Postcard from TED: My Favorite TED Things

Last night, I was casting about for a way to highlight some of my favorite moments from the first three days of talks from TED 2012. I wanted to find a way to say “these are few of my favorite things” from TED.

I absolutely abhor when people of any particular stripe live up to the clichés and stereotypes of their stripe. I’m supremely disappointed when that happens.

For example, years ago when I was studying acting, I worked in a night club and disco on the far west side of Manhattan with several of my acting school friends. We were all cute, young white kids, and we had jobs as hostesses, ticket takers, busboys, elevator operators and bartenders.

Then there was a group of young black kids who worked as the bathroom attendants. One evening, after the club had closed, I walked into the kitchen and there the black kids were, eating fried chicken out of a big KFC bucket, with a cut-up watermelon in front of them. I looked at them and said, teasingly, “you people should be ashamed.”

So as a gay man, I tell you with extreme embarrassment, that when I considered how best to share “a few of my favorite things” from TED, I thought of a show tune.

My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music is, of course, a wonderful structure that Maria uses to catalog her favorite things. So in the wee hours last night, after a long day of over-stimulation, I wrote my own TED version.

It will make immediate sense to anyone who attended TED or TEDActive or watched on TEDLive. But for those who didn’t, I will explain the references immediately afterwards. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the wordplay itself and also be intrigued by some of the talks to watch them when they’re posted on

My Favorite TED Things
Sung to the tune of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music

Quadrotor robots that fly in formation
Poetry readings with wry animation
Stiff carbon taxes for fossil fuel flings
These are a few of my fav’rite TED things.

Checklists for surgeons that stymie infection
Introvert lawyers with time for reflection
Secrets on postcards that end up in rings
These are a few of my fav’rite TED things.

Hope versus fear in the climate conundrum
Flowers with nectar and bats’ tongues that plund’r ‘em
Possums in trash cans and book-jacket kings
These are a few of my fav’rite TED things.

When the gas fracks,
When my boss acts
Like a psychopath,
I simply remember my fav’rite TED things
And crowdsource an ox’s mass.

And now, the song decoded. A couple of these talks are already posted on, and I will link to them. As others are posted over the next few weeks, I’ll update this post with the links. Each talk is no longer than 18 minutes, which is the TED format. And each is so worth the time to view it.

Vijay Kumar from UPenn and two of his students demonstrated the four-propeller, palm-sized robots they have developed that are capable of flying unguided, avoiding obstacles and each other in formation. Vijay concludes his talk with a video they made just for TED, with the quadrorotors, as they’re called, programmed to play the James Bond theme on some customized instruments.

Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, shared several of his poems that had been charmingly animated. One of my favorites was called “In the Country,” and was about his unease when told by his host at a house in the country not to leave matches out, as mice might carry them off to build nests and accidentally strike one inside a wall, igniting a fire. You can imagine the animation of a mouse, Prometheseus-like, bringing fire to his fellow rodents.

Climatologist James Hansen made a strong case for the carbon tax on fossil-fuel consumption. A counterpoint to his talk, was that of T. Boone Pickens, referenced in the chorus of the song, who made a case for natural gas — obtained through the process known as “fracking” — as the “bridge fuel” for the U.S. from foreign oil to whatever becomes our dominant source of domestic energy, which he suggested just might be — natural gas.

Atul Gawande is well-known for demonstrating that a large percentage of infections acquired while IN the hospital could be avoided if surgeons used a simple procedural checklist that included among other things — making sure they’d washed their hands. I had heard this point before, and when I unfortunately had the occasion to have three minor surgeries over the past three years, I asked the assembled staff in the operating room each time before they put me out, “Has everyone washed their hands?”

On the very first day, Susan Cain gave a wonderful talk about how a society that extols extroverts should learn to value its introverts. As a Meyers-Briggs-typed introvert (and I know some people will find that hard to believe), I was deeply moved by her defense of the value of introverts. She said, “True creation only happens as a solo endeavor.” Something I know to be absolutely true from my career in the creative field of advertising. Teams build on the ideas of individuals within the team, and the ultimate creation will be different and better than what any individual could have conceived. But it is the individual moments of creativity that move the process forward.

Frank Warren created the PostSecret Project, which began with him handing out self-addressed postcards, asking people to send him their secrets, which he posted on a website, Today, people from all over the world send him postcards and emails with drawings and photos, revealing an incredible range of behaviors, activities and feelings.

One of his stories was about an unmarried couple who used to read the postsecret posts together every weekend. The man sent in a picture of his hand holding the engagement ring with which he was going to propose to his girlfriend, alongside the couple’s cat. The picture was posted on the site, to the man’s surprise and delight. As he and his girlfriend read each other the posts that day, at one point his girlfriend looked at the post and said, “is that our cat?”

She said “yes” and they were married, and a picture of the woman’s hand, holding the cat and wearing a wedding ring, was posted on the site.

In a previous blog, I mentioned the debate that started the conference between Paul Gilding’s talk, in which he stated we need to feel the fear of the inevitable climate crisis to move us to act, vs. the faith in what technology will accomplish, expressed in the hopeful message of Peter Diamandis.

Natural history filmmaker, Karen Bass, shared some gorgeous film from her recent projects filming the earth’s natural phenomena. Included was footage of the tube-lipped nectar bat — with a tongue three times the length of its body — which is the sole pollinator of the flower of the Centropogon nigricans plant.

Tube-lipped Nectar Bat
Photo: Dr. Nathan Muchhala

Jennifer Pahlka runs a program that places tech-savvy interns into local government bureaucracies to help them come up with tech-enabled solutions. One of her examples was a site developed in Boston called Citizen’s Watch. Someone posted something about finding a possum in their garbage can and not knowing whether it was dead or alive nor what to do about it. The post was seen by one of their neighbors, who walked over, ascertained that the possum was alive, and tipped the can on its side so that the possum could get out.

She had a broader point to make about our roles as “citizens” in a democratic community and what we would contribute to that community vs. what we expect to receive from it.

One of the most delightful talks was given by Chip Kidd, a book jacket designer who was also the “gayest ” of TED presenters. He was a bit like Paul Lynde (if you remember him from Hollywood Squares) on acid. His graphic designs for book jackets — he discussed how he captures the essence of the idea of the book in an appealing way that makes your want to read it — were brilliant.

Chip Kidd, Bookjacket Designer
Photo: James Duncan Davidson

T. Boone Pickens spoke about natural gas as the bridge fuel that we need to get us off our dependence on foreign oil — cheap, abundant and most importantly to him, “ours” as the U.S. has vast stores of this natural resource.  I’m not a fan of hydraulic fracking, the process used to extract natural gas, so it wasn’t actually one of my favorite talks.  But “fracks” rhymes with “acts,” so some times you have to compromise for art.

Jim Ronson did a rap with animation about his explorations into the world of psychopaths. As it turns out, a checklist of traits that qualify you as a psychopath would also apply to many CEOs.

And finally, Lior Zoref repeated in real-time a classic experiment that exhibits the power of crowd-sourcing. I have read the book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. In it, he points out that on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? the most effective of the three “lifelines” in answering a question was polling the studio audience. Surowiecki also discussed the original crowd-sourcing experiment. The weight of an ox at a county fair was more accurately guessed by the average of the crowd’s guesses than by the estimates of a handful of cattle experts.

Crowd-Sourcing an Ox's Mass
Photo: James Duncan Davidson

At TED, 500 txt’d guesses of the weight of an ox brought onto the stage averaged 1792 pounds. The guesses ranged from a low of 800 pounds to a high of 8000 pounds. The actual weight of the ox was 1795 pounds.

You gotta love that.

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