If you're looking for a break from the doom-and-gloom in the news, this post is for you (I'll also suggest this one from last year). Below, I share reviews of two books—so it won't be a short read and I'd recommend grabbing a cup of coffee. Factfulness by Hans Rosling tries to convey a more accurate picture of the state of the world than most people have, and develop a mental toolkit for avoiding misconceptions. Soonish by the Weinersmiths looks into some emerging—and some far-out—technologies and their potential.

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and it's just going to keep happening"—if this is something you've said or thought, you should read Factfulness to learn about not only the factual errors with this statement, but also the fallacious mental instincts (Rosling labels some of them the gap, negativity, and straight line instincts) that makes this view of the world so easy to buy into. The real picture looks more like this:

Over the past twenty years, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved. This is absolutely revolutionary. I consider it to be the most important change that has happened in the world in my lifetime. It is also a pretty basic fact to know about life on Earth. But people do not know it. On average only 7 percent—less than one in ten!—get it right.

Hans Rosling was a dedicated global public health educator. You may have seen some of his TED talks. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he threw himself into writing this book (together with his son and daughter-in-law).

Factfulness is recommended by Bill Gates (see here for a interactive chart of books he's recommended). As alluded to in the provocative introductory paragraph, this book not only presents the data on ways in which global conditions are improving, it also points out mental instincts people have that make it difficult to see the big picture clearly. For example, our minds like to take shortcuts by fitting situations into a dramatic narrative, which often involves conflict between two groups. When people say things like "the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer", they're dividing the world into two groups and interpreting the situation as a dramatic conflict. This instinct to overdramatize hides the fact that most people (and most countries) don't belong to either group but rather fit in the gap (this gives the name to Rosling's website Gapminder). In the introduction, here is how Rosling summarizes the actual situation around the world and how it differs from our perception:

Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving.

The chapters in the book are each structured around a particular error-prone mental instinct. At the end of each chapter, after describing the factual situation, there is a short section on how to replace some instinctual mental shortcuts with ways of thinking that make it easier to see the forest for the trees.

I won't have space in this review to cover every chapter, but I want to take some time to describe the "gap" instinct, the topic of Chapter 1. The gap instinct is,

that irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between. It is about how the gap instinct creates a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people: rich versus poor.
...
By dividing the world into two misleading boxes—poor and rich—it completely distorts all the global proportions in people’s minds.

Regardless of what terms you may use (e.g. Developing Countries, Third World, Global South), Rosling is against dividing the world in two. Factfulness has graphs showing that such a division was valid in the 1960s, but things have changed since then and we've failed to update our mental models:

Eighty-five percent of mankind are already inside the box that used to be named “developed world.” The remaining 15 percent are mostly in between the two boxes. Only 13 countries, representing 6 percent of the world population, are still inside the “developing” box. But while the world has changed, the worldview has not, at least in the heads of the “Westerners.” Most of us are stuck with a completely outdated idea about the rest of the world.

I really appreciated that instead of just criticizing the common mental map of the world, he proposes a new one. Instead of dividing things in two, he outlines 4 levels. This emphasizes that it is a continuous distribution rather than a sharp dichotomy. The book tries to describe in practical terms (such as food and transportation) what it means to live on $1, $4, $16, or $64 dollars per day.

Factfulness has a lot of graphs. The graph Rosling calls his favourite can be seen on his interactive website. It is a scatterplot of life expectancy versus GDP for all the countries of the world, represented as circles proportional to their population. With a historical trail added for his home country of Sweden, you can see that when he was born (1948), conditions in Sweden were on the same level that they are in Egypt now.

Here is a similar graph highlighting Canada's trajectory. Most countries in the present day are above Canada's historic trail. This is because improved health—especially reduced infant mortality—has spread around the world more quickly than wealth. As Rosling explains:

But today people in Afghanistan and other countries on Level 1 live much longer lives than Swedes did back in 1863. This is because basic modernizations have reached most people and improved their lives drastically.

Of course, GDP and life expectancy aren't the only things to value. While he loved data, Rosling kept the big picture in mind:

the end goal of economic growth is individual freedom and culture, and these values are difficult to capture with numbers*.

*although he does suggest guitars per capita as a proxy measure for culture and freedom

A valuable aspect of Factfulness is the advice it gives to temper our understanding of statistics and the media. Here is a sample:

your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative extraordinary events and shuns normality.

 

Alongside all the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.

 

When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking, If there had been an equally large positive improvement, would I have heard about that?

 

Practice distinguishing between a level (e.g., bad) and a direction of change (e.g., better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.

 

avoid lonely numbers. Never, ever leave a number all by itself. Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more.

With his background, Dr. Rosling is able to provide clear projections of population trends and projections. I learned that the number of children born each year has already peaked, and future population growth will come from the "fill-up effect" as current cohorts age:

The UN experts are not predicting that the number of children will stop increasing. They are reporting that it is already happening.

