On Saturday, my wife and I joined her young cousin and his girlfriend for a day at the Seattle TEDx event. TEDx events are local TED talks that are affiliated with the TED organization, but locally produced and that generally feature local speakers. It was an interesting day with quite a bit for the ‘ol noggin to chew on, plus it was a fun day of just hanging out with adults (Bug spent the day hanging with his BFF at the Seattle Aquarium). Below I will list the speakers (in the order of presentation) from the event and give my thoughts regarding their talk.
Dr. West has created a class at the University of Washington on how to recognize BS, especially with regard to big data. He quoted Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry, and used it drive home why we really need to care about actual “Fake News”1. He talked about how to combat BS by taking some simple steps, like reading beyond the headlines (his ‘Think More, Share Less’), looking at the potential motives of the person generating the BS, and paying close attention to data presentation (axes manipulation on charts and graphs, etc.). It was an excellent presentation, and he closed with the very important point that it isn’t enough to call BS on others, if you are unable or unwilling to call BS on yourself (expand that to a BSDI point).
My take away was that I was heartened to hear that dozens of colleges around the country have requested his curriculum so they could deploy their own classes, as have a number of High Schools. It’s still an elective course, and not available in every campus and high school, but it seems to have struck a chord with a lot of academics, so hopefully it will continue to find appeal, since it so obviously something that schools have been failing to teach as of late.
Ms. Hansen talked about opening up academic research. I happen to agree with her. Her talk was pretty much an argument against the current model, but offered no real idea on what to replace it with, so it’s value to me was limited (since she was preaching to the choir). Personally, if we are going to stick with the existing model, I’d require that any research that was conducted with any kind of public funding would be required to enter the public domain within a few years of publication (2-5 years would be my timeline). Ideally, I’d like to scrap the existing publication model altogether, or at the very least make Journals non-profit. I understand that the peer review process does require some amount of resources to conduct, as does the editing process, but there is no reason for journals to maintain printing facilities or contracts, and I’m betting there are other expenses in the current model that are maintained for the benefit of the publications, and not for the science itself.
Not a lot of talking, except a brief but pointed comment on the wisdom of saving money on the backs of schools arts programs, but a lot of very excellent electric six string violin playing. The dissonance of a man wearing a snakeskin cowboy hat playing a belly dancing song on an electric violin (with the aid of a pedal mixer) was fantastic. If you enjoy artists who fuse styles and technology, I recommend looking him up.
Mr. Piper (who is 17) is one of the kids who successfully sued the State of Washington over it’s lack of a plan to deal with climate change, and who is currently suing the federal government over the same (and has survived two motions to dismiss for standing). The content of the talk wasn’t anything I haven’t heard before, but… This young man is a very good speaker. I mean, even though I really wasn’t interested in the content of his speech, he was nonetheless captivating because he was REALLY good at speaking about it. I expect we will be seeing quite a bit more of this young man as he comes of age.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was a 20 minute infomercial for The Hyperloop. Mr. Swan did a good job speaking, and he sold the idea of the Hyperloop well enough, but didn’t really offer anything about who will or how will such a thing will be paid for and built. I’m a fan of the concept, but it’s a massive bit of infrastructure to construct, and we have a hard time getting funding for a train to go across town. Sure, it’ll go way faster than a train or plane, but this really feels like a better mousetrap pitch for a new technology, and I’ll be honest, better mousetraps have failed to deliver often enough that overcoming the existing inertia of what we have is a real tough sell.
Ms. Coiffi is a photographer and filmmaker who is expanding into VR productions, and gave a talk explaining how VR technologies work. She also discussed how VR can help to improve the experiences we have consuming news and media, but also with developing empathy, or treating mental health. Again, I’m already a fan of VR, and the presentation didn’t introduce me to anything new, but I’m sure a lot of people in the audience were not so well informed, so it was a worthwhile presentation.
Mr. Davis is the CEO of PATH, which is a global health organization. His talk was about eliminating and eradicating infectious disease. He had a good discussion regarding the cost of eradication, in that wiping out those last few cases in order to achieve global eradication can be incredibly high, so one has to struggle with the fact that money used to get those last few cases of a disease that is on the ropes could instead be used to help control and eliminate other infectious diseases that are doing more harm, so is it ethical and smart to strive for eradication? Obviously he believes it is, but he acknowledges that it’s a significant moral question. He also spoke about how mobile technology, GIS, and other common bits of technology are being used to rapidly identify and eliminate disease, even in far flung parts of the third world. In a bit of a callback to Dr. West’s talk, he explained how a lot of times, his group spends more effort fighting Fake News with regard to the medicines they use, than they do fighting the disease itself. Like when he had to work against a fatwa issued against his organization because a local religious leader had come to believe that the medicines being given to the affected people would also lower male fertility/virility.
