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April 30, 2009

Environmental Value Chain

A chain is only as good as its weakest link.  When making judgments, you have to look at the whole chain from start to finish.    This is true in any business and it is even more crucial in environmental affairs.  Some products may look very green in their current form, but are not when you consider where they are coming from or where they are going. 

Chain on the Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk VA on April 25, 2009

Wood is the most environmentally friendly building or structural product when you look at the whole ecological value chain.  

Start on the ground.   As a forest grows, it removes pollution from the air, keeps water clean, provides wildlife habitat and makes the world more beautiful.   The production of wood is environmentally friendly.   This contrasts with other materials, such as plastic, concrete or metal, all of which must be pulled from the earth and are negative in their environmental impacts during production.

Spreading red oak - shaped like a live oak - in Willaimsburg VA on April 25, 2009

Harvesting of trees requires the use of fuels and may result in pollution released into the air.   Even well-managed forest harvests will impact local water quality.   These are serious issues, but can be minimized.  They also occur only once in many decades and are much more than compensated by the many years of beneficial growth.    If you look over a thirty-five year pine rotation, it is clear that the net environmental benefits are overwhelming.

Beyond that, nothing exists in isolation.    If you compare forestry to almost any other land use, forestry is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly activity.  Compared to other products, the comparison is so extreme that we might actually miss it.   Twenty years after a operations, a mine, quarry or oil well is still a hole in the ground unless costly reconstruction has been done.

Twenty years after a harvest a forest is … a forest with young trees growing robustly. 

I write the Tree Farmer of the Year article for “Virginia Forests.”   These guys have usually been in the business for years and they have pictures.  I am always amazed to see the old pictures and hearing about the changes.   I recall standing in a mature pine forest in Greenville County and talking to the owner about his land.   He showed me an old black and white photo of his grandfather standing in the “same” grove of trees in the same spot where we were.   But it was not the same.    This land had been harvested TWICE since the old man stood proudly among his pines.   His grandson could do the same and future generations would also have the chance to walk among the pines.   That is what renewable means.

Wood is completely renewable.   As I wrote earlier, renewable is even better than recyclable. 

But what happens after you are done with the wood.  We like to think our houses will last forever, but most won’t.  Wood is easily disposed of or cycled back into the natural world.   Wood can be burned as fuel.  It releases CO2 at that time, but this is the same CO2 recently absorbed.    Burning wood is recognized as a carbon neutral activity for that reason.    If thrown away, wood decays.  It doesn’t take long before yesterday’s tree is fertilizer for tomorrow’s.   This is in striking contrast to other materials.   Steel can be recycled at a high energy cost.   If thrown away, it will rust away after many years.   Concrete also can be recycled with much effort.  If thrown away it lasts pretty much forever.   While it creates no particular environmental hard, it is a form of garbage that never goes away.   Plastic is the most persistent product.  Some plastics will remain in the environment almost forever.   Recycling is a good thing when it can be done with plastic, but it really only postpones the problem.   The plastic water bottle may be turned into a carpet, but eventually it will end up in a landfill where it will stay … forever. 

We need to use all sorts of materials: metal, plastic, glass, stone, concrete, various composites and wood.   They are all appropriate for some uses.   When you look at the total ecological value chain, wood deserves a lot of consideration.

April 28, 2009

Douglas MacArthur in Norfolk

Another interesting thing in Norfolk was the Douglas MacArthur tomb and monument.  I am just posting pictures.  Below is a statue of the general.

Douglas MacArthur statue in Norfolk VA on April 25, 2009 

Below is the monument building 

MacArthur memorial in Norfolk VA on April 25, 2009 

Below is the ship repair in Norfolk harbor.

drydock in Norfolk VA on April 25, 2009

April 27, 2009

Renewable is Even Better than Recyclable

We have to be in on the takeoff.  Too often we are just there for the crash landing.  A lot of policies that affect forestry are made w/o significant input from anybody who works in forestry or even understands it.  I thought about this during the VFA convention and it was reinforced today when I saw this article from Scientific American.   I commented under “Broadnax” but in case you don’t want to follow the link, let me sum up.

Cow in Williamburg meadow on April 26, 2009.  Today they call it "silvopasture."  It just involves mixing forestry with livestock farming.  The inputs of one become the outputs of the other.

The article starts with an ecological dilemma: paper or plastic.  I understand that, but then they talk about deforestation … in paper.  A person involved with forestry knows this is a complicated issue.  Most paper comes from pulp wood.   In the U.S. these are often small trees thinned from larger forests.  The thinning, as in your flower or vegetable garden, allows other plants to grow stronger and better.  In the case of a forest, it also lets light reach the ground so that herbaceous plants can grow, making it a better wildlife habitat.    If/when there is low demand for pulp, forest owners cannot afford to thin.  This means that the forests get too thick, where they are susceptible to fire and beetle damage and where the forest floor becomes a bit of a wildlife desert.   

The irony is that by NOT using paper, you may be contributing to deforestation by making forests less healthy and more prone to disease and general destruction.    Ecology is a funny thing with all its counterintuitive connections and implications.

Pagoda garden in Norfolk Va on April 25, 2009.

Above - there is no garden w/o a gardener.

So a lot depends on WHERE the product comes from as well as what it is made of and how that product gets to market.   Wood is a carbon sink, so forestry removes carbon from the air, while (if done as it should be) providing wildlife habitat, clean water, recreation and better air quality.   IF your paper or wood product comes from an American forest, you are probably NOT contributing to deforestation and may well to encouraging the growth of healthy American forests.

The concept the SciAm article handed well was the ecological chain.  (They just missed some of the key links with regard to forestry. )  You have to look at the whole lifecycle of the product from the time it is mined, drilled or grown in the earth until the time it goes back.   Wood does very well in this respect.

Wood is not 100% recyclable in most products.  It is something better.   Wood is 100% renewable.   

Well, I am not exactly accurate re recyclable.  While may not be recycled into other human products, wood is the ultimate recyclable material, since when it stops being a product useful for humans, it returns to the soil and fertilizes the next generation of trees.  I will say more about the ecological value chain tomorrow and make some comparisons.

April 26, 2009

Battleship Wisconsin

I went down to Norfolk for Virginia Forestry Association meeting.   I have a lot to write from the meeting, but Norfolk itself was interesting.  Among the attractions is the Battleship Wisconsin.

Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk Va on April 24, 2009

I didn’t know that the battleship Wisconsin was docked there but I really enjoyed the visit.   You can find some of the details at this link.    

Battleship Wisconsin big guns on April 24, 2009

Battleships were the symbol of power for almost a century. They were made obsolete by the advent of sophisticated airpower & precise missiles, at least that is the usual explanation.  And it is true as far as it goes.  But there is more and it becomes clear as you walk around the ship.

Norfolk Harbor from Battleship Wisconsin on April 24, 2009

A battleship is very much a product of the mechanical age.   It reminds you of an old factory and it is a giant machine in the early 20th Century sense.   It is filled with precision instruments and designed to be run by machinists and engineers, lots of them.   Loading the guns took big crews.  Keeping the rust off the boat took big crews.   Oiling the cogs and cranks took big crews.   A modern ship doesn’t have to be so big to carry the firepower and it doesn’t need the really big crews to make it work. 

As with factories on land, a lot of the tasks once done by vast crews of semi-skilled men are now done by machines.  The precision devices are replaced by electronics.  The calculations done by scores of engineers are now done instantly by computers.   We can no longer afford battleships because we no longer can afford the big crews needed to run them and we no longer need them anyway since a much smaller package can pack a much bigger payload.

Teak deck on Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk Va on April 24, 2009 

Above - the battleship deck is made of teak wood.  It protected the steel deck below.  I wonder how much it would cost for such a well constructed teak deck now.  I don't think I could afford even a small one at my house.

A battleship is beautiful and graceful.   Like a medieval castle, which was also a complicated engine of war, it now seems more a work of artful engineering than a very large lethal weapon.   But that is what it was.   It is worth seeing for all the reasons above.

Battleship Wisconsin silver service

Above - battleships were classy.  This is the silver set from the Wisconsin.  It was a gift from the people of Wisconsin to the USN.   My mother and father were taxpayers back then, so I guess my family helped buy it.

April 23, 2009

Ticked Off

Spring forest CP on Diamond Grove RD on April 14, 2009 

I went down to the farms over last weekend.   I did a lot of bushwhacking to check the boundaries and water courses and although I had long sleeves and bug repellent on, I picked up at least three ticks.   I got them before they managed to bore in but something got me and made a bit of a rash.   I hate ticks.   I usually don’t get any, but they are very active now and I went more into the bushes than usual.

Below - spring is here. Leaves are coming out.

new leaves on trees at CP pond on April 14, 2009 

I am trying to stabilize one of my roads and I needed some branches etc.    So I went and cut out some of the trees damaged by the machines squirting out biosolids.  Some were bent so much they would not come back and others had so much bark stripped that they would be deformed.  I laid them in the ruts to slow the water flow.    It works well.  Where I did this before on the slopes I have some vegetation coming in, but it is a lot of work, especially given the primitive tools I use.   I am glad to have the truck now.  That allows me to move a lot more and a lot farther.    I am letting the road grow over for now.  

