Archive for July, 2006

Laconic coincidence

Posted in Meanderings, Music, Movies & Entertainment on July 28, 2006 by weirleader

While in high school, I had a history teacher (Bohannon, for Stephen’s benefit) who told us a great story about Calvin Coolidge. Supposedly, a young woman (a reporter, I believe) heard that he wasn’t a very talkative fellow. When she informed him that she had mad a bet that she could get three words out of him, he replied: “You lose.”

In the spirit of that wonderful reply, I have found a particularly fun site dedicated to reviewing movies in four words or less.

But part of the fun of writing this post is that, en route to discovering this site, I dropped off a message to Stephen about the original story that referred me to The Four Word Film Review. And within minutes he was calling me to see if I realized that he had just sent me a link to the same story! Which is pretty funny. Maybe not post-worthy initially, but that leads to the dramatic denouement:

While speaking with him on the phone and discussing the fact that I really should post this stuff, I received a text message from James reminding me of an obligation which I’ve neglected for too long. Her message reads: “Grass”

Whoops! I’ve got a lawn to mow!

Ciao for now!

Chunking and Effortful Study (part deux)

Posted in Meanderings on July 26, 2006 by weirleader

Just wanted to point out that the Gladwell article Stephen recommended (which is really, really good!) had some similar points to make regarding genius, namely that geniuses ‘see’ the whole playing field – so to speak – and are already foreseeing the results of their actions. They weigh them subconsciously and act on the best one with barely a second’s thought. Additionally, the surgeon mentioned in the article, Charlie Wilson, learned how to do a very difficult procedure (transphenoidal surgery) because he 1) became determined to do it, 2) studied from the very best, and 3) practiced it until he knew it!

Gladwell goes on to point out that the physical ability is necessary, but that it’s secondary to the drive to make it happen and do it right.

Another exciting piece was that the ability to recognize your mistakes and learn from them is critical (duh, right?!). But it’s amazing how few there are out there who take that one to heart!

This piece from the above article is really good:

“When psychologists study people who are expert at motor tasks, they find that almost all of them use their imaginations in a very particular and sophisticated way. Jack Nicklaus, for instance, has said that he has never taken a swing that he didn’t first mentally rehearse, frame by frame. Yo-Yo Ma told me that he remembers riding on a bus, at the age of seven, and solving a difficult musical problem by visualizing himself playing the piece on the cello.”

It makes me think of (and Stephen will especially appreciate this) my early artistic career. I think I can successfully pin the poor proportions of my drawings of people on the fact that I really cannot visualize what I’m going to draw in advance. The especially funny thing about this (to me, at least) is that when it comes to math diagrams, graphs, etc. (even 3-D sketches) I do really well. It just has to do with what one can ‘see’ and sort of wrap one’s mind around.
Very cool stuff! In fact, the more I read of the article, the more I liked it.

Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Stephen!!!

Chunking and Effortful Study

Posted in Education, Meanderings, Science on July 25, 2006 by weirleader

I just read the most fascinating Scientific American article on The Expert Mind.

To sum up, psychologists have made a study of chess players to gain insight into natural talent vs. learned skills. They have dubbed chess players, “The Drosophila of Cognitive Science,” in reference to fruit flies and their many uses as test subjects. One of the more exciting points for me was a reference to ‘chunking’ as a means by which masters can juggle large amounts of data (what would normally overwhelm a novice) without breaking the rule of “The Magical Number 7, Plus or Minus 2.” (see also this Wikipedia entry.) [This is sort of the basis for our phone numbers being the length they are – there is a finite working limit to our memory, and to sort of work around it we ‘chunk’ things into clumps of 7 (plus or minus 2). I’d go on, but this article does a superior job explaining]

Perhaps one of the reasons this struck a chord with me is that I know I use it all the time to perform complex calculations and to retain results in my head. I even use it for bizarre purposes like remembering somebody’s address. Instead of remembering a random number, I relate it to a chunk that’s already stored somewhere in there *points to his head*. It’s a much more relational way to operate that I find really works for me. And the cool thing to discover was that it works for chess masters as well. So, as the article conveys, when they play chess blindfolded they don’t need to memorize the entire board, but just remember 7 or 8 ‘chunks’ of info that pertain to familiar layouts. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, but it is a lot of fun to think about!

