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August 31, 2009

Happy Birthday, Daddy

Anton & Anastasia Matel, my grandparentsMy father was born on this date in 1921. I don’t really know much about him and some of what I think I know is probably wrong.   We didn’t have much contact with his side of the family.  Both his parents died before I was born.  He and his fraternal brother Joe were the youngest.  They were born twenty-two years after their oldest sister, Helen.   

On the left are my grandparents.

I was named after my father, so I am technically John Matel, Jr. John Matel Senior was born in Duluth, Minnesota.  His father, Anton,  had come over from Poland a few years before.  I don’t know when.   His mother, Anastasia, was of Polish ancestry too, but she was born in Buffalo, NY.    My father never told me much more than that, although I understand that her family was from Galicia in the Carpathian Mountains.  

I found out later that my grandfather’s family was from what is now eastern Poland: Suwalki and Mazowieckie.   I learned this from a cousin called Henrick Matel who found me in Poland.   His father was my grandfather’s brother.   His father & another brother went to France to work in coal mines there.   My grandfather made a wiser choice and went to America.   Henrick didn’t know much else.   His father had been killed in a train accident when he was only eleven.  Henrick unwisely returned to Poland after WWII, believing the communist promises that things would be good there. Young men make bad choices. 

Henrick lamented that the Polish side of the family were a bunch of drunks. Things didn’t change much in America.   Now you know as much about my father’s prehistory as I do and I suspect a little more than he did.

John Matel Sr and friends in 1940My father talked about growing up in the depression.  He kept some of the frugal habits from those times.  He used bacon grease as butter, for example and would get really upset if we threw out any food.   His childhood home was small and crowded. It was on 4th Street.  I went up there to see it.   Of course, by then it was different.   It was in a yuppified neighborhood and a small home for a single couple.   My father’s home housed eight.   Their toilet was in the basement, which has a dirt floor back then.   He told a funny story about his youth.   The family went to see “Frankenstein” and it scared my future father.   His brothers set up a dummy in the basement and the made it sit up when little Johnny went down to use the toilet.  He said he no longer needed to use the toilet.

He got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was stationed near Superior, WI.  He planted trees and cut trails.   It gave him a lasting appreciation for forestry, which I think he passed to me.  How else can you explain a city boy so attracted to the woods?   Some of it is myth,  or just a feeling, but whenever I look at the groves of trees planted by the CCC I think of him.   They are mature forests now, but in the Dust Bowl years they were pioneers.

After getting out of the CCC, my father got a job at Medusa Cement, where he stayed his whole working life, except for the time he was in the Army Air Corps.    He was drafted into the Army soon after Pearl Harbor.   He would never tell me much about that part of his life.   I know he got seven battle stars, so was a participant in all the big action of the war in Europe.    Of course, he didn’t really have to be there for all of them.   Anywhere the planes went, he officially went.   He landed at Normandy a few days after D-day.   According to what he told me, the only time he actually got near the Germans was during the battle of the bulge, closer than he wanted.   He got a Purple Heart. 

Joe, Ted and John MatelThey had a point system for discharge from the military.  My father had a lot of points because of those battle stars & Purple Heart mentioned above, so he was among the first U.S. soldiers discharged.   He always expressed a special fondness for Chicago, where he was discharged.   Since he was among the first to come home after the victory in Europe, people were eager to welcome him and buy him drinks.

I am embarrassed to say that I don’t know exactly when he married my mother, but it was soon after the war. They told me that it took nine years before I was born. I was born in 1955, so counting back we get 1946. 

On the left are my uncle Joe (blond), Ted (tall) and my father. 

Our house in Milwaukee was full of artifact of my father’s work.  He and my mother’s father built the boiler, constructed the steps in the back and built the retaining wall, for example.   All these things worked, but they were odd.  The boiler threw most of the heat out through the sides.  That meant that the basement was very warm – the rest of the house not so much.  The steps were all uneven.  The wall leaned and the drainage holes were lined with beer cans cut out on both ends.   The evident surplus of beer cans explained much of the other things.

