The Best T-Shirt For Traveling

I have definitely found the next item on my wishlist: the IconSpeak, an ingenious T-shirt featuring 40 universal icons for communicating across language barriers.

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As the inventors recount in Bored Panda:

“Many times we were confronted with a language barrier that was only to be overcome by drawing signs, symbols or icons on a piece of paper, map, or into the dirt”, explain George, Steven, and Florian. “We thought it would be great to have an essential set of icons with you, permanently, so that you could just point on whatever you need – and people would understand. Soon the notepad was pulled out again and we started listing more or less essential icons that would have been of great help during not just ours, but basically anyone’s trip”.

Here are some nifty demo photos of the shirt in action:

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.

Germany’s Anti-Amazon Startup

For all its indisputable convenience and cost-saving Amazon’s business model has contributed to the shuttering of small businesses and a massive carbon footprint via its vast delivery network. One would think that this is the price we pay for hyper-efficiency, but one German company is hoping to challenge that formula.

As FastCoexist.com reports, a startup company is offering the same sort of online shop as Amazon, only instead its wares come from local stores, and are delivered the same day by bike, usually ridden by senior citizens (a large demographic in fast-aging Germany that can benefit from the extra income and exercise). Continue reading

Open-plan offices make employees less productive, less happy, and more likely to get sick

The science of healthy workplaces. With the average American working harder and longer than ever, designing more worker-friendly spaces (not to mention bettering conditions as a whole) is more vital than ever. I am very fortunate to work in an office with a conducive environment and a lot of freedom to enjoy privacy and get some fresh air.

The Amazing Hero Rat

A “hero rat” being trained to detect landmines by a member of APOPO, a Belgian NGO with its operational headquarters in Tanzania. Numerous landmines remain live and undetected in dozens of countries, reportedly claiming several lives daily (generally children). Mine detection remains costly and difficult, but rats remain surprisingly ideal for the task.

For starters, they are hardy, adaptable, and found all over the world. They are also cheap to acquire and easy to breed and care for. Most importantly, however, rats are intelligent, sociable, and quick learners. With one of the most sensitive olfactory systems of any mammal, they are capable of detecting trace amounts of TNT and mine casing. After around nine months of training involving clickers and rewards, the rates prove incredible efficient: in a mere 20 minutes, they cover around 100 square meters — over 1,000 square feet — which would take an entire day for conventional detectors.

Thankfully, the rats are too lightweight to set off the mines, and none have reportedly died thus far. They’ve cleared thousands of mines in such hotbeds as Thailand, Mozambique, and Tanzania itself, with programs being primed in Angola (with Norwegian assistance) and Cambodia.

As if all this weren’t amazing enough, the aptly named hero rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis, which infects millions of people worldwide, mostly in poor countries lacking healthcare facilities. They can determine who is infected by this chronic disease in just ten minutes; it would take a medical lab at least one day.

Learn more by checking out the official website. It’s remarkable what human innovation can develop, especially in combination with the amazing natural ability of animals.

Norman Borlaug

Few people have ever head of Norman Borlaug, from the tiny town of Cresco, Iowa. This is despite the fact that he is one of only 5 people to have ever won a Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal, in addition to the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific achievement award in America. Mr. Borlaug is quite possibly one of the greatest humanitarians in human history – and the most unknown, his death in 2009 attracting little attention despite his monumental contributions.

An agronomist with a PhD in plant pathology and genetics, he is considered the father of the Green Revolution, a pivotal development in agriculture that increased food production to astounding levels and reversed decades of starvation in the developing world. It all began with his research in Mexico during the 1940s, in which he was seeking to develop a strain of wheat that was more resilient and provided higher crop yields. Growing up in a farming community of Norwegian immigrants in Iowa, he often noted with curiosity as to how some crops grew different in certain areas. This observation of plant variance, along with his innate sense of inquisitiveness and compassion, put him on the humbly heroic path to saving millions.

