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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Making a Song at the Instant Album Party

A friend of mine invited me to an event called the "Instant Album Party", now in its second year. The gist is that they set up a practice space and a recording studio with their own and borrowed instruments and gear, and then spend a day record an album of songs, each created in 1 hour by randomly-selected people in heretofore new bands.

At first I thought I'd go to spectate, but I couldn't resist throwing my name in. I played trumpet when I was in grade school, have feebly attempted to teach myself slide guitar, and took a few months of singing lessons ten years ago. I've never been in a band or performed a whole song, save for some drunken karaoke nights. Basically no musical experience at all. So why not join a band?

I stopped in briefly at the very beginning of the party around 10:30 a.m. to drop off some audio equipment in case they needed it, and I put my name in the festive Christmas tin and tossed a couple fictional band names in the unfestive water jug. I returned at 3 p.m. and things were starting to really take off. The first band was drawn at 11:30 a.m. and at 1-hour intervals from there on. My caffeine buzz was starting to wear thin by the time my name got picked at 9:30 p.m.

So five of us guys (who for the most part had never met one another) are a band. We got four choices from the band-names bin and decided the best of them was "Brochures!". We headed to the basement Kenny played keyboards, Ben (or Ian) played drums with Justin backing up on both a tomtom and with vocals, and Ian (or Ben) played electric guitar.

While the other guys hashed out some melodies, I started scribbling furiously to try and come up with some lyrics. Earlier in the day, someone was telling a story that happened a short time after breaking up with his girlfriend, except he used the phrase "brokeing up" by accident. I commented that "brokeing up" really captures that initial feeling where present-tense and past-tense collide, and I decided to try and work that into the song. Aside from that, I just listened to the style of music and wrote down a bunch of lines. Within 10 minutes or so the words started to congeal into a simple 3-verse structure with a chorus.

I shared my ideas and did my best to match a melody to the music already created, singing my best on the microphone. We hashed through it a couple times and (owing largely to my lack of musical and band-performing skills) I had a hard time figuring out exactly when to sing. But it wasn't long before the hour was up and we headed to the recording studio.

Making it more difficult for recording was that I had to sing once for the band's sake, then again listening to the recording, and I just couldn't remember exactly how I did it the first time. Nonetheless, things sounded pretty good and Justin added a harmony to the chorus in a subsequent track. We finished at 11:29 p.m.

We got to name our song, and picking from the lyrics, we all agreed "There is no July" was the way to go. Presumably they'll put the new album on the same Shark Tank Shows BandCamp.com where the 2010 album is available for download.

Anyway, it had dawned on me earlier that day that I finally had an answer to a question from my own (and something similar from anyone's) past: "how do I meet women?" Of course, in my case, if I were asked "well, why don't you?", I'd say I was afraid of the unknowable. So one of the big things to do, I think, is to practice boldly entering the unknowable future. That is — along the lines of fear and excitement like I've talked about before — making a habit of seeing new opportunities as something to excitedly experience rather than something to fear failing at. If I had lived like that at age 25, I'd probably be a few years "ahead" of where I am now. But no matter because every time I remind myself to push myself, the more of a habit it forms, and the better things get.

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Jon Moses et al at Boulder

I headed to Boulder Coffee Co.MySpace link (100 Alexander St.) to check out the bands. To be honest, I didn't like any who opened up but the night was redeemed when Jon Moses brought up members of each band and included them in his wild acoustic improvisation.

I got a little melancholic listening to the first bands (and I'm not going to mention them by name because it just isn't worth it; in fact, half the problem was nobody operating the mixing board, and I was too mopey in my melancholy to bother to step up and do it). After having gone out to see bands so often for so long, it all seems to blur together at times. I mean, obviously everyone there had originality to add to the human musical vernacular, but it was all derivative (as it has been in almost every case forever), and all trying to be something — trying to be some direct affectation on sound … scripted … logical.

When Jon Moses played, though, his songs were absurdly simple: repetitions of barely 3 chords on guitar and often with just a single sentence of lyrics. That was just the foundation, though. The real show was in the spontaneous improvisation. It was not scripted, and even though that form of improvisation has been done some uncountable number of times before, it was exciting. Because by not being scripted, no body knew what was going to be the result — very different from even one person knowing. It was dangerous. And it worked.

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Mountains, Autumn in Halifax, and Stone Baby at the Bug Jar

Later that night, Ali and I headed to The Bug JarMySpace link (219 Monroe Ave.) to see the bands. Starting off, Stone BabyMySpace link did some pretty good ambient noise although I got tired of it before they had finished. Likewise, the last band was Mountains who did also performed some good ambient noise — somewhat different and somewhat more engaging than Stone Baby.

Autumn In HalifaxMySpace link played in the middle. I was impressed when I first heard Dave Merulla's solo presentation, but have grown to love the band with "the Leaves" — a semi-rotating group of backup performers. On this particular night, I made a note that they "uncork my dreams and inspires me to create". The meandering melodies and the ambiguous lyrics lead my mind to a place where I contemplate my dreams, goals, and projects in life. It's really a treat.

