IdeaFestival

Don't Focus on the Puzzles, But the Mysteries

While looking for interesting material to tweet and Facebook yesterday, I came across this Creativity Post article on stoking the fires of curiosity. One quote stood out.

A society or organization that thinks only in terms of puzzles is one that is too focused on the goals it has set, rather than on the possibilities it can’t yet see.

I thought it echoed an important point heard last year from IdeaFestival presenter Ariel Waldman, whose entire presentation can be watched here.

At the heart of something good there should be a kernel of something undefinable. And if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then in a sense you have missed the point. John Peel

It's one of my favorite IdeaFestival 2013 quotes because it goes to the beating heart of discovery: it will always be the work of the curious, individuals for whom the "something good" is never an ending, but a new beginning.

While Ariel Waldman spoke at length of her love of space, the loosely drawn inner connections from her work with Science Hack Day also resonated with me because every discovery springs from an openness to experience, a willingness and capacity to feel things anew. It's what the IdeaFestival is all about. This is what I wrote last year, live-blogging her talk:

Segueing into Science Hack Day, an event for which she is probably more well known, she says that its mission is to regain a bit of the old excitement, of sheer possibility. The people who show up at one of those events are amateurs. They don't HAVE to know where their idea or project is going. She describes several hacks - building a wind tunnel to test a series of letters that will make a new typeface; or a lamp that lights up each time an asteroid passes the Earth; or a mask that would simulate synesthesia, aptly named, given the creepy image she display, 'syneseizure;' or a cocktail made with DNA. On the latter she issues a warning - 'it tastes disgusting.'

What if, she continues, one could listen to mapped sounds of high energy particle collisions? And in fact, she points out, one such instrument has been created, 'particle wind chimes.' There's more: given license to roam freely, to make new and maybe unorthodox connections, the creator of the particle wind chimes may have created something with real diagnostic potential in the hands of physicists. Formerly abstract concepts have been made available to the senses of researchers.

Find some time today to watch the video, which includes a terrific Q&A with MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin. You won't be disappointed.

Make plans now to encounter at IdeaFestival 2014. The price for a Festival Pass will increase on Sept. 2, so don't wait! I hope to see you there.

Stay curious.

Wayne

Pic: Lindsey Stirling playing violin

In a surprise performance right before a talk on the multi-verse, Lindsey Stirling gave an amazing, florid, melodic, beautiful, and slamming violin performance.

Let's just say that any world that can produce this kind of music is a world in which I want to live.

Many of the pictures that you will see here can also be found in the IdeaFestival 2011 Flickr pool. Please! Join and contribute your images.

Wayne

IdeaFestival to Host Zombie Study Group. Lunch Not Provided

This is a repost of a blog entry from earlier this summer. You have been warned.

In case you were wondering, the United States DOES have an action plan for the zombie apocalypse, according to Foreign Policy magazine.

Buried on the military's secret computer network is an unclassified document, obtained by Foreign Policy, called 'CONOP 8888.' It's a zombie survival plan, a how-to guide for military planners trying to isolate the threat from a menu of the undead -- from chicken zombies to vegetarian zombies and even "evil magic zombies" -- and destroy them....

Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for Strategic Command, acknowledged the document exists on a 'secure Internet site' but took pains to explain that the zombie survival guide is only a creative endeavor for training purposes. 'The document is identified as a training tool used in an in-house training exercise where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development through a fictional training scenario,' she wrote in an email. 'This document is not a U.S. Strategic Command plan.'

The IdeaFestival was caught off guard recently when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reached out to gauge the festival's interest in becoming a designated civilian training and planning center, tasked, among other duties, with understanding the adaptability and spread of harmful viral and beneficial organisms, and calculating the probabilities for human survival the future undead world. The federal agency, curiously, also asked for our thoughts on Sheldon Cooper's roommate agreement as a model for relationship between antagonistic parties with limited emotional range, a definitive statement on whether John Travolta's role in Battlefield Earth could be called acting and what the prospects for a reunion of the Fantastic Four might be. It was a serious conversation.

