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Closing thoughts on Idea Festival

It must be fascinating to be as well known as physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. He’s had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, working on theories that unify gravity, the strong nuclear and electro-weak forces through string field theory. But he’s also well known as a science populizer, and his talk at Idea Festival begins with a clip from a Discovery documentary, “2057: The City” in which he’s the futurist narrator.

This means that when he takes questions at the end of his talk, one of his interlocutors asks, “Can you explain crop circles? And, I’ve been through a wormhole – who can I talk to?”

Dr. Kaku deals with these questions quite graciously – he acknowledges that there are phenomena not well explained by conventional scientific thought, though stresses that they are fairly rare. And many of the questions come from people who seem genuinely intrigued by questions of big physics, like whether the large hadron collider is likely to make discoveries that could lead to weapons.

But I found Dr. Kaku’s talk disappointing. He told some excellent jokes – including the Einstein and his driver joke – and hit on some of my favorite sci-fi fantasies (glasses that recognize who people are and brief you on them, so you don’t have to guess at their names). But he didn’t tell me a great deal about physics and certainly not about the branch he’s known for.

This may simply be that because string theory is such an abstract, mathematical discipline that explaining what scientists are hoping to find out of the Large Hadron Collider is beyond the scope of an amateur talk. Or it may be, as some critics argue, that supersymmetry isn’t really a predictive theory in the way that quantum theory or special relativity were, and that it may be untestable and unfalsifiable, which means that a certain amount of handwaving is always going to be a characteristic of talks about string theory. While I was frustrated, as were some folks sitting near me, most of the audience appeared to enjoy hearing a funny and smart man talk, and gave him a standing ovation.

I should note, this was literally the only talk I was disappointed by over the course of 2.5 days, which is pretty impressive for any festival.


Putting my frustration with this one talk aside, I had a blast at Idea Festival. Last year, I observed that IF’s organizer, Kris Kimel, is a man who’s not afraid to take risks and break the rules of futurism and ideas conferences. IF isn’t a big ticket event – you could buy a pass to all events for $260, less than a tenth of the cost of other conferences I attend and blog. And 70% of the events, including my talk (blogged by Evgeny Morozov, who does an incredible job of making the talk make sense) were free and open to the general public, which meant we had a far more diverse mix of people than I usually encounter at these events.

It struck me this year that one of the innovations Kris is experimenting with is giving a conference a decidedly local feel. The first night of the conference invited attendees to sample food from restaurants throughout the city, which was a great introduction to local cuisine and culture. There was a mix of local and global talent on stage, which was a great introduction to some of the work being done in local academe and helped give a sense for local priorities. I walked away this year wondering why every community of a certain size seems to run a local arts festival, and why so few run Idea Festivals.

Thanks to everyone involved for a good time at this year’s gathering, and thanks to everyone who’s enjoyed and commented on the talks I was able to cover. Sorry I wasn’t able to cover more.


Idea Festival: Woz. Wow.

Steve Wozniak is the featured speaker at the second night of the Idea Festival. After a long introduction, he takes the stage and tries to debunk a small part of the Woz myth, saying, “I wasn’t a college dropout. I was just broke, and had to take a work year, which turned into Apple and to so many other things.” He explains that he returned to college post-Apple, under a fake name: “Rocky Raccoon Clark”.

Woz was “an electronics kid”. “I was lucky. Electronics was my passion, and I was living in the Santa Clara valley, which became the Silicon valley.” He and other electronics kids wired their houses, builing intercoms that they could use to signal each other in the middle of the night. They’d do yardwork for neighbors and ask to be paid, not in money, but by being given the opportunity to search their garages for interesting electronics. This spirit of exploration in the valley turned into the spirit of starting your own company, Woz argues.

His path to computer design began with soldering a ham radio out of tubes – he refers to the process as “getting online”, and says that the radio made him “feel like a Superman – an unknown at school, but I was reaching out to other states. I was more powerful than the other kids at school.” Once he got a transistor radio, it felt like a personal technology – “it feels like yours, you can sleep next to it.” His father mentioned that Lockheed, where he worked, was putting six transistors on a chip to make missles lighter. Woz argued that this would make better radios – his father said, “Well, eventually, but it could take years.” Woz thought “I hope that eventually the push for technology would come from consumer products, not from the military.” And that’s certainly the case today.

