Charmian Gooch: Meet global corruption’s hidden players

Speaker

Charmian Gooch is an anti-corruption campaigner who in 2014 was named on Bloomberg Markets’ 50 Most Influential list

Summary

When we imagine corruption it tends to be a minister or despot of a small overseas nation, living in fabulous luxury. Charmian lists a few perfect examples of this behaviour. However, these people cannot operate without support from the rest of the world. Their mansions and art purchases are arranged through global banks, and despots in oil-rich nations must do deals with the largest oil companies.

Many corrupt leaders make their profits through anonymous shell companies, which they secretly own. They are commonly used around the world to avoid paying taxes, but can also be used steal massive amounts of money from poor countries. A recent example involved Democratic Republic of Congo selling off state owned mining assets to a shell company, which quickly onsold them for massive profits. The people of Congo lost $1.3 billion from these deals – more then twice their education and health budgets combined. Charmian investigated the deal but many of the details are locked away in the shell companies.

There’s a view that corruption just happens, and it is impossible to change. But 2/3 of oil & mining companies (by value) are now covered by a transparency standard because groups demanded it. In a globalised world, corruption is a global business that needs solutions right here.

My Thoughts

There were a lot of examples throughout this talk, and I struggled to find a take-away message from it. The main point was that corruption is everywhere – involving companies that are household names, and they are part of the corruption instigated by international despots.

Dave Meslin: The antidote to apathy

Speaker

Dave Meslin is a Toronto-based artist, activist, community organizer, writer and the Creative Director of PigeonHat Industries.

Summary

Often it is said people are too stupid, selfish, or lazy to care about local politics. Dave proposes the opposite view: that people do care but there are barriers put in their way to prevent action. These barriers are:

  1. City Hall: ‘community engagement’ for a project may be by placing an ad in the local paper, but the ad is in tiny font with the details (what is proposed, how to object) hidden within a page full of pointless text. If people were supposed to be involved, the ad would have just a picture, large font next to it with the proposal, and contact details – similar to when a business advertises. When people don’t respond, it isn’t because they are apathetic: they have been intentionally excluded.
  2. Public Spaces: Public advertising goes only to the highest bidder. But some important messages are unprofitable to say.
  3. Media: Media subtly discourages engagement. When they review theatre or a restaurant they often include a short paragraph describing price, address, opening hours in case people want to go. For political campaigns or messages there is no similar way for people to get involved or read more (eg a website address). This sets the tone that politics isn’t something that people can be involved in.
  4. Heroism: movies teach us that heroes are ‘chosen’ by prophecy. In truth leaders voluntarily step forward, form a collective team and work to achieve their goal.
  5. Political parties: They should be an entry point to getting involved in politics, but are so poll-driven they just tell us what we want to hear. This feeds cynicism and shows they cannot be trusted to be bold leaders.
  6. Charitable status: (In Canada) Charities are not allowed to politically advocate. This prevents some of the most passionate people from getting involved.
  7. Elections: (Canada’s) system creates random results, with the winner someone who most people didn’t vote for. It’s no wonder people struggle to vote.

If we believe people are NOT too stupid, selfish or lazy to care, then we can fix each of these issues. We have to redefine apathy as a series of barriers, then identify and dismantle them.

My Thoughts

This is a good list of barriers, but I’m disappointed so few solutions. His solution is to identify then dismantle each one, but that process is blocked by the same barriers he identifies, and the political process itself. Major Political Parties benefit from the election system: and people will (probably rightly) greet attempts to change it with cynicism. Other vested interests will also fight against any change, especially if noone can propose something fairer. Given Canada has a first-past-the-post system with 3 significant parties, so a preferential system would probably work better, but plenty of people will fight to prevent that.

‘Community engagement’ has been reduced to fine print ads to make things easier for people implementing projects. While the ads are one barrier in the process, would they really take on board community suggestions anyway? Would you expect them to?

Ken Jennings: Watson, Jeopardy and me, the obsolete know-it-all

Speaker

Ken Jennings is a game show star who holds the record for the longest winning streak on the U.S. game show Jeopardy! and as being the second highest-earning contestant in American game show history.

Summary

Ken Jennings loved game shows from a young age, and felt extreme satisfaction when he beat his parents at Trivial Pursuit “Knowledge is Power”. In 2004 he appeared on Jeopardy for the first time, but in 2009 he got a call from the producers asking him to play against IBM’s Jeopardy machine: Watson. Because of his love of the game he agreed, but also because he knew about AI at the time and thought he could win. It is extremely difficult for computers to understand language and the nuance of natural communication, so Ken was confident. As the time came closer, he saw graphs of Watson’s performance against other Jeopardy players’ skill level, slowly creeping towards his own. He knew the AI was coming for him – not in the gunsights of Terminator, but in a line of data slowly creeping upwards.

On the day IBM programmers came out to support Watson, and Watson won handily. He remembers feeling the same way a Detroit factory worker did – realising his job had been made obsolete by a robot. He was one of the first, but not only knowledge worker to have this feeling: pharmacists, paralegals, sports journalists are also slowly being overtaken by thinking machines. In a lot of cases, the machines don’t show the same creativity, but they do the job much more cheaply and quickly than a human.

