Monday, November 25, 2013

Rewriting an important message to girls

If you live in New York City, perhaps you've seen this new public service ad campaign over the last few weeks. It's meant to help with young girls' self-esteem:

I'm a girl 
I'm creative, a leader, sporty, friendly, bold, honest, playful and unique. 
I'm beautiful the way I am

I know I'm not the target audience, but I am now the father of a young girl, and I was immediately turned off by these ads. At the same time, I was disappointed in my harsh reaction, since it was obvious that the many people behind these ads clearly had their heart in the right place. So I'm going to try to not be too mean here. But there are some problems.

1) Let's start with a nitpick. There's a pretty well-rounded list of adjectives in the ad, but it includes "sporty". Well, turns out there's already a word for "sporty", and it's called "athletic." Sporty is just a girlier word for athletic. We don't need dumbed-down female versions of words - I would think that's just the sort of thing this ad campaign should be fighting against. It might as well say, "I'm sporty, posh, ginger, baby, and scary." Granted, that would convey girl power, but I'd rather just change it to athletic:

I'm a girl
I'm creative, a leader, athletic, friendly, bold, honest, playful and unique.
I'm beautiful the way I am

2) Here's another small issue. That same sentence says "I'm creative, a leader, athletic, friendly, bold, honest, playful and unique." That's a tall order, a lot of pressure. It almost sounds like a girl HAS to be ALL those things. Instead, the message should be that she can be anything she likes. She doesn't HAVE to be athletic, and not everyone is a leader. She can be some of those things, or even none. She has the capability to be anything she wants. How about:

I'm a girl 
I can be creative, a leader, athletic, friendly, bold, honest, playful and unique. 
I'm beautiful the way I am

3) Here's a much more important issue, indeed the first one that jumped out at me: the use of the word "beautiful". As the final adjective, it's implying that it's the most important one. And if there's one thing we really want to convey to girls, it's that BEAUTY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Why in the world did they go in this direction? You could argue that they are using the word "beautiful" not in the exterior "looks" sense but in the "inner beauty" sense. But there are better words for that: "I'm proud of the way I am", "I'm awesome the way I am", "I'm great the way I am", etc. "Inner beauty" is a subtle connotation that is not the first thing you think of when you see the word "beautiful". (If it was, we wouldn't ever need the prefix-word "inner".) They should have avoided it altogether:

I'm a girl 
I can be creative, a leader, athletic, friendly, bold, honest, playful and unique. 
I'm awesome the way I am

4) Lastly, let's look at the rest of that closing sentence. "I'm beautiful the way I am." What a let-down. Maybe it's just me, but here's what that sounds like: "I'm ok even though I'm not a boy." or "Hey, I was born a girl, but I'm dealing with it." or "I may not have a penis, but I'm almost as good." WTF? It seems so meek and defeatist. Why not go with a more uplifting ending? How about just:

I'm a girl 
I can be creative, a leader, athletic, friendly, bold, honest, playful and unique. 
I'm awesome!

Straightforward and to the point. It should be inspiring. I would be proud for my daughter to see this ad now.

You may argue that I'm nitpicking and wordsmithing this too much. But that's the whole point of feminist critique: that there are subtle biases even in our language that convey that women are not equal to men. I'm really surprised that nobody who helped with this ad thought this way; it's the whole reason for the ad, after all. I've worked at several ad agencies, and trust me, all ads are edited this much. You only have a few words to work with (they used 20), and a few seconds of the audience's time, so you have to make each word count.

Which brings me to my final edit ... something to really make the ad "pop" and grab people's attention. I realized, hey, this ad is for NEW YORK CITY. What says not just "I'm an awesome girl" but "I'm an awesome New Yorker"? How about:

PS. For a better example of empowerment, check out this awesome GoldieBlox ad.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Update on interracial marriage

The interracial marriage of Bill de Blasio, newly elected mayor of New York, is generating a lot of headlines. De Blasio may be the first white politician in U.S. history elected to a major office with a black spouse. Not only did this not ruffle the feathers of very many New Yorkers - probably the most diverse city on the planet, after all - but it looks like it probably helped get him elected.

