The dinosaur hunter: TED Fellow Nizar Ibrahim searches for lost worlds

 

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim poses with the footprint of a predatory dinosaur in southeastern Morocco, near the Algerian border. Photo: Robert Loveridge

Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim poses with the footprint of a predatory dinosaur in southeastern Morocco, near the Algerian border. Photo: Robert Loveridge

Like many kids, German-Moroccan paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim nursed a fascination for dinosaurs from a young age. The difference is, he grew up and actually found one.

Ibrahim vividly remembers learning about Spinosaurus, a massive aquatic dinosaur whose only known bones were destroyed during World War II. As a kid, Ibrahim dreamed of finding new fossils of this giant — and in his mid-20s, he succeeded. (Watch his talk, “How we unearthed the spinosaurus.”) He tells the TED Blog the story of how sheer determination and a bit of magic led him to find the world’s most complete specimen of spinosaurus, and how he’s reconstructing the ancient ecosystem it inhabited.

Can you actually say, “I have discovered a dinosaur”?

I can. I led the team that re-discovered Spinosaurus, a 50-foot-long carnivore who hunted its prey in rivers 97 million years ago. I also discovered a big flying reptile with a 20-foot wingspan — the largest flying creature that lived in Africa, that we know of. We call it Alanqa saharica. “Alanqa” is an Arabic/Persian name for the phoenix. You know how the phoenix dies and then rises from the ashes? Well, our flying reptile disappeared seemingly forever, but by finding the fossils, we allowed it to rise from the ashes so we could reconstruct it. “Saharica” means “desert,” so the name means “the phoenix from the desert.” We also have found remains of giant plant-eating dinosaurs, crocodile-like predators and many other prehistoric creatures.

Being a paleontologist is, for me, about more than just discovering dinosaurs. They are only small pieces in a much bigger picture. Since I was five, I’ve had a deep-seated fascination not only with dinosaurs but with animals of all kinds — with their anatomy and diversity. At the same time, my imagination was captured by the idea of traveling to places with exotic, magical names like “Timbuktu” or the “Gobi Desert.” So with paleontology, I get to combine all these passions.

A rendering of alanqa saharica, one of Ibrahim’s discoveries. This flying reptile had a 20-foot wingspan — and its name means “phoenix of the desert.” Artwork: Davide Bonadonna, advised by Nizar Ibrahim

A rendering of alanqa saharica, one of Ibrahim’s discoveries. This flying reptile had a 20-foot wingspan — and its name means “phoenix of the desert.” Artwork: Davide Bonadonna, advised by Nizar Ibrahim

In the Sahara Desert, I dig for fossils of the Cretaceous period, of creatures that lived there 100 million years ago, when the Sahara was a massive river system. I collect fossils of fish, turtles, flying reptiles, crocodile-like hunters, little amphibians. I also get to study the geology to understand what a river system looked like. With all the data I find, I reconstruct prehistoric ecosystems.

Ecosystems from the mid-Cretaceous of Africa are different from any we know of now. It was a time of extremes — extreme climates, extreme global warming and high sea levels, and a preponderance of giant predators on land, in the water and in the air. It was a very important — and unusual — period  in the evolution of life.

It’s mind-boggling to think that the Sahara Desert was once an incredibly lush environment.

People sometimes forget about the deep time perspective. We’re so focused and obsessed with our tiny slice in time — our gadgets, Wall Street, what-have-you seem very important to us. But these might not even be visible in the future geological record. Really, we only inhabit a tiny episode of this incredible, epic story — the history of life on our planet. The greatest story out there.

Above: Watch Nizar Ibrahim’s TED Talk: “How we unearthed the Spinosaurus.”

What does a day in the life of a dinosaur hunter look like?

Well, it’s not a typical workday. We work under very interesting — and often difficult — conditions, mostly in the border region between Morocco and Algeria. When in the field, we go out to the desert with Land Rovers. Early explorers had camels — but that’s pretty much the only difference. We still have to work in scorching heat, with sandstorms and smugglers, bandits and snakes. We’ll stay in the desert for anywhere from a week to over a month, typically in tents.

