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12 JULY, 2011

Highlights from TED Global 2011, The Stuff of Life: Day One

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What 86,000 neurons have to do with privacy, the Magna Carta, and the world’s fastest piano player.

After warming up with two sets of must-read books by this year’s speakers and a look at some amazing work by the TED Fellows, this year’s TED Global, titled The Stuff of Life, is officially underway. Gathered here are the essential highlights of Day One, in photos and soundbites.

TED Curator Chris Anderson and TED Europe director Bruno Giussani open the first session of TED Global 2011, 'Beginnings'

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

SESSION 1: BEGINNINGS

Biologist Lee Cronin opened the day with a compelling look at the chemical origins of life, questioning our most fundamental assumptions about what constitutes living matter with a scientific lens underpinned by philosophical inquiry.

Life is flame in a bottle.” ~ Lee Cronin

Chemist Lee Cronin

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Biology doesn’t care about the design unless it works.” ~ Lee Cronin

Author Annie Murphy Paul shared insights from her book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Fetuses, she argued, are learning about sounds, tastes and smells while still in the womb, and the meals a pregnant woman consumes constitute a kind of story that imparts information the fetus uses to organize its body and its systems.

We’re learning about the world before we even enter it.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul

Author Annie Murphy Paul

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of visionary citizen journalism portal Global Voices, explored private sovereignty in cyberspace, how digital laws can challenge or extend the sovereignty of nation-states, and what we can do to uphold sovereignty in a cultural context where most private CEOs focus on maximizing profit, not freedom.

What people can and cannot do with information has more effect than ever on the exercise of power in the physical world.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon

MacKinnon drew on history, pointing to the Magna Carta — which recognized that even the king who claimed to have divine rule still had to abide by a basic set of rules, setting off a cycle of political innovation and eventually leading to “Consent of the governed” — and called for the need to build “Consent of the networked,” which would require innovation not only in politics and geopolitics, but also in business management, investment behavior, consumer choice and even software design.

Each and every one of us has a vital part to play in building a world in which government and technology serve the world’s people and not the other way around.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon

Soprano Danielle de Niese

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, spoke about improving the qualities of human life by reducing income differences, pointing out that the most important determinant of healthy community life is the scale of income differences between us.

Richard Wilkinson

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.” ~ Richard Wilkinson

Political theorist Phillip Blond argued that, for the past 30 to 40 years, Western societies have run on extreme individualism, leading to social maladies like enormous disparity, a welfarist culture, and ultimate breakdown after which the state has to pick up the pieces.

The state has turned class into caste and the market has converted owners into serfs.” ~ Phillip Blond

Political theorist Phillip Blond

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Blond pointed to relationships as the real basis for society and asserted that the economic problem isn’t so much about income inequality as it is about asset inequality, which is far worse.

Assets are the great drive of modern inequality — who owns and who doesn’t own. The bottom half of the UK owns just 9% of the nation’s assets.” ~ Phillip Blond

SESSION 2: EVERYDAY REBELLIONS

Opening the second session, Everyday Rebellions, artist Hasan Elahi, who has been publicly tracking every detail of his life for the past several years after getting erroneously placed on the FBI’s watchlist and is the subject of the book Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, spoke about privacy, arguing that the only way to protect our privacy in the digital age by taking full control of its transparency.

Artist Hasan Elahi

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We’re all creating an archive of our own lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.” ~ Hasan Elahi

Quilliam Foundation founder and anti-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz, a former 13-year Islamic extremist himself, spoke about the “age of behavior” — a period when trans-national ideas and narratives are affecting allegiances and behavior — and argued that the people who have capitalized the most on this age of behavior have been extremists, using globally networked tools to disseminate their ideology. He identified four elements of social movements — ideas, narratives symbols and leaders — and pointed to an ultimate ideal where people vote in an existing democracy, not for democracy, a model in which democracy isn’t merely one of many political choices.

