Saturday, May 31, 2008

Social Networking, Date Mining, and Criminal Investigation

I have been wondering about the applications of social networking and data mining to the investigation of crimes on the local level. I think a lot of the drug trade takes place over cell phones, and the records of cell phone calls can be subpoenaed. I would guess that the networks involved are strongly hierarchical, with the final sale of the drug to the consumer often being done as the result of a phone call, and that "retail" dealer in turn buying his supplies via phone calls. I suppose that volume dealers sell to many "retail" dealers, and in turn buy from dealers who control even larger volumes. This would seem to be a structure that would be natural for data mining of phone records.

Gangs of young men might also be studied using similar approaches. I suppose that these young men not only use cell phones but also use social networking sites. They must sometimes use the phone in the process of conspiring to commit a crime, and thus making their phone records available to the police via subpeonas. Social network analysis should be able with data mined from phone records and social networking sites to implicate other members in the gangs, and even to identify the gang leadership and contacts among local gangs.

The techniques have been described as developed by intelligence services for the study of international terrorist organizations. I wonder, however, whether they are being used sufficiently widely by local police. The skills involved in doing the mining and analysis should be widely available in colleges and universities, but we might not hear much about them. They are likely to be more important as tools of investigation rather than as proofs of criminal activity. Moreover, they are tools that would be more effective if not widely appreciated by their subjects.

Scott McClellan and Social Network Analysis

Last Monday, the Washington Post had an article on social network analysis. The article made the point, using an analysis of smoking patterns based on the Framingham epidemiological study, that the behavior of one's social network are sometimes more predictive of one's own decisions than are one's own reported attitudes.

Scott McClellan was a deputy Press Secretary in the White House early in this administration. His social network at the time would have been the inner circle of the Bush administration, and they would have been likely to share a number of attitudes. It would not be surprising if McClellan absorbed the positions of those associates. This is especially true since he was a relatively low ranking person among the holders of the most important political offices in the nation, and indeed possibly in the world. I was amazed when I worked in the White House at the impact that the prestige of the offices had on my opinions and those of others.

I also note that acting for the Office of the Press Secretary, his responsibility was to represent the positions of the administration, not to make public his own opinions. (And indeed, I suspect that the higher ranking members of the administration would not have been much interested in Mr. McClellan's opinions, had he tried to express them within the administration.) It must be almost impossible to effectively represent opinions of those one serves and respects as a full time job, while maintaining separate, independent opinions one can not share.

Mr. McClellan has now had several years working on his memoir of his time in office. He of course has learned, as have we all, a great deal more about the results of the positions he defended in the early years of the decade. I suppose that when he left the White House he broke contact with the White House network, and he must have formed new network connections with his editor and others as he wrote and prepared his book for publication. So I wonder how much of his change in public statements of his opinions can be attributed to:
  • actual learning on his part, especially learning due to new analysis of the situation,
  • substitution of the opinions of the members of his new network for those of his former (White House) network members.
  • desire to sell a lot of books.
Since McClellan is a skilled journalist, who has in the past made money in service to the representation of views he did not necessarily share, this latter possibility can not be totally rejected.

David Brooks, commenting on McClellan's book, argued that the Bush administration had relatively few members who were capable of developing thoughtful, analytical positions on foreign policy, and of forcefully arguing those positions in the internal forums of the White House. Indeed, he suggests that this administration has failed to conduct detailed debates on critically important foreign policy issues before taking important decisions.

If we accept the concept that there is a social construction of knowledge and understanding even in the White House, then it would seem fundamental that that social process include informed and thoughtful individuals who forcefully argue their alternative views of the issues and their alternative proposals for action. One can only hope that Brooks is wrong about the Bush administration, and more importantly, that future administrations will utilize strong procedures for the construction of their positions and decisions.

Lost Crops of Africa

Friends and colleagues at the National Academy of Sciences have produced a long series of monographs on underexploited technologies with potential economic value for developing nations. Under the leadership of Noel Vietmeyer and Mark Dafforn, the series explored plant and animal species and varieties that might be used to greater advantage if further developed and more widely exploited. I note especially the three volumes on Lost Crops of Africa:

The Rosy Image in the Retrospectoscope

I saw two experts on TV yesterday talking about their experiences in Iraq. Paul Bremmer appears still proud of the accomplishments of his staff when he directed the Coalition Transition Authority. He made me realize that some of those staff members indeed deserve the greatest admiration. The effort to replace the prewar currency with new dinardenominated currency, for example, was an enormous undertaking and its completion in a few months speaks well of some of the logistics workers. Thousands of small reconstruction projects were completed successfully, and the people responsible for them too deserve our respect. We are mistaken to believe "that all good things go together"; it is equally fallacious to assume that "all bad things go together". We may conclude that Bremmer's program as a whole was unsuccessful, while also crediting many of its components with success.

Col. H. R. McMaster, one of General Petraeus' brilliant colonels, gave a remarkably clear retrospective view of the evolution of the conflict in Iraq. He made some points with which I agree very clearly. He said that the right tactics at one time may well not be right at a later date, since circumstances change and the opposition changes tactics in response to our successes. He said that it is impossible to predict the course of the war in detail in advance with any accuracy (noting that one never fully understands the enemy at the beginning of a war, and I would suggest that one may equally not understand your own side).

In listening to McMaster, I was reminded that the human mind imputes a rationale on past experience that is convincing but that is not necessarily correct. If you put people to the task of predicting a sequence which (unknown to them) is being produced by a random number generator, they will impute a chain of purposeful reasoning to rationalize the past sequence. Of course the opponents in Iraq have motives, but they may not be the motives that we impute to them subsequently. The post hoc interpretation of history is unscientific in that it can not be effectively tested and falsified. Only further experience, information and/or analysis can prove an interpretation of the past to be incorrect. Col. McMaster is obviously brilliant and articulate, which makes it all the easier to believe his analysis, but that analysis may of course still be incorrect.

Paul Bremmer too is a brilliant and articulate man. I think he is honest in his belief in the successes of his efforts in Iraq, and I also think that many of his decisions had very unfortunate results. He too is seeking to put a rational explanation of the past experience in Iraq, and his analysis must be affected by biases, of the kinds he shares with all people. He went to Iraq with a strong ideological position which had made him successful in his earlier career, and committed more of his personal capital to Iraq than any but a very small number of Americans. How could he not interpret his experience in terms of that ideology and commitment?

We have little choice but to try to understand the past and project its meaning as we plan for the future. To do justice to Col. McMaster, I think he understands that projection of past trends is always subject to new departures from those trends, and that while one tries one's best to understand the situation, one must always acknowledge that one's understanding may be inadequate and try to be prepared for the unexpected.

Of course, in criticism of the reconstruction of the past by others in light of our own reconstruction of the past, we must realize that we too are subject to the same kinds of biases and uncertainties in our own reconstruction, and indeed Bremmer and McMaster are men to be credited with insight and experience who have spent a huge amount of time thinking about Iraq.

There is a reason that the scientific method depends on falsifiable hypotheses, the collection of experimental evidence to test hypotheses, replication of results, peer review of the experimental process and of the analysis of results, and considerable effort to assure that the interpretation of the data does not extend too far into the hypothetical. Scientists are fortunate that they do not do their experiments with an opponent seeking to lead them astray and to assure that the results of future experiments do not replicate those of past experiments.

Friday, May 30, 2008

An interesting Thread on Innovation

Robin Hanson has initiated an interesting discussion thread with this posting on the Overcoming Bias blog.

One of the interesting issues with innovation in organizations is whether invention policy is internalized, externalized, or mixed. Of course, an invention is something which is new globally, while an innovation in an organization is simply something new within that organization. Obviously, most innovations in organizations are not new inventions, but rather adoptions of things invented elsewhere.

Progress would seem to depend on both invention and innovation. Disruptive inventions, such as the Internet or the telephone, are especially visible and important. Incremental innovations which improve productivity little by little over the long run are also very important for development.

