Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Beware scientific fundamentalism"

David Dickson has an editorial in SciDev.Net on the occasion of the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists, which takes place in London this week. He makes the important point that not only are science writers supposed to convey the news of scientific discoveries and their implications in clear, understandable ways matched to their audiences capabilities and interests, but they should keep from treating the writings of scientists as if they were sacred texts. Science writers should help the public understand when results are tentative, when interpretations exceed the limits of credibility, and when scientists are acting as citizens rather than as expert witnesses.

I would add to his useful discussion, that we depend on science writers to tell us when outside political or economic processes are interfering with science, and when our society is failing to provide scientific institutions the resources that are appropriate to their needs and our aspirations.

Culture and Development

I was looking at the report of the World Commission on Culture and Development "Our Creative Diversity" (1998) and at a review of that report. Here are a couple of quotes from the report:
Development divorced from its human terms is growth without soul. Economic development in its full flowering is part of a people’s culture. This is not a view commonly held.
the argument advanced in this Report is that development embraces not only access to goods and services, but also the opportunity to choose a full, satisfying, valued way of living together, the flourishing of human existence as a whole.
The report recognizes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as establishing that there are absolute criteria for development in the sense that any culture should seek to honor certain widely recognized human rights. (There have been cultures in the past that would have seen improving their ability to enslave people from other cultures as a development objective, but the world will no longer accept such a cultural aspiration as valid.)

The report recognizes that cultures change, and that an important stimulus for change is contact among cultures. A friend of mine, Bob Textor, pointed out that what we think of as the core values of our culture may change over time, raising the question of whether the current values of a culture should limit its developments in ways that culture's future peoples would find unacceptable.

The issue of how to deal with culture and cultural change in development is conceptually difficult. There are some simple things one can do to allow the people within a culture to choose while encouraging cultural changes that will achieve what are likely to be common objectives. People like for their kids to be healthy and to survive, and one can provide information showing how some cultural changes will promote health and survival, and do so in a discussion trying to find culturally acceptable changes in culture.

Cultural diversity itself has intrinsic value, but I see that as a lesser value. It is nice to have a variety of styles of food or music to choose from but I would not see people die in excess numbers to provide me those pleasures. So too, respect for other cultures is a value I hold, but that respect does not extend to people who kill their own children for reasons deemed valuable and appropriate within their own cultures.

So how does an outsider help a culture to develop in ways that satisfice its own values while achieving changes that satisfice the outsider's desire to reduce what have been termed "the worst aspects of poverty"? Perhaps we ignore the question too often,

Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: The Hidden War

I just read The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan by Artyom Borovik.

The Bush administration should have read this as it worked through the Afghan policy. The Russians thought that they could keep a friendly government in power in Kabul, and could develop the country. Everyone that arrived in country thought it just needed more time, more troops, etc. Borovik points out that a lot of the people fighting the Russians and the government troops were not "insurgents" of the organized opposition but simply tribal people who wanted to be left to run their own affairs and would fight anyone who sought to interfere in those affairs.

It appears that no one really knows what happened when the Russians went to war in Afghanistan, nor why it seemed a good idea to Russian leadership at the time.

Certainly one can feel for the Russian soldiers who were trying to do their duty to their country in difficult circumstances. Most of them had no idea of what they would be in for when they first went to Afghanistan. The book exposes the corruption that was rampant in the Russian military in the 1980s, and the cover up of atrocities committed by the worst of the troops.

Borovik writes with telling detail about life of the Russian soldier in the Afghanistan campaign, and selects the most telling from what must have been huge numbers of interviews. Of course, the selection process itself, while necessary to any author, introduces a selection bias that interferes with the reader's understanding of the war.

This book does not tell the macrohistory of the war -- its causes, battles, casualties, and impact. It focuses on the microhistory -- life in the APCs and advanced observation posts. The two views are complementary.

I suspect that the American soldiers in Afghanistan now would have related more easily to their Russian counterparts than to the Afghans that both thought they were protecting and helping. That was not a conclusion I was expecting.

The Oldest Town in the Americas

The Ruins of Caral at Sunset

Caral made headlines in 2001 when researchers carbon-dated material from the city back to 2627 B.C. It is making headlines again as it has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site:
The 5000-year-old 626-hectare archaeological site of The Sacred City of Caral-Supe is situated on a dry desert terrace overlooking the green valley of the Supe river. It dates back to the Late Archaic Period of the Central Andes and is the oldest centre of civilization in the Americas. Exceptionally well-preserved, the site is impressive in terms of its design and the complexity of its architectural, especially its monumental stone and earthen platform mounts and sunken circular courts. One of 18 urban settlements situated in the same area, Caral features complex and monumental architecture, including six large pyramidal structures. A quipu (the knot system used in Andean civilizations to record information) found on the site testifies to the development and complexity of Caral society. The city’s plan and some of its components, including pyramidal structures and residence of the elite, show clear evidence of ceremonial functions, signifying a powerful religious ideology.
According to MSNBC:
The ruins changed history when researchers proved that a complex urban center in the Americas thrived as a contemporary to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt - 1,500 years earlier than previously believed.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"U.S. and Russia Differ on a Treaty for Cyberspace"

Source: JOHN MARKOFF and ANDREW E. KRAMER, The New York Times, June 27, 2009.

The Department of Defense is fielding 50.000 attacks on its information systems a day. It is creating a cybersecurity command to improve our defenses against cyber attack.
)A)fter a Navy P-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane......(there was) a huge increase in attacks on United States government computer targets from sources that could not be identified,
There were computer attacks in Estonia in April 2007 and in the nation of Georgia last August.

Both Russia and the United States agree something should be done about the situation, but they disagree on what that is.
Russia favors an international treaty along the lines of those negotiated for chemical weapons and has pushed for that approach at a series of meetings this year and in public statements by a high-ranking official.

The United States argues that a treaty is unnecessary. It instead advocates improved cooperation among international law enforcement groups. If these groups cooperate to make cyberspace more secure against criminal intrusions, their work will also make cyberspace more secure against military campaigns, American officials say.
The article does say that the United States is a signatory to "the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime, which took effect in 2004."
American officials are particularly resistant to agreements that would allow governments to censor the Internet, saying they would provide cover for totalitarian regimes.
Comment: This seems very complicated. I suppose all countries oppose cybercrime including criminal attacks via the Internet on computers.

However, if two countries choose to go to war it seems obvious that they will attack each others information infrastructures. I suspect that neither Russia nor the United States would want to deprive themselves of the ability to make some limited attacks. Disrupting an enemies battleground communications seems a prototypical power that military leaders would be unwilling to give up. On the other hand, who would approve of disrupting the information infrastructure in homeland children's hospitals?

There is a long history of national governments empowering privateers to attack enemy property and in capitalist countries, cyberwarfare would be likely to depend on contracted services from the private sector. Even if one were to find a way to ban the use of privateers to carry out cyberattacks, how would one enforce a treaty that required a government to track down and prosecute individual "patriots" who conducted cyberattacks on an enemy state.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Review of the Status of Stem Cell Research

Source: Clive Cookson, The Financial Times, June 24 2009.