The large increase in global population in the twentieth century was due to a transition from one "balance" (Dr. Rosling got too up close and personal with child mortality in his career to have any rose-coloured glasses about "balance with nature") to another:

On average four out of six children died before becoming parents themselves, leaving just two surviving children to parent the next generation. There was a balance. It wasn’t because humans lived in balance with nature. Humans died in balance with nature. It was utterly brutal and tragic. Today, humanity is once again reaching a balance. The number of parents is no longer increasing. But this balance is dramatically different from the old balance. The new balance is nice: the typical parents have two children, and neither of them dies. For the first time in human history, we live in balance. [emphasis added]

As people around the world rise out of extreme poverty, remaining ignorant of how the world is changing could mean missing out on huge business opportunities. Rosling points out that the vast majority of people around the world have received basic vaccinations, which implies that the logistics in their countries are good enough to make refrigerated deliveries.

The number of people on Level 3 will increase from two billion to four billion between now and 2040. Almost everyone in the world is becoming a consumer. If you suffer from the misconception that most of the world is still too poor to buy anything at all, you risk missing out on the biggest economic opportunity in world history.

 

the best places to invest right now were probably those African countries that had just seen decades of rapid improvements in education and child survival. I mentioned Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana.

Aside from international investment, he recommends travelling to places at different levels to see how other people really live (here is an interview with someone else who also suggests to young people to go to Africa with an eye on opportunities).

Towards the end of the book, Rosling has some comments on climate change, which he sees as an important challenge to tackle, that are worth sharing. Apparently Al Gore asked him to use his presentation skills to raise awareness of climate change. But he thinks exaggeration and the "urgency instinct" are counterproductive for solving complex and abstract problems, so he set out some conditions for his participation:

I insisted that I would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well.

 

Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.

Modelling and forecasting are topics I've written about before (and complexity is a topic I'm planning to read and write about in the coming months), so I found these comments interesting:

Some aspects of the future are easier to predict than others. Weather forecasts are rarely accurate more than a week into the future. Forecasting a country’s economic growth and unemployment rates is also surprisingly difficult. That is because of the complexity of the systems involved. How many things do you need to predict, and how quickly do they change? By next week, there will have been billions of changes of temperature, wind speed, humidity. By next month, billions of dollars will have changed hands billions of times. In contrast, demographic forecasts are amazingly accurate decades into the future because the systems involved—essentially, births and deaths—are quite simple. Children are born, grow up, have more children, and then die.

The one chapter that I might disagree with a bit is the one about the "destiny" instinct. This chapter reminds readers that cultures can change, and aren't destined to stay stuck in poverty. This is certainly a worthwhile reminder; I'd contend, however, that cultures can also drive change and promote innovation (and this is probably most important on the leading edge of Rosling's bubble graphs, where there are no working models to look to for further progress). Additionally, I wonder if his own destiny instinct made him assume that each country, in the long run, would keep progressing on various quality-of-life metrics.

Overall, Factfulness is a fantastic book, and one I'd widely recommend.


Soonish is written by the husband and wife team of Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. It is subtitled "Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything". It is quite different from the other book reviewed in this post—about technology rather than human development, and with a lot of humour sprinkled in. Even though it covers some cutting-edge concepts, it is a fun read. And although the authors certainly include some cautionary notes about how the technologies they discuss could be misused or have unintended consequences, the book has a very optimistic tone overall:

So why write this book? Because there are amazing things happening all over the place every day, all the time, and most people aren’t aware of them. There are also people who become cynical because they thought we’d have fusion power or weekend trips to Venus by now. (p. 7)

The technologies discussed in Soonish include:

  1. improved ways of getting into space
  2. mining asteroids
  3. nuclear fusion
  4. programmable/reconfigurable objects
  5. using robots and 3D printing in construction
  6. augmented reality (AR)
  7. synthetic biology
  8. precision medicine
  9. 3D printing new organs
  10. brain scanning

I'm going to breeze quickly through most of these technologies, and then have a couple of general comments on the book.

Space flight is not a new technology, but it is not cheap because many rockets are built to be used once and they have to carry all their fuel with them from the ground (which adds weight, which requires more fuel...). Making reusable rockets is one way that space flight could become more affordable:

If you could make the launch vehicle recoverable, you could potentially eliminate 90% of the cost of space launch. Or, if you could use just three quarters as much fuel, you’d be able to fit six times as much cargo, instantly dividing the cost per pound by six.
...
But there is reason to hope that a better reusable launch vehicle can be created. As we were writing this chapter, SpaceX became the first company to successfully put cargo into space, then land part of its rocket. If it really can bring the price down, this may prove to be the biggest development in space travel in a generation. (p. 18)

Other technologies under development or on the drawing board (at least of some dreamers) for improved travel to space include synergetic air-breathing rocket engines, rocket sleds, using lasers to reduce air drag in front of a rocket, aircraft-launched rockets (check out this video modelling a Stratolaunch in Kerbal Space Program), and a space elevator.