I guess that "long wave" theory suggests that there are times when lots of inventions occur, and others when inventions are less frequent. Thus the period when inventors were exploiting the potential of steam power and the American system of manuracturing, that when inventors were exploiting the opportunities provided by electification, and that when inventors were exploiting the potential of digital electronics and transistors seem to be periods of high frequency of inventions.

The creation of the industrial research laboratory in the early part of the 20th century lead, I believe, to a trend toward internalization of invention in large organizations capable of commercializing those inventions..

I have read that in the 1940's, during the epoch of powerful radio networks, the recording industry centralized and internalized the selection of new artists and content. With the creation of the television industry and the development of local radio stations playing music for niche markets, there was a need for more innovation and a process by which the recording content was diversified by means of the development of new innovators outside the big record companies.

These days in areas like biotechnology, we see large firms with the ability to effectively market innovative products buying up the successful innovating firms from a broad spectrum of technology start ups.

We also see the United States outsourcing innovation in a couple of senses. U.S. firms are starting research labs in Asia, and adopting innovations created by foreign subsidiaries and suppliers. Alternatively, the United States provides a welcoming environment for technological entrepreneurs from abroad, as the success of Asian-born innovators in Silicon Valley illustrates.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Couple of Thoughts About Teaching

A couple of electronic communications yesterday seemed to come together in my mind.

A student from last semester asked my opinion about her summer project to study ICT and "Africanization" of higher education in Africa. "Africanization" once meant decolonization of higher education, when half a century ago African universities often had curricula designed to be compatible with those in their European colonial powers (so that the African students could study in Europe without problems, and Europeans could run and teach in African universities). Now it seems to me the issue is simply good teaching.

It seems to me that when you teach you should try to:
  • build new educational experiences on the existing skill and knowledge base of the student,
  • choose materials that interest the students by linking to their experience and interests,
  • meet the demands and needs of the students for skills, knowledge and understanding for their future lives.
I guess one should also seek to motivate students to learn and to continue learning, and to profess the importance of responsible scholarship through example.

If African colleges and universities do these these things then I suppose they will be Africanized in the same sense that American universities are Americanized when they do these same things.

Of course, it is easier to develop a relevant educational curriculum in the United States than Africa because here there are so many more examples of relevant curricula on which to draw, educators who themselves enjoyed "Americanized" curricula, lots of materials available for the students and faculty embodying relevant content, faculty with more time and facilities to localize content, and students with more resources to do so for themselves.

I have been involved in a dialog with Anne-Marie Deitering through postings on this blog and on her blog, Info-Fetishist on information literacy. Most recently she wrote:
I want to give these beginner academics the grounding in the idea that knowledge is constructed - while focusing on the skills they need to do well on the paper they have in front of them - and do it in a way that will let them build their knowledge of what scholarly and expert information can do for them when they get there in their own work. And so they can choose the doctor that gives them good info. And so they can parse out what's wrong with the diet-of-the-month article in their local paper.

I'd love to hear your perspective on what those first steps should be !
I am willing to try a response, although I have not thought as much about this question as I should have. (But of course a blog is a way of thinking through issues publicly, with the help of online friends.)

Teaching Social Construction

Students here are aware of television, and probably have seen courtroom dramas. So you can get them to discuss how knowledge is constructed in the courtroom. They know there will be advocates for the prosecution and the defense, presenting evidence through testimony of witnesses, with rules of evidence enforced by a judge, and a jury deliberating to reach a verdict. They will probably understand that sometimes juries reach the wrong verdict, convicting an innocent defendant, or failing to convict a defendant whose guilt had been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. They should also understand that some lawyers get a lot of money because they are very skilled advocates, and some witnesses are better at presenting evidence than others. They should know that there is a jury selection process which in principle avoids bias in the jurors, and in practice gives the advocates the opportunity to seek jurors with views that favor their clients, or at least avoid jurors who are likely not to favor those clients. Thus one can enter into a discussion of the quality of the process by which legal knowledge is constructed, and thus the link between quality of the process and validity of the outcome.

Students will have similar personal experience with knowledge construction processes in other institutions. As we are in a national election, perhaps one could use the construction of an opinion by the electoral process of the better candidate for public office. Alternatively, one could consider the process by which the Congress construes the knowledge it uses to draft and approve legislation. It should not be hard to get students to explicitly recognize that these processes can come to poor conclusions, and to see the link between the quality of the process and its protagonists and the validity of the outcome.

With a few examples of the social construction of knowledge in other institutions which are better known to the student, one might be better able to teach information literacy for published information, either coming out of the popular media or out of the scholarly media. In this context, the academic qualifications of authors, the prestige of the journal and its effect on the quality of submissions, the quality of the editors and editorial process, and the quality of the peer review could all be adduced as criteria for the process of the construction of knowledge by the journal, and thus for the reader's evaluation of the credibility of its content. Indeed, one could also consider the criteria used by editors and peer reviewers to evaluate the credibility of submissions that they are asked to judge.

The individual's construction of knowledge

It occurs to me that students tend to understand betting, so that you might develop a lesson in which the students bet on whether information from a specific article is credible. Students might be asked to specify the odds that they would require to make a bet based on the information that they got from an article. They might also be asked how much they would be willing to bet given the right odds. If they would a bet giving 100 to one odds, then they would think the evidence very credible. If they would bet their house at those odds, they would be very confident of their judgment of the quality of that judgment.

One could then go into a discussion of the criteria that a student might use in making such a bet.

If you wanted to go further, you might then ask how students who made such a bet might go about adjudicating its outcome. What authority would they trust to decide which bettor won? How would they structure a process for that decision.

I think an important element in teaching information literacy is to get the students to do meta-thinking. Get them to think not only about the accuracy and the validity of the assertions made in a source, but also about the processes by which one legitimately warrants such assertions.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Check out this blog posting on FDA and medical ethics

FDA ‘Drops the Second Shoe’ on Helsinki

Posted by Andrew Smith on May 22, 2008

This looks like a great blog. Smith does a service by pointing out that international ethical guidelines trace back to the Declaration of Helsinki.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dashboard Feedback Helps Improve Gas Mileage

Source: "For Hybrid Drivers, Every Trip Is a Race for Fuel Efficiency" by Michael S. Rosenwald, The Washington Post, May 26, 2008.

The Prius effect, named after the Toyota hybrid with an elaborate dashboard monitor that constantly informs drivers how many miles per gallon they are getting, is making drivers conscious of their driving habits, then resulting in driver adjustments improve mileage; indeed drivers of Priuses now compete among themselves for better mileage.

The article states:
Tom Igoe, a physical-computing researcher at New York University, said the Prius mpg display is one of the best examples of technology "where green meets information systems."

"For a long time," he said, "we have known that people will change their habits if they are exposed to feedback in real time."

Now companies are introducing products that do for the home what the monitor in the Prius has done for the car. The Kill a Watt plugs into a wall and accepts plug-ins from appliances, showing exactly how much energy is being consumed. Sebastian recently bought one at a store in the District. "We want to know where our electricity is going," she said.
Comment: This is a nice example showing that when and where knowledge is made available can have a developmental impact, as well as the knowledge per se. We have long known ways to improve driving mileage, but having immediate visible information tends to encourage the application of that knowledge. JAD

The Economic Impact of Racial Prejudice

I was wondering how much prejudice against blacks has cost the United States economically. A fast Google search discovered this article which suggests that the civil rights movement of the 60's and 70's economically benefited the blacks in the South and the South as a whole. I would guess that an economic improvement in the South probably had positive externalities for the rest of the country, as the stronger buying power down South resulted in larger markets for the rest of the nation.

Today we still have a black underclass, which has millions of people who are not producing as much per capita as the average American, and we are dealing with a lot of crime from and imprisonment of the members of that underclass. If there was less prejudice, there might have been both a more effective program to reintegrate blacks who had suffered centuries of discrimination (not to mention slavery) into the larger economy, and more and better economic opportunities for the black population.

Still there has been a lot of progress. So maybe the nation should be terming the leaders of the civil rights movement and the effort to overcome prejudice as "social entrepreneurs" in recognition of the economic benefits their successes have brought us all.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Responding to Info-Fetishist

Anne-Marie Deitering and I seem to be in a dialog, through postings on this blog and on her blog, Info-Fetishist. The discussion started from peer review, and now I would like to respond to her comments on the whether kids learn to evaluate information and the nature of expertise.

