Reviewing TEDxCairo 2011 Talks – Part II

This is the second part of my four-part review of TEDxCairo 2011 talks. If you haven’t read part 1, read it here.

Ahmed Abdalla: Half a Kiss:

The first talk of the second session was by movie writer and director Ahmed Abdalla, famous for his two award-winning independent movies Heliopolis and Microphone. Ahmed talked about censorship and how the Egyptian society reacts towards (the lack of?) it. He mentioned that getting a clear identity of who we are as a nation will help in deciding on the society’s relationship with press freedom, interfaith marriage, authority and gender equality.

It was a very good talk; Ahmed was very captivating and touched on very important issues. The thing I did not like was him ending the talk with “See you on the 27th”; clearly encouraging the audience to attend the May 27th demonstrations. Here is one of the main rules of organizing a TEDx event:

TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas.

Ahmed and all of the other speakers should have been informed with this rule; or else the TEDxCairo team could get their license revoked.

Verdict: Half a Kiss: Good.

Sherif Abdelazeem: Volunteerism:

Next was founder and chairman of Resala NGO Dr. Sherif Abdelazeem. He began by criticizing what he called the “wana maalyah” (it’s not my business) attitude whenever we (Egyptians) see something wrong but not personally affecting us. His talk was focused on promoting volunteerism in Egypt, mentioning that it is the habit of highly developed nations to dedicate part of their time to voluntary work, and that showing your love for your country should not be done only in football stadiums.

“Volunteerism” was another great talk at TEDxCairo. The stories Dr. Sherif mentioned of their activities at Resala were both touching and inspiring. The only thing wrong about it was that it was difficult to keep up with the talk as Dr. Sherif was talking too fast at some points of the talk.

Verdict: Volunteerism: Good.

Haytham ElFadeel: What If Machines Think?

Haytham, founder and CEO of the amazing semantic search engine Kngine, raised the issue of computers’ (lack of) intelligence, and how, unlike any other science, advances in computer science cause advances in other sciences. He then went on to express his love for artificial intelligence and how his belief that “smarter” machines will improve our quality of life lead him to create Kngine, a search engine described by TechCrunch as a “direct assault on Google“, one that has achieved great success despite its relatively small budget, and a project that is 100% Egyptian!

Haytham’s talk was one I was really looking for. He wowed the audience with the demonstration of Kngine’s semantic searching capabilities. He spoke easily, confidently, and enthusiastically. Haytham should have mentioned though the differences between Kngine and Wolfram Alpha, as I overheard some people in attendance saying that it does the same that Wolfram Alpha does. Haytham also kept going back and forth between the middle of the stage and the laptop to change the slides of his presentation instead of using the clicker, which was a bit distracting- maybe the clicker was malfunctioning, but if so he should not have held it during his talk!

Verdict: What If Machines Think? : Good.

Fatma Said: The Day When the People Changed:

The first performance of the day was by the award winning (and relatively young) opera singer Fatma Said. She performed her operatic Jan 25 revolution song “Youm Mal Sha3b Et3’ayar” (The Day When the People Changed). Words cannot really describe the song or her voice. Her performance was the only one that got a standing ovation.

If you haven’t heard this song before, do it now! This is definitely one artist that I would love to hear more of.

Verdict: The Day When the People Changed: Outstanding!

Yasmine Said: Forgetful and Forgotten:

Yasmine Said is a Biology scientist from Oklahoma Panhandle State University, USA. She worked at an elderly psychiatric disease unit at a hospital in Kansas where she developed an interest in Alzheimer disease. Yasmine’s talk was a thorough description of Alzheimer’s symptoms, mentioning that it is dubbed “The Disease of the Century”, and that because of the difficulty of handling an Alzheimer patient, such patients are often neglected and “forgotten” by their close ones.

The talk was very informative AND touching, very close to what you expect from a TEDTalk. However, the talk lacked a crisp clear message; Yasmine did not explicitly say something like “Don’t forget your Alzheimer patients” or made the talk relevant by mentioning stats about the state of Alzheimer patients in Egypt, and personally Yasmine came out a bit too cold to me. Nevertheless, the talk shed a much needed light on a dangerous disease that people barely know anything about.

Verdict: Forgetful and Forgotten: Good.