During my childhood, my father mostly worked.   That’s what I recall.  It was the time when they were building the Interstate freeways and there was a big demand for cement.    He regularly worked twelve hour shifts and was tired when he came home.   He drank a lot of beer, at first Schlitz, later Pabst and then Budweiser, but he never missed a day of work because of it, or for any other reason.  I don’t remember him ever taking a sick day.   Maybe he just denied sickness because he hated doctors.   He went to the doctor only once from the time he got his discharge physical out of the army in 1945 until the time he died more than fifty years later.   On that occasion, he had a cyst removed from his stomach.  The doctor forgot to sew it up.   After that, he said that the medical profession had their chance and he was not going to give them another.   When the doctors finally got their second look at him, the day he died, they couldn’t believe my sister when she told them that he didn’t take any medication besides Budweiser. 

John Matel and Virginia Haase wedding

I really didn’t get to know my father until my mother died in 1972.   He was grieving too, but he tried to make it easier for my sister and me.   He tried to cook, but wasn’t very good at it.   But my father was nothing if not stubborn. He ate what he cooked and made us eat it too.  I remember watching some bread bake in the toaster oven.   The old man asked if I thought it was ready.   Just at that point it burst into flames. 

My father dropped out of HS in the tenth grade, but he made sure I went to college.   He also got me a job at the cement company, where I got to work those twelve hour overtime shifts and make the big bucks.   At one point, they assigned me to unloading hopper cars.   I worked from noon to midnight, which was great.  I could sleep late and then meet my friends at the bars at midnight.   At the job, I got to lift very heavy tools and smack things with sledge hammers (something young men like) but in between the hard work I got time to just hang around by the river and wait for the cars to empty (something else young men like). Then I got to ride the cars to the end of the dock, applying the brakes and jumping off just before the rammed into the car in front.   I mentioned to my father that I thought this was fun.   The next day, he made sure the boss gave me the midnight till noon shift, which didn’t suit me at all.  He told me that the worst thing a young man could get was a job he liked that didn’t have a future and he was going to make sure that I would not get it.    He wanted me to stay in school and I did.  Thanks Dad.

John Matel Sr at Medusa CementI worked hopper cars during Christmas break and it was less fun, BTW.   I remember working in the evenings and looking at the temperature on the Allen Bradley clock tower.   It always seemed to be 5 below zero.   I would work as fast as I could out there by the tracks, get the cement moving and then rush into my father’s office and sit in front of the heater.   My co-worker, LC Duckworth, used to sleep in front of his own propane heater very close.   I couldn’t stand it because it let out these terrible fumes.   He had no complaints until he started his pants on fire.  We put him out w/o any lasting damage, but he never sat near that heater again..   LC was the strongest man I knew, but his ability to sleep almost any time was his unique skill.  I learned it from him.    

My father retired when he was only fifty-six. He already had thirty-six years in, since he got credit for his time in army.   I can understand why he wanted to quit.   The job was noisy, dusty and hard.  But the plus side is that he had lots of friends.   His job involved loading trucks and he knew all the drivers.  It was fun to watch.  It was a different man I met when I went with my father to work, a happy man with lots of social connections.   Retirement was a bit of a mistake, IMO. But I suppose he thought it was worth it.  At first, I think it was.   He had time to read and relax.   It deteriorated after that.

We drifted apart as parents and children often do, when we moved away.  In the FS, you are FAR away.  My father had a blind spot when it came to this career, BTW.  It was the only time I had to really disagree with him.   When I told him that I planned to take the FS test, he told me not to waste my time.   He said that such careers were “only for rich kids” and that I could never get a job like that.  Had I taken his advice, it would have been true.  I can't blame him.  It was just farther than he could see.  I think that is a big problem for the “disadvantaged”.  They hold themselves back with low expectations.

John Matel Sr with kidsI didn’t make it back in time when he died. My sister called me and I got on the next flight form Krakow. But the next flight was the next day and then I got stranded in Cincinnati. When I called to tell my sister I would be late, my cousin Luke answered and told me that my sister was at the hospital and my father had died. I figure he died as I flew over Canada.  I remember looking down at the savage beauty, the forest and the frozen lakes and thinking it was over. I don’t know if I REALLY thought that or if I have just created this memory ex-post-facto. The mind works like that.

