Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘health’

13 MAY, 2010

The Future of First-Response Environments


Displays for disasters, or what sensors have to do with survival.

In just a few short months this year, the world has seen more disasters than its fair share — devastating earthquakes, floods and a destructive oil spill, each requiring different strategies of emergency management. And this month, Organizing Armageddon, the excellent Wired article by Vince Beiser about lessons learned from the Haiti earthquake, exposed the many and worrisome shortcomings of disaster relief efforts. From infrastructure to technology to tactical coordination, today’s emergency management is in dire need of an upgrade.

Luckily, Precision Information, a division of Homeland Security’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is developing ambitious new first-response cooperation environments that focus not on a single piece of technology but, rather, on a suite of interconnected tools that offer targeted access to information and sophisticated decision-making aid for emergency response.

From predictive modeling to automated recommendations to augmented reality, this concept video is designed to serve as a blueprint for research in the next decade, exploring some of the possibilities in addressing key research challenges.

For a closer look at the many emergining technologies and concepts alluded to in the video — including ubiquitous displays, crowdsourcing, pervasive sensor networks and adaptive user interfaces — be sure to see the annotated version.

via information aesthetics

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12 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010: Day Two


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.


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.'


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.


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.


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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11 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010, Day One


What one pound of tuna has to do with five years of chocolate milk, spider silk and a ukulele.

We’re thrilled to be reporting — and live-tweeting — from TED 2010, themed What The World Needs Now. Here are some highlights from an exhilarating and punchy first day, which opened with an appropriately bold address from Chris Anderson.

I don’t like what’s been happening in the world. What the world needs now is a restart.

Session one, Mindshift, opened with one of our big behavioral psychology heroes and winner of the Nobel in Economics, Daniel Kahneman. He delved into the cognitive traps of happiness.

The first cognitive trap about happiness is a reluctance to accept its complexity.

Kahneman went on to describe the differences — and conflict — between the experiencing self, which lives in the moment of the experience, and the remembering self, which frames that experience in our memory through the stories it tells about it. He asked us to consider a vacation at the end of which all of our memories would be erased by an amnesia-inducing pill and all of our photos deleted — would be still choose the same vacation?

We don’t actually choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. We think of the future as dissipated memories.

In a surprise livestream from London, Prime Minister candidate David Cameron slung some cliches about transparency, accountability and choice as the three key game-changers in politics — we were not impressed. And, frankly, we don’t think TED should be dabbling in the messy and murky waters of purely-political (as opposed to social policy) agendas.

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro followed with a mind-blowing rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

It is no doubt best experienced live, but you can get a teaser-taste here:

Activist Esther Duflo, founder of, made a powerful case for immunization and other interventions to stop preventable diseases that kill over 25,000 children every year. And she raised the difficult question of aid efficiency, saying we can’t actually know how effective aid in Africa is because we don’t know whether Africa would’ve been better or worse off without it.

An interesting nugget came from Duflo’s work on distributing mosquito nets. Turns out simply getting them to the community is only half the work. Getting people to use them is a different story, and there’s something to be learned from Kahneman here — behavioral economics of sorts: If you make the nets free, people won’t see them as valuable, so they won’t use them. So, do you make them free to maximize distribution, or do you sell them to increase their perceived value and thus incentivize people to use them?

Esther Duflo's answers to preventable diseases that claim thousands of lives a year.

Duflo concluded with the compelling question of why, in technology, we spend so much time in experimeting to find the best solution, but we don’t do the same in social policy.

Michael Shermer followed with a fascinating talk about pattern recognition and its psychology of skepticism and belief. He zoomed in on agenticity — the tendency to project our own beliefs on invisible objects — and pointed to it as the cause of conspiracy theories, managing to slide in a few rather entertaining jokes along the way.

Contrary to some conspiracy theories, we now know 9/11 was not a plan of the Bush administration because… it worked.

Session Two, Discover, opened with cancer researcher William Li, whose groundbreaking work in angiogenesis is revolutionizing the war on cancer, fighting the disease by cutting out blood supply to the vessels that favor the cancerous tissue.

Li contended that diet is one of the most effective cancer prevention mechanisms and identified a number of antiangiogenic foods — ones that help nip the blood supply to cancerous cells.

Because fat tissue is highly angiogenic, Li advocated a hand-in-hand fight against cancer and obesity by attacking their common denominator — angiogenesis — through dietary prevention.

Cheryl Hayashi followed with an informative, though not particularly engaging, talk about spiders and spider silk, the only fascinating takeaway of which was the possibility of using spider silk — a highly flexible and resistant structural material — in flexible body armor in the future.

Carter Emmart, Director of Astorvisualization at the Hayden Planetarium, followed with the utterly fascinating demo of the Digital Universe Atlas, which we raved about on Twitter a few months ago:

In a short talk, Philip Kaplan demoed his latest venture, Blippy, a social tool that shows what your friends are buying online and off, which reminded us of Facebook Beacon debacle and thus only made us shudder with skepticism.

