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intellectual fiesta

Bhakti time for brainiacs


STARS ARE BORN: Millions have viewed online videos of talks given by Pranav Mistry and Sheena Iyengar (below)

Krupali Tejura was seduced into attending her first TED conference by someone telling her these six words: You will have a mental orgasm. "I went... and I loved it, " raves the radiation oncologist from Los Angeles, three years after her first trip to what is now termed a Woodstock for brainiacs. A return visit followed, and from that time onwards, "TED is my family, " she sighs of the high-minded intellectual fiesta, a "Davos for the optimists, " where she meets people from all walks of life who stimulate her mentally and emotionally.

TED, for the uninitiated and others living under a rock, stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The acronym has evolved into an organisation most famous for its multidisciplinary hangouts whose gospel is "ideas worth spreading, " mostly for free. Founded in 1984 as a one-off event centering round Silicon Valley's key T-E-D themes, it has now become a worldwide online resource feeding off annual mindfests - the main gig takes place in Long Beach, California, next week - attended by the rich and famous mingling with the sublime but obscure. It is a place where people like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin pay top dollar ($ 7, 500 this year) to see and listen to folks like Pranav Mistry (more about him soon) and Sheena Iyengar;where Bill Gates introduces Salman Khan (the educationist, not the actor) and says he's his fan.

Terms ranging from "brain spa" to "mental masturbation" have been used to describe it, but at the end of the day, or at the end of four mind-blowing days, it remains primarily a gala of inspirational talks that have become a must-see on the Internet (www. ted. org) if you can't be there personally - a bhakti moment for the brainiacs. Closing in on a billion video views, 2 million Facebook fans, and more than a million iPad app downloads, it is generating a high-brow Internet feeding frenzy that is the antithesis of YouTube junk that celebrates cats flushing toilets and babies belting out rap songs.

A typical TED talk is required to be made in 18 minutes or less, a length the hosts say is short enough not to make it sound like a boring classroom lecture and long enough to avoid being superficial. Topics for highbrow but hugely engaging musings could range from philosophy to competitive sports to anthropology to molecular biology to mathematics to history to quantum physics - no subject is off-limits. Some talks are as short as three minutes;the bottom line is it must be stimulating and entertaining;tedium is a no-no (one TEDster, Swedish data guru Hans Rosling, ended his brilliant 2007 talk on poverty by sticking a sword down his throat;he is also an accomplished sword swallower)

While in the initial years TEDsters tended to be wellknown public figures (Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was born from his TED talk;and legend has it that the very first Apple Mac and CD ROM debuted at TEDfests), TED is now justly credited with creating superstars out of scholars and savants slaving away in relative obscurity. In fact, in the physical sense, TED is a great equaliser. Celebrities such as the singer Paul Simon and actress Cameron Diaz, not to speak of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, wear the same palm-sized identification tag as relatively unknown scholars and scientists from Africa or India or Australia. Everyone gets to rub shoulders with everyone else and the known unknowns are as likely - if not more likely - to be accosted for sidebar chats by the cognoscenti as the known knowns (to borrow Donald Rumsfeld's infelicitous coinages. )

Just ask Pranav Mistry. A Palanpur, India-born gearhead who was toiling on some of the most cutting edge technologies at MIT Media Labs, he was catapulted to freaky fame and geeky stardom following a TED gig that resulted in what is now the second-most watched TED video of all time with more than seven million views (Speakers are invited after an exhaustive selection process that takes into consideration their ability to be both engaging and exciting about their work). Mistry's (literally) mind-bending presentation of some his research, including an invisible computer mouse (Mouseless), a pen that can draw in 3D, intelligent sticky notes that can be searched, all heading towards what is broadly termed SixthSense technologies, made him an on overnight celebrity - a testament to the power and reach of TED, and its capacity to overcome race, ethnicity, and geography.

In fact, Mistry's talk was recorded at a TEDIndia spin-off held in Mysore two years ago, part of the outreach by Sapling Foundation (TED's owning entity) aimed at overcoming criticism that it is an elite, USoriented brainfest. Indeed, it did begin that way, and part of the censure may still be valid. Before you jump on a plane to California for the four-day fiesta, consider this: entry to the mind spa comes at an eye-popping $ 7, 500 per ticket, and the 2, 000-odd seats for the Long Beach gig are usually sold out a year in advance.

Some critics have also suggested that the gala is tending towards what one disgruntled dissenter dubbed as "Tedonism, " a lazy exercise of marinating the mind in higher intellect by paying top dollar. The Lebanese-American essayist Nassim Taleb, a speaker at TED2008, called the mindfest a "monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers. " And some performers have indeed misfired. Invited to speak at TED2010, Sarah Silverman, an acid-tongued satirist, shocked the high-minded audience with jokes about adopting a "retarded" child.

But while charges of snooty exclusivism and elitism persist, the fact remains that a huge part of the TED fan following is now not just online (most talks are posted on their website later) but spread out on the ground and across the world. A TED Global in Edinburgh in summer takes the gala across the pond while the foundation has licensed out numerous TEDx events across the globe to reach out to both a wider range of speakers and hoi polloi. Popular TED talks are also translated into numerous languages and they are also starting to incorporate TED talks in languages other than English.

Three years ago, the Foundation also introduced a TED Fellows program that awards all-expenses-paid tickets and mentoring to 40 "outstanding individuals who have shown unusual accomplishment, exceptional courage, and moral imagination. " Among recent TED Fellows, Pakistani journalist and documentary film maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Indian-American entrepreneur Kaustav de Biswas and researcher Nina Tandon. And joining them this year, Anthony Vipin Das, an India-based ophthalmologist entrepreneur whose work is focused on preventing eye injuries.

How much of a difference TED's farsighted approach will make in a world replete with monumental - not to speak of basic - problems is hard to say. But if nothing else, as one writer-attendee confessed after a four-day intellectual mugging, "it has beaten my inner cynic to pulp. "

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