Earworms, Refugees, Poetic Patterns, and the Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

What do all of these topics have in common?

They were among the 31 lessons I learned as part of the TED-Ed July challenge.

The lessons consisted of watching a 3-5 minute video each day and then answering a series of multiple choice and short essay questions on the topic.

I found the lessons to be a nice change of pace from the kind of topics I usually read or watch a video about, such as:

  • I would have never known that an earworm is the technical term for a catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind.
  • It was also nice to be a little more informed about the very timely topic of refugees. I never knew that there is a fairly legal definition of what makes a person a refugee, and how a refugee is different than a migrant.
  • I’ve never really got poetry (it’s similar to the confusion I have about art), so I thought I would try to learn a little bit about poetic patterns. It was interesting, but I still don’t get poetry.
  • Self-driving cars have fascinated me since I first heard about them, and I have read a good deal about them. While there is a serious technology component to making self-driving cars a reality, there are also several legal and ethical issues that need to be discussed before the technology gets too far advanced. For example, what should a self-driving car do if it looks like it is about to crash into the car in front of it? Should it swerve to the right where there is a car with three passengers; swerve to the left where there is someone riding a motorcycle without a helmet; or just crash into the car in front of it? Not only do such issues need to be resolved, there is also the question about who should be making such decisions? The government? The companies that are designing self-driving cars? Or should individuals be allowed to customize the software that controls such decisions so that the car makes the decision you would make if you were controlling the car manually. Tough decisions, but I’m glad they are being discussed.

Other topics I learned a little bit about during July included what the term Orwellian means, how clouds got their names, robots and creativity (and the Lovelace test), the importance of biodiversity, the ancient origins of the Olympics, and why cats act so weird.

I found the lessons well done, and a nice intro to the topic at hand. It was a fun way and informative way to spend a few minutes each day, and I intend to keep a close eye on the other lessons that get posted to the TED-Ed web site.

If you are interested in taking any of the July lessons, here is a link to the archived set of lessons (as of right now the archive just includes the lessons from July 1- July23).

Finally, a big thank you to all the educators who took the time to put these lessons together, and to TED for providing a platform to deliver the lessons.

Captain Fantastic Lives Up to Its Name

There are not many movies where the characters celebrate Noam Chomsky day instead of Christmas, or where the father orchestrates a “Free the Food” assault on a local grocery store.

But then there aren’t many movies like Captain Fantastic.

When I first heard about the movie, I thought it was another superhero movie, along the lines of Batman or Iron Man. Well my wife, son, and I had the chance to see this wonderful movie today, and while it’s nothing like Batman, there’s certainly a superhero.

Here’s a brief description from Rotten Tomatoes:

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Leslie and their six children live deep in the wilderness of Washington state. Isolated from society, Ben and Leslie devote their existence to raising their kids — educating them to think critically, training them to be physically fit and athletic, guiding them in the wild without technology and demonstrating the beauty of co-existing with nature. When Leslie dies suddenly, Ben must take his sheltered offspring into the outside world for the first time.

and here’s the trailer:

The kids are incredibly fit, well-versed in a variety of subjects, can speak multiple languages (including Esperanto), and play multiple musical instruments.

There’s a memorable scene where one of Ben and Leslie’s younger kids shows off her knowledge of the Bill of Rights compared to the knowledge that a couple of older, typical teenagers have of the Bill of Rights.

There’s another scene where one of the daughters is asked by Ben what she thinks of the book she is reading (Lolita), and she replies, “interesting”. Apparently such a response is unacceptable in this family, and after some thought she offers a critical analysis of the book and its characters.

One of my favorite scenes is where the family is sitting around a campfire and just breaks into an impromptu musical performance, with some of the kids joining in by dancing. I found it to be a heartwarming glimpse into the special life this family led.

The family is on a mission (I won’t reveal what that mission is), and it is during this mission we see that while they may be quite book smart, they may not be so well-versed in the ways of the world.

In the end, I found the movie to be a clarion call to think for yourself, to live more in harmony with nature, and above all, a celebration of family.

Any movie that can do all that is a winner in my book.

Congratulations to writer/director Matt Ross on, dare I say, a fantastic job.

By the way, if you want to celebrate Noam Chomsky Day, his birthday is December 7…

“Smiled on by Fate”

Chelsea Clinton did a wonderful job introducing her mom to the nation last night. She used personal stories about what her childhood was like, and how her mom was always there for the big moments, like games and recitals, as well as the small, everyday ones, like watching movies together.

