Saturday, September 19, 2009


Stop Making Sense

An odd 'un in the Guardian about a new study in this month's Psychological Science:

Research from psychologists at the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia claims to show that exposure to surrealism enhances the cognitive mechanisms which oversee implicit learning functions. The psychologists showed a group of subjects Kafka's story The Country Doctor, a disturbing and surreal tale... A second group were shown the same story, but rewritten so the plot made more sense. Both groups were then asked to complete an artificial grammar learning task which saw them exposed to hidden patterns in letter strings, and then asked to copy the strings and mark those which followed a similar pattern.

"People who read the nonsensical story... were actually more accurate than those who read the more normal version of the story. They really did learn the pattern better than the other participants did. Proulx said that the thinking behind the research was that when we are exposed to something which "fundamentally does not make sense", our brains will respond by "looking for some other kind of structure" within our environment.

Wiley's got the article behind a subscription wall, but happily, one of the study's researchers put up a pdf download of the article. So brace yourself for a chart:

Saturday, September 05, 2009


Skinner's Quiz Box

With Labor Day coming up, I've had to think about how to keep the kids occupied on some long trips -- which why I'm on NPR Weekend Edition today to talk about Yes & Know invisible ink books...

They still look and work the same today as when I was a kid, and I became intrigued: where did these books come from, anyway? I tracked them down to a 1974 patent by Leon Lenkoff of Louisville, Kentucky. (His company, Lee Publications, continues making Yes & Know to this day.) But what struck me was that he cited a 1968 patent by a "Burrhus Frederic Skinner."

B... F... Skinner?


Skinner's invention was part of his interest in automating learning; a handwriting worksheet that turned red when drew outside the dotted lines would save teacher labor for more personalized tasks. It was Lenkoff's bright idea to take this idea of defined areas of invisible ink and apply them to tic-tac-toe, 20 Questions, and a Battleship knockoff called "Fleet."

Skinner himself notes an older patent by an Antioch College chemistry instructor for a self-correcting quiz (e.g. fill in the wrong bubble and it turns red, while the correct answer bubble turns green). Skinner was so fond of that idea that he patented an anti-cheating version.

It's a charmingly retro technology. But it turns out that cheatproof decoder pen idea is making a comeback in polling booths this year with a vote confirmation system called Scantegrity.

So all those games of Decoder Pen Baseball on the airplane and in the car? Training for secure voting...

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