On Substituting Memory and Imagination

September 14, 2015

Comedian “Father Guido Sarducci,” the chain-smoking priest on Saturday Night Live and putative gossip columnist and rock critic for the Vatican, had a routine he called the 5-Minute University. “The idea is that in a five minutes you learn whata the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is a outa school,” he said. “It would cost like a $20.”

Instead of wasting time with all the stuff you’re going to forget very soon after you take you last college test, Father Sarducci asked, why not just commit to memory the handful of things you actually will remember while still getting a valuable credential?

So in linguistics the answer to the question “como se llama?” is “muy bien,” Sarducci said in his bit. And in theology the answer to the question “where is God?” is that “God is everywhere.” In ethics, “the ends justify the means.” You get the idea.

Father Sarducci might say that anyone who survived microeconomics in college probably remembers that, to a variable degree, capital and labor are substitutes.

In a like manner, imagination and memory are, to a variable degree, also substitutes.

What a minute, you’re asking, how could imagination… defined as “the faculty of imagining, or of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present to the senses” possibly substitute for memory?

Here’s how: there is a memory technique, older than Socrates, and first employed by a colorful 6th century BC Greek named Simonides of Ceos. Simonides, as the story goes, was at a banquet in Thessaly, the bread-basket of Ancient Greece, performing in his role as a lyric poet. He stepped out out of the hall for a time and during his absence the roof of the building collapsed killing everyone inside and making it impossible to identify the bodies. What were grieving loved ones to do?

But upon recollection Simonides found he was able to recreate who was where just by walking his memory around the places of the hall. So, Alcibiades was next to the third column on the right. Heracleitus was serving kalamari by the table nearest the fountain. Eusebius was toasting the statue of Dionysus in the courtyard. Etc.

In their respective textbooks on rhetorics, the Romans Quintilian (a rhetorician) and Cicero (the legendary philosopher), gave Simonides credit for discovering the method of the loci, aka the memory palace. It was a boon to the ancient world. Because so very few people in the ancient world wrote, the only memory system for most people was internal. If you wanted to remember stuff, you didn’t save a spreadsheet to Dropbox. You didn’t even make notes on paper. In the ancient world you memorized it.

Since the Iliad and the Odyssey predate writing, Homer’s work was passed down orally, person to person, for hundreds of years, and perhaps much longer. Even literate cultures used memorization because you could never be sure that written works would survive the turmoil of the times. It’s said that the ultimate test of rabbinic students in the ancient world was to stick a pin through a line of text on one side of a scroll of the Torah and ask what word it penetrated on the other side!

The Greeks used tricks to remember Homer, none the least of which is that verse set to music is easier to remember than prose. I almost can’t get the words of Bob Seger’s song “Turn the Page” out of my head once it gets implanted there. You probably have at least one song like that for you. But the Jews mainly used brute force memorization.

What Simonides brought to memorization was a kind of third way. He and his successors found that if you could associate a memory with room or a place in a familiar building, you could then just walk your memory around the building and pluck each item from its place in your memory palace.

Grocery lists, the constellations visible in the night sky in December, the birthdays of loved ones, and many more, are all things you could load into your own memory palace.

The trick, Simonides discovered, was in making the associations especially vivid and multisensory. Author Joshua Foer describes the process in his fine book on memory, Moonwalking With Einstein.

“The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. What distinguishes a great mnemonist… is the ability to create these sort of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten.”

Foer opens his book with a recounting of the images he used in memorizing the order of multiple decks of playing card in just minutes and in doing so winning the USA Memory Championship.

“Dom DeLuise, celebrity fat man (and five of clubs), has been implicated in the following unseemly acts in my mind’s eye: He has hocked a fat globule of spittle (nine of clubs) on Albert Einstein’s thick white mane (three of diamonds) and delivered a devastating karate kick to the groin of of Pope Benedict XVI (six of diamonds).”

Each of those images was associated with a space in Foer’s memory palace. The method of loci works because, then as now, the human brain is far better at remembering spaces than abstractions. Father Guido was right; five years out of school, who but the fussiest among us remembers the rule for when is the word “swimming” is a gerund and when is it a present participle?

But in order to pull it off, you have to create associations that are out of the ordinary. Memorable, in other words.

Foer, as he explains, relies on associations that are rude, sexual, even vulgar. It was always thus. In his 2,000-year-old classic Rhetorica ad Herennium Cicero wrote that:

“When we see everyday life things are petty, ordinary, and banal, we generally fail to remember them. But of we see something exceptionally base, dishonorable, unusual, great, or ridiculous, that we are likely to remember for a long time… the striking and the novel stay longer in the mind.”

After Gutenberg, when external memory became much more available and literacy and paper more widespread, the method of the loci fell out of practice. The sexual and rude associations often used in technique fell into disdain and even disfavor.

Still, people needed and wanted internal memory, even if the memory palace techniques for doing had become unsavory.

In his biography of the influential American theologian Jonathan Edwards, George Marsden describes a mnemonic trick Edwards used when taking long rides on horseback:

“For each insight he wished to remember, he would pin a small piece of paper on a particular piece of his clothes, which he would associate with the thought. When he returned home he would unpin these and write down each idea. At the ends of trips of several days, his clothes might be covered by quite a few of these slips of paper.”

Edwards was a pious man, the leading light in the First Great Awakening in America. For him, remembering ideas he’d had while riding by imagining a fat man spitting, or kicks to the Pope’s groin would have been out of character (and for Edwards, unacceptably papish). Instead, Edwards used the first trick of remembering things we wish to remember; mindfulness.

In an email response to me, Joshua Foer said as much about Edwards’ mnemonic device:

This “sounds like a version of the old string around the finger trick. It’s not that we forget the content of the anecdotes we want to remember so much as we forget that we want to remember them. This is a clever way around that.”

Here’s a for-instance: the other day someone gave me a name of a person who I wanted to look up later. His first name is Paul, which is my name and thus easy for me to remember. His last name is Twayne. The name of his company is Cumulus. And so I imagined a super tall man… I’m 6’4” but I saw this man being 10,000 feet tall!… with my body and Mark Twain’s magnificent head of white hair suspended among fluffy cumulus clouds.  

But by the 19th century, memorizing names, or cards, or lists, or poems using the method of loci was a parlour trick. And nowadays when the answer to the question of when “swimming” is a gerund and when it is a present participle is as close as your phone, why bother committing anything to memory at all?

Isn’t Wikipedia proof that Father Sarducci was right?

Here’s one response: Accessing and using what we really know is always faster than accessing and using whatever external memory is available to us. Programmers coding away can certainly find the snippets of code they need within moments, maybe minutes at the most. But it’s faster and better if they can pull it from memory. Likewise if you’re at the flower market in Aix en Provence, it’s better to pull the word tournesols from memory than to point at the sunflowers and pantomime.  

But even ready access undersells the value of committing things to memory. A few months back I went to the funeral for a man who had done me a great favor many years earlier and had lived to age 86. He had lived a full and accomplished life, including winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit medals as a young Air Force pilot. The eulogy was beautifully delivered by his younger brother, aged 83, who recited from memory poem after poem that were dear to both men.

Certainly the younger brother could have simply read the poetry from his phone or a book. But, as with the ancients, the verse this man had memorized had done more than inspire him, it had molded his character, his outlook, and his view on life. He was a different man because he could recite that poetry from heart than he would have been had he just known of it. What we can remember not only forms us, it becomes us.

All laughs aside, don’t we want to be more than just Father Guido Sarducci’s three things?

For workable and effective memory techniques and tricks you could hardly do better than any of Harry Lorayne’s works, but I particularly like his 2007 book Ageless Memory. For a great read about why memory matters Joshua Foer’s 2011 book Moonwalking With Einstein is that rarest kind of nonfiction, a page turner. 

RIP William Safire, Informal Learner Supreme

September 28, 2009

William SafireWilliam Safire, proud college dropout, PR flack, Nixon speech writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, and fastidious language maven, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. He was 79.

His obituary from the New York Times, where he worked for decades, follows.

Why post on Safire in a blog on informal learning?

Because Safire was an exemplar for all informal learners. Read on to see why.

William Safire, Political Columnist and Oracle of Language, Dies at 79

By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
William Safire, a speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times who also wrote novels, books on politics and a Malaprop’s treasury of articles on language, died at a hospice in Rockville, Md., on Sunday. He was 79.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Martin Tolchin, a friend of the family.

There may be many sides in a genteel debate, but in the Safire world of politics and journalism it was simpler: There was his own unambiguous wit and wisdom on one hand and, on the other, the blubber of fools he called “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

He was a college dropout and proud of it, a public relations go-getter who set up the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” in Moscow, and a White House wordsmith in the tumultuous era of war in Vietnam, Nixon’s visit to China and the gathering storm of the Watergate scandal, which drove the president from office.

Then, from 1973 to 2005, Mr. Safire wrote his twice-weekly “Essay” for the Op-Ed page of The Times, a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus. Unlike most Washington columnists who offer judgments with Olympian detachment, Mr. Safire was a pugnacious contrarian who did much of his own reporting, called people liars in print and laced his opinions with outrageous wordplay.

Critics initially dismissed him as an apologist for the disgraced Nixon coterie. But he won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and for 32 years tenaciously attacked and defended foreign and domestic policies, and the foibles, of seven administrations. Along the way, he incurred enmity and admiration, and made a lot of powerful people squirm.

Mr. Safire also wrote four novels, including “Full Disclosure” (Doubleday, 1977), a best-seller about succession issues after a president is blinded in an assassination attempt, and nonfiction that included “The New Language of Politics” (Random House, 1968), and “Before the Fall” (Doubleday, 1975), a memoir of his White House years.

And from 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column that explored written and oral trends, plumbed the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and drew a devoted following, including a stable of correspondents he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

Behind the fun, readers said, was a talented linguist with an addiction to alliterative allusions. There was a consensus, too, that his Op-Ed essays, mostly written in Washington and syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, were the work of a sophisticated analyst with voluminous contacts and insights into the way things worked in Washington.

Mr. Safire called himself a pundit — the word, with its implication of self-appointed expertise, might have been coined for him — and his politics “libertarian conservative,” which he defined as individual freedom and minimal government. He denounced the Bush administration’s U.S.A. Patriot Act as an intrusion on civil liberties, for example, but supported the war in Iraq.

