Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Day 2 at TED

A typical TED day consists of four sessions of about one hour and forty-five minutes, a lunch constructed to encourage people to talk, and a party in the evening that also encourages conversation.  Each session has a theme of some sort.  For example, the first session today was called The Lab and was mostly about technology.  Other sessions today were The Earth (environment and nature), The Crowd (crowd sourcing), and The City (the TED Prize session).  The sessions consist of about four 18-minute talks, one or two musical acts, a few 3-minute talks, and some short videos. 

By the end of the day, I often find it hard to remember exactly what happened.  Things tend to mash together.  At the party (in Steve McQueen’s and two other houses overlooking the city), I was discussing the talks with someone and we were both having trouble remembering who said what.  He was a public speaking teacher at a university in Minnesota and described to me his favorite talk of the day.  I could not remember the talk at all, so I just nodded. 

I did finally figure out which talk he liked, but I had not been as impressed.  Similarly, at the beginning of the last session of the day I overheard the people behind me talk about how great the talks had been throughout the day.  All of that is a prelude to saying that I was largely disappointed in today’s talks.  In fact, I fell asleep during James Hansen’s talk on global warming.  T. Boone Pickens was not much better when talking about the need to get off foreign oil and move to natural gas.  Why are talks about energy inherently boring?  They even had an 18-minute musical on global warming.  At least I was able to get some email done. 

So, while there were a number of interesting talks like Regina Dugan, head of DARPA, talking about testing at Mach 20, Donald Sadoway, describing his grid-level storage batteries, and Karen Bass, nature filmmaker, showing amazing video clips such as a 2.5-inch long bat with a 3.5-inch long tongue getting nectar from a long flower.  The talk that sticks with me, however, was that of Frank Warren.  He told about how he started something called the PostSecret Project.  People send him homemade postcards that reveal a secret that they have never told anyone.  Weekly, Warren posts some of those postcards on the Web site.  During his talk, he showed a few of the postcards and gave some compelling stories that went with some of them.  Some were funny.  Some were touching.  And, some were heartrending.  He has been doing this for seven years and has received half a million postcards.  I felt incredibly sad at the thought of how much hurt and pain is in this world. 

The last session ended with an amazing gospel group from NYC called the Mama Foundation Gospel for Teens.  Their singing had most of the people in the Palm Springs audience up on their feet, clapping and dancing.   They sang songs like, Down by the Riverside and Let My People Go.  Despite their skill, I found it a bit hollow as they actually managed to never mention Jesus or God.  To me, it felt full of energy, but somehow empty.  That seems like a good metaphor for the day.  

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Day 1 at TED

I just spent a long day ingesting information at the first day of TED talks.  Generally, the talks were very good.  A couple of the talks were largely wastes of time, but the quality seemed better than last year. 

In order to write this blog, I actually took notes during the talks.  In fact, it is possible that I took more notes during today’s talks than I did in four years of college.  I was not good at taking notes in college, so I don’t claim that anything I quote here is necessarily exactly what the speakers said.  Hopefully, however, I did get the gist.  It was hard to decide whether to comment on each talk or pick one talk about at greater length.  I decided to put here some quotes from the day and then discuss the talk that had the most impact on me.

As has often been the case, I don’t think I heard the word God the whole day.  Instead, a number of presenters instead used the words nature or science.  They used those terms in quotes such as “Nature has solved the problem of free riders in evolution” (Jonathan Haidt) and “Nature sets limits on growth” (Paul Gilding).

Jonathan Haidt’s talk was very interesting, but particularly interesting was an informal survey he took at the start of it.  He asked people to raise their hands if they considered themselves religious.  By his count, 3-4% of the people in Long Beach raised their hands.  In Palm Springs, I counted about 10 out of over 500.  He joked that he was surprised there were so many people at TED calling themselves religious.  In contrast, most of the people raised their hands when asked it if they considered themselves spiritual.  It was interesting to confirm my suspicion that there are not many Christians at TED. 

