August 13th, 2013
10:22 AM ET

Helping the humpback's comeback

By Rebecca Bluitt, Special to CNN

Off the Hawaiian coast, the humpback whale is thrilling spectators and scientists alike with its acrobatic jumps, complex songs – and its spectacular recovery.

“When we started there was talk of whales in the hundreds out here,” says Jim Darling, renowned whale researcher and co-founder of Whale Trust Maui, a nonprofit devoted to studying whales in the waters of the Hawaiian island. “Now in the North Pacific the best estimates are about 20,000 whales.”

“They become part of the local culture a little bit. And that’s sort of seeping into the national culture,” says Darling, referring to the booming whale-watching industry. Whale tourism added an estimated $2 billion to the global economy last year, a number that is expected to increase by 10% each year.

About the size of a school bus and weighing an average of 45 tons, the humpback whale is an impressive creature. But they weren't always such a visible part of the Hawaiian seascape.  Their recent comeback from near extinction at the hand of whale hunters is as remarkable as the animals themselves, and has wildlife experts in awe of their recovery capabilities.

“The fact that they’ve been able to come back like this proves that it is possible, if we give them half a chance,” Darling says.

Strict international restrictions on whaling, implemented in 1966, gave the humpback population its chance to rebound. But is 20,000 humpbacks in the entire North Pacific really that many?

“When you think about it, it’s not,” Darling says. “I mean, think about how many people attend a football game, you know? It’s a little chunk of a stadium. But ... it’s so many more than were here."

It’s enough of a recovery, some argue, that the North Pacific humpback whale should be taken off of the federal list of endangered species altogether. The Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition recently petitioned for removing the North Pacific humpback from the list, claiming that the whales' population increase warrants a reexamination of the current restrictions on fishing practices.

And Japan, the largest whaling country in the world, is already utilizing a loophole in anti-whaling laws to kill some species of whales. Hunters claim the carcasses are used for scientific research – gathering information on the animals’ age, diet, and birthing rate – before the meat is packaged and sold.

In 2007, Japanese whalers insisted that the humpback’s comeback justified adding the whales to their list of prospective prey. But outcry from the international community has forced them to back down, at least for now.

Darling believes this long-term conflict between humans and humpbacks is the greatest threat to the whales' future.

“As far as entanglements and vessel collisions, we can slow boats down, or we can warn vessels when there are whales in the area, or we can come up with different kinds of fishing gear which maybe reduces the entanglements. There are ways to sort of tackle those issues," he says.

"The bigger ones of how we’re all going to survive in the long run are going to be a little more challenging.”

It's a challenge, Darling says, that Whale Trust Maui is ready to tackle.


Filed under: Environment • Science • The Next List • Thinkers
July 12th, 2013
07:47 PM ET

Creating a school for autistic adults, one student at a time

Editors Note: Dan Selec is the founder and CEO of the nonPareil Institute, a hybrid software company and school located in Plano, Texas that teaches adults on the autism spectrum to write and develop apps, video games and iBooks. Watch his full profile this Saturday at 2:30p ET on “The Next List.”

By Dan Selec, Special to CNN

"You’re doing what?" asked my wife, ”Starting a new company," I said. “Not in my den you’re not,” she replied as she took in the PCs, monitors and chairs that now filled the room. “But you can have the kitchen.”

And so it began. I started the nonPareil Institute to provide technical training to adults on the autism spectrum. The idea was to mentor them to work in teams, and teach them to produce products that we could take to market. The ultimate goal is to build living campuses where my son, and others like him who are on the autism spectrum, can live fulfilling lives doing what they love.

The core issue I noticed was that there were many programs for spectrum kids, but there weren’t a lot of choices for adults after high school. That when they should begin the most productive times of their lives, but instead the group is plagued by very low employment rates, depression and isolation. After looking at the statistics, I knew it was time to get off the bench and make some new life choices.

We formed the foundations of how to accomplish the organization's goals during those early months in our home. The next year and a half was a blur of holding down a very busy full-time job, and training two students each night for two hours, five nights a week. It was the most exhausting period of my life. My eternal thanks goes to a spouse who tolerated so much activity in and out of our home for so long. As she now says, “It was just our new norm.”

Once the nonPareil Institute moved to a new full-time facility, we talked about how much we would miss the day-to-day routine in our home. It’s funny, I think everyone really missed the kitchen and the nightly bustle of our regular home life. We were one big happy family.

