Learning about versus Learning to be

Interesting article on CNET – A new crop of kids: Generation We – talking about how the latest generations are growing up adept and comfortable with technology from a very early age. Some snippets:

Gabriel, an intensely curious kid who’s about to turn 8, has been fascinated by everything from skateboarding and basketball to statistics about world extremes…. He likes to look up information about the subjects on Wikipedia with his mom and then turn to YouTube for short video clips… If he hears a likeable song in a YouTube video, he might visit Apple’s iTunes store to download the music, too.

“Driving home we’ll see a bird,” Kim said, “and then go to Wikipedia (at home) and look it up. Then once we’re online, he’ll say, ‘How about we go to YouTube?'”

Naturally, the world of business and media is fascinated with understanding how to market and sell to this new generation.

I’m interested in a different angle – how will their ability to learn be influenced and affected by these newer Internet technologies, and what will the effect be on their future?

It’s easy to assume that having the Internet is going to make our children a lot smarter a lot sooner… resources that were previously only accessible to the priviledged few are now available to all, instantly. But is that all we need?

In the book “The Social Life of Information” by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, the authors make a very interesting comment:

The web has made learning about easier than ever. But learning to be requires the ability engage in the practice in question

…and that could be the new challenge. There will be no shortage of people able to demonstrate how much they know about all sorts of subjects. But how many people will actually be able to practice what they ‘know’. At the moment, there are still no shortcuts to becoming skilled in practice – determination, patience and effort continue to be essential ingredients.

If we become used to having instant answers to questions, will it affect our stamina for the deeper level of learning required to move from knowing about something to actually being something?

An effect from moving away from agriculture and manual labour has been that, put simply, most people aren’t as fit as they would have been 200 years ago.

Will the effect of not requiring effort to learn about subjects send our brains in the same direction as our stomachs? I hope not.

Do you really want it?

Notes from the Leaders in London conference held last December included an interesting quote from Larry Bassidy, former CEO at Honeywell:

“Ask a CEO what kind of culture they have and they will describe the kind of culture they want, as if it exists, instead of describing what is really going on”

A similar phrase could be applied to a lot of IT projects. The explosion of Web 2.0 activities in the consumer world are beginning to infiltrate the enterprise world. Indeed, the phrase Enterprise 2.0 is becoming a popular buzz word. But I’m not convinced those who say they want Enterprise 2.0 really do want Enterprise 2.0.

For example, a lot of projects these days include statements such as “we want a user-centred design”, “we want to focus on user experience”, “we want to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing”, “people are our most important asset”… But when you start delving into what is actually required, the following statements start to crop up: “users must store their documents on the intranet”, “we want to apply consistent standards and formats”, “we want to ensure best practices are captured and re-used”… Hmmm, not much emphasis on putting the user at the centre when it comes down to the nitty-gritty.

I’m not saying any of these requirements are wrong (tempting thought though…) But there is little point starting with a claim that you want one type of system – one that helps people work together and get stuff done – when the requirements suggest you want a very different type of system – one that manages and monitors what people do.

Just a thought, whilst SharePoint is bathing in the mud pit…

Sharing birthdays

I have always been surprised how often I have been in a small group with at least two people sharing the same birthday (it’s happened at school, work, on holiday, on projects, basically more times than I can remember). With 365 days to pick from, it seems logical to think you’d need a pretty large group before duplications start to occur…

…but it takes just 23 people for there to be a greater than 50% chance that two people in the group will share the same birthday. For a good explanation of the maths behind the fact and why we so easily get it wrong, read The Law of Small Errors.

I find this simple probability exercise serves as a good reminder to test assumptions when analysing statistics. Sometimes the answer we expect to see is not remotely close to reality, but our brains have an annoying habit of preferring to believe expected myths rather than actual truths, no matter what evidence is presented before us. As we start to integrate business intelligence and performance dashboards into everyday activities, we need to beware our tendency to draw the wrong conclusions from the information presented.

