Reconsidering Ocean Calamities

A new paper by Carlos Duarte et al in Bioscience: “Reconsidering Ocean Calamities” that interestingly straddles Media Studies, the publishing of observational science, and the ethnography of scientific research agendas. The paper suggests that reporting of alleged ocean calamities is being routinely overstated by journalists, in ways that are often not backed up by observational research.

He looks specifically at overfishing, jellyfish blooms, invasive species, and coral die-off. Overfishing is agreed to be a major problem (though mostly so in the global south of the planet, I might add). The other ocean threats he finds to be significantly over-hyped, while good research to the contrary is apparently often ignored by reporters.

This might be discounted as just yet another example of the sad decline of investigative and science journalism. But — more worryingly — he hints that ocean research scientists are starting to be sucked into the same vortex as some on land are: tempted to skew the research agenda toward the alleged threat, rather than risk loosing popular awareness and funding.

XPRIZE for Global Learning

A new XPRIZE, a $15 million prize for Global Learning. To win, develop an open source software solution that allows children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within an 18 month competition period. Recruiting now.


E-learning was a field that long promised, but delivered very little of lasting value. And delivered it with all the aesthetic style of a mouldy kipper, to boot. As I often remarked during the 1990s and 2000s: “If e-learning systems worked, people would be clamouring to use them”. But the recent MIT research on science MOOCs has changed my mind, at least on some kinds of online higher education. Maybe now, with rigorous competitions like the XPRIZE for Global Learning, field-tested under strict competition conditions, I’ll soon have my mind changed about basic primary level education too. Let’s hope so.

News discovery methods for Africa

R&D for new types of news discovery in Africa…

“At the start of February, the BBC World Service announced a hackathon in Kenya. The mission: to develop new ways to extend access to news and vital information services across the country, and eventually Africa as a whole. The event saw 13 teams from across Africa — and even as far afield as the US — come together for two days, their creations judged on a combination of factors such as distinctiveness, audience impact, accessibility, innovation, and feasibility. Ultimately, two Kenyan teams were deemed promising enough to have real impact on the BBC’s outreach to audiences.”

Flow Hive

Flow Hive. Collect the honey, don’t disturb the bees. Currently Flow Hive is fundraising for production on IndieGoGo, and with a slew of top-level endorsements.


There are a lot of hives in the world now, so there’s a big market if the Flow Hive can be proven to work efficiently at scale. Even if it doesn’t scale to the industrial level of bee farming, I guess it could prove useful for the West’s artisanal beekeepers.


Rock stars

Lowly ocean crustaceans have recently been an unlikely subject of musings on this blog, spurred by the recent ‘Earth is Greening’ Long Now lecture by the head of the Marine Census, and by environmental activists using shrimp farm pollution as a key argument against developing aquaculture. Yesterday a couple of good news science reports potentially added a couple of extra dimensions to the topic, by showing that crustaceans and molluscs may be hugely useful to us in ways other than as food. The teeth on limpets — sea-life that you find at a tidal beach, welded onto the rocks — have been discovered to be the strongest biological material known to man. And it keeps its strength as it scales up in size. It’s also reported that shrimp/prawn shells could replace expensive Ruthenium in solar cells.

Asia Pulp and Paper stops all native forest clearance

One of the world’s biggest paper producers, Asia Pulp and Paper, has stopped its producers chopping down natural forests. This is according to an independent inspection programme and report by the Rainforest Alliance (SourceWatch), which reports that Asia Pulp and Paper…

* Halted natural forest clearance by its supplier companies.

* Stopped all transport to mills of mixed tropical hardwood.

* Halted new canal development on peatland.

* Mapped social conflicts and established processes to begin resolving these conflicts.

* Developed measures to assess its global supply chain [for sustainability].

If correct then it shows the remarkable speed with which mega-corporations can turn a situation around, and on a vast scale, once they put their mind to it. Compare that with the intractable problems that some governments have with deforestation and reforestation programmes. Such as in Lebanon, where they have just unveiled a grand vision of re-covering that arid ancient Bible land in its famous cedar trees. But, given the basket-case governance of that nation and the long past record of such reports gathering dust, no-one believes that it will actually happen. Perhaps they should partner with a mega-corporation to get the job done.

Matt Ridley on The Wright Show

Matt Ridley (Rational Optimist) on The Wright Show (.mp3) for 9th February 2015. 56 minutes, straight into the interview and no tedious preamble to skip.

At the end listeners get some hints about his next book. It’s to be called The Evolution of Everything apparently, and is about the big “unbidden trends” in the world that largely fly under the radar. I’m unsure if it’s the same as Tear Down the Skyhooks, the book that 4th Estate had announced for May 2015, and which was/is apparently about “the grass-roots trends shaping our world and future”. But it sounds like it probably is the same. I guess 4th Estate wanted a more mainstream ‘bestsellerish’ sort of title. Pity, as Skyhooks was much more Google friendly.

While you’re waiting I can recommend an excellent book, also from 4th Estate. It’s Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back, on the unintended consequences of the introduction of new technologies or the imposition of large projects. While often serving as a rebuke to blind optimists, as the examples are nearly all of negative effects, the book can be seen through a lens of rational optimism. If we make a few intelligent and thought-through changes to complex systems or new technologies, as they are in their early development or early deployment, this can save humanity from centuries of problems. As we gain billions more human minds on the planet, and have better access both to those minds and to the accumulated wisdom of the past, we may increase the chances of squishing such major design errors before they become intractable problems. Possibly computer modelling may also help, as it gets more reliable. The flipside of Tenner’s book, which I wonder if Matt Ridley’s new book will address, is the unintended and often unregarded positive consequences and combinatory effects of new technologies. Such as Kindles and iPads radically reducing demand for newsprint, book pulp and magazine grade papers.