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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Global Diabetes Epidemic

A study published in the Lancet shows that the number of people with diabetes has doubled since 1980. According to the study, Diabetes is one of the biggest causes of mortality worldwide, and it will present the single largest burden on world health care systems.

The study, funded by the World Health Organization and the Gates Foundation – analyzed blood from 2.7 million participants aged 25 and over from across the world over a three-year period.

The study estimates that the number of adults with diabetes was 347 million, more than double the 153 million estimated in 1980 and considerably higher even than a 2009 study that put the number at 285 million.

However, the study noted no increase in age-standardized diabetes prevalence in east and southeast Asia, although ageing and population growth led to an increase in the number of people with diabetes.

According to the study, the prevalence of male adult diabetics worldwide rose from 8.3% to 9.8% in that period, with adult females increasing from 7.5% to 9.2%. As to the causes, the study attributes 70% to ageing and 30% to the increased prevalence of other factors, with obesity and body mass the most important. The dramatic and disturbing increase in obesity can be attributed to the spread of a western-style diet to developing nations.

The study notes that primary prevention of dysglycaemia will need weight control, physical activity, and improved diet quality. According to the study, such interventions are difficult to implement within populations and will not affect diabetes incidence in the short term.

More importantly, the study concludes that health systems in most countries will inevitably have to develop programs to improve detection and management of diabetes to slow progression to microvascular and macrovascular complications.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Moral Triumph and Economics of Same-Sex Marriage

Discrimination anywhere is a threat to civil liberty everywhere. The passing of the marriage-equality bill in New York is a veritable triumph of freedom and equality. Denying marriage rights to others on the account of a narrow definition which, confines marriage only to males and females confronts and contradicts universal and fundamental liberties. No body or segment of society, regardless of their moral or religious claims has any authority to define, police or regulate marital choice, same-sex or otherwise.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed New York's same-sex marriage into law less than two hours after the New York State Senate the Republican-led State Senate approved the measure. Cuomo could not wait the usual 10 days.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has compared the fight for gay-marriage rights with the civil-rights battles of the 1960s. Advocates are heralding the approval as a historic step not only in the Empire state but also in the effort to allow same-sex marriages nationally. It makes New York the sixth state in the nation — and by far, the largest — to legalize gay marriage.

What is more interesting is the economics of the marriage-equality law.

In a recent Op-Ed, John Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley wrote, “ to remain a global economic leader, New York must compete for intellectual capital, and marriage equality is one more way to attract the best and the brightest, regardless of sexual orientation”.

A law approving same-sex nuptials would provide $142 million in economic benefit to New York City and $184 million to the state during the three years following its enactment, a 2007 report from the New York City comptroller’s office found. The state would collect about $8 million more in taxes and fees, and save more than $100 million in health-care outlays. The city would collect about $7 million in taxes and fees and experience no impact on outlays, the report estimated.

Same-sex domestic partners of state and city agency employees already receive health benefits, making it “unlikely that the public sector would incur additional costs due to spousal health benefits” if same-sex marriage is legalized, the report said. The same is true of pension costs, it said.

In a depressed housing market, greater economic security resulting from marriage may spark more home buying and generate more tax revenue, the report said. Many of the largest private employers based in New York already offer health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.

Andrew Cuomo’s signature is expected to lead to a crush of gay weddings in the next 30 days.

Monday, June 20, 2011

We Must Re-think Education

This letter to the editor by a Jamie M. Gregory was published in the New York Times on June 16 2011.

The letter raises very serious questions about the child, the curriculum and the teacher. As I have argued on this blog before, it seems to me that the purpose of education is not to teach kids how to learn but rather to accomplish a curriculum or syllabus in preparation for an examination.

As an educator, I am constantly aware of the fact that half of what we teach students is useless. The tragedy is that we do not which half. So I shudder when teaches drive kids too hard with long assignments and loads of content heavy reading.

My attitude is that as educators we must constantly push back content and rote centered learning. We must make learning student active and discovery oriented. We must anchor the curriculum and learning on pragmatically meaningful concepts that are amenable to retention, transfer and application.

The goal of education is teach kids how to learn. Education should enable kids, as future citizens to be life long and situated learners. But for the most part the curriculum and the teacher both conspire to discourage the love for learning and inquiry. Kids cannot tolerate education beyond the school and homework.

As a child, I hated school. It was tough just getting through the day of instruction and never getting a chance to say what you think. I hated education because it was about adults telling me things I needed to learn without giving me a chance to tell them what I really thought about what they just told me.

In many ways, school signified death of the self for me. And I thought it was terrible because I also thought the teacher hardly expressed their own ideas. They merely taught what they read in the teachers guide. I grew up knowing that knowledge was generated by some remote oracle and passed down in tablets, books.

"We really must re-think education. Here is Jamie's letter.
As a public high school English teacher and the mother of a rising fourth grader, I am able to appreciate both sides of the homework argument.

I actively try not to assign "busy work" to my Advanced Placement language students because I don't think it's worth my time to grade it, and I want to cultivate a love of learning in my students that does not come from completing 20 grammar worksheets. However, homework is a necessity in certain courses and at certain levels, particularly in A.P. courses.

On the other hand, during my son's third-grade year, he frequently did not go to bed until 10 p.m. because of homework. The directions were often unclear, sometimes he did not have the materials he needed to complete the assignments, and the teacher often photocopied worksheets that were not even entirely accurate.

My son frequently told me that he hated school. Part of this I blame on the testing craze; mostly, though, I do blame his teacher. Teachers need to closely examine their practices, and principals should be actively involved in what happens in each classroom.

It is rare that I criticize teachers in today's blame game that is called education, but sometimes we can be our own worst enemies."

Duncan, S.C., June 16, 2011
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Television Viewing and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and All-Cause Mortality

By Rob Stein, The Washington Post.

