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February 28, 2009

Facebook 2

I am still trying to understand the new communication technologies.  As I look back and forward, I come again to the constant in all communication.  Technologies don’t talk.  All communication happens between humans and humans.  

It is like the old philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in the wood and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  The conundrum is easily solved if you define what you mean by sound.  It certainly creates vibration.  So it makes a sound in that sense.  But these vibrations only become meaningful as sound when somebody’s brain interprets it. 

When you add the human factor, you see that we are dealing with methods, not techie magic.   The technologies are just facilitators.

Anyway, I noticed a couple of good articles to supplement my understanding expressed in my first Facebook posting. The Economist had a short but good article called Primates on Facebook that said some of the same things as my post re the limited of human cognition.  I didn’t know the source, but the limit of human interaction is called a Dunbar number, after an anthropologist who postulated that human face to face interaction can only go to around 150.  Somebody wrote a blog post about that.  It is more interesting than its title Extending Dunbar's Number with the social web suggests. 

My own experience - that Internet steals memory - is evidently a common occurrence.  There was an interesting blog entry called Will Facebook 'infantilize' the human mind? 

But there is good news for geezers as I read in Older People on the Internet.  It makes sense.  Old people have time on their hands, are unenthusiastic about strenuous exercise and often no place to go, so they already have the prime characteristics of Internet nerds.  Large sections of the web will soon be big electronic geriatric wards.  That brave old geezer world will be well developed just about the time I get there, how convenient. I also got my Twitter account.  I like Twitter less, but I have been studying up on it.  Pew Research has a good summary of Twiterati demographics and habits.

Diversions Feb 28

Below is a view of the buildings looking toward Dunn Loring Metro. It is not much to see, but growing.  The building the the front is a big post office.  You get very good service there.

Merrifield looking north toward Dunn Loring Metro

Below is public storage.  We have a lot of those things around here.   People have too much stuff.  If you can't fit your stuff in your own house, you have too much stuff.  Of course some storage is for people who are moving, but not that much.

public storage building on Gallows Rd Merrifield on February 23

trampled vegetation near Smithsonian on February 22, 2009

Above - the crowds at the Obama inauguration trampled much of the vegetation around the Mall.  I suppose it will recover.  Most of the plants were dormant during the winter anyway.

Open area at intersection of Gallows and Lee HWY on February 22, 2009

Above - the road widening/renewal project has flattened much of the territory, making it look almost like a new development area.  Newer, taller buildings will eventually rise from the rubble.

Below is the fast food court at Gallows Rd and Arlington Bvd.  It features Pizza Uno, Wendy's, Sweetwater, Panda Express and some others.  It would be okay except for the impervious pavement for the parking.

Fast food court in Merrifield on February 22, 2009

Below is the construction on Gallows north of my house.  It is making progress.

New building on Gallow Road on February 22, 2009

February 27, 2009

Getting the Moving Finger

Nobody really cares about Iraq anymore.  A couple of colleagues and I did a “brown bag” seminar on our experiences there.  The few people who showed up did so mostly out of sympathy for me. It was nice of them and I appreciate the support, but Iraq is the past.  Media coverage mostly disappeared last year, just about the time things started to improve. Even I have trouble remembering that it was such a big deal not so long ago.

MRAPS at the end of the day in Mudasis Iraq in January 2008

Iraq is no big deal and that is a big deal. It might be useful to consider how that happened.   It did not happen because the problem just went away.  It happened because we solved it.  In a less timid age, we might have said that we won a victory there.

Only a couple years ago, most experts were predicting defeat and not just a little one. The view was that Iraq would collapse into chaos and civil war and that it would take most of the Middle East with it.  In fact, the more “realistic” pundits claimed that had happened already.  Their sage advice was to get out as quick as possible and leave the place to its unavoidable violent tendencies.

Fortunately, some of us didn’t listen to these hollow men and despite their heckling went on to victory.  I feel a little shy about using that term “we,” but I stepped up to do my part too and together we – Coalition forces, brave Iraqis and sometimes even hapless civilians like me – did it. 

But is important not to waste what we have accomplished.  Given Iraq’s strategic significance, the mission ceased to be a “war of choice” the moment American forces crossed the border in March 2003. Now we have no choice but to see Iraq through to stability.

Many of the same people who called for us to give up a couple of years ago, now feel vindicated that we can withdraw.   The logic goes something like this:  “Three years ago, we said the U.S. should get out.  Now the U.S. is going to get out (mostly).  See, we were right.”   This is indeed logical – if you ignore the events of the past three years and you forget the effects of time.

Let’s do a historical thought experiment.  WWII ended in 1945.  Count back three years and you are in 1942.   Now imagine a peace activist in 1942 saying that this Hitler guy and the Imperial Japanese Navy are not really very dangerous and we are just making them mad by standing up to them.  Three years later he says, “See, I told you so.  You didn’t have to waste all that time with D-Day or Iwo Jima.”

I am belaboring this point because I have seen this kind of historical credulity before.   The Cold War ended unexpectedly in 1989.   No matter how hard you look, you cannot find any expert who unambiguously predicted this outcome even two years in advance.  In fact, intellectuals had great fun ridiculing Ronald Reagan for thinking that bringing down the communist empires was possible or even desirable.   Many were shocked into humility by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they quickly recovered their composure.  Now it is hard to find anyone who will admit that he did not see it coming.   In fact, the new intellectual fashion seems to be that the fall of communism was inevitable and they have gone back to ridiculing Ronald Reagan, calling him a mere bystander at best and perhaps even an impediment.   (“We whisper together; are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”) 

George Santayana said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.   I don’t know if that all that’s true.  What is true is that those who don’t remember history are doomed to be tricked again in similar ways. 

There are large forces at work in history and everything that happens has multiple causes.  Our choices are bounded.  Timing is important.   The strategy that achieves wonderful success in one situation may be an ignominious failure in another.   But the choices we make DO make a different.  The choices we make change the shape of the future.   We choose.  This is the lesson of history we should never forget. 


Iraq boy thanks US Marine and shakes hands in Anbar Province Iraq June 2008Looking down from the high summit of time, it seems like events are determined.   The more comprehensive a change, the more it seems inevitable.  But this is an illusion. 

We achieved a victory in Iraq. We stared down a radical insurgency in the heart of the Middle East and beat it back.   This is something they said could not be done.  We did it. Iraq, despite all its flaws, is now the most democratic country in the Arab world.  Someday soon – not today, not tomorrow, but soon – historians will see the spring of 2007 as an inflection point in Middle Eastern history.   It will be seen as the time when the old barriers to freedom and development were breached and a new freedom was painfully born and began to grow, fitfully at first, but inexorably   They will see it as inevitable and our choices that made it possible will be forgotten.  

“The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on.  Not all your piety nor all your wit can coax it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash away one word of it.”

February 26, 2009


Mobile devices, such as cell phones, notebook computers and even hand-held games, may soon be the way most people get their news and information and become their primary way of accessing the Internet.    We have to be there too.  Some places may bypass conventional computers altogether (much like cellular technology bypassed land-lines), especially as more and more features are added to mobile devices.   Cell phones now come bundled with still and/or video cameras, global positioning systems and sophisticated computing capabilities.  Mobile devices fundamentally change people’s relationship to information because they are available any time and almost anywhere.   Mobile devices allow individuals to report what they see on the spot, along with pictures and connections.   User created content has essentially made individuals into media.  

US Capitol visitor center hall on February 25, 2009

Above is the hall of the new visitors' center at the Capitol.  It took them years longer and a lot more money.  The guard told me that they had to reinforce all the doors and walls to make them more resilient in case of terrorism.  This extra precaution costs us billions, but you gotta have it.

Experts from private industry traded experience with veteran public diplomacy officers when International Information Programs (IIP) and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) explored innovative and imaginative new ways to leverage mobile technologies for public diplomacy during a conference held at NFATC on February 19.  

It quickly became clear that mobile media, despite all the highfalutin hoopla, is just another part of the new media environment.  Several of the speakers emphasized the necessity of flexibility in the uncertain and protean world of the new media.    The new media is more fluid, fragmented, decentralized and personalized than more traditional media.  This creates challenges and opportunities for public diplomacy as well as for the traditional way we deliver messages at State Department.

Hearing the experts at the conference talk about exciting new communications technologies and even more coming soon, it also became clear that changes in new media environment are coming at an accelerating rate.  We have already seen some of yesterday’s most promising stars become today’s dinosaurs.   There is no reason to think this will be any different tomorrow, so it is silly and to try to pick winners among the new media.  Besides, we don’t have to.  We have an “all of the above” option.  What we have to do is experiment, recognizing that many will fail, but we will learn from the experiments that fail and that even those that succeed will work in unexpected ways requiring flexible responses.   The new media allows us to be flexible and being flexible means that we don’t choose “the best.”   Instead we try all appropriate methods, choosing the mix of media tools we think will work best for particular tasks.   We must use technology but not get beguiled by it, remembering that communication is the destination and the technology merely the vehicle we use to get there.  The mix will usually involve the newest technology used in the latest ways, but it will just as often include simple proven techniques such as personal visits.   Remember, we have the “all of the above” option.  Those are some of the lessons I learned at the conference.

Through all the changes in technologies, Edward R. Murrow’s famous observation remains true, “The really crucial link in the international communication chain is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”   My colleagues and I at IIP understand that but we also know that we need to use all available and appropriate technologies to get within communication range.

Steps going from Capitol vistor center toward Supreme Court & Library of Congress

I was happy to be able to attend this conference on mobile communications and proud that IIP is looking forward to the future, as demonstrated by its organizing this sort of meeting.  State Department is indeed using a variety of media to carry out its public diplomacy.   My colleagues at IIP are using twitter, Facebook, webchats, webcasts, podcasts, Youtube, digital video, blogs, online gaming and various mobile technologies to complement our more traditional Internet, speakers, outreach and publications.   Colleagues in other parts of State Department are also making innovations that harness the talents of State’s professionals.   It is an exciting time to work in public diplomacy. 

February 25, 2009

The Tao of Leadership

In a classic episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy grows some sweet corn.  After a summer of hard work and anticipation, he harvests the crop, turns it over to the chow hall cook and everybody looks forward to the hometown taste of fresh roasted corn.  But the cook has removed the corn from the cob and creamed it into the kind of slop he usually dispenses.  Insulted by the complaints, he replies indignantly, “I was just trying to be helpful. Next Fourth of July you can eat it on the cob for all I care. 

Grant statue in from of Capitol in Washington taken on February 25, 2009

Above is General Grant in front of the Capitol.  Grant was an unassuming man.  He could easily pass unnoticed.  They said that the only way you could tell if Grant was around was that things started to happen.   Grant was a great general, but he failed at everything else.  Is it enough to be really good at one thing? 

Leadership can be like that.   Sometimes it takes more time and effort to make a mush than to do the effective thing.   It is usually a good idea to lighten up and consider whether your problems are because of instead of in spite of your best efforts, but often the hardest thing to do is nothing.  Most of us have a kind of piece-work mentality.  We think we earn our money by how much we do.  Leadership often means that we add the most value by what we choose to leave undone.

A leadership technique that seems to work is to “get lost,” just be inaccessible.   I know that this goes against every fiber of the stay-connected zeitgeist, but sometimes you add no value and generally when you add no value in an organization, you are sucking up value by getting in the way.   At times when the problem is best solved by someone else, but you know that others may want to consult or defer to your judgment, the best response is to get lost. Doing nothing, BTW, is a very proactive strategy and is the appropriate one only in some situations.   It doesn’t mean you just sneak off to play golf, although in some cases that works by chance.  There are some places where things progress a lot better when the boss is not around and I am not talking about prescribed non-action here.

Of course, the whole technique presupposes that you have already built an environment of trust and autonomy, so that colleagues and subordinates will not merely cower in fear and indecision until your triumphant return.  And that is the big caveat. You are not allowed to reverse the decision for trivial causes and you can never get angry that it was made w/o you.  If you are prone to the character flaws that lead to these behaviors, you need to stay away from this technique, but recognize that your organization will never work at top performance because you won’t allow it.  And stop complaining about all the work you have to do or about your incompetent subordinates. That is the world you created by making yourself indispensable.   Live with it or change it, but in either case shut up about it.

Charles de GaulleAnd as the great Charles de Gaulle said, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

I liked the “Book of the Tao” since I first discovered it when I was around twenty.  I bought a book at a used book shop for $0.25 called “The Wisdom of China and India.”  It was published in 1943.  They would never publish such a book today, since it lumped together these two great but very disparate cultures and presumed to aggregate the collected wisdom of most of Asia in one volume.  But it was a great book and I still have it.  The binding disintegrated when I gave it to Alex to read last week, but a little duct tape postponed its day of reckoning.

