Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Litany of Bush administration failings

Source: "Goodlings Amok: A Common Thread in Bush's Failings," by Ruth Marcus, The Washington Post, July 30, 2008.

Ruth Marcus, in her op-ed piece takes on the Bush administration. Some excerpts:
This administration will leave office having trashed the place.....

My favorite sentence in the Goodling report sums up the hiring practices in the department's supposedly nonpartisan career ranks: "Tell Brad he can hire one more good American."

This was the response by Goodling, who served as Justice's liaison with the White House, to a request from Bradley Schlozman, the interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City, Mo., to bring aboard a new prosecutor. "Good American" is Goodling's code for "Republican." ,,,,

Most administrations find ways to keep the Goodlings under control and the grown-ups in charge. The trouble with this one is that it is riddled with Goodlings Gone Wild, incapable of or unwilling to distinguish between the proper pursuit of political aims and the responsible administration of government.

To take one other recent example, the NASA inspector general found last month that press officers in the space agency "reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized" studies of global warming, toning down politically unwelcome conclusions. A news conference on global warming was postponed, according to a senior scientist, because the "administration does not want any negative environmental news before the [2004] election."......

President Bush put adherence to Republican theology -- taxes must be cut -- over prudent governing.

In February 2001, when the new president presented his first budget to Congress, he described the fiscal situation this way: "We have increased our budget at a responsible 4 percent, we have funded our priorities, we have paid down all the available debt, we have prepared for contingencies and we still have money left over."

That happy situation, he said, justified -- no, necessitated-- a tax cut: "The growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf, I am here asking for a refund."......

Delivering the bad deficit news, Jim Nussle, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, asserted that it was essential to keep the tax cuts in place to achieve balance. Huh? The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the total budgetary cost of the Bush tax cuts will be $245 billion next fiscal year -- half the hole the administration has helped dig.

More on the failure of the Doha Round

According to the Irish Times:
TALKS TO agree a global trade deal have collapsed, raising question marks over the future of the multilateral trading system established by the World Trade Organisation (WTO)

A bitter dispute between the US and India over safeguards to protect poor farmers in developing countries prompted the breakdown after nine gruelling days of negotiations......

Diplomats said the failure of negotiators to agree on the basis for a WTO deal in Geneva this week would result in at least a year's delay in the Doha round and could kill it off altogether. No further talks are expected before a US presidential election scheduled for November and analysts have warned that protectionism is taking root in many states.

Peter Sutherland, the Irish chairman of BP and a former director general of the GATT - the forerunner to the WTO - said the failure was bad for the global economy and held serious implications for the WTO institution and the whole concept of multilateralism.

"If states cannot even work together on something as obvious as world trade then how can we effectively address other issues that require a multilateral response such as climate change," said Mr Sutherland, who presided over the last global deal in 1994.

The breakdown in the talks came despite an earlier draft agreement between developed economies such as the EU and US and developing countries over the level of tariff and subsidy cuts in the agriculture and industrial sectors. But a dispute principally between the US and India - which also included Indonesia and China - over a safeguard mechanism to protect farmers in developing states from agricultural imports prompted the collapse.
Comment: The Irish, who should be pretty impatrial, seem to give half the blame to the United States, which I interpret to mean the Bush administration. My sympathy does go out to the poor farmers in India and China, who are often just surviving, and would have a tough time dealing with unrestricted competition in some cases. JAD

Mothballing the Doha Round: A Sad Day

After nine days of negotiations, some 30 or 35 nations have failed to reach an agreement on the Doha Round of trade talks. The talks which were started in 2001 have a very ambitious agenda of liberalization of trade regimes and reduction of trade barriers. The talks have ground to a halt on previous occasions and this session has been seen be some as the last, best chance. While some observers suggest that only a wide ranging agreement is likely to succeed providing the trade-offs that will satisfice all participants with an accord; others suggest that several small agreements may still be possible if the talks have finally failed for good.

According to Business Standard:
The failure by trade ministers from 30 countries to seal a deal on the world trade talks does not mean the end of the Doha Round of negotiations, which has been going on for more than seven years, World Trade Organisation director general Pascal Lamy said today.
According to the Washington Post:
High-level delegations from the United States and the European Union showed fresh willingness at the World Trade Organization talks to make concessions that would have gradually curbed the subsidies and tariffs they have long employed to protect First World farmers. But India and China dug in their heels, insisting on the right to keep protecting their farmers while accusing the United States and other rich countries of exaggerating the generosity of their concessions.
Comment: If a negotiation fails that might have benefited the whole world and helped reduce the hunger of billions, a hunger especially acute in the current crisis, then there must be blame enough for all involved. On the other hand, the negotiations have been entirely on the watch of the Bush administration which has been accused of intransigence, especially over the early years. As an American, I hold our government responsible, and I hope that the citizens of other countries similarly hold their leaders responsible. JAD

Changing Categories of People

I heard a historian yesterday say that the current concept of American "teen ager" came to exist in the 1930's and 40's. Prior to that time few young people went to high school, and people in their teens were generally just young workers. When the Depression made jobs scarce, kids stayed in school, and the trend continued. The law also kept teen agers out of military service. So there came to be a population of post adolescent kids who were not in the work force. Then along came the transistor radio, small and cheap enough to be under the control of the kids themselves, and there grew up a body of programming serving the teen agers, and I would add, a teen age market was created. Thus in a relatively short time Americans had come to conceive of a subpopulation of Americans called "teen agers". (Note that some religions still enroll people as members about the age of puberty.)

I understand that Western society earlier had created a new conceptual category of the "child", having earlier seen (and dressed) children as young adults.

If you think about it, the 18th century abolished the class of people categorized as "slaves". The word comes from "Slavs", derived from from the widespread enslavement of captured Slavs in the early Middle Ages. In Portugal, in the 15th century there were both African slaves and European slaves from Russia and the Baltic states. People in the United States apparently applied the concept only to those with African ancestors, and in the time of slavery there were elaborate categories developed to categorize people of partial African ancestry. After the Emancipation Proclamation there were no more slaves, and we have gradually developed a category of "blacks" as those people who self-define themselves in that way. (One of my "black" friends has an Irish grandfather and a German grandfather.)

The women's suffrage movement changed our mental category of "woman" to allow women not only to vote but to take on other civic responsibilities, as modern feminism has changed the attributes attached to "women" in the workplace.

My point is that such culturally defined categories, which are very important in determining the way we think and the inferences we draw, are quite malleable. Because we generally learn these categories unconsciously through "acculturation" we tend to take them as more substantial that they really are. A rose may be a rose may be a rose, but we have come to think of people as teenagers who we once (not so long ago) would have thought of as young adults.

The corollary is that we should not place too much faith in the inferences we draw about people from the artificial social categories in which we have pigeon-holed them.

We need bandwidth, ISP's prefer profits

Source: "Comcast Illegally Interfered With Web File-Sharing Traffic, FCC Says" by Cecilia Kang, The Washington Post, July 30, 2008.

Three of the five FCC Commissioners have agreed Comcast illegally interfered with customer Internet traffic, a fourth was undecided at the time the article went to bed, and only one (a Republican) had refused to condemn the company. The Comcast case is a bellweather, and other ISP's are likely to meter Internet traffic or worst if they think they can get away with it.

Lots of other countries give consumers more bandwidth than we do in the United States, so it is not unrealistic to think we can and should have enough bandwidth that metering would be silly (rather than dangerous). Good on the FCC Commissioners who are doing their job on this one!

