Thursday, July 31, 2014

"To get it right, price it right."

Background for Sleepwalkers

Colonial Africa 1912

I am reading The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark. It deals with the origins of World War I. It seems to me that the real cause of the war was the competition among colonial empires, and it may be useful to look at the colonies in Africa as the war was brewing.

Today is World Ranger Day

Thanks to these men and women who devote their careers to saving nature for us.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Naomi Oreskes: Why we should trust scientists

This blog is about knowledge, and its application for development. In my posts I have from time to time suggested that knowledge attested to by the scientific community is worthy of your credence, that it is more likely to be true than knowledge from many other sources. In this brief video talk, Naomi Oreskes explains why that is true.

The Worst Ebola Virus Outbreak in Humans Yet.

I quote from an article in the Washington Post:
The worst Ebola outbreak in history has put a number of countries in West Africa in lockdown, led to the deaths of nearly 700 people since February......Ebola viral disease is a highly infectious illness with fatality rates up to 90 percent, according to the U.N. World Health Organization. Symptoms initially include a sudden fever as well as joint and muscle aches and then typically progress to vomiting, diarrhea and, in some cases, internal and external bleeding........There is no known vaccine or cure for the disease, but if caught early, it can be battled like other viruses such as influenza.........Ebola is alarmingly contagious; there have been incidents in which the disease has spread at funerals for victims. Public health officials deem an outbreak to be over only after 42 days have elapsed without any new confirmed cases.
Currently the virus spreads through contact with bodily fluids of someone who is infected. However, there are six known varieties of the virus, suggesting that it may mutate or that other varieties may exist but not have been studied. The virus apparently has reservoirs in primate populations in Africa. When a virus spreads from another animal to man, its properties may change. I worry especially were we to encounter a variety of Ebola that was as lethal as the current one, but that spread through the air as the flu virus does.

The lesson here is that we need a good global system for detecting epidemics of contagious diseases, including emerging diseases. (How many millions of cases and deaths might have been avoided if HIV/AIDS had been detected and its spread limited early after its emergence in human populations?) This is an activity that the World Health Organization must coordinate, and one that the United States and other rich countries should help finance.

A new polling technique on the horizon.

There is a good piece from the Pew Research Center discussing the decision by the New York Times and CBS News to engage a polling organization to create a panel for election coverage.
The New York Times and CBS News made big news in the polling world this weekend when they announced that they will begin using online survey panels from YouGov as part of their election coverage. YouGov, a U.K.-based research firm founded in 2000, uses such panels rather than traditional telephone surveys; the panel the Times and CBS are using has more than 100,000 members. The Times, citing concerns about the dearth of high-quality, non-partisan survey data, particularly at the state level, says it plans to include YouGov results as part of “a diverse suite of surveys employing diverse methodologies.”
One of the concerns is that the YouGov panel will use the Internet rather than traditional telephone surveys. The site indicates that 89% of Americans now use the Internet. (I wonder how many Americans don't have telephones, or have phones but refuse to answer calls from polling organizations.)

I have a concern that samples should be constructed according to what you want to learn. Thus, election polling often is more interested in learning what likely voters think than what people who are not registered voters think. A random sample of the population will include both groups. A sample of Internet users will tell you something about Internet users that would be harder and less accurate to infer from a telephone survey.

Would it not be nice to have a sample of opinion leaders polled in early 2015 about the November 2016 presidential elections? How would you construct such a sample.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Negative correlation between religiosity and technological innovation.

Thanks to my friend Guy for identifying "Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth" by Roland Benabou, Davide Ticchi and Andrea Vindigni. I quote from the astract in which the authors cite "a new fact":
in both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a significant negative relationship between religiosity and innovativeness (patents per capita), even after controlling for the standard empirical determinants of the latter.
Perhaps there is a deeper cultural variable. I would suppose that the more deeply conservative a culture, the more it might be marked by religiosity and the slower it would be to adopt new technologies. Correlation is not causation! Still the figures shown in the paper are worth thinking about.

Highly Educated People are Becoming More Concentrated in Big Cities

I quote from an article by Ugne Saltenyte in Euromonitor International:
With governments recognising the link between education and economic competitiveness, education standards are rising globally. Increased prioritisation of primary and secondary education is translating into rising uptake of tertiary education in many economies. The number of people with higher education globally rose from 518 million in 2005 to 704 million in 2013, with 24% of the latter amount being concentrated in the top 100 largest metropolises worldwide. To put this into perspective, these metropolises accounted for just 11% of the global population in 2013.
In the early stages of economic development, people living in rural areas move to urban areas in large numbers. They do so because they can earn more and live better by doing so, but that in turn depends on their producing more in the city on average than they could in the countryside. Thus the rural-urban migration -- done in the early stages of economic development by people who have relatively little formal education and who will work in relatively unskilled jobs in the towns and cities -- has led to an period of relatively rapid increase in GDP. This motor for economic growth clearly only functions for a while, since eventually the rural-urban migration diminishes for lack of rural population to migrate.

