Friday, February 29, 2008

Political versus Governmental Knowledge Systesm

I was thinking how different is the knowledge system faced by candidates for the presidency versus that for the President in office.

National campaigns in the United States have to be large, complex institutions to have any chance of success. They develop a complex system to discover what the voters want and how well the candidates are responding to those wants. They develop large and complex systems to communicate to the voters. There is a system to understand the nation and the world and to monitor events that might affect the campaign, but those systems are focused on the needs of the candidate to be seen as in command of the facts, rather than to analyze the facts in depth.

The administrative branch of the United States government has a far more extensive knowledge system, with the major function of coordinating governmental activities. It however has a far more extensive system for informing the decisions of the President than any campaign could afford. One hopes that the intent is not to provide information to help someone convince the voters to vote for him, but rather to inform decisions critical to the prosperity and security of the United States and all its citizens.

More generally, there doesn't seem to be much relationship to the skills and abilities needed to get elected and the skills and abilities needed to do a good job as head of the most influential government administration in the world.

We need more and stronger Inspectors General

The Washington Post reports:
Inspectors general appointed to uncover waste, fraud and misconduct in federal agencies often lead underfunded and poorly staffed units and are not as independent as the public has been led to believe, according to a study released yesterday by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

The study noted that more than half the 64 inspectors general are not appointed by the president or subject to Senate confirmation hearings. They are appointed by agency heads who in many cases control the watchdogs' budgets and have on occasion retaliated against them over unfavorable reports by cutting funding or denying promotions to staff members, the report said.

"The inescapable conclusion is that an IG who lacks independence is an impostor -- even calling such an office 'Inspector General' confuses the press and public and can create pitfalls for potential whistleblowers," the nonprofit advocacy group concluded.
Comment: The Inspectors General represent an important component of the knowledge systems of our government agencies, and they should not be compromised in the ways this article describes. JAD

U.S. Human Rights Abuses?

Source: "New High In U.S. Prison Numbers: Growth Attributed To More Stringent Sentencing Laws," N.C. Aizenman, The Washington Post, February 29, 2008.
With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

The growth in prison population is largely because of tougher state and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have been particularly affected: One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.
Comment: Great Britain tried to reduce crime by more and more draconian penalties for more and more offenses, and failed. It looks like the United States is falling into the same trap.

Is is a human rights abuse of our minorities that we find it necessary to place so many more of them in jail than does any other nation?

We criminalize narcotics abuse, when we might better use other approaches to reduce the problem. There must be a whole variety of technological approaches now that could substitute for incarceration for many crimes, with less interference with human rights.

We should use the information to make better public policy!
JAD

What Bush Doesn't Know!

The Washington Post today has an article noting that President Bush is losing his common touch.
Peter Maer of CBS News Radio asked what seemed to be a straightforward question. "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing . . . "

"Wait, what did you just say?" the shocked president interrupted. "You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"

"A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline," Maer explained.

You could've knocked Bush over with a feather. "Oh, yeah?" he said. "That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."......

On Wednesday, the $4-a-gallon forecasts had been on the front page of the New York Times, and on NBC's "Today Show" and CBS's "Early Show." In the days before that, the prediction -- made by AAA, among others -- was in the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, even the Kansas City Star. The White House press secretary took a question about $4 gas at her Wednesday press briefing. A poll last month found that nearly three-quarters of Americans expect $4 gas.
and:
At yesterday's session, NBC's David Gregory invited him to criticize Democratic presidential candidates for not knowing much about the expected new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. "I don't know much about Medvedev, either," Bush replied.

Agence France-Presse's Olivier Knox asked Bush why he was going to the Olympics in China despite the country's human rights record. "I'm a sports fan," the president reasoned.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Federal R&D Funding Down in FY 2007"

The new National Science Foundation InfoBrief reports:
The National Science Foundation (NSF) tracks federal funds obligated annually for research and development and R&D plant. The most recent data, for FY 2007, show an estimated $116.4 billion in total obligations, almost the same level ($116.9 billion) reported for the previous year. However, when the data are adjusted for inflation, they reflect a nearly 3% decrease in R&D and R&D plant obligations, the first such decline since FY 2000.

The American Mobility Project

The Economic Mobility Project is a unique nonpartisan collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and respected thinkers from four leading policy institutes — The American Enterprise Institute, The Brookings Institution, The Heritage Foundation and The Urban Institute.

This research is very disturbing:
For more than two centuries, economic opportunity and upward mobility have
formed the foundation of the American Dream and remain at the core of our nation’s identity. But today, while there is widespread agreement that income inequality is higher than at any time since before World War II, too little attention has been given to the more fundamental and increasingly intriguing issue of economic mobility — the prospects for climbing up (or falling down) the economic ladder within and across generations.

Recent studies suggest that there is less economic mobility in the U.S. than researchers originally believed. And, in sharp contrast to the view of America as the land of opportunity, we may be a less mobile society than many other nations. This suggests that the time is right for a rigorous and nonpartisan initiative designed to spark an informed national discussion of the state of economic mobility in America.

College Used to be a Meritocratic Economic Mobility Machine in the U.S.

A couple of days ago the New York Times published an article by ERIK ECKHOLM titled "Higher Education Gap May Slow Economic Mobility". That is the source of the figure to the left.

A notable finding:
The researchers found that Hispanic and black Americans were falling behind whites and Asians in earning college degrees, making it harder for them to enter the middle class or higher.

Questioning a McCain Comment


According to today's Washington Post, John McCain took a comment by Barack Obama (that he would reserve the right to return forces to Iraq if al-Qaeda was to return after a withdrawal of American troops) out of context and used it to attack Obama.
"I have some news," McCain told voters at a rally here Wednesday morning. "Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is called 'al-Qaeda in Iraq.' My friends, if we left, they wouldn't be establishing a base. . . . they would be taking a country. I will not allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender."
I don't know, but are we really concerned that al-Qaeda would take control of Iraq, and that the Kurd, Sunni and Shiite factions would let that happen? Admittedly, I am taking McCain's comment out of context, but I hope that is not the outcome he is worried about.

This is really a question, but is the direct threat from a resurgent al-Qaeda in an independent Iraq not really that there would be a new safe-haven for al-Qaeda more extensive and protected than that which exists today, and comparable to those which existed in the past in Afghanistan and Sudan. There seems to be safe havens in Pakistan and other countries, but less welcoming to the anti-Western terrorists than that which existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban controlled government.

The United States should certainly withdraw troops from Iraq eventually. I don't want to see a permanent base in that country as there are permanent bases in other nations. My hope is that we find a withdrawal strategy that is reasonable in terms of the obligation we have incurred to the Iraqi people through our invasion of their country, and in terms of the stability and security of the Gulf states, the Levant, Central Asian nations, and indeed the whole world.

The brief report of McCain's statement makes me think he is focusing on a mosquito while ignoring an onrushing freight train. JAD

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bush Administration Fails to Fund Expectations

Source: "U.S. BUDGET: House Panel Berates Science Adviser on 2009 'Shortfall'" by Jeffrey Mervis, Science 22 February 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5866, p. 1023.

