2005/02/24

TED Day 1 Grade Out

First, let me start by saying I don’t think I could do what Chris Anderson and the rest of his TED team does. I deeply appreciate passion he pours into the conference and his belief that TED is something important is infectious. This is my Fifth TED, though, and I’m beginning to get a sense for what talks are “TED Quality”. With that in mind, here’s a summary of what I’ve seen at TED2005:

Day 1: Wednesday

Session 1: FOREPLAY Overall Grade: ****

James Watson ****
Talk about starting a conference off with a bang! Having a chance to meet one of the most famous scientists and the second-most-famous Dr. Watson in history was exciting, and the man did a great job of being genuine and engaging. Telling his story as that of two young bucks chasing after the golden prize has given me a personal image to associate with his discovery which I will carry for the rest of my life. When he got to more recent pursuits I found it a little difficult to follow his graphs; but clearly he’s trying to using his original discovery to make the world a better place, even at a stage where he could be coasting. Thank you, Dr. Watson for joining us and showing us how its done.

Janine Benyus ***
Janine’s talk went from her general principles on Bio-mimicry and quickly zoomed to the details of how it was being applied in diverse areas like waste water treatment and construction. This was a good example of what I come to TED for: the chance to hear a world-class expert speak on something they are passionate about in a way I can understand and relate to. She could have gotten a fourth star by choosing less than 12 items to cover when she had 10 minutes left in her talk. They are probably 12 items she uses all the time (they’re in the program), but less would have been more here.

Brian Greene ****
After hearing Brian this morning, I understand the envy in the voices last year’s TED-Edge Astrophysicists when they referred to him. He clearly has the best computer graphics of any physicist I’ve ever seen. His clear explanation of some of the most complex ideas in human history in 20 minutes was another great TED Quality talk. Towards the end, he seemed to wrestle with the anthropic principle and how certain universal constants are set to almost the only values that would allow an organized universe. However, if his explanation of how the shapes of additional dimensions determined those constants was meant to give relief the from the eerie feeling that the universe wasn’t an accident, it only seems to move the question from “why all those numbers set to those values?” to “why all those dimensions set to those exact shapes?”

Frans Lanting ****
Frans is one of the most gifted photographers of our age. He presented what was probably his magnum opus to us yesterday. It felt an honor to be in the auditorium. At first, I was a little thrown by his narration, which was mostly in a matter of fact voice; but on reflection, it seems to mirror the distance a camera puts between photographer an subject. While he was painting the history of the world on the screen, he was also painting the mind of the photographer with his voice. A good choice, I think.

Bonus Talk – The “Secrets to Success” guy ****
So far, the 5 minute bonus talks have been a surprisingly good idea. The first speaker shared some work he’d been doing for TED for years, trying to capture the essence of TED attendees and speakers. He showed clearly how much he valued his 5 minute opportunity with the preparation and thought he put into his talk.

Session 2: Intimacy Overall Grade *

James Surowieki **
I loved James book when TED sent it this summer (by the way, Chris, the TED Books has been a great upgrade). That may be partly the reason why his talk was disappointing. I really wanted to hear him talk about where he’s taken this idea of “the wisdom of groups” since publishing the book or, for that matter, anything else he was working on that was as interesting as that topic. Instead, he killed half his time by reading and showing other people’s content when I would have happily accepted that Blogs allowed people on the scene to give us a better picture of it without actually hearing what they wrote. Towards the end of his talk, he started to explain how the “echo chamber” nature of political blogging and how that could stifle the “wisdom of groups” effect. I wish he’d led with this question and then given us his best thoughts on any solutions and his predictions of where we will wind up. Alternately, I would have loved to hear him talk about whether, based on his book, we could conclude that every US President elected was the wisest choice that could have been made. THAT would have started some conversations!

Olivia Judson **
Something I look for from TED speakers is to tell me something about the world that I didn’t know and that is interesting. Olivia certainly had the content for this, but somehow seemed to fall short of the mark anyway. Perhaps it was the gratuitous falling back on sexual terms (I could swear somewhere behind me in the room I heard Beevis saying to Butthead “huh huh… she said ejaculate huh huh”). Previous TED speakers who talked about animal behaviors set the bar a little higher, where their enthusiasm for a little known fish, primate, or shrimp was infectious and memorable for years. Although she covered little-known facts about several animals, I don’t think the put enough of herself into her descriptions for me to still remember them after the conference.

John Clark (zero stars)
This was an embarrassment and a momentum killer. I didn’t know that the word Pornography didn’t arrive until the 18th century, but if the point was that pornography wasn’t bad before then, I doubt many people before the word was invented had a chance to see the “money shot” of man on boy action zoomed in and blown up on a 15x15 foot screen. The words “Nuclear fallout”, “Crack Baby”, and “Leisure Suit” weren't invented until recently either, but I just don’t see what that has to do with their moral value. Clearly there are thought-provoking questions about how a culture percieves the naked form. Anyone who's seen Greek-era sculpture has to marvel at their study of muscle and sinews. This talk, though, mostly appealed to the prurient interests of graphic depictions of sex. If there was a nobler purpose to the talk, it was lost on me.

Carmen Agradeedy **
I think there are two ways Carmen could have gone with her talk that would have gone over better. One was to talk about story-telling with personal anticdotes on how it brings people together, the effect it has on children, what makes a really good story, anything. The second was to tell a really good story. Her story-telling skills were highly refined, but the amount of work she had to do to keep the audience engaged shows that the story could have been stronger. This was a talk that I think could have redeemed the whole sub-par session with true poignancy and transparency and a story that we would carry the rest of our lives. Instead we got some character sketches and some cheap poignancy at the end with the reference to a dead parent. I appreciate how difficult it must be for her to size up what kind of audience she was speaking to. I think what we wanted was for her to tell us something that was authentically true.

Thomas Dolby **
I got very interested at the beginning of Dolby’s talk where he talked about representing information as music. People are natural pattern recognizers, and the notion of listening to data for patterns is fresh and intriguing. So far, though, he’s way under-achieved on this promise. By graphically rendering his raindrops and his weather data in such visually compelling ways, the audio data seemed to add little information. For that matter, I doubt anyone would need novel ways of rendering California rainfall data to deduce there was a rainy season and a dry season anyway. Render data that doesn’t say anything to the naked eye: Dow Jones performance, sports scores, cancer rates; let us hear these things and see if we can detect some knew knowledge with our ears. Thomas may yet do this in subsequent sessions. I hope so.

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