Thursday, February 27, 2014

About Biotechnology -- An Agricultural Example

Traditional breeding takes half the genes from one plant and half from another to produce a new plant. To get a rare trait, such as resistance to a new virus, breeders may not have much choice of the source. So often, using conventional breeding, they have to take a lot of not very useful genes into the new plant to get the one they really need. Then a lot of time is spent breeding back into good plants to get rid of the junk genes.

 Sometimes. to get a really rare gene, plant breeders have to go to a related species that is not commercial and find a way to get the gene into the commercial species and commercial cultivars. If they do not use biotechnology, then they have to get lucky and build a new plant that is the vegetable world's analog to a mule. People have domesticated the major food plants over thousands of years, and the cultivars used by farmers have been cleaned in that time of genes dangerous to man. The species from which important new genes are found haven't gone through that process, and often harbor dangerous genes. In any case, the tests used for the products of biotechnology are not used for the products of traditional breeding.

Properly don't, biotechnology not only produces needed new cultivars more rapidly, but also of more proven safety.

(I was the project officer for a major conference on biotechnology applications for developing countries in the early 1980s, and worked for the following 15 years managing a program funding biotechnology research and development projects, serving for part of that time as the officer responsible for assuring that the research was demonstrably safe.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lots of Newbees in Congress

In 2009, 147 House representatives (33.8% of the entire body) had six years or less of House experience; by 2013 that had risen to 196, or 45%. In the Senate, 54 senators are in their first term, the most since the 97th Congress in 1981.

The 29 senators who are in their third, fourth or even later term have very disproportionate influence. Since the senate term is 6 years, some of these men are quite old. That doesn't seem a good idea -- and it is one that Jefferson thought was bad. Similarly 146 representatives have served seven or more terms, 14 or more years; 72 have served 10 or more terms, 20 years or more in the same job.

Forgetting how long it takes to figure out how to get anything done in an organization of 100 or 435 voting members with complex and arcane procedures, how long does it take to master the mass of U.S. laws and U.S. policy? First term newbees may not get much done.

Is the relatively large number of people who have been less than 6 years in Congress a sign of the dysfunctional nature of the current electoral process? Is it in itself a reason that the Congress is so unproductive?

Corporate Profits Take More of the GDP in Developed Countries.

Source: The Economist
Corporate earnings in the USA have increased greatly as a portion of GDP, part of the process of the shift of income and wealth to the most affluent one percent.

On the other hand, corporations seem even more successful in acquiring profits in the G7 countries; that suggests to me that capital is likely to move toward the G7 countries.

The Oceans Are in Trouble. Is Congress Part of the Problem?

The oceans are vitally important to mankind. The oceanic environment is deteriorating, and international cooperation is vital to its protection. UNESCO could facilitate some of that cooperation, but the U.S. Congress has blocked U.S. funding for UNESCO. The Senate has more than a dozen treaties awaiting ratification, some submitted more than 30 years ago.

ABOUT 3 billion people live within 100 miles (160km) of the sea, a number that could double in the next decade as humans flock to coastal cities like gulls. The oceans produce $3 trillion of goods and services each year and untold value for the Earth’s ecology. Life could not exist without these vast water reserves—and, if anything, they are becoming even more important to humans than before.
The Economist
This article in The Economist indicates that the oceans are deteriorating because we haven't managed to develop common property institutions that work to protect them. Fisheries are being over exploited. Large areas are oxygen depleted and dead. Coral reefs are in trouble. Acidification of ocean waters is occurring and likely to become dangerous. Further treats are in view from off shore drilling and deep sea mining. Climate change may threaten the ocean currents, with profound consequences.

UNESCO is the international agency leading in ocean science, and it hosts the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Its World Heritage Center implements the World Heritage Convention; it has declared Papahānaumokuākea, an oceanic World Heritage site, accepting the U.S. plan for its protection and conservation of its resources. The United States has not paid its assessed contributions to UNESCO for more than two years, and is banned by the Congress from any funding for the Organization.

The following international treaties relating to ocean protection have been submitted to Congress, but never ratified:

  • Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, done at Vienna May 23, 1969, and signed by the United States on April 24, 1970; submitted to Senate November 22, 1971.
  • Maritime Boundary Agreement between the United States of America and the Republic of Cuba, signed at Washington December 16, 1977; submitted to Senate January 19, 1979.
  • Amendment to the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), done at Gaborone April 30, 1983; submitted to Senate October 4, 1983.
  • Convention on Biological Diversity, done at Rio de Janeiro June 5, 1992, and signed by the United States at New York on June 4, 1993; submitted to Senate November 20, 1993.
  • United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, done at Montego Bay December 10, 1982 (the “Convention”) and Agreement relating to Implementation of Part XI of the Convention, done at New York July 28, 1994 (the “Agreement”); Agreement signed by the United States on July 29, 1994; submitted to Senate October 7, 1994.
  • Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, done at Stockholm May 22, 2001, and signed by the United States on May 23, 2001; submitted to Senate May 7, 2002.
  • 1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972, done at London November 7, 1996, and signed by the United States March 31, 1998; submitted to Senate September 4, 2007.
  • Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, with annexes, done at Canberra June 19, 2001; submitted to Senate September 26, 2008.
  • Annex VI on Liability Arising From Environmental Emergencies to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Annex VI), adopted on June 14, 2005; submitted to Senate April 2, 2009.
  • Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, done in Rome November 22, 2009 and signed that day on behalf of the United States; submitted to Senate November 14, 2011.
  • Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fishery Resources in the South Pacific Ocean, done at Auckland, New Zealand November 14, 2009 and signed on behalf of the United States on January 31, 2011; submitted to Senate April 22, 2013. 
  • Convention on the Conservation and Management of High Seas Fisheries Resources in the North Pacific Ocean, concluded in Tokyo on February 24, 2012 and signed on behalf of the United States on May 2, 2012; submitted to Senate April 22, 2013. 
  • Amendment to the Convention on Future Multilateral Cooperation in the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries, adopted in Lisbon, Portugal September 28, 2007; submitted to Senate April 22, 2013.

PACO DE LUCIA: Rest in Peace

The Environment -- Knowing the Cost but not the Value

The Economist has a tutorial on economic measurement of "ecosystem services". It identifies four approaches:

  • If the service has an output, then it is sometimes possible to value the environmental input. Thus an estimate of the value of bees has been made based on the value of the crops that they pollinate.
  • "(I)f market prices are affected by nature, a value can be derived from them. Thus an apartment in New York with a view of Central Park is worth considerably more than one without such a view."
  • "(P)eople’s behaviour—for instance the costs that they are prepared to bear to visit a national park—reveals the value that they place on unpriced goods."
  • "(P)eople can be asked whether and how much they prize aspects of nature." This method applies primarily to non-use value.
Perhaps there is another way. Think about the smog that now makes life miserable in Chinese cities. In some way, it may be compared to the air pollution that once afflicted London. London cleaned up its air, and then cleaned up the buildings that its air pollution had soiled. It was willing to pay the costs of substituting other fuels for coal and cleaning those buildings. That cost, updated to current conditions, might be an estimate of the value of clean air in a city (of a given population size). Other major efforts to clean up air and water (reduction of smog in Los Angeles, the U.S. Clean Air and Clean Water programs, etc.) might suggest values people attach to environmental quality.

