Monday, July 16, 2018

Cork dork – book overview


This book, the Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, came via GoodReads recommendation. There is a positive review from Decanter - wine industry magazine; overview from the NYTimes; and a less glowing report, here - which surmises the book encourages wine noobs to ignore the snobs, just drink cheap wine! 

I tracked the book down at the local library and read it over a wet weekend. One of the sub-projects from the recently completed e-assessment project, was to help cookery students learn how to taste. As tasting was deemed to be something ‘everyone is able to do’, the cookery teaching team did not place much emphasis on overtly teaching students how to taste. Learning how to taste like a chef, was therefore chiefly learnt through modelling from the chef tutors.

The chef tutors only realised that students were unable to articulate the sensory evaluation of dishes when students were required to reflect on the cooking process of dishes as part of the evidence gathering towards collating eportfolios. The researcher for this sub-project, is a food and beverage tutor, who had come from the tradition of being taught how to taste wine. Part of the project, was therefore to try to make overt and structured, the ways food tasting could be described. Mindmapping and notetaking apps were introduced to assist with learning the ‘language of tasting’. These apps were to facilitate the sharing of dish descriptions and evaluations to assist students to widen their sensory evaluation vocabulary.



Back to the book, which has 11 chapters, tracing the journey of the author, from novice / layperson to practicing sommelier. The author was able to make a head start using her contacts as a tech journalist and with the rationale of the book as a lever into the rarified world of professional wine tasters. Being a sommelier entailed not only being able to taste wine, but also to sell it, provide good service in fine dining restaurants and gain a foothold into a challenging but well-paid occupation (when compared to other hospitality work).

To begin, the author managed to gain an entry level job as a ‘cellar rat’, assisting with the storage and re-stocking of a wine cellar in a prestigious restaurant. She was able to make friends with several well-known sommeliers and join them for their tasting sessions. This led her to prepare for the first level of accreditation to become a sommelier through eligibility to take the Certification exams.
By the end of a hear, the author was working as a sommelier in a wine bar, had passed the first of a series of professional exams, and also established, through a fMRI scan, that her brain reaction to wine, was similar to experts. So the year of hard graft, tasting many wines and learning the esoteric knowledge components of wine making, had triggered a change in her brain structure.

The perceived method towards training the brain therefore, begins with training to smell. ‘Stocking the sense memory’ was essential to being able to connect the descriptive wine terminology, with tasting and identification of wine. The patterns of taste has to be organised, so the patterns connect with wine types, grape varieties, regions etc. Apart from learning how to taste wine, service of wine required skill training through repeated practice and an understanding of the psychology of people’s social relationships.  In short, sommeliers really have to work for their pay.

Overall, the book provides a good insight into how a novice, learns a complex set of skills, connects the sensory sensations to a large bank of knowledge, and utilises these in a demanding occupation. A sommelier, is the sum of all of these and each, brings into the job, their own personality and characteristics as well.

All in, a good read and a relaxed way to learn much about the world of wine.


Monday, July 09, 2018

Lightboards @ Ara


After several years of development, Ara is now able to make use of a lightboard for recording instructional videos for students. The team which constructed the lightboard, used a variety of resources to put together the lightboard. An example from here , here  and here on a one button lightboard studio.

Last week there a short presentation with Mark Kingston from engineering at trades, demonstrating how he used the lightboard to support his teaching.
The rationale was to engage trades engineering / fabricating students with trade calculations. These students are often very math phobic due to poor experiences at school. Using the lightboard provides a resource that can be used by learners to repeat contextualised maths to nut out the nuances of trades maths. He has now produced over 30 videos and they are posted on YouTube.

Reflections on the outcomes. Anytime learning and useful with students who are not keen to ask questions in class and it is difficult to work out if they have understood the concept. Moving away from unit standards allowed more time for competency to be built up. The videos allow for a contextualised resource to be built up quickly, sometimes to meet just in time learning needs that have come up during a f2f session. Challenges have mainly been with the software. Keeping the glass clean on the lightboard is crucial and requires some elbow grease.