Prolonged TV viewing is the most prevalent and pervasive sedentary behavior in developed countries and increasingly widespread in developing countries. Although TV viewing has been associated with morbidity and mortality, systematic and quantitative assessment of published studies is not available.

Aders Grøntved of the University of Southern Denmark and Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a systematic analysis of every study that was published between 1970 and 2011 linking TV viewing and an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. Eight large studies from the United States, Europe and Australia were included in the so-called "meta-analysis." This study has just been published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

More than two hours of TV watching each day increased the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease, while more than three hours of daily TV viewing boosted the risk for premature death, the researchers concluded. Every additional two hours of TV a day increased the risk for diabetes, heart disease and premature death by 20 percent, 15 percent and 13 percent respectively, the researchers found.

Based on the findings, the researchers estimated that every 100,000 people in the United States, every two-hour increment in TV viewing per day was associated with 176 new cases of type 2 diabetes, 38 new cases of fatal heart disease and 104 new cases of death from any reason per year.

Not surprisingly, the increased risk is apparently due at least in part to the increased risk for obesity, the researchers said.

"The message is simple. Cutting back on TV watching can significantly reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and premature mortality," Hu said in a written statement released with the study. "We should not only promote increasing physical activity levels but also reduce sedentary behaviors, especially prolonged TV watching."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

New Approaches to Learning

I am currently leading the planning and development of undergraduate science degree programs. A critical part of my task is build a pedagogical rationale or philosophy around science education in African context to help train the next generation of science innovators and though leaders. This will be absolutely essential if Africa is to take its rightful place in the league table of industrialized and technological advanced nations.

What is clear to most post modern "educators" is that the old notions of curricular and delivery of education through "teaching" is at odds with the complex, nuanced, emotional and experiential world of the child. So from the first day at school the children find themselves in conflict with the notions of education and knowledge founded in the abstract view of the adult oracle, "the teacher".

The child finds the notion of knowledge, largely organized around facts, language and vocabulary,diametrically opposed to the contents of his or her whims and experience.

The most pressing challenge in education today is how to create a learning experience that reinforces and affirms the playful, constructionist, tactile and experiential world of the child. How can we make the learner (child) the starting-point, the centre and the end of the education mission? That to the growth and learning of the child, the curricular must be subservient. And curricular is valued and valid only to the extent that it serves the needs of the child. How can we make self-realization of the child and not knowledge or information the goal of education?

I believe with John Dewey that subject matter (or knowledge) cannot be got into the child from without (or curricular). Learning is active and involves reaching out of the mind of the learner. It is the child and not the curricular that must determine the quality and quantity of learning.

So, curricular must be embedded in a deep understanding in how we learn. Knowledge or information as transmitted through curricular and subject-matter is at best soul food, nutritive substrate. Substrates or soul food that cannot of its own accord transmute into blood, bone or tissue. Curricular and subject-matter needs the life, experience, whim and idiosyncrasy of the learner.

The heart of what is dead, dysfunctional and reprehensible in schools and most education systems is the marginalization and subordination of the child, the presumption that the child is a tabula rasa, empty vessel crying out to be filled.

I believe that a critical part of the problems we experience with regard to lack of retention and application is largely explained by the fact that subject-matter knowledge and information seeks to supplant or subjugate any prior knowledge framework or cognitive logic the child processes. This happens through the tyrannical despotism that abstracts experience into subject-matter, topics, study lessons and specific facts.

I believe that children learn to learn very early on. It is a constant adaptive dance, driven by experimentation, construction and transformational rather than consecutive or sequential learning. Each new experience radically transforms subsequent learning experiences and understanding. Enhanced development and application of pattern and association is known to accelerate learning among children and adults. I am a argue that pattern is at the core of how we learn, retain,recall and apply knowledge to characterize phenomena or solve problems.

The brain is a powerful pattern-recognition machine. The challenge is how to convert this understanding to a set of pedagogical experiences and approaches to deepen understanding increase retention and application of knowledge to solve problems.

The article below by Benedict Carey, published on June 6 2011 in the New York Times offers tremendous insight and reference to new studies that could transform how we learn.

Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas


Like any other high school junior, Wynn Haimer has a few holes in his academic game. Graphs and equations, for instance: He gets the idea, fine — one is a linear representation of the other — but making those conversions is often a headache.

Or at least it was. For about a month now, Wynn, 17, has been practicing at home using an unusual online program that prompts him to match graphs to equations, dozens upon dozens of them, and fast, often before he has time to work out the correct answer. An equation appears on the screen, and below it three graphs (or vice versa, a graph with three equations). He clicks on one and the screen flashes to tell him whether he’s right or wrong and jumps to the next problem.

“I’m much better at it,” he said, in a phone interview from his school, New Roads in Santa Monica, Calif. “In the beginning it was difficult, having to work so quickly; but you sort of get used to it, and in the end it’s more intuitive. It becomes more effortless.”

For years school curriculums have emphasized top-down instruction, especially for topics like math and science. Learn the rules first — the theorems, the order of operations, Newton’s laws — then make a run at the problem list at the end of the chapter. Yet recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can “read” pitches early, or the chess master who “sees” the best move, they’ve developed a great eye.

Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest. Better yet, perceptual knowledge builds automatically: There’s no reason someone with a good eye for fashion or wordplay cannot develop an intuition for classifying rocks or mammals or algebraic equations, given a little interest or motivation.

“When facing problems in real-life situations, the first question is always, ‘What am I looking at? What kind of problem is this?’ ” said Philip J. Kellman, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Any theory of how we learn presupposes perceptual knowledge — that we know which facts are relevant, that we know what to look for.”

The challenge for education, Dr. Kellman added, “is what do we need to do to make this happen efficiently?”

