There are so might sites online about studying and publishing/distributing notes that ERPZ.net seem to be getting pretty redundant. We've so far been operating on a one-man show kind of way despite having multiple authors (who are mostly non-contributing to be honest). Scott seem to do the same as me when it comes to blogging except I guess he does it better and categorizes stuff in better ways than me. He publishes eBooks (some of them free) as well! And that is quite an inspiration given that I'm hoping to write a PW Guide soon - check out our Facebook page where I challenged myself to finish the book before we reach 1000 likes. Not such a tall order since there isn't that many likes yet but it does put pressure on me especially when I'm studying for exams this period.
Then there is Notes Academy, which was featured on Straits Times going the 'open source' style where they mostly curate and moderate while waiting around for kind people to contribute notes. That's not so different from me as well since I've been asking for contributions for some time and we've gather some stuff from kind souls here and there. But then they are a radical departure from the way we moderate content so strongly that contributions are slapped with our site logo before being uploaded though we've made exceptions now and then. I guess the fact that Notes Academy is a little more O Levels oriented means that I'm not exactly in direct competition with them anyways. The fact they've got a team to do all that work is admirable though.
Of course, who can forget Open Lectures who have just revamped their site. They're a pretty geeky bunch with quality content (clearly carefully produced and curated), which is on the other side of the spectrum compared to Notes Academy. I don't really know where ERPZ.net sit at anymore. In any case, a potential criticism that can be levered on them (and also relevant for me) is their content is skewed towards Economics probably because they've more of their team dabbling with that area. They definitely need to gather more MOE scholars who're not planning to break bond (ie. not doing 'practical' subjects like Economics or Engineering but dealing more with Literature, hard Sciences).
For those who thinks publicly available stuff are crap (or that there are no goodies in freebies), there is Darryl, who is taking the more exclusive 'coaching' path for studies. He offers quite a fair bit of coaching content and has worked a bit of money into building and putting together his entire suite of 'formula'. The thing is I believe it's suitable for people who actually looks up these stuff and have a more or less keen desire to excel - not someone who believes in shortcuts, simply one who believes in doing things smart.
Having said all that, the future of ERPZ.net is wondrously uncertain. All my notes might end up somewhere like Notes Academy and I'll continue blogging random ramblings while perhaps doing some eBook writing. Or maybe the site will become something all together different. There are ideas to crowd-source for ideas on what to do but I'll have to come up with proposals first. But for now, my exams comes first...
I've been reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow and was especially intrigued by Chapter 19 - The Illusion of Understanding. He talks about the hindsight bias and our tendency to overrate our prior expectation of the outcome that unfolded.
He talks about the implications on decision makers where people who took huge ridiculous risks and won the gamble were celebrated as genius (for seeing what was to come) whereas those who were prudent to avoid pitfalls and evaluated their options appropriately might be punished when they missed opportunities but are not rewarded when they managed to steer clear of a catastrophe.
Worst of all, when we imagine that we had always 'knew' this was coming or that history is narrated with an air of inevitability. Fact is that luck counts and convergence of incidents, accidents often bring about the outcomes we attribute to intention and manipulation.
Being aware of the bias doesn't help us feel any differently but we may be able to think about things more positively. When bad things happen, we need to downplay our tendency to think that it could necessarily have had been prevented (a common hindsight bias). We need to acknowledge the element of luck when giving credit - it may not necessarily be announcing it to everyone but when assessing performance we must think about that and ensure we're drawing conclusions from a big sample of observations.
Here's a video of his little sharing at my school a couple of months ago:
In this TED talk, Daniel Kahneman speaks about the two different kinds of happiness that is defined based on the two 'selves' that resides within us - the 'remembering self' and the 'experiencing self'. And it is interesting how our bias towards the 'remembering self' affects the way we make decision and live lives. The example given about vacations is particularly apt and important. He did neglect to suggest how our remembering self who tells stories to ourselves and others can possibly help the experiencing self generate more happiness through boasting to others about their experiences.
The single most powerful observation that Daniel makes in the talk, I feel, is this:
We think of our future, as anticipated memories.
And perhaps then, indulging in lots of changes in life, despite the discomfort of adapting and adjusting, could possibly enhance the happiness of life by generating more memories for ourselves. Indeed, much moments we live in life are simply lost and we rely very much on sensations to generate memories that can be retrieved more easily. If reported happiness is really what we value then measuring the actual emotions is not longer helpful; and then we get into a rather bizarre situation where inventing nice stories for our lives do help to make us feel happy even when our experiencing self may not have thought likewise.
