Monday, March 30, 2015


I quote from the article in The Economist from which the above graphs are drawn: The most important goal of the Millennium Development Goals
was to halve, by 2015, the share of people globally living on under $1.25 a day, which was 36% in 1990. Most progress was in China, where the proportion fell from 60% in 1990 to 12% in 2010. Other regions missed their target. In South Asia it fell from 51% to 30%. In Sub-Saharan Africa it went from 56% to 48%. Still, more than 700m people struggled out of extreme poverty in that period.
I have long wondered about the MDGs. Do you think China was developing economically in order to meet a goal set by the United Nations? If so, ho come it didn't quit its economic growth and the reduction of poverty when it had reached 30% living in extreme poverty? Why didn't Africa do better if the MDGs were all that iportant?

On the other hand, I think the MDGs were important in helping some development agencies set priorities, perhaps including the international development banks like the World Bank. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The U.S. Exploring Expedition


I have just finished reading Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick. The book is a description of  the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 to 1842, an exceptional effort for its time. On a scale that dwarfed the journey of Lewis and Clark, five U.S. Navy sailing vessels and a crew of hundreds set out to map island groups of the Pacific Ocean and the Oregon coast. The expedition also mapped a substantial part of the coast of the continent of Antarctica and collected what would become the basis of the Smithsonian Institution -- and much more.
Science and Technology

The Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) took place at a time when modern science was in its infancy in Europe and was hardly known in the United States. The emphasis of the time was, I think, on learning about the world we live in at a rather practical level -- what were the plants and animals, how did they come to be; where was the land, what was it like, how did it get that way, and how was it changing in real time; what were the other natural resources, how abundant were they, and how could they be used.

From the point of view of many of those who sponsored the Ex. Ex., its primary purpose was charting the reefs and islands of the Pacific. U.S. whalers and sealers roamed the seas in search of their prey; they provided vital raw materials for the industry of the time, were an important economic activity of the nation, and had come to dominate an international industry. However, whalers were being lost in the uncharted waters of the Pacific. The Ex. Ex. would charted the waters off the Oregon Territory -- something important in the dispute between Britain and the USA over the border between Canada and the United States. It would chart San Francisco Bay, and it would chart 1500 miles of the coast of Antarctica. It also appears to have charted parts of the South American coast, notably the dangerous waters of Cape Horn. Apparently the charts were fully state of the art for the time; while the quality of the effort in Antarctica was not fully appreciated until the 20th century, others were widely used for considerable time; the chart of Tarawa, the site of an important battle during World War II, was still the best available in 1943. There were 241 nautical charts made in total.

There were important scientific findings by the small group of scientists included on the expedition. 
  • It was observed that volcanic island chains seemed to be located in straight lines, with the most active volcanoes at one end of the line and the most weathered at the other end; this would prove an important clue to the phenomenon of the shifting of tectonic plates.
  • Three coral reefs were observed at different geological ages, showing the pattern predicted by Darwin -- as time passed, the land under the island and reef subsided, and the corals grew. Eventually this would lead to a situation in which there was a coral reef surrounding a lagoon, but no island. This was the first and an important confirmation to Darwin's hypothesis.
  • And of course, the discovery that Antarctica was a continent -- to which several explorers and expeditions of several countries contributed -- was a significant advance.
  • The expedition created a considerable ethnographic collection, including dictionaries of several of the languages of the Pacific Northwest and Micronesia. These I suppose had considerable value as they predated many of the contacts of the native speakers with other cultures,
On return to the United States in 1842, Charles Wilkes, the commander of the Ex. Ex., led a successful effort to gain public attention for the work done during the four year voyage. He began with a talk on the expedition that was attended by some 400 people, including at least one key Senator and one cabinet officer. The collections made by Ex. Ex. far exceeded in volume those of previous expeditions. A major exhibition of objects that had been collected was put on display in the Patent Office, where it remained for 15 years, drawing 100,000 visitors per year. Collected plants were also put on display in a nearby greenhouse, and later in a larger structure near the Capitol. A five volume report of the expedition was published, which went through some 15 editions before the Civil War. Following that, a number of books were published until the Civil War containing individual reports on the scientific and technical findings of the expedition (making the point that it takes time for scientists to fully study the materials and data that they collected before reporting the results).

The U.S. Patent Office (now used as gallery space)
United States Botanical Garden

While Smithson had bequeathed the equivalent of some $11 million to the United States, by 1842 the appropriate use for the funds had not yet been determined. It was decided in the mid 1850s that the funds would be used to create what is now the Smithsonian Institution to serve as a research facility and as a repository and display place for the nation's scientific and other collections. The collections from the Ex. Ex. were moved there, and their display revised. Thus the Ex. Ex. was an important element in the creation of the Smithsonian Institution as well as of the United States Botanical Garden. It was also important to the creation of the United States Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory.

Perhaps most important, the Ex. Ex. marked a point at which the federal government recognized that support for science and technology would be a fundamental part of its function, and began to regularly allocate funds for that purpose. The many government sponsored exploring missions that would soon open the west benefited from the legacy of the Ex. Ex., as the Smithsonian and the American scientific community benefited from those expeditions.

Before the Ex. Ex. there were Americans who did science. Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the outstanding example, but Benjamin Thompson was also an important American 18th century scientist, less known here because he was a loyalist who did most of his important work in Europe after having left America as a result of the revolution. Joseph Priestly moved to the United States after the Revolution. William Bartram was an important 18th century American naturalist and botanist. Even John James Audubon can be seen as an ornithologist (although his work was done in the early 19th century). John Bartram was an early but internationally known botanist. Thomas Jefferson, that polymath, certainly had scientific interests. Even Lewis and Clark, and their famous expedition early in the 18th century can be seen as scientific, even if its science was not published and its collections not maintained. However, author Philbrick tells us that before the Ex. Ex. an American could not make a living doing science. After the Ex. Ex. it became possible to earn one's bread and have a career as a scientist.

The Route of the U.S. Exploring Expedition

The Adventure

A strong point of Sea of Glory is its description of the adventure lived by the officers and crews of the ships of the Ex. Ex. It might seem obvious that people who sailed around the world from 1838 to 1842 -- in the small wooden sailing ships of the time -- lived had an adventure. Author Philbrick's book makes it clear that the facts of the journey were more than most of us could have imagined.

Traversing the cape at the southern extreme of South America was perilous for sailing ships, but the Ex. Ex. not only sought to get past the dangerous shores and terrible weather, but also to chart the area. One of the ships of the Ex. Ex., the Sea Gull, was ordered to meet with the remainder of the squadron at Valparaiso after the charting of Cape Horn had been completed. It failed to arrive, and is assumed to have been lost with all hands aboard. This was one of the two smallest ships of the expedition, chosen specifically for its utility in chart making.

