Eclectic Curiosity

Idea Festival – Day 2

Posted on September 14th, 2007, by Steve Hardy in Archives, ideaFestival 07. No Comments

Day 2 at Idea Festival 2007

Google World
Craig Nevill-Manning

A busier agenda today and the morning started with a presentation by Craig Nevill-Manning, Director of Engineering at Google‘s first satellite office in New York City. He covered five main points:

1. Think broadly – “Computer science is not just about computers.”
2. Enable others – Build a platform for others to build upon. Example: Google Maps
3. Use deep technology – Example: contextual spell-check. Is a search for “kofee” someone looking for coffee or Kofi Annan. “People are generally very bad at spelling.”
4. Build for scale – “Dumb, unreliable, massively parallel, on lots of data.” Reliability comes from redundancy. “Single (or even multiple) failures don’t hurt; they only reduce capacity.” And redundancy is usually not waste. In fact, replication is often needed anyway for scalability.
5. Detect trends – Example: Google Trends and Zeigeist.

No revealing of Google’s pagerank secret but he did tip us to the innovation that Google uses Velcro and not screws to hold in their easily-replaced hard disks. And afterwards I cornered Nevill-Manning to ask him a question I’d been dying to find out about Google’s culture. I’ve always wondered how strictly they encourage or, conversely, enforce their infamous 20% rule (whereby every Google employee is expected to spend 20% of their time working on something unrelated to their main project. My question was: does Google use timesheets? His answer: no. “We actually have too few managers actually and they’re all extremely busy.” Everybody is expected to self-manage their time and to strike the appropriate balance between the 80 and the 20. And if it ends up taking more than 20%, he says, that’s not such a bad problem to have.

A Declaration of Interdependence
Tiffany Shlain

Filmmaker, Webby Awards founder, and co-founder of The Moxie Institute Tiffany Shlain was up next with a hint to a project on a subject obviously dear to my heart. She’s in the process of working on a forthcoming film titled “A Declaration of Interdependence,” which will be about how pretty much everything is connected to everything else. Shlain says she’s fascinated by links and if you’ve seen her short films–some of which I had the opportunity to view later in the evening–you know that her style bounces quickly from idea to idea while still keeping it all threaded together.

She screened her new film “The Tribe,” a 15-minute short about Jewish history and identity – using Barbie as a central element. Yes, Barbie. I didn;t realize this before but apparently Barbie is based on a German sex doll and Barbie’s creator (and Mattel co-founder) was both Jewish and the inventor of fake boobs. The film, which is primarily made from archival footage (“everything that’s been created is my palette”), is interesting, funny, and superbly edited. The Tribe will be launched on iTunes on October 2nd.

An Aesthetic of Turbulence
Ned Kahn

There’s not much I can write about here to describe the work of Ned Kahn. You have to see it to appreciate it. Basically, he creates sculpture, art, and architectural elements from wind, light, fire, fog, water, and other semi-tangible “turbulence patterns”. Very cool stuff. Check it out here.

Deep Survival
Laurence Gonzales

So here’s a book I’d not heard of but have now got to read: Deep Survival by author and former National Geographic journalist Lawrence Gonzales. He spent his hour discussing topics spanning his recent book on “who lives, who dies and why” and the book he’s currently writing, “Vortex in a Bottle,” about intelligent mistakes. Why do smart people do such stupid things sometimes? A great evenly-delivered presentation loaded with example after example – clearly a storyteller with some interesting insight.

His answer to the above question is that we humans tend to create mental models and behavioral scripts. We use these and not the real world, and it’s this automated behaviour that makes us ignorant of the obvious and less likely to take any real decisions. To move through daily life more efficiently we tend not to touch again that which we’ve already learned. But accidents result from a sudden or accumulated change to the normal. An example of the former would be a car collision due to distraction and an/his example of the latter is when something traditional gradually morphs into something more dangerous, as was the case with the massive University of Texas bonfire that collapsed in 1999 killing a dozen students. We’ve built our understanding on one set of circumstance but we tend not to account for new information when those circumstances inevitably change. Gonzales adds, “…and reward systems complicate matters further.”

Gonzales also challenged the common notion nowadays that everything can a should be made safe (eg. ridiculous warning labels). He says that it builds a survival complacency. We stop paying attention and we stop learning about the world, uncurious. He recalled a situation in survival school where, as a young rookie, he came in gung-ho and eager to trek fast through the woods but his guide was annoyingly slow, observant, and letting things sink in – paying better attention. Probably a good lesson for business – look around and take your time at key stages. “Learning changes everything else you’ve known before. The you that learned is not the same you that set out to learn.”

