How I became a face model for TED

In Jan 2017 I was contacted by the curator of the TEDGlobal 2017 and asked if I would like to give a talk. I was very surprised because I had split feelings:

(positive) this could boost even more the interest in my proposal of molecular computers based on chemical reactions which mimic interaction nets rewrites

Shortest description of the chemlambda project

(negative) this is a subject which is fundamental science with possible worrying consequences,

(positive) but maybe I could talk about my personal experience with Open Science?

(negative) definitely not the touchy-feely kind, there’s nothing to be happy about yet, the fight for OS is tough and it continues,

so I agreed.

After all I was on a wave of interest around the chemlambda project. It’s not about cats, nor celebrity shots, mind you. However there were tens of millions of views of my animations, each one obtained from a real simulation, in the chemlambda collection.

It’s mathematics made visual. An Open Science project with a GitHub repository for simulation programs and a library of molecules, a collection of simulations on Figshare.

In May 2017 I was announced that indeed I’ll talk at the TED event. Yay, because since January I realised I could use this talk for several good purposes. Something fishy though, my feelings are complex, you see? there was this question in the back of my head: OK so this is the best public talks organization. We are in 2017. They need 4 months to start organizing? Hm, OK.

And from that point on I felt into a bureaucracy nightmare, which ended with my face model “job” for TED.

They baptized me BULIGIA for some time, even if my google mail is Marius.Buliga@gmail.com. They sent me official invitations and other stuff… To me? nah, to BULIGIA.

Official invitation: first name, checked. Name, ups!

I was joking with my friends: maybe they think I’m Italian. Marius Buligia! Somebody said that “buligia” sounds like the name of a disease. So I’m going to spread the buligia disease in the fancy circles of TED. Funny! So be it.

Then they told me that I’ll have 6 min. … right, what can I do with less than 900 words? I can talk about Open Science. I quickly wrote a draft, give it the name ringo.txt (an homage to @ringo_ring obviously) and sent it to them.

This draft is now available as Open Science is RWX science. A quote from the original:

I use everything available to turn this project into Open Science. You name it: old form articles, html and javascript articles, research blog, Github repository, Figshare data repository, Google collection, this TED talk

No, they wanted me to talk about chemlambda. Moreover (and this was one expression they kept repeating, Borg like) GitHub, Figshare, micromanagement, etc are “insider words”. Don’t use insider words.

Well, this is strange because one thing which made me very interested into this talk was the audience. You see, apparently the best thing about a main TED event is the audience in the room. I could see that they are in one of these categories: founders of the main web or computers services, rich from less well known but clever businesses involving computers, representing investment funds, NY or Silicon Valley intellectuals, others in proportion of 10 percents. (And the speakers.)

So maybe a regular editor thinks that it reaches a bigger audience if the talk is made for people using 1500 words, drooling over their keyboard while they look at the talk with empty eyes.

Does not apply here, right? Not for this audience. Not for any audience in 2017!

Because the bigger audience is not reached like this. Presently there are huge audiences for anything interesting. There are so many people on the Net today that you don’t have to go to the barely human level to attract them. No public talks show has a 2 billion audience. If they have several million people interested in a talk, that’s great. Or there are always several million intelligent people interested in a public talk on science, computing, biology, whatever, which are bored to death by the stupidity of the generic shows proposed by the regular media.

OK, so what can I do with less than 900 words to explain chemlambda? Images, of course, like this one

A virus like envelope with Turing machines grafted on it, builds itself

I proposed them a choice between a second version of the script (more chemlambda, less Open Science) and a more bold one based on the Internet of Smells story.

They picked the first choice and after talking with the science editor (who’s a nice guy), after encountering some more “insider words” remarks, I said what the heck and just sent them a script based on the Internet of Smells.

They liked it a lot! It is basically what became “Chemlambda for the people”.

Great! This took them almost 2 months. (The year is 2017.)