Last week members of the House Committee on Science and Technology complained that President Bush has failed to honor his financial commitment to U.S. innovation in his 2009 budget request. The America COMPETES Act, passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed by the president authorizes spending of $43 billion over 3 years to increase the U.S. pool of scientific talent and boost research spending. "Although the budget proposes spending 84% of the authorized level for DOE science, 93% for NSF, and 71% for NIST, it falls short of the overall target by $2.1 billion (see graphic)."

Comment: The administration says that the next president should meet the funding targets Bush set, but the Bush administration itself will not do so in the period in which it is within it power to do so. JAD

Should Peer Review be Confidential?

The current edition of Science magazine has an editorial by Donald Kennedy recommending that peer reviews remain confidential. It recounts the story of a legal action by a drug manufacturing firm seeking access to peer reviews for articles concerning one of its products. The New England Journal of Medicine, which is the subject of the action, guarantees reviewers anonymity, and is resisting showing the reviews to the company.

I spent many years managing peer review processes, and thinking about them and have a few comments.

  • I have found it useful to tell reviewers that I would forward the text of their reviews directly to the scientist making the reviewed submission, and that the text should be professional and suitable for professional communication among peers. After all, it is the original author who will have to refute the criticisms, revise his/her work, and/or go back to the bench to do better next time. In fact I tended to edit the reviews to try to assure such professionalism.
  • I have also found it useful to offer the reviewers that I would not inform the reviewed of the reviewer identity. Of course, sometimes the identity can be guessed from the nature of the review.
  • It is important that if you can not in fact guarantee confidentiality, you should not tell reviewers that have a guarantee. Reviewers are at best underpaid for their work, and more often do reviews pro bono, and for that reason it is especially important not to mislead them.
  • Sometimes reviewers feel the need to submit their own data with a review. Doing so provides a basis for the editors to continue an interchange with original authors on their submissions. I can understand that sometimes that data should be held confidential. It might, for example, not yet have gone thru its own peer review process and been published, and thus open to misinterpretation if made public. It might alternatively be commercially proprietary. It seems to me that the reviewer should not be offered confidentiality unless such a justification is made. It also seems to me that the law should allow for confidentiality in selected cases.
The case of epidemiological data about the efficacy and/or safety of pharmaceuticals has an ethical aspect, in that there are public health issues. I wonder if in such cases, the court might appoint a scientific advisory panel to review the confidential data, under bonds of confidentiality, to assure that patients would not be endangered by its being withheld.

How will e-learning change in the next half century

I was talking to a group of graduate students about the use of information and communications technology in international education yesterday, and suggested that the technology would transform education in their lifetimes. For that reason, we are trying to get students used to current technology. In our current course we are using electronic reserves, email, online readings, social bookmarking, discussion boards, a classroom with computer and projector, video clips and Power Point presentations in the classroom, computers to analyze data and display information in an interactive fashion.

It made me think. It is now 50 years since I first taught at a university. I had the previous year learned to program on the Standards Western Automatic Computer, SWAC. Built in 1950, the SWAC was perhaps the first computer made using existing technology, simply to function as a computing device, rather than as an experimental device to advance the state of technological art. While it was already being replaced, it was deemed more than adequate for undergraduates. It was a machine lacking even an assembly language, with a tiny memory and millisecond clock speed.

Of course there were no video recorders, few sound recorders, and the sales of color TVs had begun only five years previously. UCLA had, as I remember, two computers, and was seen as a leader in the field. Lasers were being invented, as were integrated circuits, and fiber optics were in the future. Had anyone suggested that in my lifetime there would be a billion personal computers, each with many times the power of the largest commercial machine, all connected by an internet that included satellite linkages I might well have suggested psychiatric care!

What does the future hold from today's students? I simply can not immagine!

"FCC Head Says Action Possible on Web Limits"

Source:Cecilia Kang, The Washington Post, February 26, 2008.

Excerpt:
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission yesterday sharply questioned Internet service providers who control consumers' Web access over their networks, and suggested the agency could intervene against the practice.

Kevin J. Martin made his remarks at an unusual off-site hearing to address complaints that cable provider Comcast restricts the flow of content -- such as video and music clips -- through file-sharing service BitTorrent. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet and a proponent of so-called net neutrality rules barring online traffic controls, offered opening remarks. "While carriers will assert the need to manage networks in their current state of evolution, we need to remember that Internet freedoms are most properly thought of as consumer-centric," he said.
Comment: Good for Martin and Markey! I hope they continue to view net neutrality as a consumer right, and act to protect those rights.

Net neutrality is also important to maintain an open environment that allows innovation, while this technology is new and growing, Doing so is important to our economy, and to our political and cultural systems.

I can imagine situations in which a provider might reasonably have to deviate from net neutrality (e.g. an earthquake knocks out some of the cables, and some management needs to be done to assure service to critical customers such as government and hospitals until the system can be repaired; a terrorist is surrounded in a building and the government asks that he be denied Internet access until apprehended). But I would hope that the FCC would police this authority carefully to assure that service providers not abuse it.
JAD

The Complexity of Cultural Diplomacy

Last year there was a special session of the Executive Board of UNESCO to discuss excavations that had been started by the Israelis on a ramp leading to the Al Aqsa Mosque. Those excavations, described as prudent technical work to assure the safety of the ramp by the Israelis, and as deeply suspicious by some Arabs, lead to demonstrations at the work site, and a request by the Arab nations for a discussion at UNESCO. An informal working group met in private to draft a resolution which was eventually accepted unanimously by the Executive Board. The resolution referred the matter to the World Heritage Center and its collaborating Intergovernmental Organizations, strongly encouraged the parties to the dispute to cooperate in its resolution, and required the UNESCO secretariat to monitor the process and report back to the Executive Board. The Israelis have since interrupted the excavation, the parties have been meeting to discuss solutions to the problem, and the process continues, fortunately without new outbreaks of violence

At the nominal level, the issue was protecting the most important site in the Jewish religion, a site of almost equal importance to Muslims, and a site of considerable importance to Christians, as well as protecting the safety of the pedestrians going to the Al Aqsa Mosque. More fundamentally, this is a key point of the conflict among three cultures. The political control of the holy places has triggered violence for centuries, including the Al Aqsa Intifada. The protection of the world heritage site has been the subject of debate at UNESCO for a generation.

Last night we did a role playing exercise in my class on UNESCO with students playing the parts of the members of the informal working group (Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the United States and Norway) as well as the secretariat. I was struck by the complexity of the process involved in drafting a one page resolution. Of course, that resolution (which went almost unnoticed in the United States except by the diplomatic community) was an item of considerable interest in the middle east. More importantly, it avoided or at least postponed a flash point in the world's most explosive region.