My father never made much money, but after my mother died he spent even less. He never went anywhere, didn’t waste money on clothes and ate mostly bean soup, cabbage soup and kielbasa.  He used to talk about his stash of “cold cash.”   We didn’t think much of it. But when my sister was cleaning out the freezer, she found around $20,000.00 in $100 dollar bills, wrapped in foil like hamburger. The old man hated banks and didn’t want to have any money that would earn interest that he would have to pay taxes.  When dealing with old depression era people, it was a good idea to look around and don’t hire stranger to clean up those nooks and crannies.

According to what my sister told me, my father fell down and couldn’t get up. When asked how he was, his last words were, “I can't complain.” He used that phrase a lot and it was not surprising he would fall back on it, but it seems an appropriate thing to say at the end. Happy birthday, Daddy.   I still miss you. I hope my kids will be as lucky as I was. I can't complain.

August 30, 2009

Katrina plus 4: Move to Higher Ground

The news carries reports that some people are still living in FEMA trailers and many homes are not rebuilt four years after Hurricane Katrina.  

When a big tragedy hits, we feel the natural human desire to reach out and help the victims.   We certainly should.  But after the “first aid” and the flood waters have receded, it is time for everybody to get back to work as usual.  After four years, it is past time for the victims to be on the other side, i.e. willing and able to help others.  And it is not the government’s duty to offer indefinite help.  It starts to get abusive.   If my house burns down tonight, I don’t expect to be living in a FEMA trailer at all, much less still be there four years later. Beyond that, I learned that many of the victims were renters.  If you lose your rental home, you move and pay rent somewhere else.  The landlord takes the loss. 

I like to watch nature and science programs on TV. Going back many years, I have seen programs about the Mississippi River, New Orleans, global warming, sea level rises or all of the above.  They all said the same sorts of things.   Much of New Orleans is below sea level. Everybody knew that it was only a matter of time before a big hurricane would come and do what Katrina did.   And everybody knows it will happen again.  It is not “if” it is “when”.  And there is nothing we can do about it no matter how much we spend.  Those low-lying parts of the city should not be inhabited at all today or tomorrow and they should not have been occupied yesterday.  It was a mistake. The destruction of the wetlands to build these areas was a slow motion tragedy. The clock was set ticking a century ago.  We just didn't see it until the big one hit.  Actually, we did see it, as all the nature show programs said; we just didn't care, sort of like today. It gets worse. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise. Those lands currently below sea level will be even further below sea level.  Building/rebuilding is just a waste of time and a cruel hoax on anybody living there.

Let’s say it plainly. Start with the good news.  Those parts of New Orleans that are above sea level (including many of the historical areas) can and should be preserved. The port areas can be rebuilt and enhanced.    BUT New Orleans must become a smaller city. The parts of the city that are at or below sea level should not be rebuilt. 

The best use would be to make some of these erstwhile flooded neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward, into wet forest or “walking” wet land used for agriculture. Letting these places return to a more natural state will serve to protect the salvageable and more valuable real estate.  There is really no other practical or ethical course. 

We should stop promising or implying that people will be returning to their homes on these once and future swamps, bayous and lakes.   It makes absolutely no sense from either the ecological or the economic point of view.   This goes beyond New Orleans, BTW.  

Decisions about where to build should be local decisions.   In most cases, I would not deny someone the right to build on his own property, even if I thought the choice was stupid.  But we should not help.  Much stupid development comes down to subsidized insurance.   If no private company will insure your new home, maybe there is a reason. The risk is too high. We certainly should not subsidize your bad decision.   W/o the unnatural public subsidy for  insurance to live on unstable places, most people would not build on barrier islands, flood plains, loose slopes … or below sea level in New Orleans.

We need to be realistic.   Some places are just not suited to some uses.   It is a tragedy if your house is destroyed by a flood … once.   If it starts to become a habit maybe you are just stupid.  Stupidity is not against the law and maybe you have a good reason to keep moving back, but stupidity shouldn’t receive government subsidies. 

