May 18, 2013
Flight Behavior: Kingsolver's Riveting Tale Makes Extinction of Species REAL
Climate Change. Global Warming. Whatever title you give "it," we don't talk about "it" at dinner parties, not in the same way we discuss things which happen at our child's school, the latest movie or episode of Mad Men or where we're going on vacation this year.
Barbara Kingsolver's latest book: Flight Behavior, attempts to convey the dangers of climate change through an All American story of a farming family whose lives are turned upside down because of it. As butterflies settle on their land because of weather shifts in Mexico the previous year, a mystery unravels as to why.
A witty, melancholy and pure account of rural life in the American Appalachia belt, it is also a serious play-by-play of what could happen to a species when their normal "flight behavior" gets changed as a result of being forced to winter (and mate) somewhere new.
While the narrative is driven by the not yet true extinction of the Monarch butterfly, she taps into expert sources for guidance in constructing a fictional story within a plausible biological framework.
Flight Behavior is a suitable title since the phrase applies to butterflies as much as it does to humans, as evident through the unraveling of a dysfunctional marriage of main character Dellarobia Turnbow.Under the footprint of her in-laws since she lives with her husband on their land, she has no say in her confinement, a life which solely exists of tending to her two children and occasional trips to the town next door, which the community of Feathertown mistrusts largely because it has a college and some people actually attend it.
Giving up on further education since she lost her parents and gave birth to a stillborn as a teenager, her life as a restless farm wife suddenly gets transformed as Santa-Fe based and Harvard educated biologist Ovid Byron shows up to study the millions of butterflies which landed on the Turnbow farm as a result of what he deems is nothing short of climate change.
A local TV crew disagrees, attempting to tell their own story about this sudden miraculous phenomena which has covered the Appalachia mountains with a orange flock of Monarchs, which at a distance resemble an astonishing "lake of fire." This so called phenomena is a miracle according to her church and the media and a disaster according to Ovid Byron.
Dellarobia struggles with her commitment to her family and what God's hand has to do with the arrival of the butterflies and what science suggests is true. Sarcastic at the best of times, she pokes fun of the misalignment and ambiguity of her God-fearing community, even if only in her mind's eye.
She refers to her mother-in-law Hester (who grew up in a trailer park) as a 911 Christian: in the event of an emergency, call the Lord. She was unlike all those who called on Jesus daily, rain or shine, to discuss their day and feel the love. Once upon a time, Dellarobia recalls turning to her mother for that.
She reflects in her struggle with religion: Jesus was a more reliable backer evidently, as he was less likely to drink himself unconscious or get liver cancer...no wonder people chose Him as their number one friend. But if the chemistry wasn't there, what could you do?
While the world around her doesn't believe climate change is real, she learns through working closely with Byron and his team that new weather patterns affect everything in a species migratory pathway and the impact can be devastating, ranging from fires to floods as they saw in Angangueo Mexico.
The reason he asserts that there are so many non-believers is that people expect a final conclusion of what's real and not real, but with science, answers are never complete because it's a process. He notes: "It is not a foot race, with a finish line," but sadly journalists and impatient crowds are eager to see a race with a finite statement that explains everything. He says, "as long as we won't commit to knowing everything, the presumption is that we know nothing."
Kingsolver's sometimes beautiful and sometimes intentionally raw account is more than just suspenseful because we're at the edge of our seats wanting to know whether both her marriage and the Monarch butterflies will live or die and somehow, they feel so intertwined in that fight or flight behavior that applies to all species, including humans.
All of us have our own truth of whether global warming is real or not. What Kingsolver's riveting story does is make it real with a small rural Tennessee community who experience something they cannot explain. In the discovery process, locals, journalists, religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, farmers and politicians argue their own truths.
Amidst the chaos, Ovid Byron embarks upon a path to study a species he loves and is at risk of dying off, knowing that only nature can save them. The problem is of course that nature as we know it and that certain species expect it to behave year after year is dramatically changing, so much so that this shift is confusing migration and mating possibilities, denying what did thrive under those conditions to still thrive.
A sad but engrossing tale, she'll weave you in and out of scientific anecdotes & facts, American mass commercialism showing its ugliest face to a life of poverty, a flailing farm and husband and everything in between.
A must read for anyone who cares about the environment and animals....and preserving what we know, love and hold dear. Even if you're a global warming naysayer, there's no denying that climate patterns are currently wacky and not just on one continent. While scientists continue to get to the bottom of why, this telling novel, fiction aside, will get you to think differently about the environment around us.
Flight Behavior which launched in hardback last year, is due to be released in paperback on June 4, 2013.
Photo credits: hereandnow.wbur.org, Tampa Bay, Worldwildlife.org and the revivalist.info.
May 17, 2013
5 Important Issues From 5 TEDxBerkeley Speakers: Help Us Pave the Way
As a co-curator of a TEDx event, you have a joyful honor of bringing important issues you want to see brought to the table...to the table, or in this case, a TEDx stage. Having been involved in the curation process at TEDxBerkeley for a few years now, there are speakers and writers I've met along the way who have haunted me -- positively and negatively -- the latter often provacative enough that regardless of whether it's a pretty story, you know the story must be told.
