I totally thought I posted this several days ago, but when I just logged into my blog to write another blog posting, I first discovered my blog was completely down (thanks, Kalev, for fixing it for me super fast!) and then discovered that I had not, in fact, hit “publish”. So here it is – it’s very, very long and probably no one other than me actually cares about any of this!
And speaking of combining a bunch of stuff that I’d usually write as separate blog postings into one posting, I’ve read a bunch of books for far this year. And by “bunch” I mean seven, two of which I have already blogged about. Here’s my summary of the other five.
Be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Good People by Hannah Kent
I read this book for my book club and I really, really liked it. It’s set in Ireland in the 1820s and is centred on Nora, a woman who is caring for a young grandson (who has severe disabilities) after her daughter died and then right in the start of the book, her husband dies too. She believes that her real grandson has been taking away by fairies (she also believes that fairies were involved in her daughter’s death). So the book follows along as she struggles to deal with all this and I found that I had to get quite far into the book before I could tell if this was meant to be set in the real world (i.e., one in which people had a belief in the existence of fairies) or a world in which fairies actually existed. The characters clearly believed that fairies existed, affecting all sorts of things in their life – like whether the cows gave milk or miscarriages happened or people died or children were afflicted with mental and physical disabilities. It was so believable that I kept thinking – well, this is fiction. Maybe fairies really did steal her grandson! (Spoiler alert: they didn’t). This book was really well written and the story held my attention all the way through. I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end up. I’d definitely recommend this book if you are looking for some good fiction.
Brain Rules by John Medina
When I was in Washington last year, one of the keynote speakers at the conference I was at was John Medina. His presentation was captivating and partway through the talk, he explained why. His talk was about how to use what neuroscientists know about the brain to be better teachers – instead of fighting against how the brain works, why not work with it? And he’d been using the techniques that he was talking about to keep our attention and to help us remember the stuff he’d been talking about!
The talk really stuck with me – anyone who had the misfortune of seeing me in the week or so following that event got to hear in great detail all the stuff that I’d learn1. I spoke to the president of the American Evaluation Association (the association whose conference I was at) a bit later in the conference and commented to her on what a fabulous keynote speaker he was and she told me that she’d read John’s book and in addition to getting her to invite him as the keynote, it had made her rewrite all of her lectures for her classes and that I really should read his book. And so I did!
The book is called Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (though I’d say it mostly focuses on the school part of that).2. There were so many fascinating things that I learned from this book – like how memories aren’t really consolidated until about a decade after the event you are remembering, so for 10 years you are just remembering it, and re-remembering it, and remembering the memory of the last time you remembered it – no wonder two people can have different memories of the same event! Another interesting tidbit was that people can pay attention for about 10 minutes at a time before their interest wanes, so as a teacher you need to do something every 10 minutes to catch your students’ attention. Fortunately, he had some tips on ways to catch people’s attention (which I have previously blogged about after I saw his keynote talk in Washington).
I made a bunch of notes about other cool things I learned in this book:
- Exercise increases blood flow not just to your muscles, but throughout your body – including to your brain. This is one of the reasons that exercise is good for brain function. Another: it also stimulates the production of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor 9BDNR), which basically acts like fertilizer for your brain!
- “Our evolutionary ancestors were used to walking up to 12 miles per day. This means our brains were supported for most of our evolutionary history by Olympic-caliber bodies”. That’s 19 km – or almost a half marathon every day! So sitting for hours on end in a classroom or in a cubicle is definitely not in keeping with what our brains evolved for!
- Brains of wild animals are 15-30% larger than those of their domestic counterparts (since the wild animals have to constantly be learning, their brains grow and adapt).
- Brains of violinists are weird – the area of their brains that controls their left hand (which does all the complex movements) are super-sized with lots of complex associations, but the area that controls their right hand (which holds the bow), is tiny and much less complex.
- Babies are born with about the same number of neuronal connections that adults have, but that number doubles to triples by the time they are 3 years old, and then the brain “prunes” a bunch of those connections so that by the time they are about 8 years old, they are back to the same number of connections as an adult has. And then at puberty the whole thing happens again and then it settles down again as they approach adulthood.
