Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Recognize Innovators, Get More Innovation

March 24, 2017

The Sixties Called and and They’re Asking, Where Are All the Flying Cars?

In his manifesto on innovation called “What Happened to The Future?” billionaire-provocateur Peter Thiel asks where are the flying cars? Where’s the elevator to space? Where’s the box that cleans your clothes (and then folds them, too) in a minute or so, or the replicator that creates a fresh fish dinner out of thin air?  Why is jet travel getting slower, not faster? NASA was headed to Mars after the Apollo missions using the technology of the day before the agency’s wings got clipped by President Nixon. Now manned expeditions to Mars are still at least 20 years in the future. Starting with Nixon, every president has promised a cure for cancer. Even if cancer treatments are better and survivability has improved, there’s still no cure. These are all things we’ve imagined, which, in some ways, is the hardest part. Still we haven’t yet made them so. Why?

In his money line Thiel writes, “we wanted flying cars, all we got is 140 characters.”

Wait, you say, what about the computer in our pocket? The device that fits in your hand yet allows you trade stocks, Facetime a farmer in Botswana, order anything Amazon sells and see it delivered to your door a day later? Cool, no doubt.

But, as Thiel said in a debate with Marc Andreessen, the investor and inventor of Netscape who himself raised the issue of iPhones, what we’ve done with the power of smart devices is much more unremarkable, pedestrian even.

“You have as much computing power in your iPhone as was available at the time of the Apollo missions. But what is it being used for? It’s being used to throw angry birds at pigs; it’s being used to send pictures of your cat to people halfway around the world; it’s being used to check in as the virtual mayor of a virtual nowhere while you’re riding a subway from the nineteenth century.”

Thiel is raising the alarm that genuine progress has stalled; he doesn’t proffer many solutions or even suggestions. Although he has taken his own idiosyncratic actions.

We have a 100 times more engineers in 2017 than we had in 1917, Thiel reminds us, so where’s cool stuff 2.0? How do even we get back to the idea that something like a flying car is more innovative than something like Twitter?

Here’s one answer: we need to make innovation cool again.

Oh, policy wonks love to talk about innovation. In my small state I’ve sat through more Powerpoint from well-meaning officials than I can remember espousing the value of innovation… if only I had a nickel for every time some official invoked the name of Clay Christensen or Richard Florida… but if the message has penetrated much beyond the policy-makers it hasn’t showed up on the ground; productivity has stalled, GDP growth seems mired at less than 2 percent, and business failures exceeding startups in 2008 and have run in tight tandem ever since.

Thiel thinks this is a cultural problem.

“Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.”

I don’t know if I’m ready to go that far, but I think it’s evidently obvious that the cultural cachet that helped fuel the moonshots, and before that the building of the Interstate highways, and before that the great dams in the American West and the Southeast, is missing from modern life.

It doesn’t seem to be a money problem, per se; most of those 100-X engineers are drawing a nice paycheck from somewhere.

But it might be an inspiration problem. For most of us, once you make a certain threshold income what motivates you to do more isn’t more money. What takes innovators and creators back to their benches or desks after the first shift is over could be love, or ego, or ambition, or it might be a matter of recognition and competition.

Peter Diamandis, a physician and engineer, and founder of the X Prize Foundation, thinks competition and incentives matter. The X Prize is premised on the idea of age-old idea of awarding prizes for singular achievement. For instance, when Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop crossing from New York to Paris in 1927, he claimed the Ortieg Prize. The X Prize website says:

“We believe in the power of competition. That it’s part of our DNA. Of humanity itself. That tapping into that indomitable spirit of competition brings about breakthroughs and solutions that once seemed unimaginable. Impossible.

“We believe that you get what you incentivize (italics mine). And that without a target, you will miss it every time. Rather than throw money at a problem, we incentivize the solution and challenge the world to solve it.”

(For a great read on how another much older contest… the Longitude Prize… led to the first device that could accurately determine longitude at sea, read Longitude, by Dava Sobel.)

There’s some evidence that after eight years of the Utah Genius Awards that innovators and creators are motivated by the recognition they receive there. The Utah Genius Awards recognize the 10 individuals and 10 companies in the state who secure the most patents or trademarks in the year prior as determined by data from the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Beginning in October or November we’ll start getting calls from inventors and creators asking, are they in the running for a Utah Genius Award? Since Utah Genius Awards go to the top-10 finishers, the winners vary from year to year, making the Awards very competitive.

Motivation matters to creators and inventors, and the recognition provided by the Utah Genius Awards are motivating the next generation of innovation.

To learn more visit:


On Substituting Memory and Imagination

September 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t Wikipedia proof that Father Sarducci was right?

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

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

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

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

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

Deadlines and Informal Learning

June 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how to explain the uncluttered Eric Hoffer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now to a few of Hoffer’s aphorisms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 5, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Forgetting? Remember to Sleep!

April 26, 2009

Dimitri Mendeleev Came Up With Periodical Table During a Dream

Dimitri Mendeleev Came Up With Periodical Table During a Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5th Annual Games for Health Conference

April 23, 2009

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

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

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

Start a Job Journal, Get a Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Journals not only help informal learners, but job seekers.

Doodle Your Memory

April 1, 2009

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

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

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

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

March 24, 2009

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

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

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

What a softball, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus concludes with this:

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

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

Verbal Acuity and the Informal Learner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Informal Learners Toolkit

July 17, 2008

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Atomic Tools: 

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

 Neuronal Tools  

Informal Learning and The Learner’s Guild

April 30, 2008

More American adults will undertake some kind of informal learning this year than will attend all movies. More Americans will engage in some unofficial instructional endeavor than watched the last American Idol finale and the last Super Bowl. Americans love their entertainment but they’re almost hardwired with the desire to learn.


It’s a rich heritage. Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact… a self-taught student. So, too in large measure was Horace Mann, the famous educational reformer, who got his books from a small library Franklin himself had founded. As early as the 1830s the American backcountry was filled with teachers who toured the sticks teaching farmers and merchants topics both useful and arcane. Mark Twain started making his first real money not as a writer but as a lecturer in the 1860s. Later, facing bankruptcy, Twain returned to the lecture circuit to pay off his debts.


Nowadays according to the U.S. Department of Education 70 percent of Americans adults undertake some kind of informal learning each year… more than one and half times as many Americans who are enrolled in some kind of formal education or work training. Of those whose household income is greater than $75,000, 78 percent engage in informal learning. Among those with a graduate degree the number of informal learners is an astonishing 89 percent! Even the most educated among us realize that all education is self-education.


The high income and well educated understand that the power to understand ideas and express themselves clearly… which travels hand in hand with ongoing learning… correlates with almost any definition of success. Like the lab experiment that yields a reward every time the lever is pressed, the well-educated keep on pressing the education lever. And they do so consistently throughout all of life’s stages.


Yet informal learning almost flies under the radar. That’s because by its very nature informal learning is so broad as to defy easy categorization. Reading up on working with exotic woods is informal learning. So too is listening to language tapes or watching that documentary on penguins on the Discovery Network. Maybe there’s a goal in mind like improving your employability by learning a HTML. Or maybe you’re like Franklin and you learn just because you like to learn.


Into this comes, The Learner’s Guild.


I’ll post at least once a week on trends, products, ideas, techniques, tips, tools, and whatever else catches my eye.


This is my third blog. My first is now inactive, but my second blog, on the subject of ’cause-related marketing’ currently ranks either number one or two and all the major search engines.