Thursday, December 31, 2009

Excerpts froom a message from the United Nations Association of the United States

For the first time, the United States ran for election to the world's most prominent human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council, and easily won a seat. The United States ended its self-induced exile from the world's first permanent international court for mass atrocity crimes, the International Criminal Court (ICC). And the President and Congress provided over $700 million to pay UN arrears and funding shortfalls, finally fulfilling the most basic obligation of UN membership--paying our dues....

The Administration has pursued a policy of working through international institutions whenever possible, rather than criticizing them from the outside and needlessly going it alone. It is important to let the Administration know that Americans support the renewed emphasis on multilateral diplomacy and, more specifically, the decisions to join the Human Rights Council, participate in key meetings of the ICC, and pay our UN dues.

The Massive Scientific Evidence for Manmade Global Warming

I just read James McCarthy's address to the AAAS to be presented at the annual meeting. McCarthy is the outgoing President of the apex scientific professional organization in the United States. He will give the lecture to an audience of scientists, but relatively few specialized in his area of expertise. He provides an overview of the aggregation of evidence and analysis over the last 150 years which has convinced most scientists that anthropogenic global warming is taking place and that the effects will include a significant sea level rise in this century as well changes in weather patterns. Unusual in a public address, he provides 59 references tracing the key elements in the science of climate change.

I note especially this comment:
Ironically, as assessments of climate change science and climate impacts have increasingly called attention to changes in climate and documented impacts that were not evident even a half decade earlier (13–15), the Earth-observing systems on which advances in this science depend are woefully underfunded. Budgets to develop, deploy, and operate these systems and to support the scientific use of the data have not grown in proportion to the widely recognized need for these capabilities. Worse, domestic funding to sustain them has actually declined over the past decade, even though the United States pioneered many of these systems. Some of the systems now at risk are international partnerships with U.S. funding requirements.

Several organizations have been rising to the challenge of prioritization and support for the deployment of new satellite sensors and renewal of those essential time-series observations of atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial properties and processes. For example, in 2007 a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) prioritized 17 new Earth-observation missions for the 2010–2020 time period out of more than 100 that were proposed. A few months later, the AAAS Board issued a Board Statement on the "Crisis in Earth Observation from Space." It stated that the NRC had provided the "blueprint for a program that will bring immense returns for modest costs" and urged the Congress and the Administration to implement this plan.

The decline in funding for Earth observations has in part been a consequence of NASA's refocusing of priorities with a new emphasis on a return mission to the Moon and on to Mars. The outcome of the Obama Administration's review of NASA's mission for the next decade will signal the degree to which the United States is committed to sustaining and enhancing critical Earth observations.
The Bush administration spent years denying climate change research, and the switch of NASA priorities to manned space exploration and away from earth science gave not only a quick publicity gain among non-scientists but reduced the accumulation of evidence about climate change -- evidence that some in the administration and some of its supporters probably did not want.

If you still have doubts, check this figure from the paper:

Fig. 6. Global surface temperature. Global ranked surface temperatures for the warmest 50 years. The inset shows global ranked surface temperatures from 1850. The size of the bars indicates the 95% confidence limits associated with each year. The source data are blended land-surface air temperature and sea surface temperature from the HadCRUT3 series. Values are simple area-weighted averages for the whole year (28).

The Flu Season: CDC Data

Percentage of Visits for Influenza-like Illness (ILI) Reported by the U.S. Outpatient Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network (ILINet), National Summary 2008-2009 and Previous Two Seasons


This graph indicates that there have been a lot of visits to health services for flu like symptoms this year, but the frequency is trailing off. The lab confirmed flu viruses this year have been largely confined to H1N1.

If you look at the following graph you will see that the seasonal flu seems usually to peak in the United States in January or February, so we may see an unusual second flu peak this winter, with one of the new H1N1 flu and the other of a more conventional seasonal flu.


Note too, however, that it is possible to see an antigenic shift in the H1N1 flu with a more severe epidemic in the future.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another Thought About the Civil War


I have been reading Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, a great read for the history buff who will read historical fiction!

The author has General Longstreet make the case for defensive warfare in an epoch in which field artillery and repeating rifles have come into use, but before tanks and other armored vehicles were available. Attacking entrenched troops with that kind of fire power by charges in massed formations was suicidal. That might be the reason that both McClellan and Meade were successful in defending against invasions of the Union states while the Union forces were so often unsuccessful in the early years of the war invading the Confederacy.

Incidentally, Shaara also (putting words in the mouth of an English military observer) makes the case that the war was really about the way of life. The southern states had a class based society much like that of European nations, while the northern states were much more egalitarian and much more culturally diverse. The North already had the start of an industrial civilization. The Southern aristocracy saw clearly that a strong central government dominated by the majority population in the North would doom their way of life, as of course it eventually did.

The Europeans saw the war as based on slavery, as do many people today. Yet Lincoln did not begin to emancipate the slaves until convinced that the economic blow of emancipation was needed to win the war. Many in the south understood that slavery was on the way out in any case, seeking more a gradual process rather than an immediate one.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Terrorism Charges Against Grad Student Raise Questions"

Science has a story about a student, Scott DeMuth, and his girl friend who have run into serious legal troubles, in part by refusing to testify as to what was learned during a social science research project concerning animal rights protests in which informants had been told their responses would be confidential.
The petition for DeMuth cites portions of the code of ethics of the American Sociological Association (ASA) that deal with confidentiality between researchers and subjects.
I am no legal expert, but as I understand the law the right to refuse to testify is quite limited. One has the right not to incriminate oneself guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and there are rights not to testify granted to spouses, clergy, physicians, psychiatrists and reporters for reasons of public policy.

It would seem to me that a scientific society does is not a legitimate source of a right not to testify, although the ASA might certainly lobby for such a right to be granted to legitimate social science researchers. The right would have to come from legislation.

If in fact the researchers do not have a legal right to refuse to testify, then either they should not guarantee confidentiality or they should prepare to go to jail to protect the guarantee that they have made. One hopes that the ASA tells young researchers that this is in fact their bill of options.

I can easily create scenarios in which the public interest would be advanced by allowing researchers to guarantee confidentiality to their research subjects. On the other hand, I see no reason why all researchers should be granted the right not to testify about interviews or observations on all matters always. Indeed, it seems to me that there should be some kind of review of a project protocol before a researcher was allowed to guarantee confidentiality to subjects. Moreover, I see a difference between a researchers being told about some past law breaking and actually observing a criminal act.

