Friday, January 30, 2009

It is not vacuous to say someone has a human right, That statement should have consequences!

The Education for All movement, created by agreement in a conference in Jomtien, Thailand in 1990, is based on the proposition that free, compulsory primary education is a human right. Gandhi said that rights and duties are complementary; if someone has a human right, then we all have a duty see that it is exercised. Yet after almost two decades their are tens of millions of kids who still don't go to school. Still, much progress has been made. Defining universal primary education as a human right changed the discourse and made much of that progress possible.

I asked my class yesterday, "what was sacrificed in the effort to achieve education for all". Prior to Jomtien, the dominant conceptualization was that education was an investment in human resource development made to advance an overall program of economic development. My audience seemed not to recognize that the effort to achieve education for all in theory (and probably in practice) implies that some other goals will be less fully met.

The most basic tenet of optimization theory can be stated in a couple of complementary ways:
  • expanding the set of possibilities studied can never reduce the value of the best alternative within the set.
  • limiting the set of possibilities studied may throw out the best alternative if it falls in the subset of excluded possibilities.
So the effort to maximize GDP per capita, constrained by requiring education for all, may result in a lower GDP than would an unconstrained program.

Think about it. I worked in an African country with some 25 million people and only 500 professional engineers. I think that shortage of engineers was related to the ports no longer functioning, some of the railroads no longer functioning and the rest functioning poorly, the electrical and telephone networks being limited in scope, inefficient and providing intermittent service, etc. The Education for All program in the country was using many resources and much attention of the government, some of which could have gone to training and employing more engineers. I can imagine a scenario where the impact of the improvements in hte national physical infrastructure produced by those engineers would do more good for the country than the grade school education for some children that would be foregone.

Of course, a country could give up some graft and some exports of capital by its wealthy to pay for the education, and that would be all to the good. But would that happen?

The issue of rights is more complex and difficult than most people realize. A rights based development strategy is philosophically quite different than a utilitarian strategy based on "the greatest good for the greatest number".

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tax Implications of a Ponzi Scheme

Say you invested with Madoff. You would presumably have received returns from the investment for some years, and paid taxes on them. Then you learned that his investment scheme had been fraudulent, and you found that the market value of your investment had dropped; selling it, you would claim a capital loss on your taxes.

Or would you?

The money that came back labeled as returns of your investment could be regarded as a return of your own money. The money you invested and could not recover was simply stolen from you. So perhaps you should refile your taxes from previous years and not classify the money you received as return of principle, and classify the total losses as theft losses.

On the other hand, what about the interest you would have earned had you put the money in the bank?

Seems like there are going to be some tax lawyers making a lot of money on this one.

Thinking About Huge, Unlikely Risks

There have been fears that the new Large Hadron Colider (LHC) will generate a black hole when it is fully fired up, and the black hole will eat the earth. There was a similar fear before the first test firing, but we are still here. There were similar fears before the explosion of the first atom bomb, that it might set off a chain reaction in the atmosphere and destroy life on earth. (As if the threat were not enough with the tens of thousands of thermonuclear weapons in stockpiles around the world.)

New Scientist has an article pointing out that while the estimated probability of the black hole event is low, we have to weigh that fact by the confidence we have in the scientists who made the estimate.

In general if we have a set of non-overlapping alternatives -- A, B, C -- we can estimate the probability of X by the equation:

P(X) = P(X/A)*P(A) + P(X/B)*P(B) + P(X/C)*P(C)

So if we have two groups of scientists making different estimates of the probability of a catastrophe that will end life on earth we could estimate the probability that the earth will end by weighting the two estimates and comparing them with the case where neither group is right.

Of course the problem is that:
  • We don't know the probability that the scientists are right,
  • So we don't know the probability that neither group of scientists is right,
  • Nor do we know the probability of disaster if neither group is right.
Still, the article has the right idea that we should consider not only the estimate of probability made by the scientists but also whether that estimate is trustworthy. In the case of the black holes, without knowing enough about the physics to judge the quality of the estimate, I don't see how there could be an accurate estimate.

On the other hand, the decision depends not only on the probabilities but also on the payoffs. In the case of a LHC, the downside is that it destroys the earth and all human life. The upside is that it might demonstrate that some current theories are right, or that the energy levels needed to demonstrate the accuracy of those theories is still higher than that reached by the LHC.

We can worry about the LHC and a very small probability of the end of the world. Or we can worry about an asteroid or comet hitting the earth; it is thought that the one that hit North America 13,000 years ago wiped out saber toothed tigers, mastadons and the Clovis culture human population; there are thousands of near earth orbit objects in space, and we don't know where they are. Or we can worry about another flu pandemic which is all but sure to arrive[ we are not sure about exactly when (a year, five, ten years, ....) or exactly how bad (one million deaths, five million, 100 million). Or we can worry about a new epidemic, another HIV/AIDS with a death toll in the tens of millions; new diseases emerge with distressing frequency. Or we can worry about World War III; the progression was 15 million deaths in WWI, 55 million in WWI,... Or we can worry about the economy and the likely damage to our friends and neighbors as well as the hunger and disease that the current global crisis will surely bring in its aftermath.

I don't have enough worry beads to allocate enough to all of these to do any good. So I choose not to worry about the LHC, but I hope someone is. As I hope that people are worrying about all the other disasters in our possible future.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Market Failures in the Media and Public Policy

I just watched the conference announcing the new book ...and Communications for All? A Telecommunications Policy Agenda for the Obama Administration from the New American Foundation. I wish I was more expert on the topic, but the discussion raised an issue in my mind.

There are market failures that affect the dissemination of information via the media. There are a lot of ways to respond to those market failures (in addition to doing nothing and living with the failure):
  • Public funding, as in the case of public TV[
  • Tax financing to encourage private funding, as is the case for educational TV;
  • Direct public service, as is the case in public university operated educational TV stations;
  • Regulatory action, as in the case of regulations that require private television stations to devote a portion of their station broadcasting to public service programming.
In terms of media, I am thinking about the print media (newspapers, magazines, books, etc.), broadcast media (radio and television including community broadcasting and satellite broadcasting), telecommunications, and the Internet.

Where are the market failures? I would think that they include failures to meet the information needs of children and minority populations, failure to meet the information needs of citizens on public policy issues. and failure to meet the needs of us all in areas such as natural sciences, social sciences, history and geography.

