29 November 2023
Key Ideas from David Eagleman's "Livewired" on Neural Plasticity and Adaptation
In Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, by David Eagleman makes the case that our brains and our identities are not fixed, but are continually shaped by the world around us. He argues that the brain is not a static, hardwired organ, but rather a dynamic, flexible system that constantly rewires itself based on experience. The brain adapts to changes in the body, to new sensory inputs, and to relevance and rewards in the environment. This “livewiring” allows the brain to optimize itself to best interpret incoming data and control available outputs. The principles of neural plasticity and rewiring underlie phenomena like sensory substitution devices for the blind and direct brain control of robotic limbs.
On the brain’s flexibility and ability to adapt
“Dropping into the world with a half-baked brain has proven a winning strategy for humans. We have outcompeted every species on the planet: covering the landmass, conquering the seas, and bounding onto the moon. We have tripled our life spans. We compose symphonies, erect skyscrapers, and measure with ever-increasing precision the details of our own brains. None of those enterprises were genetically encoded.”
On the brain constantly seeking information
“Consider phototropism in plants: the act of capturing maximum light by adopting new positions. If you watch a plant growing in fast motion, you will see that it doesn’t grow straight toward the light source; instead, it overshoots its trajectory by a little bit, then undershoots by a bit, and so on. Instead of a preplanned mission, it’s a spastic dance with constant correction.
“A similar strategy is found in the movement of bacteria. When they are searching for the center of a food source—say, a bit of sugar that has fallen on the kitchen counter—they make their way to the sugar by employing three elegantly simple rules:
1. Randomly select a direction and move in a straight line.
2. If things are getting better, keep going.
3. If things are getting worse, randomly change directions by tumbling.
“In other words, the strategy is to lock down the approach when conditions are improving and dump it when it’s not working. By this simple policy, a bacterium can quickly and efficiently work its way to the densest point of the food source.
“I propose there’s a similar principle at work in the brain. Instead of working its way toward maximizing sunlight or food, it works toward maximizing information. I call this strategy infotropism. This hypothesis suggests that neural circuitry constantly shifts to maximize the amount of information it can extract from the environment.”
On the rapidity of brain changes
“Recent decades have yielded several revelations about brain plasticity, but perhaps the biggest surprise is its rapidity. Some years ago, researchers at McGill University put several adults who had just recently lost their sight into a brain scanner. The participants were asked to listen to sounds. Not surprisingly, the sounds caused activity in their auditory cortex. But the sounds also caused activity in their occipital cortex—activity that would not have been there even a few weeks earlier, when the participants had sight.”
On neural adaptations to drugs
“Consumption of a drug changes the number of receptors for the drug in the brain—to such an extent that you can look at a brain after a person has died and determine his addictions by gauging his molecular changes. This is why people become desensitized (or tolerant) to a drug: the brain comes to predict the presence of the drug, and adapts its receptor expression so it can maintain a stable equilibrium when it receives the next hit. In a physical, literal way, the brain comes to expect the drug to be there: the biological details have calibrated themselves accordingly. Because the system now predicts a certain amount to be present, more is needed to achieve the original high.
“This recalibration is the basis of the ugly symptoms of drug withdrawal. The more the brain is adapted to the drug, the harder the fall when the drug is taken away. Withdrawal symptoms vary by drug — from sweating to shakes to depression — but they all have in common a powerful absence of something that is anticipated.”11/29/23
27 November 2023
Tools for Possibilities: issue no. 62
Once a week we’ll send out a page from Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. The tools might be outdated or obsolete, and the links to them may or may not work. We present these vintage recommendations as is because the possibilities they inspire are new. Sign up here to get Tools for Possibilities a week early in your inbox.
How to get a real education
This book is radical. It tries to persuade teenagers to drop out of high school — in order to “get a real life and education” as its subtitle says. This is a dangerous thing to give to your child, because there is a significant correlation between amount of formal education and almost any outcome you care about, including longevity, divorce and poverty rates. Yet informal homeschoolers and unschoolers are outside of that measurement, and by most accounts are doing super. As a college dropout myself, I am sympathetic to alternatives to school.
The purpose of this book is to encourage the teen to make their education their own responsibility. They can remain at school, or as a homeschool take only some classes, or find apprenticeships, volunteer, or even skip directly to college. In short they are designing their own self-education, where ever it may happen. Along the way they develop a better idea of themselves and many more life skills then they would in formal school.