The U.S has a lot of land.  We are not like Holland.  We don’t need to build billion dollar levees to protect hundred dollar real estate, nor should we sacrifice nature to our hubris.   We should help our fellow citizens in such situations, but we should help them move to higher ground.

There is an old joke about a preacher and a flood.   During a big flood, a preacher was trapped on the roof of his church.    A boat came by.   They said, “Reverend, get in.  It is still raining in the hills and the whole town will be covered.”  The preacher said, “I trust in the Lord.  He will save me.”  A second boat comes and it is the same.   Then comes a third boat.  The guy in the third boat tells the preacher, “Listen, this is the last boat.  Everybody else is out.  It is still raining.  Get in!”   The preacher just responds, “I trust the Lord.  He will save me.”    The last boat leaves.  Finally the preacher is up to his neck in water.   He looks toward heaven and says, “I trusted you to save me.  Why have you forsaken me?”   The Lord answers, “I sent three boats; why didn’t you get into one of them?”

Victims cannot always dictate the terms of their salvation.   Sometimes there are more important considerations. 

August 29, 2009

Twenty-Seven Years

Our wedding party in 1982 - Above is our wedding party.  Chrissy and I are the ones in the middle.  Chrissy's sister Lisa and friend Jill Snugerud.  The little girl is Jill Johnson, Chrissy's niece.   On my side is my friends John Erickson and Tariq Panwar.   

Today is our anniversary.   I am not going to share emotional things on the blog, but rather just the memory.  Chrissy & I have built a life and a family.  It began twenty-seven years ago.   I could not have guessed how lucky we would be.   

Things were not looking so good in 1982.  I had just found out that I couldn’t get into the Air Force because of a misdiagnosed ulcer when I was fifteen.  In theory, I was still chronically sick, ironic since I was one of the fittest people I knew back then.  I had not taken the FS test that would end up getting me the job I have now. It would be two years before I got my MBA.  Unemployment was over 10%.   I was working for “flexi-force” sometimes. Chrissy had a part time job at First Wisconsin bank, which was a small ray of lights, but we had no assets, no prospects and a negative net worth.

We couldn’t afford much for the wedding.  Chrissy wore her mother’s dress.  I wore my best (only) suit.   Chrissy’s mother and grandmother did most of the planning.   Chrissy was very generous – and wise – to  let it be.   (All those silly ideas that the bride should get all the indulgences she wants just creates lots of Chrissy and her father at the wedding in 1982heartache and makes even nice women into those bridezillas they show on TV.)  

We got married in Holmen Lutheran Church with Pastor Evavold doing the ceremony.  A local singer called Walton Ofstedahl sang for the ceremony. He was an old farmer with a really good voice.   The thing that made it special, however, was how much he loved to sing.  We had the reception at the Moe Coulee game farm. Chrissy’s father knew the guy who owed it.  Actually, that was a great place to have a reception.  It was not just a wilderness.  They had a nice cabin with a pretty pond and picnic area and you could watch the animals wandering around.  Chrissy’s relatives and her family’s friends and neighbors brought things - including the red jello - and helped make the reception very satisfying.  It was sort of thing you might expect Garrison Keillor to talk about on the news from Lake Woebegone.  Of course, before we headed off, Chrissy and I had to pitch in to put away chairs and tables and that also made the experience memorable.

Our honeymoon was at Chrissy’s parent’s farm in Holmen, Wisconsin. They cleared out for a couple days and left the place to us.  These days you might call it "agro-tourism." We just liked it because it was free.  I remember the cows mooing waking me up in the pre-dawn twilight.  The Johnsons had switched from dairy to beef cows a couple years before, so we didn’t have to milk them and there were no other urgent chores.  Today we would say they were "free range" cows, but back then it was just that cows hung around in the fields and ate grass during the summer. You really didn't have to do much except move them around to different fields in rotation.  That's about all I knew (or know) about that.