Deiterling writes:
I wonder to what extent this line, “we can all use these same criteria to evaluate information” holds true for undergraduate students. I mean, we all can if we know how - but do they know how? When do we learn what those methods are? I don’t think that many of us in libraries are teaching that - and I’m wondering how much that is being taught throughout the curriculum, particularly at the gen-ed or core-curriculum level?
Of course, she is right that the ability to evaluate the quality of information is learned, and consequently is less developed in those who have learned less of the skills involved. For all I know that ability also depends on maturation, since I have seen some written statements suggesting that the teenage brain has not fully developed the connections for such thought. Surely I would encourage students to go into educational programs in which they can learn these skills not only from explicit lessons and exercises, but also tacitly from contact with and observation of those who do the analysis well.

With respect to peer review, Deitering writes:
Maybe this is one way to get at the “how to teach peer review” question — it would take a lot longer than I usually have to talk about this issue, but it could get at the question of “why peer review” as well as the question of “have the peer reviewers done their job.” Normally, this is what I do when asked to help students find peer reviewed articles - I explain what the process of peer review looks like and talk about some cues the students can look for to identify whether or not an article has gone through that process.
I hope that you are also teaching something about the recognized quality of journals. I certainly take that which is published in high prestige journals such as Science, Nature, The Lancet, or the New England Journal of Medicine as more authoritative that which is published in little known journals. I expect there will have been more self selection by authors (many of whom refrain from sending less worthy papers to prestige journals), more expert reviewers, who take more pains with the reviews, and more careful editors for the more prestigious journals. Citation statistics can help the librarian to guide clients to the more worthy sources of peer reviewed articles.

Deitering also quotes Barbara Fister:
The issue of expertise is fascinating. In some ways, faculty in the disciplines defer tremendously to expertise, even to the point of saying “I can’t comment on that issue, because it’s not my field.” Well …. we didn’t get training in most of what the world’s about, but we did get training in how to read and analyze and respond. Sometimes we have to figure it out even if it’s not familiar.
One of the problems with being an acknowledged expert is that people sometimes take what you say seriously and act upon your opinions. You don't want your physician to give an inexpert opinion on your condition, if it is life threatening, if he can defer to a specialist who would provide a more knowledgeable diagnosis, prescription, and prognosis.

Of course, senior professors can and do spout off on things about which they know very little if they do so at home, in the faculty club or on the golf course. However, unless they are ethically challenged, they will not do so when testifying before Congress or training doctoral students.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Trials on trial"

Nature magazine has an editorial in the May 21st edition subtitled "The Food and Drug Administration should rethink its rejection of the Declaration of Helsinki". The article begins:
Later this year, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will adopt new standards for human clinical trials conducted without its advance sign-off in foreign countries. The rules will govern whether data from such trials can be used in applications to market the drug in question in the United States. Although these new standards specify how to run such trials to meet US requirements, they are worryingly silent on key issues relating to human rights, in contrast with the rules currently in effect. As a result, they could open the way to some ethically fraught decisions.
I think the article raises an interesting point.

We certainly do not want to encourage companies to circumvent the restrictions placed on drug trials in the United States by doing their trials in other countries with less restrictive human subject protection. The risks for drug trials should be born by the population that the drug is to benefit. Moreover, the risks to subjects might be increased by going to a country in which there was less protection for the human subject. Since many countries have regulators who are more prone to graft and corruption than those of the United States, there might be moral hazard involved.

On the other hand, if trials are ethically in another country under their guidelines (and for products intended to benefit that country's people), why should the information so developed not be used by the FDA in considering the licensing of the product in the United States. Accepting the data would be likely to save money and time in the review process, and thus benefit the potential U.S. beneficiaries of the products, both by reducing costs and making them available sooner.

I might mention that the results of foreign trials do not always transfer directly to the efficacy and safety of a drug in the United States. Populations in different countries differ genetically, they differ in general health and robustness, they differ in the availability of the health system to deal with complications, and they differ in the compliance of the patients with drug regimens. Note that the interactions are not always obvious. For example, there are situations where the existence of one disease endows the victim with some protection against another disease. Thus a "less healthy" population with a high prevalence of the protective disease might appear to do better with a given drug against the second disease that a "healthier" population with a low prevalence of the protective disease.

Still, information is information, and given the costs and delays in obtaining information from clinical trials, imperfect information is always used in the licensing of new drugs. (Which is why it would be great to have better tracking data for the efficacy and risks of approved drugs as they are used in the general population.)

It would seem important to examine the intentions of the company conducting the drug trials to evaluate whether the resulting data was ethically obtained or not. Of course, the executives of drug companies are not known for their open discussion of the ethical basis of their decisions on drug trials, and there would be moral hazard in a system that allowed information that was affirmed by the company likely to profit from early acceptance of the drug that the foreign trials were conducted ethically.

There is of course another issue, which has been with us since the Nazi medical experiments and the Tuskegee Syphilis studies. What do we do with information that exists in the public domain that was gained by past trials that were clearly conducted unethically, or that appear unethical by current standards? Again, we don't want to create a moral hazard by allowing people to gain from information that they obtained unethically. Equally, however, we don't want to deprive blameless patients of therapeutic techniques which might benefit them, simply because someone else was unethical in developing and testing those techniques.

I wish I had a better answer to this moral dilemma. Still, it would be a crying shame if drugs developed in Europe, Canada or Australia were required to be proven by new, excessive trials in the United States simply because the FDA had not been asked in advance if it agreed with the trial protocol. There are companies in the United States that profit from the delays and added costs imposed on potential competitors, and the opponents to the transfer of results may not always be pure in their motives.

There is also a grave imbalance in the knowledge and understanding of the different parties to this debate. The ethical pharmaceutical companies have staffs with great knowledge of the risks and costs of drug trials, as do the FDA, universities, and some civil society organizations. Other non-governmental organizations which are quite appropriately entering the debate based on their ethical concerns for the wellbeing of potential human subjects in developing countries, do not have comparably extensive and detailed understanding of clinical research. We in the general public are likely to know much less than we should about the whole subject, as are the legislators that we empower to make decision on these matters for us.

Friday, May 23, 2008

On Reading "The Studpidity of Dignity"

Steven Pinker has an article titled "The Stupidity of Dignity" in The New Republic (May 28, 2008). It is a critical assessment of the President's Council on Bioethics and its new publication: Human Dignity and Bioethics:Essays Commissioned by the President's Council on Bioethics. That Council seems to reflect the views of President Bush's more conservative supporters, and it seems to have done considerable harm in slowing research involving stem cells. Pinker's article is well worth reading.

The concept of "dignity" does seem worthy of some thought. In some uses it would appear to be a universal term, as when one suggests that "dignity should be attributed to all people". In other cases, it would seem to be (as Pinker emphasizes) a superficial characteristic put on of off as the circumstances dictate (e.g. comport yourself with dignity). We sometimes seem to confuse dignity with pompous. I would suggest that a great comedian, by the very act of behaving in an undignified manner, accentuates his dignity as a human being by contributing to the happiness of others. I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". Words mean what we intend them to mean and what we understand them to mean.

Still, I think there is a fundamental value to the life of every person which makes that person worthy of concern and worthy of being treated with kindness and respect. If that fundamental value is not to be termed "human dignity", what then should it be called?

Don't get me wrong. Pinker, and expert on language, criticizes the Council for their suggestion that "dignity" as a basis for bioethics. Both the Council members and Pinker know more about the philosophical basis of ethics than I ever will. So, while I am generally concerned about the negative impact that the Council has had, I don't have the expertise to comment well on their arguments.

