(Yes)today’s TED talks

For today, a couple of old TED talks I’ve revisited recently.

Dan Dennett/On Our Consciousness
I often don’t agree Dan Dennett says, but I always love how he says it. Here’s an old talk in which he discusses the degree to which we (don’t) have insight into our own consciousness. He also seems to take credit for predicting change blindness.

Peter Donnelly/How Stats Fool Juries
Here, Donnelly puts across some excellent material on our perception of random sequences. Heads and tails; adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine. He goes on to consider how our poor grasp of this sort of statistical reasoning can lead to genuinely terrible consequences.

I’m professionally indebted to Donnelly for his work on HapMap and with WTCCC. Interestingly, both Dennett and Donnelly open with jokes about being boring at parties.

Bobby McFerrin/The Pentatonic Scale
And finally, this wonderful piece from Bobby McFerrin.


Monkeys on typewriters

Plenty have blogged today about Jesse Anderson‘s virtual attempt to prove the infinite monkey theorem.



In amongst the discussion, I picked up reference to an Arts Council England project that placed a computer in the enclosure of six macaques at Paignton Zoo. These singes dactylographes appear to have been rather hung up on the S key, but I still think their manuscript is rather beautiful.

Notes towards the complete works of Shakespeare is available, free of charge, in PDF format. Perhaps what I find most interesting is that, just before the end, the writing takes on a completely different character. Why did it stop there, just as they started to get the hang of it?

Fry’s planet word

I quite enjoyed the first episode (“Babel”) of Stephen Fry’s new series on language, Planet Word, which screened tonight on BBC2. It’s not hard-hitting science, but it doesn’t set out to be. Highlights include a discussion with Wolfgang Enard about the FOXP2 “language” gene; an interview with editor and writer Robert McCrum on his recovery from a stroke that severely impaired his speech (documented in his novel, My Year Off); and what I thought was a rather disturbing conversation with d’Armond Speers, who attempted to raise his son to speak Klingon—though it is interesting that it didn’t really work. It also mentioned MIT’s Deb Roy, who fitted his house with cameras to capture his child’s acquisition of language, which prompted me to revisit his fascinating TED talk.

Planet Word is currently available on iPlayer (again, I’d guess this is U.K. only, sorry, but the clip below seems to be freely available on YouTube).

Reconstructing visual input from fMRI

I really like this. Developing on previous work, Shinji Nishimoto and a team at UCB have come up with a neat way to reconstruct visual input from fMRI in visual cortex. Their model uses a bank of simple spatiotemporal filters that behave like visual neurons. First, they derive parameters for these filters using BOLD signals elicited by a set of training videos. Then, they measure the BOLD response to a completely different set of videos, and use a Bayesian approach to estimate what the videos that produced them look like. The results are striking, and have some interesting potential applications. From the group’s website:

Neuroscientists generally assume that all mental processes have a concrete neurobiological basis. Under this assumption, as long as we have good measurements of brain activity and good computational models of the brain, it should be possible in principle to decode the visual content of mental processes like dreams, memory, and imagery… It is currently unknown whether processes like dreaming and imagination are realized in the brain in a way that is functionally similar to perception. If they are, then it should be possible to use the techniques developed in this paper to decode brain activity during dreaming or imagination.

The study, “Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies” is published in Current Biology (subscription required).