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Staff picks: 2016’s best, from our editors and curators

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Amanda Palmer performs at TED2016 - Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Amanda Palmer performs a tribute to David Bowie at TED2016. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Looking for a few great talks to inspire you for a great year ahead? TED’s content+editorial team staffers pick their favorites — including some don’t-miss talks you might have passed by in this busy year.

To spark your curiosity … 

Fawn Qiu: Easy DIY projects for kid engineers

Don’t you hate it when an operating-system upgrade means your carefully customized software no longer works? (Rest in peace, Now Contact...) When Fawn Qiu heard that her favorite game on her phone, Flappy Bird, was being discontinued, she built a physical version of the game, which she called Flappy Bird Box. It turned out to be equally maddening to play, and Fawn’s YouTube video about her contraption has been viewed more than 2.8 million times. As she describes in this brief talk, Fawn applies the same why-not pragmatism and sly whimsy when she designs projects to introduce kids to engineering. Her classes use low-cost, readily available objects like fabric and paper, and feel like playtime, no matter how old you are.  — Cyndi Stivers, director, TED Residency

PLUS: Fawn was a member of the inaugural class of the TED Residency, an idea incubator housed at TED HQ in New York City. During a circuit-making workshop she conducted, I built a beating heart out of construction paper, copper tape, a tiny light bulb and a cheap battery. The battery is shot now, but this heart still beats for her. Application is open for the spring 2017 TED Residency, which runs March 6 to June 10, 2017. Deadline: January 2, 2017.

To feel more at home in your own skin

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

By the end of the talk, I truly believe the words I’d read in its description: “You don’t know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That’s your beauty.” As an added bonus, Lidia’s participation in the comments section of her talk is the perfect example of the genuine, uplifting spirit you were introduced to in her talk. They’re a pleasure, and a comfort, to read. — Kaitlin Pierce, community lead

Angélica Dass: The beauty of human skin in every color

I read quite a bit about the science of human races and skin color. I thought I knew it all about this topic. Until Angélica told us her stories and showed me that art can get to me in a much more profound way. — Gerry Garbulsky, Spanish curator

Reshma Saujani: Teach girls bravery, not perfection

Reshma’s talk on how we teach girls to be perfect and not brave was like a punch to the stomach — in a good way. She illuminated so many patterns in my own life, my behavior in school and at work, that are a consequence of this teaching, but that I had never been able to put my finger on before, like when a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite find it. Reshma’s talk gave me that word, that understanding, and that makes it easier for me to face my own struggles and become a little braver every day. — Rebekah Barnett, speaker coordinator

Kenneth Lacovara: Hunting for dinosaurs showed me our place in the universe

I spent time with Ken backstage before his talk, talking about friends we have in common. I then ran to get a good seat to see him on stage, so that I could later tell our friends about this talk. Little did I know that a few minutes later I would be deeply moved and crying listening to Ken’s dinosaur stories. — Gerry Garbulsky, Spanish curator

To understand the world …

Luke DuBois: Insightful human portraits made from data

Every time I come back to Luke’s maps, I’m reminded of how diverse and complicated this country is. I think back on Luke’s warning, “You guys know what this is — you call this “data visualization.” When you do it right, it’s illuminating. When you do it wrong, it’s anesthetizing.” I love that he used dating profiles to build his maps, arguing that it’s in only our profiles that we get to describe ourselves as we want to be seen. Maybe this map, this way to view our country as a big community of people trying to be seen as they are, is empowering in a time when we need to be empowered. These ideas haunt and guide me. — Diana Enriquez, Research chief

Juno Mac: The laws that sex workers really want

Sex work is one of those parts of the economy I had no idea how to begin making sense of, let alone how policy might affect it. Over the course of this transformative talk, Juno Mac opens our eyes to the perspective most important in the conversations about sex work: the sex worker. In doing so, she taught me—and I’m sure many others—a key lesson: if you want to make fairer and more respectful policy, you better ask the folks who most partake in the activity that policy is going to impact the most. — Francisco Díez Buzo, Researcher

Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Syria’s architecture laid the foundation for brutal war

