2015 MOOCs for the rational optimist

Ten MOOCs (free online learning courses) starting soon, that seem related to — or with the potential to be — a vehicle for rational optimism. You may have to wrangle a pessimistic middle-aged liberal professor or three, but these generally look like they’re going in the right direction:

1. Decision Skills: Power Tools to Build Your Life

2. Marketing with Dignity at the Base of the Pyramid (Social enterprises that are serving customers in South Asia, East and West Africa)

3. Biomimicry: A Sustainable Design Methodology

4. Managing the Company of the Future

5. Growing our Future Food and Global Food Security: Addressing the Challenge and Global Postharvest Loss Prevention: Fundamentals, Technologies, and Actors

6. Super-Earths And Life (Finding Earth-like planets)

7. Documentary! New Trends, New Formats (Documentary makers)

8. Spirituality and Sensuality: Sacred Objects in Religious Life

9. TechniCity (Smart cities)

10. The Governance of Nonprofit Organizations

There’s also an old one I found, The Optimistic Child. Seven hours of video for $35, on “Fostering Optimism & Resilience in Your Child”. Possibly it’s happy-clappy optimism, rather than rational optimism — so ‘buyer beware’.


Optimism for shrimps

I eat a lot of shrimps (‘prawns’ in British parlance) in curries and sauces, and these days that’s about my only consumption of sea-food. I’ve been thinking about the subject since I heard Jesse Ausubel’s recent Long Now talk, in which he briefly outlined the findings of his recent global Marine Census.


So I thought I’d take quick look about how rational it is to be optimistic about this delicious low-in-fat high-in-protein nibble. Shrimps also happen to have a few healthy omega-3s too, though not as many as one might want, and are also quite handy if you’re on the Atkins Diet. So, all round useful. Which means I’m glad to discover that wild coldwater shrimp doesn’t have contaminants. Some eco-worriers may freak out about eating a shrimp cocktail or a shrimp curry (“the PCBs leeching from all the ocean microplastic is entering the human food chain!” etc), but it appears that there’s no need to worry on PCBs, whatever the source of the shrimps…

“exposure to PCBs from [human] consumption of farm-raised and wild-caught shrimp imported from different regions are not likely to pose any health risks.”

Shrimps also very easily pass the mercury detection measures put in place for public health, having unmeasurably low levels in the 2% annual sampling of shrimps undertaken by the FDA in the USA. The FDAs sampling methods are apparently quite sophisticated too. So I’ll take their findings as a proxy for the UK, though I’ve no doubt the UK Food Safety Agency does similar sampling. As far as I can see from Google Scholar and JURN.org, shrimps don’t appear to be causing any current research concern about microplastics or nanoplastics ingestion.

Shrimps are being hugely over-fished in Southeast Asia, which has recently caused a collapse in the stocks there due to disease — and thus (due to insatiable Chinese demand) a consequent global rise in the price in mid 2014. That’s presumably why we’re seeing smaller packet weights for the same old price here in the UK. In Southeast Asia they’re also often poorly farmed and corruptly regulated, with sloppy pond cleanliness and over-use of antibiotics. So I’ll be checking the origin label on my packet the next time I buy some. My last packet of cheapest-available small frozen shrimps from Sainsbury said ‘Fished in the North Atlantic and packed in Denmark’. That’s fine, it seems. Irish Sea and North Sea prawn fishing quotas have been increased by the EU for 2015, and Atlantic wild-caught stocks are healthy except for the near-shore coastal waters off New England (Maine’s famous appetite for sea-food is still ravenous, it seems). Most UK frozen coldwater shrimp currently comes from Greenland or Canada, according to the industry magazines, and confirmed by my packet label.

