How Income Relates to Life Expectancy

It is no surprise that wealthier countries, like wealthier people, tend to live longer. But how strong is this correlation? In a video released by The Gapminder Foundation, Swedish academic and professor Hans Rosling uses detailed but digestible visual data to explore the link between a nation’s wealth –namely its gross domestic product, or GDP — and the average longevity of its people.

To check out the two minute video, click here. (Sorry, I cannot embed it.)

Ultimately, the findings do indeed confirm that rich societies live longer. But what the data also show is that those countries in the middle range of GDP — e.g. the developing world — display a broad range in life expectancy, from low to surprisingly high. This illustrates the discrepancy in how states invest their growing wealth, and whether the fruits of their development are going to their people.

Video courtesy of Aeon. 

Coffee or Tea — What is the World’s Drink of Choice?

The two beverages have ancient roots, but only over the last couple of centuries have they become truly global commodities. The following map from The Economist shows which countries and regions favor which drink. (You can find the interactive version here.)

Coffee vs. Tea

There is a clear East-West divide: among nearly all Western countries — with the notable exception of the United Kingdom — coffee trounces tea, despite the latter beverage’s increasing popularity. Meanwhile, across most of Africa and Asia, tea is the drink of choice, with the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand being clear outliers.

Other countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia remain divided. Guatemala stands out as being the most overwhelmingly favorable towards coffee (99.6 percent) while Kenyans are the most enthusiastic for tea (99.2 percent). Overall, most countries prefer coffee, though tea probably has the most total drinkers, given its popularity in big nations like China, India, and Nigeria.

Young People Have a Harder Time Losing Weight

As if the Millennial generation didn’t have enough going against — from poorer job prospects to more expensive education — a recent study reported in The Atlantic has found that young people in the 21st century are less likely to lose or maintain weight than previous generations — even when they eat and exercise the same.

The authors examined the dietary data of 36,400 Americans between 1971 and 2008 and the physical activity data of 14,419 people between 1988 and 2006. They grouped the data sets together by the amount of food and activity, age, and BMI.

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans.

“Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight,” Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto’s York University, said in a statement. “However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.”

Note that the study utilized Body Mass Index (BMI), the accuracy of which is questionable. But if the findings are true, it has some pretty big implications about how much our social, dietary, and physical environments have changed, and what impact that is having on human health.

While the researchers are pretty cautious about what exactly accounts for this generational disparity, they mention three likely culprits.

First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight.

Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the ’70s and ’80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain.

Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role.

I would also add that the high rates of anxiety and depression resulting from tougher economic times probably play a role, too; stress and sleeplessness are well documented contributors to weight gain, and a large proportion of young people report chronically experiencing these problems.

As in so many other studies about the causes of weight gain, it appears that the contributing factors are complex and poorly understood, involving a confluence of hormonal, dietary, and environmental influences we are just starting to understand. Hence why the study cautions about the prevailing negative attitude towards the physically unfit.

The fact that the body weights of Americans today are influenced by factors beyond their control is a sign, Kuk says, that society should be kinder to people of all body types.

“There’s a huge weight bias against people with obesity”, she said. “They’re judged as lazy and self-indulgent. That’s really not the case. If our research is correct, you need to eat even less and exercise even more” just to be same weight as your parents were at your age.

As someone who has endured a lifelong struggle to maintain a healthy weight, I never really considered whether or not my difficulties were part of a larger generational milleui. Being fit and healthy was always supposed to be a difficult endeavor, not least because it runs somewhat contrary to our biology (humans evolved to store fat at all costs, for example). But what happens when humans struggle to adapt to totally new diets and conditions? Our species is already taller and larger in overall mass than it was just a couple of centuries ago; how different will physically be another century or two from now?

What are your thoughts?

The U.S. Government Programs Keeping Millions Out of Poverty

Americans across the political spectrum are conditioned to believe that the government safety net, broadly called “welfare”, is woefully inefficient. While it is no doubt true that public sector solutions are inadequate in many respects –something both major political wings agree on, albeit for different reasons — as the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reminds us, these programs are the only thing keeping tens of millions of Americans out of poverty.

More analysis from EPI:

Social Security was by far the most powerful anti-poverty program in the United States last year, keeping 25.9 million people out of poverty. Refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, kept 9.8 million people out of poverty. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), aka food stamps, kept 4.7 million people out of poverty, while other targeted programs (such as housing subsidies, unemployment insurance, and school lunch programs) made it possible for millions more to keep their heads above water.

