Monday, July 31, 2006

Quotation: What is literal truth?

The way people defined literal truth said much about a culture.

Robert D. Kaplan
Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucuses
(page 285)

Following Brain Research May Help Us Think Better

Read the full article "How the Brain Helps Partisans Admit No Gray" by Shankar Vedantam in The Washington Post of July 31, 2006.

"Psychological experiments in recent years have shown that people are not evenhanded when they process information, even though they believe they are.......When talking heads provide opinions after the debate, partisans regularly feel the people with whom they agree are making careful, reasoned arguments, whereas the people they disagree with sound like they have cloth for brains.......

"When Republicans saw Kerry (or Democrats saw Bush) there was increased activation in brain areas called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is near the temple, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is in the middle of the head. Both these regions are involved in regulating emotions.......More straightforwardly, Republicans and Democrats also showed activation in two other brain areas involved in negative emotion, the insula and the temporal pole. It makes perfect sense, of course, why partisans would feel negatively about the candidate they dislike, but what explains the activation of the cognitive regulatory system?

"Turns out, rather than turning down their negative feelings as they might do with the fallen ice cream, partisans turn up their negative emotional response when they see a photo of the opposing candidate, said Jonas Kaplan, a psychologist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"In other words, without knowing it themselves, the partisans were jealously guarding against anything that might lower their antagonism. Turning up negative feelings, of course, is a good way to make sure your antagonism stays strong and healthy......

"The result reflects a larger phenomenon in which people routinely discount information that threatens their preexisting beliefs, said Emory University psychologist Drew Westen, who has conducted brain-scan experiments that show partisans swiftly spot hypocrisy and inconsistencies -- but only in the opposing candidate.

"When presented with evidence showing the flaws of their candidate, the same brain regions that Kaplan studied lighted up -- only this time partisans were unconsciously turning down feelings of aversion and unpleasantness.

"'The brain was trying to find a solution that would get rid of the distress and absolve the candidate of doing something slimy,' Westen said. 'They would twirl the emotional kaleidoscope until it gave them a picture that was comfortable.'"

Knowing that the brain tends to reject information that goes against our political beliefs, and to accept that which confirms our prejudices, we would be well advised to bring reason to bear on our emotional response to what we see in the media!

Meanwhile, Back on Earth

Meanwhile, Back on Earth: "IN A MOVE AKIN to Dan Quayle invoking John F. Kennedy in 1988, President Bush attempted a Kennedyesque moment of his own 2 1/2 years ago when he called for a national effort to land Americans on the moon and Mars. It's not a clip they'll play on repeat in Mr. Bush's presidential library.

To few people's surprise, the president's soaring pronouncements flopped. But he still pushed NASA to carry on planning for new solar-system exploration. Now instead of just being an embarrassment for the president, Mr. Bush's astronautical ambitions are cutting deeply into NASA's budget to, among other things, monitor global climate change."

The Washington Post editorial today also notes:
According to the space agency, NASA is diverting a little over $3 billion from its science research budget over five years. Though it's not clear how much of that will come from earth science, NASA admits that the climate-monitoring funding has steadily decreased since fiscal year 2004.

While Al Gore is raising public consciousness about the environmental crisis with his great film, An Inconvenient Truth, the Bush Administration is cutting back on the research needed to better understand The Climate Crisis.

See the movie, which is already the fourth best selling documentary in history.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Another Failure in the Wake of 9/11

The Doha Round of trade negotiations was started soon after 9/11. It was recognized by many leaders in many countries that the grinding poverty in much of the world and the obvious injustice of the global economic system were contributory factors to the anger that fueled terrorists and international terrorism. Many also realized that poor people in poor nations could improve their economic lot if they had freer access to the markets in rich nations. The trade in agricultural and other labor intensive products is constrained by tariffs (especially those by European countries) and by subsidies (notably by U.S. agricultural subsidies). The Doha Round offered to help developing countries to help themselves by leveling the playing field, and thus indirectly to reduce the pressures encouraging international terrorism.

In contrast to many of the other post-9/11 initiatives, this appeared to be an initiative in which all countries would benefit. Freer trade would produce significant increases in overall global production and efficiency, and appropriate negotiations would allow these benefits to be shared by all nations.

It now appears that the Doha Round has failed. It must be assumed that it did so because the negotiators didn't do a good enough job at their work. The U.S. negotiators were one of the "eight hundred pound gorillas" at the table, and must share a significant portion of the blame!

Lets remember that in the next elections!

