Slow jazz. Interesting, thoughtful, energetic people: meeting, greeting, being curious, exploring something new. in the first hour, drinks are discounted, and people take the opportunity to get a table and order food, which is optional throughout the evening. The atmosphere is relaxed, and one is free to take in everything on offer, or to sift through the bold and innovative ideas, courageous undertakings and inspired socially responsible endeavors, according to one’s taste, tolerance or mood. It is Sept. 11, 12 years from the devastation brought to this city, and this space a good, and hopeful, place to be.
The subject matter is of weight, no doubt, but the atmosphere is one of levitation, perspective and serene enthusiasm. It is possible to be these things, and to be in touch with information of historic and of future weight and significance, when surrounded by people who somehow fit together in this way. Lucid brings together artists, designers, scientists, documentary filmmakers, engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs, musicians, physicians, political junkies, and all sorts of people just interested in being more engaged with the high quality of thought and action celebrated by these events.
If you have attended a number of Lucid evenings, you can get to feel there is something meditative about the experience. Lucid is not a monastery… far from it… but, there is something about this atmosphere that lends itself to thoughtful potency, a well-mannered agitation of the mind. The imagination is challenged by the subtleties of projects one could not have conceived of, and so the ability of one’s own mind to adjust to the circumstances of that test, comes into focus. I leave every Lucid feeling more in touch with my own mind, and more energized to work on the creative, innovative or problem-solving tasks that I have in store.
And sometimes, there are little breakthroughs. As if by contagion, you find that proximity to the creative spirit whips up something in your own intellect, which allows for big, bright, new ways of seeing, to come to life. I won’t name them all, as they remain in progress, but some important projects of technological or editorial innovation, got underway while Lucid was going on around me.
After an impressive, elegant and somehow humanizing performance, by composer/trombonist Nick Finzer and his jazz ensemble, we were treated to the stylings of Beat Rhino—AKA Moonsoo Jo—the American Vocal Percussion—”Beatbox”—Champion. He is able to use his mouth to sound like a small orchestra of haywire electronica engineers, doing their best to be musical, and so gave us a splendid tour of Michael Jackson, improvisation and more.
And, the session was participatory: After wowing the crowd, Beat Rhino taught the audience the key vocal percussion sounds. The key, it seems, is to be able to reliably isolate each of these sounds, as one would with any traditional musical instrument or drum kit. Our host Julian then asked for volunteers to come on-stage, select “beatbox names” and try their hand at “mouth percussion”, so there was an opportunity for a few courageous, or rather unashamed souls, to try their hand at beatboxing, or comedy, whichever came more easily.
Act III, and the first of the evening’s three thematic speakers, is Dr. Sunil Agrawal, pioneer of cyborg medicine. He talked about training developmentally challenged babies to manipulate robots that make them ambulatory, when they are incapable of walking. In order to get to a toy or prize they seek, the babies quickly learn how to become mobile.
They use two different kinds of joysticks to manipulate the robots that carry them. Despite what would have been, in other times, places and situations, cruelly crippling neurological limitations or dysfunctions, Dr. Agrawal’s techniques appear to allow these babies—some just around the age when a baby might take her first uneasy steps on two feet—can tap into the brain’s natural elasticity, and develop new habits that will allow them to interact with the world reliably, in four dimensions.
If two subjects are healthy, can a robotic exoskeleton allow two people to walk identically? It’s a complicated problem, but the short answer is: Yes. Robotic exoskeletons can train a person to adopt a different gait. A certain amount of mechanical intervention can re-educate muscles to carry one’s skeleton differently, and so two people can be made to walk almost identically.
This can have social and practical implications, as our gait, and our rate of movement can determine our choices. It is possible, for example, to change a person from a “lone walker” to a “community walker”—someone who can cross before the light changes.
But the real importance of these experiments, and of the resulting technologies, is for health and quality-of-life improvement. An unhealthy individual can be trained to not only mimic, but to reliably adopt the gait of a healthy person. Parkinson’s patients who experience “freezing of gait” can be trained to walk like a healthy person.
In vibration therapy, shoes have vibrating components that stimulate muscles that would freeze from Parkinson’s effects. Robotic vibrator shoes can retrain Parkinson’s patients who experience freezing of gait to reliably walk without the freezing.
The next speaker, Jordan Motzkin is addressing an altogether different problem: What’s happening with our food supply? Why is organic more expensive? Shouldn’t a more natural choice, which means less industrial intervention, be cheaper to produce? Big Box Farms aims to supply healthy, organic food at an affordable price, using technology and structure.
Motzkin describes himself as a frustrated environmental activist and business student. He observes that many conscientious businesses focus on niche consumer markets and never scale to the wider population; this means their ideas, and their methods, and so their aims, don’t go mainstream.
