Saturday, March 21, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 6

What a day. 

From wake-up to arrival at home was nearly 13 hours.  The process began with a wake-up call around six a.m., a time I don't mind seeing on my way to bed but hate encountering after minimal sleep.

The shower had the water pressure of a light summer rain from a cloudless sky.  I love intense water pressure and hate taking forever to soak.

Check-out took extra time due to a mess-up with my bill.

At the ticketing counter, I learned not only that I did not get an upgrade but also that I had "been randomly selected" for extra security screening.  Always a pleasure.

Oddly enough, the general security line was so long that being selected for extra screening, though it involved more steps and hassle, took less time than the normal process would have required.  I've never had it work out that way before, but today it did.

A sandwich in the airport for breakfast, and we were off. 

Sitting next to me was a chatty, 6'8" man who was so happy to be in the exit row that he was beside himself.  Fortunately, he was thin, so I had to lean only partway into the aisle.  Despite tucking myself in when the cart came by, however, the flight attendants managed to slam the cart's sharp edge into my right knee when they momentarily lost control of the cart as they were pushing it backward.  That was no fun. 

We had a three-hour layover in DFW, so we spent it in the Admirals Club, where I worked.  I took off my coat, because I was hot.  As I've told many people, if it's not nailed to me I can forget it, and so I left my perfectly good SCOTTeVEST coat in that DFW club.  (Gina is on the case, trying to get it back for me.  We'll see.)

Amazingly, I got an upgrade on the next leg, so I passed it happily working and drinking Coke Zero and water (not in the same glass, mind you). 

And now I am home--for all of one long night and one short one.  Monday morning, I head to Austin.

I do intend to enjoy my time home and to spend much of it sleeping. 

TEDActive was overall an excellent experience and featured an amazing number of great talks, but I am utterly exhausted. 

I am glad to be home.

Friday, March 20, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 5

For this last day of the conference, the TED organizers tried something new:  a single two-and-a-half-hour session, Endgame, with only a five-minute bio break in the middle.  The plan worked well, at least in my opinion, and the talks were awesome.

They opened incredibly strong with a presentation by 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi.  He talked about what fuels him and has always kept him going:  anger.  As you might imagine, I could relate to this motivator.  He argued that you should use anger to power you to create ideas and then to take actions on those ideas.  Again, I can relate.  His story started from the moment his activism began as a fifteen-year-old and ran to the present day.  Though he was not the most dynamic speaker, I was fascinated by all he has done.  Don't miss this one when it goes live. 

The organizers wisely turned to something completely different--music--after this talk.  Aloe Blacc came onstage and performed several songs, including the wildly popular "Wake Me Up."  I'd heard him in person last night, but I still enjoyed hearing him again. 

Next up was British neuroscientist, laughter researcher, and occasional stand-up comic, Sophie Scott.  She did a great job of weaving interesting information with jokes and left me wanting to learn more about the science of laughter. 

Dame Ellen MacArthur then took the stage to tell us first about her time setting a record for solo sailing around the world and then her ongoing efforts to create what she calls a "circular" economy.  The sailing parts were the most compelling bits, because the economic sections were (probably unavoidably) short on detail, but I quite enjoyed her presentation.

For the fifth talk of the morning, Chris Anderson came onstage to say that though the person involved had not been able to fit TED into his schedule, he had agreed to an exclusive taped interview a few months ago.  Anderson then rolled an entertaining and touching video of a chat he had with the Dalai Lama.  "Happiness is the purpose of life," the Dalai Lama said, and then he explained further what he meant. 

In a sobering but intriguing talk, B.J. Miller, a palliative caregiver who himself nearly died in college--and who did lose big parts of three limbs in the accident that almost killed him--talked about death and how we deal with it.  This one wasn't always comfortable to watch, but like all the others today, I recommend it. 

Author and comedian and MIT Director's Fellow Baratunde Thurston turned in an often hysterically funny wrap-up of the conference.  I don't know if they post these wrap-ups online, but if they do, do not miss this one. 