The discovery of stem cells only occurred ten years ago, but there are huge, probably excessive expectations of their medical importance and the speed with which stem cell therapies will enter clinical practice.

The Bush administration crippled embryonic stem cell research, but several years ago researchers discovered means to turn the stem cells of adults into a pluripotent form. Research is under way now to discover whether these induced pluripotent stem cells are true equivaltents of embryonic stem cells, or if not in which ways they differ.

The Obama administration has complied with a campaign promise and reduced restrictions on government funding of embryonic stem cell funding, but this article holds that states that have established embryonic stem cell research funding initiatives should continue to fund stem cell research since the new administration still has some restrictions.

Interestingly, much of the current research funding has been generated in response to advocacy groups and focuses on the public service aspect of stem cell research, although the pharmaceutical industry is now entering the field with profits in mind.

The first human clinical trials are about to be authorized in the United States. However. although the article does not say so, some hospitals in other countries are already offering (unproven) stem cell therapies.

Other approaches will be forthcoming, including drugs intended to increase the effectiveness of the patient's own stem cells in combating disease and disability.

The 2009 World Conference on Higher Education.

According to UNESCO:
There were 152.5 million tertiary students worldwide in 2007, a roughly 50% increase compared to 2000......

Globally, the percentage of university-aged young people enrolled in tertiary education increased from 19% in 2000 to 26% in 2007. Women now account for a slight majority of students and their predominance is expected to increase.

Yet the average rate masks stark regional differences. Participation was 71% in North America and Western Europe, 26% in the East Asia/Pacific region, 23% in the Arab States, 11% in South and West Asia and, despite rapid growth, only 6% in Africa. A child in sub-Saharan Africa today still has less chance of reaching the end of primary school than a European has of entering university.
It is against this backdrop that UNESCO will hold the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education in Paris, France from 5 to 8 July.

After the first World Conference on Higher Education was held in 1999, UNESCO created the Global University Network for Innovation, composed of UNESCO Chairs in Higher Education, research centers, universities, networks and other institutions highly committed to innovation in higher education. More than 100 institutions from around the world are GUNI members. The GUNI website is a good source for information on the global system of higher education.

It is time to reassert US leadership attracting foreign students

According to UNESCO:

More than 2.8 million students elected to study outside their own country in 2007. The largest number came from China (421,100), India (153,300), and the Republic of Korea (105,300). Their main destinations were the United States (595,900), the United Kingdom (351,500), and France (246,600).
The population of the United States is about 306 million. The populations of the United Kingdom and France are respectively about 60.8 million and 63.5 million. Thus the United Kingdom and France, with a joint population about 40 percent that of the United States, together attract more foreign students than does the United States.

Of course the former colonial powers have long established educational ties with their former colonies, but the United States is generally considered to have most of the world's greatest universities. The Bush administration's visa policies not only reduced the rate of increase of foreign enrollments in the United States, but actually made the enrollments decrease for a few years.

Now is the time to reassert the United States as the best place for students to seek international educational opportunities. The short term earnings from these students are nice, but the long term economic and political benefits of the ties they form are priceless!

Prizes as Incentives for Public-Private Partnerships

Tom Kalil has posted a note on the White House Blog saying that The Open Government Initiative is interested in exploring how the government might partner with foundations, non-profits, philanthropists, and the private sector to support additional high-impact prizes. He writes:
In recent years, there has been a renaissance in "incentive prizes" – which reward contestants for achieving a specific future goal.

The Ansari X Prize, for example, provided a purse of $10 million for the first team to fly a privately built spaceship to 100 kilometers twice in one week, and the X Prize Foundation has launched prize competitions for lunar landers, super-efficient cars, and a device that can sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. The Sunlight Foundation launched a Data.Gov Challenge with a prize purse to the creators of the most compelling applications that provide easy access to and understanding of government data. Government agencies such as DARPA, NASA, and the Department of Energy are backing prizes in unmanned ground vehicles, high-efficiency lighting, and green aviation. A broader range of prizes (and different goals and models for incentive prizes) are described in a recent report by McKinsey.
Under some circumstances, prizes have a number of advantages over traditional grants and contracts, and can allow the government to:
· Only pay for results.
· Establish a bold and important goal without having to choose the path or the team that is most likely to succeed.
· Attract new entrants such as small entrepreneurial firms.
· Stimulate private sector investment that is larger than the size of the purse.
· Capture the public imagination and change the public’s perception of what is possible.

· Attract new entrants such as small entrepreneurial firms.

· Stimulate private sector investment that is larger than the size of the purse.

· Capture the public imagination and change the public’s perception of what is possible.
Comment: Great idea Tom! JAD

Friday, June 26, 2009

The President Dunks His Senior Staff

Kerry Ann Jones to Assistant Secretary of State for OES

President Barack Obama has announced his intent to nominate Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones for Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs in the Department of State.

Kerri-Ann is currently an independent consultant. She has served previously as the Director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of International Science and Engineering. Dr. Jones has also served as Acting Director and Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP). Prior to joining OSTP, Dr. Jones worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where her work focused on science and technology development activities. She served in New Delhi, India as the biotechnology advisor to the USAID mission. Dr. Jones began her government career as a Science, Engineering, and Diplomacy fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and a B.A. in Chemistry from Barnard College.

This is a great appointment. I have know Kerry Ann since she applied for the AAAS Fellowship program and have had the pleasure of working with her on a couple of occasions. She is a consumate professional, broadly experienced, who brings a great background to an important post. Recall that areas such as the Law of the Seas Convention, Climate Change, and science and technology for development will fall under her responsibility when she is confirmed for the post. It will be great to have someone in place who understands science and the use of scientific advisory bodies in that position, as well as who understands diplomacy and the range of international systems problems.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why Americans Learn Less in Schools

The Economist explains something fundamental about American education:
American children have it easier than most other children in the world, including the supposedly lazy Europeans. They have one of the shortest school years anywhere, a mere 180 days compared with an average of 195 for OECD countries and more than 200 for East Asian countries. German children spend 20 more days in school than American ones, and South Koreans over a month more. Over 12 years, a 15-day deficit means American children lose out on 180 days of school, equivalent to an entire year.

American children also have one of the shortest school days, six-and-a-half hours, adding up to 32 hours a week. By contrast, the school week is 37 hours in Luxembourg, 44 in Belgium, 53 in Denmark and 60 in Sweden. On top of that, American children do only about an hour’s-worth of homework a day, a figure that stuns the Japanese and Chinese.

"Growth After the Crisis"

Dani Rodrik, Harvard Kennedy School, May 12, 2009.

Abstract: "How hospitable will the global environment be for economic growth in the developing world as we come out of the present financial crisis? The answer depends on how well we manage the following tension. On the one hand, global macro stability requires that we prevent external imbalances from getting too large. On the other hand, growth in poor nations requires that the world economy be able to absorb a rapid increase in the supply of tradables produced in the developing world. It is possible to render these two requirements compatible, but doing so requires greater use of explicit industrial policies in developing countries, which have the potential of encouraging of modern tradable activities without spilling over into trade surpluses. The “price” to be paid for greater discipline on real-exchange rates and external imbalances is greater use (and permissiveness) towards industrial polices."

