Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Eleni Karaindrou - By The Sea

Recommended by Barbara Fillip. Thanks!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gone With The Wind and The Birth of a Nation

Yesterday I saw the film Gone With The Wind. I was struck by the parallels with the earlier film, perhaps because I had heard someone that morning talking about the film Birth of a Nation. Both of course are set in the South during and after the Civil War. Both were enormously popular films of their day, based on best selling novels that were longer and more compelling to their audiences than previous films had been. Indeed, more tickets have been sold in the United States to Gone with the Wind than to any other film. Both films romanticized the South, ignoring the immorality at the heart of 19th century Southern culture.

Birth of a Nation glorified the Ku Klux Klan or at least the myth of the Clansmen as they existed after the Civil War. It is infamous for having led to the rebirth of the KKK after it was released in 1915.

Gone with the Wind romanticizes the white plantation owners in the pre-Civil War period, calling the men "cavaliers" and viewing the rich whites as rather silly people who treat their slaves well. The blacks are shown as caricatures -- mostly childish, foolish people devoted to their owners. the black characters remain in the service of their former owners even after being freed. In one scene the male field hands go off happily to dig trenches for the Confederate troops defending Atlanta from Sherman's troops. Other whites are either evil "carpetbaggers" or "white trash" (with the exceptions of the character played by mega-star Clark Gable and of another caricature -- the woman who owns a house of prostitution but has a heart of gold). The female protagonist employs a chain gang in her mill after the war knowing that they will be badly mistreated, but the film seems to gloss over the immorality of that act, implying it was a direct result of the poverty she suffered immediately after the war (having to work in the fields with her own hands). When she is attacked while driving her horse and buggy through a bad part of town occupied by carpetbaggers and emancipated former slaves, the men in her family act as vigilantes to attack random people in the town. This seems a direct throwback to the romanticization of the KKK in Birth of a Nation.

I was rather shocked when the audience (at the American Film Institute theater) applauded at the end of the film. It seemed to me a film that probably helped to prolong racism in America, pandering to the prejudices of segregationists and reinforcing their myths that distorted the immorality of slavery and involuntary servitude.

It is perhaps interesting that Gone With the Wind was released in 1939. It seems to have been strongly anti-war, showing how devastating the Civil War had been to the South (in spite of the fact that southerners entered the war assuming an easy win). Yet the Second World War had already begun, and American would have been well advised to have been preparing for its entry into the war.

John Dower, in his book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq, describes how the Japanese misperceived the likely impact on Americans of their attack on Pearl Harbor showing it as parallel to the way in which the American military failed to apply the lessons about insurgency from Viet Nam to the occupation of Iraq (and the misuse of the history of the occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II). In the Civil War, Americans on each side failed to understand the culture of the other side and that misunderstanding led to a war that killed more than 600,000 people. In spite of repeated lessons of the importance of understanding others, it is only now after nearly a decade of war, that we are told that the U.S. military is trying to understand the peoples and cultures of Afghanistan.

Gone With the Wind glosses over the brutality of an American culture that included a history of slavery, of chain gangs, and of the KKK. In the Second World War, Americans would embark a couple of years after its release, enthusiastically bombing civilian targets in Germany and Japan and killing more than a million civilians while incarcerating Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in damage to their peoples that dwarf the damage done to America by 9/11. Perhaps it would have helped had we understood ourselves better and avoided myths of a virtuous past.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A response to Thaler's Question

Thaler's Question:
The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?
How about "the world is the way we perceive it to be, that things that are distant obey the same laws as those that are close, and over time things are either static or cyclical."

  • Optical illusions are the obvious example, where psychologists have shown many ways in which our eyes are fooled.
  • Most people believe that the universe is composed of regular matter and space, leaving out dark matter and dark energy.
  • People have assumed that the laws of our macroscopic world apply to the sub-atomic world. Einstein said "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice." Quantum weirdness was not perceived and thus was not assumed to exist, and still is not assumed by most people.
  • Assumption that since nearby astronomical space is expanding with constant acceleration, that must be true for things in distant astronomical space, but the Hubble constant is not constant.
  • Living beings that look alike must be members of the same species. This has been challenged not only by convergent evolution theories, but also by genetic determination that similar beings may be members of sibling species.
  • We are aware of our conscious thought and it is perceived as rational, but research is showing that much of our thought is not conscious and there are many irrational biases in our logic.
  • Weather seems cyclical, with winter, spring, summer and fall occurring in a regular pattern, but in fact research has shown ice ages occurred in the past and that we are now witnessing global warming.
  • Geology seems fixed, but for hundreds of years scientists have been illuminating the changes which have taken place in the surface of the earth.
  • Many Americans still do not believe in evolution, preferring to believe that species exist as they were originally created by God.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Growth of Large Formal Organizations Run by Professional Managers

Chapter 6 of Micklethwait and Wooldridge's book The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea is titled "The Triumph of Managerial Capitalism: 1913-1975". In 1975 I was 38 years old and that was the year I received my PhD from (what was then) the Graduate School of Administration of UCI, so this chapter focuses on the development of the world that seems natural to me.

By 1975, the 200 largest firms in the United States owned more than 3/5th of the corporate capital in the nation, and they were managed by a class of corporate managers. The federal government was huge, and largely managed by people quite similar to those managing the big corporations, indeed there was considerable exchange of managers between federal government and large corporations. The ownership of the corporations was widely distributed with 40% of workers owning shares and pension plans and mutual funds also managed by people from the class of corporate managers. Large labor unions represented a large portion of the workers. Corporate health insurance was the American counterpart to socialized medicine with large insurers, managed by people from the class of corporate managers, covering a majority of workers.

European governments experimented more than did the United States with state owned corporations, and lagged the United States in the growth of private corporations, but they too were dominated by big companies. Many of the large companies were multinational, escaping some of the control of national governments.

Americans worked in large corporations, bought goods and services produced by large corporations and distributed by large corporations. They put their savings in the care of large corporations. The owner manager was responsible for only a small part of the economy.

Large corporations had enormous influence in government, and not only in the military-industrial complex. In 1977, Vice President Rockefeller's former White House secretary was assigned to work with me for a couple of months on a special project. I remember being shocked when she told me that the CEOs of big corporations would call her and instead of asking for appointments, simply tell her to clear the VP's calendar so that he could meet with them at a time convenient to the CEO.

Mickelthwait and Wooldridge make the point that the America of 1975 was fundamentally different from that of 1840 in the way society was institutionalized. The large corporation which had not existed in the early 19th century had become a dominant institution at the end of the third quarter of the 20th. The authority and influence of the owner operator of the farm or small business was now eclipsed by the authority of professional managers of large, formal organizations.