Since the cows eat grass and there seemed to be a lot of grass, I guessed that once in the proper pasture they would just look bucolic and take care of themselves, but they evidently like their special hay for breakfast.  Chrissy informed me that they don't actually eat grass, or at least that is not their preferred food.  They like alfalfa.  Cows are more complicated than I thought. Anyway, they complain loudly when they don't get what they want, so at dawn we had to toss a few bales of whatever Chrissy's father prepared for them over the fence. The first morning I learned that hay bales don’t fly as far as you think they would when you throw them off the truck.  One landed on the barbwire fence and broke it.  Cows aren’t ferocious or eager to escape and they didn’t try to stampede out through the newly created opening, but we had to fix the fence before they aimlessly wandered off.

It is true that anyplace is great when you are with someone you love and things started to improve for us soon after.  We were lucky starting off  behind the eight ball.  You can take more satisfaction in how far you have come, but more importantly you have a lot less fear of failure after you have experienced it. I know that I could live off peanut butter, sauerkraut and potatoes (I still really like those things) if I had to and hard times really aren't so bad if you have a good partner, family and friends.  Besides, it is good to get that failure vaccination when you are young and resilient.

Twenty-seven years is half my total life.   We can probably do at least twenty-seven more.

August 28, 2009

So Sad

I took Espen to his new dorm today. It was an easy move. He didn’t take much with him.  I have been bragging that when I went to college I had to hitchhike up and could have only what I could carry in my duffle bag.  I think that helped make him want to show his own capacity for simplicity.  Anyway, he is not very far from home, so he can come back and forth.  The dorms are simple, cinderblock.  The kids share toilets and showers. Small rooms are good because they don't hold as much stuff.   Kids today have too much stuff. 

Espen at his new dorm room at George Mason 

Espen actually could commute to school, but we think it is useful for him to be immersed in the college environment.   The place is very young and lively, with gyms and basketball courts nearby.   He will be studying computer engineering, which is tough program, so I figure it will not be all fun … but I hope he will have some.   College is a magical time and I want that for him but I will miss him.

I was reminded of the void his absence will create when I stopped at the grocery store on the way home.   I will have to buy less food and it made me sad to think that I would now not need to buy some of his favorite foods.  We had a little ritual putting the food away. I would toss it to him and he would put it where it belonged (or not).    We started doing it when he was little and not really a very good catch.  As he got older, he often complained that I made him do it and said it was silly, but he did it.  The tossing was one part of the game and the complaining was another.   Little things, but important.

Espen in the hall of his dorm 

I still have Alex for a couple more months, but he will be leaving and going to James Madison University this spring.   Alex was unenthusiastic about education when he graduated from HS and I think we made a wise decision to give him the space to make his own decision.  Soon he decided to go to Nova, where he started to study and his grades got better and better.   He will be a junior next year when he starts at JMU, so he is essentially on the track I would have wished /planned for him, but he made his own decisions and along the way saved me a lot of money.  Nova tuition is only about 1/3 as much and Alex lived at home.  But he  deserves the college experience too.  JMU is in Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley.  It has a good reputation and the kids who go there all seem to love it.  I think it is great that he will be going, but I will miss him.

There is an ironic imbalance in the parent-child relationship. When they are little, they follow you around and you have to watch them all the time.   You look forward to when your time will again be your own, when you can read when you want, eat where you want (i.e. not only Happy Meal providers), and watch the television programs you want.   Then they transition and by the time you have the freedom you think you wanted, it is not as sweet as you thought. I have been enjoying my time with the kids and I will enjoy the visits with them, but the time is passed when we are really together. So sad.

August 27, 2009

Nobody Works Harder than Loggers

Trimbing limbs at loblolly harvest 

Logging is a tough job.   Forests usually to grow in inconvenient locations, often at the ends of long dirt roads, so loggers have to travel long bumpy distances just to get to their jobs, which means waking up early and getting home late. I got to look at a day of their work, which I wrote about yesterday.   Here are a few more pictures along with some narrative.

Below is the inside of the cab of the buncher.  Is is not quite as armored as an MRAP, but as I said, yesterday, it is reinforced so that almost nothing in the woods could break through to the operator. I think the glass actually is bulletproof.  It has a break, but no gas pedal.  Once it starts, it keeps going unless you stop it (or I suppose it runs out of gas).

