Tag Archives: TED Fellow

The FBI & the theater of terror: Q&A with Trevor Aaronson

Trevor Aronson speaks during Fellows Session 2, TED2015 - Truth and Dare, March 16-20, 2015, Kay Meek Center, West Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Trevor Aaronson speaks during Fellows Session 2, TED2015 – Truth and Dare, March 16-20, 2015, Kay Meek Center, West Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

On Monday, investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson made a rather startling allegation from the TED Fellows stage: that the FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and ISIS combined. (Read a full recap of his talk on the TED Blog.)

Incited by the post-9/11 mandate to find terrorists before they strike, said Aaronson, the FBI orchestrates terror plots, framing mentally ill and economically desperate Muslim-Americans as would-be terrorists, helping them to create — then foiling — the plot in a sting operation and scoring points in the War on Terror. On Monday, he published a report in The Intercept releasing leaked sealed records, offering evidence that the FBI knows what it’s up to. We sat down with Aaronson after his talk to find out more.

What is the significance of the leaked documents published Monday in The Intercept?

This story gives access to sealed transcripts of conversations the FBI had in private when they were working the sting operation that targeted Sami Osmakac, who was accused of planning terrorist attacks. In the recorded conversation, FBI agents themselves suggest that they didn’t think Osmakac was dangerous. They call him a “retarded fool” who doesn’t have “a pot to piss in.” They say his plans are “wishy-washy.” This is in stark contrast to the government portrayal of Osmakac after his arrest as a truly dangerous terrorist.

The greater significance is that Osmakac’s is not a unique case. These types of sting operations have targeted more than 175 people in the United States. What this offers is a rare, if not first-ever, look into such a sting operation as it unfolded.

So the FBI knows exactly what it’s doing.

Yes. The greatest piece of evidence that the government had on Sami Osmakac was that he had provided $500 to an undercover agent posing as a weapons supplier, and the government used that to say he had the commitment and capacity to commit an act of terrorism. From the sealed transcripts, it’s clear that the FBI agents knew Sami didn’t have any money. He didn’t have the ability to raise any money, and the FBI gave him a job through an informant, paid that informant, then through that informant gave Sami Osmakac $500. So the money that is ultimately being used as incriminating evidence against Sami has its origin in the US government.

An excerpt from the leaked transcript published Monday in The Intercept, in which FBI squad supervisor Richard Worms refers to the hoped-for "Hollywood ending" to their undercover sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

An excerpt from the leaked transcript published Monday in The Intercept, in which FBI squad supervisor Richard Worms refers to the hoped-for “Hollywood ending” to their undercover sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

How does one identify an event that appears staged versus something that really seems like a threat?

Take, for example, someone like Faisal Shahzad, who delivered a bomb to Times Square that thankfully didn’t go off. He was in contact with terrorist organizations. He went to Pakistan to train, came back, worked on his bomb, delivered it to Times Square, and the government had no idea who he was until that bomb was in New York City.

The difference between Faisal Shahzad and someone like Sami Osmakac is that Faisal Shahzad got his capacity by training overseas and had his own weapons. Sami Osmakac and these 175 others never had connections overseas, never had weapons of their own and often didn’t even have two nickels to rub together. It was the FBI agent or undercover informant who gave them the opportunity or money to move forward in the attack.

The FBI is really great at finding those types of terrorists, who on their own can’t do much. Maybe say they want to, and the FBI empowers them. The record of the FBI catching people before they strike, people who are actually dangerous like Faisal Shahzad, or the Boston Marathon bombers, is not very good.

What is the FBI’s motivation for staging terror plots?

I think it’s a bureaucratic evil. Congress sets the FBI’s budget, and gives them $3.3 billion for counterterrorism. They can’t go back to Congress every year and say, “Hey, we spent your $3 billion and we didn’t find any terrorists.” These sting operations are a very convenient mechanism for the FBI to say, “Hey, look at us keeping you safe.” I think there are true believers in the FBI who think that someone like Sami Osmakac could become a terrorist if, say, he one day met a real Al Qaeda operative, or an Islamic State operative, who’d provide the bomb.

It’s a reasonable argument, but in the 14 years since 9/11, there hasn’t been a case yet that a wannabe terrorist like Sami Osmakac meets a true international terrorist who provides the means and opportunity.

As an FBI agent, once you get one of these cases, you can get promoted, so there is incentive for agents themselves to find these types of cases. In turn, the FBI agents incentivize informants, many of whom are hardened criminals, to find people who are interested in committing acts of terrorism. So instead of finding the Faisal Shahzads, they are finding the mentally ill guy who is mouthing off at the mosque, and they get him to move along in a sting operation.

Photo from the Sami Osmakac sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

Photo from the Sami Osmakac sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

So are people like Osmakac simply innocent people being targeted for money by corrupt informants?

You can’t paint it that starkly, because the truth is, Sami says things in the undercover recordings that make him an unlikeable, even odious, person. He does, in these recordings, condone violence. He does say various things justifying violence against the American public because of the government’s policies overseas. But how much of this came from him, and how much of this is the result of manipulating a mentally ill man?

