16 Ways the World Is Getting Remarkably Better: Visuals by Statistician Hans Rosling

It certainly may not feel like things are getting better behind the anxious veils of our COVID lockdowns. But some might say that optimism and pessimism are products of the gut, hidden somewhere in the bacterial stew we call the microbiome. “All prejudices come from the intestines,” proclaimed noted sufferer of indigestion, Friedrich Nietzsche. Maybe we can change our views by changing our diet. But it’s a little harder to change our emotions with facts. We turn up our noses at them, or find them impossible to digest.

Nietzsche did not consider himself a pessimist. Despite his stomach troubles, he “adopted a philosophy that said yes to life,” notes Reason and Meaning, “fully cognizant of the fact that life is mostly miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd.” Let’s grant that this is so. A great many of us, I think, are inclined to believe it. We are ideal consumers for dystopian Nietzsche-esque fantasies about supermen and “last men.” Still, it's worth asking: is life always and equally miserable, evil, ugly, and absurd? Is the idea of human progress no more than a modern delusion?




Physician, statistician, and onetime sword swallower Hans Rosling spent several years trying to show otherwise in television documentaries for the BBC, TED Talks, and the posthumous book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law, a statistician and designer, respectively. Rosling, who passed away in 2017, also worked with his two co-authors on software used to animate statistics, and in his public talks and book, he attempted to bring data to life in ways that engage gut feelings.

Take the set of graphs above, aka, “16 Bad Things Decreasing,” from Factfulness. (View a larger scan of the pages here.) Yes, you may look at a set of monochromatic trend lines and yawn. But if you attend to the details, you'll can see that each arrow plummeting downward represents some profound ill, manmade or otherwise, that has killed or maimed millions. These range from legal slavery—down from 194 countries in 1800 to 3 in 2017—to smallpox: down from 148 countries with cases in 1850 to 0 in 1979. (Perhaps our current global epidemic will warrant its own triumphant graph in a revised edition some decades in the future.) Is this not progress?

What about the steadily falling rates of world hunger, child mortality, HIV infections, numbers of nuclear warheads, deaths from disaster, and ozone depletion? Hard to argue with the numbers, though as always, we should consider the source. (Nearly all these statistics come from Rosling’s own company, Gapminder.) In the video above, Dr. Rosling explains to a TED audience how he designed a course on global health in his native Sweden. In order to make sure the material measured up to his accomplished students’ abilities, he first gave them a questionnaire to test their knowledge.

Rosling found, he jokes, “that Swedish top students know statistically significantly less about the world than a chimpanzee," who would have scored higher by chance. The problem “was not ignorance, it was preconceived ideas," which are worse. Bad ideas are driven by many -isms, but also by what Rosling calls in the book an “overdramatic” worldview. Humans are nervous by nature. “Our tendency to misinterpret facts is instinctive—an evolutionary adaptation to help us make quick decisions to avoid danger,” writes Katie Law in a review of Factfulness.

“While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.” Magnified by global, collective anxieties, weaponized by canny mass media, the tendency to pessimism becomes reality, but it's one that is not supported by the data. This kind of argument has become kind of a cottage industry; each presentation must be evaluated on its own merits. Presumably enlightened optimism can be just as oversimplified a view as the darkest pessimism. But Rosling insisted he wasn’t an optimist. He was just being “factful.” We probably shouldn’t get into what Nietzsche might say to that.

via Simon Kuestenmacher

Related Content:  

Positive Psychology: A Free Course from Harvard University 

Against All Odds: A Gentle Introduction to Statistics Hosted by Harvard Geneticist Pardis Sabeti (Free Online Course)

David Byrne Launches Reasons to Be Cheerful, an Online Magazine Featuring Articles by Byrne, Brian Eno & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Find Emotional Strength & Resilience During COVID-19: Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert, Jack Kornfield, Susan David & Other Experts

There are many roads through the coronavirus crisis. One is denial, which only makes things worse. Another is service and self-sacrifice, a choice we honor in the medical professionals putting their lives at risk every day. For most of us, however, the best course of action is non-action—staying home and isolating ourselves from others. Days bleed into weeks, weeks into months. It can seem like life has come to a complete halt. It hasn’t, of course. All sorts of things are happening inside us. We don’t know how long this will last; current courses of action don’t bode well. What do we do with the fear, anger, loneliness, grief, and buzzing, ever-present anxiety?

