… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

October 3, 2008

Putting a face on XDR-TB

Filed under: Africa,Developing world,TED2007 — Ethan @ 12:24 pm

Last summer, Center for Disease Control officials quarrantined a man who’d flown from Atlanta to Prague via Paris, despite being ordered not to travel. CDC officials knew – though the man did not – that he was infected with XDR-TB – extensively drug resistant tuberculosis. For the first time in over forty years, the CDC used their authority to pull the man from a plane and put him into isolation in an Atlanta hospital.

The story gained a flurry of media attention – including interviews with airline passengers furious that they’d been exposed to the disease. But it didn’t do very much to raise the profile of XDR-TB in the United States.

James Nachtwey would like to change that. A celebrated war photographer honored in 2007 with a $100,000 TED Prize, Nachtwey has spent much of the past year photographing patients with XDR-TB in locations around the world. His work helps put a face on a dangerous, frightening, poorly-understood and fully preventable disease… and many possibly help stop XDR-TB from turning into a global pandemic.

Tuberculosis is an extremely common bacterial disease – it spreads through the air and it’s quite pervasive. One third of the world’s population is infected with the TB bacillus, though only 5-10% of those people will develop the disease. (People with weakened immune systems, including AIDS sufferers, are at much higher risk to develop TB.) These cases of TB are usually treatable with drugs like rifampicin and isoniazid. If these drugs aren’t properly administered – if too little is used, or treatment is stopped too soon – the TB bacillus can become resistant to these drugs. It’s then known as multiply drug resistant TB and can then usually be treated with quinolone, kanamycin, capreomycin, or amikacin. If these drugs aren’t administered well, the disease can develop resistance to some of these drugs, too – it’s then known as XDR-TB, and it’s a very expensive and difficult disease to treat at that point.

XDR-TB came to the attention of global health professionals in 2006 with an epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In one rural hospital, out of 544 TB patients, 221 had multiply drug resistant TB, and 53 of these patients had XDR-TB. (All were HIV positive). Within a few weeks, 52 of 53 had died, including those on antiretroviral drugs. The few treatments that can cure XDR-TB are expensive, difficult to administer and have painful and dangerous side effects. The lessons learned from the XDR-TB epidemic in KZN largely have to do with limiting the spread of the disease from infected patients to highly vulnerable populations, like HIV+ people. (The good news in the KZN epidemic is that the spread appears most serious within hospital environments, where patients are close together for long periods of time – the spread of MDR-TB to people in the community who’d visited patients or interacted with them was roughly 1%.)

It’s not clear how widespread the problem of XDR-TB has become. There have been cases reported in 49 countries, including South Africa, India, Russia and the United States. It’s a very difficult disease to diagnose – while TB can be diagnosed within a day, diagnosing XDR-TB involves culturing baccili and testing their drug resistance, which can take weeks or months. In 2004, the World Health Organization estimated up to half a million cases of MDR-TB. Recent studies suggest that 15 to 20% of those cases might be XDR-TB.

Nachtwey’s photographs have examined the impact of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, one of the epicentres of XDR-TB infection, and his network of collaborators in the medical community were able to alert him to the importance and possible impact of XDR-TB before it entered most people’s awareness. With the 2007 TED Prize, Nachtwey had the opportunity to use the money and influence of the TED community to cover the story and disseminate the images. The challenge is that Nachtwey realized that he would have far less access as a photographer if governments were aware that he was documenting XDR-TB. So his work has been clandestine, and the subject of his work supported by the TED Prize was only revealed today. Photos of patients in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, India, Sibera and other locations will be unveiled in New York City tonight, and will be published in this week’s issue of Time Magazine in an article called The Forgotten Plague.

“Forgotten” may be the right word to describe TB, a disease that gets much less attention than HIV or even malaria, despite its enormous global impact. But XDR-TB is too new to be forgotten – it’s simply not well known or understood outside healthcare circles. Nachtwey’s intervention is a timely one – the ways to prevent XDR-TB from becoming a pervasive global threat have to do with strengthening healthcare systems in vulnerable nations. If hospitals and community health organizations can diagnose TB early and ensure compliance with treatment, the disease shouldn’t progress to multiple drug resistance.

But improving developing world hospitals is a difficult and expensive task. Eliminating pharmaceutical fakes may be even more difficult. Fake precription drugs are extremely common in developing nations, and a TB patient who is religiously taking rifampicin may only be getting the drug half the time… a prescription for creating MDR-TB. As Nachtwey raises awareness about XDR-TB, I hope that people will pay attention to innovative efforts like mPedigree, designed to combat pharma fakes using information technology and mobile phones.

