Monthly Archives: June 2014

Old Tech

finger starAt school taking lots of notes always felt distracting. It’s hard to imagine typing lots of notes during a lecture, but lots of people do it. It looks like taking notes by hand produces better learning.

Here’s my shortened version of an article on new research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer.

Students writing their notes on paper actually learn more. In three experiments, students took notes in a classroom setting and were tested on their memory for factual detail, conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.

Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand. Students using laptops took more notes. In each study, those writing their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful applying and integrating the material than those typing notes.

What drives this paradoxical finding? Maybe taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than typing them, and these different processes have consequences for learning.

Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize, succinctly capturing the essence of the information. Taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” fostering comprehension and retention.

By contrast, the typing students can easily produce a complete written record of the lecture without processing its meaning without devoting much thought to the content.

Whooping Cough

PrintI wish there was a public service announcement featuring this graphic. It’s by Leon Farrant for data collected in 2007.

This graphic is easy to understand, there’s no more polio or smallpox. Chickenpox and measles are uncommon now.

Ironically, some infections have become uncommon enough that doctors often don’t suspect a now uncommon agent as a possible cause of the illness that’s being presented to them.

Unfortunately, some people don’t really grasp science, get overwhelmed, and find it easier to just reject some or most of science.

Vaccination is one of the easy things to reject. Some parents have opted out of vaccinating their kids. This can have big consequences. For example, ten babies died of whopping cough in a 2010 California epidemic. In the graphic whopping cough is shown as pertussis.

California is labeling this year’s whooping cough outbreak an epidemic after a recent big spike of 900 new cases in April and May.

Vaccination doesn’t just protect the vaccinated. Some people can’t be vaccinated and are left vulnerable to infection, so when people around them are vaccinated there’s less exposure to infection.

One popular Bay Area doctor has implemented a policy requiring his patients be vaccinated if they want to continue having him as their doctor.

Most of his patients decided to stay with him and accepted his policy.


Do or Don’t

croc and kidWhat’s the best way to frame a guideline, by using “do” or with “don’t?”

Would you tell your kid, “Don’t go near that croc.” or ” Do keep a safe diastase from that croc?”

Which is more effective? “Stay calm”, or “don’t panic.” “Be kind,” versus “don’t be a dick.” “Don’t smoke,” instead of “smoking is bad for your health.” Hard to say. I’m leaning toward framing advice using “don’t.” Maybe regrets can be better avoided using “don’t”.

If something bad happens suddenly, you’ll likely be in a state that isn’t calm, so saying “stay calm” may not resonate. “Don’t panic” addresses how you’re actually feeling in the middle of something scary.

If you’re asked for simple advice about how to conduct your life, “be kind” seems open to interpretation about the degree of kindness or to whom it’s applied. “Don’t be a dick” is not open to much interpretation.

At this point in the modern world everyone knows smoking has no redeeming features. “Don’t smoke” is good reinforcement of what everyone knows and hearing it directly is not new or shocking.

Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, and probably seems stronger when it’s framed with “don’t.” But when advice is sought out, using “don’t” works because people often define themselves by what they choose not to do, use, or wear (it could be a longer list).

Using “don’t” is an ok route to go. Framing something by using “don’t” identifies the opposite choice, the one that shouldn’t be chosen.

Advice is sought for an opinion and not to find out about facts. An advice seeker is looking for help making a choice, hopefully a nudge that squares with their identity and worldview, not necessarily wanting to hear about the facts. They want to connect with others in their group. They want to think, “People like us don’t smoke (or smoke)” not be directed to the Surgeon General’s website.

Using “don’t” is clearer and more succinct.

Just think about  how much shorter the Bible  could be  by letting “don’t be a dick” cover the ten commandments, the golden rule, and the like. And everyone would get it.

Game of Thrones Market

four camelsIf you watch Game of Thrones, you know lots of prominent characters are unexpectedly killed off. In the first season Ned Stark who’s a strong, stable leader gets beheaded. If you’d been a Ned Stark fan, you were suddenly without a basket for your eggs.

I realized Game of Thrones is like the stock market because you can’t predict which way it’ll turn, so picking one favorite thing to invest in probably isn’t the smart choice.

Over time, the chances are slim that you’ll pick winners, especially compared to how the stock market as a whole performs. About 90% of people, professionals and regular folk, who pick a stock or several particular stocks will underperform the stock market average.

