Saturday, December 27, 2014

A thought about knowledge of the past

Hunts will always be remembered in the words of the hunters until lions learn to write.
How do we make sense of the world and its past? Billions of people living over a surface so huge no one will ever see it all, behaving all the time in their billions of individual paths, subject to literal winds of change as well as cultural, economic, political and social forces which we may jointly create but which surpass our understanding.

Homo sapiens evolved from pretty simple minded beings that recognized food from poison well enough to survive, and recognized threats well enough to avoid being eaten before they could reproduce. Biological evolution is about extracting simple messages from the confusion of sensory input, which in turn is an extraction of messages about a local environment.

Homo sapiens is a social species, and we have evolved biologically to behave socially. Our societies have evolved some means of understanding complexity that the simple hunter-gather groups 10,000 years ago did not possess. I suspect that those means involve radical simplification of actors, events, and causal relations.

We are story tellers. We select a point to make, select a situation we think suitable for making the point, select actions and actors relevant to the point, impute causal factors relating events to outcomes, and tell ourselves the story. All to the  good, but perhaps the danger is believing too much in a specific story we have made up about the past. All too often our stories of the past are but retrospective rationalizations based on randomly chosen.

How do Historians Tell Stories About the Past?

I think historians too are story tellers, seeking to make points in their narratives about the past. They too select events, structure them, selecting characters from among many, and impute causality among the events.

Historians are experienced in comparing information from primary sources, recognizing that people do not always recall the past correctly, nor to they always describe what they recall accurately; people perhaps often present themselves in better light than they deserve.

Historians should also be knowledgeable about secondary sources, benefiting from what others have studied and understood about the past. So too, historians should tell stories informed by data and by the other social sciences -- economics, political science, geography, psychology. Indeed, they may be informed by modern medical knowledge.

Finally, historians benefit from peer review. Importantly, they write for an audience of other historians, subjecting their descriptions of past events and actors to the critiques of other historians, allowing their interpretations of causality to be compared with those made by others. Indeed, the lessons that they draw from history are sifted by other historian, with only some surviving into text books or popular history to inform the public.

How does Natural Science Differ from Stories We Usually Tell About the Past?

Taxonomy is the basis of science. Scientists work to assure that things that are judged to be the same are indeed the same. Astronomy separates stars from planets and moons and from galaxies. Systematic biology has developed over centuries to learn to identify species by their genetic makeup, separating different species that have converged to similar appearance and sibling species that have diverged little from common ancestors. Chemists have learned to differentiate elements from compounds, and even isotopes of the same elements; as they have learned to purify compounds from mixtures. Physicists have identified many sub-atomic particles and forces, learning to identify them and to recognize different manifestations of the same forces. Thus science is much more accurate in saying things are the same or different that we are in telling stories about the past.

Science is prospective, not simply retrospective. When possible science advances through the generation of hypotheses from theory, where each hypothesis can be be tested by controlled observations; ideally, data will show the hypothesis to be false, tending to disprove they hypothesis and thus the theory from which it is drawn. Experiments should be controlled to eliminate as many sources of error as possible. Moreover, they should be replicated. Ultimately theory, the way the hypothesis is drawn, the experiments, and the inferences drawn from them should be subject to expert peer review.

Thus strong methods have been institutionalized within the natural sciences to increase the confidence that can be placed in accepted theories and hypotheses. Moreover, the body of controlled experimental data has grown over time, and is increasingly available for use by the scientific community.

Thus the stories that natural scientists tell us tend to be more worthy of confidence than the stories we tell ourselves, or the stories others tell us based on less formal taxonomies, fewer controlled experiments, and the lack of a process focusing on the falsification of hypotheses.

Natural scientists are of course people, and as such capable of false dealing and error. Perhaps, however, working in an institution that has strong mechanisms to increase the confidence in assertions (and sanctions for falsehood and error) they are less likely than some others to make statements from their science that are false or erroneous.

Science's Breakthrough of the Year 2014!

Good year for science. Check out these 2014 technologies from Wired.