I always think that motivation and sensible thinking go hand-in-hand. Motivation without sensible thinking can be foolish and even delusional; sensible thinking without motivation can be cold, indifferent and possibly irrelevant. And Purpose Fairy seem to put together pretty well.
In the previous entry, I promised that I'll come back to this topic; I mentioned something about a counter-intuitive phenomenon when it comes to learning:
When everyone is reading their textbooks and preparing for exams, it would seem somewhat unwise to be reading some other popular Economics books or even the Bible. Yet as a student captured in this whole paper chase, one needs also to realise that there is little value in re-reading what one has been reading for practically the whole year. Combining the content learnt with newer, obliquely relevant knowledge improves your associative memory and can remarkable enhance the ability of questions to trigger knowledge you've already acquired previously over the term.
Drilling yourself can create an 'instinctive' reaction but damage proper association in our memory. Your understanding of things becomes locked in a fixed sequence, a sort of linear series that does little justice to the true underlying logic of the subject matter. Knowledge and the actual connections within information is often networked, in the style of a web; much like a wikipedia entry with lots of linked stuff here and there. You cannot study things in a set sequence unless the specific topic involves simply a sequence of logical steps that is almost necessarily unidirectional. Even when there're steps in sequence, as long as you can move in different directions and jump between steps, a web-like structure of studying would better aid learning.
Mindmaps and tables are incredibly useful methods of organizing web-structured information. Of course, when I suggest tables, I was actually thinking of multi-dimensional ones broken up into sets of 2-dimensional tables. It is the same as the sort of summary you find in the resource section of our site. And the unique feature of web-structured information is that having more information and holding more knowledge actually helps you to retain new things/ideas even better.
Anyone who had the chance to read Joshua Foer's 'Moonwalking with Einstein' would realise that their traditional notions about mental capacities are completely mistaken. Your mind is not a closet that runs out of space after storing too much stuff; rather your mind doesn't lose the ability to store stuff - it simply loses the ability to retrieve things when you fail to catalogue it properly when trying to memorise it. You don't have to try and master the techniques he mentioned and be a memory champion in order to ace your exams but it does help to pick up a tip or two about the implications of these memory techniques that the mental athletes use.
Storage & Cataloguing
I'm using rather machine-like terms but the mind is something wonderfully organic and obviously defies machine logic. It appears to act like a machine while being way more flexible and powerful without requiring too much resources (ie. efficient). When studying, nothing is more important than focus and concentration. There's some things that can be picked up quickly within a short span of time, then try to spend short, focused units of time on them and then take breaks. Others requires long amounts of less intense concentration but lots of practice - and you should know what to do by now. Still, take breaks.
During these breaks, read a book, look at things around you and relate the things you learn to your life. Pay your bills and think about your finances; go online to shop for stuff and think about the signals behind those prices; hunt for bargains near your home and consider the consumer surplus vendors are trying to extract from you when using two-part pricing. Don't compartmentalize what you learn from your life. It's kind of nerdy/geeky but whatever, human progress by putting knowledge into application and not knowing things, storing them into paper manuscripts and placing them in a library. Economic progress at the cutting edge are made in industries, businesses and market exchanges, not research laboratories, academics offices or think-tanks.
Those thoughts and stuff you learn from the books you read helps to anchor the ideas you've acquired; they do not distract you from the main point unless you wander too far yourself. More importantly, they are more useful anchors than the pointless information that Joshua Foer has to remember in order to have a set index of the cards. These additional information you acquire forms a natural index for you to organize the information in your mind.
When your eyes are tired, try listening audio versions of the things you're trying to learn; when your ears are tired, try writing notes from the textbooks or organize the information in a different way (when you do that, you're interpreting them in your own terms). At the same time, you're engaging more sense to help you remember the information. Your mind not only remembers the abstract ideas but associates the muscle fatigue, the movements of your eyeballs across the pages, or the sounds you hear, whether it's the voice of the lecturers, the tones and pitches, the emphasis and such. All these meta-information helps to enhance the anchors in learning and provides a denser web for more ideas to cling on to.
Recall & Retrieval
Now during the exam, you realise that when the question comes, it triggers you to recall the information that has been acquired, sometimes with a little adjustment, that your mind makes quite smoothly. Other times, you need to locate what it is that you need to retrieve before acting on it. The actual pathway of recall is usually more bizarre than we'd like to imagine it is. The thought process could go like:
What is this (concept)? I remember I read it (somewhere in this textbook). I remember I was in my room when reading it. Ah yes, I was sitting on my bed then, and after that particular reading I went to get tea for myself. Oh yea, and I was thinking about how the distribution of the quality of the tea would come from the 'ensemble distribution' when they are sampled somewhat randomly even though the quality of the tea might be simply directly correlated with the packet that comes before it. Ah, so the ensemble distribution is the potential limiting distribution for the variable following the random walk process at any time 't'.
