Archive for the ‘Career Skills’ Category

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  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? 



  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.


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.

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!

Informal Learning and the Eternal Memory

May 6, 2008

How Quickly We Do ForgetWhat if you could remember everything you ever memorized with such precision that you could throw away all your books? What price would you pay? [And as we’ll see, the price I’m talking about is not money.]


That’s the question I asked of myself after reading Gary Wolf’s intriguing profile of Piotr Wozniak, the Polish inventor of the software program called SuperMemo that can help you recall things you’ve memorized at close to 90 percent. Forever!


The profile goes on for 6,000 words. And do read it. It’s a terrific piece of reporting on a man who has become prisoner to his nearly perfect memory. But I can spoil the how of it in just a couple of paragraphs.


For most of us short-term memory has a lifespan. That lifespan varies per individual, but memory’s fade is predictable. What Wozniak discovered… or really, rediscovered… is that the best way to keep a memory is to be reminded of it just as you’re about to forget it. Keep the reminders properly spaced and you can sell your library of books on eBay.


But here’s the kicker; memory fades in waves that are especially steeply-sloped early on. (See the diagram on the left). To keep memory sharp you have to be reminded at just the perfect crest of forgetfulness. With each properly-spaced reminder the wavelength of memory grows longer over time.


The phenomenon is well known and now called ‘the spacing effect.” That’s it diagrammed on the left. It was first identified in the 1880s by a German researcher named Hermann Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus memorized a series of nonsense syllables and rigorously measured how long it took to forget and then relearn them. His analysis led to the first description of the spacing effect.


But wait a minute you say, American educational theory scorns memorization as unhelpful and uncreative.


Or as Wolf puts it: 

“The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.”


“The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.”


“Once we drop the excuse that memorization is pointless, we’re left with an interesting mystery. Much of the information does remain in our memory, though we cannot recall it. “To this day,” Bjork says, “most people think about forgetting as decay, that memories are like footprints in the sand that gradually fade away. But that has been disproved by a lot of research. The memory appears to be gone because you can’t recall it, but we can prove that it’s still there. For instance, you can still recognize a ‘forgotten’ item in a group. Yes, without continued use, things become inaccessible. But they are not gone.” 

Bjork for instance, has studied the oddity of the elderly who can often remember distant events with perfect clarity, but forget what they had for lunch. It’s small proof that it is recall that fades, not memory.


The key to putting the spacing effect to work in enhancing recall was clearly the computer. And as Wolf puts it, turning the spacing effect into software required someone who was not so much an academic, although Wozniak has a PhD, but a kind of intellectual ‘tinkerer’ with a gift for math and certain ‘literal temperament.’


The result was the effective if not always easy to use SuperMemo.


It’s Wozniak’s literalness that makes him a prisoner to his studies and something of an eccentric. For instance, scientists have long suspected that there’s a link between sleep and mental capacity. But there’s never been a good way to find the data. Since 1999 Wozniak has been keeping detailed logs of his sleep and tracking it against his “daily performances on study repetitions.”


You read that right, Wozniak has been loading data into his brain for decades and… using SuperMemo… has kept up the repetitions required to never forget it. He doesn’t foresee leaving Poland because the travel would disrupt his routines. He keeps himself in fighting trim in no small measure because his body houses his mind. For the same reason he avoids travel in Poland because the local motor vehicle accident rate is so high.


I’ll end where I started; as an informal learner what price are you willing to pay to never forget what you’ve learned?