No Fun, No Gain

As a regular gym-goer, I can report (just in case any of you were wondering) that the experience of working out is not all that interesting. Why else do so many have such a hard time making exercise into a regular habit? Any sensible program necessarily entails a lot of repetition.

Imagine, on the other hand, if your gym experience went like this: maybe you're hanging from a pull-up bar, going for your nth rep. The walls around you carry a projected image of a craggy landscape, while beneath is a yawning chasm. In front of you is a cliff face. You hear the howl and feel the bite of a chill breeze. With each rep, the images show you climbing a little higher up the cliff face. Wouldn't this make work-outs a little more diverting?

Here you have this week's million-dollar idea, something I call the fantasy gym. How about working out on the Stair-Master and seeing yourself approach the summit of Everest? The summit is attained only by reaching your goal. The actual level of difficulty is up to you. Oxygen deprivation is optional.

Swim in a pool with sharks. Run around a track with CIA assassins chasing you. Build a pyramid by lifting stone blocks into place. The possibilities are endless.

There are plenty of gaming arcades out there, and plenty of health clubs, but so far as I know no one has attempted to combine the two. I find this a little hard to believe.

On the other hand, perhaps this idea fails from a business standpoint. Perhaps gyms would rather have you sign up for a monthly membership and then not show up--it let's them collect more money with limited facilities.

Huh! For Real?

Sleep teaching is a popular culture meme. I'm not sure where I first encountered the concept but it must have been some TV show wherein a character goes to sleep wearing headphones and wakes up speaking fluent Spanish or something. Were I a more pretentious person, I would claim to have first encountered the concept from Huxley's Brave New World, in which sleep teaching is used to render the various castes content with their place in society: "I'm so glad I'm a Beta." I rather suspect that Brave New World may be the well-spring of the popular meme.

According to Wikipedia, a study in 1956 concluded that sleep-teaching is hogwash, which has been the scientific consensus since that time. Now guess what--a new study finds evidence that sleep teaching actually does have an effect.

The new study was undertaken by Ph.D. student John Rudoy and colleagues and Northwestern University. It differs perhaps from earlier studies in combining awake learning with sleeping review. The subjects of the study learned (while awake) the randomly assigned positions on a diagram of 50 objects such as teakettles and wineglasses. Each object was accompanied by a relevant sound such as the whistle of a kettle or the sound of breaking glass. Then the subjects took a short nap, during which the associated sounds for 25 of the 50 objects were played--at a level too low for conscious awareness. Afterwards, the subjects were tested on recalling the locations of all 50 objects. Recall was 15% better for those objects whose sounds had been played during sleeping.

Note that the sounds played have no direct connection to the locations of the objects--the sleep-teaching apparently only functioned as a stimulus to the subjects to rehearse what they already knew.

15% is a significant margin. I could wish for a larger sample than the twelve subjects that were actually used, but certainly this is intriguing. How can we make use of this effect? Well, one easy approach which comes to mind is to study a language during the daytime and then use audio to review vocabulary or other while sleeping. Perhaps, if I find the time and inclination, I may pursue my own little one-person experiment.

Product Review: Read My Lips! DVD series

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to learn to read lips. This was provoked by a visit to a nightclub where the music is far too loud for conversation (a kind of place I don't visit often - otherwise I would have thought of this years ago). My friends and I were attempting conversation by screaming into each others' ears. My first thought was: this is why everyone needs to learn sign language. But then lip-reading appeared a more practical choice - sign language only works with a proficient counterpart, whereas you can read others' lips with no special skill or effort on their part.

And then lip-reading can be useful for other purposes besides, as you know if you watched Tom Cruise in MI-III. Or as Jerry Seinfeld says: "It's like a super-power."

So now most of the year is gone, and I haven't realized this resolution as yet. I did make some attempts. My first idea was to gradually turn the volume down on the TV so I would need to rely more and more on the visual. The problem I found with this approach is that in almost all TV programming, for a large proportion of time the person speaking is not actually on screen - the possible exception being talking-heads shows. I then tried the same thing with carefully selected Web videos, but still found it difficult to make progress.

So I decided to take the plunge and buy the Read My Lips! DVD series from Amazon. This is an early review, based on initial experience. The real proof is in the learning; I'll post a follow-up report when I'm done with the series.

The series is produced by Speechreading Laboratory, Inc. It is a remastered version of a videocassette series. The six DVD's are spartan compared to the typical Hollywood production (which is just fine with me), and the actors and settings are very 80's (also just fine with me). The approach is simple, but looks promising. An actor says something. You can't hear the voice. (Instead there is an 80's musical soundtrack - I suspect I'm going to subconsciously associate lip-reading with light jazz from here on.) After a pause a subtitle reveals what was just said.

The level of difficulty gradually increases. The first lesson, for example, consists of single words for months and days of the week. The actors speak normally, but the restricted area of discourse makes the task just difficult enough. I skipped ahead to the sixth disk and found a rather entertaining discussion between a mother and daughter about the daughter planning to marry a much older man who has been married three times already. And, more important - quite beyond my present lip-reading capability. So if I reach Disk Six and am able to understand it, I will know I will have learned something nontrivial.

The set includes a small booklet with some analytical tips for lip-reading. I've noticed already that the "th" sound is one of the easiest to recognize. And I know a few tricks that aren't in the booklet. The booklet points out that "mom" and "pop" rely on the same mouth motions and are almost impossible to distinguish visually. This would be true, except for the timing. "Mom" takes about twice as long to say as "pop." Try it. They recommend 15 to 20 minutes of practice per day, which seems quite doable. Especially as lip-reading is inherently a passive activity, I suspect it won't require as much energy as, say, going to the gym.

So, preliminary impression: I'm pleased. The system seems well-designed. I think this is going to work. I'll let you know in a few months.