Monday, December 26, 2011

The mysteries of photography reveal progress

I just read Errol Morris's excellent book, Believing is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography). Every bit of the book is thought-provoking, as he takes old photographs and analyzes them to find out the stories behind them, which brings up all sorts of questions about what truth is and how accurately we can portray and remember it. One small portion of the book reminded me of the Secret Peace so I thought I'd share it.

Have you ever seen either of these famous photographs?

The first one is by Arthur Rothstein, from 1936. The second is also from the same year, by Dorothea Lange. Both of these photos perfectly evoke the desperation of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, and have become iconic pieces of American history.

But when we come back years later, this is what we find:

We see the little boy on the right of the Dust Bowl photo, now grown and in his own home, as well as a story in Look Magazine about "The Dust Bowl Turns to Gold." Then we also see the "Migrant Mother" herself, surrounded by her three now-grown daughters, posing in one of their suburban backyards. Put simply, here is photographic evidence of people who are much better off than they were in the 1930s.

In The Secret Peace book, I don't mention many cases like this, because they are only anecdotal evidence. In and of themselves, they don't build a case for progress because they are only two examples. And you can always find counter-examples. (Although it would probably be difficult to find many families worse off than they were during the '30s, and even harder the farther back in time you go ... this would be an interesting experiment.) So the book focuses on broader statistics. Nevertheless, these pictures are riveting in a way that statistics can not be; in fact, this was the point of the original photographs themselves.

Morris's book goes into a lot more nuanced detail about these photographs as well as many others, of the Crimean War and Abu Ghraib, for example. It's a fascinating read that I highly recommend. You'll never look at photographs the same way again.

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 was a bad year to be a dictator

The Daily Beast has a well-done short photo slideshow of 2011's most notorious fallen dictators. Remind yourself how far the world has come this year alone by reading about the nutcases who will no longer be tormenting their citizens, from Gaddafi to Mubarak and more - not to mention Kim Jong-Il. North Korea's future remains up in the air, but in most of the rest of the cases, the dictators' downfalls spell increased freedoms for their peoples. Honestly, compared to most of human history, there are hardly even any dictators left in the world. Here's hoping we get rid of the rest of them soon.

Check out the slideshow here.

(Osama bin Laden isn't included in the list, since he didn't rule any country (thankfully), but let's not forget to loop him into the broader category of won't-be-missed when reminiscing.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

We live in a much safer world

In honor of my wife and I leaving today for St. Martin, for our first vacation in years, here are some reassuring statistics about flying, as well as other safety measures.

To start with, want to guess how many fatalities there were on U.S. airlines in 2010? Your guess is either going to be correct or too high, because there wasn't a single one. This is the third year in the past four without a single death, despite more than 10 million flights with more than 700 million passengers a year. (The Week, Feb 4, 2011)

In fact, as Stephen Moore and Julian Simon mention in It's Getting Better All the Time, "Peter Spencer of Consumers' Research magazine estimates that if an individual were to take a random flight every day, on average 20,000 years would pass before the person perished in a fatal crash." These charts are from their book, too.

Here's a look at death rates in the U.S. from natural disasters. Of course, this chart ends at 2000 and so doesn't include Hurricane Katrina (for example), but the overall trend is clear.

The rate of accidents for infants has fallen 88 percent since 1900, and the rate of accidents for seniors has fallen 72 percent. "Americans are now employed in occupations that are far safer than in the past. The accidental death rate at work has plummeted from about 38 per 100,000 workers in 1930 to about 28 in 1950 to about 4 per 100,000 today."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vaccines save lives

Sure, you knew that the world eradicated smallpox in 1979, but did you know polio has also been eliminated 99% worldwide?

Bill Gates narrates a short talk about vaccines and why they're so important - and also so easy, so cheap, and so obvious as a means to save lives. The talk was animated in a fun way, check it out (it's only 3 minutes long):

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also has a neat interactive infographic on its site, illustrating the fight against malaria, as well. You can see all the progress the world has made, and how much more we still need to do to ensure a healthy life for everyone.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why the Titanic is a bad metaphor

Someone used the phrase "could crash and burn like the Titanic" when talking about the potential dangers of a project recently, and rather than be perturbed over the use of "burn" rather than, say, "sink", I got annoyed at another invocation of the huge ship. The Titanic is used so often as a metaphor for man's hubris that the satirical newspaper The Onion fake-back-dated an article to 1912 that says, "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg: Representation of Man's Hubris Sinks in North Atlantic."

