TED 2011: billionaires, astronauts and Middle East activists

Forget Sunday night’s tawdry exhibition of expensive frocks and the jaw-dropping displays of human vanity, the really exclusive event in southern California this week was not the Oscars: it’s TED.

The hair may not be as big, and the women’s faces are less likely to have been paralysed with exciting new strains of botulism, but TED2011, taking place 30 miles south of Los Angeles in Long Beach, is not unlike another sort of Academy Awards. Only for nerds.

Or rather nerds, tech billionaires, neuroscientists and philanthropists, along with various people who want to change the world, cure cancer, create artificial life, solve global hunger or clean up oil spills using a piece of old string and some leftover Plasticine. Because TED is where the next new big ideas are unveiled. And where, once a year all the people hungry for the next new big idea converge.

It’s where the first Apple Mac saw the light of day, the first CD, the first touch screen, where Al Gore first gave the talk that became An Inconvenient Truth, and where to attend the conference (this year’s theme: the Rediscovery of Wonder) you need to first cough up $6,000. And then show that you have "done something fascinating" with your life. And then provide evidence of your "creativity, innovation, insight or brilliance".

But then TED is rather like the way you’d like the world to be: the smartest people are applauded the loudest, and the likes of Cameron Diaz, Goldie Hawn and Will Smith are paying actual money to be here.

But the people who really pull in the fans and receive all the adulation and the prospect of groupie sex are obscure physicists and public health professors who no one has ever heard of. Who TED then put online and turn into the kind of viral hits usually associated with cats who look like Hitler.

So who and what will be the hits of this year’s conference? The opening talk beamed from space? (Astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman will be speaking live from the international space station.) Or Bill Gates, who is not merely speaking this year, but apparently “curating” his session?

Or Jamie Oliver, who will report on how his TED wish is going (he won the TED prize in 2010 and vowed to fight obesity)?

In all probability, it’ll be none of the above. But who knows? The Observer is hosting a mini TED in three weeks’ time, TEDx Observer, and let’s just say that this conference lark is harder than it looks, involving as it does a really quite large amount of unknowns, what-ifs and who-knows. (As well as, obviously, a host of brilliant, international talent …)

I’ll be blogging all week from TED, and here are my highlights of day one, which is a kind of preview day before the event proper gets under way.

Greatest nightmare for anybody who has looked at a set of Ikea instructions and hung their head in existential despair

Marcin Jakubowski’s talk on his “Global village construction set”. He and his collaborators have identified the 50 machines most important for modern life and are publishing instructions so that anyone can build them with nothing more than their bare hands and assorted household materials. Linux brought us open-source software; this is open-source hardware. If you want to give it a go, a tractor takes six days and all instructions are here.

Most unlikely setting for a piece of academic research

A Toronto nightclub. DJ Yale Fox took the Dow Jones industrial average and cross referenced it with an analysis of all songs from the billboard charts and found that “economic busts are associated with faster music in minor keys”.

Best parent-of-tech-billionare idle chit chat

A close-run thing, this category. Could it be Mike Bezos, father of Amazon’s Jeff Bezos? Or Cathy McLain, an educational psychologist who works in the former soviet republic of Georgia. “I came because my daughter gave me a ticket.” And what does she do? “She has a PhD in bioinformatics. But her husband’s quite well known.” Oh, who’s that? “Larry Page.” Blimey, Kathy, what’s it like having the billionaire co-founder of Google for a son-in-law? “Well, of course, every mother wants her daughter to marry someone successful. But I’m a psychologist so I worried he might be too successful. He’s terribly nice though.”

Least likely Middle Eastern radical

Esra’a Al Shafei is a 24-year-old Bahraini woman who, says Tom Rielly, the head of the TED Fellows programme, “looks like she still shops in the junior high school section”. She’s barely over five feet tall, weighs as much as perhaps a domestic cat, and is the scourge of despots and torturers everywhere. She has set up a host of websites to highlight and organise protest in the Arabic world, launching her latest, www.crowdvoice.org last summer to collect the tweets, posts, videos and news of voices of protest from around the world. She’s also incredibly brave: Esra’a can’t be photographed because of the danger to herself and her family.

Best billionaire reflection

“I’m smart but I’m not smart enough to have made the sort of wealth I now have. Nobody is that smart.” The words of Nick Hanauer, Amazon.com’s first investor, and the founder of online advertising agency aQuantive which he sold to Microsoft two years ago for $6.5bn.

Update: as @ZigZoomer points out the comments, the Mac and CD stories are TED urban myths. Of which there are many.