22 February 2011

Great Expectations: TEDxAustin 2011

This past Saturday, I spent the day with 500 "thought leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, performers and innovative doers" at TEDxAustin 2011.

To those who are unfamiliar with TED, it's basically a gathering of thought leaders in the technology, entertainment and design fields, with the stated mission of spreading ideas. The annual TED conference held in Long Beach, California costs $6,000 to attend and it's not an easy ticket to get. Due to the high cost, and the very successful people who get invited to attend, TED has been accused of being elitist. One way TED has tried to counter that accusation is by releasing all their presentations online. Like many of you, this was how I was first introduced to TED.

There are now many TEDx (local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience) conferences held around the world. Austin had it's first TEDx gathering last year, at the former Austin City Limits studio, with an invited audience of 300 people. They doubled the size this year (as well as doubled the cost to attend, from $50 to $100) and hosted it at the Austin Music Hall.

With that rather lengthy explanation, this will be my attempt to recap what I experienced at TEDxAustin 2011. The Digital Savant has already done a fantastic job of reviewing the event, so there's no need for me to get into as much detail. I'll just use this opportunity to review my thoughts about the day.

First thing I'd like to mention is that I'm not sure how I got accepted to attend this rather exclusive gathering. Note in my first paragraph I didn't write "500 OTHER thought leaders, entreprenuers, scientists, performers and innovative doers" because that would imply I'm one of the above. While I wish that were the case, the truth is much more boring - I'm just your average modern day internet professional, with a minivan, 2 young kids, and an awesome wife who agreed to let her husband spend the entire Saturday at this event.

Registration and breakfast began at 9am. The breakfast bar consisted of yogurt, granola, muffins and bread. It was literally a breakfast bar, as the food was served on the downstairs bar, under very dim lighting. During breakfast I was able to meet a few people, who all had varied backgrounds. From the wind engineer to the director of a radio station to the software engineer at the Workforce commission one thing they all had in common was that they were quite excited about TEDxAustin, and had high expectations for the day. I also had very high expectations for the day, just based on my experience with TED and the quality of the talks that I've watched before online. And I think that was the reason why I walked away from TEDxAustin 2011 a little disappointed. I think I set the bar a bit too high, and what I was hoping for probably wasn't even possible. My hope was to walk away from the day full of inspiration, motivation, and a desire to take action on great ideas. And while many of the speakers presentations were inspiring, controversial and even tear-inducing, I don't know how well they addressed the topic of TEDxAustin, which was "Right Now". As in, what can we do "Right Now" to cause change, to act, to do something, anything. I heard a lot of grand ideas, but not much practical application, or handles.

Regarding the actual production and organization of the event, it was first-rate, all the way. I walked away with a tremendous amount of respect for all the work that went into organizing and producing such an event. From the well-designed handouts, to the seating area, surrounded by black curtains, and referred to throughout the day as "the black box", it was very, very well-done. This was demonstrated by the opening musical performance by Mother Falcon, a local Austin "pop-chamber orchestra" group, consisting of mostly teenagers and 20-somethings. It was a great opening act, and they sounded great. So great in fact, that I'm considering taking my wife to see them this Sat at their new cd release concert.

The first speaker of the day, Sunny Vanderbeck, a venture capitalist with Satori Capital, gave an excellent presentation on sustainability and conscious capitalism. A few choice quotes - "Business has lost its way." "Purpose - the nonfinancial reason for existence." "Capitalism is the most powerful force in the world. Want to change the world? Change capitalism." Besides having the most well-designed slides of the day, he also had one of the clearest presentations, and made the entire topic of conscious capitalism easy to understand and grasp.

He was followed by Dr. Ralf Wagner, who spoke on synthetic biology, aka genetic engineering. Unfortunately, Dr. Wagner wins the award for most poorly-designed slides of the day. His topic, while definitely an interesting one, was also chilling to me, in its implications. He stated from the start that he and his company Gene Art were not interested in "playing God", but yet later on he had a slide that showed a three-eyed frog, framed in a positive light. His talk piqued my interest again when he showed pictures of algae farms and described how these could be harvested as an alternative engery source, and turned into biodiesel fuel.

After that we were shown a talk given by Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron last year. I've embedded it below, and it's definitely worth watching sometime.

This was one of the three TED talks that were recorded from other TED gatherings and that were shown to us throughout the day. All three of these talks were excellent, but I question the wisdom of showing these recorded talks, for the following reasons - 1. In hindsight, all three talks were better than most of the live presentations given that day, and thus it seems to diminish the value of the live speakers 2. The recorded sessions came across as time-fillers, as in, "we couldn't find another speaker, so here's a great session from somewhere else!" 3. I'd never seen those three talks before, so they were new and fresh to me, but I'm sure others in the audience had seen them before, so there was less value for them to see them again.
Update: Stacy Weitzner informed me that TED requires that recorded talks be shown as a part of every TEDx event.

