Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The World Economic and Social Fora

Tutu hits Nairobi
Photo from The Economist.

Read an article about the two in The Economist (January 27-February 2, 2007; subscription required).

2,400 bigwigs gathered for the former in Davos, Switzerland and about 80,000 social activists gathered for the latter in Nairobi, Kenya. No doubt a wonderful time was had by all.

Business this week | Economist.com


Business this week | Economist.com:

"America's labour productivity growth rate in 2006 was the lowest for more than a decade, according to a study by the Conference Board. Although productivity growth rates were higher in most of Europe and Japan, the report suggested there would be future diminishing returns worldwide from investments in information and communication technology."

Scientists Criticize White House Stance on Climate Change Findings - New York Times

Scientists Criticize White House Stance on Climate Change Findings - New York Times:

"Under its new Democratic chairman, Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform took on the Bush administration’s handling of climate change science yesterday, and even the Republicans on the panel had little good to say about the administration’s actions.

"The subject of the hearing was accusations of administration interference with the work of government climate scientists. Almost to a person, Republicans on the panel introduced themselves by proclaiming their agreement that the earth’s climate was warming and that the principal culprit was greenhouse gases generated by people and their machinery.

"And when witnesses spoke in defense of the administration, it was often to say only that there were still some scientists who doubted that climate view or that the administration’s approach was not unique."

Monday, January 29, 2007

Research-Africa.net

Research-Africa.net:

"Research Africa strengthens the African science and technology policy-making, and research community, and connects them with the world scientific community."

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thoughts on Starting to Read Prisoner's Dilemma

I just bought Prisoner's Dilemma by William Poundstone and have started to read it. It combines a description of mathematical game theory, history of its development and applications, and biographic information on people such as John von Neumann and John Nash. It looks pretty good so far.

I did study game theory a long time ago, and am a fan of RAND where it was used extensively in real-life applications. Its application is an example of how analysis can build upon data to contribute to understanding and indeed to create new knowledge.

It was conceived of as a means of formalizing situations in which people make decisions the results of which incur costs and benefits, and in which people bluff, lie, and try to psych each other. Poker comes to mind as an example of a fairly innocuous game to which it might apply. Of course the military was interested as the techniques of game theory could be applied to the battlefield.

It occurs to me that one of the problems in applying game theory is that in the real world, people are "playing many games at once". Thus our President is conducting two wars simultaneously. He is also conducting foreign policy all over the world. He is responsible for the country's international economic policy, and its environmental policy. He is negotiating with allies to help in all these "games", and with opponents to limit their threats. He is also negotiating with the other two branches of government. He is involved with others in the leadership of his party to determine the directions that the party will take, and is involved in the competition with other parties.

Moreover, all the other people with whom he is negotiating are similarly involved in different roles in a large number of "games". When someone make a public statement, he may be lying or bluffing, in error, or telling the truth as he sees it. But his reasons for the remark may be based on any one of or combination of the roles he is playing in the games.

I think this model may help in situation analysis. Lets ask of a statement, what are the various games in which the speaker is involved, the stakes in each, and the rules of those games.

The approach may not only be useful in analyzing what government pronouncements mean, but also in our personal and business dealings.

Thinking About Culture

I am becoming more and more convinced that the long term approach to peace and social and economic development must be approached through the development of a culture of peace and a culture of development.

I have been running a blog on highlights related to the education and cultural programs of UNESCO.

I have also been contributing to the Culture and Development community resources on the Development Gateway.

So I was interested to come across three articles in The Washington Post, illustrating both the good and the bad aspects of cultural diplomacy:
* "The Good Old Days Of Selling Democracy: arshall Plan Films Offer History Lesson In Public Relations" By Philip Kennicott (January 27, 2007) The title says it all!

* "The Plot Thickens: A New Book Promises an Intriguing Twist to the Epic Tale of 'Doctor Zhivago'" By Peter Finn (January 27, 2007) CIA doing covertly what could have been done by the State Department overtly and better, with less negative fallout.

* "Can the U.S. Rebuild Its Image?" By Lyric Wallwork Winik in Parade magazine (January 28, 2007) Profile of Karen Hughes, the Czarina of State's Public Diplomacy initiative.

Bumper Stickers

Whose God Do You Kill For?

If You Want a Nation Ruled By Religion, Move to Iran.

Two great peoples divided by the misuse of religion:
Israelis and Palestinians

Shiites and Sunis

Irish Protestants and Catholics

French Christians and Moslems

Indian Hindus and Moslems

Sri Lankan Hindus and Budhists

Radio

Re: Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation by Marc Fisher.

From "The Rise of Radio: How an amazingly adaptable medium broadcast new messages to America", a review of the book by Douglas Brinkley, in The Washington Post, January 28, 2007:
The birth of FM made it clear that radio, far from being a fad, had limitless possibilities for reinvention. Today, radio has become such an omnipresent backdrop to our daily lives that it's taken for granted, like electricity or tap water or convenience stores......

As Hunter S. Thompson put it,
"The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
At times, the reader feels that Fisher has drawn an Alamo-like line in the sand, offering a loaded choice between radio (white hat) or television (black hat). "American radio -- like the pop culture it has helped to create, like the country it speaks to -- is ever-adapting," he insists. "As it ages, radio absorbs the new, co-opts the rebellious, and reinvents itself every step of the way." Cases in point: XM and Sirius. Even Dylan now has his own weekly XM show. As his beloved medium adapts, Fisher is out there listening, making sense of the airwaves that remain such a potent part of our lives. ·
From "Radio Days", a review of the book by Dave Marsh in The New York Times, January 28, 2007:
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, broadcasting experts predicted that the advent of television would kill off radio. Many of them didn’t especially want it to survive, since it could only hold back the acceptance of TV. In fact, the radio those experts knew didn’t survive. By the mid-1950s, the national networks that had dominated since the ’20s had all but evaporated, replaced by more than twice as many local stations. Television took over presenting broadcast drama and comedy, variety shows and in-depth news.

Yet radio itself survived. Radio outstrips television as a means of conveying intimacy and, precisely because it doesn’t show but can only tell, may stir the active imagination more deeply. It’s cheaper to operate a radio station, and in those years broadcasting equipment was much more mobile, making it perfect for local presentations. With recorded music (before the advent of TV, most radio programming consisted of live performance), stations found a cheap programming source that attracted enough listeners to generate its lifeblood — advertising revenue — even after TV took hold.

In “Something in the Air,” Marc Fisher takes the story from there, arguing that radio — those who programmed and performed on it, and the music they played — inspired his entire generation to come together
Comment: Radio interests me, as perhaps the medium that is currently most potentially transformative of the lives of the poor in developing nations. Receiver technology is already affordable. Battery operated radios work even in the many areas that don't have power lines. Packaged technology for low power transmitting stations is increasingly affordable and easy to operate, and it too can be powered by generators or solar panels in areas off the electrical grid. Thus community radio is an affordable and increasingly accessible option for developing nations.

Community radio can serve indigenous communities, broadcasting in local languages needed or simply preferred by local communities. As radio transformed life in affluent countries in the early part of the 20th century, and a reinvented radio re-transformed broadcasting and community lives in those nations in the latter part of the century, so too it can transform the lives of the poor in developing nations in the next decades.

