2014: Bad Headlines, Good News

Ebola, ISIS, school shootings. Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Hamas. It’s been a bad year for many.

Nonetheless, life slowly gets better for most of us.

I’ll just make a passing remark about the US economy. Even in times of recession Americans have a quality of life that is better than that of kings 100 years ago, so the improving US economy and record highs for the Dow are just blips in the big picture.

The Ebola outbreak was tragic. Nonetheless, there were positive glimmers, especially Nigeria’s coordinated response. And overblown fears of a pandemic proved ludicrous.

People bemoan the state of Palestine-Israel relations, but few see recent times in the larger historical context. Before Camp David there were major wars in ’48, ’56, ’67 and ’73. Since then there have been missiles and terrorists, incursions and intifadas, but no all-out wars. The conflict seems intractable, but its scope continues to shrink.

Russia, such a nuisance through much of 2014, now seems a paper bear with gas prices and the Rouble tumbling.

The opening of Cuba bodes well. Communism, like mold, thrives in closed spaces. The feeble Castros can only hold on for so long.

ISIS’s luck is running out, especial as air strikes continue to weaken its infrastructure and the Iraq government shows some modicum of competence post-Maliki.

Tragedy will continue in Syria, and Venezuela looks ripe for some kind of change.

Alas, I’m starting to predict. “Mortals predict and the gods laugh.”

Obama has been criticized (often rightly) for his leadership, but his assessment of 2014 is spot on (if a bit awkwardly phrased): “We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border. And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And…as we reflect on the new year — this should generate . . . some confidence. America knows how to solve problems.” (quoted from The Washington Post)

Despite cops and black men being unjustly shot, America and the world are actually getting safer. And richer, freer, more equal, more democratic, more literate, longer lived, better educated and healthier.

Here’s to an even better 2015.

How Not to Be Ignorant

Hans Rosling is probably my favorite optimist, both because he bases his views on huge data sets AND he’s a hoot. Here’s his latest TED Talk. Take his quiz. I bet you’re dumber than a chimp.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world

Why 2014 Is Better

“Feeling nostalgic for the good old days? Then think back to the late 1970s. Gas lines stretched for blocks at service stations thanks to a revolution in Iran and an energy crisis. Gas-guzzling cars were common: The midsized 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass we (Consumer Reports) tested got 11.8 mpg in city driving. Inflation sat at an uncomfortable 7.6 percent, compared with about 2 percent today.

“The last 35 years have seen a revolution in consumer rights, protection, and choice. There has been an explosion in the variety of products available, the complexity of those products, and the speed with which they hit the shelves.”

These paragraphs open an article in the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine, and they offer a reminder of how far we’ve come since 1978. Back then telephone service was monopolized by Ma Bell. Airlines were highly regulated, which meant little price competition. While generic drugs had been around for a long time by 1978, in the ensuing years their availability skyrocketed, which has saved consumers billions of dollars. In 2012 77% of drugs prescribed by American pharmacists were generic brands, a record high. Home appliances are now safer, as are the foods on our table.

And, to move from the kitchen to geopolitics, let’s remember that Germany was split in two in ’78. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and other (now thriving and democratic) “East Bloc” states were governed by politburos. Relations with Russia are very bad right now, but in ’78 the USSR ruled ALL of Ukraine and missiles bristled from silos in Russia and the United States. Would anyone in 1978 imagine that the East-West divide would melt away eleven years later, bringing down the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain?

“The good ole days” is an inviting fallacy. Sure, “back in the day” things were simpler, but they weren’t better. Nostalgia for the past is a poor guide for public policy given the abundant (but oft overlooked) progress we’ve made, especially since the end of the Cold War.

 

The Future of Medicine

I just read a good article in The Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa about the future of medicine. I’m glad that the author used the word “future” instead of present and “medicine” instead of health care. “Health care” is a phrase that has strong connotations, both positive and negative. It brings to mind Obamacare and the current crisis of cost on the one hand and access on the other.

