Saturday, June 27, 2009


Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allfrugality
Without frugality, none can be rich,
and with it very few would be poor.
- Samuel Johnson -

Last week the New Zealand Lotteries Commission handed out over $36,000,000 to the winning ticket held by a syndicate of four people. Before the draw, there was speculation in discussion on radio and television, on the Internet and elsewhere as to what the winners might do with the money during the rest of their lives.

Evidence on the life and history of past multimillion winners suggested that an amazingly large proportion of them managed to spend the lot within less than two years. The adage, “penny wise, pound foolish”, seems to ring true.

Frugal return?

I was brought up in the 50s and 60s. In those years I acquired education enough to understand what was meant by the ‘use-once-throw-away society’. I was a bit of a handyman in my teens. My mother called me Tinkerer. I took apart broken appliances that people had discarded, primarily to see how they’d worked and to establish why they didn’t.

If I managed to fix something, and curiously that happened on occasion, I usually gave it back to its previous owner. There were two reasons for this. One was that my mother disliked me hoarding ‘stuff’. The other was that often I got some small reward for my effort. I still possess an oddly hand-painted vase given to me 50 years ago by a grateful neighbour whose clock I'd mended.

Planned obsolescence?

There came a time when fixing things was more difficult. Clusters of individual components of manufactured goods were gradually replaced with sealed ‘black boxes’ hard to dismantle, difficult to repair and even more challenging to reassemble. They were key to the functionality of the contraption to which they belonged. Apparently they were selected to malfunction one after the other, with perhaps only a few weeks between each carefully planned event.

Replacing a ‘black box’ was unbelievably costly. Most faulty ‘black boxes’ ended up in the landfill still intimately connected to their associated appliances. When considering repair, buying a brand-new version of the appliance was often an attractive option in view of the expense-free term of use guaranteed to the owner.

As more of the componentry in gadgets became modularised, the day-to-day maintenance of the material world I lived in continued to become costlier. There came a need for greater incomes at a time of plenty, when meeting that need was moderately easy to achieve.

Environment of plenty?

Variety became a feature of the available range of manufactured goods. It was essential to meet the demand of every whim of fashion, style, functionality, design and cost. Just take a look at any stretch of motorway during the rush hour. Notice the plethora of brand, shape, size and colour of cars, burning their slow petroleum trails to their destinations.

Society has inherited a legacy – a way of life that’s going to be difficult to maintain. And there’s more. The discarded products of the bygone boom-times are already impinging on the environment of plenty, so the experts say. Embedded in that legacy-way-of-life are philosophies and cultures that are seemingly reflected in what we see on the Internet.

Where did efficiency go?

I tinkered around with computers in the early 80s. One of the golden rules I learnt while writing computer programs in basic, was to do with brevity and efficient use of code. A computer with a random access memory of 640 kilobytes was a luxurious acquisition in those days – and it wasn’t cheap.

Today I upload optimised pix
of about 4 Mb each from my digital camera, to an app in the clouds that I didn’t pay for, at least not directly.

We have hand-held devices that boast hundreds of gigabyte memory capacity accessed with a stroke of a finger. We’re told of the coming Graphene chip that promises 100 to 1000 times the speed and capacity of present-day microchips.

The last time I scoured cyberspace for data on the abundance of (free) web2.0 applications, I gathered handfuls of sites. Each of them boasted several dozen to a hundred links to web2.0 applications. Most recently, in my fevered attempt to find a single alternative to PhotoShop, I found dozens of free download offers for applications that claimed most if not all of the functionality I needed.

Time of plenty?

People everywhere celebrate a time of plenty. Most of us find comfort in abundance. In particular, we feel that limited choice is too restrictive,
a way of thinking that, for some, has been tuned by MS apps providing numerous different routes and methods to do exactly the same thing. The principle seems to be, ‘why offer a hundred ways to do something when you can offer it in a hundred and one?’

I wonder about this aspect of the culture that exists in western society. We know that we cannot continue to pursue the abundance that’s invariably presented, recognised, consumed and discarded. We know that continuing to do this returns a series of unwelcome consequences, some of which are
perhaps yet to be revealed.

Maybe we should give more thought to frugality?

A Green Pen Society contribution

related posts - >> ( 2 ) ( 1 )

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Do You Believe?

Tēnā koutou katoa - Greetings To You AllBelief and the Brain
In recent months, there has been discussion in the blogosphere over the attributes and cognitive powers of the brain. This month, Clive Shepherd has completed a splendid series of posts on John Medina’s Brain Rules, documenting clearly his own interpretations of the book.

I have not yet read Brain Rules, but I’m grateful to Clive for his explicit summaries and interpretations. Whichever way you look on it, plainly, the brain is a wonderful organ.

My late comment on Clive’s post speculates that the aspects he analysed and reported from Medina’s book did not include an important feature of the brain, that being it’s power to believe. In this post I put forward some thoughts around the idea that the faculty of presumption, in the contexts of observation, perception and reason, is a feature of the brain that can shape the way we learn and also affect the way we think.

What is belief?

Beliefs are formed through our experiences from the moment of birth. Wikipedia describes ‘belief’ as, “the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.” It further explains that “mainstream psychology and related disciplines have traditionally treated belief as if it were the simplest form of mental representation and therefore one of the building blocks of conscious thought”.

Philosophies to do with belief are complex and varied. Some might even argue that belief is one of the cornerstones of philosophy. Many of the features that are associated with belief can also be attributed to, or have close counterparts in the strange and capricious emotion of trust.


The weight of authority can be a useful lever in forging belief but it can also be flawed. For as much as it may be argued that authority can be an influencing factor in learning, it is the action of the brain of the learner that permits an authoritative influence to be successful or otherwise.

