Monday, March 16, 2009

Sarah Jones

TED includes some great entertainment in the program. It can be a welcome respite from the intense intellectual stimulation of so many talks. One of the most enjoyable this year was the Tony- and Obie- award winning actress Sarah Jones, who delighted us with hilarious excerpts from her one-woman show.

Four different women delivered a monologue to us. For me, her most memorable character was an elderly Jewish lady, delivered with extreme wit and affection.

If you ever get a chance to see her perform, definitely take it in. She's fabulous.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Predictable Irrationality and Bernie Madoff

Dan Ariely is the author of the delightful book Predictably Irrational, a professor of behavioural economics at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, and a great speaker. He challenges the traditional notion in economics that people behave in a rational manner.

In fact, he has demonstrated that people are actually irrational, but in a predictable way. He told us about one series of experiments designed to test propensity to cheat.

The basic experiment had a group of student volunteers take a test with a number of math questions on it. The questions were all well within their capability, but there were too many for someone to possibly do within the time limit. They calibrated the test by giving it to lots of students which determined that the average number of questions solved was four. They then did a number of variations on this control experiment.

A lot of people will cheat a little
The first experiment administered the test and offered the students money for each question they got right. The students were asked to report how many questions they got right and then to shred their answer sheet. Many participants cheated - but only by shading their results up a bit. Ariely suggests that people cheat just enough that they still feel good about themselves.

People cheat less when they've been reminded of morality
In one variation, participants were asked to write down the Ten Commandments before starting the test. They didn't cheat. The students had very low recall of the commandments, suggesting that they weren't necessarily highly religious. Indeed the same effect was observed when they were asked to sign the MIT Honour Code before starting the test. This worked, even though MIT actually has no Honour Code!

People cheat more about things rather than money
In another variation, Ariely offered people tokens instead of money for reported correct answers. These tokens were then exchanged for money. By using tokens instead of money directly, cheating doubled.

He also described a simple test in a shared fridge. You can leave a Coke or an equivalent amount of money in the fridge to see how long before they are stolen. The half life of the Coke is much shorter than that of the money. Similarly, people who would never think of taking a dime from petty cash will nonchalantly take home a pencil from work.

People cheat more if members of their group are seen to be cheating
Another interesting variation on the math test had an actor taking the test, and claiming that he got all the answers; the other participants would know this had to be a lie. When this actor was wearing a sweatshirt from the participant's own university, this increased cheating. Without that affinity, the actor's claim had no impact.

Ariely tells a riveting story of how he became interested in how people make irrational decisions. As a young man, after an injury while he was in the Israeli army, he spent many months in hospital with third degree burns all over his body. During this time he suffered horrible pain during the changing of the bandages on his burns. The technique was to take the bandages off quickly, resulting in high pain levels. He proposed to the kindly nurses that they should experiment with removing the bandages more slowly - less pain over a longer period - but was unsuccessful in convincing them to try it.

He later did experiments that showed that we suffer less when we experience lower levels of pain over longer periods than more pain over shorter periods. Even when he returned to tell the nurses of this, he was unable to convince them they should consider changing their ways. This inspired him to investigate other areas in which humans hold strong views about how humans react, without necessarily having the evidence to support their position.

Ariely has commented on the lessons we might learn from the real-life "experiment" on cheating conducted by Bernie Madoff. As he points out, we're more at risk from many people cheating a little bit than from the the big cheaters like Madoff. He worries that the Madoff experience will cause us to shift our focus to catching the few big cheaters, instead of the thousands of little one. Click here to see what he has to say.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Cutting Remarks

Catherine Mohr excited us with her description of robotic devices that make surgery incredibly less invasive. She mesmerized us with some videos of live surgery (do look for her talk when it is loaded on; it's not there yet.)

Amazing how far we've come. There are remains of patients who were trepanned (had a hole drilled in the skull) as long as 5000-10000 years ago and survived the operation. Old paintings depict the barber performing surgery (without anesthetic) as a spectator sport. It was only in 1847 that ether anaesthesia was first used in Boston General, and 20 years later that Lister introduced carbolic acid as an antiseptic .

Laporoscopy was the big surgical advance of the 1980's. It's wonderful for the patient, as it is done through very small incisions which are less invasive and easier to heal. Laparoscopy was such an advance that now almost 100% of gallbladder operations are done through laparoscopy. And yet laparoscopy deprives a surgeon of their most refined skills, the 3D aspect of surgery which they have trained.

