THE late Hans Rosling, MD, in his brilliant book, “Factfulness,” noted that “fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive today, help keep journalists employed.” Rosling reminds us that the “world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected — by your own attention filter or by the media — precisely because it is scary.”
When we ask, what’s the news?, we mean, what’s the bad news?
Today, however, let’s talk about some of the good news happening out there in the big bad world.
Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor and a columnist of The Wall Street Journal, wrote recently about a “truly remarkable, miraculous, literally death-defying fact about my life. I’ve had three children, four grandchildren, nine nephews and nieces and six great-nephews and nieces. And every single one of them is alive. At 66, I’ve never experienced the tragedy of a child’s death.”
Does this seem obvious and anti-climactic? Gopnik asked. “If so, it shows how much we take for granted an extraordinary transformation in the human condition. For almost all of human history — for peasants and princes, hunter-gatherers and city-dwellers, poor and rich — there was a numbingly consistent pattern: One quarter of children died in infancy, and half died before adolescence.”
Early this year, The Wall Street Journal featured Apeel, a company founded by a 35-year-old resident of Santa Barbara, Calif., James Rogers. Apeel “applies an edible, plant-based coating to fruits and vegetables that extends their shelf life without refrigeration.” According to the Journal, “Apeel-treated avocados, limes, apples and cucumbers are already in some of the largest grocery chains in the U.S. and Europe. The startup now plans to expand into markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America, thanks to a $30 million investment from the International Finance Corp., the World Bank’s private-sector arm. The company Mr. Rogers launched in 2012 as a Ph.D. student is now valued at more than $1 billion.”
How does Apeel work?
“All fruits and vegetables spoil by the same process — water goes out, oxygen comes in — but creating an invisible barrier that locks in moisture requires a different formula for each one. Using the lipids and glycerolipids of existing peels, seeds and pulp (i.e., things we already eat), Apeel has created a safe, flavorless, FDA-approved solution for dozens of products, which it applies while wet to the surface of harvested produce on specially outfitted conveyor belts just before everything is packaged for export. This invisible ‘peel’ can double or triple the lifespan of a product, the firm says.”
Early this month, the Journal announced: “Research to Make Plastic Edible Wins Prize”:
“Two U.S. scientists won a roughly $1.2 million prize for developing a way of using bacteria to turn plastic into protein powder.
“German pharmaceutical and chemicals company Merck KGaA said…it awarded its annual Future Insight Prize to bioengineer Ting Lu from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and microbiologist Stephen Techtmann from Michigan Technological University.”
As the Journal pointed out, “The improbable-sounding task of turning plastic into protein requires some innovative chemistry that the researchers say could help address the problem of plastic waste.”
“Plastic is a mixture of different chemical elements including carbon, oxygen, hydrogen,” Dr. Lu told the Journal. “Food is a radically different type of materials in terms of its appearance; however, from a chemical perspective, it is also composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and other elements.”
Dr. Lu added, “At the most basic level, our research is the conversion of the chemical elements from a plastic form to a food form.”
More (useful) good news:
“Remote Work Isn’t Just for White-Collar Jobs Anymore,” the Journal reported in Oct. 2020. “Technology is spreading that lets people do physical work at a distance — from surgery to seeding”:
“On the ground floor of a towering office building overlooking Tokyo Bay, in a space intended to resemble the interior of a moon base, a convenience store is tended by a humanoid robot.
“This robot isn’t out front, wowing customers. No, it is in the back, doing the unglamorous job of keeping shelves stocked. It has broad shoulders, wide eyes, a boomerang-shaped head and strange hands, capable of grabbing objects with both suction and a trio of opposable thumbs.
“But the machine isn’t acting on a set of preprogrammed instructions. Like a marionette on invisible, miles-long strings, the robot at the Lawson convenience store is controlled remotely, by a person elsewhere in the city wearing a virtual-reality headset.
“Built by Tokyo-based Telexistence, a three-year-old startup, this system is the culmination of nearly 40 years of research, and is the world’s first commercial realization of an audacious goal: to enable a person to do any job on Earth from anywhere else.”
For their part, Kenco Logistics Services LLC, a third-party logistics provider based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and France-based logistics provider Geodis SA are “testing remote-operated forklifts equipped with technology from startup Phantom Auto that drivers can operate remotely using real-time video and audio streams,” the Journal reported in May.
“The technology allows operators to switch between vehicles in different locations depending on demand, opening up those jobs to workers in various regions. It could also let Kenco access untapped sections of the labor market, such as people who are physically disabled….”
“I do not seek to trivialize the horror [in today’s world] that undoubtedly remains,” Hans Rosling said. “I do not try to understate the importance of ending current conflicts [and problems].” But “remember: things can be bad, and getting better.”
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