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.

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.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

From Bear Pit to Bodega

If you're a history or trivia buff, you'll love NY Songlines. The low-tech web site has a page for every street in Manhattan, that walks by every building and cites its history and trivia facts. I was reading up on our own street, First Avenue, one day when I stumbled upon something startling:

"First Avenue and 10th Street: McLaughlin's Bear Pit, where one could bet on fights between dogs and bears, was located at this intersection in the 1860s."

Whoa. This is six blocks south of our apartment. What's there now?

Oh, it's a bodega and a fancy italian coffeeshop, naturally.

Ever since I discovered this, I've used it as an example of Secret Peace trends. It's not just that this particular spot used to be something gruesome and is now benign. The bear pit could have simply moved somewhere else. No, it's that the very idea of a bear-fighting pit is so absurd to modern audiences that it's practically unbelievable. This wasn't an underground, secret pit. It was on the up-and-up. It's also remarkable that it's from the 1860s, only 150 years ago. Can you imagine what people thought was normal 300 years ago? 1,000 years ago?

But hold on to your hats. Dogs fighting bears is not even the most abhorrent aspect of this factoid. What about dogs fighting rats? People fighting rats? Read this excerpt from Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, by Luc Sante, to really get a good taste of the past.

"Rat-baiting was the premier betting sport of the nineteenth century. Its prestige can be gauged in economic terms, circa 1875: admission to a then illegal prizefight between humans cost fifty cents, to dogfights and cockfights $2, while a fight pitting a dog against rats ran anywhere from $1.50 if the dog faced five rats or fewer, up to $5, in proportion to the number of rats. In the eighteenth century the biggest draw had been bearbaiting, but the sport gradually dissipated as the number of available bears decreased, although matches continued to be held up to the Civil War, notably in McLaughlin's bear pit at First Avenue and Tenth Street. For a while, dog-vs.-raccoon contests were popular, but rats were so readily available that they came to dominate the scene; boys were paid to catch them, at a rate of five to twelve cents a head. The dogs were always fox terriers, and they were trained for six months before being sent out at a year and a half, retaining the status of novice until they reached two years of age. The pits, at Kit Burns's and elsewhere, were unscreened boxes, with zinc-lined wooden walls eight feet long and four and a half feet high. Matches typically drew no fewer than a hundred betting spectators, from all walks of life, with purses starting at $125. A good rat dog could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to forty-five minutes, although the modern record was set by Jack Underhill, a terrier belonging to one Billy Fagan, who slew his hundred in eleven and a half minutes at Secaucus, N.J., in 1885. Late in the century it briefly became popular to pit rats against men wearing heavy boots. The ASPCA finally drove the game out of the city in the early 1890s."

Whenever anyone waxes nostalgic for humanity's make-believe halcyon past, I bring up the bear-fighting pit.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Funny post #5: First World Problems

This post we're getting back to our series examining Secret Peace themes that appear hilariously in popular culture.

One of the most popular memes out there, that after years has shown no signs of fading, is "First World Problems". It's akin to a lot of the jokes that Louis C.K. makes, which I've pointed out here before. He calls them "White People Problems."

The theme also comes up many times, especially when young people get mocked for their lack of perspective:

And there have been several series done in which unintentionally selfish tweets are later combined with overly-dramatic stock photos:

But eventually the meme found its final form, with its now-famous photo of a woman crying:

To me, it's a sign that the world is in a great place when at least some people have the luxury of complaining about these trivial hardships. It's all relative: sure, a majority of the world's people are not this lucky, but in the past NO ONE was.

And since most of the memes now are made by the people experiencing the "problem" themselves, it's an even better sign that we're smart enough to mock ourselves for it. And hopefully, after meeting their initial goal of humor, the memes help us realize how lucky we are.

Learn more here.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Drawing conclusions about the reduction of violence

Peter Diamandis, author of the Secret Peace-y Abundance, has been making great points this month about the decline of violence. Despite my book, Diamandis's book, and Steven Pinker's huge masterwork The Better Angels of Our Nature, the message is not getting out there about violence. Especially by watching hyperbolic television news, it's easy to assume that violence is on the rise worldwide.

It's not. In reality, war and violence of all types have been declining over the long term. Here's one of Diamandis's charts, which echoes others in my book and Pinker's book:


Unfortunately for our peace of mind, we're much more aware of every act in every conflict now. Diamandis makes the dead-on point that the best thing we can do to get a better perspective is to turn off the sensationalist TV news and get our information through more rational, less kneejerk means.

However, I think one of Diamandis's other conclusions might be premature. He looks at the decline of violent crime in the US and concludes that it is due to the creation of the Internet, since the decline somewhat corresponds with 1993, when the Internet also took off.

Without more evidence, tying those two correlated things together is problematic. First of all, he says that the reason the Internet reduced crime is that it's much easier to publicly implicate and shame individuals. This is true now, but it wasn't in 1993. It was many more years before people had convenient camera phones, for example, let alone video capability on their phones. Online video also wasn't viable in the early years, and there were not a lot of user-generated-content sites such as social networks or blogs in the very early days. The connection is even more tenuous in Diamandis's chart about worldwide conflict, since many countries in the world have much lower Internet penetration than the United States. If the Internet were the main influencer of crime's reduction, the decline might have started around 2000, and been more gradual.

