Monday, December 31, 2007

The continuing saga of my one laptop per child

I posted on December 26th that my XO computer that I purchased on November 12th and opened on Christmas Day did not work. I posted on December 27th that the manual and response to my email did not help, and that a phone call did not result in anything but a promise to call back.

I sat by the telephone for a whole day, waiting for a call which never came.

I found one suggestion online that there may be a bad connection to the mother board since there is neither a sound nor a screen response when the computer is turned on -- only the green light that the power is on. I found one place that said one could open the box without voiding the warranty since the idea is that kids will feel free to learn about the machine. I found another place where the instructions said that opening the box would void the warranty, so I have not opened the box.

I am now convinced I need to invoke the warranty. In order to return the computer for repair or replacement, I need to obtain a Return Merchandise Authorization. In order to do so, I needed to call the number given.

I called many times yesterday, getting a response each time that there were no lines available. I finally got a recorded message telling me to wait for an operator. I waited so long that my phone battery went out, and hung up.

I called this evening, New Years Eve, after 7:00 pm, and got through to an operator after about five minutes. It took 15 minutes for him to take my information. He then told me that he could not issue a Return Merchandise Authorization, as that could only be done by a supervisor. He said that they are very busy. He put on the form he filled out that I should be contacted as soon as possible, and told me it would be two to four days.

I don't know how teachers in developing countries are supposed to deal with this system, much less the young children who are to get these computers.

Inside Iraq

Inside Iraq is a blog updated by Iraqi journalists working for McClatchy Newspapers. The journalists are based in Baghdad and outlying provinces. The blog presents firsthand accounts of their experiences. Their complete names are withheld from the postings for security purposes.

I continue to make the point on this blog that what people say (or write) should be taken as evidence, not fact. If you are interested in getting evidence, then it is important to get different views from different people. These Iraqi journalists, working in English for an American newspaper chain, at least can go into the neighborhoods and talk with people. I find their observations interesting, albeit depressing.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?"

Norman R. Augustine, Chair of the Rising Above the Gathering Storm Committee of the National Academies, has produced this short book, arguing that the United States should improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) instruction and that the government should strongly support fundamental research, if the United States is to continue to innovate strongly to maintain its competitiveness in an increasingly globalized economy.


There is a good interview of Amy Chua by Cullen Murphy on Book TV's After Words. Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, has written a book titled Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance - and Why They Fall. The book looks at a sequence of historical powers that transcended the power experiences of their contemporaries -- Ancient Persia, Rome, the Mongol Empire, the Dutch trading empire, the British Empire, and the United States.

In each case the central power had dominant economic and political power, and in each case the empire spanned huge areas. Thinking about it, one obvious element of Chua's hyperpowers is a communication infrastructure that spans the empire size geographical area. I think that in each case the empire involves an economic system that worked, usually improving economic performance by allowing local groups to exploit comparative advantages through wider trade than was possible without the imperial guarantee of the trade routes.

Chua points out that the earlier empires were made possible when a tribal group expanded its military power by enlisting other ethnic groups into its military; only by doing so could an early empire recruit enough troops to take and hold a large geographic area. She suggests that the later empires are far more mercantile on balance, although clearly each had a military capacity to protect its lines of communication and trade.

Chua's main point seems to be that hyperempires must have the tolerance necessary to accept the human resources from other peoples that it needs to expand its power, and to allow the people with those resources to live and succeed in the imperial society. She suggests that the historical societies fell when the "glue" needed to hold the loyalty of their subjects failed, and when they lost that crucial tolerance. She emphasized the exceptional success of the United States in integrating immigrants into its civic culture and institutions, which form the glue of our society.

I wonder whether her analysis might expand to the Islamic world that extended from Spain to India based on the glue of Islam rather than on an imperial political power? Would it extend to the Inca empire that was exceptional for its time and place in extent and influence?

I was impressed by the question of how the United States, with its shared ethos of self determination by other peoples, can provide the glue needed to maintain the global economic empire it has established. She is, I believe, correct in maintaining that American success must continue to be built on the tolerance necessary for us to recruit our needed human resources worldwide. She pointed out that the most long-lived empire in history, the Roman, managed to establish a system in which leaders all over that empire felt the success of the empire was important for their own security and welfare. The question is how can the United States create conditions so that leaders all over the globe comparably feel that the continued success of the United States is important to their own security and welfare?

Chua says, and I agree, that the United States has not been very successful in creating that situation. I might suggest that in the period immediately after World War II, there was a very wide spread feeling that the Pax Americana was important, and that the United States was leading in the recreation of a world economy that would "lift all boats". We have wasted much of that prestige in the last half century.

I am not so sure that the maintenance of imperial power is in itself a critical objective. The Dutch and English seem to be living pretty good lives in humane societies even after their global imperial power has wained. Perhaps the more appropriate objective for an empire is to help establish the conditions so that people will be better off after the imperial power is shared than they are currently. Power should be valued for the ability it provides to achieve other goals rather than as a goal in and for itself.

Chua is. I think, correct in stating that the United States must forgo the glue of offering citizenship in this country that was so successfully used by the Romans in binding aristocrats and soldiers from all over the empire to the Roman center. Adhering to self-determination requires that people remain citizens of their own countries.

In the last century the United States has lead in the creation of regional and global institutions -- United Nations, Bretton Woods System, the World Trade Organization, NATO, NAFTA, etc. that serve as glue for an international system making trade and economic cooperation possible and guarantee the limitation of wars and violence needed for the system to work.

Indeed, I wonder whether one of the most common factors in the success of the hyperpowers was not the ability to create new institutions that responded to the evolving needs of the expanding political and economic systems.

It might be that as the 20th century was the American Century, the 21st century will be the century of the community of nations. In any case, I don't see an alternative that I like to maintaining a system that allows Europe and North America to coexist as comparable global economic powers, that allows Asia to join as a third comparable global economic power, and that provides the stability for continued economic progress.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

AT Resources

Journey to Forever, an NGO, provides two sets of links to resources on appropriate technology:

Friday, December 28, 2007


Back in the 1980's I was on a team doing an evaluation of AT International. I was impressed by a couple of the projects that they funded. In one, a group in India funded solar powered kiosks that were set up as tea shops. In the other, a non-governmental organization in Colombia created a factory for manufacturing pre-fab houses for the poor. When the effort succeeded in Bogota, they started setting up comparable factories in other Colombian cities.

Grameen Phone in Bangladesh provides cell phones to women in villages, who in turn provide the service for a fee of allowing other villagers to make phone calls.

All of these, if you think about it are like the franchise operations that have been made famous in the United States by McDonalds and other franchise chains. They provide a business package to a local entrepreneur that enables that person or organization to set up in business providing a useful service to his community. In all of these cases, the franchising serves as a means for the dissemination of a useful technology -- the solar kiosk, the factory for manufacturing prefab houses, and the cell phone. (Indeed, McDonalds also provides a technological package to its franchisees, and indeed uses innovative technology in areas such as site location analysis.)

I would suggest that franchising is itself an innovation when it is applied in developing nations to the dissemination of an appropriate technology.

