Attending TEDx Rochester 2011

Today was the third year of TEDx Rochester, held at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) TED is a lecture series that originally focused on "technology, entertainment, and design" (providing the words for the acronym) but shifted to simply, "ideas worth spreading". "TEDx" lectures are independently produced, but attempt to mimic that theme. This year, TEDx Rochester featured sixteen live discussions, two video presentations, and a proper video lecture from TED itself.

Adam Walker kicked things off talking about a project he's involved with: The Kosovo Wind Gardens. The idea is to create small electricity-producing windmills all around countries without infrastructure for a reliable electric grid. Kosovo is one example, as it has very few power plants (their largest is a 1950-designed coal-burner with disastrous emissions) and simple things like dairy milk production are hampered by unreliable power. The windmills are designed with "appropriate technology" in mind: not just something from an industrialized nation, but a design that relies on simple materials and manual labor (rather than efficiency of mass-production) to better suit local self-sustainability. I was impressed with Walker's presentation and the keen sense of appropriateness and a focus on the people being assisted.

Next was Andrew Perry who discussed Visual Literacy and Graphic Narratives. His thesis was an attempt to show that the means of storytelling and communication are changing — whereas the poem was central to literature prior to the 16th century the novel became the dominant form starting around then, and now we are seeing a new form that integrates text with images and diagrams (in a creative, literary way, not solely for factual reference). There is a new manner of storytelling that goes with it and, while I'm not sure it will become a dominant form, it has definitely come into its own as a rich and complex literary form.

Ashley Aberg then spoke about the difficulties of changing medical thinking when it comes to gender. She centered her talk on what medicine calls "intersex" — neither dominantly male nor female. It is because the male/female binary-gender system influenced the medical community that the medical community considers it worthy of "correction" that typically involves surgically modifying the appearance of a child's genitals. Aberg's point is that there is nothing life-threatening or unnatural about intersex, and as such, it is society that should adapt to it. In some ways a radical concept, but in others, it is solely habit that keeps society's view of gender from matching what nature produces.

Next, Christopher Azzarra spoke about Improvisation: Musical Literacy Beyond the Page. As a music teacher, he observed that formal musical training does more to hamper individual music development than it helps. Since the measurement and analysis of music is so mathematical and sterile, it is hardly the place to start. Instead, he provided some examples of how natural it is for children and for professional improvisational performers to communicate with one another purely with music. Music touches us deeply because it is a fundamental part of our being.

Next was a video presentation of Raymond McCarthy Bergeron's La Lune et Le Coq — an amusing animation wherein the moon and rooster compete at the end of the night.

Dr. Tim R. Mosmann, Ph. D. gave a presentation on the complexity of the immune system. He gave a depth-first tour of immune response and how astonishingly complex it is. At each of a half-dozen levels (from the body to the lymph nodes to the chemistry of the lymph nodes to the cellular interaction to sub-cellular and so on) a huge amount of information is known on how it all works. But then we can extrapolate the exponentially large amount of information, since each specific example was only a fraction of the interaction at that level. In essence, the amount of information is too large to aggregate, so we need new tools to handle it.

In another radical turn, next was Jim Maddison who gave a case for building the The Roc City Skate Park under the eastern terminus of the Freddy-Sue Bridge. Like the shift to accept graphic novels or intersex individuals, skateboarding is a perfectly acceptable leisure activity that offers a mix of exercise, creativity, and accomplishment. Maddison and his team have been working to break down the entrenched view of skateboarders as ne'er-do-wells and hoodlums.

Xanthe Matychak presented Make Better Stuff: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. She sees a major shift in manufacturing where it will be possible to build on-demand at nearly anywhere in the world, alleviating the need for the manufacture/transportation cycles we have now. I tend to agree that these new technologies are a game-changing development. But I don't think it will have as nearly a large impact as she thinks or hopes, unless we see a major change in how people view money and cost that would permit local artisans to overshadow the desire for cheap mass-production.

Emcee Howie Jacobson presented his own project: Vote Be Heard. The gist is to encourage primarily poor, primarily black, and primarily inner-city people to vote in major elections to make their world better. Although I think the effort was valiant, it did not strike me that much care was given to the voices in those communities. In other words, it seemed like some comparatively wealthy white people got together and made what they thought would be powerful messages for a group they largely do not interact with. As I see it, the inner-city poor (like the Occupy Wall Street movement) have little idea what they can do to improve their situation without the benevolence of the wealthy people who keep them there. Because of that, voting has comically little effect, and the oppressed are wise enough to know that.

Theresa B. Mazzullo followed that talking about a group she's involved with, $eedNY. They have financial resources to fund start-ups and other technology ventures. I spent her entire talk trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I was seething as I wondered why people with great ideas and people with the ability to produce things (and often some of both in one person) were not already rewarded with great wealth — and those who have great wealth have neither ideas nor means? Further, I seethed at the whole "venture capital" concept where a person with an idea presents it to those with money, and if they are given money to proceed, either they fail and the gambled capital is lost (and they probably have to pay off crippling debt regardless) or they succeed and the bulk of the profits go back to the investor, reinforcing the cycle.