Friday, December 26, 2014

On the measurement of development progress

There is an article in the year's end (double edition) of The Economist on the measurement of development progress. The article suggests that the oft used measure of increase in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is difficult to measure, and presents difficulties in international comparisons. More to the point, many feel that it does not capture the goals of social and economic development well. One important alternative is the UNDP's Human Development Index. While this seeks to combine economic production, education and health, I find it too suffers from failing to capture fully what development is all about. The article notes:
In recent years many have instead focused on happiness. The United Nations has been publishing an annual “World Happiness Report” since 2012. The British government measures “personal well-being” across the country on an annual basis. Yet happiness has its own shortcomings, argues Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago. 
Happiness notably suffers as an indicator in that "People are prone to what philosophers call 'adaptive preferences', meaning that they may fail to report their 'true' happiness." Moreover, the individual's view of "happiness" may focus on a hedonistic concept, and may not reflect the philosopher's more nuanced view.

The author of The Economist article cites a 1999 article by William Easterly which is sufficiently important that I quote its Abstract in it entirety:
A remarkable diversity of indicators shows quality of life across nations to be positively associated with per capita income. At the same time, the changes in quality of life as income grows are surprisingly uneven. Either in levels or changes, moreover, the effect of exogenous shifts over time is surprisingly strong compared to growth effects. This paper reaches this conclusion with a panel dataset of 81 indicators covering up to 4 time periods (1960, 1970, 1980, and 1990). The indicators cover 7 subjects: (1) individual rights and democracy, (2) political instability and war, (3) education, (4) health, (5) transport and communications, (6) inequality across class and gender, and (7) “bads.” With a SUR estimator in levels, income per capita has an impact on the quality of life that is significant, positive, and more important than exogenous shifts for 32 out of 81 indicators. With a fixed effects estimator, growth has an impact on the quality of life that is significant, positive, and more important than exogenous shifts for 10 out of 81 indicators. With a first-differences IV estimator, growth has a causal impact on the quality of life that is significant, positive, and more important than exogenous shifts for 6 out of 69 quality of life indicators. The conclusion speculates about such explanations for the pattern of results as: (1) the long and variable lags that may come between growth and changes in the quality of life, and (2) the possibility that global socioeconomic progress is more important than home country growth for many quality of life indicators.
Economist Easterly is an important economic theorist, and I find his use of a wide variety of indicators (grouped into seven sets) to be interesting. I find the suggestion that development progress is not uniform and is affected by external factors to be intuitively appealing,

The Economist article also cites the ideas of Amartya Sen who
argues that “capabilities” are the way to go. The definition of a capability is a bit fuzzy: at its simplest, a capability is something that people have reason to value. The list of potential capabilities is endless: the opportunity to live a long and healthy life, the freedom to take part in political life or to be well nourished. Capabilities, says Mr Sen, are ends that economists should strive to maximise: income is just one of the many means by which we get there.
I think that the development community is irrevocably committed to using a variety of indicators to measure different aspects of social and economic development. I rather like the idea that individuals ought in a liberal society to have the right to choose how best to balance among the different objectives. Who am I to tell the philanthropist who chooses to give away wealth to do good, or the business man who chooses to acquire wealth in the process of producing goods and services, or the government official who chooses a bureaucratic career assuring a level playing field under rule of law that their choices are better or worse than those of others.

At the public level, I rather like the idea of a number of constraints -- that the society should be operating in such a way that a level of health and/or health services should be assured, that a level of intellectual development and/or educational services should be assured, that a level of income should be assured, etc. There could be a debate on the trade-offs -- how much health service would the society be willing to trade off for how much social safety net, or how much schooling? Constraints in this sense would be minimum values, and presumably people would be pleased if some benchmarks were exceeded as long as it were not at the expense of others constraints that were not met.

What will sink and what will survive as states test Common Core?

What will sink and what will survive as states test Common Core?

What this PBS Newshour coverage does not say, but what you can observe in the map starting about 7 minutes in, is that the states that have dropped out of the Common Core Standards for education are often those with the worst educational systems. The state governors set forth a system to improve their own K-12 educational systems, and those with the most need are finding it hardest to comply with the common standards.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A comment on the U.S. police system.

Source: The Economist
The graph on the right shows that, while the incarceration rate is higher for whites in the USA than for the general population in comparable countries, it is significantly higher for blacks than for whites in the USA, and many times higher for blacks in the USA than for the general population in comparable countries.

Murder is arguably the worst crime, and the murder rate in the USA is higher than for the general population in comparable countries; it is much higher for U.S. blacks than for U.S. whites.