Using the same enumeration procedure, there are failures at the point of creation of content, distribution, access, and demand. I think we fail to assure:
  • the creation of content which is relevant to all the information needs, with strong validation, which is consumer friendly, and targeted to the specific audiences;
  • the distribution of this content through such media as school information networks, and especially to poor people in poor countries.
  • the access to information. Could one subsidize the availability of radio, television, and mobile phones in Africa? How about subsidies for services such as Google that make information available to target populations with information needs not satisfied by the Internet due to market failures? Or regulation that require firms such as Google and Yahoo to include public service algorithms in their page ranking?
  • the use of information by target populations. We have compulsory education, licensing for driving and professional operation, but those approaches could be extended. We could provide tax financing for people who passed citizenship tests, or we could provide rewards to people who successfully passed online courses on history, geography, or language.
The use of media is in rapid flux, and indeed new media seem to be appearing with a frequency which is historically unprecedented. Never before in history were there such problems of people being overwhelmed with choices of information sources, and thus never before was there such a problem of people attending to the wrong things, leaving areas of relative ignorance that create public policy problems.

I suggest that there is a real need to rethink the market failures of the information society and to reconsider the ways in which we might respond to those failures.

Indeed, we may need to go much further to reconsider our cultural biases. The privatization of broadcast media was a fencing of the commons, and it may be that common property management institutions rather than privatization would better serve the public and public policy needs, at least for some portions of the information and communications infrastructure.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Where should we put the blame for the global economic crisis?

According to this week's Economist:
The deep causes of the financial crisis lie in global imbalances—mainly, America’s huge current-account deficit and China’s huge surplus
The article begins:
ASK people what caused the financial and economic crisis and most are likely to plump for some mix of greed and incompetence. Bank bosses have been castigated for fee-seeking gluttony, reckless lending and failure to heed the risks to their institutions. Regulators have been accused of sleeping on watch. Central bankers once lionised for mastering inflation and the business cycle are feted no longer.

Few among the public would be likely to pin the blame on “global imbalances”: the pattern of large, persistent current-account deficits in America and, to a lesser extent, Britain and some other rich economies, matched by surpluses in emerging markets, notably China.
Comment: The United States Government has been willing to finance two wars by borrowing money from abroad. It has stood by for decades as the public was encouraged to accumulate more and more debt on the credit cards, in their mortgages, etc.

We the public have let the government get away with that kind of mismanagement. Indeed we have let the government get away with abdicating its role of regulator of financial institutions and markets. It surely seems to me that we have done so out of greed. Thus I see greed and mismanagement as fundamental to the imbalances in international financial flows.

Facebook Changes Egypt

Source: "Revolution, Facebook-Style," SAMANTHA M. SHAPIRO, The New York Times Magazine, January 22, 2009.

Facebook is now one of the 10 most-visited Web sites, and in Egypt it ranks third, after Google and Yahoo. About one in nine Egyptians has Internet access, and around 9 percent of that group are on Facebook — a total of almost 800,000 members. This month, hundreds of Egyptian Facebook members, in private homes and at Internet cafes, have set up Gaza-related “groups.” Most expressed hatred for Israel and the United States, but each one had its own focus. Some sought to coordinate humanitarian aid to Gaza, some criticized the Egyptian government, some criticized other Arab countries for blaming Egypt for the conflict and still others railed against Hamas.......

Freedom of speech and the right to assemble are limited in Egypt, which since 1981 has been ruled by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party under a permanent state-of-emergency law. An estimated 18,000 Egyptians are imprisoned under the law, which allows the police to arrest people without charges, allows the government to ban political organizations and makes it illegal for more than five people to gather without a license from the government. Newspapers are monitored by the Ministry of Information and generally refrain from directly criticizing Mubarak. And so for young people in Egypt, Facebook, which allows users to speak freely to one another and encourages them to form groups, is irresistible as a platform not only for social interaction but also for dissent.
The Article goes on to describe the April 6 movement in which thousands of Egyptians, primarily young and educated, use Facebook to arrange meetings.
ETHAN ZUCKERMAN, a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, told me that the April 6 movement illustrates what he calls the “cute-cat theory of digital activism.” Web sites or proxy servers created specifically for activists are easy for a government to shut down, Zuckerman says, but around the world, dissidents thrive on sites, like Facebook, that are used primarily for more mundane purposes (like exchanging pictures of cute cats). Authoritarian regimes can’t block political Facebook groups without blocking all the “American Idol” fans and cat lovers as well. “The government can’t simply shut down Facebook, because doing so would alert a large group of people who they can’t afford to radicalize,” Zuckerman explained.
Comment: I have spent a few months in Egypt over the years and came to the conclusion that my viewpoint based in the culture of the United States, modified by years of living in Latin America, does not provide much insight into the way Egyptians think about politics and political participation. Still, I think it the effect of online social networking is likely to open Egyptian political processes.

I suspect that when social networking via cell phone networks becomes universal, coercive control of information will become all but impossible. JAD

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thoughts about UNESCO's history

My UNESCO seminar last night was privileged to hear Dick Arndt and Ray Wanner talk about the history of UNESCO. They focused on the organizational precursors of UNESCO and the process by which the organization was created in the aftermath of the World Wars. Remember that an estimated 55 million people died in World War II and 15 million in World War I. The founders of the United Nations and UNESCO were deeply concerned that something had to be done to make World War III less likely.

The deep divides in the United States about internationalism were discussed, especially in terms of the decision of the Reagan administration's decision to leave UNESCO and the George W. Bush administration's decision to return.

Ray said that there was much for Americans to be proud about in the creation of UNESCO and of some of its flagship programs, which it true. It also seems true that Americans sought to be involved in UNESCO to keep it from playing a more important role in the reconstruction of the educational and scientific plant of Europe after the wars due to key members of the government preferring bilateral to multilateral approaches. The weakness of UNESCO to adequately confront the challenges in education, science, culture and communications can be traced in part to that decision of the U.S. government and to our withdrawal from UNESCO for a couple of decades.

The discussion focused on a number of people who played key roles in UNESCO, emphasizing the Americans as was appropriate for this class with a number of students from the Elliott School of foreign affairs. That is quite a reasonable approach, but in this posting I want to think some about the great trends in world history over the past six decades to which UNESCO had to respond.

Some of the trends and their effects are widely understood. The Cold War affected UNESCO significantly, with the USSR refusing to join the Organisation for its first nine years, and the free-market democracies seeking to use UNESCO to disseminate their institutions.

Decolonization resulted in a rapid expansion of the number of member nations of UNESCO, which in turn resulted in the dilution of power of the founding countries in the one-nation one-vote governing bodies of the Organization. Of course the reconstruction of European nations and Japan after the War reduced the need for collaborative reconstruction efforts. Not coincidentally the focus of UNESCO shifted from rebuilding the allies after World War II to preparing former colonies for self-governance and then toward the alleviation of the poverty that was so prevalent in the newly independent nations. UNESCO's flagship program in the social sciences is now "the Management of Social Transitions", responsive to the need of developing nations to better manage the social transitions in progress.

The Israeli-Arab conflict, and the broader cultural clash between Islamic and Western cultures have similarly had a continuing effect on UNESCO governance and programs.

Some of the trends and impacts are less widely recognized.

