Friday, June 12, 2009

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

The latest TED Book Club selections included The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live. This wonderful big book distorts world map so that the size of different countries is proportional to some particular factor. For instance, the map to the left shows the distribution of passenger cars, dominated by the US, Europe and Japan.

On the other hand, a map measuring number of people living in poverty has India, China, Africa and SouthEast Asia ballooning in size.

You can read columns and columns of numbers, but a map such as this really brings home the message.

This book shows 366 such maps in glossy colour, with explanations. What a great coffee table book to browse when you have a few moments - with each fascinating page being thought provoking. You can also browse through almost 600 maps on the Worldmapper site. On most maps, Canada is almost invisible. However, we do gain some prominence on the map showing water resources. You can see us up there in dark blue at the top of the map!

Many diverse topics can be illuminated by this type of sophisticated software map. For instance, at a past TED, Alisa Smith, President and CEO of Public Radio International, used these maps to dramatically depict the state of US new coverage. Based on the news in all US media in February 2007 a worldmapper map makes it look as if the US and Iraq were the only two countries on the planet. She couldn't have made her point about the parochialism of US media more powerfully.

Today, I attended the Rotman Business School's annual Lifelong Learning Conference, which focused on Wicked Problems - those problems in social planning that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. Anita McGahan has been studying and teaching about wicked problems at Rotman, with a considerable focus on global health care issues. McGahan made good use of worldmapper charts to show how different the health care issues are in the rich countries versus the poor. In rich countries, the major disease burden is from noncommunicable diseases, whereas the disease burden in poor countries is from communicable, maternal, prenatal, and nutritional diseases.

And of course, by 2050, we'll see the tremendous divide between the elderly in the rich countries and the young in the poor countries. The elderly rich will be dependent on youth in the poor countries as the productive, working people of the world. Again, dramatic charts showed this divide very clearly. McGahan hopes such impactful presentation will help the rich world to care more about the health care problems of the poor, even if only out of self-interest.

It's hard to make appropriate policy decisions without comprehensive and accurate data. Modern technology is delivering that data. But the sheer quantity of data can be bewildering. Our challenge now is to make sense of the data. Software tools such as worldmapper can unveil insights we might otherwise miss. And certainly the approach can help raise awareness about issues in a dramatic and understandable way.

Have fun browsing the book or the web site - or both!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A few final reviews of Hot Docs films. Here are some films worth seeing if they're screened near you.

The Yes Men Fix the World - Sizzling Stunts with a Searing Message

Both hilarious and sad, the Yes Men pulled a number of 'stunts with a point'. They managed to trick the BBC into interviewing Andy Bichlbaum (one of the directors) as a representative of Dow Chemical. Andy proceeded to announce to the world that Dow was taking responsibility for the Bhopal toxic gas leak in India, which left 18,000 dead and over hundred thousand injured. In fact, they were establishing a $12B fund for compensation. This story was widely reported after the interview, and for a few hours, caused Dow`s stock to fall significantly, before the hoax was discovered.

The Yes Men aim to raise consciousness about unconscionable acts through their humour.

They haven't fixed the world yet, though.

Paris 1919

Inspired by the acclaimed book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, this great movie takes us through the peace process following the First World War. It weaves together fabulous archival footage from that time and very good re-enactments of key characters at the peace conference. We see the idealistic Woodrow Wilson resisting the others of the Big Four: Britain's Lloyd George who is intent on immense reparations far beyond Germany's capability to pay, France's Georges Clemenceau who is intent on maximum revenge, and the territory-hungry Orlando of Italy. We see Wilson's idealism eroded through the process.

We see John Maynard Keynes and his team quantifying the damages caused by Germany - so much for dead livestock, so much for a factory, so much for the earning power of the dead soldiers and civilians - and then comparing that with Germany's capacity to pay, and finding a total mismatch.

We see the cartographers working feverishly to keep up with the pace of borders being redrawn. Those scenes really bring home the avarice of the nations involved in the treaty.

We see Germans who came for the negotiations recoil in horror at the terms they are presented with. In fact, the first team sent to Paris refuse to sign the treaty.


More beautiful aquatic scenery, as we journey through the Great Lakes, documenting the pressures on the ecosystems along the way. This year has been full of alerts to the dangers to our water systems on the earth and this film is excellent in its coverage. The Q&A period raised all sorts of questions that the film didn't have time to cover - the range of problems is so great, and the movie was only 1 hour 49 minutes!

The movie ends with a heartfelt message from a First Nation chief, who states their Natural Law that every individual should guide their actions by considering the effect on six generations forward. Good lesson for us all.


An interesting film exploring the benefits of laughter. The film talked about infectious laughter - and had the audience laughing through much of it.

Nauru, An Island Adrift

Several films at Hot Docs addressed the ravages on the environment caused by greedy exploitation of resources. This film also documented the effects of aggressive exploitation of the phosphate resources of the Pacific island of Nauru. But this film didn't focus on the environmental effects, but on the effects on the people.

One might argue that the island was exploited by colonial powers after the early discovery of phosphate, but since independence, the Nauru people have been in charge of their destiny themselves.

The people of Nauru grew extremely wealthy from phosphate - second richest average income in the world, they proudly proclaim. However, the phosphate will soon run out and the price of phosphate has fallen, leaving Nauru in desperate economic straits. With no other export potential, they continue to mine the phosphate, but for ever lesser returns. The fancy cars, homes, airplanes and other trappings of the rich economic times litter the landscape. The mining has gradually turned the whole island into a devastated moonscape with no vegetation whatsoever; this in turn creates an oven effect which means that water falls all around Nauru, but not on Nauru, leaving them with an impending water crisis. They are beset by very high rates of diabetes because of sudden changes in eating habits.

But the movie zooms in on the response of the people to their situation. Their main attitude is that it was a lot more fun when they were richer. They don't exhibit huge regrets (at least the people interviewed for the film) for the way they exploited the phosphate, without concern for future generations. A metaphor for the planet?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Dud at Hot Docs

It's rare at Hot Docs to attend a screening of a poor film. Unfortunately, Encirclement: Neo-Liberalism Ensnares Democracy had a good premise, to explain the origins and rise of neo-liberalism and how it is affecting us today, but failed miserably to deliver a satisfying movie on the topic. This 3 hour black-and-white film consisted of a series of interviews with unidentified people (well, there was a list at the beginning of the many people that were going to be interviewed, with no affiliation given, but there were no captions to identify who was speaking at any given time and where they were from). The filmmaker didn't seem to have been told that there was now technology to edit films, so that you could actually remove repetitive, redundant content.

