Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Stress Changes How People Make Decisions

Source of image

My friend Julianne pointed me to an article in Science Daily that says:
A new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reviews how, under stress, people pay more attention to the upside of a possible outcome. 
It's a bit surprising that stress makes people focus on the way things could go right, says Mara Mather of the University of Southern California, who cowrote the new review paper with Nichole R. Lighthall. "This is sort of not what people would think right off the bat," Mather says. "Stress is usually associated with negative experiences, so you'd think, maybe I'm going to be more focused on the negative outcomes." 
But researchers have found that when people are put under stress -- by being told to hold their hand in ice water for a few minutes, for example, or give a speech -- they start paying more attention to positive information and discounting negative information....... 
Stress also increases the differences in how men and women think about risk. When men are under stress, they become even more willing to take risks; when women are stressed, they get more conservative about risk. Mather links this to other research that finds, at difficult times, men are inclined toward fight-or-flight responses, while women try to bond more and improve their relationships.
We think with our brains, not our minds. The hormones count, as do brain systems of which we are not consciously aware. Consequently, our decisions are not purely rational. On the other hand, if we know that there a "unconscious biases" in our decision making, it is possible to consciously try to correct for them and thus to make better decisions.

Source of this image

Survey suggests people are happier than five years ago

"DESPITE global economic gloom, the world is a happier place than it was before the financial crisis began. That is the counterintuitive conclusion of a poll of 19,000 adults in 24 countries by Ipsos, a research company. Some 77% of respondents now describe themselves as happy, up three points on 2007, the last year before the crisis. Fully 22% (up from 20%) describe themselves as very happy—a more important measure, says Ipsos’s John Wright, since whenever three-quarters of people agree on anything, 'you need to pay attention to intensity in the results.'”

Read more

I am not sure of the validity of the methods used, but I can think of a couple of possible reasons. Orhan Pamuk suggests that Istanbul's people have a special melancholy, and it might be that some combination of genetics, climate and development result in an identifiable level of happiness for a specific place. It may be too that people who are seeing their economic condition improve relatively rapidly feel that they are happier than the rest of us perceive our own happiness.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reassessing Bill Clinton

If someone says its not about the money, its about the money.
If someone says its not about the sex, its about the sex.
If a politician says its not about politics, its about politics.

I saw the American Experience program about Bill Clinton. It got me to thinking.

It looked in the program as if Clinton may have been seduced by Monica Lewinsky at a moment when he was especially vulnerable -- the government was shut down by the House of Representatives led by Newt Gingrich, the Democrats having lost control in the mid term election of Clinton's first term. Of course, he was wrong to be involved in an extramarital affair and wrong to try to cover it up. But do we want to elect the nicest guy president or do we want to elect the guy who will do the most for the country?

Clinton managed to get legislation through a Republican Congress in his second term of office. For the only time in recent memory, the federal budget was in balance. Employment was high. Economic growth was high. There was not talk about whether the United States had lost its competitive edge as Amazon, EBay, Apple, Microsoft, Google, were flying high or about to do so. He got wellfare reform into law, even over the objection of some Democrats. When Al Qaeda bombed two embassies, Clinton bombed them back, but didn't overreact by taking the country into two wars nor establishing sets of threat level indicators to fuel paranoia.

The Republicans seemed more interested in getting Clinton out of office than in good governance, as the Republicans seem today to be more interested in getting Obama out of office than in good governance. The public saw that that was true in 1996, and kept Clinton in office; lets hope that the public sees what has happened in the Obama administration and votes accordingly.


For everything to stay the same, everything must change. If it does not, everything will be lost.Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
The Leopard

They must change who would be constant in happiness and wisdom.

The customs and fashions of men change like leaves on the bough, some of which go and others come.
Dante Alighieri

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
Charles R. Darwin

Change is inevitable. Change is constant.
Benjamin Disraeli

When you're finished changing, you're finished.
Benjamin Franklin

We live in an era when rapid change breeds fear, and fear too often congeals us into a rigidity which we mistake for stability.
Lynn White

Thoughts on reading Naipaul on Uganda.

The first chapter of The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by V. S. Naipaul provides the authors observations on a trip to Uganda. I only want to address this first chapter, and in doing so I will pass up the overall theme of the book. The book deals with the interplay of Christianity and Islam, new arrivals in sub-Saharan Africa, with the older indigenous African beliefs and the effects of that interplay on Africans today, while serving as a basis of self exploration by Naipaul. There is a good review by Eliza Griswold in The New York Times for a more balanced view of the book.

This is probably unfair as it compares the prose of a Nobel Prize winning author noted for style with that of a man best known as a radio reporter, but having just finished The Great Gamble, I was pleased to be reading precise, beautiful prose.

Naipaul made a relatively short visit to Kampala in 2008 in the preparation of this book. He had previously spent an extended period there in residence at Makerere University in 1966. In the interim, Uganda had undergone a historical trauma under the dictatorships of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. Makerere University, which had been one of the best in Africa during his first visit decayed in quality during the troubles, indeed being the site of a pitched battle between opposing armies at one point, and is now seeking to again achieve quality. The population of Uganda increased by a factor of five or so between his visits.

