Monday, July 4, 2022

Hope in America

Yesterday, David A. French wrote an article titled This July Fourth, Meet Three Americas: The red, the blue, and the tired. His basic premise is that everyone wants to talk about the Right and the Left and the evils of one side or the other. He also thinks, however, that there is a third America, the “exhausted majority” who are tired of the polarization of America. His final paragraph reads, “This July Fourth, I’m both proud to be an American and convinced that our best days can still lie ahead of us. But not if we’re too tired to engage. The exhausted majority has to get energetic, even if only for a time, to rescue America from the friends, families, and neighbors who are tearing it apart.”

Today, the Fourth of July, I spent with what felt like that third America and it was proud and decidedly energetic to be American. I spent the day in my hometown of Milltown, NJ. It is a town of 7,000 people (and has been that size for decades) between NYC and Philadelphia. It is a town that my ancestors helped settle in the 1800s, but that I had only visited a handful of times in the last 40 years. It is a town that was not a racially diverse town when I was growing up.

Yesterday I spent visiting places I had lived, the church I went to and was married at (as had been my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents), schools I had attended, and the gravesite where my parents, grandparents, and generations before were buried. Things had changed, but most things seemed as they always had. Everything seemed small and a bit run down.

Milltown is, however, very big on its 4th of July celebrations. I walked most of the milelong parade route and I could feel the building excitement. The street was lined with all manner of folding chairs reserving spots. People were setting up tents and preparing food in their yards. Everyone smiled and said “Happy 4th of July!” I joked to one person setting up food that I would come back for something to eat and she responded, “Please do!” and it felt genuine. The friendliness felt like the town I remembered.

The Korean pastor was setting up chairs in front of the Methodist church I went to. There were a group of African-Americans with loud music playing from their front porch. Some people near where I sat to watch the parade included a Puerto Rican and a Dominican. I heard a few languages being spoken that I did not recognize. The welcome diversity did not feel like the town I remembered. Regardless, pretty much everyone was wearing red, white, and blue and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

I ran into my childhood, next-door neighbors from Blueberry Drive (yes, that was the name of the street). Bonnie and Kathy invited me to sit with them for the parade. The parade lasted over an hour and a half. It included a myriad of fire trucks, ambulances, sports cars, and Harley-Davidsons all making lots of noise and throwing out candy. A kid near me was crying because of all of the noise. I gave him some of the candy I had caught and he was happier. (I also ate plenty of it myself!)

There was a wide variety of music in the parade including drums and bagpipes, mariachis, Latin/jazz fusion, a drumline, an old guy singing Blue Suede Shoes, and others I’ve forgotten. There were boy scouts, girl scouts, dancers, and plenty more. Amazingly, I did not find myself bored and frequently realized I was smiling for no particular reason.

The day has given me hope for America. Like my small hometown, much has changed over the last 50 years, though much remains the same. Our country has plenty of work to do, but it that has matured and continues to do so. 

May God bless America!

Thursday, April 14, 2022

TED 2022 - Days 4 & 5

The three sessions on Wednesday (Regeneration, Cities, and Imagination) and the one on Thursday morning (Awe) covered a lot of ground. Topics (and speakers) ranged from autonomous building robots on Mars (Melodie Yashar) to leather made from mushrooms (Dan Widmaier) to the urgency of and hope in the efforts against climate change (Al Gore) to a robot art installation in the Tate Modern museum (Anicka Yi, shown with one of them in the picture to the left) to the importance of philosophy (Michael Schur) to the need for more nuclear energy (Isabelle Boemeke, a model turned social influencer) to the flaws in our current historical understanding of the development of civilization (David Wengrow, whose book on the topic, The Dawn of Everything, I need to finish reading). Many of the talks were interesting and a few were really thought-provoking. Rather than try to describe them all or in any particular order, I'm just going to write about a few of the talks that stuck with me. 