The philosopher Lao Tzu has some sage (really) advice on leadership and since this wisdom has persisted through various iterations and hundreds of generations, maybe there is something to it. For example:

“The Tao abides in non-action, yet nothing is left undone.  If kings and lords observed this, the ten thousand things would develop naturally.”


"Nothing is softer than water, yet nothing can be better at overcoming the hard."


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

If you translated this wisdom into more modern terms, you would say that this sort of leadership taps into the intelligence and imagination of the people.  It makes them partners.  This is especially valuable when innovations are needed.  (Please refer to my posting re management gurus.) Centralized, directive leadership can almost never identify and develop innovation because whether they mean to or not, they bring the power of the organizing to bear to defend the status quo or permit only incremental and usually ineffective change.  

That is the paradox that when you abide in non-action, you leave nothing undone.  I would refine it a little.   Leadership’s task is to create conditions favorable for progress and innovation, but it does not directly create anything.  To employ my favorite analogy, it is like when I use proper silviculture on my forests.  The thinning, fertilizing, planning etc allow the trees to grow better, but I cannot micromanage wood or leaf production.    BTW - Below is the exchange from M*A*S*H: 

Father Mulcahy: Don't I know it. All week I've been dreaming of getting butter on my cheeks, juice on my shirt, and a niblet wedged between two molars.
[walks up to the table]
Father Mulcahy: Where is the corn?
Cpl. Igor Straminsky: You're looking at it. The mushy stuff.
Father Mulcahy: You... You creamed it!
[on the verge of tears]
Father Mulcahy: You... you ninny!
Cpl. Igor Straminsky: [everybody yells at Igor] I was just trying to be helpful. Next Fourth of July you can eat it on the cob for all I care.

February 24, 2009

A Note From a Virginia Tree Farmer

I am a Virginia tree farmer.   In addition to traditional forest products, I know that my land is helping to protect water quality, cleaning the air, giving wildlife a place to live and just making the world more beautiful.   If you are interested in learning more about tree farming, please feel free to contact me for a personal point of view, or contact the tree farm system at the links below.  

JohnsonMatel tree farm stream management zone SME

We all depend on each other in our interconnected environment and nobody can do it alone, so I joined the American Tree Farm System.  This hooks me in to people who can help me do a better job and connects me to others who need me to help them.   It makes me feel good that the things I do on my land and the plans are make are “forest certified” by an organization with long experience in making forests sustainable.   I recommend that anybody who owns even small woodlots consider becoming a certified tree farmer.

American Tree Farm System signs

A lot has been changing in the woods.  We have learned how to grow more wood on the same land.  We know better how to protect and restore soils.  It has become more crucial to guard water resources and we have a whole new commitment to removing excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.   Besides markets for timber, we now have markets for ecological services.  We have a lot of great partners in Virginia. 

The health of my forest and our environment depends on the choices made by other Virginian and other Americans.   That is why we all need to be concerned about each other.   No individual or group can come up with a comprehensive plan for a sustainable environment.   But together we can, as we all make decisions based on our own unique knowledge, intelligence, imaginations and priorities.   Information is important in making choices and every tree farmer is on the cutting edge about his/her own farm.  I try to share my experience through my blog on forestry.    And I told the story of how I came to buy my own forests at this link. 

February 23, 2009


I got a Facebook page mostly because of my job.  Really.  The only way to understand web 2.0 is to be part of it.  That is why I started to blog a couple years ago.  I spent a lot of time last week and much of last weekend figuring out Facebook.  Facebook offers a lot of the advantages of a blog or webpage, but it also features a lot of things that are both intriguing and annoying.   

George Meade Monument on Pennsylvania Av in Washington DC taken on February 22, 2009
Above is the George Meade Monument on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington.  Meade commanded Union forces at Gettysburg.  A surprising number of people think it was Grant.  I guess one guy with a full beard and a Union uniform looks like another.  Many of the officers on both sides of the Civil War knew each other because they formed the West Point social network.

You can keep contact with a lot of people with this social networking system.  The big question is does Facebook broaden your contact network or merely dilute it?   What we have here is the classic failure to communicate across the interface between human technology and our Pleistocene brains.   It is like when a giant water pipe is connected to a narrow straw.    Only so much can go through and that volume is determined by the smallest part of the system.  
Technology can connect me with many thousands of people, but I still have to know them with my brain developed for life on an environment like the Serengeti Plains, where almost nobody ever encountered more than 150 different people in the course of a lifetime and interacted regularly with only a couple dozen at most.   Even after the advent of civilization, people just didn’t get around much.  Most people lived like Hobbits; they rarely traveled farther than what they could make in round trip between dawn and dusk.   The social capacity of the human brain is the weak link.
I am in danger of collecting too many Facebook friends.   I am quickly realizing that I don’t have the energy or inclination to keep up actively with hundreds of people that I could find, so most of my group will be passive.  A thousand friends do not mean a thousand daily interactions.  This ability to find new friends is the most annoying and intriguing aspect of Facebook.  

Below are the stirrings of spring.  In a couple of weeks, the spring season will be here.  Washington is beautiful in the springtime.  

Early spring flowers near Gallows Rd in Merrifield VA on February 19, 2009
The intriguing part is the connections.   We always hear about people being connected and the interconnectivity among opinion leaders etc is the basis for public relations - the power of connections.  If we don’t have the resources to influence or even reach mass audiences, we can reach the right social nodes, we can leverage the message.  I believed this but never saw it.  On Facebook you can see how this could work very graphically.   Some people are connectors who bridge lots of diverse groups; others are members of only a few.   
The guys with the most friends may not be the one with the most connections.  Maybe he has a thousand friends, but they all live in the same town and have similar jobs. You might have a very large but essentially incestuous group.  Of course, on Facebook you are not sure if the connecting guys are really influential or if they just are non-participating members of lots of groups.    Membership is easy to attain - and fake - online.  I wonder how much a person can be connected to more than about a dozen groups, considering again our Pleistocene brains.  I also wonder about a guy who would spend enough time online working on those connections.  He would almost certainly not be very much involved in the real world and probably wouldn’t know much either if he spends all his time connecting.  The term “hollow man” leaps to mind.   Of course he is likely to have a lot of corpulence over that hollow center. 
Facebook can also teach us something about the network effect, which is when something’s value is increased by getting more users.   Usually if more people share something, they each gets smaller part than if anyone had the whole thing to himself.  In a network, they all gain.  The pie gets bigger the more people step up to the table.  Telephones are the classic example. One person with a phone had nobody to talk with.  Two are not much better, but each additional entrant makes it more and more useful – eventually indispensable. Facebook encourages the network effect when you search for friends and almost requires it when you want to do something online (such as a quiz).    Happily and probably not coincidentally this is also great advertising for Facebook.
The biggest problem with Facebook is its openness.  And I don’t mean that some people tell way too much about themselves, although that is a problem too.  The real problem is that all your friends can see each other.  Most of us like to keep some of our social life in separate spheres.  There was a Seinfeld episode where George Costanza feared that if his fiancé entered his social life, relationship George would kill independent George.  He called it worlds colliding.  It was funny, but it makes some sense.  Some relationships are appropriate for some things and not others.
Locutus of BorgMy general complaint against electronic communications is that they are beguiling.  Facebook is like that.  I spent several hours searching for friends and updating my page until I noticed that my legs were falling asleep and it was getting dark outside.  The virtual world provides too much active contact, or at least pseudo social contact.  We are all becoming like the Borg.  I think it is important to be alone sometimes. 
Or maybe individual thinking is going out of style, to be replaced by the hive consciousness.  We can all become like ants, bees or termites, beholden to the central consciousness. Those bugs do it with pheromones; we prefer electronic pulses.
Facebook is a lot like beer.  For most people, beer lubricates social interactions and they can enjoy it in moderation.  But some people abuse it sometimes and it makes them sick.  Others abuse it all the time and it makes them boozers and losers.  
BTW – I am still accepting new friends, as long as none of us are too demanding or clinging.   Don’t expect me to remember your birthday or the name of your dog and we will be okay.    My primitive brain is just not up to the task and frankly I just don’t care enough. 

February 22, 2009

Roundabout the Traffic Circles

I am not the only one who likes traffic circles or roundabouts.   One of my blog readers told me about the roundabout in his town of Monroe, Washington.    He told me that his town was the first to get a roundabout in Washington State and it took them a year to get approval from the Department of Transportation.  Now the state loves them and Washington State even has a roundabout page.    

Below is the roundabout in Monroe, Washington

Roundabout in Monroe, Washington in February 2009

Before the roundabout, traffic was snarled and tempers frayed.    After some confusion and trepidation among drivers unfamiliar with roundabout etiquette, this imported innovation evidently works like a charm. 

Below - Americans are not taught to use traffic circles.  These signs show graphically how it works.  BTW - the way it was explained to me in Europe was very easy.  Everybody yields to the traffic already in the circle.  Merge when there is an opening.

Traffic signs near roundabout in Monroe, Washington in February 2009

I saw my first roundabout when I went to the UK when I was in college.   I still remember marveling at the seamless flow of traffic.   You need a Goldilocks solution: drivers that are too aggressive or too timid can ruin the system, but traffic flows beautifully when they are just right.    I wondered why we didn’t have them in the U.S.    I figured that American drivers were just too ornery.     I am glad to find out that I was wrong.

Traffic circle in Arlington VA on February 22, 2009 

Above is a traffic circle in Arlington, VA.  The intrusive stop signs indicate that they kind of miss the point.  I think these traffic circles are meant merely to slow traffic and maybe as decorations.

Stanton Park looking toward Maryland Av on February 22, 2009

Above in Stanton Park with a statue of Nathaniel Greene, one of Washington's most reliable generals and a hero of the campaigns in the Carolinas.  Twelve streets feed into this square, so it acts sort of like a traffic circle.   If you have a traffic circle, it is nice if you can have a monument in the middle.  It gives the place a little more class.

Capitol Hill scene on February 22, 2009 

Above is Maryland Ave on Capitol Hill.  It is a nice neighborhood.  This is a good example of an urban renaissance.  Washington was not as nice 20 years ago.  It was run by a crooked mayor and full of crime and disorder and some parts had not recovered from the riots way back in 1967.  It goes to show how different things can be when they are run differently.  It would have been easy to give up; good we didn't.

Capitol Hill neighborhood looking west on February 22, 2009 

Above is the same place looking the other way (you can recognize the trees).  It is not as dark as the picture shows.  I just got a bad exposure.  But if you look a couple of blocks you can see why it was such a shame 20 years ago that this was not a great neighborhood.

February 21, 2009

Sources of Innovation: Gambling, War and Pornography

Sometimes we don’t like the drivers of innovation, but we like the innovation.   The science of probably and statistics was largely developed to serve gamblers.  They were the ones who really cared about properly figuring the odds and they were the ones who provided real working laboratories where elegant theories could be tested in relation the vagaries of human nature.    We can thank gamblers for our ability to assess risk and make better decisions about the complex interactions in our world.  A good book on this subject is Against the Gods: the Remarkable Story of Risk.

World of Warcraft princess

If we needed gambling to stimulate us to understand our complex civilization, we can thank war for having civilization in the first place.   The organizational structures our ancestors developed to provide protection and – truth be told – to dominate their neighbors were adapted to other tasks.  Causality in human events is always complex, with causes creating effects that become causes in ways that make it impossible to separate.    But throughout history you find a strong correlation between success at war and success in other endeavors of civilization.   This implies that the skill sets are at least overlapping.

World of Warcraft mounted warrior

In our own times, we can point to a variety of technological advances produced as a result of conflicts.  The Internet and the Interstate systems were begun to make our country more resilient in the face of massive attacks.   The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced innovations in emergency medicine, which are already saving lives in trauma centers around the world.     

Even if more total lives are saved because of wartime innovations than were lost in the conflicts themselves, we should be able to produce similar advances absent the destruction, but we don’t seem able to do that.   Maybe we humans need a threat to get off our asses, jettison some of the inertia of old comfortable habits and maybe sweep away the resistance of powerful individuals or interest groups benefiting from the old way of doing things.

The things that drive a lot of innovation in computer technologies are online games and pornography.   These are the applications that demand more and more bandwidth and greater computing speeds.    I don’t really need a very advanced computer for the simple word processing and accounting programs that I run and people like me really don’t push the innovators to imagine the better future.   It is the gamers on the edge that do it.