Read the article in the current Economist about the failure of the Doha Round. (Subscription required.)

The Bologna Declaration and Process

The Ministers of Education of the European nations made a joint declaration in 1999, calling for harmonization of higher education systems of the continent. The purpose was to facilitate university graduates' mobility in the region, and further to allow students in institutions of higher education to change schools more easily. Of course, there must also have been a hope that there would also be resultant improvements in the quality, efficiency and/or effectiveness of higher education. Their product is referred to as the Bologna Declaration because of the venue of their meeting. Click here for an explanation of the Bologna Declaration.

The Bologna process then was created for the European higher education area to harmonize academic degree standards and quality assurance standards throughout Europe. The basic framework adopted under the process is of three cycles of higher education qualification: bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. In most cases, these will take 3, 2, and 3 years respectively to complete, but the framework is moving to defining qualifications in terms of learning outcomes.

There is a Bologna Secretariat in the United Kingdom, which seeks to provide information and news about developments in the Bologna Process and about how the work program will be taken forward.

A stocktaking in 2005 suggests that significant progress is being made in the harmonization.

Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Bologna Process.

UNESCO Resources for Those Who Wish to Study Abroad

The book, "Study Abroad", is UNESCO's international guide to higher-education study opportunities and scholarships offered by higher education institutions and international organizations in over 145 countries. It includes some 3,000 entries on courses and scholarships in different higher-education academic and professional disciplines. There is information on: addresses (including Internet sites), admission requirements, application deadlines, financial aid, fees, living expenses and other topics. Entries are presented in English, French or Spanish according to the language of the country concerned.

UNESCO's online "Study Abroad Database" contains some 3,000 opportunities for post-secondary studies in all academic and professional fields in 147 countries and territories for the years 2005 and 2006.

UNESCO International Conventions on the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education

There are six regional conventions on the recognition of qualifications (Africa, Arab States, Asia and Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and two European conventions) and one interregional convention (Mediterranean Convention).

UNESCO conventions are aimed at promoting the recognition of academic qualifications for academic purposes (e.g. to continue studies in a different institution). Nevertheless, the conventions sometimes hold a ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’ role in recognizing diplomas for professional purposes (e.g. to get a job). It is important to check with the different conventions.

NSF InfoBrief via CRA Bulletin: Decline in Foreign Student Registrations

CRA Bulletin ? NSF InfoBrief: "For the third year in a row, there was a drop in the number of first-time, full-time enrollments of foreign graduate students. Between 2003 and 2004, their number dropped over 7%, to 27,486. Between 2001 and 2004, the number of first-time, full-time foreign students fell nearly 20%. First-time, full-time graduate enrollments of US citizens and permanent residents also declined by about 1% in 2004, after having increased 29% over the previous three years."

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Some UNESCO Higher Education Initiatives

The UNESCO Higher Education Open and Distance Learning Knowledge Base
The Open and Distance Learning (ODL) Knowledge Base project was set up to support decision makers and practitioners with ready access to information and tools that will assist them in more effective policy planning, development and management of ODL in higher education programmes. It provides Web-based knowledge base regional resources for:
* Africa
* Asia and the Pacific and
* CIS/Baltic countries.
It also provides an Inter-Regional Decision Support Tool to assist decision makers to make first-level assessments about the viability and quality of distance education programs. The International Internet Forum on the Higher Education Open and Distance Learning Knowledge Base (HEODLKB) Project is also linked to this website.

Mega Universities
A dozen or so Mega Universities (each of which has an enrolment in excess of 100,000 learners per year) utilize a combination of media to accommodate learners. U.S. Mega Universities include:
* City College of San Francisco
* University of Maryland University College and
* University of Phoenix

This UNESCO website provides links to Mega Universities in developing nations, including:
* Allama Iqbal Open University (Pakistan)
* Bangladesh Open University
* China Central Radio & TV University
* Indira Gandhi National Open University (India)
* Indonesian Open Learning University
* Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México
* Payame Noor University (Iran)
* Korea National Open University
* Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (Thailand)
* University of South Africa
* Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
* Shanghai TV University
The site also provides a link to the World Summit of Mega Universities held 23-25 September 2005.

Intellectual Property Rights, Biotechnology And Developing Nations

By the term “biotechnology” I am referring to the applications of modern microbiology to develop technologies. The term would include genomics, proteomics, recombinant DNA technologies, etc.

