Brain Pickings

TED 2011: The Rediscovery of Wonder, Day 3

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Embracing chaos, 57 things Google knows about you, and how to 3D-print a kidney.

This week, we’re reporting live from TED 2011: The Rediscovery of Wonder. So far, we warmed up with 5 must-read books by some of this year’s speakers, synthesized highlights from Day 1 and Day 2, and spotlighted an inspired urban intervention by designer and TED Fellow Candy Chang. Today, we’re back — on the brink of our sleep budged — with highlights, photos and notable soundbites from Day 3 — dig in.

Historian Edward Tenner

Culture and technology historian Edward Tenner showed statistical evidence that the greatest time for game-changing innovation in modern history was actually The Great Depression, which had a paradoxically stimulating effect on creativity. He argued that one of the grand questions of our time is how to close the gap between our capabilities and our foresight.

Our ability to innovate is increasing geometrically but our capacity to model those innovations is linear.” ~ Edward Tenner

Tenner’s excellent 1997 book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology & the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, will change the way you think about adversity, opportunity and innovation.

Chris Anderson presenting the winners of the Ads Worth Spreading contest.

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

TED announced the 10 winners of the inaugural Ads Worth Spreading contest, seeking to reframe commercial communication from an interruption to inspiration.

Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org fame, author of the excellent forthcoming The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, delivered a stride-stopping and timely curtain-pull on our modern information diet and what we’re being force-fed by the powers of the Internet. Google, apparently, looks at 57 data points to serve us personally tailored search results.

We’ve moved to an age where the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.” ~ Eli Pariser

Which raises the question of responsibility: Is the responsibility of those who serve information to give us more of what we already like and believe, or to open our eyes to new perspectives? And if it’s all algorithmically driven, is there even a place for such responsibility? Our key takeaway from Pariser’s talk, one particularly relevant to our own credo, is that human information curators will have an increasingly important role as moral mitigators of algorithmic personalization efficiency.

Eli Pariser 'We need the new information gatekeepers to encode a sense of civic responsibility into algorithms.'

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We need the Internet to introduce us to different ideas and different perspectives.” ~ Eli Pariser

Virginia Tech’s Dennis Hong is building the world’s first vehicle for the visually-impaired. and recently made history with the Blind Driver Challenge.

Dennis Hong 'We need the new information gatekeepers to encode a sense of civic responsibility into algorithms.'

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

High-functioning autistic savant Daniel Tammet opened the door to his fascinating view of the world. He used synesthesia, the strange neurological crossing of the senses, as an example of how the world is often richer than we think it to be.

Daniel Tammet shows us the world through the eyes of an autistic savant.

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Tammet’s Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant is one of the most fascinating perspective shifts you’ll ever read.

Google's Sebastian Thrun 'We took a driverless car from San Francisco to LA, and no one even noticed there was no driver.'

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The idea behind the Stuxnet worm is quite simple: We don’t want Iran to get the bomb.” ~ Ralph Langner

Security consultant Ralph Langner 'Mossad is responsible for Stuxnet. But the real force behind that is not Israel, it is the only cyber force: The U.S.'

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

In one of the day’s most jaw-dropping demos, the kind that restores one’s faith in humanity, Berkley BionicsEythor Bender showcased the incredible eLEGS exoskeletons, which enable the paralyzed to walk again, and HULC, which enables ordinary people to carry up to 200 lbs. Bender was joined onstage by a soldier, who demoed HULC, and a paralyzed woman who walked for the first time in 18 years thanks to eLEGS.

Eythor Bender on stage with paraplegic Amanda Boxtel, ecstatic in her new non-invasive exoskeleton legs.

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Biomedical engineer Fiorenzo Omenetto is developing amazing non-invasive implants made of silicon and silk.

Fiorenzo Omenetto shows a disposable cup made of silk, a biodegradable, biocompatible alternative to the highly unsustainable styrofoam.

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

There was no shortage of astounding demos today. Anthony Atala, whose work in 3D organ printing is an unbelievable next frontier in medicine, literally “printed” a kidney on the TED stage as 1,700 of the world’s smartest people gasped in awe, speechless.

Anthony Atala 'prints' a kidney to a collective gasp.

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The remarkable papercut artist Béatrice Coron, whose stunning artwork we’ve spotted on the New York subway, echoed some of our own beliefs about combinatorial creativity:

I’m influenced by everything I read, everything I see. In life and in paper cutting, everything is connected: One story leads to another.” ~ Beatrice Coron

Watch Coron’s creative process and swoon like we did:

Keep an eye on our live Twitter coverage and come back here tomorrow evening for highlights from the final day.

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Endnotes: A David Foster Wallace BBC Documentary

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Taking a master class in artistic bravery, or how to honor the work of a literary lion.

When the writer David Foster Wallace ended his own life in 2008, the engines of culture immediately began producing analyses of his work with suicide as the subtext. How had depression informed his 1,000-page-plus masterpiece Infinite Jest, or his collections of short stories? Besides pronouncing Wallace’s martyrdom, the other tendency was to fix a specific place for him in the literary pantheon, so that his genre-bending oeuvre could be classified for posterity.

Now an excellent new BBC Radio piece aims to rescue him from these dual dangers of early hagiography. First aired on February 6th, the audio documentary is called Endnotes — both a melancholic acknowledgment of his early death, and an allusion to the author’s fondness for footnotes. (As the BBC reminds us, Infinite Jest contained 388 of them.) We were thrilled to hear the author reading portions of his own work and commenting on the challenges of writing fiction in late-millennial America.

Featuring interviews from Wallace’s sister Amy, his literary hero Don DeLillo, and novelist friend and contemporary Rick Moody, the BBC feature contextualizes his writing in terms of Wallace’s Midwestern upbringing, early love of math, and yes, his depression. But it does so without sentimentality and is explicit about rejecting any reductive interpretations of his legacy.

In the words of his editor, Michael Pietsch:

David loved to set himself enormous challenges… [He] was thinking about the fact that most of our lives are made up of boringness. Most of our lives are what he calls ‘irrelevant complexity,’ things that you just do again and again and your brain learns to go elsewhere while you’re doing them. And most novelists just avoid them; they just compress around the exciting bits.” ~ Michael Pietsch

Wallace, by contrast, managed to make the mundane profound. Listening to the piece we felt that heart-pounding feeling we had upon first reading his writing, of ideas pumping through the brain and blood at a rate faster than they could be absorbed. It was exhilirating, and reminded us how much we’re anticipating his final unfinished work, The Pale King, forthcoming in April.

In the meantime, load up the BBC’s endnotes and enjoy a 45-minute tour through the ideas of an unfailingly ambitious, quintessentially American author.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA but still stubbornly identifies as a Brooklynite.

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Moonwalking with Einstein: How to Hack Your Memory

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One of the mind’s most fascinating — and, some nuroscientists argue, uniquely human — facets is memory. Why do we remember, and how? Is there a finite capacity to our memory reservoir? Can we hack our internal memory chip?

These questions and more are precisely what science writer Joshua Foer sought to answer when he set out to cover and compete in the U.S. Memory Championship. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything tells the story of Foer’s fascinating journey as he became enthralled by the secrets of the participants and learned how to play with the hard-wired quirks of the brain, optimizing it to remember information it ordinarily wouldn’t.

The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.” ~ Joshua Foer

In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” ~ Joshua Foer

Moonwalking with Einstein is out today, one of the most ambitious brain-hacking experiments we’ve encountered in a long time — do your memory a favor and don’t forget to grab it.

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