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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Excuses, Excuses …

Wow: it's been quite a while — not since The Big Dig in July.

Anyway, the reason I've been away is this:

The Tadpole Trike, partially completed frame

What would have been the way to get to Burning Man this year ...

Sometime in early 2010, I hatched a plan to build a vehicle that I would transport to Winnemucca, Nevada then pedal 100 miles to Burning Man. I knew time was too short to make it for that year, so I slated it for 2011. Well, I spent hundreds of hours on design toward the beginning of the year, a dollar amount I'm afraid to calculate on custom-designed parts as well as off-the-shelf parts, and another hundreds-of-hours on building. By Sunday, August 7, I did not yet have a pedal-able vehicle, and I had 11 days before I would need to ship it, so I put it off for another year.

The more precise plan was to ship the trike to Winnemucca by UPS Ground. I have designed it so it folds up and can be shipped in a relatively small crate (which doubles as a trailer for extra gear). I would take the train to Winnemucca and it would hopefully be waiting at the hotel — probably Scott Shady Court Motel (400 1st St., Winnemucca, NV) which I stayed at and liked a lot before. Sunday, the day before Burning Man starts (on Monday), I'd get my water jugs filled, get packed up, and head for Jungo Road (a.k.a. Nevada SR 49). From there I'd pedal the 85 miles to 40° 46' 02.07" N, 119° 07' 12.26"W where there is a microwave antenna access road that crosses the railroad tracks. I would hope to pass the active mine at Sulphur before nightfall as there's a bit of traffic supporting it (not so much on Sunday, but on the way back). I'd take a right and cross the tracks then head due west across the Black Rock Desert, north of the Burning Man event, until I reach the barely-marked West Playa Highway which I'd take south to the main gate. After the event, I'd just reverse the trip. I estimate about 100 miles each way which could take anywhere from 10 to 24 hours depending on how fast I could go — and since I haven't tested anything yet, I really have no idea what is practical.

The vehicle itself is called a "tadpole trike" because it has three wheels and kind of looks like a tadpole with 2 wheels in front for steering and one rear wheel for propulsion. The picture shows the frame as far as I had completed it, and nearest the photographer is the mount for the pedals. I used parts from the 1994 Honda Civic I had taken off the road 2 years ago, parts from go-kart companies, bicycle parts, lots of scrap metal (mostly from bed frames), and the final drive is to use motorcycle chain for extra strength. I estimate that including the tires, it will weigh in slightly less than 200 pounds, so it's definitely not meant to win any hill-climbs.

But I did design it with a broad gearing range: a 2-speed custom shifter doubles the range of a continuous-variable Fallbrook NuVinci 360 internal hub shifter from a stump-pulling 0.2-to-1 to a mountain-bike-high-gear 3.5-to-1. In terms of gear-inches (which, if you imagine a pennyfarthing big-front-wheel bike, it's the effective diameter of that wheel) it has a range of 5.2 gear-inches to 18.2 gear-inches in low and 22.9 to 80.0 gear-inches in high. So with a pedaling speed range of 15 rpm to 150 rpm, that translates, overall, to 0.23 mph to 35 mph. And assuming I can put a maximum of 300 pounds of force on the pedal at a standstill, the lowest gearing will yield a massive 800 pounds of forward-force at the drive wheel.

I figure my goal is to just attempt it.  If I have to stop and go back, or haul the beast back broken, then so be it.  The road itself is generally pretty obvious, but I do have USGS topographic maps of the whole area along with a compass and a GPS for good measure.  I set up JayceLand to be able to accept picture-message posts like I did for the Big Dig … Verizon's map shows the last point of "coverage" to be around 40° 53' 21.534" N, 118° 26' 15.342" W which is little more than halfway, and not quite to Sulphur.

But alas, the whole idea seems to be quite distant now. Funny how a week ago I was picturing it actually happening, and now I don't even know if I'll try it in 2012 — or ever for that matter. I think I will desire it again in the future. After all, part of the beauty of it is that I can potentially be someplace where it's more than 20 miles to the nearest person. The whole trike and its testing is a separately interesting matter, but I can get that accomplished with some camping trips around here, or even just using it as a main vehicle.

We shall see!

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The ReSassy Project

A few weeks ago I announced that I was going to take my Civic apart and sell the pieces. Well, this weekend I got the website up and running and decided to call the project ReSassy which construes the goal of reusing, repurposing, and recycling as much as possible. Plus it fits my criterion of "specifically avoiding things that mention 'Honda' or 'Civic' in the title".

