Lift11: Claude Nicollier, The reality of space [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Missing: video of the astronaut we saw in the other talk drinking tea with chopsticks 🙂

Space. World of silence, incredible beauty and opportunity. Claude was very impressed by the fact that you’re moving very fast around the earth, in silence. You can recreate sound, though.

We’re probably the only species to wonder about our origin and physical phenomenons.

Outline: what is space? why go there? personal experience, visits to Hubble; Earth below, sky above; future: rise of commercial space, faraway destinations for NASA.

Space is everything outside of the boundaries of Earth atmosphere. Surface of the Moon, or Mars? Probably not. But when you’re in a free environment governed by the laws of orbital mechanics… there you are.

Claude was impressed by the blackness of space. Had the impression that in all directions, he could see the big bang as it is today, after all these billions of years of cooling.

The reason we go into space:

  • political, demonstration of capabilities (NASA responding to Sputnik and Gagarine)
  • useful! communications, precise navigation, earth resources
  • science, obtain knowledge in many fields, including biology
  • it brings people together (international space station)
  • beautiful views — will never be able to emphasize this enough. It’s really cool!

In LEO (90 minutes revolution) you have one hour of light, then 30 minutes of night.

Space is very close: 8.5 minutes in the shuttle. You just need a very high velocity to stay there.

The assembly of the ISS (International Space Station) has been going on for 10 years. The shuttle has brought most of the parts for the station. Shuttle flights last 10-15 days, normally. Normally people stay six months at a time on the ISS. Brings people together.

Hubble: a perfect view of the universe. Optical, near-UV and near-IR. Some of the 5 visits saved the telescope. Claude was part of two of them.

Training in water.

8.5 minutes to get into space, but then 2.5 days of manoeuvres to get close to Hubble, both moving at 20’000 km/h… Then 5 days of space works following a very precise plan.

Re-entry by night. Land like a glider (no propulsion at that moment, when landing!)

Six years later, back to Hubble. Gyroscope and computer and fine guidance camera problems.

*steph-note: I’m starting to feel star-struck, quite impressed that this guy on stage before me was actually all the way up there.*

NGC 602 — beautiful picture. Another one which took ten days to take, Hubble Ultra Deep Field, revealing hundreds and hundreds of galaxies.

It takes six minutes to fly from Pakistan to China from orbit. Another incredible picture. 30 seconds to fly over Switzerland. It takes 20 seconds for the sun to set.

Success, why? clear goals and priorities; teamwork; strict operational discipline; always a plan for failures and problems — train a lot for them; train, train, train, overtrain.

NASA transition: hand over to commercial companies the transport of people and material to LEO. A courageous step by NASA, thinks Claude.

Space tourism. Virgin Galactic: equipment tests and preparation are happening now. First flights probably in a year from now.

Mars Express in orbit around Mars.

Space is inspiration and useful.

Space to discover, to learn, dream, put people together.

Success through imagination, clear goals, focus.

*steph-note: wow.*

Space blues? Yes, Claude’s missions were all short, so yes, wanted to stay longer. Not like those who stay up six months and are really ready to come back. Would love six months here, six months up there.

Very regimented life on the shuttle: 12h work, 7 hours sleep, 1.5 hours before and after. Wet towels to wash (no shower, icky after spacework). Need to spit in a towel, no sinks.

Many people who go into space are sick for the first 5 minutes. Uh-oh 🙂

Claude is now involved in SolarImpulse 🙂

Lift11: Jennifer Magnolfi, Programming space habitat [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Integration of technology in space habitats. Human Space Flight Program. Currently: extend human presence beyond low-earth orbit. So, the Moon, and long-duration stays on the Moon, and then Mars.

So, beyond 2-3 days: real habitation.

Exploring different kinds of designs. In the same mass of packing volume, you can have different solutions.

Architectural concepts and operational concepts.

Incremental expansion of human space exploration capabilities.