On the surface, it makes sense: vain, overzealous shipbuilders and titans of industry boasted that the Titanic couldn't be sunk, even going so far as to not include very many lifeboats, and then it sank anyway. Clearly, mankind should be more humble. We should learn a lesson from the disaster, and not overreach. Specifically, we should reign in science and technology so they never get too out of hand.

Sure, on the surface it makes sense. But lurking below the surface is the much-larger realization that this is an incorrect lesson to draw from the events of 1912. After all, what did we do after the Titanic sunk? Did we learn our lesson and stop making all boats? Did we declare the Titanic's 882-feet length the upper limit in boat construction and vow never to try to approach that size again?

No. Today, the world's largest ship is almost twice the length of the Titanic. Lots of ships are larger than the Titanic - oil tankers, container ships, aircraft carriers. There are even a few that are passenger ships like the Titanic was. They're all doing fine; no icebergs to report. So, we didn't really reign in our hubris at all. Take that, lesson!

But that's not really true - we did learn our lesson. But the lesson was: take what practical information can be learned from our mistakes and apply it to keep pushing forward anyway. I'm sure that boats built after 1912 contained more lifeboats, for example, and maybe routes changed to better avoid icebergs. Perhaps construction was changed in ways to make large boats sturdier.

So this is why this metaphor annoys me. It's a subtle difference in some ways, but the context I've often seen the Titanic metaphor in implies that science should be reigned in, while the real-world lesson learned vindicates science. After all, the whole point of scientific development is to allow mistakes and the constant refinement of knowledge. Science and technological development are less hubristic than other fields of human endeavor, like art, religion or politics. And while the Titanic was a disaster in terms of lives lost, it was also an essential step on the long path of progress that led us to where we are today.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I bet you haven't thought about water today. Exactly.

We are lucky to live in an era of history when water is not a concern for many of us: we can go about our daily lives without even thinking about it, and just get as much water as we like at any moment. This would have astonished our ancestors.

Charles Fishman, in The Big Thirst, warns that this might change soon, as new shortages force us to value water more (again.) But here are at least two pieces of good news excerpted from that book, one historical and one current:

"One hundred years ago, with the dawn of bacteriology, two things happened. Cities started aggressively separating their freshwater supplies from their sewage disposal, something they had been surprisingly slow to do. (Philadelphia is just one of many cities whose sewage system, 100 years ago, emptied into a river upstream of the city water-supply intakes from the same river.) And water utilities discovered that basic sand filters and chlorination could clean and disinfect water supplies, all but assuring their safety. … Between 1900 and 1940, mortality rates in the united States fell 40 percent. … Clean water [also] cut child mortality in half."

"It is a mistake to imagine that small changes don't matter, or that even big water issues are not manageable. One of the most startling and least well-known examples involves the United States. The U.S. uses less water today than it did in 1980. Not in per capita terms, in absolute terms. U.S. water use peaked in 1980, at 440 billion gallons a day for all purposes. Today, the country uses less than 410 billion gallons a day. That performance is amazing in many ways. Since 1980, the U.S. population has grown by 70 million people. The U.S. GDP has more than doubled in constant dollars: We use less water to create a $13 trillion economy than we needed to create a $6 trillion economy. It has been nothing less than a revolution in water use in the biggest economy in the world, a completely silent revolution. Most of the change has come in water use by power plants and farms. Farmers today use 15 percent less water than they did in 1980, and produce a 70 percent larger harvest."

Guardian article on The Secret Peace

Really great full-length article by Paul Harris in the Guardian/Observer last weekend. It talks about The Secret Peace and a few other related books that have recently just come out, like Steven Pinker's book on declining violence.

There was also a very lively debate in the article's comments section, with a lot of the usual detracting arguments I hear, but also a lot of defenders. The most common argument I often hear about the book is, "How can you say things are perfect when such-and-such is so bad?" Of course, this is a misunderstanding of my thesis; I don't deny the awful things happening in the world today. I only make the claim that it was worse in the past, and keeps improving. It was interesting to read in these comments a clear environmental spin (ie. Who cares what progress we make, since it's all going to be wiped out by global warming.) This is a British paper, and the environment is more of an issue there, so perhaps that's responsible for that trend in the comments. To those people I say: Read the chapter in my book about the environment. Oh, and then read the rest of the book, too.

Check out the full article and the comments here.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

More of the world is protected

Over 12 percent of the world's land area is now officially protected, and that number has been rising fast, doubling just since 1990. You can see it in the right-most bars on the chart below. The rest of the chart breaks down the progress by types of regions.

