Thursday, July 30, 2009

Zunia is bringing back the M&E collection

Years ago I started working with Sandra Sargeant to develop resources for the country development gateways of the Development Gateway group related to monitoring and evaluation. We used the Development Gateway platform, and eventually transformed the collection into a website on monitoring and evaluation of ICT projects. A couple of years ago, when the Development Gateway changed platforms, that portal was closed.

The platform has been again moved and renamed Zunia. Now the collection of more than 1000 resources on monitoring and evaluation is being reopened for search and new contributions, as a group on Zunia. For the moment, you can access it here.

A Thought About Innovation Policy

There are a number of innovation clusters in the United States: Silicon Valley, the Route 128 innovation complex, the Internet complex in northern Virginia, etc. I live in Maryland which aspires to have a globally important innovation cluster built around biotechnology industrial innovation.

We know that there are advantages in clustering to promote innovation, as financial and educational services can be colocated to serve the cluster, as there can be spill overs among innovating firms, and as the cluster can provide critical mass for creation of markets for manpower, intermediate goods and services, etc.

Regional governments compete to attract innovation clusters, including by offering subsidized facilities and tax breaks. They spend money on technology promotion agencies and on developing public services that they hope will be needed.

My question is whether the competition among local governments to attract innovation clusters is optimum for the nation. I can imagine it is, in that it promotes competition and in that it prevents errors that may occur when federal bureaucrats try to pick technological winners.

On the other hand, I can imagine that the competition may result in clusters not achieving critical mass, in excessive subsidies being offered by some regions, and in firms choosing suboptimal locations to take advantage of subsidies.

Have there been any studies of optimal national policies to encourage appropriate innovation clusters?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Silencing murderous messages is not as easy as it sounds"

Source: The Economist, July 23, 2009

Last year, as Kenya faced crisis, radio was used to encourage tribes to participate in ethnic cleansing. In the Rwandan genocide, radio was also used to target individuals and groups for attack and murder.
In an era of drones and spy satellites, it may seem odd that crude simple radio transmitters can still make huge mischief. But the scale and sophistication of broadcasting has mutated downwards as well as upwards. In the mid-20th century, totalitarian dictators found national radio stations were a handy way to foment hate and fear; and non-state actors (from communist guerrillas to churches) have been using radio for almost as long. In recent years the medium has been exploited in ever darker ways by petty warlords as well as by big-time tyrants.

"European companies are suffering from an ineffective patent system "

The Economist reports on the inefficiency of the European patent system, since patents authorized by the European Patent Office must be validated, translated and annually renewed in all" 27 members of the European Union and nine other European countries. Moreover, litigation of a patent dispute takes place in each affected country under the laws of that country.

At least some of the developing regions of the world have tried to establish effective regional intellectual property rights systesm.

Frances Perkins

Source: "Frances Perkins: A life of labour," The Economist, July 23rd 2009.

I only recently became aware of this hero of the Depression.

As America’s first female cabinet secretary, Perkins masterminded the introduction of unemployment insurance and Social Security (public pensions), with crucial ramifications. She spearheaded a radical overhaul of labour laws, introducing a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week and a ban on child labour. During her tenure, which lasted for all 12 years of Roosevelt’s presidency, workers won the right to collective bargaining, and union membership exploded.
She is the subject of a new biography:
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labour and His Moral Conscience. By Kirstin Downey.Nan A. Talese; 458 pages; $35.Buy from

"In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable"

Source: BENEDICT CAREY, The New York Times, July 27, 2009.

I quote:
In the past two years, an Army researcher, Steven Burnett, has overseen a study into human perception and bomb detection involving about 800 military men and women. Researchers have conducted exhaustive interviews with experienced fighters. They have administered personality tests and measured depth perception, vigilance and related abilities. The troops have competed to find bombs in photographs, videos, virtual reality simulations and on the ground in mock exercises.

The study complements a growing body of work suggesting that the speed with which the brain reads and interprets sensations like the feelings in one’s own body and emotions in the body language of others is central to avoiding imminent threats.

“Not long ago people thought of emotions as old stuff, as just feelings — feelings that had little to do with rational decision making, or that got in the way of it,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. “Now that position has reversed. We understand emotions as practical action programs that work to solve a problem, often before we’re conscious of it. These processes are at work continually, in pilots, leaders of expeditions, parents, all of us.”
Comment: Still another example of the fact that we think with our brains, not our (conscious) minds. In this case, people get good at getting lifesaving hunches and save lives. Indeed, this may be a living example of an ability with survival value. JAD

Evaluation of the UNESCO Policy and Capacity Building for STI

UNESCO is currently recruiting a small team to evaluate its programs in policy and capacity building for science, technology and innovation. Thinking about the terms:
  • "Science" is involved in the creation and dissemination of knowledge,
  • "Technology" is involved in the applications of knowledge to practice, in areas such as manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, environment, mining, forestry, fisheries, etc.
  • "Innovation" is the process of introducing new knowledge and technology into a society, and in this context, especially to the economic systems of a society.
  • "Policy" is often used to indicate an entire range of concerns from policy to strategy to tactics.
  • "Capacity building" would include education and training to build human capacity, but also organizational development and the development of other institutions (such as the markets for technological services or professionalization instittuions).
The problem is, in my mind, that UNESCO deals with these issues in such a variety of contexts. There is an African STI Initiative, related to a UN wide effort in support of development and application of science and technology in Africa. There is also The Venice Process for Reconstructing Science Systems in Eastern Europe, which includes or is related to more general issues in STI in the region, More generally, the Science Policy unit has a global responsibility. Thus it must address not only Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Communist nations, but also the Islamic nations, Latin America and Asian nations.

In the poorest nations, research and development may be almost completely absent, while in the most advanced developing nations it may represent two or three percent of GDP. In the poorest nations, the productive activities tend to emphasize extractive industries in rural areas, be labor rather than capital intensive, and be carried out by often ill and often poorly educated workers. With economic development there are shifts to manufacturing, urban areas, more capital intensive technology, and more human capital. Thus there are huge differences in the technologies involved and the productive systems in which they are utilized.

Institution building seemingly should depend on the existing institutions, building on what exists and making such adaptions are are both likely to enhance productivity and acceptable within the larger cultural matrix. Again, the existing institutional bases and cultural matrices are quite different in each of these regions, not to say in every country.

The key to success for UNESCO is to tailor each program not only to the resources available and the demands from the host country, but also to the needs of the situation. The evaluation would seem to be required to focus on how well UNESCO staff, consultants and advisors do so. That in turn would require a team to make informed judgments as to what is appropriate in each situation.

