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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Watching Ghost Bird at the Dryden

I was curious (especially after reading Dayna Papaleo's positive review in The City Newspaper) and headed to George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Ghost Bird.

The film lays out a tale of hope and skepticism. The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, but logging of its natural habitat in the southeastern United States, and (to a lesser extent) hunting resulted in its extinction. Declaring something "extinct" is a fickle thing because something is only extinct until one is seen again. And that's what happened … sort of, anyway. A bird watcher managed to barely catch a few frames of video of a large woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp that was thought to be an ivory-billed. Years of searching yielded no conclusive evidence (nor any tangential evidence like the tell-tale large nesting holes). Further muddying the search was that pileated woodpeckers — common in that area — could be almost as large and (to all but the best-trained eyes) look a lot like the ivory-billed.

As such, it's more a documentary about the complicated interplay between science, money, and hope. True scientific research (that is, research that does not have a specific economic or ideological goal) seeks the truth. But as researchers rely on money and jobs as much as anyone else, this creates pressure to conduct research that gets research dollars rather than what should be done next (in an interview with director Scott Crocker by Ben Radford, Crocker relays (sans formal attribution) that the "process of acquiring funding for research [is] akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall: whatever project sticks gets the green light. This 'stickiness factor' of proposals is often determined by very unscientific agendas having more to do with commercial and public relation interests.") And then there's the hope — against all odds — that humans did not actually wipe out a species.

As a believer in scientific research, I was rather shaken to learn that a pair of scientists had their paper silenced because it called into doubt the video depicted an ivory-billed woodpecker. I firmly believed that science was immutable to outside forces — that reasoned dissent was so integral to science that it could not be bribed away. Finding that I'm wrong breaks a few of the fundamental rules I had about what to believe.

I had relied on peer-reviewed and approved studies as the gold standard. But that assumed the review process was open and any rigorous argument would be published for review. And so (as I did a couple weeks ago) I'll revisit global warming and specifically whether it's significantly caused by humans. I understood that the self-perpetuating nature of research funding meant that (at least today) research projects whose thesis supported human-caused global-warming theory would be more strongly funded through traditional means of government and educational institutions. However, other wealthy interests were equally providing funding to discredit the theory: petroleum companies in particular would derive great benefit if global warming were not caused by man, so I had a high level of confidence in human-caused global-warming because of that balance.

Alas, the publishers of reviews are biased. So given that new information, where do I turn? Unfortunately I'm cornered into the milquetoast "the results are inconclusive." In other words, if I can find a rationale for significant bias, I can only ascertain that I can't confirm or deny the claims made as a result.

So let me formally split global warming. I don't think there is significant bias in the study of global temperatures, so based on research I've seen, the global average surface temperature is increasing. But as for the human influence on that warming trend, because of the bias from political, social, and economic forces, I cannot determine a reliable source. That said, I have yet to see where the addition of car exhaust, tires, garbage, or pollution has improved a natural habitat, so I'll continue to work to reduce my ecological impact.

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Thoughts on Complicated Issues

Dealing with complicated issues is a complicated issue. I find that it is impossible for a non-expert to rationally debate a complicated issue. Instead, it all comes down to belief.

Take global warming, for instance. There are people in the world who have spent their lives studying this: climatologists. As scientists (the real climatologists anyway) they posit a theory, test it against empirical evidence, publish the results, and let their peers (other real climatologists) analyze, critique, and collectively approve or reject it. The Wikipedia article references a separate page that cites hundreds of scientific organizations who collectively agree that the world is warming overall, the climatological system is changing, and that these changes are attributable to human activities. More conclusive, though, is that aside from four groups who stand by non-committal statements, "no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion" (the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who updated their stance in 2007 with a non-committal statement.)

However, I am not a climatologist by any means. As such, I'm left to judge by belief alone: I believe that climatologists have studied this issue and agreed that humans are causing climate change, and that these climatologists do not have sufficient ulterior motives to lie. I don't think it's possible to predict exactly how these changes will manifest themselves, but as a believer that humans are well-suited to the current climatological situation, I can't see any change being likely to give advantage to us — almost all climatological changes will be unpleasant to our situation.

Some people choose instead to believe what they hear through the media, or from someone they respect (regardless of their true expertise as a climatologist), or from a celebrity or public figure, or from their personal experience, or from their non-climatological-expert analysis. Some believe much more strongly in the predictions than the assessment. But in all those differences, people are trying to debate with insufficient information. Belief is irrational and can't be debated: all that can be done is to explain one's rationale and listen to another's rationale and decide for yourself whether you want to change your mind.

Health care, on the other hand, has three sets of experts: one for the health facet, one for the money facet, and one for the moral facet: I have not encountered rigorous scientific analysis from any group, nor on the system as a whole. Doctors (while their medical practice is scientifically based) can only say that most people will live a comfortable life and may need temporary corrective care to maintain that, that any corrective effort is exponentially less severe the earlier it is started, and that a few people will require more constant care to permit a comfortable existence. Insurance companies and nations with nationalized health systems provide data indicating cost; as best I can tell, any system has approximately the same cost across its whole population. Finally, philosophers can provide the moral facet by asking, "is health valuable?" The answer transcends the other two groups as doctors' Hippocratic oath implicitly declares it so, and it is certainly a lucrative proposition as no parent would keep any wealth or a specific possession in preference to their child's life and health.

Without the benefit of a quality analysis, we are left to muddle through argument without full knowledge, again leaning on belief. Do we have more faith in government or corporations (as if they are different masters)? Should we help strangers? Will people we don't know exploit our generosity? Would we be willing to watch our own child die? Would we wish that on someone else?

My point of this exercise is to say that we all select where we get our knowledge and we use our beliefs to decide which knowledge informs our decisions. Implicit in that statement is my own belief that rational, reasoned discourse is the superior form of changing opinions.

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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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Rational Skepticism Without Condescension

On one of the discussion lists I subscribe to, there are frequent questions about "fringe science" — particularly involving energy, since the topic of discussion is "alternative energy". I have yet to receive a message that contained something both revolutionary in scale and backed by science (and likewise, seldom is a topic banal and poorly explained). An example is "eloptic energy" which describes some kind of field around all objects that can theoretically be tapped.

I have trouble describing it in any serious way. Its science begins by neglecting well-explored and well-understood properties of fields — basically that to get energy using a field, you have to put energy in. It's the way generators work (it's the combination of a magnet and a wire moving past one another). Another example might be to use the force of a river to do work by presenting resistance (like in the case of a water wheel). I guess the buzz around eloptic energy is that you don't need to add energy to get the energy out — analogous to working a water wheel while moving with the current of the river … a boat-mounted water wheel, if you will.

But even there, I take a condescending attitude that I can't seem to avoid. I shake my head and roll my eyes, frustrated that I must defend myself against lunacy with rational argument. This feeling of aggravation seems to come from two factors.

First is the misunderstanding or misapplication of science. The basics of the scientific method are to conceive a theory, develop an experiment with measurable, repeatable results, and ascertain whether the experiment supports the theory; then repeat ad infinitum. Everything we claim to know in science is based on a chain of everything we figured out before. It seems that people who entertain pseudo-science theories believe that science is a bureaucratic ivory tower of knowledge sanctioned by self-proclaimed experts. Sometimes bureaucratic, ivory-tower, self-proclaimed experts try to sanction knowledge, but that is not science.

The other is the appropriation of words that have an established meaning to give the illusion of credibility. Words like "energy" have a specific, well-defined meaning, so to use them in relation to something else is nothing less than lying. One example was during a discussion of essential oils (not on the discussion list) where they used "megahertz" as a unit to quantify the relative power of the oils. It was frustrating that nobody else in the room wanted to ask what part of the oil was vibrating (as "megahertz" exclusively means "millions of times per second"), and if it was in the radio-frequency range like the speaker implied, could we tune in a radio to hear it?

Of course, as I wrote before, there is no way to discern an expert from a non-expert in a field that you are not familiar with. In the end, it comes down to whether you believe one person or another. And when it comes to belief, well, there's really no point in arguing.

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