Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TEDx Vilnius - Hungry for Action

Have you heard of TED? Chances are that the answer is "John... of course." With conferences happening all over the world, at every time of the year, and a website that hosts over one thousand free speeches by famous or up-and-coming intellectual champions, there is no denying that the TED brand has gone global. If you haven't heard of it before, then you need to get it together; and if you have no idea why I am talking about TED... well I haven't told you yet. The short answer is that I finally attended a TEDx conference, right here in Vilnius, and it was a great experience.

The fantastic organizers - note how everybody is so young (source: flickr)
In 2006, TED conference speeches known as "TED talks" became available online for free. Giving the public free access to quality content usually has a positive effect, and in this case the move took a California-based tech conference for CEOs and turned it into a phenomenon discussed in classrooms and around dinnertables around the globe. Young people especially are attracted to the conferences, which I believe has a lot to do with the enthusiasm and optimism that TED speakers evoke when they discuss the present and future. Maybe it's the positive energy that attracts an audience, or maybe it's the ability to watch light particles move at one-trillion frames per second. You decide.

It is incredibly easy for a student to learn from these "talks". I can regularly sit down on my couch, turn on my Xbox 360, open Netflix and find an interesting topic to learn about. One talk takes maybe 15 minutes of your time and there are over a thousand to choose from! (There is a Seinfeld episode for every social situation, a Mythbusters episode for every good story, and now a "TED talk" for every intelligent discussion) So take yourself back twenty years and listen to this prediction: "Couch + television + gaming console will be the perfect medium for students to watch lectures on business, science, culture, and ethics. Young adults and teenagers, of their own volition, will watch these lectures, talk about them, and be inspired." Even today you probably don't believe it, but it is completely true.

Segueing into this recent event I attended, independent TED events have been popping up everywhere. The people who run TED realized that other people were getting really excited about the concept. They created the TEDx brand, setting up guidelines for anyone to independently host a proper conference. People in nearly every major country (with notable exceptions) are hosting events now, and lots of them. You can see for yourself on this map of upcoming conferences from the TEDx website, where the red X indicates a sold-out event.

There is currently one green circle on the city of Kaunas, Lithuania. Another TEDx event has been planned for November 17. This one was planned by youths and focuses on the positive impact young people have in Lithuania. Seats are still available, but probably not for long.

So the TEDx event in Vilnius took place on October 6th. While TED's slogan is "ideas worth spreading", TEDxVilnius took that in a different direction. The organizers wanted to move beyond ideas and focus on results, and so the event's catchphrase became "Hungry for Action". Speakers were asked to bring their subject into the context of a growing intellectual and entrepreneurial spirit in Lithuania. It is a country in the infancy of its modern independence with one of the most highly educated young populations in the world. People are indeed hungry for action here, and the speakers did their best to deliver.

From Saturday morning until late evening, many people spoke on a wide variety of social, cultural, and scientific topics (women in science, the effect of foreign media in Lithuania, a perspective on the 2008 economic crisis). There were artists, musicians, businessmen and scientists who all had something meaningful to share. Being a junky for speeches on science and tech, here were a couple of my favorites, who formed an impromptu one-two punch on the future of the technology industry:

Andrew Hessel (source: singularityhub.com)
  • Self-proclaimed "genomic futurist" Andrew Hessel took the conference into the future in his discussion of biotechnology and genetic engineering. Hessel is an American microbiologist and geneticist who has dedicated his life to the advancement of genomics. At TEDxVilnius, he described the blurring line between men and machines, as scientists begin treating DNA like a programming language. By controlling DNA, scientists are able to radically change life and even custom-build new lifeforms in the interest of modern medicine. Hessel also described the ongoing and breathtaking advancements being made in computer "intelligence". As computer capabilities increase exponentially, computers will be able to help scientists achieve new breakthroughs across the board.
Paulias Briedis (source: vz.lt)
  • While Hessel's speech was incredibly cool, it took a Lithuanian to bring the technology sector back home. Paulius Briedis made a huge impression when he challenged Lithuanians to compare their technology industry to Japan's. A young guy himself, Briedis recently went hitchhiking through Japan for three years. Along the way, he made the observation that the research being done on robotics was happening in university laboratories. Lithuania's own university system is fairly advanced, and its student workforce highly motivated, leading Briedis to conclude there was no good reason for Lithuania to be left out of the tech sector while the Japanese flourish. Briedis focused in on AI and robotics as sectors that Lithuania could master, if only given the chance. He is not just talking about it, but rather he is living it: this last spring he co-founded a robotics start-up company that builds 3D printers and scanners, and writes curricula for inventive teachers and students. Briedis also has plans to open a school where robotic programming and engineering are a major part of the curriculum.
Speeches like Hessel's and Briedis' made TEDxVilnius worth the early Saturday morning. They were one part inspiration, one part rallying call. If enough Lithuanians believe in people like Briedis, then 20 years from now we could be looking at a booming robotic/technology sector in the Baltic region. You could feel this raw potential energy hanging around the auditorium that Saturday; on that note, what may be the most invigorating part of living in Lithuania is the inspiring freshness of people's ideas. Everything is new, few concepts have been tried before. You stand at a reception like the ones between speeches at TEDxVilnius, and you can see the Lithuanians who have fire in their eyes - who are ready to take ownership of their country and their ideas and do something great. It was pretty cool.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"The Other Dream Team"