This is a core element I wanted to bring to the campus, where we now have 125 people, called crew members  learning and working. Forget technology. It is important to put the human element first, especially with a group of young people who are struggling to find their way in life, much less while also dealing with autism spectrum issues.

I spent much time mentoring, consoling and sometimes even praying with this early group, as they did their best to cope with the world they faced each day. The first nine crew members proved it was a good idea because they were learning and their lives were better as a result of the time we spent together.

Any parent who has a child with a disability walks around with the same question in their mind: "What happens to my child when I'm gone?"

At nonPareil Institute, we focus on three areas that will answer that question: Train, work and live. We provide technology training to adults on the autism spectrum. We mentor them into becoming functioning members of our working product teams. They build products and release them to the market (we have six apps in the App Store now). With parental, donor and product support, our crew members can live on campuses that are built to meet their needs for a lifetime.

Seeing how most of our crew does not drive, the campus environment solves the transportation issues we struggle with today. Building a community around my child that knows who he is, and lets him work on projects he loves, will allow my child to live a safe, productive and fulfilling life.

It turns out, there are quite a few other families who feel the same way. Simply responding to the massive influx of “requests for information” is an overwhelming and full-time job for several people.

At nonPareil, there is not a lot of theory. What is practical, what moves us forward, and what works are all that counts. We are, at our very core, a working software company. Yes, we do provide training in tools and technology, but the bigger part is helping individuals become functioning members of professional software teams.

For our donors, this is the most compelling kind of gift to give; a gift that, over time, allows an individual on the autism spectrum to no longer need outside support. We provide community and satisfaction for our crew, now at 125 strong. They are seeing real results for their efforts, which will allow them to contribute to their own success.

Ultimately, nonPareil is more a mission of love than technology, and it has to be a solution for the lifetime of our children. This is the one central objective that all of us as parents remain focused on: providing a lifetime answer for our kids.

Next time you bust out your mobile phone, head to the store and search for “npi” to buy an app from nonPareil Institute. Our crew will thank you.


Filed under: Education • entrepreneurs • Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers • TV • Video
July 2nd, 2013
03:33 PM ET

Combating disease with dance: a new approach to Parkinson’s

By Rebecca Bluitt, Special to CNN

Warm-ups, waltzes, partnering. These are all routines typical in dance settings like The Juilliard School in Manhattan. Many of the students here will perform them on stages all around the world, contorting their limbs and using their bodies to create seemingly impossible works of art, pushing the limits of human potential.

But on Monday afternoons, Juilliard hosts a different breed of dancers. Their bodies are slower and less limber; their movements lack fluidity. Yet the dancers execute each little gesture with determination and purpose, and their faces shine with a fresh enthusiasm that has often waned in seasoned professionals.

These dancers have Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological disorder that is difficult to conceal, with symptoms often manifesting in the most cruelly conspicuous of ways. Twitches may start in the hand and can gradually progress into uncontrollable spasms. As the body becomes less mobile and speech is impaired, those living with Parkinson’s are often also crippled with feelings of isolation.

One remedy? For the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group, dance was the missing ingredient. These two seemingly improbable allies teamed up in 2001 to create Dance for PD, a non-profit that provides free dance classes to people with Parkinson’s. The Dance for PD class format parallels ordinary dance classes, with participants moving from seated exercises to combinations performed holding chairs for support and sequences that travel across the room.

There are multiple practical benefits to the class; participants report improvement in things like muscle control and posture. But co-founding teacher and Dance for PD program manager David Leventhal emphasizes the class’s artistry and sense of community - elements frequently lacking in conventional types of therapy.

"Dance gives people a way to think about movement in a way that is less mechanical and more about using the imagination in the service of movement," Leventhal says. "Sometimes in therapy you’re working on a very specific task - raising your arm, or tapping your foot at a certain rate. In dance class we often will raise our arms or move our feet at a certain rate, but those are done within a bigger context."

"I call this 'Mr. Parky,' my inner hand puppet," laughs Andrew Thomas, a Dance for PD participant, referencing the tremor in his right hand. As a composer, orchestra conductor, pianist and 43-year veteran music instructor at Juilliard, Thomas has had an extensive performing arts career. He is well versed in the art of nimble movements and quick hand gestures. But when doctors diagnosed Thomas with Parkinson’s in 2010, the value of this experience became even more tangible.