Franchising solves a couple of problems simultaneously. On the one hand, it enables entrepreneurs to start businesses that they could not start without help. The Franchiser supplies the franchisee with the technology, but also with a business model, with technical and managerial assistance, and sometimes with financing and material inputs. On the other hand, the payments from the franchisee to the franchiser pay the costs of the services provided. Thus the business model of the franchiser substitutes for a "community foundation" model in which the agent seeks donations from others, while making donations to the local individuals. Financing is always a problem, especially when seeking donations. Moreover, franchising requires that the franchises earn a surplus to pay the franchise cost. Thus a franchiser will not be successful unless it provides a package that would be valued by the franchisee. Do gooders all too often provide things which the giver values more than the recipient.


"Governance of Innovation Systems, Vol. 2: Case Studies in Innovation Policy"

Summary: "This book presents case studies of governance of innovation policy in Australia, Austria, Belgium (Flanders), Finland, Greece, Ireland, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden. It reviews the ongoing changes in these countries with a focus on providing an analysis of governance challenges, institutional changes and policy learning practices. It provides fresh insight into the emerging third-generation of innovation policy and how governments are striving to make innovation policy more coherent.

This volume represents analytical work on governance structures and processes in the participating countries, where major efforts have been made to study in depth the challenges to current governance practices. These case studies, carried out in the context of the OECD MONIT (Monitoring and Implementing National Innovation Policies) Project, have as their focus important developments taking place in each country and focus on a variety of issues, reflecting what is at stake in a given country and what can provide valuable lessons for others."

While the report is for sale, the Executive Summary can be downloaded for free. There are also links from the page to Volumes 1 and 3.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Field Guide of Appropriate Technology

Field Guide to Appropriate Technology
The Field Guide of Appropriate Technology edited by Barrett Hazeltine and Christopher Bull is available online from Google Books. The book is an all-in-one "hands-on guide" for nontechnical and technical people working in less developed communities. It has been developed and designed with a prestigious team of authors, each of whom has worked extensively in developing societies throughout the world. The book was published by Academic Press in 2002. You can also buy the book, although it is expensive.

The Appropriate Technology Library (DVD Edition)

The DVD edition of the Appropriate Technology Library contains 1050 books plus the complete Appropriate Technology Sourcebook on four DVDs.It is available from Village Earth, but costs $495.00. Still, for an organization interested in development, or for a library in serving a developing country community, the books are available for less than $0.50 each -- not a bad price if you need them all.

The Appropriate Technology Sourcebook

The Complete Appropriate Technology Sourcebook
Ken Darrow and Mike Saxenian

The Appropriate Technology Sourcebook reviews 1,150 books on appropriate technology. The compendium went through many editions in paper form, and is now available online.

Village Earth has provided a great service making this available.

The Nayudamma Technology Bank

The Nayudamma Technology Bank provides easy access and information to technologies supported by IDRC — technologies from the South for the South. This collection, which provides contact names for all the technologies described, is a way of sharing and updating information on technological advancements for international development.

The technology bank has been named in honour of the late Dr Yelavarthy Nayudamma, a man who dedicated his life to demonstrating how science and technology can and should be used for human benefit. Dr. Nayudamma, who joined the IDRC Board of Governors in 1981, lost his life in the tragic Air India disaster in 1985.

E squared -- The PBS series

is an ongoing PBS series that chronicles efforts in many countries to solve pressing ecological challenges. From energy consumption to design efficiency, policy to industry, the series documents the innovators whose work is reducing humans' impact on the environment. Interviews with experts, policymakers and pioneers across a variety of disciplines offer a firsthand account of the complex environmental challenges that we face, as well as the possibility that pragmatic solutions are within reach.

I just saw an episode that featured Mohamed Yunus' and Grameen efforts in small energy systems in Bangladesh.

Eldis: Agriculture: Technology and Innovation

Eldis, the UK's developing information portal devotes a portion of its Resource Guide on agriculture to technology and innovation.

Click here to go to the Eldis facet on technology and innovation in agriculture.

Practical Action's Technical Briefs

These are introductory factsheets and basic practical information written in response to the demand for information on a broad range of appropriate technologies. They can be downloaded free of charge from this site.

Still More Appropriate Technology Sites

Experience with One Laptop Per Child

As I wrote yesterday, the XO computer I bought from One Laptop per Child does not work. I opened it two days ago, turned it on, and the only thing that happened was that a green light went on indicating that the computer was on, and a yellow light went on indicating that the battery was charging. The screen stayed blank. Eventually the yellow light changed to green, indicating that the battery had charged, but nothing else changed. I tried rebooting, to no avail.

It took some time to fire up another computer and find the supporting documentation for the XO on the web. (The touching faith of the XO designers that it would be good for kids to figure out how to work the machine without instructions was becoming more and more annoying.) No help.

On Christmas day I got a negative response from the telephone help desk, not surprising on that holiday. Then I emailed to the help people, and several hours got a suggestion that I reboot the machine (quorws from the online instructions). I dutifully did so, with the same negative results. Yesterday morning I called the help desk and after about 15 minutes on hold got an operator who took may name, address and phone number and said someone would get back to me. I also sent another email message to the help desk. No response to this time.

More later.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Internet in 2008

The Economist makes three predictions for the new year: 1. Surfing will slow (as cyberspace become more crowded with traffic with higher bit rates from more people and many more machines and devices); 2. Surfing will detach (as spectrum freed by digital broadcasting is auctioned to providers of Internet services for wireless connectivity); and 3. Surfing—and everything else computer-related—will open (as the open commons movement gains support and impact). December 23rd 2007,

More about Appropriate Technology

And still more about Appropriate Technology

Some Organizations Promoting Appropriate Technologies

The most famous of these organizations is probably Practical Action - Intermediate Technology Development Group. It was founded in 1966 by E. F. Schumacher, the author of Small is Beautiful, which is considered the founding text of the AI movement.
Practical Action is a charity registered in the United Kingdom which works directly in four regions of the developing world – Latin America, East Africa, Southern Africa and South Asia, with particular concentration on Peru, Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

In these countries, Practical Action works with poor communities to develop appropriate technologies in food production, agroprocessing, energy, transport, water and sanitation, shelter and disaster mitigation.

Lessons from Practical Action's grassroots experience are spread
through consultancy services, publishing activities, education, advocacy and campaigns, and through an international technical enquiries service.
SRISTI (Society for research and initiatives for sustainable technologies and institutions)
SRISTI, which means creation, was born in 1993 essentially to support the activities of the Honey Bee Network to respect, recognize and reward the creativity at grassroots. Based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, SRISTI (Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies) is a registered charitable organization that is devoted to empowering the knowledge rich-economically poor people by adding value in their contemporary creativity as well as traditional knowledge. It has helped establish GIAN, NIF, MVIF and AASTIIK.
The Enterprise Group/VITA is a U.S. non-governmental organization, which is some four decades old. Founded as Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA), years ago it ditched its files of technological information and today describes itself as working
to combat poverty by helping small producers and other entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses that create jobs and increase productivity, market opportunities and incomes. EWV achieves this by expanding access to appropriate technologies, technical assistance, knowledge and finance.
The Program of Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) "is an international, nonprofit organization that creates sustainable, culturally relevant solutions, enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycles of poor health." In collaboration with diverse public- and private-sector partners, we it seeks to "provide appropriate health technologies and vital strategies that change the way people think and act."

Engineers Without Borders - USA (EWB-USA) "is a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life. This partnership involves the implementation of sustainable engineering projects, while involving and training internationally responsible engineers and engineering students."

