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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Vacation to Acadia National Park

In case you hadn't already noticed, there was no blog activity last week, and the events list might have been a little more erroneous than usual. The reason was that Ali and I left on July 18 and headed to my parents' house in Schenectady, my friends Jan and Shannon in New Hampshire, Acadia National Park (State Highway 3 and Paradise Hill Rd., Bar Harbor, ME) for 3 days, Ali's friend in Boston, a brief stop at my parents' again, and back home on the 25th.

Naturally, when we got to Schenectady, we got a late lunch/early dinner at Jumpin' Jack's Drive-In (5 Schonowee Ave., Scotia) for their highly prized fast food. Afterward, we took a drive out to Frosty Acres (150 Skyline Dr., Schenectady) which is a local campground that I've seen signs for since I was a kid. By the time we left, we dubbed it "Shady Acres" — not only was the site that was recommended for us to check out a mud pile (and $25 per night), the clientèle was a mix of people residing there and/or passing through with no other living options. In essence: a bit of a rough crowd. Topping it off was the strict, literal enforcement of the 51⁄2 mile-per-hour speed limit. We ended up staying on the land in back of my parents' house, giving us a chance to fully test the tent and its set-up and take-down.

On Sunday we left for New Hampshire; this time taking the Turnpike through Massachusetts and forgoing the scenic, slower, and shorter trip through Vermont and New Hampshire. We hung out with Jan and Shannon, and my friends John and Michelle visited from Boston as well. We stayed through Tuesday before heading out to Maine.

Despite the rain, we decided to continue with the plan of following scenic Route 1. We got off Route 95 (which I guess now is 295 as 95 is now the toll road once known as 495 … thanks, Maine) at Freeport. We stopped at Classic Custard (150 Lower Main St., Freeport, ME) and had a hearty snack before continuing into town to visit L. L. Bean (10 Depot St., Freeport, ME) … I mean, how can you not, especially on a camping trip? I can only assume that L. L. Bean was there first and the shopping nightmare of "outlet" stores cropped up sometime later, but at least their store was competent … in my opinion, not worth a trip out of your way, but if you're a fan, it's worth it to at least stop.

Anyway, travel was excruciatingly slow and Route 1 is not nearly as scenic as it implies. That said, it's far more interesting a drive than Rt. 95, but the time cost is pretty high. We arrived at Acadia National Park (State Highway 3 and Paradise Hill Rd., Bar Harbor, ME) around 8 p.m. in steady rain. We decided to sleep in the Roadmaster after putting the coolers outside. Ali also wanted to get some dinner more substantial than the snacks we had; she settled for cheese and wine. We also got a chance to check out a Ranger lecture on the geology of the area at the park's outdoor amphitheater, giving us a taste of just how engaging the park really is. The rain kept the crowd light and most of us joined the Ranger on the covered stage. The rain got heavier as we left and we were confined to the car for the night.

Wednesday proved to be much better. We got the tent set up and had breakfast at camp. We took the "free" [paid for by our $20 car fee and L. L. Bean; once again] shuttle from the campground to nearby Bar Harbor. We signed up to go to Baker Island on Friday through The Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. (1 West St., Bar Harbor, ME) — apparently a family of 12 lived on the remote island some considerable distance from shore during the 1800's. We stopped by Alone Moose (78 West St., Bar Harbor, ME) and chatted with the owner Sherry, stopping at the gallery upstairs, The Gallery Upstairs (78 West St., Bar Harbor, ME) to check out works by J. Stan Mason that greatly appealed to me.

Sherry recommended The West Street Cafe (76 West St., Bar Harbor, ME) which was excellent — and refreshingly inexpensive. I had the Cafe Special which was lobster and shrimp tossed with mushrooms over linguine; Ali had the lobster special which included a 1 pound lobster, clam chowder, and a slice of blueberry pie which we shared á la mode. Everything was excellent, and with 2 local beers, we barely cracked $50.

We headed back to our campsite then walked to Sand Beach — pretty much the only substantial traditional beach in Acadia, and a place where you can go swimming. The water temperature is claimed to be around 50°F, and I believe most adults (like Ali and I) experience pain from cold by letting the water wash over our feet. However, I couldn't resist playing in the ocean as it's so rare that we get there, so I used the technique the Ranger from last night suggested: run at full speed into the water. It turned out to be not as bad as first expected, and I stayed in for the better part of an hour; my body apparently adjusted much better to total immersion.

We used the park shuttle once more to get back to camp. I couldn't get much of a fire started, but neither could anybody as everything was so damp. We ended up eating what we could cook on the camp stove instead. I stayed up for a while trying, but I never could get the wood to stop boiling off water enough to ignite.

Thursday was also a nice day. We hiked up Beehive: one of the small mountains in the area, although much of the climb is quite steep. So much so, in fact, that iron rungs were installed to assist along the trail when it went vertical. The climb isn't all that high — only 500 feet or so — but it does yield a dramatic view of the coastline. There's also an easier trail that leads through the woods past Bowl Lake which was startlingly serene.

The park shuttles transfer at Bar Harbor's town square, so we spent some time once again there. We had another good meal at The Thirsty Whale Tavern (40 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, ME): I with a fish fry club sandwich (fried haddock, bacon, lettuce, tomato), and Ali with a lobster roll (big pieces of lobster held together with a bit of mayonnaise). We shopped for souvenirs and provisions: particularly, fire-starting sticks such that I might be able to get a fire going that would be capable of cooking something.

We decided to get ice cream and Ali joked that was going to get lobster ice cream so I said if they had it, she'd have to get it. As it turned out, Ben and Bills Chocolate Emporium (66 Main St., Bar Harbor, ME) had lobster ice cream and it wasn't all bad, although I let her off the hook and just forced her to taste it. We also stopped by The Bar Harbor Brewing Company (8 Mount Desert St., Bar Harbor, ME) which we'd had at the West Street Cafe and picked up a sampling of brews.

We got back later than we wanted, but still with plenty of daylight. I set to getting the fire started which went much better with the fire-starting sticks, but the wood was still too wet to yield good coals to cook over. We used it anyway, and had steak tips and corn for dinner along with some beer. We decided also to take down the tent as it was supposed to rain that night into Friday. And it did: starting around 2 a.m., waking us with its drumming on the roof of the car.

Friday was the day of the cruise to Baker Island, and we had set alarms to get up on time. No shuttles run that early, so we drove to Bar Harbor around 7 a.m., leaving the waterproof items behind for the time-being. We had a mediocre breakfast at Jordan's Restaurant (80 Cottage St., Bar Harbor, ME), forgetting that in most areas, diners are a "theme" restaurant and as such, expensive. Ali couldn't get over the fact that an unassuming vegetable-and-cheese omelette ran $11 … I almost had to take away her placemat menu! Further, the ship to the island was cancelled due to dangerously rough seas.

Instead, we decided to drive around the park loop. We drove up Cadillac Mountain — the highest peak on the Atlantic Coast north of Brazil — although it was essentially a steep grade in a blanket of fog and rain yielding a view of the sides, tops, and bottoms of clouds. We got back to camp and the rain had subsided as much as it was that day so we packed up and headed out.

We had our eyes out for those famous Maine blueberries. We stopped at a farm stand but the berries in the area were still too tart. Nonetheless, the guy also baked pies and had a blueberry one in the oven right then. Ali wanted it but I didn't want to wait for it to cool. After much disagreement, we finally decided to get it: as it turned out, it would cool fine in the car even if it wasn't perfectly level (it wasn't going to slop out as I thought). We made our way through Maine on I-95 (the new one, including the toll part) and hit Boston right at 5 p.m. The remaining 10 miles to Ali's friend's place took another hour and a half, but we ended up having a really nice time.

Saturday we got up and hit the road, stopping one last time to visit the ocean. We got to Schenectady by 4 p.m. and arrived at Ali's parent's at 8 p.m. to pick up our dog, Lucy. By 10 p.m. or so, we were all done and ready to take some time off to recuperate.

I was kind of expecting Acadia National Park to be like Stony Brook State Park (10820 State Route 36, Dansville), but alas, it's more like Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) — only smaller in size. It would probably take a month to hike all the trails, attend all the Ranger discussions, and otherwise sample the whole place; much longer to savor it; and much longer than that to know it. I greatly enjoyed the "fractal effect" — that you could look at a grand-scaled wonder, then at the lay of the land and its geological history, then at the vegetation and stones nearby, then at the individual plants and the details in the individual pieces of stone, then at the lichens and mosses and their diversity — each time, there is something interesting to catch your eye.

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Traveling through 7 states and one district

On Saturday the 5th, Ali and I got the station wagon packed up and we hit the road toward Pennsylvania. We stopped for a breakfast snack along the way and got a couple of the breakfast wraps from Subway. They were entirely awful and expensive relative to the modest amount of food and low quality. The bacon was chewy like a dog treat, the egg was flavorless, the cheese tasted fake, and the tomato pieces I got on mine had so much dye to make them red that a few drops stained my shirt. What a way to start the vacation, eh?

