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11 Reasons to Be Optimistic in 2014

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Although the news often focuses on doom and gloom, there is plenty of good news around the world: we are making tremendous advances in life expectancy, disease prevention, poverty, and hunger. As we head into 2014, here are 11 reasons to be optimistic.

1. People are Living Longer

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The good news: Every single country in the world has lower mortality rates overall than it had in 1950. Although there is still much work to be done, a lot of the progress has been due to caring for babies and young children: infant mortality is down in every developing country compared to 2009. (Go look at the little trend lines showing progress in each country.) There are 7,256 fewer infant deaths every day around the world compared to the year 2000. That is huge.

This progress is largely thanks to preventing diseases like measles. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 2000 and 2011, the number of measles deaths decreased by a shocking 71%. As a result of this and other improvements in health, life expectancy around the world has improved dramatically in the past few decades: it was an average of 64 years in 1990, and 70 years in 2011 (the latest year for which global data is available). In some countries, the jump is far more dramatic; in Ethiopia, life expectancy was 46 years in 1990, but in 2011 had jumped to 60 years. (Afghanistan has similar numbers -- 49 up to 60.) Even developed countries are doing better; Switzerland went from an impressive 78 years up to 83 years.

The take-away: People around the world, in virtually every country, are living longer. Just as important, far fewer babies are dying.

2. More People Around the World Can Read

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The good news: Global literacy rates are rising. In 2011 (the latest year for which data is available), the global adult literacy rate was 84.1%, and the rate for youth was 89.5% (!). While this leaves an estimated 896.7 million people illiterate, the trend is strongly towards literacy, and youth aged 15 and younger are doing especially well.

UNESCO sums it up:

Between 1990 and 2011, the adult literacy rate in the Arab States rose from 55% to 77% and the youth literacy rate from 74% to 90%. Over the same period, the adult literacy rate in South and West Asia increased from 47% to 63% and the youth literacy rate from 60% to 81%. To a lesser extent, progress was also observed in all of the other regions.

The take-away: The global adult literacy rate is projected to reach 86% by 2015 and the youth literacy rate should reach 92%. Overall, literacy is improving, especially among young people. Because literate young people grow up to be literate adults, the future is full of readers.

3. We're Winning the Fight Against Malaria

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The good news: The WHO's 2013 Malaria Report has great news. Of the 103 countries that had ongoing malaria transmission in the year 2000, 59 are meeting the Millennium Development Goal of reversing the incidence of malaria. In 41 of those countries, the reported data can't be analyzed for trends, so the picture in those countries may be better or worse -- we just don't know yet.

Since the year 2000, worldwide malaria death rates fell by 45% in all age groups. In children under age five, the death rate fell by 51%. Because malaria is a major killer in sub-Saharan Africa, treating and preventing malaria is a huge part of saving people's lives (particularly children) in the region. Furthermore, in 2000, only 3% of households in sub-Saharan Africa owned an insecticide-treated mosquito net (a key tool to prevent malaria infection in the first place). Now, 54% of households have at least one net.

The take-away: Malaria deaths are going down radically. If we keep up this pace of prevention and treatment, by 2015 the rate of malaria mortality will be 56% lower than it was in 2000. Global action to fight malaria is saving 700 lives every day, right now.

4. Tuberculosis is Becoming a Thing of the Past

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The good news: Tuberculosis is a preventable disease, and we're doing better at preventing it than in the past. In 2012, 1.3 million people died as a result of TB. However, TB rates are falling in every region around the world. The rate of TB incidence has been reduced by 45% since 1990. This means that the world is on track to hit the Millennium Development Goal of cutting TB incidence in half (compared to 1990) by 2015.

The take-away: We're on track to cut TB rates in half by next year.

5. Worldwide Poverty is Down

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The good news: In 2000, 33% of the world population was living in poverty. Today, it's 21%. While that means more than 1 in 5 people live in poverty, it's still enormous progress -- and it means that the world has effectively halved its poverty rate in just 20 years.

The take-away: Since the Millennium Development Goals were announced in 2000, over 600 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty. This represents the fastest decline in global poverty in all of human history.

