Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963
I, too, share Dr. King's dream that we will one day live in a world where people show more empathy for their neighbors. The negativity of our modern news cycle can become overpowering. I sometimes find a need to retreat to recharge my batteries in order to restore my faith in humanity. Recently, TED 2016 became that generator for me, and I found it fitting that this year's conference was entitled, "Dream." For a week in Vancouver, I sat and listened to various inspiring speakers and discussed ideas with them about how to turn around these cycles of negativity. As the speakers shared their dreams they seemed to be empowered by the thought of "what if." What secret dreams did they harbor that they could make a reality.
The discussion topics ranged from ending poverty in the world by helping farmers grow more food and take charge of their economic destiny, to storing cultural and art images in a manner that would make them equally accessible to the poor and the rich. I listened to a young man who started a Global Citizen movement to make each of us think about how we can contribute to the healing of the ills in various countries and to a young woman who felt the need to produce an African-based version of "Sex and the City" that helps to overcome the singular negative image of Africa as "the dark continent." This description doesn't even begin to touch upon the full range of topics experienced. I left the conference rejuvenated.
TED is a nonprofit started in 1984 to bring together some of the great thinkers in the intersection of the fields of technology, entertainment and design. Those TED talks (usually 18 minutes or less) are shared for free online. But it has also evolved into TEDx events that are independently run in communities all over the world. And over the years, the topics have exploded exponentially outside of those areas and touch upon just about every area imaginable: science, social justice, anthropology, human behavior, education, race and equality, quality of life, space travel, happiness, robotics, virtual reality and a myriad of medical inventions. What I like most about TED is the mix of hard science and technology with the equally important heart-based talks that speak to how best to navigate our time together on Mother Earth.
Even the people simply attending TED as attendees are interesting. I was adopted by a group of friends from Santa Barbara who, though disparate in what they did professionally, all had a goal of alleviating some area of society's problems by their own actions. This group was led by Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, co-founders of Lynda.com, the revolutionary educational system that was started with an idea to help democratize learning by making lessons available digitally. Their company was recently acquired by Linked-In, but their dedication to education has continued. Others from the group granted wishes to terminally ill cancer patients, or established rape crisis centers. Some introduced gardening and sustainable food programs to public school children. And one woman taught yoga and meditation in prisons with an eye to an aspect of rehabilitation that could help prepare the prisoners for a return to society. There wasn't a day when we were together that didn't involve sharing ideas on how to make each other's goals more attainable.
When filling out your application to attend TED, you are asked to share an idea that you feel is worth sharing. I have an idea that is so farfetched that I didn't even include it. But here goes: My idea is a modest proposal, Hashtag: Thirty Percent (#thirtypercent). Every national political campaigner should either use thirty percent of the money they raise to solve an actual problem of their choice. Or they should contribute thirty percent of the money they raise to an aggregated fund that will be used to solve an actual problem. And to encourage public engagement they can use social media to have the public help identify these problems. This way their political campaigns would be judged on their deeds as well as their words. Instead of raising obscene amounts of money to simply pay for increasingly negative ads tearing down their opponents, they could give us a preview of how they would govern. This would force them to think positively about real world issues. And win or lose, each politician and campaign would be contributing some good into the world.
For instance, I read that it will take an estimated $56 million to solve one aspect of the water problem in Flint, Michigan. Of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on presidential campaigns, why couldn't some of it be directed to saving the lives of people in Michigan? Politicians can fund the efforts to solve a problem of their choice, which will in turn play a role in helping the American public decide on who to vote for in the upcoming election. How wonderful it would be to see all that money going to far worthier causes. At this stage, that is merely a dream.
Without further ado, here is a small part of my photo album for TED 2016...