This is now not just about surviving in space, but about living. 2.5 years of mission.

*steph-note: tired/headache tuned out, but there is a whole area of work about designing spaces people can live in for long-term missions*

Lift11: Lucie Green, Researching and studying the sun [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Understand how the sun affects us.

Solar activity can cause satellites to malfunction. Even airline passengers are affected by particles coming from the sun. A few of the ways the sun affects us.

So, motivation to try and understand the physics of the sun and sun-earth interaction — but also of the sun’s influence in the whole solar system.

Sun spots follow a cycle (11 years) — we’re coming out of sun spot minima. Photosphere, chromosphere: look very different in a photo. The sun surface is very dynamic. Go up in temperature: the corona. Photo taken with an x-ray telescope. We see a series of bright loops above and below the equator. Why? We don’t know yet.

Magnetic spots — iron gas in the sun’s atmosphere. A solar flare is a release of magnetic energy. If a solar flare meets with an astronaut, oopsie, fatal. If you go into space, you have to take into account what the sun is doing.

Sometimes the sun corona ejects a kind of “vent” (? corona mass ejection, 3-5 times to day) — mass of Everest, 200’000 km/s, and cause problems when they come in direction of earth.

The sun’s atmosphere is constantly expanding into the solar system, as it’s this hot thing in the cold space. Solar wind. Voyager is only just encountering where the gasses from outside our solar system counter the solar wind.

Northern lights. As solar activity picks up, they creep towards the equator. In the last 10 years, 2-3 times in the south of England.

Solar Orbiter which will go inside the orbit of Mercury. Challenges, it’s a violent place out there! Hard to build something that will survive that close to the sun.

Sunday 6pm GMT, stereo spacecrafts from the NASA will allow us the very first 360° view of the sun!

Lift11: Honor Harger, Listening to the sound of space [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Works with artists and musicians to create digital art. Her real passion is sound.

We have a very visual representation of space. But what about sound? Space associated with silence, of course, it’s a vacuum… but much of our understanding of the universe is also about listening (radio).

*steph-note: listening to sound of the sun, Jupiter, a pulsar… fascinating*

Three anecdotes showing how accidental encounters with strange noises have led us to great discoveries about space.

1876, Bell is in Boston, working with Watson on the development of the telephone. The wires inadvertently became antennas picking up weird signals. Using he world’s first telephone to dial into the heavens. Solar flares and stuff!

Fast forward 50 years. The telephone has completely transformed telecommunications. Get a cable across the Atlantic? Radio can transfer sound, but it’s lossy. A hiss Jansky couldn’t get rid of: celestial objects emit radio waves in addition to light waves.

1964, Bell Labs, studying the Milky Way with a horn (?) antenna. Listening to the galaxy in hifi. Parasite noise. Pigeons in the dish! But no, the noise didn’t disappear. Radiation left over from the birth of the universe. First experimental evidence of the Big Bang.

*steph-note: listening to that sound — sounds like water running… pretty cool!*

Lift11: Sabine Hauert, Robotics today [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Robots = start wars, Asimov… A lot of hype.

“I read that robots can feed on dead bodies.” “Robots can marry us”, “We’ll be marrying them” — heck.

The question: why is that?

There is a reality gap. Roomba vs. the fantasy humanoid-cleaning-robot.

Sabine’s objective with this talk: grind the hype down to reality.

Hopes: robots will help us live better, work better, explore new frontiers (do things that we couldn’t do before).

How robots can help improve our quality of life

Luke-arm for amputees. Not only move through nerve interfaces but actually feel.

Autonomous cars. Avoid 1.2 mio people killed world-wide on the years every year. And be greener! Acceptance barrier? We don’t want to give control to our cars… but actually it’s going to be gradual. We’re starting to see things like auto-park, auto-speed… building up towards truly autonomous.

Robots that fold your towels.

