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2011 TEDxColumbus

Thank you, everyone, for reading our live-blog of the TEDxColumbus conference. There were so many great ideas shared today.

The theme of the conference has been “a moment in time.” And this day has been a collection of really surprising moments: everything from exploding gas bubbles, jumping spiders, and great musical performances to stories of unseen tortures and illustrations of the fragility and importance of life.

The key is that all of these things, from the fun to the tragic, from practical ideas to more abstract ones, are the moments that make up the human experience. It’s been a joy to be able to share those moments and to take some time to write and think about them.

I hope everyone had as interesting an experience at TEDxColumbus as we, your faithful live-bloggers, did.

– Elisa and Stephen

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2011 TEDxColumbus
I don’t feel entirely comfortable blogging about Trent Tipple’s talk. I’ve always wrestled with the statement ‘there’s a grief that can’t be spoken.’ Some days, I think: of course I can pick my words and punctuate them in the right order and eventually (days, months, years, however long) say or write something that captures it in full. On other days, I think: nothing I can ever pen on paper or voice aloud to a friend or a room of 600 strangers will ever capture what it was like to lose my dad. Unexpectedly, out of nowhere, he was dead. As I listen to Trent’s talk as I type this, and hear him read aloud what his young son wrote about the first time Trent collapsed while on holiday —“he was wheeled out on a gurney … hundreds of people were watching … they were driving like it was murder … later we found out he had brain cancer”–I have to admit I keep thinking about how I want Trent to give me an answer. Trent, should we keep trying to find the right story, the right words, the right way to speak about grief? Or should we step back and decide it’s never going to be within our grasp? Please tell me.

 

So Trent didn’t answer that question (duh, he didn’t know I asked it … in my head), but I liked what he had to say all that same and I am so very glad that he is still around.  “I hope that by hearing my story that you all realize that there have been so many people who played a significant role in your life,” I hear Trent say, “They didn’t have to, but they chose to because they cared about you.”  He asked us to identify those people, to reach out to them and let them know what they’ve meant to us. I think the continuous realization of this suggestion is a way better thing for me to focus on. And maybe that’s where the ‘there’s a grief that can’t be spoken’ idea comes from: the medical scares of our past, and the face-to-face moments in time with mortality, are what fuels our discussions. It’s the energy that keeps us going, for better and, yeah, often for way worse, but the going part is sure a damn good ride.

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2011 TEDxColumbus
If Dirk Knemeyer was a school principal, the class schedule might look like this: Science, English, Math, Relationships with Other People. Enroll me in that school, pretend Dirk Knemeyer, I liked your talk.

Let me go back to the beginning. Waaaay back to good ol’ Copernicus, the first documented person to posit that the sun – and not the earth – was the center of the universe. Heliocentric Copernicus is the hero and villain of this TED talk, the pivot guiding its initial swings. Before Copernicus (bc?), Dirk explains, we had no concept of the moon; After Copernicus (ac?), we walked all over that moon. Etc, etc, including the fun assertion that toilets are replacing libraries (I overly abstracted there – bc, only aristocrats and clergy could access knowledge in books; ac, we can read books in the comfort of our home commodes).

But this ‘ac’ business doesn’t sit well with Dirk. Not at all. Dirk’s actually pretty fed up. It’s not just the very specific things–such as all those Apple products we love including some that enable toilet libraries? Well, Apple has bad labor practices, including the poisoning of over 100 workers at a production factory in China—it’s the big, deep things, it’s our ability to relate to one another and invest our time in doing so that frustrates Dirk.

I can hear what he’s saying (yeah yeah, I literally did in real time too). A place in our oceans bigger than the size of two Texases filled with “plastic crap” we’ve dumped out? That’s certainly bad. Very bad. I’m on board with Dirk when he announces that the world we’ve inherited from Copernicus is not necessarily a great place.

