PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Transitions, infographics and laughs

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • PopTech Social Innovation Fellow turned Fellows' faculty, Ken Banks, is handing over the day-to-day operations of FrontlineSMS, an organization he founded six-and-a-half years ago. Banks, who will continue on in his role as Chair of the Board, writes more about the transition on the FrontlineSMS blog.
  • A number of familiar faces have been included in an infographic chronology from PublicInterestDesign. They include D-Rev, a nonprofit tech incubator founded by Paul Polak (PopTech 2007) and currently run by 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Krista Donaldson, and Project H Design, an organization working to mobilize product design ingenuity for social good founded by 2009 Social Innovation Fellow Emily Pilloton.
  • Premiering tonight on IFC is Reggie Watts' (PopTech 2006, 2010, 2011) new show, Comedy Bang! Bang!, which he co-hosts with Scott Aukerman. The show "cleverly riffs on the well-known format of the late night talk show, infusing celebrity appearances and comedy sketches with a tinge of the surreal."

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: PublicInterestDesign.org

Soulful Kitchen: Jon Bon Jovi gives back to Jersey--and then some

Staff of Soul Kitchen

If you've ever wanted to break bread with Jon Bon Jovi, you can (at least in spirit). Bon Jovi's non-profit JBJ Soul Foundation opened Soul Kitchen in his home state of New Jersey, a "community kitchen" that provides fresh, organic meals to anyone in exchange for either cash or volunteer hours. Founded in 2009 as an effort to help the homeless in the area, the restaurant found a permanent location last fall. There are no prices on the menu; rather diners are encouraged to either donate what they can or do volunteer work in exchange for their meal.

That's not all Bon Jovi is doing to help the homeless. His JBJ Soul Foundation, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, recently launched the Project REACH (Real-time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless) Mobile App challenge, which invites the general public to come up with tech solutions to match homeless folks with services. The goal of the project is to create "a free, easy-to-use, and broadly accessible web and smartphone app to provide locality-based services available to the homeless, including shelters, health clinics, and food banks". The contest, hosted by Challenge.gov, was inspired when Bon Jovi and his staffers noticed a need for real-time information about local services for their homeless staff and patrons.

Earlier this week, Bon Jovi told the standing-room-only crowd at the Health Datapalooza conference in Washington, D.C. about the origins of the contest, and showcased five finalist apps from Project REACH. The winner will be determined at the end of the summer once the apps have been field tested with their intended audience. 

I'm impressed enough with what he's doing to help the homeless community that this former New Wave girl just may have just become a Jon Bon Jovi fan.

Image: JBJ Soul Kitchen

Transit of Venus on video

Venus passed in front of the sun yesterday. If you missed the Transit of Venus, and since it won't happen again for another hundred years:

The video above captures the historic event from more than 22,000 miles above our planet, taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory from geosynchronous orbit.

The high-above and high-definition view shows our sister planet Venus as it plunges just past the solar limb and crosses the sun’s face. The video is composed of a series of images stitched together to produce a sped-up version of the transit (which, in reality, took nearly seven hours). SDO took images in several different wavelengths, including extreme ultraviolet that shows the sun blazing with fierce magnetic field lines.

-- Wired Science

Staff picks: PopTech goes to Reykjavik


The PopTech Iceland conference is nearly upon us - a mere 21 days and counting! The PopTech staff has been compiling a hefty list of can’t-miss activities in and around Reykjavik. Whether it’s checking out a great museum or visiting one of Iceland’s natural wonders, we‘re looking forward to experiencing everything Iceland has to offer and immersing ourselves in its culture. What follows is an eclectic list of things that the PopTech staff is most excited about in the land of fire and ice.

Interested in joining us from June 27-29, 2012? There’s still time to register for PopTech Iceland. But we recommend you book your tickets soon, as June is a popular time to visit.