Sometimes there are places in the middle of nowhere where you can get a meal and a place to sleep. But the Sahara is a lawless place. All the norms and infrastructure we take for granted often don’t exist. But it is also a pristine place, in many ways. It’s timeless. Camel caravans follow the same routes they did for hundreds of years.

For various geological reasons, fossils in the Moroccan-Algerian border region are often exposed along steep edges, so there’s a lot of climbing on sharp rocks involved. We spend a lot of time walking around, looking for ghosts from deep time: fossils. That’s the best way. You can’t really spot things out of a moving car.

What do you look for when you’re walking?

We’re looking for bone that’s weathering at the surface, so there’s a chance that there is more underground, where it’s been protected from erosion, rain and so on. We’re talking about hundreds of kilometers, so you really need to develop a pretty good eye. We do have geological maps, so we know roughly where rocks of the right age are cropping up. It’s difficult, though, especially in the Sahara. It’s much easier to look for fossils in Wyoming or Montana, or in famous fossil localities in Canada. There are parts of Canada where dinosaur skeletons are just lying around. Finding things in the Sahara is much, much harder. You’ll find bits and pieces, teeth, enough clues to reconstruct part of the ecosystem. But finding exceptionally well-preserved fossils or partial skeletons is like looking for a needle not in a haystack, but in a desert.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

 

Physical therapy is boring — play a game instead: Cosmin Mihalu

Physical therapy can be painful, confusing and boring. Romanian physical therapy entrepreneur Cosmin Mihaiu has set out to change all that. In this talk, filmed at TED2015, he demonstrates a fun, cheap solution that turns physical therapy exercises into a video game with crystal-clear instructions. Running on a PC with a Kinect controller, MIRA Rehab’s fun-to-play games lead patients of all ages through therapy-specific exercises, while allowing physical therapists to monitor recovery.

 

 

Avoiding the hunger season: Computational biologist Laura Boykin is working to save African cassava from whiteflies

Laura Boykin, right, and fellow researcher Donald Kachigamba, at left, inspect African whiteflies feeding on cassava leaves at a farm near Namulonge, Uganda. While scientists once assumed there was only one species of whitefly worldwide, Boykin’s work has identified at least 34. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

Laura Boykin, right, and fellow researcher Donald Kachigamba, at left, inspect African whiteflies feeding on cassava leaves at a farm near Namulonge, Uganda. While scientists once assumed there was only one species of whitefly worldwide, Boykin’s work has identified at least 34. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

For decades, the farmers of East Africa have battled the African whitefly, a tiny insect that infests the cassava crop. Cassava, also called manioc, arrowroot or tapioca, is an important food all over the world — more than half a billion people (yes, billion with a b) rely on cassava for their daily meals. For East African farmers, a whitefly infestation can completely destroy the year’s crop, and with it the food security for their families.

Yet surprisingly little is known about the whitefly itself. It’s only in the past few years, in fact, that scientists even knew whether there was more than one species — and now, it turns out, there are at least 34. Who’s counting? Computational biologist Laura Boykin, who studies the Bemisia tabaci whiteflies that plague East Africa, using genomics, supercomputing and evolutionary history. With the data she’s gathering, now publicly available via WhiteFlyBase , she hopes to help researchers breed new strains of cassava that resist the whitefly.

We asked Boykin to tell us more about her work, how she discovered this problem … and how she realized she had the right skills to help solve it.

Tell us about the whitefly and cassava. Why is this problem crucial to solve?

700 million people around the world depend on cassava for their daily calories. Without it, for many families, there’s no food and there’s no income. To understand the importance of cassava in a farmer’s life, read The Last Hunger Season, by Roger Thurow. Depending on the country, farmers typically have a one-acre plot, which might include beans and other crops. In Kenya, for example, they’ll grow maize and sweet potatoes, and cassava is a backup. It’s planted and takes a while to grow, so when all the other crops are gone, the family thinks, “Okay, the cassava will get us through the hunger season.” But if it’s rotten due to whitefly, there’s absolutely no food.

