Thomas Suarez loves to hate Justin Bieber, and hopes you do, too.
Earlier this year, the 12-year-old Manhattan Beach resident created an iPhone app called Bustin Jieber, in which the player tries to slap down — with two thumbs — the carefully coiffed head of the teenage heartthrob as it pops up, a la the game Whac-A-Mole.
Impressive (and amusing) as it is, the game represents just a fraction of Suarez’s prodigious technological know-how, which greatly exceeds that of his parents.
On Saturday, Thomas will address the startling gap of tech knowledge separating many young people from their elders as a speaker at an education conference in Manhattan Beach.
Modeled after the popular and cerebral TED Talks, the event, officially called TEDx Manhattan Beach, will feature 20 speakers from across California and beyond, all focused on the future of education. To borrow a phrase from Apple, the event promises to be a celebration of ideas that come from people who “think different.”
For instance, Internet entrepreneur Jon Bischke will discuss a concept he refers to as a “reputation graph,” in which the trail any given person leaves online will be of increasing importance, perhaps giving way to the decreasing importance of the traditional resume.
Stanford assistant professor Paulo Blikstein will hold court on how to make wood shop relevant to not only the 21st century, but the 22nd.
Filmmaker Barry Ptolemy, who worked closely with Steven Spielberg on “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and is widely referred to as a futurist, will discuss what schools may look like 20 and 30 years out. Ptolemy also worked on a movie about the thinker Ray Kurzweil, who has hypothesized that by 2029 computers will be so advanced that their thinking will be indistinguishable from that of humans.
“The overall theme is how do we make education better, how do we deliver better education to the next generation?” said the event’s organizer, John Marston. “If your grandparents went to a school today, they’d know exactly what it was: It would look similar to a school 100 years ago. Then, at the same time, they might not know about cellphones, iPads and Facebook. The world is not the same.”
The implication here is that schools as a whole are still in the 20th century, coughing in the dust of the digital revolution.
As for Thomas, he has his own idea on how schools can catch up: Allow young tech experts more opportunities to share their knowledge with peers and adults alike. If the concept of a small kid standing at the head of a class filled with adults sounds a little fantastical, it’s actually not so different from what Thomas is already doing.
This year, Thomas – who has two younger brothers, but no older siblings – launched an app club at his middle school, where he often stands in front of a class of 15 or 20 of his peers over the lunch hour and gives lessons on some of the ins and outs of creating an app. (His parents asked that the name of his school not be divulged, out of concern for his privacy.)
Thomas said he enjoys teaching.
“It’s just fun to see people who don’t get something at first, and then you explain it to them and they say, `Ohhhh, I get it now,”‘ he said.
The students aren’t just trying to make funny apps – and a little money – for themselves. They’re also working together on an application for their own school, which this year started using iPads in its classrooms.
At times, Thomas’ acumen has seemed almost preternatural.
His father, Ralph Suarez, remembers when the family purchased a Mac Mini for Thomas when he was 8.
The adults couldn’t figure out how to activate the Wi-Fi, and figured the computer must not have been equipped with the right router. Ralph walked past Thomas sitting at the computer and was surprised to see him on the Internet – he’d activated the Wi-Fi himself.
“I said, `How did you know how to do it?”‘ said Suarez, 53, a management analyst at Los Angeles International Airport. “He said, `I heard the guy (at the Apple store) talking about it.”‘
In fact, much of Thomas’ education happened at the Apple store. The boy was a frequent student of the company’s training service, widely known as “one to one,” in which employees teach users how to better navigate the hardware and software.
With the help of a manual, Thomas created his first app before he even owned an iPod. (He still doesn’t own an iPhone.) Called Earth Fortune, the free app is a kind of virtual fortuneteller in which the user pushes the planet, causing it to change colors – blue might mean the user had a tranquil day – and deliver a short message.
Since releasing the Bustin Jieber app, Thomas has created a small company called CarrotCorp. (Because he is not 18, his father is listed as the company’s owner.)
A branding theme seems to be emerging with his games. Others include Bustin Howie and Bustin Piers, dedicated to whapping down the floating faces of Howie Mandel and Piers Morgan, the rivaling hosts on “America’s Got Talent.”
Thomas released the 99-cent Bustin Jieber app just before last year’s holiday season.
A few days after Christmas, he was pleasantly surprised to see that he’d made 700 sales. Since then, he has made about 600 more, at a total profit of about $1,000. Thomas has purchased an Xbox with his earnings, but Ralph said in many ways he’s glad that the venture hasn’t brought home serious money.
“I like that he’s doing it more to have fun and to learn, and share with his friends,” he said. “In anything, it’s probably best if you do it for the love of the thing.”
TEDx Manhattan Beach will be from 9:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Manhattan Beach Middle School, 1501 Redondo Ave. Tickets are $100 but are nearly sold out. The event will be streamed live on its website at http://tedxmanhattanbeach.com/.