PopTech Blog

David de Rothschild helms the Good Ship Plastiki

Sailing around the ocean on a boat made of plastic bottles might not be most people’s idea of a good time. But, as speaker David de Rothschild pointed out, it’s a great way to bring attention to an issue he’s passionate about: the impact of plastics on our planet and, specifically, our oceans.

De Rothschild is the unlikely captain of an even more unlikely ship: the Plastiki Eco-Expedition. The Plastiki is a boat made from 12,000 plastic bottles, which de Rothschild and his six-person crew of nautical nomads intend to sail from the South Pacific to Sydney. Referencing photographer Chris Jordan’s (a PopTech presenter from last year) work cataloging the catastrophic effect plastic has had on the seabird population, de Rothschild made a similar point that plastic does not disappear from the ecosystem. Every piece of plastic ever produced still exists: a fact that surely would have surprised its inventor and perhaps given him pause to reflect on the unintended consequences of this “brilliant accident”.

By building a boat out of something usually considered waste, de Rothschild hopes to increase its perceived value: essentially creating diamonds where once there was only debris. See photos of the Plastiki boat in action at: http://www.theplastiki.com/photos/

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Alan Rabinowitz Fights to Save Big Cats

As a child, zoologist Alan Rabinowitz had a debilitating stutter that left him barely able to communicate with his teachers or classmates. He withdrew into a world dominated by animals, often spending his afternoons with the big cats at the Bronx Zoo. Like him, they had “no voices of their own.” So Rabinowitz promised them that if he ever found his own voice, he would help the cats find theirs.

Alan Rabinowitz
(Photo: Kris Krüg)

Rabinowitz’s story about how he learned to control his stutter, and went on to become one of the world’s foremost conservation experts won a standing ovation at PopTech 2010. What is most remarkable about a man who has dedicated his life to protecting big cats is that he has never been willing to accept traditional measures of success.

Rabinowitz, now the CEO of conservation group Panthera, set up the world’s only jaguar sanctuary (in Belize) and the largest tiger reserve (in Myanmar), but was failing to adequately protect big cats. Despite half a century of international conservation efforts, about half of the world’s forests had disappeared and global biodiversity continued to plummet. He had always relished opportunities to slip away to remote areas away from humans, yet corralling animals into safe havens might be doing more harm than good.

The trouble was that trying to isolate animals from humans didn’t provide enough space for the cats. It also didn’t realistically reflect the extent of human development. Then Rabinowitz had a vision: to create a system of interlinked wildlife corridors that could allow animals to roam more freely. It could transform how we think about wildlife conservation.

Jaguar Corridor

Rabinowitz has already established a working model, a corridor that connects jaguar preserves across Central and South America. These wildlife corridors weave through private and public lands, requiring the combined help of governments, local populations, and conservationists. Now, Rabinowitz is tackling the far trickier issue of setting up a tiger corridor across India, China, and Southeast Asia.

(Image: Panthera)

The boy who didn’t have a voice found it in a big way. Through his struggle to save the cats he loves so much, Rabinowitz might well have found a model that could allows us to co-exist more naturally with the animals.

Beth Shapiro Unlocks the Mysteries of Woolly Mammoths

Beth Shapiro

Evolutionary biologist and PopTech 2010 Science Fellow Beth Shapiro is fascinated by woolly mammoths.

In particular, she wants to know why the brown bear lives while giant beaver became extinct. She does this by extracting the DNA sequences from the bones of long-extinct animals. They’re often only gene fragments, but they’re enough to let Shapiro trace the evolution, and extinction, of a species.

Although there are numerous challenges to extracting ancient DNA (researchers have failed to get DNA from dinosaurs, or from insects encased in amber) Shapiro’s cutting-edge DNA research is helping us make informed decisions about how to preserve the species that are currently under threat.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Help Graham Hill edit his life for a chance to win fabulous prizes

It’s no surprise Graham Hill wants you to reduce your carbon footprint in a big way, but his new initiative Life Edited is starting small. Hill wants you to help design his brand-new 420 square-foot apartment in NYC.  Offering up to $70,000 in prizes, Life Edited is raising the stakes for low-impact designers.

