Tag Archives: TED Fellows

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Fotokite! Sergei Lupashin brings aerial photography down to Earth

A stunning image of the stars in the Okavango Delta in South Africa. Sergei Lupashin gave his friend Steve Boyes, also a TED Fellow, a Fotokite to help him capture the landscape from unusual angles. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Boyes

With his tethered quadcopter Fotokite, Russian-born inventor Sergei Lupashin plans to put aerial photography and the power of unmanned aerial vehicles in the hands of of journalists, architects and artists. Interestingly, this device was actually inspired by a 2011 protest in Russia. We talked to Lupashin to find out more about this inciting moment, and about how he plans to push past the public’s fear of drones.

You’ve said that the idea for Fotokite came from witnessing a protest. Can you tell us more about that?

The protest I was referring to took place in Bolotnaya Square, in 2011, in response to massive irregularities in federal elections. Something very rare happened — a lot of people came out to protest in Moscow. For Russia, this was a huge event. But for whatever reason, the world media pretty much ignored it.

There happened to be a group of photographers nearby who usually do nature shots. They take quadcopters and octocopters to, say, the Sphinx or the Pyramids, and take these fantastic panoramas. They happened to be just around the corner, so they did a few panoramas of the protest. In a single image, you really got an the idea of the scale of this event. It was really eye-opening. Ironically, these photographers were completely apolitical. They were simply documenting what was going on near them. It struck me how powerful it is — how even a single photo from an aerial perspective can really change the world’s perception of situations and events.

This is still a motivator for us, and we’d like people to take the Fotokite to breaking news events. TED Senior Fellow Teru Kuwayama once said to me that you only need a very small shift in perspective to be able to make a great, unique photo. This is also quite interesting to me, because the Fotokite really opens up your envelope in terms of where you can place the camera.

You first came to TED as part of the team manning the Flying Machine Arena at TEDGlobal 2013. (Watch the talk, “The astounding athletic power of quadcopters.“) What’s the difference between the quadcopters you demonstrated there and the technology you use for Fotokite?

The quadcopters we showed at TEDGlobal were part a larger system. The Flying Machine Arena is essentially a motion-capture space configured for robotics, surrounded by a net cage. Motion capture is usually used in Hollywood to track actors, but in this case, we used it to track vehicles. The quadcopters are only able to fly so precisely because they’re being tracked by external cameras, in real time, with extraordinary accuracy. It’s a very expensive—a very specialized system that you couldn’t actually use in the real world beyond performances and installations.

So the question was: how do we build something for the real world, something really simple that you could use outside of a very controlled setup? The Flying Machine Arena served as an incredible sandbox for exploring various directions and concepts with the technology. We learned to build the Fotokite in this environment.

Every photographer knows how to use a tripod. So the idea emerged to build a tripod that could extend very high up, say, 100 meters. Initially, we were using different algorithms to make this “flying tripod” work, but ultimately, a tether proved to be a very elegant solution. The tether is always taut, so we can use it for two things. One is to interact with the vehicle — you can control it like a flying pet. The other is to let the vehicle know where it is, relative to the user. This replaces expensive cameras and GPS.

Lightweight and small, the Fotokite can be launched and ready for action in a minute. Photo: Milan Rohrer/Fotokite

How does it work? Is there a camera that reads where the tether is?

That’s the magic of it: there are no special sensors. It’s using the same sensors you have in your phone, for example. The magic happens is in the algorithms. So we’re using inertial sensors, very simple sensors that have been made affordable and incredibly reliable thanks to smartphones and consumer electronics, to measure accelerations and rates of rotation. Then we apply estimation algorithms to figure out the angle of the vehicle relative to the user.

So the sensors figure out the angle of the quadcopter to the person using the algorithms, with the tether as a reference point?

Exactly. There’s always a tether, and because it’s always kept taut, it’s always stretched, it’s always producing a force pulling on the quadcopter. We can observe this force using these sensors, and therefore, if we know what that force is, we can figure out where the quadcopter is relative to the person. This means we can also stabilize and do intelligent things based on that data.

There’s something really cool there as well. The quadcopter is aware of the user, of the person pulling on the leash. So we can actually use it as a communication channel. So you can do things like walk around with the leash, and the quadcopter moves with you. But you building on top of that, you can actually communicate with tugs and things such, so you can give it commands by physically pulling on the tether and it can even give you feedback by tugging back. It’s as if it’s a flying dog.

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

 

 

 

Need help? Ask Aunt Bertha! Erine Gray helps people in need find social services in their area

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Most of us will, at some point, face a life crisis — divorce, job loss, illness, eviction. In the United States, 95% of social safety nets are provided by charity organizations and NGOs, so finding help in a crisis situation can be confusing and distressing. Erine Gray is the founder of Aunt Bertha, a free-to-use online platform that makes it easy for anyone in the US to find and apply for social services — anything from Medicare to food stamps to housing — just by typing in a ZIP code. Aunt Bertha serves people in all 50 states, with in-depth coverage in Texas, Colorado, Central Florida, and Richmond, Virginia. Starting this week, Aunt Bertha has added New York City to its in-depth coverage list. We took this moment to talk to Gray about how Aunt Bertha was born, how it works and how it’s shaping up to be a valuable tool not just for families and individuals in need but for policy makers, advocates and community workers as well.

Aunt Bertha started as a response to an illness in your own family. Can you tell us about your experience?

I grew up in a small town called Olean, New York, an hour south of Buffalo. When I was almost 17, in the summer of 1992, my mom, who worked as a janitor at the community college at the time, caught a rare disease called encephalitis. She needed to be rushed to Sayre, Pennsylvania, which was a four-hour drive. She flatlined twice on the way there, but made it to see a brain specialist. She went into a coma and survived, but she suffered brain damage. Her memory was essentially wiped out — everything after her childhood and the first few years of the birth of her first daughter was gone. She had no memory of me and my little sister.

She was released from the hospital three months later. It was me and my dad and my sister, just trying to figure out how to take care of her. Obviously you don’t get a certification for these types of things. Nobody is ever really prepared. She recovered, to some extent, but she suffered from seizures on a regular basis—they would sometimes knock her out for the day. My dad did the best he could to take care of her, and he did, for nine years. He did it alone for the most part. We didn’t know what services were available. And when we did find programs, it was difficult to get through the application process.

I went off to college, studied computer science, but ended up getting my degree from Indiana University in economics. I was working as a contractor in Austin, Texas, when I got a call from my dad. He needed help. My mother was getting older and started to have early-onset dementia. I flew up to New York and packed her things, and moved her to Texas, and became her legal guardian. So there I was—unprepared—trying to figure out how to navigate a system for somebody who needed help.

What kinds of services are available with people in this position?

Unfortunately there are not a lot of resources available for older adults with mental illness in the US. There are private care facilities, but these are financially unattainable for many. All too often, people either end up in the prison systems, homeless or, if they’re lucky—in a nursing home.

I went through a long process of looking for a nursing home, but many of them discriminated against people with signs of mental illness. If you think about it from their perspective, they don’t want people who might want to run away, or people who are difficult to deal with. We must have been rejected by 15 to 20 nursing homes. I had a social worker give me advice on how to find a place that would take her. She told me to dress up, wear a jacket and go meet the administrators in person. I’d be invited to submit an application—but the only response I would get would be very concise rejection letters that said, “We can’t meet your mother’s needs.” It seemed at the time to be a legal form of discrimination.

It was navigating this system for somebody who’s disabled that made me see how broken the system really is. So I went back to graduate school and got my masters in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs here in Austin. I ended up working as a contractor for the state of Texas, essentially looking at improving the way people find out about social service programs like food stamps, the food subsidy program in the US, Medicaid, the US welfare program and how they apply for them. The company I worked for also ran a call center that helped people get enrolled into these programs.

During those four years, 2006 to 2010, there was a big economic downturn. Texas is the second largest state in the US—a huge, huge economy . Enrollment levels grew significantly, but the state didn’t have the capacity to deal with that much growth. So it was a challenge to figure out how to get everyone connected with what they needed. On most nights, my car was the last car in the parking lot. I’d analyze calls, and realized a lot of people were ringing just to say, “Hey, did you receive my application for food stamps?” “Or I sent you a fax, can you confirm you got it?” We figured out pretty quickly that this information was stored in the system, so our team redesigned the menu, allowing much more self-service. This meant people in need could get answers in 30 seconds rather than having to wait on hold for 30 minutes.

We worked on several big projects like this that made things more efficient. The number of calls and the amount of time spent taking them went down. These efforts helped turn the project into an operation that could scale.

It was this work, as well as my family’s experience caring for my mother, that led to the idea for Aunt Bertha. I thought to myself, “Well, if we can visualize data for complex programs like the food stamps program, would more self-service options in social services be cheaper to implement and less frustrating for the person in need?” And that was the a-ha moment—the big idea.