The Economist has an article taking off from Rodrik's paper which states:
Countries grow by shifting labour and investment from traditional activities, where productivity is stagnant, to new industries, which abound in economies of scale or opportunities to assimilate better techniques. These new industries usually make exportable goods, such as cotton textiles or toys. But whatever the fetishists believe, there is nothing special about the act of exporting per se, Mr Rodrik argues. For example, companies do not need to venture abroad to feel the bracing sting of international competition. If their products can be traded across borders, then foreign rivals can compete with them at home.

As countries industrialise and diversify, their exports grow, which sometimes results in a trade surplus. These three things tend to go together. But in a statistical “horse race” between the three—industrialisation, exports and exports minus imports—Mr Rodrik finds that it is the growth of tradable, industrial goods, as a share of GDP, that does most of the work.
Comment: Dani Rodrik is a very good economist, and I read this to suggest that rather than "export promotion" (which replaced "import substitution") he is calling for a science, technology and innovation policy for development. JAD

Technologically Enhanced Thiinking

Jamais Cascio has an article in the current Atlantic magazine suggesting that while the problems facing man are complex and getting more so, technological enhancement of our thinking ability may help us to think our way out of danger. I was especially impressed by his discussion of the pharmacological tools becoming available to enhance thinking. For example, he writes:
One of the most prominent examples is a drug called modafinil. Developed in the 1970s, modafinil—sold in the U.S. under the brand name Provigil—appeared on the cultural radar in the late 1990s, when the American military began to test it for long-haul pilots. Extended use of modafinil can keep a person awake and alert for well over 32 hours on end, with only a full night’s sleep required to get back to a normal schedule.

While it is FDA-approved only for a few sleep disorders, like narcolepsy and sleep apnea, doctors increasingly prescribe it to those suffering from depression, to “shift workers” fighting fatigue, and to frequent business travelers dealing with time-zone shifts. I’m part of the latter group: like more and more professionals, I have a prescription for modafinil in order to help me overcome jet lag when I travel internationally. When I started taking the drug, I expected it to keep me awake; I didn’t expect it to make me feel smarter, but that’s exactly what happened. The change was subtle but clear, once I recognized it: within an hour of taking a standard 200-mg tablet, I was much more alert, and thinking with considerably more clarity and focus than usual. This isn’t just a subjective conclusion. A University of Cambridge study, published in 2003, concluded that modafinil confers a measurable cognitive-enhancement effect across a variety of mental tasks, including pattern recognition and spatial planning, and sharpens focus and alertness.
Comment: I would note that there are also important social inventions which are still diffusing through global society and other social inventions will no doubt come about. Think of the importance of modern science, the modern university and the think tank as social inventions that are helping us to think better.

Homo sapiens is a social species, and there is a growing body of data which shows we make better decisions in group processes than alone -- a phenomenon that was known to the creators of the jury system and parliamentary democracy. But the group decision process can be improved by further study and invention. JAD

"The Science of Bubbles & Busts"

There is an interesting article in the current Scientific American indicates not only that behavioral economics are informing the classical model that was limited to "economic man" and "perfect markets", but that leaders in the field populate the Obama White House as they did earlier the Obama campaign.


The present economic crises do not, I would argue, call for a "new capitalism," but they do demand a new understanding of older ideas, such as those of Smith and, nearer our time, of Pigou, many of which have been sadly neglected. What is also needed is a clearheaded perception of how different institutions actually work, and of how a variety of organizations—from the market to the institutions of the state—can go beyond short-term solutions and contribute to producing a more decent economic world.
Amartya Sen
"Capitalism Beyond the Crisis"
The New York Review of Books

Chiropractic Practice Challenged in Britain

There seems to be an interesting attempt to challenge the validity of chiropractic treatments for a number of conditions in the United Kingdom. The Cochrane Collaboration is the gold standard on issues of efficacy, containing updated meta-analyses of the evidence supporting individual medical treatments. I found this quote from a Cochrane review:
"There was weak evidence to support the use of hypnosis, psychotherapy, acupuncture and chiropractic but it was provided in each case by single small trials, some of dubious methodological rigour."
Apparently the British Chiropractic Association sued science writer Simon Singh for libel. The British libel laws are very strong and very protective of persons attacked in the press. According to The Guardian:
In an article in the Guardian last year he (Singh) criticised the BCA for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described the treatments as "bogus" and based on insufficient evidence, and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them.
The British have an authority to regulate claims in advertising, and it has since the Singh case issued new guidance on chiropractic advertising. Moreover, apparently a number of people outraged by the suit against Singh have started to carefully review the adds and other information given out by chiropractors with the view of bringing them to account for unjustified claims. Now another association has urged its chiropractor members to clean up their websites, and the BCA has published a list of clinical research studies.

I find this an interesting case of an active public, with the assistance of the govenment and the professional community, demanding valid information on the expected outcomes of medical interventions.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tips on searching for a job in international education

One of my former students asked me for tips as she seeks to find another job, with a focus on international education. Here are some of the things I mentioned:
  • Figure one month of job search for each $10K of annual salary.
  • Most jobs are filled by networking rather than answering a cold add, but cold adds sometimes work.
  • It is really hard to get either a civil service or an international civil service job,
  • If you get offered a reasonable permanent job in an agency that interests you, realize it is easier to change jobs within a bureaucracy than to get in from outside.
  • For American citizens, this is a pretty good time to get a job in USAID since the Agency is seeking a couple of thousand new hires in the next three years.
  • While UNESCO has "education" in its name, there are lots of agencies that hire in international education, including the international financial institutions of the World Bank family, Note that FAO's agriculture extension program involves education skills, as does ILO's worker training and continuing education programs, WHO's health and medical education programs, etc.
  • The international agencies offer temporary positions, contract jobs, and consultancies. These can serve as good entry points to the agencies.
  • The consulting firms and NGOs are also good bets. While they don't offer career status comparable to the civil services, they offer more job opportunities,
  • Think about fellowships, not just permanent jobs.
  • Think about the long term, not just the immediate job. Make contacts, get experience and position yourself for future jobs if you can.
  • The more education and the more experience the better. Languages too!
Any of the readers who are in the process of looking for jobs, let me wish you good fortune. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince!"

Monday, June 22, 2009

World Bank Lowers Forecast for Global Economic Recovery

The World Bank’s new analysis of the global economy paints an unprecedented picture:

global output falling by 2.9 percent and world trade by nearly 10 percent; accompanied by plummeting private capital flows, likely to decline from US$707 billion in 2008 to an anticipated US$363 billion in 2009.
As the world enters what appears to be an era of markedly slower economic growth, the Bank’s annual Global Development Finance report, updates the outlook for the global economy, and explores the broad approach that will be necessary to chart a worldwide recovery.
“Extraordinary measures by governments around the world have helped save the global financial system from complete collapse, but the economic recession in the real sectors persists,”
said the Bank’s Chief Economist and Senior Vice President Justin Lin. Lin emphasized the key role that developing countries can play in the global recovery, as well as the grave development emergency posed by the impact of the crisis on poor countries. Read more

Global Trends in Governance

This graph is from the Polity IV Project: Political Regime Characteristics and Transitions: 1800-2007 (George Mason University)

Selecting a New Director General for UNESCO

The member nations are in the process of electing a new Director General for UNESCO. The Director General's term of office is four years, and the DG may be reelected once. Thus a successful DG may be expected to serve eight years.

