Saturday, March 22, 2014

TEDActive 2014 – Day 5

Today was a short day at TEDActive. Which was a good thing as everyone I spoke with felt like their heads were either too full of information or just plain mush. I felt a bit like both.
Kelly and Rives before the simulcast begins

Despite my mushy brain, I enjoyed most of the talks today. Jennifer Senior spoke on how parenting has changed and is more difficult than ever. Kevin Briggs recounted his experiences over the years as a police officer with responsibility for talking down Golden Gate Bridge jumpers. Joi Ito explained how he organized crowd sourced radiation detection in the wake of the tsunami and reactor disaster in Japan. Shaka Senghor recounted how he turned his life around while serving time in prison for murdering another man. 

Sarah Jones marvelously performed by answering previously unseen questions as different characters of various genders, ages, and ethnicities. She quickly changed clothing accessories, vocabulary, accents, and physical mannerisms. It was amazing to see these rapid transformations. 

Simon Sinek's talk on leadership stood out. He recounted a number of stories about how people were willing to sacrifice for each other and that the key ingredient is leadership that sacrifices for the group. He used metaphors of families and tribes, but was mostly talking about companies. He told of people like Charlie Kim of Next Jump and their approach to hiring. He cited examples such as how a company in financial straits implemented a shared furlough program rather than laying people off and how that drew the people in the company together. Much of what he described matched what Mark and I have tried to do at our company. I definitely need to read his books. 

The talk that touched me the most was by Gabby Giffords. She and her husband, Mark Kelly, participated in an interview led by Pat Mitchell. They described what they had been through since she had been shot in the head while meeting with her Congressional constituents in 2011. She walked haltingly onto the stage and sat with her husband on a couch. Her answers were very short. For example, when asked why she married him, she responded "best friends." Kelly explained that she meant that they were best friends and that formed the solid basis of their marriage. The path back for Giffords (and Kelly) has been and continues to be a very difficult one. They have given up their crazy busy lives as a Congresswoman and an astronaut to concentrate on her rehabilitation. Their love for each other seemed very genuine. They spoke of being gun owners, but their desire to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable. At the very end, Giffords stood up and gave a short talk that she had obviously worked very hard on. She clearly and movingly spoke of her desire to make the world a better place. 
Last look at Whistler on the ride to Vancouver

After the farewell party, we took the 2-hour ride to the Vancouver airport. It was a bit sad to see Whistler fade into distance, but the scenery was beautiful. The road first treated us with mountains and then added the ocean into the visual mix. Many of the views were spectacular. They were a good final gift from TEDActive 2014.
Mountains and bay on the ride to Vancouver

I am very much looking forward to being home, but it will be days and weeks before I've fully absorbed the week. In particular, I need to figure out what my big takeaway will be. In previous years, I've come away with changes as varied as implementing our sabbatical program at work and becoming a weekday vegetarian. It will require some time to determine this year's big takeaway. 

It has been a long week and I am exhausted, but TEDActive 2014 has been rewarding. I look forward to coming back again next year. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

TEDActive 2014 – Day 4

A mountain stream on the walk to Whistler Village
Stuff happens at TEDActive, surreal stuff you just don't see every day. Stuff like a panel discussion of people discussing their first encounters with Al Gore and Bill Gates. Or, standing in line for a gondola overhearing a conversation between an Albanian and a Malaysian about their favorite places to live. Or, being served hors d'oeuvres and drinks on a gondola as it briefly stops halfway to the top of a mountain. Or, listening to a decent local band at a party on top of a mountain and watching Amanda Palmer jump in and help them finish out their song.  
Some of the ski trails visible from Whistler Village

In the midst of all that surreal stuff, it was a slightly saner day. I even had a little time in the afternoon to walk over to Whistler Village and snap some photos of the beautiful scenery. The bulk of the day, however, was attending sessions and trying to keep up on email. 

