PopTech Blog

Finding Inspiration in Unavoidable Distractions With OK Go

Between releasing their latest video, performing at Bonnaro, taking a trip to Art Basel and participating in a rather impressive staring contest with a Muppet, our friends at OK Go have been pretty darn busy.

Bass player Tim Nordwind was kind enough to take a break and answer a few questions (thanks Tim!) about our conference theme, happy accidents, and of course, their thoughts on lobster rolls. We can’t wait to see what they have in store for PopTech 2010.

The theme of PopTech 2010 is Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs. Which do you most identify with?

Between Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs, it’s hard to pick just one that we most identify with. They all sound pretty right on to me. Might I also add to this list Unavoidable Distractions? Our band finds inspiration in a million different ways; whether it’s about being in the wrong place at the right time, the right time at the wrong place, it’s that moment when you see something, hear something, feel something and get an uncontrollable interest and excitement in an idea. From there, for us, it is absolutely about coming up with rules and parameters to push against, and it’s not always what works that is going to be most exciting about the idea. It is oftentimes the accidents, the failures, and pushing an idea so far that it breaks into something you had never thought about that ends up being the inspiration you weren’t even looking for that drives your idea home. That’s an exciting place to be.

Okay…now tell us about your biggest failure.

Our happiest accident was choreographing a dance routine to do live at the end of our shows, and making a rehearsal tape of us doing the dance in our singer Damian’s back yard. Upon playback we recognized an immediate charm in watching four dudes who can’t dance, dance. So we dubbed the music, a song called A Million Ways To Be Cruel onto the clip, and sent a link to friends to watch. We thought of it as a rehearsal tape. It was our friends who suggested that the rehearsal tape should be the video for that song. We weren’t quite sure what to think about that at first. It surely wouldn’t fit on MTV’s rigid format of glossy videos where the band shows up like a shiny new Audi car, advertising their brand new record. And because it wouldn’t fit on MTV our label obviously wasn’t going to like it. But, within weeks we started hearing that friends of friends of friends had seen the video, people we didn’t know, and that it was starting to go viral. Before we knew it industry magazines like Entertainment Weekly were writing about it, Good Morning America wanted to talk about it, a festival in Moscow where our record wasn’t even out wanted to book us, and somehow that had become the dawn of viral music videos.

Your insanely viral hit video “Here It Goes Again” was shot on a borrowed video camera. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped produce your most recent “This Too Shall Pass” video. That is quite a technological leap. How’d it happen?

The leap in technology was never really the propelling force behind working with the fine people at Synn Labs many of whom work at NASA and JPL. We were interested in making a Rube Goldberg machine that could be synchronized and dance to the music. Damian, wrote a job description that he posted to a couple of technology blogs. We were hoping to find one or two people who could help us build this Rube Goldberg machine. What we got in response was an impressive proposal from a group of about twelve scientists and technologists, Synn Labs. We couldn’t really afford to hire twelve people, but they told us to not worry, and we’d figure it out. From there we spent the next two months in the conceptual stages, and then spent the following four months building the machine in a three story warehouse in Echo Park, CA. We wanted the technology in the video to actually be quite simple and beautiful, hoping to avoid the machine looking too slick or magical. It was important to us for the machine’s process to be transparent in the spirit of capturing the true excitement of the live event.

What can we expect to see and hear from you at the PopTech this year?

We will probably look and sound like friendly robots on a goodwill mission demonstrating ways in which we are helpful and make for good friends. I mean you know, if I were to guess. To be honest, I know you probably can’t tell by my convincing reply, but we haven’t quite figured out what we will be doing at PopTech. But, we’re psyched to work it out.

Lastly, lobster rolls. Yeah or Nay?

Hellz to the mothertruckin’ YEAH!

Science Salon Video Release

Today PopTech is releasing talks from our Living Systems Salon held in Washington, DC last week. Speakers include geneticist Beth Shapiro, biochemist Justin Gallivan, neuroscientist H. Sebastian Seung and citizen scientist evangelist Yasser Ansari, and violist Christen Lien, our special musical performer, delighted the audience.

Sit back, relax, and immerse yourself in science, living systems and the edge of change. And don’t forget to take Christen Lien’s music with you today.

Science Salon DC

To read more about the Salon, please visit Eco IQ’s, Violas, Mammoths, and Genes that “Seek and Destroy”: A PopTech Salon .

