Singer-songwriter Dawn Landes tells the story of Tori Murden McClure, who dreamed of rowing across the Atlantic in a small boat — but whose dream was almost capsized by waves the size of a seven-story building. Through video, story and song, Landes imagines the mindset of a woman alone in the midst of the vast ocean. (This talk was part of a session at TED2015 guest-curated by Pop-Up Magazine: popupmagazine.com or @popupmag on Twitter.)
Liver cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to detect, but synthetic biologist Tal Danino had a left-field thought: What if we could create a probiotic, edible bacteria that was “programmed” to find liver tumors? His insight exploits something we’re just beginning to understand about bacteria: their power of quorum sensing, or doing something together once they reach critical mass. Danino, a TED Fellow, explains how quorum sensing works — and how clever bacteria working together could someday change cancer treatment.
What do you want to know about past TED speakers? For one fan, it’s the apps they use and books they read
TED speaker Virginia Postrel swears by the app Anti-Social when she needs to focus on her writing. Jon Gosier considers his iPhone 5 “the Swiss Army knife of electronic gadgetry,” and relies on Waze for “directions and avoiding speeding tickets.” Meanwhile, Heather Barnett never reads a single book at a time — she usually has “a pile of books by my bed, spanning psychology, art, innovation, biology, education and fiction.”
We know this thanks to Brian Stefanelli’s website, After TED Talks, which posts his interviews with TED and TEDx speakers after their talks go live online. While these interviews dig into the topic of the talks, Stefanelli makes sure to ask speakers the same four questions: “What hardware do you use?” “What apps or software can you not live without?” “What are you currently reading?” and “What projects are you currently working on?” Their answers are fascinating.
Stefanelli discovered TED when someone posted a talk given by virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier at TEDxSF on StumbleUpon. “He was playing some sort of bamboo instrument from Vietnam,” recalls Stefanelli. “I spent the next few hours looking for other talks and became obsessed.” He found himself growing curious about (a) what his favorite speakers had been up to since they gave their talk and (b) how they generally organized their lives. So he decided to ask them — and blog the results. “There are many people that are just as curious as I am,” he says.
“In the beginning, I figured that if I could get a speaker who was listed in the most-viewed TED Talks of all time section on the TED site to answer my questions, it would give me credibility when I approached other speakers. But it turned out those speakers were really hard to get in touch with,” he says. So he took another tack, and just starting chatting with speakers he liked via social media. This produced better results.
“The first speaker that actually sent back a response was James Howard Kunstler. He was really generous with his answers,” says Stefanelli. “After that, I was motivated to reach out to more people.”
So far, he has interviewed 15 speakers whose talk topics range from topics from green design to the treatment of the Hazara people in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They’re short, compelling reads — perhaps because, as he says, “I have an admiration for every speaker I interview.”
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In agricultural entrepreneur Trang Tran’s native Vietnam, farmers traditionally burn the straw and husks that remain after the rice harvest. This practice happens at least twice a year for two months at a time, releasing noxious smoke and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Tran’s solution: using rice straw to cultivate mushrooms. Her social enterprise Fargreen is standardizing the process and teaching farmers how to recycle their own agricultural waste and improve their livelihoods. We asked Tran to tell us about how the idea evolved.
How did you become interested in the burning of rice straw as an environmental problem? Did you come from a farming community?
I’m from a little province called Hà Nam, two hours south of Hanoi, the capital city. My parents are not farmers, but Vietnam is an agricultural country, so everyone is surrounded by rice farms. Even if you live in Hanoi, the nearest farm is only a half an hour away.
Rice straw burning is something that happens every harvest season, and it happens all around us. It’s been done for many years, and it’s considered the most convenient way of getting rid of waste. Straw is perceived as having no value — farmers just want to get it out of the way as soon as possible in order to prepare for the next crop. In Vietnam, 20 to 50 million tons of rice straw are burned annually, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Obviously this contributes to climate change, but the more immediate problem is that local people inhale the matter, causing serious health problems in communities — particularly in babies. Poor communities are most affected, and of course they have the least money for health care.
When rice straw is being burned, it’s very smoggy, and it’s hard to breathe. It also blocks visibility. A lot of car accidents happen during harvest season. It’s crazy — whenever I have to travel from my home to Hanoi for work, or come home during harvest season, rice straw is being burned along both sides of the road and it is very dangerous for drivers.
