Sunday, February 28, 2010

Illiteracy Hurts More and More

Another article in the same issue of The Economist states:
Researchers at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) examined the flow of data to American households. They found that in 2008 such households were bombarded with 3.6 zettabytes of information (or 34 gigabytes per person per day). The biggest data hogs were video games and television. In terms of bytes, written words are insignificant, amounting to less than 0.1% of the total. However, the amount of reading people do, previously in decline because of television, has almost tripled since 1980, thanks to all that text on the internet. In the past information consumption was largely passive, leaving aside the telephone. Today half of all bytes are received interactively, according to the UCSD. Future studies will extend beyond American households to quantify consumption globally and include business use as well.
Estimates of the number of illiterates, such as the 700 million made by UNESCO, are clearly too low, depending on poor methods used in surveys, but one may assume that there are a billion illiterate adults in the world. They are increasingly distanced from the information society.

Where does all the computer power go?

The Economist has a special report this week on managing information. Here are some excerpts from the first article in the report:
Wal-Mart, a retail giant, handles more than 1m customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes—the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress......

The business of information management—helping organisations to make sense of their proliferating data—is growing by leaps and bounds. In recent years Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and SAP between them have spent more than $15 billion on buying software firms specialising in data management and analytics. This industry is estimated to be worth more than $100 billion and growing at almost 10% a year, roughly twice as fast as the software business as a whole......

there are 4.6 billion mobile-phone subscriptions worldwide (though many people have more than one, so the world’s 6.8 billion people are not quite as well supplied as these figures suggest), and 1 billion-2 billion people use the internet.....

The amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years. Moore’s law, which the computer industry now takes for granted, says that the processing power and storage capacity of computer chips double or their prices halve roughly every 18 months. The software programs are getting better too. Edward Felten, a computer scientist at Princeton University, reckons that the improvements in the algorithms driving computer applications have played as important a part as Moore’s law for decades.......

By 2013 the amount of traffic flowing over the internet annually will reach 667 exabytes, according to Cisco, a maker of communications gear.

I think of "data" as distinct from "information" and "knowledge". Data is simply a measure of the number of bytes in an image or document. Information is a measure of the reduction in uncertainty possible due to the data. Knowledge is internalized, normally in a person but possibly in a machine or organization's structure and processes.

More on what Republicans Believe

From Gene Weingarten's column today:
Did you read about the recent poll of registered Republicans, the one that showed them to be just a tad ... extreme? More than half believe President Obama might not have been born in the United States and maybe should be impeached. Only 8 percent believe that openly gay people should be allowed to teach in the public schools. Three-quarters believe public school children should be taught that the Book of Genesis explains the origin of life. About half believe that the birth-control pill is, or might be, the same as abortion. Ninety-one percent are in favor of the death penalty.

What Republicans Believe

Source: Gallup Poll

It is hard to reconcile the belief that the universe was created 10,000 years ago with the fossil record on earth, much less with a view of the universe as consisting of 100 to 1000 billion galaxies, each with 100 to 1000 billion stars some so far from earth that light takes billions of years to span the distance. I rather like the doctrine which I understand to hold that if scientific evidence conflicts with religious dogma, one must misunderstand one of the other. Where for example is it written that God created the universe 10,000 years ago?

A Complaint About Conservative Views

This initial post (plus this correction) reveal a fascinating pattern that emerges from asking self-identified conservatives about the spending cuts they'd want to see.

Source: Daily KOS

Comment: Rich countries have a general agreement that they should devote 0.51 percent of GDP to foreign aid. That is fifty cents per $100. The United States devotes less than 0.2 percent of GDP to foreign aid, and most of that goes to battle fields such as Iraq and Iran or to fulfill commitments made in the search for peace, such as those made to Egypt and Israel as part of their peace process. Yet more than half of self-identified conservatives want to reduce that aid. That view seems very mean spirited to me!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My thoughts are with the people of Chile

My wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Chile in the mid 1960's when the country was still rebuilding after the earthquake of 1960. We still have a warm spot in our hearts for the people of Chile, and we begin to understand how something of the tragedy of this earthquake. I expect the tragedy to be worst for the poor and I expect that it will take years for the worst hit to rebuild. The people of Chile have my best wishes!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Technology is coming to the rescue of languages

An article in the Independent (UK) states:
Microsoft's Local Language Program (LLP) aims to enrich the lives by providing people with access to new technology while trying to promote diverse cultural identities and preserve local languages. It also hopes to enable users to assist in the continuation and future development of native languages.

On February 22 Microsoft announced they had added an additional 59 new Language Interface Packs (LIPs) for Windows 7 and Office 2010 to their existing offering of 67 languages.

A second initiative, called Caption Language Interface Packs (CLIPs), enables computer users to customize a base language with more than 400,000 terms.
I frequently use Google's Translate. It includes 52 languages, allowing translation from each into any of the others.

Of course, UNESCO keeps track of more than 6000 languages, many of which are endangered. While it is great that it is easier to deal with the digital world in a larger group of languages, I doubt that we will see facilities for the endangered languages (at least any time soon). The result may be more emphasis on learning a second language for the speakers of the endangered languages, leading to still greater likelihood that they will be abandoned.

While it is a good thing that more people will be able to communicate with each other and that more people will be able to access the wealth of digital information, it is probably not a good thing that languages will die out with the cultural destruction that such deaths imply. What is the balance?

A comment on brain activity

There is a good article in the March edition of Scientific American ("The Brain's Dark Energy" by Marcus E. Raichle) describing the emerging understanding that not only is the human brain always active, but that when it is not responding to immediate stimulus or managing physical action it must be doing important things. Otherwise why would it be expending almost as much energy when one is resting or asleep as it does during "activity". The researchers show that there are large areas of the brain that form what the author calls the Default Mode Network.

