Sunday, May 31, 2009

I am on vacation

I am currently in Indiana, enjoying beautiful weather and views of the Ohio River. I expect to be back home in a few days to take up blogging again.

View of the Ohio River from The Overlook,
a restaurant where I had breakfast

How Technology Can Support Education in Africa

I published a short piece on the online magazine, Foreign Policy Digest, titled "How Technology Can Support Education in Africa". It describes examples of use of information and communications technology applicable to education in Africa.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A thought on reading Tamerlane

I have been reading Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi. He happily describes populations of cities in Central Asia as being very large -- 150,000 for Samarkand in the time of Timur, for example. He also describes Timur's army as 200,000 strong, marching into Samarkand. Figures like that made me wonder about the factors that limit the size of a city's or an army's population.

Sanitation was a limiting factor in the past. Rome reached a population of a million people at its height, in part because it had an infrastructure of aqueducts and sewerage that could support so large a population. Lacking that kind of infrastructure, considerably smaller cities would stop growing because their death rates got so high that the balanced immigration (probably in part because people did not want to move to a city which appeared to be very unhealthy.)

Clearly it had to be possible to feed the city. I suppose one reason that cities often grew on the banks of navigable bodies of water was that water transport was an affordable way to bring food from afar, even before the advent of mechanical power and good roads or railroads.

The food going to a town or city had to be from the production of farms that exceeded the needs of the farmers. Subsistence farms don't support cities. In 14th century Central Asia, there was a history of irrigation, a fairly wide variety of crops, and a fair amount of animal power. The region also depended significantly on livestock that was herded by nomadic peoples, but who probably brought animals to urban markets in order to obtain other goods that they needed. The city was also apparently surrounded by orchards and vinyards, and the people managing the orchards and vinyards may produce more surplus per capita than other farmers. (i recall my days in Chile where you could buy very bad wine for nine cents a liter; it was the cheapest source of calories for the poor!)

Grazing lands could be quite distant from the city since cattle and sheep could walk to market. Similarly, there appeared to be a pretty good road system (at least for mounted messangers who provided a "pony express" linking Timur's widespread empire. One assumes that animal power was used to bring crops to market in the city.

A Tartar army supported its food needs by plundering the lands that it conquered, by hunting, probably by bringing livestock on the march for food, and probably by bringing supplies of grains by wagon or pack train. We are told that Timur's army could stay in the field for years at a time, and that it would camp around a town or city rather than seek to be quartered within the city. Still, one wonders wether 200,000 troops actually returned to Samarkand, or if they did whether they did more than march through town before returning to their tribal homes.

I have read that a number of ancient cities grew to the point where they so destroyed the local environment, for example cutting forests for firewood or overworking the land or water resources to the point that a drought or other environmental event could not be withstood.

It seems clear that these cities on the Silk Road also grew because the trade brought resources to the city which allowed it to acquire more of the food and environmental services that the population needed. The rare goods brought from afar were expensive enough that they would justify a fairly expensive trading infrastructure. Similarly, the plunder brought back from foreign conquests would pay for food and other services brought from afar for the small aristocratic class.

It might be interesting to do an economic model of the affordable size of cities. It would fit into the Zipf law relationships of the distribution of sizes of urban places.

Satellite Remote Sensing Applied to Tropical Diseases

Source: "Satellites and global health: Remote diagnosis," The Economist, May 21st 2009.

The article describes how researchers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland used meteorological data to predict the development of weather conditions that would favor an epidemic of Rift Valley Fever in East Africa, and how their warning was used by public health officials to reduce the lethality of the epidemic.
Attempts to foresee epidemics such as these have traditionally relied on fieldwork on the ground. This is often slow and expensive. Crunching data from satellites is much less costly. Satellites transmit copious information on temperatures, precipitation, vegetation cover and even the health, moisture content and chlorophyll-production of plants.
The article also mentions applications of satellite data and computer processing to predict tsetse fly vector capacity and thus the danger from sleeping sickness, and to identify the frequency of mosquito breeding sites to help deal with malaria.

Comment: This is a technology that I had hoped would develop more rapidly. As I recall there was an application to screw worm control in Mexico decades ago. I suspect that the problem is that the tropical diseases that are weather related are most problematic in places with few scientists using satellite data (and little funding for remote sensing research. On the other hand, I would think that there could be comparable studies done on air pollution with important health benefits in developed nations as well as developing nations. JAD

Broadband Subscription Rates

Source: The Economist

"The number of broadband subscribers in OECD countries increased by 13% last year to 267m. More than a fifth of the combined population of the 30 mostly rich nations in the OECD now have high-speed access to the internet."

Comment: I notice that the United States is lower in per capita penetration not only than South Korea and some of the Nordic countries, but also the UK, France and Germany. Low connectivity is indicative of failing competitiveness!! JAD

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Nominee Sonia Sotomayor

President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, has had the following posts, having graduated from law school in 1979:
  • Editor of the Yale Law Journal
  • Assistant District Attorney in New York County
  • Partner at the commercial litigation firm of Pavia & Harcourt, where she specialized in intellectual property litigation
  • Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York
  • Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit
While in private practice, Sotomayor was appointed in 1988 as one of the founding members of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, where she served for four years. She has also been a member of the Board of Directors of the State of New York Mortgage Agency (SONYMA), the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the foundation then known as the Maternity Center Association (now called Childbirth Connection).

Sotomayor was an Adjunct Professor at New York University School of Law from 1998 to 2007 and has been a lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School since 1999. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University and a longtime fan of the New York Yankees.
Do you think she has trouble holding a job? I guess she will hold the new one for a while.

David Dickson leads me to think about culture

David Dickson has an editorial in SciDev.Net on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of C.P. Snow's essay on the two cultures. That essay focused on the divide between the scientific and technological culture and the culture of the literary intelligentsia in Europe and the United States. I tend to think of his point in simplistic terms -- too many people who saw themselves as intellectuals didn't know anything about science and didn't understand modern (or any) technology. I think that point was and is valid.

Dickson points out that Snow had "originally intended to emphasise how a lack of access to science and technology was separating the rich from the poor.'
Both the strength and continued value of Snow's analysis lies in his advocacy that all societies, both rich and poor, should recognise and accept science as an important strand of their culture. It is this idea, for example, that underpins recent efforts in developed and developing countries alike to promote the public's understanding of science.
The shortcomings of this scientific determinism became apparent in the decades following Snow's lecture. In that period, political discourse became increasingly centred not on science's promises, but on its unacceptable side-effects — from nuclear weapons and environmental pollution to global warming and climate change.
It occurs to me that the "two culture" approach owes more to our dialectic tradition than to reality.

Today we talk about the culture wars, based on disagreements between two subcultures on issues such as the teaching of evolution and stem cell research. We also focus on tensions between Muslim and Christian communities. World War II and the Cold War may be seen in terms of a clash of democratic and faschist/authoritarian cultures. Oscar Lewis wrote about the "culture of poverty" implicitly contrasting it with dominant culture or culture that would promote economic success. There is a history within development theory of contrasting "modern" and "traditional" cultures.

