Archive for November, 2008

Busy bookmarking: 32 — no, now 60! — education blogs

Earlier this month, Richard Hake, professor emeritus at Indiana University, shared a fantastic collection of 32 education blogs on the AERA list-serve.

This week he forwarded an even more comprehensive list of over 60 education blogs and includes commentary about the usefulness of this still new medium for sharing, distributing, and learning about education news, research, policies, and commentary, as well as some provocative questions about the already antiquated journal system:

ABSTRACT: The present post lists over sixty education blogs, an expansion and correction of earlier posts “Thirty-two Education Blogs” and “Over Fifty Education Blogs.”  I have also indicated a few general references to internet usage and blogging. But do blogs and blog lists contribute positively to the dissemination of useful information?  Responding to “Thirty-two Education Blogs,” Anita Pincas complained that few people have time to examine 32 blogs, that keyword searches are not adequate for “finding just what we need,” and that “semantic web developments may help.” Problems in finding just what we need have recently been addressed by physicist Michael Nielsen, who argues that the internet offers us the first major opportunity to create: (a) a collective *long-term* working memory such as the physics preprint arXiv to replace the antiquated journal system, and (b) a collective *short-term* working memory for the rapid collaborative development of ideas.  Are blogs and discussion lists harbingers of the latter? [Entire post found here.]



November 28, 2008 at 10:51 pm Leave a comment

Viagra: also an on-the-field performance enhancer?

And they say irony is dead. Not quite.

The NYT has a story this morning about how the World Anti-Doping Agency is investigating the performance enhancing effects of Viagra

Viagra, or sildenafil citrate, was devised to treat pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in arteries of the lungs. The drug works by suppressing an enzyme that controls blood flow, allowing the vessels to relax and widen. The same mechanism facilitates blood flow into the penis of impotent men. In the case of athletes, increased cardiac output and more efficient transport of oxygenated fuel to the muscles can enhance endurance.

“Basically, it allows you to compete with a sea level, or near-sea level, aerobic capacity at altitude,” Kenneth W. Rundell, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Marywood, said of Viagra. [Full article here.]

WADA has taken an increased interest in Viagra since a 2006 study at Stanford University about the performance effects of the drug in endurance athletes. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found that Viagra improved the performance of some athletes by as much as 40% in a 10K cycling time trial at a simulated elevation of almost 13,000 feet. (There was no significant advantage to taking Viagra at sea-level, where the blood vessels of healthy athletes are already dilated.)

The Stanford study came just two years after a German study about how Viagra may affect the breathing abilities of high-altitude mountain climbers. Published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the 2004 study found that Viagra “relieved constriction of blood vessels in the lungs and increased maximum exercise capacity.”

It seems some athletes (or their coaches and trainers) read this research and decided to put it to the test. This past May, professional cyclist Andrew Moletta was suspended from the Giro d’Italia after tour officials found more than 82 Viagra pills and other questionable substances in his father’s car.

Here’s the fun part of all of this… A few years back, before his image was tarnished in a ridiculous display of feigned indignation during the Congressional investigation of steroid use in baseball, Rafael Palmeiro was an “unlikely pitchman” for Viagra. Why? Because he never admitted to having erection problemsPrint ads with his image cryptically said, “Viagra. Let’s just say it works for me.” 

(You may remember that Palmeiro — just five months after swearing under oath to members of Congress that “I have never used steroids. Period.” — was suspended by MLB for… Yup using steroids.)

Since he never claimed to have ED, and swore to have never taken steroids, maybe Palmeiro was talking about the athletic performance enhancement effects of Viagra in these ads

As an interesting side note, and as highlighted in the fantastic documentary of American sport and sociology, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, in 2006, Congress spent more time investigating steroid use in baseball than it did investigation or debating the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and national healthcare. 

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

November 23, 2008 at 11:27 pm Leave a comment

Recipe for success: 10,000 hours of practice and plenty of myelin!

As I mentioned a few days ago, Malcolm Gladwell has a provocative explanation for why Asian children are better at maths. The answer, he says, is embedded in the structure of our languages. Asian languages have shorter words for their numbers than most other languages, allowing for Asian children to cram more information in their memory. The construction of Asian number systems is also more logical and intuitive: Eleven is ten-one and twelve is ten-two, for example; in Asian languages, fifty-six is five-tens-six. (See entire post here.)