"Web curbs for Olympic journalists"

Image source: Intomobile
According to BBC News:
"Journalists covering the Beijing Olympic Games will not have completely uncensored access to the internet, Chinese and Olympic officials say. Sites related to spiritual group Falun Gong would be blocked, officials said. Journalists also found they could not see some news or human rights websites. China enforces tough internet controls, but said when it bid for the Games that journalists would be free to report."
Comment: The Olympics are hugely commercial for the media, the advertizers, and the host country and city. For the Chinese Government they seem to be a political event. It has become clear that some countries, some trainers and some others have driven young people to harm themselves in pursuit of an Olympic birth or medal. Too many athletes have used drugs to enhance their chances of success. The pollution in Beijing threatens to cause physical damage. And now we read that the Chinese Government has not honored its pledge to free reporters from censorship. I am not going to watch. JAD

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A couple of interesting blogs

This blog reports new ideas and work on mind, brain, and behavior - as well as random curious stuff
An attempt to share contemporary research findings, insights, musings, and discussions regarding theories and applied measures of human intelligence. In other words, a quantoid linear mind trying to make sense of the nonlinear world of human cognitive abilities.

Judging the success of a technological innovation

The standard cost-effectiveness, cost-efficiency, engineering economics approach to evaluating the success or failure of a project are well known, and this is not the place to review those methods.

I want rather to make some different points to show why so much of the literature is wrong. Thus in spite of the fact that information and communications technology have swept the world at an unprecedented rate, and that few Americans or American businesses would consider a future without their installed technology, there is a wide spread belief that most ICT projects fail.

Most of the literature seems to consider "stand alone" projects that have specific objectives, specific budgets and a schedule. Thus projects are judged to have failed if the specified objectives are not met within the specified budget and schedule. A more reasonable criterion would be whether the project achieved enough to justify the effort involved and the resources it used.

There is an alternative literature that considers the process by which technological improvement takes place. In that literature, the process can be considered a success even if some of the specific innovation projects along the way don't meet their nominal objectives. Indeed, that literature suggests that projects be sequenced in such a way as to best influence the hearts and minds of the people in the organization in question. The first projects in such a process might be chosen for their simplicity, visibility and probable positive impact on people's attitudes. Indeed, I suggest that the best strategy for the improvement of technology in an organization might in some cases involve the deliberate programming of sub-projects with unrealistic objectives, budgets and calendars.

One of the problems with the project by project evaluations of an innovation process is that early projects often have externalities that affect the overall process, but are difficult to measure. Thus, an early project while not meeting its explicit objectives might well leave a residue of skills in organizational personnel, of physical infrastructure that will have unplanned uses in the future, and of improved understanding of the organization and its processes in the change agent team. None of these would be likely to be measured in evaluating the project per se.

The rapid dissemination of ICT technology in the United States has been described as a viral rather than a planned process. Huge numbers of individuals and individual firms made decisions apparently independently to install technology and learn to use it. There was no centrally planned process that lead to the rapid dissemination of the technology nor to its eventual improvement of economic efficiency of the country. Yet many donor agencies now focus on scale up of pilot projects as the means of enhancing dissemination rather than creating conditions propitious to individual initiative. The question that should be asked of such efforts is whether they were more or less effective in promoting the dissemination of the technology and its effective use than other available approaches, not whether they achieved their stated objectives under budget and in time.

It has been recognized that the economics of network technologies are unusual. The benefits tend to accrue according to the number of participants in the network squared while the costs increase according to the number of participants alone. Since networks start small and grow, the benefit to cost ratio early in network development tends to be much lower than the ratio when the network reaches maturity. Unfortunately, many project evaluations are done over relatively short times, early in the development of the networks.

As we look at the development of personal computers and the Internet, we recognize that killer application succeeded killer application, and that today's value of the information infrastructure could not have been predicted, because no one had the foresight needed to predict those killer apps nor their importance and value. So too, as an organization begins the process of technological innovation it is unlikely to predict where it will lead nor the benefits it will yield. If the early projects are steps toward that uncertain future, how then can they be evaluated?

Republicans Make Inaction a Virtue

The New York Times yesterday published an article about the Tomnibus, a $10 billion collection of 35 Coburn-blocked measures put together by Harry Reed. All the measures had broad support in the Senate, and all had been blocked by Dr. No, Tom Coburn. The Tomnibus included the Mothers Act and the Protect Our Children Act. There are items to commemorate “The Star-Spangled Banner” and to try to curb pornography, cut drug use and help victims of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Coburn is a Republican Senator from Oklahoma.
Mr. Coburn, a 60-year-old family practitioner, blazed a career as a thorn in the side of both parties after arriving in the House as part of the Republican revolutionary class of 1994. He was a top anti-abortion crusader who conducted regular workshops for young staff members on sexually transmitted diseases, complete with graphic slideshows. He continued to deliver babies while he was in the House, but after moving to the Senate in 2004, he found himself in a long-running battle with ethics officials over whether he could moonlight.

In the Senate, Mr. Coburn has continued down his singular path, driving Democrats and some Republicans to distraction with his prolific use of the “hold” — the ability of a single senator to object to moving ahead on a measure without a debate. He currently has holds on nearly 80 bills, the most of any senator.
CBS News reports more recently:
Coburn (R-Okla.) prevailed in blocking a massive package of generally non-controversial bills that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid brought to the floor, angering Democrats and some Republicans while raising Coburn's status as a cult hero to fiscal conservatives. The vote was 52-40 on a procedural motion that required 60 votes......

Republicans stuck together in blocking this bill not because they oppose all of the programs, but because they have decided to block everything small and large this week until they get votes on stalled energy legislation.
Comment: Too bad they didn't block the bills giving the Bush administration the green light to go to war in Iraq, or to bug Americans without warrants, or to deregulate the financial industries that got us into the credit crisis we now suffer. Too bad they didn't block the confirmation of "Brownie" before he got the job he screwed up so badly in Hurricane Kartina, or the confirmation of other Bush administration hacks too numerous to name. But now they block legislation in favor of motherhood and against pornography! JAD

Monday, July 28, 2008

Public Health Problems in Waiting

I just posted on the emerging problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. There are other major health problems before us.

The situation in non-infectious disease is obviously worrisome due to the aging population, the problems of life style in an increasingly affluent global population, and the problems of pollution, not to mention the cost of the increasingly complex and comprehensive medical toolkit for dealing with these diseases. But let me focus on communicable diseases.

In addition to the problem of disease agents evolving increasing resistance to antibiotics, there is the problem of vectors of vector borne diseases evolving resistance to their control measures. There are emerging diseases, often resulting from the crossover from another species into humans. The AIDS epidemic illustrates the threat. As more people are in touch with more livestock, as livestock densities increase, and as people come into contact with new species through people or wild animals moving into new areas, there are more such opportunities for such crossovers. In failed states public health programs fail, infectious disease go unchecked, and their resulting epidemics create potential points of contagion for the rest of the world. Flu illustrates still another problem; the disease is endemic, but every few years there is a change in the virus and the resulting epidemic or pandemic is more contagious, more virulent or both. And of course, the failure of so many societies to be able to afford decent hygiene results in lots of spread of water borne, water washed, and other infectious diseases.

We think of infectious disease as being controlled, but there are an estimated 17 million deaths per year from them, second only to cardiovascular diseases. With globalization and the increase of international and intercontinental travel, a communicable disease can spread more rapidly and over greater distances than in the past. With rapid urbanization and the growth of megacities, there are huge human populations in close contact to enable epidemics to strike hard. In the developing world, these cities have extremely dense populations, increasing contact rates.

Add to all that the threat of bioterrorism, with disease agents engineered to be especially communicable, virulent or lethal, and the possibility of them being spread on purpose.

We should surely be focusing our attention on means to control and prevent infectious diseases for mankind's future safety.