In 2014, 48.4 million people (or 15.3 percent of the U.S. population) were in poverty, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM)—a more sophisticated approach for measuring economic well-being than the official federal poverty line. However, that number would have been significantly higher were it not for programs like the ones listed above. In the absence of stronger wage growth for low and middle-income workers, these safety-net programs play an increasingly important role in helping struggling families afford their basic needs.

Note the last sentence, which I have bolded for emphasis. The ever-more contentious debate about government expenditure on welfare would be a moot point if the private sector paid workers better and/or provided benefits, thereby precluding the need to turn to state programs. Simply put, most people would not turn to the government if there was more stable and liveable employment available. Until then, these flawed, threatened, and still vital programs are all that millions of Americans have.

America’s Changing Demographics

As The Guardian reports, an already-diverse American population is about to become even more pluralistic, as Europe’s historic role as a major source of immigrants shifts to Asia and Latin America.

An increase in Asian and Hispanic immigration … will drive U.S. population growth, with foreign-born residents expected to make up 18% of the country’s projected 441 million people in 50 years, the Pew Research Center said in a report being released on Monday.

This will be a record, higher than the nearly 15% during the late 19th century and early 20th century wave of immigration from Europe.

Today, immigrants make up 14% of the population, an increase from 5% in 1965.

The tipping point is expected to come in 2055, when Asians will become the largest immigrant group at 36%, compared with Hispanics at 34%. White immigrants to America, 80% back in 1965, will hover somewhere between 18% and 20% with black immigrants in the 8%-9% range, the study said.

Currently, 47% of immigrants living in the U.S. are Hispanic, but by 2065 that number will have dropped to 31%. Asians currently make up 26% of the immigrant population but in 50 years that percentage is expected to increase to 38%.

Immigrants from China and India will largely be driving the trend. The news might surprise most Americans given all the attention and concern regarding arrivals from south of the border; but with birth rates and economic prospects alike stabilizing, far fewer Latin Americans will be coming to the U.S. — though Hispanics will still remain the largest minority, owing to higher births within the country, rather than foreign arrivals.  Continue reading

India Launches Its First Space Telescope

With the successful Astrosat, a cutting-edge space observatory, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has put India among a select group of countries that have an independently designed and operate a space telescope studying celestial objects. As The Hindu reports:

The ability to simultaneously study a wide variety of wavelengths — visible light, ultraviolet and X-ray (both low- and high-energy) bands — has tremendous implications for scientists globally, particularly those in India. Though stars and galaxies emit in multiple wavebands, currently operational satellites have instruments that are capable of observing only a narrow range of wavelength band. Since the Earth’s atmosphere does not allow X-rays and ultraviolet energy from distant cosmic objects to reach ground-based telescopes, space observatories become important to unravel celestial mysteries. With Astrosat, Indian researchers will no longer have to rely on other space agencies for X-ray data, and scientists everywhere need no longer source data from more than one satellite to get a fuller picture of celestial processes. As in the case of Chandrayaan-1 and the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, the Astrosat telescope will have no immediate commercial or societal implications. But the instruments have been carefully chosen to allow scientists to pursue cutting-edge research. Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan returned invaluable information, although they were launched several years after other countries sent satellites to the Moon and Mars. Given the uniqueness of Astrosat, it will enable Indian researchers to work in the frontier areas of high-energy astrophysics.

Moreover, most of the payloads in the satellite come not from ISRO, but from a range of scientific institutions across India and the world (including Indonesia, Canada, and the United States). Astrostat thus reflects the country’s wide breadth of native talent, as well as its capacity to combine and coordinate these vital skills into one platform that can benefit researcher everywhere.  Continue reading

Wikipedia’s Rival, And What It Teaches Us About Expanding Human Knowledge

As many of you know, I am a big fan of, and regular contributor to, Wikipedia. I love it as much for its immense breadth information as for its ambitious mission to help make the entirely of human knowledge accessible to all. But I also absolutely love another website with a similarly audacious goal; the only encyclopedia that actually gives Wikipedia a run for its money when it comes to being an accessible and reliable source: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spanning almost 1,500 entries, the SEP manages a respectable one million views a month, which as Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad notes, is quite an achievement, “given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs.” According to the American Library Association, it is “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print. And did I mention that it is free?

