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.

3,200 total views, 2 views today

Dude, Where's My America?

So now it's July 1, 2009 — just short of 233 years since the United States of America declared its independence from England. And, you know, I don't believe in it anymore.

I was raised with the notion that America was a place where the smart and the hard-working were rewarded. Taught that we control our government, not the other way around. [In Soviet Russia, government controls you!] That anyone can step forward and change the country for the better.

But what I've found is that none of that is true.

There was a confluence of several things that got me here.

The "Cash for Clunkers" law is the poster child for everything that's wrong with the legislature today. The goal set before them was to set America on a path to reduce pollution and consume less oil. What they did was to create a law that caused more consumption: building a new car consumes more energy and creates more pollution than keeping an old one on the road. And all because the actual problem won't fit in a sound-byte. Plus, the law reinforces the new American model of mass consumerism.

Then there was a discussion I had about class reunions. It's rare that you get a truly random sample of America, but people who came from the place you did is a pretty good random sample. I mean, just because our parents chose to live in the same place doesn't mean we're anything alike. Anyway, when I think about my reunion, I realize that — unlike my self-selected group of friends — that in fact, only about 5% of people even remotely believe in the same ideals as I do. Most are thrilled that America is at war all the time and that we do things bigger than other countries.

Finally, there's the curious case that American's, by-and-large, don't hold mass protests, and certainly don't get violent (police excluded). When you watch other countries people deal with things they disagree with in the government, it's friggin' serious. But here, it's just a bunch of jobless hippies who protest. The reason is that we have a superior government where you can simply write to your representatives and they get the same message. If you don't like what they do, just vote them out. The truth of the matter is that our representatives do whatever they please, and it's good marketing (with lots of money) that gets them reelected.

So the illusion is over. America is what it is. Have a good birthday, old man.

1,195 total views, no views today

Hearts and Minds at the Dryden and a philosophy of good government

I headed to the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Hearts and Minds. I really wasn't prepared for it at all. I watched in horror as the war in Iraq played out before me. I mean, if someone were to take the footage from this film, edit it together exactly the same way and release it today, people would definitely complain that it tries to make Iraq look like Vietnam. The only trouble is, this was made in 1974 as a postmortem documentation of the Vietnam War.

So here's the play book to be used by leadership:

  1. Fabricate a "threat" to America.
  2. Identify a place where a quasi-rational claim can be made that the area is imminently threatened. Be sure to pick one where the language and culture are very different from English-speaking, Christian Americans.
  3. Declare war on the "threat" and engage in combat in the selected area.
  4. Align all dissent with support of the "threat". Any disagreement with the position of the military and its hopeful outlook is "dissent".
  5. Declare the enemy to be less-than-human.
  6. Make claims that the enemy does not respect life which gives them a tactical advantage.
  7. Continuously claim that great progress is being made. Produce no undisputed facts.
  8. Attempt to fine-tune military tactics and technology in an attempt to defeat an enemy who will never stop trying to defend their homeland against an enemy invader.
  9. Ponder whether America chose the right allies and neglect that America's actions are the wrong side.
  10. Establish a "democratically elected" government — one that specifically supports the United States policies. Remove any government or authorities who disagree with U.S. policy.
  11. Support troops that align under the new government and migrate military control of the region to them.
  12. Disengage U.S. military involvement in the region.
  13. Make claims ex post facto that all success was as a direct result of action taken, and certainly not a result of the United States leaving the region.

In Vietnam the "threat" was Communism — a holdover from the 1950's and even called the "Red Threat". People were (and are) taught that Communism is a threat to freedom. In reality it competes with Capitalism as an economic system, but no more a threat to freedom than Capitalism is. The theory is (see above) that Communists are less than human — they act like hornets: their individuality is crushed by the goals of the collective so much that they don't even fear death. They use lies and any immoral tactic necessary to recruit new members.

In Iraq, the "threat" is terrorism. We're taught that terrorism is a threat to freedom. In reality, the tactics to stop terrorism are the threat to freedom: undocumented police searches, torture, secret arrests, and the suppression of free speech. The theory is (see above) that terrorists are less than human — they act like hornets: their individuality is crushed by the goals of the collective so much that they don't even fear death. They use lies and any immoral tactic necessary to recruit new members.

