The TED11 Experience Part 3

Part 1 ... Part 2 ... Part 3 ... My talk ... Discuss this report

Friday 23rd February

You'll remember from the previous instalment that I'd gone to bed relatively early to make sure I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, etc etc, for my presentation tomorrow. Alas, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men lay gang aft agley. Either it was the jetlag finally kicking in, or something that I ate from the sushi, or a long dormant viral infection, but I spent the entire night coughing and didn't get any sleep for longer than one hour in length.

This meant that I didn't get any REM sleep for the night, which is a Bad Thing because it means you don't really get any rest. Anyhow, I woke up with the worst headache I'd ever experienced in my life and feeling absoluted destroyed. When I say 'worst headache', I'm not exaggerating. I couldn't think, and I just felt like going to sleep again. Instead, I decided to try and concentrate and focus, which did bugger all.

Feeling somewhat depressed, I went for a shower in the hope that it'd revive me, which it didn't. I then dragged my sorry carcass to the conference center in the hope that the headache would wear off.

(Digression: I have since realised that it was a migraine. I'd never had a migraine before, which explains why I was a little surprised by its intensity).

I was due to speak during session 8, at around 12:30PM, but before that was session 7. This was actually pretty good, although I have to admit that I was a little annoyed with Marvin Minsky's dismissal of a humans to Mars mission. He claimed that humans could never survive an 18 months journey (nine there, nine back) in zero-G. That may be true, I don't know, but it brings a fundamentally flawed assumption into the equation - that humans should have to travel in zero-G to Mars.

After decades of research into the effects of zero-G on the human body, NASA and the Russians reached the following conclusion - it's a bad idea for humans to experience zero-G. So clearly you want to have some sort of artificial gravity, a little like that seen on 2001 or all the various SF movies where you have rotating ships. Fair enough, but constructing huge rotating wheels is very expensive and currently beyond our capability.

Of course, we don't have to do that. To induce artificial gravity via centripetal force, you just need to get your little spacecraft, spool off a tether maybe a mile or two long with a thruster and counterbalance at the end and spin the whole thing up. Congratulations - you've just created artificial gravity for a tiny price, eliminated all the problems that spacecraft experience with weird piping systems to cope with zero-G bubbles and ensured the health of your astronauts!

So why doesn't NASA do more research into this? Well, as I've said, they've been researching zero-G conditions for decades. There are a lot of careers and reputations tied up into it and if they introduced a tether system then, poof, all that expertise and experience would suddenly be near-worthless. Typical bureaucracy. Typical NASA.

Anyway, back to the point. The rest of Marvin Minsky's talk was quite good and he mainly talked about a bit of research that was in New Scientist a few months back, where the problems the brain experiences with true awareness of the environment were shown (e.g. people were shown two pictures which superficially looked the same but had a difference, such as a building in a different place or no reflections off the water. Some people can take minutes to spot the difference, even though it can be pretty big in some sets of pictures).

(Digression: I guess this is pretty indicative of the TED11 conference where there weren't many truly new ideas shown. Oh well).

Ian Clarke, founder of Freenet, also spoke in session 7; it wasn't bad, he mainly talked about his views on the sharing of information and privacy concerns.

During the hour-long break, I seriously considered calling off my presentation since my head was beginning to hurt, it felt as if my brain was expanding or I'd have an oedema. I then realised that there was no way in hell that I was going to call it off considering I'd been waiting and preparing for this moment for nearly two years of my life, and nothing would stop me making the presentation short of complete death. So instead of giving in, I tried to have a nap on one of the seats they had upstairs, to no avail. I got kitted out with a radio microphone and sat near the front at the start of the session.

Things didn't get much better. A large soul and jazz band kicked off the session with incredibly amplified music that threatened to turn my brain into mush, and I wasn't feeling too well. Next up was Norman Lear - for the non-Americans here, he's apparently a legend in TV producing, and he also happened to be the guy before me. He gave an excellent talk about his childhood and how he first became involved in production (and how he is now in the Forbes 500), and also happened to talk for at least 15 minutes over time, making me highly nervous.

He did finish, eventually, and then the conference organiser said something about my being interested in astronomy. When I got up on the stage I mentioned that while I was interested in space, I wasn't interested in astronomy, and that it was 'an easy mistake to make.' This got a few laughs and I began to relax (mind you, I probably looked pretty shocking on the video with my exhausted face and cracked lips).

I made it through my presentation, about 18 minutes long, on complete autopilot, not really thinking about what I was saying. Luckily I'd semi-memorised the talk beforehand so it did apparently come out quite well, but I can definitely say that it would've been much better had I'd been actually able to think.

My talk over, I staggered back to my hotel and slept for roughly 20 hours.


Saturday 24th February

I woke up in the early hours of Saturday, feeling completely refreshed and having a clear head. Absolutely bloody typical. Anyway, this was the last day of the conference and I was determined to get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of it. The first session that day had Kenneth Salisbury on, a professor from Stanford in robotics. He showed some great stuff with robotics catching balls thrown at it and throwing them back in the direction of the thrower, and some more videos of the incredible robotic surgery work that he's done.

(Digression: Kenneth collared me during the break to tell me about how NASA offered to pay him for a year to work on haptics for the Mars Pathfinder mission. Haptics, as in allowing blind people to actually feel the shape of the Martian rocks that examined with the Mars Pathfinder - pretty neat stuff, we both agreed, but he felt that a year wasn't enough time to do the project justice so he had to turn it down. I mentioned that I was going to be in Stanford, hopefully, for the next Mars Society convention so he invited me to drop in and have a look around the labs. Very nice guy, and he also said he liked my talk).