Obviously 'tea' and time 't' does have some sort of audial association but I shall not go into that. Even if you don't know what the concept mentioned above is about; you get my drift about how seemingly unrelated stuff can help you in the process of your knowledge retrieval. They need not be directly related but they help when at the point of studying, you constantly make mental associations between the things you learn and the things you're doing, or engaged in. Explaining to friends about the ideas and challenging each other's understanding of the concepts helps immensely.
When it comes to learning, it pays to understand the organ we're using to learn so that we can trick it into doing what we need it to.
After spending 15 years in education, I spent a brief two and a half year or so working (2 years in the military and then 6 months in the private sector). I returned to education after that; almost completing my first year of education since the hiatus. So I guess I know a thing or two about studying, or at least learning. Of course, everyone have different styles of learning but from my experience with people around me (who have mostly done remarkably well in the education system back in Singapore), studying/revising for school work almost definitely involves some form of active 'doing' rather than passive stuff (like plain reading).
The trick to absorbing new materials and learning in general is to involve as many senses as possible. This is a concept I explored a while back in 'Remembering Stuff'. It is then, more sensible to draw mindmaps while reading, to do underlining, annotations, taking notes while going through materials. When I go through my Economics notes, I often have to try deriving the equations myself because if I don't walk myself through the equations using my own interpretation of the logic of the theory, I will never be able to internalize the materials. This true for all the hard sciences (granted, economics is not exactly a hard science but when it comes down to the equations and formulas, we can reasonably assume it takes on that slice of nature of hard sciences).
But what about social sciences and humanities? It helps to draw mindmaps, basically to make connections between things that are studied. And the best part about mind maps is that it allows you to make many different complex connections. Although at the end of the day you might not actually find the stuff you drew particularly useful, the mindmap is really more of a tool to pin down your thinking of the connections than a visual representation of the actual concepts (especially true when you're doing revision) so it's fine. Getting in the mode of 'doing' activates your kinesthetic self and enlist the help of your muscles to 'remember' stuff for you. It's not that the muscle cells helps you to remember stuff but that the motor neurons help to provide another channel by which the new material enters your brains.
All that busyness also keeps you engaged and focused, especially if you're like me, dozing off easily as I stare at my materials. So for those who are studying out there, preparing for examinations, plainly trying to be consistent, don't waste your time staring blankly at your notes. Take some action and learn something.
ERPZ has always been a result of the 'Cognitive Surplus' that Clay Shirky wrote about and spoke about on TED. There is no organization supporting us, we are not driven commercially; we just are keen to do some stuff and share with the rest of the world. I'm not sure if we are serving any social causes; perhaps LOLcats contribute more than us.
In many sense, we are propagating some ideas by Kevin and his friends that they've found useful and think could be shared. We believe in the importance of disciplining one's minds and to empower it appropriately through careful thinking and motivation. This helps us build positive habits that will do us great in long run. We too often do not realise how little we need to spend at a high frequency to achieve a lot in the end. That is actually the idea of cognitive surplus: watching an hour less TV and use it to do something meaningful would allow you to achieve a lot more in your life. It's also about maximizing your potential, to do what you want to do that will benefit someone else as well.
And here we are, motivating many others to do the same, for themselves as much as everyone else. I always encourage people to think of giving as contributing to personal development though it often don't work on calculative people. So write more, I tell myself occasionally, and change the world somehow - with that cognitive surplus.
Michael Shermer speaks on TED about Beliefs, and how people are wired to want to believe in things. He explains 'The pattern behind self-deception' but it really is more about how the brain makes decision on what it pretends to be 'objective' based on extremely limited information. The decisions would therefore be a result of evolutionary experiences as well as learning.
It is really very true that you choose to believe in false patterns and become superstitious especially when you feel out of control, helpless in a specific matter. That is the reason why gamblers often believe in luck and we Chinese think that you should not touch a book ('shu', a homonym of 'losing' in Chinese) before entering a gambling den. One of the articles in The Economist's special report on Gambling discusses this. It quotes from David Sklansky:
[E]xpert players do not rely on luck. They are at war with luck. They use their skills to minimise luck as much as possible.