I tend these days to feel that there probably is a neurobiological basis of morality. If that is true, then moral judgments are likely to be to a degree irrational. Bringing philosophy to bear on ethics, and thus bringing the mind to bear on making moral judgments more rational would seem to be useful. My mind tells me that each individual is a superb creation worthy of respect as such. My brain tells me that other people are much like myself. My mind tells me that if I want the respect of others, then I ought to accord respect to others. The dictionary's first definition of dignity is:
The quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect.
With that definition, perhaps "dignity" is a useful basis for the development of an ethical theory. I find it very hard to believe that that definition would lead by any satisfying chain of reasoning to corollaries such as would be required for the prohibition of stem cell research or restrictions on choice in reproductive biology.

Neighbors, Please Vote for Donna Edwards on June 17th.

A special general election is scheduled for June 17th to determine who will represent Maryland's 4th District in Congress once Cong. Albert Wynn steps down later this month. Democrat Donna Edwards will be facing off against Republican Peter James who will also be her opponent for the general election in November.

Donna Edwards is an exceptional candidate, and will make a great representative for our district in the Congress. The early election is a chance to give her seniority over the new class that will be entering office next year. This is a strongly Democratic district, and under normal circumstances her election would be all but assured, However, in the last special election in this district, fewer than eleven percent of voters turned out to vote. In those circumstances, a determined minority could defeat the electorate's choice by getting a heavy turnout of the minority Republican vote. Lets not let that happen.

What is a species?

There is an article in the current Scientific American that tracks the changes in the ways in which species are defined. Of course, the original definitions were based on macro-appearance. These were modified to take into account improved information on evolution, and again modified to take into account our increasing understanding of genomes. The authors point out that the definitions have been extended to organisms that don't reproduce sexually, and seem inadequate to the world of microscopic organisms.

Classifications depend on purpose of the classifier. The Dewey Decimal System is OK if you want to browse in a library by subject, but it won't do much good if you are looking for books of the right color to match your decorating scheme. It may be more useful for a gardener to classify plants by size, color and environmental needs rather than species.

From the point of view of the scientist, it may be quite useful to have a classification scheme that is based on appearance since when classifying a new item for a collection, physical appearance is obvious. On the other hand, given the importance of the theory of evolution in biology, a system of classification that refers to commonalities and divergence in ancestry is obviously useful.

The problem seems to be that the same word, "species", is used to refer to a group of individuals whichever way the group is conceived. "Species" is itself a concept used in the classification of organisms. Darwin thought that the debates over classification were excessive. The set of all individuals can be divided into subgroups by similarity, but there are likely always to be borderline individuals. For most purposes it is most useful to look at the prototypical individuals of a population than the outliers.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Most Critical Issue in the field of Culture and Development

I had a conversation the other day with a colleague from the Smithsonian Institution, in which we agreed that the most critical issue as we address culture and development is how to empower people within cultures to make informed decisions as to the directions of change of their cultures.

Cultures Change.

Even the most superficial view of history indicated that cultures change everywhere, and indeed with increasing velocity in recent times. Sometimes the change due to exogenous forces; the HIV/AIDS epidemic forced changes in culture as do global climate changes. Sometimes the forces driving change result from development; the increase in child survival drives a variety of cultural changes. Sometimes societies seek cultural change as a means to achieve specific development goals. Thus there is an increasing realization that economic development involves cultural changes that will drive and be driven by changes in economic institutions and policies, and that political development similarly involves cultural changes that will drive and be driven by changes in political institutions and policies.

Cultural Change Can Involve Loss.

We seek to maintain cultural heritage in the face of cultural change. How sad it would be to lose classical music or classical art in the process of modernization. More to the point, cherished cultural values are often challenged in the process of development. Thus, as technologies have been developed, introduced and widely disseminated to manage reproductive biology, there has been a revolution in sexual mores; that revolution has been profoundly disturbing to some people and has led to important dialogs on sexual morality in many nations.

Cultural Change is Often Imposed from Outside.

This is not a new problem. The world's most widely spread religions have often been spread by imperial powers. The world's most widely spread languages have been spread by colonization and the exercise of political and economic power. This fact raises the question of by what right do outsiders exercise the power to threaten a societies cultural heritage and drive changes in its values? For those of us who work in donor agencies, the problem is especially trenchant. By what right do we have to use the financial power of those organizations to drive cultural change?

Cultural Change Can Appear Autonomous.

The linkages between social and economic development and cultural change are complex and can be subtle. They are not well understood anywhere. but would seem to be especially difficult to understand in the least developed nations. Poorly educated people with limited access to information, spending all of their time in the effort needed just to survive and contribute to the survival of their families, are ill prepared to predict the cultural changes to which they are subjected, or to understand the processes that drive those changes, much less to exercise the power to control the factors driving cultural change in order to make those changes more acceptable morally and esthetically.

The Problem of Anomie.

Anomie is defined by Wikipedia as "a condition of malaise in individuals, characterized by an absence or diminution of standards or values. When applied to a government or society, anomie implies a social unrest or chaos." It would seem to be especially likely when traditional values and aspects of cultural heritage are replaced by a process which is not understood by its victims, and indeed when that process appears to be imposed by circumstances or forces outside of the control of the members of the society itself.

The Solution is Difficult.

It would seem that members of a society should be empowered with more control of their own futures, as those who emphasize grass-roots development demand. This would seem to be true, but it runs into the realities that those who have political and economic power tend to utilize that power to exert control of development activities. Participation in governance is not widely distributed in may societies, and indeed economic power is more and more concentrated in enclaves of wealth.

Even were power to be more evenly distributed, there is a need for much more knowledge and understanding of the linkages between social and economic development and cultural change. Would that UNESCO, which has the United Nations lead responsibility for both culture and social science would take on the development of a global network to create knowledge and understanding of these linkages and of means to make development more culturally benign.

There is also the problem of disseminating knowledge and understanding of the links between cultural change and development more widely, and of creating the institutions which would legitimate those with the greatest understanding of those linkages and the most valid claims to cultural leadershiop to help guide the paths of development and cultural change.


I think that the issue is not to avoid cultural change, but rather to develop institutions and policies that endow legitimate cultural leaders in each society with the knowledge and skills needed to understand better the linkages between development and cultural change, and to empower those leaders to guide development and cultural change in ways that protect the most valued aspects of cultural heritage and the dearest cultural values. Where such institutions can be developed in ways that the legitimacy of the guides is widely accepted and their efforts are widely approved, then there should be much more acceptance of the the validity of the cultural changes that are occurring.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Thinking about privacy

I have been reading The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America by Jeffrey Rosen, and I got to thinking about privacy. The right to privacy, if you think about it, is really a right to restrict the amount of information others obtain and thus the knowledge that they gain.

As I mentioned in a previous posting, Rosen makes the point that protection of one's privacy is especially important in preventing others from deriving false impressions from biased and partial knowledge of one, which seems a valid point. As this blog has pointed out, not all that we regard as knowledge is true, and that thus it is important to retain a willingness to reexamine our knowledge and to replace knowledge with better knowledge when that becomes available.

Returning to privacy, sometimes it is personal, and sometimes communal. Thus we feel that spousal communication is privileged, and a spouse can not be forced to testify about information obtained within a marriage. We also recognize the confidentiality of lawyer-client, and priest-penitent communication. I would also feel that religious rituals can legitimately be private, such as those of some of the native American nations which believe they would be polluted by the observation of non-initiates.

It seems to me that the rights to privacy are culturally defined, not only in the sense that they vary from culture to culture, but in that they are often communicated tacitly and are unexamined. They are deeply held attitudes that are not derived from rational analysis, but rather from custom and example. As such they are especially difficult to accept when exposed to another culture, or even to understand.

Indigenous peoples living in tropical climates, who wear few clothes, probably have as much difficulty understanding American perceptions of minimal acceptable clothing as Americans have in understanding the more stringent restrictions on women's clothing in conservative Jewish or Muslim cultures. Alternatively, we find it quite strange when people flaunt what we believe to be minimal standards of decency (in the protection of their own privacy or in the invasion of the privacy of others).