Scientists have long known that the brain registers subtle patterns subconsciously, well before a person knows he or she is learning. In a landmark 1997 experiment, researchers at the University of Iowa found that people playing a simple gambling game with decks of cards reported “liking” some decks better than others long before they realized that those decks had cards that caused greater losses.. Some participants picked up the differences among decks after just 10 cards.

Experts develop such sensitive perceptual radar the old-fashioned way, of course, through years of study and practice. Yet there is growing evidence that a certain kind of training — visual, fast-paced, often focused on classifying problems rather then solving them — can build intuition quickly. In one recent experiment, for example, researchers found that people were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections of works from all 12 than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, then moving on to the next painter. The participants’ brains began to pick up on differences before they could fully articulate them.

“Once the brain has a goal in mind, it tunes the perceptual system to search the environment” for relevant clues, said Steven Sloman, a cognitive scientist at Brown University. In time the eyes, ears and nose learn to isolate those signs and dismiss irrelevant information, in turn sharpening thinking.

Good teachers at all levels already have their own techniques to speed up this process — multiplication flash cards, tips to break down word problems, heuristic rhymes — but scientists are working to tune students’ eyes more systematically and to build understanding of very abstract concepts.

Fractions, for one. Most American middle school students, though they understand what fractions represent, don’t do so well when tested on their ability to change one fraction, like 4/3, to another, like 7/3, by adding or subtracting (many high school students bomb these tests, too).

In a 2010 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania had sixth graders in a Philadelphia public school use a perception-training program to practice just this. On the computer module, a fraction appeared as a block. The students used a “slicer” to cut that block into fractions and a “cloner” to copy those slices. They used these pieces to build a new block from the original one — for example, cutting a block that represented the fraction 4/3 into four equal slices, then making three more copies to produce a block that represented 7/3. The program immediately displayed an ‘X’ next to wrong answers and “Correct!” next to correct ones, then moved to the next problem. It automatically adjusted to each student’s ability, advancing slowly for some and quickly for others. The students worked with the modules individually, for 15- to 30-minute intervals during the spring term, until they could perform most of the fraction exercises correctly.

In a test on the skills given afterward, on problems the students hadn’t seen before, the group got 73 percent correct. A comparison group of seventh graders, who’d been taught how to solve such problems as part of regular classes, scored just 25 percent on the test.

“The impressive thing for me was that we went back five months later, after the summer, and the gains had held up,” said Christine Massey, director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research in Cognitive Science and a study co-author. When the younger students returned as seventh graders in the fall, they scored just as high as they had the previous spring on tests of fractions that they had not seen. Knowing what a fraction represents is one thing, the authors say, but repeatedly seeing and manipulating all those fractions by slicing and cloning drives the concept home once and for all.

The research team found similar results in high school sophomores who practiced with the software that Wynn Haimer used, working to match algebraic equations with graphs.

“I find that often students will try to solve problems by doing only what they’ve been told to do, and if that doesn’t work they give up,” said Joe Wise, a physics instructor at New Roads School, where the study was done. “Here they’re forced to try what makes sense to them and to keep trying. The brain is very good at sorting out patterns if you give it the chance and the right feedback.”

The modules are less demanding than problem sets, but they’re not video games — they’re homework. “To be honest, I’ve got so much to wrap up this year that I haven’t really used the program much,” said Gabe Boros, one of Mr. Wise’s students. “I did try it a couple of times and improved a little, but often I have to guess or use tricks to eliminate the wrong answers.”

Which is the whole idea: Subtle shortcuts are the very stuff of perceptual intuition. With practice, neurons in the visual cortex and elsewhere specialize to identify these signature patterns, and finding them frees up mental resources for deductive reasoning, to check answers or to move on to harder problems. Such perceptual intuition isn’t cheating — it’s what the big-shot experts do. In the case of graphs and equations, it includes making quick judgments about where lines should intercept the axes and about their slope, even when that is not at all obvious.

On the surface at least, this may sound like the approaches that SAT or LSAT prep courses take, using time-saving strategies and informed guessing. But there is a difference, researchers say. The prep courses teach to the test, but perceptual training tools are aimed at the underlying skills — manipulating fractions, graphing equations. “It’s not how well you do, but how well you learn,” as Mr. Wise put it.

Ideally, perceptual training does more than breathe life into abstract principles, the same way that repairing engines instills a lived experience of internal combustion mechanics. It also primes students to apply the principles in other contexts. This ability to transfer, as it’s known, is fundamental to scientific reasoning and is among the highest goals of teachers at all levels.

Here, too, perceptual learning may help. In a series of experiments, researchers at Indiana University have had students practice on software that models scientific principles, like positive feedback loops. In one, middle school students use a mouse to add “slime mold” to a slide and watch as it spreads faster the more they add. The process fuels itself.

“The kids who have seen this situation will transfer it to other positive feedback loops, like global warming,” said Rob Goldstone, director of the cognitive science program at Indiana University. “The more ice that melts, the more heat that’s absorbed into the earth, the warmer it gets, which melts more ice, and so on.”

“Once they have the concept, I can refer back to it,” said Nancy Martin, a science teacher at Jackson Creek Middle School in Bloomington, Ind., who has worked with Dr. Goldstone. “I can say, ‘Remember how the ants worked, or the slime; does that have anything to do with what we’re discussing today?’ ”

In an education system awash with computerized learning tools and pilot programs of all kinds, the future of such perceptual learning efforts is far from certain. Scientists still don’t know the best way to train perceptual intuition, or which specific principles it’s best suited for. And such tools, if they are incorporated into curriculums in any real way, will be subject to the judgment of teachers.

But researchers are convinced that if millions of children can develop a trained eye for video combat games and doctored Facebook photos, they can surely do the same for graphs and equations.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The US Economy: Complexity and Self Organizing Criticality

The US economy is in deep trouble. What is disconcerting is the helplessness and paralysis exhibited by US Congress, especially the idiocy displayed by the right wing politicians and talking heads.