The demographic transition -- much reduced infant and childhood mortality leading to reduced fertility -- has resulted in families willing to invest much more per child in education and to support longer periods of school attendance. Thus the education program of UNESCO has been faced by developing countries undergoing rapid demographic transition which wanted rapid expansion of schools systems.

Obviously the footprint of mankind has grown hugely in the last six decades. World population has grown, per capita product has grown, and so too the demand for resources and the potential degradation of the environment has grown. In the same period scientists have learned much more on about the the environment. Thus satellite remote sensing has allowed scientists to measure changes in average global temperatures, rates of deforestation and rates of desertification. The rudimentary computers of the War years have been replaced by massively powerful supercomputers that allow scientists to explore convincing models of climate change. More impact and more understanding of that impact on the environment have resulted in pressures on the UNESCO natural science program to support more effective efforts to map geological and water resources and to understand environmental change.

The evolution of transportation and communications technology and infrastructure over six decades has made the world a much smaller place. Those developments have resulted in a globalization of commerce, the growth of multinational corporations and of international civil society, which in turn resulted in a proliferation of intergovernmental organizations to help manage the global web of relations. UNESCO has thus to adjust its operations to work within a changing web of international systems.

Globalization has many other impacts on UNESCO. Cultures that were once relatively isolated are now supplied by universal access to radio, movies, television, telephones, and the Internet; UNESCO is a refuge where they seek the protection to manage their own cultural evolution. There are now three million students enrolled in institutions of higher learning outside of their own countries, and those students represent an important investment in the future for their nations, leading to demands on UNESCO. UNESCO's program of communications and information is largely concerned with the dissemination of information and communications technologies. Indeed, the entire program of UNESCO has been described as focusing on the transition to information societies and the further translation to knowledge societies.

I could go on and on, but the point should be clear that the world has changed in and UNESCO has changed with it. Indeed, leaders have helped make the organizational changes over the years, but they often were responding to new global needs and it was the emergence of those needs that permitted the accumulation of support needed to change UNESCO.

Obama Rescinds "Mexico City Policy"

Image source: The Huffington Post

The Bush administration sought to gag health services in developing countries not only from providing family planning services but from informing their clients about medically effective means of contraception and abortion.

Here is an excerpt from President Obama's comments as he rescinded the Bush policy (that had been announced at a UN conference in Mexico City):

It is clear that the provisions of the Mexico City Policy are unnecessarily broad and unwarranted under current law, and for the past eight years, they have undermined efforts to promote safe and effective voluntary family planning in developing countries. For these reasons, it is right for us to rescind this policy and restore critical efforts to protect and empower women and promote global economic development.

For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us. I have no desire to continue this stale and fruitless debate.

It is time that we end the politicization of this issue. In the coming weeks, my Administration will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families at home and around the world.

Comment: Congratulations to the Obama administration!

In terms of the subject of this blog, knowledge for development, the efforts to keep government officials and civil society organizations from informing the public is especially wrong, and the Obama administration deserves great credit for acting so quickly to reverse that policy.

Population Action International reports:
the President’s funding request for HIV programs in the 15 focus countries increased 125 percent in just two years over the 2006 allocated level. However, the funding request for family planning and reproductive health fell by 11 percent. Further, the sheer scale of HIV funding in the focus countries ($3.6 billion requested for 2008), dwarfs FP/RH funding ($67.5 million requested for 2008, less than 2 percent the amount requested for HIV programming).

A New Look in Government Science

Chris Mooney had a good article on Slate a week ago. He wrote:
The "war on science" is over. Or at least it is in the sense that I originally meant the phrase: We're at the close of the Bush administration's years of attacks on the integrity of scientific information—its biased editing of technical documents, muzzling of government researchers, and shameless dispersal of faulty ideas about issues like global warming.
He cautions that the level of scientific illiteracy in the United States population is so high that we could easily see a return to anti-scientific pressures whenever scientific knowledge threatens the profits or ideology of some group in power.

Steve Benen's "Political Animal" column in Washington Monthly points out how very strong the Obama science team is, and how much emphasis he has given to science and technology. I am especially pleased by President Obama's apparent commitment to be sure that government scientists are allowed to present the findings of their publicly funded scientific work to the Congress and to the public without political censorship.

Here are President Obama's comments introducing the key members of his science team via ChangeDotGov on YouTube:

A new S&T cooperation initiative

According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel's President Shimon Peres wants to set up a council of developing countries that have binational agreements with Israel, with the aim of expanding research and development for the mutual benefit of all member states.
Peres, who is intently focused on the council, will raise the matter at the World Economic Forum in Davos next week during meetings with world leaders and heads of major companies.

The president "is keen on forming the council because agreements between governments are little more than just that."

"Now, it has to be both private and public," Peres said, "because governments have budgets, but they don't have money."

The plan, in principle, is to set up a series of foundations as offshoots of the council so that profits coming out of specific R&D in which individual foundations have invested will be returned in part to those foundations.

Israel has some experience in this field and would be willing to help other countries get started, said Peres.

Comment: I have some knowledge of the three U.S.-Israel binational foundations (science, agricultural research, and industrial research and development), and I would agree that Israel does indeed have some useful experience to share.

The President of Israel also is likely to understand very well how to use science as a diplomatic tool to improve relations with other nations. I was very much involved in the U.S. funded Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) as well as the U.S.-Israel Cooperative Development Research Program (CDR) which were explicitly designed to build better diplomatic relations for Israel with its neighbor states and with developing nations.

Of course these initiatives will not achieve their political objectives if they don't result in good research and development, and will best meet those objectives if they have economic and social payoffs.

Kathie Olsen and UNESCO

I recommend my recent posting in another blog that I run which discusses the appointment of Kathie Olsen to a committee that conducted a very important review of UNESCO's science programs. Dr. Olsen was at the time a political appointee of the Bush administration, trained in the neurosciences. Was this very political scientist a good choice to advise UNESCO on programs dealing with the environment and the management of social transitions?

Changes in Commodity Prices

Tom Dyson,
Daily Wealth, December 5, 2007.

According to the CRB Index, commodity prices are down considerably since last year. The good news for the poor in poor countries is that foodstuffs cost less this year than last. The bad news for these folks is that the value of the exports from their countries, which tend to export commodities rather than manufactured goods or services, are down. Metals are way down, and there are a number of countries with economies that are primarily exporters of metals.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Darwin's Commemoration

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and published The Origin of Species in 1859, so this year is a double celebration of his life.

I know that there are many in the United States who believe in creationism or intelligent design rather than evolution. I don't want to address that controversy, except to say that those folk may be missing a really important point.

There seems to be an amazing amount of order in the ecosystems with which Darwin was familiar. There was great diversity, but each species had the other species in the ecosystem on which it depended for its survival. The world was conceived by Darwin and Wallace's contemporaries as a Great Chain of Being.