The article goes on to state:
Some of the numbers derived from these methods are distinctly dodgy, but conservationists argue, fairly reasonably, that it is better to have mediocre estimates than none at all. They lend force to environmentalists’ arguments and can usefully be fed into cost-benefit analyses. Governments thinking of planting forests or creating nature reserves, for instance, can put sensible numbers on the value people attribute to them, and thus work out whether the land in question would be better used for agricultural or recreational purposes. 
I am not sure that mediocre estimates are always better than none, especially if they will be misused. A decision to forego an environmental service because a government is unwilling to pay the preservation cost might be taken to suggest -- inappropriately -- that the value of the service is less than the cost would have been to protect it. It may simply be that the government was short sighted, or that it failed to find means to mobilize financial mechanisms to capture the needed portion of the value.

I think of "natural resources". How much are oil and gas fields worth before they have been located? How much were the fields now being exploited by fracking worth before the fracking technology was developed to exploit them, and the costs of alternative sources became high enough to justify the development and application of the new technology? How much were the off shore or the deep water oil reserves worth before they were located, before the technology was developed for their exploitation, and before alternative, lower cost sources were running out? The point is that something becomes a resource only when the technology exists to find it and it is found, and when the technology exists to exploit it.

So how many "natural resources" are to be found in biodiversity and other aspects of nature about which we know little or nothing now. Assuming that there is no value because we have not yet developed the technology to create value seems a serious mistake.

How about other approaches.


What if we were to say that great apes and other primates have a right to exist as species? Rights "trump" cost-benefit analysis. We do now take a rights based position on the treatment of animals used in research. They have to be housed, fed and treated humanely, even if it costs a lot to do so. Indeed, it appears that chimpanzees are no longer to be used in medical research because they have suffered too much in the past from such use, and because the species is in some danger as a species.

Perhaps rhinos, elephants, whales, bison, wolves and other species have similar rights to exist. Indeed, perhaps they have rights to exist in nature, and not merely in zoos or gene banks.


The World Heritage Convention implies that countries have a duty to protect things because they are of such cultural or natural value that they must be preserved for future generations. It would I suppose be possible to value Yellowstone and Yosemite by what the government could get selling them off as real estate -- that would be at least a lower bound on the actual monetary value. But would it not be better to simply say that we have a duty to future generations to keep these wonders pristine?

Monday, February 24, 2014

How long is a year?

A discussion took place in my history book club about Ptolemaic versus Galilean models of the orbits of the planets. As readers no doubt know, Ptolemy thought the earth was stationary and that the sun, moon and planets all revolved around the earth. Galileo thought planetary motion was better explained by the earth and the other planets orbiting around the sun (with moons orbiting around the planets) -- as we do today. The Ptolemaic system, however, had developed complex models with epicycles of the planets around their orbital centers that provided quite accurate forecasts of where the planets could be seen in the sky. One member of the club maintained that the Ptolemaic system's predictions of orbits were more accurate in 1615 than those coming from Galileo.

I was reading The Reformation: a History by Diarmaid MacCulloch which noted that the Gregorian Calendar was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. This was well before Galileo published his views on a heleocentric system in 1615.

The Julian Calendar, used from the time of Julius Cesar, was based on a year of 365 and 1/4 days, and included leap years. The problem is that the solar year is not exactly 365.25 days, and the astronomers in the Vatican Observatory knew that fact. The church had its own astronomers, and while they may have lacked the scientific genius of Galileo, they apparently were pretty good at measuring time and making observations.

The sidereal year's average duration is 365.256363004 mean solar days. Over 15 centuries, Julian calendar actually underestimated the length of the year by 0.006363004 days per year or 9.544508 days. That resulted in Easter, which was scheduled in the church calendar in relation to the Spring Equinox to fall ten days away from the desired actual date. The Pope deleted ten days from the calendar when he started anew.

The mean length of the year in the Gregorian Calendar is 365.2425 days. So the Gregorian Calendar is actually less accurate in terms of the length of the year, but for some centuries it put Easter back in place as determined by the First Council of Nicaea.


I just watched Longitude, a made for (A&E) TV movie, starring Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons. With a strong British cast, the performances of Gambon and Irons stand out.  The movie is in two parts, and with the discussion by those involved runs to 300 minutes.

The basic story is that of John Harrison, who invented the marine chronometer that first satisfactorily measured time with sufficient accuracy at sea to allow longitude to be determined. He was awarded a huge prize established by the British Parliament three centuries ago for the first practical solution to the measurement of longitude, The story is told in Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time  by Dava Sobel, who was one of the writers of the script for the movie.

It also tells the story of Rupert Gould, a troubled man who restored Harrison's four chronometers in the early 20th century, who also became one of the effective popularizers of science in Britain.

The invention of the compass allowed sailors to know the directions at sea, even in the worst of weather. It was possible to navigate by the stars and know the latitude of a ship -- how far north or south it was. However, there was no adequate solution to the measurement of longitude -- how far east or west the ship might be. If one could measure the difference in time between the location of the ship and a known location -- say the Observatory at Greenwich -- then one could determine longitude.

Unfortunately, this was long before the invention of the telephone or telegraph, so it was not possible to simply send a time signal over the lines. It was also important. Thousands of seamen died each year, either running into land while they thought they were far out at sea, or getting lost at sea and dying of hunger or thirst because they could not renew provisions.

It was possible to measure local noon accurately using a sun dial, at least in good weather. Galileo suggested that it would be possible to measure a "universal time" accurately by observing the moons of Jupiter. With astronomical tables, the times of transepts of the moons could be known, and would be observed simultaneously from wherever they were visible on earth. Indeed, the method was used in terrestrial observation even in the 19th century -- Zebulon Pike, after whom Pike's Peak is named, used the technique in his mapping of the west.

However, measuring astronomical events accurately under all conditions at sea was not feasible, and (as the film shows) defeated the intensive efforts of England's astronomers.

The alternative was to create very accurate clocks. Today we have cheap watchers that are more accurate than the most accurate time pieces available in 1700. The technological progress in clock making in the 16th century had not approached the accuracy needed. John Harrison took on the challenge, and devoted a lifetime to the work. He was a carpenter, and had made wooden clocks for local clients as a young man. Realizing he would need to go to metal movements, he created and built a series of four clocks. The first of them was sufficiently accurate in some tests, but failed to account for centrifugal force in some seaborne conditions. Like the first, the second and third clocks were large, His experience increasing with decades of work, he finally build a chronometer that could be held in the palm of the hand that was both very accurate and very capable of maintaining that accuracy under extreme conditions.

I suspect that Harrison's success was due in part to the advances that were made in mechanical technology in Britain. Better metals were available, and machine tools were being invented and perfected. The movie shows support for Harrison by an important clock maker, one who brought him a trained clock maker to serve as an assistant. I would not take anything away from Harrison as a man totally devoted to his task, who developed and used a wonderful mechanical intuition, but I suspect that his work was made possible by the work of others, much as his accomplishments helped others to extend the watchmakers/clockmakers art.

The movie shows a bit of the difficulties of life at sea in the 17th century, especially as it deals with the voyages of William Harrison. John Harrison's son, as he tested the fourth chronometer.

Lessons from this History

The prize offered by the Parliament for a practical means to measure longitude was 20.000 English pounds, equivalent to millions of today's dollars. History suggests that the prize certainly did stimulate research and development. Fortunately, and probably beyond the politicians ability to predict, the task set in the legislation proved possible.

Did science lead to innovation. Apparently not. The Royal Academy scientists were key members of the Longitude Commission, especially astronomers who had great prestige at the time. The script writers clearly believed that the scientists of the time were prejudiced against clock makers and craftsmen, and that in many ways they hindered the effort to produce marine chronometers; they (naturally?) wanted the solution to come from the science of Astronomy.

