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TED U, take 2

This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.

TED University features numerous short talks by TED fellows and attendees. Some of the speakers in this segment:

Pat Mitchell from the Paley Center for Media tells us about the huge crowds in the streets in Kabul as people attempt to get tickets to Afghan Star, the most popular show in the country. 15 million people watch it a week, and there are two women in the finals, violating sharia law and attracting the hatred of mullahs.

The media affect of Afghan Star has accomplished something the military could not – provide a moment of peace and calm for at least an hour once a week.

She sees the power of media everywhere, positing anorexia in Bhutan due to Baywatch reruns, and the perception that America tortures from the export of 24 to the middle east. She celebrates Eve Ensler’s piece in Glamour calling attention to the ongoing conflict in the DRC. And she credits WITNESS with providing documentary evidence used to prosecute war criminals.

The media affect is so powerful, she tells us, that her father – a TV repairman – wouldn’t let her family own a TV. But she urges us to use media for positive change, to find ways to positively transform the world.

Scott Heiferman of MeetUp wants us to see the silver linings in the economic collapse. He tells us about a pair of best friends who’d planned on going into investment banking. Losing their jobs with Goldman Sachs, one is now becoming a doctor, and the other is looking for ways to heal and transform the world.

He references Alcoholics Anonymous and the power of people coming together to address a problem and find personal cures. He sees in babysitting collectives and other mutual support networks a hopeful story about finding support within communities, not just in corporations. “The great unveiling is each other, and that’s the silver lining of this economic collapse.”

Jim Stolze studies the internet and happiness. He asks us to consider whether we could live without the Internet and what we’d do.

Stolze went offline for a whole month – December – and tells us it was wonderful, for a week. But the second week, he became angry and frustrated. In the third week, he experienced incredible productivity and wrote half his book in a week. And in the final week, he was “torn apart”, loving aspects of his offline existence and missing the Internet.

He’s running the Virtual Happiness project which studies the intriguing fact that people who use the internet tend to be happier than non-users. His research tries to pick apart the aspects of life online that makes us happy and make us unhappy.

So here are five ways the internet can make us happier:
– Don’t take your blackberry into the bedroom. He recommends nice boxers or some lotion instead.
– Accept that there is more information on the web than you can read. Look at three search results pages, maximum.
– Rely more on social filters to answer questions.
– Know the difference between online and offline. When do you call someone, or visit them, or text them? Digital communication is an enabler for real communication.
– Charge one cent per email.It will force us to think before we send, and give ISPs a proper business model while eliminating spam.

Oliver Hess brings a new dimension to concerns about the environment – he shows us a periodic table of the elements and predicts that a dozen will dissapear over the next forty years. His group Materials & Applications plays with innovative new materials to try to figure out how to build and create in a changing world.

He shows us Antonio Gaudi’s model for Sagrada Familia, a beautiful set of curved structures to create lofty curves with very little material. Thin-shell ice creates similar curves with fabric membranes – suspend a piece of fabric, spray it with water, freeze and invert, and you get an extremely thin, strong ice arc. He encourages those of us in cold to experiment using soft fabrics.

“My dream in the future is that kids build these instead of snow-block fortresses”.

– Dr. Aimee Mullins has great legs. Literally. She’s a prosthetics researcher who has designed legs both for herself and for atheletes and individuals around the world.

She shows us a set of prosthetic legs and explains how kids learn to fear things that are unusual and strange. She brought a bag of legs to show students and insisted that the kids look at them without adults around to chasten them not to stare at her prosthetics. She said, “Hey kids, what kind of legs should I have if I want to jump over a house?” As they brainstormed ideas, they didn’t see her as disabled, but as a sort of superhero.

Mullins is well known for creating incredibly functional and fast legs from carbon fiber, designed to emulate cheetahs. But her current fascination is with prosthetics and beauty. At her last TED talk, she was invited to do a photo shoot with ID magazine. This led to a range of fashion shoots where legs became wearable sculptures – handcrafted wooden objects, legs cast of soil with potato and beet sprouts in them, and a sexy and trangressive set of cheetah legs with articulated paws and “a tail that could be whipped around like a gecko’s”.

She tells us that poetry and whimsy is what gets people to look long enough to understand, to see people as augmented, not as disabled. The legs she wears today make her 6’1″, not her usual 5’8″, and she tells us that friends say, “Aimee, it’s not fair that you can change your height.” Prostetics aren’t just about replacing loss – they’re about new potential.