The lightboard’s original intent is to allow videos to be recorded of the tutor’s board work as they explain a concept. It is particularly useful for disciplines which have a high visual / kinaesthetic focus exampled by maths, engineering and trades subjects. The app ‘explain everything’ is capable of similar but does not allow for the teacher / tutor, apart from their voice over, to also be included.
I am more interested in how the videos recorded with a lightboard will be useful for learners to record their learning as well. Using the Thayer method in a more learning focused fashion will likely provide dividends. The method requires learners to ‘teach’ a topic after they have learnt concepts presented to them in a lecture. Using ‘explain everything’ is the 21st version of using a chalkboard to write up equations. This approach, puts into practice, a concurrence of neuroeducation recommendations for learners to be able to 'teach' what they have learnt. See recently overviewed book on this blog, chapter on educating minds, for rationale.

For the current practice, tutors may record a ‘how to’ video using the lightboard. Learners use this resource to practice an attain fluency. Then they solve a slightly different problem and record their process on the app ‘explain everything’ (or similar). This provides a learning loop to be established, providing the tutor with evidence of students’ learning which may then also be archived in an eportfolio.



Monday, July 02, 2018

Matthew Crawford on satisfaction from trades work - ITF conference 2018

Last week, the annual Industry Training Federation (ITF) conference was held in Welllington. A range of invited speakers presented on a way ahead for NZ with regards to vocational education and workplace based training.

I was not able to get to the conference but the conference twitter feed provided photos and summaries of various presentations. The overall theme of the conference was 'Skills in a changing World'. Speakers concentrated on providing statistics on what the future might bring with regards to demographics in NZ, possible scenarios of work in the future, call for equity to ensure vocational education was availed to groups currently with high youth numbers (Maori and Pacifika) but poorly represented (women, range of ethnicities which have grown in numbers etc.)

One of the keynote speakers was Matthew Crawford, author of the book - Shop class as soul craft - see here for summary / overview on this blog. Matthew also summarised some of the concepts in the book on a Radio NZ interview. A short interview, giving more updated examples then in the book but reiterating the need to look beyond a degree for work preparation. Some 'white collar' work may not provide the job satisfaction or earning potential of trades work.

So although not able to be at the conference, the various social medii provided some opportunity to keep in touch with the overall tone of the conference. NZ has to address the need to ensure there is equity of access to all types of work for all its citizens. Otherwise, the replacement of the mainly pakeha (white) and male workforce in especially the vocational occupations, will be a continual challenge.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The secret life of the mind - book overview


An interesting read, picked up at the local library. The secret life of the mind - how the brain thinks, feels, and decides by Mariano Sigman. Published in 2015 and translated into English in 2017 by Little, Brown and Co. Sigman is an Argentinian physicist, see here for Ted Talk,  and here for youtube video, summarising some of the items in the book. 

A short introduction is followed by 6 chapters. 7 pages of references and comprehensive index.

 The book begins with ‘Origins of thought’ which summarises the developmental aspects of neurobiology. The sub-title of the chapter is how babies think and communicate and how can we understand them better?’ In short, we are wired to learn, some of the ways we conceptualise the world are innate, but social conditioning and experiences provide large contributions. Of note is the explanation of Piaget’s object permanence in 10 month old babies. They can see that an object has been shifted from under or behind a barrier, but still point to the original location. This is not because they have not conceptualised that the object has shifted, but because they are unable to override the stronger message they are getting from the brain, to indicate their true answer.

The fuzzy borders of identity – what defines our choices and allows us to trust other people and your own decisions? – An overview of the principles of neuro-economics. Basically, our decisions are governed by our unconscious which in turn is ‘trained’ by our personality and predilections. How we make decisions is often thought to be rational, but much of the decision making process is founded on our beliefs and biases. We tend to be more optimistic as it is a coping mechanism for us to get on with our lives. The brain has evolved mechanisms to ignore certain negative aspects of the future. The halo effect is pronounced in us, as it is based on the brain’s need to find structure and patterns. The various moral dilemmas are used as examples of how we go for irrational decisions, based on our emotions rather than our logic.

