Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Improving institutions for the social construction of knowledge

Public debate is always around issues in which people disagree. Is Bradley Manning guilty of a crime and if so, which crime (or was his action justified)? Was George Zimmerman guilty of a crime? Is human activity releasing so much greenhouse gas that the climate will change? Is autism best described as a single condition or a spectrum of conditions? When does human life begin?

It seems to me that a first step in dealing with these issues is for everyone to recognize that he/she could be wrong. Newton's theory of gravitation stood for more than two centuries until Einstein came along to suggest that there was a better way to understand gravity and that Newton's theory gave false answers in some situations. We know that eye witnesses are often wrong in reporting what they saw, and indeed that we sometimes fail to consciously perceive what our eyes are telling our brains.
I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.
Yogi Berra 
Perhaps the best way to regard matters of fact is to think of the probability that of fact is actually true. Some statements will be almost certainly true, some very doubtful. Indeed, one might go further to assign both a probability of a statement being true and a degree of confidence in that probability. For example, one might say that there is approximately a 50 percent probability that it will rain, but that that probability might actually be anywhere in a range of 40 to 60 percent.

We may choose to act as if a statement is true even if we accept the possibility that it is not. In law, juries are instructed to find a person guilty of a crime when all the members believe that to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, a grand jury can indict a person for trial on far less convincing evidence. Between these two levels of assurance there is "preponderance of evidence" as the standard for selecting between the claim of the plaintiff and that of the defendant in civil suits.
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
Yogi Berra 
So how should you decide how true something is, and how much you believe that estimate. Clearly there are many, many things about which you would like to have such opinions. For many of those things, the decision is not very important to your everyday life -- which flavor of pizza is the best, whether Casablanca or Citizen Cane was the better movie, whether other galaxies have different physical laws than this one. Others are very important. If I can't get the pizza I most like, I will almost surely like the pizza I get. On the other hand, if we fail to take appropriate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and global warming does occur, the costs may be measured in trillions of dollars and lives will surely be lost unnecessarily; collectively on this issue our opinions will sway legislation.

You don't have time to make informed decisions on all the issues that come before you. The approach that we have come up in civilization after civilization is to institutionalize processes to seek the truth on different kinds of issues, leaving the heavy lifting of decision making to the institutions that are created. We construct knowledge socially.

In our society, courts are the institutions developed to decide on the truth of allegations of guilt and liability. The FDA judges whether clinical trials have established a drug is safe and efficacious. The CDC uses epidemiological procedures to establish the existence and causes of epidemics. Congress uses hearings and debate to discover the right laws to pass. Scientists use replication of experiments and peer review to establish the validity of scientific claims. Journalists uses interviews and investigative reporting, checked and double checked, and reviewed by experienced editors to determine what to report to the public. Historians use research in archives and debate to establish the likelihood of statements about the past. In other societies, alternative ways to judge truth are institutionalized. For example in theocratic states there is more recourse to religious leaders; in traditional societies more recourse to tradition and traditional authority figures.

It is easy to see that our own society has institutionalized very inadequate means for judging truth in the past. Political leaders on both sides began the American Civil War believing that it would be short and relatively painless, and each believed that their side would win; that war turned out to be relatively bloodier than any other war in our history; the society that southerners believed the war would protect was destroyed by the war and its aftermath. Prior to the Civil War, most white Americans accepted falsehoods that their churches preached, that many of their governments proclaimed, and that their schools taught -- that African Americans were of an inferior race and American Indians were of an inferior culture.

Our institutions, when they work well, allocate resources to different knowledge questions reasonably, spending more time and effort on those which are important and less on those which are unimportant, avoiding those which are unlikely to yield to existing methods in order to focus on those that are soluble, stopping the search for a specific truth when the search process is facing decreasing returns to investment of time and effort.

Unfortunately, we seem to be institutionalizing "sound bite" decision making. Otherwise uninformed, we watch brief arguments by two opposing "talking heads" on television programs, all too often accepting that position that best fit our own prejudices. That may be an adequate process for deciding which of two movies would most reward a visit to the local theater, but I suggest it is not a good way to decide whether gun control laws are adequate nor whether to have your child immunized against common childhood diseases.

I would rather believe the decision of the jury to be true, than try to judge the truth on the basis of a five minute televised debate. I would rather believe the FDA than the TV "talking head" fulminating about the lack of safety of immunizing children. I would rather believe the government and scientific community about the safety of GM foods than adopt the fears of a politician without the adequate training to read and understand the evidence. Of course, in accepting the decisions of our formal knowledge institutions I will make some mistakes, but fewer than by trying to judge all issues myself, each on the basis of inadequate information (from biased sources) and little analysis.

There remains the problem of deciding when different institutions advance opposing hypotheses as true. What do we do when Republican politicians tell us that their truth seeking methods lead them to decide that global warming is not taking place while 97 percent of scientists who have studied the issue tell us that it is? We have no choice, I fear, than to decide which source is more credible on that specific topic. That is why we need to teach our kids "information literacy" -- ways to judge accurately which institutional position is more credible.

Different cultures have institutionalized the social construction of knowledge in different ways, Moreover, the truth seeking institutions change over time. An important effort in every culture is to improve truth seeking institutions. There are many ways of doing so. Science has progressed often through technological innovations such as the telescope and microscope that allow better observation. We have invented computers and simulation software to better explore the implications of our assumptions. Governments are opening their decision mechanisms allowing more people to participate in order to improve the knowledge on which decisions are based as well as the utilization of that knowledge. Western society invented large corporations and professional management to deal with the issues of expanding markets and commerce, notably in the 19th and 20th century.

One important method for improving knowledge institutions is to scan the approaches used by other cultures, adopting memes from those other cultures that work to improve our own. American universities in the early 20th century adopted models of knowledge creation and dissemination from European universities. The former Communist countries adopted market models to signal the scarcity and abundance of goods and services when their central planning systems proved inadequate. The problem of course is how to accurately decide which institutional models are in fact so superior to those we already have as to merit the substitution.
I never blame myself when I'm not hitting. I just blame the bat and if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn't my fault that I'm not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?
Yogi Berra

Monday, July 29, 2013

What you don't measure you can't manage well.

