You don’t want to come between a tapir baby and its mother — the normally docile animals become fierce when offspring are threatened. Photo: Daniel Zupanc
If you want to call someone a “jackass” in Brazil, you call them a “tapir.” These large, forest-dwelling mammals look a bit like a cross between a wild boar and an anteater. And while they’re often derided, they are truly amazing animals.
Brazilian conservation biologist Patricia Medici is utterly devoted to tapirs. When this TED Fellow first started working with tapirs in 1996, nearly nothing was known about the elusive herbivores. Now, thanks in part to her research, we know that tapirs are central to the health of forest ecosystems — and that they are under threat.
This week, the Sixth International Tapir Symposium – the world’s only conference dedicated to tapirs — convenes in Campo Grande, Brazil, bringing together 100 conservationists, researchers, NGOs and governmental agencies from around the world to strategize about tapir conservation and survival. The symposium is the official conference of the IUCN’s Tapir Specialist Group, which Medici has chaired since 2000.
As the conference kicks off, we asked her to share some fascinating facts about her favorite animal. Here’s what she had to say, in her own words.
1. Tapirs are considered living fossils. They’ve been around since the Eocene, having survived several waves of extinction. There are four surviving tapir species: mountain tapirs from the Andean Mountains; Central American tapirs; Asian tapirs in Southeast Asia; and South American tapirs — the ones I studies most closely.
2.Tapirs are pregnant for more than a year. It’s actually pretty amazing that tapirs are still around at all, as they reproduce very slowly. They have a gestation period of 13-14 months and only one offspring is born at a time. If a population’s numbers decline — due to deforestation, disease, hunting or roadkill — it’s very unlikely it will ever recover. In fact, things can reach a point where there are no populations to speak of — only individuals lost in the landscape. Tapirs can be persistent and adaptable in isolation, which is why they’ve managed to survive for so long. But despite their resilience, their genetics get compromised.
3. Tapirs are South America’s largest land mammals. They can weigh up to 300 kilos, which is about half the size of a horse. This heft makes it possible for the animals to push trees over to get to fruits. While they’re generally gentle, docile animals, they can attack when feeling threatened — especially females with babies. Tapirs are also nocturnal, hiding in thick patches of forest to sleep most of the day, and waking at around 3:30 in the afternoon to forage. This combination of weight and night hours means that they are very difficult animals to study in the field — you can’t just follow a tapir and collect data. You have to capture, anesthetize and radio-collar them, set camera traps, and radio-track them during the night when they are active. This may be why it took so long for people to start studying tapirs seriously.
TED Fellow Anastasia Taylor-Lind on the other side of the camera in Ukraine. She originally planned to photograph a series about the declining population in the country, but quickly realized that the protests were her story. Photo: Alexander Checkmenev
When Anastasia Taylor-Lind found herself in Kiev at the height of violence during Ukraine’s Independence Square protests, the documentary photographer decided to record not the fighting itself, but the human beings involved. Setting up a makeshift photo studio in an alleyway inside the barricaded square, she beckoned passers-by — the protesters themselves, and later the women who came to mourn their deaths — and captured their images on film, using a medium-format camera. The result is a hauntingly intimate, arresting set of portraits that gives a sense of the ordinary people in an extraordinary moment, and gender roles in conflict situations.
As events continue to unfold after Ukraine’s parliamentary elections last Sunday, Taylor-Lind tells the TED Blog about her experiences during those harrowing days.
Why were you in Kiev during the protests? Did you go to cover it as a photojournalist?
I initially traveled to Ukraine as part of a wider, long-term project I’m working on called Negative Zero, that looks at Europe’s declining populations. There are 19 countries inside Europe that have declining populations, and Ukraine is one of them. I had been to Romania, Serbia and Nagorno-Karabakh already, and Ukraine was next on my list. And actually, even before the war, Ukraine had the lowest life expectancy for men inside Europe.
So I traveled to Ukraine with the idea that I was going to photograph a story about winter deaths. I was going to look at TB dispensaries, AIDS hospices and palliative care — or the lack of it — for cancer patients, and the elderly. I arrived in Kiev and was researching how to facilitate access to these places that actually all lay in Donbass, in the east of Ukraine. It is a war zone today, but it was peaceful at that time. While there, I started photographing the protests in Maidan.
I knew the protests were going on. Corruption and depopulation are two very closely linked issues — and these were essentially anti-corruption protests, so already there was some relevance. Once I started photographing in Maidan, and particularly working on the portraits, I knew that I had to stay, and that my story was there.
I was in Ukraine again in August, and I tried to reach some of the places I had initially planned to photograph, but they were cut off by the fighting, so I wasn’t able to follow up my initial plan.