It is important that we understand the nature of privacy taboos because:
  • technological advances pose threats to traditional standards for the rights of privacy;
  • globalization results in people from different cultures, with different perceived rights to privacy, coming into more and closer contact, and thus changing each others cultural norms and standards;
  • changing circumstances result in differing costs and benefits from privacy norms, and may drive changes in privacy.
I remember some years ago having a discussion about the cameras that are increasingly being used to monitor the speed of vehicles and which are combined with computer processes to issue tickets to the owners of cars that are found to be speeding. Some people feel that the systems invade their privacy, while I feel that there is no inherent right to break speed limits, and in fact cars are required to have license plates so that their owners can be readily identified if the car is involved in an illegal act.

Increasingly cameras and other sensing devices are embedded in our surroundings, and thus information is gathered about us in ways that were not possible in the past. Perhaps the issue is not so much to limit the gathering of the information, but to limit the ways in which that information can be used to inform the knowledge of different actors for different purposes. Thus I see no problem with surveillance cameras being used to deter theft, but some problems with them being used to inform marketers of consumer behavior where that knowledge would be used to encourage impulse buying, and significant problems where they would be used to provide the basis for blackmail.

I suppose that in a society in which norms are increasingly explicit, defined in laws and regulations, we will elaborate an increasingly complex set of rules for the protection of the rights of privacy, such as the requirement of warrants for governmental surveillance. The rule making will balance human rights with the public good, and indeed we are facing some of those controversies now. To what degree and in what circumstances can coercion be used to obtain information that might prevent terrorist acts? How and how much do we limit data mining of electronic data to balance the protection of privacy and the public safety?

Our foreign policy with respect to surveillance should be made with the understanding that our domestic attitudes toward privacy may be quite different than those of people in another culture -- people who we are now able to observe in ways that they do not expect nor understand, and may not approve. Equally, American entertainment programming, which is increasingly available worldwide, may thrust information on other people that they find objectionable.

Someone once said that they have more faith in courtesy than morality. If we can not depend on the respect for the rights of privacy as a moral imperative, let us be sure that all understand how profoundly discourteous it is to invade someone else's privacy observing that which they feel it improper to observe, or displaying that which they feel it improper for them to observe.

Iraq, Texas Holdem, and Decision Making

My last posting used chess as a metaphor for foreign policy decision making. Let me use another game to extend the metaphorical comment.

Texas Holdem is a poker game with tournaments that are getting a lot of attention via television. The game is very simple, and you can click here if you need the rules. For a given hand in Texas Holdem, there are four rounds of betting. In most games, most players fold their hands on the first round. The tactics used by a player on a given hand depend on the cards he has drawn, the size of his chip stack and of he players he faces, the size of the pot, the bets of his opponents, and his reading of those opponents. Compared to chess, games are short and simple, but depend less on skill on reading the board and much more on skills of reading the opponent. Note that the best hand does not always win the hand, and the best hand at a specific time is often bluffed out by a weaker hand played with strong tactics.

Winning tournaments is not just about winning hands, and indeed the winning strategy must be based on knowledge that chance plays a role in each hand, and that even the winner must lose a lot of bets during the course of a tournament. Winning strategy depends on accumulating chips during the course of the tournament, accumulating knowledge of the opponents at the table (their tactics and tells), and not taking imprudent risks. Early in the tournament, winning players protect their limited resources; later in the game, when they have accumulated large amounts of chips, they can use that financial power to take risks and bully opponents.

Texas Holdem winning players know that the tournament is not won in the opening hands, but in a process which leaves the player in better position hour after hour, day after day of the tournament. Moreover, a winning tournament player knows how to adapt his tactics as the tournament progresses, reflecting his competitive position and the changes in the tactics of his opponents and the growing knowledge of those opponents.

In Iraq, the professional soldiers recommended invading with a larger force than the politicians actually used. A winning Texas Holdem player would see that as wise, since doing so would reduce the early risk and provide more "bullying power". The winning poker player might also have avoided high risk plays early in the process, such as putting tactical control of the Transition Authority in the hands of ideologically driven neophytes, and radical departures from the status quo ante such as radical deBathification, disbanding the forces of order (military and police), and big-bang economic reforms, or a radically new constitution and legislature.

As an aside, I heard General Ricardo Sanchez on the Charlie Rose show say that the Bush decision to stop the invasion of Fallujah during the 2004 election season in order to improve his election prospects cost the lives of American soldiers. That was a profoundly immoral act by those in the White House, and should have occasioned the resignation of the civilian authorities who were tasked with carrying out the order. (The military, in our system, are charged with carrying out the directives of their civilian chiefs, whether or not they agree with them.)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Iraq exemplifies a key element of decision making

The initial decision to invade Iraq was followed by a series of decisions. A relatively small force quickly destroyed the Iraqi military capacity and took Baghdad, but failed to stop the looting and destruction of government building, as well as the dissemination of Iraqi weapons to the public. There followed decisions to disband the military and effect a deep de-Bathification which have been linked to the initiation and/or strengthening of the insurgency. The decision to have a brutal liberalization of the economy resulted in lots of consumer goods, but also a lack of productive jobs. The decisions on the management of the occupation lead to the abuses of Abu Ghraib and a great deal of antipathy among Iraqis toward the occupying forces. Other decisions, such as the development of a new constitution, the timing of elections, the attacks on Fallujah and their conduct have been challenged as leading to a worsening of the situation. Of course, these decisions were also subsequent to decisions about the coordination of Iraq policy in the U.S. Government and Coalition, and decisions about the people to put in charge of the occupation who made or influenced many of the subsequent decisions that proved unfortunate.

I would say that the opening decision may have looked better after half a decade had the subsequent decisions been different, and thus the course of the occupation and "nation building" been different and perhaps more positive. (Indeed, once U.S. foreign policy institutions contained thousands of people who had thought long and deep about nation building, and who had decades of experience, but they had all gone due to the decisions to weaken those institutions.)

The point I would make is that the decision to go to war almost guarantees that many subsequent decisions on the conduct of the war and the subsequent search for nation building and peace will be badly made. Sometimes people ask about "the plan B" -- what will you do when things go wrong.

Chess players in the opening focus on building a strong position in the opening game, avoiding high risk initial gambits that offer the chance of a quick win but the threat of an eventual loss if mistakes are made and capitalized by a clever opponent. Perhaps in foreign policy, too, the best approach is to build a strong position in whih the country can respond to the unexpected, as well as to tactical moves that go wrong.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Argument for the Right of Privacy

In The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America, Jeffrey Rosen argues that disclosing one salacious fact about a person may result in that person getting an inaccurate, and thus unfair reputation. He further argues that disclosing full information about a person, say all the websites that they have visited, results in people overloading with input and thus selecting (perhaps at random) a very limited set of that information on which to form an opinion of the subject of the disclosure, and again an unfair opinion. He then says that the protection of privacy is the best and perhaps the only protection that individuals have against such unfair judgments by others.

Unfairly extrapolating from his comments, humans have evolved to form interpersonal bonds relatively slowly, in part through the exchange of confidences. Culturally, we have modes of communication within the family or within groups of friends which are quite different than in a public setting. Putting communications from the circle of friends and/or family into the public setting can also result in very unfair judgments of the person so revealed, and thus should be protected by privacy.

So, in terms of the theme of this blog -- Knowledge for Development -- where does one draw the line between information in the public domain to inform our knowledge and information that should be protected by privacy? In a time in which surveillance cameras are found in our cities in the tens of thousands, in which electronic communication can be monitored and data mining computers can extract the most damning information from the most fleeting comment, in which remote sensing can track a person's every movement without his recognizing that fact, in which the U.S. Government officials can feel empowered to extract information by torture or to authorize surveillance without due process of law, the issue of rights to privacy versus rights to information has become urgent and complex.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Thought About the Perils of Post Hoc Explanations

Toward the end of his book, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves, Adam Hochschild describes books by Thomas Clarkson and by the two sons of William Wilberforce that give different views of the history of the campaign against the slave trade. Hochschild has written his book with still a different version of that history, and the movie Amazing Grace presents still a different version. Since Hochschild's book is primarily a story of the people who energized the movement, his comment would seem comparable to the demonstrations in fiction of different stories by different people such as The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, or Akira Kurosawa's film Roshomon.