- “Until five or six years ago3, the prevailing notion was that we were born with all the brain cells we were ever going to get and they steadily eroded in a depressing journey through adulthood to old age. We do lose synaptic connections with age […] but the adult brain also continues creating neurons within the regionally normally involved in learning.”
- Different regions develop at different rates in different people – so there’s really no point comparing one kid to another to see if they are “ahead” or “behind” – everyone is just different. For example, “about 10 percent of students do not have brains sufficiently wired to read at the age at which we expect them to read.”
- People perceive meaning before details – so when planning presentations, you have to catch their attention with something meaningful before springing a bunch of facts on them. We just can’t take in the random facts – we need a reason to care about them first.
- People can’t actually mutlitask: “we are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously”. When we think we are multi-tasking, we are really just shifting our attention from one thing to another thing, over and over again.
- Declarative memory is a memory that you can “declare” like “the sky is blue” and it involves four steps: encoding, storage, retrieval, and forgetting.
- We forget about 90% of what we learn in a class within 30 days, most of that within the first few HOURS after class.
- Our ability to recall something is better if we try to recall it under similar conditions to when we learned it (i.e., when we encoded it). For example, deep sea divers who heard 40 random words while floating in the water could remember them better when floating in the water compared to if they tried to remember them on dry land (and vice versa for those who heard the words on dry land). Similarly, if you learn something while high on marijuana or while sad, you’ll remember if better while high or sad, respectively.
- Memories aren’t stored in a single place in your brain – bits of a given memory are scattered all over the place – and they are “stored in the same places that were initially recruited to perceive the learning event”. And the “more brain structures recruited […] at the moment of learning the easier it is to gain access to the information” later. Having an understanding of “meaning” can help us recruit more regions.
- “Quality of encoding” = ways that one can later access a memory – and the more you have, the easier it is to access that information later. One of the most important is meaning – if you want to be able to remember something later, you should try to understand what it means (and if you are trying to teach, make sure students understand the meaning of the concept – one great way to do that is to use relevant real-world examples “constantly peppering the main learning points with meaningful experiences”4.)
- When we remember something, we retrieve it from our long-term memory storage into our working memory and it acts as if it were a new memory and we have to reprocess them – every time we retrieve that memory. This is known as “reconsolidation”. And “present knowledge can bleed into past memories and become intertwined with them as if they were encountered together”. So you can’t really trust your memory to be accurate!
- One thing that helps improve memory – repetition! In particular, “thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event”. And then deliberately re-expose yourself to the information in an elaborate way in fixed, spaced intervals5.
- There really is a scientific basis to the phenomenon of being an “night owl”:
- Early chronotypes (or “larks”) are morning people. Most alert around noon, most productive in the few hours before lunch, wake early without an alarm clock, feel ready for bed around 9 pm. About 10% of people.
- Late chronotypes (or “owls”). Most alert around 6 pm, most productive in the late evening, usually don’t want to go to bed before 3 am. About 20% people. Because of the way society is structured (e.g., 9-5 jobs, schools from 8-3), they accumulate sleep debt throughout their lives
- Hummingbirds – the other 70% of people. A spectrum, with some being more larkish and others more owlish, and some in between.
- “Healthy insomnia” = those people who only need 4-5 hours of sleep per day6
- Our brains naturally want a mid-afternoon nap.
- Sleep deprivation makes you old, stupid, and fat. More specifically, it:
- makes you less able to use the food you consume
- interferes with insulin production and the ability to extract energy from glucose (which the brain needs)
- stress hormones levels rise
- The body chemistry of a 30-year-old who is sleep deprived for 6 days (with about 4 hours sleep per night) will look like that of a 60-year-old (and it will take them a week to recover!)
- “hurts attention, executive funciton, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge, […] manual dexterity, […] and even gross motor movements”.