Source of Naipaul portrait
Buganda is one of the kingdoms which were joined into what is now Uganda, located in the relatively densely populated region around Kampala and bordering on Lake Victoria. It is the kingdom of the Baganda people. Naipaul seems to be thinking about how the Baganda changed from the time when Stanley and Speke first visited the region until today. He visits the tombs of the Kabakas at Kasubi,  a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Kabaka of Buganda of the 19th century was an absolute ruler in some ways comparable to a king, but invested with spiritual aspects specific to the culture of his time and place.  Naipaul met with a prince of the Baganda and the Queen Mother in Toro, another Ugandan kingdom. Today, Buganda and Uganda are split among Muslim, Catholic and Pentecostal churches as well as traditional religious beliefs; the Lord's Resistance Army which has caused so much pain in the north of Uganda we would see as a cult of modern origin. Naipaul also met with one person whose function gets translated into "witch doctor" and tried to meet with a second; he quotes Ugandan newspaper horror stories. I suppose that the predominant impression I got from the chapter was of the diversity of belief in Uganda, as well as the likely interpenetration of various belief systems into not only culture but individual beliefs.

I spent some time in Uganda a few years before Naipaul's second visit. I was working as a World Bank consultant, helping to prepare a science and technology loan and evaluating an earlier grant to Makerere University. My experience was very different than Naipaul's. I met with university faculty and administrators, researchers and government officials (not to mention hotel clerks, waiters, and airline staff). In the context of World Bank related discussions, my Ugandan colleagues seemed similar to colleagues I had met in Latin America, Asia and indeed the United States. My role in Uganda encouraged my Ugandan colleagues to assume complementary roles. We discussed higher education, science and technology, funding for those. I also had the opportunity to meet with groups of Ugandans to check my ideas and to see Ugandans respond to Ugandans.

We did not discuss family nor personal history, much less religious beliefs. I could infer that individually the people I met had been through hellish times since they were all old enough to have lived through the hard times of the 1970s, but we did not discuss those times, focusing on recent accomplishments and future plans.

I have had the experience of living for several years in two foreign countries, working outside the expatriate communities in those countries, and making friends with whom one might share. In that context one not only begins to see how different people relate to the same culture, but how the underlying culture begins to affect people's conduct. The experience is a help in understanding that while I gathered some data on the Ugandan economy and its scientific and technological institutions, I was far from understanding my Ugandan colleagues as people.

Naipaul too had assumed a role on his 2008 visit, that of a famous author who had come to learn about the belief systems of (some) Ugandans. He too was selecting "informants" relevant to the role he assumed, and he too saw the complementary roles that the people he spoke to had assumed in response to his own role. Of course, not many of them would have had experience dealing with a foreign author interested in African beliefs.

One of the truisms of gathering information in a foreign culture (and indeed in one's own culture) is that what people tell you is what people tell you, but it is not necessarily "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth". People tell you what they want to tell you, for their own reasons, within the limits of what they remember, the trust you have established, and their own objectives in the meeting.


If the opposite of "pro" is "con", then the opposite of "progress" is "Congress".
Jon Stewart

Monday, February 27, 2012

To Rick Santorum: Really?

Santorum is quoted on the evening news as saying that President Obama should not have apologized for the accidental burning of Korans. Really, one should not apologize for a deep insult to another's religion simply because it was not intentional. I suppose if Santorum backed the car out of the garage inadvertently running over a neighbor, he would not apologize. I wish that people would wait to anger here until the investigation of the incident is complete and we know what actually happened.

According to The Washington Post:

Asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” how his faith fits in with his ideas about governing, Santorum said he disagreed with the “absolute separation” between church and state outlined by Kennedy in a 1960 speech. 
Santorum said reading the speech made him want to “throw up.”
Really, Santorum wants to go against two centuries of separation of church and state in the United States. I suppose since he is a Catholic he wants the United States to follow all the decrees of the Pope. In similar fashion, he would apparently be willing to live in a nation following Mormon precepts if Mitt Romney is elected, or to the precepts of Obama's church. And why is he campaigning against a long dead president, assassinated in office, who is the first Catholic to be elected president?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.The First Ammendment to the Constitution
Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Thomas Jefferson
WP also reports that Santorum "described President Obama as 'a snob' for focusing on the importance of a college education". Really? Santorum himself has three degrees from state universities, including two graduate degrees. The article continues to quote Santorum:
“There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.”
Obama worked in community development, and I suspect knows more about the strength and virtue of people who not have had educational opportunities than Santorum ever will. Certainly I learned more about real working people as a Peace Corps Volunteer than I did at home or in my other work after college. And on the face of it, Obama is far more accepting of the differences among people than Santorum who would force his views on marriage, procreation and sexual relations on everyone.

But who said that the only reason to go to college is to get a job? A college education should make a better citizen, a more informed voter, and a richer life.

Incidentally, it seems that college graduates are also more likely to practice their religion than non-college graduates.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

quotations from Martin Luther King

The most revolutionary act you can engage in is to assert the full measure of your citizenship,
Martin Luther King, quoted by Ron Dellums

If you are a citizen, exercise your rights as a citizen. Demonstrate for what you believe in and vote for the people you support.

