2009-06-09

Why Do Developing Countries Not Develop

After several years living abroad (St. Petersburg, Sussex, Brussels, Granada, Boston), it takes a bit of time to get used to life back in Mexico City.

Having some frame of comparison, I realized one way to describe the problem with developing countries such as Mexico: there is a high degree of incompetence.

Now, it is difficult to measure incompetence (In TeraBushes?), but to understand better what I mean, let us say that an agent (person, business, organization) is more incompetent if there are more tasks that the agent should perform successfully and it does not. I mean, I am quite incompetent in bureaucratic monotonous tedious labours, but these are not my duty (which some people refer to as "professional handwaving", others as "academia").

All countries and all agents have a certain degree of incompetence: nobody is perfect, there will always be errors, especially with novel tasks. Also, all countries and agents have a large degree of functionality, things that do work (somehow). However, in Mexico you run into incompetence across all scales more often than in other countries. Call it a higher error rate. To give an example, a couple of days ago I went to Home Depot to get some boards for some furniture I am making (another thing I am incompetent at...), and I was naïve enough not to check the boards at the shop. So, I start screwing^2 the boards together, and some of them aren't even square! Others have the wrong measures! I need to go back and return half the boards. OK, so Home Depot is a multinational company, and I suppose that you don't get this type of incompetence on all its locations. So, it is the error of the worker who chopped the boards.

Similar things happen every day: at restaurants you have a higher chance that the waiter will make an error with your order, our engineers have a higher chance of making an unusable bike track, our online banking systems have a higher chance of not working properly, our electricity has a higher chance of being interrupted, our presidents have a higher chance to make some silly agreement (and our congress of allowing it).

Where is the root of all this incompetence? I believe that we can say that in education. Countries which are less incompetent have much higher education rates. The average education in Mexico a few years back was five years per adult. This means that for each person with a PhD (~20 years of education), there are four with no education at all.

How can we improve education? This seems like a chicken and egg problem, because many teachers are quite incompetent (those who can, do; those who can't, teach...). And where do you get good teachers to teach teachers how to teach properly?

My opinion is that we need an alternative road to education, since it is too slow. It has improved, but it takes generations to make a difference. One option would be to increase awareness. If people are aware of their errors, they can try to correct them by themselves. If people are aware of the errors of others, they should complain (conformism and impunity are other big problems: errors are tolerated).

How to increase awareness? I would like to know, I need to increase mine. Meditation may help... I am sure that TV & church do not (we have >95% catholic population). Maybe a new online religion (read sect) combining scientific and oriental spiritual worldviews might do the trick...

2009-06-02

Tentative Research Projects

I made a list of potential research projects I would like to explore with colleagues and/or students. You can find it here.

2009-06-01

New Paper: Enfrentando a la Complejidad: Predecir vs. Adaptar

Resumen: Una de las presuposiciones de la ciencia desde los tiempos de Galileo, Newton y Laplace ha sido la previsibilidad del mundo. Esta idea ha influido en los modelos cientificos y tecnologicos. Sin embargo, en las ultimas decadas, el caos y la complejidad han mostrado que no todos los fenomenos son previsibles, aun siendo estos deterministas. Si el espacio de un problema es previsible, podemos en teoria encontrar una solucion por optimizacion. No obstante, si el espacio de un problema no es previsible, o cambia mas rapido de lo que podemos optimizarlo, la optimizacion probablemente nos dara una solucion obsoleta. Esto sucede con frecuencia cuando la solucion inmediata afecta el espacio del problema mismo. Una alternativa se encuentra en la adaptacion. Si dotamos a un sistema de esta propiedad, este mismo podra encontrar nuevas soluciones para situaciones no previstas.

Abstract: One of the assumptions of science since the times of Galileo, Newton, and Laplace has been the predictability of the world. This idea has influenced scientific and technological models. However, in the last decades, chaos and complexity have shown that not all phenomena are predictable, even if they are deterministic. If a problem space is predictable, we can in theory find a solution via optimization. Nevertheless, if a problem space is not predictable, or changes faster than we can optimize it, optimization probably will give us an obsolete solution. This often happens when the immediate solution affects the problem space itself. One alternative is found in adaptation. If we give this property to a system, the system will be able to find by itself new solutions for unforeseen situations.

Full article (in Spanish).