Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A sunny TED day in Vancouver

Clear blue skies and a brisk temperature teased us today with how nice Vancouver can be in February, but if the forecasts are right, we won't see the sun much again for the rest of this week.  I certainly enjoyed the time I got to spend outside.

TED ran four full sessions today, the only day the conference does that.  Consequently, today was also the most exhausting day, which is probably why the organizers make the evening the only open night.  (Predictably, Bill and I ate together in the hotel restaurant, a low-key and enjoyable meal.)

I'm not going to try to cover all of the more than 20 talks and performances we saw today, because despite what the timestamp on this post says, it's one in the morning here, and I have to get up early again tomorrow.  I will, though, probably hit most of them.

Adam Savage kicked off the first session with a presentation on his lifelong love of costuming and how it led him to his CostumeCon costuming ritual.  (He wanders the floor at SDCC each year in some costume.)  He ended with the observation that "the costumes are how we reveal ourselves to each other," a fair if not revelatory point.

So Percussion contributed this session's musical interlude.  I liked their music enough that I am going to pick up one of their albums.

We then listened to three digital entrepreneurs in a row:  Joe Gebbia, the founder of Airbnb; Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber; and Haley Van Dyck, the head of the Federal government's U.S. Digital Service.  Gebbia came across as engaging and as someone very interested in building a great trust economy.  Kalanick basically made a pitch for regulation not to hurt his rapidly growing business.

Van Dyck intrigued me--and definitely charmed the entire audience--with her stories of how her organization would save the Federal IT world.  I left that talk wanting more details.  Fun facts from her:  the Federal IT annual budget is $86B, 94% of its projects run over budget, and 40% of them never see the light of day.  I obviously have no way to verify those assertions, but she's as close to the heart of that action as one can be, so I tend to trust them.  They are certainly staggering figures and paint a picture of an organization in desperate need of the type of help she and her team are trying to provide.

The second session started with a talk by Wanda Diaz Merced, an astronomer who created a way to turn light plots into sound when she lost her sight at age 20.  Her passion for her work and her creativity were compelling.

Doctor Joseph Ravenel explained how using community-based approaches, such as linking barber shops to health care, can help save the lives of African-American men.  I liked his approach and wonder if we couldn't apply it more broadly to health care issues, making care of certain sorts available readily and easily where people already gather.

Franz Freudenthal, a Bolivian physician, explained an invention, a coil of thin metal that opens into a sort of scaffold-like shield, that helps close holes in the hearts of children with congenital heart diseases.  He's working to spread the availability of his device and his approach to all children everywhere, a cause that certainly seems worthy.

I had high hopes for the presentation of Dr. Mae Jemison, a former astronaut who was the first woman of color to go into space and a leader of the 100 Year Starship project.  It began well enough, with her discussion of long-range planning and the need for great leaps, but it never really went anywhere.  I wanted at least some action items for the audience.

For lunch we had our choice of some fancy-sounding food inside or the offerings of one of several food trucks outside.  Predictably, I ended up at a food truck, though due to some work interruptions the one with the shortest line, a burger place.  The burger was adequate but no better; OnlyBurger has nothing to worry about.

The day's third session, and the fourth of the conference, began with three speakers who examined different aspects of human personalities.  Wait But Why's Tim Urban was as funny and entertaining as you would expect.  His discussion of procrastination kept the audience laughing.  Adam Grant, a Wharton Professor, then moved to a discussion of people he calls "originals," those who tend to be more visionary and creative than most.  Just the right amount of procrastination was key to being one of those people.  Brian Little, the third in this group and a mentor of Grant's, is a Cambridge professor who studies personality psychology.  Wry and passionate, he gave an entertaining and interesting presentation on the multiple natures he feels each of us has.

John McWhorter discussed the importance of learning foreign languages, something I suck at.  Though I found him a pleasant and engaging speaker, I wanted more content and less gentle nudging toward his goal.

One of my favorite presentations today came from Noah Zandan, who uses big data mining techniques to study communication and people.  He shared data that showed how visionaries tend to speak differently from most people:  they focus more on the present, they speak clearly and simply, and they help their audience experience their vision through frequent use of "you" and language that involves the senses.  Interesting stuff.

Today's last session kicked off and ended with music from the Silk Road Ensemble, a group Yo Yo Ma helped create.  I enjoyed both performances and now must seek yet another album.

The talks themselves began with an interview of Norman Lear by Eric Hirshberg.  Lear, who at 93 may well be the oldest person to appear on the TED stage, came across as smart, thoughtful, and entirely likable.  I'm glad I got to see this interview.

Astronomer Tabetha Boyajian discussed the options for explaining the amount of light that the Kepler telescope detected something was blocking from star KIC 8462852, "Tabby's Star."  One of those explanations involves alien artifacts, a notion that is understandably controversial.  She necessarily walked carefully around this topic but did acknowledge that some felt it was a reasonable answer.

This year's TED Prize winner, satellite archaeologist Sarah Parcak, gave an impassioned plea for help in her dream of discovering and preserving the many--millions, she estimates--of unknown sites.  Her enthusiasm and energy were contagious, and I wish her all the best of luck.

After two days of TED, I am enjoying the talks and learning a lot, but I'm still hoping for a presentation that will blow my mind, alter my worldview, or fill my heart to bursting.


Mark P said...

The BBC has had a couple of interesting program featuring Sarah Parcak. One on Egypt and one on Roman sites. They were interesting and demonstrated the interesting use of satellites.

Mark said...

Yeah, she is doing some very good work using satellites to locate sites.

Mark P said...

She made the BBC news:


Mark said...

Very cool. Thanks for showing that to me.


Blog Archive