Monday, December 31, 2012

More intriguing facts about guns

I did an update in April with some positive gun stats, but in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, and seeing tons of articles now floating around, I thought I'd revisit the topic. When things like this happen - as they do, on a regular basis - I invariably see several posts or comments from friends that run along the lines of "The world is a terrible place." It's hard to argue with that when a crazy man murders 20 schoolchildren, because it's demonstrably true. However, it's more viable to argue with the similar sentiments of, "The world is getting worse," or "Things are worse than they've ever been," or "What is the world coming to," which I also see commonly. Those ideas are demonstrably untrue. The world may be a terrible place, but there's a lot of evidence that it used to be even worse. Here a chart from Kieran Healy, Associate Professor at Duke:
It shows two clear things: America has a much higher rate of assault deaths than other comparable countries, and that rate has been declining in the past 30 years. This decline mirrors the stats I had listed in my previous blog post, that 1 in 5 Americans now owns a gun (down from 1 in 3 in 1980) and that there are now guns in 1 in 3 households (down from 1 in 2 in 1973.)

Besides that decline, what else is good news? Well, that other countries have learned what we Americans have not yet come to terms with. Specifically, the UK and Australia both had shooting incidents happen, passed stricter laws, and then saw shootings decline. Precipitously.

Noelle Stevenson, an artist I follow on Tumblr, reposted this (it cites many sources, which you can track back from that link):
"'On March 13, 1995, in the small Scottish town of Dunblane, a forty-three-year-old man, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school with four handguns and opened fire, methodically killing sixteen children and one adult teacher before killing himself. The unprecedented massacre of children led, within two years, to legislation that imposed a total ban on the private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom. Today, no one in the United Kingdom can privately own a handgun or a semiautomatic weapon. There was not much hand wringing or heated debate over this legislation. It was discussed, and enacted, with overwhelming public support, in response to the mood of national shame and grief over the killings.' The New Yorker, "Guns and the Limits of Shame" … The U.K. had 14 firearm-related murders last year; the U.S. … had 9,369. In 2008, the U.K. only had 68 gun deaths total … that includes suicide and accident. It was around 30,000 in the U.S.
Not only do we have overwhelming evidence at the national level that fewer guns leads to fewer deaths (not just gun deaths, but a lower rate overall), we also have that information at the state level. Simply put, states with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence. You can see a lot of interesting charts about this in this Washington Post article.

What is the Secret Peace viewpoint on more gun control? It'll happen eventually in this country. I think more gun control makes sense, and it's an area where the U.S. embarrassingly lags behind other developed nations. However, there is a trade-off that we shouldn't ignore, as sacrificing some of our freedoms to have whatever guns we want means also giving up the freedom of the possibility of armed rebellion against a theoretically tyrannical government, which is what the Founders wrote the whole Second Amendment for. But I think at this point the trade-off would be well worth it. A government would have to be extremely tyrannical for a very long number of years to come close to killing as many of its citizens as guns have in the United States.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Update: World still here

Just a quick update with breaking news: the world did not end yesterday. On April 11, 2010, I posted on this blog that the the Large Hadron Collider did not destroy the world, as some had feared. (Located at this hilarious url: Then I mentioned to expect a similar post in two and a half years when the Mayan Apocalypse failed to materialize. This is that post. What doomsday scenarios will fail to come true next?!?
Update: Here are two great related articles I found: Why some people crave apocalyptic news, at Scientific American, and 6 other apocalypses that never came true, at The Week.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Assume positive intent

To be happier, what's the smallest, simplest thing an average person could do? That's the question someone asked here on Quora. People responded with a ton of good answers, including getting more sleep, focusing on the positive, shortening your commute, and exercising. But those seem like easy, tangible answers (though no less correct for it.) On the other hand, Jeff Shattuck's answer struck me as ideologically insightful, even revolutionary. He advocates "assuming positive intent."

Life's daily mishaps are easier to swallow if you assume that every offense, insult, and slight by the people you interact with is unintentional. In other words, don't take things personally. In the vast majority of cases, that person was simply trying to go about their day and take actions to make life a little more palatable for them and their loved ones. If they could have achieved the same goals without offending you, they most likely would have. There was no malice involved.