This is shameful! We worry about the wrong things!

Source: The Economist

Where is Bell Labs Now That We Need It?

Jon Gertner has an article in The New York Times based on his book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Bell labs personnel invented the transistor, fiber optics, the solar cell, and satellite communications among many other things. Gertner emphasizes the importance of well funded laboratories that put really good people together to work on ways to do useful things better or cheaper.

I had the opportunity in my first professional job as a research engineer to work in such a laboratory, and especially benefited from working directly under Pete Kelly, who later headed his own research lab. I also learned a lot from chances to ask questions of and interact with really senior scientists.

I was involved in a minor way in a study by the Office of Technology Assessment (killed by the Republicans) which led to a publication: Information Technology R&D: Trends and Issues. The study was occasioned by the breakup of Ma Bell, and the threat to Bell Labs which would no longer have the deep pockets of a national telephone monopoly to support it.

The National Institutes of Health represent the kind of facility that Gertner would like to see. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is another. I suspect that these days only a government can provide the kind of environment that Bell Labs once provided, but to do so it would have to have a strong commercial orientation, focusing on the development of "disruptive technologies".

Source of the image

From the Science and Engineering Indicators 2012

Source: National Science Board
"The United States remains the global leader in supporting science and technology (S&T) research and development, but only by a slim margin that could soon be overtaken by rapidly increasing Asian investments in knowledge-intensive economies.......According to the new Indicators 2012, the largest global S&T gains occurred in the so-called "Asia-10"--China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand--as those countries integrate S&T into economic growth. Between 1999 and 2009, for example, the U.S. share of global research and development (R&D) dropped from 38 percent to 31 percent, whereas it grew from 24 percent to 35 percent in the Asia region during the same time."

Worldwide, commercial KTI exports have grown faster than their KTI production, indicating increased globalization in these industries.
  • The export share of commercial KI production rose from 5% in 1995 to 8% in 2010 suggesting a modest rate of globalization. Advances in information and communications technology (ICT) and emerging capabilities in both developed and developing countries, such as India, are driving globalization of commercial KI services.
  • The export share of HT manufacturing production rose from 36% to 53% in 2006 before drifting downward to 50% in 2010.
The United States is the second-largest exporter behind the EU of commercial KI services and runs a large surplus. In HT goods, the United States has lost export share and faces a widening trade deficit.
  • The United States exported $290 billion of commercial KI services (business, computer and information services, finance, and royalties and fees), with a 22% share of global exports behind the EU's 30%. The Asia-8 and China are the next two largest exporters with global shares of 15% and 8%, respectively.
  • The U.S. trade surplus in commercial KI services rose from $55 billion in 2000 to reach more than $100 billion in 2009; during this same period, however, the U.S. trade deficit in HT manufacturing goods grew.
  • China's and the Asia-8's surpluses in commercial KI services have grown over the last decade to reach about $30 billion in 2009. The increase in the Asia-8's surplus reflects rising surpluses in computer and information services.
While the U.S. share of global HT exports declined, China became the world's largest exporter of HT goods.
  • The U.S. share of global HT exports rose from 19% to 22% from 1995 to 1998 before declining to 14%–15% during the period from 2003 to 2010 because of losses in communications and computers. The U.S. deficit in HT trade widened from $67 billion to $94 billion during the 2000s, driven by rising deficits in communications and computer goods.
  • China's share of global HT goods exports more than tripled, from 6% in 1995 to 22% in 2010, making it the single largest exporting country for HT products. China's trade surplus in these products increased from less than $20 billion in 2002 to nearly $160 billion in 2010, largely because of rising surpluses in computer and communications goods.
  • China's rise as the world's major assembler and exporter of many electronic goods is reflected in a sharp increase in China's share of imports of intermediate communications and computer goods originating from other Asian economies. Most of China's exports of electronics goods are destined for the United States, the EU, and Japan.

We actually want an economic convergence of poor countries toward rich countries in order to reduce the worst aspects of poverty. The Asia 8 have a huge portion of the world's poor.

We also want a convergence in knowledge generation -- at least in the sense of science -- since scientific knowledge benefits all. The convergence in fundamental research and development means that the other 95 percent of the world's population is beginning to pick up and do its share of global research.

We also know that in the field of computers, software and knowledge services represent the more expensive part as compared with hardware.

Still, we want to remain competitive in the global markets. We have been doing so in large part by importing talent from other countries. We should of course continue to offer opportunities to live and work in the United States to those talented people who bring their talent with them, but we need to get our own students to go into the economically productive fields. While we need young people to chose science and engineering in college, we also need K-12 to prepare kids better to want to go into science, technology and engineering fields in college and beyond. A recent report from the National Science Board has three sets of recommendations:

  • Provide opportunities for excellence.
  • Cast a wide net
  • Foster a supportive ecosystem
I would stress that neglecting the education of Blacks, Hispanics and the White underclass is a huge waste of talent that we increasingly need to develop.

Tax Freedom Days in Recent History

Source: The Tax Foundation
Tax Freedom Day is the day in the year when the GDP produced thus far is equal to the total federal, state and local tax bill for that year. When the governments are spending less than their tax revenue, the debt incurred will have to be paid in future taxes. The graph above shows both the Tax Freedom Days as usually calculated and with the current value of future taxes to pay off the deficit in the lighter colored line.

