Thursday, July 28, 2016

Panama Papers - the back story

A deluge of 40 years' worth of records - emails, account records, spreadsheets - about offshore companies from around the globe, leaked by an anonymous John Doe. They described the financial machinations, some legal some not, orchestrated by Mossack Fonesta, a law firm in Panama. Mossack Fonesta set up secretive offshore companies in a system that at the very least represented aggressive tax sheltering just within the law, to shadow companies to hide the fruits of crime and corruption.

The leak comprised 11.5 million documents including 4.8M emails, 2M PDFs, and 1M images. 2.6 terabytes* of data in all. Put that up against a newspaper industry ravaged by the onslaught of online advertising with investigative journalism resources in radical decline because of those financial pressures. In such an environment, how could one possibly investigate these documents fully?

Gerard Ryle
The German newspaper German Süddeutsche Zeitung initially received all this material. Faced with a task far beyond their own resources, they contacted International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for help. What happened next is a remarkable story.  At the recent TED Summit Gerald Ryle, head of the ICIJ, told us that story. A marvel of collaboration unfolded. The handful of journalists at the ICIJ were joined by 350 journalists from over 100 media companies in 80 different countries who brought 'native eyes to bear on native names'. The data was stored in a huge database and sophisticated software helped uncover links and cross references, based on nationality, industry, or themes such as sports or blood diamonds. Nobody met in person and communication was through online encrypted messages. It was a monumental task and 'a milestone in the use of data journalism software tools and mobile collaboration'**.

What makes this story even more remarkable is the fact this disparate group of media players, whose corporate DNA was based on 'getting the scoop', did this work in total secrecy. The worked for over a year, without pay, without breaking ranks. Ryle described the constant persuasion required to maintain secrecy. As Ryle put it, "the greatest noise had to be preceded by the greatest silence"As other events were unfolding - in Brazil or around FIFA for instance - whose coverage could have been bolstered by reference to the Panama Papers, journalists begged to release the news. But the confidentiality agreements held. The news was published simultaneously in 76 countries on April 3 2016, along with many of the original documents. We all know the story of the fallout of these papers, up to the resignation of Iceland's prime minister. The back story is almost as interesting.

It was a wonderful heartwarming story told by a quiet man clearly more comfortable with writing words than in speaking them (watch his talk here). He was encouraged with applause from the audience during several stumbles in his talk; that was a great habit started by the TED Fellows (see more about the TED Fellow here).

* 1 terabyte equals 1,024 gigabytes. That's a lot of data!
** quoted from Wikipedia

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Julia Bracha

Make conflicts less violent; have more women in public life. This was the thought-provoking thesis of Julia Bracha in her TED Summit talk.

Her contention runs like this. Since it's futile to try to eliminate all conflicts, what we should be trying to do is to make them less violent. Nonviolent campaigns have two big advantages.  Fewer people are hurt or killed and less infrastructure is destroyed, infrastructure that might be key to recovery after conflict. They also tend to be more successful. And the best predictor of which tactics will prevail (violent or non-violent) is the ideology regarding women in public life. In her research, movements with women in leadership roles have succeeded more often: 53-27*.

It's not that women are less involved in conflicts. It's that they are talented in exercising power and influence nonviolently in the background. Because men are the public face of resistance, we often miss women's quieter, and highly effective, role in the background. Bracha pointed to influential women like Septima Clark in the US civil rights movement who emphasized literacy and education.

The media often underestimates the influence of women in Arab and Muslim communities. Consider the 1st Intifada, where media coverage focused on rocks being thrown at tanks. However 97% of the activities in that Intifada were non-violent tactics (like strikes for instance), and the women were calling the shots in those efforts.

Bracha's film wonderful Budrus, which I saw and loved at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival (reviewed here) highlighted the efforts of the women of the town of Budrus. Budrus was fighting the Israeli security fence, which was slated to go into Palestinian territory and bulldoze olive trees which were their livelihood. The 15-year-old girl who was an inspiration in the battle ultimately planted herself in front of a bulldozer. With the help of Israeli liberals, the Israelis relented and moved the wall to the boundary between Israeli and Palestinian territory instead of its planned incursion into Palestinian territory.