That ‘necessarily’ provides the give that we need, though. Does Dirk agree? For the most part. But, I get the feeling he feels we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s going to be a lot harder than junior high math. (And I totally thought junior math was hard.)

Dirk asked us: “What was the moment in your life that means the most to you?”. We talked to our audience neighbors, and then returned to Dirk. “How many of those moments involved people other than yourself?” he then asks. The whole audience raises their hands. “How many of those moments involved high tech technology?” A few hands are raised. This, for Dirk, makes his point: why do we teach science and math and writing in schools and we don’t teach how to figure out how to nurture the most universal thing out there – meaningful relationships.

Okay, so maybe he didn’t mean we need to launch seminar classes to junior high students about how to be supportive spouses or something. That’s silly. But Dirk feels that it’s contemplation—real thought, real feeling [good or bad]—that we’ve managed to lose somewhere between bc and ac (before and after Copernicus, for folks getting a bit confused by this blog, which is more than fair – I blame the lack of junior high education on communication with humans).

What Dirk wants – or at least, my sense of what Dirk wants –  is for us to wake up and start helping people figure out what they’re doing, what they’re good at, and make it a better fit than it is now. He says when we align better with each other, happiness goes up and productivity goes up. Maybe we can’t fix that huge plastic crap dump, and maybe we don’t want to give up our toilet libraries, and maybe that’s not at all okay … but I concur that experiencing the ‘not at all okay’ with other people around me, and talking about it, is better than experiencing it by myself. And that, I think, is something Dirk would be content with for now.

Let’s start that new class, kids.

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2011 TEDxColumbus
I think everyone has had this feeling: I thought of that idea years ago, I just couldn’t make it happen.

This reflects a truth of invention: the thing stopping really great ideas from becoming reality is that the people having those ideas don’t always know how to implement them or build the things they’ve thought up.

Well, Alex Bandar has a solution: he’s creating spaces where normal people can build real objects. Bandar’s aim is “lowering the threshold for taking ideas out of your head and putting them in your hand.” The reason that this takes on critical importance is that if an idea springs up, and no one hears it, it’s lost.

The maker community is devoted to ensuring that this doesn’t happen. This community of people shares their ideas and develops methods for implementing their ideas.

Bandar and his ilk strongly believe that everyone should be able to make the things that they dream up. And this is getting easier and easier, with Google’s modeling platform, with 3D printers, with laser cutting, and with a plethora of similar technologies that increase the available pool of smart inventors in the world.

So Bandar’s big idea is to take all of these technologies and put them together in one shop. This is the idea behind the Columbus Idea Foundry. Their maker shop has turned out everything from little wooden toys to an electric Model T to devices that help African farmers maximize their yield and feed hungry people.

The animating principle of the Idea Foundry, Bandar argues, could also be implemented in schools. If these kinds of labs could be condensed into, say, an unused cargo container, then portable maker labs could be put to work at any school anywhere. Students could also have an opportunity to turn their ideas into reality.

Bandar’s essential argument is that people who know how to use the tools of fabrication design better, and people that tinker develop the experience to have better and more flexible ideas. Finally, after a day of talking about how eduction falls short, Bandar’s provided just one possible solution for making education better in the future.

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2011_TEDxColumbus

Outside of hating to wait in them, I’ve never thought much about lines. TED strikes again: early in his talk, Bart Overly calmly asserted that lines, while cheap, really have a lot of information and power behind them. In architecture and elsewhere (maps, roads, walls), a line can separate you, a line can take you somewhere, and a line can make a decision. I may be behind the curve on ‘getting’ this, but it delights me all the same.

The idea of being set adrift on an iceberg when he reached a certain elderly age did not delight Bart. Told of a supposed tradition in Siberia that did just that, Bart started thinking about a different line: his life span. Based on life expectancy trends, Bart could easily make it to 90. But if there’s good luck and good fortune, he could cross the centenarian threshold. There’s going to be a big party joining him–by the time 40ish Bart could turn 104, 23% of the U.S. population will be over 65; In 40 years, there will be 1.6 workers to 1 retiree. Lots of people in lots of different fields do work that aims to answer questions raised by that predicted future. For Bart, the question is: what does this mean for habitat?

