SMART Letter #40
June 15, 2000

!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() ------------------------------------------------------------      SMART Letter #40 -- June 15, 2000 Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg -- "the nail that saves the kingdom" -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------------------------------------------------------------ !@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*()!@#$%^&*() CONTENTS > TED City: You Can't See *THAT* on TV > Conferences on my Calendar, Copyright Notice, Administrivia ------- TED CITY: YOU CAN'T SEE *THAT* ON TV by David S. Isenberg I like meetings that introduce me to stuff that I don't know I don't know. If I knew which ideas I ought to know about, I'd be able to look them up on the web. But the universe is a big place. A concept that isn't aligned with my work's everyday trajectory -- or a thought that doesn't orbit within the span of my attention -- might never resolve in my consciousness. But that concept could be the very nail that saves the horseshoe that saves the horse that saves the warrior that saves the battle that saves the kingdom. So, while the rest of the telecommunications planet that I call home was at SuperCom last week, I went to TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design). The four days of TED (June 7-10, 2000) are like freshman year at Harvard: the short course for old farts like me. (Why waste such good stuff on undergraduates?) TED ( has a regular yearly stand each February in Monterey, California. I've been there. It is special. But I can't get in anymore. TED2001 is sold out except for the overflow room. I won't pay US$3000 and travel 3000 miles to watch TED on TV in the overflow room! TED is about being up- close and personal. I've been a front-row kinda guy since kindergarten, so either I sign up now for TED2002, or I go to other TEDs that TED-producer Richard Saul Wurman pulls together from time to time -- like the one in New York in 1997 or TED City in Toronto, Ontario, Canada last week. A cell biologist, speaking on the last day of Toronto's TED, called TED "A Mecca of lateral thinking." Indeed. It is worth the pilgrimage, too. Inside TED's walls, heretics, unbelievers and infidels worship at the temple of the question that is unanswerable only if unasked. Nominally, TED's Wurman is an architect. But he's not only a designer of space, but also of the printed image, and of time (as TED amply demonstrates). Moses Znaimer was the co-sponsor of this Toronto TED. Znaimer is a democratizer of television, a grinder of TV's leading edge, and the owner of Toronto's CityTV and several cutting- edge channels that I wish Comcast would carry in New Jersey. If Marshall McLuhan were alive he'd probably say, "Moses Znaimer's doing what I've been talking about." And Moses would give a sweet closed-lipped smile, turn his palms up, and try to hide his head between his shoulders. A theme emerged, to wit: "You Can't See That on TV." I must say that it emerged in my mind only -- and only after some three days of post-hoc processing. Funny, given that the co- sponsor is a TV impressario. Read on . . . maybe you'll see what I mean. I'd like to tell you about the high points, but, like a mosquito in a nudist colony, I don't know where to begin. (Credit where due: TED speaker Birute Galdikas used the mosquito simile.) Looking back, there were maybe four stand- out events -- two intellectual and two musical. Intellectual Peak #1: Birute Galdikas had just flown in from Borneo. She's been studying the orangutan in its habitat for 30 years. She related the orangutan and its habitat to the habitat's place in the local economy, then to the interaction of the local economy with the politics of Indonesia, and then to Indonesia's place in the global economy. The orangutan is the only great ape that still spends its entire life in the jungle canopy, but it is as close to human in every way as the gorilla. Females suckle their young for eight years. Orangs are more solitary than social -- the mother-child bond is the strongest relationship. Their historical range was from China to Java, but today there are only 20,000 wild orangutans in two small habitats Borneo and Sumatra. Galdikas has established "Camp Leakey" in a national park in the lowlands of central Borneo, to rehabilitate captive and orphaned orangutans. It is named after Louis Leakey, the mentor of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Galdikas herself. Under the dictatorial three-decade Suharto regime, the national park was protected by a police force that ruled with iron fist. When the regime collapsed in 