Thursday, October 31, 2013

We need a precise vocabulary for signals intelligence.

How about this metaphor? A women shopping for clothes will go to a store with a broad selection, any item of which she may purchase. She will pass quickly by most racks of clothing; that might be called "acquisition" and "initial screening". She will, however, go to some racks and examine the contents piece by piece; that might be called secondary screening. A few things will make it to the changing room to be inspected on in a mirror; tertiary screening. Finally she may purchase a piece or two and take them home; storage. Reviewing the purchase with friends and family may result in rejection of some purchases (and their return to the store) and addition of others to the wardrobe; analysis, acceptance and utilization.

Loreena McKennitt - All Souls Night

Samhain Eve by Damh The Bard

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Spectacularly cool infographic from The Economist on the real size of Africa (via Ezra Klein):

Monday, October 28, 2013

The UN Scientific Advisory Board on Sustainable Development

An assessment of the role of the new UN Scientific Advisory Board is presented, as is an overview of the kinds of scientific advice that it might provide from the social sciences and the physical and engineering sciences. Development is emphasized as is environmental sustainability. It is concluded that a small Board might encourage full use of the many scientific advisory resources available to the UN. Some issues are identified with the Board as announced.

In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that he had decided to to create a Scientific Advisory Board to inform the UN's debate on sustainable development. The Director-General of UNESCO was asked to establish the Board and UNESCO to host its Secretariat. Now the 26 members of the Board have been named. The Board was to be composed of "renowned scientists representing various fields of natural, social and human sciences."

What is the Appropriate Role for the Board?

There already exists a UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development;  it, however, is composed of representatives of governments of UN member states, and is largely drawn from people interested in international science policy rather than from distinguished working scientists.

The decentralized agencies of the United Nations system of course have the ability to draw on scientific expertise. WHO, FAO, UNIDO, ITU, WMO and other agencies regularly draw on thousands of scientists for advice in their areas of expertise.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) currently serves 195 member states. It has drawn on the expertise of more than 1000 individual scientific experts in making each of its assessments of climate change, demonstrating the complexity involved in science in a single area of sustainable development. The process involved in obtaining consensus of large numbers of scientists representing the best available information from the full range of research and theory, as exemplified by the IPCC, is long and complex.

Individual nations have created national academies, and there is a Third World Academy of Sciences (serving countries that do not have large enough scientific communities to justify national academies). These academies typically are composed of distinguished scientists elected by their peers, and have as part of their charters provision of scientific advice to governments. In the United States, for example, the National Research Council is composed of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine; each of these academies has a membership of hundreds of distinguished experts in its field. Moreover, the National Research Council has a large staff that organizes expert panels on specific issues when called upon by the government to do so. At any given time there are hundreds of such panels in operation, and thousands of scientists (Academicians and others) participating. This is considered necessary to bring detailed expertise to bear on important scientific issues of interest to government.

There exists an InterAcademy Council which has been formed to draw upon the expertise of participating national academies to conduct studies of global importance.

Scientific fields and knowledge have proliferated for centuries and the time is long past when a few people can together dominate the entire body of scientific knowledge. Indeed, much of scientific knowledge and understanding is tacit rather than explicit. In order to bring detailed scientific expertise to a wide variety of issues, large numbers of scientific experts are needed with complementary expertise, each bringing his/her specific expertise to bear of the question at hand.

What then does the United Nations expect of its relatively small Scientific Advisory Board, and why has it chosen to establish a new body rather than draw on existing sources of scientific expertise? Why has it chosen to place the responsibility for management of this Board with UNESCO, an agency currently facing a financial crisis? "Gretchen Kalonji, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO, told SciDev.Net that it was still too early to say how much the advisory board would cost, who would fund it, or how the proposed chief scientific adviser would liaise between the board and the secretary-general."

What is the Task Before the Board?

The purpose of the Scientific Advisory Board is to provide expert scientific advice on "sustainable development". Even in a small Board, I would hope to see a wide variety of professional scientific backgrounds represented.

Fundamental to understanding sustainable development is understanding of demography. In the past emphasis has been on population growth, but now other issues are also of interest.  It appears that birth rates in rich countries are likely to fall below the replacement level while African and Asian populations are still growing. Urban growth, rural-urban migration and international migration seem relevant topics in consideration of global sustainable development, as does the changing gender balance in some large countries.

The bases of sustainable development are institution building and development of appropriate policies; both depend on cultural changes. Thus one would expect expertise in the social sciences on the panel -- economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, organizational science and psychology, It is not obvious that a single economist or a single political scientist would be fully expert on the literature of his/her field bearing on social and economic growth and on the sustainability of that growth. It seems clear that the greatest problems in achieving sustainable development occur in fragile and (especially) failed states and experiencing armed conflict; these too are social science specialties. Thus one might expect several social scientists to participate in the Board.

There is, of course, a need for advice from the physical sciences.  I would expect the panel to be able to advise on the state of the resource base, including water resources, arable soils, fossil fuels and (scarce) mineral resources. Indications are that some of the resources that we have treated as renewable may not prove adequate to development needs over the coming century; other natural resources are clearly not renewable but seem now to be critical for economic development.

I would also expect the panel to advise on scientific issues related to the infrastructure -- telecommunications, the electrical grid, roads, railroads, bridges, ports, airports, water and sanitation, etc. Given the importance of infrastructure to development, I would therefore expect experts from the engineering sciences to be included on such an advisory board.

Economic development is based on increases in production drawn from extractive, manufacturing and service industries. Thus for the primary industries one would expect the Board to include scientists expert in fields relevant to agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, and extraction of oil and gas. Note that the expertise on extractive industries is not identical to expertise on the resource base from which those industries work.

With respect to manufacturing, scientific advice at first glance is most relevant to high technology and emerging sectors such as industrial applications of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information and communications technology. However, manufacturing is a very broad field and there are likely to be numerous areas in heavy industry development in which scientific advice would prove valuable. There will even be issues in light industry in which policy makers may benefit from scientific advice.

In service industries such as government, health, educational and financial services there is considerable need for advice based on research findings and theory on how the services can be made more effective and efficient, and in some cases advice on the physical basis of the services (e.g. physiology and pathology, brain development and cognitive psychology).