After a quick lunch, we did email at the hotel until the car arrived to take us back to Vancouver.  We're staying in the hotel that is quite literally in the airport, but it's a nice and quiet place nonetheless.  Exactly what do I mean by "in" the airport?  Here's the view through my room's floor-to-ceiling window.

Yeah, we are definitely part of the airport.

Tomorrow, I get up in the sixes (about five hours from now) to start the very long journey home.

I'm very happy to be going home, but I'm also very glad I was able to go to TEDActive.  I hope to do so next year. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 4

Wow, was today busy.  We saw a large number of talks, so I'm going to keep my descriptions to a minimum. 

We kicked off at 8:15 a.m. with TEDYou, a set of nine talks from TEDActive attendees on our stage here in Whistler. 

CNN columnist and commentator Sally Kohn started with a pitch to "Choose Gay."  I expect this one to generate some controversy on both sides of the political fence.

Real estate magnate Barbara Corcoran, who also is involved with the Shark Tank TV show (something I've never seen), discussed what she believes to be the most important traits of entrepreneurs.

Jamila Lyiscott turned in a spoken-word performance on how we often incorrectly assess the intelligence of those outside the mainstream.

Shivam Shah, a classical pianist, showed us some ways better performances differ from more mundane ones.

In a touchingly brave talk, Jacqui Chew discussed misperceptions of manic-depressive disorder, a condition from which she suffers.

Onyx Ashanti played very odd music using creations of his own invention, all of which were attached to his body.

In a funny and informative talk, Jun Kamei showed that traditional designs may still have much to teach us.

Marco Tempest performed charming and puzzling illusions with a large collection of Rubik's cubes.

Wrapping up this first session, journalist and storyteller Joshua Prager showed us parts of a project he's been working on for some time:  a collection of literary quotes that mention specific years of human life, one quote for each year from 1 to 100.  I'd love to see the whole collection.

Dave Isay of StoryCorps then took the stage and fielded questions about ways those of us at TEDActive might help with his TEDPrize wish.

After a break, the best session of the day, Just and Unjust, began with a touching presentation from Monica Lewinsky about slut-shaming--which she suffered before the term existed.

In one of the day's most powerful talks, Gary Haugen, a man who's written extensively about the link between violence and poverty among the world's poorest people, discussed that topic and proved, at least to me, that if we don't help people live without violence, we'll have precious little luck addressing their poverty and hunger.  Watch this one as soon as it goes live.

Monologist Sarah Jones, whom I've had the pleasure of seeing on the TED stage before, premiered for us bits of Sell/Buy/Date, a work in progress.  She is amazing to watch, a one-woman cast of many distinct characters.

Alice Goffman discussed the enormous problem of young people who end up in jail rather than college, a problem that plagues many inner cities.

Spoken-word artist Clint Smith talked about what it meant to be fully human and how being born a person of color cost him so much of his childhood.  I would love to see more of his work, for this was a powerful, moving short talk.

Sri Lankan opera singer Tharanga Goonetilleke sang a beautiful aria from the Messiah.  Though I didn't understand the words and opera is most definitely not my thing, I still found her performance lovely.

Reverend Jeffrey Brown closed the session with a discussion of his role in the "Boston Miracle" that helped dramatically lower the rate of youth-related violent crime in Boston. 

After lunch, we started the tenth session of the conference, Building from Scratch.  Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell gave a very science-fictional talk on the knowledge we would need to preserve to rebuild after an apocalyptic event. 

In a fun but light presentation, Roman Mars, who runs the podcast and radio show 99% Invisible, discussed the designs--good and bad--of various flags.

Erin McKean gave a short talk on interesting words that had popped up in various earlier talks.

Stephen Pyne presented a history of fire, a story that was not as intriguing as I think it could have been.

In another short talk, Shiva Shivakumar showed some of the varieties of very useful data we can get by instrumenting the vehicles in a city and tracking their movements. 

Neri Oxman explained her concept of "material ecology" and demonstrated constructions that mixed growth with machine construction.  One very cool example involved using chitin as a key building block.

