Monday, January 16, 2017

Hey, remember that whole Ebola thing?

Remember when Ebola was going to kill us all? Well, besides the fact that that didn't happen and the virus stayed largely contained within a few West African nations, a new vaccine promises to even more easily defeat the disease whenever a new outbreak arises. Do you remember headlines like these?

That last one warns about a possible death toll of 1.4 million. Care to guess how many lives the outbreak actually claimed? 11,000. To put that in perspective, here's a pie chart showing 11,000 out of 1.4 million.

None of this means that it wasn't terrible that 11,000 people died. Nor was it bad to treat the outbreak seriously and marshal all forces against it - indeed, that was what was successful. But keep this in mind the next time headlines look scary - whether about Ebola, Anthrax, Killer clowns, or even terrorism.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Believe it or not, 2016 was one of the best years ever

This year, it seems like all the end-of-year roundup stories are particularly negative. It turns out that rock stars are not immortal, and most of the people in my internet circles were not thrilled with the outcome of the presidential election. But at the end of each year there's always a small fringe counter-movement of articles explaining that the world is actually getting better, and 2016 is no exception. If you're among those who think 2016 in America was bleak (and I certainly am disappointed by a lot of events as well), remember that the rest of the world still marches forward. Here are some of these positive summaries from this year.

This article from Our World in Data has been making the rounds quite a bit. It uses several charts that are near-identical to the ones from my book. Updated to 2015, it's nice to see that these trends from my book are all continuing as predicted. The article provides a convenient infographic that's easy to share. It's clever to cage it in a frame of "if the world was 100 people", which makes it easier to understand the scope of the progress.

The article also focuses on why we don't know this. Why isn't there a front-page headline today that reads "The number of people in extreme poverty fell by 130,000 since yesterday"? It's because the media is obsessed with single dramatic events and with negative news. (That headline could have been repeated every single day since 1990!)

Here's also an interview with Steven Pinker, who can always be counted on to spread the optimist message. Although he clarifies, as I do in my book as well, that it's not really "optimist" as much as "realist", big-picture instead of in-the-moment, statistical instead of anecdotal.

I also stumbled upon this great answer by Jeremy Fridy on Quora to the snarky question, "Liberals, why don't you want America to be great again?" He points out several facts about the state of the US today: that violent crime is at a 50-year low, abortion is at a 40-year low, the economy has grown and budget deficit shrunk in the past 7 years, and that Obama is leaving office with a higher approval rating than even Reagan.

Finally, here's a monster of a rebuttal to 2016-pessimism, 99 Reasons 2016 was a Good Year, on Medium. There are endless (well, 100) successes in conservation, global health, economics, fighting climate change, decreasing violence, generosity, and more. Did you hear that global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels did not grow at all in 2016? It’s the third year in a row emissions have flatlined. Probably not.

Fingers crossed for a 2017 that reports more diligently on the trends that matter most.

Monday, December 12, 2016

More surprising health inventions

A few months ago I reported on new glasses that let color-blind folks see in full color. Now, there are two more inventions just this month that have the potential to help many people.

The first is a "stem-cell gun" (I didn't make that up) that uses your own cells to create new skin on your body. This could drastically change the way we treat the victims of serious burns. Because brand new skin is growing, there aren't even any scars. You can learn more here.

The other invention is a pen that counterbalances the shaking effects of Parkinson's disease, allowing patients to write again. You can watch the example of a graphic designer who had lost the ability to draw or even write her own name. Learn more here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Online dating brings Americans together

From The Week: "Decades of research have shown that people tend to pair off with partners who are similar to them in terms of race, education, or religion, which often reinforces divisions between social groups. But a recent study suggests that the rise of online dating is breaking down some of those barriers.

"Americans in the survey who met through friends or school were the most likely to date someone similar to them. Meeting online, however, was 'associated with more racial and ethnic mixing than any other venue.'"

Thank you, online dating! In this time when the media relentlessly focuses on the divisions between Americans - whether racial, economic, or political - it's good to see that under the surface some forces are secretly pushing back. And the result should be significant - it's estimated that up to one-third of all marriages today are of people who met online. And, to top it off, these people tend to be slightly happier in their marriages.

Here's an example (it's me and my wife):

Friday, September 30, 2016

Incomes rise and poverty drops in the U.S.

I usually try not to put too much into short-term economic data, preferring long-term trends. But this news seems significant considering we are only a few years out from what was very nearly a second Depression.

The economy's slow improvement is finally showing clear dividends. The Census Bureau recently reported that 2015 was the first year since 2008 that the poverty rate fell significantly and incomes rose for most American households. According to this article, the "median household’s income in 2015 was $56,500, up 5.2 percent from the previous year — the largest single-year increase since record-keeping began in 1967."

Last year, 3.5 million Americans were able to lift themselves over the poverty line. That's a 1.2 percentage point decline in the poverty rate, the largest drop since 1999. That drops the poverty rate down to 13.5% of the population. You can read more here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Welcome to World Peace (well, half)

This week, the government of Columbia reached a peace treaty with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, whom they had been fighting for 52 years. The end of any conflict is a milestone, but this one is exceptional:

  • This ends the last war in the Western Hemisphere. Half the world is now free of war. This does not mean there is not still violence, and crime, and strife, of course, but this is a milestone occurring for the first time in modern history ... and perhaps all of human history.
  • We should also consider that the Eastern Hemisphere is not completely war-torn, despite our daily headlines. Europe remains free of war. East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia, Oceania - all war-free. In fact, all of the outright war in the world is localized in one large strip stretching from central Africa through the Middle East to Pakistan. Objectively, this is still a lot of war ... unless you compare it to any other point in human history.

    source: Angus Hervey
  • As the ever-reliable Steven Pinker writes, "Today, there are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies. ... This progress of an entire hemisphere toward peace follows the path of other major regions of the world."
  • This war lasted 52 years. This is older than 75% of our population. If a war like this, and a conflict like the one in Northern Ireland for example, can reach peace, then surely any conflict can. These are fights that people called intractable, for decades. Surely this must give renewed hope to other seemingly unsolvable conflicts, like India/Pakistan, Shia/Sunni, and particularly Israel/Palestine.
  • What's next? After we stop all wars in the world, can we move on to smaller forms of violence? Ending all terrorism? All gang war? All murder? All crime? ... Or, we can work on all those things at once, since all those trends are declining as well.


There is no war visible in this photo.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Oh, you know what else is fixed now? Color blindness.

A company named EnChroma claims to have invented a pair of glasses that cures color blindness. The many videos of patients seeing the full range of color for the first time are extremely moving:

I was a little skeptical, but it all seems to check out. You can read this Forbes article in which the author tested the glasses.

The author leaves with the conclusion that these are a luxury item; expanding the browns he's always seen to more vibrant reds is not life-changing enough to justify the high cost of the glasses.

While that's probably a good assessment today, now that we've invented the technology, it's only a matter of time before the cost comes down. Not only that, but we could see this technology embedded in contact lenses or even expanded in other ways. Centuries ago, regular corrective glasses seemed like a luxury item; indeed, they still are in many parts of the world, but that area is shrinking. And contact lenses were much more indulgent when I was young, now they're more commonplace. I'm eager to see this technology spread in the coming years.