On a societal level, this goes along with what Steven Pinker has said in The Better Angels of Our Nature about the place of "honor" in societies. Honor sounds like a noble trait, until you realize that the societies that value honor above all are those in which citizens react in kind to every slight, and thus remain stuck in cycles of violence. Only by forgiving and forgetting are we able to reach peace.

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!

Monday, August 27, 2012

This one health product will change your life forever!

I don't think I've ever directly hawked a product on this blog before (other than maybe some recommendation asides), but this is important. You will not believe how much healthier this product will make you. My wife and I both tried it, and we can look forward to a much healthier life than if we had never used it. And as soon as we had finished our treatment, I immediately lent it to my parents to give it a try, and then I'll loan it to my friends.

This product works directly on the brain, by clearing out toxins caused by today's fast-paced environment. You wouldn't believe how many of these toxins we've all accumulated over our lifetimes - without even knowing it! These toxins include misconceptions, rumors, bad advice, snake oil, old wives' tales, and superstitions. And this product will clear them all away.

That's because it's an educational course, on DVD. (There's an audio version, too - and you can stream them both online as well.) It's one of the Great Courses, a series of lectures by esteemed professors on tons of topics. I've been watching them for years, and I can honestly say this is the best one I've ever seen. My wife and I watched all 24 episodes together, riveted. The content was great, and the presenter, Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale School of Medicine, was excellent.

Debunking myths is a long-time hobby of mine, but the majority of this information was new to me. Unless you're a doctor - and one well-versed in every specialty, who stays up-to-date on recent studies and the scientific consensus - I bet most of it will be new to you, too. Did you know …
  • Vitamin C does not help colds. (Try to find a bottle that says it does!) 
  • You don't have to wait after eating before swimming. 
  • Homeopathy is a complete myth. 
  • "Natural" is not inherently better than man-made … in fact, it's often worse. 
  • Hypnosis is real, but doesn't work the way you'd expect. 
  • Amnesia is real, but people never forget their identities. 
  • Acupuncture is fake, but still beneficial. 
  • Sugar does not lead to hyperactivity
  • And what about probiotics? Antioxidants? Toxins? and, and ...

The myths range from harmless to dire. Taking extra vitamin C will not hurt you, for example. But certain of the myths in this series are responsible for the deaths of thousands of people - such as the myth that vaccines cause autism, or the myth that sleeping with a virgin can cure HIV (yes, this is a real belief in some parts of Africa.)

More important than any specific myth is the framework that Dr. Novella shares in how the medical industry works, how doctors think, and how to judge medical claims for yourself. How are drugs evaluated? Are placebos ethical? How does misinformation spread? Does the way we think about specific "diseases" even make sense in many cases? And in general, how should we safeguard our own health - and the health of our children and others we care about - when we swim in such a vast sea of competing medical information?

Watch the DVD and find out. If you've read The Secret Peace, you know that in today's day and age, we each finally have the means and the responsibility to investigate truths for ourselves. This has tremendous potential benefit, but it can also be a burden. This course is a huge help. I wish they had taught this in school; I think it should be essential viewing for everyone.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Goodbye, Capital Punishment

Did you hear that Connecticut abolished the death penalty? The state's practically next door, but somehow I missed this news when it happened in April, and just found it now. What's interesting is how it's part of a trend: Connecticut is the 17th state to abolish capital punishment (along with the District of Columbia, too), and the fifth in just five years.

When it comes to the death penalty, I believe the trends show: 1) the gradual abolishment of capital punishment in the world, 2) a glimpse - probably in our lifetimes - of a world in which the concept itself will feel outdated and barbaric, and 3) that this is part of a larger trend of decreasing violence. Capital punishment, even when carried out by a legitimate state with the support of its citizens, is still violence of a type. And as Gandhi taught, violence - though it can accomplish short-term goals - inevitably sows long-term problems (usually more violence.)

The decline of the death penalty in the U.S. can be tracked not just by the number of states endorsing it, but by two other trends. This chart shows one:

This is from Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, and shows the rate of executions declining dramatically. That's right, even in the states that still have it on the books, it's mostly used less frequently.

