I’m a member of a cult. It’s true. It’s a non-religious one though and mostly composed of left-wingers but make no mistake, we have cult-like tendencies. This is my annual report on the hijinx in Long Beach at the TED Conference. The name means Technology Entertainment and Design. This year it could well have used the letter ‘A’ as well because there was a heavy emphasis on the arts. Like most topics at TED the arts come freighted with political and social import. Each year there is prizewinner who is given a hundred grand and the platform to make a wish. These wishes don’t include having the Budweiser girls dance at your summer BBQ (Yes I’m talking to you, Kelly) but are more like Jamie Oliver’s wish from last year that “Every child be taught to cook in school.” Of course this is simply ha-larious. Take it from me kids, cooking can only be done by experts in elaborately equipped gigantic factories. Plus you need packaging, trucks, advertising and lawyers. No. Food preparation is not for amateurs.
This year’s prizewinner, JR, had a much more down to earth idea. Go into ghettos and politically charged environments and rumble. JR is a 26-year-old Parisian street artist who gave up the spray can to travel with a small band of outlaws to very troubled cities to shoot people. It’s true. JR favors a very short barrel so he has to creep close to his quarry and from a couple of feet…aims and blam! He has their picture. He then takes these images and blows them up to billboard size and pastes them like wallpaper on the favelas in Rio, or ‘The Wall’ in Palestine or a desperate street in India. The idea is to involve the inhabitants in their neighborhoods and their very lives. He explains it far better than I can but, trust me, this guy has the magic; just look him up. “Stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project & together we’ll turn the world inside out.” This is JR’s wish. 1930’s movie theaters in the Mission in the City and JR’s team has expressed interest in doing a project there. insideoutproject.net
TED is a five-day gab fest with about 70 speakers discussing everything from astrophysics and neuropathology to how very, very wrong that person was who last year promoted that vastly increased video gamesmanship as a way to save society.
Some of the most unlikely characters speak such as Mohamed Nanabhay, head of Al Jazeera, the once reviled Arabic news agency…now, not so. He was as relevant as the CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooya, was ill-advised. She seemed like a perfectly nice person and a capable CEO as she told us about the good works Pepsi is doing to help the disadvantaged. What she didn’t mention was that most of what Pepsi sells is child-blimping sugar water and meatless taco meat. Well no one is perfect but some product lines are less perfect than others.
We saw the stunning pictures of Paul Nicklen, the soft-spoken National Geographic photographer who encountered the extraordinarily vicious leopard seal under the ice in the south polar sea. Leopard seals have been know to crash through several feet of ice to eat people right down to and even including their boots, except this seems to be unsubstantiated. Paul showed us pictures of the encounter he had of the repeated attempts by the toothy 12-foot seal trying to feed him like your granny stuffing you with pabulum (but made out of penguins).
At TED we don’t just sit in comfy chairs like a bunch of smug over-achieving fat cats (OK there is a lot of that) but we also powwow in the social spaces. Myself, I am sometimes mistaken for someone of consequence (a rumor that has got about) to my perennially startled amusement. At one point I was talking about the future of the internet to a fellow who turned out to be the Steven Bratt, the CEO of the World Wide Web Foundation at M.I.T. He said he found my ideas compelling and brought over his associate to participate in the conversation. I found myself laying out the future of the WWW to Tim Burners-Lee, the guy who invented it. Yoohoo, people, I sell pancakes…professionally.
Speaking of food, the wacky and wise Nathan Myhrvold (ex-CTO at Microsoft) unveiled his $500 – 50 pound cookbook where he teaches us how to cook an egg in about 4 hours. But that egg is perfect. Nathan built a lab and has dissected the act of food preparation into its most basic components and then puts it all back together. This is an excellent how-to guide for sawing a remarkable amount of cooking equipment into twain to demonstrate the action inside. After sawing down the middle of a commercial convection oven he commented gleefully that the great thing about cutting machines in half is that you’ve got 2, count em, 2 halves. The man is a mad genius.
Deb Roy had a fascinating study on the formation of language. Using the ultimate nannycam he put cameras in every room of his house and taped the first 60,000 hours of the growing up process of his son. Deb was able to record the development of every word his son learned and how it happened. The camera tracked all the kid’s movements as well as those of the rest of the family. Brave New World you say? Well get-a-grip. Privacy is soooo 2003. Really, Deb’s study is quite a revelation but please watch the swearing around the kid will ya?
