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.