HIV/AIDS killed 1.47m people in 2010; viral hepatitis killed 1.44m globally that year. I quote from The Economist Daily Chart:
(V)iral hepatitis killed more people (than AIDS) in 117 of the 187 countries tracked by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington–including in India, China, Britain and Japan. The map below shows where one disease kills more than the other, distinguished by high and low ratios (determined informally by where initial high rates begin to taper off). Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, usually spurred by one of five main viruses. Types A and E are transmitted through contaminated water and food. Types B, C and D are delivered through infected blood (such as dirty syringes) or in the case of B, from intercourse or from mother to child during birth. Hepatitis B and C, in particular, can be blamed for liver cirrhosis and cancer.

When I worked in the Office of Research in USAID  a couple of decades ago, we funded an Israeli-Egyptian research project which found very high rates of Hepatitis C in Egypt, much higher rates than had been previously understood. Perhaps part of the reason that hepatitis has not been seen as of comparable importance to HIV/AIDS is that the prevalence of hepatitis was not as well reported as that of HIV/AIDS until recently. Perhaps also, there is the problem that HIV is a single virus, while hepatitis is a general term for liver ailments caused by five different viruses.

In any case, the success in reducing the spread of HIV in developed countries suggests that we might now focus more effort on hepatitis while not attending less to HIV.

"The consensus on raising people out of poverty is surprisingly recent"

I quote from an interesting article in The Economist:
The classical school believed that the real constraint on growth was aggregate savings. Given that the rich saved more than the poor, this implied that less poverty would mean lower growth. John Maynard Keynes disputed this view, arguing that it was aggregate consumption that mattered, in which case reducing poverty could actually aid growth. But it was not until the 1990s that a coherent theoretical framework emerged to show how high levels of poverty stifled investment and innovation. For example, several models showed how unequal access to credit meant that the poor were less able to invest in their own education or businesses than was optimal, leading to lower growth for the economy as a whole. Scholars buttressed the theory with empirical evidence that high initial levels of poverty reduced subsequent growth in developing countries. 
New theories of poverty were also overturning received notions of why the poor stayed poor. The fault had long been placed at their door: the poor were variously lazy, prone to alcoholism and incapable of disciplined work. Such tropes are still occasionally heard today, but the horrors of the Depression in the 1930s led many to re-evaluate the idea that poverty was mainly the result of people’s own actions. Advances in economic models meanwhile allowed policymakers to see how low levels of education, health and nutrition could keep people stuck in penury. Policies to subsidise education or health care were desirable not merely for their own sake but also because they would help people break out of poverty. 
The growth of “conditional cash transfers”, schemes like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia that give poor people money as long as they send their children to school or have them vaccinated, are logical developments of these ideas.
One of the themes of this blog is that the most important approach to development is to find ways for developing countries to work smarter -- to bring knowledge more effectively to bear on production (and consumption and investment). Capital accumulation is important because it allows people to bring knowledge embodied in plant, equipment and infrastructure to bear on economic activity. Investment in human capital is similarly important.

In poor countries, most people are poor. It seems fairly obvious that helping the poor in these countries to be more productive (by bringing knowledge to bear on their work and other activities) will be a very important route to not only growing the GDP, but also to the reduction of poverty as the poor appropriate a significant portion of their increased product.

Similarly, in richer countries in which the middle class is larger, helping the middle class to work productively by applying more and better knowledge more effectively will contribute significantly to economic progress, and to the welfare of the middle class.

There seems to be increasing evidence that pro-rich policies that help the rich to get even richer faster, thereby increasing income and wealth divergence, seem to lead to high levels of unemployment, more poverty, decreasing economic mobility, and economic decline of the middle class -- trickle down doesn't work.

From The Economist

The number of wireless-broadband subscriptions rose by 14% last year among the members of the OECD, a mainly rich-country club. At the end of 2012 these countries had an estimated 781m subscriptions, of which 85% were standard mobile broadband; satellite and fixed terrestrial wireless systems accounted for less than 1%
There will be subscriptions for offices, libraries, and other businesses as well as from individual homes. I am not surprised that some countries already have more subscriptions than people. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Great Videos of World Heritage Sites

The UNESCO World Heritage program has recognized nearly 1000 sites as part of the heritage of all mankind. The sites are recognized for their great cultural importance or their natural beauty. A number of U.S. sites are included in the world list.

Japanese television channel NHK has joined with UNESCO to produce short videos on a large number of these sites. I have provided three below, all focusing on the Indian cultures of the USA.

On Reading "The Birth of Modern Politics"

Results of the 1828 Presidential Election

This is a continuation of an earlier post on The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons. The book's title is perhaps somewhat misleading. The book briefly accounts for the careers of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson prior to the presidential election of 1824. It discusses the elections of 1824 and 1828 in comparable detail, as well as the Adams administration from 1825 to 1829, and more briefly the Jackson administration.

Adams and Jackson were polar opposites. Adams, from Massachusetts, was the son of a president, well educated and multilingual, with extensive European diplomatic experience, the most prominent of his generation in a family that has been prominent in American life for many generations. Jackson, orphaned at an early age with little formal education, was born in the south but migrated to Tennessee; he accumulated wealth as a land speculator and slave holding plantation owner, and rose to prominence as a general in Indian wars and as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was a duelist known for a violent temper while Adams seems to have been a man of more guarded emotions.

In the half century after the beginning of the American Revolution, the United States population had increased, the road system had improved, and there were many more newspapers and presses. The initial division between federalists and anti-federalists had diminished; President Monroe had sought to reduce party partisanship as did President Adams in his 1825-29 term of office.

The division between southern slave states and northern free labor states remained; the American system of manufacturing was being born in the north. Western settlers were becoming an important part of the electorate with their own issues and concerns. "The American System" (a philosophy of government that called for a central bank, protective tariffs for American manufactures, and a vigorous government program supporting construction of roads and canals) was a significant political issue.