One thing that the author mentions is that research has shown that when Slow Cortical Potentials (which cycle relatively slowly in the brain) are on the rise there is an increase in signals at other potentials.

Back in the 1960s I was studying artificial neural networks. I wrote an article on time-varying threshold logic. I had recognized that one could increase the processing power of a neural network by providing a cycling input and recognizing not only that neurons fired in response to stimulus but when they fired during the cycle.

Of course the models of the 1960s were very simple, but they were useful in demonstrating the kinds of things that networks of simple elements could actually compute. It appears that the paper I wrote has disappeared from the conscious memory of the neuroscientists.

Foreign Aid Flows

"Foreign aid to poor countries from the rich countries in the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee will reach a record $107.4 billion this year, according to the Paris-based club’s latest projections. But although the rich members of the European Union promised in 2005 to give 0.51% of their GDP as aid by 2010, only some will reach that target."

Comment: The United States is next to last on the chart, with less than 0.2% of GDP devoted to foreign assistance. That in fact is an improvement from the past, as the following graph demonstrates. JAD

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Juxtaposition of two television programs

These lucky ones survived to go to school, look healthy,
are allowed to go to school rather than work, and
even have a roof to protect them from the rain.

Charlie Rose has been doing a series of discussions on public broadcasting on the human brain. The fifth of these discussions focused on the cognitive and neurological research that is illuminating brain development and functioning in young children. The program ends with a statement hoping that our new knowledge of the brain and cognition will soon allow us to improve educational services.

Frontline this week did a segment on primary education in Pakistan. Of the 67.5 million kids of what we in the developed world would consider school age, only about 30 million are in school there. While 20,000 schools are held outside for lack of a school building, other schools are closed -- because their teachers stopped teaching and their neighbors looted the unoccupied buildings. The madrasas teaching the Koran are occupied and thriving, while the public schools are criticized as working from books and curricula that lead to hate of the West and Christians.

The new Education for All Global Monitoring Report (2010 focusing on marginalization) makes the point that not only are far too many marginalized kids denied schooling but even when they do get to school, their potential has too often been reduced by malnutrition, illness, and lack of intellectual stimulation as infants and preschoolers.

If poor countries do not raise generations of children to get them out of poverty, they will remain poor. That seems pretty obvious. Unfortunately, Pakistan is not alone in under-investing in kids. Yet it is difficult to see how to deal with a cultural melange that includes so many who undervalue education, so many who would not educate girls and women, who believe that education beyond the articles of faith is unimportant or even counterproductive, or who believe that corruption is acceptable.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Debate: Africa and China: Resolved that China's Growing Involvement in Africa is to be Welcomed

In this debate posted on The Economist;s website, positions are stated by Calestous Juma and George Ayittey is some detail. Both identify advantages to Africa of the Chinese involvement as well as dangers, but differ on the overall balance. There is then an open discussion by viewers.

Comment: The commercial interests of the United States (Africa's largest trading partner) and Europe (Africa's colonial exploiter) have not been disinterested much less philanthropically oriented. Africa is seeking to diversify its international interests in order to reduce dependency, and that is quite understandable. Whether it is able to do so will depend significantly on the decisions made by African governments and the African private sector. One hopes that they will make decisions that are good for their economies and their people. On the other hand, there are a lot of governments and national business sectors in Africa for which the odds of such good decisions would be quite long against.


"The poor state of infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa—its electricity, water, roads and information and communications technology (ICT)—cuts national economic growth by two percentage points every year and reduces productivity by as much as 40 percent."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Towards a new set of global educational goals

The global community has been working to goals -- the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All goals. In both cases 2015 is a magic date and the question comes up as to which if any targets should be set for what period following 2015. In my seminar last week we discussed the education goals following 2015. Some thoughts from that discussion seem worth sharing.

Plans are not worth the paper they are written on.
Planning is a critically important function.

Goal definition is a standard element of planning. In the case of the EFA and MDG goals, they will not be met, and perhaps it was recognized from the start that they would not be met. It seems futile to complain that these goals were not met. It seems impossible to judge whether the world would have made more progress without these goals or with other goals. Still, the discussions that went into the process of defining these goals and the efforts to program actions to achieve these goals and to monitor goal achievement may have been very important.

Not everything that is measured is important.
Not everything that is important can be measured.

My co-coordinator of the seminar believes that the most important aspect of the Jomtien meeting that first produced the EFA goals was that it changed the way people thought about education in developing nations, moving it away from public schooling as the be all and end all, towards a view of lifelong learning involving entire communities both as learners and as facilitators of learning.

How would you go about measuring such a change in attitudes, much less measuring the impact of that change on educational outcomes? Not only don't I know how to measure those things, I doubt that they can be measured. That does not mean that they are not important!

For people who have little education and less schooling, what would be the most valuable educational opportunities? Would they be those which help them earn a better living, take better care of themselves and their families, participate more fully in the social and political lives of their countries, or some combination of these. It would be nice to measure the degree to which educational programs and policies empowered people to live good and productive lives. I don't see how to do so, but lack of means of measurement does not mean that the objective is not fundamentally important.

Goals are means towards larger objectives.

I think students simply assume that the EFA goals are defined simply to assure that at least minimal educational services are made better and more available globally. In that respect, should goals be so challenging that they are likely to be met? Should they be realistic, or indeed so conservative that the vast majority of countries are likely to achieve those goals? Frank points to the advantages of Big Hairy Ambitious Goals as mobilizing forces to maximum efforts. On the other hand, practice in donor agencies, which hold staff responsible for actually achieving goals set forth, would suggest that their culture favors realistic, achievable goals.

