March 13, 2010

TED 2010

When I started going to TED its talks weren’t on the web, and it was a very expensive, by-invite-only conference for about 1,200 people, so basically nobody I'd ever met had heard of TED, including me. Nowadays TED itself is still expensive and by-invite-only, but its talks are all online, and that's made all the difference. TED’s now Kind of a Big Deal.

So when people see my TED laptop bag or my TED grocery bag or my TED luggage they will actually stop me and ask what TED is like. Before, I’m pretty sure everyone just thought my mom named me “Theodor” and I was mighty proud.

After attending for five years I have a lot of TED-branded loot, and, yes, I love the attention it brings me. I'm at the point where this year when I came home with my post-coital TED swag my assistant asked “What do you want to do with the free TED umbrella?” and I was all, “Well, it doesn’t actually have the TED logo on it, so… Goodwill.” To be fair, I hated myself a little as I said that.

Look, it's impossible to write about TED, ok? Because, if I were reading this blog and weren't able to attend TED, I'd hate me, too. I'm trying to share my random experiences at TED, but understand that, like 90% of people who get to go to TED, I feel like a total imposter. I'm waiting for someone to notice that I don't belong among all these rich, smart, and/or accomplished people. I literally have nightmares about going to TED all year, where I'm naked and late and I can't find my notebook and I haven't done the required reading and everyone knows.

So, I write this blog entry to say, "Here's what it'd be like if you were here," not, "Nyah nyah I was here and you weren't."

And with that, here's what I can remember of TED 2010 after an entire month with the killer man-bear-pig flu.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (and, honestly, shouldn't there should be some honorific like "sir" or "his worship" for winning a Nobel?) started off TED this year with an absolutely fascinating talk about how are we experience our lives in two modes — the "experiencing" mode and the "remembering" mode. This may cause you to say "duh" but he actually uses hard data to draw some amazing conclusions about how we are screwing up our own happiness.

The brief summary (please watch the talk) is that the "remembering self" tends to have a very different set of criteria for whether an event in your life was good or bad, that isn't directly related to what the "experiencing self" actually went through at the time. Eg, you can have a miserable vacation but look at the pictures later and be nostalgic for it, and end up doing it again.

Besides being incredibly insightful, I liked Daniel's talk because he's the first TED speaker I've seen graphing how uncomfortable it is to have something stuck in your butt for different lengths of time, and different levels of clumsiness. I'm not even making this up.

This is my favorite kind of talk, and reminds me much of TED's unofficial Love Doctor, Helen Fischer, who has spoken twice about the biochemical basis of love but still believes in romance. What these talks have in common is a scientist using hard data to affect what is usually a very soft-science field — human happiness. Daniel and Helen play against the type of scientists as unfeeling wonks — they both care a lot about the happiness of people, and use science to serve that. They are the models for all scientists.

And Daniel's talk was, of course, a great way to start TED, because it reminded all of us to try to actually enjoy the moments of TED2010, instead of spoiling them by trying to capture them for the exclusive later enjoyment by our remembering self. Also, it gave all of us a catch-phrase for the week; at night we'd say, "Well, my experiencing self thinks I want another gin & tonic…"

Sarah Silverman caused controversy by telling some pretty blue jokes to a crowd that still calls them “blue jokes.” In my opinion the biggest surprise was: Who did NOT expect that Sarah Silverman was going to say some risqué stuff? This woman is famous for “Fucking Matt Damon,” telling a version of The Aristocrats that’s so horrible she got sued over it, and cracking wise about getting raped as a child and kind of liking it.

I feel like hiring Sarah Silverman and thinking she’ll tone down her humor is like hiring Dora’s friend Swiper the Fox and then saying, “Ok, you’re going to perform at TED, but NO SWIPING!” Or, to switch metaphors: Sarah’s a scorpion, and you can’t be surprised when she stings you instead of helping you across the river.