Why should this be so? Clearly we in the USA are a violent people, and clearly we have policies that put a lot of people in jail. (It might be that putting a lot of people in jail and keeping them there a long time does not work in reducing violent behavior.) I believe that there is still a large amount of racism in the USA, and that as a result blacks are likely to be sequestered in black neighborhoods; also as a result, blacks are likely to be less educated and have fewer opportunities in life, leading to high crime rates in black communities where the victims are likely to be black. These observations seem so obvious that I am surprised that they are not universally recognized, especially among whites.

Source: The Economist
Most blacks are suspicious of police in the USA, much more so than whites. It seems obvious that blacks have more reason to be suspicious of police than whites do. There has been and remains much less prejudice against whites than against blacks, and blacks are much more likely meet such prejudice. I also think that it crime rates are higher among one group than among another, the police will treat the members of the high crime rate group with more suspicion.

The article suggests one helpful step -- combine small police forces into larger ones that will have the resources to select better officers and to better train them. I would think that the "war on crime" with mandatory sentencing and long sentences has been proven counterproductive. More fundamentally, we have to continue fighting against racism and work to provide more mobility for blacks. I suppose a big challenge for decades will be to rehabilitate the black men who now have criminal records and histories of long periods spent in jail.

Maybe I am too much a prisoner of my own culture, but I would suggest that the problems of some police officers in some police departments should not be exaggerated. There are some 3.6 million police officers in the USA, and I think most of them do a good job for the public. That many armed people on the streets 2000 hours a year are going to do some things that they should not do. Moreover, the policemen that I have talked to and known face a difficult job and have often been injured while doing that job. Of course, policing can and should be improved, and of course that will only happen if people demand that it be done. But it seems to me that we need to keep some perspective on the situation, and not go off half cocked as our politicians did with "the war on crime". The media don't help by ignoring the problem until an event captures the public's fleeting attention, and then too often they hype that event.

A came across this graph after posting the comments above:

Even if the country enacts better policies now, it will take a long time to recover from the effect of the policies enacted in the 1980s.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

As a people, Americans tend to cluster together.

Half of the U.S. Population Lives in these 146 Counties
Source: Business Insider
Marked in blue are the 146 counties with the most people out of more than 3000 counties in the whole country. (The country is now 81 percent urban or suburban.)

California, Texas and New York have the largest economies of any states (in that order). Together the three states produce more than a quarter of the country's GDP. Thus the 6 senators from the most productive states face 94 senators from less productive states.

An odd parallel -- two processes with similar tipping points.

It just occurred to me that there is a parallel between the nuclear fission and communicable disease.

  • When an atom of Uranium 235 breaks up into two smaller atoms, it also emits several neutrons. Absorbing a new neutron causes an atom of Uranium 235 to break up into two smaller atoms. There are three possibilities according to the amount of Uranium 235 present and its configuration: a. on average each atom that breaks up causes less than one new atom to break up as happens in nature; b. on average, each atom that breaks up causes exactly one other atom to break up, as happens in a nuclear reactor; c. on average, each atom that breaks up causes more than one other atom to break up and since the break up of a Uranium 235 atom emits considerable energy, BOOM.
  • When someone becomes sick with Ebola that person may infect one or more other persons. There are three possibilities according to the average number of others that each sick person infects: a. on average, each ill person infects fewer than one other person, and the outbreak is quickly contained; b. on average, each ill person infects exactly one other person, and the disease become endemic; 5. on average, each ill person infects more than one other person, and an epidemic occurs.
In the case of nuclear fission, the problem is to arrange the fissile material in such a way as to produce a safe nuclear reactor or a nuclear bomb (according to the purpose); in the case of an Ebola epidemic, the problem is to isolate the infective persons in such a way as to prevent or stop an epidemic.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Perhaps a new technological revolution in the biological technologies.

Journey of Homo innovaticus since the dawn of agriculture 
highlighting recent advances in technology and bioscience.
This graph, shows both the rate of world population growth and the rate of invention in biotechnologies. The left hand portion shows the prehistoric domestication of key species in thousands of years BC and AD.

