Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gracias para Bolivia y Bárbara

This is the time of year when I am especially aware that I live an amazingly blessed life and have so much to be thankful for. One of the things I’m thankful for is the opportunities I’ve had to visit Bolivia.

I’ve been thinking about Bolivia and why it means so much to me since my most recent visit to Cochabamba in July. I first visited in 1999 and have returned once a year since 2011. (You can read about an earlier trip or watch my sabbatical video to learn more about previous trips.)

People in the States often ask why I keep going back to Bolivia and I am somewhat at a loss to explain. I say things like, “I go to spend time playing with kids in an orphanage.” While that answer is totally true, it is mostly a deflection. It makes me sound like some wonderful, giving person.

Sometimes I'll say something like, “It is a great way to disconnect and rejuvenate from the stresses of work.” Though true, that explanation emphasizes my importance and the stress of my life rather than giving the actual reason.

I sometimes describe these as mission trips to a third-world country. While I do feel closer to God on these trips, that description that makes the trip sound like some sort of sacrificial pilgrimage. Instead, I take warm showers, eat well, play with kids, hang out with Bolivian friends, and generally have a good time.

With Nicki behind the Christ statue
I go on the trips with people I enjoy being with. This past trip, I got to travel with a fun group that included my niece Nicki. It was a treat to be able to show someone I care about the people and places that are very special to me. It was also an opportunity to better know her and the others on the trip.

I go to be somewhere with people who have few expectations of me. To be with children who expect little more than a couple Jolly Ranchers and to be lifted over my head. To be with adults who are content to be friends based upon a few ill-constructed sentences in my broken Spanish. To be with young adults who care about me for reasons I cannot truly discern. I go to receive from people who materially have little.

Normally, I like to be in control and the one giving, not receiving. That is not the case when I am in Bolivia. Maybe, while there, I get to be myself. Or, at least, a different version of myself. I get to be not in charge, quiet, silly, and even tearful.

As the trip was drawing to a close, I decided that I love going to Bolivia for selfish reasons—not to help the people there, but for myself. After all, my being there one week a year leaves me refreshed, but is unlikely to make much impact on the children in the orphanage. I was comfortable with that conclusion and shared it with the others in our group. 

I was wrong.

Bárbara's Facebook post
As I was saying my goodbyes, one of the older children in the orphanage, Bárbara, asked if she could talk to me. She is studying architecture in the local university and is my favorite of the children. I realize I shouldn’t have favorites, but there is no point in hiding it because everyone at the orphanage knows it. When I show up the younger children immediately go and find Bárbara. Her artwork hangs in my office and my house. Over the years, we have done a lot more sitting next to each other than talking, but it works. Her English is now much better than my Spanish, but we still often enjoy just being together without talking. Between trips, we keep in touch via Facebook.

Bárbara wanted to ask me if it would be OK for her to call me “Daddy.” I said “Of course!” as tears rolled down my cheeks. Obviously, God had much bigger plans for my trips to Bolivia than I imagined.

I am already looking forward to next year’s trip in March. It will be a time when I can disconnect from my job and life stresses, play with children in an orphanage, and hang out with friends. And, to be called Daddy. 

Gracias!
 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

TED 2017 - Day 5

The final day of TED 2017 consisted of a single long session and it was a good one. It has been an amazing week, but my head is full of ideas and thoughts and I'm exhausted. I'm looking forward to being home. 

Before getting to Friday, there is one thing I didn't mention from Thursday. The day started off for me by attending a Christian prayer breakfast. It was great to get to talk with 30 or so other Christian TED attendees including several speakers. I felt very humbled to hear from many of the folks about the things they were doing such as working inner city gang members, arranging for organ donations, and leading large churches in unlikely places like Hollywood Boulevard in LA. It was good to have the opportunity to spend time with these folks and pray with them. 

The day on Friday started with a new experiment of letting some of the attendees come on stage and give feedback. They asked people during the week to send their thoughts if they wanted to speak. The TED staff choose about 15 people limited each to a minute. 

One attendee felt that the questions asked of Serena Williams were a missed opportunity. She noted that one of the greatest athletes of all time was on the stage and most of questions were about her pregnancy, wedding plans, and the like. The woman asked if a man would have been asked the same questions. 

