Saturday, April 14, 2018

TED 2018, day 5: One last session


We gathered for a last time this year in the TED theater for a morning session they called, "What matters."  It's a wistful time at TED, because you're both exhausted and overflowing with ideas and feelings, and also want to keep enjoying the beautiful experiences they've created for you. 

First up was some music from A Tribe Called Red, a DJ group that mixes urban and indigenous music and forms.  I enjoyed it well enough, but I am not likely to be the main audience for anything near house music. 

Famous venture capitalist John Doerr then talked about the management technique he learned from Andy Grove and swears by:  OKR, short for objectives and key results.  His enthusiasm for and belief in this system was strong and clear, and he argued persuasively that everyone should use it.  I see value in it, but I don't consider it the only answer or a perfect approach. 

Gary Liu, a former tech person who now is CEO of the South China Morning Post, basically told us how big China's internet business is and how it's coming for us all.  The stats certainly are compelling.  If you want to get a good sense of just how large China's online world is, check out this talk.

TED's Chris Anderson then interviewed Netflix CEO and philanthropist Reed Hastings.  Their talk unearthed very little new information, though Hastings' exact answers were at times interesting.  The funniest moment came when Anderson pointed out that Hastings was a billionaire, to which Hastings silently nodded assent, and that Hastings had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to education charities, to which Hastings again nodded assent, and then asked Hastings how many hundreds of millions he had donated.  Hastings' answer was that he didn't exactly know.  Wow. 

After a quick break, architect and designer Walter Hood talked about his work in creating urban spaces that serve social causes as well as being functional.  I look forward to seeing some of his work. 

Mark Pollock and Simone George then took the stage in what was one of the most emotional talks of the week.  A couple, they met when he was blind and an athlete, and a while later, he broke his back and became paralyzed from the waist down.  They discussed their ongoing struggles with his challenges and all they had done to help push for cures for paralysis.  Their efforts and their love touched everyone.

Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee talked about how design affects joy and the kinds of designs that elicit joy, as well as the difference between joy and happiness.  Her presentation started slow but picked up speed and interest.

In the final talk of the show, comedian Baratunde Thurston did a wonderful job of both wrapping it all up and poking fun at everyone and everything related to this year's TED.  We laughed a great deal, and then we headed upstairs for the indoor picnic and final meal of TED 2018.

Most people I talked with during that meal were both ready to be home and eager for next year's conference. 

I feel the same. 





Friday, April 13, 2018

TED 2018, day 4: another intense day

Once again, I'm not going to cover every speaker, but I will touch on the majority of them.

The first session, "Insanity. Humanity.", kicked off with a funny and occasionally creepy presentation from James Bridle.  He started with YouTube content, such as surprise egg videos, that targets small children, and expanded from there to talk about how advertising and automation are driving a great deal of basically useless content that nonetheless draws millions of views.  He ended his cautionary talk with the suggestion that we bring digital literacy to all, so everyone will understand what people and companies are doing with this kind of content. 

Yasmin Green, the director of R&D for Jigsaw, discussed her work in trying to stop the process of radicalization before people are deep into it.  Their "redirect method" involves ads that explain the dark side of the recruiting messages from radical groups.  Her team is also working on technology they call "Perspective," which can tell you how people are likely to perceive your comments.  Though I am all for stopping hate speech online, I am not at all comfortable with software editing my compositions in the cause of its agenda--even when I agree with that agenda. 

Emily Levine delivered a wise and funny talk that began with her telling us that she has stage four lung cancer.  Among my favorite comments of hers were, "Fantasies:  exactly like goals, but without the hard work," and "My cancer isn't that aggressive; it's kind of like the Democratic leadership."  We all stood after her presentation.  I could listen to her talk for hours. 

In one of the more unusual talks of this year, Elizabeth Streb, whose bio in the TED program said she was an "action and hardware architect," talked about helping people fly--but often only for a few seconds, until they hit the ground.  As odd as the talk was, I enjoyed it. 

Dylan Marron's talk on his podcasts and other work is one you definitely should not miss.  He mentioned only briefly his "Sitting in bathrooms with Trans People" podcast and focused instead on his show, "Conversations with People Who Hate Me."  In it, he calls people who have posted online nasty comments about him and just chats with them.  "Empathy is not endorsement," he commented, and I could not agree more.  Great stuff. 