The Israeli and Palestinian authorities were both seeking to be recognized by other states as legitimate governments with the right to negotiate for their peoples. On the other hand, each faced various factions within their own polity, some of whom favored violence over conciliation, and some of whom denied the rights of the other party. The Egyptian and Jordanian authorities, whose governments enjoy high levels of foreign aid, also have constituencies that are strongly concerned with the issues underlying the conflict; their nations have in the past been involved in Israeli-Palestinian wars, and their region is in turmoil. The United States delegation to UNESCO represented a nation in which Israel and Palestine are hot political topics, a nation at war in two other Muslim countries, and one about to enter an electoral campaign. Norway, with a highly experienced and respected diplomat at the helm, was not merely a distant neutral observer, but the representative of the European Union with its own diversity of strongly held views, and a representative of the community of nations that would hope that the conflict could be defused if not resolved at UNESCO. Moreover, the individual negotiators were individuals with their own views facing a prolonged negotiation (stretching far into the night) with a need to report to their colleagues from the 50 or so other nations participating in the Executive Board.

Even the Secretariat of UNESCO headquarters and the World Heritage Center had complex tasks. Their charter of course called for protecting the peace, encouraging the dialog among nations and among cultures, and protecting world cultural heritage. But the leaders of the organization also had to be responsive to the 191 nations, each with a vote in the governing "General Conference", most of whom sided with the Palestinian cause. They also had to be responsive to the countries that supply the majority of the organizations budget, and the United States and United Kingdom had left UNESCO in the past when the organization had acted in ways that they would not accept, leaving a deep hole in the budget, Moreover, there was bureaucratic conflict about the degree of control that UNESCO headquarters would exercise over the World Heritage Center, which has its own, independent governance.

One of the students caught me in a hallway after the class, exclaiming that she had no idea that diplomacy was so complicated!

I suspect that few Americans understand how important is can be that there exist organizations such as UNESCO where representatives of different governments can negotiate and try to find ways to peacefully resolve the religious, cultural, political and indeed economic issues that divide them and serve as potential flash points for future conflicts.

Looming Food Security Crisis for the Poor

Grain prices are rising quickly. Several factors are involved. There has been bad weather in several grain growing areas in the last year. Increased incomes in China and India are increasing demand for meat, and thus indirectly for feed grain. Animals eat a number of pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat for the table. Some land is being taken out of agriculture in China and India. Oil prices are rising, leading to increased costs for fuel and other inputs for farmers, as well as for the transport of food to market. Major grain exporting countries are restricting exports by adding export taxes to their grain exports.

The World Food Program has stated that, due to the cost increases, they will either have to have more money to buy food or have to reduce their food distributions.

The affluent will divert money from other uses to pay the added costs for the food that they want. The poor will face a much worse problem unless the world rallies to their aid.

Monday, February 25, 2008

A More Precise Language for the Characterization of Knowledge

Knowledge is a function of the brain. We know the brain is an evolved organ, and we know that the brain is fallible: even a healthy brain forgets; we misperceive things which we observe personally; we know examples of optical illusion; we misremember things we once knew.

Knowing is intimately related to our ways of remembering. We have skills which we have learned, but can not describe in words, yet we remember how to do things. We say "I will know it when I see it", meaning that the knowledge of the appearance of something is somehow in our brains, but not in a way that allows us to recreate the image. Those with dementia remember things from the distant past but not from the recent past. And of course, we have explicit memories which allow us to articulate that which we recall.

We know that different human brains function differently. Unless you learn a language early in life, your brain may well lose the ability to perceive sounds in that language that differ from those in your native language. Some people have perfect pitch. Mozart could reportedly hear a piece of music once and play it back perfectly from memory, introducing variations to show how it could be done differently. Most people can not produce an acceptable portrait of someone they know well, while there are artists who can do so easily from memory. There are sculptors who reportedly can see a sculpture complete within the block of raw material, and simply have to carve away the excess material that hides it from others. There are people with eidetic memories. Chess masters and experts in other games can remember the details of past play with a clarity and accuracy that is beyond the ability of the amateur.

We know that some of the things we believe to be true are not true. Indeed, we can assign confidence to our knowledge. We say "I know it as well as I know my own name." We say "I think" or "I believe". Gamblers regularly decide as to whether their confidence in their estimates of the odds in a betting situation justify a bet.

We use fiction to develop emotional knowledge, to empathize with the protagonists of the fictional piece, or to learn how someone might feel under given circumstances. We draw upon the visual arts and music to develop other kinds of understanding, other ways for which our brains can react to the world.

Spanish has two words, two concepts (conocer, saber) both of which translate into English "to know". Thus Spaniard speakers distinguish two ways "knowing". It would seem that English should have at least as many words for knowledge as Eskimos have for snow. that for a concept so important to the knowledge society, we should have the precision and flexibility in our language that the Eskimos have developed to talk about snow.

The brain is a very complex organ, and as we learn more about it we will learn more about the ways it stores information. This should provide us with help in improving the language, as we develop different terms for the different forms of storage.

How do we come to "know" something? There is knowledge gained independently, through direct observation or through an individual's independent reasoning. But we are social animals, and much of what we know we learn from others.

As this blog has pointed out, our culture had developed institutions with their own knowledge processes. Legal institutions produce verdicts which help us to decide whether someone is guilty or innocent. The institutions of our intelligence services produce findings as to which postulates about foreign government actions are credible or not credible. Scientific institutions produce results which indicate which hypotheses are tenable or discredited. Religious institutions produce consensus among the faithful as to which beliefs are dogma and which are heresy.

Perhaps we need to use a language which distinguishes among the different sources of information from which we gain knowledge in order to allow us to discuss our knowledge in a more precise way. Perhaps too, we need a language which captures more fully the confidence we have in specific items of knowledge.

Increasingly, as a culture, we have the ability to store and retrieve information from our surround. We can do this in books and images, in videos and recordings, and in computer memories. We can embed knowledge in institutional structures and processes, and indeed in physical objects. Robots embody the information needed to carry out manipulations that men would once have learned to preform. pharmaceuticals can embody the knowledge gained through medical science to effect a cure of a disease.

Famously, President Bush described himself as "the decider". Equally famously, he has often decided that the scientists were wrong with respect to their statements about environmental threats, and has had to reverse those decisions in some cases. He decided that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that there were linkages between Al Qaeda and Sadaam. Still controversially, he decided that that a "war on terrorism" was required following 9/11 rather than using another metaphor for the required international action to reduce the threat from terrorist activity. Using the word "know" to describe what Bush chooses to believe, independent of the bases of those beliefs seems inaccurate. So too, Scott Adams' characters in the cartoon strip Dilbert exemplify lots of different ways that people in organizations come to hold beliefs which they characterize as "knowledge", but which are radically different one from another. A language that differentiated these states of mind, one from another, might help avoid some of the dysfunctional behavior that Bush and Dilbert's characters display.

The knowledge economy, which is coming, will have the majority -- perhaps the large majority -- of the workforce as knowledge workers. With an ever increasing power over the environment, an ever increasing ability to modify and even destroy that environment, it seems prudent to have an ever more accurate means of describing the knowledge on which we base action. The knowledge society may also allow unprecedented freedom of the mind to explore and learn, a freedom that is valued to the members of our species. Not only are we likely to spend more time thinking about other than satisfying our basic human needs, we are being provided with an increasingly powerful array of technologies for obtaining and processing information in the process. All of these factors militate for a more precise and accurate language to deal with what we now lump under terms such as "knowledge," "understanding," "belief," and "skill."