Indeed, it might well do a better job in developing nations in the next century than it did in the affluent nations in the last, if it is used more consciously for development. We know more now. We know better how to use radio in the classroom. We know now how better to use radio for the purposes of civil society organizations. We understand how radio can be used to deliver health education. We better understand how radio can be a key link for producers in rural areas to sources of information on how to produce better and better market their products.

Radio can also entertain, and people everywhere value entertainment. But entertainment is a powerful tool in the transformation of culture. Radio can help to create a culture of peace, and to promote a culture conducive to social and economic development.
JAD

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Prosper -- An Online MiniFinance Market

Prosper makes a market for borrowers and lenders online. A U.S. firm, it provides for unsecured loans to individuals up to $25,000 with a maximum three year duration. The website allows individual borrowers to apply, but encourages borrowers to join groups. Prosper conducts a credit check on potential buyers, and makes summary credit worthiness information available online. Groups are formed by leaders, who are encouraged to recruit group members. Group membership provide additional indications of credit worthiness of borrowers to potential lenders, improving the market information.

In requesting a loan, the borrower posts biographical and financial information online as well as information on the purpose to which the loan will be used. The borrowers also identify how much they wish to borrow, and the maximum interest rate they are willing to pay. Lenders bid on making the loan (to the specific borrower), setting a limit on the amount to be loaned and specifying an interest rate. The software then packages the best loan offers sufficient to meet the borrowers loan requirement. Lenders are encouraged to lend small amounts to many borrowers.

Prosper handles the financial transactions, charges a small fee for the overall service, and also pays the group leader his/her fees. According to The Washington Post, "Prosper also deals with defaults. It charges late fees. Any loans that are 30 days late go to a collection agency. Debts at least four months past due are sold to debt buyers." Lenders can get higher rates of returns from this market than from bank deposits, while borrowers can find small loans at lower interest rates than many available sources. WP reports that "Less than 1 percent of its loans have defaulted; close to 3 percent of its loans are at least three months late."

Currently, Prosper lists 182 non-profit groups. As an example, "Medical Benefactors" group describes itself as charging no group borrower fees and helping conquer childhood and third world diseases since the group's leader donates a portion of interest on loans to medical charities. The organization claims 140,000 members and $27 million in loans to date.

The organization, headquartered in San Francisco, was founded by Chris Larsen, who also who founded the online lender E-loan which is involved in real estate lending.

As ICT costs continue to decrease and connectivity continues to improve in developing nations, this may serve as a prototype to be replicated in developing nations. This may also be a means for non-profit organizations to invest endowment resources to gain income through provision of a useful service.

Read more about Prosper in "Want to Loan Me Money? Here's a Picture of My Dog.: Prosper Links People Who Need Money With Those Who Have It to Lend" by Annys Shin in The Washington Post, January 27, 2007.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fionn, who is not feeling well this Friday



NIDA Versus Users in the Wikipedia Arena

Read the full article titled "Federal Agency Cleans Up Its Own Wikipedia Entry" by Ryan Grim in The Politico dated January 25, 2007.

The National_Institute_on_Drug_Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health, is the subject of an entry in Wikipedia. NIDA staffers, apparently unhappy with the content of the entry, changed it. "Wikipedia determined the edit to be vandalism and automatically changed the definition back to the original." NIDA staffers re-edited it. Now the community of people posting to Wikipedia are involved in a dual with NIDA staffers about the online content.

According to this article:
A little more than science-reflecting was done to the site (by the government employees). Gone first was the "Controversial research" section that included comments critical of NIDA. Next went the section on the NIDA-sponsored program that grows marijuana for research and medical purposes. The next slice of the federal editor's knife left all outside references on the cutting-room floor, replaced with links to government Web sites.
Comment: I am having trouble articulating why this story bothers me so much. I think it is because it suggests a new form of government censorship, in which government employees (paid with taxpayers dollars) remove comments critical of their work from a public space -- a space which is quite appropriate for such criticism. Were there not a history of Bush administration appointees seeking describing their activities to prevent the public from having access to knowledge as "in the interest of science" I might be less suspicious of the activity here. Certainly it is permissible for an agency of the government to have staffers review material posted about the agency, and seek to correct erroneous statements, clarify postings, or rebut claims which appear unfair. However there is a dramatic and important line between public service and censorship. JAD

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fighting tech transfer - and winning

Read the full article by Ed Silverman in The Scientist (Volume 21 | Issue 1 | Page 43).

"'The tech transfer office saw inventions as a way to augment the shrinking university budget and [was] overly aggressive in trying to make money,' says (Chris) Johnson. 'For us, the better research opportunity was to make it open-source, but they didn't want to do that. It was all very frustrating. My philosophy was that, yes, I could make money, but I wanted to do it in a way that benefited more than just me, but also my research and my lab, and allow the software to get into real-world situations. Money wasn't the primary motivation. The whole process was so onerous. Since then, in the last year or so, the tech transfer office has been completely reformulated. Thankfully.'"

Read the "article extra": "THE TROUBLE WITH TECH TRANSFER" by Ed Silverman.
The hardball approach (taken by greedy U.S. university tech transfer offices), however, may be prompting more companies to consider trolling for inventions (or investing in university research?) overseas, simply because some foreign universities are perceived as more willing to agree to industry terms. For instance, a university in Europe or Asia may be willing to assign ownership of the patent to the company sponsoring research, whereas a university in the United States is more likely to offer only an option to negotiate a royalty-bearing license, says Susan Butts, senior director of external science and technology programs at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich. "There can be an enormous difference," she says, "and there were times where we've walked away from deals." (Parenthetical comments added.)

More on the Web as a source of health information

A couple of days ago I posted a message on Websites offering health information directly to individuals. I will complement that with this posting.

CBS Evening news on Tuesday did a program segment titled "Surf The Web And Save On Prescriptions. The transcript is on the web. The story emphasized the utility of Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs. The Consumer Reports website provides comparative price information on pharmaceuticals. Many physicians prescribed drugs are costly, proprietary brand products for which there are less costly generics, or even over the counter products that are equally effective. An informed patient can discuss prescriptions with the physician and sometimes (often) agree on an alternative, less costly product. Indeed, sometimes the search will even lead to a drug that is both less costly and more efficacious for the patient.

Lab Tests Online provides the user with information on the interpretation of laboratory tests. My physician prints out a record of lab results for me, and explains their meaning. But it is nice to have a place to go for a refresher when I forget what I have been told. Indeed, my HMO posts the results on a website that I can access, so that I can see the history of the test results, and can review them before appointments with my physician. The online information helps in understanding the purpose of the tests, and in preparing to use the physician visits effectively.

Here is a site from Business Week Online offering information to the consumer (especially the organizational consumer) on health insurance.

Again, these websites are all focused on the U.S. market and U.S. consumers. They will have some value for people in developing nations, but would it not be wonderful if comparable content designed specifically to meet the needs of the increasingly connected people in developing nations were more available. Some organization should take on the task of providing technical assistance to those in developing nations willing to create and maintain such content online.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Librarian's Lament: Books Are a Hard Sell - washingtonpost.com

A Librarian's Lament: Books Are a Hard Sell - washingtonpost.com:

"I'm a librarian in an independent Washington area school. We're doing all the right things. Our class sizes are small. Most graduating seniors gain admission to their college of choice. The facilities are first-rate.

Yet from my vantage point at the reference desk, something is amiss. The books in the library stacks are gathering dust.

