TED2013: My Top 3 Wednesday TED Talks

Today's TED2013 line-up was once again filled with amazing people with super-charged ideas and skills. I really can’t pick any bests out of the bunch, but here are three talks that stood out for me.

Black: Yo-Yo Performance Artist

Wow! Never has yoyo-ing seemed so elegant, exciting, and dare I say, beautiful. Black is a cross between an amazing yo-yo champion, graceful gymnast, and gasp-inducing magician. He got his first yo-yo when he was 14 and spent hours with it every day. By age 18, after 10,000 hours of practice, he became the world’s yo-yo champion in 2001. But then he quit and became an engineer, thinking that taking the title of World Champ was as far as he could go. He couldn’t, however, squash the yo-yo passion that lived inside him, and by 2007 he was back at it, this time winning World Champion in the Artistic Performance category.

When Black performs, the yo-yo goes from being a toy to a spectacular prop. Wearing black sensei garments, he is precise with his choreography, dramatically moving his yo-yo in time with music that combines percussions with sounds of nature. Later he shoots his yo-yo out towards a nearby table, and suddenly the yo-yo grabs and holds a white cloth napkin, which he reels in with one quick snap. Later the yo-yo is spinning while Black is contorted into a backbend that makes his body seem hardly human.

This video is from the 2011 TEDx Tokyo and only shows a fraction of what he did today. But at least it will give you a peek.

Stewart Brand: Animal De-Extinction

Stewart Brand began his TED talk today with the statement, “Biotechnology is about to liberate conservation.” Before I had a chance to process what that meant, he went on to list a number of birds and mammals that have become extinct in the last few centuries, including the passenger pigeon, which was killed off by hunters in the 1930s. For a moment my mood plunged, as it always does with conversations of human-caused animal extinction. And then he asked the question, “What if DNA could be used to bring a species back?” I felt a tsunami of awe and excitement barrel through the audience. This was as exciting as his declaration about the digital world in 1984 when he said, “Information wants to be free.”

The idea behind de-extinction is to plant DNA of an extinct animal into the egg of a closely related living animal. For instance, in 2003 scientists had their first success in bringing back an extinct animal when they cloned a bucardo -- which had been wiped off the earth three years earlier -- by inserting its DNA (which they got from frozen bucardo skin) into goat eggs. A cloned bucardo was born, and then died just ten minutes later. Around the same time, scientist Robert Lanza took tissue from a Javan banteng (not yet extinct), and inserted it into an egg cell of a closely related cow. The cow gave birth to the exotic banteng, which is alive and thriving.

Brand told us he’s been having private meetings with de-extinction scientists from around the world, scientists who had all been working for the same cause but had been working alone until he helped bring them together. Now with his Revive and Restore project they are working on bringing back specific extinct species such as the European Aurochs, the Tasmanian tigers, the California condor, and even the woolly mammoth.

“Humans made a huge hole in nature,” he said towards the end of his talk. “And we have a moral obligation to repair the damage.”

On March 15 this year, Revive and Restore is teaming up with National Geographic Society to hold TEDx DeExtinction, a one-day event in Washington DC.

Dong Woo Jang: 15-Year-Old Bow Maker

According to 15-year-old Dong Woo Jang, school in Korea is a pressure cooker. “And in the face of constant pressure, I connect with bows.” Jang is a self-taught bow maker who demonstrated his craft and skill for us today. His passion for bows may have started because his parents wouldn’t let him play computer games. So instead of relieving school pressure by zoning out in front of a screen, Jang began to explore the outdoors around his house. He was interested in hunting skills and decided to make himself a bow of his own design out of an interesting tree branch that he had found. But one bow wasn’t enough. He ventured farther away from his house and began to smuggle axes and saws in his backpack to school so that when school let out he could gather his bow materials. In the privacy of his room he’d carve and polish his bows to perfection.

Since his early days of bow-making (not that long ago!) Jang has researched Korean history and has found that the designs he thought were his own are actually very similar to his Korean ancestors. This realization has brought him closer to his heritage.

Making bows for Jang has gone from passion to a kind of magic. “You need to communicate with your materials and have harmony with them to make a perfect bow,” he said. “The bow resembles me and I resemble the bow.”

See all TED2013 coverage


  1. De-Extinction sounds awsome, would love to be able to got to a zoo or wildlife preserve one day and see an Aurochs, the Tasmanian tigers or a woolly mammoth.

    1. I can’t wait for the return of the mammoths either. If our ancestors were willing to take down one of those beasts with nothing more than pointy sticks then they must be DELICIOUS.

    2. Bringing back an individual is not the same as bringing back a species.  A species is a collection of genetically diverse individuals. Without this record of diversity, we’ll never be able to produce a breeding population; we’ll be able to produce a novelty clone.

      In my limited exposure to him, I find Stuart Brand annoying.

      1. Genetic diversity is only half of what’s missing.

        What about the organism’s culture?

        Seriously. I hear being a dingo is more cultural than genetic, and how about those British crows who figured out they could use red lights and car tyres to eat walnuts?

        Pretty sure instinct alone won’t cut it…

        I think if this gets much further this may become apparent.