View from inside buncher  

Like anybody who works outside, the weather is important to loggers.   Modern machines can work under a variety of conditions, but rain and mud make the job a lot harder.

Alex & Espen by the big tire 

Larry’s team is paid by for production, so the quicker they are the more they make.   Individuals get a percentage of the take, depending on the job they do.   Since all the jobs depend on the others, it doesn’t make sense to create independent incentives.   It is important to move fast for the individual earnings, but also because of the high cost of the machines.   You don’t want to leave a million dollars’ worth of machines standing idle.

It is hard to find qualified workers to run the machines.  It used to be that there were lots of men on the job and some of them would learn to use the machines from the others, but young people are less interested in taking up this work.  Larry said that his firm may have to start a more formal training program.  

This is true of many jobs that require actual work.  I recall when a guy came to fix my furnace in New Hampshire back in 2004.  It was hard to get him to come.  You had to make an appointment well in advance.  He told me that he had too much work and had been trying w/o success to get an apprentice to help him.  The guy said was looking for a young person with no particular experience, but with a good work ethic and that the apprentice could expect to make around $80K a year within a few years.   You would think he would have no shortage of applicants.  Maybe the bad economy will help encourage them.  

Giant toothpick cleans bulldozer  

Each work site has its own fix-it truck, full of replacement parts and tools to fix whatever can go wrong with the equipment.   Nevertheless, sometimes the right tool is just a simple log.  Look at the pictures above and below.   A root got stuck in the track of the bulldozer and the giant steel hand was using a log like a giant toothpick to get it loose.

Cleaning the track 

Forest Thinning with Really Big Machines

Alex in forestry machine 

Above is Alex in one of the big forestry machines

Larry Walker has been working forestry in Virginia for more than thirty years.   I was grateful that he took the time to show me some ongoing forestry operations and explain some of the basics. 

Thinning loblolly pine in Virginia on August 26, 2009Forestry in Virginia is very different today than it was even ten years ago.   Much of it has to do with mechanization.   Some of the big machines cost around a quarter a million dollars but they do the job of dozens of workers and they make forestry a much safer occupation.  The machine just grabs the trees and cuts them in seconds.  Chain saws are gone. Good thing too.

Cutting with chain saws is just plain hazardous. The saw itself is dangerous and so is the falling log as well as all the branches up top.   They used to call heavy dead branches “widow-makers.” Modern machines eliminate all of this.  The operator sits in a reinforced cab.   If a tree falls on top of the cab, the tree breaks.   Larry told me that the machine can tip over and still the cab will not be broken.   The cutting machine can grab and hold six or ten trees at a time and a good operator can clear hundreds of trees in a couple of minutes.Cutting limbs off loblolly pine during harvest in Virginia on August 26, 2009

But the thing that really eliminated the chain saw was the machine that cuts off the limbs.  You can see it above. It takes seconds to pull through a bunch of trees.  Then a automatic saw cuts off the tops.  Later the buncher comes back, takes away the branches and spreads them more or less evenly around the woods. 

Circular saw blade 

We watched a thinning operation.   The trees were seventeen years old, which is a little old for the first thinning, but well within the “usual” time.   Smaller holders are unenthusiastic about thinning right now, since prices are low.   Larger holders, like the TIMO (timber investment managment organization, sort of a timber-land mutual fund) whose land we were visiting, thin on schedule no regardless of the market. Above is the cutting saw on the buncher.  Below is a clipper.  It works just as you would guess. The saw is the more effective and modern technology.

Clip saw for harvesting pine 

First the operator makes a row through the trees, taking out all the trees in the row.   Next he selects and cuts out the stunted, deformed or runt trees among the remaining ones.  When they are removed, the other grow significantly faster.  You can see how it works when you look at the tree rings.  The trees grow fast until the crowns close.   They grow fast again after thinning.  Loblolly pines respond well to “release”  i.e. they grow a lot faster when given more light, water and nutrients.   Not all tree species are so adaptive.   

Tree rings on loblolly 

If they are prevented from growing up to potential when young, some remain stunted even after competition is removed.   This adaptable characteristic of the loblolly is one reason it is the most common plantation tree in the South and is planted in faraway places like Brazil, South Africa and Australia.   Loblolly pines continue to grow rapidly until they are around thirty-five or forty.  After that, the rings are tight.   It is easy to estimate the age of a loblolly when they are young and a ten-year-old tree is very different from a fifteen-year-old, but although the trees might live almost 200 years, it is not easy at a glance to tell a forty-year-old tree from a sixty or eighty-year-old-tree.

It takes about ten fifteen or minutes to cut off the branches and load the trucks you see below. 

Triming the load of loblolly pine  

This particular forest has an interesting history.   There was a big forest fire two years ago and strong winds knocked down an electrical wire and then pushed the fire through the woods.   Larry’s firm was hired to do a salvage cut on trees that looked dead.   But there was a lot of rain and they couldn’t get their machines in.   The trees greened out during the waiting time.  It turned out that the fire improved the stand, burning out most of the brush and hardwood completion.

Ferns fill in after a forest fire 

After the fire, the ferns filled in.  I understand that this is fairly common.

August 26, 2009

Light and Shadow at Arlington Cemetery

Arlington Cemetary gates open at 8am on August 25, 2009 

The boys and I went down to the woods today and saw some thinning operations.  I will write more about that tomorrow.   But when I was loading the pictures from the forestry, I found these above and below from Arlington Cemetery that I took yesterday.  

Gates open at Arlington Cemetary at 8am on August 25, 2009 

They open the gates at 8am, and I took the pictures as I was waiting for them to open on my way to work.   The pictures have an interesting play of light.  I don’t know where it came from, since I didn’t see it when I took the pictures. I would guess it was something on the lens, but you will notice, especially on the lower picture, that it is in back of the truck coming in the gate.

August 25, 2009

Nasty Little Losers

Demotivation posterI watched a rerun of Annie Hall. It has been around long enough that it evidently has become a classic; it was on PBS, so it must be classy. I mostly watched it for old time’s sake and as a kind of thought provoking commentary on a particularly shallow part of human nature. I used to like Woody Allen, but I now find his persona on-screen merely annoying.  

I would credit Woody Allen with creating a hateful character just to call showcase the flaws, but  his on-screen personality is evidently better than his real-life one, so he is just being a better version of himself.  And there are a lot of people like him, so let’s consider the real characters that Woody’s screen character represents. 

In one scene, Woody’s character complains that he cannot be happy as long as he knows that one person on earth is miserable.   He implies that this is somehow noble. Of course it’s just stupid.  But it is worse than stupid in many cases. Here’s why.

I have known many of those guilty types who claim to feel terrible about the world’s suffering. But they very rarely do much about it. IMO, they think that the fact that they feel guilty is a kind of penance that absolves them of the responsibly to do anything proactive. The Woody Allen character is a horrible human being, for example. He is selfish, unreliable, dishonest, weak and just a general shithead. He causes suffering in the people around him. BUT he says the politically correct things and he feels bad about the state of the world. This, in his opinion, buys him an indulgence. 

We sometimes mistake such attitudes as intellectual.   Of course, we have to recognize that intellectual does not equal intelligent, at least in the current conception. An interesting definition of a modern intellectual is that he loves all mankind, but cannot think of too many individual people he likes.  This is the Woody Allen character and unfortunately there are more. 

I wonder why I ever found this funny. I don't object to the sharp, cynical or even nasty humor. It is just that the wimpy perpetual victim is not funny or attractive. I guess I can make the excuse that I was a lot younger and less experienced. That kind of pseudo-wisdom appeals to the pseudo-educated and that was me back when Annie Hall came out. IMO, you have to pass through that stage, where you are a little selfish and cynical AND you think the rest of the world is that way too. If you are lucky, it passes quickly, although some, like Woody Allen himself, seem never to recover. It is sad really.