Who actually pays attention to the EFA goals? Most developed nations do not, at least domestically, since their educational systems already surpass the stated goals. Is it reasonable to believe that China would not have revolutionized education with or without the EFA goals? I suspect that the recognition of the advantages of education was more than sufficient to convince the Chinese to make heroic efforts. How about failed states? Do their leaders care about UN goals, and would they have the power to more toward them if they did? Perhaps goals should be set to meet the needs of those who would be likely to actually pay attention to them. These might be the governments of some developing nations, donor agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Of course, different stakeholders have different educational concerns. The donor agencies may be focusing on poverty alleviation, while governments may deal with a wide variety of goals. Environmentalists, public health officials, the military, and others may seek educational services that help them to meet their needs, such as those for sustainability, the control of population growth and communicable diseases, and a supply of trainable soldiers. Indeed, agencies may seek goals that can be used in their parochial battles for resources and survival. Thus the setting of goals is a political process involving compromises and coalitions to find a set that satisfice all stakeholders.

Frank points out that the next round may seek to have a variety of sets of goals. Nine nations represent more than half of the world's population and these EFA9 might find it appropriate to set their own goals. There might be goals for higher education, secondary education and vocational education which differ by the economic level of the countries for which the goals are set.

More on FDI

"The flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) fell by 39% in 2009 to just over $1 trillion, from a shade under $1.7 trillion in 2008, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development. All kinds of investment—equity capital, reinvested earnings, and intra-company loans—were affected by the downturn. Rich countries saw FDI inflows plunge by 41%, and foreign investment into developing countries fell by more than a third."

FDI also dropped from 2007 to 2008 exacerbating the impact of the drop between 2008 and 2009. Of course it is no news that there is a global financial crisis, but the quantification of the extent of that crisis is important.

Quotation: Spontaneous Order

The Mandelbrot set image illustrates a pattern
that emerges without conscious planning.

Source: Barry, Norman, "The Tradition of Spontaneous Order," Library of Economics and Liberty
"The simplest way of expressing the major thesis of the theory of spontaneous order is to say that it is concerned with those regularities in society, or orders of events, which are neither (1) the product of deliberate human contrivance (such as a statutory code of law or a dirigiste economic plan) nor (2) akin to purely natural phenomena (such as the weather, which exists quite independently of human intervention). While the words conventional and natural refer, respectively, to these two regularities, the 'third realm,' that of social regularities, consists of those institutions and practices which are the result of human action but not the result of some specific human intention.

"Despite the complexity of the social world, which seems to preclude the existence of regularities which can be established by empirical observation, there is a hypothetical order which can be reconstructed out of the attitudes, actions, and opinions of individuals and which has considerable explanatory power. What is important about the theory of spontaneous order is that the institutions and practices it investigates reveal well-structured social patterns, which appear to be a product of some omniscient designing mind yet which are in reality the spontaneous co-ordinated outcomes of the actions of, possibly, millions of individuals who had no intention of effecting such overall aggregate orders. The explanations of such social patterns have been, from Adam Smith onwards, commonly known as 'invisible hand' explanations since they refer to that process by which "man is led to promote an end which was no part of his intention." It is a major contention of the theory of spontaneous order that the aggregate structures it investigates are the outcomes of the actions of individuals. In this sense spontaneous order is firmly within the tradition of methodological individualism."
The idea of "spontaneous order" apparently goes back to Adam Ferguson while it was Adam Smith who found the metaphor of the "hidden hand". I see spontaneous order as a specific example of emergence. In many systems we can see properties of the system that emerge due to the interaction of behaviors of the parts in ways that are not obvious from investigating the parts themselves. Thus looking at mound building ants it is not obvious that they will collectively build mounds oriented to the sun that moderate temperature by channeling breezes, nor is it obvious looking at the individual cells of the brain that they will collectively organize the behavior of the body nor direct the posting on blogs. Spontaneous order is applied to emergence in which the elemental particles are human beings and the interactions are social.

Think also of the difference between teleological processes, those which result from planning, versus teleonomic processes, those in which order appears unplanned as a result of feedback or selection.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

University Tech Transfer Proving Recession Proof?

Source: SSTI Weekly Digest for the Week of February 17, 2010

While nearly all of the economic indicators for the country were falling rapidly, the commercialization of university-generated technologies quietly continued to move into the market place at an increasing pace, according to the latest survey conducted by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). Highlights from the AUTM U.S. Licensing Activity Survey Summary: FY2008 include:
  • 648 new commercial products introduced
  • 5,039 total license and options executed
  • 595 new companies formed
  • about 72 percent of new companies formed with the primary place of business in the institution's home state
  • 3,381 startup companies still operating as of the end of FY2008
  • 20,115 disclosures
  • 12,072 new U.S. patent applications
  • 848 non-U.S. patent applications
  • 3,280 issued U.S. patents

The report is available for purchase at:

Capital Flows to Developing Countries Show Strong Drop in Wake of Financial Crisis

Source: The World Bank, February 3, 2010

Net capital flows to developing countries fell to $780 billion in 2008, reversing an upward trend that began in 2003 and peaked at $1,222 billion in 2007, according to a new report from the World Bank. Particularly hard hit were private capital flows, which fell by almost 40 percent. All developing regions were affected, with emerging market economies in Europe and Central Asia experiencing the sharpest downturn.

Zunia: Monitoring and Evaluation

Zunia, the portal for information on international development, has created a facet on Monitoring and Evaluation. It has more than 1300 resources that can be found via searches. It is based on work I did in the past, and the creators of the site have named me the "Owner".