World of Warcraft screen

My boys play “World of Warcraft” online.   There are something like 12 million (and that number grows every day) players around the world forming an online community.   Few of them stop to think about the significance of what they are doing.   They have created a seamless communication network where participants dispersed throughout the world react in cooperation and in real time to actions conveyed by sophisticated moving images around the world at the speed of light.   What can be done in the “World of Warcraft” today will be done in the worlds of medicine, manufacturing, finance and science.   Today’s gamers (or their parents) are financing the innovation and, more importantly they are managing and testing them every day when they play their games.  Somenare already taking the skills and insights learned in virtual worlds and innovatively applying them to their real world jobs.   The skills that helped them overcome the Lich King serve them well in the struggles with the competition. 

BTW - I think one of the reasons we often do better than would be predicted by looking at our school systems is that much learning - and most innovation - is done outside classrooms and away from the formal teachers. 

The games teach the pluses of planning, the dangers of lost control and the problems of managing staffs or teams. Take a look at this youtube video.   You can google WTF and world of warcraft and south park if you want to see more.

World of Warcraft city

Above is a World of Warcraft city.

Maybe the dweeb playing video games is preparing better for life the nerd doing the homework the teacher exactly as the teacher says.

Evolving Science

I was watching the History Channel today about Neanderthals.  Back when I was in school, we learned that they were a separate species from modern humans and that it was likely that anatomically modern humans were hostile to them and maybe wiped them out either through competition, conflict or a combination of both.   The Neanderthals were portrayed as brutes, who lacked the skills and organizational abilities that made modern humans so successful.   Now the Neanderthals have been upgraded.   According to scientists on the show, these guys not only were among our ancestors, but may have contributed the gene that makes it possible for us to learn language – the quintessential human trait. 


Science is not neutral.  It is embedded in current culture and sensibility.   Even if scientists answer all the questions in an unbiased way, the questions themselves are heavily influenced by the surrounding society.   The original theories of the Neanderthal were postulated in the 19th Century, in an age when conflict and competition was accepted as a part of nature.   Today being cooperative and inclusive is in style, so it should come as no surprise that we now see our long lost cousins in kinder and gentler terms.   I don’t know what the Neanderthals were like.    Nobody does.   We I do know is that our speculations often depend more on us than on what they were really like.

BTW – a fascinating book on the subject is Before the Dawn, which traces human prehistory by studying changes in our DNA.   The interesting thing is that evolution didn’t end; it is just not operating to the same sorts of characteristics.    Evolution doesn’t always go in the direction of improvement.  Fitness in the Darwinian sense just means that you contribute more genes to the next generation.  To accomplish this in the natural environment, you usually needed to be stronger, faster, smarter or very lucky, but the pressures have abated.   By Darwinian standards, the fittest person in history may be that woman who just had eight kids, on top of the seven she already had. 

Another change in interpretation has to do with dinosaurs.  I learned that giants were clumsy, lumbering reptiles.  Now we hear that some we agile and maybe were warm blooded with feathers.  Who knew?  Most of today's real cool dinosaurs, such as raptors, were largely unknown when I was a kid.

Seagulls in Anacostia on February 2009 

Above are little dinosaurs? 

BTW - Chimps are very agressive, as we were reminded by the recent chip attack.  In the wild about 1/3 of male chips die from violence. Primitive man was/is violent too.  That is our heritage that we struggle to overcome with our civilization.  There is no such thing as a noble savage (and Rosseau sucked anyway.)

February 19, 2009

Time Well Spent

I depend on the Metro to get around.  That means I have to walk a lot and I think that is just fine.   You get to know a place a lot better when you literally put your feet on the ground.  Today, for example, I had a conference at FSI and had to walk from Ballston Metro.   It takes just over a half hour and it is a nice walk through Arlington.   I have included some pictures from my various walks.

This one is not from Arlington.  Below is the statue of Jame McPherson in Washington.  McPherson commanded the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War.  He was killed at the battle of Atlanta in 1864. 

James McPherson statue in Washington taken February 2009

Below is Ballston Mall near the Metro.

Ballson Mall on February 19, 2009

Below a pedestrian passage under Rt 50 on the way to FSI.  This is a relic of an earlier time and I am surprised it stays open.   It is very convenient however.  If it were built today, it would need lots of other features and the government would pay millions of dollars for contruction.

Pedestrian passage under RT 50 in Arlington, VA taken on February 19, 2009

Below - housing in Arlington, VA

Housing in Arlington VA near RT 50 taken on February 19, 2009 

Below - New construction near Ballston.  The first picture is from February 20.  The second is from November last year.

New construction near Ballston Metro


New construction at Ballston

Below - car stack near Ballston

Car stack near Ballston on February 19, 2009

Below is the Nature Conservancy across from Ballston Metro in Arlington.  The Nature Conservancy is the best of the environmental groups, IMO.   They actually buy, restore and manage ecologically sensitive places.  Instead of just protesting or demanding something be done, they do something.

Nature Conservancy near Ballston on February 19, 2009

February 18, 2009

Too Much Health Care

I thought that I would need a root canal in at least one of my teeth.  I counted on that or some other health care disaster, so I put money into my FSA account, but no such luck.  My teeth stayed healthy and so did the family and we put too much into the health care savings account that I have to use or lose by March 15.  This has never happened before.  Maybe I should just get that root canal preemptively.  

Below is a decoration at the Air & Space Museum.

Sculpure at Air & Space Museum in Washington DC taken on February 17, 2009

The FSA is one of those heath savings accounts.   They are great.  They deduct money from your paycheck each week.  It is tax free, with the caveat that it be used only for certified medical expenses and that it be used by March 15 of the year following when it was deducted, or else they just take it back, so you have to guess right.  You can use it to pay deductibles, medicines etc.   My insurance doesn’t cover most dental expenses, so I pay myself for all that Coke and Hershey cars I consumed in my misspent youth.    Tooth fillings don’t last forever, and the ones I got when I was young are breaking down.   I don’t fear the pain of the dentist, only the price.   FSA spreads that out over the year.

Below is the National War College, T. Roosevelt Hall.  The building was started in 1903 and finished in 1907. 

T Roosevelt Hall at NDU on February 17, 2009

This is the first time I have put too much money into it.   Usually I don’t have enough and I get stuck with unexpected expenses, so this year I decided to be smarter.  It looks like smarter was dumber. I am sure that something will go seriously wrong on March 16 and I will be stuck again.  

I suppose I can stock up on aspirin, Pepto-Bismol and Nyquil, but you can only buy so much of that stuff before they suspect somebody is setting up a meth lab. It is odd to have this problem and it is better than the alternative, but I don't want to throw away the money.   I will figure something out.  I suppose I can pay for something in advance.

The thing about health care is either you need it or not.   It is not discretionary.   I generally dislike going to doctors and avoid them if I can.   My father went to the doctor only once between when he was discharged for the Army Air Corps in 1945 and when he died more than fifty years later.   I am not trying to match his record but we have done all the routine checkups, even the colonoscopy I should have gotten three years ago.   If medical visits can make you healthy, I am there. 

As long as I am on the subject of forfeiting heath related stuff, let’s talk about sick leave.   The USG gives me four hours of sick leave every two weeks.   We can roll the hours over at the end of the year and I have been saving it up.   I now have 2275.50 hours of sick leave saved up.    If you count in paid holidays, I could be sick for around a year and a half before I ran out of sick leave.   This is good.  It provides a de-facto disability insurance and I don’t need Aflac.   But the government, in its wisdom, has decided that it will just zero out all those hours when I retire.    This is the “new” retirement system that came into force the year I joined the FS.   Unused sick leave was added to your retirement in the old system.  Some in Congress are talking about changing the rules for the new one, but given the hard economic circumstances I don’t suppose anything will come of it.   

Frankly, this doesn’t bother me too much.  They can have the sick time back; I am just glad I never was sick enough to use it up.   But a significant number of people evidently view sick leave as just another form of vacation day and giving sick leave days an expiration date doesn’t encourage thrift or conservation, especially as so many employees are approaching their own expiration dates.   The first generations of employees in the new system are approaching retirement and absenteeism will no doubt rise among those in the new system within a few years of retirement.    

February 17, 2009

Changes Takes Time & Energy

Energy transitions take a lot of time and we won’t have that green energy anytime soon.  That was the sobering message I heard at the lecture today by Vaclav Smil, from the University of Manitoba.  I went to hear his talk, Energy Transition: the Time Factor, today at AEI. 

Below are energy saving devices.  I will be riding my real bike soon and I figure that I can walk anyplace that one of these little bikes can take me, but I think that Smartbike is a good idea.

Smart bikes near Farragut Square in Washington DC on February 17, 2009

It took nearly 400 years for England to covert from wood to coal.  The U.S. didn’t get more energy from coal than from wood until 1884,  and still has not really left the age of coal, since more than half of our electricity comes from coal fired thermal plants.  Things take time for a variety of reasons. 

Many enabling factor are necessary for an energy transformation to take place.  A resource that cannot be brought to market is useless and sometimes transport is a limiting factor.  That was the problem for natural gas.   Oil and gas are often found together.   In the old days, the oil could be shipped in tanks or barrels.   There was often nothing they could do with the gas, so they just flared it.  Gas couldn’t be transported until particular alloys and welding techniques developed that could move it under pressure and this didn’t happen until the 1930s.  Even then, it took time to construct the network.    W/o these things gas was useless even if it was essentially free at the well-head, demonstrating once again that a resource is not a resource until the technology is available to make it so.

Seagulls watching the river flow on the Anacostia channel, February 17, 2009

Now You’re Cooking With Gas

Once the pipes were in place, gas became available around the country.  In the 1940s, there was a phrase – “now you’re cooking with gas”– that implied you were up to date.  Gas had been abundantly available for more than fifty years, but not accessible.  Even then, it still took many years for most houses to get hooked up to gas.  Some of our neighbors were still burning coal to heat their houses well into the 1960s. 

Natural gas can now be piped long distances because of better compression engines.   Back in the 1980s, President Reagan tried to block Soviet access to modern compressor technology.  The got the engines in Europe so that today the cappuccino you buy in Italy is probably warmed with Russian natural gas.  

BTW – recent technological improvements allow gas to be more easily shipped in tankers.   Using more gas in place of oil requires less of a shift, so our energy future may be gassier.

BTW 2 – they talked re methane hydrates.  I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up. This is the link.   This is evidently a big potential source of natural gas, although I saw something on the Science Channel talking re how melting of methane on the ocean bottom had caused the great extinction at the end of the Paleozoic Era, so I don’t know.

Below - this and the next picture are union representations near the White House.  Unions are enthusiastic about getting jobs back and counting on the new energy infrastructure to help.

AFofL CIO offices in Washington DC on February 17, 2009

Professor Smil didn’t have much confidence in solar or wind power.  These things, he said, have significant problem with availability (wind doesn’t always blow and he sun doesn’t shine at least half the time.)  But the bigger challenge is transport.   It is analogous to the problem with natural gas.  The wind blows the strongest where there not many people and we don’t have the transmission lines to move the power.  The same goes for surfaces where solar could be placed.   Beyond that, both types of energy are small scale and locally intrusive.  You will need lots of lines and lots of machines. Some of the people who love wind or solar in theory object when it ruins their view, as Edward Kennedy did when he squashed a wind project  near his home in Massachusetts.  Everybody lives somewhere and many places where the wind blows best have some rich guys nearby who can stop the project.

Union offices near Whitehouse on February 17, 2009

We also do not have a real electricity grid in America.  We have separate local grids and the connections go north-south.   This means that Canadian hydropower can move from Ontario to Florida or from British Columbia to California, but you probably could not power your I-pod on the electricity you could move west-east from windy North Dakota to busy New York.

Probably the most significant thing that will slow our energy transition is what we already have.  We have thermal plants.   We have paid the up-front investment costs and the variable costs are a lot lower.   Think of it in terms of your biggest investment – your house.   If you build a new house, you will be wise to incorporate energy saving devices, but it is probably a bad idea to tear your house down and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a new one just to save a couple hundred dollars a year.  You will wait until your house “wears out” and that might be a long time.   What does that say about the speed of transition?

Smil thinks that we will be a fossil fuel society for a long time to come.  The most effective thing we can do in the short run is conservation that makes fossil fuels use more efficient.   We can use more natural gas and we can make engines much more efficient, especially if we switch to diesel engines.  Americans are prejudiced against diesel, but up-to-date engines have greatly improved in terms of performance and pollution and they get much better mileage than their gasoline counterparts.  My first car was a diesel.  We were very happy with it.  

BTW - T Boone Pickens disagrees.  Read re the Pickens Plan at this link.  I like the idea of the Pickens Plan better, but I am afraid I think Smil is probably closer to right for the short and medium-term.

Of course, nuclear energy is very efficient, creates no green house gases and can work with the current electrical infrastructure, but some influential Americans harbor a hateful grudge against nukes.   The French get 75%+ of their electricity from nuclear.   I always figured that if the French could do it, so could we.  Guess not.   Viva la France.

