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It Takes a Village of 100

Over the past few years, I’ve run into several articles and email forwards presenting a hypothetical village of 100 as a stand-in for the entire world population. For example, “if the world population were a village of 100 people, 61 people would be Asian, 15 would be malnourished, 20 would be overweight, etc.” Apparently this idea dates back to a 1990 piece by Dartmouth professor Donella Meadows. Snopes cautions that some versions in circulation are inaccurate. features this short movie version:

This is a neat trick, as it accomplishes a few impressive explainist feats instantly:

  • It makes very big numbers comprehensible.
  • It lifts you out of your local/religious/ethnic perspective to consider the composition of human race as a whole.
  • It makes you imagine other people in the abstract as actual people that you live with (which they are).

We’re just not wired to imagine 6.7 billion people, but 100 is well within our grasp.

Illustrator/designer/photographer Toby Ng ran with the idea and created a series of village-of-100 posters.

The posters are sharp, but the metaphors within a metaphor are a little mind-bending (“if the human population were a village of 100 people, which comprised slices of a pizza…”). Is it too obvious of me to picture posters showing the hypothetical villagers themselves?

[via FlowingData]

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Brains Be Different from Computers

Don’t leave good metaphors lying around unattended, or somebody might get hurt. Up to a certain point, a good metaphor does wonders to facilitate understanding. But as you get deeper into a subject, a metaphor will become less and less accurate. And if you don’t toss the metaphor when it starts to go bad, it will actually block deeper understanding.

So, metaphors get you over a learning hump, but you can’t be too devoted to them. They’re like training wheels that… . That one fell apart before it even got started.

Anyway, one of the biggest, hairiest, most useful and potentially most troublesome metaphors of our time is the idea that computers are brains (and vice versa). This one is so mighty, in fact, that it’s easy to forget it’s actually a metaphor. And if you take it too literally, you’ll fundamentally misunderstand both computers and brains.

In a new smarty-pants post on Developing Intelligence, Chris Chatham puts computers and brains side by side and rattles off 11 metaphor-busting differences between them. In the process, he sheds a lot of light on both. For example, difference number 8 is that in the brain, processing and memory are handled by the same components. One effect of this is that you can easily overwrite a memory with an inaccurate version in the process of remembering it. Please, remember with care.

In addition to the illuminating explanations throughout, I really like how Chatham gets some more use out of a metaphor before chucking it. Once you’ve learned all you can by seeing two things as the same, see what you can learn by investigating how they’re different. Good trick.

[via Cognitive Daily]