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Columnist Stephen Quinn. (The Globe and Mail)
Columnist Stephen Quinn. (The Globe and Mail)

CITY LIMITS

Post-TED, local problem solving will never be the same Add to ...

Did you feel it? When you woke up this morning? Maybe after you had your first cup of coffee? That’s right, Vancouver is dumb again.

The giant creative minds of the world that graced our wretched outpost with their greatness over the past week have had someone pack their bags and have headed home. Some in private jets, some toughing it out in business class. No doubt all of them remembering our city as “that place where TED was in 2014,” though they’ll be back next year.

Globe and Mail Update Mar. 19 2014, 1:58 PM EDT

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Yes, the conference is prestigious: It’s not very often that Bill and Melinda Gates are in town to hear Sting talk about overcoming writer’s block, or that Edward Snowden pops up via telepresence bot – okay that actually happens a lot. But my point is, really, what was in it for us – the people of Vancouver? It’s not like any of the speakers were using their awesome powers of quirky, out-of-the-box creative thinking to solve our city’s problems.

Or were they? Reading between the lines I have found many practical lessons in those “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

Take, for instance, cartoonist (and former NASA robot scientist) Randall Munroe, who likes to apply serious math to answer weird questions. For instance, “how many punch cards would you need to store all of the information held by Google?” (The answer, by the way, is a lot.) The TED blog invites us to ask Mr. Munroe our own weird questions.

Okay, I have a few: Why won’t people move away from the doors and into the empty space on the SkyTrain? Also: Why did that falling-down crack house up the street just list for $1.4-million?

Or better yet: How do the people who operate an advocacy organization and supervised injection site spend $887 per night on a London hotel room – not including $65 spent on flowers? Surely all of those questions can be answered with serious math.

Ed Yong, an award-winning science writer, shared with the TED audience his research into how parasites may drive animals to congregate in groups. Mr. Yong suggests that parasites override the free will of the host and have the “capacity to subvert our thinking about the world.” This would explain Granville Street club lineups and Canucks season-ticket holders.

David Epstein, a sports science reporter, offers hope for a better future of this city’s NHL franchise. In his talk, “What’s making athletes better, faster, stronger,” Mr. Epstein says it comes down to three things: changing technology, changing genes and changing mindsets. All of which I take to mean: Get rid of John Tortorella.

On a different topic, internationally renowned education guru Sir Ken Robinson may be able to sort out the ongoing dispute between the province and the BCTF. Sir Ken told his audience during his TED All-Stars session that when you design a system to crush the spirits and dreams of the people within, you shouldn’t be surprised when it works.

Also dispensing advice, and just in time for civic election season, was art historian and author Sarah Lewis who talked about “how to embrace the near win.” Ms. Lewis wowed the audience with an archery analogy to illustrate her point that “mastery is in the reaching, not in the arriving.” Good luck, candidates.

Deborah Gordon’s talk about desert ant colonies may be applied to managing increasing residential density in the Lower Mainland. Prof. Gordon, who has drawn parallels between how ants live and how the Internet works, has sent experiments to space to see how ants behave in crowded quarters and whether they find new ways to compete for room in zero gravity or are more willing to tolerate substandard roommates.

And still on the subject of bugs in space, there was retired astronaut Chris Hadfield’s talk about overcoming fear. Commander Hadfield told the story of a space walk during which he was temporarily blinded by his own tears floating in a most peculiar way and pooling inside his space helmet. I know – what possible real-life lesson could be gleaned from this situation? Fortunately at the halfway mark, the talk morphed into a more practical lesson on how spiders are unlikely to kill us and therefore we all need to walk into more spider webs. His point: There is real danger and there is perceived danger, which I interpret as a pedestrian safety message. The perceived danger is the uncomfortable sensation of the spider webs on your face. The real danger is the speeding car turning right that is about to flatten you as you cross the street pulling spider webs off your face.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

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