Check out:

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A war on bacterial disease?

Source: "The Bacteria Fight Back," by Gary Taubes
Science 18 July 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5887, pp. 356 - 361

The last decade has seen the inexorable proliferation of a host of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or bad bugs, not just (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) MRSA but other insidious players as well, including Acinetobacter baumannii, Enterococcus faecium, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacter species. The problem was predictable--"resistance happens," as Karen Bush, an anti-infectives researcher at Johnson and Johnson (J&J) in Raritan, New Jersey, puts it--but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. In 2002, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that at least 90,000 deaths a year in the United States could be attributed to bacterial infections, more than half caused by bugs resistant to at least one commonly used antibiotic. Last October, CDC reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the number of serious infections caused by MRSA alone was close to 100,000 a year, with almost 19,000 related fatalities--a number, an accompanying editorial observed, that is larger than the U.S. death toll attributed to HIV/AIDS in the same year.
Comment: Too bad the Bush administration did not declare a war on bacteria instead of a war on terror. It might have saved a lot more lives had it done so.

My point is that it is important to know the numbers in order to judge which risks are more important. Together with an understanding of the potential for risk reduction, that way can lead to better policies, or at least policies that more fully accomplish stated purposes such as preventing deaths.

"DEFENSE RESEARCH: New Policy Tries to Ease Security Restrictions"

According to Science (18 July 2008), a new policy directive from the Department of Defense (DOD) has been promulgated that's meant to resolve a 7-year dispute between the Pentagon and academic institutions over the rules governing unclassified research.
Since the terrorist strikes of 11 September 2001, (federal) research agencies have tried to prevent sensitive technical information from falling into enemy hands by creating a category known as "sensitive but unclassified" research. Academic officials have fought back, pointing to a 1985 directive from the Reagan Administration that exempts fundamental research on university campuses from such restrictions. Last month, the universities won a major victory when DOD Under Secretary John Young instructed agency officials that "classification is the only appropriate mechanism" for restricting publications or participation of foreign nationals in unclassified research projects. "The performance of fundamental research, with rare exceptions, should not be managed in a way that it becomes subject to restrictions on the involvement of foreign researchers or, publication restrictions," the memo says, citing National Security Defense Directive 189, which President Ronald Reagan issued.
The policies of the past seven years appear to have been disruptive.
A survey of more than 20 universities by the Association of American Universities (AAU) and the Council on Government Relations documents 180 instances of troublesome clauses in research contracts from federal agencies, a majority from DOD and the Department of Homeland Security (see graphic). So the new policy is a welcome change, says Jacques Gansler, a former Pentagon administrator who co-chaired the academies' report.
One effect of the old policy has been to make it harder to give research assistantships to foreign graduate students. JAD

The U.S. Should Increase Cooperation with Russian Science

Glenn Schweitzer, who has led the National Academy's program of U.S.-Russian scientific cooperation for decades, has an editorial in the July 18, 2008 issue of Science magazine. He writes:
Russia no longer needs assistance from the west to shore up its science and technology (S&T) base. Its gross domestic product is $1.4 trillion and increasing at an annual rate of almost 9%. Investment in nanotechnology is on track to reach $6 billion during the next several years. The research budget of the Russian Academy of Sciences is six times larger than in 2001, and research funds are on the rise throughout the ministries.
He suggests that the decrease in U.S. funding is starving the collaborative scientific linkages that have been created over past decades. He also notes, correctly I am sure, that there are a number of global systems problems of great importance to the United States that would be better understood more rapidly through strong U.S.-Russian scientific collaboration, and thus ameliorated sooner and more effecively.

People are alike but culture matters

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, concerning the differences in audience participation in the television programs in the format of "So you want to be a millionaire". The program allows contestants, who are competing for very large prizes, to poll the audience for the answer of one question during the quiz. According to the story:
  • In the United States, audiences try to help with each member giving his/her best guess as to the correct answer;
  • In France the audience would try to help with a hard question, but if they felt the question was so easy that the contestant should know the answer without help they would deem him/her to be a blockhead not worthy of help and give the wrong answer;
  • In Russia the audience would generally give the wrong answer because Russians generally feel that it is unfair for someone to get rich simply because he/she is lucky enough to be selected as a contestant for a quiz show.
The point is that people in the three countries are all seen to be acting reasonably given their underlying attitudes toward quiz shows. However, they act very differently because those underlying positions are fundamentally different.

This seems to beautifully illustrate a point. A person's culture includes a cluster of underlying attitudes which are acculturated often tacitly by contact with others in the culture. People everywhere act in fairly predictable ways if you know the ideas and attitudes on which they base their actions; in this way, people are pretty much alike in all cultures. On the other hand, since the underlying attitudes differ so much from one culture to another, contingent on the historical development of that culture, people from different cultures can respond very differently to very comparable situations.

The silver bicycles of the dabbawallas

This is a truly wonderful posting from Anshuman Harshwardhan's blog.

4,000 to 5,000 dabbawalas, wearing white caps and riding silver bicycles, deliver 150,000 to 200,000 lunches on time from peoples homes to their offices every day with 99.99 percent accuracy (with a Six Sigma quality certification from the International Quality Federation). The tiffin boxes are returned to the homes via a reverse logistics system in the afternoon. People in Mumbai can sign up for the service via the website. The system involves transportation of the boxes via the Mumbai railroad system, with sorting centers at each station to send the tiffin boxes on the right routes!

According to The Economist:
AS THE warrior king who defeated the Mughals and founded the Maratha empire of Western India in the 17th century, Shivaji Bhosle is remembered as a tactical genius as well as a benevolent ruler. The direct descendants of his Malva-caste soldiers are also developing a reputation for organisational excellence. Using an elaborate system of colour-coded boxes to convey over 170,000 meals to their destinations each day, the 5,000-strong dabbawala collective has built up an extraordinary reputation for the speed and accuracy of its deliveries. Word of their legendary efficiency and almost flawless logistics is now spreading through the rarefied world of management consulting.
Comment: What a great example of a knowledge system of exquisite accuracy developed by in an unexpected quarter with the simplest technology. JAD

Generics are coming!

Source: "Pharmaceuticals: All together now," The Economist, July 24th 2008.

There have been a number of recent mergers, resulting in a consolidation of the industry producing generic pharmaceuticals. The mergers have veen international, affecting firms headquartered in Israel and India as well as in Europe and the United States. The generic drug market "enjoyed $72 billion in sales last year, and is growing faster than the conventional drugs business (see chart). IMS Health, an industry research firm, reckons that $130 billion of prescription pills will go off patent by 2012, creating a huge opening for generics. But that good news is tempered by two big trends: liberalisation and commoditisation."
There have long been two very different kinds of generics markets: genuinely competitive ones, like those found in America, Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and coddled ones, like those of Japan, the rest of continental Europe and much of the developing world. The competitive markets are now becoming “hyper-competitive”, in the words of Mylan’s Mr Coury. Generics make up nearly two-thirds of the American drugs market by volume, but only 13% by value. Customers, ranging from pharmacy chains to middlemen known as “pharmacy benefits managers”, are rapidly consolidating and so gaining greater power over prices.
Comment: It seems likely that these trends will make pharmaceuticals more affordable for the poor and for poor nations. That would be very good! JAD

Neuro-economics adding to behavioral economics

Source: "Neuroeconomics: Do economists need brains?" The Economist, July 24th 2008.

Subtitled "A new school of economists is controversially turning to neuroscience to improve the dismal science," this article states:
In the late 1990s a generation of academic economists had their eyes opened by Mr LeDoux’s and other accounts of how studies of the brain using recently developed techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed that different bits of the old grey matter are associated with different sorts of emotional and decision-making activity......