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

 

 

Apply to be a TED2015 TED Fellow!

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The TED Fellows program is a global network of 348 innovators and trailblazers representing all disciplines – from art to science to business to entrepreneurship. Twice every year, we look for twenty additional change-makers to join the pack. Think that might be you? The application for the TED2015 Fellowship is now open and you can find the application announcement in 14 languages below. The application closes on September 21, 2014, so mark your calendars and apply here!

Arabic translation: قم بالتقديم اليوم!

Chinese translation: 今天就来申请!

Dutch translation: Meld je vandaag aan!

French translation: Postulez dès maintenant

German translation: Bewerben Sie sich noch heute auf

Hebrew translation: הגישו מועמדות היום!

Italian translation: Presenta la tua candidatura oggi stesso!

Korean translation: 바로 지원하세요!

Persian translation: ھﮪﮬﻫمﯿﻴن اﺍمروﻭزﺯ اﺍقداﺍمﻡ کنﯿﻴد

Portuguese translation: Inscreva­se hoje!

Russian translation: Подай заявку сегодня!

Spanish translation: ¡Participa ya!

Thai translation: สมัครวันนี้

Vietnamese translation: Hãy đăng kí tuyển chọn ngay hôm nay tại

On origami, Alzheimer’s & kindness: Global health expert Alanna Shaikh rethinks preparing for dementia

Alanna Shaikh at TED2013, a year after her powerful talk about Alzheimer’s disease.

Global health expert Alanna Shaikh gave an unexpected and moving talk at TEDGlobal 2012, called “How I’m preparing to get Alzheimer’s.” In it, she told the story of her father’s struggle with the disease, and outlined some strategies she’d devised in case dementia struck her later in life, too. The TED Blog was curious: How is her experiment going?

While most of Shaikh’s goals haven’t exactly gone as planned, in the process, she’s had a lightbulb moment about how to think about dementia—and learned to be a better person, to boot. Here, a conversation about the relationship between kindness and health, and living an enjoyable life in the present while planning for the future.

What have you been up to since your talk went live two years ago?

I talked about three things I was trying to do to prepare for Alzheimer’s: physically preparing by becoming stronger and more flexible, cultivating hobbies that would stick with me through the illness and trying to change who I am to be better and nicer. What really succeeded, weirdly enough, is I honestly think I am a better person. By deliberately choosing to be kind over and over again, it seems to now come naturally to me.

What were you like before?

Very judgmental and critical. I was committed to being a good person, but I wasn’t particularly worried about being a nice person. One of my friends in college told me that his favorite thing about me was I always had something bitchy to say about someone. This is someone who loves me—he meant it as a positive. I don’t think anybody who’s known me in the last couple of years would say that now. Dealing with my dad made me realize how much nice actually matters. And kindness. I had never really thought about what kindness and niceness have to do with each other.

I’ve never thought about that. What is the difference between nice and kind?

Being nice is not making a fuss and letting things happen to you. Not protesting. Whereas kindness is about deliberately giving the best of yourself, and deliberately looking for ways to find the positive in things. The example I give sometimes is this: the office building I used to work in didn’t have enough elevators. So if you wanted to leave the building at any time between 5 and 6pm, it was just packed—the elevator would stop on every floor, it would take forever and it was all sweaty. There were these people on the third floor, and they were always laughing and flirting and holding the elevator for each other, and you’d end up crammed in the corner for five minutes while you waited for them to stop saying goodbye to each other and hugging and whatever.

At the beginning, I was like, “Those damned idiots on the third floor—why can’t they just take the stairs?” And then I started deliberately thinking, “No, these are young people enjoying life.” And so I started to think of them as the happy people on the third floor, and then realized that they are just thinking about their lives, not necessarily thinking too much about what it meant to be crammed into the elevator while they said goodbye. I started to try to take that approach to everything, to really look for the positive perspective.

Sounds like generosity of spirit, in a way.

I guess so. Because I’m an expat, I move a lot. So each new place you live is a chance to be the person you are right then. I realized that people who know me where I’m living now in Kyrgyzstan think of me as this very funny, positive, kind person. I love that. It doesn’t feel fake. I think I really am that person now, and I love that I was able to do that. It was the hardest thing for me, thinking, “I can pretend that I’m nice, but can I really become nice?”

