Friday, May 30, 2014

Our sensitivity to disasters has been dulled by their 20th century magnitude

I am reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. I have already posted on the 29th and on the 28th on this book.

No one knows how many soldiers died in military service during the Civil War. They died in battle, they died while receiving medical treatment for their wounds after battles, they died of illnesses in camps and as prisoners of war. In total perhaps 620,000 died.

The toll of Americans killed individual battles was greater than the toll of Americans killed in all the previous wars. Antietam is still the largest number of casualties in single day's battle in American military history. The three days of battle at Gettysburg lives in American history because of the 50,000 casualties as well as because of Lincoln's address that defines the war in our memory.

The military deaths may have been especially deeply felt because the Civil War was the first American war that was photographed. The photographs were exhibited. Some were copied for newspapers. Lithographs of war related scenes were widely distributed.

There had been a revolution in communications in the 19th century. Steam powered rotary presses produced newspapers and magazines in large quantities at low cost. The postal service could carry letters, newspapers and magazines across long distances inexpensively, especially with the improving network of railroads, roads and canals. The telegraph could carry reporters stories from from near battlefields to the largest cities of the time.

We Have Seen So Much Worse Now

It occurs to me to put this in the context of modern death counts. For example, think of modern epidemics:

  • The Spanish Flu epidemic at the time of World War I killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people
  • 1.6 million people died from AIDS in 2012; since the epidemic began an estimated 21.8 million people have died from AIDS.
  • In the USA in 2011, 597,689 people died of heart disease and 574,743 died of cancer
  • An estimated 483,000 children die of malaria each year worldwide


Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thoughts on Reading of This Republic of Suffering.

I am reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. I already posted once on a related topic.

The first chapter deals with the concept of death, as experienced by soldiers. It is interesting as cultural history. Attitudes towards death vary over time, and with life expectancy and death rates. As the United States entered the Civil War, the death rate here was much lower than in Europe; it might be expected that death would be less acceptable. And, of course, the death rate in men of military age was quite low, so the rapid increase in the death rate of soldiers would have been especially culturally disruptive.

Faust suggests that a "good death" at the time was one in which the dying person was surrounded by family and carried out within the Protestant church. This is attested by letters. I think the letters do in fact show a cultural attitude as to how letters home should be written by the serious ill and dying, but perhaps are not equally accurate as a reflection of how such people actually think and feel. I have written letters to my parents at home when I was at school and living abroad, and took care to write things that I thought would interest and please them, rather than things that might distress and sadden them.

I could not help but think of the culture of the "good death" in terms of Irish Americans, since I am one. It is estimated that at least 150,000 Irish Americans fought on the Union side, and there were also Irish Americans fighting with the Confederation (think of the O'Haras of Tara in Gone With the Wind).

There was a custom of the American Wake in Ireland when Irish emigrated to America. Theemigrants belived that they would never see the home folk again, and their parents and siblings believed that they would never see the emigrants again. Death surrounded by one's family may not have been seen as possible for the Irish American soldier, and thus not part of the "good death".

The Irish American Catholics would have seen a "good death" as being one following confession, absolution of his sins, attendance at mass, reception of the sacrament of extreme unction, and burial in hallowed ground. Indeed, the Absolution delivered by Fr. William Colby to the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg is rather famous. These expectations were seldom realized. They were also different than those described by author Faust.


The second chapter of the book deals with killing. Author Faust writes that "killing is battle's fundamental instrument and purpose". I suppose the fundamental purpose of the war for the Confederacy was to preserve the Confederacy, as the fundamental purpose for the Union was to preserve the Union. Each side initially thought the purpose of the war could be achieved through a few battles (and indeed with little loss of life).

Campaigns were fought for strategic purposes. The Union fought to control the Confederate ports to starve its economy. It fought to control the Mississippi to divide the Confederacy in half and cripple its commerce on the river. Sherman's March to the Sea and campaign in South Carolina were designed to break the will of the Confederacy and to reduce its economic capacity to prosecute the war; Sherman in fact often avoided battles in furtherance of his strategic goals. When Lee moved his army into Maryland  in 1862, the strategic goals might be to described as diminishing the will of the Union to fight and increasing the likelihood of the Confederacy's obtaining foreign allies; the Union at the Battle of Antietam sought to stop the drive north while protecting the capital, and gain a victory that would allow Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (which would deal a huge economic blow to south and make it extremely difficult for European powers to support the Confederacy). Killing opponents in these battles do not seem to me to be their purpose.

Indeed, winning a battle is usually defined in terms of the side left holding the field, and it is the losing side that retreats from the battle. (The Vietnam war that defined success in terms of body counts was I think an anomaly and the approach was not successful.)

Indeed, in the Civil War each side took prisoners in battle and later paroled them, allowing them to return to their own side on the basis that they would not participate in fighting until and unless formally exchanged. Thus a Union soldier paroled in the north could be exchanged for a Confederate soldier paroled in the south, and both could return to combat. Prisoners were not simply killed (with the exception of black prisoners by Confederate troops) as they might have been if killing were the purpose of the battles.

Moreover, it seems likely that an enemy soldier permanently disabled by his wounds in battle was even more of an objective of the fighting than a dead enemy soldier. The wounded soldier had to be cared for (using resources of the enemy state) and would in all probability be an economic burden on the enemy government or people for the rest of the war. In the fog of war, soldiers participating in major battles with often inaccurate weapons and limited visibility might believe (correctly) that they were far more likely to wound an enemy than kill one, and that any one shot was unlikely to do either.

I am also dubious that one gets an accurate view of soldiers views of killing in battle from the letters that they write home to wives, children and parents. I suspect that the soldiers, largely coming from rural backgrounds, have much more experience with the slaughter of animals that we urbanized Americans do today. That might make it harder for us to understand the views of people 150 years ago. I have never served in the army, much less than in battle, so I don't really know what killing is like; I doubt that author Faust does either.