“But what about the global warming!?” cry the eco-worriers. Not a threat, it seems, at least to shrimps in colder waters. They’ll simply move north a bit. One article quoted Paul Wassman of the University of Tromso, who said that if global warming does eventually de-ice the seas between Europe and the Arctic…

“Coldwater shrimp, scallops and polar cod are the species which will thrive in these futuristic conditions … Estimates put stock increases for some regions at anywhere between 5 and 20%, with the North Sea at 22%”

After reading the articles for this blog post, in future I’ll be far more wary of buying tropical shrimps labelled as from places such as Bangladesh, Indonesia or Thailand. I also read that a few big city restaurant goers are likely to be conned over expensive ‘wild’ shrimps: activist group Oceana recently claimed that around half the ‘wild’ sample platters they purchased in New York City proved to be farmed shrimps being passed off as wild.

But otherwise, as long as shrimps are adequately re-washed and properly cooked, it seems one can indeed be a rational optimist about shrimps.

The same can’t be said about scampi. Scampi is a British favourite with chips, a sort of de facto large prawn in heavy crispy batter. Much cheap ‘scampi’ in supermarkets is anything but the genuine article. Recent DNA tests on UK ‘scampi’ found 1-in-5 samples were actually intensively pond-farmed Vietnamese and Thai catfish! Traditional cleaned and gut-free Scottish ‘wholetail’ scampi tails may be ok, or… they may have been dredged from old industrial rivers such as the Clyde and have absorbed chemicals from microplastics in their gut. Personally, all scampi is off my menu now, although in the past I’ve usually only eaten it about three times a year anyway.

10 points for rational optimism for 2015

Are you groaning under my previous “10 pessimisms” post? Then groan no more, as here are my 10 points for rational optimism for 2015:

1. Health.
News of serious medical health breakthroughs came thick and fast over the New Year, and they’re still coming. And the news is not the “hmmm… might get on the market in 2030?” or “Megacorp hypes NEW PATENT WONDERDRUG!!”. No, these are solutions that are here now or else are being fast-tracked to deployment. Other less noticeable health improvements are happening more incrementally, among the poorest — though a slow-but-steady move toward smaller families, better nutrition and healthier living conditions.

2. India.
India is currently brimming with optimism under its dynamic and pragmatic new leader. The Indian economy is widely reported as set to grow at +5% in 2015. Of course, it’s a massive country with over 50 huge cities, and growth will not reach everywhere in just 12 months. But the outlook there is very positive, especially on the coasts.

3. Drones.
A surprising choice, perhaps. But they’re having a positive impact on many aspects of the natural world, from agriculture to eco-crime. Sometimes several million small devices can have a big overall cumulative impact. Other forms of monitoring, from small affordable satellites to wildlife tagging systems, will also help monitor the natural world more efficiently.

4. Business growth.
The business climate should improve in many nations, bar a few systemic shocks from declining nations such as Russia and Japan. Jobs are growing rapidly in the UK and USA. The freer economies of Sub-Saharan Africa are doing rather well overall, with a bit of Chinese help. A few African nations are reported to be finding their own uniquely African ways to growth, and even starting to seriously tackle some forms of corruption. Africa’s growth will be further boosted by low oil prices, a drop in many other key commodity prices, and increasingly efficient agricultural methods. Possibly also by lowered trade barriers, which would do the most good.

5. Waste not, want not.
It’s great to see so many ways emerging to efficiently use previously wasted or spare resources. From Uber and AirBnB to bio-engineered bacteria digesting noxious waste, the world is successfully using new technology to make productive use of everything from spare cars to spare tyres. On a wider level such systems are effectively rapid real-world R&D labs for future changes in the ways that organisations operate.

6. Open Access.
We’ve seen sustained ongoing growth in ‘open access’ or otherwise free academic content online, and this will continue. Many institutes, foundations and governments are now mandating open access publication for their research. This, and the growth of MOOCs, will offer the world’s growing billions perhaps their only feasible chance to educate themselves after secondary school level. MOOCs are especially useful because they are inherently corruption-free, unlike much education in the developing world.

7. Energy.
I’m optimistic about fine-tuned energy management and energy conservation technologies. These allow us to waste and use less energy, and to send it longer distances than before. Fracking will slowly but surely establish a toehold outside of the USA, along the way severely damaging the green left due to their hysterical over-reaction and lies. High-yield solar power, super-batteries, and oil-pooping bacteria will all remain in the “Gee whizz, great if you can make it work one day!” department.