This reminds me of a story that I can only half remember (by Grant Morrison maybe?), where in the far future humanity, with a population even greater than ours today, has coalesced into a few immense towering city-states, protected by bubbles. The majority of the earth was allowed to return to its natural, wild state, with humanity carefully visiting the "outside" for recreation. It was a peaceful, prosperous future.

Source: Vital Signs 2010, article by Margarita Yatsevich

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Deaf woman hears her voice for the first time

Just a quick feel-good pick-me-up post to tug at the heartstrings and remind us how lucky we all are to live in this day and age. We've come to the point where doctors and scientists perform miracles every day - healing the blind, deaf, and the sick.

This is a woman who has been deaf her whole life. 29 years of relying on reading lips, and to a very limited extent, hearing aids. Here is the video of her receiving a new implant that allows her to fully hear for the first time. Apologies if you've already seen this; it's making the facebook rounds quite a bit:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Getting Better all the time

The recent book Getting Better, by Charles Kenny (from the Center for Global Development, World Bank, and Foreign Policy magazine), is similar to The Secret Peace but focuses on global development. It's a great book, and more succinct than mine, which is an admirable achievement. I heard him speak last night at the UN, and it was enlightening.

One of his main points is that we shouldn't be measuring all progress solely by looking at income and GDP. Income growth has been remarkable in many countries in recent decades. But we've been partially using income as a proxy when we're really concerned about standards of living. There are also plenty of countries that have advanced in many areas recently (literacy rate, education, health, etc) even though their economies are stagnant.

He described the two main reasons for this progress as a decrease in the cost of goods and an increase in demand. The "goods" decreasing in cost are not just commodities and physical goods, but health and education. Likewise, demand has increased for education and health in developing ocuntries as cultural norms change and people come to expect higher standards of living.

I agree, and that's a good way of looking at it, but I think we can still go one layer deeper, to the primary reason for progress: compounding human knowledge. This increase in knowledge is responsible for declining costs: innovations developed for the rich world end up easily spreading elsewhere. The spreading information is also responsible for cultural-norm memes about human rights and what all the world's citizens should expect in their lives (such as the brave participants in the Arab Spring expecting more from their governments.)

After the talk, I asked the question, "Is it important to spread this good news? Conversely, do you ever have doubts or fears of spreading good news about development since a lot of NGO fundraising relies on making events seem as dire as possible?" His answer was great - he says that the current method of "crying crisis" each time money needs to be raised is going to prove less effective soon, since organizations have been doing it for 60 years. People are starting to think that there's no point to donate, since there will always be crises. But by sharing the truth - that our money did help in many cases, and we can see the progress we've made, but there's still more work to be done - it should inspire people to help more and not give in to apathy.

Thanks for the event, Charles!

Check out the book on Amazon.

Nice charts and graphs that illustrate Kenny's points.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What do you most like about the age we live in?, where I've been working for the past year, is a place online for families to share and preserve their memories and stories. When you join Proust, you have the option to make your story private or public (private is the default, and the majority of stories are private.) You then tell your story by answering questions.

Besides learning things I never knew about my close family and friends, I enjoy reading the answers posted to the public questions. Each of the 1,000 questions on the site has its own page, which lists the public answers.

Naturally, this is one of my favorite questions: "What do you most like about the age we live in?"

Some people's answers include:
  • "The predominant democratic society …"
  • "Running water."
  • "If you really want to you can go anyplace in the world … nothing is beyond reach."
  • "Technology" [a common answer.]
  • "Google knows everything. Also, there are SO MANY RECIPES I haven't made yet!"
So, what do you like most about the age we live in? Post your answer on Proust, and you can keep it private or share it with the world:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Great radio interview about The Secret Peace

On Monday morning I was excited to be featured on KNews, a California station, in an interview with Charlie Dyer. Here you can listen to the 15-minute interview:

(Or you can download it as an MP3 here (7 MB).)

I thought the interview went great. Granted, it's tough to hear "self-described Renaissance man" since "self" in that case means "my pr company", I swear. And he threw me off a bit by opening with some questions about Meetup (where I used to work) and then ended up cutting the question in which I talk about Proust (where I work now), but the rest of the questions were on point and I really got to share some good Secret Peace facts. Take a listen if you get a chance.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Everything we learn makes everyone better off

At the cornerstone of the Secret Peace is the idea that increasing shared human knowledge is the main driver of our inevitable, relentless progress. This idea is now radically compounding in an age in which it is so easy to store and pass on information. Indeed, it's practically impossible to lose information at this point. (Organizing and understanding it all is our next hurdle.)