So I started theorizing on what goes wrong — how did we get here again? I think the crux of it is that we supposedly have a representative government but that representation has failed. We expect our representatives to listen to the will of the people and to lead based on that will. We expect our leaders to find solutions that make everyone happy — to unify these United States rather than to divide them.

I spent the better part of my free time trying to develop a graph to represent the whole thing, mostly erroneously trying to represent population in some proportional way and also to present the data in a logarithmic fashion. But the gist is this: assuming that people are free to organize in protest of the government, the measure of "good leadership" is that few people choose to organize in protest.

Chart showing percentage of actively protesting people.

The numbers in parentheses represent a population based on 300 million people — approximately the population of the United States in 2007. The goal of leadership should be to keep the percentage of people actively protesting as low as possible, and divided in support/opposition of an issue as balanced as possible. The ideal is zero, but if that cannot be attained, then equal numbers on either side should be the goal. This is represented by the outer ring with green toward the bottom "zero" point and orange indicating a problem.

The inner colored ring indicates likely types of problems. The yellow area between 0.01% and 0.04% is a danger zone for a politician, for between 0.04% and 0.6% is when their approval ratings will begin to drop. Between 0.6% and 10% is an increasing risk of revolution (in the case of activity on one side of an issue) or civil war (in the case that both sides are equally ired.) The red area above 10% pretty much guarantees violence.

Let me qualify this that it's just speculation. I'm no expert in politics or leadership. I was just picking numbers out that "sounded good." However, the I feel the underlying theory is valid: that the goal of leadership should be to minimize the need for protest. And that's something else that I should reiterate: this chart is about the number of people actively protesting — that is, picket-signs in hand, involved in a march or other form of public dissent.

Now there's three cases that a leader will typically be looking at: virtually no protest, protest that is lopsided, and protest that is strong but balanced. If there is little protest, then that's a sign of a "good job" and the leader should look to fix other more controversial issues.

In the case of a lopsided protest — where there is a significant population that is protesting one side but very few on the other side — then there are several possibilities. One is that the protesting side is vehement about one facet of the issue, and in that case, the leader should have the wherewithal to re-frame to defuse its antagonistic component. Another is that the leadership is not representing the will of the people — and in that case, the leader should adjust their position and policies to be more accommodating of the protesters.

In the case of a balanced, strong protest, it's the leader's role to act as diplomat. They should consider whether another option — outside the spectrum of the opposing poles — could resolve strife. If they are unable to accomplish that, then there is the likelihood of bloodshed and the possibility of full-blown civil war.

So back to Iraq — if I recall correctly, protests against the war — the largest protests — are in the range of 200,000 to 500,000 people. In that range, we're talking about 0.08% to 0.2% of the population. I am not aware of protests to support the war although there are typically a small number of protesters against the anti-war movement — a bit derivative, but (again, if I recall correctly) typically a small number. Perhaps 2,000 to 10,000 at most — 0.001% to 0.004% or so.

In this case, I think it's the responsibility of our leadership to either (a) re-frame the war to make it amenable to anti-war protests or (b) to change policy to balance opposing factions. It's clear that their efforts are squarely in re-framing the war: that it's a war for freedom, or peace, or against terrorism — but the anti-war movement is not buying into it. This opposition is simply against the war. And in that case, the move should be to get out of it.

So then, imagine more generally if we actually had balanced leadership. Imagine if people had to protest in the streets to favor a war rather than to protest only to oppose it. Imagine if our country believed in peace so much that our leaders insisted that the people ordered them to start a war. Imagine if war was not the default action but the exceptional action — a complete reversal of our current policies.

But then again, what do I know about leadership? I can't understand why anyone would resort to war when diplomacy and peace are alternatives. I guess I can't stop believing in the ideal of "good leadership" — where the seemingly miraculous solution that appeals to everyone is commonplace and war is seen as the pathetic, stupid cop-out that it is.

997 total views, no views today