Morgan Spurlock depressed me with his presentation. Now, Morgan is a documentary film burner who made Super Size Me about his 30-day sentence at McDonalds. He has made a new film titled The Best Movie Money Can Buy. This is the tale of Morgan transparently selling product placement as the sole purpose of his documentary. He was able to get some sponsors though most (like PepsiCo) preferred not to join in. This is because (like the cigarette ads which show the young and pretty 20 somethings laughing and cavorting) they really sell addiction and death. Transparency is … err…hard for some companies. The depressing part of his talk (which will seen by millions) was that the very presentation itself was auctioned to a sponsor and someone bought the naming rights to: Some Damn Co. presents Morgan Spurlock. I actually forgot the name of the firm that bought it but it sold for 7,200 bucks which about what I pay my boat boy to polish the cleats on my yacht for a week.
Long Beach is a strange venue but the town is certainly glad to have us. The downtown looks peppy enough but a couple of blocks off the main drag reveals a business community that reminds me of Detroit but with better weather. The Long Beach airport buildings appear to be made of bolted together trailers and we quaintly wandered across the tarmac and actually climbed up and down stairs from our plane like Richard Nixon visiting Liberia. But Long Beach has its special charms. It is one of the few cities to feature a Seven Eleven with four working oil wells in the parking lot. A hundred years ago this area was the biggest oil producer in the world. It still smells like the whole town is being reroofed.
Bill Gates introduced a man he thinks is pretty hot stuff, Salmon Kahn, who founded the Kahn Academy. Sal is a Bay Area guy who gave up his servitude in the hedge fund mines to present short, simple online videos teaching all sorts of subjects. He started with math but has moved into economics and physics. It is his theory that lectures should be seen at home and that the homework is better being done in class. I think he might do to American education what Netflix did to Blockbuster. He has personally created 2,100 videos with 40,670,660 lessons delivered as of his speech. The Los Altos School Distinct has a pilot project using his teaching tools. Bill says Sal is the most important educator he has ever met.
Most of the talks are 18 minutes but some are just 3 like the one from the guy who told us about being on the jet that landed in the Hudson. He could see the river coming on fast and was sure that it was the end. But it wasn’t. His takeaway was: don’t put anything off because tomorrow can arrive unexpectedly…or not (I must finish Remembrance of Things Past, tonight!)
Some talks come with vivid demonstrations like that of the Handspring Puppet Company. These stage crafters built a lifelike full-sized horse with three actors inside it for a London (coming to New York) play called War Horse. You can see the puppeteers standing below the cane and leather puppet but in an instant you are made to see the horse as real or even more than real.
Reality is blurred once again when you hear about the advances in medicine such as the artificial human bladder the surgeon Anthony Atala printed on a modified dot matrix desktop printer and implanted in a teenage boy. It is still working after several years and the doctor is now printing kidneys, which are in a test phase.
TED is about the strange and transcendent. Strange is the savant Daniel Tammet who you can see a good deal of on youtube. He is best known as having recently recited, from memory, 22,514 digits of pi. Let me try… is it 3.141 or is it 3.414? Daniel also has synesthesia. This is a rare condition where the senses get scrambled. He can hear colors and smell sounds. Hey, I went to Berkeley in the 60’s. We could all do that then.
Stanley McChrystal the commander in the Middle East was with us and he told us what a good soldier he was but failed to mention his ill timed Rolling Stone interview in which he dissed the Commander-in-Chief and got tossed out on his keester. I was sitting right next to Gavan Newsom who diplomatically withheld comment. Julie Taymore was a refreshing contrast to Stanley. She headed up the disastrous Spiderman musical and she made reference to it with grace and humor. Even though this project hasn’t worked out so well she was the creative force behind the Lion King and I expect her to come roaring back in her next chapter.
My favorite presenters are the artists like Eric Whitace. He is a composer and a conductor who gave us Lux Aurumque. Here he assembled 185 singers from 12 countries to sing his choral work, virtually, then cut all them together and mapped each singer’s video on the screen. Since then he has done another video with 2,000 singers revolving slowly in giant spheres. It is spookily like the 22nd century.
