Monday, March 31, 2008

The Megatrends

I have been thinking about the major trends over recent decades and how they may work out in the 21st Century.

Mankind's Physical Power

World population has increased rapidly in the 20th century, and appears likely to increase for at least the next four decades. Per capita income and wealth on the average has also increase, implying that the infrastructure and physical plant at the service of man has also increased per capita. Technology has improved, mechanization has continued, and per capita energy consumption has increased, while we can now get more useful work per unit of energy consumed as the economy gets "lighter" and more efficient. The overall effect is that mankind not only has the power to destroy itself with an array of powerful weapons, but is inadvertently destroying the ozone layer of the planet, raising its temperature, and polluting its atmosphere, waters and land at unprecedented rates. The power of the species seems likely to continue to increase during the century.

Mankind's Intellectual Power

Again the population increase will continue for a couple of generations; more people more brainpower. People on the average are now more likely to achieve their genetically-endowed, physical intellectual potential. I suggest that people who are blind, deaf or dumb are handicapped in obtaining and/or communicating information; the rates of such handicaps are decreasing with improved living conditions and medical attention. We know that severe malnutrition and some diseases can diminish intellectual capacity, especially in the developmental stages of the growth of children. Such conditions are becoming less common in most of the world. Education has exploded in the last half century; not only is primary education coming close to being universal, but secondary education and tertiary education enrollments are increasing rapidly. Scientific production has produced more scientific knowledge in the second half of the 20th century than in all of previous history, and the rate of production of such knowledge has increased. These trends should all continue well into the 21st century.

The Information Revolution has taken place largely in the second half of the 20th century. The first modern computers were built during the World War II, and today there are more than a billion personal computers in the world. Each of these is many times the power of the early machines. If one adds to that the servers, routers, mainframes and supercomputers computing power has increased exponentially. Moreover, it is distributed in watches, transistor radios, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, home thermostatic control devices, and other appliances, not to mention computer controlled machines, satellites, robots, etc. In the 20th century we saw the development of broadcast radio, broadcast television and satellite broadcasting, not to mention CDs and DVDs. The amount of content distributed via such media in terms of hours per person per day, and the intensity of the impact of the content have both increased dramatically (as has the amount of content in print media). The communications infrastructure has become far more nearly global, and communications costs have decreased greatly. Digital information storage is becoming the medium of choice, and the Internet and World Wide Web have made information vastly more available to billions of people. Thus the information and communication technological revolution has vastly contributed to mankind's intellectual capacity over the past half century. That trend too seems likely to continue in the coming decades.

The Agenda of the Community of Nations

At the end of World War II, the "community of nations" that was formed for the creation of the United Nations and its system of organizations and the Bretton Woods organizations focused on the prevention of future World Wars (really European wars involving other regions), the reconstruction to repair the damage done during the World Wars), and the recovery of the national and international economic systems of the victor nations of World War II.

With decolonization, more nation states were added to the community of nations, and the building of the political, social and economic capacities of the newly decolonized nations became a priority. While there continued to be an emphasis on preventing or containing wars and building economies, more emphasis was placed on the reduction of poverty or at least its worst aspects.

In the later part of the century, as the degree to which environmental problems were emerging, concern for the global environment increased. Indeed, so too did concern for the preservation of world heritage. As the rates of social and economic change increased on a global scale, and as Western culture was more and more influential (because of improved transportation and communications and information services), so too did the concern for the ability of cultures to control their own destinies become more prevalent.

I would guess that the agenda of the community of nations will continue to include all of these elements over future decades, although their relative importance may change (e.g. concern for global environmental problems may increase as climate change becomes more notable and water shortages occur), but that new concerns may also arise and be added to the list.

So What?

Unfortunately, I am not sure that mankind as a whole has gained much in wisdom over the past decades, nor that it is likely to do so in the next few decades. To some degree, mankind is more able to utilize its physical and intellectual power to promote the general welfare. Life expectancy is improving and should continue to do so, and health on the average is also improving. Materials needs are being more fully met. But it is not clear that we are much more effective in forecasting upcoming problems and acting in a timely fashion to prevent their turning into catastrophies.

Monday, March 24, 2008

International R&D comparison

R&D is performed and funded primarily by a small number of developed nations.

  • In 2002 (the latest year of available data), global R&D expenditures totaled at least $813 billion, of which 45% was accounted for by the two largest countries in terms of R&D performance, the United States and Japan.
  • The R&D performance of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, which accounted for $657 billion in 2002, grew to $726 billion in 2004. The G-7 countries performed more than 83% of OECD R&D in 2004. Outside of the G-7 countries, South Korea is the only country that accounted for a substantial share of the OECD total.
  • More money was spent on R&D activities in the United States in 2004 than in the rest of the G-7 countries combined.
  • In 2004, Brazil performed an estimated $14 billion of R&D, and India performed an estimated $21 billion in 2000, making it the seventh largest country in terms of R&D in that year, ahead of South Korea.
  • China had the fourth largest expenditures on R&D in 2000 ($45 billion), which increased in 2005 to an estimated $115 billion. Given the lack of R&D-specific exchange rates, it is difficult to draw conclusions from these absolute R&D figures, but the country's nearly decade-long, steep ramp-up of R&D expenditures appears unprecedented in the recent past.

Reductions in R&D spending

The National Science Foundation has published Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. The data shows that the Bush administration has halted the long term trend of increased funding of U.S. government funding of science and technology.