I’ve read a few good books that cover this subject recently, including:

A life interrupted

Last week the New Scientist magazine had an article about productivity: ‘Got a minute?‘ (subscription required to read full article online). It’s a good article highlighting the challenges with working in the face of constant interruptions, and includes the findings from various investigations, such as:

  • Information workers, on average, get just three sustained minutes of
    work before being interrupted (Gloria Mark, University of California, 2006)
  • Interruptions take up over two hours of the working day and costs the US
    economy an estimated $588 billion per year (IT research firm Basex, 2006)
  • People are claiming to have developed attention deficit disorder in
    adulthood (Edward Hallowell, pschiatrist, 2006)
  • Being bombarded with emails and phone calls has a greater effect on IQ
    than smoking marijuana (Glenn Wilson, Institute of Psychiatry, London, 2005)

The article goes on to look at ways of managing the interruptions including where technology can help resolve a situation that many believe has been caused by technology. All very interesting.


What the article doesn’t mention are the benefits of a life interrupted. How exactly did Basex come up with $588 billion as the estimated cost of interruptions to business. Did they assume that all interruptions are negative? Are all interruptions negative? Do they think people should be working non-stop all day on pre-planned tasks (well they have to be pre-planned to avoid any interruptions) to maximise productivity? If that were true, we’d have little use for collaboration or knowledge-sharing tools. And forget about real-time communications or mainstream business intelligence. There’s no need to hurry, do the number crunching and decision-making at the end of the day whilst sorting out the task list to occupy 100% of people’s time tomorrow.

This is the dilemma often facing projects aiming to improve ‘knowledge work’. In the world of knowledge and information, interruptions are often serendipitous but measuring them with anything other than hindsight is extremely difficult. Too often, we see surveys trying to reduce productivity down to a simple metric – how many tasks get completed during the day. This might work in a factory, where workers are required* to take allocated breaks at set times to maximise their physical output. But it is a command-and-control approach from the Push era that doesn’t fit well with information and knowledge work. Such work would be disrupted by enforced rests during the day but people still need to take breaks, mentally as well as physically. More importantly, information and knowledge work do not have the luxury (or limitation) of a production schedule where flexibility and scope are restricted by scarce resources. Quite the opposite is usually the case. Organisations dependent on intellectual capital need to create an environment that trusts people to think and decide as they go along, to change ‘the plan’ if it isn’t working or when the opportunity arises to improve it, to take brain breaks and gossip. Interruptions are an essential part of real-time business. They often represent continual adjustments to activities that reflect changing demands and priorities, as well as chance conversations that discover new problems and solutions.

There’s no doubting that interruptions have an impact on productivity, but that impact can be controlled to limit negative effects and maximise potential benefits. Statements such as ‘interruptions are costing the US economy $588 billion per year’ lead to knee-jerk reactions that focus only on one side of the coin.

*I’m referring to factories who observe human rights and employment laws

Brain waves

Source: ‘Brainwave boogie-woogie‘, New Scientist Magazine, 24 December 2005

Waveband name Frequency (Hz) Associated with
Slow waves below 1 Preparing to move a muscle
Delta waves 1 to 3 Deep sleep
Theta waves 3 to 7 Drowsiness, trance states and early sleep
Alpha waves 7 to 12 Relaxed but awake
Beta waves 12 to 30 Anxious thinking, focused activity and REM sleep
Gamma waves above 30 Learning, memory formation and perception

Posted on site under Brain Science

The Puppet Master

Tonight I attended the Francis Crick Prize Lecture, held at The Royal Society, London, UK. The talk was ‘The Puppet Master: How the brain controls the body’ presented by Professor Daniel Wolpert, University of Cambridge.

The event was recorded and will be available on the Royal Society’s web site.

Here are some notes and thoughts from the lecture:

Why do we have a brain?

It gives us movement – all of our senses depend upon movement. This is a simple statement but in this information-obsessed world, we tend to forget it.

When Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov at Chess, it was headlined by many as the brain’s last stand. But was it? Deep Blue was able to win the game from an information processing perspective, but what if it had also been required to use a robot to move the chess pieces? If the whole point to having a brain is to give us movement, then perhaps that chess match was not as seminal a moment as many believed. Professor Wolpert then made a great quote (well, I thought so):

“We have become data rich, theory poor”.