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Nearly 15 Years of "Sassy"

Today I went to New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (2199 E. Henrietta Rd., Suburban Plaza) and surrendered the license plates to my 1994 Honda Civic that Ali dubbed "Sassy" (largely because of its temperamental handling in its old age). [And I asked, but they wouldn't let me take a picture of the ceremony.] I bought it on June 5, 1994 from John Holtz Honda (3925 W. Henrietta Rd., Henrietta) with 53 miles on it and drove it to 170,530 miles.

As I wrote earlier, the ratio between the cost of ownership and the benefits of ownership was getting worse and worse. This year, I strongly believe it would not have passed its New York State safety inspection as it has numerous problems ranging from a rusted gas filler and a semi-operational windshield wiper switch to a warped disc rotor, non-existent rear shocks, and a noise that's indicative of a failing constant-velocity joint.

So rather than wait for something to fail catastrophically (and in the process, continue to pay insurance on a vehicle that I seldom drive), I opted to take it off the road for good.

My plan is to disassemble the car piece-by-piece. Some parts I'll keep for other projects or souvenirs, but most I'll either sell them, give them away, recycle them, or — if need be — throw them away. I'd also like to maintain a blog of the process with an associated database, documenting each component part.

See, I'd like to get more experience with MySQL and this is the kind of project that has the ideal combination of sufficient complexity and low risk to conquer such an endeavor. Plus, I'd like to apply some of the things I learned from Chris Guillebeau's book, The Art of Nonconformity: 279 Days to Overnight Success … perhaps applying some of that to JayceLand someday.

But what to call it? I'll register a domain name for the project soon and I'm leaning toward something like "Goodbye Sassy" and specifically avoiding things that mention "Honda" or "Civic" in the title. So get out your creative fingers and drop a comment. With some pestering on your part, your comment makes you eligible for miscellaneous pieces and trinkets left over, or an invitation to the Airbag Detonation Experiment.

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Trying Out Zipcar

I borrowed a Zipcar with Ali and Christina today.

I heard about the program a couple years ago and was quite excited about it. In 2006, they introduced some cars at The University of Rochester (Elmwood Ave. at Intercampus Dr.) and I jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, it was only for people affiliated with the university. The other week I was listening to Car Talk and they mentioned Zipcar again so, on a whim, I checked out the site.

The cars were indeed still at the UofR and I clicked to join. This time, I got as far as the page where they asked for my credit card information and noted that I had not been asked about working for the UofR. I called and they confirmed that the program is now open to anyone so I finished signing up.

Zipcar is a car sharing program. It costs about $50/year to be part of the program. In Rochester, there are 5 cars (4 parked at the UofR river campus and the other parked at The Eastman School of Music (26 Gibbs St.)) Each one costs $7 per hour or $60 per day to use — insurance, gas, and 180 miles for each calendar date the car is reserved are included.

I decided to crunch some numbers to see if that's reasonable. I've owned my now-dying Civic for 15 years now. Figuring everything I spent on it, it's cost $0.26/mile for its 170,434 miles or about $3,000 per year. On average each year, it's been about $500 for gas, $500 for insurance, and $650 for repairs and service. However, I've changed my driving habits and last year I only drove about 4,000 miles, so that works out to an ongoing cost of about $0.41/mile. If I estimate an average of 40 miles/hour overall, I only drove the Civic for about 100 hours last year.

Taking the $1,650 annual cost against the $7/hour cost of Zipcar, that's about 235 hours; the daily rate works out to 27 days. In other words, if I get rid of the Civic altogether, I can break-even with Zipcar as long as I stay under 235 hours in a year. As I said, I changed my driving habits and try to do as much as I can by bike — or avoid trips altogether — so it doesn't seem particularly difficult.

The idea behind car sharing is that you don't need a car per se. Almost all the time it's just moving people from one place to another — you only really need a car if you're hauling things. Of course, if you have small children, it's much more convenient to have a car, but you might be able to get away with one car instead of two in a household.

So anyway, I tried it out. I reserved the Honda Element named "Eastman" for a couple hours. Since it's generally used by college students, it was … well … a lot like a college student's car: kind of a disgusting mess inside, what with a McDonald's bag, garbage, and food all over the place. I suspect it was as bad as it gets because nobody wanted to clean it all winter.

But overall it was a pretty easy process. In the future, I'll bike to the pick-up location rather than take the 20-minute walk and just lock my bike nearby for retrieval when I return the car. (That's another thing: you can't do one-way trips — you have to return the car from the place you found it when you're done.) For now I'll hold onto the Civic (and don't forget we also have the wagon) until it fails to pass inspection later this year.

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