Below - I want to keep my streams clean, so I cannot have dirt running off the roads or anyplace else. 

Little hunting creek on CJ farm on April 14, 2009 

The wildlife plots are doing well.   They used a couple of them as staging places for the biosolids and those are growing like made.   It is probably the most fertile half acres in the state.   We planted ladino clover and some orchard grass and chicory.  The clover is good because it fixes nitrogen.  I like how it looks too. 

Below is Blimbie.  Now that I have have the other forest, I sometimes go up 95 via Emporia, which is where this is.  I've always like Blimpie, but my favorite place used to be Togo's.  I have not seen a Togo's for a long time.  I don't know if they are still in business. 

Blimpie in Emporia VA 

The truck is no good unless it has the orange mud decoration. 

muddy truck 

April 21, 2009

Wise Land Use

Environmentalism and climate change fall near the bottom of most people’s priorities, according to a Pew Research study done a few months ago.  Fewer and fewer people are calling themselves environmentalist.  That information made me feel a little uneasy, but then I thought about it.  I would not characterize myself as an environmentalist either.    The term has changed, so that now people like me, who love nature and want to conserve it, but also want to use resources wisely, are not really part of the group anymore.

The most ardent and persistent friends of nature are hunters but they were among the first to be banished from the new understanding of the term. As a forest owner, I can stay in the group until someone asks me if I ever plan to harvest the trees and I say yes. I have thought about this topic before and written about it. Responsible stewardship is the responsible way to be. It is hard for me to understand anything else as a logical or moral position. 

I was talking to a friend yesterday who mentioned the debate about whether or not clear cuts should ever be used.   IMO, there is no debate. There is only trying to explain to uniformed but emotionally excited people why some types of forest ecology require clear cuts. But my friend made a good counterpoint.   He said that for some people environmentalism was not really about the environment.  It was a kind of aesthetic. They felt offended by signs of human management, so ironically humans had to manage very carefully to hide the signs.

That’s it.  Environmentalism has become an aesthetic proposition to many of its adherents.  That is why it is so popular among artists and celebrities.  It allows them to satisfy their need for self expressions while seeming simultaneously to stand on the high groups of extreme altruism.  And they can jet around the world attending concerts and events w/o guilt when they claim it is to help the environment. 

I read about a split in the environmental movement.  I don’t know if you can split something that was already in many separate parts. We should probably abandon the word. 

Environmentalist may end up doing significant harm to the environment.  As I read the polls, many people are just sick of the hyperbole.  My observation, and all the measurements back it up, is that the U.S. environment is much cleaner than it was when I was young.  Virtually every kind of pollutant we measure is less prevalent than it was. Yet we keep on getting the scary stories.   Some would argue that you have to frighten people or they won’t listen.  I don’t agree.   We have to be truthful and realistic. 

The environment requires constant protection AND management. I believe that I could grow timber sustainably on my land just about forever. It is not being used up or degraded.  On the contrary, the land and the forest is healthier than it has ever been.   Farmers using modern techniques can also harvest sustainably essentially forever. That doesn’t mean that we won’t use better and different techniques in the future.  Sustainability doesn’t mean you don’t change and adapt.   It means you can keep on going.

The thing that is most crippling for the environmental movement is a precautionary principle.   It sounds prudent. Always be more careful.  But if we had applied the precautionary principle we would never have electricity. It is always possible to ask questions.  It sounds very wise to earnestly intone that we don’t find anything now, but we could find something we don’t know about.   You can use that logic to block anything at all. I can use that as an argument not to take out the garbage. I just don’t know if there is a killer standing near the road.  

The general hysteria in some environmental circles makes it more difficult to address real problems. We have real problems with fisheries. The real problem is overfishing, which can be solved by management and giving people property rights over some of the fishing stocks, as Iceland did. We have trouble with nutrient management, which can be addressed by using biosolids properly, but this is often blocked by environmental regulation.  We face a problem with water availability, but places like Australia have shown the way to manage a scarce resource. 

The true stewards of nature are those that work with it and in it to sustain it now and forever.   Those that want to preserve it in some particular form just don’t understand its dynamism. The artists express themselves with paintings and sculpture. I suppose they can have gardens.

April 20, 2009

Belling the Cat & Other Great Ideas

An outside consultant is someone who borrows your watch and charges you a fee to tell you the time.

People have been trying to sell us information research, outreach or new media services for a long time.  They are good people, usually smart guys with impressive credentials and great sounding programs.  But they remind me of stray cats trying to become house cats. They are very friendly and offer a lot, but once they get a steady supply of cream I am not sure they won't become a nuisance.  I understand the need to work with outside experts, but I have some simple concerns.

The first is a simple sourcing question.  Whenever someone comes with really impressive and precise information, I have to ask where he got it.  Conclusions are no better than the source materials/data they are based on and the soundness of the method with which they were collected, but a clever consultant or academic can build impressive castles on the shifting, soft sand of supposition.  No matter how impressive the tower, the foundation is what matters.

A second question has to do with our own motivations.  We should use outside experts to "rent" expertise we don't want to buy/develop permanently.  We should not use them as CYA, trying  to outsource decision making or creating/buying systems that will run on auto-pilot.

Of course, some things are routine and well enough understood that we can just have a procedure. The hard decisions are hard precisely because they do not fall into that category.  We cannot abdicate responsibility for these decisions. The systems should be decision support, not decision substitution.

A third factor comes as a result of both of the above considerations.  It is possible to create an impressive looking expert-system that leads you inexorably to a wrong decision. We have to guard against it and always consider the inputs and sources.  Maybe the sources are flawed or the analysis in error, but the system is so beautiful and elegant that it creates the impression of greater certainty than the information permits.   If not for the system, you might see that for yourself, but what would have been an obvious flaw is obscured by the impressive and beautiful system built around it.

An important reason for this is the effect of aggregation, which is a fourth factor.  I might make a reasonable guess.  You might too and so might ten others.   Each of us has made a reasonable estimate with a degree of risk.  When we aggregate our guesses, they seem much more certain, but may have introduced all sorts of biases.   The collective judgment may be worse than any of the individuals.   

Let me hasten to say that reasonable aggregation of diverse information is a great way to arrive at good decisions.  But when someone creates a model and then runs it, there is a good chance of introducing bias, maybe unintentional, and a significant risk of faulty aggregation.  I have seen lots of examples of information cascades, where the first (wrong) guesses influence the others.  (I have even created a few as experiments.  It is not hard.)  If the model is opaque, as they often are, we can be easily fooled. The worst case is when the model sort of works but because of random events or factors not property accounted in the model.  Arbitrary coherence.

It is not what you don't know that is most dangerous.  It is what you know that isn't true. 

A fifth factor is a kind of Heisenberg uncertainty principle of human affairs.  The very fact that we are doing something, or even just observing, alters the underlying reality.   This is especially true of a big player like the USG.   We need to take account of the effects of our actions and recognize the developing situations.  The correct answer today may well be the worst solution six months from now, w/o either answer being wrong.  That is why I am a great believer in iterative research and programs.  You have to see how things develop and then take the next step.  Of  course you need an overall context, but system-building consultants often become too vested in their peculiar models. They want to continue to apply it even when it has become inappropriate.

Which brings us to my sixth concern: an important reason why we do programs is to create the knowledge and relationship base among our own people.  If we outsource activities, we also outsource or give away the relationships and intimate knowledge of what we are doing. It is sort of like a student hiring another kid to write his term paper.  We become dependent on the models and reports and may be misled when we let our own powers atrophy.  We get the big bucks because of our experience, judgment and knowledge.  If we outsource the tasks that require them, we are not only avoiding the important value we add, we are also giving away the things that build future human capital.

Finally, I always have to ask if the service or research is useful. This seems an obvious question, but it often goes unasked.  We get so bedazzled by the graphs, fascinated by the immensity of a problem and/or baffled by the bull shit, that we never ask, "So, what do I do with this?" 

For something to be useful, it must be capable of being used - AND used by us, not some theoretical all-powerful actor.  When I hear something could be done, I want to know by whom and who has already done it.   I am a little leery of someone trying to tell me that I will be the first one ever to achieve something.  There is often silence at this point.  Many consultants are so honestly in love with their own products that they are not ready for the disconfirming question. Remember the fable of the mice who thought it would be a good idea to put a bell on the cat?  The plan was great until they asked who could do it.

Excuse me if I slip into hyperbole, but if I know there is a vast civilization on a planet of the Alpha Centauri system, but I have no way to contact them or get there, it is very interesting, but not useful information.  It is momentous and I want to know, but it is not useful. Among the compelling but useless information people often try to sell is polling data about whether or not people in X country like the U.S.  This is interesting information, but even assuming it doesn't fall into one or more of the traps mentioned above, it is useless unless there is something I, we, the USG can do about it. 

