Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What's Out There?

Joshua Klein and his amazing Crow Vending Machine.

Klein has studied crows (as opposed to Crowes, as in my maiden name) for 10 years and considers them to be very intelligent, with a body/brain ratio similar to chimpanzees. They demonstrate their intelligence by activities such as placing peanuts in traffic lanes so that cars can run over them and crack the shells, after which they wait for the light (!) and walk onto the road to retrieve the nut. Even more astonishing, they seem to learn this behaviour from each other.

Klein set out to dramatically illustrate crows' intelligence by teaching them to put coins in a vending machine to get peanuts. The picture shows a couple of the trained crows doing their thing on the vending machine. His hypothesis is that these highly intelligent animals could be trained to perform many tasks – picking up garbage would be just a first example. What’s very powerful is that after training a few of them, the training could be passed around a large number of crows.

What's Out There?


Aaah, now to tell you about the ‘mushroom man’, seen here posed by the most massive conk alive of Bridgeoporus nobilissimus, growing from a old-growth stump in central Oregon. It is possible that only at TED would a man describing his lifelong fascination with, and study of, mushrooms draw a full standing ovation, and be the subject of countless hallway discussions about how he was their favourite speaker.

The bottom line for Paul Stamets is that mushrooms can help save the world. In fact, he has written a book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

His talk was hard to follow because he spoke quickly, quietly and monotonically, throwing in lots of Latin species names – a real challenge for taking notes. Some of the ways he thinks mushrooms are valuable include:

  • Medicines, including flu vaccine
  • Disruptive technology in insecticides – he’s used mycelium to eradicate termites from his home
  • Mopping up toxic spills where mycelium beat all other approaches at absorbing oil

Oh heck, this is really one presentation where maybe you had to be there. You can read more by looking on his web site at http://www.fungi.com/ .

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's Out THere?

Another great question to occupy us at TED.



Brian Cox is incredibly articulate, vivacious (can you use that adjective about a man?) and passionate (yes, I use that word again, but it's just unavoidable when you write about these TED speakers) physicist. He mentioned Rutherford’s statement that all science is either physics or stamp collecting and then went on to tell a tale of the universe as we understand it so far and what we hope to understand in the future, in a way to thrill every bone in your body[1].



  • Cox told us how everything in physics boils down to 12 particles and 4 forces.

  • He told us how one equation could explain everything in the universe, and how that one equation could fit on a t-shirt, and then acknowledged with a picture that it had to be a big t-shirt and small font. That equation of course explains everything – except gravity!

  • He told us about the new particle accelerator and Hadron collider being built in Switzerland. He demonstrated the size by referring to minute humans standing by it with the pride of a grandparent showing off a picture of a beloved (is there any other kind) grandchild.

  • He told us how it would be able to accelerate particles to almost the speed of light – 99.999999% (actually I lost track of the number of nines – in any case, we would say it would be really really fast.)

  • He told us how this would take us back in time to when the universe was hotter, denser and simpler, to less than 1 billionth of a second after the Big Bang. He told us of physicists’ hope to find the Higgs particle (previously mentioned in the talk by Garret Lisi, the surfer-physicist) which has been postulated but not found.

  • He told us how the four forces converge as you go back in time, coming together at the Big Bang, when everything was simpler. The Big Bang took place 13.73B years ago, and at that time the universe was smaller than a single atom and there was only one force. Gravity was the first force to separate from the other forces, and then at one billionth of a second, the Higgs field kicked in – they think. Recreating this moment is what the hadron accelerator is intended to verify.

  • He told us that within a few minutes of the Big Bang, the universe was 75% hydrogen and the rest was helium, that at 300M years light emerged and at 400M years stars emerged. But these first generation stars cooked up carbon, oxygen and iron, exploded and collided to create new stars. As he puts it, that’s what hydrogen can do in 13B years!

  • He told us that 50 years ago, scientists couldn’t have told this story so far and that the accelerator was going to allow physicists to write the next chapter.

Cox is a frequent voice on the media, explaining physics to the masses. His pixie smile, rock-star hairdo, his incredible verve and enthusiasm make him ideal. The audience at TED gave him a 2/3 standing ovation – my own guess is that the rest of the audience was simply stuck to their seats in wonder.

[1] I apologize up front to any physicists who read this and notice the inevitable inaccuracies. I was writing as fast as I could, but it’s hard to keep up with the agile mind and speech of a guy like Cox. I’m reasonably sure I got the general gist of it right.

