Monday, 28 November 2011

Book review - Bad Science

To say Bad Science is an interesting book would be an understatement. It's absolutely fascinating. But not only that it's also very enlightening. 

If you have ever read any articles by Ben Goldacre it's quite familiar ground. Homeopathy, the placebo effect, nutritionists, Gillian McKeith, medicine in the media and health scares are a few of the topics covered, in detail. What I really like about the book, which I didn't get from the articles, is the common themes running through the book and commentary on how some of the topics affect our culture and beliefs. Like I said, absolutely fascinating. 

So what about the enlightening stuff I mentioned? Well, it's apparent from reading Bad Science that science is often badly reported by the media. With that being the case, how can find out the truth for yourself? Ben Goldacre helps you out by giving an overview of what to look for in a scientific study; what practices help ensure a fair trial and the kind of tricks people use to give a study the slant they are looking for. He also mentions where you can find publicly available studies. The most useful place I think is the Cochrane Collaboration. This site publishes Cochrane Reviews which are systematic reviews of research. What is a systematic review? From the Cochrane site: "A systematic review is a high-level overview of primary research on a particular research question that tries to identify, select, synthesize and appraise all high quality research evidence relevant to that question in order to answer it". In other words they gather and collate high quality research which allows patterns to be observed that wouldn't be seen in individual small studies. Pretty useful if you ask me.

In summary, if you have any interest in science or have ever read any articles by Ben Goldacre before, I recommend this book. It's a very good read.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Side projects

I've no doubt that many other people have written about this (in fact I sometimes wonder if it's possible to write about a topic that nobody else has already written about) but I think having programming side projects is very important. The chief reason for me is experience. I imagine most programmers are constrained in their day to day jobs. Constrained by frameworks, constrained by time, constrained by practices or maybe constrained by poor code that was created by someone else. There's no such thing as a perfect program so at work there are always areas of the code you think could be improved or should have been done differently. But how do you know that you're right? Simple, try it out for yourself. Structure programs exactly as you want. Try different things. See what works and what doesn't. Having this kind of freedom is an incredibly valuable learning experience. 

There are other reasons for doing side projects as well. I don't know about anyone else but I like trying out new technologies. Working with the same old frameworks and libraries day in day out can become monotonous. Working with new technologies is fun and exciting! Well, most of the time. On the odd occasion you work with something new and it turns out to be a load of rubbish, or not significantly better than something you used previously. Oh well, it's all good experience. 

One piece of advice I would always give to someone who wanted to start a side project is to make something that is going to be used. There's always a danger that any project undertaken in your own time will be left unfinished if you lose interest or motivation. I committed to making the Teesside basketball league website in my spare time and knowing it had to be finished by a certain date helped considerably. Some might argue that it takes the fun out of it, but all I can say is that it helped focus my attention on the features that needed to be implemented rather than the features that I wanted to implement. Without that focus I would still be working on it!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Morning pages

What it's all about

Morning pages is a technique I discovered when reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. The idea is to write three pages, by hand, about whatever is in your head first thing in the morning before you do anything else. The idea is to tap into the right side of your brain. What's that? It's the area of your brain that's thought to be responsible for things like intuition, spatial awareness, visual processing (e.g. recognising faces) and non-linear thought. According to the book it operates in an asynchronous manner, you can't control it, and it shuts down when the voice in your head is talking. If you're like me, that's pretty much all the time. The theory is that first thing in the morning you are more in touch with the right side of your brain because you're not fully awake and that little voice hasn't started talking nonsense yet. It could be beneficial to tap into thoughts that come from the right side of your brain as it may provide you with solutions to problems or ideas which have been ticking over unconsciously in your head. In theory anyway. 

What Pragmatic Thinking and Learning says about an asynchronous thought process makes a lot of sense to me. How many times have you thought of an answer to a problem, or remembered something you couldn't recall earlier while you were driving to work or doing the washing up? It happens to me a all the time. For this reason I thought that even if it didn't provide anything useful it would be an interesting exercise, and I'd like to see what comes out of my brain in the morning.

