Saturday, October 31, 2015

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

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

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

The Martian | International Official Trailer 2

Happy Halloween

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cat Blues - Christelle Berthon

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

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

Shapes are right, size reflects amount of US aid.

From Chris Blattman via William Easterly

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Lamar Smith, Chair person of the House Science Committee

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 24, 2015

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

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


'Tree of life' for 2.3 million species released

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

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

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

Read more at:

Joseph Stiglitz: Income Inequality and American Democracy

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

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

Singing locally at Baldwin Station Thursday, December 17th.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ah-ha! moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2015

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

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

Joan Baez & Mercedes Sosa "Gracias A La Vida"

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

Irish History in 6 Minutes

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Taste and Smell

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

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

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


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

Proprioception and Sense of Space

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

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

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

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

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

My Friend's Orthopedic Surgeon

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

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

Final Comment

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

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

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

And now for some good news from the World Bank: global poverty rate now below 10 percent.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

On Decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 05, 2015

Improving Crop Yields to Respond to Global Warming and Population Growth

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 04, 2015

About Declaring Junipero Serra a Saint

The canonization (declaration of sainthood) of Father Junipero Serra has proven controversial. Many are pleased that a Hispanic was so honored, and that he was honored for his acts in what is now the USA. Moreover, Serra was so honored by the Pope during a mass said for the first time in the USA. Others are deeply offended by what they perceive is an honor accorded to a man who helped destroy Indian culture, who helped bring decimating diseases to the California Indians, and whose missions maltreated the very converts that they had made. Apparently, this latter group even desecrated the Carmel Mission where Serra is buried.

I am no expert on the subject, but perhaps I can bring some light to the controversy.  The History Book Club to which I belong recently discussed Father Serra's life after reading Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel; this relatively new book has gotten good reviews.

As a general principle, do not expect that the Roman Catholic Church, which is evangelical, will accept an argument that its missionaries did wrong in converting those of other faiths to Catholicism. A fundamental principle of the religion is that it was created by Jesus Christ who charged his apostles to go forth and convert people to the religion that he had founded. The church continues its evangelical efforts in response to that directive. That is how it came to have 1.2 billion members. Nor should you expect that California Indians and other  anti-colonialists will accept Serra, an agent of Spanish colonial power as hero or role model.

What Does It Mean When the Catholic Church Declares Someone a Saint?

Canonization is a declaration by the church that the newly declared saint led a life that was in important parts worthy of emulation by Catholics.

It does not mean that the person was without sin, nor that the person did not make mistakes in his/her lifetime. Human beings sin and make mistakes -- all of us do! Indeed, the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is very important in church practice in that it provides a means for the forgiveness of sins.

How Serious is the Church Effort to Assure that a Person so Honored is Worthy of the Honor?

The process by which a person is declared a saint by the Catholic Church is long and arduous. Here are a couple of descriptions of that process:
Junipero Serra died in 1784 and was canonized a saint in 2015; this hardly seems precipitous.
Statue of Serra
in the Capitol
Compare this with the placement of a statue of Serra in the Capitol Building in 1931 on the motion of California, one of two allowing the state to identify founding fathers of its culture and civilization.

Of course, there were reasons that the canonization was done now. It served to recognize and enhance the importance of the Hispanic culture in the USA. It was a very beautiful event that Pope Francis could conduct before the greatest possible audience. It had special impact as the first time a mass was ever conducted in the USA to formally declare someone a saint, and it was focused on someone who had performed his most visible and important services in what is not the USA.

I suspect that Pope Francis did not take the step lightly. He is after all the head of a 2000 year old church, responsible to turn it over to the next pope in good condition. He had earlier formally apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in the mistreatment of American Indians, and must have been aware of the movement in the U.S. Indian community to oppose Serra's canonization as inappropriate. I suspect he personally considered the options (he is after all a Jesuit, with advanced training in theology) and decided that the canonization was merited. Of course, Pope Francis is human and could be wrong.

Why Did Serra Do What He Did?

For those who are not familiar with the Catholic Church, I will give a little background which I think helps one understand Serra's motivations for what he did. 

Serra probably had had a fairly comfortable life in Mallorca as a priest and professor, even having taken vows of poverty and obedience. However, he sought to become a missionary in Mexico, which he must have believed would lead him to live a more dangerous, difficult and uncomfortable life; one can only presume he did so because he believed the good he could do as a missionary outweighed the negatives of the new life as missionary that he was requesting. His service in Mexico eventually became similarly comfortable to his service to the church in Mallorca -- living in a Franciscan facility that one presumes to have been relatively comfortable and preaching to large groups of Mexican Catholics encouraging them to renew their faith. In Mexico, however, he had acquired a seriously ulcerated leg that would trouble him the rest of his life. When the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico, he accepted the responsibility of taking over supervision of their missions in Baja California, and then of beginning the creation of a chain of mission in southern Alta California. This later work would be especially dangerous, arduous and challenging.

There are seven sacraments in Catholic ritual. Baptism is only given once, usually soon after birth; it enters the recipient into the church. Repentance and Holy Eucharist are usually first given at about age 7, when children have learned about sin and have a basic potential for repentance of sins; these sacraments are given repeatedly through life for the forgiveness of sins and unity with the church. Confirmation is given usually about 13, when a young person is considered able to be fully responsible for his/her faith. Matrimony is the marriage sacrament. Holy Orders is the sacrament by which a man becomes a priest. Anointing of the Sick can be given to any really sick person, but is especially important at the end of a fatal illness. Serra would have believed that a baptized and confirmed person who died with sins forgiven (ideally after receiving the sacraments of Repentance, Holy Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick shortly before death) would enjoy eternal life in the presence of God. He would have believed that Indians who lived according to their native culture (not members of the Catholic Church, not have had the benefit of periodic forgiveness of sins, whose sexual relations were not sanctified by Catholic marriage) would not go to heaven, would not have eternal bliss. Thus he would have seen himself as providing the greatest service Baptizing Indians, instructing them in the Catholic faith, introducing them to the sacraments of Repentance and Holy Eucharist, and Confirming them. 

