Tag Archives: TED Fellow

You found a planet!: Robert Simpson crowdsources scientific research and accelerates discovery at Zooniverse

Scientific research is generating far more data than the average researcher can get through. Meanwhile, modern computing has yet to catch up with the superior discernment of the human eye. The solution? Enlist the help of citizen scientists. British astronomer and web developer Robert Simpson is part of the online platform Zooniverse, which lets more than one million volunteers from around the world lend a hand to a variety of projects — everything from mapping the Milky Way to hunting for exoplanets to counting elephants to identifying cancer cells — accelerating important research and making their own incredible discoveries along the way.

At TED2014, Simpson took us through a few of Zooniverse’s 20-plus projects (with more on the way), some of which have led to startling discoveries — including a planet with four suns. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

Are you a scientist?

Well, I’m a distracted astronomer. Yes, I’m an astronomer at University of Oxford. But I’m there to create crowdsourcing projects where we put data — usually images, but sometimes videos or sound — online, and ask the public to do research tasks that we used to ask postgrads to do. This helps us go through lots and lots and lots of data very quickly — which means scientists are free to concentrate on the hard, analytical parts of the problem.

So you’re giving volunteers the grunt work, basically?

Yeah, but what’s weird is that people love it. And not only do they enjoy it, and engage with each other online, they make discoveries, too. That’s what’s so special about it. We don’t just get the scientists’ science done. We open up the possibility for everyone to start participating in creating their own science projects using data.

We have really sophisticated computers. What can the human eye detect that a machine can’t?

A lot. I mean, a lot. With Zooniverse’s original project, Galaxy Zoo – which asked volunteers to discern between spiral galaxies versus elliptical galaxies — that was something that computers really couldn’t do at the time. Actually, they still really can’t do it unless we use the human data that we’ve gathered to train them. The computer can get it right maybe 85 percent of the time. But the 15 percent where it fails are the most interesting objects. So the reason it fails is they’re weird, funny shapes or funny colors. There’s something about them that’s slightly abnormal. These are the objects people can identify that the computer can’t — and those are precisely the ones that are scientifically interesting. So by definition, the computer isn’t doing the bit we want it to do.

Examples of the different types of galaxies Zooniverse volunteers help categorize. Image: GalaxyZoo.org

Examples of the different types of galaxies Zooniverse volunteers help categorize. Image: GalaxyZoo.org

Having said that, we’ve been able to train the computer to do a much better job based on the human answer, which is great news. But still, we want to ask for more — we want to cover weird, harder galaxies. So that project will just keep going, because people will always be looking at the harder set.

In another example, our project Planet Hunters has people looking through light curve data from stars, gathered using Kepler. So we stare at 150,000 stars, and watch the light from them. The whole point of doing this is to occasionally catch a planet passing in front of the star, and see a dip in light as it goes past. That dip can tell you how big the planet is, how often the planet’s going around the star, all sorts of stuff. You’ve just got to stare for long enough, and you’ve got to do it with a really, really, really good instrument.

Now, NASA and the Kepler team have used computer algorithms to look through this data for years, and they find lots of planets. But based on our experience with galaxies, we thought there must be stuff in this data that people will see that the computer can’t, because a computer is trained to look for certain things. It’s programmed by a person. Sure enough, we found planets that they didn’t find. And we found ones that are in weird, amazing configurations — some of which don’t make any physical sense — but they exist. For example, we found a planet in a seven-planet system around a sun-like star. That was an amazing discovery, because the more planets you have, the more crazy and chaotic all these dips get as they go back and forth.

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



Brothers in arms: TED Fellow Ed Ou reports from the field in Ukraine

As TED Fellows arrive from all over the world today to Ed Ou’s hometown of Vancouver for TED2014, Ou himself is far away in Ukraine, where he has been since February, documenting the civil unrest and growing political tension as a freelance photographer represented by Getty. Today he writes in to give us an inside view at his experience on the field, sending us a cache of his work to date, including links to video segments produced for the New York Times and to his own Instagram feed.

How does the situation feel from where you are? 

The situation here is very fluid, and the political stakes are very high. But at the end of the day, the most interesting thing for me is seeing how ordinary people come to terms with extraordinary things happening around them. Many feel empowered, like they now finally have a voice. Others feels like they are at the mercy of politicians in Moscow or Kiev who may or may not represent them. Regardless, everyone has a say in the direction that Crimea — and Ukraine — will go.

Tell us about the videos you’ve produced for the New York Times.