I think you can make a solid argument that Sami had some very misguided ideas and that he was also mentally ill. He’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. His misguided ideas were encouraged by the FBI agent and the informant. When Sami was left on his own, he said he wasn’t interested in violence — he only wanted to go overseas and marry a Muslim woman. But when he talked to the informant, he was more like, “Hey, how can we get involved in a terrorist attack?”

It’s difficult. If someone came up to you or me and said, “Want to place a bomb somewhere?” We’d say, “No way!” Most people would say that, but the FBI is finding people who are willing to say yes. But having bad thoughts isn’t a crime. It’s a crime if you commit an act of terrorism. The people in these 175 cases, like Sami’s, never would have had the capacity to get involved in a crime of that caliber were it not for the FBI providing the means and opportunity — and in many cases the idea for the act itself.

Where did you find the evidence for the 175 cases? How long has this all been known?

I was an investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley in 2011, and my project then — which became a Mother Jones story and later a book, The Terror Factory — was to look at all of the terrorism cases in the 10 years after 9/11. We were able to break down, of the 508 terrorism cases we looked at, there were 149 people caught in stings. I’ve kept that running tally going since then, as more cases are announced, and now we’re up to more than 175. Whenever the government announces a case, it goes in my database of cases. My data has been used by Human Rights Watch in their recent report. It also went to the FBI, and they have never challenged it.

Given that the FBI stop the would-be terrorists just in time, and it’s all staged, surely one could make the argument that there was no harm done?

The key phrase you’ll hear when the FBI announces a sting is, “The public was never in harm’s way.” Of course they weren’t — the FBI is staging the whole thing. They have a very specific formula for how they do this. In Sam Osmakac’s case, he loaded an inert in his car, and started to deliver it. As soon as he started to back out, FBI agents arrested him. In other cases, the FBI has had people deliver a bomb and dial a cell phone, and when the bomb doesn’t detonate, they are arrested. They take the target all the way to the end of the operation so that prosecutors can say to the jury, “This guy intended to do it — he went all the way.” But of course the plot is under the FBI’s control the entire time. FBI agents are monitoring them, and the only weapons these people have are fake ones provided by the undercover government agents.

Photo of Sami Osmakac taken during the sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

Photo of Sami Osmakac taken during the sting operation. Image courtesy of Trevor Aaronson

Of course, Osmakac thinks he is working with real terrorists.

Exactly. Then he’s busted, having no idea that the FBI was with him the entire way.

Based on jury verdicts, this is not something that the US public is uncomfortable with. Federal prosecutors have a near-perfect record of conviction on cases like this. Sami Osmakac was the 12th person to argue entrapment as a result of these sting operations, and he wasn’t successful, None has been successful. I think that it raises questions about whether a Muslim charged with terrorism in the United States right now can really get a fair trial. These counterterrorism sting operations have been criticised by a number of organizations, including Human Rights Watch.

Is Osmakac really the only victim in all of this?

He’s going to spend 40 years in prison. I think you could make a strong argument that Sami Osmakac deserved to go to a mental hospital and spend some time there, and sort out what’s going on. It’s a harder argument to make that he’s a terrorist and should be in federal prison under maximum security. A lot of these guys are mentally ill, and I think if we perhaps had a better-funded mental health system in the United States, these are the type of people who would be swept into that system. Instead, they are swept into an FBI dragnet, portrayed to the public as terrorists, and spend the majority of their lives in federal prison, charged as terrorists, under laws that were written, and with mandatory sentencing guidelines that intended, for the Osama bin Ladens of the world.

Now that the Intercept story is out, what do you think the response will be?

I’ve been writing about this topic for five years now and the FBI policy hasn’t changed. Positive things have happened. Human Rights Watch coming out with a report last summer that supported my reporting was certainly nice. But there has yet to be a congressional committee that looks at these issues; there has yet to be significant congressional oversight of these issues.

I think this most recent story about Sami Osmakac advances the narrative on FBI counterterrorism stings. From the transcripts, It is clear that the FBI agents were cynical and even at times mean-spirited in their private jokes about Osmakac. It’s also clear from the transcripts that they didn’t think he was dangerous — but was simply a patsy, someone they could prosecute.

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Why I chose to stand up, alone: TED Fellow Boniface Mwangi on risking his life for justice in Kenya

 

Boniface Mwangi stands in front of one of the murals he helped create. The main character is “the Vulture” — a stand-in for Kenya’s corrupt politicians. Photo: Allan Gichingi

Boniface Mwangi stands in front of one of the murals he helped create. The main character is “the Vulture” — a stand-in for Kenya’s corrupt politicians. Photo: Allan Gichingi

Award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi captured the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya unflinchingly through the lens of his camera. But the horrors he witnessed propelled him into a new career as an activist and artist. Here, Mwangi talks to the TED Blog about the events that led him to stand up against injustice, literally, rather than simply document it.

