Do you really need your title to end with a question mark? Is this a hard fast rule? Does a score of 72-0 for last year’s TED MED talks tell us anything on this? Is this blogpost going to consist only of questions?

Is it even possible to give a TED MED talk with a title that isn’t a question?



Ever heard of TED MED? Do you know about this division of the popular TED Talks? Did you read the excellent article in The New Yorker in July about the TED Talks? Did you catch the part in it about how extremely “hands on” the organizers are with the speakers they select? Wouldn’t you think in a group of 72 speakers there would be a few talk titles that wouldn’t end in question marks? But have you looked at the 72 talk titles from this year’s TED MED conference? Does it really seem logical that EVERY single title would be a question? Did it happen randomly that every speaker came up with their own title as a question? Or did someone mastermind it?

So what’s the title of your next talk???

It’s about variation. If you get enough of it, cool things start to happen. This is the problem with cautious, conservative, non-innovative approaches to communication that fail to foster variation and diversity — they stifle creativity. And guess what, when given the opportunity, science graduate students are capable of amazing creativity in communication. This is what we saw last week with the University of British Columbia’s TerreWeb program.



THE DOMINO VIDEO: PERFECT EXECUTION. It’s about simplicity and resonance. All 5 of the student videos from last week’s workshop at U.B.C. were great, but this one has a little something extra that makes it quite possibly better than any of the previous 65 videos (from about 250 student pitches) that have been produced in the 11 iterations of my 3 Day Intensive Videomaking Workshop since 2005. And keep in mind, this video was made by SCIENCE graduate students with ZERO previous camera/editing experience, given ZERO budget, and just TWO days. The two “actors” are the students themselves (the first person to appear is Megan Callahan who wrote and directed it). Imagine this video with professional actors and the same production crew that made the awesome OK Go music video with dominos. And no, this wasn’t just a cheap rip-off of that video — there is a biological significance to “dominos” namely “the domino effect” that can be a part of collapsing food webs and ecosystem dynamics in general. Which is why there’s an element of resonance to this simple little video. If you cast the net wide enough (i.e. 250 student pitches) you eventually catch winning ideas. That’s the whole secret to innovation — it’s about the variation.

vary mu

hich so


A week ago I ran the 11th iteration of my 3 day videomaking workshop — this time at University of British Columbia with the science graduate students in their TerreWeb program. As you can see from the letter below, it was a wonderful experience for everyone. There’s three reasons for this. First, their folks did a tremendous job with the logistics (specifically: Julie Wilson, Dan McKinney, and Julia Dordel). Second, the students had absolutely perfect attitudes (filmmaking is a COLLABORATIVE process — attitude is crucial). Lastly , the workshop benefited from the knowledge gathered in the 10 previous versions over the 7 years before. It’s come a ways since the first group in 2005, HOWEVER … there’s a little bit of a wrench in that thinking when you consider that two of what I would say are the top ten videos of all time (the hilarious Turtle Victims Unit video and the sexy Marine Mammal Noise video) came from the very first group — they set the bar high from the start.



I first devised this workshop in 2005, modeling it on my experience in the Graduate Production Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the mid-90’s. The process at USC involved giving all 50 students in a class the chance to pitch their individual ideas out of which 4 were selected. The selected students become the directors (they still do it this way) and are given a sizable budget, the others end up signing up as crew. It was an intense and fairly horrible process, but also a good model of the real world. I suppose I ended up with not-that-bad of feelings because I got chosen as one of the 4 directors in my class, but there’s also a solid mechanistic justification for this model as I explain below.

do you?


In my workshop, the exercise begins with ALL 25 students in the group given equal opportunity to be the 5 eventual directors as everyone gets 3 minutes on the first morning to “pitch” their idea for the one minute film they would like to make. Every time we do this the words of the great evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould echo in my mind as he used to talk about natural selection as a two step process — variation then selection. It’s the same thing we’re doing in this exercise — fostering WIDE variation at the individual level. And you do get to hear some wild and wacky ideas (my all time favorite, which didn’t get picked, was a Scripps student wanting to make a video about the fact that shark fin soup was being served at Hong Kong Disneyland — his idea was a Mickey Mouse character speaking into camera, then a guy steps out with a machete and wacks off Mickey’s ears — absolutely brilliant, but too terrifying for the students to pick it).

It’s this variation stage that is so crucial. This is the complete NON-COMMITTEE element in the process (committees are THE death of innovation) and keeps the videos from all looking identical year after year. You want to know how to foster innovation and creativity — it’s at the level of the individual. But that said, committees are important in the second part of the process — the structuring.

why are you still reading these?


