PopTech Blog

6 questions with...Adam Harvey

PopTech’s new series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

We’re kicking off the series with Adam Harvey, a designer whose work focuses on computational design, human-computer interactions and dreaming up new ways to utilize technology. Harvey went through NYU’s ITP program where his thesis project, CV Dazzle, “a camouflage from computer vision,” uncovers ways to design make-up and style hair to defeat facial recognition software.  Named after a type of camouflage used in WWI, CV Dazzle can interfere with technologies on Facebook, Flickr, and Google’s Picassa that may compromise one’s privacy – while simultaneously providing an outlet to experiment with some fantastical hair and make-up styles.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Hopefully this fly on the wall is not spying on me because counter-surveillance is one of my areas of research. Though, for the past few months I’ve been working on a non-related project. It’s a stethoscope paired with sound recognition, kind of like Shazaam for your heart. If you were here, you probably would have seen me coding Java and drinking Bustello at my studio in the Navy Yard.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
One of my major influences is Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography. I own three copies. Not on purpose though. Two of them were gifts. In her work she dissects our relationship with photography and cameras. It’s an interesting topic that becomes more relevant with every camera sold. Photography has changed a lot since she wrote the book in 1977. Now, over 85% of millennials (age 18-29) own at least one digital camera. I own 14. London has over 500,000 within their ring of steel. As these numbers climb, we will need to learn how to adapt and understand this phenomenon.  I like to think of my work as a continuation of what she started several decades ago, an emerging critical discourse about photography and cameras.

Collaboration alert: Lincoln Schatz and CeaseFire work to cure violence

PopTech is known for bringing together innovators from its network to facilitate unlikely collaborations.  Such was the case when Lincoln Schatz, a video artist, met CeaseFire’s Executive Director, Gary Slutkin, at PopTech 2008. A year later at PopTech 2009, they announced their joint project, Cure Violence, which empowers communities to openly and safely discuss the causes – and more importantly, solutions – to violence.

Today, Schatz announced via email that the first chapter of Cure Violence: Portrait of an Epidemic could be viewed online.  He provided background about the project along with an explanation of his process:

I created Cure Violence: Portrait of an Epidemic in conjunction with CeaseFire, an Illinois nonprofit dedicated to working with community and government partners to reduce violence. Traveling through the greater Chicago area in 2009, including the neighborhoods most ridden with violence, I interviewed people from the CeaseFire network of violence interrupters, outreach workers, and community members. I processed the footage through my custom software to create a non-editorialized composite portrait of the complex landscape of violence. Cure Violence: Portrait of an Epidemic is intended increase awareness, incite social action, and provide a platform for discussion.

Stay tuned for more news about CeaseFire-related collaborations in the coming months!

Image-wise: Antarctica's blood red waterfall

This five-story, blood-red waterfall pours very slowly out of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys. When geologists first discovered the frozen waterfall in 1911, they thought the red color came from algae, but its true nature turned out to be much more spectacular.

Roughly two million years ago, the Taylor Glacier sealed beneath it a small body of water which contained an ancient community of microbes. Trapped below a thick layer of ice, they have remained there ever since, isolated inside a natural time capsule. Evolving independently of the rest of the living world, these microbes exist in a place with no light or free oxygen and little heat, and are essentially the definition of "primordial ooze." The trapped lake has very high salinity and is rich in iron, which gives the waterfall its red color. A fissure in the glacier allows the subglacial lake to flow out, forming the falls without contaminating the ecosystem within.

Full article and additional images can be found on Atlas Obscura.

Image: United States Antarctic Program Photo Library. (A tent can be seen in the lower left for size comparison.)

Flashback: Erin McKean and her words

Erin McKean spoke at PopTech in 2006 about words, dictionaries, grammar and all things in between. 

McKean's love of language continues today.  Her website, Wordnik, is a resource to better understand a word, check its spelling, hear a pronunciation, or express an opinion about that word. And more recently, she's become a regular contributor to the Boston Globe's The Word column where she tackles the pros and cons of language advice websites and considers the plural form for Toyota's Prius (Prii) among other etymological topics.

A look inside the financial diaries of $2 a day households with Daryl Collins

You earn money. You try to save some. You spend most of it. You attempt to stick to a budget. Rent, cell phone, heat and electricity, some groceries. Juggling your income and expenses is manageable, more or less. 

But what if you were living on $2 a day, as 40% of the world’s population does? How would you make ends meet then? Is managing money even an option? That’s what Daryl Collins set out to determine when she co-authored Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day.

The assumption may be that the poor have very little financial life, but when she and her colleagues started to interview low-income households in Bangledesh, India and South Africa every two weeks over the course of a year, they saw something different. From the financial diaries the 250 participants kept, a picture emerged of families with sophisticated financial lives, borrowing and saving as well as maintaining diverse “financial portfolios.”

For a peek inside some of these households’ financial diaries, check out Collins’ PopTech talk above.

