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Still Chugging Along

Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

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What Could Go Right? Adios to Spain’s last coal mine

India gives us the world’s first DNA vaccine, Mexico decriminalizes abortion, and are US hospitals overcrowded from ivermectin cases?

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

It’s back to school season, and parents are nervous about their kids. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 3,649 children between March 2020 and late August 2021 have been hospitalized from Covid-19. Around 400 have died. These are astoundingly low numbers, especially given that for most other viruses, young children and the elderly are usually the most at risk of bad outcomes. What’s so special about Covid? Probably nothing. Researchers are exploring whether something innate in children’s immune systems protects them—not from getting infected, but from getting seriously ill.

Don’t let your head be turned around by the news that with Delta, a higher proportion of kids are now being infected and hospitalized. The key word there is proportion. We don’t know for sure, but it’s likely because of high vaccination rates among adults.

In the meantime, many of us are understandably antsy about a kid-friendly Covid vaccine. What’s taking so long? Lots of complicated logistics, plus federal insistence that more children than usual be enrolled in the trials—which is frustrating, but something to remember when the inevitable safety discussion gets brought up again. Let’s take a moment to thank those parents who have signed their children up to be part of the trials. You guys rock.

We’re giving a warm welcome to India’s new DNA vaccine, the world’s first, which has been approved for emergency use. Pros of DNA vaccines include easy manufacturing, transportation, and storage—since they don’t require ultra-cold temperatures—and needle-free delivery. Oh, and they may be the future of vaccinology. Who knows? Cons for this particular vaccine include three doses and the fact that late-stage trial data has not yet been published. Other DNA vaccines are in various stages of trial in the US, South Korea, Japan, Canada, and other countries.

Two last pandemic-related pieces. Have you been asking for a large-scale, randomized controlled trial on the efficacy of mask wearing? Here you go, with love from Bangladesh. And if “ivermectin” means anything to you, you might appreciate this post from West Coast doctor and writer Scott Alexander’s Substack, “Too Good to Check: A Play in Three Acts,” which pulls together thoughts on bias, polarization, the media, and of course, ivermectin, the antiparisitic drug that some have taken to self-treat Covid. The takeaways: one, slow your roll when you read media coverage, especially when the story backs up any of your preconceived notions. Two, US hospitals are not overcrowded due to ivermectin poisoning cases; those, as Alexander says, are “real but minor,” numbers-wise.

Some international news we have our eye on: the US government might not have gotten the memo yet that severe income inequality can mess with societal flourishing, but China’s sure has. Their “common prosperity” plan aims to create an “olive-shaped” society with a wide middle class. The Netherlands is experimenting with banning property investors from buying homes in neighborhoods where regular buyers are being priced out. Spain’s last remaining coal mine will close in December, the result of a compromise made three years ago, when the government, trade unions, and energy companies agreed “to shut down the entire coal industry in return for early retirement and investment in replacement industries.” Speaking of coal, China is seeing some success clearing their once-polluted skies. And while tomfoolery goes down in Texas, Mexico’s Supreme Court just decriminalized abortion.

We’re giving two thumbs up to this Twitter-thread-turned-Reason-article on all the ways things have gotten better in the last 20 years. Entries include better entertainment to violent crime dropping like a rock to new weed laws to improved attitudes toward LGBTQ people. (And one that combined the first and the last: begone, casual homophobia on TV.) 
One feel-good entry: water balloon progress galore.

Before we go, remember when last month we called the The New York Times’ coverage of breakthrough infections true but misleadingThey, too, have now decided the same. But seeing so many people reaching serious levels of pandemic burnout lately, we’ll take the turnaround happily. The Times lightly suggests putting the pandemic anxiety, as much as it makes sense, aside.

On the heels of Hurricane Ida, a new report from the World Meteorological Organization tells us something we already know and something we bet you didn’t. Climate change and improved reporting means that the number of weather-related disasters in the last 50 years has increased fivefold. But the number of resultant deaths has decreased almost threefold, thanks to improved early warnings and disaster management.

