Religion and science need not be at loggerheads

11 03 2013

Today is Commonwealth Day, which celebrates the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations whose values as expressed by the Commonwealth Charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health eduction food and shelter, gender equality, recognition of the importance of young people, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society.

Commonwealth Day is marked across the Commonwealth with multifaith services.  In the UK, these take place at Westminster Abbey and are attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In New Zealand these services take place at the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington, and are attended by the Governor General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae and commonwealth high commissioners, ambassadors as well as other dignitaries.

This year’s theme is Opportunity through Enterprise: unlocking potential with innovation and excellence. I was invited to speak representing New Zealand’s Jewish Community, and was allocated two minutes to do so. Here is what I said:


These days, in our high-tech world, it is unfashionable to be a religious person. The cool kids compare God to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or mockingly proclaim their religion as “Jedi” on the census form. They prefer to worship science.

The scientific method is arguably the most important development in human civilisation in the last 500 years. The cycle of hypothesis – experiment – analysis – conclusion has enabled ever accelerating expansion of the limits of knowledge and capabilities of the human species. But while science is the perfect descriptive tool and has strong application in predictive modelling, it is limited by our ability to perceive, measure, and imagine. Ignoring these limitations, unquestioning adherence to science amounts to worship.

Sam Arbesman in his recent book “The Half Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date” describes how this ever accelerating knowledge leads us to discard yesterday’s scientific facts as today’s historical curiosity. Knowledge, as such, is inherently uncertain.

Science can tell us within its limits, to great precision, of the way things are, but is silent on the way things should be. Enter religion. The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives. And as with science, we should continually and progressively question these values and the institutions that gave rise to them to ensure their validity and continued relevance.

Science and religion need not be at loggerheads. In fact, it is at the intersection of increasing knowledge and moral imperative where we find the most interesting opportunities for enterprise, particularly in the world of high-tech startups.

Collaborative consumption, democratisation through increased direct communication, reputation metrics, crowdsourced information repositories, and open education are all important Internet startup trends for this coming year, and all of them are creating value driven by bringing people together to do good together, as well as holding individuals and institutions accountable for their positive and negative contributions to society. And the further development of social enterprise holds promise for us to transcend the profit motive for the greater good of society and the planet.

We can be optimistic about our future. With average intelligence rising by 3.5% per decade, the global death rates due to violence and malnutrition at historical lows and falling, global life expectancy at an all time high and rising, we seem to be increasingly capable as a species of doing the right thing, improving ourselves and those around us.

So let’s work together to encourage, empower, and lend our moral compass to the next wave of entrepreneurs who will continue to make our world a better place.




The Big Idea: New Zealand’s real opportunity and challenge

15 01 2013

A decade is a very long time in the startup universe.

For New Zealand, the real opportunity and challenge is going to be to capitalise on the weightless economy, moving from more traditional physical commodities to producing valuable software, content, games, and other digital products.

That involves getting more closely connected on a person-to-person and business-to-business to the rest of the world. We need to find a balance between enjoying our isolation and participating and integrating with the rest of the world, whilst retaining our local integrity and character.

It won’t be easy, but it’s our collective job to make it happen.

See the full interview in The Big Idea




My message to the Israeli ambassador: Put down your weapons, and negotiate in good faith

13 12 2012

Last night, the Klezmer Rebs performed for the Hanukah party in Wellington’s Civic Square.  I felt particularly elated to be playing Klezmer music in the main square of my home town, a thriving multicultural city that has gone from strength to strength in the thirty years that I’ve called it home.  Props to our Mayor Celia Wade-Brown for inviting the Jewish Community to celebrate in the square.

The main organiser of the event was the Israeli Embassy.  I have never been happy with an embassy organising what is essentially a religious event, for complex reasons which will be articulated in a future blog post.

The Klezmer Rebs collectively, and I personally have been very uncomfortable with the recent actions of the Israeli government, and we feel that there has been no measurable progress toward a sustainable peace, due in significant part to a lack of leadership by the Israeli government.  So we took the opportunity to make a political statement directly to the Ambassador, Shemi Tzur, in our introduction to our medley of peace songs.  I wrote the statement, and the band helped me revise it.  Here’s what I said:

Mr Ambassador, I’m glad you implored people earlier today to pray for peace, but we need more than prayer – we need action.  Praying, singing and dancing for peace aren’t enough; bringing about peace, and overcoming decades of counterproductive attitudes and actions is very hard work and requires individual and collective leadership and commitment from everyone including the Israeli government.  The time has come to tell your Government to show that leadership, put down your weapons, and seriously negotiate in good faith to bring about peace.  Bombing civilians and building settlements on land whose ownership is in question is not good faith.  Fulfil the words of Isaiah, and show that Israel is called into righteousness as a light unto the nations.  The time is now.