Friday, February 22, 2008

McCain's Projection?

According to Wikipedia:
In psychology, psychological projection (or projection bias) is a defense mechanism in which one attributes to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions.
McCain has recently implied that Barack Obama was imprudent on the basis of a remark he made during a debate.
McCain was one of the Keating five, formally sanctioned by the Senate Ethics Committee; he had accepted favors from a lobbyist, his wife was in business with the guy, and yet he participated in meetings with regulators seeking to influence their actions. Now we find a lobbyist apparently bragging to her colleagues about her influence over McCain, getting him to write letters to regulators asking for more rapid decisions, and do disturbing his aids that at least one reports telling the lobbyist to cool it! His campaign is being run by lobbyists, and lobbyists have been generating a large part of his campaign financing. Perhaps it is McCain who lacks prudence?
McCain charged that Obama is not honoring his commitment to use public financing for his presidential campaign if he receives the nomination.
McCain has apparently borrowed money for his primary campaign on a pledge of using public financing, and now seeks to abandon that public financing and the pledges he made. Perhaps McCain it is McCain who is reneging on his promise.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bob Watson Wins AAAS Prize for Scientific Cooperation

The 2007 AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award goes to climate scientist Robert Watson, chair of environmental science and science director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K. Watson was cited for his outstanding contributions toward promoting international scientific cooperation in scientific research, communication, and training, and his work on environmental and sustainable development. Watson also holds the position of chief scientific adviser to the United Kingdom's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

"Dr. Robert Watson has been for a decade the world's foremost promoter of international scientific cooperation. His efforts chairing panels of thousands of scientists who described and documented our current environmental crisis have been unparalleled and have contributed greatly to the consensus on the nature on that crisis.

Congratulations Bob!

Read more!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"Judge Shuts Down Web Site Specializing in Leaks"

Source: ADAM LIPTAK and BRAD STONE, The New York Times, February 20, 2008.

A federal judge has ordered Dynadot, its domain registrar, to shut down Wikileaks.Org. In support of freedom of speech let me report that if you want to read the documents that it posts that are generally leaked by wistleblowers, you can do so using its Internet Protocol address (http://88.80.13.160/) or mirror sites registered in Belgium (http://wikileaks.be/), Germany (http://wikileaks.de) and the Christmas Islands (http://wikileaks.cx).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

E. O. Wilson's Wish

Each year, the great TED conference chooses three people who are allowed to make a "TED Prize Wish". The honor comes with a $100,000 check, but more importantly it allows the winner to present his wish to a face-to-face audience of movers and shakers, and records his presentation to disseminate over the Internet.

E.O.Wilson won a TED Prize and made his wish last year. Noting that we know very little about the biosphere, and are destroying it rapidly in spite of our ignorance, he used his wish to ask for help in creating the online Encyclopedia of Life.

Wilson is perhaps the world's foremost expert on ants. His theoretical work on biodiversity and sociobiology has changed biology. He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for his writings. He is always worth hearing, but seldom more than in this presentation.

As you no doubt know, physicists are increasingly sure that most of stuff of the universe is "dark matter and energy" which we can't detect and don't understand. Wilson pointed out that microbial life is the "dark matter" of the biosphere is microbial life, which we usually can't detect and don't understand.

Two Science Leaders Call For More $ for Research

  • Arden Bement gives a short interview on the Charlie Rose show calling for the rollback of government science funding to be halted and reversed. Dr. Bement is the Director of the National Foundation for Science and former head of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

  • Alan I. Leshner writes:
    Here we go again. on 4 February, President Bush released his fiscal year (FY) 2009 budget request to the U.S. Congress, and the news for research funding is once again mixed. Some agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science, are proposed for very substantial increases, but others, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are slated for flat funding or worse. This news comes after a dismal FY 2008 science funding outcome. If the new Bush budget proposal is adopted, U.S. research will see its fifth consecutive year of decreased support (in inflation-adjusted constant dollars) as compared to the increasing research investments by other nations. The news is important not only for the U.S. scientific community but also for its many international collaborators.
    He is the Chief Executive Officer of the AAAS, and this is from his current editorial for the AAAS flagship publication, Science. He calls for scientists to take on the job of educating the public so that they will demand more government funding for science and technology.

Transformational Diplomacy

The Advisory Committee on Transformational Diplomacy, created by U.S. Secretary of State Rice, produced this report recommending major changes in the way U.S. foreign policy is implemented by the State Department. Its recommendations focus on six broad categories: * Expand and Modernize the Workforce of the State Department; * Integrate Foreign Affairs Strategy and Resources; * Strengthen Our Ability to Shape the World; * Harness 21st Century Technology; * Engage the Private Sector; * Streamline the Department of State’s Organizational Structure. With the integration of the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department, some recommendations also are intended to apply to USAID and U.S. development assistance. The Department of State, January 2008.

I note that the report asks that scientific and technological literacy be increased in the diplomatic corps, as well as business expertise. The recommendations also suggest that U.S. diplomacy utilize information and communications technology much more effectively in the future than it has done in the past.

See a video of Secretary Rice presenting the report to the public!

A Thought About Testing

Source: "Medication Under a Microscope: Studies Raise Questions About Drugs' Efficacy Against Disease" by Rob Stein, The Washington Post, February 19, 2008.

Many studies of pharmaceutical efficacy focus on an intermediate outcome rather than a health outcome. Does a drug for diabetics control blood sugar, rather than does it reduce the probability of complications of diabetes? Does a drug reduce cholesterol, rather than does it reduce the probability of cardiovascular disease?

This approach makes sense if and only if the intermediate indicators is really implicated as a causal factor of the negative health outcome. It is much stronger if there exists a tracking system that allows public health officials to track whether, when approved and used in the population, the drug is associated with better health, or whether there is too high a rate of side effects.

One aspect of the decision as to whether this process is acceptable is cost-effectiveness. If one were using a comparable technique for quality control of a pot manufacturing line (e.g. testing the quality of clay being used to make the pots rather than the strength of the pots coming off the line) that would be enough. Who cares if a few pots break?

In the case of pharmaceuticals, one wants to balance the health risks to the subjects of the research with the health risks to patients who will take the drug if it is approved.

I have hope that we will do much better in the future in figuring out which patients are helped and which are not helped by drugs. There seems to be a lot of interaction of the pharmaceutical and the genetics and epigenetics of the patients. So too, there is a lot of placebo effect. Perhaps as we know more, we can generate information more effectively and more safely.

Institutions and Technology Transfer

This is the fourth in a series of postings that I began with a posting on the World Bank's report titled Global Economic Prospects 2008: Technology Diffusion in the Developing World. I continued with "A Thought About Wealth and Technological Diversity". The third in the series was "Still More on Wealth, Markets and Technological Diversity."