A Long Term Historical Perspective

UNESCO's mission as I see it is to mobilize the intellectual communities of the world to promote peace, cultural understanding, education, science, and communications. By its very nature, UNESCO must take a very long term view. In that view, now (as always) is a divide between the past and the future.

A century ago the European nations dominated the world, unsuspecting that two world wars and a great depression were about to decimate their homelands and lead to the decolonization of their overseas empires. The last century saw an increase of life expectancy of several years per decade, a huge growth in world population, a radical increase in schooling, and a technological revolution, especially in information and communication technologies.

We don't know what will come in the next century, but it seems obvious that there will be major challenges. It is UNESCO's job to mobilize the global intellectual community to meet the coming challenges.

The Challenges of the Next Decade

There are a number of challenges for UNESCO that are clear for the coming decade.

Education: The Education for All campaign and the Millennium Development Goals have produced great progress in education, but will not achieve their stated objectives by 2015. UNESCO should play a major role in promoting continued educational progress, but also in defining new goals for future decades. As the global community defines its new goals over the next six years it is especially important that UNESCO's Director General provides credible leadership.

Science: UNESCO should provide critically important leadership in catalyzing global networks of environmental scientists as the global community mobilizes to meet increasing environmental challenges from climate change, desertification, deforestation, degradation of coastal zones, depletions of fisheries, and depletion of non-renewable resources. Again, the Director General should provide credible leadership.

Culture: There is a critical and immediate need to improve cultural understanding among peoples. While this need is most recognized in terms of Christian, Muslim and Jewish peoples, there are many other places where cultural diversity currently leads to conflict, often armed conflict. UNESCO's leadership in promoting a culture of peace, respect for cultural diversity, and cultural understanding remain central to the Organization's purpose, and require strong leadership from a credible Director General.

Communications and Information: The Information Revoluation is transforming global society, but the digital divide between rich and poor creates great problems. UNESCO's mission to assure freedom of information is increasing in importance, and UNESCO's leadership is sorely needed to mobilize the global intellectual community to assure that the benefits of the Information Revolution are fully realized and widely shared.

Poverty: Poverty is the most pressing global problem, and it is increasingly recognized that it is in knowledge and technology that the solution to poverty must be sought. Again, UNESCO should play a global leadership role, and tits Director General should provide a strong and credible voice promoting the creation and dissemination of knowledge to fight poverty.

Choosing a New Director General

UNESCO is a large and complex organization, with a budget of more than $500 million per year, thousands of employees, and offices in 58 countries so that the Director General must be capable of managing such an organization. However, such a description masks an important aspect of the Organization. UNESCO has the authority and power to convene global leaders and to create functioning global networks in its fields of competence. The influence of the Organization extends far beyond its formal organizational structure, and so too must the influence of its Director General.

The task of UNESCO's electors is to choose the nominee who can best lead and speak for the Organization as it faces the challenges outlined above. The danger is that the election will devolve into politics as usual. UNESCO needs not the person whose backers can mobilize the most support among member nations by the traditional tools of diplomacy, but rather the person who combines the knowledge, experience, and charisma to do the best job.

Support the Iranian People

I have changed the address on my Twitter account to Teheran to help confound efforts to block Iranians using the site to organize protests against the election.

I fully support the Obama decision not to have the U.S. government comment on the election, both because I don't think the U.S. government is likely to have good information on the election and because I don't think any comment from the U.S. government would be useful at this time.

I also fully support the Obama statement that peaceful demonstrations should not be met with government violence nor forceful repression.

On the other hand, as an individual I can not but believe that millions of people do not go out on the streets and put themselves in danger to protest without strong cause.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index 2008

A thought on choosing leaders of intergovernmental organizations

An AP reporter asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I thought the process for election of a new Director General for UNESCO should be scrapped and replaced by a new and better one. (I have been watching that process rather obsessively while posting news on the UNESCO's Friends group on LinkedIn.)

I replied that I feared that the idea was simply impractical. The current process of choosing leaders for intergovernmental organizations is fully in the hands of the international diplomatic community, and is intensely political. There are informal agreements that specific countries have the right to choose the heads of some organizations or that the directorships would revolve among the regions of the world. There are trade-offs with governments supporting each others candidates in parallel elections. Unfortunately, in the process the idea of selecting the best man or woman for the job seems often to get lost.

The process differs according to the governance of the organization involved. Some organizations work on one-country one vote, others on the basis of votes proportional to the economic contributions to the organizations, and for programs of the United Nations, the heads are generally appointed. While the processes differ, all seem to be infused by politics. There are clear examples of the process gone wrong.

If you are interested, check:
Think of the process for selection of senior officials for the U.S. Government. Relatively long lists of candidates for jobs are created, combining both unsolicited applications and nominations by a variety of influential persons. Then there are serious background investigations. Input is solicited from trusted intermediaries who know both the short list candidates and the job. Interviews are conducted. Finally, a person is selected by the executive branch and nominated for the job. Then the legislative branch provides checks and balances for the process, conducting its own investigation, interviews, and voting on whether to confirm the nomination.

For the UNESCO election to be held this fall, there are nine candidates, each nominated by one or more member nations of the Organization. A few have websites and others have online formal biographies, but the information on these sites is highly selective, designed to make the candidate look good. The Internet provides a means for obtaining more information from the press coverage of the candidates previous careers and there is also information on some from the blogosphere and social networking sites. It would seem, however, that some organization such as Transparency International or the OECD might perform a great service by doing full field investigations of the "short list" candidates for heads of the intergovernmental agencies.

UNESCO is exceptional in that at its creation the Organization's Constitution called for member nations to create National Commissions which were to involve representatives from the educational, scientific and cultural communities to participate in the governance of UNESCO. From my observation this system continues to work in some countries, but in many more countries decisions about UNESCO are left to the foreign policy establishment, an establishment that is less than imbued with enthusiasm for education, science and culture.

The intellectual communities would presumably focus on the intellectual qualifications of candidates to manage UNESCO's services to global education, science and culture. However, without better sources of information it is not clear how they could promote support for the best candidates from their national delegations to the Executive Council and General Conference where the Director General will be elected.