He was hardly the image of a button-down Times man: The shoes needed a shine, the gray hair a trim. Back in the days of suits, his jacket was rumpled, the shirt collar open, the tie askew. He was tall but bent — a man walking into the wind. He slouched and banged a keyboard, talked as fast as any newyawka and looked a bit gloomy, like a man with a toothache coming on.

His last Op-Ed column was “Never Retire.” He then became chairman of the Dana Foundation, which supports research in neuroscience, immunology and brain disorders. In 2005, he testified at a Senate hearing in favor of a law to shield reporters from prosecutors’ demands to disclose sources and other information. In 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. From 1995 to 2004, he was a member of the board that awards the Pulitzer Prizes.

William Safir was born on Dec. 17, 1929, in New York City, the youngest of three sons of Oliver C. and Ida Panish Safir. (The “e” was added to clarify pronunciation.) He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and attended Syracuse University, but quit after his second year in 1949 to take a job with Tex McCrary, a columnist for The New York Herald Tribune who hosted radio and television shows; the young legman interviewed Mae West and other celebrities.

In 1951, Mr. Safire was a correspondent for WNBC-TV in Europe and the Middle East, and jumped into politics in 1952 by organizing an Eisenhower-for-President rally at Madison Square Garden. He was in the Army from 1952 to 1954, and for a time was a reporter for the Armed Forces Network in Europe. In Naples he interviewed both Ingrid Bergman and Lucky Luciano within a few hours of each other.

In 1959, working in public relations, he was in Moscow to promote an American products exhibition and managed to steer Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev into the “kitchen debate” on capitalism versus communism. He took a well-known photograph of the encounter. Nixon was delighted, and hired Mr. Safire for his 1960 campaign for the presidency against John F. Kennedy.

Starting his own public relations firm in 1961, Mr. Safire worked in Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller’s 1964 presidential race and on John V. Lindsay’s 1965 campaign for mayor of New York. Mr. Safire also wrote his first book, “The Relations Explosion” (Macmillan, 1963).

In 1962, he married the former Helene Belmar Julius, a model, pianist and jewelry designer. The couple had two children, Mark and Annabel. His wife and children survive him, as does a granddaughter, Lily Safire.

In 1968, he sold his agency, became a special assistant to President Nixon and joined a White House speechwriting team that included Patrick J. Buchanan and Raymond K. Price Jr. Mr. Safire wrote many of Nixon’s speeches on the economy and Vietnam, and in 1970 coined the “nattering nabobs” and “hysterical hypochondriacs” phrases for Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.

After Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, hired Mr. Safire, one critic said it was like setting a hawk loose among doves. As Watergate broke, Mr. Safire supported Nixon, but retreated somewhat after learning that he, like others in the White House, had been secretly taped.

Mr. Safire won his Pulitzer Prize for columns that accused President Jimmy Carter’s budget director, Bert Lance, of shady financial dealings. Mr. Lance resigned, but was acquitted in a trial. He then befriended his accuser.

Years later, Mr. Safire called Hillary Clinton a “congenital liar” in print. Mrs. Clinton said she was offended only for her mother’s sake. But a White House aide said that Bill Clinton, “if he were not the president, would have delivered a more forceful response on the bridge of Mr. Safire’s nose.”

Mr. Safire was delighted, especially with the proper use of the conditional.

Deadlines and Informal Learning

June 16, 2009

I saw this wonderful senior project from Bang-yao Liu, a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, and wanted to share it. The title of the video is “Deadline post it stop motion.”

But of course, this blog is about informal learning, not cool stop-motion animation.

So in keeping with the official theme of this blog, my post instead is about the derivation of the word ‘deadline.’

Wait, you say, what does the word deadline have to do with informal learning? Just this. Deadlines have a marvelous capacity to focus the learner’s mind, as I expect young Bang-yao would admit.

Informal learners could do worse than to give themselves deadlines to finish their readings, learnings, writings.

The word deadline comes from one of the darker chapters of American Civil War history, Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville. Andersonville was a Confederate prisoner of war camp, in Macon County, Georgia, about 150 miles from Savannah.

In time some 45,000 prisoners of war were housed at Andersonville over the course of its 14 months of operation. In August 1864, there were 33,000 POWs in the camp. By December 1864 100 prisoners were dying each day, mainly due to disease and malnutrition. All told nearly 13,000 POWs didn’t survive Andersonville.

The prison was set on 16 acres of land, later expanded to 26 acres. The Confederacy, stretched from war expenses, provided the prisoners no barracks or shelter of any kind from the Georgia weather, although a ‘tent city’ did arise self-provided by the prisoners. Food rations were notably meager.

The camp site was bisected by a slow moving stream called Stockade Creek. It served as both a source of fresh water for the prisoners and sanitation purposes. With so many prisoners the creek and the boggy area around it quickly became a fetid, disease-ridden swamp.

Camp Sumter was surrounded by a 15-foot stockade wall. Guards patrolled the inside of the stockade. Between them and the prisoners was a low wooden fence called the ‘dead-line.’ The name came from the rule that was associated with the fence: if a prisoner so much as put his arm over the dead-line, he could be summarily shot. About 15 men were shot and killed for dead-line infractions.

Andersonville was a horror of the highest order. Its commander, Henry Wirz, was tried and executed after the war. During the trial the prosecution and witnesses described the prison, including the malevolent dead-line and its deadly rule. The newspapers of the day ate it up.

In time, a number of personal accounts of Andersonville emerged, some of them highly dramatized (as if surviving the place needed any embellishment). Few failed to mention the dead-line.

By about 1900 or so the term was in use by printers to describe an area on the margins of paper not meant to be printed upon. By the 1920s or so it began to be used to mean a time limit.

That meaning seems to have found its fit with the word. There’s no good synonymy for deadline. ‘Target’ doesn’t convey the right urgency. ‘Zero hour’ has punch, but not much currency. ‘Crunch time’ implies a band of time rather than a terminal moment.

So thank you, Bang-yao Liu, for your clever project and reminder about the power of deadlines.

Eric Hoffer, Public Intellectual, Powered By Learner’s Journals

May 20, 2009
Eric Hoffer Kept Learner's Journals During his Whole Life as a Public Intellectual

Eric Hoffer Kept Learner's Journals During his Whole Life as a Public Intellectual

Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman aphorist, seemed to have sprung up from the bare ground able to write penetrating psychological and sociological commentary.

Hoffer was the author of nine books, most of them critically well-received. His first book, the 1951 classic called The True Believer is probably still in 90 percent of all public libraries in the United States.

And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more unlikely public intellectual.

Hoffer was the only child of German immigrant parents. He never attended college and spent 32 years as a migrant worker and longshoreman. Before that he was an itinerant worker, mostly in California. As a young child he was blind from age five until age 15 following an accident wherein he fell down the stairs in the arms of his mother. She died two years later from the resulting injuries. By 1942 when Hoffer registered for the draft, counting the draft registration there were a grand total of two public records with his name on them; the other was his social security application. When the Army declared him 4-F during WWII, he signed up as a San Francisco longshoreman in 1943. He was 45 years old.

He was entirely self-taught, but he owned few books, and not one radio or TV. All his studies were conducted with public library books. What few possessions he owned he left to Lili Osborne, who said that, on Hoffer’s death from emphysema in 1983, it took her all of two hours to clean out his apartment.

So how to explain the uncluttered Eric Hoffer?

After the veil of his blindness parted when he was 15, Hoffer began reading voraciously to sate “a terrific hunger for the printed word.”

More than just a reader, Hoffer was also a punctilious note taker. He copied onto file cards quotations from the books he was reading. He kept file cabinets full of them. And, most notably, he kept record of his thoughts in learner’s journals or notebooks, which he always kept at hand. From 1949 to 1977 he filled 131 notebooks.

He wrote his first manuscript for the immigrant’s magazine Common Ground in 1938. It was not published, but the editor’s assistant, Margaret Anderson, kept encouraging Hoffer over the course of a decades-long correspondence. The True Believer was dedicated to Anderson.

Hoffer wrote, he said, “in railroad yards while waiting for a freight, in the fields while waiting for a truck,” dockside, on busses, and park benches.

Tom Bethell of the Hoover Institution, where Hoffer’s notebooks are archived, writes: “When not on the waterfront, Hoffer would take a regular three-mile walk in Golden Gate Park toward the Pacific Ocean, working out ideas in his head and writing down the completed thoughts in his notebooks. For perhaps 30 years, Hoffer took the same walk, returning to the center of the city by bus. ‘The words, the ideas, come to me in the park,’ he said in a 1967 interview. ‘I shape them in my head there, and I write them in my notebook. Blind people [his sight had returned in adolescence] write full sentences in their head. Sentences they can see. I still do.’ But 10 years later, when he was approaching 80, he wrote: ‘In the past I could carry a train of thought in my head for days, formulating and revising, without writing down a word until the thinking was done. At present I cannot write without pen in hand. . . . The old must break with the past and learn anew.’”

As a result of Hoffer’s thinking in advance, the journal entries “in his workingman’s hand, are polished, with few erasures or corrections, even when written on a park bench,” writes Bethell.

So now to a few of Hoffer’s aphorisms:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”

“An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.”

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

“You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.”

And for all you Freudians out there, Hoffer was distinctly anti-Freud:

“The individual on his own is stable only so long as he is possessed of self-esteem. The maintenance of self-esteem is a continuous task which taxes all of the individual’s powers and inner resources. We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day. When, for whatever reason, self-esteem is unattainable, the autonomous individual becomes a highly explosive entity. He turns away from an unpromising self and plunges into the pursuit of pride — the explosive substitute for self-esteem. All social disturbances and upheavals have their roots in crises of individual self-esteem, and the great endeavor in which the masses most readily unite is basically a search for pride.”

Mr. Spock Can’t Forget the Theme to Gilligan’s Island Either

May 5, 2009

album-cover-mr-spock-presents-music-from-outer-space1In Newsweek magazine’s recent ‘cover package’ on the new Star Trek movie, one of the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation named Leonard Mlodinow leads his article titled “Vulcans, Never Ever Smile” with a startling confession.

There he was at a chi-chi Hollywood party filled with actors and models and an attorney whose “outfit would have been a fair trade for my car,” Mlodinow writes.

The attorney and a model… both Trekkies, as it turns out… begin to talk about various Star Trek arcana. For a long time he feels out of his depth as the attorney tries to impress the model with his knowledge of Vulcan ‘history’ when like a shot he realizes the attorney is quoting lines from a script Mlodinow himself had written!