Tacoma Refugee Choir
Another performance, this time of a very talented choir with some excellent soloists. The story told is that the choir was formed so local refugees could have a place to make friends, and that it’s grown quite a bit since Trump started working against the refugee programs. The choir director delivered an excellent presentation, and got the audience participating, and as much as I’d like to try and summarize her message, I don’t feel I could do it justice. If you are curious, I’d suggest you keep an eye on the TEDx Seattle link at the top and watch for their bit to be posted on line.
Rex Hohlbein And Jenn LaFreniere
A father – daughter team of architects who are trying to treat the homeless problem in Seattle, one city block at a time. Their idea seems born of the whole AirBNB movement, in that there are an awful lot of people who are more than willing to let a complete stranger sleep in their backyard for a profit, so it’s pretty obvious that the idea itself isn’t the problem, it’s just making some kind of reasonable assurance that the stranger is a decent person.
Their organization is The Block Project. Their idea is to use a self-contained, 125 sq. ft. mini-home to help house the homeless, and those mini-homes would be located on land donated by one homeowner on any given city block. The houses are not connected to any city services, and instead use rainwater catchment, solar power, and composting toilets, etc. The specifics of the house weren’t part of the talk, so if you are curious, you should check out the link to the org. The plan is for a given resident on a city block, who has yard space to spare, to donate the space for a mini-house. Before the house is sited, the owner has to get buy-in from everyone on the block, and the owners are matched with a person in need of housing so there is a high potential of a good fit. The whole point of the project is for the homeless person to become a good neighbor to everyone, and for the homeless person to have a fixed address so social services can help them get back on their feet.
While I’m always a little skeptical on how much acceptance such a plan will have, I have to acknowledge that they are going about it the right way. They are not forcing a homeless shelter on any community, and instead are getting the community to accept the homeless. They are also being smart in not allowing a congregation of homelessness, which tends to attract criminal predatory elements (who either prey on the homeless, or hide among them while they prey on the surrounding community), and which can reinforce behaviors that perpetuate homelessness (substance abuse, untreated mental illness, etc.). And they are helping the homeless learn to be in a home again, while at the same time surrounding them with people who are willing to help them succeed.
Ms. Fleischmann heads an organization called StolenYouth that combats child sex trafficking. She spoke about the impacts and damage such trafficking causes, as well as how innocuous the path to it is (it rarely involves plot lines from the movie Taken, but instead involves manipulating runaways). She also talked about how, while the police work to attack the supply side of the question, her group focuses more on the demand side (they do work on the supply side, by removing kids from the supply and offering them counseling, as well as convincing police to not press charges against minors for prostitution, etc.). Since most of the demand is in the form of online requests, they use bots to troll chat rooms and disrupt attempts to purchase, and to encourage potential buyers to seek help, etc.
She reports that while the work is slow, they’ve had significant success in messing with the market and getting people to get help for dangerous sex addiction issues.
Ms. Holmes is a fashion designer and avid outdoorswoman. She works to combine fashion with environmentally responsible textile production practices. Her talk was interesting, and some of the fashions she presented were less outrageous than some things I’ve seen, but overall it fell flat with me. No real emotional punch. She’s doing good work, and I applaud her efforts and hope she keeps doing it, but the talk itself was ‘eh…’.
Dr. Alamdari is a Boeing executive and a immigrant from Iran who came of age during the revolution. My wife has met her and got to introduce her during an internal conference, so my wife was pretty stoked to hear her talk again. Her message was one of diversity, and it’s importance to an organization, but if it was just that, I’d probably be done here.
However, it was her message (as I took it) that diversity was not very valuable if the individual does not understand HOW the diversity they represent contributes to the whole. It’s not enough to just be a woman from Iran. if that woman does not understand, and can not articulate, how her experiences as a woman, and as a person from Iran, can add value to the organization. I find this to be quite compelling, because we all know, in a big, vague sense, that diversity is important. But do you know specifically how, and why, the diversity that is represented in you is important? Is valuable? What it brings to the table, whether that table is in a boardroom, a court, a statehouse, or just out in the world? I think a lot of people take the value of diversity as self-evident, which it is, in that big, general way. Kind of like how education is important. But if you don’t understand the value your education provides in you, and for others, that education won’t be worth much.
So the value of diversity can not just be extrinsic, it must also be intrinsic, or it’s not very valuable.
I know the guy was talking about wonder, and why it’s important, but the talk was so disjointed that he lost me, I left wondering what the point was2.
Northwest Tap Connection
Tap dancing with a Social Justice message. It was good, but I think I was still trying to figure out what the hell the last guy had been on about, and I wasn’t paying attention. Look them up if you are curious.
I will admit that based upon the description in the program, I was expecting something more of a political screed or rant. What I got was a fantastic storyteller and a powerful story of protest, and brotherhood, between opposing sides. Man I wish I could do his story justice, but I can’t, and it’s his story to tell, and all I will say is that it left me on the verge of hopeful tears. If you get the chance to hear him speak, do it.
Image by tedxgrandrapids