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Posts by Rachel Barenblat

Mark O'Connor and Ruby Jane Smith: virtuosos of American fiddle

“One of the country’s, and the world’s most accomplished, inventive, and personally generous master fiddle players,” says Andrew Zolli, introducing Mark O’Connor (Pop!Tech bio; website.)

CC photo; O’Connor practices in the Green Room before coming onstage.

O’Connor’s fiddle playing is fast, virtuosic, lyrical, like the rush of notes pouring from a wood thrush’s throat. It’s mesmerizing, somewhere between classical music and something I wish I knew how to dance to. The piece he’s playing keeps shifting, a sonic patchwork quilt with all sorts of influences and more different time signatures than I can count.

Many of the early motifs return, by the end, giving me the sense that we’ve come full circle. Through key changes and almost unthinkably fast waterfalls of notes, we’re all mesmerized.

When he stops playing, O’Connor tells us that his presentation is going to be about how natural habitat interfaces with music education. The piece he just played was commissioned for the bicentennial of Tennessee, about 15 years ago; it’s called “The Mockingbird,” which is Tennessee’s state bird.

“The next piece has to do with the ocean,” O’Connor says, and with how waves reach the shoreline, each one carving a chapter in the history of the ocean. He hopes we’ll hear solitude, drama, hope. “While I’m playing this I’ll think about the earlier presentation about the albatross on Midway island.” (He’s referring to Chris Jordan’s photos of plastic inside an albatross at Midway Atoll, seen here on Thursday. You can see some of them here.)

This one starts out slow and melancholy. Maybe it’s because I’ve been tipped off beforehand, but I can imagine this accompanying a walk along a cold, windswept north Atlantic beach. After a time the tempo picks up, like the wind raising itself into a squall, and runs of notes crest like whitecaps. The piece ends with a long slow rise toward silence, and at first the crowd hesitates, hoping for more before we applaud.

“For 25 years I’ve been playing American classical music, broadening the tent of what’s perceived as American classical music,” O’Connor says. A question for this audience: “Four hundred years ago the violin was made and perfected, the scroll and tuning pegs, the neck and fingerboard, the ribbing, the contoured and graduated top and back, producing the acoustic principles required.” This “unusual contraption,” he says, “mechanical device, really, has never been improved upon in four hundred years.” He’s playing a new violin, made by a great maker right here in Maine — Jonathan Cooper — and he thought he would ask this audience if there’s another contraption like the violin/viola/cello/bass, invented that long ago and not yet improved-upon. (Someone shouts out: the wheel! Someone else: ice cream!)

Another interesting thing about the violin, O’Connor tells us, is that it’s been a cornerstone of American music for 400 years. He’s developed a violin method book, which will be coming out in a couple of weeks, which utilizes American tunes to teach how to play the violin. The concept’s been around in fiddle circles for a while. The book will use America, Canadian, and Mexican tunes as well, and looking at cultural relevance to help aid the lessons. His hope is for young people to fall in love with the violin in new ways.

He gives a couple of examples of why string playing is so important in American music. Bluegrass music and western swing were both invented in the 1930s and 40s, developed from earlier Appalachian styles. He features a lot of those old traditional terms in the book, and is interested in how this material can develop a new kind of classical string playing and broaden the tent of classical music in America.

First example: the Florida blues, from about 100 years ago. It’s syncopated and familiar. Then an excerpt of something created from the blues but featuring newer techniques: twice as sultry, with a kind of come-hither virtuosity. Then we get a taste of ragtime, fast and danceable, and a short snippet of a jig and to show how that developed into American classical music, an excerpt from his fiddle concerto, which is equally fast and charming. “These are some of the ways that American music develops and continues to develop,” O’Connor says.

He cites parallels between American folk music and European classical music; both genres have existed fr 400 years with very little overlap. A rare exception to that is Copeland’s hoedown, of which he plays us a little bit. (You can hear it in this YouTube video.) It’s a catchy tune but fiddlers almost never play it. A tape was recently rediscovered: four years before Copeland wrote his “Rodeo” in 1941, a fiddler played that tune with those exact notes on tape for the Library of Congress. “When I discovered there was an original recording, I asked a friend of mine, did the fiddler compose and play it in standard tuning? It turned out he’d retuned his fiddle,” and that was not passed along in the orchestral setting — so O’Connor plays it for us on a re-tuned fiddle.

The phrases sing, as he promised — it pours out of the fiddle with such effervescence that one might imagine it was effortless, and we all whoop in applause. “This is one of the things I thought I’d try to bring to the forefront,” O’Connor says, “appreciation of traditional materials used in new settings.” This (re)discovery of folk music is a big piece of his method.

O’Connor also offers string camps — music training for kids — where classical training can coexist alongside jazz and world music all taught on violin. (Here’s an article about those camps; he tells us that more than 7,000 students have been trained in this way.) He and a student collaborate to play “Appalachia Waltz,” music which exists in the space between classical and American folk music. O’Connor has recorded it with Yo-Yo Ma (read more aout that collaboration here.) The student who joins him is Ruby Jane Smith (Pop!Tech bio; website) — aged fourteen.

The two fiddle voices intertwine in a gentle duet full of close harmonies, seconds resolving into thirds, and the waltz’s characteristic heartstring-tugging melancholy. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, the tempo changes organically. When I crane my neck to peer down from the opera box where we’re liveblogging today, I see the two musicians so intent on their fiddles and the notes they’re creating that it’s as though the opera house full of audience wasn’t even here.

“If you feel, like me, that there could be a reimagined America with more music-making, playing string music that could be perhaps more culturally relevant to the Americas, let me know,” O’Connor says.

And Ruby adds that she’s honored to be here at Pop!Tech, that being here has been life-changing for her. “You hear people talk about changing the world all the time, but to be here and be listening to people who really are changing the world is really inspiring.” She first came to Mark’s camp when she was ten; she’d been playing fiddle since she was two. She remembers the first time Mark showed up, midway through the week — “it was like Elvis Presley walked into the room, but ten times better than that!” Performing by his side is clearly an emotional experience for her, and the audience applauds.

They wrap up with an old fiddle tune transformed into a classical duet, “another demonstration of how classical music and American fiddle can meet.” This one’s a toe-tapper, fast and swirly and upbeat and danceable. What a treat.

Naif Al-Mutawa brings multicultural superheroes to life

“Sometimes giving the right information at the right time can create change,” says Andrew Zolli. “Our next presenter is engaged in a ‘meta-cultural hack.’” Naif Al-Mutawa (Pop!Tech bio; here’s his standard bio) is the creator of THE 99 — the first group of superheroes born of an Islamic archetype. (You can download a pdf of The 99: Origins for free here if you’re interested.) Al-Mutawa is speaking as part of the Meaningful Engagements session this afternoon.

Here’s an animated trailer for “The 99: Origins.” This is not the trailer for the forthcoming animated series, which has much higher production values, but that latter trailer doesn’t seem to be online, alas.

“I’m from Kuwait; I’m disappointed, I’m not getting the love for oil in this room,” Al-Mutawa quips, and everyone laughs. He’s father and step-father of seven children, all born in New York. Al-Mutawa’s five boys (and his step-children from his wife’s previous marriage) attend Camp Robin Hood, which is not far from here. His own parents sent him there in 1979. “Back then the best we could do for television in Kuwait was…maybe catching a glimpse of something from Baghdad.” He had no idea what Fantasy Island was; other pop cultural references likewise went over his head. When he got home, he told his parents about his friends: Steinberg, Greenberg, Goldberg. His parents asked, where are they from? Kids at the camp had joked that these were nice Italian names, so that’s what Al-Mutawa told his father!

The next year his parents sent him to a camp in Switzerland — but within a year he was back at Camp Robin Hood. He went there for 10 years, and his sons go there now. “It was there that I started to navigate self and other, how I’m seen, how others see me.” (You can read more of this story in Al-Mutawa’s essay Concentration Camps and Comic Books.)