8. Greening.
The earth is greening rapidly. Wildlife seems to be becoming more abundant, perhaps by as much as 10% overall in the temperate part of the world. The causes are likely complex (increased carbon dioxide, precision agriculture, farmland reverting to wilderness due to population decline, and a co-mingling and maturing of all the conservation measures we’ve taken since the 1970s) but it’s real.

9. Consumers.
As a critical mass of consumers once again take their credit cards out of the wallets and blow off the moths this spring, we’ll be much more informed about major purchases than five years ago. Each micro-decision we make, when based on a few extra data points, may not make much difference. But aggregated over billions of people there will surely be positive consequences. This is especially true of advice and data on energy efficiency, durability, total lifetime costs of an item, eco-impact, corporate ethics and more. Even the clueless consumers now have much wider access to cleverer friends via social media, who can also give them advice on major purchases.

10. The Internet.
Of course. Especially the way that the Web allows people to bypass the shallow blather of the mainstream media.

10 reasons for rational pessimism in 2015

I’ve been asked: “OK, you started a blog about rational optimism. But, with The Doomsday Clock scarily leaping forward amid a flurry of publicity today, what are you rationally pessimistic about for 2015?” Localised ecological degradation and disease are givens, of course, and as such are really too obvious to include in a list. Better minds than mine have tackled this same question, but here’s ten minutes worth of my typing…

1. The Russian slump.
Russia slumps quickly into a really deep and painful recession.

2. Putin.
Vladimir Putin decides to distract attention from his collapsing economy and face down the West, by massing tank divisions on the Polish border and making a veiled but obvious nuclear threat. Turns out he’s serious… seriously bonkers.

3. Red Ed.
Dithering socialist Ed Miliband becomes the new British Prime Minister, despite his chaotic Labour Party getting a minority of UK votes. Within a year he’s ruined much of the growing UK economy, plunging us back to the state we were in at 2009.

4. Cyberattack on civilians.
A big cyberattack that negatively affects civilian food or water security for several days. Less likely, a nation-scale electricity blackout.

5. The Land of the Setting Sun.
Japan’s economic stimulus decisively sputters and fails, while the nation fails to halt its birthrate decline.

6. Crime insiders.
Continued high-level infiltration by criminals of police forces around the world, aided by endemic lower-level cultures of corruption.

7. Science.
The continuing misuse and misrepresentation of the scientific method in the cause of political agendas; the growing use of ‘nodding dog’ academics to whitewash failed projects and programmes; and the proliferation of bogus open access ejournals in the developing world.

8. Censorship.
Censorship, of all kinds and at all levels, continues to make progress. Worse, it tips over into growing self-censorship. Over-long copyright periods continue to act as a form of censorship. As a side issue, governments attempt to outlaw encrypted communication software (they’ll fail spectacularly, but it won’t be a pretty fight).

9. Dumb.
The investigative and fact-checking aspects of journalism continue their decline in the mainstream media. Well organised groups, from terrorists through to hysterical single-issue campaigners, become more and more adept at stage-managing whole faux ‘events’ for gullible reporters (Hamas, for instance, and Russia); putting up stooges to make false accusations; or fabricating ‘pseudo news’ out of legitimate sources (Russia Today, for instance). And then allowing a gaggle of useful idiots to rapidly whip up a fire-storm of knee-jerk reaction around it.

10. Twitter.
Twitter is the cuckoo-in-the-nest of the Internet. It fails to die.

Ok, so that last one is a tongue-in-cheek long-shot 🙂 Let’s see how many of those still hold, when 2016 rolls around. I’m optimistic that only a few will have happened. And yes, I also considered the obvious knee-jerk stuff: Ebola; ISIS; Iran; Greece; the collapse of the bloated Eurocracy, and so on. I’ve read too much about them already to think they won’t be solved or put on hold in various ways in 2015.

Digital banking impacts traffic cop corruption

In the Indian city of Hyderabad the corruption among traffic police is being tackled by a policy of cashless fines

“the new initiative scraps on-the-spot cash payments, instead issuing e-tickets to those at fault and requiring that they pay their fines online, at special booths or through post offices.”