The first video was a look at a short confrontation between the Ukrainian military and the Russian military. When I spoke to the Ukrainian military being slowly pushed out of their posts, trapped in their bases, they told me that any confrontation between Russia and Ukraine is a tragedy because it’s brothers up against brothers. Since this was all part of the Soviet Union, Russians have family in Ukraine, and Ukrainians have family in Russia. The word they would use to describe any war would be “fratricide.”

The second video looks at Crimean Tatars. They are a Muslim minority group who have Turkic roots, and make up 12% of the population here. They have historical reasons to fear Russia. In the 1940s, Stalin deported most of their population to Central Asia on the pretext that they collaborated with the Nazis. Many died along the way — and only in the last few decades did most return. Many are unsure what will happen if Crimea secedes to Russia.

Screen Shot 2014-03-14 at 17.21.47

In addition to the still images and videos you make, you also produce an Instagram feed, which was recently featured by National Geographic. How does Instagram fit in with the other work that you do? 

The Instagram feed is like a personal diary. It’s my own space where I get to be my own editor and show my own take on what you see in the news. Interestingly, I think the people who are looking at my images on Instagram may be a completely different demographic of people who read newspapers, magazines, and so on. So I find that Instagramming photos of international news events — whether it be conflict, political unrest, or social issues — can reach people who would otherwise not seek this kind of information out. I’ve had high school students email me asking me to explain the conflict in Gaza that I covered because they followed me on Instagram and saw a photo I posted. I was happy to oblige. Journalism is all about reaching the widest and most diverse audience, and if I can use this medium to inform someone who would otherwise not read a newspaper, then I’m all for it.



Green is the new red: Will Potter on the problem of treating environmentalists like terrorists



When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.

Do you think of yourself as an activist?

I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.

What happened with the FBI?

At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.

A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.

Did they not realize that you were a journalist?

They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”

And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.

Did they bother you after that?

Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.

Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.

How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?

I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.

So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.

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

How to start a micronation: step-by-step instructions from Jorge Mañes Rubio

Spectators Waving a White Flag at a Sporting Event
TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio is an artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places — Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining — creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations. Here, he tells us about his latest art project, in which he created a “new nation” in response to the social struggles of a small neighborhood in Amsterdam.

SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is a pioneering project that aims to research the impact that designers and artists could have if working together with governments and other political/social organizations. I was asked to team up with design studio Muzus and come up with a new proposal for Columbusplein, a public square in Amsterdam West. Politicians and social workers from the area were looking for a different perspective on how to tackle several social issues in the neighborhood, such as bullying among the youngest ones and the lack of a community spirit between all the neighbors.

The first thing we found out during our research is that the demographics in the area are quite unique, with a very multicultural and multiethnic population. Even if the new generation is born Dutch, they still find themselves growing in between different identities (Third Culture Kids TCK), creating a great deal of confusion specially among the youngest ones.


It is also important to say that more than 20 social organizations have been present in the neighborhood for many years, helping those families that struggle the most, and arranging all kinds of activities for kids and their parents. I was overwhelmed to see how much is done by them. But these organizations are also very heavily structured, with little interaction between each other, and showed very small room for changes.

We thought that whatever we would come up with should not only involve the neighbors, but it should also be welcomed by all these social organizations, and somehow reframe their work in a new way, bringing them all together under a common purpose. It all sounds great, but how do you do that?

The answer came to me while walking around Columbusplein’s sports field on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful effect that all the lines and colors created on the court. The analogy between this space and the plurality that inhabits the neighborhood was the spark that initiated everything. That image would later become the flag of a new micronation, a rich mix of cultures, colours, identities — all different but nevertheless intertwined as one. The neighbors would have the chance to create their own nation, their own history, their own identity, all from scratch, and the different social organizations would finally have a strong story that would tie together their hard work.



Amsterdam West received the idea with enthusiasm, but they also remained very skeptical about the viability of the project. A new micronation sounded like an utopia, lots of work, plus how this concept would address social issues such as bullying was not clear.

In order to give shape to this micronation, we created several events, the first one being a competition to create a national secret sauce for fries, the favorite local snack. There was a great response from the neighbors, both adults and kids, coming from all kinds of backgrounds (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Netherlands) and the inherent freedom of the event allowed us to observe the behavioral dynamics of the kids from a completely different perspective. Columbusplein was writing its own history for the first time, the winner of the secret sauce contest, a 9-year-old named Sophie, was featured in the nation’s first stamp, and now the secret sauce is being used in local restaurants and markets.


