Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013

On listening to State of Wonder

On the long ride from winter Maryland to the Everglades we listened to the audio version of State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett. (Here is the Wikipedia entry for the book.)

What Happens in the Book

The principal character, Marina Singh, is the child of a mother from Wisconsin and a father from India. Her parents divorced when she was a small child; her father returned to India, remarried, had children with his new wife, and had a career as a university science professor.

The book provides flashbacks with the story of Marina's visits to her father in Calcutta as a child. Those visits were marked by nightmares in which she dreamed she was separated from him by teaming throngs in the Calcutta streets and left alone in a terrible and frightening place where she can not communicate with anyone. Her final trip to India is made while her father is dying; she arrives too late and her mother chooses that they not attend his funeral to save his new family any discomfort.

The book also provides flashbacks to Marina's fifth year of OB/GYN residency under Dr. Annick Swenson. Left alone by her mentor with a woman experiencing a difficult pregnancy, she waits too long, hurries the cesarean and accidentally cuts into the eye of the infant. There is a hearing on her competency and although Dr. Swenson does not support her she is absolved of blame. Nevertheless she changes from clinical medicine to study for a PhD, becoming a pharmacologist.

When the narrative begins, Marina has been working for more than a decade in a big pharma company lab located in Wisconsin. Her office partner Anders Eckman has become a good friend. She has been having an affairs for seven months with the CEO of the firm, Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox is described as from the production side of the firm, not a scientist. He is two decades older than Marina; she is interested in marriage but he feels he is too old for her.

The firm has been funding a research team headed by Dr. Swenson seeking to learn why women in a specific tribe in the Amazon continue to bear children into their 60s and 70s. The expensive program is funded with the hope of developing a drug to prolong fertility and reverse menopause -- and to make a lot of money for the firm. However, Dr. Swenson has been out of touch with the firm for many months. Anders (an enthusiastic bird watcher) is sent to the Amazon to find Dr. Swenson and the research station (the location of which has been kept secret).

As the book begins, Mr. Fox has received a letter from Dr. Swenson reporting that Anders has died of fever. Mr. Fox asks Marina to take up the search for Dr. Swenson and the research station and to report on the state of the research program. Anders wife Karen refuses to believe that Anders in dead; unable to leave her children and travel to Brazil, she asks their friend Marina to do so and search for Anders. Marina agrees.

Preparing for the trip she takes an anti-malarial medicine and again suffers from the nightmares of her childhood visits to India. She learns that these are a side effect of the meds, that she had taken the same meds as a child, and that her mother had hidden from her the fact that the nightmares were induced by the treatment. She loses her father again and again in these nightmares.

Marina arrives in Manaus. Her suitcase has been lost (never to reappear) and with it her satellite phone. She is met by an Australian couple who are paid by Dr. Swenson to keep people away from her and from the station. As they had done to Anders, they keep Marina in Manaus for some time.

Marina is taken to a performance of the opera Orpheus and Eurydice by her Australian watchers. During the performance the voice of Dr. Swenson is heard benind them instructing them not to turn around. Only after the performance is Marina allowed to see and talk to Dr. Swenson. Dr. Swenson is accompanied by a young Indian boy, Easter, who is deaf and dumb, but who serves as a guide to Marina. And at age 73, she is seven months pregnant.

Marina reports back to Mr. Fox. She feels that she has completed the mission, since clearly there is a potential fertility drug and since Dr. Swenson is a competent scientist in charge of its research.. Mr Fox instructs her to continue on to the jungle research station to see more for herself. He sends another satellite phone and a new supply of the anti-malarial meds that cause nightmares.

The party arrives at the research station at the edge of the jungle. Marina has her suitcase stolen, losing her satellite phone. Shortly thereafter her cloths are stolen and she is dressed in the standard moo moo of the local tribal women; they also insist on dressing her hair in their tradition. She is given a simple lab job.

Marina discovers that the site for the station was initially chosen by Dr. Rabb, an ethnobotonist who was both Dr. Swenson's major professor and her lover. Dr. Swenson while chief of the maternity service at Johns Hopkins was also traveling on weekends to the Amazon to work with Dr. Rabb on his research. Marina finds the jungle hellish, with poisonous snakes, biting insects, confusing trails, and many disease threats. While the local Indians around the station are friendly, other tribes are fierce, antagonistic, with a reputation for cannibalism.

Near the research station there is a tiny biosphere dominated by a tree that, like the aspen, grew many trunks from a single root system. The plant has changed the soil to make the area unattractive to other plants. The grove was also the only source for a hallucinogenic mushroom that induced ecstatic visions.  There is also a butterfly that is part of the ecosystem. Women who ingest bark from the trees never enter menopause and successfully completed pregnancies into old age. They are also immune to malaria. The site was kept secret to protect the biosphere from over exploitation.

Dr. Swenson was pushing for the development of a drug that would prevent malaria, and most of the staff in the research station were working on that project. She was using the funds for the development of the fertility drug for the anti-malarial remedy.

Dr. Swenson confronted by a breech birth while she herself is heavily pregnant, has Marina perform a Cesarean in primitive conditions. Impressed by her competence, Dr. Swenson turns over the clinical care for the local Indians to Marina.

Mr. Fox appears in the research station. He has not heard from either Dr. Swenson nor Marina for months. He arrives after a difficult trip, poorly guided by one of the Australians from the Manaus office. He is quickly satisfied that the fertility drug is a possibility and seeks to return to Wisconsin with Marina. However, on the voyage to the station, having made a false decision, they discover a white man in the camp of the most dangerous of the local tribes.

Dr. Swenson admits that the white man must be Anders. In a delirium he wandered away from Easter, his keeper, and has been taken by the tribe. Dr. Swenson falsified the report of his death. Dr. Swenson also tells Marina that her fetus has died, and that Marina will have to perform a Cesarean on her.

Mr. Fox returns to Wisconsin. Marina performs the surgery and saves Dr. Swenson's life. She takes Easter and goes to the village where Anders is being held. There she discovers that Easter is the long lost son of the village chief. A trade is made -- Anders for Easter.

Anders and Marina sleep together once on their return to the research site. Marina, who has been imbibing of the special bark, becomes pregnant. They return to Wisconsin where Anders is reunited with his wife and children.

State of Wonder as a Developmental Story

Marina grows in the book. She overcomes her nightmares and reconciles with the death of her father. She overcomes the fear engendered by her error as a obstetrics resident and is able to practice medicine again. She overcomes her fear of the jungle and rescues Anders. As the book ends, she is about to become a mother and one is sure she will be a good one. She may return to the jungle and take over the direction of the research station as Dr. Swenson wishes, or she may stay in the Wisconsin she loves and develop her relation with Mr. Fox. The decision will be hers.

