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."