The problems of the US economy have their genesis in Reaganomics, the reckless ideology of small government, obsession with the power of unregulated markets to efficiently allocate resources, tax cuts to the wealthy. And more recently the economy has run into a vicious head wind of huge Federal deficits and debt, thanks to the Bush and now Obama wars and more importantly the housing bubble that catastrophic mortgage crisis generated by sub prime lending.

The US economy is a veritable complex problem to which simplistic solutions are attempted. Like all complex self organizing systems, the US economy is organizing around new attractors. The construction and retail jobs that fueled the illusion of prosperity will never return. Hence the unskilled pools of labor needed for these jobs are not needed any more. These jobs will never return.

The" new economy" will self organize around machines and software. Logically, the jobs that are likely to be created by the "new economy" will need computing and engineering training. These are skill areas that the US has a crippling and shameful shortage of. And more importantly, the American worker must be freed of the shackles of their homes to be able to move to where the "new economy" creates new jobs.

This will take time, loads of time. According to a new study by McKinsey Global Institute, only in the most optimistic scenario will the US return to full employment before 2020.

When Speaker Boehner talks about what I think is an ideological and simplistic GOP plan to create jobs and jump start the economy, I wonder weather US politicians understand just how complex the problem really is.

I am also astounded by the bipartisan intellectual paralysis and idiocy in Washington.

But the American public is not innocent. Books like Richard Hofstadter's "Ant-Intellectualism in American Life", Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason", Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Ureason" and Charles Pierce's Idiot America are very instructive.

The thesis of these books is that American culture and mind set is at odds with Enlightenment and is largely characterized by a veritable flight from reason, disdain for logic and evidence.

An article by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times is a brilliant articulation of what is a complex complex problem replete with uncertainty. He is also the author of
my two favorite books;"The World is Flat" and "Hot Flat and Crowded".

The Uncertainty Tax
Published: June 12, 2011

If you want to understand why the unemployment rate has been stubbornly lodged around 9 percent, a good place to start is with the eye-popping mortgage statistics released last week by the economic analysis firm CoreLogic: 38 percent of homeowners with second mortgages are underwater. They borrowed against the value of their homes, and they now owe more than their houses are worth. The total number of underwater homeowners in America, with first and second mortgages, is a stunning 22.7 percent. In Nevada alone, 63 percent of all mortgaged properties are worth less than the owners paid; in Arizona 50 percent, Florida 46 percent, Michigan 36 percent and California 31 percent.

When people are so underwater, they find it hard to move to take new jobs, they find it hard to borrow or raise cash for education or start-ups, and banks become even more cautious about lending. Until we as a country figure out how to divvy up these losses on housing and let these markets clear and move on, they will be a serious drag on employment.

Indeed, this mortgage mess just feeds the three other big problems undermining U.S. job growth today: weak aggregate demand, structural impediments and an epidemic of uncertainty about what the future holds for everything from health care to the rate of taxation to Social Security and Medicare spending to the availability of credit to the general direction of the economy - the sum of which has people holding back and thus undermining the government's stimulus.

We need to be working on all three at once, and urgently. How? Others have focused on the aggregate demand problem, so I'd like to address some of the structural impediments and uncertainty.

On Friday, the McKinsey Global Institute released a long study of the structural issues ailing the U.S. job market, entitled: "An Economy That Works: Job Creation and America's Future." It begins: "Only in the most optimistic scenario will the United States return to full employment before 2020. Achieving this outcome will require sustained demand growth, rising U.S. competitiveness in the global economy and better matching of U.S. workers to jobs."

Over the last 20 years, McKinsey notes, with each recession more employers have used the downturn to replace workers with machines and software, so it takes much longer for full employment to come back. I've been working on a book that required talking to a lot of entrepreneurs and have been struck by how many told me some version of: "I used the recession to downsize and get really efficient. None of those jobs are coming back. I am doing a little hiring now, but for people with more skills."

 At the same time, you talk to U.S. companies doing advanced manufacturing and many will tell you they struggle even now to find workers with the blue-collar skills they need to replace their retiring employees. Thanks to a credit bubble over the last decade, we created a lot of jobs for people - in construction and retail - who did not have globally competitive skills or post-high school degrees. Those workers will need retooling.

McKinsey says its research found that "too few Americans who attend college and vocational schools choose fields of study that will give them specific skills that employers are seeking. Our interviews point to potential shortages in many occupations, such as nutritionists, welders, and nurse's aides - in addition to the often-predicted shortfall in computer specialists and engineers."

The report concludes, "Progress on four dimensions is needed: Ensuring that the work force acquires skills needed for the jobs that will be in demand, finding ways for U.S. workers to win 'share' in the global economy" - by encouraging more foreign investment in the U.S. and by getting companies who have off-shored jobs to take advantage of falling telecom prices to on-shore them to low-cost American cities and towns instead - "encouraging innovation, new company creation, and scaling up of industries in the United States, and removing unnecessary impediments that slow business investment and job creation."

Today, everything from patent delays to overlapping or conflicting land use regulations inhibit start-ups and factory creation. According to the World Economic Forum, America now ranks 27th on the ease of getting a construction permit, behind Saudi Arabia.

But do not underestimate uncertainty as a silent jobs killer. Congress and the White House seem paralyzed in deciding the future of taxes and spending. Where are we going in these areas? Investors and companies who have to make hiring decisions have no clue. "The economy is paying a high uncertainty premium right now," says Mohamed El-Erian, the C.E.O. of the world's largest bond fund, Pimco. "With such uncertainty, people delay as many decisions as possible."

