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November 30, 2008

It is NOT Always About Politics

I like to watch the Sunday morning news programs.  My morning routine includes “This Week,” “Chris Matthews,”  “Fox News Sunday” & “Meet the Press.”   I have to switch around among them, since they overlap.   That is interesting because you often see the same “opinion makers”  being interviewed on a couple of them.    It might be easier just to get the talking points.  These shows are ABOUT politics, so I shouldn’t complain, but I think they are too much about politics.

Below is Augustus Caesar, Rome's first Emperor.

Augustus Caesar from Greek Archeological Museum

They see everything through a political lens.   I understand that Washington is a political town and politics pervades everything, however I don’t think everything is reducible to politics alone, at least politics in the sense of the competitive game.   On “Chris Matthews” eight out of the twelve pundits thought “the right” would give President Obama the benefit of a long honeymoon.   I agree with the majority.   But I disagree with Matthews and the panel when they characterized this as simple politics.   They will have to give it because they cannot be seen to oppose him.   Matthews et al are smart people and I recall the two old sayings:  “it takes a smart person to be cynical, but a wise man to get beyond that” and “A man’s view of the world is a confession of his own character.”    

Not everybody is motivated by politics – not even politicians – and especially not ordinary people.   I have particular and strongly held political views, but between elections I want my President to succeed no matter what party and I want our Congress to work under the best possible conditions.   In between elections, I don’t want to think about politics very much.  Most people are like that except during tough political campaigns or when making a calls to talk radio or C-Span.    Being politically aware all the time is just too exhausting.

Our system makes good or at least okay decisions most of the time.  More important is our capacity to experiment and reinvent while maintaining the fundamental integrity of our structure.  The fact that we enjoy the oldest living Constitution in the world and are second oldest continuous government in the world (after the Brits) is ample evidence of our stability.   It is noteworthy that the British heritage has influenced so many stable democracies (Besides the U.S. and UK, Australian, New Zealand, Canada, among others, and arguably even India).  To a significant extent, the countries with this heritage allow their citizens more freedom FROM politics than most others.   In America, it is possible to be prosperous, secure and successful w/o strong political connections.   If you think about that for more than a minute and put it into historical context, that is truly amazing.   Freedom FROM arbitrary government action and the capriciousness of petty officials is rare in history.   We complain about our lack of freedom and opportunity, but we have (to paraphrase) the worst possible system … except for everything else.

I worry that we may ask too much from government and I get nervous each election season.   History shows that people voluntary give up freedom in return for the promise of stability and prosperity but they end up usually getting none of the above.   It is useful to read the stories of Republics, ancient and modern, as our Founding Fathers did.  This could happen to us too, but the good sense of the American people and the soundness of our institutions win out in the end.   Most of us are not really interested in letting politics intrude too much into our daily lives and private affairs – especially nto “theirs” but even our own.   We get a little hysterical from time to time, but to the disappointment of radicals on all sides, moderation and good sense prevail. 

November 29, 2008

Knowing Too Much

We found more than thirty official or authoritative studies of American public diplomacy compiled after 9/11.   This doesn’t even include the whole cottage industry producing popular speculation, magazine articles and general gnashing of teeth about “why they hate us.”    Maybe we know enough to draw conclusions.  Maybe we even know too much.   This is what I am thinking about as my group prepares to make our own contribution to this huge library. 

You have to be careful not to gather too much information.   Theoretically, the more information you have, the better decisions you could make.  Theoretically that is true.  In fact it is not. For that to be true, you would need to have near perfect recall, wonderful understanding and supernatural ability to assimilate the diverse data points.   The capacity of our computers to gather and store information leads us to a kind of hubris that we CAN use all of it.  We cannot.   And that also makes the erroneous assumption that the information is knowable. In the case of something like public diplomacy, we are dealing with conditional facts, a kind of game theory where any move we make provokes reaction which change the fundamental realities.  

 It is like one of those sci-fi movies where someone goes back into the past to correct some mistakes, right some injustice or just take advantage of his knowledge of the past to make money in the present.   It never works out because changing conditions in the past creates a different reality in the present.    This is no mere artifice.  We are doing it all the time.   Of course, we cannot change the past.  We can only make plans in the present to affect the future, but the real world principle is very similar.  Maybe that is why we like those fictional time paradoxes or the similar literature scenarios where trying to avoid the consequences of a prophecy create that outcome (e.g. Oedipus).     Our attempts to achieve a particular future alter the conditions we are studying.

Sci-fi scenarios aside, we still can be easily overwhelmed by information.    At some point, more information doesn’t improve conclusions.   In fact, it begins to create confusion.   This seems counter intuitive and people in the midst of information gathering are usually fooled.  Studies show that decision making does not improve and even gets worse, but the decision makers themselves have more confidence in themselves.   Bureaucrats also like to gather information perpetually in order to delay the moment where they have to take a risk and come to a conclusion and provide more cover if they make any mistakes.   This is a variation of the paralysis by analysis problem.  BTW – most people have the cognitive capacity to can juggle around seven chunks of information; really smart people can do maybe nine and the cognitively challenged can handle fewer, but at some point enough is enough and more is too much.

Next week we will be reading reports and talking to experts.   I believe in going through the process and that is what I am supposed to do, but we have to recognize when we are done and move along.   It will hard to let go.

November 28, 2008

Using Time Wisely

Not many people are around here on the day after Thanksgiving.   I like to work on such days.  Volunteering for such duty makes me popular and the quiet time gives me a chance to think.  This is my most productive activity.

Below is the Commerce Building.  When it was finished in 1932 it was the largest office building in the world.

Commerce Building in Washington Dc

I read the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People almost twenty years ago.  It was one of the books that most influenced my life.   There is not very much really original in the book.  Stephen Covey’s contribution is that he manages to put things we know we should do into understandable chunks.  I won’t go further into detail.  Suffice it to say that it gives practical methods to live a principle centered life and puts character development above the tricks most self-help books teach you to get ahead. 

One of the parts I found most useful was the section on time management.   I am not talking about making lists and accomplishing goals.   Covey talks about doing the right things and taking control of the process.  He divides tasks on a four quadrant chart.   Some things are urgent and important.  Some are important but not urgent.   Others are urgent but not important and the last quadrant has things that are not urgent or important. 

It is easy to get stuck doing the things that are urgent, whether they are important or not.  Can you resist picking up a ringing phone, even when you are having an important talk with someone in person sitting in front of your desk?   But the urgent is often not important and the urgency of many important events results from lack of anticipation and planning.  The place where you should spend most of your time is among the tasks that are important but not urgent.  (Preventing the fire is more effective than the urgent need to put it out, but which seems more heroic?)  This will put you in charge of your life and help you avoid lurching from one urgent task to another w/o the time to do them well.  It will also help you avoid doing many "urgent" things altogether.

BTW – I am writing all this from memory.   If the details are not perfect, I don’t care.   I had a chance to meet Mr. Covey a few years ago.  He told me that the ideas were meant to be internalized and changed to fit particular circumstance and personalities.  Ideas are like virus that live & reproduce only in human hosts.  They mutate and adapt.  The ideas I was “infected” with twenty years ago are now uniquely mine.  My experience has customized them and these are the lessons I took.

Below is Dept of Agriculture building completed in 1930.

Dept of Agriculture

I rarely agonize about decisions.  People who like me say that is because I just know the right thing to do.  Detractors see me as shallow, flippant & insouciant.   I believe the truth is that I can make quicker decisions because I have thought through similar scenarios and tried to apply values & integrate experience and I did this BEFORE I was faced with the urgent decision currently at hand.  Contemplation is an activity that fits squarely into the important but not urgent category. That does not mean that I make the right decision, BTW, but I am neither flippant (usually) nor do I just know what to do by some mystical process.

Covey and many other leadership thinkers tell us that is what we are supposed to do, but they always warn that other people might not like it (hence the flippant moniker) and they will give us a hard time for “not doing real work.”  All of our great achievements are created twice: first and most importantly in our minds and then only later in the practical world.   The intellectual capital is usually the most valuable, but others can see only the practical creation or activity.

Washington Monument & Capitol

There is a story about a man who has a serious plumbing problem. He calls the plumber who tells him he can fix the problem and it will cost $100.  The plumber goes down and whacks one of the pipes and everything begins to move as it should.   When he asks for his $100, the customer is irate.  “All you did was whack the pipe and it took only a couple seconds,” he says.  “I want an itemized bill.”  The plumber gives him the bill which reads: whacking pipe - $.05; knowing where and how to whack pipe - $99.95.   

November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Thanksgiving is the best holiday.  It is the one where you make a conscious effort to think about and be thankful for the good people, things & experiences in your life.    No matter how hard we think we have worked, none of us achieves happiness or success by ourselves, and all of us are lucky to live in a society that gives us so many chances. 

Below - my parents on their wedding day.John & virginia Matel

I had trouble learning to read and in first grade my teacher put me into the low group.   My mother convinced the teachers that I was not stupid, just bored and a little stubborn.   To placate my mother and probably teach her a lesson, they jumped me into a higher group.   I did well there.  W/o that intervention, I think I would have been a failure at an early age and then continued down that road to earthly perdition.    I am thankful for my mother’s confidence and flexible teachers.

My father dropped out of school when he was in 10th grade, but he nevertheless saw the value of education.   He just assumed I would go to college and because of that and because of him, I did too.   My father didn’t have the experience to understand what college meant, but he knew enough to launch me in the right direction. 

Below I am standing in front of Medusa Cement Company on in Milwaukee.  The picture is from 2006.  My father worked there for thirty-six years in the dust and the noise.  I put in four summers, which gave me only a small taste of the hard work he did to support the family. John Matel at Medusa Cement  His work helped put me in a position to get a great job where they pay me to do what I would pay to do. 

I was seventeen when my mother died.  My sister was only fifteen and my father didn’t know what to do.   My mother’s sisters stepped in to help.   I am thankful for my aunts, who carried us through those hard times.    They took turns and one of them came over every day.  My whole extended family has been good to me.   I still always have a place to go and a home in Milwaukee. 

Speaking of Milwaukee, I was lucky to grow up in Milwaukee & Wisconsin, with the wonderful parks, nice museums and inexpensive education at the University Wisconsin system.   I am also thankful that it was easy to get into university in those days.    With my grades and habits when I was eighteen, I am not sure they would let me in these days.  

There is way too much for me to say about Chrissy and the kids and besides it is too personal to put on the blog.   No matter what you achieve in your professional life, you need good family relationships to be really happy.  

Below is angel oak in South Carolina. 

angel oak

My list is of good things is long.  I sometimes cannot believe how lucky I have been and how many people & events have helped me along.    Good fortune in important.   We should pray not merely to be fortunate, but to be able to do the things that make us deserve to be fortunate.

November 26, 2008

Thinking Peripatetically

Below are griffins at the Federal Reserve building.

Griffins at the Federal Reserve 

Washington is not very crowded the day before thanksgiving.   I had some appointments at the Main State Building.   I got there a little early so I went to visit Abe Lincoln.   It is nice before the crowds arrive. I still take inspiration places like the Lincoln Memorial and I still get a bit of a thrill looking out over the reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and the Capitol.   

 Reflecting pool at Lincoln Memorial

I make a point walking between Main State and SA 44 and I l get off/on the Metro a little ways away from work, so that I can walk across the Capital Mall.    I think of it as my “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” trip, after that old Jimmy Stewart movie, because in one run you can see the Capitol and the memorials: Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, Vietnam, Korea and WWII.    

Below is Roslyn in Virginia across the Potomac.  In DC buildings cannot be taller than the Capitol. 

