TEDxRochester 2012

I actually arrived early. I had intended to get there right around 9 a.m., but I was worried the lectures started at 9. In fact, it all started around 10, but about 30 people were there early as well. I was going to walk which would take about an hour, but I passed a bus stop and thought I'd check. In the one functioning piece of the RGRTA system, I was able to text the stop number to 585-351-2878 and it responded with the next 3 busses: the #50 arriving in just a few minutes. So I ended up at Geva about 8:15 a.m.

Finding the doors locked, I decided to go find some coffee. I walked past Bausch and Lomb up Stone Street to Main. I passed and ignored the Tim Horton's in the library but found no local places open, save for the Java Joe's by Boulder shop in the Crossroads Building (right across from another Tim Horton's — you'd think the city had some kind of preference for Canadian companies over locals!)

Anyway, I got back and into the theater. I first met Ota Unc who was giving a presentation. I told him about my Tadpole Trike project and the plan to cross the Nevada desert on it. He said to keep an eye out for his presentation but didn't want to say more as he didn't want to spoil the surprise.

First up was Carmelo Ramos who gave a nervous but pleasant start to the day with a traditional prayer to the spirits at each of the four compass points.

Andrew Phelps gave a speech titled "Rocket Jumping through the Game of Life" [mental note: write down the titles of everyone's speeches or else I'll be sure to fail to find some through searches]. He made the comparison that the way we learn in games — that there is a set of rules that are there to "be gamed" — is exactly the skills we need for real life: to exploit the rules to our advantage. The presentation title alludes to a technique in one video game where players figured out they could shoot a rocket launcher at their player's feet and fly over all the obstacles in a level rather than confront each challenge in turn as the level was designed. And while I think his thesis is essentially correct, I'd like to have seen him spend more time on the ethical quandaries of such behavior — specifically that actions that advance one's status alone may not be any more difficult than actions that advance the status of many including oneself.

Next was the presentation of a popular TED video by Hans Rosling titled "The magic washing machine". In it he cunningly implies that maybe we can do without a few fringe luxuries so many people can have some basic ones.

Ben Hayden was next to talk about his research into monkeys and gambling. I enjoyed the fact that he saw the duality of the real science that goes into his research and that it's really quite bizarre and somewhat hilarious. In short, he said that all animals are generally risk-averse, but primates aren't under certain conditions. We tend to be drawn to situations where we have multiple possibilities for random reward over situations with consistent rewards — which is essentially the preference for a slot machine over a machine that simply alternates between returning double your money or nothing at all. One of the interesting findings is that gambling addiction is a breakdown in the same areas of the brain that cause a number of psychological problems such as depression.

Next up, was a presentation about First Robotics which is a group that helps kids build robotics toward a goal. [I swear the name of the presenter was Glen Frey but I can't find proof, so I assume I must be mistaken.] By high school, they are building remote-controlled devices with modern industrial components to compete in a challenge that is different each year.

I'm often frustrated that such games end at the end of school. Half joking, I told a couple people that kids should be interviewed and find out what excites them and what they excel at, and then are told to do something else that they aren't very good at and don't really like for the rest of their lives to prepare them for the real corporate world.

When we returned from break, Nicole Corea gave an improvised demonstration of dance. I have no background in it, so while I was impressed, I had a hard time gleaning interpretation. My rational mind simply would not shut up about literal meanings.

Next we got to Ota Ulc who talked about competing in the 10,000 Mile Mongolian Challenge. He joined it in Czechoslovakia in a crappy car (which is part of the point) on their way to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (And yes, it is deliberately an insane idea.) The central point of his talk is that wherever they were, people were similar: they'd inevitably warn the team about the horrors they'd encounter inflicted by the people in the neighboring country, yet every-such warning turned out to be false, and everyone was actually very welcoming.

Next up was a video presentation of the TED talk by Abigail Washburn titled "Building US-China relations … by banjo". It's a powerful story of how our lives can suddenly change for the better in unexpected ways.

