Thursday, October 30, 2008

Some Notes from Ideas Boston 2008

I spent the day at the Ideas Boston conference, held every fall at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. It's a really interesting slice of what's happening in our town across the realms of science, technology, the arts, non-profits, and academia.

It's a fun event, in part, because of who you see and meet -- an unusual cross-section of Bostonians. I ran into Bob Krim from the Boston History and Innovation Collaborative, several folks from the Museum of Science, a number of Boston Foundation people, a programmer from Microsoft, the guy who runs the Lemelson-MIT program, Northeastern University roboticist Joseph Ayers, John Lester from Linden Labs, Julie Graham from YPO, Denise DiIanni from WGBH, Joyce Plotkin from the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, and Don McLagan, formerly CEO of EqualLogic.

Some of the talks I enjoyed most were those that had nothing to do with technology... like the artist Paul Goodnight talking about the monument to the Middle Passage he is trying to build in Boston and guy Noah Feldman talking about the future of Iraq and Afghanistan...Paul Watanabe talking about immigration and the way that America has treated Asian-American immigrants specifically (like his own family)...photographer Robin Bowman discussing her travels around the country to talk with and photograph American teens...and Sara Seager of MIT talking about what earth-like planets in other solar systems will be like (and predicting that we'll find one within the next five years.

IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg got the most laughs of the day by showing how he has been trying to create useful and surprising ways to visualize words information, instead of just numbers. He showed how various baby names have waxed and waned in popularity (the 1970s were a great decade for "La" names like LaTonya, LaToya, and Lakeisha.) He analyzed the Presidential candidates' word choice in the debates (not surprisingly, when John McCain uttered the word "my" it was most often followed by "friends.") And, preceded by the disclaimer that this particular Web site was not built using IBM dollars, he talked about a personal project to analyze the body parts most often mentioned in song lyrics. Jazz lyrics tended to focus on "eyes," and gospel lyrics the hand. Hip hop lyrics? Very obsessed with the behind, he found.

Wattenberg was followed by MIT prof Dava Newman, who is designing a next-generation space suit for voyages to Mars and a return to the moon. The suit, she said, was less like putting someone in an air-tight Zip-loc bag and inflating it (that's been the approach thus far with NASA's space missions) and more like "shrink-wrapping someone." It's designed to offer the wearer far more mobility and dexterity than current models -- which will be important when we go prospecting on the red planet. She said that some of the suit's "exoskeleton" features (like helping the wearer move or lift things) might be useful on earth, for people who suffer from diseases like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Newman had one of her grad students model the tight-fitting suit on stage, and on a walk through the audience, and I am sure no one at all was thinking about hip hop lyrics.... at all. At all.

John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, ended the day by talking about simplicity, design, technology, and humanity. He suggested that we've arrived at a moment where we've had a big too much of technology -- like gorging on meatloaf -- and we are ready for more humanity and authenticity. There was a lot of nodding in the audience.

The event was sold out this year, by early October. They'll need a bigger venue for 2009. By way of disclosure, I served on the advisory board, which involved suggesting a few speakers.

The main thing I'd improve for future editions is subtracting one or two speakers and making way for a few questions from the audience and moderator Tom Ashbrook after each presentation. Also, a live Webcast would be great (though I do think the event gets recorded for eventual viewing on WGBH online.)

Update: Here's the Globe's coverage of the event.

[ Photos: At top is John the middle is the spacesuit. ]

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Filling Out Your Fall Calendar: Events Worth Knowing About

Here are a couple events for September, October, and November that I think will be worth going to. I'm planning to be at each of them in some capacity (reporter, moderator, organizer, etc.)

9.23-9.25: Emerging Technologies Conference @ MIT
Werner Vogels from Amazon, Rich Miner from Google, and Craig Mundie from Microsoft top the list of interesting speakers (according to me, at least)

9.25: Tech @ The Movies
This is the first entertainment industry panel that Mass TLC has organized, focusing on the role Massachusetts tech companies are playing in the movie industry. I'm moderating a panel, and giving a short talk about the historical contributions our state has made to the movies, based on my new book Inventing the Movies.

10.2: Mass TLC's Innovation UnConference
Mass TLC is reinventing its big fall event this year (previously known as the investor conference), trying to make it more valuable for entrepreneurs.

10.21 New England Mobile Summit
Part of the Mobile Internet World 2008 trade show, organized by the Yankee Group.

10.30 Ideas Boston
A chance to meet big thinkers like IBM's Martin Wattenberg, Daniel Schrag from Harvard, and John Maeda, the new president of RISD.

11.12 Innovation in Hollywood: Past, Present & Future
I'm giving an illustrated book talk about Inventing the Movies at the Museum of Science... chock full of movie clips, photos, and trivia.

11.15 HBS Cyberposium
Last year's speaker roster included Walt Mossberg, Ray Kurzweil, and Curt Schilling.

11.19 Future Forward 08
A gathering of entrepreneurs, investors, and CIOs/CTOs to explore new directions in technology. Audience limited in size; invite only.

12.6 MIT Venture Capital Conference
No Web site up yet for this year's event... but last year's included Google exec Chris Sacca and VMWare CEO Diane Greene.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Ideas Boston / 10.30.08

Registration just opened for this fall's Ideas Boston conference, on October 30th.

Speakers this year include roboticist Joseph Ayers from Northeastern, information visualization guru Martin Wattenberg of IBM, digital artist John Maeda of MIT/RISD, and climate scientist Daniel Schrag from Harvard.

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