I've got a chart in the Secret Peace book reflecting the trend of acceptance of interracial relationships:
A clear trend, but I only had data at the time up to the year 2000. However, the trend is so obvious that we can pretty safely extrapolate what it would look like if it continued to today (in blue):
Pretty impressive, as the two groups' opinions are converging around the 80-85% mark. But what's really interesting is that one of the articles about de Blasio, in the Huffington Post, mentions current trends - allowing us to update the chart for real:
The result (in red) is even higher than projected. The percentage of whites approving went from 4% in 1958 to 86% now. Today, across America, only 14% of whites disapprove of mixed marriage, and an amazingly low 2% of blacks disapprove.

Can you imagine this trend ever reversing? I can't. Nearly everyone approves of interracial marriage, something that would have been inconceivable to folks a few generations ago. Though they're going at different speeds, all other trends of tolerance are moving in the same inevitable direction as well.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Even skydiving is safer

I found this great page all about skydiving safety statistics. (I am on the Internet a LOT.) Did you know how many fatal skydiving accidents there were in the U.S. in 2012? Only 19. If that still seems like a lot, consider the total number of jumps: 3.1 million. That's a .0006% fatality rate. (And there were only 915 non-fatal injuries, as well: roughly 3 injuries per 10,000 jumps.) That's a lot safer than I think I expected.

But that's not the cool part. We have no real way of knowing if that number is good or bad. We need context: is this more or less safe than in the past?

Turns out it's much more safe. That fatality rate has been cut in half just in the past decade. Before that, we don't have all the same data available here, but if we judge by U.S. Parachute Association membership as a proxy for jumps, we see the rate of fatalities per thousand members go from 3.65 in the 1960s steadily and consistently down to 0.64 today.

These trends mirror lots of declining death and injury rates from all sorts of accidents. I had known about other stats, but it was fascinating to see the same trend even in such a seemingly dangerous arena as skydiving.

This guy is way safer than he used to be.

Page is here: USPA: Skydiving Safety

Monday, September 30, 2013

The teen pregnancy epidemic

... is not real. From, via The Week: "The U.S. teen birthrate dropped 6 percent between 2011 and 2012, and is now the lowest it's been in the 73 years the government has been tracking it." And this is most likely the lowest in the country's history, since people had children at much younger ages in the past in general (even if they happened to be married).

A small part of me thought that maybe this meant teens were getting more abortions, but I looked that up, and nope, that dropped, too, and precipitously:

(The chart is from So why all the good news? Well, health experts theorize that the most likely culprits are good ol' increased sex education and more readily-available contraception. Keep up the good work, kids! Good job being too busy texting to get pregnant.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

An admirable apology

We are all well aware of the Supreme Court's big decisions regarding gay rights last month. But you might not have heard the parallel story of Exodus International. They were the driving force behind “conversion therapy”, the movement that “helps” gays and lesbians change their sexual orientation through prayer and therapy. Well, they just announced that they were closing and that they had been wrong all along. The founder apologized for all the “pain and hurt” the organization had caused, regretting breaking up gay relationships, and saying now that gay couples can be “every bit as capable of being amazing parents.” (from The Week, July 5-12, 2013)

This seems pretty remarkable to me, since it's rare to hear public apologies that aren't required by law or necessary to win votes. It would have been much more likely for this organization to simply dwindle away until they ran out of business and the last guy closed the doors and slinked away, never mentioning his former "career" to any of his new coworkers at whatever more normal job he ended up at. Not that an apology makes up for the incalculable amount of absurd pain the organization caused, but it's still a nice gesture.

