Archive for the ‘TED’ Category

How to save the world

The end of World War I was a bad time to be an optimist. It wasn’t that millions of young men had died or that western Europe had been transfigured into a hellish bombed-out landscape, although that was certainly true. It was the inescapable philosophical consideration that civilization had done this to itself. The “progress” of the industrial revolution and German unification led inexorably to total war. Civilization itself was fundamentally flawed and unsustainable; the only alternative was to admit Rousseau was right and go back to the trees.

Of course, that’s not what happened, and twenty years later they were at it again. The technology changed dramatically, but it didn’t change the fact that people were still killing each other, only how they did it. The changes that mattered were the social institutions built afterwards. Instead of the outrageous reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, there was the conciliatory Marshall Plan. Instead of the League of Nations, there was the United Nations. It wasn’t technological improvements that saved lives and improved the quality of living after the war. It was the people, with their resiliency, their forgiveness, and their intent not to make the same mistake twice.

We now find ourselves, once again, on the brink of destruction. It is not destruction by military means, but rather, economic and environmental means. Natural resources are being depleted faster than they can be renewed, if they can be renewed at all. Industrialization has spread concrete, steel, and chemicals across previously untouched land. The established political institutions are being challenged by forces as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The economy is still largely in shambles. And then there’s the small matter of climate change. And so on. We’ve heard it all before. At TED 2012, this grim view was presented by Paul Gilding (talk, follow-up blog post). He’s pretty blunt about it: the earth is full.

Around a third of the world lives on less the two dollars a day. They have dramatically different cultures, education, living conditions, access to technology than the typical American or European. You honestly think that they’re the ones that are going to fix the problems? The people who are illiterate, innumerate, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from are going to fix climate change?

Depending on your answer, I have two different responses. I’ll give both of them, but you might want to think about it first. Continue reading


Malcolm Gladwell on the perils of invention

This is a particularly touching TED talk. Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) does what he does best: he tells a story. He makes the tale of a machine (or is it?) engaging, funny, and human. And except for maybe thirty seconds, he doesn’t come off as overtly didactic. He’s not shocking, he’s subtly unsettling, and it’s a far more effective technique. You could show this talk to children and they’d “get it,” although you may want to explain what an “analog computer” is first. Continue reading

Now that’s more like it

I’ve called for the balance between expertise and creativity before, and this humble TEDx talk takes the same approach. (Thanks Andrea Hernandez for sending me the link, and the Drs. Eide for the talk.) Some thoughts:

The dominance of turkey thinking in schools is directly tied to standardized testing. Only turkey skills can be tested on a multiple-choice test, which are popular because they are scalable and because they are standardized. There’s a feedback loop here: admissions officers and employers want surefire data, so they choose those with the best turkey skills, who don’t know to look for anything other than “surefire” data. It’s tied to the rise of computers, which work very well plugging data into equations and finding the “optimal” solution. The problem is that computers can’t do sanity checks, like “is Toronto a U.S. city?” or “can home values really keep rising forever?”. They can’t step outside the system as soon as one of hundreds of red flags starts waving, like humans can. Continue reading

Creativity: Breaking the right rules

Ken Robinson, the man behind both of those videos, is a big name in education reform. It’s very possible that I’ll get shouted down for disagreeing with him (if anyone reads this at all). I’m going to act on his very advice and not be frightened of being wrong. After all, using him as a foundation is a great compliment. I’d merely like to refine – refine, I say! – a few of his points about creativity.

What educators want to instill is not creativity but expertise. Continue reading

For this sake, the internet was created

Last semester, I got extremely peeved at Dan Dennett for suggesting that a TED talk could replace religion. And while I still disagree with him – religious teachings can be more subtle, poetic, and nuanced than any 20-minute speech – I’m about ready to agree with him that TED may be the most intellectually stimulating source of ideas produced in the 21st century thus far. (Actually, it’s as old as the Macintosh, but it too only got massively popular in the last 5 years.)

Wikipedia is source of information; Google is a source of sources; IBM Watson is Google making a final answer (oops wrong show – and more on these three Ws is a Post For Another Day), but TED is a source of ideas. An idea is intrinsically human; only humans have ideas because our cognitive processes are interwoven, complex, unpredictable, and come in spurts. If those other sources are hamburgers made of a hundred different cows by an opaque industrial process, TED is a steak from the local farmer’s market. It’s another person talking to another person, sharing experiences and creativity and accomplishments in a way that only a highly intelligent and inventive human being can make coherent and compelling.

Most recent is this one:

The new piece isn’t out yet, but the original:

I couldn’t get through it. Still can’t. It’s too beautiful.

I’ve criticized Tron: Legacy for being an unrealistic depiction of computer science. The score’s climactic track, Flynn Lives does not convey what the internet is precisely because it is so emotionally epic. But Lux Aurumque is precisely what the internet is. Musically, it’s much more subtle, much more hauntingly beautiful without trying to get your attention but by simply being. But more importantly, it was made on the internet, by dozens of volunteers working together, and connecting to one another over the experience, hosted from start to finish on free and public YouTube and talked about and introduced to me via TED.

This is the culmination of secular human knowledge. Everything we’ve built or learned, from Euclid discovering harmonics from blacksmith hammers to the telegraph to the workers who laid fiberoptic cable under the ocean to the programmers who worry about packet loss – all contributed to this beauty, this wonder. This is why I’m a computer scientist – to enable this. I make the STEM; this is the flower.

Yeah, have I mentioned humanity is awesome lately?