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April 30, 2008

Is This Heaven?

Gallows road scene 

I got an email from my colleague in Iraq telling me that they are experiencing “the mother of all sandstorms.”  Since we are still working out of tents, it is doubly bad.   I go back to Iraq tomorrow.  I expect that my can will be covered in dust and that I will have to shovel off my bed before I can take a nap.   I don’t look forward to returning to those gritty 110+ degree days, but you can get used to anything, I guess. 

hilltop rd vienna va

That goes for the sweet as well as the bitter.  I spent my penultimate morning in Virginia walking/running around my neighborhood.   I probably covered around ten miles.  What a pleasant place.   But we have gotten used to it and don’t really appreciate what we have.   If you listened to all the complaining, you would think our country was a horrible place.

I advocate the mental experiment of imagining you have lost everything.  Now imagine you got it back.  How happy are you?   I have not lost it all but when I am in Iraq I really appreciate what we have in America.   America has delivered on the promise to protect the natural rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   Sometime we are just too fat and happy to recognize that we are fat and happy.

Below is part of one of my running trail

Navy Federal running trail

I think America is a great place.  Let the dogs of cynicism howl.  (Actually the word cynicism comes from the Greek word for dog.   Cynics saw themselves are the guard dogs.)   Some people would just call me naïve, but I have seen a lot of the world and my opinion is not based on lack of experience.    In fact, I think it is the experience with different things that helps me see the wonder  and beatuy in the "ordinary" things.

Being an American gives you options and choices.   You get to pursue happiness. You don't always catch it, but there are plenty of chances.  I understand that there are also plenty of challenges, but overcoming challenges is the fun part of life.  You cannot be happy w/o challenges.  Besides on this earth is perfect.  We have not achieved and never will achieve heaven on earth. 

With all that in mind, I would paraphrase the exchange with Shoeless Joe Jackson on “Field of Dreams”.  When he asked, “Is this heaven?”  I think the response would be, “No.  This is just the United States of America.”  

Cedar Dr Vienna Va

Back to Iraq tomorrow I go.  High Ho.

Hot Lanes & Direct Democracy

hot lanes va

Above is the interchage at 495 and 66 - Richmond or Baltimore.  That building in the middle is the Dunn Loring Metro Station, so you get to see several parts of the transit puzzle.

They are building “hot lanes” on I-495 near my house.  Hot lanes are special lanes where people pay a premium to drive.  The price is based on the traffic conditions.  When there is a lot of traffic, the price is higher.  This means that people choose to trade time for money and travel time is more predictable. 

We need to address traffic congestion and building more or wider roads won't work.   Charging for use based on demand makes so much sense.   Currently we allocate space on the road by making people wait in line.  It is the same way the Soviet Union distributed bread with the same result.     

I am interested in these kinds of innovative traffic solutions, so I went down to the Virginia Dept of Transportation (VDOT) information session at Luther Jackson Middle School not far from my house.  There were around 200 people at the meeting.   The most boisterous among them (us) expressed outrage at the hot lanes.  Nobody wants any new roads in his neighborhood and people complained that hot lanes were just ways to let the rich avoid traffic.   

It is a challenge of direct democracy.   We experienced the same sort of thing in New Hampshire.   Our community wanted to put in a sewer system, but some of the old guys figured out (correctly) that they would not live long enough to justify the initial investment, so old Mr. Parker or old Mrs. Winthrop got up and complained.   Nobody wanted to cross them, so nothing happened.    Some of my neighbors at the VDOT meeting wanted to stop this project.  Fortunately, the VDOT people are made of sterner stuff, or maybe they don’t care as much re public attitudes.    Hot Lanes WILL be built in N. Virginia.  There are already hot lanes on I-394 in Minneapolis, I-25 in Denver, SR-91 in Orange County,  I-15 in San Diego & I-10 in Houston, Texas, but Virginia’s  is evidently going to be the biggest private-public partnership for hot lanes in the world.  Read more about Virginia hot lanes at this link.

Actually, I am not sure what the real attitude of my fellow Virginians is re hot lanes.  The loudest people complained loudly and used the pronoun “we” very liberally.  After the meeting, I talked to some people who seemed less opposed.   Nobody likes a new road in their yard, but many people are reasonable and understand that this particular project is good. 

It reminds me of the old joke.  The Lone Ranger & Tonto are fighting a group of Indians and losing.  The Lone Ranger says, “It looks like we are surrounded, Tonto.”  Tonto replies, “What is this ‘we’ Kemosabi?”

Chrissy attended a similar meeting at the same time I was doing the hot lanes.  Hers was re new buildings near the metro.  We (CJ and I) favor density near the metro.   It is good for the environment and good for our community, but current residents are often against it.  They want to shut the door behind themselves. 

Our  views on development generally make Chrissy and me as popular as skunks at a garden party, at least among the activists who just assume the local residents will toe the anti-development line.   But I think we are doing the right thing.    Greater density near the metro and hot lanes are solutions that address the problems of traffic and congestion.  Developing where we are means saving farms and forests farther away and helps use all that expensive infrastructure.   The alternative, just opposing change, solves no problems, although it might make our lives temporarily easier.  But it is sort of like the Mr. Parker or Mrs. Winthrop attitude.

April 27, 2008

The U.S. Marine Museum at Quantico

marine museum 

Above is the atrium from below. 

After getting to know & admire the Marines in Iraq, I certainly had to take advantage of our new Marine Museum in the Washington area.  It is at Quantico and they just finished it last year.    Please click on the link for real details.   I will supply only my personal impressions.

Below is the atrium from above.

marine atrium

Before I went to Iraq,  I knew some individual Marines, mostly U.S. Embassy guards and military attaches, but I had not seen them in their own environment and I have to admit that most of what I thought came from the media, where You have the heroic “Sands of Iwo Jima” image mixed with less favorable  left wing impressions .   It has become a little hard for me to accurately recall how I felt before I went to live with Marines in Iraq.  When I think back, I do remember that when they told me that it was a Marine COMBAT regiment and that they would issue me protective gear, I was a little apprehensive, both about being embedded with Marines and being issued protective gear.  If they give you protective gear, it might be because it is dangerous enough to need it.   I guess I was expecting to be in that “Sands of Iwo Jima” environment, or at least the one I saw on television news.  Both were kind of scary.  Fortunately, it was a lot more peaceful than that and the Marines were different too.

 In the real life Marines, I found innovative problem solvers.  They take pride in never really having enough resources and improvising to get the job done.  But they are not merely men of action.  Although some don’t like to admit it, many are true intellectuals.   They are widely read and they try to adapt historical experience and theoretic knowledge to their practical problems.   Their jobs give them a unique ability to test theory and the fact that lives are on the line makes them take this very seriously.  There is an old saying that an intellectual is someone who will accept anything except responsibility.   This is where Marines differ from the academic intellectuals who sometimes criticize them.

You can see that I have come to admire Marines, as does almost anybody who has real and sustained contact with them.   They still have a practical belief in honor, virtue and honesty.    Theirs is a tough life.   I don’t think it is for everyone and the Marines certainly agree.   I was fortunate to get to know Marines close up and I wanted to take the boys down there to share some of that too.  Visiting the Museum is not much of an introduction, but it is something.   Maybe the Marines could be an option for them. 

Marine museum exhbit

The Museum has very clean architectural lines.      It has a sweep like that of the Iwo Jima memorial.   The exhibits are based on Marine history and actual Marines.   Each of the characters in the dioramas in modeled on an actual Marine including facial features and body proportions.   It is an interesting detail.   BTW – we went with the free docent tour.  I suggest everybody do that.   Otherwise, you might not find out or pay attention to details like the one above.  

I got a slightly different impression of WWII from being in Iraq and visiting the museum helped confirm that.   In the last years of the war, the Japanese strategy was to try to kill as many Americans as possible.  They knew they couldn’t win against the U.S., but they figured that if they killed enough Americans, they could achieve an negotiated peace.   The Marines paid the biggest price, as the Japanese just fought to the death on each little piece of ultimately indefensible land.   We did not give up, but we might have.   People living in the past made decisions as we do today.  They didn’t know they were living in the past and they did not know the outcomes, because those outcomes had yet to be decided.  There is no such things as fate.

The docent talked about the famous picture of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi.   People see that as the mark of victory.  Actually many days of fighting followed the flag raising and three of the men in the picture were subsequently killed.      There is good book and movie about what happened to the surviving men involved called “Flags of Our Fathers.”

In the 36 days of fighting there were 25,851 US casualties; 6825 were killed.   And Iwo Jima is a really small place, about the size of Al Asad and just about as featureless.  Or put another way, it is only about 1/4 the size of Milwaukee (only the city, not the whole county).  We have lots of heros in our current generation too, but fortunately we have not faced anything like that in Iraq.   The "greatest generation" earned the title.  

April 25, 2008

Dreaming of Iraq

Dust in Iraq 

I often wake up at night and don’t know where I am.   I think I am back in Iraq and even when I am in Iraq I often think I am someplace else.   I think this comes more from the constant moving around than from Iraq specifically, but my dreams of Iraq remind me that I will soon be going back to Anbar.

