Thursday, March 3, 2011

On the road again: TEDActive, day 4

Today was the kind of day that made me fall in love with TED--and it led me to apply to TEDActive again next year. I have no clue if I'll get in, but I will hope I do.

The morning began with two hours of TEDYou, in which people here in Palm Springs gave short talks. We had no program for these talks, and the introductions included only first names, so I can't give as much credit to the presenters as I'd like. All were at least interesting, and a few were far more than that.

Christian Marc Schmidt demonstrated the power of data analysis by viewing cities through the lens of keyword references to them.

Mick Ebeling delivered an amazing presentation on the EyeWriter, an eye-controlled drawing (with light) device that his company created--with no funding--for paralyzed graffiti artist Tempt. The device was one of Time's inventions of the year--and then Ebeling posted the plans online for free and made the software open source.

Jacob, whose last name I did not catch, talked about the Why Tuesday? group and its efforts to move voting to a more sensible weekend day.

Sophal Ear gave a moving talk about his family's escape from the Khmer Rouge and his mother's sustaining belief in karmic justice.

The always funny Sebastian (again, no last name available, though I've seen him talk before) systematically reduced all the TED talks to a very few words.

From there we went to the normal TED talks simulcast from Long Beach. Today's were, as I implied above, by far the best of the conference so far. A few snapshots of highlights followed.

Philip Zimbardo's three-minute talk, "The Demise of Guys," managed to be both funny and extremely on target.

Eli Pariser of gave a chilling presentation on how the many variables that sites such as Google and Facebook are using to personalize searches are leading to results increasingly tailored to your existing worldview. The new algorithmic engines are replacing the editors of old--but with none of the attempts to be fair and unbiased in coverage. Scary stuff indeed.

Dennis Hong's talk on cars that the blind can drive was both technically interesting and inspiring--though most of the folks with whom I spoke agreed with Bill and me that ultimately we want our cars driving us around.

Eythor Bender showed two examples of how his company, Berkeley Bionics, was creating exoskeletons for humans: a simple-looking one that let a soldier carry a 200-pound pack, and a combination harness and crutches that let a paralyzed woman walk for the first time in years.

Juan Enriquez then acted as guest curator for perhaps my favorite session of the conference so far.

Biomedical engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto showed how silk might just be the material of the future--of many futures, with uses for everything from fiber optics to medicine delivery.

Janet Echelman's talk on the art she makes from netting made me want to see all her installations.

Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant with synesthesia, offered some moving and illuminating insights on differences in perception.

Neuroengineer Ed Boyden showed the results of his team's work on using light waves to stimulate brain cells, and then Enriquez's Q&A further illuminated just how widespread the implications of this technology may prove to be.

Surgeon and researcher Anthony Atala, who works at Wake Forest University, made me long to last with good health just a couple more decades as he demonstrated the new techniques they're creating for building human organs from cells. On stage, a special printer was creating a kidney, and he even showed us one that it had created earlier.

TED Prize winner JR then joined us live for almost an hour of questions and discussions. I'd love to do a pasting in Raleigh.

The day's final session focused on artists of various types and was, predictably but still beautifully, quite moving.

Shea Hembrey showed samples of the works of a hundred artists in a big exhibition he was preparing--except he made up all the artists and created all of their artwork himself. Both humorous and lovely, his talk made his upcoming book a must-have for me.

Kate Hartman's whimsical creations, which included the muttering hat, the talk-to-yourself hat, the gut listener, and the inflatable heart, were both funny and more than that, interesting commentary on people and society.

Young (22 years old) performance poet Sarah Kay was wonderful and touching and insightful and a pretty damn good poet to boot.

The talks closed with a performance from Jason Mraz. I did not know his work--though apparently most folks did--but I will now seek more of it.

After the last session, we had a few minutes to grab coats and check email before heading on buses into the desert for a dinner and last-night-of-the-conference party. The house band, which Jill Sobule heads, added a famous guest artist: Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who does solo folk gigs as The Nightwatchman. He closed his set with a rousing and complete rendering of "This Land Is Your Land," which I found quite moving. The picture below, with its odd purple halo effects, is the band playing against the blue-lit mountain background.

I want to come back next year. I want to give talks on my lessons from a militarized childhood, our company's unique way of approaching business, and so much more.

After the other days, I was pretty sure I wanted to return. After today, I am desperate to do so.

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