Casey Dunn wins the Waterman, untangles DNA and promotes open science

Casey Dunn is a biologist who draws upon an eclectic set of interests. His lab at Brown University studies how evolution gave rise to the diversity of life.  In particular, he studies siphonophores, giant colonial, connected ‘superorganism’ jellyfish that are one of the longest animals in the world (they grow to be 100+ feet long in the open ocean).

Beyond siphonophores, Dunn’s invested in the future of scientific data sharing as well as makintg science accessible through storytelling. To that end, Dunn created CreatureCast, an online video series that feels like an episode of This American Life recorded in a biology lab.

Today, Dunn, a 2010 PopTech Science Fellow, was awarded the National Science Foundation's prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award, the United States’ highest scientific honor bestowed to a scientist 35 years or under. PopTech spoke with Dunn about the various projects he has his hands in right now.

PopTech: Your lab focuses on “learning about the actual history of life on Earth as well as the general properties of evolution that have contributed to these historical patterns,” which sounds pretty expansive. How do you approach that type of investigation?
Casey Dunn: A lot of what we’re doing is collecting rare, poorly known organisms and then using genomic tools to sequence lots of genes from them. Then we use that information to figure out how they’re related, which helps to reconstruct the history of the evolution of a variety of things.


Ecomaterials Lab: Gas from grass? Next-generation biofuels

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.


Instability in oil-producing countries like Libya has precipitated a sharp rise in oil prices. This means primarily two things: more pennies at the pump for gasoline, and an increase in cost on everything from bottled water to a loaf of bread.

Finding a way to make fuel out of anything other than petroleum has been a singular fascination for many scientists. Recently, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) have succeeded in producing isobutanol (a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol that can be burned in regular car engines) directly from cellulosic plant matter, such as corn stover and switchgrass, using bacteria. The breakthrough means that the formerly multi-stage process of converting biomass to fuel has been simplified to a single step; and that a cheap, eco-friendly alternative to corn ethanol is now within reach.

"Unlike ethanol, isobutanol can be blended at any ratio with gasoline and should eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles," said James Liao, chancellor's professor and vice chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and leader of the research team. "Plus, it may be possible to use isobutanol directly in current engines without modification." (via Gizmag)

Bringing this to scale will, of course, be no easy task. Fighting an entrenched petroleum economy and the heavily subsidized corn ethanol industry is more than daunting. However, such new technologies might be the best, and most environmentally sound, chance we have to combat runaway fuel costs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nancy Duarte: Presentations that transform audiences

Speaking in front of an audience can be hit-or-miss. Even if you have something amazing to say, if your on-stage presentation is weak or disorganized, you’re not going to move anyone, let alone keep people’s attention.  That’s where Nancy Duarte comes in. Presentation designer and CEO of Duarte Design, Duarte is a storyteller with an eye for clearly articulating a message and keeping an audience rapt. If you need any convincing, check out the slides she put together for the 2006 Oscar-wining documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

A Faculty Advisor at PopTech, Duarte, along with her team, have helped Social Innovation and Science Fellows put together powerful stage talks for PopTech’s annual conference for the past couple of years. She's also the author of a book on the same topic entitled Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences.

In this PopTech video, Duarte shares the patterns she’s seen emerge from performances, speeches and films that transform - and transfix - audiences. Referencing Martin Luther King Jr., Martha Graham, and Steve Jobs, Duarte explains, “The greatest communicators connect really empathetically with their audience.”

This week in PopTech: Everyone's at SXSW

SXSW 2011 by Peter Durand

There’s always something brewing in the PopTech community. In addition to PopTech’s Andrew Zolli who is speaking on a panel at SXSW, this week, quite a few people from our network are headed to Austin to participate in SXSW. A handful of their events, panels and, of course, parties follows.

  • Can you really do good for the world and make a profit at the same time? You bet. We’re thrilled to be one of the sponsors for The Good Capitalist Party on Saturday March 12. Here’s your chance to meet a diverse group of folks connected to the field of social entrepreneurship.
  • Musical comedian Reggie Watts (PopTech 2006, 2010) is featured in the film, “Tell Your Friends! The Concert Film!” a documentary about indie comedy scene’s rising stars, which will have its world premier on Thursday, March 17.

Have we missed someone? Let us know in the comments!

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Image: Peter Durand, who, as part of a group of graphic facilitators known as “Image Think,” will be creating live visuals of keynotes during SXSW.

Susan Casey talks tsunamis and the mysteries of wave science

In light of the recent 8.9 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and with tsunami warnings issued to 50 countries and territories, we’ve released Susan Casey’s enlightening PopTech 2010 talk about the history and implications of rogue waves. For three years, Casey studied this mysterious phenomenon, observing waves’ behavior, researching their history, and talking with people who spend their lives in the ocean.

For more on these ‘oceanic criminals,’ as she refers to them, check out Casey’s most recent book, The Wave: In the Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.