Saturday, April 20, 2019

TED 2019 - Day 5

Canadian breakfast at its best--Tim Hortons
I started off my day, as I have most of the mornings that I’ve been here, with my favorite Canadian breakfast--a Tim Hortons' Canadian Maple donut with a cup of their coffee. At least this year I limited myself to one donut each morning. Progress?

Since it is the end of TED I'm going to take a slight diversion here and talk about the snacks at TED. Snacks have names like Vegetable Salad Rolls with Peanut Nuac Cham, Chickpea Falafels with Tomato Cumin Dip, Gluten Free Eggplant Parmesian Slider, and Rhubarb Syllabub Spiced Crumble. The ones I've eaten have generally tasted good, though I'm not convinced the fancy words make them healthier. Regardless, I'm sure to have put on a pound or two while being healthy! 

To make matters worse, they've decided that soda is not healthy. That is true, but I demand my right to destroy my body if I choose to! They do have cold containers of water, flavored water, kombucha, tea, coffee, and some liquds I was never able to quite figure out. There is Gatorade (because they are a sponsor, I assume) but no Diet Coke or Coke Zero to be found. Being here has been a real hardship!

Lots of healthy, if oddly described, snacks
To start the session titled Meaning, Eric Liu gave an infuriating talk. He felt that in order for the US, and the rest of the West, to preserve democracy, they need to implement what he called Civic Religion. He defined Civic Religion as a shared set of beliefs and practices. His Civic Religion uses the Constitution as its sacred text, meets weekly on Civic Saturday, sings songs together, and holds discussion groups to dive into and better understand American's foundational documents. He told of groups already successfully meeting. It sort of  sounded rosy, but what he described sounded like church without God and Jesus. 

The problem for me is that he is basically trying to rebuild American democracy not from a set of underlying beliefs like those of the Constitution's framers (largely Christian and Deist), but from a new made up religion. Rather than talking about the inalienable rights endowed by our Creator, those rights would be granted by the same documents. It would basically be a big circle--the morals that underpin the country's defining documents would be the documents themselves. I consider this idea one not worth spreading. 

America Ferrera told of her experiences trying to find work in Hollywood as a "chubby, Latina." She was constantly told that she was either not Latina enough (no accent) or that they liked her, but they didn't need someone like her. Her roles in Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty made her a success. She thought those roles would show that there was a demand for people like her, but Hollywood is still afraid or unable to create roles for someone not in the traditional categories. She has decided to stop trying to change herself and instead try to change Hollywood. I hope she is able to pull that off.

David Brooks is conservative journalist that I have often heard and enjoyed on NPR. I've heard him say that more than once he did not move away from conservatism, but rather it moved away from him. In  his talk, he described himself as "an average person with above average communication skills." He said that his true talent is going through what many others are going through and having the skills to tell about it. It was not the talk that I expected from Brooks, but there was a lot in it worth thinking about. 

He told about his 2013 divorce, loss of friends, and other changes in his life. His was lonely and his life was in a downward spiral. He came to understand that the emptiness of his new apartment was a reflection of his life. He was "in the valley." He felt that many others and the country have been in a similar valley over the last few years. 

The first real sun of the week for the last day of TED
He shared what he had learned as he crawled out of his valley. He now understands that you don't get true happiness from your career, your talents, or your successes. Instead we need to pursue joy. He defined happiness as the expansion of yourself and joy as the dissolving of your self. He now pursues joy in sharing the lives of others. He collects their stories such as one regarding a very large family with all sorts of children (theirs, adopted, and ones with no place to go). When he arrived and tried to shake one boy's hand, the response was, "We don't shake hands here, we hug." That is joy and a place he regularly visits when in town. 

Chris Anderson had a conversation earlier in the week with a young woman who had escaped from North Korea as a teenager. He felt her experiences were worth us all hearing in a TED talk. She was very nervous before she began speaking and closed her eyes for an uncomfortably long period of time. I was afraid this was going to be traumatic for her and a mistake for Chris. I was wrong and he was right. 

Yeonmi Park told her story including how her father went to prison for selling small things to make money to feed his family. She was always hungry and on the verge of starvation. She escaped at 13 with her older sister to China and eventually to the US. When people ask her why she took the risk, she responses that when your house is on fire, you jump out the window to at least have a chance of surviving. She related what it was like in North Korea. Her perspective was that of a teenager, so there are certainly things she did not know or understand, but what she shared was heart rending. She said the only word for love in North Korea is not for romantic love, but for love of the "Dear Leader." She was taught that he was an almighty god who could read her thoughts. She was afraid to think. 

She did not learn compassion. If someone was dying or dead by the side of the road, you just kept going. Only after she was away from North Korea for awhile did she realize that her Dear Leader was the only fat person in photos, that he was not starving like everyone else. 

She ended by warning that it had taken less than 70 years, only 3 generations, for North Korea to become what it is today. She said that freedom is fragile and we must preserve it. By the end, I had to wipe away a tear. Yes, that seems to happen to me at some point during most TED weeks. 

