Wednesday, April 26, 2017

TED 2017 - Day 2

The second day here at TED was an amazing day with talks ranging from Serena Williams to the Pope (in just one of the four sessions). There were so many good talks today that I'm going to have to leave some of them out entirely.  

First, one note on the photos. TED this year strongly discouraged the taking of even non-flash photos during the sessions. They instead asked folks to use the photos they would post on Flickr. So, most of the photos today are from there and are not ones I took. I noted each of those with "(TED photo)" to try and give the proper credit. 

Boston Dynamics robotic dog on stage (TED photo)
The day started at 8:30am with a session titled Our Robot Overlords. Unfortunately, the jet lag got to me and I overslept. I still managed to get to the session just as the first talk started with Boston Dynamics' robotic dog walking onto the stage. The fun was just getting getting under way! 

The session included a number of interesting talks. Tom Gruber from Apple talked about how AI, such as Siri, should strive to enhance humans rather than replace them. He spoke of living digitally mediated lives where personal assistants would monitor everything we saw, read, and did and could then augment our memories. That is very attractive to me, but he did not talk about the downsides of such technology. 

The session included a number of other solid talks such as Noriko Arai describing an AI her team created to take the University of Tokyo entrance exam. Radhika Nagpal explain her effort in developing algorithms and robots that can produce swarming behaviors akin to those of fish and birds. Marc Raibert showed videos (many of which I had seen) on a number of Boston Dynamics robots. Todd Reichert told of the newly announced Kitty Hawk Flyer. Joseph Redmon demonstrated his work with Darknet and YOLO (You Only Look Once) in machine learning and image recognition. Stuart Russel gave his thoughts on how better to create AIs that would not be detrimental to humans. 

The day next included a series of talks in Spanish in a smaller venue than the main stage talks, called TED en Español. Fortunately, they provided simultaneous translation because after two weeks in China, my ear for understanding Spanish is even worse than normal! The session had a few really moving talks. The two that stood out to me were the ones by Jorge Ramos and Ingrid Betancourt. Ramos told of his experiences being censored as a journalist 30 years ago in Mexico. He then told of his attempt to cover presidential candidate Donald Trump. He showed a video of being kicked out of a Trump press conference in Iowa during the primaries. While Ramos did speak out of turn, the looks on Trump's face and the hateful things Trump supporters/staff said to him afterwards were heart breaking. No one should be treated like that, especially not American citizens in America. 

TED en Español ended with a
dance in masks--way outside
my comfort zone!
Betancourt, a former Colombian presidential candidate, told of her six years in captivity to FARC guerillas. The talk was very moving. She gave three lessons from her time--decide on guiding principles, build trust, and develop faith. She emotionally described how her experiences ultimately led her to God. 

The session ended with a fairly useless talk on the value of play in humans and primates that concluded with everyone wearing masks and dancing. OK, I put on the mask briefly, but didn't join the conga line. Some things are just too far outside my comfort zone! That, coupled with the talks being in Spanish and the host hugging every speaker gave the session a very different feel from most TED sessions! 

The second session of the day was one of the best ever at TED. One of the speakers was Rutger Bregman on a basic income guarantee. He disagreed with Thatcher's famous quote, "Poverty is a personality defect." While many of us would not agree with that quote, that is certainly how we write our policies. Studies showing that instead of lack of intelligence causes poverty, poverty lowers IQ. One study of sugarcane farmers in India showed a 14-point IQ difference before and after they received the annual income from selling their harvest. He also discussed Dauphin, Manitoba and the 5-year-long Canadian experiment there with a basic income guarantee. The experiment was from the 1970s, but the data was lost for 25 years. Recent analysis of the data showed very positive outcomes without the expected negatives like people quitting their jobs to "live on the dole." I'd read about this experiment before and still wonder why it gets so little press. Bregman concluded with the claim that implementing a basic income guarantee in the US would cost $175B per year. I have plenty of concerns and doubt everything is quite as rosy as he portrayed it, but given the coming job displacement by technology, I think this is something well worth looking into. 

Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon on tackling
the problem of obesity among African-american
women (TED photo)
The session also included a talk by Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon. They gave a moving description of their efforts to fight obesity among African-american women through walking. They quoted statistics such as half of African-american girls will grow up to have diabetes. Their program, GirlTrek, is aiming to reach one million women to walk regularly in their neighborhoods. They see benefits well beyond their individual health in those neighborhoods. 

The two women also did two things of personal interest to me. First, they showed that it is possible for two people to speak together on the TED stage. (You can probably guess why that would matter to Mark and me!) They also opened their talk with a brief prayer, something I had never seen before in ten years of attending TED. I spoke to each of them afterwards, told them that, and thanked them. They each said that they had gotten conflicting advice on whether to start with prayer, but decided they had to. 

