Monday, March 5, 2012

What I’m learning at TEDx Somerville

A quick preface: I really appreciate the opportunity to listen to every one of these people speak, and I know they put a lot of work, effort, and energy into their presentations. I could not do what any of them did. Even the talks that I personally didn’t like were undoubtedly moving and illuminating to other people who were there, and I’m glad there was a huge mix. The following is very personal reactions.

Mayor Joe Curtatone: I wish that the person who ran my city was someone like this who values his residents, who values diversity, who values information and ideas, and who believes that an evolving world requires evolving responses. I have a hard time understanding why people in my city vote for a guy whose primary skill is gladhanding and who hates progress. Lesson: my mayor really sucks by comparison.

Dan Rothstein: Asking questions is a skillset. You can learn to ask questions, to change questions from closed to open, to reframe questions with the assumption that there is a positive answer, and to prioritize questions. And this skillset empowers people. The memorable graph was one showing that reading and writing skills both increase sharply through around age 10 and then plateau with only slight increases to age 18, while question skills peak at age 4 and then decrease sharply through age 18. Lesson: What lesson would you take from this?

Georgy Cohen: Personal stories are often far more interesting to the person telling them than to their audience. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your family is the only odd one. Lesson: an amazing title for your talk is insufficient.

Lenni Armstrong: Our combined waste and storm sewer system is old and horrible. Pavement is bad. It took 45 amateurs an entire day to remove the asphalt from a back yard, whereas it took 1 professional one day to remove the asphalt from ours (by hand). Permeable surfaces are better. Over 70% of Somerville is impermeable. Lesson: impermeable pavement sucks.

Ray Matsumiya: I’d love to hear more about his work creating personal contacts between Somerville and Morocco. It sounds extremely successful, and an inspiring story about how a couple of people can make a huge difference to hundreds of people. Lesson: Being insanely nervous makes you a less compelling speaker. I could never give a TEDx talk.

Kelly Creedon: Foreclosures suck. People are ashamed to talk about their problems, whereas solutions and peaceful revolt can only happen when people break their inclination to silence. Lesson: never doubt the power of a sufficiently mobilized populace to videotape their own suppression by the banks and the police while still being evicted.

Video of Drew Dudley: Holy crap this guy is a phenomenal speaker. Lollipop moments. Seriously, watch this video. I’m really glad I did.

Schuyler Towne: An interesting talk about ways to look at the significance and meaning of locks. One of the few talks I might go watch again on video.

Grooversity and Marcus Santos: Drumming performance, very loud, good for audience participation, bad for eardrums. Lesson: bring earplugs.

Video of Gever Tulley: He runs a camp where kids actually build things. If you give kids tools and materials and very light guidance, they can build things, enjoy building things, enjoy failing at building things, solve problems, and build more things. Lesson: kids can build more things with power tools.

Ross Lohr: This one is really complicated. Giving things (shoes, shirts) away to poor countries destroys their local economies revolving around those things. But isn’t that like arguing that single-payer health care is problematic simply because it would force all the leeches in our health insurance system to find other employment doing something else? Shirts go from here to Africa, get remade there into new shirts or bags or ties, get reimported here and sold to rich liberals at very high prices. And you should feel good about it because they pay something to poor people to do the work, which empowers them. Lesson: if you charge enough, you can call anything fair trade.

Joe Grafton: Support local businesses. Buy local efforts are good. This is very old news to me, but good to have a chance to cheer and clap in person for a local guy who’s been instrumental in supporting our local buy local campaigns at a local conference featuring local speakers, a local audience, and local organizers. Lesson: local.

Jessie Banhazl and Brendan Shea: Decent tag-team presentation dynamics about building and maintaining a rooftop farm for a restaurant. They talked a lot about their process and step-by-step experiences, rather than focusing on lessons learned. That doesn’t play well. They overwatered, they used the wrong soil mix, they didn’t figure out how to work with the restaurant well, and they did very little practical planning. Then they decided to improve the next year. Um, congrats? Lesson: don’t pay professionals at their usual rate to do new things they have no experience with.

Clarence Smith, Jr.: Cute talk about how knowledge spreads in a community, focused on the traditional barbershop culture. People who meet regularly and swap stories actually learn things that way! Lesson: molasses makes better Kool-Aid.

Brian Whitman: How do we discover new music? He’s been very involved in the efforts to find computerized approaches to discovering new music, but gave no real info or ideas. Felt like a huge missed opportunity for a fun talk. Lesson: pretend your audience wants to learn something, and see if you have something to teach them.

Jenee Halstead: Singer-songwriter performance. Must get her CD.

Video of Graham Hill: Less stuff = more happiness. Less stuff doesn’t mean no stuff. Good speaker, a little extreme in examples, nothing really new. Lesson: give away more stuff.

Daniel Hadley: Can a city government make you happy? Talked a bit about what Somerville found when surveying residents about happiness and then tried to correlate that to other factors. This has a very long way to go before being persuasive, but he’s right that an important step is to start collecting data. Lesson: you can find happy people in the strangest places, even in East Somerville. And most people claim to be pretty happy.