- Proust effect – “smell can evoke memory”
- “Vision is our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources”. But “what we see is only what our brain tells us we see and it’s not 100% accurate”
- The “right side of the brain tend to remember the gist of an experience, and the left side of the brain tends to remember the details.”
- “Our survival did not depend on exposing ourselves to organized, pre-planned packets of information. Our survival depended upon chaotic, reactive information-gathering experiences. That’s why on of our best attributes is the ability to learn through a series of increasingly self-corrected ideas”
Sex and gender differences in neuroscience and behaviour “has a long and mostly troubled history,” but Medina seems to do a good job of providing a summary of the area. He talks about how research typically looks at group averages and people often misinterpret the findings to be true of individuals7. And he talks about how seeing differences in group averages often result in people assuming the differences are genetic (nature) as opposed to a result of how society treats people (nurture) – we would actually need to understand the mechanism of something before figuring out nature vs. nurture (or, more likely, to what extend something is nature vs. nurture vs. an interaction of nature & nurture) for a given feature. And since “boys and girls are treated differently socially the moment they are born8, and they are often reared in societies filled with centuries of entrenched prejudice”, it’s very difficult to tease the two apart. Some of the interesting things from this section of the book:
- Differences in sizes of brain regions and distribution of neurotransmitter distributions have been seen between the sexes, but no one really knows if it means anything substantial functionally.
- “Mental retardation is more common in males than in females in the general population” – many are caused by mutations in genes on the X chromosome and males only have one copy of the X chromosome, so if they have the mutation, they will express it, whereas females have two X chromosomes, so if a female has the mutation on one X chromosome, but they have the unmutated version on the other X chromosome, they may not see it expressed.
- Rates of various mental illnesses differ by gender – e.g., males have higher rates of antisocial behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse, whereas females have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and anorexia nervosa.
- Under acute stress, males tend to fire up the amygdala on the right side of the brain (the one that remembers the gist of things), where females tend to fire up the amygdala on the left side (the one that remembers the details of things)9.
- Females tend to have better verbal capacity compared to males – with females tending to use both hemispheres of the brain while males tend to use one.
- 10 minute segments – each of which covers only one core concept, starting with doing something that catches the audience’s attention, then an explanation of the concept in 1 minute, and then the remainder of the 10 minutes is where you can provide a detailed description.
- since classes are 50 minutes long, you can cover 5 core concepts
- start with the lecture plan at the start, and repeat often “where we are” in the lecture plan throughout the lecture (if the audience doesn’t know where a concept fits in with the rest of the presentation, they will have to try to figure it out while trying to listen to you – and we know that people can’t actually multitask!)
5 rules for making a presentation:
- use multimedia – people learn better from words + pictures than from words alone
- temporal contiguity principle – people learn better when words + pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively
- spatial contiguity principle – people learn better when words + pictures are presented near each other than when they are presented far apart
- coherence principle – people learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included
- modality principle – people learn better from animation + narration than from animation + onscreen text
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
I’ve read A Brief History of Time (The Updated & Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition) by Stephen Hawking several times – I felt like every time I read it, I get a little more out of it10. I felt like Astrophysics for People in A Hurray was a bit of an easier read than a Brief History of Time, and, of course, it is more up-to-date – there’s a lot that’s been learned in astrophysics in the 19 years between the publications of those two books. So I enjoyed Astrophysics and learned some cool things about dark matter and dark energy and the like, though I can’t say I loved it as much as I love A Brief History. I did, however, enjoy this quote, at the start of the book: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you” – NDT.
