Saturday, February 28, 2009

How To Grow Your Own Fresh Air

Kamal Meattle became allergic to ambient air, with his lung capacity going down to 70%. His research found that three plants were particularly good at cleaning and purifying air (see here for more info):
What he learned for his own health purposes, Meattle has applied in an old building in Delhi where people who stayed in the building were able to improve their oxygen levels, and were less susceptible to eye irritation, headaches, lung impairment and asthma. Meattle calculates the benefits in productivity of the people to be over 2o%, while reducing energy costs for air circulation and purification.

They are now building a 1.75M sq. ft. building according to these principles, which will incorporate 60,000 plants. The building is expected to be ready by 2011. You can learn more about this building at the GreenSpaces web site(click here).

More on Data from TED 2009

It wasn't only Berners-Lee that was talking about data at TED this year. Hans Rosling (seen here on a stepladder getting up close and personal with his data) treated us to some HIV stats that he presented in his own inimitable way. You can see this, and other, data come alive on his site It shows the power of presentation for helping understanding what the data is showing.

JoAnn Kuchera Morin presented another way of making data come alive data in the Allosphere at University of California Santa Barbara. The Allosphere allows you to visualize, hear, and explore data by standing inside an enormous sphere (3 storeys in diameter), built by a team whose skills cross the boundaries of arts and science. Up to 20 researchers can stand on a bridge and be immersed in this enormous, rich multimedia environment. One experiment allowed researchers to feel as if they were travelling inside the brain during an actual fMRI (a functional MRI) that tracks in real time what parts of he brain are activated during different stimuli. Other experiments 'traveled' into smaller spaces, like lattices of atoms, right down to a single hydrogen atom.

Yann Arthus Bertrand

I first ran into Yann Arthus Bertrand through his many photographs in a book called Over Europe, with text by Jan Morris. It is a coffee table book that I riffle through often, and never fail to enjoy. I was eagerly anticipating his TED appearance - each year at TED at least one of the speakers has thrilled me with dazzling photography, such as this photo of the Great Barrier Reef. Such was not to be, as Bertrand showed few photos.

However, his talk focused on a variety of projects he's involved in, documented in several delightful web sites.

He is best known for his photos taken from above. The photos range from great natural scenes such as this one of the Athabasca Tar Sands
to man-made scenes like this co-operative farm in Israel
Anyway, before I get carried away filling this posting with beautiful photographs, I just encourage you to fool around on his site and enjoy them yourself.

Another project/web site worth touring is which houses interviews of people from around the world, talking about rather personal and intimate things. The people were asked similar questions - about love, money, liberty, happiness, discrimination and many others - and then these wonderfully expressive people offer their opinions on these topics. Again worth a visit when you have some spare time. It's a really lovely illustration of the similarities across the world.

Another of his projects is found on his (totally French) web site, which focuses on environmental concerns.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oxymoron - Clean Coal

As I heard the news on the radio the other day that the Antarctic ice cap was melting faster than expected, I was reminded of Al Gore's short message at TED. He was back this year, with some new slides about methane, pointing out that as the climate warms and frozen northern lakes thaw, they release methane and contribute to more global warming, thus feeding the vicious cycle of climate change. He had rather ignored methane in his previous slide show; of course, methane is even more pernicious than carbon monoxide.

He also inveighed against the oxymoronic concept of clean coal and the huge amount of money (a quarter of a billion dollars) being spent to advertise it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ray Kurzweil - It's All About Exponentials

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, entrepreneur, and a former speaker at TED (click here for his talk) is a provocative big thinker. He believes technology will change our lives more than we believe possible, with astounding consequences.

Kurzweil is all about exponential curves; he points out that we can underestimate progress when we're dealing with exponentials. For isntance, during the first decade of the human genome project, only 2% of the genome had been sequenced, but the remaining 98% was solved in five years. We tend to focus on having solved only 2% of problems and get discouraged. Yet once the breakthroughs take place, they accelerate the process and apply in addressing future problems. It took 15 years to sequence HIV, but only 15 days to sequence SARS.