I found it interesting that the book makes the case (through Dr. Swenson) that there is little or no reason to develop a drug for the only purpose of allowing middle age women to have children late in life, and indeed such a drug might do more harm than good. The book also makes the case that a drug that was effective in preventing malaria without side effects would be a great boon to mankind, even if it would not make money for the company that developed it. That seems very true to me.

Mythological References

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein,
Orpheus and Eurydice, 1806
In mythology, Orpheus goes into the underground home of the dead to bring Eurydice back to life. His instruction is that he will succeed only if he never looks back. He can not resist the temptation, looks back to see she is following him to the real world and loses her.

The scene in the opera house in the book is a direct reference to the myth. Dr. Swenson instructs Marina not to look back. And indeed, Marina is unable to bring Dr. Swenson out of the hellish jungle back to Wisconsin. She does bring Anders back to his wife who thought him dead and buried in the jungle. She brings Easter (another reference to return from the dead) to his parents who thought him dead (although he is not too happy with the return). I suppose there is also a reference in Mr. Fox who finally comes to the jungle to bring Marina back and leaves without her.

Again in mythology, Persephone is a goddess who spends half her time in the underground with the god of the underground, Hades, and half of her time in the land of the living with her mother, Demeter. When she returns to the land of the living, it is springtime -- plants come back to life and animals give birth. On her return to Hades, the leaves fall and winter is soon to follow. I see a reference to Dr. Swenson at one point in her life spending half her time in Baltimore heading an obstetrics service and the other half with her god-like lover, Dr. Rapp.

The biosphere with mythic properties providing life giving substances, a place of great beauty, on the margin between the modern world and the unforgiving jungle inhabited by fierce tribes seems likely to have antecedents in mythology -- perhaps in the same sources from which we draw the name "Amazon".

The book focuses a lot on fertility and childbirth. Marina is wondering if she is too old to have children. She and Dr. Swenson are both trained obstetricians. Mr. Fox and his company are concerned with the development of a fertility drug. Dr. Swenson is pregnant. The women of the tribe living with the research station are having children. Two key scenes in the book are those in which Marina saves the life of mother and child trapped in a breech birth and in which she saves Dr. Swenson's life by removing the dead fetus by means of a cesarean.

In the book Mr. Fox, Dr. Swenson and Dr. Rapp are always named with their titles and none of the other characters are so named. The three are (perhaps in a reference to Epicurean philosophy) singularly uninterested in the welfare of individual people that are with them, but seem to be more symbolic. Are they more like the gods of Greek mythology than like normal human characters? They seem to be human in form, but remote and motivated by responsibility to "the corporation" or to "science".

The Writing

Padgett's prose weave from the narrator's present to flashbacks, from reality to dream sequences without pause and without losing the listener. That would seem to be a tough thing to bring off. The writing is limpid and splendid.

I especially like the fact that the listener is able to think of the story at several levels. For an author to pull off something that can be listened to as a simple adventure story, as a developmental novel, and as a modern version of ancient myths seems quite impressive.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Maryland to see new legislation to reduce gun fatalities

Maryland's Governor Martin O'Malley is introducing gun legislation in the state legislature. He will unveil a three-pronged strategy focused on gun safety, school safety and mental health.
1.) Gun safety: We should ban military-style assault weapons, limit large ammunition capacity, and require licenses for handgun purchases. We respect the rights of hunters and sportsmen and that's why our licensing requirements will NOT apply to shotguns or rifles. 
2.) School safety: We will invest in security upgrades for schools, including cameras at entrances, automatically locking doors, shatterproof glass and buzzer entrance systems. We will also establish a "Maryland Center for School Safety," which will amplify our efforts by gathering meaningful data and serving as a central hub for collaboration between our federal, state and local law enforcement partners.  
3.) Mental heath: We will improve data sharing practices between federal and state officials. In addition, we will invest more to improve mental health services so we can intervene early and reduce the potential for violent behavior. We'll expand crisis intervention teams, expand response services and establish a center for excellence on early intervention for serious mental illness. 
How about gun licensing requiring passing a written test on gun safety and an in person demonstration of safe handling of the type of gun to be owned? Someone would have to show a license to buy a gun and someone found with a gun without a license would be guilty of a crime. Guns would seem to be a lethal as cars and we demand a license to drive. 

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old technology wunderkind who killed himself on Friday, will be remembered as a great programmer and a provocative thinker. At 14, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site. He also co-founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes online campaigns on social justice issues.

Read more from the New York Times.

Two New Publications from the UIS

Source: "A Snapshot of R&D Expenditure", UNESCO Institute for Statistics

Source: "Regional density of researchers and their field of employment". UNESCO Institute for Statistics
The UNESCO Institute for Statistics is perhaps the lead organization in the United Nations system for statistics on education, science and culture. Its most important impact may have been helping UNESCO to improve data collection by governments around the world in these fields. As a result of UNESCO's work, these data provide a more accurate comparison of what is happening among countries.

UIS has produced two new fact sheets on science:

The public wants more gun control.

The latest national survey from the Pew Research Center tested two specific school-safety proposals, with widely different results. By a two-to-one margin (64%-32%), most favor putting armed security guards and police in more schools. But when it comes to more teachers and school officials having guns, most are opposed (40% favor vs. 57% oppose). 56% of Republicans would like to see more teachers and school officials armed, compared with just 23% of Democrats. More:

It seems to me that it would be a bad idea to arm the average school teacher. On the other hand, changing our hiring policies to employ more combat veterans (rained in the use of weapons) in our schools might be a good idea. Recognizing their service with job preference seems reasonable, and they could teach kids things that the rest of us don't know. We might have to have federal grants to train veterans as teachers and school administrators, but that might be for the good as well. If we had those people in our schools than perhaps it would not be a bad idea to have weapons available to some of them to use to protect the kids.

A Modest Proposal for Resolving Originalist Disputes

A modest proposal as to how originalists could resolve debates among themselves as to the original meaning of the constitution.

Image Source: X CURMUDGEON

Originalism is defined according to Wikipedia as follows:
In the context of United States constitutional interpretation, originalism is a principle of interpretation that tries to discover the original meaning or intent of the constitution. It is based on the principle that the judiciary is not supposed to create, amend or repeal laws (which is the realm of the legislative branch) but only to uphold them.
If one seeks to find the original meaning of the constitution sometimes differences occur. Let me give some examples to demonstrate the point.

There is no one who is more of a founding father than Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. While he was serving as Ambassador to France during the constitutional convention, his views were strongly represented by James Monroe. As an early two-term president he made decisions that helped define the meaning of the constitution. So what did Jefferson believe the constitution meant?