"With music-making - and I would include dance with music-making also - somehow it involves the entire brain," says Thomas. "And because of that neuron connections get made that make activities possible. If I just sit and I’m lethargic, then I’m guaranteed to deteriorate."

This positive correlation between dance and brain regeneration is also attracting the attention of neuroscientists. In September, a research project developed by Canada’s National Ballet School and scientists at Ontario’s McMaster and Western University will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the effects of the dance learning process on people with Parkinson’s. Students of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons have also visited Dance for PD classes to investigate new methods of treatment that do not involve medication.

While researches are just beginning to explore the mechanics behind the program, Dance for PD continues to receive a warm reception from members of the Parkinson’s community. From its origins in New York, Dance for PD has expanded to over 100 domestic and international sister programs, including a recently launched initiative in Australia. These budding enterprises are no stranger to adaptation, infusing local flair into the original class format. While New Yorkers move to familiar show tunes from "West Side Story," participants in Dance for PD’s location in India learn dance numbers from beloved Bollywood films.

Despite minor cultural differences, a sense of joy seems to resonate from all corners of the program.

"The first time I came to the class," Thomas says, "near the end of the class I burst into tears, because I was looking around and there were people who could not stand. They could do things with their head a little bit, but that was all. And it wasn’t tears of pity or grief. I was just terribly moved at their courage in showing up, that they were still here and demonstrating it with their presence and their bodies."

And as far as Leventhal is concerned, Dance for PD is just getting started in its mission to empower people with Parkinson’s "as dancers, as students, as lifelong learners and as artists."

"The innovation," Leventhal says, "was both that initial spark and the ongoing conversation, exploration, creation of what this program is and what it can be."

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Filed under: Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers • Video • World
June 28th, 2013
04:31 PM ET

The 3-D technology that is helping ice skaters

Editor’s note: Jim Richards is a professor of biomechanics and vice provost for graduate and professional education at the University of Delaware, where 3D simulations are created to enhance performance in both sports and medical rehabilitation. For more on Richards, watch "The Next List," Saturday June 29th at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN.

By Jim Richards, Special to CNN

One of the most interesting aspects of biomechanics is its widespread applicability to everything ranging from the study of insect flight to complex medical issues. I am fortunate enough to work on a campus that has made a significant investment in resources and expertise that facilitate research across the entire spectrum of biomechanics, including significant efforts in orthopedic research, rehabilitation of wounded soldiers, osteoarthritis, and of course, sport injuries and performance.

Researchers in sport biomechanics have been studying athletic performance for decades and have made significant improvements in equipment, athlete safety, and less frequently, performance. In fact, the ability to use biomechanics to directly improve athletic performance has been minimal. Performance improvement has been realized through advancements in equipment design (ie. golf clubs, skis), but improvements to actual skills have been sporadic.

Traditionally, biomechanical analyses of skills conclude with professional interpretation of the measurements and recommendations for potential improvements to performance. The “contribution” of biomechanics typically ends once the recommendations have been made, leaving the coach and athlete to figure out what the final result should look like. As expected, this approach rarely leads to meaningful improvements in performance, and this has been a source of frustration for both scientists and athletes.

When we started the skating project, the goal was to utilize technology to conduct rapid assessment of the athlete’s performance and to provide objective and mechanically sound recommendations for improvement in a form that both the skater and coach could immediately use. Prior work with the skaters taught us that most were failing to complete their jumps because of ineffective posture during the flight phase of the jump. The fact that the skater isn’t in contact with the ground during this part of the jump simplified the analysis and allowed us to adopt a modeling approach to improving performance. There were several advantages to this approach. First, different strategies to improving performance could be examined without putting the skater at risk by asking them to implement the strategies on-ice. Second, unproductive strategies could be ruled out while successful strategies could be identified, minimizing the amount of trial and error that would normally be part of the process. Finally, the skater and coach would be able to view a 3D rendering of the model to see how changes would look during the performance, providing them with a visual example of how the performance would appear for each individual athlete.

To date, the outcomes of the on-ice analyses have met our expectations. Within approximately 10 minutes of the performance, the skater and coach can begin working with the model. The coaches can experiment with both traditional and non-traditional arm, leg, and trunk positions and immediately determine whether they benefit the skater’s performance. Most skaters report being able to implement the recommended changes in a period of 2-3 weeks, and we frequently receive email and/or video evidence of a skater’s success. Additionally, trends associated with successful jumping styles have begun to emerge, and coaches are able to apply this knowledge to the training efforts of other skaters.