It was drawn from a post by Timothy Taylor in his blog, Conversable Economist. It originated in an article by William Hoffman in Global Policy. I quote the complete abstract of that article:
Arising from its roots in the US, biotechnology today is a global enterprise. Cutting-edge tools are transforming traditional models of drug discovery and development and diagnostic testing. They are enabling the potential for large scale production of renewable fuels, biodegradable materials, safer industrial chemicals and food crops grown under harsh conditions. The practice of technological innovation in the industrial era – the systematic application of ideas, inventions and technology to markets, trade and social systems – is now being joined with the code of life through rapid DNA sequencing and synthesis technologies. The pace of bioscience innovation is also influenced by geographic concentration of research, entrepreneurship and investment (clusters). Policy makers are just beginning to consider and debate the implications of the new biological technologies: the promises they hold for global public health, natural resource conservation, and economic growth, and the risks they pose from their power and accessibility around the world.
Of course, the potential in this technology will not be easily achieved. We know that people are frightened by many of these technologies, and that there will be a huge job of educating the public as to where the real risks are and which perceived risks are simply due to misperception.

Some of the benefits of this innovation will be available to all without adaptation, such as vaccines for globally endemic diseases. Others, such as improved crop varieties will need local capacity to adopt to local needs; these will often require development in poor countries, which have less developed scientific and technological capacity. Some of these technologies potentially beneficial for developing nations will have to be invented in those countries, and for that purpose the capacity will have to be greatly strengthened.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

This says something about the USA!

I quote from the article from which this map is drawn:
What if American state borders were redrawn such that each of the 50 had an approximately equal population? Well, it might look a little something like this map drawn by Neil Freeman and described as an electoral college reform proposal. In partisan terms, by packing so many liberals into incredibly lopsided urban states this concept would tilt the college in favor of the GOP. Nate Cohen, for example, has calculated that Mitt Romney would have won a narrow electoral college victory under this map in 2012, despite losing the popular vote by four percentage points. But there would be broader policy implications of creating several city-states that wouldn't be subordinated to state legislatures and would send their own urban-focused senators to Washington. This remapped America would have more non-white statewide elected officials, and give politics less of a pronounced regional schism.
Of course, one would also change the Constitution to have direct election of the president; the electoral college is an absurdity.  Assuming that the county continued to have a bicameral legislature, since 81 percent of the population lives in urban or suburban areas, the lower body would represent urban interests. The upper body would apparently represent rural interests. But of course, the state boundaries would shift from census to census, as do the legislative districts now.

The Qattara Project

I quote from the source of this map:
The Qattara Depression, in Egypt, is a swathe of land about the size of Lake Ontario that sits near the Mediterranean Sea, at an average depth of 200 meters below sea level. The Qattara Project was the brain child of a German hydrolic engineer named Friedrich Bassler who proposed digging a canal from the Mediterranean to flood the area. After about ten years, the water inside the depression would reach sea level. But the desert climate in the area would cause it to evaporate relatively rapidly, leading to a further influx of seawater. This ongoing flow was to be used to generate hydroelectricity. At the same time, the new, massive saline lake could transform a largely uninhabited desert area into a series of viable fishing communities. The part of the project where you dig a massive canal never penciled out as remotely cost-effective, but for some time the CIA maintained an interest in the project as part of its Cold War efforts to pull Egypt out of the Soviet orbit.
There used to be proposals to use nuclear energy to dig huge canals. I wonder if such an approach would be feasible. Would such an approach change the economics of the project? As energy becomes more expensive in the future, will this project become economically feasible?

How about if desalinization of water becomes less expensive? Would provision of potable water in the desert make the project more attractive?

Would the project help ameliorate sea level rise due to global warming? If so, would those benefiting from the savings be willing to help pay for the project?

This is an old "engineers dream"!

New Invention Data -- You Have to Interpret Carefully

I quote from the article from The Economist from which I drew this graph:
(T)he explosion of patent filings is not the result of local researchers suddenly coming up with twice as many ingenious inventions: it is a response to a government order. As the report acknowledges, “the growth in output is driven by the 12th Five-Year Plan and the associated Chinese National Patent Development Strategy”. Bureaucrats have decreed that local firms will apply for 2m patents by 2015. Thanks to various subsidies and incentives, China looks set to hit that target........Of the desired 2m filings, many will be for “utility” or “design” patents, which are less substantial than “invention” patents..... 
Only about 5% of patents filed by local firms in China last year were also filed abroad, whereas over a third of patents originally filed by local firms in Japan were also filed elsewhere. 
Almost all of the growth in China’s invention patents over the past three years has come from local firms, not from the Chinese divisions of multinationals. 
I remember also that China is by far the most populous country in the world. The per capita patent rate would still be low, even were all those reported were legitimate.

While invention fuels international competitiveness, and in that respect threatens other countries, so too the more invention that goes on globally, the better for the average person everywhere.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A thought about evaluation.