For the second intervention, I decided to step up the game, think big and create Columbusplein’s first Space Program. We thought space exploration and new technologies will be very important for future generations, plus all the important nations have a Space Program right? And we don’t want to stay behind! So together with some young national astronauts, we went to visit the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, where we learnt everything about the International Space Station, the way astronauts live up there, and got ourselves ready for our first mission, which I called Mission Kite.

One day later, kids were creating their own tyvek kites, featuring drawings from lunar modules, planets, space ships… After customizing and assembling them together, it was time to start the mission, and kites were flying in Columbusplein for the very first time. The reaction was great, and even police officers and social workers spontaneously joined the event. After a few minutes, a small group of kids who were mocking the participants had to sit down and watch the rest have fun, wondering why they didn’t join the workshop themselves. The Space program was important not only because it played with kids’ ambitions, but also because for the first time, social workers took ownership of the art project.


More ideas such as an alternative currency featuring social workers on the banknotes or a passport to keep track of citizens’ involvement with the micronation are already on the table. Social workers are being invited to readapt their activities under the Republic of Columbusplein’s perspective, and a new approach based on positive potential instead of problem-solving has been shaped. Amsterdam West recognizes the value of the energy and excitement that the fictional micronation’s concept has created in the neighbourhood, but is also asking for more time and a more detailed plan to evaluate if this new approach could be the right path to follow, and how to fully involve all the social organizations active in the area.

My work as an artist is to imagine a different world, and create little bits of it. The micronation concept allowed me to do so, and allowed the kids and the workers in Columbusplein to be part of it. The micronation of Columbusplein is an art project for the neighborhood, but that doesn’t turn it into community art. Projects like this open new possibilities that might expand the future impact of artists on social issues, going beyond the pre-established white cube context.

SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is an initiative by the New Institute, Twynstra Gudde, social designer Tabo Goudswaard and  Doen Foundation. 

The micro-nation of Columbusplein was created by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Muzus with the support of Amsterdam West.

All images are by TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio. To find out more about his work visit www.seethisway.com

Chile’s people, 40 years after Pinochet: Jon Lowenstein captures a society in recovery and transformation

Patio 29 is a section of  Santiago's General Cemetery where political dissidents and supporters of Salvador Allende were buried anonymously in mass graves. To this day not all of the peole have been identified correctly; many families are still not sure what happened to their loved ones during that era.  Forty years after the coup headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile remains a wounded, divided nation where the past lives in the present.  The nation’s enduring rifts are visible in the glaring contrast between the entrenched poverty in Santiago’s shantytowns and the country’s elite, who enriched themselves during the dictatorship.  History is alive in the homes of people like Ana Gonzalez, a woman whose husband, two of her sons and pregnant daughter-in-law were disappeared during the dictatorship.   And it’s a force in the November presidential election featuring Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei.  The daughters of Air Force Generals played together as children, but their lives were changed permanently by the coup.    Matthei’s father Fernando joined the junta. Bachelet’s father Alberto remained loyal to Salvador Allende and the constitution, paying for that decision with his life.   Yet there are also glimmerings of Chile’s coming to terms with its bloody past.  Among the most important: this September 11 saw an unprecedented outpouring of memory-related activity.

Patio 29 is a section of Santiago’s General Cemetery where political dissidents and supporters of Salvador Allende were buried anonymously in mass graves. To this day, not all of the people have been identified correctly; many families are still not sure what happened to their loved ones during that era.

Documentary photographer Jon Lowenstein and his brother Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Diego Portales, are currently in Chile in the run-up to the country’s 2013 presidential election. Together they are documenting how the nation’s people are faring during this historic period 40 years after the coup overthrowing President Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet. Jon’s images are currently being streamed on the New Yorker magazine’s Instagram feed, and the brothers have just posted the first in a series of three articles on the New Yorker’s Photo Booth blog. Below, find an introduction to the work by the Lowensteins, and more sample images from this powerful body of work in progress.

“Forty years after the coup headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile remains a wounded, divided nation where the past lives in the present. The nation’s enduring rifts are visible in the glaring contrast between the entrenched poverty in Santiago’s shantytowns and the country’s elite, who enriched themselves during the dictatorship.

History is alive in the homes of people like Ana Gonzalez, a woman whose husband, two of her sons and pregnant daughter-in-law were disappeared during the dictatorship.

And it’s a force in the November presidential election featuring Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. The daughters of Air Force Generals played together as children, but their lives were changed permanently by the coup. Matthei’s father Fernando joined the junta. Bachelet’s father Alberto remained loyal to Salvador Allende and the constitution, paying for that decision with his life.

Yet there are also glimmerings of Chile’s coming to terms with its bloody past. Among the most important: this September 11 saw an unprecedented outpouring of memory-related activity.”

