Category Archives: Featured

David Edwards Is Out of the Lab to Find Art in Science: The GeekDad Interview

Originally published in Wire GeekDad»

David Edwards, Author of The Lab

David Edwards, Author of The Lab

There is a lot of lip-service given these days to the importance of innovation in our society. You often hear that we live in an “innovation economy,” or that we can innovate our way out of a crisis— implying that innovation is something that spontaneously happens with little or no effort. True innovation rarely comes so simply. It is most often the result of the intersecting of two or more seemingly separate and often disparate ideas (you got your chocolate in my peanut butter). We may be banking our future on innovation, but our educational system is not set up around innovation. No, you can’t teach innovation, but you can foster an environment of innovation while learning. Instead, disciplines are taught in independent silos called “classes” with little or no overlap.

David Edwards wants to change that. In his recent book The Lab, David explores the frontiers of learning to promote the theory that innovation comes when we worry less about the scientific “disciplines” involved and more about the desired outcome. In other words, figure out what you need to do and then what scientific tools you need to bring to bear on the problem to solve it.
David has a history of combining art and science in new ways both as a teacher at Harvard University and as founder and director of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. For example, one of the most striking examples he gives is how he and a class of his solved the problem of being able to quickly and cleanly transport water for people in areas without running water. To create the device — called “The Pumpkin” — David and his students at Harvard combined biology and engineering to create a device inspired by the way in which living cells transport water.
A few other of his innovations include:

  • La Whaf — A way of “eating” by inhaling liquid droplets
  • La Whif — Breathable chocolate, coffee, and even vitamins.
  • Andrea — A system that uses plants to clean indoor air.

I had a chance to talk with David through email and ask him about education, art, science, and raising kids.
GeekDad: Science and art — like science and religion — are popularly shown as being at odds and incompatible— truth can’t be beautiful — but in your book, The Lab, you argue that laboratories have to erase “conventional boundaries between art and science.” Why are those boundaries a problem?

David Edwards: Obviously we value a work of art, a MET performance of The Nose of Shostakovich, very differently than we value a work of science, like the discovery of the latest Mersenne Prime, as valuable works of the human mind art and science appeal for different reasons. What interests me in the context of laboratories, a general term I give to environments that “curate” the creative process, is less, however, the “works” of art and science than the creative processes by which we get them, the one being aesthetic, comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, guided by images, true in that it is inalienable in some way from the human condition — the other being scientific, analytical, guided by equations, able to simplify a complex world to problems that can be solved, true in that it is reproducible.
GD: What would a world be like where the boundaries did not exist?
DE: These two processes, “art” in the sense that we imagine how Beethoven “lived” and thought and “science” in the sense that we imagine how Einstein “lived” and thought, actually merge in the creative process, and that fascinates me. In the process of discovery, whether with purely artistic, scientific, or some other ends, discoverers — how I think of creators — dream, and analyze, induce and deduce, are comfortable with uncertainty and are capable of reducing a complex world to resolvable problems and meaningful solutions. Creative lives are like this.

GD: So, what’s happening to the creatives in our society?
DE: With the specialization of knowledge, we now teach, learn, and perform within environments that are specialized to promote dreaming, or to promote analysis, or to promote questioning, or to promote solutions, but these environments are murderous to creative thought, a good reason why the most creative minds often flee institutional environments.
GD: Is the Internet helping to dissolve these boundaries?
DE: Perhaps largely as a result of the Internet Revolution, the “information providing” value of institutions has suddenly been overrun by the “innovation providing” value of institutions. And our institutions remain too focused on the old value model. The boundaries between art and science, as processes of creative thought, become a major obstacle to institutions and society adapting to the conditions of the 21st century. Remove these barriers and the anxiety many now feel facing a future that is so full of uncertainty will be replaced by the freedom a creator feels in a world where dreams can matter.