Talks on TED.com

FOr those of you who were fascinated by the description of Jill Bolte Taylor's talk about how she watched her own stroke, that talk is now available on TED.com.

I continue to be amazed by the number of people who are familiar with the TED web site, and who relish its contents. As I started to teach an MBA course at Queen's University, I used Sir Ken Robinson's excellent talk on Creativity in class, and was surprised and gratified to see people who loved the TED web site and visited often. The TED folks have done the world a great service by bringing these talks to the Web (and let me not forget the sponsors who make this possible for free!)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

How Do We Create?

Amy Tam might have been a bit of a disappointment in this session, but Tod Machover blew away my expectations. Head of the MIT Media Lab’s Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future group, Machover is an inventor, a musician, a technologist, and an educator. Perhaps he and his team are best known for Guitar Hero, the wildly popular Wii game. He is passionate about music and the transformative effect it can have on people.

Machover started designing interactive instruments, or hyperinstruments, at the Media Lab for musicians like Yo Yo Ma, Prince and Peter Gabriel. These electrical instruments used feedback from the player to interact with the music. He soon moved on from this elite crowd to designing instruments for kids, and showed pictures of exuberant kids playing his Music Toys, electronically enabled instruments in bright colours that kids squeeze, or hit.

He’s also developed Hyperscore, a simple way for kids to compose music. It doesn’t have notes like a regular music score, but rather coloured horizontal lines of different lengths and colours to designate the notes that are to be played, and of course it’s interactive. It’s designed to allow students to compose music without learning an onerous amount of theory.

Machover believes in the power of music to make the world a better place, particularly in healthcare settings. He observed that music is one of the last things that an Alzheimer’s patient will respond to and referred to Oliver Sacks’ (the doctor in the movie Awakenings) recent book Musicophilia about connections between music and the brain. That sounds like a book worth reading.

As part of his commitment to music that changes the world, Machover started to work with patients at the Tewksbury Hospital for chronically and mentally ill patients. He introduced Dan Ellsey to the audience. Dan is an outgoing 34 year old suffering from cerebral palsy who loves music. His visit to TED was only his second time outside Massachusetts. Dan had been an early composer using Hyperscore and Machover and his team felt that Dan should also be able to perform his music and developed software to support that. His performance of his own composition My Eagle Song was a blow away performance, not least because of the elation on Ellsie’s face and the pride on Machover’s.

His work made me think of the incredible work on Snoezelen multi-sensory environments by my friend Barbara McCormack. When I approached Machover about meeting Barbara, he seemed interested. It’s hard to avoid the TED clich├ęs when writing this blog (you can’t keep using the words extraordinary, magic, moving, passionate all the time, or describing “TED moments”), but this clearly has the possibility to be one of those wonderful “TED connections”.

Friday, March 14, 2008

How Do We Create?

I was rather disappointed in the presentation by Amy Tan - I had been looking forward to this one. But I just couldn't figure out what she was talking about.

Yves Behar is best known for his design of the Jawbone headset, the Leaf Lamp, and the $100 PC for the One-Laptop-Per-Child project. I loved his tour of some of his designs and his process in designing . He described how he came to Silicon Valley and started working on the 'skins', but quickly progressed to design of the whole product. He had a couple of choice lines: "Do people really want a Num Lock key in their homes?" and "Advertising is the price companies pay for being un-original". In his work on the One-Laptop-Per-Child project, he finally got rid of the Cap Lock and Num Lock keys he'd hated for years! He seems to demonstrate that designers get started early in life - his first design combined his love for both skiing and wind-surfing, when he created something that had a sail attached to a sled with skis on the bottom. Ugly undoubtedly, dangerous for sure, it certainly portended his future life.

How Do We Create?

You'll have noticed I've fallen behind on my Blog postings. It's about time I caught up on more of the exciting talks at TED.

This session on how different people create had several good talks.


Robert Lang gave a marvellous talk that to me epitomizes TED, combining pure science with whimsy. After pictures of traditional origami, he described how new designs had been enabled, by considering the mathematics of origami, which follows four basic laws. Using these laws, you can derive new patterns. A flap to make a claw, for instance, requires a circle, and making a series of flaps becomes a mathematical problem in packing circles. This math has turned out to be useful in very practical ways, in areas where you need to figure out how to pack something in a small space, like airbags, or a solar sail that has to get into space in a small capsule and then unfold to its full size in space.
But a picture is worth a thousand words – here’s a sample of some origami that was on display in the lobby. You can see more at this web site. www.langorigami.com/art/compositions/compositions.php4










Later in the conference, there was a challenge to fold one of Lang’s very complicated figures in three minutes flat while accompanied by Rufus Cappadocia of the TED House Band on the electric cello. The paper was pre-folded, making it easier, but Bruno did it while blindfolded, which you’d have to admit made it harder!

