Thursday, April 30, 2015

Compare these two maps

Map of the Most Racist Places in America

Poverty In America
Correlation is not causality, but I wonder whether there is a circular causality here. Perhaps racism causes under  investment in human resources -- education, health -- and lack of economic opportunity for the races that face prejudice, leading to poverty. Perhaps poverty leads to more racism as the poor seek scapegoats for their own poverty.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The USA ranks 15th in the 2015 report

Source of the map
Check out the 2015 World Happiness Report. It is based on a new idea -- that the happiness of the people in a nation is as important as the country's GDP, and worthy of government and citizen attention.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A biography of Father Junipero Serra

I just finished reading Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven M. Hackel. Serra (1713 to 1784) is regarded in California as one of its founding fathers. A Franciscan priest, he is expected to be formally declared a saint during the visit of Pope Francis to the United States later this year; it would be the first time that the formal recognition of sainthood had been performed in the United States.

One impression from the book is the  arrogance of the imperial peoples. The Spanish claimed a huge chunk of the Americas, ignoring the people who were already there; claiming Alta California, they worried about the Russians,, but not about the sovereign rights of the California Indians.

The U.S. Americans proclaimed "Manifest Destiny" almost as soon as they possibly could, bought a big swath of North America from the French, and took another big swath from the emerging Mexican state. The Spanish Catholics had little doubt that theirs was the only true religion. (What, you say that those traits are still found in American culture and foreign policy?)

I think it useful to describe the book in terms of three sections.


Serra was born in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain, the largest of the Balearic Islands. He grew up there, joined the Franciscan Order there (where he took the name Junipero -- Juniper in English -- after one of the followers of Saint Francis), studied and taught there, received his doctorate in Philosophy there, and was ordained a priest there.

I knew very little about the island before reading the book except that it is now favored by British tourists seeking to escape the winter weather of their islands. Author Hackel provides a brief history of the island and descriptions of life there during the 18th century. I found that discussion interesting and useful.

Mexico/New Spain

Serra volunteered to serve as a missionary priest in Mexico -- then known as New Spain. He made the long and dangerous journey there, traveling first from Mallorca to Spain. then across Spain. and then to embark on what was in the 1700s a long and somewhat perilous sea journey, and then by land to Mexico City -- again a somewhat dangerous trip.

In New Spain he first served as a teacher in Querétaro. He also conducted what sound to me like revival meetings, traveling around the country to hold meetings at which he spoke to encourage Catholics to renew their faith and live by the dictums of that faith. Later he was a leader of the Franciscan missions in Sierra Gorda, where for some nine years he truly experienced the difficulties of converting Indians to Catholicism and bringing them to mission life.


Statue of Father Serra in the
Mission San Diego de Alcalá
In 1768, after the Jesuits had been expelled from their missions in Baja California, the Franciscans took over their administration, seeking to save the missionary effort. Father Serra became the Father President for the Franciscan missionaries involved in the effort.

Serra is best known, at least in the United States, as a founding father of California. The year after the Franciscans took control of the missions in Baja California, the colonial government decided to move into Alta California (what is now basically the state of California) in order to block any potential effort to further colonize the region by the Russians. It was decided by the government to send an expedition with two purposes:
  • to establish pueblos in key locations with military presence, and
  • to establish missions to convert the Indian population to Catholicism.
The Franciscans were again put in charge of the missionary effort, and Father Junipero Serra was again made the head of the effort. Father Serra himself baptized a large number of converts; after he was granted the right to perform the sacrament of confirmation (usually reserved for bishops of the Catholic church) he also confirmed thousands of Indians (as having achieved a mature understanding of their faith), Since his landing in Mexico he had suffered from leg problems, and in the last years of his missionary work was in severe ill health.

Internet source for map
Serra and the Indians

Steven Hackel writes that there were 310,000 Indians in Alta California when Serra started creating missions there. (I don't know how an accurate estimate could have been made.) Serra sought to gather Indians to live in the mission communities, and indeed to learn Spanish farming techniques to grow their own food. Hackel notes that since the Indians had no immunity to the communicable diseases brought by the Spanish to the New World, and since the missions were in occasional contact by ship with Mexico, epidemics arrived from time to time, spreading rapidly through the relatively dense mission communities of Indians; the mortality was terrible.

I wonder whether the missions are especially to blame for the destruction of Indian culture and the decimation of Indian populations in California. In the 19th century, a large number of land grants were given in Alta California by the newly independent government of Mexico. I suspect that the result was a loss of the traditional lands of the California Indians, and that event in turn would have led to high mortality rates, especially as some would have joined communities of hacienda workers at the newly established haciendas. With the 1849 gold rush, the influx of U.S. and foreign migrants took a further  huge toll on the Indians.

I also know from long experience as a development professional that many of my efforts and those of my colleagues failed. We had hundreds of years more experience to learn from than did Father Serra, and I sympathize with the failures he must have encountered in his long career. Building new, successful communities that involve major cultural change by the people who are to live in those communities is hard, and it is marked with major failures. I give more credit to Father Serra for trying and trying again after failures, than I criticize him for those failures.

Was Serra Saintly?

Serra was a Franciscan, and accepted the simple life style and oath of poverty of that order; indeed, Hackel indicates that Serra may have been even more devote than most of his fellow Franciscans. He certainly took large risks to become a missionary, abandoning what would have been a safer and perhaps less severe life in Mallorca. In the management of his missions he clearly drove himself very hard -- to the point of illness and even death.

