Saturday, March 22, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, the trip home

I'm home. 

I've spent a great deal of the first quarter of the year on the road, so I'm looking forward to what I hope will be a few weeks in a row at home.  Of course, my schedule tends to mutate, so I'm not counting on anything.  Tonight, though, I will enjoy sleeping in my own bed.

Today started annoyingly.  I woke up at six, showered, and met Bill on schedule at 6:30--only to learn that he'd been trying to reach me to let me know that our flight was an hour and 45 minutes late.  So, I lost a lot of valuable sleep time. 

The flights went as well as they could given that my sinuses are a mess.  Thank goodness I'm enough better than I was on Monday that at least I wasn't in pain the whole time.  I continue to mend, and I hope to be 100% by the middle of this coming week, if not earlier. 

TED always serves to provoke discussions between Bill and me about aspects of PT, and this one is no exception.  Though we have not yet settled on any concrete takeaways, I look forward to the conversations and any changes they might lead to. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 5

The show is over for the year.  I'm writing this from a room in a hotel that is literally in the Vancouver airport.  The hotel is lovely, its restaurant is attractive and serves decent food, and the place is literally inside the airport.  From one vantage point, you can look down and see gates.  Very odd--but very handy, given that I have to leave the room at 6:30 a.m., an ungodly hour anywhere. 

Between TED filling me with ideas, work eating all my spare hours (and more I couldn't spare), and my health still sucking more than a little, I am wrung out, so I am hoping I will actually make this entry brief. 

Simon Sinek's discussion of leadership and corporate behavior aligned amazingly well with a lot of our core beliefs at PT, so predictably I enjoyed it a great deal and found it persuasive.  I plan to check out his books.

Monologist Sarah Jones delivered an absolutely wonderful and stirring performance, answering questions she had never seen before while inhabiting a different character for each query.  Her mimicry is superb, but she goes beyond mere copying and truly seems to become many different people.

Jennifer Senior talked about many different aspects of child-rearing and presented a lot of interesting data.  If you're a young parent, I suspect you could do worse than to check out her book, All Joy and No Fun:  The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.

The last talk of the first session was also in many ways its most moving, as retired Golden Gate Bridge patrol officer Kevin Briggs discussed the many years he spent talking people back from the edge of the bridge and from committing suicide. 

Singer Somi treated us to a beautiful, haunting song.  I had not heard of her before, but now I want to listen to more of her performances. 

Joi Ito talked about the lessons of the modern Internet era in a discussion I will be pondering for some time.  His biggest piece of advice is one I give often and completely support:  Above all else, be completely present.

Shai Reshef presented his University of the People, an interesting approach to trying to bring higher education to more and more people.

In a surprisingly moving session, Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, discussed her recovery, both what she's done and the work ahead.  Her determination and bravery, as well as his dedication, are impressive and inspirational.

Writer Andrew Solomon delivered a heartbreaking discussion of finding his way to some peace in his identity in a world that had long taught him that being gay was a bad thing. 

Julia Sweeney ended the last session--and the conference--with a very funny mock summation of the entire conference.

We then walked to the site of next year's TEDActive--yes, I've already applied, been approved, paid, and booked my hotel room--ate a quick lunch, and TEDActive was over.

Each year, I have found this show to be informative, provocative, miraculous, heartwarming, heartbreaking, and important.  This year was no exception.  I wish I could bring everyone I know. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 4

We'll start again with the health report:  I'm not dead yet.  I'm also not well yet.  Each day, I seem to be getting a tiny bit better, so I'm going to hope that trend continues.

Now, on to the conference.

Each day, I've said I was going to write only a short piece, and each day, I've failed to do that.  Tonight, I intend to stick to that goal and hit only some highlights of the day.

The thing is, though, at TED there are a lot of highlights.

