Wednesday, December 31, 2008

IT Crisis at the World Bank

The Government Accountability Project in November published a story describing problems of information security at the World Bank. It reported "that duties have been stripped from the institution’s Chief Information Officer." GAP also published on its website an internal memo of the World Bank dated November 25 making an interim appointment placing Van Pulley in charge of cybersecurity at the Bank, reporting to a trio of senior Bank officers, and mentioning that there had been a number of hacker attacks on the Bank's computers.

My wife and I, both having served as consultants at the World Bank in the past, have recently received letters informing us that the World Bank's records of our financial data had been breached. This adds personal confirmation of problems in security of the bank computers.

Fox News on December 22 reported that "a leading India-based information technology vendor named Satyam Computer Services was barred last February from all business at the bank for a period of eight years.......The World Bank debarment — the harshest sanction the world's largest anti-poverty agency has imposed on any company since 2004 — was meted out for "improper benefits to bank staff" and "lack of documentation on invoices," according to Robert Van Pulley, the top World Bank information security official."
From 2003 through 2008, as FOX News reported, the World Bank paid Satyam hundreds of millions of dollars to write and maintain all the software used by the bank throughout its global information network, including its back-office operations. That involved overseeing data that ranges from accounting and personnel records to trust funds administered for many of the world's richest nations.
Other stories in the Fox News series:
Comment: I am saddened by this ongoing story since the World Bank is an important institution and will be doubly important providing assistance to developing nations during the current global financial crisis.

Of course the World Bank is a major international financial institution with a portfolio of many tens of billions of dollars worth of loans in place, and as such must have strong cybersecurity. Indeed, it has access to confidential information from many nations, and has a responsibility to protect that information.

I wish the Bank staff good luck and quick success in dealing with the current problems and establishing a trustworthy and trusted information and communications technology system. JAD

The World is Complicated, but Working on the Averages May Kill You

Article source: "The Evidence Gap; Patient’s DNA May Be Signal to Tailor Medication," ANDREW POLLACK, The New York Times, December 29, 2008.

This article points to the potential advantages of personalized medicine, noting that "most drugs, whatever the disease, work for only about half the people who take them. Not only is much of the nation’s approximately $300 billion annual drug spending wasted, but countless patients are being exposed unnecessarily to side effects." Genetic testing, when it is cheap enough, may allow doctors to choose drugs that are more likely to be effective.

Currently, drugs are tested on large groups of people whose genetic makeup is unknown. If the drug works on a large portion of them without causing too many or too serious side effects, it is approved for general use. There are really no ways to follow up on the millions of users to determine the characteristics of those in whom the drugs work, those in which the drug doesm't work, and those that the drug actually harms.

This could all change. Of course such a change will require funding to improve the technology. It will also require government to regulate and maintain records. Indeed, the drug companies may not be too happy about a system that reduces the sale of their products to only those they will actually help, although other companies will probably love the new market for DNA testing devices.

A couple of examples from the article:

  • The colon cancer drugs Erbitux and Vectibix, for instance, do not work for the 40 percent of patients whose tumors have a particular genetic mutation. The Food and Drug Administration held a meeting this month to discuss whether patients should be tested to narrow use of the drugs, which cost $8,000 to $10,000 a month.
  • A cautionary case is Herceptin, a Genentech breast cancer drug that is considered the archetype of personalized medicine because it works only for women whose tumors have a particular genetic characteristic. But now, 10 years after Herceptin reached the market, scientists are finding that the various tests — some approved by the F.D.A., some not — can be inaccurate.
  • In 2003, more than 25 years after tamoxifen was introduced, researchers led by Dr. David A. Flockhart at Indiana University School of Medicine figured out that the body coverts tamoxifen into another substance called endoxifen. It is endoxifen that actually exerts the cancer-fighting effect. The conversion is done by an enzyme in the body called CYP2D6, or 2D6 for short. But variations in people’s 2D6 genes mean the enzymes have different levels of activity. Up to 7 percent of people, depending on their ethnic group, have an inactive enzyme, Dr. Flockhart said, while another 20 to 40 percent have an only modestly active enzyme.
  • Tamoxifen, now a generic drug, costs as little as $500 for the typical five-year treatment. But most patients in the United States are currently treated with a newer, much more expensive class of drugs, called aromatase inhibitors, that cost about $18,000 over five years. Those drugs — made by AstraZeneca, Novartis and Pfizer — performed better than tamoxifen in clinical trials before the role of 2D6 was generally understood.
  • Last year, for instance, European regulators said Amgen’s colon cancer drug Vectibix did not provide enough benefit to patients to be approved. So Amgen reanalyzed the data from its clinical trial. After the results showed Vectibix worked better in patients whose tumors did not have a mutation in a gene called KRAS, the drug was approved for those patients only.
  • The labels of about 200 drugs now contain some information relating genes to drug response, said Lawrence J. Lesko, the F.D.A.’s head of clinical pharmacology. But in many cases, he said, doctors are not told specifically enough what to do with the test results, such as how much to change the dose.
Comment: I want to point out the nature of our current knowledge on the efficacy of pharmaceuticals. In theory it might be possible to predict with great accuracy which drug would be effective for a specific patient with a specific disease. However, in practice doctors can not do that. They can only say that this drug will help such and such a percent of patients with your diagnosis. It now can cost as much as half a billion dollars to test a drug before it is released, but that test provides only this probabilistic result, often providing little information. Yet drug testing may be the best use of scientific evidence in product testin. Of course, pharmaceuticals are special in that they are potentially life saving and potentially life threatening. JAD

'Huge year for natural disasters'

The Sichuan quake was one of
several disasters to strike Asia in 2008

ource: BBC News, December 29, 2008.

"Although there were fewer 'loss-producing events' in 2008 than in the previous year, the impact of natural disasters was higher, said Munich Re in its annual assessment. More than 220,000 people died in events like cyclones, earthquakes and flooding, the most since 2004, the year of the Asian tsunami.

"Meanwhile, overall global losses totalled about $200bn (£137bn), with uninsured losses totalling $45bn, about 50% more than in 2007. This makes 2008 the third most expensive year on record, after 1995, when the Kobe earthquake struck Japan, and 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina in the US."
The company suggested climate change was boosting the destructive power of disasters like hurricanes and flooding.

"U.S. Presses Israel on Cease-Fire"

Israeli warplanes have targeted
buildings across Gaza
Image source: BBC News

Article source: MARK LANDLER, The New York Times, December 30, 2008.

The article states in part:
The United States is pressing Israel to call a cease-fire in its assault on Hamas militants in Gaza, officials said Tuesday, while enlisting Arab countries to press Hamas to do the same.