He's published two mind-blowing books: The Singularity is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology and Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. In the first book, Kurzweil explains that exponential improvements in technology will bring dazzling advances that help address the climate change, poverty, famine and disease. In the second, he advances the startling proposition that we are so close to perfecting life-prolonging technologies that we baby-boomers just have to hang on a little while, and these technologies will be sufficiently advanced to offer us technological immortality. Kurzweil's extreme personal health regimen is designed to ensure he reaches that point of possibility. Kurzweil is never boring!

At TED University, he announced the formation of the Singularity University. According to Kurzweil, "One of the objectives of the university is to really dive in depth into these exponentially growing technologies, to create connections between them, and to apply these ideas to the great challenges [facing the world]." NASA has contributed space and Google money for the university, which will accept its first students this summer. Watch for some interesting results.

TED2009 and Philanthropy

There are two themes of a TED conference. One is Ideas Worth Spreading, which is the slogan of the conference, and what appears on TED sweatshirts. What you put on the sweatshirts always is the ultimate definition of what you are about. The other theme is making the world a better place. There were several talks at Ted University and on the main stage this year about philanthropy. As one might expect from TED, they combined creativity with a wish to help others.

Blake Mycoskie is 'Chief ShoeGiver' of TOMS shoes, a company that gives a pair of shoes to a child in need every time you buy a pair of shoes. You can see this at the Toms Shoes site.

Then there was John Breen of Free Rice who invited us to play games on site, and donate 10 grains of free to the UN World Food Program for every answer you get right. There are games about words, math, geography, art, foreign languages; if you like trivial pursuit you could get quite hooked. And 10 grains of rice are donated every time you get a correct answer, courtesy of sponsors on the site.

Martin Fisher offered some guidelines on how to choose among charities proposing to address global challenges. Make sure they're:
  • Measurable
  • Cost-effective
  • Sustainable
  • Replicable/scalable
He discusses these ideas further at the Real Good, Not Feel Good site.

Austin Hill described the online social reality game Akoha where you earn points by playing real-world missions with your friends. Based on a Play It Forward idea, you can earn points by giving someone a gift (chocolate, your favourite book), or by simply making contact. Completing Akoha missions can result in real-world partnerships - for instance a school project in Nepal.

Hill attended his first TED just weeks after his brother's funeral. The inspiration of TED's positive spirit decided him to do a site like this rather than starting another disease foundation.

Jacqueline Novogratz is founder of the Acumen Foundation and Chris Anderson's wife as of last summer. The Acumen Foundation is a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. The TED Book Club has just sent us a pre-release of Novogratz' book, The Blue Sweater (a gift from Chris himself, he hastens to note, not from TED), whose stubtitle is Briding the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

Novogratz spoke about the dismal facts and uplifting hopes around malaria. Malaria kills a child every 30 seconds. Novogratz talked of the efforts of people like Awa Maria Coll-Seck, Executive Director of Roll Back Malaria. Roll Back Malaria was founded in 1998 with a goal of reducing malaria by half by 2010. Coll-Seck is a very impressive woman, former minister of health for Senegal.

In Ethiopia, there were 50M people at risk of malaria and 16M cases among children in 2003. After an aggressive malaria campagn, they were able to achieve a 50% reduction in deaths. They took a multi-pronged approach, training over 33K health care works, distributed 20M nets in 18 months, delivered 12M doses of medication and sprayed 1M houses. This prevented 9.6M dcases and saved 57K lives.

Novogratz feels that you need this full set of interventions to be successful against malara, backing by tremendous political will, and the provision of multiple years of funding at one time (as against the unpredictable year-to-year funding approach in much of such work).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tim Berners Lee - the next revolution on the Web

It's been almost 20 years since Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web, having written the initial memo in 1989. He acknowledged it was rather a vague concept, but exciting. You had to experience it to fully appreciate it. The concept of linking to another web page seems so natural to us now, but its power was hard to understand 20 years ago.