This blog has often focused on technological innovation, but this book shows the enormous influence that an institutional innovation -- the creation of the professionally-managed, limited-liability stock company -- has had on modern life. I would say it was also an innovation that radically improved the productive and distributive capacity of the economy. Of course, I would also hold that large, powerful companies would not have been possible except for the evolution of the human-built world (see my previous post on that book) that Thomas Hughes has described in his book. Without the machinery for mass production and the transportation and communications infrastructure for mass markets, the large corporation would not have been possible.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Catching a Spammer Can Reduce Spam Volume

The frequency of spam did in fact get significantly reduced after two actions to take major spammers off the Internet, as the graph shows.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tuberculosis is very much with us.

"The World Health Organisation estimates that 14m people around the world had tuberculosis (TB) in 2009. Last year the disease killed 1.3m people who did not also have HIV. Another 400,000 people are counted as having died from AIDS but also having TB, to which HIV makes people more susceptible."

Two of the dozen of so colleagues with whom I worked in the White House many years ago were later diagnosed with TB and had to go through a long course of treatment. Of course, they were people who worked in international health, but it made an impression on me that the disease is serious and still with us!

Old saying

A politician uses history the way a drunk uses a street lamp -- for support rather than illumination.

The saying reminds me of the old story of the drunk who was found crawling around on the street under the street light. When asked by a passer by what he was doing, he responded, "I dropped my car keys and I'm looking for them."

Passer by: "Where did you drop them?"

Drunk: "Half a block down the street."

Passer by: "Why are you looking for them here?"

Drunk: "Its dark down there, so I looking for them here where there is enough light."

A thought about how to measure social progress

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an index of the total production of goods and services by an economy. Per capita GDP is then an index of the average productivity per person. These are clearly useful, but they are probably overused as indices of progress. Even as an economic indicator, GDP has problems. It fails to account for externalities such as pollution caused by production. Expenditures to repair damages are counted in the same way that are expenditures to prevent those damages; thus health services for the unsuccessful treatment of disease are counted at their cost as are health services that successfully prevent diseases. GDP per capita does not reflect the distribution of income and wealth in a population and thus may disguise poverty in a society with very unequal distribution of income.

The UNDP's Human Development Index adds components of life expectancy and schooling to economic production. That is an advance on a simple indicator of economic production. It begins to move towards a multidimensional indicator that can be used to measure progress of a nation or society.

Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). This would seem to be an important aim for a society -- healthy citizens whose minds are fully developed. I would suggest that disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) is a better measure of health, but it too falls short of the idea of complete physical and mental wellbeing advanced by the World Health Organization. Similarly, schooling is a useful indicator, but falls short of measuring intellectual development. For example, years in a second rate school are counted equally with years in a good school; the benefits of continuing education, non-formal education and self-education are ignored. One might prefer measures of learning and wisdom, could they be established and standardized.

The Millennium Development Goals represent a serious attempt to develop indicators to measure the reduction of poverty. Again, the approach is to use a set of indicators, but in this case directed to measuring a single factor of development -- the elimination of the worst aspects of poverty.

Some suggest that happiness is a suitable measure for the success of a society, using measures such as Gross Domestic Happiness. I think that these folk are on to something. One can be affluent, healthy and educated yet not happy. On the other hand it seems very difficult to me to find an indicator that allows comparison of happiness of one person versus another, of one group versus another. Moreover, I like Orhan Pamuk's suggestion that Istanbul citizens live in an emotional state which is short of happiness and which is comparable to a malaise felt in other cities but specific to Istanbul. Thus happiness may depend on the weather, the climate, the insolation, the genetics of the population, or other factors which are not subject to policy manipulation. Still, happiness seems to me a useful element to include in a multidimensional measurement of progress.

I just saw a televised awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Kwame Anthony Appiah has recently published a book titled The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. It seems to me that honor might be the basis of another indicator of importance for a society. How many people are worthy of honor? How may people in a society would qualify for its highest honors? This would be a measure of moral worth and/or personal achievement and contribution to society. I note that world class universities proudly proclaim the number of their faculty members who have been awarded the Nobel or other international prizes. Ultimately I think an indicator of honor might focus on the ethical basis and moral behavior of people in a society.

So perhaps we need a multidimensional concept of progress. It would measure the degree to which people were healthy and intellectually developed, the degree to which they had the resources to assure comfort and choice, the degree to which those benefits were universally shared within the society, happiness, and honor.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


From Bob Park's What's New:
Here's the picture: It's been 20 years since the Cold War ended, but thousands of thermonuclear warheads, still reside in Russia and the US under conditions of questionable security. How many megatons does it take to counter the threat from Iran and North Korea? Meanwhile, armies of religious fanatics dream of the glory of being the first nuclear suicide bomber. It would seem to be a sensible plan to reduce the number of these things, but the Republicans seem to be in no hurry to ratify the agreement. There is always danger in delaying international agreements; windows have a way of closing in response to unrelated incidents. We knew Jesse Helms (Senator No) was dangerous; he enjoyed blocking progress. Jesse went to his reward seven years ago. Now we are finding that the Republicans are all crazy. Their sole objective seems to be blocking Obama.
As I understand this, the treaty under discussion is a first step that would make modest reductions in the number of warheads but significantly improve relations with Russia. It has been discussed at length between the White House and Republican senators, and at there request would be accompanied by a large budget to maintain U.S. nuclear capacity. Many international leaders have asked that the Senate ratify the treaty.

So I agree strongly with physicist Bob Park.

Older is not better, at least for thinking

My friend Julianne pointed me to this article in Scientific American which describes a study which found that older people are not more risk adverse than younger people, but they are less accurate in making decisions that avoid the probability of loss. A useful tip for those of us who are surely in the "older" category.

I note the more general statement from the article:
This hypothesis matches up with what psychologists know about cognitive aging. "There's a pretty straightforward story," says Scott Huettel, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies decision-making and aging at Duke University's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. "More or less all of our cognitive abilities decline throughout the life span." A large body of research has shown that a wide variety of skills, including memory, analytical reasoning and processing speed, decrease as we age. The one thing that stays constant or even increases, Huettel says, is crystallized intelligence, a person's accrued knowledge about the world—in other words, experience.
I can provide first hand evidence that this is true. On the other hand, even us old guys can learn and become faster and more accurate on a specific task if we work at it.

Why I worry about U.S. Competitiveness in the Future

I quote from a recent study:
Unfortunately, the percentage of students in the U.S. Class of 2009 who were highly accomplished in math is well below that of most countries with which the U.S. generally compares itself. No less than 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test had a larger percentage of students who scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level on our National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. While 6 percent of U.S. public and private school students rated as advanced in 8th-grade mathematics, 28 percent of Taiwanese students did.

The other states score even lower. Math is a good topic for these comparisons since there are fewer problems in language and focus that complicate comparisons between states and nations. I suspect it is also a good indicator of the success kids will have in science and engineering education and in the working in the modern economy of their future.