Personal issues that keep me awake at night include the ugly embrace of processed food, climate change & the implications for wildlife and the world, the growing divide between the rich and the poor, our sad state of healthcare and education, and women's inequalities. There are countless others, but there's only so much that can absorb my already noisy back channel at any given time.
At TEDxBerkeley this year, we were able to bring some of those conversations to attendees.
I have always wanted Robert Neuwirth to speak at TEDxBerkeley ever since I first heard him speak at PopTech a few years ago. He is best known for his work with squatter communities and poverty. He wrote Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, a book describing his experiences living in squatter communities in Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Mumbai.
He brings us on a journey to West Africa and how locals came up with a creative way to source their own energy when the government couldn't.
Lagos residents use energy conservation. In his time in Lagos, he saw people get their water in large canisters not from fresh water sources or private wells. The Lagos government claims that it provides safe drinking water in sufficient quantities to its people, according to a newspaper he read on his way out of the country and yet, its far from reality. There is no real functioning water system in Lagos and other things are not efficient either. Apparently they waste N1.5 billion by leaving their computers on standby.
Kim Polese was the opening speaker for this year's theme of Catalyzing Change. In alignment with the theme, she addressed the communications gap between education providers and students. Students don't know what courses to take so they can succeed in the 21st century.
Our challenge is to preserve the excellence and transform old curriculum she says. "We face a new crisis, the skills gap, which is a crisis which is affecting everyone so we need a revolution in the teaching model, a few of which are MOOC (massive online open courses) and passive versus active participants in online open courses (small online classes) in SPOCS, Small Private Online Classes.
The revolution is not about cutting costs, it's about this new transformational learning model that is more engaged and also it allows for mass distribution to more people. Only 50% of undergraduates receive a degree in six years. Moreso than that, 55% of students need remediation.
The typical student attends multiple universities, which equates to lost dollars and time because so much of the credits don't transfer over. Often, a student takes "on average" over a year of credits they wouldn't need to take.
One idea: What if we offered and made those transfer of those credits seamless? Think about what Visa did to revolutionize the credit business, by swiping a card and it just works. If we standardize undergraduate classes so the credits can be applied as seamlessly as a Visa card is used today to pay for products and services.
The STEM gap (science, technology, engineering and math) aka rouhgly 33% of students who just felt that they weren't prepared enough is widening......in the U.S., we lag behind most developed countries.
Five out of every new jobs will be in STEM related jobs in the next decade and yet we're lagging behind countries like Singapore, France and other developing countries. If we just focused on increasing the number of STEM graduates by 10% can produce 75,000 more STEM graduates by the end of the decade, which is close to what Obama's goal is for higher education.
Women are turning away from computing, the percentage at its all time high was 34% and now its down to below 15%. The first programmers were women. During World War II, the army recruited a group of women out of the University of Pennsylvania to calculate bolistic trojectories and they called these computers women. She refers to the work of TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra.
Known for his work in education research, Sugata Mitra won $1 million TED Prize to build his School in the Cloud.
Many who keeps tabs on education will know him for his project called “Hole in the Wall”, an experiment he conducted in 1999, where Mitra and his colleagues dug a hole in a wall near an urban slum in New Delhi, installed an Internet-connected PC and walked away.
Over time, while a hidden camera filmed the area, the video showed children from the slum playing around with the computer and in the process, teaching themselves now only how to use it themselves, but sharing that knowledge with their friends.
His goal is lofty – he invited the world to embrace child-driven learning by setting up something he refers to as Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLEs). He asked for help designing a learning lab in India, where children can “embark on intellectual adventures.”
Second in the session was Eden Full who is the Founder of Roseicollis Technologies Inc. She studied for two years at Princeton University and is currently taking gap years to work on her start-up full time after being selected for the inaugural class of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship. Named one of the 30 under 30 in Forbes’ Energy category two years in a row and Ashoka’s Youth Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Eden founded Roseicollis Technologies Inc. to take her solar panel tracking invention called the SunSaluter to developing communities and established markets that need them.
The SunSaluter won the Mashable/UN Foundation Startups for Social Good Challenge and was awarded the runner-up prize at the 2011 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. While at Princeton, Eden initiated and curated TEDxPrincetonU. Proudly Canadian, she was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. After coxing for the Princeton lightweight women’s team, Eden was selected to be the coxswain for the 2012 Rowing Canada’s senior women’s development team, where they won a gold medal at Holland Beker and the Remenham Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta, beating the German Olympic boat.
She shared her story about her patent-pending solar invention called SunSaluter which she has been using in East Africa. Provided extra electricity every day for one 60W panel to charge, plus not just the benefit of getting extra water but clean to people every day. She tested it out in a polit in Nyakasimbi Tanzania and thereafter with a partner in Kirindi Uganda. The goal is deploy 200+ units to 15,000+ villagers.
Curt L. Tofteland is the founder of the internationally acclaimed Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB) program. During his 18 years of work with Shakespeare in corrections, he facilitated the SBB/KY program at the Luther Lucket Correctional Complex, producing and directing 14 Shakespeare Productions.
"It is within the silence that we discover the absence of self," he said to TEDxBerkeley audience, as he opened with lines from Shakespeare. "We arrive in this world, naked and alone and we leave this world, naked and alone; we take with us our memories and we leave behind our deeds," he says reading a story that addressed life issues such as dealing with truth and ego.
