Wednesday, December 30, 2015

William Butter Yeats was influenced by a poem by Blind Raftery to buy and restore Thoor Ballylee



Antoine Ó Raifteirí (perhaps better known as Blind Raftery) is an ancestor of mine, and a rather famous poet (1779–1835). He was blind as a result of having smallpox as a child. Consequently he did not write his poems or songs but committed them to memory. Moreover, he composed in Irish and there was no interest in publishing the work of an Irish minstral in Irish during his lifetime. Fortunately, others did capture his songs and poems on paper (at least some times) and some survived in the memories of other for decades. during the revival of Irish culture that took place a century after he lived, Douglas Hyde (Songs Ascribed to Raftery), Lady Gregory (Lady Gregory: Selected Writings)  and William Butler Yeats hunted through the west of Ireland, discovering Raftery's songs and poems.
Thoor Ballylee

While Yeats is probably the more famous in the USA today, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Douglas Hyde was the first President of the Irish Free State. Lady Gregory was I suppose much more famous in her time than she is now, having published a number of books bringing the history of the Irish people to the attention of the Irish themselves. Yeats and Lady Gregory formed a long lasting literary partnership and friendship. Indeed, he bought a property, Thoor Ballylee (#4 on the map), just northeast of the town of Gort.  Lady Gregory's home Coole Park is even closer to Gort, on the lake and just north west of Gort (#2 on the map) -- one could walk between the two. Clearly, proximity to his friend and colleague was important in the choice of location for Yeats' home in his later years  Yet Lady Gregory had established Coole Park as a center for the intellectual elite and that too might have been important.

Lady Augusta Gregory

Under Gregory’s watchful eye Coole House had become a centre for literary and political gatherings, welcoming a great number of notable figures of the day, including William Butler Yeats, his brother the painter Jack Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Millington Synge, George Russell (A.E.), and the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. Together with Edward Martyn, who lived down the road at Tulira Castle, Yeats and Gregory founded the Irish Literary Theatre, soon to become the Abbey Theatre. Yeats described the tower and surrounding landscape in his book The Celtic Twilight (1893), which featured local stories about the area and a poem by Antoine O Raifteiri (known to Yeats as Raftery, the poem translated by Lady Gregory) concerning his love for a local beauty named Mary Hynes.
Source: The Lady Gregory Yeats Heritage Trail

Phoroggaph of William Butler Yeats
 by Alice Broughton. Platinum print.
It also seems that the link of Blind Raftery, Mary Hynes and Thoor Ballylee may have been important in Yeats' choice of a home he would buy: from 1921 to 1929, Yeats with his family spent many summers there.

In his poem Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931 he wrote:
Under my window-ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven's face
Then darkening through 'dark' Raftery's 'cellar' drop,
Run underground, rise in a rocky place
In Coole demesne, and there to finish up
Spread to a lake and drop into a hole.
What's water but the generated soul? 
And in The Winding Stair. Yeats wrote:
I am content to live it all again And yet again, if it be life to pitch Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch, A blind man battering blind men; Or into that most fecund ditch of all, The folly that man does Or must suffer, if he woos A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
Raftery's Mary Hynes 
James Stephens published a book of his versions of some of Raftery's poems in the 1920s.  (Reincarnations by James Stephens (1882–1950).  His text for three poems that combine into the choral piece by Samuel Barber, Reincarnations.
Mary Hynes 
She is the sky of the sun,
   She is the dart
      Of love,
She is the love of my heart,
She is a rune,
      She is above
The women of the race of Eve
As the sun is above the moon. 
Lovely and airy the view from the hill
   That looks down Ballylea;
But no good sight is good until
   By great good luck you see
The Blossom of the Branches walking towards you
   Airily.
Anthony O’Daly
Since your limbs were laid out
   The stars do not shine,
The fish leap not out
   In the waves.
On our meadows the dew
   Does not fall in the morn,
For O’Daly is dead:
   Not a flower can be born,
Not a word can be said,
   Not a tree have a leaf;
Anthony, after you
   There is nothing to do,
There is nothing but grief.
And:
The Coolin 

Come with me, under my coat,
   And we will drink our fill
Of the milk of the white goat,
   Or wine if it be thy will;
   And we will talk until
Talk is a trouble, too,
   Out on the side of the hill,
And nothing is left to do,
   But an eye to look into an eye
And a hand in a hand to slip,
   And a sigh to answer a sigh,
And a lip to find out a lip:
   What if the night be black
And the air on the mountain chill,
   Where the goat lies down in her track
   And all but the fern is still!
   Stay with me, under my coat,
And we will drink our fill
   Of the milk of the white goat
Out on the side of the hill.
And here is Reincarnations (Samuel Barber) sung by the Cardinal Singers


T
The interest of so many distinguished Irish intellectuals has generated modern events:
A drawing believed to be of Raftery 

An annual festival, Féile Raiftéirí, is held in Loughrea, Co. Galway each year on the last weekend in March. Raftery spent most of his later years in townlands close to the town. The festival features a contemporary Irish language poet and promotes the native arts of Ireland. The festival ends with a visit to Raiftéirí grave in neighbouring Craughwell.
Ó Raifteirí died at the house of Diarmuid Cloonan of Killeeneen, near Craughwell, County Galway, and was buried in nearby Killeeneen Cemetery. In 1900, Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and W.B. Yeats erected a memorial stone over his grave, bearing the inscription "RAFTERY". A statue of him stands in the village green, Craughwell, opposite Cawley's pub. (Source)
Kiltmagh granate memorial
Kiltimagh (where Raftery was born) town square features a granite memorial in honour of Anthony Raftery erected in 1985, in that same year Kiltimagh twinned with Craughwell, the final resting place of the blind Gaelic poet. (Source)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Group of Scientists sign declaration that animals share the same awareness with humans



I quote from the source atricle:
Recently an international group of prominent scientists have signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. This declaration proclaims their support for the idea that animals are conscious and aware to the degree that humans are. The list of animals includes all mammals, birds, and even the octopus. 
The group consisted of cognitive scientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists, and computational neuroscientists. They were all attending the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and Non-Human Animals. The declaration was signed in the presence of Stephen Hawking, and included such signatories as Christof Koch, David Edelman, Edward Boyden, Philip Low, Irene Pepperberg, and many others.
Scientists have been imposing more and stronger rules on themselves for decades as to how animals must be treated in scientific research. There are different rules for primates, farm animals, laboratory animals, and wild animals.