Educators had a huge effect on Woz’s life, and he decided he wanted to be “an engineer first (like his father) and then a 5th grade teacher.” And indeed he did, teaching fifth grade for eight years after a plane crash gave him amnesia and changed his life. “You end up with a bigger family than your own – you go to their college graduations and realize you were part of their lives, getting there.”

In sixth grade, he built a tic-tac-toe computer from transistors – the game is just a series of rules, perhaps a hundred, perhaps 20 if you’re very clever – which means it can be implemented in a complex circuit. At an eight grade science fair, he saw a computer that did instructions at one per second using a stepper motor. But the real breakthrough was when his high school engineering teacher, realizing how much electronics Woz already knew, let him go to a company in Sunnyvale and learn to program Fortran. The machine was amazing – it ran a million instructions per second! He wrote a program to solve the knight’s tour chess problem, and started it, wondering if it worked. It did, but it was a backtracking algorithm – when it didn’t solve the problem, it backtracked and tried another solution. He realized that it would take 10^25 years to solve the problem this way – longer than the existence of the universe. He realized, “With all this power, I wasn’t going to be able to solve this problem that human beings could solve.”

Woz turned his attention to designing the computers he loved so dearly. He began building a PDP-8 on paper – “the way that, with the knowledge of lumber and glass, you could design and build a builing.” These machines didn’t exist in the real world – he couldn’t afford any of the computer parts. The reason for building these machines was for the intrinsic reward. “Extrinsic rewards are the ones people see – your title, your salary, the grade you get in a class, what you wear, how many yachts you have. But the intrinsic rewards – something that’s very satisfactory to you, watching certain movies, doing crossword puzzles, can be much more powerful.”

To learn more about microcomputers, Woz and another friend began visiting the Stanford Linear Accelerator center, showing up on Sundays and looking for open doors. He’d break into the library, read computer magazines and the manuals in the library, and sending away for his copies of computer magazines. In reading these magazines, he discovered the Data General Nova, a machine that dealt with instructions radically differently. Woz thought it was very strange at first, but discovered that designing the machine this way required roughly half as many chips. “I realized that someone who knew the construction materials had designed the architecture of the computer.” The design philosophy he learned from this experience was to make technology “short, simple and direct”.

Woz told his father “I’m going to own a 4k Nova some day.” 4k was the minimum needed to run a computer language, not just program in assembler. His father pointed out that this sort of computer cost as much as a house. “Well, I’m going to have an apartment,” Woz responded.

He headed to the University of Colorado as an undergrad and began taking a graduate school design course as a freshman. He got an A+, but found himself in great trouble. “Just because you were in a computer class doesn’t mean you can run all the programs you wanted. They had a budget. And they made it sounds like they might charge me more than annual tuition to go back to school.” As he reminisces about the machine – a CDC 6400 – he sounds as if he still misses it today.

When he moved to UC Berkeley, Woz became a prankster. He wired a coil to a high-speed transistor and discovered he could jam a color TV. His friends would hit the TV to “fix” it, and he’d stop jamming. He discovered that he could force friends into strange configurations, spending an hour standing on one foot to see a show. “I should have gotten a psych degree.”

Around this time, his friends introduced him to Steve Jobs, who’d gone to the same high school. They sized each other up based on the pranks they’d executed, and then with the electronics projects they’d implemented. In the process, “we became best friends for eight years.” Woz offers some interesting psychological insights on Jobs – “He believed in ‘precious people’, sages who really made the world work.” This contrasted to Woz’s view of the world and his enthusiasm for “ordinary engineers” like his father.

Woz seemed determined to go down the path of the “ordinary engineer”. He began working at HP to support his education and found himself working on the team that had built his precious HP35 programmable calculator, “the hottest things in the world.” He loved HP, a company where engineers were the very heart of the organization. Seeing a world filled with greying engineers, he realised, “My god, I could be an engineer for life.”

