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God Only Knows

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image from ethelcentral.orgIf you followed my TED coverage last week (or if you’ve talked to me since I’ve come back), you know that one of the great pleasures of the conference for me was the string quartet ETHEL: agile, imaginative, energetic, surprising. The afternoon after the event ended, I met Ralph Farris, ETHEL’s artistic director and viola player, in the lobby of my hotel and told him to his face how much I love his band. (Am I allowed to call a string quartet a band?)

After we got the fanboy stuff out of the way, Ralph and I talked for a bit about string quartets and rock’n’roll. Conversation bended toward The Juliet Letters, the 1993 collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. Then and now (I listened to the set again after it was reissued in 2006), I find The Juliet Letters arch and overly polite: in a word, precious. Each part of that union has done remarkable work (here are some notes I took on Costello a while back), but the project remains too self-consciously inoffensive to take off, despite some soaring moments here and there (more from the Brodskys than E.C.).

I do enjoy, however, some of the other songs the unlikely quintet played to fill out their shows, particularly a brittle take on Costello’s “Pills and Soap” and, especially, their version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” On that classic, Costello’s singing is, more or less, as mannered as it was in general for that project, but it finds a place in the strings, gliding between the instruments, eventually soaring above them with one facile but still perfect “you” at the end.

On the flight back to Boston on Sunday, I listened to Pet Sounds, a record that has kept me good company on long trips before; it’s one of those albums that doesn’t seem to have a physical place so it feels apt when I’m in some container above the world, nowhere near anyone I love, not really anywhere at all. I was half-asleep from my last night at TED and half-surprised when “God Only Knows” appeared midway through the set. I’ve never been a member of the Beach-Boys-were-as-great-as-the-Beatles cult, but what a record Pet Sounds is, even after you have heard it 500 times. On songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” lushly produced but still insular, and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” whose strings carry it between a Phil Spector teenage symphony and an almost unbearable expression of yearning, it feels like you’re listening not to the sound someone made in a studio but the sound inside someone’s head. There’s enough humor and drama and unexpected reversals in the two-minute song “Pet Sounds” to fill a pretty good novel, and it doesn’t have any words, just feeling. Pet Sounds is all emotion on the edge of repression, just barely expressed and the more powerful for it. It’s masterful pop music. I bet it made Costello and the Brodskys feel grounded after their more abstract journeys.

Listening to Pet Sounds got me thinking about another version of “God Only Knows” that I treasure:

Petra Haden is, wrongly I think, sometimes considered as a purveyor of novelty: her best-known recordings are a capella recordings of classic pop songs, among them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” all of The Who Sell Out, and “God Only Knows.” They’re formidable technical achievements and enjoyable to listen to regardless of whether you know that every sound is generated by a soulful human voice. We hear the original the way she heard it and we hear parts of the original that we didn’t hear until she brought them to our attention. Something new in a faithful version of an overplayed classic: that’s a gift. And, if you buy my argument that Pet Sounds is a record happening inside someone’s head, what could be more right than a precise, robust version of “God Only Knows” in which one inspired person overdubs herself over and over and over and over and … ? She makes us hear familiar songs in new ways; she makes us feel one of the most familiar pop songs of the ’60s in a new way.

Written by guterman

February 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm

TED 2010: Day 4 and Wrapup

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First, some notes on earlier talks here.

Yesterday I wrote about Bill Gates’ presentation. The video hasn’t been posted yet, but you can read an insightful slide-by-slide rundown by Nancy Duarte (who we’ve featured previously in MIT Sloan Management Review). And a few days back, I mentioned another Microsoft-related talk: Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ demo of a new mapping technology employing augmented reality. It really works and you can see it here:

And now, notes on the final day of TED 2010. By the last two sessions of the conference, after three days of one 18-minute marvel after another and three late nights of talking over those marvels with fellow attendees, you need something energetic to keep you sitting up straight and tall in your seat. And Saturday’s sessions offered some of that. Highlights included:

