Speed reading claim called into question

23 Apr

I have always wanted to believe that speed reading is possible and that, some day, I could obtain this ability. One of the claims made in speed reading courses and books is that regression, going back and rereading words, contributes to slow reading and can be eliminated.

Now, a paper published in Psychological Science reports evidence that regression is necessary for comprehension. Here is the abstract:


Recent Web apps have spurred excitement around the prospect of achieving speed reading by eliminating eye movements (i.e., with rapid serial visual presentation, or RSVP, in which words are presented briefly one at a time and  sequentially). Our experiment using a novel trailing-mask paradigm contradicts these claims. Subjects read normally or while the display of text was manipulated such that each word was masked once the reader’s eyes moved past it. This manipulation created a scenario similar to RSVP: The reader could read each word only once; regressions (i.e., rereadings of words), which are a natural part of the reading process, were functionally eliminated. Crucially, the inability to regress affected comprehension negatively. Furthermore, this effect was not confined to ambiguous sentences. These data suggest that regressions contribute to the ability to understand what one has read and call into question the viability of speed-reading apps that eliminate eye movements (e.g., those that use RSVP).

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that there is trade off between reading speed and comprehension.

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Monkeys do basic math

22 Apr

The story is here.

And there’s this:


Your Diploma Just Got Downgraded. But You Can Upgrade It At a 20% Discount!

22 Apr


I also have completed Introduction to Computer Science with Udacity. So it’s odd to hear ” we know you earned this certificate, but it’s kind of worthless now “

Originally posted on Hapgood:


From the comments on my last post –  friend of the blog (and Sloan-C Karoake instigator) Michael Berman lets us know he got some bad news about the Udacity certificate he earned in 2012.

Please note this is a real email, from “Amanda Sparr, Coach @Udacity”. This is not a parody. (Really!)

Dear Michael,

Nice work on earning a certificate for the Intro to Computer Science courseware. It speaks volumes for what you learned while completing this rigorous course. Congrats again!

Today we upgraded this course . This brings you new opportunities, for little extra work:

  • You can now practice and show off your skills, with a new hands-on project where you’ll build a social network.
  • You can also earn a Verified Certificate, since this course now has a subscription option.

Udacious Coaches like me work with you and award these Verified Certificates. We review your project code, share…

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“We owe it to you, our hardworking students…”

22 Apr


An interesting post that asks the question: “Is higher education a good thing because of the skills it represents or is it a good thing because you have it and others don’t?”

Originally posted on More or Less Bunk:

“We owe it to you, our hard working students, that we do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”

- Sebastian Thrun, “Phasing out certificates of free courseware completion,” Udacity Blog, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

So explained Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun a few days ago, in a development that surprised absolutely nobody. Coursera has found its only reliable source of revenue charging for its Signature Track courses. It seems only natural that Udacity would eventually do the same.

Yet the way that Thrun phrased this development strikes me as incredibly interesting. “We owe it to you, our hardworking students…” – …to stop giving away our services for free… …to make you fill out more paperwork than before… …to subject you to the modern Internet-based security apparatus… No, actually…”[to] do whatever we can to ensure your certificate is as valuable as possible.”

Perhaps I’m reading too much…

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Brain plasticity as cliché

21 Apr

It seems almost a requirement. Every time someone writes about the brain, we are told that, until recently, scientists believed that the brain was fixed. But now, in more enlightened times, we now know that the brain is plastic and capable of change.

Claims of this type are found in both the popular literature and scientific papers. For example, a paper in Psychological Science says:

“Although the brain was once seen as a rather static organ, it is now clear that the organization of brain circuitry is constantly changing as a function of experience. These changes are referred to as brain plasticity.”

While this makes a good story, showing how we have risen above previous misunderstandings. I don’t think it is a fair representation of the history. In researching my upcoming book, I have found descriptions of the brain as plastic from back before the 1950s. Such references are easy to find in Google Books. Here is one published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology from 1894, that tells that that the brain is “plastic and educable, not a rigidly pre-established structure.”


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My search for a “Mr. Memory” newsreel

20 Apr

Boing Boing announced yesterday that British Pathé had posted thousands of their newsreels on Youtube, I held out the hope that I might find footage of the great British memory performer Datas. Datas whose real name was William Bottle, was the model for the character “Mr. Memory” in the Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 steps.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find a clip of Datas, but I did find this newsreel of a machine that was named after him. The notes on the footage make no mention of the source of the machine’s name.


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Magnesium – Alzheimer study retracted

19 Apr

Some months ago I blogged about research that suggested that magnesium might help prevent Alzheimer’s dementia. At the time I wrote:

“This is an interesting result but please note that the research was funded by a pharmaceutical company that might have an interest in the outcome. In addition, the sample size was small. There is a recurring arc for this type of claim; initial studies with small sample sizes show large effects while later, better designed, research finds no or little effect. Best to keep an open mind but be willing to re-evaluate in the face of new evidence.”

Now the site Retraction Watch reports that The Journal of Neuroscience has retracted one of these papers. You can read the retraction statement here. The authors report methodological errors that will require them to rewrite the paper. But they claim:

“Despite these errors, the major conclusions of the paper remain substantiated”

So, in fairness, the question of magnesium role in preventing Alzheimer’s remains open. I repeat what I wrote in an earlier post:

“I certainly cannot dismiss the claims that magnesium may have cognitive benefits, but I would like to evidence independent of a researcher with a stake in the outcome.”


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