Being a future optimist like myself is a dangerous thing. The future can seem rosy, especially without the day-to-day complications of implementing new technology and systems. But I base my optimism on clear markers, like the many positive health trends in the developing world (the obesity epidemic being the most noteworthy exception).

Wadhwa points to several things that may make the future of medicine much brighter:

Information: If we want “information about an ailment we search on the Internet. We have access to more medical knowledge than our doctors used to have via their medical books and journals, and our information is more up-to-date than those medical books were.”

Technology: “Wearable devices such as Fitbit, Nike, and Jawbone are commonly being used to monitor the intensity of our activity; a heart monitor such as one from Alivecor can display our electrocardiogram; several products on the market can monitor our blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, respiration, and even our sleep.”

Real Time Medical Research: “Artificial intelligence technologies will also be able to analyze continual data from millions of patients and on the medications that they have taken to determine which of these truly had a positive effect; which simply created adverse reactions and new ailments; and which did both. This will transform the way in which drugs are tested and prescribed.”

Personal Genomics: “Today a full human genome sequence costs as little as $1,000. At the rate at which prices are dropping, it will cost less within five years than a blood test does today. So it is now becoming affordable to compare one person’s DNA with another’s, learn what diseases those with similar genetics have had in common, and discover how effective different medications or other interventions were in treating them.”

Biotech Breakthroughs: “Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” DNA. These technologies provide the ability to generate designer drugs, therapeutic vaccines, and microorganisms. Like all technologies that modify fundamental biology without a complete understanding of how environment, DNA, protein production, and cell biology interact, this introduces new risks because we could engineer dangerous new organisms. But, used appropriately, this field may dramatically affect the development of novel, and more effective, therapeutics.”

We have a zillion things to fix in our medical system, which seems to get worse, not better. Nonetheless, these and other breakthroughs can only help. And let’s not forget that we’re living longer, healthier lives because medicine is getter better, after all. I hope the medical improvements Wadhwa wrote about do for us what vaccines, public health infrastructure improvements, and treated bed nets have done for the developing world.

Stumbling into a Better Future

Feeling down? Ennui? Do you lack verve and a feeling of purpose?

Then read Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (2006). This little book spells out how poor we are at predicting the future, including what makes us happy. Many people think that money, beauty, certain kinds of love, and “success” will bring meaning and satisfaction. Gilbert demonstrates that more mundane “achievements” are better ways to achieving our ends.

What gives us meaningful satisfaction? One thing is work. Most Americans I know think retirement will bring happiness, but the opposite is usually true. For every person who lives with joy, purpose and connection after the end of her career, there’s more than one person who slowly dies on the La-Z-Boy in front of his TV, more alone and depressed than when he punched the clock Monday through Friday.

The solution? Keep up with the Joneses (at least the ones who lived and died happy).

“The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people’s experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it.” Wikipedia

What? I thought I was the master of my fate, the captain of my soul! Well, I think the power of the individual to know what’s best for himself is highly overrated. In my own journey to a happy and fulfilling life, I have found that the goals I contrive have much less efficacy and success then tried-and-true ones like exercise, spirituality and cultivating community.

So do what the happy do and see what happens. It’s amazing how much we resist emulating other people’s success, but that’s where many answers to our problems can be found.

This Hyperliterate Era

Are we worse writers today than folks from previous generations? Does our two-thumbed “txtng” make us literary cretins (and bad spellers)? Is “the death of the handwritten letter” a fait accompli?

My mother, bless her heart, bought me The Art of the Handwritten Note for Christmas twelve years ago. I still have it:

Art Handwritten Note

This is what she inscribed on the title page:

Dear Henry,

Your extraordinary grandmother would like you to have this little book! She was a beautiful person and writer, too.

Much love,

Mom

I’m really not raggin’ on Mom right now. Love you, Mom! I share this because it expresses a sentiment of many millions of people: We can’t write anymore. The idea is that our parents and grandparents (all of whom wrote in flowing cursive no doubt) wrote deeper, more personal, more heartfelt handwritten letters. All this newfangled “txtspk” with two thumbs has ruined our spelling at the very least and made us terrible writers at worst.

