@TED: Best of Day 2

It was a day of extremes at TED, ranging from an extended session examining the pervasiveness of evil to an evening celebration of some of the most life-affirming ideas possible. It also ranged from the sober (how to survive a nuclear attack) to the self-referential and self-congratulatory (a brief sit-down with TED’s originator, Richard Saul Wurman). Here’s a quick rundown of some of the long day’s many high points:

* There was a late-morning series of talks on the topic “Is beauty truth?”, but it was in another session that we saw how truth brings with it some sense of beauty. Alisa Miller, president of CEO of Public Radio International, used the remarkable information visualizations of Worldmapper to illuminate what news stories get covered and what don’t. (You can see her slides and hear her talk here.) In the end, she notes, “covering Britney is cheaper” than considering the more important stories.
* While interviewing Craig Ventner, TED curator Chris Anderson remembered an exchange they had a few years back. Anderson had asked, “Can you be accused of playing God?” Ventner’s reply: “We’re not playing.” It was a joke, but Ventner took is as an opportunity to deliberate on how we’re “supposed to use our knowledge to improve humanity.” He also contrasted the optimism of TED with the pessimism of Davos
* In a brief talk, Dean Ornish gave his standard talk on why “our genes are not our fate,” detailing the importance of lifestyle change. It was an interesting complement to Ventner and others showing how our fate could be in creating new genes.
* Philip Zimbardo, top researcher of the classic 1971 Stanford prison study and an expert witness for Abu Ghraib guard, showed some photos from the Iraqi prison that were more graphic and troubling than what’s been in the mainstream press, and hammered on the parallels between his landmark study and what is happening today. Countering the “bad apple” theory of people who behave terribly when placed in unsuperivised positions of complete power over others, he stated, “it’s the barrel that’s bad, not the apples.” As intense as that session was, it kicked off with a brief clip about the just-ended next-generation DVD wars that managed to be both hilarious and offensive.
* While accepting their TED prizes, novelist David Eggers delivered a tour-de-force tour through his 826 writing and tutoring project, and Neil Turok shared his double life as a physicist (he’s not so sure the Big Bang started everything) and as a founder of the African school for math and sciences.

And that doesn’t even include Samantha Power’s stirring talk about diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello … or Susan Blackmore’s sharp application of Darwinian principles to everything … or Isaac Mizrahi’s star turn … or 100 other fascinating moments. And the best news is that this event is only half over.

Finally, I’ve noticed an anti-TED meme flying around the blogosphere this morning. I’ll address that tonight, when I write my post about today’s events.

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