Here are two examples.

The New York Times reports on a startup named Wicked Start, created by Bryan Janeczko. Janeczko had the idea after starting an earlier company. He was shocked at how hard the process was, and after eventually navigating it successfully, he found demand for his new knowledge. So he started Wicked Start, a free service to guide people through the new business process. The web site has customizable templates for all sorts of different industries, and lots of information about each step of the process.

Another article I found, on CNet News, talks about Fermilab astrophysicist Jason Steffen. Like Janeczko, Steffen stumbled across a problem and realized he had insight that could benefit everyone. The problem in this case was boarding planes - often an agonizing process, as we all know. Steffen theorized about more efficient ways to board, and even found support to stage some trials on a mock 757. The trials proved his theories correct. The savings for the airline industry could be over a billion dollars in total! Steffen has offered his ideas to the airlines; with their competitive nature, I'm sure one of them will eventually see the wisdom to enact his suggestions, gain an advantage, and then see the others follow.

In both these cases, someone outside the "traditional" knowledge path for a certain task/industry - Janeczko isn't a business school professor and Steffen doesn't work for an airline - had a good idea. Whereas in the past, that idea might have lingered unrealized, today it's easier than ever before to gain support, start a new company, or find publicity. Even just throwing the idea out on the Internet might eventually float it in front of the eyes of someone with the means to take it to the next step, or with an additional idea that builds on the first. This cycle ensures that we rarely stumble backwards; we are always learning from each others' mistakes.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Worldwide military spending down, surprisingly

As Gregg Easterbrook describes in Sonic Boom, "Military spending is among the least desirable uses of social resources. The best-case outcome for most defense spending is that it is totally wasted - that is, military force is never used. Worst-case outcomes go downhill from there."

So what's the good news? He continues: "As most nations have begun spirited economic competition, they have reduced their competition in arms buildups. Stated in today's dollars, global military spending peaked in 1985 at $1.5 trillion, and by 2008 had fallen to $1.3 trillion. Owing to world population growth through the period, military spending has declined from $312 per capita in 1985 (in today's dollars) to $194 per capita in 2008."

Source: Sonic Boom, p. xv.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Majority of Americans say Dr. King's dream has been realized

Well, a slim majority. On the eve of the opening of Martin Luthor King's new memorial in DC, 51% of Americans say his dream of racial equality has been realized. 23% say major progress has been made, another 23% say minor progress has been made, and only 3% say no progress has been made. I created a chart:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What drug epidemic?

How many Americans use illegal drugs? The numbers are probably much lower than you think.

Only 8 percent of Americans have used any illicit drugs in the past month. If you subtract marijuana from the equation, it drops to 4 percent. And most of that 4 percent is accounted for by the nonmedical use of pain relievers.

So that's the epidemic: About 4 percent of Americans using marijuana, 4 percent using pain relievers when they shouldn't, and 92 percent sitting at home knitting and playing Jenga, without any drugs whatsoever (except alcohol and tobacco, of course.)

What about meth? "Meth epidemic" gives us 1,860,000 Google results, including a Newsweek cover article of that name. But only 0.3 percent of Americans have used methamphetamines in the past month. The number was so low that federal researchers changed the survey and did it again, only to confirm the low result.

Source: Bet You Didn't Know, by Cheryl Russell.

"What happened to our market?" - other Jesse

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What grade would you give our public schools?

Everyone knows our schools are failing. In fact, in a "report card" survey taken a few years ago, a paltry 16 percent of Americans gave the nation's public schools an A or a B.

But the more interesting results from that survey came when people were asked to rank their local schools: a much larger 45 percent gave them an A or B.

Even more interesting, when asked to rate the school their own child attends, fully 67 percent awarded them an A or a B.

What's going on here? It's simple: when we rate our local school, we know what we're talking about, and when we rate the nation's schools, we don't. We don't have first-hand knowledge, only snippets we've heard from the mass media. And the mass media doesn't do reports titled, "Nation's schools not that bad; many parents satisfied."

Source: Bet You Didn't Know, by Cheryl Russell.