Have you thought about kindness and its role in healing and health? Do you think it’s better for us to be kind?

I’ve never thought about that before, but I’m sure it is. For one thing, I think it takes a lot less emotional energy to be kind. Think of me getting off that elevator thinking about the happy people around me, versus me getting off that elevator being all, “Grrrr.” It has to be better for my heart. It has to be better not to get all that cortisol revved up inside of me.

There’s also the question of kindness in the healing professions — the idea that patients are more likely to respond well to compassionate doctors and healers who touch their patients.

I think that’s probably true. In my day job, I’ve been part of a lot of different trainings for physicians, and one of the amazing things we’ve discovered is that the part physicians really love is the interpersonal skills, learning how to talk to their patients gently and kindly. We started including that in basically everything we teach, whether we’re teaching infection control or HIV care or breastfeeding support or whatever. The first component is always, “How do you talk to patients so they’ll listen?” The doctors absolutely love that, because it turns out they’ve been yearning to connect kindly; they just didn’t have the tools. That is the first thing they see results from: talking to their patients differently brings them different results as medical professionals. It seems to bring better outcomes. Often, doctors are afraid that if they are kind they’ll lose their authority, or patients won’t take them seriously, so it’s valuable to have an outsider validate the idea that you can be a respected professional and still be kind and generous to people, and that you don’t have to be stern and harsh to be an authority figure.

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

A perpetual tourist who makes his own souvenirs: The intriguing work of artist Jorge Mañes Rubio

Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash

Jorge Mañes Rubio explains he makes his new souvenirs to create interesting interactions at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash

From China’s underwater cities to Amsterdam’s neglected neighborhoods to Italy’s looted ruins, Jorge Mañes Rubio seeks out forsaken places and makes art that memorializes, reimagines and reengages them with the world. His project “Normal Pool Level” — which emerged from his exploration of the cities, towns and villages submerged by China’s Three Gorges Dam Project — is on exhibition at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, England, until September 7. So it felt like the perfect time to ask Rubio more about this exhibit, as well as about the experiences that led him from a stable career in design to life as a perpetual tourist.

Let’s start with your current exhibition. How did you end up in China, looking for abandoned underwater cities?

My project in China was something very special to me, on so many levels. It all started when I moved to Chongqing for two months in 2013 as part of an artist-in-residence program. The city was quite tough, and pretty much nobody could speak English, so in the end I decided to travel along the Yangtze River, looking for the remains of the cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam Project. Thousands of cities and villages have been submerged, and so far 4 million people have been forced to relocate—but very few people know this.

During my journey I came across cities that have no name, cities that don’t appear on any map. On one hand, I was really excited to be able to explore these places which very few people have seen. But on the other, I was appalled to see the conditions people were living in. We’re talking about entire cities that have been pretty much destroyed and left isolated, but where some people have refused to leave. I decided to create a series of souvenirs and symbols that would document and recognize these forgotten cities, and at the same time help me to express this inner conflict I went through during my journey.

What kind of objects did you create?

In the beginning, my intention was just to look for these cities, and to explore this area. But the more I saw, the more I understood that these places deserved recognition. I was struggling with the fact that I found some of these places extremely beautiful. It was a strange and tragic beauty, but a fascinating one nevertheless. I knew photographs were not enough to convey those feelings, so I started to gather materials and objects along the road, and later I modified them and transformed them into the symbols that compose the project.

The most representative are probably two plastic jerrycans that contain water from the Yangtze River. I collected this water at the exact point where the old city of Fengdu used to stand, now completely submerged under the water. Later on, I painted these jerrycans with traditional chinese motifs, as if they were precious Chinese vases. The result is an object whose identity is heavily questioned, which doesn’t seem to belong either to Eastern or Western culture, but that represents the clash between traditional Chinese culture and industrialization. There are more than 10 objects and installations in total, together with a series of photographs.

Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.

Fengdu Jerry Cans, from the Normal Pool Level series. Exhibition view at the 501 Contemporary Art Centre, Chongqing, China. Photo: Seethisway.

You call yourself a “perpetual tourist.” What does this mean, especially in the context of design? 

Until fairly recently, I worked with design companies on everyday items like chairs, furniture or small products — homeware, vases, so on. But while I was studying at the Royal College of Art in London, I joined a program that was very experimental, pushing the boundaries of design. So my work became much more about the impact design can have in our current society, beyond manufacturing everyday items.