Work better

Huge trend this year with telepresence robots. Video-conference is a pain. What you really want is mobile telepresence robots that you can log into, and move over the Bob and talk to him. Remove meetings. Also used for kids who had leukemia — allowed them some kind of “attendance” in school.

Warehouse robots. The shelves come to the person gathering the material for the order, rather than walking towards the shelves.

Warehouses are cool for robots because they’re structured. Agriculture too.

Explore new frontiers

Her PhD project.

Flying robots: stick their nose in the air and they fly off, and create a communications network in the air. Startup sensefly.

Space robots, of course. Contest: put a robot on the moon, drive 500m, and stream video. (Prize: 30 mio)


First, bodies: how do we make robots better adapted to their task? Example, gripper formed of a balloon filled with coffee beans. Soft, put it over a glass to seize it, suck the air out, it becomes rigid.

Brain: how do we make them learn? RoboEarth — robots can have their web too. Share information and experiences and recipes.

Interactions: how de we make them interact with us in a human-centred way?

Acceptance: robot products at the beginning are not called robots. Cf. Roomba. Now we’re starting to see robots being called robots. It’s become sexy. Eventually it’ll disappear: we’ll call our robot-cars cars, our robot-vacuum-cleaners vacuum-cleaners…

Law: what is the legal framework. You can teach stuff to a robot. But what if the result is bad? (broken arm for example) — who wants to take the liability? Parallel to what happened in the software industry (you can’t attack Microsoft if you lose your data).

Ethics: what do we want robots to do? Do we want them to have life and death decision? (robot-guns)

Conclusion: real robotics are pretty far from SF, robots will be able to change the way we live and work, allow us to discover new frontiers, and be ubiquitous.

Impact on jobs: those that are dull, difficult, dangerous (+ 4th D Sabine can’t remember) — hopefully we’ll have less of those, and more in other areas — just like the industrial revolution.

Lift11: Kevin Slavin, Those algorithms that govern our lives [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Presentation he gave four years ago, about Manhattan. Cities learned how to listen: radar. => invented stealth. Ended badly: in 99, crash of stealth plane in Serbia.

*steph-note: bird flocks on screen are distracting… hypnotizing*

You can’t make the plane disappear, but you make the big thing look like a lot of little things. Radars can’t be tuned to see birds, or they would be useless.

What is the black box in the financial services? Black box trading. You can’t move a million shares of something without showing all your hand. So you have algorithms that break up those shares into lots of packs of little ones so that people don’t notice. But other algorithms are tracking small transactions to try and figure out how the market is going to move.

Algorithms to try and look invisible, or to try and track hidden stuff.

High-frequency trading: three things can help — better algorithms, better computer, but mainly, better network speed. So, you get closer to the internet. The internet is not that distributed: there is a space in NYC where all the pipes come up, and you can effectively have 0-sec delay. => weird real-estate specs. Being close to the carrier hotel is important!

Building and cities are structurally changing around the needs of a bunch of algorithms. Remove all furniture and put in steel floors: because of where the building is we’re going to put tons of servers in and we chose this place because it gives us a strategic advantage by being close to the internet.

Algorithms actually determine a huge amount of stuff in our lives — not just financial trading. What we see on TV, what something costs, who gets arrested, what happens next, what it looks like, how it’s made, what we eat…


  1. opacity
  2. inscrutability
  3. something darker and a little hard to describe

Opacity: elevators. Algorithm to rationalize the use of the elevators. New elevator with no buttons in it except a stop button. Floor buttons outside the elevator.

Roomba vs. other type of robot cleaner: the Roomba is unsettling, because it doesn’t clean like us. It’s algorithm is pretty alien. The other one cleans more like us.

Algorithm to design car evolution. By trial an error, the computer actually manages to figure out how to make a car — how to design it (wheels on the bottom, etc). But it doesn’t at all get there the way that we think. Unnerving. Get from A to B with available solid structures and a bunch of wheels.

Corewar. Game where programmers pit algorithms against one another. Abstract? No more than your pension in the stock market.

