Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from

Speaker: Steven Johnson

Length: 18:17

Rating 2 / 5

Summary

Steven discusses how ideas are formed. He argues against “lone scientists”, and eureka moments where a single person sitting along is the whole source of an idea. Instead he favours the coffee houses and team meeting environments where a number of different people can discuss and improve each other’s ideas. In this way, innovation is more organic, happening over a long time period.

He goes into detail about the discovery of GPS from a few curious researchers listening to sputnik, then one of them using Doppler to work out speed, then someone using the signal to work out its location, then their boss asking them to ‘reverse’ their calculations and develop a system to find ground locations from a satellite.

Critique

Chaos is the mother of invention! I like that idea, and the arguments for open source ideas instead of intellectual property protection.

It was an interesting summary of the history of good ideas. However, I think where this talk fell short is discussing how we can apply this in the modern environment. I’m particularly curious how the internet fits in – is this modern ultra-chaotic information sharing network more conducive to innovation? Or are we overloading ourselves and getting too much stimulus?

So I enjoyed the talk greatly. In rating I may be harsh because it stops short of passing on any ideas of its own. Still recommended though.

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William Ury: The walk from “no” to “yes”

Speaker: William Ury

Length: 19:16

Rating 4 / 5

Summary

William discusses the importance of a ‘third side’ in a conflict – the outsiders affected by it. Their role is to keep perspective for the parties, and find the common ground. He especially talks of helping parties take a step back – go for a walk, “go to the balcony” and think together.

In the context of middle east conflict, he talks of finding a common story between the combatants. In this case he suggests Abraham – a common biblical figure known for hospitality between strangers. He mapped a walk along important points in Abraham’s life and the hotspots of the conflict, walking the route together and allowing enemies to experience the kindness of locals together.

Critique

This is a good story with an interesting perspective on negotiation attached. Some is obvious but well phrased “when angry you will make the greatest speech you’ll ever regret”. The idea of calmness “going for a walk” or “going to the balcony” and letting people get alone time away from the conflict was strong in his talk.

His idea of the walk through Abraham’s life didn’t resonate with me, but I can see it working for the middle east. I can certainly see help in people walking through hotspots together and getting to know the locals. This could start to soften the violence associated with religious intolerance, and at least get different people talking together.

Kary Mullis: Celebrating the scientific experiment

Speaker: Kary Mullis

Length: 31:33

Rating 3 / 5

Summary

A talk of 2 parts. The first was a history of the establishment of the Royal Academy in England under King Charles II, and the importance of experiment. It is full of interesting anecdotes, and theories on how we know what we know.

Suddenly the talk changes to be about ‘bad science’ – the idea that a lot of scientists are in it only for money. Much of this section of the talk is devoted to climate change – Kary lists 2 papers with findings that he thinks disprove climate change

Critique

This is a tough one to review because of its speaker. Kary is a Nobel prize winner in Chemistry, and his meandering talk of backyard rocketry involving frog astronauts is fascinating. His talk about the history of science is interesting. However, a quick search shows he has a habit of ‘talking out his ass’ on subjects he has minimal experience in. These include denying the link between HIV & AIDs, denying ozone depletion and climate change.

It is too easy to dismiss as a rant, but I learnt a lot. I fully respect him for questioning climate science, but disagree with his statements. In searching for the 2 papers he quoted, I found quite a few people disputing his conclusions of the papers, including someone who claimed to be Bruce Wielicki, one of the writers of the second paper. An good rebuttal to Mullis’ points can be found here http://greenfyre.wordpress.com/2009/01/09/blinded-but-not-by-science/.

So the first half of his talk was interesting enough, and the second half provoked me to do some more research and learn a little more. From that point of view I’m glad I watched it. Just be careful if you’re easily irritated by crackpots.

A realistic vision for World Peace

Speaker: Jody Williams

Length: 11:23

Rating 3 / 5

Summary

Peace cannot be achieved from hoping for it alone. It requires organisation, courage and work to make it happen. Jody went through a list of people who worked hard for peace and made sacrifices to keep fighting.

