Saturday, March 5, 2011

On the road again: TEDActive, day 6

I usually avoid traveling on Saturdays, because doing so throws me out of the normal rhythm of the American work week. Today was no exception. It started earlier than I like, with a morning rising, shower, and a cab to the airport. I shared that cab with two other folks from TEDActive and enjoyed a very pleasant if brief conversation.

Breakfast and lunch were a frozen yogurt parfait with granola and some frozen blueberries nearly my age. Zia, the chain that sold it to me, is no Red Mango.

The highlight of my first flight was having bandwidth, so I could catch up on email before I turned my attention to other stuff. The low point was the guy next to me, a Spaniard who felt that he had every right to keep his elbow in my side, even when I politely asked him to pull it in slightly. We eventually resolved our issues by me propping my hardback book in my seat and next to my body and then leaning into it; after that, he cursed at me in Spanish and then kept to his space. I could live with that.

My brief time in DFW was a sprint. I stepped off the plane 18 minutes before my next flight was to take off. I had to ride a tram to a terminal two terminals way. I sprinted to the escalator to the tram station--and the escalator was out of order. Two down escalators were running fine and with no one on them, but no one thought to dedicate one of them to up traffic. So, full backpack and all, up dozens and dozens of steps I went. I was breathing hard at the top but caught a tram and then sprinted to my next gate. I made it with four minutes to spare--a short enough time that by its rules the airline could have closed the doors--but others also had short connections and so I was not the last to board.

The second flight was much better for comfort, because I was lucky enough to get an upgrade to First Class, but my rowmate was even more rude than the previous one. Fortunately, he could not lean into my space. I also had no bandwidth, so I happily used the time for writing work, a net win.

The short connection then bit me a final time: my luggage was still in DFW when I hit RDU. Fortunately, American put it on the next flight, and I received it around two in the morning. No complaints, though; it is here. As am I, exhausted but happy to be home.

Friday, March 4, 2011

On the road again: TEDActive, day 5

I awoke tired but eager to hear the day's speakers. The usual snapshots of highlights follow.

Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies talked about creating dinosaurs from chickens, a feat that requires a fair amount of genetic work but that is likely to prove possible because chickens are at core dinosaurs. His folksy manner clearly belied a great deal of intelligence.

Rajesh Rao's talk on trying to translate the Indus River valley script showed not only the obvious (but nonetheless extraordinarily difficult) linguistic problems involved but also the less obvious political ramifications of this ancient untranslated language.

Retired General Stanley McChrystal spoke about leadership and some of his experiences. He came across as a man of great will, intelligence, and integrity, and I would happily have listened to him for far longer than TED's allotted 18 minutes.

Bill had to leave then, and I did a little email, after which the second session began. We watched first a few one-minute rebuttals to previous talks. The most controversial of them was a Chinese man responding to Ai WeiWei's presentation and claiming basically that the Chinese people were happy with their government. I have no way to know if he was right or wrong, but the audience very clearly did not agree with him.

Kathryn Schulz spoke about the importance of accepting that we are often wrong and how not attacking topics with an open mind can lead to a series of bad assumptions (in order, ignorance, idiocy, and evil) about those who disagree with us.

We then got to see a video, made just that morning here in Palm Springs, of an eye portrait from JR assembled by people in the pool.

Teacher John Hunter blew me away with his intelligence, groundedness, and modesty. Years ago, he invented the World Peace Game for his fourth-grade students, and what they do with it each year in Albemarle County, Virginia is amazing. I teared up at a couple of points. A documentary on him and this work, World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements, is now on my must-see list.

In the final session of the day, Roger Ebert, who lost his jaw and ultimately his voice, came on stage, spoke for a bit through a computer, and then had three others, including his wife, finish his talk. It was a brilliant bit of casting from Chris Anderson and the TED team, fusing Technology, Entertainment, and even Design in a talk that even the coldest heart would find touching.

After a farewell lunch party around the pool, at which I forced myself to talk to some of my fellow TEDsters and had as good a time as my deep sense of alienation permits, the conference officially ended. There are post-TED activities here, but I did not sign up for them. I'll work the rest of today, then fly home Saturday morning.

I do hope to be back next year. If you've ever wanted to come and wondered if you should apply and try to do so, if your budget would permit it, I would have to recommend it strongly.

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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On the road again: TEDActive, day 3

More snapshots from a day in beautiful Palm Springs, where the weather is doing a pretty darn good impression of a sunny day in Camelot.

