The TED11 Experience Part 2

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Thursday 22nd February

I woke up on Thursday feeling somewhat refreshed and thought I'd gotten over any jetlag. Unfortunately, the morning of Thursday wasn't too hot (that's session 3) - while the Raspyni Brothers as always kicked off the proceedings in style and Linda Martinez (the pianist I mentioned earlier) was very good, she played more modern pieces.

<diatribe mode> Music is good. Classical music is good. Unfortunately, I don't like modern classical music and I felt that neither did the majority of the audience. While modern classical pieces probably pose more of a technical challenge to musicians these days, and they undoubtedly inject a bit of variety, I don't personally find them to chime in so well with my ideas of a good melody and harmony. Of course, Your Mileage May Vary. </diatribe>

Then J C Herz, author of Joystick Nation (a book about the history of videogames) spoke. To my surprise, J C Herz was a 'she' - and you could forgive me for thinking that, due to the stereotype of a gamer being male. Alas, her talk was pretty dull and involved something about verbs and nouns, I forget what exactly, in relation to videogames. Nothing new, nothing memorable. Same goes for Joe Karus and Graham Spencer (founders of some ISP).

Michael Furdyk and Jennifer Corriero of TakingITGlobal, a youth-based Internet initiative were next - I've mentioned them before and I thought their talk was quite good and touched on some stuff that I have a personal interest in. They also managed to cover something that I was going to say in the last two minutes of my talk, which I had to hastily rewrite that night. Luckily (and incredibly) the rewrite was better than the original and meant I kept a much tighter focus on the subject of my talk - youth and Mars. More on that later.

Session 4 was average/above-average. That's all I remember about it. Then I had lunch - not with anyone particularly special, either. I did get to see David Blaine, street-magician extraordinaire, do a few tricks outside.

David Blaine

You can see David Blaine on the right here, doing a card trick with the guy facing him. I can personally attest that these tricks are genuine and executed perfectly - in fact, he also removed the guy's watch without any of us noticing. True, other magicians can do this as well, but David managed to pull it off with some flair. Interesting guy.

Session 5 was a completely different kettle of fish. See, the first act of session 5 had been hugely hyped up for the conference and was apparently to do with some special AI project called 'Ramona' Raymond Kurzweil (AI 'pioneer' and voice-recognition software guy) had been working on for a year. In fact, such was the scale of this project was that Kurzweil had brought in a whole load of computer equipment to deal with it.

The AV room

This is part of the TED11 Audio/Visual room and the computers in the corner were all dedicated towards Kurzweil's presentation. Don't ask me what the disco ball had to do with it. The AV room was particularly impressive, they had all sorts of powerful computers and G4 Macs lying around. Kodak iPix had a corner where they were showing off some nifty 360° videocamera - they'd made a few videos using it and hooked it up to a VR headset so that you could move your head about in three dimension while looking around this video. Extremely neat application and I can see it doing well in the future.

(Digression: While I was poking around the AV room and nicking some Palm pen freebies the day after my talk, I had a conversation with a women whose nametag was obscured about my thoughts on science fiction films. I mentioned the fact that most SF films recently have been pretty poor and that 2001 still remains the best 'true' SF film, and she made a few comments about how she was in some way related to the film industry and had been very impressed when she'd had a tour around NASA and seen a shuttle launch.

I also advanced the idea that most SF movies are simply action movies dressed up with lasers and robots and proceeded to slate all the recent SF movies. It then turned out that she was extremely high up in Warner Brothers and had been involved in the production of some of the aforementioned crap SF movies. In her defence she did say that she didn't get to pick the movies she worked on. Only at TED, eh?)

Anyway, back to Kurzweil's talk. The auditorium was uncharacteristically packed for this session and there was a real expectancy that something great was going to happen, what with a band being set up on stage and some weird sensing equipment as well. Then Kurzweil came out, kitted in some strange bodysuit and standing on a stage.

Kurzweil's Ramona presentation

You can see Raymond standing on the stage which turned out to be a magnetic positioning thing. You see, when they started it became apparent that his movements were being translated into the movements of a virtual avatar on the projector, and the avatar was a young woman called Ramona (ah, you see?). His voice was being picked up by a mike and modulated to sound 'like' a young woman (in reality, it sounded pretty dumb). It had a pretty silly start since while his movements were being translated into Ramona's on screen, the avatar kept on dancing about. I can only presume this was a bug, since it looked downright dumb.

So they kicked off with a song (Raymond really should improve his singing skills) and I suppose the graphics were okay. He'd enlisted his daughter to be a dancer, so she was wired up and she had another avatar on screen. Raymond then went to the Ramona website and used his voice-recognition software to ask 'Ramona' some questions about herself. The AI was adequate, as was the voice recognition, and Raymond talked about some relatively up-to-date AI/cybernetics stuff. Then another song, and finally the end of his presentation.

The thing with Kurzweil's presentation was that it really didn't show anything new; real-time motion capture, voice recognition, natural language software and voice synthesis - it's all be done before. Sure, it might have been the first time all these elements had been put together, and sometimes that approach can be successful, but not this time. The individual elements simply weren't quite good enough, there were a few niggling bugs and as someone who's read a fair bit about AI, I didn't hear him say anything remotely new. While I'll admit that he can't introduce many complex concepts without confusing the audience, he didn't present any new concepts. My conclusion: way too overhyped.

