Thursday, 31 January 2013

Global Connectivity (Eric Schmidt)

These are some selective notes from an excellent talk given by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google. (January, 2013) The full talk (excluding audience questions) may be seen here.

It's amazing to think that Cambridge University was founded almost two and a half centuries before even the printing presses were invented. As an institution, it has lived through great changes, and its success owes both to its stability as well as to its adapting to that change. Greater connectivity comes with enormous benefits and unprecedented opportunities for human progress, yet it is also associated with all the major challenges of the current age: (1) low-flying backyard drones, (2) robot stole my job, (3) no privacy, and (4) too many choices.

There are still 5 billion people in the world today who are not connected to the internet, but they will be over the next five to seven years. Who are they? Many of you might know of Google's 20% rule that anyone who works at Google gets to spend 20% of their time working on projects that inspire them. My project was to meet these future 5 billion users. I have travelled to North Korea, South Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Pakistan. One of the problems of these countries is unreliable electricity, but soon there will be mobile phones which can be charged by the movement of one's shoes upon the ground. As an example of the benefits of this connectivity, it means that someone in Rwanda can check if a medicine is in stock before walking to the store. This may not seem like a big deal, but when it's a ten-mile walk to the nearest pharmacy, for sure it's a big deal. Another example is Congolese fishermen who can link up with buyers to avoid later throwing away catch no-one wants. Another is the mapping out of safe-routes in danger-zones. Connectivity is highly valued. Where it is taken away, communities revolt.

It is telling that while mobile services have spread widely, authoritarian governments have been reluctant and slow at turning on the data services. Even the worst regimes can be influenced by shame when corruption and abuse are exposed. It is connectivity of data that empowers citizens as we saw in the Arab spring. There is a risk however that public documentation may invite retribution outside the law. Information alone is not enough. It can be like a perfect mirror, but it still needs human institutions of justice, police and military for proper enforcement. In Mexico, the last thing many victims of crime want to do is to report it to the police because of the fear of their links to a criminal underworld. So technology is being used for anonymous reporting of crimes. We have a face-off between compromised humans and compromised technology. Who will win? My hope and expectation is that technology will win out.

I can imagine a time when there is a delegation of powers between computers and humans, between observation and diagnosis, and judgment and enforcement. The pressures of automation are huge. They threaten low-skilled jobs, even in poor nations! The answer is education. Education is highly correlated with connectivity, especially women's education. The infrastructure of connectivity is the most valuable investment a country can make to help citizens advance themselves.

This is not to under-estimate the problems of advancing connectivity which I began with. Technology empowers individuals, but it empowers states also. Anonymous identities can protect informers against corruption, but it can also be used as a cover for crime. But my contention is that no country is worse because of the internet, and that to every problem we can find solutions. The online world is a whole new space, interacting with but separate from the real world, with greater flow of information, but also greater detection and record-keeping. This possibility for information to exist in perpetuity poses a problem for both states and individuals. As well as the need for high-level encryption, the answer is again education. Information wants to be free, and as the adage goes, don't say or post anything that you wouldn't want printed in the media. In the future, this will include also accountability to the websites we visit, those we include in our networks and what we "like". In the case of our children, I think it will mean that parents will have to have the "online privacy talk" before the "sex talk".

In response to the problem of entrancement that we may see in our children when using technology, it's important to remember: there is still an off-button! And also, this entrancement is not all negative. It is likely to adapt parts of the brain that enable us to process large quantities of data and to enhance our abilities to imagine an alternative reality. Darwin's theory is not the survival of the fittest or of the strongest, but of those most able to adapt to the challenges the new technology will bring. There will still always be a need for deep reading, and for talking to each other. And this is what universities like this are for. It's very refreshing to talk to you and to have you all actually listen to me, while at Google my audience sit glued to their laptops. Thank you!

In summary: Education, Encryption, Deep-Thinking, Accountability & Embrace Change. It's what makes us human.  

Thought-provoking stuff!

Give me some Bob Marley redemption songs...

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Inner Peace — Keep Going

This is based on a dhamma talk by Ato Rinpoche.

