PopTech Blog

Image-wise: The Earth is lumpy...and made of clay?

A model of Earth's gravity field made with data from ESA's GOCE satellite.

It may look like a mangled lump of Play-Doh, but this colorful object is actually the most accurate digital model yet of Earth's gravity field, scientists say.

via National Geographic


6 questions with...Jonathan Zawada

PopTech’s 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.

Over Time, the solo show of Australian-based artist Jonathan Zawada, recently closed at Prism Gallery in Los Angeles. A recent post on Triangulation described Zawada’s surprising process to create the large-scale landscape topographies he exhibited:

Zawada collected and compared a variety of data series that extrapolate information over time, such as “Marijuana usage among year 12 students vs. CD and Vinyl record sales between 1975 and 2000” or “Value of land per square meter in Second Life vs. Value of land per square foot in Dubai between 2007 and 2009.” The data is then manipulated through a 3D fractal program and the resulting environment becomes a virtual abstraction that mimics a mountainous landscape.

PopTech highlighted a piece from the show on our Tumblr recently, but we were interested to hear more about what informs Zawada's work. 

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work with Over Time relevant at this point in time?
I hope to at least be able to contribute to the artistic reflection of the impact that new technologies are having on how we construct our reality in our day-to-day lives. Over Time is really a part of my continued exploration of how to be able to create artifacts from my transient and ephemeral digital experiences. It feels relevant now precisely because of how unnoticeably this technology has ingrained itself in our lives.

Where is Ai Weiwei?

Ai Weiwei interviewed by "Never Sorry" director Alison Klayman
After a series of public clashes with the Chinese government, China's art superstar Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport on April 3 and has gone missing since. Alison Klayman, a documentary filmmaker who's followed Ai Weiwei from 2008-2010 for the upcoming film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, expressed her concern about his whereabouts. She shared her thoughts about his detainment, his role in promoting free speech, the intersection between his art and social media, and the recently accelerated crackdown by the Chinese government on dissidents in a Huffington Post article this past Monday.

The speed and efficiency of the information network that came together around Ai Weiwei's detention and studio raid is a testament to how Ai and his followers have created an online space for free speech in their society. Transparency is a deeply personal value for Weiwei, and he and his staff have meticulously recorded the past several years of his life on film, in audio files, and on his Twitter feed (@aiww). The record is there for anyone who is interested.

Ai Weiwei is not a criminal. He is an outspoken proponent of free speech, human rights, and transparency in China's government and judicial system. Ai has violated no law. On the contrary, he has been scrupulous about working through and in accord with the Chinese legal system. His detention, then, seems to be without cause -- a violation of Weiwei's human rights and the rights guaranteed him by the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, especially Articles 35 and 37.

This highly coordinated crackdown on Ai Weiwei is just one in a rash of dissident detentions in the wake of the "jasmine revolution." Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, recently told the Washington Post: "This is not a crackdown in the classic cycle of tightening and loosening. This is an effort by the government to redraw the lines of permissible expression in China, to restrict the most outspoken advocates of global values."


Tom Darden: Making it right after everything’s gone wrong

Rebuilding efforts are underway after the 9.0 earthquake the rocked Japan in March caused tremendous damage.  But as we’ve learned by now, the destruction and loss of life could have been far greater without Japan’s stringent building codes. There’s a lot to be learned from its approach.

Especially because, in our own backyard, we’re still rebuilding from the catastrophic damage that Hurricane Katrina ravaged in New Orleans over five years ago.  But we are making strides. 

One indicator of that progress is the Make It Right Foundation, founded by Brad Pitt and led by Executive Director Tom Darden. Building houses in the Ninth Ward that are generally smarter and better - i.e., that can withstand another flood, that are built with sustainable materials, and that are cost-effective to construct and maintain - are the primary goals of Make It Right.  Or as Tom Darden put it:

We had to build houses that were safe, affordable, green, adaptive, durable, designed by award-winning architects, designed around the residents’ needs…did I mention affordable?…and with absolutely no compromises.


Flashback: Ivan Marovic

With the ongoing uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Bahrain on our minds, here's one way to process the tumult: using nonviolent strategies through video games. PopTech 2005 presenter and Serbian activist Ivan Marovic shared his story, which is one that still resonates six years later, of his involvement with the uprising that overthrew Slobodan Milosovic and the video game that followed. Entitled A Force More Powerful, players can practice scenarios like battling corruption, fighting discrimination against women, or overthrowing dictators.

