Friday, November 30, 2007

Thoughts on Reading an Article in Issues in Science and Technology

The Fall 2007 edition of the National Academy of Sciences journal Issues in Science and Technology is largely devoted to a "Global Tour of Innovation Policy". That tour includes an article by Christopher Hill titled "The Post-Scientific Society". The following are some thoughts I had on reading Hill's article.

He is of course right that the next 50 years will be different than the last 50 years.

The United States is very unlikely to be as dominant in science and technology in the next half century as it was in the last; other countries and regions will attain a position more consistent with their size and the size of their populations.

Loss of undisputed scientific and technological leadership may not be all that unpleasant for the United States. Consider that Europe lost that leadership during the first half of the 20th century to the United States. Europeans have managed to lead very happy and productive lives in spite of that loss of competitive advantage. Moreover, think what would Europe's last half century have been like had the United States not taken the leadership, and developed so many of the technologies that make life better in Europe. We may all benefit from the rest of the world producing more science, inventing more, and creating more motors for global development.

He is correct that the U.S. domination of science has been decreasing since its extreme level just after World War II, and that more science is going to be done in other countries in the next half century than in the last.

He is correct that there was a radical change in U.S. scientific and technological institutions following World War II, and that the war experience convinced American policy makers that science based technology was worth investing in. Big firms did create in-house laboratories after the war.

Scientific and technological institutions have evolved greatly in the past 60 years. We now have a system supporting technological start-ups with venture capital, incubators, and small industry research grants. Large companies have found it is often better to buy successful small technology firms than to try to do all the innovation in house. We have industrial partnerships to develop pre-competitive technologies, university-industry partnerships, and yes firms outsource R&D, including to other countries. My guess is that GERD will continue to increase worldwide, and even in the United States. Post-Scientific Society indeed!

I would suggest that it takes a long time for fundamental research results to fully work through the processes involved in economic revolutions. The Information Revolution is based on developments in solid state physics which resulted in semiconductors, transistors, integrated circuits and lasers, which made (economically) possible fiber optics, computers and satellite communications. Not only are we still working through the social and economic consequences of physics and materials science developments from the first half of the 20th century, these may be considered to be further developments of studies in the physics of electomagnetism in the 19th century.

The nature of the social and economic implications depends on the nature of the technological innovations. For example, the development of mechanical devices and water and steam power in a couple of hundred years ago resulted in factories built around large scale sources of power. The introduction of electrical power resulted in individually powered machines, and a different organization. The Information Revolution is having different social and economic impacts than did the Industrial revolution.

We know that there are waves of scientific and technological innovation. The next waves are not clear. I think it is likely that biotechnology, nanotechnology, individualized biomedical technology based on genomics and related advances, and cognitive and neurological technologies are likely candidates for future technological revolutions. Each of these is likely to have different implications than those of information technology or the technologies of the industrial revolution.

Hill may underestimate the importance of American innovations that were not dependent on the physical sciences and engineering. He uses Walmart as an example, but there were major organizational innovations in the United States in the past. Think of McDonalds, or in earlier times, Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, or the national enterprises created by the Robber Barons at the end of the 19th century. In terms of non-science based technologies consider the assembly line, scientific management, or the American System of Manufacture.

Hill is right in that the United States is likely to see its share of the world's inventions go down in the next half century as compared with the last.

There is a First Adopter advantage to the nations that first adopt a commercially important innovation. However, that is an advantage, not destiny. Other factors are involved in the ability to profit from inventions. The United States has a huge internal market, which is an advantage, and can continue to build its access to global markets. I see little if any advantage for being a late innovator, so American firms should have good surveillance mechanisms and be early adopters of inventions. Importantly, they should build the capacity not only to adopt inventions from wherever they occur rapidly, but to improve them and commercialize them effectively.

It is interesting that the same people who are most worried about the loss of American competitive advantage in many manufacturing industries to other nations, are also convinced that losing the inventors advantage to other nations will prove insuperable. The issue is how much of the benefits from innovations can be appropriated by the industries in a country. U.S. industry should seek to continue to appropriate a large share not only of inventions made here, but also in other countries.

Social sciences are also sources of important innovations, and one hopes that we will continue to benefit from the social sciences and thus to innovate socially. Hill recognizes innovations such as Head Start and aspects of the War on Poverty came from social science research. Others, such as women sufferage and the abolition of slavery came from a sense of justice rather than science. Both should continue to be important.

I hope that the next 50 years will be a time of invention fueled innovation that will benefit the United States and the rest of the world. I would expect the technological innovations to be different in nature from those of the past, and I would expect social and cultural innovations to continue.

Bob Textor pointed out years ago that we are tempo-centric as well as ethno-centric. Not all of the changes will be pleasing to those around today. On the other hand, I imagine that people at the end of the 21st century will look back on us today with some pity for our primitive ways. At least that will be true if mankind overcomes its propensity to pollute its own environment.

How to understand other people

I heard an interview with a novelist, Gina B. Nahai, who said that to understand a people you have to read their fiction. It is in their fiction that you can see how they think and how they interpret events.

Of course, it is important to read history of a people. I also think that it is important to read the standard stuff you find on the CIA World Factbook -- economy, demographic profile, political organization and recent history, etc.

Still, I think Nahai is right. In my experience if you understand someone's premises and how their analytic processes differ from your own, you have a much better chance of predicting how they will extrapolate from observations. Besides, reading fiction is interesting. I note, however, that you can also learn quite a bit from popular culture about how people think -- foreign movies, foreign popular televesion shows. Even watching British, French or German international news programs indicates not only what information is forming other peoples opinions, but what information their news agencies feel is best to broadcast.

Index Translationum

The Index Translationum is a list of books translated in the world, i.e. an international bibliography of translations. The Index Translationum was created in 1932. It celebrates this year its 75th anniversary.

The Index' database contains cumulative bibliographical information on books translated and published in about one hundred of the UNESCO Member States since 1979 and totalling more than 1.700,000 entries in all disciplines: literature, social and human sciences, natural and exact sciences, art, history and so forth.

Among the most translated authors are found, in no particular order, Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Lenin and Shakespeare. Consulting the available data, it can be noted that the most translated languages in the world are English, French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and Swedish. In the other direction, Japanese is among the languages most translated into; it is listed in fifth position after German, Spanish, French and English, before Dutch and Portuguese. Finally, Germany, Spain, France and Japan are the countries that translate the most.