These new neuroeconomists saw that it might be possible to move economics away from its simplified model of rational, self-interested, utility-maximising decision-making. Instead of hypothesising about Homo economicus, they could base their research on what actually goes on inside the head of Homo sapiens.

The dismal science had already been edging in that direction thanks to behavioural economics. Since the 1980s researchers in this branch of the discipline had used insights from psychology to develop more “realistic” models of individual decision-making, in which people often did things that were not in their best interests. But neuroeconomics had the potential, some believed, to go further and to embed economics in the chemical processes taking place in the brain.
Comments: It has long seemed to me that economics should use better models of human decision making. For example, I have long wanted to see a model of race track gambling, using complexity theory, which recognized that the gamblers at the track come from a population with differing levels of information on the abilities of horses and jockeys and of the track conditions that influence race outcomes, and have differing opinions of the probabilities of race outcomes. Would it not be interesting to see whether models could predict pari mutuel betting outcomes of ensembles of betters?

I also welcome an increased understanding of the way the brain thinks and thus of the real way in which people choose courses of action. It would be great if the convergence of research from various fields would lead us to approaches which would enable more rational policy making.

Is economic inequality increasing?

Source: The Economist

Citing a study by Christian Broda and John Romalis, the Economist notes that the affluent have buy a different market basket of goods and services than do the poor, and the inflation of that purchased by the affluent has been greater than that of the goods and services purchased by the poor. This is a result of the fact that the poor buy more of the cheap consumer products, especially those flooding in from China, while the rich buy more expensive services such as medical care and education.

Thus while the dollar income distribution has gotten more uneven in the past decade, the Economist suggests that the poor have seen similar improvements in their ability to make purchases to those of the affluent. I would interpret this in a different way, inferring that the poor may find medical care and higher education still more difficult to afford than in the past.

The current inflation of fuel and food prices, and the long term devaluation of the dollar (see previous posting) suggest that the poor are not going to enjoy the increased buying power much longer if it has not already departed.


The Economist this week has an article on NASA, currently celebrating its 50th year of operation. NASA's program of unmanned scientific space probes have, literally, "pushed back the frontiers of human understanding."
At the moment, about a third of the agency’s $17 billion budget is spent on unmanned science. There are the missions to Mars and other planets. There are the less spectacular but more vital observations of the Earth from orbit in search of answers to questions about climate, weather and geology. There is the examination of the sun. And there is the scanning of the universe with orbiting telescopes that range across the spectrum and can see almost as far back as the Big Bang itself. If you believe that pure science is a public good that deserves to be paid for out of taxes, most of this is money well spent.

The remaining two-thirds of the budget, however, is consumed by manned space flight—in other words, the shuttle and the space station. The agency often refers to this as “space exploration” but in truth both shuttles and the space station are barely out of the atmosphere. The real exploration of space is being done by the unmanned missions.

The result is a tension between the “manned” and “unmanned” sides of the organisation. There are those in each camp who see little value in the work of the other. In particular, many of the scientists reckon that a lot more useful stuff could be done in space if the manned budget were spent on robot probes. Dr Griffin, however, believes this is naive. He says that without the human-exploration side, the science side would be “a mere shadow of itself today”.
Comment: Count me among those who would see more money spent on science and less on manned space flight. JAD

Thinking back on Orange County Republicans

I once lived in Orange County, California - a bastion of conservatism.

James Boyd Utt was my Congressman at the time. He served in Congress from 1953-1970. Wikipedia reminds me:

Utt was an outspoken conservative; one of his unachieved goals was to remove the United States from the United Nations.

He voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1960, 1964, and 1968, and against the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1963, he claimed that "a large contingent of barefooted Africans" might be training in Georgia as part of a United Nations military exercise to take over the United States.

In 1963, he also claimed that black Africans may be training in Cuba to invade the United States.
As I recall, he also regularly introduced legislation in the Congress to repeal the income tax.

Utt was succeeded in the 35th Congressional District by fellow conservative Republican John G. Schmitz, a prominent member of the John Birch Society. Schmitz served in the House of Representatives from 1970 to 1973. Again, Wikipedia informs us:
Early in 1982, John George Stuckle, an infant born on June 10, 1981, was treated at an Orange County hospital for an injured penis. A piece of hair was wrapped so tightly around the organ "in a square knot," according to one doctor--that it was almost severed. The surgery went well, and the baby suffered no permanent injury. However, the baby's mother, Carla, a 43-year-old Swedish-born immigrant and longtime Republican volunteer, wasn't allowed to take John George home, since some of the attending doctors were convinced the hair had been deliberately tied around his penis.[3]

Detectives threatened to arrest Carla and take John George away permanently unless she identified the father. In a shocking development, Carla said that Schmitz was John George's father.[4]

During a custody hearing, Schmitz acknowledged fathering John George out of wedlock. He'd also fathered Carla's daughter, Eugenie.
In 1997, Schmitz's daughter, Mary Kay Letourneau, was arrested for the statutory rape of a teenaged boy with whom she had an affair and a child. Newspapers reported that Letourneau's father had attempted to find a loophole in United States treaties with Samoa in order to find out if his daughter could be excused from trial (the boy victim in the case was of Samoan extraction).
The Letourneau case was the subject of endless media coverage for a decade.

Was Obama Sandbagged?

The Bush administration's Department of Defense tells Obama not to visit wounded soldiers in Germany as the visit might be misconstrued as political. Then, when Obama cancels the visit in order to avoid any chance of embarrassing the soldiers or making political use of their sacrifice, McCain charges Obama does not care enough about our injured soldiers. Was Obama set up? Once the government asked him not to visit the soldiers there was no way he could avoid criticism.

Too bad he didn't make the visit. Many of those soldiers would probably have remembered and valued a visit from Obama for the rest of their lives. Still I am glad he did not go against the advice of the Department of Defense in this situation. A candidate should respect the Department's judgment about the welfare of its soldiers. Lets hope that was in fact the highest priority of the Bush administration in this case.

The Legacy of the Bush Administration!

Source: The Washington Post, July 28, 2008

The dollar has fallen by 39 percent since its high in 2001. This is a result of the Bush administration economic policies, especially its unwillingness to pay any part of the costs of the wars it has started as we fight them.

Formal thinking about science and technology

There are a lot of formal approaches that can be used to make better decisions on science and technology. These include;

Technology Systems Analysis: Obviously one does not introduce 220 volt apparatus into a 110 volt system, but the approach can go much further. Don't introduce a brand if it can not be supported by maintenance and replacement parts, Don't introduce a communications medium unless content is going to be available. Realize that network economies depend on sequential introduction of added killer apps.; thus think about sources for added software as one introduces telecenters.

Financial analysis: One would assume that those investing in a technology would generally assure that it was profitable to do so, using standard financial analysis techniques, but that is both hard to do well with a technological innovation and perhaps frequently omitted in developing nations. Financial sustainability analysis is an important aspect.

Environmental impact assessment: My experience with aid projects was that people would justify a project as completely transforming agricultural technology in a country, and then state that there would be no environmental consequence. Technological change can indeed be disruptive.

Economic analysis: Clearly there is a need for economic analysis that goes beyond financial analysis, for example to include the economic externalities of introduction of a technology. There may also be a need for analysis of economic institutions, such as the ability of the local market to sustain the maintenance services needed for a new technology. It may also be very important to see who benefits and who suffers economically from a technological change.

Political analysis: Is a proposed technological change politically feasible or not? What are the interests of the key stakeholders. Can one build a coalition of the willing to provide the political cover an innovation requires?

