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Gates Foundation

Myth-Busting Poverty and Health

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Gates Foundation

When bad things happen, they often happen fast. When good things happen, they often happen slowly—sometimes so slowly that we only notice them after the fact.[1] This is certainly the case with how we think about the state of our world; we see some catastrophe on the news and think that the net effect is that the world is trending downward. We tend not to do the homework required to reflect on the slow, positive changes that come after years of hard work. In today's Gates Annual Letter, Bill and Melinda Gates make a convincing argument that, in many ways, the world is better than it has ever been. I agree. Life ain't perfect, but suffering and death are decreasing.

When I write about the slow, good news, the comments sections are fascinating. While many comments are positive, there are some persistent negative assertions that come up over and over—what's fascinating is that they're factually incorrect, but them apparently feel correct to the people who are writing them. Let's call these "myths about helping people," and let's take a rational look at why a big one simply isn't supported by the facts.

Myth: Foreign Aid is a Big Waste

First let's define "foreign aid": "a voluntary transfer of resources from one country to another." This generally means a relatively richer country giving money or goods to a relatively poorer country.

So the myth here is a many-headed hydra; at its core is a hunch that it's a waste of resources to give money to another country. Let's walk through this one and look at some data:

1. Cutting foreign aid would not save donor countries much money

One argument against foreign aid is simply that is costs too much. But foreign aid actually amounts to a tiny fraction of government spending. When we look at the economic assistance donor countries provide, it's in the low single digits of the overall budget. Norway is the most generous country in the world in this regard, and it spends a whopping 3% of its annual budget on foreign aid. The United States spends less than 1% on economic foreign aid—that's roughly $30 billion. About $11 billion of that is spent on health care (medication, disease prevention, bed nets, etc.). This last figure pencils out to about $30 per person, per year, in the U.S. on average.

So the fact is, at least in the United States, that we're talking about less than 1% of the budget. We can save less than 1% of our budget, or we can save lives around the world.

2. Foreign aid actually helps people

Another argument against foreign aid is that it's wasted—it doesn't help people, and instead ends up in the pockets of corrupt governments. While, yes, there is corruption in the world, here are three examples of organizations that receive money from U.S. tax dollars, and what that money has done to help staggering numbers of people:

GAVI - Has vaccinated 440 million children against various diseases since 2000. By 2015 this number is projected to increase by another 234 million. This means kids are protected from diseases like polio, measles, rotavirus, yellow fever, and the list goes on. Why this matters: By 2015, GAVI will have vaccinated 50 million children against rotavirus. Rotavirus causes an estimated 450,000 deaths each year.

The Global Fund - Has treated 11.2 million cases of TB; provided antiretroviral drugs to 6.1 million people; and has distributed 360 million insecticide-treated nets (these are used to prevent malaria) since 2002. Why this matters: In 2000, only 3% of households in sub-Saharan Africa owned at least one insecticide-treated mosquito net. Now, 54% of households own at least one net. If malaria deaths continue to drop at the current rate, by 2015 malaria mortality will have dropped by 56% compared to 2000.

Polio Global Eradication Initiative - Has vaccinated 2.5 billion children against polio since 1998. Why this matters: In 1981, there were 350,000 new cases of polio. In 2013 there were just 385.

While some foreign aid money has been siphoned off by corrupt governments, that is not an argument against foreign aid in general—it's an argument about how we should spend the money so that it actually helps people. (See above for examples.)

3. Foreign aid reduces infant mortality...and that's a big deal

Another old saw is that foreign aid may help in the wake of disasters, but it doesn't substantially affect the biggest problems affecting humanity. Here's data to disprove that one.

If you compare today to the year 2000, there are now 7,256 fewer children dying every single day. If that doesn't seem like a big deal, read it again, or think of it this way—there are 2.56 million fewer infant deaths each year compared to the year 2000. If you're a parent, consider the 7,256 families that today did not have to contend with the death of their child.

And this progress isn't just recent—it has been sustained in a slow march over decades. According to the World Bank, "In 1990, more than 12 million children in developing countries died before the age of 5 from diseases such as diarrhea, malnutrition, pneumonia, AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. By 2012, that number had dropped to 6.6 million."

Reducing infant mortality isn't just about reducing heartbreak for parents; children who do not die grow up to be adults. These adults are the next generation of workers. Having a healthy, working adult population is a key way that countries develop on their own. (Note: there is also an intriguing correlation between reducing infant mortality and reducing fertility rates—it appears that when infant mortality goes down, people tend to have fewer children. If you're concerned that overpopulation will result if we save kids' lives, please consult Myth #3 in the Annual Letter.)

4. Foreign aid is an investment

It's easy to look at foreign aid as money that's spent each year with no financial return, a kind of static handout. But if you actually look at what this money buys (aside from preventing death), the return is tremendous. Take polio eradication—there are only three countries left in the world (Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan) where polio is endemic. Once polio is fully eradicated, we'll save $2 billion each year spent on polio. This is simple: eradicating disease will save money in the long term, both for donor countries and for countries where the disease had a financial impact.

Another reason foreign aid is an investment is that countries receiving foreign aid develop their way out of needing it, and can themselves become providers of aid. This is already happening. Here's a list of countries that formerly received huge amounts of foreign aid, but today receive very little: Botswana, Morocco, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Peru, Thailand, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia. (You can explore the data on a country-by-country basis over time.) Even more interesting, there's a set of countries that are now net donors (meaning that they give more than they receive); these include South Korea and China. India may soon join this list, as it now receives just 0.09% of its GDP in foreign aid (down from 1% in 1991); India currently gives money to Bangladesh and others.

The bottom line

While there are certainly inefficiencies in the way foreign aid money is spent, it's clear that this aid saves millions of lives. For many countries, foreign aid is currently the only way to reduce infant mortality. To quote Bill Gates:

"A baby born in 1960 had an 18 percent chance of dying before her fifth birthday. For a child born today, the odds are less than 5 percent. In 2035, they will be 1.6 percent. I can’t think of any other 75-year improvement in human welfare that would even come close."

Share Your Thoughts, and Bust Your Own Myths

Above, I dealt with just one of three big myths tackled in today's letter. I urge you to read the rest, and if you feel moved to do so, share the myths that irk you the most. (On Twitter, a handy hashtag is #stopthemyth.) As I've done above, it helps to show your work, so we're dealing with data.

1 = A note on this notion that bad things happen fast and good things happen slowly. I'm not the first person to make this observation; Gordon Livingston wrote a similar sentiment about family life: "Only bad things happen quickly, ... Virtually all the happiness-producing processes in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new things, changing old behaviors, building satisfying relationships, raising children. This is why patience and determination are among life’s primary virtues."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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