In short, I don't see the foreign policy establishment willingly sharing the power to name leaders for the intergovernmental organizations. On the other hand, the key constituencies for the organizations can probably elbow into the process. To do so well, however, there needs to be better information on the candidates available and organized for the relevant constituent communities.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Information Revolution and the Iranian Demonstrations -- a thought

There has been a lot of publicity noting that Iran is heavily "wired", with large numbers blogging and tweeting. Dishes receiving satellite TV broadcast are ubiquitous. Cell phones have multiplied there as everywhere and the network of personal phones is ubiquitous. Pundits have suggested that the huge demonstrations that have been occurring since the election would not have been possible without this infrastructure, not to mention that we would be unaware of the tumult in Iran without the information being sent out of Iran by regular citizens via the global information infrastructure.

What would you bet that the forces of conservatism are also "wired", that they are watching events via the information infrastructure, that they are burning up the wires and airwaves discussing what to do. If the decision is to use military force to stop the demonstrations, the military will no doubt utilize information and communication technology in all aspects of its preparations and actions.

What would you bet that the U.S., Israeli and other intelligence agencies are picking up huge amounts of traffic on the events, and are using lots of very high technology to observe and analyze what is happening.

If the 21st century technology is enabling the forces of opposition to mobilize and protest the elections, then too it is 21st century technology that may be used to suppress the movement.

I have in the past suggested that technology is a double edged sword, and that whether it will be used to enhance or suppress democratic processes is unclear, likely to depend on other circumstances in which it is applied. I still say so!

"Hunger Threat Widens, Deepens In Horn Of Africa"

According to the World Food Program:
Millions of people in the Horn of Africa face a deadly mix of persistent drought, poor seasonal rains, conflict and stubbornly high food costs. At the same time, the global financial crisis is threatening to exacerbate levels of hunger and desperation across the region.

Academies, Other Organizations Urge Streamlining of Visa Process

The presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine today joined other scientific and educational organizations in issuing a statement urging federal agencies to streamline visa processing for scholars and scientists visiting the U.S.

Science Academies Urge Faster Response to Climate Change

In a joint statement, the science academies of the G8 countries, plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa, called on their leaders to "seize all opportunities" to address global climate change that "is happening even faster than previously estimated." The statement urged nations at the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks to adopt goals aimed at reducing global emissions by 50 percent by 2050. The academies also urged the G8+5 governments, meeting in Italy next month, to "lead the transition to an energy efficient and low carbon economy, and foster innovation and research and development for both mitigation and adaptation technologies."

Read the G8+5 Statement

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quotation: Development

Definition of development:
“the enhancement of freedoms that allow people to lead lives that they have reason to value.”

Amartya Sen

Obama: Helping to Build a Knowledge Society in Muslim Lands

Sid Passman brought this passage from President Obama's speech in Cairo to my attention:
I know that for many, the face of globalization is contradictory. The Internet and television can bring knowledge and information, but also offensive sexuality and mindless violence into the home. Trade can bring new wealth and opportunities, but also huge disruptions and change in communities. In all nations -- including America -- this change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we lose control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities -- those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith.

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education......

On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America. (Applause.) At the same time, we will encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities. And we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in online learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.

On economic development, we will create a new corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries. And I will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. We'll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops. Today I'm announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.
This is a very positive aspect of a very good and very important speech!

Ranking Web of World Universities

The ranking of Colleges and Universities and Open Access Initiatives is published twice a year (January and July) including more than 16,000 Higher Education Institutions worldwide listed in the Directory.

The "Webometrics Ranking of World Universities" is an initiative of the Cybermetrics Lab, a research group belonging to the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), the largest public research body in Spain.

All of the 25 top rated universities are in the United States!

I attended the following universities in order of attendance:
  • UCLA (ranked 18th in the world)
  • UC Berkeley (4)
  • Michigan State (Peace Corps training) (23)
  • UC Irvine (57)

I have taught at the following universities in temporal order:
  • UCLA (18)
  • UC Berkeley (4)
  • Universidad Santa Maria (Chile) (1179, 45 in Latin America)
  • Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso (Chile) (1504, 70 in Latin America)
  • UC Irvine (57)
  • Universidad del Valle (Colombia) (865, 31 in Latin America)
  • University of Maryland (19)
  • George Washington University (198)

As you can see, I have spent a lot of time in universities. I seem to have lucked out in spending time in the better universities in their regions.

"The Success of Development: Innovation, Ideas and the Global Standard of Living"

Many people are depressed about the state of global development, and especially about the failures of development in Africa. The per capita GDP of rich countries has diverged more and more from that of poor nations and it has become clear that it is hard to raise economic growth rates. However, there is good news: the Malthusian trap of population exceeding carrying capacity seems to have been avoided globally, and health and education status are improving faster than income. This work holds that the drivers of successful development are innovation, ideas and institutions.

This is a draft book that the author, Charles Kenny, is putting online until August 1st (2009) in the hope that some people will read it and provide comments and suggestions for improvement.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Global Income Distribution and Convergence 1800-2000"

By Péter Földvári and Jan Luiten van Zanden

Can the development of the world economy – the growth of global GDP and the increase in global inequality – in the period from 1820 to the present be understood as the result of the spread of one fundamental ‘innovation’, the Industrial Revolution? This paper uses the Maddison (2003) dataset to test a model presented by Lucas (2000) arguing this point. We try to establish how the ‘convergence club’ evolves over time (which countries become a member, when and why), and if the development of global growth and inequality can be explained by the model. We find that the model does to a large extent explain the stylized facts, but does not take into account 1/ that countries can also leave the convergence club (which occurs on a relatively large scale after 1973) and 2/ inequality between non-members of the convergence club (which explains a large part of global inequality). We argue that such an interpretation of the process of divergence and convergence in the world economy has important implications for the analysis of the causes of these processes.
The idea seems quite intuitive. With the industrial revolution, some countries started to rapidly increase GDP. Some countries made the leap to join the front runners as the Industrial Revolution diffused around the world. In recent years, more and more countries joined the Industrial Revolution, but some that were on track to do so lost the path. I suspect that war and poor governance make a lot of the reason that counries fall off the track. It is less obvious what the conditions are to join -- probably a combination of geography, human resources, and institutions,

The Geography of Economic Production

Source: Gallup, Sachs and Mellinger via "The distribution of world income," James Hamilton, Econbrowser,January 13, 2007.

The graph was calculated from GDP per capita multiplied by population density. Some of what it shows corresponds well with our intuition -- Western Europe and the norht-eastern part of the United States are centers of production. Less intuitive to me is the intensity of economic production on the China coast and the Indian piedmont.

The importance of access to the sea stands out, doesn't it!

I suppose all of us who try to tamper with this distribution (development professionals) should be forced to look at this map often. Too bad it uses a projection that does not maintain area, but rather enlarges lands far from the equator.

The Evolution of the Global GDP

Source: Lloyd Sakazaki, "Investing in China: Rapid GDP Growth Rates Indicate Prosperous Future," Seeking Alpha, November 30, 2006.