Graham Hill

He started his search for a new pad last year. Being Graham Hill, his concerns went far beyond the normal “One bedroom or two? Is it close to a train? Where exactly do I have to live to afford a back yard?” thoughts of the average New Yorker. With 80 percent of New York’s footprint coming from buildings, Hill thought deeply about where to live. He decided he didn’t need many rooms (apparently one will suffice), he didn’t need as much stuff, and he would be happier living simply.

“I want to create a tiny jewelbox of an apartment,” he said. “It’s good for my wallet, good for the environment, and good for my mental health.” He decided to crowdsource his dream box and wants all interested parties – designers, commenters, people with ideas, or just those with feedback – to weigh in.

“We’ve all heard the saying, ‘The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed,” he said. “I want everyone to join us at Life Edited. The message is ‘Less but better; make room for the good stuff.’”


(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Lisa Gansky on Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing

Lisa Gansky, entrepreneur and author of Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing spoke about how the Mesh is a “fundamental shift with the relationships we have with the stuff in our lives.” She’s advocating for better things, more easily shared. She acknowledged that we do have a history of some of shared things: parks, transportation, and what she calls the Mother Of All Shared Products, Earth.

Lisa Gansky

As a an entrepreneur, Gansky has trained herself to take a higher perspective: rethink materials, product, service and clients. She notes that there are big opportunities out there and defines our current culture as a “perfect storm of Meshiness” in that it contains three crucial elements: 1) Mobile devices, 2) Social networks, and 3) Physical goods that allow us to locate each other in time or place, for instance Google Maps. These tools, she says, take the friction out of sharing.


Introducing 2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellows Sean Gourley and Amishi Jha

2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership fellow Sean Gourley is a mathematician who has spent the last seven years using math to understand war and insurgency. If that sounds strange (or completely fascinating; this is PopTech, after all), what’s even better is that the work he’s done on war has given him a tool set that allows him to understand a range of technological systems.

Sean Gourley

“Technology, like war, defines the world we live in,” Gourley said. “And, like war, we don’t understand it very well.”

Gourley recently set out on a quest to map the world’s technology using a mathematical framework. Technology companies are legion and effectively categorizing them presented a unique challenge. “Companies at the front of innovation, like 23andme which is part biotech, part social network, can’t really be put into buckets,” Gourley said. “The really interesting stuff is between the buckets.”

Gourley needed a mathematical equivalent of DNA mapping so he asked the obvious question: is there a technology genome? The first challenge was to define entities, collect as much information about those entities as possible, and then compare the companies against each other. The comparisons reveal similarities and differences until eventually singular characteristics – genes – emerge. To date, he has collected 20 million documents on 21,000 entities and discovered 28,000 tech genes. “Comparing two companies is interesting,” he said. “It becomes really interesting when it’s 2,000 companies.”

Amishi Jha

2010 Science Fellow Amishi Jha is a brain scientist who is working on ways to train brains to pay better attention. Jha says the brain has big problems: there is too much stuff crammed into them (limited capacity) and the brain is severely constrained in its ability to act on what’s out there.


Siddharta Mukherjee on the Emperor of All Maladies

Siddharta Mukherjee is a cancer researcher, a physician and the author of the upcoming book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. A Rhodes scholar who teaches and practices at Columbia University, Mukherjee is often asked why he wrote this particular book. He’s explanation begins with the story of a single patient of his who had an especially aggressive form of abdominal cancer. She had been undergoing various intense treatments and at one point told Mukherjee that she was willing to go on with the treatments, but asked him “What is it that I am fighting?” He didn’t have a good answer for her and nor were there any existing resources to refer her to. He wondered: how old is cancer? When did it begin? How did we get to this moment in time with cancer and where are we going?

Siddharta Mukherjee


Jad Abumrad uses sound to explore science and share stories

Jad Abumradis the host and producer of WNYC’s Radiolab, a public radio series. He has a background in creative writing and music composition and has written music for film and produced documentaries for local and national public radio programs. He uses sound to explore ideas and share stories.