Berners Lee thinks the Internet is ready - and needs - a tranformation as dramatic as that revolution. This transformation would support the sharing and linking of data. This would open up to Internet users the wealth of data available under all those textual and graphical web pages; i.e. we'd get to the real data, not just a representation of the data as text, a sort of dbpedia.

He showed a picture of what this linked data universe could look like. Each buble here represents, not a web page but a data set.

He referred to the wonderful data we've seen from Hans Rosling at TED (and on his web site) and mused how much more valuable that site would be if you could get the original data Rosling had used. Then, just as we can link from page to page in a browser, we could link from data set to data set to move more deeply into the information.

He pointed to Open Street Map as an example of a system that allows you to get at the actual data. This is a shared data wiki, where you can view and edit geographical data about any place in the world.

Berners-Lee has three rules that would make this data available to everyone:
  1. Use http names for all data
  2. If you use those names, you can address the data and get it back in usable form
  3. You can also get the relationships
You can see Bernes-Lee's slides here, although they do lose a little something without his explanations and passionate advocacy. But you can at least see a clearer image of the diagram above.

Having worked at I. P. Sharp in the 70s and 80s, where we had numerous online databases of data, this seems like an idea whose time has come. Add the effortless linking approach of WWW and this is a very powerful meme.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Insights on India

One of the talks which really surprised and delighted me was this one by the co-founder of Infosys. Nandan Nilekani is the author of a book called Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century and he gave us a whirlwind tour of the ideas in that book. India is going through such transformation and he had a very thought-provoking take on that transformation. He discussed:
  • Ideas which have 'arrived', and are being implemented and acted upon
  • Ideas which are agreed upon by everyone but haven't been implemented yet
  • Ideas over which there is conflict and disagreement
  • Ideas in anticipation where there is agreement there is a problem but no consensus on solution

Ideas which have arrived

People, who were traditionally thought of as a burden, are now thought of as the engines of growth. India has a 'demographic dividend' for the next thirty years. As other countries are facing a worrisome aging of the population, resulting in tremendous burdens on social and health systems, India has an extremely young population, giving them a significant competitive edge.

Entrepreneurs, once thought of as villains in India, are now treated as role models.

Indians now see English as the language of aspiration, not the language of oppression.

Technology which was once seen as threatening is now seen as empowering. Mobile technology is a symbol of that technology to the masses. Eight million mobiles are being sold per month. 40% of these mobiles are recharged with less than 20 cents.

When Indians used to think of the rest of the world, they thought of imperialism; now they see globalization, a source of opportunity for India.

Ideas which are generally agreed upon and are being implemented

It's recognized that youngsters must have access to good public primary schools. Currently over half the students attend private schools.

The slogan in India used to be food and shelter for everyone. Now the slogans are around electricity, water and roads.

The cities are seen as the engines of growth in India. This is in ontrast to Ghandhi who focused on the villages.

India is now seen as one seamless market, with the infrastructure trying to catch up to this vision.

Ideas where there is still conflict
and disagreement

There are political, ideological conflicts about what politics will look like as India moves beyond the caste system.

There is still a conflict with labour about whether job protection is hampering job creation.

And there is disagreement about whether higher education should be controlled by the state or by private industry.

Ideas in anticipation

India has to avoid a health care crisis which simply substitutes the diseases of poverty for the diseases of the rich.

India has to work out a balance between pensions and entitlments.

India has to avoid environmental problems as it grows.

India has to drive its growth around a new energy model.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nalini Nadkarni

"The Queen of the Canopies" has spent two decades studying the canopies of tropical rain forests and Pacific Northwest rain forest. Home to an incredible diversity of biological life, the canopy is the last biotic frontier. Over 10,000 species of ants have been discovered and catalogued in the canopy; of these 4,000 live exclusively in the canopy. Plants can live in the canopy, getting their moisture from the surrounding mist; they take in water through their leaves rather than their roots.

Nadkarni has shown that epiphytes, which are non-parasitic plants such as orchids and ferns and mosses, that live on the branches and trunks of other plants, trap organic material beneath their root system, forming a nutrient rich mat, allowing trees to form aerial roots stemming from their trunks and branches.

