By Paul Kandarian | 04 November 2015
TEDMED and Me, or My Four-Day Piss in Charleston.
I never had a four-day piss before, and not sure I ever will again.
But I did in 2004, thanks to Richard Saul Wurman, with whom I was working on a project at the time, when attending my first-ever Wurman conference, the TEDMED in Charleston, South Carolina.
Richard had told me that learning something new and valuable is like having a piss, feeling that warm envelopment of the new, the sweet embrace of useful information overcoming you, that is not unlike the sensation of taking a leak when you’ve held it a long time. It’s relaxing and energizing all at once, it sweeps over you.
Information. Pissing. Only Richard could make that connection. And in his world of understanding, it makes sense.
Here’s a guy who spent his life making the complex understandable so when he equates learning, and remembering what you’ve learned with a bodily function, I go with it. And that’s precisely the feeling I got at my virginal Wurman conference experience.
The stuff there blew me away. Hugh Herr, who lost both legs in a climbing accident, developed prostheses that allowed him to be a better climber, and was working on fake feet that would “feel” the sand under them as users walked on the beach.
John Donoghue created an implant that he put into a quadriplegic’s brain that allowed him to play video games – by thinking about it.
Gregory Stock talked of the day when couples would mix and match sperm and eggs to engineer the best possible child.
Truly mind-boggling shit. Or in Wurman Speak, like taking a long-awaited piss.
And it happened this way:
Richard meets with volunteers in the morning and lords over the set-up process. I walk into the Riviera Theater where TEDMED is and outside are David Wolfgang-Kimball, a volunteer since TED8 and James Home, volunteer since TEDX. They are excited about working on another Wurman effort and speak in near reverential tones not so much about the boss but the experience.
“I kept coming back and they kept giving me more responsibilities,” says Wolfgang-Kimball, a neuroscience lab worker at the University of California in San Francisco, sipping a coffee in the moist, gathering heat of a Charleston Sunday. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I do even as it can be the most frustrating.”
You get a lofty view of people, he says, then have conversations with them and understand they’re just like anyone else. Months later, you see projects come from these companies that sprang out of meeting other people at the conference.
I mention the Wurman allure, and he says “without him, I wouldn’t have done this. I worked at the TED after Richard and I wanted to flee, it was horrible.”
Home, designer of interfaces, websites and applications in San Francisco, says attending these things is one of the most important things he does.
“This is the place to come,” Home says. “It’s where Richard is.”
I ask if it’s like a cult.
“It’s different in that people who come already have their own sense of identity and are here to share ideas and cultures and get out of it what they can get out of it,” says Wolfgang-Kimball, with Home adding “I like how Richard does what interests him and no one else. Being that self-secure is appealing and makes for a more honest, enlightening conference.”
Inside, the theater is cavernous, an ancient, renovated space that is somehow still warm and welcoming. People scurry about setting up the stage and a large conference area behind it where displays are going up. Volunteers haul chairs into Richard’s preferred geometric form, the circle. Richard pulls a couple over himself, then sits to talk, holding court to address his volunteers.
They beam at the guy, some looking scared, perhaps a bit unsure of what to make of the man they’d only heard about. Richard talks softly, telling them he’s lost track of the number of conferences he’s run, maybe 20 in all, adding “By now, I think I’ve gotten it right.”
He speaks of this being the most polished of his conferences, of the Riviera being the perfect room, a room filled with energy. He talks of Steelcase, Philips, Apple, Kodak, IBM and other businesses represented here.
“It’s gonna be great, “ he says, then adding with a disapproving look downward, “if they’d just change the fucking carpet.”
He speaks of the tight shooting script, the number of sessions, the badges, the Pavlovian response attendees have when they hear his purposely pompous Aida march blare over loudspeakers to signify entry. And he also talks about volunteers having fun.
“The spirit of the conference has to do with how good people feel and you have to do with how good people feel,” he says. “It’s as personal as it can be. I’d like you to see as much of the conference as you can, but that’s not a guarantee you’ll see every minute of every day. It’s my intention that you have a great experience; it’s only by you having a great experience and enjoying what you see and hear and do and meeting the people you meet, that everyone feels good in the room.”
Above all, this is his conference, he created and designed it and says, “the buck stops with me. I’m in charge. I’m egomaniacal.”
Conversely, he says with a sincerity not usually found in egomaniacs, “If it’s fucked up and lousy, it’s my fault. I’m not blaming anyone else.”
He takes questions and keeps an eye on construction going on in the background, telling volunteers he hopes they find the conference as curious and interesting and pattern revealing as he does.
“I love these four days,” Richard says. “I’m never more relaxed. Stuff comes in easier here and touches my memory banks and my pattern-making places easier than any other time of year. I love to have you here, I love you sharing it with me. Godspeed and have a good time.”
He wanders off to direct this and that. Later, the place is shaping up, Steelcase workers putting up skeletal structures that will house displays. I move around, bugging volunteers again, hoping to hear that Richard is the draw. It is not. The conference is the thing.