Bart looks at the primary patterns in our habitats. We have stuff, he explains. We own. That ownership appears all over our habitat. As we grow older longer, will we start owning plots below ground when the above ground space is gone? Will we start owning air above our heads? Generally, we start to curate it: we create subdivisions, ideas where we’ll be self-similar. Hey it’s great to exist there, Bart admits, but: it’s certain to collapse. It’s an isolated habitat.

What to do? Bart looks to two different new patterns of use. The first, informal settlements such as those in Turkey and Brazil. These are completely different patterns of organization built out of extreme necessity: residents and builders look at the margins, and built around them. Sure, conflicts can happen when habitats meet other habitats, but this model can also be freer than a fully independent habitat. Next, Bart talked about the interdependency model, showing a model he’s worked with where a youth hostel is intertwined (physically) with a hotel. Are you student traveling on the cheap? Visit this building and you could score some cash or a fancier place to sleep by working for the hotel down the hall for a few days.

Bart admitted he was scared of being forced out of his habitat (though ultimately he doesn’t believe any Siberian citizens were ever set adrift). Maybe I should be too. I’ll have to think about it. If nothing else, I do now feel more equipped to imagine possibilities other than floating masses of ice. And that’s a good thing.

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2011 TEDxColumbus
I had an immediate affinity for Claudia Kirsch. Like Kirsch, my background is in science, but I’m also really interested in art and creative expression. Kirsch’s angle is as a radiologist: she studies cancer, specifically cancer in the head and neck.

Maybe it’s Kirsch’s interest in art that makes her the keen observer that she is. Her talk is all about how careful attention to detail (and also careful scientific research) can save lives.

Kirsch’s main pathway into this discussion is through the science. She’s studied these kinds of cancer for a while. She has some good news: these types of cancers are decreasing because of lifestyle changes, and treatments are getting better. The bad news: HPV can also cause these kinds of cancer, and instances of cancer caused by HPV have gone way up.

These HPV-caused cancers might also be particularly dangerous. Kirsch explained how tumors in the head and neck can grow along your nerves, eventually “hitchhiking” down the pathways to the brain. The image of these cancer cells slowly but surely, without any means of their own transportation, working their way undetected into a victim’s brain is a terrifying one.

And hitchhiking tumors are particularly dangerous: they are more likely to come back and more likely to spread to surprising areas of the body.

“Hitchhiking” cancer can also hide from detection where normal tumors can’t. Kirsch says that cancer screenings, because of these kinds of traveling cancers, have to include imaging of the nerve routes that hitchhiking cells can follow.

Kirsch discovered this by looking very carefully at the nerves in some of her own cancer patients. One day it struck her: the reason these patients were still sick was because their cancer had quietly hitchhiked across their nerves after initial treatment. She now knew where she had to look to make sure this didn’t happen to future patients.

It’s this change in cancer screening and detection that gives Kirsch the theme of her talk: we see what we know. She explains that, now that we know to look along nerve pathways for cancer, we can find these kinds of hitchhikers before they kill.

It’s a hell of a lesson: if what we know can change what we see, it can also save lives.

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2011 TEDxColumbus

Every parent worries about their children.

David Burns might have more reason to worry than most: he spends his days realizing that America’s education system isn’t built with every kid in mind, and he spends his nights wondering how his kids will fit into it.

The main responsibility of dads, according to Burns, is to inspire their kids to get the best education they can. The understood goal is for kids to surpass their parents, for each generation to be better off. But that’s not so easy when the system doesn’t help your particular kids towards that goal.

For instance, if Burns wants his kids to achieve greater educational goals than himself (getting one PhD apiece), he will have to spend over $875,000. To Burns, this just doesn’t reflect our societal goal of better and better education.

