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88 Hours for The Philippines

Kumusta (hello) from Cebu!

On November 8, Super typhoon Haiyan, (known as Yolanda locally) struck the Philippines and was probably the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land anywhere in the world in recorded history. More than 6000 people have perished and nearly 2000 people are still missing. More than three million people lost their homes to either Haiyan’s 315 kilometres per hour winds or tsunami-like storm surges, and survivors desperately need food aid and shelter.

My friend Julie and I have just arrived to the Philippines to volunteer in the relief efforts. We each hope to contribute about 88 hours of volunteer work, and while we know this is just a drop in the ocean of this terrible disaster, we hope to make a small but positive impact for those who have lost so much.

We want to do more, and we invite you to join us by making a donation to support the relief efforts.

All Hands Volunteers is an international non-profit organization which provides hands-on assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world. By supporting volunteers with housing, meals, tools, and organized work at no charge they provide free and effective response services to communities in need.

Please click here to donate directly to All Hands Volunteers.

With gratitude,
Deej

P.S. This will be my fourth time volunteering with All Hands. My experiences in Haiti and Japan convinced me that All Hands Volunteers operates as a very lean and community-focused organization that I can endorse wholeheartedly!

Sleepless in Switzerland

One sweltering late July evening, a bat flew into my bedroom. I managed to dash out (but left my iPhone, iPad and laptop all on my desk) and close my bedroom door behind me, (hopefully) trapping the bat. It was 3am, too late to call the landlord (not that I had access to my phone) so I paced the hallway for about an hour, wondering if Romania (home to Dracula, natch) was very far from Switzerland?

I went back in the next day; armed with rubber yellow dish-washing gloves, a wooden spoon and a chinois. I gingerly poked the curtains with the wooden spoon, and seeing no sign of the winged beast, closed the window shut, grabbed my phone, and ran back out again, slamming the door behind me.

I spent the next two nights on my couch, sleepless and suffocating. When that I realized there were zillions of bats living in the church bell tower next door, I thought; no way am I opening an American B&B for the little devils to feast upon, so I closed up every window and door at sunset, and became somewhat delirious due to lack of sleep from the heat. I obsessed over whether the bat might still be in my bedroom, or worse- somewhere else- inside my apartment.

The third night, I finally passed out, only to be shook awake at 4 AM by a huge boom. I staggered to the balcony door and peeked outside. The street light showed the rain was coming down hard, with thunder and lightning echoing all around. The drop in temperature was lovely and so refreshing. It was the best I had felt in three days, until I felt it raining on my head. Inside my apartment, with every window and door closed. Huh? Also, there was a sick, sweet smell of death. I panicked. Had the storm flooded my building? Did the sick, sweet smell have anything to do with bats?

I finally realized that a gourd (real, not decorative, as it turned out) had exploded, and was dripping its guts and oozing fermented squash liquid from the top of my bookcase all over me, my beloved books and my white sofa. The amount of liquid it contained was amazing, and I nearly vomited from the smell. I spent the next two (gag-inducing) hours cleaning up, salvaging books and doing laundry. I had to leave every window and door open for weeks before the smell went away.

The moral of the story: barometric pressure is far more scary than a little lost fruit bat.

Happy Summer!

Untold

Bobbette Buster, a mentor and friend, has just published her first book, Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listensI’m honored that a part of my story is captured so gracefully in her book, even if I choked and couldn’t tell it for myself. Seeing this moment of my life in print, and with such good company, has given me a small dose of courage to share another story that I also haven’t been able to tell, until now.

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I’m holding three children, all at once, in my arms. Each clinging to me with vice grip strength that seems impossible for their tiny, malnourished bodies. Two more little ones sit at my feet and hold on to my legs, and the older girls fuss around me, braiding my hair and touching my pale, freckled arms. One little girl, Betina, holds my gaze with her huge, sad eyes and searches my face for answers that I know I will never be able to give her. Her head is disproportionately larger than her tiny body. I feel myself on the verge of breaking down when someone on my team, far more experienced than I, begins blasting music on her cell phone. The kids perk up and everyone goes crazy, singing and dancing  the “Waka Waka” – a fabulously catchy song by Shakira. We play it over and over endlessly and it’s a welcome distraction for everyone.