Frances Galton and sweet peas.

*steph-note: interesting to confront this thinking to Fooled by Randomness. We do not live in Mediocristan… right?*

Cinematch. Movie rating, rmse = 0.9525 (means: “it’s four stars, but it could be 3 or 5”).

Other rating method: takes into account the crappiness of the human brain. Really bad database (e.g. movie recommendations one month apart… rmse = 1!)

Further: what kind of movie should be made? *steph-note: scary*

Algorithms determining what movies should be made and whether they were any good. The user in this scenario is not us… the public. Long-term effect? mean regression, homeostatic monoculture.

When it goes wrong: Flash Crash. Trading P&G at a penny and Accenture at 100K.

What does a Flash Crash look like in Hollywood? On a dating site? In the criminal justice system? In the wine market?

Third: astrology. *steph-note: glps, didn’t understand that bit*

We can outdo any algorithm with the kind of willful distortion we engage in every day.

Dark pools. Huge masses of liquidity moving around outside the algorithmic pools we’ve created to trade them. So, taking things out of the algorithmic areas. What does the dark pool of Hollywood, real estate, music look like? That’s what’s really interesting, and where there lies hope.

Transparency of algorithms? Very hard to understand. What we need though is some kind of systems literacy, which games are by the way pretty good at providing.

“I wouldn’t date an algorithm but I would hang out”

Lift11: Tara Shears, An update on the Large Hadron Collider project [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

A voyage into the unknown. What do we know, but more importantly, what are we trying to find out?

Particle physics is a study of the universe, from the smallest sub-atomic level upwards, extrapolating to the behaviour of the universe. Recreate the conditions in which the universe came to life in a lab: LHC.

Twelve fundamental particles. Held together by the weak force, electromagnetic force, strong force — that one holds atomic nuclei together.

Basically it for particle physics, but not all there is for the universe. Oh, gravity!

Standard model for particle physics: haven’t yet found an experiment that contradicts it, but it doesn’t include gravity and some other stuff, so we’re set for a fall.


What is mass? not predicted by the theory. Higgs’ theory tries to explain that particles gain mass by interaction with another type of particle (“Higgs particle” which we have never managed to see — worrying). Problem: if we can’t find the Higgs particle, it means the Standard model is wrong, oups. Back to the drawing board.

Second problem: antimatter. We don’t see it. We know it was created, but…? Matter and antimatter annihilation went on a lot during the first minute after the big bag, but then…? The matter that composes the universe is just a tiny little difference between the matter and anti-matter that was there. Why the difference?

Third: what about the other 96% of the universe that we haven’t studied and can’t see — dark matter and dark energy.

Gosh, how do we make progress? We make experiments.

Cern: experiment physicists from all over the world.

The LHC occupies a circle 27km in diameter, probably the biggest piece of interconnected scientific equipment in the world. Lots of magnets. Slight curvature because the tunnel is so big.

Accelerate 2 proton beams at 20 km/h less (?) than the speed of light. Lots of collisions, snapshots, recreating conditions at the onset of time. LHC is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built, so it enables us to look back at such early times as was never done before.

But is it working? Since last March, has been working very well. Half-design energy. Started off at very low energy, slowly ramping up energy.

First results start with snapshots. Understand where the standard model breaks down. Quarks: standard model holds. Holds disgustingly for all the forces. Looks good so far, but need more data.

Looking for the Higgs, but not enough data — working out how much more data they need to either rule out the Higgs or see the first hint of its existence. Probably by the end of next year: should be able to tell us whether the Higgs exists… or not. Very exciting time!

What about the unexpected? The unknown unknowns? Search for dark matter, extra dimensions of space and time, evidence of strings (?)…

Black holes? First thing they looked for, embarrassingly, but didn’t found any. None that they can think of!

Unexpected: possible new phase of matter. Distribution of particles which seemed to know each other, non-random distribution. But it’s completely new and they don’t understand it, still analyzing.