My favorite line from her speech, however, was when she mentioned that she had been “smiled on by fate”.

Here’s the full paragraph:

My parents raised me to know how lucky I was that I never had to worry about food on the table, that I never had to worry about a good school to go to. Never had to worry about a safe neighborhood to play in. And they taught me to care about what happens in the world. And to do whatever I can to change what frustrated me, what felt wrong. They taught me that’s the responsibility that comes with being smiled on by fate.

This is another way of referring to the Ovarian Lottery, a topic I’ve written about twice before.

Chelsea recognizes that she is one of the winners in the Ovarian Lottery, and more importantly, recognizes the responsibility that comes with such a blessing.

Her line is reminiscent of President Kennedy’s line, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

Chelsea seems to have inherited such a sense of responsibility from her parents, both of whom have dedicated their lives to public service.

Hillary is just as committed today to making people’s lives better as she was 40 years ago, and has willingly embraced the challenge and opportunity that comes with being President of the United States. As Bill Clinton noted, there’s a lot of ways he and Hillary could spend their golden years, but she wants to be President because she believes she can make a difference.

No matter the outcome of this election, I am confident that we have not heard the last of the Clintons, and that they will continue to live a life of service to others.

By the way, I also want to note how impressed I was with Donald Trump’s children, and I am sure we have not heard the last of them.

Finally, I find it encouraging that Chelsea and Ivanka appear to be friends; who knows what they could accomplish working together…

So Much for the Fear of Public Speaking

I’ve watched a lot of last week’s and this week’s conventions (and I mean a lot), and there have been some impressive speakers.

And I’m not necessarily referring to the content of what was being said, but more to the style and poise and grace of the speakers.

I expected people like President Obama, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Michelle Obama, and Bill Clinton to be outstanding, and they were. In fact, they were phenomenal. These individuals are used to being in the limelight and speaking to crowds.

I’m not a fan of Donald Trump, but I was quite impressed with his children.

Chelsea Clinton did a wonderful job offering a glimpse into the personal side of her mom.

There were sports stars who stepped out of their comfort zone and did a great job.

But the speakers who most surprised me were the “ordinary people”. Mothers and fathers who had lost their children to gun violence or while serving in the military, spouses of police officers who were killed in the line of duty who were asked to speak, individuals who were committed to certain causes, such as common sense gun laws or LGBT issues, and members of our military and police forces.

Most, if not all, of these people likely had little experience as a public speaker. And if they are like most of us, I am sure they were quite nervous in anticipation of their time at the podium.

These individuals were speaking to a large live audience and an even larger TV audience. They were most likely using a teleprompter for the first time. And they were going to talk about something that was quite personal and emotional to them.

Talk about baptism by fire.

Yet without fail, these individuals delivered. And I’m referring to both the Republican and Democratic convention speakers.

When the big moment came, and the country was watching, these individuals rose to the occasion.

Watching and listening to these speakers was inspirational.

It shows that when we care enough (and practice enough), we can overcome our greatest fears.

Congratulations to all the speakers, and especially to the “normal folk”, for a job well done.

Moms Demand Action on Common Sense Gun Laws

Early this morning my wife (that is not her in the photo) and I hopped on a train and headed into the great city of Philadelphia.

The reason for our journey was to support Moms Demand Action (MDA), a non-partisan grassroots movement to mobilize moms and families to advocate for stronger gun laws. MDA takes a common-sense, middle-ground solution to the escalating problem of gun violence in America are straightforward.

In conjunction with the Democrat Convention being held in Philadelphia, MDA had organized a large number of volunteers to spread its message and to encourage people to sign up to support common sense gun laws.

My wife and I signed up for the first shift, 6:00-8:00 am (which was changed to a start time of 7:00), and were asked to solicit people to join MDA. To help us in our efforts, we had a brief training session over the phone, and were given some sample opening lines to use when approaching people, such as the following:

Hi – Do you want to help end gun violence?
Hi – Can we talk to you about Gun Sense?
Hi – Can we talk to you about why Moms Demand Hillary?

I came up with my own slightly modified version that I planned to use:

“Hi. Are you interested in supporting common sense gun laws?”

It seemed to work, since I was successful in signing up several people to support such laws.

Unfortunately, a couple of times I got a little too excited when someone didn’t actively try to avoid me when they saw me approaching, and I ended up getting tongue-tied, and said the exact opposite of what I meant.