6. India Will Be Polio-Free in 2014

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The good news: There have been no new cases of polio reported in India since January 13, 2011. If no new cases are reported India will be certified polio-free in early 2014.

According to UNICEF, India accounted for nearly half of the world's polio cases as recently as 2009. A massive country-wide effort to eliminate polio means that soon there will be just three countries left in which polio is endemic: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

The take-away: As recently as 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries and approximately 350,000 people were paralyzed annually. Today, that's three countries and a few hundred cases.

7. We're Vaccinating More People Than Ever

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The good news: The GAVI Alliance is bringing the rotavirus vaccine to 30 of the world's poorest countries by 2015. Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe childhood diarrhea, and an estimated 450,000 children die from rotavirus-caused diarrhea every year. The GAVI program will vaccinate 50 million children, protecting them from rotavirus. And the vaccine works well -- in Bolivia, it has saved thousands of lives.

Rotavirus is just one of many diseases that can be prevented with vaccines. The 71% decrease in measles deaths from 1990 to 2011 is attributed to vaccination. India's polio elimination effort is also based on an effective vaccine. The same is true of smallpox. Vaccines work.

The take-away: When 2015 rolls around, 50 million more children around the world will be protected from rotavirus.

8. Ethiopia is Doing Well

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The good news: Ethiopia has shown that simple, community-based initiatives work. Ethiopia's Community Based Nutrition program is drastically reducing malnutrition rates. In one community, Wolaita, malnutrition rates have dropped by 75% in three years because of this community approach.

Ethiopia is also pioneering an approach to family planning. Between 1990 and 2011, contraceptive use in the country has increased ninefold. A recent study attributed this success to a combination of political will, donor support, NGOs and public-private partnerships, and perhaps most importantly the Health Extension Program (HEP). The HEP invested in a network of 17,000 "health posts" with 38,000 workers who provide education and contraceptive support.

The take-away: Ethiopia was once the poster-child (literally) for problems of malnutrition, health, and other issues. Today, Ethiopia proves that seemingly intractable problems can be solved through hard work and community outreach.

9. We're Gaining Ground Against HIV

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The good news: HIV incidence rates have fallen by 33% overall since 2005, and the incidence among children has dropped by 52%. Access to HIV treatment has grown 40-fold since 2002. At the end of 2012, 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries had access to antiretroviral therapy.

Advances in HIV treatment mean it is no longer as deadly as it once was, especially in developed countries. According to a late 2013 study, "A 20-year-old HIV-positive adult on antiretroviral therapy (ART) in the U.S. or Canada may be expected to live into their early 70's, a life expectancy approaching that of the general population." Treatment is significantly reducing deaths from HIV in the developing world, too. According to UNAIDS, the number of people dying from AIDS-related causes each year has declined from a high of ~2.3 million in 2005 to ~1.6 million in 2012.

The take-away: Deaths from AIDS-related causes are going down. Access to treatment is going up. An HIV diagnosis is no longer considered a death sentence.

10. We're on Track to Halve Hunger By 2015

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The good news: One of the Millennium Development Goals is to halve world hunger from its 1990 rate. We're on track to do that. According to the UN, since 1990, "The global number of hungry people declined by 132 million...or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world's population, and from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent in developing countries."

The take-away: Fewer people are going hungry around the world.

11. Guinea Worm is Set to Be the First Fully Eradicated Human Disease Since Smallpox

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The good news: Guinea Worm, a water-borne disease, is down 49% since 2011. We don't have final numbers yet for 2013, but there have only been 144 cases tallied so far in 2013. Back in 1986, 3.5 million people were infected. This is an incredible drop, and means 2014 could be the year we eradicate Guinea Worm.

For more on Guinea Worm, check out this NPR story, which includes this bit of trivia:

The disease is also known as dracunculiasis, or "affliction with little dragons," because the worm feels like hot coals as it exits from the skin.

The take-away: For only the second time in human history, we are on the verge of eradicating a human disease from the face of the Earth. And this one involves slaying "little dragons."

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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