Category Archives: Learning

Does Perception Depend upon Action?

Source: Quanta, Nov 2019

Kenneth Harris and Matteo Carandini, neuroscientists at University College London, started with a different goal: to characterize the structure of the spontaneous activity in the visual cortex that occurs even when the rodent gets no visual stimulation. They and other members of their joint team at the university’s Cortexlab recorded from 10,000 neurons at once in mice that were free to act as they wanted — to run, sniff, groom themselves, glance around, move their whiskers, flatten their ears and so on — in the dark.

The researchers found that even though the animals couldn’t see anything, the activity in their visual cortex was both extensive and shockingly multidimensional, meaning that it was encoding a great deal of information.

this discovery reflects the fact that fundamentally, the brain evolved for action — that animals have brains to let them move around, and that “perception isn’t just the external input

Sensory information represents only a small part of what’s needed to truly perceive the environment. “You need to take into account movement, your body relative to the world, in order to figure out what’s actually out there,” Niell said.

“We used to think that the brain analyzed all these things separately and then somehow bound them together,” McCormick said. “Well, we’re starting to learn that the brain does that mixing of multisensory and movement binding [earlier] than we previously imagined.”

It’s necessary to know how the body is moving to contextualize and interpret incoming sensory information.

“Our brains aren’t just thinking in our heads. Our brains are interacting with our bodies and the way that we move through the world,” Niell said. “You think, ‘Oh, I’m just thinking,’ or ‘I’m just seeing.’ You don’t think about the fact that your body is playing a role in that.”

“People tend to think of movements as being separate from cognition — as interfering with cognition, even,” Churchland said. “We think that, given this work, it might be time to consider an alternative point of view, that at least for some subjects, movement is really a part of the cognition.”

researchers agree that the work heralds a shift in how they conduct their experiments on perception — namely, it demonstrates that they need to start paying more attention to behavior, too.


Source: KQED Mindshift, Nov 2019

… allowing students to sketchnote an outline or first draft of a writing assignment can dramatically improve the quality of the thinking and writing she receives. Freedman says her students always want the first draft to be the final draft, and they often write the bare minimum. But when they sketch first, not only do they organize their thoughts better, but they also tend to add more detail and evidence from what they’ve read. They have a template to follow, one that didn’t feel as intimidating to make.

She points out to students how much cognitive processing is happening as they sketchnote. They’re listening to information, making sense of it, connecting it to other information they know and to a visual image, and then drawing it. It’s an active process, which is why Baughcum has found it to be so powerful for her students.

Relationships Matters

Source: Suzanne Venker website, Oct 2019

… according to the study above 49% of women admit work-life balance is a myth. Women today feel “more stressed, tired, overwhelmed, anxious and burned out across every aspect of their lives than in the past — and significantly more so than their male counterparts.”

This phenomenon is a direct result of the lies women were fed about what constitutes a happy life. They were told, repeatedly, that in order for a woman to be truly happy and fulfilled, she should follow the male script by delaying marriage and making career the center of her life (and in the meantime, enjoy “free” sex.)

Feminists fed women these lies—indeed, still feed women these lies—for political gain. Because if women were to do what they really wanted, if they focused on marriage and relationships instead of on career, feminists can’t get what they want: power.

The only path forward is, as Brooks suggests, to dump the “individualist” worldview and to return to our relational roots. Women have the power to thwart their own unhappiness by shifting their priorities entirely.

Put love and relationships first—focus like a laser beam on finding a man with whom to share your life—and fit everything else in around that.

The single greatest investment any of us make—women and men—has zero to do with money or career. The real secret to success is choosing the right person to marry. Who you marry, and how that marriage fares, will literally determine the entire direction of your life. 

money and status mean absolutely nothing if you go to bed alone at nigh, or if you bungle your relationships with your kids in the meantime.

Bottom line: Don’t fall for the culture’s lies. Instead, do the opposite of everything the culture tells you to do, and you’ll be well on your way to a happy life.

Tools for Thought

Source: Numinous productions, Oct 2019

“a new medium for thought”

Such a medium creates a powerful immersive context, a context in which the user can have new kinds of thought, thoughts that were formerly impossible for them

To the extent that such a tool succeeds, it expands your thinking beyond what can be achieved using existing tools, including writing. The more transformative the tool, the larger the gap that is opened.