Only in the Clinton administration in the last 40 years was the regular day later than the adjusted day. That is, only briefly in the Clinton administration were tax revenues adequate to fund government expenses.

The huge problem caused by the Great Recession started in 2007 and the stimulus packages created to restart the economy are clearly visible. Our children will be paying a long time for the failure of regulation that led to the crash, bailout, and recession and its resultant stimulus.

On Reading Feifer's "The Great Gamble"

I just finished reading The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer. The book seeks to tell the story of the Soviet participation in the civil war in Afghanistan that took place in the last decade of the Soviet Union's existence.

As Feifer tells the tale, a Communist government in Kabul was in trouble in 1979, perhaps largely due to modernization policies much like those promoted by today's government, and asked for support from the Soviet Union. A few old men in the Kremlin decided to send troops in response, a decision that was rubber stamped by the nominal mechanism of the Soviet Government.

The decision in retrospect seems bizarre. Surely the decay of the Soviet institutions was the major threat to those decision makers, there seemed to be little importance to the USSR of Afghanistan, and those knowledgeable about Afghanistan realized how unlikely it was that military intervention would achieve Soviet goals at an acceptable cost to the USSR.

Feifer describes a very flawed Soviet military operation, poorly supplied, manned by conscripts, brutal to those conscripts, using weak tactics, that lasted for a decade. The intervention was for a while successful in that the Afghan government was able to increase the strength of its army, and Soviet economic aid brought some benefits to the Afghan economy. (I recall that the Soviet army played the major role in beating the armed forces of Nazi Germany in World War II, suggesting that it was capable of fighting well and hard even if it did so in ways that we Americans would not expect.)

On the other hand, according to Feifer, the Soviet military intervention was countered by supplies of equipment to the insurgents from Pakistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and even China. Moreover, tens of thousands of foreign fighters eventually entered Afghanistan to fight on the side of the insurgents.

Late in the war, very sophisticated equipment received by the insurgents turned the tide in the war, new leadership (by different old men) in the Kremlin tired of the war and turned their attention to more serious and more pressing issues, ordering an end to Soviet participation in the war.

The decade long war was disastrous for the Afghans, leaving their country a shambles.

The book made interesting reading. It is journalistic rather than historical writing in the sense that it is based very much on what participants told the author about the war, rather than on more formal sources used by professional historians. People tell reporters what they want to tell them, and even if they seek to tell the truth it is the truth as they see it and as they remember it.

I was an adult during the Soviet Afghan war, but I found that I wanted to know a lot more about Afghan culture than Feifer was going to tell me. That culture is very complex, with an urban-rural divide, a conservative-modern Islamic divide as well as a Sunni-Shiite divide, ethnic divides based on language and tribal identities, and a long history of feuds and internecine rivalries. Clearly Afghanistan is very poor, with problems of poverty more reminiscent of a land-locked African country than say those of Viet Nam or Iraq.

Similarly, I found myself wanting to know more about the relationships among the southern Soviet Republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Pakistan, Iran, China and India and Afghanistan. It would seem clear that not only do each of those countries have political interests in Afghanistan, but they have tendencies to support different groups within Afghanistan.

It is only in the last chapters of the book dealing with the aftermath of the war that Feifer mentions the disconcerting practice of the Afghans not only to make temporary deals with their enemies, but to change sides during campaigns or even during battles. This is a tendency that strikes me as similar to those of wars of a very distant past.

Feifer suggests that the inner circle of the Bush administration seems to have acted in 2001 much as the old men in the Kremlin did 22 years before, and that the Afghan people have come to dislike the NATO soldiers much as they came to dislike the Soviet soldiers. The British in the 19th century, if I understand history correctly, left Afghanistan to the Afghans unless and until they took some action that impinged negatively on the British, at which time they retaliated so strongly as to make those in power in Kabul think several times against such further actions. That might have been the better path for the United States in 2001.

I suggest others will enjoy the book, but read it as I did with access to the Internet at hand to help looking up appropriate references. I recommend especially "Afghan Ethnic Groups".

Afghan Ethnic Groups
Source: Debate Asia

The Riches Were Privatized and the Rags Were Socialized

I quote from an article by Andrew Haldane in the London Review of Books:
In 1989, the CEOs of the seven largest banks in the US earned an average of $2.8 million, almost a hundred times the annual income of the average US household. In the same year, the CEOs of the largest four UK banks earned £453,000, fifty times average UK household income. These are striking inequalities. Yet by 2007, at the height of the financial sector boom, CEO pay at the largest US banks had risen nearly tenfold to $26 million, more than five hundred times US household income, while among the UK’s largest banks it had risen by an almost identical factor to reach £4.3 million, 230 times UK household income in that year...... 
At the peak of the boom, the wealth of the average US bank CEO increased by $24 for every $1000 created for shareholders. They earned $1 million for every 1 per cent rise in the value of their bank. 
I recommend Haldane's article. It provides an interesting short history of banking in the United Kingdom as well as an explanation of the causes of the recent banking crisis and prescription for the future.