Sir Ken Robinson. His previous talk, from 2006, about rethinking education, was one of the first TED videos liberated for public viewing and remains the most-seen. This year’s talk went deeper in the same territory. If anything, it was even more iconoclastic, starting with the notion that reform of a broken model (what he considers the current public school situation in the U.S.) is insufficient and discussing how difficult it is to “disenthrall” ourselves from the “tyranny of common sense.” His talk will be up shortly and it’s worth seeing in its entirety; his notion of moving from the current approach to public education, which he terms industrial and linear, to a more “agricultural” and holistic (without the new age trappings) one is provocative and, after a while, inarguable.

Another superstar of the day was James Cameron, best known for films about 10-foot-tall blue people, big ships that sink, and what Arnold Schwarzenegger is really like. His autobiographical talk wasn’t short on self-regard, but it also wasn’t short on inspiration. Those looking for tips on how their movie might make a billion dollars got a few of them (he wanted a global audience, regardless of language, so he made the story of Avatar play primarily visually and emotionally), but he also celebrated what anyone can do: curiosity, imagination, respecting your team and being respected in turn. Cameron stuck close to his favorite subject — himself — and it would have been good if he had found some examples for his points that were not about him, but they were points worth hearing nonetheless.

Many of the talks in the first session were about simplicity — simplicity in design, thought, and how we live our lives — and they were all lively and engaging, but TED is really the wrong place to talk about simplicity. If anything, TED is a celebration of complexity, an exploration of what can be connected to something else in a new, delightful, and useful way. The stage was full of people who said they craved simplicity, but I’m pretty sure this audience could tolerate that only in small doses. In just the last session alone, emotion bounced from Cameron talking about Cameron to a young woman talking about the brain tumor that will kill her shortly to a satirist lampooning the past four days to a preternaturally mature child imploring the grownups to stop screwing up everything.

Again, these are highlights, only a taste of an experience hard to convey in the narrow confines of a blog. You don’t want to read about Thomas Dolby and the astonishing string quartet Ethel make a Sheryl Crow song sound more lively than Crow did herself two nights earlier; you want to hear it in person. You don’t want to read or hear about how someone’s life changed, for good or ill; you want to be in the room and share the moment. May you all get that opportunity.

The intricate stage is down, the final parties are over (well, it’s Sunday shortly after 6 a.m.; I think the final parties are over). It’s time to go home, once again, and see how I can apply what I’ve learned here to what I do every day. I’m glad I had the chance to share some of what I’ve picked up here, and I’ll let you know when talks I’ve cited are available for viewing.

Written by guterman

February 14, 2010 at 10:29 am

Posted in TED, TED2010

TED 2010: Day 3

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Yes, it’s elitist. Yes, sometimes the presenters and their audience can be too full of themselves. But I’ve yet to attend a day of TED when something hasn’t made me rethink something. We had all of that today.

I am disappointed to report that, unlike yesterday, no one on the stage destroyed any mosquitoes with a bright green laser. But, except for one very wrong move (inviting the far more unfunny than uncomfortable Sarah Silverman) and the occasional dud (people: don’t read papers and call them speeches!), the long day was full of delights both profound (George Church’s investigations into synthetic biology) and ridiculous (you have not lived a full life until you’ve seen a tattoo of Maury Povich and Bigfoot shaking hands).

One of the day’s strongest talks was by Bill Gates. He’s spoken at TED previously on a variety of topics, among them education and malaria (last year he set free some mosquitoes from the stage to make a point about the latter). Today he directed his mind toward energy and climate; in particular how to get CO2 levels to zero. He builds that on what has become conventional wisdom among sustainability scientists: that the temperature will keep going up until we cut CO2 almost down to nothing. He presented an equation in which

Total CO2 = People x Services Per Person x Energy Per Service x CO2 per unit of energy.