There were 24 states in 1824 and 1828. All but six chose their electors for president by popular vote in 1824, all but 2 in 1828. Suffrage was still limited to white men, but had expanded significantly. States had their number of representatives in the House of Representatives were apportioned according to the free population plus 3/5th of the slave population. Poling places were more universally available, but candidates supplied their own ballots and in some cases votes were cast verbally. The presidential election was held at a different time than the congressional elections. All very different than today.

Four candidates ran for President in 1824 -- Jackson, Adams, Clay and Crawford. Both Adams and Jackson assumed the role of "mute tribune", refraining from campaigning publicly. Jackson won the plurality but not the majority of the popular vote nor of the electoral college; Adams second in both. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, and Adams emerged with a majority there. Jackson's supporters charged that Henry Clay swayed the Congress in support for appointment to Adams' cabinet as the result of a corrupt agreement between Adams and Clay.

Adams was what today we might call a progressive. He proposed creating better U.S. charts for the Atlantic Coast, the creation of a Naval Academy, improvement of the transportation infrastructure, creation of a Department of the Interior, creation of a national university, creation of a national system of weights and measures, and the creation of a national astronomical observatory. The Congress, dominated by Jackson's supporters, passed very little of the legislation to implement his program. The progressive nature of that program became a key issue in the next election.

In the election of 1828 there were two candidates, sitting president John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Adams' vice president from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, switched sides and ran as Jackson's running made; Adams ran with Pennsylvanian Richard Rush, one of his existing cabinet members. Thus neither side balanced the ticket geographically; two northeners ran against two southerners.

Adams again played the mute tribune while Jackson was much more active making public appearances. The Jackson supporters, having formed the Democratic Party, organized a more active campaign than had ever been seen before; they did polling and research, created networks of party supporting newspapers, distributed handbills and  pamphlets widely, held public meetings, and even used campaign songs; Adams supporters were far less organized and active. The Democrats selected their candidate through a national convention for the first time in American history, setting a precedent that has been followed ever since. The campaign would today be seen as pretty dirty including, for example, aspersions on candidates' wives; perhaps it was not different in that respect than previous campaigns. Jackson carried the southern states and the western states and -- importantly -- Pennsylvania and most of the electoral votes from New York; Adams carried only the northern states and lost the election.

The Democratic Party won six of the next 8 elections, the new Whigs Party only two. (There was also an Anti-Mason Party at the time.)  Jackson went on to greatly strengthen the office of the presidency, overcoming South Carolina's effort to nullify a federal law, refusing to follow Supreme Court orders to intercede in southern states expulsion of the Cherokee Indian tribe, and vetoing the extension of the authorization of a national bank. History has proven Adams' program and Jackson's Party to be the more lasting.

The book is well illustrated, relatively short and easy to read. I would have found it useful to have an appendix with brief biographies of the secondary characters (e.g. Calhoun, Clay, Van Buren, Crawford, Webster).

I was bothered by author Parsons explaining what the candidates really thought. I assume that motivations are complex and sometimes unconscious. Do politicians ever really reveal their ideas and motives even to their close collaborators?  I tend to doubt that contemporaries fully understand the motivations of major figures of their time, nor do those major figures fully and frankly document their motives (even as they themselves understand them) in documents that they expect to be revealed to the public. As they say, the past is a different country and historians view their topic through the interests of the historians own time.

Still, I found the book interesting, especially as it illuminated American political history after the time of the founding fathers and before Jackson's presidency -- a time I had not previously read about.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Technology and Development

The poorest people in the world depend on hunting and gathering and subsistence agriculture for their living. These folk have to work so hard to supply the bare necessities of life that they have little opportunity to do anything else. Historically, economic development has depended on increasing labor productivity in agriculture, thereby releasing labor for other economic functions. It is only when a few can produce all the food and fiber required by the nation that the many can go on to manufacturing and services.

What are the technologies that increase labor productivity in agriculture? Substituting high productivity crops and livestock for low productivity is an important step. That is why the Colombian Exchange was so important to economic development. Then improved crop cultivars and improved livestock breeds are vital. Better tilling procedures and irrigation play important roles. So too do agricultural chemicals -- fertilizers, weed killers and insecticides. Better tools and machines play a part, increasingly important as farms get bigger and mechanization becomes more necessary to allow a smaller agricultural workforce to tend the land and the increased per capita production. Then comes better storage, improved food processing and better distribution.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, decades ago, I helped build a house for a man who had lost his in an earthquake. The house was a prefab, and we worked with simple tools -- hammers, saws, shovels, etc. Given the manufacturing that had gone into the framing we used, we were able to build a substantial house rather quickly. It had been designed to withstand the earthquakes that would surely hit Chile in the future. If I compare that to the totally prefab houses that are used here after disasters, or if I compare our productivity to that of housing construction workers in the United States today, I am impressed by the way technology development can increase productivity in housing -- building bigger and better houses more efficiently.

We tend to forget how much piped potable water, electricity and sewerage have contributed to economic efficiency. These technologies were widely disseminated in the developed world in the 18th century -- electrification in the early 20th. Still, many poor people around the world still lack piped water, sewerage and electrification. Cell phones apparently are overcoming the barrier to telecommunications even for the poor.

The industrial revolution was largely based on the substitution of mechanized factory production for cottage production, a substitution that involved radical technological transformation of the production process. The technology of manufacturing has continued to evolve. While clothing manufacturing still involves a lot of labor, many new products -- chemicals, electronics, capital goods -- are produced in highly automated factories. Developing nations are still in the process of adopting and adapting these productive technologies.

Historically, development has been a shift from economies based on primary production (fishing, mining and forestry -- which have also undergone technological revolutions -- as well as agriculture) to those based on manufacturing, and now to those emphasizing services (e.g. financial services, education, health services). The revolution in information and communications technologies is also revolutionizing these service industries, both making new services possible and changing the way previously existing services are now produced. Indeed, these ICTs are revolutionizing the way companies are managed and the way in which markets and other economic institutions function.

