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.
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.
BRCK is best described as a “backup generator for the internet.” When it was announced, the idea of a rugged, rechargeable, mobile wifi device captured imaginations as a good way to bring robust connectivity to people in places with spotty infrastructure – particularly in developing countries.
The device is the brainchild of Nairobi-based technology company Ushahidi, and was created partly out of simple frustration with dropped internet connections and power outages in the city. After a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, BRCK has now manufactured and shipped more than 1,000 units to 45 countries, many of them in emerging markets, and is catching up on the backlog of orders. So — what next?
Here, Juliana Rotich — a TED Fellow and founding member of Ushahidi — tells the TED Blog that BRCK is now looking for new ways the technology can be applied, and shifting focus from hardware to community action.
Tell us what’s new with BRCK.
Right now, we’re really excited about working with organizations in the education space and in the health space. We’re trying to figure out how to help people in these fields get resilient connectivity in support of their work.
To give an example, we’re working with Amaf school in Kawangware – which is an under-resourced area. The school has teachers and electricity — as well as Zuku, one of the most basic cable providers. The problem is that the internet connection here isn’t reliable, and if the power goes out, your internet goes out. So we’ve started to put BRCK in the school to provide a wifi hotspot and extend connectivity into the classroom.
How is this different from using a standard 3G connection?
BRCK is connected to 3G, but instead of only having the connection on one device, you can share it out among many devices. In the case of the school, it can handle 20 devices, so more students get access at one time. We’re also working closely with a company called eLimu that provides tablets with content as a learning tool for children.
In the case of health care, providers can — with BRCK — access software systems that can help gather patient information, helping to digitize patient data like health care records, ultrasound scans and educational content for community health care workers to make care provision more efficient. We’re about to deploy our first units into the Narok part of Kenya to five clinics to see how it works, with the help of the team at MedicMobile.
Basically, what we’re thinking about at BRCK is no longer the hardware itself. Now that the basic platform is done, what matters is constructive value.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafić photographs the aftermath of conflict. (Watch his TED Talk, “Everyday objects, tragic histories.”) In his most recent book, Quest for Identity, he catalogs the belongings of Bosnia’s genocide victims, everyday objects like keys, books, combs and glasses that were exhumed from mass graves. The objects are still being used to identify the bodies from this two-decade-old conflict. Only 12 when the Bosnian War began, the Sarajevo native has spent the last 15 years turning his lens on conflicts around the world as a way of coming to terms with the tragedy of his homeland. Here, he tells the TED Blog about looking for patterns of violence, the relationship between detachment and empathy, and what it’s like to grow up with war.
Tell us about the overall focus of your work.
The stories I’m interested in are focused on countries that have followed a similar pattern of violence as my homeland, Bosnia. My book Troubled Islam: Short Stories from Troubled Societies covers my own journey starting with the aftermath of war in Bosnia, and then exploring the consequences of conflict in the northwestern province of Pakistan, Palestine and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Chechnya and Lebanon. “Aftermath” is a key word: the aftermaths of conflicts in these countries follow a similar sequence to that of Bosnia: ethnic violence, fraternal war, ethnic cleansing and, ultimately, genocide.
My idea was to compare countries that are thousands of miles away, on different continents, yet following the same vicious patterns. These countries have certain things in common. One is ethnic wars, though “ethnic” is probably not the most fortunate choice of word. All these countries have significant Muslim communities, or have majority-Muslim populations. In the post-9/11 world, these elements became very relevant.
How is Quest for Identity related to Troubled Islam?
I worked on Quest for Identity in parallel to Troubled Islam, but Quest is totally different from everything I do, because my usual approach to photography is very subjective. I wanted to do something on the other side of the spectrum, something extremely objective—something neutral, something accurate. By coincidence, while doing other stories, around 10 years ago I stumbled upon these objects that are being used as forensic evidence in the ongoing process of identifying over 30,000 missing Bosnians.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
This week, East African singer Somi releases her first major-label album, The Lagos Music Salon, in the United States. Already, it is #1 on the iTunes Jazz Chart, #1 on the Amazon Jazz Vocal Chart, and #1 on the Amazon Pop Vocal Chart. The TED Blog caught up with the jazz-soul vocalist and songwriter—who was was born in Illinois to Rwandan and Ugandan parents and traveled frequently to East Africa—to talk about taking risks, navigating creativity within a multicultural life, and the artistic promptings that led her to explore the city of Lagos.