  • When the First Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791, Jefferson argued that the Congress exceeded its constitutional authority, and that powers not expressly given to the Congress in the constitution were denied to it.
  • When he made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 he recognized that the constitution did not grant the president the power to buy new territory for the country, but did so anyway.
There were two views on the constitution among the founding fathers:
  • The Federalists: "The Federalists left a lasting imprint as they fashioned a strong new government with a sound financial base, and (in the person of Chief Justice John Marshall) decisively shaped Supreme Court policies for another three decades." Federalists included Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, John Marshall and George Washington.
  • The Anti-Federalists were "a movement that opposed the creation of a stronger U.S. federal government and which later opposed the ratification of the Constitution of 1787." Anti-federalists included Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, James Madison and George Clinton.
The Federalists and Anti-Federalists agreed on amending the constitution in order that it might be ratified. 

According to Wikipedia an initial set of 12 amendments was recommended for ratification by the states:
The amendments were introduced by James Madison to the 1st United States Congress as a series of legislative articles. They were adopted by the House of Representatives on August 21, 1789, formally proposed by joint resolution of Congress on September 25, 1789.
LexisNexis states:
Twelve Amendments were proposed in 1789 with articles three through 12 being ratified as the Bill of Rights. Some 203 years later, the second article included with the original 12 was ratified as the 27th Amendment. But, the first article proposed was never ratified.
The never-ratified amendment called for representatives to the House of Representatives to be elected from small districts.

The second amendment in what is now called the Bill of Rights famously states:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The Burr–Hamilton duel was fought between to of the founding fathers -- the former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and sitting Vice President Aaron Burr.

I suggest that originalists follow their precedent and settle disputes on the original meaning of articles of the constitution by dueling. Of course, they should not be limited to using dueling pistols from the 18th century. I would suggest that they use assault weapons.

Source of this 20th century image of the Burr-Hamilton duel.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Technological Innovation and Socio-Economic Growth

The Economist has an article titled "Has the ideas machine broken down?" in its current issue. It questions whether the long period of technology innovation fueled growth in GDP per capita is over in America. The graph suggests a 150 year long increase in productivity in Great Britain associated with the Industrial Revolution. The rate was further stepped up from about 1850 to the early 20th century with electrification, assembly line production and internal combustion engines. The Information Revolution added to the growth rate in the second half of the 20th century.

Is the perceived slow down real, or is it a transient phenomenon. That is, will the ICT revolution continue to parallel the electrification revolution as suggested in the graph above, or will there be a slow down?

Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer of computer science and a devotee of exponential technological extrapolation, likes to talk of “the second half of the chess board”. There is an old fable in which a gullible king is tricked into paying an obligation in grains of rice, one on the first square of a chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, the payment doubling with every square. Along the first row, the obligation is minuscule. With half the chessboard covered, the king is out only about 100 tonnes of rice. But a square before reaching the end of the seventh row he has laid out 500m tonnes in total—the whole world’s annual rice production. He will have to put more or less the same amount again on the next square. And there will still be a row to go. 
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT make use of this image in their e-book “Race Against the Machine”. By the measure known as Moore’s law, the ability to get calculations out of a piece of silicon doubles every 18 months. That growth rate will not last for ever; but other aspects of computation, such as the capacity of algorithms to handle data, are also growing exponentially. When such a capacity is low, that doubling does not matter. As soon as it matters at all, though, it can quickly start to matter a lot. On the second half of the chessboard not only has the cumulative effect of innovations become large, but each new iteration of innovation delivers a technological jolt as powerful as all previous rounds combined.

The third graph from the article suggests that there was a temporary slow down in GDP per capita growth in the Great Depression followed by a rapid growth associated with World War II, but a return to the long term trend. Thus there is a precedent for believing that the Great Recession may introduce a transient, and growth may return to the trend line.

I wonder, however, if some of the problem may be over reliance on GDP as a measure. I think of how much access I have to information now as compared to say 50 years ago, and the difference is awesome. However, I am paying very little for that access. Massive open online education may make more and better education available to huge populations with decreases in the numbers of teachers, much as recording made better music available with fewer musicians and movies made good acting available with fewer actors.

The article mentions:

Life expectancy at birth in America soared from 49 years at the turn of the 20th century to 74 years in 1980. Enormous technical advances have occurred since that time. Yet as of 2011 life expectancy rested at just 78.7 years. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on research, people continue to fall to cancer, heart disease, stroke and organ failure. Molecular medicine has come nowhere close to matching the effects of improved sanitation. 
To those fortunate enough to benefit from the best that the world has to offer, the fact that it offers no more can disappoint.
It seems likely to me, however, that humans have evolved with intrinsic limitations on life expectancy and that there will be decreasing returns to improving health care. (Not to mention that our poorly organized health care system is not as efficient in delivering longevity as the systems in other countries.)

If I am right that we are likely to see a major improvement in the way we think in the next generation through the applications of neuroscience and cognitive science, I would doubt that it would show up in GDP. The French have used increased worker productivity to provide more leisure time, also an outcome that does not show up in GDP per capita. It may be that GDP was a great indicator for agricultural and manufacturing societies, but not so much for the society of America's future.

Do you believe the atmosphere is heating up?

The Recent Heat Wave In Australia

Australia is baking under a record-breaking heat wave that is literally off the charts! The heat is so extreme that their Bureau of Meteorology had to add new colors to its weather chart to extend its previous maximum temperature range that had been capped at 50 degrees [122°F]! 

If you don't believe that we are experiencing exceptionally hot weather this year, check out this from MediaMatters for America: I quote:
A article questioned whether 2012 was actually the hottest year on record, quoting "skeptics" who suggest a government office is manipulating data to fabricate proof of rising temperatures. In fact, statistical adjustments made by the agency are required, publicly-documented changes to correct for errors and known sources of bias in the raw data. 
Those who believe Fox News rather than the weather bureau need to revise their approach to the evaluation of the truthfulness of alternative information sources.

Americans don't believe economists.

The graph is from an article in the current issue of The Economist. I quote:
In their take on the survey Roger Gordon and Gordon Dahl of the University of California, San Diego, find that on topics with a large academic literature economists mostly arrived at the same answer. A full 100% of those questioned agreed that returning America to the gold standard would be a bad idea, for instance. Bigger disagreements emerged when research was scant......... 
The American public certainly seems disinclined to go along with the economists’ consensus. Paola Sapienza of Northwestern University and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago compare the economists’ survey results with a similar poll of members of the public. They find a stunning gap of 37 percentage points, on average, between the proportion of economists and of ordinary Americans agreeing with a particular statement (see chart)......... 
The distribution of views within the public was most similar to the distribution within the profession when there was little consensus among economists. Evidence is mixed on the benefits of school vouchers, for instance, and similar shares of economists and non-economists agreed with the policy. It is when economists felt quite certain they knew the right answer that big gaps emerged. Economists were unified in thinking it is hard for an individual investor to beat stockmarket indices; only 55% of the public agreed. Whereas 93% of economists reckoned a carbon tax is a less costly way to cut emissions than car fuel-mileage standards, only 23% of the public agreed. Such divergence may help explain the lack of traction for the policy in Washington, DC.
Perhaps public opinion is more influenced by advertising than by expert opinion.