1950 A.D.-present: Western Europe and its "offshoot" [Maddison's terminology] U.S. economy represented about 54% of the world's GDP in 1950, but this combined percentage has fallen over the past few decades to about 40%, where it sits today. Following on the coattails of Japan's economic growth spurt in the post-World War II years between 1950 and 1990, China [and India, though at a more moderate pace] has begun to rise again. Through accelerated growth, China's economy has gone from representing just 4% to 5% of the world's GDP in the decades [1949-1976] of Chairman Mao's rule, to more than 15% today.
The gap in the data between the start of World War I and the end of World War II indicates that these trends are not always stabile. Still, the trends suggest that the domination of the world economy by the United States and Western Europe may soon be more widely shared.

Oceans: Much more than “fish and ships”

The oceans are suffering. The main source of food for two billion people, a key element in climate control and a largely untapped reserve of vital resources, they deserve to be managed better. This is why the United Nations has decided to celebrate the first ever World Ocean Day on the 8th of June.

Sorry for the late posting.

June 17th -- World Day to Combat Desertification

The World Day to Combat Desertification is observed every year on 17 June. This year, the Day's theme is
"Conserving land and water = Securing our common future"

"Social Networks Spread Iranian Defiance Online"

A young man climbs "Freedom Tower"
in Azadi Square in Tehran.
Uncredited photo via The Huffington Post

Source: BRAD STONE and NOAM COHEN, The New York Times, June 15, 2009.

"As the embattled government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be trying to limit Internet access and communications in Iran, new kinds of social media are challenging those traditional levers of state media control and allowing Iranians to find novel ways around the restrictions.

"Iranians are blogging, posting to Facebook and, most visibly, coordinating their protests on Twitter, the messaging service. Their activity has increased, not decreased, since the presidential election on Friday and ensuing attempts by the government to restrict or censor their online communications."

Too bad Twitter chose last night to go down for maintenance. The Huffington Post has provided a Tweet aggregator for Iran, which I hope will come back online.

Monday, June 15, 2009

"Wall Street’s Toxic Message"

Joseph Stiglitz has an article in Vanity Fair with the following summary:
When the current crisis is over, the reputation of American-style capitalism will have taken a beating—not least because of the gap between what Washington practices and what it preaches. Disillusioned developing nations may well turn their backs on the free market, warns Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, posing new threats to global stability and U.S. security.
In the article he writes:
In many parts of the world, global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank came to be seen as instruments of post-colonial control. These institutions pushed market fundamentalism (“neoliberalism,” it was often called), a notion idealized by Americans as “free and unfettered markets.” They pressed for financial-sector deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization.

Not surprisingly, people in developing countries became less and less convinced that Western help was motivated by altruism. They suspected that the free-market rhetoric—“the Washington consensus,” as it is known in shorthand—was just a cover for the old commercial interests.
I continue to be surprised by Prof. Stiglitz' condemnation of the World Bank policies, since he was once the Chief Economist of that institution.

The article suggests, as I understand it, that the best economy is a properly regulated free market economy, with the private sector and the government in balance, each playing its appropriate role. Stiglitz hopes that the disillusionment with American economic problems will not cause other countries to reject market economies.

It seems silly for me to take on a great economist, but I do wonder about this position. The United States and other countries greatly revised their economic institutions to deal with the great depression and its causes, and are likely to revise those institutions again as a result of the current crisis. Moreover, there are many differences in the economic institutions of different developed nations, such as the the degree to which government centralizes health and education services and the extent of the social safety net. It seems to me that countries are continually evolving and adjusting their economic institutions. While all dresses are dresses, there is a huge variety among them; while all free market economies are free market economies, so too there can be variety among them.

I wonder, incidentally, how good a job we are doing in identifying the problems that led to the current crisis. Ex post facto explanations in so complex a system as the global economy seem prone to many errors.

Thanks Emily for pointing out the article to me!

UNESCO SHS Editorial

Here is the abstract of an editorial by Sami Mahroum and Paul de Guchteneire:
It is increasingly recognised that diasporas, and diaspora knowledge networks in particular, may contribute to the benefits of the migration process: in receiving countries by providing valuable international linkages that bring new ideas and skills, in migrant source countries by strengthening ties with their emigrants abroad, and last but not least, to the migrants themselves, by giving them a platform for exchange of experiences and valuable contacts for their professional and private lives.

Traditionally, the relationship between geography, science, technology and innovation(used here broadly to describe all activities relating to scientific and techno-economic change) has been dominated by the concept of “national innovation systems” (NIS) developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Freeman 1988; Lundvall 1992; Nelson 1993). The NIS concept was then extended by Michael Porter (1995) to apply on a regional scale (cluster theory). The NIS approach does not give enough consideration to the role that transnational forces play in shaping and transforming local innovation environments, particularly through the factor of human mobility. In a world that is increasingly witnessing the emergence of transnational communities with extended international networks, a growing body of research on international knowledge networks (IKN)or diaspora knowledge networks (DKN) is providing more insight into the structures and processes of the agents of change that are increasingly shaping many regions around the world. IKN is defined as “a system of coordinated research, study, results dissemination and publication, intellectual exchange, and financing across national boundaries” (Parmar 2002: 13). The actors in such networks may incorporate professional bodies, academic research groups and scientific communities that organise around a special subject matter or issue. The primary motivation of such networks is to create and advance knowledge as well as to share, spread and, in some cases, use that knowledge to inform policy and apply to practice (Stone 2003).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

From the Overview of the World Development Report 2009 -- Without Comment

"Place is the most important correlate of a person’s welfare. In the next few decades, a person born in the United States will earn a hundred times more than a Zambian, and live three decades longer. Behind these national averages are numbers even more unsettling. Unless things change radically, a child born in a village far from Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, will live less than half as long as a child born in New York City—and during that short life, will earn just $0.01 for every $2 the New Yorker earns. The New Yorker will enjoy a lifetime income of about $4.5 million, the rural Zambian less than $10,000.

"A Bolivian man with nine years of schooling earns an average of about $460 per month, in dollars that refl ect purchasing power at U.S. prices. But the same person would earn about three times as much in the United States. A Nigerian with nine years of education would earn eight times as much in the United States than in Nigeria. This “place premium” is large throughout the developing world.1 The best predictor of income in the world today is not what or whom you know, but where you work."

"Attitudes towards redistribution have a strong cultural component"

Source: The Economist, June 4th 2009.

I quote from an Economics Focus column based on the work of Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal of Harvard University:
Immigrants have typically had their formative experiences in a country with different institutions, benefit systems and attitudes from those of their adopted home. If culture matters, then their attitudes should be different from those of native citizens in similar economic circumstances and closer to those that prevail in their country of origin. Mr Luttmer and Ms Singhal analyse data from the European Social Survey, a biennial multi-country exercise, on the attitudes of over 6,000 immigrants who have moved from one of 32 countries in the survey to another and they find precisely this result.

Even after controlling for income, education and other relevant economic and social factors such as work history and age, views about redistribution in an immigrant’s home country are a strong predictor of his own opinions. Indeed, this measure of “cultural background” explains as much as income levels, and three-fifths as much as income and education combined. These results hold even for immigrants who moved 20 years before they were surveyed; they cannot be attributed to people not having had time to adjust their views.
This is an interesting study, confirming what we would all assume from the history of ethnic politics in the United States.

"How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research?"