Roslyn VA

Some people ask me how I find the time.  They tell me that they are too busy for these sorts of luxuries.   It takes only around forty-five minutes to walk between the State annexes.    When you add the waiting time to the shuttle drive time, you save only around ten minutes.   If I get off the Metro a couple stops early, it just adds around fifteen minutes to the start or end of the day.   In return I get a calming walk through one of the world’s most pleasant areas.  It is also a great thinking opportunity.   I think better when I walk or run.  This is an old habit.   When I wrote papers in college I used to read all the sources and then go running.   During that time it would all come together and when I got back I could just produce the paper as fast as I could physically write it down.   If I just stayed in my seat and “worked hard”, nothing would come.   I still like the peripatetic decision making.  Being literally in motion helps me make sense out of confusing situations.   

IRS building and American flag

Above is the front of the IRS building.  I like the classical styles.

Below ice skating at the National Gallery Garden.  It really isn't that cold, but they have a refigerated rink.

Ice Rink in Washington

Besides, it is a real luxury to be able to walk around in Washington, something to be thankful for.

Sunset on Washington Monument

Above is the end of the day and the scene as I was walking to the Federal Triangle Metro to meet Chrissy.

November 25, 2008

Climate Change

I am almost ready to sign my first carbon credit sale on my forests.  It is a sweet deal in that I get retro credit for the growth since 2003.  The contract is valid for fifteen years from that time, so it runs until 2018.  My first thinning on the CP property is 2019 and I will thin the Freeman property in 2011 or 2012.  Both are good dates, since the first one will have the contact until the very time of thinning and the second will grow back (i.e. sequester more carbon) in time for the reckoning.  The thinning makes the forest grow faster, but it takes a few years to catch up.

Below is Hoofddorp in Holland.  During the little ice age, these sorts of canals froze.  The don't any longer.  Hoofddorp is a pleasant little town near Amsterdam.  There is a Courtyard Marriott there.  These pictures are from fall 2006.

Hoofddorp, Holland

I am not sure how the economy will affect the environment.    The falling price of gas has already made people less sensitive to using less.   As I wrote before, I think we should tax gas back up, but the recession makes that very unlikely scenario even less likely.    We made a lot of progress because of higher energy prices and I have to see that lost in the mixture of bad economy and lower energy prices.    Global warming is happening and we are part it.  Solutions are going to include things like higher energy prices, alternatives and nuclear power, but expect no panacea breakthrough in our lifetimes.

There is nothing we can do to prevent some global warming.  Although it might not be so apparent in a cool spell like we have had this year, barring extraordinary volcanic activity or a meteor collision, the earth will be significantly warmer in 2100 than it is today. The best we can do is mitigate it and adapt to the changes. We CAN adapt.   I don’t think there is cause for hysteria. 
We do not know the details of what will happen, but we can make some general assumptions. We will face sea level rises, water shortages, and changes in weather patterns. The most likely situation will mean that it will be significantly warmer near the poles and somewhat warmer and drier nearer the equator. So what can we do now?

Below - swans in the canal

swans in Holland

Some things are simple common sense. For example, if you expect a sea level rise of a couple of feet, do not build permanent structures on land less than a few feet above sea level. For example, we would not rebuild below sea level areas of New Orleans or subsidize building near the ocean in general – no more expensive houses on barrier island or seaside hills.   This is fairly easily accomplished.  We just should NOT subsidize insurance rates.  If people have to pay the real risk premiums, most will not build in the first place.  Since trees live a long time, we might also consider planting southern species further north. Genetic engineering will allow plant species to adapt quicker.  
My pines, BTW, are indeed a southern species growing near the northern edge of their natural range.  I also planted some bald cypress, which are southern trees and maybe I will do some longleaf.

Humans can adapt to climate changes. We evolved during the transition from ice ages to warmer periods.  That is one reason we got our big brains.   We needed cultural adaptations our intelligence permitted to cope with transformations and new environments that our strictly biological heritage was not quick enough to handle.  If you wait to grow fur, you die.  If you “borrow” fur from the local animals, you stay warm and alive.  Even so, it almost finished off our species.  With our more developed technologies the expected  climate change  will be a cake walk compared to what our troglodyte & and wandering ancestors faced.

We also need some perspective.  The earth has been much warmer than it is today … and much colder. Life thrived in the hot Mesozoic and survived during the frigid ice ages. The problem is change itself.  Natural and human communities are adapted to today's world. People and animals can move; forests maybe not.  The problem, to repeat, is the change, not the warmer or colder stable state.

Some years from now, our grandchildren might face a far different dilemma than the one we expect. Consider this scenario.  What if greenhouse gases have made the world warmer and human & natural communities have begun to adapt to this new stability?  What if future generations develop a carbon free panacea of an energy source? Do they see reversing climate change as a benefit or a threat? Maybe at that point they prefer the warmer world and they want to keep it warm with the new weather patterns.  After all, we would not want to go back to the colder conditions of the little ice age in 1650 or 1770.  That was normal back then.  We prefer the climate we have now. Climate change is a problem in either direction.

November 24, 2008

We Get By with a Little Help From Our Friends

Below is a giant typewriter eraser in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden.  Kids don't know what this is.  They never touched a typewriter.  

Typewriter eraser at Smithsonian National Gallery Sculpture Garden

I have been thinking re public affairs strategies.  New studies about public affairs are coming out all the time.  Heritage just published one and Brookings will release one tomorrow.  There are at least thirty official or authoritative studies done since 9/11/2001.  I know because I have read many of them.  They come to similar conclusions, but still nothing much seems to work.  In Public Diplomacy Relationships Trump Information

The proliferation of media sources and the rise of the Internet have made information almost free to anybody who can use has a computer and can use a search engine.  In this situation, influence becomes more a matter of relationships than of actual facts, figures and reports.  The trusting relationships people have developed with individuals and media providers are the source of the influence, not the information itself.  

Despite the ubiquity of general information, useable information sometimes is missing.  Bloggers and other new media players are in need of content that they can use w/o copyright or based on creative commons copyright provisions.  We should provide this material in easy to “steal” chunks.  Pictures and video would be especially useful.

Below are American elms outside the American Indian Museum.  They are Princeton variety, immune to Dutch elm disease that wiped the beautiful elms off our city streets in the 1960s and 1970s.  Soon we will have a restoration.

American elms

We can draw on an analogy from an earlier crisis in American public diplomacy when we faced strenuous and vitriolic opposition to the proposed deployment of U.S. Pershing intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe in the 1980s to counter Soviet SS-20s.   More protestors hit the streets to voice their opposition to our policies in those days than came out against our Iraq activities more recently.  

Our action came in response to a Soviet threat, but much of the European media treated it as an American aggression.   One of the things they did consistently was to show picture of American Pershing missiles, instead of the Soviet SS-20s that had provoked the crisis in the first place.   

Through their contacts, American public diplomacy officers in Europe learned that one of the reasons for this imbalance was simply that many media outlets had pictures of the American weapons but they just didn’t have any of SS-20s.   Soviets were not a forthcoming with such things.   U.S. officials remedied the problem by providing good quality pictures of the Soviet missiles that helped level the playing field. 

Below is Smithsonian Mall.  The pictures, BTW, are just ones I took this morning.  They are not related to the article text, but they are nice, right?  I have a really nice walk to work.

Smithsonian Mall

This example is instructive in several ways.  Most important, it shows that a sound policy can be implemented in the face of vocal opposition.   What passed for public opinion in this crisis was wrong, but it didn’t seem so clear at the time.  It also shows how some big problems may have an easy to implement solutions and how we should not attribute to malice what may result from mere indolence, ignorance of a simple lack of proper materials.  But the deeper lesson is that this example indicates the importance of relationships, being near the customers and understanding their needs.   Our PD people would not have correctly diagnosed the problem w/o close contact with the people providing the information and they would not have been able to remedy the situation had they not already built a network of trusting local contacts that could & would help.

We could get by with a little help from our friends.  Unfortunately, as I wrote in a previous post, we wantonly destroyed our networks during the 1990s.   

Old Post Office

Above is the old post office building.

I will write more on this subject over the next weeks.

November 23, 2008

The Eternal Present of Cable TV

It was cold outside today so I spent the day productively watching TV.   Of course, I grazed and in true omnivore fashion I didn’t stick with any one program for more than a few minutes and I took advantage TVio to time shift.   It used to be that movies, televisions shows, plays, even books and music  had their time and then fell into the memory hole.   Some like Gilligan’s Island or Star Trek became ubiquitous in reruns, but most emerged rarely.  Today everything is available in a vast chaotic mélange that defies time and genre, language and space.   Too much choice dulls the senses, but who would want to let somebody else decide what to limit?

Watching TV on Nov 23

On the cerebral side, there are a lot of good programs on history and science.   It has become a true marketplace of ideas, but there is significant chicanery and manipulation.   A picture is worth a thousand words and a reenactment can do even better than that.    The producer has the power to manipulate interpretations.    Propagandists have known this ever since movies were invented and even before.   Many theatrical productions were clearly meant to highlight versions of the past that supported the power of the present.   Shakespeare’s history plays are prime examples.   George Orwell famously warned that "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future." 

I don’t think that there is a conscious attempt at propaganda in the historical productions on cable TV, but they do exacerbate the historian’s tendency to attribute too much to conscious choices and plans.   A half hour program contains fewer words than a short pamphlet.   It must compress characters and events.   It must also make sense and a story out of disordered events.   Sometimes it is not a matter of conflicting plans but simply somebody forgot, didn’t know or didn’t care.   The story we tell is usually more logical than the reality.   The reality is that shit happens and sometimes there is no good explanation. 

If you don't find it on TV, you can always look on I tunes.

computer with Modern Marvels

I don’t think that TV producers are (usually) trying to propagandize at least when you get more than a couple of decades before the present, but they do have proclivities that create a systematic bias.     Producers like action, so there is a bias toward agency.   They also like underdogs and rebels, so they tend to overemphasize pirates, bandits and small groups of dissidents.     I have seen at least three separate documentary dramas on the Briton’s warrior queen Boudicca, for example.   The British forces killed a lot of Roman civilians and did manage to ambush a Roman army, but the Romans cut them to pieces once they became fully aware of the situation and there was never any question of the final outcome.   For the Romans it was  just a local affair in a faraway place. 

In the study of history it is always useful to see who is still standing at the end.   It is easy to exaggerate power, numbers and importance in descriptions, but if at the end of the day one gives up and the other doesn’t, you can be pretty sure who really prevailed.

Producers also suffer from a bias toward new and tenuous explanations.  Both the scientific and the historical methods require hypotheses to be tested with evidence.  Lots of hypotheses are not supported by the evidence and these tend to be the most interesting ones precisely because they are new and often weird.   They also have the advantage of being perceived as insider or hidden information.   I think that was one of the attractions of the “Da Vinci Code,” which didn’t actually purport to be anything but fiction, but was taken as factual by the credulous.   I have seen a few of the documentaries on that subject.   The same was true for myths like the Bermuda Triangle and Chariots of the Gods from my youth.

Below - picture from Old Tucson where they filmed many westerns.  We visited in 2003, so this is an archival photo.  The entry from that time is at this link.

Old Tucson 2003

Returning to my original subject of what’s on TV, there were lots of interesting things on.  I used the remote a lot, so I watched none of these full time or to the end.  It is a sort of TV multitasking.  Sometimes you don't have to watch the whole thing.  