Given the estimates of one to three trillion dollars spent on the wars in Iraq and Iran, and the weakening economy, reductions in government spending in other areas are to be expected. Of course, cutting back on science and technology spending will in the long run result in our nation being weaker than it otherwise would be, but that weakness is inherent in the waste of war.

However, it seems to me that we need a national debate on where to cut spending and where we must find the resources to continue investing in the future for our children and grandchildren. American families are now facing the reality that they may be better off not investing in mcmansions and SUVs, but that they need to save for their kid's college educations. Perhaps our legislators need to learn a similar lesson, and make the hard choices between feel good earmarks, tax policies motivated by short-term political interests, and long-long term investments needed to contribute to the long-term health of our economy.

Some Concepts Related to Decision Making

I heard someone talking yesterday about acceptance of ambiguity as a characteristic important in a person's decision making style. I don't recall having seen any research on the question, but it seems reasonable to me that the statement would be true.
1 a: doubtful or uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness
b: inexplicable
2: capable of being understood in two or more possible senses or ways
Merrium Webster Online Dictionary
Those who would fail to recognize alternative explanations for the data on which they were making decisions would be subject to some types of error that others more open to ambiguity might avoid. A willingness to be ambiguous in ones decisions also may have value; think of the importance to diplomacy of the effective use of ambiguity!

I also read recently a statement that seems especially wise. "The one lesson of history is that events often develop in ways other than those which had been expected by those who had planned them." Any reasonably good chess player knows that his opponent will not always move in the ways expected of him, and leaves room in his planning for responses to the unexpected. We talk about "fall-back" positions. Chess players run a continuing analysis considering moves ahead for themselves and their opponents, but continually updating the tree of alternative moves under consideration according to the moves already made (not to mention their knowledge of their opponents, and the circumstances of the game such as time pressure.)

It might also be worth noting the differences among decision making circumstances in which:
  • we know the range of alternatives and can estimate with relative accuracy their probabilities;
  • we know the range of alternatives but can not estimate the probabilities of occurrence of some or all of them; or
  • we are unable to fully characterize the range of alternatives.
It really doesn't matter much in most day to day decisions what we actually decide. Picking one item from a menu versus another, or one item of clothing versus a similar option doesn't warrant a lot of thought. In important decision making, however, a willingness to recognize ambiguity, human cognitive limitations, and uncertainty and ignorance would seem very important indeed!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

More about relgion, the brain, and culture

The other day I posted briefly about the efforts of scientists to understand how and why people are religious. I want to post a little more on that subject.

Scientists start from the assumption that there are physiological processes, based on our physiology and therefore on our genes and experiences, that explain how we think, believe and feel. Indeed, science has been remarkably successful in showing that there are causal relationships. Without certain brain structures and physiological processes, normal thinking and feeling fail to take place.

I defer to social scientists to define the range an nature of religious experiences. There are some obvious aspects One can not accept a body of religious beliefs without the ability to understand what is included in those beliefs. There are mystical experiences that must be explained. Our social instincts as a species must be related to our social participation in religious rituals. Our capacity for abstract thought must be involved in our ability to believe in insubstantial entities, be they gods, angels, demons, ghosts, or faries. So too, the functioning of our brains somehow allows moral concerns to be included as well as practical ones in our decision making, even when we are not able to fully articulate the nature of those moral concerns.

A question for evolutionary theorists and experiment is whether aspects of human religious behavior provide advantages in the natural selection process that result in people expressing those behaviors being more successful in reproducing their genes than people who do not so behave.

We know that there have been important changes in religious beliefs in the last couple of thousand years, and we believe that human evolutionary changes (in large populations) do not occur in so short a time. Thus we infer that there are cultural changes that explain these religious changes, although they must also be consistent with human genetic potential. We would not sing psalms in registers available to other species, nor create icons outside of our visual range even if they would be within the ranges of other species.

Clearly there is an opportunity for historians and social scientists to try to explain the processes by which cultures change religious beliefs. Some are obvious. Imperial powers have often imposed their religious beliefs on the peoples that they have conquered. Evangelical religions tend to expand their membership faster than do non-evangelical religions. The Shakers by prohibiting marriage and child bearing contributed to their own demise (although the celibate religious orders of the Catholic Church have remained alive for hundreds of years by recruiting new members.)

Perhaps a more interesting question is whether there has been a coevolution of cultural aspects of religion and the genetic factors that enable people to be religious over the past several tens of thousands of years. There have been many finds of cave paintings, burial practices, and carvings as well as personal ornaments which suggest religious or religious like practices tens of thousands of years ago -- long before any modern religions were developed. Did proto-religions co-evolve with the human capacities to be religious over the last few thousand years?

The question may not be a scientific one, in that I don't see any way to obtain data to illuminate its answer. (One might do something with computer simulation, perhaps to lend or subtract credibility from the possibility.)

Bush Administration Fails to Protect Endangered Species

Source: "Since '01, Guarding Species Is Harder: Endangered Listings Drop Under Bush" by Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, March 23, 2008.

Lead: "With little-noticed procedural and policy moves over several years, Bush administration officials have made it substantially more difficult to designate domestic animals and plants for protection under the Endangered Species Act."

"During Bush's more than seven years as president, his administration has placed 59 domestic species on the endangered list.....Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton added an average of 58 and 62 species to the list each year, respectively.

