Eclectic Curiosity

Idea Festival – Day 1

Posted on September 13th, 2007, by Steve Hardy in Archives, ideaFestival 07. No Comments

Day 1 at Idea Festival 2007

The morning started with an experimental “workshop” called The Big Jam. This was basically a warm-up of three 10-minute sessions from a choice of ten. The three that I randomly walked into were about philosophy (What’s It Like to Be You?), environmental stewardship, and, fittingly enough, randomness. The latter was interestingly connected to a new project called Yuzoz in which the seemingly irrelevant pulse of stars could be harnessed to make decisions perhaps no less accurate than, say, Google’s billion-dollar algorthms. Or, just as curiously, form the bass line of some musician’s next hit single.

Homaro Cantu
Chef Cantu

The first main presentation of the festival was delivered by chef Homaro Cantu. Cantu, 29, is head chef at the celebrated Chicago restaurant called Moto and he also runs Cantu Designs, an offshoot which is patenting some of the creations and processes emerging from his kitchen’s unusual methods. Those methods include shredding, blending, vacuum packing, freeze drying, centrifuging, syring injecting, and baking with a Class 4 laser. This is no typical cuisine!

Cantu showed us clips from his science laboratory-like appearance on the TV show “Iron Chef” and walked us through a video of a 20 course meal at Moto. If you’re wondering, a meal at Moto starts with an edible menu and then move on to such delights as liquid salad, noodles made from pureed rice, mac and cheese with quail, a Chicago hot dog with melting mangoes, charcoal, freeze cooked tuna, cotton candy truffles, and sweetened nachos with a chocolate topping resembling ground beef. “I want you to remember each course 10 years from now,” says Cantu. He calls his approach the transmogrification (definition: the act of changing into a different form or appearance – especially a fantastic or grotesque one) of food. “I like taking one thing, thinking differently about it, and adjusting its format. I take things we’re familiar with and serve them in an unfamiliar way.” His wife doesn’t let him cook at home.

A secondary and more serious point that Cantu repeated throughout the question period was that he’s actively supporting the decentralization of food production/distribution and the creative use of local ingredients. His scientific hacking of cooking is also opening doors for the discovery of safe ways to extend shelf life and to more efficiently provide nutritious food in aid situations. A great session.

Cameron Sinclair
We Don’t Ship: How Community Design Delivers More Than Architecture

The session schedule here at IF isn’t especially dense and there are only a few spots on the agenda requiring me to decide between talks. Alas, I decided to miss this intriguing session on community architecture so that I could listen to a soft-spoken German theoretical physicist run through a packed powerpoint about money and disease…

Dirk Brockmann
Money-Circulation Science

This talk actually wasn’t especially heavy on equations, finance, or death. It was about the mobility of people and how that movement shapes the spread of epidemics and pandemics, such as SARS, H5N1, AIDS, and Tuberculosis. Brockmann works at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamic and Self-Organization – formerly called the Institute of Fluid Dynamics. Turns out there’s less focus now of fluid dynamics and more on inter- and multi-disciplinary work. And his story is a great example of it.

What Brockmann’s done is connect human travel patterns and epidemiology – effectively finding some important analysis by bridging them together using currency. Soon after a conference in Montreal a few years ago, one of Brockmann’s friends helped him break the researcher’s block he had in mapping the spatial transmission of incredibly deadly bugs. His friend, a cabinetmaker named Dennis Derryberry, tipped him off to a web project called Where’s George? in which people track the movement of dollar bills. So Brockmann contacted the creator of Where’s George?, Hank Esken, and it turns out he was sitting on a mountain of data. A lot of people from all over the country were tracking bills. Well, people typically move around with a few bucks in their pockets.

Brockmann showed us several maps of the US, as well as of Germany and Kentucky. The travel patterns were striking and like fractals they can be zoomed into with greater and greater detail. When the travel patterns of all US counties are mapped, nearly half a dozen distinct regions emerge – and they don’t always match the typical electoral or marketing districts. For example, there’s less of a narrow West Coast region stretching from Seattle to San Diego; it’s more a Pacific Northwest region and a US Southwest region. And when a simulation mapping the spread of an epidemic originating from Washington DC is mapped, using currency data we see that it is less a slow solid wave moving east to west and more fast-paced scourge hitting regional centres (such as LA) and then sprawling out from there. Fascinating! “It can be very fruitful for specialists to consult with non-specialists.”

Brockman also left us with five great general points about ideas. Ideas are:
-triggered by coincidence
-not taken seriously by colleagues (initially, his colleagues laughed at him for suggesting the use of data from Where’s George?)
-likely to fail
-insufficient (one must work to make them reality)

Nicholas Kristof
Darfur and…

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times and his bio covers pretty much the whole globe – every American state, every Chinese province, 120 countries, and all members of the axis of evil. But the focus of his presentation today was Darfur, a place he has been to many times and that obviously means a lot to him. On his first visit to the troubled region, he recalled, the first four people he met and interviewed each had horrific stories. And that was only the first four. “I realized then the level and scale of the atrocities taking place there. It’s been very hard to write about anything else since.”

His was a fairly grim and sad presentation, of course. He showed some gruesome video from his visits and spoke of the violence and pain. “If you go to Darfur, you can’t doubt the existence of evil.” It may not be complete eradication of a people–women and children are usually spared death–but it is genocide, in his opinion. The Sudanese government’s brutality and complicity with janjawid rebels is intolerable. We must do something, he stressed. “We don’t only have interests, we have values.”

However, he carefully argued as to how the US could help. The solution is not to send in US ground troops, he reasoned. Because of Iraq and because the Sudan is an Arab state with oil, any US military involvement would be unwelcome and poorly received. More likely it will take strong diplomacy, with sincere involvement from China and with pressure from places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to persuade the government of Sudan to change. “If we change their incentives we can change the way they behave.”

“It Never Got Weird Enough For Me”
A film and discussion about Hunter S. Thompson

In the evening I swung by the beautiful Kentucky Center and caught a screening of a great doc about the man, the myth, the legend that is Hunter S. Thompson. Produced and directed by Tom Thurman and written by Tom Marksbury, “It Never Got Weird Enough For Me” examines Thompson’s life through his work, ideas, movies based on his writings, the recollections from his friends (such as Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, and others) and family and archival interviews with Hunter himself. This is a very entertaining film that moves at a quick and slightly unpredictable pace. It does a very good job of encapsulating the many peculiar facets of Thompson’s life up to his suicide in 2005. If you get the chance, I encourage you to check it out.

Other bloggers here at IF can be read here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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