Taking Stock: Facing 2012

iPhone Selfie

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year season!

Traditionally New Years Day is a time for resolutions that will largely be unkept in the months that follow, so I’ll refrain from making any. Besides some of them are ongoing no matter what time of year: lose weight, exercise more, write more.

Looking back to 2011, I’ve had a Macbook Air (11″) for a year now and it’s so slick and useful it still feels new. As such it’s an incentive to get down to the task of writing just so I can use it. I enjoy my technologies, but it’s been a long time since one has stayed so fresh. Kudos to Apple for another brilliant design and execution.

There are rumours of a new iPad in the works some time 2012. If it turns out to be true I might be ready to pick one up. I gave my previous one to Marion after getting the more writer-friendly Macbook Air, but I confess I miss the iPad experience. I get a miniature version of it with my iPhone 4 but it’s not the same without the large viewing screen.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a fan of podcasts and I’d like to pay tribute to my two favourites: I Should Be Writing, by Mur Lafferty, and Brain Science Podcast, by Dr. Ginger Campbell. You ladies have allowed me to listen in on hours of intelligent conversation. Thank you.

I have a couple of directions I may take my writing in 2012. One idea I’ve been kicking around is putting together a series of personal essays into a Kindle book. The other is to write on a couple of subjects that interest me, but as extended feature articles that could be published as Kindle Shorts.

I don’t have any special photo projects in mind for the year. I’m content to carry a camera around with me and take shots of this and that as I see things. I plan to post a new photo on my Flickr photostream every day, if possible. The camera in my iPhone 4 increases my odds of meeting this goal.

One of the things I may do more of in 2012 is post short reviews of books I’ve read. My current reading is Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff. I’m about 25% into it and already it’s shaping up as the best science book I’ve read in the past year.

Currently listening to The Harrow & The Harvest, by Gillian Welch. Indispensable if you like a traditional folk sound.

My other two goals for the New Year are to study more philosophy and mathematics. I’m nearly ready to tackle my Algebra II course and I have a good Teaching Company Great Lectures course Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida that I’ve started. Staying intellectually active is less a goal than a deep-seated need. I suspect it’s the same for you.

I look forward to seeing and hearing from friends in 2012. May your 2012 be a wonderful year.

Algebra Redux

Basic Algebra Review (by StarbuckGuy)

When I entered the 9th grade, age 14, I left behind the boring world of arithmetic and entered the new world of algebra. I was transfixed. It switched on something in my brain that validated all my thoughts about studying math and science. I felt I had arrived.

The experience was heightened by lucking into a great teacher at just the right time. My algebra teacher, Roger Buikema, was fresh out of university on his first teaching assignment. He was late-50’s, early-60’s cool, sporting a crew cut, black-rimmed glasses, and a fondness for the Kingston Trio. His enthusiasm for math and science was infectious.

Algebra was the most elegant thing I had yet encountered in school, and even now, fifty years later, the study of algebra, then advanced algebra, remains as one of the highlights of my education. I was never a math wizard or math precocious, but I liked math and did moderately well at it.

I later studied plane and solid geometry, and trig, which I also loved. I dipped my toe into calculus, but by the time I reached that point in my study of math, my primary interests had shifted to folk music, girls, and literature. I always regretted I hadn’t taken math a little further.

A few weeks ago it occurred to me (I’m a slow thinker) that there was nothing preventing me from restudying math. I was already doing puzzles — crosswords and sudokus — and math exercises are the same: puzzles to be solved. I thought I’d start with trig, but when I looked at the subject anew, I realized my math infrastructure had rusted out with age and disuse. I needed to rebuild the scaffolding in my brain by backing up and starting with algebra.

In my brief one-year stint as an engineering student, I had discovered the Schaum’s Outlines series of publications on math and engineering topics. They were excellent as supplementary material to the main textbooks, and served as inexpensive tutors. I liked them because they were clear, but terse. They didn’t muck about with long explanations of things. They gave the essential information then presented a bunch of exercises and review exercises. They also provided the answers so you could check your work as you went.

Just the thing, I thought. I checked Amazon.ca and the Schaum’s Outlines are still going strong, so I sent for Elementary Algebra. The covers are much slicker than they were in the mid-60’s, but the content is much the same.

As I started my review, I’ll admit outright that my brain hurt from working on the exercises. I could no longer “think math” the way I once did. I kept mucking up signed number operations and even simple arithmetic. But I’ve kept at it, relying on brain plasticity to work up some new neurons or perhaps reassign some old ones to get me back into math think. (Note to brain: I really don’t need the complete lyrics of all those 50’s rock songs in my head. Perhaps you could reassign them?)

Slowly, it’s beginning to work. Each lesson becomes a little less strained. I picked up a nice Texas Instruments scientific calculator for $20 to use to check my work, as well as to learn its higher functions. Back in the day I used a Post Versalog slide rule. Calculators hadn’t yet been invented.

As of today I’m working on the review exercises for chapter five, “First Degree Equations.” Chapter six, “Formulas,” appears to be a review of plane and perhaps solid geometry.