In their theory of evolution, Darwin and Wallace showed that such order could arise from a process of random variation and natural selection without planning. Creationists and adherents of intelligent design believe that that order did not so arise. I would suggest however, that an understanding that order could arise from disorder by other than intelligent action is a fundamental part of the modern mental toolkit.

Darwin and Wallace added to the insight of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Smith had described the way in which a market could bring order to the disorder of a multitude of individual transactions through a "hidden hand" which was not intelligent but simply the result of the way in which information was distributed to buyers and sellers via the market.

These and other tools help us to imagine organizational behavior and other phenomenon in fruitful ways. Even if one were to believe that they were not true models of the phenomena they seek to explain they would be extremely useful as metaphors.

Science stimulus at a glance

Science Debate sent an email with the following:
The 258-page stimulus package proposal making its way through the House would pump $3 billion into the National Science Foundation (NSF), $2 billion into the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $1.9 billion into the Department of Energy (DOE) and $1.5 billion into university research facilities. Much of that money would be directed toward science infrastructure like renovating buildings or laboratories, but the NSF and NIH would receive $2 billion and $1.5 billion respectively that could be used to pay for thousands of basic research grants that have already been approved but for which there was previously not enough money. [from our friends at Nature]
Comment: I guess the reconstruction and renovation of scientific facilities is a very good way to use stimulus funds, since it should put people to work quickly.

Funding more research grants is not likely to put more people to work, is it? The researchers probably have jobs already, and are not among the unemployed. Those funds don't seem to be targeted to the people most in need,

Does it build the basis for long term GDP growth? Funding basic research in NSF and NIH is unlikely to have short term benefits for U.S. industrial innovation either.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Perhaps an end to Polio!

Source: "$635 Million Is Donated to Fight Polio," David Brown, The Washington Post, January 22, 2009.

Rotary International, the Gates Foundation and the governments of Germany and the United Kingdom have agreed to a $650 million donation to the global campaign to eradicate polio.
About $6.17 billion has been spent so far on the eradication effort. The United States has contributed $1.4 billion over the years and is the biggest single donor.......

The number of cases worldwide last year was 1,625 -- about 500 more than in 2007 and three times the number in 2001, the best year of the campaign. Nevertheless, the incidence of the disease has been cut by 99 percent since the campaign began in 1988, when about 350,000 cases a year were recorded........

WHO has a plan for using the money over the next five years, during which it hopes eradication will be achieved.
Comment: I see three possibilities:
  • polio will be eradicated,
  • polio will be resurgent and the world will be faced with epidemics on a regular basis;
  • most of the nations of the world will continue to spend great amounts of money to immunize their populations while there will be a few areas in which polio remains endemic.
The first is the only reasonable alternative both from a humanitarian and an economic perspective.

I knew someone well who suffered for decades from the aftermath of polio, and no one else should ever have to face such difficulties!

My thanks to the donors! JAD

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sassanid Quotations

"The most disgraceful thing is for kings to disdain learning and be afraid of science."

"The throne depends on the army, the army on revenue, revenue on agriculture, and agriculture on justice."

King of the Sassanid empire, 6th century AD.
Quoted from Justinian's Flea by William Rosen.

Can We Make the Antibiotics and Vaccines We May Need?

Source of the Graph: "Brief on the Global Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries," Jason Matheny, Center for Biosecurity, University of Pitsburgh Medical Center, January 15, 2007

Source article: "Drug Making’s Move Abroad Stirs Concerns," GARDINER HARRIS, The New York Times, January 19, 2009.

Apparently the key ingredients in most pharmaceuticals available in the United States are manufactured abroad. Pills may be pressed and packaged in the United States, but are made from imported ingredients. If there is ever a major need for antibiotics, the domestic industry might need a couple of years to tool up to produce them.

Excerpts from the story:
Of the 1,154 pharmaceutical plants mentioned in generic drug applications to the Food and Drug Administration in 2007, only 13 percent were in the United States. Forty-three percent were in China, and 39 percent were in India.....

Dr. Yusuf K. Hamied, chairman of Cipla, one of the world’s most important suppliers of pharmaceutical ingredients, says his company and others have grown increasingly dependent on Chinese suppliers. “If tomorrow China stopped supplying pharmaceutical ingredients, the worldwide pharmaceutical industry would collapse,” he said.......

One federal database lists nearly 3,000 overseas drug plants that export to the United States; the other lists 6,800 plants. Nobody knows which is right.
Comment: The FDA does not do much of a job testing materials crossing U.S. borders, so I hope that the firms themselves verify that the ingredients that they are importing and incorporating into their products are safe and efficacious.

So why is it that Big Pharma is arguing that we can't import drugs from Canada. Apparently many of these drugs are made in the United States from ingredients made in China and India and exported to Canada.

Clearly firms will seek to maximize profits by buying their supplies from the lest costly source. Our trade treaty obligations require that the government not subsidize domestic producers to compete internationally, but that rule applies to the Chinese and Indian governments as well, and if necessary the U.S. government can take action.

However, it seems to me that there are strategic resources including vaccines and antibiotics for which a nation should guarantee the access for its people. I think it more important to have the productive capacity than a stockpile.

There must be a way.

Source of the Graph: "Brief on the Global Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries," Jason Matheny, Center for Biosecurity, University of Pitsburgh Medical Center, January 15, 2007

'Air and Simple Gifts' John Williams at Obama Inauguration

What a great element for this inauguration! John Williams, perhaps the most popular of contemporary serious American composers, was commissioned to write a piece for the event. He produced something available to us all, based on a Shaker dance, "Simple Gifts", widely known and beautifully appropriate. Indeed, a piece previously used by that most American of composers, Aaron Copeland. William's piece was scored for a quartet that included not only the traditional violin, cello, and piano, but clarinet, again harkening back to American sources and experience. The group, harmonizing across ethnic divisions by consummate skill, included two of the world's greatest musicians.

The current situation

The Obama inauguration speech makes one think back on history. The situation we in the United States face today is not comparable to that faced by Washington when he took office in a fragile state subject to poverty we can hardly imagine, nor to that faced by Lincoln on the verge of a terrible civil war. Nor is it comparable to that faced by FDR in the great Depression with a world war looming on the horizon. We face an economic crisis and are seeking to disengage from a military occupation in one foreign land and an insurgency in another, but we can feel confident that the nation can put those crises behind us while the majority of our citizens live secure lives of relative safety and indeed comfort.

Indeed, we can see that the English, the French, the Spanish descendants of people whose empires failed live quite happy and comfortable lives, as do the Germans, Italians and Japanese whose nations were decimated in World War II. Even were the United States to fail to retain its dominant economic and technological power, the lot of most Americans would be envied by the majority of the world's people.

