Saturday, April 26, 2008

Laws of Thermodynamics and Laws of Giving

I have a strong belief in finding solutions to problems through the acquisition and application of knowledge. Not only understanding practical or pragmatic forms of information, but also understanding the deeper principals behind them. At the very least, one should develop some sense of appreciation for them.

Recently I have been going over some of the MIT World videos on a program they had on Meeting the Entropy Challenge.

To be truthful, much of it went over my head, but much of it was both very interesting and informative. I have referenced the ones I personally found interesting elsewhere in this blog, others can be found through the diigo tag links below. One in particular focused on the physics of energy used in engineering and industry, the Second Law and Energy, Stephen Chu, Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Tracing the Second Law by Howard W. Butler provides a good start on understanding the entropy issue.

"Tracing the Second Law", by Howard W. Butler - Feature Article, July 2007 Annotated diigo tags: science, 2ndLaw, entropy

While man learned to control and use fire many thousands of years ago, only in the last 300 years has the nature of heat been given serious consideration. In this short time, it has been explained as phlogiston, a mysterious fluid created by fire, and as caloric, a material fluid flowing from hot to cold. The modern view, that heat is a convertible form of energy, is fewer than 200 years old.

The above citations aid providing the principles, but little good is done if they remain in academic towers. Fortunately, there are some stellar examples of how they can be applied.

MIT MechE - News + Events - MechE Features Annotated diigo tags: MIT, engineering, meche
Amy B. Smith is an inventor who creates useful technologies for others. Yet before she could do that, she had to invent something else: a way to channel her skills into a path that was meaningful to her. "When I was working towards my bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering here in the 1980s, the chief focus in the field seemed to be cars and bombs," she says. "I don't drive and I don't like war, so I had to find my own way."

Amy Smith was the inspiration for my Genius and Passion at Work post


    Economics - Late Beginnings, Conventional versus Non-conventional, New And Exciting Future

    A burgeoning area of interest for this weblog has been economics. Understanding the principles of economics seems essential to better understanding many of the issues that are of interest to me.

    My favorite econblog, as with many others, is Marginal Revolution. Not too long ago, Tyler Cowen, one of the bloggers featured at Marginal Revolution provided some basic economic history. Why economics was late in starting via Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen on 4/5/08. I've added some additional links to Wikipedia articles.

    I've already posed the question, I'd like to add two points. First, sustained economic growth in the Western world starts in 17th century England, as shown by Greg Clark. Interest in economic reasoning then comes rapidly, first from the mercantilists, then in Adam Smith and some earlier free trade thinkers, such as Dudley North and Nicholas Barbon.
    Second, the idea of "private vices, publick virtues" was central for eighteenth century economic thought and for social science more generally. This came from Bernard Mandeville (drawing upon the French Jansenists) in 1720. It's no accident that Mandeville lived in the Dutch Republic, which had very little censorship. No, I am not a Straussian but the merits of that viewpoint are often overlooked.

    What I have found fascinating in learning more about economics is how it can be related to so many fields including biology, psychology and even physics. This, however, continues to raise questions about one of the foundational concepts in economics - the economic/rational human or human economicus.

    Back on 2/19/08 at had the post The conventional theories in economics and politics contend that people act...The conventional theories in economics and politics contend that people act rationally.

    Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a pair of books that suggest that's not really the case.
    Some of these heuristics were pretty obvious -- people tend to make inferences from their own experiences, so if they've recently seen a traffic accident they will overestimate the danger of dying in a car crash -- but others were more surprising, even downright wacky. For instance, Tversky and Kahneman asked subjects to estimate what proportion of African nations were members of the United Nations. They discovered that they could influence the subjects' responses by spinning a wheel of fortune in front of them to generate a random number: when a big number turned up, the estimates suddenly swelled. (link)

    What is of particular interest is how this best serves ongoing efforts to bring greater benefit to the world.

    Back on 2/21/08 Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution gave us "What's new and exciting in economics?"
    I received dozens of diverse responses, but there was still a runaway winner. The small group of economists who work at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T., led by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, were mentioned far more often than anyone else.
    Ms. Duflo, Mr. Banerjee and their colleagues have a simple, if radical, goal. They want to overhaul development aid so that more of it is spent on programs that actually make a difference. And they are trying to do so in a way that skirts the long-running ideological debate between aid groups and their critics.

    Tyler Cowen also provides the more practical future for budding professional economists that not only has relevance for them, but for ourselves because it defines where the brainpower for our economy will be coming from.