What are some factors for low life-expectancy in Ukraine?
Smoking, alcohol and drug addiction, poverty, poor access to health care — and now war.
Eugene, 22. Protestor from L’viv region. February 24, 2014. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind
You’re primarily a documentary photographer. What made you decide, in that moment, to shoot portraits?
I had never done a portrait series before. But I made my decision to shoot portraits in reaction to the presence of so many other journalists in Kiev and in Maidan. It was a news event, and I was working alongside so many of my colleagues and my friends. That’s really unusual for me — I’m not used to working surrounded by other photographers. Of course, if I’d been the only photographer in Kiev, I wouldn’t have shot the portraits — I would have had to take reportage pictures to show you what was happening. But the presence of all of the other photographers made me understand that I didn’t have to tell the whole story as one individual — what I could do was contribute one small part to the collective recording and collective understanding of the events there. Acknowledging that and trying to find one thing — one way to talk about it, the way that only I could talk about it — led me to making these portraits.
I’d been in a news situation once before, in Libya, during the revolution in 2011, and I’d felt a similar frustration. It’s not necessary to repeat news pictures that other people are taking; as a photographer, you have to not just find something to say, but you have to find your own way to say it. I struggled with that in Libya, and then the idea came to me, I should make portraits — both of the journalists as well as the fighters. Because what I noticed in Libya was that we photographers were emulating the costumes of the rebels.
That sounds dangerous!
It’s something that happens naturally, I guess. Not that photographers were wearing combat clothing, but they had a similar look: hipsterish, skinny jeans, beards, the checked scarves. When I was in Kiev, I noticed the same thing: we all looked like the fighters, like somehow we were all choosing the same clothes. This reminded me that I’d had this idea to take portraits in Libya, but I hadn’t done it, because I’m not a portrait photographer, I’m a reportage photographer. This time, it was the photographers around me who said, “That’s a good idea, you should do it!” So in a way, the presence of all the other journalists pushed me to do something different from them. It helped me to push myself creatively.
All the people you photographed were in the middle of either fighting or mourning. How did you get them to agree to stand still for a portrait?
My portrait studio was by the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, inside the barricade of Maidan. I set up my studio there every day in the same place. It was a collapsible metal frame with a black muslin curtain. I placed it in a bricked-up alleyway, so it was set back a little bit, and my fixer Emine had a gold reflector to bounce the light onto the subjects. We stood there all day.
That spot was on a thoroughfare leading to the barricades, the front line with the Berkut, the police. So we’d stop people as they were passing and ask them to come to the studio. After the worst days of violence — February 18 through the 20th, 2014 — all of these fighters were joined by tens of thousands of civilians in the square. Many women came to lay flowers for the people who had been killed — they started laying the flowers at the points where people had died, which you could tell because there was the blood on the ground. People set up small shrines and put crosses there. Eventually the whole square was covered in millions of flowers.
Natasha, 21. Mourner from Kiev. February 23, 2014. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Diagram of Hockaday’s proposed project Always Get on the Boat, a waterborne celebration of the Fifth Street Marina community in Oakland, California. Image: Julie Freeman
Constance Hockaday makes large-scale installations on open water. Identifying as a Chilean-American queer artist, Hockaday creates spaces that celebrate creative freedom and counterculture communities while defying gentrification. Take the Floating Peep Show — in which out-of-work drag queens and exotic dancers performed in the hulls of sailboats in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Now, Hockaday plans to turn a retired Coast Guard vessel into a venue for a huge waterborne multimedia spectacle. Always Get on the Boat will both celebrate and mourn the likely demise of the Fifth Street Marina — a longstanding alternative community on a post-industrial waterfront in Oakland, California, that is slated to be overrun by commercial development.
As she sets the plans for this new work, we talked to Hockaday about the struggle to make space for alternative culture, and why urban access to open water is so important.
In your talk at TEDGlobal 2014, you described the Floating Peep Show, and how it was inspired by two San Francisco counterculture establishments that had closed within months of each other — the Lusty Lady and Esta Noche. Tell us more about what these were.
The Lusty Lady was the nation’s only worker-owned, unionized adult entertainment business. It was a peep show, so you looked through a window at women — and people of actually many different genders, body shapes and looks — and you look at them without their clothes off, or erotic dancing. It was an institution, and it was located in what was known as the Barbary Coast. It felt a part of the old San Francisco, maybe one of the last places that felt like it was connected to that. It catered to the general public and also specifically to feminists, queers and radical sex culture, as well as kink and a very counterculture underground scene that’s played a huge part in the shaping of San Francisco. They shut down this past year.
