Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Romney aide admits new low

I quote from "Romney Camp Bets On Welfare Attack" by Ben Smith on Buzzfeed:

"Our most effective ad is our welfare ad," a top television advertising strategist for Romney, Ashley O'Connor, said at a forum Tuesday hosted by ABCNews and Yahoo! News. "It's new information." 
The welfare ad has been the center of intense dispute, with Democrats accusing Romney of unearthing old racial ghosts and Romney pointing out that the Obama Administration has offered states waivers that could, in fact, lighten work requirements in welfare, a central issue in Bill Clinton's 1996 revamping of public assistance. 
The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" awarded Romney's ad "four Pinocchios," a measure Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismissed. 
"Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers," he said. The fact-checkers — whose institutional rise has been a feature of the cycle — have "jumped the shark," he added after the panel.
Presumably the Romney campaign is not going to limit its campaign adds to things that they feel that they can defend as true.

The theme of this blog is Knowledge for Development. You should not be surprised that I find the comment above as the antithesis of the blog's purpose.

Note: Jump the shark:

a term to describe a moment when somethin that was once great has reached a point where it will now decline in quality and popularity. 
Origin of this phrase comes from a Happy Days episode where the Fonz jumped a shark on waterskis. Thus was labeled the lowest point of the show.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Where does all the computing power go? A scientific example.

Source: The Economist
NEON, the National Ecological Observatory Network, is being created with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation (using a Congress to earmark $434 million). The operating budget will be around $80m a year. The project is to monitor multiple sites in each zone with complex instrumentation for 30 years. The map above shows the way that the United States has been divided into ecological zones for the study.

I quote from the article in The Economist describing the study:
Crucially, these instruments will take the same measurements in the same way in every place. By gathering data in this standardised way, and doing so in many places and over long periods of time, Dr Schimel hopes to achieve the statistical power needed to turn ecology from a craft into an industrial-scale enterprise. The idea is to see how ecosystems respond to changes in climate and land use, and to the arrival of new species. That will let the team develop models which can forecast the future of an ecosystem and allow policymakers to assess the likely consequences of various courses of action....... 
When fully operational NEON is expected to generate 200 terabytes a year. That is four times as much as the Hubble space telescope, a reasonably big piece of science, churned out in its first two decades.
Of course, this implies huge data storage capacity and information processing capacity, not to mention the software necessary to reduce the data to representations that the scientists can interpret and study. I suspect that few countries could mount similar studies since few would have the money, the scientists, or the ICT capacity.

Why do land prices vary so much across the world?

Source: The Economist
I quote:
The price of land in America’s corn belt is ten times greater than in Canada’s main farming provinces, now among the cheapest places in the world to grow grain. In Argentina, the government’s unpredictability has undermined investor confidence. Political uncertainty in Russia and Ukraine (not shown) has also kept farmland prices low, even though those countries are among the world’s most fertile.
One would assume that the price of land should reflect the income that can be generated from the land. At some level, the higher the agricultural yield from the land, the higher the price should be for the land. Land which is improved, for example land supplied by irrigation, also is worth more than unimproved land.

As the quotation suggests, the greater the risk to profit from the land, the lower the price; political risk is one aspect, but climate risk would also be counted by the farmers.

Other factors go into producing crops, such as seeds and chemical inputs and labor. The higher the productivity of labor, all other things being equal, one would assume the higher the value of the land.

It is also the case that markets for products count. If food prices are controlled at low values (e.g. to keep urban consumers happy), then the price of land is likely to be low as well. As transportation costs for grains dropped during the 19th century, the price for locally produced grains fell in England. That led to a drop in the price of farm land in England.

Still one wonders why there should be more than a 30 to 1 ratio between the lowest and highest price of land in the table. Could it be that there is still a lot of agricultural land in the world that is not producing nearly as much food as it might due to lack of investment, lack of use of the proper inputs, lack of mechanization, lack of good management, and poor agricultural policy?

Thinking about standards for information quality

Maria Armoudian presented a book talk on Book TV in which she explained that she began the research for her book by reading peer reviewed journals. Peer review is a means for validating the truth claims in submitted journal articles. Note, however, that science involves not only peer review, but replication of results. Journal articles are withdrawn after publication when the reported results repeatedly fail to be replicated by other laboratories. Indeed, articles may be withdrawn after publication simply because there is convincing evidence brought forth of misconduct by the authors relating to that article.

Armoudian focuses on journalism. Good journalistic standards involve both ethical commitment to investigative reporting by the writers and serious editorial review combining fact checking, and the legitimacy of the framing of stories and of the conclusions that are drawn. She suggests, and I agree, that the New York Times does a pretty good job of maintaining good journalistic standards (although errors creep in), and that in the golden age of television journalism, ABC, CBS and NBS network news also did so.

She suggests that in cases of genocide, the local media abandoned such standards in favor of hate mongering, and that combined with other factors, the message from the media was accepted by the public empowering murderous rampage.

Today, the audience of the three major network news programs is on the order of one-third of that of the golden age and their news budgets are down. Many newspapers, threatened by the Internet, have cut staffs. Many of the media sources from which people are getting their news and their information seem to have abandoned accepted journalistic standards in favor of maximizing market share and advertising income.

How can we improve journalistic standards and adherence to them? Scientific journals are evaluated in part by citation analysis. The more frequently the articles from a journal are cited by scientists, the higher the rating of the journal. It is assumed that when authors cite an article it is because they have found it useful in further scientific research. A journal that publishes many such articles may be considered to publish "good stuff". I note that scientific laboratories are often judged in terms of the number of peer reviewed articles that they publish, weighted by the rating of the journals in which they are published.

One way to improve journalistic standards is to publicize clearly the independent evaluations of the journalism of different sources. Alternatively, one could aggregate evaluations of the individual stories from a newspaper, magazine, or network.

We now have legislation that has entertainment graded with age specific limitations. How about legislation that has articles or media carry required grades of the quality of their content?

We have a long history of requiring broadcast media to broadcast news, and of licensing stations or refusing licenses on the basis of the quality of the news services that they provide to the public. That policy was based on the fact that the broadcast spectrum was limited and was owned by the public. It was therefore a legitimate governmental function to allocate the spectrum to those who would best use it in the public interest. The governmental review itself encouraged high journalistic standards.

I would suggest that public attention is also limited. We do regulate speech, legislating against libel and slander. On the other hand, the movies avoided governmental regulation to assure child friendly content by self regulation.

"That's the way we've always done it" is not a powerful argument.

History suggests that the argument that "the right way to do something is the way we have always done it" is not always right. It was the argument for slavery, for denying women suffrage, and for the divine right of kings -- and we reject all of those positions now. Yet it seems clear that many people don't want to do things differently because they believe we have always done them as we do them now.

