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Mar. 14, 2014 11:15 am

Ignite Baltimore 14: Airbnb lessons, ‘megatalls’ and the world’s best books

The talk was about renting spare rooms on Airbnb, the world's tallest buildings and best books, purchasing vacant houses, and plenty more, at the 14th annual Ignite Baltimore, where people listened to 16 speakers deliver "lightning talks" of five minutes each.

The talks were about renting spare rooms on Airbnb, the world’s tallest buildings and best books, purchasing vacant houses, and plenty more, at the 14th annual Ignite Baltimore, where people listened to 16 speakers deliver “lightning talks” of five minutes each.

More than 400 people filled the Brown Center at the Maryland Institute College of Art, welcomed by Heather Bradbury of MICA’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies and lead Ignite organizer Mike Subelsky, cofounder of adtech startup Staq.

Per usual, Technical.ly Baltimore offers its unofficial awards for the evening using, in the words of speaker Flip Sasser, the “scientific gut-check test.”

  • Simplest Call to Action – Jessica Watson, designer and world traveler, whose 28 Days to Save the World campaign encouraged people to look for one way to pay it forward to a neighbor or a stranger by, for instance, buying them a coffee. It’s an act that’s becoming a trend.
  • In Mother Russia, Conspiracy Theory Embrace You! – What killed Joseph Stalin? WRONG QUESTION, according to medical toxicologist Andrew Stolbach. More like who murdered Joseph Stalin? Stolbach made a semi-convincing case that the Soviet Union dictator was murdered in 1953, a homicidal subterfuge by one of his closest confidantes who gave Stalin a poisonous blood-thinning drug after the dictator lost consciousness due to fever in the days preceding his ultimate demise.
  • Best Thinking About a STEM Education Pipeline — Vincent Purcell is the first person in his family to go to college, which has made him value his education that much more. A resident of McElderry Park, Purcell works with a group of students between the ages of 18 and 20 in the Baltimore BOOM! Academy, who design 3D keychains and ornaments and sell their wares on Shapeways. To Purcell, this is the way tech training ought to be done in a place like Baltimore: right in the communities where high-technology oftentimes overlooks.
  • Biggest No-Brainer — Howard Community College professor Stacy Korbelak shared 10 lessons on improving elementary and secondary education drawn from her experiences in the schools in the Rangpuri slums of India. One bit she shared: students at one particular school all received a toothbrush, clean clothes and breakfast in the morning, all of which made them better learners. Someone, give Korbelak a line directly to Arne Duncan.
  • World’s Sweetest Lover — Mark Chambers loves apples. He also loves Mother Nature. Apples are sweet. (He also was probably using a story about eating ALL of the apple, core and stem included, as a metaphor. Maybe.) In any case, the sustainability chief of the Washington, D.C., Department of General Services wants us to be more conscientious of our wastefulness by thinking about where all our trash goes. It doesn’t go to some magical land where it evaporates, never again to be seen — in our oceans, streams, sewers and parks — but instead ends up at one of more than 1,900 landfills in the U.S. Or in our oceans, streams, sewers and parks.
  • The Fighter – Social entrepreneur Jerrie Kumalah isn’t afraid to talk about her illness, fibromyalgia. Talking, she said, is the only way to dispel any false notions of the illness, which afflicts close to six million Americans and can cause chronic fatigue, muscle pain and stiffness. But Kumalah doesn’t pity herself or lets it get her down. Instead she wants to be a “pioneer for invisible illnesses,” and confront fibromyalgia head-on.
  • Only Person Who Could’ve Performed in a “Good Vibrations” Flash Mob with Ease – Fitness advocate Jon Adler Kaplan likes to move it, move it. He stops, collaborates and listens to teachers’ concerns about students who aren’t getting enough activity during the day as a result of cutbacks in physical education classes? Insert another stupid reference to house and/or bad nineties hip-hop here, but seriously: as an Open Society Fellow, Kaplan developed the Baltimore Fitness Academy to combat obesity and to work with people ages 18 to 24 in overlooked neighborhoods in Baltimore, which tend to be the places where nutrition and fitness programs aren’t to be found.
  • Best Person to Emulate for Your Future Ignite Talk – When the video of Back Forty developer Flip Sasser‘s talk is released, any would-be Ignite presenters should watch it over, and over, and over. Sasser’s talk — his list of the world’s 17 best books ever written — was a triumph. Humorous and informative, gregarious but self-effacing, earnest, sincere, enlightening. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” made the cut. Sasser’s talk, in our humble opinion, was the best of the night.