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Autumn in Halifax and the Weird Weeds at the Bug Jar

I got to The Bug Jar (219 Monroe Ave.) a bit early just in case but things got started later than usual. I chatted a bit with Dave Merulla of Autumn In HalifaxMySpace link who was interested in what I'd think of the show tonight. Despite my description last week, Dave would be playing things vanilla acoustic style: no "Leaves" (additional members who join him now and then) and no "band in a box" (a reference he made a few years ago to the digital effects he uses).

In the end, the show was excellent. It's still Dave and still his songs. He was clearly itching to use some effects or have people accompany his playing at times, but he persevered. Afterward he said that he likes to do a few shows all alone like that to shake out the songs. It's like he's building a foundation: that the melody and lyrics have to be strong on their own before he fiddles around with adding decoration and style. And they are generally strong songs to start with. He'll be playing them with "The Leaves" in July at The Little Theatre Café (240 East Ave.).

I've come to really appreciate what he's trying to accomplish. He said that he enjoys playing with additional people for the variation it causes — that there's always something unknown by doing that. He commented that it's usually a matter of trying to figure out which of the wheels is going to fall off first. And as such, the band is constantly changing … I said that my notes on bands are thrown way off with this kind of thing: by this time next year, Autumn in Halifax will have a completely different sound, although rooted in the same quality of music.

I got to thinking about how I like to see people do what they've done before, but it kind of makes them machines. I already have machines for that: they play back audio recordings. So no matter how many times any band plays something different, there's always the possibility of revisiting what was through the last CD.

Anyway, the other band up was The Weird Weeds. They do a sort of accessible experimental music — a bit of alternative-rock and with a bit of experimentation and a bit of harmonization. One of their members was nursing some kind of cold with whiskey, but they still did a great job.

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Hogan's, Station 55, and the Bug Jar

Ali, Stacie, and I went to Hogan's Hideaway (197 Park Ave.) for dinner. I stuck with the sure bets of a good wine, French onion soup, and a grilled cheese and was not disappointed. Well, okay, except the sandwich which wasn't grilled as much as I'd like.

After that we headed to Station 55 (55 Railroad St.) for the ArtAwake event. We were surprised to find that they charged a cover at the door — not exactly an art-gallery-kosher move. I was then disappointed to find the works were not particularly impressive. Worse was that the lighting left nothing to the imagination and there were no nooks to explore. It didn't help all this any that there was no wine to be found either — which, among other things, can help loosen one's ingrained bindings with America's corporate-consumer culture. Alas, it was a big disappointment for me, and kind of kicked off the evening poorly.

So then we went to The Bug Jar (219 Monroe Ave.) a bit early to catch the bands there. Unfortunately — despite it being a rather popular headliner — GaylordMySpace link, in their last Rochester show before moving to Atlanta — the happy-hour vibe was still in full-force: blaring house music and all. I only really saw the first band, Razor Wire ShrineMySpace link who are an instrumental chaotic rock band with subtle influences from all over the place. I only caught a little of Fledgling DeathMySpace link, a thrash/heavy metal kind of band. By then the three of us were quite tired and decided to call it an early night.

In related news, The LandfillMySpace link (625 Weiland Rd.) has been shut down (related because sucky Station 55 has not — it's too milquetoast to displease the aristocracy). I recall reading it in a news clip from The City Newspaper but it doesn't appear to have made it to the online edition. I believe it was a casualty of Mayor Robert J. Duffy's plan to shut down house-parties, as I was pretty sure it was some guy's house. When I first heard of that law, I was concerned it would be abused beyond its original intent: to give police the leeway they "needed" to shut down house parties when they came upon them. Now, my vision of a house party that needs to be shut down is one that is completely out of control — where the residents have lost their ability to control the party themselves.

Once again — like the shutdown of A|V Art Sound Space (N. Union St. at Trinidad St., #8 in the Public Market, formerly the All-Purpose Room) — the creative fringe of this city has had its hands chopped off. And once again, I theorize that this will push one more of these inspirational creators to go find a tolerant city. And the Mayor and all his cronies will sit around and not care about those one or two fringe people, but to me, they inspire — and I assume so of other creative people. And unfortunately that is not a column in their spreadsheet and it doesn't compare well to tax dollars.

So, I'm left giving this advice: don't trust the police. They are not your friends. They are not there to help you. If you see them, go away from them.

I hope this is what the mayor has in mind.

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Arms and Sleepers at Boulder Coffee

I decided to head to Boulder Coffee Co.MySpace link (100 Alexander St.) to check out the show. I only stayed through most of Arms and Sleepers'GarageBand linkMySpace link set — arriving after they started and leaving after they finished. I thought they were a really good ambient/drone band. I'd like to have stayed for the rest of the show but I had other things to attend to.

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Bands at Boulder Coffee

I headed out to Boulder Coffee Co.MySpace link (100 Alexander St.) to check out the show. I was looking to finally see The Varnish CooksMySpace link but they weren't playing — instead, the show started with City Harvest BlackMySpace link which is a guy in a white mask with horns doing noise-based loops and haunting voices. I liked it but it's not the kind of music that has a huge following. Next was HorsebackMySpace link who do rich, thick atmospheric instrumental followed by Mike TamburoMySpace link who started out with a hammer dulcimer — I think — and had a light, airy, atmospheric presence.

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