Fortunately we stopped for lunch at Selin's Grove Brewing Co. (121 North Market St., Selinsgrove, PA) for lunch. It was excellent. We had a buffet of assorted appetizers — all of which were coincidentally vegetarian. Next stop was American Vintage Bed and Breakfast (5740 Thompson Rd., Stewartstown, PA) where we were staying for the night. We planned to relax in the hot tub but ended up talking with the proprietor for a few hours instead on all sorts of things. It was great fun. We were in the area for Ali's niece's and nephew's Baptism and we went to her brother's house later on. We got back to the B&B late but got into the hot tub anyway and had a relaxing soak. I guess technically it's a "spa" which is different from a "hot tub" and different from a "Jacuzzi" — it had water jets and a pump but the water temperature could only go up to 104°F which was fine by me.

Sunday started with an excellent homemade breakfast at the B&B. Then it was off to the Baptism so we went to church for the morning service. It was a "progressive" church so they had a rock band that wasn't bad, although like every other Christian rock band I've ever seen, subtlety and metaphor apparently do not concern the songwriters. The service itself was pretty good although a bit light-handed when it came to encouraging people to be more like Jesus. We were all quite amused at the suggestion to embrace the Holy Spirit by "sucking face with Jesus". I guess it's not just Barack Obama's preacher who says some peculiar things.

Monday morning I managed to squeeze in a barefoot run around the neighborhood. It was hillier than where I usually run and I think that running down a hill is how I ended up with a blood blister on the ball of my right foot. Thankfully it didn't hurt much at all. Later that day we explored an antiques store in the nearby town and went to Brown's Orchards and Farm Market (8892 Susquehanna Trail South, Seven Valleys, PA) which is a neat, sizable farm market.

Tuesday we headed out from there and went to Washington D.C. to visit with my brother, Adam. He was still at work but set us up with parking at his apartment building. He suggested we check out Lindy's Red Lion (2040 I St. NW, Washington, DC) for lunch. We took the metro — the stop is a block away from Adam's apartment — to the Foggy Bottom stop near George Washington University Hospital (2300 I St. NW, Washington, DC). Lindy's had great food at cheap prices. I had their hamburger topped with with fried onions and ranch dressing … so good. From there we started walking.

We passed The White House (1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC) which I found to be a bit creepy because of the security — I had the feeling that everyone was treated like an enemy of the state. Maybe if it was guarded more like a national treasure than like a military compound then I'd think differently. In any case, we headed around the corner and got to the National Mall. Even though it was only an hour before closing, we decided to visit National Air and Space Museum (Independence Ave. SW at 6th St. SW, Washington, DC). There's a lot of cool stuff there — often with descriptions that are just as cheesily written as at any other museum — but the items are things like real moon rocks and actual airplanes.

We headed out from there and went to a few bars with Adam once he got out of work. First was The Big Hunt (1345 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC) which was having a chicken wing special. For some reason, D.C. chicken wings seem to be boiled or roasted and then covered in Red Hot … at least they weren't terrible, just unusual. I was amused at the menu because — along with all the other domestic beers — a Pabst Blue Ribbon was $4. Anyway, we stayed out late and headed back to Adam's to sleep.

We left around noon or so and decided to head back through Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to I-88 to get to my parents' house. The idea was to avoid rush-hour in New York and instead we got to Binghamton around 5 and as such, saw no appreciable increase in traffic. Ali finally got to eat at Jumpin' Jack's Drive-In (5 Schonowee Ave., Scotia) — a locally-run fast food joint that's a de facto Capital District landmark.

Thursday we got going around noon again and headed through Vermont and New Hampshire for a scenic tour to get to see Jan and Shannon in Dover, New Hampshire — right by the little bit of coastline that separates Maine from Massachusetts. Visiting them was the highlight of the trip — it really has been too long. We headed out to a fantastic dinner at The Dunaway Restaurant (66 Marcy St., Portsmouth, NH) that night before returning to go to bed.

Friday we got up and Jan gave us a tour of downtown Dover. A charming little town … although the New Hampshire political climate of "spend nothing, ever" showed. We went to Newick's Lobster House (431 Dover Point Rd., Dover, NH) for lunch. They serve some great seafood: they're right on the bay where it comes from. The place is also huge and looked like it could seat 500 people — and it apparently does quite often.

We left early on Saturday (well, around 9:30 anyway) and headed back through Massachusetts. We stopped by my parents' place one last time before finishing up the long haul back to Rochester. In all it was about 1,500 miles of driving (for the whole trip, silly).

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