For half the world's population, some three billion people trying to survive on a couple of dollars a day or less, crisis is real and ever present. Many millions of them will not survive their current crises of hunger and disease.

The Obama administration is well advised to take the current situation seriously. Barack Obama is right to call for Americans to forswear the excesses of greed and self-preoccupation of the past. It sounds as if President Obama will not overdramatize the domestic situation (as Jimmy Carter did during his presidency).

Barack Obama is the son of a man from a Kenyan village, the daughter of a woman who helped to create the micro-finance movement in developing nations, who lived as a child in Indonesia. I think he recognizes where the greater problems reside in the world, and I hope he will lead the people of the United States to that more generous and responsible role demanded by our wealth and power.

Quotation from the Inaugural Address

I listened to the inauguration address on the radio, watched excerpts on the news, watched the video below, and read the printed speech. I conclude that it is a very good speech. I was surprised at how much better it was when I could see President Obama than when I heard it on radio, and it reads best of all.

The clips on the news do not do justice to the speech, and that must be the result of a deliberate choice by the president (with the aid of his speech writer(s)). The speech strives for a mature statement of complex challenges to be met with firm resolve and serious measures. It substitutes sonorous cadences and historical and biblical references for sound bites.

There are a couple of quotations that relate to the subjects of this blog>
  • "The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do."
  • "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bush Thinks He Kept Americans Safe

Let him explain that to the families of the thousands of Americans killed in the wars he started.

Let him explain that to the tens of thousands of Americans wounded in body or mind in the wars he started.

Let him explain that to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast who suffered and are still suffering from Hurricane Katrina.

How many Americans will be injured or die as a result of accidents in our crumbling infrastructrure? How many Americans will suffer and die as a result of the ways in which he weakened environmental and safety regulation? How many will suffer and die who would have been saved had he made progress on health financing reform? How many Americans will suffer or die who would have been saved had he pushed ahead vigorously with stem cell research?

We think of the economic disaster that occurred on the watch of the Bush administration in terms of jobs and homes lost, and perhaps in terms of the Americans who no longer feel safe in their lives, but the costs of this recession will be also felt in increased crime and indeed in deteriorating health. How many Americans will suffer and die who would not have had the Bush administration kept their economy safe by appropriate regulation.

Of course it is the spin doctors who are trying to find something positive for Bush to say about his failed presidency. However, it is a failure to understand and quantify risk that leads to such foolishness as to claim Bush has kept Americans safe. I wonder if he himself understands how much misery he has let loose in America. Surely he does not understand the misery that his actions have created around the world, or that will continue that could have been alleviated had he acted more wisely.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Brookings: STI for the Arab World

The Brookings Institution has done some interesting studies on science and technology in the Arab States and how S&T cooperation between those states and the U.S. can be useful to U.S. foreign policy. These include:
  • Science and Technology in U.S. Relations with the Islamic World
    This is the result of a conference hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in January 2005. "A consensus on several recommendations emerged from the workshop. The U.S. should set clear goals for its scientific and technological cooperation with the Islamic world, and develop an over-arching strategy to achieve them. This should be explained to the American public, and optimal use of U.S. public diplomacy in the Islamic world should be made. Industrial and entrepreneurial development must be a priority, but properly funded U.S. engagement should take place at all levels, from primary education to academia, and availing of human resources such as diaspora communities. ICT infrastructure and knowledge accessibility must be improved, and, with suitable attention to national security, hosting of academic visitors and transfer of technology should be facilitated. U.S. - Islamic world collaboration must be a genuine partnership, in which the U.S. listens to its partners and programs are tailored to their priorities. The pursuant possibilities are indeed considerable."
  • Untapped Potential: US Science and Technology Cooperation with the Islamic World
    Michael B. d'Arcy and Michael A. Levi, 2005
    Despite widespread and growing public hostility to the United States in the Islamic world, American science and technology are widely admired there. This provides a valuable channel for productive cooperation. By working wisely with scientists and engineers from the Islamic world, the United States could bolster economic and human development and aid in tackling important regional problems like natural resource management, all while strengthening American public diplomacy in the Islamic world. To be certain, some science and technology cooperation, involving certain sensitive subjects, would be unwise, but a prudent balance is well within reach.
  • A New Millennium of Knowledge? The Arab Human Development Report on Building a Knowledge Society, Five Years On
    Kristin M. Lord, 2008
    This study assesses what has happened in the five years since the 2003 report was published, what successes towards building a knowledge society have been achieved, what work remains, and what has failed. It analyzes what has occurred in the last five years in terms of governance, education, science and technology, knowledge-based industry, and building a knowledge culture. Drawing on the insights of a distinguished group of experts, it then recommends tangible steps toward achieving the vision of a knowledge society in the coming five years.

    Our conclusion is that Arab countries, as a group, have made significant progress in most of these areas, especially compared with their own history. Yet, other regions have advanced even faster and tremendous challenges— such as creating 100 million new jobs for the region’s mushrooming youth population—loom ahead. The Arab world must reinvigorate its efforts or be left behind. Many new initiatives are underway, but it is too soon to assess their impact. Success, ultimately, will be judged by what is achieved, not by what is invested.
  • Building an Arab Knowledge Society: How Business Can Help
    Kristen Lord, 2008
    (T)he Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, housed within the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, co-sponsored a workshop on December 11, 2007, with Business for Diplomatic Action, on “Strengthening Science and Technology Engagement with the Arab World: Perspectives from Business.” This is the result of that meeting.

An interesting Brookings site

There are some interesting resources on the Science and Technology facet of the website of the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution. The major study seems to be:
Promoting Opportunity and Growth through Science, Technology, and Innovation
by Jason Bordoff, Michael Deich, Rebecca Kahane, and Peter Orszag

Technological progress has accounted for a large and increasing share of U.S. economic growth. The Hamilton Project's strategy for enhancing innovation is focused on three "I's": individuals, investment, and incentives. The strategy calls for improving the quality of our education and training, particularly in science and math, in order to develop a high-quality labor force; embracing a redesigned system of national investments in-along with a stronger commitment to-scientific research; and adopting smarter incentives for private firms to undertake research and development.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Seed State of Science 2008

"In this, Seed's first State of Science, we set out to examine the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice. We surveyed scientists, academics, and consulted with historians, journal editors, and policy experts alike. We also invited genome pioneer and entrepreneur Craig Venter to lay down his opinions on how science really gets done, Harvard historian Steven Shapin to profile the scientist of today, and researchers from five different continents to tell us why they do what they do. Our aim was to capture the fundamentals of science and create an honest snapshot of the state of science today—along with the motivations and ambitions of the individuals who will chart its future course."

"Latin American S&T investment shows major growth"

Source: Laura García, SciDev.Net, January 9, 2009
Investment in science has soared in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years and the number of science publications has doubled, according to a new report.

