The Dangerous Man Has One Idea

I'm a sucker for a pithy quote, and yesterday, thinking about the IdeaFestival, one came to mind the exact phrasing of which I soon realized I had forgotten. After some quick research, I discovered that the quote could be found in a piece at the New Yorker titled The Possibilian, which describes the career arc and ideas of David Eagleman, a scientist and polymath. Like IdeaFestival 2014 speaker Claudia Hammond, who referenced some of Eagleman's work in Time Warped, her book, and at the festival, Eagleman has an intense interest in our perception of time. The New Yorker:

What would it be like to have a drummer’s timing? I wondered. Would you hear the hidden rhythms of everyday life, the syncopations of the street? When I asked the players at Eno’s studio this, they seemed to find their ability as much an annoyance as a gift. Like perfect pitch, which dooms the possessor to hear every false note and flat car horn, perfect timing may just make a drummer more sensitive to the world’s arrhythmias and repeated patterns, Eagleman said—to the flicker of computer screens and fluorescent lights. Reality, stripped of an extra beat in which the brain orchestrates its signals, isn’t necessarily a livelier place. It’s just filled with badly dubbed television shows.

So what does time have to do with the IdeaFestival? Humanity's "extra beat," is according to Eagleman, the time it takes to produce "the best possible story about what’s going on in the world." That extra beat is not the world as it is, but a world that makes sense. Aside from the startling observation that we all, therefore, live ever so briefly in the past, being extra sensitive to "the world's arrhythmias and repeated patterns" is a particularly valuable talent. The world is indeed a livelier place because of it.

There is a great deal of anxiety today about the economy, and understandably so. Peter Van Buren and Tyler Cowen talked at length at the festival about the growing economic divide. So I was encouraged listening to Cowen at the festival when he remarked that those who would succeed would cultivate that "extra beat." Context, an elasticity of thought, a head full of ideas from history, from literature, from the sciences and the arts - these things cannot be duplicated in a world where software has replaced so many jobs. Unlike the ever present ordinating machines we have created, humans know what they know. Nicholas Carr, another favorite thinker of mine, cleverly amplified this point recently on his blog when he said that in the strictest terms, consciousness for computer would be a disaster, a "bug-as-bug, not bug-as-feature."

How sad, then, that we strive to eliminate so much surprise, or quickly discount ideas that fall outside our immediate experience. No one knows - in the moment - what ideas will prove valuable and what ideas will not, and so it's important to be open to them precisely because they are new and different. 

The quote I went looking for turned out to be a prescient comment made by Francis Crick to Eagleman early in the younger man's career, and is quoted in The Possibilian. It goes to the beating heart of discovery, to a danger today of being a prisoner of the moment, and, if I may, of prizing efficiency instead of transcendency. Eventually transcendency suffers the consequences.

Before Francis Crick died, in 2004, he gave Eagleman some advice. 'Look,' he said. 'The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.'

I don't know about you, but I find comfort and freedom in that.

Stay curious.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Why IdeaFestival? Kris Kimel Answers

It's the question we at the IdeaFestival are asked most often.

Our friends at KET recently posted this video of IdeaFestival founder Kris Kimel answering the question, why the IdeaFestival?

UPDATE: Give the gift of the IdeaFestival. Until 5p EST tomorrow, Dec. 19, you can purchase a 2015 Festival Pass for yourself or a friend at the lowest price we'll offer all year!

It's just one of many terrific speaker interviews that KET did during IdeaFestival 2014. This interview, incidentally, appeared immediately after a lengthier discussion with former U.S. diplomat and author of the books We Meant Well and The Ghosts of Tom Joad, Peter Van Buren, that aired on Sunday.

The Van Buren video will air again tonight on KET2. Air times are listed here.

Stay curious.


Debbie Millman: "When people ask, 'why you?' what do you say?"

KET interviewed speaker and designer Debbie Millman at the IdeaFestival, and has released the edited video on YouTube. I thought I'd post it here in case you haven't yet seen it and note a few things that stood out to me while listening to the conversation with Renee Shaw.