As she puts it, "You are looking at a carpet of carbon capture when you look out over a forest canopy."

Nadkarni is passionate about trees and also about collaborating about trees. She established the International Canopy Network. She buys up Barbie dolls at flea markets, and dresses them in the gear of a tree climber and distributes them as Treetop Barbies to encourage girls to take up this career (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em). She partners with artists, and we had a performance of Biome by dance group Capacitor - using human bodies to mimic the growth of trees.

Nadkarni did research on the mosses that grow on trees and in the canopy - to her surprise they took 20 years to regrow after being stripped. There is a $265M industry harvesting these mosses for use by florists. Nadkarni determined she would try to establish an industry to grow the mosses to prevent this stripping in the forest. She took it to a prison and the inmates became totally engaged in determining which mosses grew best and how to plant and care for them. This grew into a sustainability program which includes worm culture, gardens, and bee keeping. One group is now helping to protect the endangered Oregon spotted frog by nurturing and breeding them in captivity (little ha ha).

Nadkarni is charismatic about science and believes it should be shared. "People tend to compartmentalize, but nature is a common denominator", she says.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks became a household name after his bestseller Awakenings (and the subsequent movie),and is the author of one of our TED Book Club selections, Musicology.

Sacks walked gingerly on stage, sat down, and embarked on a story. It was the story of Rosalee, a lady in her 90's, who had lost her sight and who was having recurrent hallucinations. Rosalee, and her attendants, worried that she might be going mad. Rosalee described seeing people in European dress, a man with huge teeth, children in pink and blue clothes, often walking down stairs. The visions were detailed, vivid, but silent.

Sacks was called out to speak with her and diagnose her; he was quickly able to determine that she was sane, lucid, and intelligent, but suffering from Charles Bonnet syndrome. This syndrome affects upwards of 10% of the visually impaired. Particularly prevalent are faces, often with deformities, and, surprisingly, cartoons. There is a particular portion of the brain which recognizes faces, and another which handles cartoons. Apparently, in the absence of real visual stimulation, those parts of the brain start to react anyway, and present an image, or hallucination. Since this takes place in the visual cortex, outside the area which adds sound, or emotion to a visual, these hallucinations appear like silent movies, with no emotional baggage attached.

As Sacks puts it, "the theatre of the mind is generated by the machinery of the brain." What a lovely expression. And what a lovely way to introduce the subject, by telling us the story of Rosalee.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Making of Benjamin Button

Ed Ulbrich of Digital Domain gave us a tour behind the scenes of Benjamin Button. I had assumed there was some incredible make-up work in the movie. Not so. In fact, for the first hour of the film, Button's face is entirely computer generated.

The task set out by the director for Digital Domain was to make Brad Pitt look older through graphics, but to retain all his mannerisms, and to have a character that could handle all situations in the movie, such as interacting with different characters, and appearing in different lighting. Ulbrich, the Executive VP of Digital Domain, had pitched for the business. He confessed that he was so overwhelmed after winning the business that he returned to the office and vomited.

The film required a 'stew' of technology drawn from the film industry to the medical imaging industry. The breakthrough came from using The Facial Action Coding System, which breaks down all facial expressions into 70 basic facial actions. By combining these 70 coded actions, you can create all possible facial expressions. So, Pitt started by doing all these 70 facial actions, which were then applied to a computer graphic image of his head at 60, 70, and 80 years of age. These heads were then 'attached' to bodies representing those ages. Incredibly detailed work was required to ensure that all of this looked realistic: one person worked on the eyes for two years, while the software for the tongue took nine months.

The last step was for Pitt to 'act' the part in the movie. This was done in isolation of the rest of the action, more or less like we've seen musicians perform in a studio. Digital Domain then captured that, and reapplied it to the graphic head, using the FACS system. I'm sure I haven't done this talk justice, as I was mesmerized by the visuals on the stage. It was a really amazing story.