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Thought About Human Rights

The old film, Judgement at Nuremberg, reminded me not only that good people in Germany let their government get so far out of hand as to start a World War and conduct the holocaust, but it also reminded me that the U.S. Supreme Court had issued a decision (authored by the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes) upholding Virginia's statute imposing enforced sterilization of "the unfit".
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Declaration of Independence
It is taking a long, long time to get a government that does indeed secure a reasonable set of rights for all people, as the current battles over securing rights to health care and gay rights indicate, not to mention the battles over permissible interrogation techniques and the extension of rights to habeas corpus and trial by jury.

The "founding fathers" of the United States, due in part to the importance of Virginia among the original colonies, did not see freedom from slavery as a human right. Sharing the imperialistic ideas of their European peers, as a group they did not recognize the rights of Native American peoples to the lands that they had occupied for thousands of years. It was only on the occasion of the Civil War almost a century after the Declaration of Independence that slavery was abolished, and there is still a problem of involuntary servitude in the country that has not been totally stamped out. Tribal reservations seem to remain under pressure.

Who knows what rights our descendants will recognize, and how they will regard our failure go get our government to secure those rights now and for all!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Moments of Genius

Why Newspapers Are the Way they Are

From a review of "The Room and the Chair" by Lorraine Adams (Louis Bayard in today's Washington Post:
The big newspapers, she argues, are missing the big stories because all they can see are the words in front of their faces, the "written reports from government men" that constitute "the Room's preferred language." "There were pretty much two ways to find out things," the night editor explains. "People and paper. People . . . could fudge. Paper, made by government -- courts, agencies, committees -- was worse. You had to use both, flawed as they were, and find where they met, where there was some kind of coinciding about what might possibly have actually happened. But even that wasn't enough. . . . You had to take time to feel your way along the edges back to the center, and to wonder, past the point of patience, what it was you still couldn't quite believe."

As Adams must realize, this is an often unattainable ideal for a daily newspaper or, in these direly transitional times, for any mainstream media outlet.
I suppose that one may also observe directly, observe via still photos and film or video, and go directly to measurements in areas where numerical data are available. All of these sources of information are less than perfectly factual, but they are probably less subject to spin and lies than government handouts and interviews.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The debate over single sex marriage

I just watched CSPN coverage of a conference session on same sex marriage. I suppose my views on the subject are partially due to my own experience, since I was married in Chile which has a liberal tradition separating civil and church marriage. Thus I was married in a civil process which made the marriage legal as well as in a church service which met the cultural needs of my wife's and my family.

Some of the panel discussion focused on human rights, and notably the right to marriage established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I would note that the states party to the Universal Declaration may all grant rights of marriage, but those rights differ greatly from state to state. In some states men have the rights to polygamous marriage while not in others, in some states marriage may be contracted for specific, limited periods of time (as short as a few hours), and the rights of women in marriage vary from state to state. If there is a universal right to marriage, its universality depends either on a very limited idea of marriage or the vagueness of the concept of marriage.

As in other human rights, it seems to me that our society may recognize a right to marriage,. but that it is appropriate for us to define the extent of the rights in marriage via a political process which institutionalizes protections for those rights.

It has seemed to me, as one of the participants in the panel mentioned, that it is strange that religious officials are empowered by their ordination in their denomination to perform marriages that carry legal rights to inheritance, etc. The religious ceremony sanctifies the marital bond, but in a system that separates state and religion, the state has no business sanctifying (making holy) any status.

On the other hand, I see no basis in a society that separates church and state for the state to prohibit church marriage or any other church ritual (with the obvious exception of cult rituals that endanger participants or others).

One of the panelists suggested that in terms of civil marriage, it is important to go back to the public policy reasons for providing a special status for citizens in a civil union. It seems to me that there are such reasons, such as assuring two adults share responsibility for raising children of the union, simplifying legal processes by granting a variety of highly correlated rights in a single act and document, promoting long term relationships that promote social stability and investment, etc.

It would seem to me that in that context, one might then have a debate on the laws establishing civil union. Indeed, in such a debate one might want to establish several categories of civil union, such as a civil union for couples with children and an alternative for couples without children.

Of course I see little likelihood that the public debate on marriage in this country will separate concerns related to civil union versus concerns for the religious sanctification of the marital union.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hard Calculus

The number dead in the Haitian earthquake may reach 230,000. The quake happened a month ago, and it is beginning to fade from the news.

The number dead in the Congo war may be as high as 5,400,000. It has been going on for a decade, and you seldom read about it at all.

Thus the Congo war has a death toll 23.5 times higher than the Haiti quake, and people have been suffering far longer.

The problem is that our evolved brains can begin to appreciate the suffering of an individual and can be motivated to try to help an individual, but it seems not to have the means to recognize a demand for action to save hundreds of thousands or millions of people suffering in a distant place.

Sometimes we just have to substitute logic for feelings in order to do the right thing!

Sometimes I wonder about people

Mumbai police officers arrest a woman as she protests against the movie ‘My Name Is Khan’ outside the Fun Cinema multiplex during its release in Mumbai on Friday.

According to the New York Times, leaders of India's radical Shiv Sena political party threatened riots at showing of the film, My Name is Khan. Thousands of police officers were mobilized to protect the theaters showing the film, which were showing it to large crowds, and the demonstrations were sufficiently violent that 50 people were arrested.

Check out the review of the movie from the Times of India. It is apparently a plea for understanding among people, set in the United States and intended as a major film for world audiences.

It seems especially wrong that people would violently protest such a film because they oppose the religion of its maker and/or his efforts to overcome religious and nationalistic prejudice.

Friday, February 12, 2010


The warp of sense and weft of nonsense makes for a very tricky cloth.
Slight modification of a quote from Clare Boothe Luce

Too much snow!