Located in Santiago, Villa Grimaldi is considered the most important and infamous of DINA’s (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional, the Chilean secret police) many places that were used for the detention, interrogation and torture of political prisoners during Gen. Augusto’s Pinochet’s dictatorship. The former social club was open from 1974 to 1978. About 4,500 detainees were brought to Villa Grimaldi during these years, at least 240 of whom were “disappeared” or killed by DINA. Rebuilt from survivors’ memories, the site is dedicated to preserving the memory of those tortured, interrogated and killed by Pinochet’s henchmen.

AFEP (Agrupacion de Familiares de Ejecutados Politicos - Group of Family Members of the Politically Executed) is a support group for family members of people who were executed during the Pinochet dictatorship. Group members call for truth and justice for the perpetrators and help each other to deal with the effects of the trauma.  Forty years after the coup headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chile remains a wounded, divided nation where the past lives in the present.  The nation’s enduring rifts are visible in the glaring contrast between the entrenched poverty in Santiago’s shantytowns and the country’s elite, who enriched themselves during the dictatorship.  History is alive in the homes of people like Ana Gonzalez, a woman whose husband, two sons and daughter-in-law were disappeared during the dictatorship.   And it’s a force in the November presidential election featuring Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei.  The daughters of Air Force Generals played together as children, but their lives were changed permanently by the coup.    Matthei’s father Fernando joined the junta. Bachelet’s father Alberto remained loyal to Salvador Allende and the constitution, paying for that decision with his life.   Yet there are also glimmerings of Chile’s coming to terms with its bloody past.  Among the most important: this September 11 saw an unprecedented outpouring of memory-related activity.

AFEP (Agrupacion de Familiares de Ejecutados Politicos – Group of Family Members of the Politically Executed) is a support group for family members of people who were executed during the Pinochet dictatorship. Group members call for truth and justice for the perpetrators and help each other to deal with the effects of the trauma.

Sanctuaries of sound in New York City: Fellows Friday with Susie Ibarra


Percussionist and composer Susie Ibarra is creating virtual sanctuaries for real cities. Working in collaboration with local artists, historians, architects, city planners and musicians, Ibarra and her partner Roberto Rodriguez — who together form Electric Kulintang — have created a musical pilgrimage that takes the public on a sound walk through 12 sites in Lower Manhattan, each featuring an original composition. But more than that, the locations offer respite — they are an invitation to contemplate the special qualities of the built environment.

Digital Sanctuaries, a co-commission for Electric Kulintang by New Music USA, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and The MAPFund, goes live this week with a series of hosted lunchtime walks. Ibarra tells the TED Blog how the project came together, and shares her plans to bring sanctuaries to other cities around the world.

How would you describe Digital Sanctuaries?

It’s a music mobile app sound walk — an interactive dialogue, with music and technology as the medium. It’s about bringing sanctuaries of sounds to these historical sites, and partly about bringing the sounds of the natural world back into the built environment. Roberto and I had been talking about the possibility of doing a mobile app sound walk with Andrew Horwitz, an arts promoter, writer for Culturebot and the former programs director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. We were asking if we could do a technology piece based around walking within communities in Lower Manhattan.

As the idea took shape, we started looking at sites: the African Burial Ground, the American Indian Museum, Titanic Memorial Park, the New York Stock Exchange, Castle Clinton, Peter Minuit Plaza (where Manhattan was first purchased), Teardrop Park and Battery Park Labyrinth — memorials that were built after 9/11 — and Pier 15. We asked ourselves, “What are the cultural stories of each of these places? What is the energy? And what can we offer both city dwellers and tourists?”

Other cities are interested as well. Pittsburgh is commissioning it. Troy, New York, is interested. We have been talking to Sydney, and we are thinking about taking it to Mumbai and Delhi. I’ve also just talked to a visual artist in Taipei. It’s fascinating, because there’s so much history in each city, combined with contemporary forces.

I’m thinking about bringing Digital Sanctuaries to the Visayas, in the Philippines, which recently suffered a big earthquake. My brother and sister-in-law were in Bohol the day it happened. Luckily, they are okay. Electric Kulintang has worked with the beautiful Loboc Children’s Choir in Bohol. Fortunately, the earthquake happened on a holiday when many places were closed, but the choir lost its church — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and its community and rehearsal spaces. I’m thinking about what kind of sanctuaries would be needed there. How might we help them rebuild?

What makes Digital Sanctuaries interactive?