In argument about climate change and the actions to ameliorate climate change. people advocating dramatic new action should of course show the evidence and theory as to why action is needed and why their proposed actions will correct the situation. Those who oppose should either show evidence that climate is not going to change (not simply that that was not a problem in the past, nor that some variation in climate is natural and that the changes now being seen are not the result of human action) or should show evidence that the proposed efforts to reduce greenhouse gases will not produce the effect claimed by their proponents.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On reading 1938.

I just read 1938: Hitler's Gamble by Giles MacDonogh. The book is quite short. While the author has published several other books, I found myself often having to reread sentences to understand their content; there were some howlers. The book would have been greatly improved by better footnotes, appropriate maps, and an annex with brief bios of at least the key characters mentioned in the narrative. There are so many people named that I found it very difficult to keep track. The book seems to be badly titled, since the emphasis seems to be more about the plight of the Jews in German speaking Europe than on the key decisions being made by the Nazis during 1938.

This book addresses German history during a critical year. In 1938, the Nazis consolidated Hitler's domination of the German government, eliminating the power of the other coalition members. It was the year of the Anschluss in which Austria was absorbed into Germany. It was also the year in which Germany absorbed the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain signed the Munich agreement acceding to that action.

The Nazis at the time were preparing for war, rebuilding the German military machine. The Nazi regime was exhausting the German economy by the expenditures on militarization, by its grandiose building program, and by its poor economic policies. The addition of Austria and the Sudetenland to Germany supplied foreign exchange, money, and men for the army.

Hitler is described as having a long term plan -- absorbing Austria, then the Sudetenland, continuing the expansion of the Third Reich, and preparing for a major war of expansion. He is further described as attracting true believers and (with the help of Goering's propaganda machine) effective in speaking to the public. He could find deputies effective in implementing his programs, was quick to change those who proved a problem, and ruthless in suppressing opposition. And of course, his program was crazy in that it led to his country losing a major war, his party being destroyed, and his own suicide.

MacDonough portrays Hitler as removing himself increasingly from the normal duties of a chief of government during the year, eventually sleeping till noon, spending his awake hours reading thrillers and watching films, stressing his interests and time spent on the arts. In MacDonough's treatment, Hitler provides the ideology for the Nazi movement and its public face, while a core of followers runs the government in his name.

View of the destroyed interior of the Hechingen synagogue the day after Kristallnacht.
1938 also saw Nazi Germany ramp up the persecution of the Jews. MacDonogh emphasizes that the process was done in furtherance of Hitler's anti-Jewish policy, but also to fund its militarization by taking the wealth of the Jewish population, and to expel as many Jews from Germany as possible. Tragically, many nations limited the immigration of Jewish refugees leaving European Jews in terrible danger from the coming holocaust. On the other hand, a boycott of German exports conducted in protest to the German treatment of Jews was increasingly successful, further damaging the German economy.

I sympathize greatly with the Jews in Germany in 1938. I suppose that most of the adults at that time understood that they were in grave danger of losing their property and being driven out of their homes and indeed what they perceived as their country. On the other hand, I suppose that few if any could imagine the horror of the holocaust to come. In 1938, they must have been desperate to leave Germany and to find somewhere to establish a new life. Many found a way to move to a new country, learn a new language, and take up new jobs and professions; many found themselves in concentration camps by the end of 1938, subject to terrible treatment (but not yet by the gas chambers); many more were unable to find a way out leaving them to await the Nazis' "final solution" during the war. The horror of the holocaust was still to come, but the plight of the Jews in 1838 was itself terrible.

I suppose the major import of the book is that:
  • Thugs abound in countries even as cultured as Austria and Germany were in 1938, and if unleashed and encouraged by those in power, the thugs will terrorize those they hate. The Night of the Broken Glass in which thugs attacked and looted businesses and beat and killed Jews is the prototypical example of such a condition. As we have learned from other places and other times, genocide happens!
  • It is possible for people with crazy policies to take over the government of a highly civilized, democratic government, consolidate their power, and in implementing those policies destroy the country itself. Think of the rubble that was left to the Germans surviving World War II!
  • Such a nation with such a government can wreak huge damage on other nations. It is therefore appropriate for other nations to take preventive action. Britain, France, the USSR and the United States by opposing the Nazis might have enabled the German factions opposed to the Nazis to hold them in check. By opposing the Anschluss and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, they many have checked German expansionism.
MacDonogh does not make an important point, but many others have done so: the way that World War I was ended and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were perhaps fundamental causes of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and thus of World War II.  Certainly the allied leaders at the end of World War II were determined to create new international institutions (the United Nations, the Breton Woods institutions) that would be more effective than the League of Nations in preventing future world wars. President Roosevelt insisted that World War II end with the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers. President Truman's administration took the unprecedented step of creating a Marshall Plan to rebuild the economies and political systems of the conquered nations, beginning their economic recovery and restoring them to the community of nations.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A thought about thinking

I understand that neuroscientists have not solved the problem of how the brain combines information from different sensory inputs. For example, how does the brain recognize that a sound and a sight are related and use inputs from the two to help interpret each.

I suppose that this ability is important for survival and thus selected for by evolution. An animal hears a sound and looks to see if a predator is approaching. Eyesight is more precise in locating things but it is possible to hear things one can not see.

I note that the human brain devotes a great deal of processing capacity to faces. This is true for animal faces, face-like images, but especially for human faces. While there is considerable variance in the number of faced recognized by different people, the average person recognizes a great many faces and can do so not only in person, but in a video or a photograph -- even without color.

The human brain also devotes a great deal of processing capacity to language. I suppose that this too is a facet of our evolution as a species of social beings.

I was thinking about these things when a ventriloquist appeared on TV with her dummy. My brain combined the video of a human head with a very quiet mouth and a dummy head with the mouth moving to the speech to perceive the dummy to be talking. My mind recognized that people talk and dummies don't. I suppose that divergence is somehow entertaining.

Then I realized that the sound was coming from the television speakers, not from either the human nor the dummy. My brain seems to identify speech coming from a general direction with "the most probable source" in that general direction.

There followed on the TV a clip that showed President Correa of Ecuador speaking in Spanish, but broadcast the English translation. The difference between what I was hearing and what the person was mouthing turns out to be annoying. There is the same annoyance watching a dubbed foreign film. My mind recognizes what is happening but my brain can't make the link it seeks to make between vision and hearing.