For that I need more granular information.  Anyway, I don't have to pay for that kind of general information.  I can get it free from Pew Research, Brookings, Heritage or many of the others who study such things.  (I found 33 official or authoritative studies on the subject.  I am sure there are more.)  

Useful means actionable.   Most of what people are peddling is not.

I learn a lot from listening to these presentations, and I am glad they invite me to hear them. I feel a little bad for them.  They seem honest and earnest, but the chances they will sell much are slim.  I can often think of very good uses for particular parts of the product line, but I doubt I will ever find an acceptable whole solution.  If I do, I will advocate that we buy that system, and I can retire.

April 19, 2009

Espen @ George Mason

Espen will go to George Mason next fall.  He is excited about a program they have in gaming and simulations.  All that time in the World of Warcraft may yet pay off.   Gaming is much more than games, as I have written before.    Games will be the future on online collaboration and learning.

George Mason statue at GMU on April 19, 2009 

George Mason has the advantage of location.   They are in easy contact with all the government and government support activities as well as the high tech in N. Virginia and the biotech along the 270 corridor in Maryland.   It really is a superb area to work and learn.  Housing prices are a little high, but once you have the house there are lots of opportunities.    

I appreciate being in Washington with all the history and monuments, but I often forget about the dynamism of the suburbs.  N. Virginia’s tech and services produces more jobs for the area than the Federal government, but the presence of the Feds makes us recession resistant.  

Sorry my picture is blurred.  Think of it as impressionistic art.  This is the Patriot Center.

Patriot Center at George Mason 

George Mason went a little over the top with the welcome.   They evidently have a successful basketball team and they were using the sport excitement methods.   The Patriot Center is also hosting the Ringling Brothers Circus, so they took the opportunity to put on a show with a band and ring master.  It was interesting the difference with the orientation at University of Virginia. Virginia emphasizes tradition.  They remind you that Thomas Jefferson founded the place and laid out the plans and that the university has been there a long time.   Mason talks about the opportunities of the future.   It is much more of a competitive feeling at Mason.   I suppose they are both playing to their strengths.    Virginia is established and everybody knows its value.   Mason is hungry.     I was glad that Mariza went to UVA and I think it will be good that Espen goes to Mason.  You can get a good education almost anywhere if you work at it.   The world is full of opportunities. It is up to you to take them.

Espen got a summer internship with Lockheed-Martin.  He will be working on computer engineering 40 hours a week and they are actually paying him to do it.  I think that will give him a jump start on his future.  Those are the kinds of opportunities available around here.  I talked to a guy from Lockheed on Friday about a different matter and mentioned the internship.   He told me that they probably liked it that Espen had A+ certification (whatever that means) and that he probably understood online collaboration - again with the gaming.  It goes to show that value can be added in unexpected ways.  

The GMU program in gaming sounds good, but one reason you go to college is to expand your options and ideas.   No eighteen year old really knows what he wants.  I always thought that any kid who graduates with the same plan he came in with lacks imagination.   I am glad Espen will be close.  We still want him to live on campus for the experience, but Fairfax City is not a long way off.

April 17, 2009

Gutenberg for the 21st Century

IIP Publications (Pubs) show an example of a respected traditional product line that adapted to the new media w/o losing its way.    People look to Pubs for useful content and their offerings have long been among the popular IIP products with our posts and audiences overseas.   Generations of students have relied on the outline series and PAOs handed out printed publications to their contacts.   Publications were among the first products to be put online and all of them are available in full text on America.gov.   But these remained essentially one way communications in the old, pre-web 2.0 model.


 

The Pubs staff knows that a dialogue is a more effective way of winning friends and influencing people.  Listening as well as talking is a sign of respect that new media audiences demand.    Changing the paradigm from producing products to producing conversations is never an easy transition, but Pubs has significant advantages in this endeavor. 

Most importantly, Pubs has content the audiences want to get and want to discuss.   This is further enhanced by the provenance of most of the articles and chapters in a Pubs product.   They are almost always written by outside experts.   These experts come already equipped with their own audiences, points of view and networks of colleagues.    There is a natural focus for dialogue in each of the articles.

Take the example of the most recent ePublication, Energy Efficiency: the First Fuel.  Several of the articles stimulated me to think and want to respond.  In many ways the response and the cross talk will be better than the articles themselves, since they will tap into the wider knowledge of the readers.   This is the new world of PD 2.0, and we can be part of it if we have the courage to engage.

Pubs is working on this through Facebook, Twitter and other means.   They well understand the need to be flexible and they do not have a "Facebook strategy" or a "Twitter Plan."  Rather they are working out strategies that involve Facebook or Twitter while still taking advantage of the significant "old media" distribution network long in place, the one that works through posts, IRCs and printing distribution. 

 

It is still early in the game for Pubs and the new media, but the staff was able to share a couple of insights.   One is that micro-blogging, via Twitter, is easier and less time intensive than ordinary blogging, but it can produce significant results when linked back to an existing IIP publication.    Another observation is that Facebook can serve as a central hub for other online products and activities.    The advantages of Facebook are that it is easily available to customers all over the world and it is easy to update.   Pubs also realizes that much of its product distribution will be outside IIP or USG channels.  Since Pubs provides free content,  the products are often copied and repurposed.    Most of the publications are or soon will be available on platforms such as Google Books, Amazon Kindles or I-Phone aps, among others.

George Clack, who directs IIP Pubs shared some experience in thinking about a marketing plan for the new media.   First is to indeed have a written plan.   While you have to recognize that the plan will not be carried out in the detail you envision, having a plan allows everybody to riff off something that is organized and thought out.   

This plan, as all plans should, begins with the end in mind.  Interestingly, many planners forget this step and that, paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat, "if you don't know where you want to go, you will probably end up someplace else."   But the direction must be light.   We work with creative people and we have to let them be creative in their own ways.  We must also recognize the MOST of the creativity available to us is outside our own organization.  The new media allows us to tap into that creativity - if we allow it.  That is the path Pubs is pursuing, and they are off to a good start.  

April 16, 2009

Wet Protestors

Reasonable people make poor protestors.   It is just not a game they can win.   It is a lot like the one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.  Why?

Tea party tax protests in Washington DC on April 15, 2009 

I passed by a tax protest today.   They called it a “tea party”  after the famous tax protest in Boston.   On this cold and rainy day, maybe a thousand people showed up.   This is certainly enough to make a successful protest, but it wasn’t. They didn't have the usual protestor characteristics.

Let’s compare this to other protests.   I see a lot of them because of my business and living in Washington, so I consider myself a bit of an aficionado.  

Most protestors are well-behaved, but most protests have their share of semi-violent actors.    This means that the police have to show up in large numbers, shut down streets etc, which advertises the event, draws media attention and magnifies even a small protest.  I have seen protests of only a few dozen people magnified by the police and media attention into major events.    

Anti-globalist organizations are very good at this.   Small cores of activists break windows or vandalize property, drawing in the police.    They achieve their goal just by getting the police to show up.   Their best outcome, however, is for the police to hurt somebody, so radical protestors work hard to be provocative. That is how they get on the news and influence policy.  It is very hard to avoid becoming pawns in their game if your goal is to protect safety and property. Unreasonable people win this one.

The first protest I ever addressed was in Brazil when five guys showed up to protest our policy in Nicaragua.  I wouldn't let them in the Consulate, so they went outside to shout and carry on.  They stood at the corner in front of a fruit stand and a bus stop.  When they started to shout, the crowd buying fruit & waiting for the bus looked in their general direction.  At that time the journalist snapped a picture and the story said, "Hundreds Protest U.S. Policy."  I complained to the editor, but it didn't do any good.

The tax protestors were reasonable and the police knew it.  They didn’t shut down any streets.  There were not massive numbers of cops and I didn’t see any media.   If a tree falls in the woods.

Another thing a protest obviously needs is protestors, the more the better.  Think about who is likely to protest regularly.  People with jobs and responsibilities cannot take the time off, so they are generally out of the mix. Protests anywhere near a college campus benefit from a large number of young people w/o much to do and protests can be fun.   

The habitual protest must also be a generalist.  If you are interested in a few things and really take the time to understand them, you will be an “expert” but not a protestor simply because opportunities to protest in your specialty will be uncommon.   That is why a more-or-less professional class of protestors has developed.   They are generally anti-whatever and they form the core of most protests.   They are the ones who know the chants and they are the ones with all the cool props and costumes.   They know how to draw attention and how to provoke the police.  They also know how to get out of the way so that more casual protestors can get hurt.  It makes a much better story if a local “non-professional” gets pushed by the cops. 

As you can probably tell, I am not greatly enthusiastic about protests.   The right of peaceful assembly is an important right in a democracy, but there is not virtue in using it too much.    It is a tool and as with all tools it can be used for good or bad purposes.   Unfortunately, those wanting to create disruptions are much better able to use this particular tool than reasonable people.

Protestors highjack normal civil discourse.   They can intimidate and can magnify small concerns out of context, as I discuss above.  It annoys me when journalists cover protests almost to the exclusion of whatever the protestors are complaining about.  Television is especially guilty of this, because of its need for compelling pictures.   When you see those pictures, it is good to remember that you are watching a type of theatre.  You are almost never seeing the spontaneous will of the people.  It is almost always a powerful interest groups carrying out politics by other means.

