The Date: 20th - 25th February 2001
The Place: Cambridge, Heathrow, New York, Los Angeles and Monterey Conference Center
The Occasion: The 11th Technology Entertainment Design conference
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I suppose I should start from the start. I first heard about the TED11 conference way back in 1999 from a Mars Youth mailing list. Someone mentioned that their boss, the graphics guru Kai Krause of Metacreations gave a talk at TED9 and had spoke glowingly of the conference. Perhaps, it was thought, we could get someone from the Mars Society to give a talk at the upcoming TED11 conference, which would be about the youth and the elderly?
Not one to take a back seat in these things, I immediately visited the website at www.ted.com and spent the minimum of time finding about the conference. Putting on my hat of Confidence (along with the watch of Naivety) I fired off an email to the organiser, firstname.lastname@example.org, listing my modest achievements and then demanding to know how I could become a speaker at the conference.
A week went by. Nothing happened. I found out more about the TED conferences - that they were insanely powerful and that speakers are invited, they aren't supposed to ask to speak.
Another week went by. I got a little depressed.
Two more weeks. I didn't tell anyone about my initial email and hoped the whole thing would blow over.
Five weeks on, I received a fat express delivery package through the letterbox from the TED conferences. Inside was a book of CD videos from the TED9 conference, a whole load of papers about the conference, clippings from newspapers and stories, and finally, a single letter inviting me to speak there.
To say the least, I was pleased. Then I put the CDs in the computer, and became depressed - the general standard of the presentations was ridiculously high. I wondered how I'd be able to match them, and spent approximately the next 18 months thinking, on and off, about what I would talk about.
After spending the last three months intensively thinking about my presentation, and its subject transforming from online communities to youth communities to youth Mars communities to youth Mars outreach, I finally settled on the last topic, satisfied that it was something I could speak about with a fair amount of experience and knowledge. I sorted out my flights (the large part of which the conference paid for) from Heathrow to New York JFK, then to Los Angeles LAX, then to Monterey Airport. I sorted out my accommodation (conference paid for it) and then, at 3AM on Tuesday 20th February, I set off to catch a coach going to Heathrow.
Now, traditionally I knew that planes had very dry air. I didn't know that this had been extended to airports, so as soon as I entered Heathrow, all moisture was sucked from my nose and throat, and for the next two days I'd have a strange cold and cough. At 6AM, Heathrow was incongruously peaceful and clean, like some kind of futuristic spaceport.
The flight to JFK was uneventful, I watched Meet the Parents and used up hundreds of tissues. It was also possibly the first flight which I actively did not enjoy.
New York JFK airport, to put it lightly, is a miserable dump. It has no shops. No restaurants. No good walkways. In fact, the photo above was taken when I was walking from Terminal 6 to 7. It's a depressing place. However, it does have a sole redeeming feature in that it has a few Internet terminals offering free access (only useable if you sit through a minute long advert and can put up with using a single-window handicapped browser, that is). I commandeered a terminal for a while, then got bored.
Above my terminal was this rather amusing advert. I did think that moving information from a mobile to a pager via a laptop, desktop then handheld was a very circuitious route, but this is the Internet age after all. Who cares about efficiency?
So. I hopped on the flight to Los Angeles and experienced my first taste of Business Class. It was nice - lots of legroom, lots of drinks and food. I believe that there was a semi-famous person sitting in front of me but I didn't recognise who she was. Maybe a singer or something.
The flight took place during the night so I was able to look out of the window and see all the lights of the towns and cities. Incredibly peaceful - I always enjoy looking out of the window, but to see the signs of civilisation from tens of thousands of feet up is breathtaking. You can see all the veins connecting the cities, and the bright streets and the peculiar grid-iron pattern of US cities.
On arriving at LAX I spotted a couple of teenagers (well, my age or older) who I thought I recognised as fellow youth speakers but I didn't want to interrupt them as I was carrying a load of bags and they were having their dinner.
(Digression: I took all my stuff in one mini-suitcase that would fit on the overhead baggage compartments. I've had a nasty experience with losing luggage before and this was one trip on which I didn't want it to happen.)
As I discovered later, Herbie Hancock, legendary jazz pianist, was on the little turboprop with us going from LAX to Monterey.
A word about turboprops - they're shockingly uncomfortable. To think that people used to fly around the world in these noisy, vibrating and cramped planes is a little shocking. You can hardly talk in them without shouting. Anyway. More looking out of the window, but due to the noise I wasn't able to engage in much pre-conference networking. I did have a good chat with the teenage couple and Linda Martinez (another pianist) and her boyfriend while we (all speakers) were being driven to our hotel by the confererence people. They were very interesting people and found my whole Mars thing to be fascinating. It was a good start to the week.