There were so many moments that helped to recharge me, such as my encounter with 10-year-old Ishita Katyal, the youngest TEDxYouth organizer in the Asia-Pacific region. She opened the conference with a talk in which she praised her parents for supporting and nourishing her creativity. Ishita wrote her first book, Simran’s Diary, when she was only 8 years old, and clearly has a bright future ahead. She challenged us not to ask young people what they want to do when they grow up, but what they want to do right now! I imagine she was the youngest TED speaker in its history, and I daresay one of the most charming.
Some of my favorite "rock stars" are, in fact, innovators and visionaries who are changing the world with their technological creations. One person who falls into that category is Sergey Brin, the cofounder of Google. I met him not as a speaker, but an attendee who I wanted to thank for a personal reason. When I was fortunate enough to acquire a small amount of Google stock at an early stage, I donated part of it to form The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation. Had I known that it would appreciate as much as it has, the foundation would be in a better financial position. (At the time my financial adviser thought it was better to sell it and use the proceeds for my charitable works.) Nevertheless, the Google stock helped me realize my childhood ambition of being a philanthropist. Roger admired the internet search invention of Brin and his partner from Stanford, Larry Page, before google became GOOGLE. Brin remains involved with Google X, the company's innovative moonshot factory. And he is also the president of their newly formed holding company, Alphabet.
As creator and executive producer of the web series, "An African City," Amarteifio has dreamed up the Ghanaian equivalent of "Sex and the City." The show centers on five single women of African descent who have resettled in Accra, Ghana after living abroad. Through the perspective of the show's main character, NanaYaa, Amarteifio fearlessly tackles such potentially taboo topics as abstinence, skin-whitening and contraception. And she shows these African sisters in all of their fabulousness. The show reached more than one million views within its first weeks. However, her initial impetus for the show was not entertainment, but to counteract the many negative images about Africa and Africans that she was bombarded with both in the United States and abroad. She was hoping to also connect with a global sisterhood. To show that in many areas we share universal aspirations about our careers and relationships. In producing her show, Amarteifio is hoping to erase a singular narrative of Africa as downtrodden and remote, and replace it with one that is universal and inviting. To check out her show, visit its official site.
Every once in a while, I come across a singer who is so fantastic, I wonder why he or she hasn't been on my radar. That happened with the beautiful and beautifully talented Rhiannon Giddens, who had one of the most soulful folk voices I have ever heard. For the past decade, she has sung and performed the fiddle and banjo with the Grammy-winning string band, Carolina Chocolate Drops. Her album from last year, Tomorrow Is My Turn, compiles songs made famous by feminine icons of folk, jazz and country. She is a singer and songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who explores black history through her music. Her strong, clear, powerful voice brought the house down at TED and earned a standing ovation. TED was wise to pepper the speeches with her universal language of music.
Hearing Al Gore talk optimistically about the environment at this year's TED conference was an amazing experience. The former Vice President and Nobel Laureate's presentation on global warming, and its apocalyptic repercussions, was chronicled in 2004's Oscar-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," and inspired Roger to write, "In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film." Yet Gore's speech this year covered the good things that are happening to our environment as a result of us waking up to environmental challenges as well as the bad, and he garnered a standing ovation. His speech was delivered in a fiery impassioned manner that was missing from his political campaign. That prompted one TEDster to quip, "if he had spoken like that on the campaign trail, the election results would have been different."
Though Christopher Gray wasn't a speaker onstage this year, he proved to be one of the most impressive people I met at the conference. I invited this young man to join us for dinner, and was impressed by his plan to make scholarship money available to college students so they won't end up buried under monumental debt. Gray is the CEO and founder of the scholarship search platform, Scholly. Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Gray earned $1.3 million in scholarships after an exhaustive series of web searches. He created Scholly to help make the searching process easier for students. Last year, he was named the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Philadelphia and won Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest Competition. He told me that he competed on the television show Shark Tank, and that he was the first one in his family to attend college. For more info on Scholly, visit its official site.