The Midieval Cities of Africa

I have been reading Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold by Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle. I quote at length from page 53:
Recent excavations have shown just how much the outside world has underestimated Ife; it was a commonplace of even recent historical writing to assume that equatorial Africa never developed cities or major monuments of any kind. This has now proved to be spectacularly wrong. For example, one site is Igbo Ukwa, a royal burial place in which massive quantities of manufactured goods have been found, including many that came from the Mediterranean and even from India via Gao-Kukiya. Ife-Ife itself, the capital city, was surrounded by a ring wall forty feet high and twenty-five models in circuit, and that wasn't the only one or even the biggest: Africa's largest single monument is a sixty-five-foot high wall with a moat sixteen to twenty-three feet wide that surrounded the city of Ijebu, the wall measuring an astounding one hundred miles in circomference.
Comment: I had no idea that such cities existed in Africa in the past. If the authors are right, a lot of history and geography texts should be revised, and soon! JAD

Incidentally, read an article by the same authors about Timbuktu in a recent Natural History magazine.

More about Israel and Palestine

I want to follow up on my last posting, and the comment by Dima.

I wonder whether peace and prosperity are not necessary conditions for developing and maintaining the strong ethical health of a people.

I am concerned about the moral effect of the long running conflict on the people of Israel. All Israelis go into the army, and are trained not only to defend Israel against foreign aggression, but to carry out the duties of an occupying military force. Indeed, they all continue to serve in the military, and most apparently spend time in the occupation forces facing angry and dissatisfied Palestinians and enforcing the rules that those Palestinians dislike so much. The people whose recent ancestors escaped from European ghettos are now keeping Palestinians walled in. The schools in Israel must produce children ready to live and serve in this system. The citizens of Israel live with the knowledge that their government has for generations defied international law, and either are fully aware of the suffering of Palestinians or are willing to live in ignorance of that suffering.

I am concerned with the moral effect of the long running conflict on the Palestinian people. Millions of them continue to live in refugee camps, in conditions which can not be conducive to the moral growth of the majority. Hatred not of injustice, but of those judged guilty of unjust behavior appears to characterize many Palestinians. Many Palestinians are willing to kill innocent Israelis, many more must support the militants, and still more are unable to find policy alternatives to terrorism that they are willing to support. Schools are a mess, and kids are being educated by teachers who have themselves suffered from injustice for decades. While a moral giant, such as Ghandi, can occasionally emerge from a poor, dispirited, subject people it seems to me more likely that those conditions are more likely to be conducive to the production of criminals and immorality. (Indeed, Ghandi was himself the product of a high status family who was educated to become a lawyer.)

Europeans fought war after war for generation after generation, but now seem to have found a way to live together in peace, perhaps as a result of their prosperity. Canadians, Americans, and Australians seem to be learning to live peacefully in multi-ethnic societies, and their immigrant populations to live in peace with the remnants of their indigenous peoples. I hope that such examples can continue to exist and to proliferate. The Irish or Balkans experiences suggest, however, that peoples can continue to hate each other for centuries, continuing internecine violence for extremely long periods of time. I hope that Israelis and Palestinians can avoid that fate, and that the peoples of the United States and other countries can encourage and help them to do so.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Interesting Book on the Israeli-Palestinian Situation

No Man's Land: Dispatches from the Middle East

I just read No Man's Land: Despatches from the Middle East by Richard Crowley. Crowley has been a correspondent for RTE, the Irish broadcast network, covering Israel and Palestine since 2001. He writes well, and provides details from many interviews in the book.

He notes that Ireland, and perhaps the Irish Catholics especially, tends to be sympathetic to the Palestinians. He attributes this sympathy to the Irish Catholic experience of 800 years of occupation by the English, giving them a deep understanding of the experience of an occupied people. I found Crowley's book to be much more sympathetic to the Palestinians than I am used to in the U.S. press.

He presents a sad picture of Palestinians living in an economy broken by their Israeli masters, subject to daily indignities by occupying forces, and subject of violence which targets those believed by Israelis to be leaders of the terrorism as well as collateral damage of innocent people killed and wounded in Israeli attacks.

Crowley suggests that the Israeli policies are succeeding in driving most Christians out of the Israeli controlled areas, in part because most Christians there are also Arabs. He is worried about Israeli actions that would diminish the quality of Christian religious experience in the Holy Land, such as the plan to create a path around the Sea of Galilee to make it more attractive to vacationing Jews.

I came away from the book feeling that the factions of Israeli society who don't want peace, but rather want to absorb all of the territory of anccient Israel into the modern state of Israel, are winning. Crowley cites there being 250,000 Israelis in West Bank settlements, and 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The 78 percent of the original Palestine that Israel now claims, is being expanded by continuing settlements in the occupied territories not to mention the annexation of East Jerusalem against the requirements of international law, and the land blocked off from Palestinian control by the wall. These folk take the long view, and can look back on a process of greater and greater control of the ancient lands over my lifetime. Why should they accept a Palestinian state? How can the Israeli Left and Center make peace without them?

Thoughts: Evolution, Mathematics, Religion

Warren McCulloch many years ago published an essay entitled "What is a Number, that a Man May Know It, and a Man that He May Know a Number?" McCulloch described himself as an experimental epistemologist, and was one of the pioneers of the scientific effort to understand how the brain actually performs the functions of thinking. His thinking about the interrelationship of numbers and biology was helpful to him in leading to fruitful realms of research and analysis.

As an aside, the current Economist has an article titled "Mathematics: Let's talk about figures." It makes the basic point that numeracy is increasingly important as we move towards a knowledge economy, and the numbers of numerate people and people trained in the mathematically based professions are increasingly important indicators of technological and innovation capacity.