The session closed with a smart and interesting presentation from Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei on repairing broken cultures.  She felt the key to fixing any culture--and she applied this at Uber as a consultant--was to repair trust, which you do, she said, by being authentic, rigorous in logic, and displaying empathy.  Another talk you should not miss, and one I'm still pondering.

After a short break, we filed again into the main theater for the ninth session, "Body electric." 

Inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur Mary Lou Jepsen demonstrated some amazing technology for being able to scan people with a device about the size of a belt that she said they could deploy at scale to replace much of the function of MRI machines.  Though you may already be tired of me saying this, yup, don't miss this talk. 

Floyd Romesberg showed us how his team has created synthetic life that possess two more DNA "letters."  This tech is exciting and terrifying, and I have to hope that not only his organization but also many others are working on making sure the tech comes with ample safeguards. 

In another DNA-related talk, Dan Gibson discussed how his team can print DNA from an emailed "recipe."  He also showed video of the devices involved in the process.  Also both exciting and terrifying. 

Sex educator Emily Nagoski explained the phenomenon of arousal non-concordance and why with any partner you must always trust the person's words, not their body.  Almost all people would benefit from watching this talk, and I tend to think all men should. 

The musical group Ladama entertained us with a couple of their songs.  I hope to pick up more of their music.

MIT professor and bionics designer Hugh Herr talked about the problems of bringing information back from prostheses to the brain and showed some solutions.  Much of the talk centered around a new lower leg and foot his team had created for a rock-climbing friend, and the friend even came out at the end.  Fascinating stuff.

At that point, Bill and I hustled over to a nearby hotel for a lunch for The Climate Reality Project.  Former Vice President Al Gore delivered a compelling presentation and answered a lot of questions.  I still feel that if this version of Gore had run for President, he would have won. 

We then went upstairs in the same hotel for a workshop on impromptu speaking.  I don't feel weak in this area, but I always want to do better, and the leader was TED's main speaker coach.  I learned multiple useful tips, and the workshop was generally fun. 

Back at the convention center, we hit the theater for the last session of the day, "Personally speaking."

Illustrator, artist, and author Christoph Niemann delivered a funny presentation on conveying ideas with images. 

Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu discussed what they learned by making Hill's apartment as smart as possible and them monitoring all of its network traffic.  The bottom line was that, yes, all those devices are sending a ton of data about you back to the companies that make them.  In a smart house, as on social media, you are the product.

Rebecca Hwang discussed the challenge of finding an identity when you come from a multicultural background.  Her conclusion was simple but one we should all heed:  you have to create your own identity.

Jason Rosenthal, husband of deceased author and TEDActive attendee Amy Krouse Rosenthal, discussed dealing with his wife's death and trying to cope with it a year later even as he struggles to find joy in life. 

Violinist Lili Haydn treated us to one beautiful song.  I would love to have heard more. 

Performer Tamekia MizLadi Smith delivered a funny but sometimes insightful talk on working with non-clinical staff in healthcare. 

In a talk I found very moving, Chetna Sinha told the story of how she came to start and grow a bank for poor women in India.  I loved the talk, which included the wonderful and smart line, "Never provide poor solutions to poor people." 

Singer Elise LeGrow sang three songs that were originally from the famous Chess Records.  She has a lovely voice and made me want to find her album.

The last talk of the session was in many ways its best.  Oskar Eustis, who directs New York's Public Theater, started with the history of theater and wound his way to a surprising and moving conclusion that earned him a standing ovation.  I'll be surprised if this talk doesn't appear right away, and when it does, you should not miss it.

The evening concluded with a big party in the community theater one level down from the main stage.  We stayed longer than normal and actually talked with a few strangers, but as the DJ was taking the stage, we headed out. 

Wow, are my brain and heart full.




Thursday, April 12, 2018

TED 2018, day 3: spinning up and down and all around


My head, not the conference, is doing the spinning.  After a day full of sessions and a Jeffersonian dinner on spirituality, my brain is fairly full and I'm exhausted.  So, today I'm going to retreat even more deeply into the land of greatest hits and not even try to mention every speaker.