Antarctica is completely surrounded by ocean and not only is it very cold, but the topography makes the weather especially fierce. Three ships of the Ex. Ex. were ordered to pass through that ocean in order to seek out land on the Antarctic continent, and if land could be found to chart a significant stretch of that land. In order to do so, the ships had to find a path through a barrier of ice, and when they did so it was through a channel jammed with icebergs of various sizes. The charting then was done with frequent storms that threatened to drive the ships against the lee shores. Think about dealing with a violent storm, at night, with icebergs looming out of the dark, in ships not made for such duty, with the sure knowledge that death would follow for the crew of any wrecked ship -- adventure enough for anyone. The Ex. Ex. charted some 1500 miles of the Antarctic coast under such conditions.

In the Fiji Islands, the charting was done under threat by hostile Fijian natives who were cannibals. In one encounter, members of the crew of the flagship were killed. The men of the Ex. Ex. retaliated brutally, utilizing the superior weapons of their warships.. Still, sailing in uncharted waters with hidden reefs, beset by cannibals again should be adventure enough for anyone.

In Hawaii, it was decided to establish an outpost on the top of the tallest volcano -- more than 13,000 feet in altitude. The snow covered higher altitudes were so cold that the Hawaiian natives helping to carry supplies and the scientific equipment had to be sent back, to be replaced by a significant portion of the ship's crews. The climb up the huge volcano was itself difficult , especially for men who had been at sea for many months and had perhaps lost the physical conditioning appropriate for such exertions, Moreover, the volcanic surface over which they climbed made the climb difficult and tended to destroy shoes (and the feet of the unshod native Hawaiians). Arriving at the top, the explorers built a village to withstand the cold, and stayed for days to complete their measurements. In the process they encountered hurricane force winds that were icy cold. They also braved the dangers of a very active caldera of the volcano as part of the exploration.

As the Ex. Ex. charted the shores of North America, it was decided that the ships should sail some distance up the Colombia River. Where the flow from the huge river meets the sea with its tides and large waves, the channel is especially dangerous. With sand banks and shoals, not to mention very high and violent surf, this is still judged to be one of the three most dangerous river entrances in the world; some 2000 ships have been lost attempting to pass the mouth of the Colombia. One of the larger ships of the Ex. Ex., the USS Peacock, ran aground attempting the channel, and was battered to pieces. One small boat managed to make several trips to the Peacock to remove the crew and carry it so safety.

Starting with five ships (one of which was sent home early in the voyage), two were lost at sea; and one was replaced as untrustworthy for the remainder of the voyage; repairs on ships were made at several ports during the voyage. There was turnover among the members of the expedition, but the company that started with just over 350 men had 28 die during the voyage; many more were injured or ill over the four years.


Sea of Glory seems to emphasize discord among people involved in the expedition. That discord was evident in the years of negotiations it took to approve and fund the effort, and in the years that followed as high government officials sought to blame rather than praise the members of the expedition. Originally authorized under Andrew Jackson's administration, the expedition returned in 1842 under the Whig administration of John Tyler to a less than friendly reception.

Charles Wilkes
Much of the book seemed to me to be devoted to the discord between Charles Wilkes, the commander of the Ex. Ex. and a group of the officers serving under him. Since Wilkes brought these officers to Courts Martial after the voyage, and since they testified against him in his own Court Martial, the discord is on the record -- more so since it is documented in memoirs of the participants and in letters and journals that the kept at the time.

I found it hard to understand the situation at the time. This seems to have been a time when the discipline considered appropriate for navy ships at sea was changing. Navy discipline had been very brutal in the 18th century, was less so by 1840, but was then still far more brutal than today. Wilkes, quite young and very inexperienced for the magnitude of the command of the Ex. Ex., used his authority forcefully, but was judged not to have exceeded that authority (with one exception) by the senior officers serving as his judges during his Court Martial.

The voyage also took place after a relatively long period of peace since the war of 1812. In 1838, few young men were being accepted as midshipmen and promotions for officers were few and fat between. The officers of the Ex. Ex. were almost without exception young, relatively junior officers; they were worried about their careers. Many would be given responsibility during the Mexican American war, and gain affluence and senior rank in the Civil War when the navy was greatly expanded, but that was in the unknown future as of 1842.

So we have young officers, frustrated by lack of career opportunities, cooped up on sailing ships for years at a time, often under profound stress but also very bored some of the time. While many senior officers had turned down offers to sail with the Ex. Ex., these young men -- often chosen for their unusual experience in marine surveying -- accepted challenges that they may not fully have understood.

While author Philbrick justifies his portrayal of discord among officers in the expedition with notes on his sources, and while there were not and could not have been independent observations of the interpersonal relations, I was unsatisfied by this aspect of the book. It was for me rather like an overlong exposure to the comic strip Dilbert.

The Narrow Leadership Class

I was struck in the book by how many of the principle characters were drawn from what must have been a small aristocratic class. President William Henry Harrison (who died after a month in office in 1841) was not only from a distinguished Virginia family, but was the grandfather of President Benjamin Harrison. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, whose father was wealthy, married into a distinguished Virginia family and was the father-in-law of John C. Fremont; Thomas Hart Benton, the painter was his Great-Nephew.

Charles Wilkes was himself from a well known family. His aunt was Elizabeth Ann Seton, and she took care of him for some time after the death of his mother; known as Mother Seton, she was the first American to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Wilkes Henry, a young midshipman on the Ex. Ex., was Charles' nephew; he was killed in the Fiji Islands. James Renwick Jr., another nephew, was the architect who designed the first building of the Smithsonian Institution -- the Castle; hes work is very well known in the nation's capitol as he also designed the Corcoran and Renwick Galeries. Wilkes and his wife eventually became influential members of Washington society, living in the house on Lafayette Square once occupied by Dolly Madison/

Portrait of George Washington
by Charles Wilson Peale
Among the scientists on the expedition. James Dwight Dana came from a distinguished New England family; his cousin, Richard Henry Dana, at roughly the same time as the Ex. Ex., was making a voyage to California that he described in the memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, which is still in print. Titian Peale was a member of the Peale family of artists, the son of  Charles Wilson Peale.

Final Comments

I found this book most interesting. I have a long standing interest in science policy, and this book told me about events in the history of science policy in the United States that I had not even suspected. It strongly makes the case that the Ex. Ex. was a seminal event in the growth of science in what has been for many years the strongest scientific power on earth.

I think almost anyone will enjoy the book. The adventure alone will carry most readers to another time. It is a book in which brave men travel to distant, exotic places.