Conversely, the larger the gap, the more difficult the new tool is to evoke in writing. But what writing can do, and the reason we wrote this essay, is act as a bootstrap. It’s a way of identifying points of leverage that may help develop new tools for thought.

making new tools can lead to new subject matter insights for humanity as a whole (i.e., significant original research insights), and vice versa, and this would ideally be a rapidly-turning loop to develop the most transformative tools.

many tools for thought are public goods. They often cost a lot to develop initially, but it’s easy for others to duplicate and improve on them, free riding on the initial investment. While such duplication and improvement is good for our society as a whole, it’s bad for the companies that make that initial investment.

And so such tools for thought suffer the fate of many public goods: our society collectively underinvests in them, relative to the benefits they provide

Another plausible solution to the public goods problem is patents, granting a temporary monopoly over use of an invention. Many software companies, including Adobe, develop a large patent portfolio. However, the current patent system is not a solution for this problem. In 2017, Dana Rao, Adobe’s Vice President for Intellectual Property and Litigation, posted a call for major reforms to the patent system, stating that:

[the patent] system is broken… What happened? A patent gold rush built by patent profiteers…

Their value lies not in the innovation behind the patent but in the vagueness of the patent’s claims and the ability to enforce it in a plaintiff-friendly forum… Where did the material for these bad patents come from?

The advent of software… This led to idea-only patents being granted with broad and often invalid claims, and eager patent profiteers were only too glad to take advantage.

Is it possible to solve the public goods problem in such cases? The two most promising approaches seem to us to be:

Philanthropic funding for research. This approach was used, for instance, by the field of computer animation and animated movies. Decades of public research work on computer animation resulted in a large number of powerful and (in many cases) publicly available ideas. This, in turn, helped prepare the way for companies such as Pixar and Dreamworks, which developed many of the ideas further, and took them to scale.

Really difficult problems – problems like inventing Hindu-Arabic numerals – aren’t solved by good intentions and interest alone. A major thing missing is foundational ideas powerful enough to make progress.

In the earliest days of a discipline – the proto-disciplinary stage – a few extraordinary people – people like Ivan Sutherland, Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, and Bret Victor – may be able to make progress. But it’s a very bespoke, individual progress, difficult to help others become proficient in, or to scale out to a community. It’s not yet really a discipline.

What’s needed is the development of a powerful praxis, a set of core ideas which are explicit and powerful enough that new people can rapidly assimilate them, and begin to develop their own practice. We’re not yet at that stage with tools for thought. But we believe that we’re not so far away either.

consider our most fundamental tools for thought – language, writing, music, etc. Those are public goods. No-one owns language; to the extent that it is owned (trademarks and so on) it may actually limit the utility of language. These tools are all about introducing fundamental new mental representations and mental operations. Those aren’t owned by any company, they’re patterns owned by humanity.

This argument makes it seem likely that many of the most fundamental and powerful tools for thought do suffer the public goods problem.

work on tools for thought is much less clearly defined. For the most part we can’t point to well-defined, long-range goals; rather, we have long-range visions and aspirations, almost evocations. The work is really about exploration of an open-ended question:

how can we develop tools that change and expand the range of thoughts human beings can think?

the invention of other tools for thought – writing, the printing press, and so on – are among our greatest ever breakthroughs. And, as far as we know, all emerged primarily out of open-ended exploration, not in a primarily goal-driven way.

Even the computer itself came out of an exploration that would be regarded as ridiculously speculative and poorly-defined in tech today.

Fundamental, open-ended questions seem to be at least as good a source of breakthroughs as goals, no matter how ambitious.

it also seems possible that BCIs will be used to enable new mental operations, new mental representations, and new affordances for thought; in short, the same kind of things as are involved in developing non-BCI tools for thought.

Perhaps we’ll develop the capacity to directly imagine ourselves in 4 or 5 or more dimensions; or traversing a Riemann manifold; or the ability to have multiple tracks of conscious attention. These are about changing the interface for thought, the basic abstractions and operations which are allowed.

Papert wanted to create an immersive environment – a kind of “Mathland” – in which children could be immersed in mathematical ideas. In essence, children could learn differential geometry by going to Mathland.

There’s a general principle here:

good tools for thought arise mostly as a byproduct of doing original work on serious problems.

Related Resource:, Oct 2019

It’s very difficult to do the hard things that actually block you unless you have such a strong desire that you’re willing to go through those things

Picasso, for me anyway, was really the pivotal figure in realizing that actually what art could become, is the invention of completely new ways of seeing.

As your computer system becomes completely aware of your environment or as aware as you’re willing to allow it to be.

compared with some immersive world that you can walk through and be able to like touch and move around data and I actually think there’s some cool opportunities there and whatnot. But in terms of thinking about the future of being able to visualize numbers and the way that things change and whatnot.

