Mar 11

TED 2011 for me

I’m at the airport waiting for my flight home from TED 2011, my third trip to TED. TED is an amazing conference and community – every time I’ve been it’s been different but also a little bit the same.

I’ve watched the videos for several years, of course – they’re a monumental source of inspiration and erudition and passion and intellect – not to mention sort of a master’s class in presentation skills. So when I was able to attend for the first time in 2009, it was a little mind blowing. I was overwhelmed with everything. The content, the experience, the caliber of attendees, everything. Browsing the bookstore with Peter Gabriel. Sitting behind Paul Simon for one of the sessions. Using a urinal next to Bill Gates. (it seemed notable at the time. Now not so much.) Everything was overwhelming. I spent the week just soaking it all up, attending most every presentation and just loving it all.

My second time, in 2010, was really different. I had decided I was going to leave Mozilla, and so a lot of what I was starting to work on was figuring out how to make that happen in the best possible way. That meant I was working more – doing email, talking with people to brainstorm about potential candidates, etc. TED is structured physically in a really interesting way – there’s the main auditorium where many people watch the talks, but there are also many spaces around the auditorium and even in tents outside where the talks are simulcast and provide spaces to work without bothering other audience members. It’s a way to watch but with a little less investment; it’s also a way to be more social as you process the content. And of course it’s a way to watch with friends. So I didn’t connect with as much of the speaker content then as I had the previous year, but a couple of talks were revelatory, and I noted a bunch of them to watch later (which I did for the most part.)

This year felt different yet again. It was my first time here that I felt, more than anything, like it was a gathering of my community, of my friends, and I felt like part of it, rather than attending a conference. I happened to know a few of the speakers and got to talk with them both before and after their talks. Instead of just being excited to be around folks, I got into really, really interesting conversations with them about areas of their expertise, of my expertise, and then a bunch of areas where none of us knew much of anything. (I felt particularly lucky to spend time with Mohamed Nanabhay head of Al Jazeera English online – and to hear him talk about what it was like in the Doha newsroom when Mubarak left. Inspiring.) Like last year, though, I worked quite a bit, whether it was talking with other technologists and investors or paying attention to my e-mail. As a result, I again felt a little distanced from the content unfortunately, except for a few of the sessions. That’s something I plan to change next year – I’ll still have plenty of work to do, but I’m going to work hard to make sure that when I’m around the presentations that I let myself engage, focus, and let the content surround me more.

Even so, TED has a way of sneaking up on you, and the last day was tremendously inspiring. Was great to hear Jack Horner talking about building dinosaurs out of chickens (and I’m excited to visit him in Montana this summer). Was amazing to hear General McChrystal talk about leadership, and Kathryn Schulz talk about being wrong. But the last two talks were the gems for me. John Hunter, a 4th grade teacher from Virginia got up to talk about his “Peace Game,” which he’s been using to teach for 30 years. (there’s a documentary about him called World Peace and other 4th Grade Accomplishments). Hard to summarize, but take my word for it: watch it when it’s released online. We need more teachers like John getting their voices heard by folks more often. It’s very very easy to be discouraged and cynical about the state of education today – I often am myself – but that glosses over the fact that there are thousands – tens of thousands – of minor miracles happening every day in our classrooms. There are thousands of incredible, inspirational, talented teachers who are helping our kids understand, and build, and become. The system is busted, sure. But there are teachers like John who are revelatory, and they should get more chances for their voices to be heard and inspire us all.

The conference finished up with a Roger Ebert, who talked quite literally, about losing his own voice and finding it again. As he noted himself, it’s a little tough to look at him – he lost his jaw to cancer several years ago, nearly died several times, and can no longer eat, drink or speak. But the guy has always been an incredible communicator, and still is. When they were setting up for his talk, they put 4 chairs on stage, which had me scratching my head. He came in and sat down and (of course) played a movie clip from 2001 of HAL being shut down. Then 3 people joined him: his wife, Dean Ornish, and John Hunter (who I mentioned above). And they brought out his MacBook for him. He used the voice synthesizer on his laptop to start his talk – and he provided a sort of narration on top by using his (very expressive) facial expressions as an accompaniment. Then, as he noted that synthesized voices tend to put people to sleep, he had his wife, Dean, and John each read parts of his talk for him, again, adding his own visual expressions as they went. The talk was about, in the main, his journey of losing his voice to using technology like voice synthesis and blogs and Twitter to find it again. It was a wonderful meditation on what it means to literally lose your voice, and to look disabled but not to think that way. The most emotional part of the week was experiencing his wife reading his words about how others see him now, disfigured, and the assumptions that he sees them make. She had to pause for part — it was the most amazing thing to watch. Because Roger had written very matter-of-fact words about how people perceive him present state – they assume he’s broken in other ways – and he seems to have come to peace with it. But watching the emotion from his wife as she tried to read those words – what was incredibly, incredibly clear is that she doesn’t seem him in that way at all, doesn’t think that others do, that she hurts that he feels this way about his relationship to the world, whether he’s at peace with it or not. And mostly that she just really loves him in a profound way. It was a beautiful, touching thing to experience – I was pretty much a wreck, and I’m sure that most everyone in attendance was.

