The recent (April 16) revamping of TED.com around their famous talks provides the perfect excuse for me to finally write about them. And what I want to say boils down to one thing: watch them. They’re free. They’re one of the most exciting things content-wise to happen to the web of late. They have a cumulative effect. The audio and video quality are superb. They are raw, distilled passion. Their speakers are truly among the world’s most talented, most inspiring people (passion begets passion).
And if you only have time for one talk, let it be Eva Vertes’s — probably the best video I’ve seen, ever. Not only does she (very convincingly) puts forth a fascinating (and, oddly, satisfying) theory of cancer in less than 19 minutes, making it all seem as the simplest, most logical thing in the world, she also does it with a naive, youthful spunk that disarms you right away. I swear if I had seen this in high school I might have thrown it all away and study medicine. She’s that good. Now I’ll settle to try to convince my brilliant med-studying sister to tackle cancer. She too is that good.
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Also not to be missed are…
- David Deutsch’s What is our place in the cosmos? (breathtaking technological vision)
Take two stone tablets and carve on them. On one of them carve, “Problems are soluble.” On the other one, carve, “Problems are inevitable.” [18:49]
- Ted Han’s Unveiling the genius of multi-touch interface design (a now classic demo)
- Helen Fisher’s The science of love, and the future of women
We now know the brain circuitry of imagination, of long term planning. [Women] tend to be web thinkers because the female parts of the brain are better connected. They tend to collect more pieces of data when they think, put them into more complex patterns. See more options and outcomes. They tend to be contextual, holistic thinkers — what I call web thinkers. Men tend to, and these are averages, get rid of what they regard as extraneous, focus on what they do and move in a more step-by-step thinking pattern. They’re both perfectly good ways of thinking. We need both of them to get ahead. In fact, there’s many more male geniuses in the world, and there also many more male idiots in the world. When the male brain works well it works extremely well.. [12:09]
- Ken Robinson’s Do schools kill creativity? (a wonderful, outrageously funny speaker — I burst out crying when he told Gillian Lynne’s WP story:)
I’m billing you a book of mine called Epiphany which is based on a series of interviews with people about how they discovered their talent. I’m fascinated by how people got to be there. It’s really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman, who most people have never heard off. She’s called Gillian Lynne. Have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer and everybody knows her work — she did Cats and Phantom of the Opera. She’s wonderful. I used to be on the board of the Royal Ballet, in England — as you can see. Anyway, Gill and I had lunch one day, I said: “How did you get to be a dancer?” And she said it was interesting, when she was at school she was really hopeless and the school, in the thirties, wrote to her parents, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate, she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD, wouldn’t you? But these was 1930s and the idea of ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t a debatable condition. People weren’t aware they could have that. Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So this oak-paneled room and she was there with her mother and she was led and sat on this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for twenty minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people at home, she was always late and so on, a little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gill and said, “Gill, I’ve listened to all these things your mother has told me, I need to speak with her privately.” So he said, “Wait here, we’ll be back. We won’t be very long.” And they went, they left her. But as they went out of the room he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk and when they got out of the room he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” The minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick, she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” I said, “What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you Sir how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me, people who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet, they did tap, they did jazz, they did modern, they did contemporary. She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School. She became a soloist, she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School, found her own company, the Gillian Dance Company. Met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history. She’s given pleasure to millions and she’s a multimillionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down. [15:07]
- Dan Gilbert’s Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?
In other words, yes, some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast because we’ve overrated the differences between these futures we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, we’re thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we’re reckless and we’re cowardly. The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both to some degree overblown because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we’re constantly chasing when we choose experience. [20:20]
- Bjorn Lomborg’s An economist’s view on saving the world (solution priorization, an earth-shattering idea)
There are many, many problems out there. In an ideal world we would solve them all. But we don’t. We don’t actually solve all problems. And if we do not, the question I think we need to ask ourselves… is to say, “If we don’t do all things, we really have to start asking ourselves, which one should we solve first.” [1:07] The obvious question would be to ask “What do you think are the biggest things? Where should we start on solving these problems?” But that’s a wrong problem to ask. That was actually the problem that was asked in Davos this January. But of course there’s a problem in asking people to focus on problems. Because we can’t solve problems. Probably the biggest problem we have in the world is that we all die but we don’t have the technology to solve that. So the point is not to prioritize problems but the point is to prioritize solutions to problems. [1:54] Of course you have to ask yourselves, “Why on Earth was such a list never done before?” And one reason is that prioritization is incredibly uncomfortable. Nobody wants to do this. Of course, every organization would love to be in the top of such a list but every organization would also hate to be not on the top of the list. And since there are many more not-number-one spots on the list than there is number ones it makes perfect sense not to want to do such a list. We’ve had the UN for almost sixty years yet we’ve never actually made a fundamental list of all the big things that we can do in the world and say, which of them should we do first? So, it doesn’t mean that we’re not prioritizing. Any decision is a prioritization. So of course we’re still prioritizing if only implicitly and that’s unlikely to be as good as if we actually did the prioritization and went in to talk about it… [3:24] Then you ask, why Economists [are doing the prioritization]? And of course I’m very happy you asked that question because that’s a very good question. The point is of course if you want to know about malaria you ask a malaria expert, if you want to know about climate you ask a climatologist, but if you want to know which of the two you should deal with first, you can’t ask either of them. Because that’s not what they do. That is what economists do. They prioritize, they make that — in some ways, disgusting task — of saying, which ones should we do first and which ones should we do afterwards. [5:32]
- Richard Dawkin’s The universe is queerer than we can suppose
The history of science has been one long series of violent brainstorms as successive generations have come to terms with increasing levels of queerness in the universe. We’re now so used to the idea that the Earth spins rather than the sun moves across the sky it’s hard for us to realize what a shattering mental revolution that must have been. After all it seems obvious that the Earth is large and motionless, the sun small and mobile. But it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s remark on the subject: “Tell me,” he asked a friend, “why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?” His friend replied “Well obviously because it just looks as though the sun is going round the Earth.” Wittgenstein replied, “Well what would it had looked like if it had looked like as though the Earth was rotating?” [3:25]
- Barry Schwartz’s The paradox of choice (he takes some wrong, leftist conclusions out of his reasonings but there’s also wisdom to be found)
- Kevin Kelly’s How does technology evolve? Like we did (ever since Out of Control I’ve been a fan)
- Hans Rosling’s Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen (he’s not bluffing)
Take risks, the most famous people will not always be the ones that touch you the most.