It may be useful to think of culture in terms of memes. Many memes make up a culture. Individual memes arise, are diffused, and die out. The result is populations of countries that are not homogeneous culturally as well as cultural gradients rather than cultural boundaries. Framing the discussion in terms of memes leads one to question on the utility of individual memes, how acceptance of memes may be changed, and the degree to which mutual reinforcing memes cluster together.

Having said that, it seems to me that it may be useful to consider the sources of authority in cultural dialog. Scientific culture sees authority as rooted in replicated controlled observations, while technological culture sees authority as rooted in the functioning of applications of technological knowledge. This pragmatic view of authority may be contrasted with a view that authority is based on religious revelation or tradition.

Not surprisingly, in a blog focusing on knowledge for development, I have a strong preference towards observation based authority. At the least it seems to me that everyone should accept that if observation does not agree with belief, and observations are replicated to preclude observational error, then beliefs should be examined and my be seen as mininterpretations of the bases of belief.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Marni Nixon: The Voice You Didn't Know You Knew

Marni Nixon sang the following uncredited roles in the movies:
  • Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady
  • Maria in West Side Story
  • Anna in The King and I
The Hollywood studio system used voice doubles for their stars in these films, but refused to acknowledge the fact with billing for the singer. Nixon also sang the high notes for Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Susan Boyle Does it Again: Memories

Teaching How to Promote Peace

The Knowledge Policy blog has a posting on Innovative Thinking and Peace: The Peace Innovation Course at Stanford. That in turn led me to a Facebook site related to the class.

Those in turn reminded me of David Adams website, Culture of Peace.

I suppose that the UNESCO course I teach at GWU is a peace (social) innovation, as UNESCO itself was a social innovation six decades ago, "building the defenses of peace in the minds of men".

Thinking about thinking and Mark Kac

When I was a young research engineer, I had the opportunity to work with Mark Kac during a summer. Kac was a very great mathematician, a Fields Prize winner. He had come to the lab in balmy southern California for a summer as a vacation from his post as a full professor of Mathematics at Rockefeller University. Two of my colleagues in the lab had been his graduate students in the past.

Professor Kac was a colorful man, and there were many stories of his totally logical approach to situations that seemed to defy logic. I might be able to add one.

On arrival he informed me and my colleagues that he had noticed over the years that he produced good mathematical results at a rate of four per year. Moreover, it didn't seem to matter whether he worked hard or not during that year. Therefore, the logical thing was not to work hard. Therefore he proposed to take it very easy for the next couple of months. In fact, he did so! However, in the final month of the summer he started working long hours, and indeed at the end of the summer published a major paper in a prestigious journal.

In retrospect, I wonder whether he had trained his subconscious mind to work while his conscious mind was taking a break. Perhaps in those first couple of months that summer while he appeared to be taking it easy and enjoying the southern California weather and sites, he was also mulling over a critical problem faced by our laboratory, and when he was ready to put thought to paper, that thought was mature and ready to crystalize and share.

In any case, that summer provided a rare opportunity for me to get to know a man with a really great intellect!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Big ot Small Best for Innovation?

There is an interesting article in The New York Times. I quote:
There was a rich vein of business-school research supporting the notion that innovation comes most naturally from small-scale outsiders. That was the headline point that a generation of business people, venture investors and policy makers took away from Clayton M. Christensen’s 1997 classic, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” which examined the process of disruptive change......

Solutions won’t come from the next new gadget or clever software, though such innovations will help. Instead, they must plug into a larger network of change shaped by economics, regulation and policy. Progress, experts say, will depend on people in a wide range of disciplines, and collaboration across the public and private sectors.

“These days, more than ever, size matters in the innovation game,” said John Kao, a former professor at the Harvard business school and an innovation consultant to governments and corporations.
Comment: I am increasingly concerned that the emphasis on technological innovation is misplaced. Innovation is easier in my opinion that mastery of the innovation. It was not the first firm to produce an operating system, but Microsoft that built a global software powerhouse. Apple has been a consistent innovator, but the IBM clones dominate the PC market.

Indeed, it is almost a rule that an invention is uneconomical at first, requiring improvements to become economically successful. JAD

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Layers and layers of knowledge systems

Jared Diamond

magazine has an article focusing on a suit brought against Jarad Diamond, a well known scientist who has also gained a following for his non-fiction writing. The suit apparently charges that he wrote untrue and damaging things about people he portrayed in a New Yorker article as involved in a blood feud in New Guinea. I was caught by this statement:
Three worlds collide in this case. First is the world of science, specifically anthropology, which uses fieldwork and scientific methodology to study human cultures. Next is the craft of journalism, with its own set of ethics and practices aimed at reaching the general public. Finally, there is Papua New Guinea, a young nation still struggling to integrate many hundreds of tribes and clans into a modern state.
Actually, I see two more worlds colliding: the world of courts, judges, lawyers and expert witnesses, and the world of science journalism (as opposed to popular journalism) as Science reporters seek to explain the situation to an audience composed mainly of professional scientists, very few of whom are ethnologists.

The point is, each of these worlds has its own processes for validating information, its own standards for the transmission of assertions, and its own culture of knowledge.

I assume that folk in New Guinea, like the folk in my ancestor's Ireland, may feel that a good story is worth telling even if it differs substantially from recalled facts if the deviations are enough fun. For an ethnologist, verbal behavior is worth recording, and it is interesting what and how an informant tells a story; of course the interpretation of the story is a different thing -- interpretation rather than observation -- explaining observation in terms of theory. A serious news article should seek to provide accurate accounts of events in a timely fashion. The legal system is involved in ascertaining blame and levying penalties in accordance with blame. Science presumably is seeking to accurately portray the events of the "meta story" (the story about Diamond's New Guinea story) interpreting its importance for the scientific community.

Makes me want to recur to Stephen Colbert's concept of "truthiness".

6 Heads Are Better than 2

From Science magazine:
A study of the gregarious house sparrow suggests that individuals in larger groups are swifter at solving new problems than those in smaller groups—findings that add a behavioral dimension to the ecological costs and benefits of group living. Using wild-caught birds that were then acclimatized to experimental aviaries, Liker and B√≥kony investigated whether group size affected the success rate at which birds figured out how to obtain seeds from a familiar feeder when access was blocked with a transparent lid. The larger groups, which contained six birds, were able to dislodge the lids roughly 10 times as quickly as smaller groups of two birds—a pattern that was consistent across all individuals in the groups. Also, birds from urban environments were faster than birds from rural backgrounds. Increased success at problem-solving in larger groups may reflect a wider diversity of experience and skill among the individuals in the group and may constitute an adaptive advantage in complex habitats.
Comment: Interesting. I wonder if this extends to other social species. JAD

Are Perceptions of Patterns and Intentionality Inherited

Michael Shermer has an article in the current issue of Scientific American suggesting that we have evolved both to see patterns and to perceive the patterns that we see as intentional. I think he must be right that the perception of patterns is a survival trait. Our ancestors had to learn where to find food and how to avoid predators and those skills involve pattern recognition. Where they concluded that it was dangerous to have one's path crossed by a black cat or that knocking on wood could protect from bad luck, the costs were small.