He continued to hack in his free time, playing with satellite TV, an early VCR and building an early video on demand system. And he built the Bay area’s first dial-a-joke service, which was quite a hack, as it involved renting equipment from the phone company designed for movie theatres, as you couldn’t legally own your own phone or answering machine. The service specialized in Polish jokes, which Woz figured were safe, until he got threatened with lawsuits for defaming the Polish people. But what was most important was that the joke line let him talk to other people – “it was like chatting online”, he remembers, and it led him to meet his first wife.

Woz became obsessed with Pong, which he saw for the first time in a bowling alley. “Who would have imagined that a television set would play a game.” He wanted one, and started working on a system to output graphics to a TV. HP supported the work, giving him access to free chips, and he built a pong clone that flashed a four-letter word on the screen every time you lost.

Steve Jobs came back from college and took a job with Atari, designing hard-wired videogames. He secured a job offer for Woz, but Woz was loyal to HP. But he did agree to help design a “one-person pong”, a game that became known as Breakout. “I would like nothing more than to design a game that people played in a bowling alley,” Woz remembered as motivation. He thought it would be a six man-month job, “but Steve said we had to do it in four days.” They did it, and both got mono in the process.

Visiting John Draper – the infamous Cap’n Crunch, who used a cereal toy whistle to get free phonecalls – he saw a teletype machine, a device that cost as much as a car, but which let him log onto computers across the country. Like with Pong, he wanted one, and he began to adapt his video output circutry to output letters on a TV screen. The challenge was entering input, which required a keyboard. He finally found a keyboard for $60 – perhaps $500 in today’s dollars – and had a usable timesharing terminal… which Jobs immediately began marketing to the local computing community.

The next breakthrough for Woz was attending meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, where local geeks had become microprocessor enthusiasts. Once Woz realized that these inexpensive chips were basically the machines he’d designed in high school, he knew he was close to building the 4k machine he’d dreamed of in high school. As he built the machines, Jobs kept pressuring him for features – could it have a floppy drive? Could more than one person use it?

Woz circulated his design and schematics to Club members, which proved a very satisfying way to make social connections. He realized that people knew Bill Gates’s name and thought that, if he built a BASIC the way Gates had, perhaps people would know his name as well. Jobs realized that the boards Woz had designed, plus a BASIC, was a marketable commodity, and worked out a plan to build boards cheap and sell for twice the cost.

Ever loyal to HP, Woz went to his bosses and begged them to build am $800 computer based on this design. But the corporate culture wasn’t right. He finally met with the legal department, and every department on HP signed off that they wanted nothing to do with his computer design… including the Capricorn team, which was building a similar computer using similar technology. So he was free to start Apple. Jobs bought parts on 30 days credit, they assembled machines, delivered them to the local computer shop and used the proceeds to pay off the creditors.

As the machines sold, Woz aimed his sights higher – a machine with color graphics at the core. He engineered a computer with half the chips of the Apple 1 and ten times the power. “You could put a six into a location in memory, and a blue box appeared on the TV. You put a seven in another and got purple. And you could do animations. No one imagined color would come to low cost computing.” Woz realized he could program Breakout for the machine. When he did it – in about half an hour – he found himself literally shaking with excitement that something that would have required years in hardware – trying hundreds of colors and configurations – took seconds in software.

In his last story, Woz tells us that he discovered the Apple II was going to be shown at the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, and wanted to see the city, but only marketing guys were going, and he was an engineer. He realized that if he designed a floppy drive, they’d have to bring him. So he did. In two weeks, using five controller chips instead of fifty. And they took him to Vegas.


Woz has a reputation of being a shy man, not accustomed to the spotlight, and I expected a somewhat reluctant talk. But his speech was basically a torrent of stories and enthusiasm, boundless self-confidence and geeky desire to make cool stuff. It was a real inspiration for me, someone who well remembers that beautiful moment when I figured out how to make colored pixels appear on an Apple II screen.