Heroic Tale in the Antarctic

TED loves to bring tales of heroic achievements to us. This year it was the story of two Canadians who, just in December, were the first to reach the South Pole on snowshoes (rather than skis). Ray Zahab told us about the 1,100 mile journey of 33 days, 23 hours, 55 minutes, ascending from sea level to 10,000 feet, pulling 160-pound sleds in 40 below weather. No wonder they burned 8,500 calories a day. The team blogged every day, using solar energy to power their communications.

This is not the first extraordinary journey for Zahab - he had previously completed a 111-day run across the Sahara. And not the last - he intends to go to the North Pole next year, an increasingly difficult feat with the reduction in Arctic ice.

Zahab said that before he started running five years ago, he was a pack-a-day smoker, encouragement to anyone who wanted to make a big life change.

Arthur Benjamin

A couple of years ago at TED, ArthuR Benjamin, a math professor at Harvard Mudd College, astonished us with his feats of 'mathemagic' involving almost unbelievable high-speed math calculations. I highly recommend his talk at

This year, Benjamin gave a brief and passionate plea for more useful math education. Make statistics the pinnacle of math education, not calculus. Statistics is far more useful in daily lives and would help people make better decisions about all kinds of things. A really good point.

Bacteria and communication

Bacteria are simple, single-celled organisms, with a single strand of DNA. It's easy to assume that they couldn't possibly communicate. Bonnie Bassler, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton, begs to differ.

Her research has shown that bacteria can communicate, through 'quorum sensing', which assesses the density of bacteria in the neighbourhood.

She told a fascinating story of the complex symbiosis between noctural squid and bacteria which live in a cavity inside the squid. In the daytime, the squid flushes the bacteria. However, at night, as they return to the cavity, the bacteria 'sense a quorum' and being to luminesce. The squid has sensors on its back which sense the level of light above it. The squid opens the shutter on this cavity just enough to let out light to match the level of light above, so that the squid does not cast a shadow. What an astonishing, complex system to assist its hunting.

More relevant to humans is the fact that disease-causing bacteria release their toxins only when they 'sense a quorum'. So, if we could discover their method of communicating and interrupt it, we could prevent many diseases.

Bassler has done just that. Bacteria molecules are very similar, with the left hand side the same in all bacteria and the right hand side specific to each bacteria species. Enzymes which recognize the left hand side of the molecule thus constitute a 'universal Esperanto' for all bacteria, while an enzyme recognizing the right hand side represents an intra-species language.

Bassler's hope is to deepen understanding of this language and thus generate treatments for bacterial diseases, particularly relevant in a world where many kinds of bacteria have evolved to be resistant to current antibiotics.

Bassler ended her talk with a picture of the young researchers on her team, who actually do the hard slogging for these discoveries. She expressed her pleasure at working with such great students, particularly as they stay the same age as she gets older and older! A lovely sentiment to end a fascinating talk.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert -- Nurturing Creativity

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of surprise bestseller Eay Pray Love, dazzled with an eloquent, fluent, graceful talk. It didn't appear to be memorized, and yet the most perfect prose just flowed from her mouth.

She admitted to fear that Eat, Pray, Love might be the best thing she would ever write, dooming her later works (and life) to being described as 'after' her big success. She felt discouraged by that notion and feared falling into the unhappiness so typical of artists and writers.

Then she reset her frame. The Greeks and Romans considered not that people were geniuses, but that genius came to them. When Gilbert thought of things that way, she felt released. Her big success was not just hers, and her failures were likewise not just hers. If she 'shows up for work', it's the job of her muse to deliver the inspiration.

This talk is already up at and I recommend it highly to you:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Unmanned War

PW Singer, author of several books on the military, talked about just how far robots have penetrated into the military. He opened by describing Pakbot, a 42 pound robot that demolishes IEDs in Iraq, and reading a mock letter describing its destruction. This highlighted how much easier it is to report the 'death' of a robot than a soldier. Singer showed film of soldiers throwing robots into buildings that needed to be cleared - they looked just like soldiers throwing in grenades in some old war movie, but much more effective..