The day started off with Chris Anderson interviewing the deputy chief of the NSA, Rick Ledgett, about the earlier interview with Edwin Snowden. The rebuttal largely consisted of Ledgett sounding reasonable and making some good points, but largely sidestepping the questions. If you are curious, it is already posted

Actually, there were a number of technical glitches with the Ledgett interview, so they postponed it until the end of the first set of talks. Those talks included Marco Tempest performing magic along with a robot, David Epstein giving a fascinating look at the impact of technology on sports, Ray Kurzweil discussing the evolution and future of the neocortex in humans, Keren Elazari giving her take on the importance of hackers, Seth Godin saying why it is important to choose to care and push yourself, and Ed Yong describing parasites using their hosts to reproduce through amazing stories and pictures that included the pun "Eat, Prey, Love." Yes, it was that kind of day! 

There were a number of talks by people who dedicated their lives to studying things as diverse as ants (Deborah Gordon), fireflies (Sara Lewis), and stars and planets (Andrew Connolly). 

TED speakers panel led by Kelly and Rives
In the afternoon, there was a fun panel discussion with six TED speakers (from this and previous conferences). The panel included a beautiful transvestite model (Geena Rocero), an NFL punter (Chris Kluwe), a woman attempting to unmask corporate corruption (Charmian Gooch), an artist (Raghava KK), a leading designer (Stefan Sagmeister), and a man pushing the idea of urban gardening (Ron Finley). As Rives put it, they look like a Benetton commercial. They answered all manner of questions and told stories about their personal lives and TED speaking experiences. It was very enjoyable. 

Among the more interesting and thought-provoking talks of the day was one by William Marshall on his company's ( goal of launching over 100 low-orbit satellites to give daily updates to satellite imagery of the earth. I also particularly liked Masarat Duad's explanation of why she chooses to wear a burqa. While I don't think (nor does she) that forcing people to dress that way is right, it was good to understand that she and others can have rational reasons for doing so. 

The 71-year-old author Isabel Allende spoke movingly and humorously about the issues of aging. I can relate to her assertion that you always feel younger than you are. And, I share her fear of becoming dependent on others with age. 

The talk that hit me the hardest was the one by Mellody Hobson on race. She started with a story of appearing at an event with an African-american Senate candidate and the pair of them being mistaken for late-arriving kitchen help. She threw out lots of sobering statistics that I had heard before, but I was really convicted by her exhortations to "be comfortable with the uncomfortable discussion of race" and to be "color brave rather than color blind." In particular, she spoke about the importance of being color brave in the hiring of people in an effort to create a more effective workforce through diversity. I'm not exactly sure how to go about doing that, but it is something I plan to think more about in the coming weeks. 

The day ended with dinner and a party on the top of Whistler Mountain. It took about 25 minutes in a gondola to reach the summit. The ride up gave beautiful views of the town at dusk and the ride down allowed me to watch small drops of light slowly grow into the town I had walked through earlier in the day. 
Amanda Palmer joins the local performers

The party was exactly the sort of thing that makes me uncomfortable, but I quite happily stood alone and watched people interacting. There were lots of young folks dancing and having fun. Other people were trying to talk over the music. As the party was nearing the appointed time to end, but by no means ending, Amanda Palmer showed up and joined the pair of musicians on stage. 
Amanda Palmer plays her ukelele

She then performed on her own while standing on a table directly in front of me as many of the people joined in on chorus to her song. I'm not a fan of her music, but it was fun being in the middle of it. Her husband, the science fiction writer Neil Gaiman, read a short story about a genie encountering a contented person who didn't have any wishes. Palmer then performed some more as I sneaked out and back down the mountain to my room. 

Yeah, at TEDActive, stuff happens. I'm very glad I was privileged to see some of it!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

TEDActive 2014 – Day 3

Ominous clouds portend the messy day to come
The weather was less than ideal today in Whistler as the picture from hotel room window shows. It would have been disappointing if I planned to be outdoors. Regardless, when you could see the mountains, they were still beautiful. 