At the experimental College of the Atlantic, the young entrepreneur studied Human Ecology. This informs his thinking about what a new kind of food service company can be, so Motzkin is working on the premise that human beings are integral parts of the built and living environments, an ecology of behavior within an ecological web of resources and interests.
Agriculture is full of ideologically driven distractions that stop us from thinking creatively and developing sustainable solutions.
Let’s think about what would be the goal, if we thought about how to craft a business capable of delivering the freshest, safest, most nutritious produce possible… more environmentally sustainable and responsible than ever before… AND at a price point that is affordable for consumers, while creating more value and making more money for everybody.
It becomes necessary to look at the details of cost and process:
87% of fresh water available to human beings is consumed by agriculture. 80% of arable land is already in use for agriculture. Agriculture is the biggest source of pollution (agricultural chemical runoff, creating hypoxic dead zones) on Earth.
The “Ghost Plate”—”Nearly 50% of all the food that’s produced ends up not in someone’s mouth, but in the trash.” “About 61% of all fruits and vegetables produced are going into the trash.” If we limit that figure only to grains, that number climbs to 70%.
90% of salad leaves in the United States are grown in California or Arizona. Dole and Chiquita control about 60% of the marketplace for green leafy vegetables. “Triple washed lettuce” is washed in a chemical bath of chlorine. Motzkin explains that “Your lettuce spends about three days on a maze of conveyor belts, before they are able to be shipped.”
Even so, 39% of lettuce has fecal levels that are deemed unacceptable for human health and safety.
For all of these reasons, Big Box Farms aims to reduce that whole industrial distribution process down to 24 hours harvest to consumer—retrofitting massive warehouses to achieve higher growth rates than possible through conventional farming, with light specially designed to produce higher nutritional value.
Motzkin’s message is one of using practical solutions-oriented thinking to structure a new kind of business, from the ground up, so it can be the system that is, in itself, the solution to a vexing and pervasive problem.
The evening’s third speaker, Chris Nicola, delivered an emotionally engaging update regarding the completion of his documentary film, No Place on Earth. The film is a story of Holocaust survival, in which entire families went into the world’s longest gypsum caves (Priest’s Grotto is now measured at 86 miles long), to outlast Nazi persecution.
They used candles only when absolutely necessary, and lived in total darkness for all but a few minutes a day. The cave-dwellers set the world record for sustained underground survival—511 days. No other human beings are known to have survived underground for so long, and many have given into hallucination, ill-health and madness, long before 511 days.
Nicola—a former criminal investigator and highly respected caver himself—said the story causes him to ask “What if?” What if 6 million people didn’t die in the Nazi camps? What would they have been? How would they have influenced the world? What would their offspring have achieved? Perhaps many good people would have done a tremendous amount of good and improved the condition of all humanity.
Nicola and his team took four survivors back to the caves. The documentary became a collaborative exploration of history. In the first cave, the floor was covered with bat guano, dripping water half a cup a day. In the second cave, there were no bats, no guano, and a lake that Esther Stermer, one of the survivors, said they could have rowed a boat across.
Chris realized he couldn’t “fake the emotions” as a writer or a filmmaker. He had to use his 30 years of police work and his skill for interviewing. The Holocaust was not one big story of 6 million people killed; it was 6 million stories of people being lost—brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters, children, grandparents.
The filmmaker described experiencing intense emotional involvement in the story, mirroring “blackouts and dizzy spells” experienced by some of the survivors, relating to their trauma. In a show of genuine sympathy, he said “I adopted their pain.”
But the return to the caves, and the exploration of what had taken place there was not complete. He wanted to share the insight about the power of this survival with the descendants of those who spent 511 days in near total darkness, so he went back with some of the grandchildren. The idea was to spend 24 hours in near total darkness with just a few minutes of candlelight, just like their grandparents had done.
It was a powerful experience—too much to bear, in some ways, but also of great emotional and spiritual empowerment. It was a connection to history and a window into the great good fortune that it is to have had the chance to come into this world at all.
The survivors had little choice, but what is so important about the story Nicola tells is that, regardless of that fact, these people had the strength to make this improbable strategy for survival work. There were legends of ancient communities that had used the caves to escape the violence of foreign invaders, but neither that, nor the fact that their terrible circumstances drove them to this choice, can diminish the courage and community inherent in making the attempt and carrying it through.
It is hard to say this of any of the above stories, but this is how Lucid works: there are opportunities for illumination in the intellectual, entrepreneurial, artistic and even spiritual sense, and sometimes all of these can converge in one evening. That is the point of the exercise: highlight the work and the thinking of unique and talented change-makers and let people in attendance experience a flourish of thought and creative inspiration, while the meet and connect with smart, interesting, sometimes daring, often uncommon, people and personalities.
Lucid is a celebration of smarts, and of creativity, but most importantly, it is a relaxed and encouraging environment in which to explore new terrain in the vast human landscape of problem solving—sometimes on a grand scale, sometimes in very intimate ways.