I was talking with a friend about this, however, and he brought up an interesting point that seems to put a small kink in Gladwell’s explanation: schools in Asia often teach children to do maths — including counting — in English. English, for example, is one of the official languages in Singapore, and according to him, is the dominant (sometimes only) language that school children are taught. And what about Asian students, born in the U.S. and with English as the only language they know, who are better at maths than their non-Asian peers… What explains their outstanding academic achievement? If they, too, are learning their number systems and maths in English and with an English construction, certainly language is not the only or primary explanatory variable for their dominance in math.

I don’t know how Gladwell would respond to this, but perhaps he would refer me to another chapter in his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that introduces us to the “10,000 Hour Rule.” The general thesis of this book is that, contrary to much conventional wisdom, talent is not innate. This is to say, geniuses — “outliers” — are not born; they are products of culture, chance, demography, and hard-work. Ten-thousand hours of work, at that. Take the the Beatles as a case study. The Beatles became the greatest, most successful, and influential musical group in history because they practiced. A lot. One of their early and regular gigs was at a club in the redlight district of Hamburg, Germany. 

The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.

“They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” says [the band’s biographer, Philip] Norman. “They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers – cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock’n’roll, a bit of jazz, too. They weren’t disciplined on stage at all before that. But when they came back they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.” [Full extract here.]

It was the fact that they had practiced for more than 10,000 hours — more than their boyish good looks and English charm — that allowed them to launch the British Invasion on the Ed Sullivan Show. Perhaps Asian students, in addition to benefiting from a language that facilitates the learning and manipulation of a number system, simply do more maths than students in other countries. 

This is all a long lead-in to two items I found while surfing through the the online archives of Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, which, sadly, just announced that it is the victim of the downturn in print journalism and will no longer be in production. “How to Grow a Superstar Athlete” by Daniel Coyle illustrates how some parents and coaches hope that an early introduction to sports will allow their children to develop into professional or Olympic level athletes. Two hours of T-ball practice now leaves only 9,998 more to go until the Yankees offer that contract to little Jimmy.

Also from the archive, this illustration and animation explains why early and consistent practice is so beneficial to the development of young athletes: Myelin! 

Some scientists believe that physiological changes in the brain that take place during repetitive practice at a young age make the difference between a world-class athlete and the rest of us. The brain is made up of grey matter (neurons) and white matter (nerve fibers and their insulating material). A process in the white matter called myelination may play a large role in the development of talent.

Signals are transmitted to different areas of the brain along pathways called axons. The faster and more precise these signals are, the more ability we have to perform complex tasks. Repetitive use of connections in the brain–or practice–triggers cells called oligodendocytes, which wrap layer upon layer of myelin around these connections. This optimizes the connections, making them more like a broadband Internet connection than like a dial-up. The athlete’s neuronal pathways for their specific skills have been turned into superhighways.

We’ll miss you, Play magazine. You always gave us a lot to think about.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

November 21, 2008 at 8:31 pm 6 comments

Chain link

Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle is introducing two new models this holiday season that replace the “finger-pinching, pants-munching, rust-prone sprocket and chain” with a carbon-fiber, whisper quiet, rust-free belt.

The new belts are a low-maintenance solution to a chain, which has roughly 3,000 parts including all the links and connectors.

Aside from the whisper-quiet ride, the lighter and longer-lasting carbon-fiber composite belts won’t rust, can’t be cut, won’t stretch or slip and won’t leave grease marks around your ankles. A guard over the belt-drive and the construction of the system makes getting your pants stuck an unlikely scenario.

One version of the chainless bike, called the District ($930), is a single-speed, complete with a silver body, orange accents and brown leather seat and handles. The other, called the Soho ($990), is an eight-speed bike that uses an internal hub to adjust the speed rather than gears.