We still have time to prepare for the next flu pandemic, and may be able to avoid it!

Science magazine labels the H1N1 Flu the "Virus of the Year" pointing out that it has proven less lethal than had been feared (but warning that viruses may become more lethal after their first dispersion). It also suggests that the pandemic has shown some of the strengths of the system put in place in this decade, but it has also exposed problems with surveillance in animals and problems with vaccine production.

Flu pandemics have recurred with regularity, but if we use the opportunities to improve surveillance and public health measures (vaccine production and distribution and more conventional approaches) we might be able to avoid future ones, leaving only the regular (killing) seasonal flu epidemics.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Chrstmas Thought

Yesterday I heard Karen Armstrong on radio, talking about the Axial Age, when a couple of thousand years ago people in China, India, Greece and the Middle East independently codified the Golden Rule. Social change had resulted in a period of conflict and violence and people in these key areas developed ways of thought to temper the violence.

Karen Armstrong thinks of the change in terms of religion. I am not sure her concept of religion corresponds to those of the people in China, India, Greece and Israel during the Axial Age. I find that she includes both ethics and theology in her definition, and I might separate the two.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" seems to me an ethical concept.

Armstrong was asked in the program I heard whether today might be similarly an Axial Age, and responded that she thought not. I am not sure that she is right. We are certainly facing rapid social change and the conflict of the last century was greater than ever in human history so there are conditions that might tend to force rethinking.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Accords, the Geneva Convention all indicate advances in our thought leading to more humane treatment of people. UNESCO was created to help build the defenses of peace in the minds of men. There is an effort to promote inter-religious dialog and a dialog among civilizations to promote peace and understanding. Maybe we are making changes which in the future will be see as a turning point in history in which people came to a more humane way of thinking about and acting toward each other.

I hope so! Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Did the Chinese saborage Copenhagen?

My friend Julianne alerted me to this article in the Guardian by Mark Lynas. Lynas is a journalist focusing on environmental and especially climate change issues, who says he was present in the key negotiations at Copenhagen. He blames the Chinese for torpedoing the declaration from the meeting:

To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? .......

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen.........

With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. "How can you ask my country to go extinct?" demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence – and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

Another example of the difficulty of getting governments to do what is best for the world instead of what they perceive is best for their country or even themselves. The more I read about intergovernmental negotiations, the more cynical I become. Still, what better alternative is there?

The digital divide in terms of network empowerment

My son alerted me to this posting by Nancy Scola on The American Prospect. I quote:
On Black Friday, I picked up a sweet 32" Samsung HD TV for about $500. That's not nothing, but it occurred to me after I left Best Buy that the full suite of cutting edge technology I own can today be had for a few thousand dollars (even less if you go MacBook instead of MacBook Pro, get the $99 iPhone, etc.). That's rather amazing, and it means that I can whip up creative content in a way that would blow the minds of gear heads even a decade ago. It doesn't mean, though, that anyone is going to necessarily listen to once I post it online......

But I'll suggest one consideration worth keeping in mind. We're quickly getting to a place where it makes sense to think about the digital divide not just in terms of hardware disparities. Distribution networks are becoming an ever bigger deal, as conversations are being shaped by who is reading/following whom online. That's why it starts to matter who Post reporters are listening to on Twitter or whether the political class ignores MySpace in favor of Facebook. Give a read, for example, to the story that the City Paper is telling about how the Washington Postignored for quite a while gripping documentary evidence available online about the DC snowball incident, preferring instead official denials issued by MPD. Of course, gripping videos of cops behaving badly might break through in a big way eventually. But cheap technologies don't alone dictate that everyone's voices are going to get heard.
Scola follows many in considering the digital divide in terms of the individuals connectivity. That is. of course, a perfectly reasonable concern. I tend to focus on the digital divide in terms of the overall economic consequences of the difference in penetration of ICT, and thus on the power users of IT.

However, Scola makes a great point with respect to the divide as to who is attended to in cyberspace. I does little good to be right and to be posted if no one who can and will take action on what you produce reads it. The mass media empowered those who had control of the broadcast media. The point-to-point media empower those who are most connected. Lets see institutions develop to give those who have important messages to deliver the power to get those messages read.

The Washington Post comes in for a shot in Scola's article for listening to The Man rather than to the truth tellers.

The Third Episode in the Charlie Rose Brain Series


I saw this hour long program last night on PBS, and found it excellent. It made the point very well that we surely evolved our brain because it facilitated action that enhanced survival and thus reproductive success, and that is only possible because the brain is able to control our muscles.

I thought that the discussion was quite useful in linking perception, analysis and action. The brain surely evolved as a whole and a focus on perception alone must miss a large part of the substance of what is going on and why.

In a program designed to communicate with the intelligent lay person, the world experts on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy had to simplify concepts and express them in common language. In general, I thought they did so well.

I was struck by the idea that the brain has to be able to model behavior and that our brains are able to model the behavior of others as well as our own. However, it seems to me that the differentiation of feedback control systems from models could have been better done.

The ability of a professional basketball player to predict the success of another player's shot before it leaves his hands seems to me to be different than the operation of the feedback system which allows that professional after thousands of hours of practice to use feedback to control his own shot to assure accuracy.

I don't know how much professional basketball players analyze films of shooting basketballs. I do know that professional golfers analyze films of their own and other golfers swings and can discuss with their swing coaches minute details of the swing which we mere mortals can not perceive at all.

It was interesting to hear the experts point out that we have so perfected our motor skills by the time we are adults that we tend only to recognize how great and finely tuned they are when due to sickness or injury they fail to work. We still can not begin to produce robots that are nearly ad dexterous as humans, despite decades of efforts to do so.

If we can't understand the excellence of our neuro-motor system, and seldom realize how much work is going on under the radar of our consciousness, perhaps we should not expect to understand our cognitive systems well and should expect lots of its functioning to be similarly under the radar of consciousness.

Check out Timothy Karr's Top 10 Internet Moments of 2009

Quotations: Paul Samuelson

When someone preaches ‘Economics in one lesson’ I advise: Go back for the second lesson.

Free markets do not stabilise themselves. Zero regulating is vastly suboptimal to rational regulating. Libertarianism is its own worst enemy!

Woops: What is happening here?

