Martin Rees: Can we prevent the end of the world?


Lord Martin Rees, one of the world’s most eminent astronomers, is an emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the UK’s Astronomer Royal.


The Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, but this is the first where threats to the Earth could conceivably come from humanity. The political will to deal with these catastrophic threats is weak – instead we focus on minor hazards such as plane crashes and chemicals in food. In the same way as we pay a premium for car insurance, doesn’t it make sense to plan for these threats?

It is likely that common people will have the capability to design biological organisms this century. These could be misused by people looking to do immense damage. Regulation cannot prevent misuse, since there will always be a country where anything is possible.

People were concerned when the particle accelerator came online, but this has been done naturally many times. Of more concern is the truly new technologies being developed.

Martin suggests that a core question is existential – is a 100% death rate from a disaster significantly worse than 90%? Some would suggest it is only 10% worse, but Martin says it is immeasurably worse. He can’t believe that humanity is the last link in an evolutionary chain. Even on an astronomical or evolutionary time scale, there is still a lot of life left in the Earth (~5 billion years), and future evolution may develop faster on a technological time scale. Surely even a 1 in a billion risk of human destruction should be mitigated. While some threats are pure science fiction, others are improbable but possible.

To study these risks, Martin has established a centre to mitigate these existential risks at Cambridge university. It makes sense for at least a few people to think about these issues.

My Thoughts

Martin talks well about the risk management approach we need to take to deal with unlikely but catastrophic events. However aside from biological terrorism, he does not delve too much into what issues he is particularly concerned about, or possible solutions. I am curious to see what comes out from his studies.

Clint Smith: The danger of silence


Clint Smith is a slam poet and educator whose work blends art and activism.


In a 1958 speech, Martin Luther King said “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”. By being silent you allow ignorance and hate to take hold – silence is taken as agreement with what you are hearing. As a teacher Clint teaches his children about the danger of silence and encourages open communication in his classroom with the following commitment:

  1. Read critically
  2. Write consciously
  3. Speak Clearly
  4. tell YOUR truth

Clint reflects on his own failures to tell his truth. For lent one year Clint gave up his speech, and realised that he had refused to speak up so much that he may as well be silent. He talked of times where he ignored or held his tongue against a gay friend being bashed, ignored a homeless person, let a woman insult his “unintelligent” students at a fundraising event. He speaks faster and louder – in slam poetry style – on what he could have said to help these people against ignorance. Silence is not about picking your battles, but letting them pick you. In the end, silence is the sound you make when you’ve already lost – when you’re already dead “run out of body bags”.

Live every day as if there is a microphone under your tongue, you don’t need a soapbox, you just need your voice

My Thoughts

Worth watching – he speaks very quickly and powerfully with a lot of message for such a short talk. I will take his message on board and not be afraid to talk against wrongs.

Shubhendu Sharma: How to grow a tiny forest anywhere


Eco-entrepreneur Shubhendu Sharma is an and his company, Afforestt — create afforestation methods that make it easy to plant maintenance-free, wild and biodiverse forests.


Shubhendu Sharma was an industrial engineer for Toyota when he was introduced to Dr. Akira Miyakki. Dr. Miyakki’s was hired by Toyota to help offset some of the carbon emissions by growing a literal forest at the factory. These forests are particularly practical because they grow 10 times faster, are 100 times more biodiverse and 30 times more lush than convential plants. Sharma grew his own forest in his backyard and became fascinated by the challenge of growing with the same acumen as building cars or creating software.

In a blend of technology and nature, Sharma started a business that grows forests in a way that replicates Toyota’s model for production efficiency. The Toyota Production System revolves around a concept called “heijunka (production leveling), which translates to using a single manufacturing line to make different models of cars.  He simply replaced the trees with cars and can now grow a 300 tree forest in the space of 6 parked cars. Amazingly, the cost of growing a forest is the same as that of an iPhone.

His company, Afforest is also working to make an open source database by publishing all the methodology they uses so that people can grow their own forests.  Additionally, by installing a probe on site, his company would be monitor the growth remotely and provide specific guidance.