Erich Lehman — curator of the 1975 Gallery — discussed pivotal events in our lives. He starts by pinpointing the date when he received his first skateboard and how that caused him to grow from an outcast to a young man with a peer group. That one event set in motion a huge part of his entire life; had it happened differently, everything would be very different.

After lunch, One Dance Co. and The Pickpockets performed a shortened version of "In You is Home" which they presented for at the Yards some months back. The melding of fine, subdued "gypsy folk" music with metaphoric (but simple and accessible) dance makes for a great performance.

Next, Victoria Van Voorhis reiterated the gaming theme talking about her company's use of video game software to create collaborative environments for kids to learn. I felt a bit of pity that she spent so much time on obvious introductory information that she had to cut short the point of her speech.

A few friends and I talked about it afterward: it seems technology is often thrown at education as some kind of solution when the commitment of actual people teaching kids is what is really required. Human spirit is often compared to the most advanced technology of the day (as, per Arthur C. Clark's famous quote, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".) I wonder if there were attempts to include steam power in education at the turn of the century …

Dr. Ian Wilson is a radiologist who spawned the WALL\THERAPY mural project [officially with a backslash] and the Synthesis Collective. The former is about providing social space to allow public art to be created by street (née "graffiti") artists. The latter is about using technology to connect portable imaging tools in remote places with experienced radiologists who can read the results and provide diagnosis.

Dr. Craig Cypher is a psychologist who developed a tool for helping with psychological diagnosis. It's an application for ubiquitous smart phones that allows a patient to track jeir mood as it happens which can help identify problems to be discussed in therapy sessions. He is hopeful for the future where wearable sensors can help automatically record that information since depression and disruptive events are the exact moments when it is hardest for people to take the time to assess themselves.

Shanterra Randle and Doug Ackley gave a presentation on Teen Empowerment. It was a powerful message that young people — like the ones we have trapped in Rochester's inner city — are crying out to be heard; to have their ideas respectfully considered. I fear our city government is too entrenched in excluding those voices, and it will take new leadership to buck the trend of only listening to rich white men.

The Rochester Latino Theatre Group performed a play in the form of an introduction to Latino culture and an introduction to the performers (or the people they were portraying). It's familiar territory: a person is neither a sole individual nor an ambassador to a culture, but instead the product of both. I feel as if it is the nature of English (perhaps language) that prevents the concept of "person" from being adequately reflected, and in so, raising its speakers above the concepts of racism and prejudice.

Relatedly, Davin Searls spoke on the state of deaf culture in the world. Rochester is one of the best cities for it — as he pointed out, seeing a deaf person, or having a performance interpreted or subtitled is something we scarcely notice anymore. But in other places it's considered exotic and bizarre, and in some places, deaf people are not part of the society at large. The central point of his discussion, though, is that deafness is a culture unto itself, not a disability. That the expressiveness of sign language is different from the expressiveness of spoken language. Perhaps I could add that it's as much different as spoken language is from the written word.

Next they played a hilarious TED video by Colin Robertson titled "A TED speaker's worst nightmare". I'll leave it to you to watch.

Following that, Mike Governale came out to discuss his Reconnect Rochester project and how it started with a fictional schematic map of the Rochester subway system. The point of his group is to change the system we have to a place we care about — a counterpoint to Henrietta (which he leaves unnamed, highlighting in photo only) as an automobile-centric dystopia: a place we don't care about.

Finishing up was an interesting TED video by Derek Severs titled "Weird, or just different?" in which he talks about how we take things for granted as "the way things are" until we encounter another culture where things are done exactly opposite, yet equally validly.

Jen Indovina closed the day with a comment on the TEDxRochester crew's recent challenge: the Roc City 2.0 project. I had heard about it and was sufficiently frustrated finding information (like TEDx Flour City earlier in the year) that I was driven away. But they are responsible for the lamppost signs that indicate walking and biking times to nearby landmarks and neighborhoods. This project is continuing next year with the only clue being a triptych of flipbooks of a horse running.