Idea Festival: Swarmed by Robots

James McLurkin‘s talk is titled “Dances with Robots”. He’s a researcher at MIT studying distributed algorithms for multi-robot systems, a former engineer with iRobot. He offers the observation that Hollywood portrayals of robots fall into three basic categories – frankenstein (robot alienated from society), the tin man (robot wants to be human) and terminator (giant killer robots. It’s the last scenario that freaks people out. Isaac Asimov suggested a series of laws that should prevent robots from killing humanity, as in Will Smith vehicle “I Robot” – a robot must not injure a human, must obey orders, and may protect it’s own existence so long as that doesn’t conflict with the first two laws. (Yes, I know the laws are significantly more careful than that, but there’s no connectivity in the room right now…)

But it’s hard in real life to get these laws to apply because no robot in real life can read these laws, none can reliably tell you what’s a human being, and, frankly, can’t prevent themselves from driving off stage and falling to their death. “Your average squirrel can run through trees at eight miles an hour. A honeybee can fly at 20 miles an hour, avoiding obstacles. That’s something no robot can do.”

McLurkin offers three deep philosophical problems associated with robotics:
- What’s intelligence? (He argues that the Turing test doesn’t test intelligence, but demonstrates a failure in intelligence, a test for non-intelligence.)
- Can intelligence emerge from the interaction of unintelligent components? (Sure – atoms aren’t very smart, but pretty smart engineers are built out of atoms.)
- Does intellect need a body, and does a body effect the type in intelligence we have? (It seems likely, but we only know of one type of intelligence and one body. Perhaps we’ve just met only the dumb dolphins, he posits.)

We should contrast the scary Hollywood robots with realworld helpful robots. iRobot’s Roomba is useful to us not because it’s smart, but because it’s “very cleverly stupid”. Rather than calculating an ideal path to vacuum a floor, it simply vacuums enough to probabilisticly cover the entire floor. He shows the Honda ASIMO, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers, and iRobot’s Packbot, a $65,000 robot designed to probe dangerous situations to keep humans away from booby traps.

But McLurkin’s research isn’t on single robots, but on swarms. He mentions that “robots are best at tasks that are dangerous, dirty and dull”, and that these tasks are often solved best in swarms. For instance, you’d love to send 20 robots into a forest fire and detect hotspots that could explode into more serious fires. You’d love to have a swarm of robots that could look for survivors of an earthquake. In fact, you might do even better with 20,000 cockroach-sized robots who could search for humans, then rat-sized robots who could analyze the structures the people are stuck in, then huge robots that could move away debris.

But programming lots of robots – 112, in his current research set – or thousands, as he’d like to work with – requires some very different techniques than writing conventional software. He shows off some of the techniques by demonstrating a small fleet of robots. They organize themselves into a line, swarm to a location, orbit a goal, and sort themselves by their unique identity. The communication between the robots is via IR – each robot has four IR transmitters and sensors. Communication throughout the network happens via mesh networking – robots propogate a signal from one to the next, looking for a robot that’s closest to the goal.

(One of the loveliest things about his robots is that they communicate surprisingly well with humans – they blink blue and red to reveal their identity and status, and each features a 1.1 watt audio system, which plays appropriate videogame music to accompany behaviors – the Pac-Man ghost music when the robots swarm, for instance.)

As cool as this is, McLurkin points out that ants do this all the time, and frequently do it better than his robots do. Ants appear to solve extremely complex problems through what seems to be extremely intelligent behavior, dedicating resources to searching for close food sources instead of far ones. But ants are solving this problem through a very simple algorithm – they’re simply following the stinkiest scent trails. Because ants visiting a nearby food source oscilate between the food and the nest more quickly, they end up creating a more stable trail, which other ants end up following.

Programming robots to exhibit this behavior requires you to determine the group behavior you’d like, then figure out how what simple robot behavior would be required to emerge into this group behavior, then figure out how robots real-world interactions require modifications to the programming. It’s really, really hard, but quite impressive when it works. He shows a demo of a swarm of 112 robots searching a room, where robots search for goals, send themselves back to base to recharge when neccesary, and send guides to bring a human to a goal. From his swarm, only one failed to return home, well within his acceptable tolerances for failure.

To give us an example for how these algorithms get written, he invites eight people to the stage, assigns them each a unique number and a calculator. He then asks everyone to find a partner and average their numbers. After three iterations, almost everyone in the group has converged on the average of the entire set of numbers. (McLurkin tells us that, in simulation, it should take about 12 cycles to converge on the average.) He shows us that each pairwise averaging should decrease variation, moving people closer to the mean. He offers the observation that this averaging behavior is roughly how honeybees find food. (He also offers the intriguing insight that honeybees have the highest neural density of any creature – they’re not very smart, but in terms of their size, they’re Einsteins.