Harrison's first chronometer worked quite well on land. It failed to work at sea. Harrison had not understood the movement that it would be subjected to on the unstable ships of the time. (I wonder whether some system to protect it from that motion might have helped, but that was not in his bag of tricks.) The scientists on the Longitude Commission apparently wanted the experiment demonstrating the effectiveness of the chronometer to be replicated, and that today looks quite reasonable. So too does the demonstration that the chronometers could be replicated, retaining their accuracy and stability. The dramatic impact of such conditions on someone who had spent decades developing the clock and who had fulfilled the conditions set by the (non-scientists of) the Parliament was obvious and made the movie emotionally interesting. However, replication and scale-up of production were important.

My wife and I both very much enjoyed the film.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A thought on reading The Reformation,

I have been reading The Reformation: A History by Diermaid MacCulloch. One of the issues separating theologians and churches at the time was predestination. Some held that since God was omniscient and omnipotent, those people who would go to heaven were predestined to do so. Others held that people made their way to heaven through faith and actions. I don't have the background to argue the theology, but I have a couple of thoughts to share.


Scientists tell us now that the universe is much, much larger and that it is much, much older than people in the 16th century could have imagined; scientists also suggest that it will last much, much longer into the future than those people imagined (and many of them believed the end of the world was immanent). Scientists have also discovered that a sub-atomic world exists in all that we can see and feel, and that it is smaller, stranger and more complex than  people of the 16th century could have imagined. Moreover, scientists tell us that the things we can see and feel are only a relatively small part of the universe, and that there are large amounts of dark matter and dark energy.

There are now many times as many people living as were known to Europeans in the 16th century, they live longer and more complicated lives, and their number is growing. Scientists tell us that the species has been around for much longer than people in the 16th century would have understood, and most people now foresee the species lasting many millenniums into the future.

We have learned a lot about information and how it can be stored, accessed, and processed. For example, satellites have been recording data on the earth for decades. People have likened analysis of that data to trying to drink from a fire hose. The data is stored, much of it unanalyzed, but ready to be approached with powerful software and computers if specific information is required. Thus the data is organized and available, but there is much knowledge that might yet be gained from it.

Our view of the universe and mankind is so expanded and so changed, that we must understand terms such as "omniscient" and "omnipotent" quite differently than did people of the 16th century.


Think of a sporting event on which people bet. There will be odds set on the outcomes before the event, based on their estimated probabilities. If you will, handicappers specify the likely probability of each alternative based on the information available before the event; the actual result depends not only on the abilities of the athletes, but on the evolution of the event -- chance events and the decisions made. The outcome is divided into two components, that which was probable a priori, and that which happened during the event that led to the a posteriori certainty of the result.  People of the 16th century had no such concepts of statistical determinism.

Think now of a sports fan returning home from a day at work who is interested in a winter Olympic event. The results are available on the Internet when the fan arrives, but the event will not be broadcast on television for some hours. Some fans would check the Internet immediately to find the result, then watch the broadcast later; for others that would spoil the pleasure of watching the event and they would avoid learning the outcome in advance. In both cases, the information on the results would always be out in cyberspace available to the fan; in one case the observer would chose to know the result as soon as possible; in the other case the fan would prefer to know the result only after experiencing the event over time. I suspect our differentiation of having data or information and having knowledge is different than that of the people of the 16th century.

Thus I suspect that we moderns understand "determinism" and "knowledge" differently than did people in the 16th century. Thus we might have a different understanding of predestination than did people in the 16th century.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Big cities contribute to the economy, but rural states have undue influence in the Senate

I quote from the Pew Research Center report:
Reddit user Alexandr Trubetskoy based this map on metro-area GDP estimates by consulting firm IHS Global Insight (in a report prepared for the U.S. Conference of Mayors). Six metro areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington D.C., Dallas and Houston — account for almost a quarter of the nation’s $16.8 trillion economy; add in the next 17 highest-ranked metros, and you account for about half of all economic activity.

The Precautionary Principle and Climate Change Made Simple

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Teaching the Foreign Policy Establishment about History

The final chapter of "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy by Ernest R. May is titled "Tasks for Historians". (See my posts on Chapters I & II, Chapters III and IV, and Chapters V and VI.)

Professional historians (PhD trained, doing original historical research, teaching at the university level, and writing for an audience capable of peer review) have specialized understanding of historical analysis -- understanding that May likens to that of professional scientists or economists within their professional fields. I would agree.

May suggests that people involved in U.S. foreign policy need to know about the history of the countries (and regions) with which they are dealing, about U.S. history, about the history of foreign policy and foreign policy making, and about the operations of the U.S. government. The book, taken as a whole, suggests that they also need to understand comparable historical situations to those in which they are currently making policy decisions.

I recently watched a news report suggesting that nominees for ambassadorial posts need some instruction in history of the country in which they are to serve before their Senate hearings. People taking new posts dealing with a specific foreign country or region probably should study the relevant history before and after taking the post. May also suggests that people taking positions in the federal government should learn about their department's history and the history of policy making in government as they prepare for their duties. I would suggest that people preparing to represent the USA in some area of foreign policy might be expected to know about U.S. history. And of course, May emphasizes that people making important foreign policy decisions need to know about the relevant history to that decision, and about historical precedents that might inform that decision.

May seems to focus on military, political and economic history and of course these are all important. However, many specialists working in the international field need to know history relevant to their own fields. Thus environmental history, the history of health and health services, agricultural history, engineering history, industrial history, and the history of financial services are examples of histories that may be relevant to foreign policy.

Of course, history books are a key resource for those wishing to learn history. It might be that every person working in foreign policy should have a tablet and use it regularly to read history. I have used the CIA World Factbook frequently, and the country studies (now somewhat dated) available from the Library of Congress. The State Department maintains a training center, and there are other government training facilities available to people in foreign policy posts. I would suggest that a lot could be done with online courses, both of the Khan Academy type and like those provided by Coursera.

Based on a couple of decades of experience strengthening the use of science and technology in USAID, it would suggest two other approaches:

  • Bring young and mid-career professional historians into the agencies on fellowships and exchanges. These people will earn their keep helping with the work of the agency. They will recognize situations in which professional historical skill and understanding will be useful, and if they find significant numbers of such situations, the use of historians will increase.
  • Create a process by which panels of historians can provide professional advice, comparable to the peer review process and the scientific advisory process used in the federal government.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Where the money comes from!

This map from the Washington Post shows that half of the GDP of the nation is created in a few, large cities.

According to the Brookings Institution:
Metropolitan areas nationwide boast disproportionate shares of the assets that will drive the next wave of U.S. economic growth. With 84 percent of the nation’s population, all 366 metropolitan areas together produce 85 percent of U.S. exports, and are home to 86 percent of its lower-carbon commuters (those not driving alone to work), 89 percent of working-age people with a post-secondary degree, and 93 percent of individuals employed in science and engineering occupations.

Its obvious if you think about it.


I just read an article that pointed out that the "tit for tat" negotiating strategy usually deteriorates into a death spiral if there is a noisy environment. Both parties can start out nice, but somewhere along the line, noise intervenes and a participant things the other is cheating -- taking advantage, doing the wrong thing. The response is negative, and so on. The better strategy is "generous tit for tat".
DeSteno points to the work of mathematicians Martin Nowak and Karl Sigmund, who have studied how such noise affects cooperative strategies. To their own surprise, the researchers found in a series of experience that tit-for-tat didn’t emerge as the ideal strategy. Instead, what dominated was a close cousin, which they called “generous tit-for-tat” (GTFT) — an approach somewhat more forgiving than TFT, in which people occasionally chose to cooperate even after their partner had defected. With this extra helping of forgiveness, they were able to overcome that system noise and continue to cooperate smoothly. The most striking finding, however, is that GTFT had a significant flaw — it resulted in a sort of habituation to defection, which over the long run provided fertile ground for exploitation by the dishonest.