The scope of unmanned warfare is astonishing. As just one example, the US now has 5,300 drones in the air in Iraq, after starting the war with almost none. Many of these drones are controlled by soldiers back in the US guiding the drones remotely. And the implications are unexpected. These soldiers spend the day killing people, and causing destruction and havoc in Iraq. It's like playing a video game for them. Then they go home for supper with their families. Although these soldiers are in no danger, they suffer more post-traumatic stress than those in the field.

Singer pointed out that the US was significantly ahead in their capability for technological, robotic war. However, many of these robots can be put together from off-the-shelf components and their lead may be short-lived. For instance, Hezbollah flew four different types of drones against Israel in their last war. This can make insurgents increasingly capable of destruction, even with small numbers of soldiers.

Another implication of these robots is that they record everything. In fact, most of the YouTube footage of the Iraq war is from drones. So we can now watch war even more, yet experience it even less.

Lastly, we were very close to having autonomous robotic warriors, needing no control from a human.

So, what happens to the concept of war crimes in 'committed' by an autonomous robot? Will remote 'video warriors' be more vicious than real soldiers? Will we find it easier to go to war when we don't have to contemplate those coffins being unloaded from planes? Some questions worth thinking about.

His book should be quite interesting.

TED2009 Interstitial

Here's some eye candy from the TED conference - we have lots of these little breaks to have a laugh between all the thinking stuff.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Legs - or Super Legs? Two Extraordinary Women

My first TED post this year was about Juan Enriquez' presentation. He talked about advances in tissue generation and advanced robotics that could revolutionize how we think of our bodies. How would we handle a world where these devices would enable people to become 'better than human' he asked.

Then I attended a TED University talk by Aimee Mullins, a beautiful athlete, actress, and fashion model. She strutted on stage, all 6'1" of her, wearing very high heels. After a double take, I realized both her legs were prosthetics (she had amputations below the knee when she was one, due to missing fibula bones.)

Aimee showed us some of her favourite legs, including the legs with which she won paralympic medals in long jump and sprints.

These days she thinks of legs as wearable art, rather than mere imitations of human legs. She had 'cheetah legs' for a movie in which she played a cheetah. But my favourites were a beautifully carved ashwood pair built for a fashion show. They looked like finely tooled leather boots.

Aimee said she liked the legs she was wearing, because her normal height was 5'8", but it was fun to be 6'1". When a girlfriend first saw these legs, she had protested "That's just not fair!". What a milestone, she said, that someone with two legs would envy her.

Will such devices turn the tables so that we think of people with disabilities as being advantaged?

We met another extraordinary woman at TED, on the main stage - Lena Maria Klingvall. Born with no arms and one stunted leg, she was another incredibly self-confident, multi-faceted person. A swimming medallist in butterfly and the back stroke. A singer, a pop star in Japan. She can drive a car. She can do calligraphy. She can knit and crochet. She can eat with chopsticks.

Lena Maria attributes her success to great parents and her own positive and stubborn personality. I think her touch of exhibitionism is handy too!

These were two very inspirational women.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Understand - Margaret Wertheim

Yesterday was a good day at TED. But of course, you don't come to TED for a good day. Today, however, was a spectacular TED day.
Margaret Wertheim, an Australian physicist-turned science writer, delivered a juxtaposition of ideas so typical of TED: physics, math, science, and, ahem, crocheting. She and her sister have crocheted a coral reef. What has that to do with Math, you say?
Well, it turns out a coral reef is an example of hyperbolic space. Euclidian and spherical space had long been understood. In Euclidian space, there is exactly one line through a point parallel to any given line; in spherical space there are zero such lines. Hyperbolic space was postulated as a space where there were infinitely many such parallel lines. However, mathematicians couldn't get their heads around it - until finally someone noticed that the crenellated form of corals actually were examples of hyperbolic geometry.
The next step in this saga was when Daina Taimina, a Cornell math professor and author of Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, noticed that hyperbolic geometry could be modeled in knitting and crocheting.

