Thursday, August 30, 2007

I will be working in West Asia for two weeks

I will be working abroad for the next couple of weeks and will probably be pretty busy and constrained by limited connectivity. I probably will not post much. Sorry!

"Knowledge Is Priceless but Textbooks Are Not"

Read the full article by MICHELLE SLATALLA in The New York Times, August 30, 2007.

Slatalla writes that buying required text books at the campus bookstore can cost the average college student $700 to $1,000 a year, according to a Congressional advisory committee report released in May.
Although oodles of online stores and marketplaces — like, and — have in the past five years built large inventories of both used and discounted new textbooks, there’s no single site where you can always get the best deal..... (is) a site operated by a coalition of student public interest research groups....., an umbrella search site that sifts through the inventories of hundreds of thousands booksellers worldwide, started a simple, easy-to-use textbook search tool. The way it works: enter a title, I.S.B.N. or author’s name in Bookfinder’s textbooks search box to navigate a huge database of 125 million new and used books. You can compare prices, shipping costs and the availability of less expensive editions published overseas....

A Bookfinder search last week for “Genki II: An Integrated Course in Elementary Japanese II” turned up 24 new and used copies, at prices ranging from $20.94 at to $110.62 at For each of the 24 copies, total price (including shipping) is listed on a single page, along with information about how soon the book will ship. Some sellers offer expedited delivery. Amazon, for instance, offers overnight delivery and discounts of up to 30 percent off on new copies of 200,000 textbooks.....

A new copy of a first-year textbook like, say, “Biology, seventh edition” by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece, which lists for $153.33, was available for $57.45 last week at
Comment: College textbooks are expensive for reasons too numerous to go into here. But even for the rest of us, these links are useful. Bookfinder especially is interesting when you want to find a really unusual book. JAD

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Differences in Internet Access Bandwidth Among Nations

Japan's Warp-Speed Ride to Internet Future by Blaine Harden, The Washington Post, August 29, 2007.

DSL in Japan is often five to 10 times as fast as what is widely offered by U.S. cable providers, generally viewed as the fastest American carriers. (Cable has not been much of a player in Japan.)

Perhaps more important, competition in Japan gave a kick in the pants to Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT), once a government-controlled enterprise and still Japan's largest phone company. With the help of government subsidies and tax breaks, NTT launched a nationwide build-out of fiber-optic lines to homes, making the lower-capacity copper wires obsolete......

Japan's leap forward, as the United States has lost ground among major industrialized countries in providing high-speed broadband connections, has frustrated many American high-tech innovators.

"The experience of the last seven years shows that sometimes you need a strong federal regulatory framework to ensure that competition happens in a way that is constructive," said Vinton G. Cerf, a vice president at Google.

Japan's lead in speed is worrisome because it will shift Internet innovation away from the United States, warns Cerf, who is widely credited with helping to invent some of the Internet's basic architecture. "Once you have very high speeds, I guarantee that people will figure out things to do with it that they haven't done before," he said.

As a champion of Japanese-style competition through regulation, Cerf supports "net neutrality" legislation now pending in Congress. It would mandate that phone and cable companies treat all online traffic equally, without imposing higher tolls for certain content.

The proposed laws would probably save billions for companies such as Google and Yahoo, but consumer advocates say they would also save money for most home Internet users.

U.S. phone and cable companies, which control about 98 percent of the country's broadband market, strongly oppose the proposed laws, saying they would discourage the huge investments needed to upgrade broadband speed.

Yet the story of how Japan outclassed the United States in the provision of better, cheaper Internet service suggests that forceful government regulation can pay substantial dividends.

The opening of Japan's copper phone lines to DSL competition launched a "virtuous cycle" of ever-increasing speed, said Cisco's Pepper. The cycle began shortly after Japanese politicians -- fretting about an Internet system that in 2000 was slower and more expensive than what existed in the United States -- decided to "unbundle" copper lines.

How Dangerous is it to Listen to the Noise?

In Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life, Nassim Nicholas Taleb mentions that a lot of what we attend to is noise, random variation that obscures information carrying signal. Thus the day to day variation in the stock market average includes a lot of random variation that obscures significant longer term trends. Similarly, the daily news content in the media includes a lot of chaff that obscures the long term political and economic trends that are more important.

There is obviously value in information. Information allows us to make better decisions. There is even work to establish methods to estimate how much we should invest in information. Since it costs money, time and effort to obtain information, and since the returns to efforts to secure information are not uniform, there seems obviously to be a point where it is better to make decisions and accept risk than to keep trying to reduce that risk.

The question Taleb raises in my mind, however, is

How costly is noise?

There is surely a cost of obtaining noise, as we spend money to reach the media that is full of randomness. There is a cost of the effort to filter the signal from the noise, as we spend time trying to figure out what "news" is important and whether observed differences are harbingers of trends or random variations. If I read Taleb correctly, he focuses on the costs of incorrect decisions made when we mistake noise for information: stock transactions that are based on emotional responses to transient changes in market prices, for example. (Did the Bush administration make a series of disastrous foreign policy decisions when they mistook noise for information? When the believed the wrong intelligence, or when they mistook a few terrorist attacks for the beginning of a war?)

I wonder more generally about the social cost to society. We have built industries that exploit our monkey-like curiosity in the unusual, spending and earning untold amounts of money to create and disseminate noise. We then have to strengthen institutions that provide checks and balances to filter out the noise. One of the results is that society responds more slowly to truly important trends and problems than it might. And of course, there is the possibility that there exist synergies among the mistakes made by those fooled by noise. Economic bubbles and crashes cause losses not only to the mistaken investors, but to all of us hurt by their economic consequences. Wars fought in response to misinterpreted intelligence kill people who were not responsible for the decision to go to war.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

As Brazil Defends Its Bounty, Rules Ensnare Scientists - New York Times

Marc van Roosmalen, with monkeys of a type he discovered.

As Brazil Defends Its Bounty, Rules Ensnare Scientists - New York Times:

"Marc van Roosmalen is a world-renowned primatologist whose research in the Amazon has led to the discovery of five species of monkeys and a new primate genus. But precisely because of that work, Dr. van Roosmalen was recently sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison and jailed in Manaus, Brazil.

"Earlier in August, his lawyers managed to get him freed while they appeal his conviction on charges stemming from an investigation into alleged biopiracy. But scientists here and abroad are outraged, and they describe the case as only the most glaring example of laws and government policies they say are xenophobic and increasingly stifling scientific inquiry."

"Here or There? A Survey of Factors in Multinational R&D Location"

"Here or There? A Survey of Factors in Multinational R&D Location"
© 2007 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation

Excerpt from the summary:

Among the top factors going into new R&D siting decisions in both developed and emerging countries are market growth potential, quality of R&D talent, collaboration with universities and IP protection. How these factors influence the decision, however, depend on whether the site is in a developed or emerging country. In neither emerging nor developed countries was cost consideration the most important factor, which runs contrary to what has been reported by the media (according to an analysis of media coverage over the past few years in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times on multinational R&D locations).

Among the study's more surprising findings, according to the researchers, was the role university collaboration plays in the decision-making process for locating R&D facilities. In fact, collaboration with universities was particularly prevalent as a factor for expanding to emerging countries, even though these countries provide lesser degrees of IP protection.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Uganda Decentralized Services Delivery : a Makerere University Training Pilot Project

Campus of Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda

I worked a significant amount of time over the past year on the implementation completion report for this project. It has now been published.