History is strewn with examples of recalcitrant learners who earned the displeasure of their authoritative teachers. Yet authority has also fashioned and propagated belief, and learning through that belief, in the intelligent minds of many scholars. This has gone on for hundreds of years - some of it quite fallacious.

Misconception and erroneous belief

Teachers hope for learner minds that are pliable and mobile. In many disciplines, tutors select their students from young children, it being well known that suppleness of mind prevails in the young.

As a teacher, I’ve often been guilty of using a strategy that I call unteaching. Execution of this mode of persuasion entails dismantling possible misconception and seemingly erroneous belief in the mind of the learner.

A way to achieving this is brought about by revealing tactfully to the learner those aspects of their knowledge or beliefs that may be wanting or mistaken in some important detail. Once the major parts of the assumed learning obstacles are removed, the remnants are eradicated through the application of appropriate pedagogy.

Such action is nevertheless presumptive on the part of the teacher:
  1. that the original belief in the mind of the learner is flawed:

  2. that belief in the mind of the teacher is legitimate and authentic.
The presumption can take on an authoritative tone. Some look on it as imposed dogma rather than useful and principled guidance.

Whatever the interpretation, it’s the belief formed and held in the mind of the learner that has a powerful bearing on what is learnt and how that learning develops. This applies as much to a young child as to an experienced and mature employee in the workplace. The part that confidence plays in supporting belief is useful to learner and teacher.

Belief directs learning

If the learner’s belief is congruent to what's being taught, the teacher may have no problem. But if that belief is not aligned to what is taught a number of scenarios can arise:

– revelation by the learner in a new understanding

– active discussion about aspects of the learner's belief
(related to what's being learned)

– enlightenment of both learner and teacher through discussion
(sometimes the teacher learns more than the learner)

– no significant change in what the learner knows

– hardening of the learner's original belief.

Human perceptual psychology - believing is seeing

Clive reviews Medina’s Rule 10: Vision trumps all other senses.
He quotes, ”We do not see with our eyes. We see with our brains.
We actually experience our visual environment as a fully analysed opinion about what the brain thinks is out there.”

In short, our opinion of what exists is what we believe we see.

It relies on expectation, related to processes that occur in the higher levels of the brain. The perceptual experience initiated by what is observed is resolved by a complex series of processes in the peripheral and central nervous system.

The final interpretation is of a meaningful representation of observed events. Otherwise referred to as cognition, it involves memory and schema – a complex network of abstract mental structures that represent an understanding of what is perceived to exist.

Many so-called optical illusions draw on this aspect of perception. What is seen, interpreted and recognised through perception is believed.

The Ames Trapezoid, for instance is such an illusion in 3 dimensions. Another, in 2 dimensions, is the Fraser spiral shown below.

For as much as our perception tells us that we see a spiral, it takes a careful tracing of the loops with a finger to prove that the diagram is really a series of concentric circles – no spiral exists.

Fraser Spiral
Even then, we may not be convinced, and perhaps try the finger tracing test several times before conceding that what we think we see is just an illusion. Test it for yourself.
  • What do you think about belief as an aspect of the human brain?

  • What part does it play in learning?

  • Do you go through life testing your own beliefs?

  • Or do you accept the authoritative viewpoint of others?
( 2 ) << - related post

Ngā mihi nui - Best Wishes

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Keep Doing This!

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allLink to Google Reader

This keeps happening to me. My RSS Reader gets filled up in no time so that I have hundreds of unread posts. I have to have a read-in to clear them all. It’s not as if I don’t read posts, but it just keeps happening if I miss a day or so. I find it a pain to catch up.

Part of my problem is that I have an eclectic taste for topics – just check out my index and you’ll see what I write about.

500 blogs a day!

Just over a year ago I read about Kevin Hodgson and his amazing use of the RSS Reader – skimming 500 blogs a day. I even posted about it! At the time, I thought that this was something I might aspire to.
Not any more. I have 156 subscriptions in my reader at the moment.

Over the year I’ve been blogging, many bloggers have posted with disdain about their RSS Reader getting clogged up with unread posts. It’s often because they’ve been busy with a project, or been on vacation for a while. I’ve even been daft enough to try to give advice to some who may have requested it – but I was sticking my neck out - I’m certainly no expert at this. Here’s some of the things I (tried to) do:

Try to get real

I just get real and cull. But where to start is always the difficult decision. I recall Sue Waters commenting on how often a blogger should post. She wasn’t so much giving advice on the frequency of posting, more reporting on what she’d learnt about teachers and what they preferred when it came to a blogger’s rate of output – all useful information. Sue spoke of “readers in the edublogger community who unsubscribe if a blogger posts too frequently”.

She made me think immediately of a few bloggers whose sites I’d already subscribed to and who thump out more posts in a day than I could possibly publish in a week! No names mentioned here, but some of these sites are owned by ace bloggers. Their stuff is worthwhile reading, and I just do not want to remove subscriptions to their sites.

I’m always reluctant to cull blogs just because they happen to be on the list and haven’t posted in ages. Providing their stuff is good, I don’t mind the subscriptions staying where they are - no problem.

Syndicate sites

I subscribe to a number of syndicate sites and I also subscribe to the contributing sites. I could unsubscribe these individual sites, but I often find the individual subscriptions useful. Anyway, they are really just nuisance value, for if I’ve read the posts from one subscription it’s easy to mark as read on the other.

So what do I do? Develop some whiz routine for culling subscriptions? Ignore the counter on the RSS Reader and continue reading as normal?

What do you do to keep the subscriptions in your RSS under wraps?