GD: How long do you think it will take our current mindset about creativity to change?
DE: I think it is indeed a transition that is taking place with the generation that is growing up today. We look at the young today and are shocked by what often seems to be an attention deficit problem. One thing however that strikes me in teaching at Harvard University is how young people, who have grown up surfing the Internet, moving in a matter of seconds from “recombinant RNA” to “Jackson Pollack,” don’t feel the same knowledge restrictions previous generations grew up with, actually recognize, experimentally, the great value of leaping from one culture to the next, feeling your way forward in innocence, discovering.
GD: Many seem to despair a culture where the novice and uninformed have the same access to many-to-many communication as the professional and studied. Do you see this as a problem, and how do you think we are dealing with it?
DE: I actually think that in the world we live in today we find the sources of information, the communities, which suit us, and, yes, I do agree that disastrously uninformed souls can influence millions, billions probably, but I’m not sure that the elite, the most educated and informed, ever had much more influence on human affairs than they do today. What has really changed is that we all, as individuals, have tremendously more outreach than we did. What we say – and do – is amplified. But the elite have always dialogued with the elite. What to do? Making innocence an asset, as it is for an infant, who learns so quickly, may be a goal, and guiding the elite toward more creating, along with the observing, might be another. I keep coming back to the contemporary power of the creative mind.

GD: For some, inventing new ways to carry water may seem like re-inventing the wheel, but you led a class that did just that over nachos and salsa at the Border Café in Harvard Square (I have to admit, I always found their Margaritas to be an excellent creative lubricant when I visited Boston). How did you bring science and design together to build a better, safer way to move water around?
DE: Getting drinkable water from its source to those in need of it without wasting it is a growing problem, of course. In biology the canonical transporter of water is the biological cell. We thought a few years ago that we might be able to learn from the cell to carry water more efficiently. This led eventually to an object that we’re making right now called The Pumpkin, because it sort of resembles a pumpkin when it is all curled up. The Pumpkin is, in one form, an interesting hand bag that doubles as a thermos. You can pull your lunch out of it like you can drink from it. But it also can expand in size, and carry increasing volumes of water, so that you can carry 10 or more liters of water strapped around your shoulder, or around your neck and torso. In developing world environments or disaster relief situations where water transport is a major challenge and head transport often occurs, The Pumpkin is designed to get lots of water safely to where it needs to go without messing up the neck and spinal cord, without making you drag something over tough terrain. Anyway the biological cell is a little like this — a lunch box that expands to carry lots of water or a little, depending on what you need.
GD: How have you been able to apply your own view of creativity to raising your children? Do you ever experiment ideas on them?
DE: My children — and I talk about them in my book — teach me more about creativity than I do them, I’m sure. If anything I may feel more peace than some in watching my three little boys learn in the rough and tumble way they learn. Yes, they were the first kids in the world who “whiffed” chocolate, the first kids probably who “ate bottles.” Since they are growing up in a very formal French school, I suppose having the father who comes home with Le Whif has marked them especially, hopefully an immunization against the worst outcome of a very fine if rigid educational system.

Doctor Who Recap: “The Day of the Moon”

Originally published in Wired’s GeekDad»

Doctor Who: The Day of the Moon

Doctor Who: "The Day of the Moon"

Spoiler alert: While we will discuss what happened in last Saturday’s episode, we’ll avoid talking about any future plot details.

Despite giving us a good-old fashioned cliff hanger at the end of “The Impossible Astronaut” — Amy taking a shot at the little girl in the big astronaut suite — the follow-up episode does not pick up directly where it left off. Instead, we jump several months ahead with Amy, Rory, and River on the lam while the Doctor has been imprisoned — in Area 51, naturally — and then jump back and forth with flash back to fill in the pieces. The team’s new “ally,” secret agent Canton — ably played by Battlestar Galactica actor Mark Sheppard — is hunting them down across the US. Their mission is to see how extensive is the infestation of the Silence. The answer: they are everywhere and have been her for millennia.
So, how do you defeat an enemy who is everywhere but you can’t remember as soon as you look away? (First Steven Moffat gave us the Weeping Angels who turn to stone when you are looking at them; now Moffat gives us the Silence who, essentially, cease to exist as soon as you look away. It seems as if Moffat has been reading a lot of the french philosopher Michel Foucault, who also had a thing about the power of the gaze.) According to the Doctor “We’re not fighting an alien invasion, we’re leading a revolution.” The Doctor’s solution turns out to be ingenious and direct: feed all of humanity a subliminal message to rise up against their oppressors, played at a moment that almost all of humanity will be watching: Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon.

