Real-time maps of happy news

Creating Real-time Maps of Global Information

“a location is mentioned every 200-300 words in the typical newspaper article of the last 60 years. … Yet the news media has steadfastly resisted this cartographic revolution, continuing to organize itself primarily through coarse editorially-assigned topical sections and eschewing the live maps that have redefined our ability to understand global reaction to major events. Using journalism as a case study, what does the future of mass-scale mapping of information look like … ? … For the past two years this has been the focus of the GDELT Project and through a new collaboration with online mapping platform CartoDB, we are making it possible to create rich interactive real-time maps of the world’s journalistic output across 65 languages.”

One of their maps tracks happy / sad news in real-time…


Study: diversity of world’s undisturbed coastal marine life is increasing

In areas of coastline away from human disruption, coastal marine life is increasing its overall abundance and diversity. A new paper in the Elsevier journal Current Biology ($ paywall) examined…

“a new dataset of 471 diversity time series spanning from 1962 to 2015 from marine coastal ecosystems … We detected a predominant signal of increasing species richness in coastal systems since 1962”.

Only 3% of the examined sites had seen adverse human impact since 1962, and all sites were of course those being studied over time by marine scientists. So naturally they’re unrepresentative of the minority of coastlines along which there is intensive destructive human activity.

Nevertheless, the findings of a predominant increase seem to complement the overall increase in land vegetation and animal populations during roughly the same period. For instance, the WWF has found an animal population increase of around 10% overall in temperate developed nations. It now appears that the rich coastal fringes of the ocean are also seeing a similar strong and widely distributed increase. This has happened in the context of their being three times as many large vessels active on the ocean as there were in 1960, vessels which have boosted undersea noise, general disturbance and increased the number of invasive alien species.

The findings are encouraging but are not the whole story on the oceans. For instance, according to Jesse Ausubel’s Census of Marine Life (2000-) the deep ocean is still heavily over-fished, overwhelmingly so in the tropical regions. While the lamentable decline in global fish stocks more or less ended in 1988, and most edible fish species have since then been stable and increasingly well-managed, we generally could do much more. Especially at the local level in terms of preservation of mangroves, sea-grasses, reed-beds, corals and other water growths, and the ecosystems they support.

Ocean microplastics and their tiny colonies of microbial life are another clear worry, but for their potential wide-area effect on lower atmosphere cloud formation rather than for an alleged dangerous-chemicals-in-seafood connection along coastlines. Though it’s now far too late to stop that particular 250-year global geo-engineering experiment in isoprene production.

Picture: A seaweed forest off the coast of California.

Pew Report: 2% of India achieved middle-income, 2001-11

A major new report from the trustworthy Pew Research Center has just appeared.


Pew finds that the global middle class (earning $10 to $20 a day) has doubled in just ten years, 2001-2011. These people are now 13% of the total global population. Meanwhile, those in poverty (earning less than $2 a day) has halved, and are now 15% of the global population. Many of those who were previously poor have moved up into the middle ($3 to $9 a day), boosting that transitional band by 6%. And all this despite a devastating global recession in 2007-11.


But where is it happening?

The Pew figures are not quite the good news they seem to be. The new $10-to-$20 middle class is mostly to be found in “China, South America and Eastern Europe” according to Pew. Though in some way that might be encouraging — as South America and Eastern Europe are not exactly areas known for their staunch lack of tax evasion and off-the-books working, so one does have to wonder if their official income statistics may actually underplay real income growth there.

The same is true of Africa. But it seems certain that Africa’s middle class had overall barely expanded overall by 2011. It seemed to be held back somehow, even in growing economies. One has to suspect that corruption, educational failings and lack of free trade all have a strong slowing effect. Possibly a lack of reliable statistics, when considered over the whole continent, also obscures our view of the reality on the ground.


What of India? Pew’s report summary seems to depreciate the way that India’s vast population amplifies such changes. Pew states that India “only” saw 2% of people rise into the $10-to-$20 middle income group in this period…

“the share of the Indian population that could be considered middle income increased from 1% to just 3%”

Yet 2% of India’s massive 1.2 billion population is not to be sniffed at, especially considering that the rise was achieved in the face of domestic political stagnation and a deep global recession. A rise of 2% means that 2.4 million Indians achieved a middle income, in just one decade. In 2014/5 those 2.4 million are very probably directly and very positively impacting the lives of at least 6 million young children. Many of these new earners will also be geographically concentrated toward the coastal cities, thus probably boosting the general climate of aspiration there. Overall, the changes seem to offer a very promising base for India’s future growth, especially as India’s rural poverty also fell strongly during this period.

Overall those global figures are good news for the world, especially as they cover a period of just ten years. It’ll be fascinating to see the 2011-2016 global figures, circa 2017/18.