Overall I found the day to be full of interesting discussions. I can only assume the glaring trend happened by accident: although the day's theme was ostensibly "community", it seemed more to be "games and play", as a large portion of the lectures centered on either video games or learning-through-play or both. At least this year I saw nothing that could be confused with an advertisement for a product, or a money-making scheme.

However, with all the consistent quality, no one discussion really surprised me. It may just be that I have become unfortunately numb to innovation itself. One thing I think plagues TEDxRochester is the dominance of technology — not surprising considering Rochester's tech-rich heritage — but it would be nice to be impressed by philosophy or by a substantial representation by non-technical solutions like Teen Empowerment.

I did want to give a response to the shout-out by TEDxRochester founding member Tony Karakashian. After lunch he challenged the audience to be more creative when they apply. In talking with Tony, Gary Jacobs, and Amanda Doherty, I've apparently developed a reputation for my applications, and one I try to uphold. For 2012, I tried to give them a chuckle and apparently succeeded as Tony read my answer to "Why do you want to attend TEDxRochester?":

Each year is a new adventure to attend, always with at least one amazing lecture that both fulfills my itch for something new, and infects me like an acute allergic reaction with all new itches. It's just a lot of itching and scratching leading to more itching. It's like psoriasis for the brain, only not gross-looking. Or maybe one of those weird back-scratchers that's made from a desiccated monkey paw, clutching at nothing but the agony of being cut off a monkey, and stuck on the end of a walking stick — a walking stick for a mental journey lasting ten lifetimes that, tautologically, you cannot complete before dying. Presumably of old-age, or longing. Maybe you get an infection from that filthy monkey paw. Someone will probably do a lecture on that.

Putting things convolutedly, I guess Tony could have said, "Jason upped his game, so up yours!" Ok, I probably shouldn't have actually said that. Sorry.

But I do have to up my game next year. I mentioned that I had an idea to build a temple for Burning Man in 2013 called the Temple of Seasons — an excessive, overambitious project that has little hope for success. But I gave a vague promise that I'd submit an application to present whatever happens on that project for TEDxRochester 2013. Yikes.

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Attending TEDx Rochester

I headed to Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the TEDx Rochester lectures today. I attended the premiere year last year, and hoped for a few improvements. Many were met, and some surprising updates, but I still found it fell short.

Registration was easy and our passes had a little surprise. I hadn't realized until I was approached by Chris Horn — a former co-worker — who pointed out that on the back of our passes, we had a list of three people. His said, "Ask Jason Olshefsky about a 'tadpole trike'," a project I mentioned when I had originally signed up. I thought it a near-perfect ice-breaker (although, in general most attendees migrated to people they already knew … this is Rochester, after all). A curious serendipity was that the other person who found me by name was another former co-worker from a different company. People speculated that TEDxRochester did some Internet snooping, but I was pretty sure it was just random.

Anyway, the presentations were generally good although only a couple approached the lofty goal of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading. One of my college techniques was to take virtually no notes, expending my effort listening and thinking and referring later to reference materials. To my [mild, mild] horror, the brochure listed the presenters alphabetically with biographies rather than a title (or even a taste) of what their presentation was about. Thank goodness for TEDx Rochester Live blogging or else I'd have no idea who said what in what order.

Kicking off was Almeta Whitis who presented a "song of welcome". I found it enjoyable and impressive that she inspired me and most of the audience to join her in the chorus. An idea worth spreading? Yes — in a very unique way. She attacked the issue warmly, honestly, and with a flair for entertainment: we are all human and should behave as such. In essence, "it's the humanity, stupid", not the iPhone nor the pressing project.