I think Serra believed that only Catholics had a chance of going to heaven and living in eternal bliss with God; he would have believed that the Indians of Sierra Gorda and California in their native state violated the first commandment, putting false gods before the God of Abraham and Jesus Christ; moreover, the Indians would have been violating the ten commandments in many other ways. Serra would have believed that while all people sinned, only Catholics through the Church's sacraments could repent, have their sins forgiven, and finally die in a state of grace. Thus I think he believed that while Christians had the chance of heaven, heathen Indians were doomed to the other place for all eternity.

Assuming I am right, Serra would have believed that only the conversion of the Indians to Catholicism could save their souls and give them the chance of going to heaven. Moreover, he would have believed that their chance of heaven would be greatly enhanced living at a mission where they could take the sacraments on a regular basis and benefit from the teaching and guidance of the missionaries. Moreover, I think he would have believed that an Indian that continued to live in the traditional way with his/her tribe (or who left the mission to return to tribal life) even having converted to Catholicism, was in great peril of lapsing from the Catholic religion and losing out on eternity in heaven.

Thus I think Serra was willing to brave dangers, undergo sickness and injury, and live a simple and often uncomfortable life in order to grant the gift of eternal heavenly life to others. I think he believed that he managed to do so directly to thousands he baptized and/or confirmed and indirectly to many more through his missionary work and his leadership in the creation of missions. His companions and colleagues as well as many others thought his life and accomplishments to be saintly.

It is a commonplace statement in the study of history that one should not apply the moral standards of today to the people of the past. It is at least important to try to understand what those people believed and the roots of their behavior. Even today, many people think Junipero Serra went to heaven for his behavior during his life, and indeed pray to him for help in their own lives.

Final Comments

My parents and I moved to California when I was in the third grade and I grew up there. So I studied Junipero Serra in grammer school, visited missions, and was familiar with El Camino Real (the royal highway) which connected the missions and is still honored in markers on California roads. I lived for years within 20 or 30 miles of Mission San Juan Capistrano and knew about the clock like arrival of the swallows there (commemorated in a poem and song).

I also live about the same distance from Hemet, the site of the annual Ramona padgent; Ramona, the heroin of a California novel adapted in several media, was an orphan of mixed European-Indian ancestry, who was raised by Spanish foster parents. and who fell in love with an Indian man. The story, a tragedy, is set just after the Mexican American War.

Perhaps more to the point, I was trained as a Peace Corps Volunteer to work with the Mapuche Indians in the south of Chile. As part of that training I spent a month in a town of Tarascan Indians in Mexico. There I got the chance not only to know some of the people of the town, but to visit with the town priest, the latest in a hundreds of years long chain of priests serving that community; he showed me the church records going back hundreds of years.

Tupac Katari, Ayo Ayo's most famouscitizen, leader of an Indian revoltin the 1780s.
Much later I got to visit Ayo Ayo, a town of Aymara in altiplano Bolivia. There too I got to meet some of the people, and I got to visit the church which was also hundreds of years old. The priest there (also continuing a long history of ministry to the Indians) showed me church records of births, marriages and funerals going back centuries.

I did not get to work with the Mapuche as a PCV, but my friends who did learned how hard development is for Indian communities. I had my own failures both as a PCV and later.

I have come to have a lot of respect for American Indians and their (many different) cultures. While I understand that cultures change, as Spanish and Mexican culture have changed, I also have some caution about the cultural change I advocate.

Clearly the 37 million people who live in the state of California today arrived as a tidal wave that would not be resisted by the native California Indians. Indeed, the modern Californians are healthier, longer lived, and better educated than the peoples that they displaced. Still.....

In conclusion, let me say that I learned a lot from this book, both about Father Serra and about the world in which he lived. The book is short and quite readable, but also well researched and well documented. Perhaps most important, it advanced some very interesting questions that made me think and were worthy of that work.

  • Here is a post I made to provide background information for those reading about Junipero Serra
  • Here is a brief article by author Hackel on Father Serra. 
  • Here is a video news report triggered by the Pope's recent announcement that Father Serra is to be recognized as a saint; Hackel is included as an expert.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Recommending a website on the rise of political freedom and the decrease in violence

There is a very nice website produced by Max Roser that shows a decrease in violence worldwide, and seeks to provide at least a partial explanation -- all in graphs. Here are three drawn from the site:


Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but it does seem likely the increased education leads to social changes that both promote democratic governance and decrease violence in a society.

Background for Reading About Junipero Serra and the California Missions

California Lakes, Streams and Water Resources

California is a big place, with mountains, deserts, and fertile areas. The Indian population in say 1750 was a few hundred thousand, and they lived primarily as hunter gathers, using fire ecology to manipulate their environment to keep it fruitful for their way of life. Today California is experiencing a devastating drought -- devastating that is for most of the current 37+ million inhabitants of the state. However, the 20th century saw California emerge as an agricultural powerhouse, with huge production in the Central Valley (watered by rivers from the Sierra Nevada snow pack, with the San Joaquin and Sacramento River systems) and the Imperial Valley in the south-west irrigated with water from the Colorado River.

The Spanish

Spanish missions were established in Alta California from 1771 to 1783 under the leadership of Junipero Serra. The effort was part of a larger effort by the Spanish government to settle what was then a frontier, an effort that included sending troops to the region and establishing pueblos in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco. Baja California had been earlier, not too successfully, settled by the Spanish.

The Spanish focused their early colonization of Central and South America on relatively densely populated areas: The area of Central America that they found controlled by the Aztec Empire and the portion of South America that they found controlled by the Inca Empire. There was gold and silver in large quantities in these areas. Moreover, even after the Indian populations had been decimated, there were relatively large numbers of Indians who could be put to work to enrich their new Spanish masters; these Indians could also be converted to Catholicism.

