Experiencing TEDxAustin 2013: FearLess

Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend TEDxAustin, the fourth independent TED event here in town.  I’d applied to attend before, but this year I finally made the cut.  If you’re interested in what it’s like to go to a TEDx event, hopefully this post will shed some light.  If you’d like to watch the presentations check out TEDxAustin.com or their archived livestream.

The Spire
TEDxAustin 2013 was at the Circuit of the Americas, the new F1 race track in Austin.  They have an event center there, next to the paddocks where they serviced the cars during the race.  It was really cool to drive through the tunnels and down next to the race track.  I had this wild hope that they would route us all the way around the track before parking, a little bit of “fearlessness”, but that didn’t happen.  (I’m sure they don’t want just anyone driving their beater on the track.)


First up was registration and breakfast.  Whole Foods Market and Kind Healthy Snacks provided granola, fruit and muffins.  Attendees were milling around, and this was probably the sanest the noise level was for the entire event.  I got my badge, which had the answers to two questions posed in the sign-up form: What’s your favorite word and What music makes you feel Fearless.


My answers were… different from most people’s.  There were a lot of TED-ish motivational buzzwords to be found in the favorite word section.  Courage, excitement, collaboration, that sort of stuff.  But seriously, thistle is an awesome word.  Say it a few times.  Now here’s a picture of a thistle.  Awesome, right?


For music there were a lot of the usual suspects, Radiohead, Jazz, but go ahead and listen to New In Town and tell me it doesn’t kick butt:

After breakfast snacks it was time to explore the event space a little.  The space was divided into a play space with art installations on one end and the seating space for presentations on the other, with an astroturf covered stage in between.  The art space had two large walls of installations, a living wall of plants, some art by one of the TED presenters, a live painting and a bunch of interactive pieces.

Art Wall

Near the art wall was a series of rooms, on the ends were a set of matched Confessionals, inverted teepee shaped structures made of a soft organic material with microphones and headphones inside.  I assume that if you spoke into one mic, the person in the other confessional would hear you and vice versa.  There was a room for letter writing, with a wall of cubbies to deposit your letter in.  The most interesting, I thought, was a room lined with recycled paper batting (or something that resembled it), which housed a swing and a chair.  In front (or behind, depending on how you sat) of the swing was a long vertical strip of blue LEDs.  Here’s a picture of the swing and then one of someone enjoying it.  Did I mention that the walls in the play space were covered in saran wrap and lit with blue lights?  Oh, I hadn’t… well, they were.

The Light Whee!  Walls

The play space was also home to It, the Cube, a multimedia installation that you’ll likely see in the background if the TEDxAustin videos if you watch them.

The Cube

Then there was the TEDxAustin stage itself, a typical TED stage with a comfortable looking chair that no one sat in, some music instruments which would be played later, and a big screen.


The TED event was divided into three blocks, roughly translating to head (Risk More), heart (Share More) and soul (See More).  The first, head, had a bunch of interesting presentations including: Anne Mahlum, founder of the non-profit Back on my Feet which creates running clubs for the homeless (and just recently branched out into Austin); Andrea Alù from UT speaking about metamaterials and invisibility; Faith Dickey talking about walking slacklines (tightropes which move and bounce); a musical performance by Graham Reynolds of a piece he composed (they performed it in the morning with synthesizers, and then closed out the evening with an acoustic set with standup bass); Eric Horvitz from Microsoft Research talking about how computing will grow to serve as an ever-present over-the-shoulder what-if tool, and some of the work his team is doing with responsive bots; and finally Elizabeth Andoh talking about Japanese home cooking and the theory of washoku.  Washoku is a philosophy and theory of cooking which speaks to the five colors of food that should be found in a meal (yellow, green, red, black and white), the five flavors (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy) and the five ways of cooking (simmer, fry, grill, steam and raw).  Washoku say that a properly balanced meal will have all five of each, and the creativity comes in deciding what to make with each way.

This fed directly into lunch, as Elizabeth had come to town and introduced the concepts of Washoku to five chef teams, who had taken the lessons and created a bento box style lunch for us.  The attendees were divided up by badge color, and we picked up our lunches in the paddock area and then had lunch at big tables upstairs, overlooking the track.  Lunches were bento boxes, complete with descriptions of ingredients and washoku pairing.


Here’s mine, courtesy of the fine folks at Quality Seafood.


After lunch I took a peek at the starting area.  The Circuit of the Americas is quite a place, especially with no one around.

Starting Lanes

After lunch it was back to the meeting area, where I was lucky to run into my long time compadre Jon Lebkowsky.  It’s always a challenge as an introvert to go to these events and try and be social, so it was great having someone who knows everyone to hang around with.

After lunch there were more talks, this time with the Share More or heart theme.  First a presentation by the guys at Frog who are behind The Wire urban gondola idea.  Next was Joel Selanikio who’s done work on creating empowering data entry platforms for the developing world (think health care surveys).  Then possibly my favorite talk of the entire day, Laurie Frick talking about creating art from self tracking, and how by measuring what we do we may truly come to know ourselves.  After that was a beautiful talk/song/story from Darden Smith, a Texas songwriter, about balancing all that you love and sharing your gifts with others.

Then there was a break, lots of talking and networking, and back for the final set of talks.  Jeff Sharpe spoke about the importance of the design of places; Jamie Pennebaker from the UT Psychology department gave some interesting insights about the importance of function words and how they can give insight into underlying truth; Jia Jiang, recently famous for working on 100 days of rejection, and not getting rejected when he asked for Olympic rings donuts at Krispy KremeRobyn Metcalfe, The Boss in the Metcalfe family (which includes her husband, the co-inventor of Ethernet) and her interest in food history and beautiful deserts, Nancy Giordano, the TED licensee and event’s host on her feelings about brands and fear of change, Graham Reynolds again doing the acoustic version of the song he did at the beginning, and then Byron Reese speaking about the dreams we had of changing the world when we were young, and how we need to just make the decision and do it.

Throughout the day they showed a few TED talks from other TED events, namely Regina Dugan on DARPA, Hannah Brencher on Love Letters to Strangers, and Marc Goodman on Crimes of the Future (and odd selection, I thought, and more hysterical than helpful).

After all the talks were done there was a mixer, the noise level soon got to a point where I couldn’t hear very well.  Due to an unfortunate lack of hydration and caffeine, the small headache I’d been nursing all day went full blown crazy, so I decided to head home.

Jeff at TEDxAustin

On the way out there was more art…

Green Balls

And the Circuit of the Americas tower was all lit up…

IMG_2495All in all it was a great time, and a really interesting, inspiring event.  Somewhat like SXSW, which is a technology conference but is heavily influenced by the advertising world, so was TEDxAustin.  TEDxAustin seemed even more influenced by the branding and marketing side of things, but that may just be because the organizers are all in advertising.  It was a really interesting event, and it was great to see the TED format in person.  If this sounds interesting, next year when applications open I strongly suggest you spend the few minutes to fill out the form and apply.  Hopefully I’ll see you there!


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