Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Collective Intelligence

Planning Higher Education

I watched an interesting debate on American higher education that was suggested by my friend Julianne. One side took the position that the United States needs to provide more college education for our young people while the other side held that we might better provide alternative forms of education to improve our long term economic prospects.

I agree that some kids would be better served by a four year apprenticeship to become a first class plumber or mechanic rather than the four year program in a second rate college in humanities or area studies that they will actually get. Indeed, we probably have the ratios of doctors to nurses, engineers to technicians, lawyers to paralegals and generally professionals to paraprofessionals wrong for maximum economic efficiency.

On the other hand, who says that maximizing economic production is the sole goal of higher education. Education is not only an investment in future earnings; it is also a consumer service. People like to learn interesting things. We could be a more productive society if we cut out other consumer services. If we worked more and spent less time in relaxation we would produce more, but who wants to live in Sparta?

It was pointed out that there are now other countries with a higher percentage of college graduates in the 25 to 30 age bracket than the United States, and a debater suggested that we should educate more to compete. It seems to me that that is comparing apples to oranges. If one were to seek a valid comparison to Scandinavian education levels, one might seek a Scandinavia size area of the United States that has the same concentration of industries as Scandinavia. Thus New England, with its high education levels might be a suitable comparison.

On the other hand, it does you little good if you live in Texas and need a doctor or lawyer to have under employed doctors or lawyers in Boston. In a continent spanning nation, one should be considering the needs and demands for higher education by region.

It seems a common error to assume that one should calculate the rate of return on investment in education only taking the future earnings of the individual. That can't be right. We know for example, that there are spill over effects. Areas with more college graduates have higher per capita income for those college graduates than do areas with fewer college graduates.

My old friend Steve, after he had finished his MD and Internship, went on to get a Masters degree in Public Health, and then a further Doctorate in epidemiology. He pointed out that his lifetime earnings expectation went down with each degree past the MD. Fortunately for society we have some physicians who choose to go into public health. Fortunately for society, we have some public health physicians who choose to further specialize and work as epidemiologists figuring out the nature of the health problems we face and the value of proposes solutions to those problems. The social value of their services is not well measured by the remuneration that they receive.

Think about our system of governance. Think about how poorly governed were some of the new African nations which had few if any college graduates after decolonization. Think about the different voting behavior indicated by surveys for college graduates versus those who have not attended college. I would prefer a more rather than a less educate electorate!

It would also be nice if every person who will devote decades to raising children was thoroughly educated in the care and raising of children. Not only would that seem to justify a four year college course, but a strong program in continuing education to provide just-in-time learning to meet the needs for parenting of developing children. The investment in educated parenting would not show up in increased GDP for a generation (and indeed might look like a step back for a generation) but it might be the best investment we could make.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two essays on culture and development

Mapping Authority and Survival or Well Being.

Yesterday I posted some thoughts on UNESCO's culture program, questioning whether it was adequately focused on promoting cultural changes in order to achieve the Organization's mission of promoting peace. This post summarizes two recent essays dealing with culture and development.

1. "Natural experiments: Working in the history lab," JARED DIAMOND and JAMES A. ROBINSON, The New Scientist, 29 March 2010.
The authors have a new book out, Natural Experiments of History, which explores the idea that the methodology of natural experiments used in other fields (such as natural history and economics) can be useful as a tool for historians. The article is taken from the book, focusing significantly on the comparison of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Since these two countries share the same island and have quite similar endowments of natural resources, the authors ascribe their very different economic histories largely to their very different cultures (although factors such as the French demand for reparations and the general isolation of Haiti in the first half of the 19th century are also cited).

2. "Haiti and the Voodoo Curse: The cultural roots of the country's endless misery," LAWRENCE HARRISON, The Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2010.
Harrison is the author of a classic book, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. In the current article he attributes much of the failure of Haiti to progress economically to the roots of Haitian culture in the African culture of the slaves who revolted successfully against France two centuries ago. He too cites other factors.

Neither article focuses on the occupations of these countries by the United States (Haiti, 1915 to 1934 and 1994 to 1995; Dominican Republic, 1916 to 1924 and 1965 to 1966), nor the impact of the governance regimes set up by the United States in ending those occupations. It might be thought that the occupations by the United States were sufficiently similar that they would not account for a major difference in the economic trajectories of the countries. However, U.S. occupying force prejudice against the Black Haitians might have been quite different than that against the Hispanic Dominicans, and thus the impact of the occupations might have been different.

I would guess that Diamond and Robinson go on in their book to examine "natural experiments" in which peoples with similar cultures adapt to different physical environments with different economic and social outcomes.

Using a very broad definition of culture -- the "integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior" of a nation's inhabitants -- it is hard to argue with the proposition that culture is a major determinant of success in economic development. In this broad definition, culture includes the institutions in the nation and the policies that the people accept in those institutions -- factors identified by an alternative theory of development.

However, if one is interested in economic growth as a way to diminish poverty and improve the quality of life for the poor in poor countries, saying that culture, as broadly defined, holds back development is of little use. The question must be raised as to what cultural changes would be both acceptable to the people and effective in promoting growth.

UNESCO, Culture and Development

UNESCO's efforts in the field of culture and development seem less extensive and less effective than those in the field of preservation of cultural heritage. One wonders whether in the 21st Century UNESCO should redouble its efforts to bring together the leaders of the world's inellectual community and serve more effectively as a laboratory of ideas on Culture and Development. Indeed, if UNESCO can catalyze the creation of a consensus on culture-based appoaches to promote social and economic development and on cultural objectives of social and economic development, should it not then embark on a program of capacity development to assist its member states to utilize the knowledge of that consensus?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Energy In the United States

Source: National Academies: U.S. energy at a crossroads

The complexity of the American energy system, as shown in the above illuminating illustration, explains why it will be so hard to change systems to reduce carbon emissions. If you look carefully it would seem that reducing the "rejected" energy, and increasing energy efficiency could be important approaches to the task.

Thinking about UNESCO's Culture Program

Herdis Hølleland, in her blog Sites of Transformations, has a posting on the World Heritage Site of the City of Potosi in Bolivia. The mines of Bolivia, and especially the silver mines of Potosi produced wealth that fueled much of history in the past half millennium, not only in South America but also in Europe. Those mines have also exploited labor -- in the past and now -- in an exceptionally brutal way. Young men entering the mines for the first time have a life expectancy of some 20 years due to the harsh conditions in which they will work. Helleland writes of the Potosi world heritage site:
(I)t is a site where the past and present meet – as a tourist destination it is not only a historic city, but a site reminding visitors of history gone wrong. While historically it might fit well into the framework of ‘World Heritage’, its present state is perhaps not the picture perfect for UNESCO’s overall values and goals.
Why do nation's seek World Heritage status for their sites? What is the value attached to the designation? In part it is financial, as World Heritage sites draw tourists who bring money, and for poor countries the status allows the countries to compete for grant funding for maintenance and restoration of their sites. The designation also confers prestige, and it is easy to imagine that some of that prestige indirectly benefits those governing the country.

In short, I suggest that UNESCO by conferring World Heritage status on a site within a country indirectly supports the regime governing that country.

The decision to confer World Heritage status on a site is made by the World Heritage Committee, elected by the World Heritage General Assembly. Sites are nominated by member states and the nominations are reviewed by technical advisory bodies, but their technical recommendations can be and sometimes are overridden by the political bodies. Indeed, the strategy of the World Heritage program is explicitly to add sites from developing nations to "correct" a perceived bias in the early decades of the Center towards recognition of sites in Europe.

Helleland has raised the question as to whether the designation of the City of Potosi is consistent with UNESCO's mission. That question can be extended to the entire list, which currently includes 890 sites. Is the process of selection one that helps to preserve sites which truly merit the designation of World Heritage and to educate people everywhere about the common heritage of mankind, or is its politicization such as to support governments -- some of which may not merit such support? Should World Heritage status be denied to sites within countries in which governments do not respect and protect the human rights of their citizens and visitors?

More Generally About UNESCO and World Heritage

The following is the list of treaties created by UNESCO dealing with cultural heritage, with the dates on which they were signed:
  • Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, 14 May 1954
  • Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, 14 November 1970
  • Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 16 November 1972
  • Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, 2 November 2001
  • Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 17 October 2003
  • Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, 20 October 2005
Recall that during World War II, the Nazi invaders appropriated the movable cultural treasures of the regions that they conquered, removing them to Germany. This was certainly not a new nor a unique event, but it is understandable that the founders of UNESCO in the aftermath of the war sought to prevent such a thing from happening again.

Three of these conventions were created in the first 55 years of UNESCO's existence, and three more were created in the last decade.

The first two conventions appear to protect against the theft of cultural objects, the second pair to recognize and protect archaeological sites, monuments and natural sites of cultural importance, and the third pair to recognize intangible cultural heritage. Note that the protection provided in the third pair is not against the copying of forms such as music or dance (as is done in the earlier copyright conventions), but rather to preserve them from being discarded in favor of new (and imported) forms.

What we see here is a significant "mission creep". The member states of UNESCO have chosen to broaden the protections offered by its treaties from objects, to sites, to the intangible.

The process by its nature has been intensely political. Consequently, one may question the motives of the government parties to the new conventions. Which governments benefited from the mission creep? Was the expansion of the Organization's mission in protection of cultural heritage consistent with its larger mission of "building the defenses of peace in the minds of men," or indeed could the implementation of the protections provided by the new conventions by an intensely political process be destructive to that mission?

More Generally Still, About UNESCO's Cultural Program

I suggest that UNESCO was created to promote certain cultural changes, and that the promotion of cultural change remains central to UNESCO's mission. The two world wars could and must be seen as the result of the cultures of the peoples involved in those wars. UNESCO was created to change the way people think -- to make changes that would make war less and less likely. It was to produce cultures of more educated and thoughtful peoples who better understood each other and who would be less and less likely allow their governments to undertake wars of aggression and conquest.

From its inception, UNESCO had seen promotion of respect for human rights as fundamental to its mission. This too implies that UNESCO sought to change cultures so that peoples would be more likely to protect the human rights of their own members and the members of other nations.

When UNESCO was founded, the word "culture" in its title was generally interpreted in the sense of what we now tend to term "high culture" -- the best in the cultural products such as great art, literature and music. It was thought that greater dissemination of these products and greater appreciation for the best cultural products of other peoples would tend to reduce the willingness to war.

We now more frequently use the word "culture" in the sense it is used by the social sciences, implying the "integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior". Indeed we define a people as a group largely sharing the most important elements of a common culture, It is in this sense that UNESCO's mission is to change the knowledge, beliefs and behavior of peoples in such ways as to promote peace and prevent war and conflict. Cultural exchanges, in the earlier meaning of the term "culture", can be an important vehicle for promoting such cultural change.

This raises the issue as to whether UNESCO in seeking to conserve intangible culture and to promote the diversity of cultural expression is in conflict with the primary mission of UNESCO, which is to promote cultural changes that will make the world more peaceful and humane.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Another challenge to mind-body separation

Source: "Mind over matter? How your body does your thinking," 24 March 2010, Anil Ananthaswamy, New Scientist

My friend Julianne suggested this article.
Until recently, the assumption has been that our bodies contribute only to our most basic interactions with the environment, namely sensory and motor processes. The new results suggest that our bodies are also exploited to produce abstract thought, and that even seemingly inconsequential activities have the power to influence our thinking.

One result reported is that eye movements occur which are predictive of random numbers generated by subjects in an experimental setting. The interpretation is that the Americans may associate larger numbers with higher regions in the field of view and regions more to the right, and that the involuntary eye movement up and right is part of the brain's function to generate a larger "random" number.

A second, similar result suggested that moving things up in space tended to make people's responses more positive, and moving them down in space to make responses more negative.

I heard recently on a radio broadcast a result which I can not reference, but that a subject hearing sneezes will tend to be more concerned about health than if he/she had not heard the sneeze.

Without Comment

>"Poetry - a clot of universal echoes. But you know her better; she should get off the pedestal, to find their place in the midst of life. To do this, it should actively collect study, publish and translate."

Perhaps the best health care option for America combines public and civil society

As a retired civil servant, I enjoy health care options provided by contracts with the federal government. As an old guy, I enjoy Medicare financing for my medical care, provided under the Social Security system. For many years I have obtained health care through Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit Health Maintenance Organization. The combination of a federally contracted, federally funded HMO works great for me.

The United States has a long history of civil society organizations, and HMO's which provide health services without a profit motive work quite well. I think no one would dare tamper with Medicare, and indeed it seems to work well and efficiently. Indeed, the financial transactions between the federal government and the HMO seem to be very simple and efficient, and no trouble at all for me.

I wish the new health care law had made this option more widely available. Even more, I wish that the law had not left ten to fifteen million Americans without health insurance, and had extended coverage to non-citizens living in the United States.

Still, we now have a comprehensive health care law and the system can be improved in the future.

A thought on the unintended consequences of technological innovation


Ely Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. Within a few years Richard Trevithick introduced engines using high-pressure steam. The combination of the steam powered cotton gin revolutionized the cleaning of cotton and led to a revolution in cotton production in the United States. That in turn made slaves much more profitable in the states in which they were used as labor to produce cotton, which in turn made America's "original sin" of slavery much more difficult to

Of course, the steam engine also led to a revolution in transportation and steam ships and eventually railroads made it possible to efficiently transport cotton bales from America to England. (Whitney went on to revolutionize the production of rifles and to become a powerful and effective exponent of manufacturing with interchangeable parts -- what came to be known as "The American System of Manufacturing".

Cotton cloth had been developed as a major export from the Indian subcontinent. With the development of shipping routes between Europe and India in the 18th century, India cotton became a high value luxury good in Europe.

John Darwin, in his book After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405, suggests that as the wool industry in England was threatened by the increasing import of cotton cloth from India, inventors were induced to invent machines that would allow the English to compete with the efficient and cheap Indian labor. The spinning jenny was invented about 1764. Cartwright patented a power loom in 1785 and within a few decades that technology had been sufficiently improved that there were a number of factories in England producing cotton cloth at very low cost.

The English began exporting cotton thread to India and then cotton cloth, not only substituting English cotton cloth for Indian imports in the home market but also taking export markets from Indian producers and even taking away the Indian markets. Darwin suggests that cheap British cotton cloth exports to India proved a key element in the English conquest of India and the development of the British Empire.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Quotations: Benjamin Franklin


  • A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.
  • Admiration is the daughter of ignorance.
  • An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.
  • Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.
  • For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.
  • Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
  • If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him.
  • Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
  • Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.
  • The doors of wisdom are never shut.
  • The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance.
  • We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.
  • Where sense is wanting, everything is wanting.
  • Who is wise? He that learns from everyone.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Congresswoman Donna Edwards


"In the short time that Congresswoman Donna Edwards has been in the House, she has distinguished herself as a leader on issues crucial to the American people, including health care, job creation, and economic security. During the health care debate, Congresswoman Edwards expertly presided over the House: ensuring that the voices of all Members were heard and that civility reigned. Her support for reform, based on its positive benefits for the health of her district and the fiscal health of our nation, was essential to its passage. All of us in the Democratic Caucus will continue to rely on Congresswoman Edwards' experience, knowledge, and leadership in the days and years to come."

The Benefits of the New Health Care Law

An email from Senator Ben Cardin lists the following benefits:
  • Closing the Medicare Part D Prescription Drug “Donut Hole” and a $250 cash rebate in 2010
  • Tax credits that help small businesses pay for affordable quality health coverage for their employees
  • Prohibiting discrimination on the basis of pre-existing conditions
  • Protection from insurers who want to cancel policies when you get sick
  • Protecting and strengthening Medicare for seniors
  • Limiting out-of-pocket costs for medical care by prohibiting lifetime limits on benefits, and restricting the use of annual limits
  • Allowing dependent youths under age 26 to maintain coverage under their parents’ insurance plans
  • Free preventive services under all insurance plans and free annual wellness checkups for seniors
  • Prohibiting insurers from discriminating on the basis of gender
  • Allowing enrollees in new health plans to choose their own primary care doctor
  • Allowing women in new health plans to visit their ob-gyn without pre-approval from their insurance company
  • Allowing parents to select the pediatrician of their choice as their child’s primary care provider
  • Requiring all new health plans to guarantee access to needed emergency care services, according to the prudent layperson definition
  • Guarantee all new health plans allow an independent external review of any denied claims
At the same time, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which President Obama signed into law, will reduce costs for families and small businesses and cut the federal budget deficit by over $100 billion in the first 10 years and over $1 trillion in the next 10 years.

