Archive for January, 2007

Brain Man

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

This week, 60 Minutes did a fascinating piece on a remarkable young man named Daniel Tammet:

Twenty-four years ago, 60 Minutes introduced viewers to George Finn, whose talent was immortalized in the movie “Rainman.” George has a condition known as savant syndrome, a mysterious disorder of the brain where someone has a spectacular skill, even genius, in a mind that is otherwise extremely limited.

Morley Safer met another savant, Daniel Tammet, who is called “Brain Man” in Britain. But unlike most savants, he has no obvious mental disability, and most important to scientists, he can describe his own thought process. He may very well be a scientific Rosetta stone, a key to understanding the brain.

Tammet has a condition known as synesthesia, which is when the brain gets its wires crossed, and two or more senses overlap. In some cases, days of the week might seem to the afflicted to have their own personalities (as they do here at Shakespeare Teacher). In other cases, particular years might, for an individual, occupy specific locations in space. In Tammet’s case, he can actually see numbers.

“I see numbers in my head as colors and shapes and textures. So when I see a long sequence, the sequence forms landscapes in my mind,” Tammet explains. “Every number up to 10,000, I can visualize in this way, has it’s own color, has it’s own shape, has it’s own texture.”

For Tammet, 289 is an ugly number. He describes 333 as very beautiful. Pi is “one of the most beautiful things in all the world.” In fact, Tammet holds the European record for reciting the digits of pi from memory, rattling off 22,514 digits without error in just over 5 hours. In my very best attempt, I have not been able to recite half that many.

Fans of the blog know me as an armchair brain science researcher, so I’m naturally fascinated by the idea of synesthesia. What other forms might it take? Could there be people who can smell the letters of the alphabet? Would a metaphor have a different taste than a hyperbole? Could you fall in love with a time of day? And would all people with the same kinds of synesthesia map their senses out the same way? We all know what a green square looks like, but would another person with Tammet’s brand of synesthesia agree with him about what 2,192 looks like? In other words, does 2,192 have an inherent visual representation and he’s the only one who can tell us what it looks like, or is his mind inventing its own unique schema to help it make sense of a neural configuration that was never supposed to happen? And if it’s the latter, what is the logic behind that system? Every question leads to more questions. But for scientists – um, real scientists – some of the answers may lie with Tammet himself.

There are maybe 50 savants alive today. These abilities generally go along with some kind of autism, making it difficult for researchers to interview the subjects and learn about the condition. But Tammet’s autism is very mild, and he’s able to articulate his experiences and provide researchers with a unique insight.

Tammet’s abilities, and disabilities, are described in much greater detail in this article in the Guardian from about two years ago, as well as some insight on what brain science researchers hope to gain from working with him:

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University, is interested in what Mänti might teach us about savant ability. “I know of other savants who also speak a lot of languages,” says Baron-Cohen. “But it’s rare for them to be able to reflect on how they do it – let alone create a language of their own.” The ARC team has started scanning Tammet’s brain to find out if there are modules (for number, for example, or for colour, or for texture) that are connected in a way that is different from most of us. “It’s too early to tell, but we hope it might throw some light on why we don’t all have savant abilities.”

The clip below is the second of two from a British documentary about Tammet. You can view the first one here if you’re interested. The clip below is just over eight minutes long. I’m including it here so you can see the first four minutes, where Tammet describes how he “sees” numbers. If you want to watch the last four minutes, though, you can see Tammet meet Kim Peek, the real-life person on whom “Rain Man” is based.

The Headline Game – 1/31/07

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Real life or parody? Sometimes, I can’t tell the difference anymore. That’s when it’s time for the Headline Game.

Below are two headlines from and two headlines from The Onion. Can you spot which are the real headlines and which are the fakes?

1. Ailing Castro begins 750,000 last words
2. Lasers and radars pack cars in robotic garage
3. Pentagon halts sales of F-14 parts
4. White House quietly retracts entire State of the Union address

Note: CNN Headlines taken from front page of; headline of actual story may differ. Capitalization on the Onion headlines changed to match CNN.

Answers: Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, Story 4

How did you do?

Conundrum: Picnic

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Another new weekly feature, which means that you can now waste valuable work time at Shakespeare Teacher five days a week!

This week, I’m having a picnic. I’m putting together my guest list based on one simple rule.

  • I’m inviting DANTE, but not PETRARCH.
  • I’m inviting GALILEO, but not COPERNICUS.
  • I’m inviting REMBRANDT, but not PICASSO.
  • I’m inviting NAPOLEON, but not ROBESPIERRE.
  • I’m inviting PENN, but not TELLER.
  • I’m inviting KERMIT THE FROG, but not MISS PIGGY.
  • I’m inviting QUEEN ELIZABETH II, but not PRESIDENT BUSH.
  • I’m inviting LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, but not CAGNEY & LACEY.

Have you figured out the rule? If so, please don’t post it. Just post one or two additions to the list to show us you got it, and to give an extra hint to later solvers.

UPDATE: The solution is now posted in the comments.