In one of the odder art presentations, Dustin Yellin wrapped up this session by showing off both some of his work and the institute he has created, Pioneer Works in Brooklyn.  I would very much like to see more of his art live, if only because I could not decide after his talk whether I would love it or find it not to my taste; I consider both to be possible. 

The last session of the day, Passion and Consequence, kicked off with amazing photos from surf photographer Chris Burkard, a man who photographs surfers in some of the world's coldest waters.

Hussein Chalayan discussed both his fashions and his art installations.  It was an odd presentation, but one with a great many intriguing bits of art--fashion and otherwise.

Noy Thrupkaew turned in a powerful presentation on human trafficking and the many forms in which it occurs.  Hint:  prostitution, the part that draws the most headlines, is only 22% of the problem. 

Teitur Lassen, a singer from the Faro islands, sang three songs and talked a bit about the importance of sharing in all things artists do.

Relationship therapist Esther Perel wrapped up today's talks with a discussion of infidelity, a topic that apparently garnered her considerable skepticism but that I thought she covered fairly and intelligently.

The day ended with a party at the ski resort at the top of the mountain.  We ate, socialized, and then were treated to performances by Maya Jupiter and then Aloe Blacc; Blacc will be performing at TED tomorrow.  I did not recognize either artist but later learned that they were married and that Blacc had written and provided the vocals for a song I quite like, "Wake Me Up."

I left a bit on the early side, one song before the end of his set, as it turned out, and ended up riding alone in a gondola down the mountain.  I pondered whether this ride was a tangible demonstration of my own social failings, which to some degree it most certainly was, but ultimately I found I was quite content to be alone, riding in silence and enjoying the lovely views of the slopes.

Tomorrow morning, we have the last session of the conference, enjoy a lunch and farewell toast, and then head away.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 3

Today's talks were generally good but not as strong as yesterday's.  Still, I enjoyed them and am glad I got to hear them.

Session 6, Radical Reframe, kicked off with a talk by Siddhartha Mukherjee on a new approach to considering and treating diseases, one that builds from cells up to organs and organisms and even to environments.  Though he presented an intriguing paradigm, he offered precious few concrete examples of how we might implement this model. 

Maryn McKenna walked us through a lot of sobering data that suggests that if we don't take better control of our use of antibiotics, we could find ourselves in a very dangerous post-antibiotic world.  I found her data both compelling and scary.

A plant geneticist who's married to an organic farmer, Pamela Ronald offered a refreshingly balanced view of the useful roles of both plant genetics and organic practices. 

In one of the day's weaker presentations, lawyer Steven Wise updated us on his struggle to gain legal person status for apes and other smarter animals.  I'm still not sure what I think about his crusade, but the best parts of his talk were the history lessons, which I definitely enjoyed. 

Adventurer Chuck Berry showed us a lot of neat footage captured by wearable cameras, but his talk was mostly a tour of the footage and offered little more than fun visuals.  

The next session, Creative Ignition, began with a fun talk by Tony Fadell, designer of the iPod and founder of Nest, about ways to fight habituation and be a better product designer.  Though he offered advice, I'm not sure it was concrete enough to be useful.  I will, however, be thinking about it for a while. 

Architect Elora Hardy showed us some amazing bamboo houses she's built on Bali and discussed the virtues and challenges of building with bamboo.  I now have another reason to go to Bali--not that I need more. 

Two days ago, three TED attendees agreed to create and perform a piece just for this show.  That doesn't seem like much time, but with these performers--dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, cellist Joshua Duncan, and singer/songwriter Somi--the result was simply stunning.  I am not a fan of dance, but I could watch Jones for our hours.  The combination of the music and his movements was hypnotic and wonderful. 

Manuel Lima discussed the rise of the network diagram as one of the most powerful tools for visualizing data. 

In a quick audience talk, Richard St. John gave advice on how to have super ideas.  The talk was a nice idea itself, but it lacked the specifics to be truly useful.