River: Apollo 11’s your secret weapon?
Doctor: No, no, it’s not Apollo 11. That would be silly. It’s Neil Armstrong’s foot.

But that all happens later in the episode. After rescuing the Doctor from a cell made of Zero Balanced Dwarf Star alloy (that’s right up there with “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow!”), the team has to split up again to track down leads while the Doctor goes on a secret mission to “NASA” (i.e. Cape Canaveral) to place something in Apollo 11 capsule that will allow them to broadcast their alien subversion message.
Oh, and Amy’s not pregnant. Or, well maybe she is. Or she’s not. We can’t be too sure, but that’s what happens with the timey wimey wibbly wobbly… stuff. This entire episode is told in flash-forwards, flashbacks, and I think there are even a few flash-sideways.

Amy from the Day of the Moon

Pond or Scully? You decide.

…which is I think how Amy and Canton arrive at Graystalk Hall Orphanage, looking for the small girl in the space suite. The caretaker for this orphanage, a Mr. Refrew, is obviously unhinged, and the entire house is filled with graffiti, saying things like “Get Out,” and… OK, this whole part of the episode is incredibly X-Files — with Amy looking particularly Scully-eque — and loads of seeming non-sequiturs like an unknown woman with an artificial eye at a door saying “No I think she’s just dreaming.”
This is one episode you will have to watch a few times through to make complete sense of.
Unlike most Doctor Who episodes, this story does not tie together very neatly at the end. Although it looks as if the Silence has been defeated, it’s clear that there is a lot more to this story. The end of this episode leaves us with seemingly more questions than it actually answered:

  • How and why were The Silence manipulating events last season?
  • Why does The Silence need the girl?
  • Why is the girl in the space suite and how does she get out?
  • Why does The Silence need a space suite?
  • Did the person in the space suit (we’ll assume it’s the girl) really kill the Doctor?
  • According to the life support software, the girl is human, but incredibly strong. But she’s regenerating at the end of the episode, so she must be a Time Lord, right?
  • Is Amy pregnant? If so, is the little girl her child? If so, The Doctor her father? If not, is Rory? If he is, does that mean that Rory is not an Auton? Earth girls may be easy but I don’t think a lump of plastic could get one pregnant.
  • If the girl is a Time Lord, which one is she? The Doctor’s daughter with Amy? The Doctor’s female clone from the episode “The Doctor’s Daughter”? Could it even be Romanadvoratrelundar, last seen stranded in eSpace? I can hope, can’t I?

Obviously “To Be Continued.”
Great lines from this episode:

Amy: Is this very important flirting, because I feel I should be higher on the list right now.

River: What are you doing?!?
Doctor: Helping!
River: You have a screwdriver. Go Build a cabinet!
Doctor: That’s really rude!

Rory: So, what kind of doctor are you?
River: Archeology… love a tomb.

Doctor: You could let me fly it…
River: …or we could go where we’re supposed to.

Next time: Pirates and Mermaids!

Doctor Who Recap: “The Impossible Astronaut”

Originally Published in GeekDad»

Doctor Who ©BBC

Doctor Who ©BBC

The sixth season of the new Doctor Who Series premiered Saturday night in both the UK and the USA, with only a few hours difference to take account of the time zones. This was a first in the show’s 50-year history, meaning that American fans only had to put up with spoilers from across the pond for a few hours before joining the fray.

Last season began with The Doctor regenerating for the 10th time (his 11th body) and ended with him confronting all of his worst enemies at the same time and the destruction of the entire Universe. Although the Universe was restored, a new enemy was revealed — although not shown — called The Silence. The last we saw The Doctor was during the Christmas Special where his current companions, the recently wed Rory and Amy, were honeymooning on an apparently doomed spaceship.

Spoiler alert: while we will discuss what happened in last night’s episode, we’ll avoid talking about any future plot details.