Question of the Week

Monday, January 29th, 2007

There’s a popular movement in education today that stresses “authentic” experiences as being the most valuable. I adhere to this philosophy myself. There are some experiences that are difficult to have in the classroom. I studied Shakespeare in the classroom, but learned what I really needed to know on the stage. I studied education in the classroom, but learned what I really needed to know in – well, okay, the classroom, but not as a student.

Some subjects we learn in school have always been practical classes – opportunities for authentic practice of the subject being learned. Music, art, and gym come to mind. Most drama classes have a practical component. But did you take a driver’s education class in high school? Did it prepare you for the road? When was the last time you reviewed your notes from that sex education class you took in junior high?

There is a limit to what can be learned in the classroom. But we still have classrooms, and I haven’t heard any arguments for eliminating them. So there must be something going on there that we find valuable.

What’s the most important thing you learned in the classroom? Was it how to read? Long division? How to be a good citizen? How the inside of a frog is configured?

I think the most important thing I learned as a student in a classroom was how to trust my own instincts. I know this sounds like something best learned in practice, but for me, it happened over the course of a number of practical classes under the guidance of experienced and compassionate teachers.

How about you?

What’s the most important thing you learned as a student in a classroom?

Phoning It In

Sunday, January 28th, 2007

The Bard-a-thon rages on. Last night, I joined them by phone for their readings of As You Like It and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Right now, we’re doing Richard III. I’m having a grand time.

The Bard-a-thon runs their readings a little differently than I run mine. They assign roles as they go, scene-by-scene. They don’t necessarily keep the same reader on the same character from scene to scene.

I divide up all of the characters into parts before the reading, and then those parts are chosen randomly by the readers. The readers can trade parts before the reading, but once the reading starts, the readers read the same characters for the length of the play.

Of course, my readings are planned in advance and people come expressively to read a particular play. It sounds like the Bard-a-thon is an open house, with people coming in and out, and even people like me calling in. I guess it makes more sense for them to do it the way they are, since it keeps them flexible.

Anyway, I love what they’re doing and I love them for doing it. Maybe this will start a national trend. There are 50 states, and 52 weeks in the year. You do the math.

Excitement for the Shakespeare Teacher!

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

I woke up this morning and put on the Internet feed from the Bard-a-Thon in Alaska. They were doing Macbeth so I called in. They let me read the first murderer in the death of Banquo scene, and Macbeth in the banquet scene!

Again, you can find their schedule and phone number here. Keep in mind that Alaska Standard Time is 4 hours behind New York City.

That was really fun. I’m giving a workshop today, but when I get home they should just be starting As You Like It.


Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon: Chuck Hagel

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

First, read the rules of the game.

This week’s challenge will be the senior senator from Nebraska, the gruff but lovable Chuck Hagel.

I was able to link Senator Hagel to Sir Francis Bacon in four degrees, though that shouldn’t stop you from posting a longer response, or looking for a shorter one. Entries will be accepted until midnight on Thursday, February 1.

Good luck!

Note: As of next week, Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon will be moving to Fridays.

And congratulations to Lee for winning last week’s challenge by linking Bert to Sir Francis Bacon in four degrees:

Bert > Adolf Hitler > Neville Chamberlain > William Shakespeare > Sir Francis Bacon

Bert appeared on the “Bert is Evil” website with Adolf Hitler, who signed the Munich Agreement with Neville Chamberlain, who in public debates would often quote William Shakespeare, who is believed by some to be Sir Francis Bacon.

Yea, But Not Change His Spots

Friday, January 26th, 2007

There are rumors that Apple will be introducing OS 10.5, code-named Leopard, at a special event on February 20. Gizmodo has some “leaked” screenshots, and the Apple website has a sneak peek of its features.

I don’t know how much of an upgrade this is actually going to be, but I am excited about one thing – Spaces. Remember when Exposé first came out in 10.3, and it seemed silly and superfluous, but now you can’t live without it? That’s the vibe I get from Spaces.

Of course, when 10.4 came out, Dashboard seemed indispensable, and now I never use it anymore. But I do a lot of multitasking, and I have a feeling that Spaces is just what I’ve been looking for.

I can’t get excited about Time Machine yet. Other updates seem minor. Any other suggestions on why I should get excited about upgrading?

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

I’m the green on the table where wagers are made;
I’m the tip of a pen; or how fingers surveyed;
How emotions are held when not merely displayed;
And it’s true, all the president’s men I betrayed!

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Bronx Richie. See comments for answer.

Attention Alaskan Readers

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

If you are one of the many readers of this site who live in Fairbanks, Alaska, the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre is in the middle of a Bard-a-thon, a non-stop reading of the complete works of Shakespeare, ending this Sunday, January 28.

If you’re reading this and are not in Alaska, you can listen to a live broadcast, playable on iTunes, Windows Media Player, etc.

Right now, it sounds like school students reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At noon (Alaska Standard Time), the FST players are scheduled to start Henry V.

A full schedule, details, and photographs can be found on the FST Bard-a-thon website.