Many years ago I participated in a long evaluation of USAID/s lead program for the development and introduction of Appropriate Technologies in developing countries. We sent teams out to Africa, Asia and Latin America, reviewing the work of grantee teams in Africa, Asia and Latin America respectively. The result was three reports that had little in common. We had confounded the differences in the evaluation teams with the differences in the project teams and with the differences in the situations that they faced. We were never able to disambiguate the three to my satisfaction.

Visa problems and the United States

In February, a letter was sent to all ICSU Members regarding delays in the processing of visa applications for scientists entering the USA. This problem related particularly to some nationalities and was not only limited to the USA.

In June, Deliang Chen, the ICSU Executive Director, paid a visit to the US State Department, with the assistance of the National Academy of Sciences (ICSU's National Member in the US). The issue of visa difficulties was raised with David Donahue, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Many international scientists have experienced problems when applying for visas, particularly for attending conferences in the US. During the open discussion Mr Donahue outlined recent progress on this issue and encouraged ICSU to help identify specific cases so the problems can be redressed.

Science and the Israel-Palestine conflict

The Committee on Freedom and Responsibility of ICSU has released a statement on 'Scientific Freedom and Responsibility and the Israel-Palestine Conflict'. This statement recognises that scientific freedoms have been compromised and/or threatened in both Israel and Palestine and emphasises the responsibility of the global scientific community to promote cooperation and understanding.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Three articles and a quotation

"It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality."
Barack Obama

Bridges is a very good science policy magazine published by the Austrian Embassy in Washington, and made available free on the Internet. Here are three articles that I found interesting:

Thinking about Freedom and Development

I have been reading The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria. He seems to be making a point that has been made many times before -- that dictatorship by the mob can be very bad for individual freedom (not to mention for the quality of government). More seriously, he notes that broadly based democratic governments seem to work better if they follow a long process of constitutional liberalization which guarantees human rights.

I think more generally he is saying that an unchecked central government is likely to both fail to respect human rights and to deteriorate into authoritarianism unless checked by important forces. Among those forces are religions institutions (under a system separating church and state), businesses under private enterprise, and organized civil society. He also points out that constitutional liberalism (in the classical sense of liberal) provides undemocratic controls such as independent courts, separation of policy making and implementation in independent branches of government, and constitutional bills of rights.

He raises the question of culture, pointing out that there are a number of historical examples in which countries have instituted liberal regimes rather quickly, as was done in Germany and Japan after World War II, and in Central European nations after the fall of Communism.

The question I ask myself is, absent major outside influences, does culture determine whether the policies will be accepted and implmented necessary to produce constitutional liberalism and strong non-governmental institutions needed to balance the power of government. Perhaps the difficulty of this happening is why the successes that come to mind, outside of foreign invasion, were based on liberalizing authoritarian regimes, often imposed my military coup.

Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions

UNESCO's 2005 convention may well have been advanced by the Francophone communities anxiious to protect their creative industries from the threats of the Anglophone creative industries, but received wide support from peoples all over the world who feel that not only are their quaint old ways being threatened but even their most closely held values.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there is a lot of silliness embodied in the dogooders who become emotional over any picturesque tribe or custom. This rant is occassioned by an article regretting that a tribe in the Amazon is going to have to change its culture because its environment is changing and it will starve to death if it does not find new ways to feed itself. I suggest that with the population growth predicted for the rest of this century, mankind is also going to have to find new ways to feed itself if we are to avoid famine.

Let me illustrate the point. U.S. culture differs from that of Western Europe in many ways. Here are some of the expressions of that difference:
  • We spend twice as much on health services but have lower life expectancy.
  • We murder each other more often, and keep guns in our homes for protection from each other more often.
  • We use a lot more oil and contribute a lot more to global warming than do the Europeans.
  • We are more prejudiced against blacks and Hispanics.
  • We spend more on the military. more frequently invade other countries, and over the past half century have been more often at war.
I can see why the Europeans might wish not to be more like us in these ways, but why should we not seek to be more like the Europeans?

More seriously, cultures change. They have also changed as one rubs up against another. Peoples acquire memes from their neighbors, adapt and integrate them into their own cultures, and move on. I has long seemed to me that the real issue is whether a people can choose whether and how to adopt a meme. The Japanese, who adopted and then abandoned firearms, seeem to me to be masters of socially making decisions as to what they wish to adopt and what they wish to retain of their historic culture. I would love it were Americans more like the Japanese in this way.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Election of the Director General of UNESCO

A new Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is to be elected in the Fall of 2009. Nine people were nominated by member nations and their candidacies are to be considered by the Executive Board, with the final election by the General Conference on the basis of the Board's recommendation. I have created a website, using a blogging platform, to provide an overview of the process and information on the eight active candidates. Comments are permitted.

Some Reports Published by UNESCO

Report of a UNESCO: Expert Workshop on Science and Technology, Innovation and Development

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"The Global Information Technology Report 2008-2009"

The Report stresses the importance of ICT as a catalyst for growth in the current global turmoil

Denmark and Sweden once again lead the rankings of The Global Information Technology Report 2008-2009, released for the eighth consecutive year by the World Economic Forum. The United States follows suit, up one position from last year, thus confirming its pre-eminence in networked readiness in the current times of economic slowdown. Singapore (4), Switzerland (5) and the other Nordic countries together with the Netherlands and Canada complete the top 10.

The Report underlines that good education fundamentals and high levels of technological readiness and innovation are essential engines of growth needed to overcome the current economic crisis. Under the theme “Mobility in a Networked World”, this year’s Report places a particular focus on the relationship and interrelations between mobility and ICT.

The Top 10

Rank Country
1 Denmark
2 Sweden
4 Singapore
5 Switzerland
6 Finland
7 Iceland
8 Norway
9 Netherlands
10 Canada

Comment: The United States population is much larger than those of the other nine countries on the list. If one were comparing California, New England and the Washington-Maryland-Virgina area with comparably sized European areas, several U.S. areas might appear in the top ten.

In any case, the top ten countries are to be congratulated for doing something right, and the United States should recognize that other countries are catching up. JAD

Friday, July 24, 2009

Support Good Health Legislation Now!

The United States is spending too much on health services, twice as much as some other countries.

The people of the United States have worse health outcomes on average than people in many other developed countries.

Tens of millions of Americans have no health insurance; tens of millions more have medical conditions termed "preexisting" that are not covered by their health insurance.