Two talks that hit me were by people making a difference starting with what and who they knew. Tiffani Ashley Bell was a computer programmer who learned about people in Detroit (where she did not live) who were unable to pay their water bills and had the water turned off. She decided to do something about it. She figured out how to pay water bills for folks and get their water turned back on. Then, she told her friends about it and they did so as well. Over time, they paid off over $100K of bills and started a movement. Bell challenged folks to decide what problems bother us and figure out how we can help. Sara Lomelin told of her work with giving circles which are groups of people, who may not be friends initially, that gather to do philanthropic things together. Both of their approaches seemed very doable and mostly require people (like me) to just start doing something. 

Bryce Dallas Howard gave an interesting talk on living one's life in the public eye as many people are now doing on social media. She is the daughter of Ron Howard and lived her life in the public eye long before social media. She told of being given a movie script to give to her father when she was in preschool! Her mother worked hard to help her to develop tiers of relationships. That allowed her to have a private life while still being in the public eye. Howard is now an actress and dealing with similar issues for her children. She gave two rules for dealing with social media that seemed very practical. First, give a 2-day delay in posting and when you do post, do so with purpose. That advice probably won't allow anyone to be a social media influencer, but few of us will be or even want to be. 

One of the final talks on Thursday was obviously meant to be a headliner to keep people at the conference for the last day. Musk did not give a talk, but rather was interviewed by Chris AndersonElon Musk is always quotable and his current attempt to purchase Twitter made the conversation even more high profile. It was almost an hour long and covered too much ground to attempt to describe here. Fortunately, it is already available to watch

Though Musk had lots of interesting things to say, I was struck most by his discussion of dealing with having Aspergers. I could not help but think of one of my grandsons and both the challenges he faces as well as the things he may be able to achieve. They key is to get him involved in things he loves (for Musk it was physics and reading) and help him along his way. 

The most moving talk of the sessions was Wednesday evening's finale by the artist JR. He has spoken at multiple TEDs in the past and his art has always been interesting. He said regarding his art, "I don't tell people what to think, I just ask them to think." What he does is take photos, usually of people, and print them very large so that they can be applied to buildings and walls. What he spoke about was an installation he did in a supermax prison in California. These were the hardest of criminals that needed to be kept in such as secure facility. He took photos from above of each of the inmates. Then, he printed them very large and the inmates help glue them to the ground such that they filled the exercise yard. From above it looked like they were all looking up from inside the prison walls

The art was cool, but what was moving was the influence it had on the inmates. He had interviewed each of them about why they were in prison and how it had changed them. The stories were available on the Internet and some of their families saw them and communicated with them for the first time in years. It changed many of them. Some of the stories he told were very touching. His talk will be well worth watching when it comes out. 

Of course, no TED is complete without a party or two for me to feel awkward and out of place. Despite Mark's and my efforts last evening to hide in the corner and eat dinner, we ended up talking with a woman who works for a non-profit trying to augment NASA's (insufficient, by her telling) efforts to identify asteroids that might collide with the Earth. I asked a stupid question about the recent movie Don't Look Up, which she correctly point out was about a comet crashing into the Earth and totally different. Regardless, it was the start to an interesting conversation and yet another reminder that I really ought to make the effort to talk to people. 

So, did I end up with any takeaways from the week at TED? I think so. First, I'm going to try and figure out one or two areas where there are needs that I can personally help. Then, I'm going to try and drag some of you along with me to make an impact. And, I'm going to be more intentional about having fun. It sure can't hurt! 










Wednesday, April 13, 2022

TED 2022 - Day 3

One of the things that is hard to convey to folks is how overwhelming a day at TED can be. A session is basically six to ten TED talks back to back. They are not equally good, of course, but all of them have been well prepared and the differences between talks in terms of subject matter and emotional tone can be stark. For example, today a talk by a 24-year-old, African-American, hip-hop artist (Cordae) giving life advice using what he called the "Hi Level Mindset" was followed immediately by an American, septuagenarian Jew (Georgette Bennet) quoting Leviticus to explain her rationale for her work getting millions of dollars of needed humanitarian aid to Syria via the Golan Heights in Israel. Trying to keep up can be a real strain. It is worth the effort, but at the end of the day it is hard to not be exhausted. Of course, getting up early in the morning to write up what happened the previous day doesn't help! 

