(Michael Green, architect, at TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered. Wednesday, February 27, 2013, Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedconference/8515191366/in/set-72157632874977623/)

This is the day Canadians Michael Green, Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao give their talks. Green is talking about the climate change benefits that can come from tall wooden skyscrapers. Yao and Wang are talking about how they discovered and cultured bacteria from the Fraser River that have the potential to break down plastics.

Civic Lee Speaking

The Vancouver Sun
Published February 27, 2013 at 6:40pm

6:40 PM

Architect Michael Green tells the TED audience he’s looking for another “Eiffel Tower moment” in his quest to promote high wood skyscrapers using mass wood panels. He says with Australia and England the home of nine and 10-storey wood towers now, he is hopeful Vancouver in the very near future will set a new standard with a 20-storey tower.

6:00 PM

Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao, the two Vancouver science students, won broad applause for an explanation of their research into bacteria-eating phthalates, a common but dangerous plasticizer.

Wang and Yao’s research focussed on the fossil fuel-based additive and known carcinogen found in some plastics. The plasticizer is used in a large range of products to which people have a high exposure, such as foot wraps, beverage containers and food wraps.

“Phthalates are horrible because they are so easily taken into our bodies. They can be absorbed by skin contact, ingested and absorbed,” Wang told the audience.

The two girls identified bacteria from two sites along the Fraser River with varying concentrations of phthalates: the Richmond landfill and the Reifel bird sanctuary.

With assistance from University of B.C. professor Lindsay Eltis, they isolated 14 different strains of bacteria, and then cultured several to feed on a phthalate-enriched diet. They were stunned to find they could convince the bacteria to target the chemical to the exclusion of other food sources.

“This led us to conclude that our bacteria doesn’t only grow in a macroscopic culture that has phthalates as a sole carbon source, but is genetically capable of breaking down phthalates. It actually has a genetic pathway to create enzymes that can degrade phthalates,” Wang said.

“Although we’re not the first ones to find that bacteria can break down phthalates, we were the first ones to look into our local river and find a possible solution to a local problem,” Yao told the audience. “We have not only shown that bacteria can be the solution to plastic pollution, but that also being open to uncertain outcomes and taking risks create opportunities for unexpected discoveries.”

5:30 PM

South Central Los Angeles community garden pioneer Ron Finley is talking about guerilla gardening in a neighbourhood, a “food desert” where “drive-ins are killing more people than drive-bys.” In salty, provocative language he points out LA has 26 square miles of vacant land. His LA Green Grounds has made a profound difference. “Raising food is a license to print money.”

Finley’s group now has 20 different gardens. “If kids grow kale, they eat kale. If they raise tomatos, they eat tomatos.” Vancouver’s farmers’ markets and DTES community gardens advocates should talk to this guy. “If you want to meet with me, come to the garden witha shovel where we can plant some shit.” He describes his group as “a rag-tag bunch of renegades” who want to raise food for their community.

5:00 PM

The “sustain” portion of TED is on now, in which Canadians Miranda Wang, Jeanny Yao and Michael Green deliver their vision for a sustainable planet. But first up is sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu talking about impacts we haven’t really thought about. She argues, for instance, that throwing biodegradable brown paper bags into the garbage may produce more methane gas – which adds to climate change – than plastic bags. How we handle biodegradable products matters, then.

Acaroglu makes the argument that poor product design also leads to waste; refrigerators with inefficient crispers “don’t keep lettuce crisp resulting in soggy lettuce” that is then thrown out and ends up in methane-producing landfills.

(That idea in the Lower Mainland is partially why we now all have to separate out our compostables into separate bins, which Metro Vancouver then converts to saleable compost.)

Acaroglu says society has to learn to design products – such as cell phones – that can be easily disassembled. Makers should have a closed-loop system to keep outdated electronic devices out of landfills, she said. ”Consumption is the problem. Design is part of the solution.

4:00 PM

Perhaps one of the most-awaited talks today is by Jack Andraka, a wonderkid scientist from Maryland who, at the age of 15, invented and then patented a $3 paper cancer detector that has a 100 per cent success rate. His research won him the 2012 Intel Science Fair’s top prize and the Smithsonian Institution’s youth achievement ingenuity award.

Andraka recounted how a close family friend who was like an uncle passed away from pancreatic cancer. He was shocked to discover that the existing test is extremely expensive and has a low success rate. It also hadn’t changed since it was developed more than 60 years ago. “Why are we so bad at detecting pancreatic cancer,” he asked.