Jeffrey Katzenberg (the K in Dreamworks SKG) talked about the state of CGI in films these days and also made a few jabs at Disney, his former employer. He then spent the rest of his time showing off clips from the upcoming Dreamworks movie Shrek.

Clip from Shrek

Here's a photo I got during the clips he showed. Shrek appears to be an excellent and very funny movie with a fair number of Disney-bashing points involved, which is something we all love. I'm certainly going to see it as soon as it comes out.

Ben Fry demonstrated an excellent information analysis system that represents links between 'objects' (web pages, people, words) in 3D space using vectors and points. Incredible stuff.

Sergey Brin gave an amusing talk about how Google was first founded and the problems that they encountered. For example, to save money, the first servers they used were partly constructed using a cheap Korean-manufacturer clone of Duplo blocks. Apparently this was a very bad decision to make since said Duplo-clones have a very low stress-tolerance and tend to fall apart quite often, damaging the computer inside.

There was a last break where I got a little bit of feedback about my talk (everyone said it was good, although realistically they're not going to tell me otherwise to my face), and then we had the much-awaited talk by Martha Stewart of the Martha Stewart Living brand in America. People had been making fun of her during the entire conference and I for one didn't harbour any love for her since I noticed she walked out of the auditorium before my talk started (we'll see who history remembers, home-decoration girl!)

To her credit, she started off fairly strongly - in other words, she didn't talk about her company. Then she showed off some unfunny clips of adverts by her company, to which the audience made forced laughter, and then launched into a 30 minute long corporate spiel about:

How Martha Stewart Living uses home 'things' to create their product lines. E.g. Martha Stewart has a hundred chickens in a building at the back of her garden. She used them to create some painting colours that apparently are completely original, and made this utterly dull product line based on chickens and eggs - you know, motifs, patterns, chicken-shaped cookie cutters, that sort of thing. She then blithely talked about how she abused the editorial column (my words) of Martha Stewart Living magazine to recommend her own products, and ended up with an exquisite study in bad taste where she showed the end product of the cute egg/chicken product line - roast chicken and boiled eggs.

I personally thought this was some kind of joke and couldn't believe she was being serious. Walt Mossberg of some important computer company, I forget which, was sitting next to me and made continual sarcastic comments. The entire audience was mumblig and murmuring through the entire talk, clearly not paying attention, and towards the end there was some audible hissing emanating from a few corners.

While her talk was certainly a disaster, it doesn't come close to a talk that Steve Case, CEO of AOL/Time Warner, apparently made last year. He hadn't prepared his talk at all and spouted crap for about ten minutes, after which he was asked firmly to leave the stage as 'he wasn't contributing anything to the conference'. I only wish I was there to watch that moment.

And that was it. The end of the conference. There were a few inconsequential talks after Martha Stewart's that didn't have anywhere near the humour value, and then there was a short closing ceremony.

My take of the TED11 conference - It's not an academic conference. I suppose you could call it a gathering of 800 of the most connected and influential people in all disciplines for four days, dedicated to partying and networking out of the eye of the media, and also a bit of enlightenment and entertainment from supposedly the world's best speakers. Certainly there isn't another conference at which I'd be able to meet both the founders of Google and Matt Groening. It does cost an incredible amount of money to attend - TED12 costs $4000 to get a ticket, but I actually believe that if you're a good networker and you're in the Internet business, it might be worth your while coughing up the money simply due to the business opportunities and contacts you'll make there.

However, I'm not in an Internet company. Many people didn't want to talk to me (enough did, however) due to this fact and I get the feeling that the TED conferences are growing ever more 'corporate' with each passing year - to me, this isn't a good thing.

Despite this, the TED11 conference was probably the most intensively interesting four days of my life. It's not something I'm likely to forget for a long while.


What I did after the conference

It's a sad and telling fact that for the two times I've been to America, 90% of my time has been spent inside of a conference hall. In fact, when I went to Canada, much of my time was in a conference hall.

For TED11, I was determined to see something else of California and after the conference I had exactly four hours of spare time. Matt Groening and some other attendees had recommended that I visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and when I got to the hotel lobby I discovered that the boy-wonder David Dalrymple and his parents were visiting it as well, so I tagged along with them. I was preparing myself not to like him, but David seemed so eager to make a good impression that I had to admit he was quite a nice guy.

The aquarium was a particularly interesting place and since I'd been covering marine life in my Evolution and Behaviour lectures I was really able to appreciate the animals that I saw there.

Fish at the aquarium



So, that was pretty good and I managed to make good on my promise to myself to see something else of California. I popped back to my hotel to get taken to the airport, and was pleasantly surprised to find a few other TEDsters waiting for my plane as well; I had a good chat with them, and then another dozen or so attendees joined us since their flight had been delayed.

Memorable moment: Herbie Hancock going up to the flight information desk and exclaiming, "We've got a guy who wants to go to Mars here, and you can't even get us to LA?"

So clearly I'd made an impression on people at the conference, at least.

Three uneventful flights back to Heathrow (much more comfortable than the ones to California - perhaps I got acclimatised to the lack of moisture) and then I was home. Back to reality.

I hope you enjoyed this report and maybe it was informative for those of you who did a search on Google to find out more about the conference. If you want to ask me any questions, please email me.

Back to Part 1  -  Back to Part 2  -  On to My talk >>