Why did Britain end slavery. It is certainly appropriate to credit the efforts of Clarkson and Wilberforce who not only worked very hard for a very long time to achieve that end, but also were very clever in the way in which they worked. Their credit should not detract from the credit of their inner circle who also worked very hard on the campaign, nor indeed the millions of people who joined the campaign and added their support.

There are two questions, however, that seem important. Would they have been able to succeed no matter how long, hard and smart they worked had the social and economic conditions not been propitious for their effort's success. Were those conditions so propitious that had Wilberforce and Clarkson not stepped forward, would others have done so in their place?

It is hard to imaging the abolition of the slave trade and of the slavery itself had there not been earlier The Enlightenment. So too, it seems as Hockschild has suggested, that the campaign would not have succeeded had it not been the age of revolution; indeed, the slave revolts which were themselves so important in the process must have been influenced by the revolutions in the United States and France. The Industrial Revolution and with it the exploitation of labor and the growth of industrial cities such as Manchester (a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment) must have had its influence. Hockschild points out that the movement was lead by Quakers and that the Baptist and Methodist missions to the slaves were very influential. He also reports that the reform of Parliament that reduced the power of the landed classes and opened suffrage in Great Britain made it possible to pass the anti-slavery law at last.

I would suggest that there may have been physical reasons for the success. European troops died by the thousands when sent to put down slave revolts in the Caribbean, while the residents of the area who were in revolt had survived in that environment that had killed so many, and may have been more fit to continue surviving there. It is also not clear how much the improvement of transportation technology and the spread of sugar growing to other regions had diminished the economic importance of the British and French sugar and rum sources in the Caribbean.

Retrospectively trying to understand the web of causality involved in such a historical change that resulted from a historical process that lasted for decades is basically impossible, and it is not surprising that different historians offer different explanations stressing different factors to different degrees. Reading such histories can help to expand one's understanding of the possibilities, but is unlikely to reveal factual truth about the processes. You may find out who did what, but not how important the acts or actors really were, or the counterfactual alternatives, the "what if's".

Incidentally, slavery is one institutional system by which some people exploit the involuntary servitude of other people. Today we have a major problem of sexual trafficking, with an estimated 50,000 people trafficked into the United States each year in this process. Debt servitude still "enslaves" hundreds of millions of people in Asia and elsewhere. We still have to fight for human rights!

Why Don't People Care Enough to Vote?

There was an election in my county yesterday to elect a member of the County Council. The county of a million people has an annual budget of 3 and 3/4 million dollars. This is a challenging year for the county government, with a falling economy that would appear to call for budget cuts, especially a crisis in the construction business which will cut an important source of revenues, changing neighborhood composition, problems of gang related crimes, government employees forming an important lobby demanding raises over already high salaries, citizens demanding very high levels of services, and lobbies representing the private sector which also demand high levels of services.

The County Council, increasingly fractious, is currently split four-four on a number of divisive issues. The election was to replace the ninth member after the death of the Chairperson, who often cast the deciding votes on matters before the Council.

I would have thought that this would have been an election that people would vote in. The elected person will cast key votes for the next two and a half years. The country electorate is highly educated, and indeed contains a large portion of citizens who work in federal, state or local government, who therefore should be concerned with and interested in government. Yet the turnout was 10.64% of the registered voters, or 8,896 voters. They elected the 75 year old widower of the deceased Council member who basically ran as a neophyte committed to protecting the legislative agenda of his wife.

I would hope for more of my neighbors!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Political Endorsements

I was chatting with someone who used to be a reporter on a local newspaper and is now a senior staffer for an elected official of local government. She mentioned that she once believed that papers should endorse candidates, since they have fairly detailed knowledge of the performance of elected officials and government, but now believes that they should not make endorsements. As she explained, the local papers are so dependent on real estate developers and other local interest groups that their endorsements are not credible.

It is an interesting point. Were we confident of the information literacy of voters, then we could be confident that they would combine information from the endorsement with information on the credibility of the source to make better judgments that they would without the endorsement.

Since in fact the voters in local elections do not fully understand the pressures on local papers as they make their endorsements, we can not be confident of their information literacy. Indeed, they may be so ignorant of the issues and the candidates positions, that even not understanding the biases of the papers, the voters may be better advised to accept the endorsements.

Obviously, one wants both an informed, information literate electorate and multiple sources of information on the candidates. I suppose, as compared with a couple of hundred years ago, things are better now. But, progress toward some ideal of democracy seems slow.

Monday, May 12, 2008

What to do about U.S. Government Endorsed Torture

I saw an interview with Phillippe Sands, the author of Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law. (Read a review of the book from The Guardian.) Sands, a legal scholar, interviewed a number of the principals in the decisions on types of interrogation techniques to be used after 9/11 and concluded that torture actually had taken place. His key suggestions are that the situation should be fully investigated, and if indeed high level officials did decide to order procedures that were in contravention of international conventions and U.S. law, they should be brought to justice. He further suggested that the roles of the lawyers involved similarly be investigated, and if they were complicit in illegal activities that they also be brought to justice.

Sands' position seems reasonable to me. In a democracy, finding out whether laws have been broken by public officials is fundamental. This is perhaps as central an element of "knowledge for development" as one can imagine.

So too is a system of justice that subjects everyone to the rule of law. If lawyers advise corporate executives how to break the law, or indeed advise mafia bosses how to do so, then they are complicit in the law breaking that takes place and should be brought to justice. So too should high government officials who can be proven to have violated the law. The legal knowledge system is critical to the development of knowledge that serves the democratic processes.

It is important to protect basic human rights, and the right not to be tortured is indeed enthroned in international and U.S. law. A system for the legal protection of human rights, especially a system of protection from infringement by the government, is a crucial element in social development.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Electricity Shortages Are Driving Up Mineral Commodity Prices

Source: "Chilean Drought, Power Shortages Drive Up World Metal Prices," Saijel Kishan and Gavin Evans, Bloomberg News via The Washington Post, May 11, 2008.

Chile's worst drought in five decades and power rationing from South Africa to China mean the price of aluminum, gold, copper and platinum will keep climbing as the lights go out in the world's biggest mines.....

Runaway growth in emerging markets is squeezing world oil supplies and has led to electricity shortages, cutting output of commodities needed to meet ever-rising demand. Platinum jumped to a record in January after mines in South Africa closed for five days because utilities were rationing power. Cobalt rose 58 percent in the 12 months ended May 2 as production growth in Congo was limited by electricity supply....

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, the world's biggest publicly traded copper producer; Cia Vale do Rio Doce, the largest in iron ore; and gold producer Newmont Mining all say power shortages threaten to reduce production.

Rio Tinto Group, the second-biggest aluminum producer, cut output at its New Zealand smelter by 5 percent, or 1,400 metric tons a month, May 1 because of power constraints caused by drought. Anglo Platinum, the world's biggest producer of that metal, said April 29 that first-quarter output plunged 24 percent, to 428,600, ounces because of cuts in the supply of electricity to its South African mines.

Smelting aluminum uses about four times as much power as for copper and more than twice that of zinc, Barclays Capital said. About 80 percent of world aluminum smelting capacity is in nations at risk of electricity shortages, according to Citigroup.....

Chile, the world's biggest copper producer, faces the risk of energy rationing after the worst drought in 50 years lowered hydropower reserves during a shortage of natural gas for generators.
Comment: A perfect storm? Increased demand for raw materials from Asia, reduced supply from electricity poor nations responsible for primary production, and a weak dollar make mineral commodity prices rise especially fast for Americans.

The shortage of electrical power is in part due to a failure in investment in power generating capacity, which in turn may be due to failure of international donors to invest in the sector. Hydropower is often a good investment alternative, providing clean energy at an affordable cost. But it has often been a target of environmental NGOs that scare multinationals.

I underline the importance of engineers to provide the infrastructure needed for economic development.

Natural Resources are Good!

Source: "ECONOMICS: Linking Natural Resources to Slow Growth and More Conflict," by C. N. Brunnschweiler and E. H. Bulte, Science, May 2, 1008.

