Saturday, March 21, 2015

TEDActive 2015 - Day 5

I started this morning at TEDActive like other ones
with a good cup of cappuccino.
Today was a short day with just one session, albeit a longer than usual one. I started the morning as I have the whole week, with a nice cappuccino. It is tough duty here. 

The session was a good one with an impressive array of speakers. It started off with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi. He spoke of the importance of channeling anger into something good. He felt that anger combined with selfishness becomes hatred and violence, but anger with compassion can change the world. 

In a last minute surprise, Chris Anderson showed a prerecorded interview with the Dalai Lama. While I did not hear anything particularly insightful in the interview, it was cool to see and a nice nod on the part of the TED programming staff to the importance of spirituality. I am also amazed that TED now has the gravitas to get an interview with pretty much anyone. 

Aloe Blacc performing from the main TED stage
Aloe Blacc, who we heard at the Top of the Mountain party the previous night, performed on the main TED stage. I again enjoyed his music, but thought it worked even better in the more intimate setting last night. 

Ellen MacArthur spoke about her record-setting, solo sail around the world and how it motivated her to devote herself toward pushing for a more sustainable economy. Sophie Scott did a funny and informative talk on laughter. 

The best talk of the session was by BJ Miller on caring for dying patients. His life was dramatically changed when a stupid prank in college led to his electrocution and subsequent loss of one arm and both legs. Despite that, he became a doctor and has spent his life working in palliative care. He described how hospitals, and medicine in general, are designed for dealing with diseases rather than people. Much of what he said agreed with what I recently read in Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal. Miller's goal in working at Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco is to help redesign how we die. He told movingly of the importance of small things like being able to hold a snowball when confined in a burn clinic. And, the great blessing it can be for folks who cannot even eat to be able to smell fresh cookies. He urged that people might live well in light of death rather than in spite of it. 

The conference concluded with a funny summary by Baratunde Thurston. It is really hard to try to explain or cite what he said. Suffice to say, he managed to do a great job of summarizing an intense week in a funny way that made sense to the people who had been through it. 

Some of the cameras and tech necessary to run TEDActive
It takes a lot of work to pull off a well run conference like TEDActive. I'm grateful to the many folks who made that happen. They allow attendees to spend their time thinking about the talks rather than the common hassles of the day. It has been a good conference and I look forward to the opportunity to attend again next year. 

One final note, they have posted the Monica Lewinsky talk on shame. I would recommend folks to check back on the TED site periodically to see when any of the talks I highlighted of interest to you may appear.

Friday, March 20, 2015

TEDActive 2015 - Day 4

Today was the last full day of the conference. It was both a good day and a rather uneven day. The day included some of the weakest talks of the week as well as the best session. Here is a recap of some of the highlights. 

Sally Kohn wearing her "Choose Gay" T-shirt
The day started off with a session entitled TED You which consisted of speakers on our TEDActive stage. The talks were generally good, but one of them stuck with me. It was by Sally Kohn, a political commentator who has been on both Fox and CNN as well as other outlets. She wore a T-shirt that said "Choose Gay" and discussed the recent controversy around her Washington Post opinion piece where she said that she hoped her daughter would one day choose to be gay. That article earned her objections (and venom) from both the Left and the Right. At one point in her talk, she made a joke about Born Again Christians to the effect that the term showed they hadn't gotten it right originally. Which, of course, is the whole point. I spoke with her briefly afterwards and hoped to talk with her at more length later in the day. I wanted to understand her perspective on Christians better and maybe be one of the only Born Again Christians she had spoken with. Unfortunately, that never happened. Regardless, that kind of interaction is what I like about TEDActive. 

Monica Lewinsky describing her experiences as
a 24-year-old thrown to the media dogs
The next session's title was Just and Unjust and was just amazing. It started with Monica Lewinsky's talk. She described how as a 22-year old she made the mistake of falling in love with her boss. The point of the talk, however, was not about the mistake she made at 22, but what happened after that. She made the case that on a grand scale she became one of the first victims of cyberbullying. She decried the "culture of humiliation" that preyed on her and described how shame has become a profitable industry. The talk was well done, though longer than necessary, and made me think about what might be done to curtail the way the media and people react and humiliate people for whatever real or perceived transgressions they have done. 