Anti-extrimism activist Maajid Nawaz

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

In history, identity was defined by religion and race. Now, in the age of behavior, it’s defined by ideas and narratives” ~ Maajid Nawaz

Raspy angel Asaf Avidan

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Israeli indie folk-rock musician Asaf Avidan, an absolutely remarkable voice channeling Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens and something else entirely, delivered an utterly spellbiding performance alongside cellist Hadas Kleinman. Their debut album, The Reckoning, is one of the finest indie records to come by in years.

Filmmaker Julia Bacha, who has dedicated her life to documenting how Israeli and Palestinians are finding ways for peaceful conflict resolution and emergence of nonviolent movements in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere, argued passionately for giving nonviolent behavior enough attention and exposure to shift the normative models for conflict resolution.

What’s missing is not for Palestinians to start adopting nonviolence but for us to start paying attention to those who already are.” ~ Julia Bacha

She noted that the one important characteristic violent and nonviolent resistance have in common is that they are both a form of theater, seeking an audience for their cause.

Filmmaker Julia Bacha

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

I believe at the core of ending the conflict in the Middle East and bringing peace is for us to transform nonviolence into a functional behavior by giving a lot more attention to nonviolent leaders today.” ~ Julia Bacha

SESSION 3: CODED PATTERNS

Physicist Geoffrey West, whose work on “turning the city into an equation” was profiled in The New York Times last winter, explored the economies of scale as they apply to cities and innovation, arguing that unbounded growth requites accelerating cycles of innovation to avoid collapse, but with the catch that it also necessitates a faster and faster pace of innovation.

Every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities.” ~ Geoffrey West

Urban physicist Geoffrey West

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We are the city — it’s our interactions and the clustering of our interactions.” ~ Geoffrey West

Architect Shohei Shigematsu examined the box as a building block of architectural innovation.

Architect Shohei Shigematsu

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

In order to make an iconic place, shape doesn’t really matter.” ~ Shohei Shigematsu

Kevin Slavin explored how algorithms are shaping our understanding of markets, behaviors and the world at large, calling for rethinking the role of math in life and society. He noted that there are 2,000 physicists working on Wall Street, many working on “black box trading”, which, as Slavin facetiously pointed out, makes up “70% of the algorithm formerly known as your pension.”

Algoworld expert Kevin Slavin

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

We would have to understand algorithms as nature — and, in a way, they are.” ~ Kevin Slavin

Neuroscientist Allan Jones exposed the processes and practices of his lab, which has devised a way to glean 50 million data points from any given human brain. But despite advances in neuroscience, Jones noted, the brain, with its 86 million neurons whose distribution determine its function, remains largely a mystery.

Brain scientist Allan Jones

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The brain is truly an unexplored, undiscovered continent. It’s a new frontier, if you will.” ~ Allan Jones

Virtuoso pianist and composer Balazs Havasi, holder of the Guinness World Record for the Most Piano Keys in One Minute, closed the day with a riveting rock-classical duet with a master-drummer, rolled onstage in a glass box alongside the grand piano.

Pianist Balazs Havasi

Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Come back tomorrow for highlights from Day Two, or follow along on Twitter between 8:30AM and 7PM GMT for the live feed.

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12 JULY, 2011

Nathalie Miebach’s Sculptural Soundtracks for Storms

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What stormy weather has to do with Stormy Weather and the cross-pollination of poetry and precision.

Visualizations of music, creative takes on notation and physical data art are all running fixations here at Brain Pickings. Naturally, the work of Boston-based artist Nathalie Miebach, one of this year’s crop of extraordinary TED Global Fellows, is an instant favorite. Miebach translates weather and climate change data from cities into musical scores, which she then translates into vibrant, whimsical sculptures and uses them as the basis for collaboration with musicians across a wide spectrum of styles and genres.