Tell us about your experience on the front lines of the post-election violence in Kenya.

At the time, I was a photographer working for The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. It was a routine election, though hotly contested. There were two contenders: Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won — at least he claimed that he won — while Raila claimed that he was the rightful winner and that Kibaki had rigged the election. So the supporters of the two politicians erupted into fighting over the results. What followed was ugly, bloody, terrible violence. More than a thousand people were killed, and more than half a million displaced. My job was just to document this violence as a photographer.

Why do you think this particular event created such a violent response?

During the build-up of the election, there was a lot of terrible tribal rhetoric. The politicians were inciting people, slowly. Whatever the outcome was, the losing side would not be ready to accept the results. There were a lot of underlying, unresolved issues; a violent response was inevitable. It didn’t just happen. It was very deliberate.

Boniface Mwangi was assigned to photograph the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. His photos are unflinching, capturing violence from both civilians and soldiers. Photo: Boniface Mwangi

Boniface Mwangi was assigned to photograph the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. His photos are unflinching, capturing violence from both civilians and soldiers. Photo: Boniface Mwangi

Did you see it coming?

No. No one saw it coming. You see, we’d had elections before in 1992 and 1997 where people died — maybe 10, 20, 50, 100 — but it was a scattered number and relatively few. The sheer brutality of 2007’s events — this level of orchestrated violence — had never been seen before in Kenya.

Did other Kenyans try to stop it?

The violence was in low-income neighborhoods, and most Kenyans did not know the extent of what was going on. If you are extremely poor, you only get your news on the radio. All those communities heard about were numbers of the dead and displaced, and they couldn’t relate. If you’re middle class, you might get the paper or watch TV, but graphic pictures were not shown because TV content is classified for family audiences. Most Kenyans did not see what really happened.

What were the police doing while this was happening?

By and large, the monstrosity of the violence overwhelmed them. Unfortunately, the police were perpetrators as well. I took pictures of women who had been raped by the policemen who were meant to protect them. I saw innocent kids being killed by police. During the violence, I only broke down once — when a girl was killed. She was about 12 years old, and she looked like my younger sister. That made me wail like a baby.

How do you take pictures in the face of such violence? Are you concerned about your personal safety?

When I’m taking pictures, I’m not thinking about the person. I’m thinking about lighting, framing, composition. There is so much adrenaline in your body that you’re not thinking about death. You’re not careless — you’re careful while you’re doing your work — but at the same time you realize that you have to do a job. If you’re a news photographer, or any photographer, and you get a chance to cover hard news like war, it’s stimulating and also humbling. It’s every news photographer’s dream to cover war. So at that particular time, I wasn’t really thinking about safety.

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

Watch this video of Boniface Mwangi’s story, which shows many more of his images. Warning: Some are hard to look at. But all are powerful. 

For these women, reading is a daring act: Laura Boushnak

In some parts of the world, half of the women lack basic reading and writing skills. The reasons vary, but in many cases, literacy isn’t valued by fathers, husbands, even mothers. Kuwaiti-born photographer and TED Fellow Laura Boushnak traveled to countries including Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia to document some of the women — schoolgirls, political activists, 60-year-old moms — who are fighting cultural odds for the sake of education. Listen to Boushnak’s talk, then see a gallery of her images on the TED Ideas Blog >>>

Design for dying: Alison Killing on the architecture of death

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Alison Killing thinks a lot about death … and specifically, how its ubiquitous, hidden presence shapes our cities. In Death in Venice, her June 2014 exhibition on the topic, Killing mapped London’s death-associated architectural features — hospitals, cemeteries, crematoria, and so on — making visible the invisible mechanics of death and dying. She asks us to consider: What might a good death experience mean today? And how can we design differently for the dying, as well as those caring for them?

Here, the Netherlands-based British architect and urban designer, who specializes in humanitarian architecture, talks about how the project has challenged her own perception of death, and how she plans to make space for better dying.

First of all, it’s hard to miss the connection between your work and your name. Is it just a coincidence?

Yes, it’s my real name. My firm is called Killing Architects — I like to say that I started Killing Architects four years ago. [laughs]

How did you become involved in the architecture of death? Was it a long-term interest?

It began rather suddenly and recently with a call for proposals to the 2014 Venice Biennale. The theme was “fundamentals.” Most countries in the world stage their own exhibition in a national pavilion. For 2014, nations were asked to look at modernism in their own country between 1914 and 2014.

Two days before the deadline, a friend emailed me with an idea for the British Pavilion’s call for entries:  “Let’s do an exhibition about death.” He and a partner had already completed a thesis project on this topic, and I pulled in a couple more friends to build a solid team with a curatorial and research base. We didn’t get accepted, but at the end of a quite rushed process, we had a proposal that was well worked out, and an idea that we liked. So we applied for funding on our own, and produced it in Venice as an independent event, coinciding with the opening week of the Biennale.