Gary Haugen, a human rights lawyer, gave an excellent talk about his contention that the real problem people in poverty struggle with is not the lack of money, but being subject to violence. He contended that "most poor people live outside the protection of the law." He pointed to facts like spending in the third world for private security being as much as seven times the spending on public security (police and so on). His talk was compelling and constructive. As with many of the talks in this session, it left me wanting to do more, but somewhat at a loss about how to do so. 

Jeffrey Brown, a Baptist minister, told of how he and other ministers helped dramatically reduce violent crime in Boston by spending time being with the people inflicting the violence where they were rather than just trying to get them into churches. Alice Goffman told of her experiences living in inner city Philadelphia and the contrast between her education at Penn and the prison education of people in that neighborhood (either by going to prison or having to live their lives in fear of, and actively avoiding, going there). The session also included two excellent performances by Sarah Jones (where she portrays an array of different characters) and Clint Smith (a spoken word performance recounting how his parents had to raise him to keep him from being one of those children shot while carrying a water gun). The whole session caused me to give standing ovation after standing ovation. It was that kind of morning.  

There were other interesting talks later in the day, but none that grabbed me in the same way. Maybe I was just tired. 

The day's talks ended with one on infidelity by Esther Perel. While it sounded like it would be controversial, I didn't think it was. She avowed that she is not in favor of affairs, but as a therapist often must deal with the aftermath of them. She made a number of quotable points like, "Today we divorce not for unhappiness, but be cause we want to be happier." And, "Staying, not divorce, is the new shame." And, that people having an affair are often "not looking for another person, but another self." The talk is well worth listening to when it becomes available given the prevalence of the problem in our society. 

In an odd turn, I think the most religious thing of the day was said by Chris Anderson in introducing an aria from Handel's Messiah rather than by Rev. Brown or any of the other speakers. It was an interesting day. 

Proof that Mark and I speak with other people
The day was not over, however, as there was a Top of the Mountain party afterwards. We took gondolas up one of the ski slopes to a building at the top. While there has not been any snow on the ground in town, there was plenty up the mountain. The rides (both up and down) were quite beautiful and serene. Mark and I talked with the people in our gondola and then continued the conversation with a couple who organize a TEDx conference. We talked with them about Principled Technologies and the book we are working on and even how some day we would love to talk at TED about it. Hey, it is always good to dream! 

2015 Grammy award nominated Aloe Blacc
performing at the Top of the Mountain party
The evening ended with a short concert by Aloe Blacc. I was not familiar with his music and did not expect to like it as he had come from the world of rap. He sang, however, just accompanied by a guitar and I quite liked his music. It made for a pleasant end to a long day. 

On a housekeeping note, Joseph DeSimone's talk on faster 3D printing is now posted. They said during the day that they hoped to have Monica Lewinski's talk posted today. Tomorrow is a short day, so maybe I can begin to try and catch up on some needed rest. It has been a good week. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

TEDActive 2015 - Day 3

My short morning walk from
my hotel to the convention center
It was long day of very good talks followed by dinner with good conversations at TEDActive 2015. While most of the day was indoors, I thought I'd include a picture of the surroundings from my short walk to the conference center in the morning. As the picture shows, the weather is just warm enough that there is not snow on the ground. There is snow on the mountains, so the conference shares the town with lots of skiers. Anyone at TEDActive who is skiing is missing out on the program. 

The day's talks were structured a little differently from the previous day's. There were two sessions of talks in the morning like yesterday's, but in the afternoon, the sessions were TED University and Pop-Up Magazine. TED University is a set of shorter talks by members of the TED community. Of course, that community includes people like Bill Gates and Dan Ariely. 

Pop-Up Magazine is a sort of a live magazine that performs at various venues. It also reminded me a bit of the radio show This American Life. It's format is similar to TED's, but with more emphasis on telling true stories about people. While I quite liked a number of the talks, I felt TED would be better off doing a session of its own than subcontracting to Pop-Up Magazine. 

