@TED: Best of Day 4 and a Wrap-Up

The last day at TED is a combination of exhaustion, anxiety, and wistfulness: exhaustion because we’ve been neglecting our sleep, anxiety because we remember how much work awaits us after the event is over, and wistfulness because we realize we can’t live like this all the time.

Perhaps because the programmers knew that we’d be pulled in multiple directions, the last half-day of TED was stuffed with talks that demanded our full attention. Here are some of the best moments from today:

* Johnny Lee Chung showed his jaw-dropping Wii Remote hacks, which create, for less than $50, an interactive whiteboard. (Jesse Robbins covered it previously on Radar.) When comparing it to a real, multi-thousand-dollar interactive whiteboards, Chung said of his project, “you get 80% of the way there for 1% of the cost.”

* Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, looked to a historical analogy to consider how to get countries out of poverty. The last time the rich world did something serious about developing another region, he stated, was in the late 1940s, when the U.S. needed to develop a devastated Europe. We can learn from what the U.S. did then — providing aid, reversing a protectionist trade policy, moving its security policy from isolation to engagement, and abandoning some notions of national sovereignty to create the United Nations — as a model for what we need to do now.

* Al Gore, who debuted his “Inconvenient Truth” presentation at TED two years ago, delivered a run-though of a new talk he’s developing. This time out, he seems less focused on alerting us to climate change — he’s done that already — and more on what to do about it, not only at a personal level but at a national level. As he put it, “changing the laws is more important than changing light bulbs.” During his talk, I kept creating an alternate history in my head. Regardless of your political point of view, there’s no doubt that the world — and the U.S.’s place in the world — would be far different now if we were in the last months not of the second Bush administration but the second Gore administration. Perhaps Gore did more good outside of the White House than he could have inside.

There were two other talks from yesterday that I wanted a bit more distance from before I tried to write about them.

The first was from MIT’s Tod Machover, who spoke in the abstract about how music has power in people’s lives — and then proved it. His talk peaked when he brought out , Dan Ellsey, a longtime cerebral palsey patient from Tewksbury Hospital, outside Boston, to show how even someone with a profound disability can create music. Then Machover moved from talking about composition to talking about performance, and Ellsey, thanks to a system developed at the MIT Media Lab, was able to “play” one of his songs. Strapped to chair, imprisoned by his illness, Ellsey and his work were completely, miraculously alive. My words can’t express the drama of the moment. Perhaps when this talk makes it to the TED website, you can see for yourselves.

It’s also hard to describe what conductor Benjamin Zander achieved last night. The Boston Philharmonic conductor also spoke of music, connected his notions of music to inspirational ideas about leadership (and, it seemed at the time, everything else in the universe), and led a devastating experiment that had the entire audience singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in phonetic German, with him urging us to take our amateurish singing higher and higher. I won’t even try to describe what he accomplished (again, the filmed talk will do that for itself), but I do want to share with you — despite this being a family blog — the term he introduced that everyone was talking about last night: BTFI.

Zander told of a cellist auditioning to be in an orchestra. Zander, helping the musician, told him he was holding back: he had to do more. The cellist didn’t get the job because, he reported to Zander, he was still holding back. But then the cellist said “fuck it,” made himself audition for a better job at another orchestra, and got it. Zander’s lesson: to excel, you have to get BTFI, “beyond the ‘fuck it’.” It’s an idea he and his wife Rosamund Stone Zander explore in their brief and wonderful The Art of Possibility. (You can read the Google Book Search excerpt from his book, on the origin of BTFI, here.)

Most of the speakers at TED were people who had seen problems — in themselves, in an industry, in society — and had decide to get BTFI. That encapsulated TED and it’s an appropriate note to go out on. Until next year…

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