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes

Monday, June 22, 2009

Language, Thinking and Creativity

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Language and Thinking - artist ken allan
A series of posts has recently nudged my interest in language and thinking. George Siemens, in his short post Tool making and language, drew our attention to Edmund Blair Bolles' post, The Idea of Language.

In it, Bolles posited that “the ingredients of speaking and toolmaking are similar. Both require a brain capable of complex imitation and a community that wants to share information. Toolmaking also requires hands capable of shaping tools, while speech requires a throat capable of vocalization.”

Different than chimps

Like the capability of making tools, the ability to use speech is an acquisition most humans own from birth. Peter Turney, in his post Meditation, Language, and Evolution, broaches the idea that meditation “seems to involve stopping or altering the internal monologue that usually fills our consciousness.” He posits that “this constant flow of language, is the main thing that distinguishes us from our nearest living relatives, the chimps.”

Peter thinks of the “human mind metaphorically as a chimp mind with language processing bolted on top.” But in the evolutionary history of humans, there must have been a time when language was a lesser part of our thinking and communicating. Even without language, our ancestors still had to think.

In order to think about complicated or complex ideas, humans today find a need to have the vocabulary of these in order to think about them and relate to one another.
I believe that our ancestors must have been experts at thinking abstractly. They would not have had a ready vocabulary to help them with their thinking.

Think vocab

Higher order thinking skills need vocabulary. But our ancestors, at the evolutionary stage I refer to, would not have had that vocabulary, nor even perhaps the language ability, but they still had to think.

Trying to think without vocabulary is difficult to do. But in a creative artistic pursuit, such as in music, or fine art, or even in poetry when thinking on the lines of J K Baxter’s matrix of a poem – not the words and form
the mind thinks abstractly and is facile in that mode. Language gets in the way of this facile thinking.

Many who are adept at this mode of thinking simply curtail the use of vocabulary. What Peter refers to as ‘language processing’ is simply shut down.
He sees advantages to "moderating the language layer" and suggests that "humans are in the middle of an ongoing evolutionary process; that language has not yet been fully integrated with our chimp cores."

Language may obstruct

I believe that language can get in the way of some modes of abstract thinking. Even the most highly skilled in the use of language have complained about the words getting in the way of what they wanted to express. William Wordsworth did and many poets have met this same impediment. Chicken-and-eggish though it may seem, it is understandable if you ascribe to the idea that words and language actually limit, rather than extend, some if not all forms of creative thinking.

Music extemporisation is a mode of thinking I’m familiar with. It is not unlike meditating. It has a similar calming and relaxing effect that is also prolonged, bringing about a feeling of at-one-ness most often met in playing jazz music, a genre based on extemporisation.

It’s curious that musicians who are site-readers and who are skilled in the notations and language of music, can often find it inordinately difficult to extemporise. I cite an example of this in Yehudi Menuhin, who had to admit that he could not improvise while he was dueting with Stephane Grappelli. That mode of thinking was beyond him, despite his undoubted superb skill with the violin.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Winter Solstice

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allDigital Dancers - Graffiti artist ken allanToday is the shortest day.
Despite the post date, the time of publishing is Sunday 21 June 2009, New Zealand.

This time of year, some creatures hibernate. Many travel to the equator. Others consume what they’d hoarded in time of abundance. The last reserves begin to fade, like dying embers in a cooling fireplace.

My thoughts move to a phase of reflection. Hibernation becomes more understandable. Resourcefulness is a priority.

My skin puckers in a light wind. I begin to look out warm thoughts with the thick socks and woolly singlets.

Memories of spring mature with age. I look for jonquils in the scrub.
A few nod for me to accept their friendly arrival and shake out their piquant scent.

I write haiku, and chide myself for still thinking of winter.

The chill that's winter

blows a hole in the wood-pile
I stacked in summer.

Ah! Summer! Do you think the birds will come when it’s here?
They’re silent now. Will the sweet blackbird sing for us again?
Will grey warblers warble at noon? Will fantails twitter at sunset?

Radiating possibility. That’s it.
Perish a notion of winter.
Cherish warm thought till spring.

Of all the pleasure gardens bring,

The handsome pied Red Admiral
Must touch the zenith of the spring
With form and grace ephemeral;

To see these patterned wings full spread
In all but a fleeting glance,
Fine lace veil in feathered thread,
Enraptured eyes in trance

Will follow with a languid gaze
The soft hypnotic flutter,
Through the soporific haze,

Near honey scented bower,
Gliding with a liquid ease
Above the blood-red wallflower.

Countdown. Nearly two months to go.


( 2 ) < - related post

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why Do I Read Blog Posts?

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allWhy Do I Read Blog Posts?
I discovered why I read blog posts this evening. I’d been sifting through several hundred posts that I’d managed to stack up on my RSS reader.

I was aimlessly skimming, culling, skim-diving, reading, passing and bookmarking, when I found that the main reason I read posts is really nothing to do with networking, nothing about blog tagging and in no way connected with a desire to participate.

In fact, for a nanosecond, I actually felt a teenzy-weenzy twinge of guilt that maybe, just maybe, I’d started lurking again – back to how I was when I wasn’t a blogger. Like I used to be when I read the web2.0 like it was web1.0.

I thought, no, I’m not lurking if I’m not stimulated to post a comment.

I thought, hey, does that mean that the post I’m reading isn’t engaging?

Well, of course it’s engaging, for I was totally absorbed in its content and had been for several minutes!

I proved I wasn’t lurking when I came to the next blog post in my RSS.
I immediately dashed in a comment. And in an instant I felt this whelm of relief. No. I hadn’t lapsed into lurking after all.


Of course I’d been lurking! To lurk is to be a passive observer - inert - non-participatory - a legitimate peripheral participant. Ah! Legitimate!
It doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion. And it certainly doesn’t mean that my mind is so befuddled that I don’t want to participate.