As computers take over thinking jobs, do humans still need to learn anything, or know anything? Will our brains shrink as more tasks get outsourced, and computers remember more facts?

Ken believes having this knowledge in your head is still important because of volume and time.

  • Volume because the amount of information is doubling every 18 months, and we need to make good judgements on these facts. We need the facts in our head to assemble a decision, it is harder to judge these facts while looking them up.
  • Time because sometimes you need a quick decision, or need to know what to do. Ken talks about a child remembering a fact from Geography at the beach: the tide rushing out is a precursor to a Tsunami. Her knowledge and quick response on the day of the 2004 boxing day tsunami saved the people on that beach, which couldn’t be done unless she knew it.

Shared knowledge is also an important social glue: people can bond over a shared experience or knowing something in a way that can’t be simulated by looking things up together.

Ken doesn’t want to live in a world where knowledge is obsolete, or where humanity has no shared cultural knowledge. Right now, we need to make the decision of what our future will be like: will we go to an information golden age where we use our extra access to knowledge, or will we not bother to learn anymore? Ken wants us to keep being curious, inquisitive people – to have an unquenchable curiosity.

My Thoughts

I’m unclear if Ken is talking out against AIs in general, or just about how we manage a transition to increasingly prevalent AIs. I agree with him that people must continue to learn and do things, however I also feel like there is no reason to force us to do jobs once a computer can do it. Instead people should be free to explore, learn, find new hobbies for themselves.

This talk is interesting, especially if you are a fan of Jeopardy or Ken. His experience is one that I’m sure a lot of people will have over the coming years. However, it is mostly of the anecdotal variety: I don’t think it adds much insight to the topic of AI. Regardless, it isn’t supposed to: know that going in and it should be great.

I for one welcome our new robot overlords

Marco Tempest: A cyber-magic card trick like no other

Speaker

Marco Tempest is a Swiss magician based in New York City. He is known for his multimedia magic and use of interactive technology and computer graphics in his illusions and presentations.

Summary

Marco introduces artificial reality glasses then shows us some card tricks from his point of view. He spins a fun tale as he deals the deck and reveals cards corresponding to the story he tells. As this happens, special effects explode from the cards and the computer voice acts as a foil – revealing probabilities and talking back to him.

 

My Thoughts

Fun video, and at 6 minutes long is worth a watch. I’m unsure if the special effects improve a magic show: it seems to make it easy to trick people when anything can be modified at a whim – taking some of the skill out of magic. Even so, the novelty of special effects and interesting story he tells makes it worthwhile.

As for how he does it, I think the cards appearing in order are ‘real’, with the deck in order before he starts and the shuffles all a trick.

Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability

Speaker

Chris McKnett is a Vice President of ESG Investing at Boston-based State Street Global Advisors, the world’s largest institutional investment manager

Summary

Sustainability is the investment logic looking at social, environmental and governance (ESG) issues. The main players to influence this are institutional investors, and Chris promises to prove sustainable investments are easy, and high performing. Investors currently tend to focus on economic metrics, but with depletion of natural resources, increasing pollution and an increasing population, it is hard to ignore the economic impacts of sustainability metrics.

The private sector is also seeing the need: 80% of CEOs see sustainability as an innovative, competitive advantage, while 93% see it as important for the future of their business. On the share market, stocks with good sustainability (ESG metrics) perform as well as other stocks, and the large blue chip stocks with high ESG outperform their low-ESG rivals.

Some institutional investors are taking ESG into account in the investment process, for example Calpers is the second largest investment fund in the US and moving towards 100% sustainable investment. The philosophy is that value comes from a combination of financial, human, and physical capital. On the flipside, plenty of other funds claim they are focussed only on high returns, or don’t want to use the fund to make political statements. Chris counters that returns are compatible with sustainability, and it doesn’t need to be seen as a trade-off.

Institutional investors hold 8 times more money than the US GDP, so have plenty available. If we could channel that towards companies that improve social and environmental causes it could have a huge impact towards solving problems such as hunger, or access to clean water.

John F Kennedy stated “There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction”. It makes sense to invest sustainably so that we can retire wealthy, but also into a better world.

My Thoughts

I thought this talk was a little light on details, especially examples of what a sustainable company is. It didn’t seem clear whether sustainability had to be a core product of the company (eg delivering water infrastructure to developing world), or whether it could be a bank / resources company with a strong sustainability culture. I tend to think the latter, but a lot of the benefits seemed like they only made sense if the company actively solved ESG issues.

Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life

Speaker

Jane McGonigal is an American game designer and author who advocates the use of mobile and digital technology to channel positive attitudes and collaboration in a real world context.

Summary

Jane is a game developer and commonly hears it said that games are a waste of your life, and you’ll regret playing them when you die. She reviewed studies on the regrets of dying people heard by hospice workers and they tended to be the following.

  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
  • I wish I’d spent more time with friends
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self
  • I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me

Games can help with all of these, by playing with others you can be with friends, and virtual avatars allow people to imagine themselves as a more idealized ‘true’ version of themselves. Also, none of the comments were that people wish they’d played fewer games.