During the years of backbreaking work in Mexico, where he worked with locales and lived in austerity, he cross-bred and experimented with varieties of wheat before creating several strains that were resistant, faster growing, and yielded more grains. He had a promising career waiting for him in the DuPont corporation, but he declined the offer in order to go to Mexico and work on the field to help poor farmers feed themselves and make a profit as well. Within two decades after his work, Mexico reported their wheat yields as being reached 6-times higher than the year that Borlaug arrived. Now only was Mexico free of having to import food, but it’s farmers were able to feed themselves and have enough left over to sell in the market, enriching themselves and the entire country. made developing countries surplus producers of food.

Soon, Borlaug’s wheat strains – in addition to his methods and ideas, which were applied to rice as well – spread to other countries, namely India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, which also had to rely on imports and deal with horrific famines. Long predicted by scientists at the time to be approaching a Malthusian catastrophe, India soon recorded some of the largest crop yields in it’s history, after having invited Borlaug to conduct research with their own scientists. Neighboring Pakistan eventually got access to his wheat varieties as well, reporting similarly historic gains. Soon, scientists in China and the Philippines, with the help of philanthropists organizations, began following those remarkable examples and soon too brought bountiful harvests to their nation. Borlaug and his colleagues eventually distributed strains to numerous other nations in Latin America, the Middle-East, and Africa.

Norman Borlaug is believed to have saved anywhere from 245 million to even 1 billion lives, not including the millions more that might never had been born from the surplus his research contributed to. One estimate claims that half the world’s population is fed from one of the high-yield crops he and his fellows helped create. Granted, he didn’t do all this single-handedly: he had the financial support of numerous host governments, in addition to universities and charitable foundations.He worked with hundreds of researchers the world over. But that doesn’t dilute the fact that this simple, humble man, who refused to believe he even won the Nobel Prize when told so in 1970, did all this out of simple will and compassion. Even into his 80s and 90s he continued to work, notably helping to bring higher yields to dirt-poor and famine prone Ethiopia.

The Green Revolution he helped create wasn’t perfect, and it brought problems of it’s own, though it was hardly his fault. All he wanted was something simple but wholesome: to help the world. As he himself said, only a few years ago, “You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” I dearly hope I can come within a fraction of such compassion and humanity.

Big Ideas: Little Packages

The following is courtesy of National Geographic, another one of my top sources. Though widely perceived to be strictly anthropological in it’s content (and for the most part it is), “Nat Geo” covers a wide-range of topics, delving into science, history, the arts, and even political science. I highly recommend it for those of you with broader tastes in addition to a love of photographic splendor.

Though I should have been in bed hours ago, I could not resist sharing this little gem, rich I just read earlier today. It’s a list of simple but dynamic innovations that could save entire communities across the world, particularly in least-developed nations. The link for it is here, and all but one of the inventions shown come with their own website for those interested in learning more. Most are either awaiting release or have already been introduced in limited number to their target demographics. All of them thankfully appear to have passed their trials.

As the introduction succinctly notes:

Can good design save the world? It just might, one novel idea at a time. Sparked by programs like the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, designers are creating products to meet the needs of communities in developing countries. It turns out that even the most pressing problems, from health care to potable water, can have affordable—and beautifully designed—solutions.

Indeed, that’s best part: most of these concepts are particularly complex or profound, yet they accomplish as much as we would expect from an expensive new technology. It’s all a matter of applying clever, practical designs – or re-conceptualizing existing ones – to address very particular needs.

For example, one elegant invention is a mere water container that is shaped in such a way as to make it easier to transport (it can be rolled along the ground rather than be carried). This is great for the millions of women and children who must traverse miles of often treacherous land to find water, only to be burdened with a heavier load on the way back.

Another of my personal favorites consist of nothing more than filling one clay pot with sand, than wedging another clay pot within it, keeping them separated by a barrier of wet substrate. As it dries, the evaporated water keeps food preserved for weeks, rather than the usual few days. Simple, cheap, and easy to make just about anywhere. Most fascinating is the fact that this is based on a rather ancient technique. It’s amazing to think that some of the modern world’s problems have already been addressed by our predecessors thousands of years ago!

As regular readers know, I’m a “devout” humanist – I believe in the worth and positive nature of the human species, and am more-or-less optimistic about our capacity to do good for one another and the world. Though I find myself increasingly susceptible to bouts of pessimism and outright misanthropy, witnessing our the exercise of higher faculties – our capacity to ponder, explore, discover, and invent – gives me a surge of renewed hope and enthusiasm.

