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


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.