After trying to come on first and then encountering technical difficulties, Rick Ledgett, Deputy Director of the NSA, ended the morning session with a long video conversation with Chris Anderson.  Ledgett did his best to answer Anderson's questions, but to my taste he kept coming across as the not entirely trustworthy head of a major intelligence operation--the latter of which, of course, he is.  I doubt he changed anyone's mind on the Snowden issues, but I have to applaud him to joining the discussion at TED.

Earlier in that session, I enjoyed Keren Elazari's defense of the positive role hackers can and often do play in world of the Internet. 

David Epstein's discussion of what has really changed in sports and how much technology is shaping sports records was consistently fascinating.  I am definitely going to pick up his book, The Sports Gene.

Science writer Ed Yong shared with us his passion for parasites, and I learned a great deal. 

In a short talk, Seth Godin argued that we should learn not to hold anything back, at least on occasion. 

A high point of the afternoon was a roundtable discussion, which Kelly and Rives hosted on the stage here in Whistler, with six TED speakers:  Ron Finley, TED Prize winner Charmian Gooch, Raghava KK, Chris Kluwe, Geena Rocerco, and Stefan Sagmeister.

Click on an image to see a larger version.

As it turns out, Sagmeister had originally planned to give his TED talk this week on the importance of beauty but decided to talk instead about the TED intros he had designed.  The audience's applause persuaded him to give us the talk, which left me with a lot to consider.  

The final session of the day opened with Sara Lewis teaching us just how fascinating fireflies really are. 

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins recited two poems from dogs.  The one in the voice of a dog talking the master who had just put him to sleep was lovely, angry, and touching. 

In an entertaining and frequently funny talk, xkcd creator Randall Munroe told us about the questions he gets and the energy he puts into answering some of them.

Andrew Connolly talked a bit about the big-data problems the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will bring us--but with those problems will come amazing pictures of the universe.

Continuing the space theme, in one of the more endearing presentations, Will Marshall, a co-founder of Planet Labs, talked about the cheap imaging satellites his company was launching and the quality and quantity of data those satellites will soon make available to us all.  I love his ambition and mission, but at no point in the talk could I figure out how the company would make money.

Director Louie Schwartzberg showed bits from his 3D IMAX film, Mysteries of the Unseen World.  I definitely want to see this one, ideally in IMAX.

The last act of today was the announcement by XPRIZE co-founder Peter Diamandis and Chris Anderson of the new A.I. XPRIZE, presented by TED.  The challenge is to have an A.I. come on stage (in any way) at TED and give a talk that earns a standing ovation.  The TED community will help create the rules for the talk.  I look forward to seeing this effort play out. 

In the evening, for the first time since arriving at the hotel, I went outside.  I've been avoiding doing that because of my health, but I had to do it to attend tonight's celebration dinner at the top of the mountain.

Did I mention it's beautiful here?  Check out the ski slope that ends at the hotel.

I loved this stream, which we crossed on foot on a wooden bridge.

We rode in gondola cars in groups of six up the mountain for a dinner and party. 

Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman came over from TED in Vancouver to do a short, post-dinner show for us. Palmer started by joining a local cover band in the Violent Femmes' "Blister In the Sun," a song I quite like.

Palmer sang a few songs, one without a mic.

Gaiman read a very short story from his Blackberry calendar project; he chose the tale for October.

On the gondola ride down, the town spread out before us like a magic village.

Another fine TED day.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 3

TED again today delivered multiple points of magic, along with many good talks.  I'm still sick and running on fumes, so I'm going to keep this short and thus not do justice to all I saw and heard.  Sorry about that, but this conference keeps you insanely busy--and then there's a ton of work to do each day. 

Nancy Kanwisher reviewed some of the progress her team has made in identifying which parts of the brain are responsible for certain types of functions, such as recognizing faces.  As she lit up multiple areas on a brain model, what became clear is that we have indeed come a long way in this field--and we still have no clue about the specific functions of the vast majority of the brain. 

Rob Knight made a compelling and at times fascinating case for the importance of the human microbial biome in determining a great deal about us.  Among the interesting tidbits he shared was the fact that the reason mosquitoes bite some people more than others is the composition of their skin microbes.

