“links” Category

Interleaved Curriculums See Huge Improvements in Retention

In Tampa, a test is underway in eight middle school classrooms to see how effective “interleaved” curriculums are for learning:

Dr. Bjork and others have shown that studying mixed sets of related things — paintings, birds, baseball pitches — greatly improves people’s ability to make quick, accurate distinctions among them, compared with studying as usual, in blocks. Others have found the same improvements when the items being mixed are specific kinds of problems, like calculating volumes, or exponents.

A growing number of cognitive scientists now believe that this cocktail-shaker approach could improve students’ comprehension of a wide array of scientific concepts, whether chemical bonds, parallel evolution, the properties of elementary particles or pre-algebra.

Interleaved curriculums mix questions on related, but distinct, topics. This contrasts with the traditional approach to teaching most of us experienced in school, where students focus exclusively on one concept at a time and repeatedly answer questions about it. This is called “blocked” curriculum.

The Institute of Education Sciences designed the test such that half of each class received “interleaved” homework assignments for two kinds of questions and blocked assignments for another two, while the other half of the class received blocked assignments for the first two kinds of questions and interleaved for the last two.

The test is fairly small, but the results were dramatic: at the end, students were given a surprise cumulative exam of the material covered. Students answered 38 percent of the normal, “blocked” material correctly, and answered 72 percent of the interleaved material correctly.

That small of a test doesn’t confirm interleaving is superior, and certainly doesn’t confirm that it’s superior for all students and all material. But the logic makes sense; by mixing in prior material into homework assignments, students have to go through another step that they don’t have to do while answering blocked questions: they have to identify what the question is asking, and then decide what tool they’ve learned will help them answer it. As a result, they should better understand the material itself, and they should form an association between the tool they’ve learned and the kind of problem it applies to.

In mathematics courses I took, I became very good at learning whatever concept we were focusing on at the moment and applying it to each question by rote. Rather than focus on identifying what the question was asking and figuring out the best way to solve it, I would instead identify the template that each question related to that topic followed, identify each constituent part, and insert them into the concept. Since that was quicker than trying to analyze each question as if it was unique (they nearly always were not), I did whatever would get me to the correct destination the fastest.

In addition, this also resulted in me forgetting material covered toward the beginning of the semester toward the end. I would need to re-learn much of it for final exams. That suggests I wasn’t so much learning the material as learning a mechanical process to follow.

Interleaving is interesting to me because it should help reduce that tendency. Not only will it better force students to interpret what each question is actually asking (and thus better understand whatever topic they learned), but it’s a built-in review of prior material which should reinforce it.

September 3rd, 2013

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September 3rd, 2013

The Misplaced Inequality Obsession

Reihan Salam shows why the focus on inequality as a casual driver of economic maladies is misplaced:

In short, in our 48 largest metro areas, there is no meaningful relationship between inequality and upward mobility.

To explain the chart: There are 48 dots, one for each of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States. The numbers on the bottom, .38 to .52, measure inequality — the higher the number, the higher the inequality in a given area. The numbers on the left measure absolute mobility – the expected income percentile of a child born poor in those cities. Higher numbers mean greater upward mobility. As you can see, as inequality increases, nothing really happens. There are cities with high inequality and high mobility, low inequality and low mobility, and everything in between.

August 27th, 2013

“Bears Need Highway Overpasses, Too”

Interesting story about over and underpasses in Canada built so wildlife can safely cross a long freeway:

They look, for the most part, like typical pedestrian infrastructure: elliptical or boxy concrete culverts under the highway high enough for a human to pass through, or overpasses that would look entirely familiar to the vehicles passing below. All this highway engineering, though, is meant for the benefit of bears. And cougars, and wolves, and elk.

“We’ve got this important north-south transportation corridor for animals,” Clevenger says of the park, which is located in the Canadian Rockies between Vancouver and Calgary. “But it’s bisected by this important east-west transportation corridor for vehicles.”

Great idea.

August 27th, 2013


The NSA’s capabilities have been used by officers to spy on people they’re interested in:

National Security Agency officers on several occasions have channeled their agency’s enormous eavesdropping power to spy on love interests, U.S. officials said.

The practice isn’t frequent — one official estimated a handful of cases in the last decade — but it’s common enough to garner its own spycraft label: LOVEINT.