Gumption is almost the most important quality that we have. The ability to keep going when things don’t seem very good. And mostly that’s about having ways of being playful and ways of essentially not running out of ideas. Some of that is about a very interesting tension between having, being ambitious in what you’d like to achieve, but also being very willing to sort of celebrate the tiniest, tiniest, tiniest successes.

Suddenly a lot of creative people I know I think really struggle with that. They might be very good at celebrating tiny successes but not have that significant ambitions, but they might be extremely ambitious, but because they’re so ambitious, if an idea doesn’t look Nobel prize worthy, they’re not particularly interested in it. You know, they struggle with just kind of the goofing around and they often feel pretty bad because of course most days you’re not at your best, you don’t actually have the greatest idea.

a new type of financial instrument ideally will allow people to do is to coordinate in a way that was not previously possible.

there’s probably just an enormous number of such similarly sized, similarly important financial instruments waiting to be discovered. Historically, it’s been very hard to deploy a new financial instrument. You need lots of centralized infrastructure.

Basically, you needed to run a bank. And that’s, to me anyway, potentially the most interesting thing about having truly decentralized currencies, which are fully programmable, is the ability for individuals who are not CEOs of banks to devise new financial instruments.

it’s plausible to me anyway that the 21st century, maybe that’s what it turns out to be about. It’s about actually inventing new types of markets.

Discerning Honesty Improves ROI

Source: ZeroHedge, Oct 2019

Kessler’s hedge fund is a lot like the FBI: They’re constantly investigating targets, only the fund’s targets are usually public companies, not criminals. Like the FBI, “We have a dossier on each management team.”

Here’s how Kessler puts these tools to work: Before looking too deeply into a company, he first tries to gauge whether they’re trustworthy and competent. The approach has yielded amazing returns for Kessler: his fund has posted double-digit returns, on average, since it was founded in 2008.

But what’s most important here is that Kessler’s interview technique appears to be producing reliable, steady returns at a time when the hottest funds of the day are dumping millions of dollars into building complex algorithms and embracing other quant-driven techniques to try and gain an edge over the competition. Kessler has apparently found an edge just by talking to people, a much less expensive strategy.

Among the techniques that Kessler learned: Asking questions to which you already know the answers.

This allows Kessler to determine whether the CEO is honest, or prone to exaggeration. These personality traits, Kessler found, can have a tremendous impact on how an individual runs a business.

“For every 10 questions we are going to ask, we all know the answers to three or four of them,” he said. Some of them will be to show the person in a good light. Some of them will be to show the person in a bad light. And we know the answers. “

Another technique he employs: What they call “A, B, C, D” questions.

He sometimes asks what he calls the “A, B, C, D question.” In this, the fund manager has deliberately missed the point, leaving out one piece of information that’s crucial to understanding the situation – something that reflects badly on the executive. He’s checking if the interviewee will point it out.

“That’s why we call it the A, B, C, D question,” Kessler said. “Are they a volunteer of bad information or not?”

That question is supposed to gauge whether executives will easily volunteer information that reflects poorly on them or the company.

Class Bias with a Few Seconds of Speech

Source: Phys.Org, Oct 2019

Candidates at job interviews expect to be evaluated on their experience, conduct, and ideas, but a new study by Yale researchers provides evidence that interviewees are judged based on their social status seconds after they start to speak.

The study, to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that people can accurately assess a stranger’s socioeconomic position—defined by their income, education, and occupation status—based on brief speech patterns and shows that these snap perceptions influence hiring managers in ways that favor job applicants from higher social classes.

Our study shows that even during the briefest interactions, a person’s speech patterns shape the way people perceive them, including assessing their competence and fitness for a job,” said Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. “While most hiring managers would deny that a job candidate’s social class matters, in reality, the socioeconomic position of an applicant or their parents is being assessed within the first seconds they speak—a circumstance that limits economic mobility and perpetuates inequality.”

The researchers based their findings on five separate studies. The first four examined the extent that people accurately perceive social class based on a few seconds of speech. They found that reciting seven random words is sufficient to allow people to discern the speaker’s social class with above-chance accuracy.

The researchers also showed that pronunciation cues in an individual’s speech communicate their social status more accurately than the content of their speech.

The hiring managers who listened to the audio recordings were more likely to accurately assess socioeconomic status than those who read transcripts

Focused & Diffuse Thinking

Source: Farnham Street, Oct 2019