Modern travel makes for a strange phenomenon.   You can be in the yellow desert one day and back on the green grass of home the next.   And then back in the desert again the day after that.  In America now, the world of Iraq means nothing.  It is like a dream, maybe a nightmare, but it is unreal.   Right now, sitting in Virginia, it feels like I never left home.   I know that in a few days when I get back to Iraq, it will seem like I have always been there.   The two worlds do not mix, even at the edges.   That is probably a good thing.

USMC truck in Iraqi desert

Americans are not paying much attention to Iraq any more.   I watch the news every day and there is not much coverage.  What news they do feature is is formulaic.    People seem to have made up their minds re Iraq and every new piece of news is trimmed to fit the preconceived perception.   I am afraid that some people are willing to throw away our success for the short term pleasure of getting out.   Candidates are arguing who can get out quicker.   It is silly and pernicious but popular.  The media has frozen our image of Iraq in 2006 and this is not good.

People don’t ask me much about Iraq.  They either don't care or think they already know it all and I understand that they don’t want to hear my anectdotes.  I am not sure which ones I would tell anyway.  Some of the best stories are those I cannot share, at least not yet.   Beyond that, it is hard to communicate unless you share some basic background & assumptions.   People seem to think Iraq is a constant struggle to stay alive.   They don’t believe me when I tell them that most Iraqis I encounter are friendly and open and I generally do not feel threatened.  The danger is only sort of background noise; the real challenge is just the unrelenting nasty surroundings and climate.  The heat and the dust is beyond most people’s experience, so there is not much use in trying to explain that either.  Riding in helicopters is another hard thing to explain.   I can explain what it is like to ride, but I cannot explain what it is like when that ride becomes merely an unpleasant routine and explaining how it feels to be sitting in a small space on that helicopter as it vibrates in the hot sun is beyond words. 

US marines in helicopter in Iraq

I watched “Lost” yesterday.   They had a street scene that was supposed to be Iraq.   That is the perception people have.   Chrissy asked me if it was like that.   It’s not.  But I could not really explain how it was different.

Below - the lizard blends with his surroundings

lizard in Iraq

I am not looking forward to going back.  My perceptions have changed.  In September I was afraid of the danger.  I am still aware that risk remains, but now my main focus is on the plain discomfort.  I know what that will be like.   On the other hand, I am looking forward to getting back to my colleagues and the important work we are doing.   Back in September I had no idea we would be doing so much and such a variety of things.   I regret that I will not see most of the projects achieve their full results.  I will not see most of the seeds we planted grow.   On the other hand, my curiosity is not so powerful as to make me want to stay beyond September.   My successor can pick up where I left off.  If I do my job right, it will be easy to transition.  Nobody is indispensible.  I am sure the new guy will bring new skills and talents to the job.   My job will be done.  My year in Iraq will be over.   I will never to back and my dreams of Iraq will fade into the yellow haze.     I just hope it will have been worth it.  Actually, the best thing would be if it is so successful that people say it would have happened anyway.

John Matel in Iraqi desert

April 24, 2008

Down to the Woods

I will be back in Iraq soon enough and will presumably write more exotic posts, but for now I am enjoying a life a little more ordinary so please excuse my more mundane posting.  As you can tell, this spring a lot of my time is being spent my forestry matters.  You gotta have a hobby.

Below - the trees are a little tight in places.

Matel farm trees precommercial

Chrissy and I went to Southside Virginia to check into pre-commercial thinning of our pines and maybe get some biosolids next year.   We currently have around 1000-1500 loblolly per acre.  That is way too many.  We were lucky that we had a very high survival rate and we got a good number of volunteers, but now it is time to reduce that to around 500 an acre.   The State of Virginia in its wisdom is offering cost-share this year, in order to fight the southern pine beetle (too many trees are less robust and more likely to be attacked by disease and insects), so we will have it done.   It will shorten the rotation by a couple of years, improve wildlife habitat, help the stand resist the pine beetle and make it easier to walk around the property.   It is just a good idea, like thinning a flower garden except a lot bigger.

Below is the best wildlife plot so far.  It is almost completely filled in.

John Matel wildlife plot brunswick va

We also checked out our recently planted wildlife plots.   We have five plots; the biggest one is about an acre, planted in white clover and chicory.   It adds significant diversity to the tree farm and makes the local animals healthier.   I also like the look of the meadow to break up the landscape.   Everything is coming in very well.   There are all sorts of animals on the farm anyway.   

Our pine lands were clearcut in 2003.  Southern pine requires full sunlight, so this is the only managment option.  It doesn't look good the first year, but a clearcut plus around five years is one of the most productive and diverse wildlife habitats around, especially if you do a few things like wildlife plots and corridors.  Southern pine fills 58% of America's demand for timber.  It is a fully sustainable resource and our pine lands are great places for wildlife & recreation.

The stream management zone have the biggest trees, mostly beech, oak and tulip-poplar with a holly understory and a fern forest floor.

beech forest

We have around 30 acres in stream management zones and these provide corridors of mixed hardwood through the pine plantations, while preserving water quality.  My water is clear, now that we have addressed some of the erosion issue at a couple places.   Our water eventually runs into Albermale Sound in NC via Genito Creek, which runs through our land.

The boys and I spread 40 tons of rip-rap last year and the year before.   The banks have stabilized and vegetation is growing profusely where it the soil used to run into the water.   I am surprised also to find little fish in some of the pools.  Life is surprising that way.  Another important thing we have is “vernal ponds” AKA mud holes with water.   These ponds are important because they allow amphibians like frogs and salamanders to breed.   The pond must be intermittent, i.e. dry up sometimes so as not to support a fish population that would eat the eggs.   People tend not to like vernal ponds, because they are well…mud holes.  They drain them and fill them in, thereby helping to doom the local amphibian population.  

Below is native honeysuckle.  It blooms this time of year and brightens up the forest

honeysuckle

The good thing about forestry is that you can have fun, make good investments, grow trees and be environmentally responsible all a the same time.

Below - Chrissy & me in front of one of wildlife plots.   This one is well within the pine plantation and will probably be one of the better ones in the fullness of time.  Wildlife plots spread out in the wood with irregular sides are the most productive.   This will eventually have a soft edge of taller growth.  The clover and chicory will fill in. We wanted to break up the compressed dirt.  Nothing could grow in the compressed clay until it was broken up an limed.  This plot was created in October.  Recent much needed rain will help it grow.

Chrissy and me at wildlife plot

 

April 21, 2008

2008 Tree Farmer of the Year

As I mentioned in earlier posts, one of the things I get to do as VFA Tree Farm communications director is to interview the outstanding tree farmer of the year.   I learn a lot from these guys and I like to share a part of it with others through the write ups.  I met this year's winner at his farm near Hardy VA a couple days ago.  This is my draft article for the "Virginia Forests" magazine.

Tom and Sallie Newbill are bucking the trend and doing what so many small forest owners dream of doing.   While fragmentation is a big challenge of today’s Virginian forests as farm and timber lands are divided into smaller parcels, some almost too small for proper management, the Newbills have been bringing land together into a bigger well-managed unit.   They started to assemble the pieces that became Montmorenci Tree Farms in 1967 and over the next decades built their inventory of land to include 1190 acres in Franklin County, Virginia and Halifax County NC.  Their home place unites three adjoining farms in Franklin County, VA plus two others are nearby.    The North Carolina place comes through Sallie’s family.   That is also where the name Montmorenci originates.   In 1772, Sallie’s mother’s family received a land grant in North Carolina from the King of England, in this case George III, and they called their estate Montmorenci.   Sallie and Tom revived the name for their farms.

Tom Newbill was not always in the forestry business.  After graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in engineering, he took a job with Westvaco and later worked for IBM and as a principal in a computer services company in Atlanta, Georgia, where the family lived between 1966 and 1996.  Sallie taught school and later spent ten years as a State Senator in the Georgia state legislature.  But Tom felt the pull of the forests of home.  He grew up in Franklin County around forestry operations.  His uncle ran the local saw mill and Tom had a long and natural connection with forestry so he always appreciated the stable value of land and timber. 

When the Newbills had opportunities to invest for their future, timberland seemed a natural choice and the woods of home a natural location.   Tom was returning to his deep roots in Franklin County.   His mother was a long time school teacher in the region and it seemed like half the people of the county had been her pupils.  The Newbills bought their first forest land in 1968 and eventually brought together what had been five separate farms. Both Sallie and Tom inherited land from their parents, and later bought out their siblings.  Each farm had its own story and its own family cemetery, where some of the biggest trees still grow.  Tom and Sallie are very respectful of the cemeteries.   Family members still occasionally visit, but as the years go by the visits are becoming less frequent.

Below - controlled burning is an essential tool of forestry and wildlife management.  Virginia pine forests are fire dependent.  Native Americans burned forests every couple of years.  Small controlled fires stimulate growth and help avoid the large disasterous forest fires that result from too much fire supression.