Nachtwey’s campaign launches today at XDRTB.org. Here’s hoping his photographs will help draw attention not just to a treatable disease, but to the need to fix many aspects of the global healthcare system, including strengthening community hospitals and fighting drug piracy.

July 27, 2007

The 5-4-3 double play, or “The Art of Conference Blogging”

When I was about seven years old, my father taught me how to score a baseball game. We were probably in Florida, combining a trip to a spring training game with a visit to one of my grandmothers. He explained the basics of the hieroglyphic system that both professionals and fans use to score games, the numbering of the position players, the difference between a forward and backwards “K”, and set me loose to scribble on a scorecard while he made his own illegible notes in his wire-bound, leatherette scorer’s book.

I’ve scored games ever since – only when I’m actually in the stadium, but religiously on those occasions. When scoring at our local ballpark, the elegant and ancient Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, MA, I sometimes get asked by other fans why I’m scoring the game. “Are you a scout? Are you a reporter?”

“Nah, I just like to score ballgames.” If pressed, I’d tell them that scoring a game forces me to pay attention, to be in the moment, to keep at least one eye on the action rather than on the hot dogs, the beer and the people I’m sitting with. I miss something if I’m not scoring a game. And I like being able to glance down in the seventh inning and see whether the man at the plate is 0 for 3 or 2 for 2 with a walk.

This may help explain my anti-social and obsessive attitude towards blogging at conferences. I’ve developed something of a reputation for blogging the conferences I attend with fairly obsessive detail. Some of my colleages are grateful for this “service”; some of my readers have stopped subscribing to this blog due to the volume of conference posts. If you ask me why I do it, the answers are similar to my reasons for scoring baseball games:

– Because David Weinberger does it, and David is someone worth emulating. Ditto Bruno Giussani.
– Because it gives me a record of a gathering that I can work from, quoting speakers and ideas in later blog posts.
– Because it forces me to pay attention to what’s going on at a conference, not just to visit with my friends, chat in the hallways, enjoying the spectacle.

As I’ve gotten better at conference blogging, there are at least three other reason:

– Conference blogging gets me invited to conferences I couldn’t otherwise afford to go to, and which I enjoy being present at.
– Other bloggers link to my conference posts, which raises my Technorati profile, my google juice, etc., and makes it more likely people will read my original writing.
– People expect me to. (This is a good and bad thing.)

A few kind friends have asked for thoughts on how to blog a conference in detail. I’m not convinced that there are many tricks to it, but here are a few things that help me keep pace at conferences like Pop!Tech and TED, where the talks come fast and furious:

The kit: I come to conferences with my beloved Mac, two charged batteries, a power strip, a digital camera and cables, granola bars and a lap desk. This last item is totally essential – I’ve turned my car around when driving to a conference to retrieve my lapdesk, knowing that burned knees and backpain await if I try to blog with the laptop directly on my lap.

The location: Bloggers rarely sit in the front row to blog conferences. We’re distracting to the people around us, especially people sitting behind us, watching our screens. It’s usually better to sit to a side, near the power plugs. The really big conferences often have “overflow rooms” where some of the audience can watch a talk on simulcast TV. These are a gift for bloggers. I learned this from Ndesanjo Macha, who blogged 2005 Pop!Tech almost entirely from outside the main hall, glued to a monitor and power outlet.

Some conference organizers are particularly good about creating a physical space for conference bloggers. TED in Monterey provides a table with power strips facing a monitor in their downstairs overflow lounge – it’s a great place to blog that conference, if you can wedge your way between me and Bruno.

Preparation: Conferences usually give you a speaker program ahead of time. Use it. Over breakfast before the day of a conference, I’ll type the names of each speaker and their talk title into a text file. If I’m really good, I’ll do quick Google searches on each of them and link their names to their blogs, research institutions, arrest records, etc. Prepare sufficiently and you’ve got the first paragraph of each post written ahead of time.

Macros: I write my blog posts – and, frankly, everything I write – in BBEdit, a remarkably powerful Macintosh text editor. One of several thousand reasons to use BBEdit is a feature called “Glossaries” or “Clippings”. This is a way of storing pieces of text that you use frequently and linking them to key combinations. My friend Daniel Beck turned me on to this powerful feature and developed a couple of basic clippings for me, which I use heavily.