"Why Science Can't Save the GOP"

Mouse stem cells.
Shinya Yamanaka / AP

Sid Passman sent me a copy of this article by Michael Kinsley in Time magazine. It makes the point that the pluripotent cell recently produced by genetic modifications of human skin cells may not prove as useful as hoped, and require further research and development. Even the researchers responsible say embryonic stem cell research should continue. Moreover years have been lost due to the Bush administration's wrongheaded policy. Voters will have long memories.

I seems to me that a big ethical problem for the embryonic stem cell researchers has been missed. If one can in fact produce pluripotent stem cells by genetic modification of skin cells, is that not a big step on the way to producing embryos from genetically modified skin cells. Would such embryos be "conceived"? What would be ethical use and disposal of such embryos?

Quest for Peace

The University of California Irvine campus has put online the broadcasts of a series from the 1980's titled Quest for Peace. They are worth your attention.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Resist coercion; be open to new ideas.

"On résiste à l'invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l'invasion des idées."
Victor Hugo
Histoire d'un Crime (History of a Crime) (written 1852, published 1877)

Which I translate:
One resists the invasion of armies; one resists not the invasion of ideas.

Translated by Menkin as
"No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come."

and rephrased as
"There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come."

Wikipedia suggests "withstand" could be used rather than "resist" and also identifies these alternative interpretations:
  • One cannot resist an idea whose time has come.
  • No one can resist an idea whose time has come.
  • Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.
  • Armies cannot stop an idea whose time has come.
  • No army can stop an idea whose time has come.
  • Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.
  • There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.
How about:
Resist coercion; be open to new ideas.

  • Transliteration, as I understand it, attempts to be so transparent that the reader of the transliterated version can reconstruct the original.
  • Translation would be more free, allowing for example, the substitution of a similar aphorism in the new language for one with similar meaning in the original.
  • Interpretation would go beyond translation, to interpret the meaning of the original to the reader of the translated version.

To resist an invading army does not necessarily mean to overcome that army in battle. The French Resistance against the invading Nazis during World War II illustrates a cultural resistance. "One resists an invading army" can be read as an recommendation to do so.

Not resisting the invasion of ideas should not imply that those ideas should be accepted uncritically, but that their import from a foreign culture should not stand in the way of their fair evaluation. Similarly, "one resists not an invading idea" can be read as an injunction against Chauvinism.

So, I will think of Hugo's phrase as meaning, "resist coercion as a matter of principal, but don't be a chauvinistic jerk."

MoveOn Petition Relating to Facebook

MoveOn, an organization promoting progressive political positions in the United States brings the following to our attention:

Facebook must respect privacy

"When you buy a book or movie online--or make a political contribution--do you want that information automatically shared with the world on Facebook?

"Most people would call that a huge invasion of privacy. But recently, Facebook began doing just that. People across the country saw private purchases they made on other sites displayed on their Facebook News Feeds."

More on the FCC

"FCC Chief Still Standing, if on Shifting Ground"
By Frank Ahrens and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, The Washington Post, November 29, 2007.

FCC Localism Hearings in Monterey
Source: KRBS Photo Gallery

The turning point came when Republican commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate, Martin's most reliable ally on the commission, bucked the chairman, saying at the meeting that his proposal "focuses heavily on the findings of one source, rather than the numerous sources our reports have included in the past." Tate, who declined to be interviewed for this article, privately expressed outrage that she and other commissioners had to ask Martin for additional data on cable subscribers, according to a source close to her. Republican commissioner Robert McDowell also opposed Martin.....

As a result of the rebellion, Martin backed down on the study, the commission passed a weaker set of cable regulations and the industry ended up with a big win, possibly sapping Martin of some clout. Now, before he can try to push through his next big initiative -- a relaxation of a key rule that caps local media concentration -- Martin faces a House committee next week and then a Senate committee prepared to ask tough questions about how he runs his agency......

Bruises are nothing new to Martin or FCC chairmen. He was blistered by Republicans over his handling of a wireless spectrum proposal last summer and during a battle over local phone deregulation several years ago. He has endured public scoldings by fellow commissioners Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, a Democrat. Likewise, firestorms over indecency fines and media ownership dogged previous FCC chair Michael K. Powell, as a controversy over unlicensed radio stations did William E. Kennard before him.
Comment: The FCC is much more important to American democracy than most citizens realize. Three Commissioners come from the president's party and two from the opposition. During the Bush administration, the FCC has been involved in many controversies -- media consolidation, net neutrality, cable deregulation, etc. The overall performance of the FCC reflects on the party in power. This may be why Republicans as well as Democrats in the Congress are focusing on the current controversies. JAD

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Check out the crisis map

Reuters AlertNet provides an interactive online map of current crises: conflicts, food security, storms, earthquakes, other disasters, and epidemics.

The New Human Development Report is out

Human Development Report 2007/2008

Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world

The report provides evidence of the mechanisms through with the ecological impacts of climate change will be transmitted to the poor. Focusing on the 2.6 billion people surviving on less than US$2 a day, the authors warn forces unleashed by global warming could stall and then reverse progress built up over generations. Among the threats to human development identified by Fighting climate change:

  • The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition. Semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa with some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the world face the danger of potential productivity losses of 26% by 2060.
  • An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.
  • Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.
  • Emerging health risks, with an additional population of up to 400 million people facing the risk of malaria.

See the UNDP video on the climate change

Years ago I was the government officer for a National Academy of Sciences workshop on the health effects of global climate change. I thought it was a real failure. There were a few epidemiologists who had studied the effects of heat waves in big cities in rich countries on the death rates, and who concluded that there was an increase. There were some vector biologists who suggested that the change in climate would change the range and density of disease vectors, and that as a result vector born diseases would become endemic or hyperendemic in new areas, raising public health threats.

I have been worried about threats such as those described above, which will fall especially heavily on the poorest of the poor -- people who have no surplus resources to provide a cushion in the case of crises. If you live on a dollar or two a day, and your land becomes a desert, or goes under water, or goes under a rising sea, your life is in danger!

It is especially ironic that those who contribute least to global warming are going to suffer most from its effects. The ethical implications for those of us in countries that are contributing the most greenhouse gas per capita, especially where we have allowed our governments to procrastinate on the creation and implementation of environmental programs, should be clear to all. We are ethically required to stop causing the problem to get worse, and start helping our poorest neighbors to deal with the mess we have created.

"7 Decisions on Species Revised"

White-tailed prairie dogs
one of the affected species

The article is subtitled: "Fish and Wildlife Service Cites Possibility of Improper Influence"
By Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, November 28, 2007.

"After concluding that a Bush administration appointee "may have improperly influenced" several rulings on whether to protect imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has revised seven decisions on protecting species across the country.