August 27th, 2013

“What’s Lost When Everything Is Recorded”

Quentin Hardy asks a good question: what’s lost when everything is increasingly recorded?

Remember the get-to-know-me chat of a first date or that final (good or bad) conversation with someone you knew for years? Chances are, as time has passed, your memory of those moments has changed. Did you nervously twitch and inarticulately explain your love when you asked your spouse to marry you? Or, as you recall it, did you gracefully ask for her hand, as charming as Cary Grant?

Thanks to our near-endless access to digital recording devices, the less-than-Hollywood version of you will be immortalized on the home computer, or stored for generations in some digital computing cloud.

One thing I’d like to add that’s slightly tangent to his piece is that much of our memories are directly associated with emotions. We don’t just remember the day we graduated high school, but the excitement and nervousness of finishing our childhood and the start of life as an adult. When we think about the death of a friend or family member, we remember the shock upon hearing it, the deep sadness immediately after, and our slow, non-linear path toward accepting it.

Many of these memories, too, result in new emotions that cause us to reflect on our current position in life. Thinking about high school graduation may evoke a longing to go back to high school, a nostalgia for it, or even mild satisfaction that that part of our life is finished because we’re in a much better place now. We may then consider what we did after, and where we are now; the emotions that surface due to that memory may cause us to consider our current position or current events from a different perspective than we would normally.

The emotions we associate with memories, then, are just as important as the literal event itself, or perhaps even more important. Those emotions help spur consideration about what those events mean to us and to our life, and help lead to conclusions about them. They help imbue events—things that we remember to have occurred—with personal meaning. Without those emotions, those events have very little meaning, if any at all.

I wonder, then, how recording—photo, video, captured text from conversations with people—that’s only increasing in reach and fidelity will interact with our method of remembering events and forming meaning. Will peeking back at almost any time in our past and having some kind of documentation for it make our recollection more accurate and therefore provide a deeper emotional understanding of the events and deeper conclusions about them? Will this increasingly perpetual documentation smooth out the peaks in our memory—the big events that stand out from the more mundane events—leading to less emotional analysis of them?

I don’t know. But it’s worth thinking about.

August 21st, 2013

UK: “It is for the police to decide”

After detaining David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, at Heathrow airport for 9 hours under a law meant to allow police to question people that may be involved in planning terrorist attacks, the United Kingdom said this to justify it:

A Home Office spokesman said Monday that the detention was an operational police matter and that neither he nor the police would provide any details. “Schedule 7 forms an essential part of the U.K.’s security arrangements,” the spokesman said. “It is for the police to decide when it is necessary and proportionate to use these powers.”

There you have it. If the UK government wants to detain, harass, and take a journalist’s partner’s electronics based on a terrorism law, it is up to them to decide when it’s necessary.

We will do whatever we want, and you should just shut up. Actually, that’s basically what the UK told the Guardian:

The mood toughened just over a month ago, when I received a phone call from the centre of government telling me: “You’ve had your fun. Now we want the stuff back.” There followed further meetings with shadowy Whitehall figures. The demand was the same: hand the Snowden material back or destroy it. I explained that we could not research and report on this subject if we complied with this request. The man from Whitehall looked mystified. “You’ve had your debate. There’s no need to write any more.”

And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest to passing Chinese agents. “We can call off the black helicopters,” joked one as we swept up the remains of a MacBook Pro.

You’ve had your debate.

August 20th, 2013

“Our Egyptian Unrealpolitik”

Ross Douthat thinks it’s about time we abandon our unwavering support for Egypt’s regime:

But there also moments when the ground moves, and you have to take a step back and reassess whether the approach that realism seems to dictate is actually realistic. So, for instance: There is a difference between supporting a longstanding, creaking dictatorship on terms negotiated during the Cold War and supporting a second-generation junta that’s just deliberately overturned a democratic election. There is a difference between supporting a leadership, however corrupt, with a proven record of delivering relative stability and a leadership that so far is mostly delivering bloody chaos. And there’s a difference between supporting a government that’s willing to bend to your wishes at crucial moments and a government that seems intent on embarrassing you while telling the world it doesn’t need your help.

Douthat is right. While I think President Obama has largely handled the tumult Egypt correctly over the last two years—that is, he hasn’t jumped in to support any side, and has tried to maintain the U.S.’s close relationship with the Egyptian military—at this point I think it’s clear that trying to use that relationship, and funding, to influence the military’s decisions has failed. The military has crushed the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters despite our attempts to broker a deal and an inclusive government. What good, then, is treading lightly with our remarks and with our military funding? What has it gotten us?

