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PRI's The World on RADIO IQ with BBC
PRI’s The World is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. Launched in 1996, PRI’s The World, a co-production of WGBH/Boston, Public Radio International, and the BBC World Service.
The World's coverage is provided by a global network of international journalists. The program also has access to the 250 BBC correspondents located around the world. Unique in public radio, this network works in concert with the program's multinational team of producers and editors, and brings an exceptional depth of understanding and freshness of perspective to the program content. The result is an award-winning hour of breaking news, in-depth features, hard-hitting commentaries, and thought-provoking interviews found nowhere else in U.S. news coverage.
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 2:18pm
A new show called “Fail Better” at Science Gallery at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, celebrates epic failures. Its premise is that we can learn a lot from our mistakes.
The show’s curator, Michael John Gorman, says it was inspired by the role of failure in inventions like Thomas Edison’s lightbulb and the celebration of failure in Silicon Valley.
“The origin of the idea was really an interest of mine in the role of failure in creativity and design,” he says. “We wanted to bring together different people to explore how failure is constructive.”
He started by asking great inventors to select their favorite failures. British Astrophysicist Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell selected the Mars Climate Orbiter. It came within miles of the red planet before it blew up. Burnell says that failure was clearly human error. It turns out that scientists were using different units of measure — one team was using metric and the other British imperial.
“But those errors,” says Gorman, “are what ultimately led to the creation of the successful Mars Rover.”
And there seem to be endless examples.
Sir Ken Robinson, someone you may know from his TED talks on creativity, suggested the color mauve be included in the show.
Why? Well, no one ever intended to create such a color. Mauve’s inventor, William Perkin, discovered it by accident when trying to make quinine synthetically to treat malaria.
“Purple at the time was made from sea snails,” says Gorman. “Very expensive. So this was a big contribution to the textile industry.”
The curators also had people write in to them, unsolicited, to tell about personal failures. They received a letter from Alexander Sinclair. Back in 1979, he worked at a record company in England. Some teenagers from Dublin had submitted a tape to the company in the hope of getting signed, or at the very least, noticed. But Alexander didn’t think the tape was up to snuff.
He sent them a polite rejection letter wishing the youngsters luck in their future careers. What he didn’t know at the time was that those youngsters would become the biggest Irish rock band in the country, and one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
And they still go by the name U2.
But one of the best examples of failure is also the most entertaining. Gorman and his crew produced the first full-scale reconstruction of the world’s worst invention. It’s a device to assist childbirth using centrifugal force. George and Charlotte Blonsky, an American couple who had never given birth, invented and patented it in 1965.
How did they come up with such an invention?
Well, they had seen a female elephant giving birth in a zoo. The elephant started rotating slowly before giving birth. And the zookeeper, incorrectly, informed them that this was completely normal. Oops.
“So they patented a device that rotates an expectant mother with a force of 5 g's whilst giving birth,” says Gorman. “It included a net to catch the baby and a bell to ring when it happened.”
Thankfully, it was never made, until now.
But it did offer a cautionary tale to inventors: think before you act.
Just don’t think too much.
There is much to gain from embracing and learning from failure. Just look at Silicon Valley. It operates by the mantra: Fail early, fail fast, fail often.
“Many tech entrepreneurs won’t be looked at unless they have had a few failed start-ups which have taught them constructive things,” says Gorman.
So if failure is good, why do we see examples of policymakers ignoring the mistakes of the past? PRI's The World put that question to Gorman. He answered with this:
“One of the problems in policy is the [policymakers] haven’t been informed by a process of prototyping,” he says. “So that when they fail, the consequences can be significant.”
Gorman says several policymakers are scheduled to attend the exhibition. He hopes they take a cue from design and find a way to test their ideas before they turn them into law. He knows that any such process is doomed to fail, but with luck, it will fail better.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014 12:57pm
Record numbers of rhinos are being poached and killed in South Africa for their horns. The main reason is that a pound of rhino horn is worth about $10,000 on the black market.
That market is largely driven by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, who consider the horn an effective medicine. The trade has gotten so bad that certain species of rhino are now threatened by extinction because of poaching.
So in steps Australia with a novel idea for protecting rhinos, by moving them.