Telecoms sans Frontiers is an international NGO that speciaiizes in telecommunications technology, and is especially involved in providing communications infrastructure in emergency situations.

ACCION International is a four decade old non-governmental organization focusin on the social innovation of microfinance. It also has a program of technical assistance which includes advice on hardware and software for the microfinance industry, While the microfinance organizations that use this technology are themselves often quite large and sophisticated, the ACCION International technology enables them to provide microfinance services to the poor in developing nations in a more affordable manner, and is in fact tailored to the interface between the poor and the financial institutions that serve the poor.

The U.S. National Center for Appropriate Technology focuses on agricultural, rural and energy sustainable technologies, emphasizing the needs of the U.S. agricultural communities that it targets through its national and regional centers.

The Appropriate Technology Institute of Equip. I don't personally know this organization, which works with Christian missionaries to promote appropriate technology innovations in developing countries in conjunction with their missionary efforts. The website suggests that it has a number of good programs in water, health and other technologies.

There are some good sites for information on appropriate technologies. These include:


an ACP-EU institution working in the field of information for development. We operate under the ACP-EU Cotonou Agreement and our headquarters are in The Netherlands.

When it was set up, in 1984, CTA was given the challenging task of improving the flow of information among stakeholders in agricultural and rural development in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

The New Zealand Digital Library which has a large number of digital documents online, including the Humanity Development Library which includes a large collection of materials on appropriate technologies. I especially recommend the monographs from the National Academy of Scienes Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID). These are somewhat dated, but contain a large amount of information on underexploited technologies of potential economic value to developing nations.

The World Agricultural Information Center of FAO (WAICENT): provides access to information on agriculture, forestry, fisheries, sustainable rural development, economics, food and nutrition. The FAO WAICENT Portal provides tools for navigating and accessing thaat information. The FAO Web site is a comprehensive source of agricultural information, having approximately 500 000 web pages, over 100 databases, and thousands of documents.

The Human Info NGO. This Belgian NGO has developed a number of information bases on development topics, including the Humanity Development Library mentioned above. They are available on CD-ROM for a modest fee (to cover shipping and handling).

Appropriate Technology

This posting is to introduce a new label, "Appropriate Technology". The label will be applied to postings on technologies that are available to poor people in developin nations, but underutilized, and which can help to improve their lives. I tried to think of a better label, one that captured the idea of a simple technology that could be used and maintained in poor communities, helping in some way to improve the lives of the community members. I finally decided that in honor of the Appropriate Technology movement of the past, I would use that term for the label.

Development takes place when people find a better way of doing things. Sometimes -- perhaps often -- that involves a capital investment, or at least a risk that the new approach will not work as well as expected, or indeed as well as that which it replaces. I will use the term for social innovations as well as for the hardware and software innovations that are more commonly described with the AI label.

Appropriate Technology is thus a technology that can be applied by or for a local community where the investment can be afforded. It is useful to consider the investment in cost-benefit terms. Not only should the cost be affordable, and withing the capacity of the community to finance (different ideas, thank goodness for microfinancing programs, which are helping to bridge the gap between affordable and financable) but the benefits should exceed the cost by a sufficient margin to make the investment attractive. Usually this means that the innovation must be durable, and thus that the technology must be locally operated and maintained. It seems obvious that a technology that has a very desirable benefit to cost ratio in one place need not be equally attractive in all places. Thus the technologies labeled "Appropriate Technologies" will be candidates for consideration for local adaptation.

Appropriate technologies can be simple, as are many pumps and tools. They may be quite sophisticated, such as appropriate vaccines or electronics. Thus the transistor radio was a hugely successful technological innovation for the poor when it was introduced, bringing information and entertainment in an affordable form to billions of people; yet the transistor radio was based on decades of research in solid state physics.

Often the appropriate technology will not be applied without the technological system in which it functions being in place and operational. The green revolution seeds did not work in places where there did not exist the system to produce local varieties tailored to local conditions, nor where irrigation systems were not developed, nor where the markets did not exist to distribute the seeds nor the chemical inputs that they required, nor for that matter where there were not credit sources to allow farmers to finance the investment in the improved inputs, markets for the expanded farm product, or advice on how to utilize the seeds and how to protect the crops against diseases and pests.

Here are a couple of appropriate technologies:
  • The Lifestraw portable water filter: This is a simple device that can be used by an individual to filter water to make it safe to drink. It should be more cost-efficient than boiling the water, and better than using chemical additives to the water.
  • The Playpump: A water pump that draws its energy from children playing on a carosusel.

Experience with Kindle

Amazon's Kindle is a wireless reading device. I bought one of the first, and it arrived nicely boxed in a white box similar I suppose to a book set. It is a convenient size, smaller I suppose than a typical trade paperback book. There is a decent manual and I found it relatively easy to figure out. I had ordered a book online, and it arrived quickly and painlessly. I have sub-normal visual acuity, and found the text enlargement feature easy to use and very helpful. The format is good, and I am enjoying my first book. The online market for added materials is also useful and easy to use. The wireless connection seems to work well.

So far, this is really a nice addition to my life. I am looking forward to having my library online rather than in the bookcases littering my house.

Experience with One Laptop Per Child

I joined the buy one-donate one program of One Laptop Per Child on November 12. It took more than a month for my machine to arrive. I didn't open it until yesterday. It didn't work. Turning it on, there was a little green light that showed it was on, and nothing else.

The instruction manual that comes with the machine is useless if the machine does not work. It does have information on a link to the Internet, which does have information. How a kid with a computer that doesn't work is expected to access the internet manual is not clear to me.

I tried calling, and got a fairly useless message. I sent an email to the help desk, and got a suggestion a few hours later that I reboot the machine, which I did for the nth time, and got the same nothing. The message suggested that I call the help desk, or send another email asking for help.

I called the help desk and this time, after waiting for about ten minutes, got an operator who asked me for my confirmation number, which I never could find. She however, did find my information using my name and address. She then told me that someone would email me or call me shortly.

More information later.

US Casts Sole Vote Against UN Budget

The United Nations General Assembly approved a two-year U.N. budget of $4.17 billion on Saturday by a vote of 142 to 1, with the United States casting the only "no" vote. The U.S. opposed the budget because it funded a follow-up to a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism. Forty-nine countries did not have delegates in the chamber for the vote.

Where Does All the Computer Power Go?

The human genome has some 3.1647 billion base pairs. While human genomes are 99.9 percent identical from one person to another, there are still three million places where nucleotides differ from person to person. There are some 30,000 genes. However, non-gene portions of the DNA affect the way the genes are expressed in the cells. (Moreover, during the life of the cell, chemical changes accumulate which also affect the way the genes are expressed.) Craig Vanter says that some 45 percent of his genes are heterozygous, having different alleles for the same gene. There are a few individual genomes that have been sequenced completely, but the plans are to sequence the DNA for 10,000 people in the next decade. There is a prize on offer for the first person (group) to develop technology that can sequence an individual's DNA for $1000. The era of individualized medicine, in which treatment will be matched with an individual's genes, will probably come in the next decade or two. Then there will be many times as many genomes available for study.