More interesting is his suggestion that people evolved to attribute intentionality to a perceived pattern. Of course, if one is avoiding being eaten by a predator is it probably useful to assume that the predator is actively seeking a meal. However, our ancestors tended to believe that if one was sickening, it must be because some thing or some one willed one to get sick.

I have often thought that the development of a body of understanding of processes that could produce order without intentionality was not only one of the great advances of science, but a major cultural advance. We can see how markets can set clearing prices, how evolution can produce a web of complex species, and indeed how organizations can behave in ways none of their members fully understand. If Shermer is right, substituting intellectual for instinctive understanding is even more impressive than I had thought.

An interesting parallel

A grove of Aspens appears to the uninitiated as a grove of individual trees. Biologists these days tend to regard them as a single organism since they are clones grown from a single seedling. A root system proliferates underground, and may live for thousands of years, sending up new trees from time to time. The individual trees live for a century or more, but the entire organism is very long lived.

We think of Manhattan, one of the places in which the skyscraper was invented, in terms of its above ground buildings and indeed its skyline. However, there is an underground support network of subways, aqueducts, sewerage, steam lines, fiber optics, gas lines, not to mention outmoded systems such as the pneumatic tubes that once carried messages from building to building. The network is dense, and parts of it are more than 100 feet deep. Individual building are replaced but the overall structure of the city remains.

I could try to extend the analogy to discuss the social and economic environment which determines the growth and survival of the city, but I will refrain from doing so!

Friday, May 22, 2009

A thought about closing Guantanamo

I gather than no one has ever escaped from a modern maximum security federal penitentiary. I don't think anyone has escaped from the prison in Guantanamo either. So what does it matter where the facilities are located?

Still, what would be the danger of placing the Guantanamo inhabitants in the wilds of Wyoming or Alaska. Why is it safer to have them a stone's throw from Cuban territory where they might get asylum, rather than in an area of the United States where they would have few survival skills, a hostile local population, and would stick out like flies in a bowl of soup if they escaped prison?

The reason that the Bush administration put the prisoners in Cuba was to get them out of Afghanistan and Iraq, but keep them from somewhere that they would have constitutional protection. The courts have ruled that Guantanamo is not such a place. We kept German prisoners of war in the continental United States during World War II, and we could keep Al Qaeda suspects safe here as well.

In opposition to the candidacy of Farouk Hosny

I see the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to be very important to the world's future. It was created in the aftermath of World War II, and for six decades has sought to promote intellectual development globally, in the recognition that peace is best promoted in the long run by promoting dialog among peoples and a culture of peace. It is a relatively small organization. Its annual budget is less than one-quarter of the annual budget of my local school district. Yet is has influence through a huge network of networks of educators, scientists, and cultural leaders which it has catalyzed and developed over time.

In October it will elect a new Director General, who in all likelihood will serve two terms. During the new Director General's term of office the nations of the world will in all likelihood make major commitments to international cooperation in education, science and cultural development. As the leadership of UNESCO should be critical in this time, so too the leadership of UNESCO's Director General should enable the organization to play its critically important role well.

Nominations for the new Director General must be made by the end of May. They will be reviewed by the Executive Board of UNESCO in September, and the new Director General will be elected by UNESCO's General Conference in October.

There are several candidates for the post but the leading candidate appears to be the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosny, who appears to have the support of the Arab nations. The election will be on the basis of one-country one-vote in the 193 member General Conference. Thus the election will be decided by the developing nations if they choose to vote as a block. The Egyptian government is working hard to line up developing nation support for Hosny.

Unfortunately, Hosny has made a number of anti-Israeli public statements over the years and indeed has made anti-Jewish statements as well. He has publicly threatened to burn Israeli books and stated that Israel has made no contribution to world culture. His candidacy has not only generated opposition from several governments and from many intellectuals, but even from significant numbers of Egyptians.

I recognize that it is often politically expedient for Egyptian politicians to make statements against Israel, and that such statements may not reflect deeply held beliefs. Still, I can not support a man for the position of Director General of UNESCO who has threatened to use his government position to burn books and who denies the importance of the "Judeo" in Judeo-Christian culture. I hope that one of the other, more appropriate candidates will be elected Director General of UNESCO!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A thought about thinking

One of the implications of the realization that one thinks with one's brain and not just one's conscious mind is the implication that you can think about things that you are not consciously attending to. Of course there are lots of examples: waking up with the solution of a problem "one had slept on", letting problems perk until the solution appears, having a solution pop up while "thinking about something else", recalling at 3:00 a.m. the thing you could not recall during the day at the opportune moment.

The problem is, how do you assure that the unconscious portion of your brain will be attending to the problem for which you seek a solution. Probably one approach is to obsess about a problem for a long time so that your whole brain gets the message, and then turn your conscious attention to something else or go to sleep.

Complements to Tamerlane

I am reading Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozz. It is -- as is obvious -- a biography of Timur, the Tatar conqueror (1336-1405). Given the size of the empire of conquest, Timur is worth studying, especially given the importance of the region from Pakistan to the Levant which he influenced in today's news.

I saw the film, Mongol, a couple of days ago. It is based on the early life of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), an ancestor of Timur and of course another great conqueror. There were major cultural shifts between Genghis Khan's Mongol Tribes and the Turkik Tatars that Timur led. Still, I think it may be useful to get a visual fix on the Mongol tribes and how and where they lived in undertanding the later life and times of Timur.

Incidentally, the film is great. It was actually filmed in Mongolia, is visually beautiful, and seems to be an effort to modernize a founding myth for the Mongolians. It moves slowly, as I think is appropriate for such an effort. Unfortunately the second and third films of the intended trilogy were never made.

The same day I saw a second film, Nomad: The Warrior. Supposedly this is the most expensive film ever shot in Kazakhstan. It too is seems to be an effort to moderize a founding myth, describing the early life of Ablai Kahn, who consolidated Kazakh tribes to fight successfully against the Dzungars in the early 1700s. I found the film very good in showing what parts of Kazakhstan look like (I have visited Almaty and Astana in modern Kazakhstan). I found the settings of fortifications and towns especially well done, and while the stars of the film were not Kazakhs, many of the supporting players and extras were. For some reason, one critic was unhappy that the film showed the real Kazakhstan, which I thought was one of the great values of the film.

I think fans of action films will enjoy Nomad, while those looking for deeper values of character development and narrative subtlety may be disappointed. As a way of understanding how modern Kazakhstan seeks to understand its own history, the film is well worth watching.

Is this film about Ablai Khan, who came from an area somewhat to the north of the area from which Timur came, and who lived three centuries later than Timur, and which is heavily fictionalized helpful in understanding Timur. Surprisingly, I think it is. At the least it provides images of people and lands of central Asia, and of course Timur led troops over and conquered a huge area.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Further thought on yesterday.s local election

Forty years ago I was editing a Democratic newsletter (in California) and had to call on a friend who worked for the local newspaper to get access to its morgue in order to get historical records on what the local candidate thought and had done. Turned out that he regularly introduced legislation to eliminate the income tax without suggesting how the budget shortfall would be met. My favorite of his ideas was that there was a secret invasion of the United States by spear carrying African natives.