Anyway, I don’t know what will come of the tax protest.  I am convinced that I will be paying higher taxes in the future and there is not much that can stop it.   Almost half of Americans hardly pay any Federal income tax at all and the lower 20% actually gets significantly more back in direct payments than they pay in taxes.   Taxes are supposed to pay for our common expenses (the ones helping us establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity).  The rich should pay more, but everybody should pay something.

April 15, 2009

Loose Ends in Mid April

A lot of things make me stop and think.  Sometimes I remember to take a picture, but I don’t have enough for a full post.  Here are a few short notes. 

FDR original monument in Washington DC on April 2, 2009

Above is Franklin Roosevelt’s ORIGINAL monument.  The one he wanted.   The one he had before they built the elaborate one down near the river.  Below is the explanation.

Franklin Roosevelt monument plaque in April 2009

Below is "nature at work."  It is very touching how we pretend to preserve.  I am glad they save this tree, but it seems a little strange to make such a Federal case of advertising it.  Maybe just do it.  I don't like this because it makes an artificial distinction between nature and non-nature.

Nature at work sign near Dunn Loring Metro on April 10, 2009 

Below is nature REALLY at work.  The developers did a good job of creating a drainage.  It doesn't just run off, but rather pools and soaks in. 

Soak away zone near new construction near Dunn Loring Metro stop on April 10, 2009

The fountains in Washington now have flowing water again after the winter.

Fountain on north side of Capitol on April 14, 2009

Below is an interesting sign in Baltimore.  Read it a couple times.

Sign on Baltimore street on April 15, 2009

Below are new oak leaves on April 14, 2009

New red oak leaves near Capitol on April 14, 2009

Below is crabcake platter at Koco's bar in Baltimore

Crabcake platter from Koco's bar in Baltimore

Below is the advert for an exhibition at the Newseum.  I don't think it is right that they pair Lincoln with the clown that shot him.  

Lincoln exhibit at Newseum

 

April 13, 2009

Never a Minute to Think

Tourist season is returning to Washington.  This is the Mall looking toward the Washington Monument at midday on April 13, 2009 

Being alone with their thoughts is evidently a frightening concept for some people and they go to great pains to avoid it, filling any empty time with cell phone conversations, twitter (see below) and games. I have mixed feelings about games.  As I wrote in a couple of earlier posts, games are ways we model and learn about the world, but as their portability and connectedness expands, they are pushing out the whole concept of introspection.    That is just my own point of view.

But we have to meet the customers where they want to go.  If they want games, then games are us.  IIP has developed its own game called X-Life.   It is an educational game that helps people from other places understand the U.S. through simulated experience.   You get an avatar with which to explore America as a student or visitor.    The current version is fairly primitive, but it has the advantage of being accessible and available.   You have to start somewhere.

The media is interested in this venture, and there have been articles in WSJ, CNN, ABC and UAE News.    It is unusual for the media to take much interest in what we do.  We should be flattered, I guess. 

Games can be good, but I am never impressed by someone who is just too good at them.    I had a colleague who was the best “Mine Sweeper” player I had ever seen or even heard about … and how she prioritized her time showed in her work. 

The Eternal Cocktail Party

Koco's bar in Baltimore.  Has some of the best crab cakes in Maryland and Maryland has some of the best crab cakes.  

One of the things I like least about my job is the necessity to go to cocktail parties and make small talk.   I am sure that someplace in Dante’s Inferno is a level where unfortunate souls circulate endlessly and chatter eternally w/o saying anything at all.  Now Twitter is spreading the cocktail party experience to all the world all the time and airheads everywhere are elated and vindicated.   They seem to feel that when their inane and banal blather is ennobled when it is carried over advanced technology. 

Some people bragged that they were twittering during a recent speech by President Obama.   I mean they didn’t hide it; they bragged about it.  How rude is that?  The President of the United States is talking and you are invited to be there in person, but instead of listening, you are talking to others, commenting on what the man is saying before he has a chance to finish his thought.    The fact that you are doing it on with your thumbs on an electronic toy only makes it worse.   Maybe I am just old fashioned, but if the President is standing in front of me talking, I think it is a good idea to pay attention.   

IMO - Twitter is good for sending out notices and very short breaking news, not much else.  The idea that people will just share their unformed thoughts is just silly.  Not everybody agrees.  Take a look at this NYT story.

Think about the kind of people who like – really like – cocktail parties.  Do we really want so many more of them?   At least at a real cocktail party you have some beer to dull the pain.  A little twitter goes a long way.    Human attention is too rare and valuable to waste.

April 11, 2009

Survivor Bias & the Teleology Trap

Gibbon's Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire" that my father gave me. 

I have been reading an annoying book called Tribes: We Need You to Lead US.  It is typical of many such books about change, new technologies etc. in that it has that insufferable air of superiority and fawning homage to coolness.   There are some good ideas; enough to fill an article or maybe a blog post, but not a book.   But it wasn’t a waste.   I thought about some of the reasons these books sell so well and how the faculties they employ sound so convincing … and why I probably cannot use much of the advice.

This book and others like them (some very good such as the Tipping Point) suffer from survivor bias.   They talk about how little movements turn into big things.  You get examples, like Google or Facebook, that seemed to come from nowhere to dominance.  The examples are real, but the game is rigged.   It is “survivor bias” & the teleology trap.    It is when you assume that conditions you observe today were a natural or even an inevitable outcome. You infer a pattern or purpose where none is implied.  It comes from a faulty perspective.   A lottery winner asks, “What are the chances that I would win?”   But the correct question is “What are the chances somebody will win?”  Of course, the chances of that are 100%.   If you bet on that, you are always right.

A simple illustration of survival bias is a game of Russian roulette.   Survival is a random event, but at the end of the game, somebody will have survived.    If a large enough group starts out, somebody will survive even repeated plays.   You just don’t know who it will be.   No doubt the “winner” will come to believe that he knows some secret of success.   He may write books about it.   But there is nothing to it.

Of course there is more involved in technology companies, celebrities or investing, but sometimes less than you would think.    Let’s take the example of celebrities.   All celebrities have talent.  They are all attractive in some way.   They are generally smart (or at least smarter than they seem).  A celebrity needs these things.  They are threshold requirements, the minimum you need them just to get through the gate, but they are not enough to provide success. Beyond that, the winning combination will not be known in advance.   It looks very different depending on when you look.    

If I know that a person is a celebrity, it is fairly easy to go back and explain why her ascent was inevitable.   But if I substituted a non-celebrity, I might find much the same biography.   When you listen to the winning Super Bowl team, they always say that they knew they were going to win and confidence is important, but the losers also knew they were going to win.   They were just wrong.

Books like Tribes play on this bias.  It is like naming the winner of the lottery AFTER the drawing.  It is easy to be prescient about the past.   The other thing I don’t like about this book is the appeal to coolness.    They talk about the latest styles and sing paeans to change.    People today demand the latest, they say.   Once again, they are right, but so what.   A lot of change is just froth.  I have been reading these sorts of books for more than twenty years.   They are always talking about the changes and the changes are always happening.   But most of them don’t stick.   In fact, the authors are usually self-contradictory.   They seem to think radical change will happen and then it will be the change they want, but things keep on moving.

Another thing that annoys me about the cool change folks is that they don’t seem to understand cycles.  The author of Tribes triumphantly states that smaller organizations are often growing faster than bigger ones.   What a surprise!   A young tree grows faster than an old one, but trends often do not continue.  Beyond that , when praising the growth of the small, it is useful to do some simple math.  Which would you rather have,  50% of $1 or 5% of $1000? 

I have a special perspective on cool fads.  As an FSO, I am away from America sometimes for years.   Sometimes I miss entire fads.   They come and go while I am away and there was no point in even thinking about them.   Ephemera.   Meanwhile, my bookshelf still has lots of classics that are never wildly popular but endure.   The book that has been longest in my possession is a copy of Gibbon’s Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire that my mother gave to my father the Christmas of 1954, the year before I was born.   It was first published in 1776.   I first read it in 1966 and it is still a joy today.  Who could have predicted that the yet unborn baby would still be reading that book fifty-five years after my mother bought it?   

Change is good & and so is continuity.   A balanced person treasures both but is beguiled by neither.

BTW - Survivor bias is why we think stuff was better in the past.  All the junk has long since gone in the garbage.  What is left is better or at least by definition the longer lasting. 

April 10, 2009

Life is Endlessly Interesting

You have to look for changes & there are so many things going on the time.

Below are a couple of guys advertising for Gold’s Gym.   I couldn’t capture their skill and speed on the still picture.   They twirled the signs and threw them up in the air.   I don’t know if many people were persuaded to join Gold’s Gym, but they certainly got a lot of attention.

Guys advertising Gold's Gym on April 10, 2009

 

Below a building I have been watching in Arlington since last fall is almost done.    I have included the previous picture. 

construction near Ballston

Building in Arlington VA on March 10, 2009

Below is the Capitol at various seasons and moods as I see it on the way to work.   The light and warmth are returning.

