I’ve Got Next

Ok. So I want to make this post timely, but it means that it will begin to let a cat out of the bag. We’ll see how much I can save for a later post as I write1.

So, as I walked to the subway this morning (yes, they have one in LA), I went through my little checklist of things I take on self-assigned assignments of this sort.

Notebook for scribbling: Check
Pen for scribbling: Check
Camera: Check
Phone (now with decent back-up camera): Check
Spare battery for camera: Check
Decent excuse/reason for being spectacularly late: Check
Water: Check
Good footwear for endless walking back and forth: Check

By now you get it. I’m either doing one of my parade reports, or perhaps a street fair/party, museum exhibit, or some random science fair, object or installation or other. Yes, but which? Well, apparently I was going to the future:

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The scene: The Los Angeles Convention Center. The event: The NextFest, brought to you by Wired Magazine. It is on from the 14th to the 16th September, and if you are interested in technological and scientific ideas about aspects of the future, it is worth popping down.

nextfest visit photoNext stop: A desk where I got the stuff that allowed me to be wandering about this event on the 13th. My press pack. (The other options were school kid or school teacher.) As you can see from the photo on the right, I seem to be a member of the press today. Don’t worry – that won’t make me any less subversive in my reporting than I usually am (yeah, I know). Just means I don’t have to sneak into anything or be taking my pictures in the usual stealth mode. Just to remind me of my illegitimate mode, I decided not to wear the badge on my chest, and attached it to my belt instead – ruins my carefully planned ensemble you know (actually, this is what I usually do) – and I certainly would not be wearing the battery-powered “sparkly-glowy” thing saying “press”, the purpose of which is still a mystery to me. You can just see it in the picture. I did see others wearing them – glowing away. (Perhaps if we are all fumbling about in a dark room for some reason (power outage? attempt to brighten a dull moment?), we can figure out who is press and who is other? Inquiring minds need to know.)

Explanation required, I suppose. For reasons I’ll go into later, I was granted press credentials by my friends at KCET, who make the show (that I told you about a while back in its pilot phase) called “Wired Science”. I’ll be telling you more about that show in a later post. There’s a lot to tell, and it looks like it will be rather good. Science and technology presented weekly in a fun and interesting way. Suffice to say that it was good to be able to go into the exhibition and have a look around. After a while of realizing with glee that I could climb up onto the raised platforms with the camera people and take pictures too (normally I can’t do that without turning up the wattage on my smile, etc., in order to coerce members of the floor staff in such an event – this is no longer failsafe post-9/11, sadly…. or maybe I’m just getting long in the tooth), I realized that pretty much every adult there (not part of an exhibit or floor staff) was from the press (exceptions below), so any hopes (I jest, of course) of gently but firmly flaunting my “anywhere access” authority over that of members of the nextfest visit photomere general public were a bit dashed. The other major population was schoolchildren -lots of them (explaining all the school buses outside)- but there’s no fun trying to compete with them for coolness. There’s no contest. They’d beat me hands down. Population three was the harassed schoolteachers. They are really my people, so I warm to them naturally.

What was there? Well, lots of things about (people’s view of) the near future, some a bit silly (frankly) and some actually good and interesting. There was the usual space-centric stuff (including the obligatory -it seems- appearance by Buzz Aldrin – see later), the usual (slightly disturbing to me) military stuff from our neighbourhood aerospace industry, and (as there always seems to be at these supposed glimpses of the future) some guy with a jetpack, and yes, there were other various dubious-looking “futuristic” vehicles.

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nextfest visit photoCynicism aside (but not too far away), it was all good to see, and there was good material in the above, and then quite a bit of really fantastic stuff that somehow does not have the press clamouring to see it as much as the big ticket items. Chief among these in my mind was this really lonely-looking scientist (an actual scientist – not an engineer or PR person, not that there’s anything wrong with either, but….), Prof. Pengchen Fu, standing there a bit hopefully and forlornly in the “Green” section, willing to talk to someone (anyone!) about his use of cyanobacteria that feed on carbon dioxide and produce ethanol in return. I don’t know what the numbers are – the detailed analysis of the feasibility of what he’s looking at (but it looks really great) – but I’m willing to bet that we’ll be more likely to be using at least something like that as part of our future energy consumption chain than individual jet packs to get us through traffic to Santa Monica. (Eventually, Leighton Woodhouse (one of the Wired Science Digital team – more later) and I talked to him, took a photograph, and this prompted a small child to come up and ask what the green thing was.)