A Thought About Self-Organization

It has long seemed to me that one of the great leaps of imagination in intellectual history was the recognition that through the mechanism of the market, huge numbers of individuals making decisions based on limited information result in market-clearing prices and an orderly system of transactions. This is the first recognition as far as I know of a self-organizing system which produces order without central planning.

Of course, if you think about it, good markets are complex institutions. They include processes for resolution of disputes, ways to assure weights and measures are accurate, and processes to share information about buyers and about sellers.

True believers in markets seem to have no trouble in accepting the idea of socially evolved institutions that allow this kind of self organization. They seem not to recognize that some of the mechanisms that make markets work well are governmental or non-profit, such as judiciary systems, regulatory agencies, and consumer information organizations.

The evolution of market institutions has included not only commercial institutions but governmental and civil society institutions which work in harmony to order transactions. It should be no harder to accept the legitimate role of government and civil society than to accept the legitimate role of commerce. Yet many true believers seem unable to accept this obvious fact.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Educational Goals to Follow EFA

Education for All is a policy first promulgated in Jomtien in 1990 and revised in Dakar a decade later. It sets international goals for education that were intended to be met by 2015. Some countries are on schedule or even ahead of schedule in meeting those goals, but others will surely fail to do so.

In our seminar on UNESCO, we have a class exercise in which the students discuss what new goals should be set by the global community for the period following 2015. Lets think about the question.

Why set international educational goals?
  • As an excuse for lots of people to gather in some great place and spend time together at public expense
  • To foster international discussion on the purposes, means and resources of education
  • To promote more and better educational opportunities
  • All of the above
  • None of the above
What (if any) process should be used to set goals?
  • Aggregating national goals set through internal processes defined within nations
  • Through an intergovernmental process at UNESCO or the United Nations
  • Through a broader process involving governments and civil society (NGO's, professional educational organizations, etc.)
  • Through a process limited to civil society representatives
  • By educational administrators
  • Through a multistage process involving different stakeholders at different stages.
What is the target audience for a new set of international educational goals?
  • What countries would set national goals influenced by the international goals? (Some countries seem to have internal goals that are more ambitious than EFA, and might not care what the international goals might be. Failed and failing states probably can't implement national goals. )
  • Would NGO's working in international education change behavior as a result of new goals?
  • Would donors change behavior? Multinational? Binational? Foundations?
  • Would goals affect the private sector? Vendors of educational services? Potential partners for the public sector or NGOs?
  • The community of educators?
  • Does the wider public care?
What is the legitimate basis for international action is setting educational goals?
  • Promoting global adherence to a universal human right to education
  • Promoting education as a means to alleviate poverty
  • Promoting education as a means to advance international economic prosperity
  • Promoting education as a means of advancing international security objectives
  • Promoting cultural advancement
  • Other?
Are there illegitimate bases for such action?

A Thought About Human Rights

Is education a human right? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says it is. However, the Universal Declaration doesn't say how much education is one's right. Perhaps each society quantifies for itself how much education is a right for its members, and the universal right is simply the least amount that is assigned over all societies.

The right to education is secured by institutions that provide educational services, included the institutionalized means to secure the resources needed to provide those services, and by a legal structure which enforces that right. As the Declaration of Independence states:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Thus the processes of governance may be the way in which a society determines the rights to education that it accords to its members.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Geography of a Recession

Updated 02.05.10, The Decline: The Geography of a Recession by LaToya Egwuekwe (OFFICIAL)

What NYT stories you are likely to send on to your friends

Source: "Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome," By JOHN TIERNEY, The New York Times, February 8, 2010

I quote:
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have intensively studied the New York Times list of most-e-mailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, analyzing the content of thousands of articles and controlling for factors like the placement in the paper or on the Web home page.....

according to the Penn researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman. People preferred e-mailing articles with positive rather than negative themes, and they liked to send long articles on intellectually challenging topics.

Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list. In general, they found, 20 percent of articles that appeared on the Times home page made the list, but the rate rose to 30 percent for science articles, including ones with headlines like “The Promise and Power of RNA.”
Comment: There may be something here as to how people socially construct knowledge in the Internet age, or at least how people who read the New York Times and use the Internet do.

I have been posting recently about how conspiracy theories spread and why people from red states and people from blue states (politically) have different views. In both cases I think the phenomena are related to the social construction of beliefs, and the University of Pennsylvania research may shed some light on the process of social construction. After all, it seems probable that we are more likely to be influenced by information we receive warranted by people we like and respect, especially if they are sending on information from a respected source. So it is interesting to see what distinguishes stories that people email to their friends. JAD

The Universe i Unimaginable Complex

At the atomic and sub-atomic levels, the numbers of things in common, every day objects are astronomical. A few geniuses have developed mathematical formulas that seem to explain the physics at this level, but our intuition fails when we try to interpret those equations. Things are fundamentally uncertain. They are simultaneously waves and particles. Space and time are not different. Things are both mass and energy.

The human genome contains about 600,000 base pairs and includes perhaps 20,000 to 25,000 genes. The gene action is modified by promoters and epigenetics, leading to an even more complex behavior than the numbers of genes themselves might suggest.

It has been estimated that the human brain has perhaps 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. The web they create changes during one's lifetime, and its behavior is a continuously shifting pattern of unfathomable complexity.

There are some 7 billion people alive today, each governed by his or her individual genetic and neurological make-up.

The 7 billion humans interact in an enormously complex pattern of social, political and economic behavior, which is only partially explained by their division into a couple of hundred countries, and a few thousand groups speaking separate languages. That pattern extends back hundreds or thousands of generations and (we hope) extends forward into the distant future.

Homo sapiens is but one of millions of species sharing earth's biosphere, each with its own enormously complex pattern of behavior, and together creating an even more complex and shifting pattern in which the species themselves have come and gone over billions of years and can be expected to continue for billions more.

