Thursday, February 28, 2013

TEDActive 2013 – Day 2

Wow. Days like Day 2 at TEDActive 2013 are the reason I come here. The morning was beautiful and then the conversations and sessions started and things got even better.

Over breakfast I had what I think of as a unique to TEDActive conversation. I sat down next to someone who was talking about the great comic book artist Jack Kirby. The man turned out to be on the board of the San Diego Comic Con. He was comparing Stan Lee interviews he had done with a woman from CNN who had also interviewed him. Somehow the conversation moved to US energy policy. The guy next to me was a PhD student in geophysics. I asked him how he would solve the energy problems and he argued that we should give the responsibility to the oil companies because they had the experience and vested interest. I joked that I guess I trusted them more than I did the government, but it was close. The entrepreneur across from me then started talking about the right way to get energy investment. Things went on from there. Definitely not a typical breakfast conversation! 

The talks themselves today were incredible. An indication of how good the talks were today is that speakers like Elon Musk on electric cars, space ships, and solar power and Sergey Brin on Google Glass don’t even make my most interesting talks list. Here are brief descriptions of some of the day’s highlights.
  • Alastair Parvin told how architecture is and always has been for the top 1%. His goal is to bring open source architecture to the masses.
  • Danny Hillis gave a rather scary talk on the vulnerability of the Internet. He started off by holding up a printed directory from 1982 of all the Internet email addresses. It was about the size of a phone book and I wondered whether I was in it. He recounted how China “accidentally” rerouted all US military traffic through China for a few hours in April of 2012. He thinks the Internet is akin to the financial system where the individual parts all make sense but no one knows how it all interacts. His concern is that pretty much everything now relies on the Internet, including things we might not traditionally think of as using it. He argued for a backup system, a Plan B, in case of an emergency or attack.
  • Amanda Palmer described how as a musician she is using people rather than record labels to finance her music. Through Kickstarter, about 25,000 people gave $1.2M. She noted how her last album for a record label sold 25,000 copies and was a failure.While I can’t say as that I care for her music (she later performed), I found her approach to relying on her listeners and fans to be compelling.
  • Stewart Brand told about his newest passion, de-extinction. He described the current state of the technology and how they were on the verge of bringing back species like the passenger pigeon from extinction. He spent only a minute on the ethical considerations and possible unintended consequences of de-extinction, but it was a fascinating talk.
  • Kate Stone was not a great speaker. She talked about making interactive paper by using electrically conductive ink, touch sensitivity, and wireless transmitters. It sounded interesting, but I was really wishing she would actually show something other than slides of posters that you could supposedly interact with. Then, somewhat clumsily, she started to show some. She was able to use a piece of paper to play sounds on an iPhone as if she were a DJ (which she correctly said she was not). I was left wondering how expensive the technology was, but I figure greeting cards may soon not just play annoying music, but allow you to interact with them.
  • Ron Finley is from South Central Los Angeles and is planting food in vacate lots to help improve the eating habits and lives of his family and neighbors. He had some great quotes such as, “Gardening in the city is a defiant act. Plus, you get strawberries,” “If kids grow kale, kids eat kale” and “We are gangsta gardeners.”
  • Michael Green is an architect who was pushing the 30-story wood buildings in order to cut down on the carbon footprint of steel and concrete structures in cities.
  • Allan Savory gave probably the most controversial talk. He explained how to roll back desertification (the process where land in semi-arid regions is become desert). His claim was that desertification is not caused by so much by climate change or livestock, but by the removal of wandering herds of large animals (like bison in North America). His solution is to use large herds of livestock that are methodically moved from area to area to simulate the original wild herds. He claimed large scale success in doing this and made wild claims about the benefits of doing so. I am a bit skeptical, but wouldn’t it be cool if eating more beef was the answer to global warming!
  • There were a number of teenagers making real scientific progress including Jack Andraka (invented a cheap and accurate way to detect pancreatic cancer), Miranda Wang & Jeanny Yao (discovered phthalate eating bacteria) and Taylor Wilson (proposed a new fission reactor design and is postponing college to develop the idea).
  • There were also a number of good performances including Yo-yo Performer BLACK (an amazing yo-yo performer), Ji-Hae Park (an incredible violinist), Rich & Tone Talauega (dance choreographers) and Pedrito Martinez Group (a Cuban fusion music group).

All of that, however, did not hold a candle to the best talk of the day by Lawrence Lessig. I have long been big fan of his, but this talk was the best I’ve heard from him. The basic gist is that America is no longer a republic because before the people get to vote, Big Money decides who the candidates will be. He cited some statistics including that 30-70% of the time of a person in Congress is spent raising money. He argued for legislation, similar to what a few states have, that calls for small-dollar elections. This talk got my first standing ovation of the conference. I really can’t do it justice here, so I will let you know when it is posted.