Today I heard a conversation in which the term "technology" was used in the limited context of the changes in social networking coming about due to the penetration of smart phones in developing countries. That is an important new element in economic development, but it is far from what I regard to be the continuing need for technology invention, transfer and innovation to promote economic development.

Americans Often Elect Successful Generals to be President.

I have been reading The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons. It occurs to me that the author might have given more attention to the frequent election of military heroes of recently past wars.

  • Washington after the Revolutionary War
  • Jackson after the War of 1812
  • William Henry Harrison, after the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811
  • Zackary Taylor after the Mexican-American War
  • Filmore and Pierce also served in the Mexican-American War
  • Grant after the Civil War
  • Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and McKinley also served in the Civil War
  • Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War
  • Truman served in World War I
  • Eisenhower after World War II
  • Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and George H. W. Bush served in World War II
  • Carter graduated from the Naval Academy after World War II and serving during the Korean War.
It is not intuitive today, but Harrison, Jackson and Taylor gained national fame in Indian wars. Even Lincoln served as an officer in the militia during the Black Hawk War.

Washington, Jackson, the first Harrison, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower all were known nationally due to their leadership in war before their election to President. Teddy Roosevelt also gained considerable fame leading the Rough Riders on San Juan Hill. For many other presidents, service in the armed forces during wartime was an important part of their background leading to the presidency. Even George W. Bush served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War.

It is hard to see Andrew Jackson as a viable candidate for President had he not become famous as a general and especially leading the successful American troops in the Battle of New Orleans. Indeed, might his election to president have been another example of public support for a military hero?

The Adams Route

Many presidents were diplomats, Secretary of State or both en route to the presidency.

  • John Adams was a diplomat
  • Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, John Quincy Adams and Van Buren had all served as Secretary of State
  • William Henry Harrison had been a diplomat
  • Buchanan also served as Secretary of State
  • Hoover, while not a diplomat, gained national visibility managing international relief programs during and after World War I.
Of course, many presidents had previously served in other Cabinet offices or as vice president. After Jackson, may had been professional politicians, often serving in the Congress or in high state offices.

Thus, while leading American armies in battle was an important route to the presidency from Washington to Eisenhower, diplomacy was important only in the early days of the nation. Perhaps when the Republic was new and less powerful, international diplomacy was more important to its voters. As Parsons' book indicates, the rise in political parties made political party credentials important. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 put the Speaker of the House and President pro tempore of the Senate before the Secretary of State and other cabinet officers in line for the presidency.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Monday, July 22, 2013

Can I really appreciate the difference between slave and free in American history?

I was listening to Annette Gordon Reed on television as she talked about Sally Hemings, her Hemings relatives and Thomas Jefferson. Gordon Reed was musing about Hemings decision to return to the United States with Jefferson after they had lived in France together for some time. In France, Hemings was free, while she would return to being a slave if and when she returned to the United States. Apparently Jefferson promised that she would be well treated on return to Monticello and that her children would be manumitted at age 21. Hemings did return to Virginia and we lose sight of her after her return.

Gordon Reed said that a Hemings woman slave in Jefferson's Monticello probably would have worked in the house, not in the field. Presumably she would have been reasonably well treated by Jefferson and those around him. Still, as any modern American, it seems very strange to me that someone would choose slavery rather than remain free. Yet, the real choice was for the young woman to remain alone in France and try to make her own way there, or to return to a life in Virginia that she knew and knew she could survive. I have also wondered whether a young woman living with Jefferson might not have felt considerable affection for him -- he was so gifted a man, so widely respected by others.

Then it occurred to me to think about the life of a free married woman in the United States in the 18th century. Of course, she would not have been able to vote. Any property held by the couple would be controlled (legally) by the husband. If she was a farmers wife, chances are she would work both in the field and in the house. Her life would probably have been harder than that of Sally Hemings' life in Monticello. It is not clear that the children of a free black woman of Hemings' generation would have been better than that of her children raised in the Jefferson household and freed at 21.

I also happened to listen to Colum McCann discuss Frederick Douglas' trip to Ireland in 1845. Douglas, a former slave who became a great abolitionist, was invited by members of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy. As their guest, he traveled around Ireland speaking to large crowds in various cities.

McCann points out that Douglas faced a dilemma. 1845 was the beginning of the Irish potato famine. The Catholic underclass was desperately poor. Many would stave to death in the next few years, many would die on plague ships trying to escape from the hunger, and many would immigrate into a new world for which they were ill prepared. The lives of the Irish Catholic poor were worse than the lives of the slaves in the American South. Douglas was faced by the choice for speaking for the desperate Irish and offending his hosts, or continuing to speak against slavery. He chose the latter.

So, perhaps Sally Hemings was right to choose slavery for her own welfare and that of her children, and perhaps the average slave in the American south was better off than the average free Irish Catholic in the late 1840s.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Thought About MOOCs and Their Role in Education.

I quote from an article in The Economist:
EdX, a non-profit MOOC provider founded in May 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and backed with $60m of their money, is now a consortium of 28 institutions, the most recent joiner being the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. Led by the Open University, which pioneered distance-learning in the 1970s, FutureLearn, a consortium of 21 British, one Irish and one Australian university, plus other educational bodies, will start offering MOOCs later this year....... 
On July 10th Coursera said it had raised another $43m in venture capital, on top of the $22m it banked last year. Although its enrolments have soared, and now exceed 4m students, this is a huge leap of faith by investors that the firm can develop a viable business model. The new money should allow Coursera to build on any advantage it has from being a first mover among a rapidly growing number of MOOC providers.
 What do we want people to get from schooling? Let me suggest that our objects include at least:

  • facts
  • skills, including but not limited to reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic
  • information literacy -- knowing where to find information and how to evaluate it and its sources
  • understanding of how natural, cultural and technological systems work
  • abilities that will contribute to the students ability to earn a living and contribute to the economy
  • a basis for good citizenship
  • an enthusiasm for learning
  • a basis for future learning
  • ethics and moral behavior
  • a willingness and ability to help others to learn
  • a willingness, ability and enthusiasm for continuing (self) education
  • a basis for effective participation in family and community life
  • a basis for a happy, healthy, productive life
Obviously, not every minute in every class of every year in every school contributes equally to achieving all of these objectives.

