The other day I was sitting on a bench in Boulder, Colorado’s Pearl Street Mall and I overheard a young, hipsterish guy laughing about the fact that he kept messing up those subtraction Captchas — you know, the little puzzles that prove your humanity by asking things like 4 – __ = 2. I’ve blown my fair share of math problems. But what caught my ear wasn’t that he struggled with Captchas, it was the fact that he excused it, saying, “Hey, I’m not a numbers person…” Because he wasn’t a numbers person, it was okay to be bad at math. More than that, it was okay to not try to be good at math.by
Archimedes said that with a long enough lever he could move the world. Computer scientists have tried a similar approach in artificial intelligence: with enough computing power, a ‘bot can brute-force its way through any problem, evaluating every possible option and then picking the best. Unfortunately, just as Archimedes never quite found a long enough lever (nor a “fulcrum on which to place it”), computer scientists know the limits of brute strength. For example, the first paper about computer chess, written in 1950 by Claude Shannon, showed that just three moves out, brute force already has to evaluate 10^9 positions. To look five moves into the future, a computer able to evaluate a million positions per second would take more than 30 years. Yikes.by
Though few Shakespeare historians count Juliet a genius, when she gushes from the balcony, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” she demonstrates her deep understanding of one of the most profound roadblocks to problem-solving. See, it doesn’t matter what a rose is called or, for that matter, what Romeo is called–the first is still a beautiful, smelly thing with thorns (like my daughter!) and the second is still her star-crossed, soon-to-be lover who happens to be cowering in the foliage.
Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik showed kids a box that played music. Kids turned it on by placing the right pair of blocks on top. For some kids, any two different blocks would turn on the music box and for other kids, any two same blocks would start the music. Gopnik showed them how it worked, demonstrating a pair of blocks (same or different) that made the box play music and also a pair of blocks that left the box silent. She did it again, placing correct and incorrect pairs of blocks onto the music box, which played or didn’t play music. Then she asked kids to help her activate the box, offering the choice between a pair of “same” and a pair of “different” blocks to turn on the toy.
In a community of LEGO-building parents, it’s only a matter of time before someone bemoans the idea that “when we were little” we all had trunks of loose bricks that we used to build the shapes and ships and castles and constructions of our imaginations (usually after walking home from school, three miles, uphill, and in the snow). Chances are, if you close your eyes, you can hear the distinctive sound of your hand running through a pile of bricks. For many of us, it was the soundtrack of childhood.
Now, increasingly, the soundtrack is the one-time pouring of pieces into a small pile, followed by the riffling of the instruction sheet. How many completed kits are still sitting on a high shelf in your child’s room, months or years after being built?by
Get ready to think of a creative verb. Now, what action comes to mind when you look at the picture that heads this article? When you saw this chair, did you say “sit”? A Yale University study shows that you’re probably more creative if you said “stand” – the “distance” between a given noun and the verb you pair with it is a darn good measure of your overall creativity.by
Priming Studies Show Girls Still on Receiving End of Negative Math Stereotypes (and Also How To Help)
When we hike, my daughter wants to play math quiz. I ask her things like, “If there are eight legs in a family that includes one dog, how many people are in the family?” And this helps take her mind off the miles. She likes math. She thinks she’s good at it. And I’m terrified that as she goes through school, her confidence and eventually her skills will start to erode.by
The Universal Postal Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, counted more than 6 million letters to Santa Claus sent in its most recent, 2007 survey. But in the immortal words of Austin Powers, “Whoop-de-doo! What does it all mean, Basil?” ‘Tis the season of nostalgia and so to discover the meaning of kids’ Santa Claus letters, we turn to the ghost of Christmas past, namely a 1994 study published in the Journal of Popular Culture that mined 614 letters to Santa Claus delivered through the post office of a major city in the U.S. Southwest.
After chucking all the letters that were obviously written by an adult for a child, those that were illegible, and those that were deemed to be gift lists written by adults pretending to be children (imagine the implications…), the researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were left with exactly 344 notes — written by children expressing their deepest desires.
In these 344 letters were 2,475 gift requests for an average 7.2 gifts per letter — boys requested slightly fewer at 6.7 and girls slightly more at 7.7 per child. Almost exactly half of these were branded requests — not just a talking doll, but a “Tickle Me Elmo” and not just a magic kit but the “Magic Circle Deluxe Box of Tricks” and not just laser tag guns, but the “Sega Lock On” system. Interestingly, the longer the list, the higher percentage of the items likely to come with specific brand requests.
Here’s another interesting part: despite a fairly equal number of brands available to boys and girls, and despite a fairly equal percentage of toys requested by brand name by boys and girls, boys tended to cluster their requests in only the top few brands, while girls spread their brand requests over a wider range of brands.
“Boys may be more concerned that the brand-named gifts they request are more popular (and thus more desired) among their peers,” the authors write.
That said, while girls spread their love among brands, they did not spread it among categories of toys, with the vast majority of requests from this (hopefully bygone…) era being for dolls or for “New Kids on the Block,” which the researchers note were “themselves dolls that represented the individual band members.” (Another note: an eBay search returns a full set of 5 NKOTB action figures still in packages selling for $60, and you can buy just Dannie and Donnie now for $13.19!) Girls were also more willing to cross the gender boundary than were boys, with 49 requests for “boy brands” from the girls and only 4 requests for “girl brands” from the boys.
Does all this mean that “boys are more concerned with acquiring popular, brand-name items than girls?” the researchers ask. Are boys and not girls are more bound by the perceptions of what they “should” want? Or are boys more susceptible to the advertisements of the big brand names, which did, in fact, receive the lion’s share of the brand requests?
“Given that the Santa Claus myth appears to be an integral — and perhaps even sacred — part of the celebration of Christmas in American culture, studies exploring the issues raised in this study would certainly seem warranted,” the researchers write.
God bless us, everyone.by
Take a click and slow jam with me: the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that without the addition of work, the entropy of a system will increase. In other words, left alone a system becomes more disordered: molecules disperse, heat homogenizes, and if you drop a Rubik’s Cube, it ain’t real likely to solve itself. Instead, random processes applied to this best selling toy of all time tend to increase its disorder. Of the 350 million Rubik’s Cubes sold to date, how many do you think are sitting at the bottom of the toy box or even on the kitchen counter, unsolved? According to this lovely 2nd Law, the correct answer is lots.
The Boulder startup Kitables is out to change that.by
I’m more science geek than technology geek, but lately I’ve been doing my best — learning how to solder and code by building SparkFun kits along with my kids (6 and 8), first the WeevilEye, then Herbie the little mouse kit and now into the world of Arduino. (My daughter, Kestrel, bounces off furniture and people and walls as if she were the cue ball of a billiards trick shot, but she’ll sit and solder for a straight hour.) What this means is that instead of looking at soldering kits from the perspective of an electrical engineer who, I’m sure, sees these kits as simple teaching tools, I’m completely flabbergasted along with my kids when Herbie hits a wall and his electrical whiskers make the mouse turn. Wow! When we reach the great moment of flipping the switch to “on,” my armpits sweat.by