Unfortunately. the article tends to lump all the quantitative field under the term "arithmetic". It is important that people understand arithmetic, and can add and subtract, multiply and divide in their everyday life. It is perhaps less important now, with calculators and computers that people know how to calculate manually than it once was.

However, there are also fundamental requirements that people have skills in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, and numerical analysis. There are different requirements for literacy in each of these fields for the citizen in his various roles, as well as in the different professions.

The Economist also has an article titled "The science of religion: Where angels no longer fear to tread" about the scientists who are seeking to understand the neurophysiology of religious experience and the ways in which religion may be the basis of competitive advantage in the evolutionary process of natural selection.

It seems to me that, in analogy to the McColloch questions, we may ask, "What is man that he may be relgious, what is religion that a society may value it?" Has religious capacity in man evolved simply as a side effect of other capabilities that provide evolutionary advantage (e.g. language capacity) or has it evolved because of the advantages conferred by religious practice itself? How are the evolution of our species as a social species related to our evolution as individuals capable of religious experience?

Obviously, while religious practice seems to be all but universal in human societies, the specific nature of that practice is culturally specific. It is clear that the Europeans tend to be Christians, Arabs tend to be Muslims, Hindus tend to be Indian, etc. Thus different cultures have developed different religions, all responding to the same or similar collections of religious capabilities in their members.

It seems likely that over tens of thousands of years, man's religious capacity and societies religious institutions may have co-evolved. How does that happen?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Bush Administration Strikes Twice in the Same Place

"EPA Tightens Pollution Standards: But Agency Ignored Advisers' Guidance," Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, March 13, 2008.
Nearly a year ago, EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee reiterated in writing that its members were "unanimous in recommending" that the agency set the standard no higher than 70 parts per billion (ppb) and to consider a limit as low as 60 ppb. EPA's Children's Health Protection Advisory Committee and public health advocates lobbied for the 60-ppb limit because children are more vulnerable to air pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday limited the allowable amount of pollution-forming ozone in the air to 75 parts per billion, a level significantly higher than what the agency's scientific advisers had urged for this key component of unhealthy air pollution.

EPA and other scientists have shown that ozone has a direct impact on rates of heart and respiratory disease and resulting premature deaths. The agency calculates that the new standard of 75 ppb would prevent 1,300 to 3,500 premature deaths a year, whereas 65 ppb would avoid 3,000 to 9,200 deaths annually.

A slew of industries had recently urged White House officials to keep the current limit, effectively 84 ppb, to minimize the cost of installing pollution controls. The EPA estimated that it will cost polluting industries $7.6 billion to $8.8 billion a year to meet the 75-ppb standard, but that rule will yield $2 billion to $19 billion in health benefits.

The rule's preamble indicates Bush settled the dispute March 11, saying the president concluded the secondary standard should be set "to be identical to the new primary standard, the approach adopted when ozone standards were last promulgated."
"Government Suspends Lending for Coal Plants: Risks Cited To Economy, Environment," Steven Mufson, The Washington Post, March 13, 2008.
The Agriculture Department has suspended a low-interest lending program for rural electric cooperatives seeking federal assistance to build new coal-fired power plants, the department's Rural Utilities Service said in a letter to a congressional committee.....

The RUS said it does not expect to make any loans during fiscal 2008 or 2009, by which time a new administration and Congress might revise guidelines for rural energy lending and climate change.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Pork versus Science

According to the Washington Post, John McCain tends to complain about strong science projects with important implications as he justly complains about unwarranted pork barrel legislation. He of course goes on to vote for the bills including the pork barrel legislation. Some quotes:
If you've heard Sen. John McCain's stump speech, you've surely heard him talk about grizzly bears. The federal government, he declares with horror and astonishment, has spent $3 million to study grizzly bear DNA. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," he jokes, "but it was a waste of money."....

Actually, it was a scientific and logistical triumph, argues Katherine Kendall, 56, mastermind of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project.....

Kendall, on orders from her superiors, will not directly respond to McCain ("I really can't wade into that"), but she clearly doesn't find his jibes amusing, much less accurate. The truth is, her project is focused not on the DNA of grizzly bears, but on counting them.

As a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, she set out to get the first head count of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. She and her co-workers at the USGS have used DNA primarily as a bear-identifying tool. Her project also employed barbed wire and homemade bear bait brewed up from rotten fish and cattle blood.

"There's never been any information about the status of this population. We didn't know what was going on -- until this study," Kendall said.

This was an astonishingly ambitious research project involving 207 paid workers, hundreds of volunteers, 7.8 million acres and 2,560 bear sampling sites. The project did not cost $3 million, as McCain's ad alleges, but more than $5 million, including nearly $4.8 million in congressional appropriations. It had a strong advocate in Congress in Montana's three-term senator, Conrad Burns, a Republican who was defeated in his reelection bid in 2006.....

Grizzly bears in northwest Montana are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But Kendall's project -- the results of which will be published soon in a scientific journal -- revealed that there are more grizzlies than anyone had realized. That suggests that three decades of conservation efforts, costing tens of millions of dollars, have paid off.

This could have long-term implications for the Northern Divide grizzlies, possibly including their removal someday from the threatened list. Delisting them would restore management of the bears to state control after decades of federal oversight.

"It was extremely well executed and well worth the money," said Sterling Miller, a bear researcher working for the National Wildlife Federation. "Someone like McCain should be delighted, in fact. The Endangered Species Act works.".....