"The plan is to import a sufficient number of black rhino and white rhinos into Australia from South Africa to form a substantial breeding herd which will assist in securing the future of the species," said Ray Dearlove with the Australian Rhino Project.
"That's what we're trying to do. There is an existing population of rhinos — a small one — at Taronga Zoo [where] there’s a group of about 10 or so black rhinos and a smaller group of white rhinos."
In recent years, poaching levels in South Africa have skyrocketed. Last year, a record 1,004 rhinos were illegally killed in South Africa. That's up from 668 the year before.
Rhinos are easily poached. They visit water holes daily and can be easily killed while they drink. And most of this poaching takes place in Kruger National Park.
"Our plan would be to have ... a breeding herd of at least a 100 within three years," said Dearlove. "Our first step is to bring in a group of about 20 or 30, to provide some genetic diversity. And hopefully, the breeding program goes well and we can have a safe and secure area for these rhinos."
The temperate Australian climate is considered an ideal habitat for the species.
But one of the challenges facing the conservationists is how to transport these creatures. A white rhino can weigh as much as 5,000 pounds.
"Someone has suggested the Noah's ark concept, but we're not going to go with that one," said Dearlove. "It's a challenge. The [rhinos] would basically be crated and sedated on the South African side and then [flown] from Johannesburg. There would obviously be a couple of [veterinarians] on the flight."
The flight might be unpleasant for the rhinos, but it's a safer option than keeping them in South Africa.
"As you would expect, there is a great deal of sensitivity about this on all sides," said Dearlove. After all, South Africa is viewed as the primary custodian of Africa's rhinos. "We are not saying that this is the ultimate answer," he insisted.
"The reality is that the South Africans have realized that they have a major problem ... they, to their credit, are looking for every alternative and option to see if they can solve this problem because the poaching is not going to go away."
Friday, February 28, 2014 3:19pm
This is Sir Elton Junk — an animatronic puppet made of scrap metal, machine parts, and an Elton John spirit.
Kolja Kugler, a Berlin artist, is the robo-puppeteer. He is fascinated with nature and can't help but notice that parts of machines resemble parts of the human body.
"I just get an urge to free them from their unnatural state and put them back in their proper place," Kugler said in a recent talk for TEDxBerlin.
That's how the lid of an electric motor became Sir Elton Junk's head, and how pliers became his face. Parts of heart and lung machines help keep him alive, and pneumatic pistons using compressed gas power his facial expressions.
In one crowd-pleasing skit, Sir Elton Junk — who sits in a supermarket cart — drinks a cup of water, sprays it out, and covers his eyes with his arm in embarrassment. All the while, Kugler manipulates him with a simple machinery grid.
Kugler taught himself engineering and mechanics, with the help of some friends. He says it took him one year to build Sir Elton Junk, and twelve years to repair him. "He breaks all the time," he says.
The artist took Sir Elton Junk on the road for a five-and-a-half-year trip to Southeast Asia, Australia and the three Americas. These days, they perform together at the Mauerpark outdoor flea market in Berlin.
Friday, February 28, 2014 10:48am
Where are you most likely to see a polar bear in its natural habitat?
One of the biggest populations of the majestic seal hunters is along the frozen shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill.
Known as the "polar bear capital of the world," Churchill is in Canada's remote north. And it's not easy to get there.
Google teamed up with the conservation group Polar Bears International on the project and traveled with the group in one of those Tundra Buggies.
"Often, if you turn off the buggy and keep the buggy still, bears will come right up to the buggy," says Polar Bear International's Executive Director Krista Wright.
"They'll come up on their hind legs and put their front paws right on the buggy. You can actually hear the bear chuffing and breathing. You can lock gazes with the bear. It really is a spectacular experience."
Wright says one of the biggest threats to polar bears is melting sea ice as a result of climate change.
Polar Bears International sought out Google, thinking that the images from Street View might inspire people.
"We know from our past experience that when we can inspire people about polar bears, they care more about polar bears," Wright says. "Hopefully, through that inspiration and education, they are more prone to take action on behalf of polar bears."
She says that was one of their biggest goals, to inspire people and to connect people to the tundra. But also to "provide the opportunity to experience what a polar bear looks like in the wild and where they live, knowing that most people will never have the opportunity."
