Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Complexity Made Simple

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist is by far my favorite public intellectual.

He is in my opinion the most elegant communicator in the print media. He has an unmatched capacity to communicate very complex ideas in the most simple and accessible style, without being simplistic. Most people, especially journalist and other kinds or writers, just cannot.

In an Op-ed article, The Lost Decade, in writes in the last couple of sentences, “The world economy has many rigidities. The worst ones are in people’s heads. “
I read this and I think of how we educate our children, the challenges we face as human kind and wonder what the future holds for us.

David’s Brooks’ central argument is that because of our constricted and mechanistic view our solutions are often incommensurate with the problems at hand.

In reference to the global financial crisis, David Brooks observes that most economist think the next few will be bad with a chance of getting worse. The reason the crisis will get worse is because it has many fronts or currents, which merge and are self-reinforcing. The product, not sum, is therefore emergent. The emergent condition is more terrible than the sum of its parts.

It is the product of the complex interplay between them. To put it in fancy terms, the crisis is an emergent condition — even more terrible than the sum of its parts. In a candid indictment of global leadership, David Brooks notes that the ideologues who dominate the conversation can not think in holistic, emergent ways.

Use the fable of Ghor, the blind men and the matter of the elephant; Brooks illustrates the folly of reductionist approaches to solving emergent problems. Like blind men without any knowledge of the form or shape of an elephant – we grope sightlessly gathering information by touching – we persuade ourselves that we understand the whole.

President Obama’s stimulus package did little to create jobs and inspire investors. But rather than acknowledge that other emergent factors were at play, the administration just called for more stimulus spending. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans believe that lower taxes and less regulation will get the US economy kicking again.

The US economic crisis if fueled by many currents, which merge and feed off each other. These include depressed consumer demand, credit crunch, collapse of housing market, high consumer debt, regulatory burdens, skills mismatch and the turmoil in the EU. No single one of these currents prolongs or sustains the economic crisis.

And then David Brooks delivers the most brilliant lesson in complexity and systems thinking. And he writes, “when you are confronted by a complex, emergent problem, don’t try to pick out the one lever that is the key to the whole thing. There is no one lever. Instead, try to reform whole institutions and hope that by getting the long-term fundamentals right you’ll set off a positive cascade to reverse the negative ones.”

David Brooks has offered the most accessible and non-technical lesson in complexity and systems thinking. This should be the primary role of the media in a modern society; inform and educate the public.

Three cheers to David Brooks!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

You too can live as long as a Japanese

An article published in The Lancet September 1 2011 reveals that people in Japan have the longest life expectancy at birth in the world. Female life expectancy at birth was 86 years in 2009, the highest ever recorded in the world.

The proportion of people aged 65 years and older has quadrupled during the past 60 years to 23% in 2010. However, despite the ageing population, Japan’s health expenditure is only 8·5% of gross domestic product, one of the lowest in the OECD countries.

Why is the Japanese population so healthy? How has Japan achieved the longest life expectancy at birth worldwide?

Understanding what has contributed to making the Japanese population healthy in such a fairly short period is important for global health policy, particularly for countries struggling to improve health.

Improvements in the health of the Japanese population were noted in the 1920s. Declines in infant mortality rates were partly attributed to increased literacy of mothers through provision of free and compulsory education. By the early 20th century almost all girls attended primary school.

Japanese people give attention to hygiene in all aspects of their daily life. The Japanese are exceptionally health conscious, regular health check-up is the norm. Mass screening is available in the community, at school and the work place.

Japanese diet, which has improved in tandem with economic development over the last five decades, is balanced and highly nutritional. The prevalence of adult obesity in Japan is 4 % compared to 26.6 % in the United States of America.

Previous studies have shown that strong ties in Japanese communities appear to be associated with improved outcomes in mental health, dental health, and physical functioning, while buffering against the adverse effects of income inequality.

Japan’s impressive population health outcomes demonstrate that a reduction in mortality rates can be brought about by the interplay of improvements in both medical care and other societal factors such as income, education, nutrition, and sanitation.

As early as the 1950s, mortality rates for non-communicable diseases, other than stroke, were already low owing to a favorable lipid profile and glucose metabolism, a generally low body-mass index, and other lifestyle factors relating to diet and low to moderate alcohol intake.

The contrast between Japan's life expectancy and those of Sub-Saharan African countries is disconcerting. For instance, the life expectancy in South Africa is 51.6 years. Kenya’s life expectancy is 54.9 years. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country has a life expectancy of just 48 years.

The poor status of Africa’s population health is comparable to Japan’s in 1947, when male life expectancy at birth was 50 years and female life expectancy was 54 years.

The Lancet article suggests that the main driving force for improved population health was the strong stewardship of the new Japanese Government in implementing major structural reforms in the health sector and placing priority on investment in key interventions for public health in the early phase of economic growth.

The Japanese experience presents relevant and invaluable lessons, especially for Sub-Saharan African countries.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Living in The City Drives You Mad, Literally

Urbanization is the most phenomenal socio-ecological change confronting our civilization.
Recent projections indicate that 69 % of humans will live in cities by 2050. This is hardly surprising. On average, across nations, people who live in cities are better educated, wealthier and generally enjoy high standards of living.

Recent studies also show that cities are the heartland of creative innovation, renewal and transformation.

Steve Jobs grew up in the western US conurbation. Galileo and Michelangelo lived in Renaissance Florence. Plato and Socrates both lived in fifth-century BC Athens, a city-state.

Clearly, the city must have some effect on our minds. Good and bad.

Previous studies have shown that living in the city has serious mental health effects. Mood and anxiety disorders are more common among city dwellers. More importantly, the incidence of schizophrenia is elevated in people born and raised in cities. The City drives you mad, literally.