Once the wildly varied ideas are presented, it then comes time to get a little more serious and start applying structure to the process. The students vote, the 5 most popular are chosen — no matter how crazy and unrealistic they might be. The other students are assigned as crew, then in the afternoon of the first day the real world starts settling in as I force each crew to present their “shot list” and explain how they are actually going to bring the idea to life. Giant visions of grandeur are discarded for smaller, more realistic shots, and over-ambitiousness is identified and brought into check. For example, in this last batch at UBC, the “jumping off the ledge” video initially had two examples of testing theories, but once selected the filmmaker quickly realized that she would do better to do just one of them really well, which they did (or at least really well given the constraints).

please don’t copy paste me


If there’s one clear pattern that emerges from these exercises it is that it’s the constraints that allow the students to work efficiently and creatively. By setting the length at EXACTLY 60 seconds they automatically are bumping up against a major constraint, which is at first frustrating (students always ask to make their video longer, to no avail), but the set length eventually becomes actually comforting as they don’t need to worry about this particular variable. And forcing them to compress their story leads to all sorts of creative solutions.

The absence of any budget and the limitations of time also make it into one big exercise in problem solving, which with a team of 4 bright minds becomes very fun.

The bottom line is that in 11 incarnations there’s never been a single video that has failed to make sense and draw cheers from the crowd at the final presentation. And for many it is truly a life-altering experience as they see for the first time in their life the transformation that happens when an idea goes from paper to screen. The overall proof of the effectiveness of the workshops is in the aftermath as everyone involved takes in “what just happened.” Below is a letter from the Suzanne Simard, head of the TerreWeb program at UBC that sponsored the last workshop. It sort of speaks for itself. I really enjoy doing the workshop. If you think you might be interested in running one I’m more than happy to answer questions. You can write to me at:

ANUDDER HAPPY CUSTOMER!  It was a truly outstanding group at UBC.

#231) Driving a Cadillac

September 20th, 2012

What’s next? A few words about my new movie.
PRESIDENT BARTLET. On Tuesday he did the voice of Private Myrrl McBride (drawing on excerpts from this book) for my documentary feature film about the Bataan Death March, to be released early next year. He’s amazing.



Every once in a while you get to work with A-level talent in Hollywood and you realize it’s like driving a Cadillac after years of being stuck in a run down old beater. Suddenly you are with a professional. You don’t have to do any directing, your material is so simple the star simply gives it one glance and says, “Got it,” and he does. You just sit back and enjoy. Until almost as if taunting you he finally turns and says, “Any suggestions?” and all you can say is, “Yeah, let me put you in a feature film I want to make.” Dream on.

I spent Tuesday with the wonderful Martin Sheen who did part of the voiceover for my new movie about the Bataan Death March that I’ll be releasing next year. He’s absolutely the best.

Things are changing. When I ran my first 3 day intensive videomaking workshop in 2005 it was like bringing students into a whole new alien world. Seven years later it’s no longer much of a stretch — the students show up (as they did last weekend at Univ. of British Columbia) knowing just about all they need. Their pitches, with Powerpoint slides (some animated) already felt like films. We’re definitely creating a “video literate” world.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH – Students pass in their ballots at the end of the 22 three minute pitches, voting for the 5 concepts that will get made. Seated in the light blue shirt is Dan McKinney of the Journalism School who did an awesome job of running the technical side of the workshop.



In my book I mentioned the conversation I had with the Dean of the USC Cinema School in the mid-90’s in which she talked about how film is a language that for one hundred years we’ve all known how to read it, but only a chosen few have had access to the technology to be able to speak it. But now, thanks to the new technology, that’s all changing. In the future, EVERYONE, from history professors to people working at McDonalds, will “speak” in the language of video as easily as they will write emails.

I’m definitely seeing it.

Last week we ran the 11th iteration of my 3 Day Intensive Videomaking Workshop that I began in 2005 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (the basic description of the workshop is here). Back then, there was no YouTube and people were only just starting to email videos to each other. In 2004 I made 4 short humorous ocean conservation videos with the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater actors. They had warned me that “the Groundlings performances don’t work well on video”. That was because their previous experiences with video were limited primarily to people putting a camera on a tripod at the back of the theater and just recording the live performances. Today, 8 years later, all of the Groundlings make their own videos, and some, like my “Sizzle” co-star Mitch Silpa end up with viral videos like his “David Blaine” series that has scored in the tens of millions of views on Youtube (and is brilliant).

So that was then, this is now. And last week the 22 students from the TerreWeb program at U.B.C. presented 3 minute pitches that were essentially already films. They already told stories, they had Powerpoints slides that told stories, and some were animated, showing that they were already making their own films in their minds.

What’s more, teaching them to edit in Final Cut Pro — which used to be an alien experience — was mostly a ho hum experience for them — as in 5 minutes of the basics and they were already saying, “okay, we got it, you can leave us alone now.” The future is definitely arriving.

Occupy visceral. Environmentalism cerebral. Occupy succeed. Environmentalism fail.

WE CAME, WE SAW, WE OCCUPIED. There was minimal thinking, maximal acting involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It worked. It had an impact. It moved the conversation. When’s the last time the environmental movement moved the conservation?



About a year ago I was out to dinner with some folks in Portland. Someone began talking about some crazy people in New York City who for the past few days had organized an “Occupy Wall Street” movement. One particularly know-it-all person spoke up, saying that the whole effort was stupid and an unfortunate waste of everyone’s time because, “they don’t have a clear action plan — they’ll never amount to anything.” Bottom line, you shouldn’t act on anything until you’ve carefully thought it through.

