Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from when available.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein/Steven Pinker: This was a perfect example of how you can love a TED topic for its content and not its presentation.  Newberger Goldstein and Pinker had basically a Socratic debate: entirely scripted, a conversation meant to show us the superiority of a particular line of thought.  Which is ironic, since the topic was reason versus compassion.  I’m sure Socrates would have approved.

This is a topic near and dear to most social psychologists’ hearts, so we deal with System 1/System 2 discussions all the time.  At least in this scripted conversation, reason wins out as the best long term path to a better moral future but I’m not so sure I agree.  Newberger Goldstein claims that compassion tends to dispose itself towards people like us and fuzzy animals, and that is in part true – when the downward pressure is sufficiently high and you have to choose where to lay your compassion down, it has its preferences.

But so does reason.  It brings to mind the experiment in which people are told to move from one location to another, and along the way they encounter someone who is hurt.  The difference between the two groups is that one is told they are late, another that they have plenty of time, and that strongly influences who stops.  It is reason that allows us to justify passing people by when they are hurt (I cannot help them and I am in a hurry to accomplish some other end); compassion may make us choose the cute animal over the ugly one, but it also makes us choose stopping over hurrying onward at all.  In a land of plenty, it is compassion that makes us care.
In the discussion afterward at “the dinner table” (a format that needs refining, but that I rather like – certainly seeing smart people react to smart people is enthralling, although whoever invited Seth Godin should have their head checked), slavery came up and Newberger Goldstein pointed out that before emotional arguments were made, it was John Locke who argued that it was against reasoned principles.  Which may well be the case, but I doubt very highly that when Americans came together against slavery, they did so because John Locke said so.  People don’t follow reason, they follow compassion – indeed, I would argue it was reason that that clouded their emotions and set Locke up for the argument in the first place.  It was reason that said, to begin with, that slavery was natural thing.

Julie Burstein: I honestly can’t say I was able to follow the dominant thread of this talk, other than that Burstein seems to feel that creativity is a function of the everyday.  Certainly I agree with that, but I’m not sure this is a novel idea (as evidenced by the lack of “dinner table” conversation after; I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one with nothing to contribute).  Yes, it is true that failure and imperfection is part of creativity.  Yes, it is true that we experience creativity on an everyday level.  Burstein may have been arguing against the idea that some people are “creative” and some aren’t, favoring instead an environmental approach.  If so, I can get behind that, although I don’t think there are many people running around that truly feel they aren’t capable of being creative.  I could be off the mark, but certainly my everyday experience is of people who truly believe they can be creative, and they express it in what they do, even if it isn’t an inherently “creative” field.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from when available.

Reuben Margolin: This was almost painful to watch, as Margolin literally looked like he was going to die of stage fright at any time.  He might have just been going for artistic effect, but all it did was make me want to leap on stage and try to save him.  That said, the sculptures themselves were beautiful and lovely and kinetic.  They reminded of the complex wood sculptures I used to see on the Oregon Coast as a kid; I don’t really want to buy them as much as I want to figure out how to build them.  A handy shortcut for getting engineering/science kids into art.

Andrew Stanton: So now I’m actually interested in seeing John Carter, which I didn’t know was coming from the Pixar folks.  It is a fact that it is difficult to make me cry but that movies seem to consistently do it – I tear up at Monsoon Wedding (specifically when the father makes the difficult choice to protect his family), as regular as clockwork.  And Pixar movies tend to do it more than most.  When I flew my father out to NYC for his birthday a few years back, we want to see Up together in the theater, which may seem like a strange thing to do after going cross country, but is actually perfectly in keeping with my relationship with my father.  And of course we both cried at the beginning.

Stanton’s talk wandered a bit, but like many things Pixar does, I was sort of OK with its non-traditional nature.  The crux of his talk seemed to be about different modes of storytelling, and what makes different styles tick.  It wasn’t especially academic or engaging, and I ended up paying more attention to the story of the talk itself.  The Pixar guys seem to me to be incredibly courageous – they made animation relevant to more than kids, when lots of people had written off the genre, and they did it over the stiff opposition of plenty of studio execs that weren’t believers.

So what gave Stanton the courage to do it?  He tracks it back to his parents, who were willing to tell him that he was special, as much for his weaknesses as his strengths, and to back his plays.  Which ultimately is the best gift an adult can give a kid: you may be wrong, you may be weak, but I’ll come along on the journey towards strength with you.  My parents were steadfast in that, as were many of my teachers, and I should probably go give them a call and tell them so.

Which is pretty much my takeaway from the talk: call all the people who supported you and tell them how awesome they are.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from when available.

Susan Cain: This was one of those talks that everyone loved and 90% of the crowd started immediately proclaiming themselves an introvert.  And while I didn’t love all her examples, I agree with her calls to action.

I never could quite grasp what Cain meant by introversion, as even psychologists have a fairly hazy definition.  I, for example, am very outgoing and gregarious, but am considered by most to be a relatively private person – I prefer being alone to being with people, especially when upset, and get edgy when I’m forced to be around people all the time.  I think she got a bit bogged down in searching for what it meant, and that’s why so many people suddenly started calling themselves introverted after this talk: it isn’t that we exist along a spectrum, but rather that they are orthogonal needs that people have varying amounts of (you could have a high need for socialization and a high need for private time, for example).