So when I want to add a hyperlink to a document, I copy the address from Mozilla, highlight the text I want to link, and then type Shift-Apple-Comma, which inserts the following text into my file:

< a HREF="" >< /a >

around the highlighted text, and positions the cursor between the quotes. Press Apple-V and I’ve got a formatted hyperlink in two keystrokes. I have keys linked to blockquotes and to URLs I reference frequently, like Global Voices and this blog. I’ll sometimes create a glossary entry for the technorati tag associated with a conference, associated with shift-apple-T-R, or for the main website for a conference.

Even if you’re composing online, within your blogging platform, or if you don’t feel comfortable setting up macros, it can be a big help to put some useful snippets of text in a text file and cut and paste them into blogposts.

Keeping Up:
I have a hard and fast rule for myself – I complete posts on a conference session within fifteen minutes of the end of that session. This isn’t because I’m obsessive about getting up the first post on a topic – it’s because I will miss the next session if I’m still writing the former post. Better to put up an incomplete and imperfect set of notes than to miss another speaker.

Many conferences break up speeches with “lighter” interludes – videos, music, or other less-bloggable forms of content. These are excellent times to finish blog entires. I will frequently use question and answer sessions to finish posts as well – this makes Pop!Tech easier to blog than TED, which provides less time for Q&A and squeezes in more speakers per day.

I have, once or twice, been forced to give up on a talk because it’s clear that I can’t transcribe it in time. I’ve never successfully transcribed a Yochai Benkler talk – he simply packs too much into a speech for a mere mortal to document.

Hard Talks:
One of the reasons I’m able to blog so many talks at conferences like Pop!Tech, TED, Idea Festival or PUSH is that the talks are, for the most part, really, really good. Experienced speakers are easy to blog – they follow a narrative path through their talks, speak at a pace the audience can understand, emphasize key points with visuals. Write down the points that they’re starting sections with or emphasizing, and you’ll likely have a finished post with little need to edit.

It’s much harder to blog inexperienced speakers. Some will speak too fast or too technically and many won’t have a clear path through their material. With an inexperienced speaker, I’ll often take notes on the talk and try to structure it into a blogpost afterwards, doing the work the speaker should have done before giving his talk. I do this often with panels, which rarely have as much structure as a formal talk and often need you to add a narrative after the fact.

If a talk is truly out there and hard to follow, I might skip it, or blog it really briefly, summarizing it into a few lines or combining it with the next talk. Don’t be afraid to give up on a hard talk . It’s the speaker’s fault if he or she can’t interest you in the material, so long as you’re paying attention and ready to listen.

Use your commenters:
Because I’m blogging ten or more talks a day, I get things wrong. Sometimes I get things egregiously wrong. Comments allow other attendees – and sometimes the speakers themselves – to correct me. I check comments religiously while I liveblog, and I try to thank commenters who correct my errors, as they’re doing me a major service. “Mental” notes that blogposts, when commented, critiqued, linked towards, can serve as “the blogger equivalent of a peer reviewed professional article in a professional journal” – that’s only true if your peers are working with you to make your posts better.

“Hash”, writing about bloggers at the TED Global conference in Arusha, used the Swahili term “harambee” to describe the ideal operation of a group of bloggers at a conference:

Harambee is a Swahili term that means “pulling together”. That mentality, the willingness to work together, was what made it possible to cover a busy event like TEDGlobal… Some of us decided to take pictures, some did interviews between sessions and others decided to summarize the day. Everyone who blogs has their own voice, and I think it showed in the coverage. What could have been an amalgamation of everyone saying the same thing turned into a fairly well-rounded coverarge of the event.

My goal in blogging a conference is not to be the sole, authoritative voice of the blogosphere. It’s to do what I enjoy doing: writing detailed summaries of each sessions. But that means I can’t take photos of the speakers on stage, can’t interview speakers between sessions, can’t monitor coverage of the conference in the blogosphere. At TED, we were able to split up the tasks, so that Hash and Andrew took photos, Ndesanjo blogged in Swahili, Juliana did interviews, June monitored blogosphere coverage, etc. It’s a whole lot more fun to blog these events in groups, even if that means sitting next to someone trying to liveblog at the same time as you are, arguing about how to spell a word the speaker has just uttered.

I go to conferences because they give me a wealth of new ideas to wrestle with, sometimes for weeks or months to come. I try fairly hard not to wrestle with these ideas as I’m writing about them – it’s hard for me to form opinions while talks are going on, and harder to express those opinions articulately. (This isn’t always true. The occasional conference will include strong opinions I feel compelled to disclaim are the speaker’s, not my own…)

So that I have a chance to wrestle with the big ideas, I’ll often try to write a summary or reactions post a week after a conference. These summaries are generally a great deal more opinionated than my reactions to the original talks. Good conferences have big themes that aren’t always apparent when you’re sitting in the hall… and these themes are frequently not the themes the organizers intended.

