TEDx Cluj-Napoca

Yesterday (Friday) I attended TEDx Cluj, the local variant of the global TED phenomenon.

If you’ve never heard of TED or are unfamiliar with it, the first place to visit is the TED Talks Youtube channel, where you can see hundreds of videos of people speaking about new or interesting ideas.

The TED(x) series are offshoots of the original TED conferences and are held in cities throughout the world, including in Cluj-Napoca. According to the big banner out front, the one I attended yesterday was the fourth edition of TEDx in Cluj but the first one for me. And according to someone I met there, the third edition (and possibly previous ones?) were all free for people to attend. This one that I attended was most definitely not free.

I was busy as heck, which is my norm these days, so I missed a couple of the speakers but I did manage to be there for most of it and I took copious notes. I also brought The Woman’s camera and took some photos but I was way far in the back and none of my pictures turned out very well. You can see better ones on the official Cluj TEDx website as well as all over their Facebook page.

Before I get into what each person had to say, I think it’s worth doing a little summary.

The Good

The theme of all TED conferences is “ideas worth spreading” and there were definitely some intriguing, interesting people speaking at the TEDx Cluj conference. I personally was familiar with a lot of the things they were saying but I know for many Romanians in the audience it might’ve been the first time they’d been exposed to these ideas and so it was definitely a very positive thing for them to hear them.

With maybe one or two exceptions, every single person in attendance (and speaking on stage) was Romanian and most of the presentations were conducted in the Romanian language. I know a lot of the attendees were multilingual and could understand English (and other languages) but still it’s a very good thing to hear about these ideas in one’s own native language.

The conference was clearly “sold out” and every seat filled and the audience was quite eager to be there. I don’t know if it was because of the associated prestige of attending a TEDx conference or the price of admission (170 lei) or eagerness to hear the presenters but everyone there was quite attentive and responsive, so that was also quite good. Probably the only person who was half asleep was me and frankly that was due to exhaustion rather than lack of enthusiasm. I saw a lot of tweets beforehand from attendees, saying they were going to bed to rest up specifically for the conference (it lasted all day).

Every single speaker had a connection to Cluj or was born here or something like that, so it wasn’t just good ideas we were all hearing about (and discussing) but good ideas from local people, which was quite nice. They didn’t take the route of flying in interesting and informative speakers from far away so it was great to see and hear from people in our own community who are doing positive things.

Surprisingly only one speaker ran over the allotted time and the conference actually was running ahead of schedule for most of the day. I’ve been to an untold number of conferences and workshops in my life and actually sticking to the schedule is a very rare beast. So much respect goes to the organizers of TEDx Cluj for an excellent job at keeping things running smoothly and efficiently.

And although I disagreed with a lot of what some of the speakers had to say, I do recognize that they all had a lot of interesting and positive things to say, so that by itself was wonderful. As I said, hearing these things in Romanian from a local person was just fabulous. I know from talking to some attendees (as well as reading the chatter on Twitter, etc) that people’s brains were buzzing and that’s always a good thing. If you’ve been reading this website for a while, you know I am always a supporter of people doing good and positive things here in Romania and so I am definitely glad I both attended the TEDx Cluj as well as the fact that it took place. Definitely.

The Bad

Unfortunately, as awesome and great as this conference was, it could’ve been a lot better.

To begin with, the freaking price was too high. 170 lei is a heck of a lot of money anywhere (roughly 59 USD/42 euros) and a tremendous amount of money for a Romanian with a normal job. I asked two different members of the TEDx Cluj staff where all that money was going and nobody really seemed to know. Perhaps the speakers received some of it but they all live here so there were no travel or lodging expenses for them. Honestly I have no idea where all that money went to because I counted at least 150 attendees and that adds up to some 6000 euros.

The conference was held in the Art Museum of Cluj (former Banffy Palace), which is a lovely old building. And I know the paintings on the walls were supposed to be inspirational and all of that but frankly the museum is not a conference center. There was a distinct lack of facilities, from the single bathroom with two toilets on the other side of the building and down a flight of stairs to the stuffiness of the room (and the windows couldn’t be opened because it would negatively affect the paintings) to the lack of space in the meeting room itself. Normally it’s a small gallery in the art museum but during the TEDx it was jam packed with people, literally knee to knee in the chairs, wedged in tight as a sardine can.

Furthermore, although the sound was fine, there was not a proper stage in the room (again, it’s normally an art gallery) and so most people only had a clear view of the back of other people’s heads. There was a video screen used by some of the speakers and it was very small. I literally had to use the zoom function on the camera to even be able to read the text on the screen from where I was sitting. And last but not least, the lighting was inadequate due to the fact that it’s not a proper theater or conference center.

Every summer in Cluj there is a very well-respected film festival held in town called TIFF and they usually hold their post-film parties at the same art museum. And they always provide free Wi-Fi for the event. Unfortunately, TEDx did not. The host of the event (see below) kept making references to how great and awesome “social media” is but yet they did not set up a Wi-Fi connection for the attendees. Absolutely unforgivable in my book, especially considering the price we all had to pay. I did see a number of local Tweeters furiously doing their thing during the conference (#TEDxCluj if you use Twitter) but making them use their paid mobile data links on top of the 170 admission price was outrageous.