The first morning session, "Space to dream," delivered solid talks.  My favorite was from Nora Atkinson, a craft curator, who discussed and showed many images of the art from Burning Man.  Years ago, I yearned to go to Burning Man, and parts of me still think it would be great, but other parts think it might well suck.  This talk gave fuel to the former.  Either way, I admire the art she showed.  The talk in the session that I found a downer was physicist Stephen Webb's discussion of whether we were alone in the universe.  He concluded that we were, but that we should be thankful for that.  Fair enough:  we should be glad we exist.  I still hope he's wrong and we one day meet aliens.

The second morning session, "What on earth do we do?", was rich in scientific content and generally strong. 

Physicist Aaswath Raman talked about a new material that basically lets you wick heat to the upper atmosphere.  I won't tell you how it works; check out the talk when it comes online. 

Chemical engineer Jennifer Wilcox discussed ways to pull carbon dioxide out of our air.  Her analysis was strong and intriguing.

Environmental data scientist Angel Hsu talked about using richer data sets to truly understand the state of pollution in China. 

In a fun talk I want to believe will work but seriously doubt, Rodin Lyasoff showed video of and discussed a prototype, electrically powered, VTOL, autonomous personal aircraft.  Who wouldn't want your plane to fly you to work?

Penny Chisholm discussed Prochlorococcus, the smallest photosynthetic microbe.  This little rascal proved to be fascinating, and her enthusiasm for it and love of it was contagious. 

Marine ecologist Enric Sala brought the room to its feet with a compelling, data-driven argument for banning fishing on the high seas.  I am now all for this notion.  Do not miss this talk when it appears. 

After a food truck lunch, I headed to a different theater to catch "How dark is the future?", a 90-minute interview of Steven Pinker by Chris Anderson.  Pinker came across as completely prepared and unflappable.  I look forward to reading his book, but so far, he's sold me that on the whole, things are getting better. 

The sessions concluded with one they called, "Wow.  Just wow."  I very much enjoyed its first talk, a presentation from Chinese computer scientist and investor Kai-Fu Lee.  He argued that what we humans can do better than AIs are to love one another and to create.  I'm not sure the latter is true--ref. the next talk--but he was very entertaining.

Speaking of that talk, in it Pierre Barreau, a young entrepreneur, discussed his AI, AIVA, which he taught to compose and play music.  He played one of its original compositions, a piece he had it create around the conference's theme of amazement, and I have to admit that to me--and I confess here to massive ignorance of classical music--it sounded pretty good.

Luhan Yang reviewed the research that let her team breed pigs free of a retrovirus (named, amazingly enough, PERV) that makes pig-to-human organ transplants unsafe.  With pigs free of PERV (what a story title!), one big hurdle to such transplants is gone. 

Simona Francese, an analytical chemist, discussed some amazing work in extracting data from the molecules on fingerprints using mass spectrometry.  We're talking CSI stuff here that is actually ahead of the TV shows (I think; I confess to not watching any of them in years). 

Singer-songwriter Luke Sital-Singh performed two sad songs and explained why he wrote only sad songs.  I enjoyed them and will look for his music.

The sessions concluded with rock climber Alex Honnold's story about free-climbing El Capitan.  I have zero desire to go rock climbing, but I still very much enjoyed his talk.

Dinner this evening took place right after the sessions ended.  We all headed out to local restaurants for one of TED's Jeffersonian dinners.  Ours focused on the topic of the future of spirituality.  The food was decent, and the discussion lively. 

Wow, am I tired, but I am also very glad that I get to come to TED.  It is a great privilege, and one I treasure.




Wednesday, April 11, 2018

TED 2018, day 2, ends with a bang


I took no photos today, so I can offer only my brief text reports.

The first session of the day carried the title, "After the end of history..." and focused more or less on the state of the world.

The initial speaker was to have been historian Yuval Noah Harari, but he couldn't get from Tel Aviv to the show.  In classic TED style, he instead appeared live via hologram, a nifty effect indeed.  He talked a lot about the differences between nationalism and fascism.  He concluded with the point that control of our data is the most effective tool a fascist regime or dictatorship can wield today.

MIT professor Cesar Hidalgo began by saying that he was a bit disappointed in democracy and went on to cite low levels of participation in elections in many countries.  He argued that though direct democracy was unlikely to work, a blended democracy using agents that aggregate the opinions of groups of people might.  I left unconvinced but interested in his thinking.

