Archive for the ‘Potpourri’ Category

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.
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An Innovation for Informal Learners

July 30, 2008

Clayton Christensen is the Tallest Innovation Guru Around

Clayton Christensen is the Tallest Innovation Guru Around

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

 

 

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

 

We’re still waiting.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

An Informal Learner Using Repetition Spacing Software

July 23, 2008

Brisbane Programmer and SuperMemo User Chris Khoo

Brisbane Programmer and SuperMemo User Chris Khoo

On May 6, I posted on the Wired piece on

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

  1. Which product do you use? 

Supermemo.

 

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

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

 

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

 

  1. How long have you been using it? 

2-3 months now.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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!