And last but not least, the food and refreshments were inadequate. Starbucks was on hand, giving out free coffee but it was out of a large pot and so was quite weak and watered down, especially as compared to how most Romanians (and I) drink it. Plus Starbucks was there in their capacity as a sponsor of the event and so it wasn’t like TEDx was paying for it. In the morning they apparently ran out of water but it turned out they just hadn’t brought out enough cases so some people were sitting there in the hot, stuffy art gallery in a thirsty condition.

I didn’t try the food but that too was inadequate. All of it got eaten and when it comes to large events, that’s actually a bad thing. A round of cheesecake got served during the afternoon and literally every slice was scarfed down in record time. I didn’t stick around for lunch (I had stuff to do) but all I saw were bread rolls, some kind of Greek salad and some chicken. Considering how Romanian parties and weddings are usually catered, the food was surprisingly inadequate, especially again considering the price we all paid to attend.

And while a lot of the attendees had pre-printed name badges, a lot of them did not. I saw a lot of hand-scrawled name tags and frankly that’s just surprisingly amateur, again considering the cost. Registration closed two days beforehand and it would’ve been better to have the name tags all printed at the same time so everyone could’ve had a nice souvenir.

And last but not least, all of the attendees got what we call a “goody bag” in English – a box with complimentary items. The box was quite large and yet it was mostly empty and contained a handful of brochures, a pen, some sort of make-up and that’s it. Obviously I don’t use make-up and the pen has the TEDx logo on it written very nicely but it’s a cheap ballpoint pen. Not very impressive I’m sorry to say and with the box being so large, it was a weird letdown to open it and see how empty it was. Maybe they were expecting to receive more gifts from their sponsors to put in there? I don’t know.

For those of you reading this who did attend, or possibly are members of the team that organized this conference, please don’t be offended. It was a great conference with a lot of great speakers. My intention here is to make it even better next time, not to nitpick some of the shortcomings.

My feeling from talking to the attendees was that they were all glad for a chance to be sitting at the Big Boys table and nobody cared about any of the things I mentioned above.

The Weird

Almost all of the speakers spoke in Romanian and yet the host of the event (see below) spoke in English. Then after each presentation (given in Romanian), he’d ask the speaker some questions in his strange English. Some of the speakers are quite bilingual but others were less so and so it was disjointing to have them switch mental gears to answer questions in English after spending 30 minutes speaking in Romanian.

Also, the conference began with the playing of a video from the TED Talks website. It was a nice introduction and everything but it was in English and I’d actually already seen this video, so at least one person (me) was essentially paying money to sit in a room to watch a YouTube video they’d already seen. I would’ve preferred that someone give the introduction (live) in Romanian rather than just replay some video.

And last but not least, there was a video playing during the speeches given by presenters who weren’t using the screen for the purposes of their presentation. Most of the time it was a static image of their name but every minute or so it would pulse with some weird epileptic style video burst and it was highly distracting.

Furthermore, the website and all the printed material handed out to the attendees was in English. Why? To look more “cool”? I have to guess that was the reason as 99% of the attendees were Romanian speakers and the English was totally unnecessary. Also there were a few mistakes and typos in the material, which was regrettable.

The Speakers

Note: the photos used below come from the head shots from the official website.

Cor Geertsma – This was the host of the event, the one speaking in his heavily Dutch-accented English. He was wearing probably the most flamboyant suit I’ve seen in Romania and it looked absolutely fabulous. Definitely an engaging and entertaining host but it was just weird that he would ask those questions in English after each speaker had just been speaking Romanian at length.

Although I’d never met Mr. Geertsma before, I certainly know a lot of his colleagues due to the heavy Dutch involvement here in Cluj, which I’ve written about before.

Sergiu Biris – This guy is the founder of Trilulilu, probably the most famous and popular media portal in Romania. Everyone in this country has heard of Trilulilu and been to that site, so it was good to hear a (brief) story about how the site got launched.

Other than that, his speech was about comparing tennis to business and involved a lot of Power Point bullets invoking the general “you can do it” things I’ve heard many times before. Still I’m sure it was good for Romanians to hear that it’s okay to “let go of the balls you can’t reach” and to “play your best no matter the odds” and other Tony Robbins-style inspirational talking points. And while Mr. Biris seems like an affable guy, he sounded a little nervous and spoke in a monotone throughout.

Dan Calinescu – This guy is an ethnic Romanian (which you probably could guess from his name) but gave his presentation in English. Apparently he’s been living in Canada and the United States for a while and so (according to his own admission) doesn’t speak Romanian fluently enough to be able to speak at TEDx in that language. The poor guy spoke English in a strange melange of perfect English and heavily accented English though.

Dan Calinescu was easily the most enthusiastic and positive guy I’ve heard in a while. I don’t know if his message was well-received though as he spoke in English and was much more “Western” in his very eager, enthusiastic, “let’s do it” style of speaking. Romanians sometimes get turned off by people who are so unilaterally positive so I think once he’s settled back in his birth country for a while he’ll learn to tone down his message without (hopefully) losing any of the enthusiasm. I also know he has employed some Romanians here so I hope some of that excitement and positivity rubs off on them!

Mihaela Rus – Definitely an interesting lady with a great personal history, having been everything from a professional dancer to being the owner of an advertising agency.

Her speech was the first one of the day to really make an impression on the audience. Although she spoke in a calm monotone, she did make a strong impact, talking about clearing away a lot of negative thinking, focusing on inspirational and uplifting ideas and goals, and proving that women too can succeed in this world. Definitely a good speech.

Daniel Homorodean – This guy I actually knew (a little) before TEDx and his speech was definitely exciting for the audience. He’s traveled all throughout Africa and I know for many people in the audience it was the first time they’d ever heard a personal story (in Romanian) about what ordinary life is like in such far away places as Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I don’t know where he’s from but he spoke Romanian in an accent that was a little hard for me to follow along although the audience had no trouble understanding him. The guy apparently has no fear about traveling in some rather unstable parts of Africa and met a lot of great people and told some very touching anecdotes about the wonderful folks he met there.

After his speech, Mr. Geertsma asked him a few questions in English and I think my favorite line of the entire conference came when Mr. Homorodean said, “You can achieve yourself”. Somehow the off kilter English and the message behind just really touched me.

Andrei Gheorghe – After lunch came this guy, who was probably the most famous Romanian on the roster. Everyone here knows him due to his long career in television.

This guy obviously has “the chops” to be a speaker and was the first one who really had all the techniques down pat on how to give an oral presentation. Some of the discourse on how Marxism relates to our current situation were a little esoteric for me.

But his lengthy discourse on the 1989 Revolution and what comes next was eerily reminiscent of many thing I’ve written about before, which you can see here in English and here in Romanian. I definitely agreed with everything Mr. Gheorghe had to say on that topic.

Cristian Movila – This guy is a photographer and so most of his presentation was a slideshow of his photographs, which were extraordinarily good and it’s clear this guy is a tremendously talented visual artist. He has his own website which you can visit to see some his work.

Despite the fact that this guy was born in Romania and lived here all his life, surprisingly he chose to speak in English during his presentation. Hey, he’s an artist! Artists always do weird things. And interestingly enough, he ended his presentation with a quote from Psalm 23 although he used a version (in English) that I’d never heard before. Definitely wasn’t the King James version I think most English speakers are more familiar with.

Dragos Cirneci – This guy spoke about “Brain Fitness”, which is essentially performing mental exercises in order to promote memory, health and general well-being. All that was nice and good but I felt like I was listening to a lengthy commercial for his own business rather than strictly a discussion about ideas.

I always get a sour taste in my mouth whenever I read or hear people talk about brains and “exciting new developments in neuroscience” and the like. It always reminds me of this old Peugeot car my girlfriend and I used to drive many, many years ago. It was a weird French car (in America) and had a strange assortment of buttons and we never quite knew what all of them did. And since the car was old and weird, it had an electrical problem and so if you had too many buttons activated, it would kill the car and then we’d have to stop and re-start it.

That’s how a lot of people (including Mr. Cirneci) approach neuroscience – the brain is a mysterious collection of buttons and people like to study what happens if you push button X and Z together. If you conduct a memory test using colored shapes, will that improve memory? If you listen to classical music 20 minutes a day, will that boost your immune system? And so on and so forth. To me it’s just a fancy way of pressing Peugeot buttons and seeing what happens. It’s very informative and interesting but people get way too enthusiastic when they find some new minor result.

Mr. Cirneci was also the only speaker that I saw who ran way over his allotted time and even after Mr. Geertsma came on stage to tell him to wrap it up, he kept talking for quite a while. It was like he was obsessed with promoting his business, especially considering he had his company logo up on all of his slides during his presentation. Still though, I guess it was good to hear that positive thinking does have an appreciable effect on physical well-being, which is definitely true.

Unfortunately I had to go before hearing from the other speakers. Based on the chatter I saw, it looked like Mukul Pal made quite a good impression and even spoke about Black Swans, a subject I’m very interested in and so I regret I couldn’t have stayed long enough to hear his speech.

All in all, it was a very good conference and I know it inspired a lot of people in the audience, which was the point. The venue was inadequate and there were a number of shortcomings but still it was quite a net positive thing for Romania and for the people who live in my city. I’m definitely glad I attended and I’m even more glad that so many Romanians attended and got exposure to these things.

I couldn’t attend the post-conference party but it sounds like a lot of people had fun and I’m sure the ideas and discussions were flying fast and furious. If you’re in Cluj or another Romanian city that hosts a TEDx conference, I definitely recommend that you attend one!

UPDATE – After speaking to one of the organizers, I learned that two of the speakers did, in fact, fly into Cluj for the event as they both live in Bucharest. So perhaps there were some expenses involved there (lodging, etc). I still have no idea where the money was going to though. Oh, and I also heard the post-conference party was a lot of fun and now I’m extra sorry I didn’t attend. Maybe next year! :)

UPDATE – One of the “ambassadors” to the TEDx event wrote me concerning the exorbitant attendance fees. You can read about it here.