Damon Horowitz, a philosophy professor, gave an entertaining, enlightening, and moving talk on the importance of philosophy by speaking briefly about his encounters with a prison inmate who became a student of his.

Deb Roy blew the socks off all the attendees with the data analysis that he and his team at MIT's Media Lab did on the huge (200TB) library of audio and video recordings they had made of his home since his son's birth. Watching the flow of the wordscape (his term) as it built over time to his son's first word was extremely cool.

Multiple overlaid videorecordings of Maya Beiser on cello accompanied her live on cello in a beautiful concert that veered close to feeling like a gimmick but that ultimately was simply lovely.

Quantum physicist Aaron O'Connell reviewed the experiment in which he became the first person to demonstrate a visible object being in two places at once--one place being static, the other vibrating, but still, cool quantum stuff.

Julie Taymor made me want to watch her Prospero and see her SpiderMan show in NYC; I hope she succeeds with the latter so I could go see it.

Documentarian Morgan Spurlock put his upcoming The Greatest Movie Ever Sold high on my must-see list with his charming footage and presentation.

Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, showed all the good her company is doing with its Pepsi Refresh projects. I wish I liked the taste of their products, but I don't.

I don't know where I'm going to find the time to explore all the things that grabbed me today, but David Christian's presentation on his Big History course and Salman Khan's talks about his online tutorials both inspired me to seek out their work.

Parisian artist JR won the TED prize and inspired me on two fronts: I want more than ever to do more random acts of happiness, and I want to assemble a Raleigh group to paste portraits on buildings.

The world is so full of amazing and beautiful things that I will never have enough time to touch even the smallest fraction of them. I love that about life, but it does make me yearn for ever more years alive.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On the road again: TEDActive, day 2

The only way I could remotely do justice to a day of TED sessions would be to blog constantly throughout the day, and then I'd miss much of the experience. What I can do instead is offer a quick summary and then verbal snapshots of some of the presentations. In those short takes, in the interest of time I'm not even going to try to provide the URLs of all the presenters; you'll have to Google them on your own.

I enjoyed today very much. I thought only one presentation was weak, many strong, and a few quite moving. Nothing stretched my brain and made me think completely differently, but all made me think, which is why I am here.

The TED 2011 house band played a lot of Stevie Wonder, which was quite good, but what was most impressive is that its members range in age from 14 to 17. Wow, they sounded good.

Astronaut Catherine Colman opened by welcoming us (in a talk recorded a few days ago) from the International Space Station. The views were, of course, amazing, and it rekindled my long-suppressed desire to go into space. NASA is streaming the TED talks live to the ISS, a very cool move indeed.

Jenna Levin postulated that the universe has a soundtrack and played some of the sounds she believes that black holes in various states would make to our ears via gravitational waves--all ignoring, as she of course noted, the fact that we'd be crushed before we could hear anything. One of the first bits she played evoked a human heartbeat and was thus instinctively touching.

Sarah Marquis, who has walked alone across various parts of the Earth for twenty years and tens of thousands of kilometers, spoke to us via cell phone from a remote part of China.

David Brooks offered a somewhat scattered and rambling but nonetheless entertaining and provocative talk on why we as a society need to pay more attention to the emotional side of ourselves.

In the talk that moved me the most, composer Eric Whitacre reviewed for us the origins of his virtual choir project, Lux Aurumque. This one has been around for a while, but watching it still brought a tear to my eyes. Check it out.

He then debuted the first couple of minutes of Sleep, the next virtual choir project. It will feature over two thousand different voices. As someone who always wanted to sing but has a terrible singing voice and a rough childhood past when I even tried, this one really touched me.

Wadah Khanfar, the head of Al Jazeera, argued that real change is coming to the Middle East, and though his outlook was surprisingly simplistic, I hope he is right.

Architect Thomas Heatherwick discussed and showed examples of the extraordinary buildings (and a bus) that his studio has created. Had I seen his talk at age 12, I would have pledged my soul to architecture and design.

The combination of the vocal-free house band and listening to Bobby McFerrin perform made me rethink my claim to Elizabeth that I could not like jazz. If what McFerrin is doing with his voice is jazz, I'm at least open to listening more.