Prior to making that statement, I called to Shemi by name from the stage to make sure he was paying attention.  He was standing directly in front of the PA, and I looked him in the eye as I made the statement.  Today’s DomPost ran an article on page 2 (print version only) entitled “Peace plea made to Israeli envoy at Hanukkah Concert”, which said that “… Mr Tzur said via a spokesman he had not heard the message and had no further comment”.  All I can say is that this is an indication that the Israeli government is either disingenuous, pathologically deaf, or both.

We feel it is important that the Ambassador and his government hear this message from Jews.  Many of us abhor the actions of the Israeli government, and feel that successive governments since 1967 have let down their citizens, the Jewish People, and the world through their inaction and lack of leadership to address the fundamental issues that need to be resolved to create a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Several people came up to me after the concert and congratulated me for the courage to make such a statement publicly.  Only one person approached me, my cousin, and admonished me for making political statements on behalf of the Jewish community at a public event. Nowhere had I purported to be making statements on behalf of anyone, other than myself and the band, but I do know that there a large segment of the local Jewish community agrees with the statement that I made.

We are at a turning point.  Some would say that we are beyond the point of no return, but I am a perennial optimist and know that with enough good will and political pressure, we can make real progress toward peace.  And if they can’t hear us, perhaps we need to turn the volume up.




What makes a good startup?

19 05 2012

After my stint on Radio New Zealand Saturday Morning with Kim Hill this morning, I was asked to provide a list of the attributes of what I consider to be a good startup.

You can listen to or download the audio:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here’s my shopping list of criteria for good startups:

1.  Market
a)   Global
b)   Clearly articulated market problem description
c)   Significant addressable market size
d)   Clearly identified market need (for the problem that is being solved)

2.  Team
a)  Has both sales and engineering
b)  Domain experience
c)  Clean capital structure (if any)
d)  Track record that demonstrates achievement and integrity
e)  Vision
f)  Passion
g)  2-3 People
h)  Pragmatic approach
i)   Articulate
j)   Coachable

3.  Product
a)   Web and/or mobile based
b)   Scalable
c)   Addresses significant pain
d)   Disruptive
e)   Simple
f)   Feeble competition
g)  Sound business model
h)  Capable of generating revenue quickly
i)   Can exploit network effect
j)   Novel and/or Freedom to Operate

Thanks to the RNZ team for a great on-air experience!

Keen to take your own idea for a spin?  Come along to Startup Weekend in Auckland (15-17 June) or Wellington (27-29 July) – I’ll be there facilitating, and you’ll meet some great people to collaborate with!




Digital Literacy at NetHui

11 07 2011

InternetNZ held NetHui this year, a multistakeholder conference in which we tried to take the Internet out of the server room and to the nation.  After all, just about everybody is a stakeholder in the Internet, and there are big opportunities to be uncovered in getting together to discuss how the Internet is governed and used.

There is plenty of information about the fantastic conference on the NetHui web site; for me the real highlight was Lawrence Lessig’s keynote in which he makes the empassioned plea for New Zealand, as a “high-functioning democracy”, to save America from itself, arguing that free information and checks against abuse of corporate power are critical to maintaining a free society.

One of the biggest surprises for me was the willingness of those present to explore alternative models to intellectual property protection, given a general disdain for current copyright and software patent law.  I hope to see some real progress in this area in the near future; my contribution to this initiative is to organise a Wellington Creative Commons Meetup where we can work together to explore positive change.

I played a small part in organising the conference, focusing on the Digital Literacy session of the Access and Diversity stream.

The session highlighted that there is a great gulf between those who believe that Digital Literacy is chiefly concerned with teaching underprivileged students how to drive Microsoft Office, and those who believe that it is the duty of our education system to teach people how to analyse information and use the broad range of online tools imaginatively, sensibly, and safely.

I hope to be involved in a full-day session later in the year exploring these issues further with practitioners in the field, encouraging the players to collaborate and work together toward shared goals.

Here is the content of the Digital Literacy session for your own viewing pleasure.




I was famous for fifteen seconds

3 07 2011

This year’s NetHui conference was full of unexpected delights, but this gave me the biggest (if shortest) shock -

Yes, I had finally achieved my lifelong ambition of being popular, even if only for fifteen seconds. Thank you, tweeps.




The Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language

24 06 2011

The Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) went live today at http://nzsl.vuw.ac.nz/

This online dictionary is the culmination of over twenty years of work, and I’m proud to say that I’ve been involved since the beginning.

The dictionary is an extensive resource for people who use or want to learn NZSL. Videos accompany line drawings and text to describe the signs. The site can be used as a monolingual dictionary (search for signs by their features, eg handshape, location etc) or a bilingual dictionary (search for signs by their corresponding English words). Explanations of NZSL grammar and usage as well as tutorial material appear in both NZSL and English.