That sort of summed up the day at TEDActive. There were a number of technical problems (audio, slides, etc.) with some of the speakers and performances. Worse, I found one group of talks rather frustrating and disappointing. Ultimately, however, there were enough good talks to make the day well worth the time.

Let me get the frustrating part of the day out of the way, even though it was the last session. Each day is divided into groups of sessions lasting between 90 minutes and 2 hours. Each session has some loose guiding principle and a title. I was looking forward to the group of talks titled "Why?" This seemed like the perfect opportunity for TED to turn at least somewhat toward the role religion plays in answering that question. 

Jim Holt humorously throws up his hands as to Why?
Instead, the session opened with an animated music video of a questioning youth becoming a suicide bomber. Later, Jason Webley's musical performance was marred by a series of technical problems which was not helped by his rambling and sometimes inaudible comments. In his defense, the sound problems would have thrown anyone off their game. 

The only talk that really addressed religion was by Jim Holt. It was funny and enjoyable, but basically pushed aside any answers religion might have. He also belittled atheists, so he was an equal opportunity insulter. He humorously came to the conclusion that we live in a "random," "generic," and "messy" universe which he was comfortable with because it was so much less pressure than being in any sort of special or perfect universe. The only mention of Jesus was as an expletive by the magic act at the end of that session. 

Some of the audience participation at TEDActive
On a lighter note, there were a number of interesting contrasts during the day between the audience here at TEDActive and the one attending the main TED in Vancouver. Part of that difference is due to the audience participation that happens here. There were multiple times during the day where audience members could come to the microphone and give 30 seconds on one topic or another. 

There was a funny contrast between the excited audience reactions here and the camera pans of barely awake older attendees in Vancouver. It seemed that every time the camera panned the Vancouver audience, it made the TEDActive crowd burst out in laughter. My favorite related comment was in response to an audience question about why TED does not try to reach out to older people like it does to younger ones. The response was something along the lines of, "You would think differently if you saw the audience in Vancouver." I'm glad to be in the young crowd! 

The day included some interesting and informative sessions as well as some great ones. Among the merely interesting (but good) ones, were Wendy Chung on autism (with a forceful detour to say that vaccines do NOT cause autism), Avi Reichental on 3D printing, NFL punter Chris Kluwe on the future of augmented reality in sports, Margaret Stewart from Facebook on the issues of design for really large scale audiences (the new Like button is seen 22 billion times a day), Rob Knight on the importance of the microbes in our bodies, Nancy Kanwisher on brain research using fMRI, Larry Page on lots of topics in an interview conducted by Charlie Rose, and many more that I've already forgotten. The days here are really full! 

The outstanding talks included the magician Helder Guimaraes doing some amazing card tricks that I really enjoyed. David Chalmers also did a thought-provoking talk on consciousness. As a philosopher he ponders the possible reasons for consciousness, trying to answer the questions, "Why are we conscious? Why are we not just robots?" He cited the work of Roger Penrose whose book, The Emperor's New Mind, I found fascinated though, at times, inscrutable. Chalmers ended up with what he calls two crazy ideas, that consciousness is a fundamental thing like the laws in physics and that it is universal, experienced at some level by everything. I found it sad that the simple answer of God was not one he choose to embrace. I really had hoped that the later Why? session would address those issues. 

Lawrence Lessig gave a short follow up to his talk last year on our broken political system. I came away this year seriously considering how I might be able to help his efforts to get the ridiculous amounts of money out of our political system. If we don't find some way to get the political system back into the hands of us, the people, things will only get worse. He left me with much to think about. 

The best session of the day, however, was by Hugh Herr. He is a researcher at MIT who works in the area of prosthesis. He himself lost his legs to frostbite. He gave his entire talk while pacing around on some incredible prosthetic legs. He stated, "A person can never be broken, just the technology is." And, he is working with truly exciting technology using active rather than passive devices. Legs like he was wearing are able to be fairly comfortable and yet able to actively help move. Seeing photos and video of what people (including himself) are able to do on these cutting-edge prosthetic legs was inspiring. What brought me to tears, however, was his finale. He has been working with the dancer who lost her leg in last year's terrorist bombing in Boston. As he put it, what the terrorist was able to do in 3.5 seconds would take 200 days to overcome. He had the woman come on stage and do a short ballroom dance using her prosthetic leg. I was far from the only person wiping my eyes.