He graduated from Tufts in 1994 and returned to Kuwait as a writer. A ma theren had just gotten fired from his job because of his religion; the man who fired him was handing out leaflets saying that had he known the man’s religion he would never have hired him to begin with. “My reaction was, what planet had I landed on?!” He wrote a book intended for adults which won an award for children’s literature. A few books did well; but his fourth book was banned. Al-Mutawa found it frustrating dealing with censors. The Soviet Union banned Animal Farm, he said, because they read it and knew what it meant. “In my neck of the desert it was banned because there was a pig on the cover! It’s a different level of censorship.”

He returned to New York, trained in pyschology, and “heard one too many stories of people who’d grown up idolizing their leader as a hero only to grow up and be tortured by him. Imagine that it’s the hero who’s torturing you — the person you’ve been aspiring to become.” Some of his patients there, he said, “were part of the army that invaded my country in 1990.”

After he got his MBA, his sister started bugging him to write for kids again. “For me to go back now, it would have to have the potential of Pokemon,” he said, “or it’s not worth it.” But then it occurred to him that Pokemon was considered non-Islamic in some markets. “Who were these people making these decisions for my children? How disappointed Allah must be.” And then he realized, Allah has 99 attributes, and he could work with that idea in interesting ways. So he ran an idea by his sister, she loved it, he wrote the business plan, and next thing he knew he had investors in 15 countries. Investors in the United States, Mexico, even Beirut — “I think I’m the only Kuwaiti who went into Beirut and came out with money!” This idea is what became The 99.

Superhero stories tend to either come out of the United States or out of Japan, and American superheroes often arise out of a Judeo-Christian mold. Superman’s message comes from another planet, much like Moses in the basket on the Nile. The Bible is the greatest story ever told, and comics repackage those stories in ways that resonate with people. “I told my investors I was going to repackage the Qur’an” — to repurpose it to tell positive, multicultural stories.

“This was going to be [as big as] Superman, or not worth my time and money,” Al-Mutawa says: no shoddy fifth world production for him. He returned to New York to make it happen. “Imagine going to NYC after 9/11 and telling them you wanted to make comics based on Islam.”

From the beginning, the people involved were people who knew Batman and Superman, who were aware of the tradition of great comic books and graphic novels. The premise is, there are 99 characters from 99 countries — this had to be pitched not just to the Middle East, because every year people get censored and he didn’t want to fall prey to that. There’s an American hero, a British hero, a Saudi hero; they work in teams of three because in Islam you don’t leave a boy and a girl alone together. There’s a scholar online, Al-Mutawa tells us, who argues this reflects his secret Trinitarianism — “you believe who you want!”

The cast includes Hadya from Pakistan, Janek from Hungary, Jabbar from Saudi who uses his muscles, Noora from the UAE who “sees the true light” in people (nur means light.) It’s about intercultural dialogue and intercountry connectedness. Mumita is from Portugal, Fattah from Indonesia, Sami from France, Mujiba from Malaysia — she’s the first character who wears hijab. Half the characters are girls but only a handful wear hijab; the idea is, there’s many ways to be the person you want to be. (You can read more about the characters in the series here.)

“Sometimes you work hard but it’s luck getting you where you want to be.” The series was supposed to be covered in the New York Times, and it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen — and then the Danish cartoon controversy erupted and the Times suddenly gave The 99 huge coverage, and Al-Mutawa was terrified! But Islamic newspapers covered the story positively, and it was a huge break for them. They launched their first theme park in Kuwait in March: The 99 Village Theme Park. (Here’s an article about it.)

The idea isn’t to write something which will only be read by Jewish kids or Christian kids or Muslim kids. “On a values level, we are all the same.”

“How do you know that you’ve achieved what’s not a fifth-world production?” Al-Mutawa asks, and then offers an answer: when Obama reached out to the Muslim world, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman reached out to The 99.

He shows a clip from the upcoming animation series, made with Endemol. (Read more about that.) It’s gorgeous and sleek, and I want to watch more of it. The series clearly plays on some of the same themes as stories like The X-Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter — kids coming together to save the world — except that it begins in 13th century Baghdad, with all of the iconography one might expect. The origin myth is that during the fall of Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols 500 years ago, 99 magical stones were dipped in the waters of the Tigris as the books of Baghdad were destroyed, and they were infused with the powers of all of that knowledge. Those stones are now being discovered, and transmitting their power to 99 young people, though some are falling into the hands of people whose intentions are evil rather than good. These are classic superhero tropes, recast in a multicultural frame. (I’m pretty sure that’s the same story you’d find in the free pdf download of The 99: Origins — I’ve downloaded that but haven’t had time to read it yet.)

Al-Mutawa leaves us with a question: whose fault is it that deranged lunatics cited JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye when they shot John Lennon and tried to shoot Ronald Reagan? Is it the fault of the book, or of the people who read it? He tells a story about how when he was in college, someone was handing out free food under a big sign that read “Free Falafel,” and “everything was neutral, nothing political,” until a woman came running across the campus and yelled “Falafel? Who’s that?” She’d just come from an Amnesty International meeting and saw the sign through those eyes (she thought Falafel was a political prisoner somewhere)! So next time someone says they’re doing something in the name of their religion, think of what they’re saying, and remember how to read the sign.

Marije Vogelzang brings a designer's eye to thinking about food

“To complete this trio of investigations into food, we’re going to shift perspective,” says Zolli. Marije Vogelzang “looks with an artist’s eye at what it means to bring mindfulness and artfulness to the act of putting this wonderful stuff into our bodies.”

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Marije Vogelzang (Pop!Tech bio, homepage) is part of the Edible Futures module. She studied design at Eindhoven Design Academy in Holland, where she went to workshops in ceramics and plastic molding. “In the end, I find myself back in the kitchen — I open my cupboards and say, wow, I have lots of materials here! I see my kitchen tools, these are my workshop tools. Food is a material to work with.”

People think this means she’s a food designer. She wondered: if she would be a food designer, would that imply that she designs food? Food is perfectly designed by nature. Imagine a red cabbage sliced in two: it’s perfect. “I’m more interested in the verb of eating, what food does to your body, what food does to your mind, what food does to people in general.” She wants to apply design ideas and creative thinking to these questions.

She started a company called Proef. They do edible art projects, performance, and installation. Restaurant and food business concepts. Event catering. Consulting for food industry and hospitals. And so on. “I base my work on whether something is an interesting project,” she says.

The first project she did, as a student at the design academy, came when her teacher told her to do something with the color white. In many cultures, white is the color of death. She thought about funeral rituals. “If you’re Dutch and you die, people go to your funeral, they dress in black, they say they’re sorry and drink a cup of coffee and eat a slice of sponge cake and that’s it!” In many cultures there are really rich rituals around funerals and food. “Food is comforting to you. Food is the first thing your mother gives to you, along with her love.”

She wanted to create alternatives for the poor Dutch people who have no rituals! So she collected white foods — not thinking about taste or flavor, just color. She prepared them simply, “respectful to the food itself.” This yields a serene palate. The flavors do well together. (The photograph is beautiful, and also quite serene — a range of white foods arrayed artistically on a white tablecloth. You can see a photo of this same project by scrolling a bit on this page.) She’s replicated this several times, though not for an actual funeral because there’s never been time to prepare it when someone actually dies. “If you know when you’re going to die — some people know that! — call me because I want to do this.”

She’s been asked repeatedly to do a Christmas dinner. “I never wanted to do it,” she says. Christmas is full of clichés; “what can I design?” But she was asked again, and finally acceded. “What is Christmas really about? If you look beside the Christian idea of Christmas, Christmas is about sharing foods together and being connected to each other.” (It’s an intriguing post-religious or post-Christian way of thinking about the holiday, which I suspect a surprising number of Americans share.) She created an installation where everyone is sitting together, and only their faces and hands protrude through the hanging tablecloths which adorn the walls. It served as an equalizer, like wearing a uniform, she says, and by the end of the night people felt connected to each other. And the plates were divided in two; one woman might have melon and someone beside her might have ham, and since those are a classical combination, people would naturally trade halves of their plates and share with one another. The setting fostered play and interaction.