The book portrays a time in which the history of the United States is little known nor understood. The nation still faced toward the sea, and its population was still concentrated on the Atlantic side of the continent. It was transforming itself from its former colonial status to the international power it would become. Modern institutions were being created. Sea of Glory tells a part of the story, and tells it well!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hans Rosling on global income disparity

Lets at least get rid of the word "racism"

I suppose what bothers me is that the term allows bigots to continue believing that there is some significant genetic difference between African Americans and European Americans based on their races -that is their genetics. Race is a social concept, dividing people according to culturally transmitted classification schemes.

Scientists now know that genetics are the basis of heredity, and that the genetics of human populations today are complicated. (Check out this interactive map, for example.)

Scientists know that Homo sapiens as a species emerged in Africa, and went through hard enough times that the species was reduced to very small numbers from which all modern humans are descended. Thus it is perhaps an acceptable generalization that we are all members of the human race.

While the majority of Homo sapiens remained in Africa, some migrated into the Eurasian land mass and the species spread across Europe and Asia; some humans later migrated to Australia, the Americas and various islands. Thus, I suppose all Americans are all genetically African Americans; we share most of our genetic heritage with all Homo sapiens because we are all relatively recently descended from Africans (at least as geneticists think of evolutionary time.)

Local variations occurred and some as a result of natural selection became common in local human populations. There was most genetic diversity in Africa, the continent of origin of the species and thus the continent of longest genetic history of Homo sapiens.

It appears that there has been some introduction of genes into human populations from non-human sources. Thus it would appear that a relatively small number of genes was introduced into European human populations from Homo neanderthalensus; some of them were sufficiently useful to be retained at least locally; these include perhaps the genes for light colored skin and hair.

Anyone who has watched Finding Your Roots on TV will have a pretty good idea that African Americans tend to have a lot of European ancestors. (I remember a "Black" friend who told me after we had known each other for years that one of her grandfathers came from Ireland and the other grandfather came from Germany; I was kind of annoyed that in public she tended to deny her Irish ancestry -- something that Barack Obama does not do.) So not only do African Americans tend to have European ancestors, European Americans tend to have African ancestors. (My Irish ancestors had the belief that they descended from a people who in relatively recent times migrated from Asia via North Africa to Spain and then Ireland.)

"Hispanics" are even more clearly defined by culture than genetics, since it tends to be their common heritage of the Spanish language that defines the group. Hispanics may trace their ancestry to Spain, but in Spain people tend to be divided into such categories as coming from Aragon, Caatile, Catalonia, the Basque country, Galicia, etc. Historically in Latin America categories such as Mestizo (both Spanish and American Indian ancestry), Mulato (Spanish and African ancestry) and Zambo (European, African and American India ancestry) with torturous nomenclature for different combinations of ancestors. I find it impossible to use genetics as a basis for distinguishing Hispanics from other taxonomic groups of Homo sapiens.

So as long as the United States is stuck with prejudice of one group against another, lets find a better term. We have religious prejudice and class prejudice, why not use terms such as "cultural prejudice" or "ethnic prejudice" instead of "racial prejudice"?

The world's most and least ethnically diverse countries


I saw The Vaccine War on television the other  day. You should know:

  • The development of vaccines to prevent communicable diseases has been one of the reasons that life expectancy improved so dramatically in the 20th century. Communicable diseases used to kill children by the millions in Europe and the United States, and no longer do so. The major communicable diseases that continue to kill people by the million worldwide are killers in those areas where modern public health services have not arrived, or for a few diseases -- such as malaria or HIV/AIDS -- where vaccines have not yet been developed.
  • As science progresses and more is learned about the immune system and disease agents, vaccines are getting more efficacious and safer. Research and development on vaccines for a communicable disease do not stop simply because a vaccine has been developed -- when people see how a better vaccine is possible, they try to develop it.
  • Regulatory agencies work to assure that only the most efficacious, effective and safe vaccines are in use all all times.
Think about immunizing your kids this way:

If your children's school needed some supplies that were not in the school budget, parents might well organize some activity to raise supplementary funds to buy those supplies. If you could participate but chose not to do so, you would be a freeloader. If other parents took up the slack, that supplies might still be bought. If too many parents choose to be freeloaders, the campaign will not work and all the kids will suffer.

If your church needs an expensive repair of the roof, the people who attend the church are likely to organize to raise the needed funds. If you don't participate in the effort, you are freeloading -- after all it is your church. If too many freeloaders are in the congregation, the roof doesn't get fixed, more damage occurs and the bill gets higher to do the necessary repairs.

Say you decide that traffic laws should apply to everyone else but not to you, so you drive after you have had a few drinks. exceed speed limits when you feel like it, and try to beat red lights. You may kill yourself or someone else, but more likely you will be seen driving this way by the police and you will be stopped and ticketed for breaking the law. If your conduct is flagrant enough you will be arrested as a criminal.

Communicable diseases have tipping points that determine what will happen if someone catches the disease in your community. If a high enough fraction of the people are immune, the disease may infect a a few people after it arrives in the community, but will soon die out. If too few people are immune, then an epidemic will occur and a lot of people will get sick from that disease. Sometimes conditions are just right and new vulnerable people will arrive in the community to take the place of those who have died of the disease or achieved immunity, and the disease will stay on as endemic. Public health immunization campaigns are the means by which communities assure that the vulnerability is below the tipping point.

There are some people in almost all communities who can not be immunized -- infants whose immune systems have not yet fully developed, old people whose immune systems no longer function well due to the aging process, and people with some medical conditions. We accept that some people will not allow their children to be immunized because of religious convictions in part because their numbers are small and adequate levels of immunity can still be maintained in the community 

As far as I am concerned, the people who don't have their children immunized due to sloth. or superstitious fear (that is fear of side effects not justified by medical information) are freeloaders. If there are too many such freeloaders, epidemics will take place such as the measles epidemic occurring now in the United States. Some people who get the disease will just be sick for a while, some will be permanently disabled due to the disease, and some will die of it. (I had mumps as an adult, before the MMP vaccine was developed, and I know from personal experience that that was serious enough to hospitalize me for a weak with fever and complications.)

If there continue to be too many freeloaders and periodic epidemics, stricter public health laws will be passed and enforced. Those who then fail to immunize their kids will be criminals.

