Friday, October 17, 2014

Backstage Pass: Sharpening Our Minds with USA Memory Champion Nelson Dellis

Nelson Dellis can memorize two decks of cards—104 cards, to be clear—in just five minutes.  In the same amount of time, he memorized 193 digits, in order.  It’s this unique set of skills that have made Dellis a champion—a three-time USA Memory Champion, to be exact.  Dellis is a regular on the memory championships circuit, although, he admits, “it’s not a huge sport, as you can imagine.”  And while most people are unlikely to become as skilled as Dellis, he’s recruiting others, including the Chicago Ideas Week Edison Talks crowd, to start sharpening their minds through daily practice and simple memory tricks.

Prior to competitions, Nelson Dellis completes four to five hours worth of memory
exercises per day. 
Why did you start training your memory?
My grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and she passed away in 2009.  Seeing her get worse over the years took a toll on me and my family.  The fact that it was memory made me think if I could do something right now to make my own brain health better when I get that age, then [I should]. 

So, where did you start?
One of the first things I found was this USA Memory Championship.  That was a really cool place to focus on and train and learn these techniques and set up the drills I do every day.

What are these memory championships like?  Do you all get into a room and swap memory tips?
All the tips are pretty much the same.  There are some strategies that someone come up with that will make, say, memorizing a deck of cards easier or faster.  No one is afraid to share that stuff.  What it comes down to is, how long did you practice? Who spent the most time sitting on your ass? 

It’s the nicest competitive atmosphere…because they know you have to practice for a year to get good at it.

What does it feel like to do these memory drills every day?  Is it like your form of meditation?
I feel like when I’m memorizing, it’s this place where I go.  I go away to a mental memory palace, which is a childhood home or my favorite park or whatever.  It’s just five or ten minutes of just focusing on one thing.  That’s kind of a meditation.  I have to block out everything and focus and be in this fantastical world in my head.

Did you have a kind of innate faith early on that doing all of these tricks would strengthen your memory? Did you have any inkling how good you would become?
No.  Of course, I was very skeptical.  I heard about the things these guys do at these competitions.  I thought it has to be guys who just are gifted, even though they say they aren’t.  I read one of the memory champion’s books.  And I tried these exercises.  And I thought, “OK, this is actually possible.  I can see how this could become faster, and this could become easier.”

OK, but how many hours a day do you have to spend to get as good as you are?
Leading up to a big competition, maybe four or five hours a day. 

Are there advantages to your super memory that seep into your day-to-day life? 
I find that because I’m aware of memory and I’m always thinking about it, I’m better at remembering to remember.  Things like placing your keys or just keeping track of things that are often forgotten because of distractions.

What about advantages for less day-to-day activities?  Are you now really good at blackjack?
No—that’s a good question, but for blackjack, actually, having a good memory doesn’t really serve you that much.  Maybe a little bit if you can keep track of what aces have come out.  But other than that, since they’re shuffling all the time, you

There are certain poker games where you see cards face up and they use one deck.  So if everyone folds at the last minute, I can see

So, your memory is not going to be a moneymaker for you in Vegas.
I don’t think so.

All right, we have to ask: Do you still forget things?
Oh, for sure, yeah.  Because what it comes down to is paying attention.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Backstage Pass: Reading Goes Underground with CIW Speaker Hollie Belton

Chicago Ideas Week’s Books On The L started as an underground movement—literally.  The brainchild of CIW Speaker Hollie Belton, an art director at Leo Burnett, Books On The Underground began as a single book on a London train two years ago and has grown into a multinational movement. Books On The L, Books On The Subway and Books On The Metro are all fostering their own communities of book-loving commuters, and Belton—ever the creative—sees new opportunities for sharing her love of stories with her city.
 
Hollie Belton's Books On The Underground has spawned a movement of books
traveling on trains across the U.S., including Chicago's Books On The L.
Why did you decide to start leaving Books On The Underground?
I started Books On The Underground mainly because when I changed jobs, I went from a 10-minute cycle to an hour’s commute.  Reading became an escape for me.  I’ve always loved reading and picking up new books.  It reignited that love that I have for reading.

I decided I wanted to leave a book on the Tube one day, but I didn’t want it to a lonely book left behind with no identifying thing about it, so I designed the sticker.  I started leaving my own books.  Now people e-mail me for stickers for their books, and I leave publishers’ and authors’ books.

The first individual who discovered a book, noticed the sticker and shared on social media?
The first person who found a book—I think I squealed out loud in the office. Everyone in the office asked, “What’s wrong?”  The tweet was so nice. It said [something like], “This is amazing.  It’s really cheered up my journey.  I needed a book to read.”