The session also included good talks such as Jack Conteon on how the Patreon platform can provide a way for creators (artist, musicians, etc.) to get paid. Ray Dalio, hedge fund manager, spoke on his notions of radical transparency and algorithmic decision making. Sarah DeWitt of PBS Kids Digital spoke on the unexpected idea that tablet, phone, and computer screens can be good for children. Martin Ford talked about how the impending AI (machine learning) revolution will decimate the job market like no technology before it, the consequent need for a basic income guarantee, and the resulting possible loss of meaning and fulfillment in people's lives. 

Pope Francis using the Parable of the Good Samaritan
(TED photo)
The third session of the day was maybe even better than the second. It included a surprise talk by the pope (already posted). Yes, that pope. Pope Francis gave a very good (though pre-recorded) talk that exhorted people to get beyond themselves and work with others to create a "revolution of tenderness." In many ways, his talk shared similarities with yesterday's talk by Rabbi Sacks. Pope Francis, however, was much more willing to talk about God. He did an excellent job of using Jesus' Parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate his point. So far, this TED has had more mentions of God than any in my memory. 

Serena Williams' interview on a variety of topics
(TED photo)
The session also included Atul Gawande (whose books I have thoroughly enjoyed) speaking on how professionals can improve well into their careers. He contrasted the training of professionals (go to college, learn a skill, and then use it) with that of athletes (go to college, learn a skill, and spend a career being coached). He spoke of interviewing the violinist Itzhak Perlman and learning his wife Toby's had acted as his lifelong coach. He then told of how he had grudgingly hired someone to coach him in surgery. He was shocked at how many good tips his former surgical professor gave him. He concluded with how coaching had positively affected the delivery of children in hospitals in Uttar Pradesh, India. I came away wondering how I might use coaching in my life and job. 

Only a day like today at TED could include so many good talks that I can only provide passing mention of things like Raj Panjabi's (this year's TED Prize winnner) on his efforts to provide rural healthcare to underserved places around the world and an interview with Serena Williams. Yeah, just a typical day at TED... 


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

TED 2017 - Day 1

After failing at selfies, I settled for the staged TED photo
This is my tenth year of attending the TED or TEDActive conferences. The conference is again in Vancouver, BC. The weather reports said it was supposed to rain, but instead it was a beautiful, clear day in the 50s.

I come to TED every year primarily to have the talks force me to think. I do my best to attend all of the talks and even try to talk to some of the many interesting attendees. Being here every year really pushes me outside my comfort zone, but I look forward to it. 

What I never know is what I will learn, what Mark and I will decide to do based on what we learn, and how I will change. It is always a bit scary, but something I have come to treasure. It also forces me to write some blog entries. Last year, the four entries about TED were the only ones I managed to write. I'm hoping this year I can do better than that! 

Items in the TED gift bag, most of which I am likely to use
One of the treats each year is the TED gift bag. Over the last few years, the gift bag has become less over the top than it once was. That is probably a good thing, but there were still plenty of interesting items. Among the items I'm looking forward to trying out is a Closca Fuga foldable/portable bike helmet, a pair of Bombas socks (what Toms is to shoes, they are attempting to be to socks), a Logitech presentation remote, and a Ring outdoor floodlight and security camera. There is also a card to get a free Google Home. The TED bag itself is a large one from Lululemon with lots of places to store stuff.  

The first day started off with two TED Fellows sessions. These talks are typically shorter than the ones on the big stage and are done by some of the over 400 folks from about 90 countries around the world that serve as TED Fellows. The sessions included quite a few good talks, though no great ones. 

The youth band Play on Philly, led by Stanford Thompson
opened of the TED Fellows talks 
The sessions opened with a performance of the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts by high school students from Play on Philly. I've always loved the melody as it was used in the song Lord of the Dance that was very special to me when I first became a Christian. 

Here are just a few of the highlights of the two sessions of talks. Karim Abouelnaga spoke about his efforts to utilize summer school with inner city kids so they might learn rather than fall behind during that time. His initial results sounded very promising. 

Greg Gage did a fun demo with plants where he used something akin to an EKG monitor to show how some plants reacted to external stimulus. He capped this off by hooking a Venus flytrap to a mimosa with wires and then causing the mimosa to droop by touching the Venus flytrap. 

Rebecca Brachman talked about her work on a drug which in lab animals can prevent PTSD and depression. She called the drug a resilience enhancer. She does not yet have any results from humans, but the possibilities are certainly exciting. If successful, her hope is that similar drugs can be found for other psychiatric conditions such as OCD. I was left wondering and worrying what the unintended consequences will be if such drugs remove those conditions from society. I'm sure few parents would want their children to suffer from those things, but I also know that there are useful personal and societal results from them. The talk was very thought provoking. 

