Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gadget review - Jawbone Up

Jawbone Up with its cap removed to show the plug
One of the items I received from the recent TED conference was the Jawbone Up. It is an activity monitor that you wear around your wrist. At the simplest level, it detects the motion of your and then uses that information to determine things like the number of steps you take and how well you sleep.

I used the Up for two weeks including the week of TED. My general impression of it was fairly positive, though I kept thinking of things I wished it could do. I think many of those features will be added to future versions of the Up or future competing products. 

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

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Thinking about thinking

After returning from the TED conference, I spent a week at Sandals with my beautiful wife. We had a wonderful time enjoying tennis, SCUBA diving, volleyball, and generally relaxing. That juxtaposition of thought-provoking talks and time to relax caused me to spend time a good amount of time thinking. 

Unfortunately, thinking is not what it used to be. 

In 21st Century America, thinking has developed a bad reputation. We seem instead to rely a lot more on feeling than thinking. Even facts are considered subservient to our feelings or opinions. The book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society does a good job of describing that phenomenon. Stephen Colbert's concept of truthiness--truth is something that feels right, regardless of facts--has prevailed. We no longer know what is an opinion and what is a fact. 

Another aspect of the decline in thinking is that in discussing topics, controversial or not, we value quick responses over slow ones. The quick sound bite trumps the thoughtful, nuanced response. In contrast, in the New Testament, James exhorts Christians to be “quick to hear, slow to speak.” Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” I remember when someone who responded slowly was thought to have considered more carefully his response. Now, choosing your words carefully often is considered a sign of indecision. In communications, tweeting is winning over emailing, let alone letter writing. We prefer speedy responses more than ones that are the result of measured thinking. 

I think it is further evidence of the decline in the perceived value thinking that we look down on people who change their minds. In politics, it is often referred to derisively as flip-flopping. I’ve heard Christians say that being open minded is something to be avoided. As best I can tell, thinking and learning involve changing your mind. What is the point in thinking if at the end of it you are unchanged? 

In the face of all this, thinking is what I do—whether on a beach in Jamaica, riding my bicycle in Wake County, or taking a shower.  My goal with this blog is to make my thinking more systematic, rigorous, and Biblical. 

There are a number of controversial areas that I have been thinking about of late such as guns, inerrancy, homosexuality, and Hell. I want not just to think about topics like these, but to think Biblically about them. I also realize that I have much to learn and may well be wrong in my current thinking. 

I have been somewhat reticent to discuss these topics, let alone blog about them. These topics are pretty much guaranteed to tick off half the people out there. Worse, my thinking on them is such that I may well tick off everyone! 

My goal in writing about such topics is not to convince anyone else, though I’m fine with that! My primary goal is to organize my thinking by writing about them. Secondarily I want to expose my thinking to others so they can help me see the flaws in it. I am going to try one or two of these topics over the coming weeks.

I figure that once I have done that, I’ll probably have to stick to safe things like the latest gadgets (DIY drones look like fun) and keep my opinions on more controversial topics to myself! Of course, I’ll need to rename to blog to something like Grown up geek or Tech toys for tech boys

Saturday, March 2, 2013

TEDActive 2013 – Day 4

Flowers line the grounds of La Quinta Resort
I woke up to another beautiful day here at La Quinta Resort.There are so many flowers on the grounds that you can smell their sweetness as you walk around. Being here would be very enjoyable even without the TEDActive conference. 

The final day of TED is a short one and has generally been a letdown in previous years. So, my expectations for the day were fairly low. Instead, the day started with some interesting talks and ended with some that were genuinely touching, even inspiring.

Jim Flynn, the formulator of the Flynn Effect (which says that IQ tests have risen over time), gave a presentation on cognitive development over the last one hundred years. He showed how thinking during that time has changed from being very concrete and literal to very abstract and hypothetical. Daniel Ogilvie explored from a purely secular perspective why people believe in the afterlife. Daniel Reisel told of his studies on the brains of psychopathic inmates and how helping to develop their amygdalas might help rehabilitate them.

Jared Diamond is one of my favorite authors for his brilliant work Guns, Germ, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Unfortunately, it turns out he is not a very good speaker. He described how growing older in traditional societies compares with modern societies. I came away thinking that the ideas sounded interesting enough that I should buy The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? even if the talk was not so interesting.

Dan Pallotta spoke on the need for charities to be more like businesses. He lamented that if a charity spends much money on attracting top notch talent or advertising to attract donors, the charity is considered to be squandering money. He gave the example of an MBA earning $400K. Why would that person go to work for $84K as the CEO of hunger charity? Instead, he would be better off earning the $400K and donating $100K to charity. Pallotta said that we don’t like paying people well for doing good, but we are fine with people making high salaries doing something bad for society. His point was a good one.

He also said that charitable giving has been unchanged at 2% of GDP for the last 40 years. How are we going to change that without allowing charities to recruit the best people, take risks, advertise, or generate a return on investment? He argued that a low overhead charity raising $2M per year was less desirable than a high overhead one raising $20M. Again, his points were very compelling though he left me wondering how we would be able to tell a legitimate charity from one just squandering money. His points are well worth pondering.