Once the strength of many drugs actually compounded in local pharmacies were measured in "cat units". A cat unit was the volume of a tincture just sufficient to kill an adult cat. That meant that the local drug store owner that was labeling a new batch of the medicine had to test it on cats until he found the does that just killed a cat and a lower dosage (which of course made the cat quite sick) did not kill it.  The local pharmacist had a back room with a lot of cats in cages -- there were few stray cats on the streets.

Why cats you might ask. The answer is apparently that "killing dogs got people upset".

There were actually thousands of scientific papers written using "cat units" to describe the act of natural products such as digitalis on animals and humans.

This clearly is leading to a further advance.

A major problem in running an international research program is in assuring the ethical treatment of animals involved in the research. One issue is that different countries have different laws. Another is that the Western sensibility about animal suffering -- which is evolving as it has done for decades and indeed centuries -- is not exactly equivalent to that in other cultures.

I know. as I dealt with the ethics of treatment of animals in international scientific research as an important part of my job from 1981 to 1997.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Apparently most people don't understand compound interest



'Percentage of people who understand the concept of compound interest in various countries, with the differences in understanding by gender determined by how dark the circle is. Notably, majority Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen have some of the lowest rates of understanding, presumably because Sharia Law prohibits the charging of interest." The Stuyvesant Square Consultancy

Friday, November 27, 2015

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

D.C. court considers how to screen out ‘bad science’ in local trials


There is an interesting article in today's Washington Post titled "D.C. court considers how to screen out ‘bad science’ in local trials".Having managed "peer reviews" of science project proposals for nearly two decades, I have come to the conclusion that this is not an easy thing to do, and even if you have been doing it for some time, you may still get it wrong from time to time;

Fortunately, DC has access to the National Acamey of Science, NIH, NSF. and other organizations with lots of experience doing this, and can delegate the work.

One thing I found useful was developing a data base on how often each expert agreed with other experts. I discovered when I first tried this that expert judgments in that field, which we often taken as 100 percent correct, actually agreed on the final recommendation no more that 90 percent of the time.

In one situation in which the same group of "experts" repeatedly judged similar objects, one of the "expert's" reviews was negatively correlated with all the others. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Friday, November 20, 2015

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Power of Behaving as if you Don't Know!



The Washington Post on Sunday ran a review of the book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing  by Jamie Holmes.

Let me first quote from the Amazon,com description of the book:
Managing ambiguity—in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives—is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don’t know where to begin.

As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We’re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can’t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.

In other words, confusion—that uncomfortable mental place—has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way. 
Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories—from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka’s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs—Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions.

In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.
Now from the review:
Rationality, mind you, is more than pure logic. It employs a heavy dose of meta-cognition: thinking about how your mind works and the errors it tends to make. It’s more psychology than mathematics and thus helps solve interpersonal disputes (what assumptions am I making about this guy?) as astutely as it does scientific conundrums (what other explanations fit these findings?). One key element of rationality is knowing how much you don’t know and how much more you ought to know before drawing a conclusion. A new book focuses on those gaps in our knowledge and the power therein....... 
The first type of lesson addresses when to induce uncertainty. For instance, ambiguity is good when seeking creative insight. One method for straying into the wild is what the researcher Tony McCaffrey calls the “generic parts technique.” Looking at a set of ingredients, we tend to fixate on their intended function: A candle is for creating light. Instead, list all components with no assumptions about their purpose, and you might find, say, that the string in a candle can tie two objects together. This technique is how Alexander Graham Bell came to see the telegraph as a tool that could transmit voices. 
You might also encourage uncertainty after getting feedback — win or lose. Failure typically does that for us, as it upsets our expectations of what works. But sometimes we don’t win for the reasons we think, so if you want to extend the streak, a debriefing is de rigueur. Query what you think you know. Holmes illustrates this principle with a Ducati motorcycle racing team that rested on its laurels and tumbled off the podium, so to speak. Pixar, on the other hand, makes a habit of deconstructing even its blockbusters.
Thinking back on my own experience, here are some examples:

  • We worked for a year or more in a pattern recognition project trying to properly classify patterns in data based on a human-classified sample of the patternsprovided to us. We could not get better than 90 percent. It occurred to me facing that failure that we had assumed that the sample of patterns provided to us was correctly classified. We went back and checked, and it turned out the the people who did the original classifications only agreed with each other bout 90 percent of the time. The insight that people make mistakes served me well in several future pattern recognition studies, as well as in the analysis of peer review results.
In a number of examples, studying the assumptions made by others, I wondered.

  •  In one case, towards the end of a scheduled presentation, I (a lowly graduate student) dared to ask a visiting lecturer at my university to explain the assumption he had started out with because it did not seem to hold up. He looked at it for a time and then got very angry at me. Seemed he didn't think it could be right after reconsidering it, and that the argument that followed therefore could not be defended -- why had I let he go on wasting the time of his distinguished audience? 
  • In another case, looking at a failed attempt to prove that a proposed solution mechanism to a class of numerical problems was algorithmic (e.g. guaranteed to succeed), I noticed that one feature of the method had not been incorporated in the attempted solution. Again. questioning the author, we agreed that it might be useful to incorporate the feature. I went home and after several days was able to show that the procedure was indeed guaranteed to succeed. I went back to the seminar and presented my logic. Some weeks later, the original presenter published a better proof than mine in a peer reviewed journal.
  • In a third case, one day at lunch a friend and colleague showed me that he had developed a computer program to determine the properties of a reverse osmosis screen from some of the characteristics of its manufacture, and that the program went on to predict the costs of using the screen in a practical water purification scheme. I asked him why he had not gone further and embedded the program in a larger program to optimize costs over the set of characteristics that he was using. A few minutes and some notes on the back of an envelop, he went off happy to revise his program. Five publications followed in quick succession, one in the journal Desalinization. My friend extended friendship beyond courtesy to include me as coauthor in all five, although he had done 99.9% of the work.
I could go on, but I suspect that Nonsense is an important book. Often it is useful to create what my friend Julianne calls "a hard problem" -- one which is poorly defined -- from a more straight forward problem in order to rethink framing and assumptions, thus leading to a better solution to the real underlying problem/

Monday, November 16, 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

So true



Your opinion is certainly no better than your data, and if you are not a good, careful analyst, probably not as good as your date. Politicians and voters take not!