I have some credentials to write the above message:
  • I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on mathematical models in health planning;
  • I worked as a health planner in the World Health Organization, the U.S. Office of International Health, USAID, and the White House.
  • I managed research programs on the epidemiology of infectious diseases. One of them helped clarify the causes of pneumonia in children in developing nations, helping WHO to revise it standards for treatment of lower respiratory disease in children. Another showed Hepatitis C to be a far more prevalent disease in Egypt than had been believed or even thought possible, leading it to be recognized as a major public health challenge.
  • I managed research program on the application of biotechnology in bio-medical research. Eventually I directed the Office of Research of USAID, served as the U.S. Commissioner on the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, and as a consultant to the World Bank, Brazil and Mexico on programs to strengthen research management.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Decision Making Leading Up to the Civil War

The Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865. As the commemoration is coming to a close, let me share an imaginary conversation I have in my mind taking place in 1866 or 67 with someone who was in the South Carolina legislature when it took the decision to secede from the Union in 1861.

     Me: I understand you were there in the state legislature when the vote was taken to secede from the Union.

     Respondent: Yes.

     Me: And you were there when it was decided to fire on Ft. Sumter and start the Civil War.

     Respondent: Yes

     Me. How did those decisions work out for you and your colleagues?

     Respondent: (Silence, tears in his eyes.)

Of course a generation of young Southern men had been decimated, slavery had been abolished suddenly and without compensation, Sherman's troops had marched through South Carolina leaving devastation in their wake, there had been few exports for years, and the economy and much of the infrastructure of the state was in ruins. Federal troops were garrisoned in the state, and the ruling White plutocracy had been dethroned.

Virginia had seceded from the Union after much debate and a significant pause. Much of the fighting during the war had taken place in Virginia, and West Virginia had been allowed to secede from Virginia; if anything the impact of the war was worse in Virginia than in South Carolina. Its former plutocrats had perhaps more to lament than those in other formerly Confederated states.

It seems to me that people in power in the South made a big mistake in choosing to secede from the Union and fight a war with the northern states of the Union. The independent decisions of South Carolina and Virginia politicians were both mistakes. Indeed, it seems to me that the decision making process must have been faulty; they must have failed to accurately assess the probabilities of alternative courses of the war, the results of each course, and thus the probable cost of secession and war.

Even had the Confederacy succeeded, that success probably would have been partial and at great cost to the South. What if the Union had made peace with the Confederacy, but held control of significant amounts of territory that had been part of the pre-Civil War southern states, and held control of the Mississippi? How would a small nation, with an agricultural economy lacking in industry and sea power, recovering from war, have done in the imperial age? Slavery would have been abolished eventually as happened in all of the Americas, and as the European imperial powers colonized Africa, the markets for cotton and other agricultural exports would have become more competitive. The French showed in putting Maximilian and Carlota on the throne of Mexico, that they would snap up American influence given the chance.

In contrast, it seems to me that the people in the north made the right decision. The north had sufficient advantage in manpower, economic power and diplomatic power to win the war. The European powers might want the Confederacy to succeed, but would find it hard to intervene visibly to support those fighting a war to continue slavery. It was also important to save the Union, since only a strong union would rise to quickly become a world power (with great benefits to future generations). Moreover, it had the moral arguments on its side -- it was important to show that democracy could work and develop, and it was right to end slavery.

Of course, there were many possible courses for the war. Seven slave holding states seceded in rapid succession from December 20, 1860 to February 1, 1861. Four more states seceded from the Union between April 17, 1861 and June 8, 1861. Four border states and the District of Colombia, in which slavery was still legal in 1861, remained in the Union. More or fewer states might have seceded; fewer might have meant a shorter war, more a longer war and a greater possibility of success of the Confederacy. Although a priori unlikely, Great Britain might have sided with the Confederacy, and France might have chosen to do so rather than chance a power play in Mexico.

What would have been the course of history had the South Carolina and Virginia not seceded, but rather had bargained for terms to stay in the Union? It seems likely that such a bargain could have averted war, but would have required the abolition of slavery; I would guess that the abolition could have been more gradual, with some manner of reducing the economic impact on the plantation economy of the south.

Huge advances in decision science were made in the 20th century, and it is not fair to expect politicians in the 1860s to do decision analysis as well as it can be done today. On the other hand, watching the political process in the USA and in other countries, it seems clear that irrational decisions are still common -- and indeed they rule the day.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

How is the IS doing in its effort to install a Caliphate?

The Economist has a new article on the Islamic State, which includes this map:

The article states:
It looks as if it has set expectations too high. Since last August its expansion has stalled, and it has been beaten back across much of Iraq (see map). That is why, in Najaf and to an extent Baghdad, the fight against IS no longer feels like a struggle for survival, more like yet another war. The revenues IS depends on have been reduced. And there is some evidence of increased unhappiness within the territory it holds, and among its own members.
The coalition against IS that was put together by America after Iraqi prime minister Nuri-al Maliki left office in August 2014 now numbers some 60 countries; it typically carries out a dozen air strikes a day. America has given weapons to the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga; it is training Iraqi soldiers and says it is gearing up to do the same for a small force of anti-IS rebel fighters in Syria.
You might compare the areas affected by the Islamic State with the areas of low population density in these maps:

Population Density Map of Syria
 Population Density Map of Iraq
The point is that there is an big desert with little population that covers much of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and that influence in these areas affects relatively few people and relatively little economic activity.

The population density is greater along the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers, and indeed the IS control is most notable along the Euphrates.

I suspect that a part of what is happening is a battle of Sunni forces against the Shiite controlled government in Iraq and the Alawite (school of the Shiite Islam) controlled Syrian government. Thus areas of these countries with relatively large Sunni populations tend to be shown as supportive of the IS.
In most of Iraq, though, the bulk of the fighting is being carried out by Iranian-backed Shia militias. When the IS onslaught was at its height Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of Shia Islam’s leading clerics, issued a fatwa calling on Shia men to join the Hashid al-Shabi, an umbrella organisation of mainly Shia volunteer militias. At least 100,000 have signed up. 
Iran has given cash and weapons to the Hashid al-Shabi; though the militia group nominally answers to the Iraqi government it is to a great extent an Iranian concern. Iran also has a lot of influence on the American-trained army, grossly run down and rendered sectarian under Mr Maliki, and has sent it advisers including Qassem Suleimani, the head of its elite Revolutionary Guard. Thanks to General Suleimani’s handiwork, Baghdad is now well fortified, and aircraft can fly in and out in safety. A 12-year curfew has been lifted, allowing Iraqis to linger on the banks of the Tigris smoking shisha pipes into the early hours. Malls and cafés are buzzing. The atmosphere is more relaxed than at any time since the American-led invasion of 2003........ 
The Kurds have taken back everything they consider Kurdistan. Their front line is supported by air power and well fortified: “It’s like world war one along that 1,000km-long border,” says one diplomat. Sorties by IS sometimes penetrate the line—there was a ferocious attack on Kirkuk in January—but they rarely get more than five kilometres into Kurdish territory. 
All told, IS has been stripped of some 13,000 square kilometres of land, reducing by a quarter what it held at its peak. American officials reckon some 1,000 fighters were killed in just the battle for Kobane, a Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border that IS tried to take for months without quite managing it. Seventeen of its top 43 commanders have been felled, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi analyst of IS in Baghdad. But for all the losses fighters on the front line say there is no sign that IS is running short of men. Recruitment seems to be keeping up.