The other piece of interest to me as a math teacher was the idea that “effortful study” seems to far outweigh natural talent. I’ve long been approaching my job from the opposite standpoint (in some ways it is easier, relieving me of obligation), but this indicates that what is really necessary is, in the words of Jaime Escalante, “ganas,” desire. If you work at it, you can eventually get it. The tough part for students everywhere is that the burden now lays with them – no more cop-outs of, ‘I just don’t do math.’

Now the trick is to develop success in our students. As the article points out:

“success builds on success, because each accomplishment can strengthen a child’s motivation. A 1999 study of professional soccer players from several countries showed that they were much more likely than the general population to have been born at a time of year that would have dictated their enrollment in youth soccer leagues at ages older than the average. In their early years, these children would have enjoyed a substantial advantage in size and strength when playing soccer with their teammates. Because the larger, more agile children would get more opportunities to handle the ball, they would score more often, and their success at the game would motivate them to become even better.” – (Sci Am, The Expert Mind)

Additionally, we must get students to want to learn. If they’re hating it, hard work won’t even do the trick – because their heart and mind won’t really be in it. Again, that desire is necessary. So how do we encourage that???

Here’s one interesting approach:

“The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child q uickly into an expert–in chess, music and a host of other subjects–sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills? Roland G. Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard University, has experimented with offering monetary rewards to motivate students in underperforming schools in New York City and Dallas. In one ongoing program in New York, for example, teachers test the students every three weeks and award small amounts–on the order of $10 or $20–to those who score well. The early results have been promising.” – (Sci Am, The Expert Mind)

But now we’re in danger of running far afield, as the topic of what motivates children (and what no longer motivates them) gets deep in the mire of what’s degenerating in society today.

One idea to wrap things up:

“experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.” – (Sci Am, The Expert Mind)

The point is to constantly challenge yourself to grow in skill and knowledge, to never be satisfied with where you’re at – and to inspect the work of the masters for tips and tricks to see just how it is they do what they do. I’d like to think I’ve been attempting to do this on a regular basis – but I now intend to more consciously strive to keep this in mind, in whatever I do. (Maybe I should even apply it to BF2, eh?) 🙂

Cold Turkey

Posted in Health on July 24, 2006 by weirleader

While at the General Convention, Aleksandra (Schab) gave me a book that was recommended to her entitled Sugar Blues, by William Dufty. I believe she tried reading it, but although her spoken English is awesome, the written word does tend to get complex. In any case, it has been eye-opening.

The book came out long ago (1975) and I would venture to guess that Pete would have a field day critiquing the guy’s arguments (some even seem weak to me – and we all know I’m a pushover), but the history alone of sugar is fascinating. Dufty links sugar consumption to the heyday and subsequent downfall of several powerful empires – not purely causative, but a seriously contributing factor. He also points out how sugar addiction (and the profits that accompany it) encouraged the slave trade.

I’ve got a long way to go in my reading, but one of the pieces that struck me immediately was a description of why sugar does what it does (to me, at least). The refining of sugar is compared to the refining of opium into morphine and even further into heroin – we take sugar cane, extract its juices, refine them into the purest crystalline form imaginable and then add it to our food. Essentially, sugar refinement is just improving the delivery method for getting sugar into the bloodstream as quickly as possible. And this brings us to its effects:

“While the glucose is being absorbed into the blood, we feel ‘up.’ A quick pick-up. However, this surge of mortgaged energy is succeeded by the downs, when the bottom drops out of the blood glucose level. We are listless, tired; it requires effort to move or even think until the blood glucose level is brought up again. Our poor brain is vulnerable to suspicion, hallucinations. We can be irritable, all nerves, jumpy. The severity of the crisis on top of crisis depends on the glucose overload. If we continue taking sugar, a new double crisis is always beginning before the old one ands. the accumulative crisis at the end of the day can be a lulu.

After years of such days, the end result is damaged adrenals. They are worn out not from overwork but from continual whiplash. Overall production of hormones is low, amounts don’t dovetail. This disturbed function, out of balance, is reflected all around the endocrine circuit. The brain may soon have trouble telling the unreal from the real; we’re likely to go off half cocked. When stress comes our way, we go to pieces because we no longer have a healthy endocrine system to cope with it. Day-to-day efficiency lags, we’re always tired, never seem to get anything done.” (pg. 47)

Boy, does that ever sum up my experience with sugar bingeing!

