The 10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored

Some ideas aren't worth spreading.


It's been a big week of news for TED (Technology, Education, Design) conferences -- and their self-organized TEDx offshoots. This week, TED sparked controversy over a talk on income inequality that organizers decided was too partisan to post online and made news (well, at least in these quarters) for the convening of TEDxMogadishu -- the conference's most extreme location yet.

Over the years, TED talks have been a showcase for dozens of enlightening and entertaining presentations. (These include some great talks by FP contributors like Paul Collier, Tyler Cowen, and Evgeny Morozov.) Since TED began sharing its 12ish-minute knowledge nuggets for free online, it has spawned a host of imitators and may have even changed the way people give and watch presentations.

On the other hand, critics also charge that "nerd Coachella" as often as not serves as an elitist self-aggrandizement opportunity for gimmick-peddling narcissists. In recent years, TED has also often seemed less like a salon for innovative thinking and more like a late-night infomercial or a self-help seminar. (Bringing in Tony Robbins to high-five Al Gore didn't help.)

With all the fuss over TED's self-censorship, we searched through hours of footage to find 10 talks the organizers really should have excised. From tearful hula-hooping in Marrakesh to Bill Gates unleashing bloodsucking insects on his audience, here's the best of the worst:

Joe Smith: How to Use a Paper Towel

TEDxConcordiaUPortland 2012

Joe Smith is a former district attorney and chair of Oregon's Democratic Party. He's also, according to his TED profile, "a powerful advocate for proper paper towel use." In case you don't feel like watching, the trick to drying your hands with only one square of paper towel is to shake your hands vigorously first and then fold the towel three times to allow for "interstitial suspension." Or you can just keep wiping them on your pants.

Terry Moore: How to Tie Your Shoes


Smith, at least, had a conservationist message behind his paper-towel evangelism. Terry Moore just comes across as a nag. In case you're wondering about Moore's qualifications for giving shoe-tying lessons, he's the director of the Radius Foundation, which "seeks new ways of exploring and understanding dissimilar conceptual systems or paradigms -- scientific, religious, philosophical, and aesthetic -- with the aim to find a world view of more complete insight and innovation." And he can tie the heck out of a pair of sneakers.

Jana Pallaske: Feeling Free


"Musician, Film Maker, Dancer, Philosopher, Lover, Treehugger, Hoola Hoop Artist, 5 Element Yoga Teacher" Jana Pallaske begins her talk by tearing up after being introduced -- in an intro she wrote herself. Then there's some discussion in which she says "something in me" led her to speak at TED, followed by three minutes of hula-hooping accompanied by Led Zeppelin, and then what seems like a geriatric dance party. "I didn't do this to impress anyone," Pallaske says. Don't worry, you haven't.

Jae Rhim Lee: My Mushroom Burial Suit


TED talks often straddle the line between brilliant and insane. Jae Rhim Lee is concerned about what happens to the toxins in our bodies after we die. To address this, she's collecting the hair, skin, and nails she sheds and feeding them to mushrooms. After she dies, the best-growing mushrooms will be buried with her in a special suit to consume her body. This seems like it would be difficult to implement on a mass scale, but Lee may also just be way ahead of her time.

Clifford Stoll on … Everything


I'd like to give the astronomer and computer scientist, Clifford Stoll, the benefit of the doubt and assume that the mad-scientist routine he's doing here -- complete with Christopher Lloyd hair -- is some kind of ironic performance art. But he seems a bit too taken with his own genius and eccentricity for that. "Asking me to talk about the future is bizarre," Stoll says. Given that back in the 1990s he famously mocked the notion that "we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet" and promised that "no online database will replace your daily newspaper," I'm not sure anyone's really counting on his prognostications at this point.

Dan Oshinsky: U2 and Breaking Through


Tech entrepreneur Dan Oshinsky really loves U2. In particular, he really loves the mediocre, crassly commercial, late-period U2. Taking the song "Elevation" as his inspiration, he leads a seriously bored-looking audience in a guitar-accompanied singalong ("This is a rock show, y'all!") and then proceeds to explain that President Barack Obama has a cool iPad case and that "when you have passion, and passionate communities, amazing things can happen." Very true, but it usually helps to also have a point.