I would guess that it is in the largest cities that the most educated people can find the best jobs and most improve their lives, because it is there that they can be most productive. Thus the increase in education and the increasing concentration of the highly educated in centers of productivity in "the new knowledge society" should also yield increases in GDP growth rates -- at least for a while.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Congratulations! Inoculations!

The Economist provides an article this week on advances in child survival in China.


This stunning view of Earth from space is an incredible time lapse sequence of photographs taken on board the International Space Station as it orbited above places such as the US, the Sahara desert, and Australia. It’s accompanied by a beautiful minimal electronic soundtrack.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Presenting medical information in an way it can be understood.

Drs. Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin designed this "fact box" as a prototype
to show how package inserts for medicines could be more helpful.
This example is from a story done by NPR on current efforts to make medical information more available to patients. A lot of the discussion I see about the presentation of information emphasizes the graphical presentation,  and for that matter I have been very impressed by video and interactive presentations. But often a good table is what you need, as suggested by the one illustrated above.

My nephew recently wrote an article on the importance of changing medical practice to more fully involve patients in decision making with regard to their own care. He knows more about that than I ever will, but that seems like a very good idea to me. If nothing else, that would be more likely to encourage compliance with selected treatments. But to involve patients meaningfully in the selection of their medications, one needs to present the information about the drugs in a form that the patient can understand. (For that matter, I wonder how many doctors work their way through the information presented by the companies for the drugs that might be prescribed for the patients that they treat.)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Are you for or against democracy?

Do you see a pattern here. Some states continue have legislation proposed to restrict voter access, and some of them pass.

While some states are expanding voting rights.


Source: Eric R. Kuhne

If people don't vote, democracy doesn't work!

Source: USA Today: On Politics
This year there was a record low turnout in primary elections. In the 1960s the turnout was only in the low 30 percentages, but now it is less than half of that.
Percentage of Eligible Voters that Voted in Their Statewide Primary
The Washington Post reported:
Overall, voter turnout among the 25 states that have held primaries is down 18 percent from the 2010 election, according a study by the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. There were almost 123 million age-eligible voters in these primary states, but only about 18 million of them voted.
The graph (which is interactive if you click through to the WP original) shows that many of the state primaries had fewer that 13 percent turnout of eligible voters.

It seems likely that it is the more ideologically motivated people who actually vote. So these people will be more likely to "primary" legislators who have sought compromise in order to pass useful legislation, and will be more likely to reelect legislators who block legislation rather than compromise. That fact influences the decisions of legislators leading to the gridlock that we have suffered from.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A thought about ideology and thinking

I came across an interesting article seeking to explain why the discussion of Israel and Palestine is so polarized in the United States. For the purposes of this blog I want to quote one portion:
A wealth of experimental evidence demonstrates that political life makes everyone think worse. People tend to seek out information that proves their ideology to be Good and True, their enemies to be Bad and Wrong. 
For instance, one famous study showed two groups of people identical write-ups of fake studies about the death penalty. People who believed the death penalty deterred crime uncritically accepted the research coming to that conclusion, but tried their best to poke holes in the study s no deterrent effect. The reverse was true for those who didn't believe in death penalty deterrence. The point is that people weren't neutrally evaluating arguments. They're simply reasoning to the conclusion they want.
Ideology seems to me to be a useful tool to avoid thinking. Thinking is hard, and most people don't like to do much of it. A lot of the time it is easier to draw on an ideological position than to think through a problem from the start and come to a new position.

For most of us, what we think about Israel and Palestine is not very consequential. We will not take steps to intercede to make the situation better, even if we could think of the right steps to take; indeed, American intercession in foreign problems often  seems to make those problems worse. Most of us will not choose who to vote for on the basis of positions on Israel or Palestine, or indeed on foreign policy. So taking the easy way out and avoiding thinking is in fact easy.

The problem of course is that sometimes one adopts an incorrect ideological position on an issue when one's position does count. That is clearly a problem for people in policy making positions.

And sometimes too many of us accept ideological positions ultimately empowering the wrong people in policy making positions.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The House of Representatives is not Working Well!

Only around 17 out of 435 U.S, House of Representatives seats—less than 4%—will be competitive in November’s mid-terms. Even if one includes members who are retiring, resigning or have lost primaries, only 67 of 435 seats are in flux.