Today as the quality of the average public education declines these ideas are not as extreme as when the book was first written in 1991, but they still aren’t as accepted and common as they should be either.
This is a dense, packed book, overflowing with ideas, tips, anecdotes, cautions, and multiple views — all speaking to the teen and not to parents. It does not lay out a 1, 2, 3 plan. It is messy, challenging. The book itself is probably a pretty good filter for whether the idea of self-education is a match for a young person.
Our son petitioned us to be unschooled, and it turned out that one year when he was 12 was sufficient. It was one of the best years in our lives. Yet in his liberation from school, he discovered what learning “on his own” really meant. It’s challenging. He then choose to go to high school, but with a new attitude that he was in charge of how much and how well he learned. That new found responsibility for his own education made that one year of unschooling totally worthwhile.
There is a whole slew of homeschooling textbooks, advice, and well-crafted tutorials. All directed to parents. This is not one of those. This is a scribbled permission slip giving a teenage permission to consider alternatives for their own education. — KK
- This book is a wild card, a shot in the dark, a hopeful prayer.This book wants you to quit school and do what you love. Yes, I know, that’s the weirdest thing you ever heard. Hoping to make this idea feel possible to you, I tell about teenagers who are already living happy lives without school, and I offer lots of ideas and strategies to help you get a real life and convince your adults to cooperate.
“Excuse me?” you interrupt, “Quit school? Right. And throw away my future and pump gas all my life and get Addicted to Drugs and be totally lost in today’s world. Right.”
If you said that, please feel free to march straight to the nearest schoolperson and receive a bushel of gold stars, extra credit points, and proud smiles. You’ve learned exactly what they taught you. After you get tired of sticking stars to your locker, do please come back and read further.
- Suggest a trial run. you could start unschooling in the middle of August, so they have a couple weeks to see how you manage. Also, that would allow you to recover from the previous school year. You could agree that if they’re not satisfied with your way of educating yourself, that you go to school. A drawback to this sort of timing is that you may feel cheated out of your normal summer vacation, and thus not as exhilarated as you would if you quit in, say, October. Also, the whole idea of being watched and evaluated runs contrary to the idea of pursuing interests because you want to. Still, you could probably psyche yourself into it and make it work.
- If you are completely confused as to how to start structuring your life, here’s one way: Do “academics” for two hours each day–not necessarily lots of subjects, or the same ones every day. You are not going to dry up in you don’t do 45 minutes every day of “social studies.” Do some kind of “work” or project for four hours. In your leftover time, read, see friends, talk with mom and pop, make tabouli. Take Saturdays and Sundays off. Sound arbitrary? It is. I made it up, although it is based on a loose sort of “average” of the lives of a hundred unschoolers, mostly college-bound. Once you try this schedule for month, you will know how you want to change it.
- This book has said a lot of nasty things about school. Now it’s going to say something nice. Schools have darkrooms, weight rooms, computers, microscopes, balance beams, libraries. They have choirs, bands, track teams, maybe even a Spanish class you want to take. Many enterprising homeschoolers have found ways to use the school resources they want without having to endure everything else.This chapter tells about a few of those ways schools can cooperate with homeschoolers, and gives examples of particular homeschoolers who have taken advantage of school resources. If the schools in your area have never tried anything like this, you can pass this information along to them, and assist them in setting up a program that helps both you and them. Yes, them.
Book to access books
This book really works! My daughter could read at age three, and has now really discovered the joy of reading at a young age. There are so many skills that kids can learn for themselves once they master reading. This is truly one of the fundamentals that is worth the effort to instill as early as possible. — James Hom
- The following are the four most important points about an effective sequence forteaching reading:1. The beginning exercises are simple and do not resemble later exercises (just as beginning piano exercises do not look much like advanced ones).2. The program provides teaching for every single skill that the child is expected to use when performing even the simplest reading exercises.3. The exercises change form slowly, and the changes are relatively small, so that the exercises are always relatively easy for the child.4. At every step, the program provides for very clear and unambiguous communication with the child.
