"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Saturday, November 12, 2011

TEDx Vancouver

November 12, 2011

Today at the Chan Centre I watched 15 speakers, all with inspiring endeavours that they have experienced or created, most often with the use of technology, but not always.  As I look back on the day it is very clear that the overall message was about youth taking action.

The audience was filled with university students, so striking was the young demographic in attendance.  I wondered how so many hundreds could afford the price of the ticket!  The stage set-up was extremely unusual; perhaps you could call it “art techno.”  I saw a large silver orb, sitting on the apron of the stage, a set of giant baby blocks, a life-sized model of a Canada Goose family, a Roman bust lit by a giant gooseneck lamp, an empty picture frame suspended from the ceiling, a chaise longue, an old red lantern, a piece of art, hanging mid-air, with an arrangement of letters and numerals, an empty hutch ornamented with a giant egg in a bowl, a new age mirror mounted on the side of a ladder, and a red carpet.  There were photographers everywhere and a huge film camera, its boom rising and falling, turning forward and back, panning the full house.

Lisa Johnson of CBC hosted the event, the title of which was Frontiers.  To start the day, Lisa asked the audience, “Where are your frontiers?”

1)      Reid Gower, the first speaker, sees “the frontier” as now, not the future.  He said that it was only a matter of 66 years from the Wright Brothers’ attempts at flying to travel to the Moon.  The future is now.  Inspired by the work of Carl Sagan, Reid created a video series which addresses planetary and space issues through poetry and music.  You can check out The Sagan Series (Part I): The frontier is everywhere at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oY59wZdCDo0.

2)      Nolan Watson’s presentation began with a shocking title, Compassion Kills.  He sure knew how to grab attention!  Watson says we are making critical mistakes in the humanitarian directions we are taking, even though what we do stems from deep compassion for others.  He says we need to become “smart” humanitarians, with a strong sense of purpose and responsibility.  He started his own organization to do humanitarian work in Sierra Leone, but in his case, 100% of donations are applied to the end cause.  And how else is he “smart?”  He says that right now compassionate projects are those that keep children alive – and while this is important, of course, he thinks that the aims are extremely short-sighted.  Yes, current donations can ease pain and save lives, but these are not longterm solutions – in fact, this practice is “deadly.”  What results, he says, is sustained dependence on the givers.  He says that our aims need to be, whatever the cause, that recipients become independent of the charity.  He says we should earmark donations to education and skill-building which will allow recipients to create their own futures.  Invest in Africans, not Africa.  Don’t let the emotions of compassion override the real work that needs doing.  See: http://www.nationscry.com/

3)      Marcin Jakubowski.  This was a TED talk, projected on screen.  Marcin works with open-source technology, used for ecological purposes.  He creates versions of tools and hardware that don’t cost as much as name-brand products for farming, building, and manufacturing.  These are DIY projects, do it yourself, even things as complicated as tractors, as he uses an open business model by which you can pick up all instructions on a CD.  In this way there is a huge distributorship and many more people participating in developing their own culture.  Raising money to purchase this hardware is no longer necessary as people in developing countries can have access to creating their own future.  See:  http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/marcin_jakubowski.html

4)      Seth Cooper is a games scientist.  He creates video games that are used for scientific discoveries that solve problems in the real world.  The human brain plus computation work together.  Lab experiments are difficult to fund, whereas these video games use experts and non-experts to play at finding solutions.  For example, there is a game called Fold It which motivates players to make the best folded protein, something deemed essential in the world of science.  The game requires both human and computer skills, it’s challenging and fun.  In studies it has been found that the human element is extremely important, and in fact, humans do better than computers with certain skills.  In creating this game and others, players around the world can work together or alone, but problems with proteins are in fact being solved.  The game changes over time, adjusting to what becomes known and what remains a question.  Players can teach their strategies to the computer and to other players.  Using games can teach us how to fight the flu, create materials, make better uses of energy, etc.  Three criteria are required for game creation – i) the problem must be computationally unsolvable, ii) human ability must be required, and iii) important purpose must be evident.  Games, it seems, can push the frontiers of scientific discovery!  See http://michaelgr.com/2008/05/11/fold-it-the-protein-folding-game/

5)      Romeo Dallaire, retired general with the Canadian forces, survivor of the Rwandan catastrophe, spoke very powerfully, his subject stated as empowering youth with technology.  Dallaire tells us that the status quo is something not sustainable.  Things must change.  He called upon the youth of Canada to shape the future, not just survive it, achieving their maximum potential.  He spoke of :

a) The environment, saying that there needs to be a communion between us as humans and the environment.  We invest in weapons to protect, but we do not work towards environmental protection.  This he sees as critical. 

b)  The area of technology and communication.  It’s almost universal now that people have iPhones, etc.  This has led to revolutionary movements for freedom as we’ve seen with the Arab Spring this year.  But now, this same technology gives us the ability to see what’s really going on all over the world, all the atrocities.  He asked what our response is, knowing what we know.  80% of the world are people who live in massively abusive situations, and unfortunately, these conditions   have led to extremism world-wide.  How do we prevent or shape or advance humanity?  Dallaire says it’s the youth who must move into activism in order to do this.  How? 