The Meaning of Fashion
Karen Walker

Like Craig Nevill-Manning, Karen Walker is a New Zealander and they both referred to “#8 wire<" which is apparently Kiwis' equivalent of multi-purpose duct tape. Walker spoke about it in reference to the isolated, do-it-yourself, make-your-own-rules attitude common in New Zealand. She stressed how important it is to not just ignore the rules but to break them. That helped her to grow from $70 and a shirt design to an internationally known fashion designer. She outlined eight points to her story:
1. Embrace volatility – Fashion is the most unpredictable industry. It becomes essential, especially for indie designers, to place their bets and hold to their convictions.
2. Ignore the rules – Go with spirit, energy, and a good idea. If she had listened to all the “rules” stating that she can’t do this or that because she was young or in New Zealand or a woman or not an expert at something she wouldn’t be where she is today.
3. Everything inspires – She referenced designer Paul Smith. Inspiration can come from everywhere and it shows in her designs. For example, a recent line of eyewear was inspired by banana republic leaders. A very important point considering that her firm starts from a blank canvass with each season.
4. Look for the scary stuff – “What makes you nervous is the sharp edge of fashion.” New work should make you feel a little uncomfortable.
5. Know your style – Hers is to mix opposites and go with “the right piece of wrong”.
6. Know your customer – She doesn’t do market research, instead opting to attract PLUs (“people like us”). It makes selling easier because you can talk in one voice and it will be your natural voice.
7. Surround yourself with great people – Find people who will support you with their enthusiasm and expertise. “They have to get it in the first two minutes. … Interesting like-minded people find one another.”
8. Know that a brand grows slowly. Like coral, she said. You may not notice it as it is happening but one day you look up and see something beautiful.

Robot “Swarms”
James McLurkin

James McLurkin of the MIT Computer Science and AI Lab is one of the world’s top experts in the fascinating field of robotics. He’s also a great speaker with an obvious passion for his work. He had the room chuckling at his slides, his dozen or so little cube robots, and his complete knowledge of Star Trek like robot lore. His talk was called, “Dances with Robots: The Story of One Engineer, 112 Little Robots, and the Toys, Insects, and Star wars Movies That Made It Possible.” Broken into three main sections, he spoke about 1) the end of the world (ala Terminator), 2) swarm technology, and also 3) his personal story.

1. What is intelligence? It’s certainly more than the Roomba, Honda’s Asimo, the US military’s exploratory Packbot, or even NASA’s Mars rovers.
2. Swarms are the future of robotics. Inspired by behavious of ants, termites, wasps and bees, swarms will be able to do dangerous, dirty and dull work.
3. Childhood activities inspired and trained McLurkin. Cardboard boxes taught hands-on fabrication, model raliway taught precision crafting, Lego taught mechanixal engineering, video games taught computer science, BMX taught real mechanical systems, and remote control cars taught electromagnetic engineering.

He ended with an unattributed quote: “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between work and play.” To which he added, “Play hard!”

Steve Wonziak

Okay, so the big Woz keynote. I didn’t really take notes for this one. Not that it really would have been possible. The guy talks a mile a minute and bounces all over the place. But there were a few key takeaways for me.
-His success stems from relentless experimentation. He’d tirelessly try new things, tinker, and simply build what he couldn’t buy.
-He would build something and then re-build it to make it more efficient, reducing the number of chips down one at a time. He recalled a Data General 4k Nova that made a significant 40 chip reduction all at once – “because whoever built the architecture also designed the program”. It was a game-changer.
-From his eight-year experience teaching fifth grade: “It doesn’t really matter what you teach. It is more important to motivate a student to learn.”
-On sneaking into Stanford on Sundays to read then-rare computer manuals: “A lot of smart people work at Stanford. Smart people leave doors open.”
-“No computer has been made with the intelligence to determine the right approach, especially if it’s not a straight line.”
-“You’re going to fail at first.”
-“A lot of times if you don’t know if it will work, you’re on to something good. If you can define everything that’s when you’re on to a plain straight career.”
-Intrinsic motivation is infinitely more powerful than extrinsic motivation. “You keep the deals with yourself.”

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