The machine that constructs reality – how does consciousness emerge in the brain and how are we governed by our unconscious. This chapter explores how the brain decodes patterns. The world of the ‘unconscious’ is also explored and explained. These concepts are important to understanding the next chapter. We are drawn to forming patterns as these help us make sense of the world. These patterns allow us to become experts in specialised areas. However, these patterns also trip us up when we come to make decisions as the pre-established preconceptions, blind us to alternatives.

Voyages of consciousness (or consciousness tripping) – what happens in the brain as we dream; is it possible for us to decipher, control and manipulate our dreams? This chapter discusses the differences between dreams and imagination. Dreams are generally not controllable but can be very realistic. Some people have lucid dreaming, which they are aware of. The contribution of pharmacology (e.g. cannabis, lysergics) to states of consciousness are introduced and pros and cons discussed.

The brain is constantly transforming – what makes our brains more or less predisposed to change? This chapter provides foundation for understanding how the brain learns. Humans are primed to learn and some forms of ‘understanding’ are innate. For example, children’s brains are wired to learn language. Experiences attained from life, provide scaffolds from which to build more learning. Therein lies the difference between novices and experts. Novices have less foundation to call on and need to attend to cues at each step of learning. Novices are also unable to work out what they need to focus on, therefore, their energies are drawn into all the aspects of the process as they are unable, as yet, to see the wood from the trees. In comparison, experts have attained an all-encompassing perspective on their specialist area and are able to draw on this to extend learning. The example provided is of chess masters playing multiple games whilst blindfolded. As these expert chess players have established patterns in their brains of chess boards and moves, they are able to associate the plays and make decisions without having to actually see the board. Attaining expert hood is assisted by the individual’s attributes and proclivities but still requires concerted input / effort / practice to polish and progress beyond the standardised.

Educated brains – how can we use what we have learned about the brain and human thought to improve education? Application of the concepts introduced are presented in this chapter. Advocates teaching should be centred around helping learners improve their metacognition. So learners need to be able to work out they know something and also that others know other things (theory of mind). It is important for learners to be able to work out if there is a difference between their own knowledge and that of others and then have the skills / tools to bridge the gap. Learning through teaching others (tutor learning), even for the very young, is recommended as a way to increase metacognition and extend learners’ theory of mind.

A very readable, short book of just over 200 pages. A two page appendix provides an overview of brain anatomy and 15 pages of bibliography are provided for follow up.

The book offers many examples, summaries of contemporary scholarly work and metaphors to assist with explaining the various concepts introduced and extended on through the book. It is a good resource for laypeople interested in understanding better, how the brain works.


Monday, June 18, 2018

Work and how different types of jobs are perceived

Happened on a Channel News Asia series over the weekend. It is about jobs in Singapore, which are considered to be 'low status'. The documentary, in 5 episodes, is titled "don't make us invisible" and follows the work routine of a petrol pump attendant, bus driver, cleaner and construction worker. All part of the Singapore government's efforts to shift the perception of the populace to consider that all jobs are important, not only the ones which require academic excellence. As it is, the majority of jobs deemed to be low status, are conducted by non-Singaporeans. With the rise in AI and robotics, some of these jobs will disappear, but there will still be  whole categories of work, requiring humans.

The status of jobs is not only an Asian challenge, this chapter 'beyond the vocational / academic divide: inclusion through craftwork and embodied learning', argues that all work, requires engagement and commitment. If we take on the view of learning as moving towards 'embodiment' of a set of manual skills, tacit knowledge and craftsman-like attitudes, then all learning, be it vocational or academic, are important towards contributing to social good.

Interestingly, there is also a volume of  recent literature, example summarised in this recent Stuff article, of how well respected jobs, can be boring and feel pointless. Over 80% of legal jobs, 70% plus project management, support functions, 60%plus in consulting / accounting, financial services / banking, engineering, sales / marketing and communications and over 50% IT type jobs are on the list! Another article summarises David Graeber's, one perspective of why these jobs lack satisfaction. The book 'Bullshit jobs'  categorises these jobs as "goons, flunkies, box tickers, task masters and duct tapers" with people responding that 'the jobs are so pointless that they are not able to justify their existence themselves'.