Potter and artist Theaster Gates discussed ways to help in blighted parts of cities. 

In my favorite bit of the day, a guitarist duo, Rodrigo y Gabriela, played two astonishing songs for us.  I must get their albums!  What they do with guitars is amazing and wonderful. 

After lunch, we watched 14 TED University presentations on topics as diverse as coping with epidemics, wealth inequality, dieting, the presentation (and lack thereof) of women in the news, and avoiding asteroids that might collide with Earth.  (Dave, most of us do want to avoid the asteroids.)  It's late, and I'm running out of steam, so let me just say that all of these were interesting, and a few were genuinely intriguing.

The last session of the day, Pop-Up Magazine, featured guest curators from the group of the same name and a large set of performers, most of them storytellers.  I found all the talks at least interesting, though none was up to the best of the show so far.  I find it curious that TED basically outsourced a session, and on balance I can't recommend the TED folks do it again.  To be fair to the many good performers of this session, in any other context they would have been the best talks I had seen in months, so if a Pop-Up Magazine session comes near you, it's almost certainly worth checking out.

Dinner was with a group of fellow attendees at a local pub.  I talked to a few interesting folks and had a pleasant enough time.

I remain exhausted, however, so off to bed I go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 2

Today's sessions were numerous and extremely good.  No talk was less than good, many were excellent, and a few were superb. 

The first session, "What are We Thinking?", began with a talk by MIT professor Laura Schulz on how babies learn and adapt to such factors as sample sizes.  Schulz does a great job of constructing experiments that illuminate new aspects of cognitive development.  If that sounds dull, it's not; catch her talk if you can. 

Jason Padgett talked about how a mugging lead to a brain injury that altered the way he perceived the world--and ultimately brought him to love math. 

In one of the more technologically amazing presentations, David Eagleman challenged what we think we know about our senses and showed how we might one day soon be able to add to them. 

Donald Hoffman also spoke about perception, but from an entirely different perspective as he addressed how our senses worked and what goals they most serve.  A philosophically intriguing talk, this one will leave you pondering your own sense of what's real. 

The morning session ended with an emotionally compelling presentation by Daniel Kish, who talked not only about how he uses echolocation to observe his surroundings but also about how his lack of vision means only that he sees the world differently. 

Stanford AI researcher Fei-Fei Li kicked off the next session, "Machines that Learn," with a presentation on how convolutional neural networks are leading to great strides in computer learning.  I read in this area fairly regularly, so I already knew all the concepts involved, but seeing her talk about the progress in computer vision was nonetheless entertaining. 

In a talk that merged the theoretical and the practical, Rajiv Maheswaran discussed how analyzing moving dots can ultimately make better basketball teams.  Almost all of this year's NBA contenders are using data from his organization, so the theories are playing well in practice. 

Roboticist Chris Urmson, Director of Self-Driving Cars at Google, discussed why he feels driverless cars are both inevitable and ultimately better than driver-assisted vehicles.  I also read heavily in this area, so I found nothing new here, but hearing his take on the subject was enjoyable. 

TED Curator Chris Anderson then interviewed mathematician, code breaker, hedge fund manager, and now philanthropist Jim Simons.  The most entertaining parts of this presentation were the ones in which Simons discussed his past work.  I quite enjoyed it.

In a short talk, Evan Tann basically plugged his company's new Verified Location Technology as a means for thwarting hackers. 

Philosopher Nick Bostrom warned of the dangers of creating super-intelligences.  A philosopher who works with computer scientists, he wrote the book that convinced Elon Musk to tweet about this very topic. 

Following him, Oren Etzioni, head of Paul Allen's AI lab, gave a short audience talk in which he claimed we had nothing to fear in this area.

Hearing both sides of this debate was useful and interesting. 

In a move I quite like, Chris Anderson and his team made session 4's topic be "Out of this World," a series of talks on space exploration.  As a lifelong advocate of exploring other worlds, I naturally loved this session, but I think it was approachable and interesting to all. 

