The philosophy of numbers, the limits of sight, and a way to halt gentrification: A recap of TEDxNewYork 2014

By Kate Torgovnick May

  Ben Wellington speaks at TEDxNewYork - Grand, Central. November 1, 2014, Weylin B. Seymour Building, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Dian Lofton

Ben Wellington speaks at TEDxNewYork - Grand, Central. November 1, 2014, Weylin B. Seymour Building, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Dian Lofton

New York City is bursting with ideas. And at TEDxNewYork, we got to hear some of the most fascinating. Below a recap of the talks from this event, held on November 1st in the grand halls of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

GIFs, infographics, data visualizations. Lam Thuy Vo, the interactive editor at Al Jazeera America, kicks off the event with a talk about these new forms. She confesses that, at times, she’s been asked to “do something funny with the numbers,” which can lead to mediocre results. The key to multimedia news: the form has to, first and foremost, convey the story. “The best visual storytellers think about the story they want to tell before they write a line of code or pick up a camera,” she says. After giving examples of multimedia stories where the medium truly serviced the story—including Out of Sight, Out of Mind, an animated data visualization of drone strike deaths that shows how they’ve accelerated in tandem with notable news events—she concludes, “Technology has never defined the storyteller—it was always the tool, never the starting point.”

Gentrification is a buzzword in New York City. But urban planner Stacey Sutton points out that many people don’t quite understand it. “Most people think of gentrification as the refurbishing of infrastructure like the High Line, the appearance of high-rise buildings, the proliferation of retail or the restoration of homes,” she says. “But defining gentrification as neighborhood improvement is overly simplistic.” Gentrification, says Sutton, is when those with high incomes and status relocate to low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally been disinvested in. The people who live there are displaced, both directly (because the rent goes up) and indirectly (because they feel a sense of their network eroding). It isn’t a financial boon for the city, she says, it’s a social justice issue. And it’s one we need to change by thinking about our policies. It’s not a natural process, Sutton says. “It’s about who we value, what we value, and how we’re going to act upon that.”

Next, poet Safia Elhillo, who has been described as the “love child of Frida Kahlo and DMX,” steps to the stage. She launches into a beautiful tangle of words about the complications of identity and daughterhood, asking, “Did our mothers invent loneliness or did it make them our mothers?” Powerful and haunting, her poem of nostalgia and alienation permeate the room. Read her work for yourself.

Philosopher Kit Fine wants to talk about numbers. Numbers are strange, says Fine, because they are neither physical objects nor purely mental objects. Using the number 2, he walks us through some thinking about the nature of numbers. He starts with the theories of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, who thought of the number 2 as the set containing all pairs, which leads to a contradiction: The number 2 itself is part of the set known as 2. Next, he shared the theory of John von Neumann, who saw the number 2 as the set containing 0 and 1. This, however, takes away the uniqueness of the number and its ability to be used in counting. Finally, he shares the theory of Georg Cantor, who asks us to think of the number 2 as a set of units, both stripped of all their individual features. This, says, Fine is a far more satisfying understanding of the number.

I Quant NY is a website that tells the story of New York City in data. The man behind it: Ben Wellington. “Numbers make up the infrastructure of New York City,” he says, noting that in 2012, Mayor Bloomberg signed the most ambitious open data legislation in the country, which allowed data enthusiasts like himself to go to town. One of the many questions Wellington sought to answer on his site: When is rush hour in New York City? He analyzed the mile per hour movement of taxis and determined that the pace—11.5 mph—was exactly the same from 8:34am all the way to 6:33pm. “There is no rush hour, there is rush day,” he says. And then he points out a problem—that just because data sets are open doesn’t mean that they are usable. Some come in long PDFs, which need to be scraped, and others come in piles of spreadsheets that don’t match up by category. He calls not just for the release of data, but the standardization of it. “If we set an open data standard, others will follow,” he says.

Sree Sreenivasan points out that there are two camps of people in the modern US: digital natives, who were born into a hyperconnected world, and digital immigrants, who learned to exist in it. “Everybody covets digital natives,” he says. “But let’s not forget the digital immigrants. They bring perspective, history and understanding. They know both the potential and pitfalls of technology.” Sreenivasan backs up for a minute: He and his wife became American citizens last year, and found that the process of having to learn all about the United States and its government was hugely valuable. “Immigrants ask questions,” he says. “They don’t take anything for granted.” His point: that both digital natives and digital immigrants can have incredible digital mindsets, both worthy of respect and professional consideration.