There are maybe three pounds of microorganisms in the average human being, and their behavior affects their human hosts (and vice-versa). There is now a program to sequence the genomes of these organisms, to create the larger genome of the collection of the human and its related microorganisms. That genome will be a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the genome of the individual human. One assumes that it will be subject to more diversity.

There are at least 1000 diseases now classified in the International Classification of Diseases. We can think of diseases as the result of the function of the genes, or of the interaction of organisms with different genomes. Thus an infectious disease is the result of the response of the human, and his associated organisms, to the infecting ageny, each determined by its genome and its history.

And of course we are interested in not only the interrelationship of genes and disease, but of development and of all of the traits of interest to people.

The Celera human genome project established a benchmark in the use of computer power.
Upon the establishment of the genome project at Celera in 1998, the company purchased and connected 700 CPUs and 70 terabites of hard drive space. This computing system was established to run the initial test of their algorithm code, which was used to sequence the genome of the Drosophilla fruit fly with a 13-fold coverage of the genome successfully in 1999. The most surprising thing about this approach was that it succeeded in coding the algorithm and sequencing the 120 Megabase pair genome of the fruit fly to that extent of completeness in just 11 months. Myers (Gene Myers, a professor of Computer Science at Berkeley) then modified the process so that the Whole Genome Shotgun Sequencing process would make a 5-fold coverage of the human genome, as he believed it would be adequate to provide a complete sequence of the human genome. In addition, Venter purchased 4 supercomputers referred to as the GeneMatcher from a company called Parcel Inc. Parcel Inc, a company that typically produces computers for government agencies such as the NSA, created this machine specifically for matching character strings, such as putting together sequences of DNA like a puzzle. It was composed of 7000 processors arranged to perform over 1000 times faster than any Pentium computer. With this new technology, on September 8, 1999, Celera began its sequencing of the human genome using this approach, and completed the first assembly of the whole human genome in June 17, 2000, only 9 months after the project began.

The understanding of the relationship of the genome to disease will involve statistical analysis of the health histories and individual genomes of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. It is expected that few if any conditions will be explained by a single gene. Even eye color is a complex phenomenon under control of different genes. So think about the computer power that will be used in the coming generation to clarify the genetic basis of disease and behavior.

Monday, December 24, 2007

American Scientists Visit Iran

Science magazine this week reports on the visit by an American delegation, led by Norm Neureiter of the AAAS, to Iran. Neureiter
recalls a reception that few would have predicted: When Nobel laureate Joseph H. Taylor of Princeton spoke at Sharif University of Technology, students jammed the hall and treated him like a celebrity. Former President Mohammad Khatami had a cordial visit with the Americans. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted to arrange a meeting, but Putin's visit made that impossible. And the Iranian news media covered the tour extensively.

"It was phenomenally favorable, from the first day," Neureiter said in an interview. "It's amazing how popular Americans are in Iran. Intuitively, you would think it would be just the opposite."

The October visit offered clear proof that the science communities of the two countries share a reservoir of common interest and good will that could support a more constructive overall relationship, he said. This month's U.S. intelligence conclusion that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 is a "remarkable development," he added, "but there are still many issues of contention between the U.S. and Iran. What we are proposing is greater engagement at the people level despite the political problems."
Comment: Congratulations to Neureiter and the delegation for taking a politive step.

The reception does not surprise me. Scientists all over the world often have more in common with scientists from other countries than with politicians in their own country. Iran and Iranians clearly value science, and the scientific community could have been (and was) expected to welcome a visit of a team of distinguished scientists as helping to overcome their own isolation and gain them a useful visibility.

Iran is no more homogeneous than any other country. While there are reactionary people who feel their theocracy is incompatible with modernization, there are others who strongly support modernization and especially the potential for science and technology to make the lives of Iranians better.

As in so many countries in the past, scientific cooperation and exchanges may keep Iranian-American channels of communication open while the political channels are clogged.

From the editorial in this week's Science

Donald Kennedy editorializes in this week's Science:
But on the breakdown side, continual denial by the Bush Administration added to its long history of failing to mitigate the emission of greenhouse gases.

A specimen case of the Administration's reluctance to acknowledge climate change was added just recently when Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was asked to present congressional testimony on the potential impacts of climate change on public health. It is surely no secret that heat spells are a health hazard, or that drought and excess rainfall can influence human susceptibility to pathogen-borne disease--just the kind of thing Congress wanted to know. Gerberding's testimony was reviewed at the White House and soon made to disappear: Virtually all of what she said about climate change--six pages of it--was blacked out of the document filed with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (see
). There's an odd behind-the-scenes story here, involving two offices that report to the president. The Office of Science and Technology Policy raised questions about particular statements and made suggestions, but then the Office of Management and Budget, apparently unwilling to work on the suggestions, simply eliminated every section about which questions had been raised. It's worth a look just to understand what these people don't want you to know.

Merry Christmas!

Terror Management Theory.

Source: "Reminders of Mortality Bring Out the Charitable Side" by Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, December 24, 2007.

I quote:
The theory suggests that when people face explicit dangers, they usually respond rationally -- they get out of the path of a hurtling car, for example. But when terrors are on the fringes of awareness, as was the case with the Colorado pedestrians and the funeral home, people respond with defenses that are primarily psychological. One of these psychological defenses is to seek connections to things larger than ourselves -- to values and ties that will outlive our physical existence.

"Reminders of mortality bolster our sense that we are valuable parts of a meaningful world, and one way we do that is by being good people and helpful, by doing charitable things," Greenberg said. "This is why rich people who get rich by pretty ruthless methods often become philanthropists later in life. We want to feel like we are moral and spiritual beings who can transcend just being mortal creatures -- and feeling moral sustains that feeling."
Comment: It has long been understood that you can influence the way a person answers a question by the things you say to a person before asking the question. The psychological "set" that is created affects the response. The Terror Management Theory, in which people asked questions where they could see a funeral home answered differently than people a few blocks away without that stimulus, seems to be an other example of the same psychological phenomenon. but one in which the cue need not be verbal or even consciously noted by the person interviewed.

Again, as I have posted in the past, answers to questions are simply answers to questions, to be taken as data in trying to find out what a person thinks.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Brain Boosting Drugs

"Professor's little helper" by Barbara Sahakian & Sharon Morein-Zamir1, Nature 450, 1157-1159 (20 December 2007)
The use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by both ill and healthy individuals raises ethical questions that should not be ignored, argue Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir......

How would you react if you knew your colleagues — or your students — were taking cognitive enhancers?

In academia, we know that a number of our scientific colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom already use modafinil to counteract the effects of jetlag, to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges (see Figure 1). Modafinil and other drugs are available online, but their non-prescription and long-term use has not been monitored in healthy individuals.
Comment: I recently posted on genetic variation and the enhancement of aspects of physical performance by artificial means. Now we see a debate on the ethics of enhancement of mental performance by drugs. Again, there is an issue of risks, many of which are uncertain since they are related to long term use of relatively new drugs versus putative benefits. I guess we also have the difference between important and unimportant uses of the drug -- enhancing sports performance versus keeping alert while driving in an emergency situation for examples. But somehow I find intelligence amplification more acceptable than strength amplification, at least for academics and professionals. JAD

We will soon be emotional about machines!