Chris Anderson, the esteemed curator of TED and a man I immensely respect, simply didn’t find her funny. I can understand this; her humor is cringe-inducing, and if you haven’t been raised on David Letterman and then The Simpsons and then South Park, you won’t have developed that part of your humor palette. There’s no particular harm in that. I, for instance, don’t like the taste of tripe, but I don’t begrudge those who do.

It seems to me that the problem came because the people who didn’t think Sarah was funny either (a) took her seriously, and so thought she was the most idiotic, venal, and horrible woman who ever lived, and/or (b) thought everyone else must be hating this as well, because so clearly WE ARE EATING A STOMACH OH GOD THIS IS DISGUSTING I FEEL LIKE IT IS EATING ME BACK THERE MUST BE SOME KIND OF MISTAKE.

At any rate, I thought Sarah was hilarious, and was one of the people who gave her a standing ovation. There were enough of us clapping loudly enough that she actually was called back for a curtain call, which is very rare at TED. So, it’s not like everyone hated her. But, man, the people who did… whoo-boy.

I certainly hope TED continues to invite people who only appeal to some of us, though. It’d be a shame if our speakers became so bland that none of us found them objectionable. (Eg, I didn’t particularly enjoy listening to the reverend tell me my life is pointless unless I have God backing all my good deeds, but I’m still glad he was asked for his point of view.)

Jehane NoujaimAlthough I very much wanted to meet Sarah she didn't actually attend the conference itself, which was just as well because Sarah got a new boyfriend just a week before TED and also only my crush on / engagement to Jehane Noujaim had been cleared with my girlfriend, and so Sarah wasn't on my "Free List" anyway.

Juliana Machado FerreiraAnd, as it happens, my official TED-crush this year went to TED senior fellow Juliana Machado Ferreira, who's a Brazilian PhD who fights exotic-bird poachers. I can tell you with no shame that when a lovely young Brazilian doctor gets onstage and starts telling stories of tiny baby birds she's risked her life to save, well, it makes me temporarily forget my pretend-vows to another. She's also the first TED speaker in memory to show a little bit of tummy during her talk. Don't you judge me. I know I'm not the only one who noticed.

I also feel compelled to mention that despite claiming to not know how to salsa, Juliana was the best salsa partner I've ever had. At the risk of sounding inverse-racist, I believe there is something in Brazilian blood.

Also, I like Juliana because she reminds me of the time 'W' was told by an advisor that four Brazilian soldiers were just killed in a helicopter crash and he squinched up his face the way he did when he used to try to think and said, "Now, how'd we fit that many of our boys into one helicopter?"

Julia Sweeney did a little four-minute set on explaining the facts of life to her daughter in the age of the internet, and I’ve got to say she killed it. She has grown into one of my favorite performers; she could tell you a story about folding laundry and you’d laugh at every towel.

She was in the bar the night after she performed, and I think I stumbled upon her at about 1am… maybe 2. You know, honestly, I’m not sure: I was pretty lit up. “JULIA!” I yelled at her, from two feet away, “YOU KILLED IT!” I then threw my arms around her and gave her a huge hug. I’m sure she doesn’t know me from Adam, but, honestly, who doesn’t like hugs?

I told her how much I admired her timing, and asked how much of her story was embellished for the stage. She told me there was only one joke that she hadn’t actually said to her daughter, which didn’t get that great a laugh anyhow. (Julia says, “Well, women kind of lay their eggs in ponds like frogs, except the ponds are inside of them!” I told Julia: “I think with this crowd, that’s too close to the literal truth to get a laugh. The composition of our blood is almost exactly that of sea-water.” BECAUSE I AM A LAUGH RIOT WHEN DRUNK.)

I wish Julia would talk at TED every year; in part because she’s part of the community, and actually hangs out during the week and talks to people. There were a number of speakers this year who showed up right before their talk and left right after, and that tears apart the fabric of what TED is supposed to be. TED is supposed to be where we all interact with each other; that’s the genius of it. It’s not a one-way flow.