Why is straw burned on roads? Why not just on the field?
The part of the rice plant left in the ground after the harvest is burnt right on the field. But the part left over after threshing is piled by the side of the road. There isn’t much space to store the agricultural waste once it’s been threshed, especially in Northern Vietnam, and roadsides are typically far enough away from houses that the straw can be safely burned. Some people also believe burning straw on the field helps the soil, but it’s actually really damaging because the soil gets drier and drier, and it just gets harder to farm it every year. The straw can’t just be buried because there is too much of it; composting rice straw requires a special technique and takes time. There’s a real need for the farmers to clear the field for the next round of rice cultivation — we plant two crops in Northern Vietnam and three in Southern Vietnam.
How did you come up with the idea to use rice straw to grow mushrooms?
My background is in international development. When I went to get my MBA in Colorado State, I kept thinking about this problem of rice straw waste back home. I had always seen this as an environmental problem, but getting my MBA gave me a way to see the problem differently and find a new way to approach it. My friend Thuy Dao, who was a fellow undergraduate back in Vietnam but in the biotechnology department, shared my fascination. Once I joked with her, “Oh, maybe someday we’ll work together on this problem.” Later, when I was talking to people to find a collaborator, her name popped into my head. So I contacted her and we started doing research.
Of course, we were not the first to tackle this problem. We looked into the various ways other researchers have considered to deal with rice straw. But because we grew up in the community as well as working in development, we could see from the local perspective that the problem is far more complex than just the act of burning. You have to ask, “What is the motivation for farmers? What’s in it for them not to burn?” If there’s nothing in it for them, and burning saves time so they can prepare for their next crop, then you can’t blame them for wanting to continue.
So we tried to think a bit differently — what can we offer the farmers that would make it worth it for them not to burn? In between rice seasons, most of the farmers we work with — many of them women — have to travel to the city to find employment. They don’t have skills to compete in the job market, so all they can get in cities are low-level jobs — picking up trash for recycling and so on. If they can stay on their land and cultivate a profitable crop between rice seasons, it would alleviate a lot of hardship.
One day, we discovered in our research that rice straw can be used to grow mushrooms. We saw that it wasn’t very complex, so we bought some spawn, collected some straw to the back of the house and grew a crop.
What were the varieties of mushrooms that you grew?
We grew paddy straw, oysters and white button. Our first harvest was only a few kilograms, but they were so good! At first we hadn’t even realized that the used straw could then be recycled back to the field. But we saw that the straw had turned into really good compost, because the fungi had helped break it down. Nearby farmers said, “Well, if you want to get rid of it, we’d love to get that to the field for you.” We said OK. We also started to experiment with planting potatoes with the used straw — you put the potatoes in soil, and layer the straw over it to provide more nutrients. We got a really good crop.
How did this experiment turn into an enterprise?
I went back to the United States to work on the business model, and thought about the impact we wanted to make and the sustainability of the business. We came up with a satellite business model. If we could get the farmers to grow the mushrooms while we retained control of the quality of the crops, we knew there would be a good market for them. Right now in Vietnam, 80 to 90 percent of mushrooms consumed come from China, but Vietnamese people distrust Chinese produce, worrying about the possibility of contamination by pollutants, chemicals, and so on.
So we thought, if we are completely transparent in how we produce our mushrooms, that would add value. It would mean an opportunity for farmers to increase their income as well. We’re targeting supermarkets and high-end restaurants whose consumers are highly conscious about food safety and quality. Right now, we work with a small group of farmers. Our target is, in seven years, to have hundreds of farmers in our network. When that happens, there’ll be a lot of mushrooms, which we might also be able to export. We’re also experimenting with drying and salting methods.
Is there an existing mushroom cultivation industry in Vietnam?
There is. The majority of the companies producing mushrooms right now use sawdust and cotton as their substrate. We’ll be the first company focusing on using straw to produce mushrooms. We could gather the straw and sell it to mushroom companies that are already in business, but that’s a different business model. We could even open a factory and grow the mushrooms ourselves. But how would we scale up? With this model, we can scale up anywhere. The mushrooms are grown by the farmers themselves, and all we need is a collection center where all the farmers can come and sell the mushrooms.
