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Weekly Dose of Optimism #13
Adnan, Incarcerated Coders, NEPA Changes, The Lithium Beat, Breakthrough Prizes, Extinct Influenza
Come for the Optimism, stay for the in-depth analyses of tech companies and trends:
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome to our 13th Weekly Dose of Optimism. Lucky #13. A relatively slow week in the world of optimistic news — just our luck. But as always, if you look hard enough, we humans are always making progress.
Let’s get to it.
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Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn overturned Syed’s murder conviction in the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee after prosecutors raised doubts about his guilty finding because of the revelation of alternative suspects in the homicide and unreliable evidence used against him at trial.
This is a Global Tel Link prepaid newsletter from — Adnan Syed — a former inmate at a Maryland correctional facility.
I vividly remember the feeling of falling in love with podcasts for the first time — it was 2014 and my mom sent me a text about a new podcast called Serial. Oof, I thought, another NPR-voicey human interest radio talk show. But for whatever reason, I gave Episode 1 a listen — and have been hooked on podcasts ever since.
When listening to Serial, whether you believe Adnan Syed “did it” or not — I tend to think he is not 100% innocent and was at least tangentially involved — what really sticks out is just how backwards the criminal justice system is. Corruption. Incompetency. Bureaucracy. Lack of digitization. Timelines. The whole thing is just really frustrating. And for many people, Serial was the first real glimpse inside the system.
In the case of Adnan Syed, the criminal justice system isn’t saying he’s “innocent," but is basically admitting that the system didn’t work as designed. The judge (and surprisingly, the District Attorney’s Office) recognized this, and overturned the conviction “in the interest of justice and fairness.” Adnan is free.
Crowder, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery in 2020, was one of 16 men who enrolled in the course while detained at the D.C. jail, as part of a new 12-week program from the Educational Justice Institute at MIT. The program, called Brave Behind Bars, brought computer science education to the facility — adding to the suite of educational services that experts hope will better prepare detainees for reentry.
Not everyone is as lucky as Adnan. All told, about 2 million people are incarcerated at any given time in the U.S. — that’s about the size of a large US city, call it Prisonton, with a population somewhere between Phoenix and Houston. About 10% of those folks are serving life sentences, which means that 90% will reenter society. In order to make a life for themselves and not circle back into the criminal justice system, former inmates need skills and training to hold down a job. As probably every Not Boring reader is probably aware, the most in-demand skill in today’s job market is coding. Programs, such as the one profiled in this Post story, will not solve our engineering deficit, but could provide a strong path to post-incarceration employment for the most ambitious, dedicated, and talented inmates.
The NEPA process as it currently exists is slowing down the clean energy transition and is long overdue for reform. NEPA imposes massive costs on the federal government, drags clean energy projects out for years, and generates uncertainty that stops other projects from ever getting off the ground. With targeted reforms, Congress can unlock critical clean energy projects that are currently being stifled.
We recently profiled “The Case for Abolishing the National Environmental Protection Act” in the Weekly Dose of Optimism #11. This piece, from the Institute for Progress, does a strong job of outlining how NEPA works and the monetary, time and opportunity costs of its reviews. The authors put forth four potential policy changes that could facilitate the clean energy transition within the constraints of NEPA:
Give clean energy the same regulatory treatment that fossil fuels already receive
Establish limits on judicial review in actions arising from NEPA
Establish a program to designate “energy security corridors” which would encourage the development of regional energy hubs
Collect comprehensive data on environmental reviews and other permitting issues
Some folks want to abolish NEPA. Others, perhaps more pragmatic, want to establish policy changes that allow projects to avoid the Act’s more deleterious side effects — but one thing seems to be certain: something needs to change if we want to build more clean energy infrastructure faster.
Jack Ewing for The New York Times
The mine contains lithium, an indispensable ingredient in electric car batteries that is in short supply. If it opens on schedule early next year, it will be the second North American source of that metal, offering hope that badly needed raw materials can be extracted and refined close to Canadian, U.S. and Mexican auto factories, in line with Biden administration policies that aim to break China’s dominance of the battery supply chain.
A new NYT beat has caught our attention: profiling far-flung, mineral rich mines that hold the answer to powering the EV revolution. Whether it’s on the ocean floor, atop a dormant volcano in northern Nevada, or in a relatively accessible Quebecois town, there seems to be a race to discover and revitalize North American lithium mines. We are not in a position to say which of these projects will be successful, but it’s certainly become clearer that lithium is becoming increasingly important, there is an effort to source it closer to home, and the battery value chain will continue to attract more and more attention. Policy around batteries, like semiconductors, is a relatively accurate proxy for the temperature of US-China relations — and the Biden Administration has been turning up the heat on this front.
Zeeya Merali for Nature
The researchers behind the AlphaFold artificial-intelligence (AI) system have won one of this year’s US$3-million Breakthrough prizes — the most lucrative awards in science. Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, both at DeepMind in London, were recognized for creating the tool that has predicted the 3D structures of almost every known protein on the planet.
The team behind AlphaFold, an AI project from DeepMind which we’ve previously written about here, here, here, and here, was awarded $3M USD as one of the winner’s of this year’s Breakthrough Prizes. The Breakthrough Prizes recognize achievements in life sciences, physics and mathematics — it’s the world’s largest science prize founded (and funded) by Sergey Brin, Julia and Yuri Milner, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. Notably, David Deutsch, whose definition of Optimism we use here at Not Boring, was also a winner of this year’s prize for his work on quantum information.
We’re all for good ole’ capitalism and free markets here at Not Boring, but there’s something to be said for using prizes to reward … breakthrough … fundamental research. Every member of each of the teams that was awarded a Breakthrough Prize this year could likely have put their big brains towards more personally lucrative career paths, but society is richer for their work, and we’re glad they secured the bag.
From Nature, h/t @MattJMcD
Who said all that social distancing, mask wearing, travel restrictions, and hand washing was for naught? A new study published in Nature claims that all of the public health measures put in place to manage the spread of Covid-19 have actually dramatically impacted the development of seasonal influenza. One strain, B/Yamagata, hasn’t even been detected since April 2020. While the medium-to-longer term impact of these developments are unknown — meaning, who knows what will happen when the world fully opens up and no one is wearing mask — this appears to be a positive short-term outcome of all of the lifestyle changes we’ve made over the past two and a half years.
Humans are pulling off some pretty incredible things every week. Whenever you find examples, share them here and we’ll feature some in the newsletter.
That’s all for this week — I’ll be back in your inbox 9am EST on Monday morning. Enjoy the weekend.