Tuesday, March 04, 2008

TED Friday Afternoon: Shining Eyes

Friday afternoon at TED2008 culminated in TED's shining moment...

Jim Macgraff, founder of Livescribe, demonstrated the $149 pen-based computer that his startup will soon launch. Me want! It remembers what you write, along with the concurrent audio. A small, embedded LED display can be used for applications like real time language translation while you write.

Next we heard from author (and former arbitrage trader) Nassim Taleb. Nassim wrote Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan (thank you, Chini, for first introducing me to both those books), each of which explains a common cognitive pitfall in human reasoning. In this talk Taleb discussed Black Swan, a metaphor for the statistical outliers that invariably arise. The point of his book is that some outliers are safe to ignore--a hurricane that disrupts a store's weekend sales, for example, is a one-time event that doesn't threaten a business. But other outliers are too important to ignore--such as the hurricane that actually destroys the store. Too many people congratulate themselves for success, up until the inevitable point that inherent risk catches up with them.

Taleb reminded me of another book which, I think, better portrays the hubris that grips successful risk-takers--When Genius Failed, Roger Lowenstein's true story of Long Term Capital's demise. Eight years ago, at the peak of The Bubble, my partner (and Harvard professor) Felda Hardymon sent this book to me and our other partners at Bessemer as a cautionary tale.

Img_4145Chris Anderson (no relation to the TED curator) came next, sharing his enthusiasm for building cheap Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. His first attempt was a LEGO Mindstorm drone, assembled for $1,000. His second attempt, at a $500 cost, was a model airplane with a cellphone attached that supplied all the electronics for processing, communications and imagery. His latest attempt is a mini-blimp that comes in at a $100 cost.

Professional Optimist Peter Schwartz, who wrote The Long Boom, asserted the contrarian position that in the coming century the world will become a better, safer place to live. The crux of his (un-compelling) argument is that things have to get better this century because there are no world wars brewing, billions of poor Asians are joining the middle class, and the economy should steadily grow as it has over the last century.

Ironically, the very next speaker took the stage to caution us that if we don't aggressively divert our scientific resources toward staving off neurological diseases, that they will reach dangerous, epidemic proportions over the next fifty years (primarily due to longer life spans). In the meantime, while we develop treatments, he advised us to consume caffeine (staves off Parkinson's) and fish (prevents Alzheimer's). He also cautioned us to maintain low blood pressure and to exercise our minds.

Larry Byrnes of General Motors gave a presentation on The Boss, a driverless car that won last year's DARPA challenge. To win, the GM Boss had to navigate to a destination through several miles of real urban streets, complete with complex intersections. One day, cars will not need drivers so we can finally write Blackberry emails without getting so distracted by the road. And oh yeah--no more accidents either.

Former Time Editor Walter Isaacson presented on the future of Narration in the digital age. I recommend you skip this one.

Harvard public health scientist gave a talk on the rise of STD viruses and the measures we can take to curtail them. I'd skip this one, too.

Helen Fisher's book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love must be good because Richard Dawkins endorsed it. Fisher reports the clinical results of brain scans that show similar pathways among those who are in love as those who have just recently been dumped. The conclusion is that the "love chemicals" remain activated for some time after terminating a relationship--in fact they can even strengthen amidst unrequited love.

Other points of interest:
  • the brain regions activated during thoughts of love are the same regions activated during the contemplation of highly risky behavior;
  • a broken heart manifests the same physical symptoms as any other physical addiction; and
  • all animals in the wild (not in captivity) are discriminating in their choice of mate (except perhaps those slutty, cheating crows).http://www.theage.com.au/ffximage/2007/04/27/hawking_wideweb__470x312,0.jpg
X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who took me on a zero-gravity flight last year, shared a slide show of his Zero-G flight with Stephen Hawking.

Author, poet and dissident Chris Abani was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by Nigerian authorities. Some of his childhood tales are too awful to repeat. According to Abani, the Nigerian word for rape and marriage are the same word. Abani also told some wonderful stories about simple acts of kindness.

The last session of the day was the best of TED2008. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, resolved to make every last TED attendee love classical music. He deconstructed a Chopin piece, playing it on the piano as a 7, 8, 9 and 10 year old would, so that we could appreciate the increasing nuance of play. Zander exudes enormous energy and charisma, reminiscent of Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful. As a conductor he assumes the responsibility of energizing his musicians, inspiring them to feel the music. He know he is getting their best only when he sees their shining eyes. Success in life, he shared, "is not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Quickly he warmed up the audience, and handed out lyrics so that soon enough every single person stood up and belted out Ode to Joy in the original German! Everyone loved it--we cheered and danced around as if at a rock concert. There were shining eyes everywhere.

If you watch no other TED session, watch Ben Zander, preferably on a big screen with big-ass speakers. It's the only session that TED Curator Chris Andersen dared not cut off at the 18 minute mark.

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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:26 PM

    Thanks David, I watched the live start to TED and thoroughly enjoyed Dave's Valencia 821, less for the Neil's talk and completely lost the plot with the third prize winner.

    It is great to have some opinions on which talks to watch out for and a few more details on what prensenters focussed on.

    Thnaks for taking the time to write about each day of the conference. I for one really appreciated that almost live loop.

    Go TED