How can biotechnology help us to reduce the burden of disease? How can it increase food and agricultural production? There are other applications, including waste processing, environmental reclamation, mineral beneficiation, biomass conversion, and other industrial processes. However, let me focus on health, food and agriculture.

In a global perspective, the burden of disease falls most heavily on poor people, and those people are concentrated in developing nations. Similarly, the most pressing needs to increase food and agricultural productivity are found in meeting the food and economic needs of poor people in developing nations. Thus I believe the priority applications of biotechnology should be to meet critical needs of poor people in developing nations.

Key Technologies

In the health field, we look to biotechnology to contribute to the development of new diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutic pharmaceuticals. Other health applications exist, such as in the control of disease vectors. The biotechnology involved can be applied to animal as well as human health, and thus can benefit productivity of livestock.

In agriculture, we also look to biotechnology for development of improved crops (including the creation of genetically modified crop varieties). There are also applications in crop disease control, reducing post harvest losses, and biological nitrogen fixation. There is a significant field of application of biotechnology to food processing.

Scientific Research versus Technology Development

For convenience, one can distinguish between:
· Fundamental science, the results of which are generally published in scientific journals and become common property;
· Applied research, which involves the application of scientific methods to solve practical problems, and which may result in public goods or privately held intellectual property;
· Technology development, which includes the development of new products or processes.

A linear model of progression from fundamental science to applied research and then to technology development and commercialization was once widely used. However, most recognize that the processes involved are more complex than implied by the linear model, and that there is a complex interplay between fundamental and applied research and technology development.

Comparative Advantage

Economists have long known that countries should produce goods and services for which they have comparative advantage. They should trade the surplus production with other countries to obtain the additional goods and services that they need. If the system of international commerce works correctly, the patterns of production match the patterns of comparative advantage, and every country does better through specialization and trade than it would by closing its borders and producing solely for domestic markets.

Biotechnology, as described above, is a new field. As far as I know, the first study of research priorities in biotechnology for developing nations was done by the National Academy of Sciences in 1982. However, biotechnology capacity is developing rapidly in many countries. Thus the pattern of comparative advantage in biotechnology is evolving. However, I suggest that we can understand some aspects of that evolution, and make some useful suggestions as to where efforts in building biotechnology capacity are likely to be useful.

Of course, if international transactions are too expensive (due for example to the cost of transportation), then countries can’t exploit their comparative advantages through trade. The improvement of information infrastructure and the reduction of transportation costs have radically increased the variety of goods and services that can be traded profitably, and globalization has resulted. Thus not only is the capacity to do biotechnology evolving, but the costs of international transactions in biotechnology are also changing rapidly.

As an aside, let me remind you of the difference between “competitive advantage” and “comparative advantage”. Competitive advantage refers to the advantage that a country obtains by producing some product at a lower cost or with higher quality than others can produce that product. Comparative advantage in contrast depends on the ratios of production costs for products in different countries. When the ratios are different, two countries can both prosper by trading the products they produce with more comparative efficiency for those they produce with less comparative efficiency. Of course, countries tend to have a comparative advantage in producing those products for which they have the greatest competitive advantage.

A recent report by RAND illustrates the complexity of the factors that combine to create the competitive advantage. In general, the report finds that richer countries, with more advanced scientific and technological capacities, enjoy competitive advantages in high technologies, including biotechnology.

The experience of the various tigers suggests that building competitive advantage in high technology areas is a long process. Highly qualified human resources are needed, and it takes time to build a system to educate and train the scientists and technicians needed; those trained before they can be utilized in their fields leave. Clusters effects from the multitude of firms that are involved in producing high tech products and supporting the producing firms take a long time to evolve. Institutional development also takes time.

The Geography of Comparative Advantage

It was once assumed that comparative advantage came largely from natural resources, while today it is often assumed that it derives from knowledge resources. In the case of biotechnology, comparative advantage is also based on facilities and institutions.

New crop varieties must be developed under the conditions similar to those in which they will be grown, and thus there is a comparative advantage for at least part of the product development to be done in developing countries. So too must new vaccines and drugs be tested in the populations they are to serve, against the local varieties of the diseases. Here too, there is a comparative advantage for part of the research and development process to be completed in developing countries.

On the other hand, fundamental research is best done where there is strong funding for such efforts, as well as a strong cadre of researchers, well-established research teams, well-equipped laboratories and good scientific libraries. Thus there is a comparative advantage for parts of the biotechnology R&D enterprise to be conducted in scientifically-advanced, developed nations.