The first time it happened, I approached someone and said, “Are you interested in putting an end to common sense gun laws?”

The second time it happened, I think I said something along the line of,  “Are you interested in supporting gun violence?”

I’m not sure what the people who heard those lines thought, but needless to say, I was not successful in signing those people up (and that may have been a good thing…).

Anyway, it felt good to be doing something about a cause that my wife and I are passionate about – putting an end to gun violence in the U.S.

It’s also been great watching the convention tonight, and seeing the strong support the Democrats are showing for putting an end to gun violence.

Anyway, if you’re curious what is meant by common sense gun laws, here’s a couple of talking points we were given:

  • Gun sense is the simple idea that we can do much more to keep our families and communities safe from gun violence.
  • It’’s the belief that we, as Americans, don’’t have to tolerate 31,000 deaths from gun violence every single year.
  • The single biggest thing we can do is to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, suspected terrorists, domestic abusers and other dangerous people.
  • We want to ensure that every person who buys a gun has to have a background check.
  • Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are both gun sense champions and we’re going to do all that we can to ensure they are elected.

If that sound like something you want to support, here is the link to do so:

http://act.everytown.org/sign/gun-sense-voter-pledge/

Enough…

*image courtesy of Moms Demand Action:
a Moms Demand Action volunteer signs up a common sense gun law supporter

Not Even Seth Godin Is Immune to Internet Trolls

I recently came across an ad in Facebook for a course from Udemy on Leadership, featuring Seth Godin.

sethworkshop

Seth has been one of my favorite authors and marketing gurus for several years, and he seems to be a man of integrity, intelligence, kindness, creativity, and foresight.

He is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership, and most of all, changing everything. He was recently inducted into the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, one of three chosen for this honor in 2013.

His daily blog is one of the most popular in the world, and I have found it to be motivational, educational, and thought-provoking (it also served as a model for my daily blogging).

He has over 500,000 followers in Twitter, and over 300,000 on Facebook, despite not having a very active presence on either platform (he basically uses each site to simply post his daily blog).

While I have come across the occasional negative review of one of his books, I have never really read anything negative about Seth himself. He seems to be the type of person who would be immune from Internet trolls.

Well I was wrong.

I started reading the comments related to the ad for his course on Udemy, and I found comments like this:

If Seth was truly genuine he would make such a course free and accessible to all regardless of their social economic disposition.

Knowledge should be freely given to all. Does Seth need the money? yea f**k him. He should study Socrates. Instead of positioning himself as a sophist. I’ll say it again. F**k him.

No one is going to follow this dip sh*t trying so hard with those f’n glasses.

What has he lead? I could never get thru his books.

Is this another Trump U?

bollocks.. all bollocks

FFS! More rubbish! (By the way, FFS stands mean “for f**k’s sake”; had to look it up though to find out…)

I was surprised to see such comments associated with someone of Seth’s reputation, but I guess it just shows that no one is immune to such nonsense.

I’m not sure if Seth reads such comments, and while I’m sure he would prefer more constructive feedback, I’m also certain that he would not/does not let such comments stop him from doing what he does.

I think there’s a good lesson here for all of us.

I’m not saying that we should want or expect everyone to agree with everything we have to say, in fact, that may be a sign that we aren’t doing anything of much value. However, we need to be able to ignore the trolls and continue to focus on the work that we are doing.

At the same time though, as Seth himself has noted, “…if you want to improve, you should actively seek feedback” and “genuine, useful, insightful feedback is a priceless gift.”

So a word to the trolls – you’re wasting your time leaving such comments regarding Seth. But if you’re looking for someone else to pick on, someone who may even engage with you in your immaturity, why don’t you try Donald Trump?

*and by the way, Seth’s course is only $20

Common Sense and the 2016 Election

commonsenserevised

This is the 70th in a collection of newspaper ads written by Harry Gray, then CEO of United Technologies, that appeared in the Wall Street Journal from the late 1970s through the early 1980s. Here is the text from that ad.


A best seller in 1776 was Tom Paine’s “Common Sense”.
Maybe someone should do a 1985 update.
You have may decisions to make every day.
Just weigh your answer against the simple question,
“Does it make good, common sense?”
If it does, do it.
If it doesn’t, don’t.
Common sense says,
don’t smoke when you’re filling you’re gas tank.
Don’t run through red lights.
Don’t overeat.
Don’t spend more than you make.
Don’t vote for Donald Trump.