  • Stop by the oldest and largest bookseller in Iceland, Eymundsson. I’m a sucker for a good bookstore and Iceland is a nation that both consumes and publishes the most books per capita[1]. (Andy Dayton, Web Designer)
  • Admire Iceland’s beauty at Laugardalur (Hot Spring Valley), which boasts the largest year-round outdoor thermal pool in Reykjavik. Admission includes entry to a beautiful botanical garden. (Leetha Filderman, President)
  • Visit the Reykjavik Maritime Museum. Having grown up a sailor with an appreciation for traditional boat building, looking into the history of Iceland’s fishing industry and coastal culture is right up my alley. (Emily Qualey, Online Producer)
  • Taste Brennivin, considered to be Iceland’s signature liquor. It’s an intense drink, similar to brandy, which you can drink straight and cold. (Melissa LaCasse, Senior Producer, Convenings)

Science and Drama: Brian Greene at the World Science Festival


Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and co-founder of last week's World Science Festival, has been described by the Washington Post as the “single best explainer of abstruse ideas in the world today.” Greene's talent for using narrative to explain the complexities of physics was on display at two events bookending this year's festival — a performance of the stage adaptation of Brian Greene's book Icarus at the Edge of Time that opened the festival, and his dramatized lecture "Spooky Action: The Drama of Quantum Mechanics" on the last evening of the festival. 

Icarus at the Edge of Time, originally published by Knopf (2008), is a science fiction adaptation of the Greek myth of Icarus in which Daedalus escapes Crete with his son Icarus using wings built from feathers and wax, only to watch Icarus fly too close to the sun and plummet to the sea. Greene’s version of the myth substitutes spaceships for wax wings and a black hole for the sun. This year's adaptation of the book included a performance of the Phillip Glass-composed score by the Orchestra of St. Luke's, narration by LaVar Burton and a film created by British artists Al + Al.

Clearly intended for a younger crowd (much of the audience consisted of educators and elementary to high school-aged children), Greene made sure to point out an important modification from the Icarus myth. While it doesn't exactly have a happy ending, the protagonist's overreaching doesn't result in death but a challenging discovery: that circling the black hole's edge for what felt like minutes turned out to be 10,000 years. In addition to teaching some of the basic physics of black holes, the moral of Greene's adaptation of the myth was geared toward scientific discovery; not discouraging pushing the limits but simply cautioning against the potential consequences. Read more...

This week in PopTech: Marriage myths and why we lie

robot wedding

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • We kicked off the week with a great remix of Zee Avi’s (PopTech 2009) Concrete Wall. You're definitely going to want to add this one to your summer playlist.
  • In Why We LieDan Ariely (PopTech 2009) took "a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists." He found that, "in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little."
  • Stephanie Coontz (PopTech 2010, PopTech 2011) tackled five myths about marriage this week in the Washington Post. At PopTech 2010 Coontz shared that ironically, as marriage is becoming a more emotionally satisfying relationship, it is also becoming less stable as an institution.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Jenn and Tony Bot

Toward Resilience: Additional speakers announced for PopTech Iceland!


As final preparations for PopTech Iceland are underway, we’re thrilled to announce the next round of amazing people you’ll see on stage in Reykjavik.
From accurately predicting the collapse of financial bubbles to exploring the links between personal trauma and global leadership, the topic of resilience will be examined in all its various forms, energizing you with ideas that will change how you look at the world.

 And since we’ll be in Iceland during the midnight sun, bright summer nights will complement stimulating days filled with compelling presentations and engaging discussions. Check out our conference schedule and join us June 27-29 as we explore Iceland’s natural beauty during this special time of year.  

Looking to explore Iceland further? Independently operated excursions will take place on Saturday, June 30 and carry an additional charge.

Please meet the newly announced speakers for PopTech Iceland:

