Reflections on the TEDxUofM conference

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Darshan Karwat spoke about his attempt to live with little personal waste at the TEDxUofM conference on Friday. Buy this photo

By Julia Smith-Eppsteiner, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 10, 2011

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article misrepresented TEDxUofM speaker Donia Jarrar. Jarrar founded a blog that translated Speak2Tweet messages into English.

“Who here is skipping class or work to be here?” asked TEDxUofM opening speaker and Public Policy junior Alex O’Dell. Hands of all ages shot into the highly charged air of the Michigan Theater. All 21 speakers, dispersed throughout a rainy April 8, were affiliated with the University and were enthusiastic in sharing their wild ideas with an exceedingly welcoming audience.

TED is a nonprofit organization formed in 1984 as a conference aimed to bring together people who have ideas worth spreading from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. This is the second year an independently organized TED event has taken place on the University’s campus. The first year’s theme was “Do You Realize” and this time around, “Encouraging Crazy Ideas” set the tone for the conference.

All 1,700 attendees who made it to their red plush seats had filled out a short application noting a crazy idea of theirs in six words. My smartest peers surrounded me, all there to engage and be provoked to do. The theater was dud-less.

Session one was focused on “Exploration & Discovery.” It was serious and seriously inspirational. Neurosurgeon and ‘U’ professor Parag G. Patil started the morning off by discussing the power to bridge the communication gap for people with Parkinson’s through deep brain stimulation. This straightforward, well-dressed man got the crowd sitting forward in their seats when he introduced the idea of “self-talk,” the voice we’re always hearing in our head that we too easily accept as our gut feeling. I jerked my head in agreement at Patil’s proposal that bettering understanding our self-talk is the key to bettering communication between the two dimensions of the mind, intuition and analysis.

Mawuli Gyakobo, a doctor from Ghana and a scholar of the African Presidential Scholars Program, filled the room with guilt as he discussed the gap in quality of medical care in third-world countries. This developed into his dream of more people joining him to be “the voice of the dying.” Social entrepreneur Kathleen Sienko tagged on to Gyakobo’s somber reality check with an explanation of her medical research in India, selling her idea establishing sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships in the field of health care.

A lunch break refueled inspired cells. Those who hadn’t bought the lunch-packaged ticket were encouraged to indulge in local Indian cuisine at Suvai or organic pizza at Silvio’s, helping out small businesses that sponsored the TEDx event. I selfishly opted for Earthen Jar — a delicious vegan buffet with no lines.

Upon return, I noticed a TV screen in the lobby on which excited Twitter posts about the event appeared in rapid fire.

Once the theater had its buzz back, the second session became even more relatable to college students when Jameson Toole, who graduated from the University and is now a Ph.D. in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, showed a slide with a digitalized image of his relationship with his girlfriend — the frequencies of their emails, texts, Facebook communication and instant messages expressing their transition from friendship to romance through data. His idea of using now to change tomorrow was embodied when he quoted a speaker from a former TED talk, Hans Rosling — “Let my dataset change your mindset.” All I can say is, I wouldn’t want to be that girlfriend.

Session two of the event was titled “Invention” and rolled blithely on to Rackham Ph.D. Darshan Karwat’s story of his project of not producing any personal waste. Walking out on to the decorative stage, he carried two trash bags full of the only trash he had dispensed in the past 376 days. Karwat admitted that toilet waste and soap use cannot be avoided, but he concluded with an inspiring statement about finding beauty in making simple choices and trying to subside our compulsion for the new and the next. As I trash a Coca-Cola can and move on to check Facebook, I would say he imparts some wise ideas well worth adopting.

SAC senior Jacob Mendel showed his intriguing black-and-white 3-D film “Train of Shadows,” allowing the attendees to wear shades inside the theater, the impressive surrealist film noir sinking into the perceptions of many. The length of the “short” film cut away a bit of the magic and caused it to teeter toward confusion, yet everyone’s eyes were glazed over with imagination. I felt like we were the kids (and adults) of the future.

Donia Jarrar, a Masters student in musical composition who was forced to flee Kuwait at a young age, let the thousand listeners in on her emotional tale of aiding the recent Egyptian revolution. Jarrar founded a blog in which she translated Speak2Tweet messages from Egyptians who were being repressed and left with no communication because of the policies of dictator Hosni Mumbarak.

Three violinists and one cellist sweetly closed the event with an acoustic version of “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips. The song's name is not just the title from the first University’s TED event, but is a question that evokes action, too.

Another admirable speaker, Chris Van Allsburg, made a statement that resonated with me above all others: “The possessor of the crazy idea does not believe it’s crazy.”