* not sure of the source of this statistic

Friday, July 15, 2016

Tepperman and the Fix

Jonathon Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, exhorted us to temper our pessimism over the doom and gloom induced by our daily media diet. In his upcoming book, The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline, he describes countries with good news stories.  Tepperman feels these countries offer lessons that could be extrapolated elsewhere. This talk followed right on the heels of the uplifting talk by Monica Araya (described here), in this roundly optimistic session. 

Instead of cramming too many examples into his talk, Tepperman chose three to focus on. (Bravo for this approach.)


Tepperman started by describing Canada’s immigration policy as brave and successful. In the late 60s, Pierre Trudeau, the current prime minister’s father, pulled off a great coup of progressive transformation. Unlike many countries, Canada, a vast land with a small population, actually needed more people to thrive. Past race-based immigration policy had only admitted white Europeans and this wasn’t working any more because those waves of immigrants were drying up as recovery after the war took hold in Europe.

The new immigration policy established admission requirements based on education, skills and language, plus a small number of refugees. Canada has an enviable track record of immigrants integrating and contributing to Canadian society. In fact, Tepperman told us that surveys show multiculturalism, the Canadian cultural mosaic as it’s known, ranks second as the thing Canadians are most proud of  -  before hockey!!! In fact, one of the campaign promises of the recently elected Justin Trudeau was to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees, fully ten times as many as the US*. And with this platform, he won a resounding majority.

Tepperman concluded by saying Canada was greatly admired internationally as a tolerant, accepting nation. The audience greeted this with thunderous applause**.


Suharto had been a brutal dictator in Indonesia for thirty years when he was overthrown in 1998. One of the few positive attributes of his reign was that he had kept religion out of politics and had held together - by force - the interest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands and 1,000 languages. With his overthrow, most people feared a surge of religious intrusion into Indonesian politics, and an increase in intolerance and perhaps even terrorism in the world’s largest Muslim country. The pot might boil over without Suharto's tight lid.

For a while, that was exactly what happened. Islamic extremists garnered 36% of the vote. Yet, since then, while individuals have become more deeply religious, politics  has become less so, with the Islamic vote declining to 25% in 2014. Tepperman described some of Indonesia's successful approaches used to combat terrorism, including reducing inequality to dampen enthusiasm for terrorism, using of police rather than army for enforcement, and making trials public. One metric of their success is the extremely small proportion of ISIS fighters coming from the world’s largest Islamic nation, a tiny fraction of Belgium’s for instance.


Tepperman’s third example was Mexico, which suffered such a chaotic, hostile political atmosphere after becoming a democracy in 2000 that it seemed that the country might simply implode.

Then along came Pena. Pena was a member of the corrupt PRI party. He looked like a lightweight dilettante – indeed Tepperman's  slide of Pena flashing a big smile would make you think he was a handsome airhead toothpaste model. Yet this unlikely man hammered out three-party agreements which brought Mexico back from the brink. Immediately after election, he initiated conversations with the opposition parties (in private), actually listened to their issues, and passed some of their priority legislation before his own party’s. When asked how he achieved this progress, his response was ‘compromise, compromise and compromise’.

Lessons Learned

This talk was again one of the hits of the conference, another proudly Canadian speaker, Suzanne Simard (described here) being the first. Gosh it was a nice introduction to Canada Day!

*(As an aside, one of the TED Summit attendees I met was involved in the integration efforts for these refugees. She is deeply impressed with the job Canada is doing, undertaking strict triage in the origin territories, pairing all refugees with sponsor organizations, and quickly getting them integrated into Canadian social structure). The Globe and Mail has been running good-news stories about refugee families getting established. Not surprisingly, others have complained about shortage of resources, particularly language training resources.