May 17, 2013 in America The Free, Client Announcements, Conference Highlights, Events, On Education, On Health, On Innovation, On Politics, On Science, On Technology, On the Future, On Women, TravelingGeeks | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
March 21, 2013
Al Gore on the Environment, Healthcare, Guns & Democracy at #SXSW
I've met Al Gore a few times now over the years and have heard him speak about a dozen times, maybe more, particularly since he became so entrenched with technology while he was in office and after the fact. It should be no surprise that he was in full form at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year on the main stage in Austin in a fireside chat with WSJ's Walt Mossberg.
Those of us who know his agenda and his passion for climate change were waiting for him to dive full force into his 'green' agenda, which he did towards the end of his talk. They started with the digital revolution, appropriate given the "Southby audience." Print media are devastated he said, which is a very old discussion in the world of social media, where SXSW is the Queen Bee conference that takes such discussions to the next level...and this one started eight or so years ago.
That said, mainstream consumers in small towns are still reading newspapers and while they all may have a cell phone, they don't necessarily all use it to get their news. He refers to the 'now' economy as a 'stalker one,' where kids are even wearing 'chips' and being tracked by governments.
"I hope this stalker economy will create a gag reaction," he said. Gore suggests that we're seeing a shift in power that is bigger than what we've seen in 500 years. He also brought up Asia and how China will quickly surpass the U.S. as the largest economic power in the world.....because of that concentration and shift of power, 93% of extra income has gone to the 1% who are in power.
He added, "that's an economic fact," and then went onto say, "while our country is in serious trouble, it doesn't mean I'm not optimistic," but in order to take that power back, he suggested that "we as a country need to TAKE democracy back." Democracy as we know it he asserted, has been hacked. Said Gore, "Our OS (operating system) for the U.S. is our constitution."
He noted that earlier in this career when he was part of the 'system,' they'd spend about 1% of their time raising money versus the 5 or so hours a day today. While modern democracy has never been perfect, the will of the people did drive policy he believes. He said, "Congress is incapable of passing any reform of any significance unless its passed through special interest groups." Mossberg referenced Shapiro's The Last Great Senate at this juncture, reaffirming just how much has changed between the mid 1960s and the 2013 Congress of today. While the world knows about his hunger to educate the world about the negative impact of global warming, it's not as if Gore wasn't convicted and passionate about a number of other topics and issues, including healthcare and the NRA.
On healthcare, he reminded us that the federal government is the biggest purchaser of medicare and medicaid and if that's the case, then "why can't government negotiate like big corporates can to bring the costs down for American citizens?" That received a huge applause from the audience, no surprise given how many of us have been and continue to be screwed by insurance company premiums, wopping high deductibles and taxes. It would be impossible for guns not come up given the random and shocking killings this year in schools, small towns and beyond, and so when it did, Gore was not shy about how he felt. He scratched his head.
"C'mon, the NRA is a complete fraud. A lot of people belong to it, I used to belong. It is financed by the gun manufacturers and the organization has puppet strings. Same thing with the Smoker's Alliance." I wish they spent more time there frankly. On overall growth, Gore suggested that we should no longer use DGP as a guide for economic policy since it doesn't take externalities into account, like a negative one such as pollution or a positive one such as investment into a city in core areas such as mental health, music, culture, education, all of which counts as an 'expense,' not an investment. "They don't take into account future benefits of that investment in a city or region," said Gore. He threw out a few stats demonstrating just how far behind the U.S. is in so many areas including social and economic growth. He said, "We have worse upward social mobility than Tunisia and Egypt. Inequality is growing in the U.S. and so much of it is because our tax code is ridiculous." Hear hear Gore, go go go, not that these kinds of pep talks ever change anything back in Washington. People I know who were Middle Class are now in a struggling Working Class and those who were Working Class are either now working 100 hour weeks destroying their family life and health or on the streets.
And. then there's a wealthy Silicon Valley which seems to be numb and oblivious to how the rest of Americans actually live and think. I know - I live there. Gore asserted that we need to find ways to communicate with other and more effectively in a way that restores democracy.
"We need to TAKE BACK AMERICAN DEMOCRACY," he said firmly to a packed room in the main SXSW auditorium. And, since he couldn't wait to get to climate change, he finally migrated there but softly starting with garbage suggesting that we toss garbage into our 'country' as if its an open sewer, filling up the 'sewer' of gaseous unhealthy waste that is equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
With 53% of the country in drought, he also suggested that this shift we've been seeing is also related to global warming. Like garbage, like open sewers, like car fumes and everything else we've leaked into this environment without a care for the consequences, he threw out another alarming stat: we've seen $110 billion in climate disasters alone.
On the upside, he claimed that the investment in solar and wind is rising and the more we invest here and use it, the cheaper it will become, making it more inexpensive for us to rely on solar than coal, gas and oil over time. In order to get there however, he said that we need to reverse organizations, not people. Yes, organizations AND government Al.
Photos by Renee Blodgett.
March 07, 2013
Dan Pallotta: Think About a Charity's Dreams, Not Their Overhead
Dan Pallotta's work brought the practice of four-figure philanthropy within the reach of the average citizen who had never raised money for charity before in their lives. 182,000 people of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds participated in these inspiring, often grueling, long-distance events that raised $582 million in nine years - more money raised more quickly for these causes than any private event operation in history. Three million people donated to the events.