Another attendee argued that red/blue diversity is severely limited at TED. He cited one of the talks which was a pure attack on Trump comparing him to a devil in a painting and would not have been tolerated about a blue politician. 

The questioner caused me to think about the week. This year did have more mentions of God than in the past. After all, they had a rabbi, the Pope, and someone who prayed to started their talk. At the same, TED showed a video from Steven Colbert about what it might be like if Jesus spoke at TED. They certainly didn't do that about atheists or Muslims or any other group. There is a double standard of what is fair game and what is not. 

If the TED organizers have the feedback session again next year, I need to attempt to say something about my thoughts on that issue. 

The first talk was a late addition by Tristan Harris which was one of the most thought provoking of the day. Harris was a former design ethicist at Google and earlier was at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. He told about the groups of people whose jobs are to get the attention of over one billion people around the world.

He mentioned the oft quoted recent line by the head of Netflix that their biggest competitors were Facebook, YouTube, and sleep. Talked about how app notifications schedule little bits of our time. Getting our attention is the key and outrage draws attention better. He said that content is precisely targeted at the most susceptible people. The attention economy is a race to the bottom, seeing who can go lower, faster. 

He stated that the Internet is not evolving at random. Instead it is the intentional action of the Facebooks of the world to get our attention. He gave the example of how Snapchat gamified their friend connections. They keep track of the streak of how many days in a row you've chatted with each friend. To keep the streak alive, users reorder their lives. Kids give their password to friends to maintain the streak if they can't get to a phone. 

He thinks that persuasion should only be in the direction people want to be persuaded. I found this very troubling. The problem is who decides what direction people should be persuaded. I'm not claiming we are being persuaded in a good way now, but I'm not sure we can find agreement on how we should be persuaded. 

He believes that we need to first acknowledge that we are susceptible, implement new accountability models, and foster a design renaissance to avoid many of these issues.. The first is definitely true. The second sounds like a good idea, but I have no reason to believe it will happen. The final one I am very skeptical will happen. 

Chris Anderson interviewed Elon Musk on stage. You know you are special when you get to speak at TED without preparing a talk. (Serena Williams also got that treatment.)

The talk began with a standard joke about Musk's new company for boring tunnels under cities to alleviate traffic congestion. Musk made a plausible case for how he can reduce the costs and make it work. He also noted that there are dangers with flying car. Should you worry if a loose hub cap will fall and decapitate you? 

He stated that Model 3 was still on schedule for July manufacturing start. I wonder when they’ll get to my reservation? He said that he expects a Tesla to make a journey from LA to NYC fully autonomously by the end of 2017. Musk showed a picture of an electric semi truck. He claimed it would have more torque than a diesel engine and in a tug of war could pull a diesel up hill.

He talked about the solar roofing tiles that he expects to debut in a few weeks, initially just two of the four designs. He expects them to be very cost competitive with standard tiles. (Is it bad that I’m now hoping my roof needs replacing?)

Musk figured that we will need about 100 gigafactories to meet the world’s battery demand. and plans to announce two to four more later this year around the world. 

In regards to attending Trump advisory boards: I brought up immigration and climate change. He had no idea what effect that had, but “At least the words were said.”

Musk felt that sustainable energy is inevitable and that Tesla is merely accelerating things by five to ten years. He felt that technology advancement and colonizing Mars are not inevitable. Answering why he is attempting projects like going to Mars, he responded, “I’m not trying to be a savior, I just want to look at the future and not be sad.”

Jim Yong Kim in front of a photo of the
impoverished South Korea of his youth
Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank spoke. I assumed it would be a boring technical talk about interest rates or such. Instead, it was an inspiring and hopeful talk. He started by talking about how smartphones are raising the aspirations of people around the world faster than their incomes. The internet increases satisfaction and reference income. 

He explained that when he was a small child in South Korea, it was one of the poorest countries in the world. By spending time in the US, his father's aspirations were raised and he eventually emmigrated to the US with his young family. 