Freestyle Love Supreme improvs songs
to summarize the week
The closing summary of the week was by Freestyle Love Supreme, an improv band created by Anthony Veneziale who did the improv presentation yesterday. While one band member played the keyboard and another beatboxed, the other three summarized the week in song/rhyme from slides they had not seen that appeared over the stage. They were funny and a fitting end to the week of sessions. 

I'd encourage anyone who might read this to check regularly on TED.com as they will publish many of the talks I've described in the coming weeks and months. I've tried to point out ones I thought folks really need to see, but there are plenty of others well worth watching. Enjoy at your leisure, they are way better than most of the videos on the Internet! 

One other aside--TED did an incredible job with the set design. Each session had a different backdrop displayed on large projection screens behind the stage. These two pictures on the right show a couple of examples of the changes they made on the fly. Compare these to the one above from the closing musical summary and you can an idea of what they are able to do with very little time used for changing things up. 


It has been an exceptionally good TED  this year. There was a lot that I heard that I need to spend more time studying and thinking about. I plan to come back next year. 

At the end of each year I try to think about what changes I want to make personally and in Mark's and my company, Principled Technologies (PT). I did not come away with any changes I want to make to PT, though I still need to talk with Mark and see if he did. I did have some things for me personally. I need to do more to take care of myself, whether that is sleep, reading more, being more consistent in exercising (I did none this week), or spending more time studying the Bible and in prayer. 

Figuring out how to find time for those things is the challenge I now face. However, in the spirit of TED, that is an idea I know I need to figure out how to spread and implement. It's good to have challenges! 

Friday, April 19, 2019

TED 2019 – Day 4

It is the next to last day at TED and there were four sessions. It has been a good TED, though my brain and body are about at their limits. Fortunately, I'm not staying out late to party like some of the folks. It is listen/watch, eat, talk, and sleep (not long enough). 

Today started off with a breakfast gathering of 20 or so Christians attending TED. It was, as usual, a great time to pray and talk with fellow Christians. We shared struggles, triumphs, and aspirations and felt part of a community rather than outsiders of the TED community. It's a good group of folks and one I enjoy meeting with each year. 

The four sessions were titled Mystery, Play, Connection, and Wonder. The talks generally lived up to those titles. There were enough good ones, that i'm going to briefly summarize most, leave out some, and still have this entry a bit long. 

There were a couple sessions that discussed gaming. One was by Herman Narula who quoted some interesting numbers such as the average gamer age is 34 years old and there are currently 2.6B gamers. He told about his new technology for building much larger, immersive, multiplayer gaming worlds. He hopes to enable million-person worlds rather than today's much smaller, single-server (or cluster), duplicated shards/worlds. I don't share his enthusiasm for how such environments will be an unmitigated good, but it would be cool!


Emmett Shear showing the Twitch platform in action
Emmett Shear is the CEO and co-founder of Twitch, the streaming, game-watching service. Millions of people use the platform to watch others play games while commenting and interacting with other viewers. They have have even experimented with using the platform with NFL games. I don't want to listen to Ninja's opinions on football, but obviously others would. Shear portrayed the Twitch platform as a great place to "gather around campfires of like minded people" while watching someone game. My experience with online gaming conversations has never been quite so cozy and wholesome. It is often more like an angry mob of hecklers than folks singing kumbaya while giving words of encouragement. 

Throughout the talks, there were people enthusiastic about their pursuits. Even if their material was sometimes dry, their enthusiasm made them enjoyable to listen to. We heard people like Karen LLoyd about microbes below the surface of the Earth, Es Devlin about her incredible work designing sets for musical performances ranging from BeyoncĂ© to opera to U2, Asmeret Asefaw Berhe regarding soil and its ability to sequester carbon, Kristie Ebi about how excess CO2 is making plants yield less protein and vitamins, Juna Kollmeier about her efforts to map all the galaxies in the universe and stars in our own galaxy, Andrew Marantz regarding his work interviewing and trying to understand the people who purposely start, and take viral, lies and provocations, Jamie Paik about her prototype foldable/reconfigurable orogami-inspired robots (robogami), Janelle Shane and her amusing stories of AI gone wrong like suggesting that turdly is a good color name for a shade of brown paint, and Ivan Poupyrev about his advances in integrating device controls into fabric and clothing which he demonstrated by using the sleeve of his jacket to change the slide. (Run-on sentences like that are one of the many reasons why I need an editor!)


Matthew Walker on the importance and physiology of sleep

Matthew Walker is a sleep scientist, professor, and author of Why We Sleep. I've never needed to be convinced that I need more sleep, but now I know how important it is for my health. He cited a number of studies showing that sleep is necessary to learning, that the lack of sleep is linked to cancer, lower testosterone, Alzheimer's, and a generally lowered immune system, and that the WHO considers shift work as a probable carcinogen. I guess I need to go to bed earlier and buy his book. Someone commented on the irony of TED, a place where everyone is sleep-deprived, having a talk on the importance of getting enough sleep!