“The food we eat becomes a part of us… It goes home with us.”

Vogelzang did a project on the invitation of the first organic farmer’s market creator in Lebanon. “Recreating food every day is recreating their culture, and since Lebanon has been destroyed by war, this is a valuable thing to do.” He asked her to join the market and do a workshop there. She realized that she knew nothing about Lebanon, aside from war, so she did a project called “Taste of Beirut” in which she began by handing out a questionnaire asking questions like, “What is your first memory having to do with food?” and “what are your memories relating to war and food?” People had varied responses to the first question, but the second question was answered mainly with “bread.” Bread is an important element in Lebanese cuisine.

Vogelzang did a workshop bringing people together from across regions and religions and social backgrounds. She wanted to make bowls with them, bowls made out of bread; “we colored these bowls green with parsley juice,” since parsley is a primary ingredient, “and I asked people to write their positive memories from when they were little into the bowls.” They presented the bowls at the Green Line, which had separated East and West Beirut from one another like the Berlin Wall used to do in Berlin. They made a “green line” of bowls full of positive memories, filled them with Lebanese cheese and yogurt and honey, and invited people to come and eat them. “By eating bowls, we were eating away these negative connotations of the green line, and we were physically sharing each others’ positive food memories of when we were little.” All of the bowls are different; they’re unique, like their makers, like all of us. (Here’s a lovely reflection on the Taste of Beirut project.)

People have to eat something seven times before they come to appreciate a flavor. When Vogelzang’s daughter was a little girl, she didn’t like vegetables — so Vogelzang invited her daughter’s preschool class to come over and shape art out of vegetables using only their teeth. By the end of the adventure, they all ate vegetables!

Food is more than calories; it can make you feel happy or sleepy, it can give you all sorts of experiences. And yet a lot of kids eat unhealthy foods; what do do about that? “I made a series of snacks in all the colors of the rainbow.” Da Vinci said that red is an energetic color and blue relates to relaxation; green makes you rich, yellow makes you have friends, orange makes you happy. She color-coded a series of snacks using Da Vinci’s paradigm. Of course, all were healthy, but she didn’t say that on the labels. Children presented with these foods pick the foods based on their perceptions of these things — which changes the whole conversation: it’s no longer about whether something is healthy or unhealthy, or has positive or negative associations.

Another project she shows us relates to Dutch National tap water. Tap water tastes different in different cities there. “Wouldn’t it be interesting to get tap water from all the 12 capitals in this country together, instead of you traveling to all the cities?” She held a kind of tasting for the tap water from the various cities, setting up twelve stations like the numbers on a clock. “When it comes to wine, we talk about the terroir of the wine — it’s important where the wine comes from. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we did this with water? ’I’m going to eat chicken, I should have some Amsterdam tap water!’” It really does taste different, she says.

Her other projects have included spoons made of sugar for stirring one’s tea, a lollipop shaped like a gun, and a box of candies designed for people who don’t have teeth. She made snacks for the opening of an event for those who had survived WWII, and made small bite-sized hors d’oeuvres of recipes from war survivors, and when people came in they could get a coupon which would get them substitute coffee, and with the coffee they could receive a “ration.” Many people who were there hadn’t tasted these things in 60 years, and it brought up bad memories for them, which was both painful and beautiful. “If you’re a designer and you make things… When you use food as a material for your design, you can come very close to someone, because someone will put your design in their body.”

Michael Pollan's gospel of sustainable food

“This is one of the sessions I’ve been most looking forward to,” says Andrew Zolli, calling it a session of “incredible bounty.” (He adds that he is a “recovering hyperbolic,” given how often he calls things here ‘incredible’ and ‘wonderful’ — though it does seem to me that often as not, sessions here really do fit that bill.) “It’s hard not to use those words when describing the impact that our next presenter has had on the world. Michael Pollan has changed, fundamentally, the way many of us understand what we eat, how it’s made, how it gets to us.” By the way, Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire has been made into a PBS documentary which will air next week, on October 28th at 8pm Eastern, so if you don’t know it, check it out on PBS.

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

Michael Pollan (Pop!Tech bio) appears as part of the Edible Futures module. “I brought us lunch as we approach the lunch hour,” says Pollan, putting a McDonald’s bag on the podium, “and like Chekhov’s gun on the mantel, we’ll see if it gets eaten.”

A few years ago he set out to conduct an investigation and trace a McDonald’s double quarter-pounder with cheese back to its origins. He bought a steer, Steer #534, in South Dakota and followed him to a feedlot. “I had never been to a feedlot.” If we haven’t been to see one of these, he says, we must go. “It’s one of the most hideous landscapes in the 20th century.” This is where our burgers come from.

But he realized when he was there that he had to go further still. Burgers come from corn and soyfields in the Midwest, where feed is grown. From ther ehe had to go further, to oilfields from the Middle East because feed is grown with petroleum-based pesticides. The burger can be traced all the way there.

The food chain is not only complex but implicated in three of the most serious problems we face: the energy crisis, the health care crisis, and the climate crisis. 20% of the fossil fuel we burn in this country goes to feed ourselves, to produce this processed food. Five hundred billion dollars of health care costs go to preventable chronic diseases linked to our diet. And a third of greenhouse gases are produced by the food system. This is “not a pretty picture or a happy meal.”

But he learned a few things. Any changes we can make to make the food system more sustainable, less reliant on oil and more on sun, will yield impressive dividends in all three of these areas. “I also learned something else very hopeful — that all food, every calorie you have ever eaten, comes ultimately from the sun.” As long as the sun is still shining, theoretically it should be possible to figure out a way to feed ourselves from the sun rather than from those oil fields.

“To understand how we got here, I want to take you back to the past, present, and give you a look at the future of our food system.” Look back to before WWII. We have images of what farming was like back then: these are the images still used to sell food to us today, the small family farms with red roof barns. Now this is just a literary conceit, but it’s how things used to be. “It was a very straightforward solar and human-powered system.” The farmer planted crops, raised livestock, and they contributed to one another’s health. “The line from sun to crops to animals to farmer to us was fairly straight and direct.” It wasn’t terribly productive but it was an ecologically efficient system.

A calorie is a unit of energy. Pre-WWII, a single calorie of food energy introduced into the food system (in the form of diesel, to run tractors) yielded 2 calories of edible food. But this wasn’t productive enough for us after WWII. We had a baby boom, a population that wanted to binge on all of the foods that had been rationed during the war, and we had factories that needed more workers. “We wanted to get more food from fewer farmers. And we figured out how to do it.” We figured out how to take the munitions industry, which relied on ammonium nitrate — you use it for bombs but we decided to use it for fertilizers. We converted nerve gas research into pesticides, and munitions research into fertilizer.

“We figured out ways to take cheap oil and make farming more productive. But we also needed changes in Washington at the policy level, and we got these most dramatically in the 70s.” Nixon’s agriculture secretary convinced farmers to grow as much of monoculture crops as possible. “Get big, or get out,” he said, and he focused attention on corn and soy.

Understand: this is not the same kind of corn you buy at a farmstand around here in August or September, or the soybeans you get when you buy edamame. They are inedible off the field. They are industrial materials which can be broken down into corn syrup and so forth, but mostly they are feed for animals. “This changed the diversified farming system into something that looked more like a factory,” with inputs of fuel and outputs of monoculture crops which require processing. “We took a natural system and turned it into something which closely resembled a factory.”

And it worked — amazingly well. We got an amazing amount of calories off the land. Before WWII a farmer could feed 20 of us, afterward a farmer could feed 150 people. The benefit to us is that food has gotten a lot cheaper. In 1910 we spent a quarter of our income to feed ourselves; today it’s under 10%. That’s less than anybody who has ever lived and less than anybody anywhere in the world. Today you can walk into a fast food store and for less than you earn at minimum wage in one hour, you can walk out with thousands of “arguably tasty” calories.