Finally, I got to my room and was taken slightly aback by the room.
Yes, it's a four poster double-bed. No, I don't know why I had one. And yes, it is much bigger than it appears to be in this photo.
(Digression: You can see the TV there. I was fascinated by American TV, or rather the pure amount of crap on it. I don't think I saw a single quality TV programme during the time I had it on (which admittedly wasn't too long, but I did watch it in the morning and at night for a few minutes). Something like 60 channels, and it was all crap. The best bits were the infomercials where I was treated to huge numbers of exercise equipment and strange cooking machines. To their credit, I too went 'Ahh...' when the guy in the commercial cooked pasta without boiling it in water first.
Perhaps the most interesting thing on the TV though was this Quantum Leap rip-off where some guy helped recently-deceased people put their lives into order and have a 'second chance' at life. Some bollocks like that, anyway. It was a little like Early Edition, I suppose, but a million times worse. Full of that cheesy feel-good American humour that we all love to hate.
I also saw this press conference on C-Span given by President Bush. I was not impressed.)
Another photo of my room. Quite nice, and if I zoomed in you'd be able to see my absolutely wrecked visage with stubble, bags under my eyes and an expression that says 'Ah, fuck it.' I shortly crashed in bed, only pausing to make sure that I set my alarm clock to get up in time.
This was the first day of the conference. The registration procedure at the conference center (only 2 minutes walk away) was typically appalling and they didn't have the right name-tags for about an hour. I took the opportunity to admire a set of digital ink noticeboards they'd set up at one end - these were not LCD, but they used switchable pigments that required no backlighting. Very impressive resolution, very low power consumption and good contrast - these things were also thin and I predict will take over the world soon.
Finally I received my badge and hot-footed it over to an alternate site to my 'conversations' pre-conference event with Megan Smith, CEO of Planetout.com (world's largest gay and lesbian portal/media site), previously at General Magic and the engineering deparment at MIT. She was a very likeable person and there were only about five of us there (hence 'conversations') so we heard a lot about her business, her driving forces and how she worked. The other people there included the Director of Discovery.com and other such CEOs and luminaries. I felt outclassed (well, obviously) but they seemed genuinely interested to hear about what I was doing. My badge, by the way, said 'Adrian Hon - Mars Society'.
It turned out that Megan had taken part in the Sun Race or whatever it's called in Australia, where they drove solar-powered cars across the continent. It's held every 3 years, and she was part of the team that built the car for the first race. Factoid: a few schools took part, and Megan's team bought the washing machine engine off one of the schools after theirs broke down from the heat.
All in all, a great session and I learned a lot.
This is upstairs at the main conference center, and specifically this is a cast of Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex, brought by the director of the Fields Museum, John McCarter, who bought the entire skeleton for $7.6 million. Sue is special since she represents the most complete T-Rex skeleton there is. More about that later.
At this point I was feeling a bit hungry, but I paused to pick up my freebies. As a speaker, I received a Palm VIIx (better than what most people got), an IBM bag, some coffee, CDs, DVDs, books and a TED teddy bear. At that point I chatting a little to Jennifer Correiro, a 20 year old speaker from Toronto. More about her later as well. Then, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google showed up and I went off to lunch with them, after picking up a few other attendees including a likeable guy who turned out to be the director of UCLA's Arts and Design department and the founder of eGroups.com.
Cue a hugely enjoyable lunch at a local sandwich shop where most of the conversation was given over to how we could get to Mars (Larry Page was interested in this, mentioning stuff like sky-tethers and so on). Sergey Brin thought it was funny and introduced me to people as 'The guy from Mars.' I found out that the eGroups guy had left the company and one of the projects he was working on involved the development of wearable accelerometers for use in dancing videogames like 'Dance Dance Generation' where you would put these accelerometers on your wrists so the game would be able to track your arm movements (as opposed to just your feet using a touch-sensitive floor-pad as it does now).
I suggested that there was no point having two different types of input interface for a dancing game and that you'd want to put accelerometers on your ankles as well. That way, you wouldn't have to keep on looking down to make sure you were stepping on the right spots, and the game would able to calculate your movements via relative positioning in space. The eGroups guy (I forget his name, he's one of the three co-founders) looked very thoughtful at this point and I cursed myself for not patenting the idea beforehand.
After this was the beginning of the conference, kicked off by the Raspyni brothers, two extremely funny jugglers - their opening lines:
"To answer your first question, no, we're not. To your second question, no, we're not."
