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October 31, 2008


I think that it is cute when little kids come around in costumes and it is a community building ritual when we give them treats.   Most of the kids this year visiting my house were Asians with a mix of East and South Asians.   Our neighborhood is in constant ethnic transition.  A couple years ago there were a lot more Hispanic kids.   Not many of the kids ringing my doorbell look like mine.   Those neighborhoods are a little farther out into the single family home suburbs.    Our town-house complex has very few kids in general.  Most of the kids we see around here come from the garden-apartment complex next door.   It is evidently a first-stop for ambitious immigrants, who seem to move out to homes as soon as they can, hence the transition.  That was the experience with the friends my kids knew from there when they were smaller. 

When college kids celebrate Halloween it is usually a fun party.   I remember the big parties on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin.   The one that made the biggest impression on my memory was a guy who dressed up like a man taking a shower.   He carried with him the whole apparatus, the shower and model of a bathtub.   It was hard for him to move through the crowds.

However,  this holiday has become way too big in the last couple decades.  It is, after all, a kids' holiday, unless you really believe in it, in which case it is a vestige of dark-age superstition.   

When people well-past college age take Halloween too seriously it is a little pathetic, but I heard on the radio that the slightly past prime crowd is where the growth comes in the sales for costumes.  People who evidently have too much money and no kids through whom they can have the vicarious Halloween fun are the biggest holiday revelers.   It is maybe not that there are so many participants but they spend bigger bucks on costumes, sometimes hundreds of dollars to dress up for one night like ghosts, goblins etc, according to news reports.  A fool and his money are soon parted.   With the economic downturn I suppose many of these guys will be dressing up like bums next year.

October 30, 2008

Unhappy Camper in WVA (Seminar Day 7)

Explanations of pictures are below.  Mixing the captions in the text was too confusing.


I am not very happy with this offsite part of the leadership seminar.   IMO this week has been not about leadership as much as about negotiation 101 or inclusiveness 102.   These are very good things in and of themselves, but much of what has been presented is the kind of things I have heard in my self-improvement and management tapes I listened to in my car years ago.  And they are things we all have practiced for 20+ years.   The review is okay, but we don't need too much of it.

On the plus side, I am learning a lot from my colleagues and have benefited by sharing their experiences.  But I have to say that my high hopes for the seminar itself have not been met. 

Nine whitetail deer in West Virginia

We learned a lot of management techniques, but as I mentioned above they were usually ones I had learned before.  I would like the course to be more about leadership.   Leaders are what we are supposed to be.  We were told that we were supposed to transition from management to leadership.  I think the best way to learn about leadership would be by using experience of our State colleagues and case study method using examples from successful, and unsuccessful, leadership from history.    

I would also like more State Department specific information.   Surely we could do that.  Maybe we will get that next week back at FSI.  We have some good speakers on the schedule. Here in WVA we are assembling puzzles and practicing techniques of mediation or empathic listening.  I don’t find much use in practicing these techniques w/o context or value content.   It is great to be open, but I think we have to be more judgmental.  Leadership means making judgments & choices and setting priorities.   It is not merely employing Dale Carnegie techniques to win friends and influence people.    We need to persuade and change minds, not just take opinion polls.  Sometimes – often – the needful choices will be unpopular.  We need to talk more about that aspect of leadership.   

New cabin construction at the Woods in West Virginia

Don’t get me wrong.   My experience with participatory leadership has been good.  I believe in it and truly practice it.  Working with others and having them support me has been the key to my success.   Lord knows I could never have done anything by myself.  But sometimes the buck stops with the person in charge and it is our job to take the responsibility when it falls to us, not spread it out as far as possible. 

I have the opportunity to walk around during lunch breaks and listen to a Roman history course on my I-Pod.  You can learn from history and I enjoy examples of leadership - good and bad – and the consequences.  It is interesting when you study history and look at leaders to see that it is very rare for a leader to be well thought of and/or remain in power for a long time.  It says something about the episodic nature of leadership opportunities.  Solon left town after he made his laws.  Themistocles was exiled soon after the victory over the Persians.   In more modern times, Churchill was tossed out of office after WWII and Harry Truman left office with an abysmally low approval rating.   Of course these are much bigger deals than our small leadership challenges, but I think we little guys can learn a lot by looking at the big challenges, choices and their consequences. 

Virginia pine blown down by wind

We had modules on coaching.   I think it is a good idea to coach employees and I recognize that I do it very often.  But the coaching we learned about in class was (my complaint again) very non-confrontational and value free.   I remember reading a biography of Vince Lombardi.   I think it was called “When Pride Still Mattered.”  Vince Lombardi was a pretty good coach, but I never got the impression he engaged in much of this touchy-feely stuff we are learning.    The Lombardi quote I recall is “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.”  I didn’t hear anything like that in our coaching session.

Loblolly pines in WVA

Anyway, I ranted a little about these sorts of things in class, just like I am ranting a little here.  I am not sure the instructors liked me very much by the end of the day and I don’t think it did any good.   Once again I get to be the skunk at the barbeque.   I don’t like to do it, but I guess I don’t mind either.

About the Pictures

1 – clouds over the conference site.

2 - You can see that there is no shortage of whitetail deer.    I saw nine at this one time.   That is the most I have ever seen.  Deer numbers have risen significantly in recent years all over the eastern U.S. 

3 - I don’t think “the Woods” community is doing very well.  I saw dozens of for sale signs.   This part of West Virginia was especially hard hit by the housing downturn because high gas prices made commuting out here to/from the population centers around Washington very expensive.   But that affects mostly the older, cheaper cabins build in the 1980s.   While they are up for sale w/o lots of offers, people are building new and improved cabins, presumably with the intention of using them. 

4 & 5 - These two are forestry pictures.  What you see in the first one are wind throws of Virginia pine.   The Virginia pine is easily pushed over.   They are transition trees and not long-lasting.   I did, however, count the stump rings of a Virginia pine that was at least 47 years old.  The ones standing nearby with similar stem sizes were about as big as a twenty year old loblolly in Brunswick.    The second picture shows loblolly.  I don’t know how old these are.   They don’t grow very fast around here.  The soil is not good and this is the northern edge of the loblolly range.   This stand is no longer under real management, as you can see by the dead heads.

How We Almost Killed Public Diplomacy

We speak with awe or scorn about spin. But ask yourself this. If spin is so effective, how come you and (almost everybody else) can see it? There is much more to public affairs than information or even persuasion. Public affairs is relationships. Relationships are what we stupidly threw away during the 1990s.

We fell into a type of historical amnesia during the 1990s. It we chased a dream, a chimera. The fall of communism made most people in the west think that we had finished - and won - a hard race. Now we could rest. All those soldiers could come home. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, just a little late.   Harmony and understanding would certainly follow.

I need to digress. Americans have always been interested in public opinion. Our Declaration of Independence talks about a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, but we learned the importance of information policy in the modern sense in the time before WWII. The Nazis were good at persuasion. (Many of the anti-free market, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitic themes are still used today.) In the 1930s, they were making significant public affairs gains in Latin America by exploiting latent anti-Americanism and taking advantage of ethnic loyalties and spreading money around. (Hugo Chavez is following the precedent.) Many 1930s era public buildings in Latin America originally had plaques expressing gratitude to the 3rd Reich because they paid for the construction.

The U.S. responded with its own public diplomacy. On the ground, that meant establishing libraries and bi-national centers that taught English and carried American culture, encouraging exchanges and making cartoons. Yes. Look at the Disney Classic the  Three Caballeros. Donald Duck was the most popular American south of the border.

During the war, we made more movies and worked hard to win the war of ideas. I will not go into details. Suffice to say, we won.  It certainly didn’t hurt that allied forces occupied Germany & Japan, however.   Winning hearts and minds often follows the practical victory, not precedes it. 

The golden age of public diplomacy came during the Cold War. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were effective alternative media for those countries trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The government also created the United States Information Agency (USIA) to carry out a broad range of information programs. Republican and Democratic Administrations supported this. USIA's most famous director was Edward R. Murrow. Murrow knew the power of radio and television, but he also understood the need for relationships. He said that we can beam information hundreds of miles, but to get the message across we needed to get that last three feet and that took personal contact.

The Reagan era represented the last bright flash for U.S. public diplomacy. Reagan understood the need and various programs were well funded. Reagan himself was a great spokesman. His policies were initially unpopular. The ultimate success of his policies is partially a tribute to the power of public affairs. Reagan called on the Soviets to tear down the Berlin Wall and it resonated.
The struggle against communism culminated with the fall of Wall in 1989. Soon the benighted communist regimes were gone like the snows of last winter. And we drew the wrong lesson. Many people thought it just happened, that history had ended and the world would now be a generally safe place. Our problems were how to fairly divide the prosperity. We cut our defense budget and spent the "peace dividend." Life seemed good.

We also cut public affairs. The will to cut went beyond the desire to save money. Some people considered this a moral decision. What right did the U.S. have to try to influence others? Did we think we were so good that we could tell others what to think?

From 1993-1999, the USIA hired almost no public diplomats and attrition reduced their numbers by around half by the end of the decade.   Morale was terrible, promotions rare.   The USIA director was ineffective. Overseas posts were closed. Budgets were cut. Libraries disappeared. The equipment of American centers decayed. (BTW – a similar process was at work in our intelligence community with similar consequences.) The 1999 Department of State/USIA Anschluss indicated the attitude toward independent public affairs.

When 9/11 happened, we saw that the world was not as safe as we thought. We tried to fire up the public affairs machine, but we found that we no longer had enough wing tips on the ground overseas and a decade of neglect had allowed our network of contacts to atrophy. I do not want to overstate the case, but just do the math. You can only do less with more for so long.   When you lose half your strength, you probably cannot do as much heavy lifting.

Rebuilding American diplomatic capacity began soon after 9/11. Colin Powell spearheaded a diplomatic readiness initiative to help compensate for the damage done during the 1990s Results are starting to show but rebuilding networks will take a while longer.   U.S. diplomacy has a very peculiar age structure because of the nineties neglect. There are many new employees (>10  years experience) and many old employees (20 > years experience), but not many in the middle.  This will be a challenge in the next five years, as much of the experience will go out the door through retirements. (Career diplomats can retire after 20 years.) It will be a good time to look for a job in the Foreign Service, but our government will be paying for mistakes of the 1990s for the next ten years. You cannot turn these things on and off like a lightbulb. Think of public affairs like a forest. Things take time.  The trees you plant today determine the forest years from now and you cannot expect to walk in the shade of your trees you didn't plant 15 years ago.

October 29, 2008

Leadership & Vision (Seminar Day 6)

Below - still no pictures from today, so I used some old ones.  The first is Vienna from my 2006 visit there and the second is London Bridge, moved some years ago to Lake Havasu, Arizona from 2005.


Our leadership seminar continued along the lines of process, not content.   We learn that we should have vision and that we should be collaborative with others.    I am not sure that is always the best idea.  IMO the most important thing about a vision is that it be right and that is not always what most people see clearly. Good leaders can often see that better than most others.  That is one of the traits of good leadership.  I don’t think you can assess leadership properly if you accept that it could be content neutral.    We have to judge by where leadership is leading and how it is working.  

I am learning more from my colleagues than from the course.  This is the way it often works.  One of my colleagues gave the example of the “Music Man.”  The guy in the movie (Robert Preston) has vision, but in order to get buy in from the satisfied citizens of River City he has to create an artificial problem that only he can solve.    Con-men can create compelling visions.  In fact that is one of their peculiar talents.  Many “leaders” paint an inaccurately depressing picture of current events so that they can create support for their proposed solutions.   Honest decision makers know that it is very important accurately to assess where you are before you decide where you want to go.   The saying is “describe before you prescribe.” 

If you can make a bad vision popular with scam tactics (as in the “Music Man,”) it is also true that good leadership and vision may be unpopular.  Even the best plans don't sell themselves and you may not get “buy in” from majorities or even large numbers of people despite the fact that the end result may be good or necessary.  Change is usually perceived as risky and often painful.   It may make people openly hostile, but that is why we need leadership.    Leadership means setting priorities and making the tough choices.  Leadership is not required if conditions are stable and decisions are trivial or within routine norms;  that is just administration.   You cannot be a leader by merely following the long-stated preferences and routine procedures of the groups you ostensibly lead and you cannot lead from behind.   My criticism of the leadership course is that the instructors seem uncomfortable with the harder, less popular and maybe the tough parts of leadership. 

I agree with the emphasis of the instructors of putting people first and trying to get cooperation, but that good bias can be taken too far.   As one of my colleagues pointed out, leadership must sometimes put the mission before particular people.    People are willing to sacrifice for a good cause and sometimes they have to do that.   I don’t think we talked enough about those situations and we don’t talk enough about the sometimes scary and lonely decisions leaders must make.

All the people of the past who we consider great leaders took decisions that were deeply unpopular at the time.    It is only with the fullness of time that we have come around to seeing the wisdom of their choices.   As someone who is interested in history, I wish we had more historical examples in the course.   Our course is being held not far from Antietam that back in September 1862 saw the bloodiest single day in American history.   That is a classic case study in the results of poor and timid decisions contrasted with bold ones.    McClellan had twice as many men as Lee and he had captured Lee’s battle plan, yet he still managed to produce only an inconclusive stalemate.  I think it would be useful to consider that George McClellan was very popular with both his troops and the public.   His decisions were broadly popular and particularly wrong.   On the other hand, Lincoln’s decisions almost cost him the election in 1864 AND that was considering votes only with the half of the country that had not taken up arms against his leadership (a fairly good measure of disagreement).    An opinion poll that included the whole country certainly would have given him a very low approval rating.

London Bridge Lake Havasu, Arizona

One highlight of the day was when three of my colleagues formed a panel to discuss transformational diplomacy.    They had been talking about it in a side discussion and shared it because it was of general interest.   (Such things excite us.  I guess we are indeed a pack of nerds.)  Most of us agreed that the ideas behind transformational diplomacy were good, but our class was divided about the efficacy of the program.  Some of the places that got resources had trouble absorbing them and the places that lost them suffered painful cuts.   It would have been better to ask for additional resources rather than just move priorities.   We all agreed that places like India, Brazil & China deserved more resources and diplomatic attention, but it was not a good idea to take them away from places like Germany, Spain or France, which are still very important places that matter to us even if they are pleasant, peaceful and familiar. 

One of my colleagues speculated about how the events around the Iraq war might have unfolded differently if we had sufficient diplomatic infrastructure on the ground in Germany & France to carry out strong public relations and diplomatic programs.   This was BEFORE the diplomatic transformation, but we had already lost a lot to the cuts of the 1990s and the movement of resources to the new states of the former Soviet Union.    You can only do so much with less.   We opened and staffed post in places like Kazakhstan, Latvia, Armenia and Azerbaijan w/o a bump up in resources.   I am convinced that we had significant problems with public diplomacy after 9/11 because our public diplomacy infrastructure was so decimated in the 1990s and spread too thin.   I wrote re that in an earlier post and won’t repeat it here.  Anyway, it was an interesting discussion.   

My colleagues made some comments worth writing down.   One said that vision means a leap beyond where you are - a leap of faith because it usually represents discontinuous change, not very catchy, but true.  The best line of the day was, “if you ask for infinity, you can easily settle for half of infinity.” 

October 28, 2008

Crucibles of Leadership & Telecommuting (Leadership Seminar Day 5)

The pictures are from a trip we made a couple years ago to Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.  I don't have any good pictures from today and I like to have pictures with my posts.  The Hoover Dam was a heroic project.  I thought it was an appropriate example of planning and leadership. 

