All entries for January 2005

January 10, 2005

Sleep – Are you getting enough?

For many of us, sleep is something that robs us of time which could be spending working, socialising or simply watching television. Why sleep for 9–10 hours each night, when 5 or 6 is enough to ensure the following day isn’t spent hallucinating? For many of us, achieving the rough benchmark of 8 hours sleep would mean going to bed at around midnight each day. Given the demands placed on our time from assignments, miscellaneous hobbies and nightly excursions to the union, a 12am bedtime may appear more suited to juveniles.

Bad sleeping habits may come at the cost of our general health and our productivity. Within the university environment, our every day actions are geared towards acquiring and retaining knowledge. Depriving ourselves of valuable hours in bed renders us unable to achieve such ends effectively. Indeed, the problem runs deeper than the tendency to drift in and out of consciousness during lectures.

An article by Dr Piotr Wozniak, a memory and learning specialist states the following:

Yet some dramatic facts related to sleep deprivation slowly come into light. Each year sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs (e.g. by contributing to high blood pressure and heart disease). That does not include accidents and lost productivity at work! For this, the National Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that sleep deprivation costs $150 billion a year in higher stress and reduced workplace productivity (US, 1999). 40% of truck accidents are attributable to fatigue and drowsiness, and there is an 800% increase in single vehicle commercial truck accidents between midnight and 8 am. Major industrial disasters have been attributed to sleep deprivation (among these, at least in part, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the gas leak at Bhopal, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill).
It has been known since the 1920s that sleep improves recall in learning. However, only recently, research by Dr Robert Stickgold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts Mental Health Center, has made international headlines. Dr Stickgold demonstrated a fact that has long been known yet little appreciated: sleep is necessary for learning! Without sleep we reduce the retention of facts we have learned the previous day (and not only). Studying nights before an exam may be sufficient for passing the exam, yet it will leave few useful traces in long-term memory. The exam on its own replaces knowledge as the main purpose of studying!

‘But I can function perfectly well with only 5 hours sleep!’ you may be saying. As in most cases where people must judge their capabilities you probably overestimate yourself. Sure you can function, but it’s almost certain that you’re not as alert and effective as you could be. Are the potential gains in our mental state worth the investment in sleep of an extra few hours each day? It’s certainly worth finding out for yourself.

Further reading:

Dream On: Sleep in the 24/7 Society
A publication from influential UK think tank, DEMOS.

Good Sleep, Good Learning, Good Life – Dr Piotr Wozniak

January 09, 2005

Foo Fighters – New album

The Foo Fighters were my first ever ‘favourite band’ after having been introduced to the world of guitar based music with two albums: Nirvana – Nevermind & The Offspring – Ixnay on the Hombre. On their self titled debut, Dave Grohl is said to have single handedly written the material and recorded the vocals, guitar, bass and drum parts. This remains my favouite release, with simple, memorable tracks like ‘Along + Easy Target’ & ‘Exhausted’ complete with much distortion, interspersed with the dreamy songs like ‘Floaty’ and the ultra abrasive ‘Wattershed’.

We subsequently saw the release of a superb album in ‘The Colour and the Shape’, a good album in ‘There Is Nothing Left to Lose’ and the mediocre ‘One by One’.

The group are ready to release their latest offering having put their various side projects on hold for a little while. According to, “The band are marking their ten year anniversary with a two-sided LP – one disc full of rock songs and the other featuring acoustic tracks.” Hopefully, we will be blessed with a true return to form as opposed to a handful of gems amongst much filler.

January 08, 2005

Heuristics – Crazy thinking

I talked earlier about the release of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Blink. Here is another quote from his site regarding its content.

It is concerned with the smallest components of our everyday lives—with the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that bubble up whenever we meet a new person, or confront a complex situation, or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. I think its time we paid more attention to those fleeting moments. I think that if we did, it would change the way wars are fought, the kind of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counselled, the way job interviews are conducted and on and on—and if you combine all those little changes together you end up with a different and happier world.

I’ve no real idea of the book’s content but the above passage suggests there will be some discussion of biases inherent in human thought processes. Much interesting work on this has been done by psychologists, philosophers and economists. Mental biases come under the umbrella of heuristics.

From wikipedia:

In psychology, heuristics are simple, efficient rules of thumb which have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgments and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information. These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to systematic cognitive biases.

Prominent players in the field have been Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Daniel Kahneman won the pseudo Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in “[integrating] insights from psychological research into economic science, especially concerning human judgment and decision-making under uncertainty”. Such insights have been used to develop the field of behavioural finance, which takes into account the effect of such biases on economic and financial systems. Members of this field would accuse traditional economic models of assuming excessive rationality, rendering them less effective in the forecasting of human behaviour.