It just simply means that I found the information on the site so fascinating, so absorbingly interesting that I didn’t want to be interrupted by a selfish, opinionated, egotistical act of writing a comment!

I wanted to think.

As it happens, the particular site I'd been reading wasn’t a blog after all, at least, not the sort of site that I'd call a blog, for I couldn’t have left a comment even if I’d tried to.

See if I care.

Why do you read blog posts?

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Can Writers Learn From Science?

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Can Writers Learn from Science?When I first started writing blog posts, I became almost fanatically interested in what other bloggers had to say about writing.

My enthusiasm for this hasn’t changed. But with the passing of a year, I’ve had time to reflect on the advice I’ve met and what it means to me.

I’m a Science teacher. Right? Science teachers are expected to know things and be able to teach them to others. When it comes to writing, the dogma that is Science or perceived to be, simply doesn’t work, or so I’ve been told.

Coming over authoritatively doesn’t necessarily hit the spot. It can give the impression that the writer is a know-it-all and turn the reader off.

Asking the question

In Virginia Yonkers’ recent post, Do You Hoard Knowledge?, she rightly identifies the wealth of ‘hoarded’ knowledge and opinion that people possess. She suggests that blogging is an avenue where this precious knowledge can be shared. But how does a blogger go about writing posts to pass on knowledge and opinion to others without emerging as a know-it-all? Michele Martin writes about avoiding the know-it-all image when encouraging participation:

I've been running an informal experiment here for the past few months, trying to see which blog posts generate the most comments. Hands-down they are the posts where I ask a lot of questions and where I give incomplete answers on topics that interest me. I think this works for two reasons.

First, no one is attracted to a know-it-all. Oh, we may want to bookmark their stuff, but that doesn't mean we want to talk to them.

I also think it's because by asking questions and not having all the answers, we leave space for comments to happen. As a reader, it feels like there's more that could be said on the topic, so I'm more inclined to comment. Questions are the lifeblood of conversation. They need to be a regular part of posts.

While I feel that there may be other factors that contribute to the popularity distribution of Michele’s posts, she has a point. Asking questions around and about the topic of a post is not what one expects from the know-it-all who wrote it. Instead of saying, “I’m a know-it-all,” it says, “I’m not sure. I don’t know. Can you help?” What can be more engaging than that?

How can a blogger tell what they know by asking questions? One way is by suggesting their current knowledge on a theme or topic, then seeking support for this in a question. But the vocabulary that writers use in stating what they think is also important to conveying to the reader that they are not know-it-alls.

Getting the words right

In matters of opinion, gambits like “I think that . . .”, “I feel that . . . ”
or “I believe that . . . ” are more likely to engage a reader than simply stating that it is so. Similarly, when it comes to inferences or conclusions, terms like ‘suggest’, ‘imply’ and ‘may be’ couch a willingness to admit that other deductions may be possible and valid.

While many scientists don’t always practice this way of expression, they would be hard pushed these days to claim they were scientists by refuting the principle that alternatives are possible. Conveying this duality in what they write suggests to the reader that they’re admitting they don’t know it all.

It also has the potential to imply that perhaps the reader may help with this if they know something the writer does not.

Upholding the opinion of others

Whenever a writer feels strongly about a subject, it may be more persuasive to quote someone else who holds the same or similar opinion. The implication is that the view of the writer can be validated through the words and opinion of another. It may save the writer from coming over as a know-it-all.

Giving the opinion of another as a suggested way of thinking also deflects the reader’s attention from an otherwise opinionated writer. Here, in a brief excerpt from A Short History of Nearly Everything,
Bill Bryson
puts this to use:

Nearly everyone, including the authors of some popular books on oceanography, assumes that the human body could crumple under the immense pressures of the deep ocean. In fact, this appears not to be the case. Because we are made largely of water ourselves, and water is ‘virtually incompressible’, in the words of Francis Ashcroft of Oxford University, ‘the body remains at the same pressure as the surrounding water, and is not crushed at depth.’ It is the gasses inside your body, particularly in the lungs, that cause the trouble.

Bryson deflects the decisiveness of his opening words, “Nearly everyone”, by his careful use of the word ‘appears’ and cleverly adds persuasive confirmation by quoting a university authority. Indeed, a writer may not necessarily need to state his or her opinion when using this strategy - one that’s used by some of the best journalists.

Writers can endorse their own opinion by quoting the opinion of others, providing appropriate references or links for follow-up by the reader.

Why Science?

The scientific method claims the practice of full disclosure. It suggests that it’s open for anyone to participate by attempting to repeat the observations or experiments made by whoever is doing the reporting. Through this undertaking, a scientist not only is fair to others but also acknowledges that there may be some possibility that what was found could be and should be challenged by others.

Authoritative dogma that does not invite this overt process is well known to stymie opinion and has done for hundreds of years in some instances. The writer who fosters openness by adopting a voice that says ‘your opinion is respected - what do you think of mine?’ presents a win–win option to the reader and encourages engagement.

Your opinion is your opinion, your perception is your perception – do not confuse them with "facts" or "truth". Wars have been fought and millions have been killed because of the inability of men to understand the idea that EVERYBODY has a different viewpoint.

A Green Pen Society contribution

( 3 ) << - related posts - >> ( 1 )

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Friday, June 12, 2009

Why are tehse wdors esay to raed?

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryonePenrose triangle
I was introduced to a fascinating phenomenon in 2002. Someone had pinned a note on the staff notice-board. My first thought on reading it was taht the tpysit had faleid to use the slelpckehcer. But the wolhe dumconet was wtirten lkie tihs.