"A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data"
Daniele Fanelli, PLoS One, May 29, 2009.

From the Abstract:
A pooled weighted average of 1.97% (N = 7, 95%CI: 0.86–4.45) of scientists admitted to have fabricated, falsified or modified data or results at least once –a serious form of misconduct by any standard– and up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices. In surveys asking about the behaviour of colleagues, admission rates were 14.12% (N = 12, 95% CI: 9.91–19.72) for falsification, and up to 72% for other questionable research practices. Meta-regression showed that self reports surveys, surveys using the words “falsification” or “fabrication”, and mailed surveys yielded lower percentages of misconduct. When these factors were controlled for, misconduct was reported more frequently by medical/pharmacological researchers than others.

Considering that these surveys ask sensitive questions and have other limitations, it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.
Comment: I would agree with Fanelli that the self reported occasions of misconduct probably under estimate the true value.

Lets think a moment about the estimate of 14% of scientists who report knowledge of falsification by at least one colleague and 72% who report knowledge of other questionable practices by at least one colleague. How do people define "colleague" in answering such a question? I would think that all scientists have read about some of the widely publicized cases of falsification by scientists, so presumably they are not defining "colleague" broadly enough to include any scientist or even any scientist working in their own field of science.

How many "colleagues" would a scientist have on the average with whom he/she was working sufficiently closely to directly observe misconduct? I would guess perhaps four or five at a given time, with some scientists who do a great deal of collaborative research at an extreme tail of the distribution. On the average, perhaps surprisingly, scientists don't spend as much as a decade doing research, so the total number of other scientists observed would be relatively modest. And of course, one does not closely observe the conduct of friends and colleagues.

I recall one fairly strong argument during my days as a researcher in which my coauthors and I debated (hotly) how to report our study, a debate that resulted in doing what I felt to be the right thing. How would one report the attitude of the colleagues seeking to present the results "in the most favorable light"?

And of course, I would be reluctant to answer such a question positively in any case. It would involve a charge against a colleague, which even in the case of anonymity is distasteful.

The level of questionable conduct may be quite high.

"The Obama Haters’ Silent Enablers"

Frank Rich wrote this Opinion Piece in todays New York Times. He focuses on a new trend among right wing pundits towards hyperbole that borders on outright fabrication and lies. Certainly there are historical precedents, and in our early history the press was villainous. With two recent right wing assassinations, there is reason to worry that words will encourage and lead to violence. I also think that democracy is advanced by a responsible journalism that seeks to present information rather than misinformation, that promotes reasoned judgment rather than emotional reaction.

By the way, so much for the success of Homeland Security in preventing deaths on American soil due to terrorism.

Thaddeus Holt and "The Deceivers"

I am listening to Thaddeus Holt discuss his book, The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. He is describing what I guess is the opposite to the topic of this blog. I am focusing on knowledge for development. He focuses on the efforts of the military to impart false knowledge to the enemy, focusing especially on World War II.

There is a "science" of that effort -- knowing what you want the decision maker to believe, knowing what you want his intelligence sources to convey to the decision maker to achieve that belief, knowing what they already believe and are disposed to believe, and having a plan to plant false leads. Moreover, one does not want to expose the real plans of your side in the process or if your process fails, and ideally one would like to leave the enemy in a state that it can be deceived again when the current deception is complete.

The military actually developed a bureaucracy to deceive, with experts in deception working at very high levels in the chain of command.

I wonder how much we can learn from the deceivers as to how to make decisions, and especially how to avoid self deception.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Final Comments on Tamerlane

My history book club met this week to discuss Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi.

Timur inherited the approach used by Ghengis Khan of building a military by splitting the tribes, and incorporated elements from his constantly enlarging empire. He kept his military busy; successful wars of conquest resulted in a flow of loot that enriched the survivors of his campaigns. He executed bureaucrats of his empire that he found wanting.

He seems to have been pragmatic, adopting religious positions to meet the political needs of the moment, while enjoying wine and a large number of wives denied the religious Muslim. He invited cities to submit, offering them the choice of ruinous donations to his treasury if they did so and retaliation of massive executions, rape, enslavement, and property destruction if they resisted and lost; those who resisted inevitably lost.

One question that came up was why Timur's empire did not last as had the Roman empire. Clearly the answer would be complicated. I would note that the question seemed to imply that a lasting empire is better than a transient one. It made me wonder whether the Tartars would have agreed, since their culture not too long previously had been nomadic disdaining urban centers. Would Timur have chosen to establish a smaller empire that lasted, had he preceived the choice, or would he have chosen to go down in history as a conqueror comparable to Alexander and Ghengis Khan in the extent of his conquests?

A second question was whether Timur was evil. It was noted, for example, that the perception that enslaving people as evil is clearly modern, an ethical judgment that become common only in the 19th century. In Timur's time, mass executions, rape and even the murder of little children might have been regarded differently by the average man, inured to killing animals and early death of his friends and family, than they do today. Still, if a "pragmatic" policy of deliberately inflicting such destruction on city after city is not "evil", then what good is the word?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sotomayor will add diversity to the Supreme Court

It has long been intuitively obvious that group decisions are usually better than individual decisions, and now psychologists are documenting the phenomenon in controlled experiments. The Supreme Court has nine members in part because it can be expected to make better decisions as a group than any Chief Justice would be expected to make alone.

I suggest that the count is likely to make better decisions if it is made up not only of legal experts, but of jurists who bring different views and experience to the court. Adding another woman to the current court (seven men and one woman) would seem likely to help. Adding a jurist who has experience as a prosecutor to a court without such experience would seem likely to help. Adding a Latina to a court that has never had a Latino member would seem likely to help. Adding a Justice who has experienced poverty to a court drawn largely from middle and upper economic classes may help. So Sonia Sotomayor may well have been right in suggesting that she would bring a diverse background to the court that would help it make better decisions more often.

Monday, June 08, 2009


I have been reading Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World by Justin Marozzi. I think there has been a failure of imagination, either by the author of by me, possibly both.

War is terrible, but the wars of Tamerlane were even worse than most. The book did not convey the pain of those wars to me.

Think about the Tartar hordes. They traveled thousands of miles, away from home for years at a time, living in camps and on horseback, often hungry, always exhausted, and frequently hungry. Not only did they fight terrible battles with large numbers of casualties, they must have suffered from many diseases in a time before understanding of communicable disease, traveling in large numbers and living in unsanitary conditions. The policy of the Tartar military was, as I understand it, to separate the rank and file from their traditional tribal leaders and to organize ethnically mixed units so that these presumably simple, unlettered soldiers were denied their tribal support. The survivors would return with relative riches, but the likelihood of failure to survive to the end of a campaign must have been relatively high. How could the Tartars have been forced to serve, or how desperate must have been their homelife to make military service a desired alternative.

For the people conquered by Tamerlane's troops the situation must have been even worse. Before the arrival of the Tartar hordes their lives would have been pretty bad; medieval life was not great for most people. If they promptly surrendered to the Tartars they had to pay huge ransom plus continuing tributes, and were likely to suffer from the attentions of the conquering soldiers. If they fought, they were invariably defeated and then were killed in large numbers, the rest being robbed, raped and vandalized.