Bartolomé de las Casas gets a brief mention in Junipero Serra's biography, but he perhaps deserves more attention.
Arriving as one of the first European settlers in the Americas, he participated in, and was eventually compelled to oppose, the atrocities committed against the Native Americans by the Spanish colonists. In 1515, he reformed his views, gave up his Indian slaves and encomienda, and advocated, before King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, on behalf of rights for the natives....... 
Bartolomé de las Casas spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples, especially by trying to convince the Spanish court to adopt a more humane policy of colonization. And although he failed to save the indigenous peoples of the Western Indies, his efforts resulted in several improvements in the legal status of the natives, and in an increased colonial focus on the ethics of colonialism. Las Casas is often seen as one of the first advocates for universal human rights.
The suppression of the Jesuits
in the Portuguese Empire, France, the Two Sicilies, Malta, Parma and the Spanish Empire by 1767 was a result of a series of political moves in each polity rather than a theological controversy. Monarchies attempting to centralize and secularize political power viewed the Jesuits as being too international, too strongly allied to the papacy, and too autonomous from the monarchs in whose territory they operated. By the brief Dominus ac Redemptor (21 July 1773) Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus. 
The Mexicans

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 after more than a decade of fighting. Alta California continued as a frontier for the Mexican government. While 30 land grants of huge California estates had been made by the Spanish government before Mexican Independence, that number was increased to about 455 by the Mexican Government. The Franciscan missions were secularized, and their lands and cattle were taken by the large haciendas. While immigration from Mexico was encouraged, and while the Indian population was much depleted by disease and cultural disruption by that time.
By 1845, the province of Alta California had a non-native population of about 1,500 Spanish and Latin American-born adult men along with about 6,500 women and their native-born children (who became the Californios). These Spanish-speakers lived mostly in the southern half of the state from San Diego north to Santa Barbara.[31] There were also around 1300 American immigrants and 500 European immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds. Nearly all of these were adult males and a majority lived in central and northern California from Monterey north to Sonoma and east to the Sierra Nevada foothills. 
A large non-coastal land grant was given to John Sutter who, in 1839, settled a large land grant close to the future city of Sacramento, California, which he called "New Helvetia" (New Switzerland). There, he built an extensive fort equipped with much of the armament from Fort Ross—bought from the Russians on credit when they abandoned that fort. Sutter's Fort was the first non-Native American community in the California Central Valley. Sutter's Fort, from 1839 to about 1848, was a major agricultural and trade colony in California, often welcoming and assisting California Trail travelers to California. Most of the settlers at, or near, Sutter's Fort were new immigrants from the United States.
The Russians

Russia had begun colonization of North America quite early, and Alaska and other Russian possessions in land claimed by the United States were not sold to the United States until 1867 -- after the Civil War. Quoting from Wikipedia:
From 1812 to 1841, the Russians operated Fort Ross, California.........By the 1830s, the Russian monopoly on trade was weakening. The British Hudson's Bay Company was leased the southern edge of Russian America in 1839 under the RAC-HBC Agreement, establishing Fort Stikine which began siphoning off trade.
And Fort Ross:
was the hub of the southernmost Russian settlements in North America between 1812 to 1842......In addition to farming and manufacturing, the Company carried on its fur-trading business at Fort Ross, but by 1817, after 20 years of intense hunting by Spanish, American and English ships - followed by Russian efforts - had practically eliminated sea otter in the area........
Following the formal trade agreement in 1838 between the Russian-American Company in New Archangel and Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley for their agricultural needs, the settlement at Fort Ross was no longer needed to supply the Alaskan colonies with food. The Russian-American Company consequently offered the settlement to various potential purchasers, and it was sold to John Sutter, a Mexican citizen of Swiss origin.
 Russian expansion into the west coast of what is now the United States, and especially its fur trade in Alta California was apparently one of the important reasons that the Spanish sought to reinforce its sovereignty over the region by establishing pueblos, missions, and military establishments.

British Empire

Canada remained a colony of the British Empire until the British North America Act in 1867. Prior to that date, the British empire and its Canadian colony competed with other nations for territory in western North America. Eventually, the boundary between British Canada and the United States was settled via a number of treaties and boundary surveys. The London Convention (1818) saw the boundary extended west along the 49th parallel. The Oregon Treaty (1846) established the 49th parallel as the boundary through the Rockies.

The United States

In the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States extended its territory from the Mississippi west to the Rocky Mountains. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) traveled through the northern portion of the land acquired and continued on to the Pacific.

Source: Wikipedia

John Jacob Astor's fur company established Astoria (Oregon) in 1611. The U. S. Exploring Expedition in the early 1840s charted the coast of Oregon, and send a party by land from Astoria to San Francisco Bay, where it was met by the ships of the expedition. The settlement of the coast was facilitated by the development of the Oregon Trail
a 2,200-mile (3,500 km) historic east-west large wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. The eastern part of the Oregon Trail spanned part of the future state of Kansas and nearly all of what are now the states of Nebraska and Wyoming. The western half of the trail spanned most of the future states of Idaho and Oregon. 
The Oregon Trail was laid by fur trappers and traders from about 1811 to 1840 and was only passable on foot or by horseback. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Wagon trails were cleared further and further west, eventually reaching all the way to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
Later the Oregon Trail was used in conjunction with branch trails for the early settlers from the United States to California, notably after the discovery of gold in 1848 and during the gold rush starting in 1849.