Ze Frank stepped in for a quick "Are you human?" quiz that I found at times silly and at times both charming and touching.  I do love his work. 

Supermodel Geena Rocero then broke our hearts and raised our spirits with a powerful talk about growing up gender-identified as a boy and finally getting to become the woman she always was on the inside.  Her joyful memory of the day she moved to California and was able to get a driver's license as a woman, and her clear sorrow as she discussed the high suicide rate of transgendered people and the way so much of society treats them made her presentation one of those magic TED events that on their own make the whole trip worthwhile. 

Facebook's design chief, Margaret Gould Stewart, offered some interesting insights into the challenges of designing for a truly huge scale.  I found her talk interesting, but I'm still not a fan of Facebook's design. 

Del Harvey, Twitter's senior director of trust and security, discussed the many challenges of handling security for a company that's hosting 500 million tweets a day.  As she said, "If it's a one-in-a-million problem, it's happening to us five hundred times a day.  One example that surprised her and cracked me up was that she learned that "yo bitch" is normal speech between people who are role-playing being dogs.  I didn't know that was a thing, but apparently it is.

Charlie Rose then interviewed Larry Page.  Page mostly stuck to the Google company line, but I was struck by how sincere he seemed to be when he argued that companies should demand of themselves that they pursue worthy goals. 

One session of the day that touched everyone was Hugh Herr.  Herr directs the Biomechatronics research group at MIT's Media Lab.  He lost his legs many years ago and has worked tirelessly since then to produce bionic limbs that would not only be as good as the originals people had lost, they would also in many cases be better.  He walked the stage with ease on his normal walking bionic legs and played videos of those he uses for rock climbing and ice wall climbing. 

He then showed a photo of Adrianne Haslett-Davis, a woman who had been a ballroom dancer before she lost most of a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing.  He said the time between the bombs was 3.5 seconds, and his team had worked 200 days to make a new leg for her.  He then introduced her and a dance partner, and for the first time since the accident, she danced publicly on stage.  The dance was graceful and elegant, full of turns and twists and even a dip.  She teared up, and so did everyone else.  It was amazing to behold. 

When this talk goes live on TED's site, do not miss it.

Imogen Heap's song in her short "TED All-Stars" talk didn't thrill me, but I was glad to get to see her perform.  Amanda Palmer also sang a tune for us.  Sarah Kay spoke and performed a short poem I rather liked, a love letter from a toothbrush to a bicycle tire. 

Larry Lessig's call to action for campaign reform was a short but brilliant piece.  Look for it on TED's site; you'll want to see it. 

So much more happened, but I am too exhausted to recount it all.  I learned more about autism from Wendy Chung, enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert's discussion of how she found her way back to writing, and had a good time listening to Jim Holt's sarcastic but thought-provoking discussion of one of the really big questions--why is there something rather than nothing?  Jason Webley entertained us with songs and touched us with his quest to figure out what he wanted to do next. 

The day ended with some brilliant close-up magic (close-up via cameras, of course) from the incredibly entertaining Helder Guimaraes. 

So much good stuff.  So much that filled my head, and some that grabbed my heart and wouldn't let go.

In other words, a typical wonderful day at TED.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 2

Enough folks have asked that I'm going to get the health report out of the way first:  Things are worse.  I have piercing pain in my left ear and down my left sinuses.  I can't swallow without wincing.  I'm exhausted.  I skipped tonight's dinner outing to work all evening and eat alone in my room, so that I could be in bed before 1:30 a.m.  (TED sessions start early, way earlier than I normally get up.)  If I get a fever (none yet) or if things worsen, I'll seek Canadian health care sometime tomorrow.  If I get better, great.

Now, on to the fun stuff:  Today, TED delivered the magic that has kept me coming back year after year.

Brian Ferren kicked things off with a rambling but interesting talk about why the Pantheon matters--it's way cooler than I had realized--and what it takes to make truly big advances.  His pick for the next big advance that will change our lives dramatically is fully autonomous cars, and he made a good case for them both happening and affecting our lives in many ways. 