The Baby Orphanage, as it’s called, had around fifteen children before the earthquake, and now there are over thirty, with new arrivals coming every week. It’s nearly impossible for the staff to know if a child is an actual orphan, or if the parents simply can not care for them anymore, which is a gut-wrenching thought, given the conditions at the orphanage. They have no access to clean water. The kids all have parasites, which give them distended bellies and awful stomach pains. They often get just one meal a day, a portion of gloppy porridge served on an old frisbee or in a tin cup. Meal time is controlled chaos. There are no high-chairs or even a dining table, so when the toddlers are handed their portion, they scatter about the yard, some gobbling quickly as possible, others running off to various corners to guard their small meal. Betina insists I feed her, guiding the spoon with her little hand firmly on mine, her eyes staring at me the entire time. A scrawny boy, suffering badly from ringworm, is desperately trying to scramble his way up onto my lap. Betina takes my hand and offers him her spoonful. I am stunned by her generosity, and  give her big hug and kiss on the cheek.  She doesn’t smile- not one tiny bit- but her big, sad eyes grow wider and brighten a little. It seems that Betina, like all the kids at the orphanage, is most hungry for love and affection.

I think about the training we received prior to entering the small orphanage, and keep reminding myself of the instructions. 

Don’t hold on to any one child for more than a few minutes. Try to move around and give your attention to as many kids as possible. Whatever you do, don’t fall apart in front of the kids

After a few moments, I take a deep breath and, literally, pry Betina and other kids off my lap and gently set them on the ground. Betina tries again and again to attach herself to me, until one of the staff pulls her away. I venture back into the baby room, scanning the rows and rows of cribs, and what we jokingly call “baby cages”. Some of the babies are screaming and some are motionless, eyes open, staring blankly into space. I scoop three new little ones for a cuddle until it’s time to start the process of detaching six tiny octopus arms all over again.

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Five moths later, I find myself in Ofunato, Japan, working with the same volunteer organization as in Haiti.  The scope and power of the tsunami is unfathomable. Everything is smashed into bits, except when, randomly and inexplicably, it isn’t. A massive boat was flung from the sea, and crashed into the second story of a house, hundreds of feet from the coastline. My team is assigned to help a man trying to salvage his home, or so we think. The wood work was incredible, and we strip away the flooded drywall and insulation down to the studs. We work together all day, and in the afternoon, a nephew arrives. He tells us the home actually belonged to the man’s twin brother and his wife. They, along with the man’s father, were lost in the tsunami. The nephew shares how the man had built the house with his own hands, as a wedding present to his brother. Japan is a rich nation, but there’s no comparing human suffering and tragedy. I think of the survivors grace and dignity and tell myself; whatever you do, don’t fall apart.

The town loudspeaker signals the end of the day by playing “Yesterday” by John Lennon.

We stack our tools in the wheelbarrow and the man profusely thanks us, bowing, pressing candy and sweets into our hands.

———–

Later that night, I fall apart.

The 44 Year Old Virgin

I was always a bit jealous of friends who knew their calling at young age. “I’m going to be a fireman when I grow up!” Not me. I floundered. I had vague ideas about being a journalist for National Geographic, but I had no clue how to get started down such a path. It seems impossible now, but growing up in my small town, I really thought career options for women were limited to teacher, nurse or secretary – all which I considered noble professions, but nothing really excited me. Not knowing what to do with my life left me with a strange, deep sadness. It was like desperately wanting to fall in love, but not being attracted to anyone.

It took me a long time, 42 years to be exact, to find my purpose. But just like finding true love, it struck me like a lightning bolt and I became willing to take big risks in order to follow my passion. Now, knowing my purpose is a huge relief in itself, but that doesn’t mean things get easier. Today, I am starving student, living off my life savings and the tiny paycheck I get at working part-time at a wonderful, lean, results-driven NGO based here in Geneva.

I am just beginning to learn the skills needed in my newly chosen field, and am immensely grateful for the opportunity, but basically I am a 44 year-old intern. The rookie. A fumbling-clumsy-inexperienced newbie. It’s humbling, but I am excited to go to work every single day! I want to shout from the mountain tops and that deep feeling of sadness has been replaced with something better than I imagined: warm contentment and knowing, that even though I sometimes struggle, I am on the right path, finally. Blissfully. Finally.

My career wilderness years were uncomfortable; I failed a lot and often lacked motivation. Even though I had success at times, I never felt like I was living up to my potential. I buried that deep feeling of sadness, trying not to ask myself any tough questions, until I finally couldn’t take it anymore.