This announcement of course dovetails nicely with the Supreme Court’s historic decisions. The Court is in step with public opinion, which has been changing fast, perhaps faster than for any other marginalized group in history. Here are some charts from the New York Times’ Nate Silver:

The first chart focuses on the U.S., and the second on the world. It's interesting that both articles focus on same-sex marriage, and in recent years it's intrigued me that this is the locus of our debate about gay rights. It's not that marriage isn't an important issue, but it's worth remembering that in previous civil rights movements in earlier decades and centuries, groups were fighting for equal representation in voting, in hiring and pay, and in ending violent acts (lynching, burning, you name it.) It's a sign of progress that those issues thankfully don't need to be the primary concern of this particular fight for equal rights today.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Yet another good vaccine

This is from last week's The Week, "The lifesaving effect of HPV vaccines". A new study has shown the new HPV vaccine to be very effective. "The rate of infection with the cancer-causing strain of HPV has been cut in half among American teenage girls since 2006, when the [CDC] first recommended [the vaccination]." That's particularly impressive since the vaccine is controversial and so only a third of young girls have received it. HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer, and if we were able to up vaccination levels to 80% (like many other countries have done), we would prevent an estimated 17,000 more cancer deaths. Let's do that.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Extreme poverty may disappear in our lifetimes, if we just keep up the good work

It never ceases to amaze me how much success the world has seen in reducing poverty, and even more, how few people know about it. This is probably for three reasons: we're more aware of poverty (and bad news in general) than in the past thanks to the explosion of news, our standards have been constantly increasing, and we're aware that global population is increasing (although that rate of growth is actually decreasing, another stat we're unaware of.) I think these combine to make our gut feeling that dire poverty is increasing. Thankfully, that's not true.

It seems more obvious when you realize that we've never been richer than we are today. Throughout most of history, ALL people were in dire poverty, or near to all. For every one king with a bit of gold, there were thousands of peasants. There was no middle class to speak of until recent centuries. And then during the twentieth century, poverty reduction really took of.

I have a chart in my book that shows this reduction in extreme poverty, which I've reproduced often:

But here's a new one, from an Economist article this week:

The Economist is generally more optimistic than many publications, but still, it's not often you see global stats simple labeled, "Hooray!" (Although the subtitle should say "Global extreme poverty rate, %", an important distinction. Extreme poverty is defined as people living on less than $1.25 a day. General poverty will be with us much longer.)

What makes this chart new to me is it's the first one I've seen with projections 20 years into the future. And those projections are amazing! Look, even in the worst case scenario, we're still reducing poverty, just slowly. And in the best case scenario, it's practically gone by 2030. This is stunning, and contrary to all our assumptions. Read the whole Economist article for their suggestions on the best ways to make the most progress in the coming years.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Even your teeth are getting better

I got a friendly dental reminder from ZocDoc today, and naturally that made me wonder how much better we’re doing with our teeth as a society. Here are some tidbits from Stephen Moore and Julian Simon’s It’s Getting Better All the Time. (Keep in mind that since that book came out in 2000, these stats are probably even better now.)

They write, "The father of our country, George Washington, had wooden teeth. Most of our grandparents wore dentures (if they could afford them) because their teeth had rotted away. But due to modern dental care, better oral hygiene, and fluoridated water, far fewer Americans than ever before lose their teeth.” Some stats:
  • Average Americans have 3 more teeth today (2000) than they did in 1970 (21 then, versus 24 now). 
  • Americans in general keep their teeth about 10 years longer than they did in the 1960s.
  •  The average 55 to 64-year-old now has 4 more of their real teeth than that age group did 20 years ago. 

More details and charts can be found in this CDC report.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why NOT to eat local, organic food

Every day we are forced to make decisions about food. What should we believe? Should we care about eating local, or eating organic, or even eating meat? I used to ignore some of these issues, but now I think it's essential for anyone who cares about saving lives worldwide, and/or protecting the environment, to care about them. But HOW we should care may surprise you.

Just Food is a riveting book that has the power to change a lot of our day-to-day assumptions about food. The book is written by a former local-food activist, James E. McWilliams, who had a change of heart as he uncovered scientific evidence opposing his beliefs. His book's important arguments:

  1. Consider each food issue separately. We tend to group all the food issues together into "ethical" v. "conventional". Someone who is concerned about GMO foods probably also supports organic food and local food, for example. In reality, each issue should be scientifically evaluated on its own merits. These issues include: local v. non-local, organic v. conventional, GMO v. non-GMO, vegetarian vs. meat, use of pesticides (and in fact evaluating each one), overuse of antibiotics, ethical treatment of animals, gluten-free food, large corporations v. small farms, and more. I encourage you to research each of these issues for yourself, one at a time. You might come to a different combination of conclusions, based on the evidence you find. Below is what I have found, which mostly lines up with what McWilliams puts forth so well in Just Food.