I wrote about the creation of common markets and my idea that the growth of larger market areas has lead to a more complex web of technology. Of course, the elaboration of the transportation and communications infrastructure has made possible the larger market sizes, which in turn is related to the developments in transportation and communications technology.

I want to think more about other institutions.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the Information Revolution both involved periods of globalization. The Industrial Revolution took place in the context of colonial empires which were dismantled in the 20th century. On the other hand, the 20th century saw the proliferation of thousands of intergovernmental organizations. The webs of colonial institutions in the Industrial Revolution and of intergovernmental institutions in the Information Revolution have had major impacts on the international flows of technology. Think about the World Trade Organization and the various UN decentralized agencies such as WHO, FAO, and UNIDO, as well as the International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank.

The rise of multinational corporations in the 20th century is another factor which has influenced the rate of technology development and flows among countries. Of course firms producing goods in poor areas of the world for markets in rich areas is not a new phenomenon. However, it seems new to me to see multinational firms moving their high technology production lines away from their home countries to Asia is a new phenomenon. Newer still is the movement of research and engineering functions to developing nations. It seems obvious that these multinational firms are a new institutional form with major implications for the location of technological capacities.

Still More on Wealth, Markets and Technological Diversity

I seem to be embarked on a series of posting, as I think through an issue on technological indexes. I began with a posting on the World Bank's report titled Global Economic Prospects 2008: Technology Diffusion in the Developing World. I continued with "A Thought About Wealth and Technological Diversity". This is the third in the series.

Think about the Industrial Revolution. It was the epoch of mass markets. Large numbers of people were able to emerge from subsistence levels to satisfy the next emerging felt needs (here I refer to Maslow's needs hierarchy). Mass production involved mechanization to realize economies of scale, through the American System of manufacturing extending to Ford's auto production lines. Steam engines powered the factories as well as the railroads and steamships that distributed the manufactured goods through their mass markets. The telegraph helped to schedule the system, as did the emergence of large, hierarchical organizations. The printing press lead to the development of catalogs and print media funded by the advertisers selling into mass markets.

In thinking about the Information Revolution, i am guided by books such as The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson and Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes by Mark Penn. The post-industrial societies are populated by people who have largely satisfied their basic needs, and are more motivated by needs for self actualization. The technology allows targetting smaller and smaller segments of the market, and manufacturing more diversified products. The Internet and point to point communication replaces mass media, and transportation systems allow much more disaggregated distribution patterns.

I suggest that the Industrial Revolution took place in a time in which circumstances encouraged and rewarded innovations promoting mass markets, while the Information Revolution is taking place in a time in which circumstances encourage and reward more innovations promoting highly differentiated markets for some goods, while continuing to reward mass markets for other goods (commoditization of computer operating systems, commercial aircraft, commercial freighters, etc.), often those which require very large initial investments prior to production.

Think then about the size of markets. Assume it takes 50,000 units to justify a productive activity. That would be one person out of 1000 if the geographic market included 50 million people. It would require only one person out of 10,000 if the market included 500 million people. This would suggest that expanding markets, as has been done by the creation of multinational regional markets such as the European Common Market, can also encourage innovation in manufacturing, distribution, advertising, and business models.

Thus I would suggest that higher per capita income found in rich nations encourages more innovation to meet the increasingly diversified markets responding to increasing attention to self actualization needs, and that the expansion of markets across national boundaries also encourages more innovation. In this latter case, there is both the innovation involved in new mass production activities, such as would be involved in the creation of satellite communications systems and commercial airliners, but also in the creation of new products for niche markets and the processes for their manufacture, sales and distribution.

Since World War II, the poorest countries have remained very poor, while rich countries have continued to grow richer. Thus the range in per capita GDP has grown larger. Moreover, the European Common Market and the North American Free Trade Association have increased the market size for the richest nations. (Indeed, for some high income products markets have indeed become much more global.) If my argument above is correct, then the technology gap should have become much wider between the largely subsistence economies in the poorest nations and the post-industrial economies of the most affluent regions.

Think of a society's technology as a complex structure of interlocking units, which is pyramidal in form. The peak technologies in the modern world might be those which allow the planning of a manned voyage to mars, or the creation of a web of satellite communications and remote sensing devices, or perhaps the World Wide Web built over an infrastructure of a billion computers connected via a global fiber optic and satellite communications network.

While there may well be a more rapid transfer of technologies to developing countries at the base of these pyramids -- cell phones, improved seeds, new pharmaceutical products -- I don't see much transfer of the ability to travel to other planets or to build satellite networks to developing nations.

Moreover, new peak technological capabilities are being created in developed nations that can barely be recognized in developing nations. For example, models are being created to simulate the human body going down to a cellular level, using ganged networks of supercomputers.

I suspect that the technological gap between rich and poor nations is greater now than at any time in the past. In terms of the metaphor of the structure of a societies technologies, comparing the rich areas of the world versus the poorest, the rich have both a more complex and extensive structure and higher technological peaks.

Monday, February 18, 2008

David Baltimore on the Bush Administration

Source: "Tell Us What You Really Think, Professor Baltimore," Science Now,February 15, 2008.

Outgoing AAAS president and Nobel laureate David Baltimore wrapped up his Friday night opening address at the AAAS annual meeting sayin: America needs a political change, and President George W. Bush has been bad for science and bad for the world.
"I've held my breath awaiting new leaders in Washington ... who I consider true Americans," he said. The lines elicited neither applause nor boos from the crowd of about 1200. He called for a science debate among presidential candidates. "The United States allowed itself to become mesmerized by the terrorist threat," he said. Baltimore marveled at "how much growth there is in Europe while the US has been fighting in Iraq," blasted Congress and the White House for passing "a budget that does not meet the needs" of American science, and called on Americans to "hold our head low in penance for the horrors inflicted by our country in Abu Ghraib."

A Thought About Wealth and Technological Diversity

A number of economists have suggested that technological innovation is the route to wealth, or at least the route that has been taken by modern developed nations. My last posting suggested the converse -- that wealth might be a good surrogate indicator of technological innovativeness.

Subsistence economies are relatively simple. Subsistence farmers work long and hard to eke out a living from their land, and have little time to produce goods other than the bare necessities.

As economic productivity continues, the portion of income spent on necessities tends to decrease. There is only so much one can eat, so much clothing the average person cares to own. Even in an age of McMansions, there is only so much people are willing to allocate of their income and wealth to shelter.

Economic progress then means people will opt for leisure, or they will opt for new products. Thus the more an economy grows the more differentiated its portfolio of goods and services.

Economies have been getting bigger, but even in our age of globalization, I think most goods are produced and consumed within a limited geographic area. That area may now be North America rather than an individual state, or Europe rather than an individual European nation. But within the market area of a rich market, there is a huge and complex set of products produced and consumed.

Correspondingly, therefore, there is a huge and complex set of technologies involved in those products and their production. Moreover, as economists have pointed out, the continued economic growth of those regions depends on continued innovation in products and processes.

