2007 has been a depressing year, and I don’t think that it’s just me. I’ve pretty much given up on watching TV news or reading newspapers. Doing so just adds to the malaise. And because of the writers’ strike, the one remaining palatable news source has been unavailable. (Now if I could only wean myself from the Web, I might start feeling better…but that’s a topic for another post.) So to close out the year, here are a couple of items that have managed to cheer me up and inspire me, in the form of Internet videos.
First up is TED. TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and at its core it is an annual conference where the movers and shakers of the intellectual world gather to make short (15-20 minute) presentations on what is challenging and inspiring them. The best of these presentations have been made available as streaming video on the TED website. There is a truly eclectic assortment of topics, so there’s bound to be something of interest for everyone. The TED staff maintains a blog where you can find out about the latest talks to go online. A while back they posted a list of all the talks that are available, which makes a handy reference point even though it’s a couple of months out of date now.
Here’s a quick sampling of some TED talks: Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran describes how we can learn about how the brain works by looking at how it fails to work normally in patients with neurological disorders. Ramachandran is a great lecturer and I was blown away by this talk. Biology student Eva Vertes talks about her ideas for finding a cure for cancer. Watch this not so much for the specific ideas presented but just to be reminded of the promise of youth. (Hat tips to Mo and Bora, respectively, for these two talks.) A couple of my own picks: Computer scientist and entrepreneur Jeff Hawkins talks about modeling the human brain on a computer. This talk is basically an executive summary of his book, On Intelligence. In the time constraints of the talk, Hawkins comes across as less than convincing, although in his book he develops a much stronger case for his ideas. Finally, for the math-ed crowd, be sure to check out “mathemagician” Arthur Benjamin, who puts on an amazing display of rapid-fire mental arithmetic. It’s interesting to look at the comments for that presentation–some of the viewers seemed to think that Benjamin must have had a secret radio receiver in his ear with an accomplice sending him the answers! Michael Shermer joins in the comments to point out that he and Benjamin co-authored a book on how he performs his mental feats.
The second item for your consideration is the Last Lecture by Carnegie-Mellon computer scientist Randy Pausch. Pausch is suffering from incurable pancreatic cancer, and in his recorded farewell lecture at CMU, he recapped his career and his perspective on life so that his now-young children would one day be able to know a little more about him. This talk has become something of an Internet sensation after being reported about on network news and in other media. The “last lecture” is also going to be developed into a book, with the assistance of Wall Street Journal writer Jeff Zaslow. (Hat tip to my mom for this one–as I mentioned, I don’t follow the main-stream media much any more.)
Pausch described his lecture as being for his children, and I think he’s absolutely right about that. The lecture will be extremely meaningful for his kids as well as for other family and friends. But for outsiders, I’m not sure I understand the appeal. I mean, Randy Pausch is an extremely positive person, and there is no doubt that his attitude played an important part in helping him achieve his goals in life. But this is a lesson that pretty much everyone already understands. The problem is that for someone who feels beaten down by life, telling him or her to be more positive simply isn’t going to help. It’s just not inspirational to someone who’s not already on the program.
So why am I including this video here? Well, one of the accomplishments that Pausch mentions in his lecture is a programming language named Alice. Pausch’s research areas included human-computer interfaces (HCI) and virtual reality, and he was also interested in attracting kids, especially girls, to computer science. These combined interests gave birth to Alice, which is a programming platform designed to be easy to learn, and which uses story-telling as its central paradigm, instead of a more abstract treatment of algorithms. This is supposed to work as a hook to draw girls into programming, and it seems to have been very successful at Carnegie-Mellon. My daughter has taken an interest in learning Alice, and I’ll be keeping an eye on how things progress. You can find a demo video of Alice on this page. I would recommend skipping the promo video at the top of that page, and scrolling down to the demo at the bottom.
So that’s it for another year. I hope that you survived 2007, and here’s looking forward to a better year in 2008.