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11 FEBRUARY, 2010

Highlights from TED 2010, Day One

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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 DewormTheWorld.org, 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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02 FEBRUARY, 2010

Fresh Stuff from Michel Gondry

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Swarms of shiny happy people and some cinematic magic.

This is the first time in Brain Pickings history we’ve used an exclamation mark — but there’s a new Michel Gondry video out!

This time the maker of cinematic gems is casting his poetic spell on the equally remarkable Mia Doi Todd‘s “Open Your Heart” — enjoy.

Fab, fab, fab, fab, fab.

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19 JANUARY, 2010

Charting The Beatles

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Some Beatles are more equal than others, or why there’s no yellow in Yellow Submarine.

We love data visualization. And we love The Beatles. Naturally, we’re all over New-York-based designer Michael Deal‘s Charting The Beatles project — an infographic exploration of the life and music of the iconic rockers, from sales statistics to personal biographies to songwriting contributions within the band.

Deal envisioned the project as a collaborative one, so there’s a Flickr pool where others can contribute their Beatles-charting exploits. There, you can find gems like Kristen E. Long’s rather convincing visual argument for The Beatles’ superior popularity over Jesus.

Besides the incredibly detailed and scholarly data revealing anything from common Beatles wisdom to little-known factoids (Did you know Ringo Starr only ever collaborated on two songs, “Dig It” and “Flying,” and “Octopus’s Garden” was the only track he wrote entirely by himself?), the project bespeaks the very richness and expanse of The Beatles’ music-turned-movement.

Charting The Beatles is the hipster answer to Christian Swinehart’s wonderfully geeky infographic dissection of Choose Your Own Adventure books. And between the richness of factual detail and the universal cultural resonance of the subject matter, it’s among the most delightful visualization projects we’ve come across in quite some time.

via Information is Beautiful

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