That, according to Burns, is the heartache of education: the system isn’t designed for every kid, and sometimes a parent realizes that the system isn’t serving HIS kids.

To improve on this dismal situation, Burns argues, we need to refocus our educational goals on what actually serves kids, not just on what we THINK serves kids. Education should improve kids’ chances of success, not just drain their bank accounts and leave them saddled with loans. Schools should figure out the real strengths of every student, not just hope their cookie-cutter approach will work. In short, kid-focused education systems should be sustainable.

Like some of the other stories we’ve heard today here at TEDxColumbus, Burns is a man who is personally experiencing a global crisis. The education crisis is worldwide, but Burns reminds us that every global crisis is made up of individuals, in this case his own children.

That’s Burns’s fundamental question: if the goal of education is to make life better for kids going forward, then why would we design education systems based on what adults want? Let’s hope educators worldwide start asking themselves this same question; then we might get some answers.

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2011 TEDxColumbus
I’m pretty happy with the fact that my natural tendencies are to eat fruits and vegetables as opposed to tree bark and road kill.

Boy did I love that sentence. Susan Willeke said it to illustrate the following point: we need bias. If I didn’t have a bias that trumped eating road kill, things probably wouldn’t be going so well for me. Bias is necessary for species survival (whether or not the carrot, say, feels biased toward me as its uprooted is for another TED talk). But of course that’s not the end of the story.

Natural tendencies inhibit our ability to be as objective as we think we can be. Susan shared the moment in time where she realized her wholehearted feelings of unjustness in response to football officiating at a high school game were felt with precisely the same degree of wholeheartedness by spectators cheering for the other side. A football analogy works quite well for Susan’s stories and moral: don’t give up on your biases–be mindful, identify it, and choose how it plays out in your life. Know where it hides, how it can hurt, and how it can help. You’ve got it and you can run in the right direction with it.

Running? That’s actually a thing Susan once felt zero tendency toward. Oh no, she was not an athlete. For years, that’s just how she identified: non-athlete. Then, things changed. She realized that wasn’t immutable, it was bias, and it could change: she started slow, worked through it, and next thing you know, she ran the Columbus marathon (and finished!) — “I realized the possibility of who I might be and what I’m capable of, despite that voice that had been telling me I wasn’t capable of it.” Again, acknowledging the bias paves the way to move past them.

Sure, not everybody will become marathon runners (um, me), but Susan does offer the equipment to apply her experiences and knowledge to our real worlds. Identify objectives that speak to your values, and then, most importantly, ask yourself is what I’m about to say true, kind, and necessary?

And don’t forget to nurture that bias against road kill for dinner.

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2011 TEDxColumbus
Here’s the secret that Theresa Flores shared at the start of her talk: human trafficking happens. And it’s more common than we think, even in Ohio.

Human trafficking immediately brings up some distressing, but distant, images: third world countries, children working on plantations for no wage, and prostitution. Flores is here to present a different picture: herself.

She started by recounting her really normal family and normal childhood, complete with the photos that show it. She’s got images of her house, her family, and herself. Her story is familiar: she moved to a new town, met new people, and started attending a new high school.

And at this new school, she experienced something that’s still pretty familiar: she fell for the alluring, well-dressed, mysterious guy. She had a crush on him for a while, but one day, she accepted a ride home from the stranger.

That’s when her story takes a turn from the familiar to the horrible. This is the part of the story that brings human trafficking out of the third world and into OUR world. The mysterious stranger took her home, flirted with her, drugged her drink, and raped her. His friends took pictures of the rape, and the mysterious stranger threatened to show the pictures around if Flores didn’t do what he said.

Under threats of death to her family, Flores was forced into prostitution by this gang.  At one point she was sold to the highest bidding John in a dingy hotel room. And, she explains, even the men that came to have sex with her sometimes didn’t know that she was forced to be there, that she was the victim of human trafficking.