Philip and Phylis Morrison were next up. I'd been looking forward to this talk as they've been columnists for Scientific American for at least 20 years now and so are 'pretty good' to say the least. Saddeningly, they are getting very old and it tells. Phylis did a fairly good job presenting how women created a significant invention with the loom several hundred years ago, but Philip's talk about... well, I'm not entirely sure what it was about, something to do with extra-solar planets (planets outside our solar system) was very diffuse and wandered about a lot. I could tell that he'd lost everyone's interest after ten minutes and he frequently lost track of his train of thought. Not pleasant to watch.

This also applied to Leon Lederman's presentation.

Leon Lederman

If anything, I was really looking forward to his talk. Lederman is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and is also working with improving science education in high schools across America. I'd watched his talk at TED9 and found it to be absolutely hilarious and extremely thought-provoking, so I was expecting more of the same here.

I didn't get it. He kicked off with a short joke that he'd used in TED9, and then said something about his education work, then spent a few minutes telling another (admittedly good) joke that was also in his previous talk. I found this very embarrassing to watch since I'd wanted so much more from this presentation. After that he talked about his education work a little more, covering a lot of the areas from his TED9 talk. I found this to be very disappointing, Nobel Prize-winner or not.

Finishing up session 5 was Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet C K Williams, who recited a few poems from his new anthology. Fairly good. Starbucks conversation break was up next, and then we charged into session 6, started off by Frank Gehry, award-winning architect and the guy who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (you know, the really weird looking one with lots of curved metal in it).

Model of Gehry's proposed Guggenheim Museum at New York

This is a model (according to Gehry, it was set up back-to-front by mistake here) of his proposed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Gehry didn't talk about this project but instead chatted about how he was designing a smaller museum somewhere in the middle of America (it wasn't west or east coast, and it wasn't the south, so as far as I'm concerned that places it in the 'middle'). Very enlightening and I found him to be an entertaining speaker.

The next two talks were pretty poor. Eva Zeisel though, a 94 year old potter from Hungary, told a wonderful story about her life creating ceramics and glass and also about her time in the Russian prison camps. Sometimes age doesn't stop someone from telling a good story.

All in all, Thursday had some interesting talks but it was nowhere as good as Wednesday.

Mind you, the evening event at a local restaurant was great. I talked to Li Lu, a student dissident leader who organised the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which was a great experience. I also spent a lot of time talking to a guy called Daniel Barstow, the director of the Center for Earth and Space Science Education at TERC. Very interesting guy, and they're working on a lot of areas I'm interested in, such as astrobiology.

Something that Barstow was particularly excited about was getting students and academics to work together and be productive. Here's a good example. We've had several rocks from Mars land on Earth, such as the infamous ALH 84001 meteorite that purportedly has signs of life in it. We know these are from Mars due to the composition of the trapped gas within them that matches perfectly with atmospheric readings taken from the Viking probes sent to Mars.

It is believed that these Mars rocks came to Earth because they were blasted off Mars' surface when asteroids hit Mars at an oblique angle. Researchers at NASA want to locate these oblique impact craters from images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft orbiting Mars, but they don't have enough manpower. Therefore, they want to enlist the help of high school students to identify and locate these craters via computer, and at the same time educate them about Martian geology and space science. This way, the students feel like they're really doing something and are learning about Mars and the researchers are getting valuable data.

This shouldn't be confused with a similar 'click-workers' scheme that NASA is doing where the public is being asked to identify craters from Mars images, since that scheme's data is not being used properly, it's only being used to see if the public are 'good at working at this sort of thing'.

I like it. I'm going to try and get involved with it, what with the Generation Mars stuff I'm doing.

Gratuitous photo (because there's been a lot of- they put out these incredible glass sculptures made by Dale Chihuly, a TED regular, in the downstairs room. This has absolutely nothing to do with the evening event, I just wanted to break up the flow of text here. Here's one of them:

A glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly


Matt Groening

Meeting Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons, is thought to be so important by myself and others that it deserves a section of its own in this report. Initially, I didn't know that Matt was going to be at TED11 - I knew he'd spoken at TED9, but he wasn't speaking at this conference. He was attending though, but no-one made a big deal about it. I only realised he was there since someone had mentioned him to me at the party on Wednesday - if they didn't I'd probably have missed him entirely.

Anyway, during the afternoon of this day I was mooching about upstairs, looking at the dinosaur skeleton and checking my email. I looked up, and saw some old looking guy with grey hair and a beard standing around on his own against a pillar. I thought to myself, 'That can't be him', but I walked past and checked out his nametag, and it was indeed Matt Groening. Summoning up my courage and banishing my fanboyish-like tendencies to demand an autograph and photo, I walked up and began chatting. To Matt Groening.

He is, as you'd expect, a very nice and funny guy and we talked about my upcoming presentation and previous TED conferences. He also mentioned how he'd like to have punched one of the guys at TED9 who'd proposed creating an artificial themepark/zoo and we had a laugh about that.

Funnily enough, I also bumped into him at the party on the same day when we were standing in the queue to get some sushi. We struck up a conversation again about relative drinking and driving ages in the UK and USA and ended up getting a table somewhere and talking for about ten minutes. He's a very nice guy, as I said, and very friendly. I get the feeling that he really likes the TED conferences because it allows him to wander around with a nametag without getting buttonholed or fawned over by fans. He joked that he had to remember to take him nametag off when he went outside the conference center to avoid getting mobbed (something that I have no doubts would happen).

So. I did meet Matt Groening (a fact for which I am apparently a legend in some Cambridge colleges) and I don't have his signature or a photo of him. The fact is, if I did ask for either, I would not have made a good impression and it probably would have put him off.

Yes, I have his email address. No, I am not going to give it to you.

And then I left the party a little early (at 11PM) and got some sleep to get ready for my talk on the next day.

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