Next was Dr. Benjamin Miller. He talked about detection of proteins and antibodies as markers for disease and how new technology works to do that instantly with silicon chips. His broad topic was one of understanding through a triangular diagram of vision (our ability to observe), direction (a selected methodology of exploration), and control (a defined set of target results) — essentially, a subtly different view of the scientific method. As such, technically an "idea worth spreading" but one that is spread pretty far and wide already, particularly to the largely technical-minded audience attending. I also noted a severe defect: he presented an underlying assumption (the "protein-interaction problem can be solved by drugs") was one that can be questioned. Why is that the best path? Or is that the most logical one — the one that is most likely to yield results that are easy to fit into the model of scientific exploration? Alas, I feel a far more interesting talk would have discussed that question.

Karlie Robinson spoke next. She owns Webpath Technologies (40 Charles Ave., Henrietta). She talked about how hard it is to find courses in basic computer literacy. She gave the example of how we all know basic operations (cut, copy, paste, undo) are similar across all kinds of different computer systems — something we take completely for granted but which is really a pivotally important idea. Like Miller's discussion, this one is sort-of an "idea worth spreading": more "a problem whose solution is an idea worth spreading". And (also like Miller's discussion) I found myself dismayed at ignorance of the underlying assumption: that technology is a good thing and should continue to be applied all the time. A more interesting discussion would concern why menial labor can't simply show up, work, and get paid — what value have we added by tracking names, addresses, Social Security numbers, pay, and taxes. Is this really optimal?

I think Darren Stevenson (co-founder of PUSH Physical Theatre) gave one of the best discussions. He started with a demonstration of a performance then went on to define what art is. At least that was his topic which he attacked with wit, humor, and insight. His point was that creating and experiencing art is subjective and personal. Our culture tries to make everything objective and communal — to give things dollar-values and quality-values that everyone can agree upon. However, art is defies that very notion. It even defies explanation, another facet of our culture: we try to explain everything in words because explanations make things safe; things we understand are safe. We don't look at an autumn tree [how creative, Jayce: did you just look out the window?] and try to understand "what is the tree trying to tell us?" It just is, and we can enjoy it for that. Yet somehow when it's a creation of man, we feel it must be a simple metaphor instead.

The bar was set high at the start — three very good discussions. Then Jane Andrews, a Nutrition and Product Labeling Manager for Wegmans Food Markets (1500 Brooks Ave.) gave a commercial for Wegmans. Ok, so it wasn't literally a commercial — she was talking about the techniques developed at Wegmans to foster good nutrition. My own bitter bias about Wegmans and how they abandoned the city neighborhoods (especially mine) led me to ask the underlying assumption: "why do only rich suburbanites deserve good nutrition?" Regardless, the ideas she presented were good ideas run through the hot-dog factory of marketing so they'd be palatable to the general public, such as "split your plate": fill half with salad, then have whatever else you want on the other half. Unfortunately, it's extraordinarily similar to the "small plate" movement (such as outlined in the 2008 book The 9-Inch Diet by Alex M. Bogusky.) Alas, I couldn't tell if the "idea worth spreading" was "here's some ways to eat better for the simpleton", or "Wegmans, gosh, isn't it great?"

Moka Lantum, co-founder of The Baobab Cultural Center (728 University Ave., formerly on Gregory St.) spoke next. Although his presentation style was not nearly as polished, his idea was one that I felt warranted TED: in areas with that have a high prevalence of earthquakes, we should build homes that are locally-sourced and earthquake-stable. The underlying assumption of earthquake relief efforts is that they help — but is there a better way? Lantum impressed me by attacking that very question — and again with broader scope, "is there a better building technique than the platform-framed wood houses we take for granted?" Lantum outlines a building technique that uses bags filled with local, sifted dirt for the primary structure then covered with a locally-generated stucco-like surface. The high thermal mass works well to regulate temperature, particularly in hotter climates like Haiti where these structures were given a test as temporary emergency shelters. I thought his topic was perfect TED material: it's something that I've thought about before, and I can't think off-hand of a way to significantly improve upon the presented solution. (My only lament is that he didn't say where to find more information; a little searching leads me to an article on The Honey House which I believe is the specific technique Lantum was talking about.)