"The policy reversal, sparked by inquiries by the Interior Department's inspector general and by the House Natural Resources Committee, underscores the extent to which the administration is still dealing with the fallout from the tenure of Julie MacDonald, the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks who repeatedly overruled agency scientists' recommendations on endangered-species decisions. MacDonald resigned from the department in May after she was criticized in a report by the inspector general and as she was facing congressional scrutiny."

Comment: Still another story illustrating the Bush administration's disdain for scientific advice, when it conflicts with their ideology or other interests. JAD

Managing Risk: From a Guy Who Has Been in the Trenches

This is pretty good from today's Washington Post:

The Art of Managing Risk
By Steven Pearlstein

The article is based on an interview with Vince Kaminski, a highly educated mathematician-economist who worked for Salomon Brothers and Enron as a risk analyst, and saw both get into world famous problems due to failure of risk management.
As Kaminski sees it, the first problem is that the models these systems are based on, while potentially useful, have serious limitations that are too often ignored.

The data that go into them, he says, are so aggregated and "averaged" that they disregard outliers and abnormalities that turn out to be important. There are also risks -- like risk to reputation -- that are ignored because there is no data set by which to quantify them.

Moreover, by relying heavily on past patterns of behavior, they are often useless in dealing with the new products and new markets that are most often the source of the trouble.

Most importantly, Kaminski says, the models have been unable to capture the cascading effect as problems spread, confidence is undermined and people start to act irrationally.....

But even if the models were better able to predict such calamities, risk management would probably fail, Kaminski says, because risk managers are routinely ignored or overruled.
Comment: Don't be fooled into thinking that risk analysts are so often ignored because they are so often wrong. That is only one reason, but it is an important one. I figure the risk of an avian flu pandemic is about one in ten years, and the risk of a Spanish flu level pandemic is about one in 100 years. If I predict a flu epidemic is likely five years in a row, and none occurs, people are likely to ignore the next prediction, people being what they are. But the cost of a not having planned for a pandemic that does in fact occur is so much greater than that of planning for a pandemic that does not occur that we should make the latter error quite often. Politicians tend not to have century long memories!

On the other hand, I think Kaminski is right. Too often organizations have incentives for short term success, and get into life threatening crises as a result of their employees ignoring relatively improbable risks to obtain those short term gains. Prudence should also be rewarded!

It also seems to me that governments and large organizations could do much better by improving risk management, and hiring risk analysts. Financial institutions have lead the way, employing mathematical economists. But there are also experts in evaluating political risks, and bringing in social scientists to advise on social and cultural risks may be quite important in a globalizing world.

What is Going On at the FCC?

"FCC Chair Forced to Compromise on Cable Regulation"
Frank Ahrens, The Washington Post, November 28, 2007.

Yesterday's meeting followed a flurry of late-night activity Monday and throughout the day Tuesday, as commissioners sparred with embattled FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, who they say has rushed the commission toward unmerited action on cable and other issues.

The fight over new cable regulations was so contentious that yesterday's meeting began 12 hours after its scheduled start, as Martin and the four other commissioners edited and re-edited the proposals, and concluded after 11 p.m. ....

Increasing tensions within the five-member commission boiled over leading up to last night's vote. Martin received the harshest criticism from fellow Republican commissioner Robert M. McDowell and Democrat Jonathan S. Adelstein.

Both said they were prevented from seeing the FCC's data on cable subscribers until they asked Martin's office for the data Monday night. They showed that only 54 percent of U.S. households that can get cable subscribe to large packages -- a number well below the 70 percent threshold required for new regulations.

"They're trying to hide the ball from their own team," Adelstein said in an interview last night. "That's why the data was suppressed -- because it conflicted with the outcome he sought."....

Last week, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) sent a letter to Martin questioning his management style and asking how much time he had given the public to comment on certain issues and given fellow commissioners to study them.

"To maintain public confidence in the working of administrative agencies, it is critical that the agency decision-making process is transparent and open to public review and comment," Conyers wrote to Martin. "Yet recent media reports suggest that under your chairmanship, the FCC is conducting its decision-making in just the opposite manner."
Comment: Thank you Mr. Conyers! Keep the pressure on Chairman Martin, and protect the interests of the citizens and voters! JAD

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Danger in Herbal Suppliments

Aristolochia clematitis
growing in a wheatfield

"Manna from hell"
Julia Mead, The Scientist, Volume 21, Issue 11, Page 44 (November 2007)

This is an interesting article about the search for the cause of two health problems with a single cause. One is an endemic condition in Croatia and the other is a rare condition resulting from use of a herbal supplement or medication. Both, it turns out stem from a highly toxic substance found in differing amounts in a genus of plants: Aristolochia, commonly called birthwort. The plant is described as having been used in traditional health practice in many cultures for a very long time. Unfortunately, it can cause acute kidney disease or cancer when consumed for a long time. It has been implicated as a cause of disease in animals that eat it mixed in their feed, and in humans who also find it mixed in their grain harvests as well as those who consume it as a remedy.

Comment: This is an example of the value of modern health science over traditional health practice which has weak theoretical bases, lacks case-control studies, and lacks means to track adverse reactions to herbal products and summarize them over large populations. JAD

A Couple of Science Initiatives for Africa

Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is a platform for dynamic partnerships working across the African continent to help small-scale farmers by improving technology for agricultural production. AGRA programs seek to develop practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for the poor while safeguarding the environment.

Pan Africa Chemistry Network
Pan Africa Chemistry Network is a project designed to network scientists, researchers, schools and libraries, to help promote science and research throughout Africa.

More Thinking About Science

The other day I posted on this blog suggesting that scientists do not necessarily believe that the world is defined by laws and is thus predictable and amenable to mathematical treatment. Rather, I suggested, scientists seek areas that are observably exhibiting patteerns, and seek to explore and describe those patterns.

I want to expand on that discussion, considering how scientists do their work. It occurs to me that we might all adopt some of their approach in our daily problem solving.

My experience is that scientists are generally very hard working. The Post-Doctorate scientists who worked for me over the years tended to work long hours, with great diligence, and to think about their work in their "off hours". They worked much harder on the average than our non-scientist colleagues. Invention is a small part inspiration and a large part perspiration.

Scientists generally are reductionist, selecting a specific question to explore. They are pragmatic, selecting questions that are likely to yield to their efforts in a reasonable time with the resources that they are able to bring to bear on that problem.

On the other hand, many scientists synthesize scientific results, creating text books, teaching overview courses, or writing books to describe new syntheses.

Scientists are cautious about their observations, recognizing that errors often occur in the process. They depend on independent replication of results, and accept that their observations may not be valid.