It went on to explain that most people could read and make sense of writing, despite
jemubld ltertes in wrdos. As long as the frsit and lsat letter of each word did not sfiht their position, trehe was litlte preblom.

Text of this sort was not new to me. I was familiar with the writing of dyslexic students who were adept at constructing words, phrases and sentences like those shown here.

Jumbled-letter word messages caused a swell of activity in emails and on blogs at that time. Recognition
was facile for jumbled-words that were correctly positioned in text. More so than the cognitive gymnastics needed to make sense of text where the positions of correctly spelt words were jumbled in the same sentence.

The phrase, ‘too sense to muddled any make’, may demonstrate this.


Speculation arose as to why most readers found it easy to make sense of jumbled-word texts. There then followed a flurry of research as academics looked into the psychology of the phenomenon. The term ‘jumbled-word effect’ was introduced.

One of the initial proposals was that the first and last letters were important to the recognition of words. Soon it was revealed that the first and last letters were not especially the ones used when recognising and reading jumbled-words in text. Further to this, particular words with their interior letters muddled in special ways were identified as being difficult to decipher.

When carefully disarranged words are chosen it is possible to construct sentences that are arduous to understand, as in the example:

A dootcr aimttded magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur.

More recent postings on blogs have perpetuated the ongoing debate about the phenomenon.

Other languages

Interest in the psychology of reading was stimulated by these curious observations, so much so that programs were created to jumble the interiors of words in texts, expressly for the purpose of creating material for use in further research. As well, investigations were conducted on possible occurrences of the phenomenon in other written languages.

Some findings are posted by Matt David of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. It seems that vowels, and their juxtaposition to consonants within the jumble, have some bearing on the readability of words. C
ompared to other languages, significantly fewer vowels than consonants are involved in the makeup of words in the Hebrew language.

Apparently Hebrew writing is rendered quite unreadable when the interior letters of its words are scrambled. This suggests that the presence of vowels and their position in the jumble of letters may indeed have some role in affecting ease of recognition of jumbled-words.

Ordered letter pairs

At the University of Maryland, Jonathan Grainger and Carol Whitney drew on the work of earlier researchers. They proposed that recognition of jumbled-words was sustained by what they referred to as ‘ordered letter pairs’ or ‘open bigrams’. The mind seems to latch on to particular letter combinations when recognising a jumbled-word.

A less academic perspective by The Escapist claims that the context of a word in text is more likely to assist its recognition than does the arrangement of the letters that make it up.

This is a plausible idea if the sentence or phrase,
rather than the single word, is considered as the unit of meaning. How often has a typo, where letters of a word are accidentally jumbled, escaped the eye of even the most scrupulous proof reader, by virtue of the meaning of the misspelt word being subsumed in the rest of the text?

Perhaps the mind uses a range of indicators in attempting to interpret meaning from jumbled-words in texts.

Who kwons?

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Brief Look at Zone of Proximal Development

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
complexity and the brain
Lev Vygotsky (1896 -1934) was a pioneer psychologist who lived in Moscow. I have great respect for his studies and found his Mind And Society an absorbing read. One of the precious ideas he brought to us is what he called the Zone Of Proximal Development. I was reminded of this recently when reading Laurie Bartel’s post, Lev Vygotsky & ZPD, where she called for elaboration or clarification of ZPD.

Vygotsky had an interest in scaffolding, particularly in relation to learner development in vocabulary and language. He was fascinated with ways of determining the state of development in the young learner. He drew the distinction between what he referred to as ‘age level of development’ and the ‘developmental process’ in relation to ‘learning capabilities’.

Closer analysis

Vygotsky’s studies in this field suggest he firmly believed there was more to potential development in the learner than just what could be judged by observing what he called the learner’s actual development level. This is what can be determined presumably through analysis over a range of tests and other related observational parameters.

His argument was that what the young learner can do with the assistance of others is a better indicator of mental development than what she can do alone. He made the unambiguous distinction between the assessable accomplishment of the learner when unaided and the observable performance of the learner when given assistance. His pithy summary is
The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state.
Much of Vygotsky’s ideas were tempered by existing theory of the time and furthered by his insightful hypotheses based on his own observations. R G Tharp and R Gallimore proposed an expansion of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development that involved further stages including the assistance that could be provided by the learner herself.

While Vygotsky spoke of developmental stages in the learner, he also posited that development is too complex to be defined by stages that disperse and become diffuse as the learner develops. As a result of this diffusion, previously identifiable stages can no longer be recognised in the learner.

Developmental Stages
Rather than ‘development’ laying down a series of identifiable zones, as shown above, learning is more a broad frontier that advances progressively. The zone of proximal development at the periphery of the actual development level has a depth according to the level of potential development.

Zone of Proximal Development
“What is in the zone of proximal development today will be the actual developmental level tomorrow”.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Where My Time Is Spent

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneClock face on The Big Question
This month’s Big Question on The Learning Circuits Blog is
where is your time spent?” It paraphrases this in a series of more specific questions that saved me time in thinking up sub-headings for the sections in this post.

Where do I spend my time?

I think a more important question here is ‘when and how do I spend my time?' However, here’s the 'where', per day, based on normal weekday activities averaged over a 7 day period, not including holidays:

Chart of time spent
As you can see, I have a 28+ hour day. Short of pitching the world off its orbital path to accommodate all this, obviously there has to be some overlap. Indeed, to be realistic, this is what I find – not multi-tasking
but the ‘where’ tends to dictate this more than the ‘when and how’. When and how I spend my time is another matter.

How do I find time for all the relatively newer things
like reading blogs, twitter, social networks, etc?

In 2001, I discovered some useful things about myself. I learned more about when the best time is for me to think and reflect. I discovered that the early hours of the day was a good time to reflect on the day yet to come, and do some planning for that. The best and most convenient time for this is when travelling to work by bus.