Putting money into an indexed stock fund avoids big mistakes. You’re spreading your risk across many different players in the market. Of course you avoid the big home runs too, but there’s a smaller than one out of ten chance that you’ll pick that home run stock. Over a  long time frame the market in general wins. If you’re not in it for the long run you’re gambling rather than investing.

You’re better off in the long run betting that the ecosystem will keep growing steadily instead of betting on just one member of the ecosystem.

Ned Stark was snatched away but the Game of Thrones carried on, and is even more popular today than when Ned Stark was around.

Don’t Panic

Get-Off-Your-PhoneMy mom was stuck alone in an elevator for about an hour the other day. She said she’d been uncomfortable and nervous but generally ok and added that it was better her than one of her friends who’d have had a complete meltdown in the same situation. What if it was something more life threatening?

So, what’s better “staying calm” or “not panicking?” By staying calm your sense of urgency might be tamped down too much. Often you’ll need to do things more quickly than normal to deal with a bad situation.

Let’s say you’re flying a plane, and there’s a big problem. You’ll  need to check gauges, flip switches, and turn knobs more rapidly than normal. And do it all while probably communicating as well.

“Don’t panic” is the better state of mind than “stay calm.” Panicking brings on the fight or flight response and stress and you’re just reacting and not able to access your higher level thinking. In a bad situation it’s good to be able to react with good judgement, so panicking is usually not a useful response.

Soldiers training for special forces can be taught all the mechanics of their jobs and be physically in top shape, but they can’t be taught “Don’t panic.” That’s really what it comes down to: thinking under stress and not panicking. If that mindset is not already baked in for a candidate, that soldier probably won’t make it through the training no matter how fit or sharp.

So don’t panic and you’ll probably have a better outcome.

One thin dime of history

tree ringsIf you can imagine the history of life on earth as the Empire State Building, all of recorded human history is a dime on top. Human history is astonishingly short.

Here’s a brief linking of births to deaths, starting with the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. who died in 2007.

Schlesinger saw the rise of the Internet, a man walk on the moon, and the Cold War.  He saw the end of World War II and the beginning of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.  He saw the Great Depression. He was two when the U.S. Cavalry crossed into Mexico pursuing Pancho Villa, women’s suffrage passed, millions died in a worldwide flu epidemic, and the first radio station went on the air.  Iraq passed from the Ottoman Empire to the British. Schlesinger wasn’t even one when World War I ended and William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody died.

William Cody died in a country with 48 states, a telephone system, and Model T’s.  His traveling show exhibited an already fading frontier west.  At the turn of the century, he was the most recognized celebrity on the globe.  He saw the last Native Americans driven into captivity.  He cheered the news of the first plane. His voice was recorded on phonographs.  His image captured in color photographs.  The first skyscraper, ten stories tall, was built in Chicago when Cody was forty. He lived through the death of President Lincoln. He was born into a US with 29 states, and half those states supported owning  slaves. The year he was born, thousands died in the Irish Potato Famine, the first US woman doctor was awarded her degree, and John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States, died.

John Quincy Adams was President and also served in congress as an anti-slavery representative for Massachusetts.  He represented the interests of Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship, Amistad.  A few years before, the H. M. S. Beagle, returned home from a long, fruitful voyage. The first train service began in England.  The Creek tribe was forced west into Indian Territory, despite Adam’s efforts to nullify the treaty.  Adams saw his father lose to Thomas Jefferson after stepping into the impossible role of Washington’s successor.  He was born in the colony of Massachusetts, the same year that Daniel Boone reached Kentucky.

Our nation’s history is short. Arthur M. Schlesinger is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the US didn’t exist. You’re no more than three away yourself.

It’s only two more life spans to Shakespeare. Two more and the only Europeans to see America sailed from Greenland.  You’re ten lifetimes from the fifth crusade.  Twenty from the Visigoth sack of Rome.  Make it forty, and the king of Athens is captive on Crete, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.

Sixty life times ago, or about 4,100 years ago, Abraham shows up in the Bible. A few lifetimes before that, and you’ve come out the bottom of that dime.  You’re that close to it.

Whenever anyone with a  long life dies, we tend to review of all the things they saw in their life. Next time you wonder at all the things that person saw in their lifetime, remember the dime is very thin and every lifetime covers momentous events.

That’s my short version of Mark Sumner’s 2007 article (via Jason Kottke’s site).