Tag Archives: TED

The Report from TEDx Buffalo

12 Oct

At first blush, one might find it incongruous to hear a series of modern secular lectures under the ever watchful stained glass gaze of the Virgin Mary and an assembled heavenly host. The Montante Center at Canisius College began life as Saint Vincent de Paul Church, a squat romanesque dome filled with decorative tile and narrow purpled windows. Fortunately, after closing both the college and Montante family saw potential its its wide gallery and vaulted space, and now faintly eastern orthodox scroll work shares at the stage with modern acoustic baffles and suspended sound equipment. The old is new, the worthy refreshed, and a local seat of learning has a remarkable space to continue its centuries old Jesuit tradition of inquiry and thought.

What better place for a TED conference?

Buffalo’s first independently organized TED event met yesterday in grand fashion, despite delays and hiccups, some public and some only known to the dedicated volunteers who put on the show. The TED mothership is careful to curate all three groups that come together at any conference: organizers, speakers and attendees. A Who’s Who of the local technology, design and entrepreneur scene spent seventeen months crafting a day of lectures and ideas. The speakers were local and national change agents. The in-house attendees were selected for their ability to effectively broadcast the conference message, or (even better) to put directly into practice the ideas presented in their own industry leading positions. I snuck in the back door.

For a play by play of each speaker or topic, read Frank Gullo’s convenient summaries and link warehouse, or head to Twitter, the official record of the 21st Century. You can read my past feed, or follow the #tedxbuffalo hashtag to catch up. The video was live-streamed by WNYMedia yesterday as well, and the TEDx Buffalo website should have that edited video of each speaker up soon.

So instead of recreating the event, speech by speech, let me try to draw together some themes that emerged. As the organizers picked presenters for their expertise and ideas, and not for each specific topic, much of what was discussed was not deliberately pre-planned. Rather, any trend in the chaos reflects an evolving shared subconscious mindset, a cultural evolution, a collective perspective on the priority of our world’s problems.

The Return of the Small and Local

It is inevitable in our technologically shrunken world that humans would retreat to a cozy focus on the close and small, our brainstem programmed Dunbar Number, in the face of a vast, flattened, and inter-related global economy. That living close and small also has needed environmental and local economic benefits is either a happy coincidence or contributing cause of this phenomenon, though that is a TED talk for another day.

The majority of speakers addressed how to make change at a micro-level, not country by country or even city by city, but block by block and house by house. Chuck Banas of Buffalo Green Code discussed building neighborhoods and streetscapes through zoning, the legal method by which plans become reality. Eric Walker of PUSH Buffalo took it a step deeper, and using his analogy of the city as a sick patient, advocated working house by house and family by family to build consensus and grassroot buy-in for solutions. Patrick Finan, guru of the BlockClub mini-empire of print magazines, design and marketing, entreated everyone to build as small of a house as possible and put nice things in it. The advice was not entirely metaphorical – he has kept his companies deliberately small to keep quality up, ambitious in performance not size, with no desire to be as American-ly large as possible.

Perhaps not surprisingly in our ever-expanding Food Network culture, the focus on local also naturally turned to what we eat. Patrick Lango of White Cow Dairy sells out of each batch of yogurt and milk-drinks before he even processes them. The draw? Local cows, local grass, lots of sunshine and undiluted milk from a farm in East Otto. To paraphrase Mr. Lango: “People get so excited by our food. And I say, “Relax! It’s just food.” Your body likes it because you got used to eating things that aren’t food. But chill out – all our food used to be like this. And it can be again.”

Ethan Cox of Community Beer Works wants to create a relaxing neighborhood-based biergarten culture in the Third Room, lubricated by fresh, locally brewed beer (preferably his once the brewery opens soon). The higher purpose is to mix cultures and classes, but the local beer is the key facilitator. Even Stacey Watson of Drop-In Nation (more on her in a moment), presenting her ideas of how to best assist high school drop outs, noted that she builds community child by child, usually by eating together. 

The Power of Individual Storytelling

The ultimate distillation of local focus is to place priority on the individual, and several presenters compressed sweeping events into the personal. The Uncrowned Community Builders institute, an outgrowth of the Uncrowned Queens initiative by Dr. Barabara Seals-Nevergold and Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram, is compiling the biographies of pioneers and groundbreakers in minority communities, from Buffalo African-Americans to Alaskan Inuit. Drop-In Nation begins by meeting each child where they are, learning their story, helping them teach their story to themselves, and only then use a circular story-telling culture to help them focus on their own success. The Anne Frank Project at Buffalo State College, led by the dynamic Drew Kahn, is finding the individual in genocide, finding the Anne Frank in Rwanda and Cambodia, to humanize and  illuminate the incomprehensible. 