For those who are just starting out or, like me, wondering how to start over, I think it’s good to embrace being uncomfortable, even if you are naturally quite good at what you are currently doing. Being uncomfortable pushes you to make changes and will open doors you can’t believe. The opposite would be to settle, and no joy ever came from accepting less that you what can possibly be. If you haven’t found your purpose, keep looking! Try new things. Volunteer. Moonlight. Invent. New fields and opportunities are emerging every day. Your dream job might not even exist yet.

The legendary Julie Andrews delivered a wonderful commencement speech to graduating class of 2013 and, as usual, she has the best advice:

The best thing for being sad, is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn. – T.H. White, The Once and Future King

Improv Class: life lessons from a 92 year old up-and-comer

I called my firecracker Aunt Toodie to check in:

Me: I hear you filmed a TV show?!
Aunt Toodie: The premiere is tonight! In Brentwood! At a mansion!
Me: wow, so this is a big deal?
Aunt Toodie: It’s just a pilot. Let’s see if it gets picked up by one of the networks first. But if it is, the producers promised me a role.
Me: As what? What’s the plot?
Aunt Toodie: I’m the maid!
Me: Wait- they cast s 92-year-old maid?
Aunt Toodie: Yes, but you know I feel 43, so…
Me: haha! *uncomfortable pause as I sit up just a bit straighter*
Aunt Toodie: It’s called “The Vices”. I play the ‘nice’ one! Everyone else is horrible: the governor is a skirt-chaser, the wife is an alcoholic, the kids are selfish, the cook is mean.
Me: How did an up-and-comer like you you get this part?
Aunt Toodie: My improv coach recommended me. I’ve been taking improv classes for the past 1.5 years. I learned so much!
Me: wow, so what did improv teach you?
Aunt Toodie:
1) don’t judge others
2) wait until people respond
3) give people the benefit of doubt
4) watch how they treat people/situations before you react
5) rely on your instincts
6) be naïve
7) have fun!

“Up-and-comer”
Main Entry: up-and-comer
Part of Speech: noun
Definition: comer
Synonyms: VIP achiever affluential catalyst doer dynamo enterprising person entrepreneur generator go-getter heavy hitter heavyweight leader lightning rod man of influence mover palpable presence pathfinder player presence producer rising star spark plug trailblazer upstart wheeler and dealer whip

Me: Can we add “firecracker” to that list?!

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Hacker Diplomacy

Can a bunch of geeks sitting in their parent’s basement help solve world hunger? End illiteracy? Cure cancer? Bring faster, smarter, better disaster response? Advance gender equality? Fight terrorism? To some degree, they already do. With better access to open data, they could do a lot more. But why? And as (newly Swissed citizen) Tina Turner asked; “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”.

To understand just how much nerds love data, just take a look at the miracle of the free internet to understand why we all aren’t inserting coins into some payment device every time you check your email, like making an international call from a phone booth from the 1970s: The World Wide Web is 20 years old! It’s free and open to everyone!! Think about that. From the start, CERN researcher Tim Berners-Lee gave up all patent claims and royalty rights. Amazing. They wanted global adoption and to foster a culture of openness and innovation. Why? They did it for the love of knowledge.

“From research to business and education, the web has been reshaping the way we communicate, work, innovate and live. The web is a powerful example of the way that basic research benefits humankind.”

Yay, Nerds! Thank you!

Now, there’s a push to get governments, scientists and institutions to make their raw data openly available on the web. Researchers, educators and regular people interested in using data to solve some of the biggest challenges in the world are collaborating in new and interesting ways. Recently, the cities of San Francisco, Zürich and Geneva joined together to launch the “Urban Data Challenge” at Lift13, in an unprecedented bilateral, cross-border project to share transportation data from each city, something I (with a bit of tongue-in-cheek) called Hacker Diplomacy, but it’s no joke. Most hackers and scientists operate with a global view, driven by a straightforward interest in using data to solve problems, often without nationalistic barriers that politicians have to navigate. Unlike scientists and politicians, however, hackers are almost never paid and will spend untold hours on a problem set for which they will likely never will see any recognition or glory, outside of the hacker community. Why? Hackers simply love to use data to solve problems.

