Ebola Vaccine Trial Proves 100 Percent Effective

From The Guardian:

The results of the trials involving 4,000 people are remarkable because of the unprecedented speed with which the development of the vaccine and the testing were carried out.

Scientists, doctors, donors and drug companies collaborated to race the vaccine through a process that usually takes more than a decade in just 12 months.

“Having seen the devastating effects of Ebola on communities and even whole countries with my own eyes, I am very encouraged by today’s news”, said Børge Brende, the foreign minister of Norway, which helped fund the trial.

“This new vaccine, if the results hold up, may be the silver bullet against Ebola, helping to bring the current outbreak to zero and to control future outbreaks of this kind. I would like to thank all partners who have contributed to achieve this sensational result, due to an extraordinary and rapid collaborative effort”, he said on Friday.

….

To test how well the vaccine protected people, the cluster outbreaks were randomly assigned either to receive the vaccine immediately or three weeks after Ebola was confirmed. Among the 2,014 people vaccinated immediately, there were no cases of Ebola from 10 days after vaccination — allowing time for immunity to develop — according to the results published online in the Lancet medical journal (pdf). In the clusters with delayed vaccination, there were 16 cases out of 2,380.

In another precedent-breaker, the trial was sponsored by the World Health Organisation because “nobody wanted to step into this role so we took the risk”, said assistant director-general, Dr Marie-Paule Kieny.

Funding came from the Wellcome Trust and other partners including the governments of Norway and Canada. Others involved included Médecins sans Frontières, whose volunteer doctors were on the frontline, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. About 90% of the trial staff were from Guinea, a country where no clinical research had been carried out before. The vaccine is made by Merck.

The data will soon go to regulatory agencies for licensing purposes, after which it can be produced and stockpiled for any future Ebola epidemics. Thus far the plan is to use it only for those most at risk in outbreaks, rather than administered to entire populations. Here is hoping everything pans out.  Continue reading

The Perils and Promise of Telepathy

Telepathy promises an intimate connection to other human beings. If isolation, cruelty, malice, violence and wars are fuelled by misunderstandings and communication failures, as many people believe, telepathy would seem to offer the cure.

But findings from affective neuroscience, social psychology and the new neuroscientific study of empathy suggest that tapping directly into other people’s thoughts would be a pretty bad idea. In the past decade or so, this research has revealed that we already have deep insights into what other people feel and think. We really do have a sixth sense, but it’s psychological rather than psychic, made up of an entirely natural and completely human blend of emotional intuition and clever reasoning.

The more we know about empathy and ordinary human mind-reading, the less it looks like a way to achieve world peace. Technologically assisted telepathy could exaggerate flaws in our moral thinking and saddle us with unbearable intimacy, encouraging us to tune out the suffering of the most vulnerable. Emotional-mindreading is no guarantee of kindness; it is also how psychopaths and bullies manipulate and torment their victims. This research suggests an entirely sensible, completely ordinary, not-at-all-clairvoyant prediction about the future: rather than a dreamy bliss of togetherness, artificial telepathy would be a nightmare.

— Kat McGowan, “Can we harness telepathy for moral good?

Read the rest of the Aeon article hyperlinked above, and share your own thoughts on the subject. What do you think about the merits of telepathic technology?

U.N. Finds Vast Decline in Global Poverty, Though Big Challenges Remain

Last Monday, the United Nations published details from its final report on the results of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets established 15 years ago to improve the lives of the poor. The eight goals covered every dimension of extreme poverty, from eradicating hunger and child mortality, to improving environmental sustainability and gender equality.

As the New York Times reported, the results were mixed but nonetheless encouraging.

Dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

“The report confirms that the global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world”, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday as he released the report in Oslo.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made by one big country, China. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind. In India, for example, an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

Continue reading

Five Short Exercises for Boosting Happiness

Happiness is one of the most elusive yet universally sought-after goals in humanity. Clearly, much of what makes us happy, or facilitates our capacity to pursue happiness on our own terms, is dependent upon a range of circumstances beyond our individual control — brain chemistry; access to healthcare, food, and other basic needs; socioeconomic stability; strong social and familial bonds; and so on. Hence why so many of the happiest countries are those that meet all or most of this criteria.