One of the coolest features of the dictionary is the large corpus of usage examples that was collected for use in the dictionary. Each example sentence appears as a video, with glosses for each sign in the sentence along with an English translation of the sentence. Clicking on a gloss will take you to the entry for that particular sign. A tremendous amount of analysis work by the team went into collecting, videoing and glossing the usage examples. Aside from making using the dictionary useful for learning how signs are used in context and exploring unfamiliar signs in detail, I have no doubt that this linked corpus will form an indispensable resource for future linguistic analysis.

3months.com built a really lovely front-end (Rails) for my back-end Freelex (Perl / Catalyst / Postgres) system.

This work is a taonga which will be loved and habitually used by many people over the coming years.




InternetNZ Council Candidacy

23 06 2011

Last year, I was elected to the InternetNZ Council for a one-year term, as the result of the early resignation of Chris Streatfield. After one amazing but short year in office, I’m pleased to offer my services again as a councillor.

In the last year I have

  • Made significant contributions to the development of the Investment and Charitable Grants policies
  • Organised the NetHui session on Digital Literacy as part of the Access and Diversity stream
  • Encouraged a wider group of people from my diverse networks to join InternetNZ and participate in the conversation
  • Pressed for the widening of InternetNZ’s brief “up the stack”, so that we focus on the usage and impact of the Internet in wider society, rather than just the pipes
  • Connected InternetNZ staff and other councillors with appropriate people in external organisations where we can make a difference, such as the Wellington City Council’s Digital Strategy Development forum
  • Made myself available to members through Twitter, LinkedIn, and email to raise any issues of concern to Council
  • Promoted a culture of creative entrepreneurship, shared purpose, and respect around the council table

If re-elected, I will continue to work hard to ensure that:

  • The NZ Internet (in the widest sense) remains open and uncapturable
  • Council focusses on its responsibility to its members as well as wider society in its full diversity
  • InternetNZ gets the best out of its staff and operating companies, supporting our excellent Chief Execs to achieve the strategy we set
  • Strategic opportunities are recognised and seized as they arise
  • I am available and approachable for members to voice their concerns and act as a conduit to Council.

I look forward to continuing in my role to keep InternetNZ the great organisation it is, and expand its impact and the good it does in society.




Bright Ideas Need Scintillating Teams

22 06 2011

I was invited to speak for five minutes at the Bright Ideas networking event last night. Here’s what I said:

You’ve heard of them before -

Orville and Wilbur
Hewlett and Packard
Jobs and Wozniak
Page and Brin
Mitchell and Youens

Even Zuckerberg had a team behind him, even if he screwed most of them along the way.

So you have a bright idea. I’m told there are some really interesting ones here tonight, ranging from geeky Internet plays to innovative service offerings through to novel contraceptive devices.

BUT

Ideas on their own are nearly worthless.

It’s your ability to execute that will determine your ultimate success.

It’s unlikely you’ll be able to do it all on your own.

Are you an inventor, engineer, sales person, strategist, customer support, company director, financier, and janitor all rolled into one? It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty unlikely.

If you don’t have the vision, passion, drive and charisma to get a team around you, you’re unlikely to have the charm to sell your first unit. So get a team around you.

Investors are far less likely to invest in an individual than in a great team.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Matt Ridley’s TED talk entitled “When Ideas have Sex”, but he posits that the engine of human progress has been the meeting and mating of ideas to make new ideas. It’s not important how clever individuals are, he says; what really matters is how smart the collective brain is. Bottom line: you can’t do it on your own. Sharing ideas is fun, and results in better and stronger ideas that naturally select and adapt to the environment.

So that’s why you’re here tonight – to meet other people and – well – share your ideas with them in the hope that you can improve your ideas and more importantly get together and put some real capability to execute behind those improved ideas. And when you can do that – you start looking a lot less like a pipe dream, and a lot more like a business.




Urgency

14 04 2011

Parliament passed the Copyright Amendment Act into law under urgency last night, effectively forcing Internet Service Providers to police people allegedly infringing copyrights, with the ultimate sanction being a $15,000 fine and disconnecting the offender from the Internet.

The whole idea is stupid and irritating on many levels, but to me, the worst aspect is the abuse of urgency.  Urgency is only meant to be used when things are, well, urgent, but in this case it’s being used to stifle debate.

Even more irritating is Labour’s response, with Clare Curran crowing that Labour only passed 13 bills under urgency in their 9-year tenure.  That’s 13 bills too many in my book, and includes such standouts as the Terrorism Suppression Act and the Seabed and Foreshore Act.

I’d dearly like both major parties to revise their policy on urgency, as it is a clear threat to democracy.  They may be using it on something as seemingly innocuous as the Copyright Amendment Act today, but they’re on a slippery slope pointing back toward the days of Rob Muldoon.

I was quoted in the Herald from one of my tweets as being “p****d off”, but I’m really livid. If democracy slips away from us, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.







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