February 16, 2009

Ponderosa Pines

My truck got recalled because of something to do with the wheels.   Since I was off because of President’s Day, I could take it to the dealer.    They looked at it for a couple hours and then told me that they needed to order the parts.   They will call when the parts come in.  Until then, there is evidently no imminent danger.   Besides this excitement, it was an uneventful day.

Below is a ponderosa pine plantation in Oregon.  The ponderosa pines that grow on the western slopes of the Cascades are different than those that grow in Rockies.   Please read the original entry re at this link.

Ponderosa pine in Oregon

I found a good report on the Internet re ponderosa pine forest restorations by the Wilderness Society.    You can read it at this link.   Ponderosa pine forests are among the most pleasant ecosystems in the world.  They are widely spaced if fire is not excluded.   But fire has been excluded too long, as you will see in the report.   The ponderosa pine forests are usually found half way up the mountains, at higher elevations farther south and lower up north.    Individual trees can survive significant drought once established.  A lone pine you see on the prairie is probably a ponderosa pine.

Below are thinned loblolly on my land taken last fall.  Pines ecosystems look similar wherever you find them, but there are clearly differences.  Read the original post at this link.

Pine trees on Johnson-Matel land in October 2008.

All pines have a generalized pine smell but there are lots of variations. Ponderosa pines have a distinctive smell, like vanilla.   What most of us call pine smell – the one that the fresheners or pine cleaners try to imitate – smells to me like white pine.   I have been trying to figure out how to describe the smell of loblolly.  I really can’t, but I am pretty sure that I could identify loblolly by smell alone.   

One of the better lessons of the report linked above is not only about trees.   They recommend adaptive management, where each action is an experiment that informs future activities.   This iterative, continuous learning approach is good no matter where you use it.   They also stress that we must acknowledge that we cannot predict future conditions, which is another reason for the experimental management.

February 15, 2009

Theoretical Perfect: Enemy of the Practical Good

Please read this linked article first.  All the pictures are taken today in places where I have been running for more than ten years.  I have been observing what changed and what stayed the same during that time.  The picture texts could be read independent of the general text.

I was still thinking re the ivy problem and the general problem of native and invasive species.   Let me stipulate that there are real problems with invasive species.  In fact, I would rate it as one of the most important problems we face, bar none.   The Washington Post has an article today on potential release of Asian oysters into the Chesapeake, which is one of the high risk plays that scare everyone involved.  On the personal side,  I spend many days fighting the Chinese paradise trees that infest parts of my forest land and they seem to be in league with another invasive – the multiflora rose – which makes approaching them painful.   So I know the problem with invasive theoretical and practical.

Below is an ivy covered culvert.  It has been holding the soil since before 1997, when I first saw it.  The ivy slows the storm water and allows it to soak in.  Ivy is low/no maintenance and nothing else would grow as well in this shady and stressful environment.  This human environment will NEVER be like the natural world.  The rain quickly runs off the impervious surfaces and washes away soil and most vegetation...but not ivy. It would be foolish to forgo this option.

Ivy covering a road culvert and holding the soil.

But the whole concept of invasive lies on a continuum.   Horses are not native to North America, at least since their ancestors disappeared here during Pleistocene.   Nature did not place the horse on our continent; the Spaniards and English did the job.   Few people today consider horses an invasive species, but they are.   In fact, wild horses get special legal protection.   Also among the immigrants are honey bees, white clover, cows, sheep, wheat and even earthworms.   It is clear that these species have altered the environment in profound ways;  they made the land more productive and it would be insane to try to eradicate them.   On the other hand, we have chestnut blight, snakeheads, kudzu, wild hogs, Chinese longhorn beetles, emerald ash borers … the list goes on.

Below is an alternative to ivy - concrete.  Storm water rushes down and floods stream beds.  This culvert, BTW, is above the ivy in the picture, so it rushes into the ivy, where it is slowed down and tamed.

Concrete culvert in Vienna Virginia taken on February 15, 2009

Reasonable people disagree about where to draw the line.   Norway maples are the most common street trees in the upper Midwest.   Are they invasive?  Some people think so.  They replaced the American elm, almost eradicated by the invasive Dutch elm disease.  The salmon introduced into the Great Lakes are generally well received.   They replaced the lake trout, wiped out by the invasive lamprey eel.    We cannot dial the history back to the past, and what year would we choose anyway?  Species composition is always changing. 

Below - somebody dumped gravel into this low spot to slow erosion.  They still mow the grass all around.  Maybe ivy would be better than this alternative.

Gravel filled culvert near Gallows Road in Vienna VA taken on February 15, 2009

The problem of invasiveness is really a type of cost/benefit calculation.    My own bias is to prefer native species - actually local species – because they have been around together a long time and have a demonstrated adaption to the nearby environment.   But I do not limit my choices to only local species because I recognize that human activities have changed the environment sometimes rendering the previous adaption less adaptive.   The human changed environment is the new environment.  The old one is only historical.

Below - imagine the force the stormwater will achieve as it rushes down this hill in a concrete culvert wth no plants to slow it down and no possibility of soaking into the ground.

Concrete culvert on steep hill on Redwood Drive in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

This last part is important.  Every species is adapted to a niche.   But the niche is not the species and the species is not the occupant of the niche.  A species that occupies a very narrow niche is probably on its way to extinction in our rapidly changing world.   One of the definitions of an invasive species is that it can invade several niches and do it well.   This is also an advantage.  

Below is a local stream where most of the water running through the culverts ends up.  The impervious surfaces and the fast water runoff ensures that it floods and erodes.  The rip-rap holds it somewhat, but it requires consistent attention.

Stream bed in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

Our environmental tool kit should include a variety of solutions, native and not.  While native is often the best choice, a slavish devotion to the environment we happen to have had in 1607 is senseless.    

Below - the neighborhood is in many ways an oak savannah.  The oaks were planted years ago when the houses were built and/or some were left from the original cover. It would be better if the lawn was replaced with some more resilient, non-mowing, vegetation.

Oak savannah in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

BTW – some of our native species are invasive in other places.   Our native southern pines are planted all over Australia and South America, where they often grow better than they do back here at home.   Some people in Scotland complain that our Sitka spruces and Douglas fir are now the main components of their forests.   The world’s largest redwoods may soon be in New Zealand, where they were introduced 150 years ago.  They grow even better there than they do in California.  I saw some very big redwoods in Portugal and some really majestic sequoias in Geneva. 

Below is a bad introduced species - bamboo.   Bamboo is extremely agressive and hard to eliminate.  People plant it because it provides quick cover, but it takes over real quick.

Bamboo along stream bed in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009

Below is a yard with a ground cover of pakisandra.  I don't know if they are native, but they are not as hardy as ivy and they can be killed by too much foot traffic or even weed wacking.   The advantage is low maintenance and no mowing.  BTW - most lawnmowers make more pollution than a full sized car. 

Pakisandra plant in front yard in Vienna VA in February 15, 2009 

Below is a "good" non-native, a Lebanon cedar.  They get big and live a long time.  I really cannot reliably tell cedars apart unless they have some special color, like some sorts of Atlas cedars.  I planted a deodar cedar near gallows.  The only way I could identify it was from the tag at Home Depot.

Lebanon cedar in Vienna VA on February 15, 2009 

Below is a bad non-native, multiflora rose.  You cannot see them very well in the picture, but they cover the forest floor.  They have pretty flowers, but I hate them for their thorns; those thorns, however, are why they are so common.  The government recommended them as erosion control and as a "living fence."  I can attest to their value as fence barriers.

Multiflora rose in Dunn Loring Park on February 15, 2009

The Forest, the Trees & English Ivy

Below - the urban forestry meeting was held at the Fairfax County government center.   Fairfax is the biggest and most populous county in Virginia.  I was told that there are still some farms in the county, but I have not seen them.  There are a lot of forested acres, however, both in private and public hands.  I heard that the Fairfax School System plans to plant trees on some of their mowed places.  This is good for the environment and saves on maintenance costs.

Fairfax County government center taken on February 12, 2009 

BTW - if you want to attend these sort of events and learn re forestry in Virginia, the best information aggregator is the Virginia Forest Landowner Update.   

Urban forestry meetings attract a consistent demographic divided into two parts. The first segment is at or near retirement with time to pursue their interests unpaid.  I guess this is where I fit in.  Then there are the professional “tree people,” those involved with forestry, landscaping or local government make up the second group.   There is essentially no ethnic diversity.  Everybody looks like they walked out of a 1950 LL Bean catalogue.   This may become a problem.  A good part of Northern Virginia’s tree cover depends on the volunteer efforts of local citizens. Trees are too important to be the concern only of the dwindling LL Bean demographic.   I have noticed, however, that the age ratios have remained consistent over time.   Maybe people just don’t get interested in these sorts of things until they reach a certain stage of life and maybe this problem is not a problem.

I am interested in forests but many of my fellow attendees seem more interested in trees.  These are not the same concerns.   Some of my colleagues personify individual trees.    I agree that some extraordinary trees need special protection, but the forest trumps individual trees and forest health depends on cutting some trees.   Somebody even used the term “tree-rescue” in referring to moving trees from a place being cleared for a highway interchange.  This implies another “rights mindset,” and a fundamentally anti-ecology theology.

Below is the natural range of the loblolly pine range.  The range extends as far as New Jersey and the tree can survive if planted farther north, it is essentially a south-eastern species.

Natural range of the loblolly pine

The Rappahannock River is roughly the boundary between Northern & Southern Virginia both culturally and ecologically.  I have a foot in both regions, since I live in Northern Virginia, but my forest is in the South.  In suburban Northern Virginia, a few acres or a couple of trees are a big deal.  Down in Brunswick County foresters don’t pay much attention to anything less than forty acres.  In the Virginia suburbs, trees are usually seen as part of a garden landscape.  In the in Southern Virginia they are timber in a forest.  In the North, tree lovers look toward the Middle Atlantic States.   South of the Rappahannock, where the southern pine forest ecosystem starts and then stretches to the Gulf of Mexico, it is natural to look toward the Carolinas.   There was a little grumbling at the meeting that southern forest interests kept Virginia in the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern District, but I think that is where we belong from the forestry point of view.

English ivy in its winter condition taken on February 12, 2009

Some people at the meeting really hate English ivy and often voice their feelings.  They want it declared a noxious week and banned, and evidently tried w/o success to get the State of Virginia to do that.  I understand that English ivy could be characterized as an invasive, but it is not that hard to control and it serves useful purposes.  For example, nothing that I see around here holds soil better in ditches, since the plant can root in the firm soil and form a network of vines in the erodible dirt on the sides and in the bottom.  This is especially true near paved roads and driveways.  When people advocate ripping out ivy, they do not provide real solutions.  Sure, native plants might be better (although I am unenthusiastic about poison ivy), but they won't grow in the disturbed conditions and soil structures that human activity creates.  It is just dreamy to think we can - or will - create and sustain the conditions that will allow the beautiful native diversity we would all want in theory.  We need solutions we can actually live with.  You can use Virginia creeper or wild grape, but those tend to climb into the canopies worse than English ivy does.  Those vine covered trees we see along the Metro line and along I-66 are being harmed and killed by native vines.  English ivy in many cases may be the best obtainable solution.  

Besides, it is pretty and well-suited to the area around Washington.   I don’t feel bad about the English ivy. It also seems to displace poison ivy, which is a native plant but it provokes rashes in about 80% of the population.  Native is not always better.   

February 14, 2009

What is Art?

Below is the my regular Capitol picture taken at 7:45 on February 13. As I wrote, I am trying to take regular pictures through the seasons. It is getting warmer and lighter in the mornings.

US Capitol on February 13, 2009  

Beauty is all around us and all sorts of common things are interesting if examined. The beauty often lies less in the physical attributes of the things themselves than in the serendipity of finding them or in their  ephemeral nature, like the flower that blooms only for a day or the leaf that hangs an instant in the wind. Of course, people create and appreciate art.   

Patronage.  That was the whole basis of art until a short time ago and it was a good thing.   In the days before government grants, few artists had independent means so they had to find patrons.   Most of the world’s great art was made to order.  The patrons set the bounds and artists were not free to express themselves exactly as they wished.  In fact the tension between artists and patrons was one of the ingredients of masterpieces. The Sistine Chapel is great because of the tension between Michelangelo, who was doing the painting, and Pope Julius II, who was paying the bills.  Everybody needs boundaries.

Below is modern art at the Hirschhorn Gallery.  It is interesting, but not much.  It has no particular context.  I bet the government paid way too much for it.  I am sure the artist had fun making it and even more fun spending the money he got for doing it.