This relationship has provided us with significant influence during Mubarak’s reign and acted as a bridge between Egypt and Israel—the main bulwark of relative stability in the Middle East since the 1970s—but that influence seems to be gone. Pretending that it isn’t, and continuing to provide aid despite that and despite the military government’s massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, only further reduces our influence by making it appear that the U.S. needs its friendly regimes more than they need the U.S.

It’s difficult to know what this path will mean for Egypt and Israel, but it’s rather apparent that maintaining our relationship and funding with absolutely zero strings attached isn’t going to prevent Egypt from heading down it.

August 20th, 2013

PDFpen for iPad from Smile (Sponsor)

Thanks to Smile for sponsoring this week’s RSS feed. If you’ve been thinking about getting PDFpen, this looks like the week to do it.

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August 20th, 2013

Igloo, an intranet you’ll actually like (Sponsor)

Big thanks to Igloo for sponsoring this week’s RSS feed. Igloo is free to use for up to ten people, so if you’re working with a team, you’ve got every reason to give it a try.

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Sponsorship by The Syndicate.

August 5th, 2013

Brains and Boltzmann Machines

The Boltzmann machine algorithm appears to be a good model for important brain processes like learning:

“It’s the best possibility we really have for understanding the brain at present,” said Sue Becker, a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavior at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. “I don’t know of a model that explains a wider range of phenomena in terms of learning and the structure of the brain.”

Hinton, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, has always wanted to understand the rules governing when the brain beefs a connection up and when it whittles one down — in short, the algorithm for how we learn. “It seemed to me if you want to understand something, you need to be able to build one,” he said. Following the reductionist approach of physics, his plan was to construct simple computer models of the brain that employed a variety of learning algorithms and “see which ones work,” said Hinton, who splits his time between the University of Toronto, where he is a professor of computer science, and Google.

I think this approach—trying to approximately model the brain’s functions—is ultimately going to provide much more understanding our brain than studying actual brains and nervous systems. The latter is absolutely useful, but not only are our tools for doing so remarkably primitive, but even relatively simple brains are monumentally complex, which means it’s fairly difficult to truly understand how they function by directly studying them.

Learning more from computer models may seem counterintuitive, but doing so forces us to actually understand the system’s design, which should indicate more universal principles that can be applied to biological brains as well.

If you can’t tell, I find the brain to be one of the most fascinating things we have to study. We are truly in the early days of understanding how they work, and not only is discovering it wonderfully exciting, but I think it will provide us with the tools to build computer systems and software of an entirely new magnitude, and answer many questions we’ve had about ourselves that have been relegated to religion and philosophy out of necessity.

July 30th, 2013

“Speaking Truth to Stupid”

I missed this, but last year, Jake Tapper captured exactly what’s so grating about The Newsroom in a critique of the show:

But that prompts the question: protect it from what? This is where Sorkin’s high-minded critique falls flat. McAvoy sanctimoniously laments the deterioration of public discourse and the news media’s complicity in it. But if that is the problem, his subsequent actions reveal a commitment to a uniformly partisan solution. McAvoy—and, by extension, Sorkin—preach political selflessness, but they practice pure partisanship; they extol the Fourth Estate’s democratic duty, but they believe that responsibility consists mostly of criticizing Republicans.

That was obvious from the very first episode, with Mackenzie McHale’s rant:

WILL: And what does winning look like to you?

MACKENZIE: Reclaiming the Fourth Estate. Reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession. A nightly newscast that informs a debate worthy of a great nation. Civility, respect, and a return to what’s important. The death of bitchiness, the death of gossip and voyeurism. Speaking truth to stupid. No demographic sweet spot. A place where we all come together.

We’re coming to a tipping point. I know you know that. There’s gonna be a huge conversation. Is government an instrument of good or is it every man for himself? Is there something bigger we want to reach for or is self-interest our basic resting pulse? You and I have a chance to be among the few people who can frame that debate.

Apparently, when the news is framed by someone who believes that the debate over the extent of government and what its proper role is can be accurately summarized as the choice between people who believe government is an “instrument of good,” and people who believe it’s “every man for himself”—and that the former group believes that there’s “something bigger we want to reach for” while the latter believe self-interest is “our basic resting pulse—then that’s a place where “we all come together.”