Economies rising from subsistence to greater affluence can be expected to follow to some degree the path previously taken by now affluent countries. They will seek a better, more varied diet for their people, education and health services to meet basic needs, etc. To some degree they are more likely to pick up product and production technologies that have already been used in richer countries.

They are more likely to focus inventive activities on adaptation of technologies to better meet their needs, and to deepening of technological capacities, as opposed to inventing totally new products and services -- although that too is possible.

In our globalizing world, developing nations may import technology with which to produce for export markets, taking advantage of their sources of cometitive advantage (raw materials, low cost labor, etc.).

They are unlikely to start from scratch to build a new and complex industry to satisfy a demand that has yet to be created.

Global Economic Prospects 2008: Technology Diffusion in the Developing World


The World Bank has issued its latest edition of Global Economic Prospects. This, 2008 edition focuses on technology diffusion to the developing world.

Summary: "Technological progress in developing countries between the 1990s and 2000s has been very strong, outpacing that in developed countries by 40 to 60 percent, according to a World Bank report, Global Economic Prospects 2008: Technology Diffusion in the Developing World. But the gap between rich and poor countries is still very wide."



The report was also the basis for a long article in The Economist of February 7, 2008.

COMMENT


I suspect that this indicator does not really work. Lets think about technology and development for a bit.

Scandinavian nations are not at the technology frontier for growing mango and papaya, nor are they heavy users of madical techniques for the treatment of tropical diseases; Equatorial countries don't utilize a lot of techniques for treatment of frostbite, nor is their technology for heating very strong. Obviously technology transfer is of concern for economic development only where that technology can be usefully utilized in the recipient country.

More to the point, the technology that a country needs depends on the industries that it operates. There are only a few nations in the world that have industries building commercial jet aircraft. Similarly, we see few nations with large scale silicon chip factories, manufacturers of railroad equipment, etc. Ethical pharmaceutical development and manufacture too is an industry concentrated in a few developed nations. An index that focused on the technologies in these industries would find very little transfer to developing nations, and practically none to Sub-Saharan Africa.

There is of course a considerable literature on "high technology exports". This makes sense, but runs into the problem that new technologies are continuously being invented, and older technologies are being mastered in new countries and the related productive activities transferred to them. It seems to me that the division between "developed nations" and "less developed nations" is useful, even though some newly industrialized nations are making the transition between the two states. I think the developed nations tend to have and continue to develop high technology industries, and the World Bank report perhaps obscures this phenomenon.

The issue for developing, and indeed all countries, is whether they are using the best technology to serve their needs.

It is well known that worker productivity is enhanced through appropriate capital investment. Buying a worker appropriate machinery with which to work can greatly increase productivity. Providing a farmer with irrigation and leveled land can similarly increase the productivity of his labor, as can providing him with working capital to purchase improved seed and chemical inputs.

It is for that reason that economists use changes of total factor productivity as an indicator of technological progress. While capital investment usually involves changes in technique, it is useful to distinguish the economic progress that comes primarily from increasing capital per worker, and that which comes from working smarter.

It seems to me, however, that it may be more useful to open the black box, and use expert judgment to measure the quality of technology in use in developing nations. Is the poor farmer using seed that embodies the best genetic potential for his needs? Does he have the best machinery he can afford? Does he have chemical inputs that are appropriate to his needs and resources, at the times he needs them? Is the agricultural research system developing the new varieties and practices that the farmer needs in a timely fashion, and are the extension and other institutions making them available in a timely fashion?

One could make a similar example for health technologies. Does the patient get the best treatment and medication that he can afford? Is the medical system innovating appropriately and in a timely fashion? Are the health service practioners updating their techniques appropriately and in a timely fashion. Does the health education system help families to learn about new hygiene and public health interventions?

There is a concept of a technological frontier. The frontier marks the best that the society knows how to do with available resources. We are concerned with both how far actual productive enterprises are from that technological frontier, and whether the frontier is advancing sufficiently rapidly. We can conceptualize producers simultaneously:
  • increasing productivity through new capital investment;
  • moving closer to the technological frontier through increasing mastery of available technologies,
  • advancing the technological frontier through innovation. and
  • moving into new productive enterprises that offer new and more beneficial ways of employing resources.

Kosovo Versus the Confederacy

With the debate on the separation resolution in Kosovo, it occurs to me share something that President Grant wrote in his memoirs. The United States fought a Civil War when southern states sought to secede from the Union; the northern states won and continued the Union.

Grant wrote that in 1776, probably no one in North America would have thought that colonies did not have the right not to join the Union. He thought their claim to the right to secede would have been reduced in 1789 when the Constitution was written. But Grant wrote that the war with Mexico and the subsequent purchase of a huge tract of land clearly established the right of the Union to maintain itself against states that sought to secede. The cost in money and blood was high, and the northern states had, according to Grant, the right to demand that the area joined to the Union as a result stay part of the Union (they would have joined the southern states).

He did not address the Louisiana Purchase, which also might have been seen as a joint undertaking of all the original states, creating a larger Union.

"Delay Of Report Is Blamed On Politics"

Subtitle: "Document Suggests Public Health Risks Near Great Lakes," by Kari Lydersen, The Washington Post, February 18, 2008.



"The lead author and peer reviewers of a government report raising the possibility of public health threats from industrial contamination throughout the Great Lakes region are charging that the report is being suppressed because of the questions it raises. The author also alleges that he was demoted because of the report.

"Chris De Rosa, former director of the division of toxicology and environmental medicine at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), charges that the report he wrote was a significant factor in his reassignment to a non-supervisory "special assistant" position last year."

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative group, has posted portions of the disputed report on its Web site.

Comment: Do we really need another charge of the Bush administration blocking a scientific report? It is not only fish killed by pollution that stinks! JAD

What you read may not be what you get

Source: "So Who's Counting?" by Peter Baker, The Washington Post, February 18, 2008.

At a briefing in Dar es Salaam yesterday about the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Mark Dybul, the president's global AIDS coordinator, said:
"The president is requesting an increase for our contribution to the Global Fund, an increase above his last year request from $300 million to $500 million."
"A casual listener might think the United States is increasing its contribution to the Global Fund. Not really: As is often the case with Washington budget claims, it's important to look at exactly what is being asserted. Bush did request$300 million for the Global Fund for the current fiscal year, but Congress decided to go further and approved $841 million. So even though Bush's request for $500 million for the next fiscal year is higher than he requested the year before, in reality it would cut the contribution back from the $841 million it is getting in cold hard cash this year."

How Kids Learn

Source: "Playing to Kids' Learning Mode Can Be a Flop," The Washington Post, February 18, 2008.

"The theory: Children can be identified as visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners -- that some do better by seeing material, some by hearing it and others by experiencing it -- and learn best when lessons are presented to appeal to their best modality.

"The debunker: Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that the theory seems to make sense but that research shows it isn't entirely true."

Quotations

From today's Washington Post:
Sir Francis Bacon, 1605: For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things . . . and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture.

