Friday, October 30, 2009

Human Rights Art Festival

The Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival will take place over three days April 23-25, 2010, and involve cultural, business and political stakeholders from Silver Spring, Washington D.C. metro area and beyond... read more

The Festival is currently accepting submissions and ideas for art and activist art workshops in all media. The open call runs through December 15, 2009.

Read More!

Copyright is being perverted to maximize commercial interests

From a review by Pamela Samuelson in Science:
In Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, William Patry explains how copyright law has gone so far astray from its historical mission of promoting the progress of science (i.e., knowledge) by providing just enough protection to allow authors to obtain some reward for the artistic and literary works they contribute to our culture. Major copyright industries successfully convinced Congress that they have "property rights" in copyrighted works, such as sound recordings, and any music fan who downloads or shares her favorite music is a "thief" or a "pirate."
I suspect that Patry is right!

CONSERVATION BIOLOGY: Research Wolves of Yellowstone Killed in Hunt

Source: Virginia Morell, Science 23 October 2009: Vol. 326. no. 5952, pp. 506 - 507

On 3 October, a few weeks after Montana opened its first legal wolf-hunting season in decades, a hunter killed a female wolf in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, less than a mile from the border of Yellowstone National Park.
This brought to five the number of wolves from Yellowstone's most studied pack that have been killed by hunters. Researchers are essentially going to have to start over with another wolf pack after seven years of data collection.

The experience to date shows however that wolves were a keystone species in the Yellowstone ecology, and if we want to protect Yellowstone as the best example of pre-Colombian North America, we have to permit wolves to live there. Millions of visitors to Yellowstone would agree!

So what does Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks say about this?
"We didn't think that wolves would be that vulnerable in the backcountry, so the level of harvest there has been a bit of a surprise," says Carolyn Sime, FWP's wolf program coordinator in Helena, who added that the hunt was designed to target wolves that kill livestock, not wilderness or park wolves that have never caused problems in that area.
I don't think we can trust the governments of states dominated by agricultural interests to adequately protect world heritage!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

David Deutsch -- a general lesson on how to analyze better

Ny friend Julianne sent me the link to this great talk at TED. It is described as follows:
For tens of thousands of years our ancestors understood the world through myths, and the pace of change was glacial. The rise of scientific understanding transformed the world within a few centuries. Why? Physicist David Deutsch proposes a subtle answer.

Fiber Optics Connectivity is Great

I recently had fiber optic cable connected to the house, replacing a DSL line for Internet connectivity telephone replacing the existing cable TV. It was a good decision. My internet connectivity is much improved. I had not realized how much the DSL had degraded my voice telephone service, but it too is much improved. And indeed I am finding that DirectTV service meets my interest more than did the Comcast service I had previously. It also looks like the total service package will save me money.

Thoughts on Reading "Only Yesterday"

I have been reading Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's by Frederick Lewis Allen. First published in 1932, it is a wonderfully readable history of the decade. One chapter deals with the economic boom of during the Coolidge presidency. Allen attributes the boom to things like the development of advertising and consumer credit, and these are no doubt important. The analysis however neglects technological advances and innovation.

Of course a part of the business success was probably due to the pent up demand for goods and services developed during World War I. Such a pent up demand is thought to have stimulated the post World War II economy. On the other hand, U.S. involvement in World War I was less than that in World War II, and the Coolidge years were well after the war. So too, the destruction of the productive capacities of European economies during the war led to advantages to the U.S. industries in the post war years.

I would point out the importance of electrification and the internal combustion engine. In both cases it took a long time to develop the technological system and infrastructure to fully take advantage of the technologies (which had been first developed in the 19th century). By the 1920s they were transforming the production and distribution of goods. In the process they dramatically increased productivity.

Fewer workers were needed to produce the goods and services that had already been available on the market, but new products were invented to create new demands -- electric toasters, washers, air conditioners, and stoves not to mention electrical machines for manufacturing. Automobiles and trucks became more common and more elaborate.

The result was a beneficial cycle in which more productivity led to more income to buy more products; more demand led to more investment in productive capacity, which led to further increases in production and productivity. Growth in consumer credit and advertising helped to fuel the cycle.

Of course, lacking adequate government control of the system, the process eventually lead to too much debt and a bubble in stock prices. The resulting crash led in turn to the Great Depression.

ICT Investment continues to rise

Source: "The information-technology industry revives: Back to the circuit board," The Economist, October 22nd 2009

101 iPhone Apps for the student

Anna Miller published this list on her Online Degree website:
Few would argue that the Apple iPhone has revolutionized the personal assistant technology first popularized by Palm Pilot. Its portability and convenience allow users from all walks of life to better organize and keep track of their increasingly hectic lives. Students especially need to prioritize and streamline their lives as much as possible to ensure they meet deadlines, keep within a budget, and never miss a class or organization meeting. With these applications, they can comfortably maintain a sense of order and control as well as reducing stress and anxiety over due dates, bank accounts, and other everyday concerns.