The intensive diplomacy is being led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who made a flurry of phone calls over the last 24 hours to Israeli and Arab leaders. The goal, said a State Department spokesman, Gordon Duguid, is a “reliable cease-fire, one that is durable and sustainable.”
Comment: I wonder how much pressure we are actually applying. Is the Bush administration threatening to stop the more than $2 billion of foreign aid it provides Israel per year, and the added assistance from other government accounts that is not added into that total. Is it threatening to stop offering tax deductions to Americans contributing billions of dollars to Israeli organizations? Is it threatening to make such donations illegal as supporting terrorist actions? Is it threatening to withdraw the trade advantages it provides to Israeli businesses seeking to export to the United States? Is it threatening to withdraw support for Israel in international fora such as the United Nations Security Council? Is it threatening to lead an international coalition to apply sanctions to Israel if it does not move toward peace? What sanctions are available to this lame duck administration, even were is willing to apply pressure.

Does Mr. Landler suppose that the Israeli officials are not aware that there is a lame duck administration in Washington that is effectively toothless? JAD
The three winners of USAID's 2008 Development 2.0 Challenge were:
  • Child Malnutrition Surveillance and Famine Response uses mobile technology solutions to improve the speed and quality of nutrition surveillance data for children in Malawi. The effort is led by a team of six students at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), who are working alongside UNICEF to develop an open source mobile phone platform for nutritional data.
  • Click Diagnostics enables health- care practitioner networks and micro-entrepreneurs to provide advanced medical consultation and to gather health data more efficiently because it connects them to our global health servers via mobile phones.
  • Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is an open source software that solves communication and visualization challenges during crises situations through mapping and crowdsourcing, allowing anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form.
Check out the list of the 15 finalists for the financial awards from USAID.

Mobile phone technology is another example of a technology that is science based, affordable by the very poor with the right business model, and as these projects demonstrate, capable of providing great benefits in terms of reduction of the worst aspects of poverty.

Musing on "World Heritage Sites"

I have been perusing two "coffee table" books I got for Christmas:
The World Heritage Sites of UNESCO The Treasures of Art and The World Heritage Sites of UNESCO: Nature Sanctuaries. both by Marco Cattaneo and Jasmina Trifoni. As the titles state, both books are devoted to sites granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. Both are beautiful, and would grace the coffee table in any living room.

The first thing to strike me is how much greater the natural sites are than the man made ones. The Grand Canyon or Yellowstone would dwarf any of the buildings and in my opinion are infinitely more beautiful than the man made sites.

I was struck that the man made sites were most often palaces built by the very powerful to awe and impress with their power or religious sites also built under the authority of the very powerful to awe and impress. All too often these are the visible remains of political or cultural systems that were repressive and repugnant to me.

I will admit that often these sites are also the products of geniuses who were entrusted with their design and construction. Perhaps my favorite is the Last Supper of da Vinci which was built in the dining hall of a monastery and was intended to provide an image to promote devotional reflection among the monks -- perhaps the least ostentatious intent.

Great art is produced by artists who have to eat and who need the materials with which to practice their craft, and therefore who need financial sponsorship. So if great art is being produced it is often done under the patronage of the politically powerful or the religiously powerful who can command the resources.

Still, how wonderful is the Mona Lisa produced for a private patron and kept by the artist or the work of van Gogh who produced for himself and was unable to sell his work during his lifetime.

The more democratic and egalitarian cultures in world history no doubt have produced art, but I suspect a lot of it is intangible or if tangible less substantial than the pyramids of Egypt or the cathedrals of Europe, and likely to have perished over time.

It is only in our own time that a reasonable fraction of the world's population (largely limited to rich countries) can afford to purchase works of art and provide a market in which artists can support themselves. How fortunate I have been to live at a time when Ansel Adams could produce original prints of his great photographs at a price I could afford.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What Happened In the Financial Industry

Image source: Bigmouthmedia

I must admit that I don't really understand what happened. It seems that the AIG disaster had something in common with the Enron disaster, and with others. There has been an influx of highly trained experts in quantitative analysis, supported by high performance computers, who invented new financial instruments. These made money at first by being more efficient, and by allowing firms to better manage risk. Their original ideas were potentially very helpful.

The key factor is that if you can find a variety of investments in which the risks are uncorrelated, it is unlikely that all of them will turn bad at the same time. Unfortunately, experience indicates that you can't really determine whether risks are uncorrelated over the short term.

People who did not have the full understanding of risk management took over from the early innovators (who did). They judged on the basis of several decades of experience that financial risks were uncorrelated. Turns out that in times of economic depression or really major recession, "all bad things come together". So the risks that they in their ignorance thought were small and manageable turned out to swamp their boats.

It sounds like there is a very human combination of ignorance and greed. Investors were more than willing to go with firms that made good profits for a decade by taking heavy risks without understanding those risks; they put confidence in managers who talked a good talk, but who themselves either did not understand the risks that they were having their investors assume, or who didn't care as long as they could take their wealth out of the system in time.

Centuries of experience have enabled many people with a grasp of history to look to government to regulate industry to prevent just such bubbles. Unfortunately in the post Reagan days, free market idealogues had more faith in the "hidden hand" of the market than in government regulators, and handicapped the regulators. We of course put them in office to do so, perhaps because the majority of the voters didn't believe in history and thought they could get theirs before the bust.

I suspect some of the early innovators are very angry, seeing their financial inventions perverted and used to create a global crisis.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Under Bush, OSHA Mired in Inaction"

R. Jeffrey Smith, The Washington Post, December 29, 2008.

This report has been published late in the Bush administration but may serve as a call to action for the Obama administration. Apparently the Bush administration overruled science to protect business practices that created health risks to workers. It apparently did so by undermining the work that is required of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:
"In my 24 years at the Agency, I have never experienced such indecision and delay," Infante wrote in an e-mail to the agency's director of standards in March 2002. Eventually, top OSHA officials decided, over what Infante described in an e-mail to his boss as opposition from "the entire OSHA staff working on beryllium issues," to publish the bulletin with a footnote challenging a key recommendation the firm opposed.

Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.

The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton's tenure, according to White House lists......

"The legacy of the Bush administration has been one of dismal inaction," said Robert Harrison, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and chairman of the occupational health section of the American Public Health Association.......

More than two dozen current and former senior career officials further said in interviews that the agency's strategic choices were frequently made without input from its experienced hands. Political appointees "shut us out," a longtime senior career official said.........

