PopTech Blog

Built to fail: Heather Knight's Rube Goldberg infatuation

An element of chance and an air of tension draw Heather Knight and her colleagues at Syyn Labs to construct Rube Goldberg contraptions. PopTech followed Knight to get her take on the Rube Goldberg machine they created, mainly from knick-knacks found in antique shops around Camden, ME, to kick off PopTech 2010. And with bated breath, we watched the apparatus come to life – with a little help from some friends.

Syyn Labs, which Knight co-founded with six others in 2008, got its big break when they masterminded the Rube Goldberg device for OK Go’s music video, This Too Shall Pass. Since then, as profiled in Fast Company, the likes of Google, Disney, The Colbert Report, and Sears have come knocking, hiring the team to dream up more quirky projects and bringing greater visibility to this DIY collective.

But for Knight, who is working towards her PhD in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon, it all comes back to telling stories in an entertaining way, whether through engineered mousetraps or robotic theater. “I love using technology, whether it’s mechanical or electrical or interactive to capture an audience’s imagination.”

Visual mashup of PopTech 2010

Every year during the PopTech conference, Peter Durand can be seen in a loge box, furiously working above the PopTech stage. During that time he produces nearly three dozen illustrations of speakers. These aren’t just ordinary sketches, though; rather, he distills the essence of each talk and conveys its overarching themes at a glance.

We’re excited to announce a mashup of Durand’s illustrations with photos by Kris Krug. Have a look at this free PDF, a visual record of the curated sessions from PopTech 2010.

Here’s a peek inside:


This week in PopTech: Strong silk, moviemaking accolades, and cognitive toolkits

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.

  • 2009 PopTech Fellow Nigel Waller launched Movirtu to provide virtual mobile phone services for people earning less than two dollars a day. This week, Movirtu announced ManyME TM, a revolutionary service which enables users to manage multiple phone numbers on a single mobile device.
  • What’s stronger than steel? Spider silk. PopTech Ecomaterials Lab participant and molecular biologist Randolph Lewis and his mighty spider silk was featured this week as part of a four-part PBS series on NOVA called Making Stuff: Stronger. Watch the broadcast online here.
  • Congratulations to 2010 PopTech speaker Laura Poitras, who was named Outstanding Director for The Oath at the Cinema Eye Honors earlier this week. The Oath tells the story of Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and Salim Hamdan, a prisoner at Guantanamo facing war crime charges.

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

Image: I’ll Never Grow Up

Liberation, forgiveness, and friendship

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped. She went on to testify that Ronald Cotton was the man who attacked her and as a result, he was sentenced to life in prison. After eleven years of incarceration, DNA evidence exonerated Cotton of the crime. Two years after he was released, Thompson reached out to apologize. Not only did he forgive her, but Thompson and Cotton went on to write a memoir together about their experience, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.

77% of Americans have a close family member or friend who is gay. But s/he isn’t afforded the same rights as her/his straight counterparts. For example, it could take a decade or two before the gay community is on equal footing when it comes to social security benefits for one’s partner or hospital visitation rights. For 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Brian Elliot, that’s far too long to wait. To speed up the process, he’s founded Friendfactor, a social network to move the process forward based on the premise that change is more likely to occur when the focus is on supporting a gay friend rather than supporting gay rights.

This week in PopTech: Vertical farms, science fairs and Facebook apps

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.

  • Zoning has been approved for a five-story Growing Power vertical urban farm and education center that will expand the organization’s current operations in Milwaukee, WI. Run by Will Allen, Growing Power is transforming the production and delivery of healthy foods to underserved urban populations.
  • Google and our friends at National Geographic have launched the first-ever global online science fair. The fair is open to full-time students ages 13 to 18 and will be judged by an esteemed panel of experts, including PopTech Spark Innovator and marine biologist Tierney Thys.
  • Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely, has created a Facebook App called Friend Measure to expand his research of human behavior. Participants answer one question per week and see if he or she can predict how their friends will answer the same question.

