Friday, February 19, 2016

TED 2016 closes strong

Despite what the timestamp on this entry says, I'm writing it late Saturday afternoon (local time) in the Admirals Club in Heathrow.  The sky is already darkening, and I am trying not to fall asleep.  I'm spending over four hours here on my way to Barcelona.  I am so exhausted I have trouble keeping my eyes open, but I want to put down these thoughts while they are still reasonably fresh.

The first speaker of the day was Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan.  Bhutan is a small country with around 700,000 people and a very unusual--and admirable--way of doing business.  It was the first country to be not just carbon-neutral but carbon-positive, something it pledged to be quite some time ago.  The government focuses as much on GNH--Gross National Happiness--as on GDP.  Tobgay's talk was thought-provoking and entertaining, enough so that I now very much want to visit Bhutan and learn more about it.

Sue Desmond-Hellman, the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and thus one of the most powerful non-profit heads in the world, took the stage next.  She spoke a lot about Precision Public Health as a solution to dealing with issues such as the fact that 2.6 million babies die in the first year of life.  Her example of precision medicine--Herceptin targeting breast-cancer cells--was clear, but she was very short on details about what Precision Public Health would actually mean in practice.  I left wanting more information.

We switched from medicine to art when photographer Stephen Wilkes discussed with us some photos from his Day to Night photographic series.  In each of these works, he chooses a location, usually one suspended in the air over a target area, and shoots 1,500 to 2,500 shots over 18 to 30 hours.  From these, he assembles a single photo that shows what happened in that place from very early in the morning until evening.  I found the photos fascinating and compelling.  I hope he comes out with a book of them.

Surprise guest speaker Alexander Betts, an Oxford professor who specializes in refugee studies, argued convincingly for the EU to do a much better job of taking in refugees.  His arguments applied equally well, I believe, to the U.S.  Impassioned, deeply knowledegable, and completely committed, Betts was a whirlwind of energy determined to improve how we handle refugees.  I was one of the many who gave his talk a standing ovation, my second (after one for Tobgay) of the day.

Surprise followed surprise as Amanda Palmer came onstage.  Joining her were Jherek Bischoff, who conducted a string quartet, and Usman Riaz, who played the main melody on guitar.  They started into a slow and soulful rendition of "Major Tom," and the house exploded with applause.  When it came time for the countdown, a quarter-intensity spotlight revealed that Al Gore was up there with them, and he read the countdown.  After his amazing talk on climate change, Gore reading this countdown was somehow perfect.  At the end, David Bowie name and life span appeared on the screen.

I've expressed here before my mixed feelings about Amanda Palmer's work, but I must say that she and this group absolutely nailed this song.  They were splendid.  I and everyone else in the house stood and gave them a prolonged standing ovation.  It was a magic TED moment, and I feel privileged to have been in the audience to see it.

We changed to comedy as Erin McKean, TED's resident lexicologist, discussed some of the more interesting words, real and made-up, we've heard this week.  She's a quiet but effective humorist and clearly a word lover.

Courtney Martin pointed out that for the first time in American History, a majority of people today believe their children will lead lives with less than they have.  She argued, though, that this was less a failure of the American Dream than a sign that it's time to have a very different dream, one focused more on fulfillment and the ability to adapt to a constantly changing work world than one targeting material possessions.  Her presentation was interesting, and she certainly raised some valid points, but it was ultimately the weakest of the day's talks.

Casey Gerald, founder of MBAs Across America and a strong orator, chronicled a lot of his experiences along the road to finding himself a believer in the gospel of doubt.  He also announced the closing of his organization.  His talk was moving, and he received a standing ovation, but he had only his doubt to offer, no answers or even a path forward, and so in that way his talk ended disappointingly.  I still, though, found it compelling and enjoyed it.

As she has done at past TEDs, Julia Sweeney gave a humorous wrap-up of the week that was a nice, light way to end its final session.

In the course of the closing lunch, I made myself (Bill had already left) sit with different groups and thus actually spoke to over half a dozen folks.  I spent a lot of time talking with speaker Wanda Diaz Merced and TED Fellow Mitchell Jackson, and I quite enjoyed the conversations.

I left as one should depart from TED:  with my heart and head full to overflowing, happy that I had been able to attend, and already looking forward to next year's event.


old aggie said...

Mark, Amanda Palmer released a recording of the Bowie tribute:

I think there's more than one song but I may be wrong.

So if you liked the song at TED, you have the option of listening to it any time. :-)

I'm not too familiar with "AFP's" work, though I've heard a couple things I liked very much and I do wish her well what with some of the difficulties she's faced in the past couple years.

Mark said...

Yeah, I've seen the mini-album but have not yet checked it out. I will have to do so.


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