The agency's first director under Bush, John L. Henshaw, startled career officials by telling them in an early meeting that employers were OSHA's real customers, not the nation's workers. "Everybody was pretty amazed," one of those present recalled. "Our purpose is to ensure employee safety and health."......

The agency's budget and its field staff declined during the Bush administration, even as its responsibilities -- and the total number of workers -- grew.
Comment: How important is it that a society protect the health and safety of its workers? I recall doing a study of health conditions in Bolivia where I was shocked to learn that the life expectancy of a teen-ager going to work in the tin mines was 12 years.

I have been reading Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally, the story of the first settlement of Australia. One of the stories that it tells is of the second convoy carrying prisoners to the colony. The British government contracted with a firm in the slave trade to transport the convicts. It made the mistake of paying on the number of convicts embarked, and not on the number disembarked alive. The firm put the ships under captains who maximized profits in ways that allowed nearly 300 prisoners to die en route and requiring hospitalization of hundreds more on arrival. The end of the 18th century was a very bad time to be poor in England and the ruling class was unmoved by slavery, poverty or death sentences for kids who stole $100 worth of goods, yet even in that time the treatment of the prisoners was seen as unconscionable.

It is hard to overestimate the damage that people are willing to inflict upon others, especially unseen others, under the influence of avarice. The New York Times today has an editorial by Adam Cohen ("Four Decades After Milgram, We’re Still Willing to Inflict Pain") citing new research replicating the results of the famous study indicating people were willing to inflict pain, even potentially lethal shock, if instructed to do so by someone with the dubious authority of a white lab coat. The avaricious owners and managers can still find willing subordinates to impose risks on workers.

Unions can help workers to obtain protection from such risks, but only if the public will support them and demand action from the government!

The Obama administration should give high priority to unleashing the scientific capacity of the government to identify and measure risks and to propose steps for their cost-efficient reduction, and the administration should take vigorous action to protect workers and other citizens from risks wherever cost-effective means can be found for doing so.

Moreover, this is an area in which the United States can lead the community of nations towards more humane policies and practices. Encouraging other countries to protect their citizens is not only good for them, but in the modern world is good for us. JAD

"An electron micrograph scan of coal dust (marked by dark patches) in lung tissue infected with black lung disease."
Source: "The Respiratory System," The Free Health Encyclopedia

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Comments on Science, Technology and Development

"Science, Technology, and American Diplomacy: Background and Issues for Congress," Deborah D. Stine, Congressional Research Service CRS Report RL34503, Updated June 20, 2008.

I just read the report identified above, and want to make some comments. It is a useful guide to recent studies of S&T in our foreign policy.

It is interesting that people don't think of the social sciences as science. If one did one would emphasize economics as the science most critical to U.S. international economic policy and political science as critical to U.S. international security policy -- the key elements of U.S. diplomacy.

The author, as do many others, ignores the scientific and technological functions of the State Department's Bureau of International Organizational Affairs, but that Bureau deals with the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO and the UN Development Program -- all with important scientific and technological aspects.

The author also seems to recognize only marginally that every branch of government in involved in international activities with scientific and technological as well as diplomatic elements. The foreign policy agencies -- Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, the Intelligence agencies -- should be obvious to all. Examples from the "domestic agencies" include:
  • The Department of Health and Human Services for example has obvious concerns for the detection and control of communicable diseases abroad. It also has interests in the safety of pharmaceuticals imported into the United States (and exported from the United States), and perhaps surprisingly in the health of the millions of Americans abroad at any time, and of the millions of non-U.S.-citizens in the United States at any time.
  • The Department of Agriculture has a foreign agriculture service due to the importance of its international interests.
  • The Departments of Commerce and Labor have fundamental interests in the promotion of exports and in globalization of the productive sector.
  • The Department of Education is concerned with recognition of U.S. degrees abroad and foreign degrees in the United States, and should be concerned with the globalization of education with improved communications and transportation systems, as well as the domestic needs for skills and knowledge of immigrants.
I could go on to talk about NASA, NOAA, EPA and other agencies.

The United States was in my lifetime the home of most of the world's scientists, the source of most of the worlds economic product, and the most important locus of technological innovation. That dominance is no longer. The United States needs to import scientific knowledge and technology if it is to stay at the forefront in these fields, and cooperation need no longer be between unequals. Indeed, what once was seen as technical assistance can now be seen as collaboration for mutual assistance. Globalization requires more rapid technological innovation and also more rapid response to threats that arise anywhere in the world. Man's footprint is ever increasing, and therefore we need to cooperate more to preserve the environment, a cooperation best served by mutual understanding based on collaborative science.

I think these factors mean that we have to envision science and technology in a new way in our foreign policy.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Internation Cooperation Funding Opportunities from the NSF

Source: "International Activities and the US National Science Foundation," Shireen Yousef and Jennifer Slimowitz Pearl, Bridges, vol. 20, December 2008.

This useful article in the Austrian Embassy's science magazine provides a number of useful leads, including the following:
The Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program supports collaborations between US and foreign researchers on frontier research that can incorporate research excellence, the development of a globally engaged US workforce, and strengthening of institutional capacity;

The long-standing Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) enables graduate students to choose to work in any appropriate international institution of higher education anywhere in the world offering advanced degrees in science, mathematics, or engineering. During the 2008-2009 year, 72 fellows were studying at graduate institutions outside the US, while 100 domestic students took advantage of the $1000 one-time international travel supplement;

Pan-American Advanced Studies Institutes (PASI) allow US researchers and students at the advanced graduate and postdoctoral level to interact with researchers from different countries in the Americas in a series of lectures, discussions, and research seminars;

The Developing Global Scientists and Engineers program provides funding for principal investigators to send groups of US undergraduate and graduate students to do research abroad through the International Research Experience for Students (IRES) component, and also funds doctoral dissertation research abroad through the Doctoral Dissertation Enhancement Projects (DDEP);

East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (EAPSI) are open to US graduate students to work or study in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore or Taiwan.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Boxing Day is a Great Time to Think About Giving to Those in Need

The New York Times yesterday had an article about the reduction of remittances to developing nations:
The financial crisis that is in full swing in the world’s developed countries is only beginning to reach the poorest, and labor migrants, with feet in both worlds, are among the first to feel it.

Flows of migrant money to developing countries, known as remittances, began to slow this fall, the first moderation after years of double-digit growth, according to the World Bank. The slowdown is expected to turn into a decline of 1 to 5 percent in 2009, when the full effect of the crisis hits.

Some are already feeling it. Mexico, for example, is likely to have a 4 percent decline in the flows of migrant money in 2008, according to World Bank estimates. The biggest declines next year are expected in the Middle East and North Africa, because of economic slowdowns in the Persian Gulf and Europe.