Scientists are also caution about the interpretation of their observations. While science is about understanding causal explanations of that which is observed, scientists are generally reluctant to extrapolate much beyond those observations (at least in public), and recognize that their extrapolations may prove erroneous.

They work within paradigms, which define the important problems of the moment, and the approaches to those problems, recognizing that paradigm shifts may occur.

Scientists are very well informed about the paradigm in which they are working and related paradigms. They read the literature, attend scientific meetings, and participate in scientific exchanges after a formal education that almost always includes graduate degrees, usually a doctorate, and sometimes more than one.

They tend to be very collaborative. While most work in groups, all subject their work to peer review. It is only through the social construction of information that scientific knowledge is accepted.

Scientists are theory driven, seeking to make observations that extend or clarify accepted theories.

They are especially interested in exceptions, observations that do not correspond to the predictions of currently accepted theories.

Scientists recognize that the most important advances often come from looking at old problems in new ways, Often progress is made by applying a method or approach from one field in a new field. Thus good scientists are interested in cross-disciplinary approaches.

The best scientists are very good at selecting really interesting questions. They allocate their problem solving resources to questions that they can not only make progress on, but for which that progress will significantly illuminate larger issues and questions. That choice is based on intuition, but it appears to be informed intuition. The fact that most of the best scientists were students of others of the best scientists suggests that there is tacit understanding of the ways to choose good questions on which to work which can be transmitted through apprenticeship.

Scientists think about methods. Their metathinking guides their action.

One of the things that scientists have difficulty with, as do we all, is extrapolating what they understand about how to do their work in their chosen field to obtain lessons on how to work in other fields.

I worked with many scientists who were leaving the research laboratory to work in international development. It took some mentoring to convince them that they should master the literature in international development even though they would not think of taking on a new scientific project without mastering the relevant scientific literature, It also took some mentoring to suggest that the same skills that they used in judging the credibility of information could be applied to project monitoring and evaluation, or to development statistics.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Regulation Going the Wrong Way?

"Editorial: Toxic Dilemmas"
Donald Kennedy
Science 23 November 2007:
Vol. 318. no. 5854, p. 1217

(In the 1970's there was) widespread use of a compound called tris(2,3-ibromopropyl) phosphate as a fire retardant in children's sleepwear. A mutagen and putative human carcinogen, it leeched into children's bodies. After a 1977 paper by Blum and Ames in Science, that use was banned. Well, the alert chemical industry quickly substituted a dichlorinated tris, which Ames and Blum also found to be mutagenic and was subsequently removed from sleepwear.....

The history of residential fire risk is an interesting one, because it involves the tobacco industry. Remember them? They designed cigarettes that when dropped or put down, would smolder long enough to start a fire. For years, cigarette-lit fires were the greatest cause of fire-related deaths in the United States. After three decades of opposition from tobacco lobbyists, 22 states and Canada finally passed laws requiring that cigarettes be made self-extinguishing. With fewer people smoking and better enforcement of building codes, fire-related deaths are decreasing.....

Fire retardants are now widely used in furniture foam, and the second most-used compound is none other than chlorinated tris! In less than three decades, this highly toxic mutagen has moved from your child's nightgown to your sofa.

Arlene is scientific adviser for a bill in the California legislature called AB 706, which would ban the use of the most toxic fire retardants from furniture and bedding unless the manufacturers can show safety. It has a good chance of passage next year; even the firefighters support it. Not surprisingly, chemical manufacturers have launched a fear campaign in opposition, claiming that their products have dramatically reduced fire deaths in California, although the rate of decrease is about the same as that in states that do not regulate furniture flammability.

But the problem is a national one. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Reform Act (S 2045) toyed with a provision that would rush us into a national furniture flammability standard. That's premature, because it leaves no time to develop a safe way to reduce furniture flammability and puts potentially persistent toxic chemicals into U.S. homes.
Comment: Kennedy is very credible on this topic, as is the journal of the AAAS. I agree we should not regulate the inclusion of dangerous chemicals into household goods to obtain doubtful fire protection without first assuring that their long term health effects would not be serious. JAD

Presenting and Interpreting Research Results: HIV Data

"Study Calls HIV in D.C. A 'Modern Epidemic': More Than 80 Percent Of Recent Cases Were Among Black Residents"
Susan Levine, The Washington Post, November 26, 2007.

The lead for the article linked above is:
The first statistics ever amassed on HIV in the District, released today in a sweeping report, reveal "a modern epidemic" remarkable for its size, complexity and reach into all parts of the city.
I wonder what the authors mean by the term "modern"? Is the HIV epidemic bigger, more complex or with broader range than the black death, the Spanish Flu pandemic, or the epidemic of diseases of aging (cancer and heart disease) we are not experiencing? Perhaps the author means it is modern in that it is smaller, or better understood by contemporary public health officials.

Why does the title focus on the race of the victims? The District population is about three-fifths black, so the fact that four-fiths of the newly infected people are black indicates that they are at risk. But the population is about equally divided between males and females, and 70% of the new cases are males. But neither being black nor being male is a "risk factor" as normally understood.

Males are presumably more at risk than females and blacks as compared with non-blacks because more people in those large categories have high risk. The important risk factors are unprotected (anal) sex with infectious persons and sharing needles with infected people, are they not? Of course in the District's racially divided society, people tend to associate more with others of their own race, so all other things being equal the group with higher prevalence will have higher incidence of the disease. However, all other things are not equal, and the group with the larger percentage of intravenous drug users or with the larger percentage of people engaging in unsafe sex will tend to have the higher incidence of the disease.

In presenting epidemiological data a basic rule is to present not only the numbers of infected, but also the numbers at risk. Thus the data in the figures to the right indicate that more cases of HIV infection were heterosexually transmitted than homosexually. It seems likely, however, that the risk per person involved in homosexual transmission is still much higher than that for those only participating in heterosexual sex. While we now know that AIDS is not only a disease of homosexual men, and that efforts to prevent heterosexual transmission of the disease are needed, there should still be priority accorded to preventing transmission during heterosexual relations.

It is especially important to use epidemiological information for planning public health responses. The indication that the District has the highest incidence of HIV among large cities in the United States leads me to conclude that the District should spend proportionately more on HIV control in its public health budget.

The report that there is a large number of new-borns with HIV infection, combined with the knowledge that transmission can be blocked and that pregnant women are reasonably available for screening and births are attended in hospitals suggest an immediate priority for preventing transmission to new infants.