1998, the local people found nothing to stop them from making an illegal fortune logging the trees in the national park. This logging is whittling the orangutan's remaining habitat. Furthermore, the new Indonesian government wants to be the world's leading exporter of plywood. What a dilemma -- a brutal dictatorship that's orang-friendly or a more democratic shot at the global economy, which destroys the orangutan's last habitat! The sustainable solution that Galdikas sees is to create local awareness of the orangutan and its habitat as a world treasure. This would bring in green tourism and build an orangutan-centered local economy, including jobs for locals guarding the national park against logging and caring for the orangutans, plus the other tourism-oriented services. Orangutan: Globalization -- Birute Galdikas illuminated the direct link. Next time I'm in southern Asia, I'm going to try to visit Camp Leakey. Intellectual Peak #2: Vaclav Smil is the deepest, broadest person I've met since Bucky Fuller. He speaks English with a rapid-fire eastern European accent. As he spoke, I hung on to the acoustics of his voice with the fingernails of my attention. As long as my fingernails dug, I could hold onto the idea web he wove. For example, Smil says that ammonia synthesis was the most important invention of the last century because it allowed the creation of artificial fertilizer. Smil calculates that the world would only be able to carry a maximum population of three billion people if we had to depend on natural ammonia, which is found mainly in organic materials such as bird guano. Smil has written 19 books. I bought the one immodestly entitled Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization. In some 200 comprehensive pages, Smil makes the vast bulk of science and technology comprehensible. Without dumbing down or talking down, he covers energy, chemistry, plate tectonics, structure & function, locomotion, circulation (dot, dot, dot). There is a stunning (iso-blood-flow?) map of the human circulatory system. There's a history of agriculture, a history of sail, a six-panel illustration of the evolution of the blast furnace, and an eight-panel picture history of the telephone. I got Smil to autograph my copy of his book. "Science is a big relay race," he says. "Sometimes somebody gets lucky enough to cross some imaginary line and win a Nobel Prize or something." I imagined Vaclav Smil with batons stacked in his arms like cordwood, looking for as many willing runners as he could find. Musical Peak #1: When Nadia Cole walked up to the grand piano on stage she was so beautiful and so poised that I whispered to the person sitting next to me, "She doesn't have to play a note." Then she dove into a Liszt piece of super-human complexity with such skill and passion that I forgot to breathe. Then she played another, even more transformative. An instant later the entire not-easily-impressed TED crowd was on its feet. Musical Peak #2: Natalie MacMaster is descended from generations of Cape Breton Scots musicians. Her mother is from a dancing family and her father comes down a line of fiddlers. MacMaster says that since Cape Breton musicians hold no competitions, the music stays truer to tradition than even in Scotland, where contests cause an inventiveness based on oneupsmanship. MacMaster played a remarkably skillful solo set to close the four days of TED in which she demonstrated Cape Breton tunes in pure form. But later that night, at TED's closing party at CityTV headquarters, she and her crack 5-piece band pulled out the stops. They threw tradition to the Canadian wind, mixing Cape Breton Scots tunes with rock, flamenco, a dash of rap and a pinch of gospel in a spicy, chunky, bubbly musical stew. MacMaster expressed fiddling and dancing genes simultaneously -- she'd jump high and click her heels in the middle of an arpeggio. In the show-lights and the fog machine of the CityTV studio, she embodied the Grateful Dead lyric, "she comes skimming through rays of violet, she can wade in a drop of dew". I sat in the front row with an ear-to-ear grin plastered all over my face; it was wonderful! The Rest of TED: Picking four "winner" events is unjust to the other genies and geniuses who presented at TED. But you're seeing things through *my* eyes. If you want to see it with your own eyes, you'll have to go to TED2002. So here is the rest of my patchy pastiche of TED City. If you've never been to TED, just let it wash over you. If you have, you'll get it. Here goes: TED began with "O Canada" sung a capella by the deep-voiced Torontonian, Simone Denny, while the audience stood. Wurman quipped that he