Anthony Veneziale did a fun performance of an improvised TED talk. The MC picked a title suggested by an audience member on the spot, Stumbling toward Intimacy. Then, Veneziale gave a talk using slides that he had never seen. He did a great job that almost sounded real while incorporating a crazy set of photos and charts.

Kishore Mahbubani is a US diplomat and researcher. He explained his belief that US and the West went to sleep just when China, India, and Asia woke up. China and India had long been the world's two largest economies until about 200 years ago when the West dominated due to its advances in economics (free market), outlook (improve yourself rather than be a victim of fate), and governance (emphasis on improving the welfare of all through health, education, and the rule of law). The West freely shared those ideas with the rest of the world. When Asia began to incorporate those ideas and rise again, the West felt invulnerable due to winning the cold war and turned much of its attention to the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11. The West largely ignored or missed the rise of Asia. 

Mahbubani hopes and believes it is not too late for the West. His prescription is to be minimalist (stop wasting energy all over the world), multilateral (work with other governments and the UN), and Machiavellian (engage with other nations and find win-win situations). I fear the US is still subject to too much hubris and distraction, but I hope that he is right. 

Jon M. Chu telling of the making of Crazy Rich Asians
Jon M. Chu told about his life experiences growing up as an Asian in America and his desire from a young age to make movies. He became a successful movie maker, but began to want to find the right vehicle to feature Asians in lead roles. All of that led to turning the book Crazy Rich Asians into a successful movie. He mentioned a few times "a power bigger than us," but somehow managed to make that not spiritual, let alone religious. Despite that, I found it to be a very enjoyable talk. 

The last session of the day, titled Wonder, very much lived up to its name. The talks both both inspired wonder and were wonders. It started off with Beau Lotto and Cirque du Soleil. After some opening comments by Lotto, a pair of Cirque trapeze artists performed on the stage while a Cirque sand artist created incredible, changing and ephemeral pictures projected on one of the screens. Together they made for an awe-inspiring performance. 

Lotto then talked about awe and experiments he had done on people before and after Cirque du Soleil performances. In the preliminary results, they found evidence of brain changes indicative of awe. He then explained how such changes lower the brain's executive function and make people more open to connection. I've long wondered if our 21st Century lack of awe makes us less receptive to religion and spirituality. I look forward one day to reading more about his research. 


Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the importance of striving to pay
attention rather than to get attention
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the actor famous for roles in (500) Days of Summer, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Snowden, spoke compellingly about the need to strive for paying attention rather than getting attention. He felt it was important for him as an actor to think of his fellow actors as collaborators rather than competitors. Of course, because he is an actor, I was left wondering whether I was watching the true Gordon-Levitt or him acting. Regardless, it was well worth watching. 

Jon Gray, a self-described culinary evangelist, told about his efforts to not leave the Bronx behind as he became successful in his design career. Instead, he wanted to continue to be part of that community while trying to bring parts of it to the world. With some chef friends, he came up with Ghetto Gastro. It attempts to meld cuisine with the foods he grew up with and take the resulting foods around the world. His overriding goal is to "ignite conversations about race, class, and inclusion via the medium of food." It was a good talk, with a decided hip-hop beat and sensibility. 


Kelly speaks with Daniel Lismore in and amid his costumes
One of the oddest talks of the week was by Daniel Lismore who claimed that his life is art--not that he does performance art, but his whole life is art. He dresses in elaborate costumes that are works of art, but I really didn't get his concept of his life being art. He told of the importance of authenticity and claimed that his life as art was an example of that. I'm probably just an old fuddy-duddy, but I had trouble understanding how totally transforming himself was authentic. Regardless, his talk was oddly thought provoking. 

The session ended with a musical performance by Richard Bona from Cameroon. I had never heard of him or his music. I came away interested in hearing more of his gentle, complex, and soothing music. 
Another TED Celebration party where I did not dance or party!

The day ended with an elaborate party that was either also beyond my ability to comprehend or past my limits of endurance. The decor, food, and music were all rather good. Mark and I ate, had an interesting conversation with another attendee, and then gladly went back to our rooms for some well deserved rest. Plenty of others, however, were having a blast at the party. 

Time for this old fuddy-duddy to get some sleep! 













Thursday, April 18, 2019

TED 2019 – Day 3

TED is a strange place, a place where extraordinary things are commonplace. A place where you can sneak to the other end of the lunch line to quickly grab a second dessert and look embarrassed because Al Gore saw you do it. A place where a young woman strikes up a lunch conversation with you and when you look her up later, you learn she was on last year’s Forbes list of the World’s Top 50 Women in Tech. A place where they can put up a graphic showing that they are half way to raising their fundraising goal of $568M, which they announced two hours earlier. And, a place where after an interview covering what to do about about hate speech on the Internet, questions from the audience come from a member of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Council, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, and Bill Joy. Welcome to another day at the strange place called TED!
The day was very full, as is my head! There were too many good talks and interviews and not enough time to write, so I'm going to try and restrict myself to ones I thought were worth noting. I'm also going to write about them in no particular order. 

Chris Anderson interviewing Roger McNamee
After lunch, Chris Anderson interviewed Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who recently wrote the book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. Though the interview was not part of the main stage talks, it was one of best discussions so far. Definitely look for the podcast of this when it becomes available wherever you get your podcasts as it covered a lot of ground and is hard to summarize. 

McNamee told of his increased concern during 2016 that something was going wrong with Facebook and its algorithms. He relayed his concerns to Facebook leadership, but got no good answers. That whole story is told in his book. He spent a lot of the time talking about how Facebook's (and Google's and others') business model was the core of the problem, not the leadership or the algorithms. McNamee argued that we may need some sort of antitrust action or consent degree to resolve this problem. 

This was the interview I mentioned earlier where an incredible array of people asking questions/comments afterwards. The final comment was by someone from Africa who thought it was amusing for the West to be concerned about having their elections hijacked when they had done the same to African nations for decades. That got a hearty round of applause.

Rick Doblin discussed his work with using drugs like MDMA (Ecstasy) for the treatment of mental illnesses and his efforts to get FDA approval for their usage. It is not a long-term dosage like with anti-depressants, but is part of a limited-time treatment in conjunction with psychotherapy. His results for the treatment of PTSD with MDMA was impressive, with over 50% cured from PTSD. He claimed they were cured, not just being treated. If that is true, that would be a real breakthrough. I was less impressed by his desire to broaden the use of psychedelics for all manner of things like increased creativity and spiritual insight. 
The conference center looks over the bay and mountains

Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher, talked about how her research showing that being generous leads to happiness. Unfortunately, she realized that she was not all generous in her own life. By helping to support a Syrian refugee family that moved to her town, she came to understand that the key is to be able to envision your donation's direct effect via some sort of personal connection rather than just giving money. I'll have to think about that for charities like the Amistad Mission that I'm apart of. 

The highlight of the day, however, was Michael Tubbs, the 28-year-old mayor of Stockton, CA. It is a troubled city with lots of problems. He grew up there and while in college, his cousin was murdered. Tubbs decided to do something about it. He was elected to the Council while still in college and recently  became mayor. I can't do his talk justice by describing it, so please watch it when it becomes available. 

One thing from his talk that stood out to me was his use of the parable of the Good Samaritan as an illustration of who was his neighbor. He did a really good job of telling that parable, though managed to do so without mentioning God. Regardless, it was good to hear the Word correctly used on stage. 

Jonny Sun and one of his social media cartoons
Rahul Mehrotra talked about his studies of a 7M-person temporary city that is built (and taken down) every 12 years for a religious festival in India. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy told how her Oscar-winning film about honor killings in Pakistan was changing rural villages in her country. Jonny Sun spoke about the positive impact of work with humor, cartoons, and self-revelation on social media. Nick Bostrom spent quite a bit of time explaining that we are all going to die in one of a whole array of catastrophes, but he did really know what we should do about it. 

Hannah Gatsby gave a funny and moving comedy/not comedy act. Katie Hood spoke about educating people to understand true love from abusive love. Her talk is well worth watching when the video version comes out, especially if you think you or someone in your life might be going through this. Bjarke Ingels spoke on designing things like modular, floating cities to deal with rising sea levels. 

Alvin Ailey Dance American Dance Theater performance
There was a moving dance performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater done to gospel music and using baptism as its inspiration. Judith Jamison spoke afterwards about Ailey's creation of the dance and the dance company, as well as her experiences as one of its early dancers. Her thoughts and wit made her talk an enjoyable one.

Basically, it was another, crazy busy, moving, and normal day at TED. Need to get more sleep for tomorrow! 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

TED 2019 – Day 2

View from my hotel room of sunrise over the harbor
It was a typical gray, cool, spring Vancouver day with a constant threat of rain, but little actual rain. Even in that weather, the city’s location on the water made it quite beautiful. Today’s sessions felt about the same—mostly good, but with enough greatness to make the day a good one.

The first session consisted of five talks or interviews entitled Power. As with most of the session titles, this one only loosely applied to some of the talks. This was ultimately a disappointing session because most of the talks revealed little new information and sometimes left me shaking my head in disagreementRafael Casal is writer, producer, and actor. His talk, which he read from a book, on how he led a protest about a prominent African-American actor's removal from a Broadway play after only a couple weeks. Casal was proud of the "online riot" he caused. The play shut down, but now there are more actors of color in leading productions so he felt it was worth it. Given the vitriol on the Internet, I'm a little more skeptical that this was the best way to bring about those ends. 

Chris Anderson interviewed Jack Dorsey, the founder and CEO of Twitter. Dorsey gave long, thoughtful answers about how Twitter is dealing with hate speech, election interference, and the general future of social media that ultimately answered nothing. I didn't feel like Dorsey was being evasive, but his answers were basically, "We're aware of the problems, they are difficult, and we are carefully planning to put in place mechanisms to deal with them some day." Anderson countered with a dream he claimed to have had where Dorsey was the captain of the Titanic heading toward an iceberg with everyone yelling about the iceberg ahead. Dorsey's response in the dream was that he was aware of the problem, trying to figure out solutions, and would deal with the problem soon. A very apropos dream!  

Adena Friedman, CEO of NASDAQ gave a weak attempt at defending capitalism. Sadly, the talk was more about markets than strict capitalism. I wish someone else would have spoken in her place to make a better defense. Peter Beck told about his company's, Rocket Lab’s, success at and future direction of building small rockets that operate with a new generation of very small payloads. Think the size of coin rather than a bus. Very cool. 

Julius Maada Bio spoke compellingly about his attempts to lead Sierra Leone in its attempt to drag itself up out of poverty. The country has been devastated by decades of corruption and its education is so bad that three out of five adults cannot read. He told of his military coup in 1996, giving leadership to a democratically elected leader, and then getting elected as president in 2018. His progress in the last year sounded very positive. However, I ended up wondering whether he was really making the progress against corruption that he claimed, but if he is, then there may be hope for his country. 

David Deutsch speaking via a remote presence robot
The second session was six presentations under the title of Knowledge. It was generally a good session. The first speaker was David Deutsch. He spoke from a wheeled remote presence robot. Deutsch quoted from Ecclesiastes 1:9 where the writer, Qoheleth, said “there is nothing new under the sun”. Deutsch took that to mean that things did not change in the writer's time, there was no innovation, no novelty. (I disagree with his interpretation as I think Koeleth was talking about human behavior, which still hasn't changed, rather than the lack of technical innovation.) Deutsch views life when that passage was written as just suffering, so people explained things in terms of warring cosmic forces. He argued that today science is not much better as it sees things as a conflict between order and chaos that (via the second law of thermodynamics) chaos will ultimately win. He instead sees innovation and novelty, and thus humans, as making us not the playthings of cosmic forces, but rather the users of them. The talk was interesting, but one I'll need to listen to again. 

The middle of the session consisted of three interesting talks. David Liu described his work with altering DNA using base editing rather than CRISPR. CRISPR can change sequences of DNA, but not individual DNA base pairs. His process can and should be useful for single base-pair differences and could be used for diseases caused by that like sickle cell and cystic fibrosis. They have success with on testing with animals, but have not progressed to human trials yet. Brittany Packnett spoke from her experience as a teacher on the importance of confidence and that imparting knowledge is not enough. Roger Hanlon showed amazing videos of cephalopods (think the octopus in Finding Dory) and their camouflage.

The next to last "talk" was a performance by a mentalist, Derren Brown. He had people write questions, put them in a sealed envelopes, and put their initials and where they were sitting on the outside. He then asked one such woman a few questions and correctly figured out that she was asking whether she would be able to sell her farm in Virginia. Another guy he told had asked about the broken big toe in his left foot. He did more and was really good. I have no idea how he did it. Quite simply, it was amazing. 

On the stage and the right screen is Doug Roble
wearing his capture rig and on the right the
computer generated version of him
The next presentation was actually even more amazing. Doug Roble demonstrated his team's creation, a simultaneous capture and computer generated image of himself. The image was sometimes close up and sometimes full-body. Its lips moved as he spoke and it walked and gesticulated as he did. The picture on the right gives some sense of how it looked. Roble described how they digitized him to create a very accurate 3D model of himself. That included not just his physical characteristics, but every possible facial expression under varying light conditions. The technology is similar to how movies use motion capture and 3D models to create all sorts of digital characters. The big deal here is that it was happening in real time. There was actually a one-sixth of a second delay, but it was difficult to detect. 

In the middle of his talk, they switched the 3D model so that the computer generated version of him looked like some sort of gnome from a fantasy movie. The lips still move properly as did its body. Though it looked like nothing you'd ever encounter in life, it looked real. The most surprising thing to me was that though neither of the models looked perfect, they were both on the other side of the "uncanny valley" where many 3D models look creepy because they are not quite right. 

Former Google employee on working for US government
After lunch, was a session called TED Unplugged. It consisted of TED attendees giving 6-minute talks on topics they cared about. Speakers included a wide variety of topics such as an astronaut on being in space, a former Google employee on his experiences trying to computerize government paper-based systems, and a magic card act. The talks were enjoyable, but none was truly great or inspiring. 

The final session of the day was where they unveiled the winning Audacious Projects. From over 1,500 applications, they chose eight projects that they felt were far enough along and had a good enough chance at succeeding, if they had enough money to do so. The projects all sounded compelling, though some resonated more with me than others. As Anderson said, some were dangerously inspiring. 

Phillip Atiba Goff on using a data-based
approach to reducing police violence
The first project was Phillip Atiba Goff's efforts through the Center for Policing Equity to attack police violence. Like others have done, he described the problems of police violence, especially against people of color. His organization has a solution. They use data from police departments to help them identify exactly where their biggest problems are so they can tackle them. He told of their experiences with the police force in Minneapolis. By helping them see that their biggest problems were because of homelessness, they were able to come up with solutions. After one year, there was a 46% reduction in police violence. His goal is to scale the program up to work in many more cities. 

Other projects included the Ellen Agler and the End Fund looking to reduce the rampant problem of intestinal worms in Africa, Claudia Minor and Upstart trying to dramatically increase preschool education in America through an at-home solution, David Baker's work to design custom proteins to address a myriad of problems, Safeena Husain and Educate Girls looking to decrease by over 1M the number of girls in India not being educated, and the Nature Conservency's efforts to help island nations combat the decline of the ocean ecosystems around them.

Joanne Chory on modifying plants to consume more CO2
Joanne Chory with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a plant geneticist. Her idea is to create plants that gather more carbon than normal and sequester it. They have been modifying plants to make more subarin that contains lots of carbon and doesn't readily decay. Subarin grows in the roots that they plan to make bigger and deeper than in unmodified plants. They want to add the necessary DNA to crops like corn and wheat without lowering the yields. Doing so would capture carbon across the world while enriching the soil. 

Julie Cordua of Thorn told about the heart wrenching scourge of child pornography (sexual abuse) and the effect on those children. Her idea is to create the necessary automated tools, databases, and communications channels for law enforcement agencies, governments, and service providers (Facebook, Google, Youtube, etc.) to remove the content, identify the people creating it, and rescue the affected children. 

The total price tag for all of these projects was over $500M. At the end of the session, they revealed that half of that money was already pledged via donations during the session and ones gathered before the announcement by large donors and foundations. Check out the Audacious Project for more information on all of these projects. 



Tuesday, April 16, 2019

TED 2019 – Day 1

I’ve been attending the TED or TEDActive conferences for well over ten years. As it has been for the last few years, this year's TED is held in Vancouver, British Columbia. As usual, I come with mixed emotions—looking forward to learning, to being challenged, to meeting interesting folks, and to have the talks force me to think, while dreading becoming mentally exhausted, eating too much, meeting too many people, and getting angry at some of the views expressed. The conference also forces me to write some blog entries! Over the last few years, the bulk of my entries have been from TED.

The TED logo at the conference center
The first day started off with two TED Fellows sessions of about two hours each. The TED Fellows are people chosen for their groundbreaking work in a wide variety of fields. These talks are a way for them to describe that work to TED attendees.

During those four hours, there were a LOT talks, most of them solid and a few worth noting. Among the notable talks, we heard about space junk, fruit flies, fishing cats, large movable stone sculptures, drugs made from constrained peptides, lion conservation, training female policy officers, teaching science through hip hop, and growing islands. 

MIT Media Labs' Arnav Kapur demonstrated a wearable AR device that you could inaudibly "talk" to and it would respond (like Siri) to you, also inaudibly. Basically, you could silently say, "What is the weather?" and have it tell you the answer without disrupting what is going on around you. The tech seemed a bit slow and left open a lot of questions, but it was an interesting glimpse into the not too distant future. 

Throughout the day, there was a recurring theme of the issues for African-American males of "driving while black." In my life, I've never feared an interaction with police and whenever I've been pulled over, the police have been polite let me go without getting a ticket. It is a very different story for African-american men. Marc Bamuthi Joseph performed a spoken word piece on his experiences with driving while black and his concerns about his son getting his driver's license. Brandon Anderson told a moving story of his African-American partner being killed by police in a routine traffic stop which led to him creating an app to crowdsource information on police interactions. 

A bit of At Buffalo performed on the TED Fellows stage
Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin described the 1901 World's Fair in Buffalo. It included three exhibits one titled Darkest Africa, another The Plantation, and one by W.E.B Dubois that told VERY different perspectives of the African-American experience. She has been working on a musical about this call At Buffalo. They performed a little bit of it on the TED Fellows stage. 

Bruce Friedrich explained the state of the art in plant- and cell-based meat and the positive environmental impact of eating such foods. I tried a bit of a Beyond Meat burger afterwards and it was very good. I plan to try grilling some at home.

Sarah Kay movingly performing one of her poems
In the afternoon, was the first regular session of the conference, titled Truth. It was a very good opening session. It started off with some spoken word poetry by Sarah Kay. Generally, I'm not a big fan of poetry, but her performance of her poem had some powerful imagery that I very much enjoyed. 

Chris Anderson's intro included the line, "We may all be on a train wreck to hell, but at least the company is good." The line was ominous, but turned out to be appropriate for the first session. 

Anderson showed the power of TED by having one of the folks (Sheperd Doeleman) from the team that unveiled last week the image they created of a black hole. His conversation with Anderson gave me a much better sense of what the image actually was and the incredible amount of work that went into creating it. 

The room fills up for the first session, one
that will turn out to be controversial
The first real talk was also the first to which I, and pretty much everyone in the audience, gave a standing ovation. It was by Carole Cadwalladr, a British journalist. She had been sent to report on how the Brexit vote came to pass. She went to a town in Wales that voted 62% in favor, even though the EU had paid for millions of pounds of projects there and the presence of few immigrants in the area. Trying to understand why that was so, led her to Facebook, the Brexit ads on that platform, the shadowy money that funded them, and Facebook's stonewalling the investigations into what happened. It was a harrowing talk and I give credit to Chris Anderson and TED for calling to task one of its sponsors. Never one to miss an opportunity to show the power of TED, he offered Mark Zuckerberg an opportunity from the TED stage if he wanted to respond. As I expected, the talk is the first one from the conference that TED posted. It is one you must watch. 

The next speaker was Frank Luntz, a pollster, political adviser, and wordsmith, mostly from the Right. His talk was not as controversial as he thought it was, but it was interesting and very quotable. He cited statistics such as half of people in their 20s have stopped talking to a friend or family member because of their political views. He is a master of words and gave out many lines like, "populism is a great way to get elected, but a horrible way to govern." His title for the talk was, It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. He talked about how to avoid incendiary words that stop conversations and instead use ones that move the conversation along. He gave things to say versus ones not to, such as "I get it rather" than "I'm listening" and insensitive remark rather than micro-aggression. The goal in each is to show interest without bringing up defensiveness. 

Baratunde Thurston, in a very funny talk, told his story about driving while black. He then talked mostly about the common click bait headlines like, "White Woman Calls Cops on a Black Girl Selling Water." He shared his ideas on those kinds of words and how to turn them on their head. His talk was enjoyable and yet very thought provoking. 

Lots of different Vancouver food to eat and people to meet
Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of Chobani, grew up in Turkey. He told the story of buying a yogurt factory in upstate New York that was about to shutdown and using it to create his company. He opined that the standard playbook that guided CEOs for the last 40 years is broken. He gave his thoughts on a new, anti-CEO playbook. It was an engaging and upbeat talk. I just need to find a way to get him a copy of Limit Your Greed

There was, of course, an evening party. The food was good, but I did not have enough energy to talk to more than a couple people. It was a good first day at TED 2019. Can't wait to find out what the next day has in store! 

Friday, April 20, 2018

TED 2018 - Days 4 & 5

It has taken me a few days to get over my TEDache (a combination of a brain too full of new thoughts and exhaustion). I finally felt up to putting together this final entry based on my notes from Friday and Saturday. Worth noting, I've never been a good note taker. Some of my favorite sparse entries describing talks included "Crazy flying lady," "I'm 18 and I understand AI," "Born in Korea, raised in Argentina, educated in US, whatever," and "Hip hop meets indigenous peoples--too bad." Suffice to say, there were plenty of things I'm not going to bother to write about!

TED fills both your brain and belly 
You should definitely keep an eye on TED as they post more videos from the conference. I just looked and saw that they posted Robin Steinberg's talk on the problems with our current bail system and how she plans to change it and Zachary Woods' one on the importance of listening to people you disagree with. I also found the other Audacious Project videos including GirlTrek's. I plan to see how I can support at least the second one. These videos are ones well worth watching.  

The last day and a half were fairly dreary days with plenty of rain and cooler temperatures. The sessions were good, but my exhaustion and the weather seems to have affected my mood. I moved my flight home a day earlier. I couldn't wait to get home and have a little time to rest and digest all that I'd heard. 

There were some great quotes from the sessions that I have to call out. Dylan Marron told of his attempts to reach out the writers of Internet hate responses to him and stated, "Empathy is not endorsement." Chetna Gala Sinha who started a bank for poor women in rural India said, "Never provide poor solutions to poor people." Both are lines I plan to use in the future.   

Lots of folks put off spending their TED coin
The first Friday session was called Insanity. Humanity. Three of the talks stood out to me. One of those was James Bridle who told about the many egg opening videos with millions of views on Youtube, mostly by children. He also showed another vast array  of "finger family" videos based on a silly song. The number of videos and views is mind boggling. The videos are not so much troublesome in and of themselves as they are really boring and innocuous. The reason for the views is machine learning recommendations. As Bridle put it, "machine learning is just software we don't understand how it works." Though he spoke only about Youtube, he believes the issue is much broader. I feel sorry for my grandson because we will be cutting back his Youtube watching!

Emily Levine gave an entertaining talk that started out by telling us that she had cancer. She said reassuringly, "Fortunately, my cancer is like the Democratic leadership, not very aggressive." Her talk covered lots of ground and included fun lines like, "I don't have goals, just fantasies--they are similar, but a lot less work." Her attitude toward her mortality was refreshing and I hope that I am half as funny as she was if I manage to live to be her age!

Frances Frei is Harvard Business School professor who specializes in trust. As a result, she did a short stint with Uber to help them restore the trust of their employees and customers. She explained that trust has three components: authenticity, logic, and empathy. She gave some simple ways to restore each of those components such as empathy by not looking at your cellphone, logic by starting with your point rather than rambling, and authenticity by being yourself. Hers was a talk I need to rewatch and think about how to incorporate elements of it in my life and work.

The Latin fusion group LADAMA performing
Body electric was the title of second morning session and included a number of good talks as well as a fun performance by the female Latin group LADAMA. 

Mary Lou Jepsen talked about her work on low cost (and small compared to current MRI machines) brain scanning using the translucency of our bodies (hold a bright flashlight to the palm of your hand and note the red light that gets through) and some magic with holograms. She also brings lots of experience in building low cost devices. If she pulls this off, the changes would be enormous.

In one of the more exciting and scary talks of the conference, Dan Gibson described his work on printing (he called it teleporting) vaccines and other drugs. The device which does this is relatively small (think large desk size) and will shrink as the technology develops. Basically, you send a file with the genetic sequence to his device and a couple days later you have a vaccine. Or drug. Or virus to kill everyone on the planet. (OK, he didn't talk about the last one, but obviously, this technology could be misused.) The ability to quickly get a vaccine to a remote corner of the globe is exciting as is the ability to produce vaccines without using the current antiquated technique of growing it in eggs. The possibilities and possible abuses are ones to be excited by and wary of.

Along the same line, but a little less exciting/scary was Floyd E. Romesberg. His told of his work in adding additional letters to the existing four (CGAT) bases of DNA. His team created semi-artificial life with DNA containing what he referred to as bases X and Y. The ability to synthesize different amino acids, and thus proteins, than what can be done with the existing bases opens a lot of possibilities.

Al Gore sharing the current state of the battle
against climate change
Mark and I attended a lunch by the Climate Reality Project which featured Al Gore. He gave plenty of harrowing information about changes in the world's climate as well as some encouraging signs brought on largely by the changing economics of rapid technological advances in things like solar and wind power, electric vehicles, and energy storage.

We also went to a workshop on impromptu speaking. The moderator made some good points. She felt that the term impromptu should be a misnomer as you should always speak to what you know. You should use whatever time you can to prepare, even if that is only the time it takes to walk from your seat to the podium. During that time, you should decide where you are going to go with what you say and pick the organizational strategy to get there. 

The late afternoon session was Personally speaking and, indeed, they were largely personal talks. Three of them stood out to me.  

Chetna Gala Sinha told of her experiences in rural India. When banks refused to help women looking to save small amounts of money, she stepped in and tried to open a bank for them. When the banking authorities refused because the women could not read, she helped them learn how to read. The results of her (and the women around her) efforts in the face opposition are an inspiration to anyone looking to fight against the status quo.

Jason B. Rosenthal is the husband of the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal whose touching essay, You May Want to Marry My Husband, went viral last year. His talk was an equally touching tribute to his wife and the love they shared. It was not quite a tearjerker for me, in part because he came across as so well composed. I'm pretty sure he will have no trouble finding women who want to marry him!
 
Oskar Eustis is the director of New York's public theater and was one of the driving forces behind bringing Hamilton to the world. He explained how he sees theater and democracy as intimately linked as they have been since Greece invented both over 2,500 years ago. He told fun Joe Papp stories and came across as the erudite, entertaining speaker I would expect him to be. He also seemed very much the elitist theater insider. Near the end of his talk, however, he destroyed that notion. He lamented that theater has "turned its back on a large part of the country." Rather than American theater being the province of the coastal elites, he argued that to fulfill its role it must reach the whole country. I came away impressed with him and hopeful that he is able to see his plans come to fruition.

The final session on Saturday morning was titled What matters. I had to leave before the end as I moved my flight a day earlier to get home sooner.

I was particularly struck by the talk by Gary Liu, CEO of the South China Morning Post. He told stories of how technology is transforming China, in ways both good and bad. For example, technology is helping make easier the vast migration of hundreds of millions of Chinese city dwellers to their rural villages for New Year's. He told how the government is adding facial recognition to 170M closed circuit cameras. Liu described Taobao villages--rural communities where at least 10% of their income is from online sales. Because this is China, this has caught on and there are now over 2100 such communities. He also told of 55M rural students in really small schools that are now able to stream classes. In many ways, China is leapfrogging the US in its use of technology. And, bringing online the remaining 600M people will probably lead to even more innovation.  
 
Chris Anderson conducted an engaging interview with Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix. Hastings related lots of inside nuggets of info about Netflix such as spending $100M for the initial season of House of Cards and investing $8B in content in 2018. He told about how he loves the competition of business and relishes the challenge of trying to beat Disney and HBO. 
 
I'll close my commentary of TED 2018 with an experience from the Friday night party that made a strong impression on me. In many ways, it summed up what the TED conference is for me. Mark and I sat at a table with a man and a woman who we did not know and did not know each other. The conversation turned to our contention TED is a reflective bubble where people tend to reinforce each other's opinions and not be open to dissenting ones. The man said that he disagreed. 
 
We discussed a video, which the other people had not noticed, shown before one of the sessions the day before that had some disturbing (at least to me) images depicting Jesus in very unflattering ways. I said that I did not think such images would be used about Islam or other groups. He then spewed a bunch of expletives while contending that such treatment was appropriate. (My snarky side wanted to shout to the avowed liberal that he owed me a trigger warning!) He was at least consistent in that he thought all religions should be disrespected in such ways. He felt his tone was appropriate because of what he had experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church and because he was Italian and that was how he was. After some further conversation he came to the conclusion that it was acceptable to insult anyone in power, but not those that were not. He left shortly afterwards. 

We talked a bit more with the woman in a much friendlier vein. When she had to leave, she came over to me and was very kind. She said some encouraging words and told me to keep speaking out. In those two people is the spirit of TED. And, possibly of discourse in America. I just hope her tone wins out.