“The situation felt surreal,” Mlodinow writes. “Not just because I’d forgotten my own dialogue—you’d be surprised how easy it is to blank on entire scenes—but that they had remembered it and in such detail.”

Mlodinow, let me be clear, wasn’t just another professional Hollywood scribe. He was, in fact, a physics professor at Caltech when he got the call to join the writing staff at Star Trek: The Next Generation and he came aboard thinking that he was there to inject some real science into the show.

What do you make of someone who can write something so unforgettable that another man commits it to memory while the writer himself can only just recall it?

I chalk it up to the ‘Gilligan’s Island Effect.’

You know what I mean. Along with a whole generation of my peers I can remember both versions of the theme to Gilligan’s Island. But for many years every April I’d have to look up my mother’s birthday to ensure I got a card to her on time. I knew her birthday was in April, I just couldn’t remember the exact date.

That is to say, part of the answer is repetition. Unless Mlodinow is a narcissist, I’d bet that he’s seen the episode in question many fewer times than the attorney. And while I’d certainly heard the Gilligan’s Island them hundreds of times, I had only celebrated 30 of my mother’s birthdays.

But part of it has to do with what learning you take pleasure in. There are adults who can recall sports statistics for the athlete-idols of their youth with perfect clarity decades after they committed them to memory. And yet if asked to memorize something they found joyless… the thread-count of the sheets their spouse preferred, say… they would tell you that they were incapable of keeping numbers in their head.

Human memory is so friable. Unless you work at it by keeping a learner’s journal and frequently reviewing it, or using a repetition spacing software like SuperMemo, it crumbles like dust.

Keep Forgetting? Remember to Sleep!

April 26, 2009

Dimitri Mendeleev Came Up With Periodical Table During a Dream

Dimitri Mendeleev Came Up With Periodical Table During a Dream

The joke goes, writes Robert Stickgold, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, that everyone knew memory and sleep were related except for the people who studied memory and the people who studied sleep.

Writing in the April 27, 2009 issue of Newsweek,  Stickgold says that the relationship is now very clear, even if we don’t know which way all the causation arrows are pointing. Consider this:

  • In tests of the different kinds of memory… procedural, declarative, episodic… ‘sleeping on it’ after first learning the task almost always improves performance.
  • Sleep deprivation experiments makes memory acquisition harder. And, the tired brain has a harder time still capturing positive memories than negative ones. That could be why sleep deprivation is so often associated with depression.
  • The two memory systems, the hippocampus and the neocortex, seem to interact during sleep. Increasingly it looks like that memory between the two systems is consolidated during sleep.
  • Not only memory, but connections between stored memories seem to take place during sleep. Dimitri Mendeleev (see above) fell asleep at his desk and dreamed up the Periodic Table of Elements during his slumber, for instance.

The Mendeleev anecdote has been underscored by modern research. German scientists gave game players a puzzle to solve involving seven calculations. Those that slept between game sessions were three times as likely to discover that the second calculation and the seventh gave the same answer.

Why does all this matter? Stickgold writes that some sleep researchers posit that for every two waking hours we need one hour of sleep to sort through what we’ve learned and experienced. For some people who get less than that it seems to lead to conditions like depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

The third of our life we spend  sleeping is rest for the body, but the brain remains active. “And much of that activity helps the brain to learn, to remember and to make connections,” Stickgold writes.

Not so sure? Then sleep on it and comment below.

5th Annual Games for Health Conference

April 23, 2009

An 11-session track at the 5th Annual Games for Health Conference coming up June 11-12 in Boston will feature cognitive and brain fitness topics.

The conference takes place at the Hyatt Harborside Hotel in Boston.

The conference costs $379. Register online here.  Include the code ‘sharp09’ and get a 15 percent discount.

A Free ‘College Education’ on Your Computer Screen

April 21, 2009

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14 plowboy

Farnsworth invented electronic TV as a 14-year-old plowboy

I twice had the pleasure of meeting the widow of Philo Farnsworth, the man who had envisioned electronic television while plowing an Idaho potato field as a boy of 14. No kidding!

His widow’s name was Elma, but she went by ‘Pem.’ When I met her, circa 1990, Pem had completed the first book-length biography of Philo called Distant Vision.

It’s an interesting read, especially the part about Philo programming his first TV station, W3XPF in Philadelphia. Farnsworth… who received precious little formal education after high school… was racing against the ruthless General David Sarnoff, head of RCA, to prove the concept of television by actually programming a station. Farnsworth had conceived of television as a kind of ultimate educator, a technology custom fit to bless the lives of humanity.

The word ‘television’ was invented well before there were any channels to change and Farnsworth’s philosophical determinism on the topic was common among the television pioneers. Several years before he’d founded RCA and decades before the advent of TV, Sarnoff himself circulated a memo to friends in which he wrote: “I believe that television… is the ultimate and greatest step in mass communications.”

Farnsworth began broadcasting on W3XPF in January 1937 in Philadelphia, about six months after RCA started experimental broadcasting in New York City. RCA’s first TV broadcast had singing acts, a dramatic reading from a Broadway actor, and a performance from three ballet dancers. Farnsworth made an abortive attempt at televising educational lectures before following RCA’s lead into entertainment.

Farnsworth’s electronic television, he found to his dismay, seemed to demand something not only livelier but shallower than education for the masses.

In short order W3XPF was producing a mix of orchestral music and singers, variety and novelty acts like ‘Baby Dolores,’ a 4-year-old singer/dancer. RCA demonstrated electronic television at the 1938 World’s Fair in New York. Then WWII broke out and everyone who was once a television specialist was now a radar specialist, Farnsworth included. Television as the great educator of the people fell through the cracks for decades.

In retrospect it’s easy to understand why television as an educator didn’t fly in the earliest days of the medium. Really gifted lecturers are rare. Compelling educational TV can be made today, but producing it can be expensive and requires technology and pedagogical approaches that were decades away in 1937. And then there’s the issue of exactly what to program. Videotape wasn’t invented until the 1950s. Until then all TV aired live. Even in 1937 a university might offer hundreds of different courses. But which one to televise?

You might also blame anti-intellectualism among the American populace, but I reject that argument. Beginning in the 1830s a broad swath of Americans embraced a rising tide of informal adult education. Lecturers would tour the cities and the backcountry talking about the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, philosophy, religion, languages, the evils of liquor and tobacco, and more.

Mark Twain made a good living as a lecturer before enjoying fame as a writer. And in the century before movies and television, people in smaller burgs especially had few of the outside diversions we enjoy today. Back then, education was entertainment.

Consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates. People would watch the debates for several hours, break for lunch then come back, break for dinner, and then come back again for a third session. If there really ever was such a thing as ‘American Exceptionalism,’ some part of the explanation must be owed to our historical propensity for self-improvement.

Now benefiting from the long tail made possible by digital content and inexpensive storage, Farnsworth’s dream has come true. Only the TV is on your computer or even your phone.

Since March 26, 2009 YouTube has offered a broad aggregation of videos from the nation’s accredited 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities, all free. The project was undertaken by a tribe of volunteer YouTubies.

Philo Farsnworth, self-taught  genius, would have loved it.

[Check this sample clip featuring Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, MD from the University of California San Diego. She lectures on the topic of the apparent relationship between obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. As she takes pains to point out, no causation has yet been proven.]

Start a Job Journal, Get a Job

April 4, 2009
To Get a Job These Days You Gotta Hustle, A Job Journal Could Help

To Get a Job These Days You Gotta Hustle, A Job Journal Could Help

The April 13, 2009 issue of Fortune magazine highlights successful job seekers in what everyone acknowledges is a tough job market.

Although the reporter, Jia Lynn Yang, never uses these words, the job seekers in Fortune got jobs not because they were the most or best qualified, but because they were, to a person, hustlers.

And in a long list of these job hustlers the first profiled is Rob Sparno, a high-level salesman formerly at Oracle.

When the ax fell, Yang writes, Sparno who is “methodical by nature… made a trip to Staples, where be bought a black hard-cover lined notebook. He vowed to record every day what he did, whom he talked to, how he felt, how many miles he ran. He even wrote down what he ate.”

Ten weeks after leaving Oracle Sparno was employed again, by Salesforce.com. To be fair, Sparno was well-connected, competant and hard working. His job journal, by itself, hardly got him his job.

But who can doubt but that Sparno’s job journal kept his feet to the fire? The daily review of activities and progress almost certainly kept him motivated and helped him measure himself.

Likewise, I’m certain that by the time Salesforce.com hired him, Sparno knew more about himself than he did before.

Journals not only help informal learners, but job seekers.

Doodle Your Memory

April 1, 2009

In the April 6, 2009 issue of Business Week, there’s a small item from the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. Jackie Andrade at the University of Plymouth played a rambling voice mail to 40 people. Half were given shapes to fill in as they listened.

Result: The doodlers recalled 29 percent more of the message than those who just listened.

Money quote from Bob Lutz, retiring GM-vice chair:  “I can look at old sketches done in meetings 40 years ago and experience sudden recall of the room, the table, the voices.”

Want a Super Memory? Keep a Journal and Refer to it Often.

March 24, 2009

The Super Memory Woman, Jill Price, Keeps a Detailed Daily Journal

The Super Memory Woman, Jill Price, Keeps a Detailed Daily Journal

When I was in college taking a class in ‘new journalism’ one assignment was to write about a personal experience.

What a softball, right?

I wrote about an occurrence my senior year in high school when my honors English teacher threw me out of the class and nearly scotched my high school graduation. [That’s a long story for another time].

To protect her anonymity, in my college writing assignment I changed my teacher’s name to ‘Mrs. Rodgers.’ Now, all these years later, I can’t remember her real name without referring to my high school yearbook.

What a muddle the human memory is. It depends so much on context. It’s easily swayed by suggestion. There are memory overlaps and sudden disappearances. Add to that the puzzle of the strangely precise re-memory that happens when people grow aged.

So imagine the astonishment when university researchers University of California-Irvine came across a woman they called JP who could remember with perfect clarity the exact date of Challenger Disaster. She could easily and accurately recall names and conversations from decades before. She knows when the ‘Who Shot JR?’ episode of Dallas aired and what the weather was like on the day of the finale of MASH aired.

In the journal Neurocase, the researchers described JP’s case and gave it a name; hyperthymestic syndrome, meaning exceptional memory.

The school’s PR office sniffed out a story and with JP’s permission they released her real name to the media… Jill Price. Ms. Price quickly became a cause celebre, making the rounds at Oprah, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.