  • Stock brokerage firms would not like to see their customers go to low cost mutual funds based on stock indexes. 
  • The Republicans ran in a couple of elections claiming that the stimulus didn't work, funded by corporations and  wealthy people interested in Republican controlled government. 
  • Oil, coal and gas companies would presumably see their sales reduced by an effective carbon tax.
  • American manufacturing companies want Americans to "buy American" whether or not doing so increases employment.
I don't know why Americans don't think that gasoline prices mainly reflect market factors, unless they feel that the manipulation of oil supplies by OPEC is not a "market force". I do assume that prices can be manipulated in a market with inelastic demand by an oligopoly that reduces supply to drive up prices and profits.

The major theme of this blog is "knowledge for development". Erroneous beliefs (false knowledge) held by the public is obviously bad for policy making in a democratic society. Freedom of speech is supposed to be the mechanism by which good information replaces bad information in the public forum. On the other hand, in modern society where mass media give disproportionately loud voice to big money, we seem not to be able to depend on truth driving out the false in the public forum. This is especially true when we have laws pretending that corporations and lobbying organizations with their advertising budgets are people with guaranteed free speech, and when our educational systems do not enable students with strong skills in information literacy -- evaluating the truthfulness of sources of information.

Melting glaciers: The Slow Disaster in the Andes

With glaciers melting away, climate change already has become a fact of life for the poorest. Scientist use satellite technology to find ways to deal with dramatic water shortages in the Andean region. A slow and silent disaster that has started to affect millions.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Confidence in the U.S. President

Percent responding Confidence (2012)
The Pew Research Global Attitude Survey provides a lot of interesting data, well presented.

This bar graph shows how popular our president is among our allies, but it also shows that he is not popular in Muslim countries, China and Russia.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Social Networking Use

Source: Pew Research Center
Even us old fogies are beginning to participate in social networking. 

How come I never heard of Thomas Harriot?

Thomas Harriot
Thomas Harriot accompanied the 1585 expedition to Roanoke island having translated and learned the Carolina Algonquian language. He published an account of the expedition in 1588 which described the Native American population encountered by the expedition; it apparently proved very influential upon later English explorers and colonists.

Harriot is now credited as the first astronomer to draw an astronomical object after viewing it through a telescope: he drew a map of the Moon on July 26, 1609, preceding Galileo by several months. He also observed sunspots in December 1610.

He was also a prolific mathematician and astronomer to whom the theory of refraction is attributed.

Somehow, having a masters degree in Engineering, when I thought of early leaders in science and technology in North America, I only thought of Benjamin Franklin, and then primarily in terms of his flying a kite in the rain (and maybe the lightning rod, Franklin stove and bifocals). I failed to understand the importance of his investigations in the nature of electricity nor of his study of the Gulf Stream.

I suppose that I knew something about Washington as a surveyor or Jefferson as a technological innovator, but I thought of them primarily in their governmental roles (as I did Franklin). Somehow I thought of Lewis and Clark as adventurers rather than scientific explorers.

Franklinia alatamaha by William Barton
I of course knew of John James Audubon, but thought of him as an artist, failing to recognize his contributions as an ornithologist. I had not heard of his predecessor, Alexander Wilson. I only recently learned about John Bartram and his son William Bartram, world famous American botanists in the 18th century.

Of course, I had heard of Eli Whitney as the inventor of the cotton gin. However, as a young engineer I had not known of Whitney's role in the promotion of manufacturing with interchangeable parts, nor of the community of people who created the American System of Manufacturing (guns, clocks) or the Lowell System (cloth).

I never heard of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who led an amazing life. He was a apparently the first to recognize that heat was a measure of energy, not of a fluid. He gained initial fame through a study of gunpowder, but invented stoves, chimneys and diets. Apparently he was not covered in American schools because he was a British loyalist.

How about the chemist, Joseph Priestly? I had not realized that he spent the last ten years of his life in the United States, nor that his was the most commonly mentioned name in the long correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

How many other leaders in science and technology lived in the colonies that became the United States and in the United States in the federal period? Why did my schools not tell me about this American heritage?

The Axelrod Rule

"You are never as smart as you look when you win. You are never as dumb as you look when you lose."
David Axelrod

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Post WWII Changes in Japan

The Barnes and Noble history book club met last night to discuss Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower.

The book deals with the way in which the Japanese dealt with the defeat in World War II, the U.S. occupation, and the changes in Japanese society that occurred between 1945 and 1952 when the occupation ended.

The meeting opened with two members expressing outrage. One was offended by Dower's failure to recognize the pain of the women enlisted by the government as prostitutes to service the American occupation forces and the desperation that must have driven them to such work. The other was outraged by the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war and the failure of the Japanese to acknowledge the magnitude and despicable nature of what they had done.

We discussed the meaning of the title, "embracing defeat". The point was made that the Japanese did not simply submit to being defeated, but accepted the defeat emotionally and embarked on a program to correct the faults that had led to that defeat.

The point was made that the Japanese were very good in defeat and the Americans were good in victory, offering a helping hand to the conquered. It was suggested that the Japanese had been very bad in victory during the war -- exploiting and abusing conquered peoples -- while the Americans would quite probably have been bad in defeat.

Japan was devastated at the end of the war. When the Emperor broke precedent to announce the surrender, people were stunned to learn that they had been lied to for years. Millions of its people had been killed or were stranded abroad. The cities had been bombed into rubble, including by atomic bombs, and millions of the residents had evacuated to find refuge in the rural areas. Its colonies had been removed and with them its sources of raw materials; its shipping had been destroyed. The crops failed that year. Huge stockpiles that had been built to support an all out effort to defend against invasion were stolen by the former ruling elite. Most Japanese were fully occupied for years simply trying to survive. Added to the physical problems, there was a general depression and hopelessness.

In a brief period after the war, among other things the Japanese:
  • Demoted the Emperor from a living god to a human monarch,
  • Changed from militarism to a pacifism,
  • Revised their governmental structure. became more democratic, and introduced women's suffrage,
  • Carried out a land reform,
  • Broke the power of large scale land owners and of the families owning the industrial combines,
  • Made the economy much more competitive, and
  • Reformed the education system.
Strikingly, although not mentioned in the book, the Japanese were very consciously maintaining many portions of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage while making also making all of these social, political and economic changes. 