More on the role of history/historians in U.S. foreign policy

This is the third in a series of posts on "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy by Ernest R. May; it deals with Chapters V and VI. (See my posts on Chapters I & II, and Chapters III and IV.)

Bombing as an Example of Historical Analysis

Chapter V provides a summary historical analysis of the history of successful and unsuccessful bombing campaigns, where I am using the term success to indicate campaigns that resulted in a change of the target government's policies in directions intended by the governments conducting the bombing campaigns. Essentially, May seems to suggest that campaigns are successful in this way when they trigger changes in government, which in turn lead to new policies.

Nearly 40 years after "Lessons" of the Past was published I am struck by the apparent success of the bombing campaigns in the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and the current use of drones against people believed to lead terrorist organizations or cells.

In the case of Iraq, the air attack appeared successful in defeating air defenses and providing air superiority for U.S. forces in the ground fighting. The success was perhaps more tactical and less strategic than those discussed by May.

In the case of Al Qaeda, the drones are used for intelligence and to target individuals, in part justified by protection of U.S. lives. Perhaps the analysis provided by May is less relevant in the very asymmetric conditions of anti-terrorist campaigns.

Ultimately, however, I wonder whether the kind of historical analysis May is proposing can adequately consider the changes in military technology that occur between wars.

Predicting Future Foreign Policy Concerns

May provides a tutorial on the domestic sources of foreign policy priorities:

  • The public, and the elites who form public opinion;
  • The Congress, and the constituencies who most influence the legislators opinions;
  • The domestic bureaucracies of the agencies traditionally involved in foreign affairs (State, Defense, Treasury, CIA, USAID, etc.)
  • The Overseas missions of these agencies
  • The White House bureaucracy -- National Security Council, Council of Economic Advisors, etc.
  • The President's cabinet and key advisors, and of course
  • The President himself.
May might have added the Media. Today, with the importance of cable news, social networking, and the Internet in molding opinion, the changes in media infrastructure are clearly changing the way public opinion is molded. However, May might have noted the impact of television on public opinion during the Vietnam war, or of Movie news and films on public opinion during and after World War II.

As May suggests, historians are better at looking at the past than anticipating the future. Still, foreign policy responds to things external to the United States. The breakup of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, and the triumph of markets over central planning combined with the rise of militant Islam and the events of 9/11 led to a shift from Cold War oriented foreign policy to "the War on Terror" and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Arab Spring and its aftermath bring to mind the wave of demonstrations in Europe in 1848, and surely have had their impact on U.S. foreign policy.

The world economic picture has changed, and with it the power of the United States. (See this post.) I suspect that Europe and China will become still more influential as competitors and cooperators in the future, as Japan and Germany did in the decades after World War II.

So too the real world is increasingly intruding. Fortunately, the Green Revolution has been successful in dealing with what was thought to be a Malthusian hunger crisis. So too, a revolution in nutrition and public health, together with a revolution in family planning have led to a radical change in global population dynamics. If less visible aspects of foreign policy had been less successful, we might have had to deal with apocalyptic situations in Asia and Africa as major foreign policy concerns.

Looking to the future, energy, climate change, loss of biodiversity, desertification, deforestation, deterioration of coastal zones, and other real world issues may come to be more important issues before the State Department and the White House.

Moreover, we may see "domestic" health, agriculture, energy, and environmental agencies come to play a more visible role in foreign policy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

New Data on the Value of the Minimum Wage

So, a single person who works 52 weeks a year, 40 hours per week at minimum wage would have been above the US poverty level for the entire time covered in this graph.

For most of the time from 1960 to 1982, one person working at minimum wage could keep a family of three out of poverty. Vietnam cut into the value of such a wage from the late 60s to the mid 70s. However, since the Reagan revolution, a single worker at the minimum wage did not earn enough to keep a family of three out of poverty.

A family of four has always needed two workers, if working at minimum wage.

Three countries and a common market share nearly two-thirds of the global GDP

Europe has a population more than twice that of the United States, and of course, China and India each have more people than Europe. Still, to the extent that economic power is significantly based in GDP and not per capita GDP, the United States is going to have to do more sharing in the future. 

Babies may have moral instinct

A friend, Emily, alerted me to this CNN site, and specifically to the three videos that deal with the way infants think. They show work going on at "the baby lab" at Yale University.

In one series of experiments, an infant is offered small pieces of graham crackers in one dish and cheerios in another dish. Puppets are then offered the same choices, and one makes the same choice as the baby while a second puppet with a different colored shirt makes the other choice. Babies as young as three months of age show a preference for the puppet that makes the same choice: graham cracker babies like graham cracker puppets better, cheerio babies like cheerio puppets better.

In a second series of experiments, a puppet theater shows three puppets: a puppet with a shirt of one color helps a tiger puppet in one scene; in a second scene a puppet with the other color shirt interferes with the tiger puppet. Babies show preference for the helpful puppet over the harmful puppet.

The researchers claim in this latter experiment that the babies like others who help rather than others who hinder because they -- the babies -- make moral judgments as early as three months of age.

I wonder? Perhaps the baby is simply doing the same thing in the two experiments. The baby likes one kind of food, so prefers the puppet that likes the same kind of food. Perhaps the baby would him/herself help the tiger puppet and so prefers the puppet that helps the little tiger.

What is the difference. It may be that the baby is very early able to make moral judgment about how he/she should act, but not infer that others should make similar moral judgments -- but simply prefer others that act as he/she would act him/herself.

Still I think the research does suggest that humans are born with an instinct to help others. That makes sense for a social species, and it makes sense for humans who help each other to learn.

Here is a short video suggesting that other primates have similar instincts.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Uses of History in the Korean War and Vietnam War White House Decisions

I have read the third and fourth chapters of "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy by Earnest R. May. (See post on the first two chapters) They deal with the uses of history in the decisions to send U.S. troops to Korea to help the South Korean government resist the invasion from the north, and to send U.S. forces to Vietnam to help the south Vietnamese government resist the insurgency supported by North Vietnam's government and that of China.


The Korean analysis really surprised me. Apparently there had been detailed discussions for some time by the Truman administration and between that administration and Congress which concluded that the United States had no vital interest in Korea. Secretary of State Acheson had said so publicly.

Korea had been in Japanese hands at the time Japan surrendered in World War II, and the United States had sent a relatively small force to occupy the south of the peninsula (to forestall Russian control of all of Korea.) Still there was no deep knowledge nor understanding of Korea nor its history in the government at the time; the occupation forces were seeking to leave. There seemed no obvious political group to assume governance of South Korea, and Sigmund Rhee is described as having had U.S. support for forming a government primarily because of his anti-Communist beliefs. However, the U.S. in equipping the South Korean military had not given them the offensive weapons that might have allowed effective battle against North Korean forces.

Yet May describes Truman as probably having decided on a military response to the invasion before returning to Washington from Missouri (where he had been when he heard the news). Thus Truman apparently ditched the policy that he had accepted shortly before the invasion after it had been carefully considered and discussed.

I suppose many people have seen staff in a large organization change their opinions when the leader of that organization comes out firmly with a contrary opinion. The prestige of the presidency and the atmosphere of the White House makes that phenomenon much more powerful. In any case, May describes Truman's advisers as falling in line with their boss' decision.