In addition, Pinker brings up a good reason to abolish it: because it's a slippery slope. With execution on the books it's simply too easy to put innocent people to death. Did you know that during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, there were over 10 executions in London per week? By 1822 England had 222 capital offenses on the books, including cutting down a tree. But by 1861 this had been reduced to four. The Wikipedia page on capital punishment in the U.S. has an interesting chart showing when the last execution was for each crime other than homicide. The last execution for witchcraft, for example, was in 1779, and the last for burglary was in 1941.

In fact, it's estimated that in the past 2,000 years, 19 million people were executed worldwide for trivial offenses. I had this same thought while reading Game of Thrones recently, as the capricious king in the book executes practically everyone who so much as glances at him funny. We take for granted the simple concept today - even if we support capital punishment - that the death penalty should be used only for dire offences, and only after a lengthy evaluation of guilt. Soon, there will be no offences left that we deem worth it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's when free enterprise and government are combined that countries prosper

I've frequently gotten mad at knee-jerk liberal reactions against capitalism since the most recent economic crisis. The obvious flaws in capitalism revealed by the crisis are a good case for more government oversight. But they do not condemn capitalism as an overall concept.

A lot of The Secret Peace is devoted to showing how free trade and globalization have accomplished the miraculous in the last few decades: lifting millions of people out of poverty. Communist governments could not do this. China could not do this, for example, until it started allowing some free enterprise. We have a lot of evidence about this. Capitalism works.

So, in that respect, I completely agree with the broad point made by Arthur Brooks in this adorable animated video: free enterprise is a good system. So it's unfortunate that, like the knee-jerk liberals who want to paint capitalism with a broad brush of evil, he is emblematic of the Ron Swansons on the right who would do the same thing to government. They argue that since government has obvious flaws (chief among them being that it costs a lot of money, and can be wasteful), it must all be bad.

Why can no one on the right or left simply convey the truth that our system consists of a split partnership of government and business, and always will? America is, say, 70% business and 30% government, and it's perfectly necessary to debate if it should be 80%/20% instead, or 60%/40%. But why does everyone have to pontificate as if it will ever be 100%/0% or even 95%/5%?

Brooks's video makes such broad points that they easily resonate and seem correct in our hearts while we're watching. That's because they mostly ARE correct - on a broad, conceptual level. But in practice, and if you look at the details, there are some big "plot holes" he glosses over.

Let's look at the video step-by-step. His first trite example, of Muffin the dog, has the plot hole of NOT ENDING. He misses a step. We never learn its lesson: why shouldn't we eat the dog? He simply says because "its immoral." But there's a reason it's immoral, and it has to do with social conventions and our emotions due to Muffin being a "member of the family". Moral arguments can have logic, and this one does, he just doesn't mention it.

And it kind of disproves his point ... his point here being that sometimes logic has trouble winning over people who are arguing emotionally. It's a totally valid point. But he uses a bad example, since there are morally logical reasons not to eat Muffin. (Perhaps next time, to avoid this problem altogether, the family won't name their pets after delicious foods.)

His next, similar, point is that you shouldn't argue using anecdotal evidence. Sure, good point. Although it's not as if this video is instead leaning on lots of statistics.

He then compares the US to Greece, which is problematic. Michael Lewis writes some great stuff in Boomerang about how messed up and unique Greek culture is and how its corruption contributed to their crisis. America isn't that similar.

It's also disappointing how Brooks offhandedly mentions that "government just grows and grows" in a tone implying that it's obvious that this is a bad thing. But he hasn't yet shown that.

He next makes the case that money doesn't buy happiness and instead "earned success" is the best way to make us happy. He's right; recent studies show this. But he makes it sound like that's the ONLY way to create ANY happiness, which is not true. Being helped with your success is not worse than having no success at all. And at any rate, there are ways to help that COMBINE with hard work, not replace it, to pay off: does the college student who receives a scholarship not have to work hard for good grades?

He calls the welfare state "shoving marshmallows into people's mouths", as if the benefits it provides are extra confectionery treats - added money going to people who would otherwise be fine if they just tried a little harder. What he doesn't acknowledge is that many of those people ARE trying their hardest.