Mindy Cheng, a young Californian, is washing down stools. This is her first conference. She met Reven Wurman, one of Richard’s children, in New York while visiting a friend, telling him she was in pre-med but unsure she wanted to do the doctor thing. She opted to volunteer at TEDMED to broaden her views.
Gloria Hernandez owns a real estate management company in Los Angeles. Today, she’s polishing glass cases, among other tasks. It’s her first Wurman conference, brought here by a friend and fellow classmate at Wharton, Mark Abramovich.
“Mark was so excited about it and said ‘I thought we were all smart at Wharton, but we’re a bunch of idiots’,” Hernandez laughs. “He said the people here are brilliant, they make it personal and share things you don’t read in articles.”
I also chat with Steelcase’s Kathy Waterman, a bundle of energy supervising her company’s work. I ask if Richard’s tough to work for.
“He’s a great guy,” she smiles. “He’ll leave me a voice mail or email saying ‘Kathy, you’re awesome’, and I never get that. But I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.”
Ken Eddings is from Apple, overseeing computer setups. He agrees part of the conference’s power comes from its creator, something Eddings calls “the force of Richard. He calls up Steve Jobs and talks him into sponsorships.”
Eddings had a snafu at a previous conference trying to connect a T1 line through AT&T but couldn’t get through because he’d asked what network was being used, was told it was proprietary information and then was hung up on.
“I told Richard, Richard calls the head of AT&T and says ‘I’m a simple soul who doesn’t get this stuff but I have a guy who can help’,” Eddings says. “My pager was ringing before I got off the phone.”
Jakob von Moltke, a 24-year-old New Yorker, heard about the conference from a volunteer friend who said it was life changing, so Moltke decided to find out for himself, volunteering “because of my passion for learning.”
I find Abramovich swabbing glass cases. In the real world, he’s an equity research analyst. This is his second Wurman conference.
“Where else can you find yourself in a place talking with a Nobel laureate like Marvin Minsky about what’s gonna happen in 50 years?” he says. “It’s astonishing, this is the guy who invented artificial intelligence.
“I think I get more value out of it than I put into it,” he says. “I get put up, go to a conference that costs $3,500 and have dinner with people I never would have otherwise.”
Richard walks by, looking over the progress, hands on hips, drinking it in, a near smile on his bearded face. I mention that it looks like he’s making sure things are going as expected.
“I’m an architect, I don’t just stand there,” he shoots back with a smile. “I designed this. I micromanage down to everything, every details, and then people pull it off. There was a speaker case that was just a bit off, so I had someone move it. It doesn’t mean a thing, it didn’t make a fucking bit of difference, but I wanted it that way. Nobody cares, it doesn’t matter. But I care. It matters to me.”
Later, the place is shaping up, looking futuristic. In the middle of the conference room is a spoke work of slate-gray strands with mesh netting to be used for displays, and computer workstations. Richard walks through with Reven and above the music blaring through the newly moved speakers, shouts “It’s beautiful!” and then lauds Waterman for the tables he says look like they were built just for this conference.
On stage he directs where he wants his chair and table, where he’ll sit. He is also concerned about people falling off the back of the stage where the black backdrop hands and wants something put up. And it will be. He also doesn’t want black drapes on the huge speaker stands.
“I don’t like it and want it gone,” he says.
Not long after, it is gone.
And before he leaves for another room to micromanage, he says to no one in particular, “Everyone’s doing a good job.”
Reven Wurman meets with lead volunteers and assistants, and says the posters for the conference are in, but they need 30 easels to hold them. He stresses the importance of getting the easels – at all costs.
“Go to the hotel next door, divert a bride’s attention at a wedding reception by saying, ‘Hey, look, the Pope!’ and then steal the easels!” he says.
He seems to be only half kidding.
There are boxes of swag all around, bags of this and that all waiting to be sorted and bundled and handed out to eager attendees, many of them richer than rich. Rich people love free shit. I know because Richard says so.
“I was tossing out t-shirts once and there were millionaires and billionaires fighting over them,” he shrugs.
Downstairs, the AV system is worked on. Yesterday, Wolfgang-Kimball tells me, everyone got out at 5 p.m., a far cry from other conferences where they work into the wee hours.
"We were waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says. “Late last night, we saw a Philips truck go by and wondered if that was the other shoe.”
He speaks of the registration crush on the day the conference starts and says tomorrow will be the eye of the storm. He said at TED conferences it is intense and insane but he once got to see Martha Stewart’s driver’s license. So naturally we joke about the state of West Virginia now having her license and he says maybe they should have a TED prison just for her. I go with TED CORREX. He says TED PEN.
I run into Eddings and Richard talking about Steve Jobs.
“He’s a great guy, he never comes to the conferences but give me whatever I want,” Richard says. “I got a call late Saturday night from him in fact, he says ‘Richard, what do you want?’” and then laughs, clearly pleased by the benefits of his self-admitted starfucking.
Body parts are being unpacked, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, the head of which is Adrianne Noe, a speaker here. Richard talks about William Tsiaras doing a film on cataracts, “because I’m getting them and that’s good enough” as the reason.
