Tag Archives: educational - Page 2

How The Brain Becomes Bilingual

We’ve seen before that being bilingual is a pretty good thing for the brain, because it makes it really good at focusing on one thing and tuning out all the noise, better at multitasking, and more creative at problem-solving. The New York Times now has an article about research being done on babies to see what happens when they first start to learn to speak. This research shows that babies first start being able to make out word sounds at about 6 months old and over the next 3 months or so, the brain hones in the language(s) around them. Each language has a specific kind of sound to it, and so if a baby grows up around English, his brain will focus in on sounds that sound like English, and by 10-12 months old he’ll get significantly worse at paying attention to non-English sounds.

Baby in a Magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine


However, if the baby is exposed to two languages, for example English and Mandarin, at 12 months he’ll be just as good at picking out the English sounds as the Mandarin sounds, and just as bad at picking out other sounds (for example, Turkish) as a monolingual kid. This shows how the brain goes from being a blank slate for language to becoming specialized at hearing languages that matter to the baby. There are a couple of interesting nuances too:

  • Babies respond to two languages only when real, live persons speak it to them. Just playing audio or video of people speaking it has no impact whatsoever.
  • When 4 months old, babies can differentiate between languages just by seeing the people speaking them, without hearing any sound. By 8 months old, monolingual babies lose this ability, but bilingual ones still have it.

The related TED presentation done by the researchers makes for a pretty interesting 10 minutes:

From The New York Times and TED

How Many Continents?

If you start thinking about how many continents there are, there’s really no good definition for them. We’re taught that there are seven continents (North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia), but really there is no solid definition of the word “continent” that arrives at that number, which is based on some vague notion of geographical landmasses and culture. So depending on how you actually define the word, there can be as few as three or as many as dozens of continents.

C.G.P. Grey, the guy who brought us the history of coffee and the difference between England, Britain and the U.K., explores the interesting issues involved in a new video:

From YouTube, via Laughing Squid


Everything You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Coffee

From the same guy that explained to us the difference between England, Great Britain and the UK, now comes a new video bringing to light all the wonderful benefits of coffee. Summary: coffee comes from the tropics, it’s consumed avidly by northerners (especially northern Europeans), has virtually no downsides at all and is responsible for the Enlightenment and therefore everything else that’s good about Western civilization.

Via Laughing Squid

Being Bilingual Is Great For The Brain

The New York Times has an interview with a brain scientist who’s been specifically studying people that speak more than one language, fluently. Meaning, your high school Spanish doesn’t count, but if you speak Turkish with the bus driver every day, that’s good. So for those that are truly bilingual, the benefits come from the fact that they’re always juggling around two languages in their head, and the brain gets really good at tuning one out and focusing on the language that matters at the moment.

Einstein was bilingual

However, this benefit extends to anything else the brain is doing, and these lucky individuals are really good at tuning out all kinds of stuff that doesn’t matter — the noise of the problem — and are better equipped to focus on the relevant data. Monolinguals on the other hand, would take longer to evaluate what’s going on in a distracting environment. In fact, they did a study asking people to multitask while driving and the bilinguals’ driving performance dropped less than the normal folks’. Another interesting study showed that Alzheimer’s showed up about five years later in bilingual patients, not because they didn’t have it, but because they were able to better cope with the loss of brain function.

What the article doesn’t address but would be very interesting to see is, how the digital natives do versus bilingual people. A lot of kids that have grown up in the past couple of decades have been constantly and voluntarily exposed to massive amounts of media, while having to perform worthwhile tasks. For example, doing homework while listening to music and chatting on the Internet with a best friend, and every so often getting interrupted by email and text messages. It seems like that kind of juggling could give speaking two languages a run for its money, making their brains also excellent at focusing on the relevant stuff at hand.

From The New York Times, via Lifehacker

The War On Drugs Doesn’t Cost That Much

The Cato Institute published a white paper by a Harvard economist which analyzes the impact that ending drug prohibition would have on state and federal government budgets. It estimates that between the savings from not spending money on enforcement and the income from from drug taxes, the end of prohibition would add about $88 billion to government coffers, most of which ($72 billion) would go to state governments.