We had about 500 people come and see the actual exhibition, a few really nice reviews and quite a lot of press attention for the project, too. Part of the funding for the exhibition came from a Kickstarter campaign, and through that we had a lot of social media buzz. We could only stay open a week, but we heard of a lot of people going to Venice for the Biennale later on and looking for Death in Venice.

A close-up of one of the infographics in Death in Venice, showing changing life expectancy over the course of the 20th century. Early in the century, many children died before their 5th birthday, and the average life expectancy at the time was around 48. Today we can expect to live to almost 80. Photo: Alison Killing

What was your focus for the exhibition?

When death has been studied before, it’s usually been from a memorial standpoint — about monuments and tombstones and so on — straightforward architecture. We had a lot of background research on this aspect, but we decided to think about how, while death is something that we don’t talk about much publicly, or even think about on a day-to-day level, it’s pervasive in our lives. Hospitals, hospices, crematoria and cemeteries surround us, yet we are not aware.

The architectural history of the 20th century is often presented in terms of advances in science and technology leading to light, airy, green, healthy cities for the masses. It was a reaction to the filthy industrial slums of the previous century. The narrative is about life and increased health and progress — but death is never mentioned in this story, even though these developments have also massively changed the way we approach it.

At the start of the 20th century, people typically died at home and of infectious diseases after a short period of illness (and a huge proportion died of “other causes” that couldn’t be adequately explained at the time). Developments in medicine — like the discovery of penicillin — and in public health led to a decline in deaths from infectious disease. At the same time, the invention of heavy and expensive medical equipment, like X-ray machines, needed to be kept somewhere central, which gave us the modern hospital. Universal health care meant more people got access to proper medical treatment, which in turn created a need for more of these buildings.

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

Filmmaker, blogger … butcher? How TED Fellow Bassam Tariq works to upend conventional views of Muslim life

Artist Bassam Tariq is determined to shine a light on the incredible diversity of Muslim life – and he does it by any means necessary. Known for his blogging project 30 Mosques in 30 Days, Tariq and a friend took a month-long road trip through all 50 states, breaking their Ramadan fast each evening in mosques along the way and documenting the people they met.

He also traveled to Pakistan to film These Birds Walk, a documentary celebrating the life of the unassuming man who created Pakistan’s first ambulance service, through the lens of a coming-of-age story. And if that’s not enough, back home in New York City, Tariq cofounded Honest Chops, a halal butcher shop in the East Village that offers high-quality meat to his neighbors, 90 percent of whom aren’t even Muslim.

As his TED Talk, “The beauty and diversity of Muslim life,” is released, we spoke to Tariq about the unifying vision behind these wildly disparate projects, and how they each serve to alter perspective on what it means to be Muslim.

Your arsenal of talents is somewhat bewildering — butcher, blogger, filmmaker. How did you get here?

I was born in Pakistan, but after a short time in New York, where we lived in a very middle-class Astoria neighborhood, we moved to Houston — to the hood — when I was about 11. We didn’t even realize how bad the neighborhood was at first, because New York was so dirty in the ’90s. It was a subsidized housing complex. We thought, “Wow, this is so nice and so big!” It turned out to be violent.

I realized that everything was divided by race. It felt really weird, because in New York, we all just got along and everyone was from a different background. This neighborhood was a predominantly African-American area, and we were the only brown kids, and we always got into fights — always. So I started lying to people, and told them I was Jewish, just to get around. I didn’t want to be called “Gandhi.” To me, that was the worst thing you could be called.

I can think of worse people to be.

I know, right? But my attitude was, “That stupid little Indian man ruined everything for me.” They’d show videos of him in school, and everyone would be like, “Yo, that’s your dad.” And I was like, “Oh my god. No, I’m Pakistani.” People would respond: “What’s that?” No one really even knew where it was on a map.

Then, when we moved into the suburbs, we lived among more affluent people. It was the first time I started seeing a lot of white people in my life. I was in ninth grade. And I thought, “This is weird. These are American, WASPy white people.” Very different from the Greek and Italian kids that I grew up with [in New York]. That’s when I started seeing a different side of privilege. Until then, I believed our problems were due to having a victim mentality. When I went to college, I got involved with student organizations. The pivotal point for me was 9/11. I was forced to deal with Islam and what it meant to me — if anything. It’s such a cliché. But our politics and beliefs were put in the spotlight.

I also met affluent Pakistani kids who grew up wealthy, and until then I had no idea what that wealth was like. My dad worked in a restaurant, and we owned a gas station — that was our upward mobility — and we weren’t particularly religious. My dad would open the doors to the mosque in the morning, and then he’d go to open up the gas station. Later, we closed the gas station and my dad then opened a Chinese restaurant.

How’d that go?

It was really good food — Pakistani-Chinese fusion. It was awful as a business; it only lasted about a year-and-a-half. But my dad’s a great cook.

Above, watch the trailer for These Birds Walk, Bassam Tariq’s documentary feature that follows the coming-of-age story of two boys in Pakistan.

What did you grow up thinking you’d do?