Richard says there’s also a film by John Perry Barlow, cowboy and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and a long-time abuser of drugs and alcohol. The film’s about his cleansing process at the fabled Canyon Ranch.
Richard also talks about John Donoghue’s brain implant in the quadriplegic.
“It’s all a very expensive way of having conversations,” Richard says. “That’s why I do this shit.”
All around the floor are seeming miles of gray, black, blue and white cables, high-tech spaghetti splayed and strewn, coiled in or curled around corners, destined for purpose.
Richard talks to his AV people, saying “This will be a short meeting. But dwell on it,” and then goes on about how little delays add up to big problems.
Translation: There will be no little delays.
By late day, it’s almost there. All the body parts are up, including a sectioned male with penis, a deformed foot, dried lungs. Posters are up on the new-found easels and the Philips flat screens are beaming information.
At the side of the big stage, Richard sits, rocking slightly side to side, watching the screen. They’d just done a run-through with some minor fuck ups, including the misspelling of David Macaulay’s name. A guy talks to Richard about lighting and says there’s not enough of it, but Richard says the spotlights in back are hitting him in the eyes and wants it taken care of.
I tell him that when the conference starts tomorrow, I’m going to wander around, sit wherever and observe, figuring that since I was here on his dime working for him, I should let him know.
He looks astonished.
“You’re free, white and over 21, right, you can do whatever you want,” he admonishes, rocking in his chair.
From now on, I’m not announcing my intentions, I’m just doing. I’m learning something new already.
Conference day. Let the piss begin.
Everything is in place early in the morning before things kick off in the afternoon. Someone shows Richard how to make coffee in one of a zillion coffeemakers Philips has here, a java junkie’s wet dream come true. He’s gracious and later I notice someone’s left a buck near a machine. I wonder if it was Richard.
One the big screen is an exploded artist’s cross-section rendering of a woman’s nether region, with big splashes of spotty color that someone calls “The confetti vagina,” and which Wolfgang-Kimball says is “more like the cannon confetti vagina.”
Honestly, this vagina is huge. One techie says the more upstairs you walk, the more the light seems to focus on said vagina. Another techie says “I get the feeling I should go home.”
I offhandedly ask Richard if the progress so far makes him happy. He clears his throat. He puts his Philips coffeemaker-made coffee down on a Steelcase, potato-chip looking stool. And he launches into a five-minute dissertation on being happy versus being competent.
When will I learn?
“It’s not about being happy, it’s about meeting expectations and if expectations are met, fine, but that’s not happy,” he says. “Happy might come when expectations are exceeded. I’m an architect, that’s my training. I make drawings and I give them to people and they do it. I’m not on my knees, I’m not getting dirty, I’m not plugging anything in and I don’t feel guilty about that. I set up instructions. I’m an instructor and inside are the parameters for competence.”
I shuffle nervously, hoping he’s done. He is not.
“People are happy to be competent, too many people,” he says. “Sorry to rain on your parade, but that’s how I feel.”
Well, it’s not a steady rain, more like a drizzle. I offer that “you’re one helluva planner,” to which he responds “I think no one else does what I do. If they did, I’d have heard about it.”
Then he lifts his coffee to his smiling lips.
“This is better than I expected,” he says, sipping. “This makes me happy.”
What clearly does not is later when I point out there are bunches of Philips cardboard placards next to the coffeemakers marked with their cost - $69.99. I know he’s dead set against advertising at his conferences, so I mention it to him.
“I didn’t know about that,” he says, and then as luck would have it, a Philips guy is walking by. Richard stops him, points out the mistake and says “We cannot have this.”
Soon, all offending dollar amounts have been obliterated by White-Out.
Richard walks around, watching, observing, instructing. You’d think a guy running a conference charging 3,500 bucks a head for roughly 300 heads, around a million bucks total, would be a little nervous before it starts, even a guy who’s done it so many times.
Most people feed off nerves, getting little adrenalin infusions that keep them sharp. Not Richard. Looking more like a curious guy who wandered in off the street rather than the guy running the place, he walks around in a black shirt, scarf, baggy khakis, cap on his head strolling calmly through the lobby as Aida booms to a teeth-chattering level.
It’s 11 a.m., and the conference starts at 3:30 and it’s a ghost town in the lobby. People are coming from New York, planes not landing until noon. Two guys are outside talking, and when Richard ambles out, one fairly bows as he approaches. He then stands, looking down the street, waiting for something.
I talk to Michael Weiner, CEO of Biophan. This is his third TEDMED and he has a dozen of his people coming, lead scientists and engineers, a reward for special people, he says. One of Biophan’s companies, Myotech, is unveiling a new machine that massages the heart from the outside and will save lives, he says.
“I’m happy to be here since the thinkers, not the bean counters, will be here to see it,” he says. “I really like what Richard does. He creates something magical and the best way to describe it is that it’s like Cirque du Soleil for technology.”
Jack Sullivan, two-time volunteer, stands by the stairs. He owns a small engineering company in California and loves the tech stuff here, saying “It’s all in one location, you don’t have to go searching for it. All the candy is in one place.”