According to the District's press release:
The District accounted for 9 percent of all pediatric AIDS cases in the United States during 2005. Between 2001 and 2006, there were 56 children ages 13 or younger diagnosed with either HIV or AIDS in the District of Columbia.
Thus the District in 2005 had 18 times the national rate of pediatric AIDS cases!

Prevention efforts should be directed to those who would most benefit, usually those at highest risk. I would assume that in addition to pregnant women, they should be directed to those in the high risk categories identified above. Blacks are at only slightly higher risk than other groups, and if one can effectively reach the high risk groups within the black (and other) populations, that should suffice. Still, there are some general HIV/AIDS education programs, and knowing that 80% of the incidence of HIV is in black populations may have some modest benefits in directing that general education.

Why does the graph reproduced indicate that while the AIDS incidence parallels the HIV incidence it is always higher? Why does the article present such counter-intuitive information without explaining it?

One might argue that the newspaper should not be expected to present such information in the most useful form for its readers, who as citizens affect public health policy, and as individuals are those at risk of being infected. After all. reporters and editors are not epidemiologists. I think, however, that good reporting of this kind of evidence should be held to a very high standard; the editors should get editorial advice from epidemiologists. This is especially true in the District of Columbia where we have easy access to the best in the land! At least the WP put the story on its front page, above the fold.

I offer a link to the report itself, which the WP appears not to have had the courtesy to do.

Question: What will be the combined effect of the Energy Pirice Increases and Credit Crunch

I am old enough to remember the 1970s when oil prices went up. Liquidity was high, and developing countries borrowed heavily to finance development and import costs. Then came the 80's, heavy borrowing by the United States, credit tightened, and the developing countries found themselves with a debt crisis.

Now we see oil selling at historically high prices, about US$100 per barrel, As China and India grow economically, they would seem likely to continue to increase demand for primary products, and thus to make them more expensive on world markets. We also see the sub-prime lending problems extending, threatening credit markets worldwide, and talk of recession in the United States. There is an old saying that when the United States sneezes, developing countries come down with pneumonia.

Is there a real threat to reverse the last decade's economic progress in Africa and in the least developed nations in other regions?

Thinking About Science

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too.
"Taking Science on Faith," The New York Times, November 24, 2004.

I have been thinking about Davies op-ed piece in the New York Times. Some comments:

Clearly some scientists are religious, and most scientists of the past were religious, and thought that scientific laws were divine creations. Most scientists would be willing to test hypotheses of divine order if it were clear how to do so. Without tests, hypotheses are not scientific, which does not mean that they are wrong, but rather that they are not amenable to science which depends on such tests.

Scientists seek explanations for observed order, and sometimes seek to find order in the data, but science does not presuppose that all things are ordered. Quantum theory famously suggests that some phenomena are inherently unpredictable, while the Heisenberg uncertainty principle holds that some phenomena are inherently incapable of being completely observed.

Statistics has been successful in defining ways to find order in collections of random events. But I don't think scientists believe that science will ever enable us to predict actions in the behavioral complexity of social, biological or chemical interactions -- which of hundreds of millions of babies born each year will turn out to be presidents, how an individual neuron will develop and behave over its lifetime, or which atom will combine with which other atoms in a chemical reaction.

I would suggest that science does not presuppose lawful behavior, but rather seeks order and pattern in observations that may lend themselves to scientific exploration and explanation. Great scientists often find such order where it has not been noticed by others, or find ways to exploit such patterns that had not been recognized by others.

I would suggest that we can all benefit from the effort to perceive patterns of behavior and to understand reasons for the emergence of such patterns. That approach can prove useful in the office, the economy, and in politics, as well as in science.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Economist on Nanotechnology

Source: "The risk in nanotechnology: A little risky business"
The Economist, Nov 22nd 2007

Very little is known about the risks of nanoparticles in the environment. "Humans are already surrounded by nanoparticles of one sort or another. Much of the food people eat is made of naturally occurring nanoscaled components. Each person breathes in at least 10m nanoparticles a minute. Most of them do no harm." However, there is the possibility that some classes of nanoparticles will be the asbestos of the future, creating health or environmental problems. Little is known about the chemistry of nanoparticles, so many scientists say there is an urgent need for research to identify health and environmental impacts. The results from such research could inform regulation.

It is estimated that there are some 600 products on the market involving nanotechnology. Some 4500 patents have been filed in the U.S.A. on nanotechnology. Worldwide governmental nanotechnology research funding in 2006 was nearly US$6 billion.

"Meanwhile, nanotechnology is becoming part of the global economy. It could help produce trillions of dollars of products by 2014, ranging from face creams to computer chips and car panels, according to Lux Research. The risks from these products will often be very low or non-existent. In the computer industry, for instance, making smaller and smaller features on the surface of a chip is not likely to involve much risk to computer users. Motorists probably have little to fear from carbon nanotubes being embedded into a car door to make it more crash-resistant. Yet what happens to such products at the end of their life remains a question."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

International Sceince and Engineering Partnerships

The National Science Board has recently issued a report (in draft form) titled:

The U.S.–Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), the U.S.–Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund (BARD), and the Israel–U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD) were jointly endowed by the U.S. and Israel to organize, fund, and help achieve common goals for international partnerships in science, agriculture, and entrepreneurship. Additionally, the BSF Board of Governors recently called for Palestinian involvement in workshops sponsored by BSF, which emphasizes the power of science diplomacy to bring together otherwise very antagonistic populations. With support from the U.S. Department of State, regional scientific workshops have proved to be a very cost effective way of bringing scientists together around common issues in the Middle East and in other regions of the world. These regional scientific workshops should continue to be a high priority, but subsequent funding for actual research collaborations are also needed.

The USAID-funded Red Sea Marine Peace Park Cooperative Research, Monitoring and Management Program (RSMPP Program) serves as another good example of a multilateral Israel–Jordan–U.S. science partnership with great benefits to science, those nations, the region, and the pursuit of peace. Funding requirements for such partnerships are modest and pay substantial long-term dividends.

Egypt and the U.S. have also experienced great success in establishing collaborative partnerships under the aegis and support of the jointly funded Egypt–U.S. Joint Science and Technology Fund. Like the U.S.–Israel Funds referenced above, this fund represents an excellent example of science diplomacy that could well serve as a model for other bilateral and multilateral diplomatic relationships in the Middle East and elsewhere. Very recently, the U.S. established the Community College Initiative (CCI) with Egypt under the aegis of the Fulbright Commission. This innovative program will sponsor up to 200 Egyptians to study for up to two years at community colleges in the United States.....