There were some episodes of Iraq Diary on the Military Channel.   It brought back some memories, good and bad.  They talked about the heat and the dust and getting dusted by the helicopters. I remember.   One of my favorite programs is "Modern Marvels".  I had a saved episode re superhighways.  I watched the History Channel on the Spartans, the Battle for Rome and one about our Civil War.   I got a few snippets of “The Longest Day” and “Highlander.”  I don’t remember which channel they were on.  “South Park” was funny.  It was about the Goths.  The eWest channel had John Wayne movies all day and I watched the end of “The Man from Utah” made in 1934.   The interesting thing about old movies is that they were made with real sets and actors, not computer enhancement.   I also watched part of “Rooster Cogburn,” the John Wayne movie made forty years after “The Man From Utah.”   In between was “The Horse Soldiers.”  I didn’t have to watch that, since I still recall it well.  It was not a very good movie anyway.  I still like to watch “Bonanza”  Sundays on TVLand.   It is not so much that I like the show itself anymore, but it gives me a kind of peaceful, easy, nostalgic feeling.   Little Joe, Ben, Adam & Hoss seem like old friends when they ride up with Lake Tahoe in the background.  Bonanza was on Sunday nights when I was growing up.   

I remember the Cartwrights were on the night when the Beetles premiered on the Ed Sullivan Show.    We were at a party at my Aunt Florence’s house.  My cousins Mary and Barbie were very enthusiastic about watching the Beatles.   I would have preferred to watch “the Scarecrow” on the Wonderful World of Disney, but I was outvoted.  Just as well; the Beatles were historical.     Funny how memory works.  That was almost forty-five ago and I was only eight years old.   I don’t remember what songs the Beatles sang.   I wasn't paying attention.

November 22, 2008

CO2 & Forests

Carbon dioxide makes plants grow faster and stronger, so presumably higher levels of CO2 in the air as a result of burning fossil fuels would make forests grow faster.   I was particularly interested in an experiment done at Duke University where they dosed a loblolly pine plantation with elevated levels of CO2.     Duke is not far from my forests and they were experimenting with the same species as I have on similar soils in a similar environment. 

Below are pines at a Virginia Tech experimental plot testing biosolids at the Peidmont station near Blackstone, VA.  The trees were not actively managed before the biosolid experiments.

Loblolly pines at Virgina Tech study plot for biosolid application May 2007 at the Peidmont station near Blackstone, VA.  The trees were not actively managed before the biosolid experiments.

The studies showed that the pines did indeed grow faster and stronger.  They were also less prone to damage during ice storms, which is a factor that limits loblolly growth farther north.  The forest did relatively better during dry years.   The hypothesis is that the limiting factors in the growth of the pines are nutrients such as nitrogen, which is in deficit on much of the pine land in the Southeast.   In dry years, however, the trees don’t bump up against those factors since they are growing more slowly because water is the limiting factor.  When rain is plentiful they are reach the limits of the site's nutrients and the extra CO2 isn’t much of a benefit.

Everybody knows that forest soils in region are deficient in N and P as well as trace minerals.   Pine forests often sit on land that was used for cotton, corn or tobacco.  These crops depleted the soils, which were old soils anyway.  Building the soils is one of our tasks. 

It seems to me that we have a solution to this problem if we just fertilize better.   This is something we might want to do anyway.   I think this is a place for biosolids.    I really don’t understand why we cannot balance these things better.   I read about the problems of disposing bulk wastes and sewage from municipalities and commercial farms.   In Virginia and NC, we have a lot of chicken and hog operations.   They produce too much crap; our soils could use it and the trees would grow better and faster.  I am going to try to figure out why this is not being done more widely.  I suspect it is misguided regulation coupled with plain inertia.

Below is one of my failures, or maybe a single success.  I planted twenty baldcypress.  As far as I can tell, only one survived.  I want to get back into the swamp when the ground freezes this winter to check on the overall progress.  I was in Iraq last winter, so I missed that opportunity then.  The tree you can see in the picture is thriving.   The others not.  I don't know what I did wrong.   My guess is that there was too much competition.  There are a lot of box elders that overgrew them.  This one is near the road, so I can get at the brush regularly.  BTW - the baldcypress is the green one on the left. 

baldcypress on Matel tree farm.  one of my failures, or maybe a single success success.  I planted twenty baldcypress.  As far as I can tell, only one survived.  This one you can see in the picture is thriving.   The others not.  I don't know what I did wrong.   My guess is that there was too much competition.  There are a lot of box elders that overgrew them.  This one is near the road, so I can get at the brush regularly.  BTW - the baldcypress is the green one on the left.

Anyway, the Dept of Energy, which was funding the Duke studies, is pulling the plug on them.   You can find information re at links here, here & here.    It was that news that made me think about this subject.   I am a little unhappy about this outcome, although I am not sure how much more could be gained anyway.    There are too many variables.  You would have to try to fertilize some, make sure others had lots of water etc. and by the time you figured it out the results would probably be OBE’D.  Good forestry practices and superior genetics will make the forests grow a lot faster anyway.    Experiments are difficult in forestry because of the variable conditions and the very long times involved.   It is usually easier to compare and contrast different places and practices over larger areas and work with landowners.

Below are 13-year-old loblolly pines on my new land.  They are planted close together, which shaded out other trees.  You can see there are only a few stray hardwoods.  But these trees are too close.  I want to thin them out maybe in 2010.  That is a little early, but the stand is growing well and I think the opening will help.

13 year old pines on Matel land forest #2 fall 2008.  They are planted close together, which shaded out other trees.  You can see there are only a few stray hardwoods.  But these trees are too close.  I want to thin them out maybe in 2010.  That is a little early, but the stand is growing well and I think the opening will help.

Virginia Tech does a good job of outreach to forest owners, which helps them understand the forests of Virginia in a very practical way.    For example, they are studying biosolids application on a tree farm near Blackstone and they invite landowners and anybody else interested to look at the results.  It was a biosolids demonstration in 2007 that directly led me to apply biosolids on my land.    They also send around student teams to check on forest pests etc.   All this outreach makes the whole Commonwealth of Virginia their laboratory.

I know this is a bit of a subject change, but I have to add that any CO2 solution requires higher prices for carbon-based fuels.  The bad news is that oil prices are coming down.  We need to tax them back up.  I have been writing about this for years now.  Please follow this link and let me know what you think.  

Of course, maybe all this will go for nought.  It has been darn cold around here for the past weeks and I read in the paper today that not only was this October one of the colder on record, but there has been no global warming for the last ten years.   Statistics are like that, however.  There is the story re the man whose head is in the freezer and feet in the fire but on average he is comfortable.

November 20, 2008

Traditions, Quantico and NGOs on the Battlefield

Military bases and battlefields are often located on beautiful natural locations.  It makes sense when you think about it.  They were looking for high ground that commanded some natural features.   Such places have nice views.   Below is the view of the Potomac from the Marine base at Quantico where I went to participate on a panel on civil military affairs at the Expeditionary Warfare School. 

Potomac River view from Quantico

We had an interesting discussion about NGOs in battle spaces.   The students were generally unsympathetic to the neutrality of NGOs and their arguments were cogent.   What happens when an NGO learns about an imminent attack?  On the other hand, it is important that we have NGOs maintain the ability to work with both sides, at least nominally.   This is especially important for an organization like the Red Cross, which has real responsibility to minister to the victims of armed conflict on all sides.   There will always be a dynamic tension.    It takes physical courage to be on a battlefield and it takes moral courage to maintain neutrality in these tough conditions.   The expedient thing to do in the short run is often not the right thing for the long run.  I defended the NGOs, although I admitted that the actions of many also annoy me much of the time.   We cannot always defend only those things we like.  

Beyond that, NGOs are a key part of civil society.   They usually help us with stability operations, whether or not they want to work toward “our” goals.  They provide services that make life better for the local people.   The bad guys tend to hate them for that.   Their goal is to make life horrible for the average person in order to break down support for legitimate authority, create chaos and drum up recruits for their nefarious purposes.   Of course, that does not include the politically motivated NGOs, and there are a few of them.

General Roy Geiger at Quantico

The military does tradition well.  The building where we met was called Geiger Hall.  Many buildings are named after famous people, or people who gave piles of money to whatever institution is naming the place.  This is different.  General Geiger earned the honor AND the building owners explained why.   The constant exposure to the reminders of his successful and heroic life gives instruction and inspiration.  These are things we need more in our lives.  Below is the story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a truly remarkable man.  If you don't know the story, I suggest you google him.

joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

I had to rush back from Quantico to do a presentation on strategic communications for the JSAT at NDU.   Our part of the task force is studying that and I will write more insights re public diplomacy when I have more of them.   I will have to go to Doha to work on this in early December.   Back to the Middle Eastern desert.   Actually that area is pleasant in the winter, it is only for a couple weeks and I won’t be in the war zone, so I don’t mind.   

Fishing on the Potomac

I walked along the Potomac on the way from the Metro to NDU, where I met this guy.   He told me that he was fishing for catfish and rockfish and catching some catfish.   As a senior citizen, he says he doesn’t need a license to fish in the Potomac.   He has been fishing there for more than a half century, back when this part of Washington was a poor semi-rural town.

Squirrel in washington 

Above - with all the oak trees, we have alot of squirrels, agile and graceful creatures.  Three of them were burying acorns, but by the time I got my camera out, only one remained.   This one reared up.

November 19, 2008


John Matel giving talkThe post below is the core of my talk that I gave yesterday to a group of young engineers re infrastructure in Iraq.    Chrissy came along and took the picture you see on the side.   I think the talk went okay.    I did not have too much to write today but I wanted to put up the picture of me at work.  I enjoy public speaking as long as I don’t have to stick too closely to the text.   I like the give-and-take, not the formal talking at the crowd.

I cannot decide what I like best.  Speaking is one of my natural environments.  I like to talk to groups of people, but then I really like to be in my woods by myself. I am lucky to have the lifestyle that lets me indulge many of my peculiar preferences.  Forestry is not a common hobby among FSOs. 

Espen and I were watching TV and on came a commercial for Bosley hair restoration.   He asked me why I didn't call. I told him that i not only don't mind being bald, but I actually prefer it.  It is much easier to take care of and I pity those hairy fools who have to waste their money and grooming products and throw away their time using them. 

I also am happy with the beard.  I can groom that once a week and otherwise not think about it.  No more shampoo and shaving.   Mornings are easy.  

I figure this is probably my most inane post, but sometimes you have to be inane.

As I walked around tonight, I noticed the Capitol.  It is pretty at night and – to my surprise – my camera got a decent picture.  It is amazing what a cheap digital camera can do.  Of course, I had to take five to get this one w/o too much shaking to make it blurry.

Capitol at night

November 18, 2008

Infrastructure in Iraq

As the introduction says, I am a career Foreign Service Officer who recently returned from a year in Iraq leading a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) embedded with the Marine Regimental Combat Team in Western Iraq. 

John Matel on railroad tracks in Akashat

PRTs are an old idea made new.   My assignment was to help rebuild Western Iraq, a task much bigger than me.  I had a team of seventeen (17) experts to help.   I also had the cooperation of the Marines and other U.S. military stationed in Iraq and most importantly I could ride on the energy, talent and hard work of the Iraqi people in Anbar.   I think we were successful.   I feel a little like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, however.   I arrived in Anbar at the inflection point when the war-fighting stage was largely over and the rebuilding was beginning.  The people of Anbar, with the help of the Marines and my team members, made great strides during that year and I was privileged and proud to work among them.

Let me tell you a little about how I would like to handle this talk.  I propose to lay out general principles and then fill in some examples. This won’t take very long.  After that, I would like to address your specific questions and concerns.  

A disclaimer.  I am not an engineer.  Leading a team called a provincial reconstruction team implies building and engineering.  This is not the case.  I cannot talk re specifications, materials or building methods. 

What I can tell you is what I saw in Iraq with my own eyes.  What I have seen may indeed make more sense to you when I describe it than it does to me.  Your training gives you insights I don’t have. My eyes and your expertise may create synergy.