In the election yesterday I noted that thousands of voters chose to vote for Robin Ficker, and cited with references a number of reasons that I thought they should not have done so. It took me a half hour on the Internet to get all those references. The change in technology has made a huge amount of information available which was once only accessible to a privileged minority.

On the other hand, I think few of the potential voters were aware of that information. It had been reported in the past, but the papers, television, and even the forums for the candidates did not collect and summarize the information for the mildly interested voter.

There is an old saw, "you can take a horse to water, but you can't make him read". Today we might say, "you can take the information to the voter, but you can't make him read".

I worry about American Democracy

Yesterday I manned my local precinct for the Democrats in a special election to fill a vacant seat on the County Council. Looking at the result, I find myself wondering about our political process.

My county, with a population of about one million people, has a county government budget of more than $4 billion per year. The county is relatively affluent and well governed, with a population expecting and enjoying a high level of public service. Schools are good, The police force is highly educated, well trained, and responsive to public needs. There are lots of good libraries and parks, and neighborhoods are well relatively well planned.

Still there are a number of problems confronting local government. The obvious one is how to manage the taxes and expenditures during the current recession. What cuts can be made maintaining a high level of services, and where might the voters prefer to find new sources of revenue to maintain services? Moreover, there are continuing problems of dealing with a diverse population with significant growth, and dealing with aging neighborhoods in some areas and new developments in others.

The nine member county council has been badly divided in the past year. It seems obvious to me that we needed to add a member to the council who will intelligently and rationally deal with the problems of governing the country, and especially who will help the council deliberate more effectively on the issues before it.

One would expect in this highly educated, relatively mature residents of the county to have high levels of voter participation, but there are fewer than 120,000 registered voters, and less than eight percent of them came out to vote yesterday.

Nancy Navarro, received more than 3/5th of the votes. Since the Council District has a two to one Democratic majority, it was expected that Democrat Navarro would win. Moreover, she is well recognized in the local community, ran for the same office last year narrowly losing to widower of the previous incumbent who had died (and who himself died in office). Navarro is a member of the school board (which manages about half of the county government), she has twice been elected President of the board and has the reputation of being both able and effective in helping the board achieve compromises.. She had endorsements of the Washington Post, the major local paper, as well as organizations ranging from the Sierra Club, to unions, to developers, to Hispanic and African-American political organizations, to the transportation community.

But I find it hard to understand how Robin Ficker could have received nearly a third of the vote. Ficker was once a registered Democrat, who ran for County Executive as an Independent, but ran in this election as a Republican. He apparently moved into the District in order to qualify for the office. His license to practice law in Maryland was suspended in 2007 for at least a year:
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled 7-0 against Ficker on three complaints from clients who said he had failed to properly represent them in criminal cases....

"The hearing judge found that he exhibited incompetence, lack of diligence, failure to communicate with his client, and committed conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice," among other types of malfeasance, Cathell wrote......

The court's decision noted that Ficker, 64, had been cited four times before for failing to properly represent his clients.
In reviewing Ficker's service in the State legislature, the Washington Post described Ficker as the "hands-down winner of all awards for worst member of the Maryland General Assembly," citing his "inability to produce the slightest constructive legislative result." Ficker's behavior as a basketball fan in the 1990's was so extreme that, according to the Washington Post, it "forced the NBA to change its rules on fan behavior." How can thousands of voters have decided that this was the man to represent them in our County Council during this critical time?

In any case, congratulations to Nancy Navarro, and good luck in your new responsibilities. Now, lets hope that a great replacement will be named to the School Board! And lets hope that the voters come out in greater numbers, with better information and analysis, in future elections.

Nancy Navarro's Campaign YouTube Video

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Thought Occasioned on Seeing Anchors Away

I watched the 1945 movie Anchors Away last night on TV. You may remember the film as a classy musical vehicle for Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Catherine Grayson and Jose Iturbi. I however think of it in terms of its forth-billed star, Dean Stockwell. Dean was a younger looking nine-year old in 1945, and that was the year my family moved to California and bought the house next door to the Stockwells. I was a big kid, a year younger than Dean, and over the next decade we spent a fair amount of time together and became pretty good friends. I haven't seen Dean in 40 years, but of course I have seen litterally hundreds of his performances.

As a kid I don't think I really understood what it must have been like for him, a very young child, to be working with people like his costars in Anchors Away, or with a galaxy of the stars of the day in other films. What incredible pressure! How difficult would that experience make it to see himself as just another guy in his future life?

Development aid rose to a new record in 2008.

In 2008, total net official development assistance (ODA) from OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) countries rose by 10.2% in real terms to US$119.8 billion. This is the highest annual aid figure ever recorded, representing 0.3% of members’ combined gross national income.

Check out WolframAlph!

A website providing information on request based on the vision of Stephen Wolfram.
"Today's Wolfram|Alpha is the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone. You enter your question or calculation, and Wolfram|Alpha uses its built-in algorithms and growing collection of data to compute the answer."

"Weekend Competition: A Murder of Crow(d)s"

A New York Times competition for this weekend:
This weekend, co-vocabularists are invited to submit novel nouns of assemblage for modern phenomena. A bucket of Wiis? A swamp of blogs? A murder of crowds?
My contributions:
  • A tumult of tweets
  • A scramble of spam
  • A pschool of phishings

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Knowledge Sharing Toolkit

This is a Wiki with knowledge sharing tools and methods. While they are thought to be applicable in a wide range of contexts, they are framed in the context of international development with a focus on agriculture, fisheries, food and nutrition, forestry and sustainable development. The Toolkit is a product of the ICT-KM Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the KM4Dev Community. It is the result of experiment with a range of KS tools and methods over the past five years but incorporates other tools as well. It is an evolving resource, continually updated, edited, expanded, and critiqued and it’s aimed at scientists, research support teams, and administrators working in international development agencies.

Swine Flu Outbreak: What Role for Antiviral Drugs?

Source: Jennifer Couzin-Frankel, Science, 8 May 2009: Vol. 324. no. 5928, p. 705.

The article opens:
When it comes to treatment, there's good news and bad news about the new H1N1 swine flu strain circling the globe. Two antiviral drugs can squelch it and are currently the best defense, given that a vaccine will not be ready for months. But stocks of Roche's Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza (zanamivir) are too small to protect everyone in a worst-case scenario outbreak; health officials also worry that the virus could become resistant to the drugs.