Catching Up With The Future of News

I recently attended the Future of News and Civic Media conference at MIT. One theme throughout the multi-day conference focused on the convergence of local online journalism experiments with open government initiatives, and on the larger implications for community action in a era of data-driven knowledge.

Photo by Teddy Link

The MIT conference brought together winners of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge program (past and present), researchers affiliated with MIT (myself included), as well as others who are working at the intersection of journalism and technological innovation. Videos of the Plenary sessions Crowd building and Data Into Action are now online. The event also announced the 2010 News Challenge winners.

They include:

  • Stamen Design, which will create CityTracking an initiative that will make municipal data easier to access by allowing users to create embeddable data visualizations. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others.
  • Tilemapping, created by Development Seed, will help local media create hyper-local, data maps for their websites and blogs while also allowing citizens to draw connections to their physical communites in new ways. [Ushahidi, whose leadership team includes PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps that were used to crowdsource reports in places needing aid.]

In addition to the News Challenge winners, another Knight initiative was announced, this one a partnership with OpenPlans. Called OpenBlock, this project will further develop EveryBlock.com, an earlier Knight-funded journalism experiment that tied public records, news stories, and other data to city neighborhoods, by simplifying the project’s source code to make it easier for news organizations to adopt the technology. [OpenPlans is also part of a collaborative effort called Open311 that is working to create a standardized, open-access model for citizens to report on non-emergency issues.]

These projects, like the rest of the conference, suggest the degree to which the early enthusiasm for small scale innovation has been joined by conversations on fostering stable, coherent best practices and on replicating these practices across multiple domains and at scale. Such questions also confront the distinctions between the informal crowdsourced peer production, and more expert-forms of peer-production, and what each might have to offer each other in building projects from the ground up.

This Week in PopTech: "Smart" Energy Grid, an Arctic Bunker and the Edge of Change


  • This week we also released Massoud Amin’s 2009 PopTech talk on the critical need for a “Smart” Energy Grid. Massoud believes this will provide national as well as environmental and financial security.
    WATCH: Massoud Amin: A Smart Grid
  • We explored a bunker in the Arctic that stores the seed for human survival. Agricultural impresario Cary Fowler gave the PopTech audience a sneak peak of the seed vault as it was being constructed.
    WATCH: Cary Fowler: Conserving Bio-Diversity
  • We’re still collecting quotes on failure. We got some great ones this week, so keep ’em coming. “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Get Involved!

  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

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

A ‘Book Tune’ For Every Book

Editor’s note: Rapper Abdominal, who performed at PopTech in 2008, participated in the first ‘Book Tune’ released by Book Tune Records. Below is an edited excerpt from a longer piece, by Book Tune Records President, Jonathan Sauer.

Latest tracks by Book Tune Records

I’ve forgotten most of what I’ve read. And so have you. An audacious claim? I would venture to say it’s just an inevitable consequence of the human condition. If I were to ask you to glance across your bookshelves right now, taking in the many book titles you’ve read, and then, suddenly, if I were to present you with a pop quiz on the spot, asking that you recount for me, with any degree of detail and specificity, the contents of each of these books, you would presumably fail, abysmally. I know I would.

Book Tunes
Photography by Aaron Bird

This human inconvenience of forgetfulness is a function of what psychologists call the Curve of Forgetting, which basically holds that immediately after initial exposure to new knowledge we have a very high recall rate, but thereafter our knowledge gains dissipate at a very rapid rate within the first 24-48 hours, and then continue to dwindle to ever smaller levels over the next 30 days, until we retain only a tiny fraction of what was conveyed. Given more time, you might find that it’s as though you were never exposed to this new information at all, as though it was someone else who read this material, an imposter, not you at all. One day knowledge simply folded up its tent, and left town.

We’re getting back pennies on the dollar, for our time invested. So, the question naturally arises, “Can we do better? And, “If so, how?”

It turns out, we need not look far at all: music is the answer, the ‘song’ format specifically. What we propose is a ‘book tune’ (i.e. a companion song) for every major book, so we never again forget what we’ve read.

Download to learn more about Book Tunes.

Eco IQ's, Violas, Mammoths, and Genes that "Seek and Destroy": A PopTech Salon

Last night at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, PopTech brought together four speakers, a performer, and a lively and engaged audience for a PopTech Salon on Science, Living Systems, and the Edge of Change.