Capitol & Indian Museum

Capitol at night

US Capitol just after dawn on January 2, 2009

Looking toward the U.S. Capitol through the snow on January 27, 2009

Capitol in the morning on March 2, 2009

US captiol at 8 am on March 23, 2009

US Capitol on April 10, 2009 at around 8:30

Below is my bike trail and Shreve Rd in Falls Church VA on March 9

W&OD bike trail in Falls Church VA on March 9, 2009

April 09, 2009

Let the Games Begin

Gladiators 

Continuing my thoughts on games in public affairs, interactive games will soon become the leading method of persuasion and a key advertising medium.   I know that is a sweeping statement.   Those familiar only with the “Space Invaders” game generation will think I am nuts.  The “Myst” people will see the merit in the statement, and those playing World of Warcraft would heartily endorse it, if they could divert their attention long enough from their games.   Games are already a primary way that young people interact with data, each-other and the world in general.   Even the EU now thinks that gaming might be good for young minds, so we better get used to the idea that games.  For a funnier approach, take a look at this video.

Games’ pervasive persuasive ability is part of a continuum of imagined worlds so let’s digress a little to the more familiar previous persuasion champion – the play (or in the modern versions the movie or TV show).  Sophocles and Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, O’Neil and George Lucas & Steven Spielberg were/are masters of persuasion and they all knew what they were doing.   Think of a play as a very long commercial message that you volunteer to watch.  And remember that if a thirty-second commercial can sell you a product, don’t you think an hour and thirty minute play or a thirty minute TV show can sell you an idea or a lifestyle.

The writers, producers, directors and actors work together to sell you an idea.  Sometimes it is  innocuous; sometimes not.  Shakespeare sold us all the Tudor version of English history and we bought that Richard III was nothing but a sneaky rat and Henry V was a great and brave hero.  There is some truth to some of these characterizations, but they are fictional caricatures, not history.  It was a conscious effort at propaganda, but it was so skillfully done that it is still part of the fabric of our society four centuries later.   A skillful current propagandist is Oliver Stone.   Many people draw their knowledge of JFK or Nixon from his movies and the images are strong.  Even when you know the real history of the events, it is hard to get the image out of your mind.   The living, moving image often trumps the truth of history.   That is the power of the play/movie/TV Show.    

The writers/producers/directors control ALL the characters.   They can make the ones they don’t like unlikable or stupid.  It is all a set up.  They can structure events so that faults are revealed AND they can give characters the faults to be revealed.    It is analogous to your own dream, where all the characters are you but they seem to be others and that is how you react.   In every play, for persuasion purposes, the bad guys and the good guys are on the same side.  They are all working for the guy who wrote the play.  But the illusion remains.    Directors sometimes disingenuously talk about characters as independent or they ridicule critics by pointing out that it is only fiction.   Think of how you view familiar historical people or events.  Now consider whether your image came from reading actual history or just watching it on TV.   

BTW – the power of the producer has increased in Orwellian fashion.  Now many directors go back to their movies and change them to fit the current situation and sensibilities.   The “Star Wars” you saw in 1979 is not the same one you will see today.  “He who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past,” is the philosophy of Ingsoc and Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984.”

But the power of the play/movie/TV show pales in comparison to a modern game.  Viewer might get involved in a drama, but not matter how involved the couch potato gets, he is still a passive participant.   None of his intelligence or perception will change the course of the investigation on “Law & Order”  and none of his passionate tears will prevent one death on “House” or “ER” and the rerun will unfold exactly as it did the first time.

Not so in a game.   The game provides some choices and the illusion of free will.   What you do makes a difference to the outcome.   That is why games are so addictive.   You get to be a player in all the senses of that word.    The irony is that BECAUSE you are making choices and seeming to go your own way, the power of persuasion is multiplied.  

The game maker sets all the parameters.   He can suspend the universal laws of physics.  He can dictate the nature of human interactions.   He can dictate the nature of human nature itself.  Animals can become wise; inanimate object can be animated.   The game maker can determine heroes and villains, but now they are also YOUR friends and enemies.    Humans have a wonderful capacity to personify animals and objects.   It is much easier when these things have elements of a real personality.    Games create that.

I don’t think most game makers have an explicit social or political agenda, but they do have perceptions and prejudices that color their view of reality and so come to color the reality of many others. 

I no longer play many video games and I date myself when I say that used to play Sid Meyer’s Civilization, a game from the 1990s.   It is the only game that I really know well and it is familiar enough to many people, so let me use one example from that game.  You can find examples from other games at this link.

Civilization requires you to develop from a society of Stone Age wanders into a future with space travel.  As you develop various technologies, you get more options, both in civil and military matters.   The game makers have determined the relative merits of particular advances and you get them as givens. You compete with other civilizations and you have to spend a lot of time defending yourself and there was some criticism that the game was too warlike, but so was human history.

The first rendition of the game the other civilizations had characteristics broadly correlated to their historical activities.    For example, Hammurabi and the Babylonians were builders who spent relatively more time developing irrigation and road.  Lincoln and the Americans were technologically savvy and likely to develop democracy.   Shaka and the Zulus were less interested in technology and were more aggressive in attacking others.   The most aggressive and dangerous people on the board were Genghis Khan and the Mongols.   This was very un-pc and it disappeared from subsequent versions of the game.   

So the message of the later versions was that the unpopular idea of national character or any sort of cultural determinism was completely useless.   This is a very important point, BTW.   IF applied to the real world, it would mean that over time you would expect the Swiss and the North Koreans to behave in the same ways and that their national character would have no predictive value.   This, BTW, is the message of cultural relativism that you get in many universities.    If you get it directly, you can counter with the Swiss-North Korean argument.   If you imbibe it unconsciously as a teenager, it just becomes part of your world view.

But there is even a deeper message implicit in the game.  You, as the leader of your civilization, have nearly complete knowledge.  You make choices based on calculation or preference, but you can be logical.   Real world leaders never have this option.   There is always fog and uncertainty.   So if players take a lesson from the game, they have way too much confidence in the ability of leaders to run the economy or engage in foreign policy.   Conversely, if the leader does not deliver as promised, they are less likely to understand the constraints, unavoidable ignorance or mitigating circumstances.

Anyway, more and more we will use games to persuade and train.   Games are artificial models, created by humans, bundled with their unconscious preconceptions and prejudices and often peppered with deliberate manipulation.  As with any model, they represent one reality.  They are not THE reality.  But they sure seem like it to the players and I wonder what sorts of mind-sets the games are creating.   Games can create an entirely artificial world, whose characteristics players may carry over to the real world they (sometimes) live in.

April 08, 2009

Tell it Plain

Below is Smokey the Bear, no doubt reading plainly written government regulations.

Smokey the Bear at the USDA forestry exhibition in Washington 

The Congress in its wisdom has mandated that Federal employees should write in plain language. This is a great idea, but what does it mean?

I write in a simple way.  I don’t use the passive voice very much.  Most of my sentences are simple noun, verb & object.   I don’t use circumlocutions, but I do use the most appropriate word, for example, “circumlocutions”.   Using that one word avoids having to write two or more sentences.  

Plain writing requires a wide vocabulary. You have to use the words appropriate to the ideas you are trying to express.  Speaking of writing plainly does not mean making it so easy that a fifth-grader can understand.  Some concepts are beyond the understanding of a fifth-grader.     We have education to improve people so that they can indeed understand more.

Lord knows that government writing can be convoluted and confusing.  (Note the use of the word “convoluted”.  That is the best word for this thought.  An easier synonym for convoluted is difficult, but that does not adequately convey my meaning.)  I guess I am afraid that this great idea will be misused by some in the government to dumb-down our writing.    Some overzealous official might strip out words like “circumlocutions”, “convoluted” and … “overzealous”.   That would make my writing more simple-minded, but not simpler and not easier to understand.

There is no small irony in assigning a bureaucratic process to the art of writing.  Bureaucracy is the biggest reason our writing is difficult to understand (note that I did not use the word “opaque”, which was my first thought.  Instead I had to use three words (“difficult to understand”) that do not exactly convey the meaning I had in mind.    Much is lost when writing becomes a lowest common denominator group exercise.  The first goal of bureaucratic language is not to offend anybody, BTW. Conveying meaning is always a subordinated goal.

When I was in Poland, one of my Polish staff wrote a note asking for office supplies.   It was very clear, but also very clearly written by someone whose native language was not English.  The person receiving the request sent it back to me with a snarky comment “Didn’t you edit this.”   I wrote back much more politely, “No, I did not edit it.   I understood what she wanted and so do you.  Just send us the requested supplies and don’t bother me again.”  This was very clear and it caused some consternation among the admin folks.  My boss even called me to caution me about hostility, but they never bothered us again and it was worth it.   Had I knuckled under, I would have empowered the pedants and all of us would have spent many hours rewriting great prose like “Please send five boxes of pencils.” 