As was the case yesterday, there were too many talks to do more than highlight some of my favorite ones. 

The first talk was one by cancer researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee on the need for a change in the paradigm of medicine. He argued that since the advent of antibiotics, the paradigm has been to detect a disease and give the patient a pill to kill it. He believes we have reached the end of what that process can do and now we need instead to figure out how we can intervene at the cellular level to encourage the body to heal itself. He views the future of medicine as cells, not pills. He showed some research on how it may be possible to cause our own skeletal stem cells to grow new cartilage and even restore degenerated bones in knees. I want that technology!

Tony Fadell, famous for his work on the iPod and the Nest thermostat discussed product design. He started the talk by examining the little stickers on fruit. Initially, we find them annoying, but fairly quickly we no longer notice them. When designing the first iPod, they decided to spend more time testing them with the side benefit that batteries would be fully charged when someone first opened the box. At the time, that was revolutionary and contributed to the full experience and success of the iPod. Similarly, with the Nest thermostat, the goal was to eliminate the need to program it. There was nothing earth shattering in the talk, but he had some interesting insights. 

Paul Tudor Jones, a billionaire investor, gave a talk on the problem of corporations and the danger of the current "profits mania." He showed some figures regarding the profitability of corporations (the highest in the last 40 years), resulting income inequity (very high and rising), and corporate charitable giving (below 1% of profits and falling). I came away thinking that Mark and I need to get our book published as soon as possible! 

Suki Kim told of her six months as an English tutor in North Korea to the next generation (late-teen boys) of the ruling elite shortly before the death of Kim Jong Il. Her telling of the environment of lies there was fascinating. The students had no exposure to the outside world and everything they knew and were learning was about their amazing leader. What struck me most was at the end of the talk she said that she hoped the young men would not attempt to change things, but would instead "live long, safe lives." That seemed like the wrong choice for them, but isn't that what I and we do in America? The talk left me with much to ponder. 

Steve Silberman gave a captivating talk about autism that shed new light on the topic, at least for me. He contends that at least part of the reason for the supposed increase in autism's incidence is due to Leo Kanner's misrepresentation of the disorder starting in the 1940s rather than Hans Asperger's theory from the same time. This misunderstanding of the disorder coupled with the movie Rain Man and the fraudulent paper about vaccines and autism created the "perfect storm of autism awareness." It would take too much space to follow that train of thought more accurately, but when the video becomes available, it is worth watching. This summary, however, gives some additional details.  

I really enjoyed the music of Rodrigo Y Gabriela. They are a pair of Mexican guitar players who manage to mix traditional Mexican music with percussion and heavy metal on only two acoustic guitars. It was quite amazing and I plan to look more into their music. 

Bill Gates discussing what we learned from
the recent Ebola outbreak and how to do better
There were lots of other noteworthy talks such as Bill Gates on lessons we need to learn for the future from the recent Ebola outbreak. Theaster Gates, a potter, told how he was able to use the arts to repurpose abandoned buildings in Chicago and restore neighborhoods. Dan Ariely shared survey results about how people perceive income inequity (they vastly underestimate it) and what they think it ought to be (much more equitable than they estimate or than it actually is). Maryn McKenna described the very scary prospect of our ever shrinking antibiotic arsenal. Pamela Ronald persuasively argued in favor of genetically modified food. 

Dinner was one where we were forced to meet new people. That is never my strong suit, but I ended up having interesting discussions with a group of people from Switzerland, Canada, and the US. The conversation covered everything from what each of us did for a living, our families, religion, politics, and why none of us ski. It was one of those conversations that I never seem to have except at TED. 

I noticed only one reference to either Mother Nature or God and it was from Chris Anderson who while talking to Pamela Ronald about GMO foods said that many people would argue that you should not tinker with nature because it, "came from God."