Whiteflies transmit two viruses that kill cassava: cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak disease. In tandem, these cause 100 percent loss of the crop. It’s a massive problem, especially in East Africa. I’m one of 15 principal investigators working on a new project whose mission is to give farmers a cassava plant that’s resistant to the viruses and the whiteflies. How do we get there? Whiteflies are a global problem, creating havoc on every continent. So first, it’s identifying what whiteflies and viruses are present in East Africa.

Where did the problem originate?

Cassava originates from South America, and was taken to Africa in the 1700s. But these viruses aren’t found in South America. The hypothesis is that they’d been lying dormant in African native vegetation. We think that the whiteflies feed on native shrubs, then go feed on cassava, transmitting the virus from the shrubs to the cassava plants.

Fortunately, the viruses haven’t yet spread to West Africa, the biggest cassava-producing place in the world. Right now, the virus is concentrated in a pocket of East Africa: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The hope is that we can control the whiteflies enough so that they don’t spread.

The African cassava whitefly feeds on the underside of cassava leaves. The viruses that these whiteflies transmit destroy cassava plants and render their roots inedible. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

The African cassava whitefly feeds on the underside of cassava leaves. The viruses that these whiteflies transmit destroy cassava plants and render their roots inedible. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

When did whitefly infestation start becoming a noticeable problem?

In the 1990s, researchers were attempting to control cassava mosaic disease that was breaking out in East Africa. They thought they had a control for it via traditional breeding. Then the cassava brown streak virus emerged; it turned out that whiteflies loved the new varieties that the researchers rolled out to control the first virus. In essence, the researchers had been trying to breed for virus resistance without taking into account that there might be different species of whiteflies.

We’ve done modeling based on genetic data indicating that Africa is the origin of the species, so it makes sense there will be the most diversity there. With that information, we are working to ensure that the people who are doing the plant breeding get the resistance right for all the whitefly species that the plant might encounter.

How did scientists not know that there was more than one species of whitefly?

This is the interesting part. The idea that there was only one species of whitefly worldwide was held for so long and became so ingrained that no one seems to care what the data says now. Meanwhile, the funding to do work on whiteflies — especially in sub-Saharan Africa — has been so scarce that no one was able to even look to see what’s there. It’s only been in the last seven years or so that people have started to do sampling of the region. The more we sample, the more we realize there are tons more species of whitefly in Africa than we ever thought.

One of the difficult things about identifying new species is that scientists are under pressure to not change their names, because then all the names within the governmental regulations have to be changed. There’s also pressure from chemical companies, who market their products for specific species. If we say there are 34 species — and not one — they have to test their products on all 34. We are creating more work for people, and there’s enormous resistance. But the science is the science. We need our solutions customized to the right enemy. It’s a non-negotiable point.

By the way, the whitefly is highly regulated around the world. Countries have massive regulations on whitefly moving across borders. It can transmit viruses to tomatoes, sweet potatoes and ornamental plants. They are dreaded worldwide.

Cassava root infested with cassava brown streak virus, transmitted by the whitefly. A healthy cassava root has a center that is a solid, creamy white. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

Cassava root infested with cassava brown streak virus, transmitted by the whitefly. A healthy cassava root has a center that is a solid, creamy white. Photo courtesy of Laura Boykin

 

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

TED Fellow Tal Danino programs bacteria to detect and treat cancer – and make art

Above, watch Tal Danino’s TED Talk, “We can use bacteria to detect cancer (and maybe treat it).”

Did you know that bacteria can be programmed as though they were computers? Bioengineer and artist Tal Danino is working out how to instruct bacteria to enter cancerous tumors — where it can detect and treat the disease noninvasively. And when Danino isn’t tinkering with bacteria’s healing potential, he makes artwork with it.

With Danino’s TED talk recently posted, he tells the TED Blog more about bacteria and how the artistic process drives his scientific research.

Tell us about your work in studying and programming bacteria.