Kim told of his work with Paul Farmer in forming Partners in Health. (Tracy Kidder's book on Paul Farmer, Mountains beyond Mountains, is one that inspired me to want to do something more with my life.) Kim often ran into arguments with the World Bank while doing that work. Since 2012 he has been the head of the World Bank and is working to make it more supportive of the world's poorest. 

Kim told of some troubling trends like the possibility that two thirds of all jobs in developing nations could be lost to automation. That coupled with the stunted development of children's brains in those countries (such as 38% of the children in India) will make the necessary retraining difficult. 

His answer is to get money that is doing little to invest in those countries. He noted that almost half of the world's wealth is invested in low-interest loans, negative-interest loans, or conceptual mattresses. 

The World Bank is trying to utilize that capital by de-risking loans that help the poorest people. They are working with projects such as solar power financing and drones in Rwanda that deliver blood to remote locations. Both are money makers, given the necessary financing. World Bank de-risks the financial by pledge to take the initial losses (if there are any) which qualifies the loans to be of investment grade. 

It was quite exciting to hear someone in a person of real influence using that influence to make real progress in the world. 

The author Anne Lamott gave a delightful talk about the things she knows to be true. Mostly. These things ranged from all truth is a paradox to chocolate with 75% cacao is not food to almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes (including you). She had many quotable lines and great comedic timing. The talk was at times serious, funny, touching, and insightful. Sometimes she managed to be all of those at the same time. The talk, however, was one  thatmy attempt to write about will most certainly fail. Watch for it to come out as a TED video and enjoy it. 

Noah Feldman is a constitutional law scholar. He talked about strong parallels between today and a time early in American history. James Madison had been the main architect and implementer of the Constitution. At that time politics where very partisan (Republicans, led by Madison versus Federalists, led by Hamilton). The country was divided between the traders in coastal cities who wanted to look outward and the agrarian land owners away from the coasts that wanted to look inward. The problems seemed intractable. There are obvious similarities to today. His conclusion is that our Constitution provides the necessary mechanisms to resolve the issues. 

The speakers gathering on stage for a final farewell
The TED staff gathered all of the speakers in the audience onto the stage. It was quite impressive to see how many of them were still in attendance. 

Another party followed the session. I made a point of telling both Chris Anderson and Kelly Stoetzel that they had done a great job and that it was probably the best TED that I had attended. 

So, what are my conclusions and takeaways fro the week? Though I had no where near as many conversations about Limit Your Greed as I had hoped, all the ones I had convinced me that trying to get that message out and get the book published are more important than ever. 

I also came away convinced that I need to put in place some rules on my screen usage such as limiting my usage at meals and remove most (or all) of my notifications. Pretty much everything can wait a few minutes. 

I also plan to start studying Chinese, whether that is because of my trips to China or to lessen my odds of Alzheimer's is beside the point!

Thanks to those of you that read these blog entries. My final takeaway is that I need to get back to writing them more regularly. 



Friday, April 28, 2017

TED 2017 - Day 4

Waiting in line for the session to start
Thursday was another long day with yet more surprisingly nice weather here in Vancouver. There were more talks than in previous days, because many of them were shorter. There were some good ones, but it was still less engaging than Tuesday. Of course, I'm also getting more tired every day! To try and catch up, I'm only going to mention ones that were significant to me in one way or another. 

Robert Sapolsky started the day and did his talk via telepresence. It was primarily a remote camera trained on Sapolsky speaking from an area set up to look similar to the TED stage. His slides displayed right next to him and you quickly stopped noticing he was not actually here. He gave a fascinating look at the factors causing a hypothetical act of violence. He started from the brain chemicals a second before the attack and went back over longer and longer periods of time, ultimately back to decades earlier and the brain changes that can happen in a mother's womb. His conclusion was that it's complicated and we need to be humble about judging people's behavior. I don't know as that he solved anything for me, but it was very interesting. I may need to add to my burgeoning reading list his upcoming book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. 

Levon Biss showed his amazing photos of insects. He creates super high resolution images using a painstaking process that involves very precise lighting and camera movement followed by more work to stitch the many pictures together. He calls the result microsculpture. The resolution of the images is high enough to allow pictures to be printed ten feet tall (or taller) and displayed in museums. Go to his Web site and check out the images. You can zoom in, somewhat like you might with Google Earth. You may have to wait briefly for the image to redraw in the new resolution, but it is worth spending a little time playing with them. 

