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TED Session 5: Nina Jablonski, Art Benjamin…

The theme is UNDERSTAND.

1. Nina Jablonski, anthropologist

Darwin’s Origin of Species has only one line about human evolution in the entire book, saying all this could have implications. Much later, in 1871, he did have something to say about it: of all the differences between the races of men, color of skin is best-marked — but doesn’t correspond with difference in climate. But if you look at NASA, you see ultraviolet radiation clearly around the equator. Skin pigmentation is the product of evolution by natural selection. We all share heritage of having been darkly pigmented. But then we moved. Lightly pigmented skin evolved, probably three times in history, because it happened to the Neanderthals too. Health and social consequences for living in an area that has more or less UVR than your skin is evolved for. Risk of Vitamin D deficiency just as bad as sunburn.

Barack Obama = first moderately pigmented president of the U.S. Similar pigment to Southern Africa and Southeast Asia.

You only have to look at your skin to see evidence of evolution.

2. Art Benjamin, mathematician

Culmination of high school mathematics should be statistics, not calculus. It’s a subject that you could and should use on a daily basis. If all American citizens knew about probability and statistics we wouldn’t be in the economic situation we are today. It’s gambling, it’s predicting the future, it’s fun. We need to change from analog to digital. The mathematics of uncertainty, of data.

3. Hans Rosling

AIDS in 6 minutes in animated charts.

4. Louise Fresco, food and agriculture expert

Few of us spend a day without eating bread in some form. It is actually a mainstay of longer life. Wonderbread is actually quite important because it is part of abundant food. Bread is the most basic fundamental food, we added all this stuff to it, and now it’s associated with obesity. But large scale has a price — destruction of habitats. What we need to do is better understand our food. Can you even tell wheat from other grains? Can you bake bread? Traditional setting, farmers markets, great — but this is a fallacy. This is idealizing the past. If we want to go to small-scale farming, we relegate farmers to poverty and the urban poor to starvation. What they need is implements to bring to market. Local food production is a luxury. World food production needs to double by 2080 (?), and most of that is meat. We can product more, but we need mechanization. We need clever, low-key mechanization that avoids problems of large-scale production. We need to serve low-income city people who need cheap diverse foods.

Use biotechnology in some places, use robots, improve irrigation. We need fish ponds in parking lots, greenhouses on rooftops.

5. Elizabeth Gilbert, author

Far too much pressure on artists. So many kill themselves. Her real fear is that her best work is behind her. Greeks and Romans thought of a helper fairy who helped people be creative. Going from “having a genius” to the modern “being a genius” was a huge error. This talk got huge applause and a standing ovation.

6. Jacek Utko, newspaper designer

Newspapers are dying for two reasons: readers don’t want to read yesterday’s news, and advertisers follow them.

Ideas for how to save newspapers: local, free, tabloid, niche, opinion…

But this can only save time, because in the long run there is no reason for the newspaper to survive.

Front page: I want to make posters, not newspapers. We have fun.

The secret is we were treating the whole newspaper like one piece, like music, and music has ups and down.

Got awards for best-designed papers in the world for Polish and Estonian papers. And circulation grew directly after redesign after years of stagnation. Bulgarian paper’s circulation up 100%.

But not just design. Bosses were surprised by all his business questions. Design can change not just your product, it can change your workflow, it can change your company. We just need inspiration, vision, and determination to operate at the highest level. To be good is not enough.

7. Nigel Holmes, graphical explainer of things

“I’m fascinated by big numbers which have such innocently similar sounding names, but which hide huge differences, really huge differences.”

8. Margaret Wertheim, “figurer”

Crochet hook is an incredibly powerful technology. Project with twin sister over last three years: crochet coral reef. Thousands of people have become involved. Tens of thousands of hours of labor, 99% done by women. In 2005 there was a lot of talk about global warming and effect on coral reefs. Her actual profession is science writing, so had no idea what it meant to fill 3,000-ft. gallery, as she was asked to do.

This isn’t just a random medium. The only way mathematicians know how to model hyperbolic geometry is with crochet. A line on a crocheted surface defies Euclidean geometry. They had such a symbolic view of mathematics couldn’t see the lace in front of them.

We want to propose an alternative to the think tank: the play tank.

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