The combined total spending for state and federal governments for 2010 was $5,800 billion, so that would be about 1.5% of the combined budget, and 2.5% of the $2,885 billion total of state budgets. The paper doesn’t address any increased healthcare costs from a larger drug user base though.

All in all, a 2% raise seems like a drop in the bucket. Compared to the $750 billion (13%) pensions cost, it seems like the more timely action would be to raise the retirement age.

From The Cato Institute

Despite Everything, Nuclear Power Still Safe

The Straight Dope has an article on how despite Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island, nuclear power is still among the safest sources of power, and probably the cleanest. Especially when compared to coal:

Each year. on average, 35 U.S. coal miners are killed and 4,000 are injured. In China, 2,600 coal miners were killed in 2009, following 3,200 dead in 2008. (Recent U.S. uranium mining deaths: zero.) Coal-burning power plants release close to three times as much radioactivity as nuclear plants. I focus on coal because it’s the one other energy source we can count on to deliver a big piece of predicted rising demand, but even solar cell manufacture involves toxic waste production.

Compare that with 46 deaths from Chernobyl, which was by far the worst nuclear power incident, and stemmed from gross human error and poor plant design.

From The Straight Dope

Sugar and High-Fructose Corn Syrup Might Be Causing Cancer

High-fructose corn syrup has been demonized so much in the media this past year, that they recently tried to change the name to “corn sugar”.  And now the New York Times has an article saying that the Corn Refiners Association is right: there’s no difference between high-fructose corn syrup and sugar, because they’re both just awful for you. And not just in the way you already know about, namely that sugars are just empty calories which make you fat which lead to a whole host of health problems. But rather, the fructose in both sugar (50% fructose) and high-fructose corn syrup (55% fructose) is bad for us (at the levels that most Americans consume it).

The story is that you’d need to eat a LOT of natural food like fruits and such to get the equivalent amount of fructose the average person now eats in a day. And when our livers process a lot of fructose, it gets turned into fat which makes us and our livers fatter (even if the wasitline stays the same), which in turn causes insulin resistance (aka “metabolic syndrome”), which is known to cause heart disease. The kicker is that insulin resistance may also cause and feed cancer. This is because insulin resistance causes our body to make more insulin, which leads to elevated levels of insulin in our blood, and apparently tumors may be using insulin as fuel to grow.

However, all of this is more or less conjecture at this point: there’s no conclusive evidence for any of it, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest the above may be true. For example, diabetes, obesity and cancer all exploded around the same time the West started consuming a lot more sugar. And cultures that don’t consume a lot of sugar, like Asians and Eskimos, don’t have a lot of diabetes or cancer.  And last year, the American Cancer Society and the American Diabetes Association announced that people with diabetes are more prone to get cancer.

So, there is a lot correlation, but not much if any causation. The theory sounds plausible, but has yet to be proven. What is proven is that even if sugar doesn’t cause insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease and cancer directly, it still does nothing good and still makes people fat, which does cause heart disease, diabetes and cancer. So it’s probably good to stay away from it, and who knows, you may be avoiding cancer.

But just so you don’t think it’s all bad, Gomestic has a list of good uses for sugar, none of which involve eating it:

  1. Make plants (cut or in the ground) live longer
  2. Soothes burning tongue
  3. Makes baked goods last longer
  4. Starts fires
  5. Great hand cleaner
  6. Kill wasps, cockroaches and flies

Mmmm…. tasty.

From The New York Times

Ants Can Count

The Germans have figured out that ants can somehow count their steps. Normally, ants get around by leaving a scent on their trail, and using celestial navigation. I’ll have to take their word for it on that second one, because I couldn’t use the stars to navigate if my life depended on it, but apparently something with a brain the size of one of my hair follicles can. But regardless, in the Sahara the scent gets blown away by all the craziness in the desert. So the Germans figured that they must find their way back somehow, and obviously that way is counting their steps. To prove this, they let three groups of ants get from their desert home to some food, and then abducted them.

They split them up into three groups: the first group got stilts glued on so their legs, and therefore stride, was longer. The second got their legs chopped off at the knees, for the opposite effect. Yeah, that’s right: not only are German scientists actually evil aliens, but ants can walk on their knees with no problem. The third group was the control group, so they got off scott-free. Then they let the ants go back home, and the ones with the longer legs walked right past their McMansions, the ones with the shorter legs stopped before they got there, and the ones that didn’t get mangled by the Gestapo made it home just fine.