A leading theory in conservative thought says that handing out money to people will disincentivize them to work and make them lazy. Again, this is taking something that has a kernel of truth - since I'm sure that does happen with some people - and extrapolating it to all cases. Government programs should try to identify and focus on those in need who could not get help in any other way. Granted, this is a challenge, but it can work.

This is easier to see in Brooks's school metaphor. Here, Brooks is correct that people who don't try hard don't deserve good grades handed to them. But he assumes that the only reason a student would ever get a bad grade is that they didn't try hard enough. It's like The Secret of grading. In Brooks's school, no one has learning disabilities. No one has dyslexia. No one has no time to study because they're working two extra jobs or taking care of their grandmother.

In real schools, some people are at a disadvantage, and the government provides them extra help. (In this metaphor, the government actually represents the government, assuming this is a public school.) Help isn't provided by just adjusting their grades up - the equivalent of handing them money they didn't earn. Instead, they are helped by placing them in special classes where they get more attention, or providing tutors, or focusing on different types of learning, or providing lunch so they can focus on studying instead of wondering where there next meal is coming from.

The same holds true of the "welfare state". The goal of the government isn't to hand money to people who don't deserve it. This probably happens sometimes as a negative externality, sure, although I doubt the consequences are as bad as Brooks paints them. But there are millions of real people who are disadvantaged in some way and need help to get to a point at which their own hard work will even be effective.

We have hundreds of years of evidence that the free enterprise system works - it works as an overall concept, and it works better than any other system. But in practice, it always has loopholes, cracks in its edifice, people it overlooks. The job of good government is to close those loopholes.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why a computer only lasts three years

I recently read The Chairs are Where the People Go, which is a fun collection of essays by Misha Glouberman, with Sheila Heti. The book is just a low-key collection of Misha's idosyncratic observations on people and cities and society. This short essay stood out for me as presenting a small, but important point we often overlook:
Why a computer only lasts three years 

People complain about how in our modern world things aren't built to last. So when you buy a phone, for instance, it breaks after two or three years and you have to buy another one, and the same with a computer, whereas it used to be that you could buy a typewriter or a telephone and it lasted for decades.

I see this as a pretty benign consequence of progress. The typewriter that lasted for fifty years wasn't built in a world where the machines we type on become a hundred times more powerful every three years. Would it really be so awesome if the DOS-based 8086 IBM PC that you bought in 1983 still functioned today? Presumably it would have cost twice as much to make that machine last that long. Now, for less than a week's salary for the average person, you can buy a machine that can access all the information in the world while copying a movie and storing more text than is contained in a floor of a university library. So you can buy this machine that does all these incredible things, knowing that in three years a machine will come along that does all those things and more, even more incredibly.

This built-in obsolescence doesn't come out of malevolence. It comes out of the breakneck speed of progress. We get so insanely much for our money. These machines are such incredibly great deals. And the return on the money accelerates so fast. There's no sense in the manufacturer spending extra money to make this year's machine durable enough to compete with the machines that will be around in three years. 
Reprinted with permission.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature

Last month I read Steven Pinker's latest book, the ambitious 700-page The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, and it instantly became one of my favorite non-fiction books I've ever read. (It wins for most pages marked of any of my books … see photo.)

It's also one of the books most similar to mine - with the main difference being Pinker's focus on declining violence, which is the focus of just one of my 11 chapters. Essentially, it's a super-expanded version of The Secret Peace's chapter seven.

Pinker is able to go into a lot more detail, and while The Secret Peace focuses on current events, he delves deep into history to make his point that we are living in a less violent world. To me, the most compelling parts of the book were Pinker's colorful depictions of just how awful the past was. For example, he vividly writes that our ancestors "were infested with lice and parasites and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces. Food was bland, monotonous, and intermittent. Health care consisted of the doctor's saw and the dentist's pliers. Both sexes labored from sunrise to sundown, whereupon they were plunged into darkness." Any atrocity you can think of happening today, you can bet that it happened in the past as well, but worse, and more frequently, and with no one batting an eye.