Brian Greene followed with a short presentation on various ways to see the timeline of the universe.  Though not deep or particularly new, the ways he showed for envisioning time on the large scale were fun.  (One was Sagan's famous 24-hour day.)

Architect Marc Kushner talked about how shared realistic renderings are making it possible to change the way communities interact with buildings they're planning.  If you have any interest in architecture, check this one out. 

Yoruba Richen next spoke about the civil rights and gay rights movements, and how the latter is learning lessons from the former.  I hate that either movement is necessary, but given the real world, I'm glad to hear any talk with useful strategies for moving us closer to true equality for all.

TED curator Chris Anderson then pulled off one of those logistical miracles that happen, at least in my experience, only at TED:  Ed Snowden appeared in a telepresence robot and did a long interview with Anderson.  Anderson wanted the perspective of the Web's inventer, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, so he asked Berners-Lee to join him on stage for more discussion.  Getting to watch and listen to this discussion was an amazing treat. 

This talk is already live.  Do yourself a favor and check it out. 

All of that was in the first of several sessions!

We had so many talks today that between my health, all the work I had to do, and my fatigue, I just can't bring myself to write about them all.  I'm going to hit a few that I particularly liked.

I don't know if Michel Laberge can pull off a functioning fusion reactor, but I have to love someone who said he turned to fusion creation as a part of his mid-life crisis. 

Amanda Burden, NYC's chief city planner under Bloomberg, made a powerful case for the great importance of city parks and other shared spaces. 

Illusionist and crossword-puzzle-maker David Kwong did a wonderful bit involving drawings, markers, and a crossword puzzle.  If you like magic tricks, you'll want to see this talk as soon as it's online. 

We had a full session of live talks at TEDActive.  All were short, and I generally enjoyed them.  I was particularly interested in Jakob Trollback's description of the amount of work that goes into each second of the many modern TED title clips he has designed:  an average of over 25 hours. 

One of the regular session moderators from TED, June Cohen, then made a surprise appearance here at TEDActive and moderated a good session.  Though four of the five talks were interesting and informative, the one that stood out the most was the one that was a story, a presentation from TEDActive co-host Rives.  Rives has always been a spectacularly nice guy, but his on-stage persona is generally slick and edging toward shallow, with quick jokes and an obvious intelligence, but more than a bit of a sardonic distance.  His talk about four in the morning was funny and clever and witty, which I expected, but it was also genuinely heartwarming and touching, which I did not.  I admire his talk and hope I take the chance to tell him so in person. 

In the final session of the day, Zak Ebrahim gave a brave talk about coping with being the son of a terrorist and instead choosing to be tolerant and an agent for peace. 

Chris Anderson interviewed Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation is doing an amazing amount of good in the world.

In the TED Prize part of the program, this year's winner, Charmian Gooch, leader of Global Witness, talked about her wish to end the use of anonymous companies, many of which do a great many bad things in countries around the world.

Sting closed out the day with several songs.  I've not been a big fan of his work, but the songs from his new album and Broadway show, The Last Ship, really worked for me.  I'll definitely be checking out that album.

What a day.

Monday, March 17, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 1

I slept nearly eight hours last night and awoke feeling like I had just been scraped off the tire of a semi that had been driving over ridged payment for the last two hours.  Believe it or not, that is a step up from the way I've been feeling, so I am hopeful that I am beginning to mend.

Most of the middle of the day went to work, registering for the conference, talking and eating lunch with Bill, and so on.

I wasn't going to offer the traditional gift-bag contents photo, but it is a blog tradition, so for those who are curious, here it is.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Most of the items are bits of paper with URLs on them, though the hat, ear buds, bag, and water bottle may be useful.

In the late afternoon, the conference kicked off with an hour of "Inside TED," presentations on what TED is doing in various areas.  I remain impressed by all that Chris Anderson and his team accomplish.