There was a moment to leave at half way when they changed the DVDs, and I made my hasty exit along with many others. Each Hot Docs ticket is designed so that you can tear it to mark your rating of 1 to 5 on the film; there's a prize awarded to the highest audience-rated film. I guess I voted with my feet, but I was wishing for a zero on that 1-5 scale!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Two Approaches to Journalism

Two films at Hot Docs contrasted brilliantly today's two approaches to journalism. Burma VJ typified the power of citizen journalism by chronicling a network of brave journalists in Burma who risked their lives or imprisonment (maybe not much difference there) by capturing on film the 2007 protests in Burma. Film was smuggled out, or transmitted via the Internet (before the generals shut off Burma from the Internet). When the protest ultimately failed, the network of about 30 photographers was shattered. However, the positive news was that 60 people came forward to take their places in forming a new network.

The other film, The Reporter, followed New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof as he toured the Congo to document the suffering there from years of warfare. He was searching for that one human story that would bring home the tragedy to American readers and awaken their concern. His visit to one of the warlords was a fascinating exercise in exceedingly cautious questioning intermingled with a few challenges. Tough balance to manage.

Kristof attended the screening and much of the Q&A revolved around the role of that endangered species, the professional journalist and the publications they write in. How can we balance the immediacy of the 'instant journalist' with the time for analysis, and long follow-up of big stories, afforded by professional journalism. And how can newspapers, the main outlet for professional journalism, survive with a business model that has been fractured by the emergence of new online media? It's a question well worth pondering.

Both films are worth seeing if you get the chance.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Black Wave: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez

This movie is a scathing condemnation of the actions by Exxon before, during and after the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989. Their sins were many:
  • The commitments when they lobbied for the building of the Trans Alaska Pipeline that 'not one drop' of oil would be spilled in Prince William Sound or along the coast were complete lies
  • The ship was sent out under the command of an alcoholic captain
  • The company was completely unprepared to do any sort of clean-up
  • The Exxon spokesperson in Alaska lied to the people that Exxon would 'make them whole'; the community was devastated financially and never compensatedfor their losses
  • The clean-up workers who were sent - basically to show that something was being done - were exposed to toxic materials in the clean-up and have suffered severe medical problems with no compensation
  • Prince William Sounds was environmentally ruined, the rocks are still polluted 20 years later and the herring fishery never recovered
  • Exxon dragged on litigation for many years with multiple appeals. After being judged liable for billions of dollars of damages in three lower courts, Exxon was finally fined a mere $508M dollars by the Supreme Court. This amounted to four days profit for the company, not exactly a deterrent for other companies.
The 'star' of the movie was the passionate, articulate, activist marine scientist and toxicologist, Riki Ott. She appeared for the Q&A session, and demonstrated that there is at least one woman in Alaska who is intelligent, knowledgeable, and able to put together several coherent sentences in a row. She is the author of Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

The other 'star' was the Prince William Sound itself, with much footage of the fantastically beautiful locale.

The Entrepreneur

If you have a chance to see this movie, chronicling Malcolm Bricklin's efforts to bring the Chinese Chery car to market in North America - go! It's a fascinating story, filled with suspense, sprinkled with humour, and dominated by a larger-than-life entrepreneur, Malcolm Bricklin. The film was made over more than 4 years by Jonathan Bricklin, Malcolm's son, and the 1500 hours of film has been edited to a delightful 90 minutes.

Now 70, Malcolm Bricklin had made two fortunes - bringing first Subaru and then the Yugo to North America - and then lost them in other business ventures, most notably the Bricklin car to be made in New Brunswick. His taste for one last big win is undiminished. It's great fun to watch his passion, persuasiveness and persistence, and sheer chutzpah. Chery ultimately backed out of the deal and Bricklin is suing for billions; his lawyers think this complete film record of all the meetings is likely to prove useful in the litigation!!!

Morgan Spurlock, who produced Supersize Me, has signed on as Executive Producer, so with a bit of his father's chutzpah, and Spurlock's contacts, this might actually achieve distribution.

Meanwhile, Jonathan and his co-producer have taken up ping-pong with a passion, are training for the 2012 Olympics (and believe they can make it). They are also opening a ping pong bar in NYC this week. There are some of his father's genes in that boy!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The End of the Line

If today's rate of overfishing continues, there will be no more fish for commercial fishing by 2048; and there'll be no more seafood for us to eat. 90% of the fish in the sea have already been caught. That's the opinion of the scientists in this sobering movie, based on the book The End of the Line: How Over-fishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, by Charles Clover.

The opening salvo of this British movie concerned the collapse of the cod fishery in Canada, and many of the scientists interviewed were from Canada. It presented the situation with bluefin tuna as indicative of what's happening in fisheries today - repeating the disaster seen in cod.

Scientists have calculated that to stop the decline in bluefin the catch should be limited to 15M tons; to allow it to recover, the catch limit should be set at 10. In recent EU meetings, the limit was set at 29, and estimates for the real catch (including all the illegal catches) are 61M. The prognosis for this species is chilling.

The decline of bluefin tuna is similar to that seen in other species. This has only been realized since about 2002, because consistent overstatement of fish catches from China misled scientists into thinking that despite local declines, overall worldwide catches were actually rising. Dr. Pauly of University of British Columbia was the one who showed the Chinese data must be wrong and worldwide catches were declining, despite ever more sophisticated technology.

The movie's web site provides more information and offers three action steps:

Ask Before You Buy:

Eat only sustainable seafood. The movie points out that farmed fish is not the solution - it takes 5 pounds of anchovies ground into fishmeal for one pound of salmon. Buying farmed fish merely increases the load on less popular fish, needed at the lower ends of the food chain.

Greenpeace handed out flyers at the end of the movie, with a Redlist of fish you should not be purchasing, in grocery stores or restaurants:
  • Atlantic cod
  • Atlantic haddock (scrod)
  • Atlantic halibut
  • Atlantic salmon (farmed)
  • Atlantic sea scallops
  • Chilean seabass
  • Greendland halibut (turbot)
  • Hard shell clams (Arctic surf clams)
  • New Zealand hoki (blue grenadier)
  • Orange roughy
  • Sharks
  • Skates and rays
  • Swordfish
  • Tropical shrimps and prawns
  • Tuna -- bluefin, yellowfin, bigeye
Be sure to ask wherever you buy fish where the fish is from. Educate sellers about how much consumers care.

Tell Politicians

Make sure politicians know that there is a large part of the electorate who cares - not just the vocal fisher community and mighty fish corporations who press them so hard. The movie stated that Mitsubishi, the largest provider of bluefin tuna, had actually been increasing their catch significantly and freezing the fish. The conjecture was that these frozen bluefin would be extremely valuable to Mitsubishi when the last bluefin was caught.

Join the campaign for marine protected areas and responsible fishing

This message went full circle with the plea of this year's TED Prize winner Sylvia Earle, documented in an earlier post. The biggest idea to emerge from the brainstorming lunch around helping fulfil Sylvia's wishes was to advocate for creating protected areas in the oceans. This movie estimates that it would cost 12-14B annually to create reserves in about 20-30% of the ocean. This compares with 15-30B currently spent annually on fishing subsidies. Creating these reserves would create jobs to protect them.