Education reformer John Dewey, 1909: [Critical thinking is] active, persistent and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds which support it and the further conclusions to which it tends.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Economist on E-Government

Grand Challenges of Engineering

The National Academy of Engineering has announced the results of its effort to identify the Grand Challenges of Engineering:

Scientists Without Borders

Scientists without Borders is a new initiative created by the New York Academy of Sciences. The venture aims to address health and other problems in the developing world by bringing together scientists from disparate specialties, organizations, and locations.

The first project of Scientists Without Borders will be a Web portal. This portal is to assemble information about the location, goals, needs, and other attributes of research-based and capacity-building projects taking place in sub-Saharan Africa as well as a roster of scientists who are willing to help. Eventually it will expand to include the rest of the developing world.

Three from WP's Outlook Section

Three related op-ed pieces in the Outlook section of today's Washington Post caught my attention today:

  1. "The Dumbing Of America" by Susan Jacoby
    Jacoby has written The Age of American Unreason, taking off from Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In her op-ed piece, she decries new trends in the United States:
    a. the substitution of watching video for reading,
    b. the erosion of general knowledge (people don't know geography or languages), and
    c. increasing arrogance about that lack of knowledge.

  2. "The End of Literacy? Don't Stop Reading" by Howard Gardner
    Gardner agrees that we are reading less, but suggests that the use of media has changed radically in the past, and the current change is just part of that long term process. He suggests that the ability to read and write will continue to be important, that the standards of "good writing" will continue to evolve, and that new forms of literacy will arise (and become important to our evolving culture. Still, he recognizes that we will give up important capabilities if we lose the knack of reading complex books.
  3. "Not Reading An Iota in America" by Randy Salzman
    Salzman recounts an experience in Juvenal Court where a large number of people sat for hours with nothing to read. He recognizes that one of the gaps between mainstream culture in the United States and the underclass culture is that the people in the latter culture do not read even as much as do average Americans.
Comment: The authors are of course correct in recognizing a reduction in reading in the United States, and I fear a dumbing down of the U.S. public in recent decades.

I am old enough that I can look back in my own life. As a child I went to the movies once a week, read a lot, and listened to the radio a lot. I often read while listening to the radio. Those were the days before television. I was 13 before there was a telephone in my house. I used both the school library and the public library, and there were books in my home. We took a daily paper.

In the television age, I watched television, went to fewer movies, listened to radio but only in the car, and continued to read. I often read while the television was on, multitasking.

In the age of the personal computer, I continue to read (using my Kindle now as well as books), and subscribe to a newspaper and several magazines. But I spend hours a day on the Internet. Email and blogging tend to substitute for a lot of conversation. I continue to multitask (the TV is on in the background as I write this, occasionally consulting the articles cited above via the Internet). I still teach at the university level, and I belong to a book club (as I did a very long time ago.)

I note that I remember very little of the material I so patiently absorbed during decades of reading complex materials. I now am very demanding that the things I read compress their key points, and I love the Internet format. Note that I have just introduced the three articles above, linking them with hypertext. The interested reader can read them in depth, while others can just skip down the page.

We are already pushing "information literacy" which includes both the ability to find information quickly in cyberspace and to evaluate the trustworthiness of that information. There is numeracy, which is I suppose a specific aspect of quantitative literacy, or the ability to utilize quantitative data and tools. There is scientific and technological literacy. How about political literacy, cultural literacy, and geographical literacy? I am sure we will identify other forms of literacy in the future, and indeed demand that our children become literate in these new ways.

Perhaps we will need a "multitasking literacy" which includes the ability to include important content in the media to which we are attending, and to attend sufficiently to the most important content to absorb what we need.

None of the three authors discusses "wisdom". The president of the United States literally has millions of people working to provide him with the information he needs, with great accuracy and clear information on its reliability, in the most convenient format for absorption and utilization. He should gain more knowledge in a month than most of us can absorb in a year. However, it takes what we call wisdom to use that knowledge well, and to make good decisions for the welfare of our nation and our world.
JAD

Saturday, February 16, 2008

USAID/s Global Development Forum

Henrietta Fore of USAID, and Director of foreign assistance talks about the Global Development Commons and invites you to participate in it.

The Global Development Commons (GDC), an initiative by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is intended to bring together the ground-breaking changes taking place in development with the rapid advancements in information technology and web communication. According to USAID Frontlines (page 2):
Taking a cue from Wikipedia – the popular online, user-generated encyclopedia – the Commons initiative is designed to be a “shared responsibility” of all who use it. USAID will, however, monitor its implementation, publicize its existence, and encourage new partners to join.
The GDC is to build and improve on the existing development information architecture (websites, portals, blogs, chat rooms, conferences, gatherings, etc.) to create a comprehensive network that allows users to search for information, facilitate dialog, and trade or exchange products and ideas. The physical components of the GDC - meetings and forums such as global HIV/AIDS conferences and joint donor-recipient country planning processes - should gather relevant stakeholders to discuss and share ideas with members of the commons. When these communities are linked together, they create a landscape of existing development-oriented information sites (both physical and virtual).

International aid experts and officials attended a USAID forum to discuss the GDC on Nov. 27, 2007. The forum’s keynote speaker was James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress (who is leading an effort by the Library of Congress and UNESCO to develop a World Digital Library). Other speakers involved in projects similar to the GDC included Mark Fleeton, chief executive officer of the Development Gateway Foundation; Helga Leifdottir, chief coordinator of the U.N.’s ReliefWeb; and Corey Griffin, director of Microsoft’s International Development Aid Agencies.

More information should be available on the Global Development Forum soon.

"The Knowledge Connection"

Source: E.D. Hirsch Jr., The Washington Post, February 16, 2008.

This looks like a very good article recommending that a scientific panel be convened (again) to recommend improved approaches to teaching kids to read and understand what they have read. He complains that current programs implementing No Child Left Behind intent to improve reading skills are poorly conceived because they are not based on the best understanding of how to teach reading for comprehension.

Hirsch writes:
Why has the No Child Left Behind law left so many children behind? According to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the reading achievement of eighth-graders has declined since the law was passed in 2001, and the large reading gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children -- "the achievement gap" -- has stayed where it was. Today's eighth-graders had recorded gains in fourth grade, but these have not led to improvements in later grades -- when reading scores actually count for a student's future.......

Consider the eighth-grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline. Since 1998, the state has improved significantly in the number of eighth-graders reading at the "proficient" or "advanced" levels: Massachusetts now has the largest percentage of students reading at that higher level, and it is No. 1 in average scores for the eighth grade. That is because Massachusetts decided in 1997 that students (and teachers) should learn certain explicit, substantive things about history, science and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.

The sure road to adequate progress in reading is adequate progress in knowledge. Congress and the states should note that the best tests to "teach to" are subject-matter tests based on explicit content standards for each grade. Massachusetts's results confirm that this is the best way to measure and to achieve real progress in reading. The revisers of No Child Left Behind, and all who are connected with our schools, need to be cognizant of -- and do something about -- the critical knowledge connection.
Comment: It seems reasonable to me that children who have basic reading skills will actually learn to comprehend better what they read if they read to learn the content of what they are reading. Of course, well written materials that are accessible to the students and interest them, in the hands of good teachers are also important. Perhaps more important still are communities where parents read, and where all the children read and discuss what they have read for pleasure and edification.