Unfortunately, some policies implemented or strengthened following the September 11th attacks have inhibited international S&E partnerships. Issues such as intellectual property protection, management and access to data, data representation policies, export controls, materials/technology transfer policies, standards, and visa policies all require careful discussion to foster the growth of U.S. participation in S&E partnerships, while protecting the security of the U.S. and its allies around the world. U.S. scientists and engineers, in dialogue with policy makers and students, must work together to create solutions for problems that transcend individual government agencies and research institutions.14 Therefore, the Board recommends:
Recommendation 6
Congress should direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to balance U.S. security policies with the needs of international science and engineering including intellectual property protection, management and access to data, export controls, technology transfer, and visa issues......
The U.S. has always attracted many international students and researchers, but security regulations implemented after the September 11th attacks made it more difficult for foreign students and researchers to enter the country. The Department of State has done much to address these problems, but a perception continues to persist in the international community that the U.S. does not welcome non-U.S. scientists, engineers, and students as it once did. The Department of State recorded a decline in foreign students and researchers entering the country since September 11th,17 and there is increasing concern that not enough American students are entering the S&E workforce or participating in international S&E education and research experiences.......

The U.S. Government supports international S&E partnerships for multiple beneficial reasons. However, little is really understood about the benefits of such partnerships both by the public and in Congress. The benefits of international science and engineering partnerships are not only vital to the future of the U.S., but also stand at the forefront of solving the most pressing issues facing the entire world. Climate change, natural disasters, food shortages, sanitation and drinking water, energy resources, and the spread of disease are only a few of the issues that have global consequences and require a collaborative global effort from not only scientists and engineers, but from policy makers at all levels. The U.S. is uniquely positioned to help shape the direction of international cooperation and provide leadership in building S&E partnerships that can address these important global issues.
Comment: This is a good report. I hope it will do some good, that is that the recommendations be accepted.

I was involved in the cooperative projects described above, and I value them highly.

Where Evolution is Well Taught - Red Vs. Blue

It seems that the Old South is both politically conservative and teaches biology badly. Few states teach biology well, but the populous states that vote Democratic seem to do better on average.

Metaphors: Value Chain Versus Value Tree

I just read Global value chains and technological capabilities: a framework to study learning and innovation in developing countries from the Values Chains for Development website of the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute. Both the paper and the website appear to be useful.

They got me to thinking about the metaphor of a "chain" in the "value chain". In the time of Darwin there were competing metaphors:
  • The Great Chain of Being, versus
  • The Tree of Life
I wonder whether the "tree" metaphor might be better than the 'chain" metaphor in some of the thinking about technology and development. The following illustration also uses a chain metaphor (supply chaing), but illustrates that some products are simpler to manufacture and distribute than others.

Source: International Labor Rights Forum

Think about complex manufactured products, such as the space shuttle, large jet aircraft, or even the automobile. They have many parts, and indeed parts are often assembled in sub-assemblies which are in turn assembled into the final parts. Thus firms may be buying intermediate goods on one market and selling their outputs as intermediate goods on another market. A tree structure might help represent that structure. Thus each company involved in the production of a product might be seen as a node, and the supply of parts between companies as directed links between nodes. (Indeed. for each part supplied by a variety of producers there might be a set of supplier nodes each connected to the consumer node.) Looking at the graph from the point of view of the final consumer of the product, it would look like a tree as seen from the roots.
If you think about the personal computer, the consumer not only purchases the computer from a distributor, but also is likely to purchase complementary software from other distributors, and to obtain content from a large network of suppliers. From the point of view of the consumer, the personal computer may best be seen as an element in a technological system that supplies information, education, entertainment and/or information on demand. That system is even bushier than the supply tree for the computer itself.

The supply tree can be seen not only in terms of the flow of goods and services, but in terms of the appropriation of benefits. Each firm receives a portion of the final price of the goods, and transfers a portion of that price back to its suppliers.

It also occurs to me that one might expand the model to consider the lattice involved in an industry. In the automobile industry, for example, there are many parts manufacturers supplying many different auto firms. If one superimposes the supply trees for the different auro firms, the result would be a lattice, with many nodes corresponding to parts manufacturers connected with many nodes corresponding to auto firms. The markets for intermediate goods would correspond to cuts across the lattice.

Whether the supply tree metaphor is better than that of the supply chain will come out in experience, and will probably depend on the analytic purpose. But surely the evolutionary tree has proved far more useful that the tree of life as a metaphor in our scientific age.

Friday, November 23, 2007

African ministerial council outlines scientific targets

Read the full article by Ochieng Ogodo in SciDev.Net (16 November 2007).

Lead: "There is an encouraging emergence of goodwill towards science, technology and innovation among Africa's political leadership, but what is now needed is collective commitment, said Yaye Kene Gassama, chairperson of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST)."

The article continues:

Gassama made the comments yesterday (15 November) at the Third Ordinary Session of AMCOST in Mombasa, Kenya.

"We have been able to come up with political goodwill, but only collective commitment will enable Africa to achieve what they want to achieve in science, technology and innovation (ST&I)," she said.

International Science and Engineering Partnerships

International Science and Engineering Partnerships: A Priority for U.S. Foreign Policy and Our Nation’s Innovation Enterprise

This report of the National Science Board was up for public comment in November. In its conclusions, it states:
S&E research and development can be improved dramatically from international science and engineering partnerships. Through cooperative exploration, scientists and engineers gain access to foreign data, platforms, facilities, sites, expertise, information, and technology that can be utilized to advance the cause of science and engineering towards new knowledge. International S&E partnerships can lead to improved tools, models, products, and services due to global use, testing, and feedback to address issues of global concern. Such collaborations also lead to policy changes that directly influence outcomes in S&E partnerships at all levels.

As science and engineering become increasingly both global and competitive, it is critical to establish an environment for future generations of scientists and engineers to be able to perform in a more globally aware manner and environment. These future professionals will need to be more cognizant of, and able to successfully address, the various international and cultural issues that may influence the development and implementation of science and engineering partnerships. Establishing international networks of S&E collaborators in all nations may prove to be one of the most important qualifications for future researchers.

Rumi: Wit and Wisdom

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”

“Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.”

“All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I'm sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

“He is like a man using a candle to look for the sun”

“Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more - more unseen forms become manifest to him.”

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”

Jalal ad-Din Rumi
Persian Poet and Mystic, 1207-1273

Rummy: Wit and Wisdom

"There are known knowns, there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns, that is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns, there are things we do not know we don't know, and each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns."

"I would not say that the future is necessarily less predictable than the past. I think the past was not predictable when it started."

"I believe what I said yesterday. I don't know what I said, but I know what I think, and I assume that's what I said."