There are two really interesting aspects to this. The first is that there’s this entire universe of bacteria inside of you, and in the last five to ten years, there’s been a revolution in figuring out what your microbiome does. It’s a really big part of your identity as well as a part of how you respond to and digest foods, how you develop certain diseases, allergies, and so on. Historically, we’ve thought of bacteria in a negative light and have and worked to maintain sterile environments. Now a lot of the recent research suggests we’ve been too sterile — and that disorders such as allergies, diabetes and obesity are connected to our microbiome. We’ve realized that basically the bacteria in our bodies are usually good, and that they’re a very important part of our health.

Do we know exactly why bacteria are so important to our health?

We don’t yet. We know a lot, and every week we find out a new fact. For example, we now know that the way that you were delivered when you were born — whether it was by caesarian section or traditionally — affects frequency of allergies, or that if you take antibiotics often in the early years of your life it can affect health processes down the road, such as development of asthma. If you grew up with a dog, for example, studies have shown you are less likely to develop allergies or asthma, because dogs can spread bacteria around that develop the immune system and help it to mature when you’re younger.

In my work, we are not only recognizing the importance of bacteria, but we are changing them. There’s this whole other revolution in which we are learning how to program life, similar to how we program computers.

Our technology has reached a point where we can write DNA like we would computer code. As a grad student, I started genetically programming bacteria to talk to each other, and to produce synchronized patterns. Then, as a postdoc, as this bacterial revolution was happening, I began to think about how we can program bacteria in our bodies. That’s when I started to develop bacteria to detect and treat cancer.

Above, watch “Supernova” — a video of bacteria growing a microfluidic device. Through a genetic program, Danino has created synchronized oscillations that you can see because of fluorescent proteins. Taken from Danino et al. Nature 2010

How does one program bacteria? What does this mean?

What we’re doing is modifying the DNA of bacteria. Without getting into technical detail, we have machines that can print out the letters of DNA, like A-T-G-C, and we’ve studied what sequences produce what function for quite some time. So for instance, there is a specific string of 500 letters or so that produces a purple-colored molecule. I print and cut-and-paste these DNA sequences, and put them into bacteria to instruct them to do certain things. In this case, I instruct the bacteria to make a purple molecule if they come into contact and grow within cancer cells, and the color is visible in urine, creating a noninvasive way to detect the disease.  We’ve also been using this technique to program bacteria to make molecules that treat cancer, causing the tumors to shrink or slow in growth. Researchers like me are thinking, “What can we program bacteria to do if they find a tumor?” We’ve been working on these ideas in mice with liver cancer.

What bacteria do you use to detect and treat cancer? Are there cancer-causing bacteria that you target?

Except for a few really specific cases, there’s not really a bacterium that causes cancer, so whatever bacteria we use simply need to be able to colonize the body’s tumors — we can use E. coliSalmonella, and so on, bacteria that will thrive in anyone’s body. In fact, we’ve also been using probiotic bacteria, or ‘good’ bacteria — like those in yogurt  — for these tasks.  So imagine in the future eating a programmed probiotic that could detect and treat cancer, or even other diseases. That’s the goal of my research.

A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz

A pattern made of liver cells. From the Colonies series, a collaboration with Vik Muniz. Image: Vik Munoz

How do the programmed bacteria find the tumors?

If you deliver bacteria orally or via the blood, they land in all of the various organs in your body, as well as in tumors. Normally your immune system is really good at clearing out bacteria, but in cancerous tumors, there’s a weird area called the necrotic core where bacteria can hide because the immune system can’t get in there, and so the bacteria will just happily grow in these tumors.

This was something that people observed maybe 150 years ago, a random interesting fact. The story behind it was that a woman who had a tumor in her neck came into the hospital, and when she got a bacterial infection, her tumor stopped growing. It was the very first time it was observed that bacteria and tumors have this cool interaction.

But it wasn’t really considered safe to treat tumors with bacteria, and we didn’t know how to manipulate bacteria at the time. Today, we are able to program bacteria to be safe — so you won’t actually become infected with E. coli — and program them to do things they don’t normally do.

Why do you use bacteria to make art?

