Sunday, 26 June 2016

[The] time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted -John Lennon

Today is the last day of my holiday. Up until last Friday, the past week has been spectacularly relaxing.  Every day the sun has had her hat on. I've been able to walk barefoot, and worn just shorts and t-shirt (and before you ask, yes Mum, I did use sun protection). I don't like football, so thanks to EURO 2016 the TV remained turned off. Unusually for me, I refused to look at my work emails. I've really relished the first 2 hours of each day, sitting in bed reading novels, and have averaged a book a day. I did give in to the occasional Twitter itch, but have largely ignored social media. Instead, I've enjoyed the opportunity for face to face conversations with W and our friends over a meal or a drink.

Unlike in the 1975 EU referendum, when I had to use a polling station to vote, in the 2016 version I was able to vote by post. As such I didn’t follow last week’s on-going debate. I even chose to keep the TV and radio off last Friday morning. Consequentially, when I got up at 07.00 and turned on my phone, my Twitter account pinged like an out of control sonar radar. I did, however, an hour later, watch the live screening of David Cameron’s very sad, proud and dignified resignation speech. As I noted in last week’s blog (see here) I choose not to engage in political commentary, although last weeks events really tested this resolve, and has left me feeling very guilty!

Choosing not to comment on the outcome of the referendum and my constructive doing nothing (although some would say disruptive) last week, means I’ve also not been looking on-line for stories and ideas to spark my thinking around this week's blog. However, walking on the beach or up in the hills gave me plenty of time to think. But much of that time was spent recharging my mindfulness 'resilience store' and reconnecting with the wonderful sights, smells and sounds Mother Nature has to share. This included watching an adder sunbathing on the path to the beach.

In the absence of a political comment or two, I guess I could write about the ubiquitous questions I have been asked twice this week, and often get asked when eating with others for the first time – how long have I been a vegetarian? and, why did I become a vegetarian? It’s been a long time, over 40 years. Originally I had a real problem over the amount of land it takes to feed one cow and how that same land could feed 4 families. I could go on to say that in 2012, the UK ranked 22nd in the world for meat consumption, and that on average people in the UK consume nearly 86kg of meat each year. On average this tends to be 22kg being beef, 28kg pork, 30kg poultry and the rest being goat!?!

I could say that 22% of the world arable land is given over to graze beef cattle, or that 40% of food grown in the world today is feed for animals. This figure is likely to increase to 60% over the next 20 years. Although we also know (from numerous studies) that red and processed meat consumption is closely linked with colon cancer, and consumption of these meats is also associated with increases in cardiovascular disease and a rise in the total mortality levels – equally, a similar number of studies have shown that diets high in fruit and vegetables reduce all of these risks.

But, the impact question of our people's decision to leave the EU keeps coming to the fore in my mind. Friday saw a record number of emails in my in-box, and tweets in my time line. These emails and tweets could be divided into roughly 4 groups – those from people who were ecstatic with the outcome; or those devastated with the decision; emails containing 'reassuring' advice about the immediate future; and those where there was much speculation on what the future might hold. Yesterday saw a steadying of communication, but I am sure today's papers will be full of further analysis, speculation, recriminations and celebration.

I think that my uneasy feeling of guilt arises from a sense that while I've been enjoying myself and resolutely not wanting to engage in the post-referendum clamour and high expressed emotional debate, I'm somehow betraying the voice I've been given. There is however a countervailing voice. It comes from my colleague Donna, who in a tweet last Friday captured the position well – she said 'the EU decision is huge. We can't change the outcome, but we can choose how we respond to it, and build a changing and collaborative future'. Wise words - and the choices are all ours. I’m back to the office tomorrow and I’m looking forward to finding others to work with in creating our new future together.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

A Sadness and the Silence of the Chickens

There are some topics I don’t write about on Twitter or here in this blog. Directly reporting on politics is one such topic. Whilst I might have an allegiance to a set of politics, it is something I choose not to share publically. However, I absolutely respect the right of others to hold beliefs that may not be congruent with mine. Being able to articulate those views without fear or persecution through engagement with others in discussion, is fundamental to ensuring a healthy democracy. Last week, the discussion over whether the UK should stay in the EU or not, (a discussion that was becoming increasingly acrimonious) suddenly ceased.

The immediate and deafening silence of the EU referendum debate resulted from the news of the horrific and senseless murder of Jo Cox. She was a member of parliament who, at the time of her death, was simply doing what all MPs do, talking to her constituents. Jo was said to be a women who through the passionate articulation of her beliefs, and the life she led, inspired many others. She epitomised the notion that it’s possible to make a difference and bring about change. At this very sad time my thoughts, like many others, are with her family.

Whilst I choose not to enter into political debates, I do love it when there is a difference of opinion in the academic world – when two or more individuals challenge the legitimacy and authenticity of their research – thankfully, such debates are usually conducted with restraint and respect. The arguments are around 'safe' aspect of the research - methodological issues, reliability and replication and so on. However, such challenges are important as poor research can have a serious impact upon the health of individuals, particular groups, and in some cases, the health and well-being of whole nations.