Maybe the first thing to do is to accept that we have those feelings and feel them, instead of stuffing them down, covering them up, or pushing them onto someone else. Then we can recognize we aren't by any means alone. That’s easier said than done in quarantine, but psychologists and inspirational writers and speakers like Elizabeth Gilbert have come together under the auspices of the TED Connect series, hosted by the head of TED Chris Anderson, to help.




TED, known for showcasing “thinkers and doers [giving] the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less),” has wisely recognized the need to dig much deeper. Anderson and head of curation Helen Walters’ conversation with Gilbert, above, runs a little over an hour.

As for that ceaseless anxiety, Gilbert suggests we should all give ourselves “a measure of mercy and compassion.” We might feel like we need permission to do so in societies that demand we constantly justify our existence. But admitting vulnerability is the beginning of strength. Then we find constructive ways forward. The kind of resilience we can build in isolation is the kind that can outlast a crisis. Still, it is hard won. As Anderson says above, in addition to the external battle we must fight with the virus and our own governments, “there’s this other battle as well, that is probably equally as consequential. It’s a battle that’s going on right inside our minds.”

Rather than killing time waiting fitfully for some acceptable form of normal to return, we can build what psychologist Susan David calls “emotional courage.” In conversation with TED’s Whitney Pennington Rogers, above, David reveals that she herself has good reason to fear: her husband is a physician. She also understands the consequences of a collective denial of suffering and death. “The circumstance that we are in now is not something that we asked for, but life is calling on every single one of us to move into the place of wisdom in ourselves… into the space of wisdom and fortitude, solidarity, community, courage.” We move into that space by recognizing that “life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Themes of courage and connection come up again and again in other TED Connects interviews, such as that above with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and below with author Priya Parker. Elsewhere on the internet, you’ll find similar kinds of advice.

On the Tim Ferris show, you can hear interviews with Jack Kornfield on finding peace in the pandemic, Esther Perel on navigating relationships in quarantine, and Ryan Holiday on using Stoicism to choose “alive time over dead time.”

Stoicism has gathered a particularly rich store of wisdom about how to live in crisis. In his own meditation on isolation, Michel de Montaigne drew on the Stoics in advising readers to “reserve a backshop, wholly our own and entirely free, wherein to settle our true liberty, our principle solitude and retreat…. We have a mind pliable in itself, that will be company; that has wherewithal to attack and to defend, to receive and to give: let us not then fear in this solitude to languish under an uncomfortable vacuity.” In other words, the road through isolation, though fraught with painful emotions and uncertainties, can be, if we choose, one of significant personal and collective growth.

Related Content:

Free Courses on the Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Emerging Pandemic

How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Animated Introduction

An Animated Introduction to Stoicism, the Ancient Greek Philosophy That Lets You Lead a Happy, Fulfilling Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Brief Animated History of Alcohol

Almost anything can be preserved in alcohol, except health, happiness and money…

Roderick Phillips’ Ted-Ed lesson, a Brief History of Alcohol, above, opens with a bon mot from early 20th-century quote maven Mary Wilson Little, after which, an unwitting chimpanzee quickly discovers the intoxicating effects of overripe plums.

His eyes pinwheel, he falls off a branch, and grins, drunk as a monkey’s uncle.

And though the subject is alcohol, this primate is the only character in Anton Bogaty’s 5-minute animation who could be hauled in on a drunk and disorderly charge.

The others take a more sober, industrious approach, illustrating alcohol’s prominent role in early medicine, religious rituals, and global trading.

Ancient Egyptians harvest the cereal grains that will produce beer, included as part of workers’ rations and available to all classes.

A native of South America stirs a kettle of chicha, a fistful of hallucinogenic herbs held at the ready.

A Greek physician tends to a patient with a goblet of wine, as a nearby poet prepares to deliver an ode on its creative properties.

Students with an interest in the science of alcohol can learn a bit about the fermentation process and how the invention of distillation allowed for much stronger spirits.

Alcohol was a welcome presence aboard seafaring vessels. Not only did this valuable trading commodity spark lively parties on deck, it sanitized the sailors’ drinking water, making longer voyages possible.