When I started in this profession five years ago -- I used to teach English -- I presumed that librarians were mostly united in their attraction to books. But as I moved along in my library science program, I found that books weren't really our focus. Information management, database networking and research tools claimed the largest share of the curriculum. In other words, literacy today is defined less by how English departments or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload."

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BBC NEWS | Americas | Bush 'must fight climate change'

BBC NEWS | Americas | Bush 'must fight climate change':

"Chief executives of some of the largest companies in the US have urged President George W Bush to introduce measures to tackle global warming........

"They have formed a group - the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) - which they intend to use to push for mandatory caps on greenhouse gases to cut them by more than 60% by 2050."

Websites offering health information directly to individuals

From "Free Web Site Offers Glimpse of Case's New Health Group" by Annys Shin, The Washington Post, January 23, 2007:
Revolution Health Group, the year-old company started by America Online co-founder Steve Case, yesterday unveiled a preview of its free health Web site and debuted a concierge-style consumer service.......

RevolutionHealth.com joins a list of contenders seeking to become the leading online provider of health-related information. The nine-year old WebMD is by far the dominant player, with 35 million unique visitors per month and about $170 million in annual revenue......

Other competitors include HealthCentral Network of Arlington, a collection of condition-specific sites that has 7 million unique visitors per month, and Waterfront Media of New York, publisher of EverydayHealth.com, which has 5 million unique visitors per month.
The institutionalization of intermediation for the supply of health information to patients and the general public is perhaps the fundamental issue of health planning. Since Abraham Flexner almost 100 years ago recognized that the European model of medical education made sense to replace the dysfunctional anarchy in the United States, but was not ideal for China, developing nations have struggled with questions of the relative roles of paramedicals, traditional practitioners, and doctors in diagnosis, prescription, and treatment of patients. The problem has not disappeared in developed nations, although affluence may reduce the urgency of its solution.

The ICT revolution has provided new opportunities for such intermediation, ranging from the use of mass media for the dissemination of public health messages, to the use of email for communication between doctor and patient, to telemedicine, to direct online websites providing information that allow self-diagnosis by individuals such as those mentioned above.

Clearly as ICT becomes more sophisticated and affordable, and connectivity increases, online services will continue to become more important.

The patient interface should obviously be tailored to the needs of the patient. Thus, it should be in the patient's native language. It should be accessible to patients with disabilities, and the facets of the website dealing with each specific disability especially accessible to those suffering from that disability. Patients come with different levels of education, and different cultural expectations, indeed, different cultural definitions of diseases. The appropriate interface will depend on the health needs of that patient, which depend not only on the age and gender of the person. But the website should also be tailored to the likelihood of various presenting conditions, and thus on the epidemiological situation of the community from which the user comes. Thus, the online websites mentioned above, which all have been designed to serve U.S. clients, are unlikely to serve well users from developing nations.

There are also disease specific websites, for example those of the American Diabetes Association or the National Kidney Foundation. The ADA is a non-profit organization, largely supported by diabetics, while the NKF focuses on the 20 million Americans with chronic Kidney disease. They provide user friendly interface and lots of information, and perhaps are reasonably accessible to English speaking persons from all countries. But both are targeted to the North American community, and both are unlikely to serve well the needs of those in developing nations where diabetes is an increasing problem, and kidney diseases are widespread.

Indeed these websites are funded by the sale of advertising, and their advertisers are not especially interested in having their adds seen by people who can not buy their products -- such as those too poor in their marketing area or those affluent enough but not in their marketing area. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health and National Library of Medicine provide a public service with MedlinePlus, but I am not sure fully complements the online services provided by commercial firms. Of course, my health maintenance organization, one of the largest, also provides services through its online presence for its members. I wonder whether there is a gap? Indeed, I wonder whether the proverbial reluctance of the U.S. government to compete with private industry (especially in the field of medicine) does not compound the problem in the United States.)

Surprisingly neither the World Health Organization nor the Pan American Health Organization seems to have a website comparable to MedlinePlus but targeted to the poor majority in the regions they serve, nor have I been able to find a program in either organization to advise national governments on the development of such websites. While there are commercial consulting firms that offer the service of design of health and medical websites, it seems unlikely that they would have the health planning and intercultural capabilities to design medical websites serving increasingly connected poor populations in poor countries.

I personally would like to see work to extend user friendly health and medical websites to less affluent patients and communities. Access to the Internet is increasingly available even in poor communities, albeit often through computer kiosks or other shared facilities, but I suspect that in many such communities the provision of online health information would be very welcome, and be perceived as worth paying for. Where is the donor supporting the development of a generalizable approach to the development of such content for poor people?

"Victory" and "defeat" are not the most useful concepts

I generally refrain from comments on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in this blog. There are so many people competing for attention on the wars, and I recognize that there are huge numbers of them who are much more worth attending to than me. I will depart from that custom here, because of a thought that occurred to me about the wars that may fit the theme of this blog.

Knowledge is conveyed importantly by words, and the words "win" and "victory" are often used in conjunction with wars, as are the words "lose" and "defeat". The war in Iraq seems to have seen an unusual amount of mission creep, moving from preventing the spread of WMDs, to establishing a focal point of democracy on the Persian Gulf, to restoring stability under a government acceptable to the Iraqi people. Thus the very concepts of winning and losing have changed according to what the mission is defined to be at any given time.

National objectives are frequently complex and multifaceted; different stakeholders, even among allies in a war, often have different objectives. The course of a war is often unpredictable, and the objectives at any stage should -- I would think -- depend on the actual situation at that stage. It seems to me that using terms such as "victory" and "defeat" tends to obscure rather than clarify the nature of the decisions to be made. Isn't the question before each government at each moment, "what do we do now, under the current circumstances, to best fulfill our national obligations and best advance our national interests?" Labeling alternatives as "victories" or "defeats" does not seem to advance the determination of responsibilities, risks and potential benefits of alternative courses of action in a multi-factorial decision.

ON THE HOLOCAUST CONFERENCE SPONSORED BY THE GOVERNMENT OF IRAN

In this article posted on the New York Review of Books, more than 100 Iranians:
Strongly condemn the Holocaust Conference sponsored by the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tehran on December 11–12, 2006, and its attempt to falsify history;

Pay homage to the memory of the millions of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and express our empathy for the survivors of this immense tragedy as well as all other victims of crimes against humanity across the world.
Another widely covered news story this week, as presented by The Guardian, notes:
Iran's most senior dissident cleric said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aggressive nuclear diplomacy had harmed the country, joining a chorus of criticism that has included even the hard-line leader's conservative allies.

The comments by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, released Monday, reflected a growing feeling among many that Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy.

Montazeri, 85, is one of a few grand ayatollahs, the most senior theologians of the Shiite Muslim faith. He had been the designated successor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, until he fell out with Khomeini shortly before his 1989 death after complaining about powers wielded by unelected clerics.

He said Iranians have the right to nuclear power, but questioned Ahmadinejad's dealings with the international community in obtaining it......

Prices of fruit, vegetables and food staples have skyrocketed since the U.N. Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Iran in December for defying a resolution demanding that it halt uranium enrichment, a process that can produce material to fuel nuclear reactors or provide fuel for bombs.