had to promise Denny a standing ovation to get her to come. Then Don Tapscott reminded us that Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize for discovering that companies only exist when internal transactions are cheaper than external ones. (So the next time you're swimming in the honey of corporate so-called culture, consider a less viscous environment.) Tapscott said that today's Internet-based firms were so abstract that, "There's nothing 'in' to outsource." Christopher Dewdney, a self-described deep futurist, told us about his studies of consciousness, "as an amateur observer." Life, he said, has been on Earth for 4 billion years. Eyes have been here for 500 million years. Humans (and, arguably, language) have been here for five million. Language, says Dewdney, is a prosthesis for transferring consciousness. I agree, but only if cars are a prosthesis for gathering food. Then he said that language was, "invented by our species." Yeah, only if the meaning of 'invent' is stretched, warped or broken. And if humans have "freed themselves of the constraints of evolution," as he claims, then I challenge him to go without air, light, water, food, parents, companionship, tools. Dewdney, though seemingly wrong on his face, nevertheless impressed me as a smart guy. But why is he saying stuff like that? Are we in terminology-mismatch space, or do he and I have a deeper, more epistemological disagreement? (TED makes you want to take words like 'epistemological' out of the closet, dust 'em off and see if they still fit.) Steve Mann has raised geek-freakiness to a high art. He was the original "wearable computer" guy at the MIT Media Lab. I've seen Steve at several meetings. You can't miss him. He's the guy with the computer eyepiece duck-taped to his thick glasses, the bad haircut and the battery pack around his waist. He takes his computer off when he swims, he says. Mann showed his documentary, "Shooting Back," an eyes-open look at surveillance in stores and public places -- and people's denial of it, captured live on embarass-cam. In London, Steve says, the police net of surveillance cams and face recognition software can find any face in a public place in the city of London in 10 minutes. (To whom, I ask, do we surrender the power to take our picture?) Mann says, "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that are hidden by the answers." Indeed. Mann's transistorized canvas dares to bare. Oceanographer Joe MacInnis told a story of a Russian colleague who surreptitiously slipped him a videotape of a sunk Russian nuclear submarine (with two reactors and two nuclear warheads) that was leaking radiation. Joe snuck it out of Russia, and it appeared on western TV news. He says that there are at least 5 sunk nuclear subs, 50 warheads and countless barrels of radioactive waste on the floor of the world's oceans. Do you remember this story on TV? Neither do I. Maybe it was on once, but the half-life of TV is a few minutes and the half- life of plutonium is 24,000 years. Alex Garden, now 25, grew up craving escape from an abusive family. He found he could flee into video games. "I grew up not understanding where the line was between me and the machine," he said. "When I play, I am part of that world -- there is no other world." Today Garden is the founder of video game company Relic Entertainment of Vancouver BC. He tries to talk as fast as he thinks -- but he can't quite do it. I got the feeling I was seeing his mind through a picket fence as it sped by. He'll be a great test bed for a thought transducer some day. At TED, there are no podiums. You stand all vulnerable in the middle of the stage and talk. Alex Garden did it. Every thought he managed to complete was like a hockey goal. We were all rooting for him. And, by golly, Alex Garden was way out in front by the end of his period. Robert Young Pelton wrote a book called The World's Most Dangerous Places. He told stories of war on TV that you can't see on TV. He told of the drug war in Colombia, and how government generals and rebels alike pose even as they fight. "The future of war is entertainment," he said. Young Pelton says that if we leave it up to career journalists, we'll always get the easy-to-do story instead of the real one. And then he told a story of being in the middle of a battle on Kosovo, calling one TV network that said, "It's OK we already have somebody covering that region," and another one that said, "Nobody's here to take your story. Why don't you fax it in and we'll look at it in the morning." Later he told another story (in the lobby, to me and three or four others) about how ABC begged him to rescue Ted Koppel