Monday, November 09, 2015

Diplomats Earn Their Pay Serving the People of their Countries






Next time someone complains that government employees don't earn their pay,  think of these videos.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Advanced S&T Projects from USAID


Some years ago I wrote an article for the USAID Impact Blog, (Unfortunately, the article was labeled "50th Anniversary: The Program of Scientific and Technological Cooperation" and published on its 30th anniversary.) Still, I think the piece is still useful as a history of a U.S. initiative in science and technology. You will find it here: https://blog.usaid.gov/2011/01/50th-anniversary-the-program-of-scientific-and-technological-cooperation/

In 2007, an article was published in IIP Digital about the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program. That program was also managed by my office, and the article draws heavily on the information and comments provided by David O'Brien, who now manages MERC.  You will find the article here: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/article/2007/10/20071018111900lcnirellep0.2568476.html#axzz3qvJlop9i

Sammy El-Shall discusses nanotechnology, and specifically a nanotechnology project in which his is involved under the MERC program in a transcript published on the State Department website. You will find it here: http://m.state.gov/md212167.htm

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Dublin You Are




The Dublin You Are project came about in a collaborative manner between a number of Dublin-based artists, Dublin2020 and the people of Dublin. The video is based around the words of poet Stephen James Smith, which capture the good and the bad of Dublin, the successes and the failures, the community and the divide – in essence, it reflects much of the ideas that came from the conversations and workshops Dublin2020 had with people all over Dublin over the past year. The team has created a visual representation of what Dublin is today, a fair portrayal of city’s grim and glory, where the visuals complement the written narrative. #DublinYouAre #Dublin2020 About Dublin2020 Dublin is in competition to become European Capital of Culture in 2020. Dublin2020 is Dublin’s campaign to make sure our city wins. If we win, we have a chance to make real change for our city and its people. We can’t do this alone, to make sure Dublin moves forward to the next round in the competition, we need to spread the word, get involved and join in the conversation. If you are part of Dublin you are part of Dublin2020. DublinYouAre is presented by Dublin2020 in association with: Stephen James Smith: http://stephenjamessmith.com/ Wissame Cherfi: www.wissamecherfi.com Aoife Dooley: http://www.aoifedooleydesign.com/ Aidan Kelly: www.aidan-kelly.com Derek Kennedy: http://www.dublindaily.ie/ Music by Kim V Porcelli: kimvporcelli.bandcamp.com

Stories for those who don't want Hispanic immigrants


Colombia

I was one of three World Health Organization staffers assigned to a research project in Colombia. Several Colombians were also assigned to the project, all with strong professional qualifications. Our closest Colombian colleague was a physician who spoke fluent English as well as Spanish, and had a post doctoral degree from the Johns Hopkins University school of public health; he was assigned to our project by an internationally respected Colombian university.

He and his wife, a nurse. were suffering a real tragedy in the illness of their son. The child was in the hospital every month it seemed, and required a lot of attention, If his parents were not both trained medical practitioners I don't know how they could have managed. But our colleague never complained, never failed to show up on time and work a full day, and was a always a professional participant in every activity. (The boy died at age 5, about a year after the events described in the following paragraphs.

The project offices were provided by a Colombian university on campus. At the time I am writing about, the students were on strike, holding open air meetings on campus. The campus was surrounded not by police, but by tough mountain troops brought in by the federal government. They were heavily armed.

On the morning in question, three of us were in the project offices: another WHO project member and I and the Colombian colleague described above. I as the senior of the three decided that we were not safe, and should lock up and leave. As we did so we had to walk past a mob of hundreds of demonstrating students to reach the end of the campus and a line of troops (who were apparently there to keep the student demonstration contained with the campus).

A large number of the students rushed our small party. Our Colombian physician, without hesitation, put himself between the mob of students and we WHO staffers, protecting us with his body and with his voice, explaining we were an international research team affiliated with WHO and should not be harmed. We got out safely!

Were we in danger. A couple of things suggest we might have been. The International Edition of the Herald Tribune the next day published a story that we had been beaten up by the mob. That next day, the situation exploded. 14 people were killed on campus, one a few yards from our (then empty) offices. An estimated 25,000 people were arrested that day, a number far exceeding the jail capacity in our city; prisoners were placed under guard in the sports stadium.

Were we saved by our Colombian colleague? I don't know, but I think the important thing is that this man with all his responsibility did not think twice before getting in the way of what he believed to be serious danger in order to protect two foreign colleagues that he had know for less than a year.

Dominican Republic


I had the great good fortune to work for some time with a Public Health physician in the DR; he had spent time in jail under sentence of death. As he explained to me, in medical school he and some fellow student were talking in their dormitory rooms about Rafael Trujilo. Trujillo was dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than three decades. The students agreed among themselves that the only way his rule was likely to end was assassination. Trujillo had a very effective secret police, and discovered "the plot", had the students arrested and condemned to death.

There was a worldwide outcry at the injustice and letters poured in from around the world written by health workers, scientists and human rights advocates. Eventually the sentences were reduced. After Trujillo's death, the students were released, and my colleague returned to medical school, became a physician, went on to specialize in public health, and was teaching health administration and health planning in the medical school in Santo Domingo, the capitol. He too spoke fluent English as well as Spanish (and for all I know, other languages).

I worked with him for a year to do an assessment of the health conditions, health services and health resources in his country. He led a Dominican team, and I brought in experts to provide assistance in areas where such assistance appeared to be needed. On the basis of this assessment, the USAID mission in the Dominican Republic developed, in conjunction with Dominican authorities, a health sector loan; it focused on developing an rural health system aimed at reducing infant and child mortality. The assessment had recognized that the rural families faced very high child mortality, that there were few resources to pay for medical services in the rural area, but that by focusing on appropriate public health interventions, a lot could be done at low cost. Importantly, the assessment recognized that in the 19th century had successfully provided services in the rural areas with army medics rather than doctors -- thus there was a proven domestic model for such a service.  My colleague also held a number of meetings with groups in the DR who had opposed such delegated medical services for the poor in the past, explaining that the new system would not only meet their objections, while saving lives, but would in some cases serve their economic interests better than the existing do nothing process. They achieved adequate Dominican support to make the new rural health system feasible.

Amazingly, just before the loan came through, my colleague was appointed Minister of Health of the Dominican Republic. He not only had an idea of what he wanted to do, but had a plan for how to do it, and new money to implement the plan. He even had a small team who understood what had to be done and how to do is, for he took key members of his assessment teams to the Ministry with him,

Something over five years later he showed up in my office in Washington unannounced. He had made the trip to the USA specifically to tell me what he had been able to do as Minister to implement the plans. In those five years, infant and child mortality in the rural areas of the Dominican Republic had been cut in half. Thousands of lives had been saved, This had been accomplished by an efficient service based on delegated functions to health promoters and auxiliary health service providers. I can only imagine the obstacles he must have overcome to make that rural health service a reality.