Then, he faced issues because of how things are currently structured for non-profits. Dan spoke on the TED 2013 stage this year and below are a mish mash of my notes from his talk.
He notes that there are many discriminatory issues that the philanthropy industry faces today:
1. Salaries: the median compensation for a Stanford MBA is $400K, but for a medical charity, it is roughly $232K. For a hunger charity, it is about half of that. You can’t get people to do that year after year and take that kind of financial hit when in the for profit world, you can yield so much more.
2. Marketing and Advertising: He says, "we don’t like to see our donations spent on advertising and marketing." It has remained at 2% of GDP in the United States and hasn’t grown. How can it grow if you’re not allowed to market?3. Taking Risk on New Revenue Ideas: If you don’t produce 75% return in the first year, then a non-profit's reputation goes through the mud. You kill innovation because of fear for failure.
4. Time: Amazon didn’t produce profits for years and yet we had patience, yet the rules are different for a non-profit.
5. Profits: You can’t pay profits in the non-profit sector. He says, "you don’t have a stock market to fund any of this like you can in the for profit sector. From 1970 to 2009, we were dealing with social problems which were massive in scale but things still didn't grow to help them over that time and they're still not beyond the 2% mark.
Dan says, "this dogma comes from puritan beliefs. The Puritans were Calvinists so they were taught to hate themselves and self-interest was a path to damnation. Making a lot of money was a way to send them to hell so charities were created to deal with that."
In 400 years, nothing has intervened to say that this approach is counter-productive and unfair.
He remarks, "it makes us think that overhead is not part of the cause, particularly if its being used for cause. This belief that overhead is the enemy means that people are reluctant to contribute. The notion is that the less you spend on growth of the non-profit, more can go to the cause."
Fundraising has been stagnant. He shares his own failure which was the result of this broken, out-dated system, "we made $71 million in 2002, our best year and then we went out of business since we reinvested 40% back into the organization. So in one day, 350 of our employees lost their jobs because they were labeled overhead.”
He asserts that this is what happens when we confuse morality with frugality.
How this all impacts the bigger picture? If we could move charitable giving from 2% of GDP to 3% by investing in that growth, that would be an extra $150 billion extra in contributions. He says, "it’s never going to happen by forcing these organizations by demoralizing organizations to keep the overhead low. We need to change the game."
As for advice, he offers, "Think about the scale of an organization's dreams, not their overhead and how they measure the progress towards their dream. Who cares what the overhead is if these problems are getting solved?"
His mission is to change the way the world thinks about these issues and suggests that this needs to be our endearing legacy....that we in fact took responsibility for the legacy that has been handed down to us and change the way we think about philanthropy, so real problems can be solved, changing the scale dramatically.
Photo credits: sunyocc.edu (hands) and Dan's shot from his site.
January 01, 2013
The Pain of Upgrades: Migrating from a Lenovo to a MacBook Pro
It's a Lenovo, my second over an eight year period. We all knew the day was coming.
“We” is anyone and everyone who has stopped by my office or seen me using it at an event. They'd hover over me and remark: I can’t believe how slow your machine is, yowsa – how do you get anything done?
The thing is…I've only had it for four years and it's been on its way out for half of those four.
It seems as if I grew up in a world with different standards. The thought of a piece of machinery you paid $2,500 for with all the bells and whistles dying within a few years wouldn’t be acceptable…it’s absurd and yet we've all been brainwashed into thinking it’s not.
Manufacturers and reviewers alike are both to blame for creating such a consumable world where we're constantly shelling out more money for more reliable hardware, which it should have been reliable in the first place.
My refrigerator didn't cost that much nor did the stove in my kitchen and yet both have been purring along for more than a decade. I paid $300 for a car once that lasted longer than my laptops do today and it’s likely that some old guy somewhere in Maine probably is still using it for trips to the grocery store.
When someone sees my two year old iPhone, they look at me as if I'm as outdated as the guy who’s driving that old Oldsmobile. A few friends are trying to get me to upgrade my four year old 24 inch Samsung flat screen monitor when it works perfectly fine.
Call it old fashioned wisdom of sorts, or just common sense, but who said, "if it works, don't mess with it?" Oh yeah, that was my grandfather, not Winston Churchill or Steve Jobs.
When I ask "why upgrade?" I'm told there's better pixels, faster speeds or I’m bound to have compatibility issues.
While Windows 8 is now available, consumers are forced to pay an extra $100 for Windows 7, now outdated. It's the exponential growth thing haunting my every day, the pressure of keeping up with the speed at which technology is accelerating not to mention the pressure we all have financially of trying to keep up with it all too.
Silicon Valley tells me to ‘get over it,’ and just upgrade, but Silicon Valley doesn’t live in the real world where salaries are one fifth of what they are elsewhere in the country and that’s if you aren’t one of the 20 something year olds who made an exit from a not so innovative of an app that got sold to someone with more money than brains.
eMarketer made a 2012 tablet sales prediction of 81.3 million tablets, up from 15.7 million in 2011, and Gartner estimates that sales will multiply to 54.8 million in 2011 and more than 208 million by 2014.
