Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Recent Reasons for Optimism VI

While it's been awhile, I think it's time for another installment of Recent (more or less) Reasons for Optimism.

The Best of Humanity
1. Buzzfeed profiles some of the heroes of Sandy Hook. A single man embodied the worst that humanity can be and caused enormous suffering. But these six women stood up to the challenge and saved dozens of lives, some at the cost of their own.

2. Buzzfeed also has a list of "26 Moments that Restored Our Faith in Humanity." My favorites include the responses to Hurricane Sandy at #4 and #5, the man with the arthritic dog at #23, and the "parents of the year" at #24.

3. This infographic, covering the leading causes of death since 1900, has some great reasons for optimism. The number one cause of death in 2010 was heart disease, but the deaths caused by heart disease have fallen steadily since their peak in the 60s, from about 370 to 193 per 100,000. Deaths from the second-worst killer, cancer, have also been falling since they peaked in the early 90s.

4. Scientists in the UK have successfully spurred nerve regeneration in paralyzed dogs by transplanting cells from the dogs' own noses to the injured areas. It remains to be seen if the technique will work in humans, but over several months, the dogs went from complete paralysis in the rear legs to being able to walk on a treadmill without assistance.

5. Jan Scheuermann, who is paralyzed from the neck down, can now operate a robotic arm using only her mind "with speeds comparable to the able-bodied" and with a 91.6% accuracy rate.

Civil Liberties
6. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would require law enforcement to actually get warrants to read private emails, no matter how old the email is. The bill will now go to the full Senate, and if it passes there, would also need to pass the House and be signed by Obama, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

7. Self-driving cars are inching closer to reality. Ford plans to introduce cars that can drive for you in stressful stop-and-go traffic, possibly by 2015. But Volvo will beat them to the punch with cars that can drive themselves at slow speeds in 2014. Meanwhile, a company called Rio Tinto is already using ten driverless trucks to transport iron ore, with plans to expand to 150 over the next few years.

8. 3D printing is coming to a store near you, at least in Europe. Staples will be offering 3D printing services next year in The Netherlands and Belgium. No doubt the US will soon follow, if this turns out to be profitable for them. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is providing 3D printing free for students (ht). Researchers in Britain are also having some success in printing electronics.

9. From Planetary Resources, a nearly hour-long video with a great amount of detail on the work they're doing to mine asteroids. Early in the video, Eric Anderson says, "The fact of the matter is that the population of the planet has grown a lot over the last couple hundred years, and people live longer, people live much better lives. It's really an extraordinary time to be alive. And yet, we're just at the cusp of doing some of the more incredibly exciting things that we never thought were possible before."

Some more highlights:
  • 17% of near-Earth asteroids are easier to reach than the surface of the moon.
  • Platinum-group metals are usually mined in concentrations of a few parts per billion and have an average price of $1500 per ounce. A single 500-meter asteroid has more of these metals than have been mined from Earth in the history of humanity.
  • Anderson: "Some of the naysayers to asteroid mining say, well gee, if you bring back all the platinum, then the price will crash. And I say, great. I would love to see that. I would like to see a world of abundance."
10. First-world technology is bringing simple, inexpensive solutions to third-world problems. The GravityLight uses the same idea as old weight-driven clocks to provide light and electricity to those not connected to the grid.

11. In the US, household net worth is the highest it's been since 2007, and higher than any point prior to 2006. The total value of US real estate is also on the rise for the first time since 2006.

12. Don Boudreaux is in the midst of a series of blog entries detailing how everyday items are both less expensive and higher quality today than in 1956, based on an old Sears catalog from that year. So far, he's included women's clothing, bedsheets and lawn care. Mark Perry has made similar observations using other old advertisements, including dishwashers and home entertainment.

And finally, not a reason for optimism, but rather a quote from Winston Churchill: "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

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