Tell us about your new album, The Lagos Music Salon. Does it refer to a real salon?
It was inspired by a recent 18-month creative sabbatical I took in Lagos, Nigeria. I called it a “salon” for a number of reasons — including a regular performance series I began while collaborating with fellow artists I was meeting in Lagos. But it’s also about creating a space for reflective conversations I was having with myself and with the city itself.
The idea for the performance salons came out of what I thought was a lack of intimate cultural spaces in Lagos that allowed for real artist-to-audience engagement. Even though Nigeria has this huge culture and music and art scene, the performance spaces are limited — shockingly so. I found that the performance spaces were mostly either these tiny places where the performer served as background music, or these hyper-produced, overpriced spaces, most of which were hotel conference rooms. At the time, I couldn’t find anywhere that regularly allowed for and encouraged the fundamental conversation between artist and audience.
While creating this new music, I wanted to be able to have that kind of concert and conversation with the Nigerian audience. At the time, I was writing my experience of the city, and I wanted to get critical feedback from from Lagosian people to know whether I was appropriately representing the experiences of Lagos living. I wanted my work to be something that Lagosians could be proud of, too. So I began producing salons. The very first one was more of an atelier — a showcase of work in progress. A friend of mine owns an art gallery, the African Artists Foundation, in a neighborhood called Ikoyi. We set up 66 chairs, had some hors d’oeuvres, organized a reception, and I performed all of the new material with my newly formed Lagos band. We were surrounded by all this beautiful artwork. Afterwards, we had champagne and cupcakes.
What was the initial response?
The initial response was wonderful — many people in the audience told me they connected with the work and really appreciated it. That feedback was critical for me, as was the experience of hearing it myself in a live context—experiencing how the work lived in my own body. I decided to produce more salons. I invited local artists to participate, and it just grew into this thing that happened every few months. It was a wonderful space for me to work through the music before going into the studio to record it. It also was a wonderful way of engaging the local arts community and establishing relationships with fellow musicians who were there. It was also an incredible learning experience in terms of taking off my often overly-cerebral, New Yorker jazz head to experience and create music on a more visceral level. I got to work with African musicians who have a very different kind of creative process than the New York-trained or conservatory musician might.
Above: watch the album teaser for The Lagos Music Salon, Somi’s major label debut on Sony’s OKeh imprint, released this week.
Why Lagos, specifically, and not a city in Uganda or Rwanda, where your parents are from?
There are a number of reasons. One, I was always very curious about the cultural energy there. I had been before to visit and to perform, and I realized how many parallels there were between Lagos and New York, in terms of size, energy, pace. It’s actually bigger than New York — 20 million people — and it’s always been a cultural giant on the African continent in terms of music, literature, fashion and visual arts. They’ve got the third largest film industry in the world.
So I was curious: Why is there so much cultural production in Lagos? What is it about the place that makes it such a cultural force? I mean, it’s partly a numbers game, because one out of every four Africans is Nigerian, but there’s something really special about the place. It’s not just about this moment, when everybody — no matter what industry — is looking at Africa as this new, emerging market to invest in. It’s about generations of cultural export and leadership. In the ’70s, every major label was actually in Lagos. Everybody passed through there, whether you’re talking about a Miles Davis or a Miriam Makeba or Nina Simone or Hugh Masekela.
I also moved there because I was curious about how, as an African woman, being in an African city might affect my lyrical, musical narratives and impulses. I decided not to go to my home cities of Kigali or Kampala because I didn’t want my experience colored by familiarity. I also thought I might have felt pressured by cultural expectations and obligations. The discovery of Lagos afforded me the privilege, and maybe freedom, of being a foreigner, and with that came a number of opportunities. Basically, I wanted to go somewhere that gave me enough Africanisms to help me feel at home, but enough “foreignness” to keep my perspective totally fresh.
There are also substantial financial resources that the Nigerian government has committed to investing in the cultural sector. That was the first time I’d seen that in an African context. The World Bank came out with a report some years ago about how, in the global recession, creative economies in the developing world were the only place that they saw remarkable growth. The Nigerian film industry alone created about 100,000 jobs in 2011.
Did you have a residency there to start with?