It sounds like an interesting side-effect of the combination of digital banking and accurate vehicle/personal ID.

Development: The economics of optimism

“Development: The economics of optimism” is the title of a new article in The Economist. The focus is the U.N. proposed mega-list of 169 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. A rational optimist gets placed front and centre in the article…

“One of the loudest voices calling for greater focus is Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist, who has launched the Post-2015 Consensus, an effort to draw up a shortish list of goals and targets the benefits of which, if achieved, would far outweigh the costs. Perhaps more surprising, the most beneficial measure Mr Lomborg’s teams evaluated was lowering barriers to trade, which achieves far more per dollar spent than any other option (see chart). Completing the treaty currently under negotiation at the World Trade Organisation, for example, would bring developing countries $3,426 for every dollar spent. A free-trade deal encompassing China, Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN countries would be worth $3,438 per dollar spent.


Most poverty-reduction measures are more expensive than cutting tariffs, but many are still well worth it … contraception … nursery school enrolment rate in sub-Saharan Africa … malnutrition … tuberculosis … Increasing mobile broadband penetration … stopping tax evasion in sub-Saharan Africa … worldwide availability of work visas … In contrast, the researchers question whether the benefits of efforts to curb climate change justify the costs. They are also sceptical about the UN’s push for “data for development” as part of the SDG process. According to Mr Lomborg, gathering data is hugely expensive, at around $1.5 billion per SDG target; measuring all 169 proposed targets would eat up 12.5% of total international development aid.”

And data gathering is also open to fiddling with the figures, which is presumably why few are trumpeting the “Literacy rate of 15-24 year-olds” in regard to the previous Millennium Goals. There has been widespread and systemic falsification of educational outcome statistics for government-run education in the developing world.

Scrutinised: “Earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years”

After all the optimism on this blog in the past few weeks, I’m now in the mood for a little debunking of pessimism. “Earth has lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years” claimed the WWF’s Living Planet Report recently, and the headline was eagerly cranked out by credulous journalists. BBC Radio 4 is still making the claim, for a forthcoming programme. But five minutes of research on the Living Planet Index (on which the claim rests) would have at least shown journalists that…

“The 2014 Living Planet Index reveals a global decline in vertebrate population abundance of 52% between 1970 and 2010″

Ah, so the decline was in vertebrate animals only (invertebrates, as readers will remember, are snails, spiders, flies, beetles and suchlike). And up to 2010 rather than 2014. And 52% rather than 50%. Nice to get it a little more precise. (Some especially dim journalists even soberly mis-reported that: ““Earth has lost 50% of its species in the past 40 years”).

So I assumed that Living Planet measured every known vertebrate species, all 62,839 of them? Er, no…

“The Living Planet Database (LPD) holds time-series data for over 14,000 populations of more than 3,000 vertebrate species from around the world.”

So the Living Planet measures only “3,000 vertebrate species”. And the coverage of those 3,000 species is sampled from a total of…

“14,000 populations”.

Then Living Planet threw out around 4,000 of those populations, in the process of getting toward the headline 52% figure…

“The global LPI is calculated using [a little] over 10,000 of these population time-series”

Were those approx. 4,000 discarded populations inconvenient in some way? It’s not stated. But OK, let’s assume that there were legitimate reasons for not using them, such as being from corrupt governments known to seek international conservation grants to tackle non-existent ‘declines’. But where did these time-series come from, exactly? They were…

“gathered from a variety of sources such as journals, online databases and government reports”

And are these sources bona fide, all good trustworthy data? One has to assume so. And based on actual head-counts of wildlife? Er, not always…

“The data used in constructing the index are time series of either population size, density, abundance or a proxy of abundance. For example, the number of nests or breeding pairs recorded may be used instead of a direct count of population.”

So some source data can be made up from a “proxy of abundance … instead of a direct count”. Hmmm. Well, I’m sure the fieldworkers and their local guides, collectors and spotters were all doing their best, shinning up trees rather than dozing underneath them. But the resulting data series are all for consecutive years, surely? Er, no again…

“If the data available are from only a few, non-consecutive years, a constant annual rate of change in the population is assumed between each data year.”