With regard to sustainability, perhaps the key areas of concern would be climate change and  biodiversity. Biodiversity, like climate change, is an enormously complicated scientific topic, involving many different scientific fields and requiring global understanding to be built upon detailed understanding of local conditions.

Added scientific advice on the sustainability of development efforts, might involve topics such as desertification, deforestation, depletion of fisheries, pollution (water, soil and air), and changes in the oceans and coastal zones, glaciers and ice caps, etc. This would be in addition to the advice described above on water resources and soil resources. Note that the advice from those expert on mineral, gas and oil resources and their depletion might need to be complemented by expert advice from others on the environmental impact of the exploitation of these resources.

One of the important issues for the United Nations in promoting sustainable development will be in measuring progress and identifying problems. I would imagine that the UN might need expert advice on statistics (both in the sense of data collection by the state and statistical analysis of data), remote sensing, and management and analysis of huge data sets.

Thus there is a huge array of topics on which scientific advice should be sought be decision makers formulating the world's development goals and monitoring the achievements toward those goals.

The UNESCO Appointed Advisory Board

UNESCO has balanced the Board for gender and for the national origin of members. I hope that it will provide a public declaration of interests by Board members to help decision makers and the public properly assess the advice provided by the Board.

Having chosen to appoint a fairly small Board, it is important not only that the members have broad knowledge and understanding of sustainable development, but that their advice be seen as worthy of the attention of the global community. While Nobel and World Food Prize winners are included among the members, one might question whether all the appointees have global reputations adequate to assure the credence to the Board's advice. I would also wonder whether people in senior administrative positions (running universities or academies of science) still have active mastery of the scientific literature of their scientific specialties.

I would question the balance of expertise in the Board as chosen. Thus, there are no scientific experts on demography, education, government, infrastructure, deforestation nor desertification, but two on biodiversity, two on climate change, and one on high-energy particle accelerators.

Perhaps the most valuable role that this Board can play is to encourage the United Nations to draw more fully on the other resources that the UN can command for scientific advice with respect to the specific issues of sustainable development. The Board might then add its voice and authority to the more detailed advice from the other advisers. Clearly, the Board will need a strong professional secretariat and a budget sufficient for travel and dissemination of its reports. It will need a strong relationship with the science adviser who is to be appointed to serve on the staff of the UN Secretary General. It may be necessary for the United Nations to help UNESCO to finance and staff this Board.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A thought about progressive versus conservative agendas for the government.

A major change in the role of government in U.S. society started with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration and has continued since, especially in Democratic administrations. The federal government role has grown larger and more progressive, including:
  • Providing a social safety net (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Access to Care Act, unemployment insurance, food stamps, etc.)
  • Increased regulation to reduce risks of financial crises, environmental risks, and risks to workers.
  • Fiscal and monetary policies to fight inflation and promote economic growth.
  • Expansion of voting rights to Blacks, women and other minorities.
On a historical time scale the government innovations of the past 70 years are an experiment. Conservatives who feel that they are unwise may prove to have been right in the fullness of time. I suppose one of the strengths of the Madisonian Constitutional system is its emphasis on progressive and conservative negotiations that might avoid a disastrous emphasis of one or the other ideology. Surely conservatives have rolled back some of the progressive initiatives over the past three decades.

Other changes have taken place in governance over the same time, such as the expansion of the military-industrial complex and the growth of the federal budget and debt. External changes have take place such as growth of cities and megacities, globalization, the expansion of corporations, and changes in the sources of migration to the United States.

Where the 80 Representative Republican Caucus Running Speaker Boehner Come From
Source: The New Yorker
I assume that the people most upset by the progressive changes in the U.S. government are those who elected the Republican Representatives most active in seeking the repeal of the Access to Care Act.  I quote from a New Yorker article:
As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline........ 
While the most salient demographic fact about America is that it is becoming more diverse, Republican districts actually became less diverse in 2012.......... 
The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent. The districts also have slightly lower levels of education (twenty-five per cent of the population in suicide districts have college degrees, while that number is twenty-nine per cent for the average district). 
The members themselves represent this lack of diversity. Seventy-six of the members who signed the Meadows letter are male. Seventy-nine of them are white.
These conservatives seem to me likely to feel left our by the changes in the world and especially the changes in the U.S. government. White men elected from rural constituencies ran this country when it was founded and for much of its history. When such men were in charge, government was small and very limited in its functions. The 80 in what the New Yorker article calls "the suicide caucus" have noticed that the United States no longer holds the commanding position in the world it held in the aftermath of World War II; the espouse a political ideology that was once dominant, and then now find themselves in a small minority, holding power in the Congress only through the efforts of state governments that have provided them with gerrymandered districts, and parliamentary tactics to deny legislative power to the majority of their colleagues.

Of course, since World War II the countries that were decimated by the war have repaired their economies and prospered. More recently, China, India and some other nations have made huge strides in abolishing poverty. In part these advances have been made through the globalization of production and trade. For those who believe that people everywhere should have rights to health and a decent standard of living, that is all to the good. For those who believe in modern economics, the convergence of living standards among countries is a normal historical process.

But do we believe that the progressive program is counterproductive? Certainly the European nations do not; for example, they have social safety nets, socialized medicine, and policies that are more proactive in promoting equitable distributions of income and wealth than does the United States.

The country is much richer now, and can afford more government. We also understand economics, management, sociology, and other fields of learning better, and can better manage governmental affairs. Perhaps we have grown up enough to manage a progressive government.

The United States government was established as an experiment in democracy, seeking to better provide for the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" than monarchies had done. The Constitution was an experiment in government designed to produce "a more perfect union". Over more than two centuries most people in the country have come to feel that the progressive agenda better accomplishes that agenda than does a system based on the conservative agenda.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

A thought having visited Bull Run battlefield yesterday.

It seems that most historians have tried to explain the causes of the Civil War using a prospective framework. Elizabeth Varon in Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859, for example, discusses the use of the concept of "disunion" in the decades leading up to the war. Others describe the division between the northern and southern economic systems (and thus their differences in economic policy preferences, or the increasing anger involved in the interactions of the abolitionists and the pro-slavery partisans. Still others focus on the inability of politicians to reach compromise or the invective of the press.