PS. Here's some more education news beyond our borders, from Charles Kenny in Getting Better:

Ratio of female to male literacy worldwide: 59%80%
Literacy in sub-Saharan Africa: 28%61%

PPS. This stock photo was described as "a young boy looks up with excitement and happiness with his A+ grade" but I think it equally could have been known as "a young boy curses the universe and vows revenge as his heavy backpack causes him to topple backwards."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Radio interview with Patricia Raskin's Positive Living

A few days ago, I had the honor of being a guest on Patricia Raskin's radio show, Positive Living, on VoiceAmerica. Her tagline is "changing attitudes with positive buzz" so it was a perfect fit for The Secret Peace. Take a listen to the episode below (it's about 25 minutes long):

Or, download the MP3 file here.

Thanks for having me on the show, Patricia!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Driving today is much safer than it used to be, even with cell phones

Here's a rare clip of good news from the nightly news: driving deaths in the US are at their lowest level since 1949.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Smoking is lethal and gross, says most people and now packaging, too

Starting next year, cigarette packages are going to get pretty disgusting. Federal health officials selected nine graphic warning labels that will soon be on all cigarettes. Lots of other countries do this, and it has proven somewhat effective in contributing to declining smoking rates. Smoking's been in decline in developed countries for decades now.

As reported in the New York Times: "Dr. Lawrence R. Deyton, director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Tobacco Products, said the government estimates, based on other countries’ experience, that the new warning labels will prompt an additional 213,000 Americans to quit smoking in 2013, the first full year with the graphic labels."

Take a look, if you can stomach it:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The present is so much better than the past thought it would be

Here's a cool Mashable article showing short films from the past that envisioned the future.

These are fun, but what's more meaningful is to realize how our current society easily eclipses their dreams. Not only is their technology too humble (automatic mixers are very exciting but are far surpassed by a microwave oven, for example), but more importantly, they didn't envision pivotal cultural changes, only technological ones. It's telling that the men of the 1950s thought their doting wives would be most excited by automatic kitchen appliances, and not, say, equal rights.

Here's one of the videos; go to the article to see them all.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Empire State Building says congrats on marriage equality

Here are some (grainy, sorry, it's just my phone) photos of the Empire State Building last night. It was lit in rainbow colors to celebrate Gay Pride and coincidentally the landmark event of New York becoming the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage.

In the Equality chapter of The Secret Peace, I talk about history's march towards equality. Invariably, history has shown minority groups (of religion, race, sexual orientation, and more) gaining greater rights over time. The times in modern history when rights have instead been permanently removed or set back are remarkably few.

From 2nd avenue:

From the window of our apartment:

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is trusting our lives to strangers a joke?

Is trusting our lives to strangers a joke? The Onion thinks so. The satirical newspaper recently published, "Report: Life Put In Hands Of 2,000 Complete Strangers Every Single Day." I love the Onion (and its sister site, the AV Club), but this article struck me as odd for them.

According to a new report from the National Institute for Safety Management, on any given day, the average American's life is entrusted to more than 2,000 different people who are complete strangers.

The report, which shows how any one of these anonymous individuals making a single mistake can easily cause another person's death, concluded that it is only through sheer luck that anyone ever makes it through a 24-hour period alive.

"People you don't know and will never even meet — food-safety regulators, bridge inspectors, whoever installed the gas lines in your home — ultimately have the power to decide whether you live or die," the report read in part. "We have no choice but to trust that these individuals are always being very careful and know exactly what they're doing." ...

The article was odd because much more of it than usual could be read straight, and it was only really the fake quotes that stand out as obvious jokes. "'Now I feel like I need to be extra wary,' said Howard, dialing her cell phone while driving on virtually no sleep and sipping a cup of hot coffee. 'It's scary to think who I could be trusting my personal safety to.'" is pretty funny, for example.

But putting aside the fake quotes and the fake math (it would be fun to try to figure out for real how many strangers affect our lives daily), this could very well be a real article. One way to look at it (which seems intended) is as a bleak and terrifying realization of how fragile our lives are. But personally, I think it's pretty wonderful to be reminded just how well society works.

Right now I'm trusting in my computer makers to have built something reliable that will work and won't electrocute me. I'm relying on the thousands of people that built New York's water supply over the course of centuries, so I could drink this glass of tap water. I'm trusting that the nine floors of building below our 10th-story apartment won't spontaneously collapse - thanks to Stuyvesant Town engineers and construction crews from 1946. I'll never meet them, but my life depends on them every day. We're about to go get lunch, and I take it for granted that I can eat anywhere I like and not get food poisoning. (In fact, after eating nearly every meal out for the last 8 years in NYC, I've only ever gotten food poisoning - mildly - twice. At nearly 6,000 meals, that's a rate of only .03 percent.) On the way to the restaurant, we'll pass dozens of motorists that will obey traffic laws and not run us over.