Social soundness analysis: Is a proposed technological innovation culturally appropriate? What social systems is it likely to disrupt? Which will it reinforce? Are there means of ameliorating the social consequences? Technological innovations that are intended to diffuse via informal social networks should be viewed through the lens of sociological and anthropological analytic techniques.

Organizational analysis: Since often technological innovations take place within formal organizations, the analytic toolbox of from schools of business and/or public administration can be applied -- organizational science.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

"The feeling of certainty"

My friend Julianne also recommended On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not by Robert Burton, which I have not yet read. It is one of an increasing number of books dealing with the interrelation of mind and brain.

I was taken by the idea of the "feeling of certainty" which is apparently addressed in the book and is addressed in its reviews. As I understand it, the phrase suggests that while "certainty" is a concept applied to factual knowledge, "feeling" is rather applied to emotion. People do get emotional when what they believe to be their knowledge is challenged. Indeed, I think we introspectively understand how we "feel" we know things, even when reflection indicates that that knowledge is of a very tentative kind.

I would be interested if others have experienced the intuition that something can be known that is not now known, if only one worked hard enough to discover that knowledge, with an intuition of the path to the knowledge.

"Reason special: Reason eats itself"

My friend Julianne recommended this introduction to a special edition of New Scientist.

Note that the article has linkages to good websites on David Hume and Rene Descarte.

We need a foreign campaign finance law

Source: "Israeli Leaders Find Generous Donors in U.S.: Americans Give Most To the Political Right," by Griff Witte, The Washington Post, July 26, 2008.

The article states that Americans, acting as individuals, provide a large and influential portion of the financing for politicians and political parties in Israel.

Comment: We don't like the idea of foreigners intervening in American politics, and we have campaign financing laws to limit the negative impact of big money buying our own elections. We also have sad experience of the unexpected adverse consequences when U.S. spys, who are after all professionals implementing defined foreign policy, tried to buy elections in foreign countries. So, if we seek to promote the spread of democracy, lets have a federal law limiting the donations of American firms, individuals or political action committees to foreign politicians or political parties. JAD

A Thought About Robots and the Future of Mankind

The U.S. military now has unmanned aerial vehicles and robots used to disarm explosives deployed in war zones. It has ambitious plans to develop more capable and more autonomous robotic vehicles in the next decade or two. We now have programmed vehicles patrolling the perimeters of some strategic facilities, armed with remotely operated weapons. I have heard people question the safety of the deployment of such machines.

The U.S. military and the U.S. space program have been world leaders in the development of such autonomous vehicles and the associated computerized systems for their control. If we consider how great the progress has been in this field in the last half century, one can only wonder what will be accomplished in the next 50 or 100 centuries.

Which makes me think about a good topic for a science fiction story. At some point in the future it seems likely that mankind will come up against a situation that makes the survival of the species extemely unlikely. So would our species seek to develop a robotic technology system that could survive the crisis and continue developing and seeking to disseminate knowledge in the universe? An interesting idea to explore in fiction?

Foreign Policy Mine Field

Source: "AIDS Funding Binds Longevity of Millions to U.S.: Open-Ended Commitment of Money Is Implied," by David Brown, The Washington Post, July 26, 2008.

The Congress has passed and the President is about to sign an autorization bill authorizing up to $40 billion for AIDS treatment and other health assistance for developing nations. The bill was apparently cut down in the reconciliation conference from that described in the press a few days ago. Of course the actual funding will depend on the amounts the new Congresses and the new administration actually appropriate to the programs over the next few years.

Some years ago I got involved in a USAID program that funded the anti-malarial campaign in Haiti. The U.S. funding, were it to be discontinued, would almost certainly have been beyond the capacity of the Haitian government to continue from its own resources. The preventive services were critical to maintaining a reasonably low level of the disease in the country, and were it to have been terminated the result would certainly have been a public health disaster. There was an "ethical mortgage" to continue the funding for a program which the United States had created and which was doing real good.

In the case of the AIDS program, the a significant portion of the funding will go to the purchase of drugs to treat AIDS patients. We now know that that treatment can prolong life for several decades. Thus the newly expanded U.S. foreign assistance initiative will create a population of millions of people who owe their lives to the U.S. funding, since they would otherwise not be able to afford the required drugs. If the government should decide in the future to eliminate funding for the program then the expected immediate impact would be the deaths of the people dependent on the U.S.-supplied drugs. I leave the indirect impact to your imagination. There is an "ethical unexamined foreign policy explosive" created in each country receiving that assistance for AIDS drugs that it can not afford itself.

I can imagine that thoughtful officials of the aid agencies will seek to establish rules for the programs that substitute home-country funding for U.S. funding over the program life. My experience is that such well intentioned terms in agreements with poor and poorly governed countries often fail. Moreover, the U.S. government finds it necessary from time to time to terminate assistance to countries when those countries have changes in administration or when the administrations become or are proven to be corrupt or incompetent.

Indeed, our own government likes to change its development assistance priorities, and is going to be facing severe economic problems in future years.

So the new initiative, which is clearly a well intentioned response to a huge public health need, will create a significant mortgage on future aid funds. We are now experiencing the pain of a system which accepted mortgages beyond the borrowers long term ability to pay.

In the past

Knowledge and Technology Systems

Have you ever thought of the confluence of knowledge and technology that are needed to actually be useful? The electric light bulb was an impressive invention, but without generators, motors to power the generators, distribution lines, and all the related controls, insulators, etc. the light bulb itself would not be much use. Moreover, electrical systems became more and more valuable with the addition of added electrical technologies.

Think about surgery. In the early days, people often died of infection acquired during surgery or the pain and shock that accompanied surgery. The inventions of sterile techniques and anesthesia were required to make surgery a viable option. Then of course, one had to understand enough about diseases to know what kind of surgical intervention would be required, involving knowledge of pathology and anatomy. One had to then invent all the instruments for conducting surgery, and things like sterilizers, lighting, monitors, etc. Think how important medical imaging is in diagnosing problems to be addressed via surgery, and how much progress has been made in medical imaging since the discovery of x-rays. No wonder it took so long to reach modern surgery and no wonder the development of surgical techniques continues.

How well does AIDS treatment work?

Source: "HIV drugs 'add 13 years of life'"
BBC News, 24 July 2008

"Life expectancy for people with HIV has increased by an average of 13 years since the late 1990s thanks to better HIV treatment, a study says." The article states that "a person now diagnosed at 20 years old could expect to live for another 49 years. But the Antiretroviral Therapy Cohort Collaboration, which includes scientists from across Europe and Northern America, warned this was still short of the life expectancy for the wider population which stands at about 80." The study, conducted by a team from Bristol University, reviewed the experience of more than 43,000 HIV infected patients.

Comment: Maybe because I am old, it seems to me that the loss of eleven years of life expectancy is a very serious health risk. And of course, 49 years of treatment with anti-retrovirals is expensive and unpleasant. Moreover, we don't have a cohort of people who have been on these drugs for four decades so we don't really know what the side effects might be. Moreover, the death resulting from the final failure of the treatment may be worse that the alternative to be expected by a non-HIV infected person.

The anti-retroviral treatments are a spectacular scientific triumph which came faster than I would have expected. But that triumph should not be misunderstood. HIV infection is still a very unfortunate occurrence to be avoided if at all possible.

Some general concepts as they play out in technology and development

It occurs to me to post on some of the concepts that have been around for a while, and how they play out thinking about technology and development.

The Technology Gap

Think about marginal propensities to consume. Compare the consumption patterns of someone with an income of $1000 per year versus someone with $32,000 per year. The more affluent does not eat 32 times as many calories or 32 times as much protein as the less affluent. To some degree the more affluent will spend more to eat more desired foods, but after having fulfilled food needs people will allocate added income to fill other needs or desires.

