PopTech Blog

Social Innovation Fellow spotlight: Jake Porway

Jake Porway

What if, instead of using data to figure out what movie to see, we used data to figure out what kind of world we wanted to see?

-- Social Innovation Fellow Jake Porway of Data Without Borders, which matches changemakers with numbers nerds to do good with data.

Image: Kris Krug

Interview: Alison Klayman on getting to know Ai Weiwei

Alison Klayman with Ai Weiwei

Alison Klayman is a freelance journalist and documentarian currently finishing a film about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai is one of China’s most well-known and controversial artists, and in recent years has produced a body of work that is often highly critical of the Chinese government. In April 2010, Ai Weiwei was detained by Chinese authorities and held for nearly three months with virtually no contact with the outside world — an event that spurred much international criticism directed at the Chinese government. Klayman’s documentary, titled Never Sorry, tracks Ai’s life and work during the period Klayman was in China between 2006-2010. Klayman plans to debut Never Sorry in 2012 on the international film festival circuit.

PopTech: When you began shooting Ai Weiwei, did you have a sense of how you wanted to tell his story?
Alison Klayman: I really wanted to do a good job of letting people get to know him as a person. Through him you get to know so much about where China’s been and where it’s going. For me, it was about how he was finding his ways to express himself and how other people in China were responding to it. So it was a story about the diversity of opinion in China. To take one person, get to know him on a human level, and through that, start to appreciate that China was not a monolithic place at all.

Can you describe some of the challenges you’ve encountered not only in conveying the obstacles that Ai Weiwei faced, but also portraying them as the story continues to evolve?
I was thinking: How do I convey to people who might not be familiar with the subtleties of how things work in China, what is subversive, what is dangerous? How do you show somebody at a computer and make it feel like — this is big, you know? Like he’s doing something intense.

At first, the Tate show was going to be my artificial end to the film because I thought that his story could go on forever. Then his studio was destroyed [by the Chinese government] and I thought the studio event is going to have to be this post-script.

Reuben Margolin & Gideon Obarzanek are Connected

Collaborators Reuben Margolin, a kinetic sculptor and Gideon Obarzanek, a choreographer, met at the 2009 PopTech conference. The two felt an instant kinship in what they were trying to achieve through their work.

Watch the making of their show "Connected"; the beautiful result when a sculpture is asked to dance.

Shorts: Dava Newman's streamlined flight suit

MIT aeronautics professor and engineer Dava Newman had a dream: that of a slimmed down astronaut. See the streamlined, mobility-enhancing "Bio-Suit" she created for protecting astronauts from atmospheres and healthcare workers from germs. Safer, sleeker and so fashionable it could make even Tim Gunn say "Bio-Suit, schmio suit -- I want it in tweed!"

Interview: Nobel Laureate Rajendra K. Pachauri

As chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri oversees an organization that synthesizes the work of hundreds of scientists into reports that drive global policy, negotiates agreement from the world’s governments, and puts a public face on the most pressing environmental issues of our time. He also serves as director general of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) in his native India, and as director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. And if that’s not enough, he has had to contend with a rising tide of climate denialism that has sought to undermine the IPCC’s reputation and confuse the public and its leadership, all at a time when the world needs to be advancing, rather than retracting, solutions to climate change. 

In 2007, in his Nobel acceptance speech, Pachauri concluded with the question, “Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear?” In an interview this week with PopTech, he talked about why he’s still optimistic that we will rise to the challenge.

PopTech: You’ve been the head of the IPCC since 2002. Is the discourse around climate change different today than it was 10 years ago?
Rajendra Pachauri: I would say the level of awareness is much higher. And I think people realize that the stakes are much higher today. 

Climate change denialism is still a problem, particularly in the U.S. How is the IPCC working to combat climate skeptics and those with vested interests?
We have been rather deficient in our ability to communicate our scientific messages to the public in the past. We’re trying to repair that, to the extent possible, but I have to admit that there’s only so much that we can do. Ultimately, it’s up to other organizations that pick up the scientific findings that we bring out to disseminate them to the public -- and that certainly includes the media.  

In the end, I think scientific reality will dawn on the consciousness of people all over the world. It’s just a matter of time. After all, if you go back in history, there is no area of scientific discovery where there wasn’t very intense questioning -- and often opposition --to what new knowledge brought out. And therefore climate change, which has major public policy and economic implications, is not going to be accepted unopposed. That’s something that we should have expected, and I think we just have to do our best as a scientific body.


Interview: Shima'a Helmy and the future of revolution

Shima'a Hilmay

If the iconic image of protest in the 60's is a hippie slipping a flower into a gun barrel, the image for this generation's protest may be a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab and holding up a cell phone.

Shima'a Helmy is one of the young Egyptians who led that country's uprising in January of 2011. Using social media, street canvassing and her own steely determination to change her country for the better, 21-year old Helmy forewent her studies to help galvanize a revolution. The rest is quite literally history. 

Now a full-time human rights activist, Helmy joined filmmakers and friends Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton onstage at PopTech to talk about their collaboration on an upcoming documentary film If. The film will explore what it's like being a young revolutionary through the eyes of four different Egyptian women (including Helmy), although as Garen states, their story is far from over. 

Helmy joined us for a talk in which she proves herself to be every bit as passionate as a clip from the upcoming film shows. 

PopTech: Can you speak to the dichotomy between being a devout Muslim and being an agent for change? How do these things influence each other, guide each other?
Shima'a Helmy: I think if you look deep inside the real essence of Islam, you'll see that it revolves around the fact that the Muslim is supposed to be a positive person in his or her society. They should help others, they should be cooperative, and they should try to be as positive as they can.