  • Biggest Twist – Billed as a “performance” on the Ignite handbill, we were looking forward to five minutes of music being blasted at eardrum-throbbing volume by Paul “DJ Spooky” Miller. Instead, Miller’s talk focused on the similarities between record-cover art and smartphone-app graphics, a curious but compelling parallel. As album covers denoted a sense of what the album was about — “activating a culture,” in Miller’s words — so too does the art or design that adorns the icon of your favorite iPhone app. Hell, all this time we were just pushing buttons as quickly as we could. But now we’ll stop and ponder the Twitter-bird, if even for a moment.
  • Most Likely to Never Litter, Subconsciously or Consciously – Freelance graphic designer Bridget Parlato hates trash. Get it out of the gutters is her battle-cry. On her Facebook page Baltimore Trash Talk, she compiles photo evidence of Baltimore’s litter problem. But it isn’t all social media squawking. Parlato and fellow advocates collected more than 15,000 bottles and cans during a bottle exchange in the fall in Patterson Park, and they continue to agitate for measures like the city bag tax in an effort to get plastic, glass and other litter off the streets.
  • Best Way to Make Math Cool – Entrepreneur Emmanuel Cephas, Jr. knows how to get “hyperactive children” — the ones, he says, are often just diagnosed with ADHD and then given Ritalin — actively participating in math class. Create “kinesthetic learning experiences.” Get them moving around. Associate actions and movement with mathematics problem-solving. Do that, and watch the math geniuses among us do long division in their head … while running around.
  • Biggest Commitment – AOL/Ad.com developer Shea Frederick has lived in Baltimore for six years, and he plans to stay for much, much longer. Frederick purchased a vacant house through the city’s Vacants to Value program in 2013, and he’s now in the process of rehabbing it in order to live there.
  • Look at the Sky! It’s a Bird! It’s … Not a Bird – Nicholas Quigley, who has now presented at two consecutive Ignite events, took us on a world tour of skyscrapers, “supertalls” and “megatalls,” buildings so big they required their own name. In the last 10 years, eight of the world’s 10 tallest buildings have been built. People with exorbitant sums (Saudi princes, for example) are now building these “megatall” structures” just because. But Quigley brought it home with one specific point: the tallest building in the world is more than 160 stories, but the tallest building in Baltimore, the Transamerica Tower, is just 40 stories.
  • Most Indignant for a Good Reason – Edtech startup founder Jess Gartner has hosted some 200 Airbnb guests at her Hollins Market house. When she first announced her intentions to be an Airbnb host, friends and family thought it crazy to let strangers into her house. Soon, however, the script was flipped, as would-be guests hinted to Gartner, or told her outright, that they didn’t feel safe in her neighborhood. The racial undertone was clear: the guests weren’t used to seeing so many black people around. Several reviews of her house had guests making mentions that the area was “gentrifying,” coded speech for “becoming more safe because there are more people with my same skin color.” Gartner has probably pointed out that the people in her neighborhood are her neighbors more times than she can count.
  • Should Sing Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” at Karaoke Night – Rodney Burris wants to see more male role models more actively involved in Baltimore city’s schools. While the message was at times a bit reductive (What do men eat? Why, hot wings and pizza, natch), the point was abundantly clear: men and schools should work together to find ways to bring positive male mentors around boys and adolescent men.
  • Best Use of an Invented Word – Magician David London asked us to think about “synthesystems,” or systems of systems. A collage? That’s just artwork composed of a variety of images and words clipped from other sources. Surrealism? The melding of the conscious and unconscious mind. Dadaism? Whoa, slow down, we only just met.
  • Better Than a Bar Tab – Programmer Jason Denney’s talk was titled “Better Than a Bar Tab,” but he wins the eponymous award as well. Denney, an organizer of the Baltimore’s Playground Meetup, gave spectators 10 ways to spend a weekend or weekday night that were better than dropping $80 at the bar. And, hey, even if hula-hooping in Fells Point isn’t your thing, Denney did stress that no hula-hooping should be done before you and your friends had knocked a few back. Just, you know, keep your bar tab under $80.

No Ignition Grants were given out at this Ignite, as the grant program is undergoing a change in leadership. Ignition Grants will be given out in the fall during Ignite Baltimore 15.

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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