To put it concisely, I became interested in experience. Right now, with any product that you have or acquire, what you look forward to is the experiences the product might allow you to have. So I started thinking about tourism. In a way, industrial design is about creating a product, and replicating it millions of times. And tourism is the mass-production of experiences. You create one experience — say, going to the top of the Eiffel Tower — and then millions of people have, literally, that very same experience. I also find interesting the way people behave when they are tourists. Things look different, the food tastes different, and you dare to do things that otherwise you’d never do. You’re way more open to learning about new cultures, meeting new people. You become someone else. I thought, “What if I apply that kind of behavior to everyday experiences? Can I behave like a tourist every day?”

I did a few projects that explored these ideas. One was an illegal souvenir production project on top of the Eiffel Tower. Another one — my graduation project — was a portable souvenir factory. I rode my bike for three weeks along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and attached to the bike I had a portable rotational molding machine. In every village, I met different people, and I used my machine to manufacture my own souvenirs on the road — in contrast to the experience of buying, you know, fridge magnets.

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

Freebird: Juliana Machado Ferreira leads the charge against Brazil’s illegal wildlife trade

Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

Juliana Machado Ferreira holds an ultramarine grossbeak while doing fieldwork in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

Conservation biologist Juliana Machado Ferreira uses genetic data to fight illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil—a $2 billion-a-year business that affects 38 million animals. In 2012, Ferreira founded FREELAND Brasil to raise awareness of the devastating effects of keeping wild-caught songbirds, parrots and macaws—as well as to release rehabilitated animals and support rural communities vulnerable to wildlife traffickers.

This week, Ferreira was honored as a 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for her work. We caught up with her to talk about her passion for conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.

First of all, congratulations on being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer! What does this mean for you and your work?

Thank you! It’s an immense honor to be recognized by my heroes, many of them responsible for me becoming a biologist. I was that kid — reading National Geographic, absolutely in love with every single animal I saw, and awed by every single picture. With this support and recognition, we’ll be able to reach 90 million people through National Geographic’s powerful platforms. This will help us make a huge impact in our battle against wildlife trafficking – especially the wild pet trade in Brazil. I could not be more excited and hopeful!

Tell us how you became interested in wildlife, and in birds, in particular.

During my master’s research at the University of São Paulo, when I was working with the population genetics of sub-Antarctic fur seals, I learned that there was a such a thing called wildlife forensics—the use of science in the legal prosecution of crimes involving wildlife. I was hooked instantly, and I convinced the US Fish and Wildlife Service National Forensics Laboratory to accept me as a volunteer for three months—a relationship that continued until 2013. Around the same time, I was introduced to Marcelo Rocha, president of the organization SOS Fauna, which combats wildlife trafficking in Brazil. With him, I learned about the illegal wild pet trade in Brazil—particularly the illegal domestic wild bird trade. So my PhD research—developed in collaboration with both these organizations—focused on developing population genetic studies for Brazilian wild bird species exploited by the illegal trade. The idea is that, if we can detect distinct genetic populations within each species, we’ll not only better understand the threat each species is facing, but we can produce data that might help guide future efforts to release rehabilitated animals seized from traffickers.

Ferreira takes a blood sample from an ultramarine grossbeak in Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Erica Pacifico

What is conservation genetics, and how is it related to wildlife forensics?

First, I should say that while I’m often billed as a forensic biologist, I am not one. I’m a conservation geneticist: I use concepts and techniques from genetics to develop studies aimed at understanding the current extinction rate of species—with the ultimate goal of conserving species as dynamic entities capable of adapting to environmental changes through evolutionary responses. Forensic biologists produce data that are used in court, in legal cases. At the moment, my work can’t technically be considered forensic because the genetic data I’ve produced has not been used in court. It may be included in future legal processes—but in order for this to happen, we still need to develop comprehensive databases of genetic profiles from exploited species populations. It will require extensive fieldwork to collect samples of blood, tissue, fur, feathers, and so on from many individuals from different populations.

Tell us more about the illegal wildlife trade in Brazil. What sorts of animals are typically removed from their ecosystems?

All kinds of animals get taken, but the most highly targeted group is birds—particularly song birds, parrots and macaws, which are extremely popular as pets. Small monkeys, sloths, reptiles and amphibians are popular, too. The Brazilian NGO RENCTAS—the National Network to Fight the Trafficking of Wild Animals—estimates that more than 38 million animals are taken from the country annually by all kinds of wildlife trafficking including zoos and collectors, biopiracy and the pet trade. And that doesn’t count fish or invertebrates.