"The ideal is the enemy of the good." We need a legislative compromise, and by definition in a compromise some people get less than they want. Benjamin Franklin was wise enough to know that he might be wrong, and that a compromise (on the Constitution) might not only be the best available result, but might be better than that which he proposed. So lets get the Congress to pass a good health bill!

What happens if we wait a few months more?

How many of the tens of millions of uninsured will suffer illness, disability or even death from delaying their seeking of medical attention they can not afford? How many billions of dollars will be wasted by delaying reforms?

Those who propose delay of the legislation to further tweek the language should count the cost in both dollars and human suffering of the delay they propose.

Globalization and the Tour de France

This year the Tour de France had stages passing through Monoco, Spain, Andora and Switzerland. The three leaders overall are from Spain, Luxembourg and the United States, two of them riding for the team of Kazakhstan. A pretty good demonstration of globalization!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

G8 pledged $US20 billion for agriculture

Did you catch this (quoted from SciDev.Net)?
G8 leaders meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, unveiled a plan to commit US$20 billion of funding to the development of agriculture and said they would tackle persistent food shortages in developing countries.

The three-year initiative will also help developing countries develop scientific research in agriculture; foster international collaborations and improve the dissemination of research.

The agricultural investment should help with hunger, growth and equity in these hard times.

Obama and Gates -- Racial vs Class Prejudice

Barack Obama was the child of a high status black Kenyan and a upper middle class white American, brought up by his white grandparents in the most racially integrated state of the United States, educated in elite institutions, who had achieved a high economic status via his writing. His socio-economic class was quite within the range of American presidents of the 20th century.

Henry Gates, a Harvard professor, author and television personality, was
arrested when having misplaced his keys he reported to be trying to break into a house which was in fact his own. His television program on the genetics of American blacks included evidence that about half his genetic inheritance was European and half African.

It seems to me that Obama when running for president and Gates when arrested were in comparable socio-economic classes. It also seems to me that Obama would not have been elected president had he not been perceived as in appropriate socio-economic class for the post. It also seems likey to me that had Gates been a typical white Harvard professor locked out of his own house, the police would have helped him enter rather than arrest him. The police mistook his being black for his being of low socio-economic status and thus in their minds suspect for breaking and entering.

Racial prejudice and class prejudice are confounded in American culture. I remember as a boy in California there was considerable prejudice against the white immigrants to the state who had flooded in in desperate poverty from the dust bowl states. The popularity of "red neck" humor is another indicator that class prejudice still exists directed at white Americans seen as of lower social class.

With a history of slavery and Jim Crow, a lot of people with African ancestors are stuck in lower socio-economic classes, suffering from both class prejudice and remaining aspects of racial prejudice.

We don't like to think of class prejudice in America, but it is here and I suspect that we will not do a very good job of dealing with the problems of our underclasses until we recognize how class, racial and ethnic prejudices are interrelated.

2009 State of the Future

“Although the future has been getting better for most of the world over the past 20 years, the global recession has lowered the State of the Future Index for the next 10 years. The global financial crisis and climate change planning may be helping humanity to re-think its assumptions and move from its often self-centered adolescence to a more globally responsible adulthood, states the report. “This year’s annual State of the Future is an extraordinarily rich distillation of information for those who care about the world and its future. It describes in non-technical language what the educated person should know about the world and what to do to improve it'' says co-author and Millennium Project Director. Jerome C. Glenn.

The website provides a 100 page executive summary that can be downloaded free, as well as table of contents and selected figures from the report. The full report can be purchased in digital form.

Comment: Jerome Glenn provides a great service producing updates of this important report periodically. JAD

This year's report was the subject of an article by Jonathan Owen in The Independent (U.K.). The article begins:
An effort on the scale of the Apollo mission that sent men to the Moon is needed if humanity is to have a fighting chance of surviving the ravages of climate change. The stakes are high, as, without sustainable growth, "billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilisation will collapse".

This is the stark warning from the biggest single report to look at the future of the planet – obtained by The Independent on Sunday ahead of its official publication next month. Backed by a diverse range of leading organisations such as Unesco, the World Bank, the US army and the Rockefeller Foundation, the 2009 State of the Future report runs to 6,700 pages and draws on contributions from 2,700 experts around the globe. Its findings are described by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN, as providing "invaluable insights into the future for the United Nations, its member states, and civil society".

Constitutional liberalism or illiberal democracy provides the following highly edited concept taken from an article by Fareed Zakaria:
Constitutional liberalism is about the limitation of power, illiberal democracy is about accumulation and use of power. Constitutional liberalism has meant a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. Illiberal democracy is an elected regime routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.
Zakaria in his 1997 article in Foreign Affairs wrote:
Illiberal democracy is a growth industry. Seven years ago only 22 percent of democratizing countries could have been so categorized; five years ago that figure had risen to 35 percent. n2 And to date few illiberal democracies have matured into liberal democracies; if anything, they are moving toward heightened illiberalism. Far from being a temporary or transitional stage, it appears that many countries are settling into a form of government that mixes a substantial degree of democracy with a substantial degree of illiberalism. Just as nations across the world have become comfortable with many variations of capitalism, they could well adopt and sustain varied forms of democracy. Western liberal democracy might prove to be not the final destination on the democratic road, but just one of many possible exits.
Comment: It seems that Constitutional Liberalism is about liberty and personal freedom. I suspect that if one had to choose, personal freedom would be preferred by most people to participation in elections. Indeed, my neighbors seem not to come out to vote even though they enjoy the privalege, except in a few of the most heavily publicized elections. (I think the last primary local election got a six percent turnout in my precinct!)

Indeed, the extension of suffrage seems often to have focused on extending participation in elections to people less and less interested in the public affairs and often to people less and less likely to be well informed about issues and less likely to have the analytic tools to make good decisions on public policy.

As Zakaria points out, the U.S. federal government has many constraints on the democratic process, including a bill of Constitutional rights and an independent judiciary. It should also be recognized that it is a representative government, with elected representatives (who have staffs to help gather and analyze information) supported by the bureaucracy of the executive branch to enact laws and make policy.

USAID years ago adopted the promotion of democracy as one of the "pilars" of its program, but it quickly became apparent that much of the effort would be focused on liberalism, including the rule of law, the development of civil society, and the promotion of freedom of expression.

Words change their meaning over time in an inevitable and largely useful process. Still I am nostalgic for the 19th century definition of liberal as promoting liberty, rather than the current definition which has been adapted by "conservative" political parties in the United States and United Kingdom to serve as an epithet for political positions that they dislike. Indeed, American "liberals" (in the old sense) are tending to term themselves "progressives".