Our PRT was tasked with helping rebuild – or in many case just build – infrastructure in Iraq.  Infrastructure is broader than roads and buildings.  You know that.  Infrastructure includes all those things that make a prosperous modern society possible.   

Roads, Bridges etc.

We start with the obvious things like roads, bridges and railroads.   W/o these things prosperity is not possible.  Then we move to factories mines and office buildings.  In Iraq, they had significant agricultural infrastructure in the form of irrigation and water projects.  All these things are clearly classified as infrastructure and can be built almost anywhere.  But there is more. 

Farm in Iraq


One of the hardest tasks in any developing country is the infrastructure of institutions.  We Americans often forget this because we have had a functioning country with rule of law, more or less predictable political system and functioning government bureaucracies for hundreds of years.  Iraq was lacking all those things.  W/o institutions, you can build all the physical infrastructure you want and still not create a modern prosperous society.

Societal Strength

Which comes first, a strong civil society or civil society institutions?   I don’t think you can really determine cause and effect.  They strengthen and support each other or pull each other down.   A key ingredient is trust.  Most of our transitions are based on trust, even those we think of as determined by law.   A prosaic example is when you go into a restaurant.   Your waiter trusts you pay for your meal and leave an appropriate tip.  You trust him not to tack on unreasonable charges and supply decent service and food.  Imagine if each transaction required you to check references and proactively defend your interests.  Trust in Iraq had been sorely tested and ripped apart by Saddam Hussein, his capriciousness and his wars.   The level of trust is still low and a society with a low level of trust is a weak society.   You cannot build a strong society directly.  It takes time.

Below - Iraq geography is like the moon with more gravity.

Iraqi road with Marines


We often take environmental services for granted.  It is like good health.  You don’t miss it until it is gone.   In the U.S. we suffered through the dust bowl years when we abused our environment beyond its capacity.   There are other examples, but the dust bowl is appropriate because that is what Iraq suffers.  Dust storms are part of the natural arid environment, but the fantastic dust storms I saw are the result of long term human degradation.  We started to help rebuild this infrastructure.   

soccer field in Iraq 

Human Capital

The most important part of infrastructure is human capital.   These are the technical skills, work habits, managerial capacity, entrepreneurial dexterity and even the good health of the people themselves. 

Human capital is harder to build and more important than physical capital.   My father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  They bombed German cities to rubble. When I went to Germany as a student, he asked me if they had rebuilt.  It seemed to me like a silly question, but it wasn’t.   Many countries that were underdeveloped twenty years ago are still underdeveloped today. Germany was completely devastated in 1945, yet ten years later the western half at least was among the world’s most prosperous countries.  People build and run things.  That simple fact is often overlooked by those who think they can just buy or give prosperity.

Or think of the more pop example. In the old television show MacGyver, the lead character would go into a situation with almost no tools.  He would make what he needed out of simple kitchen ingredients or thing he found lying around.   This is the power of human intelligence in real (Germany) and fictional examples. 

Iraq suffered mightily from the destruction of its human capital.  Millions of its best and brightest citizens fled the country during the decades of Saddam’s tyranny.  Many more never acquired the skills of a modern society because of the mismanagement and underinvestment in the education system and lack of opportunities.  Iraq during the dictatorship went from being one of the most skilled and literate countries in the region to being one of the worst.   Finally, the recent war and unstable conditions made refugees of millions, many have still not returned.   This is the longest term and most difficult problem that must be addressed.  Money can buy the beginning of a solution, but only time can bring it to fruition.

Let me give you some specific examples of each of the categories.   I want this part to be conversational.  Please feel free to ask questions as I talk.   A text of what I just said is available at my webpage at www.johnsonmatel.com/blog1 

November 17, 2008

Backgrounder on My ePRT

This blog entry goes with my talk this week re building Iraqi infrastructure, what we did on the ePRT, and how civil-military cooperation worked in my experience.   I have included relevant links to other places on the blog that I believe illustrate various aspects of the work.   If you are reading this before the talk, I look forward to your questions.   If you are reading this after the talk, I hope this fills in some of the blank spaces and/or questions raised.   In either case, please feel free to post questions of comments. John Matel & LtCol Robert McCarthy at Al Asad

Why I volunteered to go to Iraq

Getting used to being at Al Asad

Notes on our ePRT

·         Evolution of the Western Anbar ePRT

·         Our team 1

·         Our team 2

Infrastructure in Western Iraq

Embracing local culture (goat grab)

Prospering in spite of the politicians

Achieving success in Iraq

Western Anbar progress report

Sanctions, mismanagement & lost opportunities

We did what they said couldn’t be done (can we use the V-word yet?)

Come safely home

The Marines and me

Marines (and a soldier) at Al Asad in Sept 2008

An Ordinary Day at Work & Play

Below - Path to Potomac from NDU.  Notice the red oaks on one side and the laurel oaks on the other.

 Path to Potomac from NDU.  Notice the red oaks on one side and the laurel oaks on the other

I have to leave before 0700 to get to the task force by 0800.  NDU is about a fifteen minute walk from the Waterside Mall stop or around a half hour from Federal Center.  I prefer to walk to Federal Center.  That way I don’t have to change trains.   I like the walk, although according to the Washington Post the area near Waterside Mall is not a safe area.   I don’t intend to change anyway, so I don’t suppose I need to look into it any further.

Washington Metro sign

Below is the escalator to my Metro stop.  The etiquette is that people stand to the left and walk to the right.  I like to guess who will stand and who will walk.   I believe my record is good. I admit that I might have confirmation bias, but you can often predict by body type.  Tourists also tend not to walk, but I think they just don’t know the local custom. 

Metro escalator

Below is my Gold’s Gym.  I used to go there three times a week, but I still have not renewed my membership.   Tomorrow.  Gold's Gym is simpler and cheaper than some others.  My kind of place.

Gold's Gym

The walk along the Potomac from the Metro to NDU is a little out of the way, but it is nice.  

Titanic Monument Washington

I came across this monument to the victims of the Titanic.  It says it was commissioned by American women to thank the men of the Titanic for letting the women and children go first.   This sounds crazy to people in our more cynical age, but that is evidently how it happened.   The movie “Titanic” had to go against the historical record and show a more cynical picture.   In a similar situation, when the Lusitania sunk Alfred Vanderbilt gave his life preserver to a young woman even though he couldn’t swim.  His body was never recovered. 

Zoning meeting in Fairfax Co VA

In the evening, Chrissy and I went to a zoning meeting.   They are talking about raising the density of the lots on both sides of our townhouse complex.  Some of the buildings could be as high as 115 feet.  We will be like a canyon between all these buildings.    But density makes sense near the Metro.    It is good to see all the citizens involved in their communities.   Although some of the same people make the same comments and complaints.


November 16, 2008


Below are grounds at NDU.

Cannons at NDU 

If you want to effectively be action oriented, you have to spend most of your time trying to figure things out.    You have to be reasonably certain that you are doing the right things and that you are doing the important things and not merely responding to the urgent ones.    If you don’t think about things in advance, you will get stuck responding to events and/or be captured by the passions or fears  of others.   All this makes perfect sense, but it is harder to do than to talk about.   It is hard to not get excited when things are moving fast and it is easy to get blamed for doing nothing or waiting even when those are the proper responses.   

I expect life will get interesting soon when the new political appointees come to take over.  IIP has been w/o political appointees for a couple of years, ever since Alex Feldman left.  This is very uncommon.  In times past, we had all sorts of political guys around and I am sure we will have them again in the new administration.  The new people always have lots of ideas and they often believe that they are the first to have thought of them.   This is my forth big transition.   When all the sound and fury is finished & the dust has settled the trajectories are fairly predictable.  Career people like me have to remember that the political leaders set policy and we have the duty to help those policies succeed for the good of the country.  The hard part is to give advice in a credible way w/o being either arrogant or sycophantic.  The best way to do prepare for this is to know the portfolio and have thought through the various scenarios.   In other words, to be action oriented you have to have spent the time figuring things out.

The thing I worry about in the transition is security policy.  (I am happy that I am not directly involved with too much of this, BTW, but I still think about it.  Transitions are seams and enemies can exploit seams.   The U.S. did a good job preventing new terror attacks after 9/11.   We also managed to turn around the situation in Iraq and achieve tentative success there.    I am afraid that there is a growing public perception that these outcomes were natural or resulted from luck.   As the memory of dangerous and uncertain events fades, complacency grows.   We were indeed lucky in that the bad guys did some really stupid things – they overreached - and we were lucky that in the last couple of years many things broke our way more often than not, but our success depended on a lot of things we did right.   I am personally familiar with only a small part, but I know enough to be sure of that.   We should be sure not to lose through apathy & unawareness what we have worked so hard to win with effort, bravery and blood.    

Below - waterfall at American Indian Museum in Washington

Waterfall at American Indian Museum  

It seems so long ago now.  In the years since 9/11/2001 many people have been trying to understand the motivations of terrorists and working to make profiles of the sorts of people who become violent extremists.    Not many people really have the mental profile of the violent extremist.   It takes a prodigious amount of hate, intolerance and determination to make a person want to be a terrorist.    Fortunately it also takes something else – opportunity, as well as a impetus. Beyond that, the link between attitude and behavior is tenuous.   

Links – Links are the keys.   There is a long chain between the conception of a terrorist desire and the successful completion of destruction & mass murder.   A chain is as strong only as its weakest link and each of the links in the chain can be attacked.   You attack the whole chain by identifying and attacking each of the links as well as the environments that help forge the chain.  That is what I hope and believe our information activities are helping and will help to do.    That is what we have to keep on working to do.

We have to be not like a chain, but like a cable, where each strand goes from start to finish, twined together seamlessly.   I hope this transition will be smooth and clean.

November 15, 2008

Earth Day Park & L’Enfant Promenade

I usually get off the Metro at Smithsonian.   That is two stops before the one closest to my job at State Annex 44.  The walk takes around fifteen minutes and it is through some nice places around the Smithsonian. 

Earth Day Park Washington DC

You probably would not make a special trip to see Earth Day Park, on Independence Avenue.   As the old saying goes, it is worth seeing but maybe not worth going to see.  It is one of those things  you notice and enjoy when you it becomes an ordinary part of life.   You enjoy it more when you know a little about it. 

Earth Day Park was dedicated on Earth Day in 1996.  It covers the top of Interstate 395 as it passes below the Mall.   This makes it remarkable.  This kind of thing is not usually attractive and I understand that this was no exception until the park was made. 

Everything in the park is low maintenance.     The lily turf requires no regular cutting.  It is enough to do it once a year and it survives even if you don’t.    The trees and bushes can live on the semi-rooftop environment, with its frequent lack of normal soil moisture. 

BTW – the path looks very inviting, but if you follow it you don’t get anywhere.  When I first saw it, I thought it might be a nice sideway to get to work.  Not. 

L'Enfant Promenade, Washington DC

Above is L’Enfant Promenade.   I mentioned it in an earlier post.  I don’t like it.  It is ugly, almost Stalinist.  That boulevard goes nowhere.   You can kind of get down to the riverfront from there, but it is not easy.    The road ends at Benjamin Banneker Memorial, about a quarter mile from where the picture was taken, just over the rise at the horizon.    

In typical 1960s style, L’Enfant Promenade manages to almost get it right, but ends up combining two things in a way that emphasizes the disadvantages of each.   You can see from the picture that the promenade looks like a boulevard for cars.  It is.   But since it goes nowhere there is not much point to drive along it.   It has become a long parking lot.   There was great potential as a walking street, as the name promenade implies.   The end of the street has a nice view of the river.  But there is enough traffic to make walking (or running) unpleasant.    The design exacerbates the problem, as the few cars that do use the road come around a circle at Bannecker Memorial in a way that keeps pedestrians looking over their shoulders.