At the outbreak of the Mexican American War in 1846 led to U.S. annexation of California.
On June 15, 1846, some thirty settlers, mostly American citizens, staged a revolt and seized the small Californio garrison, in Sonoma, without firing a shot and declared the new California Republic government. 
On hearing of this revolt, John C. Fremont and his small exploratory force -- which had been in California -- returned and declared that California was henceforth United States territory. The "republic" never exercised any real authority and only lasted 26 days before accepting U.S. government control.
In 1846, the U.S. Navy was under orders to take over all California ports in the event of war. There were about 400–500 U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy bluejacket sailors available for possible land action on the Pacific Squadron's ships. Hearing word of the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma, California, and the arrival of the large British 2,600-ton, 600-man man-of-war HMS Collingwood flagship under Sir George S. Seymour, outside Monterey Harbor, Commodore Sloat was finally stirred to action. On July 7, 1846, seven weeks after war had been declared, Sloat instructed the captains of the ships USS Savannah and sloops Cyane and Levant of the Pacific Squadron in Monterey Bay to occupy Monterey, California—the Alta California capital. Fifty American marines and about 100 bluejacket sailors landed and captured the city without incident—the few Californio troops formerly there having already evacuated the city. They raised the flag of the United States without firing a shot.
California became a state in 1850. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Study: Polarization in Congress is worsening… and it stifles innovation

Red are Republicans, blue are Democrats. The horizontal scale is political ideology -- conservative on the right, progressive on the left.

Check out this study from the Santa Fe Institute, the home of the experts on the study of complexity.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Children are still migrating alone from Central America to the USA

An article in The Economist points out that children are still migrating to the USA from Central America, and doing so without adult family members to help. The numbers are down from 2014, but are still quite high.

The article goes on to state that the migration is not primarily to reunite the kids with family members in the USA but for them to escape the violence and poverty of their native lands.

The governments of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are working to improve conditions, but appear to need a lot of help to achieve their objectives. That is where Joe Biden's plan to provide $1 billion in aid next year comes in. Lets hope that Congress appropriates the money. It would be an important step in improving U.S. immigration policy.

Indeed, there used to be a Good Neighbor Policy and an Alliance for Progress. It is time for the United States government to return to a policy of offering a friendly hand to our neighbors to the south. If your neighbors house is on fire, and he asks for the use of your hose, you don't rent to him!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Juries Should Accept Testimony "With a Grain of Salt"

The Washington Post yesterday published an article (from which the above graphic was drawn). I quote from its lead paragraph:
The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.
 The FBI has spent decades seeking to establish a reputation for expert analysis of evidence and fairness in the presentation of its results. The halo effect on juries is not accidental.

Is fingerprint identification accurate and reliable? Here is a quote from one source:
The handful of studies of fingerprints show a troubling pattern of errors. Since 1995, Collaborative Testing Services, a company that evaluates the reliability and performance of fingerprint labs, has administered an annual and voluntary test. It sends fingerprint labs a test that includes eight to twelve pairs of prints that examiners confirm or reject as matches. The pairs usually consist of complete, not partial prints, making identifications easier than the real situations examiners face. Nevertheless the error rate has varied from 3% to a dismal 20%. 
Equally troubling is a test conducted by the FBI. During Byron Mitchell’s trial for armed robbery in 1999, his lawyers questioned the reliability of fingerprint identifications. In response, the FBI sent two prints taken from the getaway car and Mitchell’s prints to 53 crime labs to confirm the agency’s identification. Of the 39 labs that sent back their results, 9 (23%) concluded that Mitchell’s prints did not match those from the car. The judge nevertheless rejected the defense’s challenge and accepted the fingerprint evidence. Mitchell was convicted and remains in prison. The FBI has not repeated the experiment.
Lie Detector tests were once used widely by police and as evidence in courts. Here is what one source says about them:
In past times they were often used by police and government agents to interrogate suspected criminals, but as they have been proven to be extremely unreliable indicators of lying, their use has lessened in recent years (usually because of court rules prohibiting their use).
How about eye witness testimony? I draw this from an American Psychological Association website:
"Like trace evidence, eyewitness evidence can be contaminated, lost, destroyed or otherwise made to produce results that can lead to an incorrect reconstruction of the crime," he says. Investigators who employ a scientific model to collect, analyze and interpret eyewitness evidence may avoid incidents like Olson's potentially flawed identification of the Fairbanks suspects, he notes. 
In fact, Wells says that other evidence techniques, such as police lineups, are similar to scientific experiments. In lineups, the police have a hypothesis, they provide instructions, collect responses and interpret the results. As such, the same factors that can bias the results of an experiment can bias an eyewitness's performance in picking suspects out of a lineup, he says. 
In a 2000 American Psychologist (Vol. 55, No. 6, pages 581-598) article that dovetailed with the Department of Justice report, Wells and his colleagues outlined a number of ways police can avoid biasing eyewitness testimony, including warning the witness that the actual perpetrator may or may not be in a lineup, maintaining a double-blind lineup environment so that a detective cannot influence a witness's judgments and securing a statement of the witness's certainty of their identification. 
"To a research psychologist, the changes seem obvious," he says. "But to law enforcement officials they are very different from how they've tended to do things in the past."
I wonder how many jurors understand that testimony that they hear in court, even expert testimony, may not be accurate. How many are prepared to recognize that even FBI testimony may be flawed and may not in itself "prove" culpability. 

Are American Juriies Adequately Educated to Do What They Are Asked to Do?

American juries are asked to decide in criminal cases whether the state has proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and in civil cases which side has the preponderance of evidence in its favor. I wonder how many Americans are really capable of making such sophisticated judgments. Do jurors more generally decide which side they "believe", as the two sides present their different narratives of the case at hand?

I spent years thinking in terms of Bayesian statistics -- how each piece of evidence changed the probabilities of one or another hypothesis. I am quite comfortable not "believing" either of two narratives explaining the same outcome. Indeed, I think it quite reasonable to assume that one might -- in principle if not in fact -- assign a probability that narrative A is true, a probability that narrative B is true, and a probability that neither narrative A nor narrative B is true.