The MOOCs will without doubt change the efficiency with which some of these objectives can be achieved in some circumstances. Institutions of higher education should adjust how and what they teach through other means as they introduce the MOOCs in their curricula.

I think a lot of these objectives can best be achieved by personal contact with professional educators. Indeed, some of what we want students to learn is implicit knowledge and understanding, and some is only transmitted by the example of professionals. Automating some aspects of teaching should allow educators to focus more on what can not be taught through technology alone.

I suspect that a lot of educators are not very good at helping students achieve many of these objectives. I have learned a lot in the process not only of being a student myself, but from my students in teaching and in team teaching from my peers, and I wish I was better at teaching.

The Russian Famine of 1921 and U.S. Foreign Aid.

American Experience recently aired a broadcast on the Russian famine of 1921-22. It killed an estimated five million people, and would have killed millions more had the United States not sent large amounts of food aid. At the peak of the U.S. relief effort, 16 million people were receiving food aid. The broadcast showed horrible pictures of children, naked in overcrowded orphanages as starved as the inmates of Nazi concentration camps a generation later; it showed piles of bodies piled frozen on the ground; it recounted massive amounts of cannibalism, mothers killing a child so that their other children could eat the bodies of their siblings.

The U.S. aid included seed grain that allowed the people of the USSR to plant again in 1922; the harvest ended the famine and allowed the food aid to end.

The film also showed the state of the Russian railroads in 1921 after the damage inflicted by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War that followed. The United States, which had huge stocks of grain, was able to move the grain to its ports and ship it across the Atlantic Ocean more easily than the Russians were able to move the grain from the Russian ports to the starving people.

I recently posted on life in the USSR in the 1930s, One of the things members of my history book club had difficulty understanding is how Russians then could believe the propaganda from their government that things were getting better. This film made that acceptance much more credible.

The History of American Disaster Relief

The United States provided two billion pounds or food aid to Belgium and northern France early in World War I, and then provided food aid to the millions of hungry Europeans in the aftermath of that war. The food aid to the USSR in 1921 was even greater in magnitude. This was perhaps the beginning of the American continuing effort to provide emergency aid following disasters abroad. The aid to the USSR was especially notable in that it was given to a Communist country at a time that there was considerable fear of the international spread of Communism, including spread to the United States, among political leaders and the economic elites in the United States. I suppose that this was also a precedent for the broader development assistance programs of the United States that have persisted since World War II.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Good News from the Farm Sector

Source: The Economist
World production of grains will rise by 7% to a record 2.5 billion tonnes in the 2013-14 crop year, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation. This will boost global end-season stocks in 2014 by 11%, to 568m tonnes—the highest level for 12 years. 
Economists tell us that if supply increases, prices are likely to go down. That would be good news in a number of ways. Of course, it could be that some of the increased production will be retained as stock to forestall future shortages. 

UNHCR Historical Refugee Data Presentation

Another shocking set of statistics.

Did you know that nearly a third of women report having experienced violence at some point in their lives? Via The Economist:

Thinking about Trayvon Martin

A version of the Golden Rule is to treat all young men as you would have others treat your own son and treat all young women as you would have others treat your daughter.

Crimes against our children are the fault of the criminals who commit them., but it is wise to teach children to avoid situations in which they may be victimized.

How long before we in the USA treat all children as we would have others treat our own children? How long before our black, Hispanic and Indian citizens will not have to teach their children to protect themselves against violence committed out of prejudice?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Public Policy Should be By The Numbers!

The CDC states:
Drug-induced deaths include all deaths for which drugs are the underlying cause, including deaths attributable to acute poisoning by drugs (drug overdoses) and deaths from medical conditions resulting from chronic drug use. A drug includes illicit or street drugs (e.g., heroin or cocaine), as well as legal prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs; alcohol is not included. The majority of deaths are unintentional drug poisoning deaths, with suicidal drug poisoning and drug poisoning of undetermined intent comprising the majority of the remainder (2). Adverse effects from drugs taken as directed and infections resulting from drug use are not included. In 2007, drug-induced deaths were more common than alcohol-induced or firearm-related deaths in the United States ........During 2007 (the year in which the latest national NVSS mortality data are available), a total of 38,371 drug-induced deaths occurred in the United States 
Here are several maps (source) that show where drugs are used and how they get there:

Demand is geographically skewed in the U.S. 
The West prefers methamphetamine (red) and the east prefers cocaine (blue)

 The supply routes for meth follow the demand

The same goes for coke so sellers can reap the biggest possible profit

Marijuana distribution, like preference for it, is more balanced

And the same goes for heroin

It looks to me as if criminals are organized on a large scale, and the illegal drug trade. It is difficult to measure the value of the trade, and estimates are all over the lot, but clearly it is many tens of billions of dollars per year. Only the federal government is adequately placed to deal with the interstate commerce in illegal drugs. Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security should do more to protect the public from illicit drugs, even if it means doing less to protect us from terrorists. The drug dealers after all are accidentally killing a lot more Americans that the terrorists have been able to kill be design.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What kind of countries avoid the Middle Income Trap.

Danny Quah has an interesting post on his blog on the Middle Income Trap. The graph above, originally published in China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society, is taken from that post. The countries shown in blue are the very few that have grown their per capita GDP faster than did the United States for an extended period of time.

Quah states that "only 13 economies had managed to break out of the Middle Income Trap, from the 101 already middle-income in 1960.' These can be divided into three groups:

  • Five East Asian, Confucian tradition economies: Hong Kong China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan China;
  • Four PIGS economies: Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain;
  • Four quite varied economies: Equatorial Guinea, Israel, Mauritius, Puerto Rico
I suspect that patronage is an important factor. The PIGS did well be entering the EU and getting catch-up assistance as well as preferential access to a huge common market. Israel and Puerto Rico similarly benefited from their special relationships with the United States. So too, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan benefited from market access to large markets and special relationships with major powers. Equatorial Guinea had lots of oil recently discovered and not many people. Mauritius is a member of the Commonwealth and the Francophonie, and has benefited from a favorable location to develop its tourism industry. All of these countries are relatively small.