It's nice to step back every once in awhile and marvel at how well most people do their jobs (and how we have multiple backup systems in place to compensate when mistakes are inevitably made.) Thanks, Onion.

Bonus: If you click through to the article, it has a "How Many Hands Do You Put Your Life In Each Day?" quiz that generates a fun (albeit arbitrary) number for you.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Breathe Easier

We've had a beautiful spring week here in NYC, and it's been great to be outside breathing the fresh air. Check these charts out:

"The national picture on air quality shows improvement for almost every type of pollutant - with particularly dramatic declines in carbon monoxide, sulfur, and lead. Lead concentrations have fallen precipitously, by more than 90 percent since 1976."

The quote and charts above only go to 1996, because they are from a slightly older book, It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years, by Stephen Moore and Julian Simon. And they don't discuss greenhouse gases, whose reduction has lagged behind the reduction of certain pollutants most harmful to humans, as shown above. But I also saw this fact from a recent The Week:

"Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in 2009 fell 6 percent from the previous year, to their lowest level since 1995, the EPA said. Reduced economic activity and a shift from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas account for the decline, the agency said."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

United States Peace Index - Is your state peaceful?

The Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank, just released the first ever United States Peace Index, a ranking of the states based on their levels of peace. They measure "peace" by looking at the number of homicides, violent crimes, the jailed population, the number of police officers, and the availability of guns.

If you look at the map here, you'll see blue representing the most peaceful states (Maine is #1, followed by New Hampshire and Vermont), followed by green, yellow, orange, and finally red (Louisiana is #50).

In general, the report reveals that peace has improved since 1995, driven by a sharp decrease in homicide and violent crime.

I find the chart fascinating, because the map clearly shows a pattern of increasing peace as the climate gets colder: a peaceful north and a less peaceful south. The only real outliers are Nevada, Michigan, and Maryland (worse than expected), and Utah (better than expected).

Click through
to read highlights and other tidbits. One that interests me as a New Yorker is that New York experienced the most significant increase in peace, as a result of decreases in violent crime and the homicide rate.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lecture at Franklin & Marshall College

What a busy week! My wife and I just signed the lease for a new apartment (down the street from our current one) and then the following day, we took a train out to PA where I gave a lecture on The Secret Peace at Franklin & Marshall College.

I want to thank Professor Michael Penn for hosting me and allowing me to present to his class, The Nature of Hope. I gave a presentation entitled, "Filling the glass half-full: Forming an optimistic evidence-based worldview." It covered how I came to write the book, beginning with my interest in critical thinking, and how my worldview changed as I did more research. It delved into one of my book's chapters in detail - the one about war and world conflict giving way to nonviolence - and looked at how to reach that conclusion using evidence from the mass media and other sources.

What I really enjoyed were the students' reactions and especially their questions and opinions. They asked a ton of smart questions, including (all paraphrased by my poor memory):

  • "How will we solve our resource problems and overcrowding as population increases worldwide?"
  • "What do we do about rising inequality and economic stratification?"
  • "If spreading information is the catalyst for peace, what about the countries like China that are blocking access to information?"
  • "Why are scholars so pessimistic? Why is it generally considered more mature to be pessimistic, and more naive to be optimistic?"
  • "Do we need pessimism? Isn't discontent what motivates us to make changes? Will too much optimism makes us complacent?"

All great questions, from very insightful students. Again, thanks to Professor Penn and his class for having me!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

6 Billion Others

Well, actually 7 billion right now - that's right, this year the world population hits 7 billion people. It sounds like a lot, but actually the rate of population growth has been slowing down and it's doubtful that we'll hit any of the worst malthusian predictions we heard of a few decades ago (and hear about again whenever food prices spike).

At any rate, this project called "6 Billion Others" consists of 5,000 interviews filmed in 75 countries, all showing the diversity of humanity as people answered the same few questions about topics such as happiness, dreams, and progress. The video about progress is particularly enlightening: not everyone is in agreement about how much we are progressing as a global civilization, but their stories will definitely open your eyes.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Peace on Facebook

Lots of news these days about what role Facebook and Twitter played in the Egyptian revolution, with some people extolling the wonders of social networks and others reminding them that plenty of revolutions happened just fine before Facebook came along.

