kottke.org posts about Poptech 2006

PopTech, day 3 wrap-upOct 23 2006

Notes from day 3 at PopTech:

Chris Anderson talked about, ba ba baba!, not the long tail. Well, not explicitly. Chris charted how the availability of a surplus in transistors (processors are cheap), storage (hard drives are cheap), and surplus in bandwidth (DSL is cheap) has resulted in so much opportunity for innovation and new technology. His thoughts reminded me of how surplus space in Silicon Valley (in the form of garages) allowed startup entrepreneurs to pursue new ideas without having to procure expensive commercial office space.

Quick thought re: the long tail...if the power law arises from scarcity as Matt Webb says, then it would make sense that the surplus that Anderson refers to would be flattening that curve out a bit.

Roger Brent crammed a 60 minute talk into 20 minutes. It was about genetic engineering and completely baffling...almost a series of non sequiturs. "Centripital glue engine" was my favorite phrase of the talk, but I've got no idea what Brent meant by it.

Homaro Cantu gave a puzzling presentation of a typical meal at his Chicago restaurant, Moto. I've seen this presentation twice before and eaten at Moto; all three experiences were clear and focused on the food. This time around, Cantu didn't explain the food as well or why some of the inventions were so cool. His polymer box that cooks on the table is a genuinely fantastic idea, but I got the feeling that the rest of the audience didn't understand what it was. Cantu also reiterated his position on copyrighting and patenting his food and inventions. Meg caught him saying that he was trying to solve the famine problem with his edible paper, which statement revealed two problems: a) famines are generally caused by political issues and therefore not solvable by new kinds of food, printed or otherwise, and b) he could do more good if he open sourced his inventions and let anyone produce food or improve the techniques in those famine cases where food would be useful.

Richard Dawkins gave part of his PopTech talk (the "queerer than we can suppose" part of it) at TED in 2005 (video).

Bob Metcalfe's wrap-up of the conference was a lot less contentious than in past years; hardly any shouting and only one person stormed angrily out of the room. In reference to Hasan Elahi's situation, Bob said that there's a tension present in our privacy desires: "I want my privacy, but I need you to be transparent." Not a bad way of putting it.

Serena Koenig spoke about her work in Haiti with Partners in Health. Koening spoke of a guideline that PIH follows in providing healthcare: act as though each patient is a member of your own family. That sentiment was echoed by Zinhle Thabethe, who talked about her experience as an HIV+ woman living in South Africa, an area with substandard HIV/AIDS-related healthcare. Thabethe's powerful message: we need to treat everyone with HIV/AIDS the same, with great care. Sounds like the beginning of a new Golden Rule of Healthcare.

2.7 billion results for "blog" on Google. Blogs: bigger than Jesus.

Invention + artOct 22 2006

Photographer Clifford Ross shared his list of the necessary ingredients for invention and art at PopTech:

1. curiousity
2. persistence
3. ready to embrace the unexpected
4. ability and willingness to collaborate

Ross showed some rough results from his new pano-camera. I love Ross' Hurricane series:

Ross Waves

PopTech day 2 wrap-upOct 21 2006

Some notes from day 2 at PopTech, with a little backtracking into day 1 as well. In no particular order:

The upshot of Thomas Barnett's entertaining and provacative talk (or one of the the upshots, anyway): China is the new world power and needs a sidekick to help globalize the world. And like when the US was the rising power in the world and took the outgoing power, England, along for the ride so that, as Barnett put it, "England could fight above its weight", China could take the outgoing power (the US) along for the globalization ride. The US would provide the military force to strike initial blows and the Chinese would provide peacekeeping; Barnett argued that both capabilities are essential in a post-Cold War world.

Juan Enriquez talked about boundries...specifically if there will be more or less of them in the United States in the future. 45 states? 65 states? One thing that the US has to deal with is how we treat immigrants. Echoing William Gibson, Enriquez said "the words you use today will resonate through history for a long time". That is, if you don't let the Mexican immigrants in the US speak their own language, don't welcome their contributions to our society, and just generally make people feel unwelcome in the place where they live, it will come back to bite you in the ass (like, say, when southern California decides it would rather be a part of Mexico or its own nation).

Enriquez again, regarding our current income tax proclivities: "if we pay more and our children don't owe less, that's not taxes...it's just a long-term, high-interest loan".