This book was a pretty quick read and I honestly just had to go look at the summary of it to jog my memory on what it was about11! The basic idea of the book is society is built for the “average”, when, in fact, the “average” describes very few (if any) actual people. For example, apparently the US air force measured many aspects of a large number of pilots – arm length, leg length, head size, etc. and built their planes to fit the “average” sized pilot. But then it turned out that there weren’t any pilots who fit that description – a person might have longer legs than average and shorter arms – so then the cockpits they built didn’t’ work for anyone. So then they came up with the idea of making adjustable seats, controls, etc. in cockpits. It’s one of those concepts where you go “yeah, that should be obvious”, but it’s kind of not that obvious, because we do tend to create things for the “average” person, who doesn’t really exist. I remember being at a nutrition conference back in the day where the new “Nutrition Facts” label was being discussed. The Nutrition Facts label tells you how much of various nutrients are in a food and gives you this information as a percentage of the “Daily Value”, where the “Daily Value” is meant to be the amount an “average” person would need of that nutrient (as people of different ages/sizes/sexes need different amounts). It’s meant as a way for the consumer to know if the food contains a little or a lot of a nutrient, but the “Daily Value” ends up being an amount that describes no actual individual. Some other things that I learned in this book:
- the body mass index (BMI), which is a measure that takes a person’s height & weight and creates a score that is often used to assess if they are overweight, underweight, or the “right” weight (even though it’s not accurate for many people) was originally called the Quetelet Index12.
- “school bells were introduced into schools to emulate factory bells, in order to mentally prepare children for their future careers”
Anyway, this book had some interesting ideas, but it really should have just been a short essay rather than a full book.
The Unincorporated Man by Dani and Eytan Kollin.
I started this book because I thought the premise sounded interesting. A man who was frozen in our time is woken up 300 years later, where technology has progressed to not only be able to cure him of the cancer that was the reason he had himself frozen, but also so that all diseases can be cured and aging can be reversed and everyone can make themselves to look exactly how they want. The thing with this society though, is that everyone is personally incorporated – when you are born, you are incorporated, with the government getting 5% of your shares, your parents getting 20%, and you get to keep the rest. Until you have to start selling them off to pay for your education or other such stuff. When you lose majority, you lose control of your life – your shareholders get to decide what you do – like they can require you to take a job you don’t want to because you’ll make more money and they want their dividends! Then you spend the rest of your life trying to make majority so you can actually decide what to do with your life. So that was the premise that I thought was kind of interesting and I really only kept reading it because I wanted to see what this world that the authors built was like. But OH MY GOD THE WRITING WAS SO TERRIBLE! For example:
- there’s an adage in writing referred to as “show, don’t tell” – it means that good writing generally involves revealing the story through action and senses rather than exposition. This book is like 75% exposition – either the narrator goes on for pages telling the reader something, or a character does.
- the book is written in third person, but the attitude of the narrator seems to shift depending on which of the main characters is featured in a scene. When the protagonist is in the scene, the narrator seems to suggest that personal incorporation is a bad thing (which is, of course, what Justin thinks), but when his nemesis Hektor is being followed, the narrator shifts to suggesting that personal incorporation is what makes society great! For the longest time, I couldn’t tell if the book was meant to be representing this society as a dystopia or a utopia, because the narrator kept changing its views!
- the authors constantly use obscure words that are really jarring, as they just don’t seem to fit with the flow of the writing. And to make it worse, in several instances they use words incorrectly. I jotted down a few that drove me crazy when I was reading the book:
- “The justices talked quietly among themselves and seemed to come to a quorum”. What they actually mean is that the justices came to an “agreement” or a “consensus.” “Quorum” means “the number (such as a majority) of officers or members of a body that when duly assembled is legally competent to transact business”13. So if the justices came to a “quorum” if would mean that they had enough justice present to make decisions – not that they’d made a decision (which is what happened in this scene, as they then say “overruled”. If they didn’t already have a quorum, they wouldn’t have even started the trial!).
- “He turned to see the erstwhile assistant, cup and saucer in hand.” “Erstwhile” means “former, previous”14. This was not a “former” assistant, as he was the same assistant who had just offered him the coffee and had not been fired in the intervening minutes15. – I’m not even sure what the authors were trying to say here, but “erstwhile” is definitely incorrect.