Two from today's Washington Post:

"Programmed for Love: If advances in artificial intelligence continue, your next lover may have an on/off switch." The Washington Post, December 23, 2007. (Review of LOVE AND SEX WITH ROBOTS:
The Evolution Of Human-Robot Relationships
by David Levy)
Here's a prediction that'll make you squirm: In the future, people will fall in love with robots. Robots will not be cold, predictable machines, but actual lovers -- precocious, sexy, and remarkably humanlike in appearance. Humans will even marry robots in certain obliging jurisdictions. Now send the kids into the other room while we mention the obvious, bizarre implication: Someday, people will have sex with robots.
"A Dinosaur With a Future?" by Mike Musgrove, December 23, 2007.
Pleo, (a toy computer controlled dinosaur) sold for $350 by California start-up Ugobe, has been the subject of fascination in the geek community ever since it made a preview appearance at the prestigious Demo technology conference in 2006.

Pleo has two built-in microphones for hearing, a camera for detecting motion and sensors under his skin to tell him when you're petting him. In his belly are a USB port and an SD card slot, in case you want to load him up with the latest software posted online by his creators or by other Pleo enthusiasts and programmers.
Comment: It will be interesting to see how psychologists trying to figure out how human emotions work, computer scientists seeking to figure out how to make machines more user friendly, and entrepreneurs seeking money develop emotional robots. The Asians will probably lead hear.

Bob Textor years ago talked about tempocentrism, recognizing that values change with time, and that people in the future will judge technologies differently than we do. Emotional responses to machines may be a major difference in values! JAD

More on the Revolutionary War

The other day I posted some thoughts on 1776, the book by David McCullough. Today the Washington Post has an opinion piece by Joseph Ellis, a professor at Mt. Holyoke, suggesting that the question of what our founding fathers would do today (in Iraq) was pretty meaningless, since they would not understand the question, and are centuries dead so we can't ask it of them. He substitutes the question of what studying them leads him to believe about the present situation. Good point!

He also says:
Washington eventually realized -- and it took him three years to have this epiphany -- that the only way he could lose the Revolutionary War was to try to win it. The British army and navy could win all the major battles, and with a few exceptions they did; but they faced the intractable problem of trying to establish control over a vast continent whose population resented and resisted military occupation. As the old counterinsurgency mantra goes, Washington won by not losing, and the British lost by not winning. Our dilemma in Iraq is analogous to the British dilemma in North America -- and is likely to yield the same outcome.
Comment: Well said. Of course, with a couple of centuries more experience, it is easier for us to see the nature of anti-colonial insurgency, so the few years it took for Washington to realize the nature of the war he was fighting should not be held against him.

However, I think Ellis' extrapolation to Iraq may be wrong on one point. The English could not hold the colonies by force because they could not afford to do so, and were they seriously to have tried the French would probably have "eaten their lunch". The United States will not hold Iraq by force because our governmental process will not choose to do so. In part, the difference is one between a colonial power and an anti-colonial power. On the other hand, it is also due to the fact that the citizens, voters, and power structure of this country don't care enough about Iraq to spend the money and lives that it would take to do so, and the public would eventually be sickened by the television coverage of the violence needed to hold captive an foreign people.

Still, the Ellis' basic point is important. It is very difficult and expensive to hold subject a people who don't want to be controlled at a distance of thousands of miles.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Differences in attributes: so what?

Pygmies are people of groups whose adults average 150 centimeters (4 foot 11 inches) or less in hight. In addition to three such groups living in central Africa, there are several other tribal groups living in other continents with such short heights. It is thought that these groups have developed to have such short heights because their body size confers some evolutionary advantage in the environment in which they live, and perhaps in the way that they have lived for many generations.

The Nilotic peoples of Sudan such as the Dinka have been described as the tallest in the world, with the males in some communities having average heights of 1.9 m (6 ft 3 in) and females at 1.8 m (5 ft 11 in). It is thought that these groups also have developed such tall heights because their body height confers some evolutionary advantage in the environments in which they live, and perhaps in the way these people have lived for many generations.

Of course, the two groups have very different aptitudes in an artificial environment, such as that of the professional basketball court.

Over the past twenty thousand years or so, humans have migrated from Africa to live in many different environments all over the world. The number of people has grown very greatly. Thus over these thousands of generations of Diaspora there have been many opportunities for genetic variation to arise and many many environments for them to prove valuable.

We know that there are lots of variations among human populations in addition to the height differences between pymies and Nilotic peoples. We can see differences in skin color, eye color and hair color. We know that Europeans and bantus can digest milk as adults better than can most other peoples. We know that some groups in malarial endemic areas have genetic traits that help individuals survive malaria. All of these seem to have evolved by providing people with some evolutionary advantage, and all of these may have some disadvantages in situations other than those in which they evolved.

None of this seems very controversial. Indeed, I think the proper response is "so what?" Different people have different aptitudes. Sometimes these aptitudes have a genetic basis. Sometimes there are greater frequencies of certain aptitudes in some population groups than in others. Big deal.

It has occurred to me that culture, including material culture, has a huge impact on the traits we value. In the past, physical strength was a valuable attribute, but the machine age has reduced the advantage of being big and strong, I remember early in my working career, the ability to produce clean, neat paper products was highly valued in secretaries and draftsmen, but the personal computer makes these abilities largely irrelevant. Memory was highly valued in societies where people could not easily look things up, but seems to be less valued now. Analytic abilities seem to be becoming more valued as we move into the knowledge economy. Still, it may be helpful to realize that the values our societies attribute to different abilities change, so that we don't take any such value too seriously.

Somehow that brings me to sports. The doping scandals are big news. As far as I am concerned, the big problem is that kids are taking drugs that will have long lasting effects without being mature enough to judge the risks and benefits. I do see that sport depends on an even playing field, and there is a real problem when some people get an advantage in the sport by cheating -- doing something which is against the rules. (I must say that I don't really understand the pleasure that baseball fans get from studying statistics of baseball, and comparing the records of players from different times, so their insistence that the conditions of the game remain the same seem a little peculiar to me.)

I have heard a couple of people ask whether Tiger Woods' laser surgery is different than the use of steroids to build muscular strength. Somehow there does seem to be a difference: the laser surgery is safe and a common procedure to bring vision up to normal, while the steroids are less common, more dangerous, and intended to bring people to an exceptional state.

I don't know where I am going here. I guess it is to suggest that society not provide huge rewards for people who do relatively artificial things well, and that we not reward people for developing abnormal abilities in dangerous ways, so that our kids will not be led into dangerous behaviors.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thoughts on Reading 1776

I just finished reading the book 1776 by David McCullough and discussing it within a book club. The book follows events in the American revolutionary war during the title year, including debates in the British Parliament and resolutions in the Congressional Congress, but mostly the military affairs. Thus the book follows the troops through the siege of Boston by the Americans, the siege of New York by the British, and the subsequent events of the year in New Jersey.

The book is short, interesting and easy to read.

I have not thought much about the revolutionary war since I became an adult, and it is really quite difficult to look back at that time as it must have been, rather than as the antecedent to what has happened since. But that was what I tried to do with this reading and discussion.

The 13 colonies were very thinly populated. Fewer people lived in the entire region than now live in the greater Washington metropolitan area (in which I now live). The cities, what we now would think of as relatively small towns, were few and far between -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Most people lived in the country, and most were involved in agriculture. People on the average lived better in the colonies than in Europe, but we would see most of them as very poor. Washington and other plantation owners, the very rich of their time, were very few indeed. Americans were almost universally unschooled or very poorly schooled, living in a world of sparse and slow communication.