Critique

I enjoyed watching this talk, but not sure what I learnt from it. Yes peace takes work, and it is difficult to achieve. I’m not sure if anyone thought otherwise.

Some of her examples were interesting: Wangari Maathai who organised tree plantings as an excuse to gather people together and instigate social change.

She also makes a good point – some people categorise peace with cowardice and weakness – with symbols like doves and rainbows. The difficulty of achieving peace makes it a stronger goal than that.

Treating violence as a contagious disease

Speaker: Gary Slutkin

Length: 14:09

Rating 4 / 5

Summary

Violence can be modelled as a contagious disease, since typically people exposed to violence are more likely to be violent themselves. It can therefore be treated as an infectious disease, by using ‘case workers’ to  work with the angry people likely to instigate violence, and those directly affected by it.

The intent was to change the norms associated with violence, or to stop the future spread of the “disease”. His method was trialled in the West Garfield neighbourhood of Chicago and saw a 67% drop in shootings, and has since spread to other areas.

Critique

This is one of the best types of TED talks – where a technique from one field (in this case infectious diseases) is used to successfully treat a different problem (gang violence). The results speak for themselves, with each area it is rolled out showing approximately 50% drop in violence.

I think the main difference between this and the normal criminal counselling is that he is pro-actively going into neighbourhoods to look for ‘patient zeros’ – rather than waiting for them to commit the crime. I’d be interested to hear more about how he selects the people to counsel, and the counsellors themselves. If the talk has a flaw it is that it talks a lot about the theory and results without much about the implementation.

I’m also concerned that if the program is funded by governments, a primary health or crime prevention program is often the first thing to be cut around budget time.

Despite these flaws, a worthwhile talk. The need for his solutions is only confirmed reading through the youtube comments defending violence and racism – Maybe he should roll his program out to the internet next 🙂

Online Filter Bubbles

Speaker: Eli Pariser

Length: 9:05

Rating 3 / 5

Summary

Internet algorithms (Facebook, yahoo, Google) are filtering what we see based on what we tended to click in the past. This means we don’t tend to hear different points of view, instead just reinforcing what we want to hear. Ultimately this is bad for humanity and democracy, which is reliant on receiving a range of arguments.

His suggestion was for internet giants to be transparent about how they filter information, and to allow users more control over what is filtered / prioritised for them.

Critique

A worrying look at our life being tailored too much. We’ll always be at the mercy of what we want to hear, without ever having our views challenged. I think we are at risk of this regardless of algorithmic bubbles, just because of the sorts of communities we attach ourselves to. Eg – a conspiracy theorist would be a member of a variety of forums happy to reinforce each others views, and convincing themselves that all evidence disagreeing with them is a lie. In the end the conspiracy theorist and sceptic would be so convinced of themselves that they wouldn’t even be capable of arguing their point. The same sort of dichotomy would exist in political circles – with people surrounding themselves with others holding similar views, then saying “This politician is useless – I don’t know anyone who voted for him, he must have cheated”.

Regardless, I support the idea of internet titans releasing details into how they filter. Is it entirely on popularity of things you’ve clicked on, or is there more tuning going on?

We also should occasionally see a site that challenges our views, so we don’t end up with many unconnected internets.

Biochemical degradation of plastics (phthalates)

Speaker: Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao

Length: 9:21

Rating 3 / 5

Summary

Plastic waste is everywhere, and a pair of high schoolers investigated bacteria that can degrade phthalates – a toxic component of plastic. They identified and isolated bacteria from a contaminated river that could already degrade phthalates, and found similar bacteria in landfill sites – showing bacterial are evolving to live off phthalates. They conclude we should investigate further bacteria to degrade solid waste

Critique

I think the big new point here is that bacteria exposed to phthalates have evolved to consume the toxic chemicals. The pair are obviously talented, and it will be interesting to see what future discoveries they uncover.