Any good news? Yes, U.S. corporations are getting so productive and sitting on so much cash, just a few big, smart, bipartisan decisions by Congress on taxes and spending (and mortgages) and I think this whole economy starts to improve again. Workers with skills will be the first to be hired.
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya

Friday, June 10, 2011

The King is Sparsely Appareled

The American people must be ready to make tough choices. The politicians, especially Obama and whoever will be his GOP challenger must lay out candidly what the real choices are. That the US economy is in deep crises owing to false ideological choices that have tended to triumph over economic reason and logic is not clear to the Joe six pack. Joe is still hoping to get back his Detroit job and fend of foreclosure on his home.

It is easy for the GOP to rant about tax cuts and reigning in big spending and big government. But I hope they will be more both honest and imaginative about what really must be done to resuscitate a gravely ailing economy. Is the GOP ready to lay out the hard choices and speak honestly about the pain and the sacrifice that is necessary to get the economy going again.

Can the GOP and Obama tell the American people that the economy will hemorrhage jobs and growth or recovery will be painfully slow. Who will tell Americans that the current crises has been years in the making, reified in Reagan administration. Who will say to the American people that partisan ideological and culture wars have obfuscated the challenge and the promise of post-cold war America?

I don't think Obama can harp too much about the auto industry and the stimulus. The structural flaws of the the US economy are not trivial.

The American people are frustrated and understandably so. But things will only get worse unless the boldness and the imagination of the politicians is robust and forthcoming.

Who will tell the King that he is sparsely appareled?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Food Supply Under Strain on a Warming Planet

An absolutely superb article in the New York Times. For those who still deny climate change this article presents some evidence that merits robust debate.

See full article on

Here is an excerpt of the article.

The rapid growth in farm output that defined the late 20th century has slowed to the point that it is failing to keep up with the demand for food, driven by population increases and rising affluence in once-poor countries.

Consumption of the four staples that supply most human calories - wheat, rice, corn and soybeans - has outstripped production for much of the past decade, drawing once-large stockpiles down to worrisome levels. The imbalance between supply and demand has resulted in two huge spikes in international grain prices since 2007, with some grains more than doubling in cost.

Those price jumps, though felt only moderately in the West, have worsened hunger for tens of millions of poor people, destabilizing politics in scores of countries, from Mexico to Uzbekistan to Yemen. The Haitian government was ousted in 2008 amid food riots, and anger over high prices has played a role in the recent Arab uprisings.

Now, the latest scientific research suggests that a previously discounted factor is helping to destabilize the food system: climate change.

Many of the failed harvests of the past decade were a consequence of weather disasters, like floods in the United States, drought in Australia and blistering heat waves in Europe and Russia. Scientists believe some, though not all, of those events were caused or worsened by human-induced global warming.

Temperatures are rising rapidly during the growing season in some of the most important agricultural countries, and a paper published several weeks ago found that this had shaved several percentage points off potential yields, adding to the price gyrations.

For nearly two decades, scientists had predicted that climate change would be relatively manageable for agriculture, suggesting that even under worst-case assumptions, it would probably take until 2080 for food prices to double.

In part, they were counting on a counterintuitive ace in the hole: that rising carbon dioxide levels, the primary contributor to global warming, would act as a powerful plant fertilizer and offset many of the ill effects of climate change.

Until a few years ago, these assumptions went largely unchallenged. But lately, the destabilization of the food system and the soaring prices have rattled many leading scientists.
Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone from Zain Kenya

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

I have always held the view that prescriptive, interventionist and sectoral notions of development assistance through aid and experts cannot and will not provide sustainable pathways to solving socio-economic or environmental problems.

What we perceive as socio-economic and environmental problems in Africa are inherently complex problems, with deep systemic structural origins. They do not lend themselves easily or inevitably to project or program or goal type of solutions. Instead, plausible solution approaches might arise from deep interrogations of connections, patterns, redundancy, feedback and evolutionary emergence.

The point is that we can only learn by experimentation; doing and failing. In a sense, viable solutions can only be achieved through methodic, deliberate and sustained iterations of failure. But make no mistake, it is not cumulative failure, it is out transformative and adaptive learning from failure that novelty emerges.

An impressive new book by “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure” by Tim Harford Little, Brown/Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2011. 320 pp book argues that we should embrace failure in economic and social progress, finds Matt Ridley in a book review published in Nature.

This I think is a must read for people who love to grapple!

And here is Matt Ridely’s review.

Darwin’s grand idea that trial and error can progressively give rise to models of purposeful design has been restricted, albeit mistakenly, to biology. But it always had wider implications and applications in economics, technology and culture.

Tim Harford's Adapt embraces the broader applications of the 'error' in trial and error in economic and social progress.

In Matt Ridley’s review, Harford's thesis is that “trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not”. Whether designing computer games, improving foreign aid or discovering how to knock out genes, the heroes and heroines of Harford's book get results not by designing clever solutions and imposing them, but by trying variations and selecting the few that work from among the many that don't. Intelligent design is just as bad at explaining politics and business as it is at explaining evolution.

Harford's case histories are well chosen and artfully told, making the book a delight to read. But its value is greater than that. Strand by strand, it weaves the stories into a philosophical web that is neat, fascinating and brilliant. Like the best popular science, it advances the subject as well as conveying it, drawing intriguing conclusions about how to run companies, armies and research labs.

The book's message will be music to the ears of many scientists, for Harford exposes the dismal inefficiency of the preconceived, top-down grant-giving that funds much of modern academic research. He celebrates instead the power of prizes and blue-sky funding, and even molecular geneticist Mario Capecchi's documented Nobel-prizewinning decision to use grant money given for one purpose for another. Innovation and discovery come from pluralism and serendipity, not command and control.

Yet this will also be an uncomfortable book for some scientists who read it carefully. For however much they celebrate bottom-up, emergent, evolutionary order in the genome or an ecosystem, most scientists embrace intelligent design as soon as they turn to politics or economics, with government planning playing the part of God. The messy, competitive, pluralistic, unplanned nature of the marketplace is too often anathema to the scientific mind.