Forrester Research numbers have laptop sales continuing to grow from 26.4 million in 2010 to 38.9 million in 2015, however, while desktop PC sales will decline from 20.5 million in 2010 to 18.2 million in 2015. Mobile is hot and we’re all moving to smaller form factors – the trends make sense.
Take a look at research firm Canalys figures: they have vendor shipments of smartphones close to 489 million smartphones in 2011, compared to 415 million PCs. Smartphone shipments increased by 63% over the previous year, compared to 15% growth in PC shipments.
While mobile will win at the end of the day, the need for laptops and in some cases desktops isn’t going away tomorrow, although some will argue they can do nearly everything they need to on their iPad. While I use one, particularly when I travel, my efficiency on the thing is less than half what it is on a power laptop, even my poor dying Lenovo.
While many of my laptops over a decade have died a slow horrible death, some of them still turn on…..they’re just not usable. As I took a hardware account, I was shocked by the list, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been! Two HPs, a mini HP, a baby MSI wind notebook I bought for a trip to Africa, a Toshiba, an Acer, two IBM/Lenovos and a partridge in a pear tree.
The power chords are out of control because none of them are compatible with each other, even the ones made by the same manufacturer. The result? A digital me and a digital life that doesn’t make things more efficient and yet productivity is the #1 thing I need these devices to deliver me and my business.
The advancements in the last decade are remarkable. For those who argue that the Singularity isn’t on its way, they might want to pause and reflect on just how fast things are moving and that it’s more difficult than ever to keep up with the advancements being thrown our way.
Clearly I'm not a luddite and I love shiny new cool gadgets and toys as much as much as my fellow geeks; remember that next week I'm off to CES for the umpteenth year in a row.
Yet, we need to remind ourselves that technology is an enabler; it needs to enhance our lives not be a hindrance to a more fulfilling life. Dealing with technology glitches, whether that be hardware or software, is something I deal with daily and these issues increase in less than a year after purchasing a brand new laptop. Shouldn’t we demand more from the hardware manufacturers?
I’m about to switch to Mac and while the artist in me is thrilled, I worry about compatibility issues and the learning curve to get me to what people say, will be a ‘simpler life.’
That said, the decision is final. I finally made the plunge and as I write, there’s a Mac Book Pro on its way to me directly from Apple.
While there’s no question, I’m a power user, I decided not to order the ‘very top of the line’ since it offers more than I’ll need. Did I mention that the price is nearly double what I’d pay to get the ‘same specs’ in a Lenovo or an equivalent? Additionally, these beautifully designed machines are heavy, roughly 30% heavier than had I gone for the latest Lenovo or Toshiba.
While I’m eager to start my 'simpler technology life,' I have my doubts. For the Apple fan boys who claim Macs are perfect and problem-free, I’d love to know why I own five iPods and only two of them actually work. My iPhone hasn’t given me any issues so far nor has my iPad, but I haven’t put it through the ringer by loading hundreds of apps like I need to do on my laptop.
While many of you may be okay with upgrading every piece of hardware we own every two years, should you be? How thin do we need our phones to be? How many apps do we really need? How many pixels do we need? How much memory do we really need? If I hear one more person insisting that I spend an additional $500 for a solid state drive, I’m going to scream. These are the same people who will insist I upgrade to an even faster solid state drive in a year and spend $500 again.
It's no wonder we keep spending to keep this senseless pattern alive. We get dished language that goes something like this:
For the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display, it's the screen -- all 2880 x 1800 pixels of it -- that will leave others scrambling to play catch-up. Of course, to push that many pixels you need serious horsepower. And the next-gen MacBook Pro (starting at $2,199) delivers just that with a quad-core Core i7 processor, Nvidia Kepler graphics and super-fast flash memory. Did we mention the MacBook Pro is only 4.5 pounds and is nearly as thin as the Air?
Manufacturers stick together, use glossy language to woo us in and build in the same obsolescence. When the industry and consumers comply, no one can complain since they all seem to die a slow horrible death much faster than they should given how much we spend. (see blog post entitled the iPad Mini: Why Apple Thinks You're an Idiot).
But alas, a dozen blog posts from now, I’ll be on a new machine, a Mac Book Pro, and hopefully in some magical way, my technology life will be transformed for the additional $800 I'm spending.
While I’m looking forward to what the Mac Book Pro will deliver, sometimes I want to just toss all of it into the ocean, or give a little pain back to the hardware that has cost me so much value time over the years, not that I’ll ever have the courage of course. That said, it appears not everyone shares my constraint.
Also refer to two posts I wrote a year or so ago on digital personas and digital 'silence.' Here's a blog post on social media turning you into a low confidence anxiety-rich freak.
Photo credits in order of appearance: A mashup created with Webdoc, Scott Kline, CoolGizmotoys.
January 1, 2013 in America The Free, Magic Sauce Media, On Innovation, On Mobile & Wireless, On People & Life, On Technology, On the Future, TravelingGeeks, WBTW | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
November 05, 2012
The Singularity Understood & Misunderstood
I've been attending Singularity events since they started having them, before people really knew what singularity meant.
Frankly, most people still don't.
Outside high powered technology circles and intellectuals, singularity isn't a topic that is discussed on dates or at the dinner table, even in Silicon Valley where technology and deals are sexier than toned women in miniskirts.