Hoover Dam statue 

I don’t agree that leadership is something that can be learned equally well by anybody.   Anybody can learn many of the leadership techniques and become better leaders, but I think a lot has to do with talents, temperament and personality tendencies.  Some people can get better faster and move farther than others.   An analogy would be Michael Jordan compared to me.   I can play basketball and I could get better with practice, but I would be unable to get up to the professional level much less play like Michael Jordan.   Of course, if he never saw a basketball before we played our first game of one-on-one maybe I could win, but I suspect it would be only a one time victory.  

Of course, I have to modify my idea by saying that there are different types of leadership appropriate to different types of situations.    I think this is the place where this seminar adds the most value.  It has helped me think about leadership in different contexts.  There are some situations where I think I would be a good leaders; others where I am less appropriate and some where I don’t want to lead at all.  

Hoover Dam 

Our morning session was devoted to discussing crucibles of leadership, hard situations that tested character.    The question that occurred to me was whether hardship tests, builds or merely reveals character.     As with most things, it is probably a combination.   Great leaders require great tests.  We forget about those that fail outright, so we have a bias toward believing that hardships build character, when they are in fact both a filter and a builder. 

Most members of the class shared examples of their “crucibles”, times when they had to look deep into their characters and draw resources they didn’t think they had.    I was impressed by my colleagues.   One of the things I find most beneficial about these sorts of meeting is that it renews my confidence in my colleagues.  None of us revealed a case where we failed and/or chose the less responsible or moral course.   I didn’t either.  It was too embarrassing, but we learn a lot more when we fail than when we succeed.    The key to the crucible is not the events themselves, but what happens after.  Suffering w/o learning is just suffering.   It is not uplifting.

I thought about my own failures and lack of courage in some of the crucibles I didn’t share with my colleagues.   That I still remember them and have thought about them indicates (I think) that I learned something from them.    I am not going to talk about them here either, however.    

We also talked a little re efficiency at work.   At State we often put in too much “face time.”  Maybe it could be more efficient to be at work less.  I remember my telecommuters.   I think that my response to telecommuting was a minor crucible of leadership for me.    I learned a lot from it.   

Below is something I wrote and widely distributed  in August 2007 re telecommuting.   I think it is still true today and I look forward to going back to IIP and seeing how things are working.    I did not edit or update it.

Telework Best Practices

Statue at Hoover Dam IIP/S is in the lead in managing and implementing telework.  We allow the maximum of two days per week for telework.  As I have been managing a staff that includes teleworkers for almost a year, I would like to share some observations.   These might seem simple or obvious, but some of their management implications are profound.   Teleworking is an important tool in any good management toolbox.

IIP/S work is well suited to teleworking
Much of IIP/S programming work involves communication with overseas posts, outside speakers and diverse sections of the Department and other USG organizations.  In all these cases, the best (sometimes the only) medium of communication is electronic.   Face-to-face interaction is required only for internal periodic meetings. 

Teleworkers are productive
Soon after I started to direct IIP/S, I surveyed the productivity in my new section.  What I found was that productivity, as measured by the number of programs done per person per year was higher among teleworkers and absenteeism was lower.   I think that is because the ability to avoid a commute is helpful to people with responsibilities outside the ordinary workday and allows them to be flexible.  For example, a parent who needs to take a child to the doctor perhaps can do it in two hours and take only two hours of SL.  A non-teleworker might need to take off a whole 8 hour day to accomplish the same.  I have found that teleworkers are also more flexible.  This is especially important to IIP/S, since we are likely to have programs in process in time zones around the world.  The sun never sets on IIP/S activities.

Telework is good for quick responses
In my experience, I can get a quicker and more complete answer from my staff when they are teleworking.   Teleworkers have fewer distractions and can take the time to consider a surprise request.  They can quickly access data and are, by definition, near their computers all the time.   Quick online data retrieval allows them essentially the same access as they would have sitting in the office.

Telework improves morale
Even among those who do not telework, having the option is important.  Allowing telework indicates that management trusts the employee to work outside physical supervision and that the employee is valued for his/her contribution, not mere presence. 

Teleworking creates a more robust work organization
As I learned during the snow and ice storms this year, teleworking makes us largely immune to capriciousness of nature.   Our teleworkers can continue to work unvexed by the frightful weather that throws physical commuters into the ditch.   If SA 44 had to close down for any reason, IIP/S could continue its functions almost without interruption.   We not only have the installed capacity to work remotely, we also have developed the management structures, habits and culture to make it work.

The environment benefits
This is a larger issue that makes a difference to me.  Although it does not directly impact our organization, it is important that State is in the teleworking game as local members of congress have mandates that government offices encourage teleworking.  Teleworking  takes people off the roads for at least a few days.   It eliminates the need for miles of commuting, lessening pollution and traffic congestion.  Next time you are stuck on 495, consider that telecommuting might mitigate this. 

Downsides of teleworking
Managing an operation with significant numbers of teleworkers requires a higher level of management skill.  Managers need to consider schedules of work and when teams can best be assembled and be able to motivate a workforce they sometimes cannot see (and it is sometimes less fun to “boss” over an online connection).  Mangers also have a higher responsibility to monitor teleworking to prevent abuse.   The downsides are easily manageable, IMO, while the benefits to morale, productivity and the environment more than make up for them.

Final thoughts on teleworking
In conclusion, I would say that teleworking in IIP/S’s first year of operation has been a great success.   We have found that allowing the maximum of two telework days per week has worked out wonderfully.  IIP/S office director and divisions chiefs closely monitor telework schedules to ensure that each office is “manned” during regular working hours and all IIP/S staff must work on Tuesdays, which is our face-to-face meeting day.   Telework clearly does not function well in all situations, but based on our success, I would recommend that others expand their use of telework when possible.  It is good for morale, good for productivity, family friendly and environmentally beneficial.  It is worth the effort.

October 27, 2008

Offsite in West Virginia

We are at “the Woods” near Hedgesville in West Virginia for our offsite.  I have mixed feelings re offsites.  On the one hand, you get to be away from the office and can concentrate on the work/learning at hand.  On the other hand, most people have Blackberries so they don’t really get away.  Anyway, I am here, so I will take advantage as I can.

My room at "the Woods"

The Woods is one of those communities that has a mix of condos/hotel it rents out, amenities such as pools and golf courses and then some residences.    The community is 1980s vintage.  You can see the picture of my room above. 

Road at "the Woods"

I went for a short walk before supper.    The land is covered with mixed forests.  My picture doesn't properly show it, but you can tell that these forests have been “high graded” for many years.  High grading is sometimes misleadingly called selective cutting.   It involves cutting the bigger trees out of the forest while leaving the rest.   This sounds like a good idea, but there are problems.   The biggest trees may not be the oldest trees, but they are usually the best.   You are removing the fastest growing and healthiest trees.  It is a type of negative selection.   Many of the small trees are old.  They are just stunted or runts which will never attain a good size.  There are many possible reasons or combinations of reasons for this.   Most trees will not grow to their potential size if they are too long deprived of sun and nutrients when they are young even after the larger trees are removed.   In other words, if they miss the chance, they cannot make it up.   There is also significant genetic variation.  Beyond that, some soils do not support the growth of some trees and some just won’t get big no matter what.    In any case, high grading results in an unhealthy and stunted forest.   You can tell if the trees are young or just small by the bark.  Young trees have relatively smooth bark.   The bark on older trees is furrowed.   

Virginia pine thicket

Also common in these forests is Virginia pine.   Virginia pine is a kind of permanent brush species with poor growing habits and shallow roots.   They tend to blow down in storms and even when they don’t, they never get very good.   They more or less occupy the niche held by the jack pines in the Lake States and look a lot like them.   Above is a thicket of them.

Virginia pine in open

Above is a Virginia pine that grew in the open.  They rarely get that big and even with all the sun it needs, it still doesn’t look good.  They are almost incapable of growing straight and clean.

Residence at the Woods

Above is one of the private houses in the Woods on a one acre lot.   It is for sale.   The brochure outside the house says that they are asking $199,000 fully furnished with what they say is quality furnishings.

Crap-Shoot (Leadership Seminar Day 4)

diceIt doesn’t mean that you just give up but sometimes you have taken the data as far as you can go and you just don’t know.   In those cases the best idea is probably to use probability and random chance.   I felt foolish saying this at our leadership seminar and I know that advocating a throw of the dice  amounts to apostasy among most decision makers, but it makes sense when the information available provides no reason to come down on either side.

I have thought about randomness in decisions for some time and did some reading on the subject.   I even made up an Amazon list of titles that I read.  My position is easily caricatured.    I know that.  What comes to mind is monkeys throwing darts or sequential games of rock-paper-scissors to decide really important issues.   But think about it for a more than a minute.  If you really have no basis for a particular choice, using randomness is the most efficient way to get past the dilemma and the only way to guard against systemic unconscious bias.    Why pretend to have more wisdom than you have?

Our leadership seminar produced a good example.  We broke into four groups each with the goal of choosing a fictional DCM for a fictional country.   We were given a situational analysis and brief bio/descriptions of five candidates.    The exercise was meant to let us practice negotiation and communication but the results were interesting for a different reason.     

All of us are reasonably intelligent and successful people.  We all actually have participated on similar selection committees in real life.   We took the exercise seriously and spent forty-five minutes each discussing the issue.   There were five candidates and four groups of us trying to decide.   Despite all our expertise and experience, none of the groups chose the same winner.   Beyond that, the one candidate that my groups eliminated first as the lowest performer was the top candidate for one of our colleagues’ groups.   Who was right?  Who knows?   I don’t want to read too much into this lesson, but the results of all our serious deliberations were no better than random chance and could have been produced by a random process in seconds.   So what can we do?          

Using randomness to break a tie or resolve a situation with no firm direction from the data is not the same as being disorganized or relying on chance in all situations.    Having a diverse portfolio of skills, stocks etc. is a way of acknowledging randomness.  If you were dealing with certainty, you would just put all your eggs in the one BEST basket.    A smart decision maker sets up his/her affairs to take advantage of probabilities.    You diversify because of randomness.  We all know that any hard decision is made in a climate of uncertainty and randomness will affect us in unpredictable ways.    Underneath all the planning, analysis and carefully crunched numbers lurks a random wildness we just cannot figure in.  The recent financial meltdown is a good example.  

I have my own example and a suggestion.    Good universities have more qualified applicants than places in their classes.    A qualified person is one who can do the work.   You don’t want mere qualification; you want to get the best qualified, but how can you do that?   You can assess their academic records and test scores to determine basic qualifications.   Many schools spend lots of money and time trying to go beyond that to find out the total person.   This is something they really cannot do.   There is not enough information available on the eighteen year old applicants to assess the total person.  Most kids this age have not finished developing into the "whole person" they will soon become and none of them have had enough time to create the kind of track record you would need to make an informed choice.   I advocate a threshold requirement to determine whether or not the application could do the work.   After that, I think we should go with random chance.   It is not a wonderful solution, but it is the best we can do.   Random chance has the auxiliary benefit being unbiased.    It doesn’t and cannot discriminate on the basis of race, gender, creed, color or national origin.

Most students apply to several universities.   It is a crap-shoot for them anyway.  If we did it my way, at least they could be assured that they were playing with honest dice.

It takes courage to admit what you don’t know and even more courage to recognize that there are some decisions that you cannot make as well as random chance.   But if you know your limitations, you can extend your abilities.

October 26, 2008

Kill Animals & Cut Trees to Protect Nature

Continuing my thoughts from the Greenpeace posting below, when I tell people about my forest, they often praise me for protecting nature. Their enthusiasm cools when I explain that I am indeed protecting nature by killing some animals and cutting some trees. You just cannot rely on nature to take care of itself anymore. Preservation is not desirable everywhere if you want to protect nature.

Below - the clearcut on my forest land two years later.   The weeds and debris were higher than the trees and sometimes I worried whether of not I actually had a forest at all or just a weed patch.

clearcut two years later

Humans live in this world and have forever altered it. What if all humans disappeared tomorrow? What would nature "return" to? Where my trees grow, I think it would eventually be a fight between invasive paradise trees and kudzu vines. I don't know if the wild boar would move in and tear up all the roots, but I figure that we probably would soon get many of those introduced bugs that kill beech, oak and ash trees. Eventually some sort of new balance would result. Would the paradise tree/kudzu ecosystem be superior to the pine, oak, beech & poplar and sweet gum I maintain?

Humans are not leaving this world any time soon, so my scenario above is just imaginary. Managing the land is even more important in the world we really live in.

Below - the clearcut on my land five years later

Clearcut five years later

Humans must and will use resources taken from the earth. We can do that for a long time if we manage it right. A wise analysis indicates that some places should be preserved. We should not cut down all the redwoods, nor should we make the Grand Canyon into a gravel pit. But in order to be able to preserve some things, we need to use others wisely.

My land is beautiful rolling green piedmont cut into three parts by clear running streams. It is jumping with wildlife. Beavers sometimes have built little ponds. I love my land and feel responsible for it, but I am under no illusions that THIS particular land needs to be preserved untouched.  It is special only to me.  This was one of the early parts of our country to be colonized by English settlers.  For a couple centuries what is now my land was growing crops such as corn, cotton and tobacco, which depleted the soil.  About a century ago, the owners just gave up trying to grow ordinary crops and let it go.  Soon loblolly pines covered the land. Those pines were harvested in the 1930s.  They grew back and were harvested again in 1959, replanted with trees trees selected for their genetic qualities.  These were harvested in 2003 and replanted with really superior trees, some of which are now around twelve feet high. (We never cut about 30 acres of mixed hardwood near the streams to preserve water quality.)

Below is a clearcut thirteen years later.  This is on our new tree farm that we got this summer.

Clearcut 13 years later

This land has produced wood for hundreds of homes and will produce wood for thousands more. Every stick of wood harvested from this land means we do not have to cut an old forest somewhere else. To make the trees grow faster, we apply biosolids (processed sewerage). This is where it goes when you flush the toilet. It has to go somewhere. You can dump it or bury it where it will be pollution or you can apply it to fields or forest land where it will be fertilizer for the next generation of trees.

It would be immoral for me to take this land out of production, to preserve it. My higher duty is to conserve and protect it. Conservation is harder work than preservation.

Consider the animals that live on the land. There is no shortage of deer, beaver or wild turkeys.  I have seen signs of coyotes and bobcats.  I am glad that the local hunters shoot and trap some of them.  Each hunter gets deer during each season, gun, bow, black powder.  They eat the meat and use the hides, and this pays the property taxes. They cannot seem to shoot enough deer or trap enough beaver to put a dent in their populations.

Using the current methods, I believe the land will continue to produce wood, wildlife, clean air and clear water almost forever. The land LOOKS unattractive for about three years after a clear cut, although the deer love it and it is a time of great abundance for raptors such as hawks and eagles. After three years the mix of brush and Christmas tree like forest is once again beautiful.

So remember, if you want to preserve special places, you need to use some others and if you want to protect nature, you need to cut some trees, spread some sewage and kill some animals.

forest wall in Wisconsin 

Above is a wall in the middle of a woods in Wisconsin near the Milwaukee Airport.  Nature returned.  You would not know it had ever been gone until you come up on the wall that indicates settled agriculture in the past. Some people would call this a virgin forest, but they would be wrong.  You see a lot of that in New England.   I visited Robert Frost's farm and remembered his poem "Mending Wall."  I have included it below.  These days, however, there is no need to mend wall.  It is the same forest on both sides.  And the walls are mostly down.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

October 25, 2008


I ran into a couple Greenpeace activists near the Balston Metro.   They wanted me to sign up for their organization to fight global warming and specifically save the boreal forests, evidently threatened by the likes of Kimberly-Clark.   I think I may have confused them. 