Season six opens with the Ponds (Amy and Rory) living a domestic life back on earth and River Song still in jail, when they all receive an invitation to — inexplicably — meet in the middle of the American Southwest. It’s unclear if the reason for this location will become apparent or whether this was just an excuse to film in some beautiful American scenery, but it makes for some pleasant locales for reunions.

Then The Doctor is killed. Dead. No, really. Stone cold dead. They cremate his body and everything. Of course The Doctor has been through worse. I mean, last season he ceased to exist altogether, and didn’t seem to slow him down, so it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise when the companions run into him again a bit later at a truck stop restaurant. They soon discover, though, that this is a much younger Doctor, ignorant of the machinations of his future self.

This leads us to wonder “what could possibly happen next?” The Doctor will die in the future, that’s pretty much inescapable, but has Steven Moffat (the executive producer and author of this episode) written this series into a corner in the first fifteen minutes of the season by showing how it happens? Or will history be rewritten… again? But those are questions for a later date, as this episode quickly drops us into the middle of the mystery of aliens on earth in 1969, haunting President Nixon. The thing is, these aliens (Roswell aliens dressed in Men in Black suits) are instantly forgotten as soon as you look away.

Oh, and Amy is pregnant. Surprise!

Moffat is a master of the twist and surprise in plot that come together in the long run. But what he does best is great dialog and character development. What was best about this episode was the growing relationship — not to mention the sexy, clever banter — between The Doctor and River. There’s a great exchange between The Doctor and River about Nixon where River is commenting on Nixon’s record:

River: Vietnam, Watergate… There’s some good stuff too.
Doctor: Not enough.
River: Hippie!
Doctor: Archeologist.

Or my favorite line of the night when The Doctor tells River to shout if she gets in trouble, to which she quips “Don’t worry. I’m quite the screamer. Now there’s a spoiler for you.” And that’s not all we learn about their relationship and the hardship of living it “back-to-front.”

“The Impossible Astronaut” was an impressive beginning to what looks to be an impressive season. If you haven’t been watching Doctor Who, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The Doctor is a free agent who uses his wits and intelligence and will do anything to save a life. He’s not a part of a military or government agency, he’s just a good guy going around doing good things. “The Impossible Astronaut” is the first episode of a two part story, leaving us with a cliffhanger, and I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for next week.

Note: The episode was dedicated to Elisabeth Sladen (1948 – 2011) who died earlier this week.

The Doctor Can Travel Through Space and Time, But What About in America?

Doctor Who will be returning to our screens in a little less than a week (23 April) with the season 6 premiere “The Impossible Astronaut”, and it’s clear that while the Doctor may be chasing aliens, the BBC is chasing the Colonies. Although the less than lustrous Doctor Who: The Movie was set in the States, the Doctor seems drawn like a Dalek to Davros to that tiny little island off the cost of France known as Britain.

If the season 6 trailer is any indication, Doctor Who will be getting even bigger and better.

A few observations about the trailer (no real spoilers here):

  • We will be hearing “Hello, sweetie” a lot this season as River Song will be a major player. We may even find out about her mysterious past.
  • The overarching story will be about a new menace called “The Silence” who are responsible for the events of last season.
  • There will be one or more episodes not just set, but actually filmed in the United States.

Make no mistake, the Doctor will still be spending plenty of time in Blighty, but there will be at least a few episodes set in North America. It’s not just a change in scenery, though. In addition to episodes set in my country ’tis of thee, BBC America is doing a full court press with their marketing of the show, running two page front cover ads in magazines like Spin. My feeling is this a good bet on their part. The Doctor’s popularity seems to have only been growing in the US over the last few years, and this season looks like it just may be a home run for them (I thought about continuing the sports metaphors here by making a joke here about bowling a century, but came to my senses in time. You are welcome.)

To get you ready, The Beeb have released a prequel to the first episode of the new season — a little taste of things to come — featuring Richard Nixon in the Oval office having his own Empty Child moment. Now we know what was on those missing tapes!