Number of times ordained minister Martin Marty said "hell" during his presentation: 2. Number of times Marty said "goddamn": 1. Number of times uber-heathen Richard Dawkins said "hell", "goddamn", or any other blasphemous swear: 0.

Dawkins told the story of Kurt Wise, who took a scissors to the Bible and cut out every passage which was in discord with the theory of evolution, eventually ending up with a fragmented mess. Confronted with this crisis of faith and science, Wise renounced evolution and became a geologist who believes that the earth is only 6000 years old.

The story of Micah Garen's capture by Iraqi militants and Marie-Helene Carlton's efforts to get her boyfriend back home safely illustrates the power of the connected world. Marie-Helene and Micah's family used emails, mobile phones, and sat phones to reach out through their global social network, eventually reaching people in Iraq whom Micah's captors might listen to. A woman in the audience stood during the Q&A and related her story of her boyfriend being on a hijacked plane out of Athens in 1985 and how powerless she was to do anything in the age before mobiles, email, and sat phones. Today, Stanley Milgram might say, an Ayatollah is never more than 4 or 5 people away.

Lexicographer Erin McKean told us several interesting things about dictionaries, including that "lexicographer" can be found in even the smallest of dictionaries because, duh, look who's responsible for compiling the words in a dictionary. She called dictionaries the vodka of literature: a distillation of really meaty mixture of substances into something that odorless, tasteless, colorless, and yet very powerful. Here an interview with her and a video of a lecture she gave at Google.

Voting for the futureOct 20 2006

Juan Enriquez had a nice idea for rebalancing the priorities in the voting booth: proxy votes for parents of children under 18. That is, if my wife and I have two kids, the family gets four votes, not two. Juan's rationale for this plan is that the voting public is currently made up of a lot of baby boomers, who are going to begin to vote for things that benefit their age group, which can be thought of as an investment in the past. By voting on behalf of the 0-18 year-olds, the parents might support issues that benefit that age group (education, etc.) and invest in the future instead. Here's a quote from Juan in CIO Magazine:

Why not give parents of kids under 18 one proxy vote per child? Only then will there be a strong voting block to counter growing gray power. It is also time to quit spending more than we earn. And above all, it is time to realize just how fragile countries can be.

If you missed his talk on PopTech Live, the CIO article covers some of what he talked about.

Twisty TableOct 20 2006

One of the coolest little gadgets at PopTech is Onomy Labs' Twisty Table. This one is round and it's got a satellite map of the world projected on it. When you spin the table, the map zooms in and out and tilting the table scrolls it. Here's a photo of the table in action at Foo Camp.

Rodrigo y GabrielaOct 20 2006

A couple from Ireland (by way of Mexico), Rodrigo and Gabriela totally blew the audience away here at PopTech with their thrash metal-influenced Latin percussive acoustic guitar. I know that's not much to go on, but trust me on this one. Check out some of their stuff on YouTube and then buy their new CD. (Best part of their set: they threw in a little Enter Sandman by Metallica, which went over the head of everyone in the audience over 35, i.e. almost everyone.)

Time-lapse map of the Middle EastOct 20 2006

Check out the neat time-lapse map of who controlled the Middle East at Maps of War.

Hasan Elahi ran into some trouble withOct 20 2006

Hasan Elahi ran into some trouble with the FBI in 2002 (they thought he was a terrorist) and ever since, he's been voluntarily tracking his movements and putting the whole thing online: photos of meals, photos of toilets used, airports flown out of, credit card receipts, etc. His goal is to flood the market with information, so it devalues the information that the authorities have on him.

PopTech, day 1 wrap-upOct 20 2006

Since my internet access has been somewhat spotty at the conference (I'm trying to pay attention and power is hard to come by here so the laptop is closed most of the time), I'm going to do rolling wrap-ups as I go, skipping around and filling in the blanks when I can. Here we go, soundbite-style:

Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect...people use less energy when they're often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you'll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.

Bruce Sterling is the Jesse Jackson of technology. He has this cadence that he gets into, neologism after neologism, stopping just short of suggesting a new word for neologism. Wonderful to experience in person. Perhaps not as upbeat as the Reverend, though.

Bruce also related a story told to him by an engineering professor friend of his. The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the library...no internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and learning...no primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.