"This is a case of the local liar coming up again and people repeating what he said and forgetting to say that he never -- almost never -- rarely tells the truth."

Donald H. Rumsfeld

"Cellphone Tracking Powers on Request"

Subtitle: "Secret Warrants Granted Without Probable Cause"
By Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, November 23, 2007.

"Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects, according to judges and industry lawyers.

"In some cases, judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime. Privacy advocates fear such a practice may expose average Americans to a new level of government scrutiny of their daily lives."

Comment: This is in the United States with a strong tradition of freedom from government surveillance and rule of law, a free press to report on abuses, and strong civil society watchdog organizations. Think how authoritarian governments are likely to misuse mobile phone technology for coercive purposes! JAD

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Reflection: Where Does Knowledge Come From

I recently heard a debate between scientific skeptics and spokespersons for a theological position in which the issue of the source of knowledge came up. On the one side, the scientists were suggesting that value of "scientific knowledge" which was characterized by observations under controlled circumstances, published in peer reviewed journals, replicated by other scientists, and informed by theory. Even assertions so supported are seen as potentially incorrect, and subject to future validation or challenge by new observations or theory.

An alternative suggestion was that there are many ways of knowing. One interpretation was that the religious person was suggesting that revelation was a way of knowing. Without denying that assertion, the scientist suggested that it is difficult to know if a person asserting revealed knowledge is right about that assertion.

I have been wondering about other sources of knowledge.

Obviously, direct sensory perception is a source of knowledge. I know I am sitting here typing. There is also tacit knowledge, which I can not (easily) make explicit, but which I possess. There are skills which I would classify as a kind of knowledge, but not "scientific" knowledge.

Still, there seems to be a realm of knowledge about the world, involving facts and theories in which both scientific and non-scientific institutions are involved in the social construction of knowledge. (Thus the judiciary process construes knowledge about crimes, the legislative process construes knowledge about social and economic issues, the bureaucratic process construes knowledge all of which may be informed by but are different than the scientific processes construing knowledge about the same things,)

In that realm, there are epistemological issues as to the quality of the purported knowledge so construed. Is the evidence convincing? Is the assertion supported by theory? Are the proponents of the assertion credible?

Spanish has two words, "saber" and "conocer" that are both translated into English as "to know". Thus Spanish speakers divide the realm that English construe as that of knowledge into two areas. It seems to me that we might need a new concept in English to reflect the realm of assertions that are susceptible to scientific verification. Such a concept might help to develop an epistemology that would help to evaluate the assertions construed in different institutional settings.

U.S. Government Beginning to Ignore Floods of Communications

"Constituents' E-Mail on XM Deal Not Well Received"
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Kim Hart, The Washington Post, November 22, 2007.

The WP investigation of emails generated by the National Broadcasters Association with regard to the proposed merger of two satellite radio companies suggests that many were not really reflective of the views of their purported senders. More generally:
Are the hundreds of millions of narrow-interest e-mails that deluge official Washington each year a useful measure of public sentiment? Are they even being sent by real people?....

The torrent, made possible by Web lobbying techniques, is subverting the process it was meant to influence, some experts said.....
A poll of 350 congressional staffers conducted by the Congressional Management Institute in 2005 indicated that half of them did not believe that form-letter messages were sent with the knowledge or approval of constituents.

Yet the volume of e-mail has skyrocketed. House and Senate offices last year received 318 million electronic messages, up from 200 million e-mails and postal letters in 2004.....

Federal agencies have also experienced a gigantic increase in computer-generated e-mail. This year, the Fish and Wildlife Service received more than 300,000 form-letter e-mails from members of the Natural Resources Defense Council urging that polar bears be placed on the endangered species list, according to the eRulemaking Research Group, which tracks e-mails dealing with regulations.
Comment: e-Government programs will need good technology to summarize comments from the public and to separate the thoughtful individual comments from forms generated via mass campaigns.

Still, I think democracy benefits from the ability of people to communicate more easily with their legislators and government program administrators.

Supply of eGovernment Services
Source: Eurostat/Cap Gemini Ernst & Young 2004 Via eUSER

"Report Urges Foreign Aid Strategy That Bridges Security, Altruism"

Read the full article by Walter Pincus in The Washington Post, November 22, 2007.

Excerpts: "The Bush administration must develop an overall strategy for U.S. foreign aid programs that reconciles the conflicts between humanitarian and national security objectives, according to a new report prepared by the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the direction of ranking minority member Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.)......As the foreign aid budget has grown from $14.9 billion in 2001 to a record request of $24.5 billion this year, the Pentagon's share of bilateral aid has grown from 7 percent of that total to about 22 percent......Congress repeatedly has reduced President Bush's foreign aid requests, and that 'insufficient funding for foreign assistance in the civilian agency budgets reinforces a migration of foreign aid authorities and functions to the Department of Defense.'....The report also criticizes the State Department, arguing that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's establishment last year of a director of foreign assistance to centralize decision-making has resulted in a 'lack of transparency' for aid staff in the field, and 'weeks of extra paperwork, differing priorities between post and headquarters as well as inconsistent demands.'"

Comment: Having been a Peace Corps Volunteer and a U.S. Government functionary in the foreign assistance programs for 25 years, I am personally sorry to read about the problems in the foreign affairs programs.

As a citizen, at this time in which our foreign assistance is so important to our foreign policy, I am glad to see the budget increase, but I am sorry to see Congress keeping funding down. I don't think the Department of Defense should be a major channel for foreign development assistance.
Let us hope that the next administration reverses many of the Bush administration's efforts in foreign assistance. JAD

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

ChangeMakers Seems to be Really Interesting

Changemakers focuses on social innovation. It describes solutions and resources needed to help people become changemakers and presents stories that explore the fundamental principles of successful social innovation around the world. Changemakers is building an online "open source" community that competes to surface the best social solutions, and then collaborates to refine, enrich, and implement those solutions. The online Changemakers's community identifies and selects the solutions and helps refine them. Changemakers's Idea Reviewers are regular contributors of commentary and analysis that ensure lively and rich online discussion. It is an initiative of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public.
Here is an example of one of their competitions:

Disruptive Innovations in Health and Health Care: Solutions People Want
Changemakers, in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, held a collaborative competition for the best disruptive innovations that transform health and health care in the U.S. and globally. The winners and finalists are described in case studies on this website.
One of their case studies especially interested me.