It occurs to me to consider the situation from a retrospective rather than a prospective view.

The Union forces of the North of course won the Civil War. Not only did the war establish the human rights of African-Americans to be free, but it established free labor as the basis for the American economy. Republicans maintained political power for decades thereafter, and were enabled to implement their progressive policies with little effective opposition from southern conservatives. They promoted transcontinental railroads, homesteading to settle western lands, and the application of science and technology, especially through the creation of the land grant colleges and their agricultural research stations and the geological survey.  Taxes and tariffs could be imposed to protect native industries and pay for infrastructure investments. The United States achieved a global importance that North America would not have achieved had the union divided into two governments. Thus I conclude that in decades after the Civil War, those in the north who had favored war to save the union were content with having made that decision.

On the other hand, after secession and the start of the Civil War, the southern states saw emancipation of slaves within a couple of years. Since the plantation economy had been based on slavery, it was decimated. British customers for southern cotton developed other suppliers during the shortages caused by the Civil War, and the south's most important export never recovered.  A generation of young (white) men was killed or maimed. Fighting decimated large swaths of Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. The south was occupied by northern troops, southern officials who quite the federal government to serve in the Confederacy were barred from political office, and the region underwent decades of social upheaval. Thus I conclude that those who led the southern states to secede must have come to believe that they had made a grave mistake in doing so.

Thus I would look at the proximate cause of the Civil War to have been the secession of the southern states; the proximate cause of that secession was the grave mistake made by southern leaders. I suppose that the leaders in the south overestimated the attractiveness of their cause to the border states (in which slavery was still legal), mistook the relative military capacity of the north and the south, underestimated the will in the north to sacrifice to preserve the Union, and overestimated the likelihood that the Confederacy would receive support of European powers.  So I would suggest that the real cause of the Civil War was bad decision making by leaders in South Carolina and other southern states that chose to secede from the Union.

Why did they make such bad decisions? Why did they mistake the realities of the situation? Some southerners correctly assessed the situation (Sam Houston comes to mind). Ignorance, arrogance, and pride seem likely to have been implicated. Making decisions on what decision makers hoped would happen rather than what was likely to happen, or the things that could happen that would be most painful to their cause seems a possibility. So too does an institutional structure that concentrated decision making power in a small economic elite (with interests that did not mirror those of the majority of southern people). 

It is a shame to waste a mind!

Source: The New Yorker
The three graphs in this article tell a sad tale for the United States. The country's children are falling behind their future competitors abroad. It is not that all U.S. kids go to second rate schools, just that far too many of them do. (Not surprisingly, many of those getting second rate educations are subjects of racial or ethnic prejudice, living in places where the prejudiced are in power and use the power to deprive the schools of the support that they need and deserve.) The problem is that many of those boys and girls who are not as good at reading, math and problem solving as they might be, will not add as much to our society nor our economy as they otherwise might have done.

'The Darkness' by Rose Cousins

I enjoy these more now that I can watch them on my television using Chromecast!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hans Rosling on population growth, GDP growth and climate change -- must view!

Published on Oct 14, 2013
STOCKHOLM 28 September 2013

Professor Hans Rosling (Gapminder and Karolinska Institutet)

The first public forum for the launch of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Working Group I Summary for Policymakers, Climate Change 2013: the Physical Science Basis.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Scientists don't believe everything they read

There is an interesting article in The Economist dealing with the validity of articles published in scientific and technological journals. I recommend that it be read completely. I quote one small portion (that assumes one in 20 incorrect hypotheses will be accepted):
(C)onsider 1,000 hypotheses being tested of which just 100 are true (see chart). Studies with a power of 0.8 will find 80 of them, missing 20 because of false negatives. Of the 900 hypotheses that are wrong, 5%—that is, 45 of them—will look right because of type I errors. Add the false positives to the 80 true positives and you have 125 positive results, fully a third of which are specious. If you dropped the statistical power from 0.8 to 0.4, which would seem realistic for many fields, you would still have 45 false positives but only 40 true positives. More than half your positive results would be wrong.

The article also states:
Fraud is very likely second to incompetence in generating erroneous results, though it is hard to tell for certain. Dr Fanelli has looked at 21 different surveys of academics (mostly in the biomedical sciences but also in civil engineering, chemistry and economics) carried out between 1987 and 2008. Only 2% of respondents admitted falsifying or fabricating data, but 28% of respondents claimed to know of colleagues who engaged in questionable research practices.
Lets think about that for a moment. Assume that every author knows 14 others well enough to know whether or not each had ever falsified results; in that case, if 2% of authors do in fact falsify, wouldn't something like 28% of respondents know someone who had falsified?

The quote says "know of" not "know". Cases of detected falsification become quite famous, so many scientists would "know of" a scientist in the same or a closely related field who had been revealed to have falsified date, even if that guilty scientist was not known personally.

And of course, it is likely that some of the people believed to have falsified data will not have done so.

In an article suggesting you not believe everything you read in a scientific journal, The Economist's writers and editors seem to have committed the same kind of inexactitude of which they warn.

Watch the video explaining the idea from The Economist.

Postscript: It occurs to me that in the example, before the experiment the probability of the hypothesis being true seems to be 0.10; after the experiment it seems to be 0.64. Thus the a posteriori probability is much higher given the positive outcome of the experiment. I would say that kind of change merits publication as that would encourage others to further study the hypothesis and add information that would help confirm or challenge it. That is the way science is supposed to be done.

"Spontaneous" generation of order

Sinfonietta by Ingolf Dahl

Ingolf's stepson was my close friend when we were kids (and is still a friend). Ingolf took us and some of our other friends camping and hiking many times during our teen age years.

 At first I just regarded him as a friend's parent. He was perhaps a bit nicer than other parents and certainly more willing to share his love of the outdoors. He was certainly the only one who would entertain a bunch of kids with a complete account of the story of the Ring Cycle while hiking in the mountains.