Apparently it was considered normal at the time for priests to use corporal punishment on members of their religious flock -- as it was normal for parents to physically punish their children to drive home lessons in comportment. Serra apparently whipped himself and beat his breast with a rock.

Indians who converted to Catholicism were expected to join the Mission community so that they could continue receiving instruction and the sacraments. Serra would have expected, probably correctly, that an Indian leaving the mission would fall away from the church; Serra would have believed that that Indian by leaving the mission would be endangering his/her immortal soul. Bringing such a person back to the mission would -- in Serra's opinion -- have justified draconian measures to save the person's soul for his/her own good!

What Actually Did Serra Do in California?

Serra went to California in 1769. He started nine missions before he died in 1784. They must have been pretty minimal in their first years since only one priest was assigned per mission during Serra's lifetime. The duties of the priests were to see to the building of the mission church, to convert Indians, to instruct the converted Indians in the Catholic religion, to build a dwelling for himself and for those Indians who would convert and live in the mission, and to establish an agricultural base so that the mission community could feed itself, with perhaps some surplus to provide the nearby military base.

Serra fought to separate the soldiers and the military posts from the missions. He protested against the military governors treatment of Indians, effectively. Here is a quote from The Economist:
Admirers call Serra a champion of the underdog, who denounced Spanish troops for raping Indian women (some were lassoed like animals, he recorded) and for killing native men who resisted. His writings include a successful appeal to spare an Indian who killed a missionary during a revolt in San Diego in 1775, so that he could be “saved” by conversion. “For that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification,” he wrote to the viceroy in Mexico City, far to the south. The present-day archbishop of Los Angeles, José Gómez, has called Serra’s appeal one of the earliest recorded pleas against the death penalty.
I find it difficult to believe that nine priests could decimate the Indian population of California in 15 years, especially since it was unlikely that having walked to their missions from Baja California they would have been infectious on arrival. Remember too that the missions were being established over the entire 15 years, with the last only being created in 1782. During Serra's lifetime the missions would have had only a light footprint on the land of Alta California.

Why is he then Controversial?

We Americans tend to think of church and state as separate entities. The 18th century Spanish, deep into the Counter Reformation, had no such idea. Father Serra was sent to start missions in Alta California as an agent of the Spanish government; those missions were missions of the government affiliated church.

Thus Father Serra was a co-leader of the Spanish government's effort to extend the reach of its power into Alta California. That was clearly the start of a process in which the Indian population was under attack, and was eventually decimated.

Moreover, it was a process in which California Indian culture was specifically targeted, It would seem that the government did not want a California inhabited by "wild Indians", but rather a California in which the remaining Indians produced goods and services that would enrich the crown. Not only were the Indians to become Roman Catholics, inhabiting missions in large numbers, but other aspects of their culture were also to be changed. It was noted that a number of huge land grants were made in California before the Mexican Revolution (and many more afterwards); the Indians were an obvious source of workers for the ranches that were created from those land grants (as indeed they were for the economic activity of the missions) -- but only if their culture was changes so that they became "tame" rather than "wild Indians".

For U.S. Indians, and especially for the current members of California tribes, Junipero Serra was the most famous of the first generation of "colonizers"; and it was the missionaries' followers if not they themselves who not only destroyed the California Indian way of life, their culture, and the Indian population itself but did so deliberately and without consulting their victims. Modern Indians and their allies see no reason to honor him.

The Positions of the Two Parties to the Controversy

I suggest that the Catholic Church position might be as follows: Serra was a man with deeply informed Catholic faith, who sacrificed much in order to strengthen the faith of thousands of Catholics and who brought thousands more to the "one true faith". He lived a life of great simplicity and underwent great risks to accomplish what he did for his religion. These aspects of his life can serve as models for the faithful and members of the church are encouraged to study his life and learn from his example.

While the counter position might be: Serra was a knowing agent of imperial colonialism -- an imperialism in which the Catholic Church was a willing partner and agent of the Spanish imperial government. Over centuries, Spanish colonialism (followed by Mexican colonialism, and indeed by something much like U.S. colonialism) resulted in subjugation of the California Indians, the virtually complete destruction of their culture, and indeed the deaths of a very large portion of the Indian population of Alta California. Thus Serra should not be honored, but rather his life and efforts in Alta California should be seen in the negative light as the beginning of an imperial, colonial process that dramatically injured the interest of the people it colonized. If anything, Serra's efforts in California should be seen as an example of what not to do.

Where do I Stand?

As I said in the start of this post, I see little likelihood that Father Serra will be abandoned by the Catholic Church, since he seems to have lived the prototypical life of an 18th century Catholic Church's saintly person.

Nor do I see any way that the California Indians are likely to accept Serra as a hero. He was the tip of the camel's nose entering the tent of their ancestors, and generations of those ancestors suffered hugely destructive impacts from imperial colonialism that he exemplified.

One option is to refrain from judging a historical figure based on today's values and on chains of events that he could not have foreseen. Another option is

  • to allow the Catholics to canonize the man highlighting aspects of his life to serve as a model for Catholics, 
  • and for those interested in social and economic development to see Serra as a man whose good intentions were ultimately tied to dysfunction -- a lesson for many of us who have fallen in the same trap or who may do so. 
At the least, we owe the historical parties to study the real history of their time and their acts, and not to judge on false evidence.

Junipero Serra