Have Fun:
Not everyone enjoys blogging at conferences. I have many friends who’ve tried it and discovered that it stresses them out or detracts from their enjoyment. There’s an easy solution to this: don’t do it. Most people don’t keep score at baseball games. That’s okay, as there’s an official scorekeeper, a scoreboard and at least one journalist in the stands. We don’t need everyone to become a conference liveblogger – just a few more of us.

If you’re a liveblogger at conferences and have tips that keep you productive and sane, please feel free to share them in the comments. If you try some of these out and find them helpful – or, especially, if you find them unhelpful – let me know in the comments as well. Thanks in advance.

April 18, 2007

Twelve great talks to watch, and no excuses for being bored. (Or boring.)

Filed under: Media,Pop!Tech 2005,Pop!Tech 2006,TED2006,TED2007 — Ethan @ 2:14 pm

I spent the last four days at a series of meetings for the Open Society Institute, a foundation I advise and serve on a sub-board for. The meetings were off-blog, but I can share one comment on the challenges facing newspapers, from the brilliant Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn from Mr. Soros himself: “Journalists and prostitutes face the same challege: competition from amateurs.” (Friends who were in the meeting with me tell me I’m misremembering – Kavi had most of the good quips in the meeting, but Mr. Soros used this as his parting line…) I can’t wait for the next opportunity to use that quote in a speech…

One of my friends from OSI’s Information Program mentioned his excitement that the TED conference had started putting videos of talks from the last two conferences online, and asked me to recommend my favorites. By the time I got home and online, my twinblogger (a reference to our tendency to blog conferences in tandem) Bruno Giussani had posted a comprehensive guide to great talks, not just on the TED website, but from Pop!Tech and LIFT as well. He correctly identifies this is a new trend in operating conferences, an important one. Very, very few people are able to attend these gatherings – putting the talks online lets thousands of times as many people hear the ideas these remarkable speakers have to share.

So here are some of my top picks from TED and Pop!Tech, the two conferences I’ve been attending and blogging the past two years:

Hans Rosling is probably the best speaker on international development issues I’ve ever seen. He’s done remarkable work with statistics, helping people visualize long-term changes in international development in a historical and global context. He’s given two TED talks – the first is available here. I’m waiting patiently for this year’s talk, which concluded with Rosling swallowing a sword.

On the subject of development economics, Emily Oster stole this year’s TED (for me, at least) with a virtuoso talk on new research she’s done on the effectiveness of AIDS prevention strategies in Uganda. She ends up arguing that the “success” of the abstinence-focused strategies of the Ugandan government had far more to do with external factors – a temporary decrease in international trade – than to these prevention efforts. Her talk – or at least my notes on it – have generated some very critical comments over at Worldchanging.com. (The talk’s not up yet. Sorry about that – I’ll add a link when it’s available.)

Giving a much more personal story of the impact of HIV in an African context was Zinhle Thabethe’s speech at Pop!Tech in October 2006. She’s the director of the Sinikithemba Choir, a group of HIV-positive singers based in Durban who use music to educate communities about AIDS. Her story makes clear the agonizing choices individuals face when local health systems can’t provide anti-retroviral drugs for everyone in a nation – she’s surviving AIDS, but watches her brother die, unable to share her drugs and save him.

If it were socially acceptable to follow scientists around the world, hanging on their every word, as some people follow rock bands around the world, I’d be an Amy Smith groupie. Dr. Smith’s TED talk focuses on “carbon macrotubes” – charcoal, in other words – and the tremendous health importance of producing sustainable, clean-burning cooking fuel for the developing world.

I missed Iqbal Qadir’s talk at TED last year, but I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him at the PUSH conference two years back. His realization that mobile phones could be income-generating devices for the very poor in Bangladesh is the sort of big idea that can transform entire economies. Iqbal is one of the very best people to listen to in sorting fact from fiction in the whole “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” set of ideas.

I didn’t expect to like Tom Barnett when I heard him speak at Pop!Tech. He’s got the bearing and delivery of a military man, the product of years of briefing generals in the Pentagon on the importance of transforming the US military. But he’s got an incredibly broad understanding of global security issues, failed and failing states, and the role that humanitarians and aid workers have to play in conflict situations. I came away from his first talk at Pop!Tech with dozens of questions and ideas, and his second talk opened as many new questions for me as it answered.