The highlight for me was Manu Prakash's talk on what he called frugal science. His basic idea is to make science cheap and accessible in every corner of the world. Previously, he and his team created the Foldscope, a $1.50 microscope for spurring science learning in impoverished parts of the world. His current work is on a 20-cent centrifuge (he called it the Paperfuge) for use in blood tests in places with no electricity. 

There were plenty of other good talks such as Damon Davis' on his documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, but I don't have the time to write about all of them and get to today's sessions! 

The view while eating outside at lunch
Between the two TED Fellows sessions we had a "picnic" lunch. We had to form a group of six people in order to get our lunch basket. While I'm not a big fan of this, it did force Mark and me to eat and talk with folks we did not know. We sat with a couple of Brits, a woman from MIT, and another person. 

After the usual discussion of the best talks so far, the conversation veered into politics. The best line was when one of the Brits said that while both Great Britain and the US had made big mistakes in their recent elections, at least the US could fix its in four years. Folks in the group felt it was unlikely that there were any Trump supporters here at TED. I'm sure with over 1,000 attendees, there have to be some, I expect there are not many. I'm going to see if I can find any over the week and talk with them.  

At 5:00pm, the actual TED talks began. It was the best opening session of talks that I can remember. While none of the talks were amazing, all of them were good and a few were great. I only have time to discuss a few of them.

The musical group OK Go is widely known for their amazing videos, like Upside Down & Inside Out. On the TED stage they both performed live the songs to a couple of videos I'd not seem before and gave a compelling talk on creativity. I'm still thinking about whether their process would work for me, but it was intriguing. You have to see this talk once it is live. 

Titus Kaphar is an African-American artist who told a story of how his son wanted to know why Teddy Roosevelt got to ride a horse in the statue in front of the NY Natural History Museum while the American Indian and African American in the statue had to walk. Kaphar then talked about African Americans in art while painting over a copy of a classic painting that he had painted. What he was doing was obscuring the white characters with white paint so the African American, usually in the background, would come more into focus. It is very hard to adequately explain what he did, but I was moved by it. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks' talk was the best of the day
The talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was very good, but ultimately frustrating. He was an amazing speaker. He posed the question, "Who do people worship?" He answered by saying that today we worship ourselves. He used many quotable lines such as, "It is the people not like us that make us grow." I think he was dead on with many of his observations. 

He concluded with a line from the 23rd Psalm, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me." He used the "you" in that phrase to say that by being together with others we could overcome the trials of the world. My quick check of the Hebrew was unable to show he was wrong, but I've always understood the passage to refer to God. The following phrase, "your rod and your staff, they comfort me," certainly does not seem like refers to other people. To me, what he urged people to do is move past the worship of self to a worship of us. That seems consistent with Sacks' stance as a Jewish Universalist. Instead, I would argue that we need to replace the worship of self with the worship of God. 

The day ended with an evening kickoff party. The food was interesting (in a good way) and I did have my first real conversation about LYG prompted by the Limit Your Greed shirt I was wearing. It obviously didn't change the world, but it was a small step. I'm hoping to have more conversations during the week.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Limit Your Greed

Yes, that is a provocative title. I meant it to be so.

Limit Your Greed is the title of the book Mark Van Name and I have been working on. Yes, you’ve probably heard us talk about it far too many times over the last few years without ever answering the question, “When will it be published?”

We still don’t have a publication date—and in fact, we’re still working on edits—but we are more convinced than ever that the time is right for the ideas in the book. We also think that the ideas are bigger than the book.

Let me back up a bit and explain why I believe that.

Many people think greed is good, or is at least a necessary component of the capitalist system. This prevailing “wisdom” is on the rise. Our society holds billionaires in high esteem not for what good they have done, but because they are billionaires. Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street is far from the only person who thinks greed is good.

The Christian view of greed, however, is different. Greed is one of the so-called seven deadly sins. Jesus admonished in Luke 12:15, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”

Paul includes greed in his list of sins in Romans 1:29. He also warns Christians against it as something with which not even to be associated (Ephesians 5:3). In the Old Testament, Solomon warns in Proverbs 11:6 of greed as a snare that will trap the unrighteous: “The righteousness of the upright will deliver them, but the treacherous will be caught by their own greed.”

Christianity, to me, has gotten too entangled with capitalism. Many see the Protestant work ethic, and thus 21-Century Christianity, as a key pillar of capitalism. Capitalism may be the best economic system (and one I personally agree with), but it is by no means Christian. I believe that Christians can support and utilize capitalism, but they must take a strong stand against greed.

In the 1700s in Great Britain, the economic and social systems of the day were ones we would think of today as deplorable. Slavery was a critical aspect of the economic system and utilizing child labor was a great way to make money. Drunkenness was common, even among the leaders of the country. Prostitution was rampant, with some reports claiming that 25% of the women in London were prostitutes with an average age of 16!