The project, jointly funded by the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, support reforms of Makerere and partner universities in Uganda. The reforms were done in the context of making university education and services more relevant to building the capacity of local government in Uganda. The abstract of this final, evaluative report reads:
Ratings for the Uganda Decentralized Services Delivery Makerere University Training Pilot Project were as follows: outcomes were satisfactory, the risk to development outcome was moderate, the Bank performance was satisfactory, and the Borrower performance was satisfactory. Some lessons learned included: national universities in Africa are an under-used resource for the critical task of government capacity development; programs enlisting the intellectual resources of universities for government capacity building in Africa can stimulate positive change within the universities themselves, and lead to increased relevance and quality of education; local government officials benefit from intensified interaction with educational institutions on many level; public officials, upon completion of long-term training, will return to their employers; the benefits of World Bank-Foundation partnerships can outweigh the management costs; and monitoring and evaluation of the contributions of knowledge institutions to human capacity creation is complex and difficult to measure.

AAAS August R&D Funding Update on FY 2008 Appropriations - August 6, 2007

AAAS August R&D Funding Update on FY 2008 Appropriations - August 6, 2007:

"As of the August congressional recess, Congress is poised to add billions of dollars to proposed budgets for the federal investment in research and development (R&D) for fiscal year (FY) 2008. The House and Senate would endorse large proposed increases for select physical sciences agencies in the President’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and would continue to support Administration plans to expand development investments for new human spacecraft. But instead of cutting funding for other R&D programs as requested, the House and the Senate would provide increases to every major nondefense R&D funding agency, and would turn proposed cuts into significant increases for the congressional priorities of biomedical research, environmental research (particularly climate change research), and energy R&D. The added billions in FY 2008 appropriations so far would turn a requested cut in federal support of basic and applied research into a real increase, after three years of decline. But these increases depend on an overall congressional budget plan allocating $21 billion more for domestic appropriations than the President’s budget; because the President has threatened to veto any appropriations bills that exceed his budget request, these R&D increases could disappear or diminish this fall in negotiations between the President and Congress over final funding levels."

Framing History -- a brief musing

I have been reading A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield and Nicolas Pelham, two British authors. It is a political history focused of western Asia, south-eastern Europe and north Africa, especially as influenced by western European powers, emphasizing the period since 1800, and written from the point of view of England. Here is the publisher's synopsis:
Over the centuries the Middle East has confounded the dreams of conquerors and peacemakers alike. In this profound book, Peter Mansfield follows the historic struggles of the region over the last two hundred years, from Napoleon’s assault on Egypt, through the slow decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, to the painful emergence of modern nations, the Palestinian question and Islamic resurgence. The Middle East’s huge oil reserves gave it global economic importance as well as unique strategic value, and the result was massive superpower involvement.

For this new edition, Nicolas Pelham has written two extensive new chapters examining recent developments throughout the Middle East since the Gulf War, including the turbulent events in Afghanistan, the troubled relationship between the US and Iraq, the continuing Arab-Israeli war and the rise of Islamic Jihad.

Incisive and illuminating, A History of the Middle East is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand what is perhaps the most crucial and volatile nerve centre of the world, and its prospects for the future.
In the process of reading the book I have come to wonder about the framing of history. How does one chose a place and a time to write about and how does one chose what aspects of the situation in that time and place to focus on, and what perspective to offer on the description?

Of course, the author is quite free to write about anything he/she chooses, the publisher (in our society) to publish anything it chooses, and the reader to choose among the smorgasbord of offerings. But it seems to me that some choices of framing are better than others.

The interaction among Turkish, Arab and Persian civilizations in the 19th and 20th centuries seems to be a very interesting topic. These civilizations have very deep roots, are geographically proximate and so rub up against each other all the time. I suspect that their historical interaction must be understood to grasp the current situation in a the current geopolitical hot spot. Yet these civilizations can not be fully understood in isolation from the influences of Britain, France, Russia, central Asia and other regions. Moreover, it seems to me that Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Berbers, and other cultures must also be seen as influences to understand the happenings.

My instinct tells me that the importance of historical causes diminishes as the interval between cause and effect lengthens in historical time. Thus it seems reasonable to me that to enhance understanding of the current situation in the region one should emphasize more its 20th century history than its 19th, more its 19th century history than that of earlier millennia. As classical painting gives clarity and detail to the figure and allows the background to be misted and muted, so a modern history must sketch the ancient precursors if current events in broad, impressionistic brush strokes.

So too, my instinct tells me that those who hold military, economic, political and/or intellectual authority have more influence over the course of history than do those without such authority. This perception seems to be shared by historians, and may of course be a socially constructed misunderstanding, like the flat earth hypothesis.

The choice of what to include in a discussion in part depends on what interests most the authors (and is likely most to interest the reader). We have parochial interests. It is not surprising that an English author writing for an English speaking audience would focus on the British interaction with the region he has chosen to write about. I suspect that the history, if written by and for Muslims from the Indian subcontinent would be different, as would histories emphasizing Turkish, Arab, or Persian points of view. My early engineering training suggest that it you want to understand a complex object, you need to see at least three orthogonal views. I suppose that too is the insight of cubist painters, of novelists like Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier) and Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet), and of film makers like Akira Kurosawa (Rashômon), not to mention all of those who teach methods for ethnographic research.

Factor analysis is a statistical technique to help make complex data sets with many dimensions more understandable. It seeks to find reduced sets of dimensions that can be used to portray the data while maintaining as much of its variance as possible. Factor analysis is but one of many data visualization techniques. I wonder if there are historiographic techniques for the selection of aspects of history that help display the complexity of situations in their most intelligible forms, or that are especially useful for those seeking to understand specific aspects of situations?

Specifically. is it more important to understand the evolution of per capita GDP, population density, environmental quality, technological systems, class structures, educational achievements, political institutions, or ruling dynasties to get a grasp on the booming, buzzing confusion that this complex region seems to the uninitiated? Which aspects of the situation are most useful to understand if one seeks to the others. Is understanding dynastic succession more important to understanding economic evolution than is understanding economic evolution to understanding dynastic succession?

Of course, the author of a popular history does not have unlimited choice. He/she can not draw upon information that does not exist in writing his/her history. Weak states and pre-modern states do not collect statistics, so adequate numerical data are not available for the taking. On the other hand, dynastic rulers tend to be careful in documenting the family history of the dynastic order, even if it has to be invented. Still, I wonder how much we really learn from knowing the names, birth and death dates of lines of long dead rulers of Mayan cities.

Thinking in time is important. Causes must precede their effects. The calendar is a framework on which historians hang their facts. Yet there is the well known logical fallacy, "post hoc ergo propter hoc". Too often, I suspect we draw incorrect inferences of causality from the fact that one event preceded another in history. Indeed, I suspect there are many epiphenomena in which side effects are attributed causality -- the fever is thought to be the cause of the illness, rather than a response to the infection.

Ultimately, I wish we had the histories of Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries in this region from the viewpoints of members of various different factions within those countries. A richer understanding of their points of view, of their perceptions of the important and interesting facts of history, might help to avoid the easy assumptions that have been too often made by foreigners and proven false by experience in the past.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Death by numbers - Los Angeles Times

Death by numbers - Los Angeles Times: A column by Meghan Daum

"On any given day, an average of 148,000 people will die. That means over a million people have died in the last week. Nearly 5 million have died since around this time last month, which, incidentally, was exactly when we were briefly bombarded with the news that 199 people were killed in a Brazilian airliner crash. Other deaths and possible deaths we've heard about since then include the 11 victims found so far in the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis; the six miners missing and three rescuers killed in a Utah coal mine; hundreds dead in the earthquake in Peru. To a somewhat lesser extent, we've also heard about 100-plus troops and the 2,000-plus civilians reportedly killed in the Iraq war in the last month. There was also news of the passing of several celebrities, including evangelist Tammy Faye Messner, talk-show host Merv Griffin and baseball's Phil Rizzuto.......