How many doses might be needed during a pandemic depends on how severe it is and how the drugs are used; so far, countries have stockpiled roughly 250 million courses of antivirals. By comparison, the 1918–19 flu pandemic sickened at least 800 million people.
Comment: Even in the Spanish flu pandemic, most people who got the flu came down with a self limiting disease. It should be possible to do a lot of good with 250 million courses of antivirals, and of course more can be produced in the next year and during a pandemic if it occurs. This actually seems rather positive, assuming of course that the available drugs are used well. I note that the five students who came down with the new H1N1 flu at my university were all reported to have received treatment. The incidence is at a low enough level that the antivirals used now can be replaced. And indeed, the H1N1 was identified in Mexico due to a cluster of serious cases in young adults, and it is expected that a new pandemic if it occurs would be most serious in young adults. Still, allocating the drug to the students at the most expensive private university in the United States does not seem a good harbinger of things to come. JaD

Growth of Indian Research Output

The number of papers produced by Indian scientists was more or less stagnant from 1985 to 2000 but jumped from 17,000 in 2001 to 27,000 in 2007 (see chart). Citation rates are also rising across the board—more than doubling, for example, in biology and biochemistry. The biggest gains have come in the physical sciences, especially materials science. Nobuko Miyairi, a consultant at Thomson Reuters, which publishes ScienceWatch, calls it "noteworthy" that Indian science is "fairly well balanced between life sciences and physical sciences," because most of the rest of Asia "tends to be more heavily focused on ... physical sciences."

Source: Science, 1 May 2009, "Random Samples"

Holden on Science Advice in the White House

John P. Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, had an editorial in Science a couple of weeks ago in which he wrote (bullets added):
I see the top S&T priorities for the Obama administration in terms of four practical challenges and four cross-cutting foundations of success in addressing all of them. The practical challenges are:
  • bringing S&T more fully to bear on driving economic recovery, job creation, and growth;
  • driving the energy-technology innovation needed to reduce energy imports and climate-change risks while creating green jobs and competitive new businesses;
  • applying advances in biomedical science and information technology together to help Americans live longer, healthier lives with reduced health care costs; and
  • ensuring that we have the defense, homeland security, and national intelligence technologies needed to protect our troops, citizens, and national interests, and to verify the old and new arms control and nonproliferation agreements that are likewise essential to our security.

The cross-cutting foundations of success are:
  • increasing the capacities and output of our country's fundamental research institutions, including our great research universities and major public and private laboratories and research centers;
  • strengthening STEM education at every level, from precollege to postgraduate to lifelong learning;
  • improving and protecting the information, communication, and transportation infrastructures that are essential to our commerce, science, and security alike; and
  • maintaining and vigorously exploiting a cutting-edge set of capabilities in space, which must be understood not just as grand adventure and focus for expanding our knowledge of how the universe works, but also as a driver of innovation and a linchpin of communications, geopositioning technology, intelligence gathering, and Earth observation.
Comment: That seems a pretty big set of priorities, and of course if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority. I suppose I might hope that Holden will focus on advise directed at maintaining high levels of technological innovation and deepening technological capacity as the nation goes through this financial crisis and as the recovery efforts are planned and implemented. JAD

Friday, May 15, 2009

Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia

Committee on a Study of Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Africa and South Asia, National Research Council, 2008.

"Increased agricultural productivity is a major stepping stone on the path out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but farmers there face tremendous challenges improving production. Poor soil, inefficient water use, and a lack of access to plant breeding resources, nutritious animal feed, high quality seed, and fuel and electricity-combined with some of the most extreme environmental conditions on Earth-have made yields in crop and animal production far lower in these regions than world averages.

"Emerging Technologies to Benefit Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia identifies sixty emerging technologies with the potential to significantly improve agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Eighteen technologies are recommended for immediate development or further exploration. Scientists from all backgrounds have an opportunity to become involved in bringing these and other technologies to fruition. The opportunities suggested in this book offer new approaches that can synergize with each other and with many other activities to transform agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia."

Confronting the Crisis: Assessing its impact on the ICT industry

"Drawing on analysis from leading industry experts and international institutions, this report by ITU (International telecommunication Union) highlights some harsh realities for the global ICT industry and considers how the industry can position itself for recovery in the future. This Report explores the impact of the financial crisis. Among the many insights contributed to the Report, several key findings emerge: a) Funding issues are unlikely to be resolved until the banking sector is recapitalized. The financial difficulties faced by the private sector could add to pressure for government intervention in the financing of national backbone infrastructure. b) Mobile operators are better-placed than fixed operators to weather the economic storm, due to greater flexibility in their cost structure and capex and fixed-mobile substitution. c) The demand for basic ICT services is income inelastic, but demand for advanced applications is more uncertain. d) Telecom services are likely to come under further price pressure, as operators will fight for a more cost-focused customer, resulting in further erosion of margins. e) Operators will take a more rigorous approach to cost control and search for further improvements in internal efficiency including reductions in headcount and infrastructure-sharing."

Economist Debate on Copyright

The Economist held a debate on the thesis that current copyright laws do more harm than good. A vote held had 79% agreeing with that position and 21% feeling that while copyright laws can and should be improved, they still do more good than harm.

I find myself in the minority position, in part on the theory that no new law is a good law. But we have a reasonably effective system for the creation of content in many media under current laws, and without any copyright laws I think chaos would result and make things worse. On the other hand, I can not but believe that current laws should be improved to extend fair use and to enable more digital mixing.

I am a big supporter of open source, but I am not a fanatic! Lots of open source efforts fail, and there is a real benefit to copyright laws that provide incentives to creativity.

One aspect that would seem important is protection for cultural products. I don't want to see cheap Asian knockoffs of traditional African, Asian and Latin American designs taking international markets away from traditional craftsmen!

The new Kindle to be available soon

The Economist informs us that Amazon has unveiled a third model of its electronic book reader, the Kindle DX, which
has a much larger screen than the standard Kindle and more storage capacity. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, announced partnerships with five universities to evaluate the academic use of the device.
Comment: I am not sure that the Kindle DX is going to be the device that finally replaces the book in the university, but it seems to be at least a good step in the right direction. The $500 price tag seems high, but consider how much students pay for books in the course of a modern university education! JAD

How to immunize enough people against the flu

An article in The Economist addresses the issue of improved manufacturing techniques to improve the supply of measles vaccines in the future and adjuvents to make existing vaccines go further. It states:

Could more innovative manufacturing techniques help? One promising approach involves growing vaccines not in eggs but in cell cultures, which is speedy and easily scaled up. Another is to add adjuvants, which are catalysts that improve the efficacy of a vaccine and reduce the amount of active ingredient required.

A number of companies have been hoping to get such technologies to the market by 2011 or 2012, and some might be able to help with any shortfall should there be a pandemic later this year. Anthony Fauci, head of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says the American government has been funding many such firms in preparation for bioterrorism and pandemics. But he points out that none of the firms has so far got a pandemic flu vaccine past safety trials. “They are not ready for prime-time,” he says.

Yet desperate times may lead to desperate measures. Cell-based manufacturing is already used to make vaccines against many other diseases, so it might win rapid approval for flu. European regulators have been more enthusiastic than American ones about allowing adjuvants in flu vaccines. Mexican officials are reportedly in discussions with biotech firms to build flexible vaccine-facilities quickly. The WHO this week called such novel approaches a risky “leap of faith”.
Comment: Of course, not using such approaches in the face of a possible pandemic is also risky. Moreover, more research and development will almost surely mitigate those risks in the future. JAD

The expansion of rights from humans to animals

The European Parliament has recently revised rules for the European Union on the use and treatment of laboratory animals in research. I understand it has earlier been working on the treatment of livestock.