So lets go about promoting liberalism, and worry about the promotion of democracy in countries that have not developed the institutions needed to protect liberal values. JAD

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Remittance Flows to Developing Countries to Decline in 2009

Source: The World Bank

"Remittance flows to developing countries are expected to be $304 billion in 2009, down from an estimated $328 billion in 2008, said the Bank, releasing a new migration and remittances brief to coincide with an International Diaspora and Development Conference that ran July 13-14. The predicted a 7.3% decline in remittances this year is far smaller than that for private flows to developing countries. According to the Bank, remittances are relatively resilient because, while new migration flows have declined, the number of migrants living overseas has been relatively unaffected by the crisis. However, sources of risk to the outlook include uncertainty about the depth and duration of the current crisis, unpredictable movements in exchange rates, and the possibility that immigration controls may be tightened further in major destination countries." Read more...

"Using Scientific Tools in an International War on Fake Drugs"

Source: THOMAS FULLER, The New York Times,: July 20, 2009

"Three years ago, the World Health Organization estimated that as many as one in four pharmaceutical drugs sold in the developing world were counterfeit." As part of the effort to reduce the traffic in fake drugs "an informal group of researchers and government officials spanning Africa, Asia and the United States who have teamed up with Interpol, the international police agency, to use cutting-edge technology in tracking fake drugs that claim to treat malaria."

One of the tools of this network is a mass spectrometer with an added ion gun "which emits a jet of helium gas and captures a minute amount of the material, instantly identifying its component parts." The device, created in the lab of Facundo Fernández at George Tech, can check the chemical composition of hundreds of pills a day.

Others in the network are using forensic science to identify the sources of the counterfeit products in the hope that police powers can be used to interrupt or at least diminish the flow of counterfeits.

"An Inside/Outside View of U.S. Science"

Science magazine provided these data on the different views of scientists by themselves and by the public. I wonder why scientists are so heavily liberal and why the public thinks they are more conservative than they believe themselves to be.

Bijan Mortazavi - concert at Greek Theatre - #4

My son shared this with me, and I thought I would share it with you.

"U.S. Withheld Data on Risks of Distracted Driving"

Source: MATT RICHTEL, The New York Times, July 20, 2009

In 2003, researchers at the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel. They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.
According to the article, not only did the agency fail to carry out the proposed study, it also refused to disseminate the evidence that government scientists had compiled suggesting the danger.

Comment: This is outrageous1 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is specifically chartered to develop and disseminate information that will enhance highway safety. I am not sure which is worse -- failing to do a study that no other agency could or would do that would appear likely to provide evidence to allow policies to enhance safety, or failing to disseminate the evidence that had been compiled and assessed by the Agency's scientists.

I do not believe that the Congress is so dominated by industrial interests that it would not as a whole support highway safety over the interests of the cell phone industry (which in any case would be little threatened by regulations on cell phone use while driving). The Bush administration has a reputation of failing to regulate in areas where industrial constituents of the Republican party oppose regulation.

Now Civil Society will disseminate the available information. Perhaps the Obama administration will reevaluate the need for such a study in light of the original proposal and any information that has subsequently come to light, and will take the appropriate steps. JAD

This is the Map that seems to be used by the media

List countries by per capita GDP, starting with the lowest. Create a group with the lowest per capita GDP, adding one at a time, until the countries in the group have a total GDP equaling 5% of the global GDP. Those countries would have about three billion people. Here is a map omitting those countries:
Source: Strange Maps

People sometimes put pins in maps to mark the location of events that interest them. As a thought experiment, put a pin in the map above every time you read a news story, placing the pin in the country in which the event recounted takes place. You would wind up with very, very few pins in the white areas in the map above.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

"The Crowd Is Wise (When It’s Focused)"

Robert Bell, foreground, and Chris Volinsky, both of AT&T, are collaborating with other scientists to improve Netflix's personalized film ratings.
Source: STEVE LOHR, The New York Times, July 18, 2009

The article states that:
(A) look at recent cases and new research suggests that open-innovation models succeed only when carefully designed for a particular task and when the incentives are tailored to attract the most effective collaborators.......

The Netflix Prize is a stellar example of crowdsourcing. In October 2006, Netflix, the movie rental company, announced that it would pay $1 million to the contestant who could improve the movie recommendations made by Netflix’s internal software, Cinematch, by at least 10 percent.......

The contest will end next week because a contestant finally surpassed the 10 percent hurdle on June 26, and, according to the rules of the competition, rivals have 30 days from that date to try to beat the leader. The frontrunner is a seven-person team, and its members are statisticians, machine learning experts and computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada and Israel. It is led by statisticians at AT&T Research.
Comment: Too often people assume that a good idea is all that is necessary, but it seems that good implementation is usually the key, and good implementation usually involves someone working smart and working hard! JAD

Do Microfinance Projects Reduce Poverty

The Economist this week has an article on the evidence supporting the efficacy of microfinance programs, citing two recent papers:
“The Miracle of Microfinance? Evidence from a Randomised Evaluation” by Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Rachel Glennerster and Cynthia Kinnan, May 2009. “Expanding Microenterprise Credit Access: Using Randomized Supply Decisions to Estimate the Impacts in Manila” by Dean Karlan and Jonathan Zinman, July 2009.
The article suggests that there is very little evidence from methodologically sound studies of the effectiveness of these programs. While there are lots of true believers, there are also skeptics as to the utility of the programs.

The two research projects suggest that the microfinance project which they studied did not reduct poverty, although one suggested that in the short term effect was to switch purchases into longer term, more durable materials and The Economist inferred that that might have a long term beneficial impact on poverty.

The Economist article states that
despite growing interest from private investors, 53% of the $11.7 billion that was committed to the microfinance industry in 2008 still came at below-market rates from aid agencies, multilateral banks and other donors.
Of course, if microfinance does not reduce poverty, one should question the allocation of scarce donor funding to microfinance programs. On the other hand, it might be the case that the donor subsidies for loans to poor people are a reasonable approach to humanitarian aid since the loans tend to generate new forms of matching funds. I assume that there is a welfare improvement when people can borrow to make an immediate purchase, paying back the loan later.