One of the things that has provided a respite over the last few years has been the Christian believers' breakfast organized by Chris Evans (with ice on his knee in this photo). He is coincidentally from Raleigh, NC and someone I've known for over 30 years. This morning, about eight of us enjoyed coffee and pastries while a storm rolled in over the mountains and bay. We shared about our lives, prayed for each other, and generally hung out together as brothers and sisters in Christ. One of the attendees, an African-American TED Fellow who I remembered speaking at the previous TED, said that as Christians, we were her true brothers and sisters. I was buoyed by that thought throughout the day. Thank you Chris for organizing this gathering again this year! 

This morning, like the previous ones, there were a handful of protestors in front of the convention center. It was hard to know whether they were actually protesting against TED, some of the speakers like Bill Gates, or just using the conference to be heard. I took one of their flyers which advocated the arrest of the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau for treason. I fondly remember the days when folks just advocated for voting out of office the politicians they didn't like rather than trying to have them arrested. Ah, the good old days. 

Fortunately, the protestors were friendly and didn't impede my passage into the conference. Once there, the sessions proved much more thought provoking than the protestors. 

The title for the first session of the day was Vision. This was the session with the talks by Cordae and Georgette Bennet that I briefly described earlier. It started off with a space theme including John Mather on the Webb space telescope, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on dark matter and energy, and Jennifer Heldman from NASA on SpaceX's Starship. The session ended with Safi Rauf describing his recent 105 days in captivity in Afghanistan. He pleaded for his native country and the suffering there to not be forgotten in the wake of the current invasion of Ukraine. 

The next session's title was Wellbeing. It began with Bill Gates talking about how to avoid the next pandemic. He spoke at TED in 2014 on how we were not prepared for the next pandemic. He said that the talk was very popular, but unfortunately, 90% of the views came after the start of the COVID pandemic. He advocated for a permanent agency, reporting to the WHO, that is constantly on standby like firefighters. Hopefully, some of his ideas will be put in place in the near future. When asked after his talk about the wild claims about him and COVID vaccines by some folks, Gates quipped, "If the vaccines include microchips, what am I supposed to do with all that location info?" Sadly, I'm sure protestors will try to use that in some way to prove their contentions. 

The final talk of the session was by NPR's Shankar Vedantam who starting by saying that he would like to be thought of as "the speaker for whom Bill Gates opened." Vedantam gave a very thought-provoking talk on the changes in ourselves over time. He told the story of John and Stephanie Rinka. They were a couple that talked about end of life issues regularly during their marriage and she said that if she ever got to the point of being ill and trapped in her body, she would rather be shot than continue to live. When she became ill with ALS and actually reached that point, however, she chose to be put on a ventilator and prolong her life. That led Vedantam to the question of how can the current version of ourselves make decisions for the versions to come.  

The last session of the day was titled Play. The first speaker was Catherine Price who talked about importance of fun. She argued that fun comes at the intersection of playfulness, connection, and flow. She said, "Fun is the secret to being alive." I have to admit that I probably need to put having fun as a higher priority in my life! 

The session ended with the over-the-top personality of Alexis Nikole Nelson, a self-described vegan food forager. She was fun to listen to, but hardly convincing. I'm neither ready to be vegan or forage for my food in the backyard. We got to sample the seaweed snacks she made during her presentation and they were not something I plan to ever eat again!

I took it a bit easy on the whole today. I skipped my afternoon "fun" activity and rather than eating with folks I didn't know, I just had a quiet dinner with Mark. I almost feel rested enough to do this again tomorrow! 



