Don’t memorize, change your neural pathways!

Some days ago, I stated on this blog that I had a Ph.D. in mathematics (true fact) and that I didn’t know my own phone number nor did I know multiplication tables (also true). My wife knows it is true. She still claim she has superior brain power because not only does she know our phone number, but she even knows our postal code, and she knows many other things. There is not question that my wife is one of the smartest lady in Montreal. Hey! There is a reason why I fell in love with her!

Still, I claim not to be a brain-damaged moron despite these apparent short-comings. You see, I do not memorize on purpose because I think that my time is better used by solving problems and learning new tricks.

From Downes’, I got the following bit of wisdom telling I’m not alone in thinking that memorizing facts is not key to learning…

My own research – reserach that can be extended through the many resources on this site – has already convinced me that neural structures are, as they say, plastic. For me what this means is that learning based on the fostering of habits is more important than learning based on transmission of facts, that, indeed, the facts aren’t that important at all, not nearly as important modelling effective practice, paying attention to environment, immersive, experiential based education.

So, please, do me a favor: if you teach, do not ask your students to memorize. Ask them to change their neural pathways, their thinking patterns… let their PDAs and the Web be a fact storage unit, don’t waste their brains.

Update: A colleague who has a training in history and who holds a Ph.D. says he could never remember dates, and only memorized one: December 25th 800. So, I can say that I’m not alone to think that memorization is only a minor part of learning.

Don’t Be Afraid to Drop the SOAP

Through Downes’, I found another article speaking up against SOAP: Don’t Be Afraid to Drop the SOAP. Here’s a few things it holds against SOAP, all of which are things I can testify to:

  • SOAP is difficult to debug. The SOAP message format is verbose even by XML standards, and decoding it by hand is a great way to waste an afternoon. As a result, development took almost twice as long as anticipated.
  • The fact that all requests happened live over the network further hampered debugging. Unless the user was careful to log debugging output to a file it was difficult to determine what went wrong.
  • SOAP doesn’t handle large amounts of data well. This became immediately apparent as we tried to load a large data import in a single request. Since SOAP requires the entire request to travel in one XML document, SOAP implementations usually load the entire request into memory. This required us to split large jobs into multiple requests, reducing performance and making it impossible to run a complete import inside a transaction.
  • Network problems affected operations that needed to access multiple machines, such as the program responsible for moving templates and elements. Requests would frequently timeout in the middle, sometimes leaving the target system in an inconsistent state.

SOAP leads to strongly coupled, poorly scalable, and bandwidth hungry solutions?

Here’s some comments by Joe Walnes on his experience with SOAP. The scary thing is that he comes to exactly the same conclusions as I did on my own… Any SOAP supporter out there wants to answer these:

On the last system I worked on, we were struggling with SOAP and switched to a simpler REST approach. It had a number of benefits.

Firstly, it simplified things greatly. With REST there was no need for complicated SOAP libraries on either the client or server, just use a plain HTTP call. This reduced coupling and brittleness. We had previously lost hours (possibly days) tracing problems through libraries that were outside of our control.

Secondly, it improved scalability. Though this was not the reason we moved, it was a nice side-effect. The web-server, client HTTP library and any HTTP proxy in-between understood things like the difference between GET and POST and when a resource has not been modified so they can offer effective caching – greatly reducing the amount of traffic. This is why REST is a more scalable solution than XML-RPC or SOAP over HTTP.

Thirdly, it reduced the payload over the wire. No need for SOAP envelope wrappers and it gave us the flexibility to use formats other than XML for the actual resource data. For instance a resource containing the body of an unformatted news headline is simpler to express as plain text and a table of numbers is more concise (and readable) as CSV.

Victor Shoup’s A Computational Introduction to Number Theory and Algebra

Through Didier, I got to Victor Shoup’s Home Page. He has an on-line textbook called A Computational Introduction to Number Theory and Algebra. It is unclear whether he intends the textbook to remain free, but it is pretty cool to post the book on his home page. Shoup’s is an expert in cryptography.

How Technology Will Destroy Schools

Through Downes’, I found an article by David Wiley’s with the provocative title How Technology Will Destroy Schools (he actually is being needlessly provocative, he means “schools as they exist now”). The gist of his argument goes as follows:

The development of (…) technology will obviate the need for certain types of instruction — like the teaching of facts. Why spend time memorizing when the same information is available just as quickly from the network as it is from your own memory? But never fear, schools! The technology will create the need for new types of instruction — in higher level information literacy skills. Perhaps this will finally force some change through the public schools.