So this trade is primarily to a global market?

Actually, it’s important to note that, while global illegal wildlife trade is massive in monetary terms—about $20 billion a year—illegal trade between Brazilian states is several times bigger than what gets traded internationally from Brazil in terms of numbers of animals traded. And almost 83% of the seized wild animals in the illegal domestic trade are birds. But yes, a great many animals do get traded out of the country. Bear in mind that not all of it is illegal. Most species can be traded as long as permits are in order, and according to their CITES status. But it is very difficult to have reliable estimates of what gets traded illegally.

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

Classic rock: Dan Visconti, the 21st-century composer

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Dan Visconti is updating the image of the classical composer — from lone, fusty genius to dynamic community leader who creates music as a tool for social engagement. Whether he’s telling the stories of Cleveland’s refugee communities or composing a piece for the Mississippi State Prison, Visconti makes concert experiences that invite people to participate. Classically trained, but with a love of American vernacular musical traditions, Visconti infuses his compositions with a maverick spirit—drawing on jazz, rock, blues and beyond. Here, he tells the TED Blog his vision for how to break through the traditional reserve of classical music, making it accessible to a new generation.

How would you describe your compositions? Are you consistent in your style?

In some ways not. But I’m very consistent in my attitude about music. I guess the best way to say it is that I’m trying to make the composer relevant again—not this old guy with a wig and a quill pen laboring in isolation, but a cultural ambassador and collaborator, someone deeply integrated in the communities that he or she serves. One of the ways I do that is by composing music that’s open to diversity of traditions. Often my pieces sound like they’re not classical music. A piece might have the directness of expression of a great jazz performance, or the sense of audience rapport at a small club venue, or the wildness and improvisatory spirit of a really good rock performance. I also believe that music can play a strong role in social change. I think about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, and the great tradition of protest singing in America: using music to transmit a message. What I’d like to do is to go beyond transmitting that as lyrics in a song, to create an experience that immerses the audience and causes them to engage a larger point of inquiry.

Above, watch the Kontras Quartet perform Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs, a work inspired by the spirit of recreational music-making that characterized the Tin Pan Alley-era of American popular music.

Can you give us an example of how this works?

I recently completed a project with the orchestra City Music Cleveland called Roots to Branches. I set to music some of the stories of the city’s nearly 20,000 refugees, who hail from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Russia, Somalia and Sudan. We created a whole music festival where we brought in musicians and dancers from the refugees’ home cultures, and the piece of music became a focal point to engage a larger cultural issue. It also had the effect of bringing the city’s different refugee communities together—now they’re working together to solve problems.

I’m also interested in anything that can make going to a concert hall special. For example, a lot of pop and rock musicians employ lighting and amplification, raising the bar so high in terms of stimulating the senses. Classical music really has to catch up and take the advantage of all of those things. Take opera. A lot of people who might otherwise really enjoy it are turned off by the operatic style of singing with vibrato. This style originated because vibrato allows the voice to project more volume in times when no amplification was available. It’s no longer necessary, and now pop singers can sing with wonderful, subtle nuance—they can whisper, sigh. But opera is still stuck where it was in 1600.

You’re also doing some exciting site-specific stuff, such as in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Tell us about that.

That’s a project I’m working on with the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. They’re one of the biggest pioneers in taking so-called classical music and updating it. They’ve brought in the world music, collaborated with people like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits. They’ll be performing a piece of mine at this prison called Parchman Farm in Mississippi, properly known as Mississippi State Penitentiary. This is a prison where a lot of the blues greats like Leadbelly and Son House were incarcerated. It’s notorious for being cruel. What we’d like to do is create an event that draws attention to a lot of the crises in our prison systems right now.

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

One Ring to rule them all: Antonio Torres’s design firm Bittertang to create an organic outdoor amphitheatre

This summer, the design firm Bittertang, co-founded by Mexican-American architect and TED Fellow Antonio Torres, will construct this “living” amphitheater in Lake Forest, Illinois,  primarily from netted straw embedded with wildflowers and vines, which will grow, bloom and transform the theater throughout the summer and fall. The theater, which was the winning entry to the 2014 Ragdale Ring competition, will be twenty feet tall and will function as an outdoor performance space.

Read more about the Ragdale Ring here, and to find out more about Antonio and his work, read the feature-length interview “Welcome to the Pleasuredome” on the TED Blog.