Was it useful?

I have no doubt that it was interesting, but I'm still undecided as to the usefulness of morning pages. One way of measuring the usefulness of an exercise is to compare your expectations with the outcome. What were my expectations? If someone had asked me before I started I would have said "not much", but deep down I think what I really wanted was a great idea or a eureka moment. Well, good news, I've solved the meaning of life, the universe and everything! Not really. My brain isn't special. I would estimate, based on zero measurements, that about seventy percent of what I wrote was nonsense and thirty percent was quite interesting. The interesting stuff did reveal some of the topics I think about, but strangely I didn't write as much about what I would typically think about during the day.

So what did I write about? Reading back through the notes there were a number of main themes. A lot of what I wrote was quite negative. There was a lot of complaining about the fact that nothing was in my head and therefore I had nothing to write about. By the end of two weeks I was getting very annoyed at myself for having an empty morning brain. I also moaned in a very pathetic way about the fact that I was tired, and pondered whether tiredness affected the quality of my notes. To top off my whinging I wondered several times what I would get from doing morning pages.

What about the interesting stuff? On several days the first subject I wrote about was dreams. I don't dream a lot but when I do I tend to remember it for about five minutes after I wake up, so it's no surprise that I wrote about it. Other than that it was very contemplative and very much much about me and my thoughts. One thing is obvious from this exercise; I have a lot of questions in my head, and not very many answers. Questions about my job, questions about the future, questions about life, that kind of thing. 

What kind of things did I write?

Below are a few example of things I wrote. As I said earlier, there was quite a lot of moaning:

"I feel like a broken record"

"I could close my eyes and go back to sleep right now"

"Here we go again. The morning nothing"

"I feel like I've run out of things to write about already" - This was after about four lines on my very first morning

"This feels like a blog. A strange nonsensical blog that nobody would want to read"

"How many times can I write that I'm not thinking about anything?"

"If anyone ever reads this I wonder if they'll think I'm totally mental?"

"It's like my brain doesn't want to think in the morning. My body is awake but my brain stubbornly refuses to get out of bed"

But there was a few interesting sections as well. Having read them back, some of them as quite surprising considering they were written when I was half asleep (which of course is the point):

"Why are some people happier than others? Is it the way they think? Is it the way they approach life? The way they were brought up? A chemical/hormonal imbalance? Can something be done about it?"

"Having some understanding of how other people differ from yourself is very useful. I often wonder what goes through other peoples mind and how they come to their conclusions, especially when they differ radically from my own. But saying that I sometimes wonder how I've drawn my own conclusions in hindsight."

"However much I'm convinced a particular direction is the right one to take, there will always, quite rightly, be arguments and reasons against. The really is no room for dogmatic belief in specific ideas, technologies etc. I think it makes you less open to new ideas and opinions, which isn't good for learning. That's not to say you shouldn't have strong opinions, but you shouldn't force them on other people or be offended if someone thinks you are wrong. Again, see both sides. I'll work on that. It's not easy."

"I wonder how people who are really good at things get that way? Sometimes it seems strangely unattainable. But, does it really matter? Is it important? Who actually cares? Why does it sound like someone is using sandpaper outside? Is everyone aware of how the learn effectively? How do you know which skills are more important? What if you're wrong? How do you overcome cognitive biases? How do you take a more calm, measured approach? How do you if and when you should have kids? What will they look like? How will they behave? How much do people imitate other people? Are people really affected in a noticeable way by when then they were born?"

"How do you make realistic goals? How do you really know what you want? Do goals really help that much? With so much information coming in, how do you filter the useful stuff?"

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Book review - Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware


I know it's a bit strange to start with a conclusion but I just want to come out and say it, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt is one of the most interesting and useful books I have ever read. Never before has a book given me so many things to think about, so many new ideas and so many useful tips. 