Overlooked is the more subtle, ongoing role the web plays in making connections and building social capital. is a great site, the highlight of which is a chart showing the huge number of connections made on Facebook between traditionally conflict-prone groups. In our minds, we think of Israelis and Palestinians as completely segregated and full of hatred for one another, but if there are 19,000 friend connections made between the two groups every day, how bad can it be? Likewise, there are a stunning 85,000 daily connections made between Indians and Pakistanis.

The site also shows the results of a survey asking "Do you think we will achieve world peace within 50 years?" While it's interesting to see the different results among countries, I think this is a less useful exercise. It perpetuates a big misconception about peace - that it is a single, all-or-nothing event. How would we know if we hit "world peace" … does that mean the end of all wars? What about simmering conflicts among non-state actors? Does it mean the end of all crime? Does it mean we're all singing together on a hill about Coke? The loftiness of the question is most likely contributing to the low percentage responding "yes": only nine percent in the U.S. Not even I think everything is going to be perfect in 50 years. A lot better than today, yes. But defined as "world peace"? From what I've seen, it's better to keep our goals tangible and well-defined, and thus achievable.

Check out the peace.facebook site here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Nostalgia & Technochondria

DC Comics announced last week that they would no longer be submitting their comic books to the notorious Comic Code Authority (CCA) for review. Rather than use this antiquated ratings system, DC will be using a new system of their own making. Marvel Comics, the second of the comic world's "big two" publishers, had already left the CCA several years ago. This is good news, since the Comic Code is laughingly out-of-date, having been devised during a reactionary anti-comics scare in the 1950s. Congress actually held hearings in which experts ridiculously testified that comics caused juvenile delinquency. And if you thought that the very act of Congress wasting time discussing comic books shows a dramatic lack of perspective and priority, wait till you hear this quote from the infamous psychiatrist Fredric Wertham during the hearings: "Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry." So for 60 years after that, nearly every comic published had to adhere to very specific rules that made sure, for example, that each character acted appropriately morally and that authorities were never shown in a harsh light, or risk losing market shelf space due to a lack of the Comic Code seal. Fortunately, in the past few decades, fewer and fewer people paid any attention to this backhanded censorship.

There are a lot of things to be worried about in the world, but needless to say, comic books are not one of them. Yet that type of scare repeats itself again and again, with practically every new technology and innovation (Comic books were relatively new in the 1950s, and juvenile delinquency had to come from somewhere, after all.) It sometimes has much more harmful effects than merely reducing comic book sales, though. For example, fears of genetically-modified crops have led several African nations to ban them, even though harmful effects have never been proven, and the increased crop yield and nutrition they offer might have prevented thousands (millions?) of deaths. Banning DDT is a similar story - we end up with a small environmental benefit (although even that is questionable, you can read a great Skeptoid article about it here), but at the cost of millions of lives lost to malaria.

Nick Bilton, author of I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works, lists other examples of what he calls "technochondria" in that book. Such as how bible-copying monks viewed the printing press as terribly low-quality when it was invented, and knew it wouldn't last. When trains were created, many people thought that if humans traveled at more than twenty miles per hour, they would suffocate. Some scientists believed traveling at such high speeds would simply make our bones fall apart. On Railway and Other Injuries of the Nervous System was one of the many books that described these terrible afflictions, in 1867. My favorite is the fear of the New York Times in 1876, when it wrote that "the telephone may really be a device of the enemies of the Republic," because it would cause people to never again go to concert halls and church, since they could hear the music and speakers at home.

"The world has been going to hell for a long, long time," as Bilton writes. There's something in human nature that makes us believe that life was better in the past, despite all evidence to the contrary. Personally, I think it has to do with the fact that things actually were better when we were kids … but only to us, because we were kids. Kind of like how popular music was at its peak coincidentally at the same moment when we were in college, and it's never been the same since. It always takes us a little time to get used to a new technology, and then we love it, and then we want change to stop in its tracks right then, but it never does.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Great Myths about Human Behavior

From 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, which I just read, comes some myth-busting that will make you happier. Turns out, many of these myths and misconceptions err on the side of assuming people are worse than they are. Below is the truth.

1. We use more than 10 percent of our brains. This one is a big pet peeve of mine. Up to 60 percent of people believe that we only use 10 percent of our brains. No, we use it all. We know this because we have a ton of cases where someone gets some specific part of their brain mauled and subsequently has trouble performing a certain task. And because we can map the brain and watch it light up when people think about different things. And because the authors trace the root of the myth to the 1936 saying "People only use 10% of their potential", a more plausible but still made-up statistic.

2. Our teen years aren't that turbulent. Studies show that only about 20 percent of teens undergo the turmoil attributed to the stereotype of their age. Most teens report generally happy moods and harmonious relations with their parents.

