2011 TED Speakers (A Review)

TED is exhausting.  Writing a review is a similar experience, as looking back at notes and remembering bits of each talk is an experience akin to recounting what you wore on the first day of each year of school.

(A note: I went to TEDactive, but experienced a TED event, so I use that language going forward.)

Also, this is my VERY personal account.  Put “for me” after each statement if it seems too harsh.

There is a lack of honesty at this conference that I can’t quite explain (fevered fanboyism?).  Once people are invited, they are on their best behavior to get invited back and won’t share any feedback (unless completely positive).  With this in mind, when is the last time you read a negative review of TED?  I wanted to share my honest opinions on the talks and overall conference, and wonder if this is welcome feedback.

Amazing conference, but it isn’t the airbrushed, curated beauty that you see on ted.com.  It is an awesome event, to me, because the quirks were included.

I have an amazing amount of respect for anyone that takes that stage.  It has to be one of the most prestigious and nerve-racking experiences of a lifetime.


Here are some quick notes on all the talks.  Equal praise and gripe:

Session 1: Monumental

Janna Levin The universe makes sound. Black holes are more than just sights.  Loved the presentation.

Sarah Marquis World traveler, not at all interesting to me because the story stops at “I’m traveling.”  So what?  I think travel as a story died with Fawcett. Great pictures, not-so-great content.  I’d estimate there are 300,000 people on RTW trips right now… how many inspired you?

David Brooks Read from notes but had some very interesting commentary.  Chris’ intro was a bit rude ~ “He isn’t a liberal like us, but we can like some things he says.”

Wadah Khanfar Besides choosing to speak in front of a slide with a protester holding an “AMERICA, FUCK YOUR AID” sign, Wadah gave one of the most stirring presentations.  I watched it again and didn’t feel the same way as watching it live (feels like about four minutes was chopped, but I could be wrong).

Eric Whitacre YouTube choir story.  Really interesting if the internet, or collaboration online, is new to you.  Was it neat?  You bet.  Was it big enough for this stage?  I would say no, but his work would be.


Session 2: Majestic

Handspring Amazing craft, this crew recreates life-size puppets.  They brought a horse onto stage, with actors mimicking the sounds and actions.  Quite amazing to see. The preamble to how they tried and failed and then lied and failed wasn’t needed.   Showing off the craft was jaw dropping.

Sunni Brown Amazing visual artist who suggested that the community doodle more and not look down on this.  She did a list apart post about it too.

Paul Nicklen Adventure and wildlife photographer dove deep in some chilly waters to bring us a truly amazing story.  Spent a few minutes telling a story with a penguin (I think) getting de-spined by another animal in the background that was nothing short of distracting.

Thomas Heatherwick One of the smartest guys in the world.  Very timid presentation style, but his work was so good that it stole the show.  Make sure to research him if you have not heard of Thomas and his team’s work.  Here is a start.

Bobby McFerrin Amazing solo performance using all parts of his body as an instrument.  He brought up members from the audience and created the next parts of the song with them.



Session 3: Mindblowing

Carlo Ratti Interesting visualization of real-time data showing seemingly obvious results.

Mattias Astrom Cool new Google Maps 3D modeling competitor.

Aaron Koblin The speaker I most look up to.  The guy is a force of talent and drive.  Interface is the story.  I want an hour to meet Aaron.  Inspiring.  In my top 6 talks.

Homaro Cantu Amazing food taste mapping demo.  Working on some crazy experiments with their restaurant (taking watermelon and serving it as tuna after nitrogen frying with magic berries).  Rushed and frantic at times.

Franz Harary Magician.  This crowd would have reacted better to a clown juggling children.  Talk about a bomb.


Session 4: Deep Mystery

Antonio Damasio Neuroscience and consciousness.  Really interesting but little I can do with the information.  That said, I thought to myself, “Damn, that is fascinating.’

Deb Roy The most researched and interesting take on a subject.  Deb and team mapped out every word his son has ever said in his apartment.  Watch it here.