How many of us can ever claim such a success, yet this man did so after being condemned to death and held in jail in the country he eventually served so well.

Panama

Hugo Spadafora was a Panamanian doctor and public health official. My office carried out a health sector assessment in Panama, and he was the man chosen to lead the Panamanian team; a long time friend and close colleague led the U.S. funded team of consultants. I was kept abreast of the work of the joint team, and got to visit Panama and meet Dr. Spadafora.

Thus was the Panama ruled by Omar Torrijos, the dictator from 1968 to 1981 (to be replaced by Manuel Noriega, dictator from 1983 to 1989). According to Wikipedia:
Originally a critic of the military regime headed by Omar Torrijos, he (Spadaforo) served as its Vice-Minister of Health. 
Spadafaro was completely dedicated to the welfare of the people and this was risky in Panama. Indeed,:
Concerned about the increased Soviet and Cuban influence in the Sandinista regime of Nicaragua and the delay of free elections, Spadafora joined the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS) alongside Edén Pastora ("Comandante Zero"), hero of the August 1978 seizure of Somoza's palace. 
Wikipedia states:
Torrijos died in a plane accident on July 31, 1981. Colonel Roberto Díaz Herrera, a former associate of Noriega, claimed that the actual cause for the accident was a bomb and that Noriega was behind the incident.
Wikipedia goes on to report:
About this time (1984), Hugo Spadafora, a vocal critic of Noriega who had been living abroad, accused Noriega of having connections to drug trafficking and announced his intent to return to Panama to oppose him. He was seized from a bus by a death squad at the Costa Rican border. Later, his decapitated body was found, showing signs of extreme torture, wrapped in a United States Postal Service mailing bag. His family and other groups called for an investigation into his murder, but Noriega stonewalled any attempts at an investigation. Noriega was in Paris at the time of the murder, which was alleged by some to have been at the direction of his Chiriquí Province commander, Luis Córdoba. A conversation captured on wiretap between Noriega (in Paris) and Córdoba included the exchange: 
Córdoba: "We have the rabid dog."
Noriega: "And what does one do with a dog that has rabies?"
President Barletta was visiting New York City at the time. A reporter asked him about the Spadafora matter, and he promised an investigation. Upon his return to Panama, he was summoned to FDP headquarters and told to resign. He was replaced by First Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle. As a friend and former student of George Shultz, Barletta had been considered "sacrosanct" by the United States, and his dismissal signaled a marked downturn in the relations between the U.S. and Noriega. Herrera, a former member of Noriega's inner circle, told Panama's main opposition newspaper, La Prensa, that Noriega was behind Spadafora's murder, and many other killings and disappearances as well. This resulted in an immediate outcry from the public.
How Proud We Should Have Been Had These Men Chosen to Immigrate to the USA!

These three men were highly cultured, highly educated, who had achieved positions of trust and responsibility in their own countries. One put his safety on the line to assure mine, one served in prison under a death sentence imposed by its dictator, and one was actually tortured and beheaded. All were devoted public health physicians, who took risks of contracting serious diseases every day for years. All faced unsympathetic governments to help their people, All had taken the trouble to learn English as a second language. I would have been proud to sponsor any of these three for citizenship if asked. Each would raise the quality of our people by joining us.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Latest Threat to U.S, Government's funding of science


I quote the opening of an article from SFGate:
If Congress has its way, the next round of grants by the National Science Foundation, a hallmark of government funding for graduate students and scientists, will no longer be based on scientific merit. Proposals will not be reviewed by panels of preeminent scholars across the United States, as they have been for more than a half-century. Instead, they would all be “in the national interest,” with strict new rules adopted earlier this month by a Republican House committee. 
More, the foundation would be stripped of its control of its $7.3 billion budget. Congress has told the foundation exactly how much money to allocate to specified areas of research. Funding in social sciences and economics, for example, would be cut in half to $150 million. Climate-change studies, including crucial research in the Arctic, would be cut 8 to 12 percent. And, despite House claims that the U.S. must beef up its science, technology, engineering and math education workforce, the foundation education budget stands to be cut by 10 percent.
This is a very bad idea!

See my recent post on  Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee.

The Martian | International Official Trailer 2


Happy Halloween



Friday, October 30, 2015

Cat Blues - Christelle Berthon

Where are the terrorists? Oh, they ae lumped in the small circles on the upper right.


Source: Business Insider
Most people have a wildly distorted idea of the risks that they are running, How did you do?

Shapes are right, size reflects amount of US aid.



From Chris Blattman via William Easterly

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Deescalation is a three legged stool; Don't put all the blame on the cops.




I just heard a discussion on the radio of the need to train police officers assigned to schools in deescalation techniques to help them avoid unnecessary violence in the schools. Sounds like a partial solution to me, but a necessary step. One way to deescalate is for the officer to recognize things that are not police matters, and refrain from stepping in. (If all you have is a hammer, pretty much every problem looks like a nail. If you are a police officer, are you not likely to see situations as requiring policing, even if they really do not?)

Are there not at least three people involved in each such incident -- the police officer, the student, and the teacher. Should teachers not also share in the blame for such incidents, and should they not receive training as to when to handle situations themselves, deescalating student behavior, and if necessary calling on the appropriate school official for backup rather than an inappropriate police officer?

What about parents? Should they not teach kids not to act up in school, not to anger teachers, and especially not to anger police officers? Parents in fact regularly teach kids to avoid problems and to deescalate situations before they become dangerous. Schools can also provide this training for kids, which may help them more in life than some of the lessons actually taught in school.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Lamar Smith, Chair person of the House Science Committee

Rep. Lamar Smith
Chair of the House Science Committee
Alfred E, Newman
Mad Magazine
You can easily tell the two apart, since Rep. Smith wears glasses and parts his hair on the left.