- The most egregious one, in my opinion, since the whole book is based on this idea of personal incorporation is that they constantly use the phrase “selling short” incorrectly. “Selling short” is when someone essentially thinks that a stock is going to drop in price, so they essentially borrow it from someone who has it today and sell it at today’s (high) price, wait for it to drop, and then buy it back at the new (low) price to give back to the person who they borrowed it from. They pay interest to the person they borrowed it from, but if it works out the way they intended, they make so much money on selling it at the high price so that even after they pay to buy it back at the lower price and pay the interest, there’s enough money left over to make a profit. In this book, however, they constantly say that someone “sold them short” when they mean “you owned stock in me, my stock price dropped, and you sold it!” Which is not only *not* “selling short”, it’s also just a bad idea (buy low, sell high, right?)
And beyond the bad writing, there are so many inconsistencies (big and small), and things that didn’t appear to have any point at all. Some examples:
- At one point, the narrator says that the Chairman of the big evil corporation became the Chairman at the “tender age of sixty-two” and that he has been the Chairman for thirty-one years, and then says, “which Justin calculated would make him approximately ninety-three years of age”. So, first of all, 62+31=93 is really not that difficult of a calculation that warrants saying he “calculated” it. Secondly, why “approximately”? If he was 62 years of age 31 years ago, then he is 93 today.
- In a court scene, Justin’s lawyer says “I think we can all agree that we’re a society that prides itself on the rights of the individual verses the rights of the government or society to force someone into an action contrary to their character or wishes.” But there are many, many instances where people are forced to take jobs that they don’t want to take because they don’t have majority. So how could *anyone*, let alone *everyone* agree to that statement?
- The “romance” in the book is that Justin falls in love with Neela, his “reanimationist”, which is basically a psychologist who helps people reintegrat into society when they are woken up from being frozen. They make a point early in the book of talking about how this is totally forbidden in this society, explaining that because people are vulnerable when they wake up, it’s viewed as an abuse of power to become involved with them if you are their reamimationist. Society has a such a strong taboo against it, it’s described as being not like just a doctor and patient having a relationship, but like a pedophile molesting a child. And it doesn’t matter how long ago one was their reanimationist, or if they switch to another reanimationist – you can *never* had a relationship with them. So of course they get into a relationship – and for awhile their friends just seem to brush it off (which I can’t imagine someone doing if a pedophile were dating a child!). Then later, out of nowhere, they offhandedly mention that Neela has had her medical license taken away because of their relationship (which seems like it should have been a big deal that it should have been mentioned before!). Then when trying to strike a deal with Justin, Hektor says of the big evil corporation he works for, “we’ll not only put an end to the vicious rumour of your affair, we’ll come right out and support it. Get her reaccredited, even. I already have renowned experts lined up who’d be more than happy to state unequivocally that the client-patient relationship does not count in your circumstance.” First of all, “client-patient relationship” doesn’t make any sense – the “client” and the “patient” are the same person! It’s not like Justin is having a relationship with himself! They actually mean “client-reanimationist” or “patient-reanimationist” relationship (seriously, did this book even *have* an editor?) Also, how exactly is *supporting* this supposedly verboten relationship going to put an *end* to the rumours – wouldn’t that just be confirming the rumours? And would a company and its experts saying “hey, we support this pedophile-level of perversion and abuse because it doesn’t really count… just ‘cuz we say so” (as she was most definitely the reanimationist who woke him up) make everyone in society, who supposedly finds it utterly repugnant, just say “OK, it’s fine now. And she can have her medical license back!”
Hektor (the main bad guy), along with many other characters extol the virtues of personal incorporation as making society great, because competition fixes all problems (so things like police and courts and firefighter are all done better now that they are run by corporations) and that people are more free because if they work hard they can get majority. Except that there are many examples of characters who come from rich families who keep majority (presumably because their family just pays for their education) and others who are “penny stocks” that have no hope of ever making enough to buy back their shares. And no one seems to notice this! There’s also a scene where you learn that the digital assistants that everyone has (which are basically like a tablet that everyone carries around and uses to Google things, but has a “personality” that develops the longer you have the device) are actually sentient and then… nothing happens with them. They just have a vote to not interfere with the goings on in the human world because they don’t want humans to find out that they have become sentient. So there was really no point whatsoever of having that in the book16! And then, there was the biggest reveal of all – at the end of the book, we find out the the Chairman of the big evil corporation which has been taking Justin to court to try to force him to incorporate and regularly has people killed to get its way, actually hates incorporation because his mom died while doing a job she didn’t want to do but had to because she didn’t have majority – and he spent his entire life climbing the corporate ladder, getting right to the top, and running the aforementioned evil corporation for ages in the hopes that someday something would happen that would allow him to take down the whole system! Seems pretty far fetched that someone would do all sorts of terrible things, including murder, to support a system that you hate on the off chance that something would happen to allow you to take it all down. I mean, what are the odds that a person who was frozen 300 years ago would not only be discovered, but would also be a super charismatic leader who also refuses to incorporate and would spark a galaxy wide revolution?