So, if he’s right, one of the variables on the right of the equal sign has to go down to zero. He argued why it won’t be any of the first three and focused on the last one, CO2 per unit of energy. I suspect TED will post Gates’ talk soon; we’ll point to it and let the man speak for himself. But he looked at what needed to be done — reducing and converting fossil fuels, managing nuclear energy in ways that are safe and don’t promote proliferation — and concluded we still need “an incredible miracle.” He’s investing in these areas and he was clear that he’s early on in thinking about his problem, but one hopes he uses the same precision of vision he used for everything from organizing his foundation to vanquishing the Netscape browser.

One last note on Gates’ talk: when he used the term “innovating to zero,” it reminded me of Valerie Plame Wilson’s talk yesterday about nuclear disarmament, in which she advocated getting nuclear weapons to zero, too. Those are laudable sentiments, of course, but especially in a room filled with technology executives, it’s hard to imagine a world in which an entire technology stops being used. The world only spins forward, of course. The challenge may be one of managing what exists, rather than eliminating what won’t go away.

Provocative in another way was Temple Grandin, whose known for being an expert in animal behavior, a designer in more humane storage and slaughter facilities, an advocate for the autistic, and an autistic person herself. She had a big point she wanted to make — “The world needs different kinds of minds to work together” — but she also had precise, deeply considered stories about how to treat animals and autistic children in much more helpful ways. When this talk is posted, it might make the same sort of impact Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk in 2008 about experiencing her own stroke; Grandin’s talk brought the audience into an unfamiliar world and made it, for 18 minutes at least, coherent.

Quickly (because there’s another event about to begin): John Underkoffler, who invented the Minority Report screens that have led to such real-world gestural-interface systems as the Wii and the iPhone, showed some incremental advances in his work, often turning away from the audience like a conductor to summon images out of his giant screens; Wired‘s Chris Anderson showed a demo of his magazine in tablet form that (a) seems fluid and promising (b) crashed midway, which offers a neat metaphor for print publishing. Font designer Marian Bantjes delivered a very similar talk to the one she delivered at Pop!Tech in 2008, but once you got past the repetition you hear a fascinating message true for both artists and managers. When she does a work of art, she asks: Who is it for? What does it say? What does it do? She didn’t say this, but if you don’t have good answers to those three questions, you might want to ask a fourth: Why am I doing this?

As with yesterday, I wrote a longish post but left out most of the day’s entertainment. One of many highlights today: David Byrne joined Thomas Dolby and the string quartet Ethel for a run at Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers.” More on that later, because it is time for the next event …

Written by guterman

February 13, 2010 at 1:01 am

Posted in TED, TED2010

A bit more TED before the next session…

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A few quick notes before I run into the next session:

One of the best TED-U sessions was Derek Sivers on what it takes to be a leader, with a shirtless dancing guy as the news hook. Treat yourself to this three-minute talk.

I wrote about Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize talk on Wednesday night. See his talk (below) and read Garr Reynolds’ trenchant commentary.

And, finally, do you want to give a TED talk? The guy who decides whether you will has advice.

Written by guterman

February 12, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Posted in TED, TED2010

TED 2010: Day 2

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Longtime TEDsters know that sometime during the second day, attendees give up hope of taking in everything that is shooting their way. There’s just too much to keep up; every 15 or 20 minutes, there’s another talk that directs an axe toward something you have assumed was true your whole life.

It wasn’t just ideas that were shooting out. One of the biggest crowd pleasers on Thursday (I’m writing this Friday before the first morning session) was former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold. He’s the prototypical TED polymath — several years ago he talked about how waves off the coast of Hawaii could take out the state of California (alas, not posted on the TED site) — and he spoke this year on the work his firm is doing to battle malaria. He offered some possible solutions, and then he got to his big idea to battle the terrible disease: shoot mosquitos out of the sky with lasers. And, this being TED, we were treated to a demo of just such a malaria-eradication plan. Much of a TED audience grew up on Captain Kirk and Han Solo, so you don’t have to guess what the reaction was to scientific advance that involved a green laser and a very satisfying wisp of smoke after the laser hit its target.