Again, wow. It was an incredible day. I have trouble picturing Day 3 topping that, but you never know!

I wanted to mention that the folks from TED have started posting some of the talks, the first being Sugata Mitra’s TED Prize talk.  It is worth checking out. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

TEDActive 2013 – Day 1

The theater at TEDActive before the start of a session
Generally, it was a good day of sessions. While none of today's talks were ones that I considered amazing, there were quite few good ones. At least initially, the talks are not available on the TED Web site, but over the next few days some of them sill start to appear. I'll put up pointers to some of them as they come online. 

Some of the talks that stood out to me were
  • Jennifer Granholm (former governor of Michigan) speaking compellingly on an idea to spur job growth by creating a Race to the Top for Clean Energy Jobs program. Her ideas seemed fresh and she definitely is someone to watch on the political front over the next few years.
  • Robert Gordon presenting his case for why economic growth is over in America contrasted by Erik Brynjolfsson (author of Race against the Machine that I found very thought provoking when I looked at in one of my quick book reviews) making his case for how technology and innovation will lead to even more growth. Sadly, however, both agreed that some percentage of the population would fare poorly.
  • Freeman Hrabowski explaining that it is possible to get minority and poor students to succeed at math and science degrees based on his experiences at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
  • Meg Jay describing the importance of their 20s for young Americans and why it is essential that they not treat those years as extended adolescence.

The best session, however, was the one by the TED Prize winner, Sugata Mitra. He is an educator who has done research on how children learn. The basic conclusions of his work are that children, given resources, curiosity, and encouragement, can learn just about anything. He explained this in more detail in a TED talk from a few years ago.

While I’m not sure how his ideas will work out in practice, it is exciting to see someone attempting to rethink learning. He claims our current system is based on the British Empire’s bureaucratic administrative service whose goal was to create interchangeable civil servants. He contends that such a model of learning is obsolete in the twenty-first century.  

The TED Prize will give him one million dollars to implement his wish to create what he calls a School in the Cloud. This would initially be a learning lab in India where he can put his ideas into practice. Schools and individuals around the world would also be able to create their own learning environments based on this model.

Dinner party at Old Town La Quinta
The evening activities included a dinner party in Old Town La Quinta with good food from food trucks and live music from a Cuban band. Later in the evening, I stopped in for a TEDActive veterans gathering. Between those two events, I was able to meet my requisite three people. All of the sessions and other activities from the day have left me rather exhausted. I did get to ride a few miles this morning, but I think I’ll try and get a bit more sleep tonight. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

TEDActive 2013 – Day 0

Today was my first full day at this year’s TEDActive. The sessions start tomorrow, but today was a chance to get settled in, meet some people, talk with Mark, and attend some preliminary events. So far, things have been fairly low key and have enabled me to keep relatively on top of work.

The trip last night to Palm Springs was more of an adventure. The flights to Dallas-Ft. Worth and then to Palm Springs were a little delayed, but generally not bad. That is until we approached Palm Springs. We were starting to descend when we were told that there was some sort of problem with a plane on the runway and that it would take longer to clear up than we had available fuel. So, they diverted us to the Ontario, CA airport. When I was leaving the plane, I heard a woman from the airline say something like, “Hi. I’m calling from American Airlines and was wondering if you had any available buses. For 138 people?” At that point, I figured we were on our own. A group of folks heading to TEDActive seemed to spontaneously form and we found a van willing to drive six of us to the hotel (about 60 miles away) for $200. We arrived around midnight—fairly tired, but safe. TEDActive community in action!

View from my room at La Quinta Resort
The next morning, however, more than made up for all of that. When I left the room in the morning, I was greeted with this view. Yes, it will be a hard week here, but I will persevere! 

Later in the morning I had the opportunity to be interviewed about my previous TEDActive experiences as well as my expectations for this one. I’m not sure what they will do with the video of the interview, but it was cool to have that opportunity. 

Contents of TEDActive 2013 gift bag
As in previous years, every TED attendee receives a gift bag. As the picture shows, there is quite a bit in it. It may be hard to see everything laid out on my bed, but amongst the goodies are a copy of Office 365, a backpack/tote bag, a couple T-shirts, some gift cards, a waterproof phone case, sunscreen, and a stuffed elephant. These gifts come from a variety of companies all trying to get their products noticed by the influencers at TED and TEDActive. There was one more gift which I received before the conference, the Jawbone Up. It is a wristband that tracks movement and sleep. You upload the data to your iPhone for analysis. I’ve been using it for a couple weeks and will write a future gadget review about it.

This evening I attended a session explaining the growing parts of the TED community and attended a party (where I forced myself to meet three people) which is still going on in front of my hotel room. Hopefully, it will wind down before long as I really need to get some sleep!

