Friday, April 28, 2017

TED 2017 finishes in grand style


Today's extra-long single session began with a group of 13 attendees who had one minute each to critique, praise, or even rebut a previous talk. Quite a few of these folks made very good points. My favorite was the man who suggested that David Miliband should re-enter politics and stand for PM in the UK. I obviously can't vote there, but if I could, I would certainly think quite seriously about supporting Miliband.

The first talk of the day was an unannounced presentation by Tristan Harris on persuasive technologies and how the online "race to the bottom of the brain stem" was ultimately doing a lot of damage to us all. Harris delivered a powerful, persuasive, and rather disturbing talk. I definitely plan to investigate this area further, for I know way too little about it.

The next talk, though, was my favorite of the day. Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank Group, proved to be a charismatic speaker with a huge heart and an incredibly sharp mind. As he told his story, past and present, I found myself wishing I could work with him.

Jeremy Thal of the Found Sound Nation spoke briefly about that group's work and played a video showing some of the results of the pop-up music studio they had set up at TED.

Anee Lamott, a novelist and essayist, wandered over a lot of territory the ultimately converged on her list of true things, which included one I particularly liked: "Everyone is screwed up. Don't compare your insides to anyone's outsides."

In what Chris Anderson said might be the longest single presentation in TED history, he interviewed Elon Musk for a bit over half an hour. The conversation ranged over everything from The Boring Company to Tesla's new semi truck to SpaceX and its missions. Musk came across, as usual, as both intelligent and completely willing to dream and act on an extraordinarily large scale. My favorite line of his was, "I'm not trying to be anyone's savior. I'm just trying to think about the future and not be sad."

In the spirit of hopefulness, constitutional law scholar Noah Feldman argued that contrary to what many believe, America has been this divided before, and it'll all be fine, because the constitution will ultimately take care of us. I'm not sure I share his optimism, but I certainly welcomed it.

As has been customary for multiple years, Julia Sweeney wrapped up the conference with a bit in which she poked good-natured fun at the presenters and the show itself.

Lunch was a party that filled the floor above us, and then it was back to my room to work as I re-entered my regular world. As always after TED, I'm finding that difficult to do, because living in this pampered bubble of great talks and lively conversations and a huge staff taking care of feeding us and cleaning up after us is an amazing treat.

Tomorrow, I fly home. Perhaps along the way I will figure out what new things I want to implement as a result of this TED.

Yup, I'm definitely coming back next year.




Thursday, April 27, 2017

TED 2017: Another beautiful day


Despite forecasts calling for rain all day every day, the weather here in Vancouver has been spectacular, with cool clear days and only occasional slight rains. Today was another such day, a lovely time to be here.

My first activity was a session on confronting your implicit bias, with a particular focus on attitudes toward Muslims. We all agreed to keep private what folks had to say, but I think it's fair for me to relate that I found the discussions interesting and occasionally enlightening.

The first group of presentations focused on Bugs and Bodies. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky kicked us off with an interesting conversation on why we humans do what we do, especially at our best and worst times. I was intrigued enough that I'll be on the look-out for his upcoming book, Behave.

Other notable talks in this session included Ann Madden's fun presentation on the many microbes on our skin and in our homes, and David Brenner's proposal to use a special form of UV light to kill super-bugs without harming the host humans.

One of my two favorites of this session was photographer David Biss' presentation on his spectacular photographs of bugs, photographs he creates with amazing lighting and depth of field that he achieves by taking many, many almost identical shots. I hope one day he puts out a book of his bug photos.

The other was Nobel Laureate Elizabeth Blackburn's engaging and informative discussion of her research into the role of telomeres in aging. If you're interested in aging, check this one out when it hits TED.com.

We also had a chance today to hear a pitch from Richard Browning, founder of Gravity, for his personal flying device, which is about as close to the propulsive bits of an Iron Man suit as we're likely to see anytime soon. He later demoed the early stage tech in the adjoining plaza.

The ninth session, It's Personal, began after the lunch break.