According to IFAD:
The driving force behind this phenomenon is an estimated 150 million migrants worldwide. They sent some US$300 billion to their families in developing countries during 2006, typically US$100, US$200 or US$300 at a time, through more than 1.5 billion separate financial transactions.
Comment: Boxing Day, December 26th, is the traditional day in England and other countries of the Commonwealth for the affluent to give gifts to those who are less affluent.

I suspect that there will be considerable pressure to reduce foreign aid to developing nations during the financial crisis. Remittances are a more important source of funding for many developing nations, and these too will be decreasing. Exports are also being reduced for developing nations as demand is being reduced by the crisis. Thus poverty -- hunger, inadequacy of health services, unemployment, underemployment, misery -- are likely to increase for the poor.

Perhaps Boxing Day would be a good time to rededicate ourselves to helping the poor. A note to your legislator might be in order.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Thinking About Thinking

Image source: Only Moments

Here are some random thoughts about the way we think, or perhaps the way we should think.

Almost everyone, almost always, has be wrong about almost everything. Think about religion. The world religion with most believers has about one-fifth of the world's population as followers. That means that at least four fifths of the world has erroneous religious beliefs. Moreover while religious belief seems to be universal, all of the world religions are relatively new in the terms of the species, Home sapiens. So the portion of the species with incorrect beliefs would be higher than four-fifths. Moreover, the world religions are divided into theological factions.

Think about scientific beliefs. Our best modern science, tentative as might be its conclusions, might be used as a benchmark for the accuracy of beliefs. How many people today understand quantum mechanics? It has been estimated that there are between 100 billion and 1000 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion to 1000 billion stars; who among us can really grasp such a reality? How many of us understand the working of the brain or of the genome? Or, going to the social sciences, how many of us understand the social and economic processes of globalization? The answer to each of these questions is "very few if any". So the huge majority of the human race is living with erroneous understanding of the physical and social world.

There is no mind body duality. We think with our brains and thought is colored by the chemistry of the brain and emotion. I am old enough to deal with frequent failures of memory, being unable to access a name or event which I know to be encoded in my mind only to be retrieved with the right internal or external cue. Our perception is distorted, our estimates of probability biased, our reason intermittent, with tendencies toward groupthink and snap judgement.

I find it truly amazing that such an instrument of thought should have been produced by evolution, yet there is increasing evidence that evolution has produced comparable intellectual capacities in other species. Play with a cat and learn how limited is human response time as compared to that which evolution has produced in the feline nervous system. Or compare human visual acuity with that of the eagle.

There is no certain knowledge. There are only degrees of credibility. One of the great contributions of modern science has been the epistemological premise that all conclusions are subject to revision with new observations or new theories. Even Newtonian physics which was so descriptive of observed reality for centuries yielded to Einstein's relativity theory and the observations which tested the differences in Newtonian and Einsteinian predictions. Even our direct observations can be erroneous due to glitches in our perceptual neurology; instrumental observations are unfortunately often erroneous due to glitches in the equipment or set up. Deductions are fallible when the deductive logic fails or the premises prove fallacious.

The distinction between determinism and free will is often unproductive. There are factors which influence behavior, and one can predict with high probability that a person with certain characteristics will behave in a certain way. However, those who don't act in the expected ways demonstrate that there is a possibility of acting contrary to the forces of circumstance.

I have been reading A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia by Thomas Keneally, the story of the first settlement by Europeans of Australia. The book describes the draconian punishments that were meted out by English authorities at the end of the 18th century, apparently in the belief that the criminals chose to commit their crimes. From our perspective it seems clear that the people were driven to crime by the circumstances of poverty they experienced in England, and that many of them became the pillars of Australian society when moved to another social environment. The death penalties imposed on people convicted (with only the slightest evidence) of minor crimes strikes us a cruel and unusual. The perception that draconian punishment would deter crime proved hugely fallacious.

If we assume that conditions affect the probability of a person committing a crime, then the "blame" for the crime must be shared between circumstances and criminal. If the circumstances are such that illegal behavior are almost inevitable, the blame attributed to the actor should be minimal.

I wonder whether it is the links between emotion and reason that have evolved in our brains, whether the social behavior that evolved in our nature do not make us unreasonable in the attribution of blame to persons who act in ways we define as criminal but which are highly probable from their circumstances.

Indeed, I wonder whether a probabilistic analysis might help our courts. Would it be possible to develop models to explain the probability that someone with a defendant's characteristics would "be driven to" commit a crime, and a model to predict the effect of alternative treatments if convicted in keeping the defendant from "being driven to" commit future crimes.

Probabilistic models rule deterministic approaches. Not only is the world best understood as probabilistic at the level of sub-atomic particles, there are a multitude of phenomenon that are better understood as probabilistic than as deterministic.

Quantum theory shows the photon as something that behaves as a wave and as a particle. It is the quantum of the electromagnetic field. Light may be refracted by a lens, best modeled by a wave metaphor, but the photon can be detected in ways best modeled by a particle. That duality, once understood provides a metaphor that may be useful in many circumstances.

Perhaps we may see an automobile accident as an event comparable to the detection of a photon as a particle. A moving vehicle is a locus of the probability of that accident. Traffic therefore serves as a probability "wave" of accidents, that can be refracted by changes in the properties of the road network.

In many other situations, we don't know enough to predict with a high degree of accuracy, but we still can make probabilistic predictions. Perhaps surprisingly, the theory of probability and statistics are relatively recent inventions.

The ability of people to bet rationally on horse races or games of chance shows that the species has the ability to think probabilistically, and psychologists have shown that training can help people make better bets, but there are well known biases in probability estimates. Thus it is important to complement probabilistic intuition with calculation based on observed data and theory.

This is too big a subject to come to simple conclusions on the basis of a short essay. But it behooves us to recognize our animal nature and the utility of the edifice of logic and mathematics to help rationalize thought over intuition. Indeed, we are now in a position to use information and communications technology to amplify our ability to think probabilistically.

Season's Greetings!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Comment on an Interview with Gene Skolnikoff

There is an interview with Gene Skolnikoff, who has a long and distinguished career dealing with science and foreign policy, in Bridges, a science policy journal published by the German Embassy. It is worth reading.

When asked about " the most pressing foreign policy issues where international science cooperation can contribute to the solution" Dr. Skolnikoff answered that the "biggest scientific issue right now is about arms control and nuclear weapons."