Regarding contamination, is there a possibility that Vietnamese rice straw itself contains pesticides or fertilizer residues?
You can’t totally avoid pesticides. But we do select which straw to use for our mushroom cultivation, avoiding fields that have been sprayed heavily with pesticides. We are also working on methods to analyze the residue in the straw so we’ll have a more precise indicator. After being collected, the straw gets dried and treated using a natural pasteurization method before it it’s used as a substrate for mushrooms. The process kills unwanted fungi or bacteria and softens the straw. It’s labor-intensive, as it’s done all by hand.
What kind of conditions are needed to grow mushrooms?
It depends on the mushroom that you grow. In general, mushrooms are quite sensitive to their environment, so beside keeping the environment clean to keep mushrooms from being attacked by unwanted fungi, we need to provide them with the right amount of moisture, temperature and sunlight to grow. For example, straw mushrooms like high temperatures and humidity, whereas oyster mushrooms prefer a cooler environment.
We have varied weather, so right now we grow seasonally. But we’re actually looking at building a mushroom house where we can help the fungi thrive in different temperatures and weather conditions, because weather’s changing right now. Vietnam is one of the countries that’s most affected by climate change.
Realistically, can mushroom cultivation take care of the rice straw problem in Vietnam? Can each farmer get rid of all of his rice straw growing mushrooms?
I think it’s possible, yes. We have a very flexible model where right now most of the straw can be used for mushroom cultivation, and the used straw can be mixed with additional straw waste after mushroom cultivation to quickly create useful compost. Each farmer has, on average, a four-acre farm, so they only produce a few tons of straw per year. Fargreen’s few farmers have so far collectively saved 10 tons of straw from being burned – which is the equivalent of 10 tons of greenhouse gases.
What motivates you to do this work?
I grew up naturally aware of environmental conditions and how they affect life. My parents used to sell fresh homemade food in the local market, and because we didn’t have a fridge back then, my mom had to pay very close attention to the weather forecast to plan the amount of food they would prepare to take to the market. If it was a rainy day, nobody would want to stop by their kiosk in the market to buy their food, and that meant we’d have to throw the leftovers away.
There’s also a big river running behind the back of my home in Ha Nam. It used to be such a beautiful sweet river, and my dad used to carry me on his back across it in summers, when I was small. But as I grew up, I observed how the weather patterns in my country have changed over time. There are a lot of unexpected storms, floods and droughts — and that has changed the river.
But the main thing is that I want to improve the lives of Vietnamese farmers in a sustainable way. As I traveled doing development work, I noticed that the poor people were the ones who — like my parents in the old days — suffered the most from changes in weather patterns. Ours is a very agricultural country. Yet people in the farming industry are among the poorest. So to take Vietnam to the next level, we have to focus on our farmers.
Any plans to take Fargreen to other rice-producing countries?
Yes. As soon as we validate Fargreen in Vietnam and build the brand, we would love to franchise in other countries, because our neighbors are struggling with this problem, too. We think it will be a very attractive opportunity for farmers who want to diversify their income, and we hope to get environmentalists on board, too.
We hope that one day, we can also focus on making biofertilizer out of the straw waste after mushroom cultivation, which will help create organic farmers. So there will be more after mushrooms. For me, the goal is to prove that businesses can do well by doing good, that you can build prosperous and sustainable farming communities, prioritize the environment and still create a successful enterprise. That’s why we called it Fargreen — going far by going green.
The image itself looks laid back enough — a 20-year-old man in a hoodie and jeans, walking through New York City. Except that this image is 150 feet tall and pasted on a plaza near the Flatiron Building. Cabs and cars flow around him while pedestrians scamper past.
This image, created by TED Prize winner JR, is on the cover of The New York Times Magazine’s “Walking New York” issue this week. For the issue, JR photographed 16 people who arrived in New York within the last 365 days. While living in New York part-time for the past four years, the artist has found himself intrigued with immigration and origins.
“The first question we ask you when you get to the city is where you’re from,” says JR. “That’s something really special. Where I come from in France, when someone asks you, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ people can take it the wrong way. People say: ‘What? Am I not French enough for you?’ Here, there’s not a sense of that. Everybody is from somewhere, and that’s the strength of the city.”