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While I’m on the subject of transport and Green: Was there any mention of public transport in our future? Guess what? Not that I could see. Not a blip. It scares me that this city/region still has yet to grow up in this regard. How can you have a section on the future of transport in an exhibit in 2007 in Los Angeles, and not have anything on public transportation? There were plenty of personal vehicles of various sorts of course: Some interesting, some just silly. It is both funny in its ridiculousness and annoying. On the other hand, all those personal vehicles, and no sign of the hovering car technology we were promised for Los Angeles in the movie Bladerunner! The clock is ticking people! Get on it…!)

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nextfest visit photoI’m sure you’ll get the more upbeat and glowing reports from other bloggers and writers, and so sorry if I’m a bit hard on some of the event. There is a ton of good stuff to see (see site), though, spanning the range of education, health, green architecture, (ok, not a lot, but some), biometrics (yes, a lot of that of course), space exploration (robot rovers, and successor technologies to the shuttle), a tiny bit of Astronomy (e.g., a model of the huge Webb space telescope, sadly scaled down to such an unimpressive size that I don’t think many will see just how super-significant it is to science, and our future views of our place in the universe – it is the soon to be launched remarkable successor to the Hubble space telescope, and remember what the Hubble did for us! See here for more.)

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… and of course, communications. On the latter, please don’t ask me what the point of the YouTube Mirror was, but it made for an excellent photograph. I’m sure there was some important point being made, but I was distracted:

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… I’d just been informed that the Wired Science Digital people wanted to interview me on camera in ten minutes. A producer’d heard I was around and wanted a chat with me to put on the site. I’d no idea what they wanted to talk to me about (in detail -science and science blogging would be two obvious topics) and so I figured I’d better walk around and get a general sense of everything in case they wanted to talk about the exhibits. So I set off to do that in ten minutes (it’s one of those Industry ten minutes, which means more like 25 minutes)…. and I never made it back to see what that (and a bunch of other things) was really about.

nextfest visit photo

nextfest visit photoSo what were some of the big ticket items, at least in terms of where all the regular press were? Well, the biggest was of course the X-prize. There was a long movie with lots of stuff about space, and dreams about our future in space, and animations and things of roving robots on planetary surfaces, and all that good stuff…. very nice, I thought, and began to wander off…. and then there was a round of applause from everyone and I came back as a voice announced “The Google Lunar X-Prize”, and various other people showed up on the stage (like one of the founders of Google – forgot his name, and later, good ol’ Buzz Aldrin – of course (see left)). The founder guy began his speech by acknowledging all the Google engineers in the audience… and announcing that they’d just launched a new version of the moon. Applause. (I’m pretty sure that they mean Google Moon, by the way.)

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Anyway, after half-listening to the earnest speechifying (the other half of me was talking with Leighton Woodhouse, of Wired Science Digital, who I’ll tell you more about later – he is in that photograph with the Green (bacteria) Professor, above, by the way), I gathered this. The Google Lunar X-prize will be an award of $20 million to the first team who – pay attention now – launches a spacecraft to the moon, makes a soft landing, ejects a lunar rover that roves around for a bit and sends back pictures. I don’t know about you, but to me this seems like a remarkable raising of the bar (as Leighton put it) as compared to the last X-prize. You can read the press release here. (The consolation prize, by the way, is $10 million…. Excellent! So if I break out a spud launcher and a $20 remote-controlled car strapped to an old mobile phone with digital camera, and if I can figure out how to make sure that nobody else enters but me and the actual ultimately winning team of engineers probably sponsored by Richard Branson – I get Ten. Meeellion. Dollars! Cool.)