It is interesting that the question was posed in terms of "the most pressing" issue and the response focused on "the biggest" issue. Actually I think there is a tendency in the White House to see the most pressing issue as the biggest one, in the sense that it looms largest on the staff's horizon. There is not much time for reflection there.

Dr. Skolnikoff says:
I would put the issue of arms control and non-proliferation higher on the agenda than global warming. Global warming is obviously a major and serious issue. It will be very hard for the world to deal with, but we will. And especially if it starts being serious, if we see the damage, it will be easier to deal with.
Remember, the White House is an agency with more than 1,000 people, enjoying the power of the presidency and the support of the United States government. I can do more than one thing at a time, and must multitask! So too must the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The Office should allocate its resources (staff, support, prestige, influence) across the spectrum of concerns very carefully. It must consider the importance of each problem, the urgency of taking action, the likely impact that it can have on the problem, synergies among its possible efforts, and put them in the context of the interests of the President, the pressures from the Congress, and the political impact on the electorate.

Nuclear proliferation is deserving of high priority because of the gravity of a possible nuclear attack (not to mention nuclear war), the number of nuclear weapons that are out there and the doubt about their containment, the unequalled power of the American presidency to deal with nuclear proliferation, and the opportunity presented by the Obama presidency.

I recall the old story of the man told that it would take 100 years to establish a great grove of trees in a botanical garden, who said that it was therefore urgent to start right away. Climate Change is a long term problem, but the later we put off working on it, the worse it will be and the harder it will be to deal with. Again, the Obama presidency is an exceptional opportunity to make a start on climate change both domestically and internationally.

The international influence of the United States as well as our domestic welfare depends on the economic health of the American economy, which in turn depends on the rate of innovation, including and especially on the rate of commercialization of science-based inventions. There are many issues involving both international aspects and science and technology policy/understanding involved in keeping the innovation system operating as well as possible.

From my point of view, the world's biggest problem is poverty, and by that I mean not only lack of income but also the syndrome of hunger, ignorance, illness and powerlessness that accompanies financial poverty. Science based technological innovation is a central concern for the alleviation of poverty and the United States is the country best situated to lead to a reestablishment of science-based development assistance.

I wish the very best of luck to the new administration, and especially to its science team in dealing with these and other problems (military technology, agricultural productivity, social dysfunctions).

You Think Better About Things About Which You Feel Positively

Wray Herbert in his blog, We Are Only Human, cites research supporting the idea that people develop "expert thinking" modes about things that interest them. Actually the experiment suggested that if you can generate positive associations with objects, people are willing to spend more time sorting those objects into finer categories. He concludes that the research may help explain the power of hobbies.
But more than that they sound a warning to those choosing jobs and careers. Hard work and mastery may give us a measure of satisfaction, but pleasure also drives mastery and expertise. There may be good psychology beneath that old saw: Do what you love.
Comment: That seems like good advice. I would note, however, that people tend to like doing things that they are good at, so there can be a "virtuous cycle".

Indeed, giving a job a chance may result in getting good at it and getting positive reinforcement, thereby starting that virtuous cycle that leads to expertise and job satisfaction.

On the other hand, I had some dead end jobs in my youth, working hard in unpleasant surroundings, and they encouraged me to work hard to get a job I would like better. JAD

Monday, December 22, 2008


The Bush administration has shorted the budget and staff of the Food and Drug Administration during its term in office. The Alliance for a Stronger FDA is trying to build public support to encourage the Obama administration to reverse the decline. Here is a quote from an Alliance publication:
In recent years, the public financial commitment, in the form of appropriations from Congress, has increased much more slowly than costs have risen. New challenges, such as protecting the public from avian flu and bioterrorism, have drawn additional funding from traditional activities. New public health initiatives have not received adequate financial support, including the Critical Path Initiative to modernize the drug development process. Other pressing needs are underfunded, such as helping consumers make sound dietary choices to prevent chronic diseases, and ensuring the safety of the vast array of products that FDA regulates. In addition, public confidence in the FDA needs to be maintained at the highest level. The FDA’s own Science Advisory Board has recently concluded the FDA lacks the ability to properly perform its job due to insufficient resources.
Comment: I would guess the first priorities are to improve guarantees that imported foods are wholesome to develop a system to monitor adverse consequences of uses of FDA approved drugs. JAD

TIMSS Results Out

Source: "Math Gains Reported for U.S. Students," SAM DILLON, The New York Times, December 9, 2008.

American fourth- and eighth-grade students made gains in math in the 2007 surveys of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), an international survey released on Tuesday. Science performance was flat. Several Asian countries continued to outperform the United States greatly in science and math.
Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota, which participated in a special study that attributed a score to the states as if they were individual countries, also demonstrated stellar achievement, outperforming classmates in all but a handful of countries.

In eighth-grade science, for instance, Massachusetts students, on average, scored higher than or equal to students in all countries but Singapore and Taiwan.

And in Minnesota, which has worked to improve its math curriculum, the proportion of fourth-grade students performing at the advanced level jumped from 9 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2007, a gain that was one of the world’s largest.
Comment: We have known for a long time that the students from the best schools in the United States are very good indeed, and that there are schools that turn out very few if any students compeitive at the university level.

Some states have more of the former class of schools, some have more of the latter. Shame on the states that are not educating their kids! If we allow that to continue, we will lose out economically and socially in the future.

Source of Graph: "One Scattered Nation: A Pathway to Common Standards,"
Marc Lampkin, The Huffington Post, July 17, 2008.

UNICEF Photo of the Year

We Need a New Appropriate Technology Movement

The realization that better ways of doing things are a major source of economic progress has developed over many decades. Improving technology is an important means of improving productivity, and more productivity means economic growth. One might think that increasing the capital per worker, either through investing in the means of production or in human capital, is the more important way to improve productivity. However, both kinds of investments involve technological change. Moreover, the recognition that technological improvements yielding increased productivity are possible is a powerful motivation for increased savings and investment.

The original Appropriate Technology movement, triggered by E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, was based in part on the recognition that poor people in poor countries can not generate very much money for investment. Most people are poor, and if you don't improve their productivity the country and the people will remain poor. Therefore it is important to develop and disseminate technological improvements that can be used by and are affordable to the very poor. In the terms of the day, there was a need to focus on "capital saving" technologies.

Unemployment and underemployment are major problems for the poor in poor nations. If the amount of investment per worker can be held low, then the available capital could be stretched to put more workers to work. Thus, rather than labor savings technologies as were sought in rich countries with high labor costs, the original Appropriate Technology movement sought to increase the employment of labor.