On the heels of seeing Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's documentary, "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," at this year's Sundance Film Festival (click here for my full report), the 93-year-old creator of All in the Family took to the TED stage to discuss his extraordinary career. In my Sundance article, I noted that Lear was responsible for placing more African-American characters in prime time network series ("Sanford and Son," "Good Times," "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and more) than any other single person in the history of television. His TED talk also garnered a standing ovation, to which Lear quipped that ever since his 90th birthday people seem to think he has gained a lot of wisdom.
Sometimes a speaker touches you with their first person experience about what it's like to be a stranger in a strange land. America used to be a familiar place to Islamic researcher and pollster Dalia Mogahed, but that all changed after 9/11. Her statement on what it was to be Muslim was moving and provocative, particularly when she said that equating Islam with ISIS is like equating Catholicism with the Ku Klux Klan. Mogahed is the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and served on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in 2009. The audience gave her a very touching standing ovation.
How refreshing it is to see an architect who is building in countries where the design of a hospital can help in the healing of its patients. As co-founder and CEO of MASS Design Group, Michael Murphy specializes in creating community-centric structures, such as the award-winning Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. He is currently working with human rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, to design and build a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, that will commemorate the history of slavery and lynching in America. You cannot just shut the door on the past and think it will have no repercussions in the future, he said. His talk was down to earth and heart-felt, and also received a standing ovation. Judging from the people in this article, you may think that everyone got a standing ovation. But they did not. There were many, many speeches over the week and the majority of them did not receive a standing ovation.
And yet, another person who received a well-deserved standing ovation at TED was television executive Shonda Rhimes. Though she's an industry self-described " titan" who, at one point, oversaw more hours of prime time programming than other writer/producer/executive ("Grey's Anatomy", "How To Get Away With Murder" "Scandal"), she said she had lost her "hum" and her joy. Simply put, she got burned out, and rediscovered her creative drive in her own home by saying "yes" whenever her children asked her to stop and play with them. At TED, she shared how getting in touch with ourselves and our family plays a crucial role in restoring creativity. Her talk was warm and funny and touching and very very human. Rhimes is bright and powerful and hard-working, but says those things without our humanity is just not worth it. Her speech hit the bullseye for many women and men in the audience.
I have always been fascinated by genomic studies, and Riccardo Sabatini, the founder and co-director of the Quantum ESPRESSO Foundation, was the perfect person to introduce people to a different aspect of that field of study: making predictions based on genomic makeup. During his TED presentation, Sabatini called a person to join him onstage, but instead of an actual human materializing, people wheeled out about five carts containing over 250 binders containing thousands of pages each representing a particular genome (a.k.a. an organism's complete set of DNA). These tens of thousands of pages all added up to the full genomic makeup of a single human being. How's that for mind-blowing? But what was really mind-blowing is that Sabbatini said that Mother Nature was the most awesome of all, duplicating this feat when one pregnant woman gives birth to another human being.
Providing comic relief at this year's conference was Tim Urban, the co-creator of the popular blog, "Wait But Why." He gave a talk on procrastination, and how the "little monkey" inside of us can distract from our task at hand, causing us to read every irrelevant article on the Internet rather than complete our assignment that's due tomorrow. But he found out that procrastination can actually serve a productive purpose as well. During the process of procrastination our deep mind is sometimes mulling over the issue and throwing out creative ways to solve it. Tim was hilarious in his outlook and yes, he received a standing ovation.
These are just a sampling of the many great talks that occurred at TED 2016. From the presentations and virtual reality demos, to the many conversations I had and meals I shared, I came back refreshed, renewed and more hopeful that our collective dreams for a better tomorrow may indeed come true.
I'll leave you with the video of Roger's TED talk in 2011, in which he asked me and Dean Ornish and John Hunter to be his voice, along with Alex from the Apple computer. "For several days now, we have enjoyed brilliant and articulate speakers here at TED," Roger said in his introduction, via his computer voice. "I used to be able to talk like that. Maybe I wasn’t as smart, but I was at least as talkative."
For more info on the annual TED conference, visit its official site.
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