The Democrats won more votes than Republicans in the 2012 House elections but ended up with 33 fewer seats.
The graph shown on the right above is from an article in The Economist. It shows that there are now very few districts in the United States that elect someone from one party to the House of Representatives and also vote for a candidate from the other party for president -- many fewer than  in the 1990s. The graph on the left shows that the number of swing districts (that might reasonably be expected to elect either a Democrat or a Republican) has been reduced in this century.

The article provides several partial explanations. There are more gerrymandered districts, planned with the aid of new computer technology to be safe for one or the other party. People are tending to live in politically more homogeneous clusters -- Democrats choosing more often to live where other Democrats choose to live; Republicans choosing to live where other Republicans choose to live.
Unfortunately the moderates are more likely to stay at home on election day than partisans on either side. In the 2010 mid-terms only 41% of eligible voters found their way to a polling booth, making the country look more divided than it is.
The Congress has been gridlocked. I believe that the gridlock -- caused by party block voting and unwillingness to compromise to get legislation that will pass House, Senate and White House-- is caused by these structural issues in how the members of the House of Representatives are elected.

The solutions:

  • Reduce gerrymandering: "California and Florida passed constitutional amendments to curb partisan gerrymandering in 2010. On July 10th a judge in Florida ruled that the GOP’s creative cartography there had broken the law."
  • Those who have not been voting but are mad at the way the Congress is failing to work should get out and vote. The non-voting registered Democrats and registered Republicans are unlikely to be a rigid in their political views as those who have been voting; the independent voters should vote for the more centrist and moderate candidates.

Thoughts on beginning The Sleepwalkers

I am enjoying reading The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark, a book highly recommended by a couple of friends. The book focuses on how an assassination in 1914 resulted in the first world war. I am about half way through the book -- the portion in which Clark describes how governments came to operate by 1914.


It occurs to me that the background to this book, which the author probably assumes the reader will already know, is that the first wave of globalization had been going on for some three-quarters of a century.

That globalization had been made possible by advances in technology, including railroads, steamships and the telegraph. So too, the industrial revolution had resulted in a great increase in the capacity to produce some goods (tied to the development of larger markets by the development of transportation infrastructure), and an increased demand of raw materials for the production of those goods (that could not be brought to the manufacturing hub by that transportation infrastructure).

This globalization was accompanied by the the growth of empires, especially colonial empires. Thus a number of countries tried to create international trading systems via conquest of less developed areas, turning those conquered areas into colonies. The imperial country did so utilizing its advantage in guns and steel (see Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond). The industrial revolution allowed production of large amounts of cloth and clothing and other manufactured goods in the home country which could be exported to its colonies, which in turn provided food and raw material to the home country.

Colonialism in 1914. This map shows the world's major empires on the eve of World War I. The focus of European colonialism has shifted to the Eastern Hemisphere, and neo-European United States has become a colonial power in its own right, seizing some of declining Spain's possessions. After the war, much of the Ottoman Empire's territory was divided up among Britain and France, while Germany lost its overseas possessions to the victorious nations. China's power was severely weakened by the ongoing fall of the Qing Dynasty. 

based on a map by Wikimedia/Andrei nacu

This Led to Complexity

The book suggests the complexity of foreign policy. Japan and Russia were competing in the east, seeking to acquire territory from China. Russia and Britain were competing in central Asia. Russia sought to acquire rights to control passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean from the Ottomans. France was willing to allow Italy to acquire Libya from the Ottomans in return for Italian support for France's acquisition of Morocco, and was willing to give Germany assurances of protection of its businesses in Morocco and land in sub-Saharan Africa for the same purpose. Russian concerns in east and central Asia limited its ability to oppose Germany. The duality between Austria and Hungary was complicated in itself, and the Austro-Hungarian empire faced the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and Russia in the east. Britain was competing not only with Russia as described above, but with Germany and France in Africa. I could go on, but you see that these expansionist empires were rubbing up against each other all over the globe. An action in support of one country in one region  of the world could have ramifications in other regions, and eventually with other countries.

Clearly if all the other empires ganged up against any one of them, that empire would be in trouble. Consequently, empires tended to form alliances. Only an alliance of empires might resist another alliance of different countries. The alliances varied over time, but the major ones in the early 20th century were the Triple Alliance (among Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy) and a network of alliances among Britain, France and Russia. France and Britain would be successful in removing Italy from its alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I.