I would go so far as to ban any speaker who won’t attend the rest of the conference — to me, it’s like playing Dungeons & Dragons (bear with me here)… D&D is a ridiculously fun game for adults if everyone in the group is into it, but if even one person is sitting there with her arms crossed saying, "This is stupid," then everyone playing will have a miserable time.

When the TED speakers snub the rest of us, it has a chilling effect — it sets up a dichotomy between speakers and attendees that has the potential to make the conference just a little worse by degrees.

Dr. Mark Roth spoke about de-animating and re-animating humans this year. Dr. Roth looks and moves almost exactly like Christopher Lloyd's “Doc” from Back to the Future, with a little of Gene Wilder's “Dr. Fronk-uhn-STEEN” flare from Young Frankenstein. Almost every year there’s one guy who starts to speak and I think, “Oh boy, here comes the fun crazy-quack part of the program… hmm, I wonder if I can manage to get to the aisle and go nom on some free cottage cheese (with chives) without stepping on some billionaire’s toes?” (Actually, the cottage cheese was gone this year, replaced by not-as-tasty boring old yogurt. Such are the travails of my life at TED.)

But I was sitting beside my friends Blaise and his wife Adrienne, whose work collectively has been the source of more talks at TED than any other family (I believe). So, good company, plus, you know… Dr. Frankenstein Redux! So I sat tight.

Mark kind of lurches around the stage like he’s maybe not currently drunk, but gosh he’s spent a lot of time there and and it won’t be long before he visits again. And, you know, he comes out swinging with his thesis that we can de-animate and re-animate mammals that don’t naturally swing that way, such as humans. So, overall, it's like getting a talk from Jack Sparrow and the witch doctor combined. In fact, early on in his talk Blaise leaned over and whispered, "In the movie of this, he'll play himself."

But, gosh-damnit, he’s right. Honestly, I think he’s one of the smartest researchers I’ve ever met, and his science is very sound and incredibly practical. His talk was one of the most important I’ve ever seen [sorry, no link yet]. The basic premise is this: hydrogen sulfide is a deadly substance that used to occur in abundance on earth back when anaerobic bacteria were king and our atmosphere wasn't yet breathable for organisms like us, and it turns out if we're exposed to this substance in smallish amounts, we become inanimate and stop needing oxygen to keep our cells alive. We simply shut down, but without the other bad parts of death where we immediately decay and stuff.

The immediate advantage to this is for critical surgery — you can “freeze-dry” a patient who has had severe trauma until they can get to a hospital, or you can slow down a patient who is undergoing, say, heart surgery, so the heart is barely beating and thus much safer to work on, and (I am assuming) even if the brain is cut off from oxygen for a few minutes, well, meh, it doesn’t need it as much so she doesn’t suffer brain damage.

I know, this all sounds like Crazy Talk. But, no, that’s my brother who sells fireworks. In fact, Mark's got the data — they've already done surgeries where the patients were given hydrogen sulfide in tiny doses (please remember, kids, do not try this at home, unless you are on the show Jersey Shore, in which case, well, honestly, what's the cost to society?) and the overall success rate was much higher, as expected. (Sadly, I don't have numbers here, because the talk's not up yet.)

I spotted Dr. Roth in the lobby later, and cornered him to find out more. He's actually much more sane-sounding in person, and filled in some of the details he'd glossed over because he only had 18 minutes. For one, he clarified that with human beings he's only slowed them down so far (but not stopped them), but with fish and some simpler life forms he's completely stopped them and revived them with no apparent harmful effects. (It's unknown if, you know, the fish come back without souls and hunger for the brains of humans because, like, it's hard to measure that with current instruments.)

I said he'd mentioned that he'd de-animated fish for six hours and brought them back just fine — was six hours a hard limit? Did the fish come back impaired after six, or not come back at all? Or come back hungering for brains?

And he replies – I swear to god – "Oh, I dunno, after six hours I had to go to dinner." I'm like, couldn't you just leave the fish in the lab overnight? I mean, he's de-animated. How much trouble's he going to get into?

