Erin McKean is a lexicographer and the editor of Oxford's American dictionaries and of Verbatim magazine (and author of an unrelated blog about unusual dresses, A dress a day, where she chronicles the "secret lives of dresses"). People think that the dictionary stands for the language, that dictionaries are a complete map of languages. But there are many languages that don't appear in dictionaries -- mostly because dictionaries are limited, “books are the wrong shape for the dictionary". But lexicography is not rocket science (and even if it was, rocket science is done by amateurs these days). She she calls for an open-source dictionary, to make the dictionary the whole language. With the participation of all, we could put in all the words, all the meanings, and we can make THE dictionary. Through the Internet of course: the Internet is made of words and enthusiasm, which are the ingredients for good lexicography. What I'm really hoping for, she says, is that my son, who's now 7 months old, in the future won't even remember that the dictionary used to come in the form of a book.
Jonathan Harris is a 28-year-old Internet artist and designer that describes his work as "the exploration and understanding of humans, on a global scale, through the artifacts and footprints of self-expression they leave behind on the Web". So he writes software that tries to capture some of these footprints and make sense of them. One of these projects is called We Feel Fine, a tool harvesting human feelings from a large number of weblogs (instances of "I feel" and "I am feeling") creating a searchable database of sentences and/or pictures. Here one of the results of this "passive observation" of people, a breakdown of their feelings as expressed in blogs around the world in the last few hours:
Another of his projects involves a more explicit observation: a time capsule, a collective portrait of the world (there is a description here but the project is no longer online). And Lovelines explores the boundaries of love and hate through blog analysis.
Harris unveils his new project, "Universe", which uses the metaphor of the starry sky where every "star" represents news from around the world, and as the cursor goes over the stars shapes and words emerge, and clicking on a word makes it become the center of the universe, with all the related items swirling and reorganizing around it. There is no end, it goes infinitely. As Harris clicks through it, I realize that he has developed, as an art project, one of the most innovative ways of accessing, organizing and displaying news online that I've seen, around people, images, events, geography, timelines, quotes, general topics and more, real-time. The site will go live in a few days (at universe.daylife.com) and at that moment it will be mandatory for every publisher and news(wo)man to have a close look at it. It remains an art project, but way more innovative than anything publishers have been putting online so far, showing a better understanding of the interrelations among and between disparate pieces of information (news online are more about connections, organizations, movement within and among sets of information) and how they can be made visible.
Actress Julia Sweeney and singer Jill Sobule met at TED2006 (where Julia read from her one-woman-show "Letting go of God" - watch video - and Jill composed a "happy song about global warming" - here to download and listen) and decided to collaborate. The result is a combination of music and comedy, tackling politics, Oprah, and more, which they perform for the TED audience.
Canadian nanotechnologist Ted Sargent ("The dance of molecules") believes that the world of IT is very powerful. A single microchip allows us to do incredible things. That which is perfect and pure: silicon -- the basic component of semiconductors. But this perfection comes at a cost (energy). So: are purity and perfection the only paradigm? There is another kind of optimization that is equally powerful. A tree leaf converts 60% of the light power into chemical energy. Yet leafs are all different, gooey, and far from perfect. Where there is perfection in the leaf is at the scale of the molecule. The human eye is another astonishing organ, although it looks like a chaotic mass.
So perfection is not the only paradigm for great functionality. The dream of the nanotechnologists: to use this idea of perfect molecules building incredibly functional, optimized entities for our use, for the benefit of society. For example to harness the Sun's power efficiently enough, and cheaply and simply, and convert it into electricity. Sargent is the inventor of the paintable plastic solar cells, semiconductor quantum dots; they don't allow yet for energy harvesting but are a first step in that direction. "Perfection scales beautifully, but scales down; molecular design instead scales up. So when you think of nanotech, think that small may become big".
TEDster Steve Beshara, founder of Turbochef, has developed a very fast oven - called the Speedcook Oven - that he demonstrates, by cooking a chocolate soufflé (and having two people in the audience eating it - they say it tastes great) in less than 3 minutes (soundtrack for his demo: the "Mission Impossible" theme). If I understand it correctly, the oven (which from the outside looks a bit oversized but otherwise pretty normal) includes a combination of currents of heated air and microwave (the one he used for the demo is then given away in a drawing).
Dutch artist Theo Jansen talks about (and shows) his artificial animals -- "Artifauna" - skeletons made of plastic tubes, which are designed to move autonomously, pushed by the winds, on beaches (you can see some of them on the Strandbeest website):
Jansen's structures are handmade, but computer-designed: to come up with "legs" that can walk is not trivial. It means combining several pieces of tubes of perfect size and proportion -- what he calls the "genetic code" of its creatures.
Nathan Myhrvold became famous as Microsoft's chief technology officer until the late 1990s. Since leaving the company, among other things he has become a dinosaur hunter (well, he digs out their skeletons) and has founded Intellectual Ventures, a controversial entity that considers itself a force for innovation but is seen by many as a "patent troll", herding patents for future exploitation. He doesn't discuss this, but uses his session to tell people how he spends his time. Interesting (because he is who he is, and has the money he has) but, well, just about one inch deep. Here is what he said. I am in Chile, and I have this picture up in my screen, and a woman comes up and asks whether that's a Jackson Pollock painting, but no, it's a picture of penguin shit on rocks. I've just been in the Falkland Islands taking pictures.
A few hours before I had downloaded a scientific paper about the speed and pressure of penguin defecation (an absurd piece of scientific research that got an IgNobel Prize -- the figure at right is from the original scientific paper). At what point she stops me and asks: who are you? What do you do? And I was stuck, because I had no way to tell easily what I do. Here is some of what I do. I travel around the world and study archeologic sites. Recently I was in Easter Island, which is full of moai statues (about 800 of them). Why they did these statues? Basically these people committed ecological suicide to create more of these statues (see Jared Diamond's book "Collapse"). I have embarked in a project to digitize all the Easter Island moai.
Another thing I do is, I invent stuff. I design nuclear reactors. Not a joke. We do stuff in nanomaterials, in biomedical. I'm also a French cook, and was part of a team that won the world championship of barbecue (he shows a picture of a cooker he has developed, which looks very complicated, although he promises that it makes great ribs). I work on search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI): the movie "Contact" with Jodie Foster, most characters in the movie were inspired from real people, which I support: the SETI Institute is building an array in California. And I do work on dinosaurs.