Bodging with Jonathan Drori

Jonathan Drori helped launch the online face of the BBC. He’s edited and produced TV series on science, and is not a director at Changing Media Ltd.

In a TED talk in February, 2007, he discussed why we don’t understand as much as we think. Points that stood out for me:

  • We look for evidence to support our mental models.
  • Some people are all too ready to supply that evidence.
  • Early mental models are extremely persistent.
  • We collude: we design tests so people pass them.

At one point, Drori says that kids learn by messing around with everyday objects, things that are “bodged and stuffed.” “Bodge” was new to me, but “quick and dirty” seems a good American English counterpart. Urban Dictionary gives this example:

Bodge (verb)… to repair hastily and without care of durability or aesthetics or perfection. Popularized in British television show “Scrapheap Challenge,” known as “Junkyard Wars” in the US, and by producer Cathy Rodgers.
“Your task is to bodge together a hovercraft from nothing but twisted metal, scrapped cars, and other assorted bits of rubbish!”

But he can speak for himself:

(Here’s a direct link to Drori’s talk on the TED site.)

Thinking about the science of education

One reason I started the Working/Learning blog carnival is that I’ve gotten so much out of other carnivals — like Encephalon, the neuroscience and psychology carnival, now in its 54th edition.

Two hops from the carnival, I learned about Brains R Us: The Science of Educating, a day-long conference last March at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The videos on the site are lengthy (over an hour each). I can’t find any hint of the content of each video other than a list of speakers (on the agenda tab, below the video window). (Maybe they should have looked at Jakobsen’s suggestions.)

That’s too bad, because I suspect there’s good stuff. For instace, about at about 5:30 into the Highlights video, you see an example of a baby learned to detect differences in tones that are 70 milliseconds apart.

So what? Well, a baby’s ability on this task at the age of six months accurately predicts a language impairment at 3 years — with 91% accuracy. Speech involves “a lot of rapid auditory transitions.” Training children on a task to distinguish different kinds of beeps and boops can bring their language ability to normal.

The other videos:

  • Brains
  • Schools
  • Children
  • Teachers
  • Transformation

Starting next Monday, I’m going to be doing intense research on North Carolina tides. I burn easily, though, so I’ll have to spend some time indoors, and so I may watch a couple of these and turn my notes into a series here.

Immunity: the inside connection

One advantage of living near Washington DC is the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. I’ve gotten to hear people like novelist John Mortimer, historian John Keegan, DNA co-discovered James Watson, and nanotube expert Richard Smalley.  Some weeks ago it was Jan Moynihan on “Making Connections: the Endocrine and Immune Systems and the Brain.”

I don’t have any formal background in science, so a good deal of the time I was swimming (or dog-paddling) in water over my head. (And mighty polysyllabic water at times: “a chronic increase in proinflammatory cytokines can induce a state of resistance to anti-inflammatory glucocorticoids.”)

Moynihan’s main topic was the link between the immune system and the brain. Each influences the other. This sounds straightforward — but for centuries “common sense” told people the earth was flat. Moynihan provided evidence for the connnection… and some possible implications as well.

For example, one study showed that exposure to acute stress prior to a flu vaccination enhanced the body’s ability to create antibodies — but only in women. ( “Acute stress” here means a brief, one-time experience, such has having to subtract backwards from 1,000 by 17.)

Working on Project Allostasis

Chronic (long-term) stress produces what’s called allostatic load. “Allostatic” refers to the body’s complex balancing act. If you’re walking in the desert, you’re stressed by the head. The body could sweat, but eventually you’d dehydrate. So rather than that simple, homeostatic adjustment, the body will reduce urine output, dry out mucous membranes, decrease sweat output, constrict the circulatory system in order to maintain blood pressure with a lower volume…

An increased allostatic load can have negative consequences:

  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Suppressed thyroid function
  • Decreased bone density
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Decreased adaptive-immune function

That last point reference to the adaptive immunity you’ve acquired — e.g., through vaccinations.

In other words, chronic stress can reduce your body’s ability to protect itself.

This was a summary of a complex field, but at least for me, one worth tracking.

Stressful work photo by alexanderljung / Alexander Ljung.

The impulse of classical music

Thanks to Greg Laden’s Blog, I came across this TED talk by Benjamin Zander, conductor for the Boston Philharmonic. Serendipitous, especially after yesterday’s post about involving more of the senses. (Time: 20:43)

A comment from Tara at In My Copious Free Time (she was in the audience):

He told a story about a musician who was practicing a piece for an interview to be the associate (2nd chair?) cellist? (sorry, can’t remember) in a Barcelona orchestra. Zander thought the guy was holding back – he kept working with him until the guy was giving it all he had and the guy went away to Spain for the interview. He came back and said he hadn’t gotten the job because he played the first way, holding back. But then he said, “oh, fuck it” and went to Madrid, auditioned for 1st chair in their orchestra and got it. So Zander says that you have to get BTFI – Beyond the “fuck it” point.

Looking for the mouse

Thanks to Ray Sims, I got to hear Clay Shirky speaking at a Web 2.0 expo last April. If you haven’t heard it, I found it well worth the 17 minutes. Watch for yourself, or skip to my musings below.

Shirky talks among other things about cognitive surplus — the free time created by technology. We’re at the beginning of such creation now — as he says, “we’re still in special cases.” Web 2.0 tools are sufficiently new that Shirky says they’re like the physics of weather. We know about the individual elements, we can see people doing things, but we can’t predict the results yet because the whole is so complex.

So he says it’s important to fail informatively — a great phrase. Really, it’s the closing loop in any performance system: figure out what didn’t go right, and figure out why, so you can apply that understanding in your next venture.

Shirkey offers an estimate for the total time spend bringing Wikipedia where it is today — talk pages, articles, edits, the whole shebang, in all Wikipedia languages. He and a colleague guess at 100 million hours. Good enough for analogic purposes, especially when he compares that to television watching in the U.S.: 200 billion hours a year.

In other words, the time spent watching TV in one year is the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedias. Or, from another angle, each weekend in the U.S., we watch enough commercials to create one Wikipedia.

Obviously, most people aren’t going to do that — but as Shirkey said, more and more people are doing something. Get the emphasis clear: doing something. I have a friend who’s developed an attachment to a man who invited her to play World of Warcraft. She talks with some bemusement about her character and her adventures as a night elf.

Shirkey would point out that my friend has moved from consumption of media (watching TV) to production and sharing. She’s interacting with other people (in a virtual world). She’s actively engaging.

I’ve seen the term “mommy blog” used with derision. My notion is that the creators of mommy blogs (or cat blogs or fan blogs or my-political-solution blogs) are well aware that their creations have a limited audience. Hell, I have a blog with an audience of two (no, not this blog), and I consider it a roaring success.

Prior to personal computers and cheap or free tools, we didn’t have many options. As MCI said in mockery of its long-distance rival AT&T, back when you actually thought about long-distance charges, “For over 100 years, when you reached out to touch someone, you didn’t have a choice.

If like me you hadn’t heard the phrase “looking for the mouse,” I encourage you to spend the 15 minutes with Shirkey.