Alan Eustace led off with the story of how last October he rode a balloon up to 135,890 feet and then fell to the Earth, his parachute opening at 10,000 feet.  I loved the whole story, though I had read a lot about it before. 

Fred Jansen then discussed the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission, in which a team put a lander on a comet.  A fascinating tale of good science--and a bit of good luck--this one showed how much we can still do in space. 

Planetary scientist and MacArthur Fellow Sara Seager discussed her work on finding other planets that support life.  I wish her luck and look forward to reading more about her work. 

Nathalie Cabrol, a senior research scientist at the SETI institute, then talked about how we can use knowledge we gain from studying extreme environments here on Earth--in this case, high-elevation Andean lakes and deserts--to learn about where we might find life on Mars. 

The session wrapped up with Stephen Petranek explaining why he believes we will have a colony on Mars by 2025.  (Short answer:  He believes Elon Musk will make it happen.)  Though I do not share his optimism, he presented a lot of interesting data. 

The day's last session, "Life Stories," began with the most powerful talk of the day:  Anand Giridharadas' story of two men in Texas whose lives became powerfully intertwined in the days right after 9/11.  Moving from the specific to the general problems of America today, he brought the entire watching crowd to its feet.  Do not miss this talk when it is available online. 

Dame Stephanie Shirley, a pioneer in software, a woman who created a business of primarily women back in the early sixties, a champion of research into autism-spectrum disorders whose son was profoundly autistic, and a philanthropist, flit engagingly over a wide variety of intriguing topics.  In one of my favorite lines of the day, she said, "You can always tell ambitious women by the shape of our heads:  flat, from being patted."  She smiled as she said it, but the iron and anger in her from suffering this treatment for decades were clear and strong. 

Martine Rothblatt next ranged over a broad variety of topics, from her work with satellite radio, to her mid-life change from Martin to Martine, to her fight to find a way to cure the disease of one of her daughters. 

The penultimate act of the day was the presentation of the $1M TED Prize to Dave Isay, story collector and head of StoryCorps.  I am apparently the last person in the U.S. not to know StoryCorps, but I found Isay's presentation and goals to be exciting and compelling. 

TED ended for the day with two songs from eleven-year-old Indonesian jazz piano prodigy Joey Alexander.  Though jazz is not my favorite music, I very much enjoyed his playing. 

In every way, today delivered on the essential promise of TED:  great talks about ideas worth spreading. 

The day's only real weakness comes from me, not the show:  I suck at fitting in.  I hung with Bill all day and was quite comfortable doing so.  We ate dinner in a small local pub and then went back to our rooms, while elsewhere fellow attendees ate in groups, went to an ice-skating party, and then ran a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl.  I wish I were more social and better at joining such groups, but I'm not, and I have to confess that I found the time with Bill more peaceful and ultimately more productive than hanging with the crowd. 

Tomorrow, more talks!

Monday, March 16, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 1

The conference cranked up in earnest today.  After way too little sleep, I got up, worked, showered, and headed to the conference center to register and pick up the always interesting TED gift bag.

Speaking of which, here's my obligatory picture of the bag--a very cool backpack from Moleskine, which I didn't even realize did packs--and its contents.

 Click an image to see a larger version.

TEDActive is always chock-a-block with interesting stuff, some of it funky, some high-end, and all of it at least interesting.

Following on Pico Iyer's TED book, which I reviewed in an earlier entry, we have a stillness area.

A video confession booth for discussing nuclear disarmament.

Multiple dispensers of cold water, both sparkling and still.  Snack areas.  Our own coffee bar.

Of course we have a bean-to-bar chocolate tasting area that never runs out.  Doesn't everyone?

The waiting lounge outside the main theater isn't too shabby, either.

Even the staircases at TEDActive are fancy!

As you would expect, the theater where we watch the talks--a few live, most simulcast--is also rather spiffy.

Seriously, the TED folks do a superb job of creating an event that is both luxurious and thought-provoking. 