May's key point in the discussion was that the people involved in the Korean decision seemed to have been drawing on their own personal experience, their easily available memories of historical antecedents, especially those that occurred while they themselves have been in national office.


The U.S. committed military force to Vietnam increasingly over time. As each increment was met by comparable input by the Communists, and as the insurgency grew in strength, the U.S. government committed more and more troops. May focuses on the Kennedy administration, and the Johnson administration, but does not deal with Nixon's administration. The Eisenhower administration had resisted sending military aid, and apparently most U.S. leaders had assumed that Vietnam was lost to the West when the French were defeated there.

Kennedy is described as considering it possible to support the Diem government with relatively few American troops and those limited to a training role. Johnson made the decisions to escalate the war and send large numbers of troops to participate in a land war, as well as to initiate bombing of North Vietnam.

Again, there were no experts on Vietnam involved in the decision making, none who spoke Vietnamese, none who had deep knowledge of Vietnamese history. Here too, May suggests that principals in the decision making had relied on antecedents readily available to their personal memories, especially those from their own experience in national affairs. He notes that men who would have demanded far more professional economic and legal analyses in other contexts, were quite content to rely on historical analysis that would not be accepted in any graduate history department in the country. (One could say the same in terms of the analysis of the current economic, political and social situation in the countries where U.S. troops were being committed.)


I was surprised that May made little reference to the larger foreign policy that had been put forth. It focused on containment of Communism, with the idea that if contained, the internal contradictions of the Soviet system would result in its collapse. While confidence in that policy had been diminished by the Communist takeover of mainland China, it was still in force in as the Vietnam decisions were being made. It included, as I understand it:

  • maintaining a strong U.S. military force as a deterrent;
  • building economic success in the United States, western Europe (including Germany), and free Asia (including Japan)
  • decolonization (so that anti-colonial movements would not be available to be commandeered by Communists)
  • resistance to communist movements wherever they occurred.
Looking back now, the USSR imploded 15 years after May's book was published, and market economies have taken over from centrally planned economies to a greater or lesser extent in all the former Communist countries. The U.S. grand strategy seems to have worked.

Yet perhaps as early as the Truman administration, U.S. foreign policy makers were willing to give up Korea to Communist control; later they seemed ready to concede Vietnam to that fate (and eventually did so).

In fairness to Truman, Kennedy and Johnson and their teams, running the United States government is tough. Domestic policy is complex and controversial, and perhaps more important to the success of party politics. Foreign policy deals with economics, culture, global systems issues as well as security, and it does so in some 200 countries. The issues with allies are often more important than those with enemies. The U.S. overthrew governments in Iran and Chile; it successfully dealt with the Cuban missile crisis (after mishandling Cuban affairs for many years); it was relatively successful in Greece, Turkey, and the Congo. Meanwhile, people were desperate to find solutions to major unsolved development problems all over Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East and some of those people looked to radical alternatives to free market capitalism and democracy.

The president is Chief of Staff, CEO of the huge administrative bureaucracy, leader of his party, who occupies the bully pulpit who communicates to the general public, and also a key person in jawboning the Congress. He is worried about support for his party from the electorate, and support for his policies from his party as well as the formation and implementation of those policies. His decisions will often depend on the way that the problem and alternatives are presented to him, and that is often in the hands of his subordinates -- who are involved in political and bureaucratic maneuvers themselves as they serve their president, their party, their country and their own ambitions. The Chief of Staff who determines to a significant degree who sees the president and what the president sees, is probably a key person in White House decision making.

It is a truism that planning is important, but plans seldom work out as originally thought. Reacting to the actions of enemies and allies is of critical importance. All foreign affairs is, I think, largely muddling through situations that have not been completely foreseen, dealing with others whose motives and strategies are not completely understood.

Still, I find May's fundamental point -- that history should be used more professionally in foreign policy -- to be a very good one!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.S

Source: The Wall Street Journal
Niels Bohr was right about prediction. Who knows what will happen in the next decade?

I suppose it matters how deep under the surface the center of gravity actually falls. If it is very close to the actual center, then the projection on the surface doesn't tell us much.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy

I have just read the first two chapters of "Lessons" of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy by Ernest R. May. The chapters, published in 1975, deal with the Roosevelt administration's planning for post World War II foreign policy during the war, and the Truman administration's thinking at the beginning of the Cold War. May, a Harvard history professor knows more about the deliberations and events of those years than I will even know, and I am finding his brief discussions interesting and informative.

May was writing half a century ago about foreign policy decisions made some 70 years ago. I suspect things have changed in some important ways -- the nation is more experienced as a global power, our intelligence apparatus has increased greatly, and our leaders have never personally experienced a world war. Still, I think the book is well worth thinking about!

In a way, foreign policy is like multidimensional chess. It is based on guesses of what the other fellow intendeds, what moves he will make, and how he will respond to your moves. But in foreign policy, there is not a single opponent. Rather the U.S. president is facing a number of potential enemies, and a number of allies who may or may not support his actions. Moreover, the spaces in the game of foreign policy are not blank, but have their own reasons and behaviors; as Truman was wondering if the USSR would move against Greece and Turkey, the different factions in Greece and Turkey were important potential actors. And of course there was a band of countries stretching from Finland to Korea, and including states in central and eastern Europe, the middle east, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, not to mention Germany, Italy and Japan.

May shows that the president has White House advisors and advisors from other parts of the executive branch, notably the State Department and the military and the Treasury Department. Roosevelt also had a strong OSS feeding him information, but Truman disbanded the OSS and did not create the CIA for some time; moreover, Truman had intelligence from military sources channeled to the White House via the State Department. Of course, as May recognized, the Congress and the public influence foreign policy decisions.

May points out that Truman chose advisors who tended to be conservative in outlook, while Roosevelt depended on more liberal advisors. He suggests that Roosevelt (who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration during World War I) was significantly influenced by his perception of the ways that the peace following World War I had set the seeds for World War II, especially for the rise of Hitler and German military ambitions, He suggests that Truman (a captain during World War I) was influenced by his perception that appeasement of Germany during the 1930s led to World War II. He is also aware of the character of the president.

As I read May, he is saying that the ideological tone of the president and his advisors influences the way they read current events and the character of other nations; he also suggests that the availability in memory of strongly felt historical precedents affects the way that a president understands events and advice.

I wonder whether there is not more "muddling through" and less comprehensive pre-planned policy. Unexpected events arise so quickly and so often, that a lot of what is done is responsive rather than policy based initiatives.

I would also differentiate between historical precedent and understanding current culture and leadership of other countries. Truman and Roosevelt needed to understand the current situation in Russia, Britain, Germany, Japan, and many other countries. Understanding the history of those countries (and the stories people told themselves about those histories) was certainly necessary to understanding the country, but it was also necessary to understand the current political systems and leadership, the economy, the aspirations of the people, the media, etc. Experience has shown that the U.S. has again and again gotten into trouble by failing to understand the culture of countries important to us -- Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Vietnam being only relatively recent examples strongly available to my memory.

May suggests that it would be important for a variety of precedents to be considered as the White House contemplates major foreign policy decisions. Oversimplifying, the failure of the League of Nations was not the only precedent the FDR administration should have considered, nor was Chamberlain at Munich the only precedent Truman should have considered.

