Saturday, March 01, 2008

TED Friday Morning: Music, Shrooms and Crows

A work-related call kept me from Friday's first TED session, which I had thought was author Amy Tan. Unfortunately the speaker I missed was actually John Knoll, co-inventor of Photoshop and ILM's visual effects wizard behind several Star Wars and Pirates of the Carribean films. Everyone loved it. Damn! I'll have to watch the DVD.

Designer Yves Behard promoted the integration of product architecture, design and marketing. Regarding his jawbone bluetooth earpiece: "If it isn't beautiful it doesn't belong on your face." (Then how do you explain my nose?) Yves also co-designed the $100 Laptop, a climate-resistant, wireless, multimedia , brightly colored laptop-on-a-string. Yves talked about his packaging of the NYC Condom (tagline: "Get Some"), as well as Y water, a healthy kids' drink packaged in a creative toy.

Robert Lang is a mathematician and origami artist. This was a fascinating talk--a definite highlight of the day. Origami was once a cute little art, but in the last century it has been changed qualitatively by mathematicians like Lang.

Lang showed how the development of a formal language for describing the folds of a paper and Euclidean-like rules have created a rich platform for people to build creations upon creations, "putting dead people to work for you." four simple rules yield valid origami (the specific rules went by too fast for me, but they have to do with the size of folds, the intersections of lines, the ability to maintain a 2-color map, and the sums of the various angles). With this basis in place, complexity emerged from the system in beautiful, incredible ways (photos show three sculptures, each folded from a single sheet of paper). Lang has even developed a CAD tool that renders any two dimensional stick figure drawing into a single sheet origami, making complex structure easy and limitless.

The punch line is that the mathematics developed for origami has in fact turned out to apply to medicine, electronics, and space exploration. Origami was used to design an air bag, as well as a heart stent that travels unfolded through the arteries and then unfolds at the point of blockage. Lang also shared schematics--and photos of prototypes--of a 100 meter diameter lens for Lawrence Livermore that can be deployed in space by unfolding it from within the delivery satellite. (The lens is designed to point both outward and inward!) Meanwhile, Japan has already launched a satellite with an origami solar sail.

I then got to hear novelist Amy Tan after all. I wasn't expecting much, but somehow she still disappointed. As far as I can tell, the entire point of her talk was "How did I come to be such a creative genius?" The possibilities seem to include "God's will, synchrony, or mysterious forces." And finally her Big Question: "Did someone intend for me to be this way?" My big question: Who Has Time For This?

The next talk was another highlight of the day, in a very surprising way. MIT Media Lab's Tod Machover, inventor of Guitar Hero, demonstrated new technologies for musical expression, such as toys that are also instruments, and a simple composing software tool called Hyperscore that anyone can use without knowing musical notation. Tod talked about the health benefits of music (though oddly, he seems to have missed the news that the Mozart effect was a scam), and about his team's contribution of time and technology to Tewksbury Hospital, where disabled patients have learned to compose and perform music using Hyperscore. then it got really interesting. Tewksbury patient Dan Ellsey, a quadraplegic, was wheeled onto stage. Dan is paralyzed below the neck and cannot speak. But Dan can communicate in the same way Hawking does, and he uses his mouth movements to control Hyperscore. With only one exception, Dan had never before left Massachusetts, but TED sponsor Bombardier Flexjet flew him across the country to perform a symphony at TED that he had composed using Hyperscore. Dan was beaming, bobbing his head back and forth with excitement. Using facial movements, he proceeded to engage the software in a laptop set before him, which somehow allows the user to act as the conductor of the score. Dan's symphony was interesting, coherent, even stirring. and when he finished, he smiled and literally moaned for joy as the crowd leapt to their feet in a long round of applause. Dan's euphoria was contagious.

Physicist Brian Cox delivered yet another talk about the elementary particles that physicists hope to find in the Hydron supercollider. then got a fascinating video tour of the ocean depths from geophysicist Robert Ballard, who delivered a provocative talk on our society's negligence of oceanic exploration. According to Ballard, 72% of the planet and 50% of US-owned territory is underwater, and yet we have better maps of Mars than our ocean floors. 99% of the planet's volcanoes, rich in minerals, are underwater. The Great Rift Valley mountain range covers 23% of the planet's surface area, and yet we explored the moon before we got there.

Ballard's video tour of the places he has explored (before anyone else in the world) include geothermal geysers, giant clams that host chemo-synthetic bacteria (because there's no light to support photosynthetic plants), methane volcanoes, and the remains of the Titanic, the Bismarck, and a shipwreck from 750 BC.

So, Ballard asks, why aren't we responding to the threat of rising oceans and dwindling land masses by preparing to build and colonize sea-based platforms? It's far more feasible and affordable than space colonization. Perhaps because NASA's budget is 1,600 times the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Next, a South American entrepreneur described a mind-opening exhibition he has developed in which blind people usher non-blind people through completely dark exhibits, reversing the advantage.

Paul Stamets has got to be the world's leading Mycologist (mushroom expert). Convinced that mushrooms hold the key to solving our biggest environmental challenges, Stemats cultivates various fungi that naturally kill pests, that pull CO2 from the atmosphere, that transform rocky landscapes into fertile ones, and that repair damage from toxic waste.

Little known mushroom facts: the largest living organism known to exist in the universe is a 2,200 acre field of mycellium fungus in Oregon. Mycellium fungus was the first organism on earth to migrate to land, where it paved the way for others by breaking down the rocks. It's now the fibrous binding agent in soil, and so, living underground away from light, it harvests radiation as its energy source. This means that if we ever do find alien life, it is more likely to resemble mycellium than human beings. And if we don't, we can export mycellium to other planets which could, according to Stamets, terraform them for human life.

Next came Joshua Klein, the "Crow Guy". Like rats and cockroaches, crows have evolved to live near people--it's extremely rare for crows to mate more than 5 miles from human settlement. They're also smarter than they look. We watched a film of one laboratory crow who hungered for food at the bottom of a vial, so the bird wrapped the end of a stick around the vial, and then used the curved portion to hook the food. (This was a new behavior that the bird, and the scientists, had never seen before.) Crows will remember the faces of the scientists who captured them, even for a day, and then incessantly caw at them years later on campus. (Now Joshua wears a mask.) Adulterous female crows will emit a false distress call so that when her mate flies off, she can have a secret rendezvous. We saw crows trained to find coins outside in the dirt, and insert them into a peanut vending machine. But here's the smartest behavior of all, which you can see for yourself in the video on the right: There is a Japanese city in which the crows have learned a way to crack nuts--they drop the nuts into a busy pedestrian crosswalk, the cars break the nuts open, and then the crows wait on the curb for the red light so they can safely walk into the street to collect the booty.

The next speaker, Hot Zone author Richard Preston, loves Redwoods so much that he and his family sometimes sleep at the tops of the trees, suspended in hammocks. Redwoods can grow 38 stories high, and live thousands of years. They are the tallest organisms in the world. Unfortunately, 96% of California's Redwoods have been clear cut in the past 30 years.

Bottom line: All good talks (except Amy Tan). The highlights were Robert Lang, Tod Machover, and, allegedly, John Knoll.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this nice summary. A correction re: Tod Machover's talk. His first point was that the Mozart Effect does NOT work. Passive listening to background music isn't enough; you have to be actively engaged with music. That's the motivation behind his work to develop new tools to engage all kinds of people in creating and performing music.