Enter the da Vinci surgical system, which allows surgeons to operate remotely by controlling robotic instruments, returning the sense of 3D vision and touch to them. This system follows the motion of the surgeon's hand - it 'gives them a wrist' as Mohr put it. Using the da Vinci, surgeons can now repair heart valves from inside the heart, without the heart ever stopping beating. This makes another advance on laparoscopy in minimizing the invasiveness of surgery.

There are further advances possible with such these procedures. At this stage, the system is best for an operation in one place, like, say, a prostectomy. For an operation that involves two sites, you'd have to move the whole system and set it up again. The solution is to bring the camera and instruments through one tube.

Other exciting advances can be made by increasing the vision of the surgeon through injection of markers to identify cancer tumours. Another use of such vision would be to check the efficacy of a bypass operation before closing. By inserting a microscope, you could see and operate on very tiny nerves.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Louise Fresco on Food

Louise Fresco, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, is a big thinker and widely published author on food and sustainability. My big takeway from her talk was that quaint farmers' markets are a luxury for the rich but really inappropriate for the poor. For the poor, more technology, not less, is what is desired. She advocated a multi-functional regional food production system rather than the global one we have now.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Growing Up

We live vertically. Why not grow our food vertically? That's the proposal of Dickson Despommier, who believes we should carry out large-scale agriculture in urban highrises - in other words embark on vertical farming. Since agricultural land is being eaten up and the population is shifting increasingly into urban areas, it makes sense to undertake this kind of farming.

Vertical farms would have a high bird-to-stone ratio. This one solution could address many problems:
  • Eliminate the agricultural run-off that causes 75% of the problems with the oceans
  • Provide year-round crop production
  • Eliminate crop loss due to severe weather events
  • Use 70% less water, and no fossil fuels, pesicides, or herbicides
  • Help repair the damaged ecosystem by allowing farms to return to a natural state
  • Grow foods closer to consumption, reducing transportation costs and carbon emissions

Despommier, a professor at Columbia, has been a proponent of this idea for some time, and many designs have been proposed. Economic analysis has yet to prove that the costs of farming this way are less than the benefits. After all, this kind of farming needs lots of artificial light for the centre of the building. You can explore this idea further at his web site, where there's a collection of designs that could deliver such vertical farms. There's even a proposal for a 38-storey Sky Farm in Toronto's theatre district, shown at the right.

Of Water and Oceans

The theme of water flowed through TED this year. Of course, the star was Sylvia Earle, an oceaonographer, explorer, author, lecturer, and passionate champion of the planet's oceans and winner of one of this year's TED Prizes.

Her powerful acceptance speech is already up on (click here). We've explored only 5% of the ocean - we know more about outer space than our own ocean deep. Yet, we've managed to ravage the ocean. She told us that over the last 50 years we've eaten over 90% of the big fish and destroyed over half of the coral reefs. In a friendly dig at fellow TED Prize winner Jill Tarter, director of the SETI project looking for intelligent life outside Earth, Earle wishes for the discovery of intelligent life among humans on this planet. Continuing the reference to space, she remarked that an astronaut does everything in his power to maintain and protect his life support system, yet we do nothing to protect our life support system, the oceans.

Her wish was to save the oceans before it is too late:

"I wish you would use all means at your disposal - films! expeditions! the web! more! - to ignite public support for a global netowork of marine protected areas, hope spots large enough to savce and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet."

This seems a worthy goal, as 12% of land on the planet is protected (what an amazing proportion!), but only 1% of the oceans.

We just received a wonderful book by Earle, Ocean, An Illustrated Atlas, in the TED Book Club. My granddaughter Jamie was enthralled with it, as I think you will be too.

You should also definitely take in the stunning movie Oceans when it is released in North America in the spring of 2010. We were treated to a preview of some of the 300 hours of this film. Conceived by Jacques Perrin, the $75 million film was 8 years in the making, four years in filming in 78 locations. Because Perrin's English is weak, Jake Eberts, the Canadian producer of the film (and producer of other films such as Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Name of the Rose, Driving Miss Daisy, Dances with Wolves) talked about the film - and what poetic proof of the majesty of the oceans Earle has urged us to save. New equipment was developed to move through the water alongside the marine animals - it gives a perspective never seen before in marine movies.