I am also familiar in a general way with the literature on common cognitive biases I would guess I am more familiar the existence of such biases than the vast majority of Americans.

I have had some experience, documented in my doctoral dissertation, with the errors that experts make in estimating their own accuracy, and in statistical means for estimating accuracy of expert judgment.

I have also been involved in the review of many thousands of research proposals and fellowship applications, and have many times participated in decisions as to whether a review was or was not adequate, based on the background of the reviewers and observation of panel behavior.

I assume that the "preponderance of evidence" means that a jurist is to decide in favor of the narrative he/she thinks is more probable based on the evidence provided.

I an not sure how great a probability for the narrative provided by the state is required for a jurist to find that the defendant is guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt".

My basic point is that it does not seem necessary nor appropriate to "believe" one or the other narrative. It is possible and indeed preferable to consider the probability one would assign to each narrative to be true.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Daily Internet Usage

Daily internet usage (courtesy Monish Dutt) via Guy Pfeffermannn.

The USA and western Europe are as expected heavy users of the Internet. So too is the area of South America including Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. Western Australia and New Zealand show up as heavy users (the outback not so much).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Volcanic Eruptions Endanger World Systems

This graphic is from an interesting article in the current issue of The Economist. It suggests that, while there are many factors that determine climate such as El Nino/La Nina, the huge volcanic eruption in the 13th century is implicated in the Little Ice Age.
Mount Tambora....., a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, was once similar in stature to Mont Blanc or Mount Rainier. But in April 1815 it blew its top off in spectacular fashion. On the 10th and 11th it sent molten rock more than 40 kilometres into the sky in the most powerful eruption of the past 500 years. The umbrella of ash spread out over a million square kilometres; in its shadow day was as night. Billions of tonnes of dust, gas, rock and ash scoured the mountain’s flanks in pyroclastic flows, hitting the surrounding sea hard enough to set off deadly tsunamis; the wave that hit eastern Java, 500km away, two hours later was still two metres high when it did so. The dying mountain’s roar was heard 2,000km away. Ships saw floating islands of pumice in the surrounding seas for years........ 
The year after the eruption clothes froze to washing lines in the New England summer and glaciers surged down Alpine valleys at an alarming rate. Countless thousands starved in China’s Yunnan province and typhus spread across Europe. Grain was in such short supply in Britain that the Corn Laws were suspended and a poetic coterie succumbing to cabin fever on the shores of Lake Geneva dreamed up nightmares that would haunt the imagination for centuries to come. And no one knew that the common cause of all these things was a ruined mountain in a far-off sea.
The article goes on to suggest that while huge volcanic eruptions such as those described above are rare, they almost certainly will reappear. The global food system is now more global, and if food production is disrupted on one continent, production on other continents might help make up the shortfall; indeed, if production in the northern or southern hemisphere is disrupted, the shortfall might be partially made up on the other. Still, more greenhouses and hydroponic production capacity might be advisable.

Friday, April 10, 2015

American Should Know More About the History of Science and Technology

Last night the book club to which I belong discussed Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick. (I previously posted my thoughts on this book.)

A key point made in the book is that the Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) marked an important point in the emergence of science and technology in the United States. As a direct result of the Ex. Ex., the Smithsonian Institution was instituted to do science and to house scientific collections. Such collections are critical to the development of descriptive sciences such as ethnology, zoology and botany.

Moreover, the the United States Botanical Garden, the United States Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory were all created as as a result of the Ex. Ex. For the Ex. Ex. the Congress accepted its role in funding scientific work, and it continued increasingly to so ever since. Philbrick states that while there had been men who did science in the United States before the Ex. Ex., it was only after the Exploring Expedition that it became possible for young men to plan a career as paid scientists.

So What?

Why is the Ex. Ex. not widely known by the American public, and why is it not taught in the schools? The question was asked in several forms by members of our club last night, but I think not fully answered.

The North American colonies of the European imperial powers were quite provincial. Some science was done, and some technology was advanced, but the English colonies were kept dependent on England. Since the Revolutionary War and independence, the United States has grown into the world leader in science and technology. For a while after World War II, at least half of the papers published in scientific and technological journals were produced by U.S. authors. The Ex. Ex. marked an important benchmark in the growth of American science and technology/

The American System of Manufacturing gave the United States a competitive advantage in international commerce, as well as in the manufacture of products for domestic markets. It was developed first in the government armories, starting in the 1820s -- about the same time that the idea for the Ex. Ex. was gaining steam.

Americans went to sea in significant numbers in the 19th century; the U.S. whaling industry was the largest in the world at the time, but there was also a China trade, and extensive coastal trade, and extensive river traffic. As Sea of Glory illuminates, the government assisted in the growth of this industry by charting the areas frequented by the ships. I suppose that the building of iron-clad ships in the Civil War also advanced ship building technology via government support.

Starting very early, the government created West Point to train military engineers. The Naval Academy was established in 1845. In 1862 the federal government passed the Morrill Act which made grants to federal land to create a national system of land grant colleges which were to advance -- among other things --agriculture, mechanical arts and military tactics. In 1887, the Hatch Act led to the creation of agricultural research stations in the land grant colleges and thus to agricultural extension services. This system was instrumental in making U.S. agriculture efficient and a major motor for national growth.

I could go on to identify government roles in the inventions of the telegraph, the electrical light and the supporting electrical infrastructure, automobiles, airplanes, radio, computers, the Internet etc.