A good example is climate policy. Harford shows how exhortations from on high to people to cut their carbon footprints, or winner-picking by governments for advancing certain technologies, is ineffective and counterproductive. Why? Because, he explains (citing chemist Leslie Orgel), “evolution is smarter than we are, and economic evolution tends to outsmart the rules we erect to guide it”. A planning rule that forces British developers to install a minimum amount of on-site energy generation in new office buildings has led to the lunatic spectacle of convoys of diesel-drinking trucks taking carbon-rich wood from forests to biomass boilers in city centres because solar and wind power cannot meet the requirements on such small scales.

Trial and error cannot be used for everything. Nuclear power stations and banks must work without melting down lots of times first. Harford's analysis of what went wrong at the Piper Alpha oil-rig explosion in the North Sea, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in the United States is illuminating and intelligent. Ineffective safety systems, latent errors and overlooked whistle-blowers are common in all such disasters, but the key ingredient is tight coupling: the systems were designed so that if one part failed, others went with it. To eliminate errors, writes Harford, is “an impossible dream. The alternative is to try to simplify and decouple these high-risk systems as much as is feasible.”

Harford provides some evidence that a new era of evolutionary business is dawning, although the basic idea is as old as the limited-liability company — “a safe space within which to fail”. Companies such as Google have taken the model of the 'skunk works' — the name for the trial-and-error division of Lockheed that came up with aircraft such as the U2, the blackbird and the stealth bomber — and rolled it out through the whole firm, by encouraging employees to spend 20% of their time on their own projects. Google's products, as well as its ideas, are designed so that they evolve by trial and error.

Yet vast swathes of the world are resistant to the implications of this selective approach. Government agencies, academic institutions and financial behemoths are not allowed to fail. “Government regulations,” writes Harford drily, “by their very nature, tend to be somewhat impervious to the possibility of improvement.”

It would be hard to improve Harford's outstanding book. If pressed, I might say that the focus on variation and selection leaves no room for discussion of the other elements of evolution, especially replication and recombination. Nonetheless, Adapt is fine, funny and fluent.

Informalize Formal Learning

Over the last couple of years I have been putting together the philosophy, principles for curricular approach and pedagogy for undergraduate science degree programs.

Two things have been challenging while also presenting opportunity for innovation in undergraduate science education.

1. The advances and scientific breakthrough are driven by deep integration and collaboration within scientific fields as well as with social sciences, humanities and the arts.

2. The rapid proliferation in computing and applications for mobile devices has radically changed how we think, learn and work as scientists and educators.

As you can very well appreciate, balancing these realities in the development and planning of undergraduate science education is not trivial.

This article by Joanne Scouler & Jason Green published in Learning Solutions Magazine presents some very clear and practical ideas that I think merit critical consideration in curriculum and pedagogical or instructional design.

Our relationship with technology is changing the ways we live and work. We are constantly connected, and we must manage our relationship with technology differently than we managed it in the past. This presents some challenges for users and for educators, instructional designers, and others who design, create, and manage online instruction.

Implications for learners

New devices such as the iPhone and iPod have changed expectations of usability. Users expect a very low learning curve to perform their goals with a product. Products that present a steeper learning curve result in ever-greater levels of user frustration and apathy. Furthermore, users expect solutions to their problems to be ever-more convenient and readily available. Blogs, wikis, social media sites and services such as YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, and others too numerous to list, have sparked user-created learning aids, tips, tricks, and workarounds.

Users have come to expect complex products to become more and more simple, linear, and easy to learn. The emergence of different Web media has made that possible.

Implications for educators

As educators we need to put ourselves in the learners' shoes and figure out ways to address their needs, because their relationship with, and expectations of, technology has changed.

Businesses now recognize both the challenges their products provide to users, as well as the ease with which they may deliver solutions via the Web. Extending beyond their own support systems and sites, many companies are reaching into social media destinations and providing their own measured, structured learning aids in the form of video, cheat sheets, online help and user forums.

These methods serve to provide users with quick and effective solutions to their problems and help them to rapidly become more successful with products, within hours or even within minutes. The "instantaneous" character of social media is undeniable and it is creating users who expect to become experts in a hurry and with no barriers to entry.

Benefits of informalizing learning

Formal learning content is good and relevant, and repurposing it brings many advantages. Informalizing formal learning content brings it closer to the learner and provides for more learning that is "accidental," or unplanned. Doing this can require changing the learning content in various ways. Putting it in places people visit on a daily basis, such as the sites and services named above, is one big, yet simple step.

Increased appeal to learners

Rich content delivery through social media sites is more appealing to the user in appearance and content. This approach also tends to present complex information in ways that invite students to learn in a casual environment. Users feel that they have more choice in the matter: when to learn, what to learn, and how to learn it. All of these factors are contributing to escalating growth rates of informal learning.

Draw learners into formal instruction

ELearning animated assets, for example quick product demonstrations, are ideal for posting to a site such as YouTube or Vimeo. Not only do these sorts of demonstrations provide concise, targeted training but they can also be teasers to draw people to more formal learning, such as a full training course, of which the demonstration is just a part.

Obtain information about learners

One of the other key benefits of providing these short eLearning assets online is the wealth of information that is collected about the users. This is data that you can access and use.

For instance, YouTube and Facebook offer businesses demographic information about their users, as well as their daily and monthly activity trends. The more effective and relevant your information, the more traffic your Facebook page or YouTube channel receives. In this way, you establish an immediate and symbiotic relationship. Users get the most relevant and up-to-date training materials. The educator receives valuable information about the users, in addition to receiving direct feedback from users about content.

Simplified format

Public social media sites and services provide another benefit that large businesses appreciate – a simplified format. Every Facebook page and YouTube channel offers the same general layout. This has proven to be comforting and predictable to users, who quickly learn how to navigate every channel or page as well as how to expand, collapse, or increase quality of content, such as videos. The user is truly in control. They can build their own custom playlists, tag audio and video favorites, and subscribe to users and channels based on their own needs for information.

When the decision is between searching the multiple layers of a corporate Website, or tuning in to your own customized list of videos, the decision isn't a difficult one. As users flock to public media sites to reap the benefits, educators are not far behind.

Provide advance organizers and prerequisite knowledge

Users gain valuable and free information from online media and services. At the same time, instructors gain a means to gather users into formal classes where they can truly engage the product and learn in an in-depth manner. Users can go from learning general or typical product objectives online to the classroom where the objectives become more complex and require more interaction between student and instructor. In the classroom, students can ask specific questions about how to implement our products in their businesses to help them achieve their personal business goals.

Establish learner-to-educator-and-topic links

As educators "recruit" users through social media sites, the educators can become closer to their users. Many sites and services offer more than just multimedia; they are a way to capture users' attention and whet their appetite for information. Users receive links and paths back to more formal training, which often contains a larger sampling of the media which users have seen free online. In this way, educators persuade users to trust their education materials and encourage them to pursue formal training.

Our company is now posting instructional videos that present both general product usage and specific product scenarios on YouTube. These videos and their objectives are included in and elaborated on as part of the formal training.

For example, our in-house course on Enterprise Architecture is a demonstration showing how to set up, configure and navigate the interface. This instructor-led course presents students with a hands-on lab where they can perform what they see in the demonstration, as well as learn how to apply it to their specific business environment after leaving training. After their formal training is complete, the videos can serve as reference material on the job. Our learners, who often request additional videos after completing the formal classroom training, many times confirmed the value of videos as reference tools.

Reposition learning closer to the moment of need

Another easy way to informalize formal learning content is to reposition it closer to a product rather than have it stand alone. It is possible to convert portions of a Web-based eLearning course to "digital cheat sheets" and to incorporate these in product documentation, or embed them into the product itself. These can also serve as teasers to draw people back for additional or advanced formal training.

Why bother?

You may be asking, "What then is the difference between informal and formal learning content?" The main difference is that informalized learning is simple, concise, rich, and easy to find and understand. It starts many users down the path of learning. Once their learning process has begun, users may choose to take advantage of more formal learning media.

We are all learning at a much more rapid rate than before. Learning new concepts and adding new skills, on what sometimes seems like a weekly or monthly basis, is coming to be the norm in an increasingly globalized economic order.

The world is full of ever-growing complexity, while at the same time the desire for simplicity drives much behavior. Learning is no exception.

Engaging users simply, directly and quickly via informal methods is key to recruiting them into more in-depth and traditional learning.

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America’s misunderstood hero: the federal deficit

This is a very interesting article. I have thought hard about the foundations of modern capitalism. Some of the arguments put forth by the GOP politicians in Congress and by the right wing pundits betray a worrying misconception of how capitalism works.

I am not an economist but I understand that you cannot austerity measures, especially cutting public spending can only hurt an economy struggling to climb out of a recession. Deficit spending is to an economy what Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) is to an individual with cardiac arrest.
This article by David A. Levy and Srinivas Thiruvadathai carried in the Financial Times on 31 May 2011 makes the point very eloquently.

Take a scary idea that sounds reasonable, repeat it often enough, and people begin to take it as truth. Unfortunately, current beliefs about US Treasury debt and deficits are a prime example of this principle: the US is being scared into seeking exactly the wrong sort of policy.

Many opinion leaders claim: "America is on the road to becoming the next Greece or Ireland," "The deficit is destroying our children's future," or "We need to sharply cut the deficit now before it's too late."

All wrong!

In fact, the US economy needs big deficits now, and we are nowhere near too late to act. The country can safely run big federal deficits for the next several years without them leading to default, inflation, a collapsing dollar, slower economic growth or onerous taxes on our children.

Even if the government tries to sharply reduce its fiscal shortfall over the next few years, it will almost inevitably run big deficits anyway. While Washington needs to get to work on long-term fiscal reform, attempts to cut the deficit sharply in the short term will damage the economy and prove self-defeating.
The country is presently suffering from an unusual economic condition: a contained depression. The economy needs deficit spending for now to avoid another Great Depression. (Yes, a recovery from the recession is well underway, but within a longer depression—there were recoveries during the 1930s, too.)
Without large deficits, corporate profits would plunge, leading to skyrocketing unemployment and another Great Depression.
Why? For the first time since the 1930s, the private sector is in the midst of a long period of deleveraging. Balance sheets have become much too big to be supported by incomes and they must shrink for years. And that's a momentous problem.
Aggregate private sector balance sheet contraction makes it impossible for the private economy to generate profits on its own. This point isn't taught in economics 101, but it's a fact. To sustain profits (essentially, businesses' rise in wealth) the economy as a whole has to keep increasing its wealth, which is impossible if private balance sheets aren't expanding. Total assets must be increasing solidly, and liabilities must be rising to finance these increases: no debt creation, no asset creation, no wealth creation, and no profits. The last time the private sector deleveraged was in the early 1930s: wealth creation turned negative, the entire business sector suffered an operating loss and the economy crashed. In the present, milder episode, the rate of wealth creation is the weakest since the second world war.
But there is a way to support profits during private sector deleveraging. This is through very large government deficits, which pump wealth from the public sector into the private economy. Profits have roared back over the past two years because the federal government is using debt to supplement private purchasing power, boosting businesses' revenues relative to expenses.
Slashing the deficit now would cut corporate profits, causing another recession. That would trigger new financial crises since private balance sheets are still overextended. Falling tax revenues would widen the deficit all over again. There would be little, if any, deficit reduction, just more misery and public frustration.
This contained depression, during which private balance sheets shrink to healthier, sustainable levels, won't last forever, but it will persist for a number of years.
Eventually, all the deleveraging will have created circumstances for a vibrant revival of investment, credit expansion, and wealth creation. Why? Because private debt levels will be low, and the lack of financing of new investment will have left the capital stock inadequate, ageing, and obsolete. Returns on new investment will be overwhelmingly attractive.
In this age of revival, surging investment will mean increasing wealth, profits, economic growth, and government revenue. The federal deficit will narrow rapidly and the debt will shrink relative to gross domestic product, as during the years after world war two. Until then, it is far better to contain the damage of private deleveraging by tolerating federal deficits than to allow another Great Depression.
The costs and dangers of running large deficits under present circumstances have been grossly exaggerated. Most countries have relatively low scope to carry debt, but a few, including the US, have much higher capacity. Comparisons of the US with Greece and Ireland break down on many levels, such as tax-collecting capacity and control of the currency in which the debt is issued.
The present tax and spending policies in the US are hardly optimal, and over the long term changes in government programmes will need to be made. For now, people may reasonably disagree on how deficits ought to be run, but over the next several years, large deficits will remain both essential and virtually inevitable.
David A. Levy is chairman and Srinivas Thiruvadanthai is managing director and director of research at the Jerome Levy Forecasting Center LLC.
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The Bin Laden Decade