Political Institutions

The political institutions were different in different empires. However, many were monarchies in which the monarchs shared power with an aristocratic elite. A revolution in China replaced its monarchy with a republican government in 1912. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian monarchies fell during or as a result of World War I. (It is tempting to believe that they were the most fragile.)
  • Monarchs sometimes acted as if they actually believed that they enjoyed divine right to rule. 
  • Cabinets often were divided into feuding factions. Usually they were insulated from public opinion and pressure.
  • Diplomats were often in opposition to their foreign ministers and prime ministers, and sometimes ambassadors would make foreign policy themselves.
  • The military and the foreign policy establishments were often competing for influence and resources.
  • Governments sometimes paid for press support, both within their own countries and other countries.
Policies shifted due to changes in staff, and ministers could change often, but also due to changes in the power and influence among different factions in government. When monarchs were interested in foreign policy and especially when they had  strong support in the cabinet or bureaucracy, they could strongly influence policy; if the monarch then had changeable opinions or easily diverted attention, policies could change rapidly.

In these conditions it became very hard for governments to understand and predict the responses of other governments. Not only were governments opaque and their policies subject to change, but diplomatic reports could be biased. Deception was used by governments to disguise their purposes from other governments. Sometimes the foreign press was used as a divining rod to guess at the positions of foreign governments.

Author Clark's narrative leads one to be grateful that heads of government are now elected; monarchs could by totally incompetent and dangerous, but to be elected a politician has to have some competence and should be less likely to be dangerous. So too, Clark's narrative makes one glad that government policy is more open to meritocratic selection rather than restricted to aristocrats, and that bureaucracies are more professional.

Still, my experience in government suggests that many of Clark's insights about government before World War I remain remarkably relevant to current governments.

Deeper Processes

I wonder whether the 20th century was experiencing an institutional change in response to a technological change. The new technologies of the 19th and 20th century made global commerce more and more possible. If institutions could be built to support that commerce, the magic of comparative advantage would increase the benefits available to producers and consumers.

Colonialism came to be replaced by global markets. (Communism, with its central planning, was an option that many believed appropriate, but which failed in practice.) The European and other common markets have come to the fore, allowing free exchanges over large geographic areas.

Similarly, monarchies came to be replaced by more democratic political institutions -- which were more able to provide good governance. Colonial empires have disappeared, while large nation-states (China, India, the USA, Indonesia, Brazil) have survived -- perhaps due to their geographic compactness and/or their efforts to bring a national consciousness to their multi-ethnic populations. Some institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank (and at least 1000 other intergovernmental organizations) have been created to provide governance functions beyond those of the nation state. 

Perhaps the specific events that historians so like to recount are less influential than the "economic imperative" that makes it profitable to improve economic institutions to better utilize technological advances, and that require improved political institutions to govern the economic institutions, finance the public investments needed to utilize the new technologies, and better distribute the gains. Of course, the fact that the 20th century saw a huge increase in schooling made possible by the more efficient production and distribution of goods and services also played its role in cultural development, providing support for the new technologies and political and economic institutions.

Research Results vs. Popular Opinion -- GMOs

I quote from a recent article on GMO foods:
The facts about GMOs and the science of biotechnology are indisputable. In an effort to catalog the science on GMOs, a team of Italian scientists summarized nearly 2,000 studies about the safety and environmental impact of GMO foods. These scientists could not find a single instance where GMO food posed any harm to humans or animals. GMOs are safe and healthy. 
Studies over the past 30 years -- by such groups as the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Academies of Science -- have produced no evidence of health or safety harms. On the contrary, all of them have concluded that GMOs are as safe as, or safer than, conventional or organic foods. Recently, Jon Entine of the Genetic Literacy Project explained on the John Stossel program that "we've eaten about 7 trillion meals in the 18 years since GMOs first came on the market. There's not one documented instance of someone getting so much as a sniffle."

Screw Up Tree Analysis

I tend to believe screw ups happen more often than conspiracies. Thus if the inexplicable happens, look for an explanation in multiple screw ups. The screw up tree can help to create a satisfying explanation.

Let me give you an example. Lets assume the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 that crashed in Ukraine was shot down by a guided missile fired by an insurgent. Then there were two proximate screw ups that resulted in the disaster:
  • that insurgent must have screwed up, firing by mistake at a civilian airliner, AND
  • the pilot must has screwed up, flying his commercial flight over a war zone.
However, there would have been more distal screw ups. Why did the insurgent screw up?
  • the person who trained him how to use the missile launcher screwed up, letting im loose when the insurgent still did not know how to avoid using the launchers to shoot down commercial airline flights, AND
  • someone screwed up and approved the delivery of the missiles and launcher to insurgent forces that were not use them well.
Similarly, the pilot (who presumably had the ultimate responsibility for selecting the flight path) screwed up, either because
  • he screwed up and decided on his own to take his flight over a war zone
OR the airline management screwed up:
  • someone in the airline management screwed up and decided that the cost of a longer flight path was not justified to avoid the risk of flying over the Ukrainian war zone, OR
  • someone in the airline screwed up and didn't tell the pilot he was supposed to take a southern path avoiding the Syrian and Ukrainian war zones.
Of course, each of these screw ups would have still more distant screw ups that contributed to the ultimate disaster.