And no one knows about the victims of human trafficking. In Ohio, according to a study, over 1,079 kids are being trafficked at this moment. No one knows about these children. No one knows about the forced prostitution and tortures perpetrated against so many people because of human trafficking.

Flores is trying to change that. She works with a place called Gracehaven that is devoted to raising awareness of human trafficking and trying to help its victims recover from the ordeal.

But raising awareness about these things is bigger than just education and PR. Flores is aiming higher: her organization seeks out dingy motels like the one in which she was tortured and tries to place little bars of soap with a message on them. That message tells these victims that someone wants to help, that if they call, they will get the support they need. Flores’s organization placed these bars of soap in motels all over the country.

 

One day, someone called. A girl who was being held in a motel bathroom in Dallas grabbed that bar of soap and called for help. One little bar of soap saved this girl.

That’s why Flores says that her talk isn’t a sad one. It’s a story of hope. One bar of soap saved a girl’s life. And with the community’s support, Flores hopes to save many, many more.

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2011 TEDxColumbus

 

Mark’s dad thought he would grow out of it. He didn’t.

What didn’t Mark grow out of? Bugs. Bugs bugs bugs – looking at them, thinking about them, learning from them.

Mark didn’t expect people to pay him to do it either, but they did. (He’s been a natural history and biology educator for over 20 years). Correction: at first, people paid him to show bugs to their kids. Not one to stay penned in, Mark forged conversations about bugs with adults (the difference in attention spans helped). When he gets a group of adults together, to talk about bugs, he asks them to define respect. Most—if not all—of the time, the definitions involve other people, e.g. treating others as we would wish to be treated. Mark starts with a linguistic slant: spect = “look”, re = “back/again.”

Look again. And again. And again. Mark can’t stress it enough: the more time you take to look at the world around you, and not just bugs but people too, you will never cease to be amazed. When Mark Berman says this, it’s neither trite nor hollow. It’s earnest … and it’s contagious. My seat for this TED event is at the far back of a pretty darn big room. Watching the audience as Mark talked, I did not have to look again too many times to see the delight and bemused amazement we all felt as Mark launched into the next part of his talk:

Bug video footage!

First up, a small little metallic wasp. Females build a single cell nest with great verve and careful calibration, vibrating their sizeable mandibles like a little drill into the ground, buzzing across the open plains where Mark often walks up and down, soaking it all in — when Mark gets particularly excited about bugs, he kind of starts to buzz about like one too. “You would never see it unless you took the time to stop and look again!” he says. The audience chimes in with applause.

Next, Mark admits he has a hard time answering the ‘what’s your favorite bug’ question. Pretty quickly after saying so, however, we learn it’s the jumping spider. They’re visual predators, very agile, and “one of the few bugs you can see think” (ants are another). “So interactive and with such excellent vision!” Mark comments, showing a scene of a spider tapping on glass, doing 8-point turns, trying to figure out what’s going on beneath the petridish cover. (Never a spider fan myself, Mark’s footage pretty quickly convinces me otherwise.  Now I’m thinking – it is an adorable little many-legged thinking machine.) The second-biggest applause of the talk is earned when Mark shows the jumping spider coyly moving a fly wing away from its face to pose for the camera (previously it had refused to allow a profile shot).

The biggest applause? Garnered when Mark shows video footage of another jumping spider, an eager male woo-er approaching a less-than-enthused female mate. With the aid of the recordings of a powerful microphone, we grimace and cheer as this little bug works up a storm of audible clicks and vocalizations that become an increasingly insistent little sports car motor of sweet nothings. As he moves ever closer, the audience grows more and more involved. It ends well for the male, the audience cheers, and Mark smiles another big bug smile.

“You should get used to looking for and at new things,” Mark said to close his bug extravaganza. “You’re going to want to show it to people too. That’s how the world works.”

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