Get Smart

Want a brain workout? Try a sudoku. Or maybe a couple of these babies. (Photo credit Piafheleco via Wikimedia Commons)

The good folks over at the BBC thought they had worked out a way to make us all smarter. In a television show called “Get Smarter in a Week,” they had several dozen volunteers follow a regimen which included eating better food, adding more physical activity to their routine, and most importantly, doing “brain exercises.”

They even produced a booklet, available online, describing the program. Rumour has it that a major publishing company approached them to produce a print version, but the British Broadcasting Corporation turned them down. Apparently, they objected to the likely title: IQ Boosting For Dummies.

I’m generally skeptical of things that promise simple fixes and amazing results. But I have to say I applaud the BBC just for trying. If the BBC’s show was designed to make us smarter, one has to wonder about the purpose of NBC’s “Celebrity Cooking Showdown,” or worse, ABC’s “Micro-Mini: I Didn’t Really Wet My Pants.”

And as it turns out, the show had some interesting results, with participants performing up to 40 percent better on tests. The neat thing is that the “mental exercises” didn’t involve pages of math drill or tedious lectures the use of glaze in pre-common era pottery. They were simple things that you can incorporate into your daily life.

For example, the show suggests that you try doing a Sudoku puzzle from time to time, or that you should memorize phone numbers instead of putting them into speed dial. It also suggests your brain functions can be improved by doing things like taking a shower with your eyes closed, or playing charades, although I have my doubts about these two recommendations. Showering with your eyes closed is a good way to get a concussion, and if acting were good for your brain, Hollywood would be full of geniuses.

The tasks, although they sound simple, are supposed to improve creativity, spatial awareness, memory and your word and number skills. If nothing else, the show got me thinking, and I believe I’ve come up with several more brain boosting exercises.

For a creativity boost, try locking yourself out of the house. There’s nothing quite like the challenge of trying to do a home invasion without A) Setting off the house alarm which calls all three branches of the emergency services to your door and B) Setting off the nosy neighbour alarm, which calls everyone else to your door.

A good way to boost your word skills is to leave loose change in your pants pocket, and then throw the pants in the laundry. When the change jams the washing machine pump so that it overheats into a blob of molten plastic, you’ll remember swear words you didn’t know you’d heard. As a bonus, this improves your spouse’s brain: he will improve his fine motor skills repairing it, and increase his memory function by not letting you forget it.

Moving house several times in a short period of time is another good one. Indeed, us mobile night owls are probably smarter than most, because when we tiptoe around the dark house at night, we have to remember exactly which living room we’re in, and exactly where we’ve put that shin-cracking coffee table this time.

Many people would argue that being a parent is the ultimate brain improvement exercise. For example, try explaining to your two-year-old why he can’t take everyone else’s red crayons at playgroup when the other boy’s mom allowed him to swipe all the blue ones. This is especially difficult to do when you’ve just realized she’s the one who cut you off in traffic and grabbed the parking spot you wanted.

I would argue that being a parent at the same time you’re running a business is even more challenging. One minute you might be on the phone with your bank manager, discussing the Japanese exchange rate; the next, you might be discussing the various characters on Dora the Explorer with your toddler.

I like to call such mental extremes brain shifting, and I hope it’s good for me.

However, I suspect my friends would tell you that it’s not and that really I stripped my gears long ago.


Not Worth The Paper It’s Printed On

This is what would come out of any 3D printer I used. (Photo credit Axel Hindemith via Wikimedia Commons)
This is what would come out of any 3D printer I used. (Photo credit Axel Hindemith via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s official: I’m doomed.

The good news first. Scientists are developing a way to build brain tissue, cell by cell, so that they can have near complete control over how a graft is constructed.

The bad news? They’re using ink-jet printer technology to do it. It’s part of a new method of manufacturing, commonly called 3D printing.

Apparently, printers can be modified to spray droplets of live cells suspended in a sustaining solution. The latest technique for doing this involves using a powerful electric field to control the spray, rather than forcing the material through a needle-shaped nozzle.

Overall, this is very cool. Who couldn’t use a few extra brain cells now and then? But why, why, WHY does the technology have to be based on printers?

As long time readers of this column know, printers and I do not get along. I had no problem programming my VCR when we owned one. My cell phone does not confound me. I can install software on my computer and build web sites with one mouse behind my back. (Indeed, sometimes with two mice behind my back — we really need to get a cat for the home office.)

But printers? Grrr.

I can just see it now. I’m getting ready for a big presentation, and decide that a few extra brain cells would help me field the questions I’ll get afterward. I open up the file called BRAIN_BOOST.doc and click Print.

Error: Printer Not Found

But the printer is right there! Check the plugs, check the cables, reboot computer and printer. Open file. Click Print.

Unable To Print: Cyan Ink Low.

But I’m not printing with cyan ink! I’m in brain cell draft mode! Print!

Unable To Print: Cyan Ink Empty.

But you haven’t printed *anything* yet! How can you go from low to empty… fine… search for cyan replacement cartridge, open box, open printer, burn hand on hot component, wrestle old cartridge out, put new cartridge in. Print!