The White House has a Council of Economic Advisers and a Council of Scientific Advisers. Perhaps it should also have a Council of Historians. They would brief the president and White House staff from time to time on historical precedents to a current foreign policy situation, identifying the similarities and the differences in each situation. They might also include in such briefings, a review of the decisions that were made, and how they worked out over time. Historians might also provide occasional briefings about how foreign policy decisions were made in earlier administrations (and indeed, if relevant, in other countries in the past). Such briefings might identify the aspects of the decision making that seemed relevant to the success of failure of the decisions made.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

U.S. libraries should make a major donation of books to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a modern effort to recreate the fabled Library of Greco-Roman  Alexandria. In Ptolomaic times it had the largest collection of books in the world. The idea of recreating the library came from the University of Alexandria in 1974, and a competition for the design of the buildings was organized by UNESCO in 1988.

The modern library is trilingual, containing books in Arabic, English and French. In 2010, the library received a generous donation of 500,000 books from the National Library of France, Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF). The gift makes the Bibliotheca Alexandrina the sixth-largest Francophone library in the world.

It would be a wonderful gesture of good will to the people of Egypt for the people of the United States to make a comparable donation of books to the library. It would be especially great to do this now, while the Congress is denying U.S. funding to UNESCO; a donation to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina would show support for UNESCO's mission of building defenses of peace in the minds of men.

While English language books would seem to be the obvious counterpart to the gift from the French, there might well be collections of books in Arabic in this country that would be welcomed.

Gifts of books to the library should be carefully coordinated with the its staff. It is costly for a library to organize, store and catalog new accessions, and any library will want to select its collection. Ideally organizations such as the Library of Congress or university libraries might make contributions. Perhaps some organization such as the American Library Association or the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO might assume leadership in such an effort.

Two maps from the League of Conservation Voters

If you are unhappy to see the environment deteriorating, blame the legislators in the states colored red on the maps from the League of Conservation Voters. (The league maps are interactive.)

If you are not familiar with the geography of politics in the USA, liberal states tend to show up green, as their liberal representatives in Congress vote for environmental protection; conservative states often show up red as their representatives tend not to vote for environmental protection.

Two articles on higher education

The Economist this week has an article on online learning. I interpret it to say that it has reached the stage of being a disruptive technology for higher education. Students in residence in colleges and universities are now sometimes taking courses online rather than attending lectures, showing up in person only for proctored examinations.
An analysis of over 1000 studies of online-course results conducted by America’s Department of Education found that people who complete such courses do better on average than students in face-to-face instruction.
The result may be bad news for many of the thousands of colleges that offer services of average quality at relatively high costs to average students. I may be good news to star educators whose courses may gain huge numbers of students, all of whom pay a little to very high salaries to the folk putting on the course.

Pew Research in a new report provides these graphs showing how much better the college grads are doing in the USA than folk in their age group who have only two year degrees or only high school.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Evolution Door

On "The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past"

This is my fourth and final posting on The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis.

The final chapter of the book suggests that a historian will produce a historical narrative that must be considered as a representation of reality, and which must not be confused with reality itself. He uses the metaphor of a map, and like a map a history represents but is not reality. Moreover, as there can be many different maps describing an area, each with a different purpose or different scale, so too there can be many histories dealing with the same or related aspects of reality.

The people who lived through events, and even those who participated and influenced those events, also have representations of reality in their memories. Historians mine those memories and utilize them while they are still able to interview the participants, but recognize that memories are not the reality of that which is recalled. Moreover, when events disappear from living memory, the histories come to be the best available representation of the reality, taking on a kind of reality themselves.

The Social Construction of the Representation of History

Gaddis does not discuss the social construction of knowledge. He does recognize that a specific historical narrative will be subject to the review and critique of the author's peers, and that the historian's goal is to contribute to a consensus among historians about some aspect of the past. (I would say that a good historical narrative might well inspire others to further research and documentation, advancing the consensus.)

Professional historians form a community which establishes the rules for good historical narratives, conducts peer review, holds meetings, publishes journals, disciplines its members, rewards is successful members, and trains new members who may join the community. Like the staff of the ancient Library of Alexandria, they produce new texts, while filing and cataloging existing texts/ The body of their research provides a representation, a map if you will, of the past -- detailed and in depth for some times, places, issues and scales yet sketchy and shallow in others. This representation of the past is the social construction of the community of professional historians.

There are other groups who also socially construct and share stories of the past. One of my favorite such groups are those who, while not card carrying professional historians themselves, mine the historical literature and produce high quality popular histories for general audiences. Many of the best of these are professional journalists, who have mastered the art of writing narrative for a general audience.

As some believe in creationism rather than evolution, there are other communities that create alternative (less accurate) stories about history. These groups may be libertarian, conservative, liberal or progressive. The view of southern history may be very different among the blacks and whites, or people from the north, south or west.

One group deserves special attention, and that is the authors, editors and publishers of K-12 school history books, and the people who influence the selection of books actually to be used in the school systems. All too often these folk have constructed a version of history that differs from that accepted by the community of professional historians, not only by simplifying the narratives to make them more intelligible for children, but also adjusting their content to fit a mythology that they wish the children to believe.

Reality Evolves

Historians may write about the past, but they live in the present; they and their children can expect to live in the future. The reality of the present is different than that of the past, and will be different than that of the future.

Gaddis sees one of the duties of historians as recognizing in the present and the future, aspects that could be made better. Where they do recognize such an instant, they may identify times and places in history where alternatives existed.

Gaddis is not explicit, but let me suggest some examples. Today there are many examples of environmental degradation, from climate change, to desertification, air and water pollution, deforestation and loss of biodiversity. There are also many examples of history in which people seemed to live in greater harmony with their environment, and examples of institutions for common property management that seem better to avoid the "tragedy of the commons". Jared Diamond,  in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, also provides some warning examples from history in which societies failed to adequately protect their environment, and collapsed as a consequence.

Historians can perhaps suggest ways that societies in the past have ended bloodshed based on religious differences that could be useful in several places today where such conflict continues. They might suggest examples of the way that women's rights have been improved to countries seeking also to improve women's rights. They might suggest models from the past in which societies have reduced racism for those current nations seeking better ways for the races to live together in greater harmony.

This is a nice, short book. I found it thought provoking.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Still more thoughts on Gaddis' book on writing historical narrative.

Chapter 6 of John Lewis Gaddis' book, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, is about the ways historians deal with causality in their narratives that seek to usefully explain past events. This is a discussion that could benefit most readers. We all try to understand the past, telling ourselves stories about what happened and why. Thinking about the legitimate and illegitimate ways to deal with causality can help us in doing so well.

Gaddis describes several taxonomies of causes, such as proximate, intermediate and distant, and necessary versus sufficient. He recognizes that thee historian will never know all the causes of an event, and that a good narrative is selective and will leave out causal factors of a really minor nature, He uses what I might term "a Goldilocks criterion" for inclusion of causal relations in narratives -- some are too distant, some too marginal, some just right. He points out that historians will develop more detailed narratives about the causes of the key event they are trying to investigate, and very sketchy (if any) narratives about the things in turn caused by that event.

I was struck by the fact that he does not discuss the audience for the historian's narrative. The choice of elements to include in a narrative should be different if it is intended for historians specialized in a specific field (e.g. U.S. Civil War battles), a more general audience of historians (e.g. the wider community of those working in American history), the general audience for non-fiction books, or secondary school use. All these audiences can be expected to intuitively understand the blindingly obvious -- that someone slipping from a mountain trail is likely to fall and be injured or killed (to use one of Gaddis' examples). All historians and readers of adult non fiction may be expected to know that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the U.S. participation in World War II, but high school students may have to have that fact made explicit (to cite another of Gaddis' examples).