I thought I’d go into business, or maybe become a doctor. No one in my family went to college, so it was really important that one of us go. But during that time, because my parents couldn’t afford college, I was signed up as a subject for medical tests to make money. It was dehumanizing. They’d hook me up to these weird machines and feed me medicine, and then follow my heart rate and so on. Then I took this class called “Creativity in American Culture,” and that really shifted my perspective on what was possible. I picked up a camera and thought, “I’ll start shooting videos. That might make some money.” I learned how to edit from a friend, and then did corporate videos — like videos for the university mental health department, and so on.

Is that why you became a filmmaker?

Yes, but I didn’t have an interest then in the art of film. In the beginning, I was excited about the creativity of advertising, and that’s the route I took after I graduated and moved to New York. It was really tough, being the only non-white person in the creative world of advertising. It’s very, very homogenous, and there’s no nuance to stories. There’s a façade of creativity, a sense that you’re changing the world. But I saw through it, and I ultimately got axed from my first job due to my lack of interest.

How did end up making These Birds Walk?

When I went to New York, I wanted to get away from Muslims, because in Texas, I saw how we bubbled ourselves. But as soon as I got to New York, I ended up meeting Muslims — and they were an amazing group of creative artists. My roommate, for example, was a filmmaker named Musa Syeed. He was setting his own rules, doing things his own way, and he was unapologetic about his beliefs and his practices. Until I met Musa and others in this circle, I’d worried more about being the token Muslim, that my work would be only for Muslims. Even now, for These Birds Walk, it was really important for me to make it about universal themes — family, youth, growing up.

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

16 objects you might find in a pawn shop in 2050: Chris Woebken

Over on the TED Ideas blog, TED Fellow Chris Woebken imagines the future in the shape of objects you might find in a 2050 pawn shop. Read an excerpt here, then follow the link below for more!

For most of us, trying to picture the future is a futile exercise that leads at best to some bad ideas that should likely never be shared out loud. For people like TED Fellow Chris Woebken, it’s why the present exists.

Along with Elliott Montgomery, Woebken runs The Extrapolation Factory, a studio devoted to imagining future scenarios. One recent project challenged visitors to the Museum for Arts and Design in New York to come up with products you might find in a pawn shop in 2050. Like all good science fiction, the results riff off things that are already shimmering in the real world. And like all good science fiction, some of them are more than a little bonkers. A nice twist? You can buy them all, with profits going toward researchers working in that particular area. Here, take a look at 16 objects that don’t exist yet … but might.

1. A robot frog to replace those wiped out by disease.

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The artificial, bio-robotic “Anura-43″ frog replaces flesh-and-blood counterparts that had become extinct by 2050. Sadly, the loss isn’t entirely that unlikely: asThe Guardian has reported, a fungus epidemic first threatened frogs in Costa Rica in 1987 and it now threatens nearly 3,000 amphibian species.

2. A gizmo to design your children (and your children’s children)

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Genetic engineering has provided the basis of much moral handwringing and discussion (see this interview with ethics professor Julian Savulescu). By 2050, concepts such as genetic terrorism and “sterility suicide bombers” will likely have become unnervingly familiar. The “Clean Gene Machine” allows people to visualize and understand all the genetic permutations that could result from their reproducing — and be rid of any unwanted glitches that might result in their children being infertile.

3. A robotic drone to bring you … yogurt.

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Even by 2015, companies were excitedly trumpeting the potential of drones (or “unmanned aerial vehicles,” as their makers would rather you called them) to transform lives for the better or, at least, bring you stuff now. (See the TED playlist Will drones save us or destroy us?) By 2050, the “Dro-Yo” could do both through the drone-delivery of yogurt. Why yogurt? Because it might just be the healthiest thing out there. In 2013, Yovivo wanted to use synthetic biology to amp up yogurt’s naturally healthy properties and include clones of resveratrol, the molecule commonly found in red wine that lowers bad cholesterol and improves circulation.

Written by Helen Walters. To find out what Woebken’s 13 other objects are, visit the Ideas blog >>>

Could you build your own house, car or tractor? Marcin Jakubowski on his adventures in extreme manufacturing

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What if you could build a civilization from scratch, using tools that could also be built from scratch? In his talk “Open-sourced blueprints for civilization” at TED2011, Marcin Jakubowski introduced the Global Village Construction Set, open-source blueprints that would essentially allow anyone with a heap of scrap metal — and a few production tools — to make 50 machines covering all the needs of a basic civilization: agriculture, energy, transportation and production.

In the last two years, this TED Fellow has been working to make this radical idea a reality on Factor e Farm — a community based on 30 acres near Kansas City, Missouri. The TED Blog caught up with him to find out how the project is going, and to hear how his marriage to fellow Fellow (and open-source scholar) Catarina Mota (watch her talk, “Play with smart materials“) has brought domestic bliss into the construction equation.

It’s been a couple of years since you gave your talk on the Global Village Construction set. It generated a lot of excitement and about $1 million in funding. How has the project developed since then?