Elizabeth Blackburn described her life's work with Telomeres (for which she received a Nobel Prize in 2009). Telomeres are at the ends of chromosomes and are essential to keeping them intact. Telomeres shorten with age in most creatures, except for some pond scum she used in her research. In her wonderfully understated way, she told of more recent work looking into how a person's response to stress determines rate of telomere decline. She interestingly used the term healthspan, rather than lifespan which a couple other speakers also used later. Her book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, sounds like another one worth buying.

Richard Browning told about his attempt to use small (relatively) jet thrusters on his body to fly like Ironman. He showed some footage of his attempts, both failed and successful. Because this is TED, he demoed it on the patio outside the building during lunch. Here is a some video I took of him. Not exactly Ironman, but still pretty cool (and very loud).



During the first afternoon session, Helen Pearson talked about the longest running, large-scale human development study in the world. It started in 1946 with about 15,000 children born during a single week throughout the UK. They added new cohorts to the study every decade or so while continuing to follow up each of the earlier ones. Pearson described some of the fascinating discoveries from the resulting massive amount of data. She gave a couple of big conclusions--don't be born into poverty and parents really matter. She also had some interesting small ones like consistent bedtime routines were correlated with better outcomes. 

Susan Pinker decided to study the elderly on the island of Sardinia because it is one of the only places in the industrialized world where men and women live to about the same age. Her conclusion was that social isolation, much more common in men, is most of the reason. She cited other studies of factors predicting long healthy life which showed the importance of social interaction in long healthy lives. (Interesting side note: getting vaccinated for the flu was a better predictor of long life than exercise!) While I wish she'd backed up her conclusions better, much of what she said rang true and seemed worth looking into further. 

Adam Alter looked at the problems of our current screen (phones, tablets, computers, and TVs) addiction. He told an interesting anecdote of Jobs responding to a journalist's question about whether his kids loved the iPad by saying that he did not allow them to use them. One of the interesting points he made was about what he called stopping cues. Basically, we used to have naturally stopping points in our screen usage such as the end of a TV show. With streaming services, the next episode just automatically starts. Our social media feeds never actually end. We can scroll down forever in Facebook. Games have gone from turn based to continuous with no real way to "win" and thus stop. (That was my example, not his.) Some possible solutions he mentioned were things like no screens at meals. I think I need to incorporate into my life the practice of disallowing phones at meals. He also mention ed that one company was deleting emails to folks who were out of the office rather than holding them for their return. I don't think I'm ready to do that yet!

Ashton Applewhite describing the prevalence of ageism
The final session of the day was a good one. One of the talks that I found surprisingly good was Ashton Applewhite's on ageism. She interspersed humor with facts and insights. She quipped that she would no longer say her knee hurt because it was old. After all, the other knee is the same age! (Not sure if that helps if both knees hurt.) I was aware of the issues in the tech industry where older folks (40s and up) are getting laid off and having trouble finding work. The common wisdom is that only younger folks have fresh ideas and energy. Applewhite argued that instead age should be a criterion of diversity. I'm not sure if my age influenced my opinion of her talk, but I think her points are valid regardless. Maybe I don't need Blackburn's book and should just buy Applewhite's, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. My real answer will be to buy both. Actually, I already did.

Emily Esfahani Smith gave an excellent talk that ultimately left me dissatisfied. She posed the common question, "Is this all there is?" Investigated what psychology, philosophy, and literature have to say about this. She said, "Problem is not a lack of happiness, but a lack of meaning." She saw four pillars to building a life of meaning: Belonging (to people not organizations), Purpose (using your strengths for others), Transcendence (feel connected to a higher reality), and Story telling (the narrative you create of your life). The odd thing to me were the mental gymnastics she had to go through to leave religion out, especially since she mentioned that she grew up in a Sufi family. I may need to buy her book to understand better how she addresses this issue, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. 