For me this – together with its more relaxed counterpart, that of travelling home on the bus – provides an efficient use of otherwise wasted time. So it does two things. It gets me to and from work. It also helps me with the efficient use of my time at work and at home.

I might plan a strategy for tackling a ticklish problem at work to do with my learning group, for instance. Or I might have a bright idea for a blog post and have the time to think through different ways that it could be done. In fact, most of my initial thinking is done on the bus or at times like that where I've no option but to be there.

Good planning, of course, has to be flexible. When things don’t go to plan, a new plan must be drafted or the old one reshaped. Here’s when contingencies can also be mulled over while still in the planning stages – another efficiency trick. That way, not so much time has to be spent rethinking the one-and-only, platinum-plated, carbon-nano-tube-reinforced plan.

What am I doing less of today
than I was 3-5 years ago?

I don’t write so many letters. I spend more time writing equivalent emails and social networking to cover the same reasons for writing letters. With my older daughter, Hannah, at university and living in another city, I now spend time communicating with her through txting and Facebook and on the telephone.

This weekend, for instance, I took some photographs of my youngest daughter, Catriona, with my Sony digital. She was all set to be off to a Saturday night fancy dress party. I just had to catch a few pix of her.

Today (Sunday) I spent some time trimming the photographs and uploading them to Flickr and Facebook while chatting with Hannah online. This is one of the overlaps, in this case an overlap of family time spent with social networking and using digital technology.

Do I have less of a life with
all of these new things?

Most certainly and categorically not. In 2007 and at the age of 60, I had a hip joint replaced. That was in August. In October, my family whisked me off to Auckland to spend a weekend with them. I’d got rid of my sticks by that time and was able to hold a digital camera steadily enough to nearly fill 2 Gb of upload.

When I got home on the Sunday night I uploaded the digital pix to Facebook and used these in communication with family overseas.

Similarly in December that same year, when I was still inebriated with my new mobility, I took Catriona across the harbour on a ferry to explore Matiu-Somes Island. Once again, the digitals provided an incentive to blend relaxation with family and a bit of web2.0 technology.

The joy of the immediacy in using today’s technologies – my chat with Hannah while uploading pictures taken the night before – the rapid return to communicate pix taken on holiday immediately with family overseas – the fun of previewing pix that were taken on Matiu-Somes Island while returning on the ferry – do not detract from life.

At the NetSafe Conference July 2008 I stepped out to the shore of Lake Wakatipu at morning tea. I had my camera in my pocket and I captured a scene that has brought back memories of the short time spent at the lakeside. The playback is on Facebook and has been appreciated by family and friends alike.

But there are many moments of tranquillity that I have spent with others or in solitude without the accompaniment of technology - I am guilty of this. In those times I either leave the technology (digital cam – mobile phone) at home or in my pocket, switched off. I make the choice.

Haere rā – Farewell

A Little (Random) Learning

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneWordle blimp
Fellow blogging companion and friend, Paul C of quoteflections,
gave us the challenge:
For the month of June could anyone so inclined go on an interesting personal journey for good quotations and include some reflections?
Here’s my June contribution.

Suppose you were asked to pick 50 street numbers at random from your local telephone directory. You might have some fun working out a method of selecting them so that, as near as possible, your list showed a chance selection of numbers.

What if you were then asked to sort them by first digit, called the leading digit. You might put all numbers beginning with 1 at top of the list, such as 14, 105, 138, etc. The next set might then be 27, 223, 2901 and so on. Since these were selected in truly random fashion, and given that there are nine possible categories (1 to 9) you might be forgiven for thinking that the pattern of numbers in your list may look something like this:

11, 14, 19, 103, 198, 1613
21, 23, 24, 27, 213, 259,
3, 30, 33, 35, 37, 38, 39, 359
4, 40, 43, 49, 490
5, 50, 54, 57, 57, 502
6, 61, 61, 62, 65, 66
7, 7, 70, 71, 704
82, 85, 836, 840
90, 91, 93, 913, 962

As you can see, the number of numerals in each line is roughly what you might expect, of about 6 in each, give or take to odd one or two allowing for some unevenness due to the smallness of the sample.
It’s the sort of distribution you'd get from a random number generator.

Trial by experiment

You can conduct your own similar experiment. Take today’s newspaper for instance. Scan through the newspaper gathering all the numbers in the text on each page – the financial pages are good for this.

Starting from the left of each number, ignoring the sign, decimal point and any zeros, the first digit you come across is the leading digit. There are 9 possible leading digits. It seems reasonable to expect that 1/9 (or 11.11%) of all numbers would have 1 as the leading digit. However, this is not what’s found in practice.

Here’s what I got when I made a random selection of 50 street numbers from the Wellington White Pages telephone directory:

10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 15, 18, 19, 103, 113, 119, 126, 128, 133, 136, 137, 198, 1613
21, 21, 23, 24, 27, 213, 259,
3, 30, 33, 36, 37, 359
4, 43, 49, 490
5, 50, 54, 502
6, 61, 66
7, 7, 70
82, 85, 840
91, 93

Not exactly what you might predict using the assumption that there would be an equal number of numerals in each category. It’s a fascinating observation that this distribution is common to an infinite number of possible random selections, measurements and totals from collectable data.

A universal law

It is the same sort of distribution that’s found when lengths, in millimetres, of fish are recorded from random samplings, the same scattering that occurs when pebbles are picked
haphazardly from a beach and weighed in grams, and the same pattern that's obtained when the brightness of stars is measured from a random selection in the night sky. Contrary to what you might expect, the leading digits are not evenly distributed in any samples like these.