Every once an a while as we grew up, something would penetrate my skull -- conversation about "Lennie" when I finally figured out they were talking about Leonard Bernstein, discovering Ingolf and his wife Etta were going out in formal dress because they were dining with Igor Stravinsky, learning that the furniture in their living room was inherited from Thomas Mann, discovering once that he was spending evenings at the Coconut Grove accompanying his old friend Gracie Fields during her nightclub show. It was only when I read his biography that I really learned about his career.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Understanding UNESCO

I helped teach a graduate seminar for several years on UNESCO. It served students interested in international careers in areas such as education, foreign policy and museum work, and as such had an obvious relevance.

Still, I tried to see that students in the course learned some lessons on how to understand an organization, and especially an intergovernmental organization. I suggest that a multifocal approach is most useful, including

  • Understanding of the history of the organization, especially its founding and its response to major changes in its environment.
  • The mission, as defined in a mission statement (in the case of UNESCO in the preamble to its constitution) and as it has shifted over time.
  • Governance: UNESCO is governed by its General Conference in which the representative of each member state has a single vote, and its Executive Board, elected from the member of the General Conference.
  • Leadership: UNESCO has an elected Director General who in turn appoints Deputy and a number of Assistant Directors General; they have considerable power over the organization.
  • The program, which includes not only the subjects (education, science, culture and communications for UNESCO), but also the kinds of activities that they conduct (discussion forum, clearinghouse for ideas, etc. for UNESCO).
  • The budget.
  • The staffing -- where they come from, their skill sets, and where they work.
  • The structure of the organization, the organization chart.
  • How the organization gets its funding, its staff, etc.

I find that the traditional discussions of organizations fail to deal very well with UNESCO. For example, a great deal of UNESCO's work is done in partnership with governments, other international organizations, non-governmental organizations, businesses, etc. Organization theory as I studied it in grad school didn't deal with such partnerships as a major theme.

UNESCO staff does not actually implement the global Education for All program or the World Water Assessment, but rather helps and encourages others to do that work.

I also note that to understand UNESCO, one should understand:
  • The international conventions that have been negotiated there and for which it acts as caretaker. There range from those protecting museums from plunder during wars, to agreements on recognition of educational credentials, to those underlying cooperation in marine science and the protection against tsunamis.
  • The work of a vast network of centers that are affiliated with UNESCO, some of which receive part of their financing through UNESCO and others which are fully financed by members states.
  • A vast network of university chairs, university networks and affiliated schools that have voluntarily affiliated with the Organization.
  • National Commissions or similar bodies in the 196 member states, in principle composed of intellectual leaders from those nations, which link the larger intellectual community in each nation with UNESCO and its work, and in some times with each other.
  • A vast network of World Heritage sites, bioreserves, geoparks and wetlands that are affiliated through UNESCO but maintained by the countries in which they are located.
In some sense most of the global impact of UNESCO is achieved outside of buildings occupied by UNESCO's staff and by people other than that staff. Thus UNESCO leadership and staff depend on the voluntary action of people only loosely affiliated with the Organization to accomplish its mission.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Watch out for surveys that lead to the wrong conclusions

This is an example of a survey that gives the wrong impression. Americans realize that the millions of American service men and women try their best to do what is asked of them by their government, sometimes giving their lives in the effort. Folk from the Post Office, the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and many other government agencies also work very hard to do what they are asked to do, sometimes in the face of inadequate budgets and difficult circumstances. Many American diplomats have given their lives in the effort to represent the country well abroad.

I suspect that a lot of the American public is angry at the politicians, especially now. They are only a small part of the American government. There are a lot of federal judges who work very hard to do a good job, having spent decades learning how to do those jobs. Even the Congress has a lot of people who want to do the right thing and work hard in the effort.

Spreading the idea that Americans don't trust their government leaves out that the country is pretty safe from foreign invaders, benefits from safe food and water and relatively unpolluted air, is pretty free from communicable diseases, has a great system of land grant colleges and universities, leads the world in biomedical research, and has a lot else going for it provided by the government.

A thought on culture and development

I had an interesting conversation yesterday about cultural heritage and development. It got me to thinking.

I suppose development is about changing society in ways that help people live better. The definition will vary from culture to culture, but living longer, healthier lives is probably seen as desirable in most cultures, as is reducing hunger (or at least reducing undesired hunger). Reducing physical and mental disability prevalence would also be seen positively in most cultures. Not having members of the society killed violently would also seem to be desirable.

However people in a culture define the goals of development, I think cultural change is historical fact. The ancient Egyptians may have lived within a constant culture for centuries at a time, but today cultures are changing all around us. I would not characterize cultural change as a good thing, but surely some cultural changes not only promote achievement of societies' goals, but are the right paths to those goals.

Eradicating polio is not only a global goal, but would seem to be a good in every culture. Who wants to see people die as they lose the ability to breath enough to sustain life? Who want to see children crippled for life? (Even if there are such monsters, they are a tiny minority that all societies want to repress.) The eradication of polio depends on immunizing the vast majority of the susceptible populations. In a few places (the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, northern Nigeria) there are cultures in which leaders are deeply suspicious of polio immunization campaigns. That is a cultural meme that has to be changed for development to progress.

Cultural heritages come in all flavors. My own comes with a heritage of slavery, Jim Crow, Indian wars, and Indian removals. It also comes with a heritage of being a nation of immigrants, offering refuge and a better life to millions upon millions of people. The question seems to be whether knowing our cultural heritage can help to make those cultural changes that contribute to what we hope to be development, and to avoid those cultural changes deleterious to development.

Culture is complicated. Cultural memes are all reveled up with each other. Who would have thought that the introduction of rock and roll music and blue jeans would contribute to the fall of Communism? Certainly not the Communist elite who worked very hard to maintain their hegemony over their societies.

Still it is clear that schools and other institutions can play a role in the modification of culture for development, including in the use of cultural heritage for that purpose.

I am interested in UNESCO and its cultural programs. One of UNESCO's problems is that when it was created in the aftermath of World War II, the focus was on high culture -- museums, galleries, literature -- and the sharing of the greatest achievements of high culture among nations. Concern for culture in the broader sense used in the social sciences and culture in the sense of "culture for development" is a more recent concern, and one that often loses place.