But we have to be clear-eyed about the costs. “Cheap food is incredibly expensive.”

The first expense is, in order to grow food this way, we need huge amounts of fossil fuel. That’s what we’ve replaced all that human energy with. “Every step in this process, we’re applying more petroleum to the system.” To grow the food, process it, move the food around. “When you buy sustainable salmon in a restaurant here, from Alaska, the odds are good that it’s been flown to China to be fileted and then flown back here to be eaten by you.” Half the lobster harvested in this state goes up to Canada to be processed, then frozen and sold all over the world. There’s a lot of oil in this system.

Pollan holds up a very fresh double quarter-pounder with cheese, from McDonald’s. “I want to show you how much oil goes into producing this,” he says, opening up a dark plastic water bottle. Oil is in the fertilizer, and in the pesticides. He fills an eight-ounce glass with dark liquid. Then a second one, for the processing and moving around. And a third glass of eight ounces, and then two more ounces in a fourth glass. “26 ounces of oil to produce this burger. It’s kind of disgusting, isn’t it?”

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

As we gape, he adds, offhand, “—chocolate syrup.” (Ahaha! Well, it’s thick and dark; it makes a fine oil substitute, for visual purposes.) It takes ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food energy. We’re losing nine calories for every calorie we yield to eat.

“You know that old saying of grandma’s, that you can pay the grocer or you can pay the doctor? We’ve chosen to pay the doctor.” We’re eating 500 more calories per day than we used to; we’re about 17lbs fatter than we used to be. Two-thirds of us are overweight, one-third of us are obese. One in three people born in 2000 will get type II diabetes, which shortens the lifespan by an average of seven years, which means this generation will be the first in American history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Four of our top-ten killers are linked to diet. “The health care crisis is a euphemism for problems induced by the American diet.”

And people who are trying to feed themselves on a limited budget have a real problem here. If you’ve seen Food, Inc. you’ve met the Orozco’s of Baldwin, CA. (Pollan shows us a clip from that movie, showing a woman talking about how much money they have to spend on pills for her diabetic husband — more than $100 per pill. “We can pay for his medicine to be healthy, or buying vegetables to be healthy, so which one should we do?”) What a choice to make, between diabetes medication and fresh produce! But in this country, “the rational thing to do is to buy unhealthy calories; we subsidize the calories by subsidizing corn.” Products made with high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated corn oils are the cheap calories.

Go into a supermarket with a dollar, he says, and conduct a treasure hunt for calories to see how many calories you can get for a dollar. You can get 1200 calories of snack foods for that dollar — or 250 calories of broccoli or carrots. “This is the result of the way we subsidize food in this country.”

The third and last cost of the system he wants to address is the cost to our ecosystem. The burger has quite a carbon footprint. Thirteen pounds of carbon into the air, which is the equivalent of burning seven pounds of coal. “I hope I’ve driven home the point that our meat eating is one of the most important contributors we make to climate change. A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius!”

Another source of pollution coming off of this industry is feedlot pollution. Every cow in the feedlot produces as much manure as 20-40 people produce in a single day. 150,000 cows generate as much waste as the 3,000,000 people in Chicago — but the people in Chicago have to treat their waste. But the clean water and air act doesn’t apply to feedlots. So these vast lakes of sewage just sit there, leaking pollution of all kinds into the ecosystems. These feedlots are the biggest source of pollution in the country.

“That’s the bad news, and there’s plenty of it. But I want to talk about some good news” — some farmers he’s had the pleasure of meeting. The first is Joel Salatin, a visionary farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. (You’ll read about him in the Omnivore’s Dilemma.) “This is a post-industrial farm,” based on a sophisticated understanding of plants, animals, and how they interact. Joel grows in a complex polycultural rotation sometimes called permaculture. It’s a largely self-contained system. He grows grassfed cattle and chickens. The cows spend one day in a pasture; then he moves them on to the next pasture, waits three days, and tows in his portable chicken coop. The chickens are free-range; they fan out in the field and make a beeline for the cow patties, because their favorite food — grubs — are in the manure. (As a side note: the CSA to which Ethan and I have belonged for the last fifteen years has been doing this for years. I love watching the eggmobile moving around the farm!)

The chickens, of course, also defecate in the fields — and their manure is fertilizer for grasses, so a few days after they’ve been moved out of the field, the field is fertile again.

“I asked Joel, what kind of farmer are you — a chicken farmer, a beef farmer, a rabbit farmer? He said, I’m a grass farmer. I didn’t get it; we don’t eat grass.” But Salatin explained that grass is the solar collector. The sun feeds the grass; the grass feeds cattle, who can digest it; the cattle feed the chickens; the chickens feed the grasses; and the animals are feeding us. Joel Salatin has 100 acres of grass which yields him 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 25,000 dozen eggs, 20,000 chickens, 1,000 turkeys and 1,000 rabbits. He uses some diesel for his trucks and some corn for his chickens. But for every calorie going into the system, there are hundreds if not thousands coming out.

Another visionary farmer is Will Allen, who we’ll meet later today. “He’s doing an interesting riff on polycultural farming in the cities.” Pay attention to the energy flows in his systems too, Pollan tells us.

“The question is, can you do this on a big scale? Can you do solar farming in the Midwest?” In Argentina there are farms that dwarf ours — 15,000 acres — and they’ve pulled it off. They’ll do eight-eyar rotations: five years of cattle, then plow the pastures and do three years of grain (wheat, sorghum, corn, sunflowers) — and they can do that without any nitrogen fertilizers, because the cattle have fertilized the land, and they can do it without pesticides too.

“I had an epiphany when I was on Joel’s farm.” Joel made Pollan get down on his belly and “meet the grasses,” and explained what was going on under the soil. “I had this revelation about our relationship not just to food but to nature in general.” Most of us have a tragic sense of our relationship with nature: we think it’s a zero-sum game, that in need for us to get what we need, nature must be diminished. “But that may not necessarily be true.”

All plants balance roots and shoots. When they lose leaf mass, they shed a comparable amount of root mass. Those roots are effectively digested by the soil: worms, insects, bacteria, fungi eat them and turn them into new soil. This is how soil is created. “I had no idea,” Pollan tells us. “What that tells me is that the end of a year in a farm like Joel’s, or the ones in Argentina, he has taken all of that food off the land and there is more soil, not less; more biodiversity not less; more fertility, not less. You see? It need not be a zero-sum game as long as the sun shines and we have new energy coming in. That was the most heartening thing I’d learned in 20 years.”

“So how do we get there? That’s the hard question.” How do we change the industrial system? We need new policis. We need to replace the incentives for farmers to grow corn and soy; we need a Food Bill which has the interests of eaters and farmers equally in mind. We need to incentivize farmers to diversify, to use their land the way Joel is doing, to move away from monocultures. “We can do that, but make no mistake, it will take a powerful political movement,” because the agroindustrial complex will fight it.

We need to work, Pollan says, on re-regionalizing the food system. Encourage local food economies to form! This will help us improve access to good food in inner cities and in our “food deserts.” Multicropping and diversification is key, and building markets for local food will help with that.

“We are deeply implicated in this system. We expect food to be fast, cheap, and easy. Unless we make changes in our own behavior, start voting with our forks, this isn’t going to happen.” If we start eating real food again — if we go to the Farmer’s Market instead of the supermarket — this change can happen. “Consumers voting with their forks are creators of these alternative food systems.”

“I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to answer the supposedly complex question of what we should eat if we’re concerned about our health,” Pollan says. “I realized I can boil it all down to 3 sentences, 7 words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s easier said than done, he notes. Increasingly our supermarkets and restaurants are full of substances that “don’t deserve to be dignified” with the word “food.” Focus on quality rather than quantity, he says. And if all of America went meatless one day a week, it would be the equivalent of taking 20,000,000 cars off the road.

Three other revolutionary things we can do: 1) plant a garden. “If you invest seventy dollars in a home garden you can yield $600 worth of produce in a year.” Organic produce isn’t expensive if you grow it yourself. Our non-productive land could be feeding us and giving us exercise without using fossil fuels at all!