I told them that I respected their passion but I didn’t like their organization because I thought they were usually more of a PR organization than an environmental one.     I didn’t disagree that global warming and forest destruction were serious problems.  If fact, before they stopped me I was listening to the new Thomas Freidman book Hot, Flat & Crowded re the green revolution on my I-Pod.   The woman told me that the boreal forests produced 30% of the world’s oxygen.    Of course this is inaccurate.  A mature forest is essentially carbon neutral, as CO2 from respiration and decay more or less balances oxygen fixed by photosynthesis.  It has to be that way.  Think about wht would happen if natural system just kept sucking up CO2 before humans burned fossile fuels.  All the carbon would come to be tied up in wood and leaves and nothing would grow.    However, I told them, I would be happy to put the boreal forests generally off limits because they are nice to look at and the fiber from them is competes with Southern forestry.  There are lots of reasons to protect boreal forests, but that 30% oxygen arguement is just bogus.   

I asked them if they wanted to maintain forests and healthy wildlife communities on American land.   Of course they did.  So I discussed the economics of forestry and open land and how organizations such as Greenpeace often worked against their own stated interests by advocating regulations that make it so difficult for landowners to make a living from the land so they sell off to developers.    I also explained that good forestry practices protect soils near watercourses, which also provide wildlife corridors through plantation forests.  

The woman was interested and wanted to hear more, but her partner said, “We shouldn’t talk to this guy anymore.”  He evidently feared the contagion; they both wandered off. 

These young people exhibit admirable passion and Greenpeace is a first class marketing organization.   The scary part is that environmentalism has been subverted to public relations and sincere people are often taken in by it.    I have been interested in the environment as long as I can remember and I worry that the politics of environmentalism too often trumps its nature protection.  I am not alone in this.  Greenpeace founder, Patrick Moore, has come around to supporting nuclear power and good forestry practices because they the best alternatives for protecting the environment.    James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis and as crunchy an environmentalist you can find thinks that nuclear energy is necessary to “save the earth”.   Many of their erstwhile colleagues are not amused.    

We have to move into a more environmentally friendly equilibrium.   This certainly requires some regulation and rule making.  Rules and regulations work well when you are attacking a big, easily identified source.  I use the work attacking purposefully.   That has the feel of a struggle, us v them, good guys v bad guys.   This is the battlefield activists like.   But we have done the rough work.   We now are addressing the more complex finer points, ones that are harder to find and maybe ones that are not even recognized.  Doing this requires the unleashing of human innovation, initiatives and inventiveness.  For this you need to give people and firms incentives and information.   Command and control will not produce the result you want.    

Those cute Greenpeace activists in their quasi-environmental clothes with their quasi-environmental ideas will have to look for other solutions.   It is satisfying to kick the asses of the villains, but our task is to get entrepreneurs involved in finding environmental solutions with government helping create infrastructure to facilitate the work.    It will mean some conservation and higher energy prices, but we cannot conserve our way out of the problem.  We also cannot legislate solutions; we have to invent them.   The government cannot pick winners because the information needed to make those decisions is not yet available.   The futurists and planners always get it wrong.   Nobody foresaw the details of the information technologies we have today.   Society and the people making choices informed by their own specific knowledge and preferences makes decisions that surprise and are better than those of a small group of planners, no matter how smart.  We should unleash those same processes that gave us the wonderful and very inexpensive computer I am using to write and you are using to read as well as the Internet that connects them. 

Sorry, but Greenpeace is so 1970.  They did some good things back then, but we have moved beyond that sort of thing in most ways.   BTW - Greenpeace founder has moved to the next step.   See his site at Greensprit.com

October 24, 2008

Leadership Seminar Day 3

Below - some FSI buildings

FSI building Oct 2008 

Some of the same themes came up with today’s speakers.  The big one might be taken from the “Wizard of Oz” - you are not in Kansas anymore.   The things that got us to this position will not necessarily sustain us in our new jobs.    In our old jobs, we avoided risks to get ahead and worked in a stable environment.   In the new world, we have to produce positive change and be able to understand how our operations fit into the bigger world.   My experience with big changes is that they usually are not ... so big that is, but we will see.

Anyway, this is not new to me.  I remember learning it way back in business school when we read Henry Mintzberg, Peter Drucker and Tom Peters on organizations.   Most of my business literature I read since re leadership said the same sorts of things.  It is good to see that this long-ago education still makes sense.    We also heard the familiar ideas re management by walking around.  I read that first in 1983 in “In Search of Excellence,” but it is always good to get confirmation.

We also got some State Department specific information, referencing a Mckinsey study on the “War for Talent,” which warned that State had to do more to recruit and hold top-quality employees.   One finding was that junior officers didn’t trust or much respect high level officers.  Maybe that was because high-level officers paid so little attention to them.  According to the study, only 30% of high State officers considered developing talent a high priority, compared with 76% of the high executives in the private sector.   One of the speakers commented that perhaps the private leader talked the talk but maybe didn’t walk the walk, but State leaders thought talent development had such low priority that they didn’t even bother to lie to pollsters about it.   The School of Leadership & Management was created in 1999 to try to address some of the deficiencies, but it really got going a couple years later with Colin Powell’s diplomatic readiness initiative.

When we talked about Secretaries of State who were good for State, two names came up repeatedly:  Colin Powell & George Schultz.  I agree.   I don’t have the high-level knowledge to back that up with statistics, but I know that morale was good during the Schultz times when I came into the FS.  Conditions were abysmal during the 1990s and improve a lot when Colin Powell came in. Condoleezza Rice has valued the professional members of State in the practical area of jobs and there have been more career than political appointees in the higher levels.   I hadn’t really paid attention to that, but now that I think about it when I was in Washington in the late 1990s there were a lot more political appointees hanging around.   The guy leading IIP used to be a political appointee as were many of the regional guys.  Now they are professional.  Career appointees are a good thing from my point of view, although I have seen many good political appointees and some bad professional ones.

We also talked about resources.   State has been resource poor for as long as anybody can remember.  It got worse during the early 1990s when we opened many posts in the former Soviet Union w/o getting more resources and worse still with the cuts and post closings of the middle 1990s.  (State almost closed my post in Krakow at that time, and thye DID close Poznan & Porto Alegre).  It looked like conditions might improve after 2000, but then our resources got sucked into Iraq and Afghanistan.   I think State has lots of challenges and places where diplomacy can add value, but we really cannot do it on the cheap.  I have no solution.

I also got back my 360 degree evaluations.  There were no big surprises, but I wonder how valid it is.   We name our own respondents.   I tried to get a “random” sample, but it is not really possible.  Most of the time you only get 7-10 people filling in the forms.  There is no statistical validity.  That is no problem IF we recognize that it is more of a guideline and ignore the precise looking statistics.   The most useful parts of the survey are the open-ended comments.  Some people make them; others don't.

October 23, 2008

Leadership Seminar Day 2

Below are trees at FSI.  They are all sweet gums, all about the same age growing in almost the same spot, yet for some it is fall color time and for others it is still summer.

Sweet gum trees at FSI in Arlington, VA 

Today we did a simulation exercise on leadership.   It was fun and useful but not realistic.  Leaders were decided essentially by random chance and after that the game was specifically rigged to give the leaders continuing advantages in gaining points.   I was lucky enough to be one of the three leaders and although I firmly believe the redistribution is a bad idea in most cases, in this artificial game with points distributed by random chance that is what I advocated and what we did. 

I think the game was designed to show us how power and privileges can be distributed unfairly.   I understand that and I got the point, but the game made me think about the real world versus the simplified and contrived one in the game.   Luck plays a role in life’s outcomes, but so do things like hard work, expertise and smart decisions.  In the case of leadership we could also add judgment, integrity and vision. Leadership opportunities and skills are NOT randomly distributed in real life.   I think that is the real point about learning re leadership.    Otherwise there wouldn’t be much use to study it or try to develop it.    That certainly doesn’t mean that the same people should be in charge always and in every situation, but it should not be a random event.

"Asking 'Who ought to be the boss' is like asking 'Who ought to be the tenor in the quartet', obviously, the man who can sing tenor."  So said Henry Ford and he was right.  Sometimes the situation determines who should do what.   Games cannot really catch all that goes into a decision like that, which is probably why most people who can consistently win at Monopoly aren’t rich developers in real life and why you wouldn’t want your appendix removed by somebody who plays a doctor on TV.    We all know that.  The problem comes when people have a simplified game-like interpretation of things in real life w/o thinking about it.  I think that is one big reason why socialism and its relatives still maintain their hold on minds of the credulous. 

Another interesting take away for me was different attitudes toward leadership.  One of my colleagues in the “leadership council” essentially wanted to abdicate the position and just let the group decide by consensus.   Her rationale was that we got the jobs essentially by random chance and so did not deserve it.  While she was right, I really disagree with her reaction.   I know it was just a game, but in this game and I think in a real situation the leader has the responsibility to lead.   Maybe you should lead to the group to another leader, but just letting the group drift is not an option, IMO.   It is a problem with leadership in government that we too often do just that.   I admired the Marines for their attitude, which is a different.  If a Marine finds himself in a leadership role, he takes it and does his best.   They have it right.   Leadership is a duty, not a privilege or perk.   If it falls to you, you have to do the best you can until there is an alternative.   Capitulation is cowardly. 

Anyway, the day was useful and the game was useful because it stimulated a lot of thought and discussion.  For we read an article re emotional intelligence of groups.   It was a disappointment.   I read the book “Emotional Intelligence” many years ago.   It is an interesting concept, but it can easily be taken too far and applied to precisely.   I think the useful aspects of article we read could have been summed up in a couple of paragraphs.   It was a waste with all the pages.

Below - the same fall-summer thing goes for this maple branch.  

Red maple tree partly in fall colors

Below - they are building a new apartment near my house.  This thing takes wet concrete in the bottom and can distribute it way into the construction site.   I am interested in this as part of my general theme re how much industry has changed and replaced people with machines.   This thing does the job of dozens of workers.  Jobs have not gone overseas; they are just gone.  Industry will eventually be like agriculture, with few workers producing the products for everybody else.

Cement used in construction

October 22, 2008

Back to Work ... Sort of (Leadership Seminar Day 1)

Below is Ben Franklin on the NFATC campus. Franklin was our nation's first diplomat.

Ben Franklin

I went back to work today.   Well, actually I went to the three-week training seminar.   It was good to have free time, but it is good to be back at official work.   Life needs a good work/leisure balance.  

The training started at our Foreign Service Institute (FSI) at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC) in Arlington, Virginia.   Next week we will go to an offsite in West Virginia. They call NFATC the Schultz Center after former Secretary of State George Schultz.  

Below is part of the FSI campus where I like to each lunch.

FSI campus

Things have improved for us.  During the middle and late 1990s it wasn’t so good.  Our budgets were slashed and a lot of officers were looking for jobs back then.  Our diplomatic readiness was gutted, as the general consensus was that the world was a much more benign place and we were less needed.  There were very few promotions and we lost about half of our public affairs officers to attrition and people being selected out.  Colin Powell corrected the situation and immediately (the program started in FY 02, which was October 2001) started a diplomatic readiness initiative that brought in a lot of new officers.    

It takes years to “build” an FSO and we still weren’t ready when new demands were put on us after 9/11.  I firmly believe that one reason why we lost ground diplomatically after 9/11 was the simple reason that we lacked the diplomatic infrastructure to properly do our jobs.  During the 1990s we closed most of our libraries overseas, cut overseas staff and closed posts.   We just didn’t have enough left.  I hope that we don’t go back to those management conditions in the new administration.  I don’t think we will.   Both presidential candidate claim they want to strengthen our diplomacy and I am sure they understand that you cannot do that w/o diplomatic infrastructure. 

Below - our classroom building

FSI classroom

The leadership course was good the first day.   We had sessions at NFATC/FSI (old guys like me tend to call it FSI) and at the Harry Truman Building.  I cannot go into specifics about speakers etc.  We have the rule that we can talk about what was said, but not who said it.   It makes sense.  Otherwise people would feel constrained.   We talked about some interesting leadership issues, although we only began to scratch the surface.    Below are a few of my take-away items, in no particular order.   What you see in these notes is my take on the results of discussions among participants and are not any official points of view, BTW.

Below - we did the afternoon at Main State (Harry S. Truman Building) so I went for a walk on the Mall for lunch.  This is Memorial Bridge on the Potomac.

Memorial Bridge on Potomac

Strategic Challenges for State Department

State, like all big-established organizations, may have trouble adapting to the new world of dispersed decision-making and diffuse power.    For a couple hundred years, diplomats represented America and contacts among citizens were not very common or sustained.   This began to change with faster communication, but we still had the power of official position and a control of information.   Technologies such as radio or television required big investments and didn’t allow for much audience interactivity.  They were ways for the leaders or elites to talk to the masses.   

Things are changed.  Everybody has access to tools only high government officials had ten years ago.  For example, I can use Google Earth to see details of almost any place on the planet.  I remember how impressed I was twenty years ago to see satellite photos that the average teenager would scorn today as too grainy and primitive.  Beyond that, many people now appoint themselves "represent" America.  This can be good ... or not.  A year's work to build America's image and communicate with a foreign audience can be ruined when some celebrity shows up with a movie that trashes it.

Governments do well with communications where one can speak to many.   It is a challenge with something like web 2.0 where many creators interact with each other.    State, and the U.S. government in general can be one voice and a very important one, but no longer do we have the predominant position we had even ten years ago.   We have been overtaken by technologies and we are not sure how to respond.   We do not currently have the tools and will need to develop them.  Success is not assured.

Below - Vietnam Memorial

Vietnam Memorial

On Being Promoted

Many of us were a little diffident about our promotions.  We should get over it.  As leaders, it is up to us to lead.  We now have the responsibility to take a stand and be proactive.    We cannot blame “them” anymore because they are us.  

Below - heaven & earth in the reflecting pool near the Korean Memorial

Pool at Korean Memorial

There will be some difficult transitions.  Most of us made our careers by becoming masters of detail.  Higher leadership requires a clear, simple vision that cuts through complexity.   Some of us will suffer withdrawal and miss doing things with our own hands.   In our new roles productivity comes through other people.   We rarely will be able to point to something we can unambiguously take credit for doing.   We all need to network more with peers, mentor those below us and know when to stand aside and let them get on with the work. 

Below - Korean Memorial

Korean Memorial

On Leadership

One of the speakers quoted Colin Powell who said the secrets of leadership success were simple. You just had to represent U.S. values, build trust and take care of your people.   Simple is not always easy.

Below - Vietnam Women's Memorial

Vietnam Woman Memorial

Other speakers commented that their biggest regrets came when they did not show courage and do what they thought was right at difficult times.  Everybody thought trust, candor and integrity were important to leadership. 

We have a lot more to do.  I think we made a good start. 


For homework I read an article by Peter Drucker.    I read most of what Peter Drucker wrote years ago.  I even had a Peter Drucker daybook with quotes, but I had forgotten a lot.   This article reminded me and I was surprised at how much of his advice I had internalized. 