This goes against many peoples' assumptions. In one survey that Pinker did himself, they presented people with sets of two time periods and asked them which they thought had higher rates of violence. In each case everyone thought the modern cultures were more violent, by a factor of 1.1 to 4.6. In reality, the earlier cases were actually more violent, by a factor of 1.6 to more than 30. For example, people guessed that 20th-century England was 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England, even though it was actually 95 percent less violent.

The horror of waterboarding, as bad as it is, doesn't hold a candle to medieval torture. The violence of boxing doesn't compare to the game of nailing a cat to a tree and trying to be the first to kill it with your head (yes, this was real.) Remember when wars used to have names like the "Thirty Years' War" and the "Eighty Years' War"? People in the past believed in the legitimacy and honor of war in a way we no longer do. In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, wars broke out between European countries at a rate of about three new wars a year.

Pinker describes how the "shocking truth is that until recently [20th century] most people didn't think there was anything particularly wrong with genocide, as long as it didn't happen to them." He discusses the common medieval practice of enacting vengeance on someone by cutting their nose off, which is the source of our charming phrase, "to cut off your nose to spite your face." He talks about customs such as "slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disemboweling, bearbaiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets, dueling, debtors' prisons, flogging, keelhauling, and other practices that passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable to not-thought-about."

At one point, Pinker shows a chart of the rate of battle deaths since the late 1940s (so, starting after WWII ended.) Our current decade enjoys an astoundingly low rate of worldwide battle deaths: 0.5 per 100,000 per year. This is lower than the homicide rate of most countries. In absolute numbers, annual battle deaths have fallen by more than 90 percent, from around half a million per year in the late 1940s to around thirty thousand a year today (and with a much larger population now, too.) He also talks about how effective peacekeeping is: studies have shown that the presence of peacekeepers reduces the risk of recidivism into another war by 80 percent. All other measures of violence have also declined: did you know that the rate of rape in the U.S. has declined by 80 percent just since 1973? (Actually, it was probably more, since women are more willing to report rape in recent years and it is now more often recognized as a serious crime.) Or that 24 countries have now banned not just child abuse, but even spanking altogether? We as a global culture have become so offended by violence that I even read an article recently about the possibility of banning football.

The past was a terrible, terrible place, and by comparison, today looks downright peaceful.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Getting better, one step at a time

Take a look at this great ad from Image Comics, one in a series featuring quotes from their creators. This one shows writer/artist Natalie Nourigat saying "There's always a better way to do things. You keep your eyes and ears open, never assume that you know it all, and you just keep improving."
This type of thinking - a work ethic and desire to improve one's work - is not only personally inspiring, it's also what's driving the Secret Peace. Everyone keeps improving.

At the individual level, each person is inspired to improve out of self-interest, but the accumulation of all those bits of self-interest translates into huge gains at the level of society. Of course, self-interest can refer to A) the desire to get a better income, or more praise, or ways to impress a mate, but also B) the innate desire to be better and challenge oneself.

Cynics will say that not everyone shares Natalie's work ethic. And they're right. There are certainly millions of people who are lazy. There are millions of people who don't like their jobs. There are millions of people who get along just fine doing what they're doing and don't feel motivated to challenge themselves. But I bet the proportion of people who are lazy or unmotivated is much smaller than our worst assumptions lead us to believe. Of course, there are also millions of people who don't have the time or energy or resources to go above and beyond because just getting by is exhausting.

But I don't think those people are a negative drain on society; rather, they're just sort of neutral. They're still contributing, but maybe not at Natalie's pace of productivity. The more important thing to realize is how few people are actively trying to be worse at their jobs - surely a small number. If the vast majority of people are either eagerly pushing forward or neutral, civilization in aggregate moves forward. This is why productivity keeps increasing and rarely regresses. So, not everyone needs to work quite as hard as Natalie.

This work ethic has always existed, but progress is happening much faster nowadays due to improved communications technology and information storage. Because of it, Natalie can easily share what she learns and inspire others. In fact, she does this, posting on her blog guides, sketches, updates, and even samples of influences. Did you know YouTube is filled with artists who have recorded themselves working as videos so others can watch and learn from the process? (Like this great one from Sara Pichelli.) Other artists post step-by-step tutorials as well, such as this one by Kat Laurange.

