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10 FEBRUARY, 2010

10 More Great Cross-Disciplinary Conferences

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More ways to get stimulated in public, or how to fit a wealth of innovation into a plenary session.

After the fantastic response to the 10 Contemporary Cross-Disciplinary Conferences post last year, we decide do a follow-up, highlighting — both ones that didn’t make our cut the first time around and ones suggested by readers.

So here are 10 more such boundary-spanning, silo-busting events. The kind of occasion that encourages lateral-brain connections and odd-couple lunchmates. Though many of the conferences this time around are closely tied to specific locations or institutions, they share the same fundamental mission — to provide a broadly curated experience for the curious.

POPTECH

Kicking off our list is a conference that actually seemed too obvious to feature in our round-one writeup. PopTech convenes 700 innovation-minded individuals each fall in Camden, Maine for a three-day idea blitz. With an emphasis on futurist thinking and technology, PopTech lineups are an eclectic affair; this past year’s event featured musician John Forté, activist-economist Esther Duflo, and architect Laura Kurgan. (And yes, PopTech even has the obligatory Malcolm Gladwell talk from 2004 — he’s on the organization’s board).

Much as TED has its vaunted TED Fellows program, PopTech chooses a new roster of Social Innovation Fellows each year; we featured 2009 Fellow Emily Pilloton on Brain Pickings not too long ago. To experience what TIME calls “Davos for cool people” (and what the less generous call “TED for people who can’t get into TED”), check out more videos from the PopTech archive.

BIF SUMMIT

The Business Innovation Factory summit — or BIF for short — is an under-the-radar annual event in Providence, Rhode Island, which has been gaining ground since its inaugural year in 2004. As its name suggests, BIF focuses on transformative enterprise, looking at disruptive deliverables and design in areas like education, energy independence, and healthcare. A good number of our intellectual idols have spoken at BIF, among them Paola Antonelli and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman. We were particularly inspired by social entrepreneur Cat Lainé’s talk about bringing sustainable infrastructure to the developing world, made all the more poignant by recent events in Haiti.

You can catch up on videos from the past five BIF summits, or even join the recently launched BIF reading group.

DLD

Since 2005, DLD — which stands for “Digital/Life/Design” — has brought together the world’s cultural creatives, entrepreneurs, investors, and techies for three days of cross-disciplinary discussion in Munich. A veritable who’s-who list of 21st-century changemakers has passed through its panels on topics ranging from China to user-centric experiences. Highlights for us include TEDster (and Brain Pickings favorite) Jonathan Harris talking about his most recent work, and hacker-inventors Pablos Holman and 3ric Johnson on the advantages of approaching life with a hacker’s phenomenological stance.

Last year, we featured highlights from the 2009 event, and this year’s confernce just wrapped up. The next DLD isn’t until January 2011, but in the meantime you can see videos from the past five conferences online.

BIL

The BIL Conference — which stands, alternately, for “Business, Impromptu, Levity,” “Brilliance, Ingenious, Learning,” “Booze, Intellectuals, Logic” and similar acronymic summations — traces its roots directly back to TED. In fact the founders’ original plan, hatched in 2007, was to go to Long Beach, California and crash TED’s annual flagship conference. From this dream of subterfuge, BIL’s “open, self-organizing, emergent, arts, science, society and technology unconference” model was born. With titles like “Rethinking the Modern GUI” and “What’s Funny About the Interwebs,” talks at BIL often reflect their origins in tech circles; however, some of the unconferences take specific themes, such as the upcoming BIL:PIL in October of this year which will look at the future of healthcare. While several BIL events have since been held on the heels of TED, the general non-profit BIL model has also been used in Boston, Phoenix, and San Diego for a total of nine events held or scheduled to date.Check out Architecture for Humanity founder (and TEDster) Cameron Sinclair, TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoski, and other videos from BIL events here.