McLurkin’s path to robotics is a clear geek path – he walks us through his personal history, from model trains to legos, to BMX biking, to RC cars, to homemade robots. He’s got a real flair for making these machines as magical to an audience as they obviously are to him.


Idea Festival: Barrington Irving, flying solo

Barrington Irving has seen a lot more of the world than most college students. What’s more impressive is that he was the one flying. Earlier this year, Barrington completed a round-the-world solo flight, taking 97 days to travel 27,000 miles. He’s (unofficially) the youngest person to make a round the world solo flight and the first person of African descent to do so. The trip involved visits to Newfoundland, the Azores, Spain, Egypt, UAE, Hong Kong and crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Irving was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and grew up in inner-city Miami. He attended Northwestern Senior High, one of the great football powers in America. (Northwestern is the second ranked football school in the nation, facing off against a major football power in Dallas tomorrow.) He was a star football player, heading towards a scholarship at a Division I college. But a mentor put him on a different path – Captain Gary Robinson, who flies for United, met Irving as he was considering his college and career prospects. Irving admits that one of the first questions he asked his mentor was “How much money can you make doing this?” The answer – $117 dollars an hour – helped convince him to consider a career outside of football.

It was difficult, though, at a football-mad high school to pass up “signing day”, and “sign with me, myself and I”. And it required a huge amount of work washing airplanes on the tarmac for Irving to earn $6000 he needed to earn his first pilot’s license.

Early in his aviation career, Irving decided he wanted to achieve a major goal – a round-the-world flight. The challenge started well before he got in the air – he needed to find a plane capable of long-distance flights, which meant getting a custom-built single engine plane assembled by Columbia Aircraft. The deal he struck with Columbia was that, if he was able to get all the appropriate parts donated, they’d build his craft. He solicited parts one vendor at a time, getting a $30,000 set of seats from one vendor, the engine from another. To get the engine, he drove from Florida to Alabama, and took a tour of Continental Aviation, pretending “to be a spoiled rich kid, trying to find out whether these engines were good enough for his plane.” He talked his way into the president’s office, gave a five minute pitch, and was rewarded a few weeks later with a commitment to donate a $83,000 engine.

In total, the airplane cost $300,000, entirely built by sponsors. It took two and a half years simply to line up the sponsors. Major support from Chevron, to provide fuel, and Universal Weather, a flight planning firm, made the trip possible. It took more than a year to gain all the permits neccesary to fly over countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Irving’s team for planning and executing the event was his best friend, Juan Rivera, and a volunteer PR person. The aircraft lacked some basic gear you might expect for an around-the-world flight – it had no deicing system, and outside of the US, no radar. As he puts it, “outside the US, I was flying Lindberg style.”

Irving’s point in executing the project was to call attention to the possibility of careers in aviation for youth, especially inner city youth. He points out that the aviation industry is ageing very quickly – the average age for an aviation engineer is 54. There’s a need to hire 15,000 air traffic controllers over the next decade. He points out that many of the world’s major airports are located in “the backyard of inner cities” – inner-city kids should be training for these sorts of careers. Irving now runs a program called Experience Aviation which is designed to train kids for careers in aviation.

Before he could complete his flight, Irving points out, he had experiences of rejection, of ridicule, of disappointment. He keeps these rejection letters as a reminder of what’s required to live your dream, to follow your vision and persist. It’s an impressive achievement and an amazing story to hear from a 23-year old – the work required to make the trip possible is at least as impressive to me as Irving’s stories about landing on a tiny island in the Bering Straits in a terrible summer storm.

In fielding questions, Irving admits how close to failure he came in executing his project. Early in his trip, he was grounded for two weeks in snowstorms in St. John, Newfoundland. When he took off for the Azores and flew nine hours over unfamiliar ocean, he freaked out, and seriously considered ditching his airplane. Fortunately, he realized that he was simply responding badly to the stress of the event, and brought the craft in safely. But the experience caused him to realize how important mental preparation was before flying any leg of the trip.