Well, I must admit. I have a Ph.D. in mathematics and I never learned my multiplication tables. There you go. I never saw the point of learning these tables, so I didn’t. Instead, I learned a few tricks to do multiplications… like 9 times 8 is almost 10 times 8, you have to subtract 1 times 8.

Mathematics is not about learning facts. I suspect that all disciplines have a component above learning the facts. You can’t be an expert in something if you only know the facts… because I can easily input the facts into a piece of software and compete with you, but we all know that software can’t compete (yet) against human experts. I’m not very good at memorizing facts, I’ve never been good at it. In fact, I’m not good at memorizing anything and that’s why I have a PDA always with me. Yet, I’m in expert at some things.

It is the difference between real knowledge and shallow knowledge. Most of our education system is based on acquiring and testing shallow knowledge. Most but not all.

How are you going to get past shallow knowledge through technology as Wiley predicts we will? I think that blogs, games, and simulations are good examples. Yes, we can role play without technology, but it becomes so much cheaper to deploy gaming scenarios through technology (because you only have to do it once) that it might become more common place in the future.

Maybe my son Lohan, by the time he makes it to school, will have “gaming instruction” where he will enter a gaming universe to learn basic mathematics. Who knows.

I’m not holding my breath though, I think we lack the human power to do pull it off in the next 5 years.

What the Bubble Got Right

A beautiful article by Paul Graham: What the Bubble Got Right. It is a good analysis of the dot-com era. I totally agree with the analysis too! People tend to overestimate the impact of technology over the short term, but underestimate it over the longer term. The dot-com bubble was proof of that. It is not so much that the new economy was a sham… but rather that the new economy will take a bit more than 2 years to settle… Here’s the conclusion of this beautiful article:

When one looks over these trends, is there any overall theme? There does seem to be: that in the coming century, good ideas will count for more. That 26 year olds with good ideas will increasingly have an edge over 50 year olds with powerful connections. That doing good work will matter more than dressing up– or advertising, which is the same thing for companies. That people will be rewarded a bit more in proportion to the value of what they create.

If so, this is good news indeed. Good ideas always tend to win eventually. The problem is, it can take a very long time. It took decades for relativity to be accepted, and the greater part of a century to establish that central planning didn’t work. So even a small increase in the rate at which good ideas win would be a momentous change– big enough, probably, to justify a name like the “new economy.”

As a side-note, the mere fact that such a good article is waiting at the end of a URL, for all to see and absolutely free, should remind you of how powerful, after all, the Web really is. I was raised in an era where you needed to go buy a magazine to read such a great article. Then you’d get many bad articles, but what could you do: there were few magazines, and your choices were limited. Things have changed, they have changed tremendously.

Data centers as a utility?

Seems like Gartner predicts data centers are going to become a utility:

The office environment will dramatically change in 50 years’ time, with desktop computers disappearing, robots handling more manual tasks, and global connectivity enabling more intercontinental collaboration. Data centers located outside the city will run powerful database and processing applications, serving up computing power as a utility; many more people will work remotely, using handheld devices to stay connected wherever they go, although those devices will be much more sophisticated and easier to use than current handhelds.

If you haven’t switched to Firefly, do it now.

I’ve finally moved all my machines to Mozilla Firefox 1.0. It is, by far, the best browser I ever used, and it is totally, truely free. Unfortunately, the French version is lagging behind a bit. Unless you are running something else than Windows, Linux, or MacOS, you have no excuse to use another browser. None.

Update: Sean asks why I switched away from Konqueror. The main reasons are XML support and Gmail. Gmail doesn’t support konqueror for some reason, and I badly need a browser having decent support for XSLT. Also, there is a comment below saying that Firefox is not stable on OS X 10.2.

On tools for academic writting and a shameless plug

First, the shameless plug: my long-time friend, Jean-François Racine published a book available both as hardcover and paperback. The title is “The Text of Matthew in the Writings of Basil of Caesarea”.

More seriously, and maybe he had told me about this, but he told me about this specialized word processor he uses, called Nota Bene. More interesting is a component of this word processor called Orbis. Specifically, Orbis generates vocabulary lists, as well as frequency of occurrence; and it allows you to define synonym lists to expand search capabilities.