Want to see more cool images like this? Follow us on Instagram @TEDFellowhttp://on.ted.com/c0B28.

Blog_FF-SteveBoyes

Steve Boyes is passionately devoted to the preservation of wilderness, as well as to restoring and protecting species and landscapes already damaged by human intervention. At TED2014, the ornithologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer spoke to the TED Blog about his work to save South Africa’s endangered Cape parrot and his campaign to get the Okavango Delta listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Oh, and he also walked us through the profound experience of being a tiny human in the midst of Earth’s primordial wilderness. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

Why is wilderness important?

Wilderness cannot be restored or recreated—only destroyed. We are about to lose the last glimpses into prehistory that connect us to a time before modern man. By wilderness, I mean places untouched by modern society that are capable of completely taking you away, bringing you to tears, making you feel spiritual — all of those things that people go into nature to find. I firmly believe that in the next two decades, humans will lose our last true wilderness areas if we do not focus on preserving them.

My long-term research and expeditions focus on the future of the Okavango Delta — Africa’s last-remaining wetland wilderness, located in northern Botswana. This untouched 18,000 square kilometer alluvial fan is the largest of its kind, and is supplied by the world’s largest undeveloped river catchment — the mighty Kavango Basin. The Okavango Delta is home to the largest-remaining elephant population and keystone populations of lion, hyena, giraffe and lechwe antelopes. It’s the size of Texas, and visible from space.

Every year, my team and I pole ourselves in dugout canoes — called  “mekoro” — across the Okavango Delta, guided by baYei people, who have lived in harmony with this environment for hundreds of years. Accessing the central wilderness of the delta takes eight days, and the baYei’s mekoro are the only craft that can get us there. Twenty years ago, the journey would’ve taken two hours in a boat out of the only nearby town, Maun. It’s an indicator of how far the wilderness area has retreated.

These 340-kilometer research expeditions take us 15 to 18 days through the unexplored central wilderness. It’s a scientific investigation — we are establishing baselines for biodiversity so that we have a point of reference when things change, as they inevitably will. This pristine delta and river are threatened by irrigation schemes, agricultural development, hunting, overfishing, mining exploration, poaching, tourism and population increase, all of which have already had an impact.

The Okavango Delta expedition team poles across the vast wetland by the only possible form of transport, a dugout canoe called a mekoro. Photo: Wild Bird Trust

You are an orthinologist, so your first love is birds, right? What is the link between your study of birds and your work preserving the Okavango Delta?

Put simply, birds can choose with their wings. When things go wrong in an ecosystem, they will simply not return. One of our projects in the Okavango Delta is the Okavango Wetland Bird Survey. It is a broad-based biodiversity survey that focuses on birds as bioindicators of significant change in the water and islands of the Okavango. You’ll see all the storks come in, check it out, go hmm, and go somewhere else — and maybe die in the process. But they’ll leave. It’s almost instant. One year they’re there, and the next year they’re gone.

As for how I got to the Okavango in the first place—I did my Ph.D. on the Meyer’s parrot, which thrives there. The Meyer’s parrot is the most abundant, widespread parrot in Africa, with massive distribution and six subspecies. It’s a highly successful parrot and typically lives in remote river valleys throughout the African subtropics. It’s a close relative of the South African Cape parrot — which is, in contrast, Africa’s most endangered parrot. Yet we knew nothing about the Meyer’s parrot. I wanted to help the Cape Parrot, so I went to the Okavango to learn the Meyer’s parrot’s secrets as to why it’s so successful. I’ll tell you one:  Meyer’s parrots are the only hole-nesting birds that breed in winter in the Okavango Delta, because they are the only animal that feeds on an abundant supply of insect larvae pupating in seed pods. I wanted to learn things like this, to take to the Cape parrot and try and create context for them.

The Wild Bird Trust works to restore the population and forest habitat of South Africa's endangered Cape parrot. Photo: Wild Bird Trust

The Wild Bird Trust works to restore the population and forest habitat of South Africa’s endangered Cape parrot. Photo: Wild Bird Trust

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wherefore art thou Fellows? Tom Rielly on what makes the TED Fellows special, and why you should apply

TEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 - 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan LashTEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 – 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan Lash

Thinking about applying for the TED Fellowship? The clock is ticking down!