Sergio - Charismatic Humanitarian Hero

Sergio Vieira de Mello. Dashingly handsome. A dazzling smile and positive attitude that engaged everyone he met. Passionate and compassionate. A career with the UN committed to making the world better through action - "You can't make a difference sitting behind a desk", he stated. "You have to get out in the field." And get out to the field he did: Bangladesh, Cyprus, Sudan, Mozambique, Lebanon, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo, East Timor. It was a catalog of three decades of world hot spots.

He was a humanitarian James Bond, with Bond's penchant for the ladies. As one commentor in the film stated, "He liked women. A lot."

Sergio was, to some extent, a maverick. Although he was a 'traditional' rebel in his early days at the Sorbonne, manning the barricades, he came to believe in a more co-operative approach. When he was special envoy in Cambodia, with the responsbility to effect the orderly and peaceful migration of 400,000 Cambodians back to their homes in Cambodia, he met with the Khmer Rouge to ensure this would happen peacefully. No one had ever met with them before. Meeting with the 'bad guys' was important, he said. You can't get important things done without talking to the other side.

When he was regent for the transition of East Timor from Indonesia to independence, he was given virtually dictatorial powers. However, he set up a council, and then a cabinet, of local leaders, and did nothing without their concurrence.

These efforts around the world gave him a reputation as a problem solver, a fixer, and led to his fateful appointment as the special representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq. He was killed in the suicide bombing attack on the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, the first suicide bombing in Iraq, on August 19, 2003. He had been reluctant to go, having been a strong opponent of the US action, but was persuaded by Bush and Rice that he was needed there.

The film shows his life and achievements in a series of flashbacks as we watch the appallingly feeble efforts to rescue him from the rubble of the attack. Although the US ostensibly invaded Iraq as a result of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, they were woefully unprepared to deal with a terrorist attack. Sergio and another colleague were found very quickly in the rubble, and, in the movie, two American servicemen tell their story of working for three and a half hours in a tiny shaft to save them. Although his colleague was saved (by the gruesome measure of an underground hacksaw amputation of both his legs to extricate him), the lack of any equipment or further help doomed Sergio.

This is a movie well worth seeing. I first heard about Sergio through a TED talk by Samantha Powers, and the movie is based on her book Chasing the Flame - I've got it on my reading list.

Hot Docs

The next few posts will feature reviews of films from Hot Docs, Toronto's documentary film festival, the largest documentary film festival in North America. Hot Docs is my second gluttony of brain food for the year, along with TED.

The films are shown at a number of theatres clustered around Bloor and University Avenues in downtown Toronto and you can take in movies from late morning until the late night shows at midnight. With diligence and stamina, you could probably take in 6 movies in a day. I'm not doing more than four in one day. Yesterday, my first day, I saw three great movies, and grabbed a traditional hot dog from the street vendor in front of the Royal Ontario Museum as I dashed between two theatres.

Stay tuned for some reviews.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sarah Jones

TED includes some great entertainment in the program. It can be a welcome respite from the intense intellectual stimulation of so many talks. One of the most enjoyable this year was the Tony- and Obie- award winning actress Sarah Jones, who delighted us with hilarious excerpts from her one-woman show.

Four different women delivered a monologue to us. For me, her most memorable character was an elderly Jewish lady, delivered with extreme wit and affection.

If you ever get a chance to see her perform, definitely take it in. She's fabulous.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Predictable Irrationality and Bernie Madoff

Dan Ariely is the author of the delightful book Predictably Irrational, a professor of behavioural economics at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and a great speaker. He challenges the traditional notion in economics that people behave in a rational manner.

In fact, he has demonstrated that people are actually irrational, but in a predictable way. He told us about one series of experiments designed to test propensity to cheat.

The basic experiment had a group of student volunteers take a test with a number of math questions on it. The questions were all well within their capability, but there were too many for someone to possibly do within the time limit. They calibrated the test by giving it to lots of students which determined that the average number of questions solved was four. They then did a number of variations on this control experiment.

A lot of people will cheat a little
The first experiment administered the test and offered the students money for each question they got right. The students were asked to report how many questions they got right and then to shred their answer sheet. Many participants cheated - but only by shading their results up a bit. Ariely suggests that people cheat just enough that they still feel good about themselves.

People cheat less when they've been reminded of morality
In one variation, participants were asked to write down the Ten Commandments before starting the test. They didn't cheat. The students had very low recall of the commandments, suggesting that they weren't necessarily highly religious. Indeed the same effect was observed when they were asked to sign the MIT Honour Code before starting the test. This worked, even though MIT actually has no Honour Code!

People cheat more about things rather than money
In another variation, Ariely offered people tokens instead of money for reported correct answers. These tokens were then exchanged for money. By using tokens instead of money directly, cheating doubled.

He also described a simple test in a shared fridge. You can leave a Coke or an equivalent amount of money in the fridge to see how long before they are stolen. The half life of the Coke is much shorter than that of the money. Similarly, people who would never think of taking a dime from petty cash will nonchalantly take home a pencil from work.

People cheat more if members of their group are seen to be cheating
Another interesting variation on the math test had an actor taking the test, and claiming that he got all the answers; the other participants would know this had to be a lie. When this actor was wearing a sweatshirt from the participant's own university, this increased cheating. Without that affinity, the actor's claim had no impact.

Ariely tells a riveting story of how he became interested in how people make irrational decisions. As a young man, after an injury while he was in the Israeli army, he spent many months in hospital with third degree burns all over his body. During this time he suffered horrible pain during the changing of the bandages on his burns. The technique was to take the bandages off quickly, resulting in high pain levels. He proposed to the kindly nurses that they should experiment with removing the bandages more slowly - less pain over a longer period - but was unsuccessful in convincing them to try it.

He later did experiments that showed that we suffer less when we experience lower levels of pain over longer periods than more pain over shorter periods. Even when he returned to tell the nurses of this, he was unable to convince them they should consider changing their ways. This inspired him to investigate other areas in which humans hold strong views about how humans react, without necessarily having the evidence to support their position.

Ariely has commented on the lessons we might learn from the real-life "experiment" on cheating conducted by Bernie Madoff. As he points out, we're more at risk from many people cheating a little bit than from the the big cheaters like Madoff. He worries that the Madoff experience will cause us to shift our focus to catching the few big cheaters, instead of the thousands of little one. Click here to see what he has to say.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cutting Remarks

Catherine Mohr excited us with her description of robotic devices that make surgery incredibly less invasive. She mesmerized us with some videos of live surgery (do look for her talk when it is loaded on; it's not there yet.)