So although the above well-respected jobs require high academic achievement to enter, they do not, offer satisfaction and are just a means to earn a wage. So perhaps the entry of AI / robotics might not be such a bad thing after all! Some of the boring aspects of 'bullshit jobs' may be taken over. Whereas, the jobs requiring high levels of 'embodiment' providing greater job satisfaction, may continue due to their high levels of manual skill complexity and variety. What does that say of how we educate for the future? Something to think through and follow up.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Emerge – Ara Institute of Technology ICT projects exhibition

The annual showcase for Bachelor of Information and Computer Technology (BICT) students runs across this week 11 – 15 June.


As part of the week, there was an evening event with two guest speakers, followed by presentations from students of their work.

Tony Grey, Ara CE provided the welcome and opening of the event. Dr. Bernard Otinpong, computing tutor/lecturer was the MC.

David Carter, Director of Stratos Technology Partners and the chairperson of Canterbury Tech presented on ‘the future of ICT’. Provided two examples of the acceleration in adoption of innovations requiring high IT infrastructure and resources. One is the use of AI bots by Google to  conduct conversations. The second is the development of self-driving cars. Social impacts are often under-stated and just these two technologies, will contribute to the world of the future. The challenge for NZ, a small country, is to ensure we understand what is coming or is already here, and to leverage of these. Provided an example of the smart use of technology to support dairy industry – monitoring of cows across a year provided sufficient data to predict time cows were ready for insemination and how the time of insemination would determine the gender of the offspring. Tech economy is low impact environmentally and Christchurch is well situated to contribute (being second to Wellington in number of IT companies and employees) . Need to ensure there are sufficient IT people to support the industry.

Teresa McCullum, Smart Cities project manager for the Christchurch City Council presented on ‘Smart cities and the internet of things’. Set up the context and rationale for the potentialities of IT careers in Christchurch. Shared the CCC vision for becoming a smart city. Defined smart city and internet of things (IoT). Updated on current work – open platform, open data and open information – to facilitate the interaction between the many ‘internet of things’ points and remove barriers to the adoption of innovative technologies. Exampled the way traffic flow is monitored and information is provided to motorists, rubbish bin sensors and earthquake response sensors. Check smart city Christchurch website.

An interesting session followed as students presented their work. Posters summarised their projects and students were available to answer questions. Almost all of the projects, were focused on the themes brought up by the speakers. Many projects also produced proof of concept type apps or systems for local companies, including this cycle safety app for school children to generate a safe route on bike to school.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst - book overview

I picked this book up from the local library and am glad I chanced upon it.

Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst by Robert M. Sapolsky, published 2017 by Penguin. 

Sapolsky presents excerpts from the book on a recent TedTalk


This book tries to and mostly succeeds in bringing together, the many threads of neurobiological, developmental, along with the evolutionary, and  social and cultural contributions to how we behave.
The book is pitched at interested lay people, but requires background in human biology to understand. 

The 3 appendices provided are therefore extremely useful overviews of neuroscience (i.e. how the brain works); endocrinology (i.e. the contribution of hormones and biochemical) and proteins (i.e. the genetics basis of life).

The book also has extensive notes for the keen to follow up (50 pages) and a thorough index.

There are 17 chapters with short introduction and epilogue bracketing the content.
The book begins with a behaviour, then proceeds to uncover, over time, layer by layer, the many influences that allow the said behaviour to occur.

The first 2 chapters focus on the neurobiology and biochemistry which drives behaviour. Appendix 1, covering the basics of neurobiology, is recommended as a prerequisite. The three chapters cover the brain areas relevant to understanding behaviour. The amygdala which is where reward, anticipation arise; the role of dopamine; and the frontal lobes contribution to regulation and restraint of behaviours.