In 1959 I took refuge. When I returned to my homeland in 1985, I was presented with my monk's robes. By then I was no longer a monk, so I had to refuse them. The person who had saved them for so long burst out into tears. Couldn't I just wear them anyway? I said I couldn't. Monk's robes are only for monks. I think it's right to keep the distinction between monks and lay people and not mix things up. So I took only those clothes which were not specifically for monks, and after a while he was persuaded that this was right. What is appropriate dress for a teacher? Although it doesn't matter, people are very visual especially children, so to keep others happy and inspire confidence in those whose eyes take precedence over their minds, it is better for me not to wear jeans and a grey anorak, but not monk's robes either. So I wear these robes. First living in Tibet, then India, and now in the West, we learn a lot living in different countries and have to accept a lot. This question of appropriate dress I have come to learn.

It is good to see such a broad range of people here, including those who are not Buddhist. Becoming Buddhist is not some kind of a magic pill. You need hard work to develop non-attachment, and to manage well your individual life. Maybe you have made a new year's resolution. But how do you make a new year's resolution? Last year is the past, it's not worth going back. Next year is not yet, so not to worry too much — plan, but leave it alone. Most of the focus is on this year. Think what positive things you did last year, and try to develop them. Think what negative things, and try to lessen them — without guilt about it. Be honest with yourself. This is very important. I might wear special clothes, but I am not special. I am human. No-one is perfect. Keep going. 

Meditate in order to change old habits, to clear away the dust of the mind, and to reduce useless thoughts and emotions. Not wishing too much, not doubting too much, leave things alone. Samatha meditation is about becoming aware of the hundreds of thousands of thoughts which otherwise fill our minds without our even realising it, that overwhelm us without our knowing it. There are lots of advanced meditation techniques: vipassana, one-pointedness and so on, but these all arise in the perfection of breath-awareness samatha meditation.  Relax one second for inner peace, and repeat. If you don't repeat, then you won't become aware. Whatever you are doing — walking, cooking, cleaning the house — relax one second, and repeat. Just like when you go in the underground, the announcer keeps repeating "mind the gap". I love this! Keep repeating. Don't forget! We mustn't forget ourselves to develop the gap, to repeatedly "mind the gap". Repeating, then gradually there is lots of benefit, and we can change our habits.

We are born into busy lives, learning how to walk and talk and everything we do our parents find wonderful. Then, when we grow older, they want us to keep still and keep quiet. So conflicting! How then to recognise what is positive and what is not? By example! I cannot see my own face. I need a clear mirror. In the spiritual social life, others are mirrors. We see and learn from the example of others. Then we look inwards and see in our own mirror. This is why we need honesty with ourselves. Whatever we talk about, it is worth trying. Keep going, never give up, especially the spiritual side. The connection to devotion is very important — something you believe in, something you trust. My daughter was making a website for me, and she asked what teaching I could put up. I follow the example of my teacher and asked for the prayer to the mother. We must develop compassion and caring, not only to the mother, or some other individual, but to all sentient beings, even compassion for ourselves, or we let ourselves down. Compassion without limit. Not "I must do", but "whatever we can". Even if I die tomorrow, it is worth learning something today. It is not easy. It's difficult, but keep it going. The mind thinks it's impossible, but it's possible. It is worth trying it. Never give up.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Fight or Flight

Fight or Flight

You and I have two things in common:
We are both pawns in the hands of death,
And we are both living yet, not sensing
What might lie upon the shadow side
Of a subconscious we partly share.

And it is because we cherish life
That we wake from slumber and cry out
To Death's cold hand, with warm hearts pleading,
"May we not stay yet a while? What counsel
Can you give this mortal coil afire?"

Death, that silent master of the dark,
Speaks in riddles to the shadow mind,
That subconscious world we cannot feel
And can never know except through signs,
So the left ear listens and the right pays heed.


Painting: 'The Beloved' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Desiderata of Max Ehrmann & The Art of Marie Stillman

Art of the female Pre-Raphaelite painter Marie Euphrosyne Spartali Stillman (1844-1927). The year she died is also the year Max Ehrmann wrote his most famous poem 'Desiderata', read here in the background. The music is the gypsy beat of 'Mahalageasca' by Mahala Rai Banda.



Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.