As if all this wasn’t shaky enough — the headline 52% turns out to actually come from computer modelling. The modelling was used to very heavily aggregate and re-shape the above data…

“The global index is calculated as a weighted average of temperate and in tropical regions. … A generalised additive modelling framework is used to determine the underlying trend in each population time-series. Average rates of change are calculated and aggregated to the species level. Each species trend is aggregated into indices according to taxonomic group and the biogeographic realm it occurs in. These indices are weighted proportionally using the estimated number of species in each group and realm and placing the most weight on those which are the most species rich. … These indices are aggregated into three system indices – terrestrial, freshwater and marine – which are weighted equally to produce the global LPI”

So it turns out that the headline 52% ultimately turns on…

“the estimated number of species in each group”

Estimated. But it doesn’t end with estimates based on estimates and assumptions and gaps. The complex mathematical gymnastics described above have actually been subject to radical tweaking, in a complex re-jigging processes, since the last report in 2012. These changes have conveniently sent the headline figure soaring up to 52%. For instance, in the WWF’s previous Living Planet Report for 2012, their headline figure was a 28% total loss from 1970 to 2008. So what happened between 2008 and 2010 to get that figure up to the current headline of 52%? The change is due to the computer modelling being changed to a new “diversity-weighted” methodology, making the new results different from…

“The previous results [in the 2012 Report, that] were calculated using a valid peer-reviewed method. Now that the dataset is larger, it is possible to use a revision to this method producing different results”

So was the 2014 Report also subject to a “valid peer-reviewed method”? It’s not stated in the Report, but one very much hopes so. Though I see just two external peer reviewers are listed, one of them, interestingly, being the government Minister for Sustainable Development for Mexico.

But wait, even the underlying dataset has changed since the 2012 Report…

“the dataset is always changing as new data continue to be added … A different composition of species and populations means that new trends are continuously being added” … “13 per cent more species” have been added since 2012, with a boost of reptiles by 46%, and fish by 33% since 2012.”

So those new added trends might even tend to be mostly from… species being studied precisely because of their apparent decline? One has to wonder if that’s often the case. Threatened wildlife populations nearer to man, and therefore more likely to be impacted by man, are also more likely to be studied. Such as frogs and fish in the heavily degraded and logged jungles of South America for instance? Or in the forests of a rapidly developing Mexico?

“The global LPI [which gives the headline 52%] shows a greater decline than in 2012 because of larger declines in the terrestrial, freshwater and marine indices … [the new] method means that reptiles, amphibians and fish species, which are largely declining, are given appropriate weight in the index calculation. This results in a larger overall decline.”

So that statement identifies a big part of decline, albeit one resting on estimates-on-estimates. It’s in the amphibians (frogs and toads) and fish, mostly, and judging by the maps in the Report the losses seem to be the heaviest in South and Central America and its coastal waters. I presume pollution, logging and overfishing in the region’s many basket-case nations has some part to play in this, as well as the general development happening in relatively robust nations such as Brazil and Mexico. Frogs and amphibians are also known to have suffered a calamitous global decline — mainly due to a fungus killing them — and they have have been especially hard hit in Mexico and Central America. We also know from the recent excellent expeditions of the Census of Marine Life that the world’s oceans are indeed being heavily overfished, mostly in the global south. These are declines that are worrying and worthy of action — we certainly need a 10 year moratorium on industrial-scale mega-trawlers in the world’s oceans, better eco-governance in Central and South America, and to robustly protect frogs and bees — but the WWF does not appear to have presented evidence of an ongoing evenly-spread pan-global collapse in the biosphere.

In fact, the WWF seems to have presented evidence for optimism. The Report shows that all types of species grew in numbers in the world’s temperate regions, and wildlife is also currently doing rather well overall in Africa. In the developed world, which is likely to have the most reliable and lengthy data, wildlife numbers are up by 10% overall.

humpnycPicture: Humpback Whales are returning to the waters off New York City, 2014.