Key to the success of each venture is the recognition of storytelling at its heart. As a guy who seeks to make his living telling stories, this is a subject near and dear, and where I found the most meaning from a day full of ideas. When Drew Kahn asked Rwandan women how they tell the story of the genocide, they didn’t understand the question. How could they not breathe? How could they not eat? Then he saw for himself, through stomps and claps and songs and hymns to the lost, that theater, that stories, teach all, geometry to the horrors of children being hacked with machetes. 

Note that every theme so far – biergarten culture, a greencode return to walkable streets, old dairy and farming techniques, storytelling as meaning – is a refreshment of the past. An identification of what was inadvisably discarded in the name of progress for incorporation in a desired future. This dichotomy of historic truths versus TED’s oft focus on technology leads us to…   

The Evolution of Education

While few speakers wished to declare our education system broken, it was obvious there are many holes to be filled. We watched a video of a March 2011 TED lecture by Salman Khan, describing his efforts to use video and online software to turn education on its head, so children view lectures at home to free up time to do group “homework” at school. Drop In Nation is addressing the shortfall of assistance to high school drop outs, half the teenage population in Buffalo. No wishy washy Love-All-The-Little-Children venture, Stacey Watson is using the latest research on how the brain learns to pick up the kids whose minds work circularly, not linearly. Karen Armstrong at the Future City Competition is filling a gap in math and science education by getting middle-schoolers to imagine and build urban areas of the 22nd Century.

It struck me that even ideas that focused on the internet and technology were at their heart education based. Remy DeCausemaker’s Open Code and Open Data initiative wants to make the government more transparent, but ultimately as a way to better inform the public, not as an ideal end until itself. And Brandon Kessler, who runs the ChallengePost.com method to solve big problems, is focusing much of that energy on education and children, using apps to get kids to eat better and revolutionizing the classroom.

Our Next Billionaire

I seek to take nothing away from the other speakers, but let me note that only one of them is likely a future billionaire. That distinction belongs to the yet unmentioned John Bordynuik, CEO of JBI Inc in Niagara Falls, who heads up the most important initiative you’ve never heard of.

Mr. Bordynuik, formerly affiliated with the Ontario Legislature and chemical dreamer, has discovered a way to covert average plastic waste into fuel. Currently 7% of our global plastic waste stream is recycled. The leaves 93%, or 29 millions tons, ready to be turned into a potential 7 billion gallons of low-sulfur fuel that can run engines and factory processes of all varieties. Sound too good to be true? Bordynuik himself listed “Disbelief” as his first stumbling block to success. Currently, the JBI factory in the Falls siphons up the majority of the waste plastic stream of Western New York. I would bet it’s a matter of time before we’re mining our landfills for more.

It would be fitting of such a revolutionary TED lecture that it would incorporate the themes of the other speakers as well. The Plastic2Oil process started as a story, a dream of cleaning up plastic strewn beaches and toxic air across the world. The process is scalable and local – not ever bit of plastic need be driven to the JBI plant. Smaller versions can be installed at each local plastic producing factory, converting the waste stream on site to fuel usable on site. And none of this process would be possible except through a hard science education – chemistry and math and engineering – that is becoming increasingly rare.

Our Quest For Purity

17 Aug

I consider the TED series of lectures a candidate for the “Highest and Best Use of the Internet” award, the greatest realization of the Information Revolution’s potential to inspire and educate. I reference TED semi-regularly (note: Buffalo’s own TEDx experience is coming in October), and please allow me to do so again to set the stage for our discussion.


There is a lot we could pull out of those 18 minutes, but let me narrow the field to work through what I consider the freshest idea presented: the morality of Purity.

Jonathan Haidt lays out five pillars of morality: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, In-group Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. Conservatives value all five fairly equally, Liberals put far greater emphasis on the first two. But conservatives and liberals alike, and the moderates in between, all put some weight on Purity. As Haidt describes, Purity is one of the five moral pillars we are born with, pre-programmed to recognize and value. Haidt notes that while conservatives tend to follow a more traditional religious sense of Purity, the Liberal Purity path exists, is growing and has a new object of its affection: food.