I’m currently reading Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The author makes a compelling case that while our online writing may look less civilized than our paper and pen missives of the past, online writing in its many forms is making us more, not less, literate.

First, he makes the case that the “good old days” of letter writing were not as good as we think. At the height of the golden age of English letter writing–the end of the 19th century–most upper crust Britons received only one or two letters a week. And this was in an era of junk mail (albeit much less than today), business correspondence, and mail scams. Like today, many letters back then were not from friends and loved ones.

Second, in American education, reading has been emphasized more than writing. Children were told to read everyday, but much less often were they told to write every day. Reading was to be done at school and at home and at the public library. Writing? At school and maybe a little for homework. Nowadays, most of us are writing throughout the day, via email or text. Clearly we are writing much more than we used to. But does all this writing count when it’s “txtspk?”

Thompson points out that much of our writing today happens in real time. You send an email or text and you might get an immediate response, which of course was not the case in the “golden age” of letter writing. Yes, writers might have been more thoughtful as missives were less frequent, but the “real time” effect makes emailing and texting, at its best, more like “real time” dialogue and discourse. People actually exchange, debate and refine ideas in emails, blogs, and on social media. Online, people have real-time conversations about things that matter. Yes, there’s plenty of dross in online writing–we see it on our screens every day–but there’s also a lot of outstanding content out there written by everyday people.

And the internet has made everyone a publisher. If you write on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, there’s an audience, and an audience has a big effect. Many of us have hundreds of friends. Did such an audience exist for nearly everyone “back in the day?” The audience means “we know someone’s looking,” and we better write well. If you want to be taken seriously online, you need to write clearly and logically, and concede points when faced with strong evidence against your arguments. We have all tuned out the people who send cat video links and spam. The people whom we pay attention to are clever, fun, smart…they’re good writers!

I’ll blog more about the book as I make my way through it. (I’ve read about a quarter of it.)

And Mom, I promise I’ll write more handwritten letters…

Ehrlich’s Population Bomb Was a Dud…

…and Malthus was dead wrong.

As a child in the 70s, I remember watching TV specials with ominous graphs of population explosion. The screen would then cut to a circa 1975 shot of a loud, crowded, polluted New York City. Next a shot of a Biafra baby, then footage from the Vietnam War or the killing fields of Cambodia. Looking back, it’s no wonder that so many of my generation are depressed!

The most famous population doomsdayer was Paul Ehrlich, author of the famous and aptly titled book The Population Bomb. The alarmist tone and dire predictions can be summed up in this excerpt, taken from WikipediaThe battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

So what happened? Well, Ehrlich thought that agricultural production was near its limits, despite the fact that he was living in the midst of the Green Revolution. As it turned out, technological progress improved at a much faster clip than population increases.

Here’s how Bill and Melinda Gates explained it in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

Going back at least to Thomas Malthus in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can’t keep up with population growth. This kind of thinking has gotten the world in a lot of trouble. Anxiety about the size of the world population has a dangerous tendency to override concern for the human beings who make up that population.

Letting children die now so they don’t starve later isn’t just heartless. It also doesn’t work, thank goodness.

It may be counterintuitive, but the countries with the most death have among the fastest-growing populations in the world. This is because the women in these countries tend to have the most births too.

When more children survive, parents decide to have smaller families. Consider Thailand. Around 1960, child mortality started going down. Then around 1970, after the government invested in a strong family planning program, birthrates started to drop. In the course of just two decades, Thai women went from having six children on average to having just two. Today, child mortality in Thailand is almost as low as it is in the U.S., and Thai women have an average of 1.6 children. This pattern of falling death rates followed by falling birthrates applies for the vast majority the world.

Saving lives doesn’t lead to overpopulation. Just the opposite. Creating societies where people enjoy basic health, relative prosperity, fundamental equality and access to contraceptives is the only way to a sustainable world.