Certainly, people had complaints and concerns, but what could they do? They saw this everyday immorality as the norm—and part of the reason why Great Britain was becoming the most powerful nation in the world, with a vast and growing empire.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by [Metaxas, Eric]
Eric Metaxas' book on William Wilberforce
But not everyone saw the status quo as immutable. Enter William Wilberforce, a man born to privilege who became a Christian. His faith compelled him to use his status and political power to end slavery and reform the morals of Great Britain. (Eric Metaxas’ biography of Wilberforce, Amazing Grace, is well worth the time to read and the source of most of this information. If you are not up for reading the weighty Amazing Grace, you should try the summary in the second chapter of Metaxas’ Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.)

No one could ever accuse Wilberforce of thinking small. His efforts destroyed his personal fortune and cost him greatly in his political life. Rather than becoming prime minister, he became a political pariah for many years. But Wilberforce had a circle of likeminded friends that came to be known as the Clapham Circle (also called the Clapham Saints or Clapham Sect). These friends amplified and supported Wilberforce and his efforts. Ultimately, with their help, he prevailed in both of his reform efforts and helped make Great Britain a much greater nation.

Our primary goal has never been to just publish a book. Nor was our main goal just to create the company Principled Technologies. The underlying goal has been to change the world. We are not so foolish as to believe we will succeed, but we feel we need at least to try. I have no illusions that either of us is William Wilberforce or that we can have the impact of the Clapham Circle. But maybe we can influence some folks and cause some changes in at least our corner of the world.

At TED 2017 registration sporting my
Limit Your Greed T-shirt
We are announcing today the next step on that journey. Before publishing the book, we are attempting to start a Limit Your Greed movement. We are beginning with a website and T-shirts. Limit Your Greed is a bit of a mouthful, so we are calling it LYG (www.lyg.org). The T-shirts are not yet available for purchase, but they will be soon. The website is live and has lots more information.

The goal of the T-shirts is to start conversations—for people to say they think folks should limit their greed and have the discussions that will naturally follow. Mark and I will wear prototype T-shirts all week here at TED in Vancouver. Our hope is to start conversations at a place where folks are open to hearing and spreading new ideas.


What can you do? Please visit the website and learn more about what we are doing. Buy a T-shirt when they are available if you are interested in starting such conversations. And maybe, just maybe, we can change the world! 

Friday, February 19, 2016

TED 2016 - Day 4

Day 4 of TED 2016 started off differently from any days at this or previous TEDs. I attended a Believers' Prayer Breakfast. The organizer found me because on my description I listed Christianity (as well as gadgets and business ethics) as something I would like to talk about with folks. As a Christians this prayer breakfast felt very normal--a couple dozen Christians gathered in a room to spend some time praying and talking. At TED, however, this felt very abnormal, almost subversive. 

The normal part of the prayer breakfast included praying for the conference, the attendees, and each other. It also included telling stories about seeing the hand of God in our lives, at TED, or wherever. 

The abnormal part was that I, like many of the others, felt such a relief to find other Christians at TED. Probably joking, a few people mentioned keeping the names of attendees low profile. In fact, I'm reticent to say in this blog who else attended. I'm probably being foolish, but I also don't feel right "outing" someone without asking them first. 

We talked about those shared feelings of being outsiders at TED, though quite probably the vast majority of folks here would be unaware of that and don't intend it to be so. Someone astutely pointed out the parallel feelings many non-Christians feel toward the Church. I greatly enjoyed the time we got to spend together. 

The first talk of the day was by Arthur Brooks. He spoke compellingly of the need for the Right and the Left to work together. He said this not to encourage folks to remove the current political gridlock, but because the two sides each bring something important to the table. He attributed the dramatic decrease in world poverty over the last decades to the combination of the desire to address poverty from the Left and the reliance on the free market from the Right--neither by itself would have been sufficient. 

He sees our problems as largely the result of a "lack of visionary servant leadership." He went on to say that it "is not enough to just tolerate those we disagree with." He said that the ultimate level of servant leadership is when the leader "takes it personally when someone insults the other side." I'm hoping to find ways to step up to that kind of leadership. 

Adam Foss started his talk by asking the audience to raise their hands to answer a few questions. The first couple were about whether folks had ever gotten into a fight, shoplifted, or tried illegal drugs. Pretty much all of the hands in the auditorium were raised. He then asked how many folks had spent even one day in prison. Only a smattering of hands went up. 

Foss then spoke of his work as a District Attorney. He told of how he has worked to find alternatives to prison and felony convictions that punish, but cost society greatly. He described one situation where a kid stole 30 laptops from Best Buy and tried to sell them on eBay. Rather than having him thrown in jail, he found a way for the teenager to return the unsold ones, pay back the other ones over time, and do community service. Six years later Foss ran into the teenager who had gone to college and now worked as a bank manager. 