Essam Youssef: “1/4 Gram” Message:

The last talk of the second session was by Essam Youssef; author of the bestseller “1/4 Gram”, a book described as “an honest insider’s account on Egypt’s drug world”. Essam is also conducting a drugs awareness campaign in which he had visited over 30 schools and universities and met over 2000 students. He talked about the stages of drug addiction as well as some stats related to drugs in Egypt.

This talk could have been outstanding, but it was NOT. Essam’s attempt at breaking the ice at the beginning- “jokingly” saying that he will not abide by the topic he agreed on with the organizers nor the 18-minute time limit- his attitude during the talk, and his final remark “If I made it to heaven, I would ask God for 2 cms (a drug shot)” felt unprofessional and put me off the whole thing. This talk will NOT be featured on the TEDTalks web page, even though its content could have got it there.

Verdict: “1/4 Gram” Message: Bad.

The star of the second session was definitely Fatma Said, her outstanding performance got everyone talking. Kngine’s impressive search results also got people very interested in it.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for part 3!

(Photography by Ahmed Naguib)

I Am Not Unintelligent Sir, I Just Have A Life

After a long summer, we finally returned to school last Saturday. I was confident that it will be a great source of inspiration for my humble blog, and I wasn’t wrong. On my very second class, “Knowledge-Based Systems”, I was faced with something that I knew I should address here- despite having previously prepared a post for this week, which is now put on the shelf for some other time.

While explaining some principles of Artificial Intelligence, our professor wandered a little off topic- which happens often- to talk about human intelligence, more specifically our intelligence as Computer Science students. He wondered why some of us achieve below average grades while clearly we cannot be unintelligent, as we got high grades at high school to get into this faculty. He concluded that those- the ones with low grades- either do not work hard enough, which makes them unintelligent for neglecting their study, or are indeed, unintelligent (not smart enough)- I believe the word he used was “stupid”.

Now, with all due respect to my dear professor, I have to say that I completely disagree with his point of view. First off, and everyone knows that, in Egypt, achieving a high grade at high school does not have any significance on whether or not you are intelligent or smart. I will not go through the reasons for that as I would really rather not get into a debate about the status of the educational system in Egypt. Just thought I should give a quick reminder.

Second, let’s take a look at ourselves for a moment; we start going to university at the age of 18 or 19. I am going to go out on a limb here and say, after 18 or 19 years of submissions to the wills of our schools’ teachers, parents, and societies’ customs and traditions that are most of the times meaningless and absurd, we take off to a brand new world where all the previous restrictions seem to dissolve by the power of the word “university”; your professors and instructors do not care whether you listen to them or not, your parents suddenly decide that you are old enough to handle yourself, and the society… well, the society remains the same, except the rules are more lenient this time and can be easily bent, if not broken, with little or no punishment. In other words, when you are in Egypt, university years are the best years of your life.

With that being said, would you rather spend the best years of your life stuck to a desk or staring into a computer monitor the same way you did in the previous 14 or 15 years of your life instead of going out and exploring this new world called university life? Some people make that decision in order to become college professors in the future. I have to admit it, it is not a bad thing at all, being a professor has a certain “prestige” to it, and the pay is not bad either. However, to be a professor, you have to go through years of humiliation by the real professors, who will make your life a living hell until you get that PhD, not to mention that upon graduation, you will have to see your previous colleagues working in the private sector with monthly salaries that exceed what you make a year as a college instructor. I obviously know what I am talking about as my father is a professor and my sister is an assistant professor at the same university I go to. So, after all, is the prospect of being a professor, with all its bitter and sweet, worth wasting the best years of your life? Some would still say yes, I say no.

For three years now, I have been achieving slightly above average grades at school, and it is NOT because I am unintelligent, it is because I purposely do not work hard enough. My parents have always complained that I am “too smart” to get such low grades. Maybe I am, but I am also too smart not to waste the best years of my life and regret it later. I am definitely not trying to encourage you, my fellow students, to simply forget about studies and spend your time wandering about. I am asking you to work hard and play hard. I am asking you to try and find a balance between your work life and your equally important social life. It may seem difficult and sometimes impossible, but you have to try your best, so that you do not wake up someday in the future finding yourself old and unsuccessful, or even worse, unhappy.