Based on estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were about 3,500 automobile-related deaths during that monthlong period. U.S. cancer deaths hover around 42,000 a month. As for heart disease, the American Heart Assn. tells us that someone dies of cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds. And that's just in this country.

As staggering as these numbers are, they don't seem to scare or interest us nearly as much as things like plane crashes, mountain lion attacks, deadly roller coaster mishaps or avian flu. And because the news media is savvy about (and complicit in) our fears and fascinations, we are fed an endless supply of death news that has little to do with how most people actually die. Nonetheless, death by falling asteroid seems infinitely more real than death by cholesterol.

Call it selective fear, selective mourning. It may be an act of denial, but it's also an act of self-protection. Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest that the lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 20,000. Those same figures put the chances of dying in a car accident about 1 in 100. So why, when our plane is taxiing down the runway, do many of us still indulge in various acts of magical thinking (if we can name the last 12 presidents the wing won't fall off) even after blithely getting in our cars and making what is, statistically speaking, the far more perilous drive to the airport? "

Comment: This really is a problem. We know that people have a selective recall of information. There is an availability bias, and people remember first things that recently interested them. So they are likely to overestimate the problem with mine safety and underestimate that with road safety, to overestimate the danger of terrorist attack and underestimate the risks of eating too much! JAD

Mega Events in Geological History

A "black mat" of algal growth in Arizona marks a line of extinction at 12,900 years ago; Clovis points and mammoth skeletons were found at the line but not above it.
Credit: Allen West, UCSB via the National Science Foundation

NOVA has a program titled Mystery of the Megaflood.
"About 15,000 years ago, in the waning millennia of the Ice Age, a vast lake known as Glacial Lake Missoula suddenly burst through the ice dam that plugged it at one end. In the space of just 48 hours, geologists believe, the collapse sent 500 cubic miles of water cascading across the Pacific Northwest, creating overnight such unusual landscapes as the scablands of eastern Washington."
Lake Agassiz was an immense lake, bigger than all of the present-day Great Lakes combined, theorized to be in the center of North America at the end of the last ice age. In another mega-event, perhaps 7,500 to 8,500 years ago:
Much of the final drainage of Lake Agassiz may have occurred in a very short time — perhaps as little as one year — and may have been responsible for the "8.2 kyr event", a cooling episode of Earth's climate, visible in ice cores and other climate records.
That is, the huge flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic may have shut off the Atlantic circulation, causing a significant change in weather over much of Europe and other parts of the globe.

Scientists are discovering or suggesting the existence of more and more ancient mega-events. Something, perhaps a comet caused fires that raged over much of the North American continent some 13,000 years ago, apparently causing the extinction of many species.

In 1998, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, geologists from Columbia University, suggested that about 5600 BC, as sea levels rose, the rising Mediterranean spilled over a rocky sill at the Bosporus. The event flooded 60,000 mile² (155,000 km²) of land and significantly expanded the Black Sea shoreline to the north and west. Ryan and Pitman wrote:
"Ten cubic miles [42 km³] of water poured through each day, two hundred times what flows over Niagara Falls. …The Bosporus flume roared and surged at full spate for at least three hundred days."
We don't often think of the Columbian Exchange in these terms, but after Columbus established sea connection between the old and new worlds there was a mega-environmental event. There was a human population crash in the Americas, and invasive species (including man and domesticated species) competed with indigenous species and radically changed the landscapes worldwide.

The Yellowstone volcano had a major eruption approximately 650,000 years ago:
The caldera that it left is 53 miles long and 28 miles wide. In the area surrounding Yellowstone, 3000 square miles were subjected to a flow of pyroclastic material composed of 240 cubic miles of hot ash and pumice. Ash was also thrown into the atmosphere and blanketed much of North America. It can still be identified in core samples from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

Since this occurred more than a half million years ago this is all ancient history, right? Not quite. Yellowstone continues to be geologically active even today. Smaller explosions caused by hydrothermal activity (water or steam heated in an underground chamber until the top blows off) have been much more common and recent in Yellowstone's history than the massive caldera-forming eruptions. One of these happened as recently as 13,000 years ago, creating a three-mile wide crater that is now a portion of Yellowstone Lake called Mary Bay. Also, smaller volcanic eruptions with flows of lava, ash and pumice have occurred. Flows like these have filled in much of the old caldera since its creation.

Another catastrophic eruption is also possible. The effects of such a disaster are hard to even comprehend. Bill McGuire, professor of geohazards at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at the University College of London told the UK Daily Express, "Magma would be flung 50 kilometers into the atmosphere. Within a thousand kilometers virtually all life would be killed by falling ash, lava flows and the sheer explosive force of the eruption. One thousand cubic kilometers of lava would pour out of the volcano, enough to coat the whole USA with a layer 5 inches thick." He adds that it would once again bring "the bitter cold of Volcanic Winter to Planet Earth. Mankind may become extinct."
According to Wikipedia:
The Little Ice Age brought bitterly cold winters to many parts of the world, but is most thoroughly documented in Europe and North America. In the mid-17th century, glaciers in the Swiss Alps advanced, gradually engulfing farms and crushing entire villages. The River Thames and the canals and rivers of the Netherlands often froze over during the winter, and people skated and even held frost fairs on the ice. The first Thames frost fair was in 1607; the last in 1814, although changes to the bridges and the addition of an embankment affected the river flow and depth, hence the possibility of freezes. The freeze of the Golden Horn and the southern section of the Bosphorus took place in 1622. The winter of 1794/95 was particularly harsh when the French invasion army under Pichegru could march on the frozen rivers of the Netherlands, whilst the Dutch fleet was fixed in the ice in Den Helder harbour. In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. Sea ice surrounding Iceland extended for miles in every direction, closing that island's harbors to shipping.
Krakatau erupted in 1883, in one of the largest eruptions in recent time. The 1883 eruption ejected more than 25 cubic kilometres of rock, ash, and pumice [1], and generated the loudest sound historically heard thousands of miles away.
Ash fell on Singapore 840 km to the N, Cocos (Keeling) Island 1155 km to the SW, and ships as far as 6076 km WNW. Darkness covered the Sunda Straits from 11 a.m. onthe 27th until dawn the next day.

Giant waves reached heights of 40 m above sea level, devastating everything in their path and hurling ashore coral blocks weighing as much as 600 tons....

Fine ash and aerosol, erupted perhaps 50 km into the stratosphere, circled the equator in 13 days. Three months after the eruption these products had spread to higher latitudes causing such vivid red sunset afterglows that fire engines were called out in New York, Poughkeepsie, and New Haven to quench the apparent conflagration. Unusual sunsets continued for 3 years.....

The volcanic dust veil that created such spectacular atmospheric effects also acted as a solar radiation filter, lowering global temperatures as much as 1.2 degree C in the year after the eruption. Temperatures did not return to normal until 1888.
People do not often think in terms of 100 years, much less in terms of 1000 years, and so we tend not to recognize that mega-events are really possibilities rather than the stuff of scary movies -- no more real than vampires, or werewolves, Freddy Krueger or Jason of Friday the 13th. The records indicate however that they are real and do occur with distressing frequency. Social planning should take them into account, if not your individual planning of that of the nuclear family.

I suspect that we are facing anthropogenic environmental catastrophes of this magnitude by the end of the 21st century, and that we must begin to act now and act with continuing responsibility to ameliorate the damage and the consequences. If we fail to recognize that catastrophic events are not uncommon on such time scales, it is hard to mobilize the will to act.

There are people who do not believe the scientific record, preferring to believe the interpretation of the bible that says the earth was created as it now exists several thousand years ago. They will have great difficulty believing that we face a catastrophe of our own making. Fortunately, there are not only secularists but other evangelical co-religionists willing to take on these true believers and argue them into a stewardship of the earth.