Specific pharmaceutical firms and specific agro-industries have technological expertise developed from decades of experience in biotechnology and related industrial processes, suites of relevant intellectual property rights, and linkages with firms providing complementary inputs (in biotechnology clusters). These factors together also create comparative advantages in parts of the biotechnology R&D process.

Still another part of the biotechnology R&D network are the research intensive universities, which not only carry out part of the R&D, but which train the people needed in the other R&D laboratories. These too are a geographically localized resource, mostly occurring in scientifically-advanced countries.

I would suggest a key problem is the articulation among the organizations carrying out these different biotechnology R&D functions. Most obviously, the critical capacities located in developed countries are not adequately brought to bear on the priority problems centered in less developed nations.

How to Improve the Situation

Clearly a mixed solution is required, combining many factors.

Some governments and foundations are subsidizing researchers doing upstream biotechnology research in ways that encourage them to focus on topics relevant to global priority concerns. The innovations by the Gates Foundation illustrate the power of this approach. Linkages between such researchers and corporations with downstream development capabilities have been improved by changes in policy and laws. Efforts have been made to assure market demand for commercial biotech products in developing countries. Such efforts appear important, and I think they should be continued.

Foreign direct investment in agro-biotech and pharmaceutical industries in developing countries seems to me a critical ingredient that should be stimulated and enhanced. Not only does FDI provide needed capital for the expansion of biotechnology capacity, but it enhances technology transfer to the developing world for those many techniques dominated by industrial firms.

Developing countries should create first the biotech R&D capacity to field test new medications and vaccines, to adapt new crop varieties to local conditions, and to produce products for local and regional markets. From this base, they may well expand into other areas of biotechnology capacity. Thus did the newly industrialized countries often start with simple technological functions in the information and communications technology field, and move upstream to more innovative research and development as they deepened technological capacity.

It would also seem important to develop a cadre of biotechnology experts for each developing nation, at least adequate to serve as gatekeepers. Nations with aspirations to move up in biotechnology capacity might also consider not only developing the basic industries, but also developing the capacity to train people in biotechnology. This may but need not involve research training to the PhD level.

Intellectual Property Rights

Various kinds of intellectual property rights (IPR) influence the field of biotechnology, including patent rights for products and processes, plant breeder rights, and trademarks.

Countries can be characterized by their balance of payments for intellectual property. Some countries receive more income from the licensing of intellectual property abroad than they pay for licensing intellectual property from abroad. Similarly, industry in some countries makes more money from selling protected products abroad than is spent on products from abroad in those countries. Not surprisingly, countries with the most to gain from IPR have been the most active in promoting globalization of IPR. Indeed, historically only as countries went through the industrialization process did they strengthen IPR protection.

In recent years, international trade agreements have resulted in increased pressures for and interest in strengthening IPR regimes in developing nations. In the newly industrializing nations, this factor has been added to the increasing self-interest in strong IPR regimes, while in the least developed nations it has been hoped that any added costs to the country due to increased respect for foreign IPR would be balanced by advantages due to improved exports of products for which those nations have comparative advantage.

There has been an interest in harmonization of IPR. This seems to make sense in a number of situations. In the case of the European Union, it may contribute to the overall economic integration of the countries of Europe. In Francophone Africa, which already has a considerable integration of IPR systems, harmonization may offer some efficiency to poor countries helping them avoid duplication of efforts.

I suspect that countries seeking to attract investment from multinational corporations will benefit by having IPR regimes that enable corporation executives to feel comfortable that their companies intellectual property will be safe. There might be a small additional benefit if such countries provide IPR regimes that are also familiar to those corporate executives and their lawyers.

Ultimately, however, harmonization of IPR will provide only limited advantages to countries seeking to build the capacity to bring biotechnology to bear on development priorities, and then only in the presence of other supporting factors. A strong IPR regime is not a panacea.

Two Reports from UNCTAD

These two reports from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development seem interesting:
* WORLD INVESTMENT REPORT 2005 (Part Two assesses the implications of the surge in R&D internationalization by trans-national corporations.
* THE LEAST DEVELOPED COUNTRIES REPORT, 2006: Developing Productive Capacities

Friday, July 28, 2006

"A New Model For Getting Rich Online"

Read "A New Model For Getting Rich Online: Investors Not Needed, Just a Site With Ads" by Yuki Noguchi online in The Washington Post (July 28, 2006).