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Much like trying to grasp the value of the internet in 1989, we can’t yet imagine what solutions might come from Hacker Diplomacy, but we know for a fact that innovation is exponential, and by sharing data, we become more educated and adaptive. We also know that there are bad guys who use data to hurt innocent people, and others who target the vulnerable and those who feel disenfranchised. But there are amazing groups like Random Hacks of Kindness, who are already partnering with MSF/Doctors Without Borders to create new tools to help people caught up in natural disasters, wars and emergencies. Hacker Diplomacy is a legitimate resource for any government or organization willing to embrace transparency, share raw data and take time to understand…what’s love got to do with it…

In search of….Swissness

What does it take to become the #1 trusted brand in the world? To be the most environmentally friendly and innovative country on earth? To have the most Nobel laureates per capita and the highest quality of life? To answer these questions, one has to ask, “what does it mean to have Swissness?”

When one tiny country has that much going for it, the search for Swissness becomes almost mythic and can spawn strange theories and a bit of subjective humor. While other nations spend millions on fancy consultants to come up with splashy campaigns that try to instill elusive Swiss qualities into the collective consciousness, the Swiss just do what comes naturally. How did a previously poor people with limited natural resources rise to the top in so many ways?

Well, look no further, Fancy Consultants of the world. In my previous post, The 11 things Americans can learn from the Swiss, I attempted to highlight versions of “Swissness” in the lessons noted. Taking that a step further, I’ve analyzed dozens and dozens of TED and TEDx talks, and have curated the talks that best represent what Swissness really means. Take a look and let me know: what are your favorite TED and TEDx talks? What else captures Swissness to you?

1. Pioneers: hitch up your wagons, then throw everything overboard!

 

The Swiss know they must adapt to preserve. Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss adventurer, pilot and co-founder of Solar Impulse, is on a quest to achieve the first round-the-world solar airplane flight. He explains how to make the impossible quite possible: “If we want to change our trajectory in life, we have to change our altitude….Pioneers are not the one with new ideas. Real pioneers allow themselves to throw overboard old habits, certainty, convictions, paradigms, and dogmas.”

 

2. Idea Sex

 

Actually, an idea orgy. Whaa? Wait, wait- the Swiss speak publicly of sex? Here, the European Curator of TED global, Swiss-born Bruno Giussani, shares how open minds and new technology- in multiple languages – can create space to engage. And, yes, it’s exciting.

3. Precision over Pretense

 

In this great talk, successful Swiss entrepreneur Jesús Martin-Garcia explains why design trumps vision. He explains how, like opinions, everyone has a vision. On his key competitor: “We could have exchanged vision statements. The key difference was design.”

 

4. Prepare for Battle (and when to go to war)

 

Swiss people fighting? Yes- fervently and passionately, when it comes to conservation and our environment. Watch Vera Weber show how bio-diversity matters in our business and social values. “Nature is a global enterprise that we call bio-diversity. Nature is the best run business on this earth, and the riches and the wealthiest. She has power and is on top on everyone and everything.”

 

5. Join the Geneva Convention

 

Originally founded by five Genevois families, the ICRC was created to provide protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and strife. In his compelling talk, “No Scraps of Men”, the head of ICRC orthopaedic programmes in Afghanistan, Alberto Cairo reminds us; “Dignity can not wait for better times.”

No Stupid Questions: an interview with Stephen Hawking

They say there are no stupid questions, but if you ask 1000 people what’s the one question they might pose to the world’s most lauded physicist, I doubt many would have chosen to ask the brilliant mind of Dr. Stephen Hawking about Twitter, of all things. Stupid? Maybe. But I did. Here’s what happened.

The Who’s Who of physics, dressed in black tie attire, gathered in Geneva, Switzerland for the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony. Hosted by US actor Morgan Freeman (who humorously pointed out he had twice played god on screen), with concert pianist Denis Matsuev and singer Sarah Brightman both giving electric performances, the event had glamorous, formal elements of the Oscars, the Olympics and a Nobel Prize ceremony. Scientists were recognized for their work in string theory and pushing the boundaries of physics. The leaders of the LHC project, CMS and ATLAS experiments at CERN, based here in Switzerland, were recognized for their amazing discovery of the Higgs boson particle.

It was an exciting evening, but the biggest wow for many came when billionaire Yuri Milner presented the Special Fundamental Physics Prize (and a US $3 million cash award) to Stephen Hawking for his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe.

Dr. Hawking’s theories have been called audacious and, even confined to a wheelchair, he’s got some serious swagger. He wore a jaunty black and white dotted ascot and reveled in his peer’s raucous applause. He spoke, with his strangely lyrical computer synthesized voice, about his ongoing research and anticipation of future discoveries- this from a 70 year-old man suffering from a crippling, fatal-to-most disease; a neuro-muscular dystrophy known as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) that he’s battled since his early twenties. It was the metaphorical equivalent of smashing a guitar on stage at the end of a hot set.