There were a few talks I really enjoyed including Peter Diamandis (of X-Prize fame) who talked about how technology and the empowerment of billions of people would solve the world’s problems.   It almost brought tears to my eyes.  I also loved Susan Cain’s talk about introverts and how they (we) need to be valued more by an extrovert-oriented society.  Billy Collins made me appreciate poetry, possibly for the first time.  Check out  Andrew Stanton (writer of the Toy Story movies, Little Nemo, and WALL-E) was also very good in explaining the importance of story telling.  I’ve long thought that the Bible is so heavily weighted towards stories because they resonate so well with us.

The talk, however, that hit me the hardest was the opening one by Brian Greene.  He is a physicist who loves to explain things like string theory to the general public.  He talked about the possibility of a multiverse where our universe is one of many universes.  He explained how the amount of dark energy in our universe is exactly the right amount necessary for life to exist.  Further, that we are in a “remarkably privileged era” for being able to comprehend the universe and, by extension, the multiverse.  To me, this just screamed anthropic principle—that the universe was finely tuned to sustain life.  He stated that over time, information will be lost and it would be impossible to derive things like the Big Bang Theory.  It is amazing to me that God created the universe and placed us in it in the ideal time to reveal His creation to us.  Of course, that was probably not the intent of Greene’s talk.  Indeed, he used the word nature rather than God when things got too metaphysical.  Still, it was very cool to me to think about. 

Between and after the talks, I forced myself to talk to people.  I even made a point of talking to Kelly and Rives, the hosts of TEDActive.  I mentioned to Rives about being among the ten people who raised our hands as being religious.  He said I should come early tomorrow and be one of the people giving 30-second talks.  I need to think about that. 

All-in-all, it was a day where my mind has been in overdrive.  Now, if I can just get some sleep before doing it again tomorrow!  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Day 0 at TED

Today was the first day of TED.  The talks, however, do not start until tomorrow morning.  Instead, today was a time to get registered, get acquainted, participate in some preliminary activities, and attend a kickoff party called, Hooray! Soirée!  As you suspect, not exactly what I would choose to do.

First, here is a picture of the pool at the Palms Springs Riviera to give you an idea of how rough it is here at LoserTED. 

Below is a picture of the items from the goodie bag they give out at TEDActive.  It is hard to see everything, but a few things to note are a Roku 2 (TV streaming device), a Jawbone (Bluetooth phone headset), and free installation for a Nest thermostat (given that I bought one a couple months ago and have not had a chance to install it, this is a great gift!)  I’m less sure what I will do with the Pro Flyer.  Maybe ride it around the office?

I did force myself to meet a couple people at breakfast.  One owns a business that gives advice to CEOs and the other runs an experiential and digital marketing firm in Chicago.  That gives some idea of the diversity of people here.  OK, actually they just sat down at my table, so I sort of had to talk to them.  I’m still going to count that as meeting people.  After all, I could have just continued reading my book (1491—a fascinating look at the Americas before Columbus and the onslaught of Europeans).   

Finally, here are a couple pictures from the party this evening. 

I forced myself to stay until I had spoken with three people.  My strategy was to stand alone at an obvious place (at the top of some stairs) and wait until people came up and spoke with me.  While I’m sure they were interesting people, I was much more fascinated by the people creating the ambient music and the bar of flame controlled by an Xbox Kinect. 

Tomorrow, the talks themselves.  Can’t wait!  

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Heading to TED

I am about to leave for the TED conference.  You have probably watched some of the videos from previous TED conferences.  A TED  conference consists of back-to-back short talks (maximum of 18 minutes) interspersed with time to think about them and discuss them with other attendees.  

Well, more precisely, I will be at TEDActive.  Or, what I think of as LoserTED.  The real TED which Al Gore, Bill Gates, and Cameron Diaz attend is in Long Beach, California.  LoserTED is a smaller gathering (about 400 people) in Palm Springs, California which watches the TED talks via satellite.  It is at a cool, retro-50s, Rat-Pack-inspired hotel called the Riviera.  It is not exactly tough duty being at LoserTED.  

Mark and I have attended TED for about five years.  The conference for me is a challenging one.  In part it is because to get the most out of it, you need to meet and talk with the other attendees.  It really is an amazing group of people.  It is, however, a real strain for me to meet people.  I am much more comfortable sitting in the corner by myself.  That is where you will usually find me in any party or gathering of people I don’t know.  