Taken that way, it nicely sets the stage for Cain’s action points, which were roughly a) stop forcing people to work in groups, b) spend some unplugged time, and c) make sure you don’t forget to share.  I think C is actually a part of A, in that the surest way to shut someone up is put them in a group.  As someone who hates enforced groupwork and is most productive when working alone, I’m certainly happy to take to the field in defense of private time, especially in the workplace.

Quick side note: I love how TEDsters simultaneously loved this talk and anything that involves crowdsourcing.  They aren’t actually incompatible (crowdsourcing could be seen as many introverts simultaneously expressing their opinion, and therefore an improvement on actual groupthink) but if the wisdom of the individual can potentially be high, why force them to water it down?  Cain named a bunch of shining star introverts who had done great things for the world, and by and large, they did it as independent thinkers and actors.

Quixotic: This should have been called “a crash course in making dance relevant”.  The wonderful thing about the move from live theater to movies is that it used technology to allow new ways of telling stories: multiple viewpoints, cinematography and light, non-linearity.  Very few people in the United States want to go watch dance, because it feels dated and/or inaccessible.  But when technology allows for visual aids that can draw people in.  Having someone dance like a bird while showing the movements of the bird itself helps us be amazed at the story they are telling through movement.  Dancers, take note – I would go to watch this.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from when available.

Paul Gilding: It is probably not surprising that I didn’t much enjoy Gilding’s talk.  For one, I don’t agree with his central thesis: that the earth is full.  Indeed, writing from a small apartment in NY and thinking home to Oregon, I know just how much farther we have to expand.  Anyone who says the earth is full needs to take a flight across America and contemplate the vast reaches where essentially no one lives.

But even if earth was full, we would simply expand outward.  We will find new tech, compete with new species and with ourselves, and grow.  Or we will die out, as other species have.  And all of these will be natural outgrowths and acceptable ends.  Gilding asked us to question what our children would think, but as I look back at the generations before me, I don’t have the same “why didn’t they do anything?” sensation.  I have argued for years that the bombing of Japan was unnecessary and resulted from the misunderstanding of Japanese culture but I look at it as a mistake, a terrible and tragic one, that taught the world lessons that have helped us become better.

Gilding’s lesson only works if we suppose that the earth will really “go dark” and hit a low so terrible that we simply cannot recover.  But I cannot imagine what even it is that he imagines that would cause that.  Even terribly apocalyptic views, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, have within them a continued human civilization that will re-evolve.  I’m just not on the same page.

Peter Diamandis: In many ways a rebuttal to Gilding’s talk by someone I think is better informed, Diamandis points out over and over again how things are actually getting better (despite the media’s perpetual coverage of disaster).  The standard up-and-to-the-right trend talk isn’t really the interesting bit unless you’re unfamiliar with all the many sources of information that point to things getting better for mankind.

The part where I get interested is not about state but rather trajectory.  Diamandis’ argument against Gilding is essentially this: why would we assume that doing more or less the same thing (advancement and consumption) would result in radically different results than it has previously harvested (the downfall of mankind)?  That’s a dramatic over-consumption and of course there are reasons to pay attention to consumption, but I can’t help but think about Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It may seem like a step, but in the iconic series, the moment of transcendence for humans was when we figured out how to get around the resource barrier and we could create almost anything for anyone.

I don’t think we’re really all that far from that, at least in the basic sense.  If we take the long view on technology, there is every reason to believe that we’ll figure out fusion in the next 100 years.  And with virtually limitless power, a great many other things become possible, like transportation of crops across long distances and the fabrication of materials at high energy costs and low waste.  Instead of focusing on pulling back, let us proceed ever onward, for the good of all those who are not sitting at the top of this hill.

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from when available.

Brian Greene: One of the nice things about this talk was the imagery, in particular the point about the degree to which we may not be able to see or study some phenomenon because the evidence no longer exists.  Imagine, he suggests, a future in which all the stars and galaxies have moved so far away from Earth that the night sky is no longer full.

Some TEDsters were saddened by the idea, but I’m rather drawn to the prospect of change.  After all, imagine the beauty of a night sky with just a moon, full and pregnant, hanging alone.  Might that not have its own unique kind of beauty?  Different isn’t always worse and the undercurrent conversation about moving into the future versus holding onto the past I think became a theme this year.

Sarah Parcak: My takeaway here was basic – science is fucking awesome and Parcak is fucking glad to be a scientist.  Which I entirely agree with; having just complete another round of psych studies (and yes, I’ll talk about them when I’m ready), science is awesome.  She talked about how 90% of Egyptian ruins remain uncovered and I know that at least that much of what is interesting about human behavior remains just as buried.  Which is daunting, inspiring, and generally awesome, on both counts.