Kevin Kelly noted that the web currently has 1 trillion links, 1 quintillion transistors, and 20 exabytes of memory. A single human brain has 1 trillion synapses (links), 1 quintillion neurons (transistors of sorts), and 20 exabytes of memory.

Kelly also said that technology has its own agenda and went on to list what it is that technology might want. One of the things was clean water. You need clean water for industrial manufacturing...so water cleanliness is going to be a big deal in China. In a later talk, Thomas Friedman said, "China needs to go green."

Hasan Elahi, during his ordeal being mistaken for -- what's the term these days? -- an enemy combatant, learned that language translates easier than culture. That is, you can learn how to speak a language fluently way easier than to have the cultural fluency necessary to convince someone you're a native. In his interrogations, Hasan liberally sprinkled pop culture references in his answers to questions posed by the FBI to help convince them that he was a native. Workers at call centers in India for American companies are not only taught to speak English with an American accent, they also receive training in American geography, history, and pop culture so as to better fool/serve American callers.

"The best laid plans of mice and men turn into a nonlinear system." -- Will Wright, with apologies to Robert Burns.

Speaking of Wright, a couple of Spore trivia bits. The data for a creature in Spore takes up just 3K of memory. And entire world: just 80K. And these worlds are amazingly complex.

Brian Eno: With large groups of people, the sense of shame and the sense of honor that keeps the members of small groups from misbehaving breaks down. The challenge for larger groups is to find ways of making honor and shame matter in a similar respect.

Stewart Brand: "We are terraforming the earth anyway, we might as well do it right." Stewart also noted that cities are very effective population sinks. When people move to cities, the birthrate drops to the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) and keeps on dropping. Combine that with the fact that by early next year, more people in the world will live in cities than in rural areas, and at some point in the next hundred years, the earth's population will start to fall.

It's all in your headOct 19 2006

The Brian Eno/Will Wright session kicked things off quite well at PopTech. Lots of interesting stuff to say about this one, but I quickly wanted to highlight two things that Eno and Wright said independently in their presentations. Eno:

Art is created by artists so that the viewer has the opportunity to create something.

Later, Wright said in relation to games:

The real game is constructed in the player's head.

Eno started his presentation by wondering about a overall system for describing culture, from high to low. He and Wright may be onto something here in that respect.

77 Million Paintings, a generative artwork by BrianOct 19 2006

77 Million Paintings, a generative artwork by Brian Eno. "Work that continues to create itself in your absence."

Netlag: infovisualization of the world made ofOct 19 2006

Netlag: infovisualization of the world made of exterior web cams over time. So as the day goes on, you can see Europe light up, then the eastern seaboard of the US, then the western US, and so on.

Steven Reich to Brian Eno to Cory ArcangelOct 19 2006

Onstage at PopTech just now, Brian Eno said that a musical piece by Steven Reich had a huge influence on how he thought about art. He said that Reich's piece showed him that:

1. You don't need much.
2. The composer's role is to set up a system and then let it go.
3. The true composer is actually in the listener's brain.

I'd never heard of Reich, but the name sounded familiar when Eno mentioned it. I realized I'd seen it yesterday when reading about Cory Arcangel's show at Team Gallery in reference to his piece, Sweet 16:

Cory applied American avant-garde composer Steven Reich's concept of phasing to the guitar intro of Guns and Roses' track Sweet Child O'Mine. Rather than use instruments, Cory took the same two clips from the song's music video and shortened one clip by a single note. As the videos loop, the two intros grow farther apart until they are back in sync.

He's veered away from video games, but Cory's new work is looking really interesting these days.

PopTech 2006Oct 17 2006

Postings around here may get a little sporadic because I'm heading up to attend the PopTech conference in Maine. PopTech is near the top of the heap of all the conferences I've attended and I'm really looking forward to this year's event, especially since I didn't get to go last year. Speakers include Thomas Barnett, Richard Dawkins, Homaro Cantu, Juan Enriquez, Stewart Brand, Thomas Friedman, Will Wright, and Ze Frank, as well as the sleepers that I've never heard of that inevitably knock everyone's socks off.

If you didn't get yourself in gear to make it to PopTech this year, no need for despair. For the first time, they're broadcasting the whole thing, live and for free. I will also be doing some blogging from the audience (as will others, I imagine), so stay tuned for that as well.

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