PICNIC

The PICNIC festival is an artsy gathering that takes place in venues across Amsterdam. Held annually in September since 2006, the three-day-long PICNIC describes itself as a conference where creatives come together for “inspiration, networking, and dealmaking,” and indeed, professional development takes its place on the agenda alongside formally scheduled networking sessions. Past speakers include Second Life founder Philip Rosedale, AREA/Code founder Dennis Crowley, and design consultant Chee Pearlman. Last year, Sir Richard Branson chaired a jury for the PICNIC Green Challenge to award the best carbon-reducing idea, and sponsors such as Microsoft held design camps and other interactive workshops for attendees.

Watch selected videos from PICNIC 2009 here or check out its Vimeo channel.

CONFERENCE ON WORLD AFFAIRS

Hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Conference on World Affairs marks its 62nd year in 2010. For a week in April, 100 attendees take part in more than 200 panels, performances, and plenaries on various topics, all of which are free and open to the public.

The event was founded in an era of classic internationalism with an emphasis on foreign relations, but today sessions are held around “arts, media, science, diplomacy, technology, environment, spirituality, politics, business, medicine, human rights, and so on.” (If that isn’t interdisciplinary, we don’t know what is.) The university setting brings an academic bent to the whole affair — an orientation unfortunately reflected by the conference’s old-school approach to recordings, available by check or money order. (What is this, PBS?) If you happen to be in the area, however, it looks like there’s plenty of inspiration and reflection on hand.

Thanks @slainson!

ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL

Bearing the burnished pedigree of its hosts, The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, the Aspen Ideas Festival is entering its sixth year of wide-ranging, high-minded discussion in the tony enclave of Aspen, Colorado. Each April heavy hitters from academia, business, media, and politics ascend the mountains for a week of seminars, panels, and presentations; however, we hear the real scene takes place as much after the official events as during. The theme of this year’s festival is “Ideas in Action” with an emphasis on Latin America and the region’s educational, environmental, and health challenges. (While we’re not sure whither the southern hemisphere focus, we suspect it has something to do with wanting to differentiate the festival from last year’s PopTech theme, “America Reimagined.”)

If you want to play with the big boys (and the occasional big girl — that’s right Arianna Huffington, we’re talking about you) without leaving home, check out the Aspen Institute’s archive of A/V resources.

NEW YORKER FESTIVAL

If you like The New Yorker in print, you’ll be in heaven experiencing it live. In the fall the annual New Yorker Festival assembles a rich lineup of culturally oriented talks and tours in (where else?) Manhattan and the occasional outer-NYC bureau. Like a pop-up version of the magazine, glossy profiles take the form of in-person interviews with editors and writers from the mag’s masthead serving as interviewers. Attendees can purchase tickets to individual events or passes to the three-day shebang, making this one of the more economically efficient options on the conference circuit.

If you’re still jonesing for more Gladwell, you can see videos from past New Yorker Festivals or catch up on dispatches from the various events’ blog coverage.

BIG OMAHA

Winning the prize for most unlikely location, BIG Omaha held its inaugural 2009 conference away from the standard loafer-beaten conference path, placing it smack in the middle of the United States. “Come to the heart of the midwest,” the event enticed potential attendees. “And let’s rebuild this country from the inside out.” The brains behind BIG Omaha started the Silicon Prairie News, a webzine dedicated to featuring midwestern creatives and entrepreneurs. The conference extends both the brand and an invitation for skeptics to come and view innovation in the heartland for themselves. Speakers from BIG Omaha’s first year included Crush It! author Gary Vaynerchuk, 37 Signals founder Jason Fried, and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg.

This year’s event is scheduled for May 13-15th; you can sign up to get the BIG Omaha newsletter for more details or check in with the conference blog to view videos of past presentations.

PORTLAND CREATIVE CONFERENCE

Finally, in the city we like to think of as the Brooklyn of the west, the Portland Creative Conference was held in 2008 and then again last year after a seven-year hiatus. Four hundred attendees gathered to hear perspectives on the creative process from Wieden+Kennedy co-founder Dan Wieden, The Simpsons writer Bill Oakley, and pitcher-turned-stockbroker Larry Brooks, among others. All signs indicate that the conference will happen again in fall of this year, and you can stay in-the-know by following the Portland Creative Conference website or watch a few videos from last year’s event.