If you care about free speech, you need to listen to my friend Sasa Vucinic, the founder of the Media Loan Development Fund. Sasa’s firm finances newspapers, radio, television and interactive media in places that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a free press. He does it well enough that MDLF has been able to list on an european stock exchange, a remarkable achievement for a social venturing organization. The secret is his realization that for media to be truly independent, it needs to be fiscally sustainable… something I keep reminding myself as I write endless grant requests for Global Voices.

James Nachtwey was one of this year’s TED prize recipients, and bloggers are already buzzing about the “secret project” he’s planning on taking on with TED’s support. His images of conflict areas were some of the most arresting I’ve ever seen. His talk is almost too intense to watch – there’s simply too many searing images to digest in a very short period of time. the only other photographer who’s affected me this way in recent memory is my friend Ed Burtynsky, whose images of human impact on the earth also sear their way into your head. (Ed recieved the TED prize a year before Nachtwey and has used the prize to help support Worldchanging.com, where I serve on the board of directors.)

To end this top ten on a positive, hopeful note: Majora Carter, the director of Sustainable South Bronx, brought the house down last year at TED when she talked about greening the ghetto, coining the phrase “Green is the new black“. Her group has done remarkable work demonstrating that environmental and social justice are tightly linked, and in challenging the good and the great (including Al Gore) to focus closer to home in their attempts to heal and transform the world.

If that top ten leaves you hungry for more, there’s lots more on both sites. Or if you just need something to clear your head, let me point you to two of the smartest and funniest men on the Internet, Ze Frank and Jonathan Coulton. Both have taken the radical step of putting their work directly onto the web at an alarming pace, Ze with a year-long daily podcast, and Jonathan with a new song written and recorded every week over the course of a year. They’re two of the bravest and funniest guys I know, and two guys I’m very happy to have discovered through the moving circus of the conference scene.

March 10, 2007

Big news from Cameron Sinclair and Architecture for Humanity

Filed under: TED2007 — Ethan @ 8:06 pm

My friend Cameron Sinclar was one of the receipients of the TED Prize last year for his work on Architecture for Humanity, a network of architects around the world dedicated to sharing innovative designs for the benefit of the poor and displaced. The Prize and the help of companies like Sun have let Architecture for Humanity launch a remarkable website where architects can post and share their designs under open source licenses.

Yesterday afternoon, Dan Shine, the director of AMD’s 50×15 initiative – which aims to put computers in the hands of half the world’s population by 2015 – announced a new architecture prize. In conjunction with Architecture for Humanity, AMD will give a $250,000 prize for the best open source design of a community technology center. The prize doesn’t go to the architect, but funds the building of the center – AMD will also donate the technology to wire and connect the center to the Internet.

Cameron tells me that the building designed doesn’t need to function solely as a technology center – it can be whatever a community most needs, like a health and technology center, or a school that incorporates a technology component. The winning center’s design will also be shared, so that other communities can build local versions of the building if it meets their needs.

Smart and creative as Cameron is, it’s hard to imagine his hard work leading to the largest architecture prize in the world in just a single year without the resources of the TED community. I wish I believed that the TED community was going to have as transformative an effect on the Clinton Global Initiative or EO Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life.

Conference or Auto Show?

Filed under: TED2007 — Ethan @ 8:00 pm

There are aspects of the TED conference that feel more like an auto show than a technology conference. In the “simulcast lounge” – a huge room beneath the actual TED stage, where those of us who blog the conference tend to congregate alongside everyone else who lacks a “stage priority” badge – there are gleaming cars on polished wood platforms. This year, in keeping with the theme of climate panic energy efficiency, the cars include an all-electric Tesla roadster, a hybrid Ford that can be plugged into the wall as well as a Lexus that might well be technically impressive, but I never bothered to look at.

Waiting for a session to start yesterday, I was approached by a man whose ease in striking up a conversation could mean only one thing: he was a car salesman. Specifically, he was a PR representative for GM who’d seen my “press” badge and wanted me to drive a hydrogen-powered Chevy. (TED, bless their hearts, occasionally issues press badges to bloggers. I wanted a little white card to put in my hat brim as well, but settled for haunting the bar with MSM reporters and reveling in our newfound cameraderie.)


The beauty of hydrogen powered vehicles is that they don’t produce any direct emissions – the tailpipe of a hydrogen vehicle should release some water vapor and nothing else. The problem with hydrogen-powered vehicles… well, there’s a couple. One, you’ve got to produce hydrogen, which uses energy. Your tailpipe may not be releasing carbon, but if the electricity you use to reform hydrogen from natural gas comes from a coal-fired power plant, it’s possible that you might be releasing more carbon than from burning gasoline cleanly. And you’ve somehow got to get the hydrogen to your vehicle, which requires an entirely novel fueling infrastructure. And then there’s that whole Hindenberg thing.