I guess we think with our minds and our brains, although our minds must be one of the functions of our brains.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Understanding UNESCO's Evolution

While many of UNESCO's founders and some of its Directors General have seen the Organization as embodying a philosophy of humanism, its portfolio, Secretariat and extended networks of partners can best be understood as having evolved through legislative and social processes, yet it has significantly achieved the hopes of its founders.

Students beginning the study of UNESCO are surprised by the diversity of its activities. For example, UNESCO has a key role in the Education for All program and the Millennium Development Goals for education, and also works in literacy and lifelong learning, but it also plays a key role in the development of a global tsunami warning system, supports a global network of bioreserves, is responsible for the international convention against the illicit market in historical artifacts and the international convention against doping in sports, and supports international work in support of libraries and protection of reporters.

Other decentralized agencies of the UN system such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Postal Union or the International Telecommunications Union have charters which more obviously impart coherence to their programs; in comparison, UNESCO seems to lack a central organizing philosophy.

UNESCO was founded in the aftermath of World War II and it was seen as the complement of the United Nations. The UN and its Security Council were seen as a political means for the prevention (or amelioration) of armed conflicts in the future. UNESCO was seen as focusing on changes in societies that would in turn change the way in which people thought, changes that would make war less and less likely.

There clearly was no charter for UNESCO to favor one world religion over another, nor was there a charter for UNESCO to favor Capitalism, Communism nor Socialism as an economic system. The preamble to the UNESCO Constitution states:
That the great and terrible war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races;

That the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern;
While UNESCO could focus on "democratic principles", no agreement could have been presumed that UNESCO would militate against the political system of the USSR, nor that of the United States, nor against the constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom, nor indeed against the empires then held by Great Britain, France, and Portugal.

How then was UNESCO to accomplish its fundamental purpose? It was
to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations.
Various people have seen an implied philosophical position that would serve as a basis for more specific actions such as the proposal of initiatives for UNESCO that would be strongly related to its purpose or to the exclusions of less relevant initiatives. Thus Julian Huxley, UNESCO's first Director General, proposed that UNESCO promote "Scientific Humanism" while Irina Bokova, the current Director General, has proposed a "New Humanism for the 21st Century":
The major challenge is to turn the crisis into an opportunity and create a more democratic and humane world where the values of human dignity and human rights, of equal access to education and culture, will underpin all economic and political considerations.
Such a fundamental philosophical position is no doubt useful for the Director General of UNESCO, occupying a position with considerable power and authority over the program of the Organization.

However, it is also important to recognize that UNESCO operates on a charter that was a compromise developed by the representatives of very different countries with very different histories and interests. Moreover, it has been subject over almost seven decades to the instructions of its governing bodies composed of the representatives of its member states.

These instructions have reflected changes in global understanding of culture and society, and the political winds of the Cold War , decolonization and globalization as well as of smaller wars, economic crises. Not only has the number of member states changed, but the balance has away from imperial powers to new states that have emerged from political or economic imperialism, and so the interests of the majority of representatives to the General Conference and Executive Board also have changed.

UNESCO's portfolio has evolved over time reflecting the interests of its leadership and Secretariat, the initiatives of key outsiders (who have championed specific initiatives -- see this for a list of some of the American influentials), the interests of the governments member states and their representatives to UNESCO bodies, the adhesion and expansion of networks that associated with UNESCO's programs, and the interests of international and national educational, scientific, cultural and communications communities.

That evolution has been marked by a continuity as the Organization continued programs, activities and networking that had once been started, but also by change as from time to time new initiative have been added to the mix and less often as older efforts have been stopped -- either spun off as successful and able to stand alone or as unsuccessful and not competitive with other demands for limited resources. While not perfect, that evolution has been focused both by adherence to the UNESCO Constitution and by the guidance of Directors General who often shared key elements of a vision for UNESCO.

The result of this politicized program evolution is not a bureaucrat's dream but all in all it must been seen as having significantly realizing the hopes of UNESCO's founding fathers. The very modest resources assigned to UNESCO have been used to promote education, science and culture, focusing often on societies that have in fact been especially receptive to increasing humanism in their philosophical basis, and resulting in a more peaceful world with better understanding among peoples and more dialog among cultures.

It is time for the United States to recognize this reality and modify its foreign policy as it relates to support for UNESCO.

The United States and UNESCO: An Anecdotal History

The United States played a key role in the founding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). During its history, Americans have played important roles in defining programs for UNESCO: examples are Philip Coombs in the foundation of the International Institute for Educational Planning (1960s), Roger Revelle in the creation of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (1960s), Raymond Dasmann in the creation of the Man in the Biosphere Program (1960s and 70s), Russell Train in the creation of the World Heritage program (1970s), and James Billington in the creation of the World Digital Library (2000s). Yet the United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984, almost crippling the organization in the process. It rejoined UNESCO in 2003 and has remained (but is currently withholding its financial contributions to the Organization).

U.S. participation has depended on the climate of the Cold War, on the heat of the North-South debate, and on the perception of U.S. interests in the War on Terror. That participation has been the subject of debate within the United States -- a portion of the culture wars in which conservatives have often expressed opposition to and progressives support for UNESCO. Generally, there has been more support for UNESCO in Democratic administrations and less in Republican administrations.

Prehistory: After World War I, the League of Nations was created, a forerunner of the United Nations. Despite political refusal of the U.S. Government to join the League, the U.S. civil sector turned special attention to cultural issues in world affairs, primarily in education and science.

The League’s International Cooperation Committees (ICCs) in every country included a U.S. privately-organized and funded ICC, located at Columbia University, which enlisted giants of intellect among its members. World War II cut off this activity.

Included in the League was the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, which included such leading intellectuals of the day as Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Mann, Paul Valéry, Salvador de Madariaga and Béla Bartok. The secretariat of the Committee, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) was established in Paris.

The International Bureau for Education (IBE) was organized is Switzerland with the participation of several governments. It also functioned in the inter-war years, The United States and Britain did not participate in but France and other European nations did, and the IBE formed one of the bases for UNESCO.  Both the IIIC and the IBE were incorporated in UNESCO at its founding.

Planning for UNESCO During the War Years: In London exile, a Committee of Allied Ministers of Education (CAME) began meeting in 1940 to plan for the reconstruction of education systems when the war ended. The Department of State’s Sumner Welles sent a delegation in May 1944 to participate in the CAME deliberations; the delegation was headed by William Fulbright, then a Congressman who would later become Senator from Arkansas in 1945, the creator of the Fulbright Fellowships program. He was assisted by Archibald MacLeish, an intellectual who had lived in France and spoke fluent French, who during his life was a lawyer, poet, playwright, Librarian of Congress, and Assistant Secretary of State. (Macleish won three Pulitzer Prizes, a Tony and an Academy Award.)