Within days EVERYONE was talking about the Occupy movement as it spread to other cities. But a lot of the news pundits, like my favorite Chris Matthews, echoed the same predictions of inevitable failure because they hadn’t “thought things through” — i.e. they didn’t have a plan.

Yeah? Well, sometimes not thinking things through can be more powerful than bringing in teams of brainiacs to analyze, negate, and constrain what was initially a good idea. The way that conservation foundations have, producing a movement that is widely labeled as “failed” (not by me — by lots of essays, including the excellent report from Sarah Hansen of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy earlier this year).



So it’s a year later. The Occupy Movement succeeded. Yes, their ranks are now thin, but an article in today’s USA Today quotes Hector-Cordero-Guzman, a City University of New York sociologist who has studied the movement and says, “It has made an impact. Many of its complaints and some of its rhetoric — notably “We are the 99%!” — have become the stuff of mainstream politics. Occupy, he says, “changed the political conversation from where it was last summer. Income inequality, money in politics, the influence of Wall Street — you can see those now in the presidential campaign. You see it in questions about Bain Capital and about Mitt Romney’s tax returns.”

Mission accomplished. From a ragtag bunch with no clear “action plan.” They succeeded in communicating effectively, not by holding weekend retreats at expensive lodges with paid facilitators and assembling phone book-thick plans of action, but just by DOING it. Not by thinking, by acting.

The entire environmental movement today is run by the money which comes from cautious, conservative foundations who agonize over every dollar they hand out. You can’t make a good idea take off quickly in the conservation world. Everything is slowed down, scrutinized, thought through, drained of life, and then eventually squeaked out in the most boring of ways. In other words, Dullsville.

Congratulations to the Occupy Movement. Who cares about their future — they may not have one. They already have a solid past. And it has involved that most precious of commodities: excitement.

This is an awesome little video about an awesome little creature. Tardigrades have always been my second favorite invertebrate (beaten only by octopus). If you’ve got a brown thumb when it comes to taking care of nature, this is your creature. They are a prime example of both cryobiosis and cryptobiosis. You can bake ’em, freeze ’em, dry ’em out, and send ’em into space — they won’t bat a water bear eyelash. Tardigrades are perhaps the most mind-bending organism on the planet, and the tardigrade lover in this video is the perfect match for them.

QUIRKY IS AS QUIRKY DOES. It’s Friday. Do something to alter your consciousness, then watch this wonderful 8 minute video that has perfect casting, matching a guy who clearly thinks and acts just like a Tardigrade.



Wow. If you were born when I first got to know water bears, you’d be 36 years old. Of all the creatures we met in the incredible year-long invertebrate biology course I had the privilege of taking at the University of Washington (ZOOLOGY 433/434 taught by the great Alan Kohn and the late Paul Illg— I still have my notebooks from the course!), Tardigrades (or water bears) were truly the most mind expanding. As the humble tardigrade lover in this video explains, they may or may not have originated here on planet Earth. Who knows. They can withstand 300 degrees Fahrenheit. You can dry them out, put them in a dish on a shelf, come back a decade later, hit them with water, and presto, back to life. Tougher than the hardiest house plant.

But even better is this video. Perfect casting, perfect editing, perfect music scoring, a tour de force of humbleness. Talk about trust and likeability — I totally trust this guy to tell me the truth about tardigrades, and I like that he doesn’t play to the camera as if he’s hoping to get his own show on Discovery. In fact, this is the very sort of guy who ought to have his own show. He’s awesome.

Bill sets the record straight with a climate skeptic.

BILL MAHER. He seems to be developing a zero tolerance policy for climate skeptics. Which is nice.



A couple years ago I wrote about Bill Maher making a significant blunder on his HBO show “Real Time” when he said, in reference to the Climategate email mess, “… and some of the scientists, yes, were caught fudging a few facts.” Wrong. With the help of climate scientist Mike Mann, we sent the word that there were five investigations that showed there was zero wrong-doing by the scientists. Then last year I ended up backstage at the show and mentioned it to Bill — who held his hands up, saying, “I know, I know, thank you Mister Science,” as he walked away to speak with some beautiful women (classic Bill Maher).

But he heard the message, and last Friday on his show he had a numbnut conservative guest who rather stunningly tried to use the old pseudo-scandal to discredit climate science. In reference to predictions of global warming the numbnut said …

NUMBNUT: “… that has been discredited by the number of emails we’ve seen over in England …”

BILL MAHER: “No, that’s totally discredited bullshit, there are five different commissions that have looked into the East Anglia thing and they all said, ‘nothing there’ it was a fucking typo — this is what you’re hanging it on?”

Bill then proceeded to put his head down on the table, as if ready to bang it in disbelief. It was wonderful, but also very important. He has a large audience. He doesn’t need to know the science of climate change, but it’s important he’s well versed on these basic “talking points” of the climate skeptics. This time he did a great job of putting out the fire immediately and effectively. Progress.