Of Brains and Men

A short one from me, for once!  But I needed to get this out of my head, either for general discussion with you clever people, or later research / procrastination (delete as appropriate).

Watching Game of Thrones last night it struck me how many stories we keep track of, whether it be long form TV drama, soaps, movie franchises, comics, novels or games.  I’m in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, and will no doubt pick up the latest from George RR Martin whenever he finishes it.  Star Wars is 1/3 the way through a new trilogy, itself part of a wider set of stories in a universe where there are plenty of tales to tell.  I’m sure many of you are in a similar situation, whatever genre you’re into or medium you prefer.  You may also be a student of history, and have a deep understanding of the people and stories of a particular time.

Now for each of these fictional or historical universes, we understand those characters, their motivations and relationships, the rules that govern their worlds that don’t necessarily apply in ours.  They’re stored in our brains and we switch back into them each time we pick up a book or switch on the TV.

A certain amount of our brain’s capacity relates to these social rules and relationships.  Certainly, we see from Anthropology  that there seems to be a correlation here: Dunbar’s Number suggests that the average size of a social group for different species of primate relates to the volume of their neocortex.

So here’s my hypothesis: that as language evolved, and we recounted stories of our exploits, tales of our ancestors, our brain capacity grew, even if we lived in small groups.  Our stories became more fanciful, we invented fiction.  And now we see a huge proportion of our lives are based around these other worlds and relationships that are not our own.

This prompts a number of questions:

  • As a species are we continuing to expand our neocortex because of the diverse and complex stories we consume?
  • As individuals do we sacrifice real-world relationships for fictional ones, or does this help us expand our capacity?
  • Does the exposure to more points of view and a different set of rules help us to empathise  with others and adapt to situations outside our usual experience?


The lies of the land

In a previous post I attempted to trace some of the Roman roads around Ilkley using the definitive source by Ivan D. Margary. Whilst the catalogue is exhaustive, there were lots of speculative points in the route where the description was lacking, or there was just not enough archaeological evidence to say where the route went.  In other areas, there are doubts about whether certain roads were planned and built by the Romans, or merely laid over existing Celtic pathways.

I was still thinking about this when I returned to the library, and was very pleased to find John Poulter’s “The Planning of Roman Road and Walls in Northern Britain“, and Charlotte Higgins’ “Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain“.  Higgin’s book appears to be more of a travelogue, walking the pathways, and describing the landscape and subsequent history around the route.  I will write more of that when I’ve finished Poulter’s book.

Poulter is a retired engineer and archaeologist, and takes a systems engineering approach to tracing the road layout.  He notes that often there is a very accurate long distance alignment setting out from point A in the direction of point B, which then diverts off for landmarks and other sites.  His theory was that adjustments to the route would come at certain points because the planners climbed to the top of a hill, then spotted a new landmark.  Or river crossing points.  When you start to look at this on the ground you can see that roads were often planned long before they were built, were planned and constructed at different times and from different directions, hence we get odd deviations at times.

He’s used this principle to good effect, using the long distance planning lines to identify promising archeological sites, as well as explaining why some previous claims for Roman roads don’t always stand up to scrutiny.

Personal Kanban – Day 5

If you’ve been following my progress of personal kanban this week, you have noticed that there was no day four. That was neither a trick nor a mistake; I went on a school trip to the zoo with my daughter.

I was slightly apprehensive that I would come back on Friday morning and lose the momentum of this productivity binge, but thankfully I was able to sort a few things out by email on the bus to the zoo, simple queries that kept there waiting for items moving along nicely.

That’s one thing I might have to consider, as for these items there was lots of back and forth before an item moved on. If anything, having these tasks in a production line might help to give an overview of how those kinds of tasks progress, when it might be better to call someone to clarify details. On the other hand creating specialist streams for each category of request would complicate the board, especially if well-defined processes will be tracked within the request system.

Synchronising with Trello was easy again, just a quick glance over the board, and a couple of school ideas from yesterday talking with Parents and Teachers added to the physical board. I have a little routine now of going through the Waiting For items, checking emails and making calls, then looking for new items. In fact I’m able to add items to Trello quickly as they come in via email, hence I got some work done yesterday.

I’m not one of those people who insists work ends at 5pm so I can’t respond or initiate emails. It’s part of work-life balance, what allows you to spend some time during the day on personal or family projects. I don’t *expect* anyone to reply outside of these hours, and neither to I feel obliged to reply myself, but it can help move things on ready for the next day in the office.

Once again, a busy morning with one pressing item that kept getting pushed back I responded to immediate requests, but I got there in the end, the board allowing me to move the task on and out-of my brain, and the post-it reminding me of my main target for the day.

I guess the only problem I had was the small tasks that kept coming in as I was trying to get out, which I was determined to jot down ready for Monday.

In summary:
1) Kanban has been easy and quick to implement, and to tweak the board to my way of working.

2) Setting up an electronic copy in Trello didn’t take long and required little overhead to synchronise each day. Having a portable version allowed me to keep up with email actions whilst away from the office.

3) It’s made it easier to resist the usual distractions and chronic procrastination as moving things to done has been rewarding and satisfying. On a similar note I’ve felt comfortable and in control when I have spent a few minutes doing something else like visiting the library or catching up on Facebook. Maybe the visibility of all those items in Next Up or Backlog has been a subconscious motivator!

See also:

Getting Started
Day 2
Day 3


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