The Allied Ministers elected Rhodes Scholar Fulbright to the chair; he and his delegation promptly expanded the discussion to the post-war rebuilding of education, not only in Europe but everywhere. The Preparatory Commission for the program of UNESCO received reports from committees dealing with education, social science, natural science, mass media, libraries, museums, the fine arts, and letters and philosophy. Joseph Needham (U.K.) saw the initiative as a vehicle for his hopes to create an intergovernmental organization to help build scientific capabilities worldwide, and started to build support for the S to be added to UNESCO.

William Benton should also be mentioned in this history. He had been a founder of the Benton and Bowles advertizing agency, a pioneering enterprise in the use of media. He was also publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, who was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs in 1945 and served in that post until 1947. One must assume that he was influential in assuring that UNESCO would include a focus on Communication. Benton went on to be a United States Senator and later Ambassador to UNESCO (1963-1968).

The United States had unprecedented influence at this time. President Roosevelt had given high priority to the establishment of international organizations replacing the League of Nations -- organizations that would seek to prevent future world wars. World War I had resulted in some 15 million deaths and World War II perhaps an additional 70 million. Many nations were decimated by the war, their economies in ruins. Alone among the great powers, the United States had emerged from World War II with its farms and factories in full operating order; it has been estimated that the United States was producing half of the world’s goods and services at the time. Moreover, the United States had played a key part among the Allies in winning World War II, providing both its logistic support and millions of troops.

The Founding of UNESCO: While the United Nations was established to deal with political issues, including the Security Council, and the Breton Woods organizations to deal with economic issues, the decision was made to create UNESCO to deal with intellectual issues. In the phrase of Archibald MacLeish, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that we must begin to build the defenses of peace.” Thus UNESCO was charged with a broad charter to work through education, science, culture and communications to build those defenses.

In November 1945, representatives of 37 countries signed UNESCO’s constitution, and the organization came into operation in November 1946 following ratification by 20 signatories. Back home, newly elected Senator Fulbright enlisted bipartisan support for two Senate Resolutions (1944, 1945) – one pledging to support a multilateral educational agency for the world. The idea succeeded because of the bipartisan leadership of Fulbright and “Mr. Conservative,” Ohioan Robert A.Taft.

In the preparation for UNESCO, in spite of the difficulties in the war years, nine major meetings were held around the United States to acquaint American leaders with the idea of UNESCO and to seek the advice and consent of the public for the ideas. The Congress passed authorizing legislation for the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, calling for up to 100 members, with a unique element that three-fifths of the members would be nominated by non-governmental organizations (and appointed by the Secretary of State). The NatCom was to advise the Government on UNESCO policy, to represent U.S. educational, scientific and cultural leaders in UNESCO deliberations, and to link UNESCO programs with the U.S. intellectual communities. Initially headed by Milton Eisenhower, university president and brother of General (soon to be President) Eisenhower, the NatCom had a very distinguished membership. Milfton Eisenhower also served as a member of the UNESCO Executive Board in 1947.

Controversial Beginnings: The organization has been controversial. The United States denied efforts to make it the vehicle for post-war aid to Europe, preferring to program reconstruction aid bilaterally through the Marshall Plan. There were fundamental cultural differences between Anglo-Saxon and European continental approaches to education and culture.

Julian Huxley
The first Director General of UNESCO was Julian Huxley. The Grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, an agnostic known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of the theory of evolution, Julian Huxley was a zoologist distinguished for his synthesis of Darwinian evolutionary theory with genetics. He had a close association with the British secular humanist movement and was known for his left wing political views. A member of a distinguished family, including his brother, novelist Aldus Huxley, and his half brother, Nobel Laureate biologist Andrew Huxley, Julian had headed the London Zoo and served on a commission seeking sites for universities to be created in British Africa.. Later he served as President of the British Eugenics Society and was a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund. Few people would have been more likely to draw the opposition of the conservative side of the American culture wars, and his term of office was limited to two years (rather than six) at the initiative of the United States.

Joseph Needham, the first Assistant Director of UNESCO in charge of its natural science program, was perhaps equally likely to draw American conservative fire. He was a distinguished biochemist who left his post at Cambridge University to serve as the head of the Sino-British Scientific Cooperation Office in China during World War II. Needham served in UNESCO until 1948, returning to Cambridge where he embarked on an encyclopedic study of the history of science and technology in China, a study that radically revised Western understanding of that history. Needham was also well known for his leadership in British nudism, lived in a ménage a trios with his wife and Chinese former graduate student. He was closely associated with the Chinese Communist government, and had been involved in studies which charged American use of biological warfare against the Communists in both World War II and the Korean War.

Alliances in the Cold War

The Cold War: At the founding of UNESCO, there were disputes between the Soviet Union and the United States about membership. Eventually negotiation achieved a settlement in which Argentina (whose membership was supported by the United States and opposed by the USSR) was admitted to UNESCO membership, and the Government of Poland in exile (whose membership was also supported by the United States and opposed by the USSR) was denied membership.

UNESCO, like other agencies of the United Nations system, became a venue for Cold War activity. The Soviet Union did not become a member state until 1954 in a deal that allowed satellite nations of the Ukraine and Belarus also join. In 1952–54 Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia temporarily withdrew from the Organization. From 1954 until the fall of the USSR in 1991, the United States continued to confront USSR Communist ideology in UNESCO for a with American democratic-free market ideology.

During the McCarthy era, the United States government put pressure on UNESCO to fire U.S. citizens suspected of Communist leanings. Luther Evans, the American former Librarian of Congress who served as UNESCO Director General from 1953 to 1958, was forced to let go from the Organization seven Americans charged with Communist sympathies. (John W. Taylor became Deputy Director-General of UNESCO in 1950 and was appointed acting Director General upon the resignation of Jaime Torres Bodet in 1952. Evans had served on the Executive Board from 1949 to 1953.)

The first person to be designated U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO was Athelstan Spilhaus who served as the U.S. representative to the UNESCO Executive Board from 1954 to 1958. Born in South Africa, a U.S. citizen after 1946, Spilhaus was a distinguished scientist who worked in meteorology, oceanography and cartography and an inventor. He is estimated to have reached 12 million people a week with his comic strip providing education on scientific matters, and was the father of the Sea Grant program creating centers of excellence in oceanography in American universities. Thus he continued the sequence of distinguished Americans involved in UNESCO.

North South Issues: Later UNESCO became a venue for North-South controversy. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, UNESCO membership began to expand rapidly with newly independent countries. Membership continues to expand, with consequent changes in the worldview and program priorities of UNESCO members.

