Category: Thinking

Hans Rosling’s Important Truths about Population Growth and the Developing World

Garrett Hardin‘s Living Within Limits had a huge influence on how I thought about population.

In the book, he convincingly demonstrates the folly of allowing human population to grow unchecked over a long enough timeframe. Even a small rate of compound would add up to large figures. Hardin’s argument can be summed up fairly simply: An exponentially expanding population in a world with defined limits creates a problem. (An example of where scale has an effect on values.)

Hardin was clear to acknowledge that he wasn’t sure where the limits actually were. As supporters of Thomas Malthus have found out over the years, agricultural and other technology can and has outpaced population growth. But it was a certainty that some limits can not be overcome as long as we’re a single planet species — things like natural beauty, energy consumption, water consumption, fertilizer, living space, and other things mostly have limits. (Again, where those limits are is up for debate, and a certain Mr. Musk would like to make us multi-planetary as well.)

Hardin also gave us the terminology of a longage, as opposed to a shortage. Our terminology refers to a population without enough to eat as having a shortage of food. Hardin claimed it was equally correct to say there was a longage of people relative to the available resources.

Mostly, this was all I knew on the topic. Enter Hans Rosling to continue that education.

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Hans Rosling is a Swedish academic and scientist who came to popular fame as a TED speaker. Among his talks are discussions on poverty, HIV, and the developing world. A few minutes tell you that man has a way with statistics and data presentation. (One of his talks is titled Let My Dataset Change Your Mindset.)

Rosling’s favorite twin topics are ones of population growth and the truth about what’s happening in developing countries — a truth the developed world doesn’t know much about. Are the world’s poorer nations like India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Mozambique going to go on exploding world population forever? What does this mean for the world? What are they living like now, what is their future? How does that affect the future of the developed world?

In the wonderful hour-long video above, Rosling blows up some misconceptions and misunderstandings, and convincingly makes the following points:

  • Population growth should hit a limit around 11 billion within the next hundred years, as the world equalizes in health outcomes.
  • In developed countries, a ratio near 2 parents to 2 children mostly exists and developing nations are getting closer and closer as their childhood health outcomes continue to improve. (And they have improved drastically.)
  • Stated another way, as a result of equalizing health outcomes, low child mortality, and family planning, family sizes go down, and population growth slows in a predictable way.
  • Current population trends are strong enough that by 2100, only ~10% of the world population will be in Western nations (North America, Western Europe) — Africa will quadruple in population and Asia will increase about 25%. It will be a very different world.
  • After an explosion of births in the second half of the 20th century, the number of children worldwide has already leveled off at around 2 billion, and should stay there at least through the century, barring a major development. Population growth from here will mostly be determined by more 30-85 year olds existing in the future than now. (In other words, births are nicely leveling off, but population growth must continue for a while anyways as the current crop of children grow up and have 2 children each. We currently have a very young world.) Watch from minute 22:00 or so for this counter-intuitive conclusion.
  • There are three or four income “groups,” roughly defined, across the planet — most of you reading this are in the $100/day or more income bracket. We’re extremely fortunate. Then, a major swath in the $10/day bracket. And then the world’s poorest, around $1/day. There’s also a big group with less than that. (Of course, there are also the super rich in the $1000/day+ bracket — it works in a power-law like fashion). One problem for those of us at the top is that when we look down, we see the people living one order of magnitude down ($10/day) and two orders of magnitude down ($1/day) as the same. The difference between the two groups is at least as big as the difference between you and someone who makes 10x as much money as you. (And probably larger.)
  • An interesting way for “rich” Westerners to think about the above, which Rosling demonstrates in a genius way: The absolute poorest in the world, nearly a billion people, would love a good pair of shoes with which to walk. The people living around two orders of magnitude down from us (~$1/day) are struggling to afford a bicycle. Those living one order of magnitude down (~$10/day) are working to afford one car for the family. The richest billion fly in airplanes, and the super-wealthy fly in their own airplanes. It’s an interesting way to conceive of the stratas of the world and where we all stand.

Of course, one of Rosling’s more interesting points is that, when polled, most Westerners are fairly clueless about all of this.

For example, over 50% of Brits think that the average Bangladeshi mother births around 5 children — the actual answer is 2.5 (and declining). When they were asked what percentages of adults in the world are now literate, about half the Brits thought it was 40% or less — the actual answer is over 80% (and rising). (Not to pick on Brits — I doubt most Westerners would have done any better.)

He concludes with a discussion on energy: As billions are lifted out of poverty by improvements in health, education, and infrastructure, as is happening and seems likely to continue, their energy use goes up dramatically. Think about the stratas we discussed above: Bicycles to a car to airplanes to private jets. As hundreds of millions look to improve their lot, and are now able to do so, human power is replaced by machine power, which takes great amounts of energy. With 80% of it currently coming from fossil fuels, what will we do?