- To decode the sentence Ruf unter glop splee, you simply say the words. This illustration points out that you may be able to decode without understanding what the sentence means. Traditional reading programs typically confuse the beginning reader about whether the teacher is trying to teach decoding or understanding. These programs typically begin with the teacher discussing the details of a picture. If the picture shows a girl named Jan, the teacher talks about Jan—what she is wearing, the color or her hair….It might seem that this communication is effective because it promotes interest and gives the children the motivation for both reading and understanding the written message.However, this communication may prompt the child to formulate a serious misconception about how to read. If the teacher always talks about thepicture before reading the word, and if the word is always predictable by referring to the picture, the child may reasonably assume that:- You read words by referring to a picture.- You must understand the word that is to be decoded before you can read it.
- English, clearly, is not a regularly spelled language. It is an amalgam of contributions from Latin, Greek, and French. But there are ways to simplifyit for the beginning reader.Distar solves the problem by introducing an altered orthography. This orthography does two things. It presents variations of some symbols sothat we can create a larger number of words that are spelled regularly (each symbol only having a single sound function). At the same time, the orthography permits us to spell words the way they are spelled in traditional orthography. Here is the Distar alphabet:
Free reading tutorials
Remember that greeting card company and famous-in-the-late-90s website Blue Mountain Arts? Well the extremely talented and philanthropic founders have started a learningto-read website, totally free, called Starfall.com. My daughters, ages 6 and 7, have literally gotten more educational value out of this than their schools. And now their schools are using it in their classes once a week! Super site, makes the most out of flash and audio on a broadband connection, and really a treasure for young kids (aimed at first graders and below) who want to get going with reading (at no cost).
— Jeff Blackburn
DIY school curriculum
When we homeschooled we were more into unschooling — ditching a formal curriculum — rather than replicating a school at home. Still, much learning benefits from structure, progression, and well, a curriculum. You’d like to have a good text book for geometry, or grammar. Or some order to present science concepts. There’s a huge industry selling extensive and expensive curricula to anxious new homeschooling parents. My advice is to get this book and assemble your own.
For each grade from pre-school to high school, the author and novelist Rebecca Rupp outlines reasonable skills and knowledge a pupil could master at that stage for different subjects. Rupp then recommends a refreshingly diverse set of resources for that subject and level, including the best textbooks that work at home, expansive readings around the subject, and even video series when available. You select from her highly curated selections and find the ones suited to your child(ren). In our experience her recommendations and options are excellent. They will likely be on the challenging side, rather than dumbed-down. And unlike many (if not most) homeschooling guides this one is not hampered by a dogmatic religious perspective.
Even if you are not homeschooling, kids learn at home, and this book would serve well to enlarge your child’s formal schooling. This guide supersedes the author’s previously recommended Complete Home Learning Source Book, which is a bit outdated and not as well organized. — KK
- Grade Six: Language Arts
Read a wide range of age-appropriate fiction and nonfiction materials. Kids should read a mix of classic and contemporary literature, novels and short stories,myths and legends, fables and folktales, poems, plays, essays, magazine articles, and newspapers. Literary experience should be enhanced with a range of supplementary resources, including biographies of writers, audio and video performances, and hands-on and cross-curricular activities.
- At this grade level, kids should learn the techniques of writing an effective multi-paragraph essay: defining a main purpose or thesis, supporting the thesis with evidence and examples, distinguishing unsubstantiated opinion from proven fact, using relevant quotes from attributed sources, and providing a bibliography.They should be able to tailor their writings to a chosen audience or purpose: personal, academic, or business, for example.
26 November 2023
Recomendo - issue #385
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When Spanish conquistadors marched into the island city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in 1518, they were stunned by what they encountered. The scale, richness, complexity, and advancement of this capital built by the local Aztecs surpassed anything in Spain at the time. I find this 3D virtual reconstructed Portrait of Tenochtitlan on lake Texcoco to reward endless scrutiny. The sliding overlay of modern Mexico City is genius. I am as much stunned by its grandeur as the first invaders. – KK
Awe-some Guide to the Universe
New York Times Magazine made this interactive guide to the James Webb Space Telescope and it was awesome to see all the new images and new discoveries made about our Universe. My jaw dropped and I got chills when I saw the image of 94,000 galaxies now made visible by Webb. I recommend viewing this on your desktop. — CD
Car door step
I didn’t know how handy this little car door step gadget would be until I started using it to wash the roof of my car. It fits on the latch of most cars, giving you a boost of a couple of feet off the ground. Most people use them to get access to their car’s luggage rack. — MF
I find keeping in mind my estimated death date greatly helps me focus on important things. This website by World Data Lab will quickly give you your estimated longevity, calculated from actuarial tables. How long you live varies depending on where you live. I turn this date into how many days I have left and use it as a countdown clock. — KK
Grease splatter guard
My husband bought this XULRKOS Splatter Screen ($9) for our frying pan, and it’s one of those indispensable multi-purpose kitchen tools that I didn’t know I needed. It doesn’t prevent all splatters, but it significantly reduces excess grease on our stove and counters. You can also use it as a sieve or cooling rack. — CD
List of useful quotations
Nicolas, a designer at GitHub, maintains a list of quotations that he shares on his personal website. Most of them are new to me, and many are inspiring or provocative. Examples:
- “Be careful what you cast out — the vacancy is quickly filled” — Austin Osman Spare
- “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire
- “There is no product or service more ecological, sustainable and recyclable as the one we do not use.” — Philippe Bihouix
- Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again. — André Gide
24 November 2023
Weekly-ish access to tools, techniques, and shop tales from the worlds of DIY
Gar’s Tips, Tools, and Shop Tales is published by Cool Tools Lab. To receive the newsletter a week early, sign up here.
Reading a Measuring Tape Shouldn’t Be Hard
As James points out in this Stumpy Nubs video, reading an Imperial/standard measuring tape shouldn’t be as hard as many people make it. Most tapes are only divided into inches, half, quarters, 8ths, and 16ths of an inch. And you can easily train yourself to identify these marks at a glance without having to count them. The key is visually knowing which line is which increment and then counting forward or backward from the beginning of the inch, half way, a quarter, etc. In time it becomes second nature. Watch the video to make this much clearer.
Electroplating Effects for 3D Prints
In this HEN3DRIK video, he explores 3 different ways you can get an electroplated effect on 3D prints. He looks at painting with rattle can metallic gold and silver, airbrush painting, and actual electroplating. [Via Maker Update]
Best Water Filter
Most of you reading this probably use a pitcher-type water filter, at home, at work, or in your workshop. Have you ever wondered which ones actually filter out the impurities that you don’t want to be drinking? In this Project Farm video, Todd tests ten different filters. Products tested were from ZeroWater, PUR, Brita, Aquaphor, AquaTrue, Lifestraw, Survivor Filter Pro, Frizzlife, Sawyer, and RV Filter. He also tested a homemade filter. The filters were tested for removing total dissolved solids, removing red food coloring, and removing iron. Several filters were also cut open after testing to compare the filter media. In the final analysis, the Aquaphor came out on top. The ZeroWater filter also performed well.
Sandpaper Tip from Tom Haney
On Instagram, the amazing automata artist, Tom Haney, posted this useful tip about making small back-to-back sanding sheets. [Note the dedicated sandpaper scissors.]
Whole Earth Catalogs Online
When I was 16 years old, I was introduced to The Last Whole Earth Catalog. We often exaggeratingly say that such and such changed our lives. Whole Earth changed my life and that is no hyperbole. Nearly everything that has held my attention for my entire adult life: systems thinking, DIY, zines, wargames, computers and hacking, community, and much more, came through the pages of Whole Earth. As a teen, I used to sit at the kitchen table with a stack of dollars from my allowance money, envelopes, and stamps, and I would go through the catalog ordering books, magazines, newsletters, and products. I still have all of my catalogs. And, in 1993, I had the immense honor of being asked to contribute to The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. The catalogs have long been out of print, but now you can view them all, plus CoEvolution Quarterly and Whole Earth Review, at the new online archive.
A slice of England’s iconic A303 road shows how it has changed over thousands of years.
It was interesting to see what email I got in response to my “Ten Top Tips That Will Change Your Life” issue, the follow-up to my Maker Faire talk on the same subject.
Overwhelming, people commented on “The Universe is a Collection of Parts”” and the One-Handed First Aid Kit.”
”Hi Gareth, as always loving the newsletter and saving it for my coffee time treat 🙂
I really resonated with the section about Perry Kaye’s way of “Frankesteining” projects together from existing parts; this is exactly the way I work, and I have a sort of mental stance for it. Instead of thinking about what standard tool or part I need, I think about exactly what the *properties* are: E.g. “I need a metal disc exactly 25mm across with a center hole, with a little flex in it.” Then, I use that mental template to go searching for things which might fit the parameters, and think about the places where such a thing might be useful on e.g. industrial supply websites. This has led to solutions like making a wax pouring kettle out of a saucepan with a metal tap screwed into the side upside down as a spout, or silicone water hoses filled with silicone sealant as a diffuser for LEDs.”