Branding, Millman says, is "deliberate differentiation" of product or service, "a way for people to understand it." Elaborating a bit later on the subject, she said that our choice of brands is an expression of "the tribes we belong to."

"Brand choices are not rational. They're "highly, highly emotional." That understanding, incidentally, parallels a change in the economics, which does not view human choice, solely, as a product of logic that weighs the available evidence before making self-interested choices. Rather, behavioral economics is interested in the emotional content and motivations behind those choices.

In a discussion about our culture of instant gratification, Millman points out that even organizations opposed to consumerism deploy branding in support of their efforts.

As an educator, she uses brand exercises to prompt students to think about their own identity.

"When people ask, 'why you?' what do you say?" And a moment later: "If you don't understand your motivations, whether as a person or a brand, you're never going to make a difference." In a world defined by speed and instant communication, "branding brings together an expertise cultural anthropology, an expertise in behavioral psychology. You need to have expertise in finance, commerce, economics...."

In an interesting detail, Debbie Millman said that the sewing patterns laid out by her mother, a seamstress, were an inspiration for her love of word art later in life.

KET will post its interviews with IdeaFestival speakers on a regular basis. Follow the IdeaFestival @ideafestival on Twitter, or at /IdeaFestival on Facebook and we'll point them out.

Stay curious.


"Temporal Dysfunction" in the Matrix

The festival has a long history of hosting remarkable talks on the nature of time. Physicists Michio Kaku and Sean Carroll have spoken, respectively, about its relationship to the colossal, matter-bending force of gravity and its ultimate end, the dead sea of entropy.

Last month, the author of "Time Warped," Claudia Hammond, memorably spoke on the psychology of time.

Today, I ran across an article that was too good not to share.

Could the physiology of sight also account for the perception of time? Described in Nautilus, a theory of "temporal dysfunction" in how humans see the world may help explain phenomenon ranging from the experience of voices in schizophrenic minds, to ecological niche differentiation, to the psychological state of flow.

Critical fusion frequency, or CFF, is the threshold whereby light stimulation is perceived as a stable and continuous sensation - the effect is related to the experience of watching a film. It depends on eye physiology as well as factors like the characteristics of the light entering the eye. CFF has been measured in a variety of animals. Nautilus:

These differing CFF values seem to offer some fascinating explanatory power. No wonder it is hard to kill a fly with your murderous swatting hand. With a CFF of 240, the fly might well see your approaching hand as though it were muscling through molasses. And how about those aeronautical stunts by birds flying through thickets of vegetation? With CFFs around 100, they are likely visually sampling their surroundings at super-human rates that allow for faster mid-air adjustments.

Moreover, some animals like swordfish can physically deform the eye so that vision itself is altered. Interestingly, CFF has also been measured in human beings. Small differences in the rate at which that stimuli is processed in human brains have been measured.

In humans the "dysfunction" would occur in our wetware, leading some people to experience subjective time at slightly different rates. Researchers, according to the author of the piece, are keen to investigate what difference temporal dysfunction may play in everyday life. Amazing.

Stay curious.


Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by CC Chapman

Renee Blodgett: IdeaFestival "for Those Who Are Forever Curious"

IdeaFestival regular and founder and editor of We Blog the World, Renee Blodgett, has posted a comprehensive blog entry describing many of the presentations she heard at IdeaFestival 2014, saying:

IdeaFestival is the one event that I’ve jumped on an airplane for every year, bound for Louisville Kentucky to make the time for a four day discussion on creativity and innovation. Last year’s event coverage will give you a taste of who they attract and while the focus may change slightly depending on who’s on the main stage, the mission remains the same: to Stay Curious.

...Think of it as an intellectual playground in one of America’s most interesting southern cities where people celebrate ideas, creativity and transformational learning across multiple disciplines, including science, technology, design, education, philosophy, business and the arts.

Give it a read. You won't be disappointed. Our own round up of stories about IdeaFestival 2014 may be found here.

Stay curious!


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee

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