Lets cut USDA expenditures promoting agricultural products in the market

According to Need to Know on PBS, USDA spends nearly $700 million per year on 17 programs which seek to increase domestic consumption of U.S. agricultural products. In this program, it supports organisations like Pizza Hut and McDonalds. In theory the program is not tax supported, but is rather paid for by contributions from farmers whose products are promoted. However, the farmers are not allowed not to make the specified contributions. That sounds like a tax to me!

It is one thing to have the government promote the sale of American goods abroad, but it is quite another thing for the government to do so at home. In this case, asking USDA both to advise the public on good nutrition habits and to promote agricultural products leads to mission confusion. The government is a good place for us to seek information on how to avoid foods that make us fat and eating habits that make us unhealthy. Lets let industry advertise its own products, at least at home.

If we are looking for ways to reduce the deficit, this is $700 million that could be better spent elsewhere!

Friday, November 19, 2010


The more I see of the representatives of the people, the more I admire my dogs.
Alphonse de Lamartine

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Do you want to bet on America's future? Quotation

75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.
Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
"The Vision of Education Reform in the United States"
4 November 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Comment on the The War That Made America

This is a short and interesting book. It was written to accompany a television show that screened on PBS several years ago, and as such is relatively brief and perhaps focuses on portions of the war leaving out others that a more academic history would discuss. It makes the case well that the experience of the British colonists in the French and Indian War in the 1750s strongly influenced the events which led to the revolution a few decades later. The book includes the Native American tribes as political and military players in the war in a way that is seldom if ever taught in American schools, but which strikes me as quite realistic. The French and Indian War, the American theater of the Seven Year War, took place largely in areas inhabited by Native Americans rather than British or French colonists and the Five Nations were still sufficiently organized to play a diplomatic role as well as a military role.

I found myself wondering how the leaders of the Native American tribes must have felt during the war. The Native American population had been ravaged by epidemics of diseases for centuries that had so reduced the population density that it must have radically disrupted their economic and political organization. Many tribes were trying to adapt to the new locations where they had been driven by the influx of European settlers. The Native Americans must have been very confused by the differences among European groups with which they were interacting, not only between the French Catholics and the British Protestants, but between the peoples settling in New England, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Few if any of these leaders would have been to Europe and they must have had great difficulty understanding why the metropolitan powers were sending so many people to America and why they were sending troops to fight a war on what the Native Americans regarded as their own lands. Making decisions on which side to support and how best to support that side must have been a nightmare.

I got into a brief discussion on the blog of Rob Cosgrave on the education for military leaders. I thought about the topic again reading this book. Of course, both the British and the French at the time of the war appointed their senior officers from the aristocracy, often selling the commissions. In both cases they sent troops from Europe to fight in America and especially they sent the senior officers from Europe. Often the aristocratic senior officers know little and thought less of the colonists and less of the Native Americans. They knew little of the terrain and cared little for the tactics that had evolved here. As a result they made huge and costly errors. Edward Braddock, the first British commander during the war, for example, quickly after starting his first campaign led his forces into an ambush by the French and Indians where the British forces were routed and Braddock was killed. Compare Braddock with David Petraeus in Afghanistan who knows that he has to understand Afghani culture and society to successfully lead the allied forces in the war, and who has not only studied the tactics used in insurgencies in the past but has literally written the book on them. While the outcome of the war in Afghanistan has not yet been determined, I do not for a moment imagine that Petraeus will make stupid blunders such as some of those made by Braddock and his contemporaries in the French and Indian War.

The book provides a perspective on George Washington that was new to me. For example, it pointed out that he had some 45,000 acres of land expropriated by the British just before the Revolution, suggesting that he may have had some personal anger driving his fight against the English. I also wonder whether his experience in the French and Indian War did not influence his sending of a punitive expedition against the Native Americans during the Revolution, an expedition that set precedents for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the eastern United States in the first decades of the nation's history.

In any case, I recommend the book as a brief, readable history that may change your view of American history in the 1750s.


Monday, November 15, 2010

TEDxPSU - Bruce Schneier - Reconceptualizing Security

Let me restate some ideas from this presentation.

In the real world there are dangers and actions which can be taken to reduce or eliminate those dangers. We react to the real world conditions emotionally. Schneier stresses the emotional reaction to the danger, but I would add that there are also emotional reactions to the means of dealing with dangers. (Some people react emotionally to police in ways that interfere with the accuracy of their perception of the efficacy of policing as a means of dealing with danger.) We also use intellect to react to danger and to choose ways to react to danger. Schneier is very good on what we know about cognitive bias in the intellectual models we make of the real world dangers and actions, although he can not do justice to the topic in a brief discussion. For example, I think there is a difference between our being "risk adverse" and our being "loss adverse" although both biases can reduce the quality of decisions.

I like Schneier's differentiation between security measures and security theater. Security theater is meant to influence our emotions and our models. I would say that good security theater has the effect of bringing our perceptions closer to reality and bad security theater is meant to distort our perceptions from reality. Bad security theater is perpetrated by people who would sell us products that promise more security than they deliver. Those products can be commercial products, but I would say that the Bush administration also perpetrated some bad security theater with respect to the threats of terrorism or of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam's Iraq.

Schneier makes a great point that our emotional response can be conditioned by our intellectual model of dangers and actions, and that often with time our models disappear from our consciousness leaving us simply to perceive our emotional response.

I would draw the conclusion that we want to work to make our intellectual models as good as possible and to use effective analytic means to draw conclusions from those models. Schneier suggests that we know a lot about our local risks, but my experience on a local Grand Jury dealing with scores of people accused of local crimes made me aware that my intellectual model of local crime risk was seriously deficient. Awareness of common cognitive biases can be used to help overcome those biases.

While we can individually analyze security theater to help judge whether it is benign or malicious, we can also consciously seek factual evidence to improve our intellectual models. We need help from the news and other other media to brand bad security theater from government as we have help from the government to protect us from bad security theater from the private sector (false advertising, false claims for drugs and medical treatments).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thinking about the historical development of big companies

Chapter 4 of The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge is titled "The Rise of Big Business in America, 1862-1913". Chapter 5 is titled "The Rise of Big Business in England, Germany and Japan, 1850-1950". The two chapters compare and contrast the development of large corporations in these four countries in a very concise way.

I would guess that the expansion of markets based on improved transportation and communications systems were common factors that allowed companies in the four countries to grow in order to secure economies of scale. There were several common factors, such as the need to develop enabling legislation for the large corporations to exist, the need to develop ways to finance the large corporations, and the need to develop ways to manage business enterprises that were more complicated than the earlier businesses.

The discussion indicates that while all four countries developed large corporations, the way that they did so and the kinds of corporations that resulted were contingent on the cultures of the countries, and thus contingent on the cultural histories of those countries. Germany and Japan developed corporations to achieve economic purposes enunciated by their national governments while the United States and Britain seem less to have recognized the military and diplomatic advantages of a big business sector. There were also differences in the attitudes toward monopolistic policies of corporations and differences in the way that class structure and educational systems affected business management.

It might be interesting to consider the differences between these countries that developed big businesses and the many that did not. Colonialism was of course a reason the peripheral regions of the empires failed to develop many of their own corporations, but that explanation does not explain the failure to do so adequately in Latin America.

Three Major UNESCO Reports on Science and Technology

UNESCO this year has produced three major reports on topics of science and technology:

Why I think a new Constitutional Convention a bad idea

An old classmate sent me a circulating email recommending a Constitutional Convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. It included a couple of reasons why the author thought the Constitution should be rewritten (one of them frankly in error) but basically the argument was that we keep throwing out one batch of politicians after another and lots of us are still mad as hell about what the government is doing.

I think that a new Constitutional Convention would be a very bad idea.

  • We were very lucky to have the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution. Do you think we would find others comparable to Madison, Hamilton and Franklin to draft a new Constitution or of George Washington to chair the Convention? I rather doubt that we would do as well. 
  • There is probably an optimal size for a group drafting an important document and suspect that any modern U.S. Constitutional Convention would be farther from that optimum than was the original Constitutional Convention.
  • There were no parties in 1787 and at that time the founding fathers believed that visibly seeking office was ungentlemanly. I doubt that a modern Convention would be as devoted to framing as good a document as possible rather than seeking a document that promoted factional gains. Parties would be dominated by the fear of loss rather than the hope for gain.
  • Generations of office holders have evolved a body of practices that work in implementing government under the current Constitution. Presumably all of that would be lost. Not only would it take time to evolve a new body of practices, but it might not be done as well. Would we get another George Washington to set the precedents as chief executive? Would we get another John Marshall to set the precedents for the judiciary? How would we quickly replicate the progress made in legislative process by generations of legislators?
  • There has been more than two centuries in which the existing Constitution has been amended and interpreted, making it better than it was. Think about the time when the Constitution was interpreted by the Supreme Court to mean that slavery was legal and African Americans were not citizens, or the time that the Supreme Court said that the Constitution prohibited government from regulating to prevent the exploitation of workers. All that would be lost and we would have to start over.
  • The process of ratification of the original Constitution was exceptionally democratic and thoughtful, and that ratification was a close thing. It is not clear that a new Constitution (drafted by real people in a real world) could be ratified at all, much less that the process would improve lead to acceptance of improvements as the Bill of Rights was an improvement to the original Constitution.
  • The process of redoing the basic document of our government would obviously take time and during that time there would be great uncertainty as to who would benefit and "whose ox would be gored"; a long period of such uncertainty would be bad for business, bad for government, bad for foreign policy and bad for domestic policy.
If one were to embark on so perilous a process as the rejection of the Constitution to draft a new one, the need to do so would have to be very great and very widely agreed, and I think the purposes of the redrafting would have to be explicit and comprehensive. Even in such a case, it would probably be better to amend the current document.

Those who would lightly propose to rewrite the Constitution should think again and think more deeply.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Bob Park writes:
The James Webb Space Telescope is in trouble. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the appropriations subcommitte that oversees NASA, clearly saw trouble back in June when she requested a review of the NASA budget. The review came in this week. The bottom line is that the James Webb space telescope is a year behind schedule and $200 million short. Christopher Scolese, associate administrator of NASA, agreed with the report's findings, but could not see where they could find the money. I should tell him the secret, NASA is bifurcated. The NASA that’s the envy of the world, we might call "Exploration NASA," it’s a science agency that discovers exoplanets and puts rovers on Mars. Then there’s "Carnival NASA." It arranges trips to space for people with too much disposable income, and looks for water on the Moon to make rocket fuel.
Thanks to Senator Mikulski for her wisdom in calling for the review, and to the people of Maryland for reelecting her.

Dr. Park is probably likes carnivals, as I do, if they don't cost too much and don't interfere with more important things. We spend a lot of money on entertainment (and on less worthy activities) and NASA has provided some great entertainment over the years. Of course, the Hubble Space Telescope, which is to be replaced by the Webb, provided a part of that entertainment as will the Webb when it gets into operation.

Still, I agree with his fundamental point, which I take to be that we should not delay (much less abandon) important scientific work in favor of meretricious distractions.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thinking about the categories "tradable" and "non-tradable"

People seem to underestimate the amount of manufacturing in the United States. According to Wikipedia, U.S. manufacturing is 19 percent of the world total. But this got me to thinking about classifications of economic activities.

It used to be that a country exported primary products (from agriculture, fishing, forestry or mining) and manufactured products. By and large services were not traded internationally. The Internet brought to our attention that there are tradable services as call centers and software manufacturing moved to India and other nations. It seems to me that we might consider tradable versus non-tradable as categories that apply to primary, secondary and tertiary industries.

We don't know how to export a lot of tropical fruits into international markets, and I would suppose that other primary products are not tradable. For example, clay and gravel might have such high transportation costs that they have to be produced close to where they are used. So too, some products harvested from the oceans and the forests may have only local markets.

So too, some manufactured products probably are not suitable for international commerce. I recently saw a factory that was producing shredded lettuce for fast food restaurants; I would not assume that one could export such a product.

I would note that while there is concern for the export of U.S. jobs by the import of services, such as call center services, we also export services. There are more than 600,000 foreign students in U.S. universities, and increasingly our educational institutions are offering Internet mediated educational services abroad. So too, our financial service industries offer services abroad. I wonder how much of the business of Amazon and eBay is in commerce of foreign buyers purchasing goods "retail" from the United States.

I suppose one lesson here is that the contents of the categories "tradable" and "not tradable" are changing rapidly. Another lesson is that popular ideas can be quite inaccurate if they don't keep up with the changes of the economy. A third lesson might be that our trade policy should be forward looking, considering markets that may soon develop for our exports and threats that may develop from new imports penetrating our domestic markets.

Tax expenditures

Source of graph: Tax Policy Center

I understand that the Deficit Reduction Commission is considering reduction of tax expenditures within its recommendations. According to the Tax Policy Center
The tax expenditure budget comprises the estimated revenue losses attributable to various exclusions, exemptions, deductions, nonrefundable credits, deferrals, and preferential rates in the tax code........

OMB’s tax expenditure budget for fiscal 2008 totaled $878 billion.
It seems obvious that reductions in tax expenditures should be considered as well as cuts in government expenditures and increases in taxes, and indeed that tax expenditures should regularly be considered in budget negotiations.

Of course, tax breaks are supposed to encourage activities that our public policy defines as desirable such as contributions to charities and educational expenditures.

There have been proposals to reduce Social Security pensions while allowing tax breaks for private savings plans that would be seen as complementing social security and to reduce Medicare while allowing tax breaks to private supplementary private supplementary savings plans that would complement Medicare. It seems to me that these proposals would cut the deficit. They might also result savings that could be invested in the private sector rather than in the public sector as Social Security and Medicare savings are now. On the other hand, it would be relatively affluent people who would put savings in such plans so that we would see tax expenditures going to subsidize the affluent.

I hope that the Commission will also suggest review of the rules relating to allowable industrial expenditures. Companies do not pay taxes on their contributions to employee health plans nor on the salaries that they pay to their employees. Classifying these contributions thus means that they are not taxed, and therefore would seem to involve tax reductions to corporations analogous to tax expenditures. How about treating amounts exceeding specified limits of as corporate profits distributed to employees (rather than to stockholders). The government contributions to its employee health plans might be a benchmark for allow costs for corporate health plans, and the pay for Congress or the president for allowable remuneration for executives. This might be seen as double taxation, but I would rather perceive it as an excise tax on excessive corporate remuneration of senior executives.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

My First Lady and My President trot their stuff!

Thinking about the next chapter in our political and economic institutional development

Susan Hockfield, on the Charlie Rose show, called for the people of the United States "to invent the next chapter of democratic capitalism". She is the President of MIT and judging by this interview, one very smart lady.

The democratic capitalism that this country started with in the 18th century was by current standards neither very democratic nor very much involved in capitalism. Slavery was pervasive, Native Americans were disenfranchised, women were not enfranchised, and only a small portion of the adult males of European origin were empowered to participate in democratic processes; elections were often indirect rather than direct. There were no large corporations, nor the legal institutions to allow them to form, nor was there a stock market; a great many of the people living in the region were involved in subsistence farming or hunting and gathering.

In the more than two centuries since the nation was founded, our political institutions have evolved, sometimes taking a step back and sometimes with bloodshed, but few of us would go back to a system without parties, with the authority of the Supreme Court undefined, or with suffrage constrained to a tiny minority of the population. Nor would many give up the affluence bought not only by two generations of labor but also be the development of institutions and policies that made our economy work so well for most of the last half century. The metaphor of chapters in the history of our political system and of our economic system is a good one.

It is also clear that political institutions and economic institutions have been closely intertwined during our history, from the debates over the national bank in Washington's cabinet to the role of capitalists in the last election as the rules on campaign finance were relaxed.

I would however take issue with the word "invent". I think history suggests that our political institutions and our economic institutions evolve. While there are brilliant people who deeply influence that evolution, no one controls it to such a point that they ought to be said to invent the new institutional system. Indeed, it is hard for me to conceive of someone perceiving the shape of the institutions that will emerge later in this century from the current evolution; where then is the "inventing" in the absence of reasonably accurate prediction and forecasting?

The need for a new chapter seems obvious. The economic crisis of the last few years of exceptional depth and a political process that seems deadlocked are perhaps small signs of the change that is coming.  There are more fundamental indications. We have seen a historically recent demise of alternative institutional systems such as fascism and communism. In the past the evolution of political and economic institutions has been greatly influenced by the philosophical, political and economic ideas of the time and we are in period of great intellectual ferment. Technological change has driven institutional change and we are in the midst of technological revolutions, especially of an Information Revolution. Globalization too is likely to drive both economic and political institutional change.

Implicit in President Hockfield's comments was a recognition that if we do not manage a transition to a political and economic system that improves our lives we may see a transition to a system that is destructive to our deeply held values. Decolonization resulted in a transition for the imperial powers that undermined their ideas about their just positions in the international political and economic orders, not to mention a challenge to their beliefs in their "civilizing missions".

The problem is how to go about influencing the institutional evolution. The American Revolution and the Civil war effected major transitions at the cost of war and dislocation of millions. The industrial revolution saw economic dislocation leaving millions to suffer as slum-inhabiting wage slaves. Two world wars and a great depression resulted in radical change in the 20th century in political and economic institutions. There are worse examples, such as those in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond -- societies that reached the carrying capacity of their environments is propitious environmental conditions and then crashed when the climate changed, to a much lower level of wellbeing and indeed to a reduction in population levels.  All these examples illustrate how painful institutional evolution can be. So how then can we ameliorate the process of change while working towards more rather than less desired institutional outcomes?

As I think of Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it seems to me that the election of leaders with character and strong ideals as well as "first-class temperament". Hitler and Stalin suggest that leaders can have a very negative effect on institutional transitions.

What are the indicators of a successful evolution of political and economic institutions. I would postulate that a key indicator would be welfare, in the sense of welfare economics -- the greatest good for the greatest number if you will. I would weigh heavily saving a life or pulling people out of extreme poverty against increasing the prosperity of the already wealthy. I would prefer an improvement made earlier to one of the same impact made later.

That suggests that the process of evolution should be open and democratic. Not only is a process with more participants likely to better distribute welfare, but the more open the economy the more likely it will grow quickly.

It also seems to me that a focus on knowledge and technology is important. The greater the knowledge about political and economic systems, the more likely the evolution will be toward more effective systems. Rapid technological innovation is likely to drive increased productivity and is certainly necessary to respond effectively to changes in resource costs and changing factor prices.

It also seems to me that institutions should grow in scale to meet the increased scale possible with improved transportation and communication technologies and infrastructures, with globalization, and with the increased environmental footprint of our global society.

Democratic oversight of a complex evolutionary process of economic, political, technological and environmental change involving an expansion of the scale of political and technological institutions seems to me to require an informed and thoughtful public. Thus, I would put the expansion of formal and informal education as a key element in achieving an evolution to a new chapter in our economic and political institutions that achieves the best outcomes in terms of human welfare.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

President Obama's visit to Indonesia and U.S.-Indonesian S&T Cooperaton

It seems to me that President Obama's visit to Indonesia reflects his view of the priorities in U.S. foreign policy. 
  • Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country, one on which Obama is very popular and highly respected, giving him an ideal platform for a major foreign policy speech on U.S. relations with the Islamic world and indeed Indonesia is a key nation in the evolving U.S. policy with respect to that world.
  • Indonesia has had its own problems with terrorism and is an ally in the war against Al Qaeda.
  • U.S. economic health requires exporting more to improve our balance of payments. As Asia represents the most important emerging market for U.S. exports, Indonesia is likely to be an important part of that market. 
  • Indonesia is an important country for U.S. international energy policy due to its petroleum resources, and an interesting place for the exploration of geothermal energy technology. 
  • The environmental problems that confront Indonesia make it a laboratory for global environmental solutions. 
  • It is also a country that engages U.S. humanitarian assistance. 

The emphasis on scientific, technological and educational cooperation, welcome as it is, should be seen in light of these larger interests.

The U.S. program of scientific, technological and education cooperation with Indonesia has been evolving "with all deliberate speed". Remember that putting flesh on the bones of such an initiative involves exploration of opportunities and constraints, development of project proposals and obtaining funds. For government agencies, the funding requires not only executive branch action but legislative approval and the delays of the legislative budget cycle. The government cooperation program is moving forward since the science and technology agreement was signed last year. It includes not only efforts funded by U.S. bilateral foreign assistance agencies (USAID, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the State Department) but also cooperative activities from such "domestic" agencies as the National Institutes of Health and NASA. Especially important will be the $165 million higher education cooperation program to be implemented over the next five years. 

Check out the following

I suspect that the most important elements in President Obama's initiatives in terms of strengthening Indonesian technological capacity will not be recognized as such by most people. President Obama said that he want the United States, which is now Indonesia's third most important trading partner, to become its most important source of foreign direct investment and foreign trade. U.S. investments in Indonesia should be a rich source of technology as the investing firms will also be transferring technology and financing technological innovation. Trade will be presumably emphasize U.S. high technology exports which will bring technologies to Indonesia that it wants and needs. while providing incentives for Indonesian exporters to ramp up their technology to increase their international competitiveness.

It should be recognized that there is a long history of scientific, technological and educational cooperation between Indonesia and the United States. A quarter of a century I helped organize a visit to the United States by Indonesia's Minister of Science and Technology and 17 others drawn from the scientific and technological leadership of all the government agencies. They stayed in the United States for a month meeting with counterparts in government and the private sector.

Still, the cooperation is very unequal. The new UNESCO World Science Report points out that the United States represents 23.1 percent of global gross expenditure on research and development while Indonesia represents on 0.04 percent of global GERD. It will take a long time for Indonesia to attain the scientific and technological capacity that its people need, but increased STEM cooperation with the United States will help in achieving that capacity.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Where does at the computer power go: The Economist special report on smart systems

The Economist magazine current edition has a special report on smart systems. These are systems which combine sensors, communications links, computing power, data storage and retrieval, innovative and powerful software and often automatic control. Applied now in areas such as management of electricity supply and demand and water distribution system management, they are expected to have great importance in the future in manufacturing and even commerce. It seems to me that one of the early applications has been in traffic control, but there too a lot can be done in the future.

I suppose that we are seeing several trends come together. Sensors, memory, computing power, and communications technology are all proliferating as they become cheaper and cheaper. Networks are proliferating as the proliferating number of devices are being put together in new ways. Innovation continues and indeed seems to quicken as more innovators come on stream and as the proliferating devices and networks offer more opportunities and gains from innovations.

Of course there are going to be a lot of innovations which stink, others which seem great but get eclipsed, and still others which will be important for a while but which are supplanted by still better innovations (as the VCR was supplanted by the DVD). However I am hopeful that we will see smart systems as a major direction for progress in the Information Revolution.

The Economist warns, appropriately I fear, that there may be a "dark side to the force". The power inherent in smart systems may be used for the wrong purposes. For example, it may be used to expand coercive political force and to restrict liberty. In a less Machiavellian example, increased reliance on automated systems may result in a technological dependency with adverse future implications.

Of course, any technology with great power to produce future benefits will probably also have power to be misused or the potential for unintended adverse consequences. Warnings such as those provided the The Economist may help us plan to avert the misuse and reduce the unintended consequences without sacrificing the benefits.

Private payroll employment, January 2008 - October, 2010 1 2 3 4

Monday, November 08, 2010

Today, over 22,000 children died around the world

The child death tole is:
  • 1 child dying every 4 seconds
  •  15 children dying every minute
  •   A 2010 Haiti earthquake occurring almost every 10 days
  •   A 2004 Asian Tsunami occurring almost every 10 days
  •   Just under 8.1 million children dying every year
  •   Some 88 million children dying between 2000 and 2009

An interesting table from Mother Jones

Note that foreign aid is 0.85 percent of the tax bill. Recall that this is how the federal tax is distributed. While the federal spending in 2010 is $3,721 billion, state and local government spending is $3,209 billion all of which presumably is domestic in nature. Thus foreign aid represents less than half of one percent of your tax dollar.

Proximate versus distant causes of the Civil War

We are beginning the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and I have been thinking about the causes of that war. I think it is likely that it began at the time it did and in the way it did as a result of Abraham Lincoln being elected president. With four candidates running in the election of 1860, none of whom received a majority of the vote, the election of Lincoln does not seem to have been a sure thing.

Lincoln's opposition to slavery was well known and indeed was the basis of the national prominence that allowed him to be nominated for the presidency and elected. Since 1860 was the first time that a man was elected president who was fundamentally opposed to slavery, the election seems to have acted as a trigger for the secession, since the states with economies most dependent on slavery saw the election as a harbinger of the eventual abolition of slavery and emancipation of the slaves.

A more fundamental cause of the Civil War was the difference of beliefs between those with political power in the South and those in the North. The average white in the South was better off economically than the average white in the North. Many southerners believed that slavery was not only morally acceptable but was in fact a God-given institution that was sanctioned in the bible.

On the other hand, support for the abolition of slavery had grown worldwide for a century before the 1860 election. The slave trade had been made illegal and many countries had already abolished slavery within their borders. Many Americans, primarily in the North, worked for the abolition of slavery out of conviction that it was morally wrong. Perhaps surprisingly many of these abolitionists were racially prejudiced; even Lincoln appears to have believed that African-Americans would have to emigrate from the United States after the abolition of slavery because they could not successfully be integrated into American society after abolition.

Others abolitionists believed, as do I, that the institution of slavery reduced the economic success of the southern slave states and that the free societies of the north were more innovative technologically and were growing faster than the slave societies of the south because their free social system was more conducive to growth than that of the slave societies. It seems clear that these people did not perceive the severity of the Civil War that would lead to the emancipation of slaves, nor the problems of the reconstruction, nor that the South would replace slavery with a system of discrimination and segregation that was also not conducive to economic growth.

A friend recommended The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. I quote from a review of the book published on the Amazon website:
It is well established that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Now a groundbreaking book, based on thirty years’ research, takes an important step past this idea. The Spirit Level shows that there is one common factor that links the healthiest and happiest societies: the degree of equality among their members. Not wealth; not resources; not culture, climate, diet, or system of government. Furthermore, more-unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them—the well-off as well as the poor.

The remarkable data assembled in The Spirit Level reveals striking differences, not only among the nations of the first world but even within America’s fifty states. Almost every modern social problem—ill-health, violence, lack of community life, teen pregnancy, mental illness—is more likely to occur in a less-equal society. This is why America, by most measures the richest country on earth, has per capita shorter average lifespan, more cases of mental illness, more obesity, and more of its citizens in prison than any other developed nation.

Wilkinson and Pickett lay bare the contradiction between material success and social failure in today’s world.
The institution of slavery was based fundamentally on inequality. Those who believed that slavery was holding a large portion of the United States back economically were no doubt right. The white southerners who perceived that their affluence and their way of life was threatened by abolition were also right, and they monopolized the political power in the South.

Thus this fundamental difference between the perceptions of those in power in the North and those in power in the South may be seen as a more fundamental cause of the Civil War than the election of Lincoln, perhaps its proximate cause. Those in power in the South caused the secession from the Union because they believed it was their right to do so, because their economic interests required them to do so, because they believed their slavery-based institutions were morally defensible, and because they believed the election of Lincoln was a clear sign that those institutions would eventually be outlawed in a united United States. Those in power in the North were convinced both that the abolition of slavery was necessary and that the preservation of the Union was of fundamental importance.

There were real differences among slave holding states. The Virginia legislature had held a serious debate over the abolition of slavery, based on a proposition that it be abolished over a period of several generations. While there were many free blacks in Delaware, there were very few slaves in 1860. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and what became West Virginia were slave states that did not join the Confederacy, but remained with the Union.

I would suggest that an underlying cause of the differences in beliefs of those in power in the North and South was the difference in the economic systems -- slave or free -- that underlay the differences in culture, institutions, and the distribution of power in the regions.

I have earlier tried to make the case that geographic differences between North and South, leading to different climates, led in turn to different agricultural systems and different economies, and thus was an even more distant cause of the Civil War.

Even today there seems to be controversy over why the Civil War occurred. Some in the South feel that it was over states rights versus the rights of the majority in the federal union, and not over slavery. Indeed, there was and remains a difference of opinion over the appropriate balance of power between states and  the federal government, but it is not a coincidence that the states most dependent on slavery were those that seceded from the Union nor that they were the states that had climates most conducive to plantation agriculture for the production of cotton (which was increasingly in demand by the industrialized cloth production industry that had developed in the early 19th century). Considering the range of proximate and distant causes of the war may help to clarify the discussion as we commemorate the Civil War's anniversary.

A Thought About Networks: Parallels and difference between 1848 and now

I have been reading 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport. That was a year in which liberals and radicals organized mass demonstrations all across Europe, succeeding in some cases in obtaining democratic reforms, and leading to conservative reactions. There seems to have been a contagion. I suppose that the news spread via the newspapers that were increasingly present in part to improved technology of printing, and through the networks of liberal and radical activists. Still the rate of spread of the news of demonstrations seems very fast since the railroad system was quite limited and the telegraph only recently invented. Still there were steamboats and a well established system of ocean, river and canal transport that clearly carried the news in some cases.

Of course, the unrest spread explosively because there was a fertile ground for its spread. Terrible weather had cut into agricultural productivity, while the industrial revolution was disrupting societies and throwing people out of work. Liberal and radical theorists had brought the social problem of poverty to the attention of the public while nationalism was challenging the political order of the time. Conservatives in power often were too slow to respond to the dissatisfaction of the public letting the temperature rise to the boiling point.

That got me thinking about Al Qaeda. I recently read a report about a mathematical model that illuminated the way in which anti-terrorist action could increase the number of terrorists; some actions can increase the probability of people deciding to become terrorists to such a degree that more new terrorists are recruited than existing terrorists are removed from the group of terrorists. (Sorry, I can't recall the link.)

It occurred to me that in the not too distant past it would have been very hard if not impossible for a terrorist organization on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to recruit new members and agents in the Middle East, other parts of Asia, Europe and even North America. Now it is clearly not only possible, but happening. The global mass media certainly are playing a part in increasing the likelihood that Muslims all over the world will be disturbed and angry enough to be more easily recruited; the improved point-to-point communications (telephone, Internet, air travel) make it more possible and indeed relatively easy to establish and operate networks of recruiters at great distances.

Thinking about the whys of the election

Unemployment peaked in June 2010 at 9.7 percent. I am not sure that everyone understands what that number means. "Full employment" means that there is about 4% unemployment as about one in 25 workers is "between jobs" for one reason or another at the best of times; by that standard, unemployment is about 5% or one in 20 workers above "full employment". A part of that is that it is taking longer for people "between jobs" to find a new job. On the other hand, the government unemployment index counts only those people actively looking for a job and surely some people who would like to work are so discouraged that they are no longer looking.

Still, the jobless rate is too high and there are millions of people who want jobs who are out of work. That percolates through the economy since there are a lot more people who are worrying about their jobs as well as those who are out of work. It is also the case that more people around looking for work tends to drive down the pay for those working.

The net worth of U.S. households went down from $79.8 trillion in mid 2007 to $62.9 trillion in early 2009. That is a 21 percent decrease in household wealth. The new worth has only rebounded to $67.4 trillion and actually decreased in the last quarter for which there is data. The value of real estate went down, as did the value of stocks, as did the value of pension funds. People who had not been putting aside a portion of their income in savings because their property and stocks kept increasing in value suddenly found that they should have saved more.

However, the total net worth is very unevenly distributed. Across all groups, the 2007 median net worth was $120,300 and the mean was $556,300. We know that a lot of people went into the red in the last two years as they drew down savings because they were out of jobs or because they owed more on their homes that they were worth (because they had borrowed a lot to buy the house and housing prices went down with the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst). For a lot of the middle class, the loss in wealth was truly worrisome.

In fact, I think the actions of the Bush administration in 2008 and the Obama administration since it came into office helped keep the economic situation from getting much worse. Still, people are angry and tended to take out the anger on those in office.

People are also mad at the corporate executives in the industries that caused the problem, and madder still because they have profited from the bailouts. I think the bailouts were good economic policy, and I think the Obama administration did the auto industry bailout better than the Bush administration did the financial industry bailout. Still, the voters probably took out their anger on the people in office who were up for election.

I am bemused by the response to the health care legislation. The public surely wanted regulation of health insurers to help families keep their children insured, to prevent people from losing insurance because they got sick, and to keep insurance companies from refusing insurance to people with existing conditions. The unbiased Congressional Budget Office said that the new law will save a lot of money. Yet the legislation seems to be unpopular with many voters.

The election was probably more based on what is going badly than on what is going well. The Obama administration seems to have done well getting the Chinese to increase the value of their currency with respect to the dollar which will help the balance of trade in the next few years (see the graph above). He has continued the withdrawal policy in the Iraq war that was started by the Bush administration and seems to be moving toward a prudent withdrawal from Afghanistan that has bipartisan support. Thus the policies seem to be in the right direction, and they seem to be bipartisan in the way that U.S. foreign policy should be, and in a way that they should survive the political change imposed by this election.

The Obama administration has also moved to reduce the friction caused by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has greatly improved the views about the United States in most of the rest of the world. It has restored the credibility of government science. It has moved to improve long term competitiveness of the U.S. economy by support for education and technological innovation. It has directed stimulus money into restoring our deteriorating infrastructure and reducing oil dependence by developing efficient energy technologies. It has regulated the financial industry in ways that will help the consumer and that will help prevent the kind of bubble and crash we have just experienced.