Maya Beiser Musician. Did a live performance with recordings of herself in the background.  Felt gimmicky.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon NASA scientist presenting work that the NYTimes thinks is a fraud.  Found it interesting and a risky pick.  Scientists are astonishingly mean to each other.

Aaron O’Connell Quantum objects.  Research shows an object being two places at the same time.  This could get interesting.


Session 5: Worlds Imagined

Julie Taymor Showed off her work, or her team’s work (was the worst offender of the “I vs. We” credit monster).  Did the visuals for the Spiderman musical, only the good parts though.

Morgan Spurlock He sold the naming rights to his talk (and film) to anyone that would pay.  Progressive and a great storyteller.  We hung out at the pool the next day, got to ask the burning questions.

Bill Ford An environmentalist in a very interesting position of change or a damn good actor fighting off environmental calls from within?

Terrence McArdle + Ben Newhouse Why they got the stage is an example of a buddy / pay to speak deal or a case of very poor judgement from the TED staff.  They showed off a quirky and buggy demo of something very similar to the already launched and already on top of the app store 360 app by occipital.

Indra Nooyi Have you heard of Pepsi?  We make suger water and then market it to kids in plastic bottles, but we are trying to make you think we are not pure evil.  Look, over there!  Bikes!  Brave talk, really pissed off a few folks at TEDactive.


Session 6: Knowledge Revolution

Bill Gates I have a great deal more respect for him after this brilliant curation job.  Amazing set of speakers.

David Christian Collective learning.  Going to have to watch again.

Amina Az-Zubair Talk about the perfect speaker for this audience.  Nigerian global sustainability and political problems being solved as the country develops.  Top 6 talk for me.

Bruce Aylward An update on polio and how it is still a challenge for some areas.  New designs and vaccines are helping eradicate it.  Inspiring.

Salman Khan Does video help kids get over challenges, thus helping them all learn at the same rate?  Exciting stuff. In my top 6 talks.



Session 7: Radical Collaboration

Edith Widder no comment.

Jamie Oliver Wonder if Jamie went on a Skittles and Coke bender before this pacing, ranting and disjointed belch of a talk.

JR Artist that went way over or under the audience.  Doing impressive installations that is borderline art or unwanted graffiti.  Audience Q&A was a wreck.  Looking forward to a fellow TEDster having a run in with the law and claiming it is JR’s fault.

Antony Not a pick for the TED crowd.  I have listened to Swanlights too many times (a brilliant album).  Mellow and soothing while equally painting a picture of the world being fucked.


Session 8: Invention and Consequence

Edward Tenner His slide typography stole my attention.  Damn nice.  His points on unintended consequences were great, but took a great deal of time to develop.

Eli Pariser Moveon founder was the biggest letdown of TED.  He made the point that because Google or Facebook serve up different experiences to different situations (like if the users settings page is different, or if they are on mobile vs an iPad), they must be evil and trying to manipulate the world’s minds.  Mind-blowing in how dumb and misleading this was.

Ralph Langner If you want to wet your pants with fear, listen to Langner talk about cybersecurity.

Dennis Hong I was the only ass in the room that thought about saying “NOOO!” when Dennis introduced himself by saying, “I’m working on tools to let blind people drive.”  Inspiring work.

Eythor Bender Does work with robotics and human motion.  Wheelchair user was able to walk onstage and give Chris a hug.  Touching as it was amazing.


Session 9: Threads of Discovery

Juan Enriquez no comment.

Fiorenzo Omenetto The many surprising uses of silk (medicine, for instance).

Janet Echelman Amazing artist and art (think massive colorful draped tread sculptures swaying in the wind).  Lacked story.  Really neat sculptures and question on how they can transform life and city living.  I was left with questions about the total cost for installations and why this isn’t done more.

Daniel Tammet I read “Born on a Blue Day” years ago and count it as a favorite book.  Daniel is brilliant.  Level 10 brilliant.  Awkward from it, and didn’t connect with the audience that didn’t know about him.  I loved his talk.