Below - last roses of summer near Dunn Loring Metro

Last roses of summer near Dunn Loring Metro Fairfax VA

For example, Drucker advises people to work on their strengths instead of their weaknesses.   Successful people are generally NOT well rounded.    Do you know or care if Albert Einstein could fix a car or if Henry Ford knew anything about advanced physics?   Of course you should get your weaknesses above the threshold point where they prevent success, but after that you are probably going to get more mileage out of building on what you are good at doing.   The implication for leadership is that you should ask what a person can do well and let others compensate for the downsides.   That is the strength of a team.   This idea is counterintuitive.  In school we are tested on the whole course and usually being really good at one chapter won’t make up for knowing nothing about the other ten.  In life it does.

Anyway, Drucker has lots of good advice, but I will let you all read Drucker if you are interested.   I look forward to the rest of the course. 

It is a sweet deal, IMO.   I enjoy this sort of thing. They pay me to do what I would pay to do.

Street in Arlington, VA 

Above is a street scene in Arlington, VA.  They planted those oak trees years ago and it makes a big difference.

October 21, 2008

Forestry From Southeast to Northwest

This is my last entry re my tree farm convention.   I know I have put out a lot about that, but there was a lot to say.

Below is a forwarder at work.   It is owner operated, so the guy has to work hard.  That vehicle costs $250,000, but allows one man to do the work of dozens.

gathering logs in Oregon 

On our field day to the Beaver Creek Tree Farm I saw lots of interesting aspects of forestry.   I noticed the differences between forestry in the Northeast and in the South.    The South is ahead of other regions in the practice of silvaculture and marketing total life cycle of wood.  

Below is the owner-operator explaining the economics of his business.  He started working on his own land, but soon found that he could make money working on other people's land too.  It helped him defray the cost of the equipment.

Owner operator 

I think that is because the Northeast was TOO blessed by nature and the Federal government.   Most of the timber harvested in the NW came from Federal lands until the spotted owl controversy.   Logging in the region was much more reminiscent of the traditional logging of the 19th Century than of the type of tree farming we do now.    In many ways, the old practices were more like hunter gatherers, whereas tree farming of today is more like settled agriculture.

Below the guy up above told us that he has trouble finding people with the skills to run his equipment, but mentioned that kids who play a lot of video games are good candidates.   The skills they learn playing games is transferable to the 3D work in the forests.  This is an actual forestry video game at the Museum of Forestry in Portland.

video game

The South has a good climate and ecological situation for growing trees, especially pine trees,  but it took more work and planning to make the land productive.   Most of the South’s forests are growing on former farm fields where the soil was exhausted by over cropping of cotton or tobacco.   Many were converted to forests around the time of the great depression and we are on our third generation. Our soils do not have the “A” level of top soil in most cases.   We are rebuilding our soils, but it will take another generation or more to restore something like there was before the abuse.   On the plus side, most of the Southern forests are on rolling hills or flat areas.  It is very easy to run mechanized forestry operations in the South and many of the techniques and machines themselves were developed for Southern forests or with Southern forests in mind.  The South also has lots of saw mills to process the wood.   The South is truly America’s wood basket, supplying around 58% of the total wood used in the U.S.

Below - mechanized forestry can be done in the NW too.

mechanized forestry

Logging in the Northwest is sometimes more heroic because they have to work in difficult mountain conditions.   For example, they often have to use cables to pull logs up hills for loading.   On Southern tree farms it is often possible for the wood to be loaded directly onto trucks.   Most Southern tree farms are also closer to paved roads. 

Below is the Willamette (pronounced wɨˈlæmɨt) River in Portland.  Mt Hood is in the background but hard to see.  

Williamette River in Portland

The economy of forest production is better in the South than the Northwest as that region’s earlier advantage in access to standing Federal-owned timber has disappeared.   Trees grow fast in both regions.   My guess is that a natural forest would grow faster in the NW, but tree farms are more productive in the South because of better developed silvaculture techniques and topography that is easier to work with.   I don’t know for sure, but it also seemed to me that Oregon had more onerous regulations than Virginia.   But all that aside, forestry is more similar in the regions than different and as forestry in the Northwest shifts from publicly owned forests to private tree farms, the similarities will grow.   Forests in the Northwest are beautiful and the Douglas fir & its relatives are majestic.   The trees tend to be bigger there than in the South, and I would like to spend more time learning about the ecology of the NW forests, but I enjoy the forests wherever they are.  They all have their particular beauty. 

Trading Carbon Credits

Below - sprouts on the loblolly pines recently thinned.  Lobolly is one of the few pines that can sprout from a cut stump. 

loblolly pine sprouting from thinned stumps 

We will get some form of carbon tax and/or carbon trading no matter who becomes president next year.   This prospect makes carbon trading a hot topic among forest owners.  Forests naturally soak up carbon dioxide and well managed forests do a better job than others.

The best and most elegant solution to problem of CO2 emissions is a simple carbon tax.   A carbon tax is the way of minimum government interference in the economy and will provide the maximum benefit because it does not try to pick technologies, techniques, winners or losers.   A carbon tax changes  the energy equation but lets people decide on the various solutions they thing are best.  This is the reason why we won’t get this solution.  Politicians hate these kinds of things.   It solves the problem and takes away an issue from them.  It also is too simple, so they have little or no scope to provide special privileges or breaks to their supporters.   

Remember the ethanol debacle?   It was a great example of how government can make an experiment with a good idea into a monster than raises food prices worldwide, creates environmental stress all the while costing the taxpayers and consumers money.   Expect a lot more of these sorts of things in the next few years.    Sorry for the digression.

Below - thinned loblolly pine five-years old

thinned pine in Virginia four years old

The next best thing to a simple carbon tax is a cap and trade system that sets the rules and then gets out of the way.   Ideally the government would auction off the carbon rights and let those who wanted to use them figure out the distribution.   Of course nothing is so simple.  You have to define both carbon producers and carbon sinks (takes CO2 out of the air).  This is complicated because the carbon cycle is one of the biggest natural processes on earth.   Billions of tons of carbon are cycled through the atmosphere every day and only a very small percentage is influenced by human activities.  We don’t want to allow people to get benefits or penalties just for being near a particular natural process.  On the other hand, human choices can significantly affect how much carbon natural processes take out or put in.  Nowhere is this truer than in forestry.   

Forest destruction in places like Indonesia and Brazil put more CO2 in the air than all our transportation.  On the other hand, growing forests in North America have pulled that amount out.  This is a big deal, but hard to measure and assessment is complicated even more by the nature of nature.   An old, established forest is near equilibrium, i.e. as much CO2 is put into the air from decay and respiration as is taken out by photosynthesis.   (This is the way it has to be.  The natural carbon account must balance.   W/o CO2 plants cannot grow and life on earth is impossible.  More CO2 makes plants grow better and healthier.  CO2 is not a type of pollution in the sense we usually think of these things.)  Destruction of an established forest puts carbon in the air and the establishment of a new forest takes it out.   We don’t want to encourage people to destroy an established forest in order to establish a new one to get credit for the CO2 it would remove. 

I have to admit that I am not really sure about this whole carbon sink idea.  In the long run forests would be carbon neutral, since carbon absorbed by leaves, needles and wood would be released when those things decomposed.   Growing more trees and bigger trees is good from many angles and it would buy us some time, maybe centuries, in limiting greenhouse gasses, but most of what goes into the forest will come out again.

Of course, maybe all we need is time.  A fix that holds for more than 100 years could be called a long-term solution.  By that time we can hope and expect other technologies to be available. 

Below - a wildlife food plot with thinned pines and mature hardwoods in background

wildlife food plot with thinned four-year-old pine and mature hardwood forest in background

How Carbon Credits Work for Forestry

The market for carbon is one just developing and forestry is even at an earlier stage than some others, since forest sinks were specifically excluded from Kyoto.   This was/is a serious oversight (although it was not really an oversight but rather a political ploy, IMO, aimed at the U.S.) which is being addressed.  This is how it would probably work.  

You have to start with a certified forest, so that you can measure the carbon input and carbon output AND a third party can audit it.   The landowner must provide proof of ownership, including timber rights, location maps, acreage and management plan.   An audit establishes a baseline of all the carbon that is currently stored above ground in stems and branches as well as below ground in roots and soils.  The landowner signs a contract, usually for fifteen years, where he  agrees to abide by practices that will enhance the  forest’s absorption of CO2 so that at the end of the contract there is more carbon stored in the forest at the end of the contract.    He is really selling the difference between the baseline carbon levels and the ending levels. Carbon is sold by the ton. 

These trades take place on the Chicago Carbon Exchange.   Carbon trading is still VOLUNTARY.  Buyers are firms interested in good public relations and individuals, many celebrities, who want to shrink their carbon footprints.  A mandated cap & trade program would enhance this trading and probably raise prices. 

Individual landowners cannot participate in the program, since they would be selling too little carbon to make a profitable sale.  Instead they would have to work through an aggregator, who would collect carbon contracts from many landowners and sell them as a unit.   Of course, at every step of the way various people like aggregators and brokers are taking their slice, so landowners should not look at the carbon price and think they will get anything like the posted amounts.

Each year the landowner would be paid for the estimated carbon sequestration, with 20% withheld as insurance against a catastrophe that might destroy the forest.  The contract would account for planned forestry operations.  For example, it would be discounted for a thinning operation near the end of the contract.    Of course, a well timed thinning INCREASES total carbon sequestration in the medium and long run, so that is also estimated if done earlier in the contract.   At the end of the term there is a reckoning.  A final audit determines how much carbon has been soaked up.   If it is as estimated the landowner gets the 20% that had been withheld.  If there is less than estimated, the landowner doesn’t get the whole amount and if there is more he gets a bonus.

Some landowners see this as free money.  They get paid for what they would have done anyway.  This is not entirely true.  As with any contract, you have to be c careful.   The carbon contract acts as a type of easement.   It complicates your ability to sell the land unencumbered as well as defacto tying up your ability freely to develop the land during the period of the contract.    Still and all, it looks like a good way to pump some money into rural land, compensate landowners for some of those green infrastructure benefits they provide and maybe tip the balance in favor of forestry and against conversion to other uses or development.

I don’t have a contract on my land.  I am waiting until I understand the process better.   There is no rush.  IMO, the price of carbon will go up.  I have mixed feeling about the idea of selling credits.  It seems a lot like selling indulgences in the medieval church.    The carbon credits produced on my land will allow people like Madonna or Al Gore to jet around the world without feeling guilty about the burden they place on the environment.   But they will do that anyway.   Putting money back into the land is a good idea, no matter the source.  

Virginia Tech produced a good background on carbon trading and I have added this one.   

Old Foresters & Green Infrastructure

Below is a log rolling demonstration at our forestry field day.

log rolling 

You can guess the average age of a group if you know their first names.    I looked at the name tags and saw Thelma, two Florences, Roxie, Glenda and Bernice among the first few women that walked past.   Men were named Walt, Arnold, Howard and Lester among a couple Johns and Williams.  How old do you think they were?   At the tender age of 53, I was one of the younger land owners at the tree farmer convention.  It makes sense that most forest owners are old.    You either have to save up money for a while to buy a forest or inherit one.    Tree farmer tend to live healthy lifestyles so they live a long time.   We walked many miles up and down hills on our field day and the old folks kept going the whole time.   One of the speakers mentioned that 25% of all forest owners are more than 75 years old AND this geriatric assemblage owns more than 50% of the total forested land.   I have nothing against that.  I hope to be in that group someday, but it does present some challenges.

Below - they used to cut the big trees with these two-man saws.  It could take days to finish the job.

Two man saw

The most urgent is one I mentioned in other posts.   As the old folks at home take the road to glory, they leave their forest land to their kids who may not appreciate forestry as much.   They may convert their immobile inheritance to flowing cash and this will probably lead to the conversion of forest to other uses.

Some people feel bad when they see a timber harvest, but if the land remains in forestry it will soon be covered again with trees.  It may stay that way for 40-60 years or more and the clearcut will provide a great environment for wildlife until the trees come in.   If it is converted to other uses, however, the forest and rich habitat may be lost for years or forever.    A Wal-Mart parking lot, apartment block or highway may persist for a long time.   It makes sense for people interested in green space to make it worthwhile for landowners to keep their land in forests instead of going the development route.  But development is very seductive. 

Below - they stood on these springboards to make the cut.   Sometimes they had to go up six or eight feet to avoid the thicker part of the logs.  Notice the size of the saw as comparison.

Spring board

At the convention we were shown figures on the relative value of land kept in forestry versus converted to development.    There is almost no place in the U.S. where the value of forestry consistently exceeds the opportunity cost of development.   In some places, such as the Idaho panhandle near Coeur d’Alene, the opportunity cost for development exceeds the land’s forestry value by a factor of six to one.   Forests and farms provide ecological services that are immensely valuable but usually not valued in money terms.   The stream that crosses my forest land exits cleaner than it was when it entered.  What is the value of this clean water?  Our fields and trees support wildlife, mitigate climate change, and provide beauty for everybody who sees them.    Landowners are paid for the wood, crops, livestock of minerals their lands produce, but the value of the unpaid services may exceed these values.  Of course, development is not as easy as maintaining the forest status quo, but the incentive es clearly go in the wrong direction.

What can be done?   A lot depends on economics.   If profits from wood and pulp are good, there is more incentive to keep the land covered in trees.   Many people who want to maintain green space often inadvertently work against their own goal when they regulate forestry activities into unprofitability.    An easily overlooked aspect of forestry is the price of pulp used in paper and fiberboard.   If prices for pulp are very low forest owners, who might have high net worth but cash flow problems, might not be able or willing to afford to do thinning.  This leads to lower timber prices and creates greater danger of fires and bugs.   

Below is a portable saw mill. 

Saw mill

There is also a kind of a herd effect.   Raw timber is bulky and heavy.  If the timber has to travel too far to get to a saw mill, it becomes cost prohibitive to do forestry.   From the other side, saw mills need a steady supply of timber.   If they cannot secure such a supply, they go bankrupt.   If enough mills go out of business, you reach a tipping point where neither forestry nor saw mills are profitable in a given region.   At that point, landowners look for other options. 

Goodbye pines and oaks, hello fast foods and parking lots.

Preservation is not really an option for most of our land area and it would not be a preferred option even if it was possible.    Some remarkable things, such as giant redwoods or the Grand Canyon should be preserved.  Conservation & sustainably wise use is a better options for most others.  A working, living landscape is better; a countryside where people live in, understand and appreciate the nature all around them is the way people should live and what we should encourage.

There is an interesting study of green infrastructure at this link.

October 20, 2008

Good Things about Portland


Portland is a very well run and welcoming city.   A thing I especially liked was the ubiquitous bubblers.   I consider bubblers a sign of civic virtue.   Another unique feature is the free public transportation.   Yes – free, at least within the city.  That keeps down the traffic and makes the city more open.   

Tram in Portland

You notice but do not immediately comprehend that all the buildings in the downtown area have retail space on the street level and even the streets near tall buildings are tree lined.   This makes the city livelier and more pleasant.   Nothing is so depressing for a city street than to have it made into a canyon of blank walls.   I suppose the challenge is to keep stores in those many storefronts but it doesn’t have to be all retail.  There were things like Bally’s and some offices.

Jake's grill

Mariza and I had supper at Jake’s Grill.  It was founded in the early part of the 20th Century.   A lot of the buildings are from around then.  They are well maintained.   We had lunch at Old Town Pizza.  Mariza wanted to go because she read that it was haunted.  According to the story the place is haunted by the ghost of a prostitute murdered by her employers after she tried to get out of the business.   I think they just made that up. 

