October 2010

Can Langton Labs Host a Memorable Halloween Party? When Pigs Fly!

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What do you get what you cross Halloween and a house full of creative (and wonderfully eccentric) scientists. The most bizarrely memorable Halloween ever at Langton Labs in SOMA, SF. First of all the kitchen table had been transformed into a dissection station and microscope viewing area. There was something truly magical about watching a zombified doctor dissect a heart and describe all of the roles each part plays. There was also of course also frogs, eyeballs and fetal pigs – if the heart wasn’t entertaining enough.

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Various animals stood in jars of formaldehyde, whose bodies and even bones, had been made transparent by a special technique. There were also drawing pads on the table in case you got a sudden impulse to be creative.

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But the real piece de resistance was a young pig, with attached wings, realized by the impossibly unique and talented Jane Partensky (with the surgical assistance of Will Oberlin). The final incarnation of this mythological beast hung from the ceiling, above the dancing crowd, lit from below with an eery yellow lamp.

So can Langton Labs host a memorable Halloween party? You can almost see the pig mouthing: “You’re god damn right they can!”

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Mixing Up Bizarre Binaries at Syyn Labs

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A home made glowing liquid. Not safe to drink. At all.

So people often cock their heads and ask “So, what exactly is Syyn Labs?”. Besides the odd spelling the entire organization is odd, and by ‘odd’, I mean quite unprecedented. Hence it is often challenging for outsiders to categorize. In fact, it’s even hard for insiders to categorize, but as the as the Founder and Cruise Director it’s my job to define our mission and to lead us to prosperous new territory. So let me give it a shot:

Syyn Labs is a magical place, full of strange beings who seemed to have been extruded through a character mash-up machine. It’s a land where scientists believe they’re artists, where artists suddenly have the skills or programming and where engineers debate on design philosophy. But this was no random manifestation. Years prior to moving to LA, back in 2002 at Rhode Island School of Design, with impotent foam models of supposed high tech products, I had seen my own short comings clearly. “I wish I had my own R&D group” was my lame retort, as my glued-on buttons fell off in the middle of my project review.

And so, born in the abundant serendiptity of the monthly Mindshare LA, Syyn Labs (ne: Mindshare Labs), began as an informal gathering of creative, but technically gifted characters. Each area of expertise began to be filled, coding, hacking, construction, engineering, applied physics – the team’s technical skills far surpassed anything I could have ever dreamt up and as I led the group in design style brainstorming sessions, the excitement was palpable. Soon I even brought an old RISD friend into the mix, to help me balance things out.

Again, while I’m aware of what I’m good at, I’m also keenly aware of what I’m not good at. In fact, knowing what I’m not good at is one of the things I’m best at. And so, in mid 2009, seeing the limitations of both my time and business experience, I brought in the venerable Adam Sadowsky to lead the charge in turning Syyn Labs into a real business. After officially incorporating Syyn Labs, LLC, and proving his logistical might during early 2010’s OK Go RGM success, Adam has lead the team into profitability and helped attract and win projects that ultimately have allowed us to move into an exciting new home 🙂

And as we define our path, we all know that this is just the start of the fun, and a preview of what we’re capable of. As for defining our mission: Are we educating the public, or playing with them? Are we creating art, or showcasing science? Are we a bunch of friends having fun, or employees in a profitable business? Well, who’s to say that we can’t be doing all of them at the same time?

Read more about the team here…

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A big day of shooting for a client at the new Syyn Labs HQ.

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Sam Harris Talk at the CalTech Skeptic Society

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Excerpt from the Skeptic Society event page:
“SAM HARRIS’S FIRST BOOK, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people — from religious fundamentalists to nonbelieving scientists — agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to “respect” the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors. In this explosive new book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a “moral landscape.” Just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.”