Statue of Fr. William Corby at Gettysburg National Battlefield

The loss of biodiversity can not be reversed in a Homo sapiens timescale.

Different visualizations of species biodiversity.

 (A) The distributions of 9927 bird species. (B) The 4964 species with smaller than the median geographical range size. (C) The 1308 species assessed as threatened with a high risk of extinction by BirdLife International for the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (D) The 1080 threatened species with less than the median range size. (D) provides a strong geographical focus on where local conservation actions can have the greatest global impact. Additional biodiversity maps are available at

Source: "The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection"

The Changing Pattern Of Personal Electronics Use

A history of science denial.

Thanks to Calestous Juma for sharing this.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

On the War of 1812

I just finished reading The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor. It focuses on the portion of the war fought on the U.S.-Canadian border. While there were (temporary) successes on the border between the United States and Upper Canada, the final peace treaty returned the borders to their positions before the war.

It was a war that we think of as between the United States and Great Britain, but it was also a war that involved Indians (living close to that border such as the Iroquois nations, but also Creek tribes in Georgia and Alabama). Taylor also draws attention to the role of Irish in the war.

The British regulars fought well, as did U.S. regulars late in the war under Winfield Scott. Militias seldom did, the exceptions being those in the north under Harrison and those at New Orleans under Jackson. The Indians were the most effective fighters, controlling the wilderness and sometimes getting troops to surrender before a fight began.

American naval control of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain were important factors in the war, as was in its own way the failure of either the United States or Great Britain to eliminate the other's forces from Lake Ontario.

The Timeline

It is important in understanding this war to realize it came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The War of 1812 was declared by the United States on June 18, 1812. By that time Napoleon had been the leader of the French government for more than a decade. On April 30, 1803 he sold Louisiana to the United States and on May 18, 1803 France had declared war on Great Britain. In March 1814, Britain and its allies entered Paris, and less than a week later Napoleon abdicated. In the War of 1812, Peace negotiations began in early August of 1814 and a final agreement was signed on December 24, although both sides had to ratify it before it could take effect. (Of course, Napoleon escaped from British custody in January 1815 and the Napoleonic war continued until he was finally defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in June.)

Great Britain was greatly extended by this war. On the one hand some war policies of Great Britain were so onerous to the United States that they were seen as among the causes of the war; these policies included impressment of U.S. citizens to serve in British forces and barriers on U.S. trade with France. Moreover, Great Britain saw the war with the U.S. as a secondary to the war on the continent, minimizing its forces in North America until 1814 when the war in Europe was ended. Ultimately, a war weary Great Britain may have been more willing to cede points in the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.

The Book's Geographic Emphasis

Source of map
It is also important to realize that the book focuses heavily on the war in the region shown on the above map. This was an important region, especially in terms of the point that author Taylor is making in the book, However, the war was fought on a broader scale than an unwary reader of his book might recognize.

An important portion of the war was fought at sea or as the British navy attacked the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States; thousands of merchant ships were taken by the navies and privateers during the war. The losses of shipping while not crippling were important economically. The interruption of trade by naval blockades was also damaging to both economies. The British navy in 1814 conducted a Chesapeake campaign, remembered in the United States for taking of Washington and the burning of the White House as well as the

There was also an important campaign in the south which lead eventually to U.S. acquisition of Florida and to the defeat of the Creek nation, absorption of the territory that they controlled, and ultimately to their removal from east of the Mississippi. Indeed, it seems likely that the southern campaign led eventually to the transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States.

Finally there was a campaign in what was then the west, which included the Battle of New Orleans. That battle, perhaps the most remembered in the United States, occurred after the Treaty of Ghent was signed but before it was ratified.

I would strongly recommend that you read the Wikipedia entry on the war for a broad but not too detailed a picture of the war.

Taylor's Thesis in My Words

Today we think of the USA, Great Britain, Canada and Ireland as different nation states, and of the American Indians as a distinct cultural group with overriding common interests. At the beginning of the 19th century people did not necessarily hold those as their critical identities. The nation-states were still forming in common consciousness of the nations, and divisions existed that could (and in some cases did) divide nations permanently.

The divide between north and south in the United States that would lead to the Civil War was present, and people still identified with their states; western settlers understood their interests were different than those of people in the east. Federalists (primarily in the north) and Republicans (primarily in the south were deeply divided; by 1814 northern Federalists held the Hartford Convention to demand changes in the Constitution and were contemplating secession. Some thought that part or all of the British Canadian colonies could become part of the USA.

Most people in England, Scotland, Wales and many in Ireland and Canada saw Great Britain as a single colonial power, including Ireland and Canada. Some thought the American Revolution could be reversed in whole or in part, and some of the USA returned to colonial membership in Great Britain.

Lower Canada and Upper Canada were different colonies, and Canadian unification had not yet taken place. People in Francophone and Catholic Lower Canada saw their identity as different from that of the Anglophone and Protestant British and of the Anglophone settlers in Upper Canada as well as different from Anglophone Protestant people in the USA. Some in Upper Canada saw opportunities to rejoin with the USA under British Rule, while there were deep battles for political power among different groups of settlers in Upper Canada.

The United Irishmen had revolted against British Rule at the end of the 18th century, and many in the Irish ascendancy had sided with the British to put down the revolt. There was then what was for the time a large scale immigration from Ireland to Canada and the United States. Many Irish fought in the War of 1812, some for the British, some as immigrants to the USA, some as immigrants to Canada. Some saw the war as a continuation of the fight for greater Irish independence.