I also asked Mark about the further-out uses for his research — for instance, sending people into deep hibernation for space exploration, or traveling forward through time great distances (lengths?). He acknowledged these were possibilities, but was quick to say that he intentionally distances himself from such speculation, as his research already seems kind of kooky (my words). So he's focussed on immediate, tangible, measurable benefits, like better surgery outcomes from partial de-animation.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram was also talking to Dr. Roth, and asked what, exactly, gets blocked so that de-animated creatures don't immediately start decaying, the way dead things do. Dr. Wolfram was quite familiar with the first few seconds of death, which I am not so I can't quote him exactly. But I can quote Dr. Roth: "We don't know." He was quite candid about it. He had a hunch it'd work, he tried it out, it did. Nobody knows why. He'd love it if someone could explain it.

In what was possibly the worst bit of scheduling yet known to man, the next talk was an on-stage demo of the Google Nexus One. "Look! It has an… animated background!" Yes, but can it re-animate the dead? No? BO-RING!

The audience was completely a-squirm until the demo suddenly ended with the Google guy saying: we'd love each of you to try this phone, so we're giving them to you — they're waiting outside. Suddenly, ovation. I was frankly surprised how excited TEDsters were to get free swag — again I was reminded how "thrifty" many millionaires are.

When we went outside after the session, there was a line a (literal) block long to the booth handing out free phones. As I walked past it, I tried to do a mental calculation of the value of the time of all these millionaires and billionaires waiting in a long line vs. the value of the phones, but gave up. And, as it happened, they got the last laugh, because I forgot to pick up my phone later so I'm Nexus-less.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram has been called arrogant, I gather, which I found to be completely unfair. "Arrogant" implies someone treats you with no respect, and Dr. Wolfram is completely respectful, and interested in the people around him. What he is not is humble, which is, in my view, completely fine. I don't think he should have to bow and scrape and apologize for having invented so many things or explored so many intellectual pursuits. He's done an incredible amount to advance science and research, and in my view deserves a Nobel prize for Mathematica alone. If he were a patent-troll I'd have no patience for him, sure, but he's a man of science in the truest sense of the word.

In the lobby again, I stood, as one does, and listened politely while he was talking at length with someone from the Encyclopedia of Life about their data, and then asked him a couple questions. He'd mentioned that he'd invented an algorithm that, by simply tweaking the parameters, could iterate through all the possible shell designs one finds in nature… in fact, he'd found some bizarre shells from his algorithm and showed them to a naturalist, who'd in each case said, "Oh, yes, there's actually a rare animal that has this exact shell…" This was an incredible finding and says something amazing about evolution — that shells are determined by the same algorithm with slight tweaks.

I told Dr. Wolfram about my troubles focussing barcodes using the crappy far-sighted lens on Apple's new iMacs, and asked if Mathematica would have the tools I could use to mock up a process that I could then hard-code (answer: yes). I'd like to point out this is a total n00b question — I'd just admitted I didn't know crap about his incredibly famous invention and asked him, essentially, to sell me on it. But he was an incredible gentleman and told me exactly what chapter of his book would cover the operations I'd need to learn about as I explored Mathematica.

It's quite possible that Dr. Wolfram has something like Asperger's syndrome, but is obviously super-incredible-high-functioning — obviously I'm not a psychiatrist, so what do I know, but he strikes me as a fellow who follows a different set of social cues than "normal" people, and is obviously much better off for it (much like Temple Grandin, who also spoke at TED this year.)

As supporting evidence, I was up drinking later with another TEDster (as I am wont to do, gasp) and my new buddy told me a story of Dr. Wolfram speaking to him for an hour at another conference, and the good Dr. was excited by the TEDster's work and offered to help. Dr. Wolfram then left the room, came back in a few minutes later, and turned to the TEDster with absolutely no recognition in his face and asked casually, "Do you know when the next speaker is?"

My drinking buddy was so surprised he answered, "Dr. Wolfram… it's me! We've been talking for the last hour!" Dr. Wolfram looks at the guy's badge and says, "Oh, yes… sorry — I don't index people by face, I do it by name, and I didn't see your badge."