Then, six months later, so did Esta Noche, a Latino gay bar in the Mission. It was spectacular, very special. It provided a place for gay Latinos who didn’t necessarily have a place in white gay-man world or in Latino culture. Everybody was welcome — it was like a queer Quinceañera every night.
Why did they shut down?
It was partly because clientele had moved out of the city because they couldn’t afford to be there. Social networking has also changed a lot of the way that queer culture interacts with each other. But these were cultural institutions.
So I rafted together four sailboats, and each one was a performance space. I contacted a bunch of Lusty Lady alumni, a bunch of drag queens from Esta Noche, as well as DJs and people from the Center for Sex and Culture. I hired them for four nights to perform inside the hulls of sailboats. We built a wall so that you couldn’t actually walk all the way into the boat: you could just step in. There was a money slot, and you could pay to see the performers. I told them to do whatever they wanted. Some of them did sex shows, some of them did strip shows, some of them did karaoke shows, some of them did super high fashion.
We picked people up in small inflatable boats, and transported more than 600 audience members across the San Francisco Bay to the sailboats in four nights. One night we did it near Dogpatch, in industrial San Francisco, and then three nights we did it in Clipper Cove, on Treasure Island. Everybody was there: all the old, curmudgeonly sailors who were all in charge of the sailboats, plus sex workers, drag queens, friends, art dorks, pervy kink dudes, tech kids. All hanging out in the middle of the water on these boats.
This was great, because it can be lonely and frustrating and confusing to be an artist in a place where artists are losing real estate, and losing a way to survive in that role in society. It’s hard enough to be an artist in general. It’s a scary life path to choose.
Andrew Bastawrous dreams of a bakery in Nakuru, Kenya, that will not only make delicious treats but raise money for subsidized vision care. Robert Simpson envisions First Responders, a program to make satellite data available to citizen scientists in crisis situations, to guide aid efforts from afar. Cesar Harada wants to create larger prototypes of his highly maneuverable sailing robots, designed to collect ocean data and clean up oil spills. Ryan Holladay imagines a series of artistic pit stops along California’s Highway 1.
At the end of October, Mazda will offer a grant to fund one of these four projects. Which one will it be? That is up to you. The grant will go to whichever project gets the most popular support online. Mazda is looking to celebrate — and fund — people who are challenging conventions to make things better.
Which project should you vote for? Read more about these four iconoclasts and their big ideas below.
Get to know: Eye surgeon Andrew Bastawrous The Cliffs notes: Andrew Bastawrous is a TED2014 Fellow who created a smartphone eye exam app, PEEK, to reach people in Kenya who otherwise wouldn’t visit a doctor. Inspiring quote: “In Kenya, 4 out of every 5 people who are blind don’t need to be.” His new project: The Ujima Bakery, a social enterprise bakery that will employ locals in Nakuru, Kenya. It will offer up healthy foods, and proceeds help support free eye care in Nakuru. What winning this grant would mean for his project: “This grant would help us accelerate the growth of the Ujima Bakery, which will generate profits to subsidize eye care to those in the area who cannot afford it. The grant will also be used to support St. Mary’s Hospital, where so many of our patients have received excellent care. This support may be in the form of a vehicle to enable more patients to be picked up, or funding towards their ongoing program until the bakery is generating sufficient funds for long-term sustainability. The grant would also enable us to start getting PEEK out there to those who need it most.” Watch his TED Talk: Get your next eye exam on a smartphone
Get to know: Science crowdsourcer Robert Simpson The Cliffs notes: Robert is a TED2014 Fellow who has created a way for everyday folks to contribute to science through the online platform Zooniverse. So far, users have discovered a galaxy and contributed to breast cancer research. Inspiring quote: “The excitement that I feel as an astronomer when I discover something — I get to convey that to people who discovered for it for themselves.” His new project: First Responders, which would make aerial photography data available to citizen scientists during disasters in real-time, so they can offer from-the-air help to first responders. What winning this grant would mean for his project: “At the Zooniverse, we want to get into the humanitarian space and try to put our crowdsourcing platform to use to more directly help people. Imagine if, as well as donating money, people could give their time and brain power to help spot people in trouble, find access routes, or map other data crucial for the people on the ground. We’d love to make that happen, and the grant would kickstart those efforts.” Read his TED profile: You found a planet!: Accelerating discovery at Zooniverse