I really enjoyed John Kroll’s talk. He’s with Industrial Light and Magic, and won an Oscar for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and was nominated for Star Wars 1 and 2 and all the Pirates movies. Contrary to popular opinion, effects are not all computer generated. As an example, he showed a scene where three ships were coming together in battle. Since the main giveaway in old movies using small models in a tank is that the droplet size is wrong. For the scene from Pirates they combined the actual wake created by barges of the right size. Then they overlayed and extended the image of a partial Black Pearl ship they’d built as a real set. Fascinating to see how the scene was built up. The scene in the movie where ships are drawn into a vortex was even more interesting. They started with complicated fluid dynamics models to build a flat vortex, then dipped it down for the vortex effect, then layered on foam, spray, sub-surface bubbles, atmospherics, and finally the ships. Light and magic indeed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Will Evil Prevail?

Philip Zimbardo, social psychologist, is the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How GOod People Turn Evil.

He started by describing the famous (infamous) experiment where volunteers were recruited, ostensibly to help other volunteers to learn by applying electrical shocks. The experiment starts with them applying 15V, which is clearly not painful to the shockees. As the experiment progresses, at the encouragement of the experimenters who say that the learners are clearly not getting enough yet to cause the desired improvement in learning, the shockers apply larger and larger shocks, even to levels where the voltage levels on the equipment are clearly marked as dangerous and the shockers can see the obvious pain of the learners. In this experiment, fully 2/3 of the shockers went up to 450V(!), the limit on the dial clearly marked as a red zone, which caused the learners to writhe in pain. Zimbardo’s lesson – all evil starts with 15V.

Zimbardo himself conducted a prisoner experiment where two sets of college students were recruited to play prisoners and guards. Over the course of a few days, the brutality of the guards deteriorated so badly that a student not part of the experiment with the objectivity to see it from the outside, came to him and protested that the experiment should be terminated. Without someone with the courage to take him on and jolt him out of his complacency, the experiment could well have continued, although some students had already suffered psychological damage. (As an aside he pointed out that this courageous woman had become his wife). He felt the dehumanization of the uniforms (both prisoners and guards were in uniforms that overrode their individuality) was a factor in the emergence of such evil behaviour by the 'guards'.

That and other experiments are the basis of his theory that most ordinary people can succumb to evil under the right circumstances.

As part of his study of evil, he had become an expert witness in the trial of one of the accused from the Abu Ghraib prison, and showed us a series of photos of the misdeeds in the prison. While we’ve all seen a photo in a newspaper, it was truly a different level of experience to see a series. He told of the American soldier who had first reported the Abu Ghraib who had paid for his courage by attacks on him and his family. In fact, his family had to go into hiding.

After all his study, he has categorized people into 3 categories:
1 People who are evil – the bad apples
2. People who can become evil in certain circumstances – the bad barrel
3. Systems that create circumstances where people can become evil – bad barrelmakers

He categorizes Abu Ghraib in Category 3, because of the orders that a bunch of relatively untrained National Guards were given to go to all lengths to extract information.

He ended on a more positive note. He noted the courage of his wife and the American soldier and stated that ordinary people are responsible for most heroic acts. We need to stop the adulation of the very special people who could be ‘expected’ to be heroic and to cultivate admiration of the ‘ordinary heroes’, and in fact to train young people to be ready to step up when their moment for heroism appears. In a post-conference note, he marvelled at the response he had received at TED, with many people approaching him to understand how they could help with this Hero Project. As corny as it sounds, TED really helps so many people make connections that might just possibly contribute to a better world.

Will Evil Prevail?

The session that explored this big question was a departure from the usually optimistic upbeat atmosphere of TED, but yielded a couple of interesting, albeit disquieting, presentations.

Irwin Redlener, a public health doctor, addressed the question of nuclear threat. He described the nuclear threat from 49-91 as being threat of nation-nation nuclear threat, mostly mitigated by the principle of mutually assured destruction. During this period, there was virtually nothing you could do cope with possible nuclear events (despite the futile duck-and-cover campaigns) because a first strike would inevitably be followed by nuclear bombs raining on all participants resulting in mass – and inescapable – destruction.