Robotic Surgery

I watched a lecture yesterday by the head of surgery at Stanford University on robotic surgery. He spoke on the decades long experience with laparoscopy, and the the da Vinci Surgical System.

The latter allows a surgeon in one room to remotely conduct an operation on a patient in another room. Binocular vision is enabled via a binocular eyepiece connected to two cameras mounted on a cable inserted into the patient. Similarly, the surgeon controls instruments from his console that are mounted on the end of cables, and which can be moved with a large number of degrees of freedom to match the motions of his/her hands in the controllers. Very delicate maneuvers of the very small instruments can be made because there is a reduction calculated from the movements of the surgeons hands to the movements of the tiny instruments, while the binocular vision magnifies the images. The system weighs more than a ton, and requires extensive software which is apparently continually being improved and upgraded.

The technology was developed from the aerospace industry with thought to apply it to battlefield surgery or in outer space. But it is being applied to a number of delicate interventions, such as pediatric heart valve surgery. It has been used for some 25,000 operations, including one operation done by a surgeon in New York on a patient in Paris.

The speaker also mentioned the emerging possibilities in new micro0sensors and nanotechnological surgery. Thus one may soon be able to monitor blood pressure within the body; or maneuver tiny antibody loaded particles to cancerous tumors from outside the body using magnetic forces.

I was impressed on the one hand by the discussion of the the historical evolution of this technology which goes back decades (and indeed much longer when the antisepsis and anesthesia are taken into account), and thus seems quite old and established, and on the other hand how very rapidly this is progressing. I can't imagine that 50 years ago anyone would have imagined robotic surgery to be well established today, with some surgeons having performed hundreds of interventions using the technology.

I am also impressed by this as an example of the digital divide. In a world where billions of people have only the most limited financial access to health services, an elite has access to this "space age" care option. The difference between the family who can send their newborn for heart surgery using a million and a half dollar instrument operated by a large and very highly trained team of experts versus the Darfur escapee mother whose child must be dying as I write this for lack of oral rehydration salts and clear water is far more than the distance between those who simply have and do not have access to the Internet.

I was also impressed by the institutional challenges that are soon to be posed by this technology. Certainly one is the reluctance of professionals to accept the new technology. Surgeons have to learn new skills to use the new techniques effectively. There has to be a new relationship formed between engineers, programmers, and the doctors and nurses in the operating suite. Patients have to learn about the technology and its potential risks as well as benefits. Financing agencies and insurers have to develop policies. So to do the schools training surgeons.

We already have medical tourism in which patients travel from developed to developing nations to take advantage of lower cost medical services. What happens when a U.S. hospital outsource an operation in its own surgical suite to a surgeon in India? How is the licensing to be managed? Who has liability? Where is the liability insurance?

Distance education has raised many similar institutional problems, and advances in the application of distance learning that are possible with the available technology are not being fully realized due to our failure to solve the institutional problems rapidly. I suspect that will happen also in the case of ICT enabled medical services -- telemedicine in general and robotic surgery specifically.

Thinking About Newton's Thinking

Newton's tomb and monument
in Westminster Abbey

I watched a good documentary last night about Isaac Newton. As my son pointed out, it is impossible to fully describe the 84 year long life of one of the great thinkers of human history in an hour's television program for a general audience. Still, I learned something and the program was an occasion for thought. One of the difficulties faced by the creators of the program was to convey to the modern audience the ways in which Newton thought as we do versus the ways in which he thought differently than we do.

When one has the concept of the social construction of knowledge, it seems clear that Newton understood the world in ways that were the product of the society in which he lived, as we understand the world in ways that are the product of our society. Indeed, he thought about the world in the language of his time. That meant that he thought about the nature of matter in the language of the alchemists (while many of us think about it in the language of physicists and chemists).

Newton's society did construe science to be different than religion or philosophy, and Newton appears to have been quite comfortable lumping his search for understanding of the nature of light and of mechanics as part and parcel with his philosophical search for an understanding of God's actions. Denied our historical perspective, he would not have seen his explorations into alchemy as different in nature than his explorations into the physics of light or celestial orbits. In our socially constructed system of scientific knowledge these seem very different, one from another.

We must presume that Newton, as a human being, thought as we think think today. His brain was anatomically and physiologically similar to ours. He was not an alien. It should be immediately obvious that modern people with similar minds think differently according to the culture to which they belong. Secularists think differently about the world than do the religious, albeit with the same human thinking equipment, as those from one religious culture think differently about the world than those from another (different) religious culture. We should then find it self evident that a man living in 17th century England would think differently within his culture than we do in ours, albeit with the same human brain.'

On the other hand, Newton clearly was smarter than almost everyone. Think about high school, and the person in your class who most understood science. Now think of that person in a group formed of individuals from all over the state, each of whom best understood science in his high school class in your year. Half of those people would lag the median in the statewide group, even though they had led their high school classes. Now consider a group made up with the best high school scientist from each state. Again, half of those would fall below the median level of the group, although each was the best of his age for an entire state. Consider finally that there are perhaps 20 times as many people living in the world as live in the United States. Look at the group formed by the best 20 high school scientists worldwide for each of ten classes. Again, half of them would lag the medium in this elite group.

We can conceive of Newton as comparable to those in the most elite of that elite final group. We can conceive of him as having a mind like ours, comparable to the minds of people we know, but one that worked faster and more clearly not only than most, but than all but the very very few. We can think of his mind as falling with the bell shaped curve of human intellectual ability, but at the very upper limit of the distribution.

But, as the program made clear, Newton was also at the upper end of the distribution of people in his dedication to his work. Indeed, he appears to have worked so long and so hard as to drive himself into a nervous breakdown in middle age.

Newton also appears to have been at the extreme of the distribution of human experience in terms of independence of thought from the existing socially constructed body of knowledge. He essentially worked alone. He did so most famously during the period in which he lived at home away from Cambridge during the plague years -- a period of exceptional intellectual creativity. But he did not publish much during his years of most productive thinking. His laboratory assistants appeared not to have understood his thought, not to have been intellectual collaborators.

On the one hand, it seems clear that if Newton's work was derivative from that of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. On the other hand, it also seems clear that his recognition of the importance of experiments was unusual for his time and was important in his intellectual achievements.

How many Newtons?

One of the scientists interviewed in the program commented that Newton's was a talent that comes along perhaps once in 500 years. I suppose he was commenting on the combination of intelligence, energy, and intellectual independence. I would prefer to think that the genetic makeup might occur once per so many million births -- that is, there are more potential geniuses born each year to our huge global population that were born each year from the smaller population of Newton's world.

But we would not remember Newton today had he died in childhood, nor had he suffered from severe mental and physical disabilities as a result of years of malnutrition and disease as a child. Indeed, had he not been able to be educated and to work at Cambridge University and had the funds to purchase his 1600 book personal library, nor the economic freedom to pursue his studies, we would not have his scientific production.

How many Newton's has mankind wasted? How many are we now wasting each year in which a billion people try to live on a dollar a day or less? How many potential intellectual giants remain unrealized in the world, never receiving the education to develop their talents nor the intellectual and economic freedom to exploit them?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Our Cats

This is an experiment using Slide to create a slide show widget.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Out of Body Experience Explained"

Source: "Out-of-body experience recreated", BBC News, August 23, 2007.

This long excerpt explains in part how the experiment worked:
In the Swiss experiments, the researchers asked volunteers to stand in front of a camera while wearing video-display goggles.

Through these goggles, the volunteers could see a camera view of their own back - a three-dimensional "virtual own body" that appeared to be standing in front of them.