And have any of those books recirculated a few times?  Are people taking, reading and returning?
I have noticed a couple of books.  Actually recently, I noticed a book that I put on the tube as one of my first ever books two years ago.  The sticker was all bashed up.

What do you think of the programs that have sprung up since you first started?
I love that they’re starting.  Hopefully soon, more people will know about it and want to get involved.  And hopefully we’ll have it happening all over the place.

My newest idea is to get the stories of Londoners together and get them to share their stories.  I want to create an anthology of their stories and get it published and launch it on the tube for the commuters to read.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Backstage Pass: Josipa Majic Solved a Medical Problem with a Teddy Bear

Future Global Leader Josipa Majic is designing medical solutions for pediatric care that are appealing to doctors, parents—and kids.  Teddy the Guardian, which she developed with Ana Burica, collects children’s vitals in real time, eliminating the need for the devices many of us may remember from our own childhoods, including, as Majic pointed out, the “traditional thermometer.”  But it’s not just replicating these devices in a fuzzier form; it’s also expanding on the way data is presented to parents and health practitioners.  Teddy, for instance, has a heart that varies colors with the children’s health and beats to the rhythm of the child’s own heart. 

Future Global Leader Josipa Majic designs child-friendly medical devices.
Majic sees Teddy as just one of many potential applications of these types of technologies, believing that devices like Teddy could be used in medical fields outside of pediatric care.

Why did you and your entrepreneurial partner Burica decide to develop Teddy the Guardian?
We were initially developing medical software for pediatricians.  When we were working there, we noticed that kids and nurses had a very specific problem.  Kids do not understand medical devices.  The usually react very emotionally, and it’s stressful.  As bad as that is, that actually skews the data so you get the wrong metrics, and that creates a bigger problem, which is that pediatricians fail to understand what’s happening with the child.

We decided to combine the soothing and calming effect of your favorite teddy bear and the seamless experience of touch-based sensors and integrate that into a single product.

How many prototypes—how much development—did it take to get a teddy bear that functioned both as a bear and as a medical device?  We could see the potential to create a lot of almost robotic-looking bears.
It took a year and a half of R&D, and a lot of failures, a lot of really bad concepts, but a few good ones.  It ended up developing a completely new concept of a completely washable, child-friendly new generation of device.  At the same time it is interactive and soothing and very informative because it transfers all the data in three to five seconds to a mobile app.

Of course it needs to be washable—but we didn’t even initially consider that part of the equation, and the potential complications as you developed a washable medical device.
Yes.  That’s pretty important for both parents, but also pediatricians because it needs to be sterilized.

And how do children react when handed the teddy bear?
Especially in hospital settings it is the most child-friendly object.  Basically compared to the traditional medical devices, this is the least threatening way to get all of your vitals measured, so they really like it.

What about the response of hospitals and parents to this new take on the medical device?
Hospitals varied a bit.  Healthcare is a very traditional and pretty regulated domain, so it takes a while for any innovative products and any new concepts a really long time both to certify it and to get them into the market. 

But parents got it immediately, and it really resonated with them, especially with first-time moms who had no experience with how to check up on their kids when they are slightly ill and they do not want to impose additional stress or discomfort to them.  They would not need to explain to them, for example, why you need to put a traditional thermometer under your arm and stay still for 10 minutes.  Things like that just create a really bad user experience for kids and parents.  So, the bear just creates a much more seamless way [to get vitals].

How many kids are benefitting from Teddy the Guardian today?
We have more than 600,000 pre-orders in Euros.  It’s a pretty big market, a pretty validated concept.  And this Christmas we’ll be launching a new campaign and a new product—a new generation of teddy—and we’ll be donating the first teddy bears to the best children’s hospitals around the world.

Where do you plan to go next? Do you have your eyes on other potential products, other markets?
We have a lot of very ambitious plans.  The second market that the same concept is very applicable to are elderly patients with Alzheimer’s.  They again do not understand the entire hospital setting and environment.  And it’s still very soothing for them, although they are much older, to have something as soothing as a plush toy without being bothered by the entire procedure of medical check-ups.

Why is it important for you to share your ideas and experiences through platforms like CIW?
It’s always important to spread the word, but most importantly I think it’s very educational to hear people from different backgrounds that have a similar goal but in a completely different domain.  It’s so inspiring and it’s really humbling here to speak at such an event.  It really is good to exchange information with them and exchange experience.  So I think it’s very enriching for both me personally and also my organization as a whole.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Backstage Pass: Viney Kumar Designs an Emergency Siren for the Mobile Age

In 2013, Future Global Leader Viney Kumar retooled the ambulance siren for the mobile age.  The app he designed alerts drivers to the presence of an emergency vehicle much earlier than the traditional, helping to prevent an emergency response worker from being unable to reach his destination because he’s stuck during rush hour.  The app earned Kumar a top prize at the Google Science Fair.

