SXSW March 13 – Teen chefs, quantum particles, airborne transit, and wasted food

How can you go to SXSW and not attend some films (or what people outside of film festivals call “movies”)?

Chef Flynn

After visiting WeWork Austin to catch up on client work, I headed over to the Stateside Theatre on Austin’s main strip, Congress Avenue, to view Chef Flynn. It’s a wonderful documentary about a boy who develops a passion for cooking and some incredible kitchen skills, and thereafter enlists his elementary school classmates to be his line cooks and servers at an in-home “restaurant.”

The passion grows, eventually leading to occasional dining events in his home, and stints cooking at local restaurants. Publicity follows, along with some resentment about a person aspiring to chefdom without following the traditional path. Flynn, however, is modest and committed to his craft, accepting the publicity as a necessary distraction in order to achieve his dream of opening his own restaurant in New York City. Does his dream come to fruition? I won’t spoil it for you, but if this movie gets wider distribution, it is worth watching to find out.

Entangled in quantum computers

From young chefs to quantum physics, my next event was a keynote presentation by technologist William Hurley (who simply goes by “whurley”) entitled “The Endless Impossibilities of Quantum Computing.” Whurley is not himself a quantum computer developer, but more like an aficionado of quantum computing. Whurley provided a “whurl-wind” tour of what quantum computing is, what it can do now, and what it might do in the future. This is wickedly complicated stuff, but here’s what I took away from it:

  • It is a misconception to believe that quantum computers will simply replace regular computers.
    • Quantum computers must be managed by classical computers. It is better to think of quantum computers as extending the capabilities of regular computers.
    • Quantum computers will be able to do certain tasks with incredible speed but are not suited to many routine tasks that classical computer perform; it’s not yet clear what problems quantum computers are able to solve, the notable exception being Shor’s Algorithm, which determines the prime factors of any number. (This is why quantum computers threaten to undermine current public-key encryption methods, which are based on the inability to factor large numbers with prime factors – a concern that whurley seemed to feel was overblown.)
  • 2014 appears to have been a turning point in quantum computing, with significant growth in new patent filings.
  • Several universities and companies now have working quantum computers; IBM seems to be the leader.

I won’t even attempt to summarize the talk beyond these tidbits, but you can watch this interesting session here. (Audio is here if you prefer simply to listen.)

Transit goes high

Next, it was over to the Four Seasons for a session called “Overhead Transit: Cable, Hyperloop, PRT & Drones.” This panel discussion reviewed developments in transit up in the air, which of course has the advantage of not having to carve out space in congested ground-level infrastructure. Some of the technologies discussed already exist today: We are all familiar with cable cars (in the U.S., mostly at ski slopes). Bolivia has successfully built an urban cable car system, now consisting of five interconnected lines, in and around La Paz. These gondolas have an impressive throughput of between 3,000 and 4,000 people per hour. Who knew? The speakers expressed frustration with the lack of receptivity to this mode of transit in the U.S., which does not currently qualify for federal transportation matching funds.

The panel covered more futuristic technologies such as hyperloop (made famous by Elon Musk), which gradually accelerates a vehicle through a depressurized tube via electric propulsion (carrying either passengers or freight), at barely subsonic speeds – faster than commercial jets. This technology, if successful, could deliver the not-yet-realized vision of high-speed rail. Or, less optimistically, this could be a huge distraction from high speed rail. Prototypes of a sort have been developed, and for-profit companies like Virgin’s Hyperloop One are moving ahead. Cities are now competing for routes as part of its Global Challenge, and Hyperloop One’s stated goal is to have operational systems by 2021.

Similarly ambitious, Uber presented this video of UberAIR. UberAIR (a/k/a Uber Elevate) is a transport system comprised of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles, which Embraer (now owned by Boeing), among other companies,  is developing. Uber’s representative at this session stated that the plan was to have demonstrations live as soon as 2020, with a first commercial implementation by 2023.

You might say that Uber needs to perfect autonomous ground vehicles before they move into the air, though the technological challenges for autonomously navigating crowded roadways may be more significant than for piloted airborne vehicles. (Even with sophisticated autopilots, pilots are still essential to commercial aviation — pervasive myths notwithstanding.)

Whether hyperloop is just a loop of hype, or UberAir merely hot air, time will tell – probably sooner than we think.

Don’t throw away that lettuce

Having started the day with Chef Flynn, it was fitting to end the day on another food subject, and an important one. “Re-Imagining How America Can Reduce Food Waste” was an eye-opening discussion about the staggering quantity of food lost at farms (10.1 million tons), disposed of at restaurants and other consumer-facing business (25 million tons), and thrown away at home (27 million tons) every year – and what can be done about it. From all sources, 62.5 million tons of food are wasted in the U.S. every year, representing $144 billion dollars in lost value. This represents both a massive waste of resources and a major environmental issue. (We think of food as “biodegradable,” however, guess how many years it takes for a head of lettuce to break down in a landfill? See the final blog post for the answer.)

There’s no single, easy solution, but educating people about a variety of steps might help, including: “root to stem” cooking and more cooking at home in general, making better use of the freezer, composting food waste, accepting cosmetically blemished produce, doling out more reasonable portions at restaurants, and rethinking food merchandising and other aspects of the modern supermarket.

It’s great that people like Chef Marco Canora of Hearth on the lower East Side of New York, organizations like the James Beard Foundation, and companies such as Quaker, are bringing needed attention to this issue.

Audio of the session is available here. Check out the film Wasted! The Story of Food Waste, with Anthony Bourdain, to get further into this issue.


Categorised as: News and Views, SXSW 2018