Thursday, February 18, 2016

Talks that ranged far and wide

This last full day of TED contained three sessions jammed with talks that covered a wide range of topics.

The conference's ninth session opened with conservative Arthur Brooks arguing convincingly that conservatives and liberals need each other to solve the world's biggest problems, including the one he was focused on:  the extreme poverty that two billion people around the world suffer.  I particularly liked his notion of "servant leadership."  To be a servant leader, he observed, you must fight both for people you don't need and those who don't like you.  As he also noted, this concept eludes the vast majority of today's politicians:  "We in this country are facing a lack of visionary servant leadership."

One of the stronger and more compelling talks came from Adam Foss, an assistant district attorney in the juvenile division of Suffolk County.  Foss had started out to be a defender, watched the power dynamics in the courtroom, and realized he could do more good for his people as a prosecutor.  He argued very persuasively that we need to train prosecutors in saving people and changing lives, not ruining them.  Rather than focus on jailing people, prosecutors should instead focus on helping them come back from mistakes in their lives.  I realize this may sound more than a bit unrealistic, but Foss and others have shown that it is very possible and that we can both help change lives and avoid adding to our broken and incredibly expensive incarceration system.

Music great John Legend joined Foss on stage and chatted with him a bit--the two had worked together on one of Legend's organizations, Free America, which works to help fix that very same broken system.  Legend then played a few songs on the piano and sang.  What a privilege it was to hear him perform!  He opened with Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," a song that was even more poignant given Foss' talk.

I've never read anything by writer Lidia Yuknovitch, who spoke next, but I am certainly going to seek out her work.  She discussed what it was like to be a misfit with a life that made her feel for years and years that she never belonged in the room.  I found her talk personally relevant and moving.

Moran Cerf discussed his work in brain imaging from the inside, which he does by putting electrodes in the brains of people whose skulls are already open for brain surgery.  He also talked about some promising--and potentially frightening--work in manipulating dreams via external stimuli.  Interesting stuff.

The last presentation of the first session was an extremely cool demo of Microsoft's Hololens by Alex Kipman.  Kipman conducted a live holo conference with a colleague who was across the street.  The demo worked surprisingly well given all it was doing.  I'm ready to try a Hololens!

After lunch, the tenth session kicked off with a group of speakers who were all TEDx organizers.  The six talks were all entertaining enough, but none reached the heights of Foss or Yuknovitch.  The most fun was Linsey Pollak's demonstration of making musical instruments from odd objects, including a carrot.  Kang Lee's presentation on lying in children was interesting but did not contain enough data for my taste.

The most touching of the bunch was Angelica Dass' presentation of her Humanae project, in which she photographs people, samples pixels from parts of their faces (I think), and then shows the Pantone colors of their skin.  The many photos make abundantly clear what we should all already know:  that labels like "black" and "white" are stupid ways to categorize people, and that each of us falls on a continuum of human colors.

If someone reminds me, I'll write an entry sometime on how this applies to my Jon & Lobo books.

The day wrapped with a session on "fantasists and catalysts."  Chris Milk started it off with a bang by giving us an amazing demo of the Vrse virtual reality technology.  Each of us had previously downloaded a special TED app to our phones.  Using our phones, a Google Cardboard viewer that was on our seats, and earphones that were also on our seats--yes, we got to keep this swag--we all stood and experienced an amazing five minutes.  The whole time Milk talked, two musicians played for us, an addition that made the talk even more haunting.  During the demo, of course, sound relevant to what we were experiencing poured through our earphones.  Though I have felt and generally still believe that VR has a very long way to go, this demo was fantastic.

Neurologist Uri Hasson showed something amazing he's learned from his FMRI brain research: brains sync on meanings, with listeners and storytellers alike triggering the same sections of their brains as they hear/tell a story.  He also showed hard proof of something we all know from experience:  what you believe before you hear a story affects how you respond to the story.  The difference is that he actually showed that your brain physically responds differently based on what you bring to a story.  Very nifty stuff.

Design critic Alice Rawsthorn provided a few examples of how superior design can have huge real-world consequences.

Ameera Harouda makes her living in Gaza as a fixer for journalists, the only female fixer there and thus one who can get stories others can't.  What she's doing is very brave, but for many reasons she couldn't go into much detail.

Musical group El Vy played us a few songs, which I enjoyed well enough.  I say that because after listening to John Legend earlier, my expectations were rather high.

The day ended with a bit of science fiction storytelling theater from Monica Byrne, a Durham writer.  She delivered a fine performance of a short story with a very sad ending.

We all then bundled into buses to head to the last night of TED celebration.  The food was the usual TED hip concoctions, good but not great.  Bill and I actually spoke with a few new folks, which was good.  The big news of the party was that after a DJ had warmed up the crowd, Fitz and the Tantrums played for us.  I quite like this group, though the mix for this party made it almost impossible to understand most of the words they were singing.

Tomorrow, TED draws to a close with a single session that runs for more than two and a half hours!

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