• Five Books: Books Reviews Through Expert Interviews

    Five Books has been a favourite reading discovery site of mine for a few years. Twice a week, an expert in a given field is asked to select five books on a related topic, and then explains that selection in an often-enlightening short interview.

    I’ve never failed to come away from an interview with some new insights or a great book recommendation (or both). And if you’re new to the site, there’s almost 2,000 interviews in the backlog!

    Want somewhere to start?

  • NPR’s Annual Book Concierge

    One of my favourite annual publications is NPR’s Book Concierge, released each December.

    After suffering from “an acute case of list fatigue”, NPR stopped producing year-end lists in 2012 and, from 2013 onwards, has instead elicited recommendations from NPR staffers and other critics to create this “interactive reading guide [that’s] more Venn diagram-y than list-y”.

    It’s a wonderful way to discover new books for that never-ending to-read list.

    From the introduction to the 2019 concierge, a short introduction from Mary Louise Kelly, Ailsa Chang, and Petra Mayer (NPR’s book editor):

    Mayer: So the way it works is it’s a giant visual matrix of […] more than 350 books. And they’re all recommended by our staff and critics and down one side of the page […] there’s a list of filters: straight-up things like nonfiction, realistic fiction, science fiction. And then there’s kind of what we call the ‘subjective tags’, which are the fun ones like Ladies first or The dark side.

    Kelly: And one of the things I love about it is it’s not some big, long book review that I have to slog through before I decide if I want to read this book. It’s just a few sentences. […] How I would describe this to my best friend.

  • Music Theory, Language Transfer, and the Thinking Method

    I’ve wanted to learn music theory for a number of years, but have never found a source that’s both engaging and educating. That is, until now, thanks to Language Transfer’s music theory course.

    For a while now, whenever I’ve read an article or post about language learning, someone in the comments invariably praises Language Transfer and the underlying methodology. Now, the site/app has expanded away from just languages to include music theory, too!

    Founded and run by Mihalis Eleftheriou, I think of his approach to learning (dubbed The Thinking Method) as using analogies to teach. That is, emphasising similarities and patterns between the new material and concepts you already know. I find it an intuitive and effective method.

    I’ve not used it to learn a language (although do plan on doing so), but the music theory lessons are great. As Mihalis says in the first lesson, when discussing the development of the music theory course:

    The more I try to finalise [the course], the more there seems to be to investigate and to weave into the course. The more I fall into the rabbit hole of looking at the world through the lens of music, the more I see its principles reflected elsewhere and everywhere, and so I need to learn about rock formation, colour wave lengths… origami even!

    If you’re interested in the underlying teaching methodology, Mihalis has also put together an extensive Thinking Method Guidebook (pdf).

  • Learning Languages from the Peace Corps, Diplomats and the DoD

    Earlier this week I shared language learning difficulty maps based on experiences from the Foreign Service Institute (FSI).

    As I mentioned in that post, the FSI courses are public domain, having been developed by the US federal government for training diplomats. However, there are two other similar language learning sources: those from the Peace Corps and the Defense Language Institute.

    I often find myself re-searching for quality resources for these courses, so wanted to share my findings for future reference. It’s important to note that these courses are a little outdated, so definitely need to be supplemented with more recent materials, too.

    • The Live Lingua Project is a proprietary language learning school, but they host probably the most comprehensive database of materials for the FSI, DLI and Peace Corps language learning materials.
    • The Yojik Website is maintained by Eric Streit and hosts various other resources in addition to those from the FSI, DLI and Peace Corps.

    You can find plenty of alternatives, but these are two reliable sources.

  • Language Learning Difficulty Maps

    The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the primary training institute for employees of the “US foreign affairs community” (diplomats, military personnel, etc.). The FSI is probably most well known for its foreign language courses, which, while sometimes a bit outdated, is still great quality and in the public domain.

    The FSI has has compiled “approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve [professional working proficiency]”.

    Reddit’s /u/Fummy took that data and created the maps below, showing the learning difficulty of the major European languages and the major Eurasian and North African languages:

    The underlying data comes from Wikibooks, where the following disclaimer is important:

    It must also be kept in mind that students at FSI are almost 40 years old, are native speakers of English and have a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages. They study in small classes of no more than six. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with three or four hours per day of directed self-study.

  • The Wug Test and Language Development in Children

    The Wug Test is a foundational study in how language develops in children. It’s also a bit cute:

    This is a WUG. Now there is another one. There are two of them. There are two ________.

    Developed by Jean Berko Gleason in the 1950s, it’s been said that the only thing with a greater impact on the field of child language research was the innovation of the tape recorder.

    Gleason’s major finding was that even very young children are able to connect suitable endings‍ to nonsense words they have never heard before, implying that they have internalized systematic aspects of the linguistic system which no one has necessarily tried to teach them. However, she also identified an earlier stage at which children can produce such forms for real words, but not yet for nonsense words‍—‌implying that children start by memorizing singular–plural pairs they hear spoken by others, then eventually extract rules and patterns from these examples which they apply to novel words.

    The Wug Test was the first experimental proof that young children have extracted generalizable rules from the language around them, rather than simply memorizing words that they have heard. […] Its conclusions are viewed as essential to the understanding of when and how children reach major language milestones.