My Thoughts

Wow. This speech is shockingly concise and extremely informative and well worth the watch.

William Black: How to rob a bank (from the inside, that is)


William Kurt Black is an American lawyer, academic, author, and a former bank regulator. Black’s expertise is in white-collar crime, public finance, regulation, and other topics in law and economics.


The average bank robbery nets $7,500, but the really scary thing is when CEOs use dishonest accounting to claim record profits and defraud the economy as a whole. The last time this happened it cost $11 trillion and 10,000,000 jobs were lost. The common ‘recipe’ for this style of fraud is easy to see, and follows the same trends:

  1. Grow like crazy
  2. Buy or make crappy loans at a premium yield
  3. Employ extreme yield
  4. Keep only trivial loss reserves.

This will give amazing returns to the bank, and easily enough to trigger massive executive bonuses. However a few years down the line, the bank is doomed to take a large hit.

Appraisal fraud is when a bank will over-inflate the value of collateral against a loan. There were warnings of this before Enron collapsed, including a warning to the US government from some appraisers. These honest appraisers had been blacklisted by the banks for refusing to inflate the values of assets. The appraisal is a great defense against losses, so no honest bank should need to do it, but is a clear sign of accounting fraud.

Liars loans are the second issue – where a bank will not check income of a borrower before lending them money. If a borrower overstates their income, it allows the bank to sell them a higher mortgage. Again, no honest bank should do this – it is a recipe for disaster to loan too much to someone who can’t pay.

Between 2003 and 2006, liars loans increased by 500% – by 2006 40% of all loans were ‘liars loans’. This is despite the industry’s anti-fraud experts warning banks that they 90% of the stated incomes are fraudulent. Appraisal fraud was also increasing over the same time period – by 2007 90% of appraisers said they had experienced coersion from the banks to overstate values of assets. Banks were also giving up their federal deposit insurance, so were no longer under the gaze of the federal regulator. There was also the issue of the secondary market for these fraudulent loans- when banks will fraudulently sell the loans onto someone else. To do this it was necessary to hide the true value of the loan, or repackage the loans alongside better loans.

The response after the savings and loans debacle of 1990s included 30,000 criminal referrals from regulators – one of the largest responses to white collar criminals. In response to the current crisis (GFC of 2009?), there were no criminal prosecutions. The FBI alone doesn’t have the expertise to investigate complex accounting fraud on its own – it needs guidance from regulators. In 2007 an alliance was formed between the Mortgage Bankers Association (an industry body) and the FBI to investigate mortgage fraud, but their definition of fraud was one where the banks were always the victim, and industry incapable of committing fraud. This led to criminal prosecutions against small business owners to protect the banks from them.

William’s solution to banking regulation

  1. abandon the ‘too big to fail’ mantra. They need to be shrunk to the point where their failure will not trigger wider losses.
  2. we need to rework modern executive professional salaries. It is too big an incentive to defraud the system, and can create a situation where good ethics can be driven out of the system by bad ethics (unscrupulous appraisers).
  3. deal with deregulation, de-supervision, and defacto decriminalisation. Over time, it has become trendy not to regulate banks, even when the regulators can see what is happening.

By making these changes, we can decrease the frequency and impact of future banking crises. We need to learn what the bankers learned – the recipe to rob a bank.

My Thoughts

Could be good if you have an interest in accounting fraud. Personally I found the talk difficult to follow at times – it felt like it was working in circles. The ‘recipe’ itself was interesting, though I wasn’t clear how each of those steps were beneficial to the bank.

Diana Laufenberg: How to learn? From mistakes


Diana Laufenberg teaches 11th-grade American History at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia.


When Diana’s grandparents and parents went to school, the goal was to transfer knowledge from teacher to student. As encyclopedias and the internet arrived, it is no longer necessary for students to simply acquire  facts at school – they can look up information whenever they want. Teachers now need to be comfortable taking a different role.

