Friday, April 20, 2018

TED 2018 - Days 4 & 5

It has taken me a few days to get over my TEDache (a combination of a brain too full of new thoughts and exhaustion). I finally felt up to putting together this final entry based on my notes from Friday and Saturday. Worth noting, I've never been a good note taker. Some of my favorite sparse entries describing talks included "Crazy flying lady," "I'm 18 and I understand AI," "Born in Korea, raised in Argentina, educated in US, whatever," and "Hip hop meets indigenous peoples--too bad." Suffice to say, there were plenty of things I'm not going to bother to write about!

TED fills both your brain and belly 
You should definitely keep an eye on TED as they post more videos from the conference. I just looked and saw that they posted Robin Steinberg's talk on the problems with our current bail system and how she plans to change it and Zachary Woods' one on the importance of listening to people you disagree with. I also found the other Audacious Project videos including GirlTrek's. I plan to see how I can support at least the second one. These videos are ones well worth watching.  

The last day and a half were fairly dreary days with plenty of rain and cooler temperatures. The sessions were good, but my exhaustion and the weather seems to have affected my mood. I moved my flight home a day earlier. I couldn't wait to get home and have a little time to rest and digest all that I'd heard. 

There were some great quotes from the sessions that I have to call out. Dylan Marron told of his attempts to reach out the writers of Internet hate responses to him and stated, "Empathy is not endorsement." Chetna Gala Sinha who started a bank for poor women in rural India said, "Never provide poor solutions to poor people." Both are lines I plan to use in the future.   

Lots of folks put off spending their TED coin
The first Friday session was called Insanity. Humanity. Three of the talks stood out to me. One of those was James Bridle who told about the many egg opening videos with millions of views on Youtube, mostly by children. He also showed another vast array  of "finger family" videos based on a silly song. The number of videos and views is mind boggling. The videos are not so much troublesome in and of themselves as they are really boring and innocuous. The reason for the views is machine learning recommendations. As Bridle put it, "machine learning is just software we don't understand how it works." Though he spoke only about Youtube, he believes the issue is much broader. I feel sorry for my grandson because we will be cutting back his Youtube watching!

Emily Levine gave an entertaining talk that started out by telling us that she had cancer. She said reassuringly, "Fortunately, my cancer is like the Democratic leadership, not very aggressive." Her talk covered lots of ground and included fun lines like, "I don't have goals, just fantasies--they are similar, but a lot less work." Her attitude toward her mortality was refreshing and I hope that I am half as funny as she was if I manage to live to be her age!

Frances Frei is Harvard Business School professor who specializes in trust. As a result, she did a short stint with Uber to help them restore the trust of their employees and customers. She explained that trust has three components: authenticity, logic, and empathy. She gave some simple ways to restore each of those components such as empathy by not looking at your cellphone, logic by starting with your point rather than rambling, and authenticity by being yourself. Hers was a talk I need to rewatch and think about how to incorporate elements of it in my life and work.

The Latin fusion group LADAMA performing
Body electric was the title of second morning session and included a number of good talks as well as a fun performance by the female Latin group LADAMA. 

Mary Lou Jepsen talked about her work on low cost (and small compared to current MRI machines) brain scanning using the translucency of our bodies (hold a bright flashlight to the palm of your hand and note the red light that gets through) and some magic with holograms. She also brings lots of experience in building low cost devices. If she pulls this off, the changes would be enormous.

In one of the more exciting and scary talks of the conference, Dan Gibson described his work on printing (he called it teleporting) vaccines and other drugs. The device which does this is relatively small (think large desk size) and will shrink as the technology develops. Basically, you send a file with the genetic sequence to his device and a couple days later you have a vaccine. Or drug. Or virus to kill everyone on the planet. (OK, he didn't talk about the last one, but obviously, this technology could be misused.) The ability to quickly get a vaccine to a remote corner of the globe is exciting as is the ability to produce vaccines without using the current antiquated technique of growing it in eggs. The possibilities and possible abuses are ones to be excited by and wary of.

Along the same line, but a little less exciting/scary was Floyd E. Romesberg. His told of his work in adding additional letters to the existing four (CGAT) bases of DNA. His team created semi-artificial life with DNA containing what he referred to as bases X and Y. The ability to synthesize different amino acids, and thus proteins, than what can be done with the existing bases opens a lot of possibilities.