On Thursday, Sept. 20, I was given the opportunity to attend a red carpet premiere of a documentary featuring the athletes pictured above. They were "the Other Dream Team" - a free-spirited and incredibly talented group of then-young men from Lithuania who triumphed, in their own way, at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Their emotional story of success is one that I had never heard before, maybe due to my failure to follow world events that year (born: 1991). If this national basketball team was new to me, perhaps it is also new to you. So this post is dedicated to them, and to the young country whose heart these men carried in their pockets that summer. The documentary, with the same title as this post, captures the events leading up to, surrounding, and following the 1992 Olympics far better than I could (of course), and you should all watch the film. That being said, I will do my best to paint you a picture.

In 1988, the Soviet Union competed in their last Summer Olympics. With a team of twelve, consisting of 4 Lithuanians, 3 Ukrainians, 1 Estonian, 1 Latvian, 1 Uzbek, and only 2 Russians, the Soviet team conquered the Olympic men's basketball tournament. They defeated the United States in semi-final play, 82-76, defeated Yugoslavia in the final, and clenched their second-ever gold medal in men's basketball. Ten members of the team, from Soviet-occupied nations, were compelled to play for a regime which had oppressed their people and their homeland since well before they were born. While they were undoubtedly proud of their talent and teamwork, it must have been with mixed emotions that they stood on the medal stand, before the world, and paid tribute to the national anthem of the Soviet Union. In their hearts, maybe they each paid tribute to their own country instead, dreaming of a day when they could glorify their own free people. For the four Lithuanians the road would be hard, but they would not have to wait long.

So here comes the crash course in Lithuanian independence. As you may know, the policies of Gorbachev (glasnost and perestroika), sent deep tremors though the foundations of the Soviet regime in the late 1980s. In 1987, the first non-criminal political protests took place in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and by 1988 huge rallies led by Lithuanian citizen groups were demanding radical reform. That year, one of the stars of the 1988 Olympics Soviet team, Sarunas Marciulionis, was allowed to be drafted by the Golden State Warriors and become the first European with a regular slot in the NBA. In 1989, Pro-independence groups organized a massive human chain connecting the three Baltic capitals (Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn), in which two million Baltic people took a place on the line. Over 25 percent of the entire regional population joined hands in a message of independence in one amazing and powerful moment.

In 1990, Lithuania was permitted to hold free democratic elections, and you can guess the result. In the new parliament's first session, the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian SSR became the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania, and Lithuanian independence was formally declared. After a few violent interjections by a withering Soviet government, Lithuania was formally recognized as an independent state by the international community and admitted into the United Nations in September 1991.

The Republic of Lithuania, having not officially existed since 1940, was now a free and democratic country - and it was completely broke. The new capitalist economy was struggling, and there was simply no money for a competitive national basketball team. The four star Lithuanian players of the 1988 Soviet gold-medal run were ready to play again - but they needed jerseys, travel money, and the basic funds to pay tournament entrance fees. Marciulionis, still in the USA playing for Golden State, began raising money on his own, a few hundred dollars at a time, by making appearances at private gatherings in the Bay Area. When a local newspaper published a story on his quest however, his fundraising days were over. The team's salvation came from some of the most unlikely and memorable investors the game of basketball ever had - the bandmembers of "The Grateful Dead". Huge basketball fans themselves, they jumped at the opportunity to sponsor a team of their own; not just any team, but the first basketball team of the free nation of Lithuania, who defied the Soviets and struck out on their own. Soon Marciulionis was headed back to his homeland with a check, handed to him backstage of a Grateful Dead concert, to enter the qualifying tournament of the 1992 Summer Olympics. The team's new warm-ups would appear in the mail soon after. (see below)