Old Town Pizza, Portland

Below is Mariza on the Portland street.  She saw a lot more of the city than I did, since she did not attend the tree farm conference.  I hope she will contribute an entry.

Mariza in Portland

Useless Activities & Useful Idiots


The Pacific Northwest is blessed by nature with great fisheries, fertile soils, ample resources and a moderate climate.  People are drawn by that and by the natural beauty you see everywhere you look.  Living is good in the Northwest and it has been that way for a long time.  The Indians of the region were prosperous.   It didn’t take much effort to gather nuts & berries, hunt or fish in such a rich place and the inhabitants developed a fascinating custom called the potlatch.    The potlatch was a big feast where the host gave away, wasted or destroyed his possessions.    

Anthropologists have studied the phenomenon.   I first heard about it when I studied Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class.”   He used it as an example of a wasteful custom practiced by rich people to show their status.   According to the theory, the rich demonstrated their status by wasting what others don’t have. 

They are actually doing more.    The individual consistently doing the giving uses his ostensible generosity to establish dominance over the habitual recipient.  That is one reason why chronic recipients are often not very grateful for the largess they receive.   The potlatch demonstrates this too.   The rich chiefs made great public shows of generosity but they kept control of the productive assets.   The potlatch was a perverse variation of the old saying “give a man to fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for life.”  The fat-cats gave away fish but carefully kept the fishing grounds.   In a society w/o good storage facilities, giving away nature’s surplus bounty was about as generous as a tree shedding its leaves in fall.  

We find the same thing in today’s society.   Rich celebrities make big deals of their generosity, but they usually don’t change the equation.   There are exceptions.  The late Paul Newman was clearly a good man and it seems to me that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are really trying to do the right thing, but very often the rich assuage their consciences and demonstrate their status by holding high powered fund raisers and concerts for politically correct good causes.    It is more than ironic when they hold a million dollar gala to fight world poverty.

Useful Idiots

Useful idiots

Back when some people still thought communism was a viable alternative to the free market, Kremlin leaders used to call them useful idiots.  They were people  in the West who went along with their communist aims w/o really understanding them .  In the current American context you have people who act as foot soldiers in the various anti-whatever demonstrations set up by radicals.    

The good thing about Portland is that it is tolerant and easy, but that also means that it has more than its share of listless young people with no visible means of support or obvious places to be.  They hang around the center of town and beg for money.  They even do this listlessly.   One woman complained to Mariza that she would be working but was being prevented by the Republicans.   I saw a lot of these sorts of young people gathering to protest against the war in Iraq.   I started to talk to a few of them but soon gave up.   They just don’t have the capacity to understand the nuances.   I felt like the character in the movie “the Time Machine,” the original one from the 1960s.   In one frustrating scene the guy tries to ask some questions and talk about serious issues but the vapid people of the distant future are just interested in their hedonistic pursuits.   Everything is provided to them and they have no idea where it comes from.

hacky sack players

Most of the kids (a few of these "kids" BTW are still left over from the 1960s) hanging around the streets are probably harmless most of the time.   It is sort of like a “big Lebowski” club.   They don’t really do much of anything that smacks of effort besides Frisbee and hacky sack.   Mariza and I got a cup of hot chocolate at a local Starbucks and as we drank it watched a couple guys play hacky sack.  They were good.  You know that skill at hacky sack is inversely related to success in life.  Think about the time it takes to get good at something like that.   The same thing goes for lots of those sorts of things.   I had a colleague once who was the best player of minesweeper that I had ever seen.   She was not promoted.

We Need Lobbyists

The pictures are from Little Beaver Creek Tree Farm in western Oregon.  Below are new trees planted in back of "heritage trees" left for cover, wildlife & beauty.

replanted trees 

Lobbyists have a bad reputation and there sure are some high profile crooks, but no democray can properly work w/o lobbyists and the bigger the government the more you need lobbyist.

Most people know more about their own business than others know about it.  That just makes sense.  That doesn’t mean that others do not have strong opinions and many are enthusastic about spending other people’s money and creating regulations that prevent them from using their property.  Forestry is a strong example.

About 60% of America’s productive forests are family owned, but most people don’t know that.  They think that government or big business runs the show and they are eager to control what they consider a common resource.    It is possible to be both ignorant and passionate and this state of affairs describes much of the urban-based environmental movement.    (As Yeats wrote nearly ninety years ago, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.  That remains true.)

Below is a forest harvest.  You can see the different generations of trees.   In the middle are sixty year old trees.  Those trees are the result of a clearcut done a generation ago and you can see how the forest has come back strong and in good health.  Behind them is a planting of trees around ten years old.  The clearcut was done recently and will be replanted next year.  Douglas fir has to be managed with clearcut, since the young trees of this species require full light.  This kind of forestry was abused in the past and that colors people's perceptions today.  Things have changed, but perceptions have not and the use of clearcut in forestry is misunderstood by the general public.  Well managed forests grow faster and are less prey to bugs, blowdowns and fires.

forestry operation in Oregon 

BTW - the guys doing the cutting work for Pihl forestry.  They were featured on the History Channel show called "Ax Men."

Forest owners are more interested in taking care of their forests than following the politics of forestry.    Yet very often the biggest risk to their trees and their freedom to make decisions about what is best comes not from bark beetles or ice storms but from Washington or their state capitals.   There is a fairly constant assault on our rights usually from well meaning people often led by committed radicals who dislike the very idea of private property. 

Take a very simple example – rabbits.   Any gardener knows that rabbits are not uncommon or endangered.  However, there are some places where they are less common.   In the State of Maine, for example, cottontails are in decline as the cut-over lands where they thrived are growing into mature forests.    Is this a problem?  It could be if the government gets involved.   The simple fact is that all animals and plants have a natural range and each natural range has a limit.   If you go to Florida you find lots of alligators.   In Wisconsin you don’t find any outside the zoo.   Someplace between Wisconsin and Florida is the edge of the alligators’ natural habitat.  Along that line, alligators are rare.   You could say that they are locally endangered.   Should the government specifically regulate and protect alligators at this line?  Of course not.   Natural ranges naturally expand and contract.  Everyplace in America lies on the edge of some plant or animal range, so everyplace in America has some locally endangered plants or animals.  You can see the potential for unscrupulous individuals to call for more regulation.   Throw in some cute pictures and you can get laws passed to stop “timber barons” like me and my friends from harvesting their trees. 

Ponderosa pine plantation

Above is a ponderosa pine planation that replaced a fir forest.  The douglas fir blew down in a wind storm in 1996.  Foresters discovered that the trees had root rot and that it was still there, kind of like mold in your house.  Root rot spreads through the living roots of the fir.  The only way to get rid of it is to plant species that will not get it.  The pines are not immune, but they can resist better than the fir.   The fir forest would regenerate naturally and be blown down again and again because of the rot, which would spread.  The fir forest would be chronically harmed by the root rot for a long time, maybe for centuries until a forest fir destroyed it.  One of the benefits of a well managed forest is to find and fix these kinds of problems.

The pines are a subspecies of the ponderosa pine that specifically grows west of the Cascades.   The ponderosa pines that are common on the eastern side or in the rockies do not grow well in the pacific coast regions.

I am glad that my lobbyist keeps track of these sorts of things for me.  I have other things to do.  I cannot spend the time and I do not have the skills to keep track of all the sneaky attempts control my land.  

I am thankful for some lobbyists to protect me from politicians & activists.

October 19, 2008

Forest Certification: A Way to Tell the World What We Do

tree farmer conference 

I attended the recent National Tree Farmer Convention in Portland Oregon.  There were many fine presentations (and I will write more about them) and we got the chance to see first hand how forestry is done in the Pacific Northwest during a field day at the Little Beaver Creek Tree Farm.  It was very interesting to see how forestry is done another part of the country.  We work in different ecological, political and economic environments, but forestry is similar wherever you go and we can always learn a lot from talking to each other and sharing experiences. 

Forest certification was the subject of several presentations.  This is not a new topic.  It has been a central part of tree farming since the creation of the American Tree Farm System sixty-seven years ago, but new developments in forest certification will help tree farmers in Virginia.   Until recently, the biggest advantages for owners as part of the tree farm system came from the advice and assistance they could receive to better grow their trees while protecting water resources, soils and wildlife.  Having the familiar tree farm sign in from of your property indicating that your tree farm was up to standards was a source of justifiable pride, but the other aspects of membership had greater practical value.  Times are changing.  As consumers all across the globe become more aware of the impact of forestry on the environment, buyers in the U.S. and especially internationally are increasingly looking for and demanding wood that comes forests where the owners practice sustainable forestry.  

Below is Mt Hood from our hotel.  Portland is a pleasant city with beautiful surroundings.

Mt Hood from Portland  

Tree farmers have been doing that since the American Tree Farm System was founded in 1941; certification is a way to prove and demonstrate that high standard to others.  It is likely that in the near future that wood for certified forests will command a price premium.   Representatives of firms trading internationally tell us that it is already an advantage to sell certified wood in places like Europe.   Beyond that, certification will help tree farmers gain position in emerging markets concerning such things as green buildings, bioenergy and potential carbon trading programs.   No carbon trading will be possible unless a forest is certified, for example.  

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is the oldest and largest forest certification program in the United States, but even a respected and well-known organization like ours can use friends and we recently got some more when it was announced in August that ATFS was endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).   This is important because PEFC is recognized internationally.  This means the ATFS wood meets an accepted international standard and will find greater acceptance in world markets. Only around 10% of the wood sold globally is from certified forests, but this is growing rapidly.  PEFC is by far the largest certification network, currently comprising thirty-five independent national forest certification programs with 510 million certified acres in the various programs.  Among the countries with PEFC certified forests are such places as Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain Brazil and Malaysia.  

ATFS is the acknowledged certification system for small American forest owners and will work to ensure that standards are and remain appropriate for this constituency – people like you and me.  The partnership with PEFC will not change the way tree farmers interact with ATFS on a day-to-day basis.   Individual owners will still have their point of contact with state tree farm committees.  State committees in turn will be certified by tree farm regions 

No building material is more environmentally friendly than wood, considering competing materials such as plastics, metal or concrete.  Wood is biodegradable and completely renewable.   Beyond that, good forestry can do more to address the problems of water purity, soil protection, biodiversity and climate change than almost any other activity practiced over large areas of the world.  In other words, forests and wood products are part of the solution to many environmental challenges.  It is time that forest producers got credit for the good they do.  Most people do not know that the majority of timberland in the U.S. is privately owned and managed by owners like us, concerned with the future of our land.  Certification is a way to explain what we do to a wider world.

October 15, 2008

Becoming American: Then & Now

St Augustine church Milwaukee 

Above is Howell Ave looking north as St Augustine Catholic chuch, where I occassionally went. 

Milwaukee's old ethnic communities are gone, replaced by new ethnic communities.  I clearly saw that the Polish immigrant community around 6 and Lincoln is now a Hispanic immigrant community.  All over the city it is the same. The workingmen with the big forearms speaking with accents that sang Eastern European rhythms (where the streetcar bends the corner around) even into the second generation are gone.  We shall not soon see their like again.

Below - Public schools Americanized generations of immigrants, my ancestors included and I suppose me too  This is Dover St school, founded 1889 and still in the same place.  When I went there, it was still black from the coal smoke.  I thought all brick building were black, but I found that most were a nice light brown (cream city) color when they were cleaned up.  I don't like the paint job.  Dover is made of nice Cream City brick.  They should just clean it up and let it be natural.

Dover St School

I miss them.  These were the hard working, blunt and practical guys who went to war to save America from fascism & communism.  They literally built & protected my world.  Their patriotism and loyalty to the country of their or their parents' choice was enshrined at the VFW posts, their hard work evident in the busy factories and their troubles washed away at the many taverns.  A new generation of immigrants and their children is at work in the old neighborhood.  They come from places like Mexico or Honduras.  I have confidence that they too will build America and in process become Americans, just as the Poles, Italians, Serbs and Germans did before them.

After a couple generations all that really is left of the immigrant are T-shirts saying “proud to be Italian” or “kiss me; I’m Polish,” along with some food preferences and two or three phrases in the old language that make genuine natives of the old country smile.  Imagine someone whose language was learned and frozen in the slang of the 1940s or even the 1960s or 70s.   Language changes; immigrants keep and propagate the old stuff in groovy and copasetic ways.   They just don’t know it. I know it from personal experience, when teachers at the Foreign Service Institute who left their native lands long ago taught me phrases equivalent to “23 skidoo” or “now you’re cooking with gas.”  

Below - These steps lead from Chase Ave to ... nowhere.  I suppose they used to connect neighborhoods before the freeway went in. 

Stairs leading from Chase Ave

I do have some concern about too many immigrants coming from the same place and concentrating among each other.   When you get immigrants from many sources, they have no choice but to learn English and become Americans very quickly.   This is what happened circa 1910, when immigrants made up a greater % of the American population than they do today.  If immigrants from Poland, Russia, Germany, Italy and Greece were all together, none could dominate.  The only language they could use was English, even though it was nobody’s first language.  I saw it happening with my kids friends in Fairfax County.  Arab kids, Chinese kids, Korean kids and other from countries you cannot even find on a map get to be friends and speak to each other in English.  Diversity is really strength.  Immigrants from one place can maintain their separateness.  Separateness is a bad idea.  I value true diversity, with lots of different groups all contributing to an American identity.

October 14, 2008

Organic Farming (Hunting & Fishing Too)

Ray's farm 

My cousin Ray Jr and his wife Carol live simply amid the eskers and moraines of Wisconsin in a place they call simply paradise.   They are farming around twenty acres and using about twenty acres of woodland to provide forest products and fuel for their stoves.   Ray told me that the detritus of the forest provides all the fuel he needs to keep his home warm all winter long.  He has yet to cut a live tree for fuel.  

Below are raspberries


They are organic farmers growing thing like garlic, peppers, tomatoes, raspberries, corn and pumpkins for sale at local markets.  The garden crops such as garlic and raspberries are the most profitable, but also (perhaps because) most labor intensive.   Tomatoes are very much in demand early in the season, but as the bounty comes in it becomes almost difficult to give them away.   Anybody who has grown tomatoes in a home garden is aware of this phenomenon. 

Below - Ray & his bushhog


Ray follows a kind of three field system, like those used in the Middle Ages.  Crops are rotated and one field is always resting, fallow or with cover crops that will be plowed under to restore the soil.   Ray says that the chief activity of an organic farmer is keeping the weeds down all summer long. 

Below is a game animal exhibit at Cabella's

Cabella game animal 

In winter he works in the woods.  There are two reasons for this.  The most obvious is that other work on the farm is diminished during the non-growing season.  But another reason is lack of mosquitoes and biting flies that make the woods miserable when they are around.   (A silly, but true story about my running comes from the same motivation.  I liked to walk in the woods, but the mosquitoes made life unpleasant for me walking so I started to run.  The mosquitoes find you by zeroing in on the CO2 you exhale.  Running leaves it well behind you and the little nasties are chasing smoke.)


I enjoyed driving to his house up HWY 41.  I used to go this way to get to Stevens Point and I have a history with the Kettle Moraine area.  I had a camp nearby when I was ten years old.  We learned all about the local glacier landforms, such as kettles, moraines, eskers and drumlins.  I also used to ride my bike here a lot.  It is hard on the legs. The moraines make it a roller coaster ride. 