22-year-old Sarah Kay brought us back to the present with her a-mazing slam poetry about growing up in New York with street smarts and a good attitude. She was my favorite of all the stage jockeys. You can finder her at http://blog.ted.com/2011/03/18/if-i-should-have-a-daughter-sarah-kay-on-ted-com/
Another artist was Homaro Cantu. He works in food at Moto in Chicago. This is America’s answer to El Bulli, in Spain, so it really isn’t food so much as theatrical gastronomy. I think I know where the other half of Myorvald ’s oven went. Here is a restaurant guy who isn’t concerned with nutrition, price, sustainability or practicality. With all that you still can’t get a reservation. Maybe I should try freezing maple syrup in liquid nitrogen. Help, someone call Jamie Oliver!
There are somber topics with hopeful notes such as the Egyptian Google employee who enabled the first wave of the Egyptian revolution. He told the TED crowd that the most remarkable thing about the uprising was that everyone (and no one) were the leaders.
We saw the first public demo of the Bubbli augmented reality application, which creates navigable photos in a bubble shape. Basically, Bubbli enables you to take a series of pictures with your phone camera that shows not just what’s directly in front of you, but also what’s all around, above and below you. Then, other people can navigate the view of the world captured by that ‘bubble’ by holding their own phones in front of them. A frivolous toy? Maybe, but so was Twitter.
Of course there were parties at night and (so unlike high school) I found myself at the cool kids party where I spoke to a couple of guys who told me that their fathers were in a movie together called Don’t Look Back, a long-ago documentary featuring Donovan and Bob Dylan. Oh, man I even have a son named Dylan. Norman Lear showed up; Demi Moore and Aston Kutcher drifted in and it became a real Hollywood scene but with more oil wells in the front yard than you see in Beverly Hills. (Note: They aren’t entirely absent in Beverly Hills by the way. There are producing wells on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. BHHS is floating on it; a fact that is cruelly ironic.)
The TED movement has grown far beyond the confines of Long Beach. In the last couple of years TEDX events have sprung up from Mombasa to Miami. These one-day affairs cost just $100 and follow the same basic format. There are several in the Bay Area throughout the year. Some 1,500 have already happened with another 800 are being planning. There is also a big TED event this summer in Edinburgh Scotland.
People think you have to be invited to go to the main event but this isn’t really the case, though it is generally sold out more then a year in advance. People do get into the French Laundry so you no doubt can come to TED if you are persistent. They let me in and I sell pancakes for a living.
BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS
We have four great books by friends of mine to discuss this month. All these authors have been featured here before with previous books. But because these books don’t have the requisite three-flattering-pages-about-Jamis I don’t actually carry them here but I think, if you are very clever, you can find them.
Overconnected by Bill Davidow (Mohr Davidow Venture Partners cofounder) is a somewhat depressing look at some of the dark consequences the internet can have on economies and political systems. (well I guess it can’t all be The Bernstein Bears Go to Disneyland) The shape and tenor of our interwoven world has basically come to us a compromised collection of default settings and this self assembly doesn’t come with robust failsafe protections. Bill has seen the internet grow from his insider’s point of view and the book is a cautionary tale in a world where unintended consequences are multiplied by ubiquitous connectivity.
In Next Medicine: The Science and Civics of Health Dr. Walter Bortz tells us that our medical system is essentially backwards. We attempt to fix what breaks verses preventing illness. Dr. Bortz should know a thing or two about health as a gerontologist who has gone deep into the subject. The fact is our medical techniques are the envy of the world but the economics and distribution of resources is slipping fast. It isn’t just some arm-chair gabbing either because Wally has made his own life an example of lifelong fitness. In fact, last time I checked he and his wife Ruth Anne had about 60 marathons between them.
Andy Kessler is a funny writer. Breezy and full of pith and vinegar with his up-in-your-grill gonzo journalism. Andy lays out a new manifesto for unleashing entrepreneurial creativity in Eat People. ”Andy is a recovering Wall Street hedge funder who is for, growth for growth sake guy supporting unfettered marketplaces with an unromantic view of government protections to preserve the status quo of ongoing businesses. If they fail, let em go. Andy makes the dismal science of economics lively and with his hilarious push o the pen it goes down easily.
Guy Kawasaki’s Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions examines how to promote your brand in a world of vicious competition and ethical conflicts. Richard Branson say, “Guy’s book captures the importance – and the – art of believing in an idea that delivers something entirely unique to the customer. The power of a really good idea to transform the marketplace and individual customer experiences is huge and this book offers a wealth of insights to help business and entrepreneurs tap into that potential.