Seeing her dance may not have answered the Why question, but it did remind me of why i come to TED. It was a messy day, but a good one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

TEDActive 2014 – Day 2

After the second day of TEDActive 2014, words fail me. My head is full of too many great talks and too many interesting conversations. There is no way I can adequately describe all that happened, but I'll try to give some highlights.

View out the window while waiting for the elevator
Outside the hotel, it is beautiful, though that is merely the backdrop for the full slate of talks that ranged from OK to great. Generally, however, more of them were closer to great than OK. The problem is that with so many great talks and so little time to write this entry, I don't know which ones to write about. 

Here are some of the highlights of the day. Bran Ferren talked compellingly about the combination of engineering and art in the Pantheon in Rome. (Note to self, visit it the next time I'm in Rome!) Marc Kushner presented some very interesting perspectives on the recent evolution in architecture. 

Michel Laberge spoke convincingly (and somewhat humorously) about his work at General Fusion on a fusion reactor. Amanda Burden discussed the importance of parks and public spaces in cities and summarized things by saying, "Cities are like parks, people stay because they are having a good time." Matthew Carter, the creator of Microsoft's Georgia and Verdana fonts, described the development of computer fonts which I was fascinated by as I played with Metafont about 30 years ago. 

David Kwong, a magician and NY Times crossword puzzle contributor, did an amazing magic trick. He had a woman choose random colors that he could not see to color in a set of animals on a page. He then went through a series of steps which ultimately led to the same combinations of animals and colors appearing in the day's NY Times crossword puzzle which he had authored. The woman sitting next to me had the paper and we confirmed that was indeed the case. I have my theories about how he did this, but it was fun to watch. 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Chris Anderson, and Edwin Snowden
chatting about the future of the Internet.
The best talk was probably a conversation between Chris Anderson and Edwin Snowden. As Snowden is currently hiding in Russia, he attended via a remote presence robot. The technology itself was cool to see and my understanding is that Snowden really enjoyed the ability to look around and be at least somewhat back in North America. The talk is already posted and is well worth watching. It was quite a coup for TED to have arranged the whole thing, especially given the necessary secrecy and security. I am familiar with the many news stories covering the information that Snowden has leaked through a number of press outlets regarding the NSA's extensive surveillance efforts. What I was surprised about was how articulate Snowden was. I came away respecting what he has done and wondering whether I would have similar courage in my convictions. 

There were two afternoon sessions for speakers at TEDActive. The first was called TEDYou and was about ten 6-minute talks. They ranged from advances in battling cancer to a video of a pod of killer whales attacking a blue whale to a description of a carbon fiber sitar. None of them were great, but they were all enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed Jill Sobule's song about having to wear orthopedic shoes as a child. While I definitely identified with that, what made the song was her mom being on stage to sing her rebuttal/reasoning for the shoes. Kelly (one of the TEDActive co-hosts) and her mom joined in for the chorus. 

June and Kelly (Jelly) moderating the TEDActive session
The second TEDActive session was five speakers giving more traditional TED talks from the TEDActive stage. They were all interesting and very good, worthy of the main TED stage. The one that particularly touched me was an intricate story by Rives (the other TEDActive co-host) about how his silly observation of the prevalence of references to 4:00am reluctantly grew into a hobby and then into a project. And, how it ultimately wrapped back around and connected him to a poignant moment in his past. It was amazingly well done. 