The man shown on the cover is Elmar Aliyev, a 20-year-old waiter who immigrated to the US from Azerbaijan last summer. JR loved his photograph because of the movement of his arms, according to a making-of story. His image was printed on 62 strips of paper, which took more than three hours to paste on the plaza. Because the image is abstract up close, and because passersby are free to step on it, it sends a powerful message — that like so many of New York’s 3.1 million immigrants, people pass by Aliyev without noticing him.
JR’s team started pasting the image on Flatiron plaza on April 11 starting at 4am. During the day, JR went up in a helicopter to photograph it from above. Later that night, the image was washed off the plaza.
But we will see more of it. On April 13, JR posted a photograph of himself and fellow TED speaker Chris Milk in the helicopter on Instagram. “Shooting my first Virtual Reality film with @zrichter and @chrismilk in New York,” he teased.
Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, enjoy these TED Talks from JR and Chris Milk:
As usual, the TED community has lots of news to share this week. Below, some highlights.
Human rights for chimps? This week, TED2015 speaker Steven Wise and his organization, The Nonhuman Rights Project, successfully argued for Hercules and Leo, two chimpanzees who have been used for medical experimentation at Stony Brook University, to be defended against unlawful imprisonment. After a hearing in the New York City Supreme Court, a judge has granted a petition for this case to be heard — significant, as it’s the first time a U.S. court will hear a case that centers around whether primates can have the status of “legal persons.” Wise is optimistic about this first step. “[The judge] never says explicitly that our non-human plaintiffs were persons, but by issuing the order … she’s either saying implicitly that they are or that they can be,” Wise tells The Guardian. The next hearing will be on May 6. (Read about Steven’s talk.)
The zen of drawing. At the start of this video starring graphic designer Milton Glaser, you see a blank sheet of paper from over his shoulder. But as he sketches stroke by stroke, he talks out loud about how drawing helps him get a clearer picture of reality. “For me, drawing has always been the most fundamental way of engaging the world,” he says. Five minutes later, you’ll have a better appreciation for the simple sketch — and a new view of a classic literary figure. Thanks to OpenCulture for resurfacing this video this week. (Watch Milton’s TED Talk, “Using design to make new ideas.”)
Hardship can build character. Pico Iyer wrote about David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, in last week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review. The book challenges what Brooks calls the “Big Me” obsession — all that constant work on resumé-building virtues — and asks readers to embrace the idea that hardship can build character. In his review, Iyer applauds Brooks for turning his attention to this topic in the first place. “There aren’t many writers on politics who will study ‘emotional intelligence’ as closely as they do polls,” says Iyer, “and fewer still extol failure as they do success.” (Watch Pico’s TED Talk, “The art of stillness” and David’s, “The social animal.”)
Credibility without a credit score. Microfinance has democratized entrepreneurship around the globe by offering small loans to people without credit scores. But how can lenders gauge a potential borrower’s reliability? TED Fellow Shivani Siroya and her company InVenture were featured in Fast Company’s list of The Most Innovative Companies of 2015 for their tech solution to this problem. Prospective borrowers can download InVenture’s Android app , which captures indicators from their everyday lives to assess their relative responsibility. (Watch a Fellows in the Field video about Shivani’s work.)
What to know before starting a music career. “The artistic path doesn’t come with a blueprint for success,” says TED Fellow Somi, in a piece for In Her Shoes about what she wishes she knew before starting her career as a musician. Among her insights: musicians need to know a bit about business development and finance to better market themselves. But the biggest? That being yourself is always the best bet. “When I first started performing in New York City, I didn’t place my African roots at the center of my creative identity, because I didn’t think that people would understand it,” she says. But when she started experimenting with languages and rhythms, that’s when things took off for her. “It reminded me at an early age to always be exactly who you are.” (Read our interview with Somi on what inspires her music.)
One of humanity’s greatest achievements: yo-yo mastery. According to broadcast legend, CNN has a “doomsday video,” designed to be played on the occasion of the end of the world to celebrate humanity’s greatest achievements. Over the weekend, HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver created their own version — and it included a clip of yo-yo artist BLACK performing on the TED stage. Way to go, humanity! “We mastered the art of the yo-yo,” explains narrator Martin Sheen. Among other achievements: creating a cereal made entirely of cookies. (Watch BLACK’s TED Talk, “My journey to yo-yo mastery.”)
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