True random number generators, however, do not produce distributions like this. Herein lies the usefulness of what’s known as Benford’s Law in checking the authenticity of data, such as collected numerical research findings, data measurements where true random sampling is the expected feed, accumulated travel expenses or income tax returns.

Benford’s Law has become a universal tool for fraud detection when checking the genuineness of financial or related data.

How does it work?

Why are the distributions not even as you might expect? One, much simplified way of gaining an understanding of this is in recognising how number distributions occur in the first place. Here’s my simple model for correlating the leading digits of created numbers with their frequency of occurrence.

Let’s suppose that I invested a dollar in a company that returned me a monthly 10% on my investment. I decide to reinvest this return with the company when the total of investment returns and the sum invested reaches whole dollar amounts. So the expected value of my investment would increase by an integral dollar amount each time it’s reinvested: $1.00, $2.00, $3.00 etc.

I keep monthly notes on the total value of my investment. It takes ten months for my original dollar to earn sufficient for the total amount to have reached a reinvestment value of $2. During this time, however, my notebook shows the following monthly value totals:

$1.00, $1.10, $1.20, $1.30, $1.40, $1.50, $1.60, $1.70, $1.80, $1.90

When my notebook shows a value of $2.00, the total amount is reinvested. My notebook then shows these monthly value totals:

$2.00, $2.20, $2.40, $2.60, $2.80

The next set of monthly records in my notebook looks like this:

$3.00, $3.30, $3.60, $3.90

And the next monthly set like this:

$4.00, $4.40, $4.80

At $5.00 my monthly records are:

$5.00, $5.50

And so on. You can see that the pattern of numbers recorded in my notebook is not unlike what’s expected by Benford’s Law. The probabilities of the occurrence of the leading digits are shown in the chart:

Benford's Law Distribution Chart
Benford’s Law has a mathematical side to it, based on sound probability principles outlined in Wikipedia. If you are mathematically inclined and have the time, you may like to check it out.

But the message to anyone who may think they know how to fiddle the books using bogus data from a random number generator or the like is summarised in the quotation:

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope

A Green Pen Society Contribution

( 3 ) ( 2 ) << - related posts

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More Crystal Ball Gazing

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allCrystal BallSaid to be a landmark in computer entertainment, the creation of
Peter Molyneux, Milo, is a young boy who enjoys football, drawing and playing around his fish pond.

Molyneux's ingenuity uses Microsoft's new full-body controller for
Xbox 360, in Project Natal.

Check out the video:

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Proficiency and Deliberative Practice

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you allExpert under a magnifying glass
I find it intriguing how blogging brings opportunities to think and learn but not always in an expected way. There is a collegiality that impinges on my thinking, how I learn and what I do.

While a lot of it is to do with blogging, it certainly isn’t limited to that practice. I was reminded of this diversity on receipt of a reply to an email, from my blogger colleague and friend, Tony Karrer, who aptly moved from the peripheral to the relevant in saying:
"On a different note - any thoughts on how deliberative practice relates to becoming something less than an expert. It seems like it should be applicable to all levels of achievement, but everything I'm reading is the study of becoming an expert. Is that just aspirational, or is deliberative practice also studied for quick attainment of proficiency?"
I assume that by ‘something less than an expert’, Tony means the level of competency that is needed by someone to perform a particular task
properly – he uses the word ‘proficiency’.

While I tend to agree with Tony that the emphasis in many studies to do with learning / training / attaining proficiency seems to be prescriptive towards becoming an expert, I wonder if it is the true intent of these studies.

I suspect that the widespread and imprecise use of the word ‘expert’ has caused some erosion of its original meaning. Being highly proficient in tasks that are effected in doing a job properly does not mean being an expert. Nor does it necessarily have to lead to attaining that level of expertise. It’s all according to where the benchmarks lie for ‘proficient’ and for ‘expert’.

Expertise is harder to achieve

With the advancement of technology and associated practices, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for expertise to reach expert level. The matter of change, which can arrive every 6 months to a year, or even more frequently in technology, will limit the efficiency of any aspiring expert in reaching true expert level.

Changes in technology bring changes in business procedures. So the ‘expert’ is more likely to become someone who keeps pace with the latest updates rather than someone who, as in the past, truly reaches an expert level with knowledge of, application of and proficiency in the associated skills to do with these tasks. My impression is that there are fewer true experts in the workplace today than there were even 10 years ago.

Collateral damage

Printed manuals, or online help, designed to provide knowledge and give pointers on procedural skills cannot keep pace with these changes, so it becomes even more difficult for the aspiring ‘expert’ to reach a desired level of achievement. What come as a result of this are beliefs associated with the cheapened worth of any textual instruction, any information held in text in fact, be it printed or digitally accessible on a screen – part of the collateral damage that accompanies change.

Confidence and assertiveness, when together, are sometimes mistaken for competence and even higher levels of expertise. Experienced classroom teachers are familiar with the vagaries of confidence and assertiveness of young learners when it comes to acquiring expertise. The same unfortunate combination can often lead to lesser 'experts' among those who should have reached higher levels of achievement.

Expert cover up

But what is even more unfortunate is that confidence and assertiveness are often developed as a cover for lack of expertise. It’s when the so-called expert has more confidence and assertiveness than expertise that incompetence tends to persist, and may even be fostered in the workplace.