The afternoon session on the main TED stage included a very good interview with Bill and Melinda Gates. Among the many interesting things they discussed, Bill Gates said, "I want my kids to be able to do anything, but not have enough money to do nothing." Next, the TED Prize winner (Charmian Gooch) told of her wish to eliminate anonymous corporations. This was an issue I knew nothing about, but now strongly believe is a problem that needs to be solved. Her talk is now online so you can learn more about the issue yourself. 

The day's talks wrapped up with a musical performance by Sting. He did a solo performance of a number of songs from his new musical about his childhood growing up in the shadow of a major shipyard. He finished with an encore of Message in a Bottle with the whole audience singing along. It was a perfect ending to a long day of sessions. 

The day was not over, however. Instead, we went to dinner at one of a few different restaurants at Aspen. Mine was at the Garibaldi Lift Co. Bar & Grill. The place had a typical ski resort rustic lodge feel about it. The food was good, but that was not the point of the evening. The only customers were from TEDActive and the goal was to mingle. At my table, I spoke with a couple from Montana involved in biomimicry (one of them was one of the TEDActive speakers), a young female student from Kosovo attending on a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a man from Tokyo who had organized a TEDx for kids, and a TEDx organizer from China. The conversation covered everything from the dangers of trying to help with the TED Prize Wish to martial arts to working in the family business to salsa dancing and pretty much everything in between. 

As I put the finishing touches on this entry, the next day is about to begin. I'm just not sure where to find room in my shrinking brain for anything more.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TEDActive 2014 – Day 1

As I have for each of the last six years, I have the privilege of once again spending the week at TEDActive. The 700 folks at this year’s TEDActive watch the same TED talks as the main gathering via satellite. From what I can gather, the environment at TEDActive tends to be more engaged and enthusiastic than at the main TED. The audience skews younger, despite my efforts to increase the average age by being here.

The ski slopes come right to the back of the hotel
Unlike last year, which was in sunny Palm Springs, CA, TEDActive is at the ski resort town of Whistler in Canada. The main TED is a couple hours away in Vancouver. It is beautiful here, though with the winter I’ve had home in North Carolina, the warmth of Palm Springs would be welcome.

I come to TEDActive primarily to force myself to think. The TED talks are usually thought provoking as are the attendees. I do my best to attend all of the talks. I also force myself to talk with people as that often turns out to be some of the best parts of the week.

Mark and I arrived late Sunday night (1:00am local time) after a long day of travel. I was rather sore from having run my first half marathon with about 4,000 people at the Tobacco Road Marathon & Half Marathon. Fortunately, the first day of TEDActive did not really get started until the afternoon. (Check out Mark's impressions of things on his blog.)

This year's somewhat disappointing goodie bag
Before the sessions began I registered and got to see what was in my goodie bag. In previous years, these have contained all manner of things including some great gadgets. This year’s bag was a bit of a disappointment. The only gadget of note was a set of Urbanears headphones. Given the snow, the Robin Hood wool cap may turn out to be useful. The rest of the items are mostly things that will require some investigation on the Web to figure out if they are worth pursuing.

The first set of sessions was a bit disappointing. The theme this year is The Next Chapter which is meant to look back at the first 30 years of TED and forward to the next 30. Nicholas Negroponte seemed like the perfect person to get things started as he spoke at the first TED and has made a career of looking into the future of technology. Unfortunately, his talk seemed to consist mostly of showing how he had correctly predicted the future over his career. 

Kelly and Rives hosting from the TEDActive stage
Other talks included a touching one by Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, and some interesting musical observations and performances by Mark Ronson as well as some looks back by the host of TED, Chris Anderson. The best talk of the evening for me was by Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut. He spoke amusingly and compellingly of his experiences in space. He also gave advice on facing your worst fears. The short form of the advice is that if you force yourself to walk into 100 spider webs, it will become routine, and ease your fear of spiders. Fortunately, I don't have a fear of spiders and don't have to do that! 

At the evening parties, I spoke with a number of interesting folks and forced myself to at least exchange greetings with the hosts of TEDActive, Kelly and Rives. All in all, it was a nice start. I’m looking forward to the next several days!