Still I think high culture has an important place in "culture for development". Certainly literature, ethics and other aspects of philosophy should play a role.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
How does one create an appreciation for nature and a concern for the preservation of both some of the natural heritage of mankind and assurance of a more rather than less livable environment? For Americans, the natural park system is a part of our cultural heritage -- the first national park was created here (Yellowstone) and national parks are a great idea born in this country that has spread worldwide. American support for natural parks was in part created by the artists and photographers who brought images of great American sites to the population centers; their images taught Americans how to look at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, and brought them to recognize that they were a national treasure shared by those who visited, and even those who simply knew of their existence.  I can think of books, movies and even television programs that have helped propagate the ideas. It is also the case that scientists have brought their "high culture" approach to environmental conservation and the preservation of biodiversity, and have used all sorts of media to communicate the import of their findings to the public.

source (1864 photo)
In short, high culture can be used in conjunction with appreciation of cultural heritage (and cultural history) to promote the kinds of cultural additions and deletions that contribute to development. Indeed, it may be a cultural change is needed to help a society articulate its goals for development,

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A thought about political parties

As I understand it, when the Constitution was written its authors did not think political parties were a good idea, and certainly the Constitution did not provide for political parties, much less a two party system.

The Democratic and Republican parties have been around since long before I was born. It is hard to realize that parties come and go, and change even as they endure. The Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Whig, Native American, Know Nothing and Bull Moose parties come to mind as having had their day and then withered away. The Democratic party was created by Jackson and his associates and the Republican party came to power to prosecute the interests of the northern states, including the promotion of free labor policies. Note that the 19th century Republicans not only led the Union as it won the Civil War, but built the transcontinental railroad, created the land grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, and passed the Homestead Acts. Teddy Roosevelt led the progressive movement at the turn of the century.

Following the civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the Republican "southern strategy", there was a radical realignment as white southern Democrats switched to the Republican party. We have seen the Rockefeller Republicans lose influence in the party as George W. and Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and other southern Republicans have become more visible as the spokespersons for the party.

The Tea Party Republicans have a base among white southern Republicans. They also have a base in Republican parties in states with small populations created by Republican Congresses in the second half of the 19th century to help perpetuate Republican control of the Senate and the presidency. The economic problems experienced in the country in the past few years seem to have contributed to the rise of the Tea Party, but there seems to be a complex process involving the role of the Christian right, the financing of political theory and advertising by wealthy conservatives, changing media and changing legal structures that have helped organizers to develop the Tea Party power in politics. It will be interesting to see if this becomes a third party, if a moderate wing of the Republican party splits off, or if some other resolution takes place.

The effort to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act seems like an attempt at nullification with historical precedents. Think of Andrew Jackson threatening to send troops to South Carolina to enforce federal law when that state's legislature tried to nullify a tariff. The Civil War, I suppose, was the most extreme example of an attempt to nullify federal action (that southern states feared might follow Lincoln's election).

There is nothing new under the sun, and the recent events are not worse than some survived by the USA.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Millions still uncovered by health insurance

Some states refused to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid and as a result millions of people are too poor to afford health insurance and  not poor enough to get aid. Of course it is the Republican governors who have done this.

Do you think it is coincidence that states that have the most uninsured people also have large African American and American Indian populations?

The U.S. Government Must Do Better in Fulfilling its Purposes!

The Declaration of Independence says that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are natural rights. It justifies independence of the North American colonies from the British empire on the basis that in independence they could better secure these rights for their citizens.

The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union establishes that union of the states for mutual defense, securing their liberties and promoting their general welfare.

The Constitution was created "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Today the United States is among the richest countries in the world and spends more per capita on health services than any other country, yet ranks 33rd in the world in life expectancy. Clearly the government is failing in a fundamental function of securing life and welfare for its citizens. A part of the problem is that the health service system of the country does not focus enough on the prevention and early treatment of disease,; it fails to provide adequate access to health services to a significant portion of the population, primarily the poor. The Affordable Care Act was enacted into law to improve this situation. Obviously it can be improved, and probably will be in the future. However, there should be no question that it represents a legitimate effort of the federal government to more effectively carry out one of its basic functions. In fact most of the act is intended to redirect health expenditures from things that don't improve health to those things that do.

The United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. As the graph below shows, the increase in incarceration rate is relatively recent and has no obvious relation to increases in population or crime rates. According to the New York Times, Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America. Today, Professor Alexander writes, nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out. That is a familiar argument made by many critics of the criminal justice system, but Professor Alexander’s book goes further, asserting that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.
Again, clearly the government is failing in a fundamental function of providing liberty to its citizens, and the law should be changed.
Returning to live expectancy, as the graph below indicates, it too reflects the racial problems of the United States:


Monday, October 14, 2013

A thought on constitutional reform to reduce the likelihood of gridlock

It seems obvious that the government should operate and that the Congress should authorize the executive branch to borrow the money needed to implement the program that the Congress has required the executive to implement.

It seems obvious that fiscal policy should balance concerns for economic growth and employment with concerns for the debt. It seems obvious that our tax code is dysfunctional, being much too complicated for people to understand and being full of loopholes benefiting special interests. It seems obvious that the distribution of income and wealth is too skewed to favor a tiny minority of the country.

I believe that it makes sense for progressives and conservatives as well as people with middle of the road ideas to negotiate with each other, seeking to find some political solution that will draw on the good ideas from all sources and satisfice the concerns of most in order to move forward.

This is not happening.

It seems to me that there are two key problems: the way we elect members of the House of Representatives and the role of money in politics.

  • Too many members of Congress are elected from districts that are safe for one or the other party. Candidates are more worried about challenges in the primaries from within their own parties than about challenges in the final from candidates of the other party, and as a result they tend to take more extreme positions. Too many people are excluded from voting, and too few people from the middle or the road ideologies vote. The situation has been made worse by recent weakening of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court.
  • Elections are too expensive, and as a result politicians spend too much time and effort raising money. A relatively small number of rich people provide the majority of the funding for election campaigns. They and their legions of lobbyists wind up with too much influence on politics. The situation is worse due to the Supreme Court ruling that organisations have the same first amendment rights that people do, and the development of means by which the rich can buy political advertisements anonymously.
I think we need two new constitutional amendments, 
  • one to assure voting rights and avoid gerrymandering
  • the other to change campaign financing to reduce the dependency of politicians on the rich and recognize that the rights of citizens to political speech are different than those of organizations.
Perhaps then our representatives will negotiate in good faith.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

From the OECD

The low-skilled are more likely than others to be unemployed, have bad health and earn much less, according to the first OECD Survey of Adult Skills. Countries with greater inequality in skills proficiency also have higher income inequality.