Image source: "The Metaphysics of Causation"
I was struck by the fact that Gaddis focused on historical narratives that seek to explain the causes underlying an event, leading to a structure of causality that intuitively would have the form shown above. He is known as a historian of the Cold War, and it seems to me that the most interesting thing about the cold war is that the US and USSR avoided nuclear war from the end of World War II to the break up of the USSR -- that for some 45 years a fearful event was avoided. How would a historian deal with causality in describing a long period in which an event did not take place?

I am interested in the social and economic development of countries, especially those in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Some countries, such as the so called Asian tigers, have managed to progress from poverty to relative affluence since World War II, while many have failed to do so. There are narratives as to how the successful countries have achieved that success. I would have liked better, or at least more explicit guidance on how to evaluate the causality adduced in their narratives.

Returning to Pearl Harbor, it would seem that there were a number of relatively simultaneous failures on the U.S. side that resulted in the massive damage inflicted by the Japanese. U.S. government officials should have realized that there would be a Japanese response to the oil embargo that the United States had imposed. U.S. military intelligence suspected that the response would be military, and indeed would be a naval attack; warnings had been issued weeks before the actual attack. Yet the fleet was at anchor at Pearly Harbor, communications from Washington to be on the alert were delayed en route to Hawaiian headquarters, radar sighting of the incoming Japanese aircraft was ignored, as was the sighting of a submarine seeking to enter Pearly Harbor. Putting the fleet to sea and on guard, or heading any of the specific warnings might have ameliorated or avoided the major damage from the attack.

The basic point is that the military is supposed to have many fail safe measures in place that have to fail simultaneously specifically to prevent such a catastrophic event as the defeat at Pearl Harbor. In fact, such multiple fail safe elements are regularly built into modern society. We learn of them when they fail, as they did with the Fukushima Nuclear plant accident, destruction in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, or the crashes of U.S. bombers carrying nuclear bombs. Historians are increasingly going to have to write histories explaining why a number of events happened simultaneously leading to a catastrophe that should not have occurred; how are they to deal well with causality in those narratives?


Chapter 7 of Gaddis' book deals with the writing of biography. It makes two major points: that the author of a biography has to try to get into the mind of the person he is writing about while maintaining objectivity in the narrative he produces, and that moral judgments are impossible to avoid.

Gaddis is well aware that people in other countries have different knowledge and understanding of the world and come from different moral and ethical traditions; he is aware that "the past is a different country". But he is also correct I think, that one can not but judge Hitler as morally wrong in leading the Holocaust.

I personally find biographers who try to tell me what a subject thought or felt at a given moment to be annoying. As Gaddis says, people themselves may not be fully aware of why they are doing things. Certainly, they may not be frank in telling others (nor their diaries) of their motives, and certainly the records of what they have told others seldom come to us complete and unfiltered. I like biography to focus on the events of a person's life, the nature of the world in which he/she lived, and the people with whom the subject interacted.

I recently read a biography of James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. I was especially interested in his thinking about the United States Constitution. A great deal is known about how he prepared for the Constitutional convention, there are records of his interventions in that convention, and his contributions to the Federalist papers are available. Thus a biographer has a great deal of material available from which to construct a narrative about what Madison thought about the structure and processes for the U.S. government. Who needs a biographer to tell us what Madison felt about Dolly, or what his emotions were as the British burned the White House during his presidency. We can imagine those things, imputing ourselves emotions based on his actions.

Gaddis mentions character as a focus for biography, and I find his example of Stalin as convincing; Stalin's behavior is illuminated by a fundamental part of his mental makeup which we might as well call character. I liked also the "scaling" discussion -- that Stalin's character is illuminated by a series of events in his life, from the murder of a parrot, to the suicide of his wife, to ordering the murder of Trotsky, to the mass murder of the opponents to his agricultural policies; these are alike in ruthless use of power, differing only in scale.

Note that my two previous posts are also thoughts on reading Gaddis' book.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Further thoughts on reading John Lewis Gaddis

I am continuing to read John Lewis Gaddis' book subtitled "On How Historians Map the Past". As I understand him, he sees the historians job as creating narratives consisting of selected events from the past. He does not say so, but I think it is clear that he feels that the narrative should have an important point, one that perhaps may not have been recognized by the work's intended audience.

Like any story, a history will have a beginning and an end. Like any good story, a good history will not delve too deeply into detail, but the historian will carefully select the material from the past that illuminate his/her thesis and carry the reader through the narrative.

I think he believes that the nature of a historical text is that it focuses on something that happened (or as in the case of nuclear holocaust in Cold War, did not happen) and discuss "who, what, when, where, how and why". He sees such histories as complex, in which many interrelated factors are part of the process and influence the outcome or "structure" to be illuminated.

Historians choose among continuing situations and contingent events in writing their narratives. The ebb and flow of economic, military, soft and diplomatic power tend to be "continuous" in the sense that they tend to develop or deteriorate relatively slowly; thus such situations are relatively predictable. A drought-caused famine or other natural disaster less so.

Gaddis mentions that one function of a historical narrative is for the author to be convinced by that which he writes. A larger, perhaps secondary objective is that the narrative be found convincing by a wide audience -- something perhaps analogous to a scientific consensus forming around a new and important scientific result.

Gaddis is dismissive of social science writing that seeks to explain outcomes with one or at best a few "independent variables". I suspect he is wrong in this view, and that there are histories in which some elements are truly central. At the same time that the world was experiencing the Cold War, much of the world was eradicating polio. I think the history of the eradication of polio is a suitable topic for a historian. Certainly polio would not have been so successfully attacked had the polio vaccine not been created, and thus that is a critical element to the story. I recall being told by a key player in the creation of that vaccine that when called to a developing country that was having little success in its polio campaign, that his report consisted essentially of one statement: "for the campaign to succeed you have to put the vaccine in people". So the story of polio eradication might be just, how the vaccine came to be created (and produced) and how it came to be put into hundreds of millions of people.

Still, I very much agree that people act from varied and complex motives, and that their actions are inherently hard to predict. (Indeed, I think their stories to themselves as to why they acted in a certain way are often just that -- stories, rather than real explanations.) Since some peoples' decisions are very important in historical narratives, this introduces a complexity in history.

Gaddis makes some interesting points about historical narrative:
  • Historians are not good at forecasting, looking resolutely at the past. However, a good history may anticipate future events.
  • History is about particular generalizations. Gaddis might generalize about the impact of Stalinism in the USSR, or about the impact of the US-USSR bipolar power structure and the containment of communism, but he would not generalize to all countries and all power structures over all time.
  • History lends itself to simulation, but not to modelling. Perhaps an alternative description would be that simulation models are best used to explore the variety of behaviors that may occur in a complex situation, while deterministic models are useful for better understood and less complex situations. One would use a deterministic model to plot a space vehicle's interplanetary trajectory, while a simulation model might be useful to explore traffic behavior in an urban area.
He goes on to explore some of the parallels between historical analysis and analytic approaches that have gained some recent popular interest: self organizing systems, complexity theory, chaos theory. He might have looked also at stability theory as developed in engineering control theory. I think some of the ideas from these areas do have application to the historians work:
  • Emergent properties, from self organizing systems. An example: a colony of termites can build a mound meters high, providing a home for the colony with temperature control and food processing, without any of the ants "knowing" that that would emerge from the individual, genetically programmed behavior of the ants.
  • Sensitivity of some complex systems to initial conditions: Perhaps if Cleopatra's nose had been differently shaped, Julius Cesar and Marc Anthony would have behaved differently, and the western history would have changed. A small change can in some circumstances have a big effect.
  • Attractors: Sometimes when the behavior of a complex dynamic system appears to be unpredictable, it can be better understood as cycling though a path, perhaps with a complex trajectory, which is much less chaotic that it appears. Understanding the path may lead to insights as to how the behavior can be better controlled.
  • Control Theory: Engineers have learned that complex systems are sometimes unstable and sometimes stable. Corrective feedback can sometimes stabilize a system too prone to instability; the wrong kind of feed-forward can make a system more unstable.
This short book continues to be interesting and thought provoking.

