Saturday, July 16, 2005

Why Support Public Education?

In a commencement address at Knox College, Senator Barack Obama (D, IL) mentioned the following:

As Tom Friedman points out in his new book, The World Is Flat, over the last decade or so, these forces - technology and globalization - have combined like never before. So that while most of us have been paying attention to how much easier technology has made our lives - sending emails on blackberries, surfing the web on our cell phones, instant messaging with friends across the world - a quiet revolution has been breaking down barriers and connecting the world’s economies. Now, businesses not only have the ability to move jobs wherever there’s a factory, but wherever there’s an internet connection.

Countries like India and China realized this. They understood that now they need not just be a source of cheap labor or cheap exports. They can compete with us on a global scale. The one resource they still needed was a skilled, educated labor force. So they started schooling their kids earlier, longer, and with a greater emphasis on math, science, and technology, until their most talented students realized they don’t have to immigrate to America to have a decent life - they can stay right where they are.

The result? China is graduating four times the number of engineers that the United States is graduating. Not only are those Maytag employees competing with Chinese and Indonesian and Mexican workers, now you are too. Today, accounting firms are emailing your tax returns to workers in India who will figure them out and send them back as fast as any worker in Indiana could.

When you lose your luggage in a Boston airport, tracking it down may involve a call to an agent in Bangalore, who will find it by making a phone call to Baltimore. Even the Associated Press has outsourced some of their jobs to writers all over the world who can send in a story with the click of a mouse.As British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, in this new economy, “talent is 21st century wealth.” If you’ve got the skills, you’ve got the education, and you have the opportunity to upgrade and improve both, you’ll be able to compete and win anywhere. If not, the fall will be further and harder than ever before.
So what do we do about this? How does America find our way in this new, global economy? What will our place in history be?

Like so much of the American story, once again, we face a choice. Once again, there are those who believe that there isn’t much we can do about this as a nation. That the best idea is to give everyone one big refund on their government - divvy it up into individual portions, hand it out, and encourage everyone to use their share to go buy their own health care, their own retirement plan, their own child care, education, and so forth.

In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism, every man and woman for him or herself. It’s a tempting idea, because it doesn’t require much thought or ingenuity. It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - tough luck. It allows us to say to the Maytag workers who have lost their job - life isn’t fair. It let’s us say to the child born into poverty - pull yourself up by your bootstraps. And it is especially tempting because each of us believes that we will always be the winner in life’s lottery, that we will be Donald Trump, or at least that we won’t be the chump that he tells: “You’re fired!”

But there is a problem. It won’t work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity - that has produced our unrivaled political stability.”

As always, there are those who think the government needs to go away and let individuals and the market determine everything, and there are those who think government involvement and regulation can allow for prosperity for all. And, as is so often the case, the hard part is that, in reality, the best and most efficient way for providing an environment where everyone has some chance of building the life they want is somewhere in between. I absolutely agree with Obama that in this age of global competition education is the single-most important key to opportunity. Tony Blair’s observation that, “Talent is 21st Century wealth,” is also an interesting way of thinking about it. Natural talents take many forms, but as with anything else there is a need to further develop and refine one’s talents, and there is a need to have the opportunity to experience how talents can be applied. This is what schooling is all about, and why education is the closest thing to a silver bullet for continued personal and national success. This leads me to conclude that purely partisan rhetoric and the need to insist that only the right’s philosophy or the left’s philosophy is correct is pure nonsense, and serious support for public education (which accounts for the education of 90% of our children) is absolutely essential.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Network Theory with Emphasis on Al Qaeda

A relatively new field that has permeated its way into numerous other scientific, economic, and social science fields is network theory. As researchers have been focusing on complexity in our world, and how seemingly random connections between different entities can self-organize into something with structure, within the last decade or so some breakthroughs have been made that have helped in our understanding of such strange bedfellows as the Internet, World Wide Web, food webs, the spread of disease through social networks, how businesses live and die in the marketplace, and biochemical networks within our cells. Such completely different systems are linked together through the same mathematical organization, which is the basis of network theory.

A great introduction into the field is Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s book “Linked.” Barabasi and his team discovered that the systems mentioned above (and more) are so-called scale-free networks. The idea is built around the concept of a hub, which is a node or component of a system that is linked to other nodes of the system. The World Wide Web, for instance, has as its nodes websites. There are, of course, billions of websites currently. But the vast majority of individual websites may only have a couple other websites that link to it. Only a very small number have large numbers of other websites that link to it. Some examples of popular websites are Yahoo, Google, CNN, and so on. These popular sites are hubs. Hubs essentially can be thought of as holding large portions of the network together. Problems can conceivably arise if a hub fails. The Internet is a similar sort of network with servers, personal computers, and routers as its hubs. A good summary article is in the May, 2003 Scientific American.

One can understand from this model how computer viruses are so effective and can spread so quickly around the world. If a single, typical node (perhaps my computer) is ‘infected’ by a virus sent out (normally via email) to the Internet, and if that node were to somehow contain it and not send an email out to anyone else, nothing would happen to the rest of the network. But if I were to send emails to a number of friends and acquaintances, or if the virus were sent to numerous nodes in the network, as each node sent out emails the virus spreads to each of those nodes, and before long it is possible to have a cascading effect. Now, if a hub is infected, and it is linked to many, many other nodes of the Internet network, large numbers of nodes of the Internet may be infected almost simultaneously, perhaps before an ‘antidote’ piece of software can be made available. On the other hand, let’s suppose hubs are ‘cured’ of a virus relatively quickly, but some of the small, peripheral nodes are infected. The virus is not extinguished just because hubs are cured. In fact, computer viruses can persist for long periods of time (6 months to as long as 14 months after antidote software is available) even without infected hubs because they can still move around, albeit slowly, between the poorly connected nodes of the network.