Common sense is sometimes called horse sense.
For good reason.
Have you ever seen a horse at the $2 window betting on how fast a person can run?


It’s amazing what foresight some people can have.

Have you ever looked carefully at the front page of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, and observed what his fifth “bullet point” was?

Or how about Harry Gray reinforcing Paine’s words with his admonition regarding your voting duties this election?

The message from Paine and Gray is perfect for the opening night of the Democratic Convention, and could serve as the theme for week.

So I’ll just add my two cents, dare I say common sense, to the words echoed by Thomas Paine and Harry Gray:

Don’t vote for Donald Trump.

P.S. Just watched Cory Booker knock it out of the park. We will rise!

Reconstruction, Inc. – Doing Work That Matters

I was recently asked to join the board of Reconstruction, Inc., a Philadelphia-based non-profit that works on issues related to re-entry programs for recently released prisoners, the injustices associated with the sentence of life in prison without parole (referred to as death by incarceration), and community building for families and neighborhoods affected by crime and incarceration.

This past weekend was Reconstruction’s annual celebration and board meeting, and both events were informative, productive, and enjoyable.

Friday night started with a gathering of about 40-50 people who were associated with the non-profit. The evening consisted of a presentation by each of the three domains of Reconstruction: the Alumni Ex-Offenders’ Association, Fight for Lifers, and LEAD.

The Alumni Ex-Offenders’ Association (AEA) is a program of Reconstruction that addresses former offenders as they come back into the community after being incarcerated. This programs attempts to create an atmosphere that is principled and encourages the members to lead productive lives.

The program focus on two areas:

  1. Membership meetings, in which personal issues of its members are addressed; and,
  2. Work Plan meetings, in which the direction of the program is developed. This program meets on Wednesdays, and also meets whenever any crisis arises that must be addressed.

Two members of AEA spoke Friday night, and their stories about the problems and injustices they faced while in prison were difficult to hear, but the positive attitudes they exhibited were a testimony to the strength of their character and to the success of the AEA program.

Fight for Lifers (FFL) is a program of Reconstruction that addresses the concept of Life without the possibility of parole, for men and women in the State of Pennsylvania. At present, there is no chance of people serving a life sentence to be released on Parole.Fight for Lifers (FFL) supports people serving a life sentence in PA., and their families, working to abolish this type of sentencing.

Here are the focus areas of FFL:

  1. Commutation
  2. Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP)
  3. Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA)
  4. Women Lifers
  5. Compassionate Release for Terminally Ill
  6. Elderly Lifers
  7. Mentally Ill

The speakers on Friday night briefly described each of these areas and what the background issues are and what Reconstruction, Inc. is doing to address these issues. There has been some recent successes with the Juvenile Life Without Parole issue. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that judges must consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender, banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for all juveniles; in 2016, this decision was made retroactive to those sentenced prior to 2012. The work of Reconstruction and other organizations played a key role in such decisions.

One of the speakers also showed a TED video created by a group of women lifers that went viral. The video is quite moving, and eye-opening. One of the women in the video is prominently featured in Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, and another woman is the daughter of one of our board members.

You can read more about the video here.

The final presentation was with respect to the LEAD program, which stands for Leadership, Education, Advocacy, and Development.

LEAD is Reconstruction’s youth-focused program with 4 generations. The first generation, from infant to 12 years of age, is called “Paradigm Shifters.”  Group two’s ages range from 12 to 21.  This group works on the “Situation Management Pillar” of the Reconstruction Curriculum. The third LEAD group, ages 16-21 facilitates our “Situation Management Pillar”. LEAD’s fourth group, ages 21 to 35, is our youth leadership. Each member enriches the capacity of LEAD. Among the practices of that capacity building are: Leadership Development, Principled Business Practices, and Spiritual Stability. The goal of LEAD is to help participants become more self-determining, responsible, and accountable, to themselves and others. In the vein of community capacity building, youth are invited to take ownership of every part of this program. LEAD’s primary focus of “Situation Management” is to have all of its members to consistently participate.

The presentation Friday night highlighted the four skill sets of Situation Management:

  1. Emotional Intelligence
  2. Active Listening
  3. Relinquishing one’s position in order to understand other’s position
  4. Accessing and utilizing resources to manage situations

As part of the presentation, the speakers had planned a game for everyone to play known as Loud and Proud. Loud and Proud is a fast-paced social justice word association game that works as a great ice-breaker as well as offering some educational opportunities.

