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From TED to BIL

35,000 words? Just a warmup. There’s another conference in town, and just try and stop me from blogging it.

(Please. Please stop me before I type again…)

Actually, they almost did. BIL put an announcement on their site saying they were full up. Turns out this was mostly a way of keeping the fire marshall happy. There’s a very happy gang of folks at the Monterey Youth Center, mostly lining a conference hall to listen to some excellent speakers… but another gang standing in the hallway drinking Pepsi and eating cupcakes.

Given my current level of burnout and the number of people I need to see in the Bay Area, I’m only able to drop in for a couple o talks. I caught the end of a brilliant talk by KV Fitz about gifted education. She comes by the topic honestly, as a very bright kid who had the opportunity to go to college at sixteen. Her personal story, which included an academic collapse, is an eye-opener for anyone who’s wrestled with questions about what opportunities to give to very bright kids.

One of her best lines: “There’s no such thing as a twelve year old who’s intellectually twenty. Your ass is twelve. You still need a bedtime.” She tells us that intelligence, by conventional measures, is a misleading thing, pointing out that Richard Feynman describes his IQ as “respectable byt not amazing.” How many potential Feynmans are there out there? Finally, she tells us, “intelligence is a function of passion.” You have to want knowledge to actively seek it and you have to care about knowing things to be smart.

Scheduling at BIL

Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has spoken at TED previously, and presented this year at TED University, a preconference event that focuses on short, practical talks. He gives this talk, called “Not the TED Commandments, or How to Be a Successful Heretic” to the BIL stage. de Grey is a phenomenally successful heretic – he’s the founder of the Methusela Foundation, and he’s been systematically challenging thinking about life extension for the past dozen years. And he’s quite controversial.

de Grey shows us the stone tablet, engraved with “the TED commandments”, that every TED speaker receives. It includes admonitions like “Thou shalt not sell from the stage” and “Thou shalt not give your ordinary talk”. de Grey explains that, in the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, there’s one place where Oxford is simply unrivaled. “Oxford teaches you how to be so pretentious, it’s not obvious that you’re joking.” The implication is that TED may be a bit Oxonian.

The reason to beat up TED is to set up his own commandments, rules for successful revolutions in thinking. He quotes Ganhdi:
“First, they ignore you, then they laugh and you, then they fight you, then you win,” and two scientific thinkers, who offer similar formulations for how heresy becomes orthodoxy.

Want to market your own heresies? de Grey offers (rather orthodoxly) ten commandments:

1. Be right (diligence before oratory). He quotes Sean Carroll: “Being a heretic is hard work”. It’s not enough to disagree with mainstream thinking – you actually have to be correct. “Galileo was a heretic, but understood the reigning orthodoxy at the time beter than anyone else.” Very few people work that hard: “Many casual heretics can’t be bothered.”

2. Be boastful (about your topic). de Grey points out that, when speaking to an audience like TED, you’ve got to oversell. So he titled his talk “Fixing humanity’s worst problem.” After all, ageing does kill twice as many people as all other causes of death.

3. Be a doer (as well as a talker). One reason to take de Grey seriously is the number of people who’ve taken him seriously, pledging huge sums to support his research. (I plan to steal his methodology for Global Voices.) You have to work very hard to raise these sorts of sums… and fundraising is a form of doing, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

4. Be indominitable (if not invincible) – if you want to upset the applecart, grow a thick skin.

5. Be diplomatic (not all the time) – This seems like a commandment often honored in the breach. He quotes from one of his papers where he dismisses a set of someone else’s arguments by announcing his intent to “tow those arguments fimrly out into the ocean and give them the decent but unambigouous public burial that they so richly deserve.” Those sentiments certainly didn’t make him popular but, “they made some people sufficiently angry that progress was made.”

6. Be everywhere (a pint is worth 1000 words) – You won’t be influential as a hermit who just writes. Successful heretics maintain insane travel and speaking schedules.

7. Be pithy (especially under pressure). Sometimes you get only a few seconds. He shows a clip of himself interviewed by Stephen Colbert, suggesting that your grandmother can help you across the street, because she’ll be hale and hearty as well…

8. Be inspirational (and have a team that’s organizational). (Oh man, is this one true.)

9. Be selfless (remember that control is only a means to an end) – Don’t control all your work too carefully – you make progress by reliquishing control to other people to take your idea forward.

10. Be right (and be able to explain why to both experts and laymen.)

Rules good enough that they probably ought to be engraved in stone. As I write slides for my talk at ETech on Tuesday, I’m trying to keep them firmly in mind.

I wish I’d been there for more of BIL – I love the idea of a completely open-topic unconference, and I hope there’s a way to build one in the future that lets me enjoy both it and TED, rather than wrestling with exhaustion and burnhout. Fortunately, people did seem to come from TED to BIL, and it looked like the BIL crew was having a blast. Hope the fun continues today.

14 thoughts on “From TED to BIL”

  1. Pingback: Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 03/03/2008

  2. I submit that correct spelling is also a very good idea (unlike in this blog). It has something to do with, ahem, credibility.

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  4. Dear Jerome – I’m liveblogging at a frightening pace. I get things wrong constantly. Why can’t you be like that nice Ben and offer a helpful constructive criticism instead of being a snarky jerk?

  5. Thanks for blogging this. I’m a Methuselah Foundation donor and I try to spread De Grey’s ideas as much as possible. I’ve also collected some soil samples for the LysoSENS research project.

    I encourage you to keep spreading the word and to donate!


  6. Pingback: Being a Heretic is Hard Work | Cosmic Variance

  7. Pingback: Michael Nielsen » Biweekly links for 03/07/2008

  8. Pingback: Science is the new Black Metal

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