Initially, I was invited to teach a residency at a university about five hours north of Lagos. I used that as a soft landing. After the first month I decided to stay for 15 months. While completing the residency, I found partnerships that gave me the support system necessary to set up there for the additional months. But I had no agenda when I moved. I just wanted to get out of New York, after having been there for a decade. I’d just lost my father, and I wanted to heal my heart. I also just walked away from my label, my management, my agent — all at once. I felt either I’d outgrown them, or we still just hadn’t gotten to this understanding of the larger story I’m trying to tell.
Artistically, I had so much more I wanted to say. As an African woman living in the United States, I have to negotiate my identity as an African and a Westerner, whereas on the continent, I am in a more transnational cultural space. I was curious how my work would shift once I was no longer culling over my cultural heritage through a diasporic lens. It’s a very romantic lens because you’re always sort of celebrating or privileging a longed-for place. Now, when I listen to Fela Kuti in Lagos, for example, I understand and hear it completely differently. That understanding could only have come from here. I loved his music from the perspective of an East African in New York. But now that I’ve experienced where the music is from, I realize there’s so much more that I had not heard or identified in the music before. So I think what I’m most proud of with this record is that there’s a keen sense of place that’s so fundamentally inside of it. I hope when people hear it, they feel as though they’ve traveled with me.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
Theoretical physicist Shohini Ghose has two great passions: physics, and advocating for gender equity in the sciences. This week, her passions converge as she chairs the 5th IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Canada – the first time this prestigious conference will be held in North America. Why the focus on women? “There are still relatively few women in physics – and the higher up the ladder in academia or industry you go, the fewer women you find,” says Ghose. “Yet the laws of physics themselves are gender neutral, and the beauty of the universe is equally accessible to everyone. So why so few women, and how can we change that?”
For the next four days, delegates from over 50 countries – including astronomer and TED Prize winner Jill Tarter – will gather to showcase and celebrate scientific work in all areas of physics, and build a strong, diverse and inclusive worldwide physics community. To celebrate the conference launch today, we asked Ghose to share her favorite facts about women and their contribution to physics. “Women have made many important contributions in science, including physics, and have personally inspired me to become a physicist myself,” says Ghose. “Here are just a few.”
Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie won in 1903 for her studies of radioactivity. She shared the prize with her husband Pierre Curie and with the other discoverer of radioactivity, Henri Bequerel. Originally, the Nobel prize committee had only selected Pierre Curie – but he refused to accept it without proper acknowledgement of Marie’s contribution. In 1911, Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery and studies of radium and polonium. To this day, she remains the only person – male or female – to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines.
Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for her model of the structure of the atomic nucleus. Goeppert Mayer faced a great deal of gender bias in her career: she had to work in unpaid positions at Columbia University and University of Chicago, where her husband was employed.
British astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – one of my all-time favorite physicists – established that the sun and other stars are all composed mostly of hydrogen. Payne-Gaposchkin later became the first woman to chair a department (astronomy) at Harvard.
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner first developed the theory explaining the process of nuclear fission, but she was overlooked by the Nobel Committee, who instead awarded Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn the prize in 1944. Meitner came to be known as the “mother of the atom bomb,” although she refused to work on the Manhattan Project after fleeing Nazi Germany. Element 109 is called meitnerium in her honor.
Albert Einstein called German mathematician Emmy Noether – author of Noether’s Theorem, a fundamental idea on which much of modern physics is built – a creative mathematical genius. Her theorem, published in 1918, states that if an object has symmetry – i.e., if it looks the same regardless of changing locations or times – then this leads to conservation laws in nature. A simple example is a movie of the motion of a ball when you throw it. The motion looks the same if you run the movie backwards in time (time symmetry). This means that the total energy of the ball remains the same (conservation of energy) – the energy just gets converted into different forms as the ball moves. This is a simplified example, but the theorem is widely applicable and is a real workhorse of modern physics.
As Gaza’s only female photojournalist, Eman Mohammed is no stranger to the terrors of war. But it’s a whole different kind of fear when you’re a mother. Today, the TED Fellow writes as bombs fall around her and her two young daughters, aged 3 and 1, who — despite being American citizens — are currently trapped in Gaza. All borders are closed in the wake of the most recent conflict around the abduction and killing of three young Israeli settlers and the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager. Here, Mohammed shares her experience of the conflict of motherhood in a war zone.
As a photojournalist, stepping into war isn’t a dilemma for me. It make sense to grab my cameras and run out to document the man-made misery, the horrors of war, each and every time hoping we’ll get the lesson. But nothing prepared me to understand how to raise children in a war zone — not even having been a child in one myself. Despite my best efforts to give my daughters a different life, I ironically find myself in the exact same situation my mother was, 16 years ago.