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Brain Scanning for Cash

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One good perk about having a job where you can set your own hours is that you can submit yourself for scientific experimentation without having to answer to anyone but the benefits don’t stop there! In most cases they’ll actually pay you, and in this study my hourly wage was even more than I make at Syyn Labs and Mindshare LA! And finally, the really big perk is that since this study, which centered around implicit decision making (which translated to following dots around a screen ad nauseum), had me answering questions from within a fMRI machine – I got a free brain scan out of it!

Besides a dramatically oversized ‘awesome lobe’, I’m in the clear and in the green!

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Meeting at the New Syyn HQ

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It’s not clean, it’s not too pretty but it’s OURS! With a new wall up, and tool and couches being moved in, we are now holding our meetings in the brand new Syyn Labs HQ! We’re officially ready to begin our first project next week for [redacted] who wants to make a video to bring attention to their new [redacted] project! (Sorry to be elusive, more on that in the coming month or two…) It should be a good video – and even more exciting is that it’s paying us hourly, as well as paying our rent! One humorous fact is that for the last five years I’d lived a couple of blocks away from this warehouse but as of a couple of weeks ago I moved to Pasadena! I guess there rally is no chance for a walkable commute in Los Angeles.

We’ve power washed the floors a few times and they’re still pretty filthy, but at least most of the spilled paint came up. While some of us might be resigned to a life of dusty floors and remnants of the paint factory’s spills, Dan Busby, never to shirk away from work, has announced the floors as his official ‘white whale’. He will not rest until they are spic and span and sealed with epoxy.

Characters like Dan are why Syyn Labs is more than just a drinking club with big ideas 🙂

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Murder Kittens and Tutu Crew Complete the NorCal ToughMudder

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I was leaving the North Fork farm, but not heading home to LA just yet; first, there was some serious business to attend to! Billed as “The Toughest One Day Endurance Race on the Planet!”, The NorCal ToughMudder was assembling teams from all over the world to participate in a 7-mile course at an elevation of 8000ft, with multiple fluctuations of 2000 feet. The 3000 participants, were a good mix of serious atheltes and groups of misshapen folk dressed in ridiculous costumes, but all determined to hop over, crawl under and trek through obstacles with names such as March of Death and Dragon Wheel!

Our posse was made up of 15 people, comprising of two teams, The Murder Kittens and The Tutu Crew (made of of members of The Phage). We’d decided to rent a cabin nearby and we were all gathering for dinner the night before the big race. The event was pricey at about $150 for the pleasure of being tortured, not to mention more than a little intimidating, so I had just registered as a spectator, which I had found surprisingly emasculating upon clicking the online ‘submit’ button.

The first challenge was unexpected. I had tried to take a short cut through Stanislaus National Forest and I was good and lost and had already missed dinner. My cell phone’s GPS was also completely useless in these mountains. Eventually I came upon a ranger station where I asked directions.

“Well, you’re going to have a tough time off roadin’ to Bear Valley!” The rather butch female ranger amused herself as a couple of very cute female trainees giggled behind her. “But you could either head back the way you came, or keep following this road – after a few turns, you’ll be back on track.”

I’m really not a fan of back tracking when it comes to life in general, and after I managed to get her to clarify “a few turns” I continued on, deeper into the pitch black forest with an impotent phone and some pumping, bass heavy music to add to the alien planet vibe. I finally made it to The Eldorado Ranch, where most of the team was already good and drunk, all too happy to celebrate their victory before the race even began.

Upon arrival, the weekend’s second unexpected challenge was exposed: our friend Enki, a member of the Tutu Crew, had come down with a cold and would not be able to join the team. In an effort to reclaim that ego-jabbing feeling of emasculation, I impetuously offered to take his place. Many of the team had been training for the last month whereas I had only done yoga a few times; I was more than a little apprehensive.

After winning the title of Game Room Champion by beating Tristan at foosball, pool and finally ping pong, I returned to the main house to set up my ‘bed’, which was really just a pile of blankets, in the living room under a large moose head. There was a sign next to the decapitated trophy, indicating that it was not OK to touch the moose head; obviously the landlords had had some troublesome tenants in the past, but they made their friendly intonation clear by appending each written rule (also found in the kitchen, bathroom and game room) with “Mahalo!”

