Forget the election, forget the economy, forget the Middle East, forget climate change, forget the traffic, and turn your thoughts into some things that have made or will make our lives better. Let’s end the year with an optimistic view and enjoy the holiday season. Here’s why.

Nagging automobiles

What got me to think about good stuff starts with me backing out of a tight driveway after a Christmas party the other night. Our friends live high up in our hills on a narrow road and it was dark. I had to negotiate a stone-lined embankment on one side and a substantial drop-off behind me. My hosts had already sent one car into the canyon. I was maneuvering my wife’s car, a small Lexus SUV with all kinds of safety warnings. It told me how close I was to the stone embankment, it warned me of the cars parked on both sides of me, and with the backup camera I knew how far I was from sliding down the mountain. Considering the difficulty, it was easy. Thank you, Toyota.

Manufacturers make safer cars because that’s what we demanded. As a result, the death rate per 100 million miles driven has declined from 5.30 in 1990 to 1.12 in 2015, which is a fantastic result (NHSTA data). Safer cars make our lives better. Be grateful.

The Promise

Santa Barbara City College will give eligible students a free 2-year ride to college. The program is called The Promise. This is the institution where I teach real estate investment one semester a year. It is a large institution serving about 21,000 students each year. Recently it was named the No. 1 community college in the nation.

The SBCC Promise program will pay tuition, fees, books and supplies for full-time students who are local high school graduates. Yes, free. You must enroll within 12 months of graduation (or 12 months of getting out of the military), you must take a minimum of 12 units per semester, and you have to remain in good academic standing (see Presently there are 730 students taking advantage of the Promise. The most impressive thing about it is that no tax dollars are involved. It is funded entirely by private donations to the SBCC Foundation by local citizens who want to see our kids succeed.

I am a supporter of the SBCC Foundation and I ask you to join me to make this program a big success. It’s for the future of our kids.

Bloodless Surgery

Every now and then you come across something that makes you say “Wow!” That happened the other night while watching a BBC news segment about brain surgery without a scalpel. It featured a guy with “essential” tremor, a fairly common condition where the hands tremble for reasons not related to disease. His right hand shook violently and it got worse over time. Scientists have pinpointed an area in the thalamus of the brain which causes the tremor. Usual treatment would involve drilling a hole in the skull and inserting a wire into the area to cauterize the offending node. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that could be dangerous.

The new treatment uses focused ultrasound to beam sound waves directly to the node and destroy the tissue. It was done in a lab, not in a surgery. No anesthesia was needed. There was no cutting. The patient was awake and alert and responsive during the procedure. Right after they finished he held out his now steady hand, got off the gurney, and walked out the door, smiling.

Now you might think that this is just a one-off thing, but it may be the beginning of new era for surgery. With new breakthroughs in nanotechnology delivering drugs to a specific tumor, ultrasound surgery may one day zap tumors without a scalpel. There are many other trials with ultrasound surgery. Who knows where this will go, but it is exciting.

More Power, Scotty

A new battery. SolidEnergy Systems, an MIT spinoff, has invented a new lithium-metal battery that puts out twice the power as a similarly-sized battery. It uses a unique technology, and it is safe, nonvolatile, and nonflammable. It can be manufactured using existing technology and facilities for Li-ion batteries. The implication for your cell phone is that you can either get a battery lasting twice as long or a phone with more capabilities stuffed into it. They expect to go to production in 2017. Apple, are you listening?

A Better Solar Panel. A Swiss startup, Insolight, has set a new efficiency standard for solar panels with a validated 36% yield. The next best panel, produced by the U.S. company SunPower, has a 24.1% yield. The Swiss scientists who developed the new technology claim it was designed with mass manufacturing in mind. The implication here is that solar power is edging into parity with power companies, meaning that if solar generation continues to improve at this rate, solar powered energy may soon be more cost efficient. That is important because now the solar industry is riding on government tax credits which is a form of subsidy. Since subsidies come and go, the industry needs to become profitable on its own to survive. Who wouldn’t want to get off the grid and be green compliant?

How Woodpeckers Will Save Football

Concussions are going to change the way America’s favorite sport is played at all levels. Brain damage is not an acceptable byproduct of football. Over time brain damage is debilitating. Yet the evidence is clear that football players cannot avoid it. What to do?

Woodpeckers are going to save football. Researcher Dr. David Smith wondered why woodpeckers didn’t get brain damage from banging their heads against a tree all day. When a football player gets hit in the head, hard, the brain sloshes around its cavity, banging against the skull thus causing damage – a concussion. Woodpeckers, he discovered, are able to slightly swell their brains by restricting their jugular veins to keep more blood in the brain. That swelling prevents their brains from banging around their skulls.

What if you could do that with humans? Dr. Smith invented a little c-shaped plastic collar that players wear around their necks. Think of it like little earphones. It puts slight pressure on their jugular veins which in turn, he hoped, would slightly increase blood in the brain, thus swelling the brain so that it is tighter against the skull.

The results? High school football players were monitored over the season for how many head hits they received. It turns out, a lot: 800 hits greater than 20Gs. And this is in high school. Guess what? Players not wearing the collar had brain damage. Players wearing the collar had “significantly” less damage.

Stay tuned. Dr. Smith is applying to the FDA to sell the device. It could save players and the game. Get the collar for your kids when it comes out (Q30 Innovations).

Life is getting better. Happy Holidays.