According to Wikipedia, "the technological singularity is the theoretical emergence of greater-than-human superintelligence through technological means. Since the capabilities of such intelligence would be difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend, the occurrence of a technological singularity is seen as an intellectual event horizon, beyond which events cannot be predicted or understood."
Advocates talk about an "intelligence explosion", where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, AND most importantly, that they won't stop until the cognitive abilities surpass the human mind.
Whoah Nellie! That's what I said when I first read Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near and on many occasions since being involved in "singularity circles" since then. It's a scary concept for mere mortals to comprehend, at least until you better understand the landscape.
The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who I had an opportunity to hang with at the latest Singularity Summit in San Francisco in October. He argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces might be possible causes of the singularity.
Think of it as an era in time where civilization as we know has dramatically changed. The Singularians (yes, that's what they call themselves), believe that this era will "transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity."
I love that but wonder if technological singularity is the only way (or the best way) to transcend and amplify humans.
There is a group of spiritual and creative types like me who are intrigued by the singularity. We find some truth to it and while some of it sounds attractive and appealing, there's a whole subsection of the singularity world that takes me back to "Whoah Nellie" again and again.
When you sit on the right brain side of the fence for most of your life, you find yourself arguing (oops, debating) with scientists and technologists about all the issues that are often left out of the discussion, like emotions, love and feeling. Oh yeah, and intuition, something women have notoriously 'owned' because we're so damn good at it.
One could argue that in this new era, things like emotion and love will be transformed also, so how we view matters of the heart will not be the same way we view them today. In other words, there's no point trying to figure out how they'll matter in this new era because everything will be transcended: our intelligence and our emotional states.
What I love about singularian culture (if there is such a thing), is the commitment to progress, technological advancement (largely for positive change) and the ongoing, intriguing debate about the future and where we're heading. And, oh btw, it's an opportunity to learn from some of the greatest minds who are pushing the needle forward today.
If you have a discussion with someone about singularity who knows what they're talking about, you shouldn't be too far along in the conversation before the phrase exponential growth comes up, a phrase referred to by Moore's Law as a logical reason why we can expect the singularity to happen sooner than some believe.
So, who's among this circle aside from respected futurist Ray Kurzweil (below) and scientist fiction writer Vernor Vinge? It's broad and growing every day.
They've even formed a university around it, whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.
Hans Moravec and Eliezer Yudkowsky are also cited as singularity theorists and the circle is expanding as "its" tentacles dip into other industries.
Speakers at the recent Singularity Summit included thinkers and entrepreneurs such as Julia Galef who spoke on rationality, cognition and the future, Linda Avey who addressed personal genomics, and professor Steven Pinker (below) who took us through a history of violence. (video here)
We also had an interactive dialogue with Daniel Kahneman, heard about artificial intelligence and the barrier of meaning from Melanie Mitchell, and our 'viral' future from Carl Zimmer. (below)
A quest in metaphysics was explored by Jaan Tallinn (below), Robin Hanson's topic was: A Tsunami of Life: The Extraordinary Society of Emulated Minds and Stuart Armstrong discussed how we're 'predicting' AI.
Temple Grandin who has done a lot of work with autism spoke to us about different types of thinking. There's the photorealistic visual thinker (poor in algebra), the pattern thinker (poor at music & math), the verbal mind (poor at drawing) and the auditory thinkers (who are poor at drawing). She brought up the power of bottom up thinking rather than bottom down, where you learn by specific examples. In other words, get out and discover things, citing travel as a great educator. Hear hear.
She says, "many talented, quirky and gifted students are going nowhere because they have no mentors to help them through their quirkiness." So right. While I received emotional support from my grandparents along the way (they raised me), I received more emotional support from random mentors who fell into my life path, amazing accidents in time I thought as a child.
Pinker, who took us on a journey of violence, talked about its connection to literacy. Much of his research wouldn't surprise anyone since its logical: literacy matters for a decrease in violence since it brings reason into the equation, winning over superstitious thinking.
Literacy is also a mixture of cosmopolitanism, where you increasingly consume fiction, drama, journalism and the arts.
The implication of this over time resulted in the need to redefine modernity...what culture means: our tribes, family, community and religion.
Like Kurzweil, I always love hearing Pinker speak. My brain is better off at the end of it.
So, if singularity thinking is drawing some of the best and the brightest, what's the real controversy aside from fear of the unknown, which is inevitable?
Carl H. Flygt quotes Bill Joy in a paper he wrote in 2005 on singularity theory:
“A traditional utopia is a good society and a good life involving other people,” says Bill Joy. “This techno-utopia is all about: ‘I don’t get diseases; I don’t die; I get to have better eyesight and be smarter’ and all of this. If you described this to Socrates or Plato they would laugh at you.”
But the paper goes on to say, "But Socrates or Plato would not laugh at the idea of pure conversation, which cuts off the me-talk before it can start and puts the human being directly in community with the reality of his (her) cosmic consciousness, of his (her) ontological impulses and of his (her) capacity for self-control and settlement into the higher bodies given human nature by its cosmic mereology."
I have no clue whether this paper has any credibility and note that it's also now seven years old...but, it was and is a viewpoint. Naysayer LogicPriest who calls himself an atheist, skeptic, anti-authoritarian and crazy person who likes cat and among other things, science, doesn't discount that AI isn't possible because any system of enough complexity can emerge into intelligence. He feels we may have very little to say to it however.