Let me put that into perspective. There is so much information in this book that was new to me I feel like I've learned a huge amount. Not only that, it also explains some of my own behaviour. It's absolutely fascinating. So much of this book strikes a chord with me I will re-read large amounts of it in the weeks, months and years to come. Saying that, I'm not under any illusion it will be like this for everyone, if you have read similar books, or come across many of the techniques and ideas already then it probably won't be quite as useful. 

What's in it?

Because there is so much content in packed into two hundred and fifty ish pages I'll just include the parts that were most interesting to me. The second chapter talks about the stages between novice and expert referencing the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. The next few chapters detail how your brain works, including which areas of the brain are responsible for which skills, how to use your brain more effectively by using more of it, and common brain bugs (otherwise known as cognitive biases). Chapter six and seven are all about learning more effectively; setting goals, managing skills, working together, reading techniques, mind maps, dealing with failure and the effects of pressure on learning and thinking. Managing focus is the subject of chapter eight. It covers how to increase focus, managing knowledge, dealing with interruptions, optimising your working environment and staying sharp. Finally, the last chapter has some tips on what to do next. It really does cover a lot of ground.

Each chapter is divided into a number of sections, after each section are a number of "Next Actions". These consist of a number of bullet points which encourage you either think about or act upon the previous section. I find these particularly useful as I can easily fall into the habit of simply reading and not thinking enough. 

Why is it useful?

Let's start with the brain. Pragmatic Thinking and Learning explains how your brain works using various computer metaphors. It describes how your brain is split into the left and right sides, each is responsible for different types of thinking. The left deals with things like logic and language, and the right deals with things like spatial awareness, non-linear thinking, and non-rational thinking. The right side of your brain is asynchronous, you can't control it directly. Have you ever tried to remember the name of a band, song, film, actor, author, book and regardless of have much you try, you simply cannot remember? Then some time in the future, at the least likely moment, in the shower, doing the washing up, driving to work, whatever, it leaps into your mind from seemingly nowhere. I think this must have happened to everybody as some point, but I never knew why. Now I do, that's the right side of your brain. What I find particularly fascinating about this is the possibilities this opens up. Often it's unused and under valved so the techniques suggested by Andy Hunt to get more from the right side of you brain are potentially invaluable. It's certainly something I will try and explore.

The brain learning (as my wife would say) doesn't stop there. Another interesting subject covered is cognitive biases. These are known bugs in how people think. An example of this is the confirmation bias, which is the natural tendency to seek out arguments, facts or opinions that match your own. I think having knowledge of these common faults can make you more aware of your own thoughts, where they have come from and why you are having them, and then question yourself. Is that what I want to think? Is there another side to it? Is there more to it? What is the context? But it's not only the way you think that is important. Often other people's thought processes differ drastically from your own. Sometimes it can be difficult to work with colleagues who are very different from yourself. Chapter five includes an introduction to the Myers Briggs type indicator. This is a model which assigns various 'types' to a person based on their personality. The idea is to gain some insight your own personality type and the personality type of others, which hopefully makes it easier to make to understand and therefore interact with personality types that are different from your own. 

The process of learning is something that can be taken for granted after you leave education. Often not a lot of thought goes into it. I'm certainly guilty of that. It's no good randomly reading a few books or blogs, there is more to consider. What should you learn? What subjects are more important? Why? What kind of learning works for me? How can you make it stick? When should I learn? What do I want to achieve? All of these are valid questions which should be considered so you get the most from whatever you learn. Pragmatic Thinking and Learning discusses all of these questions and offers various techniques and suggestions on how to get the most from whatever you learn

Concentration is another issue which I've thought about. Or rather the lack of it. There is a whole chapter dedicated to managing focus. It's pretty important. Everyone has difficulty concentrating now and again so any suggestions on how to increase focus are invaluable. Andy Hunt to the rescue again. He suggests mediation can be very beneficial and suggests various ways to maximise your focus by managing interruptions, distractions and context.

I've only scratched the surface of Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. I'm not convinced I've done a good job of summarising the content of the book, but I hope I've done just enough to pique the interest of anyone who reads this blog. If I have, go and buy it now :-)