Amazing how far we've come. There are remains of patients who were trepanned (had a hole drilled in the skull) as long as 5000-10000 years ago and survived the operation. Old paintings depict the barber performing surgery (without anesthetic) as a spectator sport. It was only in 1847 that ether anaesthesia was first used in Boston General, and 20 years later that Lister introduced carbolic acid as an antiseptic .

Laporoscopy was the big surgical advance of the 1980's. It's wonderful for the patient, as it is done through very small incisions which are less invasive and easier to heal. Laparoscopy was such an advance that now almost 100% of gallbladder operations are done through laparoscopy. And yet laparoscopy deprives a surgeon of their most refined skills, the 3D aspect of surgery which they have trained.

Enter the da Vinci surgical system, which allows surgeons to operate remotely by controlling robotic instruments, returning the sense of 3D vision and touch to them. This system follows the motion of the surgeon's hand - it 'gives them a wrist' as Mohr put it. Using the da Vinci, surgeons can now repair heart valves from inside the heart, without the heart ever stopping beating. This makes another advance on laparoscopy in minimizing the invasiveness of surgery.

There are further advances possible with such these procedures. At this stage, the system is best for an operation in one place, like, say, a prostectomy. For an operation that involves two sites, you'd have to move the whole system and set it up again. The solution is to bring the camera and instruments through one tube.

Other exciting advances can be made by increasing the vision of the surgeon through injection of markers to identify cancer tumours. Another use of such vision would be to check the efficacy of a bypass operation before closing. By inserting a microscope, you could see and operate on very tiny nerves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Louise Fresco on Food

Louise Fresco, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, is a big thinker and widely published author on food and sustainability. My big takeway from her talk was that quaint farmers' markets are a luxury for the rich but really inappropriate for the poor. For the poor, more technology, not less, is what is desired. She advocated a multi-functional regional food production system rather than the global one we have now.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Growing Up

We live vertically. Why not grow our food vertically? That's the proposal of Dickson Despommier, who believes we should carry out large-scale agriculture in urban highrises - in other words embark on vertical farming. Since agricultural land is being eaten up and the population is shifting increasingly into urban areas, it makes sense to undertake this kind of farming.

Vertical farms would have a high bird-to-stone ratio. This one solution could address many problems:
  • Eliminate the agricultural run-off that causes 75% of the problems with the oceans
  • Provide year-round crop production
  • Eliminate crop loss due to severe weather events
  • Use 70% less water, and no fossil fuels, pesicides, or herbicides
  • Help repair the damaged ecosystem by allowing farms to return to a natural state
  • Grow foods closer to consumption, reducing transportation costs and carbon emissions

Despommier, a professor at Columbia, has been a proponent of this idea for some time, and many designs have been proposed. Economic analysis has yet to prove that the costs of farming this way are less than the benefits. After all, this kind of farming needs lots of artificial light for the centre of the building. You can explore this idea further at his web site, where there's a collection of designs that could deliver such vertical farms. There's even a proposal for a 38-storey Sky Farm in Toronto's theatre district, shown at the right.

Of Water and Oceans

The theme of water flowed through TED this year. Of course, the star was Sylvia Earle, an oceaonographer, explorer, author, lecturer, and passionate champion of the planet's oceans and winner of one of this year's TED Prizes.

Her powerful acceptance speech is already up on (click here). We've explored only 5% of the ocean - we know more about outer space than our own ocean deep. Yet, we've managed to ravage the ocean. She told us that over the last 50 years we've eaten over 90% of the big fish and destroyed over half of the coral reefs. In a friendly dig at fellow TED Prize winner Jill Tarter, director of the SETI project looking for intelligent life outside Earth, Earle wishes for the discovery of intelligent life among humans on this planet. Continuing the reference to space, she remarked that an astronaut does everything in his power to maintain and protect his life support system, yet we do nothing to protect our life support system, the oceans.

Her wish was to save the oceans before it is too late:

"I wish you would use all means at your disposal - films! expeditions! the web! more! - to ignite public support for a global netowork of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to savce and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet."

This seems a worthy goal, as 12% of land on the planet is protected (what an amazing proportion!), but only 1% of the oceans.

We just received a wonderful book by Earle, Ocean, An Illustrated Atlas, in the TED Book Club. My granddaughter Jamie was enthralled with it, as I think you will be too.

You should also definitely take in the stunning movie Oceans when it is released in North America in the spring of 2010. We were treated to a preview of some of the 300 hours of this film. Conceived by Jacques Perrin, the $75 million film was 8 years in the making, four years in filming in 78 locations. Because Perrin's English is weak, Jake Eberts, the Canadian producer of the film (and producer of other films such as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Name of the Rose, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves) talked about the film - and what poetic proof of the majesty of the oceans Earle has urged us to save. New equipment was developed to move through the water alongside the marine animals - it gives a perspective never seen before in marine movies.

At a luncheon hosted by WWF, Dr. Jason Clay told us it's often hard to grasp intuitively the impact on the earth's water resources of anything we consume. He enumerated the amount of water used in a cup of latte:

0.1 litre for the water itself
2.5 litres to make the plastic lid
5.5 litres to make the paper cup and sleeve
7.5 litres to grow the sugar
49.5 litres to feed the cows that make the milk
143 litres to grow the coffee

He wasn't urging people to forsake their beloved lattes, since water - in the form of tropical rainstorms in coffee growing regions - isn’t in short supply. In comparison, rice farming uses 58 percent of “all water on the planet used by people for any purpose—farming, manufacturing, cooling nuclear power plants, swimming pools, showers.”

Charles Moore, at TED U, spoke about ocean pollution and showed some depressing images of plastic found on beaches and in the bellies of fish. Moore founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to do marine research, education and restoration. One of the papers he has published showed that plastic outweighs plankton by a factor 2.5 in the coastal waters off Southern California.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Virus Hunter

Nathan Wolfe is The Virus Hunter. Sounds like a movie title, doesn't it?

Wolfe is on the front lines of tracking virus cross-overs from animals to humans. HIV, Ebola, Bird Flu, West Nile, SARS, and Yellow Fever, are examples of viruses that have made that cross-over, much to the grief of humans.

This cross-species transmission is not rare - it's happening all the time. And we're not very good at stopping pandemics once they've started. So Wolfe and the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative are building a global network to monitor that transfer of viruses from animals to humans. This shold warn us of possible diseases before they actually start hitting humans.

In the past, we didn't have such an early warning. HIV first crossed to humans in 1929; it took decades to start attacking the pandemic, and still with limited success. With ever-increasing global interaction and ability for viruses to travel, we can't wait that long to start working on the next big virus if we want to prevent future pandemics.

Developing an early warning system takes Wolfe to the viral hot spots where humans are highly exposed to animals. He started a decade ago by visiting hunters in Cameroon who kill bush meat; other hot spots include Chinese wet-market workers and butchers, wildlife sanctuary employees, and Malaysian bat hunters.