He writes: "we would need to emulate much of ourselves in an AI. We would need some pretend body and environment, some emulated limbic and nervous system (the brain is only PART of the nervous system, something most futurists forget). We would also need to build a completely different type of computer, one where the architecture is structurally tied to certain actions, one with DNA instructions, separate abstracted layers like our 'reptile' brain to work it's normal, computer functions and higher order processors for complex thought."
Regardless if you're an outside observer who is merely curious, a student of science, or writers like those I discovered in my search who have strong opinions on the topic, technology is accelerating with a force that's hard to deny. It is working its way into our every existence.
Consider that we use it get directions, read digital books, buy products and communicate to the outside world not to mention the people who email a loved one in the very next room rather than have a "human" conversation with them.
We use it for voting, research, asking questions on the most basic things like how to start a lawnmower or how to cook a turkey, sending photos to grandparents, watching a movie and monitoring our diets. We even use it to virtually talk to doctors about our health, consultants about our finances and teachers about our children's education. There's no end to how and where we use it or will use it in the not too distant future. Augmented reality is here and expanding.
The real question is a moral and ethical one. How conscious, present and aware are those who are building and executing the stuff that brings us into the next era, the one singularity promises is nearer than we think? What is their mission for "it" and for "us" as a species?
How will this explosion impact life as we know it? And, for women, artists, creative right brains and expressionists of the world, how will it impact things we hold so dear like love, emotion, physical relationships and our identity around spirituality?
What do you think?
Note: Twitter handles of some of the people either in this world or who talk about it from time-to-time: @raykurzweil2035 @labenz @lukeprog @laurademing @sydney_uni @ricolution @Sydney_ideas @jayrosen_nyc @biotechbusdev @elonmusk @robertwrighter @stephenfry @edge @rkurzban @temple_grandin @laurademing @lindaavey @sapinker @melmitchell1 @carlzimmer @robinhanson @wilbanks @ch402 @magicsaucemedia @noorFSiddigui
November 5, 2012 in America The Free, Conference Highlights, Events, On Innovation, On People & Life, On Robotics, On Science, On Technology, On the Future, WBTW, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
November 04, 2012
Steven Pinker Speaks on Violence in San Francisco
His topic amongst a large group of singularians, scientists, authors, thinkers, students and technologists? Violence.
He took is on a journey of the decline of violence over time as a persistent development, showing methods that showed prehistoric violence versus the modern violence of today aka life before states and life after states.
It's obvious that literacy matters for a decrease in violence since it brings reason into the conversation ruling out and winning over superstition, which is still alive in a lot of more primitive cultures today.
See my latest write-up on singularity and the future of technology based on my most recent experience at the Singularity Summit. Below is a short video excerpt from his talk.
Video and photo credit: Renee Blodgett.
October 05, 2012
Ray Kurzweil on Ethics & Natural Language Processing
Kurzweil, known for his work in voice recognition, natural language processing, singularity and future predictions, I'm always curious to hear what he's going to share, especially when he moves onto the brain.
Says Ray in a response to the question of why natural language processing has taken so long to advance, "you have to take a hierarchial approach just like human language - you have to build it that way. We learn things layer by layer and we have to educate our synthetic neocortexes too."
When you start to dive deep into a discussion about synthetic neocortexes, where do you go from there, particularly when the majority of the audience are Web 2.0 and mobile geeks not scientists or researchers. Venture Beat's Matt Marshall interviewed Ray, his next to last stage interview before leaving the DEMO Conferences as producer.
Matt asked about ethics, which was a perfect segway into artificial intelligence. You can't have a discussion with Ray without artificial intelligence coming up at least once.
"Technology has always been a double edged sword," says Ray. "Just like fire has been used for good and evil, AI can be as dangerous as fire when put in the wrong hands." He reminded the audience that AI is already widely distributed however and that it's not just being used in a dark lab in some government building.
And, look how far we've come. A kid in Africa now has access to more knowledge and information than the President of the United States did 20 years ago. If that's not an example of exponential growth, I don't know what is...
See below for the interview on video. Even though it is a HD video clip, bear in mind that the sound quality may not be crisp.
September 30, 2012
MIT's Jodie Wu, an Inspiration & Force Behind Change in Tanzania
Enough people know I love Africa and the fact that I have spent time there and lived there.
Combine these known facts with her entrepreneur and technology work and it makes sense that we'd have a lot to talk about.
I also love meeting women CEOs who are an inspiration to be around and in the midst of all this background, did I mention that she's only 25?
She was a speaker this September at the event, the second year I made my way across country to Louisville Kentucky to meet interesting people who are help shaping the world.
Her company Global Cycle Solutions is a social enterprise developing bicycle attachments that improve the lives of smallholder farmers. In May 2009, as an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at MIT, she led her team to win the MIT 100K Business Plan Competition, and in August 2009, she moved to Arusha, Tanzania, to launch her company.
Her vision is to end "cycled poverty." I had an opportunity to spend time with her before and after her talk. She says, "so much money is going into foreign aid and it's not being spent effectively. The typical person just needs tools and investment in their education. If they buy it, they need it, if they don’t buy it, then it isn’t good enough.
Fair enough. Even if the technology is advanced and might work in the U.S. or Europe, if Africans don't buy the product, then it means its not solving real needs they have every day.