The research on the shoulder presented a different set of challenges. Early on in my career, I analyzed shoulder mechanics of pitchers ranging in skill from little league to major league. The obvious flaw in the analysis was the fact that it ignored the contribution of the scapula (shoulder blade), a structure critical to shoulder function. Current research on shoulder function still suffers from the same flaw, and when we were invited to participate in a shoulder workshop at the Philadelphia Shriners Hospital focusing on patients with brachial plexus birth palsy, it became obvious that we couldn’t ignore the scapula any longer. It plays a critical role in the ability of BPBP patients to realize any degree of functionality.

Drs. Kozin and Zlotolow at Shriners provided the medical direction for the work, which focused on measuring scapular contribution to specific clinical positions used to estimate the patient’s degree of shoulder function. Our approaches began with surface mapping strategies using hundreds of markers and evolved to more landmark specific strategies using a few as 10 markers. To date, we have been able to differentiate between scapular contribution and glenohumeral contribution (the ball and socket joint in the shoulder) to specific arm positions, and are working toward measuring the scapula during dynamic motions. We have a long way to go, but we’re pleased with the progress we’ve made to date.

In the future, we’re optimistic that improvements in technology and new approaches to the mathematical analysis of human motion will continue to advance our ability to analyze and improve performance. Looming on the horizon are optical systems that can capture motion data outdoors, optical systems that can capture motion data without markers, and wireless sensors that can measure body orientation without the use of cameras. It would not be surprising if in the near future, much of the process that we now perform with expensive, high-end technology becomes available in the form of affordable lightweight portable sensors coupled to a smartphone app.

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Filed under: Innovation • Science • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
June 25th, 2013
09:03 AM ET

How scientists are making ice skating safer

Editor’s note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 29th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of biomechanist Jim Richards.

With only seven months until the Olympic caldron shrines bright on host city Sochi, Russia, athletes are vigorously training in preparation. Competition is fierce and Olympic hopefuls are expected to be faster, stronger and capable of superhuman feats. But one winter sport, known for its grace and beauty, is wreaking havoc on the joints of developing bodies: ice skating.

“We’ve seen skaters as young as 20 who have had major surgeries and hip replacements,” says Jim Richards, a scientist at University of Delaware’s human performance lab.

When Richards decided to pursue a career in sports biomechanics and kinematics, or the study of human motion, he had no idea he would be spending so much time in a damp cold ice skating rink. However, when the university built his lab, they neglected to include one major necessity, and he had to walk through the rink every day to reach the restroom.

After watching elite figure skaters crash to the ice over and over, he thought he could approach their training in a more efficient way.

Richards is one of the first scientists to successfully leverage motion capture data to create 3-D simulations. The models help assess athletic ability and decrease the chance of physical injury.

“The whole point of what we’re doing is to accelerate their ability to learn these jumps,” Richards says, “We’re decreasing the number of impacts which we hope would have an effect on the long-term health of their lower extremity joints.”

Motion capture technology has been used to develop lifelike movements in animations and video games. For skating, 40 markers are placed on the athlete’s body while 10 high-speed infrared cameras record the markers' movements. Richards and his team are doing something other sports haven’t done; they’re constructing models that allow them to play what-if games.

The research is sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee and United States Figure Skating, and while the university has had requests from all around the world, the program is exclusive to U.S. athletes.

It could take up to a year to master aerial tricks known as triple and quadruple rotation jumps. After completing the analysis, one skater landed the perfect jump the same day. The learning curve is drastically reduced and most participants successfully complete the jumps within two weeks.

Nearly 70 skaters have gone through the system and they are blown away by the results.

“This program is going to help skaters for the future figure out how to do more quads, and who knows, maybe quints,” said Alex Johnson, an internationally ranked figure skater and Olympic contender.

Richards envisions the day when he is able to measure motion without markers. New systems in development do not require tracking, which means the analysis could be performed in real time. It opens up an entire world of possibilities. Richards could analyze a fast ball pitch during the World Series, a three-point shot in an NBA game, and a gymnast’s mid-air vault.

Athletes aren’t the only ones benefiting from this technology. Richards spends a significant amount of time working with children whose shoulders are injured during difficult deliveries.