January 05, 2005

Make Poverty History?

‘Make Poverty History’ is a vital campaign which will increase the prominance of issues facing the developed world amongst the public and politicians. The developed world has made genuine errors in the past as regards the conditionality of loans, and political concerns have hindered movements towards free trade.

The campaigners are correct to say many of today’s rich countries enjoyed protection from international competition in the past. However, to say protection from competition will lead to a greater economic development (in both monetary and humanitarian terms) than would occur with the multilateral removal of trade barriers is dubious. Capital market liberalisation has been of questionable benefit, but the gains available from free trade have been well documented.

The Ludvig Von Mises Institute
blog had a recent post entitled ‘The Infant Industry Argument’ which discussed the protection of growing industries. One reader made the following comment which supporters of the campaign could bear in mind

“The infant industry argument relies upon the empirical claim that historically many countries industrialised behind tariff barriers. (A recent book advancing the argument you mention is Kicking Away the Ladder (2002) by Ha-Joon Chang, an economist at Cambridge University (UK).) This is true but it only establishes correlation not causation. Had resources not been wastefully diverted by tariffs, real incomes would have risen even faster during the 19th century than they did.”

‘Free trade’ is a worthy aim, but if ‘trade justice’ involves the wholesale protection of domestic industry by the developing world then the objective is less than optimal, regardless of whether such protection is deemed temporary.

January 04, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell – Blink

January 11th 2005 will see the US release of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Blink.


What Is Blink? It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

Gladwell's previous book, Tipping Point was a huge success worldwide and discussed the spread of ideas within a body of people. The rapid spread of a given idea can be termed a social epidemic and is associated with technological, fashion and ideological trends. Central to this book is the thought that there exists a certain critical point at which new ideas suddenly gain widespread recognition; The Tipping Point. Additionally, small changes in a system can have disproportionate effects which allow this.

The three ideas which govern social epidemics are as follows:
a) The Law of the Few
b) The Stickiness Factor
c) The Power of Context

The Law of the Few
It takes only three types of people to allow an idea to spread: People with highly specialised knowledge (Mavens), people with contacts which spanning a range of 'worlds' (Connectors) and people able to persuade others to change their behaviour (Salesmen). The majority of people could be put into one of these categories, but only when exceptional people in each category are combined is there potential for a social epidemic.

The Stickiness Factor
Small changes in the way ideas are presented can greatly improve the ease with which they remain in people's minds.

Small changes in the environment in which the idea exists can increase the ease and subsequent speed of transmission between people.

I've talked about the spread of ideas ideas here, but the above principles can be applied to physical epidemics such as the spread of the common cold. The Tipping Point is full of real world examples illustrating the above principles. Such examples range from the popularity of smoking amongst teenagers to the development of TV shows such as Sesame Street. It is definitely worth your time.

Hopefully, Malcolm Gladwell's new offering will prove equally successful.

January 01, 2005

Lecture notes & Universities

MIT's OpenCourseWare: a free and open educational resource for faculty, students, and self-learners around the world. OCW supports MIT's mission to advance knowledge and education, and serve the world in the 21st century. It is true to MIT's values of excellence, innovation, and leadership.

I haven’t read a great deal about this on the net, but it’s great that MIT, along with many other reputable universities worldwide are willing to make course notes available online. Providing notes gives potential pupils an idea of the depth to which topics are covered and allows the layman to gain basic knowledge of many topics even if they’ll never be formally assessed. Notes are also of use to students in rival institutions in need of alternative explanations in order to fully grasp a topic. A greater collective stock of knowledge and an increased propensity to acquire new learning can only be a positive thing.

Clearly, the benefit derived from such notes is increased substantially if one has the support of lecturers, tutors and fellow students. As such, it’s unlikely that universities will ever become obsolete. However, it would be great if there was more flexibility as regards paying for tuition i.e. allowing students to opt out of lectures for a given module, or to attend only those classes which are considered potentially useful. Fees paid should reflect the level of support a student has received. That an english student pays the same fees as a physicist is bizzare given the latter’s extensive laboratory sessions and the cost of equipment required.

For a highly motivated individual on a course conducive to private study, many lectures and classes are rendered redundant. £18 000 is a large price to pay for a university education when one could potentially perform equally well with a library subscription, textbooks and much self-discipline. I probably couldn’t handle my course though self study alone, but it wouldn’t hurt to be able to choose how much interaction with lecturers and tutors I need. Obviously, universities have little incentive to permit such flexibility for undergraduate students – why lose the luxury of a regular, guaranteed income stream

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