A study published June 23 in the journal Nature by German researches revealed that city living was associated with increased amygdala (part of the brain associated with memory and emotional intelligence) activity, while urban upbringing affected the anterior cingulate cortex (the key region of amygdala regulation).

The study posits that urban effects on mental illness are causal and suggests that increased social evaluative threat, including social defeat and chronic social stress could be the specific factors affecting the brain.

The key question is how to integrate the understanding gained from neurosciences, social sciences into a public policy response to the challenges of urbanization.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fatherhood Kills Manhood

A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS, September 12, 2011) may seem to be saying fathers be very afraid.

In a study of 624 Pilipino men, fathers who spent several hours a day giving care to their kids had a massive drop in testosterone.

The study shows that while the single men with higher testosterone levels at the beginning of the study were more likely to find partners and become fathers, new fathers experienced a drop in levels of the sex hormone greater than drops seen in men of the same age without children over the study period.

The study reveals that men who spent more than three hours a day caring for children — playing, feeding, bathing, toileting, reading or dressing them — had the lowest testosterone.

These findings may suggest a biological trade-off, with high testosterone helping secure a mate, but reduced testosterone better for sustaining family life.

Moreover, the study suggests that men’s bodies evolved hormonal systems that helped them commit to their families once children were born.

The study also implies that men’s behavior can affect hormonal signals their bodies send, not just that hormones influence behavior.

This study brings into focus one likely explanation for previously observed health disparities between partnered fathers and single men.

Married men and fathers have lower risk for certain diseases and mortality. It has been shown that high testosterone may increase risk for prostate cancer and adverse cholesterol profiles. High testosterone has also been linked to risk-taking behaviors that can affect men’s health, such as drug and alcohol use and promiscuity.

So men and not just women, could actually biologically hardwired for parenthood.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11 2001 : Ten Years Later

September 11 will always remain etched in the global psyche. Ten yeas ago today, Al-Qaeda pilots launched a series of four orchestrated suicide attacks, in New York City and Washington, D.C. areas.

Two passenger planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. A third plane crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane, mission aborted, crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
3,000 people were killed. George W. Bush, then US president, declared war on terror. Bush defined the axis of evil. Two wars were promulgated. The US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. The world rallied behind the US.
Osama Bin Laden and radical Islam became the face of the enemy. And the world was polarized forever.

After 9/11, it was not possible to imagine just how much the four plane assaults on US soil and the subsequent war terror would change the world and how we live.
The two wars, especially Iraq become the most polarizing policy decision in US domestic politics, drawing sharp ideological lines differentiating how Republicans and the Democrats view homeland security as well as US foreign policy.
The most far-reaching consequence of the 9/11 attacks is the cost to the US in treasure and blood.

Nearly 7,500 American troops have been killed in combat in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the deserts of Iraq, and on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul and Kandahar.
The US Congress has approved nearly 4 trillion dollars in military spending in the last 7 years on the war against terror.

The spending on the war is in large part responsible for the US fiscal disaster and the mounting budget deficit. The spending on the war has put the US in China’s deep pockets.
In many ways, a focus on homeland security and the execution of two wars has undermined public investment in US infrastructure. The antiquated nature of fundamental infrastructure such schools, roads, high-speed rail and broad Internet has eroded the capacity of the US to develop a sophisticated modern service infrastructure necessary to compete in a global economy.

But one good thing did come out 9/11. The rise of Barack Obama in many ways was made possible by the discontent among many Americans with the leadership of George W. Bush as well as the continuity and status quo that Hillary Clinton embodied. America needed to change and a recalibrate of its attitude to the rest of the world. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama offered the hope and promise of change.

Obama, then Illinois State Senator, had argued that Iraq was a war that should never have been waged and that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan was the essential war.

Full-scale engagement in a costly combat operation, in my opinion, contributed to the neglect of education and vital dimensions of social welfare investments. The result is staggering and worrying social inequality in the US.
The war on terror and the catastrophic collapse of the global economy and the stubbornly persistent economic down turn in the US have been something like the perfect storm.
9/11 has in my sense contributed to the undermining of US power and confidence both at home and abroad. The polarization the US public and the rise of partisanship and dysfunction in Washington has been the worst in many decades.
The aftermath of 9/11 continues to sap the creative juices of the US polity. When George W. Bush swore to go after Al Qaeda, both he and his military advisors had no clue how to engage a non-state enemy.

It is hard to judge or evaluate weather the war on terror can ever be won or what the implications of a draw down of US troops would mean for the Afghan internal stability and the capacity of the Al Qaeda-Taliban axis to inflict terror attacks on the US.
What is clear is that the US cannot afford a sustained combat mission in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen. The US military is overstretched, ill equipped and yes, broke. Painful budget cuts must be made to reign in the US fiscal deficit. The Pentagon will not be spared.

9/11 has left the US fractious internally and isolated globally. The global economic leadership the US once enjoyed was shattered. First, by the collapse of the mortgage market, second by the ugly display among Congressional leaders during the debt ceiling debates and third by the decision by S & P to downgrade the US credit rating from AAA.
The fiscal deficit and high unemployment will dominate the US presidential politics in 2012. The trouble is that while this intense focus on the domestic agenda is important, it will only serve to further isolate the US globally and the global geo-politics will re-align along new axis defined by BRIC, Turkey and Mexico.

The US role in the Arab Spring reflects the beginnings of what will be US trepidation and hesitation to project its influence as the bastion of liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
10 years after 9/11 today, Americans will gather in ceremony both somber and filled with gratitude to the men and women who have served and paid with their lives to keep the homeland safe and secure.

But 9/11 will be a constant reminder as trigger of the precipitous decline of US domination of the global political and economic stage.
9/11 may have heralded the Asian Age, the emergence of a new world order.


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