This concludes our second roundup of alternative conferences to satisfy your infinite intellectual appetites. Once again, if we’ve left any big ones out — particularly non-English-language events — please let us know. And in the meantime, catch up on Part One and follow editor Maria Popova on Twitter for live coverage of this year’s TED, running today through Saturday.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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29 JANUARY, 2010

Mythical Beasts & Modern Monsters

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Beastly bullies, meek monsters, and why Donald Duck is finally proven totally useless.

Mythology is such a rich source of creativity and storytelling genius, full of wildly imaginative creatures — from the Minotaur to unicorns to Big Foot. Today, we’re turning to this age-old treasure chest and looking at three curious, quirky dissections of the mythical monsters ecosystem.

A FIELD GUIDE TO TALKING BEASTS

From the Bible to Tim Burton films to Budweiser commercials, anthropomorphic creatures and talking bests abound. And they’re predictably consistent — so it’s always handy to know what you’re dealing with. That way, you can come prepared for your next encounter with a large talking bird or an opinionated lizard.

Thanks to lunchbreath, one of our favorite irreverent illustrators, now you can — enter the Field Guide to Talking Beasts.

We always knew Donald Duck was a useless, pantless sucker.

MYTHICAL CREATURES MIXOLOGY CHART

It’s hard to outcool the brilliant simplicity of a good Venn diagram, with its uncanny power of illuminating and clarifying. Which is why we love this fabulous Mythical Creatures Mixology Chart, inspired by the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection of guardian beasts.

With names as hilarious as Harpy and Cockatrice, we bet some of these beasts were given countless wedgies and stuffed in the beast school lockers by the Big Bad Minotaur and his posse of, erm, bullies.

THE HIERARCHY OF MONSTERS

Speaking of hierarchy of powers, that’s no small matter in beast world. So blogger Chris Braak has done the dirty work of an elaborate who-would-win pitting and produced this simple yet not-to-be-contested Hierarchy of Monsters, based on how dangerous the monsters are against each other and to all the other monsters on the list.

So there you have it, a who’s-who, who’s-better-than-whom, my-monster-is-cooler-than-your-monster of the beast world.

And should you ever run out of mythical beings to marvel at, we can never get enough of Stefan G. Bucher’s Daily Monster, which is so good it got a book deal.

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09 DECEMBER, 2009

Gift Guide: Kids & The Eternal Kid

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From thinking to tinkering, by way of color, music and photography.

This is Part 2 of the three-part Brain Pickings holiday gift guide. Today, we’re looking at goods and goodies for kids of all ages and the eternal kid in everyone.

HERE COMES SCIENCE

Indie rock icons They Might Be Giants are among the most revolutionary musicians of our time. Their critically acclaimed Here Comes Science children’s series lives up to their relentless thinking-in-all-kinds-of-directions innovation and consistent excellence. The 2-disc CD/DVD album is a bundle of creativity and entertainment, tied with a ribbon of education. Although aimed at the K-5 set, the playful lyrics and brilliantly animated videos are an absolute treat for musicologists and design junkies alike — we can attest.

We reviewed it in full, with trailers and more, here.

Perfect for: Musicologists, science lovers, those into creative and non-traditional education

FUJIFILM INSTAX MINI

Polaroid may have barely escaped the kiss of obsolescence, but instant film cameras will always hold immeasurable nostalgic charm in the digital age. The new Fujifilm Instax MINI offers a lovely twist on your dad’s old Land Cam, packaged in a gorgeously designed Mac-ish white body that’s just a joy to hold and look at. It prints credit-card-sized photos and, for those interested in the technical shenanigans, has a built-in flash, four exposure settings for indoor and outdoor shooting, and — our favorite — a wicked wide-angle lens that makes for some gorgeous, gorgeous shots. It’s a return to simpler times of no memory cards and USB cables and i-anything. But it gives you more creative control while still being a no-brainer to operate.

Sure, we love (love love) the design, but we’re even more taken with what it stands for — an analog connection to the fleeting moment, celebrating the essence of the presence in a way that preserves it for the future.