Indians in the northern field of battle tended to ally themselves with the British, but some fought on the side of the USA; and indeed members of the Iroquois nations fought each other. Tecumseh and his brother were seeking to form an Indian coalition with enough power to resist the move of settlers from the eastern USA into the west. In the south, Indians joined with the forces led by Andrew Jackson to fight against the Creeks.

The War of 1812 and the view of its importance formed in different nations changed many of these sentiments. National identities as Americans and Canadians were strengthened, and the division between old world and new was more clear. The war divided people who had seen themselves as in the same ethnic group, and united people in new national identities, as a civil war will do.

The border between the USA and Canada was better established as an international border in people's minds. The Federalist party was essentially undone, the Republicans were riding high. The legitimacy of the United States was better established in the minds of the British. Canadian colonies were soon to take the first steps on the road to a Canadian Union. The alliance between North American Indians and the British was gravely weakened, the Indian nation dreamed of by Tecumseh was in ruins, never to be revived; the Indians themselves would eventually be reduced in tribal importance and many tribes would be removed to reservations west of the Mississippi. The Irish in Ireland would eventually get their republic in the south of that island, and in north America were on their way to becoming ethnic groups within the USA and Canada.

What Did I Learn From the Book About the USA?

The Founding Fathers made rather bad mistakes at times. Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. James Madison was the principal author of the Constitution and an author of the Federalist Papers. Both were important Founding Fathers. Yet as presidents both thought the government should have weak standing army and navy and low taxes, and that the militia could adequately defend the nation. They were wrong, as was proven in the War of 1812, and the nation went on to greatly strengthen the navy after the war. (That was a mistake U.S. political leaders would make again and again subsequent years.)

Madison, as president, apparently seriously misjudged the relative military strength of the United States and Great Britain, leading the nation that only by luck in the final treaty negotiation turned out not to be ruinous. His tax policies were inadequate to fund the war, and to raise the money his government sold bonds are deep discounts -- sometimes to people I see as traitors; to get the money to fight the war he compromised the war effort.

Taylor suggests that the proper strategy would have been to control the St. Lawrence River from the U.S. shore, thereby starving the British settlers and forces in Upper Canada. He would then have had a unified force attack Upper Canada, perhaps crossing the Niagara River to do so. Madison (perhaps acceding to the will of a wealthy land owner in the St. Lawrence Valley who was profiting from the illicit trade of the valley's settlers with the enemy) divided his forces and sent three small armies to fight on different parts of the border.

Madison also entrusted the leadership of the army to politicians unskilled in military leadership, strategy nor tactics. That was a disastrous blunder. He sent militias into battle with inadequate training and equipment, with inadequate logistical support, and with inadequate leadership and they most often performed as you would expect -- very badly indeed.

The southern plantation owners did not want their militias to fight because they wanted them to hunt escaped slaves and prevent slave uprisings. Many in the north continued to trade with England, and indeed provided needed supplies to the British troops in Spain and in Canada. There was a brisk illegal trade between Lower Canada and the adjoining U.S. states which would under today's laws be seen as treasonous support for enemies.

It Takes A Long Time To Build A Democracy
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address
As Lincoln said in 1863, it was still not clear whether a democratic government could survive. Many people thought it could not. Certainly the book suggests that the government of the United States was not functioning well in the War of 1812. Canada was still a diverse set of colonies of imperial Britain, even earlier in the process of becoming a well governed democracy than the USA

One of Taylor's points in the book is that many of the British leaders firmly believed that government had to be in the hands of an autocratic king and an aristocracy for governance to be effective -- for the people to live in peace, the economy to run efficiently, and the country to be well defended against foreign enemies.
    The United States still had to develop a wider suffrage, and democratic parties that could legislate well, It had to develop institutions such as a federal bank, an effective army and navy, and a system of taxation. Indeed it had to develop an effective governmental bureaucracy.

    A good read, although I had great trouble keeping all the names straight.

    Thoughts on Demography and the Civil War

    I am reading This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust. I also saw a related public TV program, Death and the Civil War from American Experience. As a former Health Planner, it occurred to me to put the book in a broader context.

    Mortality Rates

    This Republic of Sufferng focuses not on deaths in the United States but on military deaths during the Civil War -- a subset of all deaths. It is estimated that there were 620 thousand military deaths and the population of the country was about 31 & 1/2 million at the start of the war. Thus about two percent of the population died in the armed forces, or an average of half a percent of the total population per year.

    I could not find the mortality data from the 1860 census, but here is that from the 1850 census. (starting on page 40 of the very long document).

    It suggests that 1.46% of males of all ages and 1.32% of females died in 1850. Thus the death rate of soldiers during the Civil War was perhaps one percent of all males and less than the death rate of all males before the war.

    I wonder what the death rate was in women and children during the war, and for that matter, what the birth rate was. I would expect given the disruption of agriculture in the war zones, the disruption of trade, and the general chaos, there would have been a lot more malnutrition. There were raging epidemics in the military camps and contraband camps; would these not have spread diseases to the civilian population, many of whom would probably not have had an immunity. Would mosquito borne diseases have been more of a problem -- remembering that malaria was endemic as far north as the Great Lakes and that Yellow Fever was a significant threat in the 19th century?

    The 1850 mortality statistics also indicated mortality in male infants was 9.29 percent and in female infants 7.94 percent. Thus one in 12 babies born died in the first year. Did this portion increase in the war as one might guess? What was the impact on soldiers of home folk dying as many must have done during the war?

    Were attitudes toward civilian deaths affected by the carnage in the battles or the high death toll due to disease among soldiers?

    Population Growth

    The population census is a part of the U.S. Constitution, so that there are records of the size of the population, decade by decade, going back to 1790.