Four years after donning the red uniform, the Lithuanians were back in the Olympics wearing their own green, red, and yellow jerseys. Led by basketball phenomena Markevicius and Arvydas Sabonis, the upstart team made a Cinderella run to the semi-final round, where they faced arguably the greatest basketball team ever assembled - the United States "Dream Team". Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, and several other all-star professional players had recently won the right to participate in the Olympics (and the rest of the world didn't stand a chance). "The Other Dream Team" lost to the "Dream Team", 76-127. After the game, the guys from Lithuania were too busy shaking hands with their basketball heroes to worry too much about the score. They had a good run after all, and ahead of them was still the most influential game of their lives.

In the Bronze medal round the Lithuanians faced their old Soviet familiars, operating under the title of the "Commonwealth of Independent States" (CIS). They had faced-off in the preliminary round and the CIS had won, but now the stakes were infinitely higher. For the new nation it was way more than a basketball game or an Olympic medal. It was more than a chance to validate themselves on the world stage. The game was chance for Lithuania to cast out the demons of their troubled past. As the Lithuanian president watched and screamed from the sidelines, and millions around the world screamed beside him, the teams waged war for four quarters. Lithuania was only just ahead 82-78 when the buzzer rang, and they held their heads in joy and disbelief. On the medal stand, a strong contrast could be made between the stoic American Dream Team and "those other guys". The Lithuanians took their time making a way to their platform, too overwhelmed with emotion to maintain any semblance of order, wearing those iconic tie-dye warm-ups (which had become the must-buy item of the '92 Olympic Games). They wore those Bronze medals as true champions would, and the world cheered as a young country forged their new national identity.

The members of the Other Dream Team can still hear the roar of the crowd, and talking about that moment brought tears to the eyes of every single player interviewed for the documentary. A few members and contributors of the original team made an appearance for the premiere that I attended, and they took a stand in the crowded theater to face thunderous applause. The President of Lithuania was there as well, but somehow you could tell who the real superstars were (In part because they stood two feet over the rest of us). The occasion was simply another emotional and uplifting evening that I have shared with the people of Lithuania - listening to the amazing story of a humble basketball team that this country will never forget.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dedicating a September 11th Memorial

It is early September in Vilnius, and the first hint of Fall is in the air. I have only been here for two weeks, but I've been told that the weather is at its most perfect during this time of the year. After evenings of wandering in Old Town Vilnius under a warm clear sky, I am inclined to believe it.

The evening of September 11, this year, happened to be one of these perfect late-summer moments, which I enjoyed in a truly unique place - the Hill of Crosses outside of the small city of Siauliai. A member of Seimas (parliament) from the region, Dr. Egidijus Vareikis, had organized a special dedication of two crosses erected in memory of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy. He had invited members of the American Embassy in Vilnius to make the trip out to Siauliai for the dedication, and Edgaras (one of the local interns) and I were happy to go.

The Hill of Crosses is a landmark unique to Lithuania and the people's rich history of Christianity. It dates back many hundreds of years to when people first started planting crosses on the small hill outside of town, as prayers and symbols of hope and remembrance. The number of crosses grew over the years, as did the place's legendary and holy status. In Soviet times, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the hill was bulldozed on several occasions by the Soviet government. People were arrested for planting crosses on the site, but small symbols of hope still appeared.

Today there are no restrictions or organization of the site whatsoever. The hill is covered in more than 100,000 crosses, of all sizes. Many are wonderful pieces of artwork, handcarved or painted, and a few are towering monuments of Christian faith. In the sprawling collection of crosses and crucifixes, a single wood-plank pathway makes its way up one side of the hill and down the other. From this path you can see small walkways, like game trails, worn into the landscape by thousands of people searching for a place to plant their contribution.

For anybody who travels here, regardless of religious faith or background, it is a moving experience. It is a intimate place, a look inside the heart of the Lithuanian people, which made the 9/11 event particularly special. The two very large memorial crosses had been set at the absolute top of the hill, on either side of the main trail. On the side of each there was placed a small plaque, announcing to any curious person that these crosses were for the United States, to remember their terrible loss. For me - standing in a place dedicated to people who have suffered for so many years, in a country that has experienced astonishing tragedy - the idea that these people cared enough to erect these monuments, which tower over their beautiful sanctuary, was truly humbling.