The project found a powerful ally in Burns, who chaired the subcommittee overseeing the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey. Burns, Kendall said, added $1 million to the USGS budget in 2003 and pushed through add-ons for the next four years.

That got the attention of McCain, who every year puts out a list of what he considers egregious or laughable pork-barrel projects. He has gone after wasteful military projects and corporate tax breaks, but for rhetorical purposes he's shown a fondness for mocking money spent on dubious-sounding projects involving plants and animals......

He has criticized the $2 million spent on Oregon's Groundfish Disaster Outreach Program, the $280,000 spent on asparagus technology in Washington state, the $600,000 for peanut research in Alabama.

"One of our all-time favorites, made famous a number of years ago, is money that was spent to study the effect on the ozone layer of flatulence in cows," McCain said in 2003.......

For McCain, bears have been, like cows and peanuts and asparagus, good material.
Comment: Let us not trade the Bush science policy for an equally bad policy in the future administration. JAD

Encourage Congress to Restore US Foreign Aid Funding Cuts

The Senate is considering a $4 billion cut from the president's 2009 international affairs budget, which provides most of the poverty-fighting funding in the U.S. budget. This would be a devastating cut to the millions of people working their way out of extreme poverty with America's help.

ONE, a non-profit that seeks to fight global poverty, is seeking online signatures for a petition to encourage Congress to restore the funds that have been cut in the drafting of the bill.


I caught a late night news program on BBC International that described a worsening security situation in Darfur, with the forces of genocide visible in the streets, and aid workers afraid during the day and limited to their compounds at night by a curfew. There was concern that the international peace keepers, who were hoped to be able to provide more security although they are few and Darfur is big, might out-compete the aid agencies for the few resources available to help outsiders in the region.

China seems finally to be weighing in with the international community to stop the genocide. Still, we should keep up the pressure on China, and be prepared to boycott the Olympics if China does not do more.

Incidentally, Tibetan exiles in India are beginning a march to the Tibetan border, using the beginning of the Olympics to gain world attention to their protest against Chinese policies in Tibet.

Madagascar: Cyclone Ivan and TS Jowke

The death toll in Madagascar from last month's Cyclone Ivan has risen to 93 people, while the total number of homeless is 332,391, a statement from the National Office for Disaster and Risk Management said. According to Reuters:
A tropical storm, Jokwe, hit briefly the north of the island on Wednesday, destroying 44 houses. The season's first cyclone, Cyclone Fame, killed at least 13 people.

Scientists say rising sea temperatures linked to climate change are likely to increase the frequency and intensity of cyclones in the tropics over the coming decades, and some suspect they have already.

Six cyclones struck Madagascar last year, killing at least a 150 people and destroying homes and crops in the island's worst season on record.
Comment: Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed U.S. capacity to respond and help our citizens. I hope the donor community can help poor Madagascar to deal with this years cyclones! JAD

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Semantha Power has resigned from the Obama campaign staff following a European newspaper publishing her offhand and off-the-record remark about Hillary Clinton. The Washington Post today has an article about an American university closing down the exhibition of an artists production which involved projection of a controversial video game on Iraq; the institute reportedly wanted time to review the show's "origin, content and intent.

Thinking about these, it seems to me that Semantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize winning author affiliated with Harvard University can speak our more forcefully for Obama as a private citizen than as a staffer. She clearly did the right thing in stepping down from the campaign rather than run the risk of embarrassing her candidate, especially since doing so is likely to make her more effective in his support.

The university certainly should have decided before starting its exhibition as to whether it chose to exhibit the work. Inviting an artist to exhibit and then closing after one showing is not fair to the artist. Universities, especially private universities, have not only the right but the duty to screen the exhibits that they provide. They have the right to define their own screening criteria. Fortunately we have to freedom to avoid or ignore those universities that choose not to exhibit high-quality, thought-provoking materials on the sole basis that they are deemed too controversial by university bureaucrats.

I am far more concerned with political appointees that try to keep public servants from providing the public with information from publicly funded research and analysis because the politicians don't like the information. Of course, the protection of freedom of speech in the United States is much greater than in many other countries, and of course we need to continue to fight for that freedom if we want to continue to have a strong democracy.

i am, however, worried more about the protection of other human rights in this country than for protection of freedom of speech. The social and economic rights of too many people are endangered, and the prison population suggests we need to spend more effort protecting freedom from unreasonable incarceration.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Solar Thermo Power Generation

Source: "The Energy Challenge: Turning Glare Into Watts," by MATTHEW L. WALD, The New York Times, March 6, 2008.

The workability of solar thermal power was established in the 1980s, when developers in California built a series of plants in the Mojave Desert, eventually reaching 354 megawatts of capacity. A megawatt is enough electricity to run 1,000 room air-conditioners at once.

The California plants grew more sophisticated and costs shrank as the project progressed. But then the price of a competing fuel, natural gas, collapsed in the 1990s and building new solar plants became uneconomic.

Today, natural gas prices are much higher, and political opposition is rising to construction of new coal-burning power plants. Many states, including California, are imposing mandates for renewable energy. All of that is reviving interest in solar thermal plants.
After a decade of no activity, two prototype solar thermal plants were recently opened in the United States, with a capacity that could power several big hotels, neon included, on the Las Vegas Strip.......Another 10 power plants are in advanced planning in California, Arizona and Nevada.

On sunny afternoons, those 10 plants would produce as much electricity as three nuclear reactors, but they can be built in as little as two years, compared with a decade or longer for a nuclear plant. Some of the new plants will feature systems that allow them to store heat and generate electricity for hours after sunset.