Helen Pearson presented some data from the longest-running human development study around, an effort in Britain that spans many decades and multiple generations. One of its key findings is that being born into poverty will for most people have consequences that will disadvantage them for the rest of their lives. The pressing need to address poverty as a global issue is a clear theme of this conference, and one I applaud.

Susan Pinker's discussion of the importance of in-person social interactions intrigued me, but I really would like more data. In one study she found that the factor most likely to keep you alive longer was staying socially integrated, which means having regular contact and relationships with multiple people. Her research shows that digital interactions simply are not as good for us as real, human contact.

Adam Alter argued persuasively that our need to check our devices is in every sense an addiction--and not a good one. He suggested more time away from those devices, and that is something I'll be pondering a lot in the days ahead.

Chuck Nice did a reasonably funny comedy turn, something TED offers from time to time. His jokes fell flat fairly frequently, but he's a pro and recovered well each time.

My favorite talk of this session was Guy Winch's presentation on effective strategies for handling heartbreak. He noted that research has proven that dealing with the end of a romantic relationship is basically the same as withdrawing from an addiction. Interesting stuff.

Tony- and Grammy-winning performer Cynthia Erivo started the last session of the day with a couple of songs and a short discussion about performing. Her voice is incredible, and her rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" was spectacular, a treat I'm glad I got to hear.

Indian film mega-star Shah Rukh Khan gave a humorous talk and then joined TED Curator Chris Anderson in a discussion of the upcoming Indian TV show of TED Talks, a show that will appear in Hindi. A testimony to Khan's popularity was the large crowd waiting outside the convention centre for hours in the hopes of seeing him and getting an autograph.

Ashton Applewhite's presentation on ageism and our need to combat it was both compelling and full of fun pull quotes, including "Everyone is old or future-old," and "Ageism is prejudice against our future selves."

Nigerian-born artist Laolu Senbanjo showed and discussed some of his intricate, interesting art, and even brought on stage two women whose bodies he had almost entirely painted.

Podcaster Manoush Zomorodi talked about the value of avoiding our devices and letting ourselves be bored so that our brains could switch into more creative modes.

Poet David Whyte closed out the day with some talk and performances of two of his poems. I found him engaging and the poetry lovely; I need to check out more of his work.

After dumping our packs back in our rooms, Bill and I joined the traditional large party on the last evening of the conference.

Tomorrow morning, we have an extra-long last session of TED 2017!



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

TED 2017: day 3, and already my brain hurts


I come to TED to make my brain hurt. After yesterday's sessions, I was well on my way to that state, and today definitely took me there at times.  It's quite late here, way, way later than the timestamp says, so I'm going to hit only some of the talks that particularly struck me.

The first session opened strong with a talk by Michael Patrick Lynch on our need to reconnect with the idea that we live in a common reality. In a time in which too many of us seem all too willing to accept the ridiculous notion of alternative facts, I found his talk refreshing and compelling. I particularly liked the way he noted that when the powerful get to define truth to their liking, we are in for big pain. "You can't speak truth to power," he said, "when power speaks truth by definition."

Dan Ariely and Mariano Sigman then conducted an experiment on the audience in which they posed two dilemmas, asked us to rate the proposed solutions from bad to good, and also asked us to rate our certainty. Then, we were paired with another person or two--one, in my case--to compare our answers, discuss them, and see if we persuaded each other to change. The woman with whom I was paired made good points on each dilemma, and apparently I did the same, because we each changed our opinions somewhat and landed on common answers.

Neuroscientist and novelist Lisa Genova presented a lot of information and some perspectives on Alzheimer's. I didn't learn much, but I care about this topic and so enjoyed the refresher.

The second session focused heavily on environmental issues and contained many compelling talks.

I know very little about the Greenland Ice Sheet, so I found Kristin Poinar's talk on it both informative and more than a bit scary.

Artist Daan Roosegaarde showed some very cool projects, including a smog-removal tower that his team installed in a park in Beijing. The tower extracts smog from the atmosphere and yields pollutants that Roosegaarde and his team then turned into parts of jewelry.