from a hostage situation in Cambodia. He finally did it after CBS couldn't find anybody else who could. When he got there, Ted Koppel complained about the small twin-engine plane that Young Pelton used to airlift him to safety. And ABC didn't pay him for over a year. Maybe Young Pelton is a liar -- I never heard of him before, and I don't know his work. If he's lying, he's an amazing storyteller with a convincing way of weaving known facts and personal events into plausible narrative. If he's telling the truth, it is unbelievable that he's not dead. Either way, he is remuckingfarkable. Keith Bellows sees the future of travel, and to him it is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore. He showed a Machu Pichu nightmare with crowds, trams, fast food places and souvenir stands. " . . . and when the Chinese start to travel . . ." he said. Indeed, more of the world's people are joining the middle class, and they all like to travel. Anybody who's been following the development of the Mexican Caribbean (south of Cancun) knows he's right. The solutions, to Bellows, include theme-park-like travelariums, where people can have the experience without over-running the world's sacred and beautiful places. And they include time drugs -- drugs like time-plus that cause time to stretch out (so people can experience a week's vacation in a day, allowing great places to accommodate seven times more people). Then there's time-minus for the crowded plane ride home. So that, approximately, was Day One of TED. The TEDsters adjourned to the lobby of the theatre to meet each other and feast on goose sausage, crab cakes, bisonburgers and ice wine. Don McKellar is a Canadian actor. I only partly "got" him. He gave a mildly amusing shtick about his fan's websites, which they populate with Don McKellar content, including, "things they should rightfully say behind my back." He spoke of toying with his fans, writing them things pseudononymously to start new rumors. This "fame because I'm famous" thing seems flat to me -- where's the beef? Astrophysicist Barth Nettlefield delivered a meaty talk. He's reached fifteen billion light-years back through space and time to measure the temperature of the Big Bang to within a third of a degree. He had pictures! (This is a direct extension of the work of Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias.) Nettlefield's explanation of the Doppler effect was amusing (fire engines look redder coming towards you and greener going away) but his conclusion from his measurements, that the universe was flat, left me with a vast empty timeless feeling. I was impressed with famous film director Norman Jewison. He paced back and forth, and spoke passionately. Two other TEDsters commented to me that they were disappointed with Jewison's presentation. I disagreed at the time, but now I can't remember why. I remembered Atom Egoyan's presentation but I had trouble remembering his name. (I have an excuse. I'm from the United States.) He observed that digitization has erased the material nature (and the potential scarcity) of video. Now since images are not 'on film', "It's not really a graven image anymore," he says. So you can shoot and shoot and not waste anything, he says. He showed some video his son shot -- it was energetic, disorganized, with the attention span of a young child, and completely memorable. It had a sense of humor, too; another kid with a video camera and Egoyan's kid went lens to lens in a humorous moment reminiscent of the Three Stooges. Paul Hoffert proved Faith Popcorn wrong -- new tech is not about 'cocooning'. Hoffert was part of a community networking study that put people who were physically in the same neighborhood on the same network. Suddenly people recognized their neighbors three times more often, and neighbors invited each other into their homes 50% more. The neighbornet buzzed about baby sitters, good mechanics and rip-off repairs, and how to get the town to fix that darn pothole. He said that every hour on-line for this kind of network was cross-elastic with TV. Then Hoffert invited singer Aura out. He played vibes while Aura sang some skillful scat. Sci-fi author William Gibson must be about seven and a half feet tall. He gave me a disorienting perspective, like the vertigo I get when I look up at a tall building. He stood in the middle of the stage and looked up at the lights as he talked, as if he were reading his speech from the sky. He said that he didn't use the Internet much because it was orthogonal to his writing. He pronounced it, "ortho-GOAN-al" as if he had read the word but never heard it pronounced. He was far, far, far out. Sandra