If everybody likes you, you are probably a kiss-ass w/o a strong personality or values. On the other hand, if nobody likes you, you are probably an asshole. It is unlikely that you are that seriously  misunderstood. It is not nice to "blame the victim" but sometimes the victim is to blame and some people are not only unhappy themselves, but they inspire unhappiness in others.  No good can come from being around them.  And since you probably already know how to be unhappy, you cannot learn much from them. Well ... I suppose you can learn by negative example, and maybe I should thank Woody Allen for showing me things I would never want to be.

August 24, 2009

Sustainable Health &Fitness

John Matel and his bike on August 24, 2009Alex was making fun of my workout.   He said that I didn’t work out that long, I went too fast and my form was not good. He is right.   But I explained to him that he was missing the point.  My workout is SUSTAINABLE. I have been consistently working out w/o significant breaks since I was in 7th grade that is more than forty years.  So I figure have the right to pontificate about these things.

My weight workout consists of only eleven exercises three times a week.  I use the machines at Gold’s Gym and I can do the whole thing in less than ten minutes if nobody gets in my way. Of course, somebody usually does get in the way. Some people have the obnoxious habit or resting while sitting on the machines, but that is a subject for another post. 

The exercises are balanced to let one set of muscles rest while the others work.  I don’t know what the exercises are really called, so I will just name them what I think they are.  In order they are curls on the isolation pad, complete pull down to knees, sitting bench press, sitting rowing, flies, wing pull downs, inclined bench press, pull downs, bench press, dumbbell curls, military press.  Moderation in all things is important, so I don’t push the weights up too high.  My highest weight is the bench press where I use 240lbs. I have learned NOT to push too hard or add too much. 

I think warm up and stretching are overrated. I get warm up enough riding my bike over to the gym.   I also think hydration is overrated.  I never bother to drink during workouts, even when I run or ride my bike and am out for hours.  There is time enough to drink before and after. I drink from bubblers if I find one, but otherwise I go with Coke Zero.   I sometimes put ice in the glass. I also like to eat watermelon or pineapple when I am thirsty.  And I think water is overrated.   I spent a year in Iraq hydrating with Coca-Cola, BTW.  I don’t say everybody should follow my idiosyncratic habits, but it works for me.

I have been running regularly since 1973.  I started out of necessity. I used to like to be in the woods, but the woods near Stevens Point, Wisconsin (where I was an undergraduate) were so full of mosquitoes that I had to move at a trot to avoid being eaten alive. But it wasn’t really running for workout until 1978.  That was about the time they invented decent running shoes. I had some “waffle stompers” and used to run along the lake trails in Madison or through Warnimont and Grant Parks along Lake Michigan. 

My system for running is actually time, not distance based. You have to run at least twenty minutes to get a decent workout.   When I go to a new place, I run out for twenty minutes.   Usually I walk back, which is good exercise in itself.    Now I have several variations of the run. My favorite local runs are around the Mall in DC.   But I have run in some great places. In Norway, there was a run through a place called Bygdoy. It was a mix of forest and nice farm fields with crops and good looking cattle.  The King of Norway owned the farm.   He evidently didn’t need to make a profit, so it was beautifully maintained in a traditional form.   In Poland, I used to run in Las Wolski, among some of the most magnificent beech forests I have ever seen.  As I have written on several occasions, running is more than exercise, but it IS good exercise. 

I think it is nearly impossible to be truly fit w/o running, but I bet I log more total aerobic hours on my bike.   I ride for transportation and I almost never ride just for pleasure.   But it is a pleasure to ride.   My ride to work is seventeen miles, or it was to SA 44. It is around 15 minutes less to my new office, but I still have to ride to the old SA 44 Metro stop.  I just have to finish the ride after work. I am allowed bring my bike on the Metro after 7pm, but it is way too crowded by the time it gets to Foggy Bottom.  Oh yeah, I have compromised on the riding both ways.

BTW – You see the picture of my bike and me at the top.  Notice that I don’t have those silly lycra tight shorts.  Below are storm clouds gathering over the Potomac, seen from my office window.

Storm clouds over the Potomac on August 21, 2009 

I ride to work in the morning, when it is relatively cool, but I take the