“He has tackled a problem that we have wrestled with for the last 100 years,” says Dr. Scott Kozin, M.D., chief of staff at Shriners Hospital for Children in Phila., Pa.

Approximately four out of every 1,000 births result in brachial plexus birth palsy, an injury that causes nerves in the shoulder to tear during childbirth. Skeletal simulation enables surgeons to measure upper extremity motion without radiation. The long-term goal is to operate on the model and see the outcome on the computer before ever working with the patient.

“It’s fun to work with a population that can do incredible things when it comes to physical ability,” Richards says, “but the reality is if you can play some small role in helping a child walk better or be able to use their arm better, that’s a far more rewarding experience.”

Richards is revolutionizing the way athletes train and he is transforming the way doctors treat children.

You can learn more about his work and the human performance lab on "The Next List," this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on CNN. Please Follow us, Like us, and check out our photos!

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Filed under: Future • Innovation • Tech • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
June 14th, 2013
04:56 PM ET

The Right Stuff

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 15th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 30-minute profile of Graham Hill. 

What is most important to you? House? Car? Clothes? Formal china? Probably not. These things might make your life more convenient. To some extent, they might enable you to do the things that Are actually important. But our stuff, when we think about it, isn’t that important.

What is important to most of us? Our friends, families, having meaningful work, amazing experiences. As I have heard it said, “The most important things in life aren’t things.”

Yet somehow, when many of us look at our lives, we see a disproportionate amount of time and energy directed toward stuff. We work extra hard so we can make the car payments. We max out our credit cards to keep up with fashion. We move into big homes so we have a place for the hutch that stores the formal china.

In the late nineties, I had the great fortune of selling my startup. What did I do with my newfound cash? Same thing any good American would: I got lots of stuff like a new car, furniture, gadgets and of course a big house.

This ability to consume was new to me. When I was growing up, everyone in my middle-class, six- child family had everything they needed but not much more. When you’re raised with just enough, you imagine having more than enough will make you that much happier.

But there I was living the American dream–driving a quick car, living in a big house, with the ability to buy more–and I was no happier. What was I missing?

I was missing the fact that no amount of stuff would ever make me happy. I actually found the more things I had, the more complicated life became. There were more things to buy and maintain, more things to keep track of, more things to lose.

A number of events in my life–most notably a serious romantic relationship–made me realize that people, amazing experiences and meaningful work are the real important parts of my life. The other stuff is just stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I love objects and architecture. I studied product design in college and have built homes as a carpenter before I got into startups. But my later life experiences made me reevaluate how and why our stuff and homes were designed. I started to wonder why we often ended up living to support our stuff and homes rather than the other way around?

It was with this question in mind that I started LifeEdited. I wanted to help start a movement where our products, homes and the way we live are aligned with what’s important to us.

On a practical level, this meant doing more with less. The average American takes up three times more living space than sixty years ago. Yet we still don’t have enough room for our stuff, evidenced by a $22 billion dollar personal storage industry. Worse still, we have become a nation of debtors paying for our big homes and stuff. Clearly, our lives could use a good edit.

LifeEdited is starting with homes. We help conceive homes around what is important in people’s lives. We are specialty consultants to architects, currently working in cities such as New York City and Las Vegas. Often, the result is a space that is much smaller than the typical American home. My own 420-square-foot Manhattan apartment sleeps up to four, seats twelve for dinner, has a home office and much more. The smaller footprint is cheaper to buy, easier to clean, greener and, even though there’s a generous 426 cubic feet of storage, doesn’t permit me to collect a lot of unnecessary stuff.

Because I have fewer things, the stuff I do have is quality stuff I love and appreciate.

LifeEdited is about freedom, not restriction. We think the less-but-better approach leads to more money in the bank, more time for friends and recreation and less to think about. It’s about including everything that’s important and “editing” out the rest.

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Filed under: Architecture • Culture • Design • Innovation • The Next List • Thinkers
June 4th, 2013
02:14 PM ET

Izhar Gafni and the cardboard bike that could revolutionize transportation

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 8th, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of cardboard bicycle innovator Izhar Gafni.

For years, people told him he could never do it. But with his own money, resources and what he describes as "guts feelings," inventor Izhar Gafni built a bicycle made almost entirely out of cardboard.

His cardboard bike took four years and six prototypes to make, and when it was finished Gafni's story and Vimeo went viral. Izzy, as he's called, became an Internet sensation. But "The Next List" team wanted to see Izzy in action - actually making a bike from scratch on his own turf.