Several other people also commented on the “Rule of Thumb for Buying Tools,” pointing out that another way to go is to buy old tools to get started. They are often as cheap as cheap new tools, they are usually much better made, and they may not need to be upgraded to higher-quality new tools. D’uh. Of course. I really should have mentioned that in my talk and newsletter and will certainly do so going forward.
I Have Stickers!
I now have Gar’s Tips & Tools stickers. If you want one, send one of your maker stickers to me (435 OFarrell Dr, Benicia, CA 94510) and I will send you one of mine in return.11/24/23
23 November 2023
Nomadico issue #79
A weekly newsletter with four quick bites, edited by Tim Leffel, author of A Better Life for Half the Price and The World’s Cheapest Destinations. See past editions here, where your like-minded friends can subscribe and join you.
A New Bullet Train in Indonesia
Following the opening of a new China-funded train line in Laos that we reported on earlier, Indonesia just cut the ribbon on another one connecting the two largest cities in Java in Indonesia. And this one is faster, running at 350 kilometers per hour (217 mph). Not many tourists spend time in Jakarta or Bandung, the two end points, but it does stop in popular Yogyakarta, near a volcano hike and two wonders of the world: Borobudur and Prambanan. See pics and details here.
Touch Screen Gloves
If you find yourself taking your gloves off to use your phone in the winter, it might be time for an upgrade. Lots of lightweight easy-to-pack winter gloves come with a sensor built into the fingertip section that your smartphone recognizes like your real finger. You can find hundreds of them on Amazon for $8 to $20. At higher price points you can get heavy-duty insulated versions suitable for skiing or snowshoe hikes.
Will We See $0 Flights in the Future?
It’s common knowledge that airlines make nearly all of their profits now from extra add-on fees. Frontier recently took that to its natural conclusion by announcing $0 base airfares (before taxes) on a one-day sale that ran this past Tuesday. There were blackouts and conditions, but it was interesting to see an experiment like this by a bare-bones airline that ran the numbers and said, “Why not?”
The Rise of Survival Tourism
I met this guy Tom on my Bulgarian ski trip last year who was talking about how he’d been a contestant on the British season of Alone, where the test is who can get by solo the longest in a remote area with wild animals roaming around. Turns out he won the thing and he was well-prepared: he runs a company that sets you up to survive on your own in nature—on your 8-day vacation. His is one of several benefitting from a rise in survivalist holidays. See The Wild Business of Desert Island Tourism.11/23/23
22 November 2023
The Toughest Nut Cracker
We live on a 7-acre property in Connecticut with a bunch of black walnut and shagbark hickory trees. For years, the nuts have confounded us as they are near impossible to crack. We’ve resorted to hammers, but it’s a messy and explosive business and rarely leaves the nut meat intact.
Recently, my wife bought Grandpa’s Goody Getter, which is a neatly designed press, made of nicely painted steel with user-replaceable springs and parts. It cracks even the hardest hulls of the notoriously challenging black walnut.It’s expensive, but we’ve broken more cheaply made nutcrackers and it’s made in the US.
Beware, though, as picking nuts becomes deeply addictive. My kids (6 and 3) have been having a blast picking and eating the hickory nut meats (which are milder than the black walnuts but to my palate tastier than pecans). The tool also nails a very particular mechanical aesthetic, which doesn’t hurt either! It comes with a pair of excellent shears for clipping the newly cracked nut hull to extract even bigger pieces, and I only regret not getting a few extra pairs.11/22/23
Recomendo – issue #384
Nomadico issue #78
COOL TOOLS SHOW PODCAST
WHAT'S IN MY BAG?
22 November 2023
ABOUT COOL TOOLS
Cool Tools is a web site which recommends the best/cheapest tools available. Tools are defined broadly as anything that can be useful. This includes hand tools, machines, books, software, gadgets, websites, maps, and even ideas. All reviews are positive raves written by real users. We don’t bother with negative reviews because our intent is to only offer the best.
One new tool is posted each weekday. Cool Tools does NOT sell anything. The site provides prices and convenient sources for readers to purchase items.
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We recently posted a short history of Cool Tools which included current stats as of April 2008. This explains both the genesis of this site, and the tools we use to operate it.