This web of life is contained in a thin layer of a small planet in what we can only assume is an unexceptional solar system, which contains not only the sun and planets, but large numbers of asteroids and comets that still defy our best efforts to catalog their numbers and predict their orbits.

The solar system is one of perhaps 100 billion to 1000 billion solar systems in our galaxy, which has evolved over billions of years, the stars themselves being born and dying, dancing in complex patterns which seem to suggest that there most of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy, which we understand not at all.

Our galaxy is one of perhaps 100 billion to 1000 billion that together form our universe.

I believe that those people who believe that they understand man and his place in the universe are simply wrong.

Another Blizzard

In the 20 years prior to this winter, there were four major snow storms to hit our home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Today we are in the middle of another, the third of this winter. Outside it looks like the Arctic; people walking in the street would be hidden from the house by the hight of the snow piled on the lawn.

Apparently, this is a year of very strong El Niño, and that has pushed moisture laden clouds and very cold air masses overhead. We have all come to know that El Niño and La Niña succeed each other in a complex dance in the Pacific Ocean, warm sea surface temperatures some years, cool sea surface temperatures in others. I wonder, however, whether global warming increases either the likelihood or the extreme temperatures of the El Niño events. If so, we might be in for more bad winters.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Health crisis in Haiti enters a deadly new phase"

Source: FRANK BAJAK, Associated Press via Yahoo! News, February 9. 2010

"The second stage of Haiti's medical emergency has begun, with diarrheal illnesses, acute respiratory infections and malnutrition beginning to claim lives by the dozen.

"And while the half-million people jammed into germ-breeding makeshift camps have so far been spared a contagious-disease outbreak, health officials fear epidemics. They are rushing to vaccinate 530,000 children against measles, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough."

Comment: As Haiti fades from the media, the problems faced by the Haitians continue! JAD

Dimensions for description of conspiracy theories

I have been reading the paper identified above, which was suggested to me by my friend Julianne, and it occurred to me to define a set of dimensions for classification of conspiracy threories. They are:

Veracity: One might think of this as a bipolar index -- true or false. On the other hand, some of these theories are quite complex and might be partially true, mostly true, with an element of truth, etc.

Credibility: The probability assigned to the veracity of the theory. For bipolar veracity, this is the normal "probably true" versus "probably false". If one accepts a multilevel veracity, then the credibility might assign a probability distribution over the veracity variable. This may have a couple of aspects:
  • The internal credibility: the degree to which the elements of the theory hang together and make sense
  • The credibility of those vouching for the theory
Benign versus Harmful: The conspiracy theory that parents have promoted the legend of Santa Clause as a conspiracy to keep the truth from their children is perhaps less serious than the conspiracy theory that some sinister force (Israel, the CIA, etc.) had been responsible for 9/11 in order to falsely implicate Muslims with the crime. Again, one might distinguish among:
  • The "visible consequences" that can be directly linked to the conspiracy theory
  • "Unseen consequences" that probably or may exist, but which are less clearly seen and less clearly tied to the conspiracy theory
The justification for promoting the conspiracy theory: In World War II, the Allies promulgated conspiracy theories to protect military operations from an enemy that was widely believed as both powerful and nefarious, while Fox News seems to promote conspiracy theories to discredit political opponents whose good intentions seem quite likely.

Credence: Whether or not a credibility theory is credible, it may be believed. This would seem to have two aspects:
  • The degree of belief that an individual assigns to a conspiracy theory
  • The distribution of credence over the population of interest

Monday, February 08, 2010

Thoughts raised by a BBC program on Chaos Theory

A while back I posted links to the YouTube copies of a BBC program titled The Secret Life of Chaos. I did like the program in that it was beautiful to watch and it cited a number of research results that are indeed important. I didn't like what it did with that material.

For example, the idea of self organizing systems with feedback producing behavior which appears regular but is inherently hard to predict seems to me to go back at least to Adam Smith and his recognition of the "hidden hand" in market behavior. Yet the program attributes such concepts only to Allan Turing in the latter part of the last century.

The program also suggested that we can not solve very large systems of equations, while in fact computers can do that very thing. Chaos theory is applied to systems in which small variations in original conditions eventually (rapidly) lead to large changes in system behavior. Indeed, the term is applied specifically, as I understand its use, to systems in which there are simple equations that capture the physics of the system, and indeed the exciting thing is to infer the simple equations that underly the complex behavior.

I would also point out that the concept of self-organizing systems seems to me to have developed in areas such as neurobiology and automata theory, where there are networks of discrete computational elements, and the concepts were specifically useful for computer simulation. This is the field I think of as "Complexity Theory", in which the key outcome (similar to that of Chaos theory) is that very simple decision rules applied uniformly to a network can result in unexpected emergent properties.

Evolution can be used, I suppose, both on the decision rules in networks of decision making nodes and in the parameters of equations governing behaviors of fields or volumes.

The human brain has evolved to seek patterns in stimulus, I suppose because there is survival value in the perception of such patterns. As we view galaxies in telescopes or waves on the water or clouds in the sky we perceive patterns. Indeed, we have evolved with the tendency to attribute meaning to the patterns. I would suggest that usually the meanings we attribute are wrong, at least until generations of original thinkers find deeper understanding. Any child can see animal shapes in the clouds as if they had been designed by some celestial artist, but a more adult understanding attributes to shapes of the clouds to the effect of simple rules of atmospheric physics.

"Antidote For War"

1) never be cruel;
2) always be artistic;
3) never lose your sense of humor.
Ben Lucien Burman

This simple philosophy of life is from an essay by a once very famous but now little known American author. The essay is published in full on the great This I Believe website!

