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Vi Hart Weekly, September 4, 2016

Welcome back to Vi Hart weekly! This week we’ve got the robots of the week, embodiment, education and beer, turtles and snails.

1. Robots of the week

During a group discussion of collective intelligence, one of my colleagues brought up the work of Radhika Nagpal, which brought us to watching YouTube videos of the termite-like Termes robots she developed at the Self-Organizing Systems Research Lab at Harvard.

One thing led to another, and we started to act out robot algorithms on the floor. We were all aware of previous work using embodied acting-out-of-algorithms to help teach and understand them (examples include Andrea Hawksley’s Binary Dance workshop, folk-dance sorting algorithms, and even some of my own work with Mike Naylor on Human Geometry). But rather than follow up on any of that, we quickly filmed what we were doing and went home, and then I proceeded to edit together a ridiculous video to convey my full joy at the endeavor in which we had decided to partake.

2. People noticing patterns of the week

After seeing “Radhika’s Robots”, artist and collaborator Evelyn Eastmond sent me a message noting the connection to her latest video (above), which in fact I had seen just a couple days before. I’m glad Evelyn noticed this connection in form, because I completely missed it! We followed the form of the termite robots to amuse ourselves, while forgetting that this form also displays the weight and burden which the robots carry for the collective good.

A commenter on “Radhika’s Robots” noticed another connection:

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In fact, a few other commenters referenced snails, saying, “Snail snail snail” and “Snail snail snail snail” and such. It’s a thing.

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3. Paper of the week

The paper of the week is “Teaching Children to be Mathematicians vs. Teaching About Mathematics“, by Seymour Papert. No, wait, I changed my mind. The book of the week is going to be by Papert, so let’s have the paper of the week be “Children Learning by Doing“, by Alan Kay. It’s labeled “rough draft”, but it collects a lot of previous material he’s written about Squeak Etoys and learning into one place.

I’ve talked a lot with Alan about this particular work, and a couple months ago I started to make a prototype bringing some of these ideas to virtual reality. This week I started to do some more serious work on this prototype, so I wanted to dig deeper into a lot of the stuff we talked about, and get more context for the conversations we’ve had about learning and math education in general.

Alan has a lots of faith in children’s ability to understand deeply complex ideas, if they have the right support. I haven’t done much educational material on purpose, but as long as the things I make tend to often fall into that category by accident, it’s good to get a deeper background into what’s already been done.

4. Book of the week:

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The book of the week is Mindstorms by Seymour Papert. This is a classic on computers in education (really THE book), yet somehow I hadn’t read it until now. After reading some of Papert’s other papers this week though, and realizing just how good he is, I couldn’t resist!

Above is a picture from the cover of one of the editions, showing the “Turtle” robot that can be programmed by simple instructions in LOGO, the language Papert developed with children in mind.

Mindstorms is great. I love the emphasis on the culture and context of education that allows children to be immersed in mathematics, the same way languages are best learned when immersed. I love that he highlights debugging as being a powerful intellectual tool for emphasizing process and progress over right or wrong results. I love that he talks about how a large part of what mathematicians do happens before equations get written down, that mathematical thinking is not just about logical processes but includes this other thing that lets us know when and where to apply those logical processes, the creativity and intuition that point our logic in the right direction.

And of course there is the common thread with my current research group about tools-to-think-with, and when applied to education this means putting children in the context where mathematical tools are the tools they need to think with to reach their goal. Learning mathematical tools is a means, not an end.

There’s a lot I can say about this book, and it’s easy for me to see many ways in which it has influenced the thinking of people I know and of the education system at large. I recommend it. 

5. What’s up at eleVR

The prototype of Real Virtual Physics is at a place where I’ve started sharing and writing about it. And being kept up at night by new ideas for toys to add to it.

There’s something profound about having real-time feedback based on your body’s motion that can give you a feel for how things behave. That’s part of how I’ve always thought about mathematics: the art of understanding how abstract objects behave.

In Mindstorms, Papert likens understanding mathematics to understanding a crowded room of strangers. It might take a while to get to know them, and introductions help, but in the end it’s all about your own personal connection with those people and understanding how they behave, how they react, what they do and why. It’s a good metaphor. When giving mathematical objects abstract inputs that must be computed by hand or one by one through a computer, it’s difficult to get information on how things behave. But real-time feedback based on your own body’s movements makes it so easy to explore, if only we had the tools to do so. So I guess I’ll keep working on making those.

6. Beer of the Week

No Hero, by Evil Twin Brewing. It’s a simple dark and lovely oatmeal stout in a world of overly-ambitious too-many-flavours stouts, and it comes in a can. It’s got a bitter finish without the bother of being all hoppy, chocolatey, or coffeey. No Hero works behind the scenes to save the day.

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