Tuesday 23 January 2018

Something About Blue Light; and Reading Habits

Not long ago, fellow blogger Nan wrote here about reading from a kindle (or other e-reader) vs. from a printed book, and about how she feels she takes up less information from the former than from the latter.

I read that post while I was away from home and did not have the opportunity to comment then. Also, there is rather a lot I want to say about the subject, more than what would have been appropriate in a comment.

One point in Nan's post was (not her own point, but quoted from a book) that
"if we use an e-reader or a laptop before going to sleep, our brains are affected so that we are more likely to sleep badly. It is something to do with blue light." 

Before you read on, let me emphasise that the following are first and foremost my own thoughts and my own opinion, based on my personal experience. I am not a neuro-biologist and have never been to university. But I have read a few books and many articles about neurobiology and how our brain works (as far as scientists understand it), and am paraphrasing that information.

My thoughts on the topic:

What does bother our brains is not so much the blue light as the frequency with which a lit-up screen is refreshed (the refresh rate; see wikipedia for more info). If you look at the settings of your desktop PC, you will probably find where you can adjust the refresh rate (measured in Hz). Few people feel the need to change the default setting, but the option is usually there for every screen.

The same is true for any other screen with back lights, such as smartphones, tablets, and the new generation e-readers. Even though you can not consciously see the "flickering" that comes from those lights (and refreshing), your optical nerves register it and send it to your brain. This makes your mind tire a lot more quickly as if you were reading from an "immobile", static source such as a sheet of paper. Then, it is your eyes that do the moving, not the reading material itself.

Another point that makes it easier to store and remember information from a physical book is the multi-sensorial effect. You do not only read the words inside the book with your eyes. You also touch the book with your hands, you smell it, and even when you are not reading it, you see it on the table, with the cover picture and the title printed on it. That makes for additional input; your brain connects all sensorial input to what you have been reading, rooting it more firmly in your memory than if you only read the words on a screen, i.e. your brain would deal with just the one info, not backing it up with other input.

My kindle is still the first generation. It has no back light, but uses a technology called e-ink. A layer of molecules is behind the magic - imagine those molecules as tiny balls, with one half painted white and the other black (or dark grey). When you "open" a page on your kindle, the letters you see are the black halves of the tiny balls of e-"ink", and the spaces in between the letters are the white halves showing.

simplified representation of e-ink; picture from wikipedia
Whenever you press the buttons to change "pages" on your kindle, the clever little computer chip inside tells the tiny balls to roll around (on their same position) and either show their white or their black half.

That is an extremely energy-efficient way of transmitting information to a screen, which is why the battery on a first-generation kindle lasts for a very long time before you need to recharge it.

This e-ink technology also means the reading experience for your eyes is very close to the one you get from paper. With one big difference: You can also read in bright sunlight without being blinded by the whiteness of paper. (There is plenty more about e-ink here on wikipedia.)

For me, my kindle has become indispensable. I still very much love reading printed books; they will never be entirely replaced, but my kindle is the best addition I can imagine. Nearly every day, I am on trains to and from work, and take longer train trips most weekends. I much prefer the lightweight kindle to a heavy book for those trips; also, a book can bend and get smudged so easily when you are travelling, something that does not happen with the kindle. Plus I can read on my kindle while waiting on windswept cold platforms, wearing gloves; that is very difficult with a physical book.

When I am home, I usually touch my kindle only to recharge it, and read newspapers and printed books. 

Monday 22 January 2018

Read in 2018 - 2: The Visitor

The Visitor
by Chris Simpson

Like my first read in 2018, this book was a Christmas gift from my sister. It was a real Christmas read, too - never mind I read it now, almost a month after the holiday! It is very much a winter story and therefore still fitting for January.

Jos and Emily are an elderly couple living on a farm in the Yorkshire Dales. Farming has always been their life; Jos' family has been on the same land for centuries, and the two of them are deeply rooted in a way of life that is slowly disappearing.

Emily is ill, very ill. Jos is afraid she won't bear up much longer, and then what will become of him? He worries that he won't want to stay on the farm on his own, and then what will become of his cattle and his sheep, of his fields and woods, and last but not least, of Walter and Laura, who work the farm and the house with and for him?

Then his nephew, who he has never met since his sister emigrated to South Africa decades ago, writes to announce his visit just in time for Christmas.
Jos and Emily are excited at the prospect of finally meeting their young relative. Little do they know that the visitor arriving at their door step in the middle of heavy snowfall will bring about a change in their lives they could never have foreseen.

I loved everything about this book - its small size, beautiful cover design, good writing style, setting of the story and the general atmosphere. Similar to "Elmet" (the book I read before this one), the reader can guess something decisive will happen, but it is not leading to something terrible. When I finished the book, I wanted to know more about the people I'd "met" within its pages, even though our acquaintance was brief (it is not a very long story).