Kumar's age when he coded this potentially life-saving app?  14. 
 
Future Global Leader Viney Kumar was inspired to create his app
after witnessing an ambulance unable to reach its destination in India.
Most 13- and 14-year-olds aren’t designing apps that have the potential to save lives. What inspired you to start such an ambitious project?
The inspiration for my project was seeing an ambulance in India that was stuck in traffic, and I was thinking, what can I really do about this?  I was seeing this whole incident and I was powerless to stop it.  When I got back to Sydney, where I’m from, I wanted to see what I could do about that.  I wanted to solve this problem. 

How exactly is your app able to prevent this problem?
The way it does this is that it uses the Internet and GPS technology to transmit the message from an emergency vehicle to all the drivers within a certain range.  On your car dashboard, you’ll get a Google map saying exactly where you are, where an emergency vehicle is—its location, its destination and its projected route.  So every single driver is going to know whether they’re in a critical path, and, therefore, whether they actually need to pull over—within one minute of an emergency vehicle actually coming.

I’m starting trials in both Sydney and in India.  I’m starting to put this into practice and actually starting to get my ideas out there.  Emergency services have had pretty positive responses.  They’re really interested in helping to save lines by using technology to save lives and improve their response times.

What went in to developing this app?  What types of skills did you have to learn?
I had to learn a lot of new skills that I hadn’t learned before, including working with GPS systems, web servers, Javascript, a bunch of other different types of things.  I had to learn them all in a short period of time, but I found a lot of meaning in learning all these new things in such a short period of time.

I’d written code before, but this process of experimenting, having things going wrong, modifying them, things still going wrong and then eventually coming up with that one working solution—that’s one of those great moments.

Now that you know the trial and error process involved—what projects do you plan to start the “process of experimenting” with next?
I have two projects currently going.  I’m working on a wilderness survival application that helps to save people lost in the wilderness.  I’m designing a prototype for a game that can help to save elementary school children at risk from cancer, heart disease and obesity just by encouraging the right eating habits.

Wait—through games?  How can games help to prevent heart disease and obesity?
It’s through incentivizing behavior and encouraging them to eat fruits and vegetables.  It’s a very different idea.  It’s through gamification.

The idea came when I was looking through the Cancer Council’s site and they said that if you could eat two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables, then you have a much, much lower risk of getting all of these diseases. So I thought, how could I incentivize people to actually do that.  And I looked and it all starts with children.  It starts with youth.  It’s still in the conception stage, but I’m working on this game that can actually inspire people to eat better.

Why is it important for you to be able to share your ideas through a platform like CIW?
CIW is a platform to help get your ideas and your vision out to the general public, and to inspire others to follow in your footsteps.  But it’s also a community of people who inspire you to do more and to be more, and that’s what helps change things.


Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Backstage Pass: Circling the Globe with Amelia Rose Earhart

Amelia Rose Earhart has lived up to her name: This year, she retraced Amelia Earhart’s path around the globe, completing the historic, ultimately mysterious flight.  An impressive undertaking (although last night fellow CIW Explorers Speaker Captain James Lovell begged to differ, joking on stage, “With due respect, Amelia, I did circle the globe in 88 minutes), the flight is an accomplishment that Earhart feels honors her namesake, and has the potential to inspire other aspiring "aviatrixes."

Amelia Rose Earhart's trip around the world completed
her namesake's historic flight.
So we have to ask: Your name is Amelia Earhart.  Does that mean you’ve been piloting planes since the womb?  When did you get started?
Every single day getting asked [when I was a kid] if I was a pilot—being named Amelia Earhart—it just kind of got old.  I finally said, I have to give this a try to see what’s possible.  I took my first flight lesson at age 21, and I’ve been flying ever since.  And I just truly did fall in love with it. 

I think it’s good my parents gave me the name, but they never said, “You should fly.  You should go into aviation.”  That way I didn’t run away from it.

Then you went from flying—and loving it—to preparing to fly Amelia Earhart’s path around the globe.  What was the planning process like for that type of endeavor?
It took a year and half worth of planning.  Everything from studying the meteorological systems around the world to climate through all 14 countries we were going through, the best time of year to fly to avoid those big weather discrepancies ahead of hurricane season.  We had to get overflight permission in every country that we traveled through.  We had to plan to have a host meet us in every spot.  They would arrive and help us with fueling and customs and landing fees.