Redlener pointed out that since 91 the threat has been of a localized blast from terrorists who have access to material from the stockpiles left after disarmament many of which are extremely insecure. In fact, between 95 and 2006, there were a horrifying 175 cases of nuclear theft.

As unsettling as this is, Redlener points out that we have to shift our thinking, because now there is something we could do in case of a localized nuclear attack: namely, ‘duck and cover’ for the initial blast to avoid debris and falling buildings, and then evacuation as quickly as possible out of the zone where fallout will come. Oh yes, and cover your eyes during the blast so you won’t be blinded. Despite the distinct possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack, and the fact that orderly evacuation could save hundreds of thousands of lives, no American cities have a plan. Redlener thinks they should.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

TED Prize - Part 2

The second prize winner, Karen Armstrong, told us of her own path in life. A nun for many years, she left the convent to study English literature. She was drawn back to religion after a visit to Jerusalem which awakened her interest in all the monotheistic Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Her view is that religions should focus on behaviour rather than belief. She points out that the Golden Rule is part of many if not most religions, even though the belief systems differ. She fretted that many religious people were more interested in being right than being compassionate. Her TED wish was to create a Charter of Compassion which could be endorsed by many different religious leaders, to focus people on what was common between religions rather than what was different.

Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, spoke about his commitment to provide one-on-one writing and tutoring for young people. Starting at 826 Valencia Street in San Francisco, he created an unusual place with a small publishing company in the back, and tutoring space for kids. After discovering that the area was zoned retail, he satisfied the zoning regulations by creating a Pirate Supply Store at the store front. He recruited a huge corps of volunteer tutors, with the goal of providing every kid with one-to-one attention. He was able to attract armies of volunteer tutors by being flexible about the number of hours and scheduling of the tutoring. Besides helping kids with basic skills, many from homes where the first language isn’t English, they have uncovered some tremendous writing talent and Eggers believes that writing is a powerful learning and motivation tool. The publishing company has published collections of their work, and seeing their work in print has been very inspirational.
The movement has spread to many cities, all of which have the one-on-one tutoring, and the quirky storefront retail space. His TED wish was for the formula to be extended to more cities, to get more tutors involved, and to reach more kids.

TED prizes 2008

Neil Turok, a noted physicist at Cambridge who is working on a cyclic theory of the universe that postulates that the Big Bang was a result of two ‘brane-worlds’ colliding, won me over with his infectious smile and diffident manner.

He described his childhood growing up in Africa – his parents imprisoned for their opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, growing up in Tanzania after their release. He described going back to Africa to teach and being astonished at some of the incredible mathematical instincts of kids who had very little education opportunity.

From these experiences arose his passion for providing educational opportunities in Africa, and the dream that the next Einstein would be from Africa. He founded the African Institute for Mathematics near Capetown in 2003, which has been graduating 50 students a year. They come from all over Africa, and it has been an oasis of understanding of different cultures as well as a place to learn mathematics. Turok has had no trouble in getting world-class lecturers to AIMS, and most of the students are heading on to PH.D. study. Now that the formula has proven effective, Turok’s TED wish is to expand AIMS to 4 other locations, while expanding the curriculum to other fields. I attended the lunch where people were invited to write down on cards what they might do to help fulfil his wish, and our table had lots of interesting ideas. I can't wait to hear about this wish unfolding.

By the way, for anybody who might be inspired by this blog to think of how they can help with any of the TED wishes, the web site www.tedprize.org lists all the wishes, progress on past wishes, and what efforts are still required. It makes for interesting reading.