The following morning we woke up early to get ready. I ate a muffin, granola and a big serving of pasta from the previous evening’s dinner and I also managed to squeeze into Enki’s camouflage Tutu, which looked sexy yet hardcore. We saddled up in a few cars and drove about 1 hour to the site of the course. Each 15 minutes, a couple of hundred people gathered at the start and after a dramatic, yet inspiring speech, a pistol was shot and we were off.

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The first obstacle was to crawl through mud under barbwire – but in fact, we had regular wire separating us from the barbs. After running a mile down some rocky terrain we assembled in a neat line as we waited for people to walk down a sharp precipice. Multiple signs warned us of the fact that we’d signed a death waiver, and to think about that before being stupid. We didn’t slip on the Ice Shelf, because it was rather warm and all the ice had melted. We found out the Dragon Wheel was really just an old cable bail. OK, I don’t want to completely belittle the effort, after all, running up and down hills at 8000ft is pretty exhausting and everyone’s lungs were burning – and of course, submerging yourself in the frigid waters of the Snow Making Pond is definitely a memorable brain shock. But if there’s no real timekeeping and pretty much 100% of those that partake pass, except the occasional clumsy or seriously unfit runner – how hardcore is it really?

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After the race, which ended by jumping through a rather low fire and drinking a watered down shot of Sriracha Hot Sauce, we had a couple of beers and headed home. The next 24 hours is a blur of endless BBQing, more than a little tequila punctuated with shifts in the LED lit hot tub, and numerous rematches in the game room that only enforced my reign (at least most of the time J To at least be a little healthy I brought out the veggies that I’d obtained from the farm cellar and did a little restorative yoga.

Before I left for Los Angeles I hunted for my lost sunglasses, which someone had put on the moose. I could imagine the scene with the landlord had I not found them:

“Those little bastards, I expressly put this sign in place to tell them not to touch my moose head… Mahalo!”


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My Birthday Gift? Escape to the Farm!

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Last year I had wanted a big birthday party. In fact, as I entered my 30th year, I decided that the appropriate thing to do was combine forces with the relentlessly altruistic Sloane Berrent, for yet another once in a lifetime tuxedo clad quest: Cause It’s My Birthday! 7 parties, 7 cities, 7 days! For charity of course! So last year I ate cake and dank champagne for a solid week while raising $20k for fighting Malaria. This year I was going to take it easy.

I decided to not tell anyone that it was my birthday and after one of the more challenging months of my life I woke up, said goodbye to my roommates and high tailed it for the farm. This was in fact the only gift I wanted. Even my family kept asking: “What do you want for your birthday?” I told them that I was opting out of the whole chronologically contrived gifting cycle. I thought it was pointless and often found the expectation stressful and unfulfilling. Furthermore, I think birthdays should perhaps be a time where instead of expecting to receive gifts for just being born, you actually show the world why you are worthy of occupying any space at all. OK, but that rant aside, I’m officially opting out of it, and that goes for Christmas too. I can’t sum up the love that I have for my family and friends on a time and price agreed upon schedule.

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As I made my way down the foggy road to my studio a gentle rain began to fall. Soon it began to pour down, accompanied by the most sever lightning that I’d ever seen. I made a fire, made some hearty soup and read some of Sam Harris’ “A Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”. All night long the thunder clapped and lightning strobed on the other side of the skylight. The roof leaked and even a small beetle tried to get in bed with me. At times I thought the windows were going to smash inward. Eventually I got to sleep and when I woke up, the rains had cleared and made way for a beautiful day.

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Later that day I ran into Hansel, the owner of the farm and mentioned to him how wild the storm had been.

“I’ve been up here for 30 years,” He said through his large grey beard. “and we’ve only had a couple of others like that! The storm of the decade!”

as I walked down to the little waterfall near the farm I thought about what a perfectly dramatic cleanse it had been to end my 30th year 🙂

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