express yourself more clearly. Remember what Twain said; the difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. You get that power from informal learning,

 

Sometimes skills alone aren’t enough. E.D. Hirsch in his book The Knowledge Deficit recounts research among children who were good readers but with little subject knowledge versus kids were subject matter experts but with poor reading skills. The subject matter was baseball. The unsurprising result was that in tests of comprehension, kids with knowledge of baseball but poor reading skills outscored kids with good reading skills but no knowledge of baseball.

 

Knowledge helps you bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps. Better than 53 percent of the world’s people are Christians, Muslims and Jews, or ‘Children of Abraham.’ That is, all three groups share a common affinity for the biblical patriarchs from Abraham on back. So if you’re a Christian and were in a room with a Muslim and shared nothing else in common, you could at least talk about Adam and Noah and Abraham. But only if both of you had knowledge of those subjects. And only if at least one of you knew about that common heritage.

 

It’s like that silly episode of Star Trek called Darmok (see the picture above), where Captain Piccard gets beamed down to a planet with Paul Winfield, who plays Dathon, an alien captain whose race speaks only in mythological metaphor. An actual line from the show is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” [Imagine ordering a burger using only metaphor. How would the pimply teen behind the counter ask you if you wanted fries and a Coke with that?]

 

Ridiculous as the premise of show was, the point is potent; metaphor is a powerful bridge. But only to the degree that all parties have knowledge of the metaphor.

 

And Captain Piccard began bridging the gap with Dathon when he told the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

 

Knowledge also helps you cut through the crap. If you understand the first law of thermodynamics, you’ll never be persuaded to invest in a “perpetual motion” machine. If you understand the hallmarks of Ponzi schemes, you’ll never be bamboozled by one.

 

How do you obtain knowledge beyond your current ken? Well that’s simple, you keep learning. Informal learning is the answer. And you stretch yourself by adding knowledge that might not have appealed to you at an earlier age. Remember when you were younger and you didn’t like guacamole? Nowadays what’s a Super Bowl party without it?

And when you’re at that party and the commercials grow dull, add a little spice by dropping some Gilgamesh on them. Hey, it worked for Captain Jean Luc Piccard.