The Economist accompanies this chart with the following text:
Students flock to American universities from all over the world. But according to the OECD, a think-tank, over 40% of the 106,123 foreign students in the country during the 2007-08 academic year came from just three Asian countries: China, India and South Korea.
The Institute for International Education in its 2009 Open Doors report says that the number of international students at colleges and universities in the United States increased by 8% to an all-time high of 671,616 in the 2008/09 academic year.

I rather doubt that the number of foreign students increased by a factor of more than six in a year. So either the OECD number is too low, or the IIE number is too high, or both.

The IIE reports that in 2007-08 the number of foreign undergrads in the United States was 243,360 and the number of foreign graduate students was 276,842, so the OECD number is not simply one or the other reported mistakenly. (Some foreign students in colleges and universities are in non-degree programs. Of course there are also foreign students in the United States in secondary and even primary schools as well as other institutions of learning.)

I looked up the number on the OECD website, and got 595,874. This is closer to the numbers reported by the IIE, but still different.

As the debates over the U.S. Census estimates show, any count is subject to error and statistical means may be used to improve estimates of total populations by repeated sub-sampling. I suppose that the difference between the OECD and the IIE estimates may be simply such a statistical error. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding between the OECD and The Economist.

The IIE number is determined by a process used for many years which surveys U.S. colleges and universities. The OECD must be using figures provided by the U.S. government, and I don't know the process by which the government obtains its estimate.

I suppose the lesson here is not to believe everything (or anything) you read. The Economist, the OECD, and the IIE are all credible sources of information, yet The Economist value is radically different than those I found on the two other organization'sl websites.

I still feel safe in concluding that foreign students in our institutions of higher education bring a lot of money to the United States for tuition and expenses and that they contribute significantly to our higher educational system. The graduate students contribute to the research and the teaching of those institutions. And of course, large numbers of the best students from abroad remain in the United States as migrant workers and contribute to our economy in other ways after they leave school.

In another article, The Economist notes:
Migration matters. Economic growth depends on productivity, and the most productive people are often the most mobile. A quarter of America’s engineering and technology firms founded between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder, according to Vivek Wadhwa of Harvard Law School. A quarter of international patent applications filed from America were the work of foreign nationals. And such measures ignore the children of immigrants. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the stepson of a man who fled Cuba at the age of 15 and arrived without even a high-school diploma.

Richard Florida, the author of such books as “The Flight of the Creative Class” and “Who’s Your City?”, argues that countries and regions and cities are engaged in a global battle for talent. The most creative people can live more or less where they want. They tend to pick places that offer not only material comfort but also the stimulation of being surrounded by other creative types.

A Thought on Reading Professor Appiah

In his book, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, Kwame Anthony Appiah differentiates among three conceptual constructs:
  • Racialism, the belief that "there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, which allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race."
  • Extrinsic racism, the belief that moral distinctions can be made between races because they believe that the racial essence involves certain morally relevant traits.
  • Intrinsic racism, the belief that moral distinctions can be made between races quite independent of the morally relevant traits of individuals of those races, much as we make more distinctions between "our family" and "others not of our family".
I would point out that we also associate race with geography. For example, there are all sorts of medically relevant heritable characteristics, such as proclivity to Type II diabetes or gout, which could be used to divide people into groups, but we would not say that the diabetes prone are a race.

Appiah points out that racism presupposes racialism. If you can not divide people into races, then how can you attribute distinctions to membership in those races. He also points out that racialism, as he defines it, does not presuppose moral distinctions. We might differentiate the tall from the short, the blond from the red head or the twin from the single born, without assuming that there are any morally relevant characteristics of such distinctions.

I suppose that something like intrinsic racism is possibly an evolved, inherited characteristic of man. It seems clear that there is an evolutionary advantage to individuals who protect their direct lineal descendants, and so feeling a moral responsibility to take care of your kids and grandkids seems likely to have been built into us. We are social animals joining with a group to provide mutual protection and support seems also to have had survival benefits and thus to have been an evolved trait which we see as moral responsibility -- we would feel bad were we not to help those with whom we live and work. On the other hand, it would not have been a survival trait to help all the others that we came into contact with. The sheep do not do well be nurturing the wolves. So one expects there to have been an evolved distinction between those we feel we have to help and those for whom we have no such feeling.

I would guess however that the distinction between us and them is cultural, even if it builds on an innate tendency to treat others of "us" differently than one treats an "other".

The problem would seem to be that racialism is based on a naive understanding of the determinants of human behavior. There are more than 20,000 human genes, each of which may have several variants. While behavior, which would seem to be the only basis for morally relevant traits, may have a genetic component, it would appear to be the result of combinations of complex sets of genes as well as environment and "nurture". Moreover, there seems to be little reason to believe that any of the genetically based traits that are open to simple observation are closely related to any of the behavioral traits that might be morally relevant. Tall people might thereby have an advantage at basketball and people with fair skin might have an advantage producing vitamin D in low sunlight, but it is hard to see how these traits could be morally relevant.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Two from John Seely Brown

The former Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has produced a couple of new papers:
This latter paper considers an index composed of three elements, the long term forcing functions of economic change, the flow index measuring the flows in response to the forcing functions, and an impact index.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The application of science and technology has improved U.S. agriculture

Atul Gawande has a good article in The New Yorker magazine of December 14th. In the article he makes the case that getting out of our health care mess and making U.S. health services more cost-effective will be a long process in which the government must take a role, helping to develop and disseminate improved technologies, demonstrating what works, and developing the information needed to monitor the process of improvement.

Gawadne uses the development of agriculture in the United States as a prototype of what should be done.
At t the start of the twentieth century, another indispensable but unmanageably costly sector was strangling the country: agriculture. In 1900, more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food. At the same time, farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American workforce. We were, partly as a result, still a poor nation. Only by improving the productivity of farming could we raise our standard of living and emerge as an industrial power. We had to reduce food costs, so that families could spend money on other goods, and resources could flow to other economic sectors. And we had to make farming less labor-dependent, so that more of the population could enter non-farming occupations and support economic growth and development.
Land grant colleges had been started during the Civil War under President Lincoln and eventually their agricultural field stations could develop improved techniques and adapt improved techniques to local circumstances as well as train agricultural experts. In 1914 Congress established the USDA agricultural extension service.
By 1920, there were seven thousand federal extension agents, working in almost every county in the nation, and by 1930 they had set up more than seven hundred and fifty thousand demonstration farms.......