Latest news about antimatter: we don’t yet have enough data to really pin down antimatter, but results in the past year from the Alpha experiment. Trapped a sample of antimatter and hold it for a reasonable of time. 38 anti-H atoms for 0.18 seconds. Never isolated before! We can actually look at them!

Very exciting to have this new facility which is allowing big steps forward in understanding the universe — things are moving really fast! Expect interesting results to come out… but we have no clue what! *steph-note: this is the kind of thing that made me want to study physics when I was a teenager :-)*

Lift11: Marcel Kampman, Reinventing schools — project Dream School [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Three stories: about himself, the project, the school.

Is from a small village near Amsterdam, born there, lives there, works from there. Works in the train a lot — his office! College drop-out (no diploma but did study). Works in an informal network of business/design people, aged 16-60. Balances work and play (cool projects like conferences — Picnic).

Met a guy who had the opportunity to build a new school from scratch. Their kids are roughly the same age. Peter was really passionate about doing things differently. Create the best school for the Netherlands (not of) — even the world. Stress though, architect selection.

Ended up gathering a bunch of smart “TED Talk” guys (Ken Robinson, Jeff Jarvis, John something…) — after a tweet, another contact from New Zealand!

Good things about dreams: they’re unlimited. Schools, however, are very limited.

Idea: school is practice for the world.

Created a foundation to really commit themselves to the project. The problem: the dream gap.

At birth, you are 100% potential. You can become anything. At 22, you’re “educated”. Finished. Education waterfall: you make choices and restrict your potential as time goes by. *steph-note: not sure I really agree with this image. In a way it’s true, but on the other hand you develop the capacity to do so much more than what you could do before. I suspect some “maximizer” bias here.*

You get educated out of your full potential, says Marcel.

Before kids go to school, 98% creativity, and only 2% left by the time they quit high school. The space between the waterfall and the things you could become (full potential) = the dream gap.

Objective: close the dream gap. They do it by doing daily. Involve students in organisation of Picnic, real-estate project (shopping mall).

How? Organize moments. Kick-off meeting in Shipol airport.

Picnic, TEDx Youth.

2011: DreamCentral. A week with a huge bunch of people.

Also try to create tools.

School now: 3000 students, 300 teachers, existing environment — but before building the school they need to know what it’s going to be about and what it will stand for.

When you dream, transparency (in architecture) is a nice thing. But it’s not that nice in practice. *steph-note: thinking of all those big huge glass buildings I’ve seen in Pune and Bangalore this last month*

Lift11: Hasan Elahi, Giving away your privacy to escape the US terrorist watch list [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

As an artist, sometimes you just get opportunities thrown on you and you have to take them.

Airport in Detroit, June 19th 2002, flying back from an exhibition in Africa. Hands his passport to the immigration guard who turns white, doesn’t say a word, leads him through a maze to a detention service. He tries to start talking to the guards, they’re just as confused as he is. Lots of other people from all over the world, fear. He’s frazzled, just got off from long flight, hasn’t bathed… Man in a dark suit walks up to him and says “I expected you to be older”.

Hasan says “do you mind explaining what’s happening?” — is answered: “you have some explaining to do yourself”. Is taken to a kind of cell and questioned. Where were you? Gives answers, but doesn’t understand what’s going on. When he says he was in Dakar for an art exhibition, he (who has a hard enough time explaining this to other artists) “I’m a sculptor”. Who funds your travel? Etc.

Out of the blue: where were you on September 12th? On September 26th? He pulls out his palm and looks at his calendar — they went through roughly 6 months of his calendar.

Turns out they’d received a report of an Arab man fleeing on September 12th with explosives — never mind he wasn’t Arab, was giving classes on September 12th, and wasn’t carrying explosives.

The guy ended up believing him and let him go home.

