Archive for the ‘Personal Development’ Category

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.]

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. 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. 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.

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, 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

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  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.

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!

Games Learner’s Play

May 13, 2008

Brain Games and Brain Age Promise to Whip Your Brain Into ShapeAccording to a 2003 German time-use study, informal learners with the highest education levels learn because they love to learn. If you’re not quite there yet, or if informal learning seems like a sort of like a ‘eat your veggies’ exercise, then you might benefit from ‘Brain Age’ for the Nintendo DS player, or the handheld game called, ‘Brain Games’ from Mattel’s Radica division.


Both Brain Games and Brain Age occupy a ticklish position. Both purport to be based on honest-to-Pete science. Both suggest that a regular diet of the mental exercises included on them will help keep your brain strong and young. Brain Age goes so far as suggesting that regular use could help you lower your brain’s age. Get it? Both cost around $20 in electronics retailers and the mass merchandisers.


Nintendo’s Brain Age, by far has the better buzz. Radica makes handheld games like Solitaire, Suduko, a 20-questions game called Q, and the like, so this is a natural line extension. Nintendo looked at the numbers and bet that there was a market for adult learners. So far the bet’s paid off wildly. Brain Age was one of the top 10 video game sellers in 2007 and sold some 4 million units in 2006. 


Brain Age runs only on Nintendo’s handheld DS player, which starts around $130. Radica’s Brain Games is self-contained in the $20 unit.


The criticism of this approach to informal learning can be summarized in the American idiomatic expression ‘teaching to the test.’ It means learning not much more than you need to pass a test.


Or as writer Greta Lorge, put it in Wired:

“After diligent effort, players routinely see their ‘brain age’ plummet from, say, a sluggish 60 to a taut 30. But the improved performance may not be a sign of wit-sharpening. Many users start with little gaming experience, so it’s not surprising that their scores improve — a phenomenon known as the practice effect. Sadly, there’s no evidence that in-game gains translate to the real world.”  


I think there’s more to Brain Age and Brain Games than the practice effect. But to explain why please indulge a personal anecdote. When I went through Army basic training my drill sergeants explicitly ‘taught to the test” when it came to the 2-mile run, 1/3 of the Army’s fitness test.


We did very few long slow runs. There wasn’t time in the training schedule for that. Instead we did sprint work and more 2-mile runs on the track behind the barracks than I could possibly count, always timed by a stopwatch.


Surprise, surprise, my final 2-mile time was several minutes below my first time. Teaching to the test helped me do dramatically better on the test.


At the end of basic training I went directly to advanced training, which was less regimented. We seldom did physical training in groups, although all the fitness tests were conducted that way. So to stay in fighting trim I began to run around a course that had several possible mileages depending on the paths you took.


What I found was that the base of fitness I had acquired in basic training… while training to the test… enabled me to become a fair runner. During my 13 weeks in advanced training I got to the point where I could easily run 8-10 miles at a time, further if I choose. My 2-mile run time dropped even further.


When it comes to informal learning teaching to the test is problematic if that’s where you stop. But if you treat Brain Games, or Brain Age like an ingredient in the mole and not the whole enchilada, than either one could be a nice addition to your learner’s toolkit. 

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?