Peter Calthorpe railed against sprawl as part of his call for transit-based urban planning. Though I'm not at all sure I agree with many of his proposals, I enjoyed learning about them and will be considering them for some time.

Former Vice President Al Gore made a surprise brief appearance on stage. He plugged his upcoming second climate change movie and made the case that even this administration is likely to try to grapple with climate change.

In my favorite talk of the session, Republican and conservative Ted Halstead argued for a carbon dividends plan that would include a gradually rising carbon tax, carbon dividends for all, regulatory rollback, and a climate domino effect. I found his proposal compelling and look forward to learning more about it.

After lunch, Bill and I attended a session on augmented reality. I found it mildly interesting, but I didn't learn much new. This technology could one day be very useful, but the implementations, particularly the glasses, have a long way to go.

The last session of the day focused on connection and community. Given that focus, you'd expect it to be the most emotional of the day, and indeed it was.

Musician and artist Jacob Collier kicked it off with two songs that involved him playing every instrument, singing all parts, and controlling all of the live video. Interesting stuff, though I don't think I'd enjoy a steady diet of it.

Architect Anna Heringer showed her work using mud to build structures that are amazingly durable and attractive. As she noted, this material is available almost everywhere in even the poorest areas.

My two favorite talks of this session were both emotional pleas to our better selves on the subject of refugees. Former UK Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs David Milliband, both of whose parents were refugees who ended up in Britain, made the strong case that we must take care of the refugees simply because it is the right thing to do. "This is not just a crisis," he said, "it is a test, a test of us." I strongly agree, and I hope that we as a country rise to this test better in the future than we are doing now.

Luma Mufleh gave an even more personal take on the refugee crisis. As a gay Muslim woman who had to flee her home country and who now coaches and works with refugee kids, she related moving stories of her own experiences and her work. "When do we say, enough?" she asked.

I pray soon.

The evening took Bill and me to a Jeffersonian dinner on the topic of whether businesses might be able to do a better job of uniting us than government. The nine of us who chose that topic enjoyed several hours of lively conversation and companionship. Despite always feeling awkward in such situations, I had a good time and learned a lot of interesting perspectives.

TED always leaves me resolved to do more and to do better, and today certainly filled me with those desires.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

TED 2017: A day that started well and ended wonderfully


The title for the morning sessions was Our Robotic Overlords. Marc Raibert of Boston Dynamics kicked it off by showing one of his company's robots and discussing his vision of robotics. The demo was fun, but as someone who follows AI and robotics, I didn't learn a lot from it.

Noriko Arai followed with a discussion of the AI she is building in the hopes of one day passing the entrance exam to the University of Tokyo. Like the first talk, this one was pleasant but not particularly informative.

Stuart Russell's talk was also not particularly new, but I found it more intriguing because it focused on how to align human and AI values and objectives, a topic that might well be vital in the future.

Joseph Redmond's discussion and demo of image and object recognition showed that this technology is improving rapidly enough that in no time we can expect it to be in all of our smartphones and to be operating there at a high level of capability.

Tom Gruber, one of the creators of Siri, provided the most optimistic viewpoint of the session as he argued for what he called humanistic AI, AI that makes us all smarter.  I didn't find his arguments particularly compelling, but he clearly is an AI optimist.

In a fun break, Todd Rejchert debuted the Kitty Hawk Flyer. The initial unit will be available, they hope, late this year, and will fly only over water. I don't have a use in the world for such a device, but I sure would like to try one.

Schooling and other collective behaviors are fun to watch and to study, so I quite enjoyed Radhika Nagpal's talk. She reviewed the basics of this topic and discussed how her Harvard lab team built a set of 1,024 mini robots that they programmed to exhibit such behaviors.

After a short break, we returned to the theater for a session on a very different topic, The Human Response.

Rutger Bregman, an historian and writer, gave the most moving talk of the day to that point by pointing out that despite the belief of many, poverty is not a character flaw, and by then arguing for a basic income guarantee. He provided a lot of supporting data and left me leaning heavily toward this concept, which he claimed we could implement in the U.S. with a negative income tax for $175B, a price worth paying to lift all Americans out of poverty. Definitely catch this talk when it hits TED online.