There was even an awkward (but ultimately vindicating) moment on 20/20 in 2008 Diane Sawyer asked Ms. Price when Princess Grace died. Price replied, ‘Sept 14, 1982.’ Diane Sawyer said no, the date was Sept 10, 1982. But after 60 uncomfortable seconds, someone chimed in from off-camera that, in fact, Jill Price was correct.

How to explain the seemingly inexplicable disparity between the extraordinary quality of Ms. Price’s memory and my rather mediocre one (and, probably, yours, too)?

Into this conundrum comes Gary Marcus, PhD., a cognitive psychologist at New York University, who writes about his personal experience with Ms. Price in the April 2009 issue of Wired magazine.

For their meeting, Marcus brought with him a stack of questionnaires and very quickly discovered that Ms. Price’s memory is rather solipsistic. She remembers not so much things like how to calculate the volume of a cone or what day John Wilkes Booth was killed or even a great recipe for turtle brownies.

Instead, Ms. Price remembers things that happened to her and things she witnessed on television. He also found something that UC Irvine researchers knew about, but didn’t detail in their paper: Ms. Price keeps a meticulous journal of her life, one that she refers to frequently. That’s a sample page from Ms. Price’s journal above.

Marcus concludes with this:

But even if Price’s memory is just the byproduct of obsession, she’s still amazing. I’ve come to think of her as the Michael Jordan of autobiography. Jordan wasn’t born the greatest basketball player of all time; he became the greatest, combining considerable but not unique innate talent with an incredible amount of hard work shooting free throws and practicing jumpers long after most of his peers were out carousing. Whether intentionally or not, Price has shown the same sort of daily dedication to chronicling her own life.

Want a super memory? Do what what the ‘Michael Jordan’ of memory does. Keep a journal and refer to it often.

Verbal Acuity and the Informal Learner

September 7, 2008
Pay for teachers with advanced degrees approaches that of doctors and lawyers, but only late in their careers.

Pay for teachers with advanced degrees approaches that of doctors and lawyers, but only late in their careers.

The greatest predictor of student success in school isn’t their teachers’ credentials or advanced degrees, but things like their teacher’s SAT/ACT scores, the selectivity of the colleges they attended, and their verbal acuity.

Such are the findings of Dan Goldhaber, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and published in the Hoover Institute’s quarterly Education Next.

Duke economist Jacob Vigdor uses Goldhaber’s findings to suggest that rather than give teachers permanent raises based on credentials and advanced degrees, we should instead pay effective teachers more money earlier in their careers, since that’s when teachers show the greatest improvement in teaching ability as measured by student test scores.

Vigdor’s paper, in a recent Education Next issue, has the really cool graph above that shows that the pay for highly-educated teachers in the United States approaches that of medical doctors and lawyers, but only near the end of their careers. By contrast, MDs and JDs achieve their highest earnings in their early 40s and plateau at that level until they retire.

Read Vigdor’s interesting (and surprisingly readable) paper for all the ins and outs of his policy proposal.

Interesting, you say, but what has that to do with informal learning?

Well, informal learners are usually also self-teachers. And though Goldhaber and Vigdor might object to my extrapolating the data this far, it’s appears evident to me that informal learners with greater verbal acuity… bigger vocabularies, wider and/or deeper knowledge, writing, public speaking, or language skills… have greater capacity for learning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) the idiosyncratic, brilliant and oft misunderstood Austrian philosopher, said as much. “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”).

That is, it’s hard to think about something you don’t have a word for. My four-year-old, though brilliant, wouldn’t be able to use a word like ‘idiosyncratic’ or understand its nuanced meaning beyond the idea of ‘different.’

In fact, in order to wrap our minds around some ideas, we sometimes have to coin new words or assign new meanings to old words. The word ‘extrapolate,’ for instance, is a neologism that means ‘infer’ and was coined in the mid 19th century from the words ‘extra’ and ‘interpolate.’

What can an informal learner do to increase his or her verbal acuity? Consider the following:

  • Learn another language.
  • Subscribe to a ‘word-of-the-day’ service available on the Internet or buy a daily word calendar.
  • Pick up a ‘strange word’ book at the bookstore or library.
  • Keep a good dictionary close and refer to it when you come across an unfamiliar word.
  • Keep a learner’s journal.
  • Write a blog.
  • Teach others.
  • Polish your public speaking skills at Toastmasters.
  • Join a service group like Rotary or Kiwanis, both of which have a highly international focus these days. In one fell-swoop you could thereby pick up public speaking skills and be compelled to learn another language.

Informal Learners and DIY

August 20, 2008

The Long Now Foundation Displayed a Prototype of Its 10,000-year Clock at the 2008 Maker Faire

The Long Now Foundation Displayed a Prototype of Its 10,000-year Clock at the 2008 Maker Faire

I changed out my 25-year old bathroom exhaust fan the other day and… in a moment of false pride… told my eldest brother. He asked me what I did with the old one and I told him I’d tossed it.
“Oh, too bad,” he said, “I could have rewired the motor for you.” He’s a gearhead, always fixing cars, but spent most of his career as a computer geek at Hewlett Packard.
My other brother could have built a new wooden faceplate for the fan. After a career flying in the Air Force, he now makes his living creating custom electronic Halloween displays, including motion. If you want something really cool for your house this Halloween, let me know and I’ll pass on your contact info.
Our father was an electrical engineer who always told us that he built the first crystal radio set in his home town.
And then there’s me. I can change the oil in the car, but I don’t. I could hang a new door, but it would probably be crooked. I’ve got the genes, but not much desire to be handy.
For a long time I’ve presumed my handiness shortcomings are a cultural thing. Both brothers are more than 15 years older than me. I just grew up in a different time. On my suburban block, for instance, the only guy with a woodshop…band saw, wood lathe, drill press, etc… is a professional home builder.
By contrast, my father-in-law and about 10 of his peers/neighbors have power tools in their garages.
But the winds of change of are blowing. In the last 2 years especially, empowered and enabled by the Internet, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself handiness, repair and invention. And thank goodness for it. Now more than ever, the world needs to be fixed!
Here are some of the best resources I know for informal learners who want to learn how to do stuff that’s handy, helpful, playful, cool, or all those.
Howtoons. Targeted at kids, it’s a 112-page comic book featuring Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister, who get off the couch and start making cool stuff like a marshmallow shooter.
Instructables.com bills itself as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” It has user-generated instructions in 8 broad categories including ‘craft,’ ‘food,’ ‘green’ and this one from ‘tech’ for a “breathalyzer microphone.”
Make Magazine. Both a blog and a quarterly print magazine Make was the first to recognize a renaissance in DIY. In the current issue, No. 14, how to make an inexpensive digital microscope. On the blog, modding your scanner into a camera.
Maker Faire. Brainiacs on display in this event sponsored by Make Magazine. The first one took place in San Mateo, California and is now spreading to Austin, Texas and beyond.
Who or what am I missing? You tell me. Use the comments to suggest other DIY gems.

I changed out my 25-year old bathroom exhaust fan the other day and… in a moment of false pride… told my eldest brother. He asked me what I did with the old one and I told him I’d tossed it.

“Oh, too bad,” he said, “I could have rewired the motor for you.” He’s a gearhead, always fixing cars, but spent most of his career as a computer geek at Hewlett Packard.

My other brother could have built a new wooden faceplate for the fan. After a career flying in the Air Force, he now makes his living creating custom electronic Halloween displays, including motion. If you want something really cool for your house this Halloween, let me know and I’ll pass on your contact info.

Our father was an electrical engineer who always told us that he built the first crystal radio set in his home town.

And then there’s me. I can change the oil in the car, but I don’t. I could hang a new door, but it would probably be crooked. I’ve got the genes, but not much desire to be handy.

For a long time I’ve presumed my handiness shortcomings are a cultural thing. Both brothers are more than 15 years older than me. I just grew up in a different time. On my suburban block, for instance, the only guy with a woodshop…band saw, wood lathe, drill press, etc… is a professional home builder.

By contrast, my father-in-law and about 10 of his peers/neighbors have power tools in their garages.

But the winds of change of are blowing. In the last 2 years especially, empowered and enabled by the Internet, there’s been an explosion of do-it-yourself handiness, repair and invention. And thank goodness for it. Now more than ever, the world needs to be fixed!

Here are some of the best resources I know for informal learners who want to learn how to do stuff that’s handy, helpful, playful, cool, or all those.

Howtoons. Targeted at kids, it’s a 112-page comic book featuring Tucker and Celine, a brother and sister, who get off the couch and start making cool stuff like a marshmallow shooter.

Instructables.com bills itself as “The World’s Biggest Show and Tell.” It has user-generated instructions in 8 broad categories including ‘craft,’ ‘food,’ ‘green’ and this one from ‘tech’ for a “breathalyzer microphone.”

Make Magazine. Both a blog and a quarterly print magazine Make was the first to recognize a renaissance in DIY. In the current issue, No. 14, how to make an inexpensive digital microscope. On the blog, modding your scanner into a camera.

Maker Faire. Brainiacs on display in this event sponsored by Make Magazine. The first one took place in San Mateo, California and is now spreading to Austin, Texas and beyond.

Who or what am I missing? You tell me. Use the comments to suggest other DIY gems.