The moraines are the places where glaciers stopped.  They come in series, like ripples, as the ice advanced or retreated.  They call the most recent ice age the Wisconsin and you can see the most interesting landforms from that period right here north and west of Milwaukee.  Most of Wisconsin was under glaciers until around 10,000 - 15,000 years ago, when global warming (it happened then too) melted them, but not all.  Chrissy’s parents' farm near Lacrosse is in what they call the driftless or the coolie region. That region was not glaciated in the last ice age, so it is rougher, but it was not spared the ice age experience.  Coolies are long narrow valleys formed by the flow of glacial melt water.   Fall is a beautiful time in all parts of Wisconsin.

inside cabella 

On the way home I stopped at Cabela’s at the junction of 41 and 43.  Cabela’s is a more authentic store than LL Bean or Eddie Bauer, which have repositioned themselves as yuppie heavens these days.  Cabela’s still celebrates the actual hunting, shooting, eating and stuffing of game animals.  They sell everything from the cloths you need to be outside, to the rifles and bows to the meat processing equipment.  Beyond that, the prices are very reasonable. I have shopped the catalogue but this is the first time I have been in one of the stores.  It is almost like a vacation destination.

Leon'ssugar maple

Above is Leon's Custard.  Milwaukee makes the best custard.  It is better than ice cream and is made with cream and eggs.  Leon's was used in the movie "American Graffiti" and some outside views of Arnold's in "Happy Days".   It is on 27th St (old Hwy 41) in Milwaukee.

On the side is a sugar maple tree. I just cannot get enough of that beautiful color.  


October 13, 2008

Beer and Sauerkraut

I went with my sister to the Miller brewery and then around the old neighborhood.  Below are the boiler vats.   They are eighteen feet deep.

Miller vats 

Miller Genuine Draft is good beer.  Miller Highlife & Miller Lite are not.  Miller also has a partnership with Leinenkugel, which is very good and it distributes Pilsner Urquell and Fosters, both of which are among my favorite beers.    It was fun to see where they were made. 

This is King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer.  This statue is in the "cave", caverns dug into the hill where they used to keep beer cold before refrigeration.  They used to gather ice from the local lakes during the winter and pack it around in the caverns.  This cooled the temperature during the summers.  Evidently the ice would last until the next winter.  People lived closer to their environment in those days.   You have to be more innovative if you have to do more than flick a switch to get air conditioning.


The plant in Milwaukee makes a half million cases of beer a day and all this beer moves out EACH day.  This plant serves the upper Midwest and around 40% of the beer goes to Chicago.  Five other plants around the country serve other regions.  

BTW - According to the Bier Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) issued by Wilhelm IV of Bavaria in 1516 all beer sold can be made of only malted barley, hops, water, and yeast.   This rule still applies on Germany.   Beer can be made from any grain.  Miller mixes in some corn with the other ingredients and Budweiser uses rice.  That means by German rules these are not really beers.

Only 1600 people work at the plant and half of them are corporate staff.  That means that around 800 workers make all that beer.  The plant is mostly automated.  I was thinking again re the loss of jobs.  Those jobs have not gone to China; they have just gone away.  below is the Miller warehouse, clean, tidy and almost w/o workers.  A half million cases will move through it today.  You can easily see the jobs that automation takes.

miller warehouse 

On the other hand, other jobs are created but hard to see.   My cousin Tony works for a company that runs webpages called www.officefurniture2go.com and www.homefurniture2go.com.   The firm was founded in 2006, has about a dozen employees and distributes furniture around the country – w/o a significant bricks and mortar operation.  We still think in the old industrial model where lots of people come together in one place.  The new model has people distributed thinly and in small groups.   It is hard to get used to it.

maples in Humbolt park 

Anyway, we had another beautiful fall day.  Milwaukee has nice parks as you can see from the pictures. Above and below is Humboldt Park.  Pictures cannot capture such a glorious day.  Even if the visuals could be perfect, you would not have the smell, sound and feel of the day.

Humboldt pond 

I also drove down to Franksville.  It is not a major tourist spot.  It used to be where they made Franks Kraut.  I don’t know if they still do, but I did see lots of cabbage fields.  The brand is actually owned by the Ohio based Fremont Company, makers of all sorts of Kraut and catsup.  Franksville is interesting for me because it was for a long time the edge of my biking world, as far south as I could reasonably ride and return in one day.   It is still familiar.  below is a cabbage patch.

Cabbage patch 

Below a pumpkin patch near Franksville in Racine County.

pumpkin patch Racine Co Wi 


October 12, 2008

Indian Summer in Milwaukee

Below is Lake Michigan looking south from Warnimont Park.

Lake Michigan looking south from Warnimont Park Oct 13, 2008 

Indian summer is always a bittersweet time.  The warm sun shining through colorful leaves is delightful, especially mixed with the smell of the new fallen leaves and the sound of their rustling underfoot.  But this is also an ending.  The last flowers of summer are on hanging lonely on their stalks.   The falling leaves will soon leave branches bare.  Pleasant October will yield to rainy and bleak November and we will have to wait several months for exuberant life to return to the forests and field.

Below is Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnal Park

Boerner Botanial Gardens Whitnal Park 

Indian Summer is often a metaphor for life with its last vigorous but perhaps futile & melancholy gesture.   It essentially one of the characters in John Wayne’s last movie, “The Shootist”.   The poem “the Last Rose of Summer” sums it up.   (I put the full text at the bottom of this post.)

Below is Austin Street where I grew up looking north.  Those beautiful yellow trees are ash trees planted after the death of our elms.  They were planted in the middle of the 1970s.  The one on the right I repaired after a wind storm broke its branches.  It was smaller then.

Ash trees on Austin St

Metaphor aside, October is my favorite month and Milwaukee’s October did not disappoint.  I visited some of my old haunts.  Many things have changed; most things have remained the same or similar.  

Below is a statue of Patrick Cudahy in Sheraton Park.  Cudahy founded the city that bears his name when the opened a meat packing operation south of Milwaukee.  

Patrick Cudahy  

Below is Tadesuz Kosciuszko the Polish American hero in the park that bears his name.   The Polish epic Pan Tadeusz is based on him.  Interestingly, it starts "Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! Ty jesteś jak zdrowie."  Lithuania my country, you are like good health.  Of course nationality is always complicated.  The most famous Polish epic, written in Polish about a Pole can talk about Lithuania because they were part of the same commonwealth, which was lost, swallowed by its more agressive neighbors in 1795.  It was gone for 123 years.  That means that most Poles who came to the U.S. were not technically coming from Poland; they came from Russia, Austria or Germany, the countries that had annexed Poland and controlled its parts.  Pan Tadeusz goes on with some poingancy, " I never knew till now how precious, till I lost thee. Now I see thy beauty whole, because I yearn for thee."  Poles didn't get their country back until 1918.  The Lithuanians lost theirs again in 1940 and didn't get it back until the fall of the Soviet Union.  When I see the statue, I am reminded of the struggle.  This was a Polish neighborhood and people knew the story back then.   Today most people probably just see a man on a horse and think it is George Washington.

Tadeusz Kosciuszko in Milwaukee 

Speaking of a Polish neighborhood, this is Saint Josaphat's Basilica, built by Polish immigrants.  Milwaukee has lots of churches near each other.  Each immigrant group built its own. We used to see it in the distance from our house.  It was lit up at nights and my sister and I thought it looked kind of like some kind of giant monster. It was scary.  You can see how this might be the case. Look at the "eyes".

 St Joesphats in Milwaukee

Below are geese flying into the pond in Kosciuszko Park.   The geese chase away the ducks. In this goose-duck war, the ducks are completely outclassed.  Geese used to be rare, but now they are all over the place.   They are bigger and more aggressive than the ducks and they crap all over the place.  Eventually, I suppose they will come to replace the ducks in the local ecology.  They also used to migrate, but now many stick around all year living off the fat of the land (and the local gardens)


Don't forget the poem


Tis the last rose of summer

Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh.

I'll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem;
Since the lovely are sleeping,
Go, sleep thou with them.
Thus kindly I scatter,
Thy leaves o'er the bed,
Where thy mates of the garden
Lie scentless and dead.

So soon may I follow,
When friendships decay,
From Love's shining circle
The gems drop away.

October 10, 2008

Unpopular Thoughts on Energy

I was reading the new book by Tom Freidman called "Hot, Flat and Crowded" re new green industries.  Freidman says that President Bush should have imposed a stiff tax on imported oil right after 9/11.  There would have been support for the sacrifice and the tax would have taken money out of the pockets of many people who don't like us and probably avoided the crisis we face today.  I agree on this point.  Now we see oil prices falling from their highs and I am afraid we are about to fall into a trap of cheap oil - again.  Below are some things I wrote a while back with some updates.   

Most conspiracy theories are as nutty as the people who believe in them and I hate to be associated with those guys in any way, but I think that there is a glaring example that we all see but don’t notice. There is the periodic lowering of oil prices.

The oil market is not free. Governments control most crude oil and often oligarchs and despots control these governments. They make decisions based more on political than economic factors. Market forces constrain the their choices and they cannot completely ignore the forces of supply in demand, but they have stumbled on a kind of a whipsaw strategy to earn higher profits than the market would pay them in the long run by LOWERING prices in series of short terms.

We have seen this happen twice already and I am afraid we will get a third dose of it within a couple of years.   Already oil prices are dropping.  We foolishly welcome the cheap fuel and end up paying more in the long run. How does this work?

Somewhere around $60-70 a barrel (adjusted for inflation) alternatives become competitive with oil and the higher the price goes, the more investment flows into alternatives. We saw that happen in the late 1970 until the early 1980s and we are see it happening now to an even greater extent. The problem with most alternatives is that there is a significant up-front investment. This includes research and development costs as well as capital investment in things like solar panels that might take several years to pay off.

When energy prices are high, investments in solar, wind or hybrid vehicles pays off quickly. When energy prices are low, such investments pay off slowly or maybe not at all.

High energy prices provide a de-facto subsidy to alternative energy. Unstable energy prices make all energy investment uncertain.

Last year I attended a forestry convention where the theme was alternative energy from forestry residue (wood chips etc). The speakers were visionaries, talking about the great potential for alternative energies. Some of the guys around me looked skeptical. When I talked to them, it turned out that several had tried such things in the 1980s but lost their investments in the 1990s when the price of oil dropped through the floor. They recalled a similar, although smaller, such fluctuation in the middle of the 1970s. They were not going to jump on this bandwagon this time.

It is true that market forces cause the price of oil to fluctuate. As prices rise, there is more exploration and development which naturally brings the prices down. But manipulation by governments greatly exacerbates market cycles and makes them pernicious. People like Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Vladimir Putin are not friends of free market democracy and are not enthusiastic about alternative energy sources that will cut into their profits and political power. They exercise their power to destabilize the energy market and make it a hostile environment for alternatives.

We are not helpless but our choices are limited. We cannot decree cheaper energy in the short run, but we can use market power against those who would keep us dependent on oil. The ironic way to lower energy prices and develop alternatives to oil in the long run is to make sure energy prices stay high in every short run.

We cannot allow brief episodes of low prices to periodically destroy progress in alternatives and conservation. This happened in the 1990s. We foolishly welcomed these low prices and thought that the good times would roll forever.

Let's scr*w the despots and declare independence from oil addiction. (Those who want to include American oil companies in this crowd, feel free to do so.) What we need to do is tax carbon and keep the price of oil up when it is coming down. It could be enacted in a simple fashion. Today the price of oil is high and we don’t think it will ever come down very far. Experience indicates this is mistaken. As oil prices come down, we should impose countervailing taxes to keep the drop from destroying our efforts to develop alternatives and invest in conservation strategies.

Nothing works better or faster than price.  People talk a lot about raising fuel standards.  High prices do that naturally.   Otherwise raising standards doesn’t work, since people just drive more.   There just is no easy way to do this. 

I know what I am saying is deeply unpopular, especially this week when thoughts of the Great Depression are on so many minds.  We all like lower gas prices; we just cannot have them in the long run, but consistent and sustained higher prices in the short term will lead to lower price in the long run and it will help us break the hold foreign despots.  Wouldn’t it be great if Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin had less money?   A higher tax on oil will also help do that.  I generally don't like taxes, but this is one we need.

The oil pushers have fooled us at least twice. I am sure there are more examples, but there are two big ones I can recall. Let’s not give them a third shot.

Today’s Problems are Yesterday’s Solutions

Since we cannot always be right, we must be flexible and robust. As new information becomes available or conditions change, even the best decisions must be revisited and sometimes overturned. The ethanol debacle is a good example of both this idea and the pernicious effects government intervention in fouling up and calcifying the change and innovation mechanism.
Don’t burn fuel; grow it! What a great bumper sticker and the idea that a renewable, home-grown energy could replace dirty imported fossil fuels undeniably attractive. The devil is in the details, the execution & the fine tuning. Cf. a good article from last year.

First, let's be clear. We do NOT have an energy crisis or even an energy problem in the real sense. We have a mix of energy choices. As we make different choices, options and consequences change. It is not a problem in the usual sense. Problems can be solved. This one is unsolvable. No breakthrough will save us. If it did, we would just expand our "needs" to encompass the new possibilities, as we did in the past. We can, however, manage the situation and change our energy mix. Nobody knows, because it is currently unknowable, what the optimal energy mix will be ten years from now. Some of the information we need to understand the upcoming situation and make sound decisions must be developed through trial and experimentation. Some sources and technologies that seem very promising today will prove unsuitable. They will need to be altered or abandoned w/o too much heartache or recrimination.

Wisdom lies not in knowing the best future, which is unknowable at current levels of technology & information. The appropriate solutions literally have not yet been developed. The best choices of 2025 are perhaps still not invented. Wisdom lies in having a system that can develop alternatives, smoothly transition from one option to another and easily course correct when appropriate. We need a system that allows people to imagine and innovate and then develop innovations into useful solutions. Fortunately, we have such a system.

This is something only the market can do. Government’s role is to point in the general direction of options that are politically acceptable. Within that broad constraint, however, government has no business picking winners of losers and it has no capacity to manage or micro manage the process. The more detailed instructions that politicians and bureaucrats give to those developing solutions, the less likely they are to succeed. The ethanol debacle is a good example. Government rule and subsidies are locking us into a technology and feed source that is proving a mistake. It is a QWERTY solution. (If you don’t know what a QWERTY solution is, take a look at your keyboard. This keyboard was designed to SLOW typists in the time of mechanical typewriters so they would not jam. Does your computer jam?)

The fundamental strength of the market is NOT its ability to choose the right choice. Rather it is the ability to try many solutions simultaneously, experiment and change course rapidly and smoothly. This is almost exactly the opposite of the skill set government bureaucrats and planners bring to the table and it is usually anathema to politicians trying to win votes. (Why didn’t they dump the ethanol subsidies last year?)

Ethanol from abundant American corn seemed a great idea. It was well worth the experiment and certainly some ethanol will be made profitably from corn in the future. It was NOT a bad decision, but unfolding events, new information and developing technologies over took it. The market can and to some extent is turning away, but the power of politics will prop up this sick horse for years to come. People in developing countries will go to bed hungry because of the good policies of the U.S. and Europe. Sometimes things go wrong BECAUSE of not in spite of our best efforts and every solution has the potential to become a problem. When condition change, we should change our minds too.

