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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Alan Turing

Alan Turing was born on June 23, 1912 so it would have been his 100th birthday yesterday and many are paying homage to him as a remarkable genius who is often referred to as the ‘Father’ of the computer age. 

There are many sites that tell the story of Turing’s life but if you click on my favorite site  written by Sinclair McKay you will get a true sense on the eccentric man he truly was. For instance McKay wrote “The popular image of Turing is that of a borderline Asperger’s boffin mathematician, trousers held up with an old tie, wearing a gas mask when cycling in the country, spectacularly awkward in social situations, with a high-pitched laugh that would grate the nerves of a saint. But the real genius of his story – the element from which we can draw inspiration today – is the fact that he refused to allow himself to be compartmentalised in any way, professionally or personally. This extraordinary mind roamed anywhere that took its interest.”

One of Turing’s significant accomplishments was the breaking of the ENIGMA code that the Germans used in the 2nd World War to transmit secret orders. Though the code was thought to be unbreakable, Turing succeeded and thus saved probably millions of lives by winning the war much more quickly. 

The British Science Museum has created an exhibition in Turing's honour and one of its central features is the origingal pilot model Automatic Computing Engine [ACE] the first machine that has most of the features of a modern computer.  Turing wrote the specifications for it in late 1945 and it included detailed logical circuit diagrams. He felt that speed and size of memory were crucial and he proposed a high-speed memory of about 1 kilobyte accessed at a speed of 1 MHz. The ACE also used Abbreviated Computer Instructions, an early form of programming language. The museum's website contains a short video on Turing's life and tour of some of the exhibits. 

Alan Turing was convicted because of his homosexuality and tragically committed suicide at the age of 41. He had so much more to contribute and his loss can never be replaced.  However, though he may have been considered by most a nerd or oddball, in a time of extreme danger for Britain, he was sought out and his genius appreciated. Hopefully in this time of grave danger for our planet, we may be blessed with and treasure any with brilliant freethinking minds  that can solve our ecological problems and also the charismatic leaders to enforce the measures needed to save the lives and lifestyles as we know them, of future generations.   Rie    

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Brain Waves

In my last blog on Innovation, I promised that this post would be about brain waves and a new method to induce Alpha brain waves -so important to anyone wanting to ‘think outside the box’.

First of all, the strange picture on the left is of a person having an Ectroencephalograph [EEG] test of brain activity. Our whole nervous system is made up of neurons that can transmit information by passing electrical signals from one neuron to the next. The EEG records fluctuations resulting from electrical currents flowing along the neuron circuits in our brains. The recordings show what we call 'brain waves' - variations of strong and weak signals, differentiated by the distance between their peaks. The picture on the right shows the different types of brain waves and identifies the electrical activity going on in the brain when they were recorded.

Scientists measure the number of peaks in a second or Hertz [Hz] of brain waves, so that the Beta waves, which have between 13 to 30 peaks per second, is 13 – 30 Hz, Alpha wave frequency is 8 – 13 Hz,  Theta waves, 4 – 8 Hz and Delta wave peak frequency is less than 4 peaks per second.    
It didn’t take long after the different brain waves were classified before those in the field began to do experiments to try to induce the brain neuron circuits to take on a desired type of brain wave. One method they have come up with, is using sound waves.
Have you ever wondered why we have two ears? With only one, we can hear all right but we don't know where the sound is coming from. If a sound was coming from your right side for instance, it takes a measurable instant longer for it to reach your left ear. So our whole hearing system is exquisitely designed to distinguish between differences in the sounds coming into each ear. It’s called binaural hearing and a method has been discovered using our binaural hearing system to affect our brain wave frequency. 
For example, if you feed a pure tone with a frequency of 110 Hz into one ear, and a tone of 100 Hz into the other ear, when they mix they create a beat frequency of 10 Hz. The diagram on the left  shows that when the two top frequencies mesh, sometimes the sound is amplified and sometimes it's cancelled out and together they crate a slow beat - in this case, a beat of 10 Hz.  Humans can't hear a sound of 10 Hz but amazingly it can pull, or draw along after it, the EEG brain wave associated with Alpha brain waves.  
Using this method of mixing frequencies of slightly different tones into our separate ears with a small headset, we can actually  induce whatever brain waves we choose.  The result may be increase intuition or heightened creativity, increased learning ability, elimination of insomnia, induction of lucid dream states and so on.  