This article describes how some personal and small-business Web pages are generating substantial income from Google Inc. or Yahoo Inc. placed advertisements., a search engine for podcasts, rose from a hundred hits a month in 2004 to nearly a million now; it started earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year from Google's AdSense simply because people clicked on ads. The site owner is now trying to make more money by attracting still more traffic to his site.
David Miles Jr. and Kato Leonard, two 20-year-olds in Louisville, say they collect $100,000 a month from their year-old site,, which gives away designs that people can use on MySpace social-networking pages.
SeatGuru, which gets 700,000 visitors a month, generates $10,000 to $20,000 a month through AdSense, and a comperable amount from ad deals make with companies directly.

I included ads placed by Google Adsense on this blog primarily because I hoped they would provide content complementary to my postings that would interest readers. I haven't made any money on it yet, but if the kind readers would visit the blog more often and click through on the AdSense links, maybe I would make some money in the future!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Business Day - News Worth Knowing

Business Day - News Worth Knowing: "At Microsoft’s Government Leaders Forum in Cape Town this week numerous leaders pledged their commitment to fast-tracking information and communications technologies (ICT)."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

BBC NEWS | Business | Glaxo has bird flu 'breakthrough'

BBC NEWS | Business | Glaxo has bird flu 'breakthrough': "UK drugs firm GlaxoSmithKline believes it has developed a vaccine for the H5N1 deadly strain of bird flu that may be capable of being mass produced by 2007.

The vaccine has proved effective at two doses of 3.8 micrograms during clinical trials in Belgium"

Globalization and People

In "A Winning Strategy for the Democrats: Barter for Free Trade" in today's Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein makes what I thought to be an important point. He notes that while there is general agreement that globalization has helped the U.S. economy, "it has had some unpleasant side effects: insecurity about job losses, downward pressure on wages, widening inequality, and an unsustainable trade deficit."
There was even a general consensus on what needs to be done to ameliorate those effects. The prescriptions included some old ideas about balancing the federal budget, investing more in education and repealing the Bush tax cuts, and some newer ones such as universal access to health insurance, portable pensions and wage insurance. Protect people, not jobs, was the headline message in the Hamilton Project briefing paper that rejected the protectionist policies of the union left as well as the "you're-on-your-own" economics of the laissez-faire right. (italics added)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Conference on Knowledge for Africa's Development

This conference was sponsored by the World Bank's Knowledge for Development Program, and held May 8-10, 2006, in Johannesburg, South Africa. There are useful resources gathered on the conference website.

The Economist Special Report on Econometric Models

Read the full article in the July 13, 2006 edition of The Economist. (Subscription required.)

The article notes,
Economic models fall into two broad genres. Macroeconomic models, the distant descendants of Phillips's machine, belong mostly in central banks. They capture the economy's ups and downs, providing a compass for the folks with their hands on the monetary tiller. The second species, known as computable general equilibrium (CGE) models, largely ignore the vagaries of the business cycle. They concentrate instead on the underlying structure of production, shedding light on the long-term repercussions of such things as the Doha trade round, a big tax reform or climate change.
It casts some light on the Doha Round (see my last posting):
Two years into the round, as trade ministers gathered for a summit in Mexico, the World Bank was pushing another extravagant simulation. It argued that an ambitious Doha agreement could raise global incomes by $290 billion-520 billion and lift 144m people out of poverty by 2015. Those figures found a ready place in almost every news report about the Doha round that autumn.

Such extravagance did not last. The World Bank has since cut these figures drastically, in part because the ambitions of the Doha negotiators have fallen short of the bank's expectations. One estimate made last year had cut the increase in global incomes to $95 billion and projected 6.2m people might instead move out of poverty. But even as they curb their enthusiasm for Doha, proponents of freer trade argue that CGE models do not show their cause to its best advantage.
Given the apparent failure of the round, I would stress than saving more than six million people from poverty is not a small thing, nor is 95 million dollars a small amount of benefit, especially when more reasonable negotiators might have gotten even more.

I suggest that the key lesson from the article however, comes from these two paragraphs:
In a recent article, Roberta Piermartini and Robert Teh, two economists at the WTO, urge modellers to "?demystify" their creations, making it clear to their audience what makes their models tick. A failure to do this, they argue, "?risks bringing a useful analytical tool into disrepute and may even induce unwarranted cynicism about the economic case for open trade.".......