A large part of the success of the Republicans is that they have succeeded in framing the issues of the election. Some of the reason seems to be that people who are mad as hell but do not really understand the problem have been given access to the media and have managed to organize and influence public opinion and the elections.

Obama is blamed for the failure of communication and accepts some of that blame -- probably deservedly. On the other hand, he had more time for communication when he was a candidate than now that he is running the government, two wars, economic policy, foreign policy and domestic policy. Moreover, it is easier for the guy on the outside to attack the guy in power for the failures of his policies than for the guy on the inside to explain the benefits of his policies, why they will take time to work, and why in the real world they could not have been better.

The posting, as I read it over, seems very positive about the Obama administration. I too am unhappy about the economy, the wars and a lot of other problems in the United States, but on the other hand I don't really know what the Obama administration could have done better. I wish the Republicans had been more willing to compromise in the last two years, but it seems clear that their party profited from saying no to everything. A big part of the problem is that a party can profit in its election possibilities by policies that are not most profitable for the country. That is the problem that Obama pointed to during the 2008 election, and it is a problem he has not been able to dent in the his time in the White House.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Malaria Deaths Underestimated in India

I quote from Science magazine:
The number of people who die every year from malaria in India could be 13 times higher than current estimates, according to a new study.

Many malaria deaths occur outside of hospitals and thus aren't easily recorded. Malaria can also strike fast, making it even harder to track. To get a better estimate of malaria deaths in India, a team of international scientists led by Neeraj Dhingra of the National AIDS Control Organisation in New Delhi sent surveyors to randomly selected areas of the country; they asked families and other witnesses to describe deaths that had occurred there between 2001 and 2003.

When physicians reviewed the reports, they attributed 3.6% of roughly 75,000 deaths to malaria. That translates to 205,000 malaria deaths nationwide every year, the researchers report in The Lancet. Ninety percent occurred in rural areas, and 86% occurred outside of any sort of health facility. Previous World Health Organization (WHO) reports put the total at 15,000.
If this is the situation in India the malaria rates in other developing nations may also have been underestimated. Malaria remains a huge public health challenge, yet the techniques exist for the control of the disease and perhaps for its eradication, if we have the political will.

Updated Estimate of Iraqis Killed in the War

Iraq Body Count has been keeping a running account of the reported deaths of Iraqis from violence during the Iraq war. The Wikileaks publication of some 400,000 military reports from that war provide another source of data on these deaths. As shown above, there are Iraqi deaths previously noted in the Iraq Body Count inventory that were not included in the Wikileaks information and vice versa. Iraq Body Count has used the two sources therefore to estimate the total number of Iraqis. As a preliminary estimate based on this work, Iraq Body Count now estimates 150,000 Iraqis killed by violence during the war to date.

This new count corresponds somewhat with the World Health Organization estimate of 151,000 violent deaths in Iraq made about two years ago.

A controversial study, published by The Lancet after peer review in 2996, concluded that "as of July, 2006, there have been 654,965 (392,979 to 942,636) excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war". Note that the "excess deaths" would include not only deaths from violence, but also deaths from disease, malnutrition or lack of adequate medical care that would presumably have been averted had there not been the war.

We will probably never know the true number of Iraqi lives that the war has cost, but surely that number dwarfs the deaths in the coalition forces and represents a huge tragedy for the Iraqi people.

Amplifying thought

An article in Science magazine reviews The Extended Mind (Life and Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology and Psychology) by Richard Menary. That book in turn focuses on "The Extended Mind" by Andy Clark and David Chalmers with responses to Clark and Chalmers' thesis.
There they defend the idea that the mind "extends" into the environment in cases in which a human organism and the environment become cognitively coupled systems. Their by now iconic illustration of cognitive coupling involves "Otto," a "slightly amnesic" person, who uses a notebook to write down important facts that he is otherwise likely to forget. Unlike a person who remembers the address of the Museum of Modern Art by relying on natural memory, Otto recalls it by accessing his notebook. If one supposes that the notebook is constantly available to Otto and that what is written in it is endorsed by Otto, it becomes plausible—so Clark and Chalmers argue—that Otto's memory extends to include the notebook. After all, they notice, Otto's notes seem to play exactly the same role as memory traces in other people. Wouldn't it be chauvinistic to restrict the mind's extent to what's natural and inner?
It seems to me that it is better to consider Otto's notebook as an aid to thinking with one's brain as comparable to a lever as an aid to the flexing of one's muscles in achieving a human purpose. Certainly computers seem to me to be artificial means to amplify our thinking very comparable to the way that motor driven machines are are artificial means to amplify our physical ability to manipulate our environment.

The review also states:
Recently, this idea of the mind not being confined to the head has been reinvigorated by philosophers and cognitive scientists, who see the mind as "spreading out" or "extending" into the world. "How do you know the way to San José?" philosopher John Haugeland has famously asked (2). Chances are you don't have some inner analog of a printed map. Rather, you know where you should enter the highway, and then you get there by following the road signs. Your knowledge seems to be partially "implemented" in the environment. There is now a blooming field of research into "situation cognition," which explores how cognitive or mental phenomena such as problem solving or remembering can be strongly dependent on interactions between subjects and their environments.
If the mind is what we perceive as the program of the computing device called the brain, then perhaps the reflex is a program for the control of our muscles. If you were to run a complex and physically demanding maze again and again it seems to me you might well develop muscular reflexes that would help you to run it faster and more safely. Would you call the maze an extension of the reflex? I think not.

The mind is that with which we think we think, but the brain is actually that with which we think. The brain is, of course, not just a logical device but a living organ that is also (among other things) what we emote with, what we metabolize nutrients with and what we fill our skulls with. We may think we think logically, but all too often our thinking is emotional and illogical. (Or perhaps just often enough, or not often enough!)

It seems to me useful to consider the ways in which we amplify our "mental abilities". There are ways which, like Otto with his notebook, a person augments his/her own memory. Similarly, a person might use paper and pencil to do arithmetic or algebra, augmenting his/her analytic ability. Computers are machines which one can purchase to augment one's mental abilities in a number of ways, as loud speakers are machines which one can purchase to augment one's ability to communicate at a distance.

I suppose that Homo sapiens as a social species has evolved to solve problems in small groups better than the individual can solve them alone. We have developed a lot of technology to allow us to think collectively in larger and more disperse groups, and we have developed social institutions which seem to allow us to think better collectively than we did with simple historical institutions.

The Internet and the World Wide Web are extending such developments. Think of Wikipedia as a developing technology-based institution that allows millions of people to record, organize and retrieve information.

Of course maps, street signs, and now the GPS are aids to finding one's way. They depend on institutions and technology. But why would it be helpful to think of them as parts of the mind, or even the "extended mind"?