After the Cameron video, Robyn O'Brien , aka "the Erin brockovich of food" gave a moving presentation on how she became a food advocate. A reaction that one of her kids had to a food product caused her to ask this question - "How can children be allergic to food?" She started doing research and found evidence that the food industry and the government started allowing genetically modified food to be introduced into the US food supply without adequate human testing. It was interesting how Robyn's anti-genetic engineering talk came soon after Dr. Wagner's presentation on the benefits of genetic engineering. Maybe that's why the organizer's decided to show us David Cameron's talk in between, as a sort of TED-buffer. O'Brien's presentation also received the first standing ovation of the day as well. While her story is moving, I was disappointed that she didn't present any real suggestions, besides buy organic food, even though it costs more.

The next speaker was in my opinion, the most inspiring of the day, which looking back, is not good, since we were still in the morning session. Gilbert Tuhabonye was almost killed as a young boy in Burundi. His message of forgiveness and living your life with joy was quite touching. The group he founded, Gilbert's Gazelles, now helps raise money to bring clean water to Africa. He also received a standing ovation, deservedly so.

After Gilbert's speech, we broke for lunch, which consisted of a sandwich meal from Whole Foods, which was served upstairs. The line was long, but moved quickly. This was where I first saw the amazing photographic work of Esther Havens. She calls herself a humanitarian photographer, and rather than show the typical "starving child in Africa" photo, she tries to "capture stories that transcend a person's circumstance that reveal the strength of an individual regardless of the situation in which they find themselves". If you take a look at her work, I think you'll agree she does a great job of it.

The second session after lunch had some very good presentations - Osama Bedier spoke on the future of payments and how the size of two horses behinds were the reason "behind" the limitation of one of the greatest modes of transportation of all time, the space shuttle. It was a great demonstration of how much we are constrained by the past.

Sylvia Acevedo, an education advocate, discussed how Texas is one of the few states (along with California and Florida) that is experiencing a baby boom, and how this will either be a tsunami that wipes us out here in Texas, or a wave of opportunity, similar to the nationwide baby boom of the 40s and 50s and how it ushered in unprecedented times of prosperity. Her main points were 1. Get informed 2. Be proactive, not reactive 3. Choose your line (choose where you want to go), choose your future.

Gregory Kallenberg, the director of the award-winning documentary Haynesville spoke next. He spoke on behalf of the "rational middle" in the energy debate. He stated that energy is really, really complicated, and as such requires a solution that includes the use of all energy sources, including the one in Haynesville, to buy us time before a real lasting solution can be found.

After Kallenberg's presentation, there was a strange jump to the Intergalactic Nemesis, a live action graphic novel presentation. I'm a big fan of comic books and graphic novels, and it was neat seeing them perform it live on stage, but it felt like a weird place to insert it. It seemed to drag on for too long, and kill any kind of buzz that had been building from the previous three speakers. After the Nemesis finally ended, the second pre-recorded presentation of the day was shown - Maz Jobrani, stand-up comic.

Definitely funny and entertaining. Inspiring? Not so much. The next live speaker however was very inspiring - Joaquin Zihuatenejo, an English teacher who grew up in a Dallas barrio, who spoke of salvation being found in words. He received the final standing ovation of the day.

From the high-energy and excitement of Zihuantenejo's speech, we went to the slow, low-energy speech by Flint Sparks, zen psychotherapist. He discussed taking time to pause, reflect, and connect. Gotta admit, I wasn't the biggest fan of his speech.

He was followed by another bald man, Gary Thompson, "business-artist" and co-founder of Cloud Inc. I also wasn't the biggest fan of his presentation, as it came across as a bit hokey, and not moving, as he probably had intended it to be.

Peter Hall, a design professor at UT was next, and he spoke about maps, mapping, and the mapping process. The question he said we should ask about a map is not whether it is a good map, but what was the process behind the creation of the map? "Always make maps, always question maps."

Professor Hall was followed by Dr. Lionel Tiger, the man who first coined the term male-bonding, and who wrote the book "The Decline of Males". His presentation was probably the most polarizing. While he did indeed seem to ramble and jump all over the place, his basic premise is that feminism and its fight against what it considers the patriarchal system in society is what has resulted in the problems we are seeing in boys today, and also the amount of medicine prescribed to young boys. He discussed how the University of Toronto has 40 courses on female studies, but only 2 on male studies - one on homosexual males and one on transgendered males. The male species is under attack, he argues. As you can imagine, that didn't go over too well with this crowd. He received a standing ovation from 1 person, I believe. No it wasn't me, although I do believe his theory carries weight.