Error: Did You Just Replace An Ink Cartridge? You Must Print A Calibration Page Before You Can Print Again.

But! Okay, whatever, close file, change mode, Print Calibration Page.

Error: Out of Paper.

[Long pause while I have a Yosemite Sam style fit.]

Find paper. Load tray. Print Calibration Page.

Calibration Page Printed.

Hooray! Open file again. Print.

Error: Paper Jam.


Error: There Really Is No Call For That Sort Of Language.

Open printer, gently attempt to pull out jammed paper. Laugh hysterically when it shreds into two thousand smaller pieces. Spend an hour removing all the bits. Close printer. Print.


Wait. Wait some more. Make a pot of tea. Bake cookies. Eat tea and cookies.



Error 8768: Out of Memory.

Call tech support hotline. “Hello, thank you for calling Sister Printers. It is Sunday, February 12, at 3:22 a.m. EST. We are experiencing higher than usual call volume, so your call is being held in priority sequence. Your call is important to us—”

Hang up. Search Sister Printers web site. Find obscure note in knowledge base about error 8768. Find out printer came with drivers that were out of date before this particular model even rolled off the assembly line.

Download and install new drivers. Check all cables. Reboot everything. Check all ink cartridges. Check all paper trays. Print calibration page. Sacrifice a plate of cookies to the Printer Gods. Close eyes. With trembling hands, click Print.

It prints…

… five pages full of brain cells and one page with just two brain cells at the top.

By this time, the printout barely replaces the cells I have fried just getting the printer to work. I begin having visions of introducing the printer to a baseball bat. Idly surfing the web now, as it just about time for me to leave to make my presentation, I check out the prices of replacement printers.

New! Easy to use! Blunderbuss MP730! Now just $35!*

Hey… I could afford to replace this thing at that price…

* Replacement ink cartridges $325 each, after mail-in rebate.

Or not.

You see? I’m doomed.


All Talk And No Action

Conferences haven't changed much (Photo credit: Fritz Cohen via Wikimedia Commons)
Conferences haven’t changed much (Photo credit: Fritz Cohen via Wikimedia Commons)

When you have been to as many conferences as I have, especially those dealing with politics and public policy, you start to see the same people. Not necessarily the same faces, but the same types. Let’s see if you recognize some of them too:

Details, Details — This is the fellow who, who presented with a straightforward clause in a very simple resolution, will query the placement of every comma, semi-colon, and article. Nuance isn’t his middle name, but nuisance certainly is.

I Don’t Understand — This person always acts like he’s in the wrong breakout session, or possibly even the wrong conference. In spite of having listened to the same panel of speakers as everyone else, he never seems to know what the topic is, and clearly has not read any of the background information provided. He’s the one who interrupts every 15 minutes with agonizingly obvious questions.

Snoozer — You can find one of these at just about any gathering, particularly if the conference room is warm, or if everyone’s just had lunch. This is the person who distracts you by nodding off; she either snores very loudly, or you have to watch with horrified fascination to see when she will go nose first into the carpet.

Social Gadfly — These people attend conferences strictly for the schmoozing and boozing. Unfortunately, they’re not very good at either. At the opening reception, if you look friendly, they will glom on to you and then sit beside you at every session throughout the conference. They will talk your ear off, usually about personal stuff, at close range, and smelling strongly of rum.

Free Food And Drink — You see these people at every meal, in every hospitality suite, and in the corridors on coffee break. Strangely, you never see them in the actual conference sessions. You suspect they may be local college students, guests from the wedding being held three floors up, or strays from last week’s sales conference.

Point of Order — This woman, who has the entire book “Robert’s Rules of Order” memorized, will halt proceedings frequently and loudly, chastising the speaker, the moderator and the audience for not adhering to procedure. This is even when the moderator has declared the session to be informal.

Axe to Grind — There’s always at least one person with “issues” at these things. They attend conferences solely so they can stand up as often as possible to rant. They usually don’t bother with a microphone and, nine times out of ten, the things they’re peeved about have nothing to do with the topic of the gathering.

Precocious Youngster — A relatively rare species, this one comes in two types. Both are young, well-groomed, astonishingly well-informed, and articulate. One will impress your socks off and make you wonder if your kids will be as bright. The other will have been told he or she is very bright too many times, and be obnoxious enough to make you want to cuff them.

Commentator — This person, usually an older male, takes the floor to “speak to an issue.” His comments will be long and rambling, and will never come to a point, pose a question or add anything of value to the session. Mostly he’s there to hear the sound of his own voice.

Moderator — Finally, I’ve determined there are two types of moderators or chairpersons: Bad and Worse. A Bad Moderator will let every character in the room run roughshod over the proceedings. Point of Order Lady will never be told where to put her copy of Robert’s Rules; nor will Axe to Grind Guy be told to save it for a one-on-one after the main presentation. A half hour meeting will drag to five, perhaps six hours under a Bad Moderator.

The Worse Moderator — Embittered by sitting through one too many Bad sessions, will cut the power to the sound system and throw conference literature at anyone who dares approach the mic. They wrap up the session within 10 minutes and spend the rest of the allotted time at the bar, head in hands.

The mods, at least, have my sympathies.