Shantayanan Devarajan, of the World Bank, and Sherman Robinson, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, point out that policymakers need not grasp exactly how a model works, any more than "?a pilot needs to understand the insides of a flight simulator."? This may be true. But too many policymakers never even "fly" their models. They just want to know where they will land. If they were instead prepared to work through the simulations they might find inconsistencies in their thought, unforeseen implications of their policies, or new reasons for their actions. The big number that sums up a model's story "?$520 billion, 1.5% of world GDP, $4.4 trillion" ?is often the least interesting thing about it.
I suggest large scale mathematical models are most useful in helping us to extrapolate the behavior of very complex systems that are described by large quantities of data. They are especially useful to illuminate unexpected, emergent properties of such systems. However, properties can emerge from the models due not to the behavior of the real system, but from elements of the model that do not accurately represent the real system. I suggest that it is especially important when a model yields unexpected behavior that we go back and understand just where and how that behavior arises from the model. In that way we have a better chance of understanding whether it is a characteristic of the real system, or an artifact of the model.

Unfortunately, in my experience, those who are uncomfortable with quantitative approaches are too likely to accept the predictions of a model without understanding the model itself. Those who best use models, distrust their predictions, and spend time to understand the basis for those predictions. The models themselves are very useful tools in this exploration.

An anecdote:

Many years ago, when computers were young and models were simple, a colleague and I did a computer model to optimize the business of a small company. We walked into the company president's office and began the meeting with the comment,
We have good news. You can increase production by one-third.
The production manager, at the right of the president, jumped to his feet and yelled, "we can't sell that much". Simultaneously, the sales manager leaped to his feet and yelled, "we can't produce that much." The president looked to the right and to the left, and said, "thank you gentlemen, I now understand the problem". That was a successful model!

"Trade Talks Fail After Stalemate Over Farm Issues: Collapse Comes With Finger-Pointing"

Read the full article by Paul Blustein in The Washington Post. (July 25, 2006)

Yesterday, World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Pascal Lamy declared a "suspension" in the Doha round of trade negotiations. "Trade ministers from the United States, the European Union, Brazil, India, Japan and Australia said they remained hopelessly stalemated on crucial issues of how to lower barriers to commerce, with farm trade by far the most contentious problem." European and Indian spokesmen appeared to blame the failure of the five year old talks on the intransigence of the United States.
"The United States was unwilling to accept, or indeed to acknowledge, the flexibility being shown by others in the room and, as a result, felt unable to show any flexibility on the issue of farm subsidies," said Peter Mandelson, the European trade commissioner. Nath, the Indian minister, agreed, and said: "Everybody put something on the table except one country who said, 'We can't see anything on the table.'"
The wide authority given to the Bush Administration to negotiate trade deals expires in mid-2007, and Congress appears unlikely to extend it.
"We do not expect to be able to use the current [negotiating authority] to enact a Doha round agreement if and when one comes together," Susan C. Schwab, the chief U.S. trade negotiator, said in a conference call with reporters.
This is a sad event for the poor majority of the world's population! There is every reason to believe that allowing poor nations to export more freely into the wealthy markets of Europe and the United States would have increased incomes and improved their lives.

"Fight against world court takes toll in terror war"

Read the full article by Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times via The International Herald Tribune. (July 23, 2006)

Lead: "The Bush administration and Congress have slashed millions of dollars of military aid to African countries in recent years, moves that Pentagon officials and senior military commanders say have undermined U.S. efforts to combat terrorist threats in Africa and to counter expanding Chinese influence there."

I tend to be against building the military in poor nations as a matter of reflex, but in many cases in Africa I feel that the military is needed to protect against even more destructive violence and social breakdown. Moreover, money is fungible. When African nations don't get military aid from rich nations, they may well spend their own resources drawing funds from health, education, and other crucially needed social investments.

Besides, African nations have been not only the sites of terrorist attacks against U.S. targets, but have offered breeding grounds and safe havens for terrorists.

I am not at all sure about this U.S. policy.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Priorities in biotechnology research for international development

The National Academy of Sciences held a workshop in Berkeley Spring, West Virginia, July 26-30, 1982 on this topic at the request of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The proceedings of the workshop were published that same year, and were widely distributed. Following up on the workshop, projects in medical and agricultural biotechnology were initiated by USAID.

Twenty-four years after the workshop, there is a large literature on the topic, and I am beginning social bookmarking of some of the key links on the Internet on the topic.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"Secrets of the Expert Mind"

This article by Phillip Ross is in the August 2006 Scientific American, and will be available free online next month.