Feeding The Informal Learner’s Brain

August 13, 2008

Since Ancient Times Walnuts Have Been Considered Brain Food

Since Ancient Times Walnuts Have Been Considered Brain Food

If you’re like me you’re sorta dubious about a lot of claims made about nutrition… by both the pros and the amateurs.
Here’s one from an amateur. I once sat down to an evening meal with a gaffer on a very large live TV shoot. It was close to 5pm and she was trying to get through her meal quickly. I asked her if she had some kind of work deadline to meet. “No,” she replied, “to keep my figure I try not to eat any protein or fats after 5pm.” I’m sure I looked at her like she was nuts. After all, what about the many Spaniards who eat their biggest meal at perhaps 8pm or later and still manage to stay perfectly svelte?
What she was talking about is a variation of the aphorism that says you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at noon and a pauper for the evening meal. But what about all the French men and women who eat nothing more than a croissant and an espresso for breakfast their entire adult life?
Or this one from a medical source. When my wife was pregnant with our first child her doctor gave her a prenatal nutrition brochure that urged her not to eat spicy foods because it might upset baby’s digestion. It made me wonder what Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan mothers manage to eat when they’re expecting.
Remember when eggs were bad and so was butter? Now margarine is an evil transfat and eggs are a ‘sustainable’ nutrition-rich food.
In my view, a lot of what passes for sound nutritional advice is probably just an expression of cultural bias and scientific faddism. In the U.S. it’s accepted wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But do French dieticians agree?
All that said, this blog is about the brain, the mind and informal learning. What I’d like to hear about is a ‘brain food’ diet where I don’t have to check my brain at the door.
For instance, in ancient cultures, the state of the art thinking was that brain food was anything that physically resembled the human brain. And so walnuts, cauliflower, and even brains themselves were thought to be brain food.
So, when I came across the following diet said to be healthful to the body and high cognitive function, my ‘skeptometer’ went on high alert. I found the diet on the Franklin Institute website via the always helpful sharpbrains.com website.
Fats
Include foods that supply essential fatty acids. Raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds are one source. These would ideally include fresh, raw, refrigerated walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds or flax meal, along with all the other nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils of these nuts and seeds would also be good. Eat products such as seaweeds and fish that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids – salmon, sardines, trout, tuna (only small amounts), herring, and mackerel. Avocados, fresh coconut, and extra virgin olive oil are also good sources of fat. Avoid trans fats .
Animal foods contain variable amounts of fat. To maximize the essential fatty acid content (and consume a healthier food), try to get the meat and dairy products of animals that were raised as naturally as possible. “Free-range” animals are allowed to forage on green grasses, so their diet – hence their meat, milk, and eggs – are rich in essential fatty acids and superior to that of caged animals. Look for wild fish, rather than farmed.
Proteins
Animal foods, including eggs and milk products, are excellent sources of protein and, thus, the amino acids that come from the breakdown of protein. Other foods supplying many of the essential amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production are dried beans (legumes), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Carbohydrates
To maintain adequate levels of the brain fuel glucose, it’s important to eat often enough. For some people, this means eating snacks as well as main meals. For others, it just means eating at least every five hours. Poor concentration and low energy levels can be a sign that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Nutritious foods can also be high on the glycemic index . These include starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, winter squash, and cooked or juiced carrots and beets. Whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers are also healthy high-glycemic foods.
One formula for avoiding blood sugar spikes from these carbohydrates is to combine them with protein foods. For example, have an egg with your piece of toast; a tempeh burger with your ear of corn; a serving of salmon along with your potato. Mix high-glycemic fruits or fruit juices in a blender with nuts and whey protein powder. Non-starchy vegetables are also stabilizing to blood sugar levels. Eat them steamed or raw, in salads or stir-fried.
Micronutrients
Most foods contain some vitamins and minerals, but micronutrients are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables. To ensure a plentiful supply of these antioxidants, include at least the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. (Better yet, the ten servings sometimes advocated for cancer prevention.)
A serving is generally a small fruit or half a cup of cubed fruit; a cup of raw green leafy vegetables or half a cup of cooked greens; a half cup of other cooked or raw vegetables. These fruits and vegetables should be of wide variety and color – preferably in season, organic, and locally grown.
The preceding comes from Debra Burke, who, we are informed has a masters degree in nutritional science. I won’t lift Ms. Burke’s suggested menus, too, but you can find them here.
Is this brain food? Who knows?
I do know that I’m not likely to eat too many tempeh burgers or kelp powder, which she suggests in one of her menus. But I do appreciate her calls for a high fiber diet and a balance of high-glycemic foods against strong protein sources.
But here again my inner skeptic comes out. Anytime someone starts talking about glycemic levels I wonder why it is that people in South America and Asia… whose diets are loaded with rice or potatoes… don’t evidence high levels of diabetes or obesity.
And how glad I am to know that nuts have made a comeback as brain food.
If you’re like me you’re sorta dubious about a lot of claims made about nutrition… by both the pros and the amateurs.
Here’s one from an amateur. I once sat down to an evening meal with a gaffer on a very large live TV shoot. It was close to 5pm and she was trying to get through her meal quickly. I asked her if she had some kind of work deadline to meet. “No,” she replied, “to keep my figure I try not to eat any protein or fats after 5pm.”
I’m sure I looked at her like she was nuts. After all, what about the many Spaniards who eat their biggest meal at perhaps 8pm or later and still manage to stay perfectly svelte?
What she was talking about is a variation of the aphorism that says you should eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at noon and a pauper for the evening meal.
But what about all the French men and women who eat nothing more than a croissant and an espresso for breakfast their entire adult life?
Or this one from a medical source. When my wife was pregnant with our first child her doctor gave her a prenatal nutrition brochure that urged her not to eat spicy foods because it might upset baby’s digestion. It made me wonder what Thai, Mexican, and Sichuan mothers manage to eat when they’re expecting.
Remember when eggs were bad and so was butter? Now margarine is an evil transfat and eggs are a ‘sustainable’ nutrition-rich food.
In my view, a lot of what passes for sound nutritional advice is probably just an expression of cultural bias and scientific faddism. In the U.S. it’s accepted wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But do French dieticians agree?
All that said, this blog is about the brain, the mind and informal learning. What I’d like to hear about is a ‘brain food’ diet where I don’t have to check my brain at the door.
For instance, in ancient cultures, the state of the art thinking was that brain food was anything that physically resembled the human brain. And so walnuts, cauliflower, and even brains themselves were thought to be brain food.
So, when I came across the following diet said to be healthful to the body and high cognitive function, my ‘skeptometer’ went on high alert. I found the diet on the Franklin Institute website via the always helpful sharpbrains.com website.
Fats
Include foods that supply essential fatty acids. Raw or dry roasted nuts and seeds are one source. These would ideally include fresh, raw, refrigerated walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds or flax meal, along with all the other nuts and seeds. Cold-pressed oils of these nuts and seeds would also be good. Eat products such as seaweeds and fish that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids – salmon, sardines, trout, tuna (only small amounts), herring, and mackerel. Avocados, fresh coconut, and extra virgin olive oil are also good sources of fat. Avoid trans fats .
Animal foods contain variable amounts of fat. To maximize the essential fatty acid content (and consume a healthier food), try to get the meat and dairy products of animals that were raised as naturally as possible. “Free-range” animals are allowed to forage on green grasses, so their diet – hence their meat, milk, and eggs – are rich in essential fatty acids and superior to that of caged animals. Look for wild fish, rather than farmed.
Proteins
Animal foods, including eggs and milk products, are excellent sources of protein and, thus, the amino acids that come from the breakdown of protein. Other foods supplying many of the essential amino acids needed for neurotransmitter production are dried beans (legumes), green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Carbohydrates
To maintain adequate levels of the brain fuel glucose, it’s important to eat often enough. For some people, this means eating snacks as well as main meals. For others, it just means eating at least every five hours. Poor concentration and low energy levels can be a sign that it’s been too long since your last meal.
Nutritious foods can also be high on the glycemic index . These include starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, winter squash, and cooked or juiced carrots and beets. Whole grains and whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers are also healthy high-glycemic foods.
One formula for avoiding blood sugar spikes from these carbohydrates is to combine them with protein foods. For example, have an egg with your piece of toast; a tempeh burger with your ear of corn; a serving of salmon along with your potato. Mix high-glycemic fruits or fruit juices in a blender with nuts and whey protein powder. Non-starchy vegetables are also stabilizing to blood sugar levels. Eat them steamed or raw, in salads or stir-fried.
Micronutrients
Most foods contain some vitamins and minerals, but micronutrients are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables. To ensure a plentiful supply of these antioxidants, include at least the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables every day. (Better yet, the ten servings sometimes advocated for cancer prevention.)
A serving is generally a small fruit or half a cup of cubed fruit; a cup of raw green leafy vegetables or half a cup of cooked greens; a half cup of other cooked or raw vegetables. These fruits and vegetables should be of wide variety and color – preferably in season, organic, and locally grown.
The preceding comes from nutritionist Debra Burke. I won’t lift Ms. Burke’s suggested menus, too, but you can find them here.
Is this brain food? Who knows?
I do know that I’m not likely to eat too many tempeh burgers or kelp powder, which she suggests in one of her menus.
However,  I do appreciate her calls for a high fiber diet and a balance of high-glycemic foods against strong protein sources.
But here again my inner skeptic comes out. Anytime someone starts talking about glycemic levels I wonder why it is that people in South America and Asia… whose diets are loaded with rice or potatoes… don’t evidence high levels of diabetes or obesity.
And how glad I am to know that nuts have made a comeback as brain food.

TeachStreet Opens Operations in Oregon

August 6, 2008

The Majestic Portland, Oregon Skyline

The Majestic Portland, Oregon Skyline

Note from Paul Jones: It’s not often I get to break news here at The Learner’s Guild. But the good folks at Teachstreet.com, about whom I have blogged before, have shared this press release with me.

 

 

 

SEATTLE, WA – August 4, 2008 – TeachStreet, the first free website dedicated to helping teachers and students connect with one another at the neighborhood level, today announced that it has opened its virtual doors to the residents of Portland, Oregon. Just as Powell’s is renowned for its extensive collection of books, residents in and around the Rose City will now be one click away from discovering more than 25,000 classes, instructors, and schools currently available on TeachStreet. Whether one wants to learn how to salsa in Sellwood, take belly-dancing lessons on Burnside, or pluck the violin in Vancouver, Washington, TeachStreet offers detailed information on classes and instructors across more than 500 subject areas.

 

“Everyone is an expert at something and TeachStreet was designed to bridge the gap between those who have something to teach and those with a desire to learn,” said Dave Schappell, founder and CEO of TeachStreet. “Just because we stop going to school, doesn’t mean we don’t want to continue to improve ourselves and learn new things. TeachStreet is about the act of discovery and helping both teachers and students make real-world connections at the local level.”

 

From the common to the eclectic, there is truly a class for every Portland-area resident: 

  • Need to find your Zen? There are 488 yoga, 188 meditation, and 61 tai-chi classes. 
  • Is the great outdoors is calling your name? There are 117 fishing, 102 climbing, and 31 kayaking classes.
  • Feeling crafty? Try one of 297 knitting, 178 sewing, and 31 scrapbooking classes 

Students can search for classes across hundreds of categories and filter the results according to map-based location, ratings from other students, teacher availability, promotional pricing, and more. For teachers, instructors, or even those who might not call themselves a “teacher” but have a special skill or area of expertise to share, TeachStreet provides a simple yet powerful way to promote and manage their teaching business. In addition, students can submit reviews of teachers, and teachers are invited to enhance their profiles with lesson plans, class photos, and more.  