2) Get back in the kitchen and cook. “Corporations…don’t cook very well,” he says — they use too much salt, sugar, and fat. The only way to get control of our diet and our food system back is by cooking again and involving our families in that.

And 3) Eat meals! Eat food at tables with other people! “This doesn’t sound radical, but it has become that.” Twenty percent of our food is eaten in the car, in front of a screen, on the run. “Food isn’t just fuel; it’s about communion,” he says. “Bring back the meal as the sacred communal activity it is.”

“I don’t know what our food system is going to look like in 5-10 years, but I’m confident it’s going to change.” We’re going to run out of cheap oil and probably all oil. We can’t continue to spew greenhouses gases like this. “But as long as we have visionary farmers, we will figrue out how to do this. And as long as the sun still shines, there’s one free lunch in this universe. It’s called photosynthesis. As long as we still have that…” We need to get our industrial system off of oil, he says — “and if one area can be re-solarized, surely it is lunch.”

Nicholas Felton wants to know what we are saying.

Nicholas Felton (Pop!Tech bio) “has been deeply categorizing his own life,” says Andrew Zolli. “We started a conversation not only about his work but about how we react to all of these messages. We decided to work together on an interesting project, involving Nick’s work, looking at the impact of these messages on our conversation — which I’m excited for you to hear about.”

CC photo by Kris Krüg.

“I’ve become fairly well known for the Feltron Personal Annual Report,” Felton explains. (Find it at Feltron.com.) In 2005 he summarized his year in this document which appeared online — where he’d gone, some of the food he’d eaten, the music he’d listened to. For some reason it traveled well beyond those circles; design bloggers were entertained, stock brokers found it amusing. The following year he created a print version, and started working harder at documentation. In 2007 he printed 2000 copies and found an audience willing to purchase it.

All the streets he’d traveled down in New York (taxi routes and so forth), eating and drinking and dining: all of these things are mapped-out. The report became increasingly elaborate in 2008: he chronicled everywhere he’d traveled that year. “My primary interest in 2008 was determining how far I’d traveled” — walking, flights, a stray hayride, chairlifts (up and down.) “This has become increasingly popular,” and it’s since turned into a web application, Daytum.com.

Felton worked with Rob Deeming and Ken Reisman on a project called What we are saying. (Ken has created pluribo.com, which looks at Amazon reviews of products and summarizes them into something short and digestible.) The three of them decided to look at America over the course of a single week: July 27 through August 3, 2009. They analyzed NYTimes front pages, analyzing the Times and other sources for keywords. (Looking at a set of screencaps of those front pages, the prevalence of health care headlines is particularly noticeable.)

They looked at both user-generated content and media sources. For media sources, they used Daylife headlines (9000 headlines from major media); for user-generated content, at Twitter and at an aggregator of blogs and NYTimes comments.

Volume analysis: there is a limit to how many conversations can coexist. “There’s a limit to human interest and human conversation,” Felton says. Talk about health care outweighed talk about food during this week — 23% of the conversations were about health care, while only 22% of conversations were about food. “If we bundle these into media sources and user sources, there’s a disparity” — in the media, 12% was about food, while in user sources, 33% of conversation was about food. This applies to health care as well: 19% of media sources, and 27% of user sources, were talking about health and health care. On the user side of things, people are talking about a wider range of topics, while on the media side it tends to be more of an echo chamber.

The data also allowed the researchers to measure keywords and emoticons. 73% of all of the items they looked at were considered positive, which says something about how we weigh negative sentiment.

During this week, economic concerns outweighed all other issues. Health care was the greatest topic of conversation, but the economy was what people felt most negative about — and innovation was what people felt most positive about. They also looked at media sources and their biases; user sources tended to be more positive than media sources did. Interestingly, New York Times articles were 9% more negative than average sentiments tended to be.

“Finally, we can look at the terms being used,” Felton says. “In the energy topic, the top three terms are ‘green,’ ‘solar,’ and ‘oil.’” In the conversation about innovation, we speak in terms of computers and internet; ‘Microsoft’ was the #1 term found, with ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’ coming behind. So people aren’t talking about other forms of innovation in other ways.

Returning to the dominant conversation about health and health care: the conversation used six of the same terms across all points of view. Regardless of what side of the debate people were on, they were using the same words. The top five words during that week were: ‘people,’ ‘reform,’ ‘green,’ ‘schools,’ and ‘Obama,’ showing perhaps that there’s a strong interest in hope and in change.

Nick Bilton on multitasking and media

Nick Bilton (Pop!Tech bio; homepage) is speaking as part of the (Re)Mixed Messages session this morning.

“He’s a deep thinker about the future of media,” says Andrew Zolli. “We thought it would be potentially worthwhile for you to see just how far we’ve come, in terms of the media and the internet, so we’d like to show you an actual early report from the early 1980s — one of the first experiments in the space.”

We’re shown a video in which a news reporter posits that someday we might sit down to read our morning paper on the computer — “it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem,” the anchorwoman says, and the whole room laughs. We see someone dialing an old-fashioned rotary telephone hooked up to a modem, and the voiceover explains how the newspaper (without pictures, ads, or comics) can be sent through the phone lines into someone’s television set! “We’re not in it to make money,” says someone from the SF Chronicle (which draws some knowing laughter from the room.)

“This is only the first step in newspapers over computer,” says the voiceover — someday, he predicts, we might get all of our news via computer! “It takes over two hours to receive the entire text edition of the paper,” adds the anchorwoman. Ah, the 1980s.

Nick Bilton. CC photo by Kris Krüg.

“I own a home computer,” says Bilton, by way of beginning, and assures us that what he’s going to say is his own work, not the views of the Times. Five things to know about him: first, he works for the Times, doing research visualization. (He’s a Design Integration Editor and User Interface Specialist & Lead Researcher at the New York Times; his job is “exploring and testing technologies that could become commonplace” years from now.)

The Times wanted to look at who was coming to the Times website and where they were coming from. (Home computers, mobile devices…) He shows a moving image of dots lighting up all over the map: morning on the East Coast, then morning on the West Coast, etc. They’ve also been doing a lot of work lately on “Newspaper 2.0,” trying to figure out what the future of newspaper is going to be: everything from the Kindle to flexible devices with digital ink.

“Another concept we’ve pushed a lot is this idea of smart content,” he says. A newspaper is dumb content; it doesn’t know what you’ve read or what your preferences are. A digital source can become intelligent. Imagine that you go to the Times website and read a story on Iraq; when you open up the paper on your mobile phone, the phone should be smart enough not to show you that same story.

A second thing to know about Bilton: he teaches at NYU/ITP. He tries to teach his students that no matter what device or project is involved, it’s all about storytelling. He’ll be teaching a new course in the spring on “telling stories with sensors, data and humans.”

Third thing to know: he co-founded NYCResistor, a hacker collective in downtown Brooklyn. “We do a lot of hardware hacking, build robots, geek out like you wouldn’t believe.” They use open-source hardware and they teach classes in the community.

Fourth thing to know about Bilton is what he’s here to talk about today: he’s writing a book about his work. The book was originally called Byte. Snack. Meal. The new business of storytelling, but the publisher was worried people would think it was a food book! So the new title is I live in the future and here’s how it works. About his vision of where media, tech, devices and so forth are going.

And the fifth thing to know about him is “I have ADD. Really, really bad.” (He shows us report cards from his childhood in England, proving that his mind has always wandered.) “This has been helpful later in life! I’m good at multitasking and doing a lot of different things!”

We keep hearing that multitasking is bad, he points out — that our brains can’t do it, that society is going to change for the worse. A book recently cam out arguing that it’s going to put us back into the Dark Ages. But our brains multitask all the time. “Right now I’m breathing, I’m thinking about my next slide and my last slide, I’m wondering why I didn’t go to the bathroom earlier.” But there are limitations. We can’t read two books at once.

