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In Search of the Most TED Thing at TED

Re/code's Ina Fried spent the week in Vancouver not just listening to talks, but in search of all things TED.

Ryan Lash/TED

Last year I was new to TED, happy to make it to the talks, see some tech demos and catch up with Bill Gates.

Returning as a veteran this year to the ritzy, celebrity-packed conference, I had bigger ambitions. I set out this year to make the most of the week-long Vancouver event.

Such an adventure depends on being well fed. Luckily that is no problem at TED, which supplements the standard lunch and breakfast with an army of food trucks and a constantly replenished selection of snacks.

There’s the usual fare — well, usual for TED anyway — including salmon jerky, gourmet popcorn and sriracha-flavored Epic chicken bites. Then there are the weird (bacon-flavored kale chips) and truly bizarre (Exo protein bars made with cricket flour) options.


I tried most of it. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the ranch-flavored broccoli bites, but found myself not displeased with the banana bread-flavored cricket bar.

Each day, TED also brings in a few food vendors to offer samples of their wares. Coffee Flour was back for the second year in a row and I remain intrigued by the fact that the enterprise has made good use of a part of the coffee bean that previously went to waste. I also tried Veggemo, a non-dairy milk from pea protein and Banza, a garbanzo bean pasta started in Detroit by brothers Brian and Scott Rudolph. Brian, who had been working in tech, started making the pasta in his spare time.

“At first it wasn’t very good, but I knew I was onto something when I tricked my roommate into thinking it was regular pasta,” Rudolph says on the company’s website. Rudolph eventually decided to put tech on the back burner and see if he could make a business out of the pasta.

Probably my most TED-dy culinary experience was on the first day, when the organizers provided picnic baskets for six and encouraged attendees to form groups and get to know one another. My group picked a very TED location — the ball pit that was an all-white version of the colorful playpens usually found at Chuck E. Cheese.

Despite its variety and abundance, though, the food is only a small part of TED.

There are the presentations, of course, which ranged from serious talks like Al Gore’s speech on the environment to performances from singers like John Legend to a great lecture on the value of procrastination (I keep meaning to write a whole post just on that).

And there was a whole lot of virtual reality, including demos of Meta’s goggles and Microsoft’s HoloLens as well as a talk from filmmaker Chris Milk in which the whole audience put on Google Cardboard viewers to simultaneously watch video clips. The scene was made all the more TED-y by the fact that there were pictures of eyes pasted on the outside of each headset.

 Chris Milk's virtual reality demo at TED2016
Chris Milk’s virtual reality demo at TED2016
Bret Hartman/TED

Then there were the exhibits, events, official TED parties and unofficial after-parties, as well as Jeffersonian dinners where attendees interested in a particular area got together to bat around ideas on a particular theme.

But for those who really want the TED experience, there are add-on adventures during the conference, aptly dubbed Ted Experiences.

I thought I had found the TED-iest of them all: A helicopter trip to the top of a mountain to play ice hockey on a frozen lake while being instructed by former pros.

But there were a couple problems. First off, the hockey experience sold out in minutes despite the $3,000-plus price tag. That meant no room on the helicopter for poor scribes hoping to glom on.

Undeterred, I arrived Wednesday hoping that someone was out partying too late with Al Gore and was too hung-over to turn up for their helicopter-and-hockey tour. But it turned out there was an even bigger problem, one Gore has been warning about — global warming. The lake in question wasn’t frozen, so the whole thing got canceled.

I did manage to sign up for a more modest extravagance — a half-hour seaplane ride around the Vancouver area.

A dozen of us strapped in to the seaplane. There was no beverage cart and no snacks, which was probably best since there was no bathroom either. There was a safety video, but it was shown on an iPad that the pilot snapped into a housing at the front of the plane.

Ina Fried for Re/code

A partly cloudy day offered a beautiful view of Vancouver and the surrounding mountains. As we took off, most of the passengers whipped out their cellphones to take pictures.

A few minutes in, the plane dipped a bit. Stacy McCarthy, an entrepreneur from San Francisco, gasped audibly then giggled.

“When I could feel those drops, I was like, whoa, what am I doing here?” McCarthy said after we landed.

Bill Barhydt, CEO of mobile finance company Abra, then told the tale of his friend who was on a seaplane that crashed.

“I’m so glad you did not tell that story before,” McCarthy said.

But for me, the TED-iest thing that week wasn’t an officially sponsored TED event, but rather a Vancouver event that has cropped up around the conference. NinjaTED, as it is known, is an evening of performance at downtown’s Vogue Theatre and hosted by alt-rocker Amanda Palmer, who gave a talk of her own on the TED stage back in 2013.

The event was one stellar performance after another, even for an admitted arts luddite like myself. It featured a number of people who also appeared at TED, as well as former TED performers and some great locals, including acts from both the Canadian national kite flying champion and the Canadian national yo-yo champ.

Jill Sobule, who was also hosting TED’s official after-party, showed up to do a couple tunes, including a rousing rendition of her viral hit “When They Say ‘We Want Our America Back.'”

Mythbusters host Adam Savage, who gave a real TED talk on Tuesday, delivered a fake TED talk that left the crowd in stitches. “What if we could use data to build a perfect snowboard,” he began, before hitting on other great tropes, including the awesome line: “At the average Silicon Valley tech company, 95 percent of time is wasted developing tech products.”

Palmer performed as well, delighting the audience with her haunting tales of new motherhood. But she also found herself occasionally upstaged by a glimpse of the five-month-old Ash himself, who watched some of the evening’s acts in the arms of friends and performers.

The cherry on the renegade ice cream sundae was the hastily put-together collaboration between Palmer, dancer Bill T. Jones, singer Rhiannon Giddens (both of whom performed on the TED stage) along with Palmer on the piano and accompaniment from other of the evening’s acts, including yo-yo master Harrison Lee.

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