Rosling doesn’t really provide an answer and we too must quitclaim this problem, but simply admonishing Westerners to “chill out with your energy use” is probably not going to be effective. We’ll probably have to solve it with great engineering — and, in some, ways, we already are.

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Returning to the question of population growth and limits, it’s hard to say where we’ll end up with all this. Hard to say. Technology will have to solve many of the largest problems: Energy, emissions, water, and food. Not to mention the survival of the species we co-habitate with. Cheap solar energy will go a long way towards alleviating some strains. (Hurry up, Elon!)

But in the end, it’s a subject worth spending some time learning about. We can’t think about the problems unless we understand their parameters, or as some smart wag once said: “A problem well-defined is half-solved.” 

An Important Life Lesson we can Learn from Sailors

A quick yet incredibly important quote today that adds to the wisdom of Andy Benoit and Joseph Tussman.

Bion of Borysthenes

… [W]e should not try to alter circumstances but to adapt ourselves to them as they really are, just as sailors do. They don’t try to change the winds or the sea but ensure that they are always ready to adapt themselves to conditions. In a flat calm they use the oars; with a following breeze they hoist full sail; in a head wind they shorten sail or heave to. Adapt yourself to circumstances in the same way.

— Bion of Borysthenes (From Peter Bevelin’s All I Want to Know Is Where I’m Going to Die So I’ll Never Go There: Buffett and Munger — A Study in Simplicity and Uncommon, Common Sense)

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Still Curious? you’ll love the the wisdom of Publilius Syrus

Ten Words That Forever Change How You View Leadership

Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.”
— Publilius Syrus

It’s easy to lead when things are going well.

It’s easy to take credit for success.

It’s easy to look good when the metrics are going in the right direction.

And yet … I’m reminded of Warren Buffett’s words of caution: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

If you want to gain an edge you need to think deeper. And when you do that … nothing looks the same again.

Can We Reason Our Way to a Better Morality?

In a 2012 TED talk, NYU professor Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex, sat down with her husband Harvard professor Steven Pinker for an interesting (and polarizing) conversation: Does pure reason eventually lead us to a better morality?

Goldstein argues yes; all progress is necessarily reason-based, and this should give us hope. Arguing against that fact would, indeed, require reasoning! Pinker, author of the controversial but well-received The Better Angels of our Nature, takes the devil’s advocate position (though clearly for rhetorical effect). Perhaps reason is overrated? Perhaps morality is indeed a matter of the heart?

The animated (literally) conversation is below. Here’s an interesting excerpt, and if you make it to the end, they also speculate on the things that we do today which may eventually be judged harshly by history.

Rebecca: Well, you didn’t mention what might be one of our most effective better angels: reason. Reason has muscle. It’s reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy. Every one of the humanitarian developments that you mentioned originated with thinkers who gave reasons for why some practice was indefensible. They demonstrated that the way people treated some particular group of others was logically inconsistent with the way they insisted on being treated themselves.

Steven: Are you saying that reason can actually change people’s minds? Don’t people just stick with whatever conviction serves their interests or conforms to the culture that they grew up in?

Rebecca: Here’s a fascinating fact about us: Contradictions bother us, at least when we’re forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held. Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there. Few of us today feel any need to put forth a rigorous philosophical argument as to why slavery is wrong or public hangings or beating children. By now, these things just feel wrong. But just those arguments had to be made, and they were, in centuries past.

 

Still Interested? Check out Pinker on how to educate yourself properly and how to improve your professional writing.

Carl Braun on Communicating Like a Grown-Up

“Man is a gregarious animal. We work in herds, in teams. The bear can do exactly as he pleases, for he works alone. We do not work alone. We depend throughout our lives on the goodwill of other men. If a man does not learn to bend, to be friendly and considerate, and to respect his brother’s ego—in things both big and little—he’ll find himself disliked and locked up in his own unhappiness.”
— C.F. Braun

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Carl Franklin (C.F.) Braun graduated from Stanford with an engineering degree in 1907 and within two years had opened his own engineering firm. Braun’s company would go on to manufacture and engineer products ranging from water filters to petroleum processing plants; large, complicated projects involving manpower and precision. He eventually employed 6,000 people and built over 250 petrochemical plants, well respected as the leader in his field for many years.

Braun had a unique corporate policy: If you were going to issue a directive, you had to tell the person Who, What, When, Where, and most importantly, Why someone was to do it. So strong was his belief in using why, it was said that Braun could fire you on the spot if he found you not issuing reasons. Many years later, Charlie Munger would come to sing Braun’s praises for this approach to Reason-Respecting Tendency.