Aside from the ones in the United States, eight plants are under construction in Spain, Algeria and Morocco. Another nine projects are in various stages of planning in those countries as well as Israel, Mexico, China, South Africa and Egypt, according to a count kept by Frederick H. Morse, formerly in charge of solar energy at the Energy Department and now a consultant.

Information About the Election Results

The press seems to be playing the results of Tuesday's primaries as a big win for Hillary Clinton. What really happened. According to the New York Times, she picked up nine delegates in Ohio, five in Rhode island, and four in Texas, but lost three in Vermont, for a total gain of 15 delegates out of 311 at stake in the four states. Both the Obama and Clinton campaigns have Obama about 150 delegates ahead at this point. It seems very unlikely that either candidate will get enough delegates in the remaining 12 primaries to win the nomination with pledged delegates on the first ballot, so that the superdelegates will probably decide the nomination.

While I am at it, Bill Clinton, born on August 19, 1946, was the third youngest man to become president after Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy. When he assumed office in January 1993 he was 46 years old, former governor of Arkansas -- one of the smaller and more backward states. Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961. If elected he will be 47 years old when he assumes office in 2009. He is a senator from a large and influential state who has been a major figure in the Democratic party since he made the keynote address in the 2004 national convention. (Read Paul Jenkins in The Huffington Post on the comparison of Bill Clinton's qualifications in 1992 and Barack Obama's in 2008, and the oddity of Hillary Clinton's sudden enthusiasm for age and experience.) It might be that a man who has the talent and charisma to rise to the presidency in his mid 40's is likely to be a better than average president. And indeed, were Hillary Clinton to wait her turn, in eight years she would be three years younger than John McCain is now; not only do women live longer on average than do men, but McCain bears the physical disabilities inflicted by his war wounds and torture.

It seems to me that the presidency of the United States is too important an office to decide on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or arguments of whose turn is next. Especially at this time -- with two ongoing occupations against insurgencies, terrorists in the wings, a failing economy, a weakened military, and a discredited cadre of national politicians added to our preexisting problems of education and health care services -- let us elect the person we think can do the best job leading the nation!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Law of the Sea Treaty

Remarks on the Law of the Sea Treaty by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) during a speech to the Garden Club of America on February 27th:

“In particular, I would like to take a few minutes to thank you for your advocacy on behalf of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Ratification of this treaty is vital to U.S. leadership in ocean policy. It has the support of the President, his Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Commission on Oceans Policy, every major ocean industry, and a broad coalition of environmental groups.

“Virtually the entire world has ratified the Law of the Sea Convention, which now serves as the accepted international basis for ocean laws and practices. The United States faces intensifying environmental, national security and economic costs if we continue to absent ourselves from the Law of the Sea. If we fail to ratify this treaty, we are allowing decisions that will affect our Navy, our ship operators, our off-shore industries, and other maritime interests to be made without U.S. representation. Our ability to claim exclusive right to our vast extended continental shelf will be seriously impeded, as will our ability to cooperate with other nations on ocean conservation issues. We will also be forced to rely on other nations to oppose excessive claims to Arctic territory by Russia and perhaps others. We will be dismissing more than a decade of impassioned advocacy from fleet commanders who have told us that U.S. participation in the Treaty will help them operate on the oceans more effectively and with less risk to the men and women they command. And we will not even be able to participate in the amendment process to this treaty, which is far more likely to impose new requirements on our Navy and ocean interests if the U.S. is absent from negotiations.

“Late last year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Law of the Sea Treaty by a bipartisan 17-4 vote. The treaty was also passed by the Committee in 2003. A Senate Floor vote on the Convention, thus far, has been blocked. Nevertheless, the issue awaits action by the full Senate, and I am hopeful that we will soon have the chance to vote on it.”

Comment: Right on, Senator Luger. It now time for the United States to ratify the treaty. This should not require extensive debate in the Congress, so lets see it done right away! JAD

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"U.N. Human Rights Chief to Leave Post"

Subtitle: "High Commissioner Has Frequently Clashed With Bush Administration"

This article by Colum Lynch in The Washington Post of March 3, 2008 says that people close to Canadian jurist Louise Arbour is soon going to step down from her post as U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Arbour has apparently been controversial, including with the Buah administration.
In an interview Friday, she said the U.S.-led counterterrorism struggle has set back the cause of human rights by "decades" and has exacerbated a "profound divide" between the United States, its Western allies and the developing world. "The war on terror has inflicted a very serious setback for the international human rights agenda," she said.

Kristen Silverberg, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, said it is "wrongheaded to suggest" that the campaign against terrorism is the critical human rights issue of the times. "We would like to see the high commissioner focus more of her attention and criticism on totalitarian and abusive governments," she said.
Arbour describes herself as taking different approaches with different countries, seeking the approach with each that would have the greatest effect on improving recognintion of human rights. That sounds like a reasonable approach, although it does result in apparent inconsistency with worse human rights abusers in some cases less criticized in public than countries with good human rights records.

I think the United States should lead the world in respect for human rights and in global efforts to secure these rights for people everywhere. It has done so for many decades. Criticism for any abandonment of that leadership both from within the United States and from our allies in the fight for human rights is in my opinion fully justified.