A thought about the Zimmerman trial.

I am again moving outside of my area of knowledge to write about the Zimmerman trial. It seems clear that there is something wrong when a kid goes out to buy a snack and is shot to death in his father's gated community.

I think Zimmerman's trial was a reasonable exercise of the American legal process. Judges, lawyers and jury members are all people. They make mistakes. There seems to be no indication that these particular people were incompetent, lazy nor corrupt.

We believe that someone charged with a crime deserves a fair trial. That the charges brought by government have to be shown to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. That is difficult for the police and prosecutors to do, and as a result some criminals are not convicted. On the other hand we know that innocent people are also convicted, even of capital crimes. I think the "reasonable doubt" criterion is the right one for our society/

I suppose that the federal government will do its duty to investigate whether there was a hate crime and make a reasonable decision on whether to prosecute on that charge. If Martin's family chooses to exercise its legal right to bring civil charges against Zimmerman, I assume the legal system will again work reasonably well.

So perhaps we should look to other reasons why a teenager died. Should we change our gun laws, or the "stand your ground" laws. Should we require people claiming self defense to demonstrate that need more fully than is now done? Are the protections against profiling (race, age, clothing) sufficient? Certainly we have to do more to reduce racial prejudice.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How do we think?

Askville by Amazon states that "there are three different types of specialized thinking:
  1. Visual thinking - Thinking in Pictures, like mine
  2. Music and Math thinking
  3. Verbal logic thinking
Some people think in pictures, some in words. Some people have a "mind's eye"; some a "mind's ear."

I believe that we are not always conscious of the brain's thinking. I can consciously change my breathing, becoming aware of breathing when I choose to change its rate or depth, but usually not being conscious of the brain's thinking about breathing. I note when a sound "attracts my attention" but I assume that my brain is receiving input from my ears about sounds, only raising one to my consciousness when it passes some threshold (which depends on my concentration on the primary object of my attention).  It seems to me that my intuition also depends on unconscious thinking when the brain alerts my stream of consciousness to something to which I might attend.

The brain is of course operating at an electrochemical level. It is at the conscious level that that one perceives that one is thinking in pictures or in words. Which brings me to the question:
Why does one person's brain work in such a way that his/her conscious thought is perceived as pictorial, while another prerson/s brain works in such a way that his/her conscious thought is perceived as words?
I recall the composer, Ingolf Dahl, hated the sound of the Good Humor truck passing through the neighborhood. I think it was because he heard the music he was composing in his head as he was composing it, and the sound of the tinkling melody from the street interfered with that music in his head. I remember that as a child in bed, I used to listen to the music in my head when the lights went out until I went to sleep. Supposedly Mozart somehow "heard" a complete composition in his mind in a single gestalt -- something I can not imagine.

I remember the sculptor Juan de la Cruz Saavedra telling me that he saw the sculpture in the raw material, and simply carved away the material that obscured it so that others could also see what he saw. When I commissioned a piece, on delivery he asked if I could see the sculpture or whether he should clear away even more of the original material to make it more visible to me. Michelangelo is supposed to have said something similar.

I also remember talking to an artist who described his method of work. He would take a blank canvas and look at it. As he looked at it, a painting would come into existence on the canvas. If he liked it, he would apply the paint, much as one might paint by the numbers. If he didn't like the virtual painting, he would have to put the canvas away for a while since he could not "unsee" the virtual picture his brain had constructed. The French artist Delacroix is supposed to have been able to start painting a large canvas from an point such at the hand of its major subject and in a single effort complete the total picture without preliminary sketches -- the whole appearing in appropriate proportion and with a strong composition. Apparently some artists can externalize the virtual image that their brain creates, projecting it on a canvas.

I think that I do algebra and calculus on paper. I see an equation and then know the next equation that follows it without putting it into either images or words.

I suppose that everyone has a stream of consciousness. It is that stream of consciousness that occurs in words or pictures or some other format. The stream of consciousness must be an aspect of the behavior of the brain, and it must be the result of the evolution of structures and processes of the brain. How could evolution produce a structure and process resulting in a stream of consciousness that is perceived in such different ways by different people?

Askville by Amazon also describes several "Different Types of Thinking"
  1. Critical thinking - This is convergent thinking. It assesses the worth and validity of something existent. It involves precise, persistent, objective analysis. When teachers try to get several learners to think convergently, they try to help them develop common understanding.
  2. Creative thinking - This is divergent thinking. It generates something new or different. It involves having a different idea that works as well or better than previous ideas.
  3. Convergent thinking - This type of thinking is cognitive processing of information around a common point, an attempt to bring thoughts from different directions into a union or common conclusion.
  4. Divergent thinking - This type of thinking starts from a common point and moves outward into a variety of perspectives. 
  5. Inductive thinking - This is the process of reasoning from parts to the whole, from examples to generalizations.
The brain provides the mind with flexibility in thought. Culture evolves taking advantage of that flexibility so that people can learn to think in these ways.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Why doesn't the federal government define all legal benefits for civil unions rather than marriages?

I really don't know about this, but I thought I might share anyway. I understand that U.S. federal law has 1000 provisions that apply to married couples. The country has a strong history of separating church and state. Why does the federal government not change to make all these provisions apply not to "marriages" but to "civil unions". While the states could determine what they wanted to call a civil union, the federal government could define standards that state civil unions would have to meet to qualify people in their civil unions for federal benefits.

There are literally thousands of religions in the United States. Some sanctify relationships that the government finds contrary to public policy, such as polygamy. None of our governments are going to sanctify (in the sense of make holy) any marriage. We of course have to outlaw some cults, such as the Branch Davidians of David Koresh, the Jonestown sect of Jim Jones, or Charles Manson's family. Why should we let all the leaders of all these religions and sects determine who qualifies for government benefits?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Income is unequally distributed in this country geographically.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The founding fathers thought the vote should be restricted to those people who have the most skin in the game -- the property owners. What would they think of the situation now?