    Browsing summaries of Gleason’s other research on her Wikipedia entry is fascinating, especially when thinking of helping my children learn language ‘routines’. It’s worth a quick browse.

  • Two Palms to a Shaftment: English, Imperial, and Customary US Units

    English units were the measurement standards used across the British Empire until 1826; it’s the system that immediately preceded and (independently) developed into today’s imperial units and US customary units.

    I never really thought about why the UK and US diverged slightly, but (obviously, in retrospect) the simple reason that imperial and US customary units differ in some significant ways is that both systems were developed after the US became independent, based on the in-use-at-that-time English units system.

    The Wikipedia diagram showing the relationship between lengths in the English unit system is a fun reference:

    And of course, no discussion on this topic can ignore this striking map of metric adoption around the world:

  • Longevity FAQ and Longevity 101: Your Beginner’s Guides

    I find the concept of longevity and longevity research fascinating, from both a scientific and philosophical perspective: it’s cool to read about how researchers have effectively reversed the ageing of some mice, and I find it endlessly curious how large swathes of society want to ‘solve’ ageing (or, maybe more accurately, the other things that kill us as we age).

    [Longevity research is] trying to figure out what kinds of damage accumulate with age, how to reverse that accumulation, and the search for switches that we could flip in human biology to increase lifespan.

    When I wanted to read more on the topic and get a better understanding of some fundamental concepts, I used and recommend two ‘longevity guides’ that are accessible and concise: Laura Deming’s Longevity FAQ and Spannr’s Longevity 101.

    The Longevity FAQ provides a simple breakdown of (very) basic concepts in ageing research, followed by two-paragraph layman-friendly introductions to the nine major research areas with the most potential to make a positive impact (see below for details).

    Longevity 101, on the other hand, takes a more practical rather than academic approach, and is billed as ‘The Ultimate Guide To Increasing Your Healthspan & Lifespan’. The site is beautiful and well researched (and referenced), providing easy reads on beginner, intermediate and advanced ‘strategies’:

    Of course, as always, take everything with the usual caution: the science on the topic is still relatively new, and both guides are written by those with vested interests in the topic (one via the VC space).

    And for interest, these are the nine major research areas from the Longevity FAQ:

    • Caloric Restriction: eating less, in a variety of ways, can make you live longer – but is your body just using number of calories as a signal?
    • Insulin/IGF: genetic pathways related to growth and insulin signaling are linked to aging
    • Parabiosis: young blood makes old mice healthier, but why?
    • Senescence: a fraction of your cells get older than the others, so we’d like to eliminate them
    • Autophagy: the garbage disposal unit of the cell worsens with age, improving it might increase healthy lifespan
    • Hypothalamus: a surprising number of things can increase lifespan when only changed in the brain tissue
    • Reproductive System: removing the ability to reproduce can increase lifespan
    • Mitochondria: mitochondrial mutations impact lifespan in counterintuitive ways
    • Sirtuins: sirtuins can change DNA and increase lifespan
  • Rules of Formulating Knowledge

    Back in 2009, I posted about the SuperMemo learning algorithm, based on the tried-and-true learning principle of spaced repetition (see also).

    I see now that, around that time, Piotr Woźniak, developer of the SuperMemo algorithm, wrote about his twenty rules of formulating knowledge.

    The below seven really stuck out to me, with all of them explained in detail in his blog post.

    1. Do not learn if you do not understand
    2. Learn before you memorise
    3. Build upon the basics
    4. Stick to the minimum information principle
    5. Cloze deletion is easy and effective (I see cloze deletion as, effectively, self-testing via spaced repetition)
    6. Avoid sets and enumerations
    7. Combat interference [from similar things]
  • Studying and Learning: What Works, What Doesn’t

    Self-testing and spaced repetition are the “two clear winners” in how to study and learn better. That’s from an informal meta study conducted by six professors (from fields such as psychology, educational psychology, and neuroscience) when they reviewed over 700 scientific articles to identify the ten most common learning techniques and which are the most effective (pdf, web).

    The requirements of their literature review:

    [A learning] technique must be useful in a range of learning conditions, such as whether a student works alone or in a group. It must assist learners of various ages, abilities and levels of prior knowledge — and it must have been tested in a classroom or other real-world situation. Learners should be able to use the method to master a variety of subjects, and their performance should benefit no matter what kind of test is used to measure it. The best approaches also result in long-lasting improvements in knowledge and comprehension.

    The authors of the article go into great detail on how and when to use the different methods effectively, so check out the article from Scientific American. but to summarise:

    • Self-testing and distributed practice (spaced repetition) are the two stand-out methods, shown to be “robust, durable and relevant in many situations”.
    • Elaborative interrogation (asking ‘Why?’), self-explanation (‘How do I know this?’) and interleaved practice (mixing up the learning topics) are also recommended methods, but come with reservations.
    • However, the ever-popular methods of highlighting, re-reading, imagery for text learning (making mental pictures), summarisation, and keyword mnemonics are simply: “not advised”. Some do work, but are time consuming and effective only in limited circumstances, while others lack any evidence of effectiveness

    via Nicky Case