And yes, Bono's done a TED talk too.

Drew Dudley: Leading With Lollipops


This is basically a six-minute humblebrag in which Drew Dudley tells a story about how he once gave a girl a lollipop and convinced her to stay in college. You should embrace the leader inside too, so you can be equally awesome.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World


There's an entire genre of TED talks consisting of avid video gamers and game designers taking themselves way too seriously. There's Seth Priebatsch (who mentions that he's a Princeton University dropout about eight times) and his efforts to build a "game layer on top of the world." Or Jesse Schell's look at "when games invade real life." David Perry asks, "Are games better than life?" (Answer: Depends on your life.)

But for pure bombast, it would be hard to top game designer Jane McGonigal, who boldly declares to a snickering audience, "If we want to solve problems like hunger, poverty, climate change, global conflict, obesity, I believe that we need to aspire to play games online for at least 21 billion hours a week by the end of the next decade."

Launching birds at pigs never felt so virtuous!

David Pogue on the Music Wars


Ever wish you could get your asinine technology jokes in song form? Me neither, but evidently David Pogue -- the influential New York Times technology critic and former Broadway conductor -- thinks otherwise. At TED2007, Pogue busted out a medley of song parodies that "Weird Al" Yankovic would probably find a bit corny, including Sonny and Cher ("I've Got YouTube") and the Village People ("RIAA"). It only gets more painful as it goes on and it becomes clear that no one in the audience is laughing.

Evidently, the song parodies are part of Pogue's traveling road show. Check out "Apps!… I did it again" -- if you dare.

Bill Gates on Mosquitoes, Malaria, and Education


Ineffective use of props can often be the downfall of an otherwise effective presentation. Bill Gates obviously has a lot to be proud of in his work on malaria eradication and quite a bit to say about the subject. Unfortunately, the only thing his 2009 TED talk on the subject will be remembered for is "that time Bill Gates released a swarm of live mosquitoes in a room full of people."

Gates's explanation for the stunt -- "Not only poor people should have to experience this" -- is logically flawed. Rich people get stung by mosquitoes too, just not ones carrying malaria and generally not when some billionaire decides they need to be taught a lesson. Stick to PowerPoint next time, Bill.


The FP Survey: The Future of NATO

Does the 63-year-old alliance still matter today? We asked politicians, scholars, and other observers from both sides of the Atlantic to weigh in.

In advance of the May 20-21 summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Chicago, Foreign Policy and the Atlantic Council asked dozens of experts about the role of the alliance today. Heads of state, ministers of defense and foreign affairs, intelligence officers, and current and former members of U.S. Congress were among the respondents who answered our call. Although none of them thought NATO should cease to exist or that the United States would be better off leaving the alliance, they were less certain about whether NATO can adapt to a changing geopolitical and military landscape -- and just who will foot the bill for future operations.

They rated Greece, currently struggling to repay its crushing debt load, the top candidate to be kicked out of the alliance, exhibited deep divides on how to handle a troubled relationship with Russia, predicted that NATO would be unable to pull off another Libya-style intervention three years from now, and overwhelmingly viewed the Afghan mission as a failure.

Unless otherwise noted, figures indicate number of responses.

1. Should NATO exist?

Yes: 57

"If it did not exist, we would have to invent it."
"But the Europeans must get their act together if they are to be worthy partners in the alliance."
"But in a redefined form, with broader alliances and links to regional groups."

No: 0

2. If so, what should be its primary purpose?

Collective defense of Europe: 14

Out-of-area military operations: 2

Policy coordination: 1

Global peacekeeping: 0

Keeping Russia in check: 0

Combination: 31

"Both A and B. The former as the core task, the latter as the useful add-on."

Other: 13

"All of the above, plus crisis response."
"Promotion of a common political agenda."
"All of the above, plus coordination of intelligence regarding global fundamentalism/terrorism."