We then spent another hour with various local TEDActive activities.  I've never gotten involved in any of these, but they are a pleasant way for folks to get acquainted.

One of the highlights of that time, though, deserves special mention.  Three of the creators of ads that won TED's Ads Worth Spreading contest came on stage here, and they played the ads.  Though I've seen it before, I still love and admire this one.

Finally, the sessions began.  Because I'm sick and need sleep, and because critiquing every talk would take a huge amount of time, in these TEDActive entries I'm just going to hit a few of the presentations.

Opening the show was cellist Kevin Olusola, who mixed playing the cello with beat-boxing in renditions of four songs from the year of the first TED, 1984.  I quite enjoyed his music.

The first speaker to take the stage was Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, a speaker at the first TED, and a guy who is, in tech circles, genuinely famous.  For my taste, though, his talk today was weak, more "look at all I invented" than useful content.  At the very end, he made a prediction:  In 30 years, we will ingest knowledge in pill form.  I found this the most interesting part of his talk.

Next up was the high point of the talks, a presentation, "Fear Not," by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield.  He spoke beautifully of the magic of going to space, the process of taking off, of doing a space walk, and so much more.  When this talk comes available online, run, not walk, to a browser and watch it.

Hadfield ended his talk by playing guitar and singing a shortened version of Bowie's famous song, "Space Oddity."  Though you've almost certainly seen the video of him singing it on the space station, on the off chance that you haven't--or that you haven't watched it recently, take a few minutes and enjoy it again.

That he sang that song from the space station is, to me, incredibly cool. 

Ziauddin Yousafzai told the inspiring story of his daughter, Malala, who became such a powerful advocate for education for women's education that the Taliban shot her in the face on a bus.  She survived and remains a strong advocate for this cause.  She sent a video to TED but did not come, because she did not want to miss school.  The material was quite strong, but Yousafzai's presentation was a bit flat.

Sculptor Janet Echelman spoke briefly about the installation, "Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks," that she created in Vancouver for TED.  I like the photos of her work quite a bit and am sorry I didn't get to see this piece in person. 

Chris chatted briefly with TED founder Richard Saul Wurman in a conversation that made clear how strong TED was initially and how much stronger it has become under Anderson's leadership. 

The final talk of the session and the evening was from musician, producer, and DJ Mark Ronson.  Though I am not a big fan of sampling-heavy music, Ronson's presentation of the history of this type of music and of the motivations of artists to do it left me determined to give it another chance.  His core notion--that artists sample music they love to engage with and become part of the ongoing narrative of that music--spoke to me as a fiction writer. 

For dinner, we walked across the street to the Squamish Lil'wat Culture Centre for a meal of small plates.  For my taste, the best dishes were potato gnocchi with duck and what amounted to bison lasagna.

Bill and I topped off the evening by joining the TEDActive veterans party for a toast to all those who've been at this conference for multiple years.  

Well, crud.  Here I've stayed up late and covered every talk and event.  Tomorrow, we have sessions all day, so expect highlights and only highlights.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 0

For my health, the ideal course for today was crystal clear before I fell into bed late last night:  Sleep until six or seven p.m., shower, relocate to my recliner for dinner and a movie or a few TV episodes, and then head back to bed for another dozen hours of sleep.

Instead, I slept less than seven hours, packed, showered, ate a late lunch, and headed off to Whistler, where I am now.

I'm writing this at about 5:30 a.m. EDT, so the travel day has been long and not at all fun.  Spending more than seven hours on planes while suffering from cold and sinus problems is no way to have a good time.  Driving another two hours and climbing over 2,000 feet in altitude does not help, either.

Still, I am here safely, and that is a very good thing.  Even better is that I'm getting to attend a conference I have always found thought-provoking and exciting. 

I hope to log at least eight hours of rack time before the conference begins tomorrow afternoon.  With luck, I'll awaken feeling entirely over this cold--or at least a little bit better. 

Wish me that luck!


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