So, to sum up:  Earth Day Park Good; L’Enfant Promenade bad.  Perhaps they should restructure L'Enfant to make it more pedestrian friendly and more like Earth Day Park. 

Quiznos in Washington DC

Above is one of the local attractions - Quiznos.  You can see all us bureaucrats lining up for the feed.  I get the small classic Italian on wheat bread.  When you get the combo (i.e. coke and chips) it costs $7.02 with taxes included.  Quiznos is my favorite sub, excepting Cousins from Milwuakee, which is unfortunately unavailable in Washington.

November 14, 2008

Good Life in Washington

Ginko tree at Smithsonian 

Above - ginko tree outside Smithsonian

The best things in life are free … especially if you live in Washington DC,  where you can go to all the museums and enjoy all the public space, think tanks and events at no or little cost.  Europeans justifiably boast of their cultural achievements, but everything costs money there.   You have to buy tickets to the museums in Rome, Paris or London and much of the public space is not really open to the public. 

Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian

Above is Sackler Gallery.  There are vast underground facilities.  The Mall gets to look untrampled.

The irony – and this goes for lots of things besides museums – is that in America we have access to things in practice but not in theory, while in most other places you have access to things in theory but not in practice.  People are often beguiled by the promises.  They want to be granted the right to something in principle.   They forget what Otto von Bismarck, who originated the first social security program said, “When a man says he approves of something in principle, it means he hasn’t the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.

We get a lot in practice, even if we are not doing so well in theory.  Way back in 1827, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German man of letters, wrote it in a poem. "Amerika, Du hast es besser" (America, you have it better), he said -  and he was right. Life is good. 

National Gallery Pompeii exhibit

The National Gallery of Art & Pompeii

I enjoy being in Washington.  It offers so much.   On my lunch break today I walked over the National Gallery of Art to see “Pompeii and the Roman Villa.”  I couldn’t take pictures inside, but you can see what it looks like at this link.    It is great just to drop in.  Because there is so much and it is freely available, you don’t feel like you have the chore of staying all day and making an ordeal out of the appreciation of art.  I stayed only around a half hour.  I did not “see everything” but I can come back.   IMO that is how culture should be, a part of life integrated into daily activities.  

Below - community garden near Capitol.  I think this is left over from the 1960s. 

Community garden near Capitol

I heard about the exhibit before, but I was motivated to go today by my Roman history lecture on my I-Pod.  They were talking about the Roman cities and used Pompeii as an example.   Pompeii was not the greatest of Roman cities, it was not even very important, but we have the unique frozen in time aspect.  Tragic as it was to the people at the time, the eruption of Vesuvius has made them the messengers of their culture to future generations.

Below is depression era artwork on a government building near the National Gallery/

Depression era art on Washington DC government building

The area around Naples for the Romans was something like the California coast is to us.  Life was pleasant and easy.  The rich and famous went there to live and vacation.   They build expensive houses and lived large.  According to what I learned at the exhibit, the very rich people lived in coastal villas.  Pompeii was sort of middle rich.  The district was called Campania.  It had a good climate and great soil, provided in part by the volcanic activity that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79.  Volcanic soil is very productive.   It is sort of a bargain.  You get live the good life on the volcanic minerals, but it is unpleasant to be there when the volcano spreads a little more ash.

November 13, 2008

Office Space & Pleistocene Brains

Below is our new office building across from Main State (Harry Truman Building).   It should be ready for us to move into by June.  Construction is ahead of schedule, which is uncommon.

Pharma building in Washington

We are moving to a new building where space is at a premium & we had to assign offices.  I really cannot picture the layout by looking at the map of the offices.  Fortunately, my colleague Joel did the thinking for both of us.  He evidently understands blueprints and knows a lot of those arcane rules e.g. how much space a GS-12, 13,14s etc are suppose to get. Office space allocation is one of the thorniest issues you can think of.   It is not so much about comfort - more about status.  

The problem is that there are natural work flows and work groups that do not follow rank.   For example, by the nature of the job a low ranking receptionist will almost always command more space, albeit not very private, than a higher ranking analyst.   It might also be useful to group people by their tasks, but that almost always means that you might crowd the higher ranking group members and give more space to the lower one.   I think the whole rank thing is a little silly.   Of course we all want a nice big place with a window, but you have to consider the job to be done.  I figure that I need a big space to accommodate my big ideas, but not everyone agrees.  Some tasks require space, others not so much.

There is also the bugaboo of privacy.  It makes logical sense that a private workspace would be smaller because there is no need to have group interactivity.   In fact, it usually works the other way around, with people demanding large private spaces and the loudest or highest ranking people getting them. 

My favorite office arrangement remains one I saw in Norway at one of the environmental organizations.   Everybody from the director to the newest hire had the same small sized office, but there were common spaces in the middle where people could meet.  There was not much privacy, but I think that is a good thing if you are trying to create teams and synergy.   It is better if people see what is going on.   You want to avoid providing covered places to hide  Unfortunately in our organizations somebody always wants to knock down walls and expand his/her office, then close it off from everybody else.  I suppose the desire for mark off defensible territory goes back to our Pleistocene ancestors, but you would think after all this time we would have gotten over it.

Below - rainy day at the shuttle bus stop.

rainy day at the shuttle stop

There is another point of view on all this.  I understand that my insouciance on this matter leads to my getting rolled on space issues.  The Pleistocene warriors get to take over my hunting grounds and eat my lunch because they are so much more passionate.  Sometimes I suppose I should toss a few rocks and feign a scream.   But I am speculating way too much on way too small an issue in this situation. 

I don’t want to leave the false impression that I am having problems already.  The office space thing was just intereresting, not a problem.  My new colleagues are great and I got no worries.  I am pleased to report that everyone seems reasonable.  Perhaps that is because they are mostly new in their jobs and in relatively new offices.  Nobody has developed an abiding attachment to their space.  I don’t suppose everyone will be as lucky as I am.   Some offices look like they have been occupied since Neolithic times and moving those offices may require an environmental impact statement to ensure that the ecological communities that have grown in and around them are not disturbed.  I pity the guys who have to make those choices.

Starting the New Job(s)

Below is the Capitol & the Indian Museum on my way to work.

Capitol & Indian Museum 

It is always confusing in the first days back on the job.  This time the feeling is exacerbated because I am trying to do several things at once.  I am assigned to work on a strategy group at NDU.  While I am sure it will be very rewarding, it created a whole new set of challenges I had not thought about.  This is nothing earthshaking.  They are things like getting my clearances passed so that I can get the proper ID, finding my role in the groups and just finding rooms and offices in a place I have never worked before.  This comes at the same time that I am checking into my new job and checking out of the old one.   I have to file travel vouchers, get the logon, get the Blackberry set up, do check in etc.  Again, this is nothing earth shaking, but it takes more time than it seems it should and generally throws sand in gears.  

Below - chin up bars etc near Air & Space Museum

Chin up bars near Air & Space Museum

I have to be careful with the adjustment.  I had thought through my first weeks at the new job and had a good idea of what to do.  I don’t “hit the ground running”.  Rather I try to learn the new organization, the people and my place among them.  This requires time and patience, since it has the element of relationship building and not mere knowledge acquisition.  First impressions are not sufficient and I don’t want to move before I know where I am going.   It is especially challenging at IIP because I was here before, doing a nearby job, and I think I know things. 

It is easy to be overconfident when you think you know something.  I learned my lesson in Warsaw.  I had been in nearby Krakow so I knew most of the Warsaw staff.  I had even served as acting press attaché up there for a couple months, so I thought I knew everything I needed to know.   When I got to post, I just started to do things and make decisions and waves.  A few months into the job, I realized that I would have been better doing some things differently.   I like to take quick action, but I have come to understand the advantages of patience and doing not much at first.  Better to seem a little dull at first than start climbing the wrong mountain.  I am not talking a long time, just enough to start out on the right foot.

Below - Natural History Museum.  Notice the Roman style.  The Romans invented the kind of cement that allowed them to make domes like that.  Egyptians, Babylonians & Classical Greeks didn't use domes because they couldn't make them w/o what we today call concrete.  Alex & I visited the Pantheon in Rome.  The dome is still standing 1800 years later.  Even more impressive is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul built by Justinian the Great from 532-7.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum

I am reminded that my plans never work anyway.  I find myself doing something completely different, which will make my entry on duty seem more tentative and ragged.   It is like making the grand entrance just as you notice that you forgot to put on your shoes.   I am not sure how to handle this.   On the one hand, I can do both jobs.  This is not as crazy as it sounds.   There is a lot in my IIP/P job that is directly applicable to my NDU job.  Both responsibilities are involved with strategy, information gathering & public affairs, sometimes about the very same things.  What my IIP colleagues have done and what I can share with my NDU colleagues will add value to both.   There is a real possibility for synergy that I hate to lose.   On the other hand, we have the problem of being half there.  I guess the choices are limited.  I already have made the half there entrance and may as well make the most of it.

I attended my first staff meeting at my new IIP/P job and got the run down of ongoing activities. We are doing some interesting things.  We are going to do focus groups in Tunisia and Jordan re the impact of our outreach programs.  Another colleague is working on a conference and publication on the problems of extremism.  This is a very intellectually satisfying venture, since it will involve lots of scholars and get to play with ideas.  Other colleagues edit and post issue briefs and run the information distribution that gives our public affairs professionals information they can use to help them do their jobs.   We also run the public affairs toolkit, a kind of best practices wiki.   The media hubs in London, Brussels and Dubai also have a place on our pages as do the research people, who post their public opinion assessments.   There are a lot of interesting things going on and a lot of things I want to get involved with doing.

November 12, 2008

SW Washington & Ft McNair

Ft McNair housing 

Above is housing on Ft McNair, the home of National Defense University (NDU). 

I went back to work today at IIP/P.   My job will be interesting since my group is supposed to act as an incubator, take ideas and then spin them off for others.   That suits my preferences.   My strength is that I am good at innovating, but that comes with a corresponding weakness that I am not great at doing things that require me closely to follow established procedures.  

Most strengths have corresponding weaknesses and if somebody tells you what he is good at doing you can often guess where he has troubles.  The trick is work with your strengths.  You really cannot eliminate your weaknesses, but you can deploy your strengths in such a ways to minimize them.   

Marshall Hall NDU

Above is Marshall Hall at NDU.  

But I found out that the job will be different than I thought, at least at first.   In the first months, I will be working down at NDU.   I have to take the green line to waterside mall and then walk about a mile down to NDU.   

Below - apartments become condos.  We lived in this building when it was Oakwood temporary housing.

Oakwood now condos

I lived around there in SW when I studied Norwegian back in 1988.  It was kind of a strange mix.  Some of it was very nice and some very bad because it sat on the edge of the gentrifying district.   In the last decades, the nice part has expanded.  It still retains some of the seedy parts, but it is not scary as it was in 1988.   Of course, 1988 was still the time of Mayor Berry, when Washington in general was a scary place.     Things have really improved.  Of course, some of the improvement is just making up for earlier attempts at improvement. 

SW street scene Washington DC

Evidently in the 1960s, SW was – in the parlance of the times – blighted.   Using Federal dollars, they drove out the inhabitants and built those 1960 style structures we all love so much.  It is hard to believe this is what they WANTED to accomplish.  In the 1960s, our country and much of the world seemed to have lost its good taste.  Were any attractive buildings constructed during the 1960s?  The worst part of the area is L'enfant Plaza.   I will have to wander down there and take some pictures for a future blog.