The TED Fellows program is a global network of 328 innovators from a spectrum of disciplines. Twice a year, we select 20 additional amazing change-makers to join the pack. Last year’s 2014 Fellowship class included an eye surgeon using low-cost mobile phone technology to make eye care more accessible across Kenya; photojournalists documenting conflicts in Palestine and Bosnia; a biological anthropologist researching cancer in ancient skeletal remains; a biomechatronics engineer innovating prosthetics; a journalist investigating the fragile post-9/11 civil liberties; an astrophysicist investigating the origins of our universe; a new media artist rethinking our right to our own DNA; a space archaeologist – and many more.

In this final 48-hour stretch before applications close for the TEDGlobal 2014 class of Fellows, we asked program director Tom Rielly: “What do you look for in a TED Fellow?” Here, he chats about the unique qualities that make TED Fellows stand out, his evolving vision for the Fellowship, and why YOU should apply immediately!

The TED Fellows come from a zillion different backgrounds and are experts in a vast diversity of fields. Yet they all seem to have a unique personality streak that lets them interact with incredibly kinetic energy, on an emotional as well as intellectual level. It’s hard to put into words, but how would you describe this quality?

I’ll take a stab: intellectual, energetic, social and emotional fluency. Pick at least two or three. Add a porous-membrane attitude to collaboration, genuine optimism – and a love for playing idea jazz alone and and in “bands.”

Twice a year, you’ve got to get through applications from what must be hundreds of extraordinary people. Give us the inside scoop: what are the initial factors that indicate someone will make it through the process, and what are some of the deciding factors as you home in on the final set?

Succinctly put, we’re looking for achievement + character – that is, amazing people who’ve made major breakthroughs or have achieved outstanding output. But that’s not enough. We’re looking for certain kinds of people with strong character. Kind, genuine, generous, plus a certain je ne sais quoi. (Quirky is just fine.) We’re interested in people in the first half of their careers, usually between the ages of 21 and 45.

Towards the end of the process, we are looking at curating a class of 20 Fellows: can we create a group that is geographically diverse, from diverse disciplines, with complementary personalities? Think of it as putting together a college class. You want athletes, actors, engineers, and so on. The mix is very important.

Has it become any easier to identify what kind of person you want as a Fellow over the last several years, 300+ Fellows later?

Without question, it’s easier. We’ve evaluated thousands of submissions, and by trial and error, we’ve learned what makes stellar Fellows and correlated these qualities to their applications. We look at every application submitted, but it’s nearly at the point to where I can glance at an application and know when I’m excited to read further.

How has your vision for the Fellowship changed from 2009 to now? What is your ambition for the Fellows?

When we started the program, our vision was to bring extraordinary young people to the TED community, people who would not otherwise be able to afford to participate.

Today, it’s clear that the program’s largest value is the other Fellows. So we now think about the Fellows as a powerful network, where each node can profoundly influence each other node, and the group as a whole functions kind of like a supercomputer. We haven’t lost our focus on the amazing individuality of each Fellow, but now we look at each person in the context of a robust group that collaborates, communicates and achieves things together across disciplines, in a way they never could have alone. Don’t worry, it’s not the Borg. It’s just that each individual in a strong community benefits from that community.

The good kind of ambition is about striving towards a difficult goal. Our goal is that each of our Fellows and the group can use the Fellows program as a platform to reach seemingly impossible goals. Our focus is on the Fellows and their growth, not on the program per se.

A lot of Fellows speak of having felt lonely and isolated in their work before joining the Felllowship. While passionate about what they do, they weren’t convinced that anyone out there cared. Given this handicap, many incredibly talented folks out there might be talking themselves out of applying for TED Fellows. What would you say to them?

To address the first part of your question, it’s true that many Fellows are such mavericks they have not yet been recognized by their peers or received any validation for their work. That is one of the most amazing things about the Fellows program: it’s an instant peer group of people who understand and value you, who understand what it’s like to be on the bleeding edge, who appreciate unusual things. The Fellowship experience is transformative for so many Fellows.

If I can convey only one message in this whole conversation it’s this: If in doubt about whether you should apply, apply and let us decide. We hear frequently of people who haven’t clicked on the link because they don’t think they’re good enough, strong enough, haven’t done enough. But some we’ve heard about and encouraged to apply have been accepted. If you’re not sure, apply anyway! Only good could come of it. This is not the time to let doubt, loneliness, self-esteem issues or anything else keep you from a great opportunity. Applying is free! As they would say in a late-night American infomercial: Don’t wait – act now!

Apply to be a TEDGlobal 2014 Fellow here: www.ted.com/fellows/apply