Jad Abumrad

Abumrad began his presentation by sharing sounds of miscellaneous things failing — an Epson printer that made a fantastic but terrible noise, his wife’s toy ray gun that short circuited, and a CD of Mozart skipping. “If you’ve heard Radio Lab, you know I’m obsessed with things breaking down and sliding off the rails.  I love the aesthetics of failure.”

Fusing sound with science, Abumrad described how a team of biologists discovered a way to watch genes make proteins. He then played a rhythmic, orderly sound of what he initially interpreted those genes might look like. But in fact, he explained, what those genes are actually doing sounds much more random and chaotic. What science has discovered is that we’re riddled with error.

Donald Ingber is Uncovering Nature’s Design Principles to Inspire Bioengineering

Donald Ingber studies how the natural patterns that have often been dismissed as design flaws might transform the field of bioengineering.

Ingber is the founder and director of the Wyss Institute for Bioinspired Engineering at Harvard. He proposes applying the adaptive and competitive responses of living systems to the fields of engineering in a way that might bring revolutionary advances in engineering, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and computer science.

Donald Ingber

Ingber’s perspective is based, in part, on his discovery while in an art class in college, that cells are built more like tents than like balloons. This critical insight dramatically changed how he thought about living cells. Hey came to see that they structure themselves in much the same way that inventor Buckminster Fuller dubbed the “tensegrity.” This balance between tension and compression, which Fuller employed to construct his famed geodesic domes, reveals that the design of materials could be viewed as dynamic systems.

Ingber spoke at PopTech as part of an session titled “Noise in the System.” In Ingber’s case, this noise refers to the amount of variation, such as DNA mutations, that naturally occurs in nature. Conventional engineering views this kind of variation as a design flaw, Ingber says, and works to eliminate or minimize it. Nature, by contrast, make use of these slight variations to better respond to environmental shifts.

The Watts Riot at PopTech/Patrick Flanagan breaks out the Big Glove

For the unitiated, it can be hard to tell when Reggie Watts is having you on.

Reggie Watts

A moment of awkward fumbling with mic cords and equipment goes on for too long until it becomes obvious that he’s having fun at your expense – you laugh even though you know he’s essentially mocking you for feeling sorry for him; a rich professorial English voice pontificates about meaningless topics, stringing together nonsensical phrases (“The last thing on our minds is the first thing we hate the most…” “As a race of androids, we…”) in an effort to sound as PopTech-like as possible.  Later he flips the script, using street vernacular to talk about the conference like it was an urban event (“What is PopTech?  You know what I’m saying..”), carrying on for almost too long until you realize he’s gone completely meta on you – NYC teenager meets philosphy grad student.

He fills in the spaces with a sophisticated (but still silly – “Got two kidneys and a pancreas/Keep your hands where they are…”) one-man beat box/hip hop set that uses a drum machine and keyboard to create looped sample madness.  The subject matter seems inane but for those who can keep up, it’s deeper than it appears at first listen.  He wants you to laugh but he also wants you to know he’s smart enough to play to the Camden Opera House crowd.

Endearing is a strange word to use for someone like Reggie, but it fits – nerd chic (if PopTech has a style, it’s as good a term as any) meets the kid at the back of the class. It’s easy to figure out why he’s a friend of the organization.

Patrick Flanagan

Throwing over the two-Wiimote approach that launched his YouTube career, Patrick Flanagan rocked a new Edward Scissorhands-like glove of sound Thursday.  Replete with arcade buttons and springbok horns, the glove allows Flanagan to use all of the fingers on his right hand as well as regulating pitch, volume, and tempo through motion control as he works a massive percussion set without ever touching a drum.

How does it work?  Everything starts of with two controllers one Wiimote and his new glove – that are attached to a laptop that is then attached to various robotic pads, sticks, belts, and shakers that make the magic happen on a large assortment of traditional percussion instruments.

Informed by the percussive style of Armando Borg, Flanagan has a deep appreciation for the essential imperfect humanity of music; but the engineer in him just wants to make his robots sound more human.  Above all else, the evolution of Flanagan’s set up gives him a chance to stick it to YouTube critics who wonder why he doesn’t just learn how to play the drums.  After listening to five bongos banging out staccato 1/32nds in overlapping patterns, it becomes obvious: only a robot can play that fast.

(Photos: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)