The department invested heavily in providing timely data to farmers, so that they could make more rational planting decisions. It ran the country’s weather-forecasting system. And its statistics service adopted crop-reporting systems from Europe that allowed it to provide independent crop forecasts—forecasts that, among other things, dramatically reduced speculation bubbles........

The U.S.D.A. established an information-broadcasting service. A hundred and seventeen commercial and forty-six military radio stations carried crop reports; printed reports were distributed to fifteen million farmers a year. It also introduced a grading system for food—meat, eggs, dairy products, and fresh fruits and vegetables—to flag and discourage substandard quality.......

The government never took over agriculture, but the government didn’t leave it alone, either. It shaped a feedback loop of experiment and learning and encouragement for farmers across the country. The results were beyond what anyone could have imagined. Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history.
Gawadne goes on to describe his interview with a USDA extension agent who serves 660 farms in Ohio, with an average size of a hundred and fifty acres. The agent has a Bachelors and Masters degree in agronomy, and is supported by the USDA state and national expertise. The farmers he serves are themselves highly educated and highly connected by global standards.

The process by which such an agricultural extension agent can communicate with a farmer is quite efficient -- an expert communicating with an informed practitioner often by telephone. The impact of the precise answer to an important question for a 150 acre farm may be worth quite a lot of money.

Compare that to what happens in developing nations, in which farms may be very small, often an acre or less, the farmers much less educated and connected than in the United States, served by a less educated extension worker who has less backup from the research and extension service of his government. No wonder it takes decades to bring agricultural productivity up to global standards for the poorest nations.

Gawadne is clearly right that there is a fruitful analogy between the success in the 20th century of the U.S. Government's role in improving agricultural productivity and the potential for success of a U.S. Government role in improving health productivity in the 21st century.


A thought on the Civil War


I just finished Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson.

The 15 states in the Confederacy had the professional soldiers, the 18 states of the Union had the population, the manufacturing and the communications. It took 4 years for the 22 million northerners with 32 times the arms production to conquer the Confederacy. It seems to me that it did so by:
  • Isolating the Confederacy from foreign aid, perhaps especially when in the middle of the war the Emancipation Proclamation was issued making it a war about slavery.
  • Destroying the economic base of the Confederacy by blockade (of an economy that traded cotton for manufactured goods), freeing the slaves, confiscating property, destroying the inland shipping and railroad infrastructure, and devastating the land and agricultural production.
  • Bringing more and better supplied armies to bear on the Confederate armies, in part by the introduction of the draft and the recruitment of 200,000 black soldiers and in part by the manufacturing strength (85,000 Spencer repeating rifles made the Union cavalry a fearsome force in the last year of the war). The refusal to exchange prisoners by the North, and the policy by the South of killing black soldiers and their officers taken prisoners may both have helped.
McPherson is a great fan of Lincolns and no fan of most of the Union generals. I was interested to see that the Union was foolish enough to appoint politicians to high military offices early in the war, but smart enough to let Grant, Sherman and Sheridan rise to command the key armies through merit. McPherson makes the argument well that a lot of the (political) Union generals were rather terrible people as well as weak military leaders.

Still, the approach of waiting to begin battle until one has overwhelming military advantages for the Union side does not seem too bad to me, since it was possible to mobilize such advantages, and especially since Confederate generals such as Lee and Jackson seemed too talented.

I remain unconvinced the Lincoln by several years of reading during the war attained a great deal of military expertise.

Of course, one does not judge Lincoln solely, or even primarily as a military leader. I have to like the guy who grabbed an ax to help soldiers clearing trees or who often went to visit the troops and the wounded, sometimes bringing his wife. And of course, his judgment on the protection of the union, the abolition of slavery, the limits of the interference with civil rights, and the political actions needed to successfully prosecute the war were the bases for the rating as perhaps our greatest president. His military skills were just icing on the cake.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Teaching Science in the Schools

Once it was assumed that teaching science primarily involved helping students to know a lot of scientific facts and understand how things work. The last century has made clear that a lot of the scientific facts we thought we knew were only partially true, and of course there is a huge amount of knowledge still to be gained by science -- such as how genetics really works, how the brain works, what the universe is really composed of and how it came into existence, how many species inhabit the earth, how ecologies work, and whether there is life elsewhere in the universe.

A few decades ago scientist-educators introduced discovery methods into the curriculum, helping students to learn how to discover scientific facts for themselves, and building an understanding in those students of the discovery process.

It seems to me that schools should also teach how science really works. The idea of experimentally verifiable hypotheses, of replication of experiments, of peer review, of the growth of theory -- indeed the idea of science as a collaborative enterprise of civilization.

Schools should also teach information literacy. Not all sources of scientific information are equally valid. (Sarah Palin's statements on science are less credible than those of the IPCC.) Indeed, not all statements of scientific belief by scientists are equally credible. Schools should help kids to understand how to attach credibility to sources of scientific information welll.

The teaching of science should also be concerned with affect -- helping kids to like learning about science and enthusing them about what it would be like to be a grown-up scientist. Since the vast majority of kids who study science in primary and secondary school will not become scientists themselves, schools should teach those kids how to appreciate what science can bring to their future lives.

It is increasingly clear that schools should also help kids to understand that they have future responsibilities to understand science. There are a lot of people out there who deny that man is responsible for global warming, and if pressed blame scientists for not making the public understand why the scientific community is so convinced of that scientific fact. The truth is that citizens have the responsibility to understand that science if they are to elect representatives to legislate on greenhouse gas emissions. That is but one example of many cases in which citizens have a responsibility to understand information that should influence their votes, consumers the responsibility to understand information that should influence their consumption, members of society should understand information that should influence their decisions on socio-economic institutions, etc.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thank you President Obama

For:
  • Economic initiatives that have warded off a depression
  • Placing the United States in a global leadership position in the amelioration of climate change
  • Leading the nation toward a much needed reform of our health services
Next year perhaps you can get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and begin to get the federal budget under control.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Factoid -- Researchers waste a lot of time on bureaucracy

"A recent study by the U.S. Federal Demonstration Project showed that U.S. researchers spend 42% of the time allocated to research on administrative tasks."
Source: Alan I. Leshner and Vaughan Turekian in a Science editorial

Two from the National Academies

Past controversies over historical temperature trends and access to research data have resurfaced amid a stir over old e-mail exchanges among climate scientists that were stolen from a university in the U.K. Two National Research Council reports in particular address these issues. Guiding principles for maintaining the integrity and accessibility of research data were recommended in a report released earlier this year, and a 2006 report examined how much confidence could be placed in historical surface temperature reconstructions.

Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Agerecommends that researchers -- both publicly and privately funded -- make the data and methods underlying their reported results public in a timely manner, except in unusual cases where there is a compelling reason not to do so. In such cases, researchers should explain why data are being withheld. But the default position should be to share data -- a practice that allows conclusions to be verified, contributes to further scientific advances, and permits the development of beneficial goods and services.

Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Past 2,000 Years examined what tree rings, boreholes, retreating glaciers, and other "proxies" can tell us about the planet's temperature record, and in particular how much confidence could be placed in a graph that became known as the "hockey stick," which depicted a steep rise in temperatures after a 1,000-year period in the last few decades of the 20th century. The committee that wrote the report found sufficient evidence to say with a high level of confidence that the last decades of the 20th century were warmer than any comparable period in the last 400 years. It said less confidence could be placed in reconstructions of temperatures prior to 1600, although proxy data does indicate that many locations are warmer now than they were between A.D. 900 and 1600. Proxy data for periods prior to A.D. 900 are sparse, the report notes.

10 States provide 60 percent of state R&D funding

According to 2007 data from the National Science Foundation, the states in order of funding are:
  1. New York
  2. Ohio
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. Florida
  5. California
  6. New Jersey
  7. Illinois
  8. Indiana
  9. Maryland
  10. North Carolina
Note how California, a huge state with several centers of research and development and a once very strong system of higher education is now only 5th. This must be a result of public demands, expressed at the ballot box, for a less assertive government. Lets hope the people understood the long term impact of their frugality on the future of the state.

Five score years for the new born?

The days of our years are threescore years and ten
Psalms 90

Nature magazine recently published an article titled "Ageing populations: the challenges ahead". Abstract:
If the pace of increase in life expectancy in developed countries over the past two centuries continues through the 21st century, most babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the USA, Canada, Japan, and other countries with long life expectancies will celebrate their 100th birthdays. Although trends differ between countries, populations of nearly all such countries are ageing as a result of low fertility, low immigration, and long lives. A key question is: are increases in life expectancy accompanied by a concurrent postponement of functional limitations and disability? The answer is still open, but research suggests that ageing processes are modifiable and that people are living longer without severe disability. This finding, together with technological and medical development and redistribution of work, will be important for our chances to meet the challenges of ageing populations.
An article at Knowledge@Wharton expands on this projection, noting that we will have to educate these kids differently, giving them the skills to adopt several professions during their lifetimes. We better start now revamping primary, secondary and tertiary education systems because they have a lot of inertia.

The article also points out that older workers are likely to be more interested in part time work, telecommuting, and knowledge work rather than work involving physical labor. It suggests that as older workers will want more flexibility in schedules, so too might younger workers who will be seeking opportunities to keep up their knowledge bases, to acquire new skills, and indeed even to build new career options. That means major changes in the productive institutions of our society as well as life long learning opportunities.

Look too at the predicted composition of the population. The aging white folk are going to depend more and more on the younger non-white and Hispanic folk and immigrants to run our economy. We better learn to be nice to them!

Want to save money?

Watch this half hour talk by behavioral economist Dan Ariely. One tip -- before you make a purchase with a significant financial implication think what advice you would receive from someone whose judgment you respect would be about the purchase. Another is to think about your future and make a serious decision about how much to save, and then make the saving automatic. Pay cash when you buy things!

Of course behavioral economics should also inform economic policy. If we set up economic institutions in such a way that they encourage economic prudence rather than excess spending, society may be better. We should also realize that a lot of economic behavior is culturally determined rather than based on analytic decision making by the individual economic actor, and public policy might improve behavior by deliberate modification of economic culture.

A Thought occasioned by a review of Afatar

The reviewer commented that it was ironic that a film that had such a strong message on the dangers of modern civilization to the environment and to promote ever more dangerous warfare was made with the most advanced filmmaker technology.

Of course technology is a tool, not a policy. It is the way we use advanced technology that creates the problem, not the technology per se. Indeed our best chance to avoid future disaster lies in the effective use of advanced technology:
  • Energy technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and will eventually reduce our dependency on fossil fuels
  • Agricultural technologies that will increase productivity on cultivated lands thereby both feeding our growing population and decreasing pressures on marginal lands
  • Information and communications technologies which offer both the hope of amplified intelligence with which to better face our problems and improved communication to better span the cultural divides which lead to war
  • Biomedical technologies which will offer a healthier and longer life
I guess it is not surprising that a film critic is a closet technophobe, even if he likes some high tech films.

Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences

My friend Julianne alerted me to this paper by Pierre Azoulay, Joshua S. Gra Zivin and Gustavo Manso:

Abstract
Despite its presumed role as an engine of economic growth, we know surprisingly little about the drivers of scienti c creativity. In this paper, we exploit key di erences across funding streams within the academic life sciences to estimate the impact of incentives on the rate and direction of scienti c exploration. Speci cally, we study the careers of investigators of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which tolerates early failure, rewards longterm success, and gives its appointees great freedom to experiment; and grantees from the National Institute of Health, which are subject to short review cycles, pre-de ned deliverables, and renewal policies unforgiving of failure. Using a combination of propensity-score weighting and di erence-in-di erences estimation strategies, we nd that HHMI investigators produce high-impact papers at a much higher rate than two control groups of similarly-accomplished NIH-funded scientists. Moreover, the direction of their research changes in ways that suggest the program induces them to explore novel lines of inquiry.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Thought About Human Rights

This morning members of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO were told that there had been a debate at UNESCO as to whether people had a right to water. Apparently there are some who oppose granting such a right since the costs of making water available in acceptable quantities to everyone would be significant, and would not be affordable to some countries and communities.

Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
This clearly implies that everyone has a right to an adequate amount of water to assure the health and well-being of himself and of his family, since we know that there are waterborne diseases, waterwashed diseases (that can be prevented by washing utensils or people), and that food production requires water.

But what then does it mean to say that people in rural sub-Saharan Africa have a right to potable water if their societies don't have the resources to provide everyone with potable water quickly, and if donors are unwilling to step in a fill the bill?

