Archive for the ‘How To’ Category

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.

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.

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.

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!