February 11, 2013


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TEDxAustin 2013 : Fearless

picture of the tedxaustin 2013 conference title and countdown clock. Fearless.

This year’s theme for TEDxAustin was Fearless.

That’s a pretty wide canvas to work from. It would have been easy to go the “rah-rah” inspirational route and there were those moments, but mostly the speakers showed us how they have faced some of their own fears, helped others tell their personal stories, and worked on new technologies that we may fear to adopt and integrate into our lives. Facing fear could be a conference theme every year. It seems like that’s the barrier we all face when we want to move forward.

My highlights from Saturday:

Risk More

“Homeless people don’t run” > These are the words Anne Mahlum consistently heard when she had the seemingly strange idea to start a running club at a homeless shelter. Anne managed to find a way to channel her own childhood trauma into a constructive outlet for herself and people living on the fringes of our society. What wasn’t so strange was the result: Turns out homeless people do run. And running has changed their lives for the better.

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“I’ve always wanted to know how things work” > Eric Horvitz spends his days at Microsoft doing just that. Figuring out how to use predictive models to fill the gaps of human cognition with machine intelligence. Whether its predicting traffic, creating an intuitive digital assistant or elevators that make decisions based on your walk patterns, Eric is doing work that will take machine intelligence to the next level. I’d also be lying if I didn’t have HAL 9000 thoughts creeping into my head during his presentation. Computers that can read your facial expressions, body movements and patterns of behavior? Delight is my first response. Fear is my second.

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Faith Dicky talked about her passion for slacklining and how it gave her focus in her life  >>  Andrea Alù showed us the work he and his team are doing to make objects literally invisible  >>  Elizabeth Andoh shared with us the art and culture of japanese food  >>  And Graham Reynolds gave a wonderful musical performance.

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The Wire > This is what Michael McDaniel and Jared Ficklin call their crazy idea to use the ski lift concept as a way to address mass transit in Austin, Texas. I’m not going to do this one justice so you’ll have to wait till the video gets posted. I will say that I’m very much intrigued. If people will embrace the concept of a train as a practical solution for transit in a city as spread out as austin, why not urban cable?

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“I ran straight towards the data” > What happens when you combine neuroscience and art? You get Laurie Frick. Laurie’s presentation was by far my favorite. Maybe it’s because I am an artist with a very strong left brain lean. Or maybe it’s because she is doing work at the crux of my two obsessions: technology and artistic expression. For me, the key point from her talk was this(to paraphrase): “We recognize patterns intuitively in spite of overwhelming data. Maybe art can get you to look.” That is part of her work’s appeal—taking all the data and presenting it artistically.

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Darden Smith told us his story about what happens when you don’t end up a rock star (In his case, I think it’s something much more interesting)  >>  Joel Selanikio, maker of Magpi mobile data software, shared a very important lesson about removing himself from the equation in his work—and how that made a world of difference.

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“Function words are social” > James Pennebaker showed us the insights that can be gleaned from examining our use of function words. There are only 500 function words in our vocabulary, yet they make up 60% of all words used. By analyzing something as simple as the use of the word “I”, they can identify things like someones tendency towards suicide and the difference in status between two people conversing.

Facing the rejection monster > The most inspirational speech of the night had to be Jia Jiang’s talk about his journey of rejection. Jia always wanted to be an entrepreneur. He never took the leap. So one day, with the support of his wife and four days before his child was born, he quit his job to pursue his dream. That, however, is not the real story. There are plenty of people who take that kind of leap. Jia’s story is about his early attempts not working out. And his desire to deal with it by starting what he called his 100 Days of Rejection Therapy. This is another one that you’ll just have to watch the video to get the full effect. It’s also proof positive that there are wonderful people working in the service industry. People we rarely take notice of.

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Jeff Sharpe spent his time building a justification for intentional design in our businesses(something I can definitely identify with)  >> Robyn Metcalfe shared her interest in food’s past, present and future >> Byron Reese talked about something we all talk about – that nagging feeling we aren’t making a difference in the world and how he’s going about changing that.

For me, that was TEDxAustin this year—a not so subtle reminder that I am here to make a difference and that the gift I’m given is I get to choose how I try to do just that. I’m sure I’ve left out a few things and a few people. When the videos start popping up online I will be sure to share them.

A big thank you to the organizers and partners of TEDxAustin this year. You hit a home run.

images of installations at tedxaustin 2013

A few links from 2012’s TEDxAustin that you may be interested in:

My review of TEDxAustin 2012 : Beyond Measure
Todd Humphreys on the future of GPS Technology
Jason Roberts on changing communities
Paul “DJ Spooky”

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