Thoughts on the economics of public education

There is an interesting  article in The Economist, based on "Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood" by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff. It notes:
The authors reckon that swapping a teacher at the bottom of the value-added spectrum with one of average quality raises the collective lifetime income of each class they teach by $1.4m. That rise would apply across all the teacher’s classes and over the whole of his or her career.
That suggests that we could invest quite a bit in improving the quality of teachers. I suppose that could be done by better training of aspiring teachers, better selection of teachers, more and better support for teacher improvement while they are in service, performance incentives for good teaching, and firing teachers who are performing nor improving.

The article also states:
Across schools, however, better pupils are assigned to slightly better teachers on average. The common practice of “tracking” pupils (filtering good ones into more advanced courses) could be to blame, the authors reckon, though they abstain from drawing firm conclusions. Whatever the cause, getting more effective teachers to instruct better-performing pupils naturally exacerbates the gap in achievement. Making the best teachers work with the worst pupils could go a long way toward minimising the yawning differences in attainment within a school system, the authors contend.
 Clearly there is value in increasing equity in schooling. Condemning kids who score low in their early exams should not condemn them to a decade of poor teachers. On the other hand, there may be value in giving the best students the best teachers. The value to society is not just the potential earnings of the students. It includes "externalities" such as the contributions that they make to the economy that are not captured in their remuneration. The medical scientists who are finding ways to prevent and cure diseases may not be earning as much as the people who run Wall Street firms, but they may do more good. It may be that giving the kid who has the potential to define a cure for cancer or Alxheimer's the best possible education is the best way to allocate teachers in his/her schools.

Globalization has been on hold since 2008

The forward march of globalisation has paused since the financial crisis, giving way to a more conditional, interventionist and nationalist model. Greg Ip examines the consequences.

From The Economist:
Globalisation has clearly paused. A simple measure of trade intensity, world exports as a share of world GDP, rose steadily from 1986 to 2008 but has been flat since. Global capital flows, which in 2007 topped $11 trillion, amounted to barely a third of that figure last year. Cross-border direct investment is also well down on its 2007 peak.
That brown stain over the United States indicates that capital inflows have dropped precipitously. I hope the suicide caucus in the House of Representatives realize that making the United States default by blocking an increase in the national debt limit will cause real economic damage, and not only to the United States but to the entire international economic system.

Three articles you really need to read!

From the New York Times:
The current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative initiative. Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed nonprofit organization. Some, like Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts. Heritage Action is new, too, founded in 2010 to advance the policy prescriptions of its sister group, the Heritage Foundation. 
The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort. A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight. Included was $5 million to Generation Opportunity, which created a buzz last month with an Internet advertisement showing a menacing Uncle Sam figure popping up between a woman’s legs during a gynecological exam.
 From the Huffington Post Blog:
Outside groups spent over $338 million trying to influence the 2008 elections, which was the last presidential election cycle before the Citizens United ruling. A handsome sum to be sure, but one that pales in comparison to the mind-boggling figure of over $1 billion of outside spending in the 2012 elections. In fact, there was more outside spending in the 2012 election cycle then in every presidential election cycle since 1992 combined. 
The second is just how small the number of people doing this spending is. In the 2012 election cycle, 216 people -- that's .00007 percent of the population -- contributed over $560 million to super PACs alone, which is more than one and a half times the amount of all outside spending in the 2008 election cycle combined. Put another way, 216 people spent nearly 11,000 times the amount an average family of four makes in an entire year on vapid attack ads produced by nebulous groups with names like "Americans for a More American America."

  • The top 32 Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200.
  • Nearly 60% of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93% of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011% of the U.S. population.
  • It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.
  • Super PACs accounted for more than 60% of outside spending reported to the FEC.
  • For the 2012 cycle, Super PACs received more than 70% of their funds from individuals, and a significant percentage (12%) from for-profit businesses. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Watch this video!

This video shows very clearly that wealth is very unevenly distributed in America. It also shows that most people are living in a fools paradise, assuming that the country is much more like it should be than it actually is.

The video does not show that rich people are different than the rest of us in many undesirable ways. It does not show that countries with a distribution of wealth like our current one do not progress well economically.

If Americans knew how bad the distribution really is, and if they knew how bad that will be for the future of our children, then maybe they would rise up and make the Congress pass laws to correct the situation, closing loopholes in the tax laws and making taxes more progressive, strengthening unions, etc.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ode to Joy

Thinking about the national debt.

Source: Per Research Center
"(A)s of the end of September 28.4% of the debt (about $4.76 trillion) was owed to another arm of the federal government itself."
  $2.76 trillion of the national debt is owed to Social Security. If the debt ceiling is not increased, what does it mean for Social Security? The Social Security payout began to exceed Social Security Pay-in in 2010, So I guess some social security checks and some medicaid payments now come from Social Security cashing in some treasury bonds. The treasury pays off current bonds and obtains funds for the government spending in excess of tax income by selling debt. If it can not increase debt, it can't raise all the money it needs. So what does it fund, and what does it fail to fund? It is legally responsible for funding the budget passed by the Congress and constitutionally obligated to honor debts.

Note that most of the national debt is owed to ourselves, not to China nor Japan. Note too that the debt began to fall as a portion of GDP in 2012, as the GDP increased.

Watch a glacier calve a piece the size of Manhattan.

Global climate change is something that most scientists understand at an intellectual level. It is hard to grasp as an emotional level. We are not constructed to grok processes that take place on a global scale and requiring centuries to complete. This video begins to make global warming emotionally available.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Silk Road in World History

I just finished reading The Silk Road in World History by Xinru Liu. What do you say about a book that discusses the history of an institution that spreads across Eurasia and lasted more than 1000 years, and does so in 126 pages?

Today we are used to global trading networks, but the silk road existed a couple of thousand years ago. There were other large scale trading networks developed in the distant path, including in the native American societies before Columbus and that of the Hanseatic League. However, the silk road is exists deep in our historical consciousness and there is considerable knowledge about it, both from written sources and archaeological ones.