Next was Shanterra Randle, an associate coordinator at The Center for Teen Empowerment (107 Liberty Pole Wy.) Her speech could easily have been a free-form poem. She encouraged us to take the ideas we have and hear, and put them out there — to make our community better. We all have good ideas, but a good idea laid dormant is just as good as no idea at all. Another worthy candidate for what TED is all about, and as a bonus, brief, creative, and directed.

Dr. Ralph Spezio gave an impassioned and emotional lecture on his experiences as principal of School 17 and how lead poisoning was revealed as the cause of educational problems in his school. If there's one thing to take away from his speech, it's to consider the possibility that when assessing the quality of education, sometimes great teachers and great parenting is not enough. Likewise, Michelle Cardulla presented her work as Executive Director of The Museum of Kids Art (MOKA) (90 Webster Ave.) I felt her presentation could have been better rehearsed, and the idea that kids are natural artists could have been more central. Clarinetist Dr. Ramon Ricker presented an interesting topic of making your life about you and your skills. He was largely talking about marketing yourself in terms of what you are good at and what you like to do rather than what you think other people want to hear. It may have resonated more with others, but me (and I think a lot of people in the audience) were already aware.

Jim Tappon, Communications Manager of COOL Rochester gave a commercial for COOL Rochester. He spent as much time talking about vague methods to conserve energy as he did talking about how you can download information and present it to your friends and acquaintances. I think his idea of conservation through small steps is generally good, but his insistence that we become the carriers of this information à la pyramid scheme was downright offensive.

Finishing up, Jen Indovina, President and CEO of Tenrehte Technologies, presented the nearly opposite view: that it is impossible for people to change their behavior in any appreciable way, so we should make technology that lets us live exactly as we do, only makes it efficient. I found it patently offensive that adaptation is impossible, and further offensive that more products can make things efficient. As someone with a custom remote system to control lights and such, I can tell you it's nearly impossible to make a machine that can predict your behavior and not irritate the hell out of you. To buy something off-the-shelf that would work is an absurd concept. I tried to do some research on the products at the Tenrehte Technologies website, but all the products and catch-phrases presented on the website appear to be nothing more than vaporware marketing-speak: there is not even a description of what anything does, much less any technical information. Without a physical address, I can't fathom how any production is taking place, and I'm strongly suspicious that the whole company is just a scam.

As such, I left this year's TEDx Rochester in a thoroughly pissed-off rush. Walking home, I could only think fo Indovina and her insistence that we can't change our behavior; if I were driving a car I'd have classic road-rage. Thankfully I headed into Mt. Hope Cemetery (791 Mt. Hope Ave., the North Gate) and got a chance to chill out before getting home.

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TEDx Rochester

I know I've mentioned TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading quite a few times already, so when I heard there would be an independently-originated series here in Rochester, I couldn't help but go. They called it TEDx Rochester and held it at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) My hopes were high, but I fully understood that not every lecturer would produce an astoundingly favorite lecture.

After a rocky start with the A/V system, Adam Frank got things started. He spoke about the artificiality of the conflict of science and religion. Basically his argument was that science enhances religion because it lets us see more of the world, and if you're a believer in a creator, seeing more of what was created is a good thing.

Larry Moss was next, speaking about his "Airigami": creating art with balloons. At first blush, the whole thing seems as thin as a metaphor using balloons would be if written here. But because the medium he uses is so accessible, he's able to create sculptures with people who don't even share a common language — and he has. Many times. On the one hand, it's astounding and on another, obvious. Definitely one to think about (and hopefully, a lecture that will be prominent on TED's own website).

I was also pleased by a performance by GEOMANTICS Dance Theatre who, like PUSH Physical Theatre, used an amalgam of the varied forms of physical performance to express ideas.

A nano-scale chemist and physicist Todd D. Krauss provided insight into some of his work (as several other lecturers did). Although I didn't find that his talk met my lofty expectation of an "idea worth spreading", he did bring up an interesting bit of new technology: cadmium-selenium nanoparticles. The fascinating thing about them is that they fluoresce different colors of light based on their size. As such, one can create whatever colors they want using the same material.