Al Gore sharing the current state of the battle
against climate change
Mark and I attended a lunch by the Climate Reality Project which featured Al Gore. He gave plenty of harrowing information about changes in the world's climate as well as some encouraging signs brought on largely by the changing economics of rapid technological advances in things like solar and wind power, electric vehicles, and energy storage.

We also went to a workshop on impromptu speaking. The moderator made some good points. She felt that the term impromptu should be a misnomer as you should always speak to what you know. You should use whatever time you can to prepare, even if that is only the time it takes to walk from your seat to the podium. During that time, you should decide where you are going to go with what you say and pick the organizational strategy to get there. 

The late afternoon session was Personally speaking and, indeed, they were largely personal talks. Three of them stood out to me.  

Chetna Gala Sinha told of her experiences in rural India. When banks refused to help women looking to save small amounts of money, she stepped in and tried to open a bank for them. When the banking authorities refused because the women could not read, she helped them learn how to read. The results of her (and the women around her) efforts in the face opposition are an inspiration to anyone looking to fight against the status quo.

Jason B. Rosenthal is the husband of the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal whose touching essay, You May Want to Marry My Husband, went viral last year. His talk was an equally touching tribute to his wife and the love they shared. It was not quite a tearjerker for me, in part because he came across as so well composed. I'm pretty sure he will have no trouble finding women who want to marry him!
Oskar Eustis is the director of New York's public theater and was one of the driving forces behind bringing Hamilton to the world. He explained how he sees theater and democracy as intimately linked as they have been since Greece invented both over 2,500 years ago. He told fun Joe Papp stories and came across as the erudite, entertaining speaker I would expect him to be. He also seemed very much the elitist theater insider. Near the end of his talk, however, he destroyed that notion. He lamented that theater has "turned its back on a large part of the country." Rather than American theater being the province of the coastal elites, he argued that to fulfill its role it must reach the whole country. I came away impressed with him and hopeful that he is able to see his plans come to fruition.

The final session on Saturday morning was titled What matters. I had to leave before the end as I moved my flight a day earlier to get home sooner.

I was particularly struck by the talk by Gary Liu, CEO of the South China Morning Post. He told stories of how technology is transforming China, in ways both good and bad. For example, technology is helping make easier the vast migration of hundreds of millions of Chinese city dwellers to their rural villages for New Year's. He told how the government is adding facial recognition to 170M closed circuit cameras. Liu described Taobao villages--rural communities where at least 10% of their income is from online sales. Because this is China, this has caught on and there are now over 2100 such communities. He also told of 55M rural students in really small schools that are now able to stream classes. In many ways, China is leapfrogging the US in its use of technology. And, bringing online the remaining 600M people will probably lead to even more innovation.  
Chris Anderson conducted an engaging interview with Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix. Hastings related lots of inside nuggets of info about Netflix such as spending $100M for the initial season of House of Cards and investing $8B in content in 2018. He told about how he loves the competition of business and relishes the challenge of trying to beat Disney and HBO. 
I'll close my commentary of TED 2018 with an experience from the Friday night party that made a strong impression on me. In many ways, it summed up what the TED conference is for me. Mark and I sat at a table with a man and a woman who we did not know and did not know each other. The conversation turned to our contention TED is a reflective bubble where people tend to reinforce each other's opinions and not be open to dissenting ones. The man said that he disagreed. 
We discussed a video, which the other people had not noticed, shown before one of the sessions the day before that had some disturbing (at least to me) images depicting Jesus in very unflattering ways. I said that I did not think such images would be used about Islam or other groups. He then spewed a bunch of expletives while contending that such treatment was appropriate. (My snarky side wanted to shout to the avowed liberal that he owed me a trigger warning!) He was at least consistent in that he thought all religions should be disrespected in such ways. He felt his tone was appropriate because of what he had experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church and because he was Italian and that was how he was. After some further conversation he came to the conclusion that it was acceptable to insult anyone in power, but not those that were not. He left shortly afterwards. 

We talked a bit more with the woman in a much friendlier vein. When she had to leave, she came over to me and was very kind. She said some encouraging words and told me to keep speaking out. In those two people is the spirit of TED. And, possibly of discourse in America. I just hope her tone wins out. 

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