Friday, December 31, 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful - Charlie's Diary

Reasons to be Cheerful

Elsewhere on the interwebbytubes, an acquaintance asked, somewhat grumpily, if anything good had happened in the past decade (aside from the iPod).

So I went dumpster-diving in memory lane for things to feel good about ...

Prior to 1988, diagnosis with AIDS was essentially a death sentence.

Between 1988 and 2000, chemotherapy became available that was pretty horrible but made it more or less survivable if you were good at sticking to the treatment regime and had potloads of money (or your healthcare providers did).

Between 2000 and 2010, AIDS somehow turned into a non-fatal-if-treated chronic medical condition, and the drugs got cheap enough that even developing world countries can afford them; and despite the huge epidemic, AIDS is no longer killing more people than tuberculosis or malaria or the other classic hench-plagues of the grim reaper.

I'd call that an improvement. Wouldn't you?

Oh, and we're close to exterminating polio and dracunculiasis (aka guinea worm disease) in the wild. (Two extinctions I won't be shedding any tears over.)

In other news of improvements, both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it's as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China's developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)

The number of people living in poverty and with unsafe water supplies world-wide today is about the same as it was in 1970. Only difference is, there were 3 billion of us back then and today we're nearer to 7 billion. Upshot: the proportion of us humans on this planet who are living in third world poverty (unable to afford enough food, water, clothing and shelter) has actually been halved.

Africa averaged around 5% growth throughout the decade, too. It's unevenly distributed, and there's still the fallout from the hideous war in the Congo, but: net improvement. And Africa is huge — again, over a billion people have, in many cases, seen a significant improvement in their wealth and health.

Warfare ... we haven't nuked ourselves. It is now two-thirds of a century since an invading army crossed the Rhine, marking the longest period of peace in Europe since the height of the Roman Empire. Despite certain inadvisable excursions in the middle east and central Asia, the absolute number of people living in states in conditions of civil war or external warfare has dropped significantly since the previous decade, which in turn experienced a massive drop after the end of the Cold War (and proxy conflicts fuelled by it). It would be premature to hail an age of world peace, but we do seem to be fighting a lot less.

Our computers are about ten times faster in clock speed than they were circa 2000, but have vastly more (and faster) storage, are cheaper, and are crawling into everything from hotel room doorhandles to automobiles and TVs. My mobile phone today is significantly faster and more powerful — and has a higher resolution display and more storage! — than my PC in 2000. And my broadband today runs roughly 32 times as fast as it did in 2000. (Whether this is good or not is a matter of opinion, but at least it's available if you want it.)

There's been enormous progress in genomics; we're now on the threshold of truly understanding how little we understand. While the anticipated firehose of genome-based treatments hasn't materialized, we now know why it hasn't materialized, and it's possible to start filling in the gaps in the map. Turns out that sequencing the human genome was merely the start. (It's not a blueprint; it's not even an algorithm for generating a human being. Rather, it's like a snapshot of the static data structures embedded in an executing process. Debug that.) My bet is that we're going to have to wait another decade. Then things are going to start to get very strange in medicine.

Finally? The war on terror seems to be dampening down. While 9/11 was traumatic, for all their chest-beating Al Qaida failed to score a repeat. Even the horrors of the Madrid and London bombings didn't come close. It turns out that organizing major terrorist atrocities on the scale of 9/11 is hard, and folks with the brains and persistence to do so are more likely to pursue their political ends through conventional channels; what we're left with are the idiot clown-car brigade trying to set fire to their underpants or blow up their shoes.

I'm sorry to note that most of the good stuff didn't happen to those of us in the developed world — but the human world is indisputably in better shape overall in 2010 than it was in 2000. And what makes my neighbour happier without damaging me makes my world a better place.

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