Source of image
It is interesting to recall that a couple of centuries ago, the people who started banks had unlimited liability. If they made loans on the basis of overvalued collateral and the loans were not paid, they bank owners still had to pay the depositors. But there was not insurance for the depositors, and if the bank lost more money than the bank owners had, driving the owners into bankruptcy, then the depositors lost out too. Not surprisingly, the owners were pretty conservative in the loans that they would make and depositors moved their deposits from banks that they thought were risky to those in which they had confidence. Limited liability stock companies and government depositor insurance took away a great deal of the risk in banking. Banks becoming too big to fail, leading to government bailouts also took away risk.

Bank managers, who typically had relatively little capital invested in their banks, got paid according to the profits of the bank. Not surprisingly, since high profits are linked to high risks (but the risks were not shared by depositors nor stockholders in the banks, much less bank managers) they made increasingly high risk investments. The government, which should have acted for the citizens who were now bearing the risks, did not regulate the banks to ameliorate those risks.

Of course, it helps an economy to have healthy banks which lubricate the economy, but the balance of the risks versus the gains got way out of line.

Friday, February 24, 2012

What has changed?

I have been reading The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer. Among other things, the book describes the provision of weapons to Afghanis by Russians, Americans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Saudis and Chinese during what was clearly a civil war. No one seems to have asked the United Nations if doing so was permissible.

I am watching the news as I write this, and apparently no one is willing to supply the people of Syria fighting against the Assad Government with weapons without some kind of multilateral authorization. The Russians don't seem to see any problem in supplying arms to the Assad Government.

What has changed? Was support for the anti=government participants in Afghanistan in the 1980s only due to the Cold War? It would seem that the people fighting against the Assad Government's troops are at least as worthy as the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Without comment

Never entrust the government to a politician with a one syllable name.
Rickmitt Ronnewt

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The USA has a long history of child soldiers.

The Washington Post today has an article about children serving in the Civil War, including the lad pictured above who is believed to have enlisted at age 9. These children apparently played an important role on the battlefield, serving as drummer boys who like buglers to provide communication between officers and their troops and serving as stretcher bearers. One wonders how many were killed in battle, how many were crippled for life, how many were wounded and how many suffered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world which has not ratified the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. I have been told that a major reason for failure to ratify is that the military wants to continue recruiting 17 year olds, and argues that it would be difficult to continue to have an all volunteer army if it was unable to recruit kids as they leave high school. (Apparently we do not send kids we know are less than 18 into combat.)

Given the damage that is showing up in our adult soldiers, sending boys of 18 into battle doesn't seem like a good idea. And indeed, a draft that ensured that all our families would share the cost of war more equally might be a good thing for the country.

We should ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Failing to do so indicates to the rest of the world that we are not serious about protecting human rights.

What are Virginia Legislators Thinking Of???!!!

The Virginia legislature is considering a bill that would require transvaginal ultrasound examinations for any woman seeking an abortion. Apparently the woman would not have to look at the scan results. Click here or here for more information.

Source: Mayo Clinic
Of course, a doctor and patient may determine that this procedure is appropriate for medical reasons, such as detection of potentially health threatening abnormalities. There is no possible reason that the state would be justified in requiring this procedure to be used for all women considering abortion. This is clearly an attempt by political activists to require an invasive procedure to discourage woman from seeking abortion or harassing women who do seek abortions.

Monday, February 20, 2012

500 Years of Female Portraits in Western Art

by Philip Scott Johnson

Women In Art

Music: Bach's Sarabande from Suite for Solo Cello No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007

performed by Yo-Yo Ma

Nominated as Most Creative Video 2nd Annual YouTube Awards

For a complete list of artists and paintings:


Created using Abrosoft Fantamorph

High resolution version:

Contact information:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Politicians don't make sense to me

Rick Santorum seems to think that energy consumption is a good per se. That is simply not true. It is better to have an energy efficient house than to pay more for heat and air conditioning to have the same comfort level in a house with poor energy efficiency. It is better to travel in a well tuned car getting good gas mileage than to travel in a gas guzzler with no advantage in safety or comfort. Energy is something that you pay for and use in order to achieve some end. If you can achieve the same end using less energy, that is all to the good. Moreover, there are external costs to using energy. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming which it a grave problem for future generations. Consumption of oil and oil products makes our balance of payments problem worse while increasing our dependence of foreign governments that control oil exporting countries.

A unnamed  White House official apparently thinks that the Congress has already passed the only important legislation for 2012. How about the federal budget for the fiscal year that starts in September 2012? That budget debate will define the way the government operates for a year. It is especially important because that budget debate will be the opening shot in determining the capabilities of the military after the ends of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in view of Arab Spring. It will also be significant in terms of the federal deficit, and thus the rate of growth of the economy, the rate of growth of the federal debt, and such things as the balance of payments deficit.