Monday, October 26, 2009

File this under the category Arghh!!!?!!

s has an article on the results of an international study of opinion as to whether Darwinian Evolution should be taught in schools together with Creationism:
More than half of adults in a survey of 10 countries thought school science lessons should teach evolutionary theories alongside creationism. Among those who knew of Darwinism, on average 53% felt other possible perspectives should also be taught. The figure was 68% in Argentina, in the poll for the British Council, which promotes educational opportunities. In Great Britain 60% felt this way. In Egypt, 27% said such theories should not be in science lessons at all.....

The survey to underpin the work was conducted through Ipsos Mori and involved interviews with some 11,000 people aged over 18, mostly face-to-face, last April. Of those, more than 7,000 knew of Darwin's work already.
Comment: 150 years after the the publication of The Origin of Species most people apparently still have not gotten the message! JAD

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Daly at Agincourt?

An archer named John Daly accompanied Henry V to France in 1415, and thus is likely to have fought at the battle of Agincourt. Apparently English archers of the time may have been largely recruited from Ireland, Scotland and Wales and were often yeomen rather than landless peasants. I wonder how many Dalys there were 600 years ago?

A Final Comment on Karen Armstrong's Book

A few days ago I posted a comment on Karen Armstrong's book, The Great Transformation. She calls for the emergence of new spiritual leaders comparable to those who emerged some 2,500 years ago to lead us out of the perils of our tumultuous times. I was skeptical of the likelihood of such a thing occuring.

It occurs to me that we are struggling in the aftermath of the two most terrible wars in human history and in the face of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction to find ways that nations can live together. In our age, that struggle is often political and economic rather than spiritual.

I have also been reading Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920's by Frederick Lewis Allen. He points out that religion in America was struggling in the face of scientific revelations. It still is. Many religions require belief in things which science seems to be demonstrating to be untrue.

If we succeed in getting people to practice the golden rule, at least to the degree to prevent the potential catastrophes that face mankind at this time, I suspect like Armstrong that political and intellectual approaches alone will not work, and that there will have to be complementary ethical and spiritual changes.

We suffer from tempocentrism, regarding the future though our own lenses. It occurs to me that we may not recognize the new institutions that come out of our struggle as religious. But then, the ancestors of Socrates, Elijah, Siddhartha and Confucius may not have recognised the institutions that those great men helped to create as religious since they did not worship their ancestors gods nor continue their religious rituals.

I am not suggesting that our age should abandon our religious institutions. Those institutions represent a huge cultural heritage, the product of millions of person years of analysis, contemplation, effort and devotion. But cultures change, and heritage capital is best appreciated in its modification through use.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Culture" like "Race" is a social construct; both are often misused!

"Race" is not a genetic concept. When you look at the genetic makeup of individuals, the dissimilarities with groups generally seen as "races" are large, and the dissimilarities between "racial groups" are small.

I recall looking through old church records in Mexico and finding new born children classified as "blancos", "indios" and "negros" not to mention "mestizos", "mulatos" and "zambos". In the United States there was an exhaustive classification including "quadroons" and "octrunes". All of these had social meaning but little relation to the actual genetic makeup of the individuals.

We all know how often such racial designations were used as the basis of discrimination. injustice and hatred.

According to Wikipedia, "the word "culture" is most commonly used in three basic senses:
  • excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
  • an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
  • the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group."
It is clear that, in the first sense, the word "culture" too has been used as the basis of discrimination, injustice and dislike if not hatred. Thus "a cultured person" had a taste for symphonic music, classical art. and fine literature while "an uncultured person" might have a taste for folk music, crafts and stories from the oral tradition. Upper socio-economic classes believed their taste to be the standard of excellence and looked down upon those of other socio-economic classes who did not share it. Someone from a third culture might find elements from each preference list to be excellent.

I am more interested in the alternative, "anthropological" definition of culture represented in the second and third bullets above. It has been suggested that the basic unit of culture is the "meme" -- a single idea, symbol or practice which is transmitted from one person to another "through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena." "The British scientist Richard Dawkins introduced the word "meme" in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a basis for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena."

In this sense of the word, we often talk about a group of people as if they shared a common culture, tossing off terms such as "Andean culture", "Navajo culture" and "Japanese culture". Of course it would be a significant error to assume that all the people in the Andes share all the same cultural memes, that all the people who are socially defined as Navajo share all the same cultural memes. nor that all the people of Japan or who trace their ancestry back to Japan share all the same cultural memes.