  2. Do NOT eat local, mostly. Locavores deify "food miles" as important because the more food travels, the more pollution and energy used in transport, right? Well, the math doesn't add up. First, it's important to note that transportation is only 11% of total food production energy expenditure. Second, "food miles" don't factor in economies of scale. If a huge truck transports 1,000 tomatoes from 1,000 miles away, each tomato costs 1 mile of energy. If a friendly local farmer transports 50 tomatoes from 100 miles away, his tomatoes have each used 2 miles of energy. That's a simple example, but you get the point: Local does not necessarily use less energy.

    Third, most environments are not designed for all foods. If I get local fruit in NYC in January, it's possible it was grown in a greenhouse, which uses TONS of energy. So, if you live in Florida, by all means eat local oranges. But in most places, it makes sense to truck in food from the places it grows best. If you want to eat local just because you think it tastes better, that's your prerogative, but know that many people can't tell the difference in taste tests, AND it's worse for the environment.

  3. Do NOT eat "organic", ever. I've been trying to follow this advice for years now, ever since I read these two excellent Skeptoid articles. Here's the basic logic: If pesticides are so harmful, why does non-organic agriculture use them? Because they increase crop yield, and save money and energy. Organic food thus has a lower crop yield, which means it takes more land to grow the same amount. Which means that lots of formerly-wild land and forests are being destroyed to make way for organic food. It's so ironic, and ridiculous.

    In addition, you might be surprised to learn that organic farming still uses tons of pesticides, they just have to be "naturally derived". Some of these are arguably more harmful to the environment than "un-natural" chemicals, especially since organic farms use a lot more of them (since they are less effective). To top it off, nothing has ever conclusively shown that organic food is healthier in any way, or that conventionally-grown food is harmful. Please stop supporting this snake oil industry.

  4. Support GMO foods. Here's where the "saving lives worldwide" comes into play. Simply put, our trendy food fads are rich indulgences that a majority of the world can't partake in. That would be fine, if they didn't also HURT the rest of the world. Abstaining from genetically-modified foods - for no good reason, since they have never been shown to cause any harm - reduces the demand for them, and thus their research & development. This is bad, because they have the potential to drastically help starving people in the developing world. In fact, they may be the only thing that can … it's hard to imagine a solution to the world's current hunger problems that doesn't include GMO foods in a big way. They also drastically reduce pesticide use, which is why it's so weird that environmentalists oppose them (which has always felt to me akin to a church wanting fewer abortions but also opposing birth control). Theoretically, increased GMO use could eventually render the concept of organic food moot.

    Anti-GMO advocates cite the "precautionary principle": we don't know if they might have bad side effects, so we should steer clear of them just in case. Except they never take the other side of the equation into account, namely that we do know that a world without GMO foods has bad side effects: millions of people die. It's unlikely that the bad side effects of GMO foods would be worse than that.

    Whole Foods recently announced it's going to start labeling all GMO foods. Good … buy them.

  5. Go vegetarian - even a little bit. One area where McWilliams argues along the traditional environmental lines is to advocate eating less meat. After driving cars, eating meat is probably the single thing we do as individuals that most negatively impacts the environment. We can either eat a plant that got its energy from the sun, or eat a cow that had to eat 1,000 plants over its lifetime. That's a huge difference in energy used. Cows and other animals also use up huge amounts of land for grazing. And there are a whole host of other issues that make eating meat questionable at best. Many people in developing countries are just starting to eat meat at rates approaching us in the U.S., but the earth simply will not be able to support everyone eating meat at this new higher rate.

    McWilliams put his money where his mouth is and decided to become a vegetarian. He admits it's extremely hard, so wisely advocates a compromise: if you can't convert to full veganism, just try to eat less meat, even starting with a little bit less. Cow meat is the worst in terms of the environmental impact; fish aren't nearly as bad. McWilliams envisions a sustainable future in which meat is treated as a delicacy we all partake of occasionally, rather than every meal.