An unnamed Republican spokesman seems to think that small businesses generate employment. They also destroy jobs. The concern is the net employment growth rate.
For the U.S. private sector, the BDS show that the average annual gross job creation rate over the 2000-2005 period is 16.4 percent of employment and that the average annual gross job destruction rate over the same period is 15.1 percent. Hence, the net employment growth rate for the U.S. private sector in any given year is accounted for by some establishments growing at a high rate while another group of establishments are contracting at a high rate.  [CES pdf]
If you look at the local strip mall, whenever you see a new business occupying one of the buildings, it is because a business that once occupied that space is now gone. 

Appropriate Technology in a modern embodiment

The Appropriate Technology movement dates back, as far as I know, to Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher in 1973. The Schumacher Center still is in operation promoting low-cost, simple, rugged, environmentally benign technologies, embodied in an non-governmental organization, Practical Action. I was involved in the movement when under a grant that I administered the National Academy of Sciences published Appropriate Technologies for Developing Countries, part of a long series of books on underutilized technologies of potential use in developing nations. Volunteers in Technical Assistance, VITA, years ago threw out its archive of information on appropriate technologies, and has been reincarnated as Enterprise Works/VITA focusing on "enterprise-oriented solutions." I led a team that did an evaluation of an non-governmental organization which no longer exists called A.T. International.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Earthquakes in 2011 -- The display changed my view of the world!

The location and intensity of earthquakes of the year of 2011 plotted out on a map -- animated to show when they occurred, with louder sounds for more intense earthquakes. Following the map, there are frequency plots.

 The yellow spots left for each quake by the end of the year clearly show the major earthquake zones around the world. The data also clearly show the existence of aftershocks, but I thought they indicated clustering over very long distances.

This is a great display, showing how very powerful new data displays can be in conveying information.

I have a lot more sympathy for the Japanese after seeing this!

Views of the news bemuse

A couple of news stories caught my attention:

  • China's Vice President Xi Jinping is visiting the United States. News broadcasts seem bemused by the contrast between American concern for Chinese people and American differences with the policies of the Chinese government. There is a very long history of American concern for the Chinese people, going back long before World War II, and in that war China and the United States were allied against common enemies. While America has not completely gotten rid of prejudice it is much reduced in recent decades; the successes of Chinese Americans have convinced most of us of the value that they add to our society. Our current media phenom is basketball star Jeremy Lin. And yes, we do have differences with the policies of the Government of China, as we as individuals do with our own government and as our government does with the governments of such close allies as the United Kingdom and Israel.
  • I just saw a reporter for BBC News cut off a spokesperson for Save the Children who was explaining the very high child malnutrition and child mortality caused in recent year by the high price of food and the poverty of their parents, as shown in the new report A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling child malnutrition. Apparently the reporter thought that there were more important stories than millions of starving children. Really?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A nice video on nanotechnology

This is a nice short video. It is great on showing that very advanced materials can be produced by very simple means. Watch, but don't be fooled that really important commercial applications of graphene will be developed very quickly.

A few years ago I was asked by a very good chemist whether there would be any applications of nanotechnology other than in catalysis. I suspect that there will be important applications in electronics and electrical devices (such as solar cells). There may be sensors that will be important in other fields. There may be tiny machines with practical applications. There may be biomedical applications, essentially molecules designed with complex pharmaceutical functions.

Pity the Young Americans Starting Off in the Great Recession!

The Economist has an article which considers relatively little understood aspects of the current job market. The fundamental point is that the rate at which people are changing from one job to another (the churn) is way down.

Churn is a mechanism by which labour markets reallocate workers towards more efficient ends. In the typical job-to-job move (that is, without any intervening stint of unemployment) an American worker can expect a rise in wages of over 8%. This gain represents, at least in part, an improvement in productivity. As workers obtain skills and find better job matches, their output and earnings rise. And as firms obtain ever more suitable labour, they can afford to pay higher wages. In this way, the churning of the labour market contributes to growth in the potential output of the economy.
Individuals who graduate from college and enter the labour force during a typical recession can expect an initial earnings loss of about 9% (compared with what they might expect in normal circumstances). 
In the past, young Americans could expect to change jobs often and to see their earnings increase rapidly in those early years. Moreover, every new job a person gets during his/her lifetime is likely to have a rate of pay based on the person's then current rate of pay. Thus, if due to low starting pay and slower rates of changes of jobs, at the end of this recession people have a significantly lower rate of pay than they otherwise would have had, they can expect to have lower pay for the rest of their lives.

And of course, the unemployment rate is very high among the young in this Great Recession!

The plural of "anecdote" is not "data"

Source: Simon's Line in Web Design

The plural of datum is data.

The plural of anecdote is anecdotes.

Yet in some circumstances, sometimes found in anthropology or sociology, certain anecdotes are data.

Language is imprecise.

I can imagine that collecting and analyzing anecdotes in circulation about various candidates for the presidency, one could learn about their relative popularity, their strong points and their weak points as seen by the electorate. In such a situation, anecdotes might indeed be regarded as data.

"Data" is defined as "Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis."

"Anecdote" is defined as "A short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person." or "An account regarded as unreliable or hearsay."

The problem is that in our daily lives we hear anecdotes all the time, and frequently use these anecdotes to form opinions and guide actions. You hear from one friend that he had a bad experience at a local restaurant, and from another that he had a great experience at a different restaurant. Which do you visit next?

