Category Archives: Learning Tools

My fingers have lost their tongues…

Lately I seem to have been on a masochistic streak, the best evidence of which was my decision to switch from standard keyboard to the Dvorak keyboard for typing.

In the past I have tried this switch a couple of times because Dvorak is a simpler typing system, considerably less stressful on the hands and fingers, and offering the potential for greater speed. However, at those times I was also out there in the world of work and everybody was stuck on QWERTY keyboards. It is extremely difficult to use both layouts simultaneously, as I quickly discovered. Now that I no longer have to worry about QWERTY world I decided to give Dvorak another try, and have done so for several weeks.

I feel as if the tongues have been cut out of my fingers. Using QWERTY I was a fast typist, 70 to 80 words a minute, and able to keep up with my thoughts. That is no longer the case. I can type now between 15 and 25 words a minute on a Dvorak layout, but it is a struggle. If I try to go faster I find my fingers reverting to the old layout, but at least I recognize the error when it happens.

Essentially, I’m trying to rewire an old brain that’s been doing the same thing for some 50 years and is not so keen on learning something new. On the other hand I think my neurons appreciate the challenge. Or, so I tell myself… In any event it’s frustrating but I do hope that in the long run it will be worth it. If nothing else I can always tell myself that as I got older, I wasn’t afraid to make a change in something important.

I have also added a couple of other challenges in the form of computer programs. One of them is called Scrivener, a Macintosh program being rewritten for windows. It is a writing program, focusing on gathering and organizing materials for virtually any kind of writing. It’s fascinating, it’s challenging, and I’m actually working in a beta version, which is not something I would normally do. But I do like the program.

Another new (to me) program that I like, well enough to have paid for, is called ConnectedText. It is essentially a personal wiki located on your desktop computer (or a laptop). I like that it uses markdown language for formatting and I like that it is really very flexible, as well as offering another challenge to my brain to learn something new.

Of course there is another challenge in all of this, which is that I have to consider the possibility that all of this may simply be a way to delay doing anything particularly useful or constructive. I seem to spend a good part of my life preparing to do things but not actually doing very many things. These new challenges could simply be an expression of that pattern.

However, all is not lost! I am dictating this post using speech recognition software from Dragon, thus giving my finger tongues and brain neurons a bit of a rest, as well as giving myself a little thrill by cheating. (Hey, I’m sort of human…)


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The Many Faces of the Pomodoro

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The original Pomodoro was a kitchen timer shaped and colored like a tomato, hence Pomodoro if your Italian is up to snuff. The town I live in has a lifetime ban on Pomodoro timers, viewing them as something from Europe, possibly therefore socialist, and certainly not edible, and a threat to American kitchen timers manufactured in China.

The white kitchen timer pictured above is an American product manufactured for WalMart in China. All it lacks is a little Stars and Stripes banner to fly out and wave when time is up.

Frankly, I don’t understand why noisy kitchen timers are considered so ideal for Pomodoro work. When this sucker hits zero, the blast of its bell sends shockwaves through my brain, pretty much wiping out whatever I was just  reading or studying. With all due respect to the founders of the Pomodoro movement, this is simply not the solution, unless of course one is meant to bury the timer inside a large tomato in order to muffle the bell and prevent neuronal shock.

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There are, of course, a wide range of digital timers, such as the dandy little Radio Shack model pictured on the right. It’s quite flexible, with two timers, up counters and down counters, counting to the second if necessary, and fairly easy to use. Its alarm is a faint beep, perfectly acceptable to my neurons and synapses, quiet, but with sufficient volume to get my attention. It does not, however, tick, and the Pomodorian founders seem to consider that the ticking sound, a staple of kitchen timers, is necessary to keep one focused on the passing of time. One might think that one’s focus should be on the reading material, but one is not an expert in these metaphysical matters. One would note that the timer is custom manufactured for Radio Shack in China.

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Here’s another dandy Radio Shack timer, manufactured in China by very silly Chinese people, or at the very least designed by very silly people somewhere. Notice the round bottom. This bloody little thing won’t stand up: it must be clipped to something, or at the very least leaned against something, as in the picture. Very annoying. This particular model also eats batteries, so I pulled the last button battery out and soldered in leads from an AA battery case, which I taped to the back of the thing. It’s been happy for a couple of years, at least, on one battery. On the other hand, the weight of the battery simply exacerbates the thing’s balance problems.

