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26 May 2011

Notes in the margin: Super Ted

The not-for-profit foundation dedicated to "ideas worth spreading".

By Helen Lewis

Where can you find Morgan Spurlock talking about product placement, Bill Gates addressing the problems of state schools and David Byrne opining on architecture and music? At Ted Talks, that’s where.

It’s a stealth success: from its original 1984 conference on technology, entertainment and design, Ted has turned into an international hydra dedicated to the spread of (mostly) good ideas. Each speaker gets up to 18 minutes to deliver a lecture on a subject of their choosing, accompanied by props, visualisations, slides and, occasionally, live music.

The Ted empire now includes the Ted conference (held every spring in Long Beach), Ted Global (its sister event in Europe, held this year from 12-15 July in Edinburgh), Ted Women and Ted India. Then there are Ted fellows, who are given funds to do everything from spreading slam poetry to “growing” clothing from bacteria.

Perhaps most excitingly, there are now Tedx events, where any local organiser can apply for a (free) licence to hold an evening of talks under the organisation’s banner. There have been 1,500 of these around the world in the past two years, including several dozen in the UK. There are some coming up: on 4 June in Oxford, on 7 July in York and 17 September in Bristol. See Ted.com for details.

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If you asked me to name my favourite Ted speech, I’d be torn. The first contender is Steven Johnson: in his 2010 talk “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” (tinyurl.com/tedgoodideas), the American author elegantly lays out his thesis that the English coffee house was crucial to the intellectual flowering of the Enlightenment. “Before the spread of coffee and tea, both elite and mass folks drank alcohol,” he says. “You had an entire population that was drunk all day.”

But, in the end, I would always pick the gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. It’s not just his ZZ Top beard, his 90 miles-per-hour delivery or even his assertion that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born. No, it’s the moment when a rotund man in the audience asks whether he could live past 100, as the gerontologist predicts. “If you lose a bit of weight,” de Grey shoots back, totally without malice.