The belt can be cleaned with a normal cleaning agent and rag, and the bike sprocket is designed to push through any snow, dirt or grime. And one belt will typically last three years — the life span of three chains. [Full story]

More info about the Gates belt drive system applied to bikes can be found here.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

November 20, 2008 at 6:25 pm Leave a comment

Fit for Office

If President-elect Barack Obama and future First Lady Michelle Obama are able to find time in their schedules to work out — he for 45-90 minutes, 6 days a week; her for 90 minutes, 3 days a week — then so can/should even the most “time-starved” among us.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

November 19, 2008 at 3:10 pm 1 comment

“I Crossed Your Path”

Using a Facebook application called “I Crossed Your Path,” cyclists will be able to make connections with each other by exchanging information – online or through a smartphone – about which routes they took that day. With the information it collects, the project might also help urban planners make better decisions on things like where new bike paths should be built.

From MIT, a quantum leap in bike mechanics, HT: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition e-newsletter.

Also from the SFBC: Get lit!

For all cyclists throughout San Francisco, be sure to stop by one of SFBC’s many stations throughout the city on December 2 to get your free blinky light. Details below…

Light Up the Night with FREE Blinky Bike Lights!

Hundreds of free bike lights will be distributed to cyclists traveling along the city’s major bike corridors on Thursday, December 2nd from 6-7pm by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. We are working to increase rider visibility in the dark hours, and lights are a key piece of safety gear! Check out for locations and information on how to volunteer. Spread the word to your friends and neighbors who are riding in the dark! Download a poster and put it up at your school, library, or neighborhood coffee shop. Please note: We are targeting cyclists who do not have lights and you must bring your bicycle to receive the free lights.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 

November 19, 2008 at 6:21 am Leave a comment

Gladwell: Why Asian children are better at maths

In his forthcoming book Outliers (available tomorrow), Malcolm Gladwell offers another provocative investigation into curious social phenomena. An extract is published in yesterday’s Guardian, which asks and answers the question, What explains Asian superiority in academic subjects?

While the likes of controversial professor and psychologist Richard Lynn advance the thesis for variation in IQ along racial and ethnic divisions, Gladwell says the superior performance and achievement in maths has nothing to do with innate ability. Rather, performance and achievement in mathematics can be explained by the structure of our languages, which gives the East a cultural advantage over the West in certain academic subjects. 

The words for Asian numbers are shorter than in English, allowing children to remember more content — they can “hold more numbers in their heads and do calculations faster”; the Asian number system is also more “transparent,” clarifying the structure of numbers and the purpose of a problem. In short, where the English linguistic system is “clumsy” with “arbitrary and complicated” rules, there is an intuitive pattern and conceptually compelling structure to the Asian system.

Here is an excerpt from the Guardian‘s extract:

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend 20 seconds memorising that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 per cent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you’re Chinese, though, you’re almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorise whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers – 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 – right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

That example comes from Stanislas Dehaene’s book The Number Sense. As Dehaene explains: Most Chinese number words can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second [whereas] their English equivalents takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers.

There is also a big difference in how number-naming systems in Western and Asian languages are constructed. … [In] China, Japan, and Korea,  they have a logical counting system. Eleven is ten-one. Twelve is ten-two. Twenty-four is two-tens-four and so on.

[This allows] Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to 40. American children at that age can count only to 15, and most don’t reach 40 until they’re five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The regularity of their number system also means that Asian children can perform basic functions, such as addition, far more easily. Ask an English-speaking seven-year-old to add thirty-seven plus twenty-two in her head, and she has to convert the words to numbers (37 + 22). Only then can she do the math: 2 plus 7 is 9 and 30 and 20 is 50, which makes 59. Ask an Asian child to add three-tens-seven and two-tens-two, and then the necessary equation is right there, embedded in the sentence. No number translation is necessary: it’s five-tens-nine.

For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally ‘out of five parts, take three.’ That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is. It’s differentiating the denominator and the numerator.

When it comes to math, in other words, Asians have a built-in advantage. But it’s an unusual kind of advantage. We assume that being good at things like calculus and algebra is a simple function of how smart someone is. But the differences between the number systems in the East and the West suggest something very different – that being good at math may also be rooted in a group’s culture. Here we have a legacy that turns out to be perfectly suited for 21st-century tasks, and it’s hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our 21st-century intellectual tasks.

For more on Outliers, click here.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood

November 17, 2008 at 11:33 pm 22 comments

Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 88 other followers

Twitter Feed