It was also realized that poor people were even then destroying the environment, and technological change would therefore have to focus on promoting sustainable use of natural resources. Moreover, far too often, the poor people in developing nations were unable to maintain the new machines and devices that they obtained; the world is littered with broken machines. Often people could not obtain the financing needed to run the systems in which investments had been made. Therefore it is important to assure sustainability of technologies and technological systems serving the poor.

The original Appropriate Technology movement had a rural bias, in part because the majority of the poor people in poor countries lived in rural areas, and in part because the subsistence farm families were so poor. It also was recognized that increasing the productivity of rural labor would be necessary to contribute to overall economic development. So the Appropriate Technology movement focused heavily on agricultural technologies, cottage craft technologies, and other technologies that might be used in in rural areas.

Because of these perceptions, the original Appropriate Technology movement focused fairly strongly on machines that could be produced locally and used by the poor, such as fuel efficient cook stoves, farm machinery, construction technologies for rural housing, etc. The appropriate technology in health efforts, similarly, focused on things like oral rehydration and disposable needles that could be used in the home or by paraprofessional health workers. Indeed, the radio education efforts implemented at the same time might be seen as developing a system that could use low cost transistor radios and relatively uneducated local personnel (mothers) to provide affordable educational services, and thus closely related to appropriate technology. In all these cases it was clear that the techniques actually being used by the poor in developing countries were often very inefficient and that they could be radically improved by applying modern scientific and technical knowledge to the task.

Many participants in the original Appropriate Technology movement appeared to dismiss science based technological innovations, but of course that would be a mistake. Mobile telephones and new drugs and vaccines illustrate the importance that science based technologies can have when they are developed to meet the needs of the poor. Indeed, science based approaches can be extremely important in improving local workshop technologies in areas such as lime kilns, foundries, and brick making.

In more recent years it has been recognized that governments can best promote technological change by creating conditions where technological innovation is easy and beneficial to the innovators. The emphasis has been on the innovation system, including the availability of financial services for innovators. There has also been an emphasis on policies promoting innovation, such as those which encourage development of human resources capable of innovating technologically.

The development of institutions that facilitate technological innovation has also been recognized as important. In advanced developed nations, the intellectual focus has tended to be on institutions that promote invention and the commercialization of inventions. Note however that if one is trying to get better techniques in the hands of three or four billion poor people the emphasis is generally going to be on enhancing the diffusion of existing techniques, substituting them for less efficient techniques in use.

As one seeks better ways of doing things to improve productivity, social technologies should not be ignored. Economic and social progress can be made by better organization. Here too, however, there is a need for organizational innovations that suit the local circumstances, especially the culture of local peoples.

Terracing and gravity-fed irrigation in India via
The Barcelona Field Studies Center

I would note that the spread of franchising has been an important stimulus to innovation in the United States. Large numbers of people have been able to start their own small enterprises through acquisition of a franchise from McDonnalds or any of a large number of franchisers. In the days of the original Appropriate Technology movement there were examples of franchising (milk kiosks in India, prefabricated housing factories in Colombia) but they were tangential to the central concerns and almost accidental. In areas such as health and education, institution building would be expected to focus on health and educational service organizations rather than on individual practitioners.

The geography of development is now different, in that the world population is primarily urban. Thus a new appropriate technology movement would have to focus more on technological innovation in urban areas than did the original Appropriate Technology movement. It should also be noted that many small-scale manufacturing industries are built around clusters of enterprises and workshops, often achieving synergies within a town or city neighborhood by working in the same industry. Thus one finds villages that specialize in pottery or weaving, metal working, brick making, or some other artisanal manufacture. One also finds urban areas with many related shops providing similar products.

Woman with village phone via
The Grameen Foundation

I recommend a new appropriate technology movement that seeks to develop institutions and policies that lead to rapid innovation in the technologies used by the poor in poor nations. The emphasis would be on policies that encouraged rapid introduction of capital saving technologies enabling increased employment of the poor and sustainable use of natural resources. It would emphasize the dissemination of technologies rather than invention, and would build upon lessons learned in the original Appropriate Technology movement as well as those learned in microfinance and other development programs. However, like the original Appropriate Technology movement, it would also emphasize engineering technological improvements, emphasizing energy efficiency, affordability, labor productivity, sustainainability (both of the innovations per se and of natural resources and the environment), and tailored to local needs and cultures.

The new appropriate technology movement would differ from the science, technology and innovation programs in that it would target the technologies actually used by the poor in their work and in their lives, rather than attempting to build new science-based industries.

Often, development focuses on helping the rich in poor countries get richer. Often it focuses on external humanitarian assistance to deal quickly with hunger and disease without building the needed local capacities. The original Appropriate Technology movement focused on helping poor people to help themselves. It is time to renovate and renew that movement, building in the added knowledge we have obtained in the past decades.

Please Comment
We Need a Discussion on This Topic

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Queen Rania's Channel on YouTube

The Queen of Jordan has her own channel on YouTube
Dedicated to breaking down stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim worlds and to bridging the East-West divide, this is Queen Rania's official YouTube Channel.
According to Wikipedia:
The video sharing website decided to honor the Queen with the first ever YouTube Visionary Award at YouTube Live on November 22, 2008. The award was presented by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who said the Queen was being honored because of her "use of technology to instigate social change".

This video of the award ceremony is well worth watching:

"The U.S. Commitment to Global Health: Recommendations for the New Administration"

This new report by a distinguished panel of experts calls for significantly intensifying U.S. governmental commitment to global health in the next four years by increasing funding and placing greater importance on health when setting overall U.S. foreign policy.
A key aspect of U.S. global health funding should be producing a balanced portfolio of aid. Over the past decade, the U.S. government's annual overseas development assistance for health has increased, reaching an all-time high of $7.5 billion in 2008. To date, between PEPFAR -- the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief -- and contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, the U.S. government has spent over $18 billion combating AIDS. These health initiatives are lauded achievements that have brought life-saving drugs and HIV prevention strategies to millions. However, between 2004 and 2008, over 70 percent of U.S. global health funds were allocated to AIDS programs, while funds for chronic disease programs were virtually nonexistent, despite the fact that chronic, noncommunicable diseases now account for more than half of all deaths in low- and middle-income countries.

To ensure balanced and strategic U.S. global health efforts, the report recommends creation of a White House Interagency Committee on Global Health -- composed of heads of major federal departments and agencies involved in global health -- and designation of a senior White House official at the level of deputy assistant to the president to chair the Interagency Committee. The deputy assistant should serve as the primary White House adviser on setting U.S. global health policy and should work with the national security adviser, the director of management and budget, and the president's science adviser.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Obama Science Team

President elect Obama has added Harold Varmus and Eric Lander to his science team as co-chars of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A 1989 Nobel laureate in medicine, Dr Varmus is former director of NIH and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Dr Lander is the Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; the first author of the major report of the Human Genome Project -- identified as one of TIME's 100 most influential people of our time (2004).