Therefore, it is the less skilled who'd think that they are 'victims' of fate or luck. The article's conclusion highlights a point from David that shifts your perspective of luck from winning to losing:
Imagine trying intentionally to lose at a game of pure chance, like roulette or baccarat. It would be impossible. At the beginning of a deal or a roll you have to bet on something. You can no more deliberately play badly than you can deliberately play well. The same is not true for poker, which offers multiple opportunities to make sure you lose.
That is to say that for something which you can deliberately play badly in, you'd have a good control of the outcome, and you need to make use of that control. It applies to life at large; when you choose to blame other things, events, people and circumstances for your situation, you're victimizing yourself and thinking that you've been toyed by chance. It makes you more likely to believe in false patterns and weakens you. That sets the basis for bad thinking and destructive self-deception.
Michael is also the founder of Skeptic Magazine. The magazine appears to be both humourous (at least from my point of view) and full of science tidbits that most people would really enjoy. For those who believes the world is ending in 2012, do check out a little interview they've done for you guys.
The takeaway? Understand your tendency towards beliefs and learn how to use them to your advantage; maintain a healthy skepticism and at times, accept false things so that you'd feel better. Most importantly, empower yourself with your beliefs.
It's been a long time since I wrote something about learning and studying. Recently it just came to my attention of the problem of the lack of active curiosity amongst students nowadays. People who are self-confident won't use the term 'I don't know' or admit they don't know something; as illustrated by the rather lame riddle, which testers claim has stumped 96% of Harvard students while majority of Kindergartners could offer an answer.
I turn polar bears white and I will make you cry.
I make guys have to pee and girls comb their hair.
I make celebrities look stupid and normal people look like celebrities.
I turn pancakes brown and make your champagne bubble.
If you squeeze me, I'll pop.
If you look at me, you'll pop.
Can you guess the riddle?
Apparently the answer is 'no' and rather than give the answer, people who don't give up would be in the 'work in progress' stage where the 'let me guess' thinking process doesn't cease. While this spirit may have failed for this riddle, it is the thing that drives the very same people to Harvard. At work, 'I don't know' is one of the most irresponsible phrase, both in terms of your duty and towards your personal development. It is okay not to know something but then just plain stating that reflects inaction, the implicit refusal to get pass the stage of ignorance. It is important not to fall into such a trap; being completely confident in yourself is not always good but then the liberal use of 'I don't know' represents another extreme.
Instead of saying 'I don't know', use 'let me check', 'I'll find out', 'I'm working on it' to remind yourself that you have the responsibility to know and should be finding out. Changing your attitude from a preference for inaction and status quo to one that involves actively overcoming one's inadequacy is an important step to achieving personal excellence.
By Martin See
To all my friends at EPRZ, I am back!
I have been intending to write this article for months, ever since I published my first in June 09. But why didn’t I write it? Because I have to practise what I preach. I have to do the things that I advise my readers to do. Today’s article discusses the benefits of good procrastination and there is no better way to validate its credibility than to use myself as the test subject. Here are the facts of my research.
As children, we were told by our parents to stop procrastinating and start working on our household chores. As students, we were told by our teachers to stop procrastinating and start working on our school assignments. And they would always use this popular saying, “the early bird catches the worm”, to support their argument. Fair enough. But what happens to the early worm? Doesn’t it get eaten? The truth of the matter is that procrastination can be good or bad depending on how you use it. So the important issue is not how you should avoid procrastination but how you should use procrastination to your advantage.
There are many activities that you could be doing now. All these activities are competing for your time and attention. How do you decide which activity to begin and which to postpone? Through objective evaluation, you will have to rate each activity in importance. After that, you will have to practice the principles of good procrastination- to learn when to do the right things and to postpone the wrong things. It means choosing to avoid lesser activities in favour of greater goals. If you have just been struck by a brilliant inspiration, for example, then you should work on that new idea and postpone the thought of running an errand for your parents. Learning to prioritise is, thus, the key to good procrastination.
During my absence from ERPZ, I have completed my National Service, organised several grassroots events, and earned my driving license among many other completed tasks. I have been using procrastination to my advantage by avoiding the less important activities to do the real work. And even though I have sacrificed the cleanliness of my room, the well-being of my stomach, and of course the welfare of the readers at ERPZ, I have accomplished much by practising good procrastination.
Most people will tell you that procrastination is bad and that you should avoid it or cure it. Their ill advice is predicated on the false belief that procrastination means doing absolutely nothing. Author Paul Graham writes that “there are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important.” The last type, good procrastination, is what you should strive for.