Digital Sanctuaries offers the audience a virtual experience at each site. The music streams from each location base, and when someone enters the space, they can listen to the music and read about the site’s history. There is also a four-channel mixer page where they can make their own remix, share, and post responses.

Those who cannot visit the Digital Sanctuaries sites in person can visit the website. We’ll have short samples of the compositions on SoundCloud for each place, and information about the work and collaboration. It will also link to Electric Kulintang’s album Song of the Bird King.

Tell us about your concept of sanctuary.

It’s a very intense place, Lower Manhattan. Have you walked down there? The Financial District can really be very intense. We wanted to provide the people who live and/or work in this environment with a place of respite. We considered who might engage with such a sanctuary. It might be people who live there or work there, or just people who are visiting.

The poster for Digital Sanctuaries.

So do you think the idea of sanctuary will change from city to city?

Yes. Each city will be different historically and culturally. I think that even between Mumbai and Delhi, the sounds we create will be radically different.

What was the process of putting Digital Sanctuaries together?

In the development stage, we work with the collaborating partners — those who are hosting the piece or commissioning it — to listen to what the voice of the city is, and then we do research on which sites resonate best with that. And then, what are the stories of these sites? All this informs the composition. We’re finding that creating these digital sanctuaries of music involves a remapping of cities constructed by histories, and numerous dialogues with the people who live in each place. History and present culture both weigh into the creation of the pieces, and along with stories of indigenous people and immigrants, there’s the natural history of each site.

Roberto and I composed compositions for 12 sites. He composed some, I composed some, and then as a duo, Electric Kulintang, we co-compose. Roberto does some pre-programming with electronics. We invite guest artists for each composition to perform and record in the studio. He and I also perform and record various electronic and acoustic percussion.

All of the artists for Digital Sanctuaries, New York City, are from or live in the area. For example,  African Burial Ground features Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa reciting a poem he wrote for the site, Guinean master artist Famoro Diaobate performing on balafon and vocals, and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC singing.

Our collaborating visual artists are also New York City residents. Long-time collaborator Makoto Fujimura is a former resident of Lower Manhattan and is a visionary in supporting and preserving cultural practices. Our interaction designer Shankari Murali, originally from Mumbai, has a well-developed understanding of how to integrate music, art and design for a city.  Together, we developed the mobile app. These will be re-adapted for each city.

Do you think that over time, the compositions themselves will change and evolve?

Yes, I like to think so. Cities’ geographic location, natural history, current residents and those who preceded us have all combined to create cultures unique to each place.  Music is one of these amazing gifts that ebbs and flows and rises out of these pockets. Culture has defined music, and music has defined culture.  And one of the things that interested me in creating Digital Sanctuaries was the potential and possibilities for collaboration.  I like the idea of digital public art, a web that can grow and move — something people can build and add onto.

If you happen to be in New York, join one of the inaugural hosted walks happening every day until Sunday, November 10. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Red Walk, at the African Burial Ground, 290 Broadway, New York, 10007. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Green Walk, at South Cove Park, 50 Battery Place, (Between 1st and 3rd Pl), New York, 10280. Meet at noon and 2pm for the Blue Walk, at the India House, 1 Hanover Square, New York, 10004.


Making Kickstarter History: TED Fellow Jen Brea is on the way to more backers than any Kickstarter documentary. Ever.


Several years ago, TED Fellow Jen Brea was diagnosed with a little know, little understood disease commonly referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). Today, she’s embarked on a mission to bring this disease to light, share its challenges, and ask you to help her raise awareness for both those that suffer from the debilitating affects of CFS and doctors that frequently misdiagnose it.

Unexpectedly, and In just 3 days, her Kickstarter campaign raised the $50,000 she was asking for. Now Jen has set her sights higher, aiming to make Kickstarter history by having more backers than any documentary film ever, and in doing so, she hopes to fully fund the making of her CFS film, Canary in a Coal Mine.

Can you help Jen raise the $200,000 she needs to complete her film?

View the trailer here:

And check out her campaign updates here:

To learn more about Jen, and CFS, read here full interview here.

From abstraction to the vibrant female form: Fellows Friday with Sharmistha Ray


Artist Sharmistha Ray has spent her life moving between India, the Middle East and the United States, discovering, layer by layer, her own sense of self, sexual identity and artistic vision in contrast or harmony with each new environment. Now, as her latest exhibition Reflections + Transformations is set to open at the Aicon Gallery in New York City on October 24, she tells the TED Blog about how her journey has unfolded so far, taking her from figurative art to abstraction and back to vibrant colors and lush, sensual textures that celebrate and reclaim the female body.