Ms Silverberg is of course doing her job of defending the administration which she serves as best she can. Still, it is no wonder that those fighting for the recognition of human rights are distressed by the Bush administration which is brought us the conditions that allowed Abu Ghraib, which used waterboarding, which is convicted of extraordinary rendition and which lied about doing so in lands belonging to the United Kingdom, which refused to prosecute people cited for contempt of Congress for themselves refusing to answer to Congressional oversight, and which is now negotiating for amnesty for corporate executives thought to have helped it in illegally spying on Americans. Indeed, the United States can be criticized on human rights issues in the failure of the Bush administration to adequately help the majority minority populations affected by Hurricane Katrina, for the excessive numbers of people in our prisons (who disproportionately come from minorities), for our system which allows many poor to be outside our health insurance system, and for an education system which denies equal access to education to far too many kids who have the misfortune to live in school districts too cheap to offer them competitive schools.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

"US diplomats 'should pay more attention to science'"

David Dickson paid me the honor of consulting me on this story in SciDev.Net ( 29 February 2008) and quoting me in part. The article was occasioned by a recommendations of the Secretary of State's Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy. Their report made a number of good suggestions, including increasing the scientific literacy of diplomats and using information and communications technology to transform the practice of diplomacy.

For many years the State Department recruited generalists for their scientific and technological posts. I recall vividly several decades ago when the Assistant Secretary in charge of the scientific attaches said in an important public meeting that she hoped that her science attaches could read one or two articles in the average Scientific American. In today's world, that simply is not good enough.

I have known some of the science attaches over the years. All those I knew worked hard at their jobs, and some helped me a lot in mine. Some were wonderfully qualified, combining scientific credentials with those of a diplomat and administrator; some were not so qualified.

I understand that with the appointments of the science advisors to the Secretary of State, and their wise policy of enhancing the program of rotation of scientists in State Department posts, the situation has improved. Certainly I have enjoyed contacts with the advisors working on the science programs of UNESCO in the last couple of years!

Still, I think most of the economic officers and many of the officers responsible for counsulary services (who give visas to students, scientists and business people to come to the United States) should have some understanding of science and technology and their increasing importance in the 21st century.

We know that there are phases of development of e-government, culminating in the transformation of organizatons and their way of doing business. The State Department has been notorious for its lagging acceptance of technology, and seems to be stuck in the earliest phase of development of its e-government approaches, simply posting information on the Internet. The lives of diplomats could be improved, the services to the public made more efficient and available, and the reporting and representation services of State made more accurate and timely by the appropriate application of technology.

Why Do We Want an Eloquent President

Michael Kazin has an op-ed piece in The Washington Post today suggesting from historical evidence that Barack Obama's eloquence is indeed an important asset not only for the Obama candidacy, but also for an Obama presidency. He notes that presidents like Roosevelt and Reagan who were great speakers were able to use their ability to change the accepted wisdom of the American polity.

I feel he is right in his conclusion, but that it might be worth thinking through the idea a little more. Certainly, if I had to choose between a president who sounded good and didn't do good, and a president who didn't sound good but did good, I would choose the former. But Kazin is focusing on president's who faced great challenges, and who saw the country emerge successful from those challenges. (I think Obama will, assuming he is elected, face great challenges, and that the country will emerge from its current troubles in good shape.)

As the chief executive, it falls upon the president to head a huge team of political officials who together manage the bureaucracy to accomplish the program approved and budgeted by the Congress. There are thousands of people involved, not to mention the career government employees. It is critically important that these people understand the policies of the administration and that they are motivated to carry them out. Eloquence in the CEO helps communicate and motivate.

A president needs the people of the nation to be behind him if he is to succeed in his programs. There needs to be a social construction of knowledge of the problems faced by the country, the program needed to overcome those problems, and indeed on the appropriateness of the current administration to carry out that program. The president has the "bully pulpit" to catalyze the process by which the public construes the situation and its resolution, and thus eloquence counts here too.

The president needs the support of the Congress, at least to the degree necessary to pass into law the legislation needed for his program and to appropriate the resources it requires. Having the eloquence to help his party's candidates gain and keep Congressional offices helps. So do does it help to have the eloquence to encourage the public to call on the Congress to support his program,

Unless you have seen the impact of the West Wing of the White House on otherwise obstreperous people, you can not fully appreciate the degree to which the ability of the person holding the office to utilize its prestige counts. (That is one of the most indelible impressions I hold from my year as a special assistant to a special assistant in the WH.) Here too, even in the wrestling with individuals and small groups of Congressmen and other influentials, eloquence counts.

Perhaps "charisma" is a better term for the useful facility in a president than "eloquence". Both charisma and eloquence take different forms, and both are more easily recognized where they occur than defined. Reagan played the common man role with quiet expertise, quite different than Roosevelt or Kennedy played their roles of American aristocrats with a common touch. But the Democrats were also extremely effective. In any case, Obama seems to have both charisma and eloquence in abundance!

"Bush Moves to Shield Telecommunications Firms"

Source: Dan Eggen and Ellen Nakashima, The Washington Post, March 2, 2008.

"President Bush said last week that telecommunications companies that helped government wiretapping efforts need protection from 'class-action plaintiff attorneys' who see a 'financial gravy train' ahead. Democrats and privacy groups responded by accusing the Bush administration of trying to shut down the lawsuits to hide evidence of illegal acts.

"But in the bitter Washington dispute over whether to give the companies legal immunity, there is one thing on which both sides agree: If the lawsuits go forward, sensitive details about the scope and methods of the Bush administration's surveillance efforts could be divulged for the first time.