We discussed the nature of Japanese culture that facilitated rapid change after defeat. It was noted that Japan made comparably major social changes both in the change from the time of the warring states to the Tokugawa Shoganate and following the Meiji Restoration. The changes in all three cases came from the top -- in the case of the post WWII changes from an imperial General MacArthur as well as from Emperor Herohito.  It was also suggested that the Japanese have a nearly uniquely strong cultural value of conformity with group norms; even in cases of manga fans and dance crazes individuals conform to the norms of their group if not the larger society.

They also show remarkable loyalty to institutions. The example was given of the closing of the auto factories during the oil shock of the early 1970s. Drivers who could not get gasoline were not buying cars, and the demand for new autos dried up. Japanese factories closed, but management informed workers that they would be paid even while staying at home. The workers broke into the factories to sit by the still production lines, passing time singing company songs.

The Japanese had an important asset in making the change -- the media. There were thousands of publications, many started new after the war serving the highly literate population (in spite of  the difficulty of reading Japanese characters). The film industry produced more than 1000 motion pictures during the occupation. Radio was widely available and very popular. With the end of wartime censorship and a much lighter occupation censorship, there was a very lively public debate on reform as well as entertainment and art to help in the adjustment.

The U.S. and Allied policy had been focused on pacifying the Axis powers and obtaining reparations in the first couple of years after the war. The United States quickly responded to the likelihood of famine in Japan with food aid in 1945, and then provided significant development aid as the fear of Communist expansion developed with the beginning of the Cold War. With the beginning of the Korean War in 1950, huge purchases were made in Japan in support of the war effort. One of our members who had worked in the Department of Commerce described the continuing favoritism of Japanese imports over domestic production for many years. Thus American demands helped to fuel the rapid economic expansion of Japan that continued through the mid 1970s.

We noted, however, that the United States was unprepared in many ways for the occupation. There was not only ignorance of Japanese culture but a lot of prejudice based on racism. Policy makers in Washington were perhaps less effective than they might have been. General MacArthur -- described as an icon for Americans in 1945 -- has been reassessed by modern historians and some of his decisions now look more questionable than they did at the time.

Japan had in a brief historical period in the early 20th century gained colonies in Korea, Manchuria and Taiwan. It had been fighting for decades to gain colonies in China (comparable to those held by European imperial powers) and to influence Chinese government policies, especially trade policies. It continued invasions of other Asian lands to gain resources, in the belief that as the strongest Asian nation they could create a greater sphere (and because they thought they could). And they over reached! (Many Japanese came to wonder how their leaders could have been so stupid.)

The club members discussed why it is that some empires manage to stop expansion in time and hold on for centuries while others over reach and crash. Why did Tojo's Japan attack Pearl Harbor, or Hitler attack Russia, or Napoleon invade Russia while the United States stopped after reaching the Pacific Ocean and half of Mexico? How did the British maintain a huge, complex empire for so long, or the Romans or Incas manage huge empires. One suggestion is that it is easier to do so when the empires exist on a contiguous land mass. Another suggestion was that it was important to have a counterbalancing power in the capital that could restrain the military leaders from over extension.

The new Japanese cabinet headed by Shinzo Abe is very conservative, and there was mention of the possibility that some of the reforms on the Occupation period might now be reversed.

18 members attended the discussion which was quite lively. In general it appeared that the book was well received. One of the members mentioned that he was quoting a book a great deal given that he had thought he didn't like it that much.

Greenblatt's The Swerve

I just finished reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. The book is built around the discovery in a German monastery in 1417 of The Nature of Things, Lucretius epic length poem on the philosophical system associated with Epicurus. That there are many editions of Lucretius's book in print and on the market two millenniums after its composition attests to its importance. The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award won by The Swerve attest to the quality of that book. Greenblatt is one of America's foremost scholars.

Epicurus (341 BC – 270 BC) was a Greek philosopher, and Lucretius (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) a Roman poet. Lucretius composed his poem in elegant Latin, replete with complex metaphors to convey a complex philosophical position in an elegant and beautiful form.

As I understand it, Epicurus' philosophical position combined a number of elements, including:
  • That all things are made of atoms in different combinations and space, which is found even within things
  • That atoms and space have always existed and will continue to exist, not having been created
  • That there is continuity in the world including the idea that the descendants of any individual are much like the individual from which the descend, but that there is evolution that produces new kinds of things
  • That humans like other animals do not have souls that survive after the death of the individual. and that this should be comforting removing fear of death and suffering
  • As a result, life is properly devoted to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure, albeit with a definition of pleasure that one might expect from a scholarly philosopher, and
  • That religions are superstitions that do more harm than good.
Apparently Lucretius held that there were gods, but that they had the same material composition of atoms and space as all other entities, and that they were neither concerned with mankind nor likely to intervene in human affairs.

The Swerve explains that The Nature of Things was the subject of attacks from religious communities even in pre-Christian times. Christians could accept the poet's criticism of other religions (especially since it was composed before the birth of Christ), but found many of its precepts to be profoundly heretical if accepted by Christians. The fall of the Roman empire imperiled all the literature of the ancients, but the teaching of Epicurus were specifically targeted.

Greenblatt explains that the monasteries imposed the duty to copy manuscripts as encouraging humility as a spiritual discipline. The scribes copied texts letter by letter, viewing the original through a narrow window that focused attention on the line of letters, not the meaning. Few monks were scholars. Books were subject to all kinds of damage, including bookworms and having the text scraped out to allow the velum to be reused for more religious texts. Under those circumstances it is not surprising that only three early copies of The Nature of Things survived the middle ages, all dating from the ninth century.

The Renaissance saw the rebirth of humanism, first in Italy and then expanding into other Western European regions. Humanists learned Latin and even Greek (from Greeks in an early exodus from lands conquered or threatened by Muslims). The collected statues from the ancient world, copied architecture and engineering accomplishments of the Romans. And they collected texts from the ancient world, learned classical Latin and Greek, and developed the skills to understand and appreciate the great books of the past. Some searched the libraries of the monasteries for surviving manuscripts of ancient texts in Latin and Greek. One among them was Poggio, a humanist who rose to be a secretary to eight popes, an author, and a wealthy, influential man.

The Swerve describes the church hierarchy during the long period in which Poggio worked in the Curia, just before the Reformation. It was a time in which three different individuals claimed the role of pope, each with the support of powerful kings. The pope in Rome was the secular leader of much of what is now Italy, involved in continued  politics and a time of war and pillage. The Catholic Church was rich and getting richer through many processes, including the sale of indulgences. Powerful families placed sons as abbots, bishops and cardinals. They used all of the resources and approaches available to advance their own careers and those of their families. These priests had mistresses and children, lived in luxury that the people of the church could hardly imagine. Charismatic leaders arose in various places calling for reform, and the brilliant men who had climbed to power in the church fought to retain that power and to blunt the reform movements.