Get to know: Environmental inventor Cesar Harada The Cliffs notes: Cesar is a TED Senior Fellow who created Protei, a sailing robot with open-source technology designed for efficient cleanup of oil and plastics from the sea. He looks for ways to use natural ocean phenomenon, like currents and wind, to curb disasters. Inspiring quote: “The crazy person to me is the person who doesn’t take risks, who denies their own capacity to influence change in the world.” His new project: So far, Protei prototypes have been small, autonomous vehicles about a meter long. Harada would like to make larger versions, to make the technology big enough for the open ocean and to see what happens when sailors and surfers are able to control its movement. What winning this grant would mean for his project: “This grant would change everything for us. We would be able to build and operate a two-person boat and create larger autonomous sailing robots. It would also allow us to do more mapping around Fukushima, where the power plant exploded in 2011 about 100 kilometers away from my family. This is not a Japanese problem—it is a global problem. There will be more nuclear accidents in the future, and we need to be ready. For me, this is emotional because Mazda has its headquarters in Hiroshima. It’s a company built on the ashes of the nuclear bomb, a symbol of Japanese courage and vitality. Japan is now in a similar situation. To have Mazda support our work in healing the ocean, in helping the Tohoku region, in contributing to Japan rising from its ashes again—that would be a tremendous honor.” Watch his TED Talk: A novel idea for cleaning up oil spills
Get to know: Musical artist Ryan Holladay The Cliffs notes: Ryan Holladay is a TED2013 Fellow who creates site-specific sound installations. With his partner Hays Holladay, he’s composed pieces activated by the National Mall in Washington, DC, and by Central Park in New York City. Inspiring quote: “Think of this as a choose-your-own-adventure of an album.” His new project: Holladay would like to create his largest location-aware album to date, one that spans the entirety of Highway 1 on the Pacific coast of the US. By teaming up with painters and designers, he wants to create a series of artistic pit stops along this famous road. What winning this grant would mean for his project: “This grant would give us the ability to go further with our technology than we have in the past. Our projects have been a labor of love, and we’ve released all of them for free. Having no revenue from the apps posed a problem for us, as we weren’t able to update them as frequently as we would have liked. It has limited our ability to make the audio engine as robust as we know it could be. We’ve been so inspired by this beautiful stretch of highway along the Pacific coast, and we would love the opportunity to execute this concept of location-specific audio on a larger scale than we’ve done before and recruit other artists that we’ve always wanted to work with to help.” Watch his TED Talk: To hear this music, you have to be there. Literally.
Bill Selenga performing at the TED Fellows talks, Session 2, TEDGlobal 2014, South, October 5-10, 2014, Copacabana Palace Hotel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
In Session 2 of TEDGlobal 2014 Fellows Talks: a waterborne peep show in San Francisco, a triage app that saves lives, the architecture of death, and more!
The session starts with Bill “Blinky” Sellanga performing “Usinibore” solo on acoustic guitar. “It was a song I wrote in 2008 in response to the post-election violence,” he says, “when I was feeling very helpless.” The lyrics: “Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do. I can change the world.” This Kenyan producer and DJ fronts the musical collective Just-A-Band, which mixes genres like hip-hop, electronica and funk to make music for popular radio that give a voice to Kenyan youth. (Watch a video of Just-A-Band’s version of this song.)
Computational biologist Marcela Uliano da Silva is sequencing the invasive golden mussel’s genome to find the animals’ weaknesses and strengths. This mussel arrived in South America in the 1990s, choking river systems and causing millions in damages as it clogged power plants and water treatment facilities. At the same time, this mussel alters the transparency of water, allowing sunlight to penetrate and leading to toxic blooms, oxygen deprivation and massive fish deaths, homogenizing ecosystems over time. Uliano da Silva hopes to develop a genetic therapy that would prevent the mussels from being able to attach to substrates. This would target the mussel without the need for substances like chlorine, which don’t work well and harm the surrounding biodiversity in their own way. But the clock is ticking. At the moment, the golden mussel is only 150 km from the first river in the Amazon River basin, says Uliano da Silva. If the golden mussel gets there, it would spell disaster for the Amazon, which is also critically linked to the health of the rest of the planet.
Landscape architect Bradley Cantrell introduces a brand-new concept: engineered environments using computational landscaping. Current environmental construction is, like a prosthetic, functionally limited. It looks like nature, he explains, but it’s limited in function and can’t feel or respond to stimuli. In contrast, computational landscape architecture uses environmental sensing, computation and robotics, along with models, animations and illustrations built from data to gain a deeper understanding about how ecosystem dynamics work — to allow construction of landscapes that act as a natural extension of nature. He offers an example: a prototype of a Mississippi River spillway that can essentially “print” land, somewhat like an inkjet printer. The prototype opens and closes the spillway gates to divert water and re-shape and stabilize land forms. It keeps in mind support for plants and animals, while protecting cities from severe weather.