The next step was for Margaret and her twin sister to set out to crochet a coral reef and start exhibiting it! It is on display at TED and it's simply amazing. Margaret showed us how the twisty form of crochet could be folded so as to illustrate the multitude of parallel lines.
The coral reef shown above has been shown in New York, London and Chicago. And in each place, local people have crocheted their own coral reefs. And more are on their way in Sydney, Scottsdale and Latvia. Margaret and her sister have created a tribe* of reef-crocheters!
As both a mathematician and an avid fan of crocheting, I had to approach Margaret after her talk. Margaret bemoaned the lack of interest or confidence among girls in studying math and science. She hopes that using what is traditionally a female craft as an example of a math concept instead of cars and rockets, which are more stereotypically male, may help to interest girls more in math.
Anybody want to start crocheting coral reefs with me?

* Concept of tribes in review of Seth Godin's book

Rebooting - Gates at TED2009

Another talk from yesterday worth checking out was Bill Gates' talk on the work of his Foundation. He gracefully handled the fact that he was in the Rebooting section, attributing it to the rebooting of his career, now full time at the Foundation. The first of his annual letters is now available at and is worth reading for its thoughtful discussion of significant problems, why they picked the ones they did to work on and progress.
At TED, he talked about two of those priorities, fighting malaria, and improving American schools. That talk is already up at You'll love the question period, when Chris Anderson pulls over his computer to read off some questions sent in from the Web and is oblivious to the fact that he's just set the glowing Apple in the foreground of the rest of their discussion! The audience chuckles you hear is because the audience was fully aware of the irony!

Naturally 7

Naturally 7 was the big hit yesterday - a group of 7 New York musicians who do 'vocal play'. What they mean by that is that they render intruments just with their voices - horns, drums, flutes, guitar, bass. They were amazing. We were fortunate to have a further taste of them when they played at last night's Block Party. TED blocked off a whole street and booked all the restaurants. After dinner, we poured out onto the street for sidewalk selection of bar, dessert, and music. What an atmosphere! Do check them out - they're wonderful.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rebooting - Juan Enriquez

The 25th edition of TED started officially today in the new Long Beach digs which accommodate about 1300 people, a considerable increase over Monterey's capacity. There were also 450 people attending a realtime simulcast version of TED in Palm Desert.
The first session was titled Rebooting, and the opening speaker was Juan Enriques,who 'thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and the life science will cause in business, tehcnology, politics and society'. But he also comments on political and social trends, as in his excellent book The Untied States of America (no typo there).
Today, he tackled both the political and the technological. He started by talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, the financial crisis. He referred to a favourite quote of mine from a recent Economist article on Sir Philip Hampton, Chair of Royal Bank of Scotland, who said "The key to managing crises, is to keep an eye on the long term while you’re dancing in the flames.”
Enriquez dramatized America's excesses by pointing out that while a normal commercial bank is leveraged nine times (a bit less in Canada), Bank of America had been leveraged 32 times and Citibank 47 times. Moreover, he bluntly stated that America is in dire peril of 'losing the dollar'. And if the American dollar loses its power and value, the consequences will be dire. He shared a message for the US from its biggest investor, the China Investment Corporation, "You should be nice to countries that lend you money." And more ominously, that China would keep on supporting the US "as long as it is sustainable".
Enriquez' message is that basically the US has to start living within its means, and take some hard medicine. He reminded us that Japan's 225 largest companies are worth 1/4 of what they were worth 18 years ago, because Japan didn't take its medicine fast enough in their crisis.
Clearly the US is 'dancing in the flames'.
However, Enriquez said that the US nevertheless had to 'keep its eye on the future', that future being advances on three hugely significant fronts:
  1. Ability to create cells. Craig Ventor last year told us of the first fully programmable cell, where you could insert DNA into any cell and create the organism of your choice. This is not future stuff. It's here today.
  2. Ability to create tissues. We can now create not just cells, but whole tissues. A recent operation sprayed stem cells on an artificial trachea, which grew a new trachea in 72 hours flat. You can grow mice molars in petri dishes, and also human teeth this way. You can create new ears for injured soldiers. Nine women in Boston are walking around with newly generated bladders instead of colostomy bags. You can scrape away the cells of a diseased heart down to the cartilege, spray with stem cells and regenerate a heart. It's here today.
  3. Robots. The Turing test says that if you can have a conversation with a computer and that conversation is indistinguishable from talking to a person, then you have true articifial intelligence. A physcial Turing test is when a robot can have physical movement that is indistinguishable from a live organism. A video of Botson Dynamics' Big Dog showed such robot behaviour. It's here today. An exciting front is robots that can be implanted in humans, such as ears or eyes. And as soon as those robots deliver an organ 'as good as' our own, you can be sure the next step will be to deliver organs better than our own.