3. Neither are our mid-life crises, a standard movie cliché that occurs much more often in fiction than in real life.

4. Similarly, "Empty Nest Syndrome" is also an uncommon disorder, and not to be expected as a rule.

5. Amnesia is also rare. (And the loss of past memories particularly so; most amnesiacs have trouble forming new memories.) That's the good news. The bad news about amnesia is, if you have it, a second bump on the head will not cure it. Hard knocks to the head, as a rule, only make things worse.

6. Modern society is not that stressful. The idea that living in modern, Western society is more stressful than living in undeveloped countries is a myth. Turns out, it's very stressful to live in a poor country.

7. Men don't think about sex an average of every 7 seconds. I've heard this one a lot over the years. It's an urban legend, which should be obvious, since it sounds tremendously impractical. It would mean that if I gave a half-hour presentation at work, for example, I would have thought of sex 257 times during it. Quite a feat.

8. Men and women are both from Earth. The authors break down the idea that men and women (Mars & Venus) communicate in totally different ways into several more specific questions. They find that the differences, while some exist, are mostly statistically insignificant.

9. Many childhood victims of sexual abuse grow up well-adjusted. There's a myth that childhood sexual abuse invariably leads to psychological problems as an adult, but thankfully, while this does happen in some cases, it is far less common than we might think. Fortunately, children are much more resilient than we tend to give them credit for.

10. Subliminal messages aren't real. They don't work. If they did, advertising companies would try to use them, I'm sure, but they don't. Our brains are smarter than that. Sorry, plot of Josie & the Pussycats.

11. Crimes don't increase during the full moon. Nor does mental illness, etc etc. Can you think of any easier urban legend to measure and debunk? This one has been straightforwardly disproved time and time again but refuses to go away.

Turns out when we stop relying simply on "common sense" and stories we see on TV, and instead look at decades of hard research and statistics, we find most of humanity's not that bad, after all.

Check out the book on Amazon.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky

Here are some excerpts from Cognitive Surplus, a recent book by Clay Shirky that I enjoyed. His previous book, Here Comes Everybody, had some ideas that contributed to The Secret Peace. This new book has a lot of parallels, as well.

Shirky calls what we have today a "cognitive surplus": a surfeit of intellect, energy, and free time that has been growing for several decades now but was previously subsumed into television viewing. Now, with new outlets to funnel that creativity - the web - we are witnessing a revolution of creativity, and a new wealth of writing and art.

"Scarcity is easier to deal with than abundance, because when something becomes rare, we simply think it more valuable than it was before, a conceptually easy change. Abundance is different: its advent means we can start treating previously valuable things as if they were cheap enough to waste, which is to say cheap enough to experiment with. Because abundance can remove the trade-offs we're used to, it can be disorienting to the people who've grown up with scarcity. When a resource is scarce, the people who manage it often regard it as valuable in itself, without stopping to consider how much of the value is tied to scarcity. For years after the price of long-distance calls collapsed in the United States, my older relatives would still announce that a call was "long distance." Such calls had previously been special, because they were expensive; it took people years to understand that cheap long-distance calls removed the rationale for regarding them as inherently valuable."

"The low-quality material that comes with increased freedom accompanies the experimentation that creates the stuff we all end up prizing. That was true of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and it's true of the social media today. In comparison with a previous age's scarcity, abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time experimentation pays off, diversity expands the range of the possible, and the best work becomes better than what went before. After the printing press, publishing came to matter more because the expansion of literary, cultural, and scientific writing benefited society, even though it was accompanied by a whole lot of junk."

"A much harder thing to explain to them [Shirky's young college students] is this: if you were a citizen of that world [the world of a few decades ago], and you had something you needed to say in public, you couldn't. Period. Media content wasn't produced by consumers; if you had the wherewithal to say something in public, you weren't a consumer anymore, by definition. Movie reviews came from movie reviewers. Public opinions came from opinion columnists. Reporting came from reporters. … In those days, anyone could produce a photograph, a piece of writing, or a song, but they had no way to make it widely available. Sending messages to the public wasn't for the public to do, and, lacking the ability to easily connect with one another, our motivation to create was subdued."

Talking about how surprised we are that people are creating so much, or that older people are using computers: "Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy."

Here's a link to get the book on Amazon.

Here's a grainy photo of Clay Shirky and myself (awkwardly holding a microphone), on the right, on stage on a panel at the NY Tech Meetup several years ago.