The art I do highlights the science I do in a very different way. I recently did a collaboration with an artist named Anicka Yi. It came out of a conversation where I was telling her about how there are 10 times more bacterial cells in the body than human cells — that’s interesting fact number one. Interesting fact number two is that there are 100 times more bacterial genes. So really, in terms of genetic material, we’re 1% human. The bacteria in your body are a really large and unique part of your identity.

Anicka was interested in doing a piece on how art and bacteria relate to feminism in expressing a woman as a female pathogen or a viral concept. In the project that evolved, she collected bacterial samples from 100 women, and I grew them on petri dishes for a month or two. The exhibit consisted of these petri dishes — bacterial portraits, in a way — as well as a giant petri dish that was 7 feet long, made entirely out of bacteria from all these women, spelling out the name of the show. As bacteria are also responsible for scents, you could smell it as you walked in.

A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino

A 7-foot-long petri dish spelling out the name of exhibition You Can Call Me F, a collboration between Tal Danino and Anicka Yi. Photo: Tal Danino

 

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I fell in love with quasars, blazars and our incredible universe: Jedidah Isler

Jedidah Isler first fell in love with the night sky as a little girl. Now she’s an astrophysicist who studies supermassive hyperactive black holes. In a charming talk, she takes us trillions of kilometers from Earth to introduce us to objects that can be 1 to 10 billion times the mass of the sun — and which shoot powerful jet streams of particles in our direction.

How to control someone else’s arm with your brain: Greg Gage

Greg Gage is on a mission to make brain science accessible to all. In this fun, kind of creepy demo, the neuroscientist and TED Senior Fellow uses a simple, inexpensive DIY kit to take away the free will of an audience member. It’s not a parlor trick; it actually works. You have to see it to believe it.

Gage and his team at Backyard Brains create tools to help teaches kids and amateurs neuroscience through hands-on experiments. Next, watch his TED Talk demonstrating how brains communicate electric impulses – with the help of a live cockroach.

Straw into gold: Trang Tran cultivates mushrooms to fight climate change

Social entrepreneur Trang Tran is teaching Vietnamese farmers how to use rice straw as a material in which to grow profitable mushrooms, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods. Photo: Fargreen

Social entrepreneur Trang Tran is teaching Vietnamese farmers how to use rice straw as a material in which to grow profitable mushrooms, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods. Photo: Fargreen

In agricultural entrepreneur Trang Tran’s native Vietnam, farmers traditionally burn the straw and husks that remain after the rice harvest. This practice happens at least twice a year for two months at a time, releasing noxious smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tran’s solution: using rice straw to cultivate mushrooms. Her social enterprise Fargreen is standardizing the process and teaching farmers how to recycle their own agricultural waste and improve their livelihoods. We asked Tran to tell us about how the idea evolved.

How did you become interested in the burning of rice straw as an environmental problem? Did you come from a farming community?

I’m from a little province called Hà Nam, two hours south of Hanoi, the capital city. My parents are not farmers, but Vietnam is an agricultural country, so everyone is surrounded by rice farms. Even if you live in Hanoi, the nearest farm is only a half an hour away.

Rice straw burning is something that happens every harvest season, and it happens all around us. It’s been done for many years, and it’s considered the most convenient way of getting rid of waste. Straw is perceived as having no value — farmers just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible in order to prepare for the next crop. In Vietnam, 20 to 50 million tons of rice straw are burned annually, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Obviously this contributes to climate change, but the more immediate problem is that local people inhale the matter, causing serious health problems in communities — particularly in babies. Poor communities are most affected, and of course they have the least money for health care.

When rice straw is being burned, it’s very smoggy, and it’s hard to breathe. It also blocks visibility. A lot of car accidents happen during harvest season. It’s crazy — whenever I have to travel from my home to Hanoi for work, or come home during harvest season, rice straw is being burned along both sides of the road and it is very dangerous for drivers.

In rice-producing countries, rice straw is often burned on the field in preparation for new crops. Photo: Scott Gable

In rice-producing countries, rice straw is often burned on the field in preparation for new crops. Photo: Scott Gable

Why is straw burned on roads? Why not just on the field?