What he did not touch on that I wish he had was the ramifications of nanoparticles and organic life: specifically, isn't "little particles stuck through cell walls" one of those triggers for cancer? And while he dispelled the myth that artificially-intelligent nanobots will kill us, I think he did a disservice by neglecting to even approach the topic of nanoparticles doing damage in much more banal ways.

Finishing up the night was Geva Comedy ImprovMySpace link who, sadly, were not able to finish their performance in the time allotted.

Overall it was definitely worth it to take time off to see it. But I hope that in the future, things are a bit more refined.

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Connectedness to the world beyond our five senses

My friend Sondra and I had a lengthy discussion about altered states of consciousness and whether the physical world as it is presently understood is all that there is to be known. We have both had experiences that seem to defy theories that we misinterpreted coincidental events or that we selectively remembered events that confirmed a theory.

She has recently had apparent success using sigils — a method of creating a symbol to influence a specific outcome. However, as both of us are skeptics, the lack of a causal understanding has us frustrated — although not so much frustration as to stop using what seems to work, especially when it does no harm.

She spoke of the theory that the symbols themselves were being "charged" with something (I almost wrote "energy" but that's not what I'm talking about). The concept is that if we can observe a symbol (a word, for instance) and that can cause a thought to form in our minds, there is a transfer of something from the symbol to ourself. If that's true, then can it be possible to charge a symbol with something that can later be received? Can it be used to communicate on some level different from language?

I felt it might be that a sigil is a representation of the start of an action that we forget how we complete. I made an analogy of pounding in a nail: starting with a nail protruding from a board, you would (1) desire for the nail to be pounded in, (2) get a hammer and pound in the nail, and (3) observe the nail pounded in. Now consider the experience if you forgot that you did #2: you would have observed a protruding nail that you wanted pounded in, and then you would note that it was indeed pounded in. What if a sigil is a way to express a desire, and we simply forget how we accomplished it, leading to an outcome that we wanted in the first place?

We also talked about out-of-body experiences, or at least extending our influence and connection to the world beyond the confines of our bodies. A long time ago I had tinkered with out-of-body experiences. One time I felt that I could locate the presence of non-physical beings in space — hundreds of them everywhere; in another, I heard a cacophony of voices. In both cases, though, it scared me — I very much did not want to reach a point where I couldn't avoid "seeing presences" or "hearing voices" so I turned away from those techniques.

So what if that was a valid, real perception? — a sensory device that I had not needed to use and that I psychologically blocked. What if that could help explain facets of our existence that have yet been unexplained? What if we have deliberately blinded ourselves to avoid seeing something that is complex and confusing; powerful and enriching? The cells in my body are connected in complicated ways, so why not a connection to all life to a similar degree? Why not a connection to the universe in its entirety?

It's certainly an exciting prospect … [unless, of course, it's demonstrably an illusion; then it would kind of suck.]

But then I don't want to dive right into the world of pseudoscience. A serendipitous e-mail gave me a hint, though. It was a link to a TED Talk by a neuroanatomist named Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor titled My stroke of insight. In it, she outlined her own experience of having a stroke and how it affected her brain — an expert in brain anatomy who got the chance to experience what she often explains to others.

The lecture is moving and engaging, but what I took away from it was a reminder to rely on science in my own exploration. One of the key parts of validly using reason and logic to come to conclusions is to start from a point that has already been established — "A" then "B" then "C". One of the pitfalls in exploring topics that are "out there" is to claim that it is an entirely new frontier and to start from a point that it is not grounded in established knowledge. Doing so invalidates any conclusions attained, so not only is it a false path, it's genuinely a waste of time.

So it's one thing to explore and play, but to draw conclusions — like mine and Sondra's analytical brains desperately want to do — requires that we start at a point of known, physical reality.  Maybe this left-brain, right-brain stuff is a starting point.  I guess I'd better get reading.

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