  2. No love for Allan Savory?  He has a plausible idea for reversing desertification and removing carbon from the atmosphere.  Stewart (proper spelling) Brand needs to have a conversation with Savory about de-extinction.

  3. I call bullshit.

    First, the idea’s been around for years. Ever hear of “Jurassic Park” ?

    Second, the technology isn’t really there yet. Which is why there are no successes these guys can point to. As in, zero.

    Third, even if we bring back one or two species, we won’t find the funds to bring back thousands, particularly since each one poses its own specific problems.

    And fourth, while we’re distracted with this fantasy, THOUSANDS OF SPECIES ARE ABOUT TO GO EXTINCT. Have some damn priorities.

    1. Even if they manage to do this with some species, how will it be possible to get the genetic diversity needed to make a group viable? If it’s just using this process with individuals, I wouldn’t really call it de-extinction.

    2. We clearly haven’t learnt the lessons we need to learn from killing off so many other species to be looking at bringing them back – we don’t deserve that gift, not yet.

      Slightly off topic: I was reading through a Reddit thread just this morning that went something like:

      Person 1: You should buy decent eggs because battery farming is atrocious.

      Person 2: Are the eggs any better though? Honestly that’s all I care about.

      That second person had over 50 upvotes at the time. The fact that one person could be so inhuman and callous disturbed me, the fact that at least 50 people agreed with them full-on depressed me – and I’m sure if I knew the real numbers of people who’d agree with that statement I’d probably just go live in a cabin in the woods.

    3. This!

      Want to add_ there is *no* possible technical solution to the loss of biodiversity. For each species (including: populations, metapopulations, individuals, genes…), it took 4.5 billion years to evolve until now.

      You. Can. Not. Turn. Back. This. Clock.
      Nor is it sensible to try. Don’t just “have” priorities. Get your damn priorities straight.

    4.  YES!

      There is also a very real debate in ecological and evolutionary circles about what rates of extinction are acceptable. Extinction is a natural process and while humans appear to have caused more than their fair share of them, this doesn’t mean that extinction is in and of itself a bad thing.

      Bring a species back, fine, but where do you put it? For most extinct species, their disappearance resulted from habitat loss as opposed to being ruthlessly murdered like passenger pigeons. Moreover, the ecosystems from which these species departed have evolved during their absence, and the effect of re-introducing species is unpredictable.

      At best, you could populate a zoo with now extinct specimens as a sort of cautionary tale. It’s interesting that we glorify what is gone and view what is left as boring and take it for granted.

      1. “Extinction is a natural process and while humans appear to have caused more than their fair share of them, this doesn’t mean that extinction is in and of itself a bad thing.”

        It also depends on what you mean by ‘a bad thing’. I’m sure most of us are able to accept, that on a planetary level, us becoming extinct would provide some of the greatest ecological benefits of all. We also put more effort into prolonging our existence than we do the planets. It’s kind of messed up when looked at logically, but of course we’re not logical, we’re just another animal doing our thing, reproducing and all that shiznit.

        Not that I’ll be the one to propose the ‘Utopia’ solution :)

        1. Humans becoming extinct would provide ecological benefits in the short term, in the long term we are the only species in Earth’s long history capable of (eventually) facing space based threats such as asteroids and the death of our sun. Any species we haven’t wiped out by then will therefore benefit from our continued presence.

          1. This is of course true! But also hypothetical. There’s nothing to say that there will be a threat for us to thwart, nor that we’ll be able to thwart it.

            But that certainly is the optimistic perspective!

            The death of the sun is of course inevitable, but without reversing entropy (yes, I have read Asimov’s Last Question :) ) we don’t have much chance of solving that riddle. We could of course relocate the other animals when we move to another solar system!

          2. I think we’d be certain to bring other species with us when we colonise other planets in this solar system or others. Many plant species are almost certainly guaranteed a ride, and depending on how easy space travel eventually becomes, we might end up transporting vast numbers of animal species to various other worlds.

            What I find fascinating about this is the evolutionary history of species that become useful or at least interesting enough for a technologically superior species to guarantee its long-term, (as in geologically-long-term) survival and bring it to other planets. Something that it has no intellectual comprehension of. It just found a really weird survival niche and kept surviving inside it.

          3. True, interesting thought experiment!

            What I think we’d struggle with the most is knowing exactly what we needed to take with us.

            Nature has a very specific balance, and we could find that forgetting one seemingly insignificant creature, or even not bringing enough of something, or too much of something! We doom the entire future of the human race.

            But ye, I’m not going anywhere without my dog.

  4. Also, California Condor isn’t extinct. Not yet anyway. So the breeding program makes more sense for the time being.

    Anyway, call me when they make a real dinosaur.

    1. Why would you want to go to a roomful of lottery winners? Wait… that isn’t how everyone else got there?

    1. We have brought back some (slightly impoverished) habitats. Many parts of the US are covered with second growth forest.

  5. What gets lost in the discussion of extinction is that the extinct species are not themselves the problem, but only a symptom. The real problem is habitat loss due to development and pollution. Until you solve the underlying problem, bringing back the former inhabitants of a decimated ecosystem is simply vanity and hubris at best, and a dangerous distraction at worst. 

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