You should read "The House science committee is worse than the Benghazi committee". The article says that the NSF budget is some $7 billion per year. and that Chairman Smith has asked for complete information on 20 NSF grants with a total value of $26 million; the projects date back to 2005. If my arithmetic is right, the total budget for NSF in a decade (2005 to 2014) would be $70 billion, and the $26 million of projects that interest Rep. Lamar Smith would represent 0.0037 percent of the NSF budget over the period. The article reports:
Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade. Each folder contained confidential information that included the initial application, reviewer comments on its merit, correspondence between program officers and principal investigators, and any other information that had helped NSF decide to fund the project.
The article also states:
This year, Smith was one of the committee chairs granted sweeping new subpoena powers by his fellow House Republicans, what one staffer called "exporting the Issa model." No longer is the chair required to consult with the ranking member before launching investigations or issuing subpoenas.......No chair has taken to his new role with as much enthusiasm as Smith.
The article also cites a letter from the ranking member on the Science Committee, including the following:
In the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54 year history of the Committee. 

Rep. Smith apparently was not on the Science Committee before being appointed to be its chair. He is a member of the Tea Party Caucus.
Smith is skeptical of global warming. Under his leadership, the House Science committee has held hearings that feature the views of skeptics, subpoenaed the records and communications of scientists who published papers that Smith disapproved of, and attempted to cut NASA's earth sciences budget.
And:
Smith has consistently supported restrictions on abortion. In 2009, Smith voted to prohibit federally funded abortions. In 2006, Smith voted for the Abortion Pain Bill, which would “ensure that women seeking an abortion are fully informed regarding the pain experienced by their unborn child”, and the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, which would “prohibit taking minors across State lines in circumvention of laws requiring the involvement of parents in abortion decisions”.
He graduated from T.M.I.: The Episcopal School of Texas (1965), Yale University (1969), and Southern Methodist University Law School (1975). He is a a Christian Scientist. In 1992, he married Elizabeth Lynn Schaefer, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher, as was his first wife, Jane Shoultz, before her death in 1991.

I don't see anything in that background that prepares him to lead legislation on science.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

If true, this may be really, really bad news!



"(W)hile there may not yet be any scientific consensus on the matter, at least some scientists suspect that the cooling seen in these maps is no fluke but, rather, part of a process that has been long feared by climate researchers — the slowing of Atlantic Ocean circulation."

Read more at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/09/24/why-some-scientists-are-worried-about-a-cold-blob-in-the-north-atlantic-ocean/

'Tree of life' for 2.3 million species released



"A first draft of the "tree of life" for the roughly 2.3 million named species of animals, plants, fungi and microbes—from platypuses to puffballs—has been released.

"A collaborative effort among eleven institutions, the tree depicts the relationships among living things as they diverged from one another over time, tracing back to the beginning of life on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago.

"Tens of thousands of smaller  have been published over the years for select branches of the tree of life—some containing upwards of 100,000 species—but this is the first time those results have been combined into a single tree that encompasses all of life. The end result is a digital resource that available free online for anyone to use or edit, much like a "Wikipedia" for evolutionary trees."
You don't need a complete census of species and complete tree with all the millions of species represented to get a pretty good idea of what the complete tree will  look like."



Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2015-09-tree-life-million-species.html#jCp

Joseph Stiglitz: Income Inequality and American Democracy


Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is known for his incisive, often controversial, diagnoses of global economic problems. His latest work, The Great Divide, argues that inequality is the greatest threat facing America today, undermining all systems in our country, including our democracy itself. In this talk  Published on May 14, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lynn Hollyfield - I Never Thought I'd Fear the Wind




Singing locally at Baldwin Station Thursday, December 17th.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ah-ha! moments



The myth is that Isaac Newton had an ah-ha moment when he watched an apple fall to earth and thought that it must be the same force between apple and the planet earth that made the apple fall and that between the sun and the planets that made the planets revolve around the sun.

The ouroboros, Kekulė's inspiration
for the structure of benzene.
Friedrich August Kekulé is famously supposed to have had an ah-ha moment when he realized the structure of the benzene ring:
Kekulé spoke of the creation of the theory. He said that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail (this is an ancient symbol known as the ouroboros).[10] This vision, he said, came to him after years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds.
I have had a few, much less important ah-ha! moments of my own.

Years ago my colleagues and I were trying to develop an automatic pattern recognition system. We were using digital images of human classified pictures, and were stuck at about 90% accuracy. My ah-ha! moment came when I wondered if the people doing the classification were always right. Turned out that they agreed with each other about 90% of the time.

Another time I was in a graduate seminar and a fellow member presented his computer routine for solving the maximum flow in a network. He had tried to prove that it was an algorithm -- that it always got the right answer  -- without success. It occurred to me that his routine always searched for the shortest path from start to finish in the network that was not already carrying its maximum flow, and maximized that flow. However, he had not used that fact attempting to prove the routine was algorithmic. I did, and presented the result to the seminar. The original author of the routine, now convinced he was right, produced and published an elegant proof.

A third time a friend and colleague showed me a computer routine he had developed to predict the performance of a reverse osmosis membrane. Ah-ha! I knew about Newton's method for optimization of a function, and told my friend that he could use his computer model and Newton's method to optimize the performance of a reverse osmosis system against the independent variables he used for his model. He was nice enough to credit me as coauthor of five publications he wrote using the method.

I don't have a mind's eye; I think in words, and am strong on logical inference. Those are the mental tools that resulted in my ah-ha! moments. Kekulé almost surely was using his mind's eye to visualize the snake becoming an oureboros. Who knows how Newton's mind worked -- he was such a genius. In my post yesterday I wrote about different ways that mental representations can be formed, assuming that different ones are available to different people. It may be important to develop the ability to use a mental representation matched to the kind of thinking one wishes to do. Thus, a chef might work to perfect her mental taster, while a playwright or author might focus on her mind's ear.

The ah-ha! moments people experience come from thinking. Sometimes that thinking is done consciously, and sometimes the conscious thinking is done using the mind's eye or other mental representations tied to sensory data (and benefited by memory of sense data received in the past. Sometimes the ah-ha! moment comes from unconscious thinking. I well remember walking around for days at work with the feeling that I was on the right track to understanding something -- a sense that arose no doubt from thinking of which I was not conscious. Sometimes it comes from specific thought experiments.

I was fortunate enough at one point in school to take a course in analog computers. Today I suppose they are seldom if ever used, and instead we simply use computer packages to simulate the equations describing the system we want to simulate on a digital computer. In the old days, however, people used physical analogs that had been manipulated so that their functions could be described by the same equations that describe a real physical system of interest. Still today, people build and use simulation models to better understand real systems. Perhaps simulation modelling is the next step to virtual modelling within the conscious mind of systems of interest.