Controlled burn Franklin Co VA

The Newbills use some of the best forestry practices on their acreage, including planting the latest generation of trees (Tom even has a few third generation loblolly pines on his land), controlled burning, proper thinning, and use of modern chemical treatment;  but he does not take the credit for understanding and employing all these techniques.    Tom says that Jim Ebbert, who recently retired from the Virginia Department of Forestry, was for most practical purposes his land manager.   Tom joked that he wondered how Jim could accomplish the other parts of his job while doing so much for Montmorenci Tree Farms.   Another big help was Westvaco’s Rob Bell, who ran the local Cooperative Farms Management (CFM) program.   Among other things, Rob helped with details of timber sales, something that the DOF does not do.  Today Tom gets professional advice from both MeadWestvaco and Travis Rivers at the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Travis nominated Tom Newbill as this year’s outstanding tree farmer and says that working with someone like Tom is great for everybody involved.  The Commonwealth of Virginia has a strong interest in helping responsible tree farmers like Tom and Sallie improve their land and produce timber while protecting the soils and waters of the Old Dominion.  Partnerships like this make it all possible.   In addition to timber production, about a quarter of Montmorenci Tree Farm’s land is devoted to stream management zones, wildlife plots, and cropland rented to a local dairy farmer.  Tom actively manages the wildlife plots and turkey, deer and quail abound on the land.   Water and wildlife resources are further enhanced by a five acre lake he built on the home tract.  The lake supports bluegill and largemouth bass.  Ducks and geese use the waters.   Tom says that one particular pair of geese had been returning to his lake for six years to raise their families of goslings.  In 2006, six goslings grew to maturity.

Below - Tom's lake.   I hope to make a similar one on my land.

Tom's lake

The advantages of managing as much acreage as the Newbills’ own is the diversity it allows. Over the years, timber has been harvested from all Montmorenci tracts, mostly clear cuts, and currently the oldest plantation was established in 1978.   The youngest is from 2000.  This gives Tom a variety of harvest and management options, as one or more of the eight unique stands, plus SMZ or wildlife plots is always ready for some kind of treatment.   Tom also gets a first hand, up close experience of the difference between growing pines in the mountains (Franklin County) as opposed to the tidewater (Halifax County, NC).  

Tom’s observation is that loblolly pines in the mountains are about five years behind those of the tidewater, which is a significant difference.   Franklin County lies on the edge of loblolly country.  In fact, Tom’s farm is outside the natural range of the tree.   One advantage of growing loblolly pines in the mountains is that there are very few “volunteer pines”.   Tom has not had to do any pre-commercial thinning and when properly treated there is little competition from hardwoods or weeds.  The southern pine beetle is also somewhat less of a problem in this cooler and higher environment.   In the tidewater, well within the natural loblolly range, volunteer pines fill in much more profusely, as do weeds.  On the other hand, properly managed pines grow significantly faster.    Beyond that, the flatter topography makes thinning and other treatment operations much easier.   Another more general difference between tree farming on the tidewater and in the mountains is species composition.  The mountains provide good natural regeneration of poplar and there is a good local market for it.

Tom has been a member of the Virginia Forestry Association since 1974. Whether it is in the mountains or the tidewater, Tom Newbill and his family are doing an outstanding job as tree farmers.  They are well and truly achieving what tree farmers strive to achieve.  They are producing timber while at the same time protecting water and wildlife resources and providing places for recreation.   The Virginia Tree Farm Committee congratulates the Newbill family on a job well done and a job they continue to do.

April 20, 2008

Arthur Treacher’s, A&W and Other Endangered Gastronomical Delights

Arthur Treachers Fairfax VA 

The only free standing Arthur Treacher’s I know about is near my house.   All the others have gone the way of the dodo, except a few remnant populations in food courts along the New Jersey Turnpike.   I like the original fish and chips and the offerings of Long John Silver or Red Lobster just do not measure up.  Someday, maybe soon, this one will also be gone.  On that day I shall mourn.  BTW - Notice the pay phone, another endangered species.

A similar fate has befallen A&W stands.  You can still get the root beer at the grocery store, but they are mostly gone as free standing stores with the honest  draft style root beer.  The only one I know about is on HWY 29 on the way out of Charlottesville.   When I was a kid, my cousin Lani used to take me to swim at Racine beech.  We would stop off on the way back at the A&W on Lake Drive.   I think that is some kind of drive in bank these days.   Near Holmen there used to be one across from the Skogan’s IGA.  I could walk to that one from Chrissy’s parents’ house.   It still features root beer and still even has the drive in, but it is no longer A&W.

Taco Bell Merrifield

Of course, all sorts of new chains have come to take their places.   At the Taco Bell near my house, you really cannot order in English and expect your order to be correct.   I guess that is why the numbered menus are so useful.   You can just hold up as many fingers as the item you want to order.  American high school kids used to work at these places, but now you find nothing but recent immigrants.   The other day I went to Taco Bell and was amused to find some Asian immigrants in the back speaking in heavily accented Spanish.   It must be challenging to be the immigrant within the immigrant community.

Duncan Donuts is doing all right, having weathered the low carbs craze of a few years back.   I always preferred Duncan Donuts to the Krispy-Kreme sugar-dough balls.   Krispy-Kreme sailed ahead from its southern bastions until it was wrecked on the low-carbs rocks, taking its customers and sharholders on a roller coaster ride.  Duncan Donuts abides.  Up in Boston, there is a Duncan Donuts on every corner.  There are not quite so many around here.  They do make the best coffee. I don’t like Starbucks as much.   I can never figure out what all the various coffee types are called and which ones I like. 

Duncan Donuts fairfax

Speaking of coffee, there is an interesting relationship.   Back when I was a kid, gas cost around quarter.  Everybody looks back with great fondness to those prices, but everybody made a lot less money too, so it was about the same number of hours/minutes worked to fill up.   But coffee used to be a nickel.   Today gas costs $3.39, but if you go to Starbucks or someplace like that, coffee costs about the same as gas, so gas is a much better deal than coffee.

Away from Iraq, as you see, my thoughts become more prosaic.  

The great privilege of freedom, BTW, is the freedom to have prosaic thoughts.   When everybody thinks serious thoughts most of the time, you know the country is in trouble.

April 19, 2008

Two Cans of Coke Zero & a Salami Sandwich

Espen & Alex with Old Rag view 

We went out to Old Rag in the Shenandoah today.  The weather was beautiful.  Old Rag is the best hike in Virginia.  In the roughly eight miles, you get lots of variety, including very interesting rock scrambles and excellent views.   I don’t go on the weekends, since it gets too crowded.  On weekdays it is just right.

Below - This rock has been hanging there since the last ice age, or longer, but I am always afraid it will let loose just as I am squeezing below.

hanging rock at Old Rag

Alex & Espen are in good condition these days.   I used to have to drag them behind me; now I am the one being pulled along.  They were making fun of me.  With each jump they asked me if I was worried about breaking a hip.   I have to admit that I am not as nimble as I used to be and I am more likely to shimmy down and less likely to leap.   You re better off, BTW, wearing softer bottom shoes.  Stiff bottomed hiking boots protect you from the rocks, but it is good to have shoes that allow a little toe dexterity. 

Below - ditto this rock

overhaning rock at Old Rag

Old Rag is one of my “home places”.   This is my 24th year of coming here.  I first took the boys when Espen was only seven years old.  They still remember that time, or at least remember the story of that time.  It was a very foggy day and the low visibility gave the whole place a surreal, end of the world type look.   Somebody brought a dog names Spike.   We couldn’t see them, but we heard the group behind us.  Now it is against the rules to bring dogs, with good reason.  Dogs do not do well on the rocks and they might knock somebody off.  In this case, it was Spike himself who had the problem.   We heard barking and people calling to Spike.   Then we heard somebody say, “Spike no.”   After that, we heard Spike no more.   What happened I don’t know, but I don’t think it was good.

Below - You can imagine the problems a dog might have climbing those rocks ahead of Espen.  They are steeper than they appear in the picture.

Espen climbing old rag rocks

My friend Doron Bard and I once hiked up here with his dog called Tuckahoe.   I had to literally throw Tuckahoe up some of the rocks; Doron caught him and he did not suffer Spike’s fate, but we learned that dogs and sheer rocks don’t mix.  Their little paws slip and canines just cannot climb as well as hominids.

Below - This used to be labeled "Fat man passage" but the PC crowd scrubbed it off.

Fat man passage

Anyway, enjoy the pictures and do the hike.  From Sperryville, go south on 522 to SR 601 and follow the signs.   Nearby is another great hike in White Oak Canyon. 

Below - How great thou art.  Every time I am up in the hills, I feel newly inspired.  The words of the old hymn come to mind: O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art. Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Fits well, doesn't it.

How great thou art

I am enjoying my trip home and I have to admit the thought of returning to Iraq is not a pleasant one.  But, what can you do?   I often make this mental experiment.  Imagine you have lost everything and then you got it back.  How lucky are you?  I am lucky now and will be again. 

Below - For the good (non-Iraq) times.

John Matel at Old Rag

Below - Not all is well.  Over the last 20 years almost all the hemlocks have died out, victims of the hemlock whooly agelgid, introduced from Asia in 1924.    Invasive species are as much of a threat to our forests and ecosystems as global warming.

Dead hemlocks at old rag

Hemlocks used to line this stream.  It was dark and beautiful and the shade cooled the water.  There is no easy replacement for the niche formerly occupied by the hemlock in Eastern N. America.

old rag stream and espen

BTW - Espen & Alex wanted to drink the water.  I think the water is clean, but drinking it is not a good idea.  We each had two cans of Coke Zero & a salami sandwich.   What other rations can you need for a hike like this? 

