Wednesday, June 16, 2010

IdeaCity, Toronto

Yesterday, I flew into Toronto, Canada for the IdeaCity conference. I would feel bad if I didn't do a bit of journaling, so here goes:

The flight in was fairly smooth. I'm impressed by Air Canada's services, both on the part of the flight crew and the inflight entertainment options. On most American airlines that I've flown on, you have to pay a surcharge to watch movies (especially those that are more recent); on Air Canada, I was able to watch fairly recent movies like Tooth Fairy and Invictus, free of charge. Unfortunately, the plane landed before I was able to finish Invictus (I got about three-fourths through it) but it was an interesting movie. I hadn't known a thing about rugby before watching it.

Landing in Toronto, we had to quickly finish our salmon-and-cream-cheese packed bagels (we didn't want to risk sneaking meat through Customs), and get used to the warm weather (the latter being far easier). The city has every aspect of urban modernity that you'd expect in a large city. I suppose I felt surprised that it wasn't more intrinsically Canadian, but then again, it wasn't as though I really thought everyone would be walking around with little maple leaves on their faces or something. I'm not sure what gives a city its identity; perhaps I felt that Paris was intrinsically French because they were speaking a different language, and there's not a hugely noticeable accent here.

This is the first day of the IdeaCity conference; it's been quite enjoyable. So far we must have seen dozens of speakers, with topics such as "The Decline of the Male" and "The Rise of the Female" (the first two sections, or pods, today). I'm completely exhausted at this point. One of my favourite speakers was Emily Levine; she was very comedic.

That's all for now, from Toronto!


Monday, June 14, 2010


TEDxRedmond is an event organized "by kids, for kids" in the Western Washington area. I'll be hosting the event. Taking place on September 18th, 2010, on Microsoft campus, all students in grades six through ten are welcome to apply at To learn more, watch a thirty-three-second "Host PSA":

Monday, June 07, 2010

On Academia vs. Business

I've always wanted to go into education, for many reasons--having an influence on the next generation, the fulfillment one gets out of teaching, etcetera--but another, perhaps less conscious reason, might be how very un-business-y the academic sector is. Of course there are big egos, giant ambitions, and plenty of politics, but at least there's one thing you can be sure of with most people who work in the "public sector"--they're not in it for the money. (Or at least the good ones aren't.)

As a case in point, take a look at the average yearly teacher's salary--it's in the measly range of thirty to forty thousand dollars, varying across school districts. Who in their right mind would accept 24/7 work with a bunch of customers who may not particularly want what you're selling? On the other hand, the profit margins in business can be huge. (Take a look at what some of those bankers on Wall Street are making.) Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, has now become infamous for his many gaffes, including a speech he gave to Stanford business students--pre-spill--where he said "We had too many people that were working to save the world [...] lost track of the fact that our primary purpose in life is to create value for our shareholders."

This quote, to me, sums up all that is wrong with business. Too many don't establish their companies to make the world a better place; they establish it to make money (and, as in the case of BP, they make the world worse off, in the process). When you found an organization to help the world, it's called a charity, not a business. You know that someone is really dedicated to helping the world when they don't make any money off of it. That said, non-profits and government don't provide perfect examples either. Indeed, it seems like they've taken the worst from both the worlds of private and public sectors. Take the oft-criticized Minerals Management Service (MMS) for an example. From what I hear, many of its employees have been hired from oil companies like BP--the companies the MMS should be cracking down on, not hiring from. Like those who go into business, too many go into government for the 3 P's (power, prestige, and profit) as opposed to "working to save the world"--which is what they should be doing in the first place.

When government and business interact, it seems to be good for everyone--everyone, that is, except for the average American citizen. What am I talking about? One word: Lobbying. The unfortunate strangle-hold that big industry has on the government's neck needs to loosen or fall away all together. People complain about nothing being done in the halls of government--maybe because there are too many profit-prestige-power-driven people walking around in them.

At the same time, governments and charities could learn a lot from the sleek efficiency that is the private sector's trademark. Visit some government offices and try to get something done--hurrah, guess what, there's a form for that, which will no doubt be processed, faxed, signed, faxed back, processed, stamped (you get the idea), in a process that will take several days, several weeks, several months, or even (in really bad cases) several years. There are many areas of government which have improved their efficiency, but many (such as the overwhelmed Veterans' Affairs offices) still have a long way to go.

Am I some anti-business Socialist anti-American? (Boy, I can hear the talk radio hosts having a field day already.) No. I believe that business is important--companies can have wonderful impacts in their communities. However, too often these impacts happen as part of marketing campaigns or as coincidences, and I look forward to a day where people don't start a company because they want to make gazillions in profits, or sell some newfangled product, or "create value for their shareholders." I look forward to a day where those things are merely side effects, when Tony Hayward is the exception, not the norm--and where "saving the world" becomes not a mere distraction, but our biggest goal.