Friday, April 28, 2017

TED 2017 - Day 4

Waiting in line for the session to start
Thursday was another long day with yet more surprisingly nice weather here in Vancouver. There were more talks than in previous days, because many of them were shorter. There were some good ones, but it was still less engaging than Tuesday. Of course, I'm also getting more tired every day! To try and catch up, I'm only going to mention ones that were significant to me in one way or another. 

Robert Sapolsky started the day and did his talk via telepresence. It was primarily a remote camera trained on Sapolsky speaking from an area set up to look similar to the TED stage. His slides displayed right next to him and you quickly stopped noticing he was not actually here. He gave a fascinating look at the factors causing a hypothetical act of violence. He started from the brain chemicals a second before the attack and went back over longer and longer periods of time, ultimately back to decades earlier and the brain changes that can happen in a mother's womb. His conclusion was that it's complicated and we need to be humble about judging people's behavior. I don't know as that he solved anything for me, but it was very interesting. I may need to add to my burgeoning reading list his upcoming book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. 

Levon Biss showed his amazing photos of insects. He creates super high resolution images using a painstaking process that involves very precise lighting and camera movement followed by more work to stitch the many pictures together. He calls the result microsculpture. The resolution of the images is high enough to allow pictures to be printed ten feet tall (or taller) and displayed in museums. Go to his Web site and check out the images. You can zoom in, somewhat like you might with Google Earth. You may have to wait briefly for the image to redraw in the new resolution, but it is worth spending a little time playing with them. 

Elizabeth Blackburn described her life's work with Telomeres (for which she received a Nobel Prize in 2009). Telomeres are at the ends of chromosomes and are essential to keeping them intact. Telomeres shorten with age in most creatures, except for some pond scum she used in her research. In her wonderfully understated way, she told of more recent work looking into how a person's response to stress determines rate of telomere decline. She interestingly used the term healthspan, rather than lifespan which a couple other speakers also used later. Her book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, sounds like another one worth buying.

Richard Browning told about his attempt to use small (relatively) jet thrusters on his body to fly like Ironman. He showed some footage of his attempts, both failed and successful. Because this is TED, he demoed it on the patio outside the building during lunch. Here is a some video I took of him. Not exactly Ironman, but still pretty cool (and very loud).

During the first afternoon session, Helen Pearson talked about the longest running, large-scale human development study in the world. It started in 1946 with about 15,000 children born during a single week throughout the UK. They added new cohorts to the study every decade or so while continuing to follow up each of the earlier ones. Pearson described some of the fascinating discoveries from the resulting massive amount of data. She gave a couple of big conclusions--don't be born into poverty and parents really matter. She also had some interesting small ones like consistent bedtime routines were correlated with better outcomes. 

Susan Pinker decided to study the elderly on the island of Sardinia because it is one of the only places in the industrialized world where men and women live to about the same age. Her conclusion was that social isolation, much more common in men, is most of the reason. She cited other studies of factors predicting long healthy life which showed the importance of social interaction in long healthy lives. (Interesting side note: getting vaccinated for the flu was a better predictor of long life than exercise!) While I wish she'd backed up her conclusions better, much of what she said rang true and seemed worth looking into further. 

Adam Alter looked at the problems of our current screen (phones, tablets, computers, and TVs) addiction. He told an interesting anecdote of Jobs responding to a journalist's question about whether his kids loved the iPad by saying that he did not allow them to use them. One of the interesting points he made was about what he called stopping cues. Basically, we used to have naturally stopping points in our screen usage such as the end of a TV show. With streaming services, the next episode just automatically starts. Our social media feeds never actually end. We can scroll down forever in Facebook. Games have gone from turn based to continuous with no real way to "win" and thus stop. (That was my example, not his.) Some possible solutions he mentioned were things like no screens at meals. I think I need to incorporate into my life the practice of disallowing phones at meals. He also mention ed that one company was deleting emails to folks who were out of the office rather than holding them for their return. I don't think I'm ready to do that yet!