Machines that are ready for viral replication are the brick press, the hydraulic power unit and the soil pulverizer. The tractor needs some work. We’ve built a number of other prototypes — like the CNC torch table, a backhoe, an ironworker machine for cutting slabs of steel, a circuit mill and a trencher. We have an early prototype of a microcar and a 3D printer.

As we continue to prototype and develop more tools in the set, we are working to both develop a community and generate revenue, because our foundation funding has run out. To do this, we’ve experimented with a workshop model, where we teach interested people how to build the tools in a three-day immersion learning course. People paid a fee to take a weekend-long workshop, and we also sold the completed equipment. We’ve done a total of four microhouse workshops, one brick press workshop, one Power Cube workshop and one microcar workshop. Take the brick press, for example. It costs $5,000, we earned about $5,000 in tuition fees, and we sold the press for $10,000. It’s an education/production revenue model. The person who bought the brick press even came to the workshop and participated in the build. The general feedback was that people were really excited to build things that they didn’t think they could before the workshop.

A backhoe manufacture in progress at Factor E Farms. Photo: Open Source Ecology

A backhoe manufacture in progress at Factor E Farms. Photo: Open Source Ecology

How has your perspective on this project changed since your talk?

I’m seeing that this work takes a long time to develop, so it’s more like a two-decade project than the two-year project I initially imagined. So I’ve revised my timeline and am planning for the long haul. I’ve realized that to make the Global Village Construction Set tools feasible, we need to explore what’s known as extreme manufacturing, which means rapid parallel building of the technologies. That means we have to get full infrastructure for rapid development in place — rapid prototyping, collaborative design — and a massive parallel development effort. The key to this is producing excellent, comprehensive, open documentation that anyone can access, and thus join the project rapidly. The workshop/funding model is a part of this plan.’

We have shown that we can build a brick press in a single day, for example. Now we’re focusing on building multiple machines and structures at the same time with different groups of people. Recently, we got that to the level of housing. We built a house in five days using compressed blocks from our Compressed Earth Block Press, plus standard modular construction techniques. Our next goal is to build a 3,000-square-foot electronics workshop in two days with 100 people.

In essence, what we’ll attempt is parallel group builds via workshops happening simultaneously. We are creating a process that’s social, educational and productive all at once. We just need to scale it and make it highly replicable. If we can hire people to teach, we could have a number of these revenue-generating workshops going on all at once. Meanwhile, I could carry on developing machines.

The missing link is people. That’s the perennial issue. We are in real need of diversely-skilled people who are both organizers and builders. However, we’ve had a couple of workshop attendees that later became workshop leaders. They had enough skill that they could actually pull it off.

An engine module, for use with the Power Cube, which generates hydraulic power. Photo: Open Source Ecology

An engine module, for use with the Power Cube, which generates hydraulic power. Photo: Open Source Ecology

What kind of person is motivated to do this?

A maker, a creator, a DIY-type of person. People interested in self-sufficiency, regenerative development, as well as survivalists. A person who does it because it’s possible. Our goal is to bring the barriers way down to do this.

In fact, one new insight we’ve gained is that we’re able to lead unskilled teams of people through a process of a complex machine build. At the workshops, we had people who’d never welded before. And even myself — without prior experience in fabrication, I taught myself to do it. If you have the willingness, the technology is accessible. But you do need the open-source design blueprints and detailed instructions.

And then there are motivated entrepreneurs. One of our guys is now selling our Power Cubes, the hydraulic power units, as a business.

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

 

 

 

A poem from the future: Ben Burke

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This week, the TED Ideas blog launched its new “Question Worth Asking”: “How weird will the future be?” The series of articles kicks off with weird and wonderful piece from poet and TED Fellow Ben Burke

[Dear Helen- So sorry. Didn’t have time to write that poem. But my future self sent me one yesterday. So we’re good. Crazy, right? It’s totally legit and actually from the future, so no need to double-check, you’re probably too busy anyway. Also included is the typewritten note that was taped to the package. Happy New Year!  – Ben Burke]

THE TRANSHUMANIST’S LAMENT
or
TOO MANY RIVERS, NOT ENOUGH LAKES
or
OH, FUTURE — YOU SO CRAZY

I arrived in the basket that was weaved here before me
And I stayed in any place with a roof that would store me
I have lots of belongings
But didn’t pack for the trip
I got here, they put pants on me
And then the world gave me the slip

I’ve lived as slowly as I could
Because there was no time to waste
But then things just got so weird
That I just had to grab your ear
And give the tongue inside your mind a little taste:

For example:

The wallpaper can see that you’re stressed,
So it turns a lovely shade of blue
The thermostat has thought things over
And is ready to have a word with you

And your closet picked out your outfit
for the party Friday night
Whilst the blender and the toaster
made vindaloo by candlelight

And Doctor mailman robot
Printed your pills in quite a hurry
Your vitamins were running low
Now there’s B12 in your curry

But your personality algorithm
was accidentally miswritten
You forgot your fingernails were all encoded
and you bit them