April 18, 2008

Shenandoah and Appomattox

Below is Tom Newbill, this year's tree farmer of the year, next to his biggest oak tree.  It stands in one of the five family graveyards on his land.  In the old days, people buried their relatives on the old farmstead. Tom says that some people still visit the graves, but less frequently as time goes on.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

tom oak

The most poignant is a grave of a nine year old girl called Goldie, who died just before Christmas in 1914.  Her grave is alone, near where the farmhouse stood, but away from other family members.   I am sure there is a story, but nobody will ever know.

This year’s tree farmer of the year lives in Hardy, near Roanoke, a little more than a four hour drive from Vienna.   Since I had to get there at 9am, I set out early in the morning.   I took 66 to 81 and made good time and was almost to Lexington by the time the sun came up.   It is tough driving on 81.   81 is the truck route that serves the East Coast and it is uncomfortable to be the little guy among the giant trucks.

 

The Shenandoah Valley is beautiful at dawn or at any other time.   Looking at it from 81 is not the best way to see it, however.   My thoughts often return to Iraq, where I must soon return, and the effects of war.  This beautiful valley was the scene of terrible destruction, much more intense than in Iraq.   Phil Sheridan went through the Valley in 1864 and destroyed everything so that the South could not use it as a supply area.  He famously said, “If a crow wants to fly down the Shenandoah, he must carry his provisions with him”.    And he did this after the war had ranged through the place for four years.   The Shenandoah was a battleground because of its proximity to Washington, its natural bounty and the mixed loyalties of the valley residents.   Anyway, by the end of the war there was not much left.

It grew back.

I will write up and post the article re the tree farmer of the year tomorrow or the next day.   Suffice to say, this guy has done well.  He has more than 1000 acres and he got it the old fashioned way.  Well, he inherited the family farm, but then he saved his money and bought some other acreage.   It is his retirement account and his land is very well managed.

appomattox scene

Since it was more or less on the way, I stopped at Appomattox.   I missed the big event by a couple of days (and of course 143 years.) Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia in Wilmer McLean’s parlor on April 9, 1865.  Our Civil War was unique in world history.   All that fighting and killing just ended.  Robert E. Lee was a real man of honor.  He sent his men home to become good citizens of the United States.   Civil wars don’t usually end like that.   In France, they would cut off heads.   The Russians machine gunned the opposition and the Chinese just starved millions to death.   In the U.S. Lee just went home and so did his men.  Of course, Grant’s terms were generous.   A few weeks later Joe Johnston surrendered his army to William T.  Sherman and the unpleasantness was largely over.  Johnston and Sherman became friends.   In fact, Johnston died of pneumonia contracted at Sherman’s funeral when he refused out of respect to wear a hat or take shelter from the rain.   April 1865 was also the month Lincoln was shot.   With the possible exception of July 1776, it was the most momentous month in American history. 

appomattox court house

Of course most people remember the story of Wilmer McLean.  In 1861 he lived near Manassas, on the banks of a little stream called Bull Run.  During the first battle there, with the lead flying through his back yard and a Union shell landing literally in the soup pot in his kitchen, he decided to move to a quieter place, one where the war would not intrude.   He figured Appomattox was the spot.  Talk about luck.

Wilmer McLean dinning room

April 17, 2008

Vienna Virginia ... Again with the Running

brick house in Vienna Va 

Along my habitual running trail is a neighborhood along Glyndon Street.  The little brick houses there (as above)  are disappearing. People who want to live here but dislike the current housing options have been tearing them down to build bigger and more luxurious homes. These nice homes are very different from those they displace. The people who live in them are different too. In driveways next to old houses, you find Chevy pickups holding the tools of McCain supporters. In the multicar garages of the new homes are Prius with Obama bumper stickers.

Construction

It goes deeper than that.   Whole Foods comes to displace Safeway.  Restaurant menus change from down home to ethnic fusion.  There are fewer kids playing on the streets and Virginia accent becomes less and less common in this part of Virginia.   Native Virginians have long said that you probably have to go south of the Rappahannock to get to Virginia.  That is becoming more uniformly true.  The area is gentrifying.  Lawyers and government workers are replacing the small business employees and owners.

Southern style house Vienna

I have mixed feelings about those things.   I am a carpetbagger myself.   I think shopping at Whole Foods is a waste of money, but my tastes run toward the gentrification.  Those houses are too big for me, but I like to look at them in the neighborhood.   (It is always better to have the cheapest house in a rich neighborhood.  You get to look at your neighbors’ houses and they get to look at yours.)  On the other hand, I have come to like many of the aspects of the neighborhood I had.   I learned to like Old Virginia.  I also don’t like the “style” of some of my new neighbors, who insist on wearing designer running suits and those tight bike pants.    

Craftsman home

I guess on balance the change is good, but my ledger does not balance the same debits and credits as most of my neighbors.  For example, I like the density near the Metro. I think they should build high rises for residential and office space and lots of retail.  That is the only way to get “transit oriented development.”  I want my Metro area to look like Clarendon.  

Vienna Craftsman 

Local citizens’ groups try to fight density.  Ironically, it is often the newest people leading the charge.  They moved here to escape such things and now it is following them and they want to lock the door.  I think that position is hypocritical.  We can’t expect to have a Metro stop with a low rise neighborhood around it.  All that means is more people drive more cars more often.   A Metro stop is too important an asset to be left sitting lonely.  We either build density here where commuters can use the Metro or push sprawl out onto the farms and fields in Loudon or even Harpers Ferry, from which people will commute hundreds of miles a week in their cars.  For me the choice is obvious. 

Stonewall Manor

Above is part of an older Virginia suburb too.  The development is named for Stonewall Jackson and all the streets are named for his subordinate commanders or his famous campaigns.  I doubt anybody would choose those names and themes today. 

Strange the things you think about when you are running.  As I mentioned in the previous posts, running gives you a thinking opportunity.  I didn’t say it was always profound thought.

April 16, 2008

Running After the Meaning of Life

Dunn Loring trail 

I know my title is extravagant and vainglorious, but it makes some sense to me.  I have been running regularly literally my entire adult life.   I began to run in along the lake trails at U of Wisconsin in 1977.   It was in style back then and technology had just made regular running possible.   Shoes are the key to success in running and the Nike “wafflestompers” were just coming out.   W/o good shoes, you wreck your knees and few guys my age would still be able to run with the old shoe technologies.

WOD Trail

I don’t run for exercise alone; I would never do it on a track or treadmill and I would never – every – bowdlerize the experience with an I-Pod.  I run with nature, to be in the environment feeling the wind & sun, hearing the sounds, feeling the undulations of the topography and getting to know the place - and my place.  You cannot really get to know anyplace until you have put your feet on it and it is important to experience different seasons and moods.  Running gives you a chance to think and the movement helps you think clearly.  Running (hiking too) balances me.  I suppose there are other ways to do that, but it is hard to think of easier or more effective ones.  Running has the side benefits of good fitness and the virtue of being cheap and universally available.  You need the good shoes, so running costs around $100 a year.  Other accessories are even cheaper.  I still wear a sweatshirt that hails the 1987 Minnesota Twins championship.  I don’t doubt that I have some clothes that are older, but they don’t have dates printed on the front.  The per-use cost of these thing is vanishingly small.  Everything else is free.

Wash monument

I have run all over the world.  I really cannot say which is my favorite trail.  I still look back with fondness to my “original” trails through Grant and Warnimont Parks in Milwaukee and the lake trails in Madison, but Norway on Bygdoy and Brazil, through the lush woods at St. Hilaire Park also hold strong positions.  My favorite trail in Minneapolis was in Wirth Park. I loved running in Las Wolski in Krakow, with the caveat that there was significant air pollution sometimes.  I ran on the old road between Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.   That was wonderful because of the surface of the road and all the historical buildings around it, but I only did it once.  You see, I collect running memories the way some people collect coins or beanie babies.

Indian museum and capitol

Washington region has lots of possibilities.   At lunchtime at work I run around the Capitol Mall.  That is the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” run.  You get to go past the Capitol, Whitehouse, Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington Monument Vietnam, Korea, WWII and the Smithsonian all in around a half hour.  Talk about inspiration.  The W&OD trail in Virginia follows old railroad lines, so it provides a long trail w/o too many hills.  It goes all the way from Washington to Purcerville in the Blue Ridge.  Of course, I have never run the whole way, but I have been on many segments.  The pictures are from the part of the trail nearest my house on the W&OD and the nieghborhoods around and from the Washington Mall trail.  I have been running on this trail since 1997.  

Below is a neighborhood of Vienna, Va near the trail.  I cut down along these suburban roads.  Nice houses in pretty surroundings. They completed that one just last year. They do a good job of making them fit in and seem like part of the established neighborhood.  The homes are not cheap.  Maybe less expensive now with the mortgage crisis, although I doubt this is a subprime place.

Vienna houses 

I have gotten a lot slower over the years.  I used to repeat my miles in less than six minutes. Now I feel doing them less than nine minutes is an achievement.  It still feels the same and I have a hard time believing I am moving 1/3 slower than I did before, but it has been more than thirty years.  Sometimes young punks come flying past me, but I assume they are just sprinting at the end of their runs. I have replaced my running watches several times, since I figured they all must be defective, but I have been unable to find one that records my miles at anything less.

It is funny – almost paradoxical given my other attitudes re running - that I don’t like to run w/o the watch, but I really don’t care about the times.  I know the distances along the W&OD because there are mile markers, but most of the places I run I don’t know how far I am going and I don’t try to find out.  But over 30 years of running I have gotten the idea that it is not really running w/o the clock running.  My saving trait is that I don’t write the times down and do not keep good records.  I can kind of fool myself that I am still not that slow and the self deception doesn’t cause me much distress.

Only a shallow person lives a life w/o contradictions and only a fool tries to resolve them all.

Green, Green Grass of Home

Sherman 

Washington is nice in springtime.  This is general Sherman near 13th St. 

I am home on R&R and Virginia and Washington are green and beautiful.   The sky is blue.  Flowers are blooming.  April is my second favorite month around here, after October.

Washington is a nice city.  It is walkable and full of parks.  I have gotten to know a lot of the city at ground level, especially the Capitol Mall.  I have seen a few changes.  Most are good.  The WWII& Korean War Memorials were good additions.  The American Indian Museum has really nice grounds.   I especially like the pond.  I made a note re the the American Indian Museum a couple years ago, if you want to see pictures.

The city around the Mall and to the East has gotten a lot better, especially the Capitol Hill area.  The bad part of town used to start at 14th Street.  Now you can go almost to the Anacostia and still be in a place that isn’t too scary.

Whitehouse

I would not mind living around here after I retire.  The nice things re Washington is all the free “intellectual services”.  Of course, you have all the museums around the Smithsonian and the area is rich in Colonial & Civil War history not far away.   But you also have the think tanks with daily lectures and other events.  Many of them give free lunches, so they feed both body and mind.  I have fairly eclectic tastes, yet I notice some of the same people attending lectures wherever I go.   I am sure some of these guys come for the free lunch.   You could live off the fat of the land if you owned a good suit and didn’t mind sitting through lectures on various subjects.  The best breakfasts, BTW, are at AEI.  Heritage provides Subway sandwiches and very good chocolate chip cookies.

Many of the lectures are also available online, but I find I pay a lot more attention if I can see the person right there.   It is a great luxury of Washington.   Boston was like that too, of course, but not every place has that kind of intellectual infrastructure.

At had some meetings at HST and SA 44 today.  I went in early with Chrissy and walked from Federal Triangle Metro to SA 44.  On the way is the American Indian Museum.  As I walked around there, I recalled my decision to go to Iraq.

I had almost forgotten.   I talked to Chrissy about it and then talked to Jeremy.  Then I decided to go and told others.   Telling others is a good way to confirm a decision.  It makes chickening out harder.  A couple days later, I felt like chickening out.   Who doesn’t have doubts?  Now my decision to go to Iraq seems natural or even inevitable, but was not. I walked around that pond at the Indian Museum, heard the water running and the red wing blackbird singing.  Of course I knew I should go and did, but I remember thinking, “What the hell have I gone and done?” 

At the halfway point, I can say that I am really happy that I made that decision.  I am grateful for the opportunity.  It is easy to overlook what a great opportunity it is being a PRT leader.  Not many people get to do something like this and even fewer get this kind of adventure when they are past 50 years old.   I cannot say that I look forward to going back to Iraq.  The hot weather is coming and the dust never goes away, but it is a good experience.   I love working with my teammates and the Marines there.  I think my team is making a difference.  I am making a difference.  That is important to me. 

April 13, 2008

Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground

Tent 

Our HQ building is being rewired and repainted, so our PRT and our RCT colleagues are out in tents.  It is not good.  When the wind blows, the sides of the tents blow in and out.  There is a generator outside that make lots of noise. It gets hot in the tents when it gets hot outside. Fortunately, it is not as hot yet as it will get.

This affects me not as much as it could.   I am out on R&R.  With any luck, I will miss most of the camping.   I have to give a lot of credit to my PRT colleagues and the Marines.   Conditions are not good, but they are doing very well.

Tent out

I am delighted with the growing cooperation between my team and the associated Marines.  We have really become one team for the one fight. 

April 11, 2008

No War for Oil

We did not invade Iraq to take the oil.  We are not trading blood for oil, but conspiracy buffs have been saying we did for years now.  I think we now have definitive proof that these guys were wrong.  As I reread my note from yesterday, I realized the proof was before us.  I even mentioned it, but I cannot resist expanding a bit.

War opponents have changed arguments.  They now acknowledge that we are achieving success in Iraq.  All that talk about defeat, so common last year, is gone.  Now they are complaining that it costs too much.  They also point out that Iraq is rich enough to pay for its own reconstruction.  They have a point on both issues.  But consider the implications.

If you call upon Iraqis to pay more, you have to assume they CAN.  What does this say about your confidence in the capacity of the Iraqi government and economy?  You cannot simultaneously believe that Iraqi is collapsing into ruin and that they can afford to pay billions of dollars. 

The other thing that it says is that this was not a war for oil.  If CF went in to take the oil, we would not have to worry about asking the Iraqis to pay more of their own way.  It would be like somebody robbing a liquor store, not taking any money and in fact using his own money to help fix the place up.  I don’t think we would call that a robbery.

I am just getting sick of this war for oil crap.  It is juvenile.  Let me explain.  There is no doubt that w/o oil we would have been unlikely to have a strong interest in this country or region.  But that does not make it a war FOR oil.  Oil in a resource that allows those who control it to wield power.  If you have a tyrant in a poor country, he is a local menace.  Somebody like Robert Mugabe is a good example.  W/o the big money provided by a resource like oil, guys like Osama bin Laden and his followers would just be a nutty bunch of desert bandits.  Add oil to the equation – lots of oil – and you get lots of trouble.  A local psychopath can become a global threat when you inject the steroids of oil wealth. In some ways, therefore, the war is about oil but not for oil.  That distinction is very important. 

The oil curse is also the curse of easy and generally unearned wealth.  It tends to corrupt the recipients and it can make them dangerous. This is a variation on the point and don’t want to belabor it.  Those who know me understand that I sometimes can rant a bit, but now that rhetoric has changed from defeat in Iraq to success in Iraq is costing too much - and that Iraq can and should pay more - it should at least let us dispense with one of the more annoying pieces of disinformation.  There was no war for oil.

April 10, 2008

Bureaucrats Who Can't Spend Money

I watched closely the Petraeus/Crocker Senate testimony.  Some of the questions made me wonder how some people get to be Senators, but others made a good point about Iraqis paying for Iraq’s development.  I am not an expert on the whole country, but I do have some local observations.  

My instructions on coming to Western Anbar and the instructions to my team stipulate that our job is to get the Iraqis to spend their own money for projects.  We don’t do anything unless the Iraqi side contributes.  Beyond that, many of our training programs from the inception of the ePRT have been on “budget execution” for Iraqi officials.

It is a lot harder for governments to spend money than we think.  In the U.S. we have no shortage of bureaucrats who have a tradition of knowing how to allocate & spend money.  We have various numbered forms, document numbers, obligations, fiscal data etc.   Our problem is often to slow down the spending.  We forget how lucky we are. 

Iraq lacks almost all those things we take for granted.  The British left a reasonably efficient bureaucratic tradition, but that was a long time ago and those skills have passed almost from living memory.  Saddam Hussein actively destroyed the power of intermediaries (and often the intermediaries themselves) between his desires and execution.   In Saddam’s Iraq bureaucratic execution had meanings beyond the fiscal and the rules based systems broke down and largely disappeared.  Bureaucrats remained, lots of them, but they stopped doing the things that bureaucrats, even bad ones, usually do.

This is a big difference between Iraq and Germany post WWII for example. In Germany, out of the rubble of Nuremburg, Dresden or Berlin emerged a living bureaucracy.  In those places, as often in the U.S., the challenge is/was to cut thought the red tape.  Around here we often don’t have enough red tape to hold the package together.

I have observed the rule of rules (good bureaucracy) developing in Western Anbar, but it is a painful process and the tradition of the strong man remains.  I have written in previous posts about my discomfort at seeing a big leader dispensing projects and favors to local supplicants, but at least the money gets spent this way.  The better situation is that local, provincial and national government develop budgets, set priorities and allocate funds based on the instructions of elected officials in the context of the rule of law.   We also need to see more initiative from the lower levels and less emphasis on central authorities.  I wrote a blog entry about that when I first got here.

My team and I are pushing hard to get the Iraqis in Western Anbar to allocate and spend their own money.  We are doing “good” here and many of projects help the people of Anbar.  But our purpose is not to do good.  Our purpose is to make Al Anbar a place where the insurgency and AQI cannot find a foothold.  We are spending the taxpayers’ money and risking our safety to accomplish THIS mission. Development and improving the lives of Anbaris is a happy collateral benefit.  I take great personal pleasure in seeing that our efforts will help people help themselves and I am especially gratified when we can help restore the degraded environment of this arid region.  But I recognize that these are fringe benefits.

Iraq is enjoying an oil boom.  The country is earning something like $56 billion a year in oil revenues.  They should be and will be able to pay their own way – soon. I hope that we in the ePRT can work ourselves out of a job – soon.  But it is in OUR interests that Iraq succeeds and not fall into the hands of a hostile or terrorist regime.   That is why we are still involved.

BTW – the very fact that the IRAQIS - not us – have that pile of cash indicates that all those guys who said we were in this war for oil profits were full of crap.   If we were after the oil we would … get the oil.

So I agree that Iraqis can & should pay more for their own development.   I believe they will do it.  But we have to prime the pump a little and since a secure Iraq is important to us too, it is worth it.  I regret that we get stuck with the cost and the risk but the alternative is not acceptable.

April 07, 2008

Measuring Success in Iraq (Banana index)

Two separate groups of people came to see me about measuring progress in our area of operation and gave me an opportunity to pontificate in my very best style.  I am doing my best to deploy all my skill and experience on how to assess and measure.  I am delving way back to my MBA days when I studied marketing research, but Iraq presents a researcher with almost the perfect storm of confusion.  I am not sure how to measure progress in Iraq and I am not sure that information is knowable even in theory.

One of the guys who came to visit was a practicing anthropologist.  I didn’t know they had that kind of career path, but it makes sense.  Anthropologists study relationships between people, institutions, traditions and society.  The skills of an anthropologist are more appropriate in Iraq than those of a public pollster.   I don’t believe the usual polling methods can produce valid results in a place like Iraq. Figuring out the situation here is more an art than a science, more anecdotal than analytical. My study of marketing research methods gave me a good feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of statistical studies. 

Graphically Misleading

The most misleading sort of study is the pseudo-scientific one, with lots of numbers and graphs w/o valid grounding in reality.  Such things are usually based on a kind of snowballing of the power of a few guesses.  A few people make estimates that are locally valid for decision making but not scientific.  For example, “How much traffic is there on the road?”  “Lots.” You could make a decision based on that, but it is a soft estimate.  Somebody aggregates these guesses and gives them numerical weight.  As the aggregations get farther from the original sources, they get less and less related to reality BUT more and more impressive in terms of certainty of numbers and presentation.  

In my traffic example, if you aggregate traffic information from downtown Manhattan and rural Wyoming, you might conclude that traffic is a moderate concern in both places and you could produce graphs and charts to support your position. I learned a long time ago that if you want to enhance the power of your own gut estimate, you should put it into writing and if possible draw a chart or a graph. I know this works, but I also know that it is primarily a presentation ploy.  Even in the best cases, it is used to simplify information and make it easier to understand.  In the process, we trade some degree of accurate detail for presentation. Anyway, I think we are demanding more of the information we have than it has to teach us and much of our precision is unjustified. 

Spock Trap

I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.”  How stupid is that?  That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed.  It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap.  It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent.  BTW - my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers.  For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  (Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.)My feeling about the part of Iraq that I know best, the places I have actually set foot and looked at with my own eyes, is that things are much better now than they were when I arrived six months ago.   I use the word “feeling” because that is what I have.  I have observed that people seem friendlier.  Markets are fuller.  There seems to be less fear.  Local people were once afraid to talk to us or work with us.  Not any more.  It just feels better.

Dreadful Conditions

I am convinced that conditions here are better than our measurements will be ever able to detect.  Iraqis have a long history with oppression.  Smart people learned to hide their prosperity from predatory authorities.  If Saddam’s henchmen found out you had something good, you might not be able to keep it.  We also saw the age-old desire to hide assets from the tax collectors.  As a result of all this, people have become accustomed to lying to anybody asking questions and trying to make conditions seem as dreadful as possible. 

Sing the Body ElectricA good example of a statistic we cannot use – but we do - is electricity.  Iraqis get some hours of electricity from the grid.  This power is essentially free, since the authorities have generally lost the capacity to meter and charge for it.  Naturally, everybody wants as much of this free power as they can get and when the power comes on they plug in everything they own.  It makes demand appear much higher and shortfalls more acute. If asked, people complain bitterly about the lack of power.  BUT if you fly over Anbar or drive thorough a city at night, you see plenty of lights even when there is ostensibly no power.   The fact is that many communities and even individuals have generators.  They prefer not to use these generators because it means that electricity is no longer free.  However, when they say that they do not have electricity, they really mean that they do not have FREE electricity.

Demand for electricity in Iraq is growing at around 12% a year, as people buy more things like refrigerators, microwaves and DVD players.  Supply can never catch up with demand as long as electricity is de-facto free.   I am convinced that if/when the authorities figure out how to meter and charge for it, the “problem” of electricity will be mostly solved, or more correctly it will stop being a problem and become an expense.

Fear v Greed

There are some sorts of statistics that I think we might be able to use IF we could assess them.  One is the risk premium that contractors and others demand.  Six months ago we had to pay relatively more for services because people thought it was risky to deal with us (i.e. they were afraid the insurgents would target them in retaliation). They charged us more to compensate.  Now the prices we are paying for our projects are dropping.  Of course that could be because we are getting better at knowing local conditions and negotiating better deals.   I think that if I could figure out a reliable way to estimate the risk premium, I would have a very good measure of improvement.  It is a kind of greed v fear measurement.

Banana Index

One of my own assessment methods is a “banana index”.  I observe fruits in the market especially bananas.  No bananas are grown locally.  They all have to be imported from somewhere else.  It is very hard to get a banana to market exactly at the right time.  They will usually be either green or brown.  A banana stays yellow for only a short time and if it is mishandled it gets easily bruised.   If you see lots of good quality bananas in the market, you know that the distribution system is working reasonably well and that good are moving expeditiously through the marketplace. Anyway, I shared my methods with the researchers. They are just rules of thumb, but if you call them heuristics they sound almost scientific. 

Measuring Success in Iraq

Two separate groups of people came to see me about measuring progress in our area of operation and gave me an opportunity to pontificate in my very best style.  I am doing my best to deploy all my skill and experience on how to assess and measure.  I am delving way back to my MBA days when I studied marketing research, but Iraq presents a researcher with almost the perfect storm of confusion.  I am not sure how to measure progress in Iraq and I am not sure that information is knowable even in theory.

One of the guys who came to visit was a practicing anthropologist.  I didn’t know they had that kind of career path, but it makes sense.  Anthropologists study relationships between people, institutions, traditions and society.  The skills of an anthropologist are more appropriate in Iraq than those of a public pollster.   I don’t believe the usual polling methods can produce valid results in a place like Iraq. Figuring out the situation here is more an art than a science, more anecdotal than analytical. My study of marketing research methods gave me a good feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of statistical studies. 

Graphically Misleading

The most misleading sort of study is the pseudo-scientific one, with lots of numbers and graphs w/o valid grounding in reality.  Such things are usually based on a kind of snowballing of the power of a few guesses.  A few people make estimates that are locally valid for decision making but not scientific.  For example, “How much traffic is there on the road?”  “Lots.” You could make a decision based on that, but it is a soft estimate.  Somebody aggregates these guesses and gives them numerical weight.  As the aggregations get farther from the original sources, they get less and less related to reality BUT more and more impressive in terms of certainty of numbers and presentation.  

In my traffic example, if you aggregate traffic information from downtown Manhattan and rural Wyoming, you might conclude that traffic is a moderate concern in both places and you could produce graphs and charts to support your position. I learned a long time ago that if you want to enhance the power of your own gut estimate, you should put it into writing and if possible draw a chart or a graph. I know this works, but I also know that it is primarily a presentation ploy.  Even in the best cases, it is used to simplify information and make it easier to understand.  In the process, we trade some degree of accurate detail for presentation. Anyway, I think we are demanding more of the information we have than it has to teach us and much of our precision is unjustified. 

Spock Trap

I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.”  How stupid is that?  That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed.  It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap.  It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent.  BTW - my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers.  For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  (Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.)My feeling about the part of Iraq that I know best, the places I have actually set foot and looked at with my own eyes, is that things are much better now than they were when I arrived six months ago.   I use the word “feeling” because that is what I have.  I have observed that people seem friendlier.  Markets are fuller.  There seems to be less fear.  Local people were once afraid to talk to us or work with us.  Not any more.  It just feels better.

Dreadful Conditions

I am convinced that conditions here are better than our measurements will be ever able to detect.  Iraqis have a long history with oppression.  Smart people learned to hide their prosperity from predatory authorities.  If Saddam’s henchmen found out you had something good, you might not be able to keep it.  We also saw the age-old desire to hide assets from the tax collectors.  As a result of all this, people have become accustomed to lying to anybody asking questions and trying to make conditions seem as dreadful as possible. 

Sing the Body Electric

A good example of a statistic we cannot use – but we do - is electricity.  Iraqis get some hours of electricity from the grid.  This power is essentially free, since the authorities have generally lost the capacity to meter and charge for it.  Naturally, everybody wants as much of this free power as they can get and when the power comes on they plug in everything they own.  It makes demand appear much higher and shortfalls more acute. If asked, people complain bitterly about the lack of power.  BUT if you fly over Anbar or drive thorough a city at night, you see plenty of lights even when there is ostensibly no power.   The fact is that many communities and even individuals have generators.  They prefer not to use these generators because it means that electricity is no longer free.  However, when they say that they do not have electricity, they really mean that they do not have FREE electricity.

Demand for electricity in Iraq is growing at around 12% a year, as people buy more things like refrigerators, microwaves and DVD players.  Supply can never catch up with demand as long as electricity is de-facto free.   I am convinced that if/when the authorities figure out how to meter and charge for it, the “problem” of electricity will be mostly solved, or more correctly it will stop being a problem and become an expense.

Fear v Greed

There are some sorts of statistics that I think we might be able to use IF we could assess them.  One is the risk premium that contractors and others demand.  Six months ago we had to pay relatively more for services because people thought it was risky to deal with us (i.e. they were afraid the insurgents would target them in retaliation). They charged us more to compensate.  Now the prices we are paying for our projects are dropping.  Of course that could be because we are getting better at knowing local conditions and negotiating better deals.   I think that if I could figure out a reliable way to estimate the risk premium, I would have a very good measure of improvement.  It is a kind of greed v fear measurement.

Banana Index

One of my own assessment methods is a “banana index”.  I observe fruits in the market especially bananas.  No bananas are grown locally.  They all have to be imported from somewhere else.  It is very hard to get a banana to market exactly at the right time.  They will usually be either green or brown.  A banana stays yellow for only a short time and if it is mishandled it gets easily bruised.   If you see lots of good quality bananas in the market, you know that the distribution system is working reasonably well and that good are moving expeditiously through the marketplace. Anyway, I shared my methods with the researchers. They are just rules of thumb, but if you call them heuristics they sound almost scientific


April 06, 2008

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Play?

In a previous post I described how my promotion ended up costing me thousands of dollars in overtime pay and that because of my promotion into the Senior Foreign Service I would make LESS money in 2008 than I would had I stayed an FS01.  I took consolation in the fact the SFS is eligible for performance pay bonuses.   I figured that my service in Iraq leading a PRT would probably deserve some of that.  Wrong again. 

The Senate approves promotions into the SFS.  Usually they do this in November but this year the Senate acted slower than usual and didn’t get around to it until January.  As a result of the late promotion, the State Department in its wisdom and following its rules that probably have never applied before did not include the normal pay raise in my promotion raise, so I lost a little money.  But it got worse. Because the promotions came too late, I am not eligible for performance pay.

In other words, everything I have done in Iraq counts for nothing as far as the Foreign Service performance is concerned.  I don’t want to complain.  I did not come to  Iraq for the career.  But it is just one thing after another.  Like most people, I appreciate recognition from my employer and I find it annoying that some of my most significant contributions as an FSO are like the tree falling in the woods with nobody around to hear it.  Beyond that a significant part of SFS compensation is devoted to performance pay.  It is supposed to encourage and reward good work.  Not being eligible for this while serving in Iraq seems a little out of place.

And there is still another permutation in this nefarious spiral.  SFS does not get the automatic annual pay raises like other Federal employees.  Our raises are based on performance and those not recommended for performance pay are not eligible for the pay raises, which means in 2009 I will have taken a de-facto pay cut by whatever the rate of inflation is this year - all this because I got promoted last year.   I love the honor of it, but price is getting higher.

 “It feels sort like the fellow they run out of town on a rail. If it wasn’t for the honor of it, I’d just as soon walk,” to quote Abraham Lincoln.

Adding insult to injury, they sent that elegantly worded letter to the wrong place and it came back to them address unknown.  I got a cryptic email asking for my home address.  A few days later it arrived in Virginia. 

Dear Mr. Matel,

With the President's attestation of Senate confirmation, let me extend, on behalf of the Director General, warm congratulations on your promotion into the Senior Foreign Service. 

I want to make sure you are aware that you will not be eligible for senior performance pay consideration by the 2008 selection boards, as fewer than120 days - the threshold established by regulation - will have elapsed between the January 6 effective date of your promotion and the April 15 end of the 2007-2008 rating period. 

I have long maintained that I serve the task not the master and I will certainly not let my frustration with FS personnel interfere with my responsibly to my country and my colleagues. This blog note will be the extent of my expression of anger and all of you are doing me the favor of listening to my ranting.Thank you.Tomorrow I will be back on task, but for the rest of this evening I am p*ssed off.

April 05, 2008

The Fobbit

Bunks Above shows accommodations down range.  These are nice ones, but the snoring can be intense.

Camp Ripper is a forward operating base – a FOB.  A FOB has some of the comforts of home, including a good chow hall, toilets that flush and cans with electricity instead of tents.  You also have access to laundry and shower facilities.   FOBs are comfortable and some people never – or very rarely – leave the FOB.  They are called Fobbits.

I don’t know the exact numbers, but my guess is that around half of the guys in Iraq are Fobbits.  I am a semi-Fobbit.   I spend most of my time on the FOB, i.e. I endeavor whenever possible to return at night to the comfort of my own can.  However, I do regularly travel away from the Shire and sometimes get stuck at some outpost or tent city where conditions are less comfortable.  

Fobbit is a term of some derision among non-fobbits.   Some people love the FOB and there are others who evidently like to be out in the deserts eating MREs.  I prefer the semi-fobbit life.  I go out when my job requires it and do so eagerly and happily.   I always enjoy getting away from Al Asad and most of the blog-posts I write are about those experiences.  However, it doesn’t take long for me to satisfy my sense of adventure and I like to get back to the cans of home. 

I am getting too old for this.  Most other places are either too hot or too cold and I sometimes worry - irrationally - about scorpions, camel spiders and snakes.  (I say irrationally because I have seen only one scorpion and no snakes, but I know they are laying in wait – stingers and fangs poised.)Besides, you usually have to sleep among people who snore loudly.   I also have the sense of guilt since I know that I snore too and am inflicting this on my colleagues.  Of course we all have earplugs.  Better to be in your own can.

No Man is a Prophet in His Own Village

Colonel and kids in Baghdadi 

Our trip to Hadithah was cut short when we ran into a wall of dust coming in the other direction.  We were lucky.  A convoy of trucks coming out of Al Asad held us up.  The delay meant that we were not far outside camp when word came in about the approaching dust clouds and we could go back.  Being dusted down in Hadithah is less pleasant in terms of bunking and preparations (i.e. we would not have our toothbrushes etc). 

So we spent the morning riding in MRAPs on a road that went nowhere, but the day was not a complete loss.  Colonel Malay decided to stop off in Baghdadi, the first village outside Al Asad, and do a foot/candy patrol.  Generous people back home send lots of candy and other little gifts to the Marines at Camp Ripper.   They get a lot more than anybody can reasonably eat (unless their goal is to weigh 300 lbs) and they share this bounty with the local kids when they go on patrol.

shop keeper

I talked to the local shopkeeper in Baghdadi who told me business was bad.  Costs were high and profit margins low.  He didn’t have much in his shop to sell anyway.  A bunch of guys gathered around to complain about the lack of jobs.  They wondered if the U.S. could pressure the Iraqi government into creating some local jobs and/or if there were any good jobs to be had on Al Asad.   I was a little disappointed by what they were telling me.  It was not the lack of jobs, which is a legitimate problem, but the kinds of jobs they seemed to want.  Everybody wanted to work for the government.  The idea that private businesses could/would/should create jobs seems not to have occurred to them and did not resonate at all when I brought it up. 

Of course I understand that I did not meet a representative sample and that guys hanging around on the street in the middle of the day are probably not the most active and ambitious people in town.  Everybody was reasonably well dressed.  The shopkeeper wore traditional Iraqi garb, but the young men were dressed in western style trousers and relatively clean shirts emblazoned with the names of Brazilian or European soccer teams.

One man dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants insisted on talking to me separately.  He said that he was a trained teacher and qualified to teach math and science. Yet he had been unable to get a job teaching because successful applicants either needed to bribe or know somebody.  He said that he could get a job with the IA, but preferred to work in his own field and asked that CF look into corruption in hiring at local schools.

gas stations

There were many small businesses open on the street.  A quick glance around revealed three “gas stations”, each consisting of several plastic tanks of gas standing in the sun.  It doesn’t seem particularly safe or efficient, but it is a form of commerce.  We noticed that there was significantly more gas available for sale now than in the past and the plastic tanks were sitting on 55 gallon drums of fuel.  Selling gas here makes sense since we were on a main road along the Euphrates and there was consistent traffic passing by.  There was also a mechanic shop and a few more shops selling groceries. Fields near the river were green and growing.  They were planted with onions, lettuce, tomatoes and spring wheat and somebody had laid a few water pipes to irrigate fields a bit farther away from the riverbank.  A boy herded flocks of sheep though the fields.   It is clear that irrigated fields were once more extensive in the area than they are today.  The Euphrates is fast flowing at this point.  We saw ruins where waterwheels had once harnessed the power of the river probably to pump water to more distant places, but we didn’t see any working wheels anywhere along this stretch of the river.  Water wheels may be a lost art locally.  A diesel engine is less reliable and more expensive to run, but it is easier to set up and work.