The list of detail that went into the flight was just incredible.  Over 16,000 emails were exchanged just in the planning round…and I was a part of all of them.

 And once that trip was done—what was your feeling about the whole experience—relief, elation, pride?
I can’t look at a map of the world the same way any more.  It’s a totally different concept to me.  I felt accomplished and proud and like we honored Amelia in the best way possible, but there was a little bit of a let down.  What do I do now?  The day you wake up after flying around the world, and you wake up in your own bed—well, going to the grocery store doesn’t feel the same.

Then, we have to ask: What do you do now?
I’m running my foundation.  It’s the Fly with Amelia Foundation.  We put young girls through flight school.  They’re age 16 through 18 because that’s when have girls have energy and enthusiasm.  They just need a little bit of direction and financial help.  So I’m developing a STEM curriculum of aviation.

Why is it important for you to share your story via platforms like CIW?
This type of conference, and this type of activity, is vitally important.  The people who you’re going to see on stage are not the people who are going out there and saying, “You should get into aviation.  You should climb a mountain.  You should  become a photographer.”  They’re just doing it.  These are leaders who are leading by example.  People get inspired when they see others that have gone and done great things before them, but to see someone face-to-face like this in an intimate setting like this is really what it’s all about.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Backstage Pass: Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Kohlmann Brings the Silicon Valley to the Navy

CIW Military Talk speaker and Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Kohlmann believes in the power of disruptive thinking—even in an organization that most may not consider particularly entrepreneurial-minded: the Navy.  And while it is true that many officers’ knee-jerk response to potential conflict is to “put lots of people out there in full battle gear,” Kohlmann is quick to point out that there are many officers who are leading by disruptive example, such as General James Mattis, the former Commander of Central Command who frequently found innovative ways to approach and defuse conflict.

As founder of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and a founding member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell, Kohlmann has championed the use of these types of innovative ideas and technologies to improve the Navy's response to an ever-changing sociopolitical landscape. 

Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Kohlmann sees the potential for
disruptive thinking to reshape the Navy of the 21st Century.
What do you think is the value of disruptive thinking and innovation to an organization like the Navy?
I think we have a lot of processes that were developed decades ago, and sometimes we have a hard time adapting what I call industrial age policy to information age reality.  So I think cultivating a mindset where we can think about the future and think about ways to change the status quo is really important, especially in the security environment we face in the 21st century that’s very dynamic.  We don’t have the nation state threats that we had previously.  We need a very agile, adaptable officer and enlisted corps who can go into these areas of conflict and think about things that they’ve learned outside the military and apply those lessons learned to the environments [they work in].

You were a founding member of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell.  What types of innovations came out of that accelerator?
The first [innovation] was with [CIW Military Speaker] Captain Grant putting a 3D printer on the USSEssex for the first time.  From my perspective, while the widgets are cool, what I found was the value was giving sailors the mindset where they could do anything.  Putting them in touch with technology opened their eyes to the possibilities and helped them think about the world in a different way, such that now when they approach a problem it’s not: Who do I have to get permission from to do it?  It’s what kind of creative solution can I think of and what tools are at my disposal that I can utilize in my day-to-day job to make this happen quickly.

And were those individuals finding creative solutions from all ranks within the Navy?
Absolutely.  And there’s this view of senior officers that junior people don’t know anything and have no value to bring to the table.   And I think we’ve shown that, yes, there is an incredible amount of cognitive surplus at the lower ranks and if we can harness that, get them into positions where they can have influence and give them senior leaders to advocate for them, incredible things can happen.

So, what do you see as being next for disruptive innovation in the Navy and the military more generally?
For me personally, further educational opportunities for us to go out and visit innovative organizations.  One of the things we did as a part of this Rapid Innovation Cell was to do innovation field trips.  So for the first time, 15 naval officers were traveling to Silicon Valley, interacting with ideas, interacting with Tesla, going to Boston in the biotech corridor, going to Austin and interacting with entrepreneurs there.  Just the mindset that developed and the realm of the possible that was out there got us thinking in new lateral ways that we hadn’t considered before.

Why is it important for you to take part in platforms like Chicago Ideas Week?
I think the best part of endeavors like CIW are just the relationships that can be established and furthered. I know in my own life the only things that have been collaborations and partnerships with people I met through serendipitous opportunities like this. So, just [having] a meeting place of the mind and building relationships is really valuable.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Backstage Pass: Reconsidering the Veteran Experience with Pat Dossett

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, CIW Speaker Pat Dossett served nine years as a Navy SEAL.  When he left the military, he quickly entered a very different world: the Wharton School of Business.  Now, through the Tip of the Spear Foundation, Dossett supports other special operations personnel and their families, offering among many other services support as they transition from military to civilian life.  The Foundation, as Dossett said, aims to fill in the "gaps" in resources that can only "be filled by an organization that can be dynamic, responsive and can specialize in outside-the-box requirements."

