Robin van Persie's Feet Have a Mind of Their Own

Exhibiting supreme grace and power, soccer players display how marvelously plastic the human mind is every time they take the pitch.

Right on time, a piece from BBC Future describes in more detail how, through repetition and practice, footballers make the split second calculations needed to dribble through defenders or arrive on the end of a long ball to nod home a goal. It's the same skill, incidentally, that many of us use everyday while driving a car. Tom Stafford:

Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don't have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it's also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn't mean that you're mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.

Known as embedded cognition, the essential idea is that our intelligence is distributed, which means that Robin van Persie's feet have a mind of their own. And this rather simple shift in how we think about intelligence now informs roboticists, philosophers and the practice of medicine alike.

Check out the video highlight reel of van Persie. And have a closer look at this outrageous World Cup goal against Spain!



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."



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?


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

"Shut Up and Calculate" Bad Mojo

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Success in Circuit lies...

Tell all the truth but tell is slant - Emily Dickinson

Sean Carroll would like his fellow physicists to stop belittling philosophy.

Stephen Hawking believes philosophy is dead, an opinion shared by compatriot Lawrence Krauss, who says that introspection alone "is incapable of addressing... the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence." Neil deGrasse Tyson recently wondered aloud in this podcast about the contribution of philosophy to science. Do philosophers, he asks, really "believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature?"

Entering the fray, Carroll has had his say at Preposterous Universe, suggesting that the benefits of "shut up and calculate" only extend so far, at least if one's goal is a deeper understanding of the world at hand. Naturalists should stop saying "silly things" about philosophy. Carroll:

The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.

I certainly haven't the faintest idea what collapsing wave functions actually are or how they capture reality, or what further insight might lead science there, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone outside physics offers up that vital lead.

It seems to me that the charge made against philosophers could be made against librettists, against poets. They are members of one-half of two indissoluble domains, one imaginative and introspective, relying the belief that our private thoughts correspond to the world as it is (and, in point of fact, often wrong in that belief) and appealing to the wholly subjective and singular individual experience, the other with demonstrable third-party access to nature, which can describe matter on vanishingly small scales and use Newton's mechanics to guide metals among Saturn and its moons.

But the observed and transmitted reality of nature, is, after all, observed and transmitted by humans, biological paupers, the nervy embodiment of ancient metallic rains. It is staggering to me that the inheritors of those rains can fashion the remaining littered material into reporting automa, sending machines back to the void billions of years later with questions, questions, questions.

We understand everything in terms of other things. We also know the things that we know, which is the difference between your intelligence and the intelligence of the silicon ordinator you are using to read this blog post. The phenomenal "collapse" of innumerable neural connections in our brains and bodies that produces the experience of the color red is another data point added to red's chroma in a Jackson Pollock painting or its shift as it would appear on an astronomer's spectrographic prints. The sight of a bed of nodding roses, or the scent of orchard pears, or the felt embrace of a child, is absolutely singular. When we describe these things to each other we describe what these things are like, not, materially, what they are. With all due respect to Krauss, the problem is one of translation, not transcription. I can scarcely imagine how an intelligent entity without self-report might meaningfully address the perplexities. Yes, there are immensities folded into wave functions. There are infinities in your private experience.

And yet, I know. The truthers are out there. Notwithstanding my objections to to the objections of materialists, spare me the Moon landing hoaxers and climate-change deniers. Their potted minds grow nothing. "Shut up and calculate" is bad mojo for the same reason all absolutes are corrigible. Any conclusion that sums to "nothing but" should let you know that nothing, eventually, is on offer if what one seeks is understanding.

Carroll touches on an interesting philosophical question near the end of the video posted here, which was recorded just after his IdeaFestival presentation on the arrow of time: since time and space can be traced back to the Big Bang, is asking "what happened before the Big Bang" really nonsense? Is it really like asking "what's north of the North Pole?" Cosmologists, he says, are increasingly investigating scenarios that could make sense of the question. While it's true that a philosopher is unlikely to mathematically theorize about the possibilities, or propose an experiment that might offer empirical hints, she can still raise deep questions. She might, for example, ask if science is capable of proving that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Unlike, Hawking, Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I certainly have my doubts.

Stay curious.


Six More Speakers Added to IF 2014 Lineup!

The IdeaFestival has announced six new speakers for IdeaFestival 2014, including the authors of Average of Over, Tyler Cowen, and The Power of Glamour, Virginia Postrel.

Be sure to bookmark this page for the latest information on 2014 speakers, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

And don't forget to get one of the limited number of 2014 Festival Pass!

Stay curious.


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