In a workshop on a small kibbutz on Israel's northern coast, we watched as Izzy, a self-described cycling enthusiast, worked his magic. Using the principles of Japanese origami - literally folding cardboard over and over (with a machine he invented) - and adding a secret concoction of glue and varnish, Izzy, who is self-taught, figured out a way to make cardboard rugged enough for us to ride. His craftmanship resulted in a light, waterproof and recyclable frame capable of holding cyclists up to 500 pounds. A full-size cardboard bike weighs around twenty pounds, and according to Izzy, never has to be adjusted or repaired.

"The tires are made of reconstituted rubber from old car tires so they will never puncture," he says.

Izzy says innovation is everywhere in Israel, but the aftermath, or production phase of an invention, is lacking. He and business partner Nimrod Elmish formed the Israeli company, I.G. Cardboard Technologies, and say they are determined to change that.

"This project, Izzy's cardboard bicycles, is a unique business model, and a real game-changer," says Elmish. "We will build these bikes using all kinds of funding, including government grants and rebates for using recycled materials. This will keep production costs down and will also create many jobs at local factories."

The end result: a bicycle made from $9 worth of cardboard, that will sell for around $60. But Izzy hopes the rebates for using "green" materials will enable them to distribute the bicycles for free in poor countries all over the world.

"The whole concept for these bikes is to build something so strong, you can throw them in a village in Africa, and come back next year to collect the damaged ones and bring new ones," he said.

Mass production of the cardboard bike begins later this year, and Izzy wants to take his technology even further, already working on cardboard wheelchairs and high chairs.

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Filed under: Innovation • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
May 31st, 2013
11:28 AM ET

Five things I learned in the ICU that helped me start a business

Editor's Note: Tune in to CNN Saturday, June 1, at 2:30 pm ET to see "The Next List's" 15-minute profile of innovator Francesco Clark.

By Francesco Clark, Special to CNN

1. Show up.

They say “A picture’s worth a thousand words.” When I was laying in a hospital bed hooked up to a ventilator and dozens of tubes, the most impactful moment was when I saw so many of my friends and family there, sitting just a few feet away. I couldn’t speak. My left vocal cord was paralyzed. My left lung had collapsed. I had inhaled too much water and shattered two vertebrae in a diving accident that became the pivotal instant that changed my life.

What did I have to rely on for those first terrifying hours after? When I felt alone, when the doctors told me I probably wouldn’t survive the night, I still felt at my core that somehow I’d survive. But how can you know for sure when everyone around you doesn’t?

Those are the moments when a well-intentioned note doesn’t matter, but being there does. What got me through was that I felt at ease and immediately comforted knowing my parents, brother, sister and so many friends were there supporting me. It was a testament to how meaningful the unspoken word can be.

The emails were touching but I don’t remember them. What I remember is everyone who was there in person.

2. Live with passion.

In the helicopter on the way to SUNY Stony Brook’s emergency room I finally closed my eyes. The door was open and I could feel the warm wind wafting onto my face but the thought of seeing the ground disappear below me was too much to bear. I was strapped into a gurney, my spine filling with an increasing amount of pressure that felt like it would explode.

For the first time, I didn’t have to reassure anyone I was alive or direct someone to call 911. Those ten minutes of introspection made me realize, “I might not make it through tonight.” None of it made sense. The weather was too serene for something so catastrophic to happen. It was a beautiful summer night with the moon and stars floating in a sky I wasn’t sure I’d see again.

I wanted to live, desperately. My first instinct, in a surge of energy, was to fight to fix what just happened. As it turned out, every part of being in the ICU was a challenge. Relearning how to breathe became the first and most important task of living. With my lungs unable to clear themselves by coughing, my blood oxygen levels were too low to sustain my body. I had to make it better or I’d need to be on a ventilator.

The nurses gave me a clear cup with a tube attached to it. The goal was to blow into the tube and make a little red ball float intermittently for thirty minutes. It was the most boring thing I was supposed to do but it was the most important. I needed to figure out a way to get strong enough to breathe. I found a way that was just as effective but all my own.

My sister and a childhood friend, Alex, stopped by my room the next day. They unpacked a disc player and placed it on the table facing my bed. Alex had an ABBA CD with him that he put in the player and said “sing.” For nine days, I didn’t care if I made a fool of myself: I sang so horribly and my lung capacity rose to a normal range. I could breathe on my own, without a machine, and it felt like a triumph.