The expertise of the IdeaFestival in developing "fictional training scenarios" has also been recognized at the highest levels of the United States government. A joint statement from the White House and Congress said, "because of their unmatched commitment to imagining an alternate future, we find that the IdeaFestival and its attendees are uniquely suited to rebuild and expand economies following the outbreak of this virus. The old rules simply no longer apply. We commend them for having the foresight to draw from business, from the arts and from the sciences to think about what the future may hold," adding, "help us Obi Wan Kanobi, you're our only hope."

All of this is, of course, absolutely true with the exception of the part about cooperation between the White House and Congress, which deny ever working together.

Stay Curious.

Wayne

Festival Passes are on sale now, but please don't wait too long! We're expecting to sell out again this year, and the price for a pass will go up on Sept. 2. The complete agenda and speaker line-up is available on the IdeaFestival web site.

Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by eliduke

Dr. Sugata Mitra: Learning as emergent phenomenon

Thrivals is using Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist as the basis of Thrivals 4.0, using everything from evolutionary biology to economics to study the principle of exchange, and in particular, asking and answering the question, how do ideas develop?

They have sex of course.

And they are emergent.

Dr.Sugata Mitra, whose Hole in the Wall project inspired Slumdog Millionaire asks "can children, left to themselves, teach themselves?"

As it happens, he has some experience with that question. Feeling unhappy with the vast slums surrounding him in India while he was teaching privileged children, many years ago began experimenting. He first put a DIY ATM (since banks had experience with outdoor computers) in a building wall.

Then he left the country.

Coming back in few months, Dr. Sugata Mitra, chuckling at the thought, said that the children immediately told him "they wanted a faster processor, a better mouse." But because they had been given a computer that only spoke English, they had also, to his surprise, learned English. He shows the Thrival attendees at IdeaFestival 2011 pictures of a 10 year old boy and his seven year old pupil clustered around the terminal, learning.

At the end of five years, from 1999 - 2004, the children's literacy shot up in every location where Hole in the Wall operated - "to the level of an average office secretary."

He next challenged school children to speak well enough so that speech-to-text software on a computer would output understandable English. In his absence, the students had, again, made use of the Internet downloading software with English speakers, and taught themselves the speak the language with an English - not Indian - accent.

He recounts how Tamil-speaking children in southern India taught themselves advanced genetic concepts, and heard from one misguided child such student that "apart from the knowledge that the improper replication of the DNA causes disease, we have understood nothing else."

Dr. Mitra clearly believes in the value of the "grandmother effect," and uses it to great effect, asking children to act as grandmothers - to simply nod affirmatively behind students and say, "isn't that it wonderful. How did you arrive at that?"

C.C. Chapman tweeted a video of the Granny Cloud linked above.

Children will self organize around the big questions, not what is the Eiffel Tower? But who built the Eiffel Tower and why? Why do we dream? "You know," they've said, "there's this Freud and he...."

Self-organizing systems that discuss big questions and important ideas? Sounds a lot like the IdeaFestival.

Over time, Dr. Mitra has come to believe based on his work that "education is a self-organizing system with learning as an emergent phenomena," and that 1) reading comprehension, 2) information searching and 3) systems of belief are the three parts critical to the success of an education. But if "children can learn to read by themselves, then the educational system can be turned upside down."

Wayne

 

Galaxy "littered with planets"

Paul Gilster reflects on the latest information from the space-based observatory Kepler, which in a period of months has trebled the number of planets outside of our own solar system. Its haul of 1,200+ candidate bodies includes five that are believed to be near-Earth sized planets in the "habitable zone" of their parent suns, or orbits where liquid water is likely to be present. Follow up observations on the ground will further characterize these finds.

Above left is the field of view for Kepler. And at right, candidate planets are identified by their approximate location in the field of view. To put this in perspective, fifteen years ago we knew of no other worlds besides the nine described textbooks. Isn't it amazing that as soon we are able to detect planets elsewhere in the Milky Way, there they are?

Wayne

Images: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech (l) and NASA/Wendy Stenzel (r)


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