Martin Ford's talk started by asking if we were heading to a future without jobs but ended up with another, albeit less compelling, argument for a basic income guarantee.

I've followed Patreon for some time but still found it interesting to hear the story from its founder, Jack Conte. We have no way to know just how well the concept is playing out, but right now he said that they have over 50,000 creators earning money via Patreon. I hope the platform continues to link audiences and artists effectively.

Sarah DeWitt argued for the potential positive power of screens in the hands of kids.

I'm still quite torn between the vision of his company that Ray Dalio presented and what I've read about it in other places, but certainly the general goal of an idea meritocracy is one I support in principle. Implementation, though, is everything in this case.

I've been a member of the ACLU for most of my adult life, so I was interested to hear what its executive director, Anthony Romero, would have to say. Despite his topics, which I care very much about, and his use of the art of Italian masters, which I have studied a bit, I found his talk ultimately a bit flat. I'm still grateful for the good work he does, but I wanted more from this talk.

This session closed superbly, however, with a talk from Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon, the founders of GirlTrek. This group focuses on African-American women and girls and encourages them to walk as a way to fight health issues. I teared up at this talk and gave it a standing ovation, as did most of the people in the hall.

After lunch, which for me was some tasty mac-and-cheese with pulled pork from a food truck, I joined the first TED en Espanol session. I have no Spanish, so I listened to the talks via headphones and live translation.

All of the talks were at least interesting, but it's late and I'm running out of steam, so I'm going to mention only a few.

I enjoyed Jorge Drexler's music, but the rest of his talk felt less engaging.

Journalist Jorge Ramos, on the other hand, showed a dedication to journalism and a willingness to stand up for his beliefs that touched me, and watching him be thrown out of a Trump press conference (when Trump was a candidate) was chilling. Ramos deserved his standing ovation.

His talk's intensity, though, understandably paled next to that of the presentation from Ingrid Betancourt, which was one of the most riveting of the day. A candidate for the presidency of Colombia in 2002, Betancourt was kidnapped by guerilla rebels and held captive for six years. Her story of her struggles and how she fought with fear, her own violent urges, and hopelessness moved me greatly, and I was impressed by how much she came to forgiveness and the divine. I stood and clapped long and hard for her.

After another short break, we headed into the day's final session, Health, Life, Love. It began with a pleasant but otherwise straightforward interview of Serena Williams by Gayle King.

Atul Gawande really touched me with his story of how employing a coach not only improved his performance as a surgeon but ultimately proved instrumental in greatly increasing the quality of care in birthing centers in low-income areas.

Anna Rosling Ronnlund showed us a great way to visualize the degree of poverty and wealth in people all over the world with a demo of her project, Dollar Street. This is a site you're going to want to allow some time to play with and to study.

In a surprise move, TED Curator Chris Anderson then came on stage to announce that we were going to see the debut of a talk recorded earlier for TED 2017 by Pope Francis. I was blown away by the degree to which the Pope focused on solidarity and inclusiveness. This talk is already live on TED.com, with the title Why the only future worth building includes everyone, and you should check it out.

Jon Boogz and Lil Buck debuted an original dance that was at times moving and at other times just not my thing. Overall, I'm glad I got to see it.

The day ended with the award of the $1M TED Prize to Raj Panjabi, whose dream is to bring health care to the one billion people in the world's most remote communities. His approach is pragmatic and proven to work, and I hope his new organization, communityhealth.org, succeeds.

I was once again more than happy to stand and applaud.

A great end to a strong TED day.



Monday, April 24, 2017

TED 2017, day 1: Wow


I'm not going to talk further about our announcement earlier today, because I want to focus on TED, but I will show you this picture of Bill and me wearing the shirts at the big photo-op TED sign.

Click an image to see a larger version.

Bill's smiling nicely, and I think I've managed to tone down my resting I-will-kill-you face to something only vaguely violent, but you be the judge.