Construction in SW

On the plus side, they did a good job planting trees and so after forty years there are lots of nice big trees.  Even better, many of the 1960s buildings are being torn down and replaced.   When we lived in SW, we used to go to Waterside Mall.  It was a sad place.  In 1988, there was a CVS (I think still called People’s Drugs), a Blimpie, Roy Rogers and some record stores.   Outside was a Pizza Hut and a Safeway.   Over time, everything flickered out, until finally only Safeway and CVS remained.  I used to go down there sometimes and get a salad at safeway.  The Mall itself provided a shortcut to Safeway and had a bunch of "outdoorsmen" hanging around outside, but was otherwise abandoned.  Sometime in the last year they tore down the Waterside Mall.  Safeway is still in business outside, so there is no real loss, except now you have to walk all the way around the block.   Now that there is a metro stop, the neighborhood is improving. 

Waterside Mall construction

Above - the former site of Waterside Mall. 

Parking sign 

Above - parking costs.  I guess this is a good deal.  It is "special" after all.  

November 11, 2008

Veterans' Day at Arlington

Veterans' day flagVeterans’ day is one of the few Federal holidays held on the actual date, even when it is not on a Monday, because it commemorates the specific occasion on  the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the armistice went into effect in World War I.   I went to Arlington Cemetery to think about what the day signifies.   

I used to pass through Arlington Cemetery on my bike when it was still possible to cut through Ft Meyer on the way to Washington.  After 9/11 this was closed off and they also banned bikes and runners in the cemetery.  I understand that but I don’t really agree.   It is not a sign of disrespect to pass through the place. 

I made a special effort to pass through Arlington.  It was a little out of the way, but worth it.  When you see something regularly, it becomes more a part of your consciousness.   That is the way I also feel about museums, art and monuments in general.  These things should be part of your life, not place you go only on special occasions.

Washington from Arlington Cemetery, Robert E. Lee house

Arlington National Cemetery overlooks the Potomac and Washington.   Before the Civil War, it was Robert E. Lee’s estate.   Lee decided to resign his commission and offer his services to the State of Virginia.    The next day, he went to Richmond and never returned to Arlington.   The Union used it to bury the dead from local battles, which is how it started to be a cemetery.  Before the ceremony, I went up to see Robert E. Lee’s house, stopping off at the Kennedy memorial with the eternal flame.    Bobby Kennedy is there too.   Below is the eternal flame on Kennedy's grave.

Eternal flame on John F Kennedy grave

Below - the Kennedy monument is flat, so you cannot see it over the visitors.  The simplicity is impressive.

Kennedy grave 

At 11am Dick Cheney laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown.    I couldn’t get close enough to see the ceremony.   In fact, I could not get a place generally in the amphitheater.   I don’t know when you had to show up, but it was earlier than I got there.    I really didn’t care if I could see Dick Cheney, but Bo Derek was the master of ceremonies.   I would have liked to get a better look at her.    All I could see were columns and the crowd as I hung around the periphery of the ceremonies.

Robert E. Lee house in Arlington 

Above is the enterance to Arlington.  On top of the hill is Robert E. Lee's house.  In the foreground is the women's monument.  

The view out the window at Robert E. Lee's house in Arlington

Above is the view out of Robert E. Lee's window looking at a beautiful old cedar.

Julius Szamwald monument

Above – some of the older parts of the cemetery have more elaborate monuments.   This one caught my eye.   It memorializes a Julius Szamwald.  He  was a Hungarian freedom fighter who came to the U.S., where he helped organize the 8th New York  infantry regiment and became a general during the Civil War.  He finished his career in the Foreign Service.   He did great a service to America, which put him in the company of the heroes around him.  All of them have their own stories.  

Veteran color guard 

Above is the veteran color guards.

Tomb of Unknown at Arlington 

Above is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Washington from Arlington

Above - Washington with the telephoto.  You can see the Lincoln Memorial over Memorial Bridge.  Of course, you recognize Washington Monument.  

November 09, 2008

Bolton Hill Baltimore

Below - Mariza on her street in Bolton Hill

Mariza Street on Bolton Hill 

Mariza rents a house along with some roommates in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill district.   I was a little apprehensive when Mariza got her job in Baltimore.   I remembered the crime and squalor.  But the city has improved a lot in recent years and there are some really nice and neighborhoods.   The Mount Vernon area, right next to Mariza’s area is very nice.  A lot of her co-workers live in Federal Hill, evidently a yupifiying district.   We walked around there.  It is not that nice, IMO, but it does have large numbers of restaurants.  It reminded me of State Street in Madison. 

Bolton Hill Baltimore Street

Mariza moved her last year.  She started out by looking for apartments in the Inner Harbor area, which is superficially attractive but too expensive and a little artificial, sort of like living in Disneyland.    Actually, I have to admit that it was our advice that she look there.  It was the only area of Baltimore that Chrissy and I knew.  Her further investigation turned up other, better opportunities.   

Bolton Hill street Baltimore

Where she lives now has lot of parks and museums and the Maryland Institute College of Art is there.    Many of the old buildings have been recently renovated and it is a mostly intact 19th Century neighborhood.    It is within walking distance to restaurants and stores and has good access to public transportation and the light rail system, which is important because Mariza doesn’t have a car.   It is a nice place to live and seems safe.   

Garden house near Mariza in Bolton Hill

I like the fact that she has roommates.   She has the usual roommate woes.    The landlord forgot to pay the electric bills for the previous period and they were about to lose power, so Mariza had to pay.  The others owe her money.  This is not a big problem; she is in touch with the landlord and can just deduct it from the rent, but she is now in the position of managing the landlord relationship.    They have the mirror image problem with water bills.  Mariza and her roommates were supposed to get the water bills, but they went to the landlord instead.   Now he wants to be repaid for those bills.  It looks like Mariza will again have to front the money and get it back from the roommates. 

Below - We were a little worried about some Baltimore neighborhoods.  Mariza didn't look for houses where we saw this rolling bail-bond truck a couple summers ago.

bail bond truck

I had six roommates one year when I was in college in Madison, but we had trouble after two women moved out and went to Florida.   We had a joint lease and we all had the responsibility to pay our shares of the rent, so we had to find new roommates.  In a college town, there is usually something wrong with anybody looking to rent an apartment in October or November, but we were desperate and got some real weirdoes.  Some were more responsible than others in paying.   I got the enforcer job.  One of my roommates, Marcus, didn’t pay until I threatened him.  This I had to do two months in a row.  After that, he claimed it was a hostile environment and he moved out with one day notice just before the third month’s rent was due. 

These pictures are from our town house complex in Vienna, VA.  The trees are turning nicely.

Providence Park Townhouse

Marcus was slob who didn’t use sheets on his mattress and it was stinky and dirty.   When I came home the day after Marcus moved out, I found the house full of smoke.   One of my other roommates, Tom the stoner (this was the 1970s), was sitting around with his friends in the living room.   I asked them what was going on and Tom just said, “I don’t know, man.  It’s been that way for about an hour.”    I thought it a good idea to find out where the smoke was coming from and found it was coming from under the door in Marcus’ room.   When I opened the door, his bed burst into flames.   Tom had wanted to get the smell out of Marcus’ mattress, so he put some incense on top it.   It burned through into the mattress and was smoldering inside so that when I opened the door, the rush of air ignited it.   I expect it would have started flaming soon enough in any case and I believe that had I not come home when I did, Tom would have burned the house down and he and his friends would have been caught in the conflagration and become literally burnouts.  When he saw the flames, Tom just said, “Wow!”  I beat the flames out with my coat.   We dumped some water on the mattress and got rid of it.  Roommates can be challenging, but they provide interesting stories.    The stories are funny when you look back; not so much at the time.

Our complex again.  I just like the trees in their fall colors.

Our town house complex

Back to the present, I like Baltimore and have been pleasantly surprised by the charm. 

November 08, 2008

Polybius et al & the Rise of the Roman Empire

Since I am talking about old stuff, I thought I would put up a picture of my bike.  I had to take it to the shop and get new back sprockets.  The guy at the shop commented that he rarely saw one of them actually worn out, but mine was.   I got that bike in 1997.   I rode it a lot.    Best bike I have ever owned.

My bike

My walks to the Metro and to FSI plus the Metro rides take more than two hours a day and I have had a lot of opportunity to listen to my I-pod.   I have a really good program from the Teaching Company about Roman history.   (The History of Ancient Rome, by Garrett Fagan of Penn State)There are 48 half-hour lectures and I have gotten as far as the assassination of Julius Caesar.   

Studying Roman history is a good way to learn about leadership, good & bad, and the fall of the Roman Republic provides examples of what happens when the traditions and institutions of order break down.   The Founding Fathers were well versed in Roman history and our own Constitution is very much influenced by the Romans.  We tried to address the fatal flaws that played out in the ancient city.  Besides that brief unpleasantness in the 1860s, it seems to have worked out okay. 

Look at a dollar bill to see the persistence of Rome.  On the great seal, we have the Roman style eagle holding a scroll that says "e pluribus unam" - from many, one.  The other mottos are "novus ordo seclorum" - new order of the ages and "annuit coeptis" - he (God) favors, taken from the Virgil's Aeneid.  All in Latin.   The Roman Empire fell in the west in AD 476.   In 1776 it was a profound influence on what for Romans was an undiscoved country.

So much of what I learned more than thirty years ago comes back when I listen to the lectures.  I thought I forgot, but now I realize how much I learned, kept & internalized.  I just didn’t remember where it came from.   I had a seminar in Polybius my first year in grad-school.   My major professor, Ken Sacks, specialized in that historian.  Polybius wrote in Greek about the rise of the Roman Republic.   We read the sources in Greek (at least tried) but the big lessons were in historiography and the nature of evidence.    History is constructed by historians and they have a responsibility to follow the sources and not exceed or extrapolate from them.

Polybius discussed the rise of Rome and the Punic Wars.  He figured those were events worth investigating.  The Romans and the Carthaginians stumbled into the conflict over a bunch of Italian criminals who had taken over a not very important city in Sicily.  One lesson I take from history is that events are a lot more illogical than we make them sound later on.   A good historian makes a story that hangs together with conditional causalities, most of which would be unknown or unclear at the time AND some of them might actually be only the artifact of the historian’s story telling skills.

One of the biggest pitfalls of the study of history is the overemphasis on agency.  Sometimes shit just happens.  But we look for some person, persons or particular events to credit or blame for what happens - the agent - and historians always find one.  If that person had not already figured out how to make his own contribution look brilliant, his biographers provide him with an ex-post-facto plan more brilliant than than any that could have been concieved in advanced.  I believe that history is shaped by human choices and that great individuals have a great influence on events, but it is sloppier and less direct than we have to make it appear when we write up the reports.  It makes us too confident that our leaders can solve our problems and creates a systematic bias in our politics.

Scholars and military historians look at the Punic Wars as case studies in conflict and the perils of power.   The most studied of the three wars is the second (the one with Hannibal).   The Romans should have lost that war, but they just refused to give up.    The refusal to be beaten, coupled with the unusually large manpower reserves they could command explains their dominance of the Mediterranean.   They were not brilliant strategist, brilliant inventors or subtle thinkers.  They just has a talent for doing practical things and they just kept on coming back when most others would have given up.

Pyrrhus of Epirus learned it the hard way.   He beat the Romans twice and beat them big.   He waited for them to ask for terms but they just raised more armies.   Pyrrhus had to give up and go home saying "One more victory against the Romans and we shall be utterly ruined," hence the term Pyrrhic Victory. 

The body of the history of the Republic is patchy and contradictory.   Less than 5% of what historians think was available is extant.   The author describes the process of finding history like looking at the Palace of Versailles through the keyholes.   You see some things very clearly, but there are big places you don’t see at all.   Historians know very little about ordinary folks because the ancients, at least those who could write, really didn’t care much about them.  They wrote about the important people, i.e. generals, senators, kings and emperors, so even if we had all the sources available in the ancient world we still wouldn’t know much re the common people.    

