Thursday, February 28, 2013

TEDActive 2013 – Day 2

Wow. Days like Day 2 at TEDActive 2013 are the reason I come here. The morning was beautiful and then the conversations and sessions started and things got even better.

Over breakfast I had what I think of as a unique to TEDActive conversation. I sat down next to someone who was talking about the great comic book artist Jack Kirby. The man turned out to be on the board of the San Diego Comic Con. He was comparing Stan Lee interviews he had done with a woman from CNN who had also interviewed him. Somehow the conversation moved to US energy policy. The guy next to me was a PhD student in geophysics. I asked him how he would solve the energy problems and he argued that we should give the responsibility to the oil companies because they had the experience and vested interest. I joked that I guess I trusted them more than I did the government, but it was close. The entrepreneur across from me then started talking about the right way to get energy investment. Things went on from there. Definitely not a typical breakfast conversation! 

The talks themselves today were incredible. An indication of how good the talks were today is that speakers like Elon Musk on electric cars, space ships, and solar power and Sergey Brin on Google Glass don’t even make my most interesting talks list. Here are brief descriptions of some of the day’s highlights.
  • Alastair Parvin told how architecture is and always has been for the top 1%. His goal is to bring open source architecture to the masses.
  • Danny Hillis gave a rather scary talk on the vulnerability of the Internet. He started off by holding up a printed directory from 1982 of all the Internet email addresses. It was about the size of a phone book and I wondered whether I was in it. He recounted how China “accidentally” rerouted all US military traffic through China for a few hours in April of 2012. He thinks the Internet is akin to the financial system where the individual parts all make sense but no one knows how it all interacts. His concern is that pretty much everything now relies on the Internet, including things we might not traditionally think of as using it. He argued for a backup system, a Plan B, in case of an emergency or attack.
  • Amanda Palmer described how as a musician she is using people rather than record labels to finance her music. Through Kickstarter, about 25,000 people gave $1.2M. She noted how her last album for a record label sold 25,000 copies and was a failure.While I can’t say as that I care for her music (she later performed), I found her approach to relying on her listeners and fans to be compelling.
  • Stewart Brand told about his newest passion, de-extinction. He described the current state of the technology and how they were on the verge of bringing back species like the passenger pigeon from extinction. He spent only a minute on the ethical considerations and possible unintended consequences of de-extinction, but it was a fascinating talk.
  • Kate Stone was not a great speaker. She talked about making interactive paper by using electrically conductive ink, touch sensitivity, and wireless transmitters. It sounded interesting, but I was really wishing she would actually show something other than slides of posters that you could supposedly interact with. Then, somewhat clumsily, she started to show some. She was able to use a piece of paper to play sounds on an iPhone as if she were a DJ (which she correctly said she was not). I was left wondering how expensive the technology was, but I figure greeting cards may soon not just play annoying music, but allow you to interact with them.
  • Ron Finley is from South Central Los Angeles and is planting food in vacate lots to help improve the eating habits and lives of his family and neighbors. He had some great quotes such as, “Gardening in the city is a defiant act. Plus, you get strawberries,” “If kids grow kale, kids eat kale” and “We are gangsta gardeners.”
  • Michael Green is an architect who was pushing the 30-story wood buildings in order to cut down on the carbon footprint of steel and concrete structures in cities.
  • Allan Savory gave probably the most controversial talk. He explained how to roll back desertification (the process where land in semi-arid regions is become desert). His claim was that desertification is not caused by so much by climate change or livestock, but by the removal of wandering herds of large animals (like bison in North America). His solution is to use large herds of livestock that are methodically moved from area to area to simulate the original wild herds. He claimed large scale success in doing this and made wild claims about the benefits of doing so. I am a bit skeptical, but wouldn’t it be cool if eating more beef was the answer to global warming!
  • There were a number of teenagers making real scientific progress including Jack Andraka (invented a cheap and accurate way to detect pancreatic cancer), Miranda Wang & Jeanny Yao (discovered phthalate eating bacteria) and Taylor Wilson (proposed a new fission reactor design and is postponing college to develop the idea).
  • There were also a number of good performances including Yo-yo Performer BLACK (an amazing yo-yo performer), Ji-Hae Park (an incredible violinist), Rich & Tone Talauega (dance choreographers) and Pedrito Martinez Group (a Cuban fusion music group).

All of that, however, did not hold a candle to the best talk of the day by Lawrence Lessig. I have long been big fan of his, but this talk was the best I’ve heard from him. The basic gist is that America is no longer a republic because before the people get to vote, Big Money decides who the candidates will be. He cited some statistics including that 30-70% of the time of a person in Congress is spent raising money. He argued for legislation, similar to what a few states have, that calls for small-dollar elections. This talk got my first standing ovation of the conference. I really can’t do it justice here, so I will let you know when it is posted.

Again, wow. It was an incredible day. I have trouble picturing Day 3 topping that, but you never know!

I wanted to mention that the folks from TED have started posting some of the talks, the first being Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize talk.  It is worth checking out. 

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