PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Fortune, genomes and tons of data

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.

  • When PopTech volunteer Brent Danley prompted his 12-year-old daughter Skye to choose one PopTech speaker who she'd like to meet, she picked 2010 presenter and 2009 Science Fellow Sarah Fortune. Danley, who met Fortune at those two previous PopTech conferences, scheduled a family field trip to Fortunes' lab at Harvard. Read more about their trip here
  • Erik Hersman (PopTech 2011) wrote a guest blog post on PBS' Idea Lab blog, explaining SwiftRiver, a free and open source intelligence platform that helps people curate and make sense of large amounts of information in a short period of time
  • Designer Nicholas Felton (PopTech 2009) was recently interviewed by Substratum and divulged how he became a designer/artist, how working in a community influences approach and how his design goals have changed over time. Previous interviews feature PopTech speakers Heather Knight (PopTech 2010) and Zach Lieberman (PopTech 2009). 
  • Using genomes as an archeological record, PopTech 2011 Science Fellow Pardis Sabeti studies the patterns of natural selection. Sabeti is currently leading development of a new massive scientific data-mining tool. 

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: SwiftRiver/Ushahidi

An update on A National Strategic Narrative

This article was written for PopTech by Captain Wayne Porter. It serves as an update on A National Strategic Narrative (pdf), authored by Captain Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby, which proposes that the United States must refocus its foreign policy priorities and invest less in overt militarization and more in education, development aid, and sustainability infrastructure. For more on A National Strategic Narrative, watch Porter and Mykleby's PopTech 2011 talk.  - Ed.

At the PopTech 2011 conference, Puck Mykleby and I were offered the extraordinary opportunity to share our perspective on America’s positive trajectory in the 21st century as reflected in our “National Strategic Narrative” [published online by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in April 2011].   The response we received was not only personally gratifying, it validated for us the willingness of American citizens to recognize that the world’s greatest challenges offer the greatest opportunities, that our values and hope trump fear and victimization, and that the antidotes for anxiety and decline are education, innovation, and hard work.

Puck and I have been asked many times since our presentation, by a wide variety of people, what they might do to play a more positive role in pursuing the sustainability of our national prosperity and security - at home and abroad - in a complex global environment.   We can’t pretend to have a formulaic response to that because the actions each person chooses to take are based upon what they feel most passionate about.

In the National Strategic Narrative we offer three priorities we believe are imperative for sustainable prosperity and security in this interconnected Age of Uncertainty: a commitment to improving the education of our youth; a broader understanding of “security” and the tools required to achieve that; and, the development of, and access to, renewable resources for a growing global population with dreams of a better future.  America has a leadership role to play in this new strategic environment, and that begins at home.  We’ve heard too much about blame and not enough about responsibility.  It’s time to focus less on entitlement, and more on enlightenment.  Read more...

The most, least, youngest, and first: PopTech 2011 superlatives!

It has been quite a year at PopTech - many firsts, mosts, leasts, and youngests graced the PopTech stage. So as 2011 draws to a closer, we wanted to bring to you our speaker superlative list from this past year's conference.

Least expected talk from two guys from the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Captain Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby: A Grand Strategy for the Nation

The youngest presenter to wow the PopTech audience with the Fibonacci sequence

Aidan Dwyer: Better Solar Designs

The most unusual way to use your body as a remote control

Desney Tan and Scott Saponas: Our Bodies as the Interface

The first head of state to take the PopTech stage

Ólafur Grímsson: Iceland Bounces Back

The best collaboration using kinetic sculpture and dance moves

Reuben Margolin and Gideon Obarzanek: A Meeting of the Minds

The most Wonder Woman-esque talk

Amy Cuddy: Power Poses

The most times the word TOASTER has ever been mentioned onstage

Thomas Thwaites: How I Built a Toaster

Favorite band to use an ass' jawbone as an instrument

David Wax Museum: Mexo-Americana Music

Shorts: Parazit on the fine line between comedy and tragedy

Saman Arbabi and Kambiz Hosseini's satirical television show, Parazit, broadcast on Voice of America, has become an international phenomenon, drawing more than 700,000 followers. The show uses the power of satire combined with content from citizens on the street to expose injustices happening across Iran.

