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 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.

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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Funny post #4: Canada

In a weird corner of the memeworld of the internet, there's a whole storyline making fun of Canada for being ... a great country. You rarely see memes attacking a country or poking fun at a country for any reason (although occasionally Americans do come under fire, and Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un are both popular targets), so it's weird that the most common country meme is about how good a country is. Take a look at some of these.
This one mentions how Canada reveres scientists:
One of the recurring themes is about how great Canada's free health care and other social services are:
And this one introduces us to a theme we'll examine next time:
What's ironic is that these "nice" qualities are not rare in developed countries. Universal health care, for example, is found in about 60 countries. But like many self-reinforcing stereotypes, people remember the hits and ignore whatever doesn't fit the pattern. It's just a nice change of pace that in this case the stereotype is a positive one.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Funny post #3: Phones

Last blog post, we looked at the funny meme of advanced computer technology - basically being awed at how lame computers were in the past and how far we've come. Stuff like this:
Here's a fascinating subset of that: phones. Mobile phones are perhaps the easiest way to see technological progress. We're reminded of it any time we use our phone, so about a million times a day. It's nice to step back every once in awhile and appreciate how far we've come:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Funny post #2: Our wondrous technology

Isn't technology great? In this second of a series of posts looking at how humor today echoes Secret Peace themes, we'll look at some technology jokes. Technology is one of the easiest ways to see progress happening, and in the past few decades, "technology" has often been synonymous with computers. An easily tracked sign of progress is Moore's Law: that transistor capability doubles every two years. So I found this online:

That post is just sort of a "wow" or feel-good post, but a funnier theme is to post about how amazed people were with computers in the past, even though from our perspective, they were awful.

Or how about this post, meant as a quick gag and "apple" pun, but really a profound comparison of life today with less than a century ago:

Or how about the advances in access to information? My generation was the last to make it through school without Google. (I graduated college in 1999.) My daughter will grow up never experiencing the simple burden of not knowing something - even topics in which final knowledge still eludes us have easy access to speculation and what we know so far.

Of course, we often forget that technology doesn't just refer to computers. Look at the all of the advances in health, such as prosthetic limbs.

Or look at this GIF comparing car safety from 1959 with 2009:

Of course, with all new technology comes fear of change, some wise and some unfounded. This XKCD cartoon helps keep it in perspective: