What do you admire about your parents

My story worth for this week. A little repetitive but I think still good. “What do you admire about your parents?”

My father

Never missed a day at work

My father went to work every day. I do not remember him missing even one day of work for any reason at all. He went to work when he felt good; he went to work when he felt bad. He never needed a “mental health day.” His job was physically hard and not fun intellectually, yet he persisted to support his family. He taught me that all work deserved respect and that you earned self-respect by the work you did. He lived simply and did not take much for himself, and he did not complain. His hard work and frugality made me think that we were rich when I was a kid. Only as an adult did I come to realize that we were comparatively poor. My father never finished 10th Grade, yet his constant reading gave him an admirable education, so he could hold his own in intellectual discussions with guys like me with fancy pants educations.

Heroic experiences

My father served the USA in World War II in the Army Air Corps. He got seven battle stars and a purple heart in the Battle of the Bulge. Yet he talked about it so little that I was only vaguely aware of his record. He was a union steward (longshoreman) when I was a little kid. He later soured on the union. I have no idea why. But never on the “working man.” He had that quiet dignity of the greatest generation. Don’t brag about the things you have done and certainly do not claim credit for things you are “gonna do.”

One memory vignette – As I said, he never much talked about his war experience, but there was one time when I saw the memory affect him. I had a Pink Floyd song called “Echoes.” It started with the sonar ping sound. This upset the old man, and he was rarely upset. It evidently reminded him of being on a troop ship crossing the Atlantic infested by Nazi U-Boats. He would not elaborate.

Love of education

Despite his own lack of formal education (maybe because), my father just assumed I would go to college and passed that to me. This is something I did not appreciate until I was an adult. Most people in my socioeconomic group did not go to college. We had no family history of higher education, and the old man knew nothing about it in practical terms, but he managed to boost my sister and me beyond what he could do or even understand.

My mother

Giving her a fair shake

I worry that I don’t give my mother a fair shake. A lot that I know about my father I learned when I was an adult, but I never knew my mother when I was an adult, since she died when I was seventeen. My impressions are a those of a child, at best teenager, but I can see a lot to admire with my adult experience.

Do for others and make it look natural

My mother was a very generous and unselfish person. As with my father, I only really understood what she did for me, sacrificed for me after I was an adult and after she was gone. As I wrote elsewhere, all I needed do was to mention an interest in a subject and a book about that subject would soon appear. Before I could go there alone, she took me to our neighborhood library – Llewellyn – and introduced me to the books there. When I got old enough to go there myself, she still always looked at the books I brought home and asked me about them. This was harder than I thought. She had to do some research about the subject, a much harder task in those pre-Internet days.

She always put others before herself, but she did it in such an unselfish way that the recipients were not always aware. She would work very hard on something and then make it look like it was no trouble. It took a lot of work for her to make things look spontaneous. I am not sure this is a good thing in working life, since you don’t get credit. I give her credit now, but that is a little too late. I would castigate my childish self, but there is no point. All I can do now is “pay it forward.” I think she would have been content with that, since it is behaving like she did.

The family ecology – sisters Florence & Lorainne

I have talked about my mother and my father individually. That gives an incomplete picture. As a couple, they were a team and as a team they were part of a bigger ecology of our extended family, mostly my mother’s sisters and my cousins. The total of this system was much greater than the sum of its parts. This became very clear after my mother died. I was almost an adult, going into my last year in HS. My sister Chris is two years younger. We were old enough to be autonomous but not old enough to take care of ourselves, especially emotionally. My mother’s sisters Florence and Lorraine (they don’t give kids those sorts of names anymore) stepped right in. They helped make meals, helped my father adjust emotionally, helped my sister and me adjust. They finished the job my mother had begun.

Intellectual life

My aunts, especially my Aunt Lorraine, were very well read. My aunt Lorraine and I often discussed history. More a debate was when we discussed biology. My aunts had serious doubts about the theory of evolution. Me on the other hand … the only “advanced” course they ever put me into was advanced biology. My teacher told us that it was impossible to understand biology w/o reference to the theory of evolution and I thought he was 100% right. Suffice it to say, we disagreed. You can disagree w/o being disagreeable. My aunts made arguments that I thought were completely wrong but very well presented. I respected them and their faith. They respected of me and my heretical ideas. Usually at the end of the discussion they would praise my knowledge and persistence but point out that I didn’t know everything. My erudite Aunt Lorraine would sometimes quote Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I would joke that my name was not Horatio, and then would wander off back to school or wherever I was going.

My pictures are not part of the story. They are from Mosaic this morning. Chrissy & I went to a morning movie and then lunch. Last picture is a tiger swallowtail on Chrissy’s flowers this morning.

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Intelligence Traps


Check out this great listen on Audible.com. An eye-opening examination of the stupid things smart people do – and how to cultivate skills to protect ourselves from error. “As a rule, I have found that the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to mysti…

Intelligent people do not make better choices than their less gifted colleagues. In fact, very intelligent people often tend to be amazingly stupid about “common sense” decisions. Let’s add two caveats. The first is within a reasonable range. There are people with such low intelligence that they cannot make good choices at all and there are subjects that require higher intelligence to master, but generally once you get “enough” it stops being useful to have more. The second caveat relates to what we call intelligence. Even though we don’t talk much about IQ anymore, we implicitly judge intelligence by the types of things IQ test measure.

The author begins by talking about very intelligent people who just believe very stupid things. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the supremely rational Sherlock Holmes, believe is spiritualism and fairies, for example. One of the intelligence traps is that intelligent people can think up all sorts of good reasons to believe dumb things. They are used to people deferring to them and people do.

High intelligence is like a powerful engine. It can drive the car very fast, but it needs a competent driver, else it drives very fast in the wrong direction.

I thought “The Intelligence Trap” was very much like a book I read in the 1990s called “Decision Traps.” “Decision Traps” was one of the books that most influenced my life. If it makes me seem shallow because I mention such a book and not some wonderful classic, well too bad. “Decision Traps” featured a lot of useful wisdom and introduced me to the work of Kahneman and Tversky, before they were so famous. It mentioned specific paths that smart people go down that take them the wrong way. “The Intelligence Trap” does that too. It is in many ways and updated version, so I recommend it. It is an entertaining book too. The thoughts are not profound and I have read most of the examples elsewhere, but it is useful to remind ourselves.

Confirmation bias

“The Intelligence Trap” talks about confirmation bias, for example. I first came across the term in “Decision Traps” and the problem has become worse since 1990. Internet is a confirmation bias engine and it does it so seamlessly that we often do not even see it. One way I counter it is to have lots of Facebook friends who don’t agree with me. I tolerate even the abusive ones, since their points of view may be right, sometimes. The flaw in my plan is that some Facebook friends who disagree with me unfriend me, thereby denying themselves the benefit of my contrary wisdom and me of theirs.

This is related to motivated reasoning. This is when you are looking for information to bolster positions you already support or disparage information that contradicts.

Meta forgetting

I like to meet authors, but I always try to cut them a lot of slack. They often know less than is contained in the pages of their books. This makes perfect sense. When they finished the book, they were at the peak of their knowledge on that subject and forgetting set in that same day.

This happens to all of us. We can perceive it with subjects like math or language, but we miss it with other subjects. We tend to think we know all we did on the day we got the passing grade on the tests. We don’t. Good to recall and relearn if we need.
Hard is better than easy learning

Related is the idea that difficulty is good when we are trying to learn. We can often get better short term results when we concentrate. Out long-term recall and use of information is improved when we struggle a little, when we forget and have to relearn. This is one reason why crash courses tend to produce short-term wins, but long term don’t make much of an impression.

A man has gotta know his limitations

Socrates got it right. I liked that the author made many references to literature and philosophy. He mentioned the wisdom of Socrates and Solomon. Socrates was wise precisely because he knew that he didn’t know. He talked to all kinds of experts. These guys knew a lot about their specialties, but they lacked wisdom because they thought they knew more than they did about other things. There is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Solomon’s case was different. He was said to be one of the wisest men ever, but he could not run his kingdom or his personal life well. In the wisdom of that great American philosopher Clint Eastwood – “A man has gotta know his limitations.”

Related to this is expert entrenchment. When people know a lot, they think they know everything about it. They may not know as much as they think, but even in the areas of their specialties information changes. Sometimes the super stars are the ones least likely to want to change. They are doing well with the status quo. This can also lead to functional stupidity. Functional because it works at least in the short term. Productivity may be boosted in the short-term if you do not question and just get it done. It also might help with career success if you don’t rock the boat.

Fixed mind set

My father taught me many useful things. One of the not useful things that I had to jettison was a fixed mind set. He told me that either you were good at something or not. This was not strictly wrong, but it implies that you cannot change. In fact, we have lots of choices. Our futures need not be slaves of our pasts or of our CURRENT capacity.

The author gives the example of Richard Feynman, one of the top physicists of the 20th Century. Teachers didn’t think much of Feynman. He was self-motivated, which meant that he did not always study the things teachers thought important. He was also not incredibly intelligent on those traditional IQ measures. But he never stopped learning. He was always curious and looking for new information in wide varieties of subjects, not only physics. As a child, he was below average in language, but he kept on going and ended up mastering several foreign languages.

The race is not always won by the fastest, but by the one who just keeps running.

The race may be won by the fastest, but sometimes the fastest don’t know that the race is never over. You can keep on going and guys like Feynman just keep on going.

I learned this lesson from my friend David Brooks (the FSO, not the author. David, sadly, died a couple years ago.) What I learned from him was the usefulness of persistence in language learning. David seemed to have little talent learning Polish. He managed to get a 3/3 (enough to pass) but it was bad, so bad that even non-Poles like me noticed. But he kept on going. By the time he was done in Poland, he was among the best speakers. I took his lesson when I was in Brazil. I tried to keep on speaking and learning Portuguese until the day I left Brazil. Not sure how good I got, but I could communicate better.

Better in foreign language

Speaking of foreign language, if you know a foreign language well you know that your personality is different when you are speaking it versus your native language. I thought I was often a better diplomat in Portuguese than I was in English because I had to listen more carefully, reflect more and talk more thoughtfully. “The Intelligence Trap” talks about studies that indicate that people are more rational when explaining something in a language that is not their native one. The idea is that it slows you down so you don’t make the snap judgements. Even when you are very fluent, using a foreign language sets up a firebreak.

Tolerance of ambiguity

Finally, in my memory, if not in the book, is a tolerance of ambiguity. People who make better decisions often are those that can hold contradictory ideas at the same time and not go crazy. They do not feel the urgent need to resolve questions and so can take ideas from more sources. Sometimes you don’t need to resolve things. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter and so we should just leave it alone. Even if we “know” we are right, it does not mean others are wrong if they believe the opposite. Hard to resolve. Just lighten up.

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Hard work on a hot day

Maybe I am just getting too old for all this, but I blame the heat. It got up to 94 degrees today with high humidity. It is hard to work in that. I cut paths for almost four hours and walked with Adam Smith around to check out the fire lines. And I got just exhausted.

I got a new head for my cutting tool, as you can see in the picture. I saw it online. It is great. Unlike the line head, this thing can easily cut brambles and brush. Unlike my circular saw, this thing can easily cut grass and weeds. I was much more efficient. A tank of gas lasts for a little more than an hour. With my other cutting heads I was able to make maybe two complete cut paths before the gas ran out. Today I was able to push through four of them per tank. Sweet. Of course, maybe that is also why I was more tired than usual. The machine is working faster so I am too.

BTW – I cut paths for two reasons. One is to make more effective for us to get around when we do prescribed fire this winter. If the fire starter needs to push through brambles, they cannot move as fast. If the cannot get going fast enough, the fires run too long and get too hot. The other reason is so I can get at and cut the competition for my pines. Often the paths function for both.

My first picture is my cutting tool. Next two are from the end of the day. The picture with the car is what I took from my chair and next is my selfie on my chair, resting. Picture #4 is a path i made last week and last is Loves from the way home. I used to post those pictures each time but I stopped. The reason I stopped was that my phone usually did not take the picture right. It was too fast. The price display move faster than the human eye detects but slow enough that the camera catches it.

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What were you like when you were 60?

This story worth is out of order, but I thought it was a good follow-up to the last one.

What were you like when you were 60?

People long for and look back to the glories of their youth. I was a happy man when I was young. I am happier now. My 60th years was the best of times, at least so far. To explain, I will go a little before my 60th year.


I was 59 when I finished up in Brazil. This was the bookend of my career. My first foreign post was Brazil, and my last. As a young and green officer, I had more energy and confidence than I did competence. I think I did a decent job, but it always nagged me how much I could have done better. When I got the opportunity to be public affairs officer in Brazil, I grabbed it with both hands. The FS gave me Portuguese training again, but my 20-year-old Portuguese came back quickly. I was able to relearn the language much faster than I learned the first time and to take it to levels I had never before reached. Easier to get home when you start off on third base. I could devote my time to studying real topics in Portuguese, not just the language itself, and really get to know the country. I fell in love with Brazil and just wanted to get to know it better. I think Brazilians could tell and their enthusiasm for the USA often matched mine for Brazil. I had a great time from the time I landed In Brasília until I left. I visited much of the country from the São Paulo and Rio to the remote part of the Amazon and met friendly & cooperative people wherever I went.

The wisdom of puppies

Why do people like dogs so much? Because they like us. Not to trivialize it, but diplomats can learn a lot from dogs, especially in public diplomacy. Of course, you must follow up with something substantial. I was truly interested in Brazil and eager to find places where Brazilians and Americans could benefit mutually. Suffice to say that I felt that I did the best job I could and having done that, I could move on to something new.

You ought to be in a museum

State Department had another gift for me in the form of an assignment at Smithsonian as Senior International Adviser. My job, as the name implies, was to advise. It meant that I got to meet museum directors, scholars and artists and tried to find ways to be useful. One of my assignments was to get to known Smithsonian, a task I eagerly undertook. Most of my practical work involved connecting Smithsonian folks with State. It was simple for me but nearly impossible for them. State can be opaque to outsiders. I knew who to call, what to say and where to go, or at least the path to get there. We underestimate the value of connectors. I realized that while I rarely DID anything, I enabled others to do a lot. Acting as connectors and catalysts is the essence of diplomacy.

Ready to go, but no place to be

The year I turned 60, I was living a dream. After that, what was left? I had already been public affairs officer in Brazil. I could do similar work elsewhere, but these were lateral moves and I might not be as lucky as I had been in Brazil. I was unenthusiastic about most domestic jobs. I am not a good bureaucrat, and I knew I would not be a very good “high official.” I had neither the temperament nor the desire.

The bridge to the end

I took a bridge assignment as Senior Adviser for Think Tanks & NGOs. This was also a gift assignment. As a retired man, I love to go to talks at think tanks and talk to the people there. This WAS my job. My assignment was to write a report about how think tanks and thought leaders influence developments in things State Department thinks important. As usual, I found that I would be breaking no new ground. I spend my first weeks just reading what had been written on the subject. Then I started to reach out. Spoiler alert – if you want to know about think tanks and how they work, you can start – AND pretty much finish – with James McGann and the Think Tanks and Civil Society program at the University of Pennsylvania. I went to visit McGann in Philadelphia. He was very helpful, and he has a whole team working on the subject. Supplied with that information and the pathways to get more, all I needed do was fill in specifics to our needs.

I had no real deadline to finish my report and in most ways the process of researching it was the most important part of the job. Once again, I was falling into the connector role, linking State officials with scholars studying things we needed to know. It was a satisfying job, but it was a kind of “Land of the Lotus Eaters” satisfaction. My father once warned me that the worst thing young men could get was a good job with no future – good enough to hold you but not taking you anywhere. It goes for old men too. In State there are people who are just there. They sometimes perform useful services, and many had glorious pasts, but they have not future.

Don’t hang around like a fart in a phone booth

This I didn’t want this to be my fate and I felt I was no longer adding significant value to State Department. When I got my final promotion, to Minster Councilor (this means something to FS colleagues if nobody else), I decided to retire. The speed and determination of this decision surprised me. If you had asked me a minute before I got the word, I think I would have been diffident. But I decided in that minute and immediately called HR to get retirement moving. The woman at the other of the line was surprised. “You just got promoted,” she said, “Nobody retires just after they get promoted.” But I did.

Take Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to George, “Showmanship, George. When you hit that high note, say goodnight and walk off.”

On the plus side, this gave me a deadline. I had a couple weeks to finish my report on think tanks and I finished. I sometimes wonder if anybody read it, but I finished it and I thought it was good. I learned a lot in the process. On the downside … well there was no downside, except that I was afraid.

As I wrote elsewhere, FS is a totalitarian system. My identity was that of a Foreign Service Officer. I had not stood alone for more than 30 years. Could I still do it? Thinking like the public diplomacy professional I had become; I knew I needed a title. Retired would not do. So, I developed the tripartite title I still have – Gentleman of Leisure, Conservationist & President of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation. The last one I had just acquired. It was the only part of my title that required ratification by anyone besides myself. Since I still sometimes do short-term assignments for State, I thought of adding “sometime diplomat,” but so far have no added that to my titles.

End and beginning

I went to the retirement transition seminar at the Foreign Service Institute. It is a really great thing State offers its soon to be former employers. Having the chance to talk with colleagues and hear the talks of experts is a useful way to decompress and adapt to the changed life. In theory, State Department gets to reabsorb some of the knowledge acquired over the years, but I don’t know how much that worked. My seminar was March-April 2016. This is the best time to take the seminar, and not just because springtime is glorious in Northern Virginia, since most of the people in it are retiring voluntarily or because they have reached mandatory retirement age. If you take it in fall/winter, there are more people who were pushed out in our up-or-out system. I understand that it is a less happy group.

My last official day as a Foreign Service Officer was April 30, 2016. I had been an FSO for 31 years and 7 months. Because I had almost never taken any sick leave and you can apply unused sick leave to retirement, my official length of service was something like 32 years and 9 months.

In May 2016, I turned 61 for the first time in decades with no place I had to be, but lots of places I wanted to go.

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What were you like when you were 50?

What were you like when you were 50? My Story Worth for this week.

Worst of times

My 50th year, 2005, was pivotal but not a good year. My career was stalled. Chrissy was just starting hers. We were looking at the prospect of three kids leaving home and going to college. Now it just looks like an ordinary time of transition. Then it looked like a revolution, and not a good revolution like our American revolution, more like the Bolsheviks or Jacobins were coming for us.

Expiration date in a few years

There were lots of challenges that year. As I recall, I was narcissistically most absorbed by my career woes. Foreign Service is totalitarian. It is more than the job you do; it is kinda who you are, so lack of success hits harder and much more personally. I was low ranked by the 2005 promotion panels. You must be pretty dismal to get low ranked, at least I thought so at the time, and I thought my career was dead, although I would continue zombie-like until they finally really kicked me out. My expiration date was 2009 in our up-or-out system. I would be 54 years old, a little too old to start over, but a little too young to give up working altogether.

More than money

Money was a consideration, but not the big one. I am the kind of guy who needs a purpose, an identity. I would not be content is someone just gave me money. I want to be working toward something. I reached way back to my roots and found forestry, but that is not something you can take up as a retirement hobby. You need a forest. Fortunately, that was a puzzle I could solve.

Forestry a good investment

I studied on the subject of investing in forest land. It consumed much of intellectual energy. In fact, sound advice for someone worried about career success would be to concentrate more on that problem, but I was fascinated by the forestry. Don’t get me wrong, I still worked very hard at my State job, but I concentrated on the job and not getting ahead in the career, which paradoxically turned out to be a good strategy, but that is a story for a different time.

I became convinced that I could make forestry pay for itself, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but in the long run. This was crucial, a deal breaker if I could not do it. I am not rich like Ted Turner, who can buy land for pleasure. Mine needed to be an investment with a reasonable chance of producing positive results. This was important since the cash I needed to buy the land came from taking a second mortgage on the house. I always need to take the time here to thank Chrissy for having faith in my judgment. Had she said no, I would have no forest land today, and I would be a much poorer man today, maybe not in money but certainly in spirit. I was risking our future, but the way I figured (IF I did it right) it the risk was no greater than investing in mutual funds. In fact, it was better than having only a stock portfolio, since it provided diversification. It worked out well when the stock market crashed in 2008/9. Maybe the value of my land crashed too, but who could tell?

With my experience now of almost 15 years doing this, I can tell you that investing in the right forest land IS indeed a good investment with two important caveats. You must have a very long time horizon (patience is a virtue) and you must want to do a lot of the work yourself – physical, intellectual and managerial. And you must want to make it an investment. I love my forests and I live by the land ethic, but I also respect the triple bottom line in that the investment must make sense socially, ecologically AND economically. If you want to preserve untouched nature, you better either be rich or stay away from owing much forests land. Successful forest land owners are conservationists, not preservationists.

Until I become compost myself

My 50th year was the start of my forestry adventure, which I hope and believe will continue until I become compost myself. The career ended up working out alright too. The FS promoted me into the senior service and then once more (the low ranking did not matter at all), and I left on my own terms. They would have let me stay until mandatory retirement age of 65, but my forestry interest had become so great that I needed the time for that, so I retired from one passion to pursue another, a dozen years after my axial half century year.

In a very real sense, my decision to leave the FS in 2016 was made in 2005, but unlike my zombie fear, my FS career was also rejuvenated in that year. You can sometimes easily see looking back what you cannot even vaguely discern looking forward.

My first picture shows our “forest” in 2005. The little trees are there, but you mostly cannot see them. Next is that same place in 2018. They grew some. Picture # 3 is me next to a infestation of tree of heaven. It is a persistent invasive. That picture was taken before my first fight with it. I am still standing, but so is the tree of heaven, but I have controlled it. This fight will never end. The tree of heaven will outlast me, but I figure others will carry on. Also in that picture, you can see the little pine trees. They don’t look like much at that age, but they get better.

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Man’s inhumanity

I was in Poland in the early-middle 1990s, which meant that I was there for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, of the liberation of Auschwitz (near where I lived), of various lesser known tragedies and of the Warsaw uprising.

I attended lots of commemorations, both in my official duties and as an individual interested in history. It was a very interesting time, although one that raised lots of questions about humanity.

Human capacity to do harm is usually matched by our capacity to endure. I came to wonder about the virtue of perseverance and even bravery, never resolved the issue. Existential struggles bring out the best and the worse in people, often in the same person.

In my discussions with young people (and I almost fit in that group back then), I would often hear harsh judgements of people of the past. “Had I been there, I would have …” was a common refrain.

What would I have done? I like to think I would have been always heroic and selfless, which probably would have meant I would not have survived the war. In fact, I think the best we can hope for is that we would be heroic and selfless in situations where it made a practical difference.

I was competitive swimmer, but nothing compared to a guy like Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic gold metals, but there is a way that he is no better than me – neither of us can swim from California to Hawaii. This is not a trivial thing. There are things beyond human possibilities, but that does not let us off the hook for being better.

I learned a lot about tragedies and pondered human nature. I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, and I met dozens of people who had endured things I could not imagine. I felt very privileged to talk to many of them at length, including Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, maybe the most impressive soul I have ever encountered.

The thing that impressed me most also surprised me profoundly. These people who had suffered so horribly were very often joyful and had transcended hatred and vengefulness. They did not minimize the suffering and evil; they had just (sorry to use the word again but I can think of none better) transcended it. This made them no less committed to fighting evil and in many ways made them much more effective.

People who fought in the Warsaw uprising were mostly civilians, some children. The Nazis were especially brutal in their suppression of the uprising. Of the combatants that survived, many did so my wading through filth in the sewer system.

There is a coda, a tragic one. For many Poles who fought the Nazis the war did not end in 1945. The communist government did not treat them as heroes. On the contrary, many were persecuted and some executed. The new communist order did not easily tolerate vestiges of the old and personal heroism was especially suspect in their world view.


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The Conservative Sensibility

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, a monumental new reflection on American conservatism, examining how the Founders’ belief in natural rights created a great American political tradition – one that now finds itself under threat. For more than fo…

George Will proved to me that he is much more erudite than I am, but he might have used his intelligence to write a shorter book. It seems to me that he was trying to pack in everything he knew. Sometimes he lost the theme, or maybe I did. As I said, he is more erudite than I am. With that in mind, I am not going to even try to include all the parts, but rather will concentrate on what I thought best.

Will starts out with a simple definition of American conservatism. American conservatives are similar but not the same as English conservatives. They are not much like conservatives in continental Europe. The reason is that conservatives conserve and their characters depend on what they are conserving. In parts of Europe, they are conserving (or maybe trying to revive) past aristocratic, royalist or authoritarian structures. We never had these in America, so American conservatives don’t conserve those things.

American conservatives, according to Will, are conserving the ideas of the American founding. American founding was based on classical liberal principles, so – confusingly – American conservatives are conserving the liberal tradition. Will did not originate this idea, BTW. I learned about this concept way back in the 1970s, when I was at University of Wisconsin.

Liberalism split in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Conservatives kept the liberal tradition, while those who called themselves liberals or progressives put more faith in centralized authority and government activity.

I don’t think that you can call Woodrow Wilson the villain of the book, but Will thinks Wilson was responsible for, or at least articulated much of the progressive ideas. Wilson is pushed the idea that government should have the power to address your needs. In this he built on what Theodore Roosevelt had done, creating the cult of the presidency.

World War I greatly advanced progressive effectiveness. Let’s think about those times for a minute. Restrictions on free speech, prohibition, scientific management, income taxes and concentration of power in the hands of “experts” were all progressive enterprises. The red scare that persecuted immigrants was carried out by progressives. Eugenics was a progressive idea and “scientific” racism was developed by progressive thinkers. In a remarkable feat of intellectual jujitsu, progressive have managed to get most people to associate the negatives with conservatives.

What does it mean to be a conservative in the USA?

First let’s stipulate that few politicians are conservative, even if they call themselves that. Progressives have natural advantages in politics, since they can promise people stuff and pretend to offer solutions and conservatives who want to get elected need to do that too. In what When there is a problem, government official ask HOW they will address, not whether government is appropriate. Conservatives and progressive struck an implicit bargain. Politicians on left and right provide more services than people would be willing to pay for and run up the debt.

Conservatives in America conserve the founding. That means we believe in limited government, dispersal of power, modest goals, personal responsibility and generally prudent leadership. If something NEED not be done it need NOT be done. Just say no.

The personal responsibility part is something Will covers at length and I generally agree. He talks about Obama and Elizabeth Warren talking about communal nature of society – the famous “you didn’t build that” idea. Will says that this is a straw man. Everybody knows that no individual is self-made, but that does not mean that individuals have no agency. If you have a successful firm, you did indeed depend on the general society, but you also built it. The two are no mutually exclusive.

Will sees that as a fundamental difference between conservatives and progressives. Conservatives believe that individual initiative matters. They know that history is contingent and has no direction that individuals do not give it. Things can have worked out very differently.

The government’s job is to create and maintain conditions so that individuals can prosper, not take care of people or create prosperity. Individual citizens, often working in voluntary cooperation, creates wealth, not government.

It is a good book. Takes a long time to get though and there is a lot of diverse information, but it is certainly worth it.


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Beer belongs

Some of our usual beer pictures from yesterday and today. We are glad that the city grew around us and we now live in a walkable place.

We walked down to Gold’s Gym and did the proper workouts. After that, we needed to replace our energy and carbohydrates, so we walked over to Caboose brewery and had the proverbial couple of beers.

The other pictures are from Blackfinn, right across the street.

I was thinking about how walking and driving change drinking and living. People used to have a couple beers and then walk home. There is joy in walking home in the open air after a couple beers.Substitute the beer for the wine and you have it said.

The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The sovereign Alchemist that in a trice
Life’s leaden metal into Gold transmute:

But driving after a couple beers, in the confined space of a car, is dreadful and dangerous. Having a place where you can walk is great. As it should be for humanity.

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The Southwest

Some years ago, I disparaged the “lifeless” deserts of the American Southwest, full of unpleasant lizards, venomous snakes and lots of dust. Looking back, I think I had a mental model, a hierarchy of ecosystems with dense forests and deep soils near the top and deserts with their regolith at the bottom. That was a long time ago. Since then, I have come to understand the earth’s ecosystems as a complex tangled network, not a ordered line. The wonder lies in the complexity and a person could spend a fulfilled lifetime studying details or looking to the vastness.

I have to credit my sister-in-law Lisa Sandoval with starting me on the path of loving the Southwest. Lisa chose to live in Arizona and came to the understanding way before I did. In a show of remarkable bad manners based on ignorance, I was disparaging her region. I don’t recall her exact words, but she in essence told me that I was not seeing because I didn’t know how to look. She was right. A person’s mental model determines what you can see and mine let me see only dust and reptiles, as above.

Maybe it is like that perception exercise we sometimes do, where you just sit, look and listen intensely. Soon you are seeing, hearing, feeling and tasting things you did not know were there. I started to pay attention. The first pieces to click into place were the sky islands. This was an easy one, since as you got higher up, you got more into the woods I could recognize. I remember driving up Mount Lemmon near Tucson.

The mountain features eight major biomes. As you climb the mountain, you pass from the Sonoran Desert, through scrub and open woodland, to ponderosa pine and finally to spruce and fir forests. You essentially go from Mexico to Canada in about a half hour’s drive. It was on the way back down that I really noticed the place of the desert for the first time.

The saguaro cactus forms a forest. It is not the woods of home, with leafy galleries creating shady glades, but it is a forest with the complex biotic relationships for a forest. Even the regolith is not just regolith. Like soils elsewhere, it is a living complex.

Anyway, over the years my perception had broadened, so that I see a lot more than I once did. To that end, and the reason I was thinking about the Sonoran Desert is that I am reading a book about the natural history and conservation challenges. The descriptive and prosaic title is “A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert.” It is not much beyond a beginner’s book, but I am learning a few things. There is a section on Native Americans, and I enjoyed the part about the Hohokam farmers. They irrigated the desert around what is now Phoenix. When we visited Chrissy’s sister Julie & Orris Olson we went to Case Grande to look at one of their settlements. Next time we are back, I hope to visit again and pay more attention.

While I am at it, I have also to tag my Tucson dwelling cousins Carl Hankwitz and Elise Hankwitz. They appreciate the desert. I recall the first time I visited them, we went to see saguaro cactus, but what I remember most vividly was the quiet and the desert quail murmuring.

The landscape of the Sonoran Desert Region varies dramatically from…
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My longleaf through the years

I post a lot of pictures of my longleaf, but generally w/o a size comparison, since I am often down there by myself. A selfie would not give the proper perspective. Adam Smith took this picture of me with our longleaf planted in 2012.

The next picture is (maybe) the same tree in 2016. The next two are BOTH from 2015 and the

same tree. The little one from April and the bigger one from September same year. The last picture is May 2012. I doubt that is the same tree (could be) but they were all looked the same back then anyway.Notice that the trees change, but I keep the same clothes.

Longleaf is more diverse genetically compared to loblolly. If you plant loblolly, they are all about the same height at the same age and conditions. My longleaf go from a few feet high to around 20 feet that you see in the picture (I am 6’1″ for comparison).

Some people think that is an adaptation to fire. Longleaf are fire adapted, but not all ages are the same. They are most vulnerable when they are about 6′ high. The flames pass over the smaller ones and do not reach the terminal buds on the taller ones, so having various sizes means that some survive. I don’t know that pine trees do all that much thinking, but it could be true.

This makes longleaf harder to grow than Loblolly. You just do not know what to expect from them.  My longleaf are an experiment anyway. They have not been growing in the Virginia piedmont for more than 100 years, and these trees are native of North Carolina. Not sure how they will do.

More likely, I think, is that the loblolly have been bred to be commercial trees for generations. They bred out much of the variation. Who knows?

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