Peter Singer is a utilitarian ethicist of whom I have never been a fan. His views have led him to say things such as if it were solely up to him, he might not allow his mother with Alzheimer’s to live. Similarly, he maintains that since an unborn child does not have preferences or desires, those of the mother hold sway and abortion is permissible. So, I was prepared to be offended when he spoke.

Instead, Singer argued in favor of what he called effective altruism. He gave both anecdotal and logical arguments for donating 10% (or more) of your income to help causes like fighting poverty. While I found some irony in Singer advocating tithing, I came away somewhat disappointed that it was a utilitarian rather than a Christian arguing for taking care of the less fortunate.

Joshua Prager told his story of meeting the man who broke his neck in a car accident that left him partially paralyzed 20 years earlier. It was not a simplistic story of an encounter that made them great friends or brought any easy answers. Instead it was a captivating and heart-breaking story of the messiness of real life, of tragedy and of triumph. 

Orly Wahba is a middle school teacher who told how she started doing acts of kindness to strangers. She turned those actions into a viral video and a movement. I’m often struck by the impact someone like her can have and at the same time disappointed when that person does not cite their Christian faith as their motivation. I guess I can either lament that or go out and do something myself.
Nothing like a nice incline on a bike to clear the brain

After all of the thought provoking talks today and throughout the week, it was refreshing to go for a good head-clearing bike ride.

It was a week of challenging talks, beautiful weather, stimulating conversations, and bike riding. Yes, it was a good week at TEDActive 2013. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

TEDActive 2013 – Day 3

Day 3 of TED was not as mentally challenging as Day 2 was, but there were plenty of interesting talks, some strange ones, an infuriating one, and a couple that really touched my heart.

The interesting talks included one by John McWhorter, another Columbia professor. He explained his view that texting is not the death of writing. Instead, texting is not writing at all, but rather fingered speech. Adam Spencer is an Australian radio host and mathematician who talked compellingly about large prime numbers. Ben Affleck spoke of his work in the Congo and introduced a Congolese string orchestra.

James Lyne, a cyber-security expert told of tracking down some malware developers. He also explained how vulnerable we all are and even showed some telling information he was able to gather about the TED attendees in Long Beach just through their WiFi connection information. Though nothing he said was a big surprise to me, it did make me think about some steps I should take to try and be more secure. His final point was probably the most important—don’t be an easy target.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas (an alias) spoke of his undercover journalism work in Ghana. By going undercover, he had exposed things from government scandals to sex trafficking to prison conditions to the trade in human albino body parts. Because of the danger, he wore a mask through his talk to try and protect his identity. His courage was inspiring.

One strange presentation was that of Liu Bolin. He is a camouflage artist who paints his clothing and himself to blend in with things like store shelves, buildings and even TV studio sets. While the many photos and descriptions where interesting, I kept wondering why he had been doing the same thing for so many years. I guess I am not very good at understanding art! 

One of the strangest talks was by four people, Diana Reiss, Peter Gabriel, Neil Gershenfeld and Vint Cerf. They spoke about implementing an inter-species Internet. I think there are probably a few more important things to put our resources into! That talk was followed by an even stranger one where Eleanor Longden told her story of mental illness and how she had come to terms with the voices in her head. Amazingly, there is an organization, InterVoice for just this issue. I don’t want to belittle her situation, but it did make for a strange progression of talks.

The infuriating talk was by Christopher Ryan on human sexuality. He contended that humans evolved to have multiple partners. He spent lots of time giving his reasons for this. While his research was somewhat interesting, I kept trying to figure out what was his point. If someone shows that we evolved to kill each other, would that make murder right? The host, Chris Anderson, basically asked him that question. Ryan insisted that was not his point, but instead that we should be understanding of people’s promiscuity or at least their desires in that direction. My view is that we want to do all sorts of things we should not do. Blaming those things on evolution doesn’t change that they are wrong.

The first of the two heart-wrenching ones was Hyeonseo Lee's compelling story of her escape from North Korea. She told how later she helped her parents escape as well. The long journey to South Korea seemingly ended unsuccessfully with her parents in jail in Laos and she with no money to get them out. A stranger, however, saw her crying, asked what the problem was, went to the ATM and gave her enough money to free her parents. As someone later said to me, it was a God thing that someone showed up with the money she needed to get her parents out of jail. Indeed, it was hard to not see God’s hand. Her story was one that demanded a standing ovation and brought me to the verge of tears.

Despite the power of her story, it was not one that I could relate to. The next presenter, Shane Koyczan, however hit me much closer to home. He was a spoken word poet and performed his story of being the fat, outcast nerd. He weaved into that the stories of other outcasts. He did a entrancing job of telling those stories and again brought me to my feet and the verge of tears. When I was talking with someone later in the evening about the talk, I said that it had struck a chord with me because I felt like I had experienced what he was describing. The person responded that she had felt similar rejection for different reasons and that probably everyone had similar experiences. She was right. Koyczan had hit a universal chord with his performance.

My evening conversation reinforced that TEDActive is about more than just the TED talks. I managed to exceed my goal of meeting three people. I met two people at lunch, but then met four very interesting people (Kate, Marla, Ken, and Caren) in the evening. The conversations again confirmed the interpersonal value of TEDActive. 

It was another good day at TEDActive.