Wallace Stegner wrote that "culture is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone*".
Allow me to reveal the tenor of Kendall Square. I stand in the longer of two ticket pick-up lines (for people whose surnames begin with letters A-M) when a man leans in conspiratorially and sums up Kendall Square's personality in one sentence: "You'd think they'd look at the registration list and find the optimal division point."
Welcome to Cambridge, where people take righteous indignation and conspire to make things more...efficient. :)
We grabbed our tickets and began filling up the seating in the Twilight Broadcast space. It was the first time a TEDx talk had an outdoor location, but it was a very comfortable experience. This says a great deal, as I'm usually quite the diva about outdoor events, but the rain let up and the volunteer team did everything to ensure our time was a comfortable and memorable one. I, for one, was won over by the cheery volunteer team, water, coffee, and TED-red blankets.
Things were soon kicked off by Jared Chung (@JaredChung), founder of Career Village (@careervillage), a non-profit education tech organization based in Kendall Square.
Then our speakers hopped to it. Let's meet some of them, ideologues.
Ariel encouraged us to invert curriculum; to stop sucking the thrill and passion out of learning. One sentence stands out to me: "Don't let our education system beat the curiosity out of you." His company Boundless is a learning platform that makes education more accessible and affordable, which is a godsend for lifelong learners like myself.
I was educated in public schools in Chicago and went on to attend a private university on the north side of the city. Unfortunately, difficulties arose and I soon found myself moving to Cambridge in 2009 only planning to "stay a lil' while to raise enough money to go back".
Six months turned into four years. I've emailed notable scholars out of the blue for interviews at Brown, Yale and Harvard. I've had random conversations with Holocaust survivors in Los Angeles and interviewed activists from the Civil Rights era. I go where the ideas are.
I do so with an intense desire to be transformed by them.
Next up was Manolis Kellis' (@manoliskellis), whose bio is quite the doozy. He's an Associate Professor of Computer Science, a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and a member of the Broad Institute - all at MIT.
Manolis drew on his experience as a Computational Biologist to carry the banner for an analysis revolution. He walked us through his genetic predisposition for a visual degenerative disorder and panned out to the larger scope of diagnosis and the potential for treatment. I'd heard presentations on the benefit (and seemingly common sense nature) of treating the root of health issues as opposed to the symptoms, but I'd never imagined that I'd be so intrigued by what could be considered a highly complex scientific issue. Manolis' talk was riveting and I wish him all the best with his research.
Zeynep Ton (@zeynepton) is an adjunct Professor of Operations Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. I knew that people who held positions in the retail industry were underpaid and overworked. I knew that socioeconomics intersect with race and the way our country operates to deprive many folks of a livable wage -
but Professor Ton detailed the scale of the issues and ways to overhaul the system in a very informed and succinct way.
The median age of the retail worker is 38. They're very likely the key wage earner for their households. Thirty percent have some college experience or an undergraduate degree. We should look to companies like Costco and Trader Joe's that (oddly enough, offer fewer products) standardize their systems and empower their employees.
Data Scientists and MIT Media Lab graduate students Deepak Jagdish (@dj247) and Daniel Smilkov (@dsmilkov2) talked to us about the power of our metadata. I've often wondered about the connections that I've made in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston.
Well, Deepak and Daniel's Immersion can answer that. They use the 'from', 'to', 'cc:' and time stamp info from email correspondence (the subject matter of which remains confidential, of course) to combine, analyze and visualize trends.
Unfortunately, those of us at the Twilight Broadcast were disconnected due to a WiFi issue, but we were very quickly back online. Deepak and Daniel were very nice - they came to present the final portion of their talk that we missed. I look forward to using their tool.
He highlighted (while attempting to be unbiased about juxtaposing the Romney and Obama campaigns) how ideas of identity are used to incite action. As a Black American, voting was tethered to many abolitionists' hard work and scores of suffragettes' determined slouches toward justice.
How do I tap into and draw upon that cultural inheritance when I cast a ballot? How do I perform that beneficiary identity when contemplating the relationship between voter ID laws and literacy tests and poll taxes of yesterday - and in the wake of a recently-gutted Voting Rights Act?
Bruce Schneier (@schneierblog) didn't get a fair shake. There was a tech snafu that made him restart his presentation, but I'm so glad he did. He's a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School - in addition to being an author and Security Technologist...who just so happens to have full access to the Snowden docs.
After the snafu was worked out, Bruce launched into the difference between traditional (institutional) and distributed power. He sang the praises of transparency and accountability, stating very candidly that they were "critical for checking power."
I look forward to reading more about this fascinating (and Orwellian) field. From paper books. Without surveillance.
Last, but certainly not least, Sara Seager (@ProfSaraSeager). You know, she's just kind of an, uh, Astrophysicist and Planetary Scientist at MIT.
I learned so much during her talk - that the use of a star shade could help reveal additional information about exoplanets that we otherwise would not be in a position to see; that there are a dozen potentially habitable exoplanets; even that the sun is ten billions times brighter than the earth!
The sheer enormity of the project is daunting, but there was one moment in her presentation that I'd like to highlight.
It was toward the end of her talk - I was furiously scribbling notes in my Moleskine for post-event reflection when I looked up at the screen in the Twilight Broadcast space. There I was, all wrapped up in my blanket, awaiting what came next with baited breath - and she said it. Professor Seager told us that this work, this intense, complex, demanding work is her life's dream.
...and I believed her.
Our world is complicated. We contend with an iliad of woes on a daily basis, but I will never cease to be amazed by the scope of human reach and the restlessness of our wonder.
Professor Seafer's talk encapsulated the TEDx experience for me. Sometimes I burst with gratitude for the way my life has unfolded - would I be as dedicated to studying literature if I'd had the money to stay in school? Would I have been not only willing, but eager to attend a lecture every day after work - even while I was working 55 hour weeks? Would I have had the audacity to sit directly in front of Henry Louis Gates on Wednesday afternoon lectures at the DuBois center - and have the unmitigated gall to ask questions?
I recognize that I am a constellation of ideas and that I have a mind worth fighting for. I am also constantly considering the stone I plan to contribute - since we have that pyramid to build.
...and I think the great folks at TEDxCambridge know that.
Top: Amazing beer (try the Pomegranate Wheat!) by Peak Organic Brewing Company / www.peakbrewing.com / @peakbrewing
Bottom: Chicken LIver Mousse, Yuzu Mustard with Pickled Pearl Onion by Catalyst / www.catalystrestaurant.com / @CatalystCam
Top: Hors d'oeuvres by West Bridge Restaurant / www.westbridgerestaurant.com / @WestBridge02139
Bottom: Hors d'oeuvres by Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks / www.easternstandardboston.com / @ESKDboston
Above: AMAZING mini macarons by Guchi's Midnight Ramen / www.guchismidnightramen.com / @guchiramennight
You can contact the good folks at TEDxCambridge at: email@example.com / @TEDxCambridge / www.tedxcambridge.com
*An excerpt from the following quote from his The American West as Living Space: “If there is such a thing as being conditioned by climate and geography, and I think there is, it is the West that has conditioned me. It has the forms and lights and colors that I respond to in nature and in art. If there is a western speech, I speak it; if there is a western character or personality, I am some variant of it; if there is a western culture in the small-c , anthropological sense, I have not escaped it. It has to have shaped me. I may even have contributed to it in minor ways, for culture is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone.”