You have quite a complicated background. When people ask where you are from, what do you say?

It’s complicated because I’m an artist. People want to know where you’re from as a way of understanding your deepest creative impulses. I started to define myself as diasporic because the many migrations in my life played a very big role in terms of defining who I was, as well as my outlook on life and my artistic practice. I was born a British citizen in Calcutta, but spent my growing-up years in the Middle East and then migrated to the United States with my family later on. I didn’t stop there; a residual nostalgia beckoned me towards India, and after exploring Kolkata for a few months in 2006, I moved to Mumbai and made it my home.

Growing up gay in a traditional Indian family in an Islamic society in Kuwait also created its own displacement. I experienced oppression very early on within my family and society. My sexuality, which started to emerge in my early teens, was a terrifying realization for me. I lived in mortal fear of anyone knowing my dark secret. But ironically, the fear also bore my love for art. It was through art that I was finally able to find my own voice.

Even though I spend most of my time in Mumbai now, I can’t attribute any one of my multiple social, linguistic, cultural, queer, ethnic and geographic ties as the singular source of imagination. It’s really the grazing together of all these identities that has created a messy hybrid form, with many points of location. I am even starting to recast the term “diaspora,” as it feels limited to a binary of homeland and not-homeland. Once the migrant has moved back to the homeland, does he or she continue to be “of the diaspora?” I’m gravitating towards a new term I encountered in reading Gyan Prakash’s excellent historical account of Mumbai in his book Mumbai Fables. He revisits the notion of cosmopolitanism throughout the book, and it struck me that to be “cosmopolitan” strips the subject of a desired location or need to belong. To be “cosmopolitan” essentially means “being in the world.”

Nude #6, 2013

Nude #6, 2013

What prompted your decision to move to India?

I was curious — and curiosity is probably the starting point for deep infatuations. I had schooled in Kolkata for close to two years during the Gulf War in Kuwait, where my family lived at the time. Becoming a refugee and living in forced exile with my family formed, at a young age, a confusing network of associations between stability and belonging. As I matured as a thinker, the idea of India took shape as a sort of dreamland, a place of possibilities. I wanted to live without the burdens of identity politics for a while and investigate a more poetic entry point into the question of “being.” Of course, I’m not saying that identity politics is exclusive of poetics, but my work had become riddled with an anxious rhetoric caught between the binaries of “self” and the “other.” I wanted to find a different way of locating myself in a milieu that accepted me first as “Indian.” Interestingly, in India I found myself thrust into other negotiations — with gender and sexuality in particular — which took me many years to untangle. And despite my initial longing to connect to an Indian identity, I am as much an outlier there as I was in America, as I am anywhere else!

You mention gender and sexuality. When did you start exploring these themes in your work?

I started in the last year of high school. Although I lived in a conservative Islamic society in the Middle East, I became emboldened in my final year of art studies and decided to take the plunge. But as I had to be careful, the work is very subtle. In those early works, some of which are lost now, the narratives center around myself and a female agent, but there’s always this physical and psychological distance between the two figures in the frame. It mirrored my life at the time, and the feeling of disconnect from my family and society.

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


Field, fuel & forest: Fellows Friday with Sanga Moses


When former accountant Sanga Moses ran into his sister on a far-from-home road carrying firewood on what was supposed to be a school day, his life changed. He knew that Uganda’s rapidly disappearing forests had big implications for the environment, but he hadn’t recognized the day-to-day effect it was having on the lives of his family and village. Now, with his company Eco-fuel Africa, Moses helps farmers transform agricultural waste into cooking fuel, and also sponsors tree-planting projects. Here, he tells the TED Blog about fast-changing ecological conditions in Uganda, and how he hopes to help restore the country’s forests as quickly as possible.

You started out as an accountant, and now you are an environmental entrepreneur. What was the moment that changed the course of your life?

I used to work for one of the biggest banks here in Uganda, and that meant that I was away from my home village. One day, I decided to go check on my mother and little sister. This was a Wednesday — and I ran into my sister on her way carrying wood. She saw me and started crying. She said, “I’m supposed to be in school today. But mother told me to go out and get the wood, and I do this at least twice a week.”

Seeing her didn’t surprise me at first, because I also carried wood as a kid. At first I didn’t get what was wrong. [When she started crying], I thought that maybe my mother was sick or something terribly wrong had happened at home. I helped her put the wood down, and we sat for a few minutes and I asked her, “What is the problem? Why are you crying?” She told me, “It’s about the wood. I’m supposed to be in school today. [But] my mom told me to skip school to go out and get the wood. ” I told her I would talk to our mother, and bring her back to a school in the city where I worked so she wouldn’t have to fetch wood.