The ceremony was short and sweet. As the sun set, about 30 people gathered along the path, facing a microphone at the hilltop. Dr. Vareikis spoke a few words and a Father from the local parish gave a prayer, blessing the crosses with holy water. I was then asked to address the group, and stepped forward to thank them. In a few short sentences I tried to convey the feeling of thanks and humility that I felt, and to the few people who spoke English I hope that the message got across. After I was done speaking, a musician took the podium to play a song he wrote for the occasion. He strummed an acoustic guitar and Lithuanian words rang out in a true American country music style. It fit the ceremony very well.

Edgaras and I hung around just a little while after the ceremony was concluded, to thank  Dr. Egidijus Vareikis for inviting members of the America Embassy, and to shake hands with many others who had attended. A local television news station even asked me for a short interview, and I got a second opportunity to express my thanks to the people of that region (in English, for what it was worth). We took a final walk around the site, snapping photos for my and Edgaras' Facebook pages, and we were ready to go.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


For our first full weekend in Lithuania, J.T., Domenico, and I (aka the new American interns) went to Trakai with some of the diplomats from the Embassy.  Trakai is a city steeped in medieval history and dotted with lakes—and since it’s only about a half-hour car ride from Vilnius, it’s a popular lake resort too.  There’s evidence to suggest that Trakai has been settled since the first millennium AD, and during the reign of Vytautas the Great Trakai was the center of activity in the Lithuanian empire.  Once Vilnius began to grow, Trakai slowly lost its significance and was destroyed by the Cossacks during the 1655 invasion.  Still, even the ruins of Trakai served as a symbol of the national revival of the nineteenth century, and the city was never forgotten.  Ironically enough, it was under Soviet rule in the 1950’s when it was announced that the city would be rebuilt and restored—and it is because of these improvements that Trakai is the cultural attraction we see today.

Our first stop in Trakai was the Trakai Island Castle, built during the rule of Vytautas the Great (known as a national hero) and restored in 1987.  A long wooden footbridge connects the island on which the castle rests to the shore, and boats of all kinds are available to rent for use on Lake Galvė in between.  There’s a path that covers the circumference of the island, and a path to take into the castle—complete with a moat and bridge.  The castle is huge and houses a history museum that displays everything from clothes to medieval armor, most of which is older than America! (No big deal, right?)   You can climb all the way up to the Ducal Palace’s keep, which is 100 feet high and gives a great view of the rest of the castle as well as the lake surrounding it.  In one section of the castle there was even a contemporary art exhibit, an example that I think symbolizes Lithuania perfectly: the place boasts modern ingenuity even within its famed rustic historical exterior.

Next, we returned to the shore and walked along the main streets of the city.  Here, the multicultural nature of the town is seen in the types of restaurants we saw—with foods inspired by communities of Lithuanians, Polish, Russians, Tartars, and Karaims.  All of it looked good, and we were all hungry!  Cultural influences can be seen by looking at the construction of things as well; for example, in many areas that were settled by Karaim, the buildings have three windows that face the street, a popular tradition for the community.
Our last stop was the Medieval Festival held at the old Trakai Peninsula Castle right nearby.  We had to rush to the fair after eating because the guys wanted to catch the last of the battle reenactments.  It’s funny to think about though, because here these duels are like our Civil War reenactments at home—they’re not scripted to look like something out of a movie, but instead are actually a part of the history and culture of the country.  At this fair, the “soldiers” were actually beating each other with axes and shields (something JT and Domenico found really amusing) which made it more like a history lesson and less like Disneyland.  In the meantime, we also got to look at all of the traditional handcrafted goods for sale and more, you guessed it, food.  In the center of the fair we found a couple guys pushing an archaic-looking wooden horse in a circle for kids to ride—but Domenico and JT wanted to ride too.  The guys working the ride laughed when JT and Domenico paid, and I can’t say what was more amusing: watching them ride a horse made for kids under the age of ten or watching everyone else at the fair’s reaction.

All in all, it was a really nice visit, and I think that the pictures alone would make the trip worthwhile!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Makaiya: "Lab’ukas!"

So, I want to introduce myself:  I’m a senior at New York University studying Human Rights and Literature – although I’ve taken this semester off to intern for the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania.  In preparing to come here, it was a bit of a challenge to find English information about Lithuania, so I wanted to write a bit down, in hopes that any potential travelers can pick up a few tips.