When I was in school for art, we didn't have any of this. (Not to mention Meetups, such as the Central Park Sketch Meetup, of course.) It is so much easier for a novice to get started with art nowadays, and get free training. Some of them will turn into great artists, whereas in the past they would never had had the opportunity (only a select few people ever got into drawing schools or got to be an artist's apprentice).

It's only a small percentage of people that need to be instructing or pushing the envelope at any given time, but that knowledge adds up faster since it's now all easily available. Anything Natalie learns - which pen works best, how to compose a page, how to schedule her day - she passes along and other people can pick up. And of course, bad information gets shared as well, but the cream eventually always rises to the top. Now think about how that's true in every field, not just art. Anyone innovating and teaching helps to drag all the rest of us along, constantly building a smarter, more advanced civilization.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Happiness is a warm gun - to fewer people

Great article in The New Yorker about America's gun culture, and almost in passing it mentions some superb statistics:
  •  The bad news first: The U.S. is still the country with the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Second place is Yemen, so that tells you the kind of company we keep. And they have half the rate. However, there is good news:
  • In 1973, there were guns in roughly 1 in 2 U.S. households; by 2010 that had dropped to 1 in 3 households.
  • In 1980, nearly 1 in 3 Americans owned a gun; by 2010 that had dropped to 1 in 5.
  • "One reason that gun ownership is declining, nationwide, might be that high-school shooting clubs and rifle ranges at summer camps are no longer common." 
Now if, unlike me, you're a gun advocate, you might be disappointed at these numbers. For one thing, more guns in civilian hands allegedly helps prevent crime. However, since crime has been dropping precipitously in the same time period as the stats above, that link would seem extremely difficult to prove.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Is bullying a crisis or a myth?

I haven't seen the movie Bully yet, but I've read plenty about it, including this article in last week's The Week. I love the format of The Week, which summarizes all media stories from each week. In this article, it presents opposing viewpoints about the issue.

So, in the first paragraph, it mentions USA Today's claim (and the movie's) that there is a bullying "epidemic" going on. It also describes a Reuters article that agrees with that dire assessment and goes further by describing the terrors of cyber-bullying as well.

The next paragraph describes the counter-point to that claim, from The Wall Street Journal. "This 'bullying crisis' is largely a myth … kids today are 'safer and better-behaved than they were when I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s.' Adolescent mortality, accidents, sex, and drug use are all down from their levels of a few decades ago. Acceptance of homosexuality is up, and the percentage of students who reported 'being afraid of attack or harm at school' has declined from 12 percent in 1995 to 4 percent in 2009."

The final paragraph provides a counter-point to the counter-point, bringing it back around to the original claim, with high-school student Katy Butler writing in that she was bullied a lot. She says 43 percent of teens say they've been bullied. Mike Huckabee agrees with her, too.

So, is Bullying a crisis or a myth? Well, why are those the only two options? Can it be neither? It's a real problem, of course, and not a myth. But "crisis" is an overblown term, since it's probably always been a problem and has most likely even gotten better recently. (And Katy Butler's touching testimony is mostly useless as evidence since it is only one anecdote.) I wish there was an easier way for the media to convey, "Hey, this is a problem and we should pay attention to it, but that doesn't necessarily mean the world is ending." Instead we get the default black-or-white views, with no sensible middle ground setting.

It's obvious bullying has always existed. But perhaps the reason we are just noticing bullying as a problem now is that our standards for violence keep changing - what we are willing to tolerate keeps decreasing. This is what Steven Pinker shows in his excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature. Basically, the same amount of bullying in the past would not have been upsetting to us.

PS. In other teen news, rates of teenage pregnancy, births, and abortions in the U.S. have fallen to their lowest level in nearly 40 years. The number of teen girls getting pregnant dropped 42% from its peak in 1990; teen births declined 35% since 1991; and teen abortions declined 59% from their peak in 1988. Also, the percentage of children experiencing unwanted exposure to online pornography declined from 34% in 2005 to 23% in 2010. So, maybe the kids are alright.