One of the members pointed out during the meeting that Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction in England while the Ex. Ex. was conducting its explorations. The great American scientist, Joseph Henry, independently discovered electromagnetic induction at about the same time; Henry of course soon after became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Henry will be remembered as long as inductance is measured in a unit called the Henry in his honor. Similarly, some decades later, James Clark Maxwell (from the United Kingdom) clarified the relation between electricity and magnetism, and will be remembered as long as that relationship is described by Maxwell's equations. During our club meeting it was suggested that 1000 years from now, Henry and Maxwell may well be remembered, while people will not be sure exactly who Abraham Lincoln was or what he did.

Why is it that American schools don't teach about the U.S. Exploring Expedition as part of the general curriculum? Indeed, American schools don't teach the history of science and technology. A part of the answer may be a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American life.

More Generally

Perhaps secondary school children should be prepared to pass the following essay exam to graduate:

  1. For most of the human race's time on earth, most people spent a large part of their time getting food, and since in spite of that hunger was common, famine not exceptional. What is the historical sequence of events that explains how it is that a few percent of Americans are able to produce enough food for the whole country, that there is enough food that no one need go hungry, and that famine is unknown in the USA?
  2. For most of that time, average life expectancy was much lower than it is today and the population was much smaller. Over history, many diseases have emerged into the human population. What is the historical sequence of events that explains how it is that life expectancy at birth in the United States is now so much longer than it was in the past?
  3. For most of that time, people didn't have many possessions; indeed, for a great deal of the race's time on earth people had so few possessions that they could carry them all with them. What is the historical sequence of events that explains how Americans have so many possessions -- homes, cars, clothing, and many other things?
  4. The human race today has more knowledge than ever before, indeed, by orders of magnitude more than it had even 500 or 1000 years in the past. Moreover, while mastery of that body of knowledge is widely distributed in a huge population, the average teenager in the USA has more access to knowledge through his/her smart phone than did the greatest monarch a century ago through his government. What is the historical sequence of events by which this situation came tp pass?
  5. People today are more able to do what they want than ever before -- on the average they can live more comfortably, move faster and over longer distances (and indeed leave the earth), communicate more quickly and easily over longer distances, overcome disabilities to a greater degree, and entertain themselves with a greater variety of alternatives of better quality. What were the historical sequences of events that so empowered people of today, as compared with those of the past?

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

African Development in Data

Sounds right to me!

A thought about perverse incentives

I wonder if the incentives built into our system for pharmaceutical research are leading us down the wrong path. Companies that develop new drugs and pay for the extensive testing needed to get FDA approval then:
  • obtain a monopoly on the sale of the drug for nearly two decades. and 
  • protected by the monopoly, price the drug to maximize income to the company.
A drug need not have a huge market to make a big profit if the price can be very high. How much will a patient or insurer be willing to pay for a course of treatment with a drug? Perhaps the same or just less than the preexisting course of treatment that offers comparable therapeutic value. So for a patient that has cancer and is looking at a course of treatment combining radiation and surgery with lots of laboratory work and physician consultation, a drug with comparable therapeutic value might be priced very high indeed.

A vaccine might have a very large market, and prevent a lot of disease, disability and death, but probably could not be priced very high.
  • A lot of the people who would be part of the market could not pay much for a vaccine;
  • People who are not sick are not willing to pay much for a treatment that only reduces still further what they perceive to be a small probability of getting a disease if not immunized/
  • This is true even without the anti-vaccine fears that are being stirred up.
Of course the executives of the firms choosing development projects are making decisions based on the likelihood that they will be successful, that if successful, they will be the first in the field.

So we have Viagra, which is very profitable for the firm that developed it, but we don't yet have a vaccine against malaria nor a vaccine against HIV.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

On getting good information from peer review meetings

I read an interesting column in The Economist on getting good results from meetings. I quote extensively from that Free Exchange column:
In 1785 the Marquis de Condorcet, a French mathematician and philosopher, noted that if every voter in a group has a better-than-even chance of choosing the preferable of two options, and if voters do not influence each other, then large groups of voters are very likely to make the right choice.* The bigger and more diverse the group the better: more people bring more information to the table which, if properly harnessed, leads to improved decisions. But ever bigger meetings imply more time spent in them: few workers would welcome that. And even with more people in the room, all manner of behavioural flaws stand in the way. 
One problem that obstructs sensible decision-making is the “halo effect”—“owning the room” in the parlance of Silicon Valley.......A second problem is called “anchoring”. In a classic study Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman secretly fixed a roulette wheel to land on either 10 or 65. The researchers span the wheel before their subjects, who were then asked to guess the percentage of members of the United Nations that were in Africa. Participants were influenced by irrelevant information: the average guess after a spin of 10 was 25%; for a spin of 65, it was 45%. In meetings, anchoring leads to a first-mover advantage. Discussions will focus on the first suggestions (especially if early speakers benefit from a halo effect, too). Mr Kahneman recommends that to overcome this, every participant should write a brief summary of their position and circulate it prior to the discussion...... 
Tom Gole of the Boston Consulting Group and Simon Quinn of Oxford University studied the votes of judges at international school debating tournaments. In these tournaments, three judges are randomly assigned to each debate (with some controls to ensure each panel has a mixture of experience, gender and so on). Judges watch the debate, then immediately vote on the winner before conferring. Crucially for the experiment, the participating teams are seeded. Using some whizzy statistical modelling, the authors find that if a judge disagrees with her fellow panellists in a given round, she is more likely to vote for the pre-tournament favourite—the higher-seeded team—in later debates. That suggests, say the authors, an unspoken desire to avoid “too much” disagreement. 
Career concerns may distort incentives even if votes are secret. In a 2007 paper Gilat Levy of the London School of Economics noted that observers can work out how likely it is that committee members have voted one way or another from ballot rules. If unanimity is required for a measure to pass, and it does, then outsiders will know with certainty how every member has voted. A simple majority rule means that observers can assign at least a 50% probability to any one committee member having given their assent; if a majority of two-thirds is required, the probability that any given member has supported the proposal goes up. The incentive to vote against controversial measures rises the greater the likelihood that each member will be blamed for its passage.
I have posted a number of times on peer review (check the "peer review" tag to get them all. What we did to get good results in the peer review of research proposals was:

