Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Good Quote

Straight from the Conventional Wisdom bit from this week's Newsweek:

"Warrantless wiretaps? Fine! Everyone's phone records? No problem. Search a Rep's office? Crisis!!"

What could more of them be hiding?! This is about the only time Republicans have come to the defense of a Democrat (Rep. William Jefferson, who also had $90,000 in cash in his freezer; talk about cold, hard cash!). I would have predicted the Republicans would be all over this, as they finally have a scandal going the other way...but, get this, they rush to his defense! Where in the Constitution does it say law enforcement must leave our representatives alone? Maybe I missed something in Civics class...

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Rising Above the Gathering Storm Report

Just a quick note. The report Rising Above The Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future can be found online. This is an important report dedicated to studying the potential issues and problems the U.S. faces as globalization proceeds. With a future crisis of a diminished American technical base in the making, immediate action is required to keep the U.S. competitive. This report defines the issues and problems as well as an impressive list of references, and provides numerous recommendations that need to be considered and acted upon in the near-term.

Neutrino Oscillations

In one of the more interesting experiments I can think of, the Main Injector Muon Oscillation Search (MINOS) has yielded preliminary results that, indeed, neutrinos do oscillate and that the rates are consistent with muon oscillation theoretical predictions. This experiment begins at Fermilab, where protons from the Main Injector beam are slammed into a carbon target. Nuclear reactions take place that produce some number of muon neutrinos. This beam of muon neutrinos then begins a journey through 725 miles of the Earth to a detector in a mineshaft in Soudan, Minnesota. There, the muon neutrinos are counted. There are half as many muon neutrinos left, which is a statistically significant result that neutrinos oscillate. Oscillations are expected if there is a mass difference between the various neutrino (electron, muon, tau) flavors, and results are being extracted from the data on the value of the mass difference.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Boys vs Girls in Academics

There is an interesting post at Eide Neurolearning Blog. Brain scans show how boys and girls use different areas of the brain to process the same information. Boys process information significantly more slowly than girls, on average, and this tends to manifest itself in school in lower GPAs than girls. On the other hand, data show that boys score higher on aptitude tests. One proposed explanation for the lower GPAs is that boys tend to turn in homework late (which would be a natural consequence of slower processing) and are punished for it on their grades (see the report "Smart Boys, Bad Grades"). My own experience certainly would agree with the conclusion that boys are more likely to turn in work late, and it would be interesting to formally keep track of it and collect my own data.

It is this type of research that needs to be collected and summarized, and given to teachers on a large scale, so we can use it to make appropriate canges in what is done in the classroom to best assist students and allow them to get the most out of their educational experience.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Features of Analyzing Complex Social Systems: Individuals vs Superorganism

In Yaneer Bar-Yam's textbook "Dynamics of Complex Systems" (1997), the final chapter considers looking at complex social systems, i.e. civilizations. There have been numerous posts around the blogosphere in the past few months that have been focused on issues involving complex systems, network theory, emergence, resilience, consilience, and so on, as they apply to a variety of systems, both physical and social, including a number on this blog. One aspect of these types of analyses that has been overlooked is the role of the individual within the collective system, and this is precisely what Bar-Yam warns against.

A term that has arisen within biology, the "superorganism," generally relates to the existence of collective behavior or organisms, such that the actual system of interest is not an individual organism but rather a collective system formed from many individuals. Ant colonies are an example, and this term may indeed apply to human civilization. If we want to apply features of complexity theory to assist us as we create social policy, for instance, presumably we would need to try to determine how the superorganism is affected. But we must do this with care. How do we treat individual people in such an analysis? Real people, perhaps our friends and neighbors, may be personally affected by a particular policy decision that an analysis predicts would be wonderful for the superorganism, but damaging to (vulnerable) subgroups of individuals. We see this everyday, and how we may approach such analyses can broadly be broken into two camps: place a larger emphasis on the superorganism, or place a larger emphasis on the individual. Not so surprisingly, this has given rise to two political parties.

Placing more of an emphasis on the business sector in economic/fiscal policy, for instance, seems to be focused more on the superorganism. Big business is a sort of faceless, complex system in its own right, and one type of policy can be derived from this perspective. Placing an emphasis on how it affects individuals who make up the system, such as the poor and middle class (i.e. the average, individual citizen), leads to a separate approach for fiscal policy. Proponents of gun control laws, on the other hand, seem to be looking more closely at the superorganism, while those who are against gun control laws seem to focus more on individuals within the system. Interestingly, political parties such as the Republicans and Democrats may swap which perspective they take toward policy-making in these two examples.