In UNESCO, as in the United Nations system as a whole, governance is based on one-nation, one-vote, while contributions are assessed by a formula based on the Gross Domestic Product of the member state. Thus China with its huge population has the same voting power as a small island nation, and the United States, paying 22 percent of UNESCO’s assessed budget has the same voting power as a member state paying almost no assessed contribution. The budget of UNESCO continued to grow over several decades, and so too grew the U.S. assessed contributions, while the influence of the United States in the General Conference and Executive Board fell. There was obvious consternation in the U.S. Government over these trends.
Myrna Loy

Howland H. Sargeant is the only U.S. citizen to serve as the Chairman of UNESCO's General Conference, in 1961. A former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and President of Radio Liberty, Sargeant brought his wife, actress Myrna Loy with him to Paris -- no doubt as a major aid in gaining the attention of the other delegates.

The Constitution of UNESCO gives great power to the Director General. Of the first six Directors General, two were from the United States and three were from Western Europe. The sixth was from Mexico, distinguished for the literacy program that he headed when Minister of Education in that country, and elected when the General Conference met in Mexico in 1947. In 1974, Amadou M’Bow from Senegal became Director General. This proved to be a culture shock for the American government and the American Ambassador to UNESCO, Jean Gerard (a political appointee who had received her law degree four years before her appointment as Ambassador). Some describe a cultural divide between the French educated M’Bow and American diplomats, others describe concerns over the transparency and efficiency of his administration of the Organization.

In the 1970s, there was a move of developing nations at the United Nations in support of a New International Economic Order. While many nations had achieved political freedom, many nations were still mired in an economic system in which they exported raw materials to metropolitan countries at low prices and imported products and services from those metropolitan countries at high prices; political freedom had not come with economic prosperity and poverty was endemic. The concern for a new order expanded to include proposals for a New International Information Order; countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America were getting their news from AP/UPI, Reuters and AFP which paid little attention to their events or views.

Sean MacBride
UNESCO appointed a high-level committee headed by Sean MacBride to study communications, focusing not only on the concerns of the developing nations but also on the changes in the media that were appearing on the horizon. MacBride, an Irish lawyer and politician who was a founding member of Amnesty International, had received the Nobel Peace for his work for human rights. His name is associated with the MacBride Principles for international firms doing business in Northern Ireland. The son of a father who was executed for his part in the Irish Easter Uprising and a mother who was a famous Irish nationalist, MacBride was early in his career the Chief of Staff for the Irish Republican Army.
The report of the committee, now widely known as the MacBride Report, has been increasingly well regarded in the decades since it was issued, but it was rejected by the developing country representatives to UNESCO who substituted their own report for discussion in a UNESCO General Conference. The debate was controversial, and was widely covered (negatively) by the international press.

In 1973, the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO added some star power as Shirley Temple joined the Commission. Long after her career as a child actress, having already served as a U.S. representative to the United Nations, Shirley Temple Black was conversant with both multialteral diplomacy and the arts.

Representatives of the conservative Heritage Foundation had long advocated U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO. They gathered strength from a number of factions, including some concerned with the impact of UNESCO on U.S. education, others concerned with threats they perceived to U.S. sovereignty, and still others concerned with the political tone of UNESCO debates. They also developed a collegial relationship with conservatives in Margaret Thatcher's United Kingdom.

In 1983, conservative forces in the United States used the controversy over the New International Information Order as well as concern for the efficiency of UNESCO to successfully lobby for U.S. withdrawal, and the U.K. and Singapore followed suit the following year. UNESCO, losing a third of its budget, managed to survive and moved steadily forward, but more slowly and without U.S. leadership.  U.S. NGOs, especially in science, ignored the withdrawal and maintained close relations, but American political leadership for most areas of UNESCO cooperation was paralyzed.

Israel-Arab Debates: The state of Israel came into being with the support of the United States and by a vote in the United Nations. With the creation of Israel, came the prototypical UNESCO problem. There have been three wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the conflict has simmered for decades in the failure of the parties to find a solution recognizing the rights of Palestinians and Israelis as they view those rights. Points of conflict have included the intangible heritage of peoples, world heritage sites, importantly those in Jerusalem, the history of peoples, the ways in which children are taught in schools about the conflict, and the control of natural resources. Debates on the conflict have taken place in academia and the media. UNESCO’s efforts to promote a culture of peace, dialog among civilizations and dialog among religions all come to play.

Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria have been members of UNESCO since 1946, Israel since 1949 and Jordan since 1950, so the Arab-Israeli situation has been on the UNESCO agenda since the inception of the organization. (The Palestinian people have an observer status.) As the number of member states of UNESCO has increased, the Arab nations have added supporters from Africa and Asia in the UNESCO forums. The United States has been a continuing ally, sometimes in a small minority, of Israel in those forums. In general, the debate in UNESCO has been reasoned, and the parties amenable to finding solutions that were not destructive to the Organization and helpful to the parties. Yet the Arab-Israeli controversy has been a continuing preoccupation of the U.S. delegations to UNESCO.

Palestine was admitted as a member state of UNESCO in 2011,. When the Palestine Liberation Organization first proposed admission two decades before, the U.S. Congress put a "poison pill" into law calling for the United States Government to withhold its contributions to UNESCO were Palestine to become a member. In spite of the provision and after a contentious debate, the General Conference in an unusual split vote, did admit Palestine. Currently, contributions are being withheld.

While out of UNESCO: Although the United States was not a member of UNESCO between 1984 and 2003, U.S.-UNESCO relations did continue. There was a small State Department monitoring group, and many agencies of the U.S. Government continued in touch with the relevant UNESCO programs. Similarly, many U.S. non-governmental organizations continued to have strong interest in and  linkages with UNESCO. The State Department legal staff concluded that those UNESCO international conventions and agreements that the United States had ratified remained in effect, and they continued to be implemented.

Americans for the Universality of UNESCO was active during this entire period. Jack Fobes, an American who had been the Deputy Director General of UNESCO and later the head of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, organized AUU with the dual purpose of advocating the return of the United States to UNESCO and of providing a source for information on and experience with UNESCO when it should be needed. AAU has since been renamed Americans for UNESCO, and continues in operation.

Reagan administration attitudes towards UNESCO continued quite negative after the withdrawal. In the latter part of the Clinton administration the State Department conducted a review of UNESCO which found significant improvements in its administration. Moreover, UNESCO Directors General Federico Mayor (1987-1999) and Koichiro Matsuura (1999-2009) had been seen as far more acceptable in terms of U.S. interests. It had been thought that the Clinton administration would call for reentry into UNESCO, but that did not happen.