Colorful World

Right outside the Window

living room

The sun is lower in the sky in October and it enhances colors in the evening.   You don’t have to be at some beautiful outlook to see it.  I was just sitting on my couch at home when I was struck by the beauty of the light playing on the leaves outside.   I watched it for a little while and then I thought I would take a picture to share it.  Beauty really is everywhere.

It is enhanced by the soundtrack of the birds singing and the crickets chirping as night falls.

 My New Truck

I just got a new truck.  Speaking of colors, it is a very bright red.  I wanted to get an off-white one that would reflect the heat in July and would not show scratches and dents so much, but everybody else wanted the red one.  I need a truck for the tree farm.   The new farm is off the paved road and the small, low-clearance Civic Hybrid just can't make it over the dirt road.

New Ford Ranger

This is a Ford Ranger.  It is the smallest truck you can get and the mileage is not so bad.  This one is supposed to get 19 MPG in the city and 24 on the highway. 


October 09, 2008


I recently was asked about how I adjusted to life in Iraq.  State Department even has a course we have to take when we get back re adjustment.  They worry about our mental health in a high stress environment and they want to figure out how our experience can help the next group.  I don’t know how much my experience can help others.  Each experience is unique and I was lucky in my timing and my place.  I arrived in Anbar just as the violence was ebbing.  Given the extreme pessimism and scary stories in the media, I was ready for a horrible experience.  Instead there was steady improvement and strengthening peace.  It is much easier to adjust to better than expected conditions than the opposite.

Luck was also on my side in my decisions and the couple of hard decisions that turned out well.  For example, after a few successful attacks against Coalition Forces in Anbar and another PRT that resulted in deaths, some members of my team were feeling a bit skittish about all the travel we did outside the wire.  I determined that the successful attacks were just a statistical cluster and did not represent an actionable trend, so I put on the mask of certainty and told my staff that we would trust the ability of the Marines to keep us secure and continue our activities w/o pause.  We kept up our busy schedule and nobody got hurt.  Now we all feel brave and it was the right decision, but if it had turned out differently it would have been hard to take.  I respect my military colleagues, who often must make decisions that WILL result in people dying.    

There were not many heroic decisions I had to make.  Mostly I had to deal with the more prosaic problems of dirt, uncertainty and discomfort.   A lot of the same problems we have everywhere else, we have in Iraq.   I think being away from family and familiar surroundings is the hardest for most people.  It was hard for me.  There is a special sort of isolation in a place like Iraq.  I felt doubly away from home because there were few trees.  Everywhere else I have ever been I have always found ways to walk in the woods.  It is how I relax.  Not in Iraq.

You are reading one of the best things I did to adjust to isolation.  Keeping this blog and sharing my experience kept me feeling in touch and helped me in concrete ways. I could give my blog URL to people asking questions about Iraq.  Writing also helped me keep my own experience in perspective.   You take a different role when you try to explain something in writing to others. 

When reading the biographies of great individuals, I am always impressed by how much information there is about them in the form of letters, diaries and journals.  I am beginning to think that the relationship is casual in both directions, i.e. people who do important things keep journals and because they make the writer think through his ideas, journals help make people important. I have always kept journals, but never regularly.  I started to keep the blog because I thought that my experience in Iraq might be important enough for others to want to see.   I found that it helped me a great deal in the way I mentioned above and it made my thinking clearer and my actions more effective.   I recommend it to all.

I did other things experts recommend, such as keeping regular habits.  I would advise anyone living in a climate like Iraq’s to wake up at or a little before dawn during the summer months.  That is the time of the day when the weather is pleasant.  I like to run.  At 0530 running is good.  By 0800 it is already too hot and somebody who woke up at 0700 and did not get moving until around 0800 would only see experience the blistering heat and have that impression of Iraq.   You are smarter to change habits in winter.  In December it is cold in the morning, but nicely warm in the afternoon.  In that season it makes sense to wake up a little later and do your outdoor activities later in the day.  Actually nature gives you the directions.  The sun comes up later in winter, so if you just get up around dawn all the time, you have a good general schedule.   Iraq does not have daylight savings time, BTW. 

You don’t have to be in Iraq to be TOO busy.  Many people are too busy.  They brag about it, but it is no virtue.  I hate it when people claim to be too busy to read books or exercise regularly.  Nobody is that busy on a consistent basis.  They are just bad managers of their time.  I am not saying that there are not periods when you have to just work constantly, but if you do that too often it is like trying to sprint through a marathon race.  It is a losing strategy.  In Iraq, as everyplace else, I have carved out time to read and run.  People who don’t read don’t learn.  They end up wasting their time because of their bad judgment.  And people who don’t exercises slow down and/or die young.  Reading and exercise are investments, not expenses.  “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” calls such activities sharpening the saw.  It is harder and more effort to cut wood with a dull saw.  Taking a little time to sharpen saves time and energy. 

Finally, I think it is important to find the good and the fun in all situations and to learn from them.  There were so many interesting people & things in Iraq, so many things to experience, that it almost had to be an enriching experience.  Much depends on your attitude.  I always pity people who are too anxious to get away from or get to something.  They think that if they can just get somewhere or something different everything will be great.  This is rarely true.  No matter where you go, you have to take yourself along and if you are not happy with that who you are it won’t help to change your scenery.  In other words, if you are unhappy you probably should work on yourself before you work on other people or things. 

Anyway, what I said from my first days in Iraq remains true.   I am glad that I volunteered to go to Iraq and I am glad to be finished.  Both things were and are true.   I will add that right now I am glad to have the free time (State gave me fourteen working days of home leave) but I will also be glad to get back to regular work.  Nothing too much. 

October 08, 2008

Iraq: After the Dust Washes Off

Pepe Le Pew

It is always like this when I come back from an overseas post. One day you are in the midst of a place, its events, culture and environment. It seems like the whole world. Then you are not. Iraq is like that, only more so, because being in Iraq is so unusual and so intense. You work long hours every day of the week, and you are immersed in it always. It gives you a special feeling of uniqueness, insulation and security. When I think back on the experience, it almost seems like I am remembering the events and details of somebody else’s life. But I know it was me, because I still have Iraqi dust on my boots.

For a year I was surrounded by Marines and team members who knew me or at least knew about me.   We were all members of one team, working together to accomplish a worthy goal.  We thought about HOW to overcome obstacles and achieve our purposes.  It never occurred to anybody to ask if we COULD do it. I miss the sense of purpose and the honor of being part of something big.   Back home people all have their own different problems.  Iraq has dropped off most of their radar screens. 

I never expected people to pay attention to all my stories.  I understand that I can talk longer than most people can listen.   But I am surprised at the general lack of interest in Iraq, which used to be and still is a big deal.   At first most people approach me sympathetically.  They thank me for my service and commiserate about the hardship of my ordeal.  They are a little disappointed when I explain that it was less exciting and not as bad as they heard.  And some seem almost offended when I tell them about the transformation that has taken place and the success we have achieved.   They really don’t want to hear about it.  I don’t think they believe me. 

Many Americans formed their impressions of Iraq based on the dicey and hard conditions on the ground in late 2006.  Rethinking their opinions in light of the vastly improved situation in Iraq hurts their brains.  They just want Iraq to go away and the possibility of success smacks of continued effort.  I am an intrusion into a comfortably settled belief pattern, as unwelcome as the skunk at a barbeque.

It will take a while before the significance of our success in Iraq sinks in and even longer for us to indentify and explore all the options it opens and the challenges it creates.  Iraq will difficult and dangerous for a long time to come.  Changing long established conditions is hard and it takes time, but the trends are definitely positive.  Real change creeps up on little cats’ feet and we are often surprised to look around and see that things are not what we thought. 

October 07, 2008

Leadership 2

Taddeusz Kosciuszko

On the side is  Taddeusz Kosciuszko in Layfayette Park across from the White House.  

I am still thinking about leadership for my upcoming seminar and working through the discussion questions.   The seminar is for guys like me recently promoted into the senior FS.  Part of it is held at the Foreign Service Institute.   We have a really nice campus in Arlington.  The other part is a week-long offsite in West Virginia.   I have great expectations for the seminar.  I figure that the best part will be the cross discussion with all the others with such broad international experience.  It is not the ordinary academic seminar.

My experience in Iraq sharpened my view on leadership.  I learned a lot from the Marines.   They do leadership very well.   The thing l liked about their style was the way that everybody took a responsible role.  It was a truly participatory management with a strong leadership component.  It seems paradoxical to have both, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. 

Competent subordinates demand good leaders and good leaders value (and do not fear) competent subordinates.   The leader who trusts his subordinates is showing his strength and understanding that sharing responsibility does not mean diminishing it.  Bad leaders often actually prefer bad subordinates that they can complain about and blame for failures.

In Iraq I observed and had to practice a assertive leadership style that you don’t always see in bureaucracies.  My toughest realization was that others were looking to me to take the lead and that I deserved to do it.  I have been in charge of organizations before, but in the bureaucracy you can lean on rules and spread decision making.   We work with committees.  It is rarely any individual’s responsibility.   That is why thing don’t happen very fast.

One of the hurdles I had to jump in my leadership learning in Iraq was very prosaic.   It may sound comical in its simplicity, but I had to learn to lead physically.   When the helicopter or convoy arrived, I had to get in first or walk over to the landing zone first.  As a passenger, I had always been accustomed to milling around and then following the crowd.   

This is a small example, but illustrative of how people look to the leader and the leader has the responsibly to decide.  I also realized how the leader’s options are very much limited by the responsibilities of the position and the expectations of the subordinates.  The leader has to fill the position.  He cannot just do what he wants; he has to do what he should.  You have the responsibility to make decisions AND the responsibility to be able to make decisions.   That means you have to think problems through in advance, do your homework and keep up with events.   It is a lot harder to be the leader than the follower.  Followers can complain and remain passive.  Leaders have to do something.  No excuses.

Consistently good leadership is rare.  Most bosses are not leaders.   They duck or postpone the hard decisions.    They literally boss people around, which is not leadership.   A good leader motivates and sets up structures that make subordinate do their jobs “on their own.”  When you have to boss somebody around – use your power directly and overtly - you have already failed in that respect.  Bad leaders also tolerate underperforming people too long.  (I think, BTW, that this is one of my weaknesses as a leader. I also hide behind the “you cannot get rid of anybody in government” excuse too much.)  When the boss fails to control bad performers, he is failing in his responsibility to his team. 

Good leadership is also episodic.  I can think of times when I have been a good leader and many times where I have failed.   When I look back on successes, I find that they were often the result of circumstances that played to my personal strengths.  Which points me to another trait of good leaders.  They know their strengths and weaknesses and work to ensure that they are shaping circumstances to their strengths to the maximum extent possible.   This often involves sharing leadership with someone who has complementary skills.  That is why when you look closely you are often seeing good leadership teams in action, and not so much just a good leader.

My friend Jeff Thomas told me a story about a great building contractor he knew in N. Carolina.  Seems this guy was an absolute artist.   Then suddenly his work went bad.  Everybody blamed his divorce and they were evidently right, but not for the reasons they thought.   This guy’s wife was his detail manager.   He was wonderful at managing his workers and his projects, but he couldn’t manage himself.   She made sure he was where he was supposed to be and crafted the situations to emphasize his strengths.   Nobody understood this until the relationship ended.  Then it was clear to everybody.  

I think this silent partnership happens a lot more than we realize.  In the non-personal example it is often possible to good leaders to replace their complementary team members, but not always.   Many declines in leadership are attributable to the loss of a key subordinate or partner.

Anyway, I am going to post this and go run.  It is a beautiful October day.  I am supposed to think about the characteristics of good leadership.   I will do that while I am running.   The thing that I am considering is whether I should consider good leaders who did bad things.   Leadership is like fire.  It is a dangerous thing that can be used for good or bad purposes.   

October 06, 2008

ArborTech - Sawmills Have Changed

Timber truck 

Above - wood from nearby tree farms arrives at the mill.   

Saw mills have changed.   Machines, computers and robots have replaced the army of unskilled workers and the dirty and dangerous jobs are mostly gone.  The ArborTech saw mill near Blackstone, Virginia runs three shifts with only eighty workers.   I was interested in looking at the plant, since it processes loblolly pine (which I grow) and gets its timber within a sixty mile radius of the plant.  Both my timber tracks are within that zone.

Below - The giant hook loads the logs.  The initial processing can handle a log every 2-3 seconds.

log hook

The plant is run by a couple of partners who established it in Nottoway County in 2001.  They chose the location on the northern edge of the great loblolly pine forests.  There is lots of renewable wood resource available to the south and good markets to the north. 

Below - They switched from oil to sawdust, produced as a by-product of the mill.  You can see from the smokestack that it makes almost no pollution and it is carbon neutral.

kiln at ArborTech

Loblolly pine grows fast and is strong enough for structural timber.   Southern pine (which includes loblolly, slash and longleaf pine), also called yellow pine, satisfies around 58% of America’s timber needs.   We can grow this resource, sustainably, essentially forever.  I am glad to have an efficient mill near my property.  Below are some pictures and explanatory texts.

Below the computer decides where to saw to get the most straight wood.

sawmill computer guided

Below is the guy running the computer to do that sawing.

computer log cutting

Below - the boards move out just after they are cut.  The warehouse is very tidy and clean.


Below - the boards are cut with this bandsaw.  The computer keeps it sharp.

sharpening the saw

Modern industry is so different from what I remember.   It is much cleaner and automated. Despite all the talk about the decline of American industry, American industrial production is actually higher than it was twenty years ago.  But industrial employment has plumeted.  When you go to a modern plant, you can see why.   A lot of product is coming out of the plant, but there are not many people working there.  Industry will be like agriculture.  In the past almost everybody had to work on the farms.  Today less than 2% of the workforce does.  Yet they produce enough to feed us and much of the rest of the world.  Productivity means fewer jobs to produce more stuff.  That is good, but it sometimes hurts.

Risky Business

NPR featured a story this morning about a couple of people who were bitten by a non-poisonous snake at the Renaissance Festival in Maryland.  Stop the presses!  Unfortunately, this kind of “news” is becoming more common.  I suppose it is a kind of human interest story, but it feeds the general impression of the world as a dangerous place. 

I went down to the farm a couple of days ago.  I picked up lots of chiggers and got stung by a hornet that managed to get under my work glove.  I killed the hornet  and scrapped off the chiggers.   In the spring, I often pick up ticks.  I read in the paper that you are supposed to save the tick and show it to your health care professional.  Who goes to the doctor for a tick?  I would have to go every week and he would have a complete collection of ticks.  Are hornets, chiggers, ticks and snakes dangerous and annoying?  Yes, they are.  But you elevate them to the level of a major risk, you cannot do very much. 

When I was a kid we used to play in a swamp in back of Nordberg and Pelton Steel mills.  This was not a natural swamp.  When we followed the stream to its source, we discovered it issued from the factories.   I suppose by today’s standards, we were playing in the toxic waste dump.  That explains why the water would burn your skin a little.  We were too casual about those things back then.  But we have overcompensated and overreacted now.   Today if somebody finds a little battery acid they cordon off the area and men in moon suits go in to decontaminate it.  They evacuated a local high school a while back because somebody broke a thermometer and some mercury spilled on the floor. 