Here is Barack Obama's talk announcing his science team:

“The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States—and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.”

One of the Causes of the Current Economic Crisis

Bush administration strikes to reduce availability of family planning services it doesn't like.

The Bush administration has promulgated a new regulation that gives health care workers, hospitals, and insurers more leeway to refuse to provide abortion or sterilization services for moral or religious reasons. Under the regulation these entities don't have to provide information about these services, nor to refer patients who want them to those who will provide them. It applies to organization or person receiving funds from the Department of Health and Human Services. The regulation also requires a lot of paperwork by health care providers receiving such funds to certify compliance.

The provisions of law cited as being implemented by the new regulation have been around for some time. They have been implemented in the past by HHS. The new regulation therefore seems to be issued in an attempt to further reduce access to abortion and sterilization services, and even information about such services.

As you might expect, there was an outpouring of objections to the draft regulation when it was put out for comment, and apparently most of these were ignored.

The regulation apparently will go into operation on January 18th, but because it has been issued so late the Congress may overturn it. Senator Clinton has apparently already introduced legislation to do so.

For your information:
The Supreme Court says women have the constitutional right to choose. I don't want them trying to make good choices without good information. I also don't see how a health service provider should have the right to provide a patient about a medical procedure that the informed patient might feel appropriate for herself. While I see that a hospital might appropriately put a physician who did not want to provide that information on a service other than OBGYN, it should be able to find someone to provide it when appropriate.

For those who oppose abortion, remember that there were many abortions performed when they were illegal. The result was a lot of unnecessary injury and even deaths of young women.

Lets hope that the Congress has the good sense to act quickly to overturn this regulation!

Where does the money go in a Ponzi scheme

We had been talking about the Madoff affair when a friend asked me where does the lost money go in a Ponzi scheme. Of course, the answer depends on the specifics of the scheme. And, of course, people who run Ponzi schemes almost always skim off some of the money flowing through the scheme to enrich themselves. It occurs to me that others might be interested in my answer.

Think about a scheme which does no investment. The organizer takes incoming funds and puts them in a big pile. He takes his cut off the top, and then takes funds out of the pile to pay "interest" to the investors. In that case, when the scheme is busted, the money that appears to have been lost has actually gone to the operator and the investors. If the remaining funds are distributed according to the "book value" of the investments -- all the money that the investor paid in -- the earliest investors may still have made money, but the last investor lost lots. Of course, all the investors have also foregone the interest that their investment would have made had they put it in something safe like government bonds.

Assume instead that the operator actually invests the money in the stock market. Say he makes five percent on the investment, but pays out 10 percent to the investors (to make his fund look good compared to other funds). What happens is that the actual value of the stock portfolio steadily falls below the total nominal value of the investors contribution to the fund. The end result is the same as the earlier case. The lost money winds up in the pockets of the organizer and the early investors.

But assume that the Ponzi scheme collects so much money, and invests it in such limited set of stocks that it inflates the value of the cost of those stocks above their true value. Assume further that the movement in the selected stock attracts other speculators and a bubble is created. Of course such bubbles eventually burst. Assume further that the burst bubble results in the crash of the Ponzi scheme, and it sells off its stocks at the final low price. In that case some of the money given to the Ponzi scheme by its investors goes to those who sold the stocks to the Ponzi scheme, and who took profits. Some of course still went to the scheme operator and some to the early investors.

In the Madoff case, there seems to have been one more factor. Other firms apparently collected funds from investors, took a fee off the top, and then gave the money to Madoff to manage with the funds of his direct investors. In this case, of course, some of the lost funds would have wound up in the pockets of the intermediaries.

I hope the explanation helps.

Watch Out for Republicans Offering Advice on Foreign Aid

Do you want to wait before helping this kid
until his government is efficient in using foreign assistance?
Image source: Filipe Moreira via flickr

There is an op-ed piece in the New York Times today ("U.S. Aid Should Be Earned") by several high ranking Republicans (LORNE CRANER, BILL FRIST, KENNETH HACKETT and ALAN PATRICOF) that recommends support for the Millennium Challenge Corporation to the incoming Obama administration. The Corporation was a Bush administration creation, and it has had a very slow start.

The idea behind the Corporation was that it would give large amounts of foreign assistance in a form that was available to the recipient government for its allocation but only after that government had demonstrated to the U.S. government that it was likely to utilize the funds well -- that is that the recipient government had appropriate policies and adequate administrative capacity. While the idea sounds good, few governments had qualified for its funding and disbursements of funds have been very slow.

Remember that the creation of this corporation was part of a fragmentation of the foreign assistance program. USAID was placed under closer State Department control (but there was increased emphasis on funding non-governmental organizations as vehicles for bilateral aid, and on partnerships with the private sector which of course resulted in shared control), the Department of Defense was given charge of the large expenditures for conflict related foreign aid, a different bureau of the State Department continued its functions representing the United States with respect to the development assistance efforts of the United Nations programs and decentralized agencies, and the Department of the Treasury remained responsible for representing the United States with respect to the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Many observers have suggested that the Obama administration reorganize the foreign assistance bureaucracy, strengthening the international development expertise and improving coordination among the various elements of the program.

In considering such proposals, it is important to understand the purposes of U.S. foreign assistance. In general we do not seek to increase the rate of economic growth of recipient countries per se, but rather to provide humanitarian assistance or to help stabilize areas for political reasons. (We don't want to tax the American middle class to subsidize the rich in poor countries as they get richer.)

Unfortunately it is not always possible to be sure that foreign aid intended to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan, the Israeli-Arab region, or other sensitive areas is used efficiently.

In the case of humanitarian aid, people who are suffering from natural disasters, communicable diseases, or hunger or in post-conflict conditions don't always (or usually) live in well governed countries which can quickly demonstrate that aid will be used efficiently and without corruption to benefit the poor. While this situation has been largely responsible for efforts to use non-governmental organizations and public-private partnerships to deliver aid, the resulting development of civil society probably is having significant benefits in the development of better governance. Civil society is an important element to keep business and government focused on the needs of the people.

Moveover, one of the most important purposes of bilateral assistance is to move poorly governed countries toward conditions under which they can more adequately meet the needs of their own populations, and especially the needs of the poor. The investments in human resource development and strengthening key institutions seem likely to be needed to achieve adequate governance. Thus an organization with the charter of the Millennium Development Corporation is unlikely to be able to achieve the humanitarian purposes demanded of U.S. foreign assistance by the public and the Congress.