Of course, the 13 colonies were not a country. Indeed, independence was so controversial that a third of the population left rather than live in the new confederacy. The colonies had very different economic and social structures, with slavery in the south and not in the north. The religious differences that had resulted in the founding of the different colonies must still have held sway over the colonies to a degree which we can barely understand. The people knew that being governed by people far away was decidedly uncomfortable, and did not trust each other to govern them well. Indeed, even among the few who really sought independence from England there was no agreement on how the colonies should be governed.

For the English, facing war in Europe, sending troops and a part of the navy thousands of miles away to fight the colonists must have been a huge burden. The French support of the rebels contributed to the bankruptcy of the French government, which in turn contributed to the later French revolution.

The rebels usually had no uniforms, and were armed with a variety of weapons, but largely lacked heavy weapons (canons). There was no system of tax collections in the colonies that could support an army adequately, and indeed no government that could manage such an effort. There were few experienced military leaders, especially at the level of leading even the small armies of the time.

The leaders who started the war could not have understood that they were beginning a multi-year effort that would result in one percent of the population being killed. Indeed, the British apparently initially thought that they would fight one or two major battles, take one or two colonial capitals and the rebels would capitulate. Of course, this was the first war of independence, and neither side had models that they could draw upon to understand what was at stake or how to conduct the war successfully.

In fact there were few battles in 1776, and the war was one of maneuver. The battles didn't kill many people, and those who were killed were more often killed by bayonet than by musket. The guns were inaccurate, and could only be fired slowly, especially by poorly trained troops. On the other hand, health conditions were terrible, and large portions of the army were to sick to fight when they were needed. The conditions under which rebel prisoners were kept (the soldiers, not the officers) were much more lethal than the battles. I wonder whether Washington and his generals understood that they could decimate the enemy merely by keeping them in the field year after year in those execrable hygienic conditions, while the rebel forces could be renewed with militias serving short tours of duty.

I was struck by how badly the British handled the insurgency. They outraged not only the colonists but also a significant British constituency by hiring foreign mercenaries to fight against people considered British citizens. They destroyed a lot of Boston during the siege, and cholera and other disease were epidemic in the city under their rule. A quarter of New York burned down soon after they took the city, and the troops were not mobilized to fight the fires. They laid waste to the countryside in the New Jersey campaign, raping and pillaging as they went. They could not send enough troops to hold and control all the land that they took, nor could they protect their shipping from the privateers chartered by the rebels.

The Declaration of Independence seems to have been a masterstroke of policy. Prior to the Declaration, there had been the possibility of a reconciliation with an amnesty for most rebels. The Declaration was a statement that (at least the for the rebel leaders) reconciliation was not possible. Indeed, the effort to forge enough popular support to maintain the rebellion and man the army must have been the key to the success of the revolution. (Of course there was also the problem of raising the resources to support the revolution).

Washington is a fascinating figure. Martha burned his correspondence after his death, and he maintained a distance from his subordinates as commander of the army (and later as the president) so perhaps it is not surprising that his figure is opaque after centuries. He clearly was not equipped by training nor experience to win battles against the professional British and German troops. He was personally brave, and he was there, fighting on and on for year after year. He apparently vascillated often, but prudently avoided battle again and again in order to preserve and protect his weak army. Perhaps he realized that if the rebellion could be preserved long enough, it could gain support from the continent of Europe, and the English would get tired of the drain on their military and their purses. But his willingness to abandon power, and return to civilian life is especially difficult to understand, at least given the lust for power of our current leaders. Washington was apparently motivated by a sense of civic responsibility, and a belief in democracy! How fortunate the nation was in his choice as leader of the revolutionary forces and later as the first president.

In looking back, it is almost equally hard to see how the rebellion could have succeeded, or how the English could have suppressed it even had they better understood the nature of insurgency.

Why I am Supporting Donna Edwards Against Al Wynn

Al Wynn could be worse. He votes with the Democrats more than 98% of the time, and shows up for 19 out of 20 votes. He lost my vote, however, when he defected on Net Neutrality, and he was badly wrong on the Iraq war when it started. As disastrous as the war has been, his failure to understand the importance of the Internet in the future of America may be the more worrying of the two votes.

He is charged by Free State Politics with ineffective support
of requests from constituents. His effectiveness rankings in the Congress are bad:
2007 ranked 91
2006 ranked 410
2005 ranked 373
The improvement in 2007 is presumably due to the Democrats being more effective in general, and his increasing seriority. However, while his seniority goes back to 1992, he is ranked less effective than relative newcomer Chris van Hollen. He holds no important leadership roles in the Democratic party in the Congress in spite of 15 years there. The Congressional Black Caucus Monitor rates him as an "underachiever".

Open Left writes:
Al Wynn's contributor list should give you a great list of the defenders of the status quo. Right-wing insiders include Walmart, AT&T, US Chamber of Commerce, Sallie Mae, Nuclear Energy Institute, National Restaurant Association, First Edison, Bellsouth, Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, Bechtel, NFIB, and even Republican Billy Tauzin, the guy who wrote the prescription drug benefit and then accepted a job lobbying for the health industry. (He does also get contributions from Democrats.)
So we have a not very effective Congressman, with some really bad votes behind him, who is indebted to a bunch of big organizations. I think we can do better.

Donna Edwards is a young, vigorous lawyer. She has taken leave from her job as Executive Director of the Arca Foundation to run for Congress, but while there she led the Foundation to focus significantly on "Media and Democracy", and thus would bring expertise and interests to the Congress that are much needed as we continue in the Information Revolution. Her environmentalist credentials have gained her the support of the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, The League of Conservation Voters, and Friends of the Earth. Again we need environmental activists in the Congress to help the United States overcome the Bush legacy and take a leadership role in international environmental affairs.

Donna Edwards clearly shares the fundamental Democratic values of concern for the little guy and recognition of the need for government to serve the people (little "d" democracy); she too will be a dependable vote for the Democratic Party in the House. However, she will also be a vigorous Representative, who can be expected to quickly gain leadership positions, and who will provide intellectual leadership in two critical areas:
  • How the United States changes in response to the Information Revolution while protecting our core values, and
  • How the United States can lead the world again in protecting the environment.
Her recent endorsement by two major unions added to her earlier endorsement by the National Organization for Women make me sure i am right. So does the fact that the Washington Post endorsed her last year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Source: The Economist

The UN Development Program ranks first, and the Asian Development Bank and Christian Aid tie for second in this ranking of international organizations by the One World Trust. "The study ranks 30 global organizations, including companies as well as inter-governmental organizations and voluntary groups and charities, according to an index based on criteria such as transparency and participation. It finds that voluntary groups and charities are more willing to involve outsiders in decision-making, whereas companies are more responsive to external criticism. Organizations such as development banks are more likely to disclose the findings of reviews into their policies."


Source: The Economist

"Total global remittances from workers to their families will reach $318 billion in 2007, up from $170 billion in 2002. Most of the money goes to developing countries, which will receive $240 billion this year—more than double the value of foreign aid. The three countries getting the most are India, China and Mexico, which together account for nearly a third of remittances to the developing world. However, Mexico has been affected by the economic slowdown in the United States and its previous rapid growth of inflows slowed to a trickle this year. The largest recipient region is Latin America and the Caribbean, but since 2002 transfers to Europe and Central Asia have increased the fastest."