The part of the rice plant left in the ground after the harvest is burnt right on the field. But the part left over after threshing is piled by the side of the road. There isn’t much space to store the agricultural waste once it’s been threshed, especially in Northern Vietnam, and roadsides are typically far enough away from houses that the straw can be safely burned. Some people also believe burning straw on the field helps the soil, but it’s actually really damaging because the soil gets drier and drier, and it just gets harder to farm it every year. The straw can’t just be buried because there is too much of it; composting rice straw requires a special technique and takes time. There’s a real need for the farmers to clear the field for the next round of rice cultivation — we plant two crops in Northern Vietnam and three in Southern Vietnam.

How did you come up with the idea to use rice straw to grow mushrooms?

My background is in international development. When I went to get my MBA in Colorado State, I kept thinking about this problem of rice straw waste back home. I had always seen this as an environmental problem, but getting my MBA gave me a way to see the problem differently and find a new way to approach it. My friend Thuy Dao, who was a fellow undergraduate back in Vietnam but in the biotechnology department, shared my fascination. Once I joked with her, “Oh, maybe someday we’ll work together on this problem.” Later, when I was talking to people to find a collaborator, her name popped into my head. So I contacted her and we started doing research.

Of course, we were not the first to tackle this problem. We looked into the various ways other researchers have considered to deal with rice straw. But because we grew up in the community as well as working in development, we could see from the local perspective that the problem is far more complex than just the act of burning. You have to ask, “What is the motivation for farmers? What’s in it for them not to burn?” If there’s nothing in it for them, and burning saves time so they can prepare for their next crop, then you can’t blame them for wanting to continue.

Mushrooms grown on rice straw are sorted and weighed before being sold to restaurants and grocery stores. Being able to stay home to cultivate profitable mushrooms between rice seasons prevents farmers from traveling to the city to find work. Photo: Fargreen

Mushrooms grown on rice straw are sorted and weighed before being sold to restaurants and grocery stores. Being able to stay home to cultivate profitable mushrooms between rice seasons prevents farmers from traveling to the city to find work. Photo: Fargreen

So we tried to think a bit differently — what can we offer the farmers that would make it worth it for them not to burn? In between rice seasons, most of the farmers we work with — many of them women — have to travel to the city to find employment. They don’t have skills to compete in the job market, so all they can get in cities are low-level jobs — picking up trash for recycling and so on. If they can stay on their land and cultivate a profitable crop between rice seasons, it would alleviate a lot of hardship.

One day, we discovered in our research that rice straw can be used to grow mushrooms. We saw that it wasn’t very complex, so we bought some spawn, collected some straw to the back of the house and grew a crop.

What were the varieties of mushrooms that you grew?

We grew paddy straw, oysters and white button. Our first harvest was only a few kilograms, but they were so good! At first we hadn’t even realized that the used straw could then be recycled back to the field. But we saw that the straw had turned into really good compost, because the fungi had helped break it down. Nearby farmers said, “Well, if you want to get rid of it, we’d love to get that to the field for you.” We said OK. We also started to experiment with planting potatoes with the used straw — you put the potatoes in soil, and layer the straw over it to provide more nutrients. We got a really good crop.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

Tradition or travesty? A TED Fellow’s documentary investigates the complexities of whale hunting in the Faroe Islands

For the 50,000 people of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark, hunting long-finned pilot whales — a dark gray species found in their waters — is a tradition that stretches back centuries. These whales are a food source, and hunting them is considered an important part of Faroese culture. Today, the hunt, known as the “grind” (which rhymes with “wind” and is also the Faroese word for “pilot whale”), is highly controversial and divisive, despite the fact that the whales are not endangered.

Last year, photojournalist and TED Fellow Ed Ou and his filmmaking partner Elise Cokertraveled to the Faroe Islands to make a documentary for VICE, The Grind, about a standoff between the Faroese and the marine conservation society Sea Shepherd. For this doc — which you can watch above (warning: it does contain graphic images) — they filmed interviews with both the Faroese people and the activists who came to stop them, including Sea Shepherd supporter Pamela Anderson. In the process, they captured footage of the hunt itself.