Ed Boyden Rocked a beard at TED. Respect.  Also respect for his work.  Traits of brain circuitry.  I’m planning on watching this one again to get it fully.

Christina Lampe-Onnerud All your battery is belong to us.  A great talk about what the world would look like with rechargeable batteries being charged and used as part of our house, car, treadmill and more.  Kind of a pitch.

Anthony Atala Printed a human organ on stage with a 3D “DNA as ink” printer.  Then brought up a guy with one of his printouts as an example of people being saved with the technology.  Killed. It.


Session 10: Beauty, Imagination, Enchantment

Beatrice Coron Papercutting as art.  Really beautiful work.

Sarah Kay Spoken word used masterfully.  My favorite talk, watch it here.

Kate Hartman A fellow FOOcamper!  I remember having really funny conversations with Kate about the downright silliness of her work (such as creating a jacket so humans can hug glaciers in order to relate better).  Perhaps a bit too odd, but perfect in the same way.

Shea Hembrey Artist that pretended to be 100 personas and created pieces from each.  Mesmerizing presentation.

Jason Mraz With guest cameo from June Cohen with an accidental offstage “My mic is on JESUS.”  Special performer.



Session 11: The Echo of Time

Jack Horner Chicken as dinosaur.

Rajesh Rao Just how do you decipher an ancient script?  Interesting to see just what this would mean socially and politically.  More here.

Harvey Fineberg “Neo-evolution: the new evolution that is not simply natural, but guided and chosen by us as individuals.”

Stanley McChrystal Felt like I was listening to a guy that was just caught drunk driving with a wrath of carnage behind him explaining to the officer that he just had one drink.  A spew of misguided jingoistic melancholy.  Leadership, it seems, has nothing to do with honesty.


Session 12: Only If. If Only.

Kathryn Schulz Author of Being Wrong.  A must-read book, and I’m excited to watch this one again.  You don’t hate being wrong, you hate the feeling associated with being wrong.  Once we realize this, we can move forward to make better decisions. In my top 6 talks.

John Hunter A humble teacher that created a game titled “World Peace.”  I randomly had breakfast with him the next morning.  Super nice and quiet guy doing the world a lot of good.  We need more people like him.

Roger Ebert We all bow down to the amazing person Roger is, and as an amazing treat, get to hear from his wife Chaz as well.  You see love, and then you see Ebert’s real love.  You see passion, and then you see Ebert’s passion.  In my top 6 talks.


The final sendoff by Chris had a quick mention of the tragedy his family has gone through this year, and thanked the community for their support.  I met several family members and gave them a big hug, the only thing I feel I can do.  That. Shouldn’t. Happen. To. Anyone.



Final Thoughts

I’m still questioning a lot of things about TED.  I didn’t see the elitist standoff that a lot of my friends asked about when defending their back footed curiosity.  It was a lot of people gathered together that really liked intelectual stimulation and were curious about the world going forward.

There is a lot of things I don’t know / how to do.  Perhaps writing an all positive review is one of them.  A monumental conference, but at what point is that par for a high priced event?  I think my roots in less than luxury skew my views.  I’m used to being the bootstrapper, the fighter, the little guy.   This didn’t feel like that.  It felt big.  And bold.  And amazing.

For me, out of place.

I’m now exhausted again from TED.  Thanks for taking the time to read, please feel free to share your thoughts below.  I need to do a full conference writeup… someday.






2 responses to “2011 TED Speakers (A Review)”

  1. Ian Adelman Avatar
    Ian Adelman

    This comes across — to me, at least — as a rather positive review. It sounds like you found something worthwhile in a significant majority of the presentations. That’s not — again, in my experience — a common occurrence at a conference, even a very good one, with that many speakers.

  2. George Morris Avatar

    I think we’ve talked about this before but ultimately it comes down to “action”

    I’ve seen so many TED presentations and most are thought-provoking, inspiring and informative but they all kind of run together.

    The key in my mind is to make TED actionable. That’s easier said than done but I believe there has to be a way to really ENGAGE people in creating change.

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