Think how you will amaze your friends providing detailed screw up trees for future disasters.

This is what I got when I used Google image
to search for "screw up tree".
p.s. You will note that contrary to the speaking heads on TV, I will not guess as to what happened in sky over  Ukraine. The intelligence community is suitably cautious in coming to conclusions, and the administration spokespersons are suitably cautious in relaying that intelligence estimate.

I have heard that both the Ukrainians and Russians have missiles and launchers that could have been used to bring down the MH17. Assuming that one or the other was used, then how would the screw up analysis work?
  • If Russians provided the Ukrainian insurgents with the rockets and launcher then someone in Russia screwed up deciding to make the transfer, AND probably someone in the Ukraine screwed up putting the system in the hands of someone who screwed up using it.
  • If the rockets and launcher were obtained from a Ukrainian base, someone screwed up failing to guard them from possible capture by the insurgents, AND probably the guys who captured the rockets and launcher screwed up by putting them in the hands of someone who screwed up using it.

Forecasting can be useful, but only if done well

An article in The Economist is partially based on a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by David Mandel and Alan Barnes. Those researchers
analysed more than 1,500 intelligence forecasts produced by a nameless (but presumably Canadian) agency, covering the period from March 2005 to December 2011. 
Their results suggest that the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron is unfair. When they compared what the analysts had said with what actually came to pass, they found that the predictions were right about three-quarters of the time. Cynics might wonder if the analysts merely restricted themselves to easy cases, but Dr Mandel and Dr Barnes also found they were good at calibrating their judgments. Events they deemed unlikely did not happen often, whereas those they thought likely occurred frequently. Indeed, if anything they were underselling themselves, tending to err more than necessary on the side of uncertainty. And there was evidence that their skills could be learnt—for more-experienced analysts tended to do better than their junior counterparts........
Unlike pundits, who can pontificate from the safety of their armchairs, analysts know that their advice is likely to have consequences in the real world. Drs Mandel and Barnes found that analysts’ inherent underconfidence became even more pronounced when confronting particularly important or difficult questions.
Analysts must also defend their claims to managers, who are trained to be sceptical, and to their political masters. Other studies have shown such accountability encourages careful thinking and reduces self-serving cognitive biases.
The Economist article contrasts this research with
a famous earlier finding. In 2005 Philip Tetlock, a management theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, announced the results of a 20-year study in which 284 experts—professors, journalists, civil servants and so forth—were invited to make more than 28,000 predictions. Their performance was abysmal: barely better than chance, and inferior even to simple computer algorithms......... Dr Tetlock found that the more famous his pundits were, the worse they did.
These data are worth keeping in mind. The talking heads one sees on television and the prognostications one reads in the media (or worse in blogs) are often wrong. Intelligence agencies often do a lot better! President Obama is probably working from much better forecasts than those that might be available to you. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

The video makes the point, which seems reasonable to me, that the best way to motivate behavior depends on the behavior you want to motivate.

  • If you want more production in work that requires only mechanical skills and does not require creativity and innovation but simply effort, pay more for more work.
  • If you want more and better production in work that requires cognitive skills, pay enough that the worker doesn't need to worry about pay and then motivate by providing autonomy, the chance to achieve mastery, and a significant purpose for the work.
My experience suggests that the way good performance is developed in science and technology is to provide workers with jobs with a middle class standard of living (including the status that comes with entry into the middle class), and then giving them autonomy to develop their ideas, the chance to get better and better at their work, and problems to work on that they find important, challenging and interesting.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The OECD predicts the changing pattern of world trade

This figure is from an interesting OECD site -- filled with interactive graphics -- titled "Policy challenges for the next 50 years".

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Can analysis make crowds more accurate?

There is an interesting article in the MIT Technology Review on an experiment done at the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain. The article deals with a phenomenon termed "the wisdom of  the crowd". If you ask a lot of people drawn at random to estimate a quantitative value such as the weight of a specific person or the distance between two geographic places, the average of the guesses is likely to be closer to the actual value than almost all of the individual guesses.

Researchers Madirolas and De Polavieja considered a situation in which people would be asked to judge such a value. They would then be shown the estimate made by another group, and asked again for their judgment of the true value. Some people, more confident in their own  original judgment would make small adjustments in the value; others, less confident, would make greater adjustments. The researchers found in an experiment, as they had hypothesized, that the more confident group would on average make a better estimate than the less confident group. They provided a mathematical adjustment to readjust the estimates of the less confident -- as shown in the figure above.