The author is another „first“ for me. According to the book cover, Chris Simpson was born in Harrogate and lives on a narrowboat with his wife on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. He is a musician (his acoustic group Magna Carta has released 23 albums and sold over 8 million records) and travels a lot. Occasionally, he also works as a lecturer, speaker and radio presenter.

Let me quote from the back of the cover what two famous readers have said about the book:
„The Visitor is a moving, evocative story that touches on the many aspects of my own experience, those childhood memories of Christmas at my home in the West Riding of Yorkshire.“ (Patrick Stewart, actor)
„Chris Simpson is a master storyteller from the heartlands of the Dales. This tale will take you there and will touch your heart.“ (James Herriot, author)

Thank you, sister, for giving me two very good reads to start the year with!

Wednesday 17 January 2018

An Eames Celebration

For me, the working year has begun on the 8th of January. Both O.K. and I had the first week of this year off, and spent it together at his place.
On the Thursday, we drove a bit further South to the city of Weil am Rhein, where we visited the exhibition "An Eames Celebration". I had read about it months ago in my weekly paper.

Exhibition poster

The whole area of the Vitra Desgin Museum is worth seeing, even if you would not go into any exhibition - the architecture is unusual, quirky but functional at the same time, and in between the buildings along the connecting paths are sculptures and other works of art.

When we were there, though, we had limited time until the exhibition would close for the day, and the weather was not really in favour of a stroll across the area.

The exhibition was split into several parts, stretching across various buildings, the main part being about the life and work (actually inseperable) of Charles and Ray Eames.

So far, I had had the Eames' down mainly as designers of furniture. Everybody knows the famous Eames Lounge Chair, right? Also, most of their other chairs are well known and still very much in use all over the world.

I had had no idea, though, that the Eames' did so much more than design chairs: They built houses (for instance, their own house, which was very much a home filled with life, not a piece of architectural exhibition), made over a 100 films, designed toys, painted pictures and put together something called The Information Machine for IBM at the World Exhibition in New York in the 1960s. They worked with the government of India on educational projects and designed an exhibition about Nehru; they made covers of magazines and were good friends with Billy Wilder and his wife.

Ray and Charles Eames at home

In their approach to any of their many varied projects, they come across as open-minded, fun-loving and hard-working people; intensely interested in everything around them. I was truly impressed by the fullness of their lives and how much they foretook how we handle information nowadays, decades before the internet became reality.

Visiting the exhibition made me read up about the Eames', and I am definitely going to watch a few of their short films on youtube (the exhibition showed some, but we did not watch them all - not enough time!).

When I came across their "House of Cards" (a game designed for children and adults alike, with no winners and losers) in one of the rooms, I had a mini flashback; I am pretty sure that I saw those cards at some stage during my childhood. We probably did not have the game at home, but I might have seen it at someone else's home and maybe played with the cards there. Maybe my Mum knows? 

It was a mind-opening afternoon for me, and I am glad O.K. and I went there. You can read more about the exhibition(s) (in English) and see pictures here.

Read in 2017 - 44: The Virgin Mary's Got Nits

The Virgin Mary's Got Nits
A Christmas Anthology
Gervase Phinn

Although I finished the last few pages of this book at the start of 2018, I count it as "read in 2017", because that is when I read most of it.

Gervase Phinn is well known and very popular in England, mainly as the author of "The Little Village School" series. I'd not read anything from him before, but knew of the series and of him as an author and speaker. Have a look at his website to learn more about him; if you don't feel like it now, let me at least give you this quote from the website: "You can always tell a Yorkshireman but you can't tell him much."

This book is a collection of short stories, a few poems, and anecdotes from the many years Mr Phinn was first teaching and then working as an education advisor and school inspector. Some of the anecdotes are really funny and made me laugh - we all know how children can speak up and out when adults would rather say nothing (or put things in a more diplomatic manner), or how things can happen on and off stage at a nativity play at school or in church.

I must admit, though, that I did not always "get" the humour (or the point) of an anecdote. Maybe it was my set of mind at the time I was reading the chapter, or I simply didn't understand something correctly in terms of language, although I never had that impression myself.

Anyway, I did enjoy the short stories and like Gervase Phinn's unpretentious and clear writing style, allowing the reader to picture people and places easily. I may look into his other books, and will certainly be back to his website.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Read in 2018 - 1: Elmet

by Fiona Mozley

This was a Christmas present from my sister, who often despairs at my bad reading habits and tries to make sure I read a good book at least every now and then. This one certainly fits her requirements.

Told from the perspective of 14-year-old Daniel, the story is about a family on the fringe of society: John, a giant of a man and gentle father who makes his living mostly from illegal fights, moves with his children Daniel and Cathy to a small copse where he builds them a house with his own hands.
For one year, the three of them live there almost unbothered by human society, entirely satisfied with their own company, living off what their vegetable patch and chicken coop yield, hunting with bow and arrow for small animals in the copse and picking berries in the hedgerows.