So too, countries will marginal propensities to allocate added wealth and income to different technologies. In the area of information and communications technology, for example, countries will seek a level of telephone access as a fairly high priority. There is a limit, however, to how many telephones are needed, and eventually added resources will be allocated to other ICT needs and demands. Thus one finds that rich nations can afford and will invest in supercomputer networks and other capital intensive ICT infrastructure, and will therefore create comparative advantages in some areas that benefit from high power computing.

Failure to understand this phenomenon seems to have resulted in misunderstanding of the so called Digital Divide. There are differences in penetration of telephones, personal computers and the Internet between rich and poor nations, and those differences are coming down. However, not only do you have a 32 to 1 difference in GDP between some rich countries and some poor countries, there is a tendency for richer countries to allocate more of their GDP to ICT investments. The overall gap in ICT capacity will not be eliminated simply by diffusion of low cost, personal ICT technology in poor nations.


Developed countries have existing plants as a result of past investments with their embodied technologies. With the development of new, disruptive technologies, it is sometimes possible for poor countries to obtain a comparable or even superior technological capability without treading the paths already taken by richer countries, and to do so without so large a capital investment.

Thus with the development of mobile phones developing nations have been able to rapidly create very broad telephone connectivity without the expensive investments in land lines that were made in the past in developed nations. Indeed, they seem to be utilizing the cell phone technology to enable phome mediated financial services that are not available in developed nations.


The question as to whether the income gaps are increasing or decreasing among nations has been of considerable interest to economists. From my amateur perspective it seems that some countries are successfully closing the income gap and converging on the rich while others are failing to do so, and in fact are seeing their per capita GDP further diverge from that of the wealthiest nations.

I would suggest that exactly the same pattern of some convergence and some divergence is happening in technological capacity, and indeed there are probably circular chains of causality. That is, some countries which are successfully developing economically are also successful in technological innovation and diffusion, utilizing their increasing income and wealth to invest in technology; at the same time, those developing nations successfully acquiring, inventing and disseminating technology are often successful in utilizing that technology for economic development. On the other hand, the factors (political instability, corruption, repeated disasters, financial instability) often inhibit both economic and technological progress.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Better Ways of Doing Things: Organization versus Technology

Arguments about the importance of technological change in economic growth focus on the increase in total factor productivity. They often attribute the improvement of total factor productivity to technological change. This tends to make me think of the productivity increases in terms of technological innovation and diffusion. However, there is another important aspect of the increase in total factor productivity -- the improvement in organization.

We see important investments in reengineering organizations, building market institutions, and restructuring economic sectors. All of these are investments designed to improve productivity by improving the organization of productive activities.

We could of course see these processes as social innovations and their diffusion, but we seldom do.

Still, I hope that nothing that I have posted would lead the reader to think I don't value social innovation as a tool for economic (and social) development.

Think about telecenters, microfinance and venture capital firms as examples of relatively recent social innovations or of philanthropic foundations, industrial research laboratories and research intensive universities as earlier social innovations. All have been important contributions to modern economies.

How the Economic World is Changing

I heard Mohamed El-Erian interviewed on the Charley Rose show. I want to post on three things he said:
  • The motors of international economic development are changing,
  • The international pattern of savings is changing and thus so too is the international flow of investment.
  • Our indicators created for the earlier economic patterns failed to warn us of the nature of the current economic problems and we need new indicators more attuned to the current reality.
Growth in the world's economy is the aggregate of growth in national economies, weighted by the relative magnitudes of the nations' GDPs. In the decade after World War II the economy of the United States was so great a portion of the economy of the free world that its growth rate also dominated world growth. It is generally believed that developed nations have lower growth rates than the most successful developing nations because it is harder to grow at the economic frontier than to play catch up. What ever the reason, economically successful developing countries such as China and India have economic growth rates much higher than that of the United States, Europe and Japan. As their GDP's grow to more nearly approximate those of Europe and the United States in size, their growth will represent an even larger portion of global economic growth. In this sense the United States is being replaced as the global motor for development by a multi-engine system with big motors in Asia being added to the big motors of North America and Europe.

It seems likely to me that the faster the increase in GDP, the more rapid the technological innovation. So it seems likely that China and India, as well as Russia, Brazil and other rapidly growing nations are also motors of global technological innovation.

The invention of new technologies is perhaps a more important motor for long term economic growth, and this is perhaps less directly correlated with the rate of GDP growth, and more related with a combination of variables including the size of the economy, its rate of increase of GDP, its gross expenditure on research and development, and the "distance" between its current technology and the global technological frontier.


El-Erian points out that the United States has a very low saving rate, and indeed has been borrowing against the appreciation of its real estate to finance high levels of consumption while many the Asian economies are sustaining very high rates of saving. In the distant past rich countries were using their wealth to invest in poor nations; now there is an important flow of savings from Asian nations to the United States.


I can't really comment on why our leading investment advisors missed the current crisis for so long as it developed.

It does seem to me that another change as the United States is making the transformation from an industrial society to a knowledge based society is that we are investing more in human resources, knowledge creation and knowledge management systems. It also seems to me that our current indicators of savings and investment don't do very well with the new forms of savings and investment. Someone who withdraws from their job for a while to learn and master a new skill is counted currently as a reduction of GDP rather than as a savings and investment in knowledge and human resources.

Household Technology

Over the past week I have been posting on technology and development, but have not mentioned household technology. The work people do at home is real work. In the developed world the dissemination of labor saving household technology has freed huge numbers of people to enter the formal labor force, and they in turn have contributed disproportionately to the growth of GDP (since their paid employment counts, while their unpaid household work does not count in GDP calculation.

Drawers of water and gatherers of wood still constitute a significant working population in the poorest nations. Piped water, especially to the household makes a big economic impact whenever it is provided, although it has been common in developed nations so long that we tend to forget that fact. Still, there are whole continents which lack piped water to substantial portions of their households.

Improved stove technology arrived in the developed world a couple of centuries ago, but wood and coal burning stoves have been largely replaced in our world. In some parts of the world cooking and heating are still accomplished using ancient rather than modern technology. Inefficient open cooking fires result in a big workload for the gatherers of wood and those doing the cooking, not to mention lots of indoor air pollution and externalities of deforestation and environmental degradation.

When we think of construction technology, I at least tend to think of the modern sector in which there is a large scale technology transfer from developed to developing nations, as well as considerable adaptation of building technologies to local resources and their differing costs. There is a huge area of traditional building technology, ranging from houses in rural areas and urban slums to community facilites, which are built (often by unskilled workers) using traditional or artesanal techniques. Far too little work has been done on improving the technology for this kind of "popular" construction. There is a huge effort needed both to develop improved technologies and to disseminate the resultant technological knowledge to those who need it. Note too that the health of people depends importantly on household hygiene, and homes and community buildings can be built in manners that enhance hygiene or make it difficult.

The labor saving devices univeral in homes of the North (e.g. washing machines, dryers, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, dish washers, household electrical tools) are largely absent from the homes of the poor, and the household communications technology of the Northern home (telephones, radios, televisions, computers with Internet connections) are much less common.

We think of home heating and cooling technology in terms of their enhancement of comfort and thus quality of life. It occurs to me that they may also have economic benefits to the family, as for example enhancing the learning fo now comfortable children.

Corbousier said "a house is a machine for living". In that spirit, one can think of improving the technology used in housing thereby helping people to live better.

Difficulty Defining Depresion Deemed Difficulty in Decisionmaking

I was listening to the Ira Flato science program on National Public Radio in which two experts were discussing "depression". The word is one of those which is used by the general public and by clinical professionals, and due to its origins in common speech is applied to a very wide variety of conditions from feeling sad to being paralyzed by brain dysfunction. Not surprisingly, what one is encouraged to do about the condition depends on the degree, severity, causes and duration of the condition.