Sleep, unfortunately, tends to be rather in short supply during TEDActive. Despite that, I have set some goals for myself in order to get the most from my week here:
  • Participate—I will make an effort to meet people, participate as much as possible, and do as little work as possible.
  • Think—This week is all about thinking Biblically, in the face of lots of challenging ideas.
  • Listen—My goal is not to find what is wrong in what people say, but to instead listen and think through the consequences of what they are saying. Of course, all through a Biblical filter.
  • Chronicle—I will write a blog entry after each day of the conference, though I may not post some of them until the following morning.

My rental bicycle outside my room
Just to make sure I don’t leave any time unaccounted for, I rented a bicycle again this year. I was able to get in a leisurely 10 miles this morning just exploring the area. I even met another cyclist from the area who offered to show me later in the week a nice 30-mile ride I could do.

Yes, in every way this will be an exhausting week! I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

One year of blogging

It is now one year since I started writing this blog. That anniversary seems like an excellent opportunity both to look back at what I've written and to think about my future in blog writing. 

When I started the blog, I had an original set of goals in mind: 
  • Write an entry every week – I did pretty well for a few months, but then fell short with a total of 42 over the year.
  • Get myself into the habit of writing – As I want to write a non-fiction book, this was an important goal which worked out fairly well. I feel like my writing has improved and I definitely am writing faster.
  • Force myself to think Biblically – This is more of a mixed bag. I did that in some of the blogs, though not in many of them. In particular, the gadget ones were mostly an indulgence. All-in-all, however, I think the blog was successful in this area.
  • Write about every book I read – I did this, though it was a bit depressing to see how few books I read in the past year.
  • Cover TEDActive 2012 to help me think about and better remember the weekThis was largely successful. I even had the opportunity to show the entries to one of the organizers of the conference.
Along the way, I learned some interesting things about blogging:
  • I was a bit disappointed at how little what I wrote was read. Admittedly, that was not on my list of goals. I started pointing to some blog entries on Facebook to get more readers. That worked, but it feels a bit weird to promote myself. I'm becoming more comfortable with doing so, but I still don’t post a pointer to every entry on Facebook. I also put some effort into making things a bit easier by having point to the blog. Doing so turned out to be a hassle, but allowed me to have an easy way to direct folks to the blog.
  • I was surprised at what entries people read the most. The most popular entry was the one about my experiences at the George Hincapie CEO Cycling Challenge because they put a link on their Web site to it. The gadget reviews also were fairly heavily read because of Google searching. 
  • I also have had a number of hits from other countries. The gadget and Hincapie entries seem to generate hits from around the world. Some of the international hits I attribute (possibly incorrectly) to people I know in those countries. I can think of folks I know in places like Bolivia and the UK, but others, like the ones from China and Russia, are probably bots.  
  • It is an odd phenomenon to realize that what you write may well be read around the world. That is both exciting and a little scary.
Writing this blog is one more thing in my already busy life. Trying to do one weekly has meant that there was always one more thing to do hanging over my head. After giving it some thought, I plan to keep writing for another year, but with a few changes. I’m going to try writing 30 minutes a day rather than one blog a week. That means I won’t feel like I’m failing if I don’t get one written in a particular week. On the other hand, a daily discipline like that may get more writing done. I also am not going to worry about the mix of topics. If I write lots of gadget reviews and not enough thinking/reflective entries, so be it.

Here are my ten favorite blog entries of the past year. I tried to narrow the list to five, but could not.
  1. Slow  - A recent entry reflecting on dealing with aging parents while living a busy life
  2. I didn’t build that - A look at success in light of President Obama's "You didn't build that" quote
  3. Old - Some thoughts on aging in a society obsessed with youth
  4. Thankfulness - An examination of what it means to be thankful in the midst of bad circumstances
  5. Two to the fifth years of marriage - A celebration of 32 years of marriage to a wonderful woman
  6. Proud Papa - My feelings on what it means to be a grandparent
  7. Death sucks - Some thoughts on death
  8. Bolivia - Highlights from my August 2012 trip to Bolivia
  9. My dad - Some reflections on my dad two years after his death
  10. Tempus fugit - A retrospective look at my daughter's 30th birthday
Generally, I’m pleased with how the year of blogging went—I wrote quite a few words during that time and I feel like they were fairly good. There was, however, one depressing thing as I reread the year’s entries—I found a mistake in almost all of them. I still have much to learn about writing!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Gadget review - MakerBot Replicator 2

The MakerBot Replicator 2
One of my latest gadgets is the MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer. There is a lot to learn and to say about the Replicator 2, so this will not really be a review so much as a set of first impressions and observations. I plan to follow up with additional information after I’ve had more time to play with it.

To read the rest of this review, visit its new home at Principled Technologies' Tech Everywhere.