Ashton Applewhite describing the prevalence of ageism
The final session of the day was a good one. One of the talks that I found surprisingly good was Ashton Applewhite's on ageism. She interspersed humor with facts and insights. She quipped that she would no longer say her knee hurt because it was old. After all, the other knee is the same age! (Not sure if that helps if both knees hurt.) I was aware of the issues in the tech industry where older folks (40s and up) are getting laid off and having trouble finding work. The common wisdom is that only younger folks have fresh ideas and energy. Applewhite argued that instead age should be a criterion of diversity. I'm not sure if my age influenced my opinion of her talk, but I think her points are valid regardless. Maybe I don't need Blackburn's book and should just buy Applewhite's, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. My real answer will be to buy both. Actually, I already did.

Emily Esfahani Smith gave an excellent talk that ultimately left me dissatisfied. She posed the common question, "Is this all there is?" Investigated what psychology, philosophy, and literature have to say about this. She said, "Problem is not a lack of happiness, but a lack of meaning." She saw four pillars to building a life of meaning: Belonging (to people not organizations), Purpose (using your strengths for others), Transcendence (feel connected to a higher reality), and Story telling (the narrative you create of your life). The odd thing to me were the mental gymnastics she had to go through to leave religion out, especially since she mentioned that she grew up in a Sufi family. I may need to buy her book to understand better how she addresses this issue, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. 

Manoush Zomorodi also spoke on the danger of screens. (I think I'm detecting a theme here.) She noted that only drug dealers and technologists call their customers users. She pointed out that multi-tasking is really just rapidly shifting between tasks and the cost of shifting is expensive for our brain. She claimed that being bored is our default mode and is healthy and spurs creativity. Screens consume that boredom time and rob us of creativity. She tried a week-long experiment with a bunch of her followers. They took different steps in giving up their screens to see how it affected their lives. Many folks described doing this in terms that sounded like those of an addict and the time they reclaimed as liberating. The actual results in terms of time on their devices was not as encouraging. However, I definitely need to figure out how to do better job of putting limits on my screen usage. 

Shah Rukh Kahn, the world's best lover?
The oddest talk of the day was that of Shah Rukh Khan, a 51-year-old movie star (his own description) with over 100 Bollywood movies to his credit. He said that everyone assumes he is the world's best lover and he didn't go out of his way to deny it. It was really difficult to decide whether he was serious or gently poking fun at himself. Or both. 

It is hard to think of an American equivalent of Khan. There were more than 100 (mostly Indian) fans outside the TED venue hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Plenty of other stars are at TED. One of those is a handsome young actor who has been on a top-rated TV drama for a few years. I told my daughter he was at TED and she practically swooned. But, I walked back to my hotel behind him and no one so much as waved. There is obviously something special about Khan. I think the main reason Khan spoke was because he is starting a TED TV show in India. None-the-less, it was fascinating to learn about someone that famous of whom I had barely heard. 
A beautiful evening for an outdoor party

David Whyte, the English poet of Irish extraction, ended the session. He told a story about meeting his recently college-graduated daughter (also at the conference) at the end of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This walking pilgrimage in northern Spain was featured in the movie (The Way) I watched a few years ago. (Unnecessary aside: It appears you can do this on a bicycle. That is very tempting.) He then recited a poem of this meeting. Whyte's voice is such that anything would sound wonderful, but his poetry seemed very repetitive to me. Maybe his goal was to have me long for the end as one on the pilgrimage might. I will admit that I have never been a fan of poetry. 

The day ended with a party on the patio and in a series of tents. The food was good and I talked to a couple people, but I was too tired to do more than a superficial conversation. Earlier in the day, however, someon"e told me they like my "Principles over Profits" T-shirt and asked where he could get one. I told him to check out

TED has posted a few videos from talk earlier in the week (fewer than in previous years). Two were from the same session on Tuesday, Serena Williams and Pope Francis and one was of Lisa Genova's Wednesday talk on Alzheimer's (it was a well done, but the folks at TED must have liked it better than I did!)

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