I don’t mean to definitively link Foodie-ism and Liberalism in any sort of causal or predictive relationship, though the demographics of both (white, wealthy, urban-focused) certainly coincide. Nor is this a fact-based argument about the actual merits of tying Foodie-ism to Progressive thought – its hard to extol the virtues of your electric car with a straight face when you dine on foie gras shipped in from half-way around the world (but more on that later). Instead, let’s talk about the moral feelings that drive the wildly different ways a segment of our culture focuses on food – local, organic, sustainable, free-trade, heritage and quality worthy of Foodieville restaurants hardly all have to mean the same thing (why is free-trade coffee more likely to soothe the Foodie’s discerning palate?), though they are often mistakenly intertwined in the mind of the slumbering general public. 

"Techno Buddha" by Nam June Paik

As Haidt alludes, food isn’t really the point. The morality of purity lying behind the food is really about focusing on what one puts into one’s body, the cleanliness of the lifestyle. The sacredness is found in the purity of the food, but that purity can be found other ways. To extrapolate, the point is finding sanctity in a secularized, post-religious culture in order to fulfill the human need for Purity.

Astrophysicist, atheist and NPR contributor Adam Frank recently addressed this topic when he sought to commandeer the word “sacred” to describe any awe-inspiring experience. Noting that it should be all but impossible to be Spiritual and Scientific, he was still at a loss to explain the feeling he gets when walking into a church, or (I assume) looking into space. Purity is still a moral pillar for the atheist scientist, and a little word twisting secularizes an ancient term for an experience that his deliberate conscious brain has rejected but pre-programmed mind still craves. 

Everett Ruess

How else do we secularize the sacred in our modern world to fulfill this basic human need? Finding the most pure lifestyle choice is a trend in modern life. Christopher McCandless read enough Tolstoy and Emerson to seek to purify his spirit in the wild. He walked into it, but never walked out, starving to death in an abandoned bus in Alaska, joining a long list of wilderness-philes who literally disappeared into the sanctity of nature.  The urban/suburban debate often is imbued with a moral overtone that overwhelms any rational fact-based comparison of the sustainability/lifestyle merits of either living arrangement.  Melissa Coleman recently wrote a memoir about growing up on a 1970’s Maine hippie commune where the adults attempted to divide their lives into three: one third of their time farming and doing manual labor, one third on family and child rearing, one third on reading and study. It imploded like many other such experiments at that time, but at its heart it resembles Elbert Hubbard’s “Head | Heart | Hands” mantra with the Roycrofters in East Aurora nearly a century earlier. Gene Rossellini moved to the wilds of western Canada for twenty years to try to teach himself to re-enter the Stone Age (he ultimately gave up and went home). Even exercise routines are overcome by quests for purity: the simple act of escaping from the doldrums of daily life is no longer enough. Now runners want shoes that are leaner, five fingered, or not present at all, and gym buffs lift rocks instead of traditional weights. They are called Caveman routines, and they have Paleo diets to go with them. And they are everywhere.     

These may be more extreme examples, but at their core they are attempts to fulfill that fifth moral pillar in a secular way. Today, in 2011, the sacredness of food has grown into a number of manifestations that pervade our culture and thus more mainstream. No longer the exclusive purview of Whole Foods and Wegmans, even Tops has half a rack (!) of organic produce for sale. The local/organic/fair-trade/heritage trendsetters (again, not all the same thing of course) have moved well on past Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) to barter-based homesteading, urban chicken coops, splitting cows and raised bed farms in emptied city neighborhoods. I myself have an ancient apple tree that provides many bushels each fall, plus cherry and pear trees and a garden full of zucchini, tomatoes, rhubarb, squash, green beans, sweet peas, strawberries, and leaf lettuce. And I’m seriously considering raising rabbits (don’t tell my neighbors). And yet…

My maternal grandmother is an Albrecht. For over half a century (and well into the 1970’s), the E.J. Albrect and Sons Poultry (or, “the chicken stand,” as it was known in my family) was a fixture on the south end of the Broadway Market. Our family was proud of the work, but also sought to evolve past raising and slaughtering chickens in the backyard. It was seen as progress to separate the home and cultivation of food. How far has the industrialization of food gone, how disconnected are we from the glossy, neatly rowed identical white breasts in the convenient jumbo pack that urban chicken coops became a general cause célèbre?

And does it matter if the actual sacredness is often a false veneer? The food itself may be pure, but the process to make it so hardly aligns with Liberal principles. Organic farming reduces crop yields in a hungry world. Studies have found local food can have a higher carbon footprint than economically mass-produced varieties. The search for sacredness and purity among the religious and those on the right (often the same thing in the United States) is hardly rational; at its core it is a fulfillment of prejudicial pre-determined biases and needs. Why should secular and left-leaning attainments of purity be any more consistent or logical?