Tuesday, April 12, 2022

TED 2022 - Day 2

As I expected, Garry Kasparov's talk from yesterday is already available on TED's Web site. It is well worth the fifteen minutes. 

One of the simple pleasures of being in Canada is grabbing my breakfast from Tim Horton's. My best way to describe Tim Horton's is that it is a Canadian Dunkin Donuts. I'm sure that is an insult to one or both of those chains! Regardless, a Canadian Maple donut and a coffee gets my day off to a good start. 

Once I had my breakfast and finished yesterday's blog, it was time for the first of the two morning sessions. Sessions generally run about an hour and forty-five minutes long with six to ten talks. One of the "talks" in a session is often a musical performance. Each session has a topic that loosely ties things together such as this morning's ones of Capitalism and Intelligence. I'm just going to highlight a couple of today's talks.  

The highlight from the session on capitalism was by Manish Bhardwaj. He argued that companies need moral clarity. Rather than doing things like increasing diversity for business reasons, companies need to do them because they are right. He strongly feels that we need to do the right thing because it is right. He contended that moral clarity is not solely the domain of families and religion. His talk was well received with lots of applause, but it left me wondering where that moral clarity is supposed to come from. Despite that reservation, his talk was thought provoking and worth listening to when it becomes available. 

From the session on intelligence, the talk that stood out to me was by Dan Harris. He had been an ABC News anchor, possibly best known for having a panic attack on live television. He spoke about finding out from a 360 review by his peers that he was a real jerk. He came to understand that he was taking his anger and self-centeredness out on those that he worked with and on his family. He described his journey to forgiving himself and becoming a significantly better person. Harris was engaging and fun to listen to and while I may not agree with all of his prescriptions for self improvement, I found a lot in what he said to be worth considering and acting on. When this talk becomes available, it is well worth watching. 

Also in the session on intelligence, Holly Herndon gave an amazing demo of an AI that had been trained on her voice and could sing in different languages that Herndon could not speak. What was really cool was when another performer came up and had two microphones--one which amplified his voice and another which changed his voice to Herndon's on the fly. By holding both of them up, he was able to sing a duet. She spoke a little bit about the intellectual property issues, but this was another whole kind of deep fake that I did not know currently existed. 

In the afternoon, I signed up for dragon boating. We were in two boats of about 16 people each and we learned about paddling in sync, the history of dragon boats, the Vancouver waterways, and some of the local buildings. It was a little cold and not the exercise I had hoped for, but it was decent afternoon activity. 

After that outing, there was a final evening session where nine different Audacious Projects gave talks. Each of the projects was doing significant work making the world a better place in areas like refugees, rights of indigenous peoples, Artic permafrost, US election systems, and global healthcare. It was exciting to hear what dedicated people could do in the world and made me want to think more about how I can have a bigger impact. It was an inspiring session. 

Immediately after that session, we went to a dinner where tables of six or so people discussed capitalism and how companies could make it work for not just the shareholders, but employees and the planet. (Other dinners at other restaurants discussed other topics.) The people at our table included a Facebook AI researcher, an inventor with over 100 patents, and a corporate lawyer who helps people with their "encore" careers. We ended up spending part of the time talking about our book, Limit Your Greed. Generally, the food and conversation where excellent. If only I didn't need sleep! 





Monday, April 11, 2022

TED 2022 - Day 1

I had not planned to blog about TED this year. The week is always packed and finding time to write each day is hard. However, a dear friend prevailed upon me to do so. (I started writing this at 5:00am and need to finish by 8:00 so I can attend the first of today's sessions. I apologize in advance for any typos, incomplete sentences, or general incoherence!) 

In so many ways, it felt like a normal TED. We had to get COVID tested as part of the registration, but that meant that folks were comfortable going without masks. Other than the staff, masks were few and far between. The list of speakers looked solid with many familiar names from TEDs past. The day started off with a pair of TED Fellows sessions. These consisted of 12 or so 5-minute talks by an impressive and varied array of Fellows. The topics varied from exoplanets to journalism to art to technology to dance. 
None of those talks were overly inspiring, but it is always wonderful to hear from people impassioned by their work, even if the work may be something as obscure as the Internet of Elephants. (Yes, that is a thing.) It felt like a normal TED. 