One of Braun’s approaches to maintaining a productive corporate environment was by writing and issuing short books to all of his employees. They had barn-burning titles like Letter Writing in Action, Corporate Correspondence, and Presentation for Engineers and Industrialists. They’re all out of print, but you can find them if you look. And look we did.

One of my favorites is called Fair Thought and Speech; it’s a short primer on how to communicate in an organization in a way that gains and keeps respect and gets people to go along with good ideas and work together productively. It’s a simple idea, but Braun lays out the task:

Why don’t I get along better? I know my work. I know how to present things clearly and logically. I work hard. And yet, something holds me back. This is the quandary of many and many a capable man. The answer too often is that he lacks a generous and kindly way of thinking, a considerate and objective view, and a friendly way of writing and speaking.

There’s more here than meets the eye. Braun saw the way a man communicated as reflective of how he thought.

Get a man to write and speak more objectively, and you get him to think more objectively. Braun was focused, above all, on what worked. He needed to get complicated oil refineries built, and built well. He was also an astute student of human nature, and that comes across in his writing. It’s the simplest and most straightforward writing style imaginable; short, declarative statements one after another. (He studied his Strunk & White.) But he’s also witty and to the point, which is enjoyable to read.

Must Maintain The Illusion I know Evyerthing

These are really a guide to communicating and working with others like a mature grown-up. Like a man. Like a woman. Not like a petulant child, which we all do at times.

We won’t reprint the whole of the book here, but here are some of our favorite dictums from Braun. I try to look them over once in a while and see which ones I’m committing most frequently.

Assume Good Motives

No matter how clear and fair a case may seem to us, somebody is apt to disagree. And this is good, for we need the stimulation of disagreement. Let’s question his information, his reasoning, his conclusions — but never his motives. If we start assuming or imputing ill motives, we lose all chance of influencing our listener. But even worse, we degrade ourselves.

Remind, Not Tell

Even if we are sure somebody had overlooked a bet, or is overlooking it, let’s tender our advice as though we are reminding him of something that he had intended to do, but that something else has crowded out. Let’s lean over backwards in giving to others the credit for ideas. This is the generous thing. It’s the thing that wins respect, both for us and for our ideas.

Put Error to Work

But let’s never, never, cover up error with the misguided thought that we must protect someone — either our brother, or our department, or our own pet ego. The recognition of error and its examination, if openly talked of, is a sure way to avoid its being repeated, either by the same man or by others. Everyone errs at one time or another. The Company pays for it. Okay. But the Company should not have to pay twice. Nor should other men be denied the benefit of warning-signs.

Overt Respect

In all this matter of respect for others, of consideration, tolerance, interest, it is not enough that we feel these things. They cannot be effective if we carry them about locked up within us. We must plainly show them in word, in expression, in countenance, in bearing, in act. We cannot help others, encourage them, or be understood by them, or get willing help from them, if we leave them to guess at our thoughts and intentions.

Invite Acceptance

If we want our opinions or beliefs to be accepted, the worst thing that we can do is to press too hard for them, or to make a personal issue of them. Better not crowd for acceptance, but rather invite it. Better tender our advice with a softening It seems to me. Or an It appears. Or a Perhaps. Or with some similar concession to the ideas of our listener. True, there are times when we must speak as authorities in no uncertain terms. Even then, reasonable humility is seldom amiss.

Easy Does It

If we want to observe how others feel about being rushed, or crowded, or pushed into a corner, just look at a pet of any kind, or at a child. Try to make friends with one of these by being forceful, abrupt, intense. The child will run. The dog will bristle. The cat will jump up on a rafter. Better place yourself or your wares where they can be seen. Then lay off. Give interest, curiosity, and natural friendliness, a chance to work.

Grudging Assent

And when we do give assent (to others), let’s give it cheerfully. No moaning because we lost out. No suggesting that other people are unreasonable, or that they do not understand us. No intimating that we are merely out-argued. We had our fair chance to speak up like a man. No hinting, then, that we merely bow to higher authority. We must all bow to higher authority — to weightier considerations perhaps, or to expediency, or to public opinion, or to our client. If we are stiff-necked about it, we are on the road to ruin.

Writing for the Record

Some men have an irresistible desire to justify their every action. Some like to magnify themselves. Others like to provide an alibi ready for use if needed. Some, perhaps, just don’t think. In any event, they write a letter to some other department or to the boss. The letter first tells how much the writer or his group are doing. Then it puts the finger on others. Just write a few letters like this with plenty of copies sent around, and you’ll dig a grave you’ll never get out of.