The politics of East-West relations, North-South relations, and Israeli-Arab relations were all tangled in a complex web. The U.S. and the USSR would often be found on different sides of issues, such as those in relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors or the New World Information Order. Each sought allies in UNESCO debates from emerging nations.

Post 9/11: As the George W. Bush administration prepared for the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, the White House was searching for a positive initiative that the President could make in his major address to the United Nations General Assembly; reentry to UNESCO fit the bill. With both an initiative from a President at the height of his popularity and support from Democrats in Congress (notably Tom Lantos), reentry sailed through domestic politics.

Laura Bush
The Bush administration appeared to have an inconsistent approach to UNESCO. First Lady Laura Bush took an active role in the Organization, serving as an Honorary Ambassador for UNESCO, leading an important initiative in support of UNESCO’s literacy programs, and hosting a level meeting; a Laura Bush Travel Fellowship was created to be administered by the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. On the other hand, the reconstituted U.S. National Commission for UNESCO was limited to providing advice to the Bush administration, and then only on request for such advice. The long-standing U.S. Committee for the Man and the Biosphere Program was dissolved. The Bush administration was adamantly opposed to a proposed Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Heritage, casting a lone vote against the Convention and against the funding for the secretariat to administer the convention in the General Conference of 2005. Ambassador Louise Oliver also created a controversial policy that all contact between the UNESCO secretariat and U.S. based organizations were to pass through the State Department, reversing a long established policy of openness. On the other hand, UNESCO proved a valuable ally in promoting educational reforms in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the SESAME project was a valuable initiative establishing scientific linkages between Israel and its Islamic neighbors.
Jill Biden

The Obama administration was involved in the 2009 election, reputedly working behind the scenes to oppose the election of the Egyptian nominee who was on the record as opposed to cultural exchanges with Israel and who stated that he would personally burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries. Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Biden, herself an educator, has played a visible role in UNESCO higher education activities. There have been unprecedented reciprocal visits between the UNESCO Director General Bokova and Secretary of StateClinton, Ambassador David Killion has embarked on a move visible program with UNESCO, while the National Commission, which had languished in the latter days of the Bush administration is being revived and its mission expanded. UNESCO continues to play an important role in its fields of competence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, indirectly supporting U.S. foreign policy interests in those countries. The Obama administration has requested that the law requiring that contributions be withheld from UNESCO (due to its admission of Palestine as a member state) be revised to allow the President to waive the provision if such funding is found to be beneficial to U.S. foreign policy objectives.

The number of Americans on the UNESCO staff, especially in senior positions was reduced in the  period in which the United States was not a member; that number has begun to increase, but the United States still has fewer staff members than its population would justify. Peter Smith, appointed Assistant Director General for the Education Sector shortly after the United States return to the Organization, proved controversial and he resigned from UNESCO in 2007. The second senior appointment of an American to UNESCO, Gretchen Kalonji the Assistant Director General for the Natural Science Sector, appears to be better accepted.

As this is written, the relations between the United States and UNESCO are again on rocky grounds. The United States iz withholding its contributions to the Organization. Some non-governmental organizations militate continuation of that policy. Non-governmental organizations have also militated against UNESCO awarding a science prize named for an African dictator, another topic that has come up in several recent meetings of the Executive Board. Withholding the U.S. 22 contributions to UNESCO has caused the Organization significant financial problems. If withholding continues, the United States will lose its vote in the 2013 General Conference.

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova
Concluding Remarks: Today UNESCO has 195 member states and seven associate members, and an annual budget in excess of $500 million (in assessed contributions and extra-budgetary funds). This is a remarkably small and tight budget with which to fulfill its large and expanding mandate. Its staff includes some 2,000 people, about one-third of whom are located in 58 field offices around the world. Unique among U.N. agencies, there is a National Commission linked to UNESCO in each member state, including in the United States. There are UNESCO Centers with more or less direct connections to the organization, and networks of World Heritage Sites, Bioreserves, Geoparks and Wetlands catalyzed by and linked to UNESCO. There are also networks of UNESCO chairs in universities, some 3,700 UNESCO clubs around the world, and 8,000 associated schools.

Looking back over its first six decades—two of them without the United States – impressiveachievements can be attributed to UNESCO’s efforts. The prospects of world war with weapons of mass destruction have receded, perhaps in part due to UNESCO’s efforts to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men.

  • In education, consider worldwide progress has been made since 1946 in literacy, in school access and participation rates (Education for All), in science education, in the schooling of women and girls, in the free flow of cultural materials and books, in the upgrading of educational planning and analytic tools, in teacher training, in the growth of school libraries, in continuing education, in “non-formal” education, in the use of education media and information technologies, in improved educational statistics, in standardization of student credentials, and in the greatly increased international perspectives of most universities. 
  • In the natural sciences, UNESCO helped with the creation of the European Nuclear Center (CERN) where the World Wide Web was invented; UNESCO operates the Trieste Institute for Theoretical Physics; UNESCO’s oceanographic and hydrographic programs are mapping the Indian Ocean and building early-warning systems for tsunamis and producing agreements on interconnected water use and management; UNESCO supported the Human Genome Project (1997), the formulation of national science policies, science and technology education, the Man in the Biosphere project (MAB, 1970), and applying science and engineering to socio-cultural change. 
  • In the social sciences, the world has been forced to look more closely at human rights, reliable statistics, and the free flow of information; 130 nations have ascribed to the Convention on Doping in Sports. 
  • In culture, UNESCO’s flagship World Heritage Convention, introduced by the U.S. in 1972 after UNESCO led the celebrated rescue of the Abu Simbel monuments; member states have now voluntarily guaranteed the protection of 890 World Heritage sites around the world. UNESCO has labored for decades on a general history of Africa and on the documentation of Silk Routes between Asia and Europe.  
  • In communications, UNESCO has assisted in the growth of libraries (including the new Biblioteca Alexandria – a modern Alexandria Library) and book production and translations, while monitoring the growth of the Internet. It has become a major worldwide guardian protecting journalists and press freedom, trivializing the fears of 1983. UNESCO is beginning to face the social, educational and economic reasons behind the dangerous Digital Divide, is quietly looking into the intellectual roots of terrorism, and is attacking the idea of “clashing civilizations” through cross-cultural dialogue.
Millions of Americans each year visit sites in the United States and abroad that have been designated as World Heritage sites. American educators, scientists and cultural leaders continue to be involved in UNESCO programs. Networks catalyzed by UNESCO, such as its Associated Schools and University Chairs, include American institutions and individuals. Indeed, UNESCO’s influence extends far into American society.