We chat about Richard and the people he knows as Richard stands on the balcony, looking down. Just then, TV journalist Forrest Sawyer walks by in black pants and black t-shirt, throws his hands in the air and roars, “My brother!” and gives Richard a big hug. They walk around, Richard showing him the rooms.
It’s 3:10, 20 minutes to show time. There are a lot of people registering now, renewing old acquaintances, making new ones, kisses, hugs, handshakes all around. The party Richard always wanted to throw, which is what he calls his conferences, is about to begin.
Aida blares, Pavlovian responses kick in, people trudge up the stairs en masse. Richard is on stage, nodding, saying hello. When all are settled, he speaks.
“If you’re sitting next to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself. If you do know them, tell them something new, tell them where you have a rash or about the gas pain you had last night,” he says to great laughter.
And turn cell phones off, he admonishes sternly, “As I’ve been known to stop and hiss when I hear a cell phone.”
Throughout the conference, phones do chirp with people uttering a desperate “Shit!” as the struggle to silence them and avoid the hiss.
Richard introduces Jill Sobule, one of his favorite musicians, a delightful waif of a girl who sings “Lucy at the Gym” while he watches, giving a thumb-up as she finishes. She asks him to hold up the words to a song she wrote on the plane ride in, with Macaulay on vocal accompaniment, a song ending with “Love is DNA.” Richard roars with laughter.
It’s all mind candy, one warm piss after another. Macaulay shows some remarkable drawings he’s done on the human body, laid out as if the body were being assembled in a factory.
Richard speaks between presentations, mentioning WSJ – the Wall Street Journal – as a sponsor and that “I have the egomaniacal bent to call myself RSW so I call the Wall Street Journal WSJ.”
He says the WSJ had an ad in yesterday’s paper about this conference, adding “it doesn’t do me any goddam bit of good,” since the conference was a day later.
He introduces Laura Landro, assistant managing editor at the WSJ, who has written about her cancer survival. He speaks about Walt Mossberg and Carl Swisher of the paper, and how he was asked if he’d do TEDMED again after the last one – and said no.
“But they said they’d be partners and as a poor Jewish orphan from Philadelphia, I couldn’t resist the prestige of working with the Wall Street Journal,” he says. “And I’m not an orphan.”
Alexander Tsiaras, president of Anatomical Travelogue, presents a remarkable film showing the architecture of men and women and provides a Velcro-like, stick-in-the-memory-banks explanation of how the body works, with humor, saying the clitoris has twice as many nerve endings as the penis, and that “It’s probably God’s construct because man is lazy.”
Gregory Stock speaks and this adds to the “Eureka!” moment Richard has talked about, that warm spread of new information. This is a genetic guru, author of “Engineering the Human Genome,” and throughout his speech talks about the future of genetic engineering, concocting a selective sperm-and-egg milkshake of sorts to create the perfect child.
Heady stuff and the grist for the ethics mill of future generations. Our grandparents could not envision what we have now, so our grandchildren, when all this comes to pass, will accept it as their norm, he says.
When he puts it that way, it makes sense, it’s a pattern and pattern recognition is what this conference and its creator are all about.
When Richard speaks between presentations, he delights the crowd, which in turn pleases him. He says if enough people want it, they’ll show the presidential debate tomorrow night on the big screen and “laugh in unison” over the antics of those “two lying characters.
He calls for a pee break, and throngs take it. Later, as they file back inside, Richard tosses out TEDMED hats, yelling to the grabby rich people “Don’t blindside or sue anyone, please!”
He introduces John Abele, head of Boston Scientific, who gives a literally hip presentation on, among other things, his hip replacement. Abele shines, telling the crowd about all his various ailments and how he actually loves them because of the gadgets installed in his body due to them.
“I love gadgets,” he says. “And medicine is all about gadgets.”
After Abele speaks, Richard says anyone who hasn’t spoken should tell a story because “story attaches to people. You will not forget a story.”
And he tells one about a “medical oops” of his.
“I had bronchitis years ago, my wife took me to Rhode Island Hospital because I was having trouble breathing. I was out of it and they gave me an EKG. But I wasn’t out of it enough to know that my EKG, when it’s supposed to go up, goes down, so it looks like I’m having a heart attack. So they put a nitro patch on me, which gave me what was close to a heart attack, until my wife – who is not shy – ripped it off and said ‘Get away from him!’ And thus I didn’t have a heart attack and I’m here.
“How many people have a story like that?” he finishes. “We all have oops stories.”
The day ends with “Damaged Care,” Drs. Barry Levy and Brad Ross who are a riot, doing song parodies of health care, not much of it flattering. They rock the place and it’s a great way to end the first day.
That night I sit with a few folks at the Palmetto Room at Charleston Place, drinking, eating and ruminating on the day’s events. I offer that I’m a clean slate eager to be written on and come away mesmerized by the depth of interest presented here. Others who’ve been here nod and smile at the recognition of new knowledge acquired.
I was warned by one veteran attendee that all of it makes it hard to sleep at night.