3. In 1993, Sen. Richard Lugar argued that NATO has to "go out of area or out of business." Since then, NATO forces have deployed in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf of Aden, and Libya. Do you think NATO should continue to support deployable forces for operations outside Europe and the United States?

Yes: 56

"But with strict limits and, ideally, as part of a U.N. mission."
"Only as there is a clear relevance for European security."
"Only in case such deployment contributes to strengthening of members' security. No role as a global policeman."
"In a globalizing world there is no more 'out-of-area.' The world is our area now."

No: 3

"Only on a very highly selective, case-by-case basis; as a rule, no."

Jason Reed - Pool/Getty Images

4. True or false: The United States would be better off if it left NATO.

False: 57

"A stable Europe is important for the U.S., if for no other reason than economics."
"Does anyone remember that Article 5 was invoked only once in the institution's history? Namely, after an attack against the United States?"
"But it would be better off if it limited its involvement to Article 5 and left Article 4 to the allies."

True: 0

5. If you had to kick one country out of NATO, which one would it be?

Greece: 18

"For its behavior toward Macedonia and Turkey."
"Due to its boundlessly selfish egotism and disruptive tactics."

Hungary: 5

Turkey: 4

Iceland: 3

Other: Albania, Cyprus, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg (1 vote each)

None: 22

"Each member counts politically, militarily, and intellectually. NATO should be (carefully and gradually) expanding, not shrinking."

6. If you had to admit one country to NATO, which one would it be?

Sweden: 13

"It is a producer, not a consumer, of security for Europe."

Macedonia: 6

Australia: 5

Georgia: 5

Ukraine: 5

Israel: 4

Finland: 3

Serbia: 3

Montenegro: 2

Other: Bosnia, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Russia (1 vote each)

None: 7

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

7. Should Russia be allowed to join NATO?

Yes: 10

"Yes, in principle, if its foreign policy changes."
"Yes. At least it should never be excluded."

No: 29

"Allowing Russia to join NATO implies willingness/commitment from Russia's part to do so, which is obviously not the case."
"They continue to define their security in opposition to NATO."

Maybe, but not now: 19

"Not until it is a democracy. Then we can talk."
"If it meets the criteria, including democracy and commitment to human rights."
"Sure, if it meets NATO requirements. That would essentially mean that it would no longer be Russia."
"Only in very different circumstances from today."

8. On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = least relevant, 10 = most relevant), rate NATO's relevance to U.S. security. On the same scale, rate NATO's relevance to European security.

Average score:
U.S.: 6.5
Europe: 8.5

9. True or false: NATO is an essential part of my country's national security. (Please also write the name of your country in this space.)

True: 50

United States/Canada: 24
Europe: 26

False: 8

United States: 5
Europe: 3


10. It has been more than 20 years since the Soviet Union was dissolved and more than 10 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Do you think NATO members are safer in 2012 than they were in 1991?

Yes: 41

"At least from the threat of major war, they are much safer."
"The quality of internal security and awareness of potential threats has risen since then."

No: 13

"Weaker militarily and economically with more threats."
"Threats have evolved but not necessarily our capability to meet them."

About the same: 4

"Safer in the sense that the real danger of a sudden and massive Soviet attack against Europe, including the use of nuclear weapons, has receded and is currently very, very low. Less safe in the sense that the host of new global 'low-key' dangers is pressing against us all the time, with the possibility of sudden, cataclysmic black swans ever present."

11. Rank the following NATO military campaigns by how successful they have been, with 1 indicating the most successful and 6 the least.

Average rank:

Bosnia intervention: 2.29

Kosovo intervention: 2.35

Libya no-fly zone: 2.47

Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission: 4.00

Iraq training mission: 4.59

Afghanistan war: 4.98

12. True or false: The 2011 Libya intervention provided an overall positive model for future NATO military operations.

True: 31

"It confirmed that NATO can act without direct U.S. involvement."
"It demonstrated the political and military ability of NATO to respond quickly to a crisis."

False: 28

"While undoubtedly a big success, the operation in Libya was sui generis, limited in goal and resources, and therefore not a model for future action."