In Tanzania, Bernard their inventor, is creating water pumps, grinders and pedals and working on designing a better bike for Africa.
Her favorite product they're working on right now is the solar lantern. She says with a smile, "it actually bounces like a ball but it doesn’t break. The most significant thing about the light right away is that when people use it, their productivity goes up right away. People can charge their phones at their houses rather than them having to walk five kilometers just to charge their phone, which is what people are doing today."
When she was asked by someone from the audience about how they decided on price, she said that narrowing down the "right price" was difficult, because it depends on their harvest and the timing of it. In other words, $50 is not a lot but they may not have the money to buy it until their harvest comes in. They are testing the pay per use model and when they have all the money, they can opt to buy their own.
Not a boat load of MIT graduates take off for Africa to start a company. Why Tanzania? She says she asked herself after graduation, “is it really going to make me happy working to make a larger corporation richer? What I love about working in Africa, you can see the impact of your engineering immediately – there’s an immediate satisfaction."
Having lived in Africa myself, I resonate with her sense of satisfaction and the immediate reward. I also remembered such a stronger sense of gratitude and appreciation than we have in the west.
On lessons learned? The best advice she received from one of her MIT mentors was “Just do it.” She also learned that change doesn’t happen instantaneously. She thought she’d be in Tanzania for two years and then move onto other countries, but she learned that two years wasn’t realistic at all. Jodie thought that they'd break even in two years, but they’ve been there for four years and she thinks she probably has another two years before she can move her projects into other African markets.
Other great advice she received along the way is one that everyone can learn from: “if any one task is taking more than 20% of your time, delegate and outsource it.” I laughed out loud when she talked about experiences hiring: “if I don’t love you during the interview process and want to go to lunch with you next week, then I won’t love working with you.” It's so true and yet sometimes we are blinded in the interviewing process because we think of skills more than we think of synergy, at least right away.
Jodie apparently pays all of her employees through her phone. She sees so many opportunities in that area and countries like Tanzania are miles ahead. “LEDs are becoming so efficient and that could change things dramatically for Tanzania and other parts of Africa. Remember that 90% of the population is off the grid,” says Jodie.
They’ve set up a group of village ambassadors who have become their evangelists. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of a virtual sales force but it’s organic...the way it should be.
Jodie is an inspiration and it's great to see her MIT education and knowledge pouring into an eastern African country that needs it so much.
August 03, 2012
Cory Doctorow on the Century of War Against Your Computer
Cory Doctorow spoke this week at the LONG NOW Foundation. The topic? A provocative one entitled: The coming century of war against your computer.
The war against computer freedom will just keep escalating, Doctorow contends. The copyright wars, net neutrality, and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) were early samples of what is to come. Victories in those battles were temporary.
Conflict in the decades ahead will feature ever higher stakes, more convoluted issues, and far more powerful technology. The debate is about how civilization decides to conduct itself and in whose interests.
Stewart Brand's fabulous summary of the event below where Doctorow kicked things off by framing the issue this way: “Computers are everywhere. They are now something we put our whole bodies into---airplanes, cars---and something we put into our bodies---pacemakers, cochlear implants. They HAVE to be trustworthy.“
Sometimes humans are not so trustworthy, and programs may override you: “I can’t let you do that, Dave.” (Reference to the self-protective insane computer Hal in Kubrick’s film “2001.” That time the human was more trustworthy than the computer.) Who decides who can override whom?
The core issues for Doctorow come down to Human Rights versus Property Rights, Lockdown versus Certainty, and Owners versus mere Users.
Apple computers such as the iPhone are locked down---it lets you run only what Apple trusts. Android phones let you run only what you trust. Doctorow has changed his mind in favor of a foundational computer device call the “Trusted Platform Module” (TPM) which provides secure crypto, remote attestation, and sealed storage. He sees it as a crucial “nub of secure certainty” in your machine.
If it’s your machine, you rule it. It‘s a Human Right: your computer should not be overridable. And a Property Right: “you own what you buy, even if it what you do with it pisses off the vendor.” That’s clear when the Owner and the User are the same person. What about when they’re not?
There are systems where we really want the authorities to rule---airplanes, nuclear reactors, probably self-driving cars (“as a species we are terrible drivers.”) The firmware in those machines should be inviolable by users and outside attackers. But the power of Owners over Users can be deeply troubling, such as in matters of surveillance.
There are powers that want full data on what Users are up to---governments, companies, schools, parents. Behind your company computer is the IT department and the people they report to. They want to know all about your email and your web activities, and there is reason for that. But we need to contemplate the “total and terrifying power of Owners over Users.”
Recognizing that we are necessarily transitory Users of many systems, such as everything involving Cloud computing or storage, Doctorow favors keeping your own box with its own processors and storage. He strongly favors the democratization and wide distribution of expertise. As a Fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (who co-sponsored the talk) he supports public defense of freedom in every sort of digital rights issue.
“The potential for abuse in the computer world is large,” Doctorow concluded. “It will keep getting larger.”
For more information on future LONG NOW Seminars in San Francisco, visit their site. They bring one amazing speaker after another to speak, so it's worth attending one if you haven't and live in California or don't live closeby but can plan a trip around one of their upcoming events.
Photo credit: Oreillynet.com.