Comment: I recently noted that, according to the OECD, official development assistance from the OECD members is over $100 billion. But when aid from other countries and the private sector are added in the total is about $180 billion, or three-quarters of remittances to developing nations. In spite of the clarification, the remittances do dwarf foreign aid.

However, the remittances are even more unevenly distributed than the foreign aid, and the remittances flowing to the least developed nations are much less than they need.

India's IT Challenge

Source: "Information technology in India: Gravity's pull," The Economist, December 13th 2007.

"Is India's computer-services industry heading for a fall?" India's IT businesses has boasted annual growth rates of nearly 30% in the past ten years, with revenues now nearing $50 billion, about 5.4% of India's GDP. The industry directly employs 1.6 million people, and of course generates indirect employment for millions more.

India's IT firms have grown due to their ability to marshal huge local workforces to supply high-quality services. Their export of IT services have of course been greatly facilitated by the improvement of the international telecommunications infrastructure and the Internet.

Indian IT now may face a host of threats. The rupee has gained against the dollar in recent months; since its low in mid-2006 it has gained 16%. There are three additional categories of threats:
  • India's general development problems:. clogged and insufficient infrastructure; tax breaks that subsidize the industry, some of which expire in 2009; a growing talent shortage.

  • Emerging competition. IT industries are emerging in other parts of the world, such as Central Europe; foreign IT firms have been beefing up their Indian subsidiaries. (In 2002 the six biggest—including Accenture, IBM and HP—had fewer than 10,000 employees in total in the country. Their combined Indian workforce now exceeds 150,000.)

  • Future threats. A slowdown in IT spending looms as America's economy weakens; many of the services Indian firms now provide will eventually be automated; few Indian firms are set up to provide the new solutions that are increasingly demanded by foreign firms.

ICP Results Announced

The International Comparison Program (ICP) of the World Bank recently released data showing the world economy produced goods and services worth almost $55 trillion in 2005. Almost 40 percent of the world’s output came from developing economies.

Major findings
  • Twelve economies account for more than two-thirds of the world’s output. Seven of them are high-income economies (United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and, Spain), and five are developing or transitional economies (China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Mexico). The five largest developing economies account for more than 20 percent of global output and over 27 percent of the world expenditures for investment purposes.
  • China participated in the survey program for the first time ever and India for the first time since 1985. These results are more statistically reliable estimates of the size and price levels of both economies.The new, improved methods rank China as the world’s second largest economy with almost 10 percent of world GDP and India follows as the fifth largest with over 4 percent of the world total.
  • Overall, the 2005 benchmark results show that the size of the world economy measured in PPP terms is smaller than previous estimates. The Asian and African non oil exporting economies are one-third and one-fourth smaller, respectively. However, Asia still accounts for over 20 percent of the world’s output. Estimates of China’s GDP are 40 percent below the results of previous measures.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Oppose Media Consolidation

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and his two fellow GOP commissioners approved new rules that will unleash a flood of media consolidation across America. The rules will further consolidate local media markets -- taking away independent voices in cities already woefully short on local news and investigative journalism.

In 2003, the FCC tried to do the same thing, but millions of people demanded that Congress reject the FCC's rules. And they did. It's time to do it again.

Stop Big Media's campaign is trying to get 100,000 people to get Congress to reverse the FCC's rules right now.

The Human Development Report 2007-2008

The new Human Development Report ranks the United States as 12th among the nations of the world in terms of an index that includes education and health as well as income. I find that unacceptable.

The United States ranks well below Iceland, Norway, Australia, Canada and Ireland largely because we leave so large a portion of our population out of the advantages enjoyed by the affluent. There is no excuse for leaving so many Americans so poorly served by our health and education services, or so poor compared to our wealth as a nation.

Two Issues on Communications: The Bush Administration in the Wrong on Both

Martin expounding
Joe Marquette -- Bloomberg News
via the Washington Post

"FCC's Contested Cross-Ownership Rule Set for Vote"
By Frank Ahrens, The Washington Post, December 18, 2007
Kevin Martin, the Chair of the FCC, a Republican appointed by the Bush administration, seems ready to give big media still more control of our urban media channels. Apparently the other two Republicans appointed by the Bush administration will join him in ignoring the objections of the Senate to the ruling and more importantly to the lack of consultation that the FCC has allowed in its deliberations on the ruling. "Martin's action is backed by the White House, which over the weekend successfully headed off a House Democratic attempt to deny the FCC money to implement the new rule, according to a number of sources."
"Telecom Immunity Issue Derails Spy Law Overhaul: Reid Pulls Legislation, Citing Insufficient Time Before Recess"
By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane, The Washington Post, December 18, 2007
The Bush administration and Republican allies in the Congress are supporting legislation to grant immunity to telecom companies retroactively from infringements of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The protection would apply in case they help the administration to illegally conduct surveillance on American citizens. I suppose that it the administration has lead people or corporations to inadvertently break the law, the remedy is a pardon, not to change the law retroactively. Two hundred years of American tradition and effort have gone into protecting our individual liberty from government invasion of our privacy.
Comment: New information and communication technologies make possible unimagined infringements of our liberty. Changes that are coming with the Information Revolution threaten our democratic processes. It is critically important that at this time we protect our democracy and our liberty.

It seems ironic that the Bush administration which has sought to impose freedom and democracy on other peoples in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to willing to diminish those rights at home!

Monday, December 17, 2007

The World Health Organization on the Health Effects of Climate Change

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, has made the health effects of climate change the theme for WHO this year. Last week she made a major address on the topic. I quote extensively:
At the start of this century, a group of British journalists ran a competition for the best fictitious story that might depict what lies ahead during this century. Here is one of the winners: “Heads of state, meeting today on the tropical island of Switzerland, have reached consensus. Predictions of global warming have no foundation in science.”

My, how things have changed. The power of scientific research has triumphed. The verdict is in. Climate change is real. Human activities are a prime cause. The consequences are already being felt in ways that can be measured. Humanity will suffer, for some decades to come, for past sins in the way we have inhabited this planet.

As the climate scientists tell us, even if greenhouse gas emissions were to stop today, the consequences will be felt throughout this century. In the language of the scientists, human activities have committed this planet to climate change. The emphasis now is on the ability of our human species to adapt to changes that have become inevitable.

The warming of the planet will be gradual, but the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events – intense storms, heat waves, droughts, and floods – will be abrupt and the consequences will be acutely felt.

The health sector must add its voice – loud and clear – to the growing concern. Just as we fought so long to secure a high profile for health on the development agenda, we must now fight to place health issues at the centre of the climate agenda. We have compelling reasons for doing so. Climate change will affect, in profoundly adverse ways, some of the most fundamental determinants of health: food, air, water.

This is the reality that concerns me the most. Developing countries will be the first and hardest hit. Subsistence agriculture will suffer the most. Areas with weak health infrastructures will be the least able to cope.

Imagine the impact on health in areas where the food supply is already precarious, rural areas are populated with subsistence farmers and the capacity to cope with any emergency is already fragile.