Poggio and the other bureaucrats in the Curia were cynical about the institution in which they worked and the people for whom they worked. Many, perhaps most, were deeply dissatisfied with the day to day work given to them. Poggio studied, wrote books and was one of the searchers for rare books outside of his work in the Church.

Pope John XXIII was perhaps the worst of the popes, or at least the only pope to have been formally removed from office. The Council of Constance which ended the Western Schism in the church tried and convicted Pope John XXIII who was imprisoned for three years before buying his freedom and being restored to the rank of cardinal in Florence. Poggio was left in Constance without a patron and rather than immediately finding another used his freedom to search in the virgin field of German monasteries for important lost manuscripts. In this search in 1417 he found The Nature of Things, had it copied, and sent the copy to a friend and patron in Florence who had further copies made and circulated.

While the Catholic Church tried to suppress the book, the canny humanists managed to keep it in circulation and when printing was invented, the production of new printed copies overwhelmed the church's ability to destroy them.

Greenblatt considers The Nature of Things and Epicurean philosophy as inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaping the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and having a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

As one would expect of a scholar of Greenblatt's reputation, he has done extensive research and documented his discoveries carefully. (I was impressed for example by his discovery of Thomas Harriot, an English theorist who had been a member of the Roanoke colony, influenced by Lucretius who hid his discoveries, not found until the 20th century.)

Correlation is not causality. As Greenblatt says, the theory of atoms continued through history even when Lucretius was lost from site, so the world was not dependent on Poggio's discovery for all of Epicurean thought. Did the Renaissance and the Enlightenment create a culture in which The Nature of Things could be more widely read and understood, or did Lucretius' work contribute to the modernization of the world, or both?

Note by the way that there seems to have been no idea of energy in Epicurean thought, that atoms can be destroyed, that we now believe that there was a big bang start to the universe, and the term "evolution" must be subdivided into the ways in which animate and inanimate objects change. These ideas suggest a new way of thinking (that has not yet reached those who believe creationism should be taught in the schools), but they are themselves not scientific.

I loved the book! Greenblatt writes a good sentence and a good paragraph, rarer than you might think. He tells a good story. The view of Christianity before the Reformation and Counter Reformation helped me to better understand those important swerves in history. Even his asides are well chosen and interesting. All of that and I felt secure with his scholarship.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Remittances are important!

Which countries send and receive the most remittances?

Find out in this amazing interactive graphic. Click here to access its full features:

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Argentina and Barcelona star Lionel Messi wins top soccer prize for fourth time

Language Learning is breaking trails for elearning.

An article in The Economist notes:

Rosetta Stone, an American technology company (is) supplementing technology with human teaching rather than vice versa. Its software has a clever interface that eschews traditional drills in favour of pictures and examples that gradually and intuitively build vocabulary and grammar skills. 
Early versions of the software used nearly all the same pictures in the exact same order, teaching Mandarin and Italian as though they were identical. That was cheap, but poor pedagogy. So from 2006 to 2009 the company more than tripled R&D spending, customising each language offering and adding cultural and social features (see the review on our Johnson blog). Well-built tablet and smartphone apps let students learn anywhere. 
Rosetta Stone now offers customers unlimited access to online video tutorials in small groups with native speakers. 
A second project for Rosetta Stone is to move customers away from buying boxes of CD-ROMs. Sales and marketing cost the firm about 60% of revenue: those yellow kiosks at airports and shopping malls are not cheap. Mr Swad is cutting kiosks and trying to woo subscribers online instead.
The article notes that as U.S. universities are doing less language teaching, corporations like Rosetta Stone and Berlitz are seeking to fill the niche.

A second article in The Economist deals with machine translation of speech:
A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.
I am a regular user of Google Translate. I regularly scan the news using Google News for information about UNESCO. I use the results to stimulate discussion on the Linked In group, UNESCO's Friends, that I manage. With more than 5000 members from all over the world, coverage in at least English, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Arabic seem appropriate. I don't speak all of the languages, but with online translation via Google I can search in a language I don't speak and read the results.

A policy question

Some say that there should be no space at all between the policies of Israel and those of the United States. Israel has a population of fewer than 8 million people. The population of the United States is 315 million. If one country needs to align its policies with those of the other, should the tail wag the dog?

Thanks for the endorsements

Linked In recently created a system in which members can endorse other members for specific skills. I have been surprised and gratified by the number of endorsements that have been posted to my Linked In profile, as shown above.

Know thyself: One of the meanings attributed to this classical saying is that one should know how others understand one's self. Linked In is giving me a glimpse of how other's see my skills and expertise. I find the profile interesting!
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie usTo see oursels as others see usTo A Louse, Robert Burns

Saturday, January 05, 2013

A thought about reducing murder rates.

After 20 children were murdered in Newtown many people proposed a ban on assault weapons. The head of the NRA proposed armed guards in all schools. There were many other proposals. How are we to choose among them.

My niece's husband, Mike, identified this article which has quite a reasonable discussion of the problem. It provides some data which I assume to be accurate:
Fifty-five million kids went to school on the day that 20 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Even in the United States, therefore, the chances of a child’s dying in a school shooting are remote....... 
Seventy mass shootings have occurred in the U.S. since 1982, leaving 543 dead. These crimes were horrific, but 564,452 other homicides took place in the U.S. during the same period. Mass shootings scarcely represent 0.1 percent of all murders........ 
According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 47 percent of all murders in the U.S. are committed with handguns. Again, only 3 percent are committed with rifles (of any type). Twice as many murderers (6 percent) use nothing but their bare hands. Thirteen percent use knives. 
The article also notes:
Of course, it is important to think about the problem of gun violence in the context of other risks. For instance, it is estimated that 100,000 Americans die each year because doctors and nurses fail to wash their hands properly. Measured in bodies, therefore, the problem of hand washing in hospitals is worse than the problem of guns, even if we include accidents and suicides. But not all deaths are equivalent. A narrow focus on mortality rates does not always do justice to the reality of human suffering.
It is important to be clear about what we want to do. Are we interested in preventing the deaths of children, preventing murders, or preventing deaths? The World Health Organization promotes allocation of resources to save Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). It recognizes that it is better to save the life of a 20 year old with a long life ahead of him than of an old codger like myself who has already lived a good life. It also recognizes that it is more valuable to restore a wounded person to full and vigorous health that to leave the victim in a wheel chair for life, or worse yet restricted to bed and constant medical care.

Health planners deal with problems of allocating resources to save lives. The basic approach is to put the resources where they will do the most good. One of their little secrets is that there are decreasing returns to investment of resources in saving lives. For example, we could put an armed guard in every school, but we could also put one in every classroom. It might cost an order of magnitude more to put a guard in every classroom than in every school; would the cost be justified by the number of lives saved by more guards? How about if we gave every child a Secret Service guard like that we give to the president? Clearly the advantage in safety (assuming more kids were not killed accidentally by all those armed men around them) would not justify the added cost.