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

Image: Bill Pitzer

A look back at Haiti and Mission 4636 with Josh Nesbit and Patrick Meier

On the first anniversary of the massive earthquake in Haiti, we are highlighting one of the most successful collaborative efforts that emerged from the devastation. Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and Josh Nesbit, executive director of Medic Mobile (formerly FrontlineSMS: Medic) took to the PopTech stage to describe how the various moving parts of Mission 4636 came together, a short code emergency response communication system that enabled Haitian earthquake victims to receive aid by sending a free text message to 4636.

Using Ushahidi’s free open source mapping platform customized for the disaster, a text message short code initiated by Medic Mobile and dependent on the country’s cellular technology – which remained operational – and a cadre of volunteers and translators, the system was set in motion to respond to emergencies. Thus, this coordinated response was able to meet affected Haitians’ urgent needs for medical care, food, water, security, and shelter in real time – and filter those requests (80,000 text messages were sent in the first month) by geographic area or type of need. In addition to Ushahidi and Medic Mobile, the complex effort drew upon the resources of many for-profit and non-profit entities to bring the project to life including Crowdflower, Samasource, inSTEDD, DigiCel, local radio stations, and on-the-ground relief organizations.


Neuroscientist Adrian Owen on the consequences of traumatic brain injury

The long-term consequences of traumatic brain injury, such as the one sustained by U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot through the skull at a shopping center in Tucson, Arizona this weekend, are at the center of PopTech 2010 speaker Dr. Adrian Owen’s research. Owen, a neuroscientist who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the University of Western Ontario, has been working since the 1990s to determine levels of consciousness in vegetative patients.

Patients sometimes emerge from a coma, like the one medically induced by Giffords’ doctors, without ever becoming aware. That is, they cannot follow commands and show no sign of consciousness, though their lips might move or eyelids might open. What Owen and his colleagues have discovered, though, is that some patients are conscious despite being unable to move their limbs or communicate verbally.

“We have a logical problem here,” Owen told the PopTech audience in October. “If a patient was conscious but incapable of generating responses, which is the hallmark of vegetative state, we would logically have no way of knowing if that person was conscious.”


This week in PopTech: Unplugging, mobile mapping and affordable drugs prevailing


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.

  • An Ushahidi mobile app is now available for the iPhone and iPad. Mapping on the go has many benefits. GPS-enabled devices gather exact latitude and longitude, camera-phones offer photo capability, and 3G enabled devices can upload incident reports in real time. Additionally, when an internet connection is not available, multiple reports can still be collected and uploaded at a later time when the device is connected.

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

New books out today from PopTech 2010 presenters Kathryn Schulz and Stephanie Coontz

A couple of PopTech 2010 presenters are making moves in the publishing world today. We’re celebrating their accomplishments with the release of these authors’ talks.

The paperback version of Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong just came out as a follow-up to the bestseller published in 2010. Through anecdotes and studies, which Schulz also shares during her PopTech talk, Being Wrong examines why it’s human nature to make mistakes, trust our gut reactions, and turn a blind eye to the error of our ways.

Stephanie Coontz’s latest book, A Strange Stirring, takes a historical look at Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, and examines how married women in the early 1960s came to the realization that their domestic life dissatisfaction was rooted in political and social inequality. In her PopTech talk, Coontz touches on that topic when she discusses the historical evolution of love and marriage from separate phenomena to intertwined conventions.

Lastly, 2010 Science Fellow and attention researcher Amishi Jha studies how we can train our brains to pay attention to the present even when we’re compelled to rewind and fast forward to thoughts of the past and future. Jha studies how using mindfulness techniques to remain in the moment functions as a significant stress reducer.

Staff picks: The PopTech team's holiday reading list

As we head full tilt into the holidays, we surveyed the PopTech team to see what books they’ll be diving into between catching up with family and friends.

  • Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (Andy Dayton, Web Designer)
  • Food Rules by Michael Pollan (Deanna Lafond, Executive Assistant)
  • Trick or Treatment by Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh (Louis Juska, Director of Technology)
  • Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Colleen Kaman, Consultant)

Now that we’ve shared our picks, we’d love to hear about the page turners you’ve got on your night stands. Let us know in the comments.

Images: Babasteve