@TED: Best of Day 1

If nothing else, TED is a trip. The veteran conference has gone through many permutations. Under curator Chris Anderson, TED is still full of technology, entertainment, and design, but it has really lived up to the change-the-world rhetoric that was always a bit more under the surface during Richard Saul Wurman’s ace stewardship. Al Gore’s talk about global warming turned into An Inconvenient Truth after a movie producer saw him deliver the talk at TED; Pangea Day, an ambitious attempt to create a world-wide one-day film festival (it’s coming May 10) came out of TED as well. And this week E.O. Wilson is debuting the first iteration of his Encyclopedia of Life, funded by a TED grant. Indeed, the change-the-world attitude is so great that the only truly negative feedback I heard at last year’s event was over how wasteful the opulent gift bags were. So this year the bags are constructed from 100-percent post-consumer recycled beverage bottles by Rickshaw Bagworks.

The conceit of this year’s TED, now in its final installment in longtime home Monterey before a move to Long Beach, is “The Big Questions.” I’ll chronicle some of the high points of the conference here. For more detailed coverage, the official TED blog is offering blow-by-blow coverage. And the event, while aiming to be iconoclastic, has become so iconic (and expensive and exclusive) that it has inspired its own barcamp alternative, as noted by Jerry Michalski.

Some of the choice moments of the first day:

* Third generation paleoanthropologist Louise Leakey explaining what you need to do to if you want your remains to be found as a fossil (there’s lots of luck involved if you want to be preserved for millenia), and how “technology removes barriers to population growth”
* Priceline founder Jay Walker demonstrating how it takes a lump of coal to transmit a megabyte of data across the Net
* Photographer Chris Jordan talking us through “Running the Numbers,” a series of dramatic information visualizes focusing on consumption in the U.S. He learned that, for example, one million is the number plastic cups used on planes in the U.S. every hour and delivered a devastating visualization of that data point.
* Steven Hawking‘s brief presentation didn’t offer much new for people who have paid attention to his work, but most thought-provoking was his amazing slowness of composition when answering Chris Anderson’s question. His disability makes communication take so long — and makes it essential that every word count. That’s a lesson.
* Guitarist Kaki King channelled Preston Reed and the ghost of John Fahey in a surprising and thrilling manner
* Roy Gould and Curtis Wong debuted Microsoft’s WorldWide telescope, which may, as Gould put it, “change the way we do astronomy.” Simply, it allows us to see the sky — and what lurks beyond the sky — in an entirely new way (the talk is already on the TED site).
* The presentation from the day that burned itself immediately into my long-term memory came from Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who showed us a real human brain — and spent most of her talking describing her own stroke and what she felt and thought while her brain was going wild, from the borderline-metaphysical (“I can’t define where I begin and where I end”) to the borderline-hilarious (“I’m a busy woman. I don’t have time for a stoke”). Her description of her time in that strange state, caught between two worlds, the rare neouroanatomist who has been able to chronicle a brain-changing event from the inside, was astonishing.

And that’s just cherrypicking from the first day, a half day of talks. There are 2-1/2 more days coming…

(There are always fun interstitial film clips between talks. You can’t beat a harmonica-playing Darth Vader.)

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