But many of us fortunate to live in conditions that are relatively conducive to happiness, nonetheless still struggle to experience it in any substantive or sustainable way. Part of this is a matter of framing — happiness means different things and takes different forms for different people — but setting aside that semantical and philosophical discussion, there exist habits, activities, and values that we can commit to that may help us to feel a general sense of mental and physical well-being.

Here are five daily activities that can go a long way towards mitigating anxiety, stress, and despair. They were formulated by “happiness researcher” Shawn Achor in an interview with The Washington Post. Founder and head of Goodthink, an organization devoted to researching and propagating happiness, and author of “The Happiness Advantage“, he is a leading figure in the positive psychology movement, a branch within psychology that focuses on cognitive and behavioral solutions to promoting mental wellness.

Now, I admit to having a fair amount of skepticism for at least some of the claims advanced by positive psychologists; my encounters with lay proponents suggests a shocking lack of empathy and basic common sense, encapsulated by the common refrain that just thinking positively would, in some vague and often spiritual way, lead to positive results — small comfort to those living in impoverished, war-torn countries or who are ravaged by advanced terminal cancer.

Granted, cursory research of the field suggests that my quarrel is more with these lay individuals who are misapplying or misconstruing the science, rather than with the academic and scientific field itself. By all accounts, positive psychology is simply a way to complement medicinal and therapeutic solutions to psychosocial problems with cognitive ones. And insofar as it seems grounded in sincere research and scientific framing, it does not seem so out of depth. Perhaps someone can enlighten my ignorance on the subject.

Anywhere, leaving my baggage at the door, I can see how the following tips can be pretty effective, both intuitively and by experience.

1. Three Acts of Gratitude. Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. And do that for 21 days, The reason why that’s powerful is you’re training your brain to scan the world in a new pattern, you’re scanning for positives, instead of scanning for threats. It’s the fastest way of teaching optimism.

I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn’t work. The reason why is they were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren’t specific. And they weren’t scanning the world for new things.

So this only works if you’re scanning for new things and you’re very specific. So if you say, “I’m grateful for my son,” it doesn’t work. But if you say, “I’m grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I’m loved regardless,” that specificity actually gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.

You can take them in a 21-day period from a low-level of pessimism to a low-level of optimism. There’s nothing magical about 21 days. We stole it from Alcoholics Anonymous. But after 21 days, the hope is, the path of least resistance in the brain tilts toward the habit, rather than away from it. So the hope is, it becomes not just a daily habit but a life habit.

It’s really getting people to feel like the change is possible. The habit seems to matter less than the fact that they’ve dedicated time to choose happiness.

2. The Doubler. For two minutes a day, think of one positive experience that’s occurred during the past 24 hours. Bullet point each detail you can remember. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience. So you’ve just doubled the most meaningful experience in your brain. Do it for 21 days, your brain starts connecting the dots for you, then you have this trajectory of meaning running throughout life.

I did this with the National MS Society. Previous research from the University of Texas found that if you have a chronic neuromuscular disease, chronic fatigue and pain, and you do this for six weeks in a row, six months later, they can drop your pain medication by 50 percent.

3. The Fun Fifteen: 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. It’s the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years.

This is not a repudiation of anti-depressants. It’s an indication that exercise works, because your brain records a victory, and that cascades to the next activity.

4. Breathe. We did this at Google. We had them take their hands off their keyboards two minutes a day. And go from multitasking, to simply watching their breath go in and out. This raises accuracy rates. Improves levels of happiness. Drops their stress levels. And it takes two minutes.

5. Conscious Acts of Kindness. The final habit is the most powerful that we’ve seen so far. For two minutes each day, start work by writing a two-minute positive e-mail or text praising or thanking one person you know. And do it for a different person each day.

People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale.

Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.

Achor also adds the importance of getting restful sleep, which squares with mounting research showing that good sleep helps with everything from boosting happiness and concentration, to reducing the likelihood of obesity and heart disease.

I also like his concept of “social investment”, described thusly:

I’m constantly investing in people around me, especially when I feel stressed, sad or lonely, instead of doing the opposite, which is what most people do. So I’ll write a positive e-mail. I’ll meet up with a friend. If I’m going to a new city, I’ll e-mail somebody I know who’s there to have drinks.

What we’re finding is that it’s not the macro things that matter, but it’s the micro choices for happiness that actually sustain happiness the best.

Indeed, the social component of happiness and well-being seems especially weighty. Just as various international indices have found community-oriented societies to generally be the happiest (even if they were not the wealthiest or most stable), so too do individuals with active and health social lives react better to adversity (again, generally speaking).