'Some countries don't have oil and gas. Yet, they run their country and stand on their own. We have so much oil and gas but make useless expenditures work for others and don't think of our own people's problems and the price of basic commodities go higher and higher every day,' Montazeri said.
Comment: Demagoguery confronted by inconvenient fact. JAD

Monday, January 22, 2007

Improving Immunization Technology Offers Hope for Bird Flu

Read "Patch Could Stretch the Supply of Flu Vaccine: Iomai Seeks a Partner To Exploit Technology" by Michael S. Rosenwald, The Washington Post, January 22, 2007.

A large grant has been made to Iomai to further develop a technology to deliver flu vaccine by means of a disposable patch that includes an immune-system stimulating adjuvant. If the approach is successful, it might not only reduce immunization costs, but also allow less vaccine per immunisation. (Iomai is headquartered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, near where I live.)

The article also notes:
One intriguing possibility that Erck did not rule out is a partnership with MedImmune, the Gaithersburg company that makes the nasal-spray vaccine FluMist, the only needle-free flu vaccine.


Iomai is also reported to be in the last stages of development of patches that would prevent traveler's diarrhea.

Bird flu surges in 2006: WHO chief - Yahoo! News

Read the full article: "Bird flu surges in 2006: WHO chief" on Yahoo!/Agence France-Presse (1/22)

World Health Organization Director-General "Margaret Chan has warned the world not to drop its guard against a possible flu pandemic, highlighting the fact that 2006 was a record year for human bird flu deaths.

There were 161 deaths from bird flu worldwide in 2006 out of 267 confirmed cases, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) data.

'More deaths occurred in 2006 than in the previous years combined,' the WHO director general said Monday.

The fatality rate reached 70 percent last year, 10 percent above the average since the first recorded deaths in China and Vietnam in 2003."

Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it

"How America Met the Mideast: The U.S. encounter with the Middle East began centuries before the Iraq War, propelled by idealists eager to transform the region in their own image." by Robert Kagan, The Washington Post, Book World, January 21, 2007. Review of POWER, FAITH, AND FANTASY: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren

The review opens:
We often hear that Americans know little about other nations; a bigger problem is that we know too little about ourselves, our history and our national character. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, in particular, we were all born yesterday, unaware of how present policies and attitudes fit into persistent historical patterns.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Avian Flu Update

The Avian Flu season is with us again, perhaps because this is a season in which birds migrate, carrying the virus with them from country to country.

"Indonesian woman dies from avian flu, death toll up to 62" in the Taipei Times

"Egyptian woman dies of bird flu, country's 11th avian flu death" in The China Post.

"HK on high alert of monitoring bird flu" in People's Daily Online.

Comment: I continue to believe it is just a matter of time until we experience the next flu pandemic. The H1N5 Asian Flu is the most likely candidate to cause that pandemic, and the longer it is with us with the viral population evolving, the more likely that it is to go epidemic. Still, I think it is more likely than not that H1N5 will not be the culprit. In any case, we are somewhat more prepared to deal with an Asian Flu epidemic now than we were a few years ago, which is all to the good.

We should not take our eyes off the huge mortality being caused by AIDS, malaria, TB, and other infectious diseases, but there is an important threat from Avian Flu that we should also prepare to meet.
JAD

The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public

The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public by Sarah E. Igo

Publisher's summary:
Americans today "know" that a majority of the population supports the death penalty, that half of all marriages end in divorce, and that four out of five prefer a particular brand of toothpaste. Through statistics like these, we feel that we understand our fellow citizens. But remarkably, such data--now woven into our social fabric--became common currency only in the last century. Sarah Igo tells the story, for the first time, of how opinion polls, man-in-the-street interviews, sex surveys, community studies, and consumer research transformed the United States public.

Igo argues that modern surveys, from the Middletown studies to the Gallup Poll and the Kinsey Reports, projected new visions of the nation: authoritative accounts of majorities and minorities, the mainstream and the marginal. They also infiltrated the lives of those who opened their doors to pollsters, or measured their habits and beliefs against statistics culled from strangers. Survey data underwrote categories as abstract as "the average American" and as intimate as the sexual self.

With a bold and sophisticated analysis, Igo demonstrates the power of scientific surveys to shape Americans' sense of themselves as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a nation. Tracing how ordinary people argued about and adapted to a public awash in aggregate data, she reveals how survey techniques and findings became the vocabulary of mass society--and essential to understanding who we, as modern Americans, think we are.
Comment: Compare this book with Istanbul. My comments on Istanbul focused on the way Orhan Pamuk deals with the influence of European and Istanbul writers and artists on the way he and other Istanbullus think about their city and themselves. Igo, a historian, focuses on the way in which sociological statistics influence the way modern citizens of the United States think about their country and themselves. I note that the use of statistics and social science in one culture, and the use of art and literature for similar purposes in another culture, says something about the nature of "knowledge" in the two cultures. Here, of course, I am using "two cultures" in much the sense that C. P. Snow did in the book. JAD

The Hippo at George Washington University

A bronze statue of a hippo stands on the campus of George Washington University. A plaque on the statue reads:

GW's River Horse

Legend has it that the Potomac was once home to these wondrous beasts. George and Martha Washington are even said to have watched them cavort in the river shallows from the porch of their beloved Mount Vernon on summer evenings.

Credited with enhancing the fertility of the plantation, the Washingtons believed the hippopotamuses brought them good luck, and children on the estate often attempted to lure the creatures close enough to the shore to touch a nose for good luck.

So, too, many generations of students of The George Washington University.

Art for wisdom,
Science for joy,
Politics for beauty,
And a Hippo for hope.


THE HIPPOPOTAMUS
by Ogden Nash

Behold the hippopotamus!
We laugh at how he looks to us,
And yet in moments dank and grim
I wonder how we look to him.
Peace, peace, thou hippopotamus!
We really look all right to us.
As you no doubt delight the eye
Of other hippopotami.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Istanbul: Memories and the City


Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk, is perhaps a great book; time will tell. It is part history, part personal memoir, part a rich collection of images of and from the city, part a reflection on the nature of westernization on Turkish culture, part appreciation of a city and the life within it, and part a contemplation of the way people have written about Istanbul.

For this blog, I want to point out that the book has an interesting perspective on knowledge.

Pamuk seeks to convey to those who don't speak Turkish the Istanbul concept
of hüzün which he likens to "melancholy" but as a communal feeling rather than as an individual feeling. He recognizes that the feeling of melancholy has changed from the romantic melancholy of the past to a sadder feeling. Hüzün is a mood or emotion, which he considers to characterize Istanbul. He describes hüzün as softening feelings as smoke softens a landscape. He considers hüzün as the result of living in Istanbul amidst the decay of its richer past, the contemplation of the loss of empire, and the challenges of Westernization of an Eastern people. Pamuk devotes much of this book to the effort to convey an understanding of hüzün.

How can you know how another person feels? Especially, how can you know explain in one language what a word describing an emotion in another language actually means. The meaning of a word describing an emotion, in the sense of an actual understanding of that emotion, is ultimately tacit knowledge gained by experience of the emotion and observation of people experiencing the emotion. I don't know whether Pamuk has succeeded in conveying accurately the meaning of the word "
hüzün", but he has used a rich array of technique and skill to do so, and has certainly conveyed an understanding of some emotion. The point is, he did not simply tell the reader what the word meant as a dictionary would; rather he (and his translator, Maureen Freely) illuminated the meaning by language, example, reference, and other techniques. Tacit knowledge can perhaps be communicated, if not be directions, then by poetry and prose!

Pamuk contrasts the written accounts of Istanbul of Western European authors and Turkish authors and of Western and Turkish artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, citing the differences in culture, purposes, and capabilities of the authors and artists. Over the period he describes, the city changed greatly. He notes, almost as an aside, that the city would have appeared quite different to its inhabitants -- occupied with their daily occupations, routines and concerns -- than to the writers and artists. He provides a counterpoint of his own observations of the city, noting how strongly those observations were affected by what he had read and the images by others that he had studied.

Pamuk also writes of his memories of growing up and living in Istanbul, but notes that others who knew him told different stories of his life, and that his memories may in many cases be based on tales he was told but now remembers as reality. He writes of another (imaginary) Orhan, who he has been in his consciousness since childhood, who lives a parallel but different life in Istanbul. Again, almost as an aside, he suggests that in the second life provided by this biography, his account may be colored both by the nature of memory and by his purposes as a writer.

I assume that there was a "real" Istanbul and a "real" Orhan who grew up and lived there in the second half of the 20th century, but that our knowledge of Istanbul and Orhan Pamuk will always be hazy, seen through the perceptions of others and of faulty memory.

By juxtaposing the memoir with the history of the city, Pamuk helps the reader, who must have personal experience with the nature of his/her own memory and self-accounts, to better and more viscerally understand the nature of historical writing.

Ultimately, Pamuk helps the attentive reader to obtain tacit knowledge about the very nature of knowledge, not by overt description, but utilizing the tools of poetry and prose, of biographic and geographic narrative, and especially by the use of the tools of a great writer and novelist.

Were Istanbul not a great read, it would be worth reading for this tour de force alone.

"Stem Cell Policy Hampering Research, NIH Official Says"

Lead: "In prepared Senate testimony, Story Landis, director of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and interim chair of the agency's stem cell task force, closely mirrored previous testimony from other NIH officials, who have for years been careful not to criticize the Bush policy directly, even though that policy has infuriated many scientists because of the limits it places on embryo cell work.

"But under questioning, Landis spoke more plainly. When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) asked her how the policy was affecting medical research, she said, "We are missing out on possible breakthroughs." The ability to work on newly derived stem cell colonies -- precluded from federal funding under the Bush plan -- "would be incredibly important," she added."

Read the full article by Rick Weiss in The Washington Post of January 20, 2007.

Friday, January 19, 2007

"Groups Make Headway in Fight Against Measles"


Read the full article by David Brown in The Washington Post of January 19, 2007.
A partnership of international health organizations said yesterday that it will seek to reduce the global death toll from measles to less than 10 percent of its 2000 level by 2010, spurred in part by bigger-than-expected gains against the disease in the past five years.

The effort seeks to extend the coalition's dramatic success in cutting annual deaths from measles by more than 60 percent since 1999, easily bettering its goal of cutting mortality in half.
Read the World Health Organization's news release: "Global goal to reduce measles deaths in children surpassed"

I was involved in a discussion recently with members of a history book club (to which I belong) about the mortality among native Americans following the Columbian exchange. Some had difficulty believing that the native American population decreased by some 95 percent. We had previously discussed a book on the 1918 flu pandemic, which is thought to have killed 50 to 100 million people, but that was still a relatively small portion of the world's population.

The good news about the reduction in measles mortality should be understood in light of the fact that nearly one million people per year were dying of measles in the 1990's. What we in the United States think of as a mild, childhood disease was in fact a very major disease before the advent of the malaria vaccine. When first introduced to populations with no resistance, measles was a pandemic killer!

More generally, according to World Health Organization statistics, U.S. health conditions are far from typical. Thus:
* Life expectancy at birth for males is 75, compared with 79 in a couple of small countries, 36 in Swaziland, 37 in Zimbabwe, 39 in Lesotho, 40 in Botswana and the Central African Republic, 41 in Côte d'Ivoire and Malawi, and 42 in Afghanistan amd Burundi.

* Eight per 1000 boys born in the United States die in their first five years, compared with 4 in Sweden, Norway, Singapore and Japan, 275 in Angola, 258 in Afghanistan, 256 in Niger, 249 in Liberia, 225 in Côte d'Ivoire, and 212 in Chad and Guinea-Bissau.


Rich countries tend to see health problems primarily in terms of chronic diseases of the elderly, such as cardio-vascular disease and cancer. Communicable diseases are largely controlled in rich countries, but are much more of a problem in poor nations. Historically, epidemics of communicable diseases could and did cause enormous mortality.

Vector born diseases have been especially difficult to control. In the United States, malaria was a problem in some states, and Yellow Fever epidemics were recorded in northern states. The problem of vector born disease is exacerbated in tropical climates, where insect life proliferates, and malaria still causes millions of deaths per year in tropical nations, although the vectors have been eliminated or controlled in rich, northern countries. When I lived in Colombia, however, doctors I knew could still remember when the presumptive diagnosis for a patient with fever was malaria -- it was that common until malaria control efforts became common and effective.

The native American population in the 16th and 17th centuries experienced pandemic after pandemic of lethal diseases -- smallpox, diphtheria, measles, polio, Yellow Fever as well as hyper-endemic malaria in large areas of the continents. As a result, according to the best data and most thoughtful scientists, the population crashed.

Contrary to popular thought, the most densely populated areas of the Americas had a sophisticated agricultural technology that included major works of what would now be called civil engineering. Not only were the populations of these areas more likely to pass diseases among themselves because of crowding, I think they were more likely to see social disruption due to the failure of social systems to cope with the population crash -- which in turn created conditions such as crop failures which further contributed to that crash. And of course, if the densest populations crash, the overall mortality statistics are most affected.

I fear that lacking an adequate long term historical perspective, U.S. society underestimates the risks in the world in which we live. The pandemic flu of 1918 and the AIDS pandemic in poor nations illustrate the power of diseases to create havoc. Climate changes, lasting for hundreds of years, have occurred even in historic times, and have greatly affected people and their civilizations. That lack of perspective may be why we fail to take environmental threats sufficiently seriously!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

How the 1918 Flu Worked

Researchers at Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg recreated the flu virus that caused the 1918 flu epidemic -- the worst in recorded history. They followed work done in the United States in 2005. They then tested the virus in macaque monkeys, comparing it with a less lethal modern flu virus. It had been previously determined that the virus would infect monkeys. While the control group of monkeys got only a mild disease, the animals exposed to the 1918 strain grew ill and keep getting worse; within days their lungs filled with fluid and blood and they were labouring to breathe. "The monkeys grew so ill, so fast, they were all euthanized by day eight of the experiments." Apparently the virus caused the monkey's immune systems to pump out large amounts of cytokines. "The virus did not stimulate a lot of interferon production, which is normally one of the body's first lines of defence. 'It looks like it was very stealthily moving through and not turning on certain switches.'" According to the article by Margaret Munro, (CanWest News Service via Canada.com): "The scientists are now trying to tease out exactly what happens at molecular and genetic level." The results of the research were published in Nature.

While scientifically interesting, the research may also be part of the process of developing public health defenses against a new pandemic of a flu variety like that of the 1918 pandemic. JAD

Washington Post: "Leadership Problems, Cont." in the Bush Administration

Stephen Barr - Leadership Problems, Cont. - washingtonpost.com:

"Only 49 percent of federal employees have a high level of respect for senior leaders in their agencies, and only 41 percent say they are satisfied with their leaders' policies and practices, the third in a series of government-wide surveys, released yesterday, showed.

"The views on leadership are similar to those expressed by federal workers in a 2004 survey, an indication that political appointees and career executives continue to struggle to connect with the rank and file."

Sad News: Art Buchwald Dies at 81

Read the obituary: Newspaper Columnist Art Buchwald Dies at 81" in The Washington Post, January 18, 2007.

"Art Buchwald, 81, the newspaper humor columnist for more than a half-century who found new comic material in the issues that come up at the end of life, died of kidney failure last night at his son's home in Washington, his family announced today."

Buchwald had a genius for making you laugh as he conveyed knowledge! I will miss his writing. I only saw him once in person, but he was even funnier than his columns.
JAD

SciDev.Net has a new Technology Transfer Portal online!

Go to the SciDev.Net Technology Transfer Website!

SciDev.Net has just published online a free technology transfer resource for developing country policymakers that includes, among other things, information on how to take advantage of foreign direct investment, how to help firms build their own technological capacity and what the public sector can do to support agricultural technology transfer. The resource contains peer-reviewed policy briefs, opinion articles, a collection of key documents and links as well as definitions of essential terms.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Poverty and Human Development: A Global Theme for Scientific Journals

The Council of Science Editors (CSE) - Global Theme Issue:

"The Council of Science Editors is organizing a Global Theme Issue on Poverty and Human Development in October 2007. Science journals throughout the world will simultaneously publish papers on this topic of worldwide interest - to raise awareness, stimulate interest, and stimulate research into poverty and human development. This is an international collaboration with journals from developed and developing countries. Thus far, more than 140 journals have agreed to participate."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Legal Tangles Of Data Collection

Read the full article by Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post, January 16, 2007.

U.S. law requires that law enforcement officials obtain a warrant to tap someone's phone or intercept e-mail. But after Sept. 11, 2001, "Bush secretly issued an executive order authorizing warrantless electronic intercepts for national security purposes -- even on U.S. citizens, as long as one party is suspected to be outside the country."

"E-mail is a slightly different matter. The law makes a distinction between intercepting e-mail in transit and obtaining stored e-mail from a service provider's servers.......These days, most e-mail is held and stored by third parties. So the government claims the authority to read someone's most intimate communications, including stored chat sessions, by serving a subpoena -- no probable cause required. A person may never even know that this has been done, as there is no legal requirement for an Internet service provider to provide notice......

"The same holds true for virtually any information held by a third party: phone company records that indicate who called you, when they called and how long the call lasted; Internet service provider records on what Web sites you visited, when and for how long; tollbooth records; security camera footage; records of emergency calls made from a car; supermarket purchase records. All that and more can be requested by the government with a search warrant, or sometimes with an administrative subpoena or other demand, frequently without judicial review."

The Bush Manned Space Program Guts Environmental Research from Space

The Blue Marble from Appolo 17

Read "Cutbacks Impede Climate Studies: U.S. Earth Programs In Peril, Panel Finds" by Marc Kaufman in The Washington Post, January 16, 2007.
Lead paragraphs:
The government's ability to understand and predict hurricanes, drought and climate changes of all kinds is in danger because of deep cuts facing many Earth satellite programs and major delays in launching some of its most important new instruments, a panel of experts has concluded.

The two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences, released yesterday, determined that NASA's earth science budget has declined 30 percent since 2000. It stands to fall further as funding shifts to plans for a manned mission to the moon and Mars. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, has experienced enormous cost overruns and schedule delays with its premier weather and climate mission.
Read the full study from the National Academies: Earth Science and Applications from Space: National Imperatives for the Next Decade and Beyond

Summary of the study:
Half of the country's environmental satellites will stop working by 2010, which could lead to a loss of data used to study climate change, predict natural disasters, and monitor land use. NASA and NOAA should secure long-term funding to maintain existing and previously planned satellite missions and to undertake a set of 17 new missions between 2010 and 2020, says a new National Research Council report
Comment: I understand that the acronym TTIA stands for Title Tells It All. JAD

Mapping Innovation

Mapping Innovation: In The Atlantic (Vol. 299, No. 1, January-February, 2007.

"Predicting innovation is something of a self-canceling exercise: the most probable innovations are probably the least innovative. The history of humankind's development can be summed up as the story of surprise. Adam Smith failed to forecast the Industrial Revolution despite his friendship with James Watt, inventor of the steam engine that powered it. And who would have prophesied MySpace, Oprah, or a TSA ban on hair-styling gel in quantities greater than three ounces?

But even if we can't see what innovations are around the corner, maybe we can at least predict what places are likely to be the most innovative in the future. And an innovative tool called Worldmapper might help."

American Prospect Online - High Definition

American Prospect Online - High Definition:

"As Congress begins its new session, there has been a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill to protect the open nature of the internet. On Tuesday, Senators Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe re-introduced a bill from last session that bans internet providers from charging certain sites for faster access -- or blocking other sites entirely. The same day, Representative Edward Markey was elected chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the internet and vowed to hold hearings on the subject, known as net neutrality."

Comment: I hope my Congressman, Al Wynn, will get on board and support net neutrality this time! JAD

The Scojo Foundation -- A Very Good Idea


Scojo Vision LLC is a company that makes eyeglasses and other aids to vision -- especially those little non-prescription glasses you see in the drug stores. It donates five percent of its profits to the Scojo Foundation.

The people responsible for the firm and the foundation have recognized that there are some 1.6 billion people in the world with poor vision who can not afford prescription glasses. There are some programs that send previously owned prescription lenses to poor countries to be distributed to these people, but the need far exceeds the charitable supply. Many of these could be more productive if they had simple, non-prescription glasses -- women could sew, kids could read better. The poor with access to computer screens might read their content better.

The Scojo Foundation is taking on the task of marketing a cheap set of non-prescription glasses manufactured by (Scojo Vision) to serve those people. The team produces a product selling for US&1 at the factory door, franchises distributors in poor nations (currently in Guatemala, El Salvador and India) and has developed a micro-credit scheme as part of the business model. With the markup that pays for the distribution, the user can obtain a pair of glasses for US$3. Many can indeed afford this price.

Read about the program in The Economist ("Health care: Pyramid power", January 11th 2007, subscription required.)

Comment: The United States has pioneered franchising, and I have long believed that the approach could be adapted to markets serving the poor in developing nations. The Scojo program seems to be an example of how that can be accomplished. JAD

Monday, January 15, 2007

Evaluation of World Bank Research

Summary:
"The Senior Vice President and Chief Economist requested an independent evaluation of all research activities carried out by the World Bank, both in its Development Economics Vice-Presidency and in other Bank units, between 1998 and 2005.

"The evaluation draws on all outputs of research projects as well as World Development Reports, Policy Research Reports and flagship reports. Overall, this represents more than 4,000 journal articles, books and databases.

"The evaluation was carried out by an panel consisting of Angus Deaton (Chair), Princeton University; Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard University; Abhijit Banerjee, M.I.T.; and Nora Lustig, Director of the Poverty Group at UNDP. The panel, in turn, selected thematic evaluators and asked them to review a random sample of 186 research projects. The evaluators are Daron Acemoglu (MIT), Francesco Caselli (LSE), Tim Besley (LSE), Sebastian Edwards (UCLA), Gordon Hanson (UC San Diego), Nina Pavcnik (Dartmouth College), Esther Duflo (MIT), Murray Leibbrandt and Martin Wittenberg (U of Cape Town), Nancy Birdsall (CGD), Josh Angrist (MIT), Sebastian Galiani (U de San Andrés, Argentina), Jonathan Morduch (NYU), Marianne Bertrand (U. of Chicago), Justin Lin (Beijing U.), Chris Udry (Yale), Marcel Fafchamps (Oxford), Edward Glaeser (Harvard), Michael Kremer (Harvard), Andrew Foster (Brown U.), Geoffrey Heal (Columbia U.), Peter Diamond (MIT), Antoinette Schoar (MIT) and Jan Svejnar (U. of Michigan).

"The evaluators were asked to evaluate the publications from the sample projects paying particular attention to reliability, rigor, completeness and relevance and, in addition, to give their overall assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Bank research in their area of expertise based on the sample and their general knowledge of Bank research. The sample was chosen randomly, with a bias towards more recent and ongoing projects in order to better evaluate the current direction of the Bank’s research. The sample also included 50 of the best outputs selected by the Development Research Group to ensure that full consideration was given to what researchers themselves consider to be their best research. The Panel also conducted interviews of Bank staff and management; developing country policymakers, NGOs and other users of Bank research."

Read The Economist's Economics focus. "What the World Bank knows" (January 11th 2007, subscription required) which reviews the evaluation.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Another Wilson-Flame Case?

Read carefully the following quotation from "On Iraq, U.S. Turns to Onetime Dissenters" By Rajiv Chandrasekaran (The Washington Post, January 14, 2007).

Timothy M. Carney went to Baghdad in April 2003 to run Iraq's Ministry of Industry and Minerals. Unlike many of his compatriots in the Green Zone, the rangy, retired American ambassador wasn't fazed by chaos. He'd been in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, Phnom Penh as it was falling to the Khmer Rouge and Mogadishu in the throes of Somalia's civil war. Once he received his Halliburton-issued Chevrolet Suburban, he disregarded security edicts and drove around Baghdad without a military escort. His mission, as he put it, "was to listen to the Iraqis and work with them."

He left after two months, disgusted and disillusioned. The U.S. occupation administration in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), placed ideology over pragmatism, he believed. His boss, viceroy L. Paul Bremer, refused to pay for repairs needed to reopen many looted state-owned factories, even though they had employed tens of thousands of Iraqis. Carney spent his days screening workers for ties to the Baath Party.

"Planning was bad," he wrote in his diary on May 8, "but implementation is worse."

When he returned to Washington, he made little secret of his views. They were so scathing that his wife lost a government contract. He figured his days of working on Iraq were over.

The article's main thrust suggests that the new team of Americans in Iraq is composed of people who objected to the ideologically driven, stupid policies of the last four years, and is complimentary to Mr. Carney. (Comment: I don't mind ideology all that much, although I mind people implementing their ideology that differs from mine in my name, but I do mind bad planning and worse implementation. JAD)

Note the comment (which is almost an afterthought) that Carney's wife lost a government contract, implying that the loss was in retaliation against "retired Ambassador" Carney's public statement of his views. Assuming that the government contracting process had worked correctly, and his wife had submitted a bid that was cost-effective in achieving the government's objective, I think action to cancel the contract in retaliation against her husbands actions was not only wrong, but probably illegal.

The situation sounds similar to that described in the charges being made with regard to the Scooter Libby case, that involved outing Valerie Plame (a covert CIA agent) in retaliation against her husband, retired Ambassador Joe Wilson (who criticized the false claim of Iraqi importation of Yellow Cake from Africa).

I hope the inspector general and investigative reporters will look into the matter! If in fact a contract was in the offing and was lost, either the contracting procedure didn't work right before Carney went public, or it failed afterwards.

"Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them"

Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (Paperback) by Philippe Legrain

This new book (apparently only available in the UK as this is written) makes the case migration is valuable both for the country exporting the workers and the country importing them.

Read the review of the book in The Economist. (Subscription required.)

Check out Philippe Legrain's website with a review of the book by Robert Winder from The Guardian.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Grand Challenges for Engineers

The National Academy of Engineering has invited the public to brainstorm about ways engineering can help shape the world’s future on this website.

Friday, January 12, 2007

From the Washington Post, January 11, 2007



Editorial Policy of This Blog: I try to verify materials, post sources, and I will post corrections. I try to limit myself to fair use of copyrighted materials. I sometimes quote other people directly, but often protect the identity of sources when they are emails that do not explicitly give permission for quotation, especially when I am responding to a question in an email. JAD

National Academies: "OMB Risk Assessment Bulletin Should Be Withdrawn"

A new report from the National Academies of Science says that the "draft bulletin from the White House Office of Management and Budget proposing technical guidance for federal risk assessments should be withdrawn because it would not achieve its stated goal of improving the quality and objectivity of such assessments" The Academies create distinguished panels and send their reports through a rigorous review process before making such recommendations. The panel suggested further that "OMB should issue a new bulletin outlining general risk assessment principles but leave technical guidelines to federal agencies to develop."

Read the full report online.

Read the coverage in the Washington Post.

Comment: The war between the Bush Administration and the scientific community continues! JAD

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Thought on Reading 1491

I very much enjoyed reading 1491 by Charles Mann. He makes a lot of great points including:
* The failure of historians for a long time to recognize that the native American societies of the 18th and 19th centuries were societies created by the survivors after the population crash caused by the influx of diseases from the old world brought by the Columbian exchange. The social structures created from the remnants of earlier societies and the acquisitions from new contacts with the European societies, under pressure from the invaders and colonists provided little hint of the greatness that had been lost.

* The emergence of better history that is possible combining archaeological and anthropological knowledge with history, delving into the historical records from the Maya now being deciphered for the first time, and retrieving original sources from the archives of those records of the early contacts.

* The failure of U.S. schools and text books to provide an adequate coverage of pre-Columbian history, and the vast ignorance of the U.S. population of the history of this hemispere. Our view of native Americans should be different if we knew more about what their ancestors had achieved. We might be wiser if we understood more about the varieties of human experience, and might gain that breadth of understanding if we could add the richness of history of other continents to our knowledge of European history.

* The huge impact on the environment that the human population had in the thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of years they had occupied the Western Hemisphere. They possessed at least one powerful technology -- fire. Even pulling up plants seen as weedy species, planting and protecting plants that they valued, hunting and controlling competing species, pre-Columbian Americans could and almost surely did greatly modify the the ecology of the North and South American continents.

* While we are coming to understand the impact of European immigrants and technology on the American environment, we probably have underestimated the impact of the crash of the native American population on the environment. Removing 90 or 95 percent of a human population of say 100 million, who had developed extensive technologies and infrastructure must have had a major impact on the environment.


I would suggest that while Western civilization picked up a lot of technology from the native Americans (e.g. corn and potatoes, peppers and tomatoes, turkeys, varieties of beans and cotton), there remains potentially very important technology we have only partially mastered (e.g. quinoa, grain amaranth). Moreover, many native American societies used tree species grown in natural stands. Babassu palms still provide employment for half a million people in Brazil, even though they are not cultivated in plantation systems. Mast, "the nuts of forest trees accumulated on the ground", was an important food source for North American natives before Columbus, and many species of fruit trees were and still are used in South and Central America without being grown in plantation cultivation. I suspect that there would be real economic value in melding these technologies with modern practice for commercial exploitation.