We were also told this morning that UNESCO is preparing to emphasize workforce preparation in education. For decades a right to basic education has been recognized. That right too raises the difficulty that some kids don't get basic education services, and that some countries feel that they can not afford universal basic education and can not obtain donor aid adequate to the provision of that education. Anyway, what is basic education, and is it the same for all societies? I don't know, but I doubt it.

It seems to me however that the emphasis of workforce preparation may lead to a deemphasis of the rights of the poor to basic education in favor of an allocation of resources to more advanced education for fields and specialties thought to be more conducive to the development of a workforce conducive to high rates of economic growth.

But if people have a right to medical care and social services, does that not mean that the society is required to prepare and employ the workforce capable of providing those services? If everyone has a right to food, does the society not have a responsibility to prepare and employ the workforce necessary to provide that food, and does that workforce not include a number of highly trained and professional agricultural workers?

The rights versus utilitarian approaches to decision making about education, health and water and other public services are not simple but the debate is informative.

Should Immunization Decisions be Internal to the Family

I heard a woman interviews on a PBS program on the H1N1 flu pandemic state as if obvious that the decision to immunize a child should be made by the family. That strikes me as simply wrong. First, few families have the knowledge of the risks of immunization versus the risks of the disease; those families need expert advice so the trained practitioner should be fully involved in the decision.

More fundamentally, immunization is a communal decision. If a high level of immunity can be obtained for a total population, then a communicable disease will not spread -- each immunization benefits others, each unimmunized child represents a threat to others. Moreover, the risks and benefits are non-linear, because the threat of the epidemic/pandemic is highly nonlinear around the point where one victim is on the average likely to infect more or less than one other person. If it benefits a community to have a high level of herd immunity, then the community as well as the family has an interest in the immunization decision. Indeed, modern network theory has pointed out that the threat posed by one unimmunized person depends greatly on who that person is and the way he/she is connected with others. While it may be OK to leave the decision on immunization to a family that lives in isolation in rural Alaska, it is clearly not OK to have public health nurses dealing with large numbers of immuno-compromised patients unimmunized.

Similarly, it a family expects that a child who becomes seriously ill with flu will be hospitalized and provided with intensive medical care, and if the family expects that the costs of that care will be shared with the community (by public health services or some form of health insurance) then the immunization decision has economic implications for the others who might help pay for the care of the sick. In this case too, the public has a right to participate in the decision.

Of course, in our society we allow for families to play a key role in such decisions. It is the family that bears the greatest risks if a member falls ill, and it is a family that will know if there are medical reasons why a member should not be immunized. Moreover, a family might have religious reasons to avoid immunization. However, the family rights do not trump the community rights to participate in the decision.

On the meeting of the UNESCO National Commission

I just listened to a three hour long teleconference of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. The Commission had been inactive for more than a year as a result of the change over from the Bush to the Obama administration.

Those listening were treated to a talk by David Killion, the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO speaking from Paris, and from Esther Brimmer, the Assistant Secretary of State. Elizabeth Kannick, the new caretaker of the National Commission did a great job of keeping the process going. It seems clear that the Obama appointees are going to allow the National Commission a much broader and more active role than did their predecessors.

As constituted, one-third of the Commissioners are rotated each year, with terms of office ending at the end of December. The outgoing administration had not made new appointments to replace the people leaving at the end of last year, and so the Obama folk are going to have to appoint 2/3rds of the 100 members.

One thing I found of concern. The recent General Conference created a number of new UNESCO initiatives and the United States is clearly interested in UNESCO doing more in some of its key areas of responsibility. However, the Organization is being held to a minimal-growth budget. I realize that we are in a period of budgetary restraint, but doing more with less is not always possible. While the United States is the largest contributor to UNESCO, getting UNESCO to do something that we would otherwise have to do bilaterally gives us four-to-one leverage of our contribution. And for some purposes, UNESCO does things better than we could do bilaterally.

Tainted Tap Water

Thirty-five years after Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, some regulators and environmentalists say the law is now so out of date that it fails to protect people from the most obvious threats.



My water supply in Maryland's Montgomery County failed to meet some federal standards and some health guidelines that are tighter than the federal standards. This is one of the richest, best governed counties in the country, and I filter my water!

An animated journey through the Earth's climate history


BBC News provides a nice short introduction to help understand long term trends in global climate. I quote:
Over time, the Earth's orbit around the Sun varies slightly.

This changes the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth's surface, alternately warming and cooling the planet's surface.

In a warming phase, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are released and amplify the warming - increasing the natural greenhouse effect. They are stored again when an ice age starts.

So over this period, we see temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations changing in step, in cycles lasting about 100,000 years.

About 10,000 years ago, the Earth emerged from its most recent ice age. Agriculture developed, and the extra food supported a growing global population.....

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes it is more than 90% probable that the warming seen in the second half of the 20th Century is mainly driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases.
I strongly recommend that you watch the video animation of this report.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

American Medical Services Must Be Reformed

The new National Geographic magazine points out that:
  • The United States spends $7,290 per capita on health services, compared to an average of $2,986 among developed nations. The second highest spending is $4,417 in Switzerland.
  • The United States has a life expectancy of 78 years, less than the average of 79.2 of its sample of OECD countries. Japan has a life expectancy of nearly 83 years.
  • In the United States the average number of visits per year is less than 4. In Japan it is more than 12.
Clearly we are getting less health for our money than we should. Part of the problem is that medical costs are too high. For those of you who are not covered by HMOs, the incentives are to provide service to the sick, not to keep you well. We also spend too much on the bureaucratics of health financing, and too much on medical services to defend providers against possible lawsuits.

The problem of low life expectancy is in large part due to the inequities in our system. Poor people die earlier because they don't have equitable access to health education and health services.

It is time for the Congress to act to improve the situation.

Quotation: President Lincoln

"I am never easy when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it North, and bounded it South, and bounded it East, and bounded it West."
Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How should science be presented to the public

David Dickson has an interesting editorial on SciDev.Net dealing with Climategate and the impact of the hacking and release of the emails on those discussing global climate change. He points out, correctly I believe, that scientists are more human than the formalized reports of their research would suggest to the non-scientist. The ideas of what to study, how to study it, how to report results, and especially how to interpret the meaning of the results all are very human and often are worked out in small group discussions, even sometimes in email exchanges.

Dickson suggests that the IPCC having presented the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and will increase in this century as the result of a more ethereal process than it really is, allowed critics to unduly undermine confidence in the conclusion when the public saw something of the process.

