Friday, March 2, 2012

TED - Ideas Worth Spreading (in pen *)

* This is where you find out why I type and use a keyboard.

My Spousal Unit, MEK, and I had the distinct pleasure of attending a live simulcast (that was redundant) of Wednesday's sessions at the TED2012 conference. This event was hosted by the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and sponsored by a local web design firm, VML.

So, what is TED and why did I actually take notes?  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.  It is a fusion of ideas from creatives that are placed out on the web for our mutual benefit.  TED talks are fast paced "Ideas Worth Spreading".   A TED or licensed TEDx conference is synergy in action.

From past experience, I knew just how fast TED goes.  In theory, I could just look all the talks up on after the fact.  However, with a maximum length of 20 minutes and a few 3 minute talks interspersed, there can be an awful lot of content thrown at an audience in the course of six hours.  TED features some of the best minds and best speakers on the planet.

These few pages just barely skim the surface of a TED event.  If you read any of this and something catches your eye, dive into the TED website  It's one of the best ways you can possibly waste time.

As for February 29th, the new director at the Nelson, Julian Zagazagotia, encouraged the audience to always do something extraordinary every four years with our extra day.

REWIND >>>>>>> Back to the first page for some commentary....

The first thing you will notice is that my handwriting is horrid and always has been.  But I can actually read my own writing this time, so I will count that as progress.  Bonus:  After the introductory talks, the other 27 pages of notes were done in an almost completely dark auditorium.

The opening speaker was Scooter, the Muppet.  Scooter talked about the tangible vs. the digital - felt vs. pixels.  My favorite line that pretty well sums up TED:
   "TED is like the Academy Awards for Nerds."

Yep.  And next, the director of the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency (DARPA) carried on the Nerd theme:  "You should be nice to Nerds."  She used the history of flight as a narrative to talk about technology; including technology oriented towards defense.  Latest projects:  a Mach 20 glider/jet and a woodpecker sized robotic hummingbird.

One of the guiding precepts for DARPA:   

What would you attempt if you didn't fear failure?  What would you attempt if you could not fail?

She also delivered one of the better inspirational lines of the day.  DARPA was founded after the surprise launch of Sputnik with the mission of "preventing strategic surprise".  Some of their work and grants are pure research to push boundaries.  Many have defense applications.  It is a heavy responsibility and sometimes overwhelming.  On one of those occasions, a coworker sent an email that said: 

     "There is only enough time to iron your cape, and back to the skies with you."

The next great idea comes from a research group at MIT that is working on commercialization of giant batteries to help buffer the electrical grid, have a place to put daytime energy production and assist in distribution of power in major metropolitan areas.

The lead researcher enlisted young, smart scientists in need of PhDs to get the practical applications down.  Conceptually, the cycle is similar to what happens in aluminum smelters, but at much lower temperatures and with abundant natural materials (local dirt).

So where are they now and where are they headed?  Today, a pizza box diameter cell stores 1 kilowatt hour.  In construction, they have a bistro table sized cell that will store 4 kWh.  Within two years, these will be stacked in modules.  With an investment by Bill Gates, among others, they are on their way to a shipping container sized battery that will store 4 megawatt hours ( MWh).   This is huge.

Best line:  "We choose to work on grid level storage, not because it is easy, but because it is hard."

Next up:  Robots.  Robot quadrotors, to be precise.  As a bonus for you James Bond fans, the talk featured a video of a squad playing the theme on actual instruments.

Let's just hope these little guys don't get hooked up with Tesla/DARPA death rays.

Go here for the Bond video:  UPenn Quadrotors playing the Bond theme

And go see Vijay Kumar's TED talk at

Next up:  T. Boone Pickens on energy policy.

T. Boone Pickens is not a shy man.  Every wildcatter has to have a strong ego, but this is one geologist with brains and charisma.  I have to give TED credit for bringing up difficult and controversial subjects.  In this case, he is concerned with national security and points out that oil is

     Dirty, Expensive and Theirs (as in countries that don't particularly like the U.S.)

Factoid:  There are 12 aircraft carriers in the world (counting the Russian scrap heap China is bringing back to life).  Eleven belong to the U.S. and at any given time 5 of them are in the Gulf region and 5 are in rotation ready to go back.  More here:  WIRED Danger Room on China's Carrier

And now for a dose of historic irony:  100 years ago, our choice was between oil and whale oil.  We chose oil because of the same rationale listed above.

Having made a huge play in wind energy and losing $150million in the process, he is looking short term at what is next.  His answer is what made wind unprofitable to start with:  natural gas.  Because of increased exploration and hydro-fracking, the price of natural gas dropped from $9.00 per MCF to $2.40 today.

He's crusty and brutally honest in admitting that this is a bridge to some unknown energy source of the future.  However, he firmly believes the bridge needs to be used now before more of U.S. blood and treasure (and GDP) flows to OPEC.

Wrapping up:  An update on past annual TED prizes.

A TED prize is awarded to a worthy idea or project that needs human capital to grow.  The first couple caught my eye. 

The Encyclopedia of Life is dedicated to Global access to knowledge about life on Earth  A TED talk in 2007 got this project off the ground.  The goal is to create a page for every species on Earth.  This started as a concept in 2007.

This deserves its own line:  at year five, they are up to 1.9 million species.  Amazing.

In order to make this happen, the founders had to talk scientists into giving away their work to populate the pages.  That was hard at first, but community sharing brings dedicated citizens into the mix.  Trading data to help fuel conservation is worth it.

Hence a quote from this talk repeated again:  "Science is changing."

Which brings me to the end of this blog entry, but not the end of the TED session.   The science is changing theme continued with an update on SETILIVE   Remember that movie with Jodie Foster?  No, not the creepy taxi one- the one with the search for extraterrestrial life.  Would you enjoy doing that?

Here is your chance to help crowdsource science.  SETI is listening and you can help classify portions of the radio spectrum.  If you flag something interesting, they will turn the Allen Telescope Array back to the source.  Right now, the SETI program is focused on exoplanets and especially those in the "Goldilocks zone".  Did you know that NASA just reported on a highly compressed water world?  We live in interesting times.

     "Science is changing."

That's it for tonight.  I hope you read this far and you give TED a chance.  Do some keyword searches and just bump around in there.  Let me know if you find something really cool you just have to share!


  1. This is great! I love reading synopses that are thoughtful and well expressed. Thanks for the review!

  2. I'll say it again - I am impressed with the legibility of your handwriting, especially given the conditions. I gave up on my note-taking when I could no longer tell whether I was writing over my own writing - that'll teach me to use pencil! Maybe next time, one of our offspring will let us borrow her UV pen and light ;-)

  3. A very neat and useful blog. Wonderful of you to post this. Thanks.

  4. Thanks all! I hope you take some time to bump around the TED website. They also post a select talk a day on their Facebook feed.

    Interestingly enough, the quadrotors went viral. Over the weekend a bunch of mainstream media outlets picked up on the TED talk and the Youtube video. The latter was over 1.4 million hits as of Sunday - just four days since the TED talk.


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