When the researchers stroked the back of the volunteer with a pen, the volunteer could see their virtual back being stroked either simultaneously or with a time lag.

The volunteers reported that the sensation seemed to be caused by the pen on their virtual back, rather than their real back, making them feel as if the virtual body was their own rather than a hologram.


Even when the camera was switched to film the back of a mannequin being stroked rather than their own back, the volunteers still reported feeling as if the virtual mannequin body was their own.

And when the researchers switched off the goggles, guided the volunteers back a few paces, and then asked them to walk back to where they had been standing, the volunteers overshot the target, returning nearer to the position of their "virtual self".

Dr Henrik Ehrsson, who led the UCL research, used a similar set-up in his tests and found volunteers had a physiological response - increased skin sweating - when they felt their virtual self was being threatened - appearing to be hit with a hammer.

Dr Ehrsson said: "This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience. In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are."
Comment: This is a nice example of the the fact that what we perceive is not necessarily what is happening.

Out of body experiences have been seen by some as religious or quasi-religious experiences. Certainly there is nothing unnatural about those in this experiment. Just an indication that our brain works in ways that are unintuitive. I see it as analogous to the images used to illustrate the ideas of gestalt psychology. JAD
Boring women
Old woman front view
young woman back view

Rubin face / Figure-ground vase

If you had any questions about the diffusion of ICT technology

I just had to share this image from the Development Gateway ICT for Development community's current highlight titled "ICT in Agriculture: Perspectives of Technological Innovation".

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Some resources on technological innovation in development

Program on Science, Technology, and Global Development
This is a project of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. It appears to focus on three topics: 1. the changing role of international corporations and the pattern of interaction between international companies and indigenous ones; 2. the role of public research capabilities at universities and public laboratories in the catch-up process, and the extent to which these institutions are becoming increasingly important, both because of the greater importance today of scientific knowledge underpinning technologies; 3. the complex set of issues associated with the tightening of national and international patent regimes under TRIPs. The director of the project is Richard Nelson.
I found two interesting conferences run by the program, with presentations available on their websites:
The Earth Institute program and UNU-MERIT run the governance of science technology and innovation project:
A Program of Study of the Processes Involved in Technological and Economic Catch up. The catch-up project is aimed at illuminating the key mechanisms and institutions that, in the current world context, can enable nations behind the scientific and technological frontier to catch-up, and how the opportunities and obstacles to catch-up today differ from those that faced countries that caught up in an earlier era. The project involves a large network of researchers and research organizations in different countries, both developed and less developed. UNU-MERIT/Columbia Earth Institute partner on Catch-Up Project Key partners are:
  • Richard R Nelson, Roberto Mazzoleni, John Cantwell -- Columbia Earth Institute;
  • Calestous Juma – Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University;
  • Nick von Tunzelmann -- SPRU, University of Sussex J. Stanley Metcalfe – CRIC, University of Manchester;
  • Claude Henry – Ecole Polytechnique, and IDDRI, Paris;
  • Bengt-Ake Lundvall – Department of Business Studies, Aalborg University; and
  • Akira Goto – RCAST, University of Tokyo, and Research Institute of Economy, Trade, And Industry Hiroyuki Odagiri—COE-RES project, Hitotsubashi University
The Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development
CGSD manages the social sciences activities of the Earth Institute. Its mission is "to augment the intellectual community using social sciences approaches to address the most pressing international development problems of our time." This mission overlaps with those of social science departments across the Columbia University, with whose faculty CGSD staff collaborate. The hallmark of CGSD is interdisciplinary research and policy application. A partial list of its research programs includes:
  • The Program on Science, Technology, and Global Development;
  • The Center on Capitalism and Society (CCS),
  • The Center for the Study of Science and Religion (CSSR);
  • The Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD); and
  • The Laboratory of Populations. The CGSD website includes publications which may be downloaded and links to events including presentations that may be downloaded.
The United Nations University Maastricht Economic and social Research and training center on Innovation and Technology
UNU-MERIT is a joint research and training center of United Nations University (UNU) and Maastricht University, The Netherlands. The joint Institute was created in January 2006 following the integration of the former UNU-Institute for New Technologies (INTECH) in Maastricht , and the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology, MERIT, at Maastricht University. UNU-MERIT seeks to provide insights into the social, political and economic factors that drive technological change and innovation. The Center's research and training programs address a broad range of policy questions relating to the national and international governance of science, technology and innovation, with a particular focus on the creation, diffusion and access to knowledge.

"Legislation Would Restore Radio’s Community Presence"

Read the full article from the Nashville Tennessian via FreePress.Net (August 23, 2007), from which I excerpt the following:
With television and the Internet dominating communication systems these days, the power of radio is often overlooked.

And we’re not talking about the wattage, but the potential to affect people’s lives.

Small, low-power radio stations can serve a variety of roles that larger media cannot, such as keeping the community informed about emergencies and neighborhood school closings. They can also reflect the diversity of their community in ways that corporate-owned radio stations do not.

Yet, low-power FM is locked in a battle for survival. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 led to consolidation of radio stations to such an extent that, in 2000, the Federal Communications Commission told Congress there was too much consolidation and community radio was endangered.

With lawmakers poised to act, corporate radio owners and National Public Radio complained that low-power stations would interfere with their signals. As a result, Congress restricted the FCC to issuing licenses for low-power stations only in rural areas.

The FCC ordered an independent study in 2002, which found that low-power stations would cause no significant signal interference, but the restrictions have been allowed to stand because of the influence of corporate radio. Only 800 licenses, all in rural areas, have been issued since 2000, though thousands of groups have expressed interest.

Now is the time to act. In June, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced the Local Community Radio Act of 2007, which seeks to remove those restrictions, while keeping in place a grievance process for large radio stations that believe they are harmed by signal interference. If it passes into law, educational groups, churches, nonprofits and municipal governments around the country are hoping to launch new radio stations that serve their local area.

The world health report 2007

The world health report 2007 - A safer future: global public health security in the 21st century

From the Summary: "More than at any previous time in history, global public health security depends on international cooperation and the willingness of all countries to act effectively in tackling new and emerging threats. That is the clear message of this year's World health report entitled A safer future: global public health security in the 21st century, which concludes with six key recommendations to secure the highest level of global public health security:
* full implementation of the revised International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) by all countries;
* global cooperation in surveillance and outbreak alert and response;
* open sharing of knowledge, technologies and materials, including viruses and other laboratory samples, necessary to optimize secure global public health;
* global responsibility for capacity building within the public health infrastructure of all countries;
* cross-sector collaboration within governments; and
* increased global and national resources for training, surveillance, laboratory capacity, response networks, and prevention campaigns."

Source: "WHO warns of global epidemic risk"
BBC News, August 23, 2007.

USAID To Require Security Checks of PVO Key Personnel?

Read "Foreign Aid Groups Face Terror Screens" by Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, August 23, 2007.

Lead: "The Bush administration plans to screen thousands of people who work with charities and nonprofit organizations that receive U.S. Agency for International Development funds to ensure they are not connected with individuals or groups associated with terrorism, according to a recent Federal Register notice."

The article suggests that officers and key personnel of PVO's receiving USAID funding will be required to pass a government security screening. The newly proposed regulations, scheduled to go into operation almost immediately, are apparently in response to new legislation which in turn was a response to concerns that USAID funding for activities in the West Bank and Gaza were ultimately reaching Hamas. Many NGOs are reported to be protesting the new regulations, including expressing concerns that compliance will be cumbersome and expensive.