1)  Social Media – youth hold the balance of power; get involved through social media, engage.  The world is now small.  You can influence the role of Canada in the future.  Keep in mind engagement, activism, and influence.  If all eligible voters from the youth population actually voted, he said there could be positive change in our country’s directions and actions.

2) NGO involvement – through NGO’s there is a great potential for activism.  He spoke of Clowns without Borders, bringing laughter into places where no one laughs.  See http://www.clownswithoutborders.org/

In these ways, Dallaire sees the possibility of shaping the future with optimism.

6)      Hassan Elahi, on another TED talk, has created a method of creative problem solving using art and technology. He was held and questioned by the FBI for six months and underwent nine polygraphs, all but accused of terrorism.  In fact, he teaches at a Tampa university.  In order to please the authorities, he began to record his every move with images to document his whereabouts and actions.  He now has 46,000 images of food, airports, toilets, etc.  Out of a huge insult and obvious racial profiling, he created a solution that gives the authorities what they want, and, at the same time, has become a giant art project.  He says he has a lot of privacy, in fact, because once he’s recorded the detailed images for the day, he’s free to do whatever he wants!  In some way, he says, he’s devaluing FBI info because he can provide so many more details than they can collect!  See: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/hasan_elahi.html

7)      Jose Figaroa.  Jose appeared at the TEDx talks to speak up about the gross errors and poor treatment of our immigration authorities and government.  From El Salvador, he left there to become a refugee in Canada during all the tumult there in the 1980’s.  He now has received a deportation order which will affect his life and family.  The reason for the order, apparently, is because he had once been a member of the FMLN, an organization created to fight governmental repression in El Salvador.  After immigrating to Canada and being here for some time, his son was diagnosed with autism, and now he really needs services in order to get proper treatment.  This would never be available in El Salvador.  However, the Canadian government have accused him of belonging to a terrorist organization – the FMLN.  Strangely, that organization has now become the government of El Salvador and has a diplomatic relationship with Canada.  Our system has not caught up with this fact and Jose remains on the deportation list.  It seems that part of his creative effort to stay in Canada is to speak where there are people gathered, and perhaps those people will take it upon themselves to speak up for him to the government.  See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farabundo_Mart%C3%AD_National_Liberation_Front

8)      David Gallo, in another TED talk, showed a video on bioluminescence which lights up creatures underwater, like fireflies.  We have explored only 3% of underwater life in the ocean to date, and because of bioluminescence we’ve been able to see more -- neurally-controlled coloration and close-ups of incredible life forms.  The cephalopods and their design were featured in the video, especially remarkable for their camouflage.  See:  http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/david_gallo_shows_underwater_astonishments.html

9)      Dr. Kate Moran, director of the Neptune Project, followed up on Gallo’s talk.  She says that we now have new ways of exploring the sea, which takes up 70% of the planet.  She pointed out that 99% of Earth’s life forms live in the sea, quite a phenomenal statistic.  She explained and pointed out the 1600 year river flow around the globe which adjust climate and is adjusted by climate.  The oceans can absorb extra heat from the greenhouse effect and also CO2, mitigating climate change.  The old methods of photography from ships and instruments is now outdated.  Mavericks have found new ways of connecting the internet to the ocean.  Project Venus is working on the coastal areas, and Project Neptune, offshore.  The sea is now lined with tens of kilometres of cables and instruments, as well as the use of robots to instal and maintain those instruments.  Videos with HD light can be filmed now so that much more is identifiable – e.g. identification of species moving into spawning sites, gas releasing through the ocean floor, active tectonics, black smokers of minerals solidifying, and new life forms.  Tsunamis can now be better predicted.  Educationally, we can watch from home or school digital fisheries. See http://www.neptunecanada.ca/