I have long wondered about "organization theory". In the organizations in which I worked, people participated for their own reasons. Sometimes they did so on a time limited basis, or even a short term basis. I remember interns and graduate students, as well as post-docs. Sometimes staff was composed of people who worked for my organization, people loaned from other organizations, and people who were paid by organizations contracting with my organization; by and large, we all worked together. I sometimes worked on projects in a collaborative way with people with whom I had no formal organizational link. The idea that an organization has a charter and staff agree to work to accomplish the objectives of the organization in exchange for the remuneration provided seems not to work too often. Note too that I belong to the school that believes that people in organizations work under conditions of limited information, making decisions by processes that are of limited rationality.

Moreover, there seems to be an idea that organizations have boundaries, and that they obtain inputs from institutions outside those boundaries and place the goods and services they produce into institutions outside those boundaries. It has always seemed to me that organizational boundaries are permeable or even fictitious, and that many actions of people within an organization done in the context of that organization, are in fact done in other organizations or in the private sphere.

I recently heard someone say that evaluation should be conceived as providing a platform to allow people to help an organization do better. I like that idea.

It occurs to me, however, that different people have different abilities and that it might be better to think of different platforms to allow different kinds of people to best make their contributions. Consider an organization providing health services. It might have a platform for public comment, another for medical staff providing curative service, a third for preventive medicine staff, another for support staff, still another for outside experts to suggest how health services are and should be evolving.

In the case of K-12 schools, one might have a platform for teachers, one for students, one for parents, one for others in the community, one for administrators, one for curriculum experts, another for ICT opinions, and one for those who might provide teaching aids and materials.

Many years ago a group of engineering students asked me to help them do a project related to related to a real need. I had friends in the local (Latin American) ministry of health office and asked them to identify such a project. They told us that the decision was soon to be made as to where to locate a new hospital in a mid size city that already had several hospitals. Several potential locations had been identified, but they thought the students could provide useful comparative information on those locations.

I taught the students some location theory and agreed to provide computer time for their work. Part of their project was to estimate how many patients would go to the hospital, depending on which site was chosen, where those patients would come from, and what their conditions might be expected to be. Thus the work of the students helped officials to estimate the effect of choice of site on utilization of the facility, and on the health of the city's population. Officials later told me that the information had been useful in the face of pressures based on other factors to chose a less medically useful site.

The example illustrates that real data (obtained from the patient records of existing hospitals) and well executed analysis count. One or more of the platforms for evaluations should enable the inclusion of real data and in depth analytic study of the current situation and future alternatives.

One of the things that the local officials asked them to add was information on the safety of nursing staff traveling to and from the hospital at night (for each site). The staff in question did not own cars, and traveled by bus; if the nearest bus stop were at some distance from the hospital and the streets poorly lit, the women would be in some danger on the trip. That would make recruitment and retention of nursing staff difficult, and hospitals need nurses.

Clearly, hospitals are justified as helping to deal with the medical needs of the population, and all the people involved in deciding where to put a new hospital will agree to that objective. But the safety of nursing staff and the ability to attract and retain nursing staff are also legitimate concerns. So too are costs. So too are the politics of satisficing the expressed demands of the electorate.

Thus there will still be a need in the health sector for managers to put together information from the various platforms in which people contribute to making health services better, taking into account the various objectives, to select a program to implement, and to lead in that implementation.

I suppose a similar argument could be made for most organizations.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Firms Supporting R&D by Country

Thanks to Calestous Juma for sharing this.

What Americans Don't Know May Hurt Us.

This talk was given in March 2008, but I fear that the situation has not improved. Americans may feel that they are interested in international news but we do not attend to the sources that would supply that news. The Internet makes The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and other newspapers from around the world available to most of us. The Economist magazine provides reasonable world coverage. With cable widely available, many of us can get Al Jazeera and BBC on television.

Americans Don't Seem to Trust Their Government Very Much

The article goes on to say that there is lack of confidence in the federal government's handling of both domestic and international problems. There is more trust in the judicial branch than in the executive, and least in the legislative branch of the federal government. There is more confidence in state government and most in local government in handling problems within their jurisdictions.

Trust in government has been low over the two decades shown in the graph. It increased in the Clinton administration, peaked in 2002 as the government organized a response to 9/11, and decreased thereafter going to a low value early in the Great Recession.