Source: The Futurist, May-June 2012.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Smoothies reveal: Things work better now

My wife Rachel got this smoothie maker as a gift. (Yum!) It's hard to read in my fuzzy phone photo, but the company's name is Back to Basics and their tagline is "Back to Things that Work."

The smoothie machine does work well, but why wouldn't it? Their slogan irks me. I don't know why we tend to think otherwise, but things work much better now than they ever did. There are several reasons for this. One is the increase in government regulations over products. You can argue that this sometimes leads to more expensive products, since extra work needs to be put in to ensure they meet standards, but the result is that products much more often meet the standards. This is really important in cases where safety is an issue.

Another reason things work better now is the whole concept behind the Secret Peace - compounding information. It's in every company's best interest to make their products better, and the longer a certain product has been around, the more it has been improved. And as one company improves a product, its competitors often have to make the same improvements in order to keep up and remain competitive. New features are often introduced at luxury prices before economies of scale and increases in efficiency make them cheaper and they become standard.

Cars are a great example of this. Think how many features cars have now by default that would have been considered luxuries a few decades ago - CD players, automatic locks, air bags, and tons more. Even windshield wipers and seat belts were not a given, if you go back far enough. I don't drive ever since I moved to NYC, so in the rare cases when I get in a car, it seems there's often some new feature I hadn't heard about. Car people probably take these for granted, but I am amazed at the fact that the car seat warms up, for example. That just strikes me as absurdly futuristic. Or even unlocking the doors remotely. Back in my day we used keys - remember those?

Another reason for today's improved products is the ability for the market to make better decisions because of the availability of online reviews. Bad products can't fool us for long, and they all eventually get weeded out. Paul Adams, in his great book Grouped, describes this: "Online, people are overwhelmingly positive about businesses. One reason for this is in the last 50 years, product quality has dramatically increased. Today, most products meet basic manufacturing quality codes, and they work for a long time." (p. 141)

The next time you use any product, think back to if it would have worked better a few years or decades ago. If Windows is giving you a headache, think, "Was my Commodore 64 better?" If plugging your iPod into your car stereo is on the fritz, think, "Was it better when I had a cd player in the trunk?" (Yes, I had this.) And if you have to wait an extra ten minutes at the laundromat because one of the washers is broken, ask yourself, "Would I prefer washing my shirts down in the river?"

Things work better NOW, Back to Basics.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

UN global poverty reduction goal met ... five years early!

A new World Bank report on global poverty is so positive it even surprised me. The key points:

  1. Dire poverty continues to fall worldwide. No surprise there.

  2. But this happened even despite the recent global recession. I had expected the recession might cause at least a small blip in the progress of poverty reduction, but it barely even registered.

  3. I hope you're aware of the UN's Millennium Development Goals that were set a few years ago, with 8 hugely ambitious global goals in the areas of poverty, health, equality, etc. The world has been making good progress on them, with the deadline being 2015. Well, the goal to cut global extreme poverty in half was just met ... 5 years early.

  4. This means that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty is now less than half of what it was in the year 1990.

  5. (Actually, the goal was met in 2008 if you use the original definition of extreme poverty - living on less than $1 a day. That line was adjusted to $1.25 a day; this revised goal that was met in 2010.)

  6. In 1981, 42% of the developing world lived on less than $1 a day. In 1990, that was down to 31%. By 2008 it was only 14%.

  7. In 1981, 70% of the developing world lived on less than $2 a day. In 1990, that was down to 65%. By 2008 it was down to 43%.

  8. The most dramatic progress was made in East Asia. According to the World Bank, "Looking back to the early 1980s, East Asia was the region with the highest incidence of poverty in the world, with 77% living below $1.25 a day in 1981. By 2008 this had fallen to 14%"

  9. Our ability to get accurate data on all this stuff keeps improving.

Most of those people who are no longer living in extreme poverty are still very poor by our standards. But we can now see how it's possible to make a difference - we just have to keep up the good work.

Sources: World Bank (pdf), NYTimes, Wikipedia

Monday, February 20, 2012

How rich are you?

There's been a lot of talk in the past year about the 1% vs the 99% wealthiest Americans. And while I sympathize with many of Occupy Wall Street's aims (even though when my wife and I walked downtown to see them a few months ago they looked like a bunch of crazy people), it's useful to keep in mind that the wealth divide is very different if we widen our view to the whole world.