Ross summarizes research which suggests that chess experts have huge stores of knowledge of the game, gained by decades of organized and diligent study of the game (rather than by playing a lot). He suggests that experts play better not because they analyze more, but rather primarily because they use this accumulated knowledge to recognize patterns of pieces on the board, and to recognize the most promising moves from such patterns. They can then restrict their analysis to the more promising moves. Non-experts, even when they analyze in depth, waste effort in analyzing scenarios with low likelihood of panning out.

He suggests that modern chess masters are actually better than those of 100 years ago because the modern masters have more accumulated knowledge as a result of the raising of the bar due to more competition, to better and better organized learning materials and tools.

It is interesting that there are very reliable ways of rating and ranking chess players, but the better rated player does not always beat the lower rated player. What is reliable is the portion of games that the better player will win against the lesser player, given the differences between their ratings.

Would that we had a similar rating scheme for our leaders, be they in the political, economic or social sphere. It would be nice to know we have a clue on who to believe, since these guys make so many mistakes.

I am also concerned that we so often ignore the research on decision making. As a result of this research, we should know that there are some ways to get decisions out of groups that work better than others. Unfortunately, those who organize advisory committees seem seldom to use this knowledge, or indeed to be aware of its existance.

So too, as a result of research on decision making and prediction, we should know that there are ways to train people to make better probability estimates and to avoid common errors of judgement. Unfortunately, I don't know of many places where such training is actually applied to improve decision making.

"Senate Passes Stem Cell Bill; Bush Vows Veto"

Read the full story by Charles Babington in the Washington Post. (July 19, 2006)

Like most Americans willing to give their opinions to survey takers, I am in favor of funding embryonic stem cell research. The potential health benefits are significant, and the embryos will be destroyed anyway.

If the majority of my fellow citizens don't want to fund such research, then those who do fund it will probably benefit disproportionately, so I am glad my state (Maryland) has a legislature which has voted such funding.

I hope that the Bush Administration and its supporters find this issue really hurts them in the upcoming elections, since Bush has taken the wrong side.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Third-World Vaccine Development Plan Stalls

Read the full article online: "Third-World Vaccine Development Plan Stalls: Positions of France, U.S. Means Endorsement Unlikely During G-8 Summit" By Michael M. Phillips, The Wall Street Journal via The Washington Post, July 7, 2006.

In February, G-8 finance ministers, including then-U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, endorsed a novel, business-friendly plan to persuade drug companies to develop vaccines for killer diseases in the Third World. Under the plan, the G-8 would guarantee a market for pharmaceuticals companies that create successful vaccines. Despite lobbying from the United States, Italy and Britain, it now seems unlikely that the G-8 will endorse the proposal next weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia, at their annual summit.

According to Phillips' article:
The proposal "is kind of trembling on the cusp," said a senior official with direct knowledge of the G-8 vaccine discussions. "It is now in substantial danger of flopping even though there is an extraordinary level of support among some key stakeholders."
France now has refused to endorse the vaccine proposal unless the United States backs a French proposal for a new international airline-ticket tax to pay for aid to poor countries, and the Bush administration has refused to do so.

Now would be a good time to lobby for passage of the proposal!

The Guild of Natural Science Illustrators

Go to the Guild website.

The Guild is a non-profit organization that sets professional standards for scientific illustrators, provides opportunities for professional and scholarly development, encourages and assists member networking, and promotes itself to potential clients and the general public. While the Guild is primarily active in the United States, some ten percent of its nearly 1000 members are from other countries.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the scientific illustrators provide a huge service to science, to non-scientists simply interested in fields of scientific knowledge, and especially to those interested in development of policies and strategies for sustainable development based on scientific knowledge.

Some related organizations are:
* The American Society of Botanical Artists, Inc.
* The Association of Medical Illustrators
* The BioCommunications Association
* The International Association of Astronomical Artists

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Knowledge for Development: CTA Observatory on S&T for Development

This website is intended to support the policy dialogue on S&T for agricultural and rural development in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. It enables the ACP scientific community - primarily agricultural research and development scientists and technologists, policy makers, farmers and other stakeholders and actors - to share and review results of national and regional efforts and collaborate to harness science and technology for the development of agriculture in their countries. It is supported by CTA, the Technical Center for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation. The portal includes a number of dosiers on topics of science and technology policy, links to other organizations, news and events, and other resources, including a newsletter.

"Building science, technology and innovation policies"

Summary: "National policies for science, technology and innovation can be key to a country's development. But what elements must be in place for such policies to succeed — and also to evolve as the country progresses?" Joachim Ahrens, SciDev.Net, May 2005.

