A few weeks ago, in preparation for this conference, we attendees received an overloaded choice of smaller breakout activities to choose from. I casually picked a wellness session to begin all of the conference days, which started today at 6:45 a.m.–a fusion of yoga, callanetics (look that one up) and martial arts. Never again. Imagine a group of 30 nerds with white legs and backpacks gathered on a chilly early morning grassy knoll, still slippery with dew, the tips of the mountains glowing with the morning sunrise, and called to attention by a perfectly toned and tanned young women in skin tight sports clothing and one impeccable pony-tail. She started us out with martial art air punches, martial art air leg kicks, one side then the other, counting forwards and backwards, both sides again. I was completely bewildered at first–was this what I had signed up for? I looked around me in amazement that everyone was trying their best to beat the hell out of the imaginary adversary in front of them. I immediately knew that we were doomed. This was the most ridiculous sight I had witnessed in a very long time. And I was participating. I groaned, knowing it was going to be the longest hour of my life. As we swung our fists, twisted our waists, kicked to the sky, we worked up a sweat. And then we followed our leader into static poses of stretching, encouraged to reach further, higher, deeper. It was barely 44 F and our bodies rapidly cooled down until frankly, I was cold. As soon as the chill settled in, we were back as bouncing and punching kangaroos, told that we were “brilliant” and “awesome” even though we knew we weren’t, until, sweaty and exhausted, we held the stretch and immediately wished we had scarves and mittens. I looked around, desperately wishing it would end, yet trying not to burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all. This international crowd of all ages, come together to this TED conference to pump some cerebral iron, currently on this slippery inclined grass, exerting ourselves in ways that we probably never do, and looking much we would on a dance floor with all of our various idiosyncratic dance moves screaming to let loose. It seemed to last for.ev.er. Needless-to-say, I removed it from my e-schedule for the rest of the week, content to hike up and back from the hotel to the centre 2-4 times a day. You will not see a photo from this either.
Big stage with TED Fellows
eL Seed, calligraphist. French-born Tunisian street artist uses Arab calligraphy and graffiti for social change. He presented his latest project, Perception, a huge painted quotation by a Coptic Bishop of the 3rd century, which, loosely translated, would come across as, “if you want to see the sunlight, you need to wipe your eyes first.” He chose the Coptic neighborhood Manshiyat Nasr near Cairo, where the Coptic community of the Zaraeeb live. They have been collecting and successfully processing garbage for years, and carry the offensive reputation as “the garbage people”, seen as dirty, undesirable, and marginalized. eL Seed worked closely with the Coptic community, who opened their doors, windows, and homes and granted him permission to paint on their outside walls. The final piece spans 50 separate buildings, coming together as a whole and only visible as such from a hill top. View an earlier TED talk here–words can give visuals only so much justice. Or watch the live talk that we listened to.
Laura Bouschnak, Palestinian photographer, documents and advocates for women and educational reform in the Arab world. She recently covered the horrible reality and consequences of leftover cluster bombs in Lebanon. Much like land mines, they are scattered far and wide, can be confused with bouncy balls, soda cans, and other various everyday objects, and have taken limbs and body parts of children, farmers, women, and anyone who stumbles across one.
Erik Hersman, technologist, is advocating and implementing technology and internet access all across Africa. Currently, 70% of Africa is not connected. Studies cite a direct association between internet access and a country’s GDP, and although there has been improvement in Africa, it is not moving fast enough to keep up. Of course, with Africa’s geography, climate, and conflicts, the task isn’t easy. But Hersman is working to bring Africa online.
Esra’a Al-Shafei, human rights activist from Bahrain. We were not able to see her face when she came onstage. She speaks from the shadows in order to protect herself, her mission, and her family. She is an outspoken fighter, and leads the struggle to give a voice to all underrepresented populations in her home country, including marginalized minority workers, and all those who suffer from government sponsored and religiously encouraged persecution for religious and political reasons, as well as sexual orientation. She is young, brave, clever, funny, lesbian and driven.
Jennifer Brea, activist and filmmaker. Jennifer’s talk has been the most powerful one yet. She rolled herself onstage in her wheelchair, and the audience was not allowed to make noise or clap, but use the clapping sign for the hearing impaired. Her hearing is intact. The noise of clapping would be too strong of a sensation for her. Her story started 4 years ago with the flu. Once an ambitious, energetic, enthusiastic PhD student at Harvard, she walked into her home after a bout with the flu, and collapsed. Unable to write even her name, she stopped everything and underwent months of medical and psychiatric tests. Today, she now knows that she has”Conversion Disorder”, or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), better known as “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome”. This disease is not understood, shamefully underfunded, forgotten by researchers, and strikes women much more than men. Until 1980, it was officially still referred to as “hysteria”. She is fighting as her health allows, taking baby steps to create online communities, trying to bring awareness to the medical world through the help and voice of others, because she is too sick to be in public and use her own voice. Her message for researchers and doctors is that “I don’t know” is ok, because it is where a discovery starts. Watch her talk that we listened to here.
Big Stage TED talks “Things We Think We Know”
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, economist. This amazing woman is Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and one of Forbe’s 2016 Most Powerful Women of the year. Yes. She has this no-nonsense approach to keep Africa rising. The 1980’s and 90’s saw Africa as the lost continent. in the 2000’s, things improved. The markets were managed better, bringing stability and investment, there was the debt relief of 2005, re-structured enterprises, the beginning of a telecommunication revolution, education and health investments, and a decrease in conflicts. But there are still things going wrong. Unemployment for youth is at 15%, the quality of growth is not enough, inequality has increased, as has poverty and the population (they go hand in hand), missing infrastructure (electricity, for example), the economies are stagnant, exports too heavy on commodities, governments are weak, corruption is up, the education system is broken, and new conflicts have risen. Now take that all in. What can be done? She has five calls to action: focus on what hasn’t worked and understand it; fight corruption and engage the youth; recognize that girls and women are strong gifts; encourage outside investment. It all seems so hopeful and feasible on stage…
Josh Tetrick, food innovator. Another social entrepreneur from Northern California, the push here is for a revolution so that good, quality food be available and affordable for everyone, and he speaks from the heart. He started the company Hampton Creek to help make this a reality. As a technology geek, he might even be making fake food that doesn’t taste too bad, but I prefer my mayonnaise from real eggs.
Helen Fisher, anthropologist and expert on love. Well, she’s a brain expert on the emotion of love. Her talk focused on whether technology is changing love. According to her research, it hasn’t changed love at all. Our ancient brain still dominates. Technology, however, may be changing the way we court. And society, woven with technology, may be changing what we want in a long term relationship. But we were wired to love and that’s not changing.
There were three more talks but my brain was smoking from so much stimulation and concentration. I let myself be lulled by experts presenting on their expertise, but I simply can’t give them justice here. My apologies. It’s intense up here!