We’re finding that happiness is a social creature. If you try to pursue it in a vacuum, it’s very difficult to sustain it. But as soon as you get people focused on creating meaningful connections in the midst of their work, or increasing the meaning and depth of their relationships outside of work, we find happiness rising in step with that social connection.

The big threat to happiness is social fragmentation, which industrialization and globalization of course can contribute to. We don’t find much difference in happiness levels based on economic structures of society. We do find them based on the depth of social connection.

I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who’ve lost their lands. I’ve worked with people in Venezuela, under threat of kidnappings, whose external world is unstable. But they have very strong social connections with their family and friends. And as a result, they’re able to maintain a greater level of happiness and optimism than I’ve seen from bankers, consultants, or salespeople who are on the road all the time, who follow jobs separated from their families, and, as a result, find themselves missing out on the happiness that comes from those very connections that they severed.

Personally, I can attest to the effectiveness of most of these methods. I am always at my happiest when I am helping people, being mindful of my fortunes in life, or engaging in physical activity. It can be difficult to keep such things in mind, let alone find the initiative to execute them (especially exercise and good sleep), but that is why it is important to consciously cultivate these activities until they become habitual — a part of everyday life that creates a virtuous cycle of happiness and active engagement with the world and one’s self.

To be sure, these exercises are emphatically not a substitute for therapy or medication, nor do they make up for the daunting external conditions — such as lack of employment opportunities, oppressive labor or political environments, etc. — that make cognitive adaptation just half the battle. But given how simple they are to try, and how intrinsically valuable things like physical activity and gratitude are regardless, these exercises seem worth a shot at least.

What are your thoughts?

John Locke — Far From the Paragon of Classical Liberty

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

The true liberal tradition is represented not by Locke, but by John Stuart Mill, whose wholehearted commitment to political freedom was consistent with his eventual adoption of socialism (admittedly in a rather refined and abstract form).

Mill wasn’t perfect, as is evidenced by his support of British imperialism, for which he worked as an official of the East India Company, and more generally by his support for limitations on democratic majorities. But Mill’s version of liberalism became more democratic as experience showed that fears about dictatorial majorities were unfounded. By contrast, Locke’s classical liberalism has hardened into propertarian dogma.

As Mill recognized, markets and property rights are institutions that are justified by their usefulness, not by any fundamental human right. Where markets work well, governments should not interfere with them. But, when they fail, as they so often do, it is entirely appropriate to modify property rights and market outcomes, or to replace them altogether with direct public control.

Received ideas change only slowly, and the standard view of Locke as a defender of liberty is likely to persist for years to come. Still, the reassessment is underway, and the outcome is inevitable. Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement. His classical liberalism offers no guarantee of freedom to anyone except owners of capitalist private property.

— , “John Locke Against Freedom

Sir Nicholas Winton, The “British Schindler”, Dies At 106

Winton saved 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia destined for the concentration camps, and worked to get many of them adopted. His heroism remained unknown for fifty years. From ABC:

Born in London in 1909 to parents of German Jewish descent, Winton himself was raised as a Christian. He was a 29-year-old clerk at the London Stock Exchange when a friend contacted him and told him to cancel the skiing holiday they had planned in late 1938 and travel instead to Czechoslovakia.

Alarmed by the influx of refugees from the Sudetenland region recently annexed by Germany, Winton and his friend feared — correctly — that Czechoslovakia soon would be invaded by the Nazis and Jewish residents from there would be sent to concentration camps.

While supporters in Britain were working to get Jewish intellectuals and communists out of Czechoslovakia, no one was trying to save the children, so Winton took the task upon himself.

Returning to Britain, Winton persuaded British officials to accept children, as long as foster homes were found and a 50-pound guarantee was paid for each one to ensure they had enough money to return home later. Their stays were only expected to be temporary.

Setting himself up as the one-man children’s section of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Winton set about finding homes and guarantors, drawing up lists of about 6,000 children, publishing pictures to encourage British families to agree to take them.

The following video, in which he unknowingly meets those he saved, still gets me.

Finland and the Netherlands Experiment With Basic Income

Finland became the first country in Europe to announce plans for the implementation of a basic income program, according to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). (To recap: a basic income is a universal, unconditional form of payment to individuals that covers their living costs. It allow people to choose to work more flexible hours and devote more time to non-work related activities, from caregiving and volunteering, to studying and leisure.)