This American Life contributor Starlee Kine steps to the stage to end the session with a question: “How many of you have had a good idea?’ She confesses that every time she has one, she lives in mortal anxiety that she’ll never have another one. But she’s trying to get over it. She shares the intricate story of how her friend who created Geico’s caveman advertising campaign was inspired by George Saunders, who was inspired by a long line of writers and artists all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, whose “The Raven” was inspired by a bird in a story by Charles Dickens. “The bad news: There’s no getting around waiting for inspiration to come,” she says. “But it does make me feel less lonely.”

Session 2 opens with Choclattjared dragging overturned paint buckets onstage. He takes out two drumsticks and begins to pound them in an incredible explosion of percussive energy. Take a listen to his stylings for yourself

Foreign policy scholar Sue Mi Terry is sick of all the discussion of where North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has disappeared to. “Who cares?” she says. “It’s the third Kim and North Korea is still the same repressive, dysfunctional state it has been.” She wants the United States to start thinking more long-term about its policy toward North Korea—because it’s not just about ending the country’s nuclear program but also about ending the nation’s long list of human rights abuses. Terry’s bold idea: to reunify the Koreas. She notes that while many may disagree in the short term, that in the long term, peaceful reunification would have some true upsides for all. A united Korea could be both an economic powerhouse and force for stability in the region, says Terry.

“Surgeons can’t always see the full extent of disease,” says Michelle Bradbury, a radiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She introduces us to an extremely exciting technology—nanoparticles that can help surgeons see exactly where cancer has spread. These silicone particles target the disease, binding to tumors and, under special lighting, producing a glow that allows surgeons to target nodes. These particles are coated, so the body doesn’t recognize them, and they exit the body through the bladder within days. Bradbury shows an incredible on-screen demo of a surgeon cutting out a glowing blob and placing it on a tray. The audience erupts in applause.

Albert Wenger is a partner at Union Square Ventures, whose portfolio includes Etsy and Tumblr. He points out that most of our current business practices were developed in eras of scarcity. Now that scarcity has largely been supplanted by abundance, how can public policy accelerate the information explosion that’s been happening in the tech and business worlds in recent decades? He suggests two ideas. First: a basic income guarantee for all citizens, which would allow us to embrace automation by robots, and would free up our time to experiment and create new things that could be funded after the fact. Second, Wenger proposes that we develop the right to be represented by a bot, or an API. He explains that individuals should not just be members of a network, but should have tools to protect them from being taken advantage of within those networks. From a bot that would allow drivers to work for both Uber and Lyft simultaneously, to ways to actually access your own Facebook data, he sees great potential for programs to empower individuals in the age of digital abundance.

Oncologist Azra Raza gives a chilling statistic: 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer in their lifetimes. Says Raza, “We’re not exactly winning the war on this disease.” One of the biggest reasons we’re not developing effective treatments, she says, is that we’re relying too much on animals, like mice, for drug testing. “We first cured acute myeloid leukemia in mice in 1977,” she says. “Today, we’re using the same drugs in humans with dreadful results.” Raza walks us through the complexity of myelodysplastic syndrome, a malignant preleukemic disease of the bone marrow. She demonstrates the importance of not just treating individual cells but of addressing the entire microenvironment of a tissue. Her idea: researching potential treatments in human cells, via her lab’s tissue repository that contains 50,000 samples collected over three decades. “Everyone thinks so much money is being spent on cancer research, but that’s not exactly true,” she says, leaving us with a shocking bar graph that shows the $4 billion spent on cancer research in a year dwarfed by what is spent on clothing and entertainment in the same timeframe. She asks for a fundamental shift.

When Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs of the website Street Etiquette found a photo book of students at Howard University in the 1950s, something clicked. They’d never seen this kind of style before—buttoned up, collegiate—on black men. They decided that they wanted to update the look, so set out to photograph a series called The Black Ivy using students and professors at City College. More recently, the two wondered: Could they change the perceptions of people who live in public housing simply by changing what they wear? They created a series called Slumflower, for which they dressed men who live in public housing in dapper suits. “There are positive stereotypes associated with a suit,” they say, showing images from the series.