But when I spoke to my mother, she said, “No, you can’t do that. She’s the only girl I have, I’m an old woman, I can’t survive without her. If you take her, I’ll be dead.” I went back to the city, but this conversation haunted me. I couldn’t really live my life anymore. I was constantly thinking about my sister, at the verge of losing the only opportunity she had to a better life — that is, education. And as a child who grew up in a rural area, my own life was transformed by education.

I wasn’t sure what to do. All I knew was how to be an accountant and work in a financial institution. But one night, I asked myself, “If I don’t don’t do something, who will? I am just complaining about what I can’t do, and my sister can’t go to school because she has to fetch wood.”

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

But wait, why had this become a problem when you’d fetched wood as a child yourself?

When I was growing up, we had a forest close by. It no longer exists now. I used to graze cows as a kid and we would graze in forests — have a lot of fun, play hide and seek. But kids these days don’t have that luxury. It’s all empty land — you can see virtually 50 kilometers away because it’s all empty.

The problem is that once people deplete the few forests remaining, they must venture further to find wood. At first, I thought I was just blowing my sister’s dilemma out of proportion, but it became clear that she is not alone. There are so many people — so many kids like her who can’t go to school because there are no trees left in the villages. At my office, where I had access to the internet, I did some research. I found that Uganda has already lost 70% of its forests. According to UN statistics, Uganda will have no forests left by the year 2052 if nothing is done to curb the current rate of deforestation. In a few years’ time, Uganda will have to import wood. But we’re talking about people who live on less than two dollars a day. If we imported wood, would they be able to afford it? And if they can’t afford cooking fuel, how will they survive?

So what you noticed was a connection between changes in the environment and a threat to your community’s way of life.

Yes. It’s actually about the entire ecosystem. When I was younger and we had forest, we were semi-nomads — a cattle-keeping community that traveled with cows. It was easy to take care of them, because seasons were stable, rains were predictable, we had water. In the last ten years, things have changed for the worse. Now droughts are becoming persistent. Actually, as I speak to you now, my family is relocating our cows to a distant area because there’s no water left in the village — also a problem of deforestation. Even in national parks, animals are dying, and the population of buffalo is getting lower, and people encroach looking for water. People are competing for the little that is remaining. And in mountainous areas where all the trees have been cut down, the hills are so dry they develop cracks. When it rains, landslides cover people’s houses and it floods — people are dying because of this. It’s not the world that I grew up in.

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

Arming rebels with art – Esther Chae’s memoir of teaching in Nigeria

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Esther Chae, traveling in a sandstorm.

Stage and television actor and writer Esther Chae is not afraid of adventure, having climbed the Indian Himalayas, Mt Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu, among other epic journeys. Here, she shares with the Fellows blog an unusual teaching experience that took her into an altogether different context for her craft, and changed her perspective on the importance of film, acting, and art. Chae recently closed a performance of Extraordinary Chambers,  in which she portrayed a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, in San Diego, and is currently developing her one-woman show, So the Arrow Flies – about an alleged North Korean spy interrogated by the FBI – as a feature film. 

A few years ago, TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt asked me to write about my experience teaching in Abuja, Nigera, to include in her e-book, “The Audacity of Humanity.”  I’d like to share it here on the TED Fellows Blog since it is one of the rare moments my limits both as an explorer and actor (acting teacher in this case) were tested at the same time. There is a strong correlation between the two: both require one to stay vigilantly present in the moment, to be open to unexpected challenges and to persist through that uncomfortable place of extreme vulnerability. That compound effect was intense.


How on earth did I end up here in Africa…?

That’s what I was thinking as a howling sandstorm ravaged Abuja, Nigeria. With bandanas covering our faces and sunglasses protecting our eyes, we stepped outside the classrooms. We looked like a group of bandits about to rob a bank, not fancy artists sent to teach filmmaking. As my students were rehearsing their assigned scenes, I suddenly felt like Coolio, singing in my head how kids in the hood had been spending most their lives living in the Gang-sta’s Paradise. I felt like I was in some intense music video and I needed to rap my way through it.

In the spring of 2010, I was part of a group of American teachers who were “planed over” to help build Nigeria’s first official film academy. I was hired to teach Acting for Film.  Somehow I missed the memo that I was going to be playing Michelle Pfeiffer’s tough character in the Nollywood (Nigeria’s version of Hollywood) edition of Dangerous Minds, teaching “gangster rebels.”  Craft service and make up were certainly not on this set, though.

