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Thinking Digital — The TED of the UK

TED has gone viral! The now famous conference entitled Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED), which began life in the quaint environs of Monterey, California but since moved to a more expansive venue in Long Beach (with regional TEDs springing up and the TED talks on TED.com among the most watched lectures in history), is now finding itself cloned. Last year I spoke at the La Ciudad de las Ideas (City of Ideas) in Puebla, Mexico, and reported on that TED-like conference in these blog pages (part 1 & part 2). Last week I spoke at Thinking Digital, this one held in the gorgeous city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, during which I proved myself to be a truly Ugly American when I asked my host the name of the river that runs through the heart of the city as we were driving over it (“uh, that would be the Tyne”). Right. Good start Shermer.

The host hotel was a fabulous 5-Star resort but I chose to accept the invitation instead to stay at my friend Matt Ridley’s 6-Star estate, Blagdon Hall, on the outskirts of Newcastle, which could easily serve as a film location for a Jane Austen novel. Matt is one of the most interesting people on the planet, and most of you know him already through his bestselling science books such as The Red Queen, Genome, Nature via Nurture, and my favorite, The Origins of Virtue. (My interview with Ridley will be published in the next issue of Skeptic magazine magazine and in a future issue of eSkeptic, which includes a couple of photographs of Matt and his home.)

Thinking Digital’s host and organizer Herb Kim, on stage at the beautiful lecture hall at The Sage Gateshead building in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northeastern England.

Thinking Digital’s host and organizer Herb Kim, on stage at the beautiful lecture hall at The Sage Gateshead building in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northeastern England.

The host and organizer of Thinking Digital (TD) is the ambitious but amiable Herb Kim, who emulated TED with ultra cool graphics throughout the three-tiered lecture hall that reminded me of a 19th century medical observatory room for viewing surgeries, itself located in The Sage Gateshead building, which looks like a giant soap bubble floating along the side of a hill. Musicians and artists performed in between dotcom entrepreneurs, business execs, computer programmers, webmeisters, technologists, and a couple of science writers (see list of speakers).

Chandler Burr, the perfume critic for the New York Times, conducts a blind scent test at the Thinking Digital dinner, during which most of us failed miserably in our ability to determine what it was we were smelling … until he told us what it was, at which point we all became experts.

Chandler Burr, the perfume critic for the New York Times, conducts a blind scent test at the Thinking Digital dinner, during which most of us failed miserably in our ability to determine what it was we were smelling … until he told us what it was, at which point we all became experts.

The conference began with a dinner that featured a blind scent test conducted by Chandler Burr, the perfume critic for the New York Times, who regaled us with stories about how he got such an interesting job. Of course, when he mentioned that the New York Times is 4–8 weeks from closing its doors and going out of business, several of us wondered if perhaps trimming away some of the less newsy columnists and reviews might be conducted before bankruptcy! Chandler’s blind scent test involves him passing around blotter sticks dipped in various perfumes and/or pure chemicals (natural and synthetic), and him asking us to describe the scents. This we found exceedingly difficult to do (dozens of different responses were generated for each scent), until he told us what it was suppose to smell like, at which point it was obvious — a perfect example of priming patternicity. That is, priming is telling the brain what it is suppose to perceive, and patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise. It was such a fun and informal event that I didn’t want to put on my Mr. Skeptic hat, but later I asked Chandler if he could pass a blind scent test himself, and to my surprise he admitted that he probably could not do so. I’m quite sure he couldn’t do it based on how bad most people are in blind taste tests of vodkas, wines, beers, and the like. Because scents are so linked to other things, such as foods, I suspect that blind scent tests would be even more difficult. Still, there must be something going on beyond simply clever marketing and advertising, because some perfumes bomb while others make billions of dollars a year for their manufacturers (apparently Channel No. 5 generates a couple of billion dollars a year in revenue), so what do I know?

The technology columnist for Newsweek, Dan Lyons, told us about his previous job at Forbes magazine, and how Forbes recently embarrassed itself by exaggerating — apparently by orders of magnitude — the number of origins hits on its web page. He also noted that Newsweek is in trouble financially, possibly going the way of the dinosaurs and the New York Times if something doesn’t change soon, even after drastic staff cuts, and that they, like most news print media, are struggling to figure out how to make money through their online business. So, between Chandler and Dan, I’m feeling most fortunate that Skeptic magazine is still going strong. Of course, we don’t have a staff of hundreds, or a circulation in the millions, and the support we receive in our annual fundraisers really makes a difference for us. So it also made me grateful to you, our readers, for your support.

One of the most fun talks of the conference was by Caleb Chung, a toy maker and creator of the Furby and Pleo, the baby dinosaur. Caleb opened with a joke: he’s half Chinese and half German, which means that an hour after a meal he’s hungry for power. LOL. This Pleo toy is not like any toy I ever had growing up. With over 40 micromotors inside the little critter, Pleo is dang close to being an artificially intelligent life form as a toy can get, and consider that it only eats batteries and requires no doggie-do-do bags or kitty litter, may be even better than a pet. Watch Caleb play with Pleo at his TED talk.

Evolutionary theorist and science writer Matt Ridley entertained and educated us on “Digital Darwin,” how genomes really operate, and the evolutionary origin of blue eyes, which Darwin himself had.

Evolutionary theorist and science writer Matt Ridley entertained and educated us on “Digital Darwin,” how genomes really operate, and the evolutionary origin of blue eyes, which Darwin himself had.

The best talk of the weekend, however, was Matt Ridley’s lecture “Digital Darwin,” which was well organized (some of the talks were rambling rants about who-knows-what), perfectly delivered (some of the talks ran way over the allotted time), with just the right amount of humor (showing a photograph of a full set of chromosomes Matt said “here’s a set of human chromosomes, which as you can see are mine”) mixed with just the right amount of scientific content. He began by noting that Darwin had blue eyes, and then returned to the theme at the end by talking about the research that led to the discovery that blue eyes evolved only recently — about six thousand years ago (the same time that the universe was created according to youth-earth creationists) — in Northern Europe, and were the result of a single point mutation on one chromosome, and that this, along with the genetic changes to produce such phenotypic characteristics as lighter hair and skin, allowed for the greater absorption of Vitamin D, which is less abundant in northern climes (see the Wikipedia eye color map). When the Thinking Digital videos are posted be sure to watch Matt’s talk, and although I can’t really say much about this, Matt’s his next book will be out in about a year and after reading the manuscript on the flight home I predict that it will be as important as Jared Diamond’sGuns, Germs, and Steel, and just as ambitious, covering the last 100,000 years of human history. Stay tuned…

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The Metagene Gene

book cover

A review of Matt Ridley’s Genome: the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters.

We are at a unique confluence of science and publishing where the results of the former are being dispersed by the latter at such a rate that even the most ardent reader of popular science books can hardly keep up. This is good news for science, of course, since its products are outstripping even Moore’s law of doubling every eighteen months, so updates and revisions are called for just as frequently. Lucky for publishers that readers are willing and able to plunk down a quarter of a hundred bucks to discover the secrets of the cosmos and life, and literary agents specializing in science tomes are demanding — and getting — five- and six-figure advances for their clients. And by most counts publishers are earning out those advances in a matter of months, thereby closing indefinitely the gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures. (continue reading…)

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