Wolfe is a professor at UCLA. His work and the work of the GVFI are supported by Google and Jeff Skoll. In a past TED, we heard TED Prize winner Larry Brilliant (now head of the Google Foundation) wish for an early warning system of emerging pandemics. He praised the work of the Canadian Health and Welfare unit that had been monitoring mentions of unusual outbreaks of disease on the Internet to identify such emerging outbreaks - they had noticed emergence of SARS long before official channels. Wolfe's work takes this warning back much earlier, before humans start to get sick.

Wolfe also charged us all of suffering from 'surface parochialism'. We restrict our thinking to life at the surface of the earth. However, it's possible that life started deep in the depths of earth, and perhaps there is another kind of life, which doesn't share a DNA foundation. When we send up a Mars probe, should we be asking if there is life in Mars instead of on Mars.

Radical Transformation of Education

In one of the rousing speeches of the final session, Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, issued a call to arms to reinstate liberal arts at the centre of US education. The future of America depends on it. The cult of the narrow expert has displaced the generalist. This idealization of the expert has led to the fragmentation of knowledge, the loss of neutrality and the eventual descent into fundamentalism.

When appointed the President of Bennington College, she turned it on its ear in a quest to redefine liberal arts education. She totally revamped the curriculum around inter-linked study of issues like health, equity, education, uses of force, governance and the environment. The tools for studying these topics are rhetoric, design, mediation, improvisation, quantitative reasoning, and technology, with an emphasis on action. She fired many of the faculty (I think she said one third), who weren't willing to along with this radical change.

She questioned whether a nation can be both ignorant and free. She lamented that over 50% of Americans don't believe in evolution and challenged American TEDsters to use their influence to turn the tide. Otherwise, in the future, someone might ask them "Where were you when all this happened".

What Will Iran Do?

Predict the future? No problem, says Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He's a political scientist (professor at NYU and senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution) who's putting the science into political science, using rational choice theory and mathematical game theory modeling.

To make predictions about strategic choices, Bueno de Mesquita says you just need to know certain facts:
  • Who are the key players who have a stake in shaping th eoutcome?
  • What do these players say they want?
  • How focused are they on these goals?
  • How much clout to they have?
In assessing the likelihood of different outcomes, you start with the assumption that political leaders want to keep their jobs and derive your predictions based on the assumption that self-interest will drive their behaviour. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?)

With accurate input (ah, and there's one rub, perhaps), you can predict the outcome of very thorny political and foreign policy issues with great accuracy. Bueno de Mesquita first earned credibility for his approach when his (published) prediction that two relative unknowns, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, would succeed Ayatolla Khomeini on his death. He had been scoffed at when the prediction was originally made, but had some opponents eating humble pie when exactly this happened.

Bueno de Mesquita consults to the CIA and the US Defence Department, and he has provided input on the North Korean problem: the resent deal bears a strong resemblance to his advice. He has an unusual suggestion on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian situation by aligning their self-interests. He told us of his assessment of the future in Iran - he feels Iran wants to have the capability of building a bomb rather than actually building a bomb. He characterizes Ahmedinejad as only the 18th most powerful person in Iran, despite the Western media's obsession with his outrageous statements.

From other reading, I gather that not everyone in the field of political science supports this approach, believing that it is too deterministic. However, the CIA and the US Defence Department consider his incredible prediction percentage as too good to ignore.

Bueno de Mesquita also consults to business, in matters of litigation, mergers and acquisitions, and regulation.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Going Green - Making Money

Ray Anderson has been striving for perfect sustainability in his business for decades. And when that business is the carpet business (the company he founded and now chairs, Interface Global, is the largest modular carpet manufacturer in the world), which is notoriously hostile to the environment, he's taken on a big challenge.

Anderson has broken the mold in that business by pushing Interface to make steady progress in reducing environmental impact - while steadily increasing profitability and market share. Going Green has brought in the green in terms of profitability too.

Anderson's now reaching for Mission Zero for Interface - namely reaching zero environmental impact for the business - and establishing an organization to help other businesses strive for the same goal (click here for more info on the Mission Zero organization).

Ray is a frequent motivational speaker, including within his own company to engage employees in the mission. He told us a story of one of his employees, Glenn Thomas, attending such a speech one Tuesday. Thomas then gave Anderson a poem, Tomorrow's Child, which Anderson said has been a beacon for him ever since.

Tomorrow's Child
© Glenn Thomas

Without a name; an unseen face
and knowing not your time nor place
Tomorrow's Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.

A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his sobering point of view
I saw a day that you would see;
a day for you, but not for me

Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you

Tomorrow's Child, my daughter-son
I'm afraid I've just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.

Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander; what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.

Many speakers later referred to this poem, as a guiding principle for all of us in seeking to leave a better environment for our children and grandchildren.

Of Marshmallows and Life - two TED U talks

Joachim de Posada broke TED rules by getting into book-promotion mode. However, his talk was rather interesting, discussing the 'marshmallow experiment'. In the 60's, some experimenters at Stanford did a landmark study offering some four-year-olds a marshmallow. They were told they could eat the marshmallow now; alternatively, if they could wait until the experimenter returned from an errand, some 15 or 20 minutes later, they could have two marshmallows.

Approximately one third of the kids were able to delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow. Looking at these same kids years later, their SAT scores were over 200 points higher, and they were more adjusted, happier and more successful in every way. It's been concluded that this ability to delay gratification might just be the most significant predictor of life success. de Posada has written several books about the topic. He entertained us with the antics of the kids' behaviour as they touched, smelled, licked, or pushed away the marshmallows as they tried to resist.

Philip Zimbardo elaborated on this idea. He classified people into three types: those who live in the present (who ate the marshmallow immediately), those who live in the future (those who waited long enough to get the second marshmall0w) and those who live in the past. He said that, although future orientation could lead to considerable 'success', one needed to balance this with a present focus in order to attain happiness. He considers our weakness in management of time in general and our time focus as illustrating The Time Paradox in our lives.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

How To Grow Your Own Fresh Air

Kamal Meattle became allergic to ambient air, with his lung capacity going down to 70%. His research found that three plants were particularly good at cleaning and purifying air (see here for more info):
What he learned for his own health purposes, Meattle has applied in an old building in Delhi where people who stayed in the building were able to improve their oxygen levels, and were less susceptible to eye irritation, headaches, lung impairment and asthma. Meattle calculates the benefits in productivity of the people to be over 2o%, while reducing energy costs for air circulation and purification.

They are now building a 1.75M sq. ft. building according to these principles, which will incorporate 60,000 plants. The building is expected to be ready by 2011. You can learn more about this building at the GreenSpaces web site(click here).