I won’t say it’s been easy, but it’s been worthwhile. Some of the excitement of a long-ago fourteen year old is returning. Each exercise is another puzzle to solve. They feel good when I get them right with no errors. They make me think hard when I get them wrong and have to backtrack through my work to see where I went off the rails. That’s good exercise too.

My brain’s capacity for math is improving daily. Not that it’ll help me tie my shoelaces in the morning, but I’ve recovered a lost love. I have no idea where this might lead, if anywhere, but the journey is stimulating.

Basic Algebra Review (by StarbuckGuy)

The Zonules of Zinn

I’ve taken the title of this posting from a new book that arrived from Amazon.ca today: Beyond the Zonules of Zinn: a Fantastic Journey through Your Brain, by David Bainbridge.1 I learned about this book from the extensive coverage given to it by one of my favourite podcasts: The Brain Science Podcast, hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell. Brain science? Yes, for Marion and me brain science and research has become our latest study — in a lay person’s sense of the word.

Our interest in brain study has been increasing gradually over the past few years. Of course we, like most people, have been fascinated by the brain as long as we can remember. But after her Mom’s stroke and eventual death due to heart problems, we became interested in knowing how much of her former self could be recovered, as well as wondering what, exactly, happens during a stroke.

Later, after my heart attack, I felt I was losing my ability to think clearly and systematically about anything and that my memory was slipping. I was fumbling on everyday words too often for my liking. Part of this was compounded by clinical depression and the meds I was taking to ameliorate the condition. Around this time we both began to hear about new studies and findings about neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to recover some lost functions and to continue functioning well into late old age.

As I rehabbed from an angioplasty/stent procedure, then a second procedure when I developed more arterial blockage, I became very interested in the keys to a healthy recovery and to overall health and wellness. Not surprisingly, all the things I learned about that contribute to heart health also contribute to brain health: a good diet with a lower-overall glycemic index, regular cardiovascular exercise, and good mental habits for dealing with stress and keeping the mind active.

As I began feeling better, I began reading more and with joy, in the way I did in my younger life when I was interested in nearly everything. A career in computing curtailed that enthusiasm for years because so much energy was required in learning and keeping up with technologies and methodologies. Marion had evolved along a similar path and we both once again began to study art, literature, philosophy and science. Being retired is a great boon to self study.

A healthy brain, so I kept reading, needed to be worked and challenged constantly — whether by learning a new language, taking a course, or even solving challenging puzzles such as non-trivial sudoku and crossword puzzles. I took to both, having never been a puzzle person before (as opposed to being puzzling, at which I excel). As a result of this continuous challenge to my brain, I could feel my mental functions improving. I was remembering things better, word loss was becoming no worse than what would be expected for someone in his early 60’s, and my appetite for learning had returned.

We watched Norman Doidge speak about brain plasticity in a couple of television interviews so we tracked down a library copy of his popular work The Brain That Changes Itself. It was so remarkable we’ve since bought our own copy.

About that time I was browsing the courses that were on sale from The Teaching Company. Marion and I like their courses very much and have purchased courses on history, art, linguistics, and philosophy. I wanted to buy a science course, but nothing quite as abstruse as particle physics or an overview of mathematics. I spied Understanding the Brain, taught by Dr. Jeannette Norden. It was either that or their course on Genetics and DNA. I bought the brain course and now, 36 half-hour lectures later, we’re awed by what we’ve learned from the course and we now have enough foundation knowledge to move on to further study. In our opinion, this course is excellent for people like us who are relatively new to neuroscience. Dr. Norden is a fine lecturer and the course material progressed in a logical and orderly manner.

Our studies have led us to V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain, Daniel Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Jeff Hawkins’s On Intelligence, and now the Zonules of Zinn.

We both feel recharged. Brain study, for us, has been one of the most powerful areas we’ve ever explored. It gives us a scientific perspective on where we’ve come from, in an evolutionary sense, and how we are what we are. So much has been learned about the brain in the past twenty years and so much more discovery lies in the future. Like all fields of science, some of what we think we know will likely be discarded as our knowledge increases, and there will be whole new areas of investigation not yet guessed at.

Brain study has been the most powerful intellectual stimulant we’ve encountered in years. We think that brain research and Genetic/DNA research are at the forefront of our current understanding of what we are as evolved life forms on this incredibly diverse and improbable planet. As lay persons looking at science from the outside, we’re delighted so many wonderful, thoughtful scientists and researchers have taken the trouble to write for, and speak to, the non science-trained community.

When things slow down a bit, which could be some time down the road, you can guess what our next course purchase will be. Genetics/DNA, of course.

1 The Zonules of Zinn, for those interested, is one of the areas of brain study with an exotic name. It refers to a ring of fibrous strands that attach from the muscles that ring the lens of the eye. They function in pulling the lens flatter so we can see distant objects more clearly, and relaxing so we can see nearby objects. The eye is a direct outgrowth of the brain. As neuroscientists tell us, it’s the only part of our brain that is visible from the outside.