Sunday, 8 July 2018

#32 paper encyclopaedia

Do people still buy paper encyclopaedias? According to a feature in my local paper interviewing local second-hand booksellers, they are very hard to shift (although I can’t find wider sales figures). And are companies still publishing them? Apparently not – the last 32-volume printed Encyclopaedia Britannica (with new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project) appeared in 2010 and it is now online only. It appears Wikipedia and the web have put paid to them.

But I found myself reaching for this bulky object recently when I wasn’t feeling in the best of spirits and was staying at a friend’s house. There was something peculiarly comforting about learning, or relearning, the names of the muscles and bones in the human body, the speeds of trains planes and automobiles, the properties of different plants, the development of cinema. 

In his poem ‘Ode to an Encyclopaedia’ James Arthur praises ‘the Questing Beast of blue and gold’ thus:
my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain.

This sense of comfort and relaxation would not be quite the same on the web and I’m not sure why – perhaps the attractive feeling of a stable canon of knowledge rather than an ever-changing hive mind, or even that encyclopaedias are still thought of as partly for children (although apparently the word comes via the Greek for ‘well-rounded education’).

Anyway, here is a short quiz based on things I learnt from this (admittedly 1995) encyclopaedia. Scroll down for answers.

1. Which country has the densest population?
2. Which planet has the longest seasons?
3. Which fish swims the fastest?

1. Bangladesh 2. Uranus (each pole gets 42 years of light, then 42 years of darkness) 3. Tuna

PS for an interesting analysis of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s early battles with Microsoft’s CD encyclopaedia Encarta, see this article by Shane Greenstein of Harvard Business School.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

#31: Collecting the World

By the time Hans Sloane died in 1753 he had amassed and catalogued vast numbers of natural and artificial objects from around the world. In his will he stipulated that these should be kept together, housed in London, and available to anyone who wanted to see them. He asked a knockdown price of only £20,000, to be given to his two daughters. Parliament, pressed by trustees who he had lined up, eventually agreed and so the British Museum was born.

Collecting the World promises an exploration of ‘The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane’. So how much of his ‘life’ and ‘curiosity’ do we get? We learn that Sloane suffered a long childhood illness, and always ate and drank healthily afterwards. When young he was enthralled by gardens, talking admiringly of an early greenhouse in Chelsea Physic Garden which the head gardener Mr Watts warmed with ‘a great fireplace’ under the floor.

He was, says Delbourgo, ‘a cautious, sober and doggedly unimaginative Protestant empiricist – all of which he considered positive virtues as a man of science’. He saw his role as gathering fragments of nature, not interpreting them. (It would fall to later experts such as Linnaeus to use Sloane’s specimens to help build categories for understanding nature which we still use today). 

But generally Sloane does not emerge from the book as a distinct personality, and aspects of his personal life, such as his marriage, are not dwelt on. Instead, he’s interpreted in terms of the influences upon him – of the patrician Protestant Ulster where he grew up, of the ‘genteel and learned society’ of the London in which he moved, and of slave-era Jamaica, where he went as personal physician to the governor Christopher Monck, Duke of Albermarle, and where he collected large numbers of plant specimens.

A strength of the book is that it gives us hefty chunks of background to help us understand these influences. When Sloane calls Jamaica an island ‘in the torrid zone’, for example, we are told exactly what ‘torrid’ meant at the time, and given a brief outline of European attitudes to weather in the tropics, starting with Aristotle. When we read about visitors coming to see Sloane’s collections in London, we learn a bit about the tradition by which people toured collections and wonder cabinets in Europe, and how this linked with pilgrimages to saints’ relics. The book is perhaps aimed at the specialist rather than general reader, but such information makes it more widely accessible. 
Sloane's box of medical specimens

And what do we learn about the Sloane’s curiosity? ‘Curiosity was the currency of learned exchange and favour’, says the book, and there is plenty of detail about how the trade in objects bought influence and how Sloane, not having a university education, had to cultivate influential contacts. However, in this book Sloane’s love of exploration and discovery takes a backseat to the author’s interpretation of the pursuit of knowledge as a product and symbol of money and power. For example, the financial reasons for Sloane’s journey to Jamaica, and the likelihood that he would earn money from keeping slaves alive, is given more space than his desire to see new plants at first hand.
One result of this is to call into question the value of Sloane’s collections, since according to the book they are ‘an artefact of British imperial power’, and in fact I remain unclear about their value as continuing research resources or even just as interesting objects. Delbourgo’s view is that understanding the ‘global journeys’ of the objects Sloane collected reveal the origins of the British Museum, show us that objects’ meanings change over time, and highlight the ‘extraordinary variety of people – from savants to slaves’ who helped to contribute to the first public museums. I would like more evidence that they are relevant to our own time and even to the future. Still, the author also makes clear that much of Sloane’s collections have still not been examined properly, such as a 16th century watercolour of a ‘great temple’ at Constantinople by the English galley slave Thomas Morgan.

I also missed an enthusiastic voice – the book is a result of years of research and as so often in scholarly works, I would like to understand more of the researcher’s enthusiasm. There is even sometimes an undertone of distaste for its subject, perhaps because of Sloane’s links with slavery and Empire or because he was a very rich man who charged high fees. For example, we are told that Sloane was ‘harping on a familiar theme’ when he said insects on Jamaica were similar to English ones – but is it not natural to try to understand something new by comparing it with what you already know?

The book is wonderfully illustrated and I would recommend it to anyone who would like a detailed account of Sloane’s collections, interpreted according to the social and political mores of our own time.

To learn more about Sloane’s collections online see the Reconstructing Sloane project, which aims to digitise all Sloane’s manuscripts and collections. To see some of them in reality, visit the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum.

Sir Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter (1736)

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'