There is so much we still do not know about complexity, emergence, and interdependence, it makes any analysis of complex social systems difficult. At some level we need to be careful not to neglect the role and importance of individuals within a system, and yet there is a need to take care of the collective society. The Constitution sets up a governmental structure that is meant to protect both the nation, a collective, complex system of individual states and counties and local governments, while simultaneously giving each individual great freedoms and importance. To me, thinking in terms of complexity, it makes more sense than ever that we were destined to have only two major political parties, and that third parties are improbable. There are the two, and only two, broad approaches we can make when considering policy, as described above. In the gray areas where there is overlap between the two approaches, we essentially find the principle of superposition at work, rather than a unique, new approach or party philosophy. Where we draw the lines between 'superorganism' and 'individual' will continue to dominate the political landscape. As if a single society wasn't hard enough, there is still a consideration of how things work within the globalization of economics and cultures.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Resilience and Consilience Revisited

There has been a lot of posting the past few days on the topics of resilience and consilience in networks, led by Zenpundit. An old post I had from August of last year looked at these topics in the context of modular networks, with one section of it reprinted here:

"Now add in Wilson's idea of 'consiliency.' How can a network make use of fundamental principles from a variety of fields to enhance the performance of the entire network? In everyday terms, to me this almost sounds like multitasking. One needs to have members of the network who have studied and are trained in multiple fields, or small numbers of individuals who know something about a lot of different fields...research shows this multitasking tends to *reduce* productivity if you take the individual route. I may be a bit off on this, but in network theory, there is a hierarchical structure to some real networks that was discovered in ~2002. There are naturally forming, self-emergent networks within networks. There is still a scale-free mathematical structure to the more complex networks, and they are now called modular networks. A large company does this by having different departments, which by themselves are networks of workers. But the hubs, department managers, perhaps, are the links between the departments (modules) to form an ever more complex structure. The Internet and biological cell are naturally occurring modular networks, and the more people look, the more this structure is found in real networks.

Modularity makes use of a variety of local information for the global success of the overall network. The fact that this occurs naturally through the evolution of many types of networks is intriguing. Perhaps this is what Wilson's intuition was telling him. If I were a manager, I suppose I would encourage interaction between my department and others, to cross-feed each other with our knowledge and find out how to push the boundaries of our business.

This is one thing I wish happened more in schools, as Wilson also suggests in education, because teaching techniques and methodologies can be used across disciplines and subject areas...this seems to be an efficient and effective way of promoting horizontal thinking, because teachers can break away from 'standard' ways of teaching our own subject and learn some new ways of teaching from someone else in a different department. We need to take advantage of the departmentalized, intellectually specialized modules in such networks in order to help find new insights and breakthroughs. "

As far as education, I am excited about some work I'll be involved with this summer as we are attempting to finally take a step in this direction. Our science, math, and applied science and technology departments will be working together to help each other out, ranging from possible coordination of when various topics are taught (to give students dual exposure to certain topics), sharing activities that work, using the same language and vocabulary so students are better served, and applying apprpriate technologies into the mix. Who knows how far we can take this cross-talk between 'modules' (i.e. departments), but combining expertise and experience from multiple distinct subject areas will lead to improvements for everyone involved. Through a type of consilience, we may in fact become more resilient in dealing with the academic, intellectual and psychological challenges many of our students are facing in technical subjects.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Diplomacy Through Space Collaboration

With a recent agreement between the US and India to collaborate on an unmanned Moon mission, and talks between the US (NASA) and China on the horizon, space and diplomacy are back as a means to stengthen/improve relationships with two emerging world powers. Just as in the days of the Cold War, where the US and USSR collaborated and had the in-flight rendezvous between Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft (1975) and the later and current collaboration between the US and Russia on the International Space Station, space missions are a way of showing, at the very least symbolically, some level of trust with each other as well as overall improving the relationsihp between two competing nations. There are practical reasons as well, including cost and the fact we have relied on Russian spacecraft to keep supplies going up to the ISS after the US shuttle fleet was grounded. Going into space is a scientific, technical, and economic challenge, and when missions are shared there exists added incentives to avoid confrontation politically as well as militarily.

Current foreign policy includes deepening our strategic alliance with India, the world's largest democracy, and there is an obvious need to improve and strengthen our relationship with an emerging superpower, China. While trade with China has constructed common interdependence between the US and China, including space policy and collaboration will be a second pathway between these competitors. And let's not forget that China is working on a mission that will make it the second nation to land men on the Moon; NASA is certainly interested in this one.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Good Introduction into the First Few Microseconds of the Universe

The most accepted scientific model for how the universe began is the Big Bang theory, where an explosion of energy led to the emergence of the observable universe in which we live. Using particle accelerators, we can reproduce some of the violent and extreme conditions that have not existed since the Big Bang, some 13.7 billion years ago. Scientific American has a very nice article online that describes results of experiments performed at Brookhaven National Laboratory, using the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). These experiments collide nuclei together at the speed of light and watch what comes from the collisions. At the energies used, a quark-gluon plasma can be formed and studied. Surprisingly, some of the behaviors of this concoction look more like a liquid than a gas. Good stuff! Note...another good source of information for particle physics and the search for properties of the early universe, see the Fermilab site.

Look for a Growing Need for Strong Community/Junior Colleges

College is expensive and it will only get worse. It is too often an economic reality that many qualified students coming out of high school cannot attend their first-choice schools simp because they do not want to be buried in debt upon graduation. In many cases, going to a community college for two years to get introductory courses out of the way, and then transferring to a four-year college to get a bachelors degree, is a reasonable plan. Unfortunately, at some (most?) high schools, including the one I teach at, even considering attending a community college is a sign of, for lack of a beter term, failure. That is too bad, and unwarranted considering long-term financial planning.