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Here’s my latest acquisition from WalMart. Yes, it’s made in China. It counts time down, it counts time up. It’s easy to use. It stands up on its own. It’s kind of cute. It sounds a quiet but insistent double beep when time is up, very polite to the neurons. It takes a triple-A battery so it should last a while. The display is not the easiest to read, but since I’m supposed to be reading a book or some such why would I want to be reading the timer?

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This next model simply does not work at all. It’s an American product, designed and manufactured right here in the U S of A. It’s only got one timer and that one doesn’t count up or down. It doesn’t do much of anything. It is, however, very efficient as far as power consumption, not using any. The best that can be said of it is that its color scheme is not displeasing, and the alarm does not disturb, of course.

I realize this has been a highly technical discussion, larded with terms of techspeak and timetalk, but it had to be done as I seek to fill in the picture of my journey through LearningLand.

Time to run. I believe I hear the Red Queen approaching. Ta ta. Tick tock, tick tock.

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Got argument?

I’ve been reviewing the ins and outs of a program called Rationale, from Austhink in Australia, that’s used to chart argumentation, in preparation for a new project. The program is sophisticated but easy to use, and can really help delineate an argument clearly. There’s a lot of supportive material and a wide range of resources. It’s geared to students, but the lone learner can work with it easily.

I’ve owned the program for a couple of years, but the new project I’m working on is the first time I can really use the full power of the program.

Here’s a sample of a reasoning map.


You can drag and drop from any text. You can create from scratch. Whatever. Trying to follow an argument in a text? Pick out the claims, reasons, and objections as you go, then sort them out in an easy drag interface. You can make it as complex and sophisticated as you want, getting into advanced reasoning and analysis and inferences and such. Simple example:


I’m bringing this up because I’m fascinated by this way of working with arguments, and because I like the program a lot. The website is Austhink Rationale. They offer a free trial, if you’re interested.

[Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the company or in promoting their products. I just like the damn program and find it useful.]


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Dailies 04.01.10

Here’s my information for memorizing the Greek alphabet.

The first column gives the order number of the letters. Including this lets you know the position of each letter e.g., theta is the eighth letter.

The Peg columns contains Lorayne’s standard peg words for memorizing numbers. These words fit a specific system in which the letters of the word tell you the number. For example, the sound of t or d always means the number one (1). It has one downstroke. Noah means (2), with two downstrokes in the letter N. But the sound is what matters, not the letter. Lorayne’s primary book, The Memory Book, details the system.

The Letter column… well, yeah.

And Phonic is the pronunciation.

The last column, Memory Key, provides the images used to make the associations. For example, alpha uses an association between tie and alfalfa e.g., you’re wearing a field of alfalfa instead of a tie, or you’re standing in a field of ties instead of alfalfa plants, or the alfalfa field is wearing a gigantic tie. Alfalfa reminds you of alpha and tie reminds you that alpha is the first letter.

Note that the Memory Keys are unique to me. You could use them or make up your own. Thetis might not work for you for theta, but I know Thetis is a Greek goddess and the mother of Achilles, so I can make an image of that.


You could go even further and work out little stories to remember the shapes of the letters, but that’s usually not necessary since you would use the letters every day in lessons. But for something like Chinese or Arabic, where the characters are completely foreign to Western eyes, such a method would be very effective.

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About Greek

Why, I am often asked, why study Classical Greek? Those people are all dead, their language is dead, whassamatta you?

Okay, nobody really asks me anything, but I imagine people would if they were012 real people. But it’s a good question. What’s the fascination? Well, look at it. Here’s a pic of the opening of Plato’s Phaedo from the Loeb Classical Library. Just the look of it intrigues me, as if it were a page of mystic runes describing secrets of hidden worlds, which in a way it is except for the fact that English translations are readily available and the only mystic part is that it’s about ideas instead of magical creatures and demons and such. I look at a page of Athenian Greek and can almost hear it saying to me, “Well, what am I saying, huh, c’mon, what?” It just sucks me in to a world that is no more, and yet is all around us, in our institutions, in our language, in our beliefs and culture. It speaks of where we’ve come from, and in some sense, just how little progress we’ve made in twenty-five hundred years.

And the page becomes even more intriguing now that I’ve learned a little, can read the alphabet, pronounce the words, however crudely, and can recognize some of them. That’s the opening crack into a doorway of time.