Cheers to that.

Educators can customize the lesson here.

Related Content:

Beer Archaeology: Yes, It’s a Thing

5,000-Year-Old Chinese Beer Recipe Gets Recreated by Stanford Students

How Carl Jung Inspired the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC tongight, Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Cape-Coddities (1920) by Roger Livingston Scaife. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Improve Your Memory: Four TED Talks Explain the Techniques to Remember Anything

Offered the ability to remember everything, who among us could turn it down? For that matter, who among us could turn down even a slight increase in our memory capacity? If we're older, we complain of forgetfulness. If we're younger, we complain that so little of what we're supposed to learn for tests sticks. If we're in the middle, we complain of being "bad with names" and having trouble properly organizing all the tasks we need to complete. Whatever our stage in life, we could all use the kind of memory-improving techniques explained in these four TED Talks, the most popular of which offers Swedish "memory athlete" Idriz Zogaj's method of "How to Become a Memory Master."

Framing his talk with the story of how he trained himself to compete in the World Memory Championships (yes, they exist), Zogaj recommends remembering by making "a fun, vivid, animated story," using all your senses." "And do it in 3D, even though you don’t have the 3D goggles. Your brain is amazing; it can do it anyway." Telling yourself a story in such a way that connects seemingly unrelated images, words, numbers, or other pieces of information gives those connections strength in our brains.




In "How to Triple Your Memory by Using This Trick," Ricardo Lieuw On recommends a similarly story-based method, but emphasizes the importance of constructing it with "bizarre images." And "if you tie these bizarre images to a place you know well, like your body, suddenly memorizing things in order becomes a lot easier."

In his TED Talk about daily practices to improve memory, Krishan Chahal divides "the art of memorizing" into two parts. The first entails "designing the information or modifying the information in such a way so that it can catch your attention," making what you want to memorize more naturally palatable to "the taste of human mind" — stories and strong visual images being perhaps the human mind's tastiest treat. The second involves creating what he calls a "self-meaning system," the best-known variety of which is the memory palace. The Memory Techniques Wiki describes a memory palace as "an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images," typically modeled on "a place you know well, like a building or town." When memorizing, you store pieces information in different "locations" within your memory palace; when recalling, you take that same mental journey through your palace and find everything where you left it.

The memory palace came up here on Open Culture earlier this year when we featured a video about how to memorize an entire chapter of Moby-Dick. Its creator drew on Joshua Foer's book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and if you want a taste of what Foer has learned about memory, watch his TED Talk above. Foer, too, has spent time at the World Memory Championships, and his questions about how memory athletes do what they do led him to the concept psychologists call "elaborative encoding," the practice of taking information "lacking in context, in significance, in meaning" and transforming it "so that it becomes meaningful in the light of all the other things that you have in your mind."

Elaborative encoding underlies the effectiveness of memorizing even the driest lists of facts in the form of stories full of striking and unusual sights. (Foer himself opens with a memory-aiding story starring "a pack of overweight nudists on bicycles.") No wonder so many of the greatest storytellers have had a thematic preoccupation with memory. Take Jorge Luis Borges, author of "Shakespeare's Memory" (previously featured here on Open Culture) and the even more (dare I say) memorable "Funes the Memorious." In the latter a horse-riding accident robs a rural teenager of the ability to forget, bestowing upon him an effectively infinite memory — a power that has him taking an entire day to remember an entire day and assigning a different name ("the train," "Máximo Perez," "the whale," "Napoleon") to each and every number in existence. As much as we all want to remember more things, surely none of us wants to remember everything.

Related Comment:

How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

How to Focus: Five Talks Reveal the Secrets of Concentration

What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Why Physical Exercise (Not Mental Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Play Mark Twain’s “Memory-Builder,” His Game for Remembering Historical Facts & Dates

Hear “Shakespeare’s Memory” by Jorge Luis Borges

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Learn Latin?: 5 Videos Make a Compelling Case That the “Dead Language” Is an “Eternal Language”

"I tried to get Latin canceled for five years," says an exasperated Max Fischer, protagonist of Wes Anderson's Rushmore, when he hears of his school's decision to scrap Latin classes. "'It's a dead language,' I'd always say." Many have made a similarly blunt case against the study of Latin. But as we all remember, Max's educational philosophy overturns just as soon as he meets Miss Cross and brings up the cancellation to make conversation. "That's a shame because all the Romance languages were based on Latin," she says, articulating a standard defense. "Nihilo sanctum estne?" Max's reply, after Miss Cross clarifies that what she said is Latin for "Is nothing sacred?": "Sic transit gloria."