More on Data from TED 2009

It wasn't only Berners-Lee that was talking about data at TED this year. Hans Rosling (seen here on a stepladder getting up close and personal with his data) treated us to some HIV stats that he presented in his own inimitable way. You can see this, and other, data come alive on his site It shows the power of presentation for helping understanding what the data is showing.

JoAnn Kuchera Morin presented another way of making data come alive data in the Allosphere at University of California Santa Barbara. The Allosphere allows you to visualize, hear, and explore data by standing inside an enormous sphere (3 storeys in diameter), built by a team whose skills cross the boundaries of arts and science. Up to 20 researchers can stand on a bridge and be immersed in this enormous, rich multimedia environment. One experiment allowed researchers to feel as if they were travelling inside the brain during an actual fMRI (a functional MRI) that tracks in real time what parts of he brain are activated during different stimuli. Other experiments 'traveled' into smaller spaces, like lattices of atoms, right down to a single hydrogen atom.

Yann Arthus Bertrand

I first ran into Yann Arthus Bertrand through his many photographs in a book called Over Europe, with text by Jan Morris. It is a coffee table book that I riffle through often, and never fail to enjoy. I was eagerly anticipating his TED appearance - each year at TED at least one of the speakers has thrilled me with dazzling photography, such as this photo of the Great Barrier Reef. Such was not to be, as Bertrand showed few photos.

However, his talk focused on a variety of projects he's involved in, documented in several delightful web sites.

He is best known for his photos taken from above. The photos range from great natural scenes such as this one of the Athabasca Tar Sands
to man-made scenes like this co-operative farm in Israel
Anyway, before I get carried away filling this posting with beautiful photographs, I just encourage you to fool around on his site and enjoy them yourself.

Another project/web site worth touring is which houses interviews of people from around the world, talking about rather personal and intimate things. The people were asked similar questions - about love, money, liberty, happiness, discrimination and many others - and then these wonderfully expressive people offer their opinions on these topics. Again worth a visit when you have some spare time. It's a really lovely illustration of the similarities across the world.

Another of his projects is found on his (totally French) web site, which focuses on environmental concerns.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oxymoron - Clean Coal

As I heard the news on the radio the other day that the Antarctic ice cap was melting faster than expected, I was reminded of Al Gore's short message at TED. He was back this year, with some new slides about methane, pointing out that as the climate warms and frozen northern lakes thaw, they release methane and contribute to more global warming, thus feeding the vicious cycle of climate change. He had rather ignored methane in his previous slide show; of course, methane is even more pernicious than carbon monoxide.

He also inveighed against the oxymoronic concept of clean coal and the huge amount of money (a quarter of a billion dollars) being spent to advertise it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Ray Kurzweil - It's All About Exponentials

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor, entrepreneur, and a former speaker at TED (click here for his talk) is a provocative big thinker. He believes technology will change our lives more than we believe possible, with astounding consequences.

Kurzweil is all about exponential curves; he points out that we can underestimate progress when we're dealing with exponentials. For isntance, during the first decade of the human genome project, only 2% of the genome had been sequenced, but the remaining 98% was solved in five years. We tend to focus on having solved only 2% of problems and get discouraged. Yet once the breakthroughs take place, they accelerate the process and apply in addressing future problems. It took 15 years to sequence HIV, but only 15 days to sequence SARS.

He's published two mind-blowing books: The Singularity is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology and Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. In the first book, Kurzweil explains that exponential improvements in technology will bring dazzling advances that help address the climate change, poverty, famine and disease. In the second, he advances the startling proposition that we are so close to perfecting life-prolonging technologies that we baby-boomers just have to hang on a little while, and these technologies will be sufficiently advanced to offer us technological immortality. Kurzweil's extreme personal health regimen is designed to ensure he reaches that point of possibility. Kurzweil is never boring!

At TED University, he announced the formation of the Singularity University. According to Kurzweil, "One of the objectives of the university is to really dive in depth into these exponentially growing technologies, to create connections between them, and to apply these ideas to the great challenges [facing the world]." NASA has contributed space and Google money for the university, which will accept its first students this summer. Watch for some interesting results.

TED2009 and Philanthropy

There are two themes of a TED conference. One is Ideas Worth Spreading, which is the slogan of the conference, and what appears on TED sweatshirts. What you put on the sweatshirts always is the ultimate definition of what you are about. The other theme is making the world a better place. There were several talks at Ted University and on the main stage this year about philanthropy. As one might expect from TED, they combined creativity with a wish to help others.

Blake Mycoskie is 'Chief ShoeGiver' of TOMS shoes, a company that gives a pair of shoes to a child in need every time you buy a pair of shoes. You can see this at the Toms Shoes site.

Then there was John Breen of Free Rice who invited us to play games on site, and donate 10 grains of free to the UN World Food Program for every answer you get right. There are games about words, math, geography, art, foreign languages; if you like trivial pursuit you could get quite hooked. And 10 grains of rice are donated every time you get a correct answer, courtesy of sponsors on the site.

Martin Fisher offered some guidelines on how to choose among charities proposing to address global challenges. Make sure they're:
  • Measurable
  • Cost-effective
  • Sustainable
  • Replicable/scalable
He discusses these ideas further at the Real Good, Not Feel Good site.

Austin Hill described the online social reality game Akoha where you earn points by playing real-world missions with your friends. Based on a Play It Forward idea, you can earn points by giving someone a gift (chocolate, your favourite book), or by simply making contact. Completing Akoha missions can result in real-world partnerships - for instance a school project in Nepal.

Hill attended his first TED just weeks after his brother's funeral. The inspiration of TED's positive spirit decided him to do a site like this rather than starting another disease foundation.

Jacqueline Novogratz is founder of the Acumen Foundation and Chris Anderson's wife as of last summer. The Acumen Foundation is a non-profit global venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. The TED Book Club has just sent us a pre-release of Novogratz' book, The Blue Sweater (a gift from Chris himself, he hastens to note, not from TED), whose stubtitle is Briding the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.

Novogratz spoke about the dismal facts and uplifting hopes around malaria. Malaria kills a child every 30 seconds. Novogratz talked of the efforts of people like Awa Maria Coll-Seck, Executive Director of Roll Back Malaria. Roll Back Malaria was founded in 1998 with a goal of reducing malaria by half by 2010. Coll-Seck is a very impressive woman, former minister of health for Senegal.

In Ethiopia, there were 50M people at risk of malaria and 16M cases among children in 2003. After an aggressive malaria campagn, they were able to achieve a 50% reduction in deaths. They took a multi-pronged approach, training over 33K health care works, distributed 20M nets in 18 months, delivered 12M doses of medication and sprayed 1M houses. This prevented 9.6M dcases and saved 57K lives.