Nevertheless, a lot of historians are trying to write the history of the common man.  We can draw clues from archeology, but while archeology can tell us a lot about physical structures, and lately with a sort of CSI archeology even a lot about the physical condition of the people themselves,  it doesn’t tell us much about their attitudes or ideas.   You may also draw the wrong conclusions.   Imagine if a future archeologist knew there was a war with the U.S. on one side and Japan and Germany on the other, but doesn’t know the exact dates or who won.   He digs up a Los Angeles from around now and finds that cars and products made in Japan and Germany predominate.  Does he conclude that they won the war and colonized the U.S.?

In my history seminars so long ago, I learned to assess and judge sources.  We did that by the context, the language, the historian’s skill and comparisons with other events.    You have to try to assess not only whether the historian THINKS he is telling the truth but whether or not he has the capacity to know the truth.   Some things you just cannot know.   No matter how troubling this may be, it is the fact.  We don’t get to fill in the blank spaces with what we want to be the truth.  Polybius, BTW, was a very good historian and his access to leading Roman politicians put him in the position to know lots of things.   Still, like everyone else, he has his strengths and weaknesses.  A lot of what applies to ancient history also applies to evidence in general and especially all that is proliferating on the Internet.   Sure, there is a lot more information on the Internet, but like the ancient sources, you have to assess whether it is true or if it can be true.  People just lying are only the start of the challenge.  Some honest people are not in postions to know and others cannot figure it out even when they have all the facts in front of them. Not everybody who thinks he is telling the truth IS really telling the truth and many people aren't even trying very hard.  You have to be careful.  Those lessons of studying history apply today too.

The study of history does indeed have practical value.

November 07, 2008

Education Options after the Leadership Seminar

Below - Washington Metro has nice vaulted ceilings.

Ballston Metro 

Below - School of Athens by Raphael, also vaulted ceilings.  Both roads to learning (sorry for the hyperbole).

School of Athens

It has never been easier to learn but the options are daunting because there are so many of them.   I recently completed the State Department’s leadership seminar, which left me a little disappointed.   But my education is my responsibility and I will carry on.    There were some lectures I wished to have heard and when I got home I got some of them – on my computer.  

Below - oak tree in fall colors

Fall oak tree

For example, I wished we had talked a little about   prospect theory and its effects on decision making.   Prospect theory explains a lot re why we make what seem like illogical decisions even when we have the needful information.  So when I got home I listened to Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, who along with Amos Tversky originated the theory.   You can watch it too at this link.   At the same place, you will find a talk by Peter Bernstein re risk analysis.  Bernstein wrote one of my favorite books, “Against the Gods” the story of risk. 

You could always just read to all the books, but it is more effective to learn on a variety of fronts.   Reading reinforced by the visual or audio of a lecture is great and online even allows for interaction.   There are situations where audio works best.   I have regularly listened to audio programs for more than twenty years.  A long drive can almost be like a college course.   My sloppy way of listening enhances learning.  I tend to let them play again or pop in repeats.    Leadership and management programs are particularly appropriate for audio programs, IMO. 

Online education opens many more possibilities and variety.   What it lacks is the social aspect of education.  Discussing ideas with others helps fix them in the mind, sort out the pluses and minuses and make the learners see the bigger picture.   You cannot replace that.   I think that is why self educated people often have an uneven knowledge base.   The autodidact chooses what he wants to emphasize and will inevitably introduce bias.   Online learning exacerbates this, since you can find what you want very precisely and not come into even superficial contact with anything else.   The advantages outweigh the costs, IMO, but it is something to be aware of.

Other great sources of education in the Washington area are think tanks and the Smithsonian.   Most sponsor regular lectures and seminars on a variety of topics and they are usually not only free but you often get a free lunch.   These have the advantage of being in a social setting.   You can talk to people before and after the lecture and just being there in person adds something to the educational experience.   I took advantage of these things when I was last in Washington & will do it again.

Most learning isn’t done in formal settings and FS provides more opportunities than most jobs.   You learn most from your colleagues and fellow citizens and just by observing events and things.   In other words, you learn from experience, but learning is not automatic.   It is great to notice the trees and take time to smell the roses, but it is important actively to seek out and think about information and lessons from experience otherwise it just washes over you, runs into the mental sewers and is lost.   Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living.   I think we could extend that to say that an unexamined experience is not worth having.

November 06, 2008

Transit Oriented Development

Washington Metro pulling out of Dunn Loring

Dunn Loring Metro 

I lived near the Clarendon Metro when I first came to Washington in 1984.   A that time the area around the Metro was mostly covered in parking lots, cheap restaurants and pawn shops.   It wasn’t nice.   The area around the Courthouse Metro was a forest of construction cranes.   The Metro only went as far out as Virginia Square, which had a shopping center, used car lots and (again) pawn shops.  I really cannot explain the pawn shops; I just remember noticing a lot of them. 

Below - Ballston

Ballston VA

Today all these places are really nice.  Arlington, VA did a good job of planning for transit oriented development around the Metros at Rosslyn, Courthouse, Clarendon, & Virginia Square .   The area near the Metros are built up with high rise apartments, offices and shopping areas.   There is less need for cars and pedestrians can feel reasonably comfortable.   The Metro has pushed out to Vienna, with stops at Ballston, Falls Church East & West and my stop Dunn Loring/Merrifield.  

Transit oriented development is strong in Ballston, but it is just developing at Vienna and Dunn Loring and is not doing very well at all in Falls Church.   Fairfax has a plan too.

Below - Construction near Ballston

construction near Ballston

I am most interested in Dunn Loring, because that is where I live now.    They are building a town center served by the Metro.   It is still in the planning.  Chrissy has taken part in many of the meetings.  A lot of the “town meetings” are just a show.   The people from around the area come and make demands on the developers.   Many of the demands are silly and some are designed just to slow the process.  We favor density.  It is the only way you can have a useful transit system.   Many of our neighbors want to keep things low profile and spread out.   It is a waste of Metro, IMO, but the public hearing process gives activists opportunities to make trouble.    In any case, when we moved it, the area was not as good as it is now.   It was parking lots, open lots and a few apartments.     I think the town center will make it better.

Below - everywhere you go you find the guys with the leaf blowers, uselessly pushing leaves and grass, while making noise and pollution.

Leaf blower

I think we can take credit for a little prescience in buying here.   We bought a lot that was only red clay where they promised to build town houses.  Today we have a developing neighborhood.    The walk to the Metro, from my door to the platform, takes seven minutes, so we don’t have to worry much about traffic.    We wanted to find a place near both the Metro and bike trails.  Fortunately, the two are parallel, so during the warmer months I can ride my bike to work.    It is seventeen miles.   In my old age, I have become lazier, so I ride down and take the Metro back.   You can take your bike on the Metro after 7pm, so I hang around at work until that time.    I tell people that I am not really that ambitious and I am only at work in order to wait for the Metro, but people don’t believe me and it makes me look like a hard worker.   In all candor, I do get a lot of work done after 5pm.   The other advantage to the transit orientation is that Gold’s Gym sits between my work and the Metro stop, so I can stop by on the way home.    It takes away the excuse for not working out.    

Washington metro map

Anyway, the availability of transit means that I can go for days or weeks w/o really needing to drive the car, except to go to Safeway for groceries.   In the 24+ years I have worked for the Federal Government, I have never used a car to get to work only around five times.   

Below - Arlington did a good job a long time ago planning.  These places used to be inexpensive housing but now are trending upscale. 

Yard in Arlington.

A have been attending the SETS seminar at FSI, so I take the Metro to Ballston and then walk to FSI.   It is a nice walk, takes a little less than a half hour.    Some pictures are included with notes.  I like the fall colors and I would like to share the beauty.

Honeylocusts near Matel house in Marrifield, VA

Above are honeylocusts near my house.  They grow slowly and although they are in the legume family they do not fix nitrogen in the soil.  I was unaware of this until last year.   I wrongly assumed that it behaved like other members of the family.   I guess we need to plant some clover.

oak in the yard 

Above - Newly rennovated apartment/condos with a big laurel oak in the yard.  Planting trees pays off long after.  Laurel oaks do not have the nice ruset fall colors most other oaks have.

Condos near Ballston

Above - Fall color among the condos near Ballston Metro.

Red maple near Ballston 

Above - A very red maple tree.

Sweetgums at FSI 

Above - Sweetgum trees at FSI.

November 04, 2008

Generations (Leadership Seminar Day 9)

Cooper at Miller brewery 

We talked today re managing various generations in the workforce.   Postwar baby boomers are still the most numerous of government employees, but there are still a very few from the WWII veteran generation, a growing number of generation X and the up and coming millennial.  All my kids are Millennial.  They sometimes call this generation the baby boom echo generation since these are mostly the kids of us boomers.   

Most of us thought the idea was useful but that it was easy to overdo the generation analysis.    There are some general patterns.  For example, the veterans as a group are not very comfortable with technology, while the millennials are digital natives.   But some of it just depends on where people are in their careers.   The literature we read on the topic was a couple years old and the people at my table, boomers all but one, agreed that we were starting to look more like the veteran generation, with concerns about retirement and leaving a legacy. 

Generations make a difference in the government, since such as big percentage of us are or soon will be eligible for retirement.    We have to plan for a big turnover that has already begun and will continue for around ten years.  Besides the general challenge of simply hiring so many new workers, making sure the experience and knowledge is passed along.

There was an interesting lecture on possible futures.   This one was called the “Seven Revolutions” and it analyzed trends such as population, resource shortages, tech innovation, movement of data, global economic integration, conflicts and the challenge of governance.   The last one of these refers to the increasing inability of governments to cope with or even understand the other trends mentioned.

I won’t go into details.   Most of it is available at http://gsi.csis.org

Predicting the future is difficult.  When you think re all the predictions of the past it is easy to see the problem.    Think of all the apocalyptical predictions of the late 1960s and 1970s.   According to those guys we were supposed to have starvation in the streets during the 1980s and even global cooling by now.   “Soylent Green” was set in 2022.   I don’t think that future is very likely anymore, but it scared me at the time.    I think the trouble with predictions is that we have to project from what we have today.   Many of what will make the future better than the past has not been invented yet, or at least not developed for their eventual uses.    Developments like nanotech, biotech and alternative energies are just at past the starting line.   We really cannot make accurate projections. 

We cannot predict the details of the future, but we can think about possible scenarios and how we might react.   Tomorrow we have scenario simulations.  It should be fun.  

I got one good ironic saying.   In government we always talk about the dangers of stove piping in the organization.    Somebody renamed this.  They are now “cylinders of excellence.”   We sometimes talk like that.  I am not entirely sure it was supposed to be a joke.

November 03, 2008

Leadership Seminar Day 8

I don’t have a real theme for what I learned in the seminar today.   I enjoyed it more than playing games in W. Virginia.    I will just list a few take away snippets.    Most are not new but it is good to think about them again.  Below, BTW, is a unrelated picture, again from my tree farm.  This is the last of my pictures from my visit yesterday.  I have posted them all now.

Matel tree farm

We took all did a survey that divided us into three categories:  conservers, pragmatists and originators.  The names imply what they are.   Conservers are careful and circumspect.   Pragmatist do what they think will work and are flexible.   Originators are change catalysts.    Each has weaknesses that are the mirror images of the strengths.  I fall right on the edge between pragmatists and originators, a little into the originator and I am not surprised.   I understand that I sometimes can be a little too enthusiastic, which is why I always try to make sure that I have conservers on my team.   That was the lesson.   A team is strong to the extent that it embodies diversity.   The team is stronger than the sum of its parts because members fill in for each others’ weaknesses.   It is like a diverse portfolio.   I remember reading “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis.    Each of the founders had his flaws and strengths.   The flaws could have ruined anybody as an individual.  Together, however, they made a great team and produced a great result.    The other lesson is that they didn’t have to TRY to work together.    In fact their disagreements and even their animosity made the result better.   It is uncomfortable to have disagreements, but it can produce better outcomes. 