After covering two wars in Gaza, I’d shifted my whole life, moving with my American husband to the United States, trying to give my two daughters — Talia, who is 3, and Lateen, who’s 1 — the universal dream of peace. But as I drifted into a suburban life, I also longed for my sweet mother and my home. I longed to smell the roses while walking on the beach. So I took my daughters back to Gaza to visit their grandmother, and now I find myself again at ground zero, trapped again between airstrikes and the unknown.
Now, seeing my two daughters staring at me in shock, calling my name in fear, asking to come with me when I leave to go photograph the conflict — as my professional calling has me do — my heart refuses to believe I could have possibly risked the life of my two angels by bringing them here. They don’t understand why their little adventure to see gramma escalated so fast so dramatically, and or why they can’t get a hug from daddy but only get to see his face through the cold laptop screen.
The ones who write the rules of war are the ones who never experience it. If you haven’t tasted the pain of losing a loved one, the need to run away when all doors are closed, jumping out of bed to hold your kid and cover her ears in a blink of an eye because a war plane just offloaded its rockets around your house — you can’ imagine life in Gaza. In the field, I capture the moment a mother mourns over her 3-year-old girl. It strikes me so painfully — she’s the same age as my baby — but she lost her child and I’ll be able to go back home and hold mine.
As a photojournalist, it was one thing. Now, when I turn on the TV and see another mother in a different nation, same conflict, crying her heart out, I can only wonder, Whose war is this? I didn’t sign up for this. When things get darkest I wonder, Will I be next? Will I be the next crying mother over the dead body of her baby? My trust in humanity fades away, and I sink into tears of rage and weakness.
The fear for my own life isn’t same. But my daughters… they didn’t choose this. They deserve 10, 15, 20 more years of happiness, life and joy, exactly as I dreamt it would be carrying an unborn child covering the 2nd war — hoping it would be the last one, no pain no tears, just happiness and peace.
No one has the right to take an innocent life no matter what — young or old, Christian, Muslim or Jew, white, black or brown. I didn’t realize this as a mother or a war photojournalist. I did as a human.
Now I ask for help, not to leave Gaza — along with hundred of thousands of mothers here, I am now experiencing firsthand what it means to not have the option to secure the safety of my children. But someone please tell me: how do I explain to my three-year-old daughter that she will not get a cake on her birthday because the airstrikes won’t allow me to drive to the bakery?
How can examining psychological distress in animals help humans rethink our own mental health issues? TED Senior Fellow Laurel Braitman’s recently launched book – Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves explores how nonhuman animals struggle with varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. Learn more about the new book in the adorable video above – in which Braitman and her furry friends reveal a few gently fractured psyches. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Braitman, coming soon!
This is an abandoned tobacco factory just outside Salerno, in the south of Italy, where several villages were destroyed after a devastating series of earthquakes and landslides in the 1980s. With his project Buono Fortuna (“good luck” in Italian), artist and TED Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio hopes to reopen the abandoned spaces in these villages to the public, replacing stolen icons and looted artwork with new fictional symbols, inspired by Southern Italian folklore. To a full gallery of Jorge’s Buono Fortuna photos, visit the TED Ideas Blog. And to read about Jorge’s work creating a micronation in a neglected Amsterdam neighborhood, visit the TED Blog.
Experience art with your eyes closed and ears open at Artisphere’s recently launched exhibit Fermata.
The show is centered around a wall of speakers of every conceivable shape and size, and is dedicated entirely to the celebration of sound. Curated by TED Fellow Ryan Holladay, Fermata features the work of almost 30 artists each working with audio in some way, including sound artists (Alvin Lucier, Annea Lockwood), musicians (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Forest Swords, members of Swans, Fugazi, Future Islands), engineers, storytellers and scientists — all working with the medium of sound.
Fermata unfolds in three parts movements each featuring a different combination of six to ten sound works that cycle continuously for a month. Each movement plays on a continuous loop, with no two works playing simultaneously in the gallery. Fellow TED Fellow Lucianne Walkowicz will have work – music composed using the rhythms of starlight and planets – during the third movement of the show, from June 25 to July 20.
Ears burning? Make haste to Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery in Arlington, Virginia, through Sunday, 10 August 2014.