In 1998, research undertaken into the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination was said to be linked to an increased risk of autism and some bowel disorders in children. The research sparked an international reduction in the uptake of the MMR vaccination. 1000's of children risked the serious and sometimes fatal complications of meningitis, encephalitis and of deafness these diseases can bring. However, the original research, involved just 12 children and was undertaken by someone being paid by a legal firm seeking to find evidence they could use against the vaccine manufacturers.  

The study and its findings have long been discredited with much better and more reliable evidence showing that the MMR vacation is safe (see here). Last week's academic debate was on whether cholesterol causes heart disease in older people or not, and whether trying to lower cholesterol with drugs like statins is a waste of time and money. The research (a systematic review of previous studies) found there was no link between what has been termed 'bad' cholesterol and the premature death of those over the age of 60 from cardiovascular disease. Indeed the paper, published in the BMJ open journal found that 92% of those with a high cholesterol level lived longer!

Well that was an assertion that brought out the academic sceptics. The debate was started and somewhat predictably, the discussion coalesced around two issues: (1) the effect of cholesterol on the body and (2) the methodology used to gain the results. Whilst systematic reviews are at the top of the research methodology hierarchy (see here) many researchers rate the randomised control trial as providing more valid and reliable results.

Read the paper and come to your own conclusions about cholesterol. As for me, my health message is simple: eat more eggs. A single egg contains approximately 180 – 186 mg of cholesterol. Our livers produce 1000 – 2000 mg per day depending on what you eat, so eating a high or low cholesterol meal will have little impact. Eggs contain HDL 'good' cholesterol rather than the 'bad' LDL cholesterol, the type that clogs up arteries. They are rich in vitamins (A, B6 and E) and many minerals such as iron, magnesium, and phosphorous. Not many foods are as nutrient rich as eggs. 

And while I would say eggs are good for you, the age old question as to which came first – the chicken or the egg still remains. My favourite story last week has to be of French round the world sailor Guirec Soudee and his companion Monique, a back yard hen. They have been traveling around the world in a boat together now for the last 2 years. It’s a great story, see it for yourself here! In a week of sadness it was a story that absolutely gave me something to smile about. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Did curiosity kill the cat? No! - keep asking me the questions and I'll tell you no lies

Last Friday the fabulous ICZ Programme team and I facilitated a workshop event with 120 colleagues from across the University. The afternoon workshop was an example of the type of activities we're using in bringing to life our engagement and communications strategy. Whilst I might be a wee bit biased, I thought it was a very successful event and hopefully colleagues have a much greater understanding of what the ICZ programme is all about and how they can contribute and participate in it. And there was cake!

It was an interactive event and one of the things we did throughout the afternoon was to invite the participants to ask questions, make comments and provide feedback using their mobile phones. Simply texting their thoughts to an event number enabled their comments to appear on the screen and be shared by others. It also meant their questions were anonymised. We chose this method as experience has taught me that generally people are reticent about asking questions at big events such as this despite the desire for more information, clarification and so on. Indeed I have often chaired a conference session where I've prepared some questions on each paper being presented just in case no one from the audience asks a question of the presenters.

It's almost like curiosity has become socially inappropriate. But asking questions in such forums can bring with it different types of risk to one self - ridicule, postponed retribution, or perhaps the fear of getting more work allocated to you. Of course asking questions can sometimes have exactly the same impact on those being questioned! Indeed at the Friday afternoon event the audience were asked to Challenge Tony – the challenge being that there wasn’t a question around ICZs that I couldn’t answer. Which possibly wasn't true!

Mind you in my experience the toughest audience when it comes to answering questions are children. One of the things I enjoy most about being with my grandchildren is their insatiable inquisitiveness. Like all children, they constantly ask questions to gather information. What I find fascinating is the way in which this information is then used to learn about the world they are discovering. It is a process of sense making that is made more powerful because of the child’s own inquisitiveness – they ask questions to try and match the knowledge they have with the knowledge gaps their curiosity might have revealed. It’s all part of their cognitive development.

Depending on a child's age, children can be totally absorbed in something and stay absorbed for a while, however, often they can be like butterflies, flitting from one thing to another. This is normal and their attention span and ability to concentrate changes along with their age related cognitive development. Interestingly, it seems that many adults are increasingly mirroring the behaviour seen in children. In a study published last week by Microsoft, the results showed that the same technology that facilitated my event on Friday, the smart phone, is possibly responsible for a fall in the attention span of many adults. Smart phone use can also have a detrimental impact on our mental health and well-being – (see here)

The year 2000 is when the mobile revolution was said to have begun, and the results of the Microsoft study showed that since then, the average adult attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to around 8 seconds today. The more digitally literate in society (those who consume more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts and so on) struggle to concentrate in environments where prolonged attention is required. The study, however, did find that such people have improved abilities to multi-task. Goldfish are believed to have an attention span of 9 seconds, although they do struggle to multi-task. 