3:25 PM

If you haven’t seen The New York Times’ interactive piece Snow Fall, the story about a killer avalanche in Stevens Pass, Washington, you should. TED recruited NYT interactive designer Jacky Myint to explain how such intense storytelling is changing how people view information. Snow Fall, written by John Branch but done with extensive collaboration of a group of designers, points to how journalists like myself and my colleagues at The Vancouver Sun have to consider storytelling in this new digital era.

12:15 PM

Environmentalist, futurist and de-extinction pioneer Stewart Brand talks about how science and technology is about to help conservation of threatened species. He is walking us through man’s disregard for nature; the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger, the Spanish ibex, and more. “What if you found out that if the DNA” of such extinct animals could be recovered and reconstituted into animals again?

Brand suggests it’s entirely possible to recreate “mostly perfect” examples of these long-gone animals. He and others have formed a group called Revive and Restore.

Brand says scientists are working on recreating animals from frozen DNA, stem cells and germplast.

11:45 AM

Taylor Wilson, who at the age of 14 built a nuclear reactor in his garage, is leaving the audience spellbound about his concept of building small non-pressurized “molten salt” nuclear reactors using spent fuel that can be buried in the ground and power small industrial plants. Now 18, he argues it’s so safe that “you could dump these all in Pakistan for all I care and you don’t have to worry about nuclear proliferation.”

“This is the technology that could bring carbon-free electricity to the developing world.” He says that it will be cheaper than natural gas.

Oh, by the way, he graduates from high school in May and is spending the next two years developing his company. He’s also not going to patent this stuff and expects to bring this to market within five years. As TED Curator Chris Anderson says, “are you sure you’re not an alien?”

11:30 AM

Musk, who once owned PayPal.com, says his new project is designing and building reusable rockets. He demonstrated a video of an actual rocket lifting off a pad, rising 40 metres in the air and then returning safely to the pad. No more space junk, I guess.

He’s also the brains behind Solar City, a project funded in part by Google to put solar panels on peoples’ homes for “free”. The homeowners then lease the panels. The fees are less than the current utility bills. Wonder if they will come to Canada!

11:15 AM

Elon Musk, the brains behind Tesla Motors’ popular electric car (and who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur”, is talking to TED Curator Chris Anderson about the challenges of manufacturing commercially-viable electric vehicles.

9:35 AM

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is demonstrating the new Google Glass, the near-eye device that will be released publicly later this year. Hmm, something’s up. That’s not new. What’s he going to show next? Many people in the audience were expecting him to make the glasses available to them. Instead, he says they are being sent to a small cadre of medical professionals early this year. The $1,500 device will be made available to the public after.

9:30 AM
Hoo Boy! South African “public art instigator” Lesley Perkes is making some of TED’s rich set a bit uncomfortable with her images of extreme poverty in Johannesburg. Her talk, raw and gritty, should be posted!

9:10 AM

Now, for something completely different, world Yo-Yo champion Tom Black demonstrates just how precise and dangerous that little toy can be. Watch this video of his talent show submission from last year. Hopefully TED will post today’s demonstration online too.

9:00 Am

Computer theorist Danny Hillis starts off with a visual demo: a directory of all known email addresses from 1982. Today, he says, that phone book would be, by his calculation, 25 miles long. But then, not everybody would want to have their names, addresses and email addresses listed, would they? He makes the argument that the Internet is a vastly insecure place, where even “accidents” such as the recent rerouting of all US military traffic through China, could happen with regularity. Think, he says, of what happens if it isn’t an accident.

Hillis says there are cheap and relatively simple solutions to “denial of service” attacks that can disrupt local services that depend upon the Internet. It doesn’t have to be a billion dollar project by the U.S. government, he suggests.

8:45 AM Architect Alastair Parvin, who is part of a collaborative effort to build, as he calls it, “IKea-style” housing, called WikiHouse, starts the program. He suggests that fast milling machines can mass-produce pre-fabricated components that can be used to manufacture – in a day and with no special tools or required skills – a basic house. And he says the beauty of this idea is that it will be shared through a Creative Commons license with the world.

It reminds me of something Green is also working on that fits into Creative Commons, his FFTT mass wood structure that forms the basis of his proposed 10-storey wood towers.