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A fortnightly roundup of science, technology, Danish TV and good news. Not necessarily in that order.

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The Crunch # 31


A tribute to one of our favourite human beings. Plus fast cars, bad algae jokes, clever Russian criminals and good news on batteries, cholera, AIDS and animal welfare.

This edition of The Crunch is dedicated to the great Hans Rosling, who passed away last week. The tributes have been flooding in from around the world. Here's ours. 

For those of you who've never heard his name, Professor Rosling was a Jedi master of data, who spread good news to anyone who'd listen. Like us, he came from the world of academia. A world of tweed jackets, cold wooden seats and petty departmental infighting. A world where you have to worry about valid sources, double blind peer-review, evidence-based decision making, reproducible studies and accounting for incomplete data. He believed in the power of proper research. The stories he told were built on high quality statistics and serious science. He was suspect of human intuition: data was far more important. He thought it was a problem that human progress was discussed in terms of feelings and ideologies rather than as an area of knowledge. He used to say, “I don’t debate, there are too many debates. Too much Word, not enough Excel.

And yet Professor Rosling also understood human nature. He realised good data wasn't enough; you have to show it in ways that people enjoy and understand. Millions of people had access to the same datasets he did. Rosling's genius was in realising the powerful message they contained would only make sense to the wider public if he could give that data a bit of soul. It didn't always have to be fancy visualisations - he'd happily use toilet rolls, baskets of apples, plastic buckets and even swords. As Melinda Gates said, “Where others saw nothing more than statistics, Hans saw the chance to tell an incredible human story about our progress against poverty and disease… a data geek through and through, he used numbers to educate us, to entertain us and to share his special brand of big-hearted, evidence-based optimism.”

For us though, the best thing about Professor Rosling's was his attitude. He was warm, funny and caring, and scathing in his contempt for media and politics. Most people remember his 2006 TED talk, or his 2010 appearance on BBC. But for us his greatest moment is the 10 minute interview he gave on Danish television in 2015. As the host of the show trots out the same old tired cliches about immigration, war, poverty and population growth, Rosling demolishes them one by one, and finishes with the line “You can’t use media if you want to understand the world.” This was someone who understood that the stories we tell ourselves really matter. His message was that the world is getting better, but that we need to understand the data if we want to help those being left behind. So how should we remember him? Swedish journalist Peter Fällmar Andersson says it best.

So how do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting that he sometimes swallowed swords in a heavy metal tank top.
And by remembering that mothers in Bangladesh no longer give birth to five children on average, nor four, but TWO POINT TWO children.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting that he got more clicks than Lady Gaga online.
And by remembering that 80 percent of the children of the world now have access to the most important and most cost efficient of all vaccines: the one for measles.

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting false quotes, distributed by people who want everything for the world but Rosling’s humanism.
And remembering that he spoke of the refugees on the Mediterranean by saying: ”Send a ferry to help them over, instead of saving them when they are about to drown.”

How do we let Hans Rosling rest in peace?
By forgetting that Time Magazine put him on some list.
And by remembering that Hans Rosling was certain that the world, if it gets its act together, can reach the goal that the United Nations set for the year 2030: to exterminate extreme poverty for everyone, everywhere.

Science is awesome


Harvard technologists have developed a non-toxic, non-corrosive flow battery that loses only 1% of its capacity per 1000 cycles, and could run for up to a decade. EurekaAlert

An electric, battery powered car has just become the first ever vehicle to go from 0 to 60mph in under 2.3 seconds, setting a new world record for acceleration. Motor Trend

One of Germany's biggest manufacturing companies has developed a 3D printed gas turbine blade that can withstand 1,250°C heat and 1600 kmh speeds. 3ders

Researchers from the US and Ireland have developed a soft robotic sleeve with silicon muscles that wraps around the heart to assist with pumping. Engadget

Scientists from Shaanxi have successfully used CRISPR to genetically modify living cows with increased resistance to bovine tuberculosis. Science Bulletin

Thanks to a new semiconductor material called silicon carbide, we finally have computer chips that can survive the 500°C temperatures on the surface of Venus. Ars Technica