  • Jason Hackenwerth’s large-scale installations made with latex balloons have been shown in solo and group exhibitions throughout the United States and abroad.
  • Tim Harford is a senior columnist for the Financial Times, a presenter for the BBC and the author most recently of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.
  • Alexi Murdoch is a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter whose latest album Towards the Sun was released in 2011.
  • Didier Sornette is Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks in the Department of Management, Technology and Economics at ETH Zurich.  His research focuses on the prediction of crises and extreme events in complex systems, particularly around financial bubbles and crashes and the diagnostics of systemic instabilities.
  • Alyson Warhurst is CEO and founder of risk analysis and mapping company Maplecroft. Over the last 10 years, Warhurst has built Maplecroft into the leading source of extra-financial risk intelligence for the world’s largest multinational corporations, banks and asset managers, governments and NGOs.
  • Kári Stefánsson, M.D., Dr. Med. founded deCODE in August 1996 and is recognized as a leading figure in human genetics. He has shaped deCODE’s scientific approach and been actively engaged in leading its gene discovery work, serving as senior author on most of the company’s publications in major scientific journals.
  • Yossi Sheffi is the Elisha Gray II professor of Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he serves as Director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL). He is an expert in systems optimization, risk analysis and supply chain management, which are the subjects he researches and teaches at MIT, both at the MIT School of Engineering and at the Sloan School of Management.
  • Laurie Leitch, PhD has been a clinical trainer, researcher and organizational consultant for over 25 years. She has co-developed models of intervention that provide stabilization skills training in neuroscience-based trauma programs appropriate with complex trauma and for use with adults and children suffering from long-term and acute trauma as well as war-zone trauma.
  • Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, MD is a psychiatrist whose culminating military assignment involved serving as the Founding Director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) from 2007 to 2010.
  • Valgeir Sigurðsson is a composer, producer, engineer, musician and founder of Greenhouse Studios and the Bedroom Community record label, based in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Image-wise: Trees in silos photo meme

tree in silo

Nature is swift when it comes to reclaiming her space. An abandoned farmhouse is soon shot through with twisting vines and field grasses, asphalt can be split by a flower.

"Trees in Silos" is a photo meme that celebrates this reclamation in action. Click through to see the eerie and often beautiful shots as nature gently reminds us who's really in charge.

Image: Corey Wagehoft


Wednesday afternoon musical interlude: Zeb and Haniya

Take a moment out of your day and listen to some lovely tunes from Pakistani duo Zeb and Haniya, who performed at PopTech 2011. With musical inspiration ranging from the Delta blues to the quietest nighttime moments in Pakistan to Iranian refugee songs, the pair played a set that wooed the audience and showcased their wide-ranging talents and influences. If you can't get enough of their tunes from the PopTech stage, we also caught up with them playing music in the park in Camden, Maine. Enjoy!

Interview: Andrew Blum on Tubes, nodes and the Internet equivalent of iceberg lettuce

We can all joke about when former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens referred to the Internet as a "series of tubes," but what exactly is the physical infrastructure that enables us to carelessly surf the Web and stay connected? Fear not. With Andrew Blum's new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, which just came out today, we can get a better handle on just that. In our recent interview with Blum, our discussion touched on resilience, the theme of our 2012 conferences, as it relates to the fragility and robustness of this infrastructure we've grown to depend upon. We looked at the correlation between the physicality of the Web and access to broadband, a topic of PopTech's upcoming Lab. And Blum equated our limited network capabilities to, well, iceberg lettuce. Read on to learn more.

PopTech: What was the most unusual or unanticipated discovery you made while researching Tubes?
Andrew Blum: Undoubtedly it was how small the Internet is. I know that sounds strange -- we think of the Internet as infinite and ubiquitous. But it turns out that the Internet is very concentrated. There are just a handful of buildings that are vastly more important than all the rest. 

What does the fact that there’s this built, physical infrastructure say about the fragility (or robustness) of the system?
There are ways that this concentration actually makes it more robust. Of course the destruction, god forbid, of one of these mega-nodes would have a dramatic impact. But given how unlikely that is, the multitude of connections inside of them ensures that if one link fails, others will pick up the slack. These buildings are themselves big meshes, with many networks connecting to many other networks. But to do that -- and this is the crucial point -- all those networks have to be in the same physical place. I have to plug my router into yours.

What do you see as the main obstacles to ubiquitous broadband access in the U.S.? Does the physical infrastructure play a role? Is the network limited by the physical infrastructure?
We know so little about where our Internet comes from that we don't even know what our choices are. I compare it to the evolution of food in the last decade: at the moment, we're all eating the Internet equivalent of iceberg lettuce, without even knowing what else is out there. We haven't even begun to have a conversation about what's behind our connection, its politics and possibilities.  Read more...