On the other hand, the poverty in much of the south east and in the Texas border area may be related to historical prejudice.

The problem in the U.S. Health Sector in one graph!

Source: Wikipedia
Life expectancy compared to healthcare spending per capita from 1970 to 2008, in the US and the next 19 most wealthy countries.

The Move Towards a Service Economy.

Source: The Economist
Developed countries are making a transition from manufacturing economies to service economies, as the graph above shows. The good jobs on factory assembly lines that allowed people with high school education or even less to enter the middle class are disappearing (as we know) and the people who held them are not qualified to work as doctors or nurses, teachers, game designers, movie stars, or professional athletes.

We can surely employ more people if the people with the required skills were available. Immigration and education should be priorities.

I personally am rather glad to see less enthusiasm for the mcmansions and expensive autos. Perhaps we might consume fewer goods and work less. Longer vacations, fewer people with two jobs, less overtime might lead to more people with at least one job (with a living wage).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Friday, July 12, 2013

I am ashamed that the U.S. fails to fund UNESCO to work on education for all and girls education!

One child, one teacher, one book can change the world.

Today is Malala Day. Marking her speech to the young people from around the world gathered in United Nations General Assembly hall, the world has dedicated itself anew to Education for All.  The need to educate girls has been especially poignent in the case of this courageous girl who continues to fight for the right to education even after she was shot and almost killed for speaking out on their right to go to school.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is the lead agency in the United Nations system for education. It produces the Education for All Global Monitoring Report and continues to help and encourage developing nations to bring more of their children to school. Still, however, there are 57 million children denied their rights to even a basic education. UNESCO has been especially concerned with the rights of girls to go to schools.

The United States has withheld its contributions to UNESCO for nearly two years because the UNESCO member states, assembled in its General Conference, voted to admit Palestine to membership. Not only has the Obama administration been required to withhold the 22 percent of the UNESCO regular budget (which corresponds to the US portion of the world economy), it has been forced to deny voluntary contributions to UNESCO's efforts to promote Education for All and girls education.

The problem is with laws passed two decades ago that are gravely flawed. They don't have a sunset provision that requires the Congress to reexamine the policy periodically. The also don't grant the White House the normal authority to waive the provision when it becomes advantageous to do so for foreign policy reasons. Now is the time to change the law!

Over the course of U.S. history, the rise of the wealthy and the fall of overall wellbeing were linked.

Inverse relationship between well-being and inequality in American history. The peaks and valleys of inequality (in purple) represent the ratio of the largest fortunes to the median wealth of households (the Phillips curve). The blue-shaded curve combines four measures of well-being: economic (the fraction of economic growth that is paid to workers as wages), health (life expectancy and the average height of native-born population), and social optimism (the average age of first marriage, with early marriages indicating social optimism and delayed marriages indicating social pessimism).
There is an interesting article in Aeon magazine by Peter Turchin that states:
From the Roman Empire to our own Gilded Age, inequality moves in cycles. The future looks like a rough ride.
The graph above is from that article, focusing on the last two centuries in the United States.

One wonders whether the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression led the middle class and the working class to use their numbers to take control of government and use government to reduce inequality. The apparent increase in inequality apparently began with the election of Reagan, and reflected an upsurge in conservative power in government. 

There is something odd about USDA's definition of "farm operator households".

Source: "Median Farm Household Income Forecast Up in 2012 and in 2013"
According to this graph, the "median farm income" for all "farm operator households" is negative, and has been for years. The implication from the graph, since the "median off-farm income" and "median total income" for these households is more than $50,000 per year, is that more than half of farm operator households (as defined by the U.S. government) make their money from something other than farming.

I assume that farm income is "net" farm income with the kinds of accounting encouraged by the government. It would be after depreciation of plant and equipment, and tax laws allow the costs of equipment and facilities to be written off long before they are worn out and taken out of service. Similarly, if land and buildings actually increase in value but are not sold, the increase is not counted as income.

Recall that the median income is chosen such that half of all income values are lower and half higher. So half of all "farm operator households" actually lose money on farming, while half of all "farm operator households" make more than $50K per year off their farms. Basically, I think this means that at least half of all "farm operator households" are basically people who live in the rural areas, have some land in addition to the lot on which their house sits, but don't farm commercially.

Look now at the following graph:

Source: "Median Farm Household Income Forecast Up in 2012 and in 2013"
The median farm income for all commercial farmers is something likd $75,000.
Most farm income is concentrated in households associated with commercial farms, which represent 10.3 percent of the farm population.
households associated with commercial farms derive the majority of their income from farming activities....... Their median income from farming increased by 7.9 percent in 2011 to $84,649, and their total household income also increased by 7.9 percent, to $127,009. 
I conclude that most farm operator households don't operate farms as their major employment, and that I am more interested in how the relatively small number of commercial farmers are doing when considering the health of American agriculture. Commercial farmers seem to be doing quite well! 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Barnes and Noble History Book Club.

I have been participating in the History Book Club meeting at the local Barnes and Noble for some years. The club website has information on the location and timing of meetings, It also has information on the books read by the club over more than a decade, as well as suggestions for more books to read. We meet on the second Wednesday each month.

A blog has been used for the past couple of years to summarize the book discussions. You may find them interesting. There is also a Yahoo! Group used by members of the club for online discussions.

Eisenhower's Decision Matrix

Source: "How to Choose What to Work On, and When to Work On It"
I like that the axes suggest continuous variables, recognizing that importance and urgency are not binary scales.

Eisenhower was Commander in Chief and President. He had millions of people working for him to whom he could delegate work, but few if any people above him that he could pass work that was "above his pay grade". For most of us lesser people, there might be added points:

  • For urgent, but not important: is there someone I can get to do this, or do I have to do it myself?
  • For important, whether urgent or not: can I buck this upstairs?
Of course when you go to continuous scales, you get problems. What happens if you have two things in your inbox, both urgent and both important, However they more urgent is the less important. And you can't buck either to someone else to take care of. Which one do you do first? How much effort do you attach to each so that both will be completed within schedule and both with satisfice (not satisfy) the standards for completeness and quality?