Finally, in the early evening the main talks began on the main stage. The theme of this TED is "A New Era." That title was picked long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seemed like a normal TED theme. Things started out with an augmented reality demonstration by Particle Ink. Everyone had an iPad on their seat and could use it to watch magical creatures and special affects augment the dancing on stage. It was very cool and felt like what, in my jaded perspective, I had come to expect from a normal TED. 
Then, what unfolded was the greatest session of talks that I can remember from my many years of attending TED. Sadly, no words I can write will do the evening justice. Please keep an eye out on TED.com for when they post the talks. I will update this with links to the talks if I notice them. 

I normally keep track of my standing ovations. I don't give them out lightly and I often get through a whole session without one. The first talk was by Garry Kasparov, probably the greatest chess player of all time and a long-time critic of the Soviet Union and Russia. He got my first standing ovation. It was nowhere near the last of the evening. 

Kasparov has first-hand knowledge of Putin and has long warned of his potential for evil. He put Putin and his invasion in stark terms. He argued that Putin is evil. While good is often tinged with evil, evils like Putin are pure evil. He said, "Dictators lie about what they have done, but tell us the truth about what they will do." Unfortunately, Kasparov did not have any great prescriptions for what to be done about the situation, but he strongly felt that there is no room for compromising with evil. My guess is that this will be the first talk from TED 2022 that the organizers make available. Watch it. I look forward to watching it again and thinking more carefully about the nature of evil. 

Zoya Lytvyn followed Kasparov. She is a Ukrainian educator and entrepreneur from Kyiv. Her company had created an online platform for education to deal with learning outside of classrooms due to COVID. That platform is now in use teaching over 400K displaced Ukrainian students online, wherever they may be. She said, "What you cherish can be taken from you in an instant." Indeed. Check out her talk

Her talk was followed by moving video of Ukrainians who were involved with TED in one way or another. It was shaping up to be an emotional evening. 

After Chris Anderson made an emotional appeal that raised over a million dollars for Ukrainian charities such as Lytvyn's Osvitoria, the talks turned to things other than than Russia and Ukraine. It was a series of great talks, that I just don't have the time to describe in detail. Normally, each one of those might have been my first standing ovation and the high point of the session, but Kasparov already had taken both of those honors. US Olympian Allyson Felix told of her struggles being a world-class track and field athlete while becoming a mother. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alison Killing described her efforts to expose Chinese Uyghur concentration camps using publicly available satellite data. Melissa Moore, the chief scientific officer of Moderna spoke about mRNA vaccines and mRNA's future role in changing medicine. It was amazing to hear the person who had so much to do with COVID vaccines start her talk with, "It is wonderful to see you all here without masks."

Then came the final talk of the evening by the photographer, Platon. His description touts him as the person who has photographed more world leaders than anyone else in history. While that may be true, to me he will always stand out as having given the most masterfully crafted TED talk ever. I seldom can say that I hung on every word of a speaker, but I did. The photos he showed of people like Muhammed Ali, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin were amazing, but his stories were even more so. Few people, have had private conversations where Ali says he wasn't the greatest, Trump said he was the storm, and Putin admitted to loving the Beatles. But, it wasn't just the stories of such moments, but the way he weaved them together to reveal human nature and the ambiguities therein. Every sentence seemed perfectly crafted and the cadence of his words was mesmerizing, all while not seeming overly rehearsed. This talk is one you must see when it is available. Again, I will watch it repeatedly and think carefully on human nature and our perception of it. 

What followed was lots of food and desserts. I had time to see old friends and eat lots of desserts. The food truck cannolis were amazing! I fear that the rest of the week will have to be anti-climatic, but at least it will not end up being a normal TED! Nor will I starve to death...