I would guess that more kids lives would be saved putting armed guards in urban high schools in areas with high levels of drug usage and gang activity than in rural primary schools. One could put the available guards into the high payoff schools to save the most lives.

Health planners have also coined the concept of "transcendence" in their work. Thus polio vaccine research got more funding when the vaccines were first under development than would have been justified by the morbidity and mortality from the disease because the public was so upset by the crippled children and the rooms full of people surviving in iron lungs. So too, the murder of 3,000 people on 9/11 was judged by government and the voters to require more response than would say an additional 3,000 deaths from mistakes in hospital medical care.

The article that Mike suggested makes such reasonable suggestions for reducing murder by guns as:
  • Improving drug policy
  • Decreasing the activity of violent street gangs
  • Making it at least as hard to get a license to own a gun as it is to get a license to drive a car
These all seem likely to be cost effective steps to reduce murder rates. Continuing efforts to get medical care professionals to keep their hands sterile might be even more cost effective in saving lives.

Improving drug policy and reducing crime by street gangs also illustrate that good policy instruments may be chosen because they achieve objectives in several fields simultaneously. Thus the same instrument might help current and potential drug addicts by reducing the illegal trade in drugs, might reduce the threat of street gangs by undermining their profits from illegal drug sales, and reduce the rate of murders by addicts and gangs.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Government Should Slow the Growth of Health Care Costs!

When Medicare went into operation in 1965, U.S. health care costs were comparable to those in other developed countries. As the graphs above show, since that time U.S. costs have increased more rapidly than those of other countries, both per person and as a portion of GDP. Currently U.S. health care expenditures are running at 18 percent of GDP.

According to Wikipedia, the United States now ranks 38th in the world in terms of life expectancy. That implies that the high level of U.S. health care costs is not because we have better health care or better health. It is also not because we have a greater portion of people who are in the older age brackets, needing more health care.

The introduction of Medicare led to an increase in demand for health services. On the other hand we limited the rate of growth of the supply of health services, both through the system of financing of health service facilities and through professionally controlled limits on enrollment in professional schools and on immigration. We also have not imposed effective price controls on health services. If demand increases faster than supply increases without price controls, prices go up. Time magazine reported early last year:
Medscape surveyed 24,216 physicians across 25 specialties from Feb. 1 to 17, 2012. Doctors’ earnings ranged from about $156,000 a year for pediatricians to about $315,000 for radiologists and orthopedic surgeons. The highest earners — orthopedic surgeons and radiologists — were the same as last year, followed by cardiologists who earned $314,000 and anesthesiologists who made $309,000.
The simple market analysis in the previous paragraph has limited applicability to health care. Essentially it is the providers of health care who prescribe how much health care is needed by their patients. Thus the demand for services is largely controlled by the providers. (That is why I belong to Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization, that uses formularies and standards as well as extensive preventive services to control costs.)

Unless the nation does something about health care costs, they are going to get worse. The population is aging and baby boomers are quickly going to be retiring in large numbers and having more needs for health care as they age. The increase in health care entitlements is going to cause them to grow as a percentage of federal health care costs.

The federal government is the obvious entity to intervene and help control the rate of increase in health care costs for the nation. The way to do so is not to keep the poor from equitable access to health care (as we have been doing).

  • One vehicle to do so is through its Medicare and Medicaid financing. I think these should introduce price controls consistent with the quality of services, such as demanding practices comparable to those of my HMO.
  • Tax financing is an element of the problem. I am not talking about tax exemptions for high levels of health care expenditures on individual income tax, but rather about tax exemptions for company costs for health insurance for their employees. I see little reason for the tax payer to subsidize luxury health insurance for rich executives.
  • Government can expand the supply of health care services, especially by promoting delegation of functions to lower paid professionals (who would be in increased supply). I was surprised in my days in the World Health Organization to discover that in so doing, better care was often the result.
  • Government can stimulate technological change, especially in areas such as patient record systems and mhealth -- technologies that result in lower expenditures on health services.

The Federal Minimum Wage

The graph shows the nominal value (darker blue) and the purchasing power (lighter blue) of the minimum wage (now $7.25 per hour). After the minimum wage is increased by act of Congress (the upward steps) it remains flat in nominal terms until the next increase. On the other hand the real value decays according to the rate of inflation.

The real value peaked in the late 1960s at the end of the Democratic Kennedy and Johnson administrations. It dropped during the Republican Nixon and Ford administrations, stayed about the same during the Democratic Carter administration, dropped for a decade under the Republican Reagan and Bush I administrations, ended the Democratic Clinton administration at about the same value as it started, fell during the Republican Bush II administration, and has risen during the Democratic Obama administration.

Not surprising that the Democrats try to keep the minimum wage a living wage, while the Republicans let its purchasing power fall.

Great Visual Presentation of a Complex Set of Data

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Embracing Defeat

Map of the Japanese Empire at its peak in 1942
Source: The History Place: World War II in the Pacific
As the map shows, Japan had bitten off more than it could chew by 1942. Based on colonies in Korea, Manchuria and Formosa (Taiwan) that it had collected early in the 20th century, it had initiated wars with China, the British Empire, the French Empire, the Dutch Empire and the United States and its colony, the Philippines. It had joined the Axis with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

In the next three years as the Allies defeated Germany and Italy, they brought more force to the war in the Pacific. Japan lost its navy and shipping, its air force and most of the force of its army. In August of 1945 the Soviet Union joined the forces against it. Bombings were destroying Japan's cities, with an estimated 100,000 killed in a single incendiary bombing of Tokyo and two cities destroyed by atom bombs. Shocking the population that had been undergoing propaganda for years to prepare them to fight to the last man, Japan surrendered unconditionally.

Embracing Defeat

I just finished reading Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower. The book deals with the way in which the Japanese responded to the defeat during the occupation by American troops which continued through 1952.

Japan had millions killed during the war. At the end of the war it was stripped of its colonies; the scattered remnants of its military had to return to Japan as did the civilians occupying its former colonies. Millions had deserted the bombed out cities. Factories had been hard hit. There was a disastrously poor harvest. The economy was in ruins.

The facts of the Holocaust were becoming known to a shocked world. Japan had its own atrocities to deal with, including the rapes of Nanking and Manila, the deaths of a million forced laborers in Indonesia, the deaths of 27 percent of White prisoners of war, and systematic medical experimentation on unwilling human subjects were only the most sensational of these.

The immediate response of the Japanese people was depression. They discovered that they had been subject to propaganda for years. That the government in the hands of the military had embarked on a stupid war, one that Japan had little hope of winning.