"Nearly 40 lawsuits, consolidated into five groups, are pending before a San Francisco judge. The various plaintiffs, a mix of nonprofit civil liberties advocates and private attorneys, are seeking to prove that the Bush administration engaged in illegal massive surveillance of Americans' e-mails and phone calls after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and to show that major phone companies illegally aided the surveillance, including the disclosure of customers' call records."

Comment: If the telecom companies appear to have broken the law, they ought to be prosecuted. If they broke the law having their (metaphorical) arms twisted by the Bush administration, then perhaps Bush should pardon them before he leaves office. If they are convicted and not pardoned, the pressures put on them to break the law should be taken into account in sentencing. We either support the rule of law, or we do not!

Even if the case is weak, the leverage it provides should be used in a legal process to discover what the Bush administration did and seems to be covering up. If we live under a rule of law, then everyone should be held accountable for obeying the law, no matter what the reasons that one might seek to disobey the law!

The Three Trillion Dollar War

Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes have published a book titled The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize winning economist who was formerly the chief economist of the World Bank.

I quote extensively from an article the two authors published in The Times (UK) last week:
The cost of direct US military operations - not even including long-term costs such as taking care of wounded veterans - already exceeds the cost of the 12-year war in Vietnam and is more than double the cost of the Korean War.

And, even in the best case scenario, these costs are projected to be almost ten times the cost of the first Gulf War, almost a third more than the cost of the Vietnam War, and twice that of the First World War. The only war in our history which cost more was the Second World War, when 16.3 million U.S. troops fought in a campaign lasting four years, at a total cost (in 2007 dollars, after adjusting for inflation) of about $5 trillion.......

On the eve of war, there were discussions of the likely costs. Larry Lindsey, President Bush's economic adviser and head of the National Economic Council, suggested that they might reach $200 billion. But this estimate was dismissed as “baloney” by the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. His deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, suggested that postwar reconstruction could pay for itself through increased oil revenues. Mitch Daniels, the Office of Management and Budget director, and Secretary Rumsfeld estimated the costs in the range of $50 to $60 billion, a portion of which they believed would be financed by other countries. (Adjusting for inflation, in 2007 dollars, they were projecting costs of between $57 and $69 billion.) The tone of the entire administration was cavalier, as if the sums involved were minimal.
Comment: Americans have not yet begun to pay the costs of the wars, and so we don't really understand how devastating they are and will be. The cost will be measured in the things we can't provide our citizens (such as universal health care) and the investments we can not make (such as fully funding the efforts to increase and protect the innovation capacity of the American economy or the rebuilding of our failing infrastructure.) A recent Foreign Policy article recounts the opinion of thousands of military officers that the United States military is stretched perilously thin and is unprepared to fight the next fight (which will surely come).

Stiglitz and Brimes note also the price of the war to the United Kingdom in the Times article, and of course other countries in the Alliance had their own costs.

I continue to feel that as huge as the costs of the wars have been to the United States, our major concern should be with the costs to the Iraqis and Afghanis and other peoples affected by our invasions and occupations. Since the rationale for the invasions has been proven to be wrong, and since even if it were correct the vast majority of the suffering people had no responsibility for the conflict, our responsibility seems especially grave.

President Bush should recognize that history will judge that a part of the cost of these wars is the increased insecurity of the United States in future years! A weak economy and a weak military are not good for security in the world we face. JAD

The Bush Administration Versus the Black-Footed Ferrit

CNN's Broken Government aired a program titled "Scorched Earth" which included a section on the problems that the Fish and Wildlife Service is having protecting the Black Footed Ferret population against ranchers supported by the Forest Service under Mark Rey. The ferret program has succeeded in bringing the numbers of the cute little guys back to a few thousand, but the Forest Service is working to destroy part of the most important ecosystem in which they are being reestablished in the wild.

The Undercover Activist Blog has a useful posting focusing on the departure of Mike Lockhart from his job protecting the ferrets, with a link to has sad memo protesting the political hamstringing of the FWS program.

I also suggest that you read Source Watch's article on Mark Rey, the former industrial lobbyist and Republican Congressional Staffer (who reputedly used that position to continue his fight to gut environmental laws) who is the Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment of the Department of Agriculture. I kid you not! The Bush administration put the fox in charge of protecting the hen house (or in this case the voice of the anti-environmentalists in charge of protecting the prairie dogs and ferrets). Rey was interviewed by the CNN program, and came off as badly as usual.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

"The brain drain"

Source: The Economist, February 28th 2008.

Immigrants to OECD countries are on the average better educated than the natives of those countries, but have more difficulty finding jobs requiring the levels of education that they have achieved.

The OECD has just begun a thematic review of Migrant Education.

World Patent Filing

One should use care in interpreting these figures. The major element here is that the United States with about one-quarter of the World's GDP accounts for just over one-third of patent applications.

It seems to me that a fair comparison for Switzerland would not be the United States as a whole, but a relatively high technology area within the United States with a comparable size economy and a similar role in the American economy that Switzerland plays in the European economy. Thus Switzerland might be compared to New England or Washington state.

Companies do not go to the trouble and expense of obtaining patents unless they think they will make money by doing so. Unless a company has the ability to commercialize a technology, either through its own production or by licensing the rights, then it should not patent that technology. Many companies in the world don't have the ability to take advantage of patent protection in the large markets that would allow them to profit. Indeed, even if they could produce for the American or European market, they could not detect patent infringement or take the needed legal action to stop it if it occurred. So they do not seek patents.

Further, if a company knows in advance that it has little ability to take advantage of invention through intellectual property rights protection, it is very unlikely to spend its time and resources to invent.