Manoush Zomorodi also spoke on the danger of screens. (I think I'm detecting a theme here.) She noted that only drug dealers and technologists call their customers users. She pointed out that multi-tasking is really just rapidly shifting between tasks and the cost of shifting is expensive for our brain. She claimed that being bored is our default mode and is healthy and spurs creativity. Screens consume that boredom time and rob us of creativity. She tried a week-long experiment with a bunch of her followers. They took different steps in giving up their screens to see how it affected their lives. Many folks described doing this in terms that sounded like those of an addict and the time they reclaimed as liberating. The actual results in terms of time on their devices was not as encouraging. However, I definitely need to figure out how to do better job of putting limits on my screen usage. 

Shah Rukh Kahn, the world's best lover?
The oddest talk of the day was that of Shah Rukh Khan, a 51-year-old movie star (his own description) with over 100 Bollywood movies to his credit. He said that everyone assumes he is the world's best lover and he didn't go out of his way to deny it. It was really difficult to decide whether he was serious or gently poking fun at himself. Or both. 

It is hard to think of an American equivalent of Khan. There were more than 100 (mostly Indian) fans outside the TED venue hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Plenty of other stars are at TED. One of those is a handsome young actor who has been on a top-rated TV drama for a few years. I told my daughter he was at TED and she practically swooned. But, I walked back to my hotel behind him and no one so much as waved. There is obviously something special about Khan. I think the main reason Khan spoke was because he is starting a TED TV show in India. None-the-less, it was fascinating to learn about someone that famous of whom I had barely heard. 
A beautiful evening for an outdoor party

David Whyte, the English poet of Irish extraction, ended the session. He told a story about meeting his recently college-graduated daughter (also at the conference) at the end of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. This walking pilgrimage in northern Spain was featured in the movie (The Way) I watched a few years ago. (Unnecessary aside: It appears you can do this on a bicycle. That is very tempting.) He then recited a poem of this meeting. Whyte's voice is such that anything would sound wonderful, but his poetry seemed very repetitive to me. Maybe his goal was to have me long for the end as one on the pilgrimage might. I will admit that I have never been a fan of poetry. 

The day ended with a party on the patio and in a series of tents. The food was good and I talked to a couple people, but I was too tired to do more than a superficial conversation. Earlier in the day, however, someon"e told me they like my "Principles over Profits" T-shirt and asked where he could get one. I told him to check out lyg.org

TED has posted a few videos from talk earlier in the week (fewer than in previous years). Two were from the same session on Tuesday, Serena Williams and Pope Francis and one was of Lisa Genova's Wednesday talk on Alzheimer's (it was a well done, but the folks at TED must have liked it better than I did!)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

TED 2017 - Day 3

Fortunately, the talks on day 3 of TED 2017 were a little less thought provoking than the previous days. That gave my poor brain a little time to rest. Despite that, however, there were plenty of good talks worth thinking about.

Dan Ariely and Mariano Sigman
The first session of the day began with Dan Ariely and Mariano Sigman. Ariely is one of my favorite authors from whose books, especially Predictably Irrational, I often quote. They did an experiment with the audience. Each of us had to rate whether we agreed (and how strongly) with the outcome of a moral dilemma. For example, would we approve or disapprove of a company that created a million embryos and selected the "best" one for a couple based on characteristics the couple desired? We then discussed our answers in small groups of two or three people to see if we could come to a consensus. 

The resulting discussions in a room of 1,000 people were predictably chaotic, but quite interesting. In their few remaining minutes, Ariely and Sigman spoke about how their experiments have shown that such discussions can lead to more accurate conclusions and how that might prove useful in our polarized society. 

Later in the session, Lisa Genova talked about Alzheimer's and the need for us to develop our neural plasticity and cognitive reserves. (I guess I do need to learn Mandarin for health reasons!) 

Robin Hanson spoke on what porting our brains to computers might mean. Anika Paulson is a 19-year-old student who gave a charming talk on the importance of music in her life. Anil Seth described science's attempt to understand and quantify consciousness.

The second session was dedicated to the topic of climate change. The speakers were generally good, but only a couple of the talks were really thought provoking. Among the many talks, Kate Marvel spoke on clouds and their varied impact on the climate (high-atmosphere clouds add to global warming while low-lying clouds contribute to global cooling).