    The future of economics via Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen from 4/3/08
    In a nutshell, foreigners and empirical work:This short paper collects and studies the CVs of 112 assistant professors in the top-ten American departments of economics. The paper treats these as a glimpse of the future. We find evidence of a strong brain drain. We find also a predominance of empirical work.Three-quarters of the bachelor degrees were obtained from abroad. Macro, econometrics, and labor economics are the most popular fields, see p.8 for the full list. Here is the paper, hat tip to Pluralist Economics Review

    Friday, April 25, 2008

    Thought for Sun, 06 Apr 2008

    via Buddhist Thought of the Day

    It is our earth, not yours or mine or his. We are meant to live on it, helping each other, not destroying each other.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008

    A Complex Pathway For Our Evolution

    One topic that I have had a novice interest in is complexity theory and how it integrates with other fields such as biology and evolution. Wired Science from had on article on Complexity Theory Takes Evolution to Another Level by Brandon Keim, posted on February 12, 2008. Wired Science also provided an updated post on the subject..

    One hundred and ninety-nine years after Charles Darwin was born, and 149 years after he published On the Origin of Species, some scientists say that the theory of evolution is due for a revision.

    It's heady stuff, and a lot of the hard science that Woese explained didn't come out well enough in transcription to make sense here. To understand him more completely I highly recommend reading "A New Biology for a New Century," published in 2004 in Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews. It's a visionary blend of history and microbiology, and shows that Woese is that rarest of all organisms: a brilliant scientist who can really write.

    Update: a follow-up post, "Evolution as Biological Thermodynamics"

    Another related Wired article provides some basic background on evolution and biology, as well as additional information on Carl R. Woese, whose work has been such an important part of this field. Biologists Take Evolution Beyond Darwin -- Way Beyond Annotated diigo tags: biologists, evolution, complexity,

    Darwin described how changes in an organism are passed from generation to generation, dwindling or spreading through populations depending on their contribution to survival. Biologists later combined this with genetics, which had yet to be discovered in Darwin's time. The fusion -- called the modern evolutionary synthesis, or neo-Darwinian evolution -- describes evolution as we now know it: Genetic mutations produce changes that sometimes become part of a species' heritage and, when enough changes accumulate, produce new species.

    A recent international symposium at MIT looked at the second law of thermodynamics. One of the lectures also involved biology, the Second Law and Biophysics with Kenneth Dill, Professor of Biophysics; Associate Dean of Research, University of California, San Francisco.

    Tuesday, April 22, 2008

    Bad Habit - Mixing Medium and Message Posts

    One bad habit of this weblog has been discussing whatever particular topic or getting across a particular message that interested me, be it on economics, science or other subject and in the same post discussing the medium by which it was presented, specifically this weblog and the web 2.0 technology that it uses. The result being that one could not tell if I was speaking of fish or fowl.

    In my last two posts I wrote about message, this time on microcredit. This post I write about the medium, how this weblog itself has changed over time. This weblog was started with the intention of being a learning tool designed to gather and organize information. It evolved into a diary or journal documenting that effort through the posting of the blogs. It also provided me an opportunity to participate in various forums. It was also intended as an experiment to test out various web 2.0 tools and to see what effect that they had. It was not intended to be a soapbox or a business.

    My reason for stating this again, on the chance that any of my average of 12 readers actually looked at every post, is that even if my numbers are minimal there have been relative bumps in which the numbers spiked. It is not getting the high numbers that interested me with this weblog, it is what factors brought about the change. Now it is beyond the scope of this weblog to determine how much benefit anyone actually gets out of it. The closest one can get is number of clicks as measured by FeedBurner. Back in January my click numbers jumped up. There seemed to be a far greater degree of interest in the World Health Organization site on the key health risks to children than in past websites I had linked to or posts. Then the numbers went back down but not zero. Now, on a monthly basis my most popular links or posts will pick up one or two clicks a day giving me a high of 34 clicks per month for highest links or post during the last month or a total for the month of 622 clicks back to the original sites on 55 items. Grand total, since October 27, 2007 there have been 5,559 clicks back to the site on 270 items.

    These started off to be to mostly other websites to which this weblog linked, but I have noticed that it now also including the actual posts created for this weblog. Recently this weblog got its first direct Google Reader subscriber (yeah, I checked) and another 17 through AideRSS. (Update 5/21/08 Didn't last) What is also of interest is that what people click has little relation to what I blog about at the time, more on that later. People find there own connections of interest and I encourage that.

    Monday, April 21, 2008

    Failed Promises For Aid And Windfalls For War

    My last post provided some links regarding the history and different perspectives on some of the issues being raised concerning microcredit. What was left unexamined was the potential for abuse or misconduct. It would seem that there is a great deal. The name that stuck out the most from the last post was the Louis Berger Group.

    Windfalls of War - The Center for Public Integrity
    Louis Berger was one of the six companies chosen by USAID to bid on the main Iraqi reconstruction contract, but lost out to Bechtel. The four other companies that bid were Fluor, Halliburton's Kellogg, Brown & Root, Parsons, and Washington Group International.

    The following blog has a particularly negative view, but it would seem that it is more directed at government programs being used for geo-political purposes than the efforts of organizations such as Acumen.

    The Failed Promises of International Aid | Corrente
    "The report estimated that 40% of the aid money spent in Afghanistan has found its way back to rich donor countries such as the US through corporate profits, consultants' salaries and other costs, significantly inflating the cost of projects. For example, a road between the centre of Kabul and the international airport cost over $2.3m per kilometre in US aid money, at least four times the average cost of building a road in Afghanistan, today's report says."
    And the companies the contracts went to bear familiar names: KBR, the Louis Berger group, Chemonics International, Bearing Point, and Dyncorp International.

    This particular example of government sponsored abuse does not argue though against the case made by Professor Cowen and Professor Karol Boudreaux in the previous post. It also does not settle the debate on whether social-entrepreneurs should seek to maximize returns.

    But Compartamos’s decision to go public last April became a flashpoint in what had been a genteel debate over how microfinance could tap into the financial markets’ vast resources. The initial public offering gets special mention at every microfinance conference, and has been condemned by Mr. Yunus, the Nobel laureate.

    This blog has had a number of posts recognizing the need for an entrepreneurial approach along with better business practices in the field of social-entrepreneurship. The Global Sociology Blog provides a another view with Mr. Yunus as its standard bearer.

    While each side of the question may see the issue clearly from its own perspective, it is going to take some more contemplation on my part.

    Sunday, April 20, 2008

    Micro-Loans Snake Oil Panacea Or Pathway To New Economic Paradigms

    This weblog has skirted around questions about micro-credit, micro-loans and micro-finance in the past. They were either related to other economic issues or links to online programs like Kiva. Recently, a number of articles have passed by my computer screen inspiring me to learn more. Two articles in particular caught my eye.

    Microfinance's Success Sets Off a Debate in Mexico - New York Times
    They are the center of a fractious debate: how far should microfinance go toward becoming big business? At one end stand traditional microlenders, like the economist Muhammad Yunus, founder of the most famous microlender, the Grameen Bank, and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. At the other are the Two Carloses, as they are widely known in this tight-knit world that gave them their start as starry-eyed idealists.
    U.S. 'micro-loan' effort yields big results in Iraqi province - Los Angeles Times
    Al'laur Abd Mottar, 50, had a dream of starting a business to support his wife and eight children. He would buy and sell scrap iron, a material much in demand as residents seek to rebuild homes and businesses damaged by fighting between U.S. Marines and insurgents.

    In November, Mottar got a $3,000 loan from a program underwritten by the U.S. Agency for International Development that is bringing the "micro-loan" concept to war-ravaged Anbar west of Baghdad.

    To oversee the micro-loan program, USAID turned to the Louis Berger Group, an international consulting firm based in Morristown, N.J. Supervision of the micro-loans is only a small part of a $154-million contract between USAID and the firm to promote economic growth in all 18 provinces.

    Different paths but same destination, either small entities becoming large ones or large entities taking over the territory of small ones. Although the micro-lending industry began in the 1970's, it it is in the last few years that is has been around long enough to have raised some issues and gendered some controversy. Some of these issues have basic economic principals behind them, some are overly optimistic predictions, and some are simply human greed. The following link to the Tyler Cowen's post on this subject provided some rationale economic insight and some history.

    Marginal Revolution: My micro-credit essay with Karol Boudreaux
    For better or worse, microborrowing often entails a kind of ­bait ­and ­switch. The borrower claims that the money is for a business, but uses it for other purposes. In effect, the cash allows a poor entrepreneur to maintain her business without having to sacrifice the life or education of her child. In that sense, the money is for the business, but most of all it is for the child. Such ­life­saving uses for the funds are obviously desirable, but it is also a sad reality that many microcredit loans help borrowers to survive or tread water more than they help them get ahead. This sounds unglamorous and even disappointing, but the ­alternative—­such as no doctor's visit for a child or no school for a ­year—­is much ­worse.
    This 2006 report provides a rosy outlook from a more liberal-progressive perspective.

    The Chronicle, 7/20/2006: The Big Promise of Small Loans
    Microfinance, pioneered in the early 1970s by nonprofit groups like Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh, and Acción International, in Latin America, is one of the hottest ideas in philanthropy — and it may become the next big thing in the investment world, too.
    The overly optimistic and idealistic perspective is not limited to the liberal-progressive outlook. From the other side of the spectrum

    The Entrepreneurial Mind: Cynicism about Free Enterprise
    It takes time to build wealth. And real wealth comes from free enterprise. Are microloans the answer to transform an economy? Of course not. But they are a critical step in building long term transformations. Microloan programs are not just jobs programs, or worse yet, mechanisms for the redistribution of wealth from one country to another. Instead, they are creating a cultural seedbed for economic freedom and independence.

    While I can agree with the good intentions of Professor Cornwall's philosophy, I am also wary of the overly optimistic outlook from the more business oriented perspective. The New Yorker article that Professor Cornwall takes issue with is based on the libertarian Marginal Revolution post above. Professor Cornwall may say cynical but Professor Cowen is likely to say realistic.

    So far I have covered economic principles and overly optimistic predictions. The question of human greed will be looked at more closely in a subsequent post.