Monday, October 12, 2015

How an Analysis is Framed can Determine the Conclusion Drawn -- Even from a Common Data Set


I quote from an article in The Economist:
Do dark-skinned footballers get given red cards more often than light-skinned ones?....Raphael Silberzahn of IESE, a Spanish business school, and Eric Uhlmann of INSEAD, an international one.... illustrate in this week’s Nature, it is not (an easy question to answer). 
The answer depends on whom you ask, the way the analysts frame the problem, and the methods they use.
Dr Silberzahn and Dr Uhlmann sought their answers from 29 research teams. They gave their volunteers the same wodge of data (covering 2,000 male footballers for a single season in the top divisions of the leagues of England, France, Germany and Spain) and waited to see what would come back. 
The consensus was that dark-skinned players were about 1.3 times more likely to be sent off than were their light-skinned confrères. But there was a lot of variation. Nine of the research teams found no significant relationship between a player’s skin colour and the likelihood of his receiving a red card. Of the 20 that did find a difference, two groups reported that dark-skinned players were less, rather than more, likely to receive red cards than their paler counterparts (only 89% as likely, to be precise). At the other extreme, another group claimed that dark-skinned players were nearly three times as likely to be sent off......
Their 29 volunteer teams used a variety of statistical models (“everything from Bayesian clustering to logistic regression and linear modelling”, since you ask) and made different decisions about which variables within the data set were deemed relevant. (Should a player’s playing position on the field be taken into account? Or the country he was playing in?) It was these decisions, the authors reckon, that explain why different teams came up with different results.
The article concludes that "when important questions are being considered—when science is informing government decisions, for instance—asking several different researchers to do the analysis, and then comparing their results, is probably a good idea."


Joan Baez & Mercedes Sosa "Gracias A La Vida"




Singing a song by Violeta Parra, from Chile! You should know about Argentinian Mercedes Sosa if you do not already know her records.

Irish History in 6 Minutes



What Some People Can Do With Their Minds' Eyes, Ears, et cetera


Seeing

Oliver Sacks, in his book The Mind's Eye, describes coming home as a child with a model of the skeleton of a small animal. His mother, a surgeon and scientific illustrator, took the model and peered at it for quite a while. She then gave it back to him and got our her drawing paper and instruments. She produced a fine drawing of the model. She then thought for a bit, took another piece of drawing paper and made another drawing of the model. this time rotated 30 degrees. She did this again and again until she had made another drawing of the model in the same position as the first drawing. She then compared the two drawing to prove that they were identical.

Neither Oliver Sacks nor I could really understand what she did nor how she did it. Neither of us has a Mind's Eye; neither of us thinks in pictures. We are among a small minority of men who have a condition called aphantasia. However, I suspect that few people have developed such a capacity manipulate visual images, and thus most people would be amazed at Sacks' mother's performance.

Sculptors

I knew a wood carver in Colombia named Juan de la Cruz Saavedra. He was a simple man. He had begun adult life cutting cane -- a really hard job. He made an occasional wood carving at that time in his live. and someone who saw hes collection told him he could go into the city where people would buy such things. So he tried, and was amazed to find that it was true, and that people bought his wood carvings. He was even more amazed when a gun named Pablo Picasso saw some of his carvings and arranged for a gallery in Paris to exhibit and sell them.

In chatting with Juan I discovered that he saw the figure he wanted to make in piece of wood. and would cut away the excess to make the figure visible to others.

One day I learned that he had begun reading the bible and was really taken by the bible stories. I asked if he would like to make a carving of one of those stories, and he said he would like to make a carving of The Apocalypse. I said I would buy it if he would do it.  He went out to the mountains and found an amazing complex aerial root system, then carved it to show a dozen or so figures. When he delivered the piece, he asked if I could see the figures adequately, or if he should remove more wood to make them appear more clearly.


I gather that Michelangelo chose a block of marble that he could see contained the sculpture he wanted to produce and he then removed the excess marble. That was perhaps not so simple. I am told that David's feet are bigger than would be expected on a real man. That was necessary to have enough marble at the base of the statue to sustain the weight of the huge statue. So the sculptor perhaps also understood that he must engineer a structure that would stand up to its own weight -- perhaps not surprising as he was also the architect who completed St. Peter's Basilica.

Painters

I once chatted with a "naive street artist" in Bogota and he told me how he made his paintings. He would choose a canvas board and place it on his easel. He would then look at the board until he saw a complete painting. If he liked it, he would apply paint to the board (apparently as one might paint by the numbers). If he did not like the image, he would have to put the canvas board out of sight for some time; if he saw it too soon, he would still see the rejected painting on it. After a few weeks, however, it would again be blank, and he could imagine a new painting on that canvas board and decide if he wanted to paint it.



I recall reading about an instance in which the painter Eugene Delacroix left other painters scratching their heads. It seems that there was a competition, but the rules states that each painter had to make his painting in the gallery in which they were to be shown. The gallery was to be open to the painters for three days, and each painter was to complete his painting from start to finish in that time.

Delacroix apparently showed up an hour or two later than the other painters. He painted a horse and rider. Without any preliminaries, he began painting a hoof of the horse. Having completed a finished hoof, he continued up the leg. He continued painting, simply moving on the an adjacent area when he had finished one; he never returned to modify an area once painted. After several hours, he had completed the painting, which was correct both in its placement within the frame and in every detail of the image. He then left the gallery and the other painters, all of whom were still in the earliest stages of their work. One can only guess that he had a complete view of the painting in his mind's eye, and simply copied the mind's eye view on the canvas.

The story above may be apocryphal, but Delacroix has been quoted as telling an assistant to draw sketches every day because "when it came to painting, it was necessary to depict without difficulty what one saw in the mind's eye, and a quickness of hand, which could not be obtained without these exercises, was essential."

Hearing

When I was a teenager, when I was about to go to sleep, I would entertain myself playing orchestral music in my mind's ear. I only remember doing so when I was in that drowsy state that just precedes sleep. I was not replaying music I had actually heard when awake, but making up the music in may head as I went along.

These days I hear a voice, lets say my alter ego, in my minds ear -- it is my normal way of conscious thinking. As I sit as the keyboard typing this, I hear the words in my minds ear, and they appear on the screen (sometimes with typos), usually without conscious awareness of the choices being made as my fingers touch the (usually) appropriate keys.

My son, who is a professional writer of computer games, tells me that when he is writing a scene between two characters, he hears two distinct voices in his mind's ear, each with its regional accent and distinctive way of speaking.

I remember chatting with a friend who was a composer. He mentioned that in reading a score while listening to a performance of music, he would occasionally think to himself, "so that is how you score that sound".