I don't know how successful the Millennium Challenge Corporation has been or could be. I think it makes sense to have an arm of U.S. foreign assistance that provides assistance in the form of "block grants" to governments of target countries with demonstrated ability to use such funding well. However, it is also important to have programs that provide assistance to achieve U.S. policy objectives in other forms for other countries, and especially important to have an overall coordination among the various foreign assistance programs. It is also important to have a cadre of managers of the foreign aid program who understand both development and humanitarian assistance, with strong diplomatic skills, and ability to coordinate foreign aid with other foreign and domestic policy instruments.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Cascading Economic Problems

Source: "Sustainable Developments: Blackouts and Cascading Failures;" January 2009; Scientific American Magazine; by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

Jeffrey Sachs uses the metaphor of power outages cascading through the grid to explain the current financial crisis. Borrowers defaulting on sub-prime mortgages cause banks to lose capital, which causes them to reduce new lending (with a multiplier effect since banks lend more than they hold in capital), which led to a failure in short term lending to banks, which led to banks selling mortgage backed securities, which led to a reduction in their value, which became cyclical. With the problems in banking, lending drying up, companies cut back in manufacturing and sales, laying off employees, which led to consumer fears and cutbacks, which had a cyclical effect on demand and business. In these processes, international financial markets participated, and eventually imports fell. Thus the contagion spread to other nations.

I have not read the suggestion, but I wonder whether the spike in oil prices was not involved. (Certainly the precipitous drop in those prices was a result.) But the energy crisis earlier this year resulted in increases in prices of everything that uses energy in its production or distribution, and thus hit the poor in the pocketbook. Did that trigger the mortgage defaults that triggered everything else? I am not suggesting that we would not have had the overall crisis eventually had the oil prices not shot up, but the timing seems suspicious.

John Podesta on Science Debate 2008

John Podesta is of course heading up the Obama Transition Team. No wonder the transition has done such a good job including scientists and experts on technology in itself and in the key appointments to the new administration.

Very Impressive Obama Science Appointments

In addition to Stephen Chu, named to be Secretary of the Department of Energy last week, the Obama administration has named John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco to key posts with science and technology responsibilities.

John Holdren is to be President Obama's Science Advisor. Currently he is Professor of Environmental Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at the School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and director of the Woods Hole Research Center. He is a recent past president of the AAAS and was a member of President Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) from 1994 to 2001.

Jane Lubchenco is to head up President Obama's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admninistration (NOAA). She is an outstanding choice with a deep background in marine biology. Jane is also a past AAAS president, and past president of the International Council for Science and the Ecological Society of America. She founded the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program that teaches outstanding academic environmental scientists to be effective leaders and communicators of scientific information to the public, policy makers, the media and the private sector.

How do categories evolve

I saw the HBO show on Saddam Hussein, which is very good. The portrait is of a man who is profoundly immoral but one who appears much like other men most of the time, who effectively used the mass media to create a cult of personality in Iraq, and who could show human emotions under conditions such as the death of his sons.

The show got me to wondering about the people with antisocial, psychopathic, dissocial, or sociopathic personality disorders. I spent some time on the Internet looking up these disorders, which was interesting. It lead me however to think about the way in which scientists develop taxonomies. That last topic seemed appropriate for this blog.

There is no universally agreed taxonomy for these disorders, although it is agreed that a small portion of the population, mostly men, share an inability to empathize with others and a tendency to immoral behavior, and yet are sufficiently adept to dissemble their oddity and to "make friends and influence people".

It appears that such people show up in the literature for a very long time, but professional psychiatrists have been studying them for only a few decades. It is the psychiatric literature that has developed the taxonomies of these disorders, based on behavioral manifestations.

If you think about a simple category, such as "chairs", it is clear that there are lots of different things that qualify. Some are large, some are small, some are wood, some plastic, etc. It is not always clear whether the category applies to a specific object. Is a three legged stool a chair? I have seen a 20 foot tall object in a chair shape which is placed as a scupture; is it a chair?

Three Loopita chairs (designer Victor Aleman) put together.

For psychologists it is important that the diagnostic category be such that there is clarity as to whether a person is or is not a psychopath, yet people differ greatly in their behavior. There is little wonder that it has been difficult to infer a set of categories for people with these characteristics based on observations of hundreds of patients, prisoners, and interviewees.

More recently there has been an effort to utilize brain and cognitive research in an effort to identify neurological correlates of the condition. These have included studies of brain chemistry, brain imaging, and latency of stimulus responses. It is assumed that there may be both a genetic predisposition and bases in childhood experiences that result in such a personality. I would suggest that differences in general intelligence and socio-economic status might lead to differences in the way the personality traits are manifested.

Socio-biology has led to the idea that sociopathic behavior may be a strategy for reproductive success, leading to genetic predisposition for such behavior in a small percentage of the population.

It interested me to find that the clinical classification is limited to adults. If you think about it, children tend to be more selfish, less able to make moral judgments, and less aware of the feelings of others than are normal adults. Sociopathology thus seems to me to be a kind of unsuccessful maturation.

All science begins in taxonomy, and it looks to me as if we are approaching a satisfactory set of classes to distinguish people who think and feel in the ways I have been describing. There is already an ability to distinguish between those who wind up committing serious crimes and those who can fit in normal society. Perhaps surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any effort to treat such people.

As an aside, thinking of Saddam, he lived through a time and in a place in which his behavior resulted in his obtaining dictatorial power over a reasonably large nation, having started as a would-be assassin. I suspect that Idi Amin found similar conducive circumstances to success in Uganda, and Hitler in Germany. It would seem wise to try to assure that social and economic circumstances don't favor the success of such people. The ones we know about rose to prominence in disordered societies with lots of internal conflict, poverty and confusion.

Did you Make the Connection

There are some 100,000 people who have had to evacuate their homes due to tidal flooding in the low lying islands of the Pacific this week. The tides have been exceptionally high.

The full moon last week was exceptionally bright.

The tides of course have been recognized since the time of Galileo as being caused by the gravitational attraction of the moon on the oceans. Gravitational force decreases as the square of the distance. The moon was bright because it was especially close to the earth, which in turn was why the tides were high. (Remember, orbits are not circular, and indeed are rather complicated when all the interactions of celestial bodies are taken into account.)

Of course, global warming will raise sea levels, and the tides are added to the sea level. So the abnormally high tides being experienced now are similar to the normal tides that the world will experience when more global warming has occurred and more ice has melted.