In my room later, I try to assimilate all I’ve heard, in phone calls and emails to people explaining what this is all about. But I can’t. The guy was right. I can’t sleep, too much mind-racing going on.
It has been exactly as Richard said it would be and nothing like I imagined.
I can’t wait to piss tomorrow.
Happy birthday to me, today is my 51st. I think what a great gift it will be to learn this day. You can’t put a price on that kind of present.
As the day starts, Richard exhorts people to say “Good morning” in unison as they take their seats. They do. He tells them to say it louder. And they do. Mind you, these are CEOs, heads of companies, high-powered types, big shots who daily tell people what to do and here they’re being told to chant “Good morning” louder and louder by a dumpy guy in sweat clothes until it makes him smile.
He introduces singer Baby Jane Dexter, saying he and his wife met her years ago while scouting for the first TEDMED location and loved her. Then if the Philips coffee doesn’t jolt us awake at 8 a.m., Dexter’s booming contralto does as she belts out “Everybody Hurts,” which judging from the late hours kept by some availing themselves of the free booze last night, is true for many.
Scott Menalis, associate professor of media arts and sciences and biological engineering at MIT, gives a rather dry and boring presentation about microfluidities, which is a better way to diagnose disease. Finally at the end, the boring isn’t and what he’s saying becomes understandable: There is a certain item common in millions of homes and offices– the inkjet cartridge - which follows the same microfluid idea.
Another Eureka moment of understanding.
William Tsiaras, professor and chair of ophthalmology at Brown University, talks about cataracts, how they’re found in one of two older Americans, how they’re reversible. He talks about the great painter Monet having cataracts and his work getting blurry and muted and how after he had cataract surgery, saw his earlier stuff and said “It’s shit.” Now that brings it home and so does a graphic cataract surgery film that has the non-medical types in the audience squirming.
Things bog down a bit with Joseph Jacobson, who leads the Molecular Machines group of the Center for Bits and Atoms, a bright kid but my God, is he boring and sluggish. For the first time that’s not wine related, I find myself getting groggy. Richard looks a tad sleepy, too, be he graciously takes it in.
Then Spencer Tunick presents, an artist who has had HBO specials and documents the live nude public figure, not as salacious as it sounds. His work, using HIV-positive people, is electrifying, thousands of nude bodies as living, breathing and hoping sculpture.
Tunick is slightly strange, disarmingly passionate, powerful, shy-seeming and ultra-focused. He shows some phenomenal slides of his work including one using 7,000 nude people in Barcelona and says the hardest part was getting government approval. Which doesn’t always happen. He’s been arrested many times and his stuff is arresting, itself, nude bodies hunched over like eggs or mushrooms, the nude en masse as art.
Then the first Richard-brought-to-tears moment occurs. As he watches Tunick’s presentation, his eyes flow with his laid-bare emotion.
“You know me,” he says unapologetically as Tunick finishes. “I cry. I’m so moved.”
After a break, Richard tells the crowd that some people are lactose intolerant and he’s now declaring himself “empty-seat intolerant,” after seeing too many of them. He also tells us about the Kodak 3D machine downstairs that we all must see that shows in very up-close detail the workings of the body as a diagnostic and operations tool.
“It’s not on the market yet,” he says. “That’s what makes this special, you see things you’ve never seen before.”
He talks of Kary Mullis and David Fischell who will speak, both Japan Prize winners, more rare than Nobels – which they’ve both also won.
“They should lone these people,” Richard says, giving the impression if that technology would become available, he’d run a conference showing it first.
Dean Kamen comes up, inventor and physicist, holder of some 200 U.S. patents, inventor of the first insulin pump, the Segway, the IBOT, a truly remarkable guy who borders on if not falls into the altruist category, having perfected a water-purification device he hopes to see in many Third World countries where the shits from bad water kills people.
“I’m playing this game under protest!” he laughs, joking that Richard wanted him to talk about the water project but that Kamen also wanted to talk about FIRST – For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology – a much-lauded program to motivate youngsters in science that Kamen founded.
Richard nixed the idea, Kamen said, but he sneaks in a FIRST update at the end of his presentation. Richard doesn’t mind a bit.
The height of the presentation is when they drink Richard’s piss. No lie. Kamen’s purification system cleansed it and he talks about the process, showing a very funny video where white-clad workers wheel in Richard’s piss in a biohazard container, then how it’s purified and shipped to Charleston.
Reven Wurman brings out a white bucket with ice and his father unbundles the sample and plunks it inside.
“It’s much better when chilled, “ Kamen cracks, and then he and Richard drink the purified pee, Kamen saying “Drink up,” Richard adding “L’chaim.” Now that’s a connection that sticks.
Robert Fischell, CEO of Angel Medical Systems, co-inventor of the stent, presents and Richard asks about President Clinton’s bypass, Fischell saying it could have been presented with the use of a stent. This prompts cardiologist Dr. Mehmet Oz to dispute it from the audience, so Richard calls him up and Fischell and Oz engage in a rather lively conversation, pro vs. con, interesting stuff that makes for a good, impromptu dynamic.