Actually, that exploding Zeppelin problem had to do with the fact that hydrogen was trapped in an envelope – the balloon skin – rather than being released into the environment. If the 8kg of hydrogen under my feet in the Chevy Sequel escaped, it would likely dissipate into the atmosphere quickly enough to avoid explosion. Or that’s what the technician sitting in the passenger seat, monitoring the performance of the fuel cell, told me. I didn’t light a cigarette to test. He also assured me that the tanks were literally bulletproof and had been stress- and crash-tested extensively.

The answers my GM friends had regarding hydrogen production and distribution were less reassuring. There’s only two Sequel prototypes in the world – I’m guessing there’s probably a single fueling station they use to keep the vehicles full. The next generation of the prototype will involve a hundred vehicles in three US cities, which probably means three hydrogen stations. But rolling the vehicle out on a commercial scale will require the conversion of thousands of fuel stations and development of a hydrogen supply chain. “A country building new infrastructure, like China, might decide to build hydrogen into their fuel system.” That’s true – but it seems to acknowledge that there are going to be huge barriers before most Americans are driving hydrogen cars.

My co-pilot, monitoring the fuel cell of the Sequel.

What’s cool about the Sequel, my co-pilot tells me, is that it can travel 300 miles on an 8kg tank of hydrogen, and that it can go zero to sixty in under ten seconds, two metrics that are considered essential within the auto industry before consumers will accept these vehicles. (The Tesla goes zero to sixty in four seconds, but it costs slightly more than the GDP of Lesotho and is being marketed to a different audience.) Driving four square blocks of Monterey, I didn’t really get to test the acceleration, but I can report that the Sequel feels like… well, an ordinary car. Specifically, a large, characteristically chunky American minivan-ish car.

That, in turn, is pretty remarkable, since this vehicle has about as much in common with my beloved Toyota pickup truck as my laptop does with my trusty wooden slide rule. There’s no physical linkage between the steering wheel and the axles of the car – it’s entirely steer by wire. Look under the hood and you won’t find very much beyond an airconditioning unit – the power is provided by motors on the hubs of each wheel. The hydrogen’s under the driver’s feet, the battery array under the back seat. There’s basically nothing on the car that my mechanic, Ron, would want to put a wrench to – even the climate controls are touchscreens. (Which raises another infrastructure question – when you put a few thousand of these on the road, who gets to repair them? And will they be auto mechanics or computer technicians?)

There’s lots to be excited about with the Sequel. The basic platform – “the skateboard”, as my copilot calls it – could be used underneath any number of body types, potentially allowing me to drive a full-sized pickup without being perpetually overwhelmed by guilt. (I drive a much smaller truck and still feel bad about it.) And if GM partners with companies making home hydrogen reformers, there’s the intriguing possibility of turning your own garage into a gas station, and plugging your house into your car as a backup generator if the power goes out. (When I asked the expected lifespan of the vehicle, the answer was “10,000 operating hours.” I started translating into miles, but Mr. GM pointed out that these vehicles might well “operate” as power plants as frequently as they serve as vehicles.)

I can’t say that my drive made me want to go out and buy a Sequel, even if one were for sale. But when I pulled into the lot at the conference center, another driver pulled up alongside me and started raving: “Is that a production vehicle? What the heck is that? That’s one badass looking Chevy!” Telling him that it was one of two in the world and that it ran on hydrogen left his jaw on the floor of his vehicle. I hope Mr. GM gave him a drive as well – I probably should have given him the press badge.

Lindsay Brook of the New York Times – who actually reviews cars for a living – has a detailed report on driving a Sequel for longer than five minutes.

8:30 AM might, indeed, be too early to rock

Filed under: TED2007 — Ethan @ 3:23 pm

I’m flying from San Jose to Austin today, departing directly from the last morning of TED to join South by Southwest, already in progress. I’m expecting a bit of culture shock – SXSW tends to be as democratic, informal and low-key as TED is exclusive, flashy and intense. But that culture shock has nothing on what They Might Be Giants must have experienced opening the program Saturday morning.

Friday night is TED’s “grand party” – last year’s was held in the Monterey Aquarium, which prompted Julia Sweeney to note that there’s something very odd about eating sushi in front of tanks of live fish. This year’s was in an airport hangar at the Monterey jetport. I had an early night, and I still wasn’t at my best at 8:30 this morning… and I suspect the vast majority of attendees were worse off than I was.

