Thursday, September 27, 2012

Post #100 - all about babies!

So, my wife and I are expecting a baby! And I was showing my parents our sonogram the other day:
… when my mother mentioned that when she was pregnant with me, she didn't have a sonogram. So there are officially no pre-birth pictures of me. For some reason, this totally surprised me. Having never actively thought about sonograms before, and because they are so strongly associated with pregnancy in TV and movies, I think I subconsciously thought they always existed. Or at least, that they were invented in the 1920s or something. (I think I was confusing them with X-rays.) Turns out, as you can read here and here, medical sonography was invented in the late 1940s but was not used for pregnancies until the 1970s. Now, it's so common and easy that my wife and I already have 16 pictures of our baby on the fridge, and she's only just started her second trimester. We already have almost as many photos of my child before its birth than I have of the first few years of my life or my father has of practically his entire childhood.

This is just one of the many advances that adds up to the lowest infant mortality rate in history. Take a look at this chart from The Secret Peace:
The scale on the left is infants per 1,000. So if we look at 1977 (the year I was born), we see an infant mortality rate of about 20 per 1,000 (or 2 percent) in developed countries. Today, that's down to less than 10 (1 percent). The drop in developing countries happened at a similar rate: from about 95 to almost 50 (9.5 percent down to 5 percent). Obviously there is still a huge gap between developed and developing countries, but you can see where the trend is quickly headed.

In the couple years since I did the above research and published the book, more data resources are available online. Here's an article about a specific case study on Niger, which reduced its child mortality (which means children under 5 years, slightly different than infant mortality) nearly in half from 226 (22.6 percent) in 1998 to 128 (12.8 percent) in 2009. And the ever-excellent Gapminder shows this chart, which, if you hit "Play" on the bottom, lets you see the trend from 1950 to today for every single country at once! You can watch all the countries drop over time towards a better rate (and increase in wealth, which is also shown on the chart). In the earlier years, many of the countries have such a high rate that they are literally off the chart.

By the way, here are two opposite points of reference: the lowest rate in the world today is Iceland, which loses only three infants per 1,000. That's .3 percent. On the other hand, for most of human history until about the 19th century, the entire world had an infant mortality rate of around 250 per 1,000. This means one out of every four babies died in their first year. Since my wife and I are experiencing a pregnancy firsthand now, I can start to fathom what a horrible tragedy that must have been for everyone - nearly all parents lost children - as well as what a colossal drain of resources and human endeavor.

At first glance, our great success in decreasing infant mortality would seem to have a terrible side effect: too many people. We've all heard about the threat of overpopulation and what a drain we all are on the earth's resources. Luckily - surprisingly - fertility rates have been decreasing simultaneously.
This chart is from this cool page of infographics. The decrease in fertility rates is happening for many reasons, but one is a consequence of the decrease in infant mortality: the logic that if your child is more likely to survive and thrive, you don't need to have as many to get the same result (a child surviving to adulthood.) 

So, all in all, it's a good time to be a baby. And personally, we can't wait to introduce our upcoming little one to a world that while very imperfect, continues inexorably to improve.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Are Americans reading more now than ever?

From the Atlantic … the next time someone says the Internet killed reading books, show them this chart:

The chart has a number of problems, not the least of which is how they put the present time on the left, defying all normal chart conventions, and therefore making it look like there was a decline. Sigh. But other issues include the gap between 1957 and 1990, and that there is no more recent data than 2005. So I went looking for more.

This article presents a nice summary of the Pew Research Center's recent research into U.S. adult reading. It shows that 78 percent of adults read a book in the past year, and that four times the number of people are reading e-books compared to just two years ago. It looks like the larger the number of book formats available - e-books, audio books, print - the more reading.

And the Mary Sue reports that Generation Y (those born between 1979 and 1989) has just officially overtaken the Baby Boomers as the generation that reads the most books (and 43 percent of their book purchases are online).

I found a lot more statistics online that seem to be all over the map. The ones bemoaning our assumed decline in reading are often presented with no context, so it's only really the stats that compare over a long time that are valuable.

As a side note, here's a tidbit from The Week (Aug 24-31, 2012): "A textual analysis of 1.2 million books published since 1900 found that the proportion of male pronouns to female pronouns fell from 4.5 to 1 in the 1950s to less than 2 to 1 in 2005." If I had to make a guess, I would bet that the number of female authors rose dramatically in the same period. This relates back to the overall reading numbers, of course, in that a surefire way to make reading appeal to greater numbers of people is to increase the diversity of what's available.

PS> Keep an eye out for my next post - a special announcement just in time for my 100th blog post!