Now, you may be tempted to say, "Well, he was just covering up for not remembering the dude!" But that's not the end of this story. A couple days later my (now-drunken) friend gets an e-mail from an assistant of Dr. Wolfram's, that says, essentially, "You spoke with Dr. Wolfram at such-and-such conference about so-and-so, and you have been assigned conversation tracking number #47572… please send me a list of what you need from Dr. Wolfram for your project."

I'm floored. Conversation tracking numbers? I have literally never met anyone so organized. Honestly, my drunken friend's story sounds a bit fishy.

Except, a few days after I get back from TED, I got this actual e-mail:

From: 	Wolfram Research <>
Subject: [SWCOR #_____] Follow up to discussion with Stephen Wolfram
at TED 2010
Date: February 22, 2010 11:03:51 AM PST
To: Wil Shipley <>

Dear Wil Shipley,

I am writing in regard to your recent conversation with Stephen
Wolfram at TED 2010. His notes mentioned that you had a question
about Mathematica and image processing. Please let me know if
your question did not get answered and I can find an appropriate
contact to follow up.

Now tell me that this is an arrogant man.

This was a great TED for me because I’ve finally hit the point where a bunch of people know me, so my social phobia is constantly reined in. It’s amazing how nice it is to walk around and have everyone nod and smile at you. TED makes me think it’d be great to live in a small town — we’ve lost so much, living in cities with millions of people: we simply give up on knowing anyone around us, and end up strangers in our own neighborhoods for our whole lives.

I also was more social because I was invited to be a TED host this year, which basically is a little badge that means, “you are supposed to be extra-social.” It’s amazing how much easier it is to do when it’s your job. It’s almost like putting on an act. “Look, I’m pretending I’m a guy who is actually social!”

I was actually thinking about this wednesday night when three of us ended up doing a ton of “jump shots” in front of a huge banner of TED-prize-winner Jamie Oliver (pictured), which is where you jump up and have a photographer snap a picture while you’re in the air. Normally, you know, if you’re at a party with a ton of very rich, very smart people, you might not start jumping and yelling and having flash photography done of the whole scene. But, in context, it seemed ok. Don’t worry, ma’am… I’m a host.

I realized the next day (and the next and next) that I don’t actually ever jump in my normal life, and don’t know how to do it. There’s actually some skill involved in jumping, I believe, so you don’t tear up your remaining good knee, which I did, so I was limping for the rest of the conference. On the last night I couldn’t take it any more, and at the grand party I spotted an MD/researcher in a conversation with another TEDster.

I walked up and smiled, and when there was a break in the conversation I said casually, “Man, I bet people come up to you all the time and are all, ‘Hey, you’re a doctor, can you look at this…’” at parties. Isn’t that rude?”

The other guy actually responded, “No, I think that’s kind of OK, actually.”

Me: “Oh, sweet!” Turns toward the doctor, “I tore my knee out jumping, can you help me?”

Without a pause the doctor was all, “600 milligrams ibuprofen orally 3x daily with food.”

“Thanks doc!” The next day I was all better.

Every year there are some stories I don't tell — in general I don't mention the famous people I walked up who completely snubbed me, because it makes me sound petty and, really, there's no law saying you have to be nice to the people around you.

But, yah… it's scary as hell to approach a famous person, especially one you admire, and it hurts like hell when you get snubbed. There's a handful of people I've learned to completely avoid at TED, because every interaction with them has been an exercise in me learning that I have absolutely no value in their universe whatsoever.

I'm sure there's people in my life who've approached me and I seemed short with, and let me say now, if I've ever given you the brush-off, it's because of my own failings and frailties. It wasn't you. I honestly believe you have value.

I also don't tell stories about Matt Groening any more, because he and I have become pals and so the stories about him fall into the categories of too banal ("Then I ordered a gin and tonic, and Matt got one, too!"), too personal ("Then I tried the super-great weed from the super-rich guy, and Matt missed out!"), or too braggy ("Then Matt Matt Matt my good friend Matt Groening Matt did I mention Matt?"). I honestly think of him as just this extremely nice guy from whom I want to learn a ton about how to treat people, but every time I talk about TED to any friend I'm all, "So Matt said to this guy…" and the person is all, "Oh, you mean your close personal friend Matt Groening," and makes a face and I realize I sound like a total dick.

