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. 

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