Still an interesting tool for better making some decisions!

A thought about the immigration bill.

Republicans are expected to approach immigration reform from their conservative ideology. Democrats approach it from their progressive ideology. I see ideology as a shortcut to reaching conclusions when the right answer is beyond our analytic reach, at least in real time.

The Congressional Budget Office does its best to provide a factual and sound theoretical basis for understanding the implications of the proposed legislation. Ideally, negotiation between the Republicans and Democrats, both informed by data and economic theory, should result in better law than either ideology alone.

"The ideal is the enemy of the good." No immigration law will be perfect. But not doing anything in a fruitless search for perfection is worse than accepting a good bill.

Remembering Linus Pauling

Gordon Hughes, a friend from high school half a century ago, posted a note on Linus Pauling on the blog that accompanies his book, Hard Drive, As the Disk Turns. Gordon's post recalled Pauling as a teacher at Cal Tech, when Gordon was a student. The post reminded me of the kindness of that great man.

Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He almost won it a second time since he nearly beat Crick and Watson to the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule. He did also win the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the successful campaign to stop above ground testing of atomic weapons.

The year that I graduated from the engineering school of UCLA I was an officer of the schools engineering society, and a member of the committee charged with finding a speaker for our graduation dinner. We decided to go for broke and invite Dr. Pauling, who was a professor at Cal Tech, which was only across town from out campus.

I was designated to call and make the invitation. He responded to the call inviting a couple of us to come to his office and explain what we wanted him to do in some detail. My fellow committee member, Jimmy Miyamoto, and I made the visit. Pauling was very gracious, and we spent a couple of hours in his office chatting. Unfortunately, he turned down the invitation.

A few weeks later, Jimmy and I were in a coffee house one evening when Dr. Pauling and a friend came into the place. Pauling recognized us and they joined us. We again chatted for several hours, long into the evening.

Linus Pauling was the first Nobel Prize winner that I ever met, and one of the most distinguished scientists of his time. Indeed, he was world famous both as a scientist and as a peace activist. His willingness to spend hours of his time with a couple of soon to be engineers has remained with me for the last 54 years. He was perfectly natural, treating us as if we were his equals, appearing as interested at what we had to say as we were in him. (In fairness, Jimmy was a lot more interesting that I at the time.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A thought on the disappearing middle class of workers in manufacturing industries.

Frontline broadcast a retrospective program on two American families suffering from the loss of manufacturing jobs. The point is that these folk work hard, and sought new training when their jobs were abolished, but have lost their place in the middle class. Once a worked on an automobile production line had a job for life with a middle class salary, and there were millions of similar jobs. No longer is that true. Charlie Rose interviewed Bill Moyers who suggested that the problem was the lack of U.S. government support for job creation in manufacturing.

I think the problem is more fundamental. There is a economic development transition that countries seem all to need to go through. Agriculture and other primary industries are the initial drivers of the economy and sources of employment. Manufacturing industries eventually grow to produce a greater volume of goods than primary industries, and typically are labor intensive in their early stages. Eventually service industries (financial services, education, health services. entertainment, etc.) become more important economically and in employment.

Revolutionary changes in transportation and information and communication technologies have fueled globalization, as poor countries have taken advantage of low labor costs to move into traditional manufacturing industries. U.S. industry has responded in part by developing new industries taking early mover advantage of opportunities produced by the Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, etc. U.S. industry has also taken advantage of the availability of capital to invest in automation in its manufacturing industry. Manufacturing continues to produce a large part of the U.S. GDP, but it provides fewer jobs, and fewest jobs for the manufacturing line workers like those of the past.

I suggest that the Information Revolution and the Transportation Revolution (jet aircraft, container shipping, super tankers, high speed trains, etc.) are comparable to the Industrial Revolution and the Second Industrial Revolution.

The social and economic transformations that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the social disruption that occurred are well known. I would point out that the Second Industrial Revolution culminated in two World Wars and a Great Depression. Much of the world was a mess in 1945. The Information Revolution, the Transportation Revolution and Globalization are bringing huge benefits to much of the world's population, but they are also having their victims.

Of course government can and should do what it can to ameliorate the negative impacts of the transitions, and it should help the nation to take advantage of the opportunities to grow economically and improve the lives of its people. However, it is easier to see the big pattern of events in retrospect, but difficult to predict them and harder still to develop effective programs to protect the most vulnerable and the most affected members of society.

My guess is that the roots of the problems portrayed by these programs are cultural. We have an underclass of blacks, Hispanics, Indians and "poor rural whites". They are subject to prejudice, and the subcultures that they have developed are linked to poor education and high crime rates. We also have a tiny percentage of very wealthy people who are using their wealth and the power it brings to  get richer and richer, faster and faster, driving inequality levels to new highs.

Government can make a difference, but perhaps we in the middle classes will have to first take back control of the political parties to get them to make/allow government do the right thing. The right thing might be to improve human rights in this country, to breed a culture in which the very rich take responsibility that should be inherent in their wealth and power, and in which the underclass disappears replaced by people with real hopes of upward social and economic mobility.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Data on Bribery

Source: BBC News
One person in four has paid a bribe to a public body in the last year, according to a survey carried out in 95 countries by Transparency International.
The poor record of some African nations on bribery stands out. Sierra Leone has the highest number of respondents admitting to having paid a bribe - 84% - and seven out of nine of the countries with the highest reported bribery rate are in sub-Saharan Africa........The countries with the lowest reported bribery rate are Denmark, Finland, Japan and Australia, they all have a bribery rate of 1%.
 Trust is a key element of social capital and cultures that depend on bribery to oil their gears of commerce and governance have little of that capital and are in trouble.

I suppose the relatively high rates in South America and Central America are in part due to the overall impact of the drug culture. Still Africa seems to be worse. As is India.