Saturday, September 10, 2005

Misc. items... pros vs citizens and more...

A melange of items, starting with the New Orleans tragedy. I have called NoLa the “anti-9/11” becuase these two tragedies illustrate diametrically opposite sides of the same lesson. When resilient citizens feel empowered, they can be prodigious assets in a crisis. When resilient, self-organized action by citizens is actively quashed, a crisis will deepen and the professionals will make their jobs easier. Instead, by patronizing and restricting citizens, they will find their burdens will get far worse.

With the observation in mind, look at the chilling next stage in this process. Blackwater Mercenaries Deploy in New Orleans  Heavily armed paramilitary mercenaries from the Blackwater private security firm, infamous for their work in Iraq, are (apparently) openly patrolling the streets of New Orleans. Read the whole article. More evidence that the distinction is no longer between state and private authority. It is between authority and “little people.”

General: Guard Deployment in Iraq Hurt Katrina Response Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that "arguably" a day or so of response time was lost due to the absence of the Mississippi National Guard's 155th Brigade Combat Team and Louisiana's 256th Infantry Brigade, each with thousands of troops in Iraq.

See a review of a fascinating book about the globalization of brain power or The Flight of the Creative Class.  All our lives, the US has benefited from having 900 of the world’s 1,000 quality universities. It was a total win-win scenario. All the world PAID us for the privilege of sending their best and brightest here, to learn and train. We would then skim off the top 20% by offering them American Citizenship, and send the rest home infected with Enlightenment values. And they paid for this! What a deal.

Today, 38% of the PhDs trained in our magnificent universities are foreign-origin... only now the best no longer stay to join this nation’s melting pot, enriching it. Instead, the best take their new-forged expertise and flood homeward. And yet, the author contends that America’s continuing advantages will help to keep it even in overall creativity. What advantages? Freedom and cultural excitement, which are called prime requisites of true originality.

Here is where I think this book misses a key point. The author and I agree that freedom and cultural excitement (if they really do endure here) are helpful in generating creativity. But they are not the only requisites. China and India will keep attracting these brainy ones home, even despite lower levels of those two traits, for one simple reason. Because these countries are the new, wild economic frontier where it is possible to make a whole LOT of money, especially if you are smart, well-connected, and don’t offend anybody powerful.

At a time when America has turned anti-science, anti-innovation and anti-modernity, it may be altogether too blithe to expect brash freedom and cultural excitement -- alone -- to save our hash. Those traits certainly can stimulate certain types of of creativity all by themselves -- but only in stylish arts, like advertising and entertainment. New technologies, goods and services? Sorry. You need to train and graduate enough nerds. And make them feel appraciated.

From the same online magazine, a cogent little tutorial on global warming that takes no sides, but helps provide some scientific background.

(Note that The Globalist is NOT, by nature, a lefty sheet. Its pro-trade and pro-globalization stance is akin to Thomas Freidman’s new book The World is Flat and the studies of the Progressive Policy Institute that I sometimes cite. In other words, “liberal” in the original meaning of the word (see next time). A meaning that shares a few, but not all, traits in common with what “liberalism” is perceived to be, by so many Americans.)

And with that, I’ll leave the rest of the miscellany for tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Minor clarification:

The Blackwater guys are not patrolling the streets per se, they are guarding specfic commercial and private properties.

What is interesting is that they have guns while police are confiscating weapons from every other citizen in the city.

That is far scarier than hiring rent-a-cops to beef up general security. The wealthy are allowed to hire military-grade heat to guard their homes, while everyone else is disarmed and told to scram.

There's something happening here;
what it is ain't exactly clear.


Neil said...

Another critique of Friedman's thesis , by Richard Florida, can be found in this month's Atlantic. A series of maps shows that in fact, the majority of the world economic output/creativity is concentrated in a few cities and regions. The article goes on to make the point that there is 'flatness' between, say, New York and London, but much less so between New York City and upstate New York. Sadly, the maps are not available online.

Anonymous said...

" . . . but much less so between New York City and upstate New York"

Ah. The Catskills.

NoOne said...

I met Richard Florida when he came to my town to give a talk on the creative class. What Richard Florida gets that many other people don't is that there is a tremendous difference between real creativity and "innovation", the latter being standard business speak. Creativity is a bolt from the blue while innovation is usually incremental and obvious.