There were other dramatic moments. Kevin Bales, director of Free the Slaves, spoke soberly about the state of slavery on the planet: slaves as destroyer of the environment, political corruption as the primary reason slavery persists, and the dark economics that show how some people have gotten so cheap. Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson and longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand tried something new for TED: a debate over whether nuclear power should have a role in America’s power mix. Brand, the mind behind The Whole Earth Catalog, has in recent years converted to a pro-nuclear position, and the crowd was with him at the beginning. Jacobson was no match for Brand’s presentation techniques, but he had pulled some more of the crowd his way by the end. Also on the nuclear tip, Valerie Plame Wilson spoke about nuclear disarmament. She’s best-known for having been outed as an undercover CIA agent, but even those of us who followed her story didn’t really know what she worked on for the CIA. Turns out it was nuclear disarmament; she was part of team that brought down Pakistani proliferation criminal A.Q. Khan. This being TED, Plame was also there to promote Countdown to Zero, a documentary film about the ongoing attempt to eliminate nuclear weapons.

There was more. Elizabeth Pisani, who several years ago wrote The Wisdom of Whores, spoke incisively about the ramifications of various AIDS policies, and Seth Berkeley showed how far we are — and how far we have to go — down the road to creating a AIDS vaccine. And Mark Roth earned a standing ovation when he detailed his work in suspended animation.

And there was an enormous amount of fun. League of Extraordinary Dancers lived up to their name, performing a daring aerial ballet with enough gravity-ignoring moves and seemingly impossible slow motion that it felt like watching a live-action version of The Matrix. Thomas Dolby’s stage-setting covers with the string quartet Ethel continued to marvel, and Microsoft unveiled a new version of bing maps that lets you explore a landscape with a historical overlay or a real-time overlay. One of the most intense responses was after a demo of the Google “Nexus One” phone, when TED curator Chris Anderson announced that all attendees would be getting a free one. Amazing: the vast majority of this audience has no problem either paying for (or getting their company to pay for) a very expensive conference, but they were screaming their happiness about getting a free phone.

This summaries leaves out more than half of the able presenters. Some that you must see when they go live on the TED site in the weeks ahead: Nicholas Christakis talked brilliantly about obesity clustering, David Byrne mused on whether artists create more based on context than passion, Jim Daly talked about man-eating plants, Jane McGonigal found what was good in video games, Sam Harris confused science for religion, Kirt Citron imagined the news thousands of years from now, and Michael Specter, celebrating the scientific method, trying things out, seeing what works, fixing what doesn’t, as the greatest achievement of humanity, nothing then when “people wrap themselves in their beliefs, they wrap them so tightly they can’t break themselves free.” Every few minutes, it’s another insight, another surprise, another jaw dropped. In some ways, it’s intellectual camp. Time for another day…

Written by guterman

February 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Posted in TED, TED2010

TED 2010: Day 1

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I’m at TED this week. I’m sending daily reports for the blog at MIT Sloan Management Review. I’ll post the unedited drafts of my missives here.

TEDlogoHere we are again. As we did last year, MIT Sloan Management Review is in Long Beach, Calif., to cover the TED conference. If you’re not familiar with TED, a high-end event that aims to bring together the world’s leaders in technology, entertainment, and design and share ideas worth spreading, see our introductory post from last year. We’ll be sending daily posts through the end of the event on Saturday.