John Flansburgh noted that, in a 25 year career that’s included over 1000 live shows, they’ve performed only two this year. One, in Saint Louis, was the coldest venue they’ve ever performed in at 19 degrees. This is the earliest, at 8:30 am. It’s hard to say who looked more distressed – Flans and Linnell trying to get a reaction from the crowd with a sharp, fast, funny set, or the hungover atendees I was sitting with as they stared at their Blackberries and fought off their hangovers. I generally support the playing of accordion as often as possible – especially John Linnell’s lovely 2.5 octave box labeled “Main Squeeze” – but it strikes me this session could have been timed a bit better.

And yet, TMBG is my favorite accordion-fronted geek rock band, in much the same way that Erin McKean is my favorite blogging lexicographer. They offered “Now You’re Even Older”, a wonderfully geeky new song, “Hummingbird Moth”, channeled Eleanor Roosevelt, made fun of TED badges and James Randi and generally made me very happy I’d gotten out of bed. Next year, they should play the party.

I need to post responses to about a hundred blog comments here and on Worldchanging, answer three days worth of email and write my talk for SXSW, so my reviews and prizes may wait a day or two. I left Bruno blogging away – I look forward to his notes from the day, and to seeing Lorna Herf’s beautiful sketches. (I spilled a drink on Lorna last night, and she had the most wonderful response. Hours later, she found me and spilled a bottle of water on me so I wouldn’t feel so bad. And it worked.)

Thank you, everyone for a wonderful conference – I’m hugely looking forward to blogging TED Global from Tanzania in a few months.

March 9, 2007

Let the women lead!

Filed under: TED2007 — Ethan @ 11:38 pm

The last two presentations I’m going to catch at TED are two utterly remarkable women, Tracy Chapman and Isabelle Allende. The topic of the session is passion, and the two rise to the occasion.


Chapman tells us that she wants to sing about “love, marriage, and the midnight hour” – she invokes marriage because “when I’ve made something entirely new, I find it’s something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.” She tells us the stories behind the songs – they’re oblique but revealing. “Give Me One Reason” was sung into an answering machine, she tells me… and it worked…

(Chapman’s music has meant a lot to me over the years. We went to the same very special high school in Danbury, CT, though we didn’t overlap. Our school put heavy emphasis on physical labor, and I remember cleaning the music center library and finding an early composition of hers, titled “War Song”. I brought it to the director of the music center, who treated it as a holy relic. A few months ago, I was visiting a pair of remarkable, strong women activists in Zimbabwe and was thrilled to see that, in one of their collections of inspirational music as Chapman’s “Talking ‘Bout a Revolution” – and I hope I get the chance to tell her that later tonight.)

Isabelle Allende starts her talk with an old Jewish saying: “What is truer than truth? The story.” She tells several – a funny tale about being asked to carry the flag in the Winter Olympics in Turin, and the challenge of keeping up with Sophia Lauren. She tells us that she likes to write about people with passion, people who bend the rules and take risks: “Nice people with common sense do not make good characters – they only make good former spouses.”

The people with passion she tells us about have stories that are hard to hear. We hear about a women who survives a refugee camp in DRCongo, protects her children from rape and goes on to a rich life living in Phoenix, Arizona. A woman who volunteers in a rural dental clinic, pulling the teeth of people desperate for assistance. The value of empowering women, which has more of a power to transform society than “technology, design and entertainment”. She tells us she would love to have the breasts and legs of Sophia Lauren, but that she “would rather have the warrior heart of Wangari Mathai” and these other brave women. I think everyone hearing her would love to have Allende’s huge heart,pwoerful mind and sharp tongue.

Considering connections

Filed under: Africa,Geekery,TED2007 — Ethan @ 11:08 pm

Jan Chipchase is a user anthropologist for Nokia, who also writes a lovely (photo)blog, Future Perfect. His talk is about connectivity – specifically the connectivity of the mobile phone, which connects 3 billion of the world’s 6.3 billion people, and will rapidly connect another billion.

One question he frequently asks – “What do people carry?” He’s watched people for the past five years to see what devices people take out of the home. Ultimately, it’s wallet, keys and a mobile phone. These objects are survival gear – they address needs very low on Maslow’s hierarchy. Money lets you buy food, keys let you access your shelter, and your phone is a very useful “recovery device.” Chipchase watches these devices move towards a “center of gravity”, a place that these objects will all end up in your home and office.

(He’s right. My objects also include the small bag that contains my insulin and glucose meter. They gravitate to a spot in the kitchen, right next to where my wife’s things end up as well.)