Since I'm an Indian immigrant and an academic, the one other point I'd like to make is that I have no desire to go back to India for the simple reason that the kind of academic research that I do (funded by NSF and NIH) cannot be done in India. India does not have a research infrastructure in place at the top universities period. In contrast, China (and Taiwan and South Korea) have developed research infrastructures at their top universities but the work continues to be quite derivative at present. I'm sure that will change but it'll probably take twenty years or more.

Steve said...

@ NoOne

I come at industrial research from a slightly different perspective. Perhaps it is illuminating to contrast our views.

Here is the way I would phrase these ideas to my clients. There are a number of things a business (and non-profit or government institute) needs to do to maintain and improve its position in its chosen field. Two of these things relavant here are strengthening the basics and large improvements (breakthroughs).

The basics are the things that are done on an ongoing basis to run and manage the business, without which you have no foundation for breakthroughs. Improvements here tend to be incremental and use local process experts. They add up over time, and although they are fairly obvious, the improvement need to be systematized otherwise nobody actually gets around to doing it. An analogy here to medicine might be having people at a hospital look for incrementally better ways to admit patients.

The breakthroughs require specified resources and a clear mission. Their job is to close a gap or make a large change in the process. The countermeasures needed to make these changes are unknown at the outset (otherwise we woulnd't be in the bad situation). A scientific method-based process is followed to diagnose and discover remediation. Frequently it will require industrial research and experimentation. A medical analogy here might be eliminating medication errors at a hospital.

There is a third level, one that it sounds like you participate in. This would be the "game-changer" or the search for a fundamental research and breakthrough. It is somewhat similar to the second case, but perhaps there is a lack of basic understanding of the problem itself. Similarly, though, methods exists to aid you in your search. With business, this level is usually a design function bolstered by whatever expertise the company has. In basic research though, it is usually a search for insight along different lines. So perhaps a cure for avian flu might be an example here.

The reason I post is that I see "creativity" as an attribute (and in fact as a learnable skill) which applies to all these areas, and "innovation" as a gradiated scale from incremental improvement to world-shaking breakthrough. I guess I define the terms differently than you and Mr. Florida.

Two things to think about then:

If innovation is gradiated, then perhaps it won't be a sudden change from derivative to breakthrough in 20 years. Rather I would see a gradual degradation in the US position as a place where breakthroughs happen.

The second thing is that the "bolt from the blue" you mention in science is built upon a strong foundation of previous work, some breakthroughs and some incremental understandings, similar to the modalities I talk about above. The bolt may be a truly unique way of looking at or approaching a problem. I don't think an infrastructure is needed for this (though for confimation perhaps it is), only communication, which is a strength of science. So perhaps the "threat" is nearer-term given information transparancy? And thus perhaps the urgency of constructing more scientist/engineers that stay in the US is higher?

NoOne said...


Not sure if we have a fundamental disagreement. To further clarify my position on creativity, I'll distinguish between a creative attitude or perspective versus a moment of creativity - "the bolt from the blue." A person who adopts a creative perspective will run the gamut from business-type innovation to breakthroughs to changing the rules of the game. The last occurs very rarely but is something we all strive towards all the time.

In contrast, a person who does not adopt a creative perspective will mouth platitudes regarding creativity but will actively resist attempts at changing the rules of the game. I think it's important to distinguish between these two types of people. In scientific research, the former is a true researcher whereas the latter is an "operator."

I agree completely on "standing on the shoulders of giants' etc. part of your comment. China is building a research infrastructure to institutionalize the "shoulders of giants" and this will take time. India has not even begun doing this on a large scale.

Steve said...

@ NoOne

OK, I'm with you now. Thanks for the clarification.

I have seen plenty of "operators" in business. I had one plant manager tell me what we needed was more data on the problem, then told me the solution before any work had begun (he was wrong), then when initial data collection pointed to his plant's lack of standardization said that all the data were wrong and that he was right, then when we performed an experiment in the lab that solved a 35-year old problem for the first time he refused to implement the countermeasures. Then when the plant that did experienced none of the problem and his plant had the same old amount of the problem, he said we must be cheating with the data or changing the production test. I am constantly amazed at how frequently data fails to change someone's opinion. Of course it is the best way we have, but even so it runs into a brick wall sometimes.

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