The Economist has a touching faith that since microfinance programs trigger investment in microenterprises, they should have an eventual economic benefit. I wonder how much money is lost by incompetent entrepreneurs encouraged by the availability of microfinance to invest in businesses they are incompetent to run well.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

What We Don't Know Due to Community Decision Making in Scientific Paradigms

Thomas Bouchard says in an interview in Science magazine:
But we still have whole domains we can't talk about. One of the great dangers in the psychology of individual differences is self-censorship. For example, when I was a student, it was widely accepted that black self-esteem was much lower than white self-esteem, and that was a cause of differences in achievement between the twogroups. Now that's been completely overturned—there is virtually no racial difference in self-esteem. But people had enormous amounts of data [showing this] that they didn't publish because it did not fit the prevailing belief system. How much wasted effort was generated by the flawed self-esteem work as an explanation of the black-white IQ difference? Now a days, I'm sure there are people who are not publishing stuff on sex differences.
Comment: I suspect that he is right in that we fail to have access to important scientific knowledge that its holders fail to publish because it does not fit the prevailing belief system (or that reviewers fail to recommend and journals fail to publish for the same reason). JAD

"An Opportunity We Cannot Waste"

In an editorial in Science magazine Thomas Pickering writes:
The struggles against world poverty are more challenging than ever, given the global financial crisis. At the London G-20 summit in April, leaders of the world's largest economies acknowledged that financial recovery could be sustained only if progress is made in alleviating world poverty. Thus, the path to stable worldwide recovery requires that the issues of economic growth, development, and poverty be seen as linked with the key drivers of food, water, and health, just as climate change is now linked to the key drivers of energy and environment........

The world still looks to the United States for leadership in such work because of our scientific capabilities and our wealth. We are already demonstrating commitment in a few of these areas, notably in the last administration's multibillion dollar program to relieve the impact of HIV/AIDS, principally in Africa. But overall, U.S. foreign assistance programs have been lagging in the food, water, and health areas, with funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) declining from $8 billion to $6 billion per year over recent decades. Moreover, the numerous federal agencies that provide science and technology–based international aid suffer from lack of coordination in their efforts. Another National Academies study that I co-chaired concluded that USAID, bolstered by new senior administrators with science and technology expertise, should play a major part in overseeing this much-needed coordination.
Comment: This is an important editorial from a man who has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Undersecretary of State.

Re: "1984"

Source: "Amazon Erases Orwell Books From Kindle," BRAD STONE, The New York Times, July 17, 2009.

In George Orwell’s “1984,” government censors erase all traces of news articles embarrassing to Big Brother by sending them down an incineration chute called the “memory hole.”

On Friday, it was “1984” and another Orwell book, “Animal Farm,” that were dropped down the memory hole — by
Amazon apparently is learning to check for ownership of copyright before selling digital copies.

We are all learning that what we regard as our property may not be our property, simply because we have paid for it. Apparently Amazon not only removed the book from the memories of Kindles owned by its customers, but did so without prior warning, and in the process removed their bookmarks and notes made on the books, which should clearly have been the intellectual property of the authors of those notes. Indeed, I would guess that sufficient annotation, bookmarking and other inputs might constitute a transformation of the original document, and if so might give the Kindle owner/user intellectual property rights to the materials taken from their property by Amazon.

The article also says:
While the copyright on “1984” will not expire until 2044 in the United States, it has already expired in other countries, including Canada, Australia and Russia. Web sites in those countries offer digital copies of the book free to all comers.
The controversy caught my attention in part because I have been involved in a discussion with copyright issues with respect for Zunia, the new portal for international development information which has replaced the Development Gateway "knowledge communities". This whole area of distribution of digital documents is hard to understand, and hard to get on top of.

Interesting tidbit from Mozy -- Where does all the Computer Power Go

To help you further visualize the petabyte: one petabyte is roughly one thousand terabytes, one million gigabytes, or one billion megabytes. That's the space of 10,000 laptops, each with a 100 GB hard drive, on which you could store approximately one of the following:
  • 13.3 years of HD-TV video
  • 10 million yards of books on a shelf
  • 20 million four-drawer filing cabinets filled with text
  • 250 million mp3 songs
Mozy currently stores more than 15 petabytes of customer files.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Hidden Wars

I previously posted on The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan by Artyom Borovik. Last night my book club discussed the book.

We are a pretty liberal bunch, but one of the conclusions might be of interest. We all felt that the objectives of the United States in both Iraq and Afghanistan should be stabil societies that did not harbor or support unacceptable numbers of people who would threaten terrorist attacks against the United States, and there was agreement that stability in these societies need not be based on homogeneous nation states with participatory democracy, and indeed that such conditions could hardly be expected in the short term in Iraq, much less Afghanistan. There also was a general perception that the U.S. forces should be drawn down quickly in Iraq and eventually in Afghanistan.

I made the point that we Americans focused too much on the short term military crises and not enough on the long term efforts needed to build a culture of peace. There are a number of failed states in the world today, and if the terrorists are expelled from Afghanistan they can and probably will move to another place where angry people will support them and governments will be powerless to contain them. In the long run we need societies that will not produce nor support terrorists.

Education is probably the strongest weapon in the long term fight against terrorism. Yet as experience with madrassa based promoters of terrorism, schools can be perverted. There has been a huge global effort to promote education over recent decades, and it has been quite effective. Yet it has also failed to achieve its benchmarks and there are still some 75 million kids of primary school age who are not in school. It is the failed and failing states that have the worst record in educating their children.

One of the best instruments that we have for promoting education for all is UNESCO. It has a demonstrated record of promoting education, and is an acceptable source of help in places in which direct U.S. assistance or assistance of former colonial powers would not be accepted. Yet UNESO's education budget is less than fice percent of that of my local school district! And the United States government consistantly militates against increases in that budget.

Here is a startling idea

From the Regents of the University of California at Los Angeles:
(I)t now appears likely the UC system, in this current fiscal crisis, will be ordered by Sacramento to absorb yet another $800-plus million in additional cuts. Its 2009-10 core budget will be reduced by an estimated 20 percent. This will bring the amount of state investment in the University down to $2.4 billion - exactly where it was in real dollars a decade ago.

In the same time frame, by the way, funding for state prisons has more than doubled, from $5 to $11 billion. It’s been reported that, based on current spending trends, California’s prison budget soon will overtake that of the state’s universities and community colleges.
I have degrees from three campuses of the University of California system and it is dear to my heart. (Fortunately I was never eligible for the prison system.) The idea that the state which brought us the movies, much of modern aviation and electronics, and the benefits of Silicon Valley spending more on prisons than on higher education is truly ugly, not to mention frightening, JAD

Monday, July 13, 2009

Foreign S&T Graduate Students in the US

According to a new publication of the National Science Foundation:
Graduate S&E enrollment reached 516,199 in 2007 . Of these students, 72% were enrolled full-time, 56% were men, and 71% were U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
Thus there were about 145 thousand foreign graduate students in science and engineering in the United States that year. They help pay for the system, and they staff the laboratories of the graduate universities. Many of them stay when they achieve their degrees, and the external benefits of thousands of scientists and engineers are important to our economy.

