Brain Pickings

Highlights from TED 2010: Day Two

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Suspended animation, augmented reality, and what sheep’s knuckles have to do with the future of cultural problem-solving.

We’ve been busy live-tweeting from TED 2010, so yesterday’s highlights come mostly in photos and quotes — see Twitter for play-by-play updates.

SESSION 1: REASON

Be skeptical. Ask questions. Get proof. Don’t take anything for granted. But when you get proof, accept it. We have a hard time doing that. ~ Michael Specter

Science tells us what we can value, but it never tells us what we ought to value. ~ Sam Harris

AIDS researcher Elizabeth Pisani shows the remarkable and life-saving effects of HIV treatment, but says that, contrary to popular belief, treatment is not all the prevention we need. In fact, it leads the infected to take their guards down, so they become less careful, which can be dangerous.

Pisani’s book, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS, sounds fascinating and eye-opening.

Pisani shows some counterintuitive HIV stats

Nicholas Christakis, whose social contagion studies we tweeted some time ago, talked about

Christakis’ book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, is a sociology and digital anthropology must-read.

Christakis calls obesity a 'multicentric epidemic,' reduced not to the behavior of individuals but to that of the 'human superorganism.'

SESSION 5: PROVOCATION

Ex-CIA covert operations officer Valerie Plame Wilson shares Global Zero, her advocacy for eliminating nuclear weapons.

One thing our country needs is better political debates. We need to rediscover the lost art of political argument. ~ Michael Sandel

If we weren't afraid our servers might go down tomorrow, we'd dare say 4chan founder Christopher 'moot' Poole was endearing, but left us underwhelmed and missing a connect-the-dots idea. Hypothetically speaking.

Kevin Bales reveals some shocking facts about modern-day slavery: Today, there are 27,000 people in real, physical slavery. He points to four main causes: Overpopulation, extreme poverty, vulnerability of disadvantaged groups, and corruption.

'What enables slavery is the absence of the rule of law. It lets people use violence with impunity.' ~ Kevin Bales

Kevin advocates “freedom dividend” — letting people out of slavery and letting them work for themselves, which causes local communities to flourish. He says the total cost of enduring freedom for those 27,000 contemporary slaves is $10.8 billion, which is how much the US spent shopping this past holiday season.

We stand wholeheartedly behind Chris Anderson’s recommendation for Bales’ chilling and fascinating book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.

A TED first: Mark Jacobson and Stewart Brand (whose compelling new book, Whole Earth Discipline, we reviewed recently) entered a good old fashioned debate on the merits of nuclear power.

Brand for, Jacobson against

If all of the electricity in your lifetime came from nuclear, waste would fit in a Coke can. ~ Stewart Brand

Each got 6 minutes to defend his stance, followed by an audience grill and refuting arguments.

To power the entire world with wind you will need only about 1% of US land area. ~ Mark Jacobson

Despite his charisma, Brand 'lost' in the end -- the audience skew moved from 75/25 in favor of nukes in the beginning of the debate to 65/35 by the end.

SESSION 6: INVENTION

The Extraordinary Legion of Dancers, LXD, were extraordinary indeed.

LXD received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at TED 2010 yet.

Though without the impact of a live performance, you can see for yourself:

When I dance, I want people to question the reality of what they’re seeing. ~ Madd Chadd

Game designer Jane McGonigal delivered some staggering statistics on gaming: Since World of Warcraft launched, we’ve spent 5.33 million years solving it; to put this in time perspective, 5.33 million years ago, the first humans stood up.

In the game world, we become the best version of ourselves. ~Jane McGonigal

Today’s kids, McGonigal pointed out, spend some 10,000 hours gaming by the time they turn 21. At the same time, the average child with perfect attendance spends 10,800 hours in school by graduation — so there’s a parallel “education” going on. She advocates for using social games as something bigger than escapism from reality — a cultural advancement tool putting gamers’ problem-solving talents to work. She demoes World Without Oil, a collaborative social game made in 2007.

Ancient dice made out of sheep's knuckles, invented in Libya, are world's first recorded gaming device.

McGonigal premieres Urgent Evoke, a game developed in partnership with the World Bank. If you complete it, you get certified by the World Bank as “social innovator”.

Music icon David Byrne, a cultural hero of ours.

Byrne says people in 19th-century opera houses used to yell at each other just like they did at CBGB's in the 70's.

Photosynth mastermind Blaise Aguera y Arcas demoes some remarkable Augmented Reality technologies using Microsoft's Bing

Inventor Gary Lauder says energy efficiency is about more than just vehicles: It's also about the road. He points out that converting a traffic light into a roundabout -- something well-adopted in Europe, but tragically scarce here in the US -- reduces accidents by 40%. He proposes a new hybrid sign that blends a Stop sign and a Yield one.

In the developing world, 10-50% of vaccines spoil before delivery. Kids die. ~Nathan Myhrvold

Polymath Nathan Myhrvold delivers some known but still chilling statistics about malaria — it sickens 250 million people a year; every 43 seconds a child in Africa dies — and demonstrates a radical new way of fighting the disease: By laser-blasting infected mosquitoes.

Myhrvold orchestrates an incredible on-stage demonstration, wherein a mosquito is shot by a laser beam in a glass tank.

We've stitched together the slow-motion sequence of the mosquito blast. Click the image to look closer.

SESSION 7: BREAKTHROUGH

Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, amazing as usual.

Stephen Wolfram, creator of revolutionary semantic search engine Wolfram|Alpha, argues raw computation combined with built-in knowledge changes the economics of the web and democratizes programming. He talks about the principle of computational equivalence — the idea that even incredibly simple systems can do complex computation.

Wolfram says you don't have to go very far in the computational universe to start finding candidate universes for our own.

For the first time, Microsoft Labs’ revolutionary Pivot software is availble for the world to tinker with.

MacArthur genius fellow Mark Roth admits he didn’t know what TED was until Chris invited him to talk, but we quickly forgive him after hearing his incredible — literally — and surprisingly grounded sci-fiish work in “suspended animation,” a slowing life process and makes a living being appear dead without harming, then reanimates it. In layman’s terms, resurrection.

The amazing TED Fellows are a mind-blowingly multi-talented group, working in anything from crowdsourced citizen journalism to e-waste management to humanitarian documentary film-making.

For live coverage of today’s and and tomorrow’s TED talks, follow us on Twitter. And keep an eye on the TED website as the first of this year’s talks begin being uploaded.

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