A suggestion for emergency announcements

We have dug out of 30 inches of snow and survived 36 hours without electricity and the resulting decrease in temperature in our home. Since the roads were not plowed and the power outage covered a huge area, we were pretty much stuck at home. We did have battery operated transistor radios, and could listen to the news. Unfortunately, our best local station, WAMU, kept telling us to check its website for details on closings and critical information.

Of course, there was no way to do so without electricity nor ways to find a site with WiFi access.

I suggest that when 100.000 homes are without electricity in the area served by a radio station, the station actually broadcast emergency information!

Friday, February 05, 2010

Wondering About UNESCO

Nicholas Burnett mentioned to my UNESCO seminar last night that the UNESCO science program does not include a section focusing on the science of learning and thought, nor does the education sector. Given that cognitive science and neuroscience are two of the most important emerging fields of science, and that they are fields not covered by the other decentralized agencies of the United Nations system, one would have expected them to be an important focus of the natural science program. Indeed, the overlap of the sciences of thought and learning with the social and human sciences program would itself appear to justify a natural science program in the field. This is a lack that should be rectified since the cognitive and neurosciences are likely to produce great impacts on education in the next few decades and developing nations will need help in thinking through the practical, social, economic and ethical implications of the research on and through education.

The education and culture programs seem simply to be clashing:
  • The education program is pushing more and better schooling as well as efforts to promote lifelong learning, with emphasis on expanding people's ability to obtain, analyze and utilize information, as well as helping people learn things that will promote peace, sustainable development, and understanding of other cultures. I can not think of a program more tailored to promote rapid cultural change toward homoginizing culture within and among countries. On the other hand, many of the roadblocks faced in achieving education for all are deeply cultural, such as deep seated prejudices among ethnic groups, cultural prejudice against educating women, and discrimination in employment that reduces the incentives for education among those likely to suffer such discrimination.
  • The culture program is increasingly focusing on efforts to promote the expression of cultural diversity, the protection of intangible cultural heritage, as well as the more well known programs to protect movable and immovable objects of cultural heritage. There seems to be no effort within the culture program to promote cultural change that would support the educational goals of the organization.
One wonders whether the people in these programs ever really talk to each other, or whether those in governance and overall management of UNESCO really think about the overall program of the organization.

Thinking about education and goal setting

Not everything that is measured is important.
Not everything that is important is measured.

In class last night, the success of the Education for All movement was discussed. Explicit goals were set at Jomtien in 1990 for 2000 and they were far from met. In Dakar in 2000 goals setting was revisited it is clear that the goals set for 2015 will not be met. Is this a failure?

This raises an interesting issue. I think everyone might agree that setting goals is not of value in itself, but is a tool to promote progress, in this case the expansion of educational services in developing nations. So one might ask whether the expansion of services would be greatest with goals:
  • that could easily be met and surpassed
  • goals that accurately reflected what could reasonably be achieved
  • goals that were so ambitious that they would probably not be met
I don't know the answer, but I suspect that the most progress would not be achieved by the either of the first two options. Indeed, I am not sure that the goals had much effect at all. The importance of educating children is probably so clear that some international goal probably does not matter that much to policy makers at the national, regional nor local levels.

It is hard to manage
that which you can not measure.

The importance of the Education for All movement may well have been to change the mind set of national governments, donors, and NGOs, encouraging them to increase efforts and to regard education as filling many needs. I don't begin to understand how to measure the change in mind set, nor how to measure the impact of mind set on the energy and wisdom of people's efforts to improve education.

Does that mean that I can't manage efforts such as the Jomtien and Dakar conferences to maximize impact. Perhaps! So what? Perhaps management is over valued.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

BBC - The Secret Life of Chaos

My Friend Julianne alerted me to this great video on self organizing systems and the roll of Allan Turing in their recognition. It comes from the BBC.

Here are the other portions of the video:


"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new
discoveries, is not 'Eureka!', but 'That's funny…'" -Isaac Asimov

Maryland's Genuine Progress Indicator

The State has developed this indicator to describe progress in more general and more useful terms than does the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Per Capita. Check out the website for the index!

The per capita GDP has been growing nicely since World War II, but the GPI suggests that for most of the past 20 years it has been doing so at the expense of the society as a whole, with environmental problems in inequity of the distribution of income increasing.

I encourage Governor O'Malley to get us back on track to more genuine progress in the next decade!

From Gov/ O'Malley's Report on the State of Maryland 2010

  • For the second straight year, Maryland has been ranked by Education Week magazine as the number one ranked public school system in the nation.
  • We have made college more affordable for more families in Maryland by going four years in a row without a penny's increase in college tuition for Maryland residents.
  • Violent crime in Maryland has been driven to its lowest levels since 1987 – including the steepest three-year reduction in homicides since the 1970s, and a 46 percent reduction in juvenile homicides.
  • Nearly 155,000 more people in Maryland have health coverage today who did not have it three years ago – 77,000 of them children.
  • Four of the rivers feeding into the Chesapeake Bay are now getting healthier every year rather than sicker, and we've preserved five and half times the amount of open space than we did before. The Blue Crab population is rebounding, and we are finally embracing the power of a new aquaculture industry to bring back the native Oyster.
Good for you Maryland, and for all of us who live here!


You can't manage what you don't measure.
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity website

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Video: Risk Perceptions And Health Care- How Peoples Values Shape Perception of The HPV Vaccine

My friend Julianne recommended this video to me. I recommend you click on through to watch:
The “cultural cognition thesis” argues that individuals form risk perceptions based on often-contested personal views about what makes a good society. Now, Yale University Law professor Dr. Dan Kahan and his colleagues reveals how people’s values shape their perceptions of one of the most hotly debated health care proposals in recent years: vaccinating elementary-school girls, ages 11-12, against human papillomavirus (HPV), a widespread sexually transmitted disease.
The research seems to indicate that the cultural divide determines the willingness of people to accept expert testimony, with the same folk who deny global warming likely to deny the value of immunization against HPV.

