Tuesday, May 25, 2010
UNESCO and the ITU held the World Summit on the Information society in the last decade. The International Telecommunications Union naturally focuses on information, for that is what is transmitted through telephone systems. I suggest that UNESCO also has a focus on information within its communications and information program, but the more important cross-cutting theme of UNESCO is knowledge.
UNESCO's flagship program, the education program, seeks to improve knowledge by helping people to learn. Interestingly, it also these days includes an emphasis on "information literacy", or the ability to judge the credibility of information and information sources.
UNESCO's science programs can be seen as promoting the global scientific system's ability to generate high quality information and the ability of that system to organize knowledge.
In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of UNESCO's culture program should be to promote cultural change that strengthens information and knowledge related institutions while fostering appropriate values and attitudes towards knowledge.
A key element of the overall program of UNESCO is to promote the improvement of knowledge in the societies of member states about the societies of other member states, and to do so in ways that promote peace.
Thus it seems to me that promotion of knowledge societies might be seen as a cross cutting priority of UNESCO -- an area in which synergies among its programs can and should be fostered.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Onboard navigation and mobile applications can tell drivers how to avoid traffic jams. Trouble is, most of the drivers are already on the road, perhaps already in the jam. But IBM is about to deploy a system that will predict traffic flow up to an hour before it occurs, giving travelers ample time to avoid trouble.
During pilot tests in Singapore, forecasts made across 500 urban locations accurately predicted traffic volume 85 to 93 percent of the time and vehicle speed 87 to 95 percent of the time. Similar results were achieved in Finland and on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Year ago I worked with a friend to develop a system to synchronize the traffic lights in Santiago, the largest city in Chile. We installed the system and tested it. For one day the traffic flowed in "green waves" down the main street in Santiago. Unfortunately, the city officials never updated the timing (which had to be done manually) and soon things were as congested as ever. Technology alone does not solve organizational problems!
Still, Microsoft will develop other applications of predictive modelling and they approach will be applied in some places. The congestion in places such as Bangkok and Sao Paulo may well be so bad that people will demand the technology be applied!
The industrial revolution was based on the steam engine, the use of coal rather than wood for fuel, mechanization of manufacturing, and the growth of the metals industries. Electification and the development of transportation systems based on the internal combustion engine, the oil economy, had huge economic effects starting in the first part of the 20th century.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
"On May 28, 585 B.C. the swath of a total solar eclipse passed over the Greek island of Miletus. The early Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, alone understood what was happening. The world's first recorded freethinker, Thales rejected all supernatural explanations, and used the occasion to state the first law of science: every observable effect has a physical cause. The 585 B.C. eclipse is now taken to mark the birth of science, and Thales is honored as the father.
I quote from the article:
Even accounting for a host of differences between people—including attitudes to risk, income levels and credit scores—those who fell behind on their mortgages were noticeably less numerate than those who kept up with their payments in the same overall circumstances. The least numerate fell behind about 25% of the time. For those who did best on the test, the number of payments they missed was almost 12%. A fifth of the least numerate group had been in foreclosure, but only 7% of those who were more numerically adept had.Here is the source research quoted in the article published by The Economist.
Surprisingly, the least numerate were not making loan choices that differed much from their peers. They were about as likely to have a fixed-rate mortgage as the more numerically able. They did not borrow a larger share of their income. And loans were about the same fraction of the house’s value.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
- Climate Change
- Dialog Among Cultures
- Culture, Heritage and Development
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
My old friend and colleague Noel Vietmeyer is making a number of books available via this website. Importantly among them are reports which he put together which were originally published by the National Academies Press on underutilized plant and animal resources of potential economic value in developing nations.
I attended a talk yesterday by Gordon Conway, former Science Advisor of DfID and former President of the Rockfeller Foundation. He spoke on his new book, Science and Innovation for Development. Al Watkins, the head of the Science, Technology and Innovation program of the World Bank, introduced the talk while describing efforts to increase the STI efforts of the Bank. Alex Dehgan, the new Science Advisor in USAID, also spoke describing the increased attention to science and innovation in that organization. All of this is great!
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Recall that that Vice President Chaney shot a companion in 2006. I bet Treasury Secretary Tim Gaithner is glad that dueling has gone out of favor since Vice President Burr shot and killed former Treasury Secretary Hamilton in 1804.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Friday, May 14, 2010
Video: Science & Skepticism
Posted using ShareThis
I found this useful, but also was annoyed by some of the simplifications. Especially:
- A lot of science is simply observation and the recording and sharing of observations. Think of astronomy or systematic botany.
- A lot of science is taxonomy -- grouping observations into classes based on similarity. While this is obvious in systematic biology, think of Newton. He had the great insight that the falling apple and the orbits of the planets were similar processes, to be explained by a common theory.
In the field of development economics it has become clear that one of the problems faced by poor people in poor countries is that they have their capital tied up in economically unproductive assets. Thus they may own a house, the land on which it is sits, and even some land used for agriculture. However, the system for land titling may be poor so that they can not prove that they own that property, the banking system may not serve them so that they can not mortgage that property, and the legal system may be inadequate to allow lenders to be sure that they can appropriate collateral if loans are in default.
In the United States one may own a house, a business and a car with only the investment of a small part of their total value, borrowing the rest of the value from banks. The paid in value generally provides lenders with the guarantee that they can retrieve the money that they loan. If the portfolio owned by the person is well chosen, the income and savings it generates will more than pay for the cost of the borrowed money. Of course, if one borrows unwisely to consume rather than invest, or to purchase property in a bubble only to see it depreciate to less than one owes on the property, one gets into financial trouble.
I suggest that there is a basic similarity between the social mechanism that allows banks to loan more than they have in paid in capital, and the social mechanism that allows individuals to buy more than they can pay for in cash. In both cases, with good management, borrowed funds can be used in such a way as to profit the borrower and produce economic benefits to society. And of course, in both cases unwise management can result in bankruptcy.
I have recently been reading about the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and been struck by the fact that individually the creators of the Constitution had a lot of crackpot ideas, but together they constructed a system that was capable of improvement over time and that has served the nation very well. This would seem to be an example of the good that can come out of social networking -- the theme of Christakis' talk.
I was also struck some years ago by Orhan Pamuk's thesis that Istanbul's population share a certain sadness and that in fact many cities are characterized by their own characteristic emotion -- an emotion that differs from city to city. Christakis' talk would seem to suggest ways that such a situation could develop, based on the genetics of the population and the social network of the city, as well as contingent on the history of that population.
It will be interesting to see how the changing global information infrastructure affects society. In the 20th century, mass media resulted in a very few people being connected by one-way channels of communications to very large numbers of people; those mass media networks were primarily constrained within national boundaries. The Internet now connects many people to relatively large numbers of others, often via two way channels. Think of email, social networks, blogging, etc.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
Source: "The Moral Life of Babies," Paul Bloom, The New York Times Magazine, May 3, 2010.
"Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to."
"The Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Division had the highest estimated number employed in S&E occupations, 244,950, followed by the New York-White Plains-Wayne Metropolitan Division with 208,210. Due to their large workforces, three metropolitan areas with large numbers of workers in S&E occupations actually have proportions of workers in S&E occupations that are below the national average: the metropolitan divisions that include the central cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago."
- A brief historical statement of why the country exists in its current form.
- The geography: where the country is on the globe, a map with major cities and views of the different ecological zones.
- The population: How many people live in the country? What is the age distribution? How is the country divided among ethnic, religious and other groupings.
- The economy: Is the country rich or poor? How extreme is the distribution of incomes? What are the chief products?
- Politics: The form of government, levels of democracy, and political dynamics.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
My friend Charles Kenny has an article in the current Foreign Policy magazine in which he wrote that Thomas Malthus' "predictions have been wrong from the start." In spite of the billion people in the world who are hungry, Charles is right that it is still possible to feed the world's population and that resources should be sufficient to feed the world for decades to come. Why are we not now running out of food, according to the current ideas:
- Population growth has abated. Birth control technology has improved greatly. People's desired family size has gone down, in part because improved quality of life and health care technology have increased survival rates.