Brodmann’s Area 10 is an area in the brain, the border between the two different things one can’t do simultaneously. “With the next generation, a lot of scientists believe that this area is going to start working faster and faster” — it allows us to oscillate between two things at once. Bilton mentions technochondria, fear of new technology. When the railroad first came into being, people believed that you could asphyxiate and die if you went 20 miles an hour, and if you went 40 miles an hour your bones would explode. “We make these dumb assumptions all the time!”

We are multitasking, Bilton says. “I want to look at why we’re doing it.” One reason is the interfaces we’ve built. When you get a text, your phone vibrates, or beeps, or a window pops up. “It works too well; it’s jarring.” Another reason is that we have a tremendous amount of media to consume. So we simultaneously consume it.

To explain how we got here, go back to before the printing press. No one read. People stood around in bars or on soapboxes. The largest library in Europe had 122 books. “Along comes the printing press.” Which didn’t change everything; it changed a little bit, slowly. Gutenberg’s Bible was 2 volumes of 50 pounds each. “It’s like computers 50 years ago. You couldn’t carry it around, lay in the park and enjoy it.” Aldus Manutis in 1502 said, “why don’t we make these things smaller, so we can put them in our pockets? That’s how we got the mobile book, equivalent of the mobile phone. That’s when people started to read.”

And then along came the radio. “We put our books down, put our newspapers down, and would sit in the living room.” And radio became successful, and we start to see the first signs of multitasking; we don’t have enough time in the day to listen to shows and to read books and newspapers, so we do them at the same time. Same thing happens with television — and then the radio moves into the car, and we’re multitasking even there. Now we’re liable to be on our laptops, writing email, texting, tweeting, watching tv, and playing Nintento at the same time!

Our brains are adapting. “This is not evolution,” he assures us. Evolution doesn’t happen this fast. Maryanne Wolf has written, “After many years of research on how the human brain learns to read, I came to an unsettlingly simple conclusion: We humans were never born to read.” And yet we do. There’s a study that came out in Nature in 2009; a gentleman wanted to understand why people read and what happens in our brains when we do. They found a group of people in South America who are literate, and found new parts of their brain that grew and existed after they had done reading. “So our brains are still learning.”

Another study shows net naive people and net savvy people, reading a book and surfing the web, and the net savvy people’s brains light up twice as much as do the net naive people’s when they’re surfing the web. There’s a new kind of comprehension at work. Yet another study shows that playing Tetris increases attention, hand-eye coordination, working memory, visual and spatial problem solving. “Internet and games are a new form of narrative we’re learning how to do.”

What does this mean for newspapers? “We talk about business models,” Bilton says, “but that’s getting ahead of what we really should be talking about — that everything about news is changing.” The devices we access news on are changing. Now we read the news on mobile phones or computers. “I have a different psychological experience with that device, and I’m going to have that same psychological experience with that news, too.”

“The relevance of news is changing.” When Teddy Kennedy died, he says, “that wasn’t news to me.” It didn’t mean anything to Bilton, but to a lot of people it did. “There was a shooting across the street from my house: that was news to me, but not to you, unless you live where I live.” Our concepts of news are changing. By the same token: if someone in my friends network gets in a car accident? That’s news to me. Bilton tells a story about a friend borrowing his cmoputer to check “the news” — meaning Facebook.

“We used to buy newspapers based on the location where we live; now we can get news from anywhere. Our concept of trust is changing. We trust the news media 29 percent and we trust our friends and family 90 percent.”

Go back to the first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, in New Amsterdam. The last page was left blank because people were encourage to write back, pass the paper along to someone else, and thereby be part of the conversation. Over time, news became a big business, and people were shut out of the conversation except for Letters to the Editor. “But now, we all have a printing press,” Bilton says, showing an image of people holding up mobile phones. “It’s changing everything, swinging the pendulum back to the middle.”

“We have a social responsibility to report news. I don’t think it should be left just to the news organizations or just to the people.” The next generation is growing up in a world where all they do is take pictures, comment, upload videos; this is the world that they live in!

The editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal said recently that there are two kinds of people, consumers and aggregators. But for our generation, that’s inaccurate. Today we consume, report, aggregate; we do everything. We all tell stories. “Imagine if 9/11 happened today: the stories, the photos, the tweets? It would have changed the entire news experience.” Society is changing, Bilton says, “but I think it’s for the better.”

Reihan Salam offers a new perspective on conservatism

“For a different perspective on where we go next and fleshing out the American story,” Andrew Zolli says, “I’m very excited to introduce our next speaker. Reihan Salam is a profound thinker about conservatism in the Umited States.”

Reihan Salam (read more about him here) begins by saying, “I am incoherent as a general rule so I like to break things into tiny pieces.” He tells a story about doing interpretive dance on stage as an undergrad, wearing a red fez and a dirty white singlet. “It’s likely that this experience will be at least slightly less embarrassing than that! For which I thank all of you.”

“Andrew was talking about how I’m a passionate obsessive about the future. Like a lot of you, I’m guessing, I read a lot of science fiction as a kid” — so since he’s so interested in the future, naturally he’s going to talk about the New Deal, a conservative project to transform a country which was going to hell in a handbasket. It’s useful to look back at that time, and see what we can and can’t learn from that time.

“Like a good conservative I’m going to draw on Hegel,” he quips, “the inspiration for Karl Marx!” His first assertion is that the New Deal invented what we know as America. In the 1950s, you had to put up half the money for a house as a down payment, which would mean getting a second mortgage with a high interest rate, so very few Americans owned their own homes. FDR was worrying, as do many Democrats today, that they were spending a lot of public money; he wanted to jack up economic growth without using government money per se. He came up with the idea of manufacturing a housing boom. “We all know how well that turned out — well, back then, it turned out very well indeed!” There was dramatic improvement in the kind of houses people were living in. The downside was that the economy came to be built on consumer debt.

“He drew on a great insight from business.” In charge of the FHA he placed two men from the automobile industry, who suggested that people could buy houses on the installment plan as they already bought cars. The housing boom has been the American answer to industrial policy ever since then. “You also saw something like this happen in the 1990s and the 2000s.” There was a period when a lot of people who only had a high school education or less, which was 3/4 of people in 1940, were having trouble finding good jobs. Where did those jobs materialize? In construction.

“So we saw the emergence of what Ben Bernanke has called a global savings glut.” People in Asia were producing cheap goods which Americans could buy on the installment plan. Even though wages were stagnant, people could feel that they were affluent. This maintained peace in a time of rising social inequality.

Recently that “consumer debt fizz” went away, and there was a lot of anger. People realized, wait a second, the house I bought isn’t worth what I thought; the economy isn’t what I believed it to be. “So much growth was fueled by consumption,” and it would be foolish of us to say that FDR’s idea was a terrble one, but it did turn out to be problematic. Where does it leave us now? As of 2007, the bottom 40% of American earners have a debt-to-disposible-income ratio of 133%. The richest ten percent account for 42% of all consumption. That’s why a lot of people call today’s America a plutonomy: economy ruled by the richest people. But what about the other half, the folks between the 40th and 90th percentiles? Their ratio of debt to disposable income is 205%. That means that a lot of people are underwater. For the next 10-20 years they’re going to be paying down that debt, and consuming radically less.

The incredible prosperity we’ve been talking about has fueled environmental devastation, but also moral progress. There’s only one time in the modern world when a major economic calamity hasn’t led to massive violence, and that was during the New Deal, because the consumer debt spiral led people to feel more prosperous than they really were. That has scary implications, Salam suggests — “without this chintzy prosperity we might be living in an angrier and more dangerous climate.”

The New Deal invented modern America, but now we’re in uncharted territory. The New Deal also arguably invented the modern family, “which is where its conservatism becomes clear.” A key component of the New Deal movement was women, social workers, highly educated, who saw a dramatic increase in divorce rates between 1900 and 1920. They also saw birth rates falling and crime rates rising. These women wanted to create family arrangements where women would not be in the workface; they wanted to actively discriminate against women. “It’s an idea that today conservatives and liberals would consider totally psychotic!… but it made sense at the time.” For a while it seemed to work; marriage rates increased, birth rates increased, crime rates plummeted. That led to the 1950s with its social solidarity. But the reason the social solidarity evolved was that there was an unusually low proportion of foreign-born Americans at that time. Americans weren’t being truly represented in our political institutions; women were being subordinated, and you didn’t have the principle of “one man, one vote.”