There is increasing concern for the humane treatment of pet animals. Some years ago I read about the use of "cat units" in pharmacy. A century ago there were a lot of plant products used rather than manufactured pharmaceuticals. Digitalis was one such product, extracted from foxglove by the local pharmacist. Of course too much digitalis or too little is dangerous, and the level of the chemical in plants depended on soils, exposure to sunlight, weather and other variables. So there was a standard for concentration, based on how much was needed to kill a cat. Pharmacies collected stray (and sometimes not so stray) cats and kept them caged in the back room to have a ready supply on which to test their digitalis. Indeed there was an extensive literarure on cat units. (They did not use dog units because neighbors got too upset when the dogs started to disappear!) This approach now seems completely immoral, although millions of dogs and cats are still destroyed each year when they can not find humans willing to take responsibility for them.

When I was running a research program for USAID I was concerned about rules for the treatment of non-human primates, different rules for the treatment of other laboratory animals, still more rules for the treatment of livestock involved in research, and still further rules for the treatment of wild animals affected by research.

Generally there is increasing concern that animals not suffer unnecessarily, and considerable debate over when purposes can be considered sufficiently important to justify "necessary" suffering.

I have been posting for some time on human rights (click on the tag below). The concern for human rights has evolved over time. A couple of hundred years ago slavery was still legal in many countries. Human rights have been incorporated in more and more national constitutions and legal systems. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights six decades ago began the construction of an international system to protect human rights.

I suspect that the trend towards more respect for human rights and more respect towards animal rights are related, and part of "modernization". Perhaps in part because more people have the resources to indulge in such nicities, perhaps in part because our urban society results in few of us having to personally use violence against people or animals, perhaps in part because modern science is showing how similar all people are to each other, and how much we have in common with animals.

All in all, the trend towards more respect for human and animal rights seems one of the most encouraging of historical developments, helping me to believe we really are making progress through civilization.

"Living abroad gives you a creative edge"

From The Economist of May 14, 2009:
As they report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, presented 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in America with a test used by psychologists as a measure of creativity. Given a candle, some matches and a box of drawing pins, the students were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. (The solution is to use the box as a candleholder and fix it to the wall with the pins.) They found 60% of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so.
Comment: I suppose that living abroad gives one practice in accommodating to unexpected situations and challenging assumptions to find new solutions to day to day problems. JAD

From the Atlantic "Quick Study"

The June 2009 issue of The Atlantic has a couple of interesting tidbits in its "Quick Study" section:
  • The physical safety of women in a given country is a better predictor of its peacefulness than wealth, level of Islamic influence, or even strength of democracy. Violence against women (including female infanticide and sex-selective abortion) may account for more deaths than all the wars of the 20th century. This kind of cultural aggression likely sparks increased nationalism and, eventually, warfare.

    “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States,” International Security

  • Residual psychological effects of the slave trade may be one reason Africa’s economies are so dysfunctional. Africans who descend from tribes that were heavily exposed to slavery show significantly less trust in their local governments, their neighbors, and even their relatives, and they exhibit low confidence in state institutions, the rule of law, and the benefits of civic participation—all attitudes that choke economic growth.

    “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa,” National Bureau of Economic Research
Comments: Wow! Deep cultural elements not only determine macro political-economic behavior, the effects can be shown through the use of cross national comparisons. JAD

Thursday, May 14, 2009

World Bank HNP Program Evaluation

Locations of Fieldwork Involved in this Study

The World Bank Group’s support for health, nutrition, and population (HNP) has been sustained since 1997—totaling $17 billion in country-level support by the World Bank and $873 million in private health and pharmaceutical investments by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) through mid-2008. This report evaluates the efficacy of the Bank Group’s direct support for HNP to developing countries since 1997 and draws lessons to help improve the effectiveness of this support.
The evaluation reviewed findings and lessons for three prominent approaches to raising HNP outcomes over the past decade — communicable disease control, health reform, and sector wide approaches (SWAps). These approaches have been supported by the Bank as well as the international community and are not mutually exclusive.
  • Support for communicable disease control can improve the pro-poor focus of health systems, but excessive earmarking of foreign aid for communicable diseases can distort allocations and reduce capacity in the rest of the health system.
  • Health reforms promise to improve efficiency and governance, but they are politically contentious, often complex, and relatively risky.
  • SWAps have contributed to greater government leadership, capacity, coordination, and harmonization within the health sector, but not necessarily to improved efficiency or better health results.
  • The contribution of other sectors to HNP outcomes has been largely undocumented; the benefits of intersectoral coordination and multi­sectoral approaches need to be balanced with their costs in terms of increased complexity.

"Health Benefits"

Developments magazine features an article on the increased attention to health in development assistance and specifically the programs of the UK's Department for International Development (DfID):
It’s not rocket science, it’s medical science: get medicines to people who are sick in the developing world and they will get better – and development will be accelerated. ‘Access to medicines’ is the mantra and the signs are encouraging, reports Tatum Anderson.
Comment: It may not be rocket science (a field I left when I quit my job in the Astropower Laboratory of McDonnell Douglas in 1970 to go work for the World Health Organization) but I have been saying that for nearly 40 years with little impact on the world! JAD

Economic benefits of international education to the United States

Source: Jason Baumgartner, GlobalHigherEd, May 13, 2009.
For the 2007-2008 academic year it is estimated that international students contributed approximately $15.54 billion to the U.S. economy.
The graph outlines the growth of this economic impact over the last 30 years.

Comment: That is a lot of money, but I suspect it is a huge underestimate of the real economic benefit to the United States. How much demand for U.S. products comes from the hundreds of thousands of people who were once students in the United States, developing tastes for American goods and services while they were here, who now live abroad? How much have the students who came and stayed contributed to our economy since they chose to stay? JAD

Inequality undermining education opportunities for millions of children

The failure of governments across the world to tackle deep and persistent inequalities in education is consigning millions of children to lives of poverty and diminished opportunity, according to a report published by UNESCO last November.

The 2009 Education for All Global Monitoring Report – Overcoming inequality: why governance matters - warns that ‘unacceptable’ national and global education disparities are undermining efforts to achieve international development goals.

The report notes that:

• One in three children in developing countries (193 million in total) reaches primary school age having had their brain development and education prospects impaired by malnutrition – a figure that rises to over 40% in parts of South Asia. High economic growth in some countries has done little to reduce child malnutrition, calling into question current public policies.

• 75 million children of primary school age are not in school, including just under one-third of the relevant age group in sub-Saharan Africa.

• Whereas over a third of children in rich countries complete university, in much of sub-Saharan Africa, a smaller share completes primary education – and just 5% attend university level.

"Why Is Software from India and Hardware from China?"

Kevin Donovan provides a posting (April 20, 2009) in his blog, Blurring Borders, summarizing a talk he heard by by Stanley Nollen and Neil Gregory on their new book, “New Industries from New Places. The book and lecture appear to have focused on the interesting question of why India and China took such different paths in exploiting the Information Revolution for economic growth.
Indian software is predominently written for exportation while Chinese software is for the domestic market. And although India does not have a similarly developed hardware industry, when that sector is analyzed, Chinese hardware is overwhelmingly exported while what hardware India does make is for domestic consumption......