So, no Matt stories. Well, ok… I will say that Matt's the Best Wingman Ever, because every time I want to meet someone at TED I go up to them and say, "Hey, have you met Matt Groening? He's awesome, and right over there…" Yes, shameless. I know. I'm a shameless whore. Fine. I accept that.

Matt also doesn't talk a lot about himself, so it's hard to tell stories about him. This year he was surrounded by a group at lunch and I was heaping praise on him for having a show that not only has been on for twenty years, but has actually influenced so much of our culture. Matt listened and then responded in a stage voice, without any pauses, "Now watch as I skillfully deflect the attention so Wil what's new in your life?"

Also every year there are a couple talks that are just amazing but to which I have no personal anecdotes to add. Rather than skip them, I'll simply tell you without further comment that you must watch Dan Barber's How I Fell in Love With a Fish story if you like any of the following: well-told stories or jokes or food or eating or continuing to live on this planet.

And Sir Ken Robinson's hilarious and frankly perfect talk this year isn't posted at this time, but his previous TED talk is the most-watched talk EVAR, and you can watch it and pretend it's current. Also, if life is sane, they'll link his new talk off that page in the months to come, so by the time you read this maybe you can watch both talks for the price of one (which price is, in fact, zero).

Only during two of the talks did strangers nudge me and audibly gasp and exclaim "I didn't think that was possible!" One was during Blaise's incredible demo of Bing maps (I know, I never thought I'd use the words "Bing" and "incredible" together in a sentence, myself), and the other was during the LXD performance. (That handsome devil to the right is Blaise, not an LXD dancer.)

The League of Extraordinary Dancers performed at TED and frankly performed acrobatics that I (and most of the audience) would not have thought the human body could do. You may have seen LXD perform at the Oscars this year, and I hate to be the guy who says this, but unless you're actually really close to them you're missing most of the experience — so much of their motion in lost in video it's almost a crime.

One might have certain preconceived notions about hip-hop dancers, since I'd wager most of us have only experienced them as clichés in movies. I can state after chatting with several of the LXD dancers that they are in fact a group of incredibly soft-spoken and respectful and gracious young kids, who are wide-eyed and humbled at their sudden success after so much hard work.

At the final picnic, I spoke with LXD dancer Madd Chadd and his lovely wife, who I called “Mrs. Madd,” since “Chadd” is obviously the first name in the “Madd Chadd” nom-de-pirouette. I walked up to his table because he’s young, super-tall, and super-handsome, which isn't a combination that's super-common at TED. Also, honestly, I was wondering if he was the guy from “Step Up” and “Step Up 2 The Streets,” which are two of my favorite movies. Don’t you judge me! You try drinking a bunch of rum and watching them and see if you don’t enjoy it. (If not, I submit that you are dead inside. Dead.)

Anyways, the answer was no, but he’s in “Step Up 3D,” which will be awesome because it’s directed by the same guy who did “Step Up 2,” and also the leader of the LXD.

Madd Chadd, it turns out, loves video games and had in fact just finished the copy of Bioshock 2 that he'd gotten early (fame has perks!), and can speak intelligently on a large variety of subjects. Our little group spoke for hours after the party ended, until the workers had literally dismantled the entire picnic around us, and we were standing alone in a field. It felt like a planned metaphor for the end: to be left standing in a field, talking to fascinating people and trying to hold on to TED for a few more minutes as it was being torn down around us and packed away for another year.

The final night of TED, as I lay in bed in my hotel room with two or maybe three of the very most attractive of the generally-lovely female TED fellows, idly daydreaming of the lies I'd tell in my blog about my final night at TED instead of admitting I was bored and alone in my room, I realized that I had no way to finish this post except to say:

Best TED Ever.