Novogratz feels that you need this full set of interventions to be successful against malara, backing by tremendous political will, and the provision of multiple years of funding at one time (as against the unpredictable year-to-year funding approach in much of such work).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tim Berners Lee - the next revolution on the Web

It's been almost 20 years since Berners-Lee invented the worldwide web, having written the initial memo in 1989. He acknowledged it was rather a vague concept, but exciting. You had to experience it to fully appreciate it. The concept of linking to another web page seems so natural to us now, but its power was hard to understand 20 years ago.

Berners Lee thinks the Internet is ready - and needs - a tranformation as dramatic as that revolution. This transformation would support the sharing and linking of data. This would open up to Internet users the wealth of data available under all those textual and graphical web pages; i.e. we'd get to the real data, not just a representation of the data as text, a sort of dbpedia.

He showed a picture of what this linked data universe could look like. Each buble here represents, not a web page but a data set.

He referred to the wonderful data we've seen from Hans Rosling at TED (and on his web site) and mused how much more valuable that site would be if you could get the original data Rosling had used. Then, just as we can link from page to page in a browser, we could link from data set to data set to move more deeply into the information.

He pointed to Open Street Map as an example of a system that allows you to get at the actual data. This is a shared data wiki, where you can view and edit geographical data about any place in the world.

Berners-Lee has three rules that would make this data available to everyone:
  1. Use http names for all data
  2. If you use those names, you can address the data and get it back in usable form
  3. You can also get the relationships
You can see Bernes-Lee's slides here, although they do lose a little something without his explanations and passionate advocacy. But you can at least see a clearer image of the diagram above.

Having worked at I. P. Sharp in the 70s and 80s, where we had numerous online databases of data, this seems like an idea whose time has come. Add the effortless linking approach of WWW and this is a very powerful meme.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Insights on India

One of the talks which really surprised and delighted me was this one by the co-founder of Infosys. Nandan Nilekani is the author of a book called Imagining India: Ideas for the New Century and he gave us a whirlwind tour of the ideas in that book. India is going through such transformation and he had a very thought-provoking take on that transformation. He discussed:
  • Ideas which have 'arrived', and are being implemented and acted upon
  • Ideas which are agreed upon by everyone but haven't been implemented yet
  • Ideas over which there is conflict and disagreement
  • Ideas in anticipation where there is agreement there is a problem but no consensus on solution

Ideas which have arrived

People, who were traditionally thought of as a burden, are now thought of as the engines of growth. India has a 'demographic dividend' for the next thirty years. As other countries are facing a worrisome aging of the population, resulting in tremendous burdens on social and health systems, India has an extremely young population, giving them a significant competitive edge.

Entrepreneurs, once thought of as villains in India, are now treated as role models.

Indians now see English as the language of aspiration, not the language of oppression.

Technology which was once seen as threatening is now seen as empowering. Mobile technology is a symbol of that technology to the masses. Eight million mobiles are being sold per month. 40% of these mobiles are recharged with less than 20 cents.

When Indians used to think of the rest of the world, they thought of imperialism; now they see globalization, a source of opportunity for India.

Ideas which are generally agreed upon and are being implemented

It's recognized that youngsters must have access to good public primary schools. Currently over half the students attend private schools.

The slogan in India used to be food and shelter for everyone. Now the slogans are around electricity, water and roads.

The cities are seen as the engines of growth in India. This is in ontrast to Ghandhi who focused on the villages.

India is now seen as one seamless market, with the infrastructure trying to catch up to this vision.

Ideas where there is still conflict
and disagreement

There are political, ideological conflicts about what politics will look like as India moves beyond the caste system.

There is still a conflict with labour about whether job protection is hampering job creation.

And there is disagreement about whether higher education should be controlled by the state or by private industry.

Ideas in anticipation

India has to avoid a health care crisis which simply substitutes the diseases of poverty for the diseases of the rich.

India has to work out a balance between pensions and entitlments.

India has to avoid environmental problems as it grows.

India has to drive its growth around a new energy model.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Nalini Nadkarni

"The Queen of the Canopies" has spent two decades studying the canopies of tropical rain forests and Pacific Northwest rain forest. Home to an incredible diversity of biological life, the canopy is the last biotic frontier. Over 10,000 species of ants have been discovered and catalogued in the canopy; of these 4,000 live exclusively in the canopy. Plants can live in the canopy, getting their moisture from the surrounding mist; they take in water through their leaves rather than their roots.

Nadkarni has shown that epiphytes, which are non-parasitic plants such as orchids and ferns and mosses, that live on the branches and trunks of other plants, trap organic material beneath their root system, forming a nutrient rich mat, allowing trees to form aerial roots stemming from their trunks and branches.

As she puts it, "You are looking at a carpet of carbon capture when you look out over a forest canopy."

Nadkarni is passionate about trees and also about collaborating about trees. She established the International Canopy Network. She buys up Barbie dolls at flea markets, and dresses them in the gear of a tree climber and distributes them as Treetop Barbies to encourage girls to take up this career (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em). She partners with artists, and we had a performance of Biome by dance group Capacitor - using human bodies to mimic the growth of trees.

Nadkarni did research on the mosses that grow on trees and in the canopy - to her surprise they took 20 years to regrow after being stripped. There is a $265M industry harvesting these mosses for use by florists. Nadkarni determined she would try to establish an industry to grow the mosses to prevent this stripping in the forest. She took it to a prison and the inmates became totally engaged in determining which mosses grew best and how to plant and care for them. This grew into a sustainability program which includes worm culture, gardens, and bee keeping. One group is now helping to protect the endangered Oregon spotted frog by nurturing and breeding them in captivity (little ha ha).

Nadkarni is charismatic about science and believes it should be shared. "People tend to compartmentalize, but nature is a common denominator", she says.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks became a household name after his bestseller Awakenings (and the subsequent movie),and is the author of one of our TED Book Club selections, Musicology.

Sacks walked gingerly on stage, sat down, and embarked on a story. It was the story of Rosalee, a lady in her 90's, who had lost her sight and who was having recurrent hallucinations. Rosalee, and her attendants, worried that she might be going mad. Rosalee described seeing people in European dress, a man with huge teeth, children in pink and blue clothes, often walking down stairs. The visions were detailed, vivid, but silent.

Sacks was called out to speak with her and diagnose her; he was quickly able to determine that she was sane, lucid, and intelligent, but suffering from Charles Bonnet syndrome. This syndrome affects upwards of 10% of the visually impaired. Particularly prevalent are faces, often with deformities, and, surprisingly, cartoons. There is a particular portion of the brain which recognizes faces, and another which handles cartoons. Apparently, in the absence of real visual stimulation, those parts of the brain start to react anyway, and present an image, or hallucination. Since this takes place in the visual cortex, outside the area which adds sound, or emotion to a visual, these hallucinations appear like silent movies, with no emotional baggage attached.