This article challenges the frequently stated position 'that resource-rich economies suffer from weak leadership, rent seeking, and failing institutions." It is doubly interesting from the point of view of this blog, not only raising an important point about economic and social development, but challenging past analyses on the basis that they oftern use poor indicators. The authors use a World Bank indicator that measures resource availability by the present value of all primary product exports over a 25 year period. They compare economic growth over the period 1970 to 2000 with this indicator, finding a modest positive relationship between the resource endowment and economic growth. (I have noted before that resources are not merely things that exist, but things that exist that the society knows how to use.)

I thought it interesting that the authors suggest that poorly governed and poorly run countries appear to exploit primary production because they are unable to exploit manufacturing and service industries for growth.

The final conclusion is not surprising to any but economists. It is better to have good institutions and good policies, and if a country enjoys these advantages, it is also good to have natural resources to exploit.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Status of Engineering, Science and Technology Education in China: The Need and Demand among Young Students"

"Status of Engineering, Science and Technology Education in China: The Need and Demand among Young Students"

This is an interesting report by a Chinese scholar published by UNESCO's office in China. It provides historical data on higher education, especially engineering education in China, with comparative data from other countries.

Improving Food Security

Incan terraces

There is an interesting letter by Paul Wojtkowski in Science (May 2, 2008). The author challenges the efficacy of the Green Revolution approach (better varieties, irrigation, access to chemical inputs, extension services and policies to increase productivity) as a silver bullet to improve food security. He writes:
Organized traditional societies avoid recurrent periods of starvation through multiple and overlapping mechanisms. For example, the Incas used crop varieties, communal irrigation, stone terraces, and plot scattering, along with community food storehouses, to lessen or mitigate famines.
I like the point made by others that rich people don't die from hunger, even during a famine. Similarly, there has to be enough food to satisfy food needs or the poor are going to suffer from food insecurity. So on a global level, agricultural productivity and economic security are fundamental for food security.

However, crop failure is a local phenomenon. Stress resistant varieties and irrigation can reduce the risks of crop failure, but it is also important for food security to assure that when local food production fails to meet local needs, food can be brought in to make up the shortfall. Thus, one wants an adequate transportation infrastructure, an adequate information infrastructure, crop and food need forecasting systems, and a bureaucratic structure that allows for early planning and management of the logistics of acquisition and distribution of food. All too often, famine is the result not of weather but of conflict, and there needs to be a means of getting food past the warring parties.

Bush Administration versus the Spotted Owl

Source: "ENDANGERED SPECIES: Spotted Owl Recovery Plan Flawed, Review Panel Finds," by Erik Stokstad, Science, May 2, 2008.

A blue-ribbon panel of scientists has confirmed major flaws in the proposed recovery plan for the northern spotted owl, a threatened species that has driven forest policy in the northwestern United States for nearly 2 decades. As did earlier reviews, the final one, by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI) in Portland, Oregon, concludes that the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS's) plan does not put enough emphasis on protecting the owl's habitat......

In spring 2006, FWS formed a team to draft the recovery plan that included a broad range of expertise, including environmentalists and timber industry representatives, but lacked top scientists; some declined to participate in part because they feared the process would be politically charged, they told Science. The team's draft focused on the need to protect habitat and also dealt with the threat from barred owls, an invasive species that is competing with the spotted owl.

Politics did trump science, say observers and participants. After the first draft was sent to Washington, D.C., in September 2006, officials at the Department of the Interior (DOI) ordered the recovery team to add another management strategy, called Option 2, says recovery team member Dominick DellaSala, an ecologist who directs the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy in Ashland, Oregon. This option would reduce the amount of land set aside for owl conservation and give the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service more flexibility to allow logging. The immediate goal was to make the recovery plan consistent with a BLM proposal to facilitate logging in Oregon, according to internal agency e-mails provided to Science by DellaSala. He says that officials also wanted the plan to list the barred owl threat as more dire than loss of habitat--over the objections of some of the recovery team members, as well as James Tate, DOI's own science adviser.

FWS released the draft plan, including Option 2, for public comment and requested scientific review in April 2007.
Comment: The Bush administration continues to try to overrule the recommendations of its own scientific advisers when they can advance commercial interests by doing so. The Congress, with the support of the American public, long ago set priorities for the preservation of endangered species, and the Bush administration should obey the law and accept the recommendations of scientists who are far better prepared to evaluate the risks of alternative policies. JAD

"Misbegotten Preemptions"

Donald Kennedy has an editorial in the May 2nd edition of Science which brings a worrisome initiative of the Bush administration to light. The Constitution gives the federal government the right to regulate interstate commerce, and that right has been interpreted to include the right to preempt state laws if they are contrary to federally established rules for interstate commerce. Kennedy points out in passing that the preemption authority has become dangerous as the Bush administration wields it to limit state powers to protect their environments in favor of business interests to avoid restrictive state environmental regulations.

The editorial, however, focuses on the efforts of the Bush Administration's chief counsel at the Food and Drug Administration, Daniel Troy, to use preemptive power of the FDA to limit damage suites in the states. I quote:
During his first year, Troy developed a reputation for having his door open to industry for private discussions, the notes on which could not be made public. After returning to private practice, he published a piece in Legal Times entitled "When the FDA Acts, State Torts Must Defer." The title gives a clear message: If the FDA has approved a drug or device, the manufacturer is immune from product liability lawsuits.

This odd concept, gaining favor in some state courts, is not only bad policy; it could be dangerous to your health. Why? First, the FDA is badly underfunded. Recent flat budgets have hurt the agency, and despite efforts by FDA advocates, the outlook is grim. Congress has relied too much on the Prescription Drugs User Fee Act, first passed in 1992. Unfortunately, most of that user fee money can only be used in the process for approving new drugs; only a trivial fraction can be used to strengthen safety monitoring of already-approved drugs.

Second, the nature of the FDA's standard process makes it unable to make a secure guarantee of safety. Approval of a drug for a given indication follows a series of controlled clinical trials. But even for a drug expected to have millions of potential users, the experimental limb of the trial (in which participants receive the drug rather than a placebo) will have only a few hundred to a thousand patients. Once the drug is in wide distribution, it may have a thousand times as many users. It's no surprise that widely marketed drugs produce scary media accounts involving a threatening adverse reaction that appears suddenly, resulting in deaths or serious illness, and ending in withdrawal from the market or strengthened label warnings.
Comment: I don't know whether I am more worried by the weakening of the FDA by restrictions on staff and budget (and sources of funding) or the attempt to weaken the power of the courts with respect to safeguarding public health. Arghh! JAD

I Wish I Trusted The Bush Administration More

Source: "Nuclear Pact With India: State Department Asks Congress To Keep Quiet About Details of Deal," by Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, May 9, 2008.

Washington's civil nuclear deal with India is in such desperate straits that the State Department has imposed unusually strict conditions on the answers it provided to questions posed by members of Congress: Keep them secret.

The State Department made the request, even though the answers are not classified, because officials fear that public disclosure would torpedo the deal, sources said.......

Congress passed a law, known as the Hyde Act, to provisionally accept the agreement, but some lawmakers have raised concerns about whether the implementing agreement negotiated by the administration fudges critical details......

Given the pointed nature of the questions, sources said the State Department had little choice but to be candid with lawmakers about the answers, in ways that senior State Department officials had not been in public.

Lynne Weil, a spokeswoman for the committee, said the State Department provided a lot of information, but the committee has agreed not to disclose the answers because "some data might be considered diplomatically sensitive."
Comment: I can certainly see that there could be points on a civilian nuclear power agreement with India that would be diplomatically sensitive but not matters of national security, and that the State Department and White House would have legitimate reasons to keep them confidential.

On the other hand, I recall Vice President Cheney's secret energy negotiations early in the Bush administration, and their inaccurate reading of intelligence data in the run up to the Iraq war. So I have these nagging doubts that the administration is not keeping the information from us for the wrong reason, or if not that they may have misread the sensitivity of the information that they are withholding. At least we have a skeptical Congress that is asking pointed questions.