Shortly after he got home, phone call: “we’d like to follow up with you about your interview in Detroit”. Note the vocabulary. Spent the next six months going back and forth to the FBI building in Tampa where he lived. After 9 consecutive lie detector tests, it finally ended (you can’t use lie detectors in court, but it’s OK for national security! irony). “Do you belong to any groups who want to harm the US?” — I work for a university.

At the end, he asks for a letter saying that everything is OK. But in order to be formally cleared, he would have needed to be formally charged, which was never the case. His concern: he travels a lot, and doesn’t want to go through this again because somebody didn’t get the memo. So they gave him some phone numbers — if you’re in trouble, call.

So he ended up voluntarily calling them up each time he traveled to give the info on flights, destinations, etc. Phone calls turned into e-mails, lengthy e-mails, e-mails with pictures, web pages made for the FBI to tell them what he was doing, highlights, here’s what you should see here… and in return “be safe!”. Unbalanced relationship.

During the investigation, he told them everything. Rather than saying “this isn’t legal, I’m walking away”, he told them everything. When face-to-face with somebody who can just take you to Guantanamo without giving you an explanation… you don’t act rationally. He completely cooperated. They knew everything about him.

Massive system though, can’t possibly operate at 100% efficiency. There could be cracks in the data. So he decided to make everything public, to make sure we knew all the FBI knew.

So he wrote a little bit of tracking code. Approached telco companies saying he wanted to build a device that tells people where he is, what he’s doing, and every little detail of his life. “Are you crazy?!” — but now we’re all doing it with Facebook and Twitter, huh.

He decided to tell the FBI everything.

Hmm, record of his flights, but are they thorough enough? Back to birth (though some flight numbers are missing). Photos linked to those flights: airport, airline food… his alibi!

They should also know what he’s eating, so he photographs it all. *steph-note: this guy is good! and funny! and I like what he’s doing!*

He gives everything, but they must still do some of the work of putting the data together 😉 (ie, food records don’t give the year)

All his financial records are public. His phone records. The toilets he uses. They need to know all that!!

Decided to take it to a point of such detailed level (or even absurdity) that it generates so much information about him that he actually leads a pretty private life. *steph-note: exactly my point about putting a lot about myself online, and why I’m not /that/ worried about privacy issues — might be wrong, but hey…*

Having a little information about yourself online is dangerous. Better to bury stuff, and be in control of your own identity *(steph-note: OK, here I want to link to Anil Dash’s post about controlling your identity that I never manage to find when I want to link to it)*.

It takes almost no time to track all this. No different than sending a tweet or a text. He takes out his phone, takes a photo, adds a comment, and sends it to his server. Clunky software though by today’s standards.

Takes very generic photos — but you recognize the space it’s taken in if you know it. Does not include other people who may not be as comfortable as he is in having their whole life online. Other aspect: it’s not about people, it’s just about “data” — “it could be me”.

Yes, the military and FBI do visit his website! (screenshot of logs shows impressive amount of .mil and .gov domains).

It’s not just about devices, it’s about what we do with it. We’re good at collecting information but we’re very bad at analyzing it, and putting it to use. Imagine if everybody in the US was doing this? Would have to rebuild the system from scratch, overflow.

*steph-note: I’m already at the point where I generate so much information I can’t deal with it myself.*

Lift11: Yuri Suzuki, Music for dyslexics [en]

[fr] Notes de la conférence Lift11 à Genève.

Live and India-lagged notes from the Lift11 Conference in Geneva. Might contain errors and personal opinions. Use the comments if you spot nasty errors.

Is a dygraphic designer.

Book with no words, but bar codes that you can scan and then it reads out to you.

Pencil with a microphone and a magnetic tip. You can record sounds and read them back with the pen.

Yuri used to play trombone but couldn’t read the score. Had to translate the scores into the numbers he needed to memorize to play.

Picture that you can play by moving a captor on top of it. Other idea: line with colours and then some kind of tiny car drives on it and plays the music corresponding to the colours. *steph-note: hard to explain, but available downstairs!*