 

“I am a choreographer, not a marketer,” says Subashini Ganesan, founder of Natya Leela Academy. “My passion is teaching Bharathanatyam dance — an ancient form of classical South Indian dance — not finding ways to get more students. So I love that TeachStreet helps me fill my class schedule and allows me to spend more time doing what I want to be doing: teaching.”

 

About TeachStreet

Founded in June 2007, TeachStreet is dedicated to helping students find great local teachers, and empowering teachers with robust online tools to manage their teaching business.  Featuring more than 55,000 classes and instructors in the Seattle and Portland metro areas, the free site provides the information that students need to make an informed decision about their learning experiences, including student reviews and teacher recommendations, pricing information, location, teacher background and training, and more. TeachStreet is headquartered in Seattle, WA and backed by Madrona Venture Group. For more information, visit http://www.TeachStreet.com.

An Innovation for Informal Learners

July 30, 2008

Clayton Christensen is the Tallest Innovation Guru Around

Clayton Christensen is the Tallest Innovation Guru Around

Best-selling author, Harvard B-school professor and innovation guru Clayton Christensen has been saying since at least his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, that technology is just about to shakeup the entrenched world of education.

 

 

Innovator’s Dilemma, the first in Christensen’s innovator’s franchise, was first published in July 1997.

 

We’re still waiting.

 

Perhaps to help catalyze that change in education, Christensen has recently released a new book called Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.

 

Maybe one of those disruptors will be the small online education company Agilix Labs, and its social network product… still in beta… called BrainHoney.

 

BrainHoney allows you to offer a class with text graphics and video using a Powerpoint like interface. Then you can add quizzes, tests and games. In that way it’s not much different from Instructables, WikiHow, and ExpertVillage.

 

What does make BrainHoney distinct is that they’ll host your courses for a nominal fee and then split the proceeds from the sale of your coursework. You could be teaching a class on your favorite topic tomorrow and earning a little scratch besides.

 

Already some 230 lessons have been loaded on BrainHoney, including a course on how to make a lemon-battery, how to play a guitar chords, and how to make ice cream that tastes like hot chocolate.

 

Potentially this is a boon to informal learners and teachers. Unlike TeachStreet, which helps you find people willing to tutor you face-to-face in your own town, BrainHoney represents asychronous learning. That is, you don’t have to be there at the same time as the instructor and thereby opening you to a world of learning.

 

Who knows whether Agilix and BrainHoney will survive and thrive? A better mousetrap alone is no guarantee of business success. But I whether Agilix does or someone else does, I expect we’ll soon see a huge inventory of courses for informal learners.

An Informal Learner Using Repetition Spacing Software

July 23, 2008

Brisbane Programmer and SuperMemo User Chris Khoo

Brisbane Programmer and SuperMemo User Chris Khoo

On May 6, I posted on the Wired piece on

Piotr Wozniak, the polymath inventor of SuperMemo, a software system which promises to help remember forever the things that you’ve learned. Then July 20, Chris Khoo, a 26-year-old enterprise software developer in Brisbane challenged the post in the comments saying in effect, isn’t it better to remember than have to keep relearning stuff. Chris has been using SuperMemo for several months now and I asked him to comment on his experience.

Here then is an online interview with SuperMemo user Chris Khoo. 

  1. Tell me about yourself. Where do you live? What you do you do? What’s your age? Where did you go to college (if indeed you did) and what did you study? The usual. 

Based in Brisbane, Australia.  26.  Studying university part time doing Business & IT & working full time doing enterprise software development at a big company.

 

  1. What were the circumstances when you first started using repetition spacing software? 

Supermemo was mentioned on a forum, and I started reading more about it on supermemo.com.  After being fairly convinced that the methodology was sound, I gave it a go and after awhile, really got to enjoy using it daily.

 

  1. Which product do you use? 

Supermemo.

 

  1. How did you choose it over the other options? 

Hmmm… I chose it mainly because I found Piotr’s website to be very open and informative (especially his articles on sleep & learning – I could relate it to my experiences on polyphasic sleep).  I did some quick evaluations of the paid & open source alternatives, and other blogs tend to mention that they chose other products because they feel they didn’t need the bells & whistles of Supermemo.

 

Although I didn’t initially understand the need for some of the features in Supermemo, I found Piotr’s writings to be very sound and fluff-free.  I tried the free Supermemo 98 for a few weeks, and then went and bought a license for 2006.  I then persisted with it and over time have grown to understand and appreciate some of the features like incremental reading.  So I’m very happy I made the decision to go with Supermemo.

 

  1. How long have you been using it? 

2-3 months now.

 

  1. The reputation of Piotr Wozniak’s SuperMemo is that the software is difficult to master. What’s been your experience with the repetition spacing software that you use? 

It definitely takes lots of time initially.  I’ve found that I needed to frequently change how questions are phrased over the first few weeks – just to learn how to ask the right questions which give some context without giving the answer away.

 

I also found personally that auditory questions that triggered visual memories increased my recall dramatically – I’ve come to realise this is more natural since when people ask you questions verbally, this should trigger some sort of visual in your head.

 

I probably spend on average 1-2hrs a day at the moment.  I expect this to remain fairly constant for awhile as I’m studying @ university.

 

I have spent up to 4 hours one day on the weekends, but that was doing alot of reorganising & rephrasing of questions.

 

It’s like any new hobby/skill – you spend a truckload of time on it initially to get to a decent standard, and then slowly taper off to a maintenance level. 

 

  1. How does the repetition spacing software actually work, in your experience? 

Not difficult really.  It ask questions you’ve added, you think of the answer, click a button to show the answer, and then rate how well you think you went.  Based on your rating, the system will determine when to ask you the question again.

 

  1. In your comment you said that not having to relearn stuff you already ostensibly know allows you to devote more time to creative endeavors. What creative endeavors do you now give fuller expression to than before? 

As a software developer, I can sit and code without having to look up documentation as much as before.  This gives my mind alot of room to think through things and essentially manipulate code in my mind without writing it down on paper.  I used to always have to write things down on paper, and now I rarely do it.  I can’t definitively say it’s a causative relationship – i.e. not having to relearn stuff made me more creative, but I’m alot quicker than before at my work.

 

  1. What kind of demands on your time does the repetition spacing software place? 

At the moment, 1-2hrs a day.  I expect this to slowly come down to 1hr as I become settled on how to write good questions and as the existing questions space themselves out more as I recall them better.

 

  1. Do you recall memorized stuff at 90 percent recall as advertised? If not, what would you say your recall is? How do you test your recall? 

There’s a statistics option which says my retention is 88%.  I haven’t measured it rigorously but anecdotally, I know my memory’s improved.

 

  1. What other kind of advantages does remembering well confer? I got to believe there’s some bar games you’re really good at.  

I definitely have more confidence now.  I can rattle off memorised material at work meetings and people have noticed the improvement.

 

  1. Have you ever tried going on a game show? If so, what happened? 

No – never intend to.  I enjoy programming too much to devote my mind to other pursuits at this stage.

 

  1. What’s the breadth of the memory? That is, are you good at remembering number sequences, or faces, or the periodical chart, or how to conjugate verbs in Latin? 

Haha, I guess the software is an aid really.  I’m not sure of your programming knowledge, but there’s a fairly cryptic language called “regular expressions”, which is almost like shorthand for validating bits of text.

 

To give you an example of how weird it can look, something really simple like /^\d{7}$/ means that you can only enter a 7 digit number (maybe a phone number).  I rattled off some expressions during a work meeting because I could remember the characters in my head.  Most people would usually use some sort of helper software to help them write up up their regular expressions.

 

Right now, I’m also slowly developing a mnemonic system based on associating 3 digit numbers with images.  And I’m using those images to remember friends’ and family mobile numbers.  Although you can rely on your phone’s phonebook to store them, I find it’s a neat way to learn the images so I can eventually build a system where I can memorise and recall numbers easily.  Repetition spacing software definitely makes the process more meaningful & efficient.

 

  1. Are there strange holes in your recall? For instance, do you have trouble remembering what kind of dog food your dog likes, or your mother’s birthday? That kind of stuff. 

Funny you mention that.  I found that both short term & long term memory have improved.

 

I used to remember that every time I go to bed, I would start to worry about 5 minutes in thinking whether I switched on my alarm or not.  That doesn’t happen anymore.  It seems like I can remember things I did earlier in the day alot better than before.

 

And for the long term, if I want to remember something, I just put it into Supermemo.  I don’t just do facts and figures.  I’ve got personal questions about username/passwords, questions about people’s birthdays, and as mentioned before, people’s phone numbers.

 

  1. Anything else I oughta know or that you want to share? 

It’s hard.  Like Piotr says on the website, it’s mentally taxing when trying to recall.  The best time to do it is in the morning, and don’t start off doing 1 hour recall sessions.  Probably best to limit it to 30mins for a week or so before ramping up.

 

It’s actually amazing how much brain energy recalling takes.  It made me realise most of us are so mentally unfit today because of things like PDAs & Google.

The Informal Learners Toolkit

July 17, 2008

Informal learning doesn’t really require much more than a certain intellectual curiosity. Isaac Newton changed the world with not a whole lot more than just what lay between his ears.

 

But there are some things, a toolkit if you will, that enable informal learning. What follows are some of the things in my informal learning toolkit. I’m anxious to hear what’s in yours. Please comment if there’s something in your informal learning toolkit, that I haven’t listed here.

 

But first some definitions of informal learning, non-formal learning and formal learning just to give the discussion some shape. These definitions come (more or less) from ERIC, the Educational Resources Information Center, a very large US government database of all things educational.

 

Informal learning: Casual and continuous learning from life experiences outside organized formal or nonformal education. 

 

Non-formal learning: Organized education without formal schooling or institutionalization in which knowledge, skills, and values are taught by relatives, peers, or other community members.

 

Formal learning: Organized education from schools or other institutions that typically leads to some kind of academic recognition.

 

My toolkit is grouped into two categories: Stuff made of neurons and stuff made of atoms (I know, I know. neurons are made of atoms. But you get my point).