The day-to-day existence of the people was occupied by the search for enough food to sustain life. Many were without shelter, many without work. The black market which developed very rapidly was the necessary source for many of the necessities of life, but those necessities were increasingly hard to buy due to the raging inflation. Corruption was widespread, and huge amounts of government property were stolen.

According to Dower, Japanese focused heavily on the responsibility for defeat rather than on the responsibility for starting an aggressive and ultimately unwinnable war or that for the atrocities committed by Japanese.

The Occupation

A quarter of a million American service men manned the occupation, including several thousand in the General Headquarters. General Douglas MacArthur, an exceptional officer and man, had command; he came to be seen as exercising imperial power over that of the Japanese Emperor (yet he could bargain for speed from the Japanese by insisting that if they did not follow his directives quickly enough, his superiors in Washington and the Allied Command would impose more draconian policies). Supported by up to one-quarter of the Japanese government's budget, the occupying force lived much better than their Japanese hosts. They were very visible in everyday life in the cities, but invisible in the highly censored media.

The GHQ began with initial orders to democratize and demilitarize Japan in order to prevent any future Japanese aggressive war, but with the onset of the Cold War and especially the Korean War moved to promote anti-Communism and to develop Japan as a source of military supplies for the Korean War. Dower describes the Occupation as being marred by poor understanding of the Japanese culture and people and by racism.

Yet, Dower shows that the Occupation had major impacts on Japan. Notably, billions of dollars of aid were provided by the United States in the early years to prevent wide spread starvation, and even more billions were introduced into the Japanese economy to buy materials for the Korean War. Allowing rapid inflation in the early part of the Occupation reduced the debt and reduced the economic power of elites; harsh readjustment followed by heavy stimulus led to a strong economy.

Japanese Thought

Drawing heavily on published sources from the time, Dower shows the diversity of thought within Japan. He distinguishes between popular culture and that of the intellectual elite. Thus he shows a diversity of political opinion ranging from establishment conservatives, to socialists and Marxists, to pro Americans and to those most interested in just getting on with their lives.

While condemnation of the military and governmental leaders that led the war effort was widely shared, there was considerable discussion as to the form that government and the economy should take in the future. Among conservatives there was great support for the Emperor, while there was less concern than had been expected when his status was reduced.

Japan was highly literate and there were thousands of newspapers and magazines in publication, including a large number of poetry magazines. Radio was well established and was on for 5 or more hours a day in many households. More than 1000 Japanese movies were produced under the Occupation and foreign films were also available. While censored by the Occupation the media were less censored after the war than by the Japanese military government during the war. The flood of information available to the Japanese clearly influenced them in accepting the wartime defeat, adapting to its lessons, and getting on with the business of the nation.

Revisions in Japanese Institutions

There was complete demilitarization in the early days of the Occupation. With the Korean War, a 75,000 man defense force was established, but the Japanese were wary of any idea to introduce Japanese forces into Korea. The military was barred from participation in civilian government.

Since the Meiji Restoration Japanese government had been based on the sovereign power of the emperor who was considered to be both the descendant of a goddess and divine in his own person; he was regarded as the leader of a people descended from the gods. After the defeat, the Emperor was declared human and reduced to something more like the English monarch; sovereignty was assigned to the people.

Human rights were greatly reinforced as part of the democratization effort. Notably, the rights of women were enhanced. Universal suffrage was introduced. Unionization was promoted (remember that the New Deal Democrats remained in charge in Washington), and worker safety codes were introduced.

A new Constitution was introduced, one which remained unamended for half a century after it was ratified. Dower shows that it was in fact based on a draft written in the GHQ, albeit one informed by other constitutions than that of the United States; it was discussed and modified both with the cabinet and in the legislature. The new constitution outlawed the peerage and established a bicameral elected legislature with a Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The economy was significantly altered. Land reform undermined the power of the large landholders. The vertical integration of the industrial zaibatsu was replaced by the horizontal coordination of the keiretsu, and family control was replaced by bureaucratic control responsible to broad communities of stockholders. MITI was created giving the government a major role in industrial guidance. Small and medium size enterprises showed considerable technological innovation in meeting the challenges of demilitarization and consumer needs. Government policies were created to promote scientifically based innovations in industrial technology.

The results were a much more peaceful nation and a people with considerably more freedom and political influence. Remnants of feudalism were extirpated. The rate of economic growth, after the immediate downturn, was increased significantly for two decades as compared with that in the pre-war period as is shown in the following figure.

Japan's real per-capita GDP (in U.S. dollars)
Source: Beyond Reconstruction and Moving Towards New High Growth
Japanese Culture

Dower mentions some aspects of Japanese culture, such as the respect for the long continuity of the monarchy and its mythological basis. He suggests that there is an emphasis on responsibility to the family and immediate community and relative unconcern with the welfare of strangers. (He mentions the surprise of Japanese about the relative willingness of GIs to help out and give gifts to strangers.)

I think that Japanese culture is unusual in the ability of Japanese to experiment with foreign innovations -- accepting or rejecting them according to their perceived utility -- while at the same time consciously preserving cultural features from the past that are perceived as critical to their being Japanese. Dower does not mention Japanese efforts to preserve Sumo wrestling, No theater, Kabuki, and other elements of intangible Japanese culture while simultaneously developing strong new industries in areas such as automobile manufacturing and consumer electronics. The Japanese accepted demilitarization (far more readily that would other powers such as the Unites States) when they became convinced that it had been destructive to the nation, while the Japanese continue to gather to view the cherry blossoms in season.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The Japanese have changed, but they remain Japanese, different than other nations. "The water flows, but the river remains."

How Good is the Book?

Embracing Defeat was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It won the 1999 National Book Award for Nonfiction, was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Prize and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. This is a wonderful book, providing a multifaceted view of an exceptional time and place.

It is based primarily on documentary sources, as is necessary for a historian writing about events a half century in the past. Still that approach can never really convey the range of experiences of individuals. Nor can it give a statistically valid view of the diversity of opinion and experience. 

I am not sure that the experience of post war Japan's shift from militarism to pacifism is transferable to other situations. What may be transferable are lessons from the book.
  • That undertaking radical cultural change is better done with extensive and detailed knowledge of the culture.
  • That it is important to bring expertise in economics, law, and other fields to the table.
  • In Japan, as in many other nations, there existed considerable knowledge and expertise in the society but that much of it had not been utilized. Allowing the sources of expert knowledge to freely circulate their ideas was important.
  • Cooping key players in policy making and implementation is important.
  • That it is easy to underestimate the people, and wrong to do so.
  • That outside influence on the side of democracy and improved economic institutions helped.
  • That the rebuilding of a nation is a hugely complex process, perhaps impossible to fully understand, and perhaps best guided by the people of the nation themselves.