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.