The Raspyni brothers actually kicked off every day's proceedings with some feat involving the number 11, e.g. spinning 11 basketballs or juggling 11 pound bowling balls.
Following on, David Gallo and Bill Lange from the Woodshole Oceanographic Institute (TED regulars) showed off an exclusive video from the Bay of Mexico where they had a 'pond within a pond' - an area with ultra-dense methane rich water which occupied a hole in the ocean surface that the submersible couldn't get into because it was so dense.
Meredith Bagby followed up with an enlightening talk about the state of the US budget, and then Warren Bennis said something about the youth and age. Or something like that, I only remember one line (which I happened to quote in my talk) about how the era in which we grow up affects our outlook on life. Next was John Wooden, an apparently legendary basketball coach who would always begin coaching new players by telling them how to put their socks on and tie their shoes. This unsurprisingly became a conference-long injoke.
At the conference, Arther Anderson consulting sponsored two surveys of all the conference attendees. These surveys used several hundred natty little wireless push-button handheld remote thingies where you could key in your response to the question. This proved to be very fun and there were more than a few silly questions in the survey.
Finishing up session 1 was Spencer Tunick, a guy who does portraits of dozens or hundreds of nudes in strange settings, e.g. face down in New York Times Square. I believe that his work achieved minor fame in the UK when he did a shoot in London and it was featured in the newspapers and Have I Got News For You. There was a very amusing video shown by Spencer during his talk of when he tried a second shoot at Times Square and was chased off by the police. He also made a shoot at the TED11 conference (after which he was promptly arrested).
No, I did not take part in the shoot although about 60 people did.
Then there was the first of a regular series of 'Conversation Breaks' - i.e. breaks between sessions of speakers. These would be sponsored by some Internet company, usually, and they'd pay for a little Starbucks stall in the downstairs of the center to dole out free coffee, food, bottles and drinks. Very generous, very nice. You could wander about the whole conference center during the breaks and play about on the 40+ computers they had dotted about. Mostly iMacs and iMac notebooks, there were also a few coveted Apple Titatium Powerbooks (they are just as cool in real life as they seem on the Internet) and G4 towers. Dwnstairs there were mostly Sony Vaio desktop computers and notebooks. LCD flat panel screens abounded. Naturally all the computers were connected via wireless network and had a T1 connection to the Internet.
Here's a photo of some of the Sony Vaio desktops they had lying around downstairs. Nearly all of the computers were occupied at any one time with people checking their email (and in the case of Larry Page from Google, reading Slashdot. Yes, they are still true techies!)
I think I should provide a bit of information about the logistics of TED11. There were about 700 attendees, including speakers. Roughly 300 to 400 of those attendees - those who registered first, and the speakers, had blue badges which allowed them to sit in the main auditorium. Everyone else either had to wait outside the auditorium to see if there were any seats left after the blues had gone in, or watch the proceedings from the 'Simulcast' room which was the entire of the downstairs. While the Simulcast room might sound like an under-class, many of the blues opted to go there due to the comfy chairs, the ability to get up every once in a while and the free drinks. I should also point out that the Simulcast room had excellent audio/visual capabilities, at least a dozen Sony Widescreen LCD TVs and a few large projectors relaying video that was coming from a truly professional video-camera and mixing team.
When I refer to the 'downstairs' or to the Simulcast room, you should bear in mind that these are exactly the same thing. I never stayed in the Simulcast room during any speaker sessions as I believe that it's much better to see them in the flesh. Some presentations, in particular those with music, were much better seeing them 'live'.
Such as, for example, the first event of session 2, with vibraphonist Gary Burton, 13 year-old Jazz guitarist Julian Lage and bass player James Kerwin. Excellent music, and for the last set they said innocently to the audience, "You know, there's an empty space at the piano here..." at which point Herbie Hancock filled the breach to the sounds of cheers and whoops.
Excellent music, and you can see that the main auditorium also had a projector screen - not a surprise since many presenters used it for videos or their Powerpoint stuff. There was a total of four video cameras - two fixed, operated from the back of the auditorium with impressive zoom capabilities and two operated on stage. Very professional, like I said.
Next was another Arthur Anderson survey, then a wholly unmemorable talk from Sky Dayton. This contrasted wildly with Sherwin Nuland's talk, which was truly a 'TED moment' - Sherwin Nuland is a very respected surgeon from America who's written a number of books about medical ethics. During his time, he spoke of how he became clinically depressed and had obsessive compulsive disorder when he was in his 30's and was committed to a mental hospital for half a year. No treatments worked and the doctors assigned to his case were considering a pre-frontal lobotomy - basically, the last resort which would have completely altered his personality and destroyed his career as a surgeon.