Witelson was a blast from my past. I used to be a brain scientist like her. I read her work in graduate school. She presented her discovery that Albert Einstein's parietal lobes were 15% wider than they should have been. (The pathologist who autopsied Einstein 40 years ago had kept his brain in a jar until he found the right scientist (Witelson) to pass the baton to.) Then she showed a clip from the TV program Chicago Hope, which had ripped the story off. Yeah, Chicago Hope stole the Einstein's brain story right down to the short dark-haired female neuroscientist -- without so much as a Witelson interview. Royalty? Fuggedaboudit! Witelson had no trace of bitterness as she recounted this. More power to her. But I was pissed. Besides, ER's a much better show. Newsman Arthur Kent had to keep his video camera hidden when he visited Afghanistan. He showed footage -- that you can't see on TV -- of a bombed out culture, a dictatorial Taliban that does not care about the country's infrastructure or the people's well-being, and a people's will to learn and communicate despite dictatorial repression and obscene conditions. "A culture that can't afford to know what's going on in the rest of the world is doomed to fail," he said. That chicken roosts pretty close to home, I'd say. Eh, CNN? ABC? CBS? NBC? And that, approximately, was Day Two of TED. We adjourned to The Rosewater Supper Club, a delightfully swanky restaurant, clearly designed by somebody from the "How Buildings Learn" school. The food was delicious, but the place was so noisy with enthusiastic TED conversation that I couldn't talk to anybody. I tried to tell Richard Saul Wurman about the fiber revolution in Canada -- his response, "Not in my lifetime," floored me. Does he expect to be dead in five years? Gosh, I hope not. Day Three featured Smil, Galdikas and Cole -- see above. Firoz "Fuel Cell" Razul, the founder of Ballard Power Systems, spoke. The concept of the fuel cell has been around for 160 years -- longer than the battery (140 years) or the internal combustion engine (110 years), he says. Fuel cells -- if you haven't heard of them yet -- generate absolutely clean power by a process involving hydrogen, oxygen and water. Talk about disruptive technology! Today fuel cells costs are beginning to come within striking range of other power technologies (in terms of cost and compactness), and the first fuel cell powered vehicles are in beta-test. Razul points out that other values besides bang-for-buck could put fuel cells into the marketplace sooner than market analysts expect -- he points out that people are perfectly willing to pay 400% more for a Ford Navigator (versus a Ford F-100 pick-up) for the same technology. I'd gladly pay a premium to do my part at getting U.S. foreign policy unstuck from the oil patch. When Anne Golden was introduced as president of the Toronto Chapter of the United Way, I said, "Oh no, institutionalized charity!" and I put my head in my hands. But I was pleasantly surprised -- she gave a perceptive talk about the cost of sprawl, building transit-friendly communities, and keeping a city's regional economy vital. The Toronto region has many municipal entities, each with its own government, but it functions as a single economy, she said. Well, duh. But as she talked about the new Toronto regional federation, I thought of the New York City region that I live in and of the stupid feud between the governor of New Jersey and the governor of New York over the Port Authority. I fantasized about what the NY/NJ waterfront could look like in the hands of green architects and entrepreneurial environmentalists. I thought of the silly little fiefdom towns of New Jersey like Garwood and Fanwood -- each with their police chief and tax collector and garbage contract. I thought, "Where is the New York City region's Anne Golden?" Garth Drabinsky's talk made me furious. He was the only TED presenter who read his talk. Worse, the speech was a whiny plea for government support for the arts. He seemed to want guaranteed incomes for artists, and he never addressed the issue of who decides who's good. Maybe Richard or Moses knows a different person -- but the guy I saw on stage at TED is a flaming asshole. (No, I won't apologize. I mean it.) The first time I heard Frank Gehry speak, at TED in 1996, I didn't know him from Adam. He showed pictures of an Italian hill town and pictures of a shopping center he designed to resemble it. I was impressed at the way he had transplanted the sense of walkability and discovery. Last week at TED, Gehry showed his design for Paul Allen's Experience Music Project in Seattle. Allen asked for 'swoopy' but