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

13. Could NATO's European members have conducted the operation in Libya without U.S. assistance?

No: 48

Yes: 11

"With real difficulty."
"But not necessarily in the same way as it was conducted and not necessarily primarily with air power."

14. Would NATO's European members have the military capabilities to conduct a similar operation three years from now?

No: 34

"If current trends continue."
"Europe will be even more pathetic then."

Yes: 11

I don't know: 4

15. True or false: Al Qaeda will return to Afghanistan once the International Security Assistance Force mission ends.

True: 24

"There is a large possibility that it will, but it will land in a fundamentally different operational landscape and will take years to rebuild its previous operational capabilities."

False: 26

"At least on any meaningful scale."

Unsure: 9

"False, if the current strategy is properly executed; true, if we rush for the exits."
"Have they ever really left?"



16. Should NATO intervene in Syria?

Yes: 11

"With the Arab League."
"With a no-fly zone."

No: 36

"It could have, weeks ago, with goals similar to Libya. The issue now goes well beyond the question of a Syrian civil war."
"Are you kidding? NATO does not have the resources: no will, limited skill, no tools. Quite apart from the question of what our interests are."

Maybe: 10

"If necessary and only with a U.N. mandate."
"Only to protect Turkey."

17. Where will the next large-scale NATO operation take place?

Middle East: 29

North Africa: 14

"Likely piracy-related rather than Arab Awakening-related."

Europe: 4

"Balkan tensions are not over."

Southern Africa: 2

Arctic: 1

"The Arctic is heating up economically and politically, and key NATO nations have vital interests to protect there and the military resources to do it with."

Latin America: 1

Asia-Pacific: 0

None of the above: 4

"There will be no major operation in the foreseeable future."
"Most probably NATO's next battle will not take place in a geographical location but in cyberspace."

I don't know: 3

18. Which of the following NATO missions would you approve? (Please select any that apply.)

Protecting shipping through the Persian Gulf: 51

Assisting Libyan government with civil-military reforms: 49

Reducing pirate bases in Somalia: 41

Peacekeeping force to support Israel/Palestine peace agreement: 31

Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons: 24

Deploying a peacemaking force in Syria: 22

Blocking large-scale migration across NATO borders: 12



19. What are the five biggest challenges facing the transatlantic alliance? Please rank from among the following, with 1 indicating the biggest challenge.

Average rank:

Economic crisis: 1.84 (45 votes)

Nationalism/internal divisions: 2.39 (25 votes)

Afghanistan: 2.71 (31 votes)

Terrorism: 3.23 (35 votes)

Cyber conflict: 3.27 (35 votes)

Syria: 3.31 (15 votes)

Ballistic missile proliferation: 3.44 (29 votes)

Russia: 3.64 (28 votes)

Climate change/energy: 3.79 (19 votes)

Conventional attack: 4.33 (3 votes)

Other: 12 votes

20. In June 2011, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates described NATO's future as "dim if not dismal," charging that NATO nations were "apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense." Do you agree or disagree with this assessment?

Agree: 40

"He is spot on."
"The economic crisis might be a temporary excuse for doing less, but in the long run European states must contribute more to collective defense."
"Largely true, but it has always been thus."

Disagree: 12

"There is always a crisis in NATO, and future capabilities will depend on operations."
"He's much too dour about the alliance."

Somewhat/unsure: 5

"He is right in blaming the Europeans for their lackluster performance. But this will not mean the end of NATO. Sheer necessity will keep NATO alive."
"Partially true: Common values and interests go far beyond military expenditure."

21. True or false: The United States has too many military personnel in Europe.

True: 22

"It is not the numbers that count, but the commitment to support European NATO members and the ability to do so fast if needed. That does not require a lot of boots on the ground in peacetime, but it does require a commitment on both sides of the Atlantic."

False: 32

"It is appropriate to fulfill the assigned tasks."