And if you are struggling with your attention span, I can recommend the book I've just finished reading to you. 'Spoiled Brats' is by the seriously funny author Simon Rich. It is a collection of short stories that brilliantly observe the relationship between parents and children of the smart phone generation. Me, I am waiting for Sunday morning to become a reasonable time of day and then I will use my computer to Facetime my granddaughter Evie. She was up here in Scotland for a holiday recently and left a wonderful note and a box of chocolates to say thank you. The note was decorated with butterflies and sparkly dinosaurs - it was simply an irresistible old fashioned communication, and I'm looking forward to responding .  

Sunday, 5 June 2016

An invitation to the Teddy Bears Picnic

My (nearly) 9 year old granddaughter Evie and her younger twin siblings spent last Bank Holiday up at the House in Scotland. They played on the beach, ran through the woods, and took full advantage of being outside in the sunshine. As with all the grandchildren, Evie likes nothing more than getting involved with whatever activity I happen to be doing. So when it came to pulling out those pesky Nettles from my borders she came to help. I don’t wear gloves and can remove each nettle without them living up to their name and stinging me. Evie wasn’t up for that level of hands on participation, but she did know that if she got stung, what she needed to do was rub the leaf of a dock plant on the sting and this would soothe and take the pain away.

In a study of 2000 8 – 12 years olds undertaken for the TV channel Eden and published last week, it seems that over 50% of children today wouldn’t know this fact. Indeed, 64% of children play outside for less than once a week, 28% haven’t been on a walk in the countryside in the last 12 months, 21% have never been to a farm and 20% have never once climbed a tree. These days children are more likely to be admitted to hospital for injuries incurred from falling out of bed than falling out of a tree – and according to RoSPA falls account for 44% of all child accidents.  

The cost of such accidents is high in financial terms, around some £275 million annually (for example, treating one severe bath scald can cost £250,000); but there are also the emotional and psychological costs of providing care for someone in pain, dealing with disfigurement and perhaps disability caused by an accident. Bringing such statistics slightly closer to home, when I returned to my house (Manchester not Scotland) on Friday, it was to find a group of parents and ambulance men trying to extricate a 11 year old boy who had climbed over the 6 foot high fence into my garden, slipped and ended up at the bottom of a steep bank in a stream with a suspected broken leg.

The boy had been with others who raised the alarm and got prompt help. The garden has always been a magnet for young children. It is about ½ an acre in size and completely surrounds the house. It is divided up into lots of different gardens, and there are masses of trees to climb, places to build dens, a stream with waterfalls running through it, and until recently there were chickens roaming free. While it is possible to allow our grandchildren varying degrees of age related freedom in the garden, it is not possible to truly prevent other curious children from trying to come in to play, explore and have fun.

And that's the problem. There is much evidence to show that when children stop going out into the natural world (as opposed to the often surreal world of TV and computers) it can really impact upon their development. Unlike young Evie it is not so much what children know about nature as what happens to them when they are in nature; and preferably not just in it, but in it without grown-ups. As the Eden study noted far fewer children are experiencing the enjoyment and challenge of exploring nature on their own or with friends these days.

Technology of course is a big culprit here. A staggering 70% of children aged 8 – 18 have a TV in their bedrooms, and this age group can watch up to 4-5 hour of TV a day. Increasingly this is a generation that is now watching TV programmes on their mobile phones, computers and tablets. 'Stranger danger' is the second biggest reason children today don't gain access to the outdoors (even if this might be the nearest park). Despite the 1 in 1 million chance of a child being killed by a stranger (a statistic that has held true in the UK since the 1970's) the fear of abduction, abuse or violence by an unknown adult is why most parents won't allow their children out unsupervised. I must admit I do worry about the volume of traffic – which in the 53 years since I was 8 years old, has increased exponentially.

All that said, we need to find new ways of helping our children and young people to more easily gain access to nature. Our colleagues in the University of Essex, who have been researching the benefits of 'green exercise'  for the past 13 years (see here), report that just 5 minutes of green exercise a day can have a big impact on our mental health and well-being. Likewise, the fabulous children and nature network (see here) have a wealth of research studies referenced that show how free and unstructured play out-doors can boost problem-solving skills, a child's ability to focus, improve co-operation with others, and increase their self-awareness. Children who regularly get to be outside are likely to be happier and healthier and of course, it might help them avoid the scourge of the 21st century, obesity. 

Later on today, one of my other grandchildren, 4 year old Jack will get out his tool set and help me repair the fence the emergency services damaged in rescuing the young boy on Friday. Jack already understands the importance of the need to wear safety glasses, gloves and protective gear, when doing certain jobs but I doubt that will stop him from jumping into the stream so the water runs over the top of his wellies. But as we are promised wall to wall sunshine today, I'm not worried. I am sure he will have fun as he looks for frogs or whales, dragons or submarines and won't at all mind getting wet - his Mum, however, may well be a different story…