Saturday, March 1, 2008

TED @Aspen, Day 5 - finis

I should first note that my day count in these entries is, by TED's standards, off by one, because I counted my travel day as part of the conference.

Today was another remarkable day of sessions. The Aspen team did a very funny and lovely wrap-up, and all the presentations made me think. The biggest surprise is that I was quite impressed by Al Gore. If he had campaigned with the intelligence and passion that permeated his session, I would not only have voted for him, as I did, I would have donated time and money to help--as I did not. He threw down a gauntlet of challenge for all of us, and everything he said made sense. Amazing.

What struck me as we were all leaving the Aspen Institute meeting building for the last time (at least for this year) and people were hugging all around me was my huge capacity for being alone in a crowd. When someone introduced himself or herself to me at the conference, I always ended up in interesting and animated conversations. I never, however, made that initial contact. I shrank from the task. I turned shy. Maybe it's the natural state of a writer, or perhaps it's a manifestation of my self image; I don't know. I do know that I do a terrible job of social networking in these circumstances, and I suspect the loss is largely mine.

The rest of the day is ours, so I will write, work, and perhaps even nap; I would love to get some more sleep. In the very early morning, we begin the welcome journey home, where I will be glad to be.

If I can get into TED 2009, I will be back. My head and heart are full, and that is a good thing.

TED @Aspen, Day 4 - another great set of sessions

I'm once again exhausted from a very long day of sessions, a late dinner, and hours of work in my room, so I'll once again give the conference far less than it deserves.

So many people made so many great presentations today that I could rave about nearly all of them. We got to see Amy Tam talk about her creative process, Richard Preston discuss the redwoods and their amazing ecosystems, comedy jugglers perform here in Aspen, Chris Abani break our hearts with stories of his suffering in Nigeria, and so very much more.

I think I'll restrict my discussion to the last talk, when Ben Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, took the stage and wouldn't let it go for what must have been nearly 45 minutes. When he did stop, no one wanted him to leave. A coach, a performer, a musician, and a talented educator, he helped redefine the relationships of many people, myself included (though only a bit), with classical music. He led us to understand the soul in a short Chopin piece. He handed out and displayed the lyrics to Ode to Joy in phonetic German and got everyone in all TED locations to sing over and over, each time extolling us to abandon ourselves more to the music, until it was a very joyful noise indeed. His energy and passion won the hearts of everyone there.

Dinner was at a restaurant at the top of a mountain, a beautiful location we reached via a gondola ride that ascended 3,200 feet vertically (via a run of about three miles, one person said). Despite my fear of heights, I was not afraid, and I quite enjoyed the ride and the meal.

I could go on and on, but if I don't sleep soon, I will keep clinging to this flu, and I must get better. Besides, I have two more long TED sessions in the morning!

I wish every one of my friends could be here with me to enjoy this conference. TED makes me want to be a better, more creative person.

Friday, February 29, 2008

TED @Aspen, Day 3 - more wow

I'm exhausted from a very long day of sessions, a late dinner, and now many hours of work in my room, so I'll make this far shorter than it deserves.

TED again provided a wow day. I'm not saying I liked all the presentations, nor that all were equal; neither statement would be true. I also find myself sometimes put off by the sheer number of minutes the conference devotes to promoting the various incarnations and services of itself, as well as by the occasional smarminess of it all.

Despite those things, however, TED does what it aims to do: creates a community of smart, accomplished people; provides great presentations; addresses important questions, big questions; and most of all, makes you think. As I said in a private message to Kyle, I have not been around this much intelligent earnestness since college, and I mean that in all the best ways. I find it thrilling to spend hours contemplating major issues in the company of smart people doing the same.

My other emotional reactions range from feeling inspired to do good in the world, to being determined to produce better art, to battling waves of insecurity and inadequacy.

I'll be back in 2009 and every year thereafter if they'll have me (which, alas, it is likely they will not). I'll try to find a way to get to be a presenter one day.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

TED @Apsen, Day 2 - wow

I slept very little and finally crawled out of bed feeling I'd lost two days in the flu fight. I worked for a few hours, then stayed in the shower as long as I could stand. That helped. I registered and came back with the single best conference swag bag I've ever seen, bar none. I could write a whole entry on the bag alone, but I'll spare you (though the bag itself is pretty great, as is the custom-designed-for-TED Zune, the cool shirt--oops, I said I'd spare you). I could also mention the insanely cool bookstore, with free FedEx shipping home courtesy of Wired, but I'll spare you that as well. On to the conference itself.

After lunch with Bill and a fellow TED attendee, it was finally time for the show to begin. Every single TED staffer and attendee I met was charming, smart, pleasant, better socialized than I, and amazingly friendly and interested. The chords of inadequacy played throughout my personal soundtrack today.

Let me set the scene, lest I mislead. In Monterey, about 500 long-time TED attendees get to sit live in the hall with the presenters. The rest watch via simulcast on large monitors in special lounges. At TED @Aspen, where I am, everyone is watching via simulcast, though you have your choice of a main room on the ground floor or a smaller area downstairs. I watched the first of today's sessions upstairs and the second down. I should add that we will have a few live presenters here, but most are in Monterey.

The sessions themselves consist of a number (typically four or five) speakers, each of whom gets exactly 18 minutes. Chris Anderson, TED's curator, manages the show and speaks between sessions. Occasionally, the TED house band, headed by Thomas Dolby (yes, that Thomas Dolby) provides music.