  6. Support good businesses, whether big or small. Another point of contention is the conflict between giant corporate agribusiness on the one hand and small, local family farms on the other. This is a weird, partially made-up debate consisting of stereotypes. Do we all want to become farmers again? Only 2% of Americans currently work as farmers, and this is due to the economies of scale gained by large corporations over the last 100 years. In addition, there would be millions - perhaps billions - more starving people if it weren't for "big business" in food production. And only big business can take us the rest of the way as well: we're not going to be able to feed the world with small farms.

    It's still obvious, though, that agricultural corporations have a lot of problems today. However, none of these are intrinsic to the concept of a large business, and they can be reformed. More importantly, there's nothing that states that a small business is going to be inherently more ethical. Both are just made up of people.

  7. Do NOT cook at home. It's weird that locavores have fixated on optimizing the energy efficiency of transportation when there are many other energy-hogging steps of food production. (For example, studies have shown that people burn more energy in their cars to get to farmer's markets to buy local organic food, since these tend to be farther away than grocery stores.) Cooking at home is a huge expenditure of energy. Imagine using one whole oven and all its heat just to cook one meal, versus a restaurant using a larger oven to cook 100 meals. Restaurants simply use less energy per meal than home cooking does.

    McWilliams only mentions this issue briefly. Admittedly, this one is a hard sell. We all can't afford to eat out every day. But it's another example of how thinking about each step in our food consumption process can help us question our assumptions about what is healthiest and what is best for the planet.
All of the issues above have been drastically oversimplified in order to present them here. They are complex issues that resist easy solutions. None of the things I advocate above imply that our current, "conventional" food system doesn't have terrible flaws that should be reformed. I encourage you to read Just Food and anything else you can find, and come to your own objective conclusions about what food choices to make to best support yourself, your family, the environment, and all the world's people.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Thanks, presidents, for promoting democracies

Happy President's Day! Let's celebrate with some info about democracies.

The benefits of democracy as a form of government necessary in every country have been much debated, particularly in the past decade since President Bush used "spreading democracy" as one of the many reasons behind several unpopular wars. Sure, democracy is great for us, but do we have the right to insist upon it in every other country as well? Well, we certainly don't have the ability to impose it everywhere, as we learned, (and the very concept is contradictory), but as Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is an excellent reason to promote democracy worldwide: democracies are less violent.

He writes, "From 1955 to 2008 autocracies were three and a half times more likely to commit genocides than were full or partial democracies … democracies are less likely to wage interstate wars, to have large-scale civil wars, and to commit genocides." Totalitarian governments of the 20th century racked up a death toll of 4 percent of their populations, authoritarian governments killed 1 percent, but democracies only killed four tenths of 1 percent. He posits that democracies are a vaccine to the spread of virulent ideologies, a way to make sure bad ideas are more often eclipsed by good ones. So it's great news that the number of democracies is growing, as shown in this chart from that book:

Openness to trade is another big factor in making a state less violent, too. The more international trade a country has, the less likely they are to fight wars. This is the type of stuff Kant theorized about centuries ago; we now have the data to back the theories up. So, this President's Day, let's give the presidents a thank-you for centuries of maintaining our relatively stable, open democracy ... not just for ourselves but for serving as an example worldwide.

James Monroe, by John Vanderlyn

Friday, January 25, 2013

Amazing science advances in 2012 that you may not have heard about

Science made a lot of breakthroughs this year, and you probably didn't hear about them all. Check out this article on Buzzfeed for 27 of them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Bionic Woman: They gave a woman a bionic arm that she controls with her mind, and apparently its primary purpose is to keep chocolate away from ravenous scientists, as evidenced in the photo above. This is straight-up Luke Skywalker stuff, people. Here's a whole article about it.
  • Spray-on Skin: Imagine spraying something onto burn victims that will grow skin back over an entire area. The best part is, the material is grown from a sample of the person's own skin.
  • James Cameron reaches the bottom of the ocean: Better he spends his time doing this than making another Avatar.
  • Self-driving cars: They're now legal in 3 states. Want to place bets on if they'll get in more accidents than human drivers? No, because you would lose - it's impossible to get in more accidents than us.

Check out the article to see 23 more crazy things.