Visual representation of a strange attractor (in variable space)

Friday, February 07, 2014

Thoughts as I begin Reading Gaddis on the Writing of History,

I have just started reading The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past by John Lewis Gaddis. As I start to think about reading history, I am again taken by the passionate beliefs that people of the past have so often had in ideas that we now understand to be completely wrong. It is obvious that history should teach us that our own ideas may be wrong; consequently some modesty about our beliefs is probably justified not only by our own unrecognized limitations, but also by the fact that our ideas are formed by those with whom we associate, the ideas current in our time -- the zeitgeist, if you will. History suggests that the zeitgeist is almost always wrong.

If throughout history most people were wrong about most important things, perhaps we should treat our contemporaries who we believe to be wrong now with a some respect and more than a little courtesy. Hard as it is to believe, they may be right and we may be wrong.

Emotion in History

Gaddis points out that historians often try to get their readers to recognize the emotions felt by historical actors, not just what they thought. Daniel Kahnemann, the psychologist, has a model describing two kinds of thinking:
System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. (Wikipedia)
I assume that most of us read history using System 2, the more logical and less emotional kind. It may be very difficult to convey emotion to a reader in system 2 mode. (Perhaps those who wrote epic poems, who could use the rhythm of language and metaphor had a better idea on how to convey historical fact and emotion.)

Time and Space

Gaddis points out that historians manipulate time and space in writing histories.

We think of space in terms of maps, or these days the GPS which tells us the mileage and expected duration of a trip as we start out and along the way. But that is not the only way to think of space. A couple of hundred years ago, our American founding father's would probably have been concerned about how long an overland trip would take on horseback; how long a sea voyage would last. A voyage across the Atlantic might take six weeks or two months, or much longer if the weather was bad. The trip would take different times in different seasons. It might be important to consider the danger involved in different routes. Thus a person setting out on a long trip in 1776 might better consult a list of options with pros and cons for each, rather than a map.

The Romans built a road system that enabled their legions to move with unprecedented speed. Roman roads didn't get muddy, and provided rapid transport in the Mediterranean climate in all seasons. They had mile markers so that distances could be accurately understood in planning and managing a march. (The word "mile" comes from the Latin word for 1000, since it was the distance traveled by a legion making 1000 of its measure paces on the march.) For the Roman legion, space would have been conceived of in terms of distances moved by sea, by Roman Road, and cross country.

We think that the distance from A to B is equal to the distance from B to A. In 1776, the trip by boat up the Hudson River (and travel often would have been by water rather than land) would take more time than a trip down the river. Measuring the distance by time required for the trip from New York to Albany would be longer than the trip from Albany to New York.

With the development of the transcontinental railway and telegraph, by the second half of the 19th century, people could travel relatively rapidly over long distances by rail, and could communicate even faster over the telegraph. There are stories of people traveling by train, impressed by the speed of their journey, who were amazed to get a telegram on arriving at their destination with news of events from home that had happened after their departure. While people and information traveled relatively quickly along the rail lines and parallel telegraph lines, as one moved away from those lines, speed was reduced again to that of a horse or walking man. Thus distance measured in time was anisotropic, depending on the direction in which the measurements were taken.

I have just read The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard and Howard Reid. (See my post on the book.) The book illustrated the fact that, while we know a lot about the times at which some events too place two millenniums ago, that information is very spotty. For important Alexandrian scholars and intellectuals, we know very little about when they worked in Alexandria, or even if they did in fact live and work there. In fact it may suffice to know that Alexander the Great founded a city late in the fourth century BC, and that it was conquered by Rome in the middle of the first century BC, and conquered by Arabs in the late seventh century AD.

Theory of Relativity

If there are two events, A and B, we think that either A preceded B, A and B were simultaneous, or B preceded A. Einstein in his theory suggested that that appearance depends on the relative positions of A, B and the observer, and the motion of the observer. There is a analogous historical situation, which seems little studied.

Let us return to the period of the Revolutionary War. A Tea Tax was passed into law in London in 1773. Americans learned of the new law in September many weeks after they passed, when ships were already under way for America with cargoes of tea. In Boston, local leaders raised public anger at the new law for a period of a couple of months, and in mid December a mob dumped the cargo of tea from a ship in the Boston Harbor. It then took many weeks for the word of the word of the "tea party" to get back to London. Note that information about the law and the Boston response affected Bostonians much closer in time to each other than they did to Londoners. If you will, the two events appeared more nearly simultaneous in the minds of Bostonians than in the minds of Londoners.

It you think about the slow and perilous communications in the 18th century, news from London, Madrid and Paris could take quite different amounts of time to arrive in Philadelphia. It would be possible that events would occur simultaneously in Paris and Madrid, with news of the Paris event arriving before that of the Madrid event in London, and that of the Madrid event arriving before the Paris event in Philadelphia. Notions of causality might be quite different in the various capitols.

How We Understand the Past Depends on the Questions We Ask

I began to wonder about the radically different way we now conceive of time and distance, due to technological change, as compared with people in the past. I made my first trip by air in 1945, and it took 24 hours to travel from Boston to Los Angeles. I understand that at that time it was hard to make a long distance telephone call, and that one would contact an operator, who would put the call through, getting back to the person who had initiated the call, sometimes after a period of hours. Today the flight from Boston to Los Angeles is much faster, and the psychological cost of a few hours on a plane is much, much less than that of 24 hours with intermediate stops and little sleep. An internet call via Skype gives you instantaneous connection with imagery as well as voice. The distance is much less.

My father, who immigrated from Europe to the USA in the 1920s never saw his parents again, not able to return to Ireland until after his long-lived parents had passed away. Today I exchange messages on Facebook with cousins in Ireland, England and Australia several times a day; many are in real time, others, like our emails, are asynchronous but done usually within hours. Time used to be a function of the local sunrise and sunset; today, we communicate with whoever is online whenever we are online, no matter where we are located geographically. Call centers in Asia operate night shifts to handle calls from the other side of the globe where it is daytime.

Thus, our current view of time and space is radically different than that of historians of the mid 20th century and earlier, and even more radically different that that of the subjects of history of earlier centuries. Will we ask interesting questions of history from our new perspective? For example, considering the relativity of perception of events described above, did it make a difference? Might. for example, World War I have been averted had information flows been different?

Before railroads and telegraphs, there were a number of means used to signal information over distance faster than a man or horse could ride: smoke signals, mirrors, semaphores, etc. There were also systems such as the royal roads of ancient Persia, the roads and runners of the Incas, and the Pony Express developed to use muscle power to transport information more rapidly than otherwise available, especially for use by the state. Have historians explored the costs and benefits of achieving more timely information via these channels?

Process and Structure

Gaddis provides a chapter on Process and Structure in history, noting that (like some of the physical and life sciences) history often focuses on the processes that led to the development of structures found as a specific point in time. He separates the continuous processes --- those which reoccur with sufficient frequency to be predicted -- and the contingent events, such as earthquakes and plagues that land unexpected in history and change the course of events. Fundamentally, however, historians often seek to discover some kind of process which is going on which explains a sequence of events. Their work is to intuit the process, find the evidence that convinces them of the reality of the existence of the process, and then subject their case to peer review (and of course to the judgement of future generations).