Their research suggests that Indian management, not labor, and their pool of larger, better educated professionals were largely responsible. The management can be applauded for seeking quality certifications for Indian software firms and utilizing the diaspora ties. Further, they strategically partnered with far more American software companies than the Chinese did - 60% of surveyed Indian firms had Western partners, compared to only 12% in China.....

During the Q&A, Professor Mike Nelson offered some helpful insights from his time with the American IT industry:

  • In hardware, you can thrive with 2-3 clients whereas in software, you need many more. Therefore, overcoming the “foreignness” of China is more of a factor than in India where multiple Western clients can be easily courted due to the relative institutional familiarity.
  • Timezones shouldn’t be discounted - India is apparently much easier to schedule with than China.
  • Given India’s relative governance instability, software (with lower fixed costs) is a more flexible industry - Wipro or Infosys can leave localities more easily than OEMs.
Comment: There are of course a number of people studying this phenomenon, and I am not up on the research. Still, I wonder whether the difference does not stem from the fact that the Chinese have successful export promotion policies focusing on manufacture of physical goods, while the Indian software industry and Internet mediated service industry got exemptions from their government's policies that were promoted import substitution. JAD

"An Economist, an Academic Puzzle and a Lot of Promise"

Source: Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post, May 8, 2009

Aplia, a courseware company founded by Paul Romer, has produced interactive exercises that students do in conjunction with the most widely used college economics textbooks.
"Aplia's team of young Ph.D. economists and software programmers also devised laboratory experiments in which the entire class could participate in simulated markets that give students a practical understanding of concepts like money supply and demand curves.

"Students seemed to like Aplia's engaging and easy-to-use software, as well as the feedback. Professors liked Aplia even more. It allowed them to leverage the grade-grubbing instincts of today's college students to get them to do homework -- but without having to spend countless hours reading and correcting the assignments. They also got reports from Aplia identifying which students were having the most trouble with the material and which concepts were stumping the class as a whole......

"Today, Aplia is used at more than 815 colleges by 170,000 students per term, with course offerings covering more than a dozen subjects. A quarter of all students enrolled in college economics classes work with Aplia."
Romer is a first-rate economist associated with the recognition that there are positive returns to investments in innovations in technological systems. This may be an equally important contribution to the economics profession and to those interested in learning economics. It is nice to see some of the promise of ICT in education being realized.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Educational Technology Debate

This new (May 2009) website hosts debates on the applications of information and communications technology to enhance learning in developing nations. Its purpose is to stimulate conversation around low-cost information and communication technology (ICT) device initiatives for educational systems in developing countries and how they are relevant to the very groups they purport to serve – the students, teachers, and their surrounding communities.

It is a project of UNESCO and infoDev. InfoDev is a project hosted by the World Bank, located in Washington D.C., and supported by a consortium of donors.

The website has begun its discussions with three topics:

1. Are ICTs the Best Educational Investment?
2. Not Quite the Best Investment, but Pretty Good
3. If & When Schools Invest in ICT, Teachers First

Note: For some years I served as Acting Work Program Director for infoDev.

Interactive radio makes learning an active activity. Students at F.G. Girls Primary School, NHC learn ‘Face Parts’ through an acting game. Photo/ESRA

"U.S. elected to U.N. rights council for first time"

The Washington Post reports:
The United States won election to the U.N. Human Rights Council for the first time on Tuesday, joining 17 other nations picked for the body, after the Obama administration ended a U.S. policy of boycotting it.
Recall that in the United Nations there is a convention that Council such as the Security Council are more powerful than Commissions such as the Commission on Science and Technology for Development. In the recent reorganization, the "Human Rights Commission" was upgraded to the "Human Rights Council" in an effort to increase the quality of UN attention to human rights issues. The United States was a member of the Human Rights Commission in the past, but did not seek membership in the Council under the Bush administration. Thus this is in fact the first election of the United States to the Human Rights Council.

The State Department issued a press release stating:
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice are pleased with the outcome of the election and eager to take up the important work of the Council.

When the United Nations was formed, it sent a powerful and historic message by placing human rights at the very core of its charter. To fulfill that mission, we strongly believe that all member states must work to ensure that the United Nations offers a credible, balanced and effective forum for advancing human rights.

The United States sought a seat on the UN Human Rights Council at this time to underscore our commitment to human rights and to join the efforts of all those nations seeking to make the Council a body that fulfills its promise.
One of the early acts of the United Nations General Assembly was to issue the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted under the leadership of the U.S, delegate to the Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt, and with the assistance of UNESCO.

While the Declaration did not have the force of a treaty, it has had enormous moral influence in the six decades since it was issued. It has also been the basis for a number of Human Rights Covenants and Conventions that do have the force of treaties.
Over the past sixty years, UNESCO, in cooperation with the international community, has achieved significant progress in the implementation of the four rights which figure in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which are directly within its fields of competence:

* Right to education (Article 26) ;
* Right to take part in cultural life (Article 27) ;
* Right to freedom of opinion and expression including the right to seek, receive and impart information (Article 19) ;
* Right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications (Article 27)......

Within UNESCO, the protection of human rights is assured by the Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, working alongside the countries concerned. Relatively unknown, this committee examines cases and issues relating to complaints of alleged violations of human rights. From 1948 to 2007, amongst 545 cases that have been examined by the committee, 344 have been settled.
The decision of the Obama administration to seek membership in the Human Rights Council, together with President Obama's statement of support for UNESCO suggests that there may be increased U.S. support for UNESCO's human rights efforts.

Monday, May 11, 2009

More About the new H1N1 flu

Source: "How Time and Mutations Engineered the New H1N1 Strain," David Brown, The Washington Post, May 11, 2009.

The Orthomyxoviridae consists of four classes of virus: influenza virus A, influenza virus B, influenza virus C and thogotoviruses.
Influenza A and B cause illness in people; the others almost never do.
Influenza A is categorized into many classes according to its surface proteins, while there is only one major category of Influenza B viruses.

The two main proteins on the surface of the Influenze A viruses are hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. There are 15 known subtypes of H and nine known subtypes of N for the type A Influenza. However, there is considerable variation within a single subtype of flu A virus, say H1N1, due to mutations in the genes that determine the protein structure.

Note that most people's flu is never identified as to the type much less the strain of virus with which they are infected. In each infected human there is a population of viruses with intra-population differences as there is a population of antibodies attacking the viral population with its own intra-population variations. Thus, in the millions of people infected with flu each year there is a huge variation in the virus and the response.

It is that variation, presumably, that results in the disease being lethal in some individuals and minor in others. It is also the interplay that results in antigenic drift within the dominant circulating strains of Influenza.

Note also that Influenza virus circulates widely in birds, and infects pigs as well as humans. Occasionally there will be an interspecies transfer, with a bird infecting a pig or a human, etc.

