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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Election Day

So I decided to go vote. I'm not as well-versed in the candidates than I'd like, and I wasn't keen on the electronic machines, but I thought I'd go ahead anyway. We indeed have a new system in New York. Basically you fill out a bubble-sheet (color in circles on a sheet) to indicate your voting preference. Then you feed the machine into what I have described as the Ballot Disposal Unit™ — a device that supposedly scans your ballot to determine if it is readable, at which point it is dropped into a storage bin. I have no confidence that my vote was at all counted, and I had no opportunity to confirm that the machine read my choices as intended. I noticed that the machines had a number of simple seals on the door joints to indicate tampering, and some of them were removed or oddly placed.

According to my 2008 write-up, the scanning machines for the election this year are from Sequoia Voting Systems (221 Hopkins Ave., Jamestown) which is now warmly called Dominion Voting Systems, Incorporated. Originally, the machines were intended to display one's intended selections and allow confirmation.

I did a quick Google search for "electronic voting new york" and the titles for the top hits are as follows: "Rough start for electronic voting in New York – Los Angeles Times", "New York electronic voting machines experience problems – Boston.com", "Worries About E-Voting Persist As Primary Looms – City Limits …", "A Host of Monitors Will Watch the City's Electronic Voting‎ – New York Times", "New York Electronic Voting to Be Closely Watched – NYTimes.com", and "U.S. Bars Lab From Testing Electronic Voting – New York Times". Among the concerns of the experts from a sampling of these articles is the fact that up to 10 ballots can be successfully stuffed into the machine at the same time, and the exposed tamper seals can be cut leading to invalidation of all ballots inside. This is a comical joke — and at over $10,000 per machine, a blatant rip-off.

I'll reiterate my concerns from my older article: "what political parties does Sequoia make donations to? Who do they lobby in the Federal government? How much money do they spend on lobbying?" I'm assuming Jamestown is booming at this point, and maintenance fees alone will keep it a boom-town for some time.

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Electronic voting machines in Monroe County

I headed up to Medley Centre (N. Goodman St. and Medley Centre Pkwy., formerly Irondequoit Mall) to check out the new voting machines. The first unfortunate thing was that two of the three companies who were to demonstrate their machines were de-certified by The Monroe County Board of Elections (39 Main St. W., #106) yesterday (according to the buzz around the demonstration area, at least — certainly not because of an official announcement by the Board of Elections). The one that remained was made by Sequoia Voting Systems (221 Hopkins Ave., Jamestown).

The person giving the presentation tried to impress upon people the ease of use of the machine. Basically you cast your ballot on a paper ballot (filling in bubbles to indicate your choice). You then feed your ballot into a scanning machine which confirms that it read your choices correctly by displaying back your selections and allowing you to cast your ballot or to reject it — allowing you to fix any errors or to destroy the ballot and start over. Once your vote is cast using the machine, the ballot is digitally scanned then placed in a locked ballot box.

A second, related system allows a person unable to fill in circles on the ballot to use a computerized system to assist them in creating a paper ballot. Various accessible user-input devices are supposedly available to guide a voter to select candidates using visual and audio feedback.

The questions of the group that I was with had to do with assurance that their vote was counted properly. The representative pooh-poohed talk of "security" as a non-issue. I asked where I could see the schematics, engineering drawings, and source code and the representative said that they don't have them available at the time but that I could contact the Board of Elections.

I was glad to see a physical paper ballot system in place but I was concerned about the use of the machine as the source of the primary election totals. If it's true that the Board of Elections intends to use the counts attained by the machine as their first official count, then it would not be difficult to skew the results to favor one candidate or another by modifying the computer code. A manual recount, while thankfully possible under this system, would likely not uncover a problem in cases where two or more candidates were very close in vote totals.

I was very disappointed that the representatives on hand were strongly discouraging people from examining the voting machine on their own. I was told not to touch it, and that I should not be behind the machine. This implies to me that Sequoia has something to hide from the American people.

Sequoia provided information sheets that described the company's "lineage" back to Jacob Myers' United States Voting Machine Company founded in Jamestown in 1896. For anyone who has been with a company that changes names (to Automatic Voting Machine Corporation in 1925) or that has been purchased (by Sequoia Voting Systems in 1984), the concept of "retaining the values of the company" is worth about as much as the bytes to store it.

But let's get to the meat of it: what political parties does Sequoia make donations to? Who do they lobby in the Federal government? How much money do they spend on lobbying? These are the questions that define the values of a company, not its "lineage". And regardless, the mechanical, electrical, and programmatic design of the system should be open-source from the beginning. The idea that an "elite few" people in Sequoia are among those responsible enough to keep the secret data is a recipe for abuse.

And this is about our election system: the very foundation upon which we have a representative government. Once that system is overturned, we will be living in a dictatorship no better than any puppet democracy anywhere else in the world.

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