I think race track betting is an example of this phenomenon of the wisdom of the crowd. Parimutual odds have been shown to provide rather good estimates of the probabilities of each horse winning the race. Thus horses that run at one to five odds tend to win about one race in six; those that run at one to nine odds tend to win about one race in ten. There will be some very good handicappers in the crowd who will be confident in their own judgment, but there will also be a lot of novices who bet on the colors of the silks of the riders or on horses whose names they like. Showing the odds as calculated by the parimutual machines at a track will perhaps move the novice betters toward the more accurate odds estimates of the good handicappers. (The good handicappers are likely still to do better on the day than the novices.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The USA has ratified only 5 of 18 UN Human Rights Treaties

They are:

  • The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  • The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights
  • The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict
  • The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.
The United States is a signatory to four other treaties, Including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it has not ratified.

Check out the UN Office of the High Commission on Human Rights website with a great interactive graphic on these treaties and their ratification.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Half of the U.S. population lives in these 146 counties

Source: Business Insider
Those shown in blue are of course the most populous out of more than 3,000 U.S. counties. The article lists the blue counnties (including the county where I live).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Irish immigrants were victims of racism not so long ago

A cartoon from the 1850s by the "Know-Nothings" accusing the Irish and German immigrants of negatively affecting an election.
This cartoon contrasts Florence Nightingale, the Civil War nurse, with "Bridget McBruiser", the stereotypical Irish woman.
 If I'm not mistaken, the average life span of a black male slave in America during the mid 19th century was about 50 years old. But the average life span of an Irish male laborer in America at that time was under 35 years of age. 
White Irish were often used for hard dangerous work that were estimated to cost many lives to complete, such as the Erie Canal. Contracts were sent to black Slave plantations for labor, and were refused on account that the work was too brutal and dangerous for their slaves. In one case the reply was, "The work is much too harsh for our Negroes. Let the Irish do it." in America

Who a couple of decades ago would have thought this possible?

I quote from an article in the current Special Report on Internet Security in The Economist:
Cisco, a tech company, reckons that by the end of this decade there could be some 50 billion things with web connections (see chart 5). Among them will be lots of consumer gear, from cameras to cars, fridges and televisions.
The World Wide Web, which brought us websites and browsers, has changed our lives. Perhaps the Internet of things will do so again.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Six Populous Countries Together Have Half the World's Population

Clearly we should all know about these countries!

An example of difference between scientific and media reports

There is a difference between bad science and bad reporting. Sometimes good science is badly reported, leading newspaper readers to draw conclusions that the scientists responsible for the reported research did not themselves draw. Of course, sometimes bad science is reported well, helping the reader of the report understand the problems with the science itself.

I would suggest that there are two levels of literacy involved here.

  • I have sometimes been involved in peer review of science and for that purpose one wants a very high degree of scientific literacy. The reviewer should know the field well enough to evaluate hypotheses, methods, data, and conclusions.
  • Like everyone (I hope everyone) I read about scientific results in the media for which I do not have more than normal lay literacy. Still, it is useful to consider the credibility of reports in the media before accepting them as "truth". Even then, it is one thing for the reporter to truthfully report what has been told to him, and another for the reporter to report the truth of a scientific assertion. 
As I have mentioned in previous posts, a lot of scientific results are of interest because they indicate that something which seemed very improbable may not be as unlikely as it seemed. Such results may be, and I suppose often are proven to be incorrect. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Computer and me.

It occurred to me the other day that my experience with computers may be quite different than other peoples. For example:

  • I got the idea that one could build one's own computer when Gordon Hughes, a high school friend, built one for a science fair in 1954 or 1955. (Gordon went on to invent the hard drive for computers.)
  • I first programmed a computer in 1958, the SWAC at UCLA, in binary. That was taking my first computer course.
  • I got a summer job as a computer operator in 1959, and was a teaching assistant in the Berkeley Engineering School computer lab that fall.
  • I did computer simulations of a pattern transformation device and a perceptron in 1962.
  • I taught the Basic computer language at UC Irvine in a class in 2004 or 2005.
  • I worked in the computer facility of the Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria from 1965 to 1967. During that time a taught a Fortran course and wrote the first Fortran manual in Spanish in Chile.
  • I taught a course in Linear Programming at the Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso, Chile as a Ford Foundation Consultant in 1967.
  • I verified the accuracy of the logical design of a digital computer in 1968 or 1969. It was later built and worked.
  • In the early 1970s, working in a WHO health planning research project in Colombia, I  did a some computer analysis of health systems.
  • In the 1980s, I managed a project to produce four monographs on the use of microcomputers in developing countries[ tens of thousands of copies were distributed. My office also procured the first personal computer purchased by USAID and used it to automate records of its grants program. We also funded the creation of the Internet backbone for Costa Rica from that office, which later became the backbone of the Internet for Central America.
  • During that time I also bought a very inexpensive home computer, programmed it for my young son to learn arithmetic, and also used it for statistical demonstrations in a course I was teaching.
  • I bought my first serious home computer in 1997, using it for my home office and consulting activities.
  • I served as a consultant to the InfoDev program and the Development Gateway program of the World Bank in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The first of those sought to make small grants to organizations in developing countries to promote innovative uses of computer technology. At the Development Gateway I was involved as a consultant to a network of computer research and training centers in developing nations.
  • Now retired, I blog, tweet, use Facebook, and manage a couple of groups on Linked In. I sit before a computer screen for hours a day.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