That principle, once it arose, led to the cultural and social changes we recognize. “The tragedy is that social solidarity and diversity are in tension with one another.” Racial diversity tends to lead to less redistribution and to less social trust, he says. These dramatic demographic changes lead to a world in which you see a higher level of “normative diversity.” By 2050, 1/5th of Americans will be foreign-born. The mix is going to be a different mix. “A single child replaces one of his/her parents but not both. Nor do single-child families contribute much to future population.” Nearly a quarter of the children of baby boomers chose larger families. In many micro-populations, you see this happen: ultra-Orthodox Jews reproduce at far higher rates than liberal Jews, e.g.

“Everyone in this room thinks of themselves as global citizens, and I’m sympathetic to this view — but the America that has a population of450,000 or more will consist of a lot of people who don’t have that framework, who don’t share the values of people in this room.” They’re going to have radically different priorities. “The question is, for the US as a whole, how do you govern in this situation?” How do you govern for Hmongs and Hutterites as well as secular hipster liberals? “It’s going to be very, very difficult,” Salam says.

Elites in this country had much more power circa the 1940s. The conservative movement today seems less genteel than it was in the day of William F. Buckley, Jr. For Buckley to say, “I don’t like how you sound, John Birchers, so I’ll tell you to shut up” — in those days it worked! But today you can’t tell 30% of the country to shut up because they disagree with you. “That I think is where the future of conservatism is going to come from,” Salam says — “not necessarily the movement we see today, which is incoherent in a lot of ways, but rather a meta-conservatism, in which a city like New York or Portland Oregon will have free mass transit and free love, and other communities in the middle of the country will look very different, 30% Hmong and 30% Hutterite and 30% Mormon.”

The country’s going to be different from the one we know now. It will be full of creative tension, and also just full of tension, Salam says. Like Robert Guest, he’s broadly optimistic, but — “rest assured, it’s not going to be exactly what you imagine.”

Robert Guest on the greatness of America

Robert Guest writes the Lexington column in the Economist. “I’m going to talk,” he says, “about America and why I think it is uniquely positioned to be not merely the current superpower but the next superpower. I’m going to focus on one very narrow aspect of this. America’s greatest strength, in my view, is that people want to live here. That’s something that the people who already do live here take for granted” — maybe because we haven’t visited the other countries of the world and seen how much they suck? We assume that people want to live here for reasons having to do with money, and that’s an important part of it, “but that’s only half of it.” One can earn reasonable amount of money in a lot of places. “The other part of the equation has to do with freedom.”

By freedom he means not only the absence of coercion, “but the availability of choices. The fantastic number of different lifestyles and niches you can find in America.”

He’s interviewed a lot of immigrants to ask about the non-economic reasons why they came here. He has three stories to tell us. The first is a Korean man named Joshua Levy, a fundamentalist Baptist, who came here to attend seminary in Kentucky. He moved to Virginia, got a job, got married. He’s surrounded by Korean restaurants, can attend a fundamentalist Baptist church where sermons are in Korean — “and at the same time he can enjoy all the advantages of an American suburban lifestyle.” A nice house, big back yard, good schools.

Levy can retain all the things he likes about his native culture — work ethic, religion, “cabbage soaked to death in chili and garlic” — while rejecting the parts of his native culture that he didn’t like so much. For instance, in Seoul where he grew up, everyone minds everyone else’s business. He has his niche here; he listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. “In America, nobody cares,” he said. “In Korea, to have a different opinion from others in the group is to court social isolation, but not here.”

The second person Guest tells us about is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who comes from Somalia. She learned as a child how to protect herself from men who might be after her in Somalia. She fled from Somalia to Kenya; her family wanted to put her into into an arranged marriage, so she fled to Holland and claimed political asylum there. “She was amazed by how nice it is in Holland,” Guest tells us. The police were friendly and helpful. Hirsi Ali got a job as an interpreter and began working with women who’d been beaten by their husbands. “Vast proportions of the women in these shelters came, like her, from immigrant Muslim backgrounds.” The social workers didn’t understand why the women weren’t supported by their families — who by and large supported the husbands.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali began to say critical things about Islam, and “this went over badly with local Muslims in Holland. One fanatic stabbed the director of the movie to death and left a note pinned to his chest telling Ayaan that he was coming after her.” She left and came to America. Guest asked her how she was doing, having broken with her native culture and living now in America, and she said that can be done here. “At a think tank in Holland, where she was before — they were linked to political parties…whereas in America there’s a multiplicity of think tanks, and if you ask an interesting question, someone’s going to say, yeah, that’s an interesting question, follow that.” She’s been amazed by the speed with which people invite her into their homes. Being overtly atheist has not been a problem here, although this is a country where people self-identify as religious. “When people ask if I’m religious, I say no, and people say they’ll pray for me; they don’t kill me.”

Dennis Downing is English. About a decade ago the government decided to ban fox-hunting. (There was a 900-page report drawn up which indicated, Guest says, that being torn to pieces by dogs was an impediment to the quality of life of the fox.) Once the ban came into play, Downing moved to the US, and now works with the hunt in Virginia. The thing he loves about America is that if you have an unusual hobby, people leave you alone. “That’s guaranteed in America,” Guest says. Even if fox hunting were banned in Virginia, there are many other states. That’s the benefit of the decentralized culture here. “You can practically choose what kind of legal system you live under.” If you want bike paths, e.g, move to Portland, OR. There are side-by-side counties in Kentucky, one of which is dry and one of which is called Bourbon county! The diversity is quite striking.

“In America,” Guest says, “it doesn’t matter what lifestyle you want, you can get it here.” There are more foreign-born people in America than in any other country in the world — 12.9%. (Editorial note: I’m dubious not about the 12.9%, but that this is more foreign-born people than anywhere else — can anyone confirm or deny?) “People come from just anywhere and can fit in,” Guest says.

Robert Lucas, a Nobel economist, has argued that migration matters so much because in his view the primary driver of innovation is the clustering of talented people. “America has this unparalelled potential for attracting talented people to come and live here.” Why does that really matter? India and China are more populous than the United States, but China is going to get old before it gets rich because of the one-child policy. India’s population will flatten later, but it will flatten. The US census bureau estimates that we’re about 300 million people now, and could be 400 million by 2050 and 600 million by 2100. This is partially because we have higher birth rates than other countries, but it’s also because of immigration.

There’s also a high estimate which suggests that by 2100 we could have almost 1.2 billion Americans. In pure population terms, America would be the same size as India or China. He asks us, do you want the next hyperpower to be this fantastic, democratic, multi-ethnic America or to be a mono-ethnic and slightly chauvinist China? “I don’t have any doubt about which I favor… I think America would be the one that would suck the least.”

He leaves us with a quote from Michael Lind: “America is ‘a Ponzi scheme that works.’”

Amanda Geppert and Lincoln Schatz aim to "Cure Violence"

The final long session of the day is called Challenging Conversations, and will involve a series of speakers whose work falls under that rubric. “We’re going to hear from four very different points of view about the Amercan experience, the American moment,” says Andrew Zolli. First up is Amanda Geppert (here’s her Pop!Tech bio), who comes to us from CeaseFire: the Campaign to Stop the Shooting. Geppert is speaking alongside Lincon Schatz.

Lincoln Schatz is a video artist. “I use chance to break habitual modes of thinking.” He presented his work here last year and one of his co-presenters was Gary Slutkin from CeaseFire. “I thought to myself, my God, how can I get involved?” They had lunch in Chicago the next week, and from that was born Cure Violence, a project that’s being launched today at Pop!Tech. Cure Violence empowers communities to openly and safely discuss the causes — and more importantly, solutions — to violence.