The first two sessions of the day contained talks from TED Fellows.  All were fairly short, around ten minutes each, and we watched them from yet another space (not the main theater above), one the organizers kept completely dark, so I could not take notes.  I also have no program for it.  The talks ranged from okay to quite good, but I cannot, alas, report more details on them.

The first session of the TED conference proper was Opening Gambit, and it started at 6:00 p.m.  Though no talk in it absolutely blew me away, every single one was strong and interesting.  On balance, I'd call this one of the best first sessions of all the TEDActive events I've attended (which is all but one of the eight; to my ongoing regret, I missed one the year my mom died).  I recommend you watch all of these talks when they become available online.  A few impressions:

A band, Moon Hooch, opened the show with a song.  More on them in a bit. 

Kevin Rudd, a former Prime Minister of Australia, discussed whether China and the U.S. would find a peaceful way forward together or end up in war.  He certainly sounded alarms, but he also left us with a sense of optimism, the notion that we could indeed all build a peaceful future and some broad ideas on how to do so.

Foreign policy analyst David Rothkopf talked about our disproportionate reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 and how we need to focus now on the many huge issues of the day.  That summary really does his talk an injustice; I do recommend it.

Joseph DeSimone, a chemist and UNC professor (now on leave and acting as CEO of Carbon3D) discussed an exciting new 3D printing technology and demonstrated it live on stage.  His company's inspiration was the bad cyborg in Terminator 2; keep that in mind when you one day watch this video. 

MIT computer vision scientist Abe Davis showed a new technology for recovering audio from silent video footage by detecting minute movements in response to sound waves.  The NSA will love this technology, but there's far more to it than just another surveillance tool.

Moon Hooch then returned to the stage.  A drummer and two saxophonists, they combine live performances with real-time computer treatment of their sounds to create what they call Cave Music.  Part jazz, part electronica, and part dance music, I expected from that description to dislike it, but instead I very much enjoyed it.  I'll be buying their CDs.

The final talk of the day came from performance artist Marina Abramovic.  We all had blindfolds on our chairs and had to wear them as she opened her talk with a description of a disturbing live piece she did in 1974.  Shen then talked a great deal about the power of performance art.  I am often skeptical of this type of art, but I very much enjoyed her talk and could see the power in it.  As part of her talk, she asked us all to turn to a neighbor we did not know and stare into each other's eyes, blinking as little as possible, for two minutes.  My neighbor of choice was a guy named Al.  I found it an odd and at times moving experience; how often does any of us stare intently into the eyes of anyone for that long?

After a brief stop at the room, Bill and I walked to the opening-night party cum grazing dinner, where we ate and talked to a few folks.  I never made it to the DIY s'mores area, but I did enjoy brisket, poutine, a small sausage with sauerkraut, and other treats.

As a shout out to Sarah, they even had, next to the sausages, an all-you-could-eat fresh pretzel area.

Sorry you missed it, Sarah.

Always the masters of branding, the conference even had its own lager.

As a non-drinker, I passed on this one.

I ended the day by going back to the room to blog and work and, finally, sleep.

Tomorrow's sessions start at 8:30 a.m. and run all day long!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On the road again: TEDActive, Whistler, day 0

Travel ate today.  I got to bed a tiny bit before seven a.m. and woke up at one, not exactly refreshed from six hours of sleep but definitely feeling better than most mornings this week.  From then on, the day was all about the usual rituals of travel:  shower, drive to airport, wait, board, wait, fly, land, repeat.

I was lucky enough to get a few good breaks:  first-class seats on both legs, plus a Red Mango parfait in DFW.

What made today particularly long was not only a long layover in DFW but also a two-hour car ride from the Vancouver airport to the hotel in Whistler.

Now, though, I am secure in my pleasant but not particularly remarkable hotel room, it's the middle of the night, and I hope to get some sleep.  I must say that I prefer having us all in one (extremely nice) hotel to scattering us among many (less nice) hotels, but so it goes; the room is more than good enough for sleeping and working.

Tomorrow, TEDActive begins!


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