TED kicked off with two sessions of presentations by over two dozen of the TED Fellows. All of the talks were interesting and informative, and I was glad to have been able to catch them. Because it's late here and I have to get up early, I won't run through them all, but a few struck me as particularly notable. (All really do deserve your attention; I'm just hitting ones that stayed strongly with me and are still on my mind.)

Karim Abouelnaga discussed how his Practice Makes Perfect organization is closing the education gap for students from low-income communities in the New York City area. Both practical and inspirational, his work deserves more attention and support.

Neuroscientist Rebecca Brachman gave an intriguing talk on the possibility of resilience drugs that could act basically as vaccines against PTSD and clinical depression. Both the possibility of such drugs and the ethical issues that preventative psychopharmacology raise are fascinating topics.

Artist and activist Damon Davis used art as both a defense against fear and a way to boost courage during protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Wanuri Kahiu, a Kenyan filmmaker and writer, argued persuasively for the importance of what she called "Afrobubblegum," escapist stories set in Africa. I found it refreshing to hear someone else espouse some positive values of science fiction.

Comedian, filmmaker, and social activist Negin Farsad again wrapped up the Fellows' presentations with a lot of funny and yet shrewd observations about how to deal with tyrants, even if they happen to occupy an elected office.

Honestly, I could say good things about all of the Fellows' presentations, but it really is quite late here, so on I go.

Each year at TED, I've shown the contents of my goodie bag, so I won't break the tradition.


I chose some of the items, while others were standard.

After a snack and conversation break--before the day ended, a couple of folks had indeed asked about our shirts, so we made a tiny bit of progress on that front--the TED main stage opened with the first session, One Move Ahead.

Wow.  Just wow. This was the strongest opening TED session in my memory. The weakest talk was good, and most were excellent.

We began with Huang Yi dancing with a robot he created, while cellist Joshua Roman played beautifully. The interplay between man and robot was both beautiful and frequently touching.

Futurist and designer Anab Jain discussed projects her studio creates to show people what possible futures would look, feel, and in one case even smell like. Mixing the predictive futurism of some SF with both artistic and practical design considerations, her work serves to give people a great way to consider what might be coming.

Chess great and human rights activist Garry Kasparov discussed not only his experience first beating and then losing to IBM's Deep Blue, but also deeper considerations of the relationship between people and increasingly smart artificially intelligent machines.

Cyber-security specialist Laura Galante argued persuasively and passionately that Russian state-sponsored hacking and information manipulation may have been the key element in the election of our current President. I do not have and probably never will have access to the data necessary to know if what she said is what indeed happened, but even if it did not, the strategies she outlined were enough to make clear that the battlefield of future cyber-warfare is vastly more complicated than most people ever imagine.

Next up, the band Ok Go first played live along with a video and then shared some insights into how they create their incredible videos. Singer Damian Kulash, Jr. explained that they do not so much create ideas as find them, a statement that does not do justice to the approach he then explained. I am still processing this approach to creativity and expect to be doing so for some time, but I believe I have a great deal to learn from it--both for myself and for my businesses. They received a well-deserved standing ovation, as did the next three speakers.

Tim Ferriss spoke about his approach to dealing with stress, an approach that he has used to help cope with being bi-polar and having suffered over fifty depressive episodes to date. Basically, he practices stoicism. He showed some particular tools he uses to manage the stress that can trigger his episodes, and like the notions of creativity Kulash discussed, I am still processing these. I will say that a lot of what he described is similar to techniques I've come to rely on during the past several years, so I'm certainly in his target audience.

In a deeply touching and disturbing talk, artist Titus Kaphar discussed his work to illuminate the real history that art frequently hides and how we can reclaim that history from art without getting rid of the art.

Last up was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who in addition to having a great deal to say was also clearly an accomplished orator. He argued that futurists examining the evidence of today might well conclude that we worship the self, the I, and that instead we should put our energies into the us. I know that sounds crunchy, but it's not, because there is a real difference between focusing all of our energies on ourselves and directing them to the service of others. He argued for the us of relationships, of identity, and of responsibility. "It's the people not like us who make us grow," he said as part of his discussion of the importance of communicating with people who feel differently than you do.