John Legend, accompanied only by himself on the piano, sang a couple beautiful songs closely tied to Foss' talk. He sang Marvin Gaye's What's Going On which includes lines like, "Brother, brother, brother, there's too many of you dying." He followed that with Bob Marley's Redemption Song. Both songs were very powerful and spot on message. 

Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist and former hacker who has done some fascinating (and scary) research on both recording and modifying dreams. He talked about the potential of using his research and techniques to reprogram folks while they are asleep to enhance their sleep or change their behavior, such as reducing smoking cravings. He is currently working with PTSD patients to try and remove some of their symptoms. It really left me wondering what I thought about such techniques. His talk is definitely one I need to think more about. 

There were two talks during the day that showed off the power and potential of virtual reality. The first was a demo of the Microsoft HoloLens by Alex Kipman. It is a bit hard to describe exactly how this works in just a few words, so I'll stick to what we saw. First, there was lots of the usual amazing scenery and such that he walked through and interacted with. He then demoed a video conference where a hologram of someone from NASA was with him on the stage. There was definitely a bit of lag and some glitches, but it looked very promising. The best illustration of the technology's power was after the talk when the person curating the session came on stage to ask a couple questions to Kipman. Behind her, the person from NASA's hologram returned. The curator was both startled and rather freaked out by it. 

Chris Milk makes virtual reality movies. In order for the audience to experience a bit of them, the TED staff had folks download a special app from VRSE. On every seat in the auditorium, there was a Google Cardboard and a pair of headphones. Google Cardboard is just a cardboard box with a pair of lenses in it (those of you who are old enough, think View-Master) with a space in the back for you to slip in your smartphone. You can buy one of these for $20. The really cool part of this was that the app played the VR video for all of us at the same time. Over 1,000 people were all standing up, turning around, bumping into each other, and reveling in this VR experience. No written description can do this justice, but at one point there was a woman standing very close in the video. It really felt so much like her being there such that it was a bit uncomfortable for someone like me who is not a big fan of close talkers! The technology will only get better, but I would encourage you to try it out now. 

There were quite a few other interesting and informative talks, but none of them matched the caliber of Day 3. Lidia Yuknavitch spoke of being a misfit (which made me realize that the spectrum of misfits goes WAY beyond me). Mariano Sigman told about his work using big data, word proximity, and ancient texts to analyze the emergence of concepts like introspection. Kang Lee described his research on lying and how it is possible to use "transdermal optical imaging" to detect lying. He hinted that it would be possible to detect the heart rate, stress level, and, possibly, whether the person is lying from video of a presidential debate. That is a debate I would watch! 

Dinner was a party with the typical small plates and confusing food. I managed to eat plenty despite those limitations. The band Fitz and The Tantrums played and folks seemed to know their music and enjoy them. I talked to a few interesting folks, including someone who was retired, but keeps busy by working with the Super Bowl Committee (I really don't know what that means he does) and some venture capital guy who had started Friendster and sold a subsequent start up for $1B. 

Just another typical TED folks and day!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

TED 2016 - Day 3

Wow.

I've long had a tradition at TED of giving standing ovations only when I really think the speaker and talk deserve one. The first day was short, but none of the talks earned a standing O. The second day, I gave one to the TED Prize winner, not because she gave a great talk, but because of her amazing infectious enthusiasm. On Day 3, I spent a lot of time standing and applauding.

There really were too many great talks to write about all of them. I've put below some of the highlights. 

The day started out well by having a session that technology folks (my people, the geeks and nerds) dominated. The first speaker was Linus Torvalds, the originator of Linux and, later, GIT. He also is the person who popularized Open Source. His name may not mean much to most folks, but Torvalds is geek royalty. He is also someone who is not a fan of the public eye, which is probably why Chris Anderson agreed to interview him rather than have him give an actual talk. 

Torvalds seemed surprisingly at ease and very willing to be open and honest. He revealed that he shared Linux with others not so it would be Open Source, but because he wanted to show off what he had done. About himself, he said (with no embarrassment), "I'm not a people person. I really don't love people." Further, "I'm myopic when it comes to other people's feelings." He also said of his childhood, "I was the prototypical nerd." (Yes, he is holding a Rubik's cube in his childhood picture.)

I found the conversation fascinating, but I'm not sure that folks outside of the world of computers would find it so. I probably also enjoyed it because I could relate to so much of what he said. As other talks of the day would show, the geeks have inherited the earth. And, we will either save it or destroy it. 

I sought out Torvalds after the session because I have long wanted to ask him a question. (I found it amusing that he had the largest group of folks and many of them wanted a picture with him.) I had to wait awhile, but I got to ask my question, did he know about Kermit (my first big project) and did its openness influence Linux? He responded by saying that he used Kermit when he started developing Linux, but did not comment on the licensing stuff. Oh well, it still was fun to get to talk to him. 