There was a Q&A session afterwards, but then I had to go with Leighton to find the rest of the team (that was all actually earlier in the day – near the beginning). I was torn. I wanted to ask a question, such as: “So when you say the moon, do you mean the real moon, or… Google moon?”. But I expect that I’d have been stripped of my newfound press credentials and escorted from the room.

nextfest visit photonextfest visit photoAnyway, that’s all I think I’ll say about the event today. I think it was really overall quite an interesting mixture of things to see. It is a pleasure to see the kids all excited about such an exhibit, although I wish more attention had been given to getting them excited about some of the more important things rather than the fancy TV sets, video games, and other sparkly noisy things. It is not that those are necessarily more appealing: the other stuff just was mostly not even trying to be interesting by comparison, unfortunately. If you’re in the area, it might be fun to go along. Perhaps while you’re in that part of town, consider going a bit further to the California Science Center and seeing some other views of the future too.

nextfest visit photoOh, the shoot. I waited a while for them to finish with others (there they are interviewing Elon Musk, you know, the Tesla guy) and then it was my turn. Well, I babbled a bit about science and blogging, including an answer to how I got into blogging (mentioned Sean and Mark as convincing me to join them in setting up Cosmic Variance – sorry Mark, for a moment I blanked on surnames and almost said the wrong one, and it shows – and had to rather cut short my answer and so feel bad for not mentioning our co-founders JoAnne and Risa. I somehow, in “questions for the kiddies” – not my words, managed to mention the exciting physics coming up at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC – use the search engine here to find more about it), and a somewhat garbled two or three sentences about particle physics, ideas like extra dimensions, black holes, dark matter, and string theory, and about being sure to stay curious and ask questions in school. Goodness knows how that will come out when they put it all together.

Ah, and here was something else. I was asked about London, and when I revealed I studied at London University’s Imperial College, the producer/interviewer, Douglas Varchol, was delighted -so did he. Then the cinematographer, Jillian Arnold, poked her head from around the camera and said she was at Imperial too! So we laughed, we cried, we hugged, and I said I’d take a photo for my vast Imperial College readership. (I’ll leave it to you to determine which parts of the previous sentence can be said to be fabrications – in the pursuit of humour).

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While we were shooting, and I was giving an answer (something about the origin of mass and how it was nothing to do with fast food) out of the corner of my eye I could see someone approaching with a very purposeful walk that was making a beeline for me, not deviating at all. Could they not see that we were filming, I thought? “Hi!” the smiling person said when in our midst, and we all turned and looked. Ah! The full-scale TV crew had arrived, with their bigger cameras, bigger equipment bags, bigger entourage, and…. a really high-wattage TV personality: Ziya Tong. She is one of the presenters and field operatives of the upcoming Wired Science TV show (which I will tell you more about, and you will recall me blogging about when it was in its pilot phase here and here), among several other shows. Seems that the other team was there to shoot some stuff for the TV show (it’ll be on PBS). The team I was with was primarily focused on the accompanying web resources for the show, you see. They are building expanded online resources to accompany the show.

nextfest visit photonextfest visit photoWell, after chatting with the new team and Ziya for a bit, it was time for me to wander off. My work there was done, I’d seen a lot, was a bit tired, and I had two more missions. Back to the subway – Pico station on the Blue line is right next to the Convention Center, and of course, nobody going to or from the event seemed to be using it except me – and I shortly arrived at MacArthur Park on the Red Line. Why? Well, I needed some lunch, and the stuff the crews were tucking into that they’d bought at the Convention Center can’t hold a candle to the attractions of (for example) Mama’s Hot Tamales, and so that’s where I went. Furthermore, I was location scouting for another and totally unrelated science-meets-tv thing (more later). I wanted to check if the giant fountain in the park was operational. It was not, sadly, and so an excellent possibility for a location -involving both the fountian and the subway: figure it out- won’t work. I also later on my way home checked out the Vermont/Sunset station’s ceiling to confirm that the rather lovely stars and constellations motif that is there might work well in a shoot. Again (annoying, I know): more about all this later.

Ok. That’s enough, I think.

-cvj

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  1. Today was completely dedicated to science outreach issues. All off campus. This post telling you about it should really be called “Tales From The Industry XII”, in view of the content of earlier posts similarly titled, but I’ll stick with the punchier title. [return]

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