One interesting aspect of this is to think of a social network such as Al Qaeda. This organization follows scale-free network structures, rather than some other types of social network structures. Other types may be a hub-and-spoke structure like a dictatorship, where a central hub runs the entire network. A tree structure is also possible, with a set chain of command (much like a typical military organization, where more minor decisions can be made locally in parts of the network, and major, global decisions made by someone like the President or a top general, and this decision cascades down to lower parts of the network simultaneously. Al Qaeda is neither of these, but rather a ‘web without a spider.’ An analysis was done after the 9/11 attacks to determine the structure of the cell responsible for the attacks (this is outlined in Barabasi’s book). Mohamed Atta was indeed a hub of the suspected 34-person cell. But, he only had links with 16 other nodes. Marwan Al-Shehhi was linked with only 14 other members of the cell. Most of the other members only may have had one or two known links to other nodes, which is a signature structure for a scale-free network. If we assume the entire Al Qaeda organization is similarly structured, what we are fighting is indeed a network that is very flexible and can tolerate some number of internal failures. If Atta was captured prior to 9/11, that event would not have necessarily crippled the cell, and the attacks may have very well gone as planned. The reason is that the other nodes still had the links to hold together the cell, so even taking out the leader of the cell does not disconnect all the other links. Killing Bin Laden will not in itself cripple Al Qaeda for the same reason. In fact we have seen this because a number of Bin Laden’s very well-connected lieutenants (i.e. other hubs) have been killed or captured, and yet the attacks and killing by the periphery of Al Qaeda continue unabated. This is completely analogous to viruses in the Internet, where if a hub is ‘cured’ (i.e. Bin Laden removed) the virus may still be able to do damage through poorly connected nodes (small cells on the periphery of Al Qaeda’s network, acting almost independently). This is part of the power of a scale-free network structure.

If Al Qaeda had more of a military structure, taking out Bin Laden and some key lieutenants would likely cripple and possibly defeat the organization, much like taking out key generals in a war can have devastating consequences for the outcome of battles and perhaps the war itself. Unfortunately, it is not so simple with the terrorist organizations we are facing.

Thanks to Zenpundit for asking me to write up something on this. I am not an expert, but hopefully this helps in some small way for understanding bare basics of a network like Al Qaeda.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A Most Amusing Lawsuit

A Russian astrologer has filed a $300 million lawsuit against NASA for colliding the Deep Impact probe into a comet. The collision has "ruined the natural forces in the universe" and has caused emotional stress since her horoscope has been thrown off. No kidding, this is a real story! I cannot think of a thing to say about this or have any amusing or sarcastic remarks because it speaks for itself. I'd love to hear your comments, though! It is a pity NASA may actually have to deal with this, though.

Monday, July 04, 2005

A Brief Note of Interest to the Biologists

As I perused the Current Science page of the Scientific American website, I came across something from June. A photosynthetic bacterium has been discovered 2400 meters below the ocean surface. Now, sunlight doesn't reach down that far. What is the source of some very dim light? Hydrothermal vents! These critters live in the 300 degree Celsius water, and are identified as a member of the green sulfur bacteria family (which live solely on products coming from photosynthetic reactions). Some suspect life may have originated in such environments. I am continually amazed at the variety, complexity, and strangeness of life, and suspect like most biologists that there are still numerous species out there we have not yet seen or identified. We are finding that life of some type can exist and thrive in every environment we have looked on earth, and it just strengthens my belief that there must be some form of life (not necessarily little green men, but certainly microorganisms) on numerous worlds scattered throughout the universe.

Now This is the Type of Fireworks Worth Mentioning...

NASA did it! For the first time a manmade spacecraft has hit a comet. Deep Impact, a nearly half-ton probe, performed a sicide mission and slammed into the comet Tempel 1 at around 23,000 mph. The collision took place around 83 million miles from earth. NASA has a wonderful website dedicated to the mission, with some truly remarkable pictures as the impact neared and then took place. Scientists should be able to get a better idea of the composition of comets, which si significant because it could reveal some answers to questions about the early solar system. For example, when the earth was first formed some 4.5 billion years ago, one source of getting water on the new planet may have been comets (which are suspected to be largely big ice balls). There were presumably countless collisions between meteors, asteroids and comets in the early days of the formation of earth, and certain chemicals (even amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which have been found on meteors) may have been delivered in those collisions. In any case, what a great mission!

Friday, July 01, 2005

Check this out...

I just wanted to reciprocate the plug Mike Lach gave me on his blog, Teach and Learn. Mike is Director of Science in the Chicago Public Schools, and is leading the effort to make significant improvements and changes in big-city science education. You da man, Mike!

Kudos to Will Smith

I just wanted to praise rapper/actor Will Smith for taking a stand on the influence tough “gangster” rappers have on Black youth, and the call for rappers to understand their power as role models and the need for more positive messages in rap songs. Smith has taken a hit by certain Black radio stations that won’t play his latest songs, perhaps because, as he states in some lyrics, he is not “black enough” if he doesn’t talk about violence or other thuggish themes. It is encouraging to see high-profile and well respected African-Americans such as Smith and Bill Cosby (who was just featured on Nightline) trying to bring attention to several problems in inner city America. Perhaps it is a na├»ve mission on their part, but if it helps perpetuate progress in individual homes and communities, and if a few lives are saved (in both the literal and figurative sense), the more power to them.