Kristin Poinar told about her field of glaciology and how we are beginning to understand more about the ice sheets in Greenland. (She gave a homework assignment I need to try. She said that ice does not melt in a microwave as the waves just pass through it.) Tim Kruger told about how his company is developing natural gas-driven fuel cells that will be not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Daan Roosegaarde described his environmental art projects that include air scrubbers for parks that produce carbon that they then turn into diamond rings. 

Retired Rear Admiral David Titley related how he literally lost his house in Katrina. He never found out where it washed away to. He spoke about how the US military sees climate change as a destabilizing force around the world and used Syria as an illustration. 

Danny Hillis called for research to better understand solar geo-engineering. As an example, he told about the possibility of using chalk in the stratosphere to slow or reverse global warming. Suffice to say, many of the other speakers disagreed.

Ted Halstead's compelling talk on a Conservative
plan to tackle climate change in America
The highlight of the session was Ted Halstead. He presented a Conservative solution to climate change. The plan consists of a gradually rising carbon tax, giving all that money back to Americans via carbon dividends (a net win for the most people, especially for the lowest earning ones), regulatory rollback of no longer necessary laws, and a border carbon adjustment (basically a tax on goods from countries without carbon taxes to level the playing field). The session's MC, Chris Anderson, mentioned he never before had seen a standing ovation for a Conservative. I would really like to see such a plan implemented. 

What TED session on climate change would be complete without at least a cameo by Al Gore? So, Chris Anderson had Gore come on stage and answer a few questions. Despite the political changes in America in the last year, he was still optimistic that we are in the early years of what he called a sustainability revolution. He also believes that the President Trump probably will not back out of the Paris Accord. 

The third session of the day included two compelling and moving talks. David Miliband was born to two World War II immigrant parents in UK. He described refugees as not being people pursuing better lives, but people fleeing for their lives. He cited statistics such as 25% of the people in Lebanon being refugees (mostly from Syria), half of school age refugees are not in school, and that the US currently takes in only 0.1% of the world's refugees. He told of many refugees who were born in refugee camps and fear they will never leave. He sees the biggest question of 21st Century is how we will treat refugees. He did not claim there are any easy answers, but believes that the problem is one we have the resources to tackle, but only if we have the will. I certainly hope we (Americans and others around the world) will. 

Luma Mufleh on her experiences in America as
an Arab, Muslim, and gay refugee.
Luma Mufleh is a refugee, Muslim, Arab, gay, and is currently a US citizen. (She quipped that those characteristics are not exactly popular these days!) She told of her isolation in the US and how a North Carolina Southern Baptist woman befriended her. She then related about her experiences as a soccer coach to Arab refugees in Atlanta. They are scared. It broke my heart to hear how they have been treated by Americans. I came away again wondering how I might as a Christian do what the NC woman had done and help Muslims in the US. Mufleh received the biggest and longest standing ovation so far of this year's TED. 

Cathy O'Neil discussed the problems of machine learning algorithms being secret. She pointed out that algorithms don't necessarily make things fair. She told of algorithmic teacher evaluations in places like NYC being secret, but causing dismissals. She called such systems as "weapons of math destruction" and called for legislation to require algorithmic audits. I'm less sure that legislation is the answer, but she is totally correct that we have a real problem in this area. 

Other talks in the session included Anna Heringer on sustainable builds out of mud. Grace Kim spoke on co-housing (buildings and communities purpose built for people to eat and share lives together) as a way to address isolation in 21st Century society. Devita Davison gave an impassioned talk about urban farming in Detroit. 

The day ended with Jeffersonian dinners at different locations in the city. The way a Jeffersonian dinner works is that a group of people gather and discuss a topic. The conversation can go wherever it might, but everyone is involved in it. Rather than the typical meal where you only talk to the people next to you, everyone is involved. The topic of the dinner Mark and I attended was "Are businesses able to unite us where government fails?" 

I was rather skeptical how this would work, but we had an excellent conversation with our group of nine people. It was exciting to learn about what the other people were doing. For example, the person next to me owned a hotel chain that employees over 2,000 people and was actively involved in the schools in local communities and seeking to pay living wages. 

As is sometimes the case at TED, the attendees speak more eloquently than the speakers! 




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!