Sunday, May 15, 2011

Instructions from a voter to Congress and the White House

The current projections of government debt to GDP are unacceptable. I understand that both parties recognize the need to reduce this ratio. I demand that progress to be made toward a plan to do so prior to August 1, 2011, and I demand that the debt limit be increased by that time. I also demand that further progress be made in the development of next year's appropriations, and still more prior to the 2010 election.

That progress should be built on three bases:
  1. Economic growth. A high rate of economic growth should both increase government revenues and reduce some expenditures such as on unemployment insurance. Government actions to promote economic growth (building infrastructure, promoting technological innovation, building a strong workforce) are thus part of the overall plan for deficit reduction.
  2. Changes in taxation. Negotiations should include possible increases in taxes on the wealthy and reductions in tax expenditures, especially where such reductions may achieve other public purposes. Thus I would suggest a limit on the deductions on home mortgage interest to something like $7,000 per year.
  3. Reductions in government expenditures. Military expenditures should be cut, including by prudent withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Spending on entitlements should also be reduced, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Cuts in discretionary government expenditures will also be required, and a major effort should be directed at identifying programs that are not working well or that can be made more efficient.
I hope the nation will join me in holding our elected representatives responsible for effective negotiation to do what is necessary for the economic health of the nation.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

Last night my history book club met to discuss The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. The book covers two centuries of complex events in a less than 300 pages. Maalouf, who was once the editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique (a very good magazine) is well translated by Jon Rothschild. Some of the members of our club were bothered by the difficulty of keeping track of all the players in this complex history. Most of us liked the book very much.

Maalouf draws on Arab sources, usually writing somewhat after the events they describe. The view he presents is very different from that in the view of European, Roman-Catholic sources. I would point out that the Arab view presented is probably not the view from Cordoba, nor the Persian view, the Turkish view, the Kurdish view, etc. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Islam had spread over much of Asia, all of North Africa, into the Iberian peninsula, and down the east coast of Africa; the crusades were focused in the Levant to northern Egypt, and there was probably not a unified Islamic view of the events at the time.

The book describes a region dominated by waring city states under the influence of stronger regional powers centered in Baghdad, Cairo, Constantinople and Mosul. The Franj (European Roman Catholics) arrived with forces that came to dominate some cities but who were eventually removed. Recall that the Greek Catholics did not get along all that well with the Roman Catholics and that at one point the Franj successfully invaded Constantinople itself, and that there were other Christians such as the Armenians and the Egyptian Copts in the region. So too, the Muslims were divided at the time not only ethnically, but by the division between the Sunni Caliphate in Baghdad and the Shiite Caliphate in Cairo. Maalouf describes a situation in which coalitions crossing ethnic and religious lines fought each other in a complex and constantly changing pattern. This was also a time in which the Turks were expanding their power toward the creation of the Ottoman empire and the Mongols were raging out of the east to dominate the northern silk roads to the Caspian. The Mamluks eventually came to dominate Egypt and Syria at the end of the period.

This was the time of the Assassins, a time in which brothers fought and killed each other for power in the Islamic emirates, and in which the leading Franj often were as willing to fight each other as to fight the Muslims. The Franj may have been called to the East on religious grounds, but that did not keep them from cannibalism in the first crusade nor from looting and demanding tribute from other Christians. There were calls for Jihad among the Muslims, often ignored by emirs in pursuit of more mundane objectives.

We in the book club discussed the fact that at the time the vast majority of people were farmers, living at or just above the subsistence level, although there were thin aristocratic, warrior and religious elites that could command the resources to build impressive structures, to arm significant forces, and to consume luxury goods. We also noted that that some regions such as the Nile valley and the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates were more productive than others, and could support more important city states. So too, some cities straddled important trade routes, while others had important ports and commanded squadrons of ships important both economically and militarily.

Recognizing that myths of the past affect people's thinking about the future, it is tempting to make inferences about modern times on the basis of this book. Recalling that the Arabs succeeded in driving the Franj out of Jerusalem after a couple of centuries of strife with many setbacks,  and indeed out of the eastern Mediterranean altogether, might that not explain the belief of some modern Arabs that the Israelis can similarly be forced into a second diaspora? So too, the behavior of the European Christians in the 12th and 13th century crusades may be seen by some Arabs and Muslims as predictive of the behavior of their descendants in the 21st century.

Clearly the Islamic world was more cultured and richer than Western Europe which was only emerging from the Middle Ages. Maalouf asks what were the reasons that that hegemony did not continue. The question is interesting, but of course the Islamic world was still rich, cultured and powerful for centuries after the time of the Crusades, with the Ottomans driving into Europe and great Islamic cities existing in what is now Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and India. I suspect, as do others in the club, that while there may be roots in the modern institutional weakness of Islamic nations that existed during the Crusades, it is beyond our ability to discern those roots and to understand their development into modern time and their impact on modern society.

All in all, I recommend this book to readers coming from western culture who want to better understand the history of the Middle East from another point of view!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The rise of the Internet

The graph speaks for itself. The growth of Internet use continues. The introduction of 3G cell phones and tablet computers seems to have made it possible for hundreds of millions of people without personal computers to get online. Developing countries now have the majority of the Internet linked people.

Let not the pot call the kettle black!

I don't have any special knowledge about Pakistan and the hunt for Al Qaeda. I have only been to Pakistan a couple of times and my contacts there were with scientists, not politicians nor military people. I normally don't post comments on matters on which I know so little, but the talking heads have gotten to me, so here goes.

Surely the Government of Pakistan should investigate how Osama bin Laden stayed in Abbottabad and what his support network was, and it should investigate whether any Pakistani governmental officials were implicated in that network. However, we should not criticize Pakistan too much for its failures if failures there were.

I recently posted on the long time it takes to develop an effective modern political system, suggesting that Pakistan needs time to develop a modern society. It was created in a rush at the collapse of the Raj, and went through a major civil war with the secession of Bangladesh. Its population included at its creation not only a huge number of migrants from what became India, but also tribal and ethnic groups of considerable complexity. Think of the United States a couple of generations after independence, working its way to our Civil War.

We should also worry about the pot calling the kettle black.

  • Before we criticize Pakistan on the basis of the possibility it may have lied to the world while harboring insurgents interested in overthrowing the government of a neighbor nation, we might recall the Bay of Pigs in which the United States did just that.
  • Before we criticize Pakistan on the basis of the possibility that highly ranked government officials might have broken its nation's laws by surreptitiously providing aid to foreign insurgents, we might recall the Iran Contra affair.
  • Before we criticize Pakistan for failing to notice a prominant terrorist on its territory, we might think about the Al Qaeda terrorists who hid in plain sight in the United States before 9/11.
Perhaps the talking heads might better direct their attention immediate efforts to reduce to the high rate of unemployment in the United States, or to the longer term efforts needed to solve the financial problems of the government and to improve regulation of the financial industries that got us into the current difficulty, or to the very long term efforts needed to assure that America leads in the knowledge economy for the rest of the century and has a livable environment for our children and grandchildren. That may be more useful than criticizing leaders in other countries who are likely to be doing the best that they can under difficult situations.

China faces economic problems in the future

"The new census data show that little progress is being made to counter this troubling trend. Among newborns, there were more than 118 boys for every 100 girls in 2010. This marks a slight increase over the 2000 level, and implies that, in about 20 or 25 years’ time, there will not be enough brides for almost a fifth of today’s baby boys—with the potentially vast destabilising consequences that could have."

China has been enjoying an economic benefit from the reduction in its dependency ratio in recent decades, but its demographic problems hold major threats for its future.

The educational crisis in America

Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City’s school system writes in The Atlantic:
Nearly three decades after A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible—even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K–12 public education. On America’s latest exams (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, and many of those students who do graduate aren’t prepared for college. ACT, the respected national organization that administers college-admissions tests, recently found that 76 percent of our high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.”

While America’s students are stuck in a ditch, the rest of the world is moving ahead. The World Economic Forum ranks us 48th in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries (the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and we’re in the middle in science and reading. Similarly, although we used to have one of the top percentages of high-school and college graduates among the OECD countries, we’re now in the basement for high-school and the middle for college graduates. And these figures don’t take into account the leaps in educational attainment in China, Singapore, and many developing countries.
I don't know about Klein's solutions to the problem, but his statement of that problem is convincing. A nation can not succeed in the knowledge society without leading in education, and the United States has lost the lead it once had. Obama is right that while we have to make major reforms to deal with our economic problems, we should not cut investments we need for the future in that process. While throwing money at teachers is not the key to improving education, neither is starving the sector. I suspect that Klein is right that reforms in our educational institutions are needed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Courtesy of my friend Julianne

Fifteen uncoupled simple pendulums of monotonically increasing lengths dance together to produce visual traveling waves, standing waves, beating, and (seemingly) random motion.

For more details see

The period of one complete cycle of the dance is 60 seconds. The length of the longest pendulum has been adjusted so that it executes 51 oscillations in this 60 second period. The length of each successive shorter pendulum is carefully adjusted so that it executes one additional oscillation in this period. Thus, the 15th pendulum (shortest) undergoes 65 oscillations.

Thinking about history and counter-factual history

I just watched David Goldfield present a lecture on his book America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation. He makes the point that a better path could (and should) have been found for the South and the North. It is a point that I have also made in a recent posting. It is tempting to attribute the Civil War to intellectual failings, that of both the South and the North to foresee the horrors of the war and its negative consequences (in spite of the fact that some did recognize the danger), that of both sides to recognize better paths for both the nation as a whole and for their portion of the nation, and that of failure to find a way to negotiate to the best of those paths.

I have argued that people think not with a perfect logic machine but with brains that have evolved to deal with problems other than those faced by modern statesmen, brains which are affected by emotions and by a host of unrecognized external influences. It is tempting to attribute the Civil War to intellectual failings rooted in the irrationality of the human thinking process.

I have also argued that it is a mistake to use the metaphor of the individual thinker to analyze decisions made through political processes by many people working within political institutions. Government decisions are made by fallible people working in institutions that have evolved under historical processes under the pressures created by public opinion molded by media, religion (as Goldfield emphasizes) and culture. Thus it is tempting to attribute the Civil War to intellectual failings rooted in the irrationality of the political decision making process or in the cultural forces that influence political decision making.

Someone suggested that the root causes of the Civil War were to be found in the universal wave function and the initial conditions of the universe. Perhaps that is right!

On the one hand, it may be fruitless to seek the "true causes" of the Civil War. On the other hand, that kind of thinking may help us in the future to find the path to better solutions to future problems that have their root in today's problems and conditions. It may even be fun.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Khan Academy on the Gates Notes

Eli Pariser: Beware online "filter bubbles"

I had noticed that Google is increasingly giving me results that I want to click on in the first page of search results. I had failed to realize that everyone gets different results, or that the ordering algorithms tend to reinforce our tendency to cluster together with people who think like we do and read things with which we will agree.

Pariser is right that we need ethical filters, and I would suggest that Google needs to have search engines for different purposes. That is, I want a search engine that links me to basic information (Wikipedia, CIA factbook, etc.), another for things that are fun, another for conservative viewpoints, and still another for liberal viewpoints. It already separates searches for news or long term content, as well as that for video, image or textual content so this should not be too difficult for the Google wizards!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

What can we expect from Pakistan

American politicians have been getting publicity complaining about the lack of success of in improving effectiveness, controlling corruption and assuring the rule of law. Asif Zadari was elected president of Pakistan in 2008, replacing the military Pervez Musharraf. The data above shows that social and political development is a long process. Pakistan has had an especially difficult time, created in a rush out of British India, divided from Bangladesh in a brutal civil war, and seeking to bring together disparate ethnic groups, many of whom were immigrant refugees from the partition of India. The American legislators should know better than to expect too much from this emergent nation!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

An exercise in probability

One of Bin Laden’s wives identified his body, American officials said. A picture taken by a Seals commando and processed through facial recognition software suggested a 95 percent certainty that it was Bin Laden. Later, DNA tests comparing samples with relatives found a 99.9 percent match.
Lets assume that there is a 50 percent chance that Mrs. Bin Laden said that the body was her husband's when it was not (error, deliberate misleading, etc.) The facial recognition software said the odds were 20 to one that it was Bin Laden. The DNA match said that the odds were 1000 to one that it was Bin Laden. The estimation procedures would seem to have independent errors (unless Bin Laden had a previously unknown identical twin) so the odds of the person killed in Abbottabad should be of the order of 40,000 to one from this evidence alone. However, the a priori probability of a person hiding in the house in Abbottabad, as the basis for the decision to send in a commando team to attack the house had to be quite high, and that too should have been an independent probability estimate of the three mentioned by the NYT paragraph. I think it is a save bet that Mr. Bin Laden died on Sunday.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Tennessee didn't learn the lesson of the Scopes trial.

According to Science magazine:
(T)he Tennessee House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved an innocuous-sounding measure allowing science teachers in the state to help their students “develop critical thinking skills.” The legislation, which specifically mentions the teaching of “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning,” is expected to become law next month after the state Senate embraces an identical version and the governor signs it.
Fortunately, according to the National Center for Science Education:
Tennessee's Senate Bill 893 — nicknamed, along with its counterpart House Bill 368, the "monkey bill" — is on hold, "almost certainly postponing any action until next year,"

Comment: On the one hand high school science teachers should be helping students develop critical thinking skills, and examination of places where scientific paradigms are in flux might be useful to that end. However, the science of evolution, chemical origins of life, and global warming are well settled and the law if passed would seem likely to protect teachers seeking to stifle critical thinking about subjects that the right doesn't like.

Literacy Tests for Legislators?

I recently went through a literacy test on the Constitution that had been used in a southern state for voter qualification. It was a difficult test, and I thought poorly constructed. Recalling that many of the people who framed the Constitution wanted voting restricted to property holders and that the Constitution called for Senators to be selected by state legislatures rather than by popular voting, they might have thought a serious test of relevant knowledge would not be inappropriate before allowing someone to vote. Of course, the literacy tests were misused to restrict voting in the south to whites, and were properly abolished.

Still I was thinking that it would be interesting to have a test of mastery of the subject of legislation that would be required of people before they were allowed to run for Congress or which might be required to be taken periodically for those already in Congress. Such a test might include:

  • The law (to be waived for people who have passed the bar exam within the previous ten years)
  • History of the United States
  • Geography of the United States
  • Economics
  • Basics of health, science, agricultural and industrial policy
  • International relations
One might expect a level of competence in each of these subjects for a candidate for the House comparable to that of a successful applicant for a masters program in graduate school in that topic, and comparable for someone seeking to advance to doctoral candidacy for candidates for the Senate. Perhaps such tests could be administered by state land-grant colleges as a public service.

We have just seen the NFL draft for 2011, and it occurs to me that no team would begin to select players to be drafted without a detailed idea of the skills needed by the team for the coming season and scouting reports on the players most seriously in contention for those positions. Yet we expect voters to chose among candidates for the Congress without either independent quality assessments of their knowledge and legislative skills, and without serious assessment of the skills most needed to complement those of the incumbents likely to be returned to office to conduct the nation's business.

About the cause of the Civil War

Think about the decisions made after Lincoln won the election of 1864. Southern states decided to secede from the Union. Four years later something like one-quarter of the men of military age in the south were dead, the economy was in ruins as were great swaths of southern territory, the slaves had been emancipated, the export economy was dead, the plant of the industrial economy (such as it had been) was largely destroyed, former slaves were in poverty but also empowered with the vote, and there was an occupying army. Northern states had in fact lost more men in the Civil War than had the southern states, and there had been huge economic costs of the war, and indeed the north had been invaded by the Confederacy and two of the major battles of the war had been fought in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Surely a better alternative to the war must have been available.

I am reminded of the old story of two cowboys. Tex watched as Bronco Billy rode up to a cactus patch, dismounted, took off all his clothes and jumped naked into the middle of the cactus. After Tex helped Bronco Billy out of the patch, getting his own clothes ripped and himself wounded in the process, he asked "why in the world did you do that?" Bronco Billy answered, "it seemed like a good idea at the time". It has always seemed to me that Tex might have asked himself why he didn't think it was a good idea at the time to stop BB before he jumped into the cactus.

It is tempting to attribute the cause of the Civil War to the limited rationality of the both parties, the Southern secessionists and the northern negotiators who failed to reach a solution less harmful to both parties. I think that is wrong, however, as the cause of the war was more likely to be the cultures and political processes that were in use at the time. There were people in the south who recognized what would probably happen and indeed people who argued against secession. There were people in the north who supported a negotiated settlement and indeed tried to obtain one. These reasonable people were not in the key power points, and those who were did not understand or did not care.

Sherman and Grant, who had fought in the Mexican American war apparently understood that the war would wreck a terrible tole on the nation, but that understanding was not shared by the media of the knowledge systems of the time. Some must  have realized that the weapons of the 1860s were much more lethal than those of the 18th century, that the social and economic systems of the nation were capable of supporting much greater armies and navies, which would inflict much greater damage than those of the distant past. Apparently the realization of the founding fathers that slavery would not be sustainable, a realization what was shared in many parts of the world, had been lost in the South. It is tempting to suggest that if the schools and universities and the press had done a better job, that the war could have been avoided. So too, had the political systems done a better job of giving power to "docile and reasonable men" then the war could have been avoided. Indeed, Brazil ended slavery in the 19th century by a gradual process which did not involve Civil War.

I suspect that there might have been many alternative scenarios by which the Civil War could have been avoided. Perhaps the British might have prohibited slavery in the North American colonies before independence, or perhaps the founding fathers might have reached a better compromise in writing the Constitution or in the laws of the early republic. Perhaps efforts in the 1840s or 1850s might have still averted the war at lower cost than those that might have done so after Lincoln was elected.

Failure to take any one of these alternative paths to peace might be called the cause of the Civil War. For those who want to focus on one, single, most-important cause of the war, one might consider criteria. For example, which path to peace might have been most feasible, or which might have required least effort. Perhaps the paths which diverge from reality most close in time to the onset of the war might be preferred.

Ultimately, counterfactual arguments can not be tested against reality and must remain hypothetical. Perhaps the best explanation of the cause of the Civil War was that too many people in too many key roles thought that "it seemed like a good idea at the time."

More on U.S. Foreign Policy

I recently posted some thoughts that might help people in other nations to better understand U.S. foreign policy. I hope the following will provide further help.

It is a mistake to think that the United States foreign policy is the result of rational decisions by the President. Rather it is better to think of it as the result of a process which involves many players.

The U.S. Constitution states that the President "shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors". The Constitution also makes the President "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States". On the basis of this language, the primary responsibility for U.S. foreign policy rests in the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, but the Legislative Branch must be consulted, and of course has the authority over the budget for foreign affairs and the military.

The President in theory defines the direction of foreign policy in his administration, has final word on the key members of his foreign policy team, and makes key decisions related to the implementation of foreign policy, but he does so based on the information provided to him by a huge bureaucracy and based on the options identified and the advice of that bureaucracy. Indeed it is that bureaucracy that must carry out the implementation of the policy. The political appointees and career diplomats in reality have great power over the content of U.S. foreign policy.

The 545 voting members of the House of Representatives and Senate not only influence foreign policy themselves, but do so also through the work of their much larger number of staff members and of Congressional support services. Both the Congress and the Executive Branch also are influenced in the definition of foreign policy by outside forces such as the business community and civil society and their lobbyists.

Most Americans don't think about U.S. foreign policy very often and don't have very much information about foreign policy and the problems with which it deals. Indeed, they don't have much interest in foreign policy until they feel the impact in their own lives. They may worry about energy policy when gas prices spike as they are doing now, or about international economic policy when they or their friends lose jobs to outsourcing, or about military policy when their friends or family are serving, but most of the time they worry about things closer to home. Indeed, the American media with few exceptions don't seem to do a good job educating the public about foreign policy, and those exceptions don't enjoy mass audiences.

Washington Post TimeSpace World October 19-20, 2010
Map of news stories in key U.S. media for the day

On the other hand, even a small percentage of the 310 million Americans who are interested in foreign affairs leads to a very large number of people, and often these people are influential in part because of their leadership in the business community and civil society organizations. They influence politicians in both Congress and the administration. Moreover, in this democracy there is a tendency for elected and appointed officials as well as bureaucrats to balance the public interest and response to the opinions of the public with response to pressure groups.

Foreign policy is also buffeted by the winds of apparently random events and by limited rationality. While the Obama administration may have been seeking to rebalance U.S. foreign policy by focusing more on China and India, by resetting the relationship with Russia, and by dealing more with emerging economies, Arab Spring and the reaction of our key European allies has forced attention again to be focused on the Islamic world. A huge bureaucracy dealing with rapidly unfolding events and afflicted with limited rationality may produce a collection of actions from which it is impossible to correctly infer a guiding global strategy.

Americans, as I suggested in my previous posting, both want to do well and to do good, as they understand doing good. These objectives are not always achieved by the same actions. We tend to be more pragmatic problem solvers than implementors of grand strategies. It may be hard to ascertain the grand strategy explaining all our foreign policy actions because those actions come out of a complex administrative and political process focused on problem solving rather than a grand strategy. This is especially true in the periods of transitions from one president to the next, or from one party's domination of the elections to domination by the other party.

The Architecture of Access to Scientific Knowledge

The Architecture of Access to Scientific Knowledge from lessig on Vimeo.

Lawrence Lessig Lecture at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, 18 April 2011: A new talk about open access to academic or scientific information, with a bit of commentary about YouTube Copyright School.

Recorded music

"Since 1999, when the file-sharing website Napster appeared, global sales of recorded music have collapsed from $27.3 billion to $15.9 billion."