On the other hand, scientists seek to draw conclusions from experiments under controlled conditions, often replicated, and often designed to explore the relations between factors hypothesized to be causal and resultant. Still, there are descriptive sciences which depend on observations of "naturally occurring" phenomena. However, data differ from anecdotes in their purpose, the ways in which they are formed, and the quality of the observation.

Scientists get upset when people regard conclusions drawn from anecdotal evidence to be as good as conclusions drawn by the scientific community from scientific data.

How to Institutionalize Investigative Reporting in the Future

The Kojo Nnamdi Show on public radio had an interesting show on the future of investigative journalism, and links to the video shown above. Both raise the question of how muckraking journalism is to be institutionalized (and paid for) in the future. As newspapers are facing more and more competition from other media they are laying off reporters, and investigative journalism is expensive in reporter time as well as money.

The progressive movement in the United States a century ago was fueled by muckraking reporters and public interest in their articles exposing corruption in government and for profit organizations. It seems to me that we need very much to continue the tradition of investigative reporting, and I hope that all the existing ways that it is conducted continue in operation. But clearly, we need new approaches as well.

It is also important that we push for legislation requiring transparency in government, corporations and civil society. That would include required audits to assure that the information that is made available is credible. Making sure that credible information is readily available should help investigative reporters in their work of compiling and interpreting the data and communicating it to the public including to those in responsible positions who can resolve the problems that are uncovered and disclosed.

I suggest that the problem is different in poor nations than in affluent ones. The poor countries often have more need for investigative reporting to expose problems and make them known to the public, while they have less developed news outlets, and of course poverty.

The Center for Public Integrity and The Center for Investigative Reporting are doing investigative reporting, and represent new institutional models providing that function. These organizations are financed by foundations and by donations from the public. (I encourage such donations.) Perhaps we could see similar civil society organizations  I rather like the idea of stand alone investigative reporting centers, at least for some kinds of investigation.

Newspapers and magazines have been supported by subscriptions, and advertising. Commercial radio and television (including the news networks) have been supported by advertising, and public radio and television (which have very good news services in the United States) have government and foundation support as well as donations from the public. The USIA has government support for its international news services, as do public networks from many other countries. Internet news sources have been supported by advertising and by donated services. Reuters, Agence France Press, and United Press International are examples of news services which play the role of intermediary distributers as well as reporting services.

These illustrate the range of possible financial sources -- sale of news to other outlets, subscriptions, advertising, government and foundation grants, and donations from the public of funds and/or services. I would suggest that Wikileaks is another approach which makes information available to both the public and to reporters.

I rather like partnerships with schools of journalism, accounting, management, public administration (etc.) what would involve university students in investigative journalism under the guidance and supervision of experienced journalists. So too, internships might have an important role. Students make great interns, and learning skills of investigative reporting should be of value to students in many disciplines.

I would also note that crowd sourcing might be useful. In recent reporting exposing conflict of interests in Congressmen and the legislation that they sponsor, David Fallis of the Washington Post faced a daunting task of reviewing huge numbers of Congressional earmarks to determine which if any resulted in benefits for their proponents. This seems a great illustration of something that would be possible to achieve at low cost to the investigating organization through crowd sourcing.

I suspect that developing countries could use more help in developing and institutionalizing investigative reporting. UNESCO provides some assistance, with its very limited funding, training reporters, and UNESCO protests harm to reporters. Reporters Without Borders provides some help, such as fighting censorship and advocating the protection of reporters. Donor assistance in this area would have to be provided very carefully, since many governments would see outside governmental support for investigative reporting as a dangerous and improper intrusion into their sovereignty. Still, making funds available to organizations such schools of journalism, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting to enable them to meet with, cooperate with and assist colleagues in developing countries might be useful and appropriate.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Lets Devalue the Dollarec

If the dollar were worth less compared with other currencies, we would buy less from abroad, sell more to other countries, and indeed produce more for our domestic market. It would help employment and the economy.

Another reason to object to income inequality

Increasing inequality might be acceptable if it led to more income and more wealth for everyone. As it seems to slow growth of GDP, it is not only challenged on an ethical basis, but on a practical basis.

In his article "Study: Income Inequality Kills Economic Growth" in Mother Jones,  Josh Harkinson refers to recent data which adds to the credibility that more income inequality leads to less economic growth. Of course, there are other factors which seem to encourage (or discourage) growth, but income inequality seems significant. Note that the Latin American countries that have long been marked by income inequality have also not grown economically as fast as desired.

In general, one would assume that the longer growth spurts last (between economic contractions), the greater will be the long term growth of the GDP.

I quote from the article:

Marriner Eccles, the Depression-era chairman of the Federal Reserve (and an architect of the New Deal), blamed the Great Crash on the nation's wealth gap. "A giant suction pump had by 1929-1930 drawn into a few hands an increasing portion of currently produced wealth," Eccles recalled in his memoirs. "In consequence, as in a poker game where the chips were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the other fellows could stay in the game only by borrowing. When the credit ran out, the game stopped." 
Many economists believe a similar process has unfolded over the past decade. Median wages grew too little over the past 30 years to drive the kind of spending necessary to sustain the consumer economy. Instead, increasingly exotic forms of credit filled the gap, as the wealthy offered the middle class alluring credit card deals and variable-interest subprime loans. This allowed rich investors to keep making money and everyone else to feel like they were keeping up—until the whole system imploded.
I also worry about the political impact of the inequality, as the very rich (getting richer) use their economic (and increasing economic) power to buy political influence to protect and increase their wealth, often at the expense of the other 99 percent.