From ad hoc and bona fide to status quo and vice versa, all of us know a little bit of Latin, even the "dead language's" most outspoken opponents. But do any of us have a reason to build deliberately on that inherited knowledge? The video at the top of the post offers not just one but "Three Reasons to Study Latin (for Normal People, Not Language Geeks)."




As its host admits, "I could tell you that studying Latin will set you up to learn the Romance languages or give you a base of knowledge for fine arts and literature. I can tell you that you'll be able to read Latin on old buildings, hymns, state mottoes, or that reading Cicero and Virgil in the original is divinely beautiful." But the number one reason to study Latin, he says, is that it will improve your language acquisition skills.

And language acquisition isn't just the skill of learning languages, but "the skill of learning other skills." It teaches us that "thoughts themselves are formed differently in different languages," and learning even a single foreign word "is the act of learning to think in a new way." Study a foreign language and you enter a community, just as you do "every time you learn a new profession, learn a new hobby," or when you "interact with historians or philosophers, interact with the writers of cookbooks, or gardening books, or even writers of software." Latin in particular will also make you better at speaking English, especially if you already speak it natively. Not only are you "unavoidably blind to the weaknesses and strengths of your native meaning carrying system — your language — until you test drive a new one," the more complex, abstract half of the English vocabulary comes from Latin in the first place.

Above all, Latin promises wisdom. Not only can it "train you to conceptualize one thing in the context of many things and to see the connections between all of them," it can, by the time you're understanding meaning as well as form, "grow you in big-picture and small-picture thinking and give you the dexterity to move back and forth between both." Just as you are what you eat, "your mind becomes like what you spend your time thinking about," and the rigorously structured Latin language can imbue it with "logic, order, discipline, structure, precision." In the TED Talk above, Latin teacher Ryan Sellers builds on this idea, calling the study of Latin "one of the most effective ways of building strong fundamentals in students and preparing them for the future." Among the timeless benefits of the "eternal language" Sellers includes its ability to increase English "word power," its "mathematical" nature, and the connections it makes between the ancient world and the modern one.

Latin used to be more a part of the average school curriculum than it is now, but the debates about its usefulness have been going on for generations. Why Study Latin?, the 1951 classroom film above, covers a wide swath of them in ten minutes, from reading classics in the original to understanding scientific and medical terminology to becoming a sharper writer in English to tracing modern Western governmental and societal principles back to their Roman roots. And as the School of Life video below tells us, some things are still best expressed in Latin, an economical language that can pack a great deal of meaning into relatively few words: Veni, vidi, vici. Carpe diem. Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. And of course, Latin makes every expression sound weightier — it gives a certain gravitas, we might say.

If all these arguments have sold you on the benefits of Latin, or at least got you intrigued enough to learn more, watch "How Latin Works" for a brief overview of the history and mechanics of the language, as well as an explanation of what it has given to and how it differs from English and the other European languages we use today. You might then proceed to the free Latin lessons available at the the University of Texas’ Linguistics Research Center, previously featured here on Open Culture. The more Latin you acquire, the more you'll see and hear it everywhere. You might even ask the same question Max Fischer poses to the assembled administrators of Rushmore Academy: "Is Latin dead?" His motivations have more to do with romance than Romance, but there are no bad reasons to learn a language, living or otherwise.

Related Content:

Learn Latin, Old English, Sanskrit, Classical Greek & Other Ancient Languages in 10 Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sounded Like, And How We Know It

Hip 1960s Latin Teacher Translated Beatles Songs into Latin for His Students: Read Lyrics for “O Teneum Manum,” “Diei Duri Nox” & More

Why Should We Read Virgil’s Aeneid? An Animated Video Makes the Case

The Tree of Languages Illustrated in a Big, Beautiful Infographic

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

"I'll sleep when I'm dead": those words have been a mantra to hard-living types everywhere since Warren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berkeley sleep scientist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walker sees it, taking them to heart is a "mortally unwise" choice. The example of Zevon himself, who died at the age of 53, would seem to validate that judgement, but it also comes backed by serious research. In the TED Talk "Sleep Is Your Superpower" above, Walker builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, regularly and without interruption — by explaining "the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep, but the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body."