The legislative branch is producing less legislation these days than in previous decades. Perhaps that is reflected in the falling confidence levels. The massive use of negative advertising in election campaigns, and the rise of cable news networks that are often on the attack may also explain some of the fall in confidence in government.

The results shown in the publication shown don't disaggregate data by specific function. Perhaps there is more confidence in some functions than in others. For example, I have considerable confidence in NIH, CDC, and the statistical offices of government. I have less confidence in some other agencies.

Generally, people in rich countries think people can be moral without believing in God.

I quote from the report published by the Pew Research Center:
Many people around the world think it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, according to surveys in 39 countries by the Pew Research Center. However, this view is more common in poorer countries than in wealthier ones........ 
The U.S., however, stands out as a clear exception to this pattern. Americans are much more likely than their economic counterparts to say belief in God is essential to morality.
So what accounts for the differences in developed countries?
There are also significant divides within some countries based on age and education, particularly in Europe and North America. In general, individuals age 50 or older and those without a college education are more likely to link morality to religion. For example, in Greece, 62% of older adults say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, while just 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree. In the U.S., a majority of individuals without a college degree (59%) say faith is essential to be an upright person, while fewer than four-in-ten college graduates say the same (37%).
I offer the hypothesis that the U.S. is such an outlier among affluent countries. This is a country that has had a history of religious diversity, and since the founding of the USA there has been a separation of state and church. Thus churches have had to compete for members, churchgoers, and resources. They have successfully done so, so that there are more people in the USA who say that religion is important in their daily lives than in other affluent countries. I would suppose that people who so respond are more likely to feel that religion is the basis of morality.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

The Credibility of News Sources -- By Political Leaning

This chart shows the ideological placement of individual news outlets audiences. For example, ABC News’s audience, on average, is very close to the average survey respondent (the dashed vertical line). The New Yorker on the other hand is placed further to the left because its audience is, on average, more liberal.
Notice that relatively few sources are shown on the Conservative side of the graph, while most are on the liberal side.

The Poynter Institute, which seeks to improve journalism, provides this website listing some trusted sources from around the world.

  • Among newspapers it lists (in order) The New York Times, The Guardian, Politico, and The Washington Post. The audience for all four is primarily Liberal.
  • Only one online source identified by Poynter is shown on the Pew graph -- Huffington Post. It too has a Liberal audience.
  • For TV News, two of three Poynter sources are listed -- BBC and CNN; both have Liberal audiences.
  • One radio source, All Things Considered, is listed by Poynter, and it has a Liberal audience.
The audience for the majority of news sources shown on the graph is Liberal. The audience for all of the "trusted" sources from Poynter is Liberal. None of the sources with majority Conservative audiences in the Pew graph is a "trusted" source from Poynter.

Of course, my most important sources are on the left of the chart -- PBS, BBC, and The Economist. Still, it seems to me that the Liberals are likely to be better informed that Conservatives; they seem to use more sources and more credible sources for the news.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Bad News About the World's Nutritional Status

Source: The Economist
While GDP per person has gone up significantly worldwide, and the number of people living in absolute poverty has gone down appreciably, the number of undernourished has remained unacceptably high.

I quote from the Global Nutrition Report 2014 recently published by the International Food Policy Research Institute:
All countries in the world, bar two, that collect nutrition data experience one of the following forms of malnutrition: stunting, anemia, or adult overweight.,,,, 
Under existing assumptions, projections from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF show that the world is not on track to meet any of the six WHA nutrition targets. Globally, little progress is being made in decreasing rates for anemia, low birth weight, wasting in children under age five, and overweight in children under age five. Progress in increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates has been similarly lackluster. More progress has been made in reducing stunting rates in children under five, but not enough to meet the global target under current projections. 

The Obama Administration is managing immigration better than did earlier ones.

This chart from The Economist shows that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the USA increased from 1990 to the start of the Great Recession, and that in the last years of the Bush administration, some of those illegals went home. The Obama administration has kept the number relatively constant, in spite of the economic recovery.

The second chart shows that the Obama administration, implementing the laws, has deported more illegals than had previous administrations, deporting more each year than had the Bush administration in its last, most active year. That there has not been an increase in illegal residents is due in part to the deportations, but also to increased effectiveness of the efforts to prevent illegals from entering the country.