 

Atomic Tools: 

  • Learner’s Journal—Really want to capture something? Write it down for the now and the forever.
  • iPod—All but indispensable for informal learners on the go. Also helpful on the train or bus to tell people to bugger off.
  • Recorded Books—Learning aurally really gets in your head.
  • Kindle—It’s probably too soon to say for sure but increasingly it looks like Amazon’s innovations and marketing muscle have effectively whipped the electronic book bugaboo.
  • Live Lectures—Still the best way to learn in the company of others.
  • DVDs—Whether we’re talking documentaries, instructional offerings, or something else, a well-made video is a wonderful aid for informal learners.
  • MP3 Recorder—Inspiration often strikes in the car or other places or times when a pen and a learner’s journal aren’t convenient to use. So carry an MP3 recorder or tape recorder.
  • Computer
  • Books and Reference Materials
  • A Technique for Memory and Recall—It is possible to remember things forever with nearly 90 percent recall. But it ain’t easy.
  • A Mentor or a Tutor—Wait, you say. A tutor takes this out of the scope of informal learning and into the realm of non-formal or even formal learning. Maybe. But part of what defines informal learning is how it’s rewarded. Informal learners commonly learn for the joy of learning. If you take piano lessons from a teacher because you love the piano and not because of the gold stickers the teacher may give you, you’re probably still learning informally.

 Neuronal Tools  

Exercise Your Way to A Smarter Brain

July 9, 2008

By now it’s clear that if you want a healthier, longer-lasting body, you need to do physical exercise. As I’ve written in this space before, it’s becoming clearer that mental exercise yields a more robust, healthier brain.

 

But does physical exercise do anything for the brain?

 

In a review of existing literature in a paper published in the January 2008 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Charles H. Hillman, Kirk I. Erickson, and Arthur F. Kramer professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana come to a tentative yes.

 

The paper called “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effect on brain and cognition” concludes: 

There is converging evidence at the molecular, cellular, behavioural and systems levels that physical activity participation is beneficial to cognition. Such evidence highlights the importance of promoting physical activity across the lifespan to reverse recent obesity and disease trends,as well as to prevent or reverse cognitive and neural decline. Accordingly, physical activity can serve to promote health and function in individuals, while also lessening the health and economic burden placed on society. 

How might this work? In an interview Professor Kramer told my fellow blogger Alvaro Hernandez 

We do know…that physical exercise has a multitude of effects on brains beyond neurogenesis (the growth of nerve cells), including increases in various neurotransmitters, nerve grown factors, and angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels). 

So it appears that regular cardio work probably helps build the brain. Does it make sense to crosstrain; that is work your heart and brain muscle concurrently?

 

Yes. In fact Kramer suggests you do it in combination with social interaction. He specifically suggests starting a ‘walking book club.’

 

What else could informal learners do to simultaneously exercise their brain and their brawn?  

  • You could listen to or watch instructional CDs/DVDs or books on tape as you go through your paces.
  • You could dictate material as you move your grooved thing.
  • You could load up your iPod with informational podcasts and review them while you sweat.
  • You could do mental calisthenics. I know how tired I am in part based on how well I do when I’m going through the multiplication tables in my head. If I can’t do or remember what 14 times 14 is while I row, I know my body’s tired.

Informal Learning on the Street Where You Live

July 2, 2008

\Imagine if thought balloons appeared above people’s heads that told you exactly what they were willing to teach someone like you. 

  • Maybe the gentle-looking white haired fellow you pass in the aisle at the grocery store could teach you about the miracle of forgiveness.
  • Maybe the tattooed and be-pierced kid at the library texting her boyfriend could help you work through a thorny CSS challenge.
  • Maybe the well-dressed woman in the Lexus in front of you could help you understand the Upanishads. Or, belly dancing. 

Now it appears that a Seattle outfit called TeachStreet is doing just that. (Though not exactly with thought balloons).

 

Presently in beta, TeachStreet links together teachers who are willing and presumably able to teach students in Seattle. They claim to have in their database 25,000 classes, teachers, coaches, instructors and schools just in the Emerald City.

 

Here’s how it works. Suppose you’re a student who wants to learn, say, conversational Italian. You plug in the term ‘Italian language’ into the site’s search engine. When I did 86 results popped-up. Currently you can narrow the search by geography, class size, ability, schedule, and price.

 

I selected personalized lessons, evening classes, and beginner status, which left me with a more manageable six results. I clicked on the one taught by a Valentina Preziuso… whose name sounds wonderfully Italian… and it took me to her biographical area. So far Valentina has yet to post anything about her background. There’s a review section as well, but for Valentina that too is blank.

 

At the page for the class, I found a link to Amazon products and a Google Ads column, as well as information about the class and cost, times, days, etc.  

 

The class and teacher profiles are free to registered users.

 

TeachStreet is the brainstorm of Dave Schappell, the founder and CEO, and a director at Amazon from 1998- 2004, who was, as his bio says, a driving force behind Amazon’s marketplace platform.

 

So far TeachStreet is only in Seattle, but plans are in the works to expand the concept to “San Philayorkizona,” the website reports.

 

The Buddha is supposed to have said; “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”

 

Time will tell if there are enough students ready for 25,000 teachers in Seattle.

Learner’s Journals

June 25, 2008

Vitruvian Man was just another entry in da Vinci\'s JournalSo you’re an Informal Learner. You listen to books on tape and instructional recordings, go to lectures, play brain games, read magazines and books, watch documentaries, use certain software, crack open reference works when you need to, and observe the world and its inhabitants. But how do you seal the deal? That is, how do you keep what you’ve learned in your noggin, or at least within reach?

 

If you’re like Informal Learners since time immemorial you record what you learn from life in a Learner’s Journal or notebook. I’m not talking about a diary necessarily. A diary is typically more internally directed, although Michelangelo’s journals were famously both about what he thought and felt in addition to what he was learning.

 

Instead I’m talking about a journal that serves as a kind of repository for what you’ve discovered in your learning as well as a sounding board for your ideas.

 

This post is about two celebrated Informal Learners who rigorously kept Learner’s Journals; the Renaissance men Leonardo da Vinci and Buckminster Fuller.

 

Leonardo was called da Vinci because as the illegitimate son of a Florentine Notary he wasn’t allowed to take his father’s name. da Vinci is the name of the town in northern Tuscany where he was born in 1452. He was an inquisitive child and showed great promise as an artist. At age 14 he was apprenticed to Verrocchio, a Florentine master and polymath who gave Leonardo a broad and first-rate training in all the arts and endowed the younger man with many good habits and a few bad ones. 

 

At age 20 or so Leonardo painted one of the children Verrocchio’s The Baptism of Christ, now in the Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo’s work was so stunning that according to legend after seeing the completed form Verrocchio swore he would never paint again. Apparently he never did.

 

da Vinci then went on to spend his rest of his life and career in service to a series of wealthy patrons. But if you thought you were hiring an artist what you got with Leonardo was something more like a free-ranging thinker. Oh, he’d do paintings… although less than 20 survive… and sculptures and such. But he’d also produce plays for the court. In fact he apparently built the first spotlight for just such endeavors. It was a time of war and Leonardo designed siege engines, portable bridges that were built, along with war machines that weren’t like scythe-equipped war wagons, a tank, a parachute, a bike, and a helicopter. 

 

How do we know all this about a man who died almost 500 years ago? We have a number, but not all, of da Vinci’s Journals or notebooks. For instance, the famous Vitruvian Man wasn’t a commissioned work; it’s something he undertook as a personal challenge and drew in one of his notebooks. Same with all the stuff listed above.

 

He was an acute observer of birds and bats and fascinated with the idea of human flight. His drawings on flight seemed to go through two phases; where he tried to imitate birds, and upon realizing that humans didn’t have the necessary strength to weight ratio when he turned to more glider-like apparatuses that may have actually been built.

 

All that’s in da Vinci’s journals, too. da Vinci’s nine surviving journals called codices (the plural of codex) are spread all over the world. Bill Gates owns one. The biggest chunk of them are in Britain.

 

The surprise perhaps is that the da Vinci’s Journals are in all different sizes; they’re not regular. Vitruvian Man, which was separated from a journal and is now housed in Venice, is about 13.5 by 9.6 inches. Others were closer to 8×6.

 

He certainly could have constructed the journals himself. But considering their irregularity, da Vinci may have just wandered into local binderies and bought them off the shelf when he needed a new one!

 

 

R. Buckminster Fuller was born in 1895 in Massachusetts and left it nearly 89 years later with 28 patents, the best known of which was the Geodesic Dome. Fuller, like Bill Gates, was a Harvard dropout. 

 

He married, but led a knockabout life mainly as a laborer. In 1927 at the age of 32 bankrupt and suicidal after the death of his daughter due to meningitis and polio, he decided to embark upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

 

Taking a page from da Vinci, Fuller had began documented his life in 15 minute segments from 1917 ‘til his death in 1983, more than 65 years. The result was 270 feet of journals he called the ‘Dymaxion Chronofile.’ (In addition to his many other gifts, Fuller had a wonderful knack for creating neologisms.)

 

What’s to be learned from these two great learners? If you’re serious as a learner you need to capture what you’ve learned or rather what you’re learning. What do you put in it? Fuller put everything in his, including household bills and the like! da Vinci used both drawings and words, all in his tight and fluid mirror-script, written such that you need a mirror to read it.

 

Do you really need to write it down in this electronic age? Well only if you want to preserve it in an accessible way.

 

A week or so ago I was talking to a book binder who is well-enough versed in the Internet Age to own an Internet company. But he’s also has enough gray hair to remember when the Library of Congress told libraries to preserve their collections on microfiche, much of which is now just goo in a can.

 

Then the preferred storage was old reel-to-reel tape drives, then audio cassette tapes, and 5 inch floppy drives, and Zip drives, and on and on. If you had an early TRS-80 from Radio Shack, and stored all your journal entries on its cassette drive you’d be hard pressed to access any of it now just 25 years later.

 

A good acid-free and lignin-free paper journal with the right ink, will be around until well after your great-great-grandchildren are born.  

Knowledge as a Goal of Informal Learning

June 18, 2008

I\'m a Serious Shakespearean Actor Dammit, Why Do I Have to Wear this Ridiculous Getup?“Far too many people—especially people with great expertise in one area—are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.” Peter Drucker

 

One of the great fictions of modern American educulture is that it’s enough to know how to learn. That the purpose of education isn’t to ‘memorize meaningless facts’… that’s what the Internet’s for, after all… but to learn how to learn.

 

In such a paradigm who cares what Metternich said about power or what the account in the Gilgamesh Epic says about the civilizing of Enkidu? Who wants to go to a party where people are talking about that kind of nonsense anyway?