Unwise Citing

We have all been approached at some time or other by the Unwise Citer. He asks us to take some action, or refrain from one, solely because certain other people have done so under supposedly like circumstances. The citer, lacking good arguments, has sought to substitute secondhand opinions. This is unfair. It is not helpful. And it directly assaults our ego. We are not given credit for having brains and judgment of our own. Bad stuff.

Air of Prejudice

We don’t have to use words, either, to be unfair. Did you have to sit in court and listen to a prejudiced witness? He’s too intense. He’s too vehement. Quite evidently, he’s not satisfied with stating the facts as he knows them. No, sir! He’s out to prove the other fellow wrong. Result — nobody pays attention to him. Well, let’s be sure when we sit around a conference-table, we’re not like him. Better state our facts clearly, or our views. But let’s not be too anxious. Let’s not try to push either judge or jury. It doesn’t work.

Negation

We all know the chap who is quick to tell us when we are wrong. He probably doesn’t know too much about the subject himself, and hasn’t the confidence to take a positive position. His ego prods him into a negative one. He corrects us with great assurance on the tuning of radios, on the eating of spinach, on other matters of opinion. Let’s feel sorry for his difficulty with his ego. But let’s be sure first, that we’re not perhaps a wee bit like him. We always are.

Refinement

A somewhat more subtle form of negation, is refinement of measurement. One man says that a tank weights ninety tons. And for that particular discussion, accuracy is of no consequence. Yet someone’s ego speaks up and says, Ninety-two tons. Maybe he’s right at that. But he’s wrong just the same. […] This is a favorite husband-and-wife game. Let’s be on guard against it.

Claim-Jumping

One irritating form of pretending is that of claiming priority. Someone suggests a desirable precaution, or action, or change. Up jumps our ego. We had thought of that, we say. We’d intended to do it tomorrow. Maybe we had. Maybe we hadn’t, though — for our imagination at times plays strange tricks on us. In any event, we didn’t come up with it first. We’d better keep quiet, or we’ll surely be suspected of bluffing.

Repetition

Here is an easy trap to fall into. Someone comes out with an idea. It sounds good to us. Our ego grabs hold of it, dresses it in slightly different language, and puts the idea out as our own. We act as though we’d independently arrived at the same conclusion. Maybe so, maybe not — for we cannot trust our memories as to when we first thought a thing, or what it was that started the train of thought. Let’s restrain our egos from grabbing credit. All we wind up with is discredit.

All-Knowing

The worst trick our ego can play on us, is to demand that we know everything. Let’s discipline ourselves until it’s easy to say, I don’t know. And let’s keep out of discussions when they’re on subjects outside of our recognized sphere. Our lack of real knowledge and experience is bound to display itself, and bring resentment from those who are really qualified to speak. Let’s slap our ego down whenever it starts laying claim to knowledge that’s too various.

Don’t Beg

Another thing. Don’t beg. People don’t like it. If then we speak up for some better job that’s open, let’s not till our talk with such words as hoping, thanking, eagerly, favor. If we are really worthy of the job, the Company will benefit by giving it to us every bit as much as we will profit by getting it. The thing works both ways. Why then use begging words that suggest we are thinking of ourselves, not of the Company? And why suggest that we’re not too confident in our ability?

He’s Partly Right at Least

With our eye on our brother’s ego, we’ll see that concession is the very cornerstone of good human relations. We cannot reach human agreements without mutual concession. The self-respect that every man feels impelled to maintain, demands that he appear at least partly right. Therefore, let’s not ever try to prove anyone wholly wrong. Let’s find something herein we can feel that he’s right. Then let’s say so. We simply must not build up our own ego at any unnecessary expense of our brother’s ego. Let’s keep an eye on concession.

Recognizing Our Flaws is The Beginning of Wisdom

A short post today that packs a punch.

The liberating power of humility is one we’ve covered before. In fact, it’s a concept that is core to understanding your Circle of Competence. Now Russ Roberts adds to our collection of wisdom with this excerpt from How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness:

As I have gotten older, I have become less confident and maybe more honest. The economy is too complex; we can’t measure the interactions of all its various pieces with any precision. We don’t have enough data, and we don’t understand how things fit together. We are drunks looking for our lost keys under a lamppost not because that’s where we lost our keys but because that’s where the light is. We should be humbler and more honest. Our empirical studies are very imperfect. We often hold the views we do because of ideology and principle. Then we find some evidence that supports those views. We ignore the rest … An awareness of reason’s limits is a caution sign to remind us that we’re not as smart as we think; we’re not perfect truth seekers. We’re flawed. Recognizing our flaws is the beginning of wisdom. Many things look like nails that do not benefit from being pounded. That should induce caution and humility for those with hammers … Humility is an acquired taste. Once you come to like it, it’s a dish best served hot. It’s amazing how liberating it can be to say “I don’t know.”