One other note before I get ready for the next day of filling up my brain. It looks like they've started putting talks on the TED Web site. David Eagleman's excellent talk on creating new sense is now live. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

TEDActive 2015 - Day 2

Today was the first full day of talks. There were four sessions of about two hours each and they were packed with excellent talks. This was definitely one of those unique-to-TED days where I will be thinking for a long time about all that was said. 

Folks milling about between sessions
Rather than going through each of the talks, here are a few of the highlights. None of the day's talks were bad and most were very good. Even picking the highlights is a tough task. 

David Eagleman showed ways that the human brain can use alternate input devices to perceive the environment around it. He argued that our eyes, ears, nose, and so on are just peripherals and that the brain can learn to use other peripherals as well. He cited research done to help blind and deaf people to use things other than eyes and ears to see and hear. He then showed a vest which could vibrate different areas on his back based on different inputs. Using it, a deaf person was able to correctly identify spoken words with only a few days of use. His belief is that such devices could be used not just for sensory replacement, but sensory enhancements where the inputs could be anything from the stock market to the status of an airplane. He did not explore whether such enhancements would change the definition of what is a human. That is definitely something I will be thinking more about in the future. 

Nick Bostrom gave a sobering talk about the importance of giving future superintelligent computers proper goals. He feels that "we cannot keep a superintelligent genie in a bottle." Once we create such an entity, there will be no stopping it. He views such computers as inevitable and that it is essential that we think carefully about how we want to constrain them. I kept thinking about lots of science fiction I had read in the past and especially about Asimov's three laws of robotics. I definitely need to buy and read Bostrom's book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.

Chris Urmson explaining how the Google car
perceives its surroundings
Chris Urmson, Google's Director of Self-Driving Cars, gave a compelling talk on the future of such vehicles. He feels there is a clear distinction between driver assistance and self driving and that it is not possible for an increasing number of driver-assistance features to eventually become a self-driving car. Instead, you need to approach things differently. He showed a number of examples of how Google's self-driving cars perceive the environment around them. I found this all very exciting and cannot wait to have such a car.  

Anand Giridharadas told a compelling story from his book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, of a shooting of an immigrant, Muslim convenience store clerk in the days after 9/11. I won't recount the story he told, but you must watch the video of his talk when it becomes available. He used the two men in that confrontation to describe two Americas: a Republic of Dreams and a Republic of Fears. He talked of the contrast between people living in a flourishing America and a wilting one. He told how he considers it the moral challenge of his generation to reunite these two Americas, to figure out how we might build a more merciful America. His talk earned my first standing ovation of TED 2015. His book is one more I must read. 

The million-dollar TED Prize went to David Isay of StoryCorps fame. His wish is to expand StoryCorps around the world using mobile phones and apps. I am very excited about the possibilities here and plan to try and use the app myself to record and archive a future conversation about the town I grew up in (Milltown, NJ) with my 91-year-old mother.  

There were many other highlights such as Daniel Kish, a blind man, describing how he "sees" by clicking his tongue and using echolocation to build a 3D map of his surroundings. Or, the young pianist from Bali, Joey Alexander, playing jazz by Thelonius Monk. Or, Alan Eustace recounting his parachute drop from a weather balloon in the stratosphere at a height of over 135,000 feet. Or, Fred Jansen describing the Rosetta project's landing on a comet. Or, Stephen Petranek's telling his reasons for believing we will have a colony on Mars within the next 20 years. There were so many good talks that my brain is about to explode!

The most frustrating talk of the day was Donald Hoffman's. He was attempting to explain, or maybe explain away, consciousness. That is an admittedly hard task that many have failed at. As best I could understand, his basic premise is that humans' ability to perceive reality is flawed because of the evolutionary process which created our ability to perceive reality. He made broad philosophical statements like, "Space-time and objects are not reality." He used the example of an Australian beetle which looks for the color brown with small dimples to identify its mate. Unfortunately, a popular beer bottle in Australia has the same characteristics and the beetles were unsuccessfully attempting to mate with the bottles. The beetle's limited perception was not reality. He then used computer models to show that evolution favors such simplifications of reality over reality. Thus, humans are not perceiving reality. I realize that short description is not doing his argument justice, but I found so many flaws/leaps of faith in his reasoning that I came away very frustrated by what he said. Despite that frustration, his talk was one which forced me to think (and still is). 