“The way to remember everything is to have nothing to remember” – people have very complex
strategies for delegating things they need to know. You can’t delegate bodily functions and you don’t want to delegate entertainment, but people delegate almost anything else. Illiterate people – 799 million worldwide – are masters of delegation. Their contact lists get managed by people who can read and write on their behalf.

Some of these people are the microentrepreneurs who run phone kiosks in rural villages – they’re usually the only people in a community to have a phone. Increasingly, they’re also ATMs as well. A system called “sente” in Uganda – a word that means both “money” and “to send money” – works on top of the MTN cellphone network to allow remittance between Kampala and smaller towns. A person working in Kampala calls the mobile operator in a village, reads off a cellphone recharge code and the beneficiary. The mobile operator uses the code to recharge her phone and gives 80-90% of the value to the beneficiary. It’s a remarkable and creative system to connect the unbanked.


Creativity goes beyond business models – we see photos of mobile phone repair shops in China and India. In the US and Europe, we simply throw mobiles away. But in developing nations, a flat surface, a screw driver and a brush (to clean electronics contacts) is a shop. And technicians reverse engineer the technical manuals for these phones and distribute them in Hindi, Chinese and other languages.

The lessons of five years of studying connections and consequences:
– The immediacy of ideas – a big idea has to embrace everyone
– The immediacy of objects – things get adopted incredibly quickly
– The street will find uses for anything that meets basic needs
– Innovation will happen in ways we can’t anticipate
– People want to be part of the conversation

An excellent talk – one of my top five for the conference.

Remembering Grandpa Charles

Filed under: TED2007 — Ethan @ 10:10 pm

Eames Demetrios is the grandchild of Charles and Ray Eames, one of America’s most celebrated design and architecture teams. Will Wright invoked the Eames film “Powers of Ten” in his talk about Spore – Eames designs have had a profound influence on different aspects of American design.

It’s Charles Eames centernary, and we see some Eames designs that are less archetypal – a movie of clown makeup designed as a training film for clown colleges, a film made for the Moscow World’s Fair, designed to be show on seven screens, 200 feet across. Demetrios points out that Eames emphasized connections between the US and Russia – “the same stars shine down, our cities look much the same from the sky.” There were more images than anyone could process – the desire was to present the gestalt.

“When people say design, they usually mean style” – but Charles and Ray tried to design, which meant solving problems, not making things look a certain way. “The designer should be like a thoughtful host anticipating a guest.” This means solving a problem through iteration, modeling and repetition, which makes the high modernism of Eames very much like vernacular art.

We see the first film Charles Eames ever made, in 1939 – a study of a pottery wheel made for the Cranbrook faculty exhibition. Demetrios points out that Eames was making this film at the first time as making early chairs – the creativity was synchronous, not serial.

Eames Demetrios is making his own art – three-dimensional fiction about an alternative America called Kymerica. Much of the art involves plaques installed at important places in the history of this alternative America. His point – “the visual environment is not inevitable.”

Some of the most beautiful objects are those the Eames made from molded plywood – hanging from above the stage are some beautiful splints made from molded plywood, designed to help soldiers in World War II. More moving (to me, at least) is a plywood elephant designed as a children’s toy. He ends with a Charles Eames quote: “Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.”

(No, I don’t know what it means, either. But I’m looking forward to thinking about it.)

Humble Design

Filed under: TED2007 — Ethan @ 8:20 pm

Paola Antonelli is the design curator for the New York Museum of Modern Art, MOMA. She understands that most people don’t come to the museum to see the design, but she’s mounted remarkable shows, like Humble Masterpieces, which was at MOMA in 2004, and has been mounted on a small scale here at TED.

Design, she tells us, is often separate from art – Milan, her hometown, doesn’t have much of a local art scene (her words, not mine), but stunning design is pervasive and shows up in average homes. The items she’s featured in Humble Masterpieces, and a later show about security called SAFE – Design Takes on Risk, are all over the map, including:

– Gas masks designed for use in Israel, specialized to let teenagers sip a coke, to let a toddler be held while wearning a mask, or to let a baby be in a cot.
Ideo’s “personal skies”, cubicles that let occupants control what’s over their heads.

Ralph Borland’s “Suited for Subversion”, a suit for civil disobedience that amplifies your heartbeat, forcing the police to hear your humanity.
– Hideaway furniture, which allows you to literally hide in your floor.
– Faraday chairs that protect you from radiation.
Twan Verdonck’s Boezels, toys that hug autistic children.
Ana Mir’s chocolate nippes and intra-toe candies that your lover is supposed to suck
Mathieu Lehanneur’s asthma medicine container which inflates when you’re supposed to take your medicine.

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