10)  Charlie Todd has started a group called Improv Everywhere.  He is a comedian, but a very creative one, trying to create more laughter in the world.  He showed his video of seven guys getting on a subway car, one at each of seven consecutive stops, all of whom were wearing shorts in the middle of winter New York!  The video focused on a woman sitting in the subway car, reading a book, and her reactions.  She’s pretty stonefaced at first, but once she has eye contact with another passenger, she becomes much more animated.  At an eighth stop, someone gets on the train selling pants, and all seven jump up to say that’s just what they need to buy!  In addition to creating NO PANT days, he created LOOK UP MORE, where he surreptitiously directs people who are standing in all the windows of a building to dance or point, Operation Best Buy, where he commissioned a huge number of people to arrive at Best Buy wearing blue polo shirts and khakis (the outfit of Best Buy clerks), and one for a particularly long subway escalator called Rob wants to give you a high five!  Evenly spaced throughout the long ride up, are people, each with one of several signs – 1) Rob 2) wants to 3) give you 4) a high five.  The fifth sign says Rob with an arrow pointing to the guy holding the sign.  This gives a laugh to the people coming down the escalator who get to read all the signs.

11)  Shahrzad Rafati is the CEO of broadband TV.  Born in Iran, her only media influences were hero movies and cartoons.  They influenced her and entertained her when Iran was at war.  At 17 she immigrated and tv became her teacher for language and culture.  She was taken with the power of freedom of speech, something not valued in Iran.  She saw on tv what inspired her and how she could make her life extraordinary.  She became an expert in the tv world.  She says that all those polls that seem to ask if tv is good or bad for children are asking the wrong question.  She spoke of Daniel Anderson who says that tv can be positive if adults ensure an enriching experience, turning kids on to programs of value.  She says that we need to teach kids to make good choices since statistics say that over a lifetime we will be watching 15 years of television!!  See VISO Give at  http://broadbandtvcorp.com/viso-give which showcases videos from non-profits and documentary film makers from around the globe. For every video you watch on VISO Give, money is donated directly to that cause, so keep watching and help make a difference with your online actions!

12)  Eli Pariser, another TED talker, spoke with a warning.  He says that when we use search engines online or just use the internet at all, choices come up based on what that search engine sees as Relevance for you.  It is the main way that your choices appear.  However, there is invisible web editing by facebook and google and many others which filter your choices, only certain ones appearing, depending upon your browser, your location and other factors.  The move is to personalize things in a way that you’d find your likely choices listed, but you don’t get to see what they’re leaving out.  Even netflicks has this same problem.  They’re doing the figuring for you.  Certain of your previous behaviours lead to an algorithmic solution that has no ethics whatsoever.  You must speak up to the search engines that you want a much broader view with other parameters included -- Ask to see:  what’s Important, Challenging, Uncomfortable as well as Other Points of View.  We need to stand up for a sense of public responsibility and personal control.  See:  http://www.ted.com/talks/eli_pariser_beware_online_filter_bubbles.html

13)  Jer Thorp, data artist, currently works for the New York Times.  He spoke about Hypercard and how it was designed for users to make their own programs.  Suddenly, there’s nothing like this at all.  He urged that science, art and design combine to allow people to share content on the internet and be able to create their own programs again.  He told of his work in designing the memorial to 911.  Names are placed in connection with each other, co-workers together, siblings together, embedding narratives in a very human way.  Our histories are being stored on modern devices like iPhones and we need to put the data into a human context along with the technology.  See ProjectCascade at edlab.tc.columbia.edu, a data visualization tool for tracking twitter activity around New York Times content.  And https://openpaths.cc/ for more of Jer’s work.

14)  Kara Pecknold, design instructor at Emily Carr, pushes for the notion of using design to change the world.  She says that when we think of design, we need to be thinking beyond objects – action is needed.  She cited Dr. John Snow, who mapped out a cholera outbreak in London and was able to discover the source of it, thus creating the opportunity for its removal and an end to the cholera outbreak.  She told us to turn ideas into action through using the design process:

Discovery – what is the problem?
Definition – what do we need?
Development – what are the opportunities, options?
Delivery – what action will be taken?

She says we need to shift our thinking from expert knowing all, telling all, to shared knowledge.  All the experts working together to create new solutions, these experts being the lay people directly involved with the problem!  She did such a project with women in Africa to sell their basket ware.  Now, she’s working on a cycling project in Vancouver which involves non-design students creating a way for people to realize they want to buy a bike!

15)  Stephen Slen and Aaron Coret, snowboarders and best friends, spoke of their passion for snowboarding and the terrible accident experienced by Aaron which changed his life forever.  He is now a paraplegic.  These two were so inspirational, as Aaron realized while in hospital that he could give up on everything or find a way to live a life of meaning.  It was these two who designed the “landing pod” used at the 2010 Olympics for the grand entrance of snowboarders, etc. but the design was imagined by Aaron as a training tool, a soft landing place that could be used in educating snowboarders and preventing other terrible accidents like his.