Peter Weyland: First of all, I loved that they were willing to do something “fictional” as a way of looking at what the future could be.  I’m not sure I felt the character really said that much, in that I don’t think humanity actually is anywhere near the kind of hubris that makes us challenge “the gods”.  Individuals may have pride, but if there is anything I take from human history, it is that competition and cooperation force even the most strident individual voice back into alignment.  Villains always manage to find heroes.

About two weeks ago, I got a generous invite from Stefan Weitz over at Bing to be the product guy for their first ever TEDActive Hackathon.  The format was up in the air for awhile, and eventually settled on the format I prefer (which could only loosely be called a Hackathon): a single team (me, James Cox from Smokeclouds, Drew Volpe from LocatelyAlan Cannistraro from Apple, student Rafael Cosman,  and Zach Szukala from Seso) solving the singular problem of helping kids with asthma, as proposed by TED Fellow Sandeep Sood from Monsoon Company.

So, kids with asthma.  Huge problem (25% of all ER visits, tons of deaths, and sucky quality of life for lots of people).  The team hit a little hiccup to begin with as people all wanted to collaborate on the ideation phase.  Which is great, as long as we don’t hold that all ideas are created equal: the whole reason Product with a capital P exists is because some people have spent a long time figuring out how to do this right.  That said, it was a volunteer hackathon, so making everyone feel included was as much a part of the goal as saving kids with asthma.

The largest effect of that was the core app had to be built around SMS.  Which is tough: if the goal is to get kids to use something, you want something with the strongest possible promoting pressure, which generally means access to as much rich content as you can get.  That said, SMS means that it is cheap to deploy around the world and widens the audience, so even if it lowers engagement within a particular population, hopefully the increase in population overall makes up for it.

Which lead me to defining the problem.  The first place people went was about preventing asthma attacks by avoiding triggers, which I think is a logical first step.  Problem is, there are already apps that do journaling and after consulting with some epidemiologists (special thanks to Kate Weinberger from Columbia), it turns out that the causes of asthma are so manifold that trying to determine the exact cause of different kids asthma was difficult.  And moreover, even if we knew the triggers, we had no way of using big data to warn them about them: pollen could be literally one tree, five city blocks away, that only stirred things up when the wind was blowing the right direction.

So I pushed for a product that ignored the actual triggering sources and aimed to do three things for all kids:
a) prevent attacks (which when you are targeting kids in general means breathing and body exercises that increase lung capacity and core muscle groups)
b) reduce severity of attacks before they happen (with similar exercises as preventing attacks, but focusing more on the forcing of air in and out of the lungs when constricted)
c) reduce severity of attacks while they are happening (which means staying calm, using the inhaler and breathing together, and knowing when to call for help)

Trouble is, apparently pulmonologists and scientists like to squabble about exactly how you do those three things.  Given the severity of the problem and the number of people studying the problem, I was a little surprised that so little had been done in this area.  They couldn’t even tell me if it was better to rest or exercise after you’ve had an attack and recovered!

Like every problem, however, there is some opportunity in there.  Assuming we could get widespread usage of our apps, we’d actually generate the data that would answer those questions, which makes for an unofficial d) prevent attacks through research.

So having figured out a long list of stretches and breathing exercises we needed to get people to do, I now had to figure out a way to get people to do them via text.  Enter the tamagotchi.  We ended up giving every kid a “village” and then creating tasks that helped them grow it – essentially, a caretaker game, just like the tamagotchi.  The tasks, however, sneakily get people to do the exercises I wanted.

Here’s an example.  Your village is on fire…blow it out.  So do it, right now: blow out a fire.  99% of people purse there lips and blow, which is actually a form of resistive breathing that, low and behold, helps strengthen core lung function.  And a simple command gets most people to do it, without going into long details about the right motion.

Turns out, we could figure out a whole pattern of these that resulted in different stretches and exercises (my favorite, suggested by Sandeep, was “hug a really fat panda”).  And there is a side benefit to the village tasks: they get kids familiar with taking instructions via text, which comes in handy for “attack” part of the app.

Having figured out preventive exercises, we needed to create something for when kids were actually having an attack, which led me to create the largest flowchart of my life.  Basically, when a kid has an attack, they text in to a specific number and presto, we start asking them simple questions to help triage them.  They find an adult, use the inhaler and breathe appropriately, and if they’re enrolled in the larger game, get some cheering on from their villagers.

And yes, it is still really just a bunch of text and we don’t know yet if that’s enough to get kids motivated.  But I think even if the village metaphor doesn’t catch on, even just a free program that helps deal with an actual attack is valuable.  And because we lucked out and had an Apple developer in Alan, we also go to produce a simple iPhone app based on the same principles: blow into your mic in a particular pattern in order to play the game and build your resistive breathing.

The results are out at and Sandeep’s company has promised to continue the work.  For my part, I’ll be staying involved, particularly in order to keep up with the data itself.  Can a simple text intervention get kids to do this?  Will it prevent attacks?  Will fewer kids go to the hospital?  We won’t know for awhile (assuming this catches on at all) but even if we get a few kids to breathe better, it was certainly worth a few sleeplessness nights at TEDActive.