Anyway, the TL:DR is terrible writing and lots of stuff that doesn’t make any sense; don’t bother reading.
In conclusion, I’m a bit behind on books for the year – my goal is to read 18 for 2018 and we are already halfway through the year and I’ve only read 44% of my goal. But I’m on holidays right now, so hopefully I can power through a few in the next few weeks.
- Including the students in the course that I was teaching at the time, as my very next lecture that I had scheduled for that class was on how to give good presentations! [↩]
- He also has a books on Brain Rules for Baby and Brain Rules for Aging Well, though I haven’t read those ones yet. [↩]
- This book was published in 2008, so he’s referring to about 2002. I remember learning this in my undergrad in the mid-1990s (though that scientists had discovered that some birds could grow new neurons when they learned new songs, though this was thought of as an anology), so I guess it was well after I finished undergrad that this stuff was discovered. [↩]
- I was sooo happy when I read that, as I *love* telling stories to illustrate what I’m teaching. I’ve always felt that it brings the material to life for students – and have be told by several students that they have found this the best part of my classes), so it was super cool to see that this is actually supported by research! [↩]
- This is making me think that I should have written up these notes much sooner after I finished reading this book (which was 3 months ago!). I made short annotations in my e-reader as I was reading but had to go back through them all and re-read the sections to make these more coherent notes. Oh well, better late than never! [↩]
- I so wish I was one of those people. Think of all the things I could get done! I think I’m a owlish-hummingbird. If I had my druthers, I’d probably get up at 10 am and go to sleep at 1 am. [↩]
- Which actually connects with what I was reading about in The End of Average. [↩]
- Really, they are treated differently even before they are born – “gender reveal parties” anyone? [↩]
- I’m terrible at remembering details of things – and I also think that in many ways I am more male-like than female-like. When I was in my undergraduate, I took first year psychology and we used to be able to get out of doing assignments by participating in psychology studies. One of the studies that I participated in was looking at something to do with males and females (not surprisingly, I can’t remember the details!) but not only testing whatever it was that was usually found to be different between males and females but also whether someone who was male or female identified themselves as behaving male-like or female-like. And if I recall correctly (again, not so good with the details, but remembering the gist of things), I scored more like a male on what they were testing, but I also identified as more male-like in my behaviours. So I guess that fits both with the “group averages aren’t good at describing individuals and that maybe my psychology being more male-like than one would expect of a female (based on said group averages) shows up in this gist-remembering thing… though he did only talk about it being under acute stress and not in general. Anyway, this is getting pretty long for a footnote! [↩]
- Come to think of it, I haven’t read it in awhile. I should read it again. [↩]
- I also realized that I’d made a few annotations when I read this as an ebook. [↩]
- There are a lot of shortcomings of the BMI being used the way it is, which I already knew about. I just didn’t know it was named after this Quetelet guy that is talked about a lot in this book. [↩]
- Source: Merriam Webster dictionary [↩]
- Source: Merriam Webster dictionary [↩]
- In actuality, you find out later in the scene that he is the Chairman in disguise, but that still doesn’t make him a “former” assistant. [↩]
- Possibly they are setting up for something in a sequel, but then why not just leave it to the sequel as there is no point whatsoever of having those scenes in this book. As one reviewer on Goodreads wrote,they literally vote to not affect the plot of the book! [↩]