Hans Rosling, Data-Driven Optimist, Passes Away

It is not easy being an optimist, and doing so just got harder with the recent death, at 68, of Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. A tireless advocate for improving the world through compelling yet data rich presentations, Rosling brought a unique and crucial pizzazz  when it came to public advocacy and education.

Foreign Policy, which once named him one of the world’s top 100 thinkers, highlighted  some of the work Rosling did to change people’s perceptions of the world and to bring attention to humanity’s often-understated progress.

After roughly two decades studying hunger in Africa, he became a professor at the Karolinka Institute — a medically focused university in Sweden — and then the founder of data visualization site Gapminder. He was dedicated to bringing people facts in a way that seemed compelling and understandable to them.

In Feb. 2006, for example, he gave a presentation that used data to demonstrate that the concept of the “developing world” was one based on preconceived biases, not borne out of reality.

In 2010, he showed in just four minutes how lifespan and wealth had increased over the past 200 years — and how inequality between and within countries increased with it.

Indeed, I have twice posted about Rosling’s videos and data (here and here), and considered him a personal hero of mine. He helped inform my optimistic, humanist worldview with his energetic yet substantive presentation of the facts, be it about the rapid decline in child mortality or the growth of leisure through innovation. He was a champion for human development, using his data to both inspire hope and inform future policy and action. His eclectic mix of humor, colorful visualizations, and endearing levels of energy — which formed his shtick as an “edutainer” — has no doubt done much to keep the world moving along towards progress.

Rosling will certainly be missed, but thank goodness for his rich legacy of creative and hope-inspiring talks, all of which you can view here. That’s quite a way to live on.

 

 

 

Don’t Mess With Mexico

Following the now-official proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and to force Mexico to pay for it — Foreign Policy reminds us not to undervalue our relationship with our southern neighbor.

Among other considerations, Mexico’s economy is the 11th or 15th largest in the world, depending on the metric. It is our third largest trading partner, accounting for 6 million U.S. jobs and $1.5 billion worth of commerce daily, and anywhere between 2-4 percent of U.S. GDP. More American citizens live in Mexico than anywhere else in the world, and it is the most popular tourist destination.

Perhaps most importantly, Mexico contributes 80 percent of avocados consumed in the U.S. (I am being facetious of course, although the fruit’s popularity here is no joke.)

To save some time, I’ll also reiterate my own post from 2015 about Mexico’s probable was a major economic power in its own right:

Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base) … [It] is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

Mexico does of course have its problems, and its power dynamic with the U.S. makes it by far the junior partner in this bilateral relationship. But contrary to popular perception (at least among Americans) Mexico is far from a failed state. In spite of all its struggles, it has managed to become one of the world’s most robust economies, and has the potential to be a significant player in international affairs.

While the U.S. can still do a lot of damage to the country (far more than the other way around, to be sure) it is still insensible — not to mention immoral — to disrupt our relations with one of only two neighbors, a country whose interests and people are deeply intertwined with our own. As it is, the proposed 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to fund the border wall (since Mexico stands firmly opposed to funding it) will only end up transferring the costs onto American consumers — to the tune of $15 billion.

 

The James Bond of Philanthropy

If you were a billionaire, how much of your wealth would you give away to charity? No doubt most people would donate something, albeit only a fraction of their total wealth. But what about giving nearly every penny you had — and doing so without any credit for your generosity?

As the New York Times reported, 85-year-old Irish American businessman Charles F. Feeney just finished giving away the last of his fortune, after promising five years ago that he would do so by the end of 2016, a commitment few would make let alone follow through on. Continue reading

Wasting Humanity

Stephen Jay Gould was an influential American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian whose contributions to science and culture earned him recognition as a “Living Legend“. Like many scientists, he often weighed in on matters of ethics, philosophy, and the human condition, of which the following observation is, to my mind at least, his most powerful:

15822888_682070245306647_250360003780435884_n Continue reading

The Incredible Promise of CRISPR

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats / Cas9, better known as just CRISPR, is a form of genetic modification that utilizes the immune system of bacteria to selectively remove or replace individual genes. As you can imagine, it is a very complex concept — I recommend this great full explainer – but it has vast implications for the future of human health and prosperity, Continue reading

Eurasia’s Oldest Words

map_621

It is hard to imagine that the world’s many distinct and disparate languages, such as those highlighted above, share a common ancestor. But a new study reported in Foreign Policy  has ostensibly identified several words shared by at least three major Eurasian language families.

In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia’s major language families — implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a “half life,” meaning there’s 50 percent chance they’ll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words — particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs — tend to last longer.

Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.)  They found “188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families”.

Among the shared words are the following:

  • Thou
  • I
  • Not
  • That
  • We
  • To give
  • Who
  • This
  • What
  • Man/male
  • Ye
  • Old
  • Mother
  • To hear
  • Hand
  • Fire
  • To pull
  • Black
  • To flow
  • Bark
  • Ashes
  • To Spit
  • Worm

The researchers have concluded that these common words prove the existing of linguistic “superfamily” that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago. Interesting stuff.

Map: American Foreign Aid

Many Americans believe U.S. foreign aid is ineffective and fails o reach the people that need it most. Unfortunately, the following map from HowMuch.net, courtesy of Vox.com, validates this criticism by revealing that the vast majority of government aid largely bypasses the world’s neediest countries:

Note that while this is based on 2014 data, official aid policy hasn’t really changed.

Israel is clearly the biggest recipient by a large margin, despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, followed by Egypt and Jordan, which, while middle income countries, have their aid mostly contingent on their peace treaties with Israel. Many of the top recipients are not among the poorest countries in the world, and although Afghanistan and Pakistan are impoverished, their aid is also mostly tied up with foreign policy objectives (e.g. the War on Terror).

Ten Great Things That Happened in 2016

It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.

And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading

The World As 100 People

To better grasp just how much human conditions have improved only over the past two hundred years, consider the following summation, which imagines humanity as just a hundred people.

world-as-100-people-2-centuries-1

Imagine if you were surrounded by abject poverty and misery, but only years later find most people lifted out of deprivation and living comfortable lives; imagine nearly half of all the kids around you dying before their fifth birthday, but over the span of just a couple of years, such tragedies are virtually unheard of.

When you consider that these conditions were the norm for most of our 200,000 year history, and that only in the last two centuries — a relatively small blip in the timescale — have they reversed so rapidly, it is astounding how so many of us fail to realize how incredibly far our species has come.

Learn more about human progress from the source of this infographic.