Perfect for: Budding photographers, creatively inclined kids, design aficionados, hopeless nostalgics, retro lovers

ABC3D

Who doesn’t love a good pop-up book? Marion Bataille‘s ABC3D takes the familiar genre it to a whole new level.

Slick, stylish and designerly, it’s hard to capture its tactile, interactive magic in static words — you have to have it in your hands to truly appreciate it.

We took a closer look, along with 4 more creative alphabet books, last week.

Perfect for: Designers and their kids, bookbinding geeks, paper craft lovers

PART OF IT

It’s never too early — or too late — to introduce the idea of the conscious consumer. And when it’s done with quirk and creativity, it’s bound to engage, inspire and, well, effect change. Enter Part Of It, a wonderful venture founded by illustrator duo Christopher Sleboda and Kathleen Burns in 2007, working with artists to create products for causes they are passionate about.

From Helvetica alphabet t-shirts to a lovely tote bags, profits from these goodies benefit charities chosen by the artists. (Who, by the way, include Brain Pickings darling Adrian Johnson.)

Perfect for: The socially-conscious and design-driven

THE INDIE ROCK COLORING BOOK

Indie music defines itself through the colorful quirk of its artists and evangelists. Without that, it would blend in with the grey mediocrity of the mainstream. For the past two years, obscenely talented UK illustrator Andy J. Miller has been working on a project that celebrates this whimsy. Today, he finally releases the Indie Rock Coloring Book — a wonderful collection of hand-illustrated activity pages, mazes, connect-the-dots, and coloring pages for indie icons like Bloc Party, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Broken Social Scene, Devendra Banhart, MGMT, The New Pornographers, The National, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

We reviewed it in full, with trailers and more, here.

Perfect for: Indie music fans and their artistically inclined offspring

THE ELEMENTS

Photographer and all-around geek Theodor Gray spent 7 years gathering objects, from the fascinating to the mundane, that embody and exemplify the 118 elements in the periodic table. Then he shot them brilliantly, producing The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe — an utterly captivating exploration of the matter that we, and all the things around us, are made of.

Set to the first authorized video version of Tom Lehrer’s iconic eponymous song, The Elements video gives you a taste for what to expect from this gem of a book.

Perfect for: Neo-geeks, science junkies, photography lovers, visual learners

MAGNA TILES

We’re firm believers in the power of tinkering in developing creativity.

And there’s nothing more stimulating to the creative brain than playing with simple, flat shapes and basic colors to produce a near-infinite variety of 3D whimsy. Which is why we love this 100-piece set of clear-color magna tiles. Sure, kids will be all over it, but we dare you not to love it yourself.

Perfect for: Tinkerers, builders, color lovers, budding industrial designers

POOH’S COMEBACK

In 1926, English author Alan Alexander Milne took a shelf of his son’s stuffed toys and turned them into some of the best-loved books ever published — the Winnie-the-Pooh series was born. This year, 81 years after Christoper Robin and the gang left the Hundred Acre Wood, they are back for a new adventure.

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is among the most epic comebacks in English literature. Although Milne himself is long dead, the new book is written by David Benedictus — who also produced the audio adaptations of Winnie-the-Pooh, starring Dame Judi Dench — and meticulously based on Milne’s Pooh stories, with artwork by Mark Burgess in the style of original illustrator E. H. Shepard.

We reviewed it in full here.

Perfect for: Readers, nostalgics, Pooh lovers of all ages

LEGO ARCHITECTURE

We love LEGO — who doesn’t? And what better way to learn about the man-made hallmarks of our civilization than by building them with your bare hands?

No, you won’t be lugging mastabas across the Egyptian desert — we’re talking about the LEGO Architecture Series. From the Taj Mahal to Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, you — or your little one — can get down and dirty with humanity’s greatest architectural achievements.

Perfect for: Tinkerers, builders, architecture lovers

CRAYOLA EXECUTIVE PEN

Ah, Crayola. Easily one of the most beloved brands of all time. Even just saying the name evokes that distinct, wonderful smell of your first crayon.

Now, you can resurrect your inner kid with a lovely, desk-job-safe Crayola Executive Pen, in orange, green, violet and yellow. Need we say more?

Perfect for: Everyone!

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