The scenario mentioned above is what many people think of when considering the role of community colleges. There is another reason which will become more important as time goes on. The U.S. economy is in a type of phase tranistion right now, moving from one with a significant manufacturing base to one with a service and technology oriented base. Blue-collar workers who need training in entirely new fields will be increasing in number. We must continue to support local community colleges, which are largely publicly funded, in order to ensure workers in our communities have viable options to have access to high paying jobs.

Community colleges will also become more important in large cities and in many rural communities, where, too often, the vast majority of low income families live. Graduates from school districts in these areas often don't have the same opportunities to attend the major four-year colleges because of costs as well as a lack of academic preparation. Speaking from my experience in a large city district, the level of rigor and academic skills in inner city schools is not at the same level as wealthier suburban districts. This is reflected in scores on SAT, ACT and AP exams, for example, as well as in disturbing dropout rates (as high as 50% in some large city districts) and percentage of graduates who go on to graduate college with a bachelors degree. For instance, only 6% of high school graduates from Chicago graduate from college within six years. That is an unbelievable statistic. Community colleges can and do provide the academic boost necessary to make it at a four-year school.

The sterotype and reputation of the 1100 community colleges in the U.S. needs to change for the better, since they will play a key role in our continued effort to adapt to globalization and an evolving economy, where higher education is becoming more important and essential for the workforce. We cannot afford to overlook this portion of our educational infrastructure.

Some Quick Thoughts on Resiliency in (Social) Networks

An interesting discussion has developed over on Zenpundit. I just wanted to share some initial thoughts that I included in the comments for that post:

Applications of network theory certainly exist within the biological sciences. For instance, the network structure of food webs in a variety of ecosystems are being studied in depth. The 'network' structure of the molecules used in cellular metabolism is another interesting application of network theory.

But the reverse is true as well, where analogs to principles in evolution are being used to study how randomness affects network structure and decision-making in networks. Genetic algorithms, where small pieces of two different, valid rule-sets are interchanged to produce an 'offspring rule-set,'can be used to see how rule-sets evolve within a given network. The Franks paper involved this technique, for instance.

I tend to believe, like Curtis, that there is much to the argument that a truly resilient network needs to be able to do more than just react. If we define resiliency as the ability to respond to new challenges, the response capabilities, resources and infrastructure of real networks need to be able to anticipate problems or attacks on that network. Now, this means we have great challenges. It is difficult to even attempt to understand the behavior of a complex system in any sort of detail, but add to that the fact that a complex system typically exists in a complex, dynamic environment, and the number of possible interactions and problems that may arise is staggering. For instance, think of the political example being raised.

There is obviously a 'barrier' to what political/policy decision is made because of the polarized state of the country right now. Here is the interesting part...in a relatively noise-free environment, there is esentially no crossover between the two parties and how they view or decide to act on some issue. Crossover and consensus do not occur until there is an increase in the noise (again, research along the lines of the Franks paper studies the effect of noise in networks; there is great applicability of the concept). True changing of political minds tends to come about with increased noise; political decision making tends to be reactionary in nature (not many visionaries). 9/11 was a 'big bang' that led to unification of the parties, at least as unified as we'll see them at any given moment. I don't think it lasted very long, nor can it realistically last very long, because of the complex environment politics has to navigate. The noise (at least within the US) died down, and the decision-making boundaries have been redrawn. Curtis is right to say routine has become the norm again, because individals like routine and go back to worrying about day to day problems for survival sake. It is evolution in action..adapt to the environment and focus on individual survival. To be resilient will require societal concerns and planning, more long-term thinking, and anticipatory thinking, which politicians are not very good at (particularly long-term thinking/planning).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

IBM Program a Model for Industry and Schools

IBM has a program where they are encouraging employees to go into teaching in the public school system. This could become a model for other technical businesses to follow in the near future, as federal statistics predict that within two years the U.S. will need over 200,000 new science and math teachers. This coming fall will be the first time that science will be included in the test scores that determine the 'success' of a school under No Child Left Behind mandates, and more studetns than ever will be taking science; the net effect will be that an existing shortage of qualified science and math teachers will become worse.

One obvious downside to a program such as what IBM is piloting is salary. Although IBM would not give specific salaries of any employee in the program, it has been noted that participants take over a 50% pay cut (the average salary for teachers is in the mid $40,000s range, and it is not uncommon for technical specialists in companies such as IBM to make six figures...hmmm, I wonder why there is a shortage of science and amth teachers in the first place). IBM and other high tech firms will almost certainly become more involved in schools, and it will be interesting to see what new and creative ways they will do so. With a lack of American students graduating with science, math and engineering degrees, it is in the best interests, both short term and long term, for American companies to begin and commit to long-term participation in the education system. It is good to see that IBM understands that no progress will be made unless there are more enthusiastic teachers to motivate and train some of our best and brightest in the on a large scale.