The other part of TED which is a challenge for me is that the people in attendance and the ones speaking are generally from the Left.  Al Gore is a real hero to most of the attendees.  I’m not a big fan of labels, but I would generally be classified as an Evangelical Christian and Conservative.  In my circles, Al Gore is decidedly not a hero.  Consequently, the TED talks are ones I often have at least some level of disagreement with.  

I think the best example is Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk from 2008 which went viral on the Internet.  She is a compelling speaker who is a neuroscientist.  She told an incredible story of having a stroke while being able to observe it and understand what was happening, but have little ability to do anything about it.  I encourage you to watch it before reading further about how it was a challenge for me.  

At the end of that talk, she got a standing ovation.  At least in my memory, it was the most vigorous standing ovation of the conference.  I, however, was upset by her talk.  (Which, of course, Mark found fairly amusing.  I think he loves going to TED in part to watch my reaction to some of the talks.  Unfortunately, he will not be able to attend this year.)  Why was I upset?  At about 13 minutes or so into the talk, she gets increasingly metaphysical.  She uses phrases like, “I was no longer the choreographer of my life,” “my spirit surrendered,” and “my spirit soared free like a great whale.”  She found nirvana and thinks that everyone can find nirvana.  She said, “I am the life-force power of the universe.  I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is.”   She believes that all of us can choose to experience that same peace.  

Obviously, she had an amazing experience.  However, she then went on to more or less invent a sort of religion.  This religion was one that the TED audience loved.  This religion only required that we choose the peace that is within us.  It was a great religion—we all just choose to get along and the world will be a better place.  For you and me.  Put a little love in your heart.  

My belief was that if I stood on the same stage and explained my belief in Christianity, I would have been booed off the stage.  She was applauded for inventing an easy, smarmy religion and I would have been jeered for extolling a religion believed in by millions or billions over thousands of years.  Admittedly, that was only my perspective.  I tend to feel a little persecuted at TED while in truth folks would probably be curious to hear about my beliefs.  

So, all that to say that I am on my way to a stimulating week of having to meet people and having my beliefs challenged.  In Palm Springs.  My goal is to write a blog entry each day of the conference starting on Tuesday.  If nothing else, it will give Mark something to be amused at from afar!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A blog? Now? Seriously?

Why am I writing a blog?  Obviously, I’m rather late to this party.  My goal is not to become famous.  It is not to impress people with my latest exploit or insight.  It is not to bore everyone with details of my latest emotion or meal.  Instead, it is to improve my thinking.  To me, that means thinking more clearly, and more Biblically.  

I find that writing ideas down helps make them clearer (or exposes their flaws).  Thinking or saying something is easy.  For me, words often come out of my mouth without passing through any sanity checking.  Offhand comments are easy.  Clear, Biblical thoughts are not.  I’m hoping to use this blog to force me to think better, to think more Biblically.  Putting my thinking in words and into the public will hopefully make my thinking better.  

The blog may also help me to remember.  I vaguely recall thinking that I had the whole predestination/free will thing figured out by looking at things in terms of information theory.  Or, was it in terms of combinatorics?  I can’t remember much more than that for the life of me.  I’m hoping that by writing things in blog entries I will be able to remember.  More likely, I will prove to myself that what seemed like a great idea in the shower is not nearly so compelling when typed out.  

There are a number of topics and areas I currently plan to cover.  In future blog entries, I plan to discuss:
  • Technology implications – I love technology, but its impact on people is by no means an unmitigated good. 
  • Book impressions – My goal is to write something about each book when I finish it, if only to help me remember what it was about! 
  • Travel journals – I am blessed (and maybe cursed) to be able to travel quite a bit.  Visiting other places makes it possible to see my life in a different context. 
  • Experiences with gadgets/technology – If it uses electricity, I do my best to play with it.  I miss writing columns like I did for years in places like PC Week.  It is always fun to write down impressions and experiences about technology. 
  • Random musings – I can’t help myself! 
My goal will be to write at least one entry every week.  I’ve not yet decided whether I will tell people about the blog or not.  But, whether you stumble across this or I pointed you to it, please respond.  Otherwise, I will just be talking to myself.  As usual.