Geppert says, “As many of you know, America’s communities are plagued by violence.” CeaseFire treats violence like a disease, and look at it epidemiologically. “CeaseFire is scientifically proven.” A US Department of Justice study shows that CeaseFire has decreased violence radically in its zones. “CeaseFire saves lives, and makes communities healthy, safer places for the people who live and work in them.”

How do they do this? Through using networks. They employ credible people, often ex-offenders and former drug dealers, many of whom have been gang-involved. These folks go back to their communities, and use their contacts to identify people who might be at risk of violence and work with them. They work with the highest-risk people, people at the most risk of shooting/killing someone or being shot themselves. “They are the message that they bring, that change is possible.”

Outreach workers and violence interruptors work one-on-one with clients and help them seek alternatives for a different life. “These opportunities will lead them to a different future, a future where there’s an option after age 25 besides a grave.”

We know we can reduce shooting and killings, Geppert says, but community norms need to change so that violence will no longer be a viable way of responding to conflict. This spring the institute of design worked with CeaseFire on a campaign for violence prevention. They spent three months interviewing residents, and heard over and over again that there’s “no good news in our communities.” Rumors and gossip spread through community networks and that drives conflict. The residents said, “Nobody listens to us. We stay in our homes, we don’t go outside, we try to keep the people in our lives safe.” Changing social norms is about expanding the zone of concern. CeaseFire is making that a top priority.

Schatz explains: we go out with cameras and ask two questions, what’s causing the violence and how do we stop it. They use software to combine the footage into a stream of information which crosses community lines, gang lines, race lines. (The duo shows us part of a video which arose out of this collaborative process, and it’s powerful and moving — listening to real people talk about the real violence in their communities, encountering their voices and their faces, humanizes the statistics into a real, living situation.)

The second part of the project is working with 3,000 kids in the Chicago public school system who will shape the conversation in their schools and communities. They’re going to start uploading their content this month, and with their instructors will raise the discussion to a thoughtful level. They’re also creating two types of curriculum: semester-based and also a module you can download — “anybody can do this — with cellphone/SMS text and photos, take it and upload it to our site.”

The third component of the project is a website, which will be where the media is tagged and aggregated and where the international community can have a conversation. (The website is here, but isn’t accessible to the general public quite yet — the project is in closed beta for the first 7 months while they’re building content with the students.) “We need help scaling this project to have real impact; we need financial support and corporate partners,” Schatz says. “Please join us and help us stop the killing.”

Daniel Nocera on personalized energy


Daniel Nocera (Pop!Tech bio, professional bio) is going to talk to us about personalized energy. “I’m going to be different from the last talk; the last talk worried about you, and I don’t care about you,” he says.


Globally, we currently use 14 terawatts (a trillion watts) of energy each year; we’ll need 16 TW/year by 2050. (You can read more about how Nocera reached this statistic in this article in Reason Magazine.) “Close your eyes and think about 42 years from now… think about a kid, right now, that you like: this is going to be their future. It’s going to be a bad future if you look at these numbers.” If we converted the entire crop basis of the world to fuel and burned it, we’d reach a figure of 5-7TW. Photosynthesis has a limit.


If we take all the wind that’s 10 meters above the ground, we’d find that 2-4 TW are extractable. In terms of nuclear power, we can generate 8 TW; we’d have to build 200 nuclear power plants each year to reach our needs. That’s one new plant every 1.5 days, and bear in mind that we’d have to decommission them almost as fast as we can build them.



Right now we use 14 TW; why do we need 16? “The first assumption I made is that you will do all the right things, and save 100% of the energy you’re using today. We’ll still need 16 TW. If you want to be dummies, and not [do the right thing], then we’ll need 40 TW.” The picture as he initially paints it looks pretty dire.



Three billion people don’t have energy; 3 million people haven’t been born yet. “The solution to the energy challenge thus in my opinion rests in providing the non-legacy world a carbon-neutral, sustainable energy policy.” What he wants to do, he says, is go after “people without stuff” — not doing what the Department of Energy tends to do, which is taking big systems and trying to make them tinier, which is costly. You have to start from the bottom and work up. “If you don’t, I guarantee [change] will always be too costly,” he predicts.



Energy and water are intertwined problems. Domestic water use in the US is ~4800 billion gallons/year. We use ~300 billion gallons of water/year in gasoline refining. The US uses ~70 trillion gallons of water/year for thermoelectric power generation. “You lose half a gallon of water down the drain for every kilowatt of energy you make,” he explains. The two problems can’t be separated.



We could always try to keep 300 million people from being born — educating women in rural areas (about birth control etc) is one way to make a big impact on energy. But that’s not going to be enough. “Even if you got the cheapest solar panels in the world, you’re doomed; you guys don’t like living [without power] after the sun goes down.” So we need to be able to store energy.



“Don’t let anybody tell you batteries are going to get better. They can’t, it’s physically impossible.” Batteries are made of electrons on metal with oxygen in between; without a way to compress matter and make it more dense, battery store can’t improve, ever. What people can speak to is “power density” — but on the whole, batteries are “lousy, lousy, lousy, lousy.” We use fuels because they have lots of energy. We could use other energy sources, but when push comes to shove, we get a lot of energy out of fuels, because we can put electrons in tiny volumes of space.



He shows us a graph depicting the manufacturing of a Boeing 777, an etching tool, a machine tool, an automobile, a burger: he’s plotted pounds and dollars and annual volume of each of these items. “If I can put a Boeing 777 and a McDonald’s hamburger on the same curve, there’s something wrong here.” How do we think about energy? We build one thing, and it weighs a lot — that’s at one end of the curve. But if you want to generate energy for the whole world, you need near-infinite production, and you’d better make it light. “That’s exactly how we don’t do energy.” But it’s how he thinks we should.



“How does a leaf work?” Photosynthesis: it stores a tremendous amount of energy but then the plant has to use it. How is photosynthesis not great? Most living things use most of their energy to live, not to give us oil wells. A plant takes in light plus water and CO2 and makes O2. It makes solid hydrogen, which it fixes with CO2. A plant takes low-energy bonds in water, using sunlight to rearrange the bonds to make oxygen and hydrogen. The energy is stored in high-energy bonds.



What plants offer us is insight into how we might create workable liquid fuel. The MIT swimming pool contains 3.2 million liters of water; that pool could store 43 TW of energy, if we take the water down to hydrogen and oxygen. That’s assuming 100% efficiency in the water conversion process, but even if we assume 50% efficiency, we could generate the world’s energy needs with 2/3 of that pool. “The bottom line is, I’m talking about solving the energy problem with an Olympic-sized pool of water. We could be doing that globally, per second. That’s the hope, because there’s so much energy density in that fuel.”



“Make it light, and enable high throughput manufacturing,” he says. If we split water to make fuel, we can “make something cheap and highly manufacturable.” His group has figured out how to do artificial photosynthesis. They made a thing (he won’t tell us exactly what it is) which self-assembles, which takes sunlight from a photovoltaic and splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. It’s self-healing; if it breaks down, it can fix itself. And it doesn’t require pure water in order to work. “Not only can you take water and store energy; if we had human waste water, we can split that into hydrogen and oxygen, and recombine them and make clean drinking water.”



You can buy a single solar fuels storage unit for $50,000; a Co-OEC Electrolyzer can be mass-produced for ~$100. The home, he says, will become a power station and gas station. “Take cheap PV, go to this all-plastic electrolyzer; storing hydrogen and oxygen in the home are not hard; and then you need a fuel cell.” You use the hydrogen and the fuel cell to make a liquid fuel.



He shows us an image of himself from National Geographic, holding in his hands the amount of water he’d need to split in a day to fuel a big expensive home — it looks like less than 10 gallons. (You can see that photo here at National Geographic — it’s the fourth from the last photo in that photo series.)



This is a paradigm shift in how we think about power generation, but he points out that we’ve undergone paradigm shifts before. We went from the mainframe to the personal computer, and we can go from the grid to the personal energy system.