I also thought about “Decision Traps”.  That is a great short book about how to come to decisions.    The author talked about group decisions.   It is kind of a Goldilocks and the three bears situation.  If you have too much diversity and discussion, you never reach a conclusion.  If you have too little, you get groupthink and a rush to judgment.   You need the just right, but that is easier said than done.  Beyond that, the longer a group stays together the more group think comes in.   Finally, I thought about “The Wisdom of Crowds” and how the author says that you can often improve group decisions by introducing individuals with LESS expertise but also different viewpoints.    

When working to foster useful change, you work with a combination of pushing and removing obstacles.  It usually takes more energy to push than to clear the path and remove obstacles.   The book that helped me understand this process was "The Fifth Discipline."

I count the seminar successful to the extent that it makes participants think and I thought back to a lot of the decision literature I had read over the years.  I was happy with the seminar today.

We also talked about the Embassy of the future and the differences between risk management and risk -avoidance.   I thought those were interesting subjects, but I didn’t have any strong take-aways.  You can download the PDF file re Embassy of the Future  at this link. 

Gas $1.97 a gallon and Falling: Not so Good

Below - unrelated to my post below is a picture of my thinned pines, a food plot and the tall trees from the SMZ in the background.

I bought gas at BP in Petersburg, just south of Richmond and paid only $1.97 a gallon.  That was below the price I saw advertised on the electronic board at Pilot.  They were offering regular at $2.03, but when I passed going home around nine hour later the price had dropped to $1.99.   I have never seen anything like that before, but it is not all good.

High prices encourage conservation and alternatives.  Low prices do the opposite.   We had a chance to do the right thing in the 1990s and we blew it.  The right thing, BTW, is to raise taxes on gasoline as the price goes down.   We need to keep the prices high to put a floor under conservation and alternatives and to drop the floor out from under despots and potentates who control much of the world’s oil.    I know that I could never run for political office with a “raise the gas price” platform, but it is the right thing.  

Countries like Venezuela, Iran & Russia depend on high oil prices to fund their adventures.  It is probably better if they don’t get them.   I am not enthusiastic about any sort of taxes, but gas taxes serve the salutary purpose of dampening demand for oil.   There is no painless way to a more independent energy future.  We use oil for a very logical reason: it is cheap.  But the price we pay does not reflect the price of sending cash to despots in the most unstable parts of the world.  Nor does it include the mitigation of the greenhouse gases it puts into the air.  

It gets worse.  Not only does cheap oil keep us from a more independent energy future, it also leads – paradoxically – to high energy prices.   The oil despots, IMO, drop prices periodically in order to drive alternatives to bankruptcy and make conservation look like a dumb idea.   I know this sounds like a silly conspiracy theory and it is the only one I suspect might be true.  The solution is simple, but not easy.

I drive and I use gas.  That is how I know the prices.  I understand that we will be using oil for a while to come.  I am not advocating quitting cold turkey, but it would help to get the incentives right and price is one of the biggest incentives I know.   Of course, I can say all this because I won’t be running for office.

pines on Matel farm

November 02, 2008

Marking Boundaries, Managing Wildlife

Below - boundary trees are often the biggest trees.

Boundary Trees on Johnson-Matel tree farmI don’t really do much useful around the farms, but I enjoy being there and I have assigned myself tasks.   One of my repeating tasks is marking boundaries.    I squirt new paint on the markers each year.  It was a challenge the first time just to find them.   Most of the markers are on old trees.  Boundary trees tend to be the biggest ones because neither side can cut them down.  Beyond that, surveyors tended to choose long-lived species such as white oaks.   The most interesting markers are old signs.   My property was owned by Union Camp and there are metal signs telling people that.   In some cases the trees have grown almost completely around the signs.    On two sides I have the remains of a barb wire fence.  In the old days the fence divided two pastures.  It is very old and the trees have grown around the wires in many places.   The wires are mostly down, but they still provide a straight line to follow. 

The southern boundary is Genito Creek … or it WAS the creek.   In 1962 the creek changed course and cut a new channel through my property.    The line is now the old creek bed.  There are no clear markers there.  The eastern border is also moved.  It used to be the road, but around 1970 they moved the road, so now I have around 100 yards on the far side of the road too.  This strands a couple acres, but I am glad to have both sides.   Nobody can build anything I don’t like along my road.   The plat map has precise longitude and latitude that these days you can find with GPS.   In fact, you can find everything with GPS.    I like the precision but I enjoy the exploration more.   

Below - The tree swallowed the barb wire fence.

Barb wire tree

Below My trees are growing very well and I expect that the thinning and biosolids will make them grow even better.   The property was clear cut in 2003 and replanted the next spring.   The site index is good. John Matel and his trees 2008

I met the guys from the Reedy Creek Hunt club.  They seem a nice bunch of guys.   They told me that my new property has been in forest since as long as anybody can remember.   They knew a lot about the local forestry business  and I was glad to share their expertise.  

There is no shortage of deer in the area.   In fact, deer have become pests, destroying crops and becoming road hazards.   The hunters shoot as many as they can, but it doesn’t make a dent on the herd.  They speculated, however, that the deer may be a nuisance also because they have to search for food farther from the forests.   We agreed that the club would plant some food plots on the eight acres below the power lines that cross my new property.    High protein diet would not necessarily increase the size of the herd, but it might keep them closer to home and make the herd healthier.  That is the theory, at least. 

Above & below are some of our healthy trees. I am 6'1'', so you can see the comparision with the trees.  I didn't know trees grew that fast.  Back in 2005 when I first got the place, none of them were even knee high.

John Matel with his trees 2008Some still hunt individually, especially those who hunt with bows or black powder but hunting in this part of Virginia is a usually a communal affair.   They send dogs into the woods to drive out the deer.  Theoretically they coordinate to get the deer.   Evidently many still get away.   They move fast and the guys assured me that it is a lot harder than it sounds.  

We talked about the various other sorts of animals the live around Brunswick County.   I was not happy to learn that bears are becoming common again.   I have not seen any bear tracks yet on my land.  Good.  I prefer to avoid encounters with any animals that can do me serious harm.  As few as ten years ago there weren’t any in Virginia except in the mountains and in the areas of the Great Dismal Swamp.   

I heard from a different source that a guy near Brodnax killed a bear last year, a big bear … with a bow and arrow.  I am not sure I would shoot at a bear with a bow.   A near miss would just make him mad and you might not get a second shot.  Hunting for bear is still restricted to bow and black powder.    Of course there is the usual menagerie of animals, such as beaver, turkey, bobcats and recently coyotes.   I understand that beavers have been trying to dam up one of the streams on the new property.    You just can’t get away from them.    They are kind of cute but they breed like rodents, I suppose because they are.

Wires and food plot site 

Above is the place where the club plans to plant some food plots.

Kenmore appliances 

Above - my new property came with appliances.  The hunt club guys tell me that they have been there a long time.   It is a Sears Kenmore washer and range.   Despite years of exposure to the elements, they are in decent condition.  I guess Sears built to last.

November 01, 2008

SAT, College Admissions, Achievement & Fairness

Below - I drove Espen over to Falls Church HS to take his SAT test.   Sorry for the dim.  It was just before sunrise.

Espen at SAT test

The SAT test is an annual ritual for HS seniors.   College admissions have gotten harder and more complicated over the years.  Some families are hiring consultants to get them through the experience and many kids take various SAT course to improve their scored.  I have very little confidence that the process has gotten better for its new intricacy.  In our quest to make everything fair & equal (often mutually exclusive goals), we have mostly made it capricious. 

Standardized tests were designed more than fifty years ago in to create fairness and give poor but smart kids a chance to compete with the sons and daughters of the rich and well connected.  They worked.  That is one reason I like them. In interests of full disclosure, these sorts of tests revealed my hidden talents and abilities and helped me jump the socio-economic divide.   W/o the Foreign Service written test, I never could have gotten a job like the one I have.   The rich and privileged can help their kids by massaging their resumes and using their contact networks.    Working class kids don’t even know they are playing that game until they have already lost.  Standardized tests are less subject to manipulation.  They level the playing field.

I am convinced that many educators and politicians dislike standardized test because they actually do work to differentiate fairly among applicants, and fair doesn't mean equal - something they really don’t want.   Standardized tests are also difficult to influence politically and they stubbornly fail to produce politically correct results.    No test is perfect and opponents attack from that angle.   They abuse the reasonable argument that we should not overemphasize one measure and try to devalue to whole judgment process.   They point to the exceptions that prove the rule. 

We should use multiple criteria, but let’s not pretend there are no valid criteria or that some criteria are not better than others.   If a kid has high grades and high test scores, he/she is almost certain to have the ability to do well in college.   If a kid has bad grades and bad test scores, he will certainly be challenged in school.   That does not mean he/she cannot eventually excel at school.  It just means it will be a stretch and the odds are long.  It definitely does not mean he/she will not be a success in life.   Success in school and success in life are not the same.   It is possible to be an educated fool and not everybody finds his best self at university.  But among those who are college-bound, the kids we should find most interesting and give more consideration are those who have poor grades and high test scores or the reverse.  This is where the testing has value. 

I object to the “whole person” concept in college admissions.   It is in fact a way for admissions to introduce bias into to process.   The combination of grades and test scores provide the necessary useful information.   When dealing with eighteen-year-old applicants, with virtually no work history, additional information will not provide valid basis for decision.  There are some exceptions, but they would be rare.    The only case I can think of off-hand is when a kid has a unique talent that shines through an otherwise mediocre record. 

IMO the rejection - proponents would say the broadening - of criteria is just a way to cheat.   The rich and privileged are unhappy that objective criteria weaken their influence, so they make a tacit alliance with “the underprivileged.”    That helps account for the statistical anomaly that elite universities have lots of rich kids and a good representation of poor kids but not so many middle-working class kids, relative to their representation in the actual population.    These are the ones who would provide the real completion to the privileged.

At my first post in Porto Alegre I met a woman who hated me.   She was the American wife of an expatriate banker.   I couldn’t figure out how I had provoked such a strong reaction in someone I hardly knew.  Finally, I asked her.  It turned out that she didn’t like me, or my colleague the Consul, because of what we were.    Both of us were from working-class backgrounds and both of us had gotten ahead through the standardized Foreign Service test.   As it turned out, her brother wanted to be a diplomat.  He had taken the test on several occasions, but was unable to pass.  

She explained to me that her ancestors had come to America on the boat right after the Mayflower and that her family had been leaders and diplomats ever since.   It was only in the most recent generation that they were pushed out of their ancient redoubts by upstarts like me and those darned standardized tests that breached the walls.    People like me, she said, didn’t really deserve or appreciate the exalted jobs we had.   I am not saying her argument was completely w/o merit.  I am sure her brother came with all those social graces that I had painful and imperfectly to learn. He knew what jacket to wear and what fork to use, but we were smarter, or at least had a better memory for tests.    It depends on what traits you value most.  The “whole person” approach to recruitment would have preferred him.

Bay View HS Milwaukee, Wi

Above is Bay View HS where I went to school in Milwaukee.  I got a good education there, but as far as I recall nobody ever mentioned FS as a career option.   I think if someone had asked me if I was interested in a career at State Department, I would have asked "State department of what?  Roads? Parks?"  BTW - the school was badly damaged by another "fairness" social engineering - bussing.  That was one of the dumbest ideas ever, unless the goal was to destroy neigborhood schools, but that is another story.

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