Personally, I do think the Internet is one of the factors leading to the decrease in crime, but we don't know if it's the main one. And we don't know why. I've seen studies that more concretely tie internet access to the decline in sexual assaults specifically ... but not because of public shaming, but because online pornography is available as an alternative. These studies look not just at timing, but at location - as a region gets broadband internet, sexual assaults decrease.

The decline of crime in the US has been a mystery for decades now. Some people have credited better police techniques, the decline of certain types of drugs, even the legality of abortions. Personally, I've always thought it was a perfect storm of all of these factors. I've written about this before, not just in my book, but in these blog posts from 2010 and 2012 as well. It's likely that the rise of the Internet is one of them, but we don't yet know if it was the main one, or why. Is it due to the ease of public shaming? The sexual outlet of pornography? Or a widening of our circle of empathy due to more exposure to diverse viewpoints?

I don't want this to detract from Diamandis's essential point about the decline of violence. It is declining, and that's the important thing. But there is more than one cause, and it's necessary to keep ferreting out those complex causes so that we can more easily hasten violence's decline.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Secret Peace book review: "You Wouldn't Want to Be ..."

I heard about a series of kids' books recently called "You Wouldn't Want to Be ..." and thought I'd get one to see if they were as aligned with my book, The Secret Peace, as they sounded. They are.

I tried "You Wouldn't Want to Be Sick in the 16th Century!", and it did a great job of emphasizing a Secret Peace idea you may have heard me dwell on before: how terrible the past was. Other books in the series include "You Wouldn't Want to Be a Civil War Soldier!" and "You Wouldn't Want to Be a Pyramid Builder!", and each one teaches kids about a particular time period by emphasizing how horrible it was.

This is an ingenious teaching technique. Instead of reciting dry statistics or focusing on king after king, the book puts you in the shoes of an ordinary person of that time period and their (awful) day-to-day life. This makes it very easy to compare to the reader's own life, and see the differences. Plus, kids are often compelled by weird, disgusting facts.

The only problem I had with the book is that those differences weren't made explicit enough. The book only talks about the past, not how the present compares, leading that implication up to the reader. When talking about the absurd quack medical treatments of medieval times in "You Wouldn't Want to Be Sick in the 16th Century!", it puts the reader in that time period's shoes so completely that some kids might not notice how wrongheaded the ideas are. They're patently obvious to adults, but 8-10-year-olds (my guess at the target age) might not know enough about modern medicine to spot some of the obvious contrasts. Not sure if the other books shared this problem or not.

But overall, it's essential to convey some key concepts from history to kids any way we can, and these books are doing that in a clever, compelling way. Without learning the true state of history, it's too easy to assume the past was an idyllic time. These books will help dispel that nonsense.

Here is the series on Amazon.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

We can't possibly be worse than ... SLOVENIA?!?

I want to take a break from laughing at Secret-Peace-related memes because this headline caught my eye:

"The U.S. ranks 26th for life expectancy, right behind Slovenia"

It's on Wonkblog, which I like, but the headline itself and overall slant of the article is a good example of why I wrote The Secret Peace. Part of the problem of why the media seems so negative is that even an article like this one, which is pretty even-handed if you read the whole thing, is positioned at the top to be as sensational as possible.

The whole implication of the headline and beginning of this article is how far the US has fallen. In fact, it even states it that way: "Back in the 1970s, Americans typically lived longer than residents of other countries. Not anymore: A new report ... shows that the United States' average lifespan has fallen one year behind the international average."

If you were to skim that sentence, or even diagram it, you might grasp some variation of "The average US lifespan has fallen."

This, of course, is not true. And the article goes on to say so: in fact, US life expectancy is eight years longer now than in 1970. So what accounts for the relative "decline"? It's just that other countries are doing even better. This is not a bad thing. The US does have the largest population on the list, far larger than most of the 25 top countries, which makes it pretty impressive that we're as far up as we are, honestly. #26 still puts us almost in the top 10% of countries in the world. Who cares if we're #1, as long as things are headed in a positive direction?

I understand the reason for the article's positioning. The US does indeed rank surprisingly low on several health indicators, if you expect us to be first. (But why do we expect that?) And, as a US publication aimed at a US audience, US updates are the most pertinent information. They "sell" much better than an article geared around "Hooray, Slovenia! Through decades of hard work, you have ever-so-slightly surpassed the US in life expectancy."

The real news for the US is not how well or poorly we're doing in life expectancy - because we're right in the middle of the world's developed countries, a perfectly reasonable place for us to be - but how poorly we're doing in comparison to how much we spend. Again, the article makes this point, but it's a case of burying the lede. It's a shame that for every person who reads that far, another 50 will have seen this headline in their Facebook or Twitter feed, and get a skewed perception of the situation.