I was very flexible concerning their suggestions not because I was forced to, but because I wanted to take all this as a challenge and also to learn from this interaction.

I prepared the slides, sent them and waited for the first rehearsal. At this point they had my script, which they liked, and my slides, html with high res movies and animations included. You can see the slides here, with the movies replaced by small animated gifs.

Then I had a first rehearsal with the TED team, where they have not used my slides. They asked me to use screencapture from my laptop, I couldn’t see what they see. I could barely hear them (and see them) but I imagined that they know what they do. (This was not via a regular video chat available to any mortal, like Skype or Google Hangouts, it was a professional version.)

For those quick to point out that maybe the connection was bad because I was in Romania, think again. Romania, and especially Bucharest, is one of those little places in the world with one of the top speed web connections. Moreover, many people whom I talk to by video know that we can have a decent and alive exchange even if I’m based in Romania. So leave your stupid racism at the door please and continue.

I was very worried inside, something is wrong. I was screaming to them and speaking very rarely, because the conditions I experienced were like wind howling during a storm.

The movies and animations I prepared and they had, but not used them? I didn’t know then, but learned later that the screencast turned into random renderings at the frequency of 1/s.

Anyway, after this professional rehearsal they were not happy to learn that I’ll be away for 2 weeks. People with small kids know that you have to make reservations months before the vacation.

Next day I received the edited side of the transmission (so I could see what they saw, hear what they heard).

Finally, just before leaving for the vacation I had a (normal, not professional) video talk with the curator and the scientific editor where they said that there’s not enough time to prepare the talk more and they decided to not let me talk. But I still participate at the event, in the public.

That hurt! For those who don’t know me, I’m a professional mathematician. I gave hundreds of public talks, most of them in English or French, I gave university courses, so I definitely never had a problem with public speaking. My pride is hurt!

Nevermind, is their show I said. I’ll think about coming and announce them. Then I mailed them and refused to come. I felt that it’s not enough to be in the public. I mean, think about my pride! What else? for the vaccines and clothes I had to take?

During the vacation I started to have doubts about all this. Wait a moment, that was not a rehearsal, that was a set up, or it looked like that. Or maybe is my pride, again? Hm…

I was still receiving their general announcements and I saw they made public the list of speakers.

I did not wanted to link to their site, for privacy reasons, but I could still use a search engine. Surprise! I appear as a speaker on CNN. What’s this?

I went to the CNN site and I was not there. However, Google caches the page seen by the crawler. I got it and … I was there. For some time, then the page was edited.

I saved the cached page. Photos, like this one

are still available see this link. (archived version)

OK, so they made a mistake, right? They just sent to CNN the list of speakers (after they took me off), but they forgot to take me off from that list.

Back home I opened the cached html of the CNN page and look closer. Do you notice something weird here?

Yes, I appear twice, haha. At the position 34 and then 44. The only speaker which appears twice! (Only that I was no longer a speaker, so that makes me a face model, yay.)

OK, mistakes are done all the time, even by the most professional teams. Forget about it. Let’s stop with the thinking about wtf was all this.

On Aug 5, more than 2 weeks after they announced the speakers, I visited the Tedglobal2017 site.

Somebody familiar was looking at me. Yeah, that guy, second row in the middle, show yourself! I know you!

My figure again. Is it? Let’s look closer, use a small window like a phone or tablet. Gives this. (original and archived version)

Yep, that’s me!

Leaving jokes aside, I have very mixed feelings about this story. I think is simply crazy. I don’t believe they are incompetent, after all they offer the most polished public talks show available on the market.

I don’t know what to believe but one thing is sure: without wanting it, I became a face model for them. And that’s not what I expected.

Update Aug 10: seems that the TEDGlobal2017 site is about to change. I no longer see my face. It has lasted for 3 weeks, I received lots of congratulations from well intended people and no apology from TED. Thanks to my discrete friends and hope everybody enjoyed the show.