But the global financial crisis — and lack of private investment — threatens to curb further growth.

'State of Science 2008', published last month (December), says there has been major growth in research and development (R&D) investment, the development of human resources, and the number of scientific publications and patents across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Without Comment

Scientific Publication Rates and Impact

From last week's Science magazine:
Pacific Rim countries now produce almost as many scientific papers, but the United States still holds an across-the-board edge in relative citation impact, according to the latest tally of 21 scientific fields by the ScienceWatch tracking service ( U.S. physics papers lead the field with an average of 6.15 cites each, compared with the world average of 3.96.

U.S. world
share (%)
U.S. citation
Relative impact
v. world (%)
Physics 23.26 6.15 +55
Chemistry 20.70 7.33 +52
Materials science 18.10 4.23 +47
Geosciences 34.62 5.40 +42
Computer science 35.27 2.10 +40
Microbiology 34.01 9.90 +39
Clinical medicine 36.92 7.84 +36
Biology/biochemistry 37.10 10.33 +35
Space science 49.17 10.48 +34
Pharmacology 30.84 7.23 +34

Comment: The United States publishes roughly half of the space science papers, and more than one-third of papers in a number of fields of science, while some four-fifths of papers in chemistry, physics and materials science are published elsewhere. We are betting heavily on the sciences from which technologies are emerging most rapidly.

On the other hand, the impact is higher in the fields in which Americans publish a smaller portion of the world's output. Go figure!

Of course, there are cultural differences among the scientific communities working on different sciences which may lead to different numbers of citations per paper published. JAD

UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century

Dmitry Epstein, the Think Macro blogger, asked for updates on the course I am teaching on UNESCO. The title is "UNESCO: Agenda for the 21st Century" and I have posted the Syllabus online. I am coordinating the course with a colleague, Frank Method, and many members of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO are participating during the semester.

The seminar is intended to provide students with an understanding of UNESCO and the context in which it works as an intergovernmental organization focusing on education, science, culture and communications and information. Students lead about half the sessions, and are expected to do a project for the course. In the two previous semesters that the seminar was offered, projects have included:
  • The creation of a manual for students intending to start a UNESCO club in their university,
  • The design of a museum exhibit on natural World Heritage sites and their conservation,
  • A proposal for a multimedia self-learning course on the World Heritage sites in U.S. national parks, which has been accepted by the National Parks service, and
  • A paper on UNESCO's role in the students home country which was accepted as the basis of a paper for an international conference.
This is the third time the course has been offered at George Washington University. It is a graduate seminar in the International Education Program. However, the seminar is open to students in other parts of the university and for cross registration for students in other universities of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Indeed in previous semesters the class has been enriched by students of museum management and foreign affairs and by students from Georgetown university.

This semester there are ten students signed up. They are an impressive group. Most have lived abroad and have mastered more than one language, and almost all have some professional working experience. We have only had the orientation meeting so far, but I am looking forward to the semester.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

How to Understand Intergovernmental Organizations

I coordinate a graduate seminar focused on UNESCO. We seek to help students to understand the organization and its place in the complex, evolving and expanding web of intergovernmental organizations. If transportation and information technological development continues to drive improvements in global infrastructures, globalization will continue and global institutions will evolve in response to the trends. I believe people in their 20's will live in a world with a much more elaborate web of intergovernmental organizations. Here is a summary of a suggestion I made to the students:

There are many ways to understand UNESCO. You should find it useful in the future to consciously study organizations in which you work and with which you deal based on the different facets with which we view UNESCO.

Among the ways we can understand UNESCO are:

  • UNESCO’s Mission: UNESCO's constitution sets forth its mission, and nations join UNESCO accepting that constitution. UNESCO's governing bodies and Secretariat are bound by it. You will find that many components of UNESCO, such as the World Heritage Center, also have internationally agreed formal mission statements.
  • The Organization’s programs and budget: This information is publicly available, and you will not understand the organization without understanding the resources it controls and how they are allocated and used. It is especially important to understand the different sources of funding and the restrictions that they impose on the Organization.
  • UNESCO’s organizational structure and procedures: The standard methods of organization theory help in understanding the organization. UNESCO’s organization is quite complex; its procedures are similar to those of some other intergovernmental organizations but may seem quite strange at first if you do not have experience with United Nations decentralized agencies.
  • The staff and the norms of the international civil service: Think about a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic group of people, located in 60 different countries, with different professional backgrounds, working under a civil service system, and trying to get anything done!
  • The Organization’s governance: UNESCO has an especially unwieldy governance structure, which creates many problems. It was designed to have a powerful Director General elected by the member states, and not all Directors General have been great leaders.
  • UNESCO’s accomplishments and failures: You may learn even more about the organization by understanding where and why it has failed than by reviewing its successes.
  • The historic evolution of the Organization: UNESCO was not designed, it "grew like Topsy". It helps to understand when and how the accretions to its program occurred. Otherwise you will not understand how sports doping fits in the Social and Human Sciences program, why UNESCO rather that the International Energy Agency does UNESCO's energy program, or why UNESCO has a strong emphasis on HIV/AIDS rather than leaving that health problem to the World Health Organization.
  • The linkages to UNESCO's constituents -- the educational, scientific, cultural and other constituent communities both within member nations and on a global scale.
  • The politics of UNESCO within member nations: In the United States, UNESCO is politically controversial, and that is true in other nations. This is important in terms of the donors and in terms of developing nations where UNESCO's functions sometimes as a development assistance agency.
  • As one among many intergovernmental organizations: As the complexity of the web of international organizations has evolved, the role of UNESCO within that web has changed.
  • As affected by the great trends of history: UNESCO has changed with the Cold War, Decolonization, Globalization, the fall of Communism, etc.
  • In terms of the challenges that UNESCO faces in the foreseeable future, as its governing bodies and Secretariat seek to prepare the Organization to meet those challenges.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thoughts About Choosing a New Director General for UNESCO

UNESCO is the lead agency of the United Nations system for education, natural and social sciences, culture and communication and information. More fundamentally, it was created in the aftermath of World War II to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men.

A new Director General of UNESCO is to be elected in October. The term is four years, but Directors General often serve two terms. Thus the delegates of the member nations will select someone to act as a global spokesperson for peace, for education, for science, for culture and the protection of our cultural heritage, and for freedom of expression.

Member nations have until the end of May to nominate candidates for the position. The nominations will be considered by the Executive Board consisting of the representatives of 50 nations. The Executive Board's recommendation will be acted upon by the General Conference of all 193 nations in October.

UNESCO has a unique governance structure in that its Constitution calls for member states to create national commissions which provide their educational, scientific and cultural communities with the means to exercise leadership with their governments in UNESCO affairs.