Chef Homaru Cantu of Moto, where I've eaten (and, yes, it's worth the money), and his partner, Ben Roche, talked about flavor transformation and other topics related to and in some ways beyond molecular gastronomy. On each of our chairs was a small box with three pairs of things--a piece of paper, a truffle, packing material--and a lemon. We ate one of each and licked the lemon. We then let a small pill dissolve on our tongue for a bit, and ate the remaining items. Each tasted completely different. Fun stuff, but more than fun, a rethinking of the way we could make food and flavors.

Magician Franz Harary spoke and performed a few illusions in an entertaining presentation. Like so many folks, for a brief time as a child I wanted to be a magician, so I very much enjoyed the bits he did.

There was more, a great deal more, but that will serve for me for today.

Monday, February 28, 2011

On the road again: TEDActive, day 1

Anyone who knows me or has read this blog for a while understands that I like coming to TED, I really do. I accept that I'll never be cool enough to make it into TED at Long Beach, but I'm still glad to be able to attend TEDActive here in Palm Springs--where the weather is, by the way, every bit as gorgeous as you might expect it would be.

All that said, damn, getting up at 4:30 to leave for the airport at 5:00 flat out sucks. Most nights, I don't turn off the bedside light until after 4:30, so to say I slept very little and poorly is to commit a grave understatement. I thus dozed fitfully and was generally useless through the two flights here, though I woke up enough to enjoy a breakfast of the delicious Red Mango parfait in DFW.

Enough about my trip, though; I know what you really want to see: pictures of TED swag. No problem; I aim to please. (As always, click on an image to see a far bigger, more detailed version.)

The bag is a Jack Spade courtesy of Target, which seems to be a very active (read: big contributor) sponsor.

I'm listening to these Jawbone Jambox speakers right now, a nice try-out play of The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang. The Jambox isn't up to the quality level of my usual travel speakers, but it is smaller and lighter and not too bad, so it holds some appeal.

The Riviera, by the way, is a peculiar brand of swanky, sort of California organic modern meets Rat Pack retro. Check out, for example, this view of one corner of my room.

Or this shot of the closet and the huge Marilyn over it.

Because I know at least a few people will ask, the bathroom is indeed pretty nice and features this enormous tub.

Dinner, the first all-group event, was a food-truck party in the parking lot of the hotel. A house band, headed by the indefatigable Jill Sobule, alternated with a DJ group. Four trucks--burgers, tacos, Thai, and Lebanese--provided food to the large crowd of hungry attendees. As many people observed, it was a great setup if your goal was to make people meet and talk with one another, but as a mechanism for feeding hundreds of attendees, it was slow at best. Lines lasted half an hour and longer.

Note all the people waiting. Everyone I met took it well, but the free alcohol did seem to help many of them pass the time.

After a while there, however, I had exceeded my socializing quota for a long, nearly sleepless day, so I headed back to my room for work.

Tomorrow morning, the sessions start. I'm quite looking forward to them.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


This movie is number one at the box office for a lot of good reasons, but despite them, it feels a bit too engineered for my taste.

The film's positives are apparent and many. As Taken 1.5, Scott's nickname for it, it capitalizes on that earlier film's use of Liam Neeson as an action star. Neeson brings his full brooding, wide-eyed, hulking, shambling intensity to bear on this role as the doctor who's lost his past, and he does it well. He truly gets the most out of all his scenes and lines.

The German settings provide appropriately exotic, luxurious, and run-down locations, and they always deliver that European feel that clearly conveys the sense of the safely exotic that draws American audiences.

Diane Kruger, the female lead, plays her role well, giving it a good mix of tenderness and toughness and working hard to make sense of how quickly her tough character falls for Neeson--which without the character's behavior would be impossible to buy.

The cast as a whole delivers the goods, with lovely performances by Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella being particular stand-outs. (January Jones, however, continues to leave me cold. As long as she is the pretty ice blond who has only to smolder or giggle, she is fine, but those moves define the limits of her performance here.)

What's wrong with this film is that it feels at every moment like it was built to do boffo box office rather than to tell a story the way that story should be told. (I retreat here to passive voice because I have no clue which folks controlled its construction.) The beginning feels slow because the formula is to give two hours of entertainment. The wrap-up leaves the two characters together--trying to avoid a spoiler here--because the audience wants that, not because the people they play would be together. And so on.

I walked out of the theater having enjoyed it, but I would have enjoyed it even more if it had embraced a European sensibility as well as it did the European locations and ultimately let the characters do what they really would have done--a choice that would, of course, have hurt its American business.


Blog Archive