As Sacks puts it, "the theatre of the mind is generated by the machinery of the brain." What a lovely expression. And what a lovely way to introduce the subject, by telling us the story of Rosalee.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Making of Benjamin Button

Ed Ulbrich of Digital Domain gave us a tour behind the scenes of Benjamin Button. I had assumed there was some incredible make-up work in the movie. Not so. In fact, for the first hour of the film, Button's face is entirely computer generated.

The task set out by the director for Digital Domain was to make Brad Pitt look older through graphics, but to retain all his mannerisms, and to have a character that could handle all situations in the movie, such as interacting with different characters, and appearing in different lighting. Ulbrich, the Executive VP of Digital Domain, had pitched for the business. He confessed that he was so overwhelmed after winning the business that he returned to the office and vomited.

The film required a 'stew' of technology drawn from the film industry to the medical imaging industry. The breakthrough came from using The Facial Action Coding System, which breaks down all facial expressions into 70 basic facial actions. By combining these 70 coded actions, you can create all possible facial expressions. So, Pitt started by doing all these 70 facial actions, which were then applied to a computer graphic image of his head at 60, 70, and 80 years of age. These heads were then 'attached' to bodies representing those ages. Incredibly detailed work was required to ensure that all of this looked realistic: one person worked on the eyes for two years, while the software for the tongue took nine months.

The last step was for Pitt to 'act' the part in the movie. This was done in isolation of the rest of the action, more or less like we've seen musicians perform in a studio. Digital Domain then captured that, and reapplied it to the graphic head, using the FACS system. I'm sure I haven't done this talk justice, as I was mesmerized by the visuals on the stage. It was a really amazing story.

Heroic Tale in the Antarctic

TED loves to bring tales of heroic achievements to us. This year it was the story of two Canadians who, just in December, were the first to reach the South Pole on snowshoes (rather than skis). Ray Zahab told us about the 1,100 mile journey of 33 days, 23 hours, 55 minutes, ascending from sea level to 10,000 feet, pulling 160-pound sleds in 40 below weather. No wonder they burned 8,500 calories a day. The team blogged every day, using solar energy to power their communications.

This is not the first extraordinary journey for Zahab - he had previously completed a 111-day run across the Sahara. And not the last - he intends to go to the North Pole next year, an increasingly difficult feat with the reduction in Arctic ice.

Zahab said that before he started running five years ago, he was a pack-a-day smoker, encouragement to anyone who wanted to make a big life change.

Arthur Benjamin

A couple of years ago at TED, ArthuR Benjamin, a math professor at Harvard Mudd College, astonished us with his feats of 'mathemagic' involving almost unbelievable high-speed math calculations. I highly recommend his talk at

This year, Benjamin gave a brief and passionate plea for more useful math education. Make statistics the pinnacle of math education, not calculus. Statistics is far more useful in daily lives and would help people make better decisions about all kinds of things. A really good point.

Bacteria and communication

Bacteria are simple, single-celled organisms, with a single strand of DNA. It's easy to assume that they couldn't possibly communicate. Bonnie Bassler, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton, begs to differ.

Her research has shown that bacteria can communicate, through 'quorum sensing', which assesses the density of bacteria in the neighbourhood.

She told a fascinating story of the complex symbiosis between noctural squid and bacteria which live in a cavity inside the squid. In the daytime, the squid flushes the bacteria. However, at night, as they return to the cavity, the bacteria 'sense a quorum' and being to luminesce. The squid has sensors on its back which sense the level of light above it. The squid opens the shutter on this cavity just enough to let out light to match the level of light above, so that the squid does not cast a shadow. What an astonishing, complex system to assist its hunting.

More relevant to humans is the fact that disease-causing bacteria release their toxins only when they 'sense a quorum'. So, if we could discover their method of communicating and interrupt it, we could prevent many diseases.

Bassler has done just that. Bacteria molecules are very similar, with the left hand side the same in all bacteria and the right hand side specific to each bacteria species. Enzymes which recognize the left hand side of the molecule thus constitute a 'universal Esperanto' for all bacteria, while an enzyme recognizing the right hand side represents an intra-species language.

Bassler's hope is to deepen understanding of this language and thus generate treatments for bacterial diseases, particularly relevant in a world where many kinds of bacteria have evolved to be resistant to current antibiotics.

Bassler ended her talk with a picture of the young researchers on her team, who actually do the hard slogging for these discoveries. She expressed her pleasure at working with such great students, particularly as they stay the same age as she gets older and older! A lovely sentiment to end a fascinating talk.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert -- Nurturing Creativity

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of surprise bestseller Eay Pray Love, dazzled with an eloquent, fluent, graceful talk. It didn't appear to be memorized, and yet the most perfect prose just flowed from her mouth.

She admitted to fear that Eat, Pray, Love might be the best thing she would ever write, dooming her later works (and life) to being described as 'after' her big success. She felt discouraged by that notion and feared falling into the unhappiness so typical of artists and writers.

Then she reset her frame. The Greeks and Romans considered not that people were geniuses, but that genius came to them. When Gilbert thought of things that way, she felt released. Her big success was not just hers, and her failures were likewise not just hers. If she 'shows up for work', it's the job of her muse to deliver the inspiration.

This talk is already up at and I recommend it highly to you:

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Unmanned War

PW Singer, author of several books on the military, talked about just how far robots have penetrated into the military. He opened by describing Pakbot, a 42 pound robot that demolishes IEDs in Iraq, and reading a mock letter describing its destruction. This highlighted how much easier it is to report the 'death' of a robot than a soldier. Singer showed film of soldiers throwing robots into buildings that needed to be cleared - they looked just like soldiers throwing in grenades in some old war movie, but much more effective..

The scope of unmanned warfare is astonishing. As just one example, the US now has 5,300 drones in the air in Iraq, after starting the war with almost none. Many of these drones are controlled by soldiers back in the US guiding the drones remotely. And the implications are unexpected. These soldiers spend the day killing people, and causing destruction and havoc in Iraq. It's like playing a video game for them. Then they go home for supper with their families. Although these soldiers are in no danger, they suffer more post-traumatic stress than those in the field.

Singer pointed out that the US was significantly ahead in their capability for technological, robotic war. However, many of these robots can be put together from off-the-shelf components and their lead may be short-lived. For instance, Hezbollah flew four different types of drones against Israel in their last war. This can make insurgents increasingly capable of destruction, even with small numbers of soldiers.

Another implication of these robots is that they record everything. In fact, most of the YouTube footage of the Iraq war is from drones. So we can now watch war even more, yet experience it even less.

Lastly, we were very close to having autonomous robotic warriors, needing no control from a human.

So, what happens to the concept of war crimes in 'committed' by an autonomous robot? Will remote 'video warriors' be more vicious than real soldiers? Will we find it easier to go to war when we don't have to contemplate those coffins being unloaded from planes? Some questions worth thinking about.

His book should be quite interesting.