Sculpture at Hirschhorn Museum taken on February 13

The context determines the value. We all hold onto things that have meaning to us.   I have carried around the world a little statue of Caesar Augustus that my Aunt Florence gave me in 1965.   Objectively, it is worth next to nothing and it is poor art (It doesn't look like Augustus, more like Napoleon), but it has meaning to me on several levels. It is representational.  

Below is another sculpture on the Mall.  Also of limited interest.  I read the sign in front and didn't get any more meaning than you do from looking at it. It would be okay if they let kids climb on it, but they don't.

Modern art on Capitol Mall taken on Feb 13, 2009

I take sublime joy in just walking around the Capitol Mall.   The monuments and buildings have meaning to me as an American, a lover of liberty and as an individual.   I have “a history” with these things personally (25 years of knowing them) and for the larger reasons.  The monuments represent something bigger than what you see.  You can find out the names of the artists who worked on them, but it doesn’t really matter.  They don’t represent an individual’s narcissistic artistic ambition or personal vision.  They represent traditions, aspirations, sacrifices and triumphs of the American people. Of course, there is also the modern art pictured on this post.

Below is the Natural History Museum.  I like the traditional buildings better, but that is just my taste.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum taken on February 13, 2009

I don’t like art that doesn’t have greater meaning or is just an expression of what the individual artist wanted to say.   I don’t like the artists to challenge or try to shock me out of what they considers my complacency.   The artist has no more right to challenge me than I have to challenge him.   A lot of challenging art is just crap.   We have fallen into a kind of emperor’s new clothes trap, where all of us are afraid to express our own taste for fear of being seen as unworthy philistines.   But as Emerson wrote, “The picture waits for my verdict: it is not to command me, but I am to settle its claims to praise.”

Community gardens in Washington DC near Capitol 

Above is a community garden near the Capitol.  I think they started these things in the 1960s and there used to be more of them.  If is kind of interesting to see this little hippie farm in the middle of the monuments and monumental buildings.  This is a more meaningful art than those two modern sculptures above.

February 13, 2009

Recency and Availability Bias

Two of the most easily observed (in others) but difficult to counter biases are that we over-weight recent events and we rely too much on easily available information.  I thought about this when I saw the results of a recent poll re the best president.  Americans rate Reagan #1, according to Gallup, followed by Kennedy, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and then Washington. 

Graph of presidential greatness

Humans are programmed to take shortcuts when trying to understand situations and some of these patterns go way back.  They work in simple situations with good and timely feedback – i.e. the kinds of situations our Pleistocene ancestors faced on the African plains trying to avoid becoming leopard food – but lead us astray on complex choices where the effects are separated from the causes in time and space – i.e. much of what we deal with in the modern world.  

I think all those presidents were okay, but no matter what you think of the actual merits of that presidential preference, what are the chances that the two best presidents would have been in office within living memory?   You get this same sort of bias when you ask about the greatest people in history in general.  There is a bias toward people of the late 20th Century.   What does this say about people taking the long view? And what does that mean for our practice of persuasion?

Below is the merry-go-round at the Smithsonian.

Smithsonian merry-go-round

I bet Lincoln would have moved up in the standings if the poll had been taken yesterday or right after some kind of television special. 

There are a lot of good books on these sorts of bias, BTW.  Most have some connection to prospect theory.  The easiest to understand book on the subject is called simply Decision Traps.  It is an old (1990) book.  A more recent one that covers some of the same ground is Nudge Nudge is more recent and more readily available, so I suppose it will be given more weight.

BTW (2) a few more of the pernicious rules of thumb include:

Confirmation bias – people search out and remember information that confirms rather than challenges their current beliefs.

Vividness - particularly vivid experiences or images interfere with judgment.

Anchors – people consciously or unconsciously set baselines and then have trouble adjusting.   This is why salesmen and lawyers try to get a big number mentioned up front.   That becomes the anchor from which all adjustments are made.

BTW (3) I think the greatness of presidents should be measured by how crucial they were to the development of our country. 

W/o Washington, there would be no U.S. as we know it, so I would rate him #1.  Lincoln saved the Union and made it what it became, so he is #2.   Other transformative presidents were F. Roosevelt, Reagan and Jackson.  In that order they were great.  

Kennedy was okay but not great, IMO.  T. Roosevelt was a great character, but at time that didn't call for greatness.  Wilson had some great ideas, but he was unable to carry them through.   Jefferson was a great and crucial thinker, but not a great president.  Ditto the father of the Constitution James Madison.   Truman and Eisenhower were very good, but not great. 

February 12, 2009

Making the World Safe for Auto Traffic

We create a lot of our own troubles by demanding standards that individually make sense but together make our world less pleasant.    Today I went to an urban forestry meeting where we discussed trees and roads.   It turns out that our policies are a big part of the reasons we do not have beautiful tree lined vistas, why it is scary to be pedestrians and why we don’t have the tree canopy in our cities and suburbs that could give us shade and help keep our water cleaner. 

Providence Forest a very wide street in Merrifield VA

Let’s start out with street trees.   I imagine the trees near the streets on that little belt of grass.  Today’s rules don’t permit that unless they can be several feet from the road.  Otherwise they are hazards to traffic. Usually there is not enough room on the grass strips, especially because our new roads tend to be way wider than they need to be. I understand why you don't want obstacles (like trees) along high speed highways, but city streets are different.   On the city streets having trees on the grass next to the curb is not only more attractive; it is also safer … for pedestrians.   I would rather the car hit a tree than hit me.   Beyond that, the speed limit on city streets should preclude the trees being a real danger.   Only a drunk or a manic would veer off a straight city street and hit anything on the side.   But it is clear that road designers see everything from the car point of view.

The woman explaining the rules told us that anything near the road has to be “breakaway” so that it is not a danger to a car that hits it.  Trees cannot be made break away, which is why they cannot be close to the road.  The thing that surprised me is that bus stop shelters are designed to be “break away”.    I think they should make an exception for bus stop shelters.  If a car comes careening across the sidewalk, I would hope that the bus stop can at least slow it down before it hits the “break away” pedestrian sitting in the shelter.

Rounded corner onto Gallows Road in Merrifield Virginia on February 12, 2009

The car point of view is also why they round the curves.   You can see an example above from  just outside my townhouse complex.  This very wide strip of pavement is supposedly a city street.    The speed limit is 25 and there are lots of pedestrians.   The cars should not be taking that corner fast enough to require the rounding.  Every time I cross that street at the place shown, I have to keep looking over my shoulder to watch for the idiot making a high speed turn while talking on his/her cell phone.  I would prefer that they have to slow down to make the squared corner.  Maybe put both hands on the steering wheel.

BTW - they are going to make the road above even wider.  It is one of those shovel ready projects that the bailout money will buy.  I am glad it will create a few jobs, but I don't really welcome the prospect of having an even longer jeopardy zone to cross.  It is like that old video game "frogger."

In a very good book about livable places, A Pattern Language, the authors studied patterns that people around the world like in the places they live.   People feel more comfortable with narrower roads with buildings and plants near the road.   Of course this is when they are walking or just living nearby.   Drivers like wide open roads with no obstacles.    We all impose suffering on each other by thinking like drivers when passing through somebody else’s neighborhood.    Our love of driving has destroyed the attractiveness of our cities. 

Utilities being placed next to Gallows Road in Merrifield VA on February 12, 2009

One reason our roads and the areas around them have to be so wide is that utilities are placed far from the actual road.   Suburban roads don’t have manholes and that is why.   The total road footprint is a couple of football fields wide.

Something we could use around here are traffic circles or roundabouts.  They work very well in UK.  Traffic moves through.  Drivers yield to the traffic already in the circle and enter and leave w/o the need of stop lights or stop signs.   We cannot seem to pull it off.  We don't even try to put them in real streets anymore.  The original design of Washington included circles, which now just confuse and perplex drivers.  The one in the picture is mostly decorative.  It is the traffic circle at our complex.  Notice even in this simple case they have to have a sign telling people what to do.  They also have stop signs on the sides.  Ruins the advantage.

Traffic circle at Providence Forest townhouse complex in Merrifield, VA on February 12, 2009

The tragedy is that all of us are making good decisions for ourselves but taken together they end up being bad decisions for all of us.    Most of us are drivers and we all like convenience, but we should consider how much it is really costing us.

February 11, 2009


Below - the Holocaust Museum is designed to make inside space seem like outside space.  You are not allowed to take pictures within the exhibits themselves.

Hall in Holocaust Museum taken February 11, 2009

The Holocaust Museum featured a well-done exhibit on Nazi propaganda.  I had seen many of the things in books, but I learned from walking through it. It is comforting to consign Nazis to the past, call them a discontinuity or an aberration, but that kind of thinking doesn’t help us understand.  In those days most of the world was run by some stripe of dictator.  Whether they called themselves communists, fascists, nationalists or something else, none of them believed that individuals could or should be allowed to make choices. They manipulated the masses with powerful and pervasive propaganda.  Regrettably, propaganda, braced by state coercive power, did the job.   

The old fashioned propaganda grates on our modern ears and eyes.  We have become largely immune to that presentation style.  Besides, Nazi propaganda was a vast web of deception inseparable from the coercive power of state and its time.  Posters, music and media were just the outward manifestations and today are just artifacts.  But remember the immense damage they did and take them seriously.

Nazism was based on big lies.   The one we often overlook is their claim of victimhood. Maybe the paradox of being simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator is too much for us to handle.  They claimed they were victims of Jews, the democratic great powers, plutocratic capitalists, traitorous socialists, just bad luck and the Treaty of Versailles.   

Outside of propaganda exhibit at Holocaust Museum in Washington DC taken on February 11, 2009

There was some truth.  The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was unjust and unworkable.  John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1919 that it would result in economic collapse. Ten years later he was right. Germany in general and Hitler in particular played on latent feelings of guilt in the allied populations. Leaders who appeased Hitler in the 1930s did so both out of fecklessness and their own lack of confidence that they were right.  Hitler covered his aggression with the cloak of the victim.  It was a subtle but effective propaganda victory. The idea that they were just “getting back” what was theirs was strong and influenced decisions until 1939.  Truly effective propaganda sets the frame so that the players are not consciously aware of the manipulation. This is a lesson we can keep.  

Germany had valid complaints about the Versailles Treaty, but it was a non-sequiter to say that only they had a right to dictate the solution.   

The exhibition ends in the present with a picture of Iranian president Ahmadinejad. It is pretty hard to figure out what that guy is trying to say ... or maybe not.  Hitler was clear about his plans, but ordinary people couldn’t believe that he really meant it.  They rationalized and made excuses.  Propaganda has modernized since then, but some things don't change too much.

Some things are just beyond understanding but we still have to try because these things didn't end in 1945.   Exhibits like this are good for focusing thought.      

February 10, 2009

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent

I suppose the economy will continue to decline for some time, with or w/o the stimulus package.   But I prefer to look to the things that are looking up.  

Below are the new homes near my house.  Now sold out.

New homes sold out near Dunn Loring metro in Vienna VA Feb 2009

While we were at Sears yesterday to get a new dishwasher, making our small contribution to the recovery, we noticed the help wanted signs.  There was also a help wanted sign at Safeway.   Construction around Washington has slowed but not stopped.    The new complex near my house, the one that had sold no lots last summer, is now sold out and the houses are almost done.   I don’t like the houses, but the evidently are what some people want, people with the means to buy new houses.

New homes near Dunn Loring Metro in Vienna Virginia in Feb 2009

Recessions aren’t all bad.   I read in the papers that people are saving more money, putting off purchases and being more careful about what they buy.   

Same place in July 2008 (six months ago)

Field with unsold new home lots taken in July 2008

This is the paradox of thrift.  Saving is a virtue, but if enough people save enough money during hard times, not enough money flows through the economy.

Below is condo construction near my house.

Condo construction near Dunn Loring metro in Feb 2009

Still,  until recently we worried that people were not saving enough, that houses were getting too expensive and that people were becoming to extravagant in their purchases.   It is not what you make but what you keep.   Real disposable income rose every month of the last quarter and the savings rate spiked up too.   Read about it at this link.

Cleared lots near Dunn Loring Metro in Vienna Virginia Feb 2009

I don’t want to minimize the problem.   I know people are suffering and I stipulate that I have a steady job so maybe I don’t feel the downturn as much as some others.  But I have lost money in the markets and my house is worth signifcantly less.  I would also point out that even with the recent jump in unemployment; almost 93% of Americans still have jobs too.  So my experience is not that special.  I think we are getting a little too worked up.  FDR famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  Maybe we should recall his wise words, uttered in a much more difficult time.  I think some of this passion we hear on the news is hyperbole.    As Ben Franklin said, “passion governs and she never governs wisely.”