Most crucially, the SEP has managed to accomplish the one thing that Wikipedia struggles with most of all: being a consistent and reliable source on all the topics it covers (although in fairness, Wikipedia spans a lot more pages and materials — close to five million in its English edition alone). Continue reading

The Benefits of Coffee

Well, besides the obvious caffeine-induced boost to energy, mood, and concentration. In honor of National Coffee Day here in the U.S., I present a multitude of scientific research (courtesy of the New York Times) that finds coffee to not only be safer to drink than once widely assumed, but even downright beneficial.

First, an important caveat: these studies are referring to black coffee, e.g. not the high-calorie, sugar-infused beverages that have comparatively little coffee in them; a coffee drink loaded with sweets is not going to be as healthy as the purer stuff, for obvious reasons. So by no means come away believing that a latte or caramel mocha is beneficial to your health (not that most people think that anyway).

With all that said, here is some encouraging news for fellow coffee lovers concerned about their habit. Continue reading

The Value of Imitation

Originality is overrated. Yes, novel ideas have often accounted for tremendous advancements in human knowledge and conditions; but as Kat McGowan of Aeon writes, the ability to copy one another, and make incremental improvements along the way, has been much more consequential.

The history of technology shows that advances happen largely through tinkering, when somebody recreates a good thing with a minor upgrade that makes it slightly better. These humble improvements accrue over generations, so that the Bronze Age straight pin becomes a toga fastener becomes a safety pin. Money begins as seashells, evolves into metal coins, diversifies as paper, and eventually becomes virtual as bitcoins and abstruse financial derivatives. In this way, technologies arise that no one person could possibly invent on his own. When Isaac Newton talked about standing on the shoulders of giants, he should have said that we are dwarves, standing atop a vast heap of dwarves.

Researchers dub this iterative process ‘cumulative cultural evolution’: just as organisms evolve via repeated small changes in genes that provide a survival advantage, each human generation makes small modifications to the technology and traditions it inherits. This idea is most clearly articulated by the anthropologist Robert Boyd, of the Santa Fe Institute and Arizona State University, and the biologist and mathematical modeller Peter Richerson, of the University of California Davis. ‘When lots of imitation is mixed with a little bit of individual learning, populations can adapt in ways that outreach the abilities of any individual genius,’ they write in their book Not By Genes Alone(2005).

Lots of copying means that many minds get their chance at the problem; imitation ‘makes the contents of brains available to everyone’, writes the developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello in the Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). Tomasello, who is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, calls the combination of imitation and innovation the ‘cultural ratchet’. It is like a mechanical ratchet that permits motion in only one direction – such as winding a watch, or walking through a turnstile. Good ideas push the ratchet forward one notch. Faithful imitation keeps the ratchet from slipping backward, protecting ideas from being forgotten or lost and keeping knowledge alive for the next round of improvement.

It turns out that creating something new is the easy part. What’s difficult – and what’s really important – is maintaining what we already know through copying. Luckily, we are very good at it.

In essence, human achievement at both the micro and macro level have been the result of multiple parties, often spanning generations and culture, having their go at an existing idea, invention, or concept. Progress is less about coming up with something immediately unique and earth-shattering, and more about looking around at what we know and how best to improve upon it.

Aside from giving clever and well-meaning imitators their due credit, the lesson here is that progress is a collective and collaborative effort, involving lots of contributors willing to do the humble and thankless work of tweaking what we already have, so that over time, with the help of other tinkerers, the world reaps the benefits.

This might be too much of a romantic take on what many would consider mere copying, but I think it reflects the inherent pragmatism of the human species: whether in art, science, or philosophy, go with what already seems to work and see where that gets you. Give it time, and who knows where that will get us.

Insects, Food of the Future

As many of you know from previous posts, I am a big advocate of cultivating insects as a major sustainable food source for the world. Already enjoyed as a staple food by around 2 billion people worldwide, bugs of all kinds offer a cheap, accessible, and nutritional form of sustenance in a world of stress resources. Hence why the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded in its report on the idea that “the consumption of insects … contributes positively to the environment and to health and livelihoods.”

As the L.A. Times reports, the message is even getting across to the United States, albeit ever so slowly. The article covers several businesses that are attempting to make bug food mainstream in a culture not accustomed to the idea. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight the general findings and benefits regarding insects as a food source.  Continue reading