Before they did this, though, they decided to humour the doctor assigned to Sherwin by conducting a few rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. Now, most people think that ECT involves brutally large currents and is a very dangerous procedure. It isn't. Using muscle relaxants, you can eliminate the chances of any physical damage and historically ECT has been wildly successful at treating schizophrenia and depression. Two courses of ECT almost completely cured Sherwin and he managed to pull himself out of his depression (initially caused by his bad marriage). He clearly is a believer in ECT.
Some days, he feels the depression settle on him again. When this happens, he stops what he's doing, and says to himself, 'Ah, fuck it!' and the depression goes away.
After Sherwin Nuland was David Dalrymple, a very bright homeschooled 9 year-old.
Before I describe his presentation, I think I should get my prejudices out in the open. I am personally not in favour of something that takes a kid away from the normal social environment that his peers enjoy. Please note that I did not say I'm against homeschooling - if everyone was homeschooled and had great parents as teachers, the world would be an unimaginably better place. Unfortunately, it is not and the normal social environment for kids of ages from 3 to 18 is school. If you don't go to school, you have a much lower chance of developing the essential social skills that are important for later life - never mind the fact that you might become a genius, this is no good if you become depressed or get burnt out.
There are many kids who are intensively homeschooled who appear to turn out to have become perfectly adjusted adults. However, among them are an abnormally high number who fail to adjust to the 'real world'. I know some of them, and I know even more second-hand through friends and acquaintances.
Take, for example, the kid who one of the conference speakers told me about. This kid (George, I think) does the rounds on the international youth conferences circuit (you know, the youth conferences which you never hear about, always have the same people and do absolutely bugger all). George apparently has lots of friends. Sure. When he goes to conferences, his parents keep him in during the evenings and coach him intensively about how he should reply to questions from reporters - they have a large folder of questions and answers for this purpose.
I am not particularly impressed by this brand of homeschooled kid.
David, however, seemed like a likeable guy (despite my efforts not to like him) and his parents weren't too weird. He talked about a board game he'd developed with his mum called the Game of Distinction, where players have to come up with a definition of why two particular words are different (e.g. why are the words 'million' and 'billion' different). Nice game, but I think you'll agree with me that it has a distinctly limited market. David also asked the conference organiser if he had time for a 'software demo' - something that elicited laughs from the audience, hearing these words come from a 9 year-old.
Of course, there was time and he showed off a basic, barely interactive quiz game. I shouldn't be too hard on him though, after all, he is only 9. Naturally, he got a big round of applause.
Anyhow, that was the end of session 2 and we had about an hour to freshen up, change and go to the evening event (hosted in the Simulcast room), sponsored by Ask Jeeves. I thought it was very cute that they'd hired two 'greeters' who were supposed to be Jeeves to man the doors.
"Ask Jeeves welcomes you," they greeted people.
I spent most of my time talking to Jennifer (I mentioned her before) and her friend Michael Furdyk (teenage Internet entrepreneur, etc.). We talked for a little while complaining about the 'cute factor' that surrounded little David and how we thought that perhaps a little too much attention was being lavished on him - I mean, Ray Kurzweil of AI and voice recognition software is his 'mentor'! The kid gets to visit the MIT Media Labs all the time! While I'm glad that these guys are happy to spend their time with this kid, what about the other ten million kids out there? If they spent just one hour with another less-phenomenally bright kid, they might change the kid's life.
Yes, I'll admit there was a certain amount of jealousy there.
An amusing fact was that Jennifer had gotten drunk on one Martini and seemed to spend a lot of time falling off her chair. Not to be outdone, Sergey Brin of Google wandered over looking distinctly woozy and proceeded to slide around on his chair as well. Naturally, this was very fun to watch.
We then had the usual hoopla of showing off our respective websites and doing the Google trick of searching for each other's names. Sergey Brin experienced the poetic irony of us finding him on a dating page using his own search engine! Oh, the irony! The evening ended with a long line of disgustingly rich old men hitting on Jennifer, asking whether she had a boyfriend (no) and trying to show off how much money they had (by spending $4000 in one go). I refused to extract her from this situation because I thought it was far too amusing to cut short and ended up walking back to the hotel with Jen and Mike.
Oh, and Kodak did this 180° photo thing at the party, and Color Kinetics gave away these great 'Sauce' light-wand toys. I might put up a few photos of these.