Ruth Allen: Open government examples from a few other places in the world. Allow citizens to participate in budget discussions (here the best we ever do is make the budget visible). Start public debate with the person who is most downtrodden (here the best we ever do is pretend to listen to empowered community groups). Give unused buildings to community groups (here the best we ever do is sell them with tons of use conditions). All of these ideas could be productively adapted to our country. It’s a shame we hate helping people. Lesson: we are nowhere near being the great democracy we pretend to be.

Erza Glenn: Interactive websites can provide an easy and interesting way for residents to contribute information about their communities. Left unaddressed: how to vet the info, and what to do with it? I’ve seen a number of these efforts over the past few years, and haven’t yet seen anything useful done with the info collected. Lesson: collecting data is a good first step, but is hardly a last step.

Sam Sommers: Great speaker, teaches at Tufts. Must find out what he teaches, consider auditing. Talked about our bad tendencies when we’re in large groups to avoid taking individual responsibility, to assume that someone else will deal with a problem, to assume that someone else would have noticed if there really were a problem. Lesson: Sam Sommers is a great speaker. Oh, and don’t be a sheep.

Alex Feldman: We need to teach and practice body language and non-verbal communication. We’re becoming more and more word-focused. He, on the other hand, is almost as entertaining a performer as he thinks he is. Lesson: make faces at your child.

Keith Fullerton Whitman: What the hell was that? Uninteresting electronic music with no explanation. And way too loud. Please, God, get me out of here. [Lisa says he was actually making her nauseous. Reminded her of stories about the military weaponizing noise.] Lesson: when your ears start telling you to throw up, don’t try to tough it out in the fourth row—just get up and leave.

Mike Norton: We much more highly value things we put effort into ourselves. Funny examples about origami and small Lego models. How can we use this to get people invested in things they might otherwise throw out, such as medical appointment reminders? Two small examples: a reminder postcard that includes areas for kids to color in, so parents have to keep it on their fridge; a reminder postcard that hides the test you need behind a scratch-off stripe. You need a ========= because that condition affects 1 out of 6 adults. This talk is the one that I came here for. Lesson: we care about things we put even a little work into, so don’t try to make everything be no work at all.

Aatish Salvi: Our public tax and financial policies favor the rich and hate the poor. That’s bad. We should change it. Numbers to back it up and horrify decent people, but I don’t think most people respond to numbers. Lesson: poor people wouldn’t all be so poor if we didn’t put so much work into keeping them poor.

Wig Zamore: Air pollution next to highways is extremely bad for health, but nobody regulates placing housing right next to a highway. Living, working, biking, walking, any activity next to a highway (or next to diesel rail) is very bad for asthma, heart damage, and heart attacks, and many other biological systems. Lesson: don’t live here.

Monica Poole: Please stop screaming into your fucking microphone! Oh, thank God, she found her inside voice. She’s actually a compelling and passionate speaker about Occupy Boston, self-empowerment, community building, horizontal democracy, open source democracy, collaborative creation when the collaborators keep changing. Best line: “No, Occupy Boston didn’t have a list of demands. By the way, neither does TED.” Lesson: we are nowhere near being the great democracy we pretend to be.

Seth Itzkan: Different livestock management practices can actually make livestock really good for land rather than really bad for land. Very hopeful. Lesson: keep your mind open.

Chris Templeman: In the future, every object in your home could be a work of art. Community-supported manufacturing, allowing us to shift our expenditures from tooling to materials, design, and production labor. Interesting resonance with the “less stuff” talk. I wish he seemed to be aware of kickstarter and similar methods for doing precisely community-supported manufacturing (and a little more aware of the lack of feedback in CSA). He really went off the rails (in a familiar and comfortable way) when he claimed that by avoiding the tooling costs for plastics manufacturing we could keep our total costs the same and pay designers and workers much more. We could, just like we could do that every time a technological advance reduces our manufacturing costs. But we don’t, and we won’t. On the other hand, he’s exactly right when he points out that people are willing to pay quite a lot more for local high-quality food, and that we can expand that model to other arenas. Lesson: support kickstarter.

Lis Pardi: Libraries have lots of interesting future directions. Rent an expert. Borrow a cake pan. Tools, car seats, pets. Maybe buildings aren’t necessary, move librarians out into the community. Librarians could be in coffee shops, maker spaces, coworking spaces, survivalist bunkers. Deconstruct the concepts of library and librarian. Really, librarians could be useful, if only you would use them! Closing line: “Thank you, and good luck with the zombies.” Lesson: libraries in other places are doing much more interesting things than our local library is.

Emperor Norton Band: Seen them too often, and running late. Time to go home.

1 comment:

Jed said...

Irrelevant side comment: I know Gever Tulley! Not well; he's an old friend of Arthur's. Didn't know he was doing this, though.