Neuroscientist Poppy Crum, the chief scientist at Dolby Laboratories, showed us how much our devices can tell about us and some of the potential risks and benefits of that type of tech.

Economist Kate Raworth argued that we can make economies thrive and distribute wealth better without needing them to grow.  I am interested in reading more of her argument, but at the end of the talk, I was unconvinced.

Another MIT professor, Max Tegmark, talked about the future of AI and what we needed to do to make sure that when (not if) artificial general intelligences pass human intelligences, we can be as sure as possible that they will not hurt us.  Despite the way that sentence sounds, he was relentlessly upbeat and focused on encouraging us to steer toward a future we want.

After a short break, the next session, "Nerdish delight," for the most part took us in a different direction.

Yet another MIT professor, Dina Katabi, showed us the amazing work she and her team have done with using everyday Wi-Fi signals to track movements within buildings and, more importantly, provide a great deal of valuable health data.

Supasom Suwajanakorn discussed and demonstrated his work in sampling images and voices and using them to make video that appears to be people saying things that in fact they never said.  He began his research as part of a project to create interactive presences of Holocaust survivors, but what he can do now is both incredible and terrifying.  He also discussed some of the countermeasures he is creating to combat his own technology.

Giada Berboni walked us through some of her work with flexible robots, a field of study that shows great promise in, among other areas, robotic surgery.

Simone Giertz, who apparently is a YouTube star but whom I had never heard of, treated us to a fun and funny presentation on her hobby (and now job) of building useless machines.

Rajiv Laroia followed with what felt like basically an ad for a 16-lens camera from his company.  I found the talk and product very interesting, but I would have liked more tech and less product pitch.

The next talk, from Token CEO Melanie Shapiro, addressed a timely and fascinating topic, digital identity and its protection, but again felt like a product pitch.  The pitch raised a ton of interesting "how does this work" questions, but she answered none of them.

The session ended with a great interview of SpaceX COO Gwyne Shotwell by TED's Chris Anderson.  As someone who wants us to go to the stars, I predictably loved this one.  If you're into space exploration, check it out as soon as it comes online.

After a lunch break, I attended a breakout session on podcasting by Roman Mars, the creator of the podcast "99% Invisible" and co-founder of Radiotopia.  I learned a reasonable amount and came away more interested than ever in podcasting--but sure I would want audio production support.

The fourth session of the show and the day's final one was "The Audacious Project."  This set of talks made me glad I have already signed up for TED 2019.  You should go check out the project's site, but it's basically TED moving from the $1M TED Prize to trying to attack major problems at scale.  In this case, the first set of winners from the Audacious Project need over $600M to tackle their issues, and with the help of TED's program and the money of a lot of big donors, they're already raised over $400M of that amount.  Each of the causes deserve support, and I was at least intrigued and often moved by all the talks.  As soon as these are online, if you have the time, check them out.  I wouldn't do them any justice here.

I do, though, want to single out two.

Public defender Robin Steinberg's talk on the problems with our bail system and how her group, The Bail Project, was attacking them was a beautiful, frightening, and galvanizing presentation that brought the whole theater to its feet.  Do not miss this one when it's available.

It's late, and now I'm feeling guilty about not covering the others, so do check them out.  I must, though, mention one more.  T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, co-founders of GirlTrek, talked about their plan to expand the GirlTrek walking for health and social good program to reach a million African American women.  Their passion and intelligence and, most of all, stories hit us all in the hearts and again brought the room to its feet.  Do not miss it when TED posts their talk.

Expect tomorrow's post to be short, because I am once again up way too late and planning to get up way too early.  My head and heart are full, which is exactly what I want from TED.






Tuesday, April 10, 2018

TED 2018 kicks off in style


I'm back in Vancouver, B.C. for this year's TED conference.  I look forward to each year's event, and each year I come away inspired and with a great deal to process.  I expect this TED to be no different.

Though Vancouver greeted me with its usual gray, rainy weather in the morning, by afternoon the views through the conference center's huge glass walls were amazing. 

Click an image to see a larger version.