Wright says the project was also part of an effort to establish a baseline of where the ice is.
"Our second goal was getting baseline imagery of this area knowing that it's changing and it's changing quickly," she says. "So our goal is to bring Street View back next year, five years from now, 10 years from now and compare the changes that we are seeing over time."
That information is critical to understanding the impact of climate change on the polar bears' sensitive ecosystem. Polar bears are completely dependent on the sea ice for foraging and hunting.
"I think often people don't fully understand the significance of sea ice to a polar bear," Wright says. "It is their primary habitat. And we are seeing a big change in that habitat. In fact, we are seeing an ecosystem that's literally disappearing from the face of the planet."
You can explore the frozen tundra along Hudson Bay via Google Maps and check out the amazing pictures from the project below.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014 2:47pm
Japan will restart many of its nuclear power plants, but only after their safety has been established by the highest standards in the world.
That's the word this week from the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It comes nearly three years after a massive tsunami caused a triple meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Nearly all of the country's 48 nuclear plants have been offline ever since. Successive governments have struggled to address the post-Fukushima energy crisis.Credit: Reuters
The country is still deeply divided over nuclear power so the government's new draft energy plan seems carefully crafted to avoid specifics. It says nuclear should be a primary, “base-load” energy source, but does not lay out a timetable for ramping the industry back up, nor exactly what percentage of the country’s electricity supply it should provide.
“And that's got to be a big question going forward,” says William Sposato, who covers energy issues in Japan as the Wall Street Journal's deputy Tokyo bureau chief.
Prior to Fukushima, nuclear provided roughly a third of Japan’s electricity with plans to increase that to half. Since the disaster the country has had to import huge amounts of fossil fuels to support its economy, still the third largest in the world but with almost no conventional energy sources of its own.
The question of how heavily Japan will again come to rely on nuclear depends on the rate of growth of new renewable technologies — which the draft energy plan maintains a commitment to developing — but also on the uncertain prospects of the country’s shuttered nuclear plants meeting new post-Fukushima safety standards.
“The rules are certainly getting much tougher, at least on paper,” Sposato says.
The country’s new Nuclear Regulation Authority, which was set up after the Fukushima disaster to replace an oversight agency widely seen to be too close to the industry, has vowed to be independent and to raise the safety bar, Sposato says.
“The head of the NRA has said that plants need to be ready for any eventuality,” he says, “not just the ones that they could likely expect to see,” like the kind of earthquake that set off the 2011 tsunami.
As for whether the new agency will remain truly independent of the government and the nuclear industry, Sposato says “that's an open question. Up 'til now, they've shown that they're willing to stand up to the government. At the same time, the government has been careful not to tread too hard” on the agency. “If they were seen to be riding roughshod over the nuclear regulator, that could cause a backlash for them.”
The policy shift back toward nuclear may be a bit of a surprise to people around the world who remember both the Japanese people and its government taking a sharp turn away from nuclear power after Fukushima. But Sposato says it’s not a surprise to the Japanese themselves.
“Abe has been pushing for nuclear power” since his election in 2012, he adds, despite public opinion polls that show “people are pretty much evenly split over whether the country should have any nuclear power generation at all.”
Sposato says strong anti-nuclear sentiment has been a political problem for the prime minister, but the anti-nuclear movement “hasn't really been able to coalesce.”
As one example, he points to the recent race for governor of Tokyo. While the office doesn’t hold any sway over national energy policy, Sposato says it became a referendum, of sorts, on the nuclear issue when one of the candidates, himself a former prime minister, ran on an anti-nuclear platform.
But Sposato says the candidate did poorly in the election, which may have helped embolden Prime Minister Abe to go ahead now with his new energy plan.
The plan does include continued development of renewable energy technologies like wind and solar, as promised by Abe’s predecessor after the 2011 disaster. And Sposato says there is also “some big money” for renewables coming out of the country’s private sector.
“But in practical terms,” he says, “energy experts say that when you add up the numbers, those sources are not really going to be able to make up for lack of nuclear power. So the only alternative for the country would be to continue to import very large amounts of fossil fuel, natural gas and oil.”
The draft energy plan still has to be approved by Abe’s government.