Why we should let the Bush tax cuts die

Source: "Its the Inequality, Stupid," Mother Jones
The graph shows that the Bush tax cuts brought taxes for millionaires to a level that has not been approached since the Hoover administration and the 1929 stock market crash. It also shows that during the period of very high economic growth in the United States form 1945 to 1965 millionaires were taxed at a much higher rate than they are now.

A Hypothesis to Compete with "Trickle Down"

The Government has made the rich richer, and what has trickled down is greed and debt, leading to economic crises.
Source: "Mind-Blowing Charts from the Senates Income Inequality Hearing," Mother Jones
Republicans suggest that the very rich, if they keep more income, will invest in job creating businesses and the benefits will trickle down.

Here is another hypothesis. The rich, as they get much richer invest in conspicuous consumption. It is the desire for more and better that trickles down. However, the rich will put a large part of their money to earning more money. They have done so by loaning money at high rates. Thus we have seen credit card debt, student debt, and other kinds of debt increase especially in the early years of the last decade. Indeed, we saw a huge increase in sub-prime mortgages as people were encouraged to buy houses (at inflated prices) that they could not afford. The result was a crash of the housing bubble, a crisis in the financial market, and the Great Recession!

Do you doubt that government policy has favored the rich. Check this out:
Source: "Mind-Blowing Charts from the Senates Income Inequality Hearing,Mother Jones

Eric Mazur: Memorization or understanding: are we teaching the right thing?

This hour long lecture is worth watching if you teach!

Mazur describes his experience teaching college physics to pre-med students at Harvard. These students have learned to take tests well, as shown by high school grades and SAT scores. Almost all will have taken not only high school physics but advanced placement physics courses in high school.

He found after several years of teaching, that a significant portion of the students had learned algorithms for solving certain kinds of physics problems, but had not mastered the concepts underlying the use of those algorithms. He has changed his manner of teaching, developing relatively simple multiple-choice questions to use in classes expose the common misconceptions among his students. they are such that when used in the course of a semester, a small plurality of the students will get the right answer, but many or perhaps most will get the wrong answer. He has students provide the answers using clickers. When all the answers are in, he has students work with neighbors with different answers to come to a joint response. These are much more likely to be correct.

The students are also required to read the class texts and have problem solving labs with teaching assistants, but no "lectures" as we normally understand the term. Instead Mazur's large classroom sessions are primarily devoted to small group discussions of conceptual issues.

Mazur, I think correctly points out that a primary job of the college professor is to help his students learn. Moreover, the learning we want is not short term memorization of material (that will be forgotten quickly when the course is over) but the learning of concepts that the student will be able to apply in other contexts.

The problem that I have with this lecture is how to apply it to teaching graduate students in my courses. I have been trying to teach students interested in international organizations how to understand them well. I find that a seminar method in which they present a lot of the content helps. I also like projects, with a faculty member or outside expert providing guidance to each small project team to be a help. Classroom discussions play a part. So can case studies. But I think I need to think more about what Mazur is saying!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Too many young people are out of work!

Selected unemployment indicators, seasonally adjusted

Characteristic Number of Unemployment rates
unemployed persons
(in thousands)
Jan. Dec. Jan. Jan. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec. Jan.
2011 2011 2012 2011 2011 2011 2011 2011 2012
Total, 16 years and over 13,919 13,097 12,758 9.1 9 8.9 8.7 8.5 8.3
16 to 19 years 1,479 1,316 1,324 25.4 24.5 24 23.7 23.1 23.2
16 to 17 years 538 501 539 27.8 26.3 25.2 23.3 27.8 28.8
18 to 19 years 937 826 788 24.1 23.2 23.2 23.4 21.3 20.5
20 years and over 12,441 11,781 11,434 8.4 8.4 8.3 8.1 8 7.7
20 to 24 years 2,305 2,221 2,050 15.1 14.6 13.9 14.2 14.4 13.3

The data above from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that young people 20 through 24 years are still suffering 13.3 percent unemployment. In the 18-19 age group, the rate is 20.5 percent. Things are getting better overall, and for young people (except the 16-17 year olds) but there are still too many out of work.

The teenagers should be in school. It makes little sense for them to be unemployed in such large numbers when they could be preparing to enter the work force in a better way at a later age.

The impact of having very high unemployment among people in their early 20s will be with us for a very long time. On the one hand, since pay increases with time on the job, they will have lower pay for many years. On the other hand, they may well lose the opportunity to learn good work habits on the job at entry level positions while being exposed to the risk of developing bad work habits while unemployed. Since I didn't finish school until I was 35, it seems to me that these folk too should be working on their education if they don't have a job.

On the other hand, I got my first job at 13, worked during high school, and worked all through college and graduate school. Working and going to school probably did me some good.