 

But to everyone silently nodding their heads right now it pains me to say that Drucker is exactly right. Here’s why:

 

With wider knowledge comes the ability to express yourself more clearly. Remember what Twain said; the difference between a good word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. You get that power from informal learning,

 

Sometimes skills alone aren’t enough. E.D. Hirsch in his book The Knowledge Deficit recounts research among children who were good readers but with little subject knowledge versus kids were subject matter experts but with poor reading skills. The subject matter was baseball. The unsurprising result was that in tests of comprehension, kids with knowledge of baseball but poor reading skills outscored kids with good reading skills but no knowledge of baseball.

 

Knowledge helps you bridge cultural and socioeconomic gaps. Better than 53 percent of the world’s people are Christians, Muslims and Jews, or ‘Children of Abraham.’ That is, all three groups share a common affinity for the biblical patriarchs from Abraham on back. So if you’re a Christian and were in a room with a Muslim and shared nothing else in common, you could at least talk about Adam and Noah and Abraham. But only if both of you had knowledge of those subjects. And only if at least one of you knew about that common heritage.

 

It’s like that silly episode of Star Trek called Darmok (see the picture above), where Captain Piccard gets beamed down to a planet with Paul Winfield, who plays Dathon, an alien captain whose race speaks only in mythological metaphor. An actual line from the show is “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” [Imagine ordering a burger using only metaphor. How would the pimply teen behind the counter ask you if you wanted fries and a Coke with that?]

 

Ridiculous as the premise of show was, the point is potent; metaphor is a powerful bridge. But only to the degree that all parties have knowledge of the metaphor.

 

And Captain Piccard began bridging the gap with Dathon when he told the story of Enkidu and Gilgamesh.

 

Knowledge also helps you cut through the crap. If you understand the first law of thermodynamics, you’ll never be persuaded to invest in a “perpetual motion” machine. If you understand the hallmarks of Ponzi schemes, you’ll never be bamboozled by one.

 

How do you obtain knowledge beyond your current ken? Well that’s simple, you keep learning. Informal learning is the answer. And you stretch yourself by adding knowledge that might not have appealed to you at an earlier age. Remember when you were younger and you didn’t like guacamole? Nowadays what’s a Super Bowl party without it?

And when you’re at that party and the commercials grow dull, add a little spice by dropping some Gilgamesh on them. Hey, it worked for Captain Jean Luc Piccard.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Informal Learners

June 4, 2008

Tiger Woods Started Golfing at Age 3If estimates are to be believed something like 70 to 75 percent of all learning is informal. So who are the famous informal learners promised in the headline? Well there’s a 7 in 10 chance it’s almost anyone who’s famous.

 

But there’s a more interesting list of famous people who were informal learners. George Washington, for instance. Ben Franklin and the Wright Brothers are on that list. So too are Edith Wharton, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and August Wilson.

 

The common thread? All of them left school well before the 12th grade.

 

Wait a minute, you say, the other common thread is that all those people are dead and moldering. And Franklin was fortunate to live in a time when it was possible to make a few simple observations about electricity and be accounted a genius for it. That kind of stuff just can’t happen anymore.

 

OK, fair enough, my skeptical friend. Here is a list of informal learners… born since 1950… who were all college dropouts but who have advanced the frontiers of technology: Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Dean Kamen. Add to that list people like Richard Branson, James Cameron, Kevin Kelly, and Quentin Tarantino who have advanced art, business and increasingly philanthropy. Branson never attended college, Kelly and Cameron dropped out of college to work, and Tarantino left high school at age 15.

 

Let me be clear, I’m not issuing a school pass to drop out of high school or college. In almost every case it’s a bad idea. But a worse idea is if when you do leave school (at whatever level) that you also leave the discipline of informal learning.  

 

And discipline is the right word. August Wilson left school in the ninth grade and more or less walked straight to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Dean Kamen learned some science and physics at Worcester Polytechnic before dropping out. But not 400 patents’ worth!

 

Enfant terrible James Cameron went to Cal State Fullerton before dropping out. He was a truck driver when he got a job making miniatures for Roger Corman Studios. Meanwhile he was spending every spare moment taking cameras apart to learn how they worked or photocopying or taking notes of any graduate theses he could find at UCLA and USC on optical effects and film technology.

 

The graduate students whose papers Cameron was reading had expertise in spades, but I think it’s fair to say that none of them made any $1.8 billion movies like Cameron did with Titanic.

 

Quentin Tarantino honed his distinct non-linear storytelling style not in some fancy film school but while talking films at the Manhattan Beach Video Archives, the video rental store where he worked in the day while writing scripts at night.

 

Even in 2008 it’s possible to acquire great learning and expertise through informal methods.

 

In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s essential that you continue to learn informally if you expect to achieve a level of expertise.

 

Researchers who study expertise have found that it takes 10 years of intensive study and practice to achieve expertise as a golfer like Tiger Woods (a college dropout himself!), an investor like Warren Buffet, and chess grandmaster like Bobby Fischer. The pattern is so well established that researchers call it “the 10-year rule.” 

 

But those guys were all born with the innate talent for golf or investing or chess, right? Well, in a word, no. Such a thing doesn’t exist. So the flip side of the 10-year rule is that if there’s something you’re not good at most likely it’s because you haven’t been at it long enough.

 

So if what separates me from Tiger Woods isn’t talent, per se, but time, what separates Tiger from his colleagues who have been golfing just as long as he has?

 

It’s discipline, desire and drive.

 

Informal learners with discipline, desire and drive are the ones who stay at their learning. And they’re the ones that keep learning, gaining expertise and becoming famous!

Are You What You Learn?

May 28, 2008

Yes, You Have a Brain in ThereDo an exact word search in Google on the terms “you are what you learn” and you’ll turn up more than 3400 results. But is it true?

 

It sounds like it ought to be true and heaven knows I am inclined to believe it is. But is there any proof of it for informal or formal learners?

 

I’m glad you asked.

 

Raymond Fisman a professor at Columbia Business School and his co-authors Shachar Kariv of the University of California at Berkeley and Daniel Markovits at Yale Law School, have tested that idea in a remarkable way and the answer may well be yes.

 

Here’s the setup. Yale law students are randomly assigned to professors for their first year classes in contracts and torts. Sometimes the teachers are economists by training, sometimes they’re trained in the humanities and sometimes they don’t have any “strong disciplinary allegiances.” The teachers are permitted to create their own syllabi for the classes.

 

Using this ‘natural experiment,’ Fisman et al put 70 of these Yale law students in a computer lab and put them through their paces in something called a ‘dictator game,’ a game commonly used in experimental economics. The game tested the students’ willingness to give in various situations.

 

“In some cases students started with $10,” writes Fisman, “and for each dollar they gave up, their (anonymous) partner in the game would get, say, $5. In this case giving was ‘cheap.’ In others giving was expensive (each dollar given up yielded only 20 cents for the partner.”

 

Here’s what they found: 

“Relative to subjects with economics instructors, those who studied under faculty from humanistic disciplines were more sympathetic to equality; subjects whose instruction came from unaffiliated faculty showed a similar emphasis on equality as those who studied with humanists. These effects were very large in magnitude; in our favored specifications we found that exposure to economists causes a students’ expenditure on [other participants] to be nearly twice as sensitive to the price of giving as those exposed to humanists.

 

“Subjects exposed to economics instructors displayed greater levels of indexical selfishness relative to those exposed to humanists (and those exposed to unaffiliated faculty exhibited intermediate preferences).” 

The results gave pause to Fisman, who is an economist by training.  

“These findings hint at the influence that powerful ideas may have in shaping how we see the world, even late in life. It’s also a sobering message for teachers such as myself. The students in my classroom will venture forth into the world of business and management, carrying with them some of the viewpoints and attitudes that I choose to emphasize in my lectures. Students learn much more than the facts; what we choose to communicate to them is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.” 

For informal learners I see at least two implications: 

  1. The mind remains open to new ideas, suggestions, and information, and can continue to be shaped over time.
  2. Since informal learners are likely the ones directing their own learning they take the role of the teacher, deciding what they expose themselves to and what they don’t. Because 70 percent of all learning is said to be informal, it is probably our own self-selection that makes our mind or our thinking rigid over time.

Your Brain Lifting Weights

May 21, 2008

Increasingly science is coming to the opinion that the brain can be effectively trained, like a muscle.

 

If you’re like me, the idea that neurons, ganglia, dendrites and synapses, can get stronger-faster-better through regular mental sweating sounds like another case for Dr. Obvious. But in fact the state of the art for most of my lifetime was that the human cognition peaked at, oh, say age 35, and then began a long (hopefully slow) slide into senescence. How fast or slowly that happened depended in the main on our genetic inheritance.  

 

But remember, state of the art science until 1661(!) was that the earth and all its matter at its most elemental was comprised of earth, air, fire, and water. That’s what Aristotle posited in the fourth century BC. So great was his genius that it wasn’t until the 17th Century…nearly two millennia later… that Irish chemist Robert Boyle called this premise into question with the publication of his book The Sceptical Chymist, which presaged the modern theory of chemical elements.

 

In other words, sometimes science gets its mind around an idea and won’t let go no matter the evidence to the contrary.

 

But in the last few decades especially, it’s becoming clear that new brain cells born in mature brains “integrate into existing neuronal circuitry, providing the brain with a continual reservoir of youthful active cells. Such cells might then replace older neurons or possibly be used to reshape the brain so it may learn and adapt to new experiences.”

 

So new brain cells grow in mature brains and replace the old ones, which possibly (I say likely) allows us to continue to learn things as we age.

 

So how can we learn as we age? Current science suggests that “exposure to complex experiences boost the components that process information in the brain. Brain cell survival increases, the neural appendages that receive communication signals grow and the connections between cells multiply. Some of these changes occur not only during the brain’s early growth stage, but also in later years. A severe lack of mental exercise and even stressful experiences, however, limit the brain plan.”

 

What constitutes ‘exposure to complex experiences?’ Or, to continue the analogy, what gives your brain a workout? That’s the 100 billion brain cell question.

 

For me it’s travel to new places (preferably in Italy where I can get plenty of gelato), games, reading or listening to books and magazines, researching and writing, physical exercise, watching documentaries on TV, taking formal coursework, using brain workout software, learning new career skills, and getting friendly again with my dictionary and encyclopedia.

 

Since, by most estimates, 75 percent of all learning is informal, there’s almost certainly more.

 

One big bonus to mental workouts, after exercising my brain I don’t have to shower with a bunch of strangers!