August 15, 2010

Charlie and Roz showed up on Saturday and the new iPad soon made an appearance. It’s a neat device for Internet browsing with very good picture resolution, but without the versatility or sheer power of my laptop. As Roz said, “It’s a good computer for reading the newspaper in bed.” Charlie loaded up a file from TED.com and handed the iPad to me. I didn’t know what to expect.

On a small stage stood a young woman who looked funny. O.k., I thought, a standup comedienne. I settled in to listen to her pitch. Well spoken for a comic, I thought. And bright. Laurie Santos talked about how our brains are wired to make the same stupid mistakes, time and again. Pretty standard stuff.

Then she wheeled out photos of a distant relative, a Columbian monkey, and explained how in her lab her staff taught a group of them how to use money, seeking to prove that the kind of errors which produced the financial collapse were no accident nor the result of the work of a few bad apples: the collapse was a result of errors genetically built into our species. Hmmm.

To prove her point she taught a group of monkeys to use money, then in experiments observed them making the same mistakes their human cousins make. For example, if the subject had some money and had a choice of taking a risk or not to gain more, the primate would often stand pat rather than risk a loss.

She suggested her audience members should not immediately fire their financial advisors and hire the monkey, though, because it turned out the chimp would likely make the same mistakes as the first guy.

In the other half of the experiment, when the same subjects had money and faced the prospect of losing it, they would often take risks out of proportion to the benefit to preserve their current level of wealth, much in the manner of Wall Street investors over the last two years.

She concluded, however, that Man is very smart, and armed with this observation should be able to learn from it.

I felt a bit like a laboratory subject myself as I experimented with the iPad. Charlie bought it to develop applications for use by elderly patients in doctor’s offices, and I think he let me loose with it to see how a clumsy and myopic senior would handle the touch-sensitive pad. Right off he decided that any sensors toward the outer perimeter of the pad are too touchy to use in an application for inexperienced users.

But actually I liked the little thing. It’s light and relatively easy to operate, with very good resolution, especially when Charlie configured it for HD. But the real surprise was the content of the film I watched.

TED.com offers a tremendous variety of short, illustrated presentations on topics of general interest. Call it an on-line Popular Science magazine. Many articles deal with global warming, the oil spill, finding life on other planets, but there is also humour.

For example comedian Poet Rives runs through a routine on 4:00 a.m. If you loved the Da Vinci Code (or maybe if you love to laugh at Da Vinci Code fans), you’ll get a big kick out of Rives’s satire.

I could rant on here about how wonderful this site is, but a quote from one of the programs should do the job. Elif Shafak is a writer. Her twenty-minute lecture, The Politics of Fiction, is one of the best I have seen. Here are two paragraphs from it:

Many people visited my grandmother, people with severe acne on their faces or warts on their hands. Each time, my grandmother would utter some words in Arabic, take a red apple and stab it with as many rose thorns as the number of warts she wanted to remove. Then one by one, she would encircle these thorns with dark ink. A week later, the patient would come back for a follow-up examination. Now, I’m aware that I should not be saying such things in front of an audience of scholars and scientists, but the truth is, of all the people who visited my grandmother for their skin conditions, I did not see anyone go back unhappy or unhealed. I asked her how she did this. Was it the power of praying? In response she said, ‘Yes, praying is effective. But also beware of the power of circles.’

From her, I learned, among many other things, one very precious lesson. That if you want to destroy something in this life, be it an acne, a blemish or the human soul, all you need to do is to surround it with thick walls. It will dry up inside. Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink. Our hearts might dwindle. And our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family — if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Catch the rest of Shafak’s presentation at http://www.ted.com Don’t be surprised if this site quickly becomes your timewaster of choice.


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