Now, I’ll admit some of his arguments seem a little oversimplified and Dufty even comes across that all the worlds ills quite literally are to be blamed on sugar consumption – but as in the above quoted passage, some really dovetails nicely with my experience.

To quote a quote, Dufty cites Dr. Robert Boesler, a New Jersey dentist from the early 20th century as saying:

“Modern manufacturing of sugar has brought about entirely new diseases. The sugar of commerce is nothing else but concentrated crystallized acid. If, in former times sugar was so costly that only the wealthy could afford to use it, it was, from the national standpoint, of no consequence. But today, when, because of its low cost, sugar has caused a degeneration of the people, it is time to insist on a general enlightenment. The loss of energy through the consumption of sugar in the last century and the first decade of this century can never be made good, as it has left its mark on the race. Alcohol has been used for thousands of years and has never caused the degeneration of a whole race.” (pg. 42)

I’m only 80 pages in, but this guy’s got my attention. And while I don’t pin all the ailments of humanity on sugar, I don’t find it farfetched that it might be responsible for a great deal of them.

Oh, and lest you wonder wherefore the title of this entry – I’m going to see just how well I can give up processed sugars (that is, anything but evaporated can juice and raw honey – a tall order!!!) 🙂

(edited: July 24 @ 4pm – the quotes didn’t turn out right the first time)

Falling off the wagon

Posted in Health on July 13, 2006 by weirleader

Just came across an article in Slate (Sugar Babies) that struck a chord. The past several years have got me convinced that sugar is an addictive substance – perhaps without the same kick as nicotine, but addictive nonetheless (quite possible more so due to genetic predisposition).

Ms. Bazelon (and her source, Ms. Mello) make some really good points about how our children are marketed to and the potential effects. When you look at the state of obesity and diabetes in this country, surely this is something we ought not ignore. It’s downright irresponsible to know that targeting children with sugar-related advertising will increase their consumption and still allow it to go unchecked. That being said, I realize this is a free country and a capitalistic one as well – no CEO is going to further his bottom line by developing a conscience (at least, not in the short run).

But that’s where government can come in. I’m not huge on hands-on government, but people are still going to want sweets with or without commercials. We have an identified problem and I would hazard a guess that nobody disputes such a problem exists. Do the responsible thing, just like with nicotine – maybe it’ll just do the trick.

Additional suggested reading: Lick the Sugar Habit, Why We’re Fatter

So many _____, so little time

Posted in Meanderings on July 11, 2006 by weirleader

I am currently on summer vacation… and with that knowledge, you might make the assumption that I am making amazing progress on all of my stored up projects.

You’d be wrong – very, very wrong.

I believe I suffer from what my wife calls being a ‘messy’, or what my dad more politely refers to as being a ‘divergent thinker’ (see The Messies Manual – though it refers to housewives, I think it could be useful for anyone to identify their strengths and weaknesses). In either case, I find too many things that interest me and struggle mightily with giving any one thing very much of my time. It’s quite maddening at times. For instance, at this very moment there sits beside me on my desk a list of 8 items to be working on (this blog is one of them), but I’m not hitting the most challenging or important one first. I’m fiddling with blogging, learning a bit about Google Reader, and trying to figure out how Pete gets so much reading accomplished.

My dad and I just had a conversation this morning about the qualities of a ‘cleanie’, which manifest themselves in some instances in people with a great deal of drive. They just get things done. I suspect that there must be a trade-off, but perhaps that is just wishful thinking on my part (it gives me reason to hope that my messiness entails some as-yet-undefined positive quality to keep things in balance). But these people have a focus which allows them a much greater efficiency, which accounts for several people I know who accomplish three times as much as I do in any similar time period.

Alas, even this blog is a good example of me segmenting other more pressing matters because my brain has wandered in a more ‘fun’ direction.

But I’ll return, just as soon as I have something else I’d rather not do.

Ahem… er… is this mic live?

Posted in Meanderings on July 10, 2006 by weirleader

So this is what it feels like to blog. Odd… Almost like talking to my word processor.

Well, there should be more of it – once I train myself to actually think of blogging as something I do as opposed to something I read.