I can’t wait for these sleek and simple inventions to reach the masses and improve the lives of millions. Funding and coordination is always a difficult process for these sorts of things: all sorts of technologies currently exist that could better the lot of humanity, yet they rarely make it passed their own trials – and even when they do, mass-producing and distributing them is a whole other story. This no doubt explains the growing emphasis on simplicity and affordability that more and more inventors are opting for.

Therein lies the beauty of innovation. It’s not just a matter of creativity or advanced engineering. It’s solving a problem in whatever way possible, and insuring that it’s as easy as any other known thus far. If this short list of ideas are vastly beneficial as they stand, imagine what more could be accomplished if we invest more resources into science and research? It’s something policymakers, investors, and the general public should ponder.

How Bashing China Won’t Make Any Difference

With politics being as polarized as they are, it always nice to see a rare bit of bipartisanship in Congress. It’s just a shame that what unites the two parties is often ill-conceived and populist in nature, and nothing meets both criteria so well as China bashing.

There is no doubt that, lately, China has become a byword for American decline and economic insecurity. From our politicians to public interest groups, the consensus among policymakers seems to be that China is either a direct cause for all this country’s ills or a rapidly rising competitor whose gain is automatically our loss. This sentiment however, like the tariffs and China bashing that it predicates, is at worst dangerously distracting, and at the very least unhelpful.

Prior to adjourning for the midterm elections, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill aimed at retaliating against China for undervaluing its currency. This would’ve likely translated into higher tariffs on Chinese exports, though last I checked, the bill has remained stalled in the Senate.

In any case, the House was hardly alone in its concerns on China. Timothy Geithner, the United States Secretary of the Treasury, pressured the International Monetary Fund, which oversees the global financial system, to urge China to take on a “more flexible, more market-oriented exchange-rate management” system. This is basically a fancy way of telling China to stop keeping its currency so cheap.

In these past mid-terms elections, many candidates ran ads attacking opponents for allowing jobs to be shipped to China, or for otherwise being too soft on the Chinese. Citizens Against Government Waste, a self-described government watchdog, ran an ad depicting a future where China is basically running the US.

The idea is that if Chinese exports become more expensive, domestic producers of similar goods could finally compete in an even playing field, providing jobs and invigorating the economy. If only it was that simple (economics rarely is).

To be sure, China isn’t innocent. Its government does indeed keep the cost of its currency artificially low, so as to keep its vital exports cheap and it’s economy globally competitive. From a national-interest and strategic perspective, this actions makes sense, whatever harm it may do to other manufacturers. Certainly, such cheap exports do cause some damage to domestic production – up to a point. There is no denying that manufacturing has declined precipitously in this country. And it’s certainly true that most of what we once made is nowadays being built in China.

But Chinese dominance in manufacturing is a by-product of our decline, not the cause of it. After all, manufacturing has been weak for decades, long before China’s rise began in the 1990s; they merely sped up the process. Forcing the Chinese to make their goods more expensive or slapping on tariffs to that effect, won’t suddenly revitalize our economy.  At best, it will just shift the problem somewhere else. Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and a slew of other nations all have plenty of cheap labor and even cheaper currency.

We should also take a lesson from history. Back when Japan was in China’s place and US manufacturing was beginning to peak, we pressured them to raise their cheap currency too, for the same reasons (and with the same expectations).  Obviously, it didn’t work, since industrial activity remains in decline to this day.

At the end of the day, the problem with manufacturing is a domestic issue that requires a domestic solution. It’s unrealistic and unfeasible to expect other countries to change their ways for our sake. Like it or not, globalization is a reality that must be adapted to, not fought against.  We should focus less on foreign scapegoats and more on supporting polices that will strengthen industry at home –more investment in infrastructure and green technology, support for job training programs, and incentives for companies to keep jobs in the US, to name a few ideas.

We need to tap into the innovation that has long made us the world’s most dynamic economy, rather than distract ourselves with petty trade wars. Too bad that, as with most things, that’s far easier said than done. How to become more innovative and competitive is a discussion for a whole other post.