How U.S. Income Distribution Compares

"Lessons From Brazil’s War on Poverty"
Very few U.S. residents are poor by international standards; something like 90 percent of us have incomes in the top fifth of world incomes. Someone with income only greater than two percent of Americans has an income greater than 55 percent of the world population. (I lifted the graph from an article about Brazil.)

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A thought about neuroscience and free will

Researchers have demonstrated that the firing of individual neurons appear to indicate the decisions of subjects before the subjects report that they have become aware of their own decision. (Read Wikipedia's entry on the research.) This seems to surprise and even bother people. Some seem to feel that the neuron's firing denies the free will of the subject in making the decision.

Let me suggest another situation. Say you want to drink from a cup of coffee on a table in front of you. Are you surprised when your arm moves first to position your hand so that your hand can grasp the cup? Does your arm somehow deny free will of your hand in grasping the cup? Of course, we learn as infants to coordinate hand and arm, and think of the two as part of a single unit implementing our will.

I seems obvious to me that consciousness is a function, primarily related to the brain. It is not surprising to me that the "decision" to do something would be relatively localized in specific part of the brain, and that making that decision conscious (in images or words, according to the style of consciousness of the subject) would involve more of the brain and be subsequent to the "decision". Perhaps that view comes from my experience programming computers, where there would always be a computation to arrive at the decision, and a subsequent step in implementing the decision.

The basic point, I guess, is that you are a single being. When you have been lying down and get up, your body not only orchestrates the muscles of your trunk and legs to change your posture, but it also changes you heart rate to pump blood more strongly to assure that the blood continues to be supplied to your brain, and your arteries may also respond to the chemical signals sent out to assure that blood supply; of course, your blood continues to supply oxygen to the cells of your body, and they continue to metabolize nutrients to power their functions. That you are not consciously aware of all these things going on for "a simple movement" that we do every day without any special thought does not mean that the act does not involve complex operation of many bodily systems.

It is not surprising that your brain and you conscious mind function together. Indeed, your genes are influencing the way your brain is working, as is your state of nutrition. If you are running from an angry bear your brain will probably function quite differently than if you are reading a book about bears, as will your heart and other organs.

So. what about free will? A bird can take off and fly away, and you can not; does that mean you don't have "free will". We don't think of free will as the freedom to do things that are impossible.

We believe that some people with mental diseases do not have free will, but rather act according to compulsion. (Indeed, we excuse the acts of children feeling that they have diminished capacity to understand the effects of their actions and to censor their impulses.)

Perhaps most germane, we know that we can predict the probabilities that adults will commit crimes or participate in other unaccepted behavior from their current and past social status and family characteristics. Indeed, we know that people from different cultures will react differently in similar circumstances (a Brazilian soccer audience is likely to be different than a Japanese one). Thus decisions are partially determined by things outside the "free will" of the individual.

Free will then is the subjective recognition that one can pick up the cup or leave it on the table, that one can do one thing or we can chose another. That choice, when it is so conceptualized, is made as the result of a decision, The decision is made by the brain, and brought to consciousness by the brain. The fact that the brain function is involved, and that a fast enough computer might infer the decision before the decider is conscious of the decision, doesn't seem to have anything to do with free will as we conceive it.

We in the USA were once the best nourished in the worled

Quoting Robert Reich:
The United States used to be the tallest country in the world but is now one of the shortest of all developed nations.....Low-income kids in America consume an inordinate amount of fast food. That’s bad for height. In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other fast foods; the other got 1940’s-style wartime rations like boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.
I am not sure that it is important to have the tallest people in the world (unless basketball is your only interest), but it may be important not to have a poorly nourished underclass.


Principle Cause of Mortality by Country

Add caption
The Week provides this interactive site with the most common causes of death by country.

The more developed world tends to have people live to an age when heart disease is the major cause.

In France, Spain, Portugal and some other European countries, throat and lung cancer seem to be the major causes -- smoking?

Sub-Saharan Africa and Thailand show the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

TB is the problem in some countries, perhaps due to the compromised immune systems in Africa, but what is the problem in Bolivia?

Cirrhosis of the Liver in Mexico -- alcohol abuse?