In recent years H1N1 and H3N2 strains have been circulating, mutating in small ways, and infecting new victims year to year as well as Influenza B.
But now comes a whole new H1N1 virus. It is formally labeled A/California/04/2009 (see graphic), and it was taken from a 10-year-old boy in San Diego who came down with the flu on March 30. It has an H from an H1N2 virus circulating in American pigs and an N from an H1N1 virus found mostly in Eurasian ones.,,,,,

Studies done in the past two weeks suggest that people who have received flu shots in the past few years -- shots that protect against the most common human H1N1 strain in circulation -- are not protected against this swine flu strain, even though it also is H1N1. Why? Because it looks so different to the immune system that the virus-killing antibodies do not react.
Presumably this antigenic shift resulted in a cell simultaneously infected by the H1N2 and the H1N1 virus. Influenza's genes are on eight separate strands, or "gene segments." If viral replication of both an H1N2 and a H1N1 are going on simultaneously in a cell, some of the viral products may contain new assortment of genes drawing from some from each of the two original viruses.

Comment: So what? Apparently this flu has not been especially virulent in the population so far known to be infected, and apparently it does not show the characteristics of the H1 protein thought to have made the 1918-1920 Spanish flu so deadly.

However, the flu epidemic is now likely to move to the southern hemisphere and return to the northern hemisphere next winter. It is feared that antigenic drift may result in changes that make the disease more lethal, or lethal to a larger portion of those infected and/or more infective. JAD

Friday, May 08, 2009

Some thoughts on science and technology for least developed nations

There is a circularity between scientific and technological knowledge and investmetn in economic development. When a country increases per worker investment in tools and plant, it almost always seeks to change the techniques employed in the work; when it increases per capita investment in the labor force it usually wants people to "work smarter" and thus to improve productivity. As the efficiency of the economy increases, investment is more attractive; people save more to invest more and it is easier to attract foreign capital. As capital per worker increases there is a move toward more capital and less labor intensive technology. The process is circular!

Too often we emphasize technological dependence rather that technological opportunities. Don't tell the folk in a poor country that they are dependent on foreign knowledge and technology. Rather tell them that they have opportunities to acquire knowledge and technology from abroad and thus to focus their energy on selecting from the abundant affordable knowledge resources available internationally and (importantly) on learning to utilize them well and fully.

Too often it is suggested that research is more important to the improvement of science and technology than I believe it truly is, and too often current theorists emphasize innovation and undervalue the deepening of technological capacities in enterprises which I believe to be crucial for the least developed nations.

I find it useful to point out that there are important aspects of science rather than technology for economic development. Thus the ability to characterize soils, to identify agricultural pests, to study epidemics of human, animal and plant diseases, to identify mineral resources, to understand forest systems, to predict the weather and climate are all important but are not "technology". I find that a lot of those emphasizing technological innovation not only fail to emphasize mastering the technology once innovated, but also the need for science to help identify and manage resources and problems.

It might be useful to think about a dual strategy for many least developed nations, separating the export oriented economy from the subsistence economy. The quality requirements for international markets are quite different from those for subsistence farmers. There is a major need to increase agricultural productivity in the least developed nations where so many people are employed in subsistance agriculture; and there is a need to increase productivity in the large urban informal economies that increasingly mark these nations. Too often donors seem to emphasize the export oriented economy to the exclusion of that employing most of the poor.

For the least developed nations there are opportunities both to do knowledge based incremental improvements in productivity (such as incremental improvements in health and agricultural technologies) and technology leapfrogging (as in the use of cell phones rather than landlines). Neither kind of improvement should be neglected.

Human resources: extension workers, paramedicals, etc. The least developed nations have to delegate technological functions to paraprofessional intermediaries since they have so few university trained professionals. These nations share a huge need to improve the technological knowledge of their workforces. In the short run there can be some help via technology using radio, SMS and other systems to get information out widely In the long run, the schools should do better, so that improved technology training for teachers may be a key; distance education for teacher training may help.

Finance is a huge problem for the rural and urban poor seeking to innovate and deepen their technology capacity. Microfinance has been a great boon to such innovators, as has the move to recognize the capital they possess by giving title to property. Microfinance institutional innovations may also be accompanied by technological innovations, such as mobile phone mediated financial transfers used in parts of Africa.

As any economist will tell you, policies and institutions are critically important. The institutions include not only government and commercial organizations, but markets, non-governmental organizations and associations (professional societies, business associations, cooperatives, chambers of commerce. Too often people forget the institutions that are not formal organizations, and indeed "market like" institutions such as the interface between government and the private sector or the academic and the private sector are important. Not only can one invest in these institutions, but there are potential technological fixes as ICT can improve the interface.

Extension services are clearly important in agriculture and smalll-business extension services are also found in some countries. In the health and nutrition sectors, the health promotion and education system is in function an extension service, but is seldom described as a "health extension service". Some cross fertilization among services providing knowledge outreach may be useful.

ICT is creating new opportunities for the poorest nations: Look at things like the Datadyne MIP project ( or Voxiva health information systems ( Other things that may be useful include:
  • Remote sensing for natural resource identification, mapping and management
  • Automated translation -- I use Babelfish to translate from Portuguese which I don't read very well and from German which I don't read at all
Interesting that Mozambique, which has no oil, has three quarters of its exports in fuels and mining products, but there is no emphasis in the paper on geology or mining technology.

I was shocked in Uganda by how few professional engineers there were in the country. But then I realized that the lack of professional engineering services helped explain why the railroads and ports could not be kept in operation, why the road system was so inadequate, why the potable water and sewerage systems were so inadequate, and why the electrical system didn't work. I bet the same problem exists in Mozambique. But then how would you train a professional engineer in Mozambique (usually requiring years of apprenticeship after university under a professional engineer) and how would you keep him in country once trained?

The Education for All movement, based on both a global commitment to a right to free-basic education and to economic studies showing the high economic returns to primary education seems to have led to inadequate investment in the training a the cadre of workers in the knowledge-based professions in many countries. A country needs to train, utilize and keep engineers, public health officials, ICT professionals, economists, and other professionals in adequate numbers if it is to make adequate progress. With limited resources there are trade offs between the amount of education one can guarantee to all and the amount of education allocated to filling the professional needs of a nation. Some care has to be given to finding the right balance.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Another negative reading"

Source: "Business This Week," The Economist, April 30, 2009.

"American GDP fell at an annualised rate of 6.1% in the first quarter of this year. The world’s largest economy has now contracted for three three-month periods in a row. The fall was bigger than most had expected, and puts the cumulative shrinkage so far during this recession on a par with those in the downturns of 1973-75 and 1981-82, the worst of the post-war period."

"Global recessions"

Source: The Economist

"Before this year the world economy had been in recession on four occasions in the past half century, if recession is defined as a drop in output per person. An analysis in the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook shows that, when exchange-rates are measured using purchasing-power parity, world output dipped sufficiently to drag down average output per person in 1975, 1982 and 1991. But on virtually every measure, this year’s downturn is much deeper than previous troughs. Global output per head is set to fall by 2.5% this year, compared with an average of 0.4% in the previous global recessions. Global trade is set to shrink by almost 12%. In previous global recessions trade merely stagnated."