At a luncheon hosted by WWF, Dr. Jason Clay told us it's often hard to grasp intuitively the impact on the earth's water resources of anything we consume. He enumerated the amount of water used in a cup of latte:

0.1 litre for the water itself
2.5 litres to make the plastic lid
5.5 litres to make the paper cup and sleeve
7.5 litres to grow the sugar
49.5 litres to feed the cows that make the milk
143 litres to grow the coffee

He wasn't urging people to forsake their beloved lattes, since water - in the form of tropical rainstorms in coffee growing regions - isn’t in short supply. In comparison, rice farming uses 58 percent of “all water on the planet used by people for any purpose—farming, manufacturing, cooling nuclear power plants, swimming pools, showers.”

Charles Moore, at TED U, spoke about ocean pollution and showed some depressing images of plastic found on beaches and in the bellies of fish. Moore founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to do marine research, education and restoration. One of the papers he has published showed that plastic outweighs plankton by a factor 2.5 in the coastal waters off Southern California.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Virus Hunter

Nathan Wolfe is The Virus Hunter. Sounds like a movie title, doesn't it?

Wolfe is on the front lines of tracking virus cross-overs from animals to humans. HIV, Ebola, Bird Flu, West Nile, SARS, and Yellow Fever, are examples of viruses that have made that cross-over, much to the grief of humans.

This cross-species transmission is not rare - it's happening all the time. And we're not very good at stopping pandemics once they've started. So Wolfe and the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative are building a global network to monitor that transfer of viruses from animals to humans. This shold warn us of possible diseases before they actually start hitting humans.

In the past, we didn't have such an early warning. HIV first crossed to humans in 1929; it took decades to start attacking the pandemic, and still with limited success. With ever-increasing global interaction and ability for viruses to travel, we can't wait that long to start working on the next big virus if we want to prevent future pandemics.

Developing an early warning system takes Wolfe to the viral hot spots where humans are highly exposed to animals. He started a decade ago by visiting hunters in Cameroon who kill bush meat; other hot spots include Chinese wet-market workers and butchers, wildlife sanctuary employees, and Malaysian bat hunters.

Wolfe is a professor at UCLA. His work and the work of the GVFI are supported by Google and Jeff Skoll. In a past TED, we heard TED Prize winner Larry Brilliant (now head of the Google Foundation) wish for an early warning system of emerging pandemics. He praised the work of the Canadian Health and Welfare unit that had been monitoring mentions of unusual outbreaks of disease on the Internet to identify such emerging outbreaks - they had noticed emergence of SARS long before official channels. Wolfe's work takes this warning back much earlier, before humans start to get sick.

Wolfe also charged us all of suffering from 'surface parochialism'. We restrict our thinking to life at the surface of the earth. However, it's possible that life started deep in the depths of earth, and perhaps there is another kind of life, which doesn't share a DNA foundation. When we send up a Mars probe, should we be asking if there is life in Mars instead of on Mars.

Radical Transformation of Education

In one of the rousing speeches of the final session, Liz Coleman, president of Bennington College, issued a call to arms to reinstate liberal arts at the centre of US education. The future of America depends on it. The cult of the narrow expert has displaced the generalist. This idealization of the expert has led to the fragmentation of knowledge, the loss of neutrality and the eventual descent into fundamentalism.

When appointed the President of Bennington College, she turned it on its ear in a quest to redefine liberal arts education. She totally revamped the curriculum around inter-linked study of issues like health, equity, education, uses of force, governance and the environment. The tools for studying these topics are rhetoric, design, mediation, improvisation, quantitative reasoning, and technology, with an emphasis on action. She fired many of the faculty (I think she said one third), who weren't willing to along with this radical change.

She questioned whether a nation can be both ignorant and free. She lamented that over 50% of Americans don't believe in evolution and challenged American TEDsters to use their influence to turn the tide. Otherwise, in the future, someone might ask them "Where were you when all this happened".

What Will Iran Do?

Predict the future? No problem, says Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He's a political scientist (professor at NYU and senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution) who's putting the science into political science, using rational choice theory and mathematical game theory modeling.

