Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amputee makes history

A few months ago in a post, I mentioned a new type of prosthetic arm that can touch and feel. Suddenly, it seems like news on this front is everywhere. It's thrilling to be living in a moment when this technology is breaking through and advancing at an astonishing pace. Here are some more reports:

First, an amputee made history by becoming the first person to control two shoulder-level prosthetic limbs. As the Youtube description says:

A Colorado man made history at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) this summer when he became the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control two of the Laboratory’s Modular Prosthetic Limbs. Most importantly, Les Baugh, who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, was able to operate the system by simply thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks during a short training period.

This is the world we live in now, where this is possible. The video needs to be seen to be believed:

Secondly, this video blew up social media last week. In it, Robert Downey Jr., channeling Tony Stark, delivers an Iron Man arm to a charming young boy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We will never have a perfect world ...

Pleasant surprise to run into a Steven Pinker quote randomly in Chipotle today.

"We will never have a perfect world, but it's not romantic or naive to work toward a better one."

If you're looking for a great huge book to tackle in 2015, you can't go wrong with Pinker's brilliant The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't take our parks for granted

I'm reading the classic Pulitzer-Prize-winner The Power Broker, a history of New York City as seen through the biography of Robert Moses. Moses was the most important figure in the city's 20th-century history, having built much of the infrastructure of the city (and Long Island, and elsewhere) that we use today - for better or for worse. His legacy is a fascinatingly mixed bag, and that includes some serious caveats with his masterpiece, Riverside Park. But on the whole, it's easy to appreciate how far New York's parks have come. Here's a passage describing Riverside in 1914:

Sometimes, of course, Moses would tell the cab driver to take him straight home. But often he would ask to be dropped off across the West Side, on Riverside Drive, at the end of Seventy-sixth Street near the Hudson River. And as he climbed out of the cab there, he climbed out into a scene far different than the doormanned serenity of Central Park West.
He would be standing on the high bluff that was Riverside Drive, behind him, if he looked up, stately apartment houses would appear to be swaying over him against a backdrop of moving clouds. But he would be looking down. Below him, along the edge of the river, was a wasteland, a wasteland six miles long, stretching from where he stood all the way north to 181st Street. The wasteland was named Riverside Park, but the "park" was nothing but a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud. Running through its length was the four-track bed of the New York Central, which lay in a right-of-way that had been turned over to the railroad by the city half a century before. Unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront; in the whole six miles, there were exactly three bridges on which the tracks could be crossed, and they led only to private boating clubs.
The engines that pulled trains along the tracks burned coal or oil; from their smokestacks a dense black smog rose toward the apartment houses, coating windowsills with grit. The smog had an acrid odor, but people who lived in the apartments hardly noticed it; it was scarecely worth mentioning alongside the stench that seemed to hang over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses in downtown Manhattan carload after carload of cattle and pigs. When, despite the smell, Riverside Drive residents were driven by the heat to open their windows, they were kept awake at night by the clank of the couplings which hooked the cars together.
Walking in the park was an adventure; the walker sank at intervals into the landfill of which it had been constructed, for water has eaten away much of the fill from below. In many spots, it had broken through the crust of the fill to form little lakes. Every year the park grew smaller, as its edge crumbled into the river.
Areas that were still solid had been appropriated by the railroad for wood-lined pits in which coal was piled. Lying along the river were heaps of rotting timbers, stored years before by some city department and forgotten. At Seventy-ninth and Ninety-sixth streets, untreated garbage mounded toward the sky; the Sanitation Department used those areas as dumping grounds from which the garabage was transferred to scows which towed it out to the open sea, but somehow the rate of transfer was never fast enough to clear the refuse away entirely. Other solid spots held human refuse: derelicts who had built tar-paper shanty towns considered so dangerous that the police stayed away from them. At night, the open fires over which the derelicts cooked flickered in the darkness below the Drive.
Looking south, Moses could see the bluff sink and the park narrow until both disappeared, and houses, factories and warehouses crowded close to the waterfront. The railroad tracks wended their way between the buildings, making several sharp curves, and then emerged on Eleventh Avenue, along which, at street level, trains inched their way in a straight line down to the foot of the island. In front of every train, to warn away pedestrians and drivers, rode a cowboy on a horse, waving a large red flag. Since the trains came at frequent intervals and moved extremely slowly along the avenue, traffic was frequently backed up for blocks. Often, a driver would become impatient and ignore the warning flag. For that reason, Eleventh had become known as "Death Avenue." For years, the city had tried without success to find a solution to the problem posed by the presence of the railroad along the West Side.

The passage particularly struck me because I've been planning a sketch meetup to sketch the park soon. For those who don't know, here's what that exact spot described above looks like today, as seen from Google Streetview:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 closes with a surprising wave of optimism

Let's face it, 2014 was full of lamentable news events, and while I'm usually able to maintain an optimistic outlook by looking at the big picture, I'm also resigned to the media rarely sharing that viewpoint. So I was completely surprised to see a wave of overall "good news" articles popping up in the last week. I've followed (and written) articles like this for years, and I can't remember the last time I saw this many written at the same time.

Some of it is inspired by economic news. By all accounts, the economy has been successfully recovering for a while now, although not necessarily in a way - or at a pace - that benefits everyone. But here's a New York Times article about the economic recovery finally spreading to the middle class in the form of wage gains.

I don't usually talk about specific economic news when discussing the Secret Peace, because I'm more concerned with long-term trends than with any specific economic cycle. The economy goes up, and the economy goes down, once a decade or so, and it always will. That's why I was glad to see other positive articles focusing on issues beyond rising consumer confidence and falling gas prices.