If you are interested in getting into a mind altered state without drugs – using the binaural beat system is very simple - you just buy the stereo CD's with the brain wave frequency you want on line . I find it all so incredible that trying it myself is the only way I will believe it. I’ll be interested in any feedback.  Rie

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I’ve often wondered about our amazing brains and how sometimes an idea or an insight just seems to pop into our consciousness from out of the blue.  That’s what needs to happen in a situation where you want to be innovative but trying to come up with a creative new idea doesn’t work. It can almost be compared to what happens to those with ADD – attention deficit disorder.  The more they try to concentrate on something, the less successful they are at it. So, if concentrating on a problem and trying to think of an innovative solution is the wrong thing to do – do you just relax and hope a creative solution pops into your mind?  The answer to that is a surprising Yes!

If you look for examples of companies that are very successful at coming up with original new ideas for products, probably the 3M company is one of the best. So far their employees have come up with more than 50 thousand different commodities for sale from post-it notes to packaged materials for lab tests! How do they do it?  It turns out that the company does encourage its staff to relax by taking regular breaks and they even provide lounges and gaming equipment where they can socialize and change their focus by doing something different. To top off the week they also have Friday afternoon beer and cake mixers – a very popular event. A successful electrical engineering company that is copying 3M’s lead in creating relaxing spaces for their staff, has added the stipulation that employees write any creative ideas they have on white boards available everywhere so others can see them.

So, although taking time to relax and being in contact with others proves to be the best way to elicit creative ideas, it is still pretty much of a mystery why it works and how to turn it on. The answers, in this ever more competitive world, have become so important for success that science has stepped in and is beginning to whittle away at discovering what is going on.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that measures where brain activity is occurring when you’re solving a problem logically, shows clearly that the dominant [usually the left hemisphere] of the brain is active. That’s no surprise but when you need solutions that require thinking ‘outside the box’ you must use the non-dominant right hemisphere. It is often described as the artistic side of the brain that is not logical or aware of time and seems to be involved in all sorts of things we are not conscious of.Taking an Electroencephalogram [EEG]  of the brain catches its activity in real-time and prints out a wavy pattern of electrical voltages we call brain waves. A busy brain occupied when we are performing complicated tasks, shows Beta waves in the brain and when you are relaxed, playing or walking or daydreaming, the brain waves are different and designated as Alpha waves. These distinctive Alpha waves are so related to the state we’re in when we get insights that when a scientist records the Alpha pattern occurring, they can predict the person’s likelihood of coming up with a novel idea before it actually happens.   

So the key to boosting innovative breakthroughs seems to be to increase Alpha brain waves. So relax.  My next blog is going to be about brain waves and new methods of how to induce Alpha wave activity. A word of caution from Steven Johnson is that a lot of bright ideas are not really useful and it takes time to invent something new.   Rie 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Handwriting Obsolete?

The pen keyboard is mightier than the sword.

This week I was passing over some old papers to the university Archivist of my alma mater. In the course of our conversation, I happened to ask him if he had many students who took on projects in the archives as part of a credit course.  His answer - that students couldn’t read ‘cursive writing’ any more - really took me by surprise and I was incredulous until I thought of how my grandchildren ‘write’ [on the rare occasions when they have to] - they all print instead
When you think about it, 20 year old university students were born in 1992 and so they likely have had access to a computer since they can remember.  By the time they were 10, smart phones were on the market so theirs is a digital world where the ‘norm’ is to have swift thumbs constantly text messaging or exploring the latest on Facebook.  They were taught handwriting in school but so seldom had to use it or read it, or even see examples of it, that it just didn’t really take.
So, is handwriting an ‘endangered species’? For even someone as old as I am it's threatened! Having taught science at university, I started using computers when they first came out [my first was a Commodore 64] and now my handwriting is so bad that when I write a letter to my ‘computer-challenged’ peers, I use
Edwardian script, then run off a print and send it by mail. I seem 
to get away with it and when I write several letters at Christmas with the similar messages I have to admit it’s very easy to personalize and duplicate them. 
When I came across the website about how others had forgotten to write, I felt better.  However, I still thought I was pretty good at reading any handwriting until I tried to read the memo on the right that was written by the head of the CIA at the time, Leon  Panetta. Fortunately I found the digital text online because I was  stumped by a couple of words.      
In a way it’s too bad that we no longer write letters because when you see a person’s handwriting it’s so distinctive of them, it often evokes your emotions.  There is a ‘science’ called Graphology that claims to be able to analyse a person’s character just by studying their handwriting.  Good luck to the experts with the modern generations! 
So, in this digital age how can Archivists possibly retrieve material on a desired subject out of their massive holdings of old handwritten papers?  Their long-term goal is to build an automatic search engine for their historical collections of handwritten documents. That will be no mean feat!   Rie