The recent executive order, quoting the Council of Economic Advisers via The Economist:
will boost GDP in the next decade by between 0.4% and 0.9%, mostly because of provisions unrelated to illegal immigration. These give foreign entrepreneurs more ways to get into America, allow the spouses of skilled visa-holders to work, and let foreign-born science graduates spend more time in America doing their training.
More needs to be done. The bill passed by the Senate last year but blocked by the House Republican leadership would be a good start. 

Monday, December 01, 2014

Kim Philby: A Spy Among Friends

I just read A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I previously posted some background for reading the book. There is a most interesting Afterword by John le CarrĂ©.

Kim Philby was perhaps the most famous double agent of the 20th century, working for Britain's MI6 while also a spy for the USSR. The book seeks to describe Philby and how he could successfully lead such a double life. It also seeks to understand MI6, the British counterpart to the CIA, and how Philby could survive successfully for so long without being caught out by British and/or American intelligence.

Philby was recruited by the Soviets in the early 1930s. He was one of the "Robber Barons", a group of young Englishmen recruited for British Intelligence at the beginning of World War 2. He was a rising star in MI6 when he was implicated in the successful escape to Moscow in 1951 of Burgess and MacLean, two Soviet spies who were British diplomats. His role in the "Cambridge Spy Ring" was not proven at that time, but he was forced to resign from MI6 in 1951 (apparently he also became inactive as a Soviet spy at that time). In 1956 he was reemployed by MI6 as an agent in Beirut, under cover of a foreign correspondent (and apparently was reactivated as a Soviet spy). By 1962 new evidence had developed further implicating Philby as a Soviet spy; he was interrogated and made a partial confession. He then fled to Moscow where he was well treated as a valued long term agent for the Soviets.

Who Was Kim Philby?

Part of Macintyre's answer is that Philby was a charter member of the English establishment, wealth, son of a distinguished and well connected father, educated at Westminster School (one of the posh public schools) and Cambridge University. He was tall and thin, handsome and apparently charming; he dressed well. He was sufficiently competent as a journalist to become a credible foreign correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, with the British Expeditionary Force before Dunkirk, later in France until its surrender to the Germans, and much later for The Observer and The Economist in the Middle East. He was sufficiently competent in his work for British intelligence to rise quickly in MI6, and was an exceptionally important agent for the USSR. He also drank to excess, sometimes disrupting dinner parties with drunken remarks and apparently later in life often drinking to the point of passing out.

Philby married a Communist woman in 1934. After they separated, he began began a long term relationship with another woman, one who was mentally ill, and they had five children together; they were not married until after the war, when he finally divorced his first wife. Later, when he had moved to Beirut, he had an affair with a colleague's wife; when his second wife died and his lover divorced her husband they were married -- his third marriage. After he defected to Russia, although his wife had joined him there, he had an affair with MacLean's wife. His third wife divorced him, and MacLean's wife left him. Finally he married a much younger woman and lived successfully with her in Moscow. He seems to have retained good relations with his children.

Author Macintyre also suggests that Philby had an exceptional capacity to get others to like and trust him, at least others who shared his social background. It seems credible that he in turn believed that many of the people he was in fact betraying were truly his friends.

How Could He So Fool British and American Intelligence Agencies?

There apparently was no real background check before he was recruited for the British government early in World War 2. His father was well known, he was of the right class, and it appeared that the people responsible for his entry could not conceive of his being a Soviet spy. Had they considered his early socialist leanings and his activities in the Great Depression, his marriage to a communist, and his work to extract communists from Nazi Germany before the war, they might have wondered. Indeed, he had also been associated with Nazi related organizations, and Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop had provided Philby with a letter of recommendation to Franco's Spanish government -- which might have made them wonder if he would be a Nazi double agent.

Clearly the British were desperately trying to expand the size and activities of their intelligence agencies during the war, adding both deception and sabotage to their charter. The failure to uncover Philby's past might have been simply due to a decision to put limited resources to other uses. The U.S. OSS was brand new and was seeking to learn the craft of intelligence from the British. OSS operatives were in no position to challenge Philby during the war.

After the war, Philby's history (described above), his drinking, and perhaps womanizing might have raised concerns. Certainly his association with Burgess (who lived in Philby's house in Washington) and MacLean did. The FBI and MI5 (roughly the British equivalent to the FBI) were very much concerned. However, MI6 was unable to make a convincing case against him in 1951, nor was the CIA. Macintyre suggests that the FBI and MI5 were staffed by more middle class officers, and that they did not have the upper class, club like atmosphere he feels characterized MI6 at the time, especially among the "Robber Barons" who had served through the war together and formed strong interpersonal bonds.