Below in the links section, fish just became a little less endangered, breakthrough infections are far less likely to lead to long Covid, some countries are giving fossil fuels the cold shoulder, and more.


Firefighters battling the Caldor Fire were able to save all homes in South Lake Tahoe’s Christmas Valley, which leads to the city of 22,000. While the fire—the 15th-largest in state history—has so far burned thousands of acres and damaged or destroyed more than 800 structures, firefighters credited their success in South Lake Tahoe to “a combination of aggressive firefighting tactics, improved weather conditions and past efforts to prepare the landscape for wildfire.” Thanks to reader Roger for this story!

From us: Ah, the Internet: humanity’s greatest hope or our great undoing? We search for answers in our latest episode of What Could Go Right?, Building a Better Internet. In this episode, we’re joined by Danielle Citron, a leading expert on information privacy, free speech, and civil rights, and Eli Pariser, co-founder of Upworthy and the author of The Filter Bubble, who now leads the New_ Public project. Together they share their views on the Internet’s current trajectory and how we might course correct. Listen to it here.

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Building a Better Internet

This is an excerpt from our latest podcast episode, Building a Better Internet, with TPN Members Danielle Citron and Eli Pariser.

Eli Pariser: When you look through the history of communications technologies, frequently there have been resets where countries and regimes have decided to shape their communication mediums to suit their national needs. Some of those have been problematic, but others have been the creation of public media, or the decision to build out a journalistic sector that is not just the yellow press. There’s all these moments in history where there was an intention to structure things in a certain way. Right now, the online spaces that we have fail to pass the laugh test, in terms of what we would actually think would work as a global connected medium, in two ways, or maybe three.

One is the idea that you can make an algorithm that works for 3 billion people and 190 countries. Why would we think that was even slightly possible? That sounds implausible because it is implausible. And what we know is that it doesn’t work that way. There are all sorts of countries, especially if you’re in the global south, where you have to deal with a version of Facebook or Twitter that’s actively not working for the way that your society is structured. We live in the United States, in the best version of Facebook. This is as good as it gets. Because that’s where all the engineers are, and that’s where a lot of the political capital is. So everyone else is living in a less attended-to, more wild west, less moderated, less adjudicated version.

So one piece is scale. I don’t actually believe that you can do it at scale. Another piece is structure. A lot of our work in New_ Public is trying to think through what can we learn from offline spaces that can inform better online spaces. In terms of structure, offline, we have private businesses, which play an important role. But we also have all of these social institutions that do a lot of the really critical work of inviting people in, binding them together, helping make sure that everybody has their basic needs met. We don’t have any kind of commensurate social sector online. We’re trying to solve every problem through the lens of a venture-backed, for-profit company. I think there’s a role for that, but it’s not the only way to solve problems, nor does it scan that we’d want to solve a bunch of thorny public problems inside of that structure. 

The third piece is about power and governance. The other thing we know about what makes functional societies and communities and democracies work is that you have federated layers where people are able to have a say in who gets to say what and how things work. And that’s a really critical part not only of building spaces that work for people, but also building faith in the whole enterprise of public space. We’re living in a very technocratic autocracy online. You cannot, as a user, say, “I want Facebook to change the way it’s doing X.” 

So governance is wrong. Structure is wrong. Scale is wrong. The good news is there’s a whole bunch of people who are starting to pivot toward what folks are calling Web 3.0 or decentralized web. That’s where the pendulum is swinging. There are a lot of big questions about how you deal with things like child porn or other things that you don’t want in these structures. But I do think that’s where we’re going to see the next wave of innovation and better spaces, because that’s what has always worked in human society and community. Finding local, situated solutions to these problems generally beats out the one-size-fits-all, top-down version.

Listen to the episode here.

Until Next Time

Until next Thursday, remember that Johnathon has seen it all and is still going strong.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.