This Oped piece by Tom Friedman is worth carrying in full. It speaks to the larger structural pathologies of the Arab world that have created an invigorating habitat conditions for islamic fundamentalism. These are lack of fundamental freedoms and rights for women, autocratic governments and lack of access to education and skills to support human development.

The larger argument relates to the deficiency of western approaches to deal with Jihadist groups ignores the real causes of the problem.

Arming Israel to the teeth will not stop Hamas and other terror groups from firing rockets into Israeli territories. Pouring money into Pakistan will not stop the Taliban from operating in FATA.

The real potential to resolve these issues lies in investing in women's education, education, skills and employment for young muslims and urging for more accountable and responsible political leadership across the muslim world.

Published: June 01, 2011

Visiting the Middle East last week, and then coming back to Washington, I am left with one overriding impression: Bin Laden really did a number on all of us.

I am talking in particular about the Arab states, America and Israel - all of whom have deeper holes than ever to dig out of thanks to the Bin Laden decade, 2001 to 2011, and all of whom have less political authority than ever to make the hard decisions needed to get out of the holes.

Let's start with the Arabs. In 2001, Osama bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Just a few months later, in 2002, the U.N. issued the "Arab Human Development Report," which described the very pathologies that produced Al Qaeda and prescribed remedies for overcoming them. The report, written by Arab experts, said the Arab states suffered from three huge deficits: a deficit of freedom and respect for human rights as the bases of good governance, a deficit of knowledge in the form of decent schooling and a deficit of women's empowerment.

Instead of America and the Arab world making that report their joint post-Bin Laden agenda, they ignored it. Washington basically gave the Arab dictators a free pass to tighten their vise grip on their people - as long as these Arab leaders arrested, interrogated and held the Islamic militants in their societies and eliminated them as a threat to us.

It wasn't meant as a free pass, and we really did have a security problem with jihadists, and we really didn't mean to give up on our freedom agenda - but Arab leaders, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, sensed where our priorities were. That is why Mubarak actually arrested the one Egyptian who dared to run against him for president in his last election, and he and the other Arab autocrats moved to install their sons as successors.

As the Arab leaders choked their people that much tighter, along came Facebook, Twitter and cellphone cameras, which enabled those people to share grievances, organize rebellions, lose their fear and expose their leaders: "Smile, your brutality is on Candid Camera."

That's the good news. The challenging news is that because of the Bin Laden decade, these newly liberated Arab states are in an even deeper hole in terms of economic development, population growth and education. They each have a huge amount of catch-up to do that will require some painful economic and educational reforms.

But as one can quickly detect from a visit to Cairo, right now Egypt has a political vacuum and, if anything, is tending toward more populist, less-market-oriented economics. Yet, in return for infusions of cash, Egypt will probably have to accept some kind of I.M.F.-like austerity-reform package and slash government employment - just when unemployment and expectations are now sky high. Right now, no Egyptian party or leader has the authority that will be required to implement such reforms.

In America, President George W. Bush used the post-9/11 economic dip to push through a second tax cut we could not afford. He followed that with a Medicare prescription drug entitlement we cannot afford and started two wars in the wake of 9/11 without raising taxes to pay for them - all at a time when we should have been saving money in anticipation of the baby boomers' imminent retirement. As such, our nation's fiscal hole is deeper than ever and Republicans and Democrats - rather than coming together and generating the political authority needed for us to take our castor oil to compensate for our binge - are just demonizing one another.

As the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi points out, governance is based on authority "that is generated in one of two ways - by trust or by fear. Both of those sources of authority are disintegrating right now." The Arab leaders governed by fear, and their people are not afraid anymore. And the Western democracies governed by generating trust, but their societies today are more splintered than ever.

Israel has the same problem. The combination of Yasir Arafat's foolhardy decision to start a second intifada rather than embrace President Bill Clinton's two-state peace plan, followed by the rise of Bin Laden, which diverted the U.S. from energetically pursuing the peace process, gave the Israeli right a free hand to expand West Bank settlements. There are now some 500,000 settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Absent some amazing Palestinian peace overture, and maybe even with one, I do not see any Israeli leader with enough authority today to pull Israel out of the West Bank. So, for now, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Bin Laden both win: In the short run, Bibi gets to keep the West Bank, with 300,000 Jews occupying 2.4 million Palestinians. And in the long run, Bin Laden helps to destroy Israel as a Jewish democracy.

For all these reasons, I find myself asking the same question in Cairo, Washington and Jerusalem: "Who will tell the people?" Who will tell the people how deep the hole is that Bin Laden helped each of us dig over the last decade - and who will tell the people how hard and how necessary it will be to climb out?
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