"Science for Society"

The InterAcademy Panel (IAP) on International Issues Conference "Science for Society" and was held in Mexico City in December 2003 in conjunction with the IAP General Assembly. The website includes links to a number of presentations that may be downloaded, as well as information on the conference. The IAP is a global network of 90 science academies designed to help its members develop tools they need to participate in science policy discussions taking place beyond university classrooms and research laboratories.

Women for Science

The low representation of women in science and engineering is a major hindrance to global capacity building in science and technology. This report presents recommendations and action items grouped around three themes:
* Academies advocating and promoting the education and careers of women;
* Academies acting, both individually and jointly, to engage women in global capacity building;
* Academies building inclusive institutional climates and advising governments and other principal players on specific actions toward similar ends. It is published by the InterAcademy Council, and was written by an Advisory Panel created by the Council for the purpose of this report. 2006.

The Global Footprint Network

The Ecological Footprint is a tool which can be used for description and thus management of the ecological impact of human activity. The Network website includes (under free license) downloadable tables of the 2005 footprints for nations, as well as maps and information on global trends. A small staff, with a very distinguished Advisory Council, makes this information available online. The Network is also seeking to develop standards to be used by various groups applying their methodology, in order to help assure comparability in footprints developed by different groups at different times.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Warren Buffett has joined Bill and Melinda Gates to create the world's biggest charitable foundation.

Source: The Economist
I suppose everyone knows about this now, but here is a link to the Economist special report on the event.

"POLITICAL PSYCHOLOGY: The Perils of Prognostication"

Read the full book review by John T. Jost online in Science magazine. (cience 30 June 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5782, pp. 1876 - 1877; Subscription necessary.)

From the review of Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We Know? by Philip E. Tetlock
Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment will be sobering. The results of his painstaking research are complex, nuanced, and contingent, but the bottom line is clear enough. Tetlock's data "plunk human forecasters into an unflattering spot along the performance continuum, distressingly closer to the chimp than to the formal statistical models." In fact, "it is impossible to find any domain in which humans clearly outperformed crude extrapolation algorithms, less still sophisticated statistical ones" (emphasis in original). Worst of all, those experts with the poorest track records are the most likely to show up on TV screens and blogsites everywhere.

"Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion"

Read the full article by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur A. Stone online in Science magazine. (Science 30 June 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5782, pp. 1908 - 1910. Subscription required.)

Abstract: "The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others."
The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.
John F. Kennedy

I am a great admirer of Daniel Kahneman and what I guess might be called his school. He has and they have done a lot to clarify our understanding of the way people think. And indeed, this report in Science is interesting and informative. However, I think the report would be easy to misunderstand and to misrepresent. I would suggest, for example that the article confounds "being in a good mood" with "being happy", and indeed "being satisfied with one's life" with "being happy".
Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.
Louis Armstrong (about jazz)

I think I attach the concept of "pleasure" to "being happy in in moment-to-moment experience" and to "particularly enjoyable activities", but not necessarily the concept of "happiness". I don't know how the dimension "relaxed versus tense" relates to that of "unhappy versus happy", but I would guess that there is very little correlation; can't one can be happy and tense, or unhappy and relaxed? (The goalie on the leading side of a World Cup football match is probably pretty happy and pretty tense; the players on the losing side after a match may well be relaxed but unhappy.)

I suspect the article is most useful in discussing the difference between subjective and objective measures of well-being. The discussion of the "focusing illusion" is useful for those who would do survey research. It illustrates a more general issue that people's response to a survey question depends on their "set", and the set can be established by the preceeding questions.
Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.
Schkade and Kahneman

The Millennium Development Goals Report 2006

Read the full report online (PDF file).

The MDGs Report of the United Nations was released on 3 July 2006. The report presents the latest assessment on how far we have come, and how far we have to go in reaching the goals, in each of the world’s regions.

Reuters AlertNet notes with respect to the report:
"With less than a decade left to meet its development targets, the United Nations said on Monday there were "staggering" obstacles to succeeding and conditions in many poor countries were actually worsening.

"The eight Millennium Development Goals include targets on health, poverty and the environment -- such as halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day and stopping the spread of AIDS and tuberculosis.

"The U.N. progress report on the goals, set in 2000, found that while global incidence of extreme poverty has declined, some 140 million more people have entered that category in sub-Saharan Africa.

"More people are also going hungry in the region, which has seen only modest improvements in child mortality and maternity rates in the past six years, according to the study."