The Hidden Brain

The Washington Post published a review by Peter Kramer of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives by WP reporter Shankar Vedantam. I quote:
This clever unconscious (of Freud and the early psychoanalysts) has fallen on hard times. While contemporary research finds that mental processes occurring outside awareness shape our decisions, the unconscious revealed in those studies is stodgy. It uses simple mechanisms to warn us of risks and opportunities -- and often it is simply wrong.

In "The Hidden Brain," Vedantam reviews this new science and applies it speculatively to practical circumstances in which our subconscious leanings might mislead us. How investors choose stocks, how soldiers obey leaders in battle, how spouses respond in arguments -- these consequential behaviors can be shaped by automatic mental routines that preempt our reason. But Vedantam's greatest interest is in the influence of unexamined thought on politics, and it is here that he makes his most dramatic claims.
Comment: I have enjoyed the columns published occasionally in the WP by Vedantam, and indeed have sometimes posted quotations and comments on those columns as part of the effort in this blog to point out that we think with our (evolved) brains and not with out (supposedly rational) minds, and our decisions are often biased in ways we do not recognize.

Obama: "I'm a big believer in Net Neutrality."

"Improving Access to Research"

Source: Paul N. Courant, James J. O'Donnell, Ann Okerson, and Crispin B. Taylor, Science 22 January 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5964, p. 393
"Last week, the U.S. House Science and Technology Committee's Roundtable on Scholarly Publishing (on which we served along with 10 others) released a report arguing that journal articles derived from federal research funding should be made publicly available as quickly as practicable—generally in a year or less after publication—and in ways that will improve scholarship by maximizing the scope for interoperability across articles, among disciplines, and internationally. Currently, there is no consistency regarding which version of an article is freely available. In contrast, the roundtable's report recommends that access policies aim toward making the "Version of Record" (the final version of an article in its published form) publicly available. And the report also asserts that any successful scheme for public access must provide methods for permanent public access."

I strongly agree that if my taxes are used to support research, then the results of the research should be made available free and readily accessible (on the Internet) as soon as precticable.

Harvard response to White House RFI on public access policies

"I endorse the view that every federal agency funding non-classified research should require free online access (”public access”) to the peer-reviewed results of that research as soon as possible after its publication. There are three simple yet powerful reasons to take such a step. First, taxpayers deserve access to the results of taxpayer-funded research. Second, public access makes research as visible and useful as it can be, maximizing the return on the public’s enormous investment in the research. Third, public access accelerates research and all the benefits that depend on research, from public health to economic development."
Steven E. Hyman

Science and Innovation for Development

Calestous Juma informed me of the availability of this book, which you can download free from its website. Professor Juma wrote the introduction.

By Professor Sir Gordon Conway and Professor Jeff Waage, with Sara Delaney. Published by UKCDS January 2010.
ISBN: 978 1 84129 0829

"Scientific education, knowledge and research are crucial to solving development challenges.

"Science as a tool for providing evidence and discovering solutions has been neglected recently by many key decision makers, Science and Innovation for Development aims to play a part in changing that."

Monday, February 01, 2010

Intelligent Design on Trial

I saw a rerun of the NOVA program that devoted two hours to the court case in which parents sued the school board of a small town in Pennsylvania to prevent the teaching of "intelligent design" in their schools. The court found that Intelligent Design was a rerun of "Creationism", a Christian belief that the Old Testament is literally true and that modern scientific theories of evolution were not. A Supreme Court decision had already decided that teaching Creationism violated the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the court decided that Intelligent Design did so as well.

Both Creationism and Intelligent Design are based on the premise that species did not evolve by natural variation and natural selection, but rather that species arise from time to time independently, fully articulated, by divine or at least intelligent design.

I tend to like the position which I understand to be that of the Catholic Church, that if ones religious beliefs conflict with ones understanding of the natural world, as informed by science, one has probably misinterpreted the theology or the science.

I was most impressed by the obvious unwillingness of the proponents on Intelligent Design in the local community to acknowledge that they did not fully understand the Theory of Evolution. They seemed more certain of their theology than I could imagine was justified by their study of religion; certainly many people who have devoted their whole lives to the study of Christian theology are much less certain than these Pennsylvania businessmen. I was especially taken by the willingness of one of the former members of the school board to say on camera that the judge in the case and his 100+ page decision was wrong about the Constitution and the Law -- what possible basis did the man have to believe he knew better than the judge?

It is really interesting the way that a community sharing a belief will have members reinforce each other's beliefs, and the way what should be public humiliation by refutation of those beliefs can be turned into reinforcement of belief by the "true believers".

Mass Psychogenic Illness

Mass psychogenic illness, also known as epidemic sociogenic attacks or mass hysteria is a epidemiological category used to describe occasional events in which many members of a community exhibit common symptoms with no evident physical cause. These episodes occur all over the world. One of the oddest examples of this phenomenon is koro, in which people are "overcome with the belief that his/her external genital—or, in female, nipple—are retracting or shrinking, with fear of that the organ will disappear."

If nothing else, the phenomenon illustrates that shared information need not be good information. If people can convince themselves and each other that something which is observably false is true, then how likely is it that they can convince each other that something unobservable it true whether it is in fact true or not!

A Thought

Some Americans have turned commerce into religion, while others have turned religion into commerce.

Building a Knowledge Society for All

This publication, Building a Knowledge Society for All, points out that while transition to knowledge-based economies is progressing, the gap between developing and developed countries is widening. It highlights that adequate information and communication infrastructure and the proper employment of ICTs in education can help to tackle challenges.