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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This Should Not Be Up For Debate, Part II

From an article in the Health Behavior section of MSNBC:
Researcher Nina Kraus said the data strongly suggested that the neural connections made during musical training also primed the brain for other aspects of human communication.
"The effect of music training suggests that, akin to physical exercise and its impact on body fitness, music is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness and thus requires society to re-examine the role of music in shaping individual development," the researchers said in their study.
This result is pretty intuitive.
The typical criticism leveled at this type of study is that it is very difficult to remove the confounding influence of social and economic wealth; studying music takes time and money, and those who have the resources for such a pursuit often come from favorable socioeconomic positions.
The researchers' take on this problem?  Make music available to more people!:
The researchers concluded that there needed to be a serious investment of resources into music training in schools accompanied with rigorous examinations of the effects of such instruction on listening, learning, memory, attention and literacy skills.
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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Wheels of Time

Plants, animals (including humans), and even many bacteria have internal clocks that give the organism some sense of what time of day it is.  Chronobiology is the branch of science that studies the regulation and biological significance of these cyclic phenomena.

Plants have photochemical clocks that utilize photoreactive pigments such as cryptochrome to detect the length of the nighttime, allowing them to determine what time of year it is.  They use this information to correctly time critical plant events like dormancy (summer for deserts, winter for temperate regions) and flowering.  There is no point in wasting energy on flowering if other flowers and the proper pollinators aren't available!

Human life is largely constructed around the Circadian rhythm, which matches the 24 hour cycle of day and night.  Light is the primary means by which the Circadian rhythm is kept in time with, or 'entrained', to the cycle of the Sun; other minor 'Zeitgebers' (from the German for 'time-givers') include temperature and patterns of eating and social interaction.  Artificial lighting disturbs this normal cycle, as can disorders such as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and Non-24-Hour Sleep Wake Syndrome.

When left to my own devices, I regularly go to bed between 3 and 5am.  I often find myself wide awake long after everyone else is asleep.  My peak work productivity usually falls between 10pm-3am, and I am almost completely nonfunctional before 10am.  To force myself to be awake at the 'regular' times, I pull all-nighters at a frequency of about once per week so that I am awake in the morning, become exhausted, and can fall asleep at a 'normal' hour.

For these reasons, I've often wondered if I have either DSPS or Non-24.  Many sleep disorder practitioners recommend keeping a sleep journal, but a more practical way to analyze activity patterns is to make use of activity data that you already have on-hand.  For my analysis, I graphed several months of time-stamped text message and Google search records:

Though this is a graph of received text messages, texts are usually exchanged in volleys, so this should provide some quantitative sense of when I am awake.  The text message data will tend to underestimate my probability of consciousness during the hours when no one in their right mind is awake (3-8am).

This data is much more useful, because it includes a much larger sample size and is not reliant on the participation of others.

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders diagnostic criteria for DSPS include:

1.  ...a chronic or recurrent complaint of inability to fall asleep at a desired conventional clock time together with the inability to awaken at a desired and socially acceptable time.
5.  Sleep-wake logs and/or actigraphy monitoring for at least two weeks document a consistent habitual pattern of sleep onsets, usually later than 2 a.m.
6.  Occasional noncircadian days may occur (i.e., sleep is "skipped" for an entire day and night plus some portion of the following day)
7.  The symptoms do not meet the criteria for any other sleep disorder causing inability to initiate sleep or excessive sleepiness.


Monday, July 12, 2010

This Should Not Be Up For Debate, Part I

Music is something that almost anyone can do.

You don't need to be an aspiring music professional, or even particularly gifted in the musical arts, to appreciate music and benefit from a musical education.

Patience, persistence, and the art of practice - the music-making process emphasizes skills that are useful in all life paths.

Learning music isn't just akin to learning a language, art, skill, or culture: music education explicitly includes elements of all of these endeavors.

Making music is a perspective-expanding experience, and provides an introduction to new ways of thinking about, identifying connections within, and interacting with the world.

Music is capable of eliciting emotion in ways, and to extents, that are not achievable by other means.

"Why music?"

If you have to ask... you'll never know.

LINK: "...the cost of education is far less than the cost of ignorance."

Monday, July 5, 2010

Keyboard Layouts

This page has moved!  Access the updated post by clicking above.  In the interest in preserving the information integrity of the Internet (1), the original post is still available below.

(1) Tim Berners-Lee would be proud.


QWERTY is not the final word on keyboard layouts!

The standard English QWERTY layout is very poorly designed.  When one looks at the letters in the 'Home Row' (A-S-D-F-J-K-L-;), it's probably not too hard to believe that less than one-third of your typing is going to take place on these keys.  This is significant, because these are the key that do not require you to move your fingers to strike them!  The result is that the English typing speed is significantly slower than it could be, if the keyboard had been organized to put the most-used keys on the Home Row.  This layout is purely an historical artifact, and was designed to conform to the needs of 1890's typewriter technology, which would often jam if two adjacent keys were struck rapidly in succession.

The best example of a keyboard that actually makes sense is probably the Turkish layout:

The language uses the Turkish Latin alphabet, and therefore requires its own dedicated keyboard.  The layout was developed in collaboration with the Turkish Language Institute with the goals of maximizing use of the Home Row, locating the other often-used keys in places that are anatomically easiest and fastest to strike, and evenly distributing the typing load between the left and right hands.  These design criteria have resulted in the most efficient keyboard layout to-date; the fastest Turkish typists regularly outpace the fastest typists in the rest of the world.

The English-language user has not been left out!  The Dvorak layout, named after inventor August Dvorak and commonly known as the American Simplified Layout (ASK), has sought to correct some of the issues with the standard English QWERTY layout.  The Home Row (A-O-E-U-H-T-N-S) actually makes sense, and maximum typing speed is increased.  The Dvorak layout is standard enough that it comes installed with most modern operating systems, so making the layout switch is fairly straightforward.  The downside?  You have to learn it, which takes time.  Websites like Dvorak Keyboard Training provide interactive practice to get you moving in the right direction.

What if you're learning another language?  You have several options: learning the obnoxious Unicode input codes, settling for 'ss' and 'ae' when you really mean ß and ä, or... changing your keyboard layout.  There are very many keyboard layouts currently available, so it's just a matter of figuring out exactly what you're looking for and changing some operating system settings (you do NOT need to buy a new keyboard!).

Take the standard German layout, for instance: it is based on the English QWERTY, but with Y and Z switched and quite a few changes to the locations of the symbols and other miscellaneous things.  It includes the German-specific characters (Ö-Ä-Ü-ß) and an increased number of dead keys (keys that change the function of the other keys, like SHIFT).  There are two dead keys for accented characters (á, ê, í); while these characters aren't actually used in Germany, a European German user is very likely to deal with Spanish, French, and other languages that do.  Not surprisingly, this layout comes standard with all operating systems, and making the layout switch to German is very straightforward.

...but I just said that QWERTY (or QWERTZ in this case) is slow!  Never fear; the Neo Users Group has created the German equivalent to the Dvorak layout.  This doesn't ship with most operating systems, but installation is pretty straightforward if you follow the directions on their website.  Can't read the website?  If you don't know German, why are you trying to install a modified German layout?!

Most modern operating systems allow for rapid switching between the different keyboard layouts that you have installed.  In Windows 7, for instance, you can rapidly switch between multiple input languages and keyboard layouts by clicking on the little icons that appear in the system taskbar:
Do you have any experience with alternative keyboard layouts?  Do you think keyboard layout makes a difference to typing speed?  Would you be willing to try a new layout?  Comment!