Musical notation allows me a more nuanced way of translating information without compromising it.” She uses these scores to collaborate with musicians across a wide spectrum of styles and genres.” ~ Nathalie Miebach

External Weather, Internal Storms

Reed, metal, wood, data | 2009

Musical Buoy in Search Towards a New Shore (Dedicated to Melvin Maddocks)

Wood, data, reed | 2009

Hurricane Noel

3D Musical Score of the passing of Hurricane Noel through the Gulf of Maine, Nov 6-8, 2007. Meteorological data comes from two weather stations in Hyannis, MA and Natashquan, Quebec as well as an off-shore buoy anchored on George's Bank in the Gulf of Maine. Data translated includes wind, air temperature, barometric pressure, wave height, cloud cover, historical hurricane data and solar azimuth.

Each sculpture not only maps the meteorological landscape of a specific time and place, but is also a fully functional musical score to be played and interpreted by musicans on instruments as varied as piano, French horn and electrican guitar. You can hear and download the resulting tracks on Miebach’s site.

She's Coming on Strong

9'x9'x1', paper, wood, data, 2011

This piece is a musical score that tracks the paths of both Hurricane Grace and the Halloween Storm, which together created the 'Perfect Storm'.

Miebach uses basket-weaving techniques and materials to interpret the data in three-dimensional space, using the lens of art and craft to look at scientific with new eyes and glean new understanding.

Urban Weather Prairies - Symphonic Studies in D

16’x15’x15’, reed, wood, data, 2009

Urban Weather Prairies is based on data collected in Omaha, Nebraska, during a 2-month period (May /June 2008), while I was an Artist in Residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. I chose to translate the data I collected in the format of an orchestra as a way to more truthfully articulate the somewhat idiosyncratic way I was making sense of my daily weather observations. Just like each instrument in a symphony plays part of the score, each sculpture and wall piece tells part of the story, with the entirety of the piece coming together through the larger behavioral patterns that slowly emerge over time. The wall space uses the rectangle as varies maps of Nebraska or urban centers of Nebraska.

What I like about this work is that it challenges our assumption about what kind of visual vocabulary belongs in art versus science.” ~ Nathalie Miebach

Together, Miebach’s sculptures explore the fascinating intersection of art and science — another recurring theme here — with equal parts poetry and precision, making science more accessible and art more cerebral — a pinnacle of the cross-pollination of disciplines at the heart of Brain Pickings.

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11 JULY, 2011

Of Lamb: A Children’s Classic Retold for Contrarians

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What baseball player Manny Ramirez has to do with the fourth-best-selling poetry book in America.

If you combined a game of Exquisite Corpse, textual erasure, and the fantastic coloration of outsider art, you might come somewhat close to the gorgeous new book Of Lamb. Out this month from McSweeney’s, Of Lamb is a collaboration between poet Matthea Harvey and artist/illustrator Amy Jean Porter, and the sum of its parts is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The project’s original text was a biography of the 19th-century British essayist Charles Lamb, which Harvey proceeded to white-out until only fragments and phrases remained. She then turned the much-reduced manuscript over to artist Porter, who created 106 gouache-and-ink images to illustrate Harvey’s melancholy, dreamlike poem.

Of Lamb is a work of such subtle, haunting, spellbinding beauty it is virtually impossible to describe it. Fantastical and yet, so strangely, achingly ‘real’ in its tracking of love, loss, grief, and again love” ~ Joyce Carol Oates

The titular lamb travels from Mary’s yard to a mental facility and beyond, coming into contact with former Red-Soxer Manny Ramirez, newscaster Brian Williams, and Oprah. Like the bizarre but beautiful outcome of a genetic mutation, he turns shades of bright orange, neon green, and deep blue, all the while going through a range of totally familiar human emotions.

A totally tweaked retelling of the classic nursery rhyme, Of Lamb is a singular experience that will entrance any age. And if you hunger for more children’s books for grown-ups, don’t miss our all-time favorites, in two installments.

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.

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