Imagine the situation in cities, when water scarcity combines with heat stress and air pollution. We already have good evidence linking such conditions to increased deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease, especially in the elderly.

As the scientists tell us, the nature of climate change during this century is likely to go beyond human experience. But public health has abundant experience as a basis for interpreting the health consequences and understanding their impact. Public health has decades of experience in dealing with problems that will be made bigger and broader by climate change.

Ladies and gentlemen,

When I announced to my staff that I had selected climate change as the theme for next year’s World Health Day, I described climate change as the defining issue for public health during this century.

Let me take this statement one step further today. I have given my impressions about the public health landscape of today, the difficult challenges we face, but also the many reasons for unprecedented optimism.

I believe that climate change will ride across this landscape as the fifth horseman. It will increase the power of the four horsemen that rule over war, famine, pestilence, and death – those ancient adversaries that have affected health and human progress since the beginning of recorded history. Research already has a great deal to say about the impact of climate change on famine and pestilence.

Let us consider famine, hunger, food security, and malnutrition. In many parts of the world, the severe adverse effects of climate change – one could say, the catastrophic effects – are not expected to be felt until around the middle of this century or even later.

Not so for Africa. According to the latest projections, Africa will be severely affected as early as 2020. This is just a dozen years away. By that date, increased water stress is expected to affect from 75 million to 250 million Africans. A dozen years from now, crop yields in some countries are expected to drop by 50%.

Imagine the impact on food security and malnutrition. In many African countries, agriculture remains the principal economic activity, and agricultural products are the principal source of export trade. Vast rural populations survive, hand-to-mouth, on subsistence farming. There is no surplus. There is no coping capacity. Yes, as I said, these are catastrophic effects.

Concerning pestilence, abundant evidence links the distribution and behaviour of infectious diseases to climate and weather. As the scientists say, climate defines the geographical distribution of infectious diseases. Weather influences the timing and severity of epidemics.

Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes are particularly sensitive to variations in climate. Warmth accelerates the biting rate of mosquitoes and speeds up maturation of the parasites they carry. Sub-Saharan Africa is already home to the most severe form of malaria and the most efficient mosquito species. What will happen if rising temperatures accelerate the lifecycle of the malaria parasite? What if malaria spreads to new areas?

NIH funded the landmark study that demonstrated a link between climate variability and increased malaria epidemics in the highlands of East Africa. We all know about the explosive epidemic potential of malaria when this disease reaches non-immune populations. Though we are making progress, we are still not able, right now, to achieve adequate population coverage with preventive interventions in areas of stable malaria transmission.

The landmark publication on microbial threats, issued in 1992 by the Institute of Medicine, opened the eyes of the world to the growing menace of emerging diseases. It also showed how changes in the way humanity inhabits this planet have created abundant opportunities for microbes to exploit.

It is easy to see how climate change will increase these opportunities in significant ways. When we consider the effects of climate change on emerging diseases, we are looking at disruptions to intricately balanced ecological systems that reached equilibrium following centuries of evolution. Nature gives us every reason to believe that disruption of this delicate equilibrium will have profound consequences.

Consider the emergence of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the south-west of this country in 1993. The appearance of that disease has been linked to a 10-fold increase in the mouse population, which followed an unusual weather event that killed off species that prey on mice. We see what can happen when weather disrupts an intricate ecosystem.

Let me give you another example of what might be in store. As noted in the November climate report, El-Nino driven bush fires and drought, as well as changes in land use and land cover, have caused extensive alterations in the habitat of bat species that are the natural reservoir of the Nipah virus.

Let us look at the health consequences. The disease emerged in 1999 in Malaysia among pig farmers. Close contact with pigs, the intermediate host, was quickly identified as the risk factor. Then came the first consequence.

The disease was initially misdiagnosed, by a WHO Collaborating Centre, as Japanese encephalitis. This misdiagnosis was caused by the co-infection of a patient with Japanese encephalitis and Nipah virus. The diagnosis led to a hugely expensive, disruptive and useless containment effort directed at mass vaccination and mosquito control.

Pigs and people continued to die. Confidence in the government plummeted. Malaysian scientists isolated the virus and identified Nipah as a new disease. That solved part of the problem.

Altogether 265 cases and 105 deaths occurred, with an overall case fatality rate of 39%. Investigation of the outbreak found no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Case closed? Not at all. In 2001, the virus resurfaced in India and Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, outbreaks are now recurring annually according to a seasonal pattern. Evidence from these outbreaks indicates that the virus has become more pathogenic for humans.

The case-fatality rate has risen to almost 75%. Contact with pigs is no longer necessary. Human-to-human transmission, also after only casual contact, has been documented. In one case, a rickshaw driver died of the disease after transporting a patient to hospital. Furthermore, transmission within hospital settings is now strongly suspected.

In one outbreak, consumption of fresh date palm juice, contaminated by bat saliva or faeces, has been identified as the vehicle of transmission in several fatal human cases. So from a zoonosis, to human-to-human, to foodborne in a very short time. Fortunately, up to now, outbreaks have occurred in sparsely populated rural areas, thus limiting their size.

Let me make one personal comment on the issue of new diseases. Initial misdiagnosis is the norm when new diseases emerge. They are, by definition, poorly understood. The US initially misdiagnosed the first cases of West Nile fever as St Louis encephalitis. I was in charge of the health department in Hong Kong when SARS emerged.

My life long, I will never forget the agony of uncertainty as Hong Kong scientists worked day and night to determine what was killing our doctors and nurses, what microscopic beast had invaded our hospital system. Then as now and in the future, doctors and nurses are at the frontline when a new disease emerges. Then and in the future, they put their lives at risk.

Let us turn to the impact of climate on war and death. We know that competition for resources, and especially competition for scarce water, has been a so-called “war starter” on many occasions in the historical past.

Some argue that the consequences of climate change may provoke an increasing number of conflicts. I do not know. But I certainly know what conflict and complex emergencies mean for health.

WHO has had offices in Darfur for the past four years. Many attribute the origins of this conflict to severe drought, followed by population movements and fierce competition for resources.

I know another thing, too. Many of the unspeakable atrocities that affect civilians in this conflict occur when women and young girls leave the safety of refugee camps in their desperate search for firewood. In this scorched and barren land, it may take them two days to gather sufficient firewood. Two days at risk of sexual violence and mutilation. This is the utter desperation.

Let us look at death, and let us do so from a public health perspective. Public health looks especially hard at preventable deaths. This is my greatest personal concern. Climate change could vastly increase the current huge imbalance in health outcomes. Climate change can worsen an already unacceptable situation that the Millennium Development Goals were explicitly and intricately designed to address.

Let me remind you. The Millennium Declaration and its Goals are all about fairness. As stated: “Those who suffer or who benefit least deserve help from those who benefit most.” More specifically, the Declaration stresses fairness in a world that is being radically reshaped by the forces of globalization.

As stated: “The central challenge we face today is to ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people. For while globalization offers great opportunities, at present its benefits are very unevenly shared, while its costs are unevenly distributed.”

This is indeed the problem. Globalization creates wealth and this is good. But globalization has no rules that guarantee fair distribution of this wealth. Health and wealth are intricately linked. The consequences of inequity can be measured by the great and growing gaps in health outcomes. I believe that, in matters of health, our world is dangerously out of balance, possibly as never before.