Reshma Saujani spoke compellingly of the importance of having girls write computer code. She explained that boys are raised to take risks and girls to be perfect. She portrayed that as a "bravery deficit" that has broad consequences. She cited a study that showed men will apply for a job if they have 60% of the qualifications, but women only if they have 100%. She also told of girls in a programming class asking the teacher for help. The student's computer screen was inevitably blank. The teacher learned that upon hitting undo, the girls' efforts would be revealed. They preferred to show nothing than something that didn't work. Boys would typically say, "There is something wrong with my code." Girls instead said, "I did something wrong." Saujani feels that computer coding is a way for girls to learn that bravery since coding is all about making mistakes and fixing them. (As an aside, I'm really happy that my company, Principled Technologies, is putting on a coding competition for women in March.)

Raffaello D'Andrea showed off some amazing drones. He demonstrated drones that could recover from failed propellers, ones that were basically wings that could hover or fly, and ones that could connect and fly together. His final demonstration used about 20 small drones (each smaller than the palm of his hand). They turned off the lights in the auditorium and they flew in different formations with white, red, or blue lights. It was quite beautiful and gave a real glimpse of what drones will be able to do. 

The day also included some other great technology demonstrations. Amit Sood showed off Google's amazing Art Project which includes really high resolution images of millions of works of art from over 800 museums. Meron Gribetz demoed the really cool Meta augmented reality glasses. Peter Diamandis announced an X Prize for AI to be shown and judged on the TED stage in 2020. 

Michael Murphy talked about his work as an architect. My ears perked up when he mentioned working with Paul Farmer (Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize winning book about him, Mountains beyond Mountains, is one I consider essential reading) on designing third-world hospitals that promote health rather than making people sick. I found especially touching his current project to create a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama to commemorate the thousands of black lynching victims in the US. I hope to visit it once it is complete. 

Among all the standing ovations, one talk brought a tear to my eye. Dalia Mogahed, wearing her typical hijab, spoke of her experiences as a Muslim living in the US. She first cited some sobering statistics (probably from her book Who Speaks for Islam) such as that 80% of all US news coverage of Muslims and Islam is negative. Mogahed made the comparison that ISIS is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. The moving part was when she described her experiences after the terrorist attack on 9/11. There were anti-muslim attacks and protests the following days. She and her husband were debating whether to attend mosque the following Friday despite the cautions of many. They decided to go as an example to their children. When they arrived, the mosque more crowded than normal--about half the people were Christians, Jews, and others who came to show their support. That brought a tear or two to my eyes. That is what Christians should do. That is what I wish I had thought to do. I disagree with her beliefs, but as an American and a Christian I must defend her right to have them. 

I never thought I would type these words, but Al Gore gave the best talk of this conference. Ten years ago, before I started attending TED, Gore gave a famous TED talk tied to his book An Inconvenient Truth. He has done a few follow ups over the years at TED. He has always had good slides and material, but he often has been somewhat stilted and pedantic. Not this year. He was powerful and passionate. He was not the policy wonk of years gone by. He first spoke about the problems and evidence of global warming. It is amazing that some folks still doubt that it is real or man made, but his presentation left no doubt. What made this talk, however, was his sense of optimism about how things are changing and how technology and economics will make this something mankind can accomplish. It was truly inspiring. The audience response was a long, and heart-felt, standing ovation. 

Proving that technology is dangerous as well, Jennifer Kahn spoke about CRISPR and gene drives. In the simplest terms, scientists can now use these technologies to change genes such that they can guarantee the characteristics of offspring. So, you can introduce a gene drive that makes all mosquito offspring be male. In a few generations, they would be extinct. On the one hand, this is amazing--especially when you consider the deaths attributable to mosquito-borne illnesses. On the other hand, the technology is such that college and even high school students may be able to use it. Couple that with the possibility that it gets out of control and the consequences may be devastating. Kahn was mostly optimistic, but this is yet another area where we need folks figuring out what to do with Pandora's box before every kid is playing with one. 

There were also really good talks by people like Andrew Youn on solving world hunger, Luke DuBois about his work of creating art by using data such as the most common words in each US President's State of the Union speech, and Hugh Evans on his efforts to mobilize "global citizens" to attack global problems. There truly were too many to mention them all. 

Rhiannon Giddens (who turns out to be from Greensboro, NC) sang again and was even more incredible than before. As Mark said, her voice is a force of nature. She spoke briefly about the importance for her of reading about the lives of the slaves who originally sang many of the songs in her repertoire. I need to get some of her music and that of her group, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. 

I should mention that the folks at TED are working hard to get talks up on their Web site as quickly as possible. The first one is Shonda Rhimes talk from Day 2. I expect Al Gore's to get posted fairly quickly.

It was an amazing day at TED, the kind of day that makes me feel blessed to be able to attend. Wow. 



Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TED 2016 - Day 2

The second day of TED 2016 was a long one. I left my hotel before 8:00am and did not return until after 7:00pm. There were 4 sessions of 1 hour and 45 minutes each. Each session had between 6 and 8 speakers around some sort of general theme. 

There were no absolutely amazing talks, but lots of solid ones. To me, what made some of the talks memorable was the passion the presenters had for their work. As many of them were passionate about areas I'm interested in, I found the talks enjoyable, but not ones that inspired me to any particular course of action. 

Cedric Villani was passionate about mathematics. He won the Fields Medal (sort of the Nobel prize for mathematicians) and sees math in everything. He is French and said that most people think the French are famous for "love, wine, and whining." To that, he would add mathematics. His flamboyant clothes (including a purple cravat and a large silver spider his lapel) and his long hair accented his desire to be different and see the world differently. He said that mathematics "allow us to go beyond intuition." 

Haley Van Dyck was passionate about her work of dragging the US government's computer technology into the 21st Century. She recounted how when she started work in 2008, she was given a laptop running Windows 98. She cited how the government spends $86B on IT projects of which 94% are over budget or late and 40% never will see the light of day. Her organization, the US Digital Service, is attempting to change that. While I'm skeptical, I hope her enthusiasm can last long enough to make a real impact. 

One of the passionate presenters was Franz Freudenthal, a doctor from La Paz, Bolivia. He developed a treatment for babies with a particular congenital heart defect. This problem is both more prevalent at high altitudes (La Paz is over 12,000 feet high) and more severe (a larger hole). Open heart surgery to repair the problem is prohibitively expensive in a poor country like Bolivia. He developed a device and technique for closing the hole in the heart that can be done in 30 minutes and delivered via the patient's arteries. The pictures of Bolivia and the children there made me feel homesick for Cochabamba. I made a point of talking to him after the session and he and his wife were obviously passionate about their work. He gave me his card and told me told contact him the next time I'm in Bolivia. It is truly a small world. 

The last talk of the day was by the 2016 TED Prize winner, Sarah Parcak. She could not contain her enthusiasm for her work in archaeology. I admit that I am a big fan of archaeology and have long hoped to spend time at a dig in Israel some day. Hearing her talk made me want to jump on the next plane and go. Her TED Prize wish is to use satellite imagery and crowd sourcing to decrease the amount of looting at archaeological sites in Egypt and around the world. While I'm skeptical she can succeed, I sure hope she can. And, with her passion for archaeology, maybe she can. Regardless, I think I need to try and schedule my trip to a dig before too long. 

There were many other interesting talks including back-to-back fun ones by Tim Urban and Adam Grant looking at avoiding procrastination (Urban) and the correlation between procrastination and creativity (Grant). I think that means that I must be creative! 

Brian Little gave a compelling and fun talk about the science of personality and how we can use it to improve ourselves. It made me buy his book, Me, Myself and Us. 

An interview with 93-year-old Norman Lear was very enjoyable and gave me hope that it is possible to reach old age gracefully, creatively, and with something to contribute to others. 

I enjoyed the music, particularly that of the Silk Road Ensemble. Years ago I found an album I rather liked (Silk Road Journeys) by them with Yo-Yo Ma. They perform an interesting fusion of Western and Eastern music and instruments. Rhiannon Giddens joined them and her voice blew me away. 

The food at TED is an odd combination of really trendy (pretty much everything has kale in it), somewhat confusing (double chocolate quinoa snacks), and ever present (between every session there is food out). Lunch was food trucks that had all sorts of trendy, confusing choices. Fortunately, we found one serving burgers and fries. 

One difference between TED and TED Active is the presence of celebrities here. I'm used to being around tech celebrities, but not ones from other realms. I was walking into a session and heard a familiar voice. I glanced at the person next to me and it was Al Gore. Meg Ryan ate lunch at the table next to ours. Goldie Hawn was looking over the same odd assortment of snacks we were. People generally make no fuss about them and I've tried to do the same. Still, it is hard to not steal a glance or two. 





Tuesday, February 16, 2016

TED 2016 - Day 1


This would have been my 9th TEDActive conference, but TED decided to not hold that sister conference this year. Fortunately, I was able instead to get into the regular TED conference in Vancouver. I had long wished to attend the “real” TED conference rather than the TED Active simulcast, but over the years had come to like the people and atmosphere of TED Active. I had even decided that I would not attend the main TED conference except as a speaker. Obviously, that hasn’t happened, but I’m still holding out judgement on whether I will attend future TED conferences until I see how the week goes.

I come here every year primarily to have the TED talks force me to think. I'm looking forward to seeing what will end up being my big takeaway from the the week. Most years I end up deciding to make a change in either my life or my company or both. 

I do my best to attend all of the talks and even force myself to talk with some of the many interesting attendees. While TED has a much more impressive (and larger) attendee list than TED Active, I’m guessing that I won’t be hanging out with Al Gore, Bill Gates, Sergei Brin, or Jeff Bezos.