Every now and then, Daniel tells the reader of their life before they moved to the copse. The children went to school (never really fitting in) and were cared for by their Grandma, with their father often being away, sometimes for days or weeks on end.
It takes until chapter 8 before the reader learns anything about their mother. Daniel never really knew what was the matter with her, and describes things from his perspective as a child, but she was never around for long before she disappeared again until one day a phone call informs them that she won't be coming back.

The copse and the house are not officially owned by the family, and it is only a question of time until the landowner turns up and suggests a way to settle things between them. 

The drama unfolds slowly, but the reader can see how it all leads to an inevitably terrible end. When that terrible end is finally there in the last chapter, it makes for hard reading - at least it did for me. Things turn brutal, but are still told in Daniel's style; he is matter-of-fact with an eye for poetic detail even in the most horrible scene. The final outcome is not made entirely clear; the reader doesn't know for sure whether Daniel is the lone surviving member of his family or not.

The setting of the book is rural Yorkshire, with farming and former mining villages dotting the countryside around the copse. I loved the descriptions of the woods and fields, and of the self-contained daily life of the unusual family. Like I said, the last chapter was tough, but not surprising, so I was mentally prepared for it.

Definitely a book I recommend; my sister has not yet read it, and I hope she will enjoy it, too. In parts, it reminded me of Claire Fuller's "Our Endless Numbered Days", which I read last year; you can find my review here. Both books centre around characters who live apart from "the rest of us", so to speak; either by choice or because they were made to. Both books have a young person as their narrator, and there is death and tragedy in them as well; they are both written in a language that is unpretentious and capturing.

"Elmet" is Fiona Mozley's first novel. Her home page is here; it contains a mini bio.  Click here for a more thorough review I found on the Guardian's website.

Monday 8 January 2018

Questions About 2017

Yes, I know - 2017 is gone, dead and buried. 2018 is already 8 days "old". But I am still thinking about the past 12 months, and I guess I am not entirely alone in that. Of course, I am also looking ahead, not just back, but let me focus on 2017 just for a few more minutes.

We spent New Year's Eve at my sister's, a small party of six. It was a nice evening, quiet and lively at the same time. I had prepared a game for us all to play, based on something I had been reading the day before in my weekly paper: Several more or less well-known people from different walks of life were asked the same questions about 2017. I adapted these a bit and made a card game of it, where we asked each others those questions in turn. It meant not all of us got to answer each question, but I thought about what my answers would be while I was preparing the game.

Here they are:

1. What did you do for the first time in 2017?
Oh, many things! For instance, I was present at the setting up of a maypole for the first time. Also, I visited Zurich for the first time, and had a very posh afternoon tea with all the traditional parts for the first time. (These and several other "firsts" featured on my blog.) Some food and drink I also tasted for the first time.

2. Was 2017 better or worse than what you expected?
Both. It was much, much better in terms of work, but worse under some aspects to do with my health.

3. Who or what was "hope" for you in 2017?
That's a tough one. I rarely expect something from others, but more from myself. I did have some hopes regarding our government to DO SOMETHING about certain things going wrong in this country, but I won't go into detail on my blog when it comes to politics.

4. Who or what was disappointing in 2017?
See # 3 - those things did not come about. And I was disappointed with myself more than once. Also, it was somewhat disappointing that we did not manage a proper family gathering in Yorkshire the way we had done in previous years, and that Aunt J and Uncle B were away and we could not spend time with them as we had done before.

5. Your personal success in 2017?
I won a customer I'd been after (so to speak) for almost two years.

6. Your personal failure in 2017?
Mostly to do with running. Don't ask. Work-wise, I did not manage to make three people who were assigned to a project of mine (not by my choice) do what they were supposed to be doing, when they were supposed to be doing it. The nice approach didn't work.

7. What were you most happy about in 2017?
Another difficult one - there were so many happy moments and beautiful times in 2017! I went on three lovely holidays, saw wonderful places and met the nicest people. Again, a lot of it featured on my blog.

8. What made you most angry in 2017?
Maybe not most angry, but I often was angry about the inability of our rail services (both local and long distance) to provide what I paid for - a trip from A to B in time with the schedule THEY had set up.

9. What was the biggest surprise for you in 2017?
That Ripon introduced its first female Hornblower in the more than 1,000 year old tradition! :-)

10. What news in 2017 could you have done without?
Oh, nearly all of the ones that I saw daily on the main news on TV - too much bad stuff going on everywhere, all the time.

- - -

There were several more questions in the paper, but I think ten are enough. I wonder how my answers will differ after the next 12 months!
(If you feel like answering all or some of them in your comments, or use them on your own blogs, please feel free!)