I've not done justice to any of these talks, but fortunately, TED will ultimately put them all online, and then you can watch them for yourselves. I definitely recommend you do so.

Late in the evening, I've now caught up with personal email and so can try to sleep, but my mind and spirit are still trying to process all that I heard. That's why I come to TED, and it's a delight to be so full and so challenged so early in the week.

Oh, yeah: I've already signed up for next year.



Buy a shirt. Start a conversation. Change the world.


I’ve been teasing for a while now that today I would announce one of the odder things I’ve done. I’m happy to deliver on that promise by introducing you to Limit Your Greed (formally LYG, LLC), a new company that my business partner, Bill Catchings and I are starting. You can visit its site here.

As friends and long-time readers know, Bill and I are the founders and co-owners of Principled Technologies, Inc. PT is the leading fact-based marketing and learning services provider, but it is also — and always has been — a social experiment.  Bill and I started PT in part to see if it was possible to build a business that follows very different principles from traditional businesses and yet still does well and makes a profit.

With PT now in its 15th year, we’re happy to report that the experiment is a success. You can run a business very differently and still do well.

Now, we want to take that lesson to a broader audience—in fact, to everyone—and try to change the world. We want to do so by persuading business owners and executives to choose to do something both simple and radical: to take less so that others can have more. To limit their greed.

Our goal is not new government legislation; instead, we’re hoping to help start a movement in which folks choose to build different businesses and help make the world better for a lot of people.

One way in which we hope to do that is by selling a book, Limit Your Greed, which we’re still working on but should finish soon.

Another is today’s announcement.

As the site says, “Philosophically, LYG is a movement. Practically, it’s a clothing company.”

The idea is simple: Buy shirts that contain challenging and conversation-worthy slogans. The first is “Limit your greed.” Another is “Nobody wins unless everyone wins.” Each shirt comes with talking points. When someone asks what your shirt means, you have a chance to show them a better way for businesses large and small to behave.

I don’t want to repeat all of the material on the site, so let me instead point you to its Practice page for answers to the questions about how to make this happen.

Of course, you could just buy the shirts because they’re cool—and they are. They’re made in North Carolina, where we’re based, from cotton grown here, and they’re soft and lovely to the touch. The designs are nifty, both visually appealing and conversation-worthy.

You could also buy the shirts in the hopes LYG makes a profit, because if it does, half of all profits will go to charity.

What we most hope, though, is that you will buy the shirts—Get ‘em all! Collect the whole set!—and help us change the world.

I have to warn you that you can’t buy the shirts quite yet. That’s intentional. Bill and I will be wearing one of these shirts each day at TED, which we’re attending this week. To help make sure no one felt we were flogging products—a TED no-no we take seriously—we didn’t want them available for sale yet.

So no, we’re not wearing the shirts at TED to sell them. We’re wearing them to do what we hope you will join us in doing: start conversations, and change the world.

I promised odd, and I think that me going into the movement and clothing business is odd enough to make that promise real.

Odd or not, though, I hope you join us in this movement. Together, we can make the world better.





Sunday, April 23, 2017

A few quick pics from my day


After a wonderful sleep that lasted over eleven hours, I worked for a bit and then walked into the food court that connects to my hotel.  The spicy bento box struck me as just the right choice for lunch.

Click an image to see a larger version. 

It was indeed delicious, though it could have been even spicier.

After strolling over to the Convention Centre and registering for TED, a process that is as easy and as luxurious and as tightly controlled as it could be, I found my way back to a wonderful local gelato shop, Bella Gelateria.


I tasted three flavors, and each one was superb.  This place deserves all the honors it's earned.

The view out of my room's huge window, which runs the width of the space and most of the height, is both attractive, industrial, and indicative of the prevailing weather I've experienced here.


Tomorrow morning, TED!

Oh, yeah:  Look for an early blog post from me tomorrow, round about noon Eastern time, for the odd thing I've been mentioning for a while now.  I think you'll find it at least interesting, and I hope it intrigues you.




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