So that’s the thing about TED. Every time I go, there are at least a couple of experiences that I have that change the way that I look at the world, the way that I want to be when I go home. TED makes you want to be better, smarter, more present, more thoughtful, more impactful, more human. To be a better citizen and a better professional and a better dad and a better husband and a better friend. That type of inspiration doesn’t happen all that much, and it’s worth the price of admission every time.

And that’s why June Cohen and Tom Rielly, on the TED team are two of my true heroes. They both have chosen to spend their lives working on building up TED outside of just the week of the conference every year. Tom has built the TED Fellows program, which started out pretty damn great and at this point is starting to move into basically ass-kicking-terrifyingly-awesome territory. And June, who put TED Talks online for everyone to see, including subtitling into 80+ languages.

That, my friends, is how you change the world.

That’s how you take this beautiful, wonderful experience for a few people in California each year and turn it into something that anyone — anyone! — can use to make themselves, their community, their world better themselves.

Aug 10

Glass House Conversation: Transparency v Clarity

This week I’m moderating an online conversation at the Glasshouse Conversations site — an electronic outgrowth of a series of in-person conversations a couple of years ago.

I’ve written about my trip there before on this blog; they’ve also put up a page with a video about our conversation there on Transparency. It was a unique and amazing experience — and an interesting conversation and day took place. As the video makes pretty clear, a lot of people came in with the expectation of talking primarily about physical and architectural transparency, but I’ve been more interested in transparency as a metaphor — as a way to live your life, as a way to manage organizations. A lot of interesting ideas came out of the blending of physical and metaphorical ideas of what transparency is.

Of course, in my time at Mozilla this has been a theme we’ve come back go again and again, as we try to learn and discover how to lead effectively in an organization built on ideals of transparency. (That isn’t the only ideal, and there are many others that it interacts with regularly, but it is an important one for us.)

Leading transparently is often hard – it’s tough to know how to be most effective, how to get things done – and often, being transparent seems to be counterproductive. John Maeda, after spending his first year as President of RISD trying to be as transparent as possible, wrote this piece on transparency versus clarity, and a lot of things clicked for me as I read it – I’ve come back to it often over the past year or so.

And then the Wikileaks/Afghanistan papers situation occurred — and while leaking confidential information is nothing new, I think that the scope of the information leaked, and the way that it was leaked, is something that is quite modern. It raises a serious question: is it even possible to keep secrets in organizations and governments now? Should it be? Is this new transparency good, destructive, a little bit of both, or is it just too early to tell?  Jeff Jarvis posted a nice piece for thinking about this a couple of weeks back.

I’ve got lots of thoughts here, as you might imagine — living and breathing Mozilla over the past 5 years has made some things very clear and others not so much but not that many answers myself, so I’d love to hear (and engage with) a broad range of thoughts on this during the week.

I’m very happy to be moderating this Glass House Conversation online. Please contribute.

May 09

The Glass House

A few weeks ago I took a trip to the East Coast — it wasn’t really the best week for me to travel — there was an awful lot going on at work and at home that I needed to attend to — but I went to a little town in Connecticut called New Canaan because I got the opportunity to participate in something unique — a Conversation on Transparency at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. (New Canaan itself is a place with unusual history, worth checking out.)

I didn’t really know much about the Glass House or the event or what I was getting into when I signed up — only that Diego Rodriguez, who I think quite highly of as a design thinker & friend (go read his blog!), strongly recommended that I participate — so I did, and I’m really glad I did. It was a bit of a different world for me, but gave me much to think about in my own contexts.

I think it’s going to take me a few posts to write this up — I’ll need one for the place/context/history and what the National Trust is trying to do; will need one for the people & objectives of the Conversation Series; will probably need another for the ideas that came up. But want to capture some of my thoughts before they flit away, so will start writing. [I started writing this right away, anyway, but now am just getting around to finishing it.]

Philip Johnson was a complex guy, for sure. One of the leading architects of the Modernist movement, he’s built some of the most influential buildings of the 20th century, from his own residence, the Glass House, to the Seagram Building in NYC, to the Crystal Cathedral. What I didn’t know before is that he’s known as much for the people he influenced and mentored — many of whom were probably better architects.

Anyway, he built this house for himself called the Glass House, and it’s exactly what it sounds like — a house that he lived in for more than 50 years with walls made only of glass.