It is sometimes convenient to use racial designations, as to look at diabetes in Native Americans or religious orientation of U.S. Hispanics, and so it is sometimes convenient to consider a cultural group as the set of people who share a broad set of cultural memes. That does not mean that such designations represent any deeper truth.

As in the case of genetics, I would suggest that the variation in meme sets within cultural groups may be large, and the variation between such groups small. Thus, I often find more in common with highly educated government officials in developing countries than those officials have with the poor people who "share their culture".

I also suggest that cultural designations were used as the basis of discrimination. injustice and hatred. Think about the way that the "Hispanic" populations of Latin America have sometimes treated the indigenous populations, or the way that Anglos in the United States have treated various ethnic minorities and have characterized their cultures!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Television: An Information Revolution in Progress

Check out my friend Charles Kenny's article on the global diffusion of TV in Foreign Policy.
By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one. Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.
Comment: We have been so accustomed to radio and television for so long, we may forget the transformative power they hold, and these technologies are still diffusing into the developing world. I am especially interested in the potential for community radio in multilingual societies. JAD

How I Miss Molly Ivins

Michelle Goldberg, in The American Prospect, tells a story of the Governor of Texas working to assure the execution of a man who appears to have been innocent, defending junk science used in his prosecution against good science presented by those fighting the execution. She writes:
It's lucky for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas that he's not suspected of doing something truly shocking, like having an affair. Instead, it merely seems that he's helped cover up a homicide. Apparently that's not enough to make much of a national splash.
Comment: Junk science costs a lot more lives when political leaders refuse to believe good science on public health issues in favor of the junkiest of science (think about South Africa and HIV), but in forensics the victim is individual and can be known to the public. Forensic junk science thus has special emotional impact. The lack of national public attention to such a travesty is an indictment of the press, and the failures of its mission to inform and instruct the public. If the media were doing its job, the public would throw out the politicians who justify bad decisions by junk science. JAD
Image source: Bill Keaggy

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Acadia National Park

We visited Acadia National Park in Maine a couple of weeks ago. It was the first National Park created east of the Mississippi River, and while the scenery is not as spectacular as some we have seen in the west, it is very beautiful, with scenes such as this:
We had a lovely lunch in the restaurant at Jordan Pond, which provided this view:
Drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard, for the views:
There were also lovely views within Mount Desert Island, such as this of another pond with some early fall color:We also drove out to the Schoodik Peninsula portion of the park, where we the morning rain stopped and the sun broke through on the water:And on the way out, found this small waterfall beside the road:

"Big names support net neutrality "

According to BBC News, "A group of the world's largest internet companies has written a letter of support to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC)....The letter, signed by the chief executives of Google, Ebay, Skype, Facebook, Amazon and Sony Electronics among others, says that maintaining data neutrality helps businesses to compete on the basis of content alone."

Comment: Lets hope the Congress acts to assure net neutrality for us and not depend on the good will of the industry! JAD

Clean Hands Save Lives

Source: World Bank news release

Diarrheal disease and acute respiratory infections kill more than 3.5 million children under the age of five each year, according to UNICEF’s State of the World Children Report. But washing hands with soap can reduce child mortality by 44 percent in the case of diarrheal disease, and 23 percent for acute respiratory infections.

Last year, October 15 was designated as the Global Handwashing Day and a worldwide awareness-raising campaign was started by the Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, an international initiative of which the World Bank is a founding member. Schools and communities in more than 80 countries were to participate in activities this October 15 to remind children about the importance of washing hands with soap as a critical habit to keep disease away.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Poor countries spending more on science

According to SciDev.Net, spending on science in the developing world grew at three times the rate of that of richer countries between 2002 and 2007, according to figures released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS).

The growth of science in developing countries reflects the wisdom of UNESCO's founders in emphasizing the need to transfer scientific institutions to Asia, Africa and Latin America and to the need to increase support for the scientific efforts of UNESCO.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Words Change Their Meanings But Linger in Organizational Charters

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking Glass
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was created more than 60 years ago. The "other C" in its charter was Communications. I have become increasingly aware of the changes in the meanings of the words defining its charter.

The culture program of UNESCO once focused on museums, great literature, great music and the highest achievements of world culture, notably on the achievements of Western culture. The word in general use had that context of the greatest achievements of mankind. With the growth of the social sciences, culture has come to be accepted in its anthropoligical sense of the entire body of ideas, values and institutions that define a people and distinguish one cultural group from another. UNESCO's programs have consequently expanded from the original narrow focus to include concern for intangible cultural heritage of all societies and the interplay of culture and social and economic development.