"The fewer the competitors, the harder they try"

Source: "Encouraging competitiveness: Psyched out," The Economist, July 9th 2009

The article describes research conducted by two behavioural researchers, Stephen Garcia at the University of Michigan and Avishalom Tor at the University of Haifa in Israel, in which they have demonstrated the likelihood that people put out less competitive effort the larger the group of people against which they are competing.
In their report on the matter in Psychological Science, Dr Garcia and Dr Tor dub their discovery the “n-effect” since “n” represents any numerical value in mathematics. If confirmed, it may mean not only that examination halls should be kept small— or, at least, the same size for all participants so that the playing field is level—but also that other competitive activities should be scaled down for best results.
Comment: I suspect this is a result that it is worth pursuing. For example, in organizations it may be useful to divide competitive classes into relatively small comparison groups to stimulate high performance by the individuals. JAD

The Culture Wars Are Nothing New

When Smithson donated a half million dollars to establish what has become the Smithsonian Institution, it created a major controversy in the Congress. Some opposed accepting the donation as unconstitutional, contrary to states rights. Fortunately John Quincy Adams was in the House of Representatives and fought a successful campaign not only to have the gift accepted but to keep it free from graft and patronage and to dedicate it to a national museum.

Well aware that he would face hostility in Congress, Adams nevertheless proclaimed in his first Annual Message a spectacular national program. He proposed that the Federal Government bring the sections together with a network of highways and canals, and that it develop and conserve the public domain, using funds from the sale of public lands. In 1828, he broke ground for the 185-mile C & 0 Canal.

Adams also urged the United States to take a lead in the development of the arts and sciences through the establishment of a national university, the financing of scientific expeditions, and the erection of an observatory. His critics declared such measures transcended constitutional limitations.

The memories of witnessed events are data, not necessarily facts

There was an interesting segment last night on 60 Minutes dealing with the fragility of memory and the consequent inaccuracies that are found in eye witness testimony in police processes and in court. The program emphasized that police should be trained to understand the perils of planting false memories in witnesses (which can happen inadvertantly) and procedures should be institutionalized to maximize the accuracy of eye witness testimony.

Clearly jurors should be trained to understand that eye witnesses may mistake identifications and helped to interpret the testimony of witnesses reasonably. The program mentioned that the jury process is good at dealing with witnesses that tend to lie under oath, but is not good at dealing with witnesses who are simply wrong in what they remember.

There obviously is information in eye witness testimony. Perhaps judges and jurors should think of that information in terms of "information theory". The trial process is one in which each piece of information changes the probabilities that should be attached to not only the assertion of guilt, but also to a large number of subordinate assertions used in building and refuting a case. A witness who has been subject to processes likely to affect or modify recollection should be considered less informative than one whose memory has been fully protected.

Probably there are some important lessons that should transfer to any area of reports from other people.

Friday, July 10, 2009


"it is better to remember simplified pictures than to forget accurate figures"
Otto Neurath
The quotation comes from a nice posting on the Data Designed for Decisions conference (my friend Julianne told me about it).

I would add a corollary:
Unless of course the simplified figures are wrong!

What good is exploratory research in the USAID Program

I was involved in the relatively small USAID program funding exploratory research for many years. I noted a couple of things that reminded me of some of the accomplishments of that program.
  • I have been using Babelfish for machine translation, and was reminded that our funding helped the Pan American Health Organization develop a system for computer aided translation. That system was actually used to increase the efficiency of PAHO translators who faced time pressure to produce great translations of many reports. The work was important for the whole field.
  • There was a recent television program exploring the use of diamonds in modern technology which mentioned the potential of diamonds for computer chips -- faster, smaller, etc. Some of the trailblazing work in that field was done in Russia prior to the fall of Communism, and we brought the researchers responsible for that work to an American lab to transfer the knowledge gained and begin collaborative work after the fall of Communism.
  • We funded a Brazilian researcher studying biological Nitrogen fixation. Under our funding she discovered a microorganism that lives within the sugar cane plant and fixes Nitrogen from the air, supplying it directly to the plant. Thus the expensive purchase of Nitrogen fertilizer could be avoided. I have been told that as much as one-third of the sugar cane grown in Brazil was from cultivars infected with this organism -- and that is a lot of sugar cane!
  • We funded a network of researchers in developing countries studying the causes of pneumonias in children. The results of that work were not only published in a special issue of a globally important journal, but together with other research results enabled the World Health Organization to revise its protocols for treatment of the disease. Respiratory disease is not only a serious cause of morbidity but of mortality, and of course the treatment of these diseases costs a huge amount globally.
We seldom funded infrastructure projects, but on one occassion we made a small grant to provide an Internet backbone for Costa Rica, which quickly became a backbone for Central America with satellite connection to the United States through another agency,

It is extremely difficult to trace the effects of small research projects, and I have been retired from USAID for a dozen years. Still, I suspect that even these few examples have an economic value which may pay for the entire program we ran for a couple of decades -- a program that funded hundreds of research grants.

Doublespeak versus precise language

I heard a news commentator yesterday describing the ways that politicians use language. Obama seems to be replacing "the War on Terror" with a bureaucratic term relating to "contingencies". The term "War on Terror" is clearly a slogan meant to gain emotional support while obscuring what is really happening. It seems to me that Obama is budgeting for "the military occupation" of Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing as how troops there are occupying countries whose governments were overthown by coalitions led by U.S. forces. In other locations the U.S. government may be engaged in "counter-terrorist" efforts designed to eliminate the terrorists themselves and disrupt their networks.

"Enhanced interrogation methods" or "torture"? Cheneyspeak or Obamaspeak? Are there "standard" interrogation methods? I suppose that there are methods that are commonly taught to police, military intelligence and CIA interrogators, which might be seen as the standards. If so, there could well be enhancements of those methods that are morally acceptable, such as use of computer analysis methods to aid the interrogators. There are also methods that we might find morally unacceptable that we would not classify as torture, such as use of some drugs during the interrogation process. There are clearly things that we should consider torture. It seems pretty clear that prisoners of American forces were in some cases tortured over the last eight years. Unfortunately, the perfectly appropriate efforts of the Justice Department to define the boundaries between unacceptable and acceptable methods seem to have gone wrong in the Bush administration. Lets hope the Obama folk can do better.

