SXSW: March 15 2017

Although today was the first full day of SXSW Music, I found several interesting sessions to attend at the JW Marriott Hotel. SXSW had announced some extra political sessions for today and tomorrow, but there were also sessions about space and computer science. In the evening, Bill and I saw a documentary about The Avett Brothers, followed by their concert at the ACL/Moody Theater.

Are We Alone: A Discussion on Space Exploration
This impressive panel of astrophysicists—Patrick McCarthy (Giant Magellan Telescope Organization), Kate Morzinski (NASA), Taft Armandroff (McDonald Observatory), and Jayne Birkby (Harvard)—discussed the current thinking and research into finding life on other planets. Analyzing data from Kepler telescope, researchers have found that many solar systems have planets which are close to their sun (similar to Mercury) and have planets which are larger than Earth and smaller to Neptune. The theory now is that our moon was created when a young Earth was hit by a comet. Radioactive and crater evidence is strong for supporting the theory that a asteroid impact caused the extinction of dinosaurs (“impacted the dinosaurs adversely”). Today we believe that most of the oxygen comes out of the ocean. Oxygen in other planets is detected by their absorption signatures as they pass in front of their stars. Our Sun is actually unusual in our part of the universe (within 30 light years). Most of the stars are cool red dwarfs, but life might have adapted in those solar systems. They talked about the recently discovered Trappist-1 solar system (40 light years away) and the three planets that are in its habitable zone. They noted that government and foundation funding is needed to complete the next generation of telescopes. Overall consensus on the question “Are we alone?” was that there is probably life in different forms out there.

2017: A Space Odyssey – Changing Our View of Earth
The panel participants each spoke about their area of expertise. Sue Gordon (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) traced the history of satellite imagery, starting with the first image in 1960, to the first image of Chernobyl released to the public in 1986, and present-day technology. Will Marshall said that his company, Planet Labs, has launched 150 satellites to-date, current technology is just a little larger than a loaf of bread. Anyone can use images at to build apps. Mark Johnson (Descartes Labs) gave a few examples of their projects which use satellite images: examining corn acreage and counting ships in ports. Matt Finer (Amazon Conservation Association) provided a biologist’s view and showed an example that does real-time modeling of deforestation around the Amazon River.

Lunch/dinner was kimchi fries from Chi’lantro at South Bites, a parking lot full of food trucks near the Austin Convention Center.

Head Fakes and Pivots: Trump Punks Silicon Valley
Baratunde Thurston is a producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah…and also a comedian. He started with an amusing story about an online review titled: “You Can’t Even Find A Decent Toaster Anymore.” He feels that today’s technology has helped to create our own personal bubbles, which is actually an engineered isolation. Yes, the internet gives everybody a voice, but that applies to the bad guys, too. Silicon Valley has been fairly complacent, but now is starting to get involved via movements such as

AI in America: Preparing our Kids
Andrew Moore is the dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. He started by asking his phone to pull up photos of celebrities in orange dresses and then explained the processes that lead to an answer. People train to work on all aspects of this communication path. He then proceeded to further define Artificial Intelligence as Artificial Understanding (Perceiving and Learning) and Artificial Deciding (Optimizing, Autonomy, and Human Augmentation). He showed recent CMU faculty and student projects related to facial and voice recognition, organ donor matching, robotic soccer, and assistive wheelchairs. He is concerned that future AI leaders will not be diverse, because many US school districts do not have good STEM / computer science programs.

May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers
Bill and I attended the world premiere of this documentary about Scott and Seth Avett and their band. Directed by Judd Apatow, this excellent film will be coming out on HBO. The band played a song after the screening and answered a few audience questions.

Mark Eitzel

Lo Moon

The Avett Brothers

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