That's just what the site has done. It's very simple - you type in your income and it tells you where you fall in the distribution of the whole world's population.

Surprisingly, the income cutoff to be in the world's richest 1% is only $47,500. Doesn't sound too rich, does it? In fact, median household income in the US is about $50,000. Median income per person in the US is about $32,000 - which is still in the top 6% worldwide.

So, the average American is in the 6% wealthiest people worldwide.

Does this mean we shouldn't lobby for a little more income equality in America? No, there are still good reasons to do that. But it does mean we should widen our goals to include the whole world. And perhaps we should remember not to take what we have for granted, and maybe even be willing to part with a little of it to donate to whatever causes we find worthy.

Update: More links:
Household income
Personal income
Americans make up half of the world's richest 1%
Nice blog post by Scott Sumner - The Money Illusion
Similar Washington Post article

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Breaking News! Warning! Everything is OK!

I found this today, forgot I had taken this screenshot a few months ago. It's the home page of the New York Times. Notice the "Breaking News" banner? It's a rare banner they use when something really critical is happening. This one says, "Stocks Remain Volatile on Wall Street, Opening Up More Than 1%."

In my book, when I talk about sensationalism and a loss of perspective in the media, this is a small example of it, right here. And the NY Times is certainly not the worst perpetrator, in fact, they're usually pretty reasonable. But even they can succumb. Is it any wonder that reading the news (and more commonly, watching it) causes stress and anxiety to a lot of people? The whole tone and language and placement of that banner implies something bad is happening. It says, "Stocks remain volatile," which sounds terrible. But in reality, stocks rose, which is generally good news. It's an odd way to position it. And those subtle ways of picking and choosing what gets highlighted, and how it is conveyed, add up over the hundreds of thousands of days we see the news.

Here's another example, this time from the Huffington Post, which really specializes in sensationalist headlines. It was from around the same time, back when Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast. The headline on a story on the right of the page says, "Irene Passing Manhattan Could Lead to 'Nightmare Scenario.'" Now, Irene was a serious and definitely newsworthy event, and it's good to be prepared, but "nightmare scenario"? It makes it sound like the skies will be raining blood.

These also remind me of the Long Island Railroad, which I had to get used to recently after years of using New Jersey Transit. In NJ, you only hear announcements if there is a delay or something wrong. But not on Long Island. The announcements at the local stations come on a few minutes before the train is due to arrive, and announce in an agonizingly slow and roboticized voice, "ATTENTION ... Long Island passengers ... the 4:29 ... PM ... train ... to Penn Station ... is operating ... ON TIME." Great, thanks for the update. It's almost like it's designed to instill a constant low-level anxiety - for no good reason.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Why the heck is crime so low?

Crime goes up in a recession, right? More people are unemployed, and some of them get desperate. It's only common sense.

Well, think again. Crime rates in the U.S. have been dropping for 20 years, and in the two years since the recession hit, they've dropped even faster. Take a look at this chart, courtesy of this BBC News article:

So why is this happening? The frustrating thing is, no one knows for sure. But there are lots of theories, and I think a combination of the following ones makes the most sense:

  1. Smarter policing
  2. More people imprisoned
  3. Reduction of lead poisoning
  4. Baby boomers aging (fewer young people)
  5. Video games

The video games theory is particularly interesting … recent studies have shown that playing violent video games does increase violent tendencies slightly, but this is more than offset by the simple incapacitation of sitting at home playing video games rather than going out to commit crimes. In other words, if video games are increasing aggressiveness at all, players are then taking out that aggressiveness on more video games.

At any rate, no matter what the true cause of the reduction, it's good news. Now if we can just keep that crime rate low without imprisoning quite so large a percentage of our population - strike a slightly smarter balance there, and make sure our prisoners are treated as humanely as possible - it would be the best of both worlds. (For more information about that issue, I recommend When Brute Force Fails by Mark Kleiman.)

And for more details about the crime drop - specifically, homicide, which has just dropped off the list of the top 15 causes of death for the first time since 1965, check out this Washington Post article and this other one, too.