The chapter on space flight also told the crazy saga of Dr. Bull, a Canadian rocket scientist who eventually went to work for Saddam Hussein and got assassinated (presumably by the Mossad).

If you can get to space more easily, there might be unprecedented mineral wealth available for mining from asteroids. This is how it is described by Daniel Faber:

“There are asteroids that are made completely of metal, like natural stainless steel, nickel, and iron and . . . the smallest one we know in a near-earth orbit is 2 kilometers across. It goes by the glorious name of 1986 DA and it contains in it more than thirty times the amount of metal that humanity has ever mined on earth. And that’s one. And then, there are thousands of those. That’s the smallest one that is in a near-earth orbit.” (p. 53)

When it comes to programmable matter, they mention the HygroScope (seen in the following video) which uses the way wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity to make a dynamic structure.

HygroScope - Centre Pompidou Paris from Achim Menges on Vimeo.

A more easily controllable example of programmable objects is origami robots:

Origami robots are a good starting place for programmable matter, since paper is relatively easy to manipulate and because you can build up complex structures from simple folding rules. There are a number of ways to make origami robots, but the basic principle is simple: You have a flat material that permits a certain set of folds. Along those folds there are actuators—a fancy word for a machine part that can move—that cause the fold to fold itself. The “paper” contains the circuitry to talk to a computer, so you can simply program the robot to bend along the right folds at the right times. (p. 105)

Small, simple, and cheap robots could be linked in swarms that obey simple rules but can collectively have complex behaviour (like termites or cellular automata). This would allow for very generalized forms of reconfigurable objects.

Soonish describes how the construction industry is exceptional in the way that it hasn't been subject to much outsourcing or automation compared to other industries:

Even with modern materials and prefab housing methods, if you want to build a house, you still need to have a team of skilled workers come to a particular location and put it together by hand. This is weird. No, really, it’s weird. You’re just used to it. Take a look around you—how many items do you see that were put together by hand, locally, by skilled workers? That IKEA bed frame you built over the course of six months doesn’t count. Much of the stuff you see was made quickly and cheaply by a computerized manufacturing process. Why can’t we do the same for houses? (p. 136)

Construction robots (either for specialized tasks like brick-laying, or eventually perhaps general tasks) and large-scale 3D printing have the potential to drastically reduce construction costs, which would be handy in places where that (rather than demand for land) is the main driver of housing costs.

The chapter on synthetic biology (i.e. cutting-edge genetic modification) was very interesting. It starts off by pointing out that humans have been indirectly shaping the genes of plants and animals for a long time:

We’ve gotten pretty damn good at altering biology. One time, we took a single species called Brassica oleracea and turned it into every vegetable you hated as a kid—brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, collard greens. YES. All one species, slowly modified over generations into a thousand okay-tasting forms, each more cheese-requiring than the last. We do this to animals too. Remember when we took the noble wolf—spirit of the forest and tundra—and converted it into a shivering, bug-eyed rat, dependent on the nearest blond socialite for diet kibble and a pink sweater? There is no greater expression of man’s dominion over nature. (p. 191)

Much more powerful and direct techniques are available in the present. They have a lot of applications in biotechnology. For example, modified bacteria can be used for producing biofuels:

[C]ellulose chains are pretty hard to break down into tasty sugar molecules. Unless you have specially developed enzymes to break down cellulose sugar, you can’t digest it. This is why cows have complex digestive systems—they’re doing God’s work of converting stubbornly hard-to-digest grass into beef.
But doing your business inside a cow is never a good way to go. So, Dr. Aindrila Mukhopadhyay's group at the Joint BioEnergy Institute created bacteria that can convert renewable plant resources (like switchgrass) into d-limonene, a precursor to jet fuel. Her group’s modified bacteria can take pretreated switchgrass, break the cellulose into little sugars, then turn those sugars into d-limonene. (p. 210)

The Weinersmiths do raise some cautionary points about the power that genetic modification has:

Having a pot of bacteria that churns out jet fuel is fine, but what happens if the bacteria gets loose and starts doing its thing in a river? The hope is that these bacteria, which are designed to work under particular and unusual conditions, wouldn’t do well in the wild. (p. 218)

The final few chapters were about various technologies related to health and medicine. They were all interesting, but I'm just going to touch on 3D printing organs in this post. The function of our organs depends not only on the cells they comprise, but also on their structure. 3D printing can potentially replicate that structure:

For example, the lung’s surface for gas exchange with your bloodstream has the area of a tennis court all folded up and packed inside your chest. So there’s simply no way to make a functional replacement for an organ if we can’t recreate at least some of that amazing architecture.” (p. 261)

The strength of Soonish is in its clear descriptions of the emerging technologies it covers. The Weinersmiths obviously did a lot of research to understand them themselves. I also appreciated the humour, although in places I did find the writing a bit too twee (but that's totally subjective, I realize).

To finish this post off, here are a few strips I like from the comic that Zach Weinersmith draws:

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