Friday, February 29, 2008

TED Sculpture

Here are the pictures of some of the art work described in the previous message - the phone book sculpture., showing the outside of the sculpture, about my height, and the inside with the spines of the books.

Having misplaced my TED program this afternoon (in which I wrote all my notes) my posts from now on may be much shorter! I hear a collective sigh of relief from many at that comment.

Today, Friday, was a magnificent TED day and I think all the TEDsters are still flying high. The party at the Aquarium was magnificent. How can you not like a party where the food station servers' backdrop is a tank of jellyfish?

This seems like a good opportunity to describe some of the other embellishments of the conference, in the hopes that I'll find my program handed in somewhere tomorrow and return to comprehensive posts. If not, the posts will be much lighter.

Celebrity spotting. Despite the disdain I feel for celebrity hawks, it's hard not to notice the array here. I see so many of the big names of Silicon Valley and the Net - Jeff Bezos, Scott Cook, Craig Mundie, Bill Joy, Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Steve Case, John Doerr, nathan Myrvold, Pierre Omidyar, Vinod Khosla, and many more I just didn't recognize. Even the stars you can easily miss. I bumped into someone at the food line today, and looked up to see it was Cameron Diaz. During the meditation session, I was sitting almost facing Goldie Hawn. Meg Ryan and Forrest Whittaker are the other stars I've noticed. Again, there are probably others I just didn't recognize. Add to that so many speakers from past years, and it's quite the an array.

I've talked to all sorts of people during the conference - lots of technology folks, publishers, private equity people, and a guy who's started centers to teach sewing to kids. It was wonderful to talk to the CTO of Dreamworks. He was saying his work is centred on 3D, and explained that the most difficult part of the exercise was to manage the transitions between different distances without making people sick. I also talked to the very interesting man who runs the Recommendation system for Netflix. I would have liked even more time to hear more about the details of their algorithms.

There are a number of art works on loan from the West collection to catch your eye as you walk around. One is a large sculpture carved from phone books, about person height. You can walk inside to see the spines of the books that were used.

I've already mentioned the Google Snack Bar. The break food is completely imaginative each day. And you can't let a day go by without checking the Vosges chocolate bar without seeing what they've got out for sampling. Yesterday they served a bruchetta type offering, with chocolate on the bread, and a slice of bacon and sage leaf on the top. Yummy. My favourite today was the chili-fired toffee covered in chocolate, although the chocolate-coated tortilla chip with a slice of brie on top was a close second.

Until tomorrow....

TED University

Each year, on the morning prior to the beginning of the conference, a number of TED attendees give short (10 minute) talks on a range of interesting topics. People register and move from class to class like in university.

A couple stand out for me:

In How to Have Effective Board Meetings I heard the oft-repeated advice to start each board meeting with a short description of the good and bad things that have happened since the last board meeting. But the idea of calling them Peaches, Lemons and Lemonades was great.

The most powerful talk was packed with information about worst-case scenario climate change. The thesis was that climate change was full of discontinuities, and yet the IPCC report was based on conservative linear extrapolations of where we are today. He presented a lot of evidence that could argue for larger and earlier climate change than IPCC predicted, at least equally likely to their predications.
A session on water as game changer was a series of anecdotes about the benefits arising from bringing water to those who hadn’t had it. The story that struck me was the provision of a well in Kenya that enabled a mother to stop walking 5 hours a day just to get water, allowed her to grow a vegetable garden with the time, even produce some extra crops for sale, and allowed the children to go to school since they didn’t have to accompany her on the walk. My memories of the women walking along the roads in Africa for water made this particularly meaningful to me.

Majora Carter (a fabulous speaker from a previous year – see her at had us practising to have a difficult conversation. I was paired up with Jeff Bezos’ mother, a similar age and stage of life as me, and that was quite interesting.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

World Debate

There was a bonus session on Wednesday night, when BBC World Service taped a panel discussion on whether media today (new and old media) is keeping us better informed or not. The panel consisted of
  • Sergei Brin, founder of Google - focusing on Internet tools like GOogle News and Google Reader
  • Andrew Mawenda - a passionate and articulate Ugandan journalist arguing for the moral responsibility of journalists to report completely, fairly and with balance
  • Queen Noor of Jordan - focusing on the need for better dialogue and information about the Middle East and how the new media in the Middle East had liberated people there
  • Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame - who again focused on the need for high quality journalism, the need for intelligent filters, and the fact that New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal were still fine papers despite the media conglomerates doing their best to damage good journalism
  • Dan Gilbert, author of Struggling for Happiness - who focused on what consumers wanted from their news

Just prior to the debate, there was a real TED Moment. There were technical difficulties that were delaying the start, and the moderator was gamely filling in time, when there was some very loud banter from the back of the hall in a strong Scottish accent. When the speaker was urged up on stage, to everyone's surprise it was RObin Williams, who proceeded to give a hilarious 10 minute spontaneous monologue that had everyone rolling with laughter. And some of it was clearly made up on the spot, relating to that particular predicament, and things that had happened in the conference. What a treat.