After that was probably the best speech of the day, and it was a recorded one, from last year's TEDxHouston. Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher, spoke on vulnerability and the need for it.

She states that we do our best to numb vulnerability. We are the most in debt, obese, sedated cohort in human history. However, she argues that we cannot selectively numb vulnerability. But in our attempt to try, the result is that we numb everything. We make the uncertain the certain, we perfect, and we pretend. Quite eye-opening.

I had high hopes for the last two presenters, but felt like they didn't have any practical takeaways. I learned from Tavo Hellmund, the entreprenuer and former race car driver, who is bringing F1 racing to Austin, that his grandfather said to "never judge a man by the size of his wallet, but by the quality of his relationships with his family, friends and community." and to "Never be careful, always go for the edge."

Finally, from Dustin Haisler, former CIO of the city of Manor, and still only 24 years old, to get engaged with government, a very similar message but much better presented by David Cameron earlier in the day.

Following Mr. Haisler was a happy hour time, which I didn't stick around for, as my family was anxious for me to get home "Right Now", after spending the entire day away.

Whew, guess that's it. I wasn't planning on recapping the entire day, but I guess it's better to jot this down while I still remember it all. Overall, it was a positive experience and I am grateful and glad I had a chance to experience TEDxAustin 2011. I hope this post doesn't come across as too critical, as that was not my intention. My hope is that TEDxAustin will rise to meet the even greater expectations in the coming years. And I'm confident that with such a strong group of producers, organizers, volunteers (and attendees!) it will continue to get better and better every year. After this post, I just hope I get invited back... ;)


  1. Sam, what a very thoughtful and thorough recap. I must admit that as a TED fan I was rather jealous when I saw where you were Saturday! It sounds like such a salad bar of topics. Some of them I would have loved to see, although I think it might have felt like information overload!
    Did you know that maz Jobrani is occasionally a panelist On wait wait don't tell me?

  2. Samuel -

    I regret that my talk came across as "hokey." As I said to Omar at a SXSW mixer last night, my intent was to be vulnerable and open in the spirit of Brené Brown who came not long after me (a surprise).

    Watching your own wife lose her hair to chemotherapy, while pregnant with your third child is not an attempt to be hokey but to show why all of this is about way more than technology. It really about people.

    We'll be talking a lot more about the HOW of CLOUD at our SXSW panel in a few weeks but I wanted to share the WHY at TEDxAustin. More on Kethan and my story here:


    I've adopted Kethan and LLS as my cause, because watching an 8 year old get the same drugs in their body as my wife did really sucks.

    CLOUD and its future open source standard, CTML, are meant to be a tool by which to fix the broken connections, so we can find not only cures but answers to many other vexing issues in our society.

    Thanks for your honesty here on your pages. I don't expect to win everyone over right away, but I do intend to stay focused on my passion for people until this work is done.

  3. @Hannah It was definitely a lot to take in, and at times it was hard to stay focused. Overall, it was a very good experience. I think you should apply to attend next year, I'm pretty sure you'd get accepted!

    @Gary Thank you for your thoughtful response to my somewhat hastily written review. Perhaps hokey was too strong of a word. I have the utmost respect for what you have personally gone through. I can't imagine what it must be like to find out that your pregnant wife has cancer, and I applaud your willingness and openness to share with everyone your personal story. There is no questioning your passion, as well as the need for technology that will help fix these logistical problems facing us. I think what came across as a bit contrived to me was your vow to keep shaving your head until a cure for cancer is discovered. But again, I have the utmost respect for your personal story and passion. I'm looking forward to your SXSW panel, and I will keep Kethan in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. @Samuel Thank you. Our exchange here on your blog is one more sign of the uniqueness of the TED community. This sort of thoughtful, yet candid, exchange doesn't happen in many places, nor often enough. As for the bald thing, I can understand how that might come across as trite. Hopefully, for Kethan, it will let him know he has a big fan rooting for him. Thanks for adding him to your prayers. He's a cool kid.

  5. Sam, thanks for the summary. I enjoyed reading it. It seems to me you were looking for more thematic cohesion, which can be quite hard to build, especially early in an event's history. Everybody took their own spin on "Right Now," which wasn't your practical, takeaway-rich concept. Are the TED or Aspen-Institute sessions strongly thematic?
    Overall sounds like it was a lot of fun. Every once in a while it's nice to get broad exposure to a lot of different concepts and ideas. Maybe I'll look into getting tickets (for two) next year. Wouldn't that be fun?