The book makes clear that there were many paths taken by trade goods in what was called "the silk road", including sea trade. Many goods were traded, many cultures participated in the trade, and it was conducted under the rules of many different cultures. The technology of transport varied, as did the cultural context of what was happening.

If you think about it, trade depends on certain conditions. Children trading toys understand one -- each child has to want the other's toy more than his/her own for the trade to take place. For trade to take place over great distances, the profits from the exchanges have to pay for the costs of transport and the risks that are run.

Silk was a great trade good. It was first produced only in China. The growing of silk worms could only be done successfully in certain areas, and needed certain plants for the worms to feed on. Drawing silk thread from the cocoons, spinning the silk thread, and weaving the silk garments involved technological problems that were difficult a couple of thousand years ago. So too did dying the silk in the preferred colors, but when properly died the silk was especially beautiful. Weaving the brocades that were seen as especially beautiful was even more difficult. Silk robes were pleasant to wear. Common people could see that the people wearing them were richer and more powerful than almost everyone else. Silk was relatively light and did not break; it was relatively easy to transport by horse, camel or ship. Rich people who lived far from where silk was produced were willing and able to pay a lot, trade a lot, to get silk garments. Eventually silk was acquired to adorn places of worship and palaces to show their importance.

Other trade goods included gold and silver, precious stones, aromatic materials, dyes, horses and camels (which transported themselves), and later tea, spices and fine pottery.

The Han Rulers of China traded silk for fine horses (which they no doubt valued in part for the display that they made before the common folk). The rulers of the people to the west that had the fine horses were willing to trade for silk garments (which they no doubt valued in part for the display that they made before the common folk). The Chinese reduced the risks of conducting the trade by conducting it in the protection of the great wall of China and the troops that maintained order within the protection of the wall. The rulers in both cases were able to extract wealth from the people that they ruled.

The Romans as they extended their domain to the east provided safety for traders in their domain through the Pax Romana.  Roman society produced a market for the silks from Asia and other trade goods, and had goods that in turn were valued in Asia. In Persia, Arabia and other lands through which the trade passed, other means were used to reduce the risks of the trade. Eventually, the spread of Islam provided safe passage for Muslim traders through the different Islamic kingdoms.

Author Xinru Liu describes

  • how oasis communities grew as caravan stops in the Asian deserts, and how their markets came to play a role in the trade routes
  • how Buddhist monasteries provided safe havens for traders in Asia, and how the network of Buddhist save havens grew over time.
  • how improvements in ship building and sailing technology led to increased use of shipping, and thus to the potential for new trade goods to be moved by sea.
He describes how the mongol empire looted the peoples that it conquered, thereby obtaining the wealth with which to acquire the trade goods its rulers increasingly coveted. (I was surprised to learn that it was the Mongols who made carpets and tapestries a fashion as they introduced the furnishings of their tents into the palaces and fortifications that their empire allowed and required.) The breakup of Mongol solidarity is described as increasing the risks of trade and eventually leading to the fall of the silk route trade (not the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans).

The book also describes how ideas migrated along the trade routes. Buddhism is described as moving along the silk road, especially after giving to Buddhist monasteries was introduced as a way of obtaining religious merit. So too, the Mongols were described as moving whole communities of artisans capable of producing the goods that the Mongols had come to value, thereby spreading the technology that they had mastered.

All in all I value the big picture provided by this book in its concise format. I won't remember all the details, but I hope to have learned some fundamental things about the growth of multinational institutions and the transfer of ideas as seen in historical time.

A thought about brain injury

I watched a television program last night about football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The program made what sounded like a reasonable case that hitting people hard on the head repeatedly for a long time could lead to permanent brain injury and mental problems. It seems likely that it would be very hard to obtain a complete understanding of the pathology; it would seem likely that the pathology would depend on the history of injuries, the treatment of the injuries, the physical condition of the athletes, their genetics, the development of their brains when injuries took place, substance abuse, etc.

I think that, from the point of view of decision making, there are similarities between that situation and climate change, consumer protection against defective products, and other situations. In climate change, for example, it is more than a century since Arrhenius proposed that changes in Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could account for climate change, and today something like 95 percent of scientists who study the atmosphere agree that man made greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere and causing rapid global warming. Yet the system that they study is incredibly complicated and it will take a long time to fully understand the climate, how it changes, and how climate change on a global basis affects climate change in each part of the earth.

We faced a similar decision problem with respect to smoking and the risk of cancer, and it took decades before the U.S. government took serious action to warn smokers of the danger that they were accepting by their habit, while cigarette company executives protected their company profits while denying the credibility of the accumulating evidence.

How do you make decisions in such cases. If you are a mother, you may suggest your kid play soccer rather than American football since soccer players get hit in the head a lot less than do football players. I would prefer that we limit greenhouse gas emissions rather than tun the risk of changing the climate for centuries in ways that would damage the current balance of life on earth and the prospects of the members of Homo sapiens.

I would suggest that the football league executives who made decisions on head injuries and the coal and oil company executives making decisions on greenhouse gas policy understand the principle. They after all are making decisions based on partial information on long term impacts, and choosing paths that protect the profits of their industries. Their decisions are conservative in terms of the short term interests of their industries (and their own pay and bonuses). 

The difference is short versus long time horizons and global versus local costs and benefits. Government is the obvious place where the long term interests of the majority can be taken into account to pass laws to protect against problems caused by too vigorous exploitation of short term profits by individuals or minorities. Unfortunately, our political system says companies have the same rights of free speech as real people and that money may not be regulated in the volume of noise it creates.

My interest in professional sports has decreased as it has become a bigger and bigger business in which multimillionaires compete among themselves. It will be less in the future as it seems that even watching contact sports on TV is likely to promote long term injury among the athletes.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Election of the UNESCO Director General

Check out my posts on the election via Global Memo. Irina Bokova has virtually assured her continued leadership of the Organization by her victory in the Executive Board.