Michael Grunwald's article in Politico, for example, talks a lot about the economy but also raises good points about the press's negative focus and our reluctance to discuss good news. He writes, "This bah-humbug brand of moral superiority has flourished since the crisis: How dare you celebrate this or that piece of economic data when so many Americans are still hurting? It’s awkward to argue with that view, since many Americans are indeed still hurting. But the economic data keep showing that fewer Americans are hurting every month. ... Better is better than worse."

He goes on to write, "Let’s face it: The press has a problem reporting good news. Two Americans died of Ebola and cable TV flipped out; now we're Ebola-free and no one seems to care. The same thing happened with the flood of migrant children across the Mexican border, which was a horrific crisis until it suddenly wasn't. Nobody’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize for recognizing that we're smoking less, driving less, wasting less electricity and committing less crime. Police are killing fewer civilians, and fewer police are getting killed, but understandably, after the tragedies in Ferguson and Brooklyn, nobody's thinking about that these days. The media keep us in a perpetual state of panic about spectacular threats to our safety — Ebola, sharks, terrorism — but we’re much likelier to die in a car accident. Although, it ought to be said, much less likely than we used to be; highway fatalities are down 25 percent in a decade."

For an even more comprehensive look at the big picture, Steven Pinker can always be relied upon for well-researched, compelling updates. In this Slate article, he and Andrew Mack try to get past the sensationalism of the media and examine trends objectively, by tallying numbers. Take a look at some of these excellent charts:

They write, "The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. ... We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization. Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been” — even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?"

Topping even Pinker and Mack's charts is this Vox.com article listing 26 important charts that show the world is getting better. Their charts cover wildly different stats - much like my book - that all add up to an improving world. Some highlights:

Lastly, astronaut Chris Hadfield leaves us with this short uplifting look at the state of the world - and an excellent challenge for each of us to make the most of 2015. Happy new year!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

What about the wage gap?

One of the data points from my book concerns the gender wage gap, showing the difference between the money a woman makes as compared to a man performing the same job. The Secret Peace included a chart showing how that gap has been narrowing for the last few decades:

Since the last data point I had before my book was published was from 2004, I thought I'd look up if there was anything more recent. Sure enough, I had marked a mention in The Week from December 2013: "According to new data from Pew Research, the wage gap for American women under 32 has shrunk to 7 percent. But among all ages, women make 16 percent less than men." 16 percent less than men means 84 percent of their wages, so let's update our chart to reflect that:

We see that the line continues exactly as we would expect. It's maybe slowing slightly, but overall it's practically a straight, linear trend from 1975 to today. Does this mean that, sometime around 2035, we can expect to see pay parity? I don't know; the last few points could be more difficult ... but signs look good.

This issue was in the news again recently, and there was a lot of debate over what the exact numbers are. Personally, I think the number matters less than a few key points:

  1. There is still a wage gap.
  2. It is decreasing, albeit slowly.
  3. It is decreasing not due to natural causes but thanks to the tireless work of countless individuals.

That same Week article mentioned, "Millennial-age women are just ‘as pessimistic as their mothers and grandmothers regarding gender equality.'" This is a real shame, since we can see that younger women are working with a much smaller pay gap than in the past. Is it ridiculous that there's still a pay gap at all in 2014? Of course, but it's important not to get too cynical, lest we stop working to eliminate it. My daughter will be working age around 2033 ... here's hoping she finds a finally fair working world.

One group working on this issue is the National Women's Law Center, which you can donate to here.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

An astonishing pace for medical breakthroughs

I just finished Michael J. Fox's excellent memoir, Lucky Man. One of the things that struck me is how those of us who don't have a certain disease know little about its history and treatments, but once you're diagnosed, you're suddenly thrust into a crash course of learning lots of new terms and details. The book taught me a lot about Parkinson's Disease. Just a few decades ago there were very few treatments available, but today there are several effective ways of dealing with the symptoms. These are all temporary, though, since no permanent cure has yet been found. But Fox is very optimistic that a cure is just around the corner.

That seems realistic, because medical breakthroughs are happening at an astonishing pace. In just the past two weeks, I came across three different ones, all mentioned in The Week magazine:

New hope for spinal cord injuries

A paralyzed man is now walking again after specialist cells from his own nose were transplanted into his broken spinal cord. The special cells were injected at both ends of the broken spinal cord, and connected with nerve tissue taken from the man's ankle. Within three months, he started to regain feeling below his waist, and now two years later, he is able to stand and walk.

Stem cells raise hope for diabetes cure

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that causes the pancreas to stop creating insulin. Last week, researchers announced that they have used stem cell technology to grow billions of insulin-secreting cells, which were used to treat the disease in mice. If this works in humans, people could be cured with a single transplant. The lead researcher has been searching for a cure for 23 years, because his children have the condition.

A prosthetic arm that can touch and feel

Scientists in Sweden have demonstrated the first prosthetic arm that is controlled by the user's mind. The patient controls the arm and hand with his thoughts and can actually feel them touch things. The limb should be commercially available within a few years.


Science says: lightsabers are next.

Now if science could just find out a way to cure this nasty cold I got from my toddler, we would be all set.

Donate to the Michael J. Fox Foundation here.

Monday, October 6, 2014

E. B. White says hold on to your hat

While this is a blog of good news, I don't usually post "feel-good" uplifting stories, since I tend to prefer statistical evidence over the anecdotal. But here's one I couldn't resist. This is a 1973 letter from the author E. B. White, in response to a man who wrote that he had lost all faith in humanity.

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

If you've read The Secret Peace, you know that White was right and that many of humanity's seeds of goodness, planted over generations, are finally starting to germinate.

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