On bumblebees and northern ranges

There has been much buzzing in the press in the last few days, about the apparent lack of evidence that temperate bumblebees are expanding their northern range in the face of apparent global warming in the Arctic…

Kerr et al. looked at data on bumblebees across North America and Europe over the past 110 years. Bumblebees have not shifted northward and are experiencing shrinking distributions in the southern ends of their range.”

It seems quite obvious — even to a layman — why temperate bumblebees might be only slowly edging north out of sub-arctic areas.

Any northward move would likely encounter Bombus Polaris, the common Arctic bumblebee. But to say that this large bee is common would be to denigrate it. It is a ‘super-bee’ — one that happily survives the deep Arctic winter, can rapidly warm itself bio-mechanically to 38 degrees (the same as a human), can fly in intense below-zero springtime cold and wind, and is generally incredibly well-adapted to breeding early and well in the Arctic. B. Polaris‘s IUCN Red List status is “Least Concern”, and it is well-distributed in America and Russia (though rather hemmed in by the ocean in Norway, and possibly vulnerable there in the distant future).

So it strikes me that no temperate bee could possibly complete with such a ‘super-bee’ for the vital early nectar, in such adverse conditions. Nor could it, perhaps, compete with the vicious swarms of Arctic flies that come later. Or with the various parasites that Bombus Polaris appears to be well adapted to. Sadly the academic paper in question doesn’t even consider this possibility, and even seems to imply that the Arctic north is “unoccupied” by bumblebees…

“Colonization of previously unoccupied areas and maintenance of new populations strongly affect whether species track shifting climatic conditions, capacities that appear insufficient among bumblebees.” (my emphasis)

Incidentally, a key far-northern temperate bumblebee is actually doing fairly well in terms of its “capacities” for survival in the sub-Arctic, at least according to a major 2015 Alaska study

“the western bumble bee, Bombus occidentalis. … was collected from all three sites and represented roughly 10% of the total specimens, suggesting that B. occidentalis is a relatively abundant species in the areas studied.” (my emphasis)

Worst case scenario, from all this: Someone decides to import temperate sub-Arctic bees and acclimatise them to the allegedly “unoccupied areas” on the borders of the Arctic. These bees introduce some nasty parasite or disease to the previously isolated Bombus Polaris, and then themselves fail to fill the niche. The increasingly rare B. Polaris is then found to have played some key but unknown role in keeping Arctic tundras stable via early pollination, and as a result of the bumblebee disappearance the Arctic gas hydrates are seeping out and causing massive global warming… ooops!

Such blundering errors by scientists are not unknown

“… scientists are now agreed that the golden toad’s demise, and that of up to 30 other amphibians in central America, was caused by a chytrid fungus, originating in Africa, to which frogs on other continents are especially vulnerable. How did the fungus reach the Americas? Through the use by scientists of the African clawed toad as a popular laboratory animal. The clawed toad carries the fungus but does not die from it, and has escaped into the wild in many places.”

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

I’m currently catching up with the new (May 2015) unabridged audio book on Elon Musk, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I’m four and a bit chapters in, and it’s a gripping and read/listen. The journalistic author Ashlee Vance is obviously working within certain constraints of basic tact and family sensitivities, but he’s handling the job very well so far. For instance, he’s even able to craft an interesting narrative out of Elon’s mid-1990s venture into a rather dull Yellow Pages -style business listings service.




Tomorrow’s World, Today

Archive on 4 is BBC Radio 4’s hour-long documentary on a Saturday evening, melding archival footage with contemporary commentary from the original participants. Tonight’s episode is on the Tomorrow’s World TV show, the UK’s flagship popular science programme of the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Every week Tomorrow’s World broadcast raw optimism about the future into the minds of more or less the entire nation. Tonight’s Tomorrow’s World, Today” is presented by James Burke who was one of the original presenters…

“Everyone knows the iconic TV series Tomorrow’s World — and many of us watched it as it made predictions about the future. Was it correct in its assumptions and predictions? On the programme’s 50th Anniversary, James Burke (Connections) — a reporter on the show from 1966-1972 — looks at how it dealt with the often huge changes that occurred in the time from when it was first broadcast, and assesses what it says about our ability to see what’s around the corner.”

One of the programme’s problems, which James Burke himself later tried to address in his Connections series, was that it was unable to address the potential for exponential causality, as technologies met and bred new hybrid technologies, which then interact with other technologies and wider demographic and social forces. Instead the Tomorrow’s World team generally presented each new development, gadget and scientific development as if it was hermetically sealed in its own little bubble.

Picture: James Burke seen with a particularly stylish “Apollo 11” logo for the BBC coverage of the Moon landings.