"We just try to laugh and make people laugh at things that are absurd in a closed society that deals with absurdity every day, " says Hosseini in explaining how they put together each Parazit show. "Everything is to be made fun of anyway. Life's too short," Arbabi concludes in this PopTech short.

For more amusing banter about how the show came to fruition as well as its wide-reaching and dedicated viewership - despite censorship from the Iranian government - check out their stage talk from PopTech 2011.

This week in PopTech: Stories of health, language and living


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 2009 speaker Luis von Ahn invented ReCaptcha, a program that uses squiggly characters that humans easily decipher but blocks spambots – and helped digitize millions of old texts. The CMU professor has also made games like Duolingo, that let you learn a language for free, while simultaneously translating the Web. To learn French or Spanish sign up for the private beta, which just recently opened to the public.
  • If you're in New York, check out this very special production of PopTech 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Bryan Doerries' Theater of War with Tuesday's Children this Sunday, December 10th. 
  • What happens when ambitious and talented data scientists are connected with social organizations rife with data but lacking resources to do anything with it? PopTech 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Jake Porway’s Data Without Borders helps bring these two groups together, using data in the service of humanity to design transformative visualizations and decision-making tools. This week FastCo Exist examined a few examples of Data Without Borders at work.
  • Jonathan Harris (PopTech 2007) has announced the launch of Cowbird, a community of storytellers, focused on deeper, longer-lasting, more personal storytelling than you're likely to find anywhere else on the Web. Listen to Harris discuss Cowbird in this interview on PRI. 

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: Dualingo

Kids kicking the new science knowledge

kid dressed as a scientist

We love kids and we love science and we really, really love kids who love science. With all the sturm und drang about the dangers of the Internet and technology in general on young, impressionable minds, it's great to see technologies being developed that are teaching kids to be better observers of the natural world.

Presented at last year's PopTech was Yasser Ansari's Project Noah (Networked Organisms and Habitats). Project Noah allows you to record your sightings of plants, birds, insects and animals using your mobile device. You can make field notes, add pictures, and geo-locate where your sighting took place, giving other users and researchers important information while you're out enjoying a Sunday morning family hike. With new features launched earlier this year, the app allows you to earn retro-styled girl/boy scout-esque badges, lending it a nice gaming component while creating an army of young citizen scientists.

Another cool app for little nature lovers is Leaf Snap, which does something similar but specifically for trees and plants. And a new app called KidScience is being developed by Liz Heineke, who runs the kid-friendly site Kitchen Pantry Scientist. This app will allow you to search for age- and materials-appropriate science experiments that you can perform using common household products. 


Patrick Tresset and Frederic Fol Leymarie: The human touch of a robot's hand

Artistic expression, computational rendering – or perhaps a little bit of both? That’s what we’re left to ponder upon seeing the process and resulting images created by Patrick Tresset and Frederic Fol Leymarie’s AIKON. The robotic arm they’ve invented reinterprets human faces to create portraits, or “facial representations” as Patrick Tresset prefers to refer to the resulting images. Combining computer vision with personal robotics, the AIKON attempts to mimic the cognition we use when we draw and the sketching performed by the human hand.

Watch the AIKON robot arm sketching portraits at PopTech:

To learn more about how the AIKON was dreamt up, check out Tresset and Leymarie’s PopTech stage talk.

And to see the AIKON’s completed masterpieces, have a look at these drawings of PopTech 2011 attendees. Do you recoginize anyone?