Now the discs of your thumbnails
are gangrene, corrupted
The chip that was slipped
twixt each digit erupted

Your sensors and servos
Implants and additions
All bent towards a personal program of precision

Your body’s expanded
Your spirit is failing
The row boat got a motor but wants to be sailing

Yes every Thing now is thinking
We are each our own king
But there’s no kingdom here to speak of
It’s a pot luck, but we’ve nothing to bring

For the air now is as thick as the sea
With every thing we created, each idea we have dreamed

Yes we screamed and filled the skies with drones and clones of drones
Now they’re crashing on our couches as they move into our homes
And taking in some old stray nanobots
Now the drones have a family
Now the drones have a dog
There’s so many drones, we all miss having cops

Yes life never stops, there’s no room to start over
Though we have deftly fashioned countless walls
Every thing that you want or you need or just hoped for
Is always round the corner, and just down the hall

We are tubes inside of tubes inside of tubes inside of more
We are a sinking ship that’s filled with valves, and pouches, switches, doors

A whirling servo for your heart-
It no longer beats, it hums
Every poem will be disposed of that once compared our hearts to drums

We are a hurricane that just built a fountain
A pile of rocks with an eye for the mountain
But keep your ears to the ground for the counting
For the number of hooves that are rumbling round it
Numb to the sound of the sirens surrounding

For we will stretch ourselves further
Than we ever have before
And one day, there’s no doubt, we will snap

With our nose to the grindstone
of progress
We’ll all make our way
to the top, then collapse

For though we’ve imagined where it is we’re all headed-
We do not yet know where we stand
The future can’t hold for us a promise, my friend
It’s a ghost with a pair of clouds for hands

Yes the future isn’t waiting there for us-
It is quietly being pulled through us
It’s an illustration of our secret ways
and yet we cannot say who drew us

For as soon as the word is pronounced
There’s a parade!
The new product arrives!
In your ear
On your finger
Up your nose
And
In your eyes

Yes we’ve figured out a way to make you all feel MORE alive
(side effects may include
shortness of breath
thoughts of suicide or death
but most likely just
anxiety
and hives)

You’ll be a walking coral reef
You’ll be the tide pools filled with teeth
You’ll be a mouth that’s always chewing
You’ll be a tongue that’s underneath it all
You’ll be the roof, the ceiling, and all the papered walls

You’ll be prefixed
With endo
And intra
And supra

As they watch you
And poke you
And cut you
And shoot ya

Let us mend every seam with some sutures
Let them sew up the holes in your life with the future

But who are we inside of this thing that we’ve built?
We’re a bowl full of milk that’s about to be spilt

For there is always a storm that is coming
The word on the tip of all tongues now is fear
We’d all love to cry out, but we’re too filled with doubt
That’s no diamond, my friend, it’s a tear

That’s no animal, in fact-
No we’ve all just learned
each of them is a sentient being
Why there’s so many facts
That are all in the past
It’s unbelievable- the things that we weren’t seeing

It turns out that Reiki is real
And meditation’s no longer a joke
We’ve all been such fools, but now we teach it in the schools
And yes the hippies are all pretty stoked

And the universe, it just so happens,
Is just the way Tesla found it-
It’s all about frequencies… and vibrations….. and things
We just had to wrap our little heads around it

Yes, we still don’t like the unknown
We need to have things defined
We want our world to make sense
We like it when nature rhymes

Even if only slightly
Even if we must bend
What we see and we hear to fit the means to our end

We all just spend our lives
Trying to overcome our births
Trying to get along with Death
And then untie ourselves from Earth

Now we vacation on the moon
And yes, we’ve flown beyond the stars
And can you guess where I just sent this from?
I’ll give you a hint- It’s Mars

Now we can grow your bones for you
And buildings build themselves, for free
But there’s still work for you to do:
You must remember how to be-

Just like the ocean when it’s thinking
Just be that storm that’s always brewing
You’re an idea
Just one idea
Of what one person on earth could be doing

And what animal doesn’t love
Going out to chase wonder?
Only to learn of the lightning
just before there is thunder?

Look above you- it’s raining
Look around- there’s a flood
Who can say when it started,
but now the ghost is in our blood

We can only move forward
Only turn back for a time
Now the only sacred space left
In the world
Is our mind

And it’s running away with itself and the others
Like the wind through the trees-
Phantom sisters and brothers
Have gone the way of the bees
And the birds and the lovers

Yes they’ve all been drawn and quartered
A million horses left the track
The future will take your mind off of itself-
So I suggest you start stealing it back

For our time here, like the twilight
Is precious and fading
And while there’s certainly nothing new under the sun-
Under the moon, there is waiting

Signed-
Sincerely,

Future Self
Good day and good luck and good bye

P.S.
Oh that’s right,
I nearly forgot-
Everyone in the future says Hi

To listen to Burke’s recording of the poem, visit the Ideas blog >>>

The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you: Catherine Crump

A very unsexy-sounding piece of technology could mean that the police know where you go, with whom, and when: the automatic license plate reader. These cameras are innocuously placed all across small-town America to catch known criminals, but as lawyer and TED Fellow Catherine Crump shows, the data they collect in aggregate could have disastrous consequences for everyone the world over. Watch this talk and prepared to be shocked. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Crump, coming soon.