American foreign policy tends to focus on security and economic issues. Our security these days requires promotion of a culture of peace, a dialog among religions, and understanding among nations – all UNESCO specialties, As Dick Arndt has written, cultural diplomacy is “the first resort” of kings. In that sense, UNESCO is a first resort in building international understanding valuable for both our security and our economy, albeit a resort that is poorly recognized not only by the public but by many American professional diplomats. American foreign policy is increasingly having to deal with what one might consider to be global systems problems, such as environmental degradation, communicable diseases, international migration. Here too, UNESCO is a valuable multilateral tool of our diplomacy

In sum, UNESCO is an enormously complex institution, both in its means and in its ends. No one fully masters all the intricacies of its history, its programs, and its operations, but students find it challenging and rewarding to attempt to do so. The United States was a central and influential player in its creation. Distinguished American intellectuals played an important role in the Organization in its first four decades. However, there were factions in the United States who opposed U.S. membership in the Organization, and those factions succeeded in the atmosphere of the early 1980s in convincing the Reagan administration to withdraw from UNESCO. Factions favorable to UNESCO, in the post 9/11 atmosphere, convinced the Bush administration to rejoin UNESCO. American participation in the Organization involved political officials in the White House and Congress, professional diplomats and government functionaries in many government agencies, leaders of non-governmental and private sector organizations involved in partnerships with UNESCO, and members of America’s educational, scientific, cultural and communications communities.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Nocebo Effect

A nocebo effect is the induction of a symptom perceived as negative by sham treatment and/or by the suggestion of negative expectations. A nocebo response is a negative symptom induced by the patient’s own negative expectations and/or by negative suggestions from clinical staff in the absence of any treatment.

DERIC BOWNDS (From Deric Mownds' Mindblog)
Here is one of the examples he cites:
 a team of Italian gastroenterologists asked people with and without diagnosed lactose intolerance to take lactose for an experiment on its effects on bowel symptoms. But in reality the participants received glucose, which does not harm the gut. Nonetheless, 44 percent of people with known lactose intolerance and 26 percent of those without lactose intolerance complained of gastrointestinal symptoms.


So let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct our attention to our common interests and the means by which these differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit his planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal. 
President John F. Kennedy, June, 1963.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Listening to Complainers Is Bad for Your Brain"

There is a brief article by Minda Zetlin in Inc. reviewing Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life by Trevor Blake. I quote from the article:

"The brain works more like a muscle than we thought," Blake says. "So if you're pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you're more likely to behave that way as well." 
Even worse, being exposed to too much complaining can actually make you dumb. Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity--including viewing such material on TV--actually peels away neurons in the brain's hippocampus. "That's the part of your brain you need for problem solving," he says. "Basically, it turns your brain to mush."
We always suspected that listening too long to someone whining rots the brain. Now we realize it is literally true!

The beauty of science is that people are so happy to find knowledge to be false.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
It is surprising how often things about which we are absolutely sure to be true turn out to be false. One supposes that the ancient Romans were as sure of their religious beliefs as were the ancient Norse or indeed today's Mormons, Christian Scientists or followers of Scientology. Yet no one now sacrifices to the Roman nor the Norse gods.

As I read history, I am impressed how sure many people were of their beliefs that turned out to be tragically wrong. Chaimberlain was convinced that war could be avoided by appeasing Hitler, and Hitler was convinced his policies would build a Third Reich that would last a thousand years.

In reading about President Roosevelt's approach to governing I am impressed by his willingness to be wrong, to try things that might work, to admit error when they didn't, and to try again and again. Many of his policies did not work, but many did and many are still with us today.

I suppose the lesson is that we must act on what we believe to be true, but humbly. Those with whom we disagree may indeed be right. We should, of course seek to reconcile the differences in beliefs where possible, but where that is not feasible we should be willing to explore compromise. Sometimes courses of action can be agreed upon between people with very different beliefs. This would seem especially likely if a course of action can be found that allows for change and revision with experience.

A thought about the distribution of wealth over the land.

There is a recent study of household incomes by geographic location from the Pew Research Center. Here are some of its findings:
(T)he share of middle-income households (in the United States) has gone down over time. These middle-income households (defined as those where incomes are 67% to 200% of the national median) were 54% of households in 1980 but only 48% in 2010. The share of upper-income households has grown over the 30-year period, to 20% from 15%...... 
In 1980, 23% of U.S. lower-income households lived in majority low-income neighborhoods; in 2010, that had risen to 28%. At the other end of the economic scale, the share of upper-income households living in majority upper-income neighborhoods doubled, to 18% in 2010 from 9% in 1980....... 
Income segregation also rose over the same time period in 27 of the nation’s 30 largest (in terms of households) metropolitan areas.
Some of this simply confirms what we already know. Income has become more skewed since 1980, with the rich getting richer and the middle class having problems. Still, given the importance of the middle class in American society, its thinning in the neighborhoods seems something to worry about. More poor and more rich suggests a growing segregation of our society.

It seems likely to me that the income segregation will have some unfortunate results. The low income neighborhoods may have difficulty competing for services and the high income neighborhoods may get so many as to provoke envy.  Schools in poor neighborhoods may be dealing with more homogeneous populations of poor kids.

We have traditionally had election districts designed to be reasonably compact. This research suggests we will have more electoral districts with mostly poor residents, more with mostly affluent residents, and fewer with mixed economic populations or mostly middle class residents. That suggests that politicians will be representing more homogeneous populations, with greater economic divides between the politicians representing different districts. Not a good sign for our politics.

A nice interactive site on poverty!

This viz by Johan Mistiaen from the World Bank visualizes the population living on less than a certain amount per day. the user can utilize a slider to select a different poverty line to see how the distribution of global poverty changes.

It is Time for UNESCO to consider aerospace heritage!

The space age is more than a half century old. The age of aviation is much older still. In both cases, the heritage is one of all mankind. In both cases, intangible and tangible heritage are found in many countries, In the case of heritage sites, they are located not only in many countries but also on the moon, on Mars, and in outer space. It is time that there be a global effort for the protection of this heritage.

There are sites that have become synonymous in our minds with space flight such as the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Kennedy Space Center in the United States. Equally famous, and equally worthy of protection is the site of the Apollo moon landing. These would seem as worthy of recognition and protection for future generations as any of the world heritage sites recognized by UNESCO's World Heritage Center.

The Air and Space Museum in the United States has some nine million visitors a year, indicating the interest in the movable heritage items from U.S. history. Such items continue to be created and the most relevant should also be protected. Many of the early aircraft are fragile and require special treatment. The conservation expertise for such items is concentrated in a few places, yet needs increasingly to be shared. Perhaps more of an issue is how the movable tangible items from the aerospace age might be shared so that people from countries that have not produced many such items can still see and appreciate them.  Note however that there are many such items in orbit and some on the moon and mars. The protection and sharing of movable items of cultural heritage has been one of the most important of UNESCO's cultural concerns, and indeed UNESCO is the key United Nations agency to which museums can look for support.