22. By 2020, the U.S. force presence in Europe will amount to:

80,000 personnel (current level): 0

68,000 personnel (Obama plan): 10

50,000 personnel: 17

40,000 personnel: 10

Fewer than 40,000 personnel: 22

23. True or false: European member states should devote more funding to NATO.

True: 48

"But unlikely to happen due to resource scarcity."

False: 10

"They should, however, spend their defense money better."

24. True or false: NATO should have both defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities.

True: 52

False: 6

Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images


25. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen's "smart defense" initiative -- using "multinational solutions" to help allies invest defense money more efficiently -- will:

Mask NATO's inability to make major necessary reforms: 18

Become the new way NATO does business by "building capabilities together": 15

Produce innovation but not until at least five years from now: 11

Provide an excuse for allies to make further defense cuts: 8

Other: 8

"Have a very limited impact on NATO's future, if at all."
"Increase the risk of member states not having sufficient capabilities of self-help in case of an attack."
"Depends entirely on implementation."

26. True or false: Five years from now, France will still be part of NATO's integrated military command.

True: 54

False: 2

Unsure: 2

"This depends a lot on the French economy. If it is not revived, there will be more and more nationalist pressure from within France. For a weak president, splitting from NATO would be a cheap way to get a few points at home."

27. In 2020, German foreign policy will be defined primarily by:

German leadership of the European Union: 28

Berlin's preference for the status quo: 14

Germany's relationship with Russia: 5

The Franco-German relationship: 4

The transatlantic relationship: 3

Other: 4

"Germany's relationship with China, Russia, and other BRICS."
"Investments abroad to deal with an aging and less productive population."



28. If Turkey has not become a member of the European Union five years from now, its orientation will be:

Pursuing a revival of Ottoman power: 21

More closely aligned with its Muslim neighbors: 13

Still closely aligned with its Western allies: 11

Inwardly focused due to domestic strife: 2

Other: 11

"Turkey will maintain alignment with the West but also pursue closer relations with the East. It does not see them as incompatible."
"More engaged not just with Muslim neighbors but also with Russia."

29. In order of importance, NATO's top three priorities for the Chicago summit should be:

Afghanistan: 37

Reinforcing the transatlantic alliance: 14

"Smart defense" plan: 13

Capabilities: 13

Re-evaluation of NATO mission and role: 13

Finances: 11

Partnerships: 11

Defense capabilities and spending: 8

Ballistic missile defense: 7

Iran: 6

Cybersecurity: 5

Russia: 4

Syria: 4

Arab Spring/Middle East: 3

EU coordination: 3

Nuclear threats/arms reduction: 3

Postwar Libya: 2

Partnerships with Arab countries: 2

Terrorism: 2

Enlargement: 2

Other: 4

U.S. troop withdrawal from Europe
Asian security


Participants (59): David Aaron, David Abrahams, Rafael Bardaji, Hans Binnendijk, Dirk Brengelmann, Yves Brodeur, Ian Brzezinski, Frances Burwell, Christopher Chivvis, W. Eugene Cobble, Heather Conley, Marios Efthymiopoulos, Charles Freeman, Karsten Friis, Jeremy Ghez, James Goldgeier, Ana Maria Gomes, Ulrike Guerot, Jason Healey, P. Terrence Hopmann, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, James Joyner, Rasa Jukneviciene, Karl Kaiser, Lawrence Kaplan, Sarwar Kashmeri, Sean Kay, Daniel Keohane, Jim Kolbe, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Iurie Leanca, Henrik Liljegren, Julian Lindley-French, Richard Lugar, Jüri Luik, George Maior, Tomas Malmlöf, Sally McNamara, Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, Shuja Nawaz, Boyko Noev, Clara Marina O'Donnell, Ioan Mircea Pascu, Barry Pavel, J. Peter Pham, Tomas Ries, Matthew Rojansky, Stephen Saideman, Kori Schake, Daniel Serwer, Stanley R. Sloan, John Tanner, Jan Techau, Kenneth Weisbrode, Damon Wilson, Boguslaw Winid, Jörg Wolf, Dov Zakheim, Michael Zilmer-Johns.

Produced by Jorge Benitez and Margaret Slattery