An Animated History of Everything. Go!

Found at Maria Popova's Brain Pickings Web site, this video condenses - she worries, reducts - some of the most interesting ideas from the famous cosmologist Stephen Hawkings.

Illustrations such as these are harmless in the sense that only the tiniest group of our number will ever understand the phenomenon described anyway - I'm actually insanely jealous - and then only through the symbolism of the mathematics. Observational support for Hawking radiation, one of the phenomena described in the video, is elusive, with the Wikipedia entry suggesting that the study of analogs in nature may have to substitute for the real thing.

Explanations like these "commodify wisdom" out of necessity, of course, but also in the sense that much human understanding is derived from analogs anyway. Yes, experimental science offers us direct access the nature, but there are whole swaths of the human experience cannot be understood execept thought metaphor. This is like that, and that, like something else.

Until then, if then, we can only admire chalkboards, translations of a translation, and take satisfaction that something incomprehensible there surely breathes.

Stay curious.


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.


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."



Why is the "Hard Problem" of Consciousness so Confounding?

For a computer, consciousness would be a bug-as-bug, not bug-as-feature. Nicholas Carr

During an interview with the IdeaFestival blog in advance of his 2013 appearance, journalist and author Oliver Burkeman confessed that he was fascinated with the subject of consciousness. That interest surfaced again this week in a piece for the Guardian, Why can't the world's greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?

The mystery of sentient, self-referential minds can be divided into two general problems. An answer to the more tractable of the two, the so-called easy problem, can be had by pointing to areas of the brain responsible for abilities such as attention and focus. We can watch that electrified mind at work in brain scans.

The "hard problem" of consciousness is altogether different. When our minds attend, for example, to the sight of underfed child, why should that attention also be accompanied by the wrenching, intimate sense that an injustice has occurred? "Why," Burkeman asks, channeling the philosopher David Chalmers in the article, "should any of this feel like something from the inside?" The "hard problem" of consciousness is hard because at the moment there is no good explanation for why any single sensation should be contextualized in a first-person experience, and one, moreover, that is utterly different for each one of us. Newtonian mechanics may one day help us to navigate the stars, but it is a poor substitute for the felt experience of watching our star set over an ocean calm.

For the time being, science's third-party perspective must share any understanding of the subjective experiences of hurt and joy, of parsimony and self-empyting, of sunsets and the sad realization that not every child is well fed, with poets and priests, who, among many other artists, render the world in a human readable format. They bring meaning, if not always accuracy, to the human project. Yes, there is a reason poetry, not novel extracts, are read at funerals.

There are numerous ways in which this arguing over the Hard Problem - and whether it exists, some deny that it does - might bear on our day-to-day lives. Without the capacity to transcend (and not merely follow) the rules we provide, will our robots ever be said to be intelligent - or creative? The always witty Nicholas Carr doubts it, and contributes the quote at the top of this blog post.

Of equal interest to me is another thought: simultaneously author and heir to an impossible story, can the mind, the spongy ferment that named itself, ever fully know itself? Are there things that can never be known?

Please give Why can't the world's greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness a read. You won't be disappointed!

Stay curious.


Want more? Wikipedia: Hard Problem of consciousness Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Qualia and the Knowledge Argument

IdeaFestival Uncut Video: The Rise Group

In the latest IdeaFestival Uncut video, The Rise Group guides the festival audience last October through a how-to of creativity and innovation, an action-packed, on-your-feet session that might just help you be more innovative in your life - at work or at play.

We invite you to watch.

The IdeaFestival Uncut video series brings you speaker presentations in their entirety, and can be found on IFTV. Please subscribe! And don't forget to follow the festival on Twitter or like us on Facebook.

Have a great weekend!

Stay curious.


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