Diana taught American government, and took a different approach. She instead got her students to organise a night to teach others about the candidates for a local government election. She took a back seat, and it culminated in a night of debate which all students showed up to. Later she asked students in their own voice to discuss how they would use their life positively. She was amazed at the results – all she had to do was ask a genuine question and listen to the results.

She now works in an environment where all students are given laptops – a world where teachers need to be comfortable that they are giving students the tools they need to acquire knowledge. Students now need to explore wider ideas – it is not enough to tell them that all questions have only one right answer. She asked them to build an infographic poster about a major event, and honestly assessed each student telling them what they did well and what they needed to improve. An amount of failure is expected in every project, but only by pointing out failure will they do better next time.

Education is no longer about going to school and getting information. It must be more experiential learning, listening to students’ voice and allowing them to fail.

My Thoughts

Interesting talk – I expect most schools nowadays are adopting more open approaches in the way Diana describes. If not, hopefully they will soon – because the old model of schooling really is obsolete. Students need more than just to be told information, they have to learn skills.

Joachim de Posada: Don’t eat the marshmallow!


Joachim de Posada is a motivational speaker, best known as co-author of the book Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet.


In this experiment, a 4 year old child is presented with a marshmallow. If they can stay in the same room as the marshmallow for 15 minutes without eating it, they get a second marshmallow. 2/3 of children ate the marshmallow, while the remaining third were rewarded for delaying gratification. This experiment can be used as a predictor of future success – all of the children who delayed eating the marshmallow were successful at the age of 18. The others were less successful, with lower grades, poorer relationships, and less had plans for future or entry to university.

Joachim repeated the marshmallow test in Columbia. He wanted to see if Hispanic children acted the same way and also found 2/3 of children ate the marshmallow. One girl was interesting – she hollowed out the inside of the marshmallow and ate that, but still left the outside intact (so it looked like she hadn’t eaten it).

My Thoughts

Not the greatest talk – about Joachim taking an experiment and repeating it in a different country. I was also not left convinced that such a simple experiment would predict success – it seems like there would be too many variables. Rather than delayed gratification, it may show the child’s ability to comprehend that 2 marshmallows is more than 1, and understanding of the experiment. Again, the ones who understand the experiment at a younger age are probably more likely to be successful but they would also learn more about delayed gratification as they get older.

Eric Liu: Why ordinary people need to understand power


Eric Liu is a former speechwriter for then-president Bill Clinton and founder of ‘Citizen University’ which brings together leaders, activists and practitioners to teach the art of effective and creative citizenship.


We are currently confronted with an apathy for power – people are afraid to acknowledge the word and see it as evil. But power is simply the capacity to have others do what you want them to. People have delegated to a professional political class – lobbyists and media managers who hold the power to themselves and happily keep the rest of us ignorant. When a politician retires, they join a business and continue to use their political contacts to wield power. Those on the extreme left think only corporations wield power, and those on the far right think the government itself has too much power, while others with too little power will just think they deserve their political weakness. Eric wants us all to learn about power in civics class, to counter the ignorance or apathy most of us feel.

Think of your city, and something you want to achieve with it – what to do with a piece of abandoned land for example. The types of power at play could be financial, people, informational, misinformation, the threat of force. How could you use or neutralise these to get what you want? Cities are also one of the most interesting forms of power remaining. Federal politics has become so partisan and gridlocked that it is difficult to change anything. In contrast cities are becoming more dynamic, and good ideas spreading faster from one city to the next. For example, local governments are implementing programs to reduce greenhouse emissions, and bypassing the difficulties of federal government.

Eric’s organisation “Citizen University” is building a curriculum of power – to educate lay people in power. He wants us to help build the curriculum, by imagining the future of our city if we could implement our pet project. By looking from that future point back at how it got there we can think about how to achieve it. If we can make civics sexy again we can make it safe for amateurs and allow us to self-govern.

My Thoughts

He had a good start about a general apathy and fear of power that created a political class. His talk had plenty of examples of power, however none of them seemed to go anywhere (hence they were omitted in the summary). The ending of the talk was also disappointing – this talk contained very little discussion of power and how to use / achieve it. It was more a call to arms for people to get interested in power.