There is an old saying that like sausage, it is better not to see how laws are made. Scientific culture seems to feel that it is also better for the public not to see how science is really made.

My experience as a researcher and as an administrator of scientific programs suggests that people do work very seriously to make science and that their opinions, when based on their professional background and research, are generally worthy of respect. The IPCC was an exceptionally serious effort to reach a valid conclusion, similar to perhaps the Cochrane Collaboration which seeks to identify the conclusions of biomedical research that are sufficiently sound for medical standards to be based upon.

The fourth paradigm of science

Source: "A Deluge of Data Shapes a New Era in Computing," JOHN MARKOFF, The New York Times, December 14, 2009.

"in January 2007, Jim Gray, a database software pioneer and a Microsoft researcher, sketched out an argument that computing was fundamentally transforming the practice of science.

"Dr. Gray called the shift a 'fourth paradigm.' The first three paradigms were experimental, theoretical and, more recently, computational science. He explained this paradigm as an evolving era in which an “exaflood” of observational data was threatening to overwhelm scientists. The only way to cope with it, he argued, was a new generation of scientific computing tools to manage, visualize and analyze the data flood.

"In essence, computational power created computational science, which produced the overwhelming flow of data, which now requires a computing change. It is a positive feedback loop in which the data stream becomes the data flood and sculptures a new computing landscape.......

"He argued that government should instead focus on supporting cheaper clusters of computers to manage and process all this data. This is distributed computing, in which a nation full of personal computers can crunch the pools of data involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or protein folding.

"The goal, Dr. Gray insisted, was not to have the biggest, fastest single computer, but rather “to have a world in which all of the science literature is online, all of the science data is online, and they interoperate with each other.” He was instrumental in making this a reality, particularly for astronomy, for which he helped build vast databases that wove much of the world’s data into interconnected repositories that have created, in effect, a worldwide telescope"

Comment: What an interesting idea. Of course, it is an idea that can be generalized, for example to government. Think of harnessing the computer power of the cloud of computers not only in government offices but in a nation to do the government's work! JAD

Trends in the Numbers of New Research Doctorate Recipients Kwy Findings

  • The 48,802 research doctorates awarded in 2008 is the highest number in the history of U.S. higher education, but growth rates have slowed in recent years (table 1).

  • Life sciences accounted for 11,088 research doctorates awarded in 2008, the largest number by broad field (table 5).

  • Women received 46% of all research doctorates awarded in 2008, the 13th consecutive year in which women received more than 40% of doctorates awarded (table 7).

  • A total of 6,981 U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups were awarded research doctorates in 2008—23% of the U.S. citizens and permanent residents who earned research doctorates and reported race/ethnicity (table 8).

  • Asians earned 2,543 research doctorates in 2008, more than members of any other U.S. racial/ethnic minority group (table 8).

  • Of graduates with known citizenship status, 67% were U.S. citizens or permanent residents and 33% were non-U.S. citizen temporary visa holders (table 11).

  • China (including Hong Kong) was the country of origin for the largest number of non-U.S. graduates in 2008, with 4,526 (table 12).

  • The median total time span from baccalaureate to doctorate among graduates was 9.4 years; median duration between starting and completing graduate school was 7.7 years (table 18).

graduates was 9.4 years; median duration between starting and completing graduate school was 7.7 years (table 18).

Comment: Note that the vast majority of the Ph.D. graduates who study in the United States under temporary visas plan to stay in this country after their degrees, at least in science, technology, health and professional fields. The bring a lot of brains and skills to our economy, as well as improving our connections with and understanding of the rest of the world. JAD

A Thought on reading Tried by War

I have been reading Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson. There is a lesson which I suspect I should have already known. President Lincoln thought he was a military expert because he read some books on military strategy after becoming President. The politicians he appointed to his cabinet all thought they were military experts, based on almost no preparation in military strategy. The leading generals, especially at the beginning of the war, thought they were much smarter and better prepared than the civil authorities to define the objectives of the war and the way it should be prosecuted. All those prima donnas made it almost impossible to prosecute the war well.

Are we reminded of the General MacArthur in the Korean War, the U.S. leadership in the Korean War, or the U.S. leadership in the wars of the last decade?

Lucy Liu on Human Trafficking


USAID's Frontlines magazine has an interview with Lucy Liu. I quote:
Estimates show that human trafficking takes in $10 billion worldwide, second only to drug trafficking. Every year between 700,000 and 4 million people are bought and sold. Many victims, both boys and girls, are as young as 7 years old—some are younger.
Thanks to Ms. Liu for pointing out how huge this problem continues to be. We think that slavery has been eliminated, but how many years of the Atlantic slave trade from Africa to the Western hemisphere saw a million souls sold into slavery? JAD

It is time to reform the U.S. Foreign Assistance bureaucracy


Source: "What’s the Story on Militarization?" Ron Capps, Monday Developments via FrontLines, November 2009.

Obviously the objectives of development agencies, diplomats and the military are different. Experts in social and economic development have knowledge and skills that are generally not found either in the State Department nor in the armed services.

Over the decades since the Viet Nam war, the number of development experts in the United States government has been allowed to decline. Moreover, there has been a focusing of foreign assistance on limited objectives relating to the reduction of the worst aspects of poverty rather than nation building. As a result, few of those remaining in the U.S. foreign assistance program have a broad understanding of social and economic development.

In the past decade the U.S. Agency for International Development has been weakened and responsibilities for development assistance have been transferred to the State Department and the Department of Defense as well as to the Millennium Development Corporation.

While there are over 2,300,000 uniformed service members, there are fewer than 6,800 Foreign Service Officers at the Department of State and about 1,400 Foreign Service Officers at USAID. The General Accounting Office claims nearly 30 percent of language-designated positions at American embassies are filled by inadequately trained officials, and a recent article in Foreign Affairs noted that American embassies in Africa are short 30 percent of their assigned staffs......

Personnel numbers alone still don’t tell the whole story. A recent study by the Association for American Diplomacy and the Henry L. Stimson Center repeatedly cited a lack of program management skills at State and USAID. Congress has granted the Department of Defense authorities and funding for security and development assistance that should reside with State and USAID; and it did so principally because the civilian agencies cannot carry their load. A congressional report cites a waning of diplomatic effectiveness in representing U.S. interests as foreign officials “follow the money,” increasingly emphasizing defense relations over diplomacy. The RAND Corporation calls these discrepancies “a dysfunctional skewing of resourcesto- tasks.”....