Movement is surrounded by uncertainty, noise, that affects and influences our senses. It is very difficult to identically repeat the same movement. (The example that came to mind during the talk was that scene from the film ‘The Titanic’ when Kate Winslet’s character practices aiming an axe using the cupboard…) Our brains have to adapt to the noise that influence our senses. (This is one reason why multi-tasking is so inefficient, each task has its own noise and we have to keep switching, filtering and adapting…)

Predicting uncertainty

Bayesian inference is used to diagnose what information is relevant to a given query. The purpose of this research was to examine if the same formula can be applied to brains. Thomas Bayes identified two concepts: the process of inference (diagnosis) and decision theory (making the optimal decision)

The slide had a great perception example (once the web cast is archived, I’ll try and grab the screen shot) of how our brain interprets ‘cos the explanation won’t make sense without it).


When two kids fight, what will you hear them say “he pushed harder than me”, “no she did”, “no he did”… So if they are both your children, who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. As it turns out, they are both telling the truth! Because our brains automatically filter and adapt to noise that our senses pick up, the force we use typically feels less than what we receive – we genuinely don’t think we hit/push/whatever as hard as it feels to the recipient.

The talk described a test environment with two people. Each had to place a finger under a lever. To start the test, pressure was applied to the lever (pressing down onto the finger) for person A. Person A then was then asked to apply the same amount of pressure to the lever onto the finger of person B. Person B then had to repeat the process with the lever onto the finger of person A, and so the test continued. In theory, the pressure should stay the same throughout the test (i.e. a straight horizontal line on a chart). No surprises, in practice, the line was not horizontal! Each person had been given their instructions independently – to attempt to apply the same pressure to the lever as the pressure they felt on their finger. At the end of the test, each person was asked what instructions they thought the other person had been given. Both answered the same: the other person was told to double the pressure! 🙂


Different movements have different optimum goals. For example, walking effectively involves minimising the energy required (unless you are doing fitness walking). If you are eating, the goal is to be accurate – get the food in your mouth, not down your shirt.

The criteria for making the best decision is not always obvious. The example given in the talk: If you want to travel from London to New York, there are various ways. You could take the car and go the whole way round the world; you could take a boat. Most people fly. Why? The immediate assumption is that flying is the quickest way to get there, so what other reason could there be? Well, if you took a scheduled flight, it wasn’t the fastest method – a Harrier Jump Jet would get you there quicker, but might leave a bigger dent in your finances. So money is involved. The optimal travel method involves speed tempered with a ‘reasonable’ cost.

Playing tennis requires lots of different variables – not only predicting where the ball is going to land, how high and fast it is going to bounce etc. but also where you want to send it when you hit it. Our brains have to rapidly decipher all of this information and determine (and then carry out) the optimal movement.

There’s lots of talk about computers taking over human brain capacity in the near future. But how true is that belief? Computers may exceed our abilities to store and process information, but I’d like to see Deep Blue win a tennis match, climb a mountain, discover that a drug intended to help treat cardio-vascular diseases had unexpected side effects (they ended up calling it Viagra).


So if noise influences and interrupts our senses, and our brains have to adapt to it in order to make optimal decisions about movement, why don’t our senses do a better job of filtering and reducing noise? It is probably because there are times when we need noise – without it, we could never multitask. Without it, my amygdalas wouldn’t spot that spider that just started walking across the carpet 10 yards away from my computer desk. Without it, parents probably wouldn’t wake up when the baby starts crying.

There’s more information in the web cast and I’d recommend watching it – very entertaining and informative. I’ve added in some notes here, having just read Daniel Pink’s ‘A Whole New Mind‘ and being half way through Dr Richard Restak’s ‘The New Brain‘ Both books reference exercises mentioned in the talk.

Anybody can draw

Sat listening to BBC Breakfast News with a cup of coffee, catching up on my reading pile (horses are fed and it’s too early to turn them out). They have a section covering ‘Drawing week’ (or something similar) with both presenters claiming not to be able to draw

I was recommended a great book that proves absolutely anybody can be taught to draw. It’s called ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards

And it works! What’s amazing is that it doesn’t seem to matter how good/bad your initial drawing efforts are, everyone ends up able to draw with similar results

The most fascinating exercise is drawing a picture upside down. Even with the most simple of line pictures, your drawing is far far superior when you draw it upside down. You capture subtleties that your brain skips over when you look at the picture as a whole (viewing it upside down confuses your brain – can’t figure out what the picture is, so stops trying to and lets you draw it exactly as it is).