Government employees spend an inordinate amount of time on these sorts of things. Life is a lot easier if you just say no.  

And, BTW, the legislation specifically does NOT apply to regulations.  They can remain as opaque as ever, so that ordinary educated people cannot figure them out with any certainty.  I think we call that the "lawyer and bureaucrat full employment act."

April 07, 2009

Just a Lane Change

W&OD bike trail in Arlington VA.  John Matel's commute to work on April 5, 2009

Above is my morning commute on the W&OD bike trail in Arlington, VA.  Notice that they are doing utility work in one of those big cherry pickers.  The rain was coming in behind me.  You can see it in the clouds, but I got to work before the rain did. 

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Robust.  That is what we want and that is what are getting with the new media.  A robust solution provides lots of options and achieves desired outcomes by whatever means work best and whatever path is easiest. 

During a program supporting President Obama's discussion with Turkish students, CO.NX provided a great example of how a robust system works in practice. 

CO.NX had an audience of hundreds of Turkish young people interacting over the internet while watching President Obama live on streaming video.   Unfortunately, the video pod on the CO.NX software broke down.   Disaster?  It would have been in an earlier technological age, but CO.NX is robust.  

The Adobe software gives users the ability to stream in video from other sources.   CO.NX staff just opened another link and viewers in Turkey seamlessly switched to watching video from the Whitehouse sources, or some preferred CNN Turk, which provided a local angle.  

What would have been an embarrassing program-killing crash is now as uneventful as changing lanes to pass a slow truck on the highway or pushing a button on your remote to get a different perspective. 

There is a greater lesson from this event about robustness. In order to achieve success, we relied on systems outside our own and that gave us several good options.  In the past, we would have needed to produce costly backups, which would have come with their own risk of failure and would never be as elegant as what we can get free.

I think an old saying fits well in this case:  why own a cow when you can just go to the dairy? The new media gives us choices.  Updating the old saying, why own a cow and get only milk, when you can just go to the supermarket and get yogurt, ice cream, Swiss cheese ...?

Robust.  I am making that my word of the day.

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Below is the front of our townhouse complex.  I planted those pine trees.   The one in front is an Austrian pine.  Behind is a white pine.

pine trees and pear trees in Vienna, VA on April 4, 2009

April 06, 2009

International Generosity

A lot depends on how your draw the graph and the measures you use.  Statistics are often used in ways that bring the U.S. down.  For example, when we talk about CO2 emissions or military spending, the measure is usually the straight big number.   On the other hand, when we talk about things like foreign aid or investment, we usually find a measure as a % of GDP.   In the apples-to-apples comparison, the U.S. is the world’s #1 foreign aid donor and the #2 producer of CO2.  Per unit of GDP, we are a medium producer of CO2 and a low donor of official foreign aid, although we do significantly better when the total aid (private plus public) is included.

airplane flying with moon in background in Vienna Va on March 5, 2009

Consider this graph from the Economist.  The graph gives you one impression and the numbers tell another story.   As $26 billion, the U.S. accounted for almost 22% of the entire official foreign aid given world wide.   In fact the increase of U.S. aid from 2007 to 2008 was bigger than the total foreign aid given by some countries.  Sometimes size matters.

If you made a graph of actual outlays, the U.S. would be almost twice as big as the second place donor (Germany).

So I guess it depends on what sort of point you want to make.  If you are trying to make a moral point – that U.S. official aid is stingy because the U.S. could afford more, the graph in the illustration works.  If you are actually wondering how much poor people are receiving, you might want to look also at the raw numbers too, because if you had the choice between getting 90% of my salary or 1% of Bill Gates’, you should go with Bill.

The irony is that declining economic fortunes may improve the outlays as a % of GDP.   If you manage to lose half your money, you become twice as generous by this reckoning, perhaps another reason to reconsider the measurement.  

Beyond the measuring problems, there are questions about the overall effectiveness of official foreign aid.  If official foreign aid was the key to development, Tanzania would be really rich and Singapore would still be a basket case.  The WSJ ran an article today re how aid helps keep Latin America poor.  You sometimes get perverse effects from generosity.

You have to consider behavior.  Unconditionally pouring money into corrupt societies just sustains klepocracies.  U.S. foreign aid has become more effective in recent years when we started to demand reforms in return for the cash.  The Millennium Challenge Program was the best thing that ever happened to foreign aid, IMO.   But overall, the best thing the rich world can do for the poor world is to make trade easier and more transparent.   It has something to do with the old saying about giving a man a fish.

April 05, 2009

Games: Monopoly

Monopoly Polish versionAt work we are experimenting with using games in public affairs, so I have been thinking about them and reading about them.   I just got a book called Changing the Game, re how video games change ways we do business.   We are very much influenced by games because games create reality.   I plan to write a couple posts on this general subject, but to get my thoughts rolling I considered Monopoly.

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Left is the Polish version of Monopoly.  I didn't have the original American version, but I used the familiar names of properties in my post.  The proliferation of Monopoly around the world shows its general appeal.

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Monopoly was the game we played when I was a kid.  I played it with my sister and with my friends.   I didn’t realize what it was teaching me and the subtle persuasion that was going on.   Learning and persuasion are closely related, of course.   When we learn a system, we are simultaneously persuaded that it is good and/or useful.   So what does Monopoly teach/persuade? 

You learn a lot about statistics.   Dice produce random results within a pattern.   There are thirty-six possible combinations of two dice that produce the twelve numbers we might throw.  Seven is the most common number, since you can get seven with six different combinations of the two dice.   Least common are two and twelve, since there is only one combination that can produce each of these.

The Monopoly board accounts for this.    You cannot buy a property that is seven steps from “GO” and the most common landing spaces are occupied by “Chance,” or “Community Chest.”  The probabilities created by the dice would become less important as the game progressed, except various events of the game tend to bring you back to certain places.  You often are told to “advance to GO”, which resets the probabilities.  Seven spaces from “GO” is “Chance,“ BTW.   You are also frequently told to “Advance to the nearest RR” or sent to jail.   Seven spaces from Jail is “Community Chest” and there are no monopoly property possible seven paces from a RR except the green property North Carolina.  

Monopoly, Polish version "start" 

Given all the permutations, it is generally the lower cost-lower rent properties that get most of the business.   Mediterranean and Baltic are the most visited properties, but it is hardly worth having them, even with a hotel.   Boardwalk is the killer property, but people tend not to land there and it costs a lot to build houses and hotels.   IMO the best combination of affordability, frequency and income are the Red group of Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.   The next best are the Orange New York group.    I am sure that somebody has figured out exact probabilities. 

The winning strategy is to get the best property you can and build as soon as possible.    There is a big advantage to being first since you will get the resources to expand (and deprive your opponents of same). 

Monopoly Polish Version, free parking

Fortune favors the bold and a person who is timid and refused to deploy his current money to produce future income cannot win.  Of course, the reverse is not necessarily true.  You can know all the things you should know and play superbly and still lose.  If you could just do something with a certain guarentee of success, it wouldn't be a game anybody would play.  There is no uncertainty in dice, but there is probability and risk. In Monopoly, you can assess risk.  Over the long term you will win if you do the right thing.  Over the short term, such as a particular game or even lifetime there is no such guarantee.  That is the nature of risk.

These are really good life lessons.  I learned probability from Monopoly before I knew about it in school.   We practiced simple math.  Got a good short course in negotiations and a chance to observe human nature in wealth and poverty.  

The world view we got from Monopoly was that this is the way life was.   We had early free enterprise, followed by consolidation and then Monopoly and bankruptcy for all but one big winner.   Although that last part was never achieved in our games, which was another lesson.   We always made deals (not permitted by the official rules) to help each other save face.   We also noticed that the bankers tended to have more ready cash than their property holdings seemed to justify.

The games usually ended when it became clear enough who was winning and everybody got bored, or else somebody got mad enough to upset the board or end the game abruptly.   We had several sets of brothers who played with us.  Inevitably one or more would resort to petty violence in response setbacks in the market, thereby ending the game.    I guess it was like real life.

Clearly, the game persuades us that some behaviors are useful and others not.   I don’t think Parker Brothers had support for Capitalism in mind when they started to sell the game in the 1930s.  In fact, I read that the precursor to Monopoly was invented by a socialist who wanted to show the pernicious nature of private ownership.   It just goes to show the law of unintended consequences that it taught generation of American kids about the virtues, if risky ones, of the free market. The mistake that Monopoly teaches is that the free market is a zero sum game, with winners in proportion to losers.  In fact, the free exchanges in a market economy increases general wealth, although not in equal measure.  I don't think we can blame Monopoly, but this zero sum mentality is the leading cause of misunderstanding of the market.  Of course, games need winners and losers.  They are only games after all.  And one reason we like games is that, unlike life, they provide definitive results, but we would not like those kinds of results in real life.

Anyway, kids don’t play Monopoly like we did.  They have other options.   

The Last Three Feet

Edward R Murrow Those of us who got our jobs in the old USIA grew up professionally with the example of Edward R. Murrow. Murrow was a great newsman when newsmen were great. He was  director of USIA & we remember him for the "last three feet".  Murrow observed that communications spanned the world, but real persuasion happened when people made personal connections, in the last three feet. 