Building a house that’s completely transparent is more than just an architectural statement (and it definitely is a significant architectural statement) — it’s also a personal statement — a statement of values, of ideals. It’s made more interesting by Johnson himself — among other things, a gay man who had voiced support for Nazi Germany in the 30s (although he later clearly & obviously regretted it and couldn’t really even understand it). Think of that. To be a gay man (not openly, but more of an open secret) in mid-20th century America and deciding to build a house that anyone could see right into, and even through. There’s a lot to parse in there by people who know a lot more about the human psyche than I do, but right off the bat you can see any number of ideas: idealism, design, openness, exhibitionism, power — it’s a really complicated mix of things.

And it’s made more complicated by the fact that the Glass House isn’t really a glass house — or rather, that particular building is made of glass and transparent, but it’s situated in a much larger context — 47 acres of extremely maintained landscape, and something like 19 total buildings that make up, really, a house turned inside out. And the Glass House itself is the only building made of any significant amount of glass. (with the exception of the ceiling of the sculpture museum)

So there’s the Glass House, with a living room, kitchen (although minimal — they called it more of a martini bar), dining area, bathroom (in the brick column), plus some walnut cabinets in the middle. Made of steel & glass, with a red brick floor.

And the Brick House, made up of a small guest room, bathroom & library — purposely built to be a little uncomfortable, because he didn’t like his friends like Andy Warhol staying for more than a couple of days, as he said “guests are like fish, they should only last three days at most.” (Same basic dimensions as the Glass House opposite, same elevation & length, but half the width. (There’s definitely an optical illusion going on there — they look roughly similar.) The irony/symmetry/connection/whatever of the Brick House being opposite the Glass House is incredibly compelling.

And the art gallery, buried under a mound, as an homage to an Egyptian tomb for someone who’s name I now can’t remember. The point that Dorothy Dunn, our guide, made is that it’s a great irony for an art collector to build a house where the walls are glass — no place to hang art! So they built this underground bunker sort of thing, and it can hold a LOT of art for the space — the works are on a sort of giant rolodex system, so you can rotate in whatever art you want to look at. Mix & match. It was fun to get to look at all the things on the wheels behind the works that were showing.

The sculpture gallery, which is built sort of like a hothouse with a glass ceiling — and one of the guys who maintains it confirmed that it often feels like a hothouse — that it’s hotter than hell in the summertime. The space of the sculpture gallery is a little difficult to show with 2 dimensional pictures, so I’ll include a few, as well a bronze cast that is  outside the front door called Ozymandias. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that particular statement.

One of my favorite buildings is his library — easily 100-200 yards away from the main house — and with a funny sort of shape. But it must have been a cozy place to read and work.

Right near the library, there’s the Ghost House — a primitive archetype of a house, really — I don’t know what it’s really for other than just, you know, looking like a house.

Out on the grounds there are a number of other things — at the front gate, there’s a place for receiving people that we didn’t spend much time near.

And there’s a little man-made lake with a sort of terrace — hard to really make sense of this, since it seems to have been built on a smaller scale, for effect — but you can see from my pictures that if you’re at all taller than me, you had to duck down a bit to be inside.

And a cinder block statue that didn’t make a ton of sense to me — except that it made sense when viewed from the Glass House itself, which I think is part of the point — a lot of the space was designed for experiencing from particular points of view, with the inside of the house being the most important one.

Even the grounds themselves were very manicured and varied, with streams, lots of different textures of foliage, etc.

Make no mistake: this is a beautiful & wondrous place. It’s not remotely like any other place I’ve been or heard of, and it’s amazing. I felt lucky to get a chance to go (tours are booked a year or so in advance, but the access that we got was more than a tour — it was total access, really). I also felt very lucky to get a chance to participate in the discussion on transparency — more on that, plus some more interior (such as it is) photos when I get a few more minutes to write.

Apr 09

Another great 2009 TEDTalk from Nate Silver

One more talk that I really enjoyed, even though he was remote in Palm Springs. Nate Silver, of fame (most recently).

Apr 09

Glass House Conversation: Transparency

Next week I’m traveling to New York to participate in a conversation at the Philip Johnson Glass House — it’s a sort of design+culture+art salon where a number of leaders talk about various topics and seek to understand and act as catalysts for new sorts of action.

I was invited after an introduction from my friend Diego, who attended a John Maeda-led Conversation last year on Simplicity — Diego reports that his experience there was incredible and thought-provoking.

Our conversation will be moderated by Cliff Pearson of Architectural Record, tackling the topic of “Transparency.” Many of the participants look to be design & architectural — it looks like I’m the lone Left Coast/tech nerd representative. (Think they’ll be surprised when I tweet from our session in the spirit of transparency? :-))

In that spirit, wanted to blog with some links before I went, and ask you what you think is important to talk about in the context of transparency in our modern society? Transparency of organizations (like companies and governments)? Transparency of products (like open source)? Transparency of thoughts? Action? Buildings? What aspects of transparency deserve more thought & attention & discourse?

(photo credit