3. Make a connection

There was a night nurse, Cynthia, whom I began having long conversations with. I’d wake up gasping for air from a recurring nightmare I couldn’t escape. It would play over and over in my head and I’d panic. Imagine dreaming that you suddenly can’t feel your legs or arms, only to wake up and realize that this horrible nightmare is actually reality.

But through conversations with Cynthia I began to feel human again because we’d talk about anything but my injury. That connection to another human being, the feeling of mutual respect, gave me the peace of mind I needed in order to go back to sleep and hold on to hope.

4. Commit to what’s important.

Like most twenty-four year olds, when I was confronted with a big change, there was a two-part reaction. The first was, “how do I deal with this?” and the second was, “what are my other options?” My injury forced me deal with the former on a level I never thought I could.

Many times I’d question whether my nerves would grow. The scientific community didn’t think they would. But it didn’t and doesn’t make sense to me why I can’t get better. I don’t have a disease, and new research is breaking the old boundaries.

I committed to my recovery. By focusing on that goal it became easier to email the leading spinal cord injury researchers and doctors around the world. I moved past the fear of asking a dumb question and learned to be direct and honest. It was easier than I expected and opened a world of possibilities where once there was none.

When I started Clark’s Botanicals, I had no idea what it would mean to run a skincare company. I was only sure of the formulation my father and I had made, and believed in our organic collaboration. The rest of it felt like a world of unknown. At first I thought I had to understand every part of it immediately. Eventually I realized that if I just stayed committed, I’d learn and grow as we expanded. And, like my nerves, why wouldn’t it grow if I were truly committed to it?

5. Realize there is no box.

Everyone has a different story. My good friend, Brooke Ellison, sustained a high-level cervical spinal cord injury when she was a young girl. It disconnected her body from her thoughts and made her dependent on a ventilator.

I often wonder if her brain ever just chills out. I suppose it might not have time to. She emails me while grading her students’ term papers, the ones who are hoping for a passing grade from their college professor. Those pupils probably don’t know she’s one of the first quadriplegics to graduate from Harvard and then become a leading Ph.D. in bioethics.

She’s not the kind of person to mention that because her focus is on something so much more beyond herself—engaging others and explaining the most complex topics in her brilliantly simplified way.

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Filed under: Culture • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers
May 14th, 2013
10:42 AM ET

Addressing tough poverty problems with innovation and design

Editor's Note: Jim Patell's full 30-minute profile will air on CNN's "The Next List" Saturday, May 18th, at 2:30 P.M. ET.

Few people in our lives are as influential or important as teachers. The truly great ones not only educate their students, they infuse them with excitement and inspire them to make an impact on the world.

Jim Patell is one of those teachers. For the past 10 years, he has given his students a unique opportunity to learn real-world skills and use them to improve the lives of the desperately poor.

Patell is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is also the founder and driving force behind a groundbreaking graduate course called Design for Extreme Affordability. The course, offered at Stanford’s d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), is part education, part adventure and part entrepreneurship.

Over two semesters, Patell and his team challenge the students to design low-cost products that can solve tough problems in the developing world. Forty students from across Stanford’s schools - engineering, medical, business and others - pair up with global partners who have concrete projects to tackle. The goal is to deliver nuts and bolts solutions, a way to implement them, and the means to sustain them over the long haul.

“We’re asking students, are you willing to take a leap of faith?” says Patell, “Are you willing to commit yourself to something for which the solution is not immediately apparent and to take a shot, to give it the best you’ve got.”

So far, the "Extreme" students, as they are known, have taken on 90 projects with 26 partners in 18 countries, and the results have been spectacular.

Here are some of their innovations:

Embrace blanket – It’s a kind of sleeping bag for premature infants equipped with technology that helps them maintain normal body temperature for up to eight hours. The company has been in India for four years with pilot projects in nine other countries. They say they’ve saved 5,000 babies so far.

d.light solar lanterns – These lanterns replace kerosene and candle light in villages with no electricity. D.light’s president says the product has “enabled 10 million people worldwide to upgrade from kerosene lamps to solar lighting.”

AdaptAir – A new device to help treat childhood pneumonia. A team of Jim’s students invented an adaptor for a nasal cannula (a plastic tube for delivering oxygen) that provides a custom fit for babies and children of all sizes. Getting the right fit is critical to treating pneumonia effectively.