Now is the time for the national commissions to search for suitable candidates and to encourage their governments to make suitable nominations. This summer will be the time for the national commissions to consider the nominations, to evaluate the qualifications of the candidates, and to encourage their governments to support the best candidate.

The next Director General should be:
  • An articulate and charismatic spokesperson for peace and international understanding;
  • Capable of leading an organization with 2,000 staff and a $500 million annual budget capable of catalyzing global collaborations;
  • A world leader in one of the fields of competence of UNESCO;
  • A capable diplomat able to negotiate compromise among the disparate interests of UNESCO's member nations; and of course
  • A person of sterling personal and professional integrity; as well
  • As someone who can communicate effectively in the major languages used in UNESCO.
UNESCO's first Director General was Julian Huxley, a world class scientist who was one of the leaders in the synthesis of genetics and Darwinian evolution, a former Director of the London Zoological Society, and an effective disseminator of scientific information to the general public. The first Director General from the United States was Luther Evans, who had been the Librarian of Congress and who had organized and headed the Historical Records Survey of records held in the individual states of the United States. Both of these men were known worldwide in fields of central importance to UNESCO, with demonstrated records leading major organizations. The next Director General should be someone who would honor the tradition that they began.

If the nominations and selection of a new Director General is left to diplomats we can expect a diplomat to be selected. It is time for the educational, scientific and cultural leaders to stand up and be sure that the best representatives of their communities are considered for the post, in order that a truly outstanding leader will be chosen to lead UNESCO into the new decade.

Doubting Thomas Refuted

Recall that the Apostle Thomas would not believe in the resurrection of Jesus if he could not feel the wounds. The Boston Globe presents the following examples in which people should not believe their senses, even the sense of touch. Of course, you may not believe what you read in the papers.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Very Rare but Very Deadly Events

Source: "Hunt for space rocks intensifies," Laurence Peter, BBC News, 12 January 2009.

In April 2029, an asteroid called Apophis will come within five Earth radii - below the orbits of geosynchronous satellites. Astronomers have already calculated the exact orbit and know the asteroid will not hit the earth (this time).

There are theories that the dinosaurs were killed off by a big collision millions of years ago, and that large mammals went extinct due to a smaller collision 13,000 years ago. There was a serious impact in Siberia in 1908. So the world is now going to try to map the near earth orbit (NEO) objects with the hope that if one is on orbit to collide with earth mankind will be able to do something about it,

JPL has already found 763 asteroids and 82 comets in NEO that are more than one kilometer in diameter; it believes that there represent 90 percent of the total. A new program is under way to log NEOs as small as 140m (460ft) in diameter; the target is to find 90% of them by 2020.
An object is classed as an NEO if it comes within 45 million km (28 million miles) of Earth's orbit.
BBC reports:
A major success was the first ever accurate prediction of an Earth impact, last October. The Arizona observatory spotted a two-metre space rock heading for Earth and predicted exactly when and where it would land. The rock exploded in an empty part of northern Sudan, within a day of discovery.
Comment: This situation reminds me of the bird flu situation. In both cases it seems likely that a very deadly event will occur in the future, but that event is very unlikely to happen in the next year. Prudence suggests we seek to measure the danger and prepare to avoid disaster when it threatens imminently, but we must balance danger and the cost of its prevention against other risk amelioration resource allocations. JAD

Three firms debarred by World Bank

Satyam Computer Services co-founder
B. Ramalinga Raju

The World Bank has announced that it will "make public the names of all companies that have been debarred from receiving direct contracts from the Bank Group under its corporate procurement program.'

Three firms have been debarred so far:
Satyam Computer Services, Ltd.
Term: 8 years
Date: September 2008
Reason: Providing improper benefits to Bank staff and failing to maintain documentation to support fees charged for its subcontractors.

Wipro Technologies
Term: 4 years
Date: June 2007
Reason: Providing improper benefits to Bank staff

Megasoft Consultants Ltd.
Term: 4 years
Date: Dec 2007
Reason: Participating in a joint venture with Bank staff while also conducting business with the Bank

Kinds of Things We Don't Know

I have been listening to an interesting Charlie Rose show on the U.S. Intelligence system. It got me thinking about kinds of ignorance. Here are some types:
  • Things we can't know. For example, we can't know whether there are intelligent beings in other galaxies. The distances are so great that even if we somehow got a message from another galaxy that implied an intelligent source, that species might no longer still exist.
  • There are secrets -- things that are being kept from us.
  • There are mysteries.
Al Qaada is keeping secrets from the government of the United States, but the evolution is radical Islamic movements is perhaps more a mystery than a secret. We might be able to work it out, but there is probably no one who really knows what it will be who is keeping that knowledge secret.
  • There are things we know, but don't know that we know.
I am getting old enough that there are often things that I know, but can't retrieve at the moment. There are also things that we can figure out without further information, but have never formalized as knowledge. But the key word is "we". There is information embodied in structure and process of groups or organizations that is not explicitly known to any member. There is also information in such groups or organizations that is somewhere such that it can not be brought to bear when and where it is needed.
  • There are things we choose not to know.
  • There are things we simply have not yet found out.
And of course, there are things we know that are not true.

We don't know what we don't know, and we don't know what we think we know that is not true.

There is also the difference between accuracy (validity of information) and precision (the exactitude of information)

The Changing Communications Infrastructure and the Accuracy of Polls

Source: "Cellphones' Growth Does a Number on Health Research," David Brown, The Washington Post, January 12, 2009.

The failure of polling in the Dewey-Truman presidential election is famous. All the polls predicted Dewey, and Truman won. The polling was done by telephone. More Republicans had phones than did Democrats.

In the 1980's and 1990's almost every one had a phone. Only about three percent of the population did not. I would bet that these folk were neither likely to vote nor big consumer spenders. Pollsters were OK leaving them out.

Now, to that three percent, we must add 16 percent of homes that have cell phones but no telephone land line. There folk are not only a significant portion of the population, but they are demographically (and behaviorally) different from the land-line wired majority.

So pollsters want to survey them. However, the law does not allow automatic dialing to cell phones as it does to land line phones, so it costs more to poll the cell-only users. Moreover, they are almost twice as likely to refuse to respond to an interviewers questions.

I don't worry too much about the political pollsters not getting it right, nor about the advertisers not getting their messages fine tuned to the max. However, the WP points out that epidemiological surveys are having trouble, and I do want public health officials to have the best information possible. Indeed, that is true for a lot of public services.

I guess we need a widely shared ethic as to which poll we will take and which we can reject in good conscience!