Libraries too have a place. I recall a friend who worked for NASA in its early days telling me that they knew when to stop planning and start building a new rocket -- when the stack of design papers towered as high as the rocket itself. This paper heritage must include materials that should be archived, preserved and selectively displayed. Indeed, some of the images that have been obtained from space, from the moon and from planetary missions have achieved iconic status. UNESCO is the U.N. agency that leads in dealing with libraries and indeed would be very suited for encouraging exhibitions of imagery from space.

Most of us are not aware of the huge amount of digital data that has been amassed from a century of aviation and a half century of space science. Aerial photographs, satellite images and data returns from space craft flood in. It is difficult to store and index this material. Yet some of it will be of interest for generations to come, much of it of interest all over the world. The preservation of digital data is a special problem, and one which UNESCO has begun to confront. Some of this data also has military uses, raising issues of how much of it can be shared, when it can be shared, and how best it can be shared.

There is also a largely unrecognized intangible cultural heritage that has emerged from the aerospace program. The Apollo program, for example, pioneered in the development of new tools for the management of hugely complex engineering and construction efforts, notably introducing computer tools to assist in their management. While UNESCO has pioneered in the recognition and protection of intangible cultural heritage in the arts and crafts, it has not looked to do the same for intangible heritage in engineering and science. Yet there is a need for the preservation and sharing of the intangible aerospace cultural heritage.

I would suggest that UNESCO begin to consider aerospace cultural heritage using its convening power to hold meetings of experts from around the world to exchange ideas and concepts. It could serve as a clearinghouse for such ideas. Eventually, if its member states felt the need, it might provide some legal instruments relating to aerospace heritage, such as recommendations for their preservation and protection, or even conventions for the protection of extraterrestrial heritage.

A couple of thoughts about jobs and education

There is a very interesting website provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics titled "Back to College". Here are a couple of figures from the website:

I want to point out a couple of things from the graphs.

  1. The number of employed people with some college or a college degree increased significantly from 1992 to 2009 while the numbers of employed people with a high school diploma or less stayed relatively the same.
  2. Between 2008 and 2009, as the recession began to take its toll on jobs, the number of employed people with only some college or less decreased, while the number of job holders with college degrees stayed the same.
  3. Over all the years shown, the higher the level of completed education, the lower the unemployment rate.
  4. Unemployment of people who had completed college hovered around two percent for most of this time, essentially these people were generally fully employed.
  5. Even in 2009 with more than 4 percent unemployment of college graduates, most could expect to get a new job.
  6. People who had not completed high school had a high rate of unemployment during this whole period, and that rate increased most rapidly as the recession hit.
The United States, having moved from a manufacturing to a service economy, provided more employment for educated people in health services, education, financial services, management, etc. As it moves from a service economy to a knowledge economy, education will be still more important.

It is likely that many of the 22 year olds represented in the graph above will seek more formal education, and consequently adult education will have to be a major concern in the United States.

The small percentage of blacks and Hispanics obtaining college degrees by age 22 is a problem not only for those young people, but for the economy as a whole. Even more problematic is that more than 17 percent of these black and Hispanic young people dropped out of high school without a GED.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Employment is better due to the action of the government in the last five years.

Here are a couple of results from a panel of expert economists:
Source:  Thinkprogress.org
Source: IMG Forum

As you consider the problem of unemployment, realize that we are better off than we might have been, and the reason is the action that the government took. Obama deserves a lot of the credit for that action. He helped create a consensus during the last year of the Bush administration, and got the Congress to pass useful legislation before the new Congress took office in 2011.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A thought about U.S. elections

I have been reading about decision making in the governments headed by Hitler, Stalin and Tojo.

  • Hitler's Germany bears more responsibility than any other country for starting World War II. The decision to do so turned out very badly for Hitler and Germany. Germany lost the war. There was a huge loss of German lives and destruction of German property. Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war.
  • Tojo's Japan declared war on the United States, the British Empire, France, and other countries, while already at war with China. The decisions to do so turned out very badly for Tojo and Japan. There was a huge loss of Japanese lives and destruction of Japanese property. Tojo was hung as a war criminal after the war.
  • Stalin's USSR failed to take effective action to prevent Hitler's Germany from starting World War II. The USSR suffered huge losses of life and destruction of property during the war. Stalin's policies had led to famine in the USSR before the war and he had conducted purges that killed citizens in large numbers. It has been suggested that his death was caused by his subordinates.
The reading reminded me that countries can make very bad mistakes in the leaders that they install or allow to install themselves. I am reminded of the people of the American south who led their states into secession and the Civil War. They too led their people into a hugely destructive war.

Incidentally, while we tend to talk about Hitler, Stalin and Tojo as if their thinking was that of their governments and as if each bears all of the responsibility for the actions of their governments, in each case there were groups of people in leadership who influenced the actions of government, if only by influencing the information that got to or did not get to the head of government. Moreover, in each case the action of the governing clique was enabled by the culture of the people of the country.

I don't think that either of our parties is now or in the near future likely to put up a candidate for president who is nearly as dangerous as those I have been reading about, but given the power of the United States, the difference between the better and the lesser candidate has huge impact on the world. Yet many of our citizens don't vote and our elections seem not to be effective in choosing the candidate with the best character, the greatest competence, and the best policies.

Friday, August 17, 2012

We need to improve information literacy and group decision making!

Dan Kahan has an interesting article in Nature titled "Why we are poles apart on climate change". He suggests that for the common person there is not much benefit from believing scientists about climate change, but there may be a large cost in accepting a position on climate change that differs from that of ones friends, neighbors and colleagues. I recommend the article.

It occurs to me that we humans are social animals. I suppose we evolved to make decisions in groups, and there is a fair amount of research that suggests that we tend to make better decisions in groups than we do in isolation. It may be that groups that share preconceptions about climate change find it very hard to change those preconceptions due to new information, or due to representations by unknown people from outside of the group.

Clearly the scientific community shares wide agreement that human emission of greenhouse gases is driving climate change to dangerous levels. It also seems clear that there are well financed groups that want the public to deny anthropogenic climate change. I wonder if there is research on group decision making with preconceptions and with two outside sources of information with diametrically opposed messages and differing frequency of communications to the group.

I would guess that we need to improve the information literacy of the public. People should be better able to judge the credibility of sources of information. We should also teach people improved processes for group decision making. Small groups should become more willing to accept new ideas from highly credible sources and to reject ideas promoted by sources that are not credible.