She looks calmly into the camera as she records her talk from her home in the Syrian city she has always lived in. Unable to travel due to conflict that has broken all normal systems of daily life, Marwa Al-Sabouni, an architect, speaks about living through a war that has destroyed her studio and left her city of Homs in rubble.  Her story is one of survival, yes, but also a clear-eyed analysis of how bad urban planning decisions and ill-conceived design has contributed to the blight. Just as architecture can foster community and heal, Al-Sabouni tells us how, when done without the needs of the community in mind, it can engender divisiveness and feed conflict. Her blunt critique, using her own city as case study, has lessons globally for urban development. I applaud Al-Sabouni’s steadfast courage and am grateful to her for showing us so vividly how our built environment truly matters. –Chee Pearlman, Design curator 

To science-geek out

Emma Marris: Nature is everywhere

Pristine is a bad word for conservation. Because nowhere on this planet is pristine anymore, whether it be soot settling into the soil of the farthest reaches of the Amazon or climate change altering the ice in Antarctica. Plus, pristine has too often meant without people–leading to forced evictions from national parks, for example. But as Emma Marris notes in this wonderful talk, pristine may be nowhere, but nature is everywhere, even in the cracks of a city sidewalk. And that’s reason enough for hope on this new, human-dominated planet. — David Biello, TED Science Curator and author of “The Unnatural World

Jennifer Kahn: Gene editing can now change an entire species — forever

In any given era, seeds of powerful scientific discoveries are being sown — seeds that eventually sprout into a new reality for all of us, much like the recognition of penicillin’s power in the early 20th century. We are already experimenting with gene editing in full force, but its potential reaches far beyond its current applications. In this talk, science journalist Jennifer Kahn provides a beautifully articulated summary and perspective on how CRISPR can alter our existence — for good and for evil. — Cloe Shasha, Producer

Mariano Sigman: Your words may predict your future mental health

I love the talks that leave me thinking ¨How the hell did they come up with that question?!¨ Mariano asked himself how the ancient Greeks thought and if their consciousness was like ours today. And then, he (and his collaborators) came up with the answer by analyzing old texts that can serve as fossils of human thought. Wow. — Gerry Garbulsky

Suzanne Simard: How trees talk to each other

This talk made me feel excited. I was excited to be hearing this extraordinary truth of the world that I’d never known, and to know that I’d never quite look at trees the same way again. I felt excited, with childlike awe, at the magic of nature (something I rarely feel from behind a computer screen!), and I enjoyed picturing humanity learning a few lessons from the trees :) — Kaitlin Pierce, Community lead

To think on the biggest possible questions

Juan Enriquez: What will humans look like in 100 years?

Between Jennifer KahnEllen Jorgensen, and a recent screening of Gattaca, I’d been feeling pretty down about gene editing. But leave it to TED’s resident futurist to turn me back around. Taking evolution into our own hands still ranks among the most dangerous ideas humanity’s ever had*, but I’d rather go out swinging than wait for the end. — Dan Kwartler, Coordinator

* See, literally any literary examples of “Playing God”

Sam Harris: Can we build AI without losing control over it?

Yes, AI is coming, and yes, we aren’t prepared. But what’s really scary, and what Sam highlights in this talk, is that for some inexplicable reason we aren’t afraid. In a year of doom and gloom, it seems fitting that one of TV’s bleakest shows captures this idea perfectly: “When you look at the world through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags,” Bojack Horseman. — Dan Kwartler

Rabbi Sharon Brous: It’s time to reclaim religion

I think most of us seek transcendence in some form — a sense of being lifted and joined with something bigger than our simple selves. And we need it on a regular basis — as much as you want to get permanently lifted by listening to that one perfect TED Talk, a lot of us instinctively or habitually seek it week after week in ritual, whether that’s a faith tradition or a long weekly walk with headphones and the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon. So, as much as I love Rabbi Sharon Brous’ call to reclaim religion as a force for good rather than an excuse for evil, I equally love her call to reclaim the weekly religious meetup from boredom and habit. A regular dose of transcendent connection — no matter how we get it — is worth taking. — Emily McManus, managing editor

Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, Usman Riaz: Space Oddity

Okay, so this isn’t a talk, but I found Amanda Palmer’s performance from TED2016 with Jherek Bischoff and Usman Riaz to be such a moving, powerful tribute to the late, great David Bowie. And it features a special surprise guest. — Kelly Stoetzel, Content director