Comment: This seems to illustrate decision making gone wrong. It makes good sense that the Congress exercise oversight to assure that the funding it allocates for poverty reduction is well spent. It makes good sense, if there are reports that some foreign aid funds have been misused to support terrorist organizations to put a provision in the law to prevent such things from happening in the future. It makes good sense in the bureaucracy to define regulations to implement the new provision in the law. Well intentioned people no doubt acted at each stage in the process. They did so under the various pressures on Congressional staff and executive branch officials. Non-governmental organizations then looked at the implications for them of the proposed regulations. Their staffs, no doubt well intentioned, acted under the pressures existing in organizations facing huge challenges, often with severely limited resources. The result is the proverbial horse designed by a committee that comes out with a remarkable resemblance to a camel. Perhaps it is more accurately an example that fully justifies the term of "garbage can" which has been used to describe a theory of organizational decision making.
As the cowboy said, when asked why he had shed all his clothes and jumped into a cactus patch, "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Flaws Cited in Gene Variation Studies

From "Findings," The Washington Post, 8/22/07.

"Most studies claiming to show that gene variations have different impacts on illness in men and women are flawed, scientists said.

"Just 12 percent of 77 scientific papers that found a difference in the way gene variants affect disease in men and women were correctly analyzed, the researchers report in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Most of the studies weren't big enough to determine whether the mutations have different effects in males and females, said John P. Ioannidis, of the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece, who led the analysis."
Comment: I assume that a meta-analysis published in JAMA has been peer reviewed and is credible (and that the WP reporter got the story right). On the other hand, the papers that are criticized as having used statistics incorrectly were also, presumably published in peer reviewed journals.

One conclusion is that statistics is a tough business. It is easy to draw incorrect conclusions from data. I suspect that a lot of researchers are not nearly as well prepared in statistical methods as they should be, and have failed to develop the feel for their interpretation that is needed to do really good work.

Clearly, we are in trouble with gender issues. For far too long, our culture has assumed that gender difference existed and were important, where no such differences did exist or were not important. On the other hand, we seem to have ignored gender differences in areas such as medicine where they did exist and were important.

Still, it is hard and expensive to develop the data to isolate all the differences that make a difference in biomedical research. Perhaps with computers and the development of national health information systems, together with genomics and other techniques for reliably identifying individual differences, we will do better in the future.

Differences in Bird, Human Flus Noted

From "Findings," The Washington Post, 8/22/07.

"Researchers have identified some of the changes that a flu virus needs to become a deadly pandemic strain, and they said the H5N1 avian influenza virus has so far made only a few of them.

"The study may help scientists watch for the mutations most likely to make H5N1 a global threat.

"David Finkelstein of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis and colleagues looked at H5N1 virus samples from people who had been infected. They found none were anywhere near as mutated as flu viruses that caused the three most recent pandemics, notably the 1918 Spanish flu that killed tens of millions worldwide.

"Writing in the Journal of Virology, Finkelstein's team said they identified 32 clear-cut changes in influenza viruses that differentiated a human flu from a bird flu.

"Even when H5N1 viruses infected people, each one had made one or two of these changes at the most, Finkelstein said.

"'We think they need to get to 13 to be truly dangerous,' Finkelstein said in a telephone interview."

Comment: This seems to be quite good news. The H5N1 has been considered to be a likely agent for a new flu pandemic, and its lethality in those infected to date has resulted in fears that if it did cause a pandemic, that pandemic would cause a very large number of deaths. The new finding seems to suggest that an H5N1 pandemic may not be as imminent as was feared. Moreover, if a large number of genetic changes are required to make the virus capable of causing a major epidemic, one might hope that the lethality will decrease as a result of those changes. JAD

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

GlaxoSmithKline as a Model of Corporate Responsibility

Face value | The nimble sumo |

"GSK's attitudes toward the poor are now regarded as a model for others. The firm encourages generics-makers to produce its formulations, so costs can fall further. It offers tiered pricing, linking the price of drugs to a country's ability to pay and offering subsidies for the poorest. Even the World Health Organisation, a United Nations agency not known for cosiness with the pharmaceutical industry, applauded GSK's decision in June to donate 50m doses of its new flu vaccine to be held in an emergency stockpile. This transformation, of both GSK and of its boss, suggests there is hope yet for the pharmaceutical industry. “Society puts up with Big Pharma only because we come up with innovative drugs,” says Mr Garnier. The world desperately needs a self-confident drugs industry willing to take risks to discover new therapies, but will no longer tolerate its arrogance and neglect of the poor."

The Distribution of Income Within Countries

The Graphs Say It All!

Read "Asia's rich and poor: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more" from The Economist, August 9th 2007.

The Dashboard Collection

The "Dashboard of Sustainability" is a free, non-commercial software which allows users to present complex relationships between economic, social and environmental issues in a highly communicative format aimed at decision-makers and citizens interested in Sustainable Development.

The Dashboard Collection is a collection of presentations that were developed using the software, describing important relationships in international development, and illustrating the use of the software.

Presentations include:
  • * The UN CSD Dashboard (From Rio to Johannesburg). This shows how the UN CSD indicator set could be used to assess the overall Sustainable Development performance of countries.
  • The CIFP Fragile States Index Dashboard shows how the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy could be used to assess the overall fragility of countries.
  • The Failed States Index Dashboard shows how The Fund for Peace & Foreign Policy indicators could be used to assess the overall performance of countries.
  • The Commitment to Development Index Dashboard shows how the CDI indicators can be used to assess the overall efforts of rich countries to help the poor.
  • The Environmental Sustainability Index variables Dashboard shows how Yale & Columbia Universities indicators could be used to assess the overall performance of countries.
  • The Millennium Development Goals Indicators Dashboard is an attempt to show how the official UN Millennium Development Goals set could be used for assessing progress, or lack of progress, towards Sustainable Development.
  • The IFPRI China Dashboard shows how IFPRI indicators could be used to assess the overall performance of China's provinces.
  • * The Maternal & Neonatal Program Effort Dashboard shows how Constella Futures indicators could be used to assess the overall performance of countries in providing health care to children and mothers.
  • The Privacy International Dashboard shows how Privacy International indicators could be used to assess the overall performance of countries.
  • The 2007 e-readiness Dashboard shows how Economist Intelligence Unit indicators could be used to assess the overall performance of countries.

Source: 2007 e-readiness Dashboard
Analysis view - scatterplot E-Readiness Index vs Social and cultural environment

A simple scatterplot may reveal interesting insights - for example, how is E-Readiness Index linked to "Social and cultural environment"? Malaysia scores "average" for E-Readiness Index (Y axis, 501 points for 501 Points) and "poor" for Social and cultural environment (X axis, 276 points). In contrast, Italy gets a "fair" for E-Readiness Index (Y=710 points for 710 Points) and "good" for Social and cultural environment (X=276 points).

For Wall Street's Math Brains, Miscalculations -

For Wall Street's Math Brains, Miscalculations -

"Short for 'quantitative equity,' a quant fund is a hedge fund that relies on complex and sophisticated mathematical algorithms to search for anomalies and non-obvious patterns in the markets. These glitches, often too small for the human eye, can present opportunities for short- and long-term trades that yield high-profit returns. The models replace instinct. They try to turn historical trends into predictive science, using elegant mathematics seemingly above the comprehension of your average 401(k) participant or Wall Street fund manager. Instead of veteran, market-savvy traders waving fistfuls of sell slips, the elite quant funds employ Nobel nerds with math PhDs, often divorced from the real world. It's not for nothing that they are called 'black-box' funds -- opaque to outsiders, the boxes contain investment magic understood by only the wizards who conjured it up. But the 387-point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average Aug. 9 and the continuing turmoil in the markets, in part attributed to massive sell-offs by the quant funds, have tarnished some of the quants' glimmering intellectual credentials and shown that, when push comes to shove, they can rush toward the exits as fast as a novice investor."

