algorithms

As quick as (a) Quarter Horse

Dog and Hat, Dog & Hat, Hundred House, Quarterhouse coffee

The package from Dog & Hat with Hundred House and Quarter Horse. Is it a particularly contemplative dog with the monocle?

Links with science can be found everywhere, from the café to the coffee roaster. A couple of weeks ago a delivery from Dog and Hat coffee gave me an opportunity to explore the random thought paths that may occur if you stop to ponder your coffee at home rather than in a café. The first coffee, an Ethiopian from Hundred House prompted thoughts on star gazing. But the second coffee, a Mexican from Quarter Horse coffee was equally thought provoking.

Finding time to prepare a V60 and sit with the SCAA “flavor wheel” as a guide, I was rewarded with a sweet, well rounded and perfectly enjoyable brew. I found fruity notes of blueberry and cherry/pineapple though the tasting notes on the packaging say “green grape, toffee and cocoa”. Sadly I missed the cocoa but this offers a good excuse for another slow brew with the coffee wheel at hand.

Thinking about the name of the coffee, I started to consider how you could quarter a horse. Perhaps not a literal horse given the ethical considerations but rather an irregularly shaped volume. How would you divide, into equal portions, an irregularly shaped object such as a horse? It seemed related to the question of finding the shortest route between two locations, how would you calculate the best route to take from A to B? In the 1950s a computer scientist called Edsger Dijkstra (1930-2002) came up with an algorithm to calculate precisely this problem. Originally designed to show the shortest routes between 64 cities in the Netherlands, Dijkstra’s algorithm is now ubiquitous in our lives.

Quarter Horse but how would you

A close up of the Quarter Horse Coffee Bag.

One of the ways in which we have started to rely on such algorithms is in car GPS devices or even on our phones trying to navigate to our destinations. Or at least, many of us do. London taxi drivers however have been shown to have developed a different brain structure from the general population that means that, for them, Dijkstra’s algorithm may be unnecessary. A few years ago, a study compared brain scans of people who had been driving London’s “black cabs” for a number of years to those of us in the general population. A follow-up study followed three sets of people over several years. A control group of people in the general population and a second group of people who studied the “Knowledge”, the navigational test that London taxi drivers have to pass in order to become cabbies. The Knowledge tests the driver’s ability to recall tens of thousands of London’s streets and the prospective cabbie can be asked to navigate between two points anywhere within a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross. Typically it takes years to acquire the Knowledge and not everyone who starts on the Knowledge will pass (the pass rate is only about 50%). This means that this second group of people splits into two groups; those who studied and passed the Knowledge and those who studied but did not pass.

The studies proved illuminating. One particular part of the brain, the posterior hippocampus had a greater volume of “grey matter” (the brain processing cells) in taxi drivers who had studied, and passed, the Knowledge compared with the general population. Moreover, those that had been taxi drivers for longer, showed larger posterior hippocampi. The changes in the brain seemed to lead to the cabbies having not only better navigational ability than the general population but better memory for London based information. The study of the trainees moreover confirmed that these brain changes occurred as a result of learning the Knowledge, showing that our brains are adaptable and still able to develop well into adulthood. While the brains of all the study participants started off similarly, those that went on to pass the Knowledge had a larger posterior hippocampus than those who either didn’t study or studied but hadn’t passed. However it was not all good news for the cabbies. The growth of the posterior hippocampus seemed to occur at the expense of the anterior hippocampus in long serving taxi drivers (but not newly qualified ones). The improved memory for London based information shown by the taxi driving group was also accompanied by a poorer ability to learn other visual information/memory related tasks in those that passed the Knowledge compared to the general population.

taxi and motorcycle, London

London black cab drivers have been shown to have a larger volume of grey matter in the posterior hippocampus area of their brains, demonstrating that our brains remain adaptable well into adulthood.

Perhaps the ability of the cabbies to navigate quickly around London’s streets suggests a second connection with Quarter Horse. A Quarter Horse is a breed of horse that can sprint very quickly over short (less than a quarter of a mile) distances. Which goes faster, the cabbie with the Knowledge or us with our smartphones once we have plugged in our destination? We are reminded of the tale of the hare and the tortoise. But I think a different tale is more appropriate. A tale that in reality was only ever a snippet of an ancient saying but has been developed into tales by thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin and Ronald Dworkin.

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog one important thing”.

What does this mean? It seems there is a connection here between coffee roasting and taxi drivers, between algorithms and personal development, between coffee science and writing about coffee science. Is this connection really there or is it a meaningless statement that leads us into blind alleys of coffee consideration? It may be time to stretch our brains, grow our grey matter a bit and contemplate. Am I a fox or a hedgehog and where do London cabbies and coffee roasters fit in?

Quarter Horse coffee is online at https://quarterhorsecoffee.com

You can find out more about the coffee subscription site Dog and Hat on their website https://dogandhat.co.uk

You can read more about the taxi driver study on the Wellcome Trust’s press release about it here.

Enjoy your coffee, have fun thinking, grow your grey matter.