I read someplace that Mozart was unique among musicians in that he held an entire piece of music in his mind, from start to finish. Apparently, musicians tend to follow music instant by instant as it is performed or heard, but not Mozart. Here is a quote from Wikipedia on Mozart's musical imagination:
Mozart wrote everything with a facility and rapidity, which perhaps at first sight could appear as carelessness or haste; and while writing he never came to the klavier. His imagination presented the whole work, when it came to him, clearly and vividly. …. In the quiet repose of the night, when no obstacle hindered his soul, the power of his imagination became incandescent with the most animated activity, and unfolded all the wealth of tone which nature had placed in his spirit …. Only the person who heard Mozart at such times knows the depth and the whole range of his musical genius: free and independent of all concern his spirit could soar in daring flight to the highest regions of art.
Beethoven went deaf years before he died, stopped preforming music in public, but continued to write music. One wonders how he knew what the music he was writing in his later years actually sounded. Perhaps he could play it in his mind's ear?

Taste and Smell

I recently heard an interview with a pastry chef. He was asked how he began to learn his trade, and he answered that he learned first from his mother. He said that even now if he closed his eyes he could taste his mother's madeleines. We know that a taste is produced by the sense cells in the mouth and those in the nasal cavity as air from the mouth is transferred to the nasal cavity. It is the brain that integrates the messages from the two sets of sensory receptors. I wonder if an MRI for that baker would show the areas of the brain involved in smell functioning when he closes his eyes and imagines his mother's cookies. Does he have a mind's taister?

My wife tells me she too can taste again things her mother used to cook in her mind's taster. My son recounts an especially disgusting taste he experienced as a boy when he took an evil tasting medicine with chocolate chip cookies; thinking of the mess, he again tastes it in his mind's taster. 

I like a French TV series titled Blood on the Vine. The principals in the show are oenologists who can identify wines by taste, who write about wines, and who consult about problems what wineries are having producing fine wines. It would seem that such experts can recall in detail the flavor of a wine that they have tasted, and can describe its taste components. Do they have an ability to replay material stored in the brain on demand, producing a conscious mind's taister? Or do they simply have the ability to taste the components of a wine's flavor, the vocabulary to describe those components, and good memories for the list of descriptors?

Touch

The sense of touch is apparently one of the earliest senses to be active in a baby. It not only allows one to tell if a surface is smooth or rough, hot or cold, but also carries a great deal of emotional weight and information.  According to Wikipedia:
Haptic memory represents SM (sensory memory) for the tactile sense of touch. Sensory receptors all over the body detect sensations such as pressure, itching, and pain. Information from receptors travel through afferent neurons in the spinal cord to the postcentral gyrus of the parietal lobe in the brain. This pathway comprises the somatosensory system. Evidence for haptic memory has only recently been identified resulting in a small body of research regarding its role, capacity, and duration. Already however, fMRI studies have revealed that specific neurons in the prefrontal cortex are involved in both SM, and motor preparation which provides a crucial link to haptic memory and its role in motor responses.
Thus there would seem to be the systems in the brain that would allow the conscious mind to recreate a virtual representation of the body and how touching would feel. The mind's mirror might make it possible to create a virtual representation of how another would feel stimulation of the body. Do masseurs use such a representation to plan a massage? Do torturers use such a representation to plan a course of torture? Do lovers use such a representation to plan how to please their partners? I have no idea, but it would seem possible to discover such action if it exists by research.

Proprioception and Sense of Space

In high school I was on the rifle team. In a match, each marksman fired 20 rounds from a 22 rifle at a target 50 feet away. Five rounds were fired from each of the prone, sitting, kneeling and standing positions. In the prone position, a firm structure of bones supported the rifle and muscles were hardly used. Once in position, the main concern was controlling breathing, controlling heart beat, getting the sights of the rifle on target, and letting off a round at the exact moment when the sights were perfectly lined up. In each of the succeeding positions, the bone support was less stable, and muscles came more into play. A good high school marksman would score a perfect 50 points in the prone position, hitting a .22 in circle with each of the five shots; sitting scores might be 49, kneeling in the low 40s and standing in the 30s. By my senior year our team won the city championship and I was chosen for the Los Angeles city rifle team.

Of course, a lot of practice on the team was actually on the rifle range, shooting at targets. A coach would be present to make suggestions if he thought them warranted. At home, I normally would do homework sitting on the floor in the "sitting position" so that it became unstrained and comfortable. I would however, regularly rehearse match firing in bed before going to sleep, recreating the situation in my mind but not physically. Could one call this a "mind's body"?

I ask myself if high level athletes in certain competitive sports make mental models and mentally compare their performance with those proprioceptive mental models.
  • Tiger Woods occasionally changes his golf swing. Does he create a mental model of the sensory input from his muscles and bones that would occur when he executes the new swing perfectly, and would he plan out how to change the swing in order to more nearly achieve the model?
  • Greg Louganis is an American Olympic diver who won gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games on both the springboard and platform. Did he create a mental model of sensory input from his muscles and bones that would occur with perfection in each of the dives he mastered?
  • Does an Olympic champion gymnast create such a model for each exercise in his/her routine?
I don't know, but I think it possible. Here is what one reference says on the topic:
Mental imagery, often referred to as visualization, is when an individual imagines him or herself performing in the absence of physical practice.  When visualizing, an individual utilizes all of his or her senses in order to recreate an event. In the particular event, the individual should imagine performing to the best of their abilities.   Many other athletes have begun incorporating mental imagery into their training regimens and claim that it has lifted their games to new levels. 
Apparently women tend to give directions using landmarks while men give directions using north, south, east and west, and estimates of distances. (A half hour driving at 30 miles an hour is equal to 15 miles). And apparently, these tendencies are coded in our genes due to different evolutionary factors that influenced the natural selection of women and of men. Researchers seem now to be discovering how spacial information is encoded in the brain.

My son tells me that he keeps his bedroom pitch black at night. He understands its space well, and can move around in the dark, reaching up at the right time and in the right place to touch the bed-side table lamp if he wishes, or sitting not only where he knows the bed to be in the dark, but at the right place on the bed that his head will just hit the pillow when he lies down. He is able to map his movements exactly to the mental map he has of the room.

