Thursday, February 25, 2021

Reasons to be cheerful


In Cosmic Trigger 2, Robert Anton Wilson writes (in the "Barbaric Age Recalled" chapter) about how awful living conditions were as he grew up. (He was born in 1932.)

"When I remember life in Gerritsen Beach in those days, I define it chiefly in negatives," he writes. "Most readers born since 1945 cannot imagine the ignorance and brutality of those days. Many middle-aged women had goiter, a disease causing an ugly lump in the neck, which looked like a cancer. (The cure was found sometime in the 1940s and goiter disappeared from America). People regularly died of tuberculosis, which is now normally cured in its early stages, and children had dozens of diseases now abolished. I myself survives measles, German measles, mumps, flu (still a major killer in those days), rheumatic fever, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio."

The passage has many other details. "The community had no paved roads and nobody had central heating. wall-to-wall carpeting or central bathrooms ... When ecologists like Gary Snyder talk about 'going back to the way things were in the 1920s,' I think they must be a few gallons shy of a full tank. The '20s were even worse for poor people than the '30s ... " 

We all went through a tough year in 2020 because of the pandemic. Most people, regardless of their political persuasion, did not particularly enjoy the U.S. election and other events associated with it, although obviously Democrats preferred the ultimate outcome.

With that noted, perhaps it is useful to point out last year was a good year for technological progress. A couple of recent columns I ran across made that point.

Writing for his column at Bloomberg news, Tyler Cowen wrote in "The Silver Lining of 2020" that the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, developed in record time, were not the only example of technological advances during the year. 

"Other advances in the biosciences may prove no less stunning. A very promising vaccine candidate against malaria, perhaps the greatest killer in human history, is in the final stages of testing. Advances in vaccine technology have created the real possibility of a universal flu vaccine, and work is proceeding on that front. New CRISPR techniques appear on the verge of vanquishing sickle-cell anemia, and other CRISPR methods have allowed scientists to create a new smartphone-based diagnostic test that would detect viruses and offer diagnoses within half an hour," he wrote.

2020 also saw breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, transportation and green energy, apparently providing a path forward to deal with climate change. The column notes "progress in solar power, which in many settings is as cheap as any relevant alternative. China is opening a new and promising fusion reactor. Despite the absence of a coherent U.S. national energy policy, the notion of a mostly green energy future no longer appears utopian.

"In previous eras, advances in energy and transportation typically have brought further technological advances, by enabling humans to conquer and reshape their physical environments in new and unexpected ways. We can hope that general trend will continue."

David Brooks wrote a column making similar points in the New York Times. Yes, I know the country is largely divided between people who hate Brooks or who hate the Times, but "The Coming Technology Boom" is a good column that mentions many new technologies Cowen did not list. 

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