TED Prize

Each year TED awards prizes to three individuals, consisting of $100,000, plus a wish that the TED community is invited to help fulfil. A lunch is held each year for each winner, and attendees at the lunch are invited to write ideas on the provided cards of how they could help make the wish come true.
There were some updates on the progress of past winners:
  • Cameron Sinclair is committed to providing low-cost, sustainable, locally-appropriate buildings (homes and community buildings) in response to global social and humanitarian crises. The Open Architecture Network, at http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.orgnow boasts almost 10,000 members and 1,500 designs, that are available free of charge to be used and adapted wherever there's a need.
  • Last year, the well-known biologist and naturalist E. O. WIlson, wished for an online Encyclopedia of Life that would capture both layman and specialist information about all the species in the world. We got a peek at some remarkable software developed for navigating this web site. You can see an example of what an entry would look like at www.eol.org/taxa/17290368. It's an ambitious wish - to catalogue fully 1M species, and the dream is taking shape, but much remains to be done, including getting the enthusiastic support of the people who now hold much of this information.
  • Jhane Noujaim wished last year to create a day where people around the world could all watch the same movies at the same time, believing that such a shared experience would bring people together, and as the saying goes at TED, would make the world a better place. Pangea Day is scheduled for May 10, the deadline for movie submission was Feb 15, and the program will be seen on television, digital cinemas, outdoor screenings and private homes, and of course mobile phones (a major reason why Nokia has come on as a sponsor).
  • It's particularly worth mentioning Bono's wish from 2005 (in that first year three wishes were granted, before the realizing that the focus of one wish was better). One of Bono's wishes was to connect every hospital, clinic and school in Ethiopia to the Internet. After a TED delegation visited Ethiopia and met with many governmental, health and educational people, it was concluded that this was not an effective, or welcome, way to help, and that wish is no longer being worked on. It was good to see that thoughtful deliberation is applied ot all these wishes. THe TED conference in Tanzania last year was partly a desire to help in Africa by connecting and showcasing the best of what's going on there - addressing Bono's motications, if not his exact wish.

I'll tell you in a future post about this year's winners.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Some Poignant Moments at TED

As well as the powerful intellectual stimulation, there are talks to stir the soul and fire the emotions. There were several very poignant moments at TED this year.

Peter Diamandis, best known as founder and Chair of the XPrize for space flight, is also Chairman of Zero Gravity Corporation which offers weightless flights to the general public. He described Stephen Hawking’s weightless flight. It was wonderful to see the photos of a joyous Hawking floating in space – doubly touching to see someone with such a disability there, and the person who has told us so much about the universe. The considerable medical staff on the plane approved 8 weightless parabolae for Hawking, way beyond the expectation of two or three at the best.

David Hoffman, a documentary film maker, gave touching 3 minute talk about a fire at his home which destroyed his huge collection of films and photographs, some of them the only copy of some of his films. With pictures of photos singed around the edges showing on the screen, he said how interesting they looked, and mused that his next project might be about Bits and Pieces. A brief tale on the triumph of the human spirit.

Doris Kearns Goodwin proved that content trumps delivery style, even in the stratified level of TED delivery. Reading a speech from the podium, this biographer of several presidents, narrated stories about Lincoln and Johnson, two Presidents about whom she’s written biographies. Her great admiration for Lincoln shone through, including some great jokes – though her comedic timing left a lot to be desired as she started to speak before the laughter was over! She characterized Lincoln as a man with a passion to make a difference in the world. The most poignant moment was her description of Johnson, as she interviewed him late in life. Although surrounded by a loving family, it was not enough to compensate for his loss of the centre stage, and he was despondent.

TED was originally created by Richard Saul Wurman, who likened it to a conference where all the speakers were people you’d like to attend a dinner party with. After he sold the conference to Chris Anderson six years ago, considerable animosity arose, as Chris moved the conference from a great dinner party to aspiring to be a community that could change the world. The rift was healed in the last year, and Richard once again attended TED. As the two men had a discussion on stage, a tearful Richard (who admits to crying easily) was clearly glad to be back, Chris was choked up to have had the rapprochement, and there were plans for new collaboration, like the creation of a Best of TED DVD celebrating 25 years of TED next year, to which Richard will contribute the best of the early years. Richard’s latest project is 19/20/21, to somehow bring together thoughts about the world’s 19 largest cities, with 20 M people each, in the 21st century.

What's Out There?

Robert Ballard, Ocean Explorer

Ocean covers most of the earth (in fact over half of US territory lies under water) and only a small fraction has been explored. NASA’s budget to explore space is 1600 times the budget of the NOAA to explore the oceans. Indeed, there were more ships exploring the oceans of the southern hemisphere in Captain Cook’s time that there are today. Robert Ballard thinks that’s wrong.

Ballard developed his passion for the ocean as a 27-yearold and since then has made 120 expeditions over 49 years, using eight different models of submersibles. The Mid Ocean Ridge, the biggest mountain range on earth, was found in 1973-74. This volcano-studded range sweeps over 25% of the earth’s surface in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. And yet few know of its existence.