In the first of our Backstage Pass blog series, we talked to Dossett about the challenges veterans face, that "outside-the-box" programming and the ways that conversations like today's Veterans: Life After Service help "amplify" problems and create solutions.

CIW Speaker Pat Dossett co-founded the Tip of the Spear Foundation
to provide unique resources to servicemen and their families.
The Conversation today focused on life after the military. What is the transition to civilian life like for many servicemen?
I think what’s taught me the most about that is being someone who’s made the transition [and] faced many of the challenges that people face when they’re transitioning out. I think people like to make very large generalizations about groups of people—any group of people—and veterans are no different.  People like to say veterans are depressed or veterans have PTSD or veterans need handouts.  What I’ve found is that veterans, by and large, are a very diverse population with very specific needs and drivers and motivations.

What did you own experience transitioning from the military to civilian life teach you about the types of challenges veterans face, and the types of support they may need?
From personal experience and talking to other people from my background, you face a couple of interesting challenges when you leave. I think one is that when you’re leaving the service you don’t really have a sense of what opportunities are out there.  There’s no central place where veterans to go to find out what services and opportunities may be available to them.  

[Another challenge is that] oftentimes, people go [into the military] very young.  I went in when I was 18. I went to military school and then I spent nine and a half years in the military.  The bulk of my formative adult life has been spent in the military.  When you get into the military, they take a couple months to take a civilian, a young kid, and make them a soldier and make them a serviceman.  When you leave, they spend about four days processing you out.  You take someone that’s been focused purely on the military process for so long, and now they’re out in the “real world.”  You’re faced with [the realization that] I’ve lived in this very structured environment where there’s a common culture, there’s common values [and] I understand how everything works, to now I’m in this big wide open world, this big ocean.  That’s a little bit scary.

Once in this “wide open world,” what types of experiences do veterans have?  What is the typical reaction?
I think there is one generalization you can make about veterans.  People go in to the military for a lot of different reasons. People stay for different reasons.  But everyone when they leave the military—whether or not they went in to serve something greater than themselves—service has become a part of who they are.  So when you leave the military and you unplug, you go from this service-focused profession to an individual-focused profession.  So service members are trying to figure out: How do I do well and do good at the same time?

You went straight from military life to the Wharton School of Business to pursue an MBA.  How were you able to incorporate that type of service mentality into what we imagine is a very individual-focused, often competitive school and business environment?
What I found is that when I got to school I sought out veterans groups.  I found that was a real source of strength to me.  To be able to look to this group or look to other veterans and when classes get particularly challenging or personal circumstances get challenging or you feel especially disconnected from your past life, you can just look at a veteran and you both kind of get it.  To be able to have that is a tremendous resource.

What’s an example of the type of out-of-the-box programming you are able to provide through Tip of the Spear?
We started what I call the pro-kid program this past summer [for Gold Star children, or children who have lost their parents in combat or training].  There are programs out there that help these kids with college education or traditional education on their way to college.  There’s no one focusing on helping them with activities outside of the classroom, [like] art lessons or lacrosse camps.

There are now 125 Gold Star children [in the Tip of the Spear family], as of Sunday.  We sent applications out to these kids that said, “While your father was in service, he did professional development training to be the best operator or soldier that he could be because that’s what he was passionate about.  Just as your father was passionate about that and worked hard to make himself the best he could be, we think that you should be able to do those things your most passionate about.”  [We send grants] to help fund whatever these non-traditional activities are outside the classroom.

We’ve gotten applications from kids that say things like, “My dad used to play soccer, and I would like to play soccer, too.”  The goal is to do three things with this.  One is to help makes these kids the best they can be and pursue things they’re passionate about.  Two is to hopefully establish a community where these kids can mutually support each other.  The third thing is to connect the child to their father’s service.

Why is it important to have the types of conversations that you will be having today at CIW?
[The other speakers and I] were talking two days ago about what are some of the challenges that veterans face. What are some of the organizations out there that are doing things?  What can be done to change misperceptions?  This is the answer.  It’s getting people together to highlight some of these issues.  It’s getting thought leaders in the room that can actually hear about these issues and create the changes that are going to solve some of these challenges that we’re facing.  Chicago Ideas Week is an amplifier for all these things. You’re not just focused on highlighting problems, but you’re focused on creating solutions.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.