Racism and a Broken Justice System

Source: The Economist
I quote from The Economist review of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. By Robert Putnam:
Robert Putnam is a former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of “Bowling Alone” (2000), an influential work that lamented the decline of social capital in America. In his new book, “Our Kids”, he describes the growing gulf between how the rich and the poor raise their children. Anyone who has read “Coming Apart” by Charles Murray will be familiar with the trend, but Mr Putnam adds striking detail and some excellent graphs (pictured). 
College graduates are shown to have vastly different average life experiences than people with no more than high school education in the USA. The fourth graph -- showing that kids from families in the upper quarter of the income distribution have much better chances of graduating from college than do kids from the lower quarter, with comparable pre-college grades -- is especially disturbing.

I recently watched a Book Discussion on The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice. Nina Moore in that talk focused on the racism that is structured in our criminal justice system, leading to a number of serious national problems in the USA. She described four categories of research (to which I do not do justice in the following bullets):

  1. Deliberate of subconscious discrimination on the part of lawmakers and law enforcement officers;
  2. The way the legal system applies the laws, especially the way the criminal justice system functions (e.g. mandatory sentencing laws);
  3. The way racism is reflected in socio-economic disadvantage to Black and Hispanic people in the USA, leading to more criminal acts by Blacks and Hispanics (e.g. if one can not get a good job, one is much more likely to seek income and opportunity via criminal activity)
  4. A culture of violence in these minority communities -- community values that are more accepting of criminal behavior than those of the White and the more affluent communities.
Moore goes on to suggest that the politicians create the laws that they do, because those laws are responsive to public opinion, and the public opinion is formed by a media that overstates the risks of drugs and crime and that portrays the general public as being at risk from the Black and Hispanic communities. She points out that the poorer Black and Hispanic communities themselves are much more victimized by crime than are White and more affluent communities, and that crime rates have actually been low and decreasing.

I find it persuasive that kids brought up by single mothers (who are often working very hard to keep bodies and souls together under conditions of poverty), in communities where the schools are bad, are more likely to be denied decent jobs and are more likely to commit crimes.

It also seems likely to me that police tend to police more where crimes are more likely and more likely to be detected. After all, it is hard to see how many crimes have been prevented, but easy for police to see how many people have been arrested and convicted.

I hate to see another generation of American Blacks and Hispanics suffer the lack of opportunity that stems from this racism. It is not just, but it is going to hurt everyone in the country as its people will on average be less ready to compete in a global economy than they might be.

I suspect that "the War on Drugs" is wrong-headed, and that better means should be used to deal with addiction. I suspect that mandatory sentencing laws are dysfunctional, and should be eliminated. But I suspect the real effective action would be to take on racism directly, and that a first step would be to improve schools for Black and Hispanic kids in the USA.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On my experience with Muslims

I have never lived in a country with a majority Muslim population, but in my career in International Development I have worked in Indonesia, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco -- in some of those countries I have months of experience. In the United States, I have worked closely with individual Muslims from Bangladesh, India, Iran, and Palestine for years at a time, and come to know several quite well. I was involved in the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program of USAID for many years, managing it for about a decade, which involved reading proposals and project reports and sometimes meeting researchers under the program who were Muslims and spending time with them in seminars. So too I had responsibility for the U.S. Israel Cooperative Research Program, and had the pleasure of spending a week in a meeting sponsored under that program involving Israeli researchers and colleagues from the "stans" of the former USSR, notably Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Few Americans have had similar exposure to Muslims, so let me share. The people I met and worked with were of course motivated by concern for their families, personal ambition, and I think the desire to do a good job, whatever that job was. The folks I met and had professional dealings with were all willing to involve themselves in efforts to promote peace and international understanding, even when there was some danger in doing so. As far as I could see, these were folk who combined secular beliefs and concerns with religious ones; that is not strange to any American since most Americans also think in secular terms about some issues and religious terms about others.

When I read that the vast majority of the more than a billion Muslims on earth seek peace, and that only a tiny minority are violent extremists, that seems quite intuitive to me. I could say the same about Christians, and indeed violent extremists seem to be found in other religions as well.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Thursday, March 19, 2015

U.S. Economic Support to Israel

The U.S. Congressional Research Service last year published "U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel". I quote from the summary:
Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $121 billion (current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars) in bilateral assistance. Almost all U.S. bilateral aid to Israel is in the form of military assistance, although in the past Israel also received significant economic assistance. Strong congressional support for Israel has resulted in Israel receiving benefits not available to any other countries; for example, Israel can use some U.S. military assistance both for research and development in the United States and for military purchases from Israeli manufacturers. In addition, U.S. assistance earmarked for Israel is generally delivered in the first 30 days of the fiscal year, while most other recipients normally receive aid in installments, and Israel (as is also the case with Egypt) is permitted to use cash flow financing for its U.S. arms purchases. In addition to receiving U.S. State Department-administered foreign assistance, Israel also receives funds from annual defense appropriations bills for rocket and missile defense programs. Israel pursues some of those programs jointly with the United States. 
In 2007, the Bush Administration and the Israeli government agreed to a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package for the period from FY2009 to FY2018. During his March 2013 visit to Israel, President Obama pledged that the United States would continue to provide Israel with multi-year commitments of military aid subject to the approval of Congress. 
The FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 113-76) provides the President’s full $3.1 billion request in FMF for Israel. In addition, it provides another $504 million in funding for research, development, and production of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system ($235 million) and of the joint U.S.-Israel missile defense systems David’s Sling ($149.7 million), the Arrow improvement program (or Arrow II, $44.3 million), and Arrow III ($74.7 million). 
For FY2015, the Administration is requesting $3.1 billion in FMF to Israel and $10 million in Migration and Refugee Assistance. The Missile Defense Agency’s FY2015 request for joint U.S.-Israeli programs is $96.8 million. The Administration also is requesting $175.9 million for Iron Dome. 
The sum of the foreign aid contributions since the creation of Israel in the 1940s underestimates the real value of that assistance. For example, if the United States had provided $3 billion per year for 40 years the total would be $120 billion. If instead, the United States had invested $3 billion per year for 40 years obtaining 5% growth on total investment per year, the net value at the end of that period would be just under $294 billion.