The first two sessions of today were not on the main TED stage.  Instead, they were shorter talks from TED Fellows.  I'm trying to get at least a reasonable amount of sleep this trip, so rather than review every talk, I'm only going to hit a few of them.  In the two Fellows sessions, most of the presentations were basically introductions to the work each Fellow was doing.  I ended up wanting more depth from almost all of them. 

I was intrigued by Essam Daod's work trying to provide mental health care to refugees, to help people both cope with their PTSD and to limit its effects by working with them as quickly after arrival as possible.  Rola Hallam's work with hospitals in Syria was inspiring; she and her organization, candoaction.org, are doing a great deal of good with very limited resources.  Adam Kucharski's data-driven approach to infectious disease research and prediction struck me as a very sound and practical way to attack this issue. 

Paul Rucker's talk on systemic racism hit me hard.  We have so very much work to do here. 

DeAndrea Salvador, a North Carolinian, works on the inequities of energy costs for poor people, something I think we should all try to help with. 

I appreciated the way Kotchakorn Voraakhom attacked the flooding problem in Bangkok and her emphasis on urban design and planning as a way to help make us more climate resilient.  We're going to need that in the years ahead. 

We were treated to multiple musical moments, all of which I enjoyed.  My favorite was the one that began the first Fellows session, an absolutely lovely performance by cellist Joshua Roman. 

The main stage talks, the "real" TED talks, began at 5:00 p.m. today.  All the talks were interesting, though few seemed to me to contribute a great deal to the ongoing conversation surrounding their topics. 

That said, the topics were important enough that simply hearing about them is important.

Tracee Ellis Ross discussed the continuum of male aggression against women, noting that the existence of a range from seemingly innocuous to downright horrific is itself a problem.  I certainly agree that this is a male problem, and we men need to own it and address it. 

Diane Wolk-Rogers, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, shared her experiences at the February 14 shooting tragedy and discussed options for preventing more such horrors.  As she noted, there are no easy answers, but I have to hope that we as a country are going to attack this problem.

Jaron Lanier's talk was as odd and yet as interesting as one would expect.  His perspective is always worth understanding, even if you don't agree with it.  In this case, I thought he raised many excellent points about the usage by big companies of our data, but I doubt his cures would actually work.

In a musical interlude that was all fun, The Soul Rebels, a New Orleans bass ensemble, played three long numbers that I very much enjoyed.

Zachary Wood discussed how important it is for us to hear viewpoints different from our own and to really talk with people who hold them.  Our country needs more discussion and less shouting. 

Kirsty Duncan, Canada's Minister of Science, discussed some of her country's attempts at suppressing science and what a bad idea that was.  The implications for the U.S.--and every other country--were obvious.

The session closed with Steven Pinker arguing, with masses of data that he used in his new book, that in fact we as a species are making progress and slowly improving all aspects of life on the whole.  He didn't try to say we didn't have huge problems or that the improvements are not unequally distributed--he's way, way, way too smart for that--but his case was persuasive and helped the day end on an upbeat note.

After the sessions, we had a dinner party with the usual TED foods, but then Chris Anderson and company treated us to two unusual shows. 

The first featured two dancers performing while hanging from ropes outside our windows. 



They're not easy to see in this shot, but look to the center.  The show was fun, though notable primarily for its setting.  

After that, at 9:00 sharp, a local fireworks team, as Chris Anderson put it, crammed a 15-minute show into one minute.  They launched from a small barge in the harbor, right outside the convention center, so the show was close and fun, but I had to shoot it through glass, so my pictures aren't great.  


Predictably, I loved the show.  I am a sucker for fireworks.

Well, here I've gone and written a small treatise when I promised myself I would not.  Don't count on me doing that again this week.  It's now late, and due to the early starts that TED seems to love, I have to get up in the sixes, something I hate.

A good day at TED.



Sunday, April 1, 2018

Now more than ever


Despite the political climate, I believe this, and I believe we need to remember it.



Enjoy.




Friday, March 30, 2018

Check out this cool PT sabbatical video


Hi, blog folks.  Long time, no chat.  I have a few things I aim to share with you over the next little while.  (Yes, I am working away at the next Jon and Lobo novel, which is why I've been absent from here.)

I've written many times in the past about how proud I am of PT's sabbatical program.  A new video, this time about Dan's sabbatical, is now live.

Check it out.



I am privileged to work with a great team, most of whom choose to do cool charity work on their sabbaticals. 




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