The commitment consists of one line: ‘Implement a Basic Income experiment’, in the ‘Health and Welfare’ section of the programme.

The main party of government, the Centre Party and the new Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, are known to be supportive of Basic Income, but his new government partners, the populist Finns Party and conservative NCP have not spoken publicly on the issue. The scant reference to Basic Income raises some doubts about the government’s commitment to the policy.

So while it is far from a done deal — especially as the government has yet to release any further details, including a timeframe — it is nonetheless a big step, as few other countries, even in socially progressive Europe, have ever made such a formal, nationwide commitment.

Meanwhile, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, another country that has been mulling over a basic income, is set to implement a plan of its own. The intention is not only to determine if a basic income will help people in absolute terms, but to see how its efficiency compares to the status quo of welfare payments. From The Independent:

University College Utrecht has paired with the city to place people on welfare on a living income, to see if a system of welfare without requirements will be successful.

Alderman for Work and Income Victor Everhardt told DeStad Utrecht: “One group is will have compensation and consideration for an allowance, another group with a basic income without rules and of course a control group which adhere to the current rules.”

“Our data shows that less than 1.5 percent abuse the welfare, but, before we get into all kinds of principled debate about whether we should or should not enter, we need to first examine if basic income even really works.

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sitting passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

It is not surprising that the Dutch would lead the way in this experiment, given that they already have a well-established fondness for less traditional work environments — 46.1 percent of the labor force works part-time, the highest proportion in the European Union, and the nation is nonetheless broadly prosperous, with a high rate of life satisfaction. This is a country that already leads the way in work-life balance, so it would be interesting to see how this endeavor goes and whether it will catch on elsewhere in the country or beyond.

Finland and the Netherlands are the first developed nations to experiment with a guaranteed basic income since the 1970s, when Canada conducted a pilot project dubbed “Mincome” in a small town, with great results. Other experiments have been performed more recently in India, Namibia and Brazil, each one of them reporting measurable, positive outcomes in everything from poverty reduction to healthcare and general wellness.

As BIEN notes, there is an increasing interest in Basic Income worldwide, as well there should be: from mounting inequality to a dearth of well-paying and sustainable jobs, there are plenty of good reasons to consider at least trying out this streamlined and promising approach to alleviating poverty and improving quality of life.

Same-Sex Marriage Legalized in the U.S.

As most readers have no doubt already heard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the country.

As the New York Times notes, this landmark decision was the culmination of a rapid arc of progress that first came to the fore back in the early 1990s, when the first states began explicitly banning gay marriage. Only in 2003 did a sole state, Massachusetts, allow for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

screenshot-www.nytimes.com 2015-06-26 13-13-16

This rise in marriage equality was the result in a rapid turnaround in public opinion: from only 27 percent public approval in 1996, according to Gallup, to 60 percent as of this year. As The Washington Post observes, this is far more rapid and dramatic a change than most social issues (such as abortion and capital punishment).

The decision was based primarily on the Fourteenth Amendment, namely its Equal Protection Clause, which requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction.  Continue reading

Happy 86th Birthday Anne Frank

Anne FrankOn this day in 1929, Anne Frank was born. Had her life not been cruelly cut short, she would be 86 today, and probably one of the foremost writers of our time.

It was also on this day in 1942, her thirteenth birthday, that she first began keeping her diary. Her father gave her a book that she had pointed out in a shop window a few days earlier. Although it was an autograph book, Frank decided she would use it as a diary, and began writing in it right away.

Sure enough, her father Otto Frank, the family’s only known survivor, would be the one to publish the diary he had given his daughter. When he returned to Amsterdam from Auschwitz in 1945, he sought out his protectors in the hopes of finding his family. The diary and other personal papers had been kept safe by Miep Gies, one of the family’s protectors, who resolved to give them back to Anne. Instead, they were given to Otto when the death of Anne had been confirmed.

Of all her deep and well-written insights, the following resonates with me most. It was written July 15, less than a month before she and her family had been betrayed, arrested, and deported to their deaths.

It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more. In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!

If someone hiding out from one of the most vicious regimes in history could maintain such a humanistic and compassionate spirit, I have little excuse. What better inspiration do I need? I would like to imagine that although she could not realize her ideals directly, her kindness, sincerity, and hope continue to influence others to carry it all on for her.