According to the CIA's World Factbook:
  • The population of Israel is 7,821,850
  • The GDP of Israel is $272.7 billion (2013 est.)
  • The per capita GDP of Israel is $36,200 (2013 est.)
The average Israeli family has 3.72 members. Thus the per family GDP is $134,664. This is not the same as the per family income, but the point is made that Israel is not a poor country, and on average its families are not poor. The proposed U.S. aid to Israel for 2015 would not greatly increase the income of its people.

It should be noted that the United States provides aid to other countries in support of Israel. Thus is has provided large amounts of aid to Egypt as part of the deal leading to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. So too, it has provided aid to Jordan at a level that is justified by the importance of peaceful relations between Jordan and Israel.

Since 1992, the U.S. has offered Israel an additional $2 billion annually in loan guarantees. Congressional researchers have disclosed that between 1974 and 1989, $16.4 billion in U.S. military loans were converted to grants and that this was the understanding from the beginning. Indeed, all past U.S. loans to Israel have eventually been forgiven by Congress, which has undoubtedly helped Israel's often-touted claim that they have never defaulted on a U.S. government loan. U.S. policy since 1984 has been that economic assistance to Israel must equal or exceed Israel's annual debt repayment to the United States....... 
In addition, there is the more than $1.5 billion in private U.S. funds that go to Israel annually in the form of $1 billion in private tax-deductible donations and $500 million in Israeli bonds. The ability of Americans to make what amounts to tax-deductible contributions to a foreign government, made possible through a number of Jewish charities, does not exist with any other country. Nor do these figures include short- and long-term commercial loans from U.S. banks, which have been as high as $1 billion annually in recent years.
Note that the fact that $1 billion in so-called private donations to Israeli causes means that there is significant tax financing of aid to Israel from the United States. Thus the U.S. government is foregoing tax income that it would otherwise receive by allowing the donors to deduct the donations to Israeli causes from their income.

The United States also has free trade agreements (FTAs) with Israel and Jordan. The FTA with Israel was created in 1985, the first such agreement made by the United States. That agreement
continues to serve as the foundation for expanding trade and investment between the United States and Israel by reducing barriers and promoting regulatory transparency.....(There is also a U.S.-Israel) Agreement Concerning Certain Aspects of Trade in Agricultural Products (ATAP), which provided for duty-free or other preferential treatment of certain agricultural products. 
This agreement has also meant billions of dollars in benefits to the Israeli economy.

There has been an income tax treaty between Israel and the United States since 1975. Here are online copies of the relevant documents. According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service:
Under these treaties, residents (not necessarily citizens) of foreign countries are taxed at a reduced rate, or are exempt from U.S. taxes on certain items of income they receive from sources within the United States. These reduced rates and exemptions vary among countries and specific items of income. Under these same treaties, residents or citizens of the United States are taxed at a reduced rate, or are exempt from foreign taxes, on certain items of income they receive from sources within foreign countries. Most income tax treaties contain what is known as a "saving clause" which prevents a citizen or resident of the United States from using the provisions of a tax treaty in order to avoid taxation of U.S. source income.
It is perhaps time to reconsider U.S. foreign aid to Israel. It is less important than it once was to Israel, given Israel's current GDP, and is perhaps not needed given the relatively high per family GDP.  Moreover, there remain other economic advantages that Israel has with respect to U.S. markets and support that are expensive to maintain and of value to Israel.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Latinos Will Keep America Strong!

The Economist has a full section on Hispanics in America. The opening article notes:
By the time of the 2010 census, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites (for simplicity’s sake called whites hereafter) was down to 64%. Some time around 2044 it is projected to fall to less than half....... 
America has twice before witnessed European migration waves that were proportionately even larger when measured against the population at the time: once in the 19th century and again at the start of the 20th century....... 
In just a few years.......there will be as many whites over 65 as white children. Among non-whites, children outnumber the old by four to one. Take away Hispanics and other fast-growing minorities, and America’s numbers look like those for Italy, a country full of pensioners with a shrinking labour force.
It would be a very good idea to educate the children of Hispanic ancestry well so that they might play their full and appropriate role in U.S. society in the future. It would also be a good idea to keep them in schools and colleges and out of gangs for the same reason.

Investing in Latino kids is going to be especially important for the future of the South West, the West and Florida, but Hispanics will be a larger part of the population of the rest of the country. If Texas, Arizona and California don't invest in their Latino kids, you can bet the Illinois, New York and Maryland will suffer some of the consequences.

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Map of Every Device in the World That's Connected to the Internet

Notice the darker spots in the USA in the Great Basin and the North-West. A lot of the rest of the world is still only sparsely connected.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Which degrees give the best financial returns?

 Engineers, computer scientists and math majors make more money according to The Economist!
A new report from PayScale, a research firm, calculates the returns to higher education in American universities. Its authors compare the career earnings of college graduates with the present-day cost of a degree at their alma maters, after taking account of financial aid. 
Top universities may be growing ever more selective, but the returns on a college degree depend far more on field of study than the choosiness of the university itself, the report says. Engineering and computer-science students earn most, achieving an impressive 20-year annualised return of 12% (the S&P 500 managed just 7.8%). Engineers were also least dependent on institutional prestige: graduates from less-selective schools experienced only a slight decrease in average returns. Business and economics degrees also pay well, delivering a solid 8.7% average return. Courses in arts or the humanities may pay intellectual dividends but provide more mixed economic returns. Students concerned about their financial outlook should worry less about their school's rank and spend more time brushing up on maths.

Americans Are Measurably Exceptional in Some Ways

The graph is from an interesting report by the Pew Research Center showing several ways in which the people of the United States are culturally unusual. Notable, there tends to be a relationship between affluence (as measured by per capita GDP) and adherence to formal religions and participation in religious activities; the richer the country, the more secular it seems to be. The United States stands out since its citizens report that religion is important in their lives at rates comparable to much less affluent country residents, and to a greater extent than do British, Australians, Canadians, French, Japanese and Israelis. Check the report for some other examples of ways in which Americans respond differently than might be expected on survey questions.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Great Caliphates -- The time of Huge Islamic Empire and Muslim Leadership of World Knowledge

I have just finished reading The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the 'Abbasid Empire by Amira K. Bennison. There is an earlier post on the book.

The fifth chapter of the book focuses on Islamic knowledge during the time of the Abbasid, Umayyad and Fatimid Caliphates. The Caliphates began in the European "Dark Ages", and were for a time the repository of much of the world's advanced knowledge.

Of course, the Koran is the key source of Islamic knowledge, regarded as the revelation by God to the Prophet Mohammed. However, you have to know how to read to understand the Koran, and early in the days after Mohammed there was an effort to translate books that would help in the understanding of the Koran. (Think of the reading comprehension tests we give to school kids who "already know how to read" to test how much they understand of what they do read. Think of the task of the Supreme Court to figure out the intent of laws and the intent of the Constitution, and thus whether the law is in contravention of the Constitution.)

