Monthly Archives: May 2011

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

This question is posed by Nicholas Carr in this book, “The Shallows: What The Internet Is
Doing to Our Brains
.” The best chapter in the book is “Search, Memory” which details the biology of how short term memories are turned into long term memories that create a fabric of knowledge that we call wisdom. As people learn more, and their brains make physical connections with the information, the person develops a point of view on life. Long term memories are called up to be used in working memory, and more connections made.

When people begin to rely on Google search for information rather than actually learning things, this fabric of knowledge remains shallow. The deep learning that creates warp and woof of culture diminishes. The culture that surrounds us influences the content and character of a person’s memory. My memories of peace marches protesting the Vietnam war are different from the memories of Egyptian students in Tahir Square. Each memory reflects the culture of our time. When learning is superficial, memories become more like infotainment than a symphony. Playwright Richard Foreman frets that we are becoming “pancake people — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” Carr goes on to say:

Those who celebrate “outsourcing” of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamental organic nature of biological memory. What gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency. It exists in time, changing as the body changes. Indeed, the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation, including the generation of proteins to form new synaptic terminals.

Biological memory is in a constant state of renewal. Computer memory is static — you can copy the file, but the file remains the same. It doesn’t learn, it doesn’t update, it doesn’t develop a new way of looking at the old information. We can pretend that search engines are better than actually having to remember things, but for knowledge to become part of our experience, we have to physically assimilate it in our brains. A computer disk can become full, but our brains never become full. There is always room for more learning. Carr says:

We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them, with each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches.

The crux of the book is summed up on page 196. “The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn’t just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.”

The Brain is Plastic

The Brain is Plastic

No, not MADE of plastic — the brain physically changes when you do the same thing over and over. To me it feels like it creates little grooves in my brain. You have to rest your brain by doing something different — something so absorbing that you are completely diverted from what has exhausted you. You can’t fly an airplane safely and fret about taxes at the same time. You can’t line up a pool shot and plan a marketing strategy simultaneously.

Nobel-prize winner Dr. Kandel, featured on PBS’ show about the brain, is quoted in “The Shallows”:

“The growth and maintenance of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist.” The process also says something important about how, thanks to the plasticity of our brains, our experiences continually shape our behavior and identity: “The fact that a gene must be switched on to form long-term memory shows clearly that genes are not simply determinants of behavior but are also responsive to environmental stimulation, such as learning.”

Learning changes our brain, and continual learning strengthens our “learning muscles.” The more we do something, the better we get at it. But constant pressure can be exhausting.

Two important elements to repair “the little grooves” that we wear into our brains by intense repetition of the same mental activities:

  1. A change of scene and
  2. Doing something different that is creative and absorbing.

How do you relax your brain? Non-verbal play or do you use mental diversions like playing Bridge? What do you think is most effective?

Screensucking in the Shallows

Screensucking in the Shallows

I am reading “The Shallows: How the Internet Affects our Minds” by Nicholas Carr and I came across the May 10 article in the NYTimes Science News on how kids with Attention Deficit Disorder can spend hours in front of a screen.

In fact, a child’s ability to stay focused on a screen, though not anywhere else, is actually characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. … Children with A.D.H.D. may find video games even more gratifying than other children do because their dopamine reward circuitry may be otherwise deficient.

The Shallows” postulates that it much harder to have Deep Learning and Deep Thinking when screen sucking. When reading online, every link requires a decision “Do I Click?” and that keeps the thinking shallow. The shallow thinking explains why it is so hard to learn to design websites online. When I am seeking an answer to question A, I am always distracted by the offer of a solution to a tangential problem. This may be why people sign up for classes taught the conventional way, in a classroom. Do you learn better staring at a screen, fully absorbed, or do you prefer a textbook or a class?

In Arabic, Democracy means Decadence

In Arabic, Democracy means Decadence

Michael Scheuer was the chief of the CIAs bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and remained a CIA counterterrorism analyst until 2004. His writing is maddeningly unquotable, and his point of view is hidden until the last pages of the book.
He says that in 1996 he was fortunate to join a small company of CIA officers who worked in the US and overseas, who came to hate bin Laden but who also came to respect his piety, integrity and skills. Their mission was to understand bin Laden’s motivation, to capture or kill him, and to destroy al-Qaeda but it was “thwarted… by self seeking cowardice… in the senior levels of the intelligence community” and by the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Even today, the “former CIA officer who stopped plans to capture bin Laden in 1998-1999 is now President Obama’s senior advisor on ‘extremism.'” When Scheuer left the CIA in 2004, he directed his frustration into training young non-commissioned officers and junior officers for the US Marines and the Army on how al-Qaeda and its allies perceive the world. Many of his trainees were veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan or both. He found them to be “decent, smart, tough and funny, though also cynical and angry.” The experienced officers who had already served overseas had learned that they were not fighting “freedom-hating nihilists, as they senior commanders had told them, but hard-fighting, brave and intelligent men” who were defending their homes and who intended to drive the American invaders out of their country and out of the Muslim world. Scheuer ends the book by praising his trainees, saying “all Americans should support and honor these young… lions [who are] led by self-serving moral cowards.” The political leadership of this country has misled us so that “most of the assumptions Americans have about bin Laden — are dead wrong.” Scheuer wrote the book in the hope that we would stop deceiving ourselves.