Incidentally, here is another case in which the Bush administration got the science wrong.
JAD

Unfettered Free Speech Now???

The Washington Post has an op-ed piece today by Bradley A. Smith which appears to promote free speech in U.S. elections. It specifically calls for SpeechNow.org to be freed of federal election laws which would require it to be registered as a political action committee.

As far as I can figure, Smith is an expert on election law, but he was also a Republican member of the Federal Election Commission. So is his opinion real and simply something that would as a side effect empower Republicans, or is it a an disingenuous advocacy of a weakening of the election law.

The basic issue is not whether we all have the right to talk around the water cooler about politics. it is whether we will allow those with more financial resources to have a hugely disproportionate influence due to their ability to buy time on the media which form public opinion.

FutureGen Plant

The Washington Post today has an editorial titled "The Demise of FutureGen: The cancellation of a clean-coal project shows there's no silver bullet for climate change." It begins:
PRESIDENT BUSH announced in 2004 and then continually promoted a public-private venture he hoped would usher in an era of clean coal and be a cornerstone of U.S. efforts to address global warming. The FutureGen plant would have created electricity by stripping coal of harmful carbon dioxide and pumping the gas underground. The result would be power generation with zero greenhouse gas emissions. In December, Mattoon, Ill., was selected as the site for the coal plant. And then, on Jan. 30, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman pulled the plug.
Comment: I am no expert on this technology. I have read accounts which suggest that there are few places with a geology that would guarantee that carbon dioxide sequestered underground would stay there.

What does seem clear is that this is another failure of the Bush administration's science and technology capacity. Either it was wrong a few years ago in promoting this huge project, or it is wrong now in its drastic modification.
JAD

Friday, February 15, 2008

Varieties of Capitalism

I have just started Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity by William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan and Carl J. Schramm.

The authors, all associated with the Kauffman Foundation which seeks to promote industrial innovation, make the point that there are many different forms of capitalism practiced in free market nations. They define four categories:
  • entrepreneurial
  • big-firm
  • state-directed and
  • oligarchic.
They suggest that the most successful form of capitalism in promoting economic growth and wellbeing is a mixed entrepreneurial and big-firm capitalism.

The authors seem obviously correct in holding that with the departure from the international scene of Communism, we can more easily attend to the differences of among capitalist systems. Clearly many countries have been working for a very long time to create capitalist economic institutions that best fit their needs and concerns.

Now all we need to do is figure out the best combination of social safety net and free market economy, and then figure out the best political system, and work out the details of a political economy combining the two.

Thought based on an Interview of Lee Siegel

The interview of the author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob was by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, a comedy program. Siegel points to some dangers of internet mediated interaction. His point seemed to be that too many people were role playing on the Internet, and the lack of clues provided in the actual presence of the person doing the role playing made it too easy for others to be taken in.

Clearly there is a basis for that position. We get a lot of information from seeing the person we are communicating with. Indeed, we get information from smelling people. If we are in the same physical environment with the person, we know whether that person is sweating from the heat of from tension. A lot of that communication is implicit rather than explicit, but it takes place. We can also better provide feedback to the person we are communicating with if we are physically present.

And surely Siegel is right that young people should be warned about those who would exploit their credulity using chat rooms or social networking sites, and the credulous should be helped to deal with the unscrupulous.

But people love to play, and role playing is something we do all the time. Poker has become a popular for television programming largely because it is fun to watch people fooling each other, and getting caught in the act. In this political season, it seems very clear that candidates are using these skills of deception, and that voters need to use their skills of detecting deception -- both of which are learned in part through play.

Of course, there is a huge area of Internet mediated communication that is not deceptive, including I suspect the majority of communication that goes on in chat rooms and social networking sites. Lets hope that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

My son suggests that Siegel's book is not likely to be that good, so I didn't provide a link to it. The interview, which is linked above, is fun.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Symposium on Comparative Analysis of National Research Systems

The Symposium on Comparative Analysis of National Research Systems was held in UNESCO headquarters in Paris, 16-18 January 2008. it provided a venue of discussion on the basis of Professors’ Johann Mouton and Roland Waast studies on knowledge and research systems of 52 low and middle-income countries. About 130 experts were invited to compare and exchange knowledge and views on the methodology and the quality of the country reviews.

The meeting publications provide a mapping of research systems, with special emphasis on national policies, infrastructure, human capacities and investment. The other objective of the meeting was to highlight the importance of launching a flexible template with appropriate indicators that may be used by interested countries to give them the opportunity to study their research systems and to compare them on a wider scale with the view of identifying priority needs for policy making and capacities building.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act

There is new legislation that needs your support to protect net neutrality.

My Grandniece showing good taste

The Clintons and Vinod Gupta

Screenshot from Vinod Gupta's website. This is from BlogsofWar. The original is from Web Archives (January 12, 2006)

I am surprised that I had not heard of the relation between the CEO of infoUSA and the Clintons. CNNMoney.com reports:
InfoUSA is currently faced with a shareholder lawsuit and Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. The shareholder lawsuit claims the company misspent millions, some of it on Bill and Hillary Clinton. The lawsuit questions why InfoUSA founder Vin Gupta used private corporate jets to fly the Clintons on business, personal and campaign trips, why Gupta gave Bill Clinton a $3.3 million consulting contract and why the company paid for luxuries Gupta enjoyed.
National Public Radio questioned the financial arrangements for use of Clinton campaign mailing lists by a Gupta company. Underwire, a Wired blogger mentions:
Conspiracy theorists on the web have wondered whether or not an October poll by the polling company, declaring that African Americans support Hillary over Obama, was accurate.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education for Sustainable Development

I am coordinating a class this semester at George Washington University. It is titled UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century. (I will send the syllabus to anyone interested in starting a similar course.) This video was used by students Monday evening in their class on UNESCO's Education Program.

The five minute video is from the official international launch of the Decade for Sustainable Development on 1 March 2005 in New York, USA. This video was produced by the Center for Environment Education, India. It features comments by Director General Matsuura of UNESCO.

Donna Edwards Wins

Yesterday was a long day that I spent in the cold as a Democratic precinct watcher.

I have been posting my support for Donna Edwards in the Democratic primary for the 4th Congressional District of Maryland. I am pleased to report that she gained 60 percent of a terrific turnout in the primary, and Al Wynn -- her opponent -- is the first incumbent to be defeated in the primary elections this year. Congratulations to Donna Edwards!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Innovation for Development: The Tokyo International Conference

Japan is hosting the Global Health Summit in February, 2008, the Tokyo International Conference for Economic Development in May, and the G-8 Summit in July. The year 2008 also marks the mid-term for the Millennium Development Goals. Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa is directly involved in planning each of these activities. He discusses Japan’s vision for each of these major events and the essential of science, technology, and innovation in promoting sustainable, inclusive development in Africa and elsewhere. The streaming video presentation is 77 minutes long. The website has links to related materials from the World Bank.