Sound Check Salon
Behind the scenes at the House of Sweden before the Science, Living Systems & The Edge of Change salon in Washington, DC. Photography by Kris Krug

Right now our nation and our planet face unprecedented challenges, and the sciences have a more important role to play in society than ever before. As a result PopTech has made a commitment to the sciences through a variety of new programs, including last night’s science salon.

Each of the speakers in attendance is involved in work that has profound implications for positive social change in areas ranging from conservation to medicine; social networking to environmental cleanup, and each had big, actionable ideas to present.

Beth Shapiro is a geneticist who is shedding new light on how species respond to environmental change. She suggested that climate change is key to understanding species extinction, but also concluded that humans themselves share responsibility for much of the most recent extinctions. Beth gathers DNA from mammoth bones to do her research

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro. Photography by Kris Krug

Justin Gallivan is a biochemist who “reprograms” genes to “seek and destroy” toxic herbicides. Justin’s work has huge implications for controlling gene expression.

Justin Gallivan
Justin Gallivan. Photography by Kris Krug

H. Sebastian Seung is a neuroscientist who is helping computers see the connections between the brain’s neurons. Sebastian introduced the concept of connectomes— the mapping of all neurons in the human brain— as the core to understanding what it means to be human. As he put it, there are millions of miles of wires inside your brain— “plenty of opportunity for mistakes.”

H. Sebastian Seung
H. Sebastian Seung. Photography by Kris Krug

Yasser Ansari uses mobile technology for wildlife exploration, and is bringing citizen science to the masses through Project Noah. Project Noah is designed to “boost our ecoIQs” and our knowledge of the wildlife that surrounds us.

Yasser Ansari
Yasser Ansari. Photography by Kris Krug

Christen Lien, is a “viola artist” whose music has been described as "ethereal and otherworldly; a bridge to the divine. “It’s not a violin; it’s a viola!” Christen opened and closed the PopTech Salon with two beautiful dreamlike pieces. Sublime.

Christen Lien
Christen Lien. Photography by Kris Krug

Both audience and speakers alike enjoyed conversing and relaxing together.

Question DC

Q and A

Photography by Kris Krug

During the day, PopTech videotaped several speakers and participants. (Huge thanks for NSF for providing us with our amazing crew, Cliff Braverman and Steve McNally)

NSF Filming in DC
Photography by Kris Krug

Look for more about last night’s salon over the upcoming days. Thanks to to the speakers and participants who participated in this extraordinary night! Special thanks to Intel and the NSF for their sponsorship of this event.

For more images of the salon by Kris Krug visit our Science, Living Systems & The Edge of Change set on flickr. If you have any of your own images, share them in the PopTech flickr pool.

This Week in PopTech: OK Go, Auditory Collages, Ultragreen Packaging


  • We are over the moon to announce OK Go as our first performers for PopTech 2010. OK Go just released their latest music video — we know this one’s going viral.
    WATCH: End Love
  • We released videos from the Chicago Salon that present ideas about how networked mapping and the innovative application of multiple technologies can more deeply reveal the dynamics of problems as well as drive social change.
    READ AND WATCH: Visualizing Data to Drive Social Change
  • We loved this quote by Joel Garreau: “Innovative cultures have in them fables of ‘honorable failure.’ — knowing losing as winning.”

Get Involved!

  • Do you live in the DC area? There are a few tickets left for our PopTech Salon in Washington, DC, which will feature three scientists at the cutting edge of potentially world-changing discoveries. The event is free but space is limited.
  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

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

Announcing OK Go at PopTech 2010

Photo credit: Edwin Roses

We are incredibly excited to announce that OK Go is performing at the PopTech 2010 Conference in October!

If you haven’t yet seen the band’s incredibly innovative videos — from their Grammy Award-winning “Here It Goes Again” to the amazing Rube Goldberg machine built for “This Too Shall Pass” — check them out. We can’t even imagine what these guys will cook up for the PopTech Conference. You won’t want to miss it.

Check out their new, just-released video, “End Love.”

Register today for PopTech 2010.

Visualizing Data to Drive Social Change

Several weeks ago, PopTech held a Chicago salon that focused on social mapping, and the ability to leverage networked technologies and old-fashioned communication alike to express local knowledge and perceptions as well as economic data and other figures that are often otherwise practically inaccessible to citizens.

Two of the featured speakers offered ideas about how networked mapping and the innovative application of multiple technologies can more deeply reveal the dynamics of problems as well as drive social change.

Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, was in attendance to talk about how the open-source mapping project has used the aggregation of information to respond to emergencies in near real-time.

Patrick Meier at the PopTech salon on Social Mapping and Social Change, May 2010.

The Ushahidi platform relies on distributed data collected via text message, email, and web that is then visualized on a map or timeline. The project first began as a way to help track citizen reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. Since then, Meier suggests in his talk, Ushahidi has been used by numerous organizations around the world for a variety of situations. These include tracking elections in a number of countries, enhancing Al Jazeera’s coverage of the January 2009 violence in Gaza, supporting WildLife Direct’s citizen wildlife tracking initiative in Kenya, and identifying clean up efforts in the wake of record snowstorms in the Washington D.C. metro area this past year. Most recently, a nonprofit environmental health group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has deployed Ushahidi (in conjunction with a kite camera project that PopTech previously reviewed) to monitor the coastline in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Ushahidi had FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) calling in on day five, saying, folks, whatever you do, don’t stop mapping, you’re saving lives."

Around minute 4:50 in his talk, Meier explains Ushahidi’s role in the Haitian earthquake response and recovery. A number of organizations marshaled the assistance of thousands of individual volunteers, who translated and aggregated text messages as well as United Nations situation reports and news stories onto a Ushahidi platform customized for the Haitian disaster. The distributed response also took advantage of the country’s cellular technology infrastructure, which remained operational, to distribute a mobile “short code” that made it possible for affected Haitians to send text messages at no cost. The use of text messages made it possible for crisis teams to handle individual requests – about 1,000 text messages a day – a level of response normally impossible during crises. The Ushahidi platform also made it possible for disaster responders to filter requests by geographic area or type of need. Meier recalls that these affordances made it possible for near real-time communications in devastated Haitian communities on a scale “completely unprecedented in the history of disaster response.”

“Ushahidi had FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) calling in on day five, saying, folks, whatever you do, don’t stop mapping, you’re saving lives."

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh are also part of the Ushahidi leadership team. Hersman spoke at PopTech in 2008. For more on Ushahidi’s Haiti response, check out this video.

Laura Kurgan, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, also spoke at the Chicago salon. The Lab is a “think- and action-tank” that visualizes complex political and social data, such as incarceration rates and financial expenditures, that help re-envision the relationship between architecture, criminal justice, and community investment.

Laura Kurgan at the PopTech salon on Social Mapping and Social Change, May 2010.

In her talk, Kurgan focuses on the lab’s mapping and visualization efforts in New Orleans.

Reconstruction efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina have helped drive the radical transformation of public infrastructures like education, health, and housing. Yet Kurgan notes that the criminal justice system has largely been ignored. In fact, her maps reveal that in neighborhoods like Central City, which has the highest incarceration rates in New Orleans, per capita spending on prisons has increased since rebuilding began.

Kurgan points out, “the predominant governing institution” in neighborhoods like Central City is prison.

Her maps reveal that money is spent “on the neighborhood, but not in the neighborhood.” In other words, Kurgan points out, “the predominant governing institution” in neighborhoods like Central City is prison.

Here, Kurgan’s lab has also served as an intervention, helping to map the work of local organizations working in Central City in order to strengthen the connections between them.

For more on Kurgan’s work in New Orleans, check out the lab’s recent report on the subject.

Laura Kurgan also spoke at PopTech in 2009, watch her talk here.

Graphic visualizations of the Chicago salon by Peter Durand can be seen here.


I heard an episode of The Writers Almanac a few months ago that got me thinking about serendipity. I learned that lots of wonderful things have come about when researchers were looking for something else, including Silly Putty, penicillin, the principles of X-rays and chocolate chip cookies. Viagra was developed to treat hypertension and certain kinds of chest pain; it didn’t do such a good job at these things, but researchers found during the phase of clinical trials that it was good for something else.

“Accidental sagacity” was how serendipity was first described, when Horace Walpole (the 4th Earl of Orford, in case you didn’t know) coined the term after reading a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip (Persian for Sri Lanka) about three royal boys who were always making accidental discoveries of things they weren’t looking for.

Accidental sagacity.

Between now and PopTech 2010 we’ll be exploring the theme of Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs and we want your help. Have you come across any great quotes or examples of the role accidents, failures and serendipity play in success?

Send us what you find (hello@poptech.org), and we’ll post some of them!