Of course, we cannot talk personally to millions or billions of people and the challenge remains how to bridge those last three feet on a massive scale.  It is a paradox, like mass customization.  But mass customization is demonstrably possible with computer aided design and manufacture.  Maybe technology can help us too.  New communications technologies give us lots of opportunities to reach out in more personalized and interactive ways.  We can talk and listen in real time and engage and in ways that were not possible only a short time ago. And my colleagues are trying to figure out how to use new technologies and old techniques in new ways to adapt and engage in a mutually respectful communication. 

I don't think they get noticed enough.  It is the usual problem.  People doing good things are too busy doing to have time to talk about them.  So I am making it my business to find success.  Let me start with CO.NX.

CO.NX is the fastest growing IIP program in recent months.  It is the multimedia descendent of the simple webchats we started to do regularly a few years ago, but the character has totally changed in the course of its evolution.  We knew we were in a different league when we got 45,000+ questions during an election night program.  Much of this change was facilitated by technological improvements and changes in organizational culture. 

CO.NX use Adobe Connect, which is a very simple but effective interface.  It requires the recipients to download no software and a reasonably adept participant can be using the program within minutes.   Participant do not have to register, which is a big deal in many places.  It takes up little bandwidth, which is crucial given the vast diversity of technologies used by our audiences worldwide.  Important for the same reason is its scalability.   Anything from interactive video to simple text is possible, so countries and individual audience members can participate at the level and to the extent they prefer or their equipment allows.

Programs are only useful in the context of the communities they create.  The creation of communities, both entirely online and online facilitated face-to-face communities, is the key to CO.NX's recent meteoric rise.   The key to the communities has been Facebook and Twitter to a lesser extent.  (Although we work across platforms, these are the ones currently producing the best results).   The original webchats relied on list serves.   This method is a clumsy way to reach an audience and does not easily facilitate discovery of new members or the viral spread of information.  

Facebook provides an excellent framework to connect the various parts of CO.NX.   It allows a simple way for people to become part of an online community as well as a place where information can be disseminated.  In addition, Facebook engagement is phenomenally well targeted and inexpensive.   First, you can simply engage through friends already in the community, but you can also search out interested new people with targeted advertising. 

A recent outreach to build an audience in Pakistan among people interested in the new U.S. strategy in the region produced 203 participants for the program in about twenty four hours at the cost of just a little more than $35.00.   IIP research indicates that each of these participants has an average of 183 friends, which means that we touched an audience in the thousands, even accounting for overlap among friends networks.   Beyond that, the program made its way into the Pakistani blogosphere where the new U.S. policies were explained and discussed by opinion leaders.   A program like this would have been impossible to arrange a few years ago, no matter the price we were willing to pay.  

CO.NX can engage with audiences sorted by age, gender, location, university affiliation and even by major at the university, among other categories.  It is an amazingly effective tool and it means that we no longer have to put our product out there and wait for a reaction.  We can proactively shape the public affairs terrain where we participate.  

Another free technology CO.NX is using is YouTube.    As I mentioned above, CO.NX can have a video component and most programs do.   Parts of these videos have been put onto YouTube, sometimes by the CO.NX people directly and sometimes by others, which show the interest our programs are generating.   If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, how much better is a direct copy?   In addition, in the Internet world,  having someone other than ourselves post adds to the credibility.    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama himself are among  those whose images and statements have made it into cyberspace with the facilitation of CO.NX. 

Of course, the IIP CO.NX staff is very small.  There is no way that a couple of full time employees and a few interns can effectively reach the whole world, no matter the technological leverage they enjoy.  Fortunately, IIP enjoys the support of a human network worldwide - our posts and IRCs overseas.  A network solution is emerging, with IIP providing the initial information, training and platforms, and people from posts overseas becoming more autonomous and helping each other.  This is especially crucial in time zones far removed from Washington. 

Posts such as Afghanistan, China, Thailand and Mexico have been avid pioneers in independently using the CO.NX system.   Secretary of State Clinton did a live town hall CO.NX program from Belgium.   A member of the IIP CO.NX staff was dispatched to advise, but the posts did all the heavy lifting for this immensely successful outreach.   This is as it should be and as it will become more commonly.  

Note: CO.NX was a useful tool in building realationships with Turks around President Obama's talk to students in Istanbul.  Follow this link to read about how the robust system worked.

Our overseas posts understand the local environments, can speak the languages and have the opportunity to build robust relationships, bridging the last three feet that Edward R. Murrow talked about.   That is what we need for persuasion and there is no substitute, but IIP CO.NX is helping us get in range and maintain relationships across space and time zones.  It is something simple that works.

April 04, 2009

Loose Ends from March

Sometimes I come across interesting things, but there is just not enough to write a whole post re.  Here are some of them.

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Self-driving Monster Tractors

Below is a giant tractor I saw on a farm on the Northern Neck.    It can drive itself.    It is equipped with a GPS, so once it learns the field it doesn’t require a driver to drive.  GPS is a fantastic technology that has gone from unbelievable science fiction to practical commonplace within a few years.   Soon I wonder if trucks and trains couldn’t drive themselves.   They would just need some kind of collision sensing systems and some of those are already available.

Big tractor that can drive itself

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Green Buildings

Below is a LEED building.  It is theoretically built to good environmental standards, a “green building,” but  LEED is the elitists brand for “greenness.”     I think in the long run Green Globes will be the way to go.  I admit that I am a little annoyed with LEED.  They don’t recognize tree farm wood as ecologically sustainable and if they don’t like my forest I don’t like them.   They also tend to favor European sourced wood over North Americans supplies.  I think we should be more interested in actual environmental achievement than in the political correctness.  The narrow definition of sustainable timber also raises the cost of building.   Read more about the comparison here.  American Tree Farm System tend to be smaller land owners.  We are not so politically savvy, but we do a good job with our trees.

LEED building in Washington DC in March 2009 

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Pulaski

Polish glassmakers were among the first settlers at Jamestown and Polish heroes like Pulaski and Kosciusko participated in our war of independence.   Kazimierz Pulaski wrote to George Washington, "I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.”  At the recommendation of Ben Franklin, Washington took him on.   Pulaski is called the father of the American cavalry.   He died of wounds he got at the battle of Savannah in 1779.  Below is his statue on Freedom Plaza near the Whitehouse.

Pulaski on Freedom Plaza in March 2009

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Willard Hotel

The Willard used to be the classiest hotel in Washington.  Lincoln stayed here.   When Grant came east, he checked into the hotel.  Grant was an unassuming man and nobody really noticed when he came in, until the clerk read the name on the register. 

Willard Hotel in Washington DC.  Lincoln stayed here

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Pomonkey

This is a local small town in Maryland.  I don’t know how it is actually pronounced.  I just think it is a very funny name.

Pomonkey a small town in Maryland

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Erodible Soils

Soils in tidewater Virginia are a mixed bag because they have often washed down from other places.   They are also not very stable and erosion is a constant challenge.    This picture shows some of the soil stratification.   It picture is not an example of erosion per se.    The farmer who owns the land uses this soil to make berms to protect other soils.

Erodible soils on the Northern Neck of Virginia

April 03, 2009

You Never Thank Me

One of the greatest virtues is the ability to feel genuine gratitude and the reverse is one of the most pernicious faults.   Of course, gratitude and generosity are complicated human emotions, intimately tied up with status, responsibility, guilt … in short almost everything.  

New York Av Presbyterian Church in Washington DC on March 3, 2009 

There are valid reasons not be grateful.  Generosity is often a status seeking activity.   The giver is asserting his dominance over the receiver and often trying to influence his behavior.    That is why generosity on a large scale is tricky.   Those too often on the recipient side, may come to resent and even hate their benefactors.    I read that this is even true for other primates; lower status group members are alternatively obsequious and demanding. 

Tree with lots of burls in Franklin Square in Washington DC on March 4, 2009Constantly being the one-way object of generosity is shameful if not put into the proper context of reciprocity.  In order not to be shamed, the recipient needs to believe that he will be returning some form of compensation now or in the future or that he is entitled to the largess through a legitimate social relationship.   Good families are like that and so are good friends.    Parent/child relationships are very uneven, but there is significant reciprocity and expectations of continued relationships.  

Friendships can break up when one becomes unwilling or unable to reciprocate. For example, drinking buddies usually do not keep careful score about who buys the beer, but they will notice if one of the group always keeps his hands in his pockets when his turn comes.  In long-established relationships, friends will cut each other considerable slack, but eventually the non-buyer will begin to be the object of some ridicule and will probably drift away.  Of course, if he owns a pickup truck and helps everybody move it might be a different story. Reciprocity need not be exact and it need not be immediate, but the expectation is there.  It goes the way too.  Everybody loves the big spender – at first.  But soon real friends drop away, replaced by free-loaders. 

This generosity thing is harder than it seems.

Old fashioned walk signs are becoming less common.