The health care debate is going to raise another set of semantic issues. Are the parties to the debate "stakeholders" as in poker games, or "special iterests" as if some parties interests were more "special" than those of other parties. And of course, what are those "interests". Who opposes good health or adequate health services? Who opposes fair compensation for the efforts put forth in providing services? Demonization of people who balance their interest portfolios differently, in part because of differing understanding of the uncertainties of alternative reforms, need not be demonized.

The esthetics of political doubletalk are ugly, but the effect on the political process is serious. I hope that the media will work to speak accurately, and to call politicians who seek to spin their meaning via vague and misleading slogans.

Changes in my browser

I uploaded Mozilla Firefox 3.5 last night, and it was a mistake. This is a new version of the great open source browser, but on my four year old laptop it winds up not reading the appearance criteria from Windows XP Home Edition correctly, and is a pain. I am told there will be a 3.5.1 edition in a couple of weeks and I suggest you wait for it. (Incidentally, I also had trouble with the help pages, the user support and the Forum when I tried to trouble shoot the browser.)

I am now using Google Chrome, which I found easy to download and set up. It seems to work well, and it might survive as my preferred browser.

The Failed States Index

It is a sobering time for the world’s most fragile countries—virulent economic crisis, countless natural disasters, and government collapse.

Using 12 indicators of state cohesion and performance, the Fund for Peace, an independent research organization, and Foreign Policy magazine compiled through a close examination of more than 30,000 publicly available sources, ranking 177 states in order from most to least at risk of failure. The 60 most vulnerable states are listed in the rankings. This is the fifth annual issue of the report on the Index of Failed States.

"Will ICTs make the traditional university obsolete?"

A session at the World Conference on Higher Education discussed cyber universities, the challenge of equal access and the growing carbon footprint of information and communication technologies. This UNESCO webpage provides a summary of that discussion, including comments from leaders from the Virtual University of the French-speaking world, Canada’s open Athabasca University, Shanghai Television University and the University of South Africa (UNISA), Institute for Open and Distance Learning. The leaders noted the radical changes that had already been made in their institutions, lending credibility to the hypothesis that schools would have to adopt the technology or fail to attract students.

It seems to me that there are lessons from the development of the book that might also inform our analysis of the future educational implications of the Information Revolution. Surely schools today depend on books, at least in societies rich enough to afford books. However, books and printing have transformed society requiring that everyone learn to read and write, and requiring more and more education of the general population.

In our future wired society, there will be requirements for forms of information literacy that go far beyond what we recognize today. I suspect that as books and printing lead to an expansion of the number of years of schooling per student, so too the wired society will demand still further learning opportunities, and indeed something approaching lifelong learning.

The Information Revolution has already started to transform our perceptions of valued skills and abilities as computers took over everything from drafting to formating documents to spell and grammar checking. Remember the classes to train people in engineering drawing and secretarial schools? As technology takes over added responsibilities the roles of humans will change, and their education will change accordingly.

The participants in the WCHE session realized that the demands students are making on institutions of higher education are changing, but I am suggesting that society is changing and with the changes in society the educational system will have to adjust; the changing technological opportunities for teach and the changing student demands on universities are only two of the many forces driving educational change in response to the Information Revolution.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"People Sometimes Seek the Truth, but Most Prefer Like-minded Views"

Source: Newswise

Description: "We swim in a sea of information, but filter out most of what we see or hear. New analysis of data from dozens of studies sheds new light on how we choose what we do and do not hear. The study found that while people tend to avoid information that contradicts what they already think or believe, certain factors can cause them to seek out, or at least consider, other points of view."

Comment: I hope that I use much better decision making approaches in important decisions than in trivial ones, Thus I am more likely to seek out various opinions and take into account dissonant information if I am buying a house than buying a snack.

I have taught risk analysis (to adult university students) and I believe that it is quite possible to train people to take information from people who oppose their partially formed views as well as people who agree with those views,

I also hope that we are putting the people who are best at looking at all sides of a question into jobs where the most important decisions are being made. JAD

"Doubts Cast On Credibility Of Some Published Clinical Trials"

Source: ScienceDaily (July 3, 2009)

Research published in BioMed Central's open access journal Trials studied randomized clinical trials (RCT) in some Chinese medical journals during 1994 to 2005. The study concluded that the design of a remarkable 93 percent of 2235 so-called RCTs published in that period had flawed study designs.
Less than seven percent of self-described RCTs published in some Chinese medical journals meet criteria for authentic randomisation. The researchers looked at both conventional and traditional Chinese medicine trials, but there was no difference between these in terms of study authenticity rates. However, all RCTs of pre-market drug clinical trial were authentic, and RCTs conducted at hospitals affiliated with medical universities were more likely to be authentic than trials conducted at lower tier level three and level two hospitals. More than half of the trials at university-affiliated hospitals met RCT criteria, which means lower-tier hospital research is the least rigorous in design terms.
  • Good research design is not easy,
  • Serious professional review of methods is important if one seeks really credible results.
  • Poor methodology means results are untrustworthy, not that they are wrong.
  • I tend to assume that university hospitals tend to be the top not only in technical breadth and ability in the delivery of health services, but also in the quality of research.
  • It may well be that pre-market clinical trials and clinical trials done in teaching hospitals inform decisions that affect more people or potentially affect them more gravely.
Still, this is a very scary result. JAD

A Model to Improve Risk Analysis and Decision Making

Judea Pearl's article in Forbes describes the use of Baysian Networks in artificial intelligence applications.

The article is from the Forbes issue on Artificial Intelligence.

And free software to implement the Baysian Network Editor and Too Kit.that can be used to implement some of the approaches Pearl described.

"Credibilidad, autocensura y libertad de expresión"

Source: By Por María Isabel Soldevila (20 de abril 2008)

"La gente está dejando de creer en los medios de comunicación. Un estudio publicado en enero de este año por la universidad del Sagrado Corazón de los Estados Unidos y reseñado por el instituto Poynter reveló que apenas el 19.6% de los norteamericanos cree en la totalidad o la mayoría de los reportes noticiosos, casi un 8% menos que hace cinco años. ¿Por qué la desconfianza de los norteamericanos? ¿Qué tiene esto que ver con la libertad de expresión?

"El 87.6% de las 800 personas encuestadas en los Estados Unidos dijo sentir que los medios de comunicación trataban de influir en la opinión pública, no los veían como “imparciales”; pero más delicado aún, el 86% opinó que los medios buscaban influir en las políticas públicas a través de las noticias que publicaban."

Comment: I suppose I am in the one-fifth of Americans who believes most of the reported news as I am in the seven-eights of the population who believe the media are not always impartial and sometimes seek to influence policy with their reporting.

I can do somewhat better by comparing news from various sources, including foreign sources and the blogosphere and twittersphere.