I won't do a session-by-session listing and commentary, both because I have writing yet to do and because I'm still digesting it all, but let me sum up by saying, Wow. No presenter tried to be particularly useful; that wasn't the point. Each one tackled some aspect of the question at hand. (For session one, that was, Who are we? For session two, What is our place in the universe?) Each presenter was earnest and cared and had something to say. You can find the presenter list on the TED site.

Okay, I have to make a few comments, but please don't take them as meaning the presenters I don't name weren't top-drawer; all were at least very good. A few folks just particularly struck me as being worthy of mention right this moment.

Wade Davis blew me away with the breadth of his experiences and his amazing worldview.

Chris Jordan's art was a study in obsession and passion of the grandest kind. Even when I didn't share exactly his perspective, I still admired the work and the intensity behind it.

Chris Anderson presented a special treat: an unscheduled, unannounced, just-for-TED presentation and one-question dialog with Stephen Hawking. As part of answering the question, we saw just how much work this was for Hawking. My respect for the man, which was already immense, grew.

John Hodgman was as funny here as on The Daily Show, maybe funnier.

Kaki King, whose music was new to me, left me slackjawed. I have simply never heard a guitar make some of the sounds she extracted from hers. I honestly don't even know if I would like a whole CD of it, but I intend to find out.

I do not believe I will get to attend TED 2009, and I am, in my way of borrowing trouble, a way I am trying to mend, sad about that. But, I intend to try. I'd make it a goal to be on the TED stage as a presenter one day, except that I have no idea how one goes about that.

So, I will return to what I can control, which is the work in front of me, the outline that crawls ever closer to completion.

Don't expect this much reporting, by the way, for the remaining days. Tomorrow's sessions start early and run late, and I expect to be too exhausted to offer much more than my basic reactions.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

TED @Aspen, Day 1 - travel

I ended up not crashing last night until after 5:00 a.m., which was probably not the best move for someone trying to get over the flu. I stayed in bed until about noon, then worked, packed, worked, showered, and headed to the airport. When you're feeling lousy from the flu, nothing is more inviting than air travel, so I was stoked for the trip.

I was on an airline with which I have no privileges, so I enjoyed all the key features of modern air travel: slow check-in, long lines, two different security people making fun of my last name, flights too crowded to work, dry air, and enough changes in altitude and air pressure that I'm still not quite hearing correctly. Still, the planes took off and landed successfully and basically on time, so I count myself lucky.

I couldn't see much of Aspen in the dark from the back of the shuttle van, but I can tell you that snow is piled up everywhere. Sarah would love it.

The hotel/resort is a study in the collision of upscale luxury and mountain mellow. A sprawling set of low-slung buildings, it's quite pretty in the night, though a bit of a hike is necessary to go from anywhere to anywhere. The room they assigned me is very much to my taste: separate bedroom and living room/working room areas, good wireless, small kitchenette, good shower (no bath, but I never take baths), and soothing white-and-blond-wood looks. The staff members I encountered were also nice to a person--but so mellow that the salad I begged for (room service closes at 9:00!) sat unclaimed because everyone forgot it, no one knew how to make the room humidifier actually work or would bother to try to find out, etc. Lovely folks, polite and great, but I'm clearly the uptight East Coast guy in the group. This is also clearly the wrong place for a night owl: not only does room service close so early, they lock up the soda machines "you know, sometime around when things start closing." (The rest of the ensuing staff dialog: "Why do we do that?" "I don't know, but we do." "Yeah, we do.")

I need to gain some mountain mellow--and a stash of Diet Coke and pretzels.

On the plane from Denver to Aspen, I sat next to and talked with a cool fellow TEDster (the conference's term, so I'll use it) from Amsterdam whose ad agency's approach (advertising without advertising) put me in mind of Hubertus Bigend from Gibson's Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.

The flight really has set me back a bit physically, so I will wind up today's missive, finish a bit more outline, unpack, and finally grab some much-needed sleep. Tomorrow, perhaps the wily humidifier will choose to work for me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On the road again

Tomorrow, I head to TED (okay, technically, TED @Aspen, but, still, it's TED). As I've mentioned previously, I'm quite excited to be going.

I'm not as excited about flying while fighting the dregs of the flu, but I'm going to hope for a magical rest tonight and a clean bill of health in the morning. More seriously, I do hope to feel better, as I have been doing each day since this bug hit me hard Friday night.

We're nearly at the end of the boxed set of the first season of Jericho, and I have to say that I'm really enjoying it. Each time I think it's going to turn too rosy-eyed, it brings back some grit. I recommend it.

We've also begun watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I find it easy to see why some critics found it a long insider joke and entirely too much Hollywood about Hollywood, but it is also smart and funny and heartfelt, and I quite like it. I recommend it as well.

I'll pack tomorrow, but I must work on the outline tonight, so I will sign off. My next entry will come from Aspen, which has had over twenty-one (yes, 21) feet of snow already this year. Time to break out my boots.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


I slept late again, which helped a great deal. My health improvement stayed throughout the day, with far fewer coughing attacks than yesterday, so I am very thankful for that.

In the early afternoon, we headed to Fayetteville for the All-State Orchestra concert, in which both Sarah and Scott were playing. The music was enjoyable, the performances quite lovely, and I was incredibly proud of both kids. They are such talented musicians that I am often in awe of their skill.

On the drive down, I was able to devote a nice chunk of time to the Overthrowing Heaven outline. I can't quite yet see the end, but I know it's just around that corner up there. (To be more accurate, I know exactly what the ending is; I still have to draw more of the map between here and there.) I cannot wait to finish this outline; I feel like such a failure for taking so long to do it that I am ashamed of myself.

All I can do is keep moving ahead.


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