Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Best of TED 2012

Last week I had the good fortune to attend my 6th TED Conference, which promotes Ideas Worth Sharing. The TED Conference features TED Talks (never more than 18 minutes each) and generously shares them for free on Of course, some of the ideas are more worthwhile to share than others, so each year I've followed up here with a guide to which TED Talks are most worthwhile to watch. (I missed about 10% of last week's talks, including the awesome Kathryn Schulz, due to scheduling conflicts.)

The 2012 TED event was more subdued than in past years, with less star power in the speaker lineup and fewer blockbuster talks than in recent years, but still high powered attendees to schmooze with, like Al Gore and Cameron Diaz. The overall quality was still high, with very few stinkers, and the event was enhanced by an awesome floor to ceiling IMAX-like A-V experience, and by the tastiest TED food ever, catered by Wolfgang Puck. Here's a little remix of the week...

As in prior years, I've rated the TED Talks on a scale of one to ten red balloons, with ten being the best. I am embedding links to the talks, as they become available on This year, instead of reporting on the talks chronologically, I present them sorted by ratings...

The 10 BALLOON Talks
Hands down, the best talk this year was from Bryan Stevenson on injustice in the US criminal legal system. For example, the number of prisoners in the last 40 years has grown from 300,000 to 2.3 million (primarily, I believe, due to non-violent drug infractions). One third of young African American men are in prison, on probation or on parole. Ours is the only country in the world that gives life sentences to 13 year olds. As for the death penalty, one out of nine defendants sentenced to death have been exonerated.  in California a billion dollars will be spent defending and executing the death penalty in the next 5 years, although a referendum is on its way to re-direct those funds to police enforcement budgets.

What made the talk great was Stevenson's ability to weave in his personal stories, recounting memories of what it was like to grow up among activists like Rosa Parks. There was so much enthusiasm for Stevenson and his cause that TED Curator Chris Andersen jumped on the occasion to solicit donations for Stevenson's private foundation. Right there many of us stood up and, in aggregate, pledged close to a million dollars!

In another 10 balloon talk, Regina Dugan, head of DARPA, surveyed what we can invent if we refuse to fear failure, and why DARPA is Disneyland for nerds. "We aim to create and prevent strategic surprise." She demonstrated amazing inventions that each followed long strings of failure. She recounted words of encouragement from her mentor at one particularly dark time in her own research: "There is only enough time to iron your cape, and back to the skies for you." She left us with these messages: You have to fly to learn to fly. And be nice to nerds.

University of Pennsylvania's Vijay Kumar demonstrated a swarm of 2 ounce autonomous aerial robots with incredible agility and stability. They autonomously fly through a hoop that itself is flying through the air, and cooperate in building structures and even playing musical instruments. It's not clear what the applications are, but Search-and-Rescue and military reconnaissance seem most obvious.

Normally I don't' rate the little 3 minute talks, the palette cleansers that punctuate the main talks. But Rhapsody founder Rob Reid gave such a compelling presentation of Copyright Math that it warrants a 10 balloon rating. I expect that in response to strong demand, TED will post it for general viewing.


US Poet Laureate Billy Collins: "if at first you don't succeed, hide all evidence you ever tried." This guy is Dr Seuss for grownups.

Atul Gawande spoke on how to fix medicine. He points out that the medical industry was structured around independent practitioners, dating back to when individual doctors could learn and everything one needed to know to treat the few ailments we could cure. But in today's world, there is so much more information constantly generated on new methods and treatments, that good outcomes can come only from collaboration among teams of specialists and information technology.

One of Atul's practical insights is that we can and should apply techniques from the aviation industry to the medical industry, since the aviation industry has been so focused on customer safety around a very complex product. His most compelling prescription so far was The Surgery Checklist, which cuts down complications and deaths from surgery by 30%. Until the talk is posted, you can read more here.

Jim Henson, mid-western professor, on the Greenhouse Effect, which is accelerating - small increases in temperature lead to a chain reaction as the oceans warm and release even more CO2. The consequence in this century will be famines, droughts, tornadoes, lost shoreline and cities. Henson advocates a fee-and-dividend policy to transfer money from CO2-burning companies to citizens.

OK, I'm actually giving 9 red balloons to a dance company. John Bohannon and the Black Label Movement's performance delivers a compelling and moving message to parents that we have to speak openly with our kids about sex and drugs.

In a related talk, Sex Ed Teacher Al Vernacchio delivers a very funny talk on why sex is like pizza, and not at all like baseball.

Andrew Stanton, wrote Finding Nemo, Toy Story, John Carter, many others; told the story of how and why he tells stories. Fun, cleverly recursive (but not appropriate for kids).


Tali Sharot We tend to be optimistic - we are all above average. This optimism is healthy and productive. High expectations drive us. Anticipation of success makes us happy. People prefer Friday to Sunday. strike a balance. stay optimistic but be aware of optimism bias - insure, protect, contingency plans.