The real story here is that America has just passed the outermost point of one of our regular foreign policy pendulum swings and we are headed back to a more centered approach. Right now, we in the development, humanitarian assistance, and advocacy communities have an opportunity to influence the political story line. Now is the time to press for greater funding for civilian personnel, more training to increase civilian capacity, and a return of authorities and funding and oversight of development and security assistance to the Department of State and USAID.

True of the UK, and also true of the US

The following is from Developments:
Television is lagging a long way behind its audiences. The UK has an increasingly ethnically diverse population, and people travel abroad for work, leisure and gap years. We consume music, food, clothes and media from around the world, and have interests and hobbies which connect us to a range of different places. Yet what we see on television doesn’t reflect this.

This was the conclusion of a recent piece of research, The World in Focus. The study asked how TV, as people’s main source of information about the wider world, portrays developing countries and show these interconnections. Are we being given enough or the right information and impressions of the rest of the world and our place in it?

A couple of developing country cloud computing examples

Zunia recently identified these two applications of cloud computing which I list because they are in Asia rather than North America nor Europe:
In view of the opportunities presented by cloud computing, the Thai government has started experimenting with hybrid clouds to roll out e-government services to the rural areas. Jirapon Tubtimhim, Director, Government Information Technology Infrastructure, National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre, reveals what the government has been doing and the lessons learnt...
The National University of Singapore built a private cloud to address increasing end-users’ demands. Tan Chee Chiang, Associate Director, High Performance Computing, Computer Centre, National University of Singapore, shares the university’s approach to cloud and the challenges they have faced along the way...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Result from a poll by The Economist

I wonder about this. The vast majority of the respondents say that under no circumstances would an authoritarian government be better than a democratic one. How about an authoritarian government under an enlightened genius with the best interests of the governed paramount versus a democratic government which is corrupt and inefficient, in the hands of a prejudiced mob? What indeed does such a question mean to the respondents.

What are the respondents thinking of who do not think democratic government is best, but who think authoritarian governments can never be better than democratic ones? Maybe they just think the questions are stupid.

Where does all the computer power go?


According to The Economist:
Last year an IBM supercomputer called Roadrunner, based at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, established a new record by operating at more than one petaflop (1,000 trillion calculations a second). Roadrunner is the world’s first “hybrid” supercomputer, having been assembled in part from off-the-shelf equipment, including 12,960 Cell processor chips like those found inside the PS3. It will be used to simulate the behaviour of nuclear weapons.
The Economist, in another related article about a new virtual autopsy system states:
The body needing to be examined is first scanned using a computed tomography (CT) machine, a process which takes about 20 seconds and creates up to 25,000 images, each one a slice through the body. Different tissues, bodily substances and foreign objects (such as bullets) absorb the scanner’s X-rays in varying amounts. The software recognises these and assigns them a density value. These densities are then rendered with the aid of an NVIDiA graphics card, of a type used for high-speed gaming, into a 3-D visualisation of different colours and opacities. Air pockets are shown as blue, soft tissues as beige, blood vessels as red and bone as white. A pathologist can then peel through layers of virtual skin and muscle with the click of a computer mouse.

To make the process easier, Dr Persson and his colleagues have also created a virtual autopsy table. This is a large touch-sensitive LCD screen which stands like a table in an operating room, displaying an image of the body. Up to six people can gather around the table and, with a swipe of a finger, remove layers of muscle, zoom in and out of organs and slice through tissue with a virtual knife.

Are We Alone?: Skeptic Check

I was listening to this program on the radio this morning. The topic was flu vaccine and the fears stirred by vaccines in segments of the general population. I was struck by a couple of things:
  • The concept of "false balance". The media unfortunately sometimes tries to appear balanced by juxtaposing a scientific viewpoint, supported by evidence from carefully controlled experiments which have been replicated and described in peer reviewed publications with anecdotal evidence or worse with completely unsupported assertions. While such assertions may be well motivated by "true believers" with superstitious beliefs, they may also be meretricious assertions made for private gain.
  • Our evolved interest in stories. People do like to tell and to hear stories. Often we can learn from the stories that are told. Check your newspaper and you will see how often information of general applicability is cloaked in the story of an individual or a family. The problem is that science advances by amassing data. The broadcast noted that "data is not the plural of anecdote".
Remember the old Skinner Box experiment in which an animal could get a food reward by pressing a lever. Often the animals would exhibit a complex chain of behavior before pushing the lever, apparently failing to recognize that only one element of that behavioral chain was needed. But the chain which does ultimately result in the benefit became "superstitious" in that sense that it was falsely believed to be necessary to the desired result/

It occurs to me that there is a fundamental difference in the two stories:
  • I was immunized and I did not get sick.
  • I was immunized and I got sick.
The event of "getting sick" makes a much more interesting story than the event of "not getting sick".

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A New Report from the UN Foundation

Read an article relating to the report published by BBC News
New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflict

Sarah Palin’s Copenhagen-Bashing Op-Ed One Of Most Read WaPo Opinion Pieces Of The Year

Greg Sargent reports on his blog that Sarah Palin's piece on the credibility of the scientific community consensus on anthropogenic climate change
was one of the most-read WaPo opinion pieces of the year, coming in 21st in page views out of literally hundreds of opinion articles. An earlier Palin Op ed in the paper on the same topic was the third most read of the year.
So is the Washington Post seeking to provide the best quality information to its readers or to bring a lot of eyes to its copy in order to make a lot of money? And if the latter, do you want your eyes to be included in that calculation in the future?

A cautionary tale: Where numbers come from

Megan Carpentier posted on AirAmerica suggesting that the magic number 30 appears much more frequently than one would expect in reports of collateral damage of air strikes in Afghanistan. She attributes that to a rule that field commanders are required to obtain Washington permission for an air strike that would have more than 30 killed as collateral damage. Field commanders probably don't like bothering top officials in Washington nor waiting for permission, and so decide that strikes are unlikely to cause more than the magic number of deaths and injuries. And of course, in post reporting of actual casualties military bureaucrats are not likely to tell Washington that the rule of 30 had not been followed. Do they round down the estimates? It certainly seems possible.

It is always a good idea to look at the distribution of repeated numerical estimates, and if that distribution appears unlikely, to question the accuracy of the estimation process!