The Morning Jolt

Science & Tech

The World Is Getting Better. It’s Just That No One Tells You About It.

(Thomas Peter/Reuters)

A special Morning Jolt today, as I try to run through a long but by no means complete list of good news from the past year that was astoundingly under-reported and discussed, particularly when compared to presidential tweets, discussions of which pop culture offerings weren’t woke enough, glowing profiles of the eighth or ninth-most popular Democratic presidential candidate, and so on . . .

We’ve Made Some Breathtaking Advances

You will be stunned when you realize how many dramatic breakthroughs have been made against some of the most common and deadly diseases and ailments out there.

One: A new blood test could detect breast cancer five years before other clinical signs manifest. This could be available to patients in four to five years. Separately, a new treatment for early-stage breast cancer could wipe out a growth in just one treatment.

Two: A new three-drug combination therapy could provide significant help to up to 90 percent of those suffering from cystic fibrosis.

Three: We could soon see a pill that can prevent heart attacks in high-risk patients: “Drugmaker Amarin “shocked the world last year when a long-running clinical trial showed that its medicine derived from purified fish oil, Vascepa, substantially reduced the risk of cardiovascular events like heart attacks in high-risk patients . . . In November, a panel of experts convened by the Food and Drug Administration reviewed Amarin’s data. They voted 16 to 0 that Vascepa was safe and cuts cardiovascular events.”

Four: Israeli researchers think they’ve discovered that a molecule designed to help stroke victims may be a new way to wipe out pancreatic cancer, which is one of the toughest cancers to treat.

Five: The Mayo Clinic injected stem cells derived from fat cells into a paralyzed patient’s spine and the patient is now walking again. This treatment may not work as well for every patient, but it provides new hope for everyone facing paralysis.

You can get stem cells from fat cells? Good heavens, I think I’ve found my calling.

Six: A new vaccine could eliminate allergies to cats.

Seven: Earlier this year, UC San Francisco researchers managed to transform human stem cells into mature insulin-producing cells, a major breakthrough in the effort to develop a cure for type 1 diabetes.

Eight: In July, researchers “successfully eliminated HIV from the DNA of infected mice for the first time, bringing them one step closer to curing the virus in humans.”

Nine: Two new treatments for the deadly Ebola virus “saved roughly 90 percent of the patients who were newly infected.”

Ten: Gene therapy developed at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has cured infants born with X-linked severe combined immunodeficiency, more commonly known as “bubble boy” disease. “The children are producing functional immune cells, including T cells, B cells and natural killer (NK) cells, for the first time.”

Keep headlines like the ones above in mind the next time you hear some politician denouncing “those greedy pharmaceutical companies.”

Turning our attention to the American economy, you’ve heard about the low unemployment rate. What you may not have heard is that the workforce participation rate for those between 25 and 54 years old is up to 80.1 percent — the highest since early 2007.

If that’s eleven, then twelve would be the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report on income and poverty, which came out in October. That report found real median family income up 1.2 percent from 2017 to 2018, real median earnings up 3.4 percent, the number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 2.3 million, and the poverty rate declined from 12.3 percent to 11.8 percent, with 1.4 million people leaving poverty.

Thirteen: Despite predictions that Amazon was going to put bookstores out of business, the number of independent bookstores keeps rising each year — the most recent figures are 1,887 independent bookselling companies running 2,524 stores.

Fourteen: The cost of lithium-ion batteries is down about 87 percent over the past decade — which makes electric vehicles a more cost-effective option for transporting goods and people.

Fifteen: There’s a lot of ugly trade wars and tariffs going on, but there is progress on some fronts. Japan just approved a deal that will lower or remove tariffs on $7.2 billion in U.S. farm goods, including a gradual reduction of its 38.5 percent duty on American beef to 9 percent. Other U.S. products including pork, wine and cheese will also get greater market access, putting the United States on a level playing field with TPP members such as Australia and Canada. The European Parliament voted last month to approve a plan that “grants the U.S. a country-specific share of the European Union’s duty-free, high-quality beef quota.”