  • To try to screen at a preproposal level to be sure we were asking reviewers to look at decent proposals (and to save proponents from writing detailed proposals with little chance of being funded).
  • Criteria for approval of proposals were carefully defined and described. (Note that the purpose of the program determines the criteria; our program was intended to build capacity to do research in developing countries, and sometimes a proposal strong on this criterion would be funded while a stronger scientific proposal with less capacity building involved would not be funded.
  • To group proposals into small groups on related topics, and send each to a primary and secondary reviewer. They would be asked to write a review and rate the proposal prior to the meeting.
  • The primary and secondary reviewers for all the proposals in a single group would form a panel. All the proposals would be sent to each member, and all the members of the panel were expected to read all of the proposals before the face-to-face panel meeting. (Normally, something like 8 to 10 proposals would be reviewed by a single panel, and normally a single reviewer would not be the primary reviewer on more than two proposals, nor the secondary reviewer on more than two.)
  • In the meeting, the proposals would be discussed one at a time. The primary reviewer would speak first on a given proposal, and then the secondary reviewer would speak. There would then be a general discussion, after which, the proposal would be rated by all of the reviewers individually. The average rating would be calculated. Proposals at this stage would also be judged by consensus to be potentially worthy of funding or so flawed in some way as not to be worth funding.
  • When all the proposals had been reviewed, discussed and rated, they would be ranked from best to least useful by consensus of the panel. The average rating would be a guide to the ranking, but we discovered that sometimes after discussion a panel would find that comparing two proposals they would rank that with the lower rating to be in fact more worthy of funding and thus of higher rank.
  • At all panel meetings we would have at least two people to judge the panel discussion -- one from our office and one from the National Academy of Sciences staff. If the judges determined that the review was not adequate for some reason for one or more of the proposals, additional reviews would be sought and a final decision would be taken by our staff.
  • We would then allocate our total budget among the top rated projects (all of course specified as worthy of funding by their respective panels), using the ratings as a guide as well as the observations of the panel reviews.
The program was part of the foreign assistance effort of the U.S. Government, and the reviews were held in the Washington D.C. area, which has a very large and strong scientific community. We found that local scientists were willing to do the reviews and come to peer review meetings without fees or reimbursement of costs if we selected from the local universities, laboratories or government agencies. Ours was a relatively small program. Reviewers seemed to enjoy the experience.

Changes in the ICT Industry Market Value

Source: The Economist
 It seems hard to remember how dominant IBM was in out minds in the 1980s, but the ICT business has become much more competitive today. I suppose that investors might have some caution looking at what happened to ICT stock values in 1999, and how Microsoft and Apple have weakened in the past.

Nice to See Former Republics of the USSR Doing WellS

Source: The Economist
I spent a little time in Kazakhstan a few years ago and was very positively impressed by how thoughtfully the people I met were going about using their new found oil wealth.

The Culture Wars in the USA

Source: The Economist
The culture wars in the USA have deep historical roots, as the maps show. The states that sought to leave the Union and form a Confederacy a century and a half ago (outlined above) tend to be much more conservative than the rest of the country, especially the west coast and the north east. Utah, with its Mormon heritage, stands out in orange on three of the four maps, virtually alone in the west.

Whitman was the greater wordsmith

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
Walt Whitman

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Undivided Past

I watched an interview with Sir David Cannadine on his book, The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences. He made a good point that so much of what we see and hear about the world stresses conflict, but much of human history and most of human institutions seem to focus on cooperation and communication -- the good news seems not to be newsworthy.

In his book he looks at six topics: religion, nation, class, gender, race and "civilization", noting that these are factors by which people tend to define themselves, and that different people at different times have stressed each as "the defining basis" for self-identification. (Religion as the basis for Christian-Muslim conflict, etc.)

He notes that "nation" is a relatively new organizing concept. I suppose it has replaced tribe for much of the world, although tribalism seems still important in some places. Clearly we think of nationalism as an underlying element in the great conflicts of the 20th century.

In the interview he mentioned that "empire" was something he considered as a possible chapter subject, but did not ultimately choose. Multi-ethnic empires and multi-racial empires were clearly different than nation-states, and we certainly saw empires fighting each other for a long, long time.

But I wondered whether age might not be considered as also one of those ways in which we define ourselves -- think of Shakespeare's seven ages of man. Today, at least, we clearly think of childhood as different than working age, or than old age. Think of the Young Turks waiting for their turn at the seats of power.

I also wonder if there is not an emerging division between "modern", educated people who tend to value scientific knowledge and adapt new technologies quickly versus "traditional" people with less formal education, who tend to value traditional knowledge and adapt new technologies less quickly.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Thinking about rules for knowledge seeking