Tapper shows what this “reclaiming” of the Fourth Estate looks like in a later episode:

In another episode Sorkin pats McAvoy on the back for limiting his coverage of the failed Times Square bomber and resisting the temptation to “hype” a terrorist threat that fizzled. (With no apparent sense of sarcasm, Skinner repeats praise for their restraint from Media Matters and Think Progress, as if those explicitly liberal websites are nonideological arbiters of Edward R. Murrow’s legacy.) And what are the important issues “News Night” covers instead of the piffle of Faisal Shahzad, a homegrown terrorist funded and trained by the Pakistani Taliban? McAvoy instead devotes at least a week of his broadcast to showcasing what a horribly inept and dangerous bunch Tea Party Republicans are as they—gasp!—defeat establishment Republicans in free and fair primaries and elections. It’s all well and good to follow the Koch brothers’ money, but at a time when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, it’s telling that McAvoy and Sorkin aim their sights at conservatives seeking power—not moderates and liberals wielding it.

That nicely encapsulates what’s so vapid about McHale’s speech: Her character, and the show, is attempting to frame the news in pursuit of their own ideology, while draping it in beautiful platitudes about civility and respect, honoring journalism and rising above the monumental stupidity of dominant media. It’s deliciously cynical, or disturbingly delusional, to frame the news such that your ideology is the source of all enlightened truth and progress, and your opponent’s is the fount of all terrible, retrograde and corrupt, and call that “inform[ing] a debate worthy of a great nation” and “return[ing] to what’s important.”

July 30th, 2013

“Responsible Design” For Connected Devices

Don Norman on connected devices:

A standard response to this dilemma is to put the burden on the individual: it is our responsibility to use technology responsibly. I agree in theory, but not in practice. I know all too well the temptations of distraction—all that fascinating news, all those friends who send me status reports and wish me to respond with my own. I find it easy to succumb—anything to avoid the difficult, dreary concentration required to accomplish anything of value. I’ve often had to unplug my computer from the Internet to complete my work. The providers of these technologies must share the burden of responsible design.

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly right. Device makers and software developers all have a responsibility for what their creations allow, or what incentives they create for people. “People should use it smarter” isn’t an acceptable response.

July 29th, 2013

Re-thinking the Link Between Mobility and Inequality

In a thought-provoking piece, Reihan Salam argues that focusing on the link between mobility and inequality can elide a much deeper story:

Yet these U.S. metropolitan areas (Seattle, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh) have much higher Gini coefficients than Denmark and Norway. By way of comparison, the Gini coefficient (0 is perfect equality, 1 is perfect inequality) for the U.S. is .467, it is .248 for Denmark and .250 for Norway. Seattle has a Gini coefficient of .439, Salt Lake City has a Gini coefficient of .417, and Pittsburgh has a Gini coefficient of .459. If there is a tight association between inequality and mobility, how is it that Seattle and Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh are roughly matching the upward mobility performance of Denmark and Norway with levels of inequality that are subtantially higher? Again, this doesn’t mean that inequality is irrelevant. But if Pittsburgh (.459) and Denmark (.248) are in roughly the same ballpark, it seems that we ought to pay close attention to what Pittsburgh and cities like it are getting right.

Salam emphasizes that while that link is real, we should also focus on a city’s level of integration, which helps to explain the disconnect he explains above. Read it.

July 29th, 2013


Bob Mansfield was removed from Apple’s executive team page this weekend. Apple said in a statement that he will not be a part of Apple’s executive team, but will continue to work on special projects at Apple and report to Tim Cook. John Gruber reports that there’s no intrigue behind the movie—he really is just going to be focusing on special projects.

Erica Ogg writes:

The reason for the reassignment of Mansfield is only one of many questions about what is going on at Apple right now. He’s not the only high-profile executive whose job title at Apple isn’t very clear or defined. While that might be a sign of turmoil, as was the case last year when Mansfield tried to retire, it’s quite possible that Apple is now moving key executives onto secret projects that it won’t reveal until it’s ready.

That certainly seems right. It’s probably better to read this as a result of a greater focus at Apple on new product lines they’re developing, most likely a wearable device. Which is exciting. We’re seeing Apple’s future developing here.

July 29th, 2013