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Envision Yourself at WebVisions

If you’ve ever wanted an in-depth crash course in web typography, here’s your chance. I’ll be presenting a half day marathon workshop at WebVisions in Portland this May to help you understand the NEW Web Typography. My workshop covers recent advances in technology and focuses on case studies that that provide a framework and techniques for successfully implementing online typography. Designers will see how they can use the new Web typography to set their work apart from the rest of the herd.

What you’ll learn:

  • How do I use Webfonts?
  • How do I find Webfonts?
  • How do I choose webfonts?
  • Where can I find inspiration for new Web typography techniques?
  • What are the technologies that have shaped the evolution of Web typography?

In addition to me, there’s other great stuff to do. WebVisions is a nationally recognized conference exploring the future of Web and mobile design, technology, user experience, and business strategy.

  • A great selection of workshops with me and others.
  • Keynotes by Douglas Rushkoff and David Armano.
  • Shorter, punchier sessions on the event’s Main Stage, and BarCamp style presentations in the Design, Tech, DIY and Business Pods.
  • Fun parties and networking events like the Stumptown 40, The Webvisionary Awards with Presentation Karaoke, A Meet the Speakers Mixer, and the famed wrap party.

Register before April 5th to get the Early Bird rates »

Celebrate 50 Years of Human Space Flight on Yuri’s Night

Yuri's Night 50th Anniversary

Yuri’s Night 50th Anniversary

This April will see the 50th anniversary of the most important event in all of human history: the first time any of us left the planet. On April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin pierced Earth’s thin shell of atmosphere to (literally) boldly go where no one had gone before. Yuri orbited the earth once in the Vostok 1, taking 108 minutes. Admittedly, this is a bit like dipping the tip of your toe into the ocean and considering yourself a great mariner, but many of us hope this event will be remembered as the first day of the migration of humanity to the stars.

That day should be commemorated.

In 2001, for the 40th anniversary of Yuri’s epic flight, the team of Trish Garner, George Whitesides and Loretta Hidalgo established April 12th as Yuri’s Night and began to sponsor a night of parties celebrating human space flight. The idea was simple: establish a Web site where anyone could register their party, letting the rest of the world know that they were celebrating. The Web site also provides some basic information on how to throw a party and where to find parties that are open to the public. Parties can be private or public, sedate or wild, scientific or hedonistic. It’s up to you.

Yuri's Night: San Francisco 2009

Yuri’s Night: San Francisco 2009

Over the decade since it was first established, Yuri’s Night has grown from a few dozen parties a year to over two hundred parties all around the world. Parties range in size from a few dozen people to a few thousand and have been staged on every continent (including Antarctica) and the International Space Station and in Second Life. The largest parties are generally in San Francisco and Washington, DC, but there are always some great events in almost every major city on the planet. Some parties are still on the 12th, but some opt to celebrate on the closest Saturday (this year, the 9th).

The important thing is to celebrate, and now is the time to start planning. Here’s how you can get involved:

20 Tips for Surviving and Thriving SXSWi

SXSW 2011

South By Southwest (SXSW) is a little less than a week away, so time to get packing. SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) is the “techy” portion of SXSW—the others are Film and Music—and is one of the geekiest popular culture events this side of San Diego Comic-con. While there isn’t any cosplay and no one is likely to spit in your face if you tell them that Janeway was the greatest Star Fleet Captain of all time, SXSWi does attract the likes of Felicia Day, Devo and Bruce Sterling as regulars. It’s a mixture of art nerds, drama nerds and computer nerds, who are almost all focused on technology and culture.

This will be my 3rd year attending SXSW but my first as a non-speaker. In previous years I’ve given sessions on web typography and online comic books. This year I will be attending as a representative of my company, Forum One, and I will be able to sit back, relax and enjoy the sessions without the specter of an hour long speech hanging over my head.

While I’m by no means an old pro—this is the conference’s 25th anniversary—I have picked up a few nuggets of wisdom over the years that I would like to share with you.

NOTE: If you’re going to be at SXSW let me know and maybe we can get a GeekDad meet-up together.

Continue Reading “20 Tips for Surviving and Thriving SXSWi” on GeekDad »