Whatever your religion, most people on earth follow a different one. Throughout the ages, most people thought the earth was flat and the sun and stars were in orbit over a stationary world. "Seeing is believing", but we know that there are optical illusions; lawyers know that eye-witness testimony is often wrong. Such facts should help one to understand that what one believes to be true now might not be true.
  • Perhaps the first rule in thinking should be to realize one may be wrong. Even the strongest belief should be held with a grain of salt.
There are thousands of languages spoken in the world, and no one has ever learned more than a handful of them. There are millions of places to see in the world, and no one has ever seen them all. There are billions of people living today, and no one can meet more than a tiny fraction of them. There are millions of books available to read, with more published each year, and no one can master more than a tiny fraction of them. Such facts should help one to understand that one can not know everything there is to know. Indeed, one should not try to form an opinion on everything.
  • Perhaps the second rule in thinking should be to focus on a limited number things to know and understand.
Not all knowledge is equally important to a person; the value of specific pieces of knowledge varies from person to person. Some knowledge such as how to protect the health and safety of children should be valued by everyone. Knowledge needed to do one's job well and advance in one's career will depend on that job and that career, but is likely to be important. Knowledge about the price of beans in Nepal is likely to be important only to people who eat beans and live in Nepal.
  • Set priorities. and seek to learn about those things that are important to you and that you have a good chance of learning.
It costs time and effort (and sometimes money to obtain information and turn it into knowledge.
  • Seek the knowledge that is worth the seeking; don't waste time, effort and money seeking knowledge that isn't worth the cost to you. Do you really have to form an informed opinion about every sporting contest, every crime, every person celebrating her 15 minutes of fame?
  • Sometimes your knowledge is good enough for your practical purposes; don't spend more time, effort and money getting knowledge that won't change your opinion and/or won't change your decision.
  • Realize, according to the first rule that your priorities are likely to miss some things you should know and have you learn things you will never need nor use.
Society has evolved means to come to relatively accurate conclusions about matters of fact over thousands of years. The sciences are an excellent case in point, and while some of the sciences produce assertions that are more credible than others, scientific consensus is pretty trustworthy. Trial by jury, under a rule of law, with well trained advocates representing each side is also a reasonably effective means of reaching a reasonably credible solution to certain kinds of mysteries. Some professionsl (such as medicine and law) require members to have high levels of knowledge, guaranteed by training and licensing. We race horses to discover which runs faster; teams compete to find out which is better at its sport. Organized religions also have means to discover which assertions are more credible; thus religious scholars seek to identify errors that may have crept into early texts, or to reason the logical implications in changing circumstances to the articles of their faith. Perhaps then:
  • Look to credible sources for information to inform your knowledge;
  • If a credible source is in the process of seeking knowledge on an issue, perhaps you should suspend judgment on that issue until the work of the source is completed. (I have increasingly wondered why people jump to judgement about crimes covered in the media instead of waiting for a jury to do its duty.)
Some sources of information are not so credible. Ask if the people pushing the information benefit if you believe it; used car salesmen, television pitch men, and politicians running for office are not the only ones who may be pushing bad information. News media are seeking eyes -- they are not necessarily in the truth business. For example, the newest, most unexpected scientific result you hear about may never be replicated and may sink into oblivion.
  • Avoid relying on sources for information that lack credibility.
  • If you do get information from a source you don't trust, it may be worth the effort to check out the source and look for confirmation of the information.
The value you ascribe to different kinds of knowledge should change over your lifetime. It may be important to know how to take multiple choice tests well when you are a student, but in adult life you are seldom if ever asked to take multiple choice tests. Starting out in a job you normally are asked to master relatively simple duties, but if you advance to management the duties change and new knowledge is required. The knowledge of how to get some one to marry you is different than the knowledge needed to have a successful marriage; parenting brings whole new realms of knowledge needs that also change with time.
  • Don't be a perpetual sophomore! Look for the knowledge you will need, before you need it. "Just in time" knowledge acquisition strategies are pretty dangerous.
You never really know what you will really need to know. Moreover, it is often useful to be seen by those around you as well informed. Today an educated person is expected to have general knowledge. In an increasingly globalized world, what happens on other continents affects your life. History, Economics, Geography, Political Science, Philosophy, Psychology and other subjects are worth knowing.
  • Read non-fiction and learn about the world in general.
Shakespeare's Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Richard III don't seek historical accuracy, but they they can teach deeper knowledge about how people can be and why they do what they do. How do you know these plays are worth your attention? Well they have been in pretty continuous production for half a millennium, they have challenged the best actors of generation after generation, and they are obviously key sources of our literary culture:
  • Attend to great fiction and learn how different people are and what can motivate them.
After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The wars dragged on for more than a decade and cost trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives (and uncounted lives in other countries. Citizens will pay for the wars for decades, and surviving disabled soldiers for the rest of their lives. The wars destabilized a whole region of the world. Citizens of the United States, and indeed of all countries, could have influenced their governments and through their governments these events, but only if they had followed those events in the news.
  • Spend some of your learning resources following the news on the most credible sources you can find.
Knowledge depreciates. Once it was important to know about horses and buggies, but later it became important to know about automobiles and the horse and buggy know how lost value.  As computer chips became more powerful, and less expensive for a given level of ability, smart phones were added to tablets, which were added to laptops, which were added to desk top computers; the knowledge of computers and software multiplied exponentially, and some of the old knowledge lost its value completely.
  • Renew your knowledge as needed, and don't bother to keep up knowledge that has lost its value.
The arguments above suggest that people should think about meta-knowledge -- knowledge about knowledge. Choose more rather than less credible sources of information; focus your knowledge acquisition where it will do the most good -- that is get you the most benefit in your life for the time, effort and money you devote to learning (and forgetting).
  • Plan your learning and forgetting so as to husband your learning resources and to optimize the benefits you obtain from what you learn.
Bill Clinton plays the saxophone and Barack Obama knows basketball (as apparently does everyone in Indiana). Some people love garden flowers and know a lot about them, others prefer nature and know about wildlife. Knowing things can be fun, and you need some fun in your life.
  • Learn things for the fun of knowing them. No one ever died regretting that they enjoyed life too much.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

For you youngsters in your 50s and 60s!

Deric Bownds posted this graph on Deric's Mind Blog of the ages at which different cognitive abilities are measured to peak. Check out the full posting.

Now in my late 70s, most of my mental abilities are apparently trailing off. That is why I retired from active professional life/