Not only, for example, do "you need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so that you don’t forget," you also "need sleep before learning to actually prepare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to initially soak up new information."




As anyone who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep deprivation shuts down your "your memory inbox," and any incoming files just get "bounced" without being retained. But deep-sleep brainwaves, as Walker puts it, act as a "file-transfer mechanism at night, shifting memories from a short-term vulnerable reservoir to a more permanent long-term storage site within the brain, and therefore protecting them, making them safe."

Improper sleep threatens not just learning but life itself: compromised sleep means a compromised immune system, hence the "significant links between short sleep duration and your risk for the development of numerous forms of cancer" now being discovered. "The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life," as Walker starkly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elongate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: "Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no matter whether it’s the weekday or the weekend," and "aim for a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Celsius," slightly cooler than may feel normal. We'd also do well to remember the importance of breaking the habit of staying on the internet late into the night — or more specifically, having stayed up well past midnight writing this very post, I'd do well to remember it.

Related Content:

Sleep or Die: Neuroscientist Matthew Walker Explains How Sleep Can Restore or Imperil Our Health

How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Creativity

Dr. Weil’s 60-Second Technique for Falling Asleep

240 Hours of Relaxing, Sleep-Inducing Sounds from Sci-Fi Video Games: From Blade Runner to Star Wars

Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Sleep Plan: He Slept Two Hours a Day for Two Years & Felt “Vigorous” and “Alert”

The Power of Power Naps: Salvador Dali Teaches You How Micro-Naps Can Give You Creative Inspiration

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hundreds of other seaside cities, island towns, and entire islands, historic Venice, the floating city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea levels continue their rapid rise. The city is slowly tilting to the East and has seen historic floods inundate over 70 percent of its palazzo- and basilica-lined streets. But should such tragic losses come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a digital version of it, at least—one that aggregates 1,000 years of art, architecture, and "mundane paperwork about shops and businesses" to create a virtual time machine. An “ambitious project to digitize 10 centuries of the Venetian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the latest in “deep learning” technology for historical reconstructions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calamity. It also sets machines to a task no living human has yet to undertake. Most of the huge collection at the State Archives “has never been read by modern historians,” points out the narrator of the Nature video at the top.




This endeavor stands apart from other digital humanities projects, Alison Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambitious scale and the new technologies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scanners that could even read unopened books, to adaptable algorithms that will turn handwritten documents into digital, searchable text.”

In addition to posterity, the beneficiaries of this effort include historians, economists, and epidemiologists, “eager to access the written records left by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.” Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin describes the anticipation scholars feel in particularly vivid terms: “We are in a state of electrified excitement about the possibilities,” she says, “I am practically salivating.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Professor of Digital Humanities at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), compares the archival collection to “’dark matter’—documents that hardly anyone has studied before.”

Using big data and AI to reconstruct the history of Venice in virtual form will not only make the study of that history a far less hermetic affair; it might also “reshape scholars’ understanding of the past,” Abbott points out, by democratizing narratives and enabling “historians to reconstruct the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people—artisans and shopkeepers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this development as a “social network of the middle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a common resource for the future.” The comparison might be unfortunate in some respects. Social networks, like cable networks, and like most historical narratives, have become dominated by famous names.

By contrast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-created virtual Amsterdam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-level view, and one, moreover, that can engage the public in ways sealed and cloistered artifacts cannot. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” says Daston. “The future may be different.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncertain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriving new life. See previews of the Time Machine in the videos further up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “information time machine” in his TED talk above.

Related Content:

How Venice Works: 124 Islands, 183 Canals & 438 Bridges

Venice in Beautiful Color Images 125 Years Ago: The Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace & More

New Digital Archive Puts Online 4,000 Historic Images of Rome: The Eternal City from the 16th to 20th Centuries

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »
Quantcast