From the point of view of this blog, the fuzziness of the concept of depression might be worth exploring. It is hard to design epidemiological instruments to measure the incidence, prevalence and severity of the condition. It is also hard to define clinical criteria for prescription for the disease, and thus to estimate the need for alternative treatments in the population, and thus the need for resources to adequately address that need.

Further Thoughts on Technology for Development

The emphasis of many of the people who write about science, technology and innovation for economic development seems to be manufacturing technology. That of course is a very important topic, and we even use the term "newly industrializing countries" to describe the most successful developing countries.

As I have pointed out, technological innovation in extractive industries is also important. We are learning to our distress that failure to attend to the need for innovation in agriculture can be very costly, not only financially but in terms of hunger and misery in the poorest nations. Artisanal fishing is being revolutionized, as I understand the situation, by the introduction of communications technology to allow the fishermen to find markets offering the best prices, the introduction of fish-finding technology, and the introduction of stock management technology. Mining depends of advances in exploration technology, extraction technology, and mineral beneficiation technology. Forestry is benefiting from the development of better growing trees and other technological advances.

In services one should recognize that all the infrastructure services are dependent on engineering. The engineering technologies not only involve the transfer of advances in engineering techniques from developed to developing nations, but the tailoring of engineering practice to developing country needs. Road building, for example, can benefit from the exploitation of local materials and designs to meet the special requirements of the local environment; the techniques used in labor intensive construction and maintenance of dirt roads are quite different from those involved in capital intensive construction of major highways.

Of course there is great interest in the impact of the information revolution technologies as applied to communications in developing nations, but there are also differences in electrical technologies for power applications in developing nations, especially in the application of off grid, small scale power generation.

Banking has been revolutionized by ICT, and health services have been made vastly more cost effective by advances in vaccines and other pharmaceuticals as well as by new diagnostic and epidemiological technologies. Education is only beginning to benefit from e-learning technologies which will be applied far more widely in the future. Indeed, think about the McDonnalds revolution, which is in part due to technological innovations in franchizing and commercial sales.

The process of technological innovation needed to contribute optimally to economic growth in developing nations involves this full spectrum of technologies and applications.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reasons not to trust reason

The New Scientist presents several short video clips of serious thinkers talking about why they distrust human reason. This is worth five minutes of anyone's time!

Obama in Berlin

It was so nice to see a couple of hundred thousand people cheering for America and for an American politician. It made me think that Obama might repair the damage to America's image abroad done by the Bush administration faster than I ever imagined!

More musing -- continued

So what are the emerging disruptive technologies?

The personal computer wave has already crested.

The Internet and World Wide Web were the technologies of the boom.

The mobile phone looks like a great wave, but there are players already riding it which will be hard to compete with.

Biotechnology has been the next big wave for a few decades, and is still a technology that appears worth watching. It seems to have various branches:
  • agricultural applications,
  • pharmaceuticals produced in cell culture, from GM plants, or animals,
  • industrial (further away?)
  • others such as mineral beneficiation, creation of microorganisms for environmental cleanup applications.
Nanotechnology, which seems to be a coming bet for a number of emerging economies as well as of developed nations. Again, nanotechnology is a term which may hide the distinctions among several related technologies. Chip manufacturers are already working at nanoscale. Catalysis is an obvious area, and there are many people looking to biomedical applications of nanotechnology. Who knows whether the currently commercialized applications like sunscreens and dirt resistant clothing will be prototypes for an important industry.

I have a hunch that the will be important commercial opportunities coming out of neurobiology, ranging from medications to deal with mental problems to techniques to enhance learning and attention.

These are all areas in which scientific developments are leading to new technologies with commercial applications. There may also be other areas in which social and economic problems will require major technological innovation providing commercial opportunities.

The energy challenge may lead to new waves. Nuclear, which at least in the United States has been limited in application due to popular aversion to the risks it is perceived to involve, seeks likely to be more important. There is interest in a hydrogen economy, and in renewables.

More musing about technology and development

Some time ago a friend who was asked to advise a developing country about entry into international ICT markets wondered why they did not seek to enter high on the "value chain" but rather sought to begin with relatively labor-intensive, low-profit-margin operations with the hope of getting to more profitable operations in the future. His was a good question.

That seems to have been the path used by Singapore in entering the computer printer field and by India in pharmaceuticals. Yet would it not be smarter to skip the low profit margin areas and go directly for the gold? I can think of a couple of possible answers.

One is that value chains are complex, and it would be very difficult to enter in such a way as to appropriate the lions share of the profits. Rather a firm seeking to do so needs to enter at some point where it has a competitive advantage and then build the forward and backward linkages it needs to compete more broadly. There is a lot of tacit knowledge in a production process, and a new entrant has to master this knowledge. Developing countries often have some obvious advantages: low cost labor, some (like India) have underutilized highly educated workers, linkages to existing elements of the value chain (such as Irish linkages to Irish Americans during the 1990's or linkages from former colonies to former colonial centers), or specialized market access.

Another answer is that the current occupants of the most profitable niches in value chains will fight to retain their profitable niches. Clearly there are many examples of new entrants into value chains eventually eating the lunches of the firms previously dominating those chains. A dominant firm would seem more likely to accept a newcomer firm if the newcomer took over a low profitability portion of the value chain. In fact, for a vertically integrated firm, the allocation of profits among portions of the value chain may be somewhat arbitrary. Calving off a portion of the value chain to a low cost partner while assigning that portion a low profitability may result in higher profits for the core functions maintained by the dominant firm.

Now of course entrepreneurs in developing countries would love to replicate the success of Microsoft, eBay or Amazon. These were all tiny firms and they took on IBM and mass marketing megafirms and won. This kind of success seems to come when a firm gets in on the ground floor of a disruptive technology. Long wave theory suggests that such opportunities are relatively rare, and that the process of elaborating the industry built around such a technology can last decades.

Exploitation of the economic opportunities inherent in disruptive technologies, even when they exist, demands an entrepreneurial culture, sources of investment capital willing to accept high risk, and scientists willing to utilize their specialized knowedge to develop the derivative technologies. This latter point in turn suggests that there needs to be an active fundamental research community to assure that there are scientists available to act as gatekeepers for innovations in disruptive technology.

It turns out that there are a lot of places that have these ingredients in abundance and are hoping that their citizens will get the early adopter advantage due to those who first hop on to ride the wave of the next disruptive technology. Very few of these places are in poor countries, although some are forming in newly industrializing countries.

The Knowledge of the American Voting Public

Source: "Another Peek Inside the Brain of the Electorate," by Libby Copeland, The Washington Post, July 24, 2008.

The American Voter Revisited, was released last month, inspired by 1960's The American Voter. "Four years ago, Lewis-Beck and Jacoby and two other political scientists decided to take on "The American Voter" once more. They used the same methods to crunch the data and even organized the book the same way."
One thing that's certain is that Americans are consistent. They've had difficulty articulating their opinions in ways that satisfy political scientists for decades. ...... "The American Voter" was thick with statistical tables and a wonky theory called the "funnel of causality," all revealing that Americans have what William G. Jacoby of Michigan State University calls "incoherent, inconsistent, disorganized positions on issues."
Some academics criticized "The American Voter" for depicting voters as "fools," while others suggested the voters were not so much fools as, uh, "cognitive misers."
So what does "Revised" say:
"The American Voter Revisited" is chock-full of depressing conclusions, couched in academic understatement. In-depth interviews conducted with 1,500 people during the two most recent presidential elections revealed that the "majority of people don't have many issues in mind" when they discuss voting, Lewis-Beck says. Sometimes they say they're attracted to a candidate because "I just don't think we should change parties right now." They tend to inherit their party allegiance from their parents, and those beliefs tend to stay fixed throughout their lives, he says.