The communications program of UNESCO was, I believe, the initiative of William Benton. He was an advertising executive who became a "dollar a year man" Assistant Secretary of State at the end of World War II (before going on to the U.S. Senate and other achievements). Fascists had demonstrated the potential of propaganda to distort the public understanding of current events, and UNESCO was seen as a means of helping to avoid future problems with such propaganda. The media of the day included radio and movies as well as the print media, but even those media were limited primarily to audiences in rich nations. An important focus of the early UNESCO program was protection of freedom of the press. It advocated publishing and libraries to expand the reach of the print media. Of course, the intervening six decades have seen the development of television, the explosion of telephony (especially via wireless phones), the dissemination of personal computers, the invention of the Internet and of the World Wide Web. Few people in 1946 could have conceived of cyberspace. Our understanding of the very word "communication" must be fundamentally different than that of the founders of UNESCO. Today, UNESCO's communication program has expanded from its roots in libraries and publishing to include focus on cyberspace and the evolving information society.

World War II saw the inventions of radar and the atom bomb, thereby convincing world leaders that the scientific laboratory was relevant to national power. In the intervening six decades, not only has the global scientific enterprise expanded beyond all recognition, into fields that could barely have been imagined in the 1940s, but science-based technological innovation has been increasingly recognised as the source of economic development and advantage, indeed of economic health. Moreover, the development of social science has if anything been even more dramatic than that of the natural sciences. Led by Joseph Needham and Julian Huxley, UNESCO early focused on the dissemination of science from developed to developing nations, while also seeking to catalyze international cooperation in the most advanced sciences of the day. Today, albeit with pitifully inadequate resources, UNESCO seeks to serve the broader mission of science, technology and innovation.

Similarly, in six decades the ideas underlying the word "education" have expanded and been transformed. Educational aspirations have increased in every society, as the the knowledge base of mankind has expanded. Pedagogical theory has been elaborated and new media are challenging traditional approaches to learning, as indeed educational institutions have evolved far beyond their post-war forms. UNESCO, first conceived as a means of rebuilding the educational infrastructure destroyed in the World War, now focuses on Education for All and the harmonization of gobal educational systems.

"we must run as fast as we can just to stay in the same place"
Lewis Carroll's Red Queen from Through the Looking-Glass

We know in the abstract that languages evolve and words change their meanings over time. Still the changes described above have taken place in my lifetime, and I find it difficult in every-day life to recognise that they don't mean now what they meant when UNESCO was created. I think of the Constitution of an organization as evolving through ammendments, and in the case of UNESCO through changes in governance imposing changes on its interpretation. Still, in the case of UNESCO, the meaning of the Constitution has changed in my lifetime as a result of changes in the meanings of the words in which it is written.

The routine use of anti-AIDS drugs is spreading

Source: The Economist

"A report published jointly by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Children’s Fund and UNAIDS says that over 4m infected people in poor and middle-income countries are now on drugs intended to keep the virus under control. That is 1m more than last year. More than 5m others who might benefit from those drugs are not on them, however, so there is no room for complacency. But the latest data suggest that with 42% of those who need the drugs actually receiving them, significant progress is being made."

Comment: Five million people who need anti-AIDS drugs are still not getting them! What a disgrace!

US Pays Down Most of Its UN Debt

"The Obama administration has quietly succeeded in working with Congress to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in past and current debt to the United Nations. In addition, the US will likely begin carrying out a plan next year to make at least some of its UN-assessed contributions early in the year that they are due, departing from 25 years of habitually paying such assessments 9 to 12 months late."

Comment: Very good news from The Interdependent (the magazine of the United Nations Association of the United States of America.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Comment on "The Great Transformation"

The other night my book club discussed The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong. The discussion was interesting.

Armstrong looks at the period some 2,500 years ago during which the foundations were laid for the ethical and religious systems of the West, the Middle East, the India subcontinent and East Asia. She traces the history of the evolution of these systems under the stress of rapid social and economic change, warfare, and environmental stress. Each culture adapted its own heritage but all produced leaders whose spiritual journeys led to a prescription that people should have compassion, treating others as they would themselves be treated. Armstrong notes that our time like that "axial age" is undergoing great social and economic transformations and that we face great dangers from warfare and conflict, calling for a new effort, building on our rich heritage of religion and philosophy, to develop a new cultural basis to help confront our situation.

The seemingly simple conclusion stems from mastery of the intellectual history of the axial age and deep thought. Sometimes the most profound conclusions sound like homilies.

The problem is of course that we don't live up to our ideals, and that there don't seem to be new versions of Socrates, Elijah, Siddhartha and Confucius stepping forward in our modern world. (My son points out that in another 2,500 years people may look back on our time as another axial age that generated great religious and ethical teachers.)