The TED folks played “Parisian Love,” Google’s Super Bowl spot, from the stage — turns out, not because Google paid for it, but because they just loved how it captures the digital age.

What followed was our favorite talk of the day — chef extraordinaire Dan Barber, who dove into the serious overfishing problem and its many sidekick consequences: bycatch, pollution, ocean depletion.

Dan Barber, the day's highlight.

It takes 15 pounds of wild fish to get you one pound of tuna.

Barber pointed to smart, sustainable fish farming as a way of keeping fish on the menu and off the ocean’s death toll. He spoke of one such farm, which uses extensive, not intensive farming — along the entire ecological chain — even letting gorgeous pink flamingos feast freely on the fish.

We need a radical new conception of agriculture. One in which the food actually tastes good.

He also pointed to the failure of food distribution — not the mere lack of tonnage — as the reason why one billion people will go hungry today. To feed the world, Barber said, we should look not to the capitalist agribusiness model, but in the ecological model. And he got one of the most well-deserved standing ovations we’ve ever seen at TED.

The day’s last session, Action, spotlighted some recent TEDPrize winners and the phenomenal, actionable projects they’ve undertaken with the help of the grants and support they received.

Ideas are all very well, but what the world needs now is action. ~ Chris Anderson

Between these mini-presentations, TED announced the launch of SETI Quest, a new site aiming to engage the open-source community in a citizen-powered quest for alien life.

Wrapping up the day, chef-activist Jamie Oliver, winner of the latest TEDPrize, delivered some expected but still shocking stats: Today’s child will live 10 years less than his parent because of the food landscape we’ve created; obesity costs Americans 10% of healthcare bill — $150 billion a year, set to double in three years.

While I do this talk, four Americans will be dead by what they eat.

Jamie Oliver: 'Meet my friend Britney. She's 16 years old, she's got 6 years to live. She's eating her liver to death.'

Oliver addressed the tragic state of school lunches, where French fries are considered vegetables and the absence of utensils implicitly endorses fast finger-food. He showed a rather disheartening video, in which he asks elementary school children to name different vegetables; they call beets broccoli and tomatoes potatoes.

Jamie Oliver pours a cartful of sugar on the stage, the amount an average school child will consume in five years just from sweetened milk beverages.

Finally, Oliver shares his inspired and, we think, urgently important TED wish:

In a wonderful last session, the ever-amazing Sheryl Crow took the stage for some of her unmistakable magic.

This concluded a riveting first day, beautifully curated to ever-so-subtly-yet-powerfully illuminate the intricate connection between food, health and social policy. Tomorrow, we’re returning with complete live coverage on Twitter — so stay tuned.

Major thanks to Kent of TEDxLex for tech support today

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01 DECEMBER, 2009

World AIDS Day Spotlight: Interview with Travis McCoy


What a pair of sneakers has to do with a bridge in Manila and mobile cinema in South Africa.

When Gym Class Heroes front man Travis McCoy traveled to South Africa, India and the Philippines last June, he met the leaders of three projects funded by the Staying Alive Foundation, MTV’s global grant-giving organization fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS by empowering young leaders. Inspired by his incredible experience, Travis launched the Unbeaten Track project and wrote the single One At a Time, which drops today — World AIDS Day — with 100% of proceeds going directly to the Foundation to fund even more AIDS-fighting projects around the world.

Today, we sit down with Travis and pick his brains about the Unbeated Track project, how social entrepreneurship differs from philanthropy, and whether there’s a shift in the economy of cool.


Hey Travis, good to have you. Straight to the point — what’s your story of getting involved with the Staying Alive Foundation?

I first became involved with Staying Alive back at the Europe Music Awards in 2008. I was asked to do some filming on the red carpet on behalf of Staying Alive where I would ask fellow artists questions on their attitude towards HIV and AIDS, and other related issues like relationships, cheating and condom use. After spending more time with Georgia — the founder of the Foundation — and seeing what amazing work they did, I immediately asked what else I could do to help. They asked me to be their next Ambassador, and that was that.

It’s a cause that’s important to me because I lost somebody close to me to AIDS when I was younger. At the time I was uneducated about HIV and AIDS so I was afraid. I’d shared the same cutlery as this person; we’d used the same shower… I had so many questions — and looking back — a lot of what I thought to be true about the virus was incorrect. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people out there still don’t know enough about it and that’s why I think it’s important for those of us in the public eye to educate and set a good example. My life has taken me to a point where I am in the position to influence my fans, and if I can influence the way they dress, the music that they listen to and so on, why can’t I get them to think and be more aware about more serious issues like HIV and AIDS?


It’s often the littlest things that give you the greatest a-ha moments. Do you recall any such seemingly small but monumentally telling anecdote from your travels in June that really opened your eyes to the impact of the Foundation?

Getting to actually meet the young projects leaders and get to know them a bit better, for me, was a definite highlight. Bulelani, Alex and Mandakini are three of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Their work is tireless, their attitude selfless.