Jane spent some time with brain damage after being knocked unconscious. This gave her suicidal thoughts – since she couldn’t do anything and convinced herself there was very little reason to live. She developed a mental Role Playing Game to stave off suicidal thoughts – recruiting her family as allies to battle the bad guys (triggers to stress that caused her pain), and complete simple quests that let her be productive in small ways- cuddling her dog or walking around. By focussing on her alter ego and completing the basic powerups she quickly felt better mentally. She released the rules for the game online as “Super Better”, and many terminal patients responded saying it made them a lot happier and focussed.

People who survive traumatic or near-death experiences often go through post traumatic growth: they clarify their goals, become happier and more productive. They quickly develop traits counter to the regrets of the dying – they live a life without regret. Jane was looking at these benefits, and how people can gain them without going through trauma in the first place. They are related to 4 types of resilience, which can be trained by 4 quests from Super Better.

  • Physical resilience: eg walk 3 steps or put your arms up: physical activity lets the body heal better and withstand more stress.
  • Mental resilience: by snapping fingers 50 times or counting backwards from 100. Mental activity gives you more willpower.
  • Emotional resilience: look through a window or google image search on your favourite baby animals. You can dramatically improve your health by feeling 3 positive emotions for every negative one.
  • Social Resilience: shake someone’s hand or send a message to a friend. This gives you more strength from others.

People who regularly boost these resiliences gain 10 more years of life, and should build the mindset to live that life without regrets. 10 years may finally give you the chance to play some games too!

My Thoughts

Jane promises a lot from her game. The activities at the end seem to be aimed at sick people – giving them a quest to achieve something. I can see this working – by focusing on small goals and victories that will improve their health it will help mentally. I don’t know if a healthy person will get a strong resilience benefit from the same activities, or whether those same traits can be developed by more advanced activities.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see that resilience can improve your perspective and length of life.

Ben Goldacre: Battling Bad Science

Speaker

Ben Goldacre is a physician, academic and science writer. As of 2014 he is a Wellcome research fellow in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a founder of the AllTrials campaign to require open science practices in clinical trials.

Summary

As an epidemiologist, Ben’s job is to use evidence and science to decide what is good for the body. An example of bad science is newspaper headlines, which categorise things that increase or decrease cancer risk – and sometimes contradict themselves by declaring coffee in both categories. The thrust of this talk discusses ways evidence can be manipulated through either ignorance or deception.

Bad science uses authorities – people or experts while ignoring their evidence. Good science should be carried by the weight of argument or evidence rather than who says it. Authority status can be easily contrived – TV doctors can create a pHd after their name or sign up online for advanced certificates of something or other.

Evidence can also be confused: a newspaper headline declared red wine reduces breast cancer risk. The study this was sourced from looked at a single chemical extracted from grape skins fighting some cancer cells in a petri dish – it has no relevance outside of this scenario. In truth the alcohol content of wine increases your cancer risk.

Another example was a study showing decreased skin wrinkles in people who eat olive oil and vegetables. The paper was correct that people who ate olive oil and vegetables had fewer wrinkles, but they also tended to be wealthier, better educated, do less manual labour, smoke less, drink less. These other factors had far more to do with fewer wrinkles.

The medical trial is one of the bases of epidemiology, and should be the basis for a doctor’s decisions, but so many people still get it wrong.

  • A trial on fish oil tablets in school children didn’t use a control group – instead comparing their results against a projection of their results taken a year ago.
  • The placebo is a place to abuse trials: the placebo is a powerful effect but new medicines should be testing themselves against the current best medicines rather than just a placebo. It is much more useful to see how a drug compares to the best competitors – since we would never prescribe a placebo.
  • New drugs can compare themselves to a competitor that is not dosed correctly. For example they can prove themselves more effective by taking the alternative in too low a dose. They can also prove they have fewer side effects by taking the competitor’s drug in too high a dose.

For these reasons industry sponsored trials give a flattering result 4 times more often than independent trials. But this is true even when the industry’s trial is done correctly, because negative data can go missing. This can be analysed with statistics, with normal data giving a mix of false positives and false negatives and a few large trials with low error. If data has been hidden, the small false negatives will not be visible – the worst results will be the largest low error trials. Ben discusses one pill he has prescribed to patients, and discovered 75% of all the trials had never been released. Likewise Tamiflu has had billions invested in it because governments want to show it reduces serious complications associated with flu, but none of the evidence for this has been released.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. All results should be published, but they are currently protected by a forcefield of tediousness.

My Thoughts

Interesting to see how pharmaceuticals can abuse evidence by not publishing. I can understand commercial pressures not to publish negative results though, and not sure what the solution is. Should it be compulsory for companies to run trials through a central organisation and under specific rules?

Even more concerning is the ethics of treating people with excessive or insufficient doses of a drug. This is unforgivable – effectively putting someone’s health at risk to prove that an opponent’s drug is dangerous or ineffective. Directly hurting people as a marketing tactic doesn’t sit well with me at all.