    The rate of growth of the population exceeded 30% in every decade until 1880 except for 1860 to 1870 when it was 22.6%. Had the population growth been more in keeping with the trend, something like 3 million people would have been in the USA in 1870 that were actually counted.

    Perhaps 620,000 were dead soldiers from the Civil War. What happened to the rest?

    There may have been excess deaths, such as those of black civilians during and after the civil war, or excess mortality of white adults, children or infants.

    There may have been a reduced birth rate during or after the war.

    There may have been a reduced net immigration.

    It is likely that all four contributed to the reduced rate of population growth in the 1860s.

    Five minutes to learn the difference between Great Britain, England, Ireland, etc.

    RIP Maya Angelou

    Tuesday, May 27, 2014

    Interpreting data

    The Washington Post today published an article that showed the following map with average annual salary of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools.

    Looks pretty bad, doesn't it. Most of the country in green seems to be paying too little to its public school teachers.

    But look at this map of the average cost of living:
    A lot of the states with low teacher salaries have low costs of living; many of the states with higher teacher salaries have higher costs of living. Thus in some states each dollar in the teacher's salary goes farther than it would in other states.

    Now compare the two with this map of average income by county  in the USA.

    Maybe the people in the north east and in California, with higher than average income, can afford to pay their teachers more than people in states with lower average incomes. Maybe they also need to do so to meet the higher costs of living in their states (if people get paid more, it tends to cost more to go to a restaurant, get a hair cut, or go to a doctor).

    Monday, May 26, 2014

    Are your views influenced by where your live or do you live where your views fit best?

    I quote from the Washington Post article that is accompanied by this map:
    Professors Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gelfand studied "the degree to which social entities are 'tight' (have many strongly enforced rules and little tolerance for deviance) versus 'loose' (have few strongly enforced rules and greater tolerance for deviance)" and then produced a ranking of each state from tightest to loosest.  (Among the various characteristics they used to define "tight" or "loose" included the use of corporal punishment in schools, the rate of executions, access to alcohol and the legality of same sex unions. You can read the full paper here.) 
    While it's not exact, the tightest states tend to be the most solidly conservative/Republican voting and are largely clumped in the South and Southwest. The study's authors note that while "tightness" and conservatism are linked, they are not one in the same. And, there are states --  particularly in the western half of the United States -- that are quite conservative politically but on the "looser" end of the spectrum.
    So I have lived in New York, Massachusetts, California and Maryland (as well as Chile and Colombia). All my states are very loose or pretty lose. No surprises there.

    Portent of Africa's Future.

    Check out the original article from which this map is taken,

    Sunday, May 25, 2014

    A thought on the U.S. Health Service System

    This graph is from a blog post in An Economic Sense with a very useful discussion of health service costs in the USA as compared with other countries. The post makes the point that not only are U.S. prices much higher than in other countries, they vary greatly from patient to patient for the same service. The author makes the point that in a well functioning market, prices would not vary so greatly for similar services.

    Many observers have noted that the choice of health services is more often made by providers than consumers. Doctors, who have much more information than their patients on diseases and services, prescribe the service and usually where it will be obtained. Most Americans has health insurance purchased through plans provided by their employers and partially paid for by those employers. Insurance usually requires some co-payment for services -- often quite high co-payment.

    Back in school I had an adviser who said one should always ask who benefits and "whose ox is being gored" by a public policy. While most developed countries have socialized medicine (with lower costs and better health outcomes on average), the USA has a mixed system. Congress has not created a socialized medical service system, although it has legislated Medicare (for the elderly, essentially those past retirement age) and Medicaid (for the poor). Rather the country depends on employer offered health insurance privately purchased health insurance, and fee for service.

    Employers treat their payments for health insurance for their employees as business expenses, and thus as income that is not taxed. I understand that health insurance has been an important means to attract employees. Since insurers make it  common practice to refuse health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions (or to charge higher premiums for these people), there is an incentive for employees to remain with a firm providing health insurance, or at least to only leave by transferring to another job with health insurance.  Of course, the employees who get coverage benefit from that coverage, especially since they do not pay taxes on the cost to the company of its contribution to the insurance. The companies and their stock holders also benefit by being able to offer an powerful inducement to workers to work for them and to stay working for them.

    Providers have benefited as the demand for health services has increased more rapidly than the supply. Government subsidies for private health services have increased, increasing demand. The supply has been limited by such things as limited numbers of medical schools and standards calling for services to be delivered by highly trained and paid professionals rather than delegated. Thus prices have gone up, as always happens when demand increases more rapidly than supply in a market.

    Poor sick people -- not so much.

    Life Expectancy Ranking* at Birth,† by Sex --- Selected Countries and Territories, 2004

    Female Life Expectancy by County
    For poor people not so much!

    For black people not so much!

    A New Integrating Technology for Farming

    Source of this illustration

    There is a good article in The Economist on a coming agricultural technology. I quote a long section because of its importance:
    Monsanto’s prescriptive-planting system, FieldScripts, had its first trials last year and is now on sale in four American states. Its story begins in 2006 with a Silicon Valley startup, the Climate Corporation. Set up by two former Google employees, it used remote sensing and other cartographic techniques to map every field in America (all 25m of them) and superimpose on that all the climate information that it could find. By 2010 its database contained 150 billion soil observations and 10 trillion weather-simulation points. 
    The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions. 
    FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name........ 
    The benefits are clear. Farmers who have tried Monsanto’s system say it has pushed up yields by roughly 5% over two years, a feat no other single intervention could match. The seed companies think providing more data to farmers could increase America’s maize yield from 160 bushels an acre (10 tonnes a hectare) to 200 bushels—giving a terrific boost to growers’ meagre margins.
    The article also mentions a Du Pont Pioneer-John Deere partnership and a Land O’Lakes-Geosys partnership to develop comparable systems.