"For many people," the authors of "Revisited" write, "dealing with political issues is too much of a bother."
And what do the counter-critics say now:
Many Americans vote primarily because of one or two or three issues, she says. They might care a whole lot about health care or prayer in schools and not at all about foreign policy, and maybe that leaves them sounding dumb when they're asked about Iraq. But they know enough about the issues they care about, and that's what they vote on.

And how do they gather what they know? Popkin, whose own studies suggest that Americans' awareness of issues has been growing for decades, argues that voters use shortcuts to make judgments about the candidates, relying on things like endorsements, the advice of friends, and the candidate's party. So what if they forget much of what they've learned, so long as they absorb the lessons?
Comment: Of course a very large number of Americans don't vote, and even more don't always vote. Still with some 300,000,000 people we should get a very accurate view of public opinion from those who do vote in an election.

The question I guess is how well does decision making via our voting system work. How many experts do you need to pay attention to the issues to provide the leadership that the voting public needs. How well do the social processes that result in voting behavior transform expert opinion into votes at the pole? Most important, can we find better systems to get the right answers for the election of our politicians?

Of course, the system does not depend on votes on issues, but rather on the votes of their representatives on the issues, and on the leadership of their elected branch officials on those issues. So the question is, does the system result in an effective political selection of representatives.

There are clearly lots of bad selections. They are the ones who make the front pages. But the system allows for a few bad apples by electing lots of politicians and having majority voting rules and checks and balances between the branches of government. Is this enough? Could it be better?

The issues in designing knowledge systems that work both to lead to good decisions and to make decision makers responsible to the public are very complex!

Military Closes Down Blogger

Source: "Silent Posting: With His Blog Kaboom, a Young Soldier Told of His War. Last Month, the Army Made Him Shut It Down." by Ernesto LondoƱo, The Washington Post, July 24, 2008.

Matthew Gallagher, better known as Lt. G, had his blog, Kaboom ordered taken down last month. The young soldier had been blogging since he was assigned to Iraq last year.
The blog's downfall was a May 28 posting that, in violation of military blogging rules, Gallagher failed to have vetted by a supervisor. (That the posting depicted an officer in the unit unflatteringly might have played a role. Gallagher declined a request to comment.)
The army might have done it better. Certainly there is a need to censor military postings to see that they don't provide militarily useful information to the enemy, but that power should be used cautiously. If a soldier transgresses the rules, if no harm is done, he should not be prevented from continuing blogging.

The good news is the the soldier has been promoted and is now a Captain, and that his girlfriend has revived Kaboom!

Musing about technology and development

The rule of 72 is that the rate of growth times doubling time equals 72. Thus if per capita income grows at three percent per year, it will double in 24 years. If per capita income grows at six percent per year, it will double in 12 years.

Per capita income generally increases because labor productivity increases. That may not be true of oil exporting countries, but who needs to think about making oil exporting countries richer? Not me.

These days it is generally accepted that labor productivity can increase through the increase in capital to labor ratio or from technological change -- doing things smarter. Of course when a country changes capital to labor ratios, then the country moves from more labor-saving technologies towards more capital-intensive technologies.

The point I would make is that if a country that can save and invest enough to increase gross national product per year, if it can also add an additional three percent per year introducing better ways of doing things, then it reduces the time to double per capita income from 24 to 12 years. That is the difference between multiplying per capita income by a factor of four versus a factor of 16 in a half century. No wonder that innovation is being added to saving and investment to accumulate capital as an important objective of development policy.

The development path for the least developed country seems to involve a shift from subsistence level rural life based on extractive industries -- farming, fishing, etc. -- to urban life based on manufacturing and service industries.

This involves two kinds of technological change. Many armers have to change technology to produce more food and fiber per worker, but many other farmers have to leave their farms and learn to work in factories or service industries. Thus technological development involves both improving the technology in existing industries, but also introducing technology for new industrial activities.

The other day I posted on Howard Pack's article (titled "Asian Successes vs. Middle Eastern Failures: The Role of Technology Transfer in Economic Development."). That article contrasts the development paths of the industrializing countries of Asia with the less rapidly growing countries of the Middle East. Pack points out that the industrializing countries had developed export oriented econoomies and had acquired technology rapidly especially through transfers from abroad. That is a path focused on developing the jobs and acquiring the associated technologies for the increasing urban populations of the industrializing nations.

The poorest countries are the most rural, with the vast majority of their populations living in rural areas. For such countries increasing the productivity of agriculture is necessary, because the increased yield from agriculture is likely to be the best mechanism to generate the income needed for investment, and the best mechanism to free farm workers to take up the industrial and service industry employment.

Ideally technological innovation should be economy wide, improving the productivity of primary, secondary and tertiary industries. However, the different industries have different innovation systems. For the poorest countries, it seems to me that policy emphasis should be placed on the agricultural innovation systems. As countries industrialize, the emphasis should shift to focus more and more on innovation systems for the secondary and tertiary industries.

To maximize economic growth, the scarce resources should be allocated appropriately among these innovation systems. Those resources include capital, but also the scarce capacity to make and implement good policies.

Note, however, that the allocation of benefits from innovation depend on the where the innovations are taking place. Rural populations can be expected to benefit more from successful agricultural innovations than from successful industrial innovations. Those with capital are likely to benefit more from innovations in more capital intensive industries, while those in labor intensive industries are likely to benefit more from innovations in their industries.

The allocation of resources by market processes seems likely to be influenced to benefit more those with more economic power. The allocation of resources by political processes seems to be likely to be influenced more by those with more political power. And, of course, economic and political power are often correlated.

There are countervailing processes. For example, the right to life has been recognized to imply that health service innovations serving the poor be given priority. International donors, who provide a significant portion of national budgets in some of the poorest countries and which focus more on poverty alleviation than on economic development per se, can also emphasize innovation systems serving the poor. Thus, one has seen emphasis on appropriate technology and microfinance in the donor agencies.

The fundamental point is that there should be a shift in the balance of innovation policies from as countries proceed from abject poverty to the early and intermediate stages of industrialization. Thus policy advice on technological innovation should be tailored to the circumstances of the individual country. Of course it is obvious that this is true in the sense that countries with different physical resources and different environments need different technologies, but it is also true in terms of the degree to which a country has made the transformation from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrial society.

Moreover, one should measure the success of overall innovation policy not only in terms of rate of growth of per capita GDP, but also in terms of the changes in the distribution of income. The United States is an example of a country that has experienced relatively rapid growth of per capita GDP over the last decade, but in which the beneficiaries of that growth have been almost entirely limited to the most wealth members of the society. I would have preferred more equitable growth, even if slower, had it benefitted the most needy more.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

"Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering"

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Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering

Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2007.

The United States economy relies on the productivity, entrepreneurship, and creativity of its people. To maintain its scientific and engineering leadership amid increasing economic and educational globalization, the United States must aggressively pursue the innovative capacity of all its people—women and men. However, women face barriers to success in every field of science and engineering; obstacles that deprive the country of an important source of talent. Without a transformation of academic institutions to tackle such barriers, the future vitality of the U.S. research base and economy are in jeopardy.

Beyond Bias and Barriers explains that eliminating gender bias in academia requires immediate overarching reform, including decisive action by university administrators, professional societies, federal funding agencies and foundations, government agencies, and Congress. If implemented and coordinated across public, private, and government sectors, the recommended actions will help to improve workplace environments for all employees while strengthening the foundations of America's competitiveness.