Generosity in the expectation of behavior is one of the hardest to understand, since both sides are often confused by the expectations.   Let’s leave aside the obvious mating rituals and take an example where the donor thinks he is being altruistic.  If I give money to a drunk, I might expect that he will try to become sober.   If I give to a mother, I expect she will help her kids and generally when I help anybody out, I expect that they will show their gratitude by helping someone else in the future, a kind of pay it forward scenario.   In all those cases, I feel perfectly justified in my expectations, but my experience in all those situations tells me that I may be the only one in the transaction who feels that way.  The recipients think you are trying to run their lives and that you think you are better than they are … and they are right.  You are implicitly telling them that you know better.   

In these cases, the recipients bear a bigger share of the blame.  They should feel grateful and at least attempt to live up to the good expectations.  But the donors need to be flexible too.  The fact that the recipients have not yet taken the needed action up till now says something.

The best “charity” is the kind that makes the recipient a valued member of society and allows him to pull his own weight.   That is the charity of mutual respect.   But it is hard to do.  In the short run, it seems insensitive and even in the long run you may not get credit for your generosity, which is what many people really want.  But it works.

I admit that I don’t always do this. There are a few bums around some places I go who I just kind of like. I don’t expect them ever to improve.  I give them money. I suppose there is a bit of reciprocity, since we sometimes talk a few minutes and they tell me their stories. I don’t usually believe most of the details, but we share the face-saving myth and we are all happier.   But this sort of generosity is not really very generous. You need reciprocity.

I had that experience on a larger scale in Iraq.    We were shoveling money out the door in terms of projects and generosity.  There was some justification for that at first, but the first thing I did when I got to the job was to make us stingier.   Projects w/o local commitment were misused and not sustainable and people are not committed to anything unless they have put something of their own into it.   What about the poor?  If they don’t have money, they have time.  They can give something.  There has to be a contribution.  At first we got complaints when we demanded reciprocity; some thought we were not being generous, but shortly after that we got respect.  We also got better quality projects and happier people working on those projects, so that we were able to respect the recipients, i.e. they earned respect.  It became much more a shared enterprise.    

Shared enterprise is a characteristic of reciprocity relationships that is usually lacking with straight up charity.  It means that we have taken enough interest in each other’s aspirations to do the due diligence required to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship and that we trust each other to honor committments. This is a whole lot better than just cutting a check.

I think these things are true. Nobody really values anything that comes w/o significant effort; nobody can really respect anybody else until he respects himself and only a person who respects himself can feel grateful to others.  Thoughlessly giving money is morally lazy and thoughtlessly taking it is a moral hazard.  A fair business relationship may well be more generous than freely giving away money.

It is sometimes better to receive than to give if doing that helps build the bonds of reciprocity and respect.  Then everybody can feel genuine gratitude for what they receive and what they give.

April 02, 2009

Smithsonian Roof-top Gardens

Smithsonian garden looking south from castle on a foggy morning April 2, 2009 

I am beguiled by springtime in Washington.    Today it was warm, with a little drizzle.  I did my morning telephone call in the garden in front of the Smithsonian.   I never really thought about it before, but this is a roof garden.  There is a significant museum complex below the ground.

Smithsonian roof garden and underground museum complex 

Since it is on ground level, it doesn’t look like rooftop garden, but it has the characteristics.  The heated rooms below make the dirt in the gardens above significantly warmer, so plants from further south can thrive and they can come out earlier in the season. 

Robin on Smithsonian garden on April 2, 2009 

I can include pictures, but they can't convey the smell of the air heavy with the fragrance of flowers and earth and I can only mention the sounds of the birds.    A few minutes in the garden put the whole day in the proper perspective.

April 01, 2009

Water Finds Its Level

Water Finds its level 

Our Foreign Service evaluation period ends this month and it is time again for all of us to list our myriad achievements in a couple pages of dense prose.  I hate that.  Coming from my conservative Midwestern background where bragging was discouraged and ridiculed, I am at a significant disadvantage vis-à-vis those who consider pushing oneself forward a pleasure.  I have always hated hustlers and hustling.  But there is the time for those things. 

I have gotten better at it and developed methods and rationalizations that help me through.   My best method is to imagine I am writing about someone else.   In my job, I often have to “sell” ideas.   I make the self-promotion exercise just another job like that.  I have never lied or even exaggerated in any of my assessments, but it is amazing how different achievements can seem when put in context or surrounded by the right words and phrases.  And I guess I have done all right in the promotion game, despite all the gnashing of teeth. 

Statue of chess players in John Marshall Park on March 31, 2009

If you stayed in the Foreign Service for 200 years, things would even out and you would probably end up more-or-less where you deserve, but in the course of a 20 year career there can be lots of random events that affect your success.   I know very capable colleagues who suffered some kind of career downdraft through little or no fault of their own and forever stalled at mid-level and there are a happy few who have risen to very high ranks on the strength of some random occurrence or lucky break. Of course, some people can't get ahead no matter what breaks they get, but chance matters too.

Good or bad luck can affect whole generations, so you have to compare people to their peers.  During the middle 1990s, it was very hard even for good people to get promoted because they were cutting the FS.  It is easier now when we are expanding hiring.  I read in a biography of Eisenhower that he despaired of ever getting another promotion back in the late 1930s.  But it worked out for him.  His became "the class the stars fell on" (the class of 1915 produced 59 generals out of 164 graduates, not bad) when WWII expanded the army. Eisenhower, Bradley, Marshall, Nimitz, Halsey etc were able men and they were successful, but had the war come five years later we would have had a whole different set of five-star leaders.  Colonel Eisenhower might have found himself called out of retirement to run a training program, but the crusade in Europe would have had a different champion.  "There is a tide in the affairs of men ..." 

Below is a statue of Gen John Pershing, General of the Armies, the only man to attain that rank during his own lifetime.   Later Congress passed a law stipulating that no American ever had or could outrank George Washington.

General Pershing monument in Washington

Losers blame their circumstances, and they are right just enough to keep the idea plausible. With the caveat of comparison mentioned above, promotions are correlated to actual merit, but certainly not perfectly correlated.  There is a statistical quality to them, which is not always fair or right, but in the long term and for the most part you can understand what happened.    

Some people have opportunities dropped in their laps; others have to work hard to find them.  You do need opportunity to shine, but what you do with it makes all the difference.  The FS is a very good laboratory for achievement because we have such a variety of jobs and we move among them.  Even though we are all similar in background, and the FS test ensures that we are all smart in the academic sense, you can really see the difference people can make in positions.  Posts and positions may suddenly become important and effective just because a new person has come in.  The reverse is also true. 

In my observation, chronic underperformers are those that avoid responsibility and refuse to make consequent decisions.   It has to do with that opportunity thing I mentioned above.  In choosing mediocrity, they cannot be blamed for failure, but they also never have the opportunity to succeed.   In a knowledge organization like the FS, the preferred method to avoid responsibly is to over analyize every situation and then spread risk by involving lots of marginal participants in your decision making.  I don’t think that most of those doing this really understand the implicit choices they are making.  They think they are being prudent and honestly don’t understand why their list of achievements pales next to those of their “crazier” and “less hard working” colleagues.

I have real trouble understanding how I achieved the success that I have enjoyed and I cannot believe that I deserve it.  This doubt is not a malady I suffer alone.  I find that most successful people who are honest and self-aware fear that they are frauds whose mistakes and faults will someday be embarrassingly revealed.  This is a useful attitude.  It keeps us more humble and stimulates a desire for continuous correction and improvement. I pity the fools who believe they have no serious faults left to correct.  But self-doubt can result in the risk-avoiding mediocrity I mention above and you have to be careful not to be overly influenced humility and self-doubt at evaluation time.  Evaluations are comparisons.  In this universe of imperfect people, where do you stand in relation to others? Nobody is perfect and the ostensible quest for perfection is another way people avoid responsibly to make choices. 

If we disqualify ourselves based on the faults & fears we know we suffer, all we do is allow the more dishonest or self-deceiving people among us to prosper and rule ... and those are not the kinds of people you want running the show. 

It is not only your right, but your proactive duty to ensure that you can make a contribution commensurate with your capacity.  That means we have to engage in what I would call bragging at evaluation time.  Unfortunately, evaluations are like a race run in the fog, where you might have to judge the winners by who is bragging the loudest because the actual finish was unclear.

The arguments we make for ourselves should be honest, but well crafted.  We can share credit and take credit for common efforts at the same time.  It is not a virtue to allow your achievements to be hidden or ignored, since that means that your ability to do more will be curtailed and it is likely that a less competent but more confined guy will take your place.  In my circumstances, getting promoted really doesn’t mean making much more money, since our pay is capped.  It does mean having the opportunity to do more useful and interesting things before they kick me out (we have an up-or-out system). 

Anyway, those are the things I am telling myself as I embark on my creative writing exercise.  

We get to write our own first page on our evaluation forms and tell the promotion boards why we are worthy.   I will imagine that I am writing for somebody else and give that guy the benefit of all doubts.   I have some interesting narratives this year and I suppose I can spin some gold out of that common straw. 


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