In another topical twist, Jon Schull presented a history of transportation, paying particular attention to bicycling and human-powered vehicles. Although his talk was interesting and sometimes enlightening, it lacked a call-to-action punch. Rather, it seemed to advise going along for the ride and to be prepared for things to change in the future. Having lived a zero-automobile lifestyle for 4 months now, I feel deeply relieved that I need not worry about all the maintenance owning an automobile brings. I tend to work from broad goals — even in 1994 when I bought my Civic, I was already thinking about rising gas prices (which never hit until 10 years on), and since then, I tended to steer my life toward eliminating the need for a car. Having finally achieved that, I feel well positioned for the future. I advise people to do the same: it's much easier to plan to live close to work 10 years from now than it is to try and achieve next week, so start now thinking how to adapt to our world in 10 years.

Mark Noble presented some recent developments in stem-cell research. Again, an informative lecture, but pretty much just that. And again, part of me gets annoyed that (in America, at least) this lifesaving technology is reserved for the rich people who can afford it. It's kind of disheartening to know that I'm less valuable as a person than someone else.

Triggering more irritation was Hasan Elahi's video lecture from TED titled Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!. In this case, I was annoyed with the totalitarian police state we live in, not in Elahi's lecture. He talked about how he was interrogated by airport security because of a name mix-up and how he now lives his life under constant government scrutiny. His solution was to publish the minutia of his life: he uses his smart-phone to periodically (and frequently) document his whereabouts along with other things like photos of his hotel rooms or the urinals he uses. In the end, it's a clever redirection of energy that is resulting in a surreal art project on surveillance.

Prove Your World was next: a group of people who are working on a science-based program for children that tries to be better than either dry lecturing or vacuous demonstration. By that, they mean that (like Christopher Azzarra said about music) exploring the theoretical side of something first turns people's interest away, yet by simply offering a flashy demonstration without explanation leads to no learning (or, for that matter, curiosity) whatsoever. Their technique is to start from a simple question (in their demonstration it was, "what's a supernova?") and use demonstration as a tool for learning. Of all the lectures, this was the one I want most to get involved with. Of course their pilot episode is about how airplanes fly, and I cringe that they will reinforce the "equal-transit-time myth" of the airfoil.

Jim Gresko and Dave Vogler paired up to talk about how design is similar to jazz improvisation. I thought it was an innovative approach to discuss the concepts and it worked well.

Next was a discussion of Empathy in Education by Timothy Cottrell. He runs a program called The Center for Mindfulness and Empathy Education which pairs high-school students with people in Hospice care. Students' own testimonials revealed a surprising maturity for people in young adulthood.

BELIEVE/Visual Intervention is a film by Ian Wilson and Philip Night that documents a street-art project bringing in international talent side-by-side with Rochester's own on projects on Troup Street and the Union Street railroad bridge near the Public Market.

Relatedly, closing the show was Joan Hildebrand — "the Voice of the Public Market". She had simple, straightforward observations on adapting to change, as she went from a mid-time TV personality to being nearly unknown in this small town, but rather than harp on what she lost, she found new vitality in her work with the Market.

Overall, I found this year's TEDx Rochester to be an even and varied distribution of good discussions. I found it a little heavy on money and products in that many lectures centered on either an existing or future product or project, or gave significant focus to money and profitability. Of course, that may be more my own bias as I tend to seek TED lectures that are more philosophical or human-centered, and tend to ignore those that highlight a new technology or product. I find it a little off-putting, though, that in their re-cap blog post, they note that they "partnered with RIT & U of R to help us recruit new talent for the stage" and add that in the coming year they are "looking to also partner with groups like The Entrepreneurs Network and High Tech Rochester to expand our net." To me this means even more focus on money, product, and project rather than ideas and exploration.

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Forget About Party in the Park

I'd love to support the bands and music of Party in the Park but once again, the City of Rochester has made it for cars-only. Yeah, I know, that's "not what they mean," but when the the press release reads, "for the comfort and safety of everyone, patrons are also asked to leave their bicycles, skateboards, in-line skates and pets at home," just what is that supposed to mean exactly? Bring your nice safe car? They even go on to describe ample parking, but never mention pedestrian access — can we walk along the river path, or is it accessible from the sidewalk only?

And once again, they say, "Patrons may not bring food or beverages (with the exception of one sealed bottle of water) into the concerts." This is because they know they want to encourage people to buy beverages from the vendors, and by making artificial scarcity, they can make more money which is what this is all about. But more sinister is that it encourages people to rely on bottled water. That way, when hydrofracking companies pollute our water supplies, people will already be accustomed to drinking bottled water and not care. Folks already believe marketing hype from bottled water and water-filter companies and no longer believe that tap water is the safest drinking water in the world (it's held to far higher standards than bottled water or other soft drinks).