Fischell also says that his company is making devices that give heart attack victims a few days warning and one that is more immediate, adding that if it goes off “get your ass to the hospital or you’re a dead person.”
The embrace of knowledge continues with Gerald Kleisterlee, head of Philips, talking of companies sharing medical information for the benefit of the consumer, Alexander Tsiaras showing a remarkable birthing film, Adrianne Noe showing some interesting stuff from the Museum of Health and Medicine and having Richard and others coming up to guess what they are, a reliving of one of Richard’s favorite old shows, “What in the World?” One of the things she shows is a rectal cooker. Ouch. But damn interesting.
After a break, Richard thanks volunteers, saying “remarkable…they pay their own airfare, they all must have graduate degrees” and has them walk through for applause, then talks about making connections and taking them home, saying that conversation “if it’s interesting, is as good as it gets.”
And then it gets more interesting. Isadore Rosenfeld is a very funny elderly doctor who slays the crowd, asking Richard if his mic is on and upon being reassured it is, cracks, “Oh God, then I was just in the men’s rom with mine on, too.” He talks about how he got a better physical at the airport than at his doctor’s office, when he was told by security after passing through the scanner, “You better get your prostate checked.”
Rosenfeld reflects on how things have changed in medicine, how when he was five and sick his doctor made a house call and they talked, he showing the boy his stethoscope and explaining things, laying a hand on him and saying “You’ll feel great tomorrow.” That spoke of magic, the old physician says now, and “it became my passion to become a doctor.”
Medical students these days “don’t want to be so much a doctor as they want to get into medicine,” he says, adding his concern is that they don’t have the role models he did. He marvels at the modern era, saying “nothing I learned in medical school is valuable today,” that there were no angiograms, no heart surgery, no cardiac drugs.
“If you had chest pains,” he says, “you took nitro and got some rest.”
It is a wonderful conversation he has with us, not preaching but imparting the knowledge of experience, and it sinks in, it is understandable. He is a man in awe of modern advances, but not health care: “It’s broken, doctors are fixers, not healers. Everyone’s angry, doctors are angry because they’re not being paid enough, patients are angry, no one’s happy despite all these tremendous things.”
After the 2004 presidential election coming next month, Rosenfeld says, health care has to be taken out of the politicians’ hands and made free, there must be tort reform so doctors aren’t crippled by malpractice insurance fees and drugs must be made free or cheaper for patients; a third of his can’t afford them.
There are a lot of doctors in this crowd and they nod their assent as one of their own speaks.
Kevin Helliker, Wall Street Journal bureau chief in Chicago, gives a slow, somber and poignant talk of surviving an aortic aneurysm, saying it’s not something doctors look for but rather find. His was found when he had a scan for a story he was writing. He tells an incredibly compelling story of a 19-year-old man who died from one, whose uncle died from one. When his other son had chest pains and doctors were going to send him home, the father insisted his son stay and get scanned. He got the operation that saved his life.
This is literally life-and-death stuff that has us on the edge of our seats, eager for understanding.
Jeffrey Hawkins speaks, author of “On Intelligence,” a book about the brain’s inner workings. But during his talk, Marvin Minsky gets riled up about what he’s saying and snorts, “This stuff isn’t new so don’t get carried away.”
He asks Hawkins if he’s read a certain book. Hawkins hems and haws and says no, giving Minsky, who knows a lot about intelligence, artificial or not, the upper hand. I, and others, feel badly for Hawkins, a clearly brilliant man, on being scolded by Minsky. But it’s an interesting if not grating addition to an already interesting conference.
Things lighten up by day’s end when Richard takes questions from the audience, and is asked how he knows so many people.
“I don’t play golf, and early in life I did, and do, seek out everyone smarter, quicker and more talented than I am,” he says. “I didn’t want a pick-up team not as good as me.”
He had mentors, he says, which his wife calls “my old farts.” He speaks of his glory days at the Aspen Conference, saying “I don’t know if it was embracing the starfucking thing or just wanting to be around smart people.”
He also allows that TV and TiVo are his life, he loves watching “shows about insects eating other insects,” and when he does, “I’m like a pig in shit.”
Someone asks where he gets his scarves.
“People give me very expensive scarves, and you are welcome to do this,” he says, adding as he fingers his, “It’s a very silly costume.”
Silly indeed. But there’s nothing silly about a man wearing a scarf who can bring a conversation like this one together.
This conference can’t get better. But it does.
Hugh Herr speaks about losing his legs in a climbing accident and how in college he’d add an inch to his height every day with prosthetics to see if anyone would notice. It wasn’t until he was nearly seven-feet tall and almost touching the ceiling that they did.
He also speaks of developing a process that will allow amputees to move their feet by thinking about it, and of some day having prosthetic feet that feel the sand on the beach. Ordinarily I’d say this is far-fetched stuff, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I think it will happen. In our lifetime.
Lauren Ward Larsen and George Schreiner talk about preeclampsia, a hypertensive pregnancy issue that globally is the leading cause of maternal and infant death. Larsen had it, she was a mess, suffering kidney and liver failure and bringing her near death. She tells a powerful and touching story that true to form has Richard crying as he watches, along with more than a few audience members.