It’s likely that you’ll hear Irving’s story in the near future – he’s producing a book and a documentary, designed to support his work with an educational center. And he admits that he’s intrigued by the idea of private space flight, if only he can persuade his mother that those plans aren’t even crazier than his round-the-world flight.


Idea Festival: Tiffany Shlain’s web of ideas

While Idea Festival isn’t quite the blogger gathering that many tech conferences are, there are a couple of us liveblogging here. Check out Evgeny Morozov, who just posted a great summary of Craig Nevill-Manning’s talk, and Wayne Hall, who’s done a great job blogging both the Festival and the run-up to the event on the official IF blog.


Tiffany Shlain, an independent filmmaker, titles her talk “A Declaration of Interdependence”. She notes that American history is built in part on a declaration of independence, but that the 21st century is going to require us to recognize our interdependence. “The 21st century will be about linking the dots”. She suggests that we might need more than carbon offsets – “we may need to think about karmic offsets”.

She outlines her forthcoming film, a project that connects “the disappearance of honeybees, travel and the effects of Federal Express, connections through China”, toxins, Crime, the focus on youth in ideas of beauty, and reproduction. She admits that it can be hard to understand how these ideas fit together, but her films are hypertextual, built on links.

Shlain tells us her life story to contextualize her work. She’s from the Bay Area, and grew up in Marin in the 1970s, the daughter of author, surgeon and innovator Leonard Shlain. She’s been fascinated with technology from early on, including early PCs like the Apple II. In 1988, she and a friend proposed a computer network that would allow people from different cultures to communicate.

As she moved into adulthood, she turned to filmmaking, and to interactive media. She built an early CDRom for Sting and a website associated with it. This led her towards building the Webby awards, which have run for 12 years and established wonderful traditions, like the five word acceptance speech. (Al Gore was awarded a lifetime achievement award and offered his speech:”Please don’t recount this vote.”)

Shlain suggests that people feel a need to be connected by technology “because in the womb, we’re connected to an umbilical cord. We spend the rest of our lives trying to get connected to something larger.” The something larger Shlain found herself looking for, after the stock market crash and 9/11, was a way to talk about women’s rights and reproduction.

The film Shlain shows the audience at Idea Festival is about judaism, and specifically about Jewish tribal identity. She uses the Barbie doll as a way of exploring Jewish identity, assimilation and insider/outsider status. Barbie was created by Jewish toy desiger Ruth Handler, who based the toy on a German doll marketed to adults. (The film explains that Shlain designed Barbie for Mattel and left the company to wrestle with breast cancer. After recovering, she built a company building prosthetic breasts, thus making a fortune twice from plastic boobs.) The film is a statement of tribal identity for a generation of jews raised on assimilated Barbie dolls, an identity which might have more to do with a Hollywood picture of judaism than with ancient practices.

Shlain explains that she rarely shoots original footage – she searches the Internet for footage rather than picking up a camera. The films, she tells us, are designed to spark conversation, encourage people to jump on the Internet and research the details. She’s experimenting with new ideas for how to release these films, and will be releasing some of the past films on iTunes.

For the new film, the honeybee, not the Barbie doll, is the way to discuss interdependence. Honeybees pollinate a third of the food on the planet, and the collapse of bee colonies around the world is a huge concern. Is the cause cellphones? Pesticides? The overwork of bees, behing shipped from farm to farm? She analogizes bees to sex workers – “they’re taken all over the world and put to work.” The film ends up with an Einstein quote to the effect that, without honeybees, there’s no human civilization within four years.

From honeybees, Shlain quickly connects Federal Express and the volume of eggs and sperm exported from Los Angeles; the connection between youth and beauty, between botox injections and honeybee stings; between burqas and beekeeper outfits, between plastic bottles and reproductive chemicals; crime and access to abortion; in-virto fertilization and China’s one child policy. It’s hard to imagine a film coming from this odd web of ideas, but anyone who can connect Barbie and contemporary Judaism is well positioned to try. The sheer non-linearity of Shlain’s talk makes it very hard to blog, but I suspect it makes for some very compelling cinema. And it’s hardly a surprise that – as she shows off to us at the end of her talk – she’s a power user of mind mapping tools as there’s little else that could represent these complex webs of ideas.


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