Mobile Technology To Improve Health Service Delivery Within Government
The Dokoza system is an interactive real-time mobile system for fast-tracking & improving critical services. The system has been developed in SA for use initially in HIV/AIDS (specifically in respect of the roll-out of anti-retroviral therapy) and TB treatment,with the view to including other diseases.The system involves the use of SMS& cell phone technology for information management, transactional exchange & personal communication.The cell phone makes use of a regular issue SIM card across any existing cell phone network. by Jessie Dias-Alf | June 6, 2007.

Bush vetoes bill with open-access provision

Read the full article in Research Information (November 15, 2007).

President Bush has vetoed the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2008. He said that this bill, which includes the requirement for National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research to be made open access, is too expensive and contains too many earmarks.

Leadership in e-Government Initiatives

A little free association on the topic.

It is wonderful if the elected and appointed top officials in the government and government agencies understand and support efforts to use the power of ICT to improve government services. But what if they don't? And what if they exercise leadership to use the technology in bad ways? (As the Bush administration has sought to use the technology to increase surveillance of citizens without judiciary oversight.)

Ernie Wilson, who has just taken over as head of the Annenberg Center at USC, has written about the need for leadership from government, business, civil society and academia in advancing the Information Revolution in developing nations. That raises the question of how people in the business, civil society and academic sectors can exercise leadership in e-government initiatives.

While some politicians are really interested in the opinions of citizens and unorganized constituencies, I suspect many are not, and find the increase in contact from constituents a costly bother. (Organized constituencies hire lobbyists, and probably don't want the competition for policy makers attention.)

Similarly, some people in government are indeed government servants in the good sense, while many are bureaucrats in the bad sense. Corrupt government officials, and there are many in many countries, will not be happy about the use of technology to make government more transparent and efficient.

So I suggest that the leadership needed for useful e-government initiatives will often have to come primarily from outside government and from civil servants within the government. Indeed, their leadership will always benefit the efforts. And sometimes the appropriate leadership will be to reverse inappropriate initiatives promulgated by legitimate authorities.

Note too that there are various kinds of leadership, and many need to be present and should be coordinated. There is the leadership:
  • from the technological community in selecting the right hardware and software;
  • from administrators in the reengineering needed to utilize the technology;
  • from political sectors to create the political support required to push the reformsl
  • from the business, civil society, and other communities interfacing with the government to restructure sectors to meet and utilize the new e-government capabilities[
  • from educators to prepare the human resources needed for e-government efficiency and effectiveness;
  • etc.

m-Government: The Next Frontier in Public Service Delivery

The World Bank is hosting an online and in person seminar on m-government, whih I understand to be the creation of an interface between the government and the public via the medium of the mobile phone.


The Next Frontier

in Public Service Delivery

Thursday, 29 November, 2007; 8:30 - 11:00 am ET
Location: MC C2 137 (1818, H Street NW, Washington DC) & Live Webcast

Welcome and Introduction

Samia Melhem, Senior Operations Officer, Global ICT Department, World Bank; and Chair, e-Development Thematic Group
Vikas Kanungo, Chairman, The Society for Promotion of e-Governance, India & Convener, eGovWorld 2007

Opening Remarks/Keynote address

R. Chandrashekhar, Additional Secretary (e-Governance), DIT, Government of India


Ibrahim Kushchu, Associate Professor and Director, Mobile Government Consortium International and Author, "m-Government: An Emerging Direction in e-Government", UK
Hannes Astok, Member of Parliament and former Deputy Mayor, City of Tartu, Estonia

In preparation for the seminar, you might check out Jan ChipChase's 16 minute long talk on mobile phones. He is a social scientist working for Nokia, and he is thinking very deeply about the impact of mobile phones, including the impact in developing nations. The talk was made earlier this year at the TED conference.

Chipchase notes that there are roughly half as many mobile phones as people in the world, but that in large numbers of villages in poor countries there is already one or more mobile phones that are shared by the community. There are huge numbers of mobile phones manufactured per year, and Chipchase points out that in China and India there is an industry springing up to refurbish or repair mobile phones.

He also points out that there are nearly a billion illiterates in the world, and I would suggest that there are many more people who have very limited literacy. Still, these people are using mobile phones, getting help from others to do so when necessary.

Mobile phones have already changed our culture. For most of us, we will not go out of the house without keys, money, and a mobile phone. (I remember when I would not go out without a check book, while now I leave the check book at home and take a credit card. I still wear a watch, but I realize that it simply duplicates the time telling capability of my cell phone. I just bought a Kindle, and will generally be carrying it when I go out as well, but then I read a lot and like to be connected.) In Africa, people are using mobile phones as an alternative to ATMs (I remember what a wonder the ATM was, removing the need to get cash by going to the bank during banking hours.) Chipchase also pointed out that Africans use prepaid cards as a means to make money transfers, the innovation having being invented by one or more anonymous individuals and spread through imitation.

Chipchase does not describe the ways in which drug dealers adopted pagers and cell phones, nor other ways in which innovative bad guys have appropriated the technology for their own ends.

Chipchase noted a case in Africa in which villages identify the houses with cell phone numbers. It may be that the cell phone will become a critical element of our identity. The technology is new, and still evolving quickly. Mobile phones may go from being a "fashion accessory" to being an "item of clothing". They are already being used for emails and surfing the web, and new "killer apps" will surely appear.

Surely they will play a key role in health service delivery. I predict they will change the way in which educational services are delivered. The multitasking people of the next generation, mobile phone wired, will be culturally different than the current generation, and will consequently have different expectations of government and demand different ways of interacting with government.

Three Great Presentations from TED

TED is apparently a great show, packed with new ideas presented often brilliantly. In part this posting is one of my first experiments with posting streaming video, but the three presentations are all very relevant to the theme of this blog.

Larry Lessig says the law is strangling creativity
Lawrence Lessig provides a great talk recommending a revolution that changes copyright protection of digital content to allow remixing. He suggests that this could reverse the 20th century trend to turn most people into "read only" consumers of content, allowing most people to be "read and write" producers of content. Kids are already using the technology in this way, and we either change the law or have a generation of the most creative people deciding that it is ok to break the law on a regular basis. The talk was given in March 2007, and posted on the TED website in November 2007.

Hans Rosling: New insights on poverty and life around the world
The creator of the Trendalyzer software and website returns to TED with another great presentation on development and poverty. It was filmed in March and posted in June, 2007.

Blaise Aguera y Arcas: Jaw-dropping Photosynth demo
This Microsoft architect presents a great suite of software that creates hyperlinks among images by finding the same images in different frames. Doing so, the software offers not only the possibility of new surfing modalities especially interesting to the visually oriented, but also a way to associate websites with images with other websites with related images, thus expanding the linkages that are the World Wide Web. Filmed in March and posted in May 2007.