I have been reading a lot about the Great Depression and I got a second-hand feeling for those hard times from my parents.  During those years, unemployment reached almost 25% and that number understates the problem in comparison to today, since there were many more farmers back then as a % of the population and many of them suffered hard times or even lost their farms but were not immediately counted as unemployed.    Beyond that, back in the 1930s many more families had only one wage earner.     

Below - we still have vultures.

Vultures near Dunn Loring Metro in Feb 2009

So let’s lay this out by the worst rates per decade.   According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rate in 1933 = 24.9%;  unemployment rate in 1949 = 7.9;  unemployment in 1958 = 7.5; unemployment in 1961 = 7.1%;  unemployment rate in 1975 = 9.0; unemployment rate in 1982 = 10.9%; unemployment in 1992 = 7.8%; unemployment in 2009 is 7.6%.   You might also take a look at the better times - 1948 3.4%; 1953 = 2.5%; 1969 =3.4%; 1970 3.9%; 1989 = 5.0%; 1999 = 4.2%;  and not long ago in 2006 = 4.4%.  (I graduated HS in 1973.  From 1973-1997, the unemployment rate never dropped below 5% and in many years it was above today's level of 7.6%, BTW.) 

We have hard times periodically and we recover.   During the hard times, we think good times will never return; during good times we think we have reached a new age when hard times will come again no more.  We are always wrong.  Things decline after they reach a peak and the come up after they hit a bottom.  That is the way is was, is and always will be.  It is a simple tautology.

Now is the winter of our discontent about to turn to glorious summer?

February 09, 2009

Internet Steals Memory

People in pre-literate societies had phenomenal memories.  Great epics like the Iliad & the Odyssey started off as oral stories.   While details were dropped or enhanced over time, storytellers could repeat from memory tales that cover hundreds of pages of modern print.  


Literacy is a foundation of civilization.  One of the reasons is that it enhances and replaces physical human memory.    It allows for accurate communication over distance and time and prevents the loss of knowledge and collective experience.  It also means that individuals no longer need to remember details when they can consult an easily available written source.  They no longer need to learn them at all when they can easily consult the collective memory. The analogy of memory to muscle is imperfect, but Hippocrates’ old dictum still applies, “That which is used develops; that which is not used wastes away.”   Everything else being equal, a man with a notebook and pencil is still better off than the man who has to rely only on his great memory, but we pay an atrophy price for leaning on the memory crutch.   

Computers and the Internet turbo-charge access to the collective memory. Much of the accumulated knowledge of humanity is available in seconds at the cost of a few key strokes.   That is why I love the Internet.   (I feel a tinge of regret that my treasured for reference sources have become mostly dusty decorations, and  I still appreciate the cultural and tactile pleasure of actually a book, but I fear that the last “people of the book” generation has already been born.)  Internet magnifies my memory, but it also changes it. 

My memory used to be better and I don’t chalk up the entire decline to the effects of age. Internet & computers are partly responsible.  That which is not used wastes away and if you know you don't have to use it, you often don't.  I don't have to exercise memory as I used to because I know l I really need to remember only parts.  If I can remember part of a name and part of a story, that is good enough.  Internet will do the rest.   A good example is the quotation from Hippocrates above. I remembered that the quote existed. I thought it was from Hippocrates. Google found it.  

My memory used to be imperfect but it was organized mostly in complete stories associated with names, places and often dates in ways that made sense.  My computer assisted memory is unorganized and random.   I rely on external organization power of software to put what I know in order. Search engines assemble it for me, and I have mixed feelings about that. Computer power enhances but devalues intellectual muscle in the same way power equipment enhances but devalues physical muscle. It is an equalizer.  

Being a strong man used to be a determining advantage working on a farm or building a house.   I can still remember a time when truck drivers had powerful forearms from wrestling the wheels of the big rigs or when you knew that a man was a farmer by shaking hands with him.  Today just about anybody can aspire to these jobs. Lack of physical strength is no longer a barrier.   

Will the same thing happen with intelligence?  It is happening already. I am a beneficiary. I could handle the higher level math required for my MBA only because calculators and computers largely eliminated the need for actual calculation. My statistics professor was sad that all her years of training doing regression equations by hand had been made redundant by cheap calculators that could be wielded by anybody with a couple minutes instruction.

All things considered, the price is worth paying. You are reading something right now that could not exist ten years ago, and not only because of the obvious internet as a medium. I write something for my blog almost every day. Many of the entries are recounting of my experiences, but some are mini-essays.  I can write, edit and post an entry in less than an hour.  This is only possible because of technology.   My digital camera provides the illustrations.  Everything I do would have taken me a lot more time and probably required added help. Microsoft Word replaces someone who would read and correct my grammar and spelling.   The digital camera replaces the photo developer. Easy upload takes the place of printers.  The Internet delivers it and provides takes the place of researchers who would have to dig through card catalogues and dusty stacks to give me what Google does in seconds.  Ain’t technology wonderful?

Most things are better remembered than they were lived.  My memory probably was never as good as I remember it being anyway.

February 08, 2009

Water, Water

I used to love the days in late winter when the warming sun would melt the ice and snow in the alley behind our house and send little rivers of water down the hill.  My friends and I would make ice dams.  They didn’t last long, but it was fun.  When I got a little older, I would go down to Lake Michigan.  My favorite places were the little beaches in Grant and Warnimont Parks.  I like the Lake in alls its moods and majesty, but I was always attracted to the little rivulets the poured down the hills.   I can still sit for hours by a stream just watching and listening to the water flow.  

Below is Genito Creek, which runs through our land in Brunswick County.  Notice the river birch and the natural levies.  The river water naturally deposits soil along the river edge. Heavy rain will take it over the banks to flood the forests and the levies trap it on the inside making temporary ponds. This enriches soils, replenishes ground water and provides habitat for wildlife, especially amphibians.   Flooding is good.  It is only a problem when we develop and build on places best left to the natural riparian environment.  Flooding is predictable.  If you need expensive flood insurance, you probably should not have built your house where you did.

Genito Creek at SR 623 taken January 2006

We camp near flowing streams and build our cities next to rivers.  Where we don’t have these things near enough, we construct fountains in urban squares.  Even people who don’t like to swim like to sit near a pool.  Love of flowing water is something primeval and instinctive in humans. 

Peter Glieck of the Pacific Institute gave me some interesting insights.   Here is the link to his talk at the Wilson Center.  He focused on the ecological disaster unfolding in China.  I will let you read about that at the link if you want.  It is scary.  They have destroyed 80% of their wetland in N. China, sucked dry many streams and rivers and exhausted or polluted most of the easy accessible groundwater.   But I want to concentrate on some of the general ideas.

We can never run out of water, but we can run out of water that you can afford to get or water we can get w/o destroying local ecosystems.  Dr. Glieck explained it that water uniquely exhibits characteristics of both a non-renewable stock resource and a renewable flow resource.   It is renewable, but can be used up locally. 

Regions can and do exhaust or destroy their accessible water supply and some stocks are essentially non-renewable.  We call them “fossil water.”  Examples include the Ogallala aquifer under the American Great Plains.  Water is not a global resource. It is too difficult and expensive to move worldwide in large enough quantities.  You can move bottles of drinking water over the oceans, but you cannot base your general water needs on sources that are too far away.   (BTW – tap water in most of the U.S. is excellent, often better than what you get in bottles.)  In fact, the story exhausted water often goes with the fall of civilizations.

Water and energy are connected.  Energy production uses and often pollutes water.  It takes water to grow biofuels, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  Moving water consumes a great deal of energy.   The single biggest consumption of energy in California comes from pumping water from Northern to Southern parts of the state.   Water is reused an infinite number of times.  Cleaning it and pumping it around is what takes the resources. 

Below shallow temporary ponds are created at new construction sites to catch the runnoff and protect surface waters from silting.  If left alone, this would become a vernal pond and provide a home to amphibians, as well as all sorts of bugs - good and not.

Mud puddle retention pond at new construction on Gallows Rd near Dunn Loring Metro Stop.

Rain Gardens

There are lots of rain gardens popping up around Washington.  I found some up near the Capitol and there is a whole complex of them at the EPA.   I didn’t take a picture since there was little to see in the winter.    But I did read all about it on the placards nearby.   Please follow this link to the information about them.

Below is a vernal pond on our CP land.  You can see why people might call them unattractive.  It greens up by April and this part is mostly dry by August.

Vernal pond on Johnson Matel tree farm taken in January 2006

Below is what the same place looks like in October.  You can hear the water, but cannot see it unless you push throught the plants.

Wetland on Johnsonmatel tree farm on October 9, 2009 

A rain garden is sort of a fancy name for a vernal pond, which is itself a fancy name for a temporary pond, a fancy name for a big mud puddle.  You have to change some names.  Swamps become wetlands; jungles become rainforests.  The old names have developed negative connotations that stand in the way of understanding.  Vernal ponds are really important but under appreciated.  They used to be common, mostly because of neglect.  Water just pooled up and nobody did anything about it.  They form with the spring rains and/or melt water and disappear with the heat and dryness of summer and/or when growing vegetation sucks up the surface water.  But as our landscaping “improved,” people filled in or drained many of the ponds.  Who cares?  We should.

Below is one of our streams.  It flows and floods depending on recent weather conditions.  It always flows across the surface where I took the picture, but it goes underground and reemerges at other points.

Stream on Johnson Matel tree farm

Vernal ponds are important to water quality.  They allow water to soak into the ground and they slow the flow to allow nutrients and silt to settle out.   As importantly, vernal ponds provide places for amphibians to breed.    Key characteristics of vernal ponds are their impermanence and stagnancy, precisely the things that make them unpopular with grounds maintenance crews and home owners.   If the pond is permanent enough to support fish, they tend to eat the amphibian eggs and if the water flows it washes them down. 

February 07, 2009

Learning From the Management Gurus

John Matel with "The Economist" magazine, February 7, 2009 

If I could read only one magazine a week, it would be “The Economist” because it has such a variety of topics written in a style I enjoy. I have subscribed to the Economist since I was in graduate school and it has contributed as much to my education as my grad school experience.  Actually, all education, formal and otherwise, builds what went before.   I was reminded of that today with this Economist article on Fredrick Taylor. 

I met Taylor (figuratively) in grad-school when I studied operations research.   He is the father of “scientific management” and while I think the strict application of his theory is probably a bad thing (Lenin was a Taylor fan), he did start the systematic study of management processes that has done a lot to create the modern prosperity we now enjoy.   Peter Drucker wrote that Taylor was, “the first man in history who did not take work for granted, but looked at it and studied it. His approach to work is still the basic foundation”.    That was worth something.  

Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of scientific management, around 1900I don’t like the practical and complete application of the theories.   Even if you don’t know Taylor, you know his work.  He is the time management guy, the one who set loose all those guys with clipboards and stopwatches to measure workers.   In our scheme, we do not ask the initiative of our men. We do not want any initiative. All we want of them is to obey the orders we give them, do what we say, and do it quick.  That assumes you don't want innovation or initiative. This was the frightening world of “Modern Times” or “Metropolis” and in the early 20th Century the trends didn’t look good.  Fortunately trends never continue and we got back to a more human and humane system, at least in theory.  Humans don't work like machines and everybody is better off if everybody is thinking.

That's Taylor on the left.

I will let those who care enough read re the other stars of management.  Here are the links:
Max Weber, Richard Rumelt, Warren Buffett,  Richard Pascale, Alfred Sloan, Peter Senge, Laurence Peter, Henry MintzbergPeter DruckerGeert Hofstede, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor, Gary Hamel, Michael Porter,  Dale Carnegie, Igor Ansoff, Warren Bennis, Frank and Lillin Gilbreth C.K. Prahalad. 

Of course every real-world leader needs to develop methods that fit with his own strengths, circumstances and proclivities. The management theorists can inform choices, but they cannot make them for you (anyway many of the gurus are sometimes a bit like Harold Hill in the "Music Man.") I learned a lot from reading the theories and then trying them out in practice.  I read most of Peter Drucker's books and I had several of Tom Peters' books.  In Search of Excellence” had a lot of influence on me because I read that when I was in grad-school and it was one of my first books of that kind.  I must have spent thousands of dollars on leadership/management books. BTW - I also consider the reading of biographies as a type of leadership training.   You learn from the experience of others.

I found Maslow’s hierarchy of needs a very useful construct when I was in Iraq.  As Maslow points out, you can't accomplish much until you meet basic safety and security needs.   All the other things were just not possible out of that sequence.  That insight alone was probably studying him.    I am not saying that we should apply these ideas w/o modification, but they are very useful.   Most of the Marine officers I talked with in Iraq were familiar with Maslow and they got it right too.