"Bush Econ: A Legacy of Little Growth"

Source: The Washington Post, January 12, 2009

Comment: The WP seems to be attributing the low growth rate to George W. Bush's administration. Not however the comparison between recent Democratic and Republican Administrations in average growth of GDP:
  • Democrats: Clinton 3.6, Carter 3.4, Johnson 5.3, Kennedy 5.3
  • Republicans: Bush II 1.4, Bush I 1.9, Reagan 3.4, Ford 3.1, Nixon 2. 4
The worst Democratic growth record is equal to the best Republican record. In terms of jobs over the last 50 years, the the worst Democrat is better than the best Republican. Which party do you want to elect? Of course if you are among the very rich, the answer may be different than mine. JAD

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Science, Technology and Peacebuilding

The United States Government's Institute for Peace includes this interesting "Center of Innovation".

Projects under the Center include:
  • SENSE Simulations
    TheStrategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise (SENSE), originally developed by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), is a computer-based simulation that focuses on negotiations and decision-making in a post-conflict environment. SENSE simulates the resource allocation challenges confronting national and international decision-makers.
  • International Network to Promote the Rule of Law (INPROL)
    This Internet-based network consists of a consortium of practitioners joined together to promote the rule of law in societies transitioning from war to peace. The online nature of this program allows those serving in the field to exchange information with other experienced practitioners, as well as to access relevant documents, best practices, and related materials.
  • Truth Commission Digital Collection
    The Truth Commissions Digital Collection, part of the Margarita S. Studemeister Digital Library in International Conflict Management, is a collection constantly under development by the Jeannette Rankin Library Program, containing decrees establishing truth commissions and similar bodies of inquiry worldwide, and the reports issued by such groups.

Ubuntu: The South African Linux Open Source Package

Mark Shuttleworth, the promoter for Ubuntu Linux

Source: "A Software Populist Who Doesn’t Do Windows," ASHLEE VANCE, The New York Times, January 19, 2009.

"Created just over four years ago, Ubuntu (pronounced oo-BOON-too) has emerged as the fastest-growing and most celebrated version of the Linux operating system, which competes with Windows primarily through its low, low price: $0.

"More than 10 million people are estimated to run Ubuntu today, and they represent a threat to Microsoft’s hegemony in developed countries and perhaps even more so in those regions catching up to the technology revolution.....

"Companies like I.B.M., Hewlett-Packard and Dell place Linux on more than 10 percent of the computers they sell as servers, and businesses pay the hardware makers and others, like the software sellers Red Hat and Oracle, to fix any problems and keep their Linux-based systems up to date.

"But Canonical, Mr. Shuttleworth’s company that makes Ubuntu, has decided to focus its near-term aspirations on the PCs used by workers and people at home......

"Close to half of Google’s 20,000 employees use a slightly modified version of Ubuntu, playfully called Goobuntu.....

"Dell started to sell PCs and desktops with the software in 2007, and I.B.M. more recently began making Ubuntu the basis of a software package that competes against Windows......

"Canonical, based in London, has more than 200 full-time employees, but its total work force stretches well beyond that, through an army of volunteers. The company paid for close to 60 volunteers to attend its developer event, considering them important contributors to the operating system. An additional 1,000 work on the Debian project and make their software available to Canonical, while 5,000 spread information about Ubuntu on the Internet. And 38,000 have signed up to translate the software into different languages......

"The technology research firm IDC estimates that 11 percent of American businesses have systems based on Ubuntu. That said, many of the largest Ubuntu customers have cropped up in Europe, where Microsoft’s dominance has endured intense regulatory and political scrutiny.

"The Macedonian education department relies on Ubuntu, providing 180,000 copies of the operating system to children, while the Spanish school system has 195,000 Ubuntu desktops. In France, the National Assembly and the Gendarmerie Nationale, the military police force, rely on Ubuntu for a combined 80,000 PCs."

Comment: I first learned to program more than 50 years ago, and in that ancient time software was distributed by users groups. It was all open source, but we didn't have a term for collaboratively developed and freely distributed software, made available gratis. Clearly Linux is here to stay. One hopes that Ubuntu will bring open source operating systems to dominate new classes of applications especially in developing countries. Educational computers, machines in public health systems, and other governmental applications seem good candidates. JAD

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Do we have a name for the part of Africa convulsed by violence?

Source of map: Africa Dawn Gallery

Look at the map and think of the places that have been most convulsed by violence in the past few decades: southern Sudan, Darfur in western Sudan spilling over into Chad, the Lords Resistance Army in northern Uganda and over the borders into surrounding countries, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. With the exception of Somalia there are all contiguous in a region centered on the Equator in the center of Africa. The region is larger than most Americans would recognize because our maps use a projection that makes the equatorial region appear small with respect to northern and southern regions. Is this "central Africa"?

I think we may need a term to help us think of this region as one representing a common problem. The divisions into rather artificial post colonial nation states doesn't do that, much less the complex maps of individual tribal groups.

Consider the map below, which suggests that the region of conflict may be that of relatively high population density (the highlands) where the Nilotic peoples come into contact with the Bantu peoples.

Map source: Cape Coloured DNA Project

I have just read Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Kineally and am now reading Justinian's Flea by William Rosen. Both have brought to mind the problem with my culturally centered perception of other cultures and people. The terms that we use don't necessarily represent the way people in other cultures and times think of themselves, nor are they necessarily the most useful ways to think about the big issues of history.

Travel time to major cities: A global map of Accessibility

The first Global Accessibility Map depicts the time needed to travel by land or water--from less than an hour (pale yellow) to 10 days (dark brown)--from any location in the world to the nearest city of 50,000 people or more. It also indicates the density of shipping lanes. Only 10% of the world's land area is now "remote"--defined as more than 48 hours from a large city. The map was made for World Development Report 2009. It is a joint product of the European Commission and the World Bank, available with description on the EC website.

"NOBODY talks about “decoupling” any more."

The article suggests that since the exports of developing countries have been increasingly directed towards other developing countries, the economic downturn in the rich countries may not be as damaging to the poor countries as might have been the case in the past.

I wonder whether the authors fail to take into effect the indirect impacts. Will the developing countries, facing falling exports to developed nations in turn cut their own imports including those from other developing nations? I would guess so.

Financial decisions are heavily influenced by early experiences

According to The Economist
new research from Ulrike Malmendier of the University of California at Berkeley and Stefan Nagel of Stanford University seems to confirm that people born at different times make very different financial choices, even in similar economic environments.

Ms Malmendier and Mr Nagel examined detailed survey data about American households’ finances between 1964 and 2004. Because they knew when the people in the sample were born, they could calculate the average stockmarket returns and inflation that individuals had experienced over the course of their lives. And because the data tracked financial choices over time, they could also control for factors like age, which matters because the composition of people’s portfolios is likely to change as they grow older.

Their work confirmed the Depression babies idea. Under identical market conditions, and controlling for age, people who had experienced lower stockmarket returns over the course of their lives put a smaller fraction of their money into stocks than people who had lived, on average, in times when stocks had done better.
Comment: Another research result that confirms that we think with our evolved brains that are not nearly as precise logical engines as we imagine. JAD