Sixteen: In September, for the first time in 70 years, the United States exported more crude oil and petroleum products than it imported per day. Back in 2006, we were importing 13 million barrels a day. Around that time, America set out to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. Thanks to fracking and innovation, we did it.

Turning our attention to the environment, bald eagles, once on the endangered species list, are now so plentiful that San Bernardino National Forest officials are ending their annual count.

That’s seventeen. Number eighteen would arrive from over in the United Kingdom, a new study of endangered carnivorous mammals finds “two of the three ‘rarer carnivores’ (pine marten and polecat) have staged remarkable recoveries, while the third (wildcat) continues to be threatened by hybridisation. Meanwhile, akin to pine martens and polecats, the formerly rare and restricted otter has recovered much of its former range and is increasing in density.”

Nineteen: The world is literally a greener place than it was 20 years ago, and data from NASA satellites has revealed a counterintuitive source for much of this new foliage: China and India. A new study shows that the two emerging countries with the world’s biggest populations are leading the increase in greening on land. The effect stems mainly from ambitious tree planting programs in China and intensive agriculture in both countries.

Twenty: NASA also found that “abnormal weather patterns in the upper atmosphere over Antarctica dramatically limited ozone depletion in September and October, resulting in the smallest ozone hole observed since 1982.”

Twenty-one: A study unveiled in November estimates that humpbacks in the western South Atlantic region now number 24,900 — nearly 93 percent of their population size before they were hunted to the brink of extinction. Good news, crew of the Enterprise, you may not need to use a stolen Klingon ship to find two humpbacks to save the future.

Twenty-two: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted and recorded video of a kraken — okay, a giant squid that was at least 10 feet long — only about 100 miles southeast of New Orleans, shortly before their vessel was struck by lightning. Okay, technically this could be bad news.

Turning our attention overseas, you heard about the raid against al-Baghdadi and the collapse of the Islamic State. You probably didn’t hear that the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan is “now reduced to around 300 fighters in Afghanistan, from an estimated 3,000 earlier this year.”

That’s twenty-three; twenty-four would be the impact of terrorism. We won’t know 2019’s numbers until the year ends, but deaths from terrorism fell for the fourth consecutive year in 2018, after peaking in 2014. The number of deaths has now decreased by 52 percent since 2014, falling from 33,555 to 15,952, says the 2019 Global Terrorism Index.

Twenty-five: The number of malaria infections recorded globally has fallen for the first time in several years.  In 2018, Cambodia reported zero malaria-related deaths for the first time in the country’s history. India also reported a huge reduction in infections, with 2.6 million fewer cases in 2018 than in 2017.

Twenty-six: Tensions between India and Pakistan got worse overall this year over Kashmir, but India and Pakistan managed to cooperate on breaking ground on a new peace corridor that will allow more than 5,000 Sikh pilgrims to travel back and forth across the normally impassable border visa-free for the first time in 72 years.

Twenty-seven: Israeli scientists have genetically engineered an E. Coli bacteria that eat carbon dioxide.

Twenty-eight through thirty-one come from the realm of remarkable discoveries about our past. Archeologists made amazing discoveries in the past year. A 1,300-year-old ‘rook” found in the Jordanian desert may be the world’s oldest chess piece. They discovered a new humanoid Nazca line in Peru. Sometime fourth century B.C. and sixth century A.D., in what is today Iran, some civilization built a big beautiful wall running about 71 miles; it appears Mexico didn’t pay for that one, either. And in Jerusalem, archeologists found that a grand street running from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount was built by some guy named . . . er, Pontius Pilate.

You hear about this stuff a lot less because articles and television segments about these developments don’t make you more likely to respond in the comments section, more likely to share on social media, more likely to call into a talk radio program, or more likely to vote for a particular candidate. It doesn’t make you believe that the world is full of people who are being unfair to you, that you’re a victim, or that other people are responsible for your problems.

ADDENDUM: Whatever your day holds, it probably doesn’t include chaperoning an elementary school field trip with fourth graders that includes long bus rides to and from our educational destination. Here’s hoping not too many kids barf today.

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