- Food production has increased radically, in part because of more land being used to produce food and in part because food production technology has been radically improved. More energy is being used to produce food, and food distribution has improved.
- Food supplies could fail to grow sufficiently. Agricultural research is lagging and there may be limits of plant productivity that we will find in the future. Energy supplies might fail to meet future needs. Environmental problems ranging from soil loss to climate change, from desertification to failure of water supplies might limit food production.
- Population growth rates might increase again. The reduction of preferred family size could change on a global level, especially since the trends of the 20th century are relatively recent in terms of the history of the human race. So too, radical increases in life expectancy (reduced death rates at older ages) could result in both increasing dependency ratios and increased rates of population growth.
Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Duflo points out that case controlled studies can inform policy decisions on how to allocate resources to alleviate aspects of poverty, and does so with real data from her own field work. Far too much time and effort is spent on things that don't work, and consequently not enough is spent on the things that are really cost effective.
- Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
- After a disaster, will an influx of donated goods clog the ports?
- Are the items actually needed?
- Are the goods available locally?
- Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
- Will donating this item do more harm than good?
- Failure to account for economics as a key driver, rather than technology.
- Failure to consider human factors and rates of change.
- Predicting out of area of expertise
- Failure to account for changes out of area of expertise
- Wishful thinking.
- Predicting the Weather, not the Climate
Source: Mairi Macleod, "To be the best, learn from the rest," The New Scientist, issue 2758.
The article examines a competition organized and run by Kevin Laland of the University of St Andrews, UK. He created a game of survival, taking place in a computer-generated world" and offered a tournament to produce the best learning strategies for the game with a €10,000 prize for the tournament winner.
Virtual agents would have the potential to acquire 100 possible behaviours, each with a different associated pay-off that would change over the course of the game. The pay-off represents the benefit an individual gains by performing a particular behaviour, its changing value reflecting the fact that information can become outdated as the environment changes......The competition drew more than "100 entries submitted from a variety of academic disciplines, ranging from philosophy to computer science."
Entrants to the tournament would start with 100 agents each, which would accumulate a repertoire of behaviours over their lifetime through learning. At every round of the game, each agent would have three options: innovation, in which they randomly acquired a new behaviour by individual learning; observation, in which they acquired a new behaviour by social learning; or exploitation, in which they used a previously learned behaviour and so gained its pay-off. The entrants had to devise a strategy that their agents would use to decide between these options. The challenge was to create the strategy that generated the most successful or "fittest" agents - a criterion measured by dividing an agent's accumulated pay-off value by the number of rounds it had survived.
So what did they discover? It seems a successful strategy rests primarily on the amount of social learning involved, with the most successful agents spending almost all their learning time observing rather than innovating. However, avoiding spending too much time learning either socially or individually was just as important. "Between a tenth and a fifth of their life seemed to be the optimal range," says fellow organiser Luke Rendell, also from St Andrews University. "If they did more learning than that it seemed that life was just passing them by."Read the published findings in Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1184719.
The Barometer of Life
This initiative would need to unite taxonomists, biogeographers, ecologists, conservationists, and amateur naturalists in a coordinated exploration of global biodiversity, with an emphasis on identifying which species are threatened. While the EOL will provide a Web page on every species, the barometer would compile conservation-related data on distributions, threats, and assessments of extinction risk on a subset of species broadly representative of biodiversity as a whole.The National Ecological Observatory Network
(A) $434 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will usher in a new era of large-scale environmental science. The project, called the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), represents the most ambitious U.S. attempt to assess environmental change on a continental scale. Next month, NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board, is expected to give its final approval to NEON, and NSF has requested $20 million in its 2011 budget to begin construction.
Scientists divided the United States into 20 ecological domains. Three sites within each domain will be instrumented.
Monday, May 03, 2010
- cultural approaches to increasing the thirst for knowledge
- socio-economic approaches to giving people the luxury of searching for knowledge without endangering their very survival
- political approaches to dis-empowering those who would deny their fellows access to knowledge or benefits from the utilization of the knowledge they acquire.