To make predictions about strategic choices, Bueno de Mesquita says you just need to know certain facts:
  • Who are the key players who have a stake in shaping th eoutcome?
  • What do these players say they want?
  • How focused are they on these goals?
  • How much clout to they have?
In assessing the likelihood of different outcomes, you start with the assumption that political leaders want to keep their jobs and derive your predictions based on the assumption that self-interest will drive their behaviour. (Does this sound familiar to anyone?)

With accurate input (ah, and there's one rub, perhaps), you can predict the outcome of very thorny political and foreign policy issues with great accuracy. Bueno de Mesquita first earned credibility for his approach when his (published) prediction that two relative unknowns, Khamenei and Rafsanjani, would succeed Ayatolla Khomeini on his death. He had been scoffed at when the prediction was originally made, but had some opponents eating humble pie when exactly this happened.

Bueno de Mesquita consults to the CIA and the US Defence Department, and he has provided input on the North Korean problem: the resent deal bears a strong resemblance to his advice. He has an unusual suggestion on how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian situation by aligning their self-interests. He told us of his assessment of the future in Iran - he feels Iran wants to have the capability of building a bomb rather than actually building a bomb. He characterizes Ahmedinejad as only the 18th most powerful person in Iran, despite the Western media's obsession with his outrageous statements.

From other reading, I gather that not everyone in the field of political science supports this approach, believing that it is too deterministic. However, the CIA and the US Defence Department consider his incredible prediction percentage as too good to ignore.

Bueno de Mesquita also consults to business, in matters of litigation, mergers and acquisitions, and regulation.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Going Green - Making Money

Ray Anderson has been striving for perfect sustainability in his business for decades. And when that business is the carpet business (the company he founded and now chairs, Interface Global, is the largest modular carpet manufacturer in the world), which is notoriously hostile to the environment, he's taken on a big challenge.

Anderson has broken the mold in that business by pushing Interface to make steady progress in reducing environmental impact - while steadily increasing profitability and market share. Going Green has brought in the green in terms of profitability too.

Anderson's now reaching for Mission Zero for Interface - namely reaching zero environmental impact for the business - and establishing an organization to help other businesses strive for the same goal (click here for more info on the Mission Zero organization).

Ray is a frequent motivational speaker, including within his own company to engage employees in the mission. He told us a story of one of his employees, Glenn Thomas, attending such a speech one Tuesday. Thomas then gave Anderson a poem, Tomorrow's Child, which Anderson said has been a beacon for him ever since.

Tomorrow's Child
© Glenn Thomas

Without a name; an unseen face
and knowing not your time nor place
Tomorrow's Child, though yet unborn,
I met you first last Tuesday morn.

A wise friend introduced us two,
and through his sobering point of view
I saw a day that you would see;
a day for you, but not for me

Knowing you has changed my thinking,
for I never had an inkling
That perhaps the things I do
might someday, somehow, threaten you

Tomorrow's Child, my daughter-son
I'm afraid I've just begun
To think of you and of your good,
Though always having known I should.

Begin I will to weigh the cost
of what I squander; what is lost
If ever I forget that you
will someday come to live here too.

Many speakers later referred to this poem, as a guiding principle for all of us in seeking to leave a better environment for our children and grandchildren.

Of Marshmallows and Life - two TED U talks

Joachim de Posada broke TED rules by getting into book-promotion mode. However, his talk was rather interesting, discussing the 'marshmallow experiment'. In the 60's, some experimenters at Stanford did a landmark study offering some four-year-olds a marshmallow. They were told they could eat the marshmallow now; alternatively, if they could wait until the experimenter returned from an errand, some 15 or 20 minutes later, they could have two marshmallows.

Approximately one third of the kids were able to delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow. Looking at these same kids years later, their SAT scores were over 200 points higher, and they were more adjusted, happier and more successful in every way. It's been concluded that this ability to delay gratification might just be the most significant predictor of life success. de Posada has written several books about the topic. He entertained us with the antics of the kids' behaviour as they touched, smelled, licked, or pushed away the marshmallows as they tried to resist.

Philip Zimbardo elaborated on this idea. He classified people into three types: those who live in the present (who ate the marshmallow immediately), those who live in the future (those who waited long enough to get the second marshmall0w) and those who live in the past. He said that, although future orientation could lead to considerable 'success', one needed to balance this with a present focus in order to attain happiness. He considers our weakness in management of time in general and our time focus as illustrating The Time Paradox in our lives.