Friday, October 04, 2013

I lucked out in universities

The new World University Rankings from the Times of London is out. It seems to have a UK tilt (three of the top ten ranked schools are in the England). Still I was pleased to see that the three schools from which I got my degrees were in the top 100 (BS at UCLA, 12; MSEE at UC Berkeley, 8; PhD at UC Irvine, 93). Five of the schools at which I have taught are in the top 200 (UC Berkeley, 8; UCLA, 12; UC Irvine, 93; University of Maryland, 108;  George Washington University, 193).


I quote from an interesting article in The New Yorker focusing on the 80 members of the House of Representatives who are leading the current effort to bring down Obamacare by shutting down the government.
As the above map, detailing the geography of the suicide caucus, shows, half of these districts are concentrated in the South, and a quarter of them are in the Midwest, while there’s a smattering of thirteen in the rural West and four in rural Pennsylvania (outside the population centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). Naturally, there are no members from New England, the megalopolis corridor from Washington to Boston, or along the Pacific coastline........ 
While the most salient demographic fact about America is that it is becoming more diverse, Republican districts actually became less diverse in 2012. According to figures compiled by The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, a leading expert on House demographics who provided me with most of the raw data I’ve used here, the average House Republican district became two percentage points more white in 2012....... 
The average suicide-caucus district is seventy-five per cent white, while the average House district is sixty-three per cent white. Latinos make up an average of nine per cent of suicide-district residents, while the over-all average is seventeen per cent. The districts also have slightly lower levels of education (twenty-five per cent of the population in suicide districts have college degrees, while that number is twenty-nine per cent for the average district)........ 
Obama defeated Romney by four points nationally. But in the eighty suicide-caucus districts, Obama lost to Romney by an average of twenty-three points. The Republican members themselves did even better. In these eighty districts, the average margin of victory for the Republican candidate was thirty-four points. 
In short, these eighty members represent an America where the population is getting whiter, where there are few major cities, where Obama lost the last election in a landslide, and where the Republican Party is becoming more dominant and more popular. Meanwhile, in national politics, each of these trends is actually reversed.
I suspect that in these districts the young people often move away to go on to higher education or move away to find jobs. Look at his map of the age distribution of the population by country.

These districts elect white men to represent them in Congress, They must feel that the world is changing in ways that they don't like. Thomas Jefferson thought that the future of the nation was in the yeoman farmer living in a rural America. Power was vested in white men, and indeed in men who had land and worked that land. In that world, the suicide-caucus counties would be the heart and soul of the country. In the world of the Internet and global business, that world has lost prestige. No wonder that its inhabitants are mad, determined not to take it any more.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Criteria for the Election of the UNESCO Director General

A meeting of the UNESCO Executive Board
Candidate Irina Bokova
I have been posting elsewhere on the current election of the Director General of UNESCO. I have refrained from supporting one of the three candidates -- in large part because I am not really able to judge which would do the best job. But I will comment here on how that judgement might best be made.

Some seem to feel that the job is managing the UNESCO bureaucracy -- motivating staff to carry out UNESCO's mission, assuring that the systems for financial and personnel management function effectively, leading in the definition of a program and budget. All that is important, but I wonder if it is the most important aspect of the job.

Candidate Rachad Farah
Where has UNESCO contributed most to the world?
  • Over the decades of UNESCO's existence there has been a huge and unprecedented expansion of educational opportunities. That has been accomplished by the nations of the world. UNESCO has played a role helping to direct public attention to educational rights not being observed, convening groups of educators and political leaders to examine the problems of extending school access, defining and collecting educational statistics, and monitoring progress toward Education for All.
  • UNESCO helped the European nations come together to create CERN, the leading global center for "big physics". It helped create the International Center for Theoretical Physics, which has become a center for strengthening science in developing nations. It has convened networks of scientists working globally on bioreserves and biodiversity, water resource assessments, tsunami warnings and other scientific critical issues.
  • It convened the nations of the world to create the World Heritage Convention, under which nations have come forth to guarantee the preservation of 981 sites of cultural and/or natural importance. Its other cultural conventions have served to protect museums and prevent the looting of national heritage treasures.
  • It has encouraged a large number of partners to promote education, science, culture and communications, including many civil society organizations, governments, private enterprises, associated schools, UNESCO university chairs, UNESCO national commissions and thousands of UNESCO Clubs.
Candidate Joseph Maila
What kind of UNESCO Director General could best protect and extend these accomplishments? It seems to me that it would be someone with a good understanding of how positive trends in global education, science, culture and communications are best fostered, how negative trends are best deterred, and how to distinguish the positive from the negative. It should be someone who commands respect on the international stage because of personal qualities and accomplishments, not just as the spokesperson for UNESCO. It would be someone who recognized UNESCO not as a bureaucracy centered in Paris, but as a global network of institutions and people devoted to sets of mutually reinforcing goals, only a few of which get financing from UNESCO or directly involve UNESCO staff. And of course, it would be someone who could communicate this understanding to UNESCO's member states and to the bureaucracy and enlist their wholehearted support for that vision.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Here is an initiative that might do some real good.

EKOCENTER is a modularly designed kiosk with Slingshot at its core, transformed from  a 20-foot shipping container into a hub of community activity, offering  clean, safe drinking water, alongside other services, such as access to wireless communication, electricity, vaccination storage, and more tailored to address community needs. Slingshot is a water purification system.
A consortium of donors, including the Coca Cola Company has committed itself to place between 1,500 and 2,000 units in the form of EKOCENTERs, “downtowns in a box,” or Slingshot water purification systems to deliver further services beyond clean water, in Africa, Asia, Latin America and North America. Through this commitment, we aim to deliver 500 million liters of safe drinking water, while promoting greater local development in communities that need it most.

The slingshot described in the video was designed to produce 1000 liters of water a day, or to serve a village of 1000 people with an average of 10 liters of potable water per person per day.

So 2000 of these units would serve 200,000 people. This will not transform the world, but it might transform the world for those people in those villages!

Of course, the question is whether the villages will be able to maintain the centers and water purifiers. Villages that don't have potable water don't tend to have a lot of technological capacity.  The donors may find a networking solution to provide the needed maintenance, others have found ways to finance and maintain village communication centers. If so, and if the people will understand and accept distilled water for drinking, then this is a nice project. If not, then we will see more white elephants placed in the middle of more poor villages.