Conclusion: ants are smart enough to count steps, but not smart enough to understand basic geometry and realize that their legs form two sides of a time-lapsed isosceles triangle, and the third side is the length of their stride on the ground, which is therefore proportional to the length of their legs. So, basically they have the intelligence of an 8-year old. Take that, dogs.

Next up on the Germans’ list: did the ants learn to count by watching Sesame Street?

Via Laughing Squid and NPR

Why You Should Quit Your Gym

Men’s Journal has a very interesting article on how gyms are mostly a money-sucking machine designed to keep people subscribed, but not really using the equipment — equipment which, by the way, doesn’t make you all that fit. At the same time, getting in shape is actually pretty easy to do on your own, for free. If you hire a personal trainer, that’s even worse: his whole job is to make sure he’s indispensable, not to give you the tools to work out on your own.

The article isn’t about losing weight, but rather about getting fit. You could say that one follows the other, and it’s true that getting fit will make you lose weight, but losing weight will not necessarily make you fit. For example, how fit are the starving Somalis, or prisoners in concentration camps? Cardio machines at the gym burn calories, but don’t do much else. The key to being fit is strength. The weight machines in gyms isolate muscles, which prevent injury right away, but actually increase your potential for injury later. Why? Because isolation of the “prime mover” muscles is bad for us: we need to use the whole body in order to also strengthen stabilizing muscles which prevent injury. The imbalance of having strong prime mover muscles and weak stabilizer muscles is like ” trying to fire a cannon from a canoe”. Free weights are excellent for strengthening both types of muscles, and gyms tend to hide these on the periphery.

This is because their business model is based around “new stuff”: new machines, new workouts, new advice on how to not injure yourself. But fitness isn’t rocket science, and pretty much all of the information and free weights have been around for a century. So gyms don’t focus on that. They also don’t focus on fitness fanatics, because they don’t want them crowding the gym working out all the time. So they target the typical office worker who might show up 3 times a week for a month, then quit coming but continue to dutifully pay the membership fee.

The rest of the article talks about advice he got from two people: Rob Shaul, who coaches Special Forces, and Kevin Brown, who fixed injured pro athletes before he died of cancer.

Rob Shaul says lifting weights is pretty much all you need, and only three exercises at that: squat, dead lift and bench press. That, and keep upping the ante: lift more weight the next time.

Even in 2010, picking up heavy things, throwing heavy things up over our heads, and pulling heavy things remain the very best ways to replicate our foundational movement patterns.

The other important thing is to avoid injury, which is done by strengthening stabilizing muscles. Here’s a handy chart:


By pressing and dead-lifting on even days, squatting and doing chin-ups on odd days, avoiding all other exercises, and adding a little to the bar each time, you’ll be stronger than you’ve ever been in only a month’s time.

Via Lifehacker from Men’s Journal

How To Keep Your Phone’s Battery From Aging

Store it in the freezer. Seriously though, Battery University has a thorough article on what you can do to keep your battery young and spry. Some of the advice is not really practical, because it tells you to not let the battery discharge, but to not keep it full either, and the best thing you can do is keep your phone in the freezer at 40% charge. The rest of the stuff is doable though:

  • Keep your battery cool. The lower the temperature, the better. Like your dog, if you leave the battery in the car all day, that’s really bad: it’ll kill the battery about 3x faster.
  • Charge it somewhat frequently. Just like you wouldn’t wait to feed your dog until it’s almost dead, don’t wait to charge the battery until it’s almost dead either: feed it when it could use some charging and you have time. For example, if it gets charged when it’s half dead, it’ll last about 1.5x longer.
  • Don’t keep it plugged in all the time. The voltage gets higher with more charge, and that’s not good for the battery either. But many batteries won’t even charge unless they’re down to about 95% of capacity. Still, keeping it at about 80% would be better. Same with your dog: you don’t want it all logy with a full stomach.
  • Don’t use a charging mat. They’re really convenient because they’re wireless, but they generate a lot of heat, which is bad. Don’t put your dog on a charging mat either.

Summary: treat your battery like a pet, and it’ll live longer.

Via Lifehacker