Dennis has previous experience talking to local citizens about farming.  Farmers complain that nobody wants to be a farmer anymore because the work is too hard.  You can’t get good help these days.  Everybody wants to work for the government, they complain.  Our short reconnaissance and the comments of the idle young men seemed to confirm this anecdotal evidence.

As usual, kids came out looking for candy.  Some could ask for candy, pens or sunglasses in English.  Some people came out of their houses to look at us or wave.  The mood was good.Euprhares treesA couple of guys came up who identified themselves as administrators from the high school and elementary school.  They both seemed to understand some English.  We nevertheless spoke through Franco the interpreter.  The two men complained that their school building had been taken over and used as a CF checkpoint.  I promised that I would mention the problem to the RCT.  These guys seemed intelligent and involved in their community.  They said that they had fixed up buildings themselves to serve as temporary schools, but hoped that we would do the right thing and give them back their building.  When I shook hands with them I noticed that – unlike those of the earlier group of young men – these guys had hard and strong hands.  I don’t know what kind of work they have been doing, but it is something that requires consistent hand labor.  Maybe they are indeed working to refurbish their houses to serve as schools.

They also complained about salaries and about Baghdad not giving anything to Anbar.  They said that each time money moves some leaks out of the pipeline.  Some leaks in Baghdad; a little more leaks in Ramadi and Hit.  By the time it gets to Baghdadi there is not much left.   Iraq is a rich country, they told me, but you wouldn’t know it to look around.  They indicated that they had more confidence in U.S. forces than in either their local government or the national government.  They were nonplussed when I suggested that there should be an Iraqi solution but asked that we intervene with the Maliki government to make changes.

April 04, 2008

Hanging Around Like a Fart in an MRAP

Rat trap 

Riding in an MRAP is never fun.  You feel every bump.  One of my colleagues literally hit the ceiling on one bumpy road.  After that I started to be more careful about the seatbelts.  In addition, they are top heavy and prone to roll over.   A few of my colleagues rolled down the hill near Hadithah Dam.  Four times they rolled over.  One guy broke his ankle and another cracked a vertebra and a rib, but nobody was seriously hurt.  The turret gunner followed his training perfectly.  He hunkered down, hung on and walked away with barely a scratch.  The gunners are in the most danger and they are often the ones thrown out and crushed.  The saving grace of the MRAP is that they are practically indestructible.  The same things that make them unpleasant make them robust.  It is the dreadnought of land vehicles – and probably as heavy as the original seagoing varieties..

Yesterday we had a particularly uncomfortable ride. We were packed into the MRAP heading toward an engagement, bouncing along with each pothole when somebody started to fart.  There were five suspects (I leave myself out because I know it wasn’t me), but nobody would admit it. Once was bad enough, but whoever it was silently broke wind several times.  Talk about bad manners.  There is not much circulation in an MRAP anyway, so odors of all sorts tend to linger, but then it got worse when the air conditioning broke down.  There we were, tightly packed in an atmosphere of dust and warm methane.  It makes you appreciate the Humvee, which is more cramped but less close or even the helicopter which has those 80 MPH winds constantly blowing through the open gun windows.

None of the modes of transportation, BTW, provides anything in the way of lumbar support.   The body armor provides a useful place to rest your chin, but puts a lot more strain on your lower back.  It hurts like mad.   I have addressed that problem with one of those u-shaped neck pillows.  I got a nice one made of temperpedic material, which I jam up against my lower back.  It really works.   I don’t leave home w/o it.  Some of the Marines say that sort of pillow is an old man’s accessory and they are probably right but when I get out of the vehicles I don’t feel like I fell off the back of a pickup truck.  The ridicule is transitory; back pain persists. 

April 03, 2008

Water in the Desert

This bleak landscape holds more promise than it seems.

Bleak Iraq 

“Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. ...”

Securing the route that both oil and commerce must take from Bayji to the population and refining centers in Hadithah is a major strategic goal.   In support of that goal, ePRT Western Anbar is looking for ways to support commerce and prosperity along the route, by encouraging small merchants to set up kiosks, perhaps with the support of a microfinance loan, and helping local pastoralists and farmers make a living nearby.  The challenge is that the land along way makes Death Valley look like a garden.   Development depends on water and there is not much of it available anywhere near the road, railroad or pipelines - until a few days ago.

Dennis identified possible water bearing formations in Pliocene formations along the route during a helicopter reconnaissance and then followed up with a Marine patrol and a backhoe.  They struck water in three of the four areas he identified.  In one case, they found enough gushing water at a depth of about three meters to support a small community.  

Backhoe Iraq

This water is sustainable with wise use and replenished from natural rainfall in the area, i.e. it is not “fossil” water (as in parts of the Ogallala Aquifer, for example) that will be drained out by use.   Dennis and engineers at the RCT have already developed plans for a pond system that would take advantage of the terrain and some modern dry land farming techniques to create permanent oases around these tentative water holes. 

Below - the water is muddy at first, but left stand it clears and the flow was strong.

Water

The technique involves “pitting,” which is a series of hundreds of small holes produced upstream from the place where a pond will be constructed.  These pits slow the runoff and allow it to soak into the ground, replenishing the aquifer.  Normally, the local desert soils shed water like a Wal-Mart parking lot.  The runoff puddles up in low places, without significant percolation and generally bakes off in the sun leaving salty pans and doing nobody any good.

We estimate that a properly constructed series of ponds featuring pitting and silt ponds to moderate rapid runoff and erosion could provide year round sources of water for local agriculture and other uses.   The only caveat is that the presence of reliable water sources on public land could stimulate increased sheep populations that could stress the limited resources available in this arid and poor environment.   This could be a classic “tragedy of the commons” where all producers try to maximize their own consumption of what becomes a dwindling and overtaxed resource base.  This however, is a challenge at any level of development.   The Iraqi landscaped suffered for years cut off from new developments during the dark years of Saddam Hussein.  Access to fresh, clean water is a growing problem worldwide and it is an especially acute situation in an arid country such as Iraq.  These inexpensive and effective projects will help address the issue in Western Al Anbar.

April 02, 2008

Service & the Ivy League Marines

Below are kids waving at our convoys.  The kids come running out when we drive by.  Sometimes we worry that they will run out in front of the vehicles, but they seem to know better.  I hope that our work here will make their country better in the future than it was in the past.

Kids in Iraq 

The lieutenant told me that before joining the Marine Corps he had been a financial manager for Princeton University’s endowment fund.  He was a Princeton graduate with a high paying job, but he thought that serving with the Marines in Iraq was a more important thing to do right now. 

We have relatively few Ivy League graduates around here.  Although I am taking into account only what I see and do not have actual statistics, most of the Marine officers seem to come from State Universities.  I asked the lieutenant about this and he agreed that his Princeton classmates tended not to join the military or serve in government in general – this despite Princeton’s ostensible position as a training ground for government officials.

Princeton had a high profile fight a couple years back about its Woodrow Wilson School.  The university received a big donation to help the Wilson School develop programs to train future civil servants, but very few Wilson School graduates actually took government jobs.  The donor’s family wanted to rescind the grant.  Princeton won the court case and kept the money but the Wilson School is still turning out lots more investment bankers and international business leaders than civil servants.  Government jobs just cannot compete on salaries and bureaucracies are be difficult places for impatient high achievers.

Below - Marine officers often make very good diplomats

bellon and Iraqis

Service, however, can be very fulfilling.  We have a real community & and sense of mission here in Iraq that it is hard to find other places.  I won’t miss Iraq when I am finished here, but I will miss my colleagues and that feeling of community.  I thought about that a couple days ago when I drove one of my team members to our airport.  On my way back to Camp Ripper, I passed a bus stop and asked if anybody needed a ride down.  This seemed natural.  Others have done that for me, but I don’t think I would do that back home and even if I did, I don’t think many people would accept my offer.

My new friend from Princeton and I also talked about the obvious – that we liked to do something good for our country.  I always liked that aspect of FS work.  Even a mundane task is more fulfilling when you keep that in mind. 

Service does need not entail working for the government or serving in the military.  I think the old idea of a calling is valid.  You should do what you are good at doing and do it well – serving the task, not the master.    That can make any job noble.  I fondly remember Bogdan, our driver in Krakow.  His job was simple but he took such pride in doing his job and doing it right that everyone respected him.  He also observed the people and events around him and I learned a lot from talking with him during our long drives around southern Poland.

The work you do is too important to be something you just do eight hours a day for the money.  I pity the fools who think their jobs are meaningless.  Like everything else, the jobs we do have the meaning we give them.  I know that is easier with some jobs than others, but then I think of Bogdan. 

People used to search for “a calling”, the thing they were supposed to do in order to better serve God.  Whether or not you accept the religious aspect of this, the idea that you should strive to do the work you should do, to be of service – however you define it – to something beyond yourself is a valid idea.  I think it is one of the most important keys to fulfillment and happiness.  We need to live a total life and work is only one part, but it is a big part and we should get that right.

There is a big distinction between pleasure seeking and meaning seeking behaviors.  Too much emphasis on pleasure seeking leads to unhappiness.  Most good things are hard to get and require significant sacrifice.  I will get off the soap box now.

Hadithah from balcony

Above is a view of Hadithah from one of the sheik's houses. Desertscapes just are not my thing.  I think this is pretty, but still too baren for me.


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