Macintyre suggests part of the explanation was the inability of Nicholas Elliot of MI6 and James Angleton of the CIA to believe Philby was a communist nor a Soviet spy. Both were personal friends of Philby; Elliot was English of the same social class and Angleton was educated in England and is depicted as an Anglophile. Both are depicted as having difficulty in believing someone apparently so like themselves could have such fundamentally different beliefs. or could behave in a way that they found so unimaginable for "one of themselves".

Macintyre suggests that in 1956 Elliot, then "a grandee" of MI6, was almost solely responsible for bringing Philby back into that organization. Perhaps the lack of checks and balances in the hiring process within MI6 was partly responsible, or perhaps the lack of need for the foreign intelligence services to clear recruitment of agents abroad with the domestic intelligence services.

Problems With Any Such Book

It is always difficult to reconstruct the past, and Ben Macintyre is a journalist rather than a professional historian. He perhaps lacks some of the tools of the professional, but even the most consummate historian would have difficulty with this topic. Angleton destroyed records of his interactions with Philby; MI6 will not release its Philby files; the Soviet files that have been released by the Russian Federation may not be fully trustworthy. The secrecy of the intelligence services suggests that there would be few contemporary useful public records to shed light on Philby and his career.

Macintyre was necessarily selective in what he wrote. As we look at succeeding generations of writers dealing with the same moment of history, we know that they choose different items to feature in their texts, supporting different points of interpretation and different purposes for their works.

Sometimes, in this book, Macintyre seeks to imagine what was going on in someone's mind that he should have behaved as he did at a given time; we think with our brains, and are not always fully aware of why the brain comes to the decisions it does. Even if Philby, Elliot, Angleton and others in the book were so aware at the time, they might later not recall correctly. Like all people, these people can not be assumed to be trying to tell the exact, unvarnished truth, but unlike most people, these are professional intelligence officers trained in deception; their memoirs are not to be fully believed. The author picks and chooses which stories to credit, which to reject, which to accept as modified, and he may be wrong.

What I Thought of the Book

Think of the times and places of Philby's life: a child in India during the British Raj, a boy in one of the great public schools of England between the wars, a student at Cambridge during the Depression, in love with a Jewish communist in Vienna in the 1930s helping political refugees escape from burgeoning Nazi persecution, infiltrating Nazi organizations in Europe before the war, covering the Spanish Civil war as a foreign correspondent, covering the British Expeditionary Forces in France before Dunkirk, covering France in the last days before surrender to Germany, running spies in Spain and Portugal during World War II, playing the double game in Istanbul in the late 1940s, spying in the heady social atmosphere of diplomatic Washington (1949-51), living in Beirut and covering the Middle East as a double agent and foreign correspondent in the late 50s and early 60s, and even as an honored former spy in Moscow through the later years of the Soviet Union. Author Macintyre was not trying to portray these fascinating places, times and activities, but I could not help trying to imagine them.

It was interesting to read about what Philby was known to have done; indeed it is interesting to know that a person actually lived such a life and did such things. However, I doubt that it is possible to really understand him and to really understand why he did what he did. Was he a committed ideologue, a man who could completely compartmentalize his life and not worry about the ways in which one part would destroy another, an adrenalin junkie, a sociopath, some combination of those, or something different again? I don't know, but I don't expect that to be knowable and am willing to live without that knowledge.

Why was Philby not caught? I tend to assume incompetence or an overloaded bureaucracy letting something important "slip by". Perhaps Macintyre is right that the culture of Philby's stratus of English society (that was running MI6) was responsible for his success. Macintyre also suggests that the Robber Baron's who fought the spy war for Britain and the USA during the war had a comradery that required them to "guard each other's backs"; it seems intuitive that such a loyalty might have existed and would have made it very difficult for Elliot and Angleton to believe in Philby's treachery or to vigorously prosecute him. Whatever the reason that he got away with spying for the Soviets for so long, I suspect that the conditions in the intelligence agencies are much different now. (Intelligence now seems much more a matter of technology, agencies much more established bureaucracies with a far more complex structure, staffed by professionals with a wide variety of skills and backgrounds, with much more developed systems for vetting staff and guarding against penetration.)

The bottom line is that A Spy Among Friends is an interesting book, a page turner, that made me wonder and think about espionage, the diversity of human experience, and interesting times and places! I enjoyed the book!