The first chapter is practically unreadable but the information in the book is so interesting and so well documented that you might find it worth the trouble, although you might be advised to read it back to front. One of the most cogent passages in the book is a quote from Omar, the son of Osama (p. 111):

My father paused before explaining it this way. “Omar, try to imagine a two-wheeled bicycle. One wheel is made of steel. The other is made of wood. Now, my son, if you wanted to destroy the bicycle, would you destroy the wooden or the steel wheel?”

“The wooden wheel of course, ” I replied.

“You are correct my son. Remember this: America and Israel are one bicycle with two wheels. The wooden wheel represents the United States. The steel wheel represents Israel. Omar, Israel is the stronger power of the two. Does a general attack the strongest line when in battle? No, he concentrates on the weakest part of the line. The Americans are weak. It is best to attack the weakest point first. Once we take out the weak wooden wheel, the steel wheel will automatically fail. Who can ride a bicycle with only one wheel?”

He patted my knee with his hand. “First we obliterate America. By that I don’t mean militarily. We can destroy America from within by making it economically weak, until its markets collapse. When that happens, they will have not interest in supplying Israel with arms, for they will not have extra funds to do so. At that time, the steel wheel will corrode and be destroyed by lack of attention.

“That’s what we [Muslims] did to the Russians. We bled blood from their body in Afghanistan. The Russians spent all their wealth on the war in Afghanistan. When they could no longer finance the war, they fled. After fleeing their whole system collapsed. Holy Warriors defending Afghanistan are the ones responsible for bringing a huge nation to its knees. We can do the same thing with America and Israel. We only have to be patient.”


Does Compensation Cut Creativity?

Does Compensation Cut Creativity?

Port AransasMy friend Dee lives in Port Aransas, a charming and artistic beach community on a barrier island near the Southern tip of Texas. Corpus Christi is the nearest city. For a year now, Dee has been writing an interview column for the local newspaper and she just decided that she wants to get paid. Will getting paid erase the fun and wipe out the creativity of writing for the Island Moon?

Academic research shows that if-then rewards are disastrous to creativity. You know — IF you sell newspaper advertising to the business you just profiled, THEN the newspaper will pay you a commission.

Daniel Pink says in his book “Drive” that the research shows that production jobs like auto manufacturing respond to financial incentives (if your production goes up 20% your pay goes up 10%) but the same strategy hobbles creativity. “Straight-forward production responds to incentives,” says Dan Pink, but high-performance creativity requires an unseen intrinsic drive. He says three things are necessary for creative “flow”:

  1. Engagement. The writer cares about the subject and the oucome
  2. Clear goals and immediate feedback
  3. Skill. The writer must believe that he or she can do it

Dee loves Port Aransas, a drinking town with a fishing problem. It is a colorful, artistic beach town on Mustang Island and a fun place to party for the students from the University of Texas at Austin. Dee owns a profitable business that has thrived on her writing talents but she longed for a more creative outlet. She started writing for the Island Moon as a hobby, interviewing the artists and interesting shop owners to get to know her neighbors better. The Island Moon doesn’t pay for writing, and that was a perfect fit because Dee was looking for a social hobby. A year ago, Dee did not want to have to sell advertising to her interviewees, but the Island Moon only pays for selling ads, not for writing. If Dee wants to get paid by the Island Moon, she will have to ask the businesses profiled in Dee-Scoveries if they want to advertise in the newspaper.

Pink thinks that adding compensation to the equation will contaminate the creative urge. He talks about how incentives impact productivity in his highly-watched TED talk on the Surprising Science of Motivation.

If Dee starts to tie in advertising with her interviews, will she begin to choose subjects that are more likely to advertise? Will she start to bypass the unique and quirky personalities that make Port Aransas so interesting? Will this impact her writing? Will it take the fun out of her hobby?

It’s Always 40° at the Coast

It’s Always 40° at the Coast

A few days before Mothers Day, Santa Rosa had a record-breaking 89° so we packed up Friday morning and headed to the coast. I remembered how cold it gets so I brought a parka and a knit cap, but Howard didn’t. He also did not pack the extra down sleeping bag we often use as a bedspread. It tends to get very cold around dinner time, then as the temperature differential between the inland valleys and the coast dissipates, it warms up by midnight and stays comfortable throughout the night. But warm stews are the best dinner in the cold California summers! I brought homemade lentil soup and Chicken Tagine, a Moroccan stew made with apricots, chickpeas and bulgar.

Here is a map of the Gualala River Watershed with the ocean and the mouth of the Gualala River in the background. This is a prime spot for whale watching in February when the mothers come close to the sandbar to scratch off their mussels. The county campground is small, lovely and has a full-time camp host so it is very well run. We sat in the tent and read, or sat by the river and read. It was great having the campground to ourselves!