The Evolution of TED

For lunch on Thursdays I meet up with a few friends in a conference room at work and we watch TED videos. What are TED videos? I’m sure you’ve seen some. I’ve linked to several of them from here. TED is a conference, and the videos are from talks at that conference. But there are lots of conferences… why have TED talks become their own special category?

TED was created by Richard Saul Wurman many years ago as an exclusive conference dedicated to Technology, Entertainment, and Design (hence the name). Since then the ownership has changed hands, and TED has become something bigger. Chris Anderson, the owner since 2001, has pushed it in a more open direction, building on the mission “ideas worth spreading.” With the help of some generous sponsors, TED now makes available an astonishing amount of high quality video for free. The latest Fast Company magazine talks about how TED is the new Harvard. That’s overblown of course, but it does make me happy to know that clever people in all corners of the globe are able to enjoy these talks free of charge. It may not be Harvard, but it’s a darn good education.

Here’s a talk from TED employee June Cohen at O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 conference this year. It’s interesting to see how the process looks from the inside. Even when you have strong managerial belief that giving stuff away is the right thing to do, it’s very scary actually doing it. And yet it’s paid off in the most dramatic way. TED is more successful than ever, and has, in the words of her title, transitioned from “a conference to a platform.” In the same way that Google has been well served by its mission of organizing the world’s information, TED has been able to grow beyond its wildest ambitions by following its own mission of spreading great ideas.

Extra bonus: Greatest Hits of TED Videos. I recommend watching them at lunchtime with friends.

Molecular biology cinema

Hey, so I totally scooped the New York Times with my post last week about animation and molecular biology. Only two days ago they came out with this article: Molecular Animation – Where Cinema and Biology Meet. I’m sure they were peeved about my piece, and they probably rushed theirs into production as a result, but it’s a nice article.

It’s accompanied by this video, which I would embed here, but it appears they don’t permit that.

MATLAB Contest gets a mention on Freakonomics

The MATLAB programming contest we run twice a year is currently up and running right now. The rules are here, and there are also some entertaining statistics and graphs showing how things are progressing. I’m particularly impressed with how the code has improved this year. It’s getting better and smaller at the same time, which is unusual (and rare) for code in general, but especially so for our contest.

So it’s lucky timing that we got a nice mention in the New York Times Freakonomics blog: Geeks and Tweaks: What Computer Programming Contests Can Teach Us About Innovation. The post was written by guest bloggers Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman, and it includes a long quote from me which comes from my paper in Interactions magazine, In Praise of Tweaking.

Raustiala and Sprigman’s post is broken into three parts. The contest comes up in the third. The first two (part one and part two) talk about what the world of football can tell us about copyright law. In short form, the argument goes like this: copyright law came about because if creators don’t have protection from the law, they will lose their incentive to innovate and create. That’s the theory, at least. But wait a minute, say the authors. Football is good counterexample to this argument. You can’t copyright a defensive formation, but that doesn’t stop innovation from happening. In fact, football is one of the most innovative professional sports. The MATLAB contest comes up because it offers no special protection to innovators, and yet innovation flourishes there too.

I just like the fact that our programming contest is presented as being analogous (in some small way) to the NFL.

Molecular models

It used to be that biology class was full of pictures of labeled blobs. You could see why: cells are teeny tiny. It’s hard to see what’s going on in there, and there’s a fair amount of guesswork as to what all the parts do. Everything is called a this-o-some or a that-o-some, which just comes from the Greek for “blob” (okay, it’s Greek for “body,” but it’s the same idea). I count 25 different somes of one kind or another on the Wikipedia organelle page. Parenthesomes! Ejectosomes! Spherosomes!

So you ended up with lots of cartoonish diagrams or grainy electron micrographs. Here, for example, is our friend the bacteriophage.

You’d like to zoom in for a close-up and see what’s really going on down there, but the physics of looking at tiny things says no. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.

That’s changing now, because we’ve made such strides in molecular biology. Compare the pictures above with this movie. We now know the molecular structure of this phage down to the last atom.

There’s so much good stuff for biology students to look at these days, it makes me weep. Maybe you’ve seen The Inner Life of the Cell video that was funded by Harvard. More recently they made a beautiful mitochondria video. And since we’re into flu season, take a look at this NPR piece: How A Virus Invades Your Body. While you’re at it, how about this super zoom close-up of H1N1.

Finally, if you like this kind of thing, or if you know someone who does, then I highly recommend a copy of David Goodsell’s The Machinery of Life (second edition).

3D prints kickstart an iPhone tripod business

3D printing is hitting the news a lot these days.

There are dozens of technologies waiting to do the work for you. You can print chairs. You can print cars and airplanes. You can even print skin back onto your body. There is a growing sense that 3D printers are going to start appearing in every house. It’s the new inkjet printer… why buy stuff when you can just print it out?

I’m a big fan of 3D printing, but that’s not going to happen. Not anytime soon.

One of the reasons I enjoy Joseph Flaherty’s Replicator blog, which is dedicated to mass customization and 3D printing, is that he takes the long view on these matters. He knows there are many barriers to mainstream usage of 3D printing. In this post he sums up what is and isn’t possible:

Replacement coat hooks and air conditioner knobs are not going to drive broad adoption and there are too many technical hurdles to take on complex objects like cell phones.

So what is possible then? Is it still worth getting excited about?

What’s possible (and exciting) is that it enables a whole class of serious amateurs. Flaherty describes this as product design as a hobby, and it’s sure to drive a fascinating wave of new products. Here’s a success story of one such product. Two designers came up with an idea for a tripod to support an iPhone. The widget they invented, with the help of 3D printing, is called the Glif. They raised all the money they needed on Kickstarter (another interesting story), and now they have business.

I can’t say for sure whether or not the Glif designers would have built a business without novel technology (3D printing) and novel access to capital (Kickstarter). But even if it didn’t enable it, it sure accelerated the whole process. And in times like these, we need the ideas that serious amateurs are going to bring us.