Last year, we aimed to cover TED from a management point of view. In retrospect, that seems too narrow. Sure, there are talks here that are not explicitly about management that have direct management implications. But many of the provocative talks here have nothing to do with management or business, yet are fascinating. For example, during this morning’s TED-U session (that’s “TED University,” a series of low-key peer talks rather than full presentations from the mainstage luminaries), filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy spoke eloquently and ominously of the suicide bomber recruiting techniques she learned about in Pakistan. No one is going to become a better manager based on her talk. But managers have lives outside their careers; they’re interested in plenty of things in addition to being better managers. So, in the spirit of trying to capture the breadth of the event (and because this is the last TED your correspondent will be covering for MIT Sloan Management Review), we’ll try to cover all we experience at our seventh TED, from the most management-relevant to how dozens in the crowd started checking their email on iPhones and BlackBerrys while Sheryl Crow sang a painfully earnest ballad about compassion. We won’t mention every talk or try to capture every second of this packed event — there are many bloggers and twitterers doing that . Rather, we aim to give, at reasonable length for busy readers, a feel of what it’s like here.

Before we move on to the main event, let’s quickly note some of the other highlights from the too-early-in-the-day TED-U session. Robert Cook, vice president of advanced technology at Pixar, took aim at one of the technorati’s favorite constructs, the singularity, provoking a few mild boo’s from around me, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan showed what was wrong with Bill Gates’ website — with the Microsoft chairman in the audience — and Tom Wujec of Autodesk showed how kindergarten students are better at some creative tasks than CEOs.

The first session of the full TED kicked off with the conference’s musical director, Thomas Dolby (you know him for “She Blinded Me With Science,” but much of his work is more diverse and challenging), dressed like Snoopy ready to take on the Red Baron, leading the string quartet Ethel through a spirited version of Verve’s “Street Corner Symphony.” That first session, called “Mindshift,” offered two speakers worth remembering. Daniel Kahneman, founder of behavioral economics (he won a Nobel for it) gave basically the same sort of talk we’ve seen the more famous behavioral economists — most notably Dan Ariely and the Freakonomics twins — give in recent years. Kahneman has much to say about how individuals think about happiness and memory, but his talk, so similar to that of his disciples, reminds one how early on in its existence behavioral economics is. There’s a lot more to learn.

(Photo credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson)More modest about what we still have to learn — and more compelling for it — was Esther Duflo, a development economist and founder of the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. She gave a version of her usual talk, updated to include some references to Haiti, showing how randomized control trials can have an enormous impact on helping aid agencies determine what works and what doesn’t work.

After a lunch in which your correspondent listened to an editor from The Economist hype his own, decidedly sub-TED conference about innovation, came the second session,called “Discovery.” We learned more about how spiders spin silk than we ever wanted to know, a promising report from William Li about how angiogenesis research may deal a death blow to some cancers (Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing has good coverage of this talk), and others, among them former failed pornographer Philip “Pud” Kaplan. Most impressive of the lot was Dan Barber, a chef who loves fish but is having trouble keeping fish on his menu because so many stocks are gone or almost there. His tale of finding a remarkably sustainable fish farm in Spain is too detailed to summarize briefly (at least at the late hour at which I’m writing); we’ll point to the clip when TED posts it.

OliverPicThe final session for the day before the evening’s social activities, called “Action,” revolved around the awarding of this year’s TED Prize, the conference’s attempt to celebrate and support the work of one person whose ideas the organizers believe can change the world. The prize has gotten somewhat more pop in recent years, to the point at which today’s awardee, the formidable British chef , activist and writer Jamie Oliver, is the star of an upcoming American network TV reality series. But the battle he wants to fight — against American obesity — is an important one, and he has smart, unexpected plans for that fight. Dressed in a flannel shirt, black jeans, and white sneakers, pacing the stage furiously, his carefully out-of-control hair making him look like a member of The Alarm, he wants, most of all, to act. “Ideas are very well but what the world needs now is action,” TED curator Chris Anderson said early in the final session, right after Dolby and the string quartet Ethel assayed a majestic version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” He’s right. Later this morning, though, we’ll be back to ideas.

It was a full, full day. And I didn’t even get to mention the African nuclear physicist who said “education is the husband that will never let you down” or the fellow who played “Bohemian Rhapsody” on his ukulele. Onward …

Written by guterman

February 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Posted in TED, TED2010