I know people descended from the Tartars and the Ottomans, and as far as I can see they are pretty much the same as people here and in the other countries in which I have lived and/or worked. They don't seem likely to be more immune from pain and suffering. I try but can not imagine myself as a Tartar soldier or a resident of one of the conquered cities -- the hardship beggers my imagination.

Unfortunately, reading Marozzi did not immediately convey that hardship, it took some independent thinking to recognize how hard were the lives of even the winners of Tamerlane's battles, and how desperate were the lives of those who lost.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bradford's law

Bradford's law examines the frequency of relevant journal articles in groups of journals. It assumes that journals are ranked by relevance and that the frequency of relevant articles is given by a negative power law.
Suppose that in a month there are 12 articles of interest in those journals. Suppose further that in order to find another dozen articles of interest, the researcher would have to go to an additional 10 journals. Then that researcher's Bradford multiplier bm is 2 (ie 10/5). For each new dozen articles, that researcher will need to look in bm times as many journals. After looking in 5, 10, 20, 40, ... journals, most researchers quickly realize that there is little point in looking further.
The parameters of the distribution will differ for different researchers and/or fields, and presumably vary over time.

It would be interesting to explore the implications of this observed relationship for knowledge systems in developing nations. One wonders, for example, how good page rank algorithms and their like are in ordering sources for relevance.

The Death of Rajeev Motwani

US computer science professor Motwani, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool. A 1998 paper written by Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Motwani discussed the development of Google. "We have developed a global ranking of web pages called PageRank based on the link structure of the web that has properties that are useful for search and navigation … We have used PageRank to develop a novel search engine called Google, which also makes heavy use of anchor text," Prof. Motwani "was also an influential investor who backed the initial development of what turned out to be a number of successful hi-tech companies and initiatives, including the internent payment giant PayPal."

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Where does U.S. support for Israel's governments stop?

I am not an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and I have consequently refrained from commenting on it until now. An article in the New York Times has broken that resolve. It reveals that there were discussions between the governments of Israel and the United States about Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as part of the process leading to "the roadmap" -- discussions which have not been made public. Apparently (unnamed) officials of the Netanyahu administration in Israel are holding that the Bush administration agreed to continuation of settlements in the West Bank as part of the deal for removal of the settlements in Gaza; (unnamed) former members of the Bush administration are holding that while the discussions took place in the context of natural growth of the West Bank settlements, they never reached a clear agreement as to what was acceptable.

The Israeli policies in the occupied territories seem to be the result of compromises made by factions of the Israeli political process. Surely there is a significant portion of the Israeli population which wishes to take and hold all the West Bank, while other factions are more than willing to give up land for peace.

Apparently every U.S. administration since the Nixon administration has opposed further settlements, and the Israeli government has allowed further settlements in each of those administrations. Now there is a large Israeli population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as a complex infrastructure to keep them out of harms way. The Israeli settlements and their security apparatus not only makes life difficult to Palestinians, but helps convince many of them that Israel will only be satisfied when they are driven out of their lands or deprived of any hope of political autonomy.

The Unites States greatly values its alliance with Israel, and has provided Israel with huge amounts of military and economic assistance. It has continued to do so over decades in which the Israeli government was ignoring our concerns that the settlements stop growing and more progress be made towards peace.

At what point do we separate our support for Israel from support for whichever party is in power in Israel at the moment. At what point does this country begin to flex the power that Israeli dependency on U.S. aid and trade provides to encourage Israeli government policies that we believe will lead to peace and to discourage Israeli government policies that appear to worsen the prospects for peace?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I suspect and hope it is being seriously debated within the Obama administration.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A New ALA Report

A new publication by the American Library Association reports:
The importance of libraries in American life continued to grow in 2008—and accelerated dramatically as the
national economy sank and people looked for sources of free, effective help in a time of crisis.

A Harris Poll released in September revealed that 68 percent of Americans have a library card, an increase of 5 percent since 2006. In-person visits increased 10 percent in the same period, and 76 percent of Americans had visited their local public library in the year preceding the survey, compared with 66 percent two years ago.
Online-visit data were even more remarkable: 41 percent of library card holders visited their library websites in the year before the poll, compared with 24 percent in 2006.
Unfortunately, in hard economic times, local governments will face budget constraints likely to be transferred to their libraries. As people need the libraries more, the libraries will have fewer resources.

"What Are the Top 30 Innovations of the Last 30 Years?"

Knowledge@Warton provides this list, in order of importance:
  1. Internet, broadband, WWW (browser and html)
  2. PC/laptop computers
  3. Mobile phones
  4. E-mail
  5. DNA testing and sequencing/Human genome mapping
  6. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  7. Microprocessors
  8. Fiber optics
  9. Office software (spreadsheets, word processors)
  10. Non-invasive laser/robotic surgery (laparoscopy)
  11. Open source software and services (e.g., Linux, Wikipedia)
  12. Light emitting diodes
  13. Liquid crystal display (LCD)
  14. GPS systems
  15. Online shopping/ecommerce/auctions (e.g., eBay)
  16. Media file compression (jpeg, mpeg, mp3)
  17. Microfinance
  18. Photovoltaic Solar Energy
  19. Large scale wind turbines
  20. Social networking via the Internet
  21. Graphic user interface (GUI)
  22. Digital photography/videography
  23. RFID and applications (e.g., EZ Pass)
  24. Genetically modified plants
  25. Bio fuels
  26. Bar codes and scanners
  27. ATMs
  28. Stents
  29. SRAM flash memory
  30. Anti retroviral treatment for AIDS
Comment: Without microprocessors there would not be personal computers, and without personal computers and fiber optics, there would not be much value in the Internet. That is true also for ATMs I suppose.

The software commodity business, including Microsoft, is more important than the development of free and open source software, at least so far.

Generally, I guess I would put the evolution of the global information infrastructure as the most important technological development of the past 30 years.

I wonder whether there are not more important medical advances than anti-retrovirals. Perhaps some of the social innovations that are leading to more progress against the diseases of poverty are saving more lives than the anti-retrivurals. JAD

A world awash in money is going to be overwhelmed by debt

I am not an economist, but can the following be right:

The 1990's saw the creation of new financial mechanisms (derivatives) used in the absence of regulation to greatly expand the amount of money available to be lent out as compared with the capital available to cover bad debts. One assumes that increasing returns to ever more highly leveraged capital led to more capital invested in financial enterprises. The oil price spike in the late 1990's also resulted in a glut of money in the oil exporting states, which they must have lent and invested. So there should have been a glut of money, encouraging the developing nations to borrow. Lots of money to lend leads to low interest rates, leads to borrowing for relatively lower valued investments.

Now the nations of the world are borrowing like crazy to have the money to stimulate their economies. Trillions of dollars in borrowing should drive up interest rates. Developing countries which have borrowed to invest in low return projects will not have the ability to borrow even to invest in high return projects!

It seems we have gone through something like this after the oil shocks of the 1970s.