The makeshift film school was located in an abandoned governmental structure, and the water stopped and electricity went out every day (but not at the same time).  This was a stress factor for this gal who was trained (and tortured) under her über-fastidious Korean mom. I could see Mom tsk-tsking, shaking her head at me. “Now look at where your horse traveling spirit has brought you to. And this place, so dirty!”


Filmmaking class.

Filmmaking class.

In the first few days following our arrival, one of the African-American teachers, who was overwhelmed to be “back” in Africa for the first time, broke down in class.  He was so excited about and focused on teaching his students, he did not even notice those sandstorms.  He lost his voice and then got a sinus infection from the dust.  I had to take over his class on top of my already five-class load that first week.

The production assistants were not doing so well, either. Not only were they younger and  less experienced working in developing countries, but they did not have the benefit or gratification of working with the students. They didn’t get to see the students’ lightbulbs turn on and creativity flow, like we teachers did. Instead, the PAs had the harsh task of managing the expensive film equipment, which started fraying in the heat and dust, to over 200 confused students who were completely new to film production and constantly fought over time slots and camera equipment. Their duties were stressful, and it started to take a toll.  I would see mounds and mounds of hard liquor bottles and cigarette packs outside their hotel room doors.

I knew Nigeria was one of the most recently volatile regions in Africa. Before going there, I had spoken with friends familiar with the area who thought tough Esther could handle it. Okay. I’ve trekked the Himalayan mountains in India, bamboo rafted across Thailand’s rivers, and even survived tiptoeing across the frozen Neva River in Russia in the dead of winter. I could do it. I’m going to Nigeria! But when I first arrived there, I felt I’d made a huge mistake.

When our group of fifteen-some teachers from Los Angeles and New York landed, we were greeted by an equal number of uniformed guards all armed with AK-47s.  They shuffled us into the vans that were waiting to take us to the the crumbling “five-star” hotel. This was not customary, but the US-affiliated film academy insisted that we – and the expensive equipment – be guarded for safety. I think I would have felt safer without the guns. The guns stayed with us the entire time we were there.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

Met and escorted by armed guards.

But later, I understood why.  Ten days after our team of U.S. instructors had arrived, more than 500 civilians, mostly children and women, were killed at a church in the nearby city of Jos. It was surreal to watch the CNN news in the hotel lounge, knowing the brutal massacre had happened only 160 miles away from where I was standing. It was the latest in a sickening cycle of retaliation due to differing political and religious beliefs and ethnic backgrounds, all which were too complex for me, the foreign teacher, to decipher…

One of the screenwriting students mentioned that the Nigerian press reported that the US Film Academy teachers were there to rehabilitate the rebels of the Niger Delta region. The Niger Delta region is the southeastern area between Lagos and Cameroon, home to nine Nigerian tribes whose land contains vast reserves of oil. The area had become a scene of horrific bloodshed and violence as the conflict between disenfranchised populations, oil conglomerates, and the government played out. Apparently, many of our students, who were former rebels from that region, were fully funded by the Niger Delta government to come to this Film Academy for “rehabilitation.”

Well, that was helpful information.  No wonder some of the students looked so completely lost and confused! The students all had stories of how they’d found themselves at the film academy: cousins who’d applied on their behalf, church pastors who’d reached out, radio advertisements they’d heard while driving. Those students wanted to learn filmmaking. But the other students from the Niger Delta region had been granted scholarships to go to Abuja and had no idea what they were doing or what they were in for. These students were “rebels” indeed. I would like to imagine they were the ones who had the opportunity to actually defy violence and conflict in their region, the ones who’d traveled from far and further afar to Abuja to learn filmmaking, acting, editing and animation. They were eager 20-somethings desperate for a creative outlet to spread their war-weary wings and fly.  Hopefully we teachers could help them arm themselves with art and the power of storytelling. Their pens had to be mightier than the sword. They were now rebels without machetes or guns but with pens, scripts and acting in hand. I had to show up for them, however fatigued, uncomfortable and confused I was.

The sandstorm eventually subsided. The AC started working again, and we picked up where we’d left off. As I walked around the classroom checking in with my students, I heard the song beats of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in my head again.  I smiled as my “rebel students” rehearsed their scenes, hoping to fulfill my role as the inspirational teacher that they’d never forget. I hoped many of them would become the Nouvelle Vague of Nigerian cinema, if not civic leaders who questioned their current political and social circumstances through the arts and storytelling. It was in that moment that I figured out the how and why I ended up in Africa. I was there as both a teacher in front of the class and a student of this particular life experience.