I can take a virtual tour of my house. In each room I know were each piece of furniture is located, where each window sits in the wall (and its approximate dimensions). On such a virtual tour, I can stand in my mind at any point in any room, and virtually point to each piece of furniture. (I feel a virtual representation of my hand and arm moving to do the pointing.) Thus I suppose that my son and I each have virtual maps in our minds, which we can call up, but which are not imaged in the mind's eye.

My Friend's Orthopedic Surgeon

A friend recently had an orthopedic surgeon repair what she termed her frankenankle. Thinking about the mental activity of the surgeon, he had to visualize the problem, using the original x-rays. He then had to visualize the solution, involving a rod to reinforce the bone and stabilize it and related structures. Note that he had not only to designate a rod strong enough to do the job, but also connectors that would hold the rod in place when subjected to his patient's weight. He also had to choose the supports to tie the rod firmly to the bone, and the other devices shown as plates in the diagram. 

He then had to plan the surgical intervention to install the things he had thought up. This meant making incisions in a swollen ankle and then placing the rod and screwing in the supporting screws to the bone. No doubt
experience helped, and I assume that he learned his craft from surgeons
who had  gone before. Still this seems like a mental task that would challenge the ability of Oliver Sack's mother (see top paragraph above) and I would bet that the surgeon not only had a mind's eye, but one that would support considerable structural engineering imagination.

Final Comment

The term "mind's eye" seems to be in common use. Perhaps the brain also has the ability to recreate other sensations, as in a mind's ear, a mind's nose. a mental map, a mind's taster, and a mind's structural engineer. I have aphantasia, and have essentially no access to my mind's eye (except when drowsy or asleep and dreaming). I assume that others differ in their conscious abilities to access and use other mental representations of forms of information that they have obtained via their sensory systems. There seem to be many specific medical terms for loss of abilities to use certain senses -- forms of agnosia. Perhaps we need a comparable vocabulary to deal with abilities to think using recreations of different forms of sensory experience.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Poverty Rate Down -- Thanks to William Easterly for the link


And now for some good news from the World Bank: global poverty rate now below 10 percent. http://bit.ly/1hoRpDy

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

On Decisions



Sometimes it is more important that a decision be right, than that you make it.
When you don't have to make a decision now, procrastinate.
If you don't have a decision to make, don't make a decision.

If others have better knowledge for making a decision, defer to their expertise.
If others are better at the analysis for making a decision, defer to their expertise.
If others are wiser, defer to their wisdom.
Know your abilities as compared with those of others.

Some decisions must be made in ignorance;
Some decisions must be made not knowing the probabilities involved;
Some decisions can be made after odds have been calculated;
And of course, some decisions are easy.
If you have to make a decision, see if you can move down the above list.

Some decisions are hard in that we don't even know how they should be framed. Good luck!

We don't always know what we don't know.
We don't always know what is important to the outcome of a decision.
Some of the worst decisions are made neglecting to take into account something that is important, but the decision maker did not realize it was important.

Arrogance is the enemy of good decision making.
People often overestimate their ability to make decisions well.

Really big decisions are likely to be really hard to analyze.

Framing is important; good framing leads to good decision processes and to improve decisions.
Simplistic framing leads to simplistic decisions, that often prove costly.
Excessively complex framing can lead to major difficulties in analysis and thus to poor decisions.
Really hard decision problems may be those in which the information is not available to frame the decision, or to frame it adequately.
Many bad decisions can be traced to badly made frames.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Improving Crop Yields to Respond to Global Warming and Population Growth


A couple of weeks ago there was an article in The Economist titled "Agricultural biodiversity: Banks for bean counters". I quote extensively from the article:
Climate change is expected to cause higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, changing the distribution of pests and diseases. Population growth will add to the pressure on productive land: the UN expects the number of people in the world to rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050. This, together with a switch to more meat-eating, will mean a big increase in the demand for food. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says humanity will need 70% more food by then.
Dependence on a few staples worsens the consequences of any crop failure. Just 30 crops provide humans with 95% of the energy they get from food, and just five—rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum—provide 60%. A single variety of banana—Cavendish—accounts for 95% of exports. A fast-spreading pest or disease could see some widely eaten foodstuffs wiped out. 
That makes it even more important to preserve the genetic diversity found in crop wild relatives and traditional varieties as an insurance policy. Alas, much of it has already disappeared. The FAO estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. As farming intensified, commercial growers favoured a few varieties of each species—those that were most productive and easiest to store and ship. 
According to Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organisation based in Germany, in the 1800s American farmers and gardeners grew 7,100 named varieties of apple. Today, at least 6,800 of them are no longer available, and a study in 2009 found that 11 accounted for more than 90% of those sold in America. Just one, “Red Delicious”, a variety with a thick skin that hides bruises, accounts for 37%. 
Meanwhile urbanisation, pollution, changing land use and invasive species are threatening the crop wild relatives that survive. A study in 2008 concluded that 16-22% of those related to peanuts, potatoes and cowpeas (a legume grown in semi-arid tropics) will have vanished by 2055 as a result of climate change.
So what if climate does change? Don't you just grow the same crops a few miles further from the equator? Well, what if the soils are different. What if there is not as much water in the new spot as the old one? What if you were on the western side of a hill, and the new spot is on the southern side, and the light conditions are different? What if there are different pests and diseases in the new spot? What if your machinery won't work as well in the new spot as it did in the old? I think that the world will need a lot of crop improvement to produce new varieties of major crops that will produce well under the new conditions.

One solution is pretty much out of the question. Most of the arable land is already in agricultural production. The world will no longer solve its food needs by putting unused arable land into production.

We could not do a lot be simply rationalizing our distribution and use of food. Obesity is harmful to the health of the obese as well as wasteful of food, and should be reduced globally.  Cows are a very wasteful way to produce protein as compared with legumes, and the fat intensive diet found in the USA not only uses a lot of land to feed cattle, a lot of grain to fatten them, but also results in poor health in people who have too much fat in their diet. It would be great if the world could rationalize protein production, getting those who eat too much animal protein to stop doing so, increasing the production of vegetable protein, and distributing protein more appropriately so that fewer people are protein starved and fewer people eat too much of the wrong kinds of protein.

Ultimately, we will have to have better varieties of food crops, and that means varieties with genes that better suit them to produce well in the places that they will be planted. Those genes can come from already domesticated plants, or from the much larger source in non-domesticated species. They can be transferred into new varieties of crops by mass transfers of genes as in traditional plant breeding, and then subjected to a long process of selection to weed out the genes that don't improve the variety. Alternatively they can be transferred by much more scientific and efficient processes of biotechnology. Society will choose. but I think I know the better way.