In addition, especially in the early days of Islam, there was an effort to document the practices of Mohammed and the Muslims he gathered around him as well well as to record his teachings (the Sunna and the Hadiths). Bennison describes a process in which scholars first sought to record the things that could be remembered by people who lived around Mohammed and who actually heard him speak, then the memories of people who had the information from direct sources, and ultimately from sources further removed. This then led to a work of scholarship to identify the sources and statements that were truly reliable and to screen out those which were likely to have been added in error. Bennison goes on to describe the further interest in the tools of logic and analysis that had been earlier developed and were available from Latin, Greek and other sources (involvinging translation into Arabic). This, according to Bennison was followed by elaboration of several major schools of jurisprudence in Islamic Law. (Remember, that Islam in western terms is both a religion and a system of government, with Islamic law governing what most Americans would regard as aspects of secular behavior as well as religious behavior.)

Overview of the major schools and branches of Islam
Source: Wikipedia
Somehow I had an impression before reading this book that being a Muslim was primarily a function of behavior -- the Five Pillars of Islam. Bennison writes about theological arguments and debates, and logic and philosophy being studied to add rigor to Islamic theology. Having read the book I came away with feeling that there was some parallel among the early Jewish efforts to put together what we now think of as the old testament of the bible, the early Christian efforts to put together the new testament of the bible, and the Muslim efforts to put together the Sunna and the Hadiths -- each community of faith seeking to establish the most accurate and reliable record of the founding documents of their faith.

The book goes on to discuss the major effort of translation that was undertaken in the Caliphates. Geometry and mathematical texts from other cultures were translated to support the work of government officials (e.g. taxation) and those constructing canals and other "engineering" and building works. Astronomical texts were translated to support the work of Islamic astronomers who made observations and updated calendars. There was also translation of astrological works and other works which we would now see as pseudo- or pre-scientific.

Al-Farabi statue at al-Farabi Kazakh National University

Bennison goes on to describe the original work in philosophy, theology and science of Arab scholars of the time, especially those who synthesized large bodies of knowledge, some of whom became known in the west (e.g.  Ibn Rušd or Averroesibn Sīnā or Avicenna and al-Farabi) While hundreds of these early Islamic savants are known to history, their numbers are tiny compared to the global scientific and scholarly workforce today. On the other hand, these men saved much of classical knowledge, storing it in numerous libraries during the "dark ages" of Western Europe so that it became available to Renaissance scholars when the rest of the world was ready to resume the march of knowledge.

This chapter was hard to read in that it identified a lot of books by authors I did not know, with only the sketchiest description of their contents. The chapter made the point that there was an intellectual explosion at the time, but left me unsure of its content and somewhat confused.

I also wondered about the practical technologies. I assume that there was a spread of agricultural technologies; as Jared Diamond points out, these could spread more easily east-west in the Eurasian land mass than in other regions of the world. and that spread contributed to economic development. Textiles were perhaps the leading industrial product of the time; was there a development and spread of textile technology via the trade routes of the Caliphates? How about the building technologies of the Romans, and especially their road building abilities, How about the qanat technologies of the Persians and other irrigation technologies; were Egyptian water raising technologies spread or the Archimedes' screw. Was there development of camel-based transportation technology and routes that enabled the Berbers and Arabs to extend trade and Islam through the Sahara? The book points out that the Arab-Muslims early developed naval power in the Mediterranean and sea trade in the Indian Ocean, but how did ship building technology progress in the time of the Caliphates? Geography must have progressed given the travel and trade of the time, but the work of al-Idrisi is only mentioned in passing late in the book. Perhaps I am simply recognizing a limitation of the sources from the historic record; perhaps people didn't write about such things or the records did not survive.

The final brief chapter of the book deals with the legacy of the Caliphates. As happens with empires, they grow and then decline. The Caliphates were created by Arab-Islamic conquerors. The ethnic Turkish military that the Abbasid Caliphs eventually depended upon became the basis of the Ottoman empire. Mongols took over much of the eastern Abbasid empire, becoming Muslims themselves in the process; eventually the last Caliph was killed by a Mongol ruler. Christians reclaimed Spain and Sicily from Arab-Muslim control. Thus, one can see political legacies of the Caliphates even as the Arab-Muslim political control of the huge region of its former empire declined.

Perhaps more important was the intellectual legacy. As Christians reconquered Spain, for a while there was a vibrant community of Arabs, Jews and Christians who translated great books from Arabic into Latin (see The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal). The Arab learning may too have stimulated a rebirth of interest in ancient knowledge and the development of new knowledge in Byzantium, and knowledge from the Caliphates found its way into humanist hands triggering and fueling the Renaissance.

I found this book of considerable value in broadening my view of early Islamic history and the debt that the world owes to the Caliphates. I would have liked to see a glossary, and perhaps more visual aids but that is quibbling with the author's choices which overall led to a short book full of information that many readers from the West will not have previously known.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Will Obamacare cut costs?

According to The Economist, "The growth in America’s health-care spending is slowing". The graph on the left suggests that not only is the growth slowing, but costs are actually going down. Of course, that graph also shows that the USA spends a higher percent of GDP on health care than do European countries with socialized medicine. Those countries also tend to have longer life expectancy than does the USA.

Of course, if the Republicans succeed in gutting the Affordable Care Act, the trend may stop at that point. The graph indicates that several times in the past the portion of GDP dedicated to health care held steady for a few years, only to take off again.

I think the problem has been that programs were started to increase demand for health care -- Medicare, Medicaid, public drug cost financing within these services -- without complementary programs to increase supply of services and still more important, to control costs. The law of supply and demand tends to increase costs when demand increases and supply does not. Of course, consumers do not really prescribe their treatments, the doctors do and then bill accordingly. Moreover, new medical technology seems always to provide useful alternatives but to increase costs.