It doesn’t hurt that the dual-language text comes in such an appealing package. Loeb Greek 001The Loeb Classical Library books are hand-sized and handleable. They feel good. They’re books. They’re gateways. They’re little miracles about the miracle of the human mind. 

And color coded. Green for Greek, red for Latin. Get it? [Gr]een for [Gr]eek. [R]ed for [R]ome.

Yes, I’m easily amused.

In any event, I won’t be reading the Phaedo anytime soon, but just knowing it’s there on the shelf and that I may be able to read the original sometime just gets the neurons firing in my brain. And that’s just ever so cool for an old guy.

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Another Tool…

I forgot to mention these… Lots of these.  But I’m a tad abnormal about these, so if you’ve got a good library nearby, that’s almost as good…


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Tooling The Mind

The human mind requires stuff. Or at least the brain part of the mind needs goodies to function well, to learn effectively. Herewith follow my thoughts and experiences in getting the brain to function at a higher level than a CNN newscast with Wolf Blitzer. Much higher.  These things help the brain to function optimally, especially if the brain is oldish and lacks the youthful quality of learn-at-any-cost that gets the young through college exams.

Blood and oxygen help, of course. A dead brain simply is a waste of the mind’s time. (The strange sound you no doubt hear is any number of philosophers turning over in their graves.)

Learning Blog 002First and foremost, water. Lots of water. A brain without water is a brain with sagging neurons, slow transmission rates, and the occasional hallucination. Drinking a goodly amount of water before an exam will boost your score by an average of ten points. (No research has been done on this yet, but it figures that if you have to go to the bathroom a couple of times during an exam you can read the crib sheet you hid in your shorts.) Now for you purists, never mind how long that bottle will live in a landfill. Falmouth water reeks of chlorine, and I figure that using bottled water is my solid contribution to archaeologists a thousand years from now as they seek to understand our culture. (The way our culture is going there won’t be archaeologists in our future, unless they come from another solar system.)

It is true that a well-watered brain and body work a lot better than the same dried out. There’s energy in them there bottles. Think of a glass of water as a little fusion reactor, powering your personal electrics, and hope to hell it doesn’t fuse because one of these little bottles would take out New York City.

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To accompany the water, it doesn’t hurt to pop some pills. Not the kind you’re thinking of if you’re under fifty. No, I’m talking about vitamins, minerals, and this other stuff to be named later. There’s nothing like a dose of B vitamins to excite the neurons and sharpen the electrical flux between all those strange cells in your skull.

The other stuff is called DHEA. Men, pay attention. The official name, spoken reverently in the circles of the cognoscenti, is dehydroepiandrosterone. Us mortals just call it DHEA. It’s a testosterone precursor. Somewhat steroidal apparently, but not like the stuff that builds muscles on your forehead and under your arms. For the less libidinous older set, it boosts mood and energy and yes, libido if you have a use for that. It helps concentration and focus: feel better, focus better. It’s not magic, but it works for me. I wink at more young women when I’m popping one of these pills a day. I don’t get any young women, but my wink muscles work better.

In a similar vein, when it comes to food, eat light. Less food in the stomach, more energy available to the brain. Cut fat*. Cut starch. Drink coffee.

And exercise. Never mind that Stephen Hawking gets no exercise sitting in that chair all day and has one of the most brilliant minds of the age. He has an excuse. And he’s thin, didja notice? To get the mind working at higher levels, aim for thin in the body. Exercise every day and don’t worry about the weight. It’ll go or not. But exercise. The brain will like it because exercise gets fluid and oxygen up there. Even brains have to eat (apologies to zombies and humans who eat brains of various other beings… zombies I understand, but people eating the brains of sentient animals, no, I don’t get that).

Now, assuming you have a well-nourished brain that you’ve made happy with various endeavors and pills, let’s consider some of the functions that happy brain needs to do if you are going to learn anything. Take memory, for instance.

It’s a given that people believe, and science supports, that memory degrades as we age. But…big but… most people do not train their memory, nor do they know how to work the levers of memory. And yet everyone can have a powerful memory.

