Oct. 25, 2010

PopTech Day 4

by Milbry Polk

TalkingScience is delighted to have recruited Milbry Polk as our POP! TECH correspondent. Over the past few days, she has sent us dispatches from the annual POP! TECH conference in Camden, Maine. You can hear many of the amazing talks Milbry writes about archived online at http://www.poptech.org/popcasts

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

Saturday began with a series of presentations offering solutions and hope to the stressed American education system. The speakers were brilliant, thoughtful people who are making a difference in some of the most challenging neighborhoods and schools. Please go to www.Poptech.org to learn about everyone who presented.

Everyone was waiting to hear John Legend and he did not disappoint. He talked about our public education system and shared the depressing statistics about America’s plunging educational rank in the world. Education, he said, is the fundamental right of all, and access to a good education is the civil rights issue of our time. Legend went on to say that we can't break the cycle of poverty without education. He then sang some songs from his latest album Wake Up!

POP! TECH Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith from Micromidas, Inc. told us how he is working on developing a method to transform solid human waste into plastic. I am looking into his company. There is no shortage of poop on the planet... www.micromidas.com

Simon Hauger, a teacher from a West Philadelphia High School, inspired his students -- including Azeem Hill, who joined him on stage -- to design and build award winning cars. Hauger's high school team beat MIT in a competition for car design and then entered the XPrize for cars. Their XPrize car was parked in front of POP! TECH.

I was personally incredibly inspired by an extraordinary teacher/student team from Askar refugee camp in Nablus, Palestine. They are living and learning in a situation unimaginable to us in America. The teacher, Jameela Khaled, told her students about the INTEL Science Fair in the US. Three ninth graders, Asil Abuli, Nour al-Arda, and Asil Shaar, came up with the idea of making a sensor stick to help the blind navigate. They received 2nd place from Synaptics Inc. They are now looking for a company to support the mass production of the STICK TEC. Read more at http://www.poptech.org/blog/palestinian_students_share_stick_tec_at_poptech

I told these remarkable Palestinians about Sabriye Tenberken, the blind Wings WorldQuest Fellow who started a school for the blind in Lhasa and a center for social innovation in Kerala, India.

POP! TECH Fellow Leila Janah, founder of Samasource, told me that her organization is a social enterprise network that connects people living in poverty with work, via the Internet. In two years, Samasource has provided a livelihood for over 800 people in Africa, South Asia, and Haiti.

Jolie Jones is a writer who is suffering from cell and computer radiation. I have heard of others in the same situation. It has been very difficult for her at POP! TECH because everyone has at least one internet device and sometimes 3 – computer, cell, and tablet.

Inspired by Walt Redmon, who brought solar power to communities all over the world and who tragically died in Haiti during the earthquake, POP! TECH Fellow Salinee Tavaranan founded the Border Green Energy Team (BGET). She trains ethnic minorities along the Thai border to build solar units that bring energy to schools, medical clinics, and community centers, thereby raising living standards, improving health care, education, jobs and the quality of life.

Riley Crane spoke about social networks and how fast they spread. But he pointed out that all the new systems don’t mean a lot without collaboration. He used the DARPA Network Challenge as an example of how collaboration can be developed. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the internet, ten balloons were hidden around the U.S. and people were challenged to find them. Riley’s team at MIT created a network to help find the balloons. He explained the brilliant method they used, and told us it took them only 8 hours! It shows the power of a spontaneous communication network.

Pieter Hoff came from Holland to talk about the brilliant solution he invented to help trees grow in the most arid and demanding of climates. http://www.groasis.com/page/uk/index.php. This invention has the power to change the world.

The rotating lunch today introduced me to Jayan Kalathil of the United Nations Foundation, an organization founded by Ted Turner, which connects people, ideas, and resources at the United Nations. He told us he is engaged with initiatives about climate, women, and populations and technology -- particularly the malaria net project. I also ate with Lisa Kimbal of the Plexus Institute, who explained how her organization evaluates situations to make positive, effective changes. For example, to eliminate a virus in a hospital, her organization looks at the complete system, including all the staff, then facilitates conversations to pinpoint weakness. The method draws out issues that stand in the way of progress; such as in the hospital example, if the nurse could not always wear gloves because the supply cabinet was far away and locked.

Paula Brock is the CFO of the San Diego Zoo Global. She has a wonderful job, as she is engaged with biomimicry and collaborating with many other institutions to save species around the world. Now I really want to go to San Diego!! My young cousin Dylan Aplin went through her program.

One of the bravest people who spoke during POP! TECH was Laura Poitras of Praxis Films, www.mycountrymycountry.com. She told us about and played clips from her latest two films about America post 9/11. In the first, My Country, My Country (2006) she follows an Iraqi doctor in Baghdad. We saw a chilling scene that shows bombs are falling around his house and the efforts the women inside made to remain calm. The second film, The Oath (2010), has gotten her in a lot of trouble with the U.S. government; she has been subject to strip searches and confiscation of her laptop and other equipment. The film is set in both Yemen and Guantanamo and focuses on two men who worked for Osama bin Laden. One is his former bodyguard, who now drives a taxi in Yemen, and the other is his cousin, Salim Hamdan, who is a prisoner at Guantanamo, charged with war crimes. Laura called Hamdan a ghost because, of course, she could not interview him. She was nominated for both an Academy award and an Emmy for this film. It takes a very brave person to expose the fallacy of the US Security empire.

The last presentation was absolute brilliance. David Eagleman talked about his off the cuff creation of a new “movement” called possiblian. To his amazement, after he talked about it on an NPR show, David found he had hundreds of followers. What they are following is unclear, even apparently to him. Possibilianism is a philosophy that rejects both the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground. He talked about so many fascinating things in his twenty minutes that I want to go back and listen to it again tonight on the Internet. Basically, what I took away from his talk, is that there is such a vast amount we don’t know -- and probably can't envision -- that we can't possibly be certain about anything because we don’t yet have a toolkit to begin to understand.

Just when I thought my brain was going to explode, April Smith and the Great Picture Show came on stage and played some really wonderful rocking music. Most wonderfully, Marty O’Kane, the band's guitarist had already given me their CD, so I will put it on as soon as I get home.

We finished off the evening with a grand party. Everyone was intrigued with Microsoft’s new Xbox Kinect, which enables you to play adventure games without wires. I braved the long line of those waiting to play and loved the one for young people about pets. You can train a baby tiger, leopard or other animal and play games with it.

And so POP! TECH ends…..

Thankfully it lives on on the internet. Till next year….

Read Milbry's other dispatches from POP! TECH:
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3

Milbry Polk is the Founder and Director Emeritus of Wings WorldQuest, the preeminent organization supporting women explorers throughout the world. She is the author/editor of a dozen books including Women of Discovery, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and Egyptian Mummies; and she is the book reviews editor for The Explorers Journal.

About Milbry Polk

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