We asked Ou and Coker to tell us more.

The Faroese hunt these whales for food — but to be clear, are whales still necessary for their diet?

There’s almost no native agriculture in the Faroes, and whales historically have been a staple of sustenance for the Faroese. They’ve survived into the modern day by fishing — including hunting whales — and raising sheep. Now, of course, the Faroese import goods from around the world. It’s true that if the grind were to stop today, the Faroese would not starve — but that is assuming nothing will ever interfere with global trade and a steady influx of shipments.

Those who oppose the grind often say the Faroese don’t need whale when they have access to resources from the rest of the world, but this suggestion that the Faroese should exclusively rely on outside sustenance strikes many as unfair and even somewhat ironic in light of the urban movement to eat local foods. 

The Faroese maintain that self-sufficiency is of utmost importance to them, and were it not for whales — a free, noncommercial, locally hunted food — they’d be significantly more dependent on imports. Plus, they question whether it’s better — both from humane and environmental perspectives — to import a pig from a farm somewhere in mainland Europe, rather than hunt a whale that swims by the islands. The other thing to note is that even when they are not hunting whales, their entire export industry is based on fishing and the resources of the sea.

Men drag dead pilot whales onto the beach during a hunt in Sandur, Faroe Islands on August 30, 2014. The tradition has endured for nearly 1,000 years. The grind usually occurs in the summer, but there is no set date or even a set season. A grind can happen at any moment. When a pod is spotted, everyone drops what they’re doing to participate in the hunt. Photo: Ed Ou/Reportage: Getty Images

Men drag dead pilot whales onto the beach during a hunt in Sandur, Faroe Islands on August 30, 2014. The tradition has endured for nearly 1,000 years. The grind usually occurs in the summer, but there is no set date or even a set season. A grind can happen at any moment. When a pod is spotted, everyone drops what they’re doing to participate in the hunt. Photo: Ed Ou/Reportage: Getty Images

Men harvest the meat of a pilot whale after the hunt in Sandur. The hunt has always been noncommercial — the meat is shared among the community. Photo: Ed Ou

Men harvest the meat of a pilot whale after the hunt in Sandur. The hunt has always been noncommercial — the meat is shared among the community. Photo: Ed Ou

Why do you think this has gotten so much attention? Do you think Sea Shepherd would respond differently had the hunters involved been indigenous? Is there an assumption that if people look European, they have access to other food?

Simply put, the whale hunt is bloody. It takes place out in the open, and whales have a certain special status in people’s hearts and imaginations. The Faroese will argue that whale hunting and the act of killing for food is no worse than eating beef, chicken or pork. In fact, they go on to say that whales that are hunted have lived full lives out in the ocean, whereas factory farming of chicken or cows is crueler and worse for the environment. 

It’s hard to say how the ethnicity of the Faroese plays into this. Sea Shepherd does have campaigns against non-European indigenous cultures. I think the main difference is that the Faroese have not experienced colonialism, while other cultures often taking the brunt of similar activism have a far more traumatized history of outsiders imposing alien standards upon their ways of life. As a result, the Faroese have a lot of unabashed pride, and defend their culture — more so, perhaps, than cultures that have been systematically oppressed over time.

Why do you think activists have focused on this rather than on trying to stop industrial meat production?

Sea Shepherd does have campaigns to stop industrial fishing and whaling in other parts of the world. To be clear, we don’t think the instinct to want to save whales and conserve marine wildlife is incorrect at all. This specific campaign in the Faroe Islands is a very visual and accessible one for Sea Shepherd to rally around. As volunteers told us, this is a specific, small and relatively easy thing to stop. One can easily imagine getting physically between a small group of hunters and the whales. Responsibility for the larger problems that plague the oceans is so diffuse and far-flung that the acute focus of a mission like this in the Faroes is appealing to those who want to feel like they are making an immediate and visceral difference.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>> 

Check before you rent: How a TED Fellow is holding New York City landlords accountable

RentCheck.me, a new website created by TED Fellow Yale Fox, aims to make renting an apartment in New York less of a guessing game. Image: RentCheck

RentCheck.me, a new website created by TED Fellow Yale Fox, aims to make renting an apartment in New York less of a guessing game. Image: RentCheck

Cockroaches. Moldy walls. Stolen deposits. Bad landlords happen to all of us, and it can be impossible to tell before moving into a property whether the experience will be a good one, especially in housing-short cities like New York, where landlords seem to hold the cards. But TED Fellow Yale Fox is looking to change that with RentCheck — a new rental search engine that not only finds apartments but rates properties and landlords based on consumer reviews and the city’s open data.