Chilean-American queer artistConstance Hockaday is interested in water as an undefinable space of unfettered liberty. It upholds the idea that living beings have the right to own the space that their physical bodies occupy, and the right to freedom of movement. “The social order of land has forgotten these basic rights,” says Hockaday. Last summer, she explored these ideas in a floating peep show. She latched four 30-foot sailboats together, using their hulls as performance spaces. Here, she gathered exotic dancers and drag queens from two radical and celebrated San Francisco establishments that had closed within six months of each other: the worker-owned peepshow Lusty Lady, and the Latino gay bar Esta Noche. More than 600 audience members were ferried by sailors to see this floating show, many of whom had never been on the water, never been on a boat or never been to a peep show. To Hockaday, the event represented a tear in social order, and a gathering of people successfully conversing with the urban and natural environment on their own terms.
Patricia Medici speaks about the South American lowland tapir, an animal about half the size of a horse that deserves your deepest respect. Photo: Ryan Lash
It’s time for TED Fellows Talks, the Rio edition! Twenty TED Fellows and Senior Fellows opened the conference in the stunning Golden Room of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. In Session 1, learn more about a grassroots marine conservation movement in Madagascar, a vending machine that dispenses food staples in Chile and a new database of African genetics. Plus much, much more.
Pakistani composerUsman Riaz opens the Fellows session with his new piano piece, “The Creation of the Universe.” It starts out quiet and dreamy, opening out into a dramatic second movement. The multitalented Riaz is also a filmmaker and visual artist, and a sophomore at the Berklee College of Music.
Kuwaiti-born Palestinian photographer Laura Boushnak faced many barriers on her way to becoming a photographer. This inspired her to turn her lens on women in the Arab world who are also motivated to improve their lives through education, while confronting cultural and social barriers. In her project “I Read, I Write,” Boushnak addresses such topics as female illiteracy — which is quite high in the region — as well as educational reforms and political activism among university students. Often, her subjects — who hail from a wide range of social and economic situations — are reluctant to be photographed, but agree once Boushnak reassures them that they will serve as role models in their communities. Sometimes, Boushnak asks women to write their thoughts on prints of their portraits. She shares some of their words. “I sought education in order to be independent and not count on men for everything,” writes Aisha, a teacher from Yemen. And, from a Tunisian activist: “Question your convictions, be who you want to be, not who they want you to be; don’t accept their enslavement, for your mother birthed you free.”
Marine ecologist Alasdair Harris has a new metaphor for fish conservation: investment banking. When a few fish are allowed to reproduce in reserves, their fertility explodes. The bigger they grow, the more they produce, eventually swimming out of the reserve to replenish nearby oceans where people fish for food. With the simple and effective idea of marine reserves, says Harris, humanity could rebuild the world’s fish stocks — if we could manage to put a third of our oceans in reserve. This is a problem because, at the moment, only a small single-digit percentage of our oceans are protected, and it’s also hard to persuade people whose livelihoods depend on fishing to stop, especially where stocks are already low. Working with octopus fishers in Madagascan villages, Harris convinced one community to stop fishing in a portion of reef to allow local octopi to recover. People saw their long-depleted stocks come back, and watched the octopi grow to ten times their normal size. With this, villagers saw that they could rebuild their fisheries themselves, and the idea went viral. Now Madagascan fishing villages have created 63 permanent reserves in eight years — a fast-growing, locally driven conservation solution working for a quarter of a million Madagascans.
“Our world has many supherheroes,” says Brazilian graffiti artist and activist Mundano, “but they have the worst of all superpowers: invisibility.” He’s referring to catadores, Brazil’s waste pickers, who do the essential work of collecting recyclable materials for a living, pushing carts called carroças to haul materials away. In Brazil, catadores collect 90% of the waste that is recycled. To celebrate these unsung heroes, Mudano began decorating carroças with graffiti art, using color and humor to increase their visibility and stature in the streets, society and culture. He then created Pimp My Carroça, a crowdfunded event that invites everyone from physicians, podiatrists, hairstylists and massage therapists to offer services to catadores, while artists paint their carts with vivid graffiti and outfit them with reflective tape, horns and mirrors. The demand for this event grew to other cities, even outside Brazil, spawning an offshoot independent event, Pimpex — DIY events inspired by TEDx. To date, Mundano has painted more than 200 carroças, and has visited wastepicking cultures in Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, South Africa, Turkey, the US and Japan. There are over 20 million catadores worldwide, Mudnano notes, and he challenges us to see them as a vital part of our society.
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.
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.
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.
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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.