    As society seeks to find ways to feed two or three billion more people, with little more agricultural land available and threats from climate change and other environmental degradation, an increase in yields is a big deal. Moreover, as people want better diets with more meat, the production of grain crops will have to increase much faster than the population increases. Five percent in two years and 25% overall increase is a very big deal.

    Clearly the article focuses on a very high technology, one that is quite capital intensive. Indeed, the article stresses that accepting this technology would require major cultural change from American farmers, and they may not accept it in large numbers.

    Still, this seems a technology most likely to first be used in the United States (and perhaps in parts of South America). American farmers already have highly mechanized farming technology and long experience accepting changes in cultivars and tilling practice. There is a lot of data available on American farms. The market for new technologies in the USA is huge, justifying major investments by companies seeking to introduce new products into that market.

    Will this technology transform the labor intensive agriculture in Asia or the capital poor agriculture in Africa? Perhaps in the long run, but perhaps not as quickly as would be desired.

    Saturday, May 24, 2014

    There is thinking and there is thinking well!

    I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. The columnist, Walter Lippmann, when asked his thoughts on a particular topic is said to have replied, “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.” There is, in modern philosophy, a great debate as to which comes first – thought or language. I have nothing to say about it. All I know is that when I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out. Whether you are a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.
    Fareed Zakaria

    Government Policies Favor the Rich and Leave More Poor in the USA than in other Developed Nations

    Here are two graphs from an interesting paper which indicate that the U.S. government does less than governments of other developed countries to reduce inequality and to reduce poverty.
    The Gini coefficient in theory varies from zero to one. It is a measure of the concentration of income, and the higher its value the more of a country's income is appropriated by its affluent. Government programs such as progressive taxation of higher incomes, transfers to people in need of income support, strong minimum wage laws, etc. can make the distribution of income more equal.

    You are free to make your choices but a prisoner of the consequences

    Friday, May 23, 2014

    A thought about Queuing Theory

    Queuing Theory is the statistical theory about the growth of lines -- what our British cousins tend to call queues. The theory can demand a fair amount of statistics, but if you have ever shopped in a supermarket you probably have some intuition about the way lines grow. If people get into the check out line in a market faster than they can be checked out,  the lines grow quickly and the time each customer waits in line also increases.

    Lets give an example from health services. Consider a small hospital ward with 25 beds that has five patients admitted per day, each for a five day stay. On the day the ward opens, beds one through five are occupied; day 2 sees beds 6 through 10 occupied, and so on. On day 6, the five initial patients have been released,  and patients 26 through 30 are admitted into the first five beds. The process continues with no waiting.

    Now consider that rather than five patients arriving per day, six arrive and all still need five days of care.

    • Day 1: we see beds 1 through 6 occupied
    • Day 2: beds 7 through 12 are occupied
    • Day 3: beds 13 through 18 are occupied
    • Day 4: beds 19 through 24 are occupied. 
    • Day 5: bed 25 is occupied, 5 patients are told to wait until the next day to be admitted and at the end of the day 6 patients are discharged
    • Day 6: beds 1 through 5 are occupied by the waiting patients, one new patient is given bed 6,  5 new patients are told to wait, and 6 patients are discharged at the end of the day
    • Day 7: beds 7 through 11 are occupied by waiting patients, one new patient is given bed 12, 5 will to wait another day and 6 patients will be discharged
    • Day 8: beds 13 through 17 are occupied by waiting patients, one new patient is given bed 18, 5 will have to wait another day and 6 patients discharged
    • Day 9: beds 19 to 24 are occupied by waiting patients, all 6 new arrivals will have to wait another day,  and 6 patients discharged
    • Day 10: bed 25 is occupied by one of the waiting patients. five waiting patients and all 6 new arrivals will have to wait, and six patients are discharged
    • Day 11: beds 1 through 6 are occupied by waiting patients. five current waiting patients and all 6 arrivals will have to wait, and six patients are discharged
    Thus after each five day cycle more patients are waiting for a bed to become free, and the average waiting time will increase with the number of cycles.

    As long as the number of new patients arriving per day exceeds the number of available beds, the number of patients waiting for admission will increase and the average waiting time will lengthen.

    There are two ways to deal with the increased demand. The better way is to provide more hospital beds. Less desirable is to make stays shorter, even if doing so patients risk more adverse health outcomes.

    I think this is what has happened with the Veterans Administration. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen exceptional success in battlefield medicine, resulting in many lives being saved but many veterans returning home in need of medical attention from the VA. So too, there are increasing numbers of aging veterans of Vietnam, Korea and other military service. The VA could increase services accordingly (if appropriated the necessary budget increases), it could have reduced the resources given to meet the needs of each veteran seeking help,  or it could have made the waiting lines longer.

    The Congress under the Constitution has the authority to appropriate funds for federal government operations. With the financial crisis in 2008, the Congress appropriated stimulus funding in 2008 and 2009. As the following graph shows, the Congress did not continue the stimulus and has reduced the rate of growth of government spending below that of the rate of growth of the economy.


    Thursday, May 22, 2014

    Thinking about how I think.

    Source of image

    I have been reading about how people think that they think. Some think that they think in words, some in images, some in movement, some in a combination of those ways. I used to think I thought almost entirely in words, but that can not be true. (I have great difficulty visualizing something in my "mind's eye". When I was a kid I could listen to music in my "mind's ear" when going to sleep in a quiet room, but that is a long gone ability.)

    I do sometimes think how I would move. For example, I might think where something is by imagining how I would glance in its direction or point toward it.