Comment: I am very glad to see that the law will make health insurance available to more people, and will not allow insurers to deny coverage to those who need it most. I am glad to see the emphasis on preventive medicine. I am encouraged by the cost savings.

I have become more concerned with regulation of the health insurance industry since the debate over the bill began, and I am glad to see consumer protection built in to the new law.

I would have preferred to see universal health insurance achieved, a public option, and indeed some more reforms of medicare.

Still legislation is based on compromise, and this law should improve the situation and seems better than I had expected.

Senator Cardin and his Democratic colleagues in the Congress deserve our thanks and support. The Republicans just said "NO!" Indeed, none of them had the courage to vote conscience in opposition to the party line. They deserve our anger and opposition. JAD
For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.
Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Good Profile of Elizabeth Warren


Elizabeth Warren is a new hero of mine due to her oversight of the TARP program and her advocacy of consumer protection and financial regulatory reform. The New York Times has a nice profile of her.

Ms. Warren’s climactic hour begins now: three years after she hatched the idea for the agency, the White House has backed it, the House of Representatives has approved it and it is a top Democratic priority in the Senate.

Many fans, including RepresentativeBarney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, hope Ms. Warren will run it.


Sounds like a good idea, but it is not every educator and theorist who can run a government agency. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

Higher Education: Towards a Global Knowledge Society


Source: "Bologna Policy Forum Keynote Speech – Building the global knowledge society: systemic and institutional change," Juan Ramón de la Fuente and Eva Egron-Polak, GlobalHigherEd, March 12, 2010

I quote:
(P)erhaps the most important development in the last couple of decades and a key driver of change is the very importance assigned to higher education as a sector today and the expectation that it can provide solutions or respond to society’s challenges. There is general consensus that no state, indeed no society, can afford to ignore how well its higher education and research sector is performing.....

Since 2003, when the first Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking was first published, the global context has become the reference and research performance the undisputed measure of quality, despite continuous criticism. The failure, so far, for the most frequently used rankings to recognize that higher education fulfills other goals, is a real danger. Such goals as the provision of equitable access to enhance social cohesion, or the institution’s commitment in other efforts such as poverty alleviation, conflict prevention, cultural awareness and many other challenges often expressed within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals, cannot be ignored in any dynamic and context-sensitive measures of quality.....

In less than a decade – between 1999 and 2006 – the number of students enrolled in higher education increased roughly by 50% – from about 93 million to 144 million (UNESCO, 2009) and the growth trend appears to be stable for a few years to come.

The IAU maintains a world wide database on higher education which, in 1983 included approximately 9,000 universities and other higher education institutions in 153 countries. Today, the database has more than 18, 000 institutions in 183 countries. In one decade, China has doubled the number of HEIs and multiplied by 5 the number of students who are enrolled. In Ethiopia, in 2000 there were 34,000 students enrolled in higher education, in 2007 this number increased to 120,000.....

Today 30% of global higher education enrollment is in the private sector and it is the fastest growing part of the sector worldwide.
Comment: The explosive growth of colleges and universities is having an obvious beneficial effect. Half a century ago, when decolonization was in full swing there were newly formed countries without a single university graduate. On the other hand, the unbridled expansion is creating huge quality problems. I suspect that the quality range is especially great among private universities: some have gone to the private sector to create high quality by avoiding the limitations of public eduction in poor nations, while others enroll students in programs of execrable quality by avoiding regulation. JAD

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reading Polls Carefully

There is a new Harris Poll that is presented as demonstrating that there is very wide spread belief in the United States in a number of propositions about Barack Obama that seem to be patently ridiculous. An article by the Director of Polling at ABC News points out that the Harris Poll methods were seriously flawed, including poor sampling methodology:
The poll starts by telling respondents “here are some things people have said about President Obama,” then asking if they think each is true or false. Fifteen statements follow, with all (excluding “he is a Muslim”) unrelentingly negative. “True” answers run from a high of 40 percent, for “he is a socialist,” to a low of 13 percent, for “he wants the terrorists to win.”

The problems are fundamental. “Some people have said” is a biasing introductory phrase; it imbues the subsequent statements with an air of credibility – particularly when you don’t note that others say something else. (That approach can have problems of its own; the “some people” vs. “other people” format implies equivalence.)

The subsequent statements, for their part, are classically unbalanced – there’s no alternative proposition to consider. A wealth of academic literature, neatly summarized here, demonstrates that questions constructed in this fashion – true/false, agree/disagree – carry a heavy dose of what’s known as acquiescence bias. They overstate agreement with whatever’s been posited, often by a very substantial margin. (This reflects avoidance of cognitive burden, which tends to happen disproportionately with less-educated respondents, as is reflected in Harris’ results.)

Using all negative statements, rather than a mix of negative and positive ones, reflects another non-standard approach, one that can further bias responses. (The ordering of items, unclear in the Harris release, can be troublesome as well.)
The criticism reminds us that we have to be careful about believing polling results since not only can polls be misleading, but it is possible for polling organizations to deliberately create polls that leave a mistaken impression in the unwary reader.

On the other hand, the poll does seem to be credible in suggesting that the more education held by the respondent, the less likely the respondent was to give foolish answers to the items in the poll.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

US Congress eyes science diplomacy program

A prominent US congressman has proposed that the United States should set up a foreign policy programme to boost international scientific collaboration, especially with Muslim countries.

The Global Science Program for Security, Competitiveness, and Diplomacy Act of 2010 was introduced to the House of Representatives last week (10 March) by Howard L. Berman, Democratic representative and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Monday, March 22, 2010

I don't understand how people can fail to sympathize with both


How can one not sympathize with both the majority of Israelis and the majority of Palestinians? Both people are suffering. Both groups are divided politically with many factions disagreeing on the right way to work towards a safer more sustainable situation. We have to realize that solutions seem much clearer to those of us who are generally uninformed and looking on from a distant sideline, so we can not criticize too much the leaders in the region struggling with the complexities of their realities.

In any case, sympathy for people should not depend on their being right, but only on their suffering without seeing a way out.

Epidemiologists focus on Welfare and Health

A new book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson and health researcher Kate Pickett makes the case that societies that reduce radical differences in the economic wellbeing of their populations reap many other benefits in the welfare of their people.

Here are a couple of reviews of the book, suggesting it is a must read:
We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens' incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks' holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we'd trust each other more.

Math Models: From financial meltdown to global warming

Computer modeling allows experts to extrapolate the implications of complex sets of assumptions and data in a timely fashion. In a few decades they have become a fundamental tool of the analyst. The computer models amplify analytical efforts in a manner analogous to the way mechanical engines amplify muscle power. Indeed we would no more be able to check the computer analysis without computers than we would be able to replace the machines in a coal mine with manual labor.

News reports suggest that an important factor in the financial meltdown at the end of the last decade was the use of mathematical models for risk management by the financial industry and its regulators. While I worked on mathematical models in another context, I don't know enough about those used in finance to comment intelligently. Still, the models that were in use must have failed to provide their users with adequate warning of the risks they were running. I would bet that the chief executives and boards of directors of the major firms involved neither had the expertise to understand the details of the models being used nor that they had taken the time to make a detailed investigation of those models on which they were betting their firms. A lot of those firms lost those bets.

Climate change is a sufficiently complex subject that powerful models must be applied to its analysis. A lot of very good scientists and modelers are doing so. Again, I am not expert in these models, but it is clear that there exist several different very strong models, indicating both the fact that there is not now an agreement on the perfect form for such a model and that the models are sufficiently robust to agree generally in their predictions. I am sure than none of the heads of government or major legislative bodies are experts in climate change nor these models. I suggest that there is a possibility that the existing models might fail to predict radical, non-linear climatic effects of factors that are not fully included in the theory or parameterization of the existing climate models.

While the bigwigs of the financial firms that got into such troubles made a lot of money in salaries and bonuses during the period in which they failed to take into account the risks that their models were wrong, the rest of us are paying for their failure in risk management.

The politicians who deny the risks that the current climate models are fatally flawed may reap short term political benefits. Let us hope that our children and their children do not pay for the failure to act now to reduce the threat of climate change. Prudence suggests that we not bet the future of the planet and the human race that the models -- which already predict major climate changes -- are not too conservative in their predictions.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How has culture changed since UNESCO was founded?


We are all familiar with two different meanings of the word "culture".
  1. Farouk Hosny, the unsuccessful candidate last year for election to the post of UNESCO Director General, is the long time Minister of Culture. We understand that his portfolio extends to museums, galleries, and theaters, to literature, music, drama and film, and art. His is the realm in which a "man of culture" would be expert. In the case of Egyptian Hosny, an important aspect of his duties is the protection of antiquities and Egypt's heritage of Pharaonic, Greco-Roman and Arabic artifacts and monuments.
  2. Anthropologists use the term "culture" in a more inclusive manner such as these definitions from Wikipedia: "An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning" and "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group".
What may not be so clear is that since UNESCO was founded in 1945, the primary meaning of the term has changed the former to the latter. UNESCO has added elements to its cultural program, from a concern for books and museums, to protection of historical monuments and movable elements of cultural heritage, to a broader concern for recognition of intangible cultural heritage and promotion of dialog among cultures and promotion of a culture of peace.

How has culture itself changed in the 65 years since UNESCO was created?

Globalization certainly has made profound changes. People are more exposed to cultures other than their own. Increased travel and increased migration results in more people experiencing other cultures in person. The growth of the global information infrastructure allows people to experience other cultures more via the media.

The creation of a large number of new nations has reduced or at least changed cultural imperialism in those decolonized states, while commercial distribution of cultural products is greatly increasing the inter-penetration of popular cultures, especially the penetration of the successful marketers of cultural products into other cultures.

Many more people speak the major international languages (although some languages have disappeared and many are endangered.) The advance of technology has allowed not only faster and easier language learning, but access to significant amounts of online automated translation. During last year's UNESCO election, for example, with the help of friends and Google I was able to monitor the press coverage not only in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese, but also in German, Russian, Bulgarian and Arabic. Languages themselves have changed, not only by adopting new words from abroad but inventing new words for new things and new thoughts.

The world stock of literature, art and drama has increased. We have not only printed and filmed materials, but a world of digital material. We have also seen the phenomenon of "the long tail". We have access not only to that which we own, that which we can find live on the media, and that in the stores, but to huge collections available online. This week, for example, I found an online copy of a long out of print book by my great uncle, and more surprisingly, of a hand written poem he has sent to a colleague in the 1920's.

The explosion of schooling has equipped many more people with more and better tools for cultural exploration and appreciation. So too, the growth of the world economy has allowed a huge increase in the affordability of cultural products and travel.

Birth rates have fallen everywhere, people are living longer, and families are smaller. For the first time in history, most people in the world live in cities. The occupational structures of society have changed with a smaller percentage of workers in agriculture and a greater percentage in services.

There have been radical changes in institutions, including political, economic and social institutions. Indeed, even I suspect in religions and their expressions.

And of course, cultures have evolved both according to the external pressures and influences and to the internal actions and preferences of their peoples.

One must ask then if UNESCO has or could have changed its culture program sufficiently to meet the new challenges and opportunities of todays cultures?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What has happened since I was born

I was born in 1937. Look at some of the changes that have taken place in the world since then. Perhaps the best place to look is Gapminder, which you can explore on your own.


Growth of the Global Economy
Source: The Futurist

Source: Internet World Stats

Most of the countries that exist today did not exist when I was born.

I am pretty sure that most of the scientists who have ever lived became scientists since I was born. I would bet that most of the people who ever got a university degree (B.S., M.S. or Ph.D) did so since I was born.

The United Nations system was conceptualized during World War II, and the key agencies were created by 1950. It was built with only the failed example of the League of Nations to guide its founders. How likely do you think it is that the founders of the United Nations system could predict the world of today? How likely do you think that they understood or cared what our values would be today?

How likely do you think that we would create the United Nations system in the same form that they did, or that we would create it in the form it exists today if we were to start again?

How likely do you think that we could make it better if we started a major reform now?

Support for Women’s Treaty Should Include the US

Source: UNA-USA World Bulletin

The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a landmark international treaty protecting the rights of women, has been ratified by 186 of the UN’s 192 members. The US remains the only industrialized democracy in the world that has not ratified it, leaving the US in the company of such nations as Iran, Somalia and Sudan, where violations of women’srights are rampant.
I find it hard to believe that the people of the United States do not rise up and demand that the government ratify the Conventions on the Rights of Women and on the Rights of the Child.

Education Pays Off

An interesting article from an issue of the New York Times from last October provides this graph illustrating its thesis that education level is strongly determinant of long term economic growth. It provides the following cautionary paragraphs:
One reason that historical education levels have such predictive power is that educational investment is extremely persistent. School enrollments in 1900 can explain more than 72 percent of the variation in years of schooling across countries today, as measured by data collected by Robert J. Barro and Jong-Wha Lee; a similar degree of persistence occurs across United States cities.......

One explanation for the extraordinarily strong relationship between national earnings and education is that the correlation is largely spurious.

Perhaps, richer countries choose to become more educated, so that higher income causes higher levels of education rather than the reverse. Perhaps countries with other positive attributes, like better governments, are both richer and better schooled. The individual level research has labored hard to find so-called “natural experiments” — like mandatory schooling laws that start abruptly and relatively arbitrarily in a particular year in a particular state — that enable researchers to estimate the returns to education holding individual aptitude constant. Cross-country work is not nearly as well-identified and it never will be.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Smithsonian to Debut Cromwell Series on St. Patrick's Day


Do the executives at the network not realize how much the Irish Catholics are going to object to that? Cromwell is associated with the brutal Protestant conquest of Ireland, the infliction of penal laws oppressing Catholics, the Cromwellian Plantations expropriating lands from Catholics and giving them to Protestant soldiers and other English, the enslavement of large numbers of Irish who were sent to the Caribbean, and the forced movement of large numbers of Catholics from their homes to the west of Ireland. For those who are color blind, March 17th is the day in which Catholics celebrate the patron saint of Ireland (by the wearing of the green).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Bring Back the Office of Technology Assessment!

Again from Fallows' article in The Atlantic:
In 1972, Congress created an Office of Technology Assessment as a source of nonpartisan expertise on scientific and technical questions, ranging from the utility of early anti‑ AIDS treatments to the practicality of alternative fuels for cars. The model was hailed and imitated internationally; here, it helped inspire the creation of the Congressional Budget Office two years later. The CBO remains, but in 1995 Newt Gingrich, in one of his early acts as speaker of the House, led a movement to abolish the OTA, as a symbolic strike against government waste. Its annual budget at the time was $22 million—less than a dime per U.S. citizen, or 20 minutes’ worth of financial-bailout spending early last year. “We are willfully making ourselves stupid,” Ralph Nader said about the absent OTA. He has urged the current Democratic congressional majority to reinstate it. But, he says, “they are so afraid of attacks for supporting ‘big government,’ they won’t dare.”
I actually participated in one of the assessments done by OTA before it was murdered by the Republican Congress and I can attest it did important work very efficiently. It is time to reestablish that function, and probably to do so in an advisory function to the legislative branch.

On the composition of the U.S. Senate

James Fallows wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year:
We are now 200-plus years past Jefferson’s wish for permanent revolution and nearly 30 past Olson’s warning, with that much more buildup of systemic plaque—and of structural distortions, too. When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry. No one would propose such a system in a constitution written today, but without a revolution, it’s unchangeable. Similarly, since it takes 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster on controversial legislation, 41 votes is in effect a blocking minority. States that together hold about 12 percent of the U.S. population can provide that many Senate votes. This converts the Senate from the “saucer” George Washington called it, in which scalding ideas from the more temperamental House might “cool,” into a deep freeze and a dead weight.

The Senate’s then-famous “Gang of Six,” which controlled crucial aspects of last year’s proposed health-care legislation, came from states that together held about 3 percent of the total U.S. population; 97 percent of the public lives in states not included in that group. (Just to round this out, more than half of all Americans live in the 10 most populous states—which together account for 20 of the Senate’s 100 votes.)
I don't know whether it is possible to amend the Constitution to change the composition of the Senate, but it seems to me that it is worth trying. There is some justice in wanting a government that takes time to make big changes, but giving 12 percent of the population veto power over the rest, or making deals among Senators representing 3 percent of the population necessary accommodations to get legislation passed makes no sense.

Friday, March 12, 2010

About Earthquakes

Source: "Natural Disasters, National Diligence: The Chilean Earthquake in Perspective," Daniel Kaufmann and José Tessada.

The earthquake and tsunami in Chile was terrible, and it will put the nation back years in its development. Chileans are understandably complaining that they wish more had been done in terms of warnings and post disaster relief. Yet the death and injury toll could have been much worse. The epicenter of the quake was deep underground, and that apparently helped. It was in a less populated area than that in Haiti.

One thing that has not been mentioned is that Chileans know about earthquakes and tsunamis. When they felt the quake they took action to get out of the way of falling objects and stayed out of doors during the long chain of aftershocks that is still happening. Coastal villagers when they felt the shocks literally ran for the hills, not waiting for the tsunami warning (which never came).

Some of the amelioration of the quake damages should be attributed to good governance. There are building regulations in Chile and the level of government and industrial corruption is sufficiently low that they are widely enforced, leading to buildings that resist earthquakes. The military could reach the affected cities relatively soon to impose order and the government had emergency stores that it could mobilize quickly and ship to the affected population. I suspect that utilities were also more rapidly restored than would have been the case in Chile decades ago (when I lived there), or than would be the case in many other countries.

The table above shows how frequent are major earthquakes and how many people they kill. It does not show how many more people are seriously injured nor how many suffer serious inconvenience in the aftermath of quakes, nor how much property damage the quakes do and how hard it is to recover economically from them. Good governance counts!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A thought about the age of imperialism

The age of western imperialism is generally thought to be about the 19th century when Western European powers created empires in Africa and Asia. It occurs to me that American "Manifest Destiny" might be seen as an example of the imperialistic impulse that drove Europeans.

A relatively small population of European-Americans concentrated on the east coast of North America expanded to a nation reaching to the Pacific. European empires of the 19th century were built on small numbers of Europeans living in and administering the periphery which was inhabited primarily by the indigenous populations. The U.S. imperialism was built on immigration of large numbers of people, mostly Europeans, who were over time acculturated into U.S. political and economic institutions; the immigrants conquered and replace most of the indigenous population which had been greatly reduced by diseases after the Colombian exchange.

The course of European empire building and U.S. western expansion building are quite different in many ways. Still, there seems to have been a perception among the founding fathers that European Americans were to dominate a large geographic area which in their time was occupied by indigenous people by a process of expansion and colonization.

The European empires disintegrated in the 20th century, while the United States went from strength to strength during the 20th century.

I wonder whether the experience in Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil could be seen similarly as examples of imperialism by European marginal populations seeking to create imperial domains over areas sparsely populated by disease decimated indigenous populations.

Enigmas of Chance


I have been reading Mark Kac' book, Enigmas of Chance: An Autobiography. Kac was a very good mathematician who spent most of his career at Cornell and Rockefeller Universities. The book is surprisingly fun, since he had a great sense of humor. The math is suggestive of what he did, and not that hard to understand.

Kac (pronouced Katz with an "ahh" like "say ahh") was an expert in statistics and probability theory who actually used them in his daily life.

There are lots of Mark Kac stories. I have one. I had the great pleasure of working with him the summer I got out of grad school. (He was exceptionally generous with a young colleague!)

When Kac arrived in Los Angeles a colleague who had been his graduate student and our boss went to pick Kac up at the airport. For some reason they were late. Kac had left by the time they arrived to pick him up. My colleague, Dave, said not to worry. He knew Kac very well and could find him. So boss and Dave got in the car and started to drive. Every once and a while Dave would give a direction. "Mark would have turned right here"; "He would have turned left here". Finally, 40+ miles later, Dave said, "Thats the kind of motel Mark would stay in." The stopped and sure enough, Kac had checked in and was waiting for them!

Kac says there are geniuses and there are magicians. Once someone like you or me see how a genius has done something it doesn't look so hard. For the magician, you just scratch your head!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Where does USAID's Money Go?

The top 20 recipients of USAID funding receive 52.5% of its total funding. Other foreign Aid is provided by the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Department of Defense,

The distribution is interesting. Heavy spending in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq is no doubt related to the Bush administration's wars. Heavy spending in the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Egypt are related to support for the state of Israel.

I note that U.S. Aid to Israel through 2008 is estimated at $114 billion. That is not 2008 dollars but simply a summation of the current dollars donated over the years; the purchasing power of those past dollars would be much higher now. Israel is estimated to have 7.4 million inhabitants, so the total corresponds to about $15,400 per person.

It is not clear to me why so much goes to Sudan and Ethiopia. Nor is it clear why so much goes to South Africa, the richest country in Sub-Saharan Africa nor to Nigeria, known for massive oil exports and massive corruption.

Would a distribution more focused on humanitarian goals be better? Apparently the State Department and the Congress did not think so.

"Egypt says it will propel African science agenda"


Source: Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net, 5 March 2010

Egypt has vowed to "maintain momentum" in building African science and technology (S&T) capacity when it takes over as chair of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) this month.

The two-year role will pass to Egypt from the current chair, Kenya, when AMCOST meets in Cairo next week (7–10 March).
Maged Al-Sherbiny, Egypt's assistant minister for scientific research, "said that 25 African science ministers will attend the meeting along with a host of foreign organisations, including the WHO, various UN agencies and the US National Science Foundation. A delegation from Japan's Office of the Prime Minister will also attend to discuss ways in which it can support African science."

Monday, March 08, 2010

A thought about monitoring greenhouse gasses


The Economist
has an article pointing out that while scientists are trying to monitor greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, politicians are trying to develop public information systems to monitor the release of these gases from different sources in their economies. The two approaches give different answers:
Ray Weiss of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, has been studying the difference between these approaches. In most cases, he has found that the top-down estimates are appreciably higher. In some, such as that of sulphur hexafluoride, a powerful greenhouse gas that is used as an insulator in high-voltage electronics, the trends as well as the values are different: bottom-up accounts say emissions are falling; top-down analysis says they are going up.
Of course industries whose gas emissions are being monitored may have incentives to make those emissions appear less than they really are. If only scientists can develop means to incriminate the polluters from the distribution of pollutants in the atmosphere at reasonable cost, we may have a better regulatory approach.

About the finances of the International Development Banks

Banks leverage their capital by borrowing money, which they then loan out. They are able to pay lower interest rates for the money that they borrow than they charge for the money they lend because the banks have better credit ratings than the borrowers. Regulations require that banks have enough capital to protect against unforeseen risks. The margin between the income from loaned money and the cost of borrowed money pays the costs of the banks' operations and the profit on the invested capital.

International development banks are intended to be non-profit. They borrow on capital markets. They have relatively low risks in part due to the fact that they have many borrowers and the risks of those borrowers defaulting on their loans is somewhat uncorrelated. The borrowers also tend to give priority to honoring debts to international banks. And of course, highly professional back staff work with borrowers to try to assure that the loans are "bankable" and have returns that more than justify the cost of money.

The international development banks get their capital from member nations. Part is in the form of paid in capital, but part is in the form of callable capital. Because the member nations are fully trusted, they don't have to actually pay in the callable capital unless the bank's paid in capital is drawn down. I am sure private banks would love to have higher than allowed loan to capital rations by promising regulators that they would pay in the capital if (and only if) it were needed.

  • The World Bank is now seeking to secure an additional $3 billion-5 billion in paid-in capital
  • The Asian Development Bank is seeking to triple its capital base to $165 billion, but only 4% of the increase would be paid-in capital.
  • The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) plans on augmenting its €20 billion ($27 billion) capital base by 50%, including €9 billion in callable capital.
  • The African members of the African Development Bank want to triple its capital to $99 billion (94% of which would be callable).
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank are finalising their capital-increase plans ahead of their annual meetings in March and April respectively.

As a result of these capital increases, the international development banks should be able to help poor nations to deal better with the reduced private capital flows that are resulting from the global economic crisis.

"Gendercide: The worldwide war on baby girls"



In many cultures, there is a strong preference for boy children. In China, there are sanctions against having more than one child. Technology allows sex selection in some countries and in others girl babies are simply killed. In some countries favoring of boys results in higher child mortality for girls. The result is that some countries, mostly in Asia, are seeing many more young males than females.
The unusual thing about son preference is that it rises sharply at second and later births (see chart 2). Among Indian women with two children (of either sex), 60% said they wanted a son next time, almost twice the preference for first-borns. This reflected the desire of those with two daughters for a son. The share rose to 75% for those with three children. The difference in parental attitudes between first-borns and subsequent children is large and significant.
The reality of violent prejudice against girls is itself horrible. The long term effects on societies in which there are many unmarried young men are hard to foresee, and may also be bad!

Stanford U Class Day Lecture 2009: The Uniqueness of Humans

Thanks to Julianne for cluing me into this great talk on how we as humans are the same and how we are different than other mammals.

Thoughts occasioned by a book on the Hidden Brain


I recently heard a discussion by Shankar Vedantam about his book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives. I was struck especially by three points which I will put in my own words, perhaps doing some violence to what he actually believes and said.
  • Very often we seek information in order to justify biases which we unconsciously hold rather than seek a broad range of information that will both challenge and support our preconceptions and thus lead to better understanding. Of course, finding confirmatory information when one refuses to see contrary information, does not lead to better decisions.
  • As social animals, we very often seek a social construction of past events and the appropriate response to those events. While this certainly must help build group cohesion, and may often lead to better understanding and decisions, it certainly takes time to reach consensus. Vedantam suggests that the social construction of response may be deadly in emergency situations.
  • We form lots of opinions through observation of things or people, often without any purpose of teaching by the person observed. If a child sees only people of one color as trusted by those in his environment, or sees only one gender in specific roles (e.g. doctors and nurses) they may form opinions that only people of that color are to be trusted or only people of one gender can play a given role. The unconsciously formed opinions may be very hard to overthrow by argument.
Vedantam must be correct in his riff on Freudian theory of the unconscious, in that a lot of our learning may be unconscious, and a lot of our behavior may be influenced by biases or preconceptions which we do not put into words.

Internet Access a Human Right



Results from a new poll of more than 27,000 adults across 26 countries done for the BBC World Service.

Comment: I guess I agree that Internet access should be a human right, although I recognize that for billions of people that right can not now be provided, and I recognize that most people who have Internet access don't have as much access as I do with FIOS connectivity.

I wonder whether I am not more worried about cyber attacks than the things identified in the second bar chart. How vulnerable are our power grids, transportation networks, health services, and other vital services going to be in the near future to malicious attacks from enemies. Most people don't recognize how much our societies' critical institutions are coming to depend on the Internet. JAD

Check out BBC's Digital Giants


Sam Petroda's comments are especially good. Petroda has been and is one of the people leading India into the Information Revolution!