The main points discussed in the panel were:

  • how shamefully weak coverage in the US was of the rest of the world. Mawenda said that with the closure of US bureaus in Africa, journalists tended to be parachuted in during Incidents. Given their ignorance and lack of contacts on the ground they did a poor Job. Queen Noor said the same held true for most of middle east where American media did a very poor job of really understanding what was going on. (At the audience question period, I was tempted to brag about Stephanie Nolen in Africa for the Globe!)
  • the concern about the fragmentation of media and the personalization on the web allowing people to choose news that will simply reinforce their prejudices rather than inform them

Great session.

Where do we fit in the universe

The second big question at TED was where do we fit in the universe?

The session was led off with Patricia Burchat, a particle physicist, discussing dark matter (accounting for 26% of the universe) and dark energy (accounting for 70% of the universe). We can infer dark matter - it's needed to explain why stars and galaxies are going so fast, and how they are expanding in such a way to increase structure. Dark energy on the other hand counters this tendency by impeding structure. Her big two questions were "What is dark matter?" and "What is dark energy?"

Peter Ward, a paleontologist, tries to bring together the fields of astrobiology, and the origin, distribution and evolution of life in the universe. He presented a theory that the Major Mass Extinctions were actually caused by oxygen depletions and a build-up of CO2 and particularly H2S. Such concentrations would have arisen through accidents such as volcanoes. He went on to point out that in the past, at concentrations of 1000 ppm of CO2, there has been no ice - and that's where our current CO2 build-up is headed. Loss of all ice would result in 250' of ocean rise.

John Hodgman, the Resident Expert on the Daily Show and the actor playing the PC in the recent Apple ads, did a hilarious monologue, whose funny lines would definitely not translate to the page!

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar then did a brief talk on the importance of breathing. At the trivial level, it's the very essense of life; beyond that, he argues that paying attention to your breath is the 'solution to everything'. If your dominant breath is in your left nostril, your right brain is in charge, whereas your right nostril means your left brain is in charge. He described the transofmraiton of prisoners through introduction of breathing and believes his breathing exercises and meditation can help lead to a violence-free world. He offered a meditation session at 7 the next morning, which I participated. Despite my skepticism, I did find the intense focus on breathing to be very relaxing, conducive to meditation, and even experienced a shift of dominance from right to left nostril. Hmmmm.

The day's last session ended with a performance by Kaki King, described as the first female guitar god. Wow. Her left hand wasn't just holding the frets for the strumming or picking of the right. It was more as if her two hands were playing two different instruments at the different ends of the guitar. It was truly amazing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Who Are We?

TED's theme for this year is "The Big Questions". The first session was called "Who Are We?"
Although there are 50 headline speakers, part of the magic of TED is the little 'treats' that we are served up in between. This year, we started with a wonderful actor from the New York Public Theatre, Michael Stubog (sp?) doing "to be or not to be - that is the question". It was fantastic and a great start.

Then Louise Leakey, of the famous Leakey family, attacked the question of who we are by placing homo sapiens in the long line of hominids. She brought home how fortuitous it was that any fossils are found. First, there has to be an environment where the fossils get preserved, and then a second situation that brings them to the surface to be found. She described the vast territory over which they've been searching - thousands of square kilometers - and then showed a picture of ground where a fossil had been found. Despite the clear resolution of the photo, until she highlighted the fossil, we would never have seen anything at all! Then she showed the first discovery by one of their team of a piece of skull that led to their greatest discovery - his hand dwarfed the skull fragment. The actual skull was on stage and Leakey held it up for us to see. I came away with a new respect for paleoanthropologists.

She ended with a comment on humans in general as a polluting, wasteful, aggressive species, with just a few good things thrown in. As she pointed out that most species last about 1M years, and we're half way through that period, her big question was where we'd end up.
Wade Davis, an anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, showed phenomenal pictures of the indigenous cultures he studies. His point was that these cultures were not failed attempts at being modern, but cultures with a different world view. He described The Navigators in Polynesia, who can name 250 different stars in the sky and 'see' islands beyond the horizon by analyzing wave patterns that were formed many miles away. He talked about Tibetans who spend years on a study of the mind, as opposed to Western science which is responsive to our most trivial needs. And he described the Elder Brothers of Peru, who spend 18 years in an isolated compound contemplating and praying for the universe. They believe their prayers are responsible for keeping the universe in balance. He emphasizes these are dynamic living cultures that are being driven out of existence by us.
Chris Jordan showed some of the art that he uses to try to convey large (and ugly) numbers. He is striving to make the unconsious conscious. For instance, his first picture looked like a bunch of intertwined pipes, but was actually 1M clear plastic cups, the number used every 6 hours on airplanes, with absolutely no recycling. He showed 2.3M prison uniforms neatly folded and stacked, representing the prison population of the US, which accounts for 1 in 4 of the prisoners in the world. This photo takes 4 10'x4' panels to show all the uniforms. He showed a close-up of Barbie dolls arranged in a circle. As he panned out, the 32,000 Barbies formed the portrait of a pair of breasts. 32K represents the number of breast augmentation operations in the US each month. Jordan's art work can be seen at You really have to view to understand the impact. Jordan's goal is to translate mere data that's hard to relate to into images we can feel about. His big question was "How do we change?"
After an amazing performance by Sxip Shirey creating an amazing array of sounds with a few instruments and his mouth, we had the first big surprise of the day.
Stephen Hawking - yes, that Hawking, author of The History of Time - gave a presentation that had been recorded earlier in the day in Cambridge. He laid out what he thought were the three big questions and provided his answers:
1. Where did we come from? He says we know the Big Bang was 15B years ago, and we have recently learned that the universe can actually create itself out of nothing.
2. Are we alone in the universe? He is convinced that we are the only species, at least within several hundred light years.
3. What is the future of the universe? He described humanity as selfish and aggressive and likely to destroy the planet. Thus the only chance for humanity to survive is to colonize space.
When Chris Anderson asked him to elaborate on the last question, he pointed out that his answer took Hawking 7 minutes to deliver. It humbled us all to know how much effort it took for Hawking to make this presentation to TED.
As if Hawking weren't enough, the last speaker, Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist from Harvard, was stunning. She started by pulling out a human brain and pointing to the great divide between the left and right hemispheres. The right hemisphere is where we live in the present, we learn kinesthetically, and we are energy beings connected to the universe. The left hemisphere is linearly rigid and methodical, where we worry about the past and the future, where we pick out the details, categorize things and think with an "I am" voice.

