Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TED nails it

Today was the kind of day that keeps me returning to TED.  Two of the three main sessions were simply fantastic, and the third was extremely good.

The morning began with a geek-heavy session centered around code, and as you might expect, I loved it.  Chris Anderson's interview of Linus Torvalds proved to be entertaining, informative, and touching.  Torvalds repeated many times that he was not a people person, but he came across well on stage.  My favorite response of his came in his answer to Anderson's question about being a visionary:  "I am not a visionary.  I have no five-year plan.  I am an engineer."  These two deserved the standing ovation they received.

Next up was Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code.  She argued that we raise our boys to be brave and our girls to be perfect, and that it's hard to be brave when doing so means you must admit to failing at being perfect.  I strongly support her goal of involving more women in STEM careers, and she has made great strides.  Her group taught 20 girls in 2012, and this year it's teaching over 40,000.  Passionate, smart, and committed, Saujani struck me as a great leader for this organization.

Peter Diamandis of XPrize and Dave Kenny from IBM Watson then took the stage to announce the AI XPrize, a $5M competition.  The three finalists will give talks at TED 2020, and the TED audience will determine the winner.

In a talk that I quite loved but that also served as a bit of comic relief, Mary Norris, a copyeditor with the New Yorker,  discussed her job, dealing with writers, and the role of copyeditors.  As someone who cares deeply about the copyediting of his books, I found her an editor I'd be happy to work with--though I doubt she'd let that last construction stand.

Luke DuBois showed us art that he's constructed using data analysis techniques on large quantities of online data he's mined.  I definitely want to see more of his work, which was smart, touching, and informative.  He touched the entire audience with his work.

We then saw a demo of some outstanding tech that's still in development.  Chris asked that we not yet publicize this one, so all I can say is that when TED and this company break the news on it, I'll tell you more about it.  It was very cool indeed.

Equally cool was the presentation in the next session by Raff D'Andrea, a professor at ETH Zurich.  Once again, though--and I apologize here for being a tease--I can't yet tell you about what we saw.  Fortunately, the talk should be online soon.

Cool tech, a new prize, amazing demos, and interesting people--this was an outstanding session, the kind that made me instantly glad I was returning next year.

The seventh session began with an argument by Parag Khanna that we need to stop thinking of geography as defining people and instead focus on what he calls "connectography," the intersection of connections and geography.  I think he underestimates how important geography remains, or at least he pretends to do so for the sake of publicizing his work, but he is certainly hitting on a major force in the ongoing evolution of human civilizations.

Amit Sood and a colleague, Cyril (I did not catch his last name), then conducted a beautiful demo of Google's Art Project.  Check this one out online or on an Android device.  It's an amazing collection of art from museums and collections all around the world.  You can search and manipulate it with metadata, or with the tags Google's machine-learning algorithms applied to the art by looking at it, or even by showing it your face and letting the software find art that comes close to you.  I can't wait to play with this thing.

TED folks then announced the TED Residency program, an interesting way for them to encourage good works.  I don't think I'd find it useful, but I can imagine that many folks will.

Dalia Mogahed, a Muslim who came to her faith at 17, delivered a deeply moving, impassioned talk about what it means to be a Muslim in America and how it felt to be one during 9/11 and the following week.  Smart, brave, patriotic, and deeply religious, she reminded us all of the deep dangers of the sort of hate-mongering that some of today's political candidates are practicing.

Hugh Evans, a young man who founded the Global Poverty Project in 2008 and the Global Citizen Festival in 2012, made the case that we should all be what he calls global citizens, people working regularly to solve the world's biggest problems, such as the fight against extreme poverty.  His talk addressed a completely different topic than Mogahed's, but he was also compelling.

Both of them deserved the standing ovations they received.

Christiana Figueres closed the session with a discussion of climate change and the importance of tackling big problems with an unrelenting sense of optimism.

Another very good session with many touching talks.

After lunch, Bill and I went to TED University, which is a long session composed of short (three-minute, I think) talks by members of the TED audience, not speakers TED recruited.  We watched 17 presentations.  It's almost three a.m. here, so you'll have to trust me when I say that all were at least interesting, and I was happy to have been in the audience.

The day's final session began with a presentation on climate change by Al Gore.  Ten years ago, Gore walked onto the TED stage and delivered a talk on climate change that became legendary and inspired millions, me included.  He came to the stage this year to update us.

This talk was better than that earlier one.  Gore began with measured tones and excellent slides, hitting us with fact after sobering fact.  As he continued, though, his enthusiasm grew, and he ended with optimism and a challenge to us all to help in the fight against climate change.  I am not doing this talk justice.  It is one of the best orations, maybe the best, I have ever personally witnessed.  If the Al Gore who ran for President had demonstrated the passion, intensity, and speaking skills of the man we saw today, history would have been very different.  I applauded until my hands hurt, and so did everyone else.  The moment TED puts this one online, watch it on the biggest display you have, turn up the sound, and enjoy.

Gore's act was so hard to follow that at first I felt bad for the soft-spoken man who took the stage next, Andrew Youn, the founder of the One Acre Fund.  My fears were misplaced.  He made a compelling case that we are entirely capable of stopping extreme poverty now, that doing so requires only will, work, and capital, that we have already invented everything we need to tackle this huge challenge.  I found his talk moving and powerful.

Science writer Jennifer Kahn tackled the topic of gene engines and CRISPR.  She convincingly argued that we need to start now having global conversations about the issues around this sort of genetic manipulation, because it is coming, and there's no stopping it now.

Singer Rhiannon Giddens then performed.  Wow, does she have an amazing voice--and she's from Greensboro.  North Carolina, represent!  I will definitely be picking up some of her music.

The day's final talk came from Dan Gross, leader of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  He tackled this tough topic with what seemed to me to be a very reasonable approach, not arguing for banning guns but simply for broader use of background checks.  His data and his talk were both compelling.

What a day of talks!  Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel, and all the TED folks who assembled these sessions should be intensely proud.  They certainly made me eager to return.

For tonight's dinner, we had the option of signing up to eat with a speaker.  I chose Monica Byrne, a Durham writer who has not yet spoken.  Twelve of us ended up sharing a table at a sushi place that was also hosting many tables with other speakers at them; TED took over the joint.  I enjoyed the meal and the conversations with the people around me, though I barely got to speak to Byrne.

I'm exactly the right kind of exhausted and emotionally churned.  Wow.


David Drake said...

Dear Mark,

'Happy to work with' is good English but bad Latin. Impossible Latin, in fact, which is why early grammarians tried to excise it from English.

Where the Chicago Manual of Style conflicts with Winston Churchill, I'll go with Churchill every time. So should you.

Who sometimes has problem with copyeditors

Mark said...

Oh, I do--and did here. I was mostly joking. I don't actually know the New Yorker's style in this case.


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