Most scientists never feel the limelight, but Stephen Hawking is a genuine pop culture icon. He has fans, much like Albert Einstein did in his day. No doubt that if Einstein were alive today, he would have given his ok to have his character drawn up and spoofed on an episode of “The Simpsons” as Dr. Hawking has. Why? Because a large part of what has driven them both is to communicate and inspire the common person to become curious about the wonders of our universe.

“It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. Its a crazy world out there. Be curious.” – Stephen Hawking

Knowing he’d already been interviewed countless times about and god, aliens and the after-life, and also understanding that it would not be possible to ask questions that required more than a yes/no answer, when given opportunity to interview the preeminent scientific mind of our generation, I decided to go a bit gonzo. We were introduced, and he looked directly at me with his clear blue eyes.

Q: Professor Hawking, you’ve put a lot of effort into breaking complex ideas down into concepts the general public can understand, yet I noticed you aren’t really active on social media. Do you use social media at all?

A: No

At this point, one of his assistants politely interrupted, stating they had considered a Facebook page, but he was far busy for this kind of thing.

Q: You know that roughly 52% of the world’s population is under 30 years old and that about 75% of the world has a mobile phone, including those in developing nations. These young people might never have the opportunity to read your books, but they could learn from and be inspired by you- if you reach them though social media. (I pause, to take a nervous breath) So, I guess my question is: will you reconsider using social media?

Stephen Hawking looked me straight in the eye and held my gaze. Many long seconds ticked by and then,

A: Yes.

Author’s note: Currently, there are numerous faux Stephen Hawking accounts on Twitter and Facebook, many linking to his official website to make it seem legit, but don’t be fooled these social media black holes…for now, it’s only Rock ‘n Roll…

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Preaching to the Choir

“Sing it!” said The Preacher, passionately evoking the audience from the huge stage, while he strummed a guitar. We swayed to the rhythm and at the appropriate moment enthusiastically sang out the gospel: “Scooped! Scooooped!”

Scooped?

The Preacher was actually a mild-mannered science professor, Dr. Uri Alon, who was here to share his talk “What science can learn from improvisation theatre” at TEDxLausanne. Science and religion rarely mix, but in this case, the choir nodded along during Professor Alon’s talk and practically shouted hallelujah when he closed, sending his flock off with the message that “the moment you are in your deepest cloud of confusion is when you are closest to significant discovery.” Unless you get scooped, of course.

Amen.

You may have heard of TED or TEDx talks, as they’ve become incredibly popular in the past few years. TEDx events are independently organized full or half-day programs designed to share ideas through short talks with interesting speakers. TED initially stood for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but since has expanded to cover a plethora of topics from creativity to citizen diplomacy.

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Like most TED events, TEDxLausanne was a sell-out, the crowd eager to hear new ideas, have their assumptions challenged and meet like-minded folks during the networking breaks. The theme of TEDxLausanne was “What If We Do(n’t)” and the speaker list included a wonderfully electic mix of artists, entrepreneurs and entertainers. There was world-champion tap dancing, jazz, and a young spoken word poet that moved me to tears. Another speaker, Fabrice Leclerc, centered his compelling talk around the idea that business leaders must approach innovation as a holistic practice that connects basic human instinct in order to achieve commercial results. His message was esoteric, but in a completely believable way. You walk away from a talk like that agreeing whole-heartedly, but finding yourself wondering what the next steps actually are. This is the genius of TEDx. Local speakers inspire, energize and make you think about your own challenges and contributions. But inspiration can wane. You want to go back for more. Fortunately, like all good sermons, you can study the doctrine. Hundreds of TED and TEDx talks are available online to watch- for free.

Switzerland is a small country, yet there were 19 separate TEDx events in 2012 and currently ten planned for 2013. Whether you live in Geneva, Zürich or Martigny or work at CERN, there is an event for you. Now, I’m not able to prove that Switzerland has more TEDx events per capita than any other country, but I suspect it does. A quick search of the TEDx website supports my theory: South Sudan, which has slightly more people than Switzerland, had exactly one TEDx event in 2012 (not bad for a brand-new country!) and Israel, with slightly fewer people than Switzerland, currently has just one event currently scheduled for 2013.

Perhaps it’s Switzerland’s thirst for innovation. Perhaps it’s Switzerland’s multi-cultural population that thrives off these types of events.

Perhaps it’s just preaching to the choir.

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