These advances have profound consquences for society that we need to think about and prepare for. In fact, returning to the theme, you can think of them as rebooting a species. In fact, Enriquez predicted that these advances will change the characteristics of humans enough to justify being called a new species - Homo Evolutis. After all, he pointed out, 5 species of hominids have overlapped, and there's no reason to think there won't be another hominid species that will overlap with our own. He suggested this is all close enough that while we might only see glimmerings of this future, our grandchildren will live it. It's that close.

On the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, this is indeed food for thought of how humans might evolve.

Millennium Seed Bank

There will be three sessions of TED University this year. This afternoon, in one and a half hours, we had 16 speakers. There were just so many good ideas, but I'll tell you about the one that was most surprising and exciting to me.

Jonathan Drori told us about the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens, with a mission to collect and preserve seeds of all the plants in the world. A daunting goal you might say. But they’re well on their way. Started in 1999, MSB already has 3B seeds stored from 24,000 species, representing 10% of the world’s plants and they expect to cover 25% by 2020. The initial focus is on dryland plants because they are the most threatened. The seeds are preserved in a very dry, subzero environment and are removed every 10 years or so, to see if they can still be germinated.

The MSB partners with over 50 countries around the world. All seeds collected are stored in the home country, with duplicates sent to Kew. Ownership of the seeds in Kew remains with the home country, an important factor in gaining co-operation, Jon says. I talked with Jon at one of tonight’s parties and he explained much of MSB’s success arises from this collaborative approach.

Why bother? Simply put, all life depends on plants. The MSB is ensuring biodiversity by protecting plants which are being threatened by habitat reduction and global warming. In addition, the germination tests yield immediate benefits to farmers by demonstrating the best methods of germination.

Aside from being a trustee of the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, Jon was the architect of the BBC’s wonderful web site, and is currently a consultant on emerging media strategies and a Visiting Industrial Professor at Bristol University, specialising in misconceptions in science and the uses of technology for learning. He is also a director of a company which develops science-based diagnostic tools and interventions for children with autism and dyslexia. You might call him a Renaissance Man.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tommy McCall and his amazing information graphics

TED hasn't even started and already I've had brain food. I rode down from the LA Airport in the shuttle with Tommy McCall, a globe-trotting information graphics designer who specializes in bringing what might be dull graphics to life in newspapers and magazines. You can see some of his portfolio here.

His work on the TED program guide earned him a ticket to TED. Tommy is s one of a new generation of TEDster - someone who has come to know and love TED through the web site that lets people enjoyg TED speakers for free at! He particularly loves Hans Rosling for his absoluting amazing graphics that illustrate trends in world poverty. Who doesn't? He's one of my favourites too. Catch him at

Tommy also talked to me about an Op Ed piece he wrote for the New York Times in October. He calculated the return on investment you would make on $10,000 if you invested only during Republican presidencies since Hoover, or only in Democratic presidencies since Hoover. Each represents 40 years of investing. I guessed pretty bang on for the amount you'd have during Democratic incumbencies - $300,000 (well, $300,671 to be exact), but I miserably overestimated what you'd have under the Republicans - a puny $11,733. That still only rises to $51,211 if you remove Hoover's depression years. I knew the difference was enormous, but not that enormous!