When a red carpet rests on a relatively empty stage, it’s more than likely a TED is in town. And, on Friday and Saturday, just such a red carpet was laid out on stage at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C.
The independent, all-volunteer TedxMidAtlantic event returned and featured speakers, both famous for Washington and famous for the world, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, soprano Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick (most often cited to this reporter as attendees’ favorite presenter), State Department senior adviser Alec Ross, Chef Geoff’s founder Geoff Tracy and Carlyle Group co-founder and co-CEO David Rubenstein.
TEDx events are independent, volunteer-organized forums that use the main TED conference format and are allowed to show at least two videos from that larger event.
The audience consisted of entrepreneurs, philanthropists and academics from the U.S. and abroad, although attendees were largely from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Each speaker was called on to say how he or she had exhibited the conference’s main theme: Fearlessness. The Case Foundation served as the event’s lead sponsor. LivingSocial, PBS, Honest Tea and 410 Labs were also partners. LivingSocial chief executive Tim O’Shaughnessy is the son-in-law of Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of The Washington Post Co.
Forty-four people were originally scheduled to speak, but scheduling changed the roster slightly both days. Most notably, one of the conference’s most anticipated speakers, former domestic policy director Melody Barnes, was unable to attend. But the show — or the conference, rather — went on.
“It ain’t about where you start in life,” said Powell during his remarks early Friday evening, “it’s what you do with life” that determines where you will end up.
It all depends, he continued, on “the gift of a good start.”
Powell was fresh from his recent endorsement of President Obama, which he alluded to briefly before driving home his main point: Children needed structure. The former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman used his experiences early, middle and late in life as a backdrop for how structure, such as that offered by the military, could help a child succeed.
Eventually, during day two, curiosity, both the rover and the state of being, were touched on with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Jordan Evans addressing the former and astrophysicist Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute addressing the latter.
“They say curiosity is contagious,” said Livio, during his remarks encouraging the audience to foster not only their own curiosity but curiosity in children. “Let’s make it into an epidemic.”
Asked during a backstage interview what he was most curious about, Livio said dark energy and whether extraterrestrial life exists were high on his list, but that, ultimately, he would like most to have a “theory of everything.”
And the Internet, says Livio, isn’t an excuse not to scratch the itch of curiosity — an act that he says produces the same amount of pleasure as sex.
“I think that the Internet can do a lot in terms of satisfying curiosity. But, you have to be a little bit proactive. … Use the tool that you have to actually get the answers,” said Livio. “By all means get that pleasure — as much as you can.”
Fellow speaker Jack Andraka, of Crownsville, Md., didn’t need any encouragement in that regard. The 15-year-old, who started his research using Wikipedia and Google, had developed what he describes as an inexpensive paper sensor for the detection of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. The test, he says, costs 3 cents and takes five minutes to run.
Andraka is seeking a patent, and courting companies for adoption and distribution. He received the top prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for the project, and his speech Saturday was his fourth TED event.
“Anyone can do it. You just have to type in a few words and you can come up with an idea. All you have to find is something that you’re passionate about,” said Andraka during an interview. He anticipates his technology will be available in five years.
Another teenager was also featured prominently at the event. Fourteen-year old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani women and girls rights activist who was shot by the Taliban, was mentioned by a number of speakers, including Livio and actress Maria Bello.
As is tradition at TED events, photographs and video were prohibited during the talks and use of electronic devices was discouraged. (If you want to tweet, the moderators pleaded, go to the back row.) A professional video crew documented the event, which was streamed online.
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, was created by Richard Saul Wurman, with the first gathering taking place in 1984. The brand is now owned by Chris Anderson’s non-profit The Sapling Foundation. In addition to the conferences, TED has since expanded into a library of online videos, prizes, fellowships and digital book publishing.
The conference had a brush with controversy in May and has been called elitist, since tickets to the main TED gatherings cost thousands of dollars. The organization insists it is not, highlighting the many opportunities, including the x-brand events, as a way for others to engage with the TED brand. Ticket prices and availability to those events vary. The franchise has spread so widely that, in June, the BBC’s Jon Kelly wrote how the resulting spread has produced a cultish following.
“For many, indeed,” wrote Kelly, “TED has become more than just an online educational resource — it is a hobby, an identity, a key part of one’s social networking profile.”( In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been to TED, TEDActive or TEDGlobal — the larger TED gatherings.)
At the end of the day, however, the concept is simple and, given the thousands of independent TEDx events that have been held, increasingly viral. It is a salon on steroids in some ways. In fact, there’s little preventing anyone from doing something similar to a TEDx their living room — or dining room, since the organization describes the events as being akin to an “awesome dinner party.”(Though you can’t call it TEDx without a license from the main organization.)
Granted, without the sponsorship of a large foundation or other entity, it might be hard for the average person to get a former secretary of state to make an appearance.
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