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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Let's Talk Cycling

I went to Brighton Town Hall (2300 Elmwood Ave.) for the Let's Talk Cycling discussion. It turned out to be the featured lecture at The Rochester Regional Group of the Sierra Club meeting that night. After some Sierra Club business, Jean M. Triest was introduced. She's a Traffic Safety Specialist at The Monroe County Department of Public Safety. As a reasonably well-seasoned cyclist, her talk was a bit on the basic side for me — bikes need brakes, reflectors, a bell, and a headlight and taillight for night; bicyclists are recognized as legal drivers; ride in the same direction as traffic; use hand signals; obey traffic-control devices; be visible; be predictable; etc.

She cited a study from The League of American Bicyclists that examined the causes of bicycle accidents. She started out with some myths and the first was surprising: "traffic passing from the rear is the biggest risk to a bicyclist" is a myth. In a chart she showed me afterward, when comparing types of accidents with bicyclists, getting hit from the rear is the least likely kind of accident. The most likely cause of accidents — 25% — was riding in the wrong direction. Poor lighting is another problem cited (and cited separately from rear-end collisions).

I was getting kind of jaded about the whole thing.  For the question in my mind was, "if I do all this stuff, how much can I reduce my risk?"  As best I could tell from anecdotal experience, even if I'm a perfect cyclist, my odds are not that much better than if I was not that good.

I decided to dig around a bit and found the Crash-Type Manual for Bicyclists by Carol Tan and The University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center [although the information resides at The Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.] It's a detailed summary of a study (although inconveniently stored in 73 separate PDF files) on the underlying causes of bicycle accidents. Indeed accidents from the rear are comparatively rare (less than 3%), much more likely on roads higher than 60 KPH (37 MPH), and much more likely in unlit areas at night.

In perusing the data, I noted that by using the same techniques to avoid an accident while driving an automobile, I can avoid the vast majority of the accident types between a bicycle and a car. From there, I can further reduce my risk by being seen: in cases where the bicyclist was otherwise not doing anything out of the ordinary, most of the accidents could be attributed to the driver not seeing the cyclist. It's rather obvious to say this, but most drivers don't want to get into an accident, even with a cyclist — and it's clear from watching a busy roadway that they're generally excellent at not colliding with stuff.

And much of the advice Triest gave was along the same lines: be seen, behave like a car, and don't not behave like a car — stand your ground. By following this advice, it's unlikely you'll ever be in an accident on a bicycle, at least with a car. And if you do get into such an accident, it can be traced to not following that advice.

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