    I think a lot writing, now for example as I type this; in the past I thought as I wrote by hand on paper. The written record facilitates short term recall, and now as I type my fingers seem to move of their own volition reflecting the words passing by my "mind's ear". Modifying the written word allows me to revise my thought.

    I once thought a fair amount writing equations on paper. Seeing equations on paper help me to recognize the next equation to write. Similarly, although I am not good at it, I sometimes find drawing diagrams on paper help in understanding things. I remember taking geometry in middle school finding the logic of proofs relatively easy, and finding it very difficult to make geometric drawings that might help thinking. I got somewhat better doing so, I guess I learned.

    I sometimes think in concepts. Something will feel wrong about something I read or hear, and I will feel "a direction" in which a better idea or argument might be created.

    Daniel Kahneman has written distinguishing "thinking fast" from "thinking slow".  I think most of the ways of thinking I have mentioned above are examples of "thinking slow". But I also think that I "think fast" a lot of the time. I come to a stairway and climb without ever "stopping to think" much less verbalizing the word "climb" or visualizing myself climbing those stairs. I do some fairly complicated habitual things similarly by rote.

    It occurs to me that a lot of my thinking seems passive, but must really be active. My brain must be processing sensory input, drawing conclusions and making forecasts which do not rise to the level of consciousness. I take a walk, and would be able to describe things I saw or heard without having consciously having saved the memory. Or after watching a movie with a friend we might discuss inferences drawn from the moving images and dialog that were must have been understood implicitly, but were not previously articulated.

    Thinking is complicated.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2014

    Why people don't believe what the evidence indicates to be true

    There is an interesting New Yorker article that deals with the persistence of false beliefs. I am going to do violence to the article's thesis, but my take on it is as follows:
    Take a proposition A. If you feel that you are the kind of person who believes proposition A, it will be hard to get you to believe proposition A is not true by citing evidence or emotional appeals to the dangers of acting in accord with belief in proposition A. If proposition A is simply a value free statement, the belief can easily be changed.
    So a statement such as "Malaria was a significant cause of illness in Michigan during the summers in the early 19th century" might be thought to be false, but that belief might be easily changed by reading a historical account stating it to be true.

    On the other hand, if you understand yourself to be a strong partisan of your political party, and if you feel that a certain position on climate change is a fundamental tenet of your party,  it may be very hard to get you to change your position on the reality of climate change. Republicans tend to deny human action is causing global warming, but may freely acknowledge that many scientists publicly endorse that belief.

    If you feel that your religious affiliation is a fundamental element of your personal identity, and if you feel that a tenet of your religion is the literal truth of the biblical creation story, it may be very difficult to get you to believe in the "big bang theory" and evolution. Indeed, educated Christian fundamentalists will often report that scientists strongly support the big bang theory and the theory of evolution,  but they themselves -- the Christian fundamentalists -- do not believe them.

    This is a very different situation that scientific skepticism. Scientists should demand evidence supporting a proposition before they give it credence. They should demand replication of experiments to assure that specific experimental results are neither the result of experimental error of statistical anomaly.

    So too, scientists should retain skepticism of even well supported theories. Thus, scientists should be willing to reject a long held theory if a better one comes along. Even Newton's theory was replaced by Einstein's after hundreds of years of evidence supported Newton. Einstein's theory provided predictions consistent with Newton's in most circumstances, but Einstein suggested experiments that would distinguish between the two theories and his theory's prediction proved more accurate for those instances.

    Birds-of-Paradise Project Introduction

    Saturday, May 17, 2014

    A thought on tribal membership

    Consider a tribe in which one is a member if one goes through a membership ritual, or if one's mother was a member. Members can not leave the tribe,

    Thus someone who has not themselves gone through the ritual is a member if and only if that person's mother was a member. If the mother did not gain membership through the ritual, then she is a member of the tribe if and only if her mother was a member. The relationship is recursive. All tribe members must themselves have gone through the membership ritual or must have a mother who can trace her maternal ancestors back to someone who did go through the membership ritual (or was an original member of the tribe when it was formed).

    Thus anyone whose mother had a direct female line going back to a woman who went through the tribal membership ritual is a member of the tribe; anyone who has not him/herself gone through the ritual and does not have a mother who has an unbroken female line going back to a member is not a member.

    Lets assume that the tribe has existed for 150 generations.
    • Everyone whose mother comes from a female line that at any point included a tribe member is a member.
    • Anyone whose mother's female line has a nom-member is not a member unless there was a subsequent woman member of that line who went through the membership ritual, or unless the person him/herself went through the ritual.
    Thus, unless one's family history goes back to a woman in one's mother's direct female line who was known to have gone through the ritual, one can not say for sure that he/she is a member, unless that person him/herself has gone through the ritual. 

    Equally, one who does not claim tribal membership can not be sure that he/she is not a member; some unknown many times great grandmother may have been a member, leaving her daughters members, and a continuous female line to one's own mother. Thus, unless one can trace one's mother's, mother's, mother's female line back 150 generations one can not be sure one is not a member of the tribe.

    For those who can not trace their maternal line back to a woman who went through the membership ritual, they can not be sure that they are members of the tribe unless they can trace the maternal line back 150 generations assuring that each member in that line had a mother who was a member or had herself gone through the membership ritual.

    World population has increased from a couple of hundred million at the beginning of the modern era to over 7 billion today of whom about half are female. Assuming that there were say one hundred million women in the year 1, on average each has 35 are female direct female descendants today. Of course, some of those original ladies will have many more descendants and some will not have any.

    Assume that in 2000 years there are 80 generations of an average of 25 years per generation. On average, each women would have 1.044 daughters per generation who survived to have children. That is, 1.044 to the 80th power.)