Festo's fantastic flying feats

If you happen to be in Hanover, Germany at the Hanover Messe industrial fair through April 8, you might want to swing by the booth of PopTech 2008 presenter Festo to see their latest innovation, the SmartBird. You'll have a chance to see the nature-inspired technologies they've been developing and "the secret of birds' flight decoded."  Festo describes the project:

SmartBird is an ultralight but powerful flight model with excellent aerodynamic qualities and extreme agility. With SmartBird, Festo has succeeded in deciphering the flight of birds - one of the oldest dreams of humankind. This bionic technology-bearer, which is inspired by the herring gull, can start, fly and land autonomously -- with no additional drive mechanism.

If you're not able to pop over to Hanover for the fair, have a look at their video, which explains the SmartBird project in more detail.


Ecomaterials Lab: Creating plastics from chicken feathers

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

Ecomaterials Lab participant and textile chemical engineer Yiqi Yang of the University of Nebraska recently presented a study to the American Chemical Society that described the creation of a new type of plastic polymer comprised of over 50% discarded chicken feather fibers.

This breakthrough has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of petroleum used in the creation of widely-used plastics such as polyethylene and polypropylene. And the process takes advantage of a ready source of waste as the U.S. produces 2-4 billion pounds of feathers per year.

"[Prior] technology uses keratin as an 'additive' to polyethylene and polypropylene. Our work turns feathers into something like polyethylene and polypropylene," Professor Yang told BBC News. "If used as composite materials, no polyethylene or polypropylene are needed. Therefore [the plastics] will be more degradable and more sustainable."

This week in PopTech: Behind the scenes, eco-apps and artificial leaves

New York Times by Nick Bilton

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.

  • On Thursday, Lead Technology Reporter for The New York Times “Bits” blog, Nick Bilton, (PopTech 2009) shared a behind the scenes glimpse of New York Times employees gathering to welcome home four reporters taken hostage in Libya last week.
  • Five years later, Ze Frank (PopTech 2004, 2005) is offering commentary on each episode of his popular video blog known as The Show. Follow along with The Show :: Replay
  • Earlier this week it was announced that researchers from MIT’s Nocera Lab, led by Dr. Daniel Nocera (PopTech 2009), have created an "artificial leaf." This advanced solar cell, which is the size of a playing card, mimics photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunlight and water into energy.

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: Nick Bilton

April Fools' Day special: Your mind's playing tricks on you

Watch this video and keep a silent count of the passes made by the people wearing white shirts. But did you see the gorilla? Did you notice that one person left the frame midway through the video?  How about the fact that the curtain changed color? Yes, your mind is playing tricks on you. "When we're not paying attention to something, it can be as though we're blind to it,"  explained psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chabris. To learn more about why our intuition fails us, watch his presentation at PopTech 2010.

For more mind trick videos appropriate for April Fools' Day, check out The Invisible Gorilla site. And for further details on illusions of memory, knowledge, and confidence, take a gander at The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, a book by Chris Chabris and his colleague Daniel Simon.

6 questions with...Ian Cheney

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.

“What do we lose when we lose the night?” was the question documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney wondered as he began trying to understand light pollution and its impact on individuals, society, wildlife, and the environment. In his film, The City Dark, Cheney interviews a neurologist, historian, astronomist, and criminologist among others to explore the implications of a world where the lights never completely turn off. In the trailer alone, you’ll be lulled by the serene images of night skies and schooled by the handheld shots of the documentary’s interview subjects, In our newest interview series, 6 questions with…, we asked Cheney a handful of questions, mostly about The City Dark, which premiered recently at SXSW.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Well, yesterday I was on a train to DC to show our short film Truck Farm at the Carnegie Institution of Science. I like working on trains, though; maybe the forward motion gives you the illusion of progress even when you're just daydreaming instead of working on some grant proposal or other.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
At first glance, The City Dark is a film about the scourge of light pollution: how excess artificial light causes ecological problems and energy waste, disrupts circadian rhythms, stymies astronomers, and so on. But on another level, it's also about the way in which we risk - as a modern, urban and digital culture - losing the subtler benefits of a connection to the greater universe. When we disconnect ourselves from nature, and from the stars, I think we lose a valuable context and perspective that helps keep us in check as a society. We run the risk of growing chronically short-sighted and self-centered — cultural character traits that lead us to treat our planet and fellow people rather poorly.

I think a lot of our social and environmental problems stem from our inability to understand our place in space. We live on a tiny planet in a sea of stars; we run the risk of squandering what few resources we've been allotted.