I think Gehry delivered 'lumpy'. I'll reserve judgement until I see the actual building. Gehry then spoke of a cancer-care building he designed in memory of a long-time friend who died of cancer. One night in the middle of designing it he dreamed that his dead friend told him, "Too much architecture." In the morning he re-drew it -- the building now is simple and elegant with bold roof lines. It's a telling story. There were three more speakers before the end of the third day of TED. But my mind had filled up. I knew I should stay, I knew I'd find value in at least one of the three speakers if I stayed, but I couldn't listen anymore. I missed hearing architect Moshe Safdie -- he seemed like a sweet person in the lobby. And I missed Douglas Cardinal. I talked to Cardinal later that evening, and he was kind enough to recount the story he told. Cardinal, a Native American from the plains of Alberta, was tapped to design the National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington DC mall. He went to the elders of his tribe for council, and designed from the advice his elders provided. Then the politicians of Washington toyed with, backed away from, renegotiated, reversed, stole and rethought Cardinal's work, as they've done with Native American property for two centuries. I do not know the whole story. I have not seen Douglas Cardinal's work, nor have I seen his presentation, but I know him to be a centered and a wise man, and I count myself as his friend. I heard later that the TEDster crowd gave Cardinal a rare standing O. The last day of TED featured physicist Art McDonald and his neutrino observatory 2 kilometers down in the earth, French Canadian astronaut Julie Payette (who just returned to Earth a few weeks ago), privacy advocate Austin Hill, and singer- songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Designer Bill Buxton reminded us that there's more than one future, and that design is the process of choosing the future we want, and that an engineering education is not enough. I'm giving all of these people, indeed all four days of TED, short shrift. Hey, I've been writing this 'summary' for three days, and I *do* have a couple of other things to do. I wanted to end my recounting of TED City with the story of Professor Judy Anderson of the University of Manitoba. She's an anatomist who enjoys studying how parts work together to make a whole. She muses over biology's puzzles, for example, how muscle repairs itself when it is cut. One day, in her spare time, she went to a lecture on liver disease, and she learned that when the liver shears against itself, it releases nitric oxide, and that this triggers manufacture of hepatic growth factor which causes new liver tissue to grow. She realized that muscle is also subject to shear -- she went back to her laboratory and in short order showed that muscle shear releases nitric oxide, and that this causes release of the very same growth hormone, which causes new muscle cells to grow. Anderson's was a story of facts, some old and some new, that clicked together in a new, surprising, productive, original way. It's the story of TED. And you can't see that on TV. ------- June 26-27, 2000. New York City. Entertainment Internet 2000. I'll be on a panel with some of my favorite fiber and bandwidth companies. The website is thin, but there's info there -- or call 212-336-6000. September 13-15, 2000. Lake Tahoe CA. TELECOSM. Featuring George Gilder, Clayton Christensen, yours truly, and a cast of geniuses, troublemakers, and people who got rich by listening to George. This thing sells out, folks -- a word to the SMART. ------- COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Redistribution of this document, or any part of it, is permitted for non-commercial purposes, provided that the two lines below are reproduced with it: Copyright 2000 by David S. Isenberg -- -- 1-888-isen-com ------- [to subscribe to the SMART Letter, please send a brief, PERSONAL statement to (put "SMART" in the Subject field) saying who you are, what you do, maybe who you work for, maybe how you see your work connecting to mine, and why you are interested in joining the SMART List.] [to unsubscribe to the SMART List, send a brief unsubscribe message to] [for past SMART Letters, see] [Policy on reader contributions: Write to me. I won't quote you without your explicitly stated permission. If you're writing to me for inclusion in the SMART Letter, *please* say so. I'll probably edit your writing for brevity and clarity. If you ask for anonymity, you'll get it. ] ** David S. Isenberg, inc. 888-isen-com 908-654-0772 ** -- The brains behind the Stupid Network -- **