Still, I suppose the situation is getting better in that I think the media in the 19th century were even worse, and I suppose people have lots of practice from their exposure to commercials in picking and choosing what data to treat with how much credance. JAD

Implications for UNESCO of Egypt's Government's Cultural Policies

I have been to Egypt five or six times, spending a couple of months there in total. I also managed programs that funded Egyptian researchers for many years. Thus I am no expert on the country, but I have seen enough to wonder about the Egyptian government's attitudes relevant to cultural diversity and cultural heritage. I find a lot of concern for ancient Egypt and very little oriented to sharing contemporary culture with foreign visitors. Alexandria exhibits interest in its Ptolemaic and Roman periods, but I find the rich Islamic and Coptic histories of Egypt to be less well represented. The modern influence of France and England and the pre-Nasser period do not seem at all well represented.

The concern may be relevant to the candidacy of Farouk Hosny, long time Minister of Culture of Egypt, for the post of Director General of UNESCO. Do the actions of his Ministry over more than two decades indicate that Hosny would be a strong defender of modern cultural diversity and of the diverse aspects of cultural heritage?

Community Colleges May Be America's Secriet Weapon in the Knowledge Wars

The New York Times, covering Jill Biden's trip to Europe (where she led the U.S. delegation to the World Conference on Higher Education, reported her saying that
Community colleges could become a tool to help economic recovery in the United States and a model for developing countries debating how to improve their education systems
The article also states:
There are almost 1,200 community colleges among the 4,100 public and private higher-education institutions in the United States, serving almost 12 million students.......

That message resonated in a report released Tuesday by the World Bank, which said countries that aspire to build “world-class universities” to drive development and compete in global rankings of the best international universities may be “chasing a myth.”
Comment: Community colleges are a great resource to students and their families, communities and the nation, providing affordable and accessible opportunities and graduates to fill many key roles in the society. There have been efforts for many years to spread the community college model to developing nations, and I think those efforts should continue. They are not a complete solution to educational needs, but they can form an important, cost effective component of national and regional systems of higher educaiton.

Of course I am a product of the Californian higher education system of the 1950s and 60s in which junior colleges, state colleges, the University of California system and a variety of private institutions were combined successfully.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution"

This Report highlights key trends in higher education and provide a brief description of worldwide developments of these trends with supporting statistical or data illustrations and an analysis. The major trends are: massification in higher education; globalization and internationalization; distance education and new applications for information and communication technologies (ICTs); the privatization of higher education; the global flow of talent (globalization has exacerbated the worldwide movement of highly educated people); the academic profession at a crossroads for the student experience; research universities and the “world-class” phenomenon; financing higher education; quality assurance and university-industry linkages. The Report outlines some future trends in higher education.

The authors of the report (Philip G. Altbach
Liz Reisberg 
and Laura E. Rumbley) are from the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. The report was prepared as an input to the World Conference on Higher Education 2009, and published by UNESCO.

On the election of a new UNESCO Director General

I have been following the process of the election of a new Director General of UNESCO. (The nominations are now in, the Executive Board of UNESCO is expected to endorse a candidate in September, and the election will take place during the General Conference meeting in October.) I have been posting on the process in:
As well as two UNESCO related blogs that I run:
I have read several times that the Arab nations feel that it is their turn to name a Director General of UNESCO. That perception worries me!

In part that feeling is based on an informal agreement among nations that the top offices of the intergovernmental organizations should be "fairly" distributed among nations. There is, in my mind, merit to that perception.

Over its history, the top job in UNESCO has always gone to men (which is especially odd since women play so important a role in education and culture, and are playing a more and more important role in science, libraries, and communications). Most of the Directors General have come from wealthy nations, indeed disproportionately from Europe and the United States. If one assumes that each Director General leaves an imprint on the organization, then it makes sense that there should be balance among the Directors General, with women as well as men chosen and people from developing as well as developed nations.

It is estimated that there are 6.67 billion people in the world. It would be fatuous to think that only one of them is "best qualified" to lead UNESCO or that there would be any possibility of identifying that "best qualified" candidate. Still, given the potential of UNESCO to make a real difference in the world's efforts to promote peace, education, science, culture and communications, and the real difference that the quality of the Director General can have in realizing that potential, it is important that a strong and capable person be elected to the post of Director General. That has not always happened, and the current candidates do not seem measure up to past Directors General such as Julian Huxley (a very talented scientist and scientific administrator) and Luther Evans (who had been Librarian of Congress, managing the world's largest and arguably most important library).

Since the Director General is elected by a vote of the representatives of the member states of UNESCO, and since developing nations have agreed to vote as a block, they have the right under UNESCO's Constitution to choose the next Director General. That right carries with it a responsibility. In the first case, the member nations have the responsibility to nominate candidates who would do a good job, and in the second, to elect the best candidate. If the nations have failed to nominate a really great candidate from a developing nation, then they would seem to have the duty to elect one from a developed nation (or to call for a new set of nominees--UNESCO has been lead by an acting Director General in the past).

There are four women among the nine people who have been nominated for the post. Two of the nominees are from North Africa, two from sub-Saharan Africa, one from South America, and four from Europe. I have met none of them, but it seems clear that they are not all comparably likely to do a good job if elected Director General. I sincerely hope that the representatives of the member states do their duty and elect the best qualified candidate. I fear, however, that that objective may be lost in the political machinations that will surely take place over the next few months.

Thoughts occasioned by the reports of McNamara's death

Source: "'Terribly Wrong' Handling of Vietnam Overshadowed Record of Achievement," Thomas W. Lippman, The Washington Post, July 7, 2009.

If there is a lesson from Robert McNamara's life it is the limits of rationality and the inadequacy of our understanding. Vietnam was terrible, with an even worse loss of life to the Vietnamese that to the Americans, but it seems to me that the most important objective in the 1960s was to avoid a third world war or a war fought with weapons of mass destruction. That objective was accomplished in the 1960s and for the whole of the Cold War. History changes as historians discover more facts and choose different facts to emphasize in their histories. Perhaps at some future date McNamara's service as Secretary of Defense will be reinterpreted. Indeed, perhaps his service as President of the World Bank will be given more importance.

McNamara is reported to have had enormous energy and an unequalled ability to obtain, organize and recall information, but in retrospect said that he had not understood Asia nor Vietnam adequately. It has been said that he failed to obtain and listen to dissenting views adequately. Perhaps one of his failings was in in the choice of the information to which to attend.

Still, it seems like a lot of lesser men criticizing a very competant man for what in retrospect appear to have been failings in his policy.