Liver cancer in China????

Monday, July 07, 2014

A thought about foreign policy

I heard Andrew Card use an interesting metaphor yesterday. George H.W. Bush was Vice President (1/81 to 1/89) when Gorbachev introduced perestroika and glasnost and president (1/89 to 1/93) when the Soviet Union fell and Communism effective ended in the West.

Card said that Bush 41 believed that things were headed in the right direction in the Soviet Union when he assumed the presidency, and that if he put in his oar he might steer them in the wrong direction. However, he used his team of very experienced foreign policy advisers to scan for shoals which might be dangerous for the process of change in the Soviet Union and Russia; in the event of such peril, he Bush might then try to steer the course in a safer direction.

President Bush 43 (1/2001 to 1/2009) led as the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to more than a decade of war. Rather than the restraint in the use of American military power shown by his father, George W. Bush sought  "shock and awe" to foreign policy. His was a very costly policy.

The world is a very complicated place. I have come to believe that American officials are often surprised by events in other countries. Indeed, as leaders in various countries and factions respond to each other, they often seem to seek out and implement initiatives just because they will  be unexpected by others, and thus have a potential advantage.

A policy like that attributed to Bush 41 -- of watching events unfold, looking for potential problems, and making relatively modest, cost-effective interventions to avoid the shoals -- seems quite reasonable in terms of the unpredictability of world events.

So too does a major investment in understanding foreign cultures, foreign countries and foreign leaders. That investment should start in our schools and universities, involve our politicians and news media, include our foreign policy and intelligence institutions, and even our citizens in general.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Why do I read history?

For much the same reason someone climbs a mountain; because it is there and because I can.

It is nice to have some knowledge to evaluate the assertions of those who go by myths about the past.

Some people think of the American Indians encountered by the white settlers of America as somehow culturally deficient.

  • Cahokia, near St. Louis, was one of the largest cities in the world in the 1200s.
  • Serpent Mound and Chaco Canyon were built using very elaborate knowledge of astronomy hundreds of years before Columbus.
  • The Iroquois Confederation had a sophisticated political organization, which was referred to by the founding fathers in creating the republic.
  • The introduction of diseases from Eurasia to the new world decimated Indian populations, and the white settlers saw the culture patched together by the survivors.
  • Those survivors were living in an environment that was undergoing radical change as a result of the white settlements.
Cahokia Mound Complex

Thoughts from Plato

Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.

A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.

The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.

Entire ignorance is not so terrible or extreme an evil, and is far from being the greatest of all; too much cleverness and too much learning, accompanied with ill bringing-up, are far more fatal.

Knowledge becomes evil if the aim be not virtuous.


Thursday, July 03, 2014

Thinking about causes and those responsible for events

Can we generalize from the ways police and courts deal with evidence?

I enjoy watching the police procedural set in the Caribbean, Death in Paradise. In each episode of Series One, Inspector Poole lists all of the possible suspects for the murder under investigation, and then checks off whether each has motive, means and opportunity. This is the standard recognition that if a person is responsible for an event (in this case, a crime), then that person must have the means and opportunity for causing the event (crime) and probably has a motive for doing so.

This is related to the reporters focus on answering the questions, who, what, why, where, when and how? The policeman knows what, where and when to begin with, and focuses on the who, why and how.

So how do detectives prove a case?

  • They get evidence, such as videos showing the commission of the crime, fingerprints proving that a suspect was at the scene of the crime, etc. Of course, such evidence is usually not conclusive. Videos may not suffice to identify a person uniquely, and fingerprints may be left at a time other than when the crime is committed.
  • Eye witnesses, but we know that eye witness testimony is quite fallible.
  • Incrimination of the suspect from others who are known to have been involved in the crime, but sometimes such testimony is false and self-serving.
  • Confession, but even confessions to crimes may not be truthful indications of who committed the crime.
It is thus in the courts that juries or judges are asked to decide whether the evidence. Here is a statement of the standard:

The prosecutor must convince the judge or jury of a defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This burden of proof is the highest that our system of justice imposes on a party to a trial. By contrast, in civil cases, such as those seeking damages for personal injuries or breach of contract, a plaintiff's burden is to prove a defendant liable by a  preponderance of the evidence -- just over 50%. 
As a practical matter, the high burden of proof in criminal cases means that judges and jurors are supposed to resolve all doubts about a defendant's guilt in favor of the defendant. With such a high standard imposed on the prosecutor, a defendant's most common defense is to argue that there is reasonable doubt -- that is, to argue that the prosecutor hasn't proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty. 
I suggest that these ideas provide a checklist that might be used in trying to understand situations in your own life, perhaps especially your business life when things happen that affect you that you are having trouble understanding.