RentCheck launches today in New York City, and will ultimately be rolled out in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto and Vancouver, too. On launch day, the TED Blog asks Fox to tell us more.

Did RentCheck come out of a bad personal experience with renting?

Yeah — every place I’ve ever rented in my entire life, especially in New York. When my fiancée and I first moved to New York from Los Angeles, we rented a place and put down three months up front — our entire nest egg. It was a brand-new building, three years old. I had a broker check it out for me, and he said everything was okay. But when we got there, after a minute or two of looking around, we said, “What the hell happened in here?” The bathroom was disgusting. There was a dead bird, and insects rolled up in the blinds. It was vile. But all the management said was, “Sorry, man. Welcome to New York.” Because of our contract, we ended up having to stay for six months before we could finally leave.

To put this in perspective, I’m talking about a new building. There are many people who live in far worse conditions in New York — people who have to turn on their stove or oven to heat their place because the landlord won’t fix the radiator, for example. That can cause fires. With RentCheck, we’ve created a platform that increases the amount of transparency involved in a simple, common real estate transaction — the signing of a lease. The whole idea is that RentCheck can help renters avoid these bad situations in the first place. Additionally, it’s a place for renters to report problems publicly — all backed up by official city data.

How does RentCheck work?

RentCheck is an apartment rental search engine, but what makes us unique is that we give renters information about that property and landlord that has never before been easily available — such as cleanliness, pest problems, maintenance problems, landlord responsiveness and even information on whether or not they returned a security deposit on time, or at all. To express this, we compute a “RentCheck Rating” — a letter grade from A to F, which describes the quality of life in the building. The rating has nothing to do with the quality of the building itself; it’s not about whether it’s a fancy high rise or a brownstone. It’s about what will happen if you have a problem — how issues are handled. If you live in a B building, for example, it’s going to be fine. Repairs will likely be handled appropriately.

Everything you'd want to know about your future home: RentCheck shows available properties and scores landlords based on publicly available city data. It also lets renters post reviews. Image: RentCheck

Everything you’d want to know about your future home: RentCheck shows available properties and scores landlords based on publicly available city data. It also lets renters post reviews. Image: RentCheck

Where do you get this information?

Much of the information comes from New York City’s open data and public records. In fact, RentCheck would not have been possible two years ago: I was inspired to create it when New York City made its city data open in September 2013. You see, in New York, if you have a problem with the landlord, you call 311 to register your complaint. You say, “Hey, there are roaches, and my landlord won’t get rid of them.” A day or two later, the city will send an inspector, and if they find the roaches, they’ll mark it as a violation. Typically, it stops there. If landlords don’t want to do anything about a problem, they don’t really have to. Most tenants either accept it, deal with it themselves, or go to court. But all this information gets filed in the city records. So at RentCheck, we take all that information and score every residential building in New York — and there are 1.1 million of them.

We’ve also gathered our own information based on renter reviews we solicited ourselves prior to launch. We hold contests where if you post a review about your landlord you’re automatically entered to win a year’s supply of unlimited MetroCards. The response has been great. Some people go on Yelp to write reviews of property managers and properties. But Yelp has a few thousand reviews in the New York City real estate space, whereas we have 10,000 — and that’s on launch day.

 To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

5 ways to kill your dreams: Bel Pesce

We all want to invent that game-changing product, launch that successful company, write that best-selling book. Yet so few of us actually do it. In this recently released talk — which has already almost hit a million views — Brazilian entrepreneur Bel Pesce breaks down five easy-to-believe myths that ensure your dream projects will never come to fruition.