Interview: Cheryl Heller on SVA's new Design for Social Innovation MFA

PopTech Board Chair Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of a new MFA program, Design for Social Innovation, at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As the founder of Heller Communications, she’s been working at the intersection of design, communication, social change, sustainability, and business strategy for years and now, at SVA, she has an opportunity to transfer her knowledge to a student body with a growing interest around those same topics. Since the program is just getting underway and applications are still being accepted for the program's first year, we wanted to check in with Heller to learn more about why this program is being sought after right now.

PopTech: Why do you think there’s a desire for SVA’s Design for Social Innovation Masters of Fine Art program at this very moment? What’s happening to fuel that need or interest?
Cheryl Heller: We’re witnessing a global movement in social innovation – encompassing a broad spectrum of industries, social and business strata, generations and geographies. If you think about it, everyone who wants to create change, whether they know it or not, will need to design it. We’re offering people a path to learning to design positive change intentionally and sustainably and they are hearing it.

What are a few examples of where you hope students will land after going through the Design for Social Innovation program?
The most obvious places are inside corporations or business or design consultancies, working as or with entrepreneurs and with NGOs. But we are finding opportunities showing up in places where they didn’t exist before - with government agencies or community organizations. All these organizations have come to realize that they can’t succeed without including the needs of society and the environment in their future; that change will happen whether they’re ready for it or not, so they might as well design it.


Roberth Neuwirth: When the free market and the flea market collide

If you happen to be in London tomorrow, December 6, try to catch author, journalist and PopTech presenter (2005, 2011) Robert Neuwirth and his talk on Adapting to an Urban Future at the Royal Geographical Society.

And if you can’t make it, consider checking out his recent stage talk at PopTech that came on the heels of his recently published book, The Stealth of Nations: The rise of the informal economy, an examination of the often hidden world of the informal economy, or System D as French culture classifies it, around the world.

With 1.8 billion people, or half the working people of the world, involved in this system that has a combined value of $10 trillion, the “United Street Sellers Republic” or “Bazaaristan” as Neuwirth refers to it, is the second largest economy in the world. It will soon rival the largest, the United States, since by 2020, it will include 2/3 of the working people of the world.

As global businesses find their home in slums, shopping malls set up shop in squatter communities, and stores can be managed from small boats and makeshift stands, we’re seeing an informal, D.I.Y. economy that’s growing faster than the formal economy. The flea market is becoming the free market as Neuwirth explained:

We can emulate the flea market and the philosophy of the flea market…There are a lot of ways of adjusting the frame to accept that we have this vast economic system that is keeping half the workers of the world alive and employed and growing and we have to figure out how to work within it.

Why neuroscience may help save the oceans

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols believes we’re psychologically tethered to our primordial home, the ocean. Sound far-fetched? Then think for a moment about how you feel when you’re standing on a beach, looking out at the seemingly endless blue horizon, or when you pick up a seashell and “listen” to the sound of waves crashing ashore. There’s something about it, isn’t there? Nichols has termed this feeling "blue mind," he explained in a recent interview published in OnEarth, and he's enlisted the help of neuroscientists to study it.

Twice in the past year – once in June, then again a few weeks ago – he gathered those researchers, as well as environmentalists, conservation scientists and artists together, in California, at the BLUEMiND Summit, to start exploring this connection. Nichols said in the interview:

Sound, for example, affects our brain and influences our emotions. If I ask you to close your eyes and turn on a recording of the ocean, I can change your mood immediately. There’s a huge body of research on the science of music and the brain, but almost nothing on the sound of the ocean and the brain. That’s probably going to be the first study that comes out of the Blue Mind Summit....

His interest in the way our brains respond to the deep blue sea isn’t merely academic. He sees it as the foundation for a new kind of response to the environmental crisis facing the oceans: NeuroConservation. This 21st-century form of conservation would harness new discoveries about the brain and behavior, courtesy of advances in cognitive neuroscience, to help people become better environmental stewards. “Without a deeper understanding of our brains, we’re not going to ‘think our way out’ of the current biospheric crisis,” Nichols writes at Mindandocean.org.