I think there are technologies, such as raised bed agriculture that European colonists did not discover or adopt that fell into disuse, that could be revived and more widely used. I suppose that the Pueblo's rediscovery and revival of pre-Columbian pottery traditions illustrates the potential of such revivals. I suspect we would love to understand the technology that was used by the Incas for fitting huge stone blocks together, and might find its adaptation useful, but will never be able to discover its secret.

One thought out of still further in left field: Archaeologists are interested in the ruins of cities, and perhaps especially interested in those cities that eventually crashed leaving their ruins in places that the archaeologists can now dig without disrupting urban life. I suggest that this tends to focus on the interface as the decline of the previous culture.

Think about 1776 and all that in these terms. The existing political system crashed. There was a population crash (as one-third of the population of the colonies got up and left). The period was marked by war over a wide area. Trade patterns were disrupted for decades. Citizens of the United States tend to think of the period as the birth of American democracy and of a better society and improved form of government. If we did not have the historical records, and depended only on archaeological findings, we might have a totally different view of the period!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Gov't scientist fired over Emails?"

Read the full article by Kirsten Weir in The Scientist of 9th January 2007.

The article states:
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is attempting to fire biologist Charles (Rex) Wahl, charging he shared sensitive information with environmental groups and other government agencies in a deliberate attempt to undermine Reclamation projects......

At issue are Emails Wahl sent while an Environmental Specialist in Reclamation's Yuma, Arizona office. His supervisors discovered the messages -- addressed to individuals at the Corps of Engineers, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the nonprofit group Environmental Defense -- on Wahl's computer after he transferred from Yuma to Albuquerque last May........

According to Paula Dinerstein, an attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which is representing Wahl, he is protected by provisions of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Solid Waste Disposal Act. "In some cases he was disclosing what he saw as a violation of a regulation or law, or a danger to public health or safety," she said. "Those are protected disclosures."......

the hostile environment Wahl described sounded familiar to Kirk Lashmett, a biologist who retired from the Bureau of Reclamation's Western Colorado office last spring. [Wahl's] "is not an isolated case," Lashmett told The Scientist. After more than 30 years with Reclamation, Lashmett claimed he was forced into early retirement when his supervisors cited him for misconduct. He contends a bizarre misconduct claim -- that he let his dog defecate in the office (a charge he denies) -- was invented as retaliation for speaking out about environmental negligence. "Environmental compliance is a joke," he said. "If you're not willing to turn your cheek and look the other way, they'll go after you."
I don't know enough about the case to comment, but it doesn't seem to be an offense for a scientific officer in one government agency to communicate with officers of other agencies by email without prior permission from his agency. The government would grind to a halt were that standard to be imposed and inforced!

Monday, January 08, 2007

One Laptop Per Child User Interface

Read "Software on low-cost laptop for schoolkids could be more revolutionary than its economics" by BRIAN BERGSTEIN in the Nevada Appeal, January 8, 2007.

The new OLPC has a user interface that uses a metaphor different than that used in "commodity" PCs in the mass market.

Here is an article on the system from One Laptop per Child News.

Check out this website with a Demo video provided by 90 percent of everything usability blog.

Low Cost Computers

Read the new highlight on the ICT4D Community Page of the Development Gateway: "Low-cost computing devices and initiatives for the developing world"

Check out infoDev's "Quick guide to low-cost computing devices and initiatives for the developing world"

Read about the competitors for the Brazilian government's upcoming procurement of low cost computers: "Encore set to bag Brazilian laptop order"

Income Voluatility


Read "Income volatility is less of a problem than America's Democrats think" in The Economist, January 4th 2007.

This Economic Focus article from The Economist suggests that the observed increase in income volatility may not be as negative a trend as one might think. It cites examples in which people voluntarily give up income, such as when a woman leaves the workforce for a while to have the family's children. It also suggests that people often have the resources that they can continue to consume at their established levels even when income drops off.

I would have expected other points to be raised. For example:
* People living at the subsistence level fear loss of income that could drop them below subsistence; the social safety net legislation was initiated to protect such people. As poverty levels decline, there is less need to have methods to assure basic human needs are met when incomes are reduced.

* Typically, higher rates of return require one to assume higher risks. It people have the resources to allow them to be less risk adverse, they may be able to invest time, effort and money in activities with higher expected returns even if they also have higher risk. A trend of people making higher risk, higher average return investments would appear to be very positive for the economic growth of a society, and consistant with a correlation between economic growth and income volatility (as a greater portion of the riskier investments fail).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

A Couple of Books that Look Interesting

Chaos of Disciplines (Paperback) by Andrew Abbott
Publishers summary:
In this vital new study, Andrew Abbott presents a fresh and daring analysis of the evolution and development of the social sciences. Chaos of Disciplines reconsiders how knowledge actually changes and advances. Challenging the accepted belief that social sciences are in a perpetual state of progress, Abbott contends that disciplines instead cycle around an inevitable pattern of core principles. New schools of thought, then, are less a reaction to an established order than they are a reinvention of fundamental concepts.
Chaos of Disciplines uses fractals to explain the patterns of disciplines, and then applies them to key debates that surround the social sciences. Abbott argues that knowledge in different disciplines is organized by common oppositions that function at any level of theoretical or methodological scale. Opposing perspectives of thought and method, then, in fields ranging from history, sociology, and literature, are to the contrary, radically similar; much like fractals, they are each mutual reflections of their own distinctions.
Here is a Review by William G. Tierney

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder--How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (Hardcover) by Eric Abrahamson, David H. Freedman
Publishers summary:
Ever since Einstein's study of Brownian Motion, scientists have understood that a little disorder can actually make systems more effective. But most people still shun disorder—or suffer guilt over the mess they can't avoid. No longer!

With a spectacular array of true stories and case studies of the hidden benefits of mess,A Perfect Mess overturns the accepted wisdom that tight schedules, organization, neatness, and consistency are the keys to success. Drawing on examples from business, parenting, cooking, the war on terrorism, retail, and even the meteoric career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, coauthors Abrahmson and Freedman demonstrate that moderately messy systems use resources more efficiently, yield better solutions, and are harder to break than neat ones.

Applying this idea on scales both large (government, society) and small (desktops, garages), A Perfect Mess uncovers all the ways messiness can trump neatness, and will help you assess the right amount of disorder for any system. Whether it's your company's management plan or your hallway closet that bedevils you, this book will show you why to say yes to mess.
Read a review of the book in The Economist.

"Bush Has Quietly Tripled Aid to Africa"

Read the full article by Michael A. Fletcher, The Washington Post, December 31, 2006.

The United States has tripled direct humanitarian and development aid to Africa since 2001, and the Bush Administration recently vowed to double that increased amount by 2010 -- to nearly $9 billion. Direct development and humanitarian aid to Africa increased to more than $4 billion a year from $1.4 billion in 2001, according to the OECD and four African nations -- Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt and Uganda -- rank among the world's top 10 recipients in aid from the United States. Bush launched a $1.2 billion malaria initiative in June 2005 with the goal of reducing malaria-related deaths in 15 African countries by 50 percent. The disease kills more than 1 million people a year, most of them African children under age 5. "The malaria program complements the president's largest global health initiative, the $15 billion, five-year plan known as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Under the program, about 800,000 Africans are receiving drugs that enable them to live longer with the disease and help to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus."