Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sources of Islamaphobia in Modern America

This video accompanies Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, a new report from The Center for American Progress. I quote from the website:
(The) network of hate is not a new presence in the United States. Indeed, its ability to organize, coordinate, and disseminate its ideology through grassroots organizations increased dramatically over the past 10 years. Furthermore, its ability to influence politicians’ talking points and wedge issues for the upcoming 2012 elections has mainstreamed what was once considered fringe, extremist rhetoric.

And it all starts with the money flowing from a select group of foundations. A small group of foundations and wealthy donors are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America, providing critical funding to a clutch of right-wing think tanks that peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam—in the form of books, reports, websites, blogs, and carefully crafted talking points that anti-Islam grassroots organizations and some right-wing religious groups use as propaganda for their constituency.

Some of these foundations and wealthy donors also provide direct funding to anti-Islam grassroots groups. According to our extensive analysis, here are the top seven contributors to promoting Islamophobia in our country:

  • Donors Capital Fund
  • Richard Mellon Scaife foundations
  • Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
  • Newton D. & Rochelle F. Becker foundations and charitable trust
  • Russell Berrie Foundation
  • Anchorage Charitable Fund and William Rosenwald Family Fund
  • Fairbrook Foundation 
Altogether, these seven charitable groups provided $42.6 million to Islamophobia think tanks between 2001 and 2009—funding that supports the scholars and experts that are the subject of our next chapter as well as some of the grassroots groups that are the subject of Chapter 3 of our report.
This is an important report, drawing attention to the impact of a small group of well financed people in creating a climate of hate and fear in this country which has the potential to pervert national policy. Islamaphobia takes us back to to a worse time characterized by the unreasonable prejudice against Japanese, German and Italian Americans during the World War II. It is a continuation of the heritage in this country of prejudice against Hispanics, Jews, African-Americans, immigrants, and Indians.

Remember When Mitt Romney Dropped Out Last

World Water Week

This seems a great way to rethink the book

The parallels between Lincoln and Agustus

I had a really weird thought. There are strong parallels between Caesar Augustus and Abraham Lincoln.
  • Both achieved lasting fame by leading the winning side in a civil war, and by seeing generosity to losers in that war as good policy
  • Both came to power unexpectedly, both as the result of coalitions representing only minorities of their polities
  • Both grew in jobs that neither understood fully when they started, both making serious errors in early days, and both becoming great on the job
  • Both were outsiders by birth
  • Both grew up in slave societies
  • Both ruled countries with core populations of similar sizes, and both planned for the vast expansion of their nations after their civil wars, processes that would require conquering peripheral tribal peoples and building out the transportation and communications infrastructure
  • Both were fortunate in their final choices of generals (Agrippa and Grant), in the strengths of their military establishments and in the economic system that supported their wars
  • Both men became hard to perceive behind the myths that grew around them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Higher Impact, More Retractions

I quote from Science magazine:
Higher-impact journals tend to retract more papers, according to a study published 8 August online in Infection and Immunity. A cluster of retractions at the journal prompted its editor-in-chief, Ferric Fang, to examine what drives retractions and whether they're connected to a journal's prestige. Fang and Arturo Casadevall, editor-in-chief of mBio, created a “retraction index” based on 10 years of retractions in 17 journals. The journals with more cachet, they found, also retracted more papers.

A number of possible explanations are offered for the phenomenon, but I would prefer to believe that journals such as Science and Nature, known for their careful peer review of submissions and for their selectivity, are also punctilious in retracting articles that are tainted post publication.

I have noted in the past that science is characterized by the skepticism of scientists, and the rates of retractions indicate that skepticism is not only warranted but productive in clarifying reported observations.

Fundamental attribution error

Image source

The fundamental attribution error in decision making (also known as "correspondence bias" or "attribution effect") describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors. The fundamental attribution error is most visible when people explain the behavior of others. It does not explain interpretations of one's own behavior—where situational factors are often taken into consideration. This discrepancy is called the actor–observer bias.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dan Ariely: Beware conflicts of interest

Another good talk from Dan Ariely, a psychologist who can I think really help you to think better and more effectively.

In this talk he describes an experiment that failed to reach statistical significance, an effect that he associated with a drunk coming into the experimental group that was supposed to do well and by doing very badly dropped the average performance for the whole group a great deal. He draws from this experience the conclusion that one should report fairly what one actually observed and not throw out the outliers. It is hard to quarrel with that statement.

I suggest however that there is another lesson. In planning an experiment with human subjects, specify carefully the qualifications that a subject must have to be allowed into the experiment. Don't allow a drunk into an experiment testing intellectual competence. Indeed, balance your experimental group. For example, you might pair subjects to be as similar as possible on all the relevant characteristics and then assign one member of each pair randomly to either the experimental or the control group, assigning the other subject to the other group.

Ariely recommends not biasing your results by throwing out observations you don't like.

I recommend also that you plan your experiment carefully and work to assure that your groups are really comparable on all but the experimental treatment.

There is a simple remedy to a serious problem

I quote from a statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
FDA recognizes the significant public health consequences that can result from drug shortages and takes tremendous efforts within its legal authority to address and prevent drug shortages. These shortages occur for many reasons, including manufacturing and quality problems, delays, and discontinuations. FDA is aware that in 2010 there was a record number of shortages and in 2011 FDA has continued to see an increasing number of shortages, especially those involving older sterile injectable drugs.

When quality/manufacturing issues are discovered by the company or the public and reported to FDA or are found by FDA upon inspection, the FDA works closely with the firm to address  risks involved to prevent harm to patients.  FDA also considers the impact a shortage would have on patient care and access and works with the firm to restore supplies while also ensuring safety for patients.
We need legislation that will allow other firms to utilize produce patented drugs without license and to utilize patented processes to produce drugs without license when the patent holding firm can not meet the demand drugs for which there are no equivalent alternatives. In the face of shortages, the FDA should also be allowed to authorize the use of imported products on a temporary basis based only on their successful use in other nations with strong drug manufacturing regulation such as European nations, Japan and Canada.

I bet when firms find that failing to meet patient needs results in increased competition, they will suddenly find a way to meet those needs; if not, the alternatives will be there for the patients. If we have to balance the public good of providing life saving drugs to seriously ill patients or protecting patent rights of companies, the choice is clear!

El Niño linked to increased violence in the tropics

The Economist informs us of a study indicating that the level of violent conflict increases in tropical countries during El Niño climate events!
The work starts with two well-established sets of data, one on violence and the other on the weather. From the first the team calculated an “annual conflict risk” for violence within countries (as opposed to cross-border wars). From the second it produced a map of the world divided into 82 countries where the weather pays little heed to the presence or absence of Niños and 93 where the weather does pay such heed—a group that covers almost all of the tropics. Niños are sloshings of warm water across the equatorial Pacific that take place once or twice a decade. They mostly make themselves felt by increasing tropical temperatures and lowering rainfall around the tropical world, though the effects are not the same everywhere. Such semi-regular instability is not experienced in temperate climes, and it has deep repercussions. 
In years of El Niño, the researchers found, the annual risk of conflict in their 93 tropical countries was 6%. When the oscillation reached its other extreme, a situation known as La Niña, the risk was 3%. In other parts of the world it stayed pretty stable around 2%. This is not to say climate is the only or main factor behind conflict. But the researchers’ numbers suggest that as many as a fifth of the internal conflicts of the period were affected by El Niño.
This is a stunning result, suggesting some serious policy attention be payed to reducing conflict during the El Niño events. Of course, like all interesting research results, this suggests more research needs to be done with some urgency to better explore the links of climate and violence. Of course, one would also hope to see more historical analysis double checking the result.

For more on the original research, go to the website of its principal author, Solomon Hsiang.

Here is a good video from the National Geographic describing the El Niño and La El Niña cycle.

Some interesting indices

The Economist has an interesting article on inconspicuous indicators that might help to understand the economy. The magazine asked readers for suggestions and "received many suggestions for different products with which to calculate exchange rates at purchasing-power parity, ranging from Coca-Cola and bottled water to mobile-phone charges and taxi fares." A veterinarian reported that the number of pets brought in for vet care is a leading indicator of economic growth; seems people buy new pets and have optional procedures more often when the economy is about to turn up, and less often when it is about to turn down.

The Economist liked a suggestion that one might use the frequency of "gold price" obtained from Google Trends. Indeed the frequency of the term has increased with the economic crisis and has become more variable.

The curve above shows the trend in the appearance of the word "gold" (as compared with the average over the period, shown as 1.00). It too shows a notable increase since the end of 2007 and notable spikes. Unfortunately, the spikes labeled A, C and D relate to sporting gold medals rather than the price of gold. The B spike was when the price of gold hit $1000. You have to be careful about your indicator.

Indicators of teacher and school performance

"Value-Added Measures and the Future of Educational Accountability" is an interesting article by Douglas Harris in the Science magazine of August 12, 2011. The author discusses:
  • "point-in-time snapshots of student performance" such as the performance on tests at the end of certain school grades, and
  • value added estimates such as those which assess the quality of teachers or schools, and especially those which attribute changes in student performance over a period of time such as a school year to the impact of their teachers or schools.
The data show what I think is quite intuitive, that different measures are somewhat uncorrelated, and that point-in-time estimates confound school/teacher influence with pre-school/home environment influence.

Harris suggests that it one might combine various estimates of teacher quality, such as improvements in test results, measures of qualifications, and evaluations by peers and supervisors to improve the validity of the value added estimate (especially if used in payroll decisions). This also seems reasonable to me.

Bayes would be pleased by the realization, if not by the means of making the changes. One might assume that there is an a priori distribution of teacher quality and that each added piece of information on a particular teacher can be used to find an a posteriori probability distribution of the "true" quality of that teacher. This approach might be used not only with various sources of information in a single year, but adding information from each year that the teacher is in the system.

Still, I am glad that there is an effort to find better ways to evaluate the help teachers and schools are providing their students to learn, and to provide incentives to good teachers and schools as well as protecting students from second rate schools and teachers. Of course it will be hard to do this well, but with work we will get better at it.

How well do facts travel?

I quote from a review of How Well do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge in Science magazine.
The standing of facts has not been very secure under the reign of historical, philosophical, and social perspectives on science that have grown up over the past half century. The scholars' skepticism has not, in most cases, been nihilistic or irrationalist. Instead, it reflects doubts that factual nuggets can carry their own meaning, independent of the theoretical frameworks and the places or material conditions under which they are observed, recorded, deployed, and interpreted. Etymologically, and often in practice, facts are made things. This is especially the case for science, so much of which is fashioned now in laboratories....

Operationally, the capacity to travel in word or deed is virtually a precondition for achieving the status of fact. The rigors and the productiveness of such travel define the problematic of this interesting collection. In terms of subject matter, the authors take a most capacious view of the fact, which is here instantiated sometimes as a nugget of purported truth, sometimes as a material object such as an architectural element, sometimes as instructions for implementing a technological system such as Green-Revolution agriculture, and sometimes as a prediction or theoretical claim such as (the denial of) anthropogenic climate change. Travel, too, is all over the map here: not just movement across land and sea, but from one discipline to another and between specialists and general audiences or makers and users.
If I understand this correctly, it is a very interesting idea. A fact, such as the utility of a new medical technique or a new agricultural practice, has to be disseminated to new settings to be a fact, and often (always?) that dissemination involves adaptation of the fact from the circumstances in which it has been proven true to a new set of circumstances. This suggests that the "facts" of useful models for development projects have to be adapted from where those models have worked if they are also to work in new and different locations.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The History & Future of Telecommunications

"communications satellites will be much more important than sending man into space, because they will send ideas into space. Ideas last longer than men."
Newton Minow to President Kennedy
You may wish to check out Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" speech to the National Broadcasters Association in 1961. The wasteland he described was that of the three national broadcast networks. The wasteland today is conveyed over a vastly increased number of channels and many more networks and the content has changed somewhat (reality TV has replaced westerns, news as provided through cable news networks panders much more to special interests than did the network news programs of my youth) but the landscape is still waisted.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A thought on comparative taxation

It seems common to compare the tax rate in the United States with the tax rates in other developed countries. Of course, to make any sense, the comparison has to be between like things. Thus in some countries the federal government provides local services, while in the United States we have state and local taxes supporting state and local government functions; if one is to compare tax rates, one might compare total tax rate to total tax rate.

It occurs to me that similarly, different governments fund different things. If European governments have socialized medicine and the United States does not, then it is logically incorrect to compare their tax rates. I suggest that in terms of health services it is more reasonable to compare the health outcomes and health expenditures for the societies as a whole. Of course on that comparison the United States comes off rather badly, spending more on health care per capita than any other nation but has lower life expectancy than most European countries. Similarly, one might compare per capita educational expenditures and educational outcomes; we don't come out too well on that comparison, the difficulty being that we leave education to local control while European nations tend to have national systems.

Military expenditures? We spend more than the rest of the world's nations combined. Is our security greater than theirs?

Americans Elect 2012

Americans Elect 2012 is an online movement to empower citizens to affect the 2012 presidential election. As I write this, 1.7 million people have signed up on the site. There will be more content on the site, which is new, as we move closer to the election in November 2012 including nominations for and a straw vote on candidates, and a discussion section.

At the moment, the site includes a long questionnaire on political issues of the moment. You can take as much of it as you like, and you can save the partial response and return to the questionnaire later. The interesting part for me is that you can see the frequency of alternative responses so far as soon as you complete your answer.

Clearly, the participants in this survey, self selected as they are, represent a variety of political views. Still, the responses indicate a large number of Americans are worried about the decline of America's economy,  and want a government which is more effective in regulating industry, in assuring health care for all, in improving our educational system, and in rationalizing the situation with respect to immigration.

Statistics are clear that a tiny minority of Americans are very rich and getting richer, while the poor are seeing their chances of rising out of poverty decreasing, and many who have been in the middle class are getting poorer.

The recent circus in which the Republicans and Democrats haggled over ways to reduce the debt in the next decade by reducing the deficit, which almost resulted in a default on our current national debt and led directly to a downgrade in the credit rating of the nation, has outraged a lot of Americans, It is just one example among many of dysfunctional failure to compromise in the public interest among our politicians.

I believe that the political problem is in part due to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and in part due to the changes in our media which have seen more strident and partisan current events programming and have allowed people to spend more time listening to and communicating with people who share their own political philosophy. I think it is also due in part to the proliferation of lobbying, and the ability of the very rich and economically powerful to influence legislation by their support of lobbyists and of political campaigns.

I suspect that the economic and political problems have a circular partial causality, but whether they are or are not, a lot of Americans are mad about the concatenation of problems. I think that some of that anger on the part of one group of Americans (older, middle class, white, southerners especially) has resulted in the Tea Party Movement.

In my last history history book club meeting, discussing 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country, I noted the parallel between that time in which "malefactors of great wealth" were at the opposite pole of wealth and power from the majority of American workers and today, at least in terms of the alienation of the majority of voters from the traditional political parties. I live in a very liberal community and my fellow book club members (having all read a lot of history?) are a pretty liberal group. They questioned whether there was a political parallel to the Progressive movement that so influenced the election of 1912 (which saw Teddy Roosevelt come in second heading the Progressive or Bull Moose Party, Eugene Debs heading the Socialist Party obtain some six percent of the vote).

I suspect that on the liberal side, the gathering of voters around the Center for American Progress is another outcome of the wide spread anger of Americans about the trends in our economy and our politics, and is directly analogous to the rise of the progressive movement in 1912.

I suspect that Americans Elect is still another outcome of the anger of so many Americans about the way things are going. I hope that it will mobilize Americans in support of doing things differently and better. I hope that it will not only raise the visibility of issues important to us, but show that there is a lot of support for policies that make more sense than those we are currently following. I hope that it will show support for candidates who might not otherwise emerge from the debates among party hacks and the "true believer" wings of the Democratic and Republican parties.

A comment on the Blair - Hitchens Debate on Religion

Christopher Hitchens vs Tony Blair Debate:
Is Religion A Force For Good In The World?

Blair and Hitchens are remarkably articulate, with the ability to utilize rhetoric very well in the moment before a huge audience. I still found the positions unsatisfactory.
  • Hitchens fundamentally seems to be arguing that he prefers not to believe in a deity because he does not want to accept the authority of the spokespersons for the organized religions. One might offer an argument about organized religions without denying the existence of a deity.
  • Blair seems to argue for religion because he believes a lot of good people have done more good in implementing their religious convictions, while admitting that other people had done ill in implementing their religious convictions and that those convictions are supported not only by religious leaders but by their texts, and that there are people who have done good motivated by beliefs which we all now believe to be false, and indeed by no religious beliefs at all.
I think both would agree that the problems of the Middle East would be reduced if Christians, Jews and Muslims involved would act differently. Blair feels that the route to such improved behavior would be a shift from extremist, pro-violence religious positions to ones within the same faiths that honored more the Golden Rule. Hitchens advocates a more secular, less religious positions. I suspect that each would give value to the other's recommendation. I suspect that each is guessing, and doesn't really know.

It is a joy simply to listen to two men so fast on their verbal feet!

Something I missed: Texas School Board Attack on Social Sciences

Earlier this year 15 elected members of the Texas School Board balderized the draft standards for the teaching of social studies in Texas schools. More.....

School text books are written to help teachers teach to the standards, and since the Texas-wide school system is the largest in the country, textbook publishers work hard to assure that their books fit the Texas standards. Other school districts across the country, with a variety of standards, to some degree are stuck with books written to satisfice the Texas School Board and its standards.

A letter signed by 800 historians, the vast majority teaching at universities and many in Texas universities wrote an open letter protesting the action pushed by the right wing majority of the School Board. I quote:
Those of us who teach and conduct research in colleges and universities have grown concerned, however, that social studies curriculum standards in Texas do not meet student needs. We also believe that the Texas State Board of Education has been derelict in its duty to revise the public school curriculum. In short, recent proposals by Board members have undermined the study of the social sciences in our public schools by misrepresenting and even distorting the historical record and the functioning of American society.

Some of the problematic revisions that they have proposed include:
  • Weakening the study of constitutional protections for religious liberty that keep government out of matters of faith;
  • Minimizing the struggle of women and ethnic minorities for equal and civil rights;
  • Striking Thomas Jefferson from a world history standard about the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on political changes since the 1700s; and
  • Excluding an important historical figure from Latin America because some board members did not recognize him
I have in the past posted my concerns about the balderization of curricula in the evolution and climate change curricula, and the effort to change social science curricula to suit a conservative ideology is equally or more worrisome. I want the best available knowledge of economics, sociology, anthropology, political science and history used to inform the school social science curricula, not the most correct conservative ideology!

Fortunately, the mathematics curriculum is not subject to this revisionism, and there is a national mathematics curriculum available from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Perhaps we should seek to have as many school districts as possible subscribe to a national curricula in science and to a national curriculum in social studies and history so that they will outweigh the Texas school system in the decision making of the text book publishers.

The International Science and Mathematics Study looks at student performance in 41 countries, based on a very large sample of students. I quote from an article on U.S. student performance in these tests:
In short, the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were "average" in elementary school, "we appear to be "near the bottom" at the high school level. People have a tendency to think this picture is  bleak but it doesn't apply to their own school. Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.
  1. By the time our students are ready to leave high school - ready to enter higher education and the labor force - they are doing so badly with science they are significantly weaker than their peers in other countries.
  2. Our idea of "advanced" is clearly below international standards.
  3. There appears to be a consistent weakness in our teaching performance in physical sciences that becomes magnified over the years.
I suspect that a major reason for this poor performance is that too many school districts accept second rate education for their students, having underpaid teachers in inadequate facilities teaching to poor curricula and weak standards. Perhaps we need real national standards and serious national testing, and a system that holds all U.S. school systems and U.S. school boards accountable for the education they provide their students!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A means of getting a better estimate of true poverty rankings

I have just read about a study that used four methods to rank order village families according to their poverty. The purpose of the study was to determine which of the three other methods best approximated the most expensive and "best" method.  (I assume that something like the Spearman Rank Correlation Coefficient was used to judge the approximation.)

 It occurs to me that none of the four methods can be taken to provide "the true" poverty ranking of villagers. Yet the researchers accepted the most expensive approach as defining the "truth" and judged the other methods according to their differences from its results.

One approach to improving on the "truthiness" of the ranking would be to add the rank orders from each indicator for each family, and reorder the families according to the sum of their previous rankings.

Perhaps a better way would be to weight the rank in each indicator by a weight proportional to the confidence one has in that indicator.

Indeed, one might iterate the procedure, weighing the ranking of each indicator according the Spearman's rho of that that ranking with respect to the weighted average ranking of the previous iteration.

It is hard to get at the truth!

Boycott Hershey Chocolate

I quote from an email from SEIU describing a situation that I find unacceptable:
Once upon a time, unionized workers packing chocolate at the Hershey company in Pennsylvania made $18 to $30 an hour.

Today, the company relies on a "cultural exchange" program that asks foreign students to pay up to $6,000 to come to America to work for $8 an hour to work at a companies like Hershey and experience what its like to live in America.

Then, when they arrive, "program fees" and rent are deducted from their salaries to the point many are unable to recoup what it costs to obtain their visa.
SEIU is collecting money to support a strike of the current crop of foreign workers.

I propose to boycott Hershey products until this practice is stopped. I invite any readers to join me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

We will soon all be connected all the time!

Source: The Economist
The growth of Android's market share is impressive, but I find the overall growth in the market even more impressive. More than 100 million cell phones a year shipments is an indication of the very high rate of improvement of telecom connectivity!

"Race, Ethnicity, and NIH Research Awards"

Donna K. Ginther, Walter T. Schaffer. Joshua Schnell, Beth Masimore, Faye Liu, Laurel L. Haak and Raynard Kington
Science 19 August 2011:
Vol. 333 no. 6045 pp. 1015-1019
DOI: 10.1126/science.1196783

Abstract: "We investigated the association between a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 applicant’s self-identified race or ethnicity and the probability of receiving an award by using data from the NIH IMPAC II grant database, the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, and other sources. Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention."

The legacy of Americans racism is very hard to escape. The black or African-American scientists in this study have used all the possible educational means to escape from racial prejudice and it still affects them. This is especially troublesome to me in science, where we should value knowledge for itself and not from the race of its discoverer!

The Price of Corn is Going Up

Source: The Economist
"The price of corn is up by almost a quarter since the start of the year, to around $7.30 a bushel and is forecast to keep rising."

My one day as a member of the Agriculture Policy Committee of the U.S. Government was marked by the discovery by another member that their previous decision on feed grains affected the price of food grains. Everything connects to everything else.

We may see the price of beef and poultry go up, and people in developing countries may see the prices of the basics of their diet go up because of the subsidies we are providing for the production of alcohol for fuel from corn.

"Next season, for the first time, more corn could be used to make ethanol than to provide animal feed."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A great project design?

I was struck by a thought when watching Terrence McNally on television as he spoke about the new production of his play, The Master Class. He mentioned learning about the linkage between teacher and student in the new version of the play, as the star Tyne Daly interacted with the master class students on stage, and he mentioned his pleasure in hearing his lines delivered even better than he imagined when he wrote them. The play won the Tony for best play when it was first introduced on Broadway.

Tyne Daly on stage
It occurred to me that a great play is open in the sense that others in the production can bring their own genius to its production, that different directors can make riveting theater with different interpretations of the text, that different casts can find different depths in the characters and different beauties in the lines. New companies are making Shakespeare's plays live five centuries after they were first performed.

I suppose there is a similar aspect of great pieces of music, in that a piece can have many great interpretations. Why are there many recordings of a Beethovan symphony, a Verde Opera, or a Chopin etude? Is it not that different conductors, different orchestras, different artists find new riches in the same scores?

Perhaps that is the way we should consider the design of development projects. A project paper might be seen as an open document in the sense that the people implementing the project can and should go beyond the specific content of the paper, responding to the evolving specific circumstances that they face, using their own genius to bring excellence to the implementation of the project. A great project design might then be seen as one that gives range to people to achieve a great implementation and indeed encourages the implementers to greatness!

I recall Jack Donoghue, who taught me about community development at Michigan State University, telling me about a successful community development project which consisted only of refusing a community development contract by publicly dressing down the community leaders for not working together. That is the extreme in sending a group forward to work on a project in an open manner, with strong (if unconventional) motivation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Check out the Daily Show's Jon Stewart on Class Warfare

Not surprisingly, Jon Stewart says it better than I do. We clearly need a stronger progressive movement in this country, focusing on the reduced expectations of the two-thirds of our people with the lowest incomes. I suspect that the increasing separation of the top one percent and the top ten percent of our people by income from the rest of the population is contributing to the problems of the poor and the middle class. I also think that letting the income and wealth differentials get worse and worse is going to be bad news for the whole population and the political systems of our democracy.

Thoughts about the evaluation of knowledge based projects/programs

This talk by Stacey Young is from the KM Impact Challenge of the Knowledge-Driven International Development Project of USAID. Dr. Young makes a great point that many factors effect the success of a development project, and in the complex world of developing nations it is likely that the combination of factors that lead to success in one place will not exist in the next place. She doubts the utility of cookie-cutter approaches, preferring rather an approach in which there is careful monitoring of each project, always informed by knowledge, leading to modification of designs and objectives according to the local situation to achieve success. She notes that the things that she thinks can be useful to measure how good a knowledge management project is are seldom quantifiable, while donor agencies these days tend to be slaves to quantitative evaluation.

I wonder how good the evaluation has been of evaluation efforts. What are the "quantifiable" indicators of the information that evaluations provide decision makers? What is the ratio of the improved yield of donor program expenditures due to evaluation efforts to the costs of those efforts? Of course, there is no satisfactory information of this kind, in part because monitoring and evaluation are knowledge activities that are by nature poorly suited for such quantitative approaches.

What are other knowledge based programs, and how are they evaluated. Teaching is such a knowledge-based program. In my teaching I have found course evaluations by students to be helpful, but I suspect that the university goes more by whether students sign up for the courses each semester in sufficient numbers that the course costs are adequately paid. I note that business schools use the average salaries of the graduates on entering the job market as an indicator (which would seem likely to be of use in attracting future students). I note that billionaires Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg left college early and probably had rather low starting incomes as they began to make their billions; perhaps starting salaries on graduation are not the best indicator of social value!

Research is another knowledge based program. I recall that the National Science Foundation found in a study of research projects that had made major discoveries, a significant portion of those discoveries were not mentioned as possible outcomes in project proposals. This is an illustration of the fact that decision on research are made with incomplete information and limited rationality. Still, I suspect the process of planning and evaluating scientific research projects typical of those funded by the National Science Foundation is more informed and more rational than that of assistance projects funded by NGO's or donot agencies.

I have long been concerned about the conceptualization of small projects, and the use of terms such as "pilot projects" and "demonstration projects"; terms such as "going to scale" and "scaling up" also concern me. The diffusion of innovations is often more of a viral than bureaucratic process, and if done well involves innovation, deepening, and tailoring at each level. It may be that one can test a curriculum with a group of teachers, but I bet that when that curriculum is rolled out to a wider user group each good teacher modifies it to meet the needs of her students and to fit the style and approach to teaching he/she finds to work best. In the small projects funded by the programs that I ran, knowledge was generated and it was diffused by publication, by teaching, by example, and by other means, influencing others in many ways.

Perhaps "monitoring" is a better term than "evaluation". Perhaps the effort should be based on finding out what is actually happening, rather than trying to measure how fully the original conceptions (made with incomplete information and limited rationality) are actually fulfilled.

Not everything that can be measured is worth measuring.

We don't know how to measure everything that is important.

Good decisions are sometimes made on unsatisfactory information and analysis.

Bad decisions are often made on the basis of pretty good information and analysis.

Development seems to me something to tackle with a fair amount of humility and a willingness to reexamine assumptions and revise plans on a continuing basis. I do like to quantify and I do like to ask experts for their opinion and I do like to analyse that information that I can obtain, but I try not to take myself too seriously!

Horn of Africa - Key Facts and Figures from UNICEF

An estimated 12.5million people in the Horn of Africa need urgent humanitarian support

Over 2.3 million children are estimated to be malnourished across the region

Over half a million severely malnourished children are at imminent risk of death

In parts of Southern Somalia children under 5 are dying at a rate of 15 per 10,000 per day

Famine has been declared in Lower Shabelle and parts of Bakool in southern Somali as well as in the agropastoral areas of Middle Shabelle, Afgoye IDP settlement and the Mogadishu IDP Community.

Other southern regions of Somalia may also reach famine in the coming weeks

Tens of thousands of people have died and many more lives are at risk

3.7 million people in Somalia, almost half the population, are in crisis

1.4 million children in southern Somalia alone are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance

In Somalia only 30% of the population has access to clean water


Science and the change in world view

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian (Sienese), ca. 1400 - 1482)

I think I am going to begin a series of posts on scientific ideas that have or should have changed our view of the world. The obvious place to start is Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. Copernicus not only proposed that the earth revolved around the sun (while the earth was also revolving about its axis), but demonstrated that that assumption could be used as the basis to accurately predict the observations of the sun's place in the sky. He published the book proposing and defending that theory in 1543.

Giordano Bruno went beyond Copernicus to postulate that the sun was a star, differing from other stars in that it was much closer to the earth than the other stars. He was executed for heresy in 1600.

Galileo observed that the moons of Jupiter revolved around the planet, not only accepting the Copernican idea that the earth revolved around the sun but that moons revolved around the earth and other planets. He observed the stars with a telescope, accepting Bruno's hypothesis that they were also suns, and recognizing by their size that that they were very far away indeed. (It was not until 1838 the Friedrick Bessel first measured the distance to a star other than the sun, showing that that distance was very great.) Galileo also observed the moon surface to be uneven, and noted that sunspots changed the appearance of the sun as they moved over its surface. He was tried for heresy in 1632 and forced to recant.

In 1665 Newton generalized the theory of gravity to celestial distances. He showed that the movement of objects in the solar system could be explained by the operation of "natural" forces and "natural" laws.

The understanding of the sky held "religiously" in western civilization before these scientists went back to Aristotle and Ptolemy. It conceived of the stars and planets as being mounted on celestial spheres around the earth, with differing views on the nature of the spheres and the way they were motivated.

They scientists introduced a view in which the solar system was composed of real objects moving according to natural laws, with the earth as but one of the planets circling the sun, and the entire system a small part of a universe containing very distant stars.

According to Wikipedia:
On 31 October 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and issued a declaration acknowledging the errors committed by the Catholic Church tribunal that judged the scientific positions of Galileo Galilei, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Too many of our kids are in trouble!

I quote from a new study by the Anne E. Casey Foundation:
The most worrisome trend of all is the decline in economic well-being for children and families at the lower half of the income distribution. The last decade—the recession and the years preceding it—wiped out tremendous gains made in the late 1990s when child poverty declined dramatically, especially among African Americans, as did the percent of children growing up without at least one parent employed full time, yearround. After dropping to a low of 39 percent in 2000, the percent of children living in low-income families (that is, with incomes of twice the official poverty line) gradually began to increase. Since 2001, the number of low-income children climbed steadily from 27 million to 31 million in 2009, or 42 percent of children. The official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, reached 20 percent in 2009, essentially the same level as 1990.
Kids from poor families don't have the opportunities that we promise to all our citizens. Their parents are too often preoccupied with survival. They don't enjoy the rich environment of more affluent kids, they have fewer educational opportunities, they may be hungry, more often sick, and less well cared for when they are sick.

The United States is based on the premise put forth in the Declaration of Independence:
All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The children we are allowing with increasing frequency to grow up in poverty are not getting a fair shake, they are not given the full right to pursue happiness. Moreover, as their current poverty leads them to prosper less in future decades, all our children and children's children are likely to have fewer opportunities than we could guarantee now.

Data Book Widget - Data Book 2011 - Data Book - KIDS COUNT Data Center

Source of image

Drought and Famine Plague Horn of Africa

More than 11 million people are in danger of malnutrition or starvation in the Horn of Africa region, a geographic area made up of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. The most acute problem is in Somalia, where drought, poverty, a failed state and militant armed forces combine to create a perfect storm leading to mass migration to refugee camps and famine, and complicating efforts to help the suffering. It has been estimated that as many as 400,000 people are in danger of dying in the crisis, mostly children.