Know Nothing America

23 Feb

None of us know much of anything.

Matt Ridley at Oxford finds this to be fascinating, a strength of our culture and humanity:


That TED talk (besides being another excellent example of why the standard of living of our mean is more important than the Gap between rich and poor) is inherently optimistic about the course of human events, the foundational democratic spread of knowledge, and the benefits that arise from it. A million years ago, one man could know how to make a stone axe, and he was the one that made it. Today, no one knows how to build a computer mouse, to use Ridley’s example, and yet they exist. This is the fundamental embodiment of our progress.

But there is a down side to our disconnect, our ignorance not only of various means of production, but our general misunderstanding of the larger world. Humility and curiosity have not spread as quickly as access to information in 2011. In an age of unprecedented databasing of knowledge of all varieties, we are more uninformed (per capita) than ever. Simultaneously, the ubiquity of information broadcast methods has given mighty bullhorns to anyone who wants one (your humble author being a case in point). The result is much shouting, much misinformation, and very little listening. No one knows how to make a mouse, and they don’t know much of what they’re talking about either.

In short, we are really screwing up a good chance to get some things right. More knowledge is available to more people than ever before, but instead of boasting the most informed electorate ever, we’re squandering it.

This is a dysfunction not endemic to Left or Right. Pensioners demand the government remove itself from Medicare. Conspiratorial buffoons have millions, not thousands, of adherents. Most young Americans get their news from one of a number of comedy outlets. We have “serious” debates about whether we should teach children to believe in science or religion, as if one must choose, and further, whether science is a matter of belief. We have the second coming of the Know Nothing Party, wrapped in the flag and a couple cherry-picked Thomas Jefferson quotes, battling faux intellectuals who confuse condescension and comprehension. Locally, our Coalition of Economic Justice ignores basic economic tenents of supply and demand, economic rationality, and individual choice, instead seeking desired results via fiat. Who can blame them – policy decisions are based on feelings, influence, and the volume (speech, not size) of constituencies, and rarely data.

None of this is new, only amplified, enhanced, sped up, and engorged. One need not go back as far stone axes to see a different world. Four hundred years ago, of course, in a long life someone could absorb a majority of the world’s accumulated learning, as mathematics and science and philosophy were all seen as extensions of each other. Only one hundred years ago, during the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, the average sailor with Amundsen or Scott knew how to sail and repair a masted sailboat, navigate and use charts, fix boilers and hunt penguins, mountaineer, run dogs and use skis, and conduct geology and meteorology experiments. When Shackleton was stuck in the ice for a year, the crew amused themselves by playing football and reading the encyclopedia. Cover to cover.

Now our brains are full of other knowledge: how to send a text message, operate kitchen appliances and decipher Microsoft products, drive a car (but not fix it) and saute mixed vegetables (but not grow them). Would you knowingly trade Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Feynman for the number of children Brangelina have adopted and a plethora of sarcastic hashtags? If the human brain is no more capable of retaining knowledge (and maybe rewired via iPhone and Google to be dumber), it is filled with less and less fundamental Truth and more and more Gawker. A deep, clear lake of information is available, but we content ourselves with the knee deep bog. 

That there have always been more breeders than readers is not new. That the breeders have the intent and ability to change the course of events, due to the surety of their own mistaken beliefs and delusions of grandeur, may be.

TED Talks Worth Watching

10 Jun

The annual TED conference is an event where people from various disciplines get together to share knowledge and ideas.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader.

The annual conference now brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).

Last month it was announced that local event planner and overall awesome person Susan Cope had successfully applied to host a TEDx (Independently Organized) event in Buffalo this fall.  As the planning continues and we get closer to the actual event, I’ll post some of my favorite TED presentations and help you get in the mood for an awesome event.

At a point in our national and global history where we face transformational economic and cultural challenges, we need to fundamentally change our consumption patterns, the way we interact and launch a foundational change in our practical wisdom.  These talks tell us why and how.

Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he’s drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.  If you don’t know what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is, here ya go:

It is roughly the size of Texas, containing approximately 3.5 million tons of trash.  Shoes, toys, bags, pacifiers, wrappers, toothbrushes, and bottles too numerous to count are only part of what can be found in this accidental dump floating midway between Hawaii and San Francisco.


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