Maybe we should send algae to Venus instead? Scientists on the International Space Station exposed it in space for 16 months, and despite extreme temperature variations and constant UV and cosmic radiation, brought it back onboard still alive. Futurism

Good news you probably didn't hear about


The world finally has a vaccine that's cheap and effective enough to end one of humanity's greatest scourges, cholera, a disease that's killed tens of millions. New York Times

Between 2000 and 2015, HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths in Ethiopia fell by 79%, underlining a remarkable turnaround in the country's fight against the disease. Global Fund

The elephants in Chad’s Zakouma National Park were supposed to have been wiped out by poachers years ago, yet the population is thriving. Here's why. National Geographic

The US is quietly making historic progress on farm animal welfare, with 10 states and hundreds of brands coming out against the most notorious kinds of factory farming. BI

A group of Israeli charities has successfully pulled off a secret mission to deliver 100 tonnes of winter supplies and clothing to refugees trapped in Syria. Jerusalem Post

As plunging crime closes prisons across the Netherlands, the government is turning them into housing and cultural hubs for ten of thousands of refugees instead. Co.Exist

Solar jobs in America increased at a record setting pace in 2016. Over the last 12 months, solar was responsible for one in every 50 new jobs created in the country. CNBC

Sweden has committed to phasing out all carbon emissions by 2045. Best thing about this story is the picture of the signing ceremony. Remind you of anything? Independent

Stuff we loved


If you liked that picture, you're going to love Sarah Jaffe's newsletter. Essential reading for anyone interested in real stories from the frontlines of the global social justice movement.

A rare, well researched, insightful report on 'cognitive collaboration' - the idea that human and machine intelligence should be viewed as complementary. Deloitte University Press

A cunning team of Russian criminals is using mobile phones, computer algorithms and some serious ingenuity to run a slot machine scam that's making them millions. Wired

A little yellow box is slowly making its way into the surgery rooms of poor countries like Mongolia, and saving thousands of lives in the process. Mosaic Science

The future of humanity is mixed race (and so was the past). Guaranteed to cause sleepless nights and send shivers down the spine of your favourite racist uncle. Aeon

How one man is using big data and good analytics to identify trends in unsolved murders and track down serial killers. Now he just needs to get the police to listen. Bloomberg

Our second reference to Danish television in one edition! This remarkable advert is the best thing we've watched in months. We all have more in common than we think.

We've been listening all week to Tash Sultana, a 21 year old singer from our hometown, Melbourne. Check her out on NPR first, and then go listen to her live tracks on Spotify. 

Some news of our own


You know how storytelling for business is the new black? Well San Francisco-based outfit Get Storied practically invented it. Their client list includes NASA, Greenpeace, Facebook and Google. And in just over three weeks they're joining us in Melbourne for Story Crunch, a one day workshop for anyone who wants to learn the skills required to thrive in the next economy. Plenty of smart people on the attendee list already. We'd love you to join us. 

Shout out to our Kiwi followers, we're performing at WOMAD New Zealand (17-19 March) on the new World of Words stage. The inimitable Will Tait will be joining us on the piano. He's got some new sounds, we've got some great new content. There will be geekery. There will be fashion crimes. It's our first WOMAD. Can't wait.

If you're in Melbourne on the 23rd February, why don't you come say hi at BuzzConf Nights? Will is bringing his piano, Tanushree is bringing her guitar, Gus is bringing his mustache wax, and Tane's going to do his best not to get too worked up about US politics. 

Finally, Tane's also got a new fortnightly slot on Helen Shield's rather excellent afternoon radio show on ABC. Here's the first one - plenty more of these to come.

Thanks for reading. If you know someone who might like this newsletter, tell them they can subscribe right here. We'll never match up to the wizardry of Hans Rosling, but we'll continue doing our best to get his message out there. 

Oh, and apologies for the bad memes. People who make algae puns really should think about seeing a phycologist. 

Much love, 

Gus, Tane and Tanushree

PS - Future Crunch TV! Sailing porn, maverick restaurateurs and the world's best dog.

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