There was some heat unaccounted for in their calculations around this area. The search to explain this heat led to the discovery of huge geothermal spouts underwater at temperatures up to 650°F. Way too hot for life everyone thought. And yet he showed us photographs of amazing organisms living in these hostile conditions – ten foot long tube worms, and enormous clams bigger than your hand, creatures that live by chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis.
Ballard’s voice rang with the conviction of a true He made impassioned pleas for greater exploration – after all these heat spouts, as one example, spew huge amounts of heavy metals just waiting to be mined.

Ballard is best known for his underwater archaeology on the Titanic, the Bismarck, and the Yorktown. He showed photos of perfectly preserved ancient Greek artifacts in the Black Sea, where the H2S perfectly preserves such artifacts.

He described the frustration of working in submersibles which took 2½ hours to descend or resurface, resulting in a five-hour commute for just 3 hours work on the bottom. Remotely controlled submersibles are a breakthrough allowing him more productivity, but more importantly, expanding the number of people who can ‘explore the ocean’ remotely through Immersion Presents (www.immersionpresents.org ). Through telepresence based on satellite feeds, and very high (10Gb) Internet links, people can “go where no one has gone before – on Planet Earth”. In particular it will bring young kids into live research environment; they’re best suited to drive the remote submersibles, because of their gaming experience. His vision was encapsulated in a photo of a young girl with an open mouth and a look of wonder as she experienced the depths of the ocean.

It was one of those special TED moments when a person with a deep passion about a topic was able to convey the wonder of his field, and bring us, for 30 minutes at least, to share in that passion and wonder. He received a standing ovation of 1.5 on the standing ovation scale.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Will Evil Prevail?

Exploring this big question was a rare descent into pessimism for TED, but offered some interesting fare, and ended with calls for heroism, so it was true TED fare.

Irwin Redlener, a public health doctor, addressed the question of nuclear threat. He described the nuclear threat from 49-19 as being threat of nation-nation nuclear threat, mostly mitigated by the principle of mutually assured destruction. During this period, there was virtually nothing you could do cope with possible nuclear events (despite the futile duck-and-cover campaigns) because a first strike would inevitably be followed by nuclear bombs raining on all participants – and thus resistance was futile.
His message was that the nuclear threat of today came from possible terrorist use of the stockpiles (left after disarmament), many of which are extremely insecure. Between 95 and 2006, there were 175 cases of nuclear theft. But there is something that can be done to prepare for such localized terrorist nuclear threats. The old advice to get protected from the immediate blast makes sense when it’s likely to a single blast. Moreover, with proper preparation for evacuation a huge proportion of people in the fallout zone could actually escape it. However, no American cities have such a plan.

Philip Zimbardo, social psychologist, is most famous for a prisoner experiment that degenerated so brutally over a few days that it had to be stopped – the woman who was to become Zimbardo’s wife, who was not part of the experiment, protested in order for it to be stopped. That and other experiments are the basis of his theory that ordinary people can succumb to evil under the right circumstances. In fact, he categorized people into 3 categories:
People who are evil – the bad apples
People who can become evil in certain circumstances – the bad barrel
Systems that create circumstances where people can become evil – bad barrelmakers

In narrating the horror of a series of Abu Ghraib photos what he gained access to through being an expert witness in the trial, he professed that it was a case of bad barrelmakers.
It takes courage to diverge from the norm, as was the case for the American who reported Abu Ghraib whose family had to go into hiding. He pleaded for early education about heroism and that it was the domain of ordinary people, so that people could step up when the need arose.


Samantha Power, political scientist and journalist, told us all a story, that exemplified such heroic courage, of the remarkable Sergio de Mello, the UN envoy who was killed in a terrorist blast in Iraq. “The world needs more Sergio”, she declaimed. He embodied four principles
Get in the room and talk to evil in order to try to reach some balance and accommodation
Have a reverence for dignity
Fear is a bad advisor –rise above it
Be humbled and aware of complexity but not paralyzed by it

Is Beauty Truth?

Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Foundation, argued that beauty does not live in the objects themselves, but in the interaction between the object and the viewer. He feels museums need to change, to be agents of change. Today they’re an 18th century idea, embedded in a 19th century box (usually a palace) , trying to live in the 21st century. Guggenheim’s latest project is to be in Abu Dhabi.

A stunningly interesting approach to the theme question came from Garrett Lisi, the surfer physicist. Physicists have been searching for the Elusive Theory of Everything to unite classical mechanics, quantum field theory, and gravitation. Lisi came at his theory by plotting characteristics of all the elementary particles in various dimensions. He twisted the view like a kaleidoscope to produce beautiful symmetric patterns, finally arriving at the so-called E8 pattern. E8 needs 12 particles to fill in the symmetry. One of these is the Higgs particle, which other theory has proposed but is yet to be discovered; the other 11 are Lisi’s candidates to enable his Unified Theory.
Lisi has eschewed the academic environment since completing his PH.D. in physics, he disdains string theory, and lives in a van, camping by surfing beaches in Maui. He published his theory in late 2007 and caused great controversy. If he's right, it would be the upset scientific story of our time – the non-establishment maverick having the break-through insight. As a mathematician, I was trained to believe that what is elegant is often or usually right. Clearly I don’t understand the physics at this level, but sentimentally, you gotta root for this underdog. And how appropriate to the theme “Is Beauty Truth?”

What is Life? - Memes

Susan Blackmore, psychologist and student of consciousness

Blackmore presented and clarified some ideas that were new to me – the concept of memes as another structural level on which evolution can take place, just like species. She distilled Darwin down to the simple of idea that if you have creatures that vary, if there is a struggle for life such that almost all die, and if the few that survive pass on characteristics, then those descendents are better suited to the environment. This constitutes an algorithm for evolution. Blackmore’s point is that with variation, selection, heredity you must get evolution – you don’t need a designer, it just happens.
Blackmore stated that this applies to memes just as it does to genes. Memes are cultural information, such as ideas, habits, songs, or even fashions, that get transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Memes are replicators just as genes are. Blackmore characterized TED as a meme-fest!
Just as genes can treat organisms as simple tools for their own survival and evolution, so can memes. While other species are just gene machines, humans are also meme machines. I must confess this was my first in-depth thought about memes, despite having heard the word. Blackmore’s presentation definitely prompted me to put more reading on memes on my list.
She then went on to propose the existence of a third replicator – the technomeme, or teme. Whew – just starting to understand memes and now got to go my head around temes.

American News' representation of the world

Alisa Miller, President and CEO of Public Radio International (NPR), gave an amazing 3 minute talk on how American media presents the rest of the world. She was dramatically showing the miniscule proportion of American news that covers the rest of the world. You really must catch her talk at www.pri.org/ted.html.
One couldn’t help but link her talk to an interchange during the World Debate on Wednesday night. Mwenda (remember he was the Managing Editor of The Independent in Kampala) threw out a question to the audience, asking Forrest Whittaker the change in his attitude about Uganda after being on location there to film The Last King of Scotland. Whittaker responded that he not only had his stereotype of Uganda shatter, he also changed his attitude and interest in other countries. It’s always seemed to me that the world would be a better place, if every single American could travel outside their own country……

What is Life?

On to the next big question, What is Life?
This session was kicked off by Craig Venter, describing, in his deceptively boring voice, how close his team was to creating life. The questions he's investigating are:
  • What is Life?
  • Can we pare it down to its most elemental components?
  • Can we digitize it?
  • Can we regenerate a new life out of the digital model?

They've been trying to find the minimal genome that could represent life by working with the micoplasma genitalium. They've knocked out about 100 of its 500 genes that individually seem irrelevant, but feel that what's left could not be booted up to life.

However, they've worked on building up the single circular chromosome of m.g. (about 500,000 letters long). They've used material from the tens of thousands of labs that can produce genes on demand. They build strings about 50 letters long, with overlaps, then splice them together, then splice together those results, until they build the entire 500,000 long chromosome. The next step is to insert the resultant chromosome into another organism to see if it will boot up. Many species have hosted such extra chromosomes and have gone on to reproduce offspring with the new characteristics.

Venter's vision is to custom produce new species with desired characteristics. He says they're about 18 months away from creating an organism that could take CO2 directly from a feedstock and creating biofuel from it, that could completely replace the petrochemical industry - a modest goal. Or design antibiotics or vaccines directly from components.

He assured the audience that self-destruct genes were built into these organisms as a safety factor. In responding to ethical concerns about 'messing with nature' he claimed he was just 'discovering what was already there' (which hasn't stopped him from patenting these discovers, of course!)

Venter was followed by Paul Rothemund, who went into more detail on the origami chromosomes of last year. By writing strings of genetic letters, like coding a program, he can get DNA to fold in interesting patterns - like the whimsical smiley faces he showed us last year.