Bitnorth 2014 recap

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Last weekend was the seventh annual Bitnorth conference. It’s one of the highlights of my year; but it’s always tinged with regret that many of the alumni aren’t there. (For more on why, and the awkward politics of scarcity, see this explanation.)

Crowd at Bitnorth by Eva Blue

The theme this year was notionally “teaching”—though themes are at best a suggestion at Bitnorth, where everyone who attends has to present something they geek out about. We had about 40% female attendees (we try to make it 50/50) and about 40% of people were first-timers (which is critical for the kind of event it is.)
Some attendees have already posted their thoughts on the conference.

Campfire shot by Eva

As usual, we covered a wide range of topics. I talked about the Vomeronasal Organ, the Terminal Nerve, and how we don’t discuss our sixth sense; I should write it up here sometime.

I’m posting the list of speakers and topics here partly as an explanation of how diverse things are (because since the event became invite-only a couple of years ago, I don’t update the website, and I need somewhere to point people to.)

  • Sarah Cundiff talked about the life lessons she learned from skiing.
  • Mark Fleming gave us an inside look at Guantanamo Bay, and the legal work he’s been doing for detainees. He also brought rather unsettling souvenirs.
  • Alex Haraldsson debunked some myths about vikings. Turns out they didn’t wear horns, and women fought alongside men.
  • Brydon Gilliss updated us on his quest for a distraction-free phone (protip: use software designed to block kids) and some of the tools he’s used to improve his productivity dramatically.
  • Aidan Nulman spoke about unstructured learning and how autodidacts have picked up knowledge through the ages.
  • Meghan Athavale sacrificed a cute, cuddly toy bear to demonstrate how to pack wounds. She later, quite literally, sacrificed said bear on a pyre. Oh, and she brought Lumo Play, a toy she’s been building.
  • Philippe Telio showed us Sabrage, the fine art of lopping the top off champagne bottles.

Phil and Sarah getting ready to cut a bottle

  • Nathalie Hazan ran a quick game that required us to coordinate, communicate, and cooperate; she also kept us busy coloring tiles for a crowdsourced piece of artwork.
  • Kamal Jain walked us through what it takes to build a solar-powered farm in Massachusetts.
  • Jim Stogdill explained his love of vintage photography, and the delight he gets from manual things and a dying art.
  • Bob Goyetche spends so much time on cloud computing, he thought he’d give us some background on theother kind of clouds.
  • Julie Matlin explained the underlying structure of jokes, ruining standup for us for all eternity.
  • Dan Koffler explained how to punch, poison, and pee on people, and tried to justify them as lifesaving tips.
  • Kipp Bradford froze water in front of our eyes, and walked us through the history of cooling.

Kipp freezes water, by Eva Blue

  • Julie Steele opened our eyes to how soy is made, making us rethink what is often positioned as a modern wonder-food.
  • Angela Misner took us inside the world of air traffic control, and answered a flurry of questions from everyone who’s ever been on a plane.
  • Kimberly Stedman asked why we get blocked in communicating with others, and what transparency and genuine engagement—with a smattering of humor—can do to overcome this.
  • Trina Chiasson discussed her Data + Design e-book, and what it’s like to make a book with a widely distributed team.
  • LP Maurice took us on a tour of smaller towns in Quebec, based on his summer meeting entrepreneurs, and asked whether we should encourage startups in smaller regions or centralize innovation in big cities.
  • Ari Gesher discussed how his childhood experiences taught him to infiltrate groups and insinuate himself into new social situations.
  • Jeremy Edberg gave us an extremely personal look at in-vitro fertilization, leaving no stone—or organ—untouched.
  • Kathy Young schooled us on affordable crafts for students.
  • Christine Davis explained the foundational sauces of cooking.
  • Aline Kaplan painted a bleak picture of Boston when a 25-foot-high wave of molasses brought the city to a standstill, almost literally; she also shared some short stories she’d written.

Aline Kaplan by Eva Blue

  • Seth Kaplan talked about ADHD, and some of the things parents should, and shouldn’t, do to help their children through it.
  • Jaethan Reichel explained how he’s been doing trademark archeology to rediscover lapsed brands and harness their authenticity.
  • Peter Taylor used poetry to paint a bleak picture of the future our kids are growing up in.
  • Daniel Roberts explained the interplay of simple drumming that yields complex results.
  • Francis Pieraut described his dream cottage, and how DIY, solar, and prefab can cut costs while giving him independence.
  • Brian Couchman explained how hard it is to make agile methodologies actually work in large organizations.
  • JS Cournoyer talked about balance, and how authenticity has led to genuine interactions with surprising people.
  • Liesl Barrell covered the dark history of how society has abused and isolated those with mental illness, using its stigma for social ends.

I stepped back a bit from organizing all the activities and icebreakers, and I was delighted that many alumni stepped in to take up the slack.

Bitnorth 2014 pic by Eva Blue

I’ve been gradually writing a book on how to run the event—after 7 years, we’ve learned a lot—and several people have asked about running one in other regions. If I actually finish the damned thing I’ll publish it here.