    If a specific woman 2000 years ago had girl descendants who averaged instead 1.1 such daughters, she would have today more than 2000 female descendants in the direct female line (that is who inherit her mitochondia) of fertile age. If the tribe described above included 100,000 such women, they would have 200 million such female descendants in the direct female line; thus there would be a about 400 million male and female current members of the tribe..

    Of course there are tribes living today that we think of as having lived for thousands of years in the same general location, with fairly stable population size. One would assume that such a tribe would have roughly as many variants of mitochondria now as it had 2000 years ago.

    My grandmothers had 12 and 13 children respectively, and one of my great grandmothers had 16. Clearly the potential exists in our species for a population explosion of one tribal group (Celtic in my case). Indeed, there are many more people in the world of Irish ancestry than there are Irish in Ireland.

    If you assume a core population of Irish women 2000 years ago, there are probably more women today share their mitochondria who are citizens of other countries than there are in Ireland.

    Say it ain/t so, Joe!

    It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
    Mark Twain

    Read this about the title of this post.

    Friday, May 16, 2014

    A thought as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Rowe vs. Wade

    60 years ago the Supreme Court in Rowe vs. Wade struck down school segregation. Clearly the decision made a big difference in American culture, and equally clearly not all American children have equal educational opportunities.

    Here are some reasons for our communities to provide more and better educational opportunities to all their children.

    Education is a human right: It has been recognized as such around the world. It is not just a right for white kids with middle class and upper class parents. You don't deny rights to people for any reason.

    If you are denying educational rights because you are a racist, you don't understand the demographics: The big problem with education today is that kids with low income parents, living in low income neighborhoods are too often going to second rate K-12 schools and don't live in an environment that encourages them to seek educational goals. If you deny kids who don't do well on tests the right to continuing education, you are denying Americans of all races. Higher education institutions are increasingly encouraged to give opportunities to students who have made the most of the opportunities that they already enjoyed, rather than on the sole basis of educational attainment.

    The folk in the drivers seat will need today's kids to fund their retirement: Many, perhaps most voters today will still be alive when the white workforce is numerically smaller than it is today, and Hispanics, blacks, native Americans and Asians will be the majority of workers. Moreover, a significant number of the workers of that future will be children from low income backgrounds, even if they are white. Those workers will face competition in a still more globalized economy from increasingly well educated workers abroad. If the voters of today want their social security and Medicare to be solid, and their pensions to be adequate, they better see that the U.S. workforce in their retirement is well educated.

    The United States can continue as a global power only if its economy grows in pace with those of its major competitors: If it can continue to hold that position, it will be to the benefit of all Americans. But to do so, in a global economy that increasingly values knowledge and innovation, we can not afford to have a workforce in which many workers have only a second class educations. Indeed, the nation will need to be sure that every person with the potential for intellectual excellence achieves that potential.

    And it is wrong to deny any kid the opportunity to achieve as much as she or he can achieve intellectually.

    White students, while still a majority in the nation’s public school classrooms, have shrunk in number. From 1990 to 2010, the number of white students decreased by 2.1 million. Meanwhile, the number of black, Hispanic and Asian students in those schools has increased by 8.9 million. White students in 2012 made up 51% of public school students, down from 68% in 1990.

    $120 billion remittances from the U.S. in 2012?

    From Bill Gates' Facebook post:
    This beautiful chart helps you see how much money goes to and from every country through remittances:

    Here is a map that explains a lot

    MAP: Every Country's Highest-Valued Export
    Source: Business Insider
    The source provides individual maps by continent so that you can see the exports more clearly. Countries that compete in international markets on primary products might be divide into two groups -- the oil/petroleum exporters that can be relatively well off and the rest who are not. The exporters of capital goods, machinery, autos tend to be high income, the exporters of clothing and other older manufactures, not so much.


    “We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”
    ~Founding Father John Adams, letter to Dr. Price, April 8, 1785

    "Most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust and diabolical."
    William Pitt the younger, Speech in Parliament on the American Revolutionary War (February 26, 1781)

    Comment on Organizational Reform -- Don't say the glass is half full

    If the bottom is boiling, you can bet that the top is full of hot air.

    Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Dead Can Dance - The Wind That Shakes The Barley

    Thanks to my son for pointing me to this great version of the old Irish rebel song!

    Neodymium magnet in FAT copper pipe

    Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    What Data You Take and How You Display It Affects What You Conclude

    Earlier today I did a post titled "Facts can be Misleading" and another on "Spurious Correlations". This continues the theme on ways that data can lead you in the wrong direction. The following graph is from The Economist:

    The graph shows average alcohol consumption by country. The blue dots represent total alcohol consumption divided by the total adult population; the red dots represent total alcohol consumption divided by the number of people in the country who actually consume alcohol. The two graphs give very different pictures.
    TO JUDGE by national averages, Belarus, Moldova and Russia are the biggest drinkers in the world, quaffing between 15 to 18 litres per adult annually, according to the World Health Organisation in a new report. But those figures only tell part of the story. Not everyone drinks. When abstainers are excluded the national averages look extremely different. By this measure, it is in Africa, Asia and even the Middle East where actual drinkers quaff the most. In Chad almost nine in ten adults abstain, yet its 780,000 drinkers put away almost 34 litres of alcohol each. On the usual ranking, it would come 115th out of 190 countries. France drinks a lot, but because it has one of the lowest rate of abstainers at just 5%, it ranks 113th compared with 20th.
    The problem of excessive alcohol consumption (as seen by public health officials) is different where a small portion of the adult population drinks to access and the majority abstain, than where a large majority of the population all drink relatively moderately, than where drinking is both wide spread and often to excess,

    Landscapes of Arizona & Utah [VIDEO] The most beautiful time lapse video you'll ever see | Dawn Productions

    Landscapes of Arizona & Utah [VIDEO] The most beautiful time lapse video you'll ever see | Dawn Productions

    Spurious Correlation

    From a wonderful display of 20 spurious correlations that my son and Kevin Painting identified for me.