Comment: Mathematical models are not magic. These harness the computer to calculate more and faster than would be possible with the unaided eye and mind. But they are only as good as the model that they embody, the data on which their parameters are estimated, and the quality of the implementation of the theory in the model. One major weakness is that knowledge decays, and a model that was once good at describing the world can lose its power as the world changes. A model that was good at predicting the stock market when volatility was low may not be so good when volatility is high. Even more, a model that is predicated on the assumption that other people will not be doing what it is recommending that its users do, may be outmoded when lots of traders start using very similar models. And so it goes.... JAD

Could the Development Experts Be Wrong?

I have been wondering if the conventional wisdom is wrong about development.

Is building the Middle Class central to development?

The international development community has focused on poverty alleviation for decades. I wonder whether it might have been better to focus more on building the middle class. Two of the key development traps are war and poor governance (including corruption). Would a middle class have been effective in demanding more information from the media and more participation in society, and if so, would it be effective in opposing war and demanding better governance?

Certainly, the middle class where it exists plays a key role in running the economy and key services such as health, education and justice. These all have obvious benefits in terms of social and economic development.

The focus on countries

Donor agencies seem to work primarily in the framework the "nation state". That may make some sense in terms of political systems, but there are clearly large countries in which regions of the country are quite different one from another, and in which regional autonomy is important. On the other hand, as the European Union demonstrates, in some cases multinational governing bodies are quite important. Moreover, African countries demonstrate that political unrest affects neighboring countries as well as the country in which it starts.

In economics, it is perhaps even more clear that globalization encourages consideration of multinational economic systems. Regional markets and international trade agreements similarly suggest an economic focus that goes beyond the individual nation state to consider the larger market institutions. In contrast, large countries may have regional economies that are so little linked as to suggest that each region be taken as a frame of economic analysis.

I think of the emphasis on the nation state being created in Europe when there was a movement to draw all the speakers of a common language into a single nation. Even in Europe there are ethnic groups, such as the Basques that live in areas bridging borders of countries. In other areas, it would seem that the geographic areas best considered for programming and analysis of cultural issues might be other than nation states -- either smaller, as in the case of Africa in which some countries contain many ethnic groups, cross-national (e.g. Kurds), or larger (e.g. Arabs).

In terms of physical systems, water resources, diseases, wildlife, etc. do not respect national boundaries. The best frame of analysis and operation will again often be smaller or larger than the individual nation state, and will often involve geographic areas which cross borders.

Perhaps the emphasis on the nation state would better be replaced by complex networks of problem focused institutions that deal with problems at the scale and in the regions that make most sense. Should we not deal with river basins as wholes, rather than in the various pieces that correspond to the different nations through which the river runs?

Why don't they like us?

American foreign policy seems to be built on the assumption that if people only understood us better, they would like us more. Could it be that the government of the United States is increasingly disliked around the world because it is implementing policies that are disliked for good cause, and the citizens of this country are increasingly disliked because they boast that these bad policies are the result of good democratic processes>

My observation is that U.S. foreign policy has two major concerns -- security and economics. It seeks to protect the security of U.S. territory and citizens, and to serve the interests of the U.S. Economy. The United States is the worlds leading spender on the military, and the lest generous of OECD countries in terms of foreign aid. The United States government has been unwilling to sacrifice the country's short term economic interests to better secure long term global environmental sustainability. It has supported foreign governments that were odious where it seemed to advance U.S. economic or security interests to do so. And, of course, we continue to make military threats and start wars from time to time. Is it surprising that many foreigners see the United States, as personified by the actions of its government, as greedy and a bully?

Perhaps to make foreigners love us more, we should change policies, and act as a nation in ways that are more congenial and caring for the welfare of others.

What are the major foreign policy issues of the 21st century?

Perhaps the major ethical issue in international affairs is the increasing disparity between the have's and the have not's. The rich continue to get richer. Too many of the poor are trapped in their poverty. The distribution of income and wealth are getting less equitable in many countries, including the United States. This is true also of the distribution among nations, and only a few countries are successfully making the transition from poverty to relative affluence. Fortunately, those few seem to include the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) with large populations. Still, it seems unconscionable that large numbers of people are dying of hunger and preventable diseases in a world as rich as ours, and that so many people live lives blighted by poverty.

Still, I suppose that foreign policy will continue to be dominated by security and economic issues.

In terms of the economic, new players will be entering the competition for resources. Oil is obviously of concern, as existing reserves seem unlikely to be adequate for the demands to be placed on them in the rest of the century. With the growth of the BRIC economies, which represent nearly half of the world's population, the pressure on many resources should increase. Importantly, among these are arable land and water resources. Most of these are already in use, and as more people place greater per capita demands on these resources, we are likely to see prices rise and in the case of real shortages, conflicts arise.

Environmental degradation is increasingly a global problem. Most attention has been payed to climate change, and that would seem to be appropriate -- it is already apparent, and is likely to get much worse, especially if the world continues to procrastinate about the control of greenhouse gas emissions. But there are lots of other environmental problems that are also likely to worsen, including desertification, degradation of coastal zones, depletion of groundwater and snow pack water resources, loss of topsoil, etc. Not only will the global environmental problems exacerbate the competition for some resources and make life less livable, it will also potentially lead to conflict. When one country is polluting the environment in ways that cause real hardship in another, conflict seems likely. So too, the migration that will be increasing likely as people seek a better place to live is likely to cause conflict.

I fear that our diplomatic corps, as they seek to preserve and enhance our security and advance our economy will have to be far more concerned with the physical environment that they appeared to be in the 20th century.

And the competition for resources combined with increasing environmental degradation on a global scale, adding the social disruption that those forces will create, do not bode well for the poor.

FY 2009 Administration Research and Development Budget Priorities

Read the full White House memorandum to heads of Departments and Agencies of the U.S. Government.

These are instructions to the Bush administration policy level officers for the preparation of the budget to be submitted to the Democrat controlled Congress in January 2008, to be put into law for the next administration to implement.

"Presidential Priority: American Competitiveness Initiative:

"The President is committed to the success of the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) announced in his 2006 State of the Union address. The ACI doubles investment over 10 years in key Federal agencies supporting basic research in the physical sciences and engineering. This innovation-enabling research includes high-leverage areas that develop and advance knowledge and technologies used by scientists in nearly every other field. President Bush has successfully begun the doubling path for the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology core activities with an aggregate 17 percent increase in the first two years of the Initiative. To continue the doubling, these agencies should propose increases in FY 2009 that meet scheduled, ongoing facilities needs and provide for unique, high-value research opportunities. These proposals should be consistent with published out-year budget plans. We will evaluate the three requests together to determine final individual agency allocations. In addition to the doubling effort at these three agencies, real increases (above inflation) in the high-leverage basic research
of the Department of Defense should be a significant priority."

The memo defines"Interagency R&D Priorities" for:
  • Homeland Security and National Defense
  • Energy and Climate Change Technology
  • Advanced Networking and Information Technology
  • National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)
  • Understanding Complex Biological Systems
  • Environment
  • Next Generation Air Transportation System
  • Federal Scientific Collections
  • Science of Science Policy
"The President’s Management Agenda directs agencies to use the R&D investment criteria (relevance, quality, and performance) to improve investment decisions for and management of their R&D programs. Industry-relevant applied R&D must meet additional criteria. The specific activities programs should undertake to demonstrate fulfillment of the R&D investment criteria are described in a previous year’s memorandum, which is available at:"

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Iran frees U.S.-Iranian academic on bail | Reuters

Iran frees U.S.-Iranian academic on bail | Reuters:

"Iran on Tuesday released a U.S.-Iranian academic, who had been detained on security-related charges since May, after paying 3 billion rials ($320,000) bail. 'I thank all the people who made an effort ... so that I can go home now,' Haleh Esfandiari told a reporter from Iranian state television as she stood outside the gates of Evin prison in Tehran where she had been held. The footage showed her walking towards a small group of people standing outside the jail. Her lawyer, Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi, had said her family had gone to the prison to pick her up and that she was now at home."

Comment: Great news. Apparently Lee Hamilton, the Director of the Wilson Center in which Esfandiari works and one of the great foreign policy resources of the United States, made a personal appeal to the top Iranian authorities. Now lets continue to ask for charges to be dropped and for Haleh Esfaniari to be allowed to return to her home and family. JAD

"Looking Past Blood Sugar to Survive With Diabetes"

Read the full article by GINA KOLATA in The New York Times, August 20, 2007.

I have Type II diabetes diagnosed a couple of years ago. I found this article very important and useful. It explained things better than did my doctor. I quote extensively:
Blood sugar control is important in diabetes, specialists say. It can help prevent dreaded complications like blindness, amputations and kidney failure. But controlling blood sugar is not enough.

Nearly 73,000 Americans die from diabetes annually, more than from any disease except heart disease, cancer, stroke and pulmonary disease.

Yet, largely because of a misunderstanding of the proper treatment, most patients are not doing even close to what they should to protect themselves. In fact, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 7 percent are getting all the treatments they need.....

A recent survey by the American Diabetes Association conducted by RoperASW found that only 18 percent of people with diabetes believed that they were at increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Yet, said Dr. David Nathan, director of the Diabetes Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, “when you think about it, it’s not the diabetes that kills you, it’s the diabetes causing cardiovascular disease that kills you.”.....

The science is clear on the huge benefits for people with diabetes of lowering cholesterol and controlling blood pressure. After multiple studies, costing hundreds of millions of dollars and involving tens of thousands of subjects, national guidelines were rewritten to reflect the new data, and professional organizations issued recommendations for diabetes care.

With cholesterol, the guidelines say that levels of LDL cholesterol, the form that increases heart disease risk, should be below 100 milligrams per deciliter and, if possible, 70 to 80. Yet, Dr. Brownlee said, diabetes patients with LDL cholesterol levels of 100 to 139 often are told that their levels — ideal for a healthy person without diabetes — are terrific.

“Many practicing doctors just don’t know that an LDL cholesterol number that is normal for someone without diabetes is not normal for someone with diabetes,” he said.....

The statistics are grim: A quarter to a third of all heart attack patients have diabetes, even though diabetes patients constitute just 9.3 percent of the population. Another 25 percent of heart attack patients are verging on diabetes with abnormally high blood sugar levels.....

There is something about diabetes itself, researchers say, that leads to high levels of LDL cholesterol and a form of LDL cholesterol particles that is particularly dangerous. Diabetes also leads to increased levels of triglycerides, which are fats in the blood that increase heart disease risk, and in diabetes is linked to high blood pressure.....

Being obese or overweight, in contrast, are “weak contributors to heart attack risk,” Dr. Nathan said.

Type 2 diabetes “does not exist in isolation,” Dr. Nathan said. “Underlying diabetes are all these cardiovascular risk factors.”....

The key to saving lives is to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol to below 100 and also control other risk factors like blood pressure and smoking. The cholesterol reduction alone can reduce the very high risk of heart attacks and death from cardiovascular disease in people with diabetes by 30 percent to 40 percent, Dr. Cleeman said. And clinical trials have found that LDL levels of 70 to 80 are even better for people with diabetes who already have overt heart disease......

In Type 2 diabetes, the most ambitious effort was a huge study in Britain. It found that rigorous blood sugar control could lower the risk of complications that involved damage to small blood vessels, a list that includes blindness, nerve damage and kidney damage. But there was no effect on the overall death rate. There was a small decrease in the number of heart attacks but it was not statistically significant, meaning it could have occurred by chance.....

The result, notes Dr. John Buse, president-elect for science and medicine at the American Diabetes Association, is that for people with Type 1 and, especially, for those with Type 2 diabetes, there are still questions about whether and to what extent blood sugar control protects against heart disease and saves lives.

That leaves cholesterol lowering, for patients with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, as the most effective and easiest way by far to reduce the risk of heart disease and the only treatment proven to save lives. But doctors say achieving the recommended cholesterol levels usually means taking a statin.......

Dr. Hirsch has a message for diabetes patients: If he had to rate the different regimens for a typical middle-age person with Type 2 diabetes, the first priority would be to take a statin and lower the LDL cholesterol level.

Dr. Brownlee agreed, but added that the two other measures to protect against heart disease, blood pressure control and taking an aspirin to prevent blood clots, should not be neglected.

“Right now, without waiting for lots of exciting things that are almost in the pipeline or in the pipeline, starting tomorrow, if everyone did these things — taking a statin, taking a blood pressure medication, and maybe taking an aspirin — you would reduce the heart attack rate by half.”
Comment: I don't think I need an excuse to post such lifesaving information.

I will however tie this posting into the focus of this blog, because it illustrates important points.

It is perhaps shocking that most diabetics don't realize that their lives are at risk from stroke and heart attacks, and that they could reduce the risks greatly by a simple medical regime.

It is perhaps even more shocking that physicians also sometimes do not realize this fact, due to failures in medical education and the ways in which knowledge gained from medical research is communicated to the profession. Whether due to lack of understanding of the public health problem or other factors, it seems from this article that physicians do not communicate the real risks to their patients.

"CARE Turns Down U.S. Food Aid"

Read the full article by EBEN HARRELL in Time magazine, August 15, 2007.

While the U.S. is responsible for almost half of all food donations to the developing world, it is the only country to utilize "monetized food aid," a method by which grain is shipped to charities in the developing world, which then sell the grain in the local market and invest the proceeds for their own programs.

"CARE has decided to phase out all such monetized food aid by 2009, turning its back on $46 million a year in U.S. federal funding. The charity said selling food to fund its programs is inefficient and often delivers life-sustaining grain not to the hungry but to those who can afford it.....European countries all but phased out monetized food aid in the 1990s and the world's largest food aid distributor—the U.N.'s World Food Program—does not allow any of its grain to be sold by NGOs.

" Food aid was a sticking point at the 2001 Doha trade talks, amid complaints that the U.S.'s insistence that its food aid be grown at home amounts to a subsidy. Many European NGOs argue that this policy, coupled with the U.S. law that 75% of food aid be carried by U.S. ships, means food often arrives too late, floods local markets and damages indigenous farming.

"They argue that food aid should come, when possible, from the closest producer to the needy area. E.U. policy reflects this sentiment; less than 10% of its food-aid budget is now reserved for European-grown food. (Led by the British-based international charity Oxfam, many NGOs go further, arguing that cash injections into local economies is the best way to fight hunger)."

Comment: I see the argument that as the United States currently runs Food for Peace, it is a subsidy for American food producers and shipping companies. It has long been recognized that long term food assistance to a country can be damaging to its own farmers, who are facing competition from free food. Giving people money to buy food, to the contrary, increases the effective demand for food which can then be brought to where the demand exists by the cheapest means possible -- usually grown nearby.

There is of course a place for emergency shipments of food, such as when a natural disaster disrupts transportation systems. There is also, I think, a place for "food for work". If you take subsistence farmers off their land build some capital project, say a road or an irrigation canal that will eventually increase their income, it might be reasonable to pay them with the food that they would otherwise have grown.

Still, I would guess that the Bush administration is reluctant to give up this farm subsidy. The red states are after all among the most agricultural in the United States.