She then went on to describe in painful detail a stroke she'd had. She lost the left hemisphere of her brain in the stroke, and she described the sensation of flux as her left hemisphere would kick in and out. When she was operating exclusively in her right hemisphere, she felt lighter, with all external stress gone - as she put it she lost 37 years of emotional baggage. She was no longer the choreographer of her own life, and felt a spirit of surrender, as her spirit soared free like letting a genie out of a bottle. She felt she'd found Nirvana.

She choked up as she tried to describe this feeling to the audiance, that if people could come to this space any time, step to the right side of their brain so to speak, the world would be a better place. We would feel the connected life force of the universe instead of being just a separate individual. Her big questions were "which side of the brain do you choose to use, and when". It's hard to describe the emotional impact she had on the audience, as they leapt out of their chairs in a standing ovation, many with tears trickling out of their eyes.

And so ended the first session.

Arriving at TED

Arrived at TED this year with a touch of nostalgia - this is to be the last TED in Monterey, breaking a 20-year tradition. Chris Anderson, the curator, believes that the facility in Long Beach will retain the intimate feeling of current TED location, yet accommodate more people in the Main Hall, so all attendees can have a Main Hall pass.

The program guide this year has been designed to meet C2C goals. C2C stands for Cradle to Cradle, a concept popularized by William McDonough's book of that name. C2C aims to create production methods that involve not reduced waste but are essentially waste-free: technical components are designed to be reused with no loss in quality and biological components to be composted or consumed. McDonough spoke at the first TED conference I attended, and his presentation still rings in my mind. Clearly he made a huge impression on other TEDsters, as more and more things at TED are adhering to C2C principles. The pencil tucked into the program guide is equally interesting - made from recycled Chinese newspaper rolled around the graphite and stuck with nontoxic soy-based glue. It lasts 2-3 times longer than wood ones.

The gift bag is also made of post-consumer recycled beverage bottles and there were 800 different colour combinations to choose from. The bag was not as full as last year's gluttonous collection. While my ecological and logistical (how can I ever get this stuff all back home?) head agrees with that, the child in me misses the Christmas morning feeling of past conferences when it could take literally hours to go through all the gifts.

Since I'm fighting a stomach flu, I skipped the party last night, although I did take my scheduled test drive in a Lexus hybrid (smooth!), grabbed a smoothie from the Google snack bar which is here again, and hit the bed by 7 pm. Keep your fingers crossed that I stay well - this conference takes stamina!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Anticipating TED

As the time for TED draws nearer, my excitement starts to build.

This year, I've found an increasing number of people who know just what a treat I'm heading to. The availability of TED speakers online has definitely increased the number of people who can appreciate the TED experience.

I've just finished reading one of theTED book club selections, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The title derives from the notion that until you've seen a black swan, you tend to believe that all swans are by definition white. While seeing nothing but white swans for decades doesn't prove that all swans are white, seeing one black swan does prove the negative. Similarly, the fact that the farmer has fed the turkey every day and treated it well, doesn't prepare the turkey for the fateful day just before Thanksgiving when the pattern changes dramatically, unexpectedly and catastrophically - the turkey's black swan day. These Black Swan Events, while rare, have a huge impact on the course of history, yet people tend to underestimate the likelihood and magnitude of them. This is exacerbated by a very flawed belief that most things follow a Guassian (normal or Bell curve) distribution suggesting that most events or observations cluster around the mean. This is only true for a few categories of things.

The book was quite dense and at times bleak to read, and Taleb was not inhibited by any tendency to soften his works when he described economics practitioners he didn't respect! I wouldn't be surprised to see some real fireworks when he speaks at TED.

I just saw a black swan on a visit to the Phoenix Wildlife Zoo and thought it would be great to include in this post.