Then follow 3 chapters which overlap between physical neurobiology and the biochemical interactions which contribute to behaviour. In particular, details on testetorone (on aggression), oxytoxin and vasopressin (on the mother-infant bond), adaptive female aggression through estrogen, progesterone and oxytoxine, the effects of sustained stress and the caveat that hormones do not determine, command or cause behaviours but make us more sensitive to triggers from emotionally charged behaviours. The effects of these hormones on memory and discussion on neuroplasticity are also included. Chapter 6 provides application of the precepts from the previous chapters by exploring and discussing the adolescent brain – ‘or dude, where is my frontal cortex?’

Then follow 3 chapters focusing on human development. Summarising the various behaviours’ development from birth and the genetic/ epigenetic causes of some of these behaviours. Also the contribution of mother’s behaviours while baby is in the womb and the wider social issues which cause behaviours which are distinct in various populations. Chapter 8 has a good overview of epigenetics and argues that genes are not autonomous. Instead, they are regulated by the wider environment. Epigenetics can allow environmental effects to be lifelong or even across generations. So it is now not so much important what your genetical heritage might be but the environment in which those genes find themselves and how many other environmental factors contribute to how genes manifest, or remain dormant.

Chapter 9 synthesises the biological with aspects of the social-cultural. For example, the role of culture in contributing to why there is a gender gap in mathemathics testing. There is overview of the salient foundations of social theories, including collectivist vs individualist cultures; pastoralism (e.g. what agriculture has contributed); stratified vs egalitarian cultures; the effects of population size, density and heteriogeneity; and origins of religion and war.

Evolution's contribution is then discussed in the next three chapters. The premise is that evolution can shape behaviour, but with caveats. The usual foundations of evolution are discussed, including why there is reciprocal altruism, as it does not favour genetical transfer of the altruistic individual. The nuances of selection are proposed and critiqued – as in individual, group, kin selection etc.  In short, brain neurobiology, genes, hormones, social contributions etc.  provide not so much causes as propensities, potentials, vulnerabilities, predispositions etc.

Chapter 11 provides a good overview of why we are ‘tribal’ and why it we are drawn to ‘us vs them’ reactions. Discussions follow on the contribution of this concept to a whole host of human responses. Chapter 12 follows with extension of chapter 11 with discussion on the social basis of hierarchy, obedience and resistance. Why we crave status, its roots in biology and the social and cultural bases that support and enhance status. This chapter covers much ground. Importantly, the ways we make decisions are founded in our biology (i.e. how we make decisions, our approaches to reflective thought and how we resolve cognitive dissonance). Our social systems have ameliorated some of the predisposition to just look after ourselves and those close to us. For instance, we invented democracy and social welfare. However, we are also conformists and this may lead us to follow pathways which disadvantage ‘the other’.

The implications on behaviour are then presented in a couple of chapters. Chapter 13 summarises morality and ethics and how they contribute. Chapter 14 is on empathy, why do we feel the pain of others? And especially, why are we neurobiologically primed to have empathy.

Chapter 15 follows up behaviours at the other end of the continuum from empathy. Why do we kill? How do we circumvent the inner biological and cultural reinforcements of disgust etc. to kill others?

Chapter 16 is an interesting chapter which discusses whether we have free will. The criminal justice system is used as the basis for examples. In particular, how snippets of neuroscience research have been used, without deeper study of the actual implications. Hence, neurolaw, as an emergent science has to counter misconceptions and provide more studied responses.

The penultimate chapter ‘war and peace’ brings the various themes together. It presents the behaviours which have improved (i.e. we have mellowed and are less likely to go to war); discusses how to move forward and improve our behaviours as a species further; and summarises the best of humanity’s contributions.

In short, things are complicated. We may understand some of the underlying biological basis for behaviour but there are many contributing factors beyond the biological. There is never one factor or cause, but a multitude of interactions, concurrent shifts, biological and social coevolution etc. Understanding this means we need to read the literature critically and not just take things at face value.

All in, a really good synthesis, written in readable prose. Best read if you are interested in the topic as there is a lot to take in (over 600 pages including the appendices).