I'm not sure it is really symbolic or not, but they even have a place set up to take your picture with the big TED letters. There was a camera mounted in the ceiling and someone working at the station. He scanned my badge, took the picture, and then emailed it to me. He joked that this was so folks wouldn't have to take selfies. Insert your own joke here... 

Mark is here as well, though he arrived on Saturday while I did not arrive until late on Sunday. It is always good to have someone to hang out with. I expect we will also spend time talking about our company as well as theTED talks themselves. 

Before the sessions began I registered and got to see what was in my swag bag. The bag itself was a canvas one from Lands’ End. While it was a nice bag that I'm sure I'll end up using, it was nothing special. The contents, however, seemed to be a real upgrade from previous years. I don’t know if that is because the goodies are better at TED than TED Active or this is just a better year. The bag itself contained the usual water bottle and a number of things to sign up for like HealthTap and Rocket Lawyer. I usually don’t have the time to check these out, but some of them sound interesting. There were also a number of gadgets that I’m looking forward to playing with like the Google ChromeCast Audio (a device for streaming audio over WiFi directly to speakers) and the XY Find It (a small device to attach to things you lose). 

In addition, I had to make some swag decisions. In the group of gifts redeemable online, I chose 23andMe. I already use the DNA testing service, but I plan to let my wife try it as well. For the tech gift, I went with the Chamberlain MyQ Garage, a WiFi garage door opener. I admittedly have another brand of these at home that I need to install, but I do have two garage doors! For the kids’ gift, I was disappointed that they were out of the Radio Flyer Tesla electric car for kids, but instead I got a Kano Computer Kit that I think my grandsons will enjoy making with me. Finally, I picked three books. Fortunately, I can send this all home via UPS as it weighs a ton!

The first pair of sessions were short talks from the TED Fellows. The picture gives an idea of the setting for these talks which is a different theater from the main stage and only holds a few hundred people rather than the over 1,000 in the main venue. 

Most of the talks were interesting and engaging, but two stood out for me. One was the Muslim comedian, Negin Farsad. She managed to be rather funny while pointing out the ways Muslims are treated (and mistreated) in America. One example of her humor was a video of her asking people in NYC whether they rather would eat bacon to prove they should not be put on a list of Muslims. It was rather funny, absurd, and thought provoking. I'm hoping to have an opportunity to chat with her during the week. 

The talk by Mitchell Jackson was the best one of the two sessions. He challenged the concepts of "Whiteness" and "Blackness." What he said dovetailed well with a book I'm currently reading by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. I came away more convince than ever that race is a concept that needs to go away. I resolved to do my best to stop using it. I also need to spend some time studying whether the concept is present in the Bible or not. A quick examination shows that the word race shows up in English translations, but the Hebrew and Greek words are rather different. It's always good to find things to consume my spare time! 

The first and only real session of the day was a series of very well crafted talks that left me somewhat disappointed. It started off with a 10-year-old girl from India, Ishita Katyal, sharing her concerns and hopes for the future. Astro Teller of Google X told about their "Moonshot Factory" and the many cool things they are working on like autonomous cars and balloon-based Internet service. The things he talked about were all ones that have been in the press, but the talk was fun. 

Shonda Rhimes, a self-proclaimed titan of television with shows like Grey's Anatomy, gave a talk about finding balance through play with her children. The talk was well written and felt like a performance rather than something from the heart. When the teleprompter failed (normally, TED does not allow their use, but I guess she is important enough), it only emphasized the performance nature of what she said. I'm sure they will edit that out when the talk goes live and folks will think it was amazing.  

Dan Pallotta attempted to conflate the Apollo program and the Stonewall protests to some how convince us to strive for more compassion (or something) in our lives. He started out strong, but lost me along the way. 

Bill T. Jones did a dance performance that I think was about mortality (he turned 64 years old that day and someone close to him died at 92 the day before. His performance left me impressed with his ability at that age, but also did not move me. AR Rahman's performance of Indian music was enjoyable, but nothing more.

The best talk was Riccardo Sabatini's about genetics. He went over facts I largely knew, but did so in a very visual way. He had people wheel in 5 carts of large books. Each of the almost 200 books (272,000 pages) was filled with the letters C, A, T, and G which was the full genetic code of the geneticist, Craig Venter. He then opened a book and read the few letters that determined his eye color. He then showed how a team of researchers had used machine learning to reconstruct a face from someone's genetic code. The results were not perfect, but were impressive. Obviously, they will only improve over the time. He used all of this to point out the importance of making decisions about what we should do with such technology before it was too late. The talk was well done and very thought provoking. 

At the evening party, the food was very trendy and confusing (I have no idea what vegan scallops could be). I settled for a few shrimp and desserts before heading back to my room exhausted. Another typical day at TED.