The idea of cooperation with India on civilian nuclear power actually seems quite useful, improving our diplomatic relations with an important regional power and helping our firms develop relationships in an important technology with an important developing market. However, there is obviously lots of room for the administration to have screwed up in the negotiation. JAD

Friday, May 09, 2008

"Communication is key to informed public participation"

Source: Jia Hepeng, SciDev.Net, May 2, 2008.

Lead: "The simple communication of key scientific information to the public needs to be improved if sustainable development is to be a realistic goal." This is the report of a symposium, 'Science Communication and Scientific Policy Making', that was held in Beijing last month, organised by SciDev.Net and its local partners with funding from the British Embassy in Beijing.

Where Does All the Computer Power Go?

Two recent articles:

"'Bluefire' likely to blaze new trails in climate study" by Katy Human, The Denver Post, 05/09/2008.
On Thursday, the Boulder-based National Center for Atmospheric Research unveiled the new IBM computer, dubbed bluefire, which will be one of the 25 most powerful — and efficient — computers in the world. The machine is capable of performing more than 76 trillion calculations a second, NCAR said. "We're going to triple our computing capability and actually burn a little less energy," said Tom Engel, a high-performance-computing expert at NCAR. NCAR researchers have relied on powerful supercomputers to model climate change, tornadoes, hurricanes and turbulence that can shake up airplanes. "This will let our researchers add more physics, add more chemistry, add more realism to the models," said Aaron Andersen, also an NCAR high-performance-computing expert.
"New Breed Of Supercomputers For Improving Global Climate Predictions" Medical News Today, 07 May 2008.
Three researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have proposed an innovative way to improve global climate change predictions by using a supercomputer with low-power embedded microprocessors, an approach that would overcome limitations posed by today's conventional supercomputers.

In a paper published in the May issue of the International Journal of High Performance Computing Applications, Michael Wehner and Lenny Oliker of Berkeley Lab's Computational Research Division, and John Shalf of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) lay out the benefit of a new class of supercomputers for modeling climate conditions and understanding climate change. Using the embedded microprocessor technology used in cell phones, iPods, toaster ovens and most other modern day electronic conveniences, they propose designing a cost-effective machine for running these models and improving climate predictions.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

"Cuba Bars Blogger from Accepting Award in Spain"

Source: Tom Gjelten, Morning Edition, May 8, 2008, NPR

Yoani Sanchez, 32, has gained a worldwide following for the independent blog she writes from Havana. Wednesday evening she was supposed to be in Madrid receiving the Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism. But her request to travel to Spain to accept the award was not approved by the Cuban authorities; they are clearly annoyed by the attention her critical writing has received.

Here is the URL of Sanchez' blog.

Lets all support Yoani (which I suppose we Gringos should pronounce Joannie) and her right to freedom of expression.

A Thought on Jon Stewart's Appearance on Crossfire

Jon Stewart's appearance on Crossfire four years ago is credited with putting the final nail in the show's coffin. I believe that the television media do a bad job of informing the electorate on the platforms and qualifications of the candidates for the presidency. Of course they do a worse job for candidates for lesser offices. I think the confrontation shows do a worse job than others, perhaps because I can't watch them.

Jon Stewart's Daily Show, like the work of Stephen Colbert and Al Franken provide a helpful service in poking fun at the media, bringing attention to the need for them to improve to better serve our democracy. The Stewart put down of Crossfire was exceptional in visually contributing to a media decision to change programming.

The reason for this posting, however, is to point out how affect and intellect are mixed in Stewart's advocacy. Were he professorial, trying for an affect free presentation of his critique of Crossfire (and the media in general) I think he would be much less effective. One aspect is that people have to listen to be influenced, and funny draws more listeners than professorial. Moreover, Stewart elicits more empathy from the audience than do his targets.

The brain is an organ of both thought and emotion, and it seems likely that combining the right information with the right emotional cues is likely to be more effective in changing minds than providing information alone.

Correlation is not Causation

In this election season, commentators keep telling us about polling data. They tell us which candidates are preferred by different ethnic groups, different economic groups, different age groups, groups characterized by their different educational achievements. The elections themselves tell us something about which candidates are preferred by self declared Democrats and self declared Republicans in different states.

The commentators, in the way that they frame their comments suggest causality. They seem to suggest that older women who vote Democrat prefer Clinton because they are older women who vote Democrat, or that blacks in North Carolina predominantly voted for Obama because they are black.

Recall, however, that these variables are not independent. Blacks and Hispanics tend often to be poorer than whites; Asians tend to get more education than blacks; people who reach retirement age often move to states with better climates. So maybe people are voting their economic interests, but the correlation shows up also with race, or people are voting their interests are retirees but the correlation shows up with geographic variables.

Competent social science analysts spend a lot of time trying to figure out which variables show the best predictive ability, but even that variable found to best predict election outcomes is limited by the sets of measurable indicators and the ability to obtain data. Good social scientists are much more reluctant to attribute causality to correlations than are the talking heads on TV!

The problem with the facile framing of the election by the pundits may be not so much that it is substantively erroneous as that it may be morally wrong. They do not suggest that people as individuals make reasoned decisions as to which candidates will do a best job for the country, based on their own information and their own points of view, but rather that they act in groups through prejudice. The pundits may well be promoting divisiveness in their audiences through the way they incorrectly explain voting behavior.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Response to Gerson

I was really annoyed by "A Phony 'War on Science'" by Michael Gerson, an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post (May 7, 2008). Gerson, described by Wikipedia as an "Evangelical Christian" and former Bush speech writer who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, feels that the charges of a Bush administration war on science are false. He correctly states that there are many areas in which Government scientists (Elias Zerhouni, Anthony Fauci, Francis Collins) have made important contributions with the full support of the Bush politicians.

Of course the Bush administration is not against all forms of science, and in fact is ideologically in support of some kinds of science and technology such as manned space exploration. Think of its (unlikely) belief that increased support for basic research through the National Science Foundation will increase U.S. competitiveness in international markets. Indeed, some of its ideologically based areas of support may be distorting appropriate allocations of resources not only away from some important areas of research (such as stem cells) but also toward some relatively unproductive areas such as development of vehicles for manned planetary expeditions.

The Bush administration is criticized on the basis that it seeks to gag government scientists who come out with findings it does not like and that conflict with its ideological biases or the economic interests or ideologies of its political supporters. The key areas of concern with political oppression of science relate to reproductive biology, the environment, or regulation of industrial products.

I would describe myself as "progressive" rather than "liberal", since I am annoyed by Gerson's labeling of liberals as an epithet, but I can state that I am not opposed to people advocating government policies based on their own beliefs. Gerson is right that there are serious ethical issues involved in reproductive biology, and that they warrant a public debate. I would hold, however, that the democratic process demands that that debate be as fully informed as is practicable, and that the suppression of scientific evidence is radically contrary to our democratic traditions.

If the founding fathers agreed on anything it was on the need to guarantee freedom of speech to give democratic processes a real chance to protect human liberty.

On Israel's Birthday

Richard Holbrooke has an interesting article in today's Washington Post on the birth of Israel. Not only is he a foreign policy expert, he interviewed the key participants in the Truman administration decision to recognize Israel about the decision process. It is an interesting story of a major disagreement between Secretary of State Marshall (supported by a large number of State Department "realists") and the President (supported by Clark Clifford). I have read elsewhere that Truman was influenced by his own Christian theological beliefs in making his decision.

Holbrooke writes:
Israel was going to come into existence whether or not Washington recognized it. But without American support from the very beginning, Israel's survival would have been at even greater risk.
Holbrooke feels Truman was right, and he is the informed expert.

It is interesting to speculate, however, what the last six decades would have been like had the United States backed the British plan to give responsibility for moving toward a two state solution at that time. Would the fighting have taken a different course, and would a two state solution have been arrived at in a few years? Would Jordan have permanently incorporated the Palestinian territory and population? If so, the repercussions for the Middle East, Islamic-Western relations, and indeed the whole world would have been very different than what actually occurred.

The U.S. decision on how to utilize American superpower influence at that critical junction may be a major historical turning point that could easily have gone the other way!