“The Economist” reminded me of something I had forgotten.   I read Henry Mintzberg in grad-school, but not since.  But I had internalized something he wrote, and paraphrased it for many years, probably because it fit in well with my personal preferences.   Mintzberg was very different from Taylor’s machine like idea of focusing on task.  The good managers he studied jumped from topic to topic.   According to Mintzberg, good managers thrive "on interruptions and more often than not disposes of items in ten minutes or less. Though he may have 50 projects going, all are delegated.” In a study of British managers at the time, he found that they worked without interruption for more than half an hour only “about once every two days”. He also found that senior managers spent more than three-quarters of their time in oral communication. He concluded, “the job of managing is fundamentally one of processing information, notably by talking and especially by listening.” To be a good manager you have to be a good listener.”

Management is not the same as other sorts of work.  That is why when the guy who seems to be the most serious worker in the place is put in charge, things often go wrong and why self-described hard workers often think their boss isn’t doing anything.    Making connections and understanding the whole becomes more and more important as you get farther along and the value of actual “work” declines.  It becomes more important to know what to do and work through others.

The management gurus tend to put leadership and managment in the same boat.  There are differences.  I think it is easier to study and define management.  In Taylor's world, leadership is only management and even that is essentially surrendered to the system.  In a really well designed scientific management system managers are more like administrators.  Leadership is needed to set new courses and create change.  If you are not going anywhere, you don't need leadership to get you there.

It is almost impossible to describe precisely what a good leader does that makes him/her a good leader, or when you describe it, it sounds trivial.  He just knows what to do.  Things just work better and more smoothly when some people are around.  And of course there are some leaders who are just creators of useless effort.  Life doesn't have to be that hard. Maybe the management gurus can put it in better words than I can.

The lesson I took was that leaders working ostensibly hard behind their desks are not really working very effectively and if things are going wrong, it is more likely BECAUSE of rather than in spite of their best efforts.  Working hard on the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing at all.  Leadership above all means making the right choices.   Besides, as RR said, it is true that hard work never killed anybody, but I figure why take the chance?   Maybe they should waste a little time walking around and talking to the people doing the work, and read “The Economist” every Saturday.         

February 06, 2009

Do Words Count More Than Deeds?

Ford Motors promotional image of Chief Stylist George Walker talking to an Edsel project member. From the personal collection of auto ephemera (over 4,000 pieces spanning 1900-1975) owned by Stude62.Ford Edsel and New Coke are spectacular examples of how even the most sophisticated marketing and biggest bucks cannot sell a product people don’t want.  But we are talking about tangible products in these cases.   Each time you tasted New Coke, you were given another chance to test for yourself.   Everybody who saw or drove an Edsel could make his/her own judgment.   Imagine if you had ONLY the advertisements about these products and/or you had to depend on what others said about them.  Go one further. Imagine that much of what you had almost no opportunity to make independent verifications and that almost everybody involved in explaining to you had a vested interest in misleading you, or at least spinning the facts.  Now you are in the world of public affairs.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”  This sentence is designed with the encouraging part as the punch line, but it not really very encouraging.    Phase it just a little differently.  Some of the people are always fooled.  Some of the people are sometimes not fooled, but all of the people are fooled some of the time.  Mr. Lincoln wisely didn’t speculate about how many people would sometimes not be fooled or the amount of influence they might exert on the benighted majority.

New Coke

We can recognize mass deception epidemics in retrospect.  We know how they turned out so we can see the errors. But what do we learn?  By the time the facts are known, we have moved on to other things and with the wisdom of hindsight people convince themselves that they were not really fooled at all.  As someone who loves ancient history, I can think of widely believed hoaxes that persisted for thousands of years.  But let’s limit ourselves to recent ones that we can all recall w/o too much effort from our own lifetimes.  We had the missile gap, the population bomb, global cooling, nuclear winter, imminent collapse of the global financial system (about once every ten years), WMD, diet coke, breast implants, power lines etc causing cancer, and the biggest of all - communism.  

This last one was interesting to me professionally, since my dislike for communism was the big reason I joined the then USIA.  Until 1989 most experts predicted the continued health and expansion of communism.   In fact, I was in Vienna on the very day the Berlin Wall came down listening to experts tell me that the East German government was fundamentally sound and enjoyed the grudging support of its people.  It was naive, they said, to expect any real change.  By 1995, you almost couldn’t find an expert who didn’t claim to have known that the communism was about to collapse. 

Self-deception is the most effective kind.

Communism didn’t work, plain and simple, and it was horribly oppressive to boot, but for a bankrupt ideology, communism enjoyed a remarkably popular life. At least fifty million people died as a result of communism, making it the biggest killer in history.  You can understand how people living under those ghastly systems attenuated their criticism, hoping to avoid joining those millions already moldering mass graves, but communism was also widely accepted among intelligencia in the free nations, where people with the freedom to speak and inquire should have known better.   Even today pictures of Che Guevara adorn dorm rooms and t-shirts on college campuses.  And they are not usually adjacent to picture of Charles Manson or similarly murderous cult leaders.

You can fool some of the people all of the time and sometimes for many years.

We Americans are a pragmatic people and we have grown up in a country with long traditions of democracy, free flow of information, free media, free markets, free inquiry and a lot of choices in general.  We have trouble understanding how uncommon our happy situation is, both historically and geographically. This gives us an exaggerated confidence that the truth will come out and that it will be accepted by most reasonable people.   But remember in closed countries they sold products a lot worse than Edsels or New Coke and people were content to get them.  They still do.

As pragmatic people, we also believe that what we do makes a difference and we take responsibility for our actions.  We appropriately hold ourselves to higher standards.   But that should not prevent us from making objective comparisons and should not lead to assumptions of moral equivalency with nasty enemies ... or worse.

We suffer from the effects analogous to excellent students from very stringent grading system competing with mediocre or poor students from a lax one for admission to an engineering program.  If administrators consider a B in highly competitive course in advanced calculus less than an A in the everybody-passes basic arithmetic curriculum, you better drive carefully over the bridges designed by their graduates. 

Or if you permit, let me provide another analogy.   The couch potato can easily criticize the players in the Super Bowl, but we all know he could not have leap high enough to catch that pass in the end zone nor kept both his feet in bounds when he came down.

Deeds count more than words only when people have the independent ability to judge, effects are reasonably close to actions in time and space and when feedback is available and reliable.   Otherwise they are like the tree that falls in the wood with nobody around to hear it.    

So, what do we do?  I certainly don’t advocate lowering our high standards or hiding our mistakes, but we should raise our expectations of others & don’t overlook their shortcomings either.  After the President’s SOTU speech, some leaders in countries where democracy is viewed with limited enthusiasm said that they would wait to judge his deeds.  Judge his deeds - great!  That goes both ways.   Let’s see how the couch potatoes do on game day or the wizards of basic arithmetic perform on the practical exam.  AND we always ask the “compared to what?” question.  You don’t win respect by lying down in the face of criticism and the truth will come out only if it has some sturdy and persistent advocates.   

Lincoln statue at Lincoln Memorial taken in July 2008

And as Lincoln understood, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, some of the people will be fooled all of the time.

February 05, 2009

Walking to Wilson

Below is the Monument to the Second Army Division.  It stands near the White House.  It was originally set up in memory of WWI dead, but later added battles from WWII and Korea.  I walked past this many times, but this is the first time I stopped to look closely.

Memorial to Second Army Division in Washington taken on February 4, 2009

I started at my normal office and then took the shuttle to HST and transferred to go to NFATC, where I talked to the group going to Iraq.   I wonder how much my advice is worth.  Things change so quickly in Iraq and our footprint is so different now.   But I told them what I knew.    I caught the shuttle back to HST in time just to miss the shuttle to SA44.   Just as well.  I wanted to go to the Wilson Center to see a speaker on worldwide water resources, so I walked over to the Ronald Reagan Building, where Wilson Center is located.  It seems to me that water resources and environment will be big issues in the next few years.   One of the things I like most about Washington is that there are so many opportunities to learn new things.  I will write some notes about what I learned when I get a little more information and context.

Below is an exhibit re Woodrow Wilson at the Wilson Center.  Wilson was our only president with a PhD.  He valued study and the development of ideas.  The Wilson Center for scholars is his living legacy.  Scholars there share their ideas with each other and the public (like me).  They also publish "The Wilson Quarterly".

Exhibit at Wilson Center

The Wilson Center is almost midway between State and SA 44, so after the lecture I walked back to my office.  It was cold and I had to stay late to finish the day's work, but I liked the lecture, the walk gave me time to think and I got some pictures.  

Atrium at Ronald Reagan Building

Above is the inside atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building.  Below workmen are putting up a profile of President Reagan. 

Reagan profile at Ronald Reagan building taken on February 4, 2009

Below is a statue of Simon Bolivar near the Mall and near the OAS.  

Simon Bolivar Statue in Washington taken on February 4, 2009.  

Below is Nathan Hale.  He scouted British positions for General Washington and was executed by the British after they captured him.  They didn't have the ACLU in those days.  His last words were "I regret that I have but one life to give for my country." 

Nathan Hale statue in Washington DC taken February 4, 2009

Below is salt on the street.  It seem like when it snows in Washington, it rains salt.  You can see how much this salt was not needed.  They are too quick with the salt around here and the effort is not a virtue. All that salt eventually finds its way into the Potomac and then pollutes the Chesapeake Bay.  The lecture I listened to on water made me notice this. The costs of doing these things is high, but environmental costs are hard to quantify, while people sliding on the streets are easy to see.  Too bad.  Many people claim to be concerned about the environment, but then they complain or sue when they are inconvenienced or slip on the pavement.   The Chesapeake is worth a few bent fenders, maybe even some broken bones or at least the risk of these mishaps.

Salt on Washington street taken on February 4, 2009 

February 04, 2009

Mean Streets Softening

Below are apartments in Washington SW.  They are an early example of slum clearance, rebuilding and low income housing.  According to the sign nearby, they were built during the 1930s.  I like the neigborhood; it is a great location with lots of nice trees and open space.  They are now being converted to condos, probably expensive ones.  So there will be these expensive places - newly affluent former low income housing, amidst the current low income housing. 

Low income housing in Washington SW, now being converted to condos.  Picture taken February 3, 2009

Everything gets its cable television marathon sooner or later.   AMC recently featured a “Death Wish” marathon with a couple “Dirty Harry” movies thrown in.  These movies were wildly popular.  They made Charles Bronson famous and inspired spin offs.  The movies really were not very good and the premises were ridiculous (like most action movies).  They were popular because they caught a cultural wave and connected with ordinary people's fears and anger.  They were made at a time when societal norms were breaking down and crime was spiking up.   It seemed like the cops could do nothing and that the crooks could get away with anything.  If the cops did manage to make an arrest, weak minded judges would let them out, citing the need to go after the “root causes” of crime.

Below is vandalism.  Somebody put a lot of effort into pulling these benches apart.  As I wrote in the earlier caption, this is a nice neighborhood, but some of the neighbors are not well behaved.

Vandalized benches in Washington SW, picture taken February 3, 2009

Crime rates started to come down around 1990.  Nobody can really explain it and there are certainly multiple causes, but an important factor was the prominence of the broken window theory.  If you look at the pictures above, you can see how a few acts of disorder can make a whole area feel unsafe.  

You can read the link if you want details.   Generally, the idea is that disorder causes crime.  If you want to cut big crime, you go after the little disorders.    The most important root cause of crime is crime itself and the disorder it engenders.    People who live disorderly lives usually end up poor and sometimes criminal but it is very hard to live an orderly life when you are surrounded by disorder and indifference.

Below is the progress of the construction.  I have taken pictures of this before at earlier stages.  I think it will be done by summer.

New construction in Washington SW taken on February 3, 2009

Attitude plays a big role in almost any human endeavor.   I think that sometimes we lose the conviction that we have a right to impose order and when that happens disorder ensues.    Being judgmental is unfashionable, but the ability to make reasonable distinctions is the mark of intelligence.   The broken windows theory wasn’t a panacea, but it provided a base on which we could again make reasonable judgments.    We could say with renewed conviction that some of the petty crime and antisocial behaviors were not okay.    The subsequent success of welfare reform, which works from some of the same assumptions, helped win the intellectual battle.   We still have some rear guard “root causes first” folks, although decision makers tend to listen to them indulgently and even talk their talk,  they usually reject their practical advice.   Our streets are safer and more pleasant and that is worth a lot.

Below - you can see the neighborhood has some attractions and good location.  This is Delaware AV SW looking northeast. The new cars indicate the coming prosperity.  The progress is regrettable in some ways.  The poor people who live in the public housing enjoy the good location.  They will be displaced by the improvements as their neighborhood moves farther upscale and high rent than they can afford.