Two exciting technological opportunities

A couple of interesting articles found in the new issue of The Economist:

Medical apps: Smartphone diagnosis
Samuel Sia and his colleagues at Columbia University in New York have miniaturised a laboratory-based blood test called an ELISA (for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay). It detects biological markers, such as antibodies made in response to an infection. A sample of blood from a finger prick is placed in a small disposable plastic cassette that contains reagents necessary for an ELISA. The cassette is inserted into the test-device itself, which is small enough to fit into the hand of the user and contains what is known as a “lab-on-a-chip”. This, in turn, is plugged into the phone. An app manages the test and after 15 minutes a negative or positive result is displayed on the phone’s screen. 
The equipment was recently tried out by health-care workers in Rwanda testing pregnant women, from a single sample of blood, for HIV and syphilis. The results were encouraging and the team are now exploring how to bring their smartphone test to market. Dr Sia says he estimates the device itself would cost about $35 to manufacture. An ELISA machine in a laboratory could cost more than $18,000.
The other idea is from Descue Medical, a Salt Lake City-based startup founded by two brothers, Christopher and Andrew Pagels. They have come up with a product called iTest...... 
The idea is to offer a variety of different test kits that can be used by the same iTest device to diagnose a range of conditions, says Andrew Pagels. The brothers say they have already developed tests for HIV and MRSA, a bacterial infection which is particularly difficult to treat, and are working on tests for the flu, sexually transmitted diseases and a combination test for dengue fever and malaria.......The brothers anticipate the main iTest device would sell for about $150 with the test kits available separately. 
By offering lab-type diagnostics to almost any population with access to a smartphone, such devices would be particularly useful in remote and resource-poor areas.
 Mobile networks" DIY telecoms
Fed up with the failings of the big operators, remote Mexican communities are acting for themselves 

(In a remote area of Mexico) a new kind of tree is springing up: the mobile telephone mast. Unlike most phone masts in the world these are installed, owned and operated by small, mostly indigenous communities. Providing a mobile service in these villages was not profitable enough for big telecoms companies to bother with, unless the locals stumped up $50,000. But improvements in software and the falling price of hardware has made it possible to build a local mobile-phone base station for around $7,500, which non-profit operators and small communities can muster. 
Sixteen communities in this remote corner of Mexico now count on local mobile services which cost much less than that of Mexico’s dominant operator, América Móvil, or its nearest rival, Movistar.
Appropriate technology for application benefiting poor people in poor countries does not always have to be old fashioned. New technologies can sometimes leapfrog ahead, solving important problems for these people at an affordable cost.

Friday, March 06, 2015

The Early Islamic Empire

I am currently reading The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the 'Abbasid Empire by Amira K. Bennison. The book actually covers material from the 7th century to the 13th century, and not only the Abbasids but also includes material about the Umayyads and the Fatimads.

The term Caliph apparently means a successor to Mohammed as the leader of the Islamic faithful. The Caliph's role was not constant over time nor geographic space. Different groups after the death of Mohammed recognized different men as their Caliph. Still, the title originally meant both what we now would consider to be a religious leader and a political/military leader -- a distinction not made in Islam in the 7th century.

Islam spread from its birth in the 7th century through the 13th century. The map below shows the approximate extent of Islamic control toward the end of the book.

The book, although brief, is serious history. It builds on the previous works of historians, providing a bibliography. It discusses the politics. architecture, culture, trade and economy and science and technology of the region shown in green during the Caliphates. There is even a brief section on the legacy of the Caliphates.

Perhaps the most important point made by the book is that the Caliphate did not abandon all precedents, but rather built on preexisting materials. Thus the Muslim invaders who found themselves ruling a huge area with little relevant experience in governing, drew experienced Byzantine and Sasanian officials into their government, and utilized Byzantine and Sasanian elements in their governing processes. Much of what we today understand as government was left in the hands of local Christian and Jewish community institutions, as well as those of other faiths for their constituents. Trade patterns that had preexisted were rebuilt, used and extended, with new Islamic institutions added. Persian, Greek and Roman texts were translated into Arabic. Architectural ideas were adapted and reused.

One problem with the historical approach is that things that were not documented are not well covered. Thus, the book does not describe how the other religious communities governed themselves in the Islamic world of about 1000 A.D. We can assume that the townspeople bought food from local suppliers, and not just food imported via the long distance trade networks, but these local market systems are not described. Nor do we learn about much of the culture of the period -- that of the common people in the huge variety of communities -- cultural elements that were not written down. What languages did they speak, what did they sing, what stories did they tell each other, how did they dance, and a thousand other aspects of culture are not and can not be described in such a book.

Sasanian Empire 621 A.D.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Railroads in Africa

There is an interesting article in The Economist on the boom in railroads in Africa. The map shown above, from that article, suggests that the network in East Africa is growing nicely and will provide some real benefits to the region; railroads are really low cost means of transportation, and will mean better costs from imports and lower shipping costs for many exports from the region. I recall being told in Uganda a decade ago or so that most of the railroads in that country were no longer running. Lets hope that the new arrangements work better than did those left from colonial days.

Are the new UN goals for reduction of poverty realistic?

I quote from a column in The Economist. The United Nations
is deservedly proud of having already met its goal of halving the share of people living in extreme poverty by the end of this year, compared with the level of 1990. In fact, the milestone was reached five years early. In 1990, 36% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty. By 2010 this was down to 18%. In absolute terms, the number of those in such desperate straits has fallen from 1.9 billion to about 1 billion today.
Unfortunately, looking at the goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030:
The case that this goal is feasible rests on extrapolations from the economic performance of the past few decades. One approach is to assume that the global poverty rate continues to fall by roughly one percentage point a year, as it has since the 1980s. That would take it below 3% before 2030. If that sounds a little crude, a second method involves simulating the effects of a range of growth rates. The poverty target would be achievable as long as consumption per person in developing countries increases by around 4% a year, roughly the pace it has achieved since 1999. 
Yet recent research from the World Bank itself casts doubt on both of these approaches.* The first projection—that poverty can keep declining by one percentage point a year—is the easiest to dismiss. The chart shows the distribution of spending by people in the developing world in 1990 and in 2011. In 1990 there was a big bulge of people spending just less than $1.25 a day. It took a relatively small boost from growth to lift this group over the threshold. But the people in the bulge are now largely out of extreme poverty; it will take ever-increasing amounts of growth to raise those lower down the scale to the same level. Most of the people still in penury live in countries with chronically weak economies or belong to marginalised groups, suggesting that it would be unrealistic to expect steady advances in their welfare. 
The second projection (based on sustained 4% growth in consumption per person) does take the existing distribution of global poverty into account. But Nobuo Yoshida, Hiroki Uematsu and Carlos Sobrado of the World Bank have pointed out three other flaws. First, the projection assumes that population growth is even across developing countries, when in fact it is higher in the poorest countries than in more prosperous spots. Second, it assumes uniform growth in consumption, but growth rates in the poorest countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, are slower. Third, it assumes constant levels of inequality, when growth in developing nations often comes with increased inequality.
The assumptions appear unlikely to be fulfilled.

Extreme poverty is defined as income of $1,25 per person per day (2005 dollars) or $37.50 per person per 30 day month. Two adults living on $75 per month don't have much of a life, and it is hard to see how they might get by on less. A family of four would presumably have $150 per month, and that seems better until you start thinking of medical expenses, school expenses, and all the rest.