Over the years, Jim Patell and his team have developed a kind of formula for success - a way for his students to become what he calls creatively “accident prone.”

“It’s not, if I just squint and concentrate, that idea will come to me,” says Patell. “It’s, I don’t have that idea now. I don’t have that insight now, but I can go through a set of activities that I can execute, when I want, to enhance the probability that the great idea is going to occur.”

By gaining deep empathy with their customers, brainstorming with partners and team members, and producing many prototypes quickly, students learn what works and what doesn’t.

Ultimately, Patell says, “what the course produces is young men and women who we aspire to be able to drop down into any messy situation, have them land on their feet and make progress.”

Jim Patell and his team and his students put their hearts, souls and backs into designing "just right" solutions to enduring problems for those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. He is not only helping to transform the lives of the sick and poor but giving a many of his students the experience of a lifetime.


Filed under: Education • Innovation • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
March 29th, 2013
02:52 PM ET

David Peterson and the languages of 'Game of Thrones'

Editor's NoteDavid Peterson is the creator of the Dothraki language used in the HBO show "Game of Thrones." Peterson also is a member of the Language Creation Society.  A 30-minute profile of Peterson will air on CNN's "The Next List" this Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET.

By David Peterson, Special to CNN

It's now a little over a year from the day when CNN’s "Next List" crew came to Orange County to do an episode on my language-creation work. At the time, I really had no idea what the coming year held in store for me, so I did my best to look busy.

I had recently joined Syfy's "Defiance" as a language creator, but hadn't yet done any serious translation work, and while I'd finished my work on season two of HBO's "Game of Thrones," there'd been no discussions about season three up to that point. I remained hopeful, but that March I didn't really have much going on.

During my first interview on the morning of twelfth, the "Next List" producer asked me if I'd be working on the Valyrian language for the show's upcoming season. Immediately alarm bells went off, as I started to think back and wonder, "Did I accidentally say anything?"

Though there had been no discussions, I and many assumed that some form of the Valyrian language would make an appearance in season three, but at that stage, any such discussion would have been premature, and certainly would have been covered by a non-disclosure agreement. Trying not to look too perturbed, I asked why she would ask that, and she told me that when she'd interviewed executive producers Dan Weiss and David Benioff earlier, they'd said I'd be working on Valyrian this season.

And that's how I learned I'd be creating a new language for season three of "Game of Thrones."

For those tuning in to the "Game of Thrones" premiere this Sunday, you'll still have to suffer through a few subtitles, but the audio will sound a bit different from seasons past. Though there are a number of Dothraki speakers yet alive on the show, there's surprisingly little Dothraki this season. In its place is quite a bit of dialogue in two related languages: High and Low Valyrian.

In George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire," High Valyrian was meant to occupy the place Latin occupies in the Western world. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire, spoken commonly for several centuries in and around the Italian peninsula and beyond. It's the mother language for all the Romance languages spoken today (Italian, Spanish, French, Catalan, Romanian, etc.).

High Valyrian, in turn, was the language of Martin's Valyrian Empire, an expansive domain that existed for several millennia before it was destroyed by a mysterious event cryptically referred to as the Doom. In its purest form, High Valyrian still exists as a language of scholarship and refinement, though its impact on the region was far greater.

High Valyrian was taken up and creolized by the old Ghiscari Empire, where it's still spoken at the time of action in the books and the show. And it served as the mother language for the various Low Valyrian languages spoke in the Free Cities of Volantis, Braavos, Myr, Pentos, Lys, etc.

This season, I worked on two of the Valyrian languages: High Valyrian (the oldest form of the language) and the Low Valyrian spoken in and around Slaver's Bay. To translate sentences into the latter variety of Valyrian, I would first translate them into High Valyrian, and then apply a series of phonological, semantic and grammatical changes to the text. The resulting language is approximately as different from High Valyrian as Old Spanish is from Classical Latin.

If you watch the "Game of Thrones" premiere, you'll hear some of the Slaver's Bay variety of Valyrian. Both Nathalie Emmanuel and Dan Hildebrand do an outstanding job with their lines. I was extraordinarily pleased with their performances, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

And even if languages aren't your thing, I hope the Valyrian won't distract you from what I think is a truly superlative premiere for season three.

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Filed under: Innovation • Language • The Next List • Thinkers • TV • Video
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