One thing I am always struck by at TED is the almost fanatical avoidance of referring to God. In today's talks, I counted two references to Mother Nature and only one to God. I don't think I will ever understand why attributing things to Mother Nature seems more acceptable than God. For example, David Eagleman said, "We are no longer subject to Mother Nature's peripherals." The one God reference was when a speaker responded to a question by saying, "God only knows." Amen. 

One additional side note, in previous years one or more of the talks from each day have been posted on TED's Web site. So far, I have not seen any of them on the site, so I've not been able to point to any of them. We'll see if that changes as the week progresses. 

The only evening event was ice skating which was not hard to resist. It was nice to get to bed early--I need the sleep! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

TEDActive 2015 - Day 1

This year marks my 8th TEDActive conference. It turns out that very few other people have been at all of the TEDActive conferences—I was one of only a handful of people left standing as the host Kelly had returning attendees stand and then sit as she increased the number of previous conferences people had attended.

The new open venue in Whistler
TEDActive, in the ski resort town of Whistler, Canada, is a sister conference to the main TED a couple hours away in Vancouver. The attendees here tend to be younger and, well, more active. (Yes, I’m one of the handful of geezers!) There are about 650 folks at TEDActive that watch the same TED talks as the main gathering via satellite. At one time, I thought of this gathering as just the overflow from TED, but it has grown to be its own community. I now prefer being here and have said I would not go to the main conference except as a speaker. (Hey, I can dream!) 

I come here every year primarily to have the TED talks force me to think. And, not just think, but to make me question and test my thinking in new ways. I do my best to attend all of the talks and even try to speak to some of the many interesting attendees.

Mark and I arrived late Sunday night (12:30am local time) after a long day of travel. I was even more tired than usual as I had only arrived in Raleigh on Thursday evening from Susie’s and my trip to Spain and Morocco. Fortunately, the first day of TEDActive did not really get started until the afternoon.

This year's goody bag from Moleskine and its contents
Before the sessions began I registered and got to see what was in my goody bag. The bag itself was a nice one from Moleskine, but nothing in the bag itself was particularly exciting. I’ll try out the odd Hickies alternative laces for sneakers and maybe some of the Websites like Donors Choose. I miss the gadgets from previous years, but at least this year’s items will not be too hard to transport home.

The first pair of sessions were short talks from TED Fellows. Many of them were interesting and engaging, but none really grabbed me. The TED Fellows presenting were from all over the world. The one that stood out to me was eL Seed, a graffiti artist who uses ornate and beautiful Arabic script in his work. He started in Morocco and I could see the relationship between his art and the intricate Arabic script woven into the architecture of many of the old buildings I recently saw while there. 

Kelly and Jay lead some opening activities
from the TEDActive stage
The first and only real session of the day had a set of very good talks, though none earned my first standing ovation of the conference. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian Prime Minister, spoke about the future of geopolitics in light of the rise of China. Foreign policy strategist David Rothkopf looked at the political challenges facing America (and the rest of the world) due to political inaction and the conflict between politics and science/technology. There were cool future tech demos of very fast 3D printing (a couple orders of magnitude faster than my printer) and the ability of sophisticated software to reproduce sound from video of objects (like a bag of chips) that vibrate due to sound waves. The band Moon Hooch made me want to hear more of their odd combination of jazz and dance music. Finally, the performance artist Marina Abramovic gave an quirky, but ultimately thought provoking talk. I've never really been a fan of performance art and hers seemed similar to others I had read about. Her personal telling of these performance pieces did make me think more about the role of performance art. She finished by having each of us find someone we did not know and stare into their eyes for two minutes. It was uncomfortable, but I am still thinking about the exercise hours later. 

At the evening party, I spoke with some interesting folks while foraging over odd food. Suffice to say, despite hearing from some folks that poutine is amazing, I thought it was horrible and could not get the taste out of my mouth! Regardless, it was a good start to TEDActive 2015 and I look forward to the next several days.