There are few real standout moments though… In South Africa, Bulelani took me on a tour of Site B in Khayelitsha, which is where he lives. It’s the second largest township in South Africa and has an incredibly high HIV infection rate. Bulelani spreads HIV prevention and awareness messaging through a creative filmmaking process with local youth. He then shows the films produced using his Mobile Cinema, which is funded by the Foundation.

I was walking along with him chatting about his work and I asked him what he’d do if Hollywood came knocking with a million-dollar deal… His response cemented my original thoughts about him — without hesitation, he said that he’d turn them down because his work as a filmmaker is in Khayletisha where he sees a problem that needs to be addressed. I love the fact that the Foundation is able to find and fund these dedicated and motivated individuals who are really making a difference in their communities.

Another moment on the trip that really affected me was visiting Kaybuboy Bridge in Manila.

There were around 80 families living under this bridge in absolute poverty, and it made me think of all the people who publicly pride themselves on coming from “the hood” and the fact that where they grew up is so tough; and I just thought, ‘live under a bridge for two years, and then tell me how hard your life is.’

I came out from under that bridge a different person — it made me realize that we really need to stop being selfish and start thinking more about not only our community, but also our world as a whole.


For the past two decades, MTV has been a powerful merchant of cool, shaping much of what youth admires and aspires to. All throughout, it has faced criticism – especially from academia – for promoting superficial belief systems and lifestyles. But in recent years, MTV has championed a number of socially-conscious causes, from sustainability to anti-smoking to AIDS. How do you see celebrities’ and the media’s responsibility in reframing of the concept of “cool,” shifting it from the ownership of cool things, a.k.a. “bling,” and towards the doership of good deeds?

I think it’s important that anybody who has the power to make an impression on others must use their role wisely. Sometimes artists are naïve and stubborn and think they don’t have a responsibility in inspiring youth. I hate when artists take the attitude of “Oh, I’m not a role model. I’m just a young person just trying to live my life.” Well, of course you are, but at the same time, you can’t deny that in this position you’re very influential to the kids who are coming out to see you and buying your CD. I was stubborn for a long time. I’m human. But in time, I ended up seeing right in front of my face the effect I have on kids, whether it’s influencing the way they dress or the music they listen to. And if I can have that effect on kids, I hope I can have the effect or urge them to educate themselves and practice safe sex.

If I can get them to spend however much money on a pair of sneakers, hopefully I can get them to spend three dollars on a box of condoms.

No celebrity can deny it, kids look up to us, and we have to make sure that we’re setting a good example when they do look to us.


Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift from a philanthropic model – the dishing out of aid to passive recipients — towards social entrepreneurship and microfunding, where capital ends up in the hands of active local leaders, empowering them to facilitate change from the inside and growing exponentially as they build on what they’ve been given. How does the Foundation’s mission differ from the traditional aid model?

The Foundation is definitely a believer in this newer business model. If you compare the funding from the Foundation to that of an angel investment, it’s pretty much the same deal. The Foundation funds those who would otherwise find it very difficult to get funding.

That’s what makes the Foundation so different. It only funds small projects that have had little or no funding at all. These projects must also be run by young people. The Foundation gives these young people a chance to get their projects off the ground and develop them into stronger, more independent organizations. The Foundation has recently developed a training scheme whereby grantees get training to allow them to continue developing even after the Foundation funding stops after a maximum of four years.


There’s no question music offers a universal language and has been incredibly successful in generating awareness with efforts like LiveAid and Playing For Change. But as an artist, how do you think musicians can help tackle the quintessential challenge of moving the needle from mere awareness to actionable, tangible change?

Wow, that’s a great question. I think the first step is for us, as artists, to make sure we live by our lyrics and what we’re asking of people. It’s no use me putting this track out there and that being it. I need people to take action and buy the track to show their commitment to the cause.

I think the reason that the Unbeaten Track project works so well is that it goes beyond just raising awareness. The documentary, which is going out on all MTV Channels today, as well as to hundreds of third party broadcasters, will do an amazing job at raising awareness for HIV/AIDS as well as for the Foundation. But the track is really where the action happens, that’s where we can make a real tangible difference by raising money for the Foundation so they can carry on empowering and enabling these young leaders to continue making changes within their community. Moving forward, I think that it’s really important that these awareness-raising projects that artists lend their names to have to have a fundraising elements included.


AIDS is such a colossal problem that it can get overwhelming to think about our capacity as individuals to make a difference. Got any words of wisdom for how a single person can have impact, particularly on World AIDS Day?

My motto is “Each one, teach one.” People need to educate themselves about HIV/AIDS and then pass on that knowledge. Imagine if every single person in the world knew that protecting themselves from the dangers of HIV is as simple as wearing a condom. Imagine how much stigma it would lessen if people knew that you cannot catch HIV/AIDS from sharing cutlery or from touching. Educate yourself and then spread the word. And today, if YOU want to make an impact, help me support the Staying Alive Foundation by buying my track One At A Time from Staying Alive Foundation. Every single cent will go to funding current and future Foundation projects.

You can buy One At A Time for just ¢99 on iTunes in the US and from BandCamp globally — that’s ¢99 going straight to the fight against AIDS in parts of the world where many people live on $1 a day.

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