Looking at the Capitol from Washington SW taken on February 3, 2009

I don’t think we will ever get back to the low crime rates of the 1950s.  Populations were not as mobile back then and it was easier to isolate, localize and control crime. * But there has been a lot of progress since the 1970s.   I walk all around Washington in places that I would have feared to tread twenty years ago.   The neighborhoods in the pictures is a good example.  Even nice neighborhoods like Capitol Hill just up from here used to be dangerous after sundown.   Today you can even go up to U Street at night.  It is lively and a little sleazy, but certainly not the fearful war zone I remember inadvertently wandering into twenty years ago.  Back in 1985 when I first visited Baltimore they warned you not to stray too far from the well protected tourist zones near the harbor and monuments.    Today I don’t worry too much about Mariza living there.

Below is a street scene in Baltimore near where Mariza lives.  The houses are nicer on the outside than inside for now.  Old buildings are hard to fix.  It is easy to put new brick on the facade, but the plumbing and wiring are nightmares. This picture is from November 2009. 

Bolton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore taken in November 2009

BTW – Profound changes often stem from prosaic causes. Crime rates spiked in the 1960s for lots of reasons.  We can blame all sorts of social breakdowns but cars and air conditioning also played  roles. Most crime is committed by young males.  If they don’t have cars, they are not very mobile.   If they rip off the local grocery store, everybody knows who they are.   The car not only makes getaways easier, it also allows them to go far enough from home where nobody knows them.   Air conditioning is a more subtle cause.   W/o air conditioning, people sit on their front porches or stoops on warm summer evenings.  Neighbors get to know each other and everybody is keeping an eye on the street.  Air conditioning isolates people within their homes with the windows closed, leaving the streets to strangers.  These things are the realities of our society today and those are two of the reasons why I don’t think crime rates will ever drop to their 1950s levels.   Of course, maybe modern surveillance technology will jump into the breach, but that is kind of scary.   

February 03, 2009

Energy, Water & Food/Government, Science & Markets

Icy bench outside Smithsonian castle on January 28 

The U.S. has become the world’s biggest producer of wind energy and will probably be the biggest producer of solar energy by the end of the year, according to Scientific American.    We have lots of land for windmills in America and lots of sunny places for solar, but what we also have in abundance is imagination and innovation.    We are constantly being told that we are falling behind in this or that.   Just a couple years ago, I read that we would be left behind in the renewable energy business.  I know that we can parse the news in many ways, but being first in solar and wind energy means something no matter how you look at it and it doesn't look like being left behind.

And remember that this happened before we made all those green investments the government promised to make. 

Sun over the mountains in Nevada near Las Vegas taken on New Year Eve 2005

Energy, water and food. Providing ourselves with these prosaic necessities is the challenge of the next decade. This is a worldwide challenge, so let’s look to good practices worldwide. Brazil has been working on alcohol fuel for four decades. Arid Australia is a leader in allocating scarce water resources. Although not currently the world leader, it might be India that soon leads the world in biotechnology.

Brazil provides an excellent example of the interaction of market forces, political will and good luck. Brazil's military dictators stared the program back in 1975. There is some doubt whether a non-authoritarian government could have taken the initial steps to make it happen. Even with subsidies, favorable laws and official sponsorship, Brazil's ethanol program languished and almost died in the very low oil price environment in the 1990s. The history of Brazilian ethanol once again confirms the necessity of a higher price of oil to encourage alternatives. When prices rose, the ethanol program once again made economic senses.

Sunset in Arizona taken December 2005

The lesson: Government intervention may be necessary to jump start alternative energy programs. A big change in infrastructure is something individual firms cannot handle alone.   However, it is clear that the government can propose and encourage, but the market ultimately decides. Luck played a big role in Brazil. If the price spikes had come just a few years later, the Brazil energy program may well have been left for dead and very difficult to revive.

Fuel is important, but water is even more crucial to survival.  Ironically, energy solutions such as Brazil's use of sugar cane to make fuel will worsen water shortages. Unlike fuel, however, we do not produce water; we do not use it up. It is the ultimate renewing resource. What matters is quality and location. This renewing aspect has fooled us into thinking water is (or should be) free.  Most water is not really allocated at all. In non-arid areas, we just assume there is enough water and even in arid ones, we generally give precedence to whoever is nearer or who got there first.  This guarentees that water is wasted. We have to stop treating water like a free good and begin to distribute it according to market principles.

This will seem unjust.   A couple years ago, I watched the Milagro Beanfield War, directed by Robert Redford.  It concerns some poor farmer who steals water bought by a rich developer.  It is natural to sympathize with the little guy, but if more people practiced his primitive methods it would drive everyone into poverty. He just wants to grow some beans - in the middle of the desert.  He doesn't know and the plot doesn’t openly reveal it, but he just wants to waste water, increase the salinity of his soil and ultimately make it useless.  Only the free market (including rule of law, reasonable regulation & market mechanisms) will allow diverse decision making can achieve a fair result.  You can still cheer for Joe Mondragon, but recognize that he is part of the problem.

The lesson: We have to look at the bigger picture and think of water as a regional, maybe even a world resource. If done properly, it can be done justly and gradually with most people given choices that improve their lives.  If we pretend we can go on the old fashioned Milagro Beanfield way, everybody suffers and some people die, but somebody gets the satisfaction of “sticking it to the man.”

In the end we might have some great options from the science of biotechnology or nanotechnology.  Biotechnology can produce plants that require less water, fertilizer and energy to produce greater outputs.  But the connection is even more direct. Biotechnology is already contributing to the production of biofuels and may soon make the production of ethanol from cellulous faster and easier. Cellulous alcohol is the holy grail of liquid fuels. That would mean we could make fuel out waste products such as wood chips or stalks, or from easily grown and ecologically benign crops such as switchgrass.  Nanotechnology may produce much better ways to capture, store and transmit energy.

Lesson: Paradigms change and we can make them change. If we think only about how things are today, we can never solve our problems. In fact, it is likely that today's problems CANNOT be solved with today's methods.  We cannot solve problems with the same techniques that got us into them.  Innovative solutions require a leap of faith, but it is a leap of faith in human intelligence and our ability to learn & adapt.

We are standing at a crossroads where our provision of energy, water and food are radically changed. These three factors will be more completely integrated than ever before. All change is difficult, but if done right this one will make all (or at least most) of us much better off and make our lifestyles more sustainable.

February 02, 2009

Give a Man a Hammer

Stone wall near Alcott house in Concord Mass 

The world is too complex to be understood directly, so we use simplified mental models to make sense of things.   All of us have habitual models – metaphors – that we fit w/o much thought to the events in our world.    The model/metaphor we use determines what we do.    But none of our models is reality.  They fit more or less well, and to the extent the model is a bad fit, we make bad decisions that follow with perfect logic from our assumptions.

Windows at the old Matuszek's grocery in Milwaukee, Wi

Give a man a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.   The model makes a difference.  The most explicit models we employ are often related to sports.  Think about how different the results can be.    A football model will entail planning by a leader and execution by different people, each with specific specializations (quarterback, linebacker etc) on the field in separate steps with pauses between moves.  Basketball, with its continuous fluid and reactive action, produces a very different model evoke very understanding of the problem.    I often wonder how many of our international misunderstandings result from our football metaphor versus their football/soccer way of simplifying reality.

statue of peddlar in front of Smithsonian taken in January 28, 2009

Explicit models are treacherous enough, but it is the IMPLICIT models – the ones we use w/o thinking – put the biggest hurt on us.  Framing the model is the most important part of decision making, but it is often completely overlooked.    Decision makers often assume models out of habit or inertia and then cannot understand why their perfectly logical choices that flow from their premises do not produce the expected results.     Reality is too complex and confusing.  You have to have a model to simplify it, but make it a good one.

My preferred model is ecological, specifically forestry, and I have worked to refine my understanding of this model and its application.   No model is perfect, but this one is robust because it accounts for interaction of complex factors, properly accounts for the effects of time, anticipates changes in conditions and anticipates random shocks.  The most important insight in this model is that the actions you take will change the expected outcomes and they will never produce proportional results.    Little inputs can create very large results, very large inputs may produce almost nothing and change come in spurts and lumps.   This doesn’t make intuitive sense because we tend to think in terms or physical models where inputs relate directly to outputs.   If I pour eight ounces of water into a cup, I expect to find eight ounces.   In a biological model, eight ounces may result in a gallon of result or nothing at all; or it might produce no visible result for a long time and then make a big jump.  

U.S. Capitol on winter morning taken on January 28, 2009

You also learn that some things take time to work and extra resources cannot rush the process and that there are some things you just cannot have, not matter how much you want them or how good it would be to get them.

Many people think that if we just all agree, we can have all we want.   When it doesn’t work out, they assume there must be some villains standing in the way.  But in the real world, there are many things we cannot have right away – we have to wait – lots of things we cannot have simultaneously and some things we cannot have at an acceptable cost and things we cannot have at all no matter what cost we are willing to pay.   And this happens naturally.  Villains are optional.    And often you don’t get what you think you want, but what you get is better.  Sustained interaction with the natural world teaches these lessons.   That is why forestry is a good model.  But it takes time to learn. 

February 01, 2009

Building the Future

Below is the art in front of the Building Museum.

Representative art in front of the National Building Museum in Washington taken on January 30, 2009 

The world is better now than it was a century ago, but we have lost that sense of muscular optimism.  Pity.  You could read it in their literature and you could see it in their architecture.  I was reminded of that today when I went up to the National Building Museum.  It was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland and it has all that substantial grandeur common to buildings of that period.

Vast and imposing indoor space is the hallmark of American public buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  They are cathedrals of the Republic.

Inside National Building Museum in Washington DC taken January 30, 2009

I went to see the exhibit on green cities.  It was not that good for me, although I can see its general value.   The whole museum is set up more as a place to bring school kids to learn about these things.  I like the concept, though.  It is possible to design buildings and whole cities in ways that make them both more pleasant and more environmentally sustainable.   We are often confronted by the false choice of either destroying our world or living a Visigoth level of technology and consumption.  The correct answer is neither.  We can do better.

Interior of National Building Museum taken from the second floor on January 30, 2009

Implicit in the dilemma is the false premise that people and nature don’t mix and that the best we can do is mitigate or repair the damage we inevitably cause.  In fact, humans are an integral part of nature.  Some of our activities do indeed damage nature: others improve it.  The key goal is to make our existence sustainable for a long, as nothing lasts forever, and the premise of man v nature is not helpful.    

In the great scheme of nature, animal and plant life sets the stage for its own local destruction.  Pine trees grow so thick that they shade out their own offspring.  Grazing animals have to keep moving as they destroy the grass they need to eat.  Elephants rampage through the forests they depend on for food. Despite all the Rousseau “noble savage” fantasies, pre-industrial humans were/are that way too, i.e. very destructive.  Their populations were sustainable only because their numbers were small enough to minimize the damage.  This is the way it works in the animal world; this is how it worked with human populations.  People moved away when things got bad or they died off.  It was a Malthusian spiral never ending - that is the real circle of life - until our technology and knowledge broke us out of it. Of course, this created a different set of problems.

Below is the frieze on the National Buidling Museum.  The building was finished in 1887.  It used inexpensive materials, such as brick instead of cut stone.

Terra Cotta Frieze on the National Building Museum in Washington DC taken on January 30, 2009

We humans, alone among the animals so far, have the capacity to see the larger effects of our activities.  The game is not over. We may yet suffer the population crash that afflicts animal species when they overrun their habitat’s carrying capacity; but not today or tomorrow.   I still have that old fashioned optimism and I have seen the new fangled techniques of environmental restoration or renewal.  Things will be tough, but we will get better.

BTW – we look back on the past with some nostalgia because we know how the story came out.  It is harder to see forward than look back. We should recall past hard times.   The panic (as they called recessions in those days) of 1907 was horrible. Some people actually didn’t get enough to eat; obesity was not a problem of poverty a century ago.  The stock market lost more than 50% of its value.   In the absence of a central bank (the Federal Reserve was not established until 1913) JP Morgan stepped in to rescue the economy with a private sector bailout.  We recovered.  This panic was during the time of Theodore Roosevelt.  Most of us just remember his muscular optimism and know absolutely nothing about the panic of 1907.   That sense of historical amnesia is why our expectations are so high and why we always think we live in the worst of times.

Morgan later went in front of a congressional committee.  This is part of the exchange.

Untermyer: Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?
Morgan: No, sir. The first thing is character.
Untermyer: Before money or property?
Morgan: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it ... a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.There is a good biography re Morgan by Ron Chenow.  I recommend it.   I also read his biographies of Alexander Hamilton and John D. Rockefeller (Titan).  They are all good books.

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