# Coffee Talk

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Can brain calisthenics make you better at math?

In a 2010 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania had sixth graders in a Philadelphia public school use a perception-training program to practice just this. On the computer module, a fraction appeared as a block. The students used a "slicer" to cut that block into fractions and a "cloner" to copy those slices. They used these pieces to build a new block from the original one -- for example, cutting a block that represented the fraction 4/3 into four equal slices, then making three more copies to produce a block that represented 7/3. The program immediately displayed an 'X' next to wrong answers and "Correct!" next to correct ones, then moved to the next problem. It automatically adjusted to each student's ability, advancing slowly for some and quickly for others. The students worked with the modules individually, for 15- to 30-minute intervals during the spring term, until they could perform most of the fraction exercises correctly.
Greece is still in big trouble:

Ironically, only three months ago European leaders believed that things were already on the mend. Greece's private creditors were supposed to abandon half of their claims, and the partner countries planned to contribute another €130 billion (\$172 billion). These efforts were expected to bring the country's debt level from more than 160 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to a more tolerable 120 percent by 2020.
But these hopes were deceptive. The Greek economy is shrinking faster than European politicians believed was possible in autumn, and now the country is short on funds once again. The representatives of the so-called troika, consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), estimate the shortfall to be about €15 billion, meaning that Greece needs €145 billion instead of €130 billion. "We do not assume that the additional funds can be collected solely from private creditors," say sources within the troika.
How reliable is psychological diagnosis?

I exhibited a "qualified impairment in social interaction," specifically "failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level" (I had few friends) and a "lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people" (I spent a lot of time by myself in my room reading novels and listening to music, and when I did hang out with other kids I often tried to speak like an E. M. Forster narrator, annoying them). I exhibited an "encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus" (I memorized poems and spent a lot of time playing the guitar and writing terrible poems and novels).

The general idea with a psychological diagnosis is that it applies when the tendencies involved inhibit a person's ability to experience a happy, normal life. And in my case, the tendencies seemed to do just that. My high school G.P.A. would have been higher if I had been less intensely focused on books and music. If I had been well-rounded enough to attain basic competence at a few sports, I wouldn't have provoked rage and contempt in other kids during gym and recess.

The thing is, after college I moved to New York City and became a writer and met some people who shared my obsessions, and I ditched the Forsterian narrator thing, and then I wasn't that awkward or isolated anymore. According to the diagnostic manual, Asperger syndrome is "a continuous and lifelong disorder," but my symptoms had vanished.

Beneath all his technical wizardry is only a simulacrum of aesthetics. The gassy high-mindedness; the complete lack of all but the most bland humor or self-awareness; the boring, slightly pompous exposition that bespeaks a person whose every word is hung on, and never challenged, for far too long. (Watch Spielberg in the promotional material that accompanies the DVD release of his films. He speaks with the breezy self-importance of someone who is no longer contradicted, seemingly, by anyone. He appears to exist in a cloud.)
Europe's scariest chart

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.