Ok, I'm done ranting for now … enjoy yer day.

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Too Many Police in Rochester

This evening I was biking on my "tall bike" through The Lilac Festival today when I came to the South/Highland intersection. Police had stopped traffic to permit the pedestrians to cross. Once the people had completely cleared the intersection, I slowly rolled through next to the barrier blocking Highland before the cops released vehicular traffic. One of the cops said, "do you know I can give you a ticket for that?" I just smiled and he repeated his question so I just said, "yeah" and rode away.  [Admittedly, I made a terrible mistake: I should have stopped and answered him with, "am I being charged with a crime or am I free to go?"]

What the hell was that all about? He said nothing to the pedestrians who cut through the road, jaywalking outside the crosswalk. But once again I get to have a negative experience with the police. By riding a bike, I not only have to be responsible for a motorist hitting me [let's be real here: if I were killed by a car, you'd hear a lot of, "well, he was taking chances riding that tall bike"] I also have to deal with being hassled by the cops (just like last time).

If Officer Killjoy wasn't just a power-hungry egomaniac awarded a badge by Mayor "More Cops For More Problems", he would have actually stopped me and given me a ticket — after all, that's his job. Along with all the jaywalkers. But he was out to ensure I "knew my place" — that he was the Authority Figure. I tell you what, pig: how about you ticket the myriad of SUV's that get a tax discount for being a commercial vehicle, but that exceed the 3-ton gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) on most residential streets, and I'll start caring that you have anything to do with enforcing the law.

Why not? Here's a thought: BP Oil.

Someone riding a bike says, "we don't need oil." It's a statement that although the oil companies could go bankrupt and the economy could go to hell, people will be okay. Illegally using a commercial SUV as a commuter car is a statement of faith in infinite oil and in a vibrant and ever-growing economy. Guess which activity attracts more police attention? See, it's only through ensuring people are terrified of something (in this case, gas shortages) that they stay in line and obey cops. After all, it depends on what you think is important: a viable future for America, or an easily controlled populace.

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Questioned by the Police

So I was leaving The Flower City Habitat for Humanity ReStore (755 Culver Rd.) after doing my Saturday afternoon grazing when a police officer (I think his name was W-something) came up to ask some questions. I had not witnessed a crime nor was I involved in one. But I was acting suspicious. See, I was riding a bicycle with a trailer to do my Saturday shopping. Officer W. said there have been problems with people on bicycles with toolboxes on the back and totes stealing copper pipe from houses.

Although I was highly irritated by being singled out, I only revealed that fact by asking if he had also stopped cars and asked if the occupants were involved with such crimes because cars can carry a lot more material. He was respectful and ginger about the whole 4th Amendment and all, and only asked questions. Obviously, though, if I had not answered openly, I am certain I would have been further suspected, detained, and harassed.

I mean, who gets stopped like this? Have you, dear reader, ever been stopped and questioned for no good reason? In my case, it was an unpleasant experience all around. I can see no "silver lining" in it at all: I was singled out for being different. And to add insult to injury, "different" in a way that promoted reuse of materials (the trailer is homemade and the bike was rebuilt from junk), healthy living, and a low impact on the world's resources.

Of course, I forgot to ask the perfect question: "how many people have been convicted of stealing copper pipe on bicycles?" I did comment that I thought this kind of theft in general is a relatively rare occurrence and he replied that "it happens more than you think" — a statement that seemed lacking in factual backing.

I guess I could find a lawyer to search cases and see just how prevalent the problem is, but as a start, I searched "copper pipe" theft on Google and came up with some 15,000 hits. A couple other attempts, like a search for "stole copper pipe" bicycle came up dry, finding only theft of copper pipe and bicycles, not with them. Likewise, searching "stole copper pipe" on Google's news search reveals only 55 hits — for the 29 year period from 1980 to 2009. By my guess, this is less of a problem than Officer W. thinks.

So I think back on the times when I've had non-trivial interactions with the police (i.e. more than just saying hello), none are clearly positive. Twice I've been through vehicle sticker checkpoints (and waved through), once through a breathalyzer checkpoint (blew far less than DUAI), and once when someone backed into my car (the cop failed to take an accurate report, omitting eye-witness evidence). And a few years ago I was terribly depressed and out for a walk and I was stopped by a cop because — and I swear this was not me — I matched the description of someone spotted trying to jump off a bridge in the area … that one I chalk up as just really really weird.

My conclusion is to have far fewer police. Sadly, we live in Mayor Former Police Chief's land and his solution to any problem is "more cops". I also realize that I'm either doing something very right or very wrong by daring to take visible action to help treat the planet better. It's just another notch in my being ejected from society — from a lay-off to being rejected for a mortgage refinance (before the *ahem* real crooks [hint: driving Lexus cars, not bikes with trailers] ruined everything), some other similar bumps along the way, and now this.

I might as well get used to it because there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

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