Friday, November 26, 2010

What would you rather be in: a war or a car?

Military deaths are a controversial subject in any country, at any time. I talk about them in my book; how the types of wars we're fighting nowadays are generally less fatal than in the past. I found some interesting numbers that relate to that in Superfreakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

They write than from 2002 to 2008 (the book is from 2009), there were an average of 1,643 active military personal deaths a year. Weirdly, if you look at the mid-1980s, when we weren't fighting any active wars, there were more than 2,100 military deaths per year. Why? Well, the military is actually smaller now, and we also have better medical care, so more people with injuries survive. But also, it seems that the accidental death rate back then was higher than the death rate by hostile fire now. Strange.

US military casualties
Looking at the chart I made here (click on it to see it larger), with the most recent wars at top, you can see just how few casualties we've had recently when compared to some of our conflicts in the past. In fact, both the current Afghan war and the first Gulf War in 1991 have too few deaths for Excel to even generate a bar for them. (Of course, none of these numbers take into account the other side of the conflict, including their civilians. The Civil War number is so high in part because both sides of the war are included, and it took place on U.S. soil (which few wars have) so civilians were killed, too.)
This information is all incredibly useful so that we can keep these conflicts in perspective when debating their merits. Here's another interesting tidbit from Superfreakonomics: Since 1982, about 42,000 active U.S. military personnel have been killed - roughly the same number of Americans who die in traffic accidents every year. So maybe the best lifesaving bang for our tax buck would be to pull everyone out of Iraq and Afghanistan and put all that money into making tons of safe public transportation instead.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Presenting the Future of Peace

I had the privilege of giving a talk a few months ago on "The Future of Peace." I forgot to post it to the site, but I had a few requests, so here it is. Download the PPS file. I tried to make the slideshow short, fun, and to the point. Some sample slides:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good riddance, Rinderpest

This was reported in Futurific Leading Indicators, an extremely expensive report I subscribe to that is well worth it for its use of the word futurific alone:

"In only the second elimination of a disease in history [smallpox famously being the other, in 1980], rinderpest - a virus that used to kill cattle by the millions, leading to famine and death among humans - has been declared wiped off the face of the earth. Rinderpest, which means "cattle plague" in German, does not infect humans … but for millennia in Asia, Europe and Africa it wiped out cattle, water buffalo, yaks and other animals needed for meat, milk, plowing and cart-pulling."

"The official ceremony in which the World Organization for Animal Health will declare the world rinderpest-free is scheduled for May. (That organization … was created in 1929 chiefly to fight rinderpest.) … 'This is something the entire global community can be proud of,' said Dr. William R. White, director of the United States Department of Agriculture's foreign animal disease diagnostic laboratory on Plum Island, New York."

This image should help you visualize rinderpest. Unfortunately, in real life, it looks much more boring: you can see it here on Wikipedia.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A single chart of the world economy

Yesterday we looked at a bunch of complex charts about the Millennium Development Goals, so today I thought I'd simplify it and just post one simple chart I found in The Economist. This reassuring line dips drastically during our global recession, but can now be seen having bounced completely back.

Note that the key element here is the depiction of global GDP, not just the U.S. Our economy is certainly not quite that strong yet. But we're doing ok, all things considered. Just read what Warren Buffett had to say in this adorable op-ed in the New York Times yesterday. He praises "Uncle Sam" for saving us from a much worse downturn: "overall, your actions were remarkably effective." Check it out here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hey, how are the Millennium Development Goals doing?

Since we're just about done 1% of the new millennium, I thought it'd be a good time to check in with the Millennium Development Goals. These are the goals that all UN member states have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. There are eight goals, and while progress has been mixed, some countries have made remarkable progress, and many have even already surpassed their goals, five years early.

For example, in 1990, 77 percent of the world was using an "improved" water source, but now it's up to 87 percent, close to the MD Goal of 88 percent. And, in the chart below, you can see the progress each region of the world has made towards reducing the infant mortality rate (under-five, actually). Every region shows significant progress, with even Sub-Saharan Africa, the notable straggler here, still reducing their number from 184 (per 1,000 births) in 1990 to 144 today, a 21 percent reduction.

Or look at the number of people living with HIV today, as shown in another chart from the MDG 2010 Report. That number is still rising, but since the number of newly-infected people has been dropping quickly, this is due in part to fewer people dying of the disease. All 3 trends are illustrated in the chart below.

Lastly, let's look at the big one: the world's poor, measured in the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day. At least 15 poor countries, many in East Asia and Southeast Asia, have already met their 2015 goals, due to the drastic poverty reduction in China and other countries. Other regions are progressing strongly as well, with only Western Asia and Russia seeing setbacks. If we look at the developing world overall, we see that 46 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty in 1990, but by 2005 that had been reduced to 27 percent, nearly meeting the MD Goal already.

You can see more of these charts on Wikipedia here.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Again, trust your neighbors: trick-or-treating is safe

This topic is a perennial pet peeve of mine, and I mention it in my book. It parallels my last post (about Kitty Genovese), as another example of misinformation that leads to less trust in society and a more pessimistic worldview than is warranted.

This article in the Daily Herald, "Schaumburg Halloween candy tampering a hoax, police say", is about a 16-year-old boy who, to get attention, stuck a needle in his own Halloween candy and claimed he found it there.

The article runs along fine until the last paragraph, which states:

"According to websites like and, true incidents of trick-or-treat candy tampering and other related examples of “Halloween sadism” have been documented and, while rare, are not urban legends as they’re sometimes claimed to be."

Which is wrong. If you go to Snopes and look up Halloween poisonings, a big red circle is sitting next to a very clear "FALSE".

I recommend the Snopes article to everyone; I won't repeat all its details here. It lists several incidents, but none fit the story of neighbors inserting needles or poison or razor blades into candy and them giving them out for Halloween. The story has been around for 50 years, and is simply not true.

I think it's amazing that the Daily Herald article itself is about a hoax (it even clearly says "hoax" in the title), and they are aware of and even mention it, and yet still can not give up the belief that Halloween poisonings are real. It's like they threw "" in there without anyone clicking through and actually reading it.

It's sad that it's so difficult for us to believe people wouldn't poison kids. As I said in my last post, trust your neighbors a little more. They're not as bad as you think.

Update: Ok, there is a second Snopes article here that focuses on needles, not poison. It's weird that there would be two separate articles on this. Nevertheless, it seems like many more cases involving pins and needles have been documented than poison. However, most were revealed to be hoaxes, with the exception of one event in Minneapolis in 2000. No one was hurt.