During the presentations we took a break to enjoy an excellent catered dinner and the chance to either reconnect with old friends or to get to know each other a little better.

My wife, son, and I left the event Friday night inspired, saddened, motivated, energized, and much better informed than we were prior to the celebration. It was wonderful being surrounded by people who were so selflessly dedicated to such an important cause.

A picture of the men attending Friday night's celebration.
A picture of the men attending Friday night’s celebration.

The board meeting on Saturday was more business-like, yet the atmosphere reflected a joy and an ease  of being with each other, as well as a culture of great respect for each other, united in this common cause.

It was once again eye-opening to meet people on our board who are directly affected by the work of Reconstruction. As mentioned earlier, one of the board members has a daughter who has been in jail for 27 years, a woman who has a brother who has also been in prison for 27 years, since the age of 16, and a woman whose husband has been sentenced to life in prison. All of them seemed to be full of hope that one day their loved ones would be “coming home”.

So that’s a brief overview of my weekend experience with Reconstruction. It was certainly one of the more uplifting weekends I have experienced, despite the serious issues that the organization fights for.

The vision of Reconstruction, Inc. is, “Changing ourselves to change the world, by uniting the power of many to defeat the few“, and it has been in existence for 24 years. A major part of its success is due to the relentless work of it founder, and inspirational leader, William Goldsby.

I am proud to be associated with this organization, and I am grateful for the opportunity to make some contribution towards its mission of effecting social change by forging individuals that were formerly incarcerated into an organized community of leaders working together to transform the criminal justice system, their communities and themselves.

 

Is There a Link Between Terrorism and Sales of Starbucks Coffee?

The Wall Street Journal had a story the other day about Starbucks’ disappointing results in Europe and the U.S. that resulted in its third consecutive sales-target miss.

While there could be several possible explanations for not hitting its sales target (changing consumer preferences, more competition, pricing, decreased quality, etc.), what was surprising were the reasons company executives gave for the problems.

The executives cited terror concerns around the world along with civil unrest and political uncertainty in the U.S. and a profound weakening in consumer confidence. CEO Howard Schultz said that he could not recall a quarter quite like this past one in the history of Starbucks.

While Starbucks certainly has access to a lot more data than I do, I have trouble understanding what impact terror, civil unrest, and political uncertainty have on coffee sales.

Perhaps such issues might have some impact, but it seems like the company is trying to blame its less than stellar results on factors outside of its control, and thus not really taking responsibility for the poor performance.

If I were a Starbucks shareholder, I would be concerned with such an explanation. If its sales truly are affected by such issues, then I would think there is little Starbucks can do to fix such problems, and I would not be overly optimistic about Starbucks’ future performance. I would have preferred to hear about problems that they can fix, such as poor customer service or a lower than expected quality of product.

While it may be harder to accept that internal issues are the main reason for the poor results, at least those are problems they can work on and there’s the hope that performance will improve in the future as a result.

I wish Starbucks the best moving forward. It will be interesting to see if sales improve next quarter, even if there is no improvement in the civil unrest and political uncertainty that now exist around the globe and in the U.S.

If that’s the case, that may be an indication that such explanations weren’t really the reason for the poor performance this past quarter.

 

Our Newest Family Member

It’s been a few months since we had to put our dog Butters to sleep, and we were waiting for the right time to get a new dog.

Well the wait is over.

We were fortunate to find out about a dog that was being fostered by a friend of a friend, and when we went to check her out yesterday, we knew she was for us.

Her name is Tinelli, but she goes by Nellie, and she became a part of our family right after we met. As you can see from this picture, Nellie wasted no time snuggling up with our son Pat on the ride home.

nellie2

Nellie was quickly welcomed into our neighborhood when several fellow dogs (and their owners) all came out to greet her, and then they all went for a walk (which was certainly a better welcome than I’ve ever gotten any where!)

Nellie is the grayish colored dog...
Nellie is the grayish colored dog…

Nellie also wasted no time in making herself right at home by hopping up on to our couch, where she eventually slept all night.

nellie1

So far, she seems like a great dog, and we look forward to many happy years with her.

So thank you to the kind family that fostered Nellie for a few months instead of bringing her to a shelter, and thank you to Conestoga Village for such a warm reception!