** This was truly a global audience, with folks from 73 countries, many of whom had lived in more than one country, so their applause was based on a broad knowledge. Several attendees joked about their growing interest in emigrating to Canada, particularly Americans with the most pessimistic view that Trump might be elected. The Economist ran a Daily Chart tracking the number of searches for ‘moving to Canada’. Many of these were searches from the US, sparked by horror at the prospect of a Trump presidency, while a roughly equal number arose after Brexit.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Costa Rica – No More Fossils Fuels?

The charming and charismatic Monica Araya advocates for building a fossil-fuel-free society. She argues that this lofty goal is achievable in Costa Rica. Why is she so optimistic about Costa Rica's chances?

Excellent record on clean energy
Nearly 100% of Costa Rica’s electrical energy comes from renewables, a combination of hydro, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal. Last year, the country’s electrical industry used only renewables for 299 of 365 days. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 70% of Costa Rica's energy is still based on oil, due to consumption in the transportation sector. Removing that dependence cannot be done by incremental steps, says Araya; it requires deep, transformative change. Impossible? Not according to Araya, because of her second argument for optimism.

Small country with big ideas
Costa Rica is a small country with big ideas and has a track record of bold unconventional decisions. In 1948, coming out of a brutal civil war, in a region still suffering much discord, Costa Rica took a decision to abolish the army, and enshrined that decision in the 1949 constitution. Instead, the money that would have gone to the military is spent on free education and free health care. In the 50s, they invested heavily in hydro, in the 70s in national parks and by the 90s created a system of payments for ecosystem preservation.  The result is a nation that does medium well on GDP/capital at $11,000, but is a positive outlier on the Social Progress Index.

Current transportation system a mess

Her last argument is that the time is right. Costa Rica’s road system is overloaded and commuting is a disaster. Thus, it's an opportune time to shift investment from roads to public transportation, which would address both the transportation and the energy issues.

So, the goal is extremely ambitious, but the country is a fertile ground for such a transformation. Araya's strategy is to get people in the country to own this goal. The TED Summit program describes her as the founder and director of Costa Rica Limpia,  a citizen group that promotes clean energy and transportation and resilience for climate change, and of Nivela, an international thought leadership group that advances narratives on development and climate responsibility. Holding a Ph.D. in environmental management from Yale, and named as 'Personality of the Future' by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she is indeed an impressive person.. I for one will be interested to see whether she and other Costa Ricans are able to muster the required support.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Secret Language of Trees

Trees do communicate. Who knew? Suzanne Simard did. And she told us about it ever so passionately and eloquently in my favourite talk of the TED Summit. (In my informal poll of other attendees, she was tied with Jennifer Brea for favourite overall). 

Simard discovered that trees are connected underground by an enormous fungal network, the mycelium*. Her first experiment showed that trees can pass carbon to other trees through this underground network, within a single species and across species such as birch and fir; and she has also shown the transfer of water and other nutrients such as nitrogen. The transfer is bidirectional and varies according to the other tree's need - trees got more when they were heavily shaded in the summer, for instance. 

All trees seem to have this capacity to connect, but some trees have more connections than others. These hub, or mother, trees can be connected to hundreds of other trees. Simard calls these mother trees because they favour sending nutrients to their own secondary seedlings. Trees can even send warning signals in distress situations, wisdom that can protect the future of a forest. So the network goes beyond a symbiotic transport network to being a neural network that actually transmits intelligence. The forest is more than the sum of its trees; it's a complex organism in its own right. This amazing information brings a new sense of wonder to a walk in the woods. You almost wonder if you’ll feel the vibration of this extraordinary social network beneath your feet.

Simard's research has implications for the forestry industry. Harvesting forests should respect the powerful function of these hub trees because they hold the future of the forest in their roots. 

By the way, Simard is Canadian. As Canada Day draws to a close, how appropriate to post this blog celebrating a Canadian who blew everyone away at TED. Simard was authentic, passionate, articulate without being artificial, and totally charming. She left us with a new lens to appreciate forests.

*Mushrooms are just the tip of the iceberg of this vast underground network (See a short summary of one of my favourite talks from a previous TED about mushrooms and mycelium. This was also the favourite of that conference. What is it about mushrooms?) What's underground is gigantic compared to what we see on the surface.