The situation in Egypt was against the real essence of Islam. You had corruption, you had social injustice, you had torture, you had everything against what a Muslim is supposed to be like and what the ideal of Islam is supposed to be. When I was growing up, I was trying to be a good Muslim at the same time as being a good citizen. You could say that being an active person is an essential part of being a Muslim. It’s the combination, and that following the guidelines of Islamic teachings is at the core of what people in the modern world are trying to do. All these concepts of democracy and human rights are actually found in Islam. It’s just that people don’t know. 

What did it feel like, that moment of decision for you, when you decided that you were going to get involved in the uprising?
I didn’t imagine something like this happening in Egypt. I didn’t believe in my country. I felt like I was just here for a particular period of time and then I was leaving forever. I was focusing on my studies, trying to study something very complex like biotechnology, only to distract myself from how terrible the situation in Egypt was. And then, when this whole thing started, I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate. But I went with my sister, and then when we saw people around, and we saw it’s not really that hard, as soon as you cross the line of fear it just happens.


Science Fellow spotlight: Iain Couzin

Iain Couzin, Science Fellow

Science Fellow Iain Couzin is striving to understand how and why animals coordinate their behavior: why fish swim in schools, caribou migrate in herds, birds fly in flocks and insects tend to swarm. Today, standing against a backdrop of photos from Mauritania, where he has been studying the swarming behavior of desert locusts, Couzin explained that despite 50 years of research, fighting locusts is still more of an art than a science. This is partly because scientists haven’t sought to understand locusts' collective behavior, until now.

Juvenile locusts are wingless and march in bands. In Couzin's lab, they'll march in circles for hours a day, a highly coordinated behavior. By focusing on local interactions between the locusts, as well as another insect, the Mormon cricket, Couzin and his collaborators have discovered that they march together not out of cooperation but out of self-interest.  “Locusts and crickets are not cooperating. They run out of protein and they run out of salt. They move to avoid getting cannibalized," he said. "The outcome is forced motion."

Couzin hopes to use this new-found understanding of the insects’ mass movements to help predict outbreaks and control pests, especially in places like Mauritania where plagues can devastate local economies. But their collective dynamics may also help him understand animal migration, the spread of disease and even climate change.

Images: Kris Krug for PopTech (photo); Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio (illustration)

Simon Hauger and The Workshop School

Simon Hauger, who presented at PopTech both last year and this year, began the Hybrid X Team at West Philadelphia High School 13 years ago to engage his students in math, science and engineering and help them apply the concepts they were learning in school. The students in this after-school program have won multiple national competitions with the hybrid vehicles they designed and built.

Hauger has now taken that experience and applied it to The Workshop School — a school for high school seniors that’s been established to challenge students to solve real-world problems.

Watch SImon Hauger talk with student Azeem Hill at PopTech 2010.

Bryan Doerries conducts the Theater of War

Bryan Doerries conducts the theater of war

Put war veterans, civilians, actors and a 2,000+ year-old play together in the same room and some powerful things happen. Bryan Doerries' Theater of War project does just that.

For an hour or so yesterday, PopTech attendees were transported to ancient Greece, where a wounded solidier is almost, but not quite, mortally injured in a cave where he has languished alone for nine years. For those unfamiliar with Sophocles' play Philoctetes -- the character of Philoctetes has been abandoned by his commander and fellow soldiers and left on the island to die. An unfortunate snake bite has him screaming in pain, fetid, rotting. His wound makes him difficult to be around and his leader sees him as a burden. In this shortened adaptation of the story, years later the commander orders a young soldier to return to the island and trick Philoctetes into relinquishing a bow that has been bestowed with special powers. Meeting Philoctetes, who is so grateful to see him after so much time alone and in pain, the young soldier is torn between his sense of duty and the bond he is forming with his new, albeit injured friend.   

a vet watches from the crowdThe play, written so long ago by Sophocles (who was himself a general) still resonates deeply today. After the performance, two young war veterans joined a VA psychologist on a panel to discuss their interpretation of the play and draw parallels to their own lives and work. The audience, which included invited local veterans and their family members, joined the conversation and collectively we explored the play's themes of isolation, pain and dignity.   

In the original version of the play, Philoctetes' primal screams go on for a full and uninterrupted twenty minutes. Our audience experienced a much shortener version of that re-enacted agony, but it still made a powerful point. In the same way the post-performance talk got us thinking, it was that scream that got us feeling.

From the play:

Poor man. I pity him:
 isolated and alone,
no one to nurse him,
he talks to himself,
sharing his body
with a brutal disease.
How does he do it?
The gods work well
when men suffer
endlessly and die.

Sophocles' Philoctetes
Translated by Bryan Doerries

Doerries refers to the isolation that many returning vets feel as "the wound that never heals". Both of the vets and the pyschologist on the panel spoke about dealing with this particular type of anguish. Only by feeling a connection with others does this pain begin to recede.

Doerries closed the session by reminding us that none of us are alone. We were brought together during the session through our shared conversation, and brought together across time through the immortal words of a soldier who has long since left the Earth.     

Images: Thatcher Cook for PopTech

Desney Tan & Scott Saponas: Your body is a wonder, man

Scott Saponas demos SkinputScott Saponas dazzled the crowd yesterday by playing Tetris with his arm. Correction: not with his arm, on his arm. "If you can play Tetris," joked Sapanas as he maneuvered the falling blocks simply by touching various parts of his arm, "You can pretty much do anything."

Saponas and his colleague Desney Tan both work at Microsoft Research. Their latest project, called Skinput, focuses on allowing richer, more natural ways of interacting with our ubiquitous technology devices. They envision a day when you can change your music, learn a language, even answer email using bioacoustics on the touch-sensitive surfaces of our bodies.

"The human body is an amazing playground of technology interface," says Tan. By interacting with computers in a more natural way, "you become the controller."