Schreiner, president of R&D and chief scientific officer at Scios Inc., talks of developing drugs to combat the disease, a skin patch for hypertensive pregnant women. He links it to Kamen’s water-purification machine where those running the machine can test village women for the illness and hand out patches. A remarkable connection, a pattern, which is what TEDMED is all about.
Richard talks about shoes Nike had given him and he is now giving away, playing the crowd, clearly in his element. A guy really named Charlie Brown had won a bike already that he swapped with someone else, prompting Richard to say there should be a ban on swapping and if he’d drawn a name like Charlie Brown, he’d have tossed it. The crowd eats it up.
Mark Liponis, medical director of Canyon Ranch, appears with Barlow, human guinea pig in a project filmed by Alexander Tsiaras. It is a remarkable film on Barlow, who throughout a long and indulgent life did every bad thing he could to himself.
Barlow narrates the film in a gin-soaked, smoky voice, saying he was 52 with the body of an 80-year-old, and for the cleansing at Canyon Ranch was scanned more than most astronauts, giving up a gallon of blood in the process of examination and redemption.
Richard addresses the audience, pleased by the presentation and suggests to those giving meetings that they not be as narrowly focused as they might otherwise be in the quest for a great meeting, saying “I suspect our palate of interests allows us to see connections between things.”
Then he pauses as a cell phone chirps, shooting an icy glare its way, growling “I haven’t gone through a session yet without a cell phone ringing. That might not bother you, but it bothers me - and it’s my party.”
Dr. Oz comes up and there on the table is a bag of guts. Really. Hearts, lungs, kidneys, guts in all their necrotic glory. It makes for a good show. He has Richard put latex gloves on and feel around, showing him good organs and bad organs, feeling a cancerous lung that Richard shrieks at. But he’s also clearly as happy as a pig in shit doing it.
Oz, famous for his TV and news appearances, is a good showman, joking “Did you hear about the doctor who used two fingers for a rectal exam? He wanted a second opinion.”
He is smooth talking, tall, handsome and an exceptionally good spokesman for cardiac care, saying “ the penis is a dipstick,” and that if it’s erect, it shows good overall blood flow in its owner.
The boner barometer, what an appealing theory. And one that hits home.
Sobule sings again, but before she does talks about the amazing things she’s learned here and how she counts the days to any Wurman event like a kid counts the time to Christmas. She connects the experience to doing the New York Times crossword, which is easier on Monday, hard as hell by Thursday and has her feeling “slightly moronic…but I don’t care,” she adds with infectious smile.
After a break, a panel discussion is led by Forrest Sawyer that includes David Lansky, Newt Gingrich, Reed Tuckson and Robert Moroni. This is unusual. Richard hates panels and never has them. I fear the worst – and get the best.
This panel rules, full of brains, balls and ideas. Gingrich rips the healthcare industry and the media for not covering it because “it wasn’t negative,” and saying “No one wants a rental car and our health-care system is a rental car.”
All panelists agree health care is a bipartisan issue, Gingrich saying all sides must work together to ensure sharing information for the benefit of the patient, and if doctors don’t, “they won’t be doctors for long.”
Steve Petranek, editor of Discover magazine, one of Richard’s favorite reads, a bunch of which are here for free, closes out the day by giving out the mag’s annual awards.
“Steve will give them out instead of Mike Eisner,” Richard jokes. “Whom I fired.”
You know the feeling when you’ve been away, had a great time that you didn’t want to end but were anxious to get home anyway? Today is like that. It’s the last day of TEDMED and I’m eager to go home and resume real life, but not keen on stopping the warm feeling, that four-day piss, that extravaganza of learning and understanding and interest and connection and story.
But it must happen, and the last day flies in style. On stage, Richard is giving away swag, drawing names, tossing some as he picks and chooses who gets what, basking in the attentive glow of rich people eager for free shit.
Then Sobule sings a song she wrote for him, just for him, “11 Summers,” based on Richard’s observation that he has maybe 11 summers left in his life, summer being a seasonal metaphor for the good life.
She sings softly, gently and Richard cries throughout. On the last line, “11 more summers with all of you,” he is outright blubbering and in all actuality, Sobule’s beautiful words bring tears to a lot of eyes. Mine included.
Rick Satava, a surgeon who works with the armed forces, speaks about the virtual soldier, of having hand-held electronic dog tags that give detailed health information about soldiers. He talks of doing pre-operative planning, practicing remote, virtual surgery that will allow a doctor to warm up before doing the real thing. He shows an absolutely amazing film about a new medical evacuation machine to be used to retrieve wounded soldiers, and by remote control allows doctors to do surgery out of harm’s way.
The machine is in prototype, he says, invoking the name of Steven Spielberg when he says there’s no such thing as science fiction, just scientific eventuality.
John Donoghue speaks, the man who developed the brain implant he shows in a film where a quadriplegic plays a video game by thinking about it. This can’t be real, but it is, there on the screen, real as hell. Scientific eventuality indeed.
Steve Charles, eye doctor, talks about creating surgical devices that reduce the weight of tools used that can tire a surgeon after hours of use, tools that can also preset the force used to lessen the chance of a drill or saw popping through bone into something it’s not supposed to drill or saw.
The conference is winding down in fine fashion.
Then it gets better. Dexter booms out “Forever Young” directly to Richard, and later Quincy Jones ends the day. Richard introduces him, saying that due to a bad knee, Q was in the emergency room last night.
“And he’s still here,” Richard says with unabashed admiration. “Fucking amazing.”
Jones talks about how getting older means seeing how things turn out and that “like all of you here, I’m a junkie for trying to make a difference. I’d give two years of my children’s education to let them travel, not to the Bahamas or Jamaica, but out in the real world.”
Jones doesn’t play but holds the audience as rapt as he could if he were to perform any of his dozens of major motion picture musical scores. He talks of traveling with others into impoverished areas, of trying to make a difference, of meeting Nelson Mandela, of seeing the tragedy of drugs and violence.
He is involved with wearethefuture.org, and shows a film where Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performed with a young female protégé as both deliver a performance so outright powerful it raises goose bumps on the flesh, brings tears to the eyes and the entire audience to its feet.
And then it is done, over, finished. But never complete. Thoughts, ideas, connections, patterns, understandings germinated here will continue to grow.
“Thank you for being a wonderful audience,” says the teary-eyed Richard in bidding everyone goodbye, and they reward him with a standing O. He shakes hands, hugs, bids farewell to all.
It is over. Until the next one. If there is a next one. With Richard Saul Wurman, you just never know.
A WEEK LATER
I realized that I’ve never had a life-changing experience. Some who have attended TED conferences or TEDMEDs have said it changed their lives, so profound was what they’d heard, so powerful the patterns revealed, so poignant the connections made.
TEDMED didn’t change my life. It enhanced it. And that’s not a bad thing
Richard and I talked about TEDMED a week after, what it was, what it meant to him. He said it was “a good meeting.” In understatement there is understanding.
“It was important to me in the meeting not to rely on some of the extravaganza clutches I have had in the past, with $20 million worth of cars, magicians, dancers, and to keep the core referent always to health care,” he said.
“This is not to say that when I drank my purified urine that it wasn’t somehow show biz, but it really wasn’t,” he said. “There was no way to make a point clearer about what he is trying to do and perhaps can do than the indelible memory of that act on stage. And the entertainment as understanding that it represents.”
He spoke of the thanks and praise heaped on him for the conference, and wondered if that’s what he needs.
“I don’t quite know how to deal with that because if those people didn’t come up to me and say nice things, would I then feel badly?” he said. “Have I become so dependent on the compliment and the reassurance that even though intellectually I can say it doesn’t mean anything, is it not what I expect?
“And would I feel as a movie star who hates the paparazzi but if they’re not there, do they underhandedly try to get them there so they can object?” he said.
The conference was a peculiar four days, he said, because for those four days a year he has a persona some have for 365.
“Because so many of the people we see in the press, the People magazine population, have a control, a focus, a visibility for 365 days a year,” he said. “It’s what they want, it’s the measure of their success. And my God, it would be terrible. But it’s so many people’s fantasy life. It’s like the Chinese curse, ‘May you get everything you want’. And then getting hooked on the need for it.”
Gloria Nagy, Richard’s wife, makes no bones about his starfucking, his need to surround himself with the rich, the powerful, the famous, something he defends as his need to be around people smarter than he, accomplished people who represent things he’s interested in.
“She feels I’m hooked on the conference, the phony accolades, the phoniness of all the people who come, she feels I’m really hooked on it, that I need it, or why else am I still doing it?” he said. “I would feel badly if they didn’t stand up at the end and give me a standing O. And this was a conference that except for the last speaker and myself, and Quincy Jones, no one got a standing ovation.
“But it was a conference where not one speaker made the cheap shot of trying to get one,” he said “That says something about the quality of the presenters.”
He seemed to be more thinking aloud than talking to me when he said “It’s undetermined in my mind the value of such a meeting. There were quite a number of stories where people had done projects that came out of my last meeting, or their lives were changed by attending my conference.
“Dean Kamen met quite a few people who helped fund what he was doing and continues to do, at one or another TED,” he said. “Macaulay meeting Hawley and working together on some things. Alexander in his early conferences getting amazing visibility, and so on. It seems to accelerate meetings between people in a setting that allows them to work together. David Berlinsky and Rick Satava, Satava and Tsiaras.”
He paused, thinking, remembering, wondering.
“But it’s a strange thing to come and go,” he continued. “And to have the feeling that some of the conversations you have and things you see should be the way you live your life rather than the focus of four days of your time.
“In the end,” he said, “I wonder, am I contributing anything, am I leaving a mark?”
For what it’s worth, he has. Adopting Richard Saul Wurman’s egotistical need of doing things for himself simply because of what he can get out of it, what he did was very much worth it to me.
Thanks for the four-day piss, Richard. I couldn’t have taken it without you.