This is a crisis that demands U.S. Government full-scale efforts of disaster assistance!

Compared to the suffering in the Horn of Africa, American financial problems fade into insignificance. There are a lot of places we can find the funds to help in Somalia and the Horn of Africa with domestic human costs that can not be compared to the suffering of the starving African children. I would recommend increasing taxes on the rich and decreasing military expenditures as the first places to look for the money!

Karachi Pakistan is falling apart!

According to the Gulf News there have been more than 40 killed in the last two days in Karachi. In July there were more than 300 killed. The violence seems to be between gangs, between different ethnic groups and between different political parties. This is in a city of three to five million people, a city with great differences in wealth among its people and with huge slums.

The South Asia News Agency writes, "Broad day murders and loot and arson have become order of the day in Karachi that has taken a toll of over 2000 people so far." Reportedly, in the conflicts among ethnic neighborhoods, women and children are targeted.

Given the importance of stability in Pakistan, this pattern is really worrisome! 

3D Printing

3D Printed Object

My friend Julianne pointed me to this article on 3D printing, which states:
(M)yriad industries – from automotive (which already created the first 3D printed car) and aerospace to footwear and jewelry – have embraced 3D printing that creates objects by laying down successive layers of materials.The Wohlers Report, an annual in-depth study of the advances in additive manufacturing technologies and applications, estimates 3D printing will grow to become a $5.2 billion industry by 2020, up from $1.3 billion last year.
While the technology is currently used for prototypes, demonstrations, and some fairly low value applications, as the cost of 3D printers has come down and is continuing to come down, the technology seems likely to have an increasing economic impact. 

Thinking about inflation

Source: Wolfram Alpha
The United States Government has experienced high rates of inflation from time to time over history, as is shown in the graph above. There were high rates of inflation associated with World War I and World War II and a high rate of inflation related to the Viet Nam War and the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979.

I find I don't understand the relationship between monetary policies of the Federal Reserve, fiscal policy of the federal government and the control of the money supply, as they affect the inflation rate. I wonder how many of the other people commenting on our debt problem fully understand the complex processes that control inflation, and the impact of inflation on the growth of the economy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trust as social capital in international affairs

The downgrading of U.S. federal debt from AAA to AA+ is a statement by Standard and Poor's that investors should trust the United States Government to honor that debt less than they did previously.

Money is always based on trust. In ancient history when people used silver and gold coins, they did so trusting that they could exchange those coins for something of comparable value to what they themselves had traded to obtain them. When the United States federal government began to issue paper money, they did so as treasury notes under the fiction that they could be redeemed for metal coins. These days U.S. paper money is simply paper, not backed by gold nor silver, and depends on the trust of people that it will buy roughly as much tomorrow as it does today.  I lived in Chile while it was experiencing very high rates of inflation, and I can testify that when people lose that faith in their currency, life becomes more difficult.

The United States issued silver certificates, bills which were to be redeemable in silver, until 1964 (and they could only be redeemed for federal reserve notes since 1968). When President Nixon took the United States off of the gold standard in 1971, that is when the United States stopped offering to exchange its money for gold, the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange had to be rebuilt. The result has been called the "Nixon Shock". This was a much more severe blow to international trust in the ability and willingness of the United States Government to honor its financial commitments.

Treaties are of value only when there is trust that they will honored. Mutual security treaties, such as that implemented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are perhaps the best known, but there are many other treaties that are important to the United States, providing protection to U.S. citizens abroad and to our international commerce and interests. The Constitution has the Executive Branch of the Government negotiate treaties, but requires that they be ratified by the Congress. The Senate has failed to ratify 21 treaties. Think of the treaty establishing the League of Nations which the Senate refused to ratify without a reservation; the President refused to sign the law putting the treaty into effect with that reservation. Given the key role of President Wilson played in the negotiation of that treaty, what must that failure have done to the trust placed by our allies in the negotiating positions of the Government.

Source of illustration

Note too that the United States Government has unilaterally broken treaties, often with Indian nations but also with foreign nations. Again, this is a history which reduces trust in the willingness of the government to honor its obligations.

We think of trust as critical to social capital. In an environment in which people trust each other and their institutions institutions can work well. Building that trust takes time and effort and thus is counted as social capital. Without such trust, even the most elegantly conceived institutions are not likely to work well.

I suggest that comparably belief of national leaders in the trustworthiness of other nations is the glue that makes international institutions work. When the United States works hard to promote the creation of UNESCO, modeling its constitution to meet U.S. interests, and then withdraws from the Organization leaving it to deal with an immense budget shock, the behavior does not encourage other nations to trust our support for international institutions.

At the end of World War II the United States enjoyed great trust from our allies, a trust that I think continued strong through the Eisenhower administration. The Kennedy administration seems to me to have worked to promote and sustain that trust. Since then, American wars and other aspects of foreign policy have resulted in a reduction of trust by our allies. Our recent financial policies have similarly eroded trust.

It is not clear to me how much the lack of trust in the United States is likely to cost in money and in security, but I wish we would invest more in building and keeping that trust.

Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic

I quote from an article by Cornelia Dean in the New York Times of August 8:
When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.
Now several groups are trying to promote more scientific literacy and to encourage scientists and engineers to speak out in public debates and even run for public office. These include:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reexamine your ideas about America as a land of opportunity!

My friend Sid pointed me to an editorial by Gus Speth on the Solutions website. I quote extensively:
(I)n a 20-country group of America’s peer countries in the OECD, the U.S. is now worst, or almost worst, on nearly 30 leading indicators of social, environmental, and economic well-being...... 
To our great shame, among the 20 major advanced countries America now has

  • the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
  • the greatest inequality of incomes;
  • the lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
  • the lowest number of paid holiday, annual, and maternity leaves;
  • the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being of children”;
  • the worst score on the United Nations’ gender inequality index;
  • the lowest social mobility;
  • the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion of GDP, 
yet accompanied by the highest

  • infant mortality rate;
  • prevalence of mental health problems;
  • obesity rate;
  • portion of people going without health care due to cost;
  • low-birth-weight children per capita (except for Japan);
  • consumption of antidepressants per capita;

along with the shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);

  • the highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
  • the lowest score on the World Economic Forum’s environmental performance index (except for Belgium), and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Belgium and Denmark);
  • the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
  • the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
  • the highest military spending as a portion of GDP;
  • the largest international arms sales;
  • the most negative balance of payments (except New Zealand, Spain, and Portugal);
  • the lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal and Italy) (and far from the top in both science and reading);
  • the highest high school dropout rate (except for Spain);
  • the highest homicide rate;
  • and the largest prison population per capita.
Basically, the list indicates that in spite of our wealth the United States has a higher percentage of its people living in poverty than any other developed nations and that the poor have less opportunity to progress economically here than in any other developed nation. For those who (mistakenly) believe that the poor are poor due to their own fault, note that the indicators show that far too many of our children are growing up poor, unhealthy, and poorly educated.

I find that situation to be unacceptable!

Thinking about questions that would help understand how candidates would make decisions

In a democracy I suggest that voters should hare a right to know how candidates for office would make decisions if elected. The rights of the candidates for privacy should be balanced against the rights of the voters to adequate access to information to make good decisions.

Of course, there are many sources of information on the ways candidates would make decisions, from their speeches on the campaign trail, to the platforms of their parties, to their performance in debates. Perhaps even more informative is the history of the candidate's decisions in previous offices and roles in life. Still, we may be entitled to still more information.

It might be useful if there were standard questions for candidates on some specific aspects of the ways that they would make decisions in office. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have believed in a specific interpretation of the separation of powers  -- that the President as Commander in Chief had the power to act first, but that the judiciary and legislative branches had the power to respond to those acts under the Constitution. George W Bush made many formal signing statements when signing legislation into law, apparently believing that those statements affected the implementation of the legislation; his administration accepted interpretations by political appointees in the Justice Department of international treaties on the treatment of prisoners that have been widely criticized. So, candidates might be asked how they would take into account the actions of other branches and departments of government in their White House decision making.

Graham Allison's book, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis showed the way in which decisions were made in the Kennedy administration that could have led to nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. Those decisions were made in consultation with a relatively small number of key advisers, but in a process in which contrarian opinion was sought; in earlier decisions on the Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy apparently gave greater credence to opinions filtering up through the bureaucratic systems of the CIA and Department of Defense, with less desirable results. Perhaps candidates should regularly be asked how they would avoid the "bubble effect" of the oval office in order to obtain a broad spectrum of advice on important decisions while keeping the decision process agile and capable of producing timely decisions, and how they would balance the advice of kitchen cabinet with that of their political appointees and those of the non-political bureaucracy of the executive branch of government.

History suggests that voters are not adequately informed as to health conditions that may influence a candidate's decision making were he/she to be elected. Woodrow Wilson had three strokes before his election which were not disclosed to the public followed by a major stroke late in his second term which incapacitated him; apparently his wife made major policy decisions for the nation while he was incapacitated. Thomas Eagleton, vice presidential candidate to George McGovern, did not disclose a history of mental health problems to McGovern when being considered for the ticket, and left the ticket after that history was revealed and psychiatrists indicated that condition might affect his decisions in office if elected. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was far more ill, especially during his fourth term, than the public was allowed to know; one must wonder whether his illness affected his decisions at critical points during those years. Grover Cleveland had a large tumor removed from his jaw and hard palate during his presidency and neither the operation nor the recuperation was disclosed to the public. John Kennedy had medical problems not disclosed to the public. Certainly candidates have a right to privacy, but it seems to me that voter choices would be better made were conditions known that might affect decision making. Might there not be a means of requiring disclosure of some medical conditions for candidates, at least for key elected posts?

Salon has an article questioning the candidacy of  Michele Bachman because she has publicly described herself as believing in a "submission theology" both in terms of making decisions based on her belief that a specific choice was the revealed will of God or on the basis that a wife should submit to her husband (her husband apparently directed her decision to become a tax lawyer). Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer who is thought to have influenced decisions of President Reagan. Candidates in the past have had to address whether their decisions would be influenced by religious leaders, including Obama with respect to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Kennedy, as a Catholic, with respect to the Pope; while I believe these concerns were unjustified and the result of prejudice, there is clearly a history of cults in the United States in which members of the cults would submit their decisions to the cult leaders for approval. Clearly we don't want a religious test for candidates and clearly many if not all presidents consult their (religious) consciences when making important decisions, but it seems to me that it voters have a right to be concerned if someone other than their elected official were to be making policy decisions for the nation. It also seems to me that it would be better if all candidates for the presidency were asked a standard question as to whether they would submit their decision making to any religious (or other) outside authority, and if so the nature of that authority. Perhaps the League of Women Voters of some other neutral body could introduce such a practice.