    Correlation does not (necessarily) imply causality.

    Facts can be misleading

    I noted a couple of posts on Facebook yesterday that reminded me that the way a fact is presented can be misleading. Here are examples of facts and my reason for believing their presentation is misleading.

    World Bank Reports

    A report recently presented data on the frequency with which reports posted as PDF files on the World Bank website are downloaded. A blog post, based on the report is titled "The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads". The post states:
    The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? They dug into their Web site traffic data and came to the following conclusions: Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.
    I assume that the data on the number of downloads for the various reports is correct.  It is slightly misleading in that the original study looked at reports posted over a five year period. As one might expect, the most recently posted reports were downloaded less often than earlier posted reports, since those reports which draw interest tend to do so over a number of years. It looks to me on reading the original report that on average the posted reports are downloaded 175 to 200 times, with many never downloaded and some downloaded thousands of times.

    I assume that these reports are written for a specific purpose and distributed in paper or digital form to the intended audience. Then they are posted to the Internet in case others might benefit. I think it would be interesting to know how widely they are distributed in their original forms, how widely they are read by their original intended audience, and how influential they were through the original formal distribution. None of those questions is addressed by looking at the frequency by which the archival PDF document is downloaded. The blog post (and its blurb on Facebook) might unfortunately have readers infer that the reports are not useful based on data that have little or nothing to do with their quality, total distribution, nor impact.

    In the 1970s, a team of World Bank staff members wrote a health policy paper. A colleague and I, then working at the Office for International Health in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare were invited to participate in the preparation of that policy paper. I have no idea how many people read it, but one of the results of the paper was the creation of a World Bank Office of Health, Nutrition and Population, which then went about increasing Bank lending in those areas supporting human capital. The impact of the paper was probably not in how many people read it, but in that key senior officials in the Bank read it and it influenced them to modify Bank policy and make an organizational change to assure the program changed in accord with the new policy direction.

    Why does the Bank make these reports available on the Internet? One reason is transparency -- so that anyone can see the analysis put forward by the Bank. That certainly is a good idea. Moreover, many of these reports are valuable, as we must infer from the fact that some are downloaded thousands of times. The cost of posting an already prepared report on the World Bank website and making it available to the public is minimal. I for one am glad that the Bank does this.

    Moreover, it probably is not a bad idea for a specific audience to see how often the posted reports are downloaded. But that data should not be misinterpreted, nor thought to be more important than it really is.

    The Maternal Mortality Rate in the USA is Increasing

    The Lancet has recently published an article titled "Global, regional, and national levels and causes of maternal mortality during 1990—2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013". A man I greatly respect, Robert Reich, posted the following on Facebook:
    According to a report released last week in the The Lancet, the U.S. now ranks 60th out of 180 countries for deaths in childbirth. For every 100,000 births in America, 18.5 mothers die. By comparison, 13.5 women die in Iran, 6.1 in the United Kingdom, and only 2.4 in Iceland. Why? The rate is directly related to poverty and lack of healthcare. U.S. states with high poverty rates have maternal death rates 77 percent higher than states with lower levels of poverty, and women with no health insurance are four times more likely to die in childbirth than insured women. 
    Yet many of these high-poverty states are among the 21 that have refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government will cover 100% of the cost for the first 3 years and at least 90 percent thereafter. Several of these states have also cut family planning, restricted abortions, and shuttered women’s health clinics. Their policies are literally killing women. This is (or should be) a national outrage. 
    Why aren't more women (and men) protesting in the capitals of these states? Why aren't the rest of us making more of a ruckus?
    The Lancet is a very highly respected journal, known for the care it takes in peer review before accepting articles for publication. The article in question was the work of a very large number of authors, and has special importance as an input to the understanding of the global burden of disease. It is likely to be used not only by the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

    The Lancet team reported 796 deaths in childbirth in the USA in 2013, 752 in 2003 and 527 in 1990. The U.S, government expects about 650 such deaths per year among nearly 4 million live births. Thus the report's figures have face validity.

    The report also notes that the rate increased from 12.4/100,000 in 1990 to 18.5/100,000 in 2013. The increase in rate reflects both an increase in the number of women who died, and a decrease in the denominator -- the number of births per year in the United States since 1990.

    Birth rates are at an all time low, and women are having their children at an older age. 40 percent of births are to unmarried women today, much higher than in the past. Birth rates are higher in low income households. These factors influence maternal mortality rates.

    The actual number of deaths in childbirth increased by 269 in 2013 over 1990. In a country of 330 million, that is not a large number. Some 13,000 per year are murdered in the USA. More than 30,000 people die per year in traffic accidents. 150 to 200 people per year die from food allergies.

    Of course, a single death that can be avoided is tragic. That is especially true in a young woman and a mother. Reich is right to focus also on the reduced access to medical care for the poor as a factor in this mortality. Prenatal care and timely hospital care during delivery  probably could reduce this mortality. He is also right that there is a significant problem in poor young women not having health insurance, and not having access to maternal and child health services. Indeed, the unnecessarily high maternal mortality rate in the United States may well be symptomatic of the more general problems of low life expectancy, lack of health insurance for many low income people, and their consequent lack of access to medical services.

    Still, I find the fact of the maternal mortality rate as cited can be misleading. It is in fact relatively low. Maternal mortality in Developing Countries, according to the study, was 232.8/100,000.  So too saying that the U.S. rate was 60th out of 180 countries neglects the fact that the number of deaths varies randomly from year to year, and next year the random nature of the occurrence of these rare events may change the ranking significantly.