Poison is defined by the dosage.   Most life enhancing medicines and vitamins can harm or kill you if you take too much, which means that most – in the wrong dosages – are poisons.  Many things have threshold levels.  Below a certain level, they are harmless or even helpful; beyond it they are dangerous or deadly.  We too often make the error of extrapolating that if something is dangerous in quantity even a little must be harmful.   This is wrong. For example, arsenic can occur naturally in spring water.   Arsenic is a deadly poison, but you can drink this water your entire life w/o suffering any consequences.  If you really analyzed it, almost everything we eat and drink is full of poisons.  Plants evolved with them as a means of defense.  We tolerate or even benefit from all those chemicals found in apples or pears. 

As our ability to detect risk has improved, we have become a little hysterical about it and have begun to avoid low probability risks to the extent that it impacts our fulfillment in life.  Ironically, our risk aversion creates a whole new set of risks.

 German playground

I took this picture in Germany.  They still have the old stuff sometimes.

Take the example of playground equipment.   I don’t see how kids can have much fun at the playground anymore.  Everything is low down, easy to climb, slow paced or stationary.  I remember the high metal slides that burned your ass on a hot day or those merry go rounds that you could spin so fast.   Teeter totters?  They are gone.  So what happens?   Some kids push into even riskier things.  Most just learn to sit around and get fat playing video games.   In the long run, you are a lot better off breaking a leg when you are eleven than staying fat your whole life.  Which risk would you prefer?  There is not risk-free option.  Some problems just take a longer time to develop.

I assume snake-bit couple will make a full recovery.  Now I am sure our society will take added precautions to make sure such a tragedy never happens again.

October 05, 2008


Below is a pond on Ft. Pickett near Blackstone, Virginia.  I was there during my field day mentioned a few posts back. 

Lake near Blackstone, VA 

State Department has a course on leadership that I will take and they sent me some preliminary questions to prepare.   Generally, they want us to think about the nature of leadership.   It is not easy to define.   I have seen those who seem to be the ultimate leader in their manner or comportment, yet the organizations they run produce little.  On the other hand, there are those who seem barely aware that they are in charge whose teams produce phenomenal results.   Since the essence of leadership is the ability to produce results through the efforts of others, we must conclude that that second kind of leader is better.

Leadership in government is particularly hard to judge because we don’t have a bottom line.  Everything is political and subjective.  People in government can win points just by being busy.  In practical affairs, sometimes doing nothing or at least doing less is preferable to taking action or doing more.  The non-action alternative is rarely available in government.  Many times government officials are running around solving problems a smart leader would have avoided entirely.  More often than we like to recognize the problems are actually caused by our own activity.  The need to be seen to be doing something limits the efficacy of government.  Government also comes with a specific overt limit on leadership. 

We really don’t want government officials to be leaders.  Think about it.  Government is a public trust.  Government officials work within the rules ostensibly created by the people and their representatives.  Leadership usually involves setting new courses, changing paradigms and innovating, i.e. changing the rules ... unilaterally.  

Leadership always concerns making decisions in the climate of risk and uncertainty.  Otherwise it is just administering rules.  The leader decides and leads others in toward the goal he defines or discerns.   Government bureaucracies are designed to make that difficult or impossible.  Let me emphasize that point.  They are DESIGNED to limited freedom of action.  It is not a by-product or a mistake.  Government systems are and must be designed to limit innovation by those operating them.

This is an important distinction that divides private enterprise from government administration.   Government and free market techniques overlap, but they do not occupy the same space.  There are things government can do and private enterprise cannot and the reverse is also true.   That is why is doesn’t make much sense to advocate more or less government w/o determining the appropriate TOOL to be used. 
It is not appropriate to ask government to innovate.  Government always must follow a set procedure.  If government officials or bureaucrats deviate too far from the rules and regulations they are, by definition, acting illegally.  That doesn’t mean government cannot be creative if given a task.  The USG sent a man to the moon and brought him safely home.   But it cannot do the kinds of innovations that determine truly new courses or preferences.  Government cannot legitimately be entrepreneurial.  Government consumes wealth; it does not create it. 

Private individuals and firms create wealth.  However, government is necessary to the production of wealth.  W/o the rule of law and reasonable regulation the private sector cannot create wealth, since individuals and firms cannot protect the wealth they create.   Government must provide the legal and often the physical infrastructures.  Since government has a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion, only it can perform this function.
Lately I have been thinking about my government job in relation to my “job” on the tree farm.   In the past year, I have made decisions in both jobs that put thousands of dollars at risk in the anticipation of greater good.  In the tree farm, it is my money.  I will benefit if I am right and suffer if I am wrong, so it is really nobody’s business to second guess me.   I can also do things just because I think they are good things, with little or no anticipation of a concrete return.   For example, I spent a couple thousand dollars on wildlife plots, which I never expect to pay off in any practical sense.  I have a personal preference for that.  I can feel generous and virtuous for improving the environment.  My land is nicer, but only in my opinion.  In government I cannot and should not allow my personal preferences to impact decisions.  It is not my money.  Nobody can be generous or virtuous giving away the government’s money.   As ePRT leader, I had a lot of discretion, but it was a very different sort of discretion spending taxpayer money and using Uncle Sam’s resources.

As a government official, I have a duty to LIMIT my own leadership and not elevate my own preferences beyond my assigned mandate.   It is a significant responsibility.   I can exercise leadership, but only in the predetermined direction.   It is not like running your own show.

October 04, 2008


Below is the cresent moon over the Wal-Mart parking lot in South Hill, Virginia.

Wal-Mart parking South Hill VA

We figured that it was more economical to have only one car and rent one when we really needed another.  This was good logic and over the past year we probably have spent less than $200 on rentals versus the thousands it costs to own a second car.  But now that Espen got his license we now have five drivers (Mariza doesn’t have her own car and uses ours); we probably need a second vehicle.   Next week we are getting a Ford Ranger.   Tony, Jerry and Andy have Rangers and like them.  They know about these things, so that is what I am getting.

I had to rent a car to drive down to the field day and farm visit.  Alex needed ours.   I am always a little paranoid about rental cars.  I take special care not to lock myself out, but I did.   I went to Wal-Mart in South Hill to get some necessities: beer, peanuts and a pair of work gloves.   I tossed these things in the trunk of the rental car, along with the keys I had in my hand and closed the trunk.  I checked to be sure I had my keys in my pocket, but my good habit was ineffective as I misled myself by finding the keys to my Honda.  Not surprisingly, those keys didn’t open the door.  It was kind of embarrassing.  I had to call the sheriff to help me.  A deputy came by a few minutes later.  He opened the door; I popped the truck, showed him the rental agreement to prove my bona-fides and we were both on our way.   

It is shocking how fast and easy it is to break into a car.  The sheriff’s deputy told me that a real crook would be even faster, since he wouldn’t bother to unlock the door, but would simply break the window.   Maybe you would be better off just leaving the door open. 

Back in 1988 some guy broke into our car in Washington.   He didn’t steal much.   In the glove compartment was one of those glow sticks, a Norwegian language tape and a motivational tape, ironically talking about the need for high ethical standards in business.   The crook took those things.  He must have been disappointed; maybe that accounts for the large number of highly motivated Norwegian speakers in some parts of Washington.  The loss of the goods was inconsequential, but the cost of replacing the window was significant. 

A Forest and Field Day - With Biosolids

One of the great services provided by the State of Virginia is ongoing landowner education.   The courses I like are usually hosted by Virginia Tech and I prefer to go to the Southern Piedmont Research Station near Blackstone, VA because that is close to my forest land.   Forestry is very localized in terms of soils and climates.   I prefer to share the experience with people who work with my kind of tree in similar climates and soil types.

Below is a discussion of precommercial thinning.  The Dept of Forestry recommends it to keep the forests healthy.  I already did mine.

field day

I attended a field day that included talks on forest road maintenance, carbon credits & pond management, as well as a tour of a local saw mill.

The instructors and my fellow landowners are always very nice to me, but I am strange to them with my northern accent and unusual background.   Most of the other landowners are old south & rural and I feel always in the presence of Andy Griffith or Billy-Bob Thorton.  They inherited their land, which has often been in their families for many generations.  

As the older generation dies off, farms and timberlands are left to kids who have moved away to the cities.  They often divide it up among the heirs and sell it off.  This leads to fragmentation of the forests.   100 acres in one parcel is not the same as 100 acres divided in to ten or twenty fragments.  You really cannot practice forestry on land less than forty acres.  We also talked about conservation easements, which might reduce this trend.  A conservation easement lowers taxes in return for a contract never to develop the land.  It stays in forest or farm.  This can be a good thing.

Matel forest post thinning

I also went down to my forest to check on the biosolids application.   The workers had just finished.  There is a little smell to the biosolids, but not that much.  The bigger effect is that the heavy machinery crushes down the vegetation, including some of my trees.  It would be better to apply biosolids first and then do pre-commercial thinning.  There is not that much damage really.  The rows are far apart and unless the trees are actually run over by the tires there is a good chance they will recover. 

My forest is looking very good in terms of spacing and tree health.  There is a debate re how close the trees should be.  The closer spacing provides more wood at first, but lower quality.  The closely spaced trees are also more stressed and in more danger from insects.  Wildlife also does better with more widely spaced trees.   Anyway, my choice is more spacing.   I am interested to see how much fertilization does for the trees.  Most forest owners do not fertilize at this stage and I am one of the first in the area to use biosolids at this stage of the lifecycle.  Virginia Tech has studied the applications of biosolids in Southside Virginia.  I went to their seminar last year and I trust them, so I am doing what they recommend.   We did 132 acres of the 2004 generation.   I probably should have left a control plot for comparison.

Below are what the biosolids look like.  These particular pellets produced by anaerobic digestion.  Some are lime stabilized and in more liquid form.  Biosolids are a great circle of life thing - from flush to farm.  Wastes are applied to land to produce more growth and life.  Virginia Tech has found no significant amount gets into the water supply, even when applied massively beyond what we usually do.  People complain about the smell, but I walked all over the place and hardly noticed them.  It is a mild fertilizer smell that will go away in a couple of weeks.  BTW - this was the place where they piled them for spreading.  The actual spread is much thinner.


One side benefit of the application was the paths the machines made through the brambles.  I was able to get to places on the land where I never set foot before.   In fact, I was so beguiled by the new paths that I stayed too long and almost didn’t get back home in time.

Below is a sweet gum in its fall colors.  They are pretty trees, but sort of like big weeds if you are trying to grow pine.  This one is near the stream managment zone and it is a natural part of the Virginia landscape, so we will let it to grow to old age and I will enjoy its color next fall too.  It will be prettier each year.

sweet gum

October 03, 2008


This blog records my experiences as a Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader in Al Al Asad, Al Anbar Province, Iraq 2007-8. My comments may be delayed several days. I invite your questions & comments. If you are reading for the first time, please refer to the first entry - John Matel Goes to Iraq - for background.

Contact John Matel at this link

Above is the original intro to this blog. Below is my flight out of Iraq. The planes are big inside.

Leaving Iraq

This blog had more than 20,000 visitors in September. I know that some are repeat customers, but it still shows some interest.   It is a record I will probably never again reach.   Being in Iraq was exotic; I am now going prosaic.

I tried to give an accurate picture of what was happening in Iraq.  It was not as scary or dangerous as I expected and certainly not as bad as we read in the media.  I was lucky to arrive at an inflection point, when violence was down and when we really started to win.

The Marines and our military in general are very impressive.  I ambcertain that there has never been a better military force in the history of the world.  They are fantastically disciplined. For example, our military personnel are not allowed to drink alcohol while deployed in Iraq and as far as I saw they didn’t.  

How amazing is that?  Our purpose was to respect Muslim customs.  I saw our Marines do that repeatedly in many ways.  They risked their own lives rather than risk the lives of Iraqis.  This is something special in the annals of war. When I tell people about this, I know some don’t believe me.  It is hard to believe.  

Sometimes people are just mistaking our military for their own prejudiced stereotypes.  Many Americans these days have no direct contact with the military, so they get their impressions from old TV shows like “M*A*S*H* or from the likes of Oliver Stone or Michael Moore.  Just say no to these things.  They are fictional accounts not designed to be fair or accurate.

I cannot blame the average guy.   Before I went to Iraq, I believed a lot of things that were not true.  In fairness, much of the bad news was true before the surge.  As I try to explain, the bad news is not wrong, it is just old and outdated. 

I learned a lot in Iraq about the military, the Iraqis, war, peace, leadership and myself.   It was a great experience.  I am very glad that I volunteered and also glad to be finished, but it is finished.  I will continue to write the blog.  It helps me understand when I write.   This will be the last “Matel-in-Iraq” entry.   And this entry serves as the official ending marker.  I will put a link to it in the intro to the new blog page.

If you are looking for “Matel-in-Iraq” just do back from this page.  If you are looking for “World-Wide-Matel” go forward.

October 01, 2008

Twenty-Four Years

I started with the FS twenty-four years ago today.  Time flies.  

I wanted to fight world communism and the Soviet Empire, which seemed to be ascendant.  Five years later it was gone.   Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, millions of Poles, Afghans and others were undermining the foundations in the middle of the 1980s, but the outcome was far from assured, despite our hindsight certainty.  Nobody predicted its imminent demise in the middle of the 1980s and the relatively peaceful breakup of the Evil Empire was completely unexpected.  We can thank many for pushing the old bear off the cliff, but we have to credit Gorbachev for taking it quietly into that good night.   It could have gone down a lot worse. The decline agony or the Austria-Hungarian Empires dragged us into WWI.  

Vladimir Putin considers the fall of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century.  That is an astounding statement when you consider the many tragic events of the 20th Century.   Today Russia is resurgent, buoyed by the high prices of oil and other primary materials.   There is no reason to believe the Soviet Union could not also have restructured and also been resurgent if it had not been dispatched when it was down. 

Some people long for the stability of those times because they have forgotten the fundamental horror of the Cold War and have sometimes taken the wrong lessons from the finish.  We rightly see our success as the triumph of the ideas of freedom and democracy over those of communal tyranny.  But our ideas won because they were supported by an infrastructure of strength.   If Ronald Reagan had not faced down the Soviets AND the peace movements in the early 1980s, we could still be facing the near instant Armageddon we did back then.  If Pope John Paul II had not pushed communism in Poland, if the American and Western labor movement had not worked with the president and the Pope to help keep Solidarity alive, the Warsaw Pact would not have cracked.  And if we and our allies had not carried on the forty-year twilight struggle that interdicted the spread of communism they would not even had the chance.

Freedom is built on a foundation of strength and resolve.  When people forget that or just take it for granted, they soon stop being free.  However, when strength and resolve are exercised successfully in a timely and prudent manner their impossible achievements tend to look inevitable.  That is why some people think that the Soviet Empire just kind of fell by itself or that Iraq would have worked out okay w/o our recent efforts.

Freedom is usually not taken away.   People give it away because they think keeping it is too hard or they want to get things w/o the effort.   When you give someone the power to take care of you, you also give them the power to control you.

Anyway, it has been twenty-four good years to be alive and active.

The start was not that auspicious.  We had the fear of nuclear war; uemployment had reached more than 10% a short while back and the economy had shrunk.  We could all remember long lines for gas and even long lines to get free cheese.  All those things we worry COULD happen now DID happen in then.  But we were coming out of it.  It was morning in America.  

Old guys get nostalgic and I look at the time of my youth and vigor with fondness, but when I really think about it, times are a lot better now.  There is no final victory, just constantly changing challenges and our happiness and success depends on how well we identify and address them.

I am glad I chose the FS and very lucky in what I got in the last twenty-four years.  I am more or less where I should be doing what I do well.  What more can you want?

"There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God."

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