Social psychologist Emily Balcetis is fascinated by the fact that two people can look at the same thing and see different realities. Sight isn’t just about our eyes, she says: “What we see is filtered through our mind’s eye.” Balcetis and her team at NYU were interested in how this played out in the arena of health and fitness, so they conducted a study where they asked participants to march quickly toward a finish line while carrying extra weight. They asked the participants to estimate the distance to the finish line, and found that physically unfit participants literally saw the finish line as farther away than fit participants. Balcetis wondered: Could they give people a strategy to help them overcome this? So in another study, they asked half of the participants to “keep their eyes on the prize” — to laser-focus their attention on the finish line and actively try to blur out what was in their periphery. The people who did this saw the finish line as 30 percent closer. And when they did the activity, they said it required 17 percent less exertion than those in the control group—and they moved 23 percent faster. This, of course, is just one example of how focusing what we see could ripple out into many parts of our lives. “We may see the world in a way that doesn’t line up with reality,” she says. “But we can teach ourselves to see it differently.”

The final session begins with a haunting performance from TED Fellow Somi, whose songs merge African musical traditions with jazz and contemporary vocals. She treats the TEDxNewYork audience to a rendition of “Brown Round Things” and “Last Song.” Give the latter a listen.

As a teenager, Ismael Nazario spent 400 days at Rikers Island -- 300 of them in solitary confinement. In solitary, hey says, you start pacing back and forth and talking to yourself until “you become your own worst enemy.” “We need to change the culture in our prisons for young inmates,” says Nazario. “Jails are supposed to rehabilitate people, not cause more anger, hate, and hopelessness.” He has several ideas for this. The first, teaching correctional officers to be positive role models for adolescent populations. “[Correction officers] play a big part in these young people’s lives,” he says. “Why not give them some type of insight to make a change?” Nazario also hopes to see the development of more programs—art therapy, music classes—to help young inmates develop skills that they can use to get out of the quicksand that exists around them in their everyday lives.

New Yorkers have been importing bottled water for 200 years, shares urban archaeologist Alyssa Loorya. While many of us rarely stop to consider the lives of the generations who occupied the city before us, this is Loorya’s specialty. “Archaeology is about everyday people using everyday objects -- the child who played with this toy, the person who drank out of this bottle,” she says, showing a slide of the ceramic import. Loorya tells us a story about City Hall, which was once a remote part of New York, the location of the city’s first almshouse. Here, the poor earned their keep by doing menial labor like button-making. The young poor were often forced into quarters with the residents of the next-door prison. The reigning idea of the time was that, for both populations, hard work would reform them into productive members of society. “This gives us insight into what it was like to be poor in the 18th century,” she says. 

“There are lots of new democracies around the world, but a lot of them are not looking very good,” says political scientist Sheri Berman. She wants to shed light on the democratic backsliding that’s taken place in the wake of the Arab Spring, as well as in Russia and Hungary. This isn’t happening because some nations simply aren’t suited to democracy, argues Berman. “It has more to do with the inherent difficulties of establishing democratic regimes,” she says. She points us to an example: France. The first democratic uprising here was declared in 1793 and collapsed the same year, and many more transitions to democracy followed it. In fact, democracy didn’t fully take root for another 165 years. And this is the norm, says Berman, showing similar timelines of how democracy unfolded in Italy, Spain and South Korea—even in the United Kingdom and United States. “There are many paths to democracy, but very few of them are quick, peaceful, or easy,” she says.

Comedy writer Will Stephen of College Humor steps to the stage next to give a satirical talk on the topic: how to come off as smart in your TEDx Talk. “Hear that?” he asks. “It’s the sound of nothing. That’s what I have for you all today.” But despite the fact that he doesn’t really have anything to say, he looks and sounds remarkably insightful. “I’m going to do this with my right hand,” he says, gesticulating widely. “And I’m going to do this with my left hand.” He shows slides of a random assortment of numbers. “Four, four, 24,” he says. “Staggering!” And then comes his final coup. “I’m going to take off my glasses, which, by the way, are just frames,” he says, leaving the stage to huge applause.

The final speaker of the day is Ben Lillie, director of The Story Collider, who is here to talk to us about the third element on the periodic table, lithium. It’s in medications and batteries, yes, and is the subject of songs by both Nirvana and Evanescence. “Lithium is one of the strangest elements in the world,” he says, narrating the story of how all the elements came to be and why lithium is an unusual outlier. “Lithium carbonate can be ingested, and as it goes into the bloodstream, it becomes an effective medication for psychiatric disorders,” he says. “Element number 3 has an effect on personality.” So: Why is the story of lithium so interesting? “Because it makes visceral something I had only known in the abstract—that the same forces that shape our personality are the same forces that shape the universe,” says Lillie, closing the day.