Jon Haidt gave a provocative talk on the feeling of transcendence - what is it, how do people attain it, and is it an evolutionary adaptation or bug?

Marco Tempest, an illusionary magician, uses projection and holograph to tell the story of Nikola Tesla.

You never know which TED Talks you're going to like. I wouldn't have guessed that I'd give 8 red balloons to a graphic designer of book jackets. His content was mediocre but the delivery was fabulous.

I also wouldn't have guessed that I would give 8 balloons to Jon Ronson, a writer who tells about his encounters with a psychopath. But he's a great storyteller.

Middle school teacher Rafe Esquith shows what kids can do when you let them be creative. Drawing from his inner city school of non-English speaking students, Esquith's class performs music and Shakespeare at TED. More importantly, they regularly defy the high dropout rate in his school, earning him the president's National Medal of the Arts.

TED Talks are usually self contained, but this year juxtaposed two TED Talks to provoke the question of whether the world is getting better or worse. Paul Gilding argues convincingly that a global crisis of resource shortages is inevitable - governments will collapse. But Paul Diamandis, the optimist, expects exponentially accelerating technology to fuel an abundance of energy and education abundance.

In the back and forth that followed on stage, Chris Andersen told Diamandis, "your hope is undermining Paul's fear of crisis, so nothing will get done!"


Donald Sadoway, MIT Professor, on building utility scale batteries to make renewable energy practical. Chose hot liquid magnesium and ammonia, because "If you want to make something dirt cheap, make it out of dirt." He and his students started LMBC to develop the tech into 2M KW/hr batteries two years from now. (Until then utilities can use Extreme Power's utility scale batteries.)

Jim Stengel: Ideals in business help business - workers bring their whole selves.

IDEO founder David Kelley promotes creative confidence. Evoking the message of Sir Ken Robinson, Kelley asks us to restore our juvenile comfort creating art. He offered up a great example of creativity in the workplace - he helped redesign an MRI machine into a pirate ship so that kids wouldn't need sedation to use it!

Columbia University physicist Brian Greene updates us on cosmology - string theory, multiverse, multi-dimension. Unoriginal but clear.

Awele Makeba delivers a stirring, inspirational talk on African American history.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas surveyed the history and evolution of classical music. Fun, but he's no Ben Zander.

Peace activist Leymah Gbowee talks about her work in Liberia promoting education for girls that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tight-rope walker Philippe Petit (from Man On Wire) entertains us with his story of a lifetime of antics.


Sherry Turkle on the problem of inattentiveness and isolation from overuse of devices, such as texting during the board meeting. The Goldilox Effect is that we want people connected, but not too close. When we get to edit all our social interactions, we get to delete and retouch, controlling what we say. SO WHAT???

Turkle laments that technology immersion "compromises our capacity for self reflection" We feel that no one is listening to us. (What about all our followers and friends?) "I share therefore I am." She asserts that we should think about how we use our devices to really get us where we want to be. 

The legendary Steve Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein delivered a disappointing Socratic dialogue on the impact of Reason vs Emotion. It covered some interesting philosophies, but it was scattered, contrived and not at all Socratic.

School teacher Aaron Ready talks about ways that we can test evolutionary theory without waiting a million years.

Journalist Josh Foer told the story of how he reported on a Memory Tournament, only to enroll himself, and to win! This would have been an 8 or 9 balloon talk if it were told in 6 minutes instead of 18.

Karen Bass, earth photographer, managed to photograph the never before seen tongue action of a newly discovered bat in Ecuador.

Author Kate Messner shares part of her methodology for writing fiction - how she models new worlds for Eye of the Storm and other kids' novels.

Middle-school teacher Angie Chaloux Miller reflects on her life, and the importance of remembering our true, faulty selves, rather than idealized versions.

Susan Cain, corporate lawyer, asks schools, work, family to value INTROVERTS like Wozniak, Charles Darwin, Gandhi, Abe Lincoln and Susan Cain. And also Jesus and Moses. Huh?



T. Boone Pickens: the US spends $7 trillion a year, including military costs, on OPEC oil. As a matter of national security we need to wean our country from this. Natural gas is clean, abundant, and ours. Natural gas is the bridge fuel. "I don't have to worry about a bridge to where, at my age."

Cesar Kuriyama made a film concatenating one second from every day of his life for the last year.

Sharon Beals, birds nest researcher and photographer.

Jared Ficklin performed some cool pyro tricks on stage.

Henrik Scharfe built a robot that looks exactly like him. Exactly. I would be surprised if anyone has ever before built a robot/android with such a human likeness.

Wade Davis on conservation in British Columbia.

Liz Diller shared her design for accessorizing the Hirschhorn Museum in DC with a big bubble.


Julie Burstein talks about the source of creativity.

Tom Campbell is "a professional art historian." Somehow in 18 minutes he managed to complete a single 3 hour sentence.

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