However, quick attainment of proficiency is not fictitious. There are a number of strategies that can be used to permit this to happen. They're not new and they’re not rocket science:
  • identify the required base-knowledge/skills, foster strategies for these to be recognised as key, and provide avenues for their appropriate acquisition and practice

  • cull redundant and/or recursive procedures or procedural loops in workplace routines

  • provide incentive for revisiting and refining/updating key knowledge/skills/procedures (used to be called ‘training’) to clarify current understanding

  • foster a culture where its acceptable to ask questions to do with key knowledge/skills/procedures - in other words, it's OK not to be an expert.
Ka kite anō – Catch ya later

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Toy, a Puzzle, a Model, or a Cat

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneSchrödinger's Cat & The Necker Cube
Though it has enjoyed some use as a model in teaching Science, its potential for use in other disciplines lies near the core of cognition, recognition, learning, discovery, deduction and development, not the least of which is development of the imagination.

Yet in education, the ‘black box’ experiment is often dismissed as a curiosity - an artefact of philosophy, relegated sooner or later to the too hard pile, while we get on with 'proper' learning.

The ‘black box’ experiment appeals to all ages. It can be used as a toy, a puzzle, a model or a teaching resource. Here's how it works:

  • One or more objects are sealed in a box easily held in the hand,

  • the box contents cannot be seen and are unknown to the experimenter who deduces their structures by observation,

  • the box remains sealed at all times.

A collaboration tool

With the appropriate guidance, the 'black box' experiment can be used in the study of how to work as a team. Here the collective knowledge, experience and skill of each participant have the opportunity to be put to collaborative use.

One approach to this is to allow each participant to handle the box for a fixed period of time, while making observations and being observed by others in the group. Strategies for collating and considering what’s been found can be presented at appropriate points in the study, or developed according to individual or team initiative.

At no point during or after any activity is there a need to open the box. The learning goal is nothing to do with what’s inside the box. The whole point of the pursuit is unambiguously about what is unknown. It’s about how notion and ideas formed during observations can be gathered and used in developing strategies to explain what’s observed.

Devising experiments to confirm or refute belief in first formed ideas is a development of that approach. They embody recognition of the need for further experiments to find out more.

Classical black box stuff

A classical example of how the 'black box' idea was put to use is the series of developments that led to the present day vision of the structure of atoms. While atoms and their structure are now often taken for granted, they were considered ‘black boxes’ at the beginning of last (20
th) century. In those days, no one knew what they contained.

In 1904, J J Thompson proposed the ‘plum pudding’ model for atoms. Thompson is accredited with the discovery of the negatively charged electron. His observations of the behaviour of matter under special circumstances led him to think that the electron was a component of atoms.

Thompson’s first formed notion of atoms was of negatively charged plums (electrons) floating around in balls of positively charged pudding. All of his deduction could be described as based on his observations made during a series of many ‘black box’ experiments.

Rutherford's lithium atomLess than a decade later, Ernest Rutherford conducted a famous ‘black box’ experiment when he interpreted observations which suggested that atoms were not like plum puddings at all. His famous gold leaf experiment suggested strongly that, far from being solid like pudding, atoms have a huge amount of empty space within them, with tiny but heavy positive centres.

Electrons occupy only a small part of that empty space

Each time new things are learnt about the structure of atoms, they are the result of ‘black box’ type experiments. In 2009 we have different ideas of atoms than Rutherford’s models, but those ideas are almost certain to be quite different from the vision Science will have of atoms in the year 2109.

Life in a black box

Model of molecular dna - Courtesy NASAAn amazing series of ‘black box’ experiments was performed in the middle of last century by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin. They used, among other observations, the intricate, complex data from
X-ray crystallography studies.

These studies involved observing and interpreting thousands of photographs taken when X-rays are scattered by strands of dna.

The elucidation of the structure of dna was an outstanding demonstration of analytical Chemistry, all of which required ‘black box’ observing, experimenting and deduction.

Cynefin and other pursuits

A model most recently developed to describe problems, situations and systems was invented and refined by David Snowden. It has very recently been given an airing on several blogs I follow, notably Tom Haskins’ and Harold Jarche’s.

Wikipedia describes Cynefin as drawing on “research into complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, Anthropology and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology. It 'explores the relationship between man, experience and context’ and proposes new approaches to communication, decision-making, policy-making and knowledge management in complex social environments.”

Given that no one really knows precisely how human communities behave and function, much of this understanding was brought together by sophisticated ‘black box’ observation and study. It began as an approach to knowledge management and has developed beyond that, in various stages, to a study of international relationships.

Car maintenance

Have you ever taken your car to the service depot when it developed a mechanical fault? Though such faults are often apparent, their remedies are not always easily identified. Sometimes even the trained mechanic can be puzzled as to what’s wrong.

A few perfunctory diagnostics might be applied. Failing any useful information from these, a closer look at the symptoms may be made. By a process of elimination, it may be possible to identify, if not the problem, at least where the problem could lie. This approach is really following a series of ‘black box’ experiments.

Rediscovery and understanding

In recent posts on Sue Waters’ and Larry Ferlazzo’s blogs the function and behaviour of PostRank in rating blog posts have been discussed intricately. I was only too happy to provide Sue with some information and analysis data I’d gathered from my own posts. The ideas unfolding in these discussions are results of a series of ‘black box’ experiments.

I’ve no doubt that someone somewhere will know the answers to many of the questions Sue and I have asked on how these applications work. In the absence of explicit information on function, bloggers frequently utilise the ‘black box’ approach to solve problems collaboratively and to find out how things work. Incidentally, it was while thinking about Sue’s admirable pursuit of cogent answers to practical questions that the idea for this post came to mind.

And the cat

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger rationalised one of the most celebrated paradoxes in quantum theory in a description using the closed box idea specifically applied to observation. Of course, it is not possible to tell what is really happening inside Schrödinger’s closed box.

The strange nature of quantum mechanics is that opening the box doesn’t throw any light on the matter. Paradoxical? I’ll say! What it does is to seal the fate of the poor cat.

Ngā mihi nui – Best wishes