Watch Somi’s new video “Brown Round Things” – a stirring stroll on the night streets of Lagos

Above: Watch the video for “Brown Round Things,” from Somi’s latest album The Lagos Music Salon.

When Somi went to Lagos, Nigeria, for an 18-month creative sabbatical, the singer immersed herself in the life of the city, exploring its culture and people and writing about what she experienced – resulting in her major-label debut album The Lagos Music Salon. One of the ballads from this album, the haunting “Brown Round Things,” attempts to imagine and explore the humanity of the city’s prostitutes, who are so stigmatized in society that there is silence around not only their rights or well-being, but who they are. In her recently released video for the song, Somi inhabits the role herself, walking the streets in their shoes. In this Q&A, she tells us about the thoughts and experiences that led her to create the song and video.

What prompted you to write this song?

You see prostitution everywhere around the world, but for some reason, every time I saw these women on the road in Lagos, I realized it always shocked me a little more in the African context.

Why is that?

I think it’s just because of the conservative nature of African values. I am blessed to come from this massive, loving, always-in-your-business but beautiful family. And by that, I mean we’re always accountable to each other. Even when it’s uncomfortable, it’s coming from a place of love. Everybody wants the collective to be thriving, to be well, to be safe. So when I saw these women, my knee-jerk reaction was to judge them, to assume things about them. But then I realized that, like me, each of these women is somebody’s daughter. Each of their stories is the evolution of a girl-child.

I recognize now that within a traditional African values system, a lot of people harbor prejudice towards sex workers and their life choices, without at all understanding the context and the circumstances that brought them to that point.

How is this different from how you’ve seen prostitution treated in other parts of the world?

When I was in Paris last year, there was a sex workers union strike happening. And I just thought, there is no way that could happen in an African city, in an African country. Those women were on live television saying “We’ve chosen this path. We have rights.” And I was thinking, yes, rightly so. If this is the life that they have chosen, why shouldn’t they be protected? Why shouldn’t they have those rights?

But there is a certain kind of privilege that accompanies those perspectives. I am assuming, again, because of strict social stigma, that most African women who find themselves in prostitution are not making the decision out of the most comfortable life circumstances, or making that choice. I think you would be hard pressed to find an African woman that would choose that lightly. But at the moment, it’s not even something that is discussed in the public sphere, much less advocated for.

So the song is also kind of about instigating a conversation. If we can talk more openly about the humanity of those women and the circumstances that led them to prostitution — whether they be social, economical, or political — we might be able to empower women and girls to make safer life decisions. And hopefully we can include all of society in the conversation.

If a woman works as a prostitute in Lagos, is it possible to recover from the cultural stigma?

I can’t speak to that because, again, there isn’t enough of a discourse around it. But I can say that I usually see two types of prostitutes in African cities. There are those on the street, as you see in the video. And then there are the less conspicuous prostitutes that frequent high-end lounges or hotels, generally looking for foreign clients.  Some of those women are then able to get into relationships with these men, and end up in a relationship with an older, western guy who is then able to provide a much more comfortable life.

There is a lyric in another song of mine, called, “Four African Women” — inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Four Women” — which talks about the struggles and strengths and difficulties of African women, not only in Nigeria but all over the continent. In one of the lines I sing, “I hope this European trick can get me a visa not get me sick.” A lot of the time, I think prostitution is used as a way to get out of difficult economic and social circumstances. I assume some of these women are looking to struggle less and take better care of their families.

Why did you decide to inhabit the role for the video?

Deciding to “be” the prostitute was about my own personal decision to find the humanity we have in common, about remembering that sameness between us. I was trying to reconcile my own prejudice against them by literally walking in their shoes.

We shot on a street in Victoria Island, a very nice part of Lagos. During the day, the street is a part of a normal unassuming business district near a law school. But at night, it becomes a red light district of sorts. So when I decided to do this video, I called some friends to accompany us because otherwise it was just going to be myself and the filmmaker, Mariona Lloreta, who is a Spanish woman and clearly a foreigner.  Some of my friends were quite concerned and mostly came along to offer protection. “Somi are you crazy. You’re going to where and going to do what?”

During the shoot, there were moments of fear, when cars slowed way down and got close to me, for example.

Were the women upset you were there?

No. I had initially hoped some of them would participate, or talk to us, but of course they didn’t want to. They mostly didn’t want their faces to be seen in the video. But if they were upset, I wasn’t told so, or given that impression. With the camera rolling and my friends in tow, it was obvious that I wasn’t there to compete with them. I still think a lot about these women: where are their families, what are their circumstances? I can’t know what the story is, so I just decided to try to imagine and, for a moment, live it. It just seemed like there was no other way to tell the story.