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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Listening to Rick Dorschel Sell Cars at Thursday Thinkers

I finally managed to get out of the house and get to The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) in time for Thursday Thinkers. Rick Dorschel was there to discuss, Where's My Electric Car? Imagine my disappointment when I found it to not only be a press conference (that is, "way to advertise for free"), but possibly the most ill-informed Thursday Thinkers I've ever attended.

He started out talking about the problems in the latest Toyota recall concerning accelerator pedals sticking. My dad said they showed a diagram of the mechanism on the news, and it was an affront to good design: even a cursory glance reveals to an engineer like him that the mechanism can easily bind. Dorschel, however, said the problem was related to the complexity of synchronizing 4 computers on-board — largely to meet efficiency and emissions standards (implying, in my opinion of his tone, that the days of carburated engines were far better, and further, that government interference in capitalism was to blame more than anything else). As a computer programmer and electronics designer, I can tell you flat out that synchronizing the behavior of 4 computers is not simple, but it is well within modern techniques to make it extremely reliable and to make it fail safely. Dorschel also said that the computer was designed to split user input on the accelerator and brake "50-50". What the shit is that? If you have an accelerator and brake system, if the user attempts to use both, you always pick the brakes! In these days of computer-controlled throttles, there is absolutely no reason to make the car behave like a 1960's muscle car.

He went on to reassure the audience that Toyota is still a quality car, and the problems they have encountered have been fixed. No drivers in the Rochester area have reported a stuck accelerator — it is, after all, rare. Alas, he did not say how the design process was changed to add checks to make sure such bad design decisions are not propagated to the public. I can only assume it's "business as usual" at Toyota until, and after, the next problem. Same as all car companies for that matter — there's no reason to buck the system when, as an amoral corporation, it can achieve such easy free publicity at the cost of a few dead customers. Heck, did you see the advertising they're doing about safety? Ride that publicity wave to profit, for that is all that matters.

But on to the actual topic at hand …

Dorschel starts out by referring to electric cars as "golf carts" that are street-legal. Way to kick things off with your GM-based logic — presumably referencing the literal street-legal electric golf-cart from Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motorcars, LLC. Anyway, his discussion was rife with inaccuracy. Dorschel is indeed good at selling cars. But on the topic of cars and transportation, not so much.

He referred to the future of electric cars as being hampered by the battery. In some ways, this is true: with today's technology, it is impossible to replace the quick-fueling internal combustion engine, and electric vehicles are essentially limited to (at best) a 300 mile daily range, followed by hours to recharge. However, he completely misses the boat that things are changing. Many people can get by without owning a car at all, relying instead on public transportation, bicycling, and walking for most trips, and using a car sharing or car rental service for when an automobile is most convenient. Considering the prevalence of car rental and sharing services, one could literally get by on a commuter car. Also, the notion of driving your own private vehicle to a far-away destination is a concept only possible after the middle of the 20th Century. The belief that all things that we have now will be available forever, and new things will only add to that is plain foolish.

He said that ethanol is a failure because it takes more energy to make than it produces which is true, but he went on to claim that hydrogen and the fuel cell is the answer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor on that one: hydrogen is, at present, a mediocre energy storage medium. It will always cost more to buy hydrogen than to buy energy some other way because it's one more step removed. In other words, energy is attained from one source (i.e. petroleum, coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear) and used to convert inaccessible hydrogen (like in water) into accessible hydrogen (like hydrogen gas). Therefore, hydrogen from petroleum will necessarily cost more than petroleum itself — it doesn't just exist in pockets below the earth like oil does. Another way to look at this is that ethanol produced from, say, corn is essentially energy from the sun; harvesting that energy takes more energy than you get out. Hydrogen is guaranteed to be the same way. His statement that we may someday use the hydrogen and fuel cell in our car to power our house may be possible, but it would be excessively costly compared to the energy systems we have now — for that matter, we can leave our car idling in the driveway and run an inverter to run our house today, but who's foolish enough to waste that kind of money?

He gave a sheepish shrug when he said that Americans want giant cars. Someone asked, "if Madison Avenue can make giant SUV's and pick-up trucks desirable, why not energy efficient cars?" He had no answer, but said that all he knew is that they have such a hard time with consumers because they demand big cars when gas is under $2/gallon and small ones when it's over $4. After a grumble of support for gas over $5/gallon, he claimed that it would be yet another way that government interfered with our freedom. I had enough and asked, "why, then, is it okay to pay property taxes to pay for roads, but not for that same amount to come from gas tax?" He said that he hates government interference as well, and we should probably start a tea party (I believe he was talking about the conservative-funded astroturf protest called the Tea Party movement.) I think it's funny that he thinks that subsidizing his industry is called "freedom" but taxing based on use is "government interference".

Alas, in the end, Rick Dorschel struck me as a stalwart buggy-whip salesman. The fundamental business model under which car dealerships operate is eroding as people migrate toward more reasonable, ecological, and debt-free solutions.

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Stefan Sagmeister at RIT

I thought 15 minutes was sufficiently early to arrive, but by the time I got to the The Caroline Werner Gannett Project, Ingle Auditorium at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) was completely full and I had to watch a video-feed with another 60-or-so people in the 1829 Room next door. Designer Stefan Sagmeister was the speaker and he did indeed discuss Design and Happiness. You can get an idea of what the discussion was like through his similar TED lecture from a few years ago: Stefan Sagmeister shares happy design.

As I had expected, the lecture gave me some inspiration. I knew Sagmeister would comment on the tenuous balance of being creative — after all, he closes his design studio for a year in every five years to do non-work-related endeavors.

His observations on happiness reminded me of that which I often forget: that much of happiness is a temporary feeling. He divided it up into three layers: short-lived joy, mid-ranged satisfaction from accomplishment, and long-term fulfillment from pride in one's life. I forget that happiness at one layer is not experienced the same as at other layers: although my life philosophy has generally kept me fulfilled, that does not make me feel joyful in and of itself.

His lecture also reminded me that good design matters. It's good to have a world where we can feel pleasure, and we can feel pleasure from interacting with something well-designed. And by that, I mean everything. Like I think the Frederick Douglass — Susan B. Anthony Memorial Bridge (formerly the Troup-Howell Bridge) is a good design: it carries vehicles across the river just as effectively as a bridge that looks awful, but it has a certain elegance to its design that makes people feel good. On the other hand, The Monroe Community Hospital (435 E. Henrietta Rd.) is apparently having a chain-link fence erected around it: an ugly barrier that says, "we have problems with the likes of you entering our property" and makes people feel bad. And to think that everything in the world can effect a mood like that: wow.

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