Years ago, when I first came on some of the ‘secrets’ of training memory, I tested myself with a particularly difficult task, using what I had just learned. The task was to memorize a complete, fully-shuffled deck of playing cards, and do it quickly. At the time, I read about a professor teaching a college class to memorize a deck. It took them six months to learn one deck. Using the technique I had just studied, in which I needed a couple of hours to learn the method, and a little more time to practice, it ultimately took me about a minute to actually memorize the deck. Literally a minute. Fifty-two cards. I could reel off the whole deck, or tell you where any given card was.

Now if I had been a card player, that would have been a wonderful way to tilt percentages in my favor. Imagine playing gin and instantly recalling who played what when. Bridge? Same thing. Give a little twist to the trick and you know everything that happened during play.

Learning Blog 003 The techniques were popularized by Harry Lorayne, memory expert and showman. And there’s nothing fancy about them. The basics were known and used by ancient orators and scholars. Lorayne dusted them off, expanded them, applied them to virtually anything and everything. If you think you can’t remember stuff, you have got to read The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas. Trust me.


Learning Blog 004 And if you want get some of the history of memory work, pick up an academic paperback titled The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates. There’s an amazing chart in it, called ‘The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo’. It’s a sample of a memory palace, not unlike the memory palace of Hannibal Lecter, the villain psychopathic cannibal from The Silence of the Lambs. It’s a place you can go to store memories, using association. Ancient orators would use the rooms of their homes, associating each idea of their speech to a different room or spot in the house, in a fixed order. While giving the speech, they simply walked, mentally, through the house and picked up the idea they needed for each part of the speech.

Lorayne simplifies the old methods, but they are fascinating.

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The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo

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The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo (detail)

Another tool that I have found useful, and fun, is the mind map, first popularized by an English fellow, Tony Buzan, and since expanded on by others and turned into several software programs. Instead of taking notes while reading or while listening to a lecture or just brainstorming or noodling, you make a mind map. Here’s an example:

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This map details information about the five canons of classical rhetoric, using a program called MindManager Pro. Images and symbols can be added. The idea is to pick the core information and put it down in a way that will be meaningful to you. And because you are looking for key ideas in text or speech, you will focus and concentrate much more intensely than if you were simply writing down as much information as you could. In a way, you’re picking memory keys, and you’re incorporating to some extent Lorayne’s idea of original awareness, which is simply the idea that forcing yourself to make an association forces you to be one hundred percent aware of the information for the briefest time, enough to fix it in memory.

There are a number of programs out there, including some good free ones, and there are also a number of books on the subject, including the original by Buzan.

Some wonderful mind maps can be done by hand, and in fact doing them manually is the preferred method, and at least somewhat more effective than using software. Here’s a marvelous full-sized example at this link: Illumine.


A mind map is an intensely personal document and experience. The Illumine map above may not mean much to you, but to the creator it captures the entire experience. He knows what every line and picture means. Your map of the experience would be different, but just as meaningful to you as this one is to him.

Another tool that’s new to me, but that I have used in an undisciplined way in the past, is the Pomodoro. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique, named after Italian for tomato, and more specifically named for a kitchen cooking timer that is shaped and colored like a tomato.

The basic idea is that you set the timer for 25 minutes, after deciding what you want to do, and until the timer goes off the only thing you do is that task. If you finish before the bell rings, you review, overlearn, whatever you can do to keep focused on that particular task. If you need more time, you break for a few minutes, then set another 25 minutes, and spend the entire time on the task. There is no such thing as a partial Pomodoro. It’s the full 25 minutes. The full technique is a bit more complex, but the basic thing is powerful.

I’ve found that if I limit the time I spend on studying something, and include breaks, and even some meditation between time periods, the whole process works better. Somehow the mind is happier, and happy minds are learning minds. (Yeah, I know, that sounds so dumbass.)

Another tool that I like a lot is called Brainstorm, the product of a couple of English types. It’s a lightning fast outliner and brainstormer, deceptively simple and remarkably flexible and useful.

Just one more, I promise. Some Australians created a program called Rationale for studying arguments – logical and rhetorical arguments, not the kind you have with your significant other or the annoying neighbor. It’s great, and it and the site link to a lot of good material on rational argumentation.

I should note that I have no financial interest in and stand to make no financial gain from the items I’ve mentioned. They’re things I use and find useful for study and for writing. And for winking at women.


* I may have been misinformed on fat. According to an incredibly reliable and cute source, the way to brainpower (and thinness) is to boost protein, with fat, eat veggies and non-sweet fruits, and cut grains and starches. That is, of course, the simplified version.


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