When I first flew into Vilnius, I remember being a little shocked.  I looked out the plane window and saw this flat landscape, stretching for miles and miles, with SNOW absolutely everywhere.  Then I got off the plane, actually felt how cold it was outside – when I left my hometown it was 26º Celsius (78 º Fahrenheit); when I arrived in Vilnius, it was -8º (17 º Fahrenheit).  This past winter, weather got as low as -30 ºC (-22 ºF)!

Needless to say, I’ve gotten used to the weather here and now, seven weeks later, I am completely, utterly, head-over-heels in love with Lithuania.  Yes, the snow can be daunting at first, but it can turn this city into such a beautiful wonderland.  (Just remember to layer!)  I’m looking forward to warmer weather, too.  I hear that Vilnius really comes alive sometime during late spring and that the Old Town (the old part of Vilnius) suddenly fills up with people strolling around, and eating at outdoor cafes.

For any potential visitors to Vilnius, I would recommend Gediminos Prospektas, which is basically the epicenter of Vilnius.  It’s a beautiful, historic street running through Old Town.  (On February 16th, one of Lithuania’s Independence Days, 16 bonfires lined this street in celebration, and groups of Lithuanians were gathered around them, singing Lithuanian folk songs.  If you’re around Vilnius during that time, you should definitely go.)  Also, there are some great coffee shops along Gedimino.  My favorite thing to have is the “Winnie-the-Pooh” at Coffee Inn.  It’s a latte with honey!  Yum. Plus Coffee Inn is a cool little place that’s always full of students, and local artists have their work up.  It’s a chain, and sometimes the bigger venues even have musical performances.

Lithuanian food is pretty great.  There’s this great desert called šakotis, which you’ll see everywhere, it’s this big spiked cone of a cookie, basically.  And you should definitely try the kepta duona (fried bread with garlic and cheese), gira (a Lithuanian drink made out of fermented bread), and kibinai (a pastry with meat inside.  Technically, it’s not from Lithuania, but the Lithuanians seem to have perfected them!).  If you’re feeling a bit healthier, I’ve found the seafood and salads here to have been consistently amazing.


Ellen: "Labas! Hello!"

My name is Ellen and I am currently interning for the US Department of State at the embassy in Vilnius.  I have already been in Lithuania for almost 7 weeks and only have 3 weeks left until I’m back home in the States.

If you want to know a little bit about myself, here are some quick bullet points!
- I am 21 years old.
-  I was born and raised in the Southeastern part of Virginia right by the beach, but I now attend a university in Northern Virginia (NoVa for short) about 20 minutes outside of Washington, D.C.
- When I return home I’ll be entering my last year of college.  Wow, how the time flies!  It’s weird to think about.  I’m definitely not ready to graduate yet!
At school I study History – mainly European, but I’ve also taken several courses in U.S. history and some in non-Western history.
- This is not my first time in Europe; I’ve been to Germany, Poland, and Hungary.  It is, however, my first time to Lithuania and to the Baltic’s!  Since coming here I’ve gotten to see Riga, Latvia.

I was excited to find out that I would be interning in Lithuania.  If not for this opportunity, I do not know if I would have ever made it to this part of the globe.  For a history major, I was disappointed in how little I actually knew about Lithuania, but being able to see and learn, in person, about a country with such a rich and proud history has been an experience that I never would have been able to receive from pages in a textbook.  

Although this is the first time that I have been to Lithuania, it is not the first encounter I’ve had with Lithuanians.  The school that I attended from the 1st-12th grade used to receive several Lithuanian exchange students.  Before I even knew about the popularity of the sport here, this is where I began to associate Lithuania with basketball.  Our Lithuanian exchange students ALWAYS played on our basketball teams, and the majority of the time, we would win!  Several of them even continued on to play basketball at different U.S. universities!

One event in Vilnius that left me speechless was the Kaziukas Fair.  We have festivals in Virginia and across the rest of the United States, but I have never witnessed anything to this extent. 

People came from across Lithuania, the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, and other locations just to shop at the fair.  Another intern and I ventured to Gedimino in the early afternoon thinking that we would be able to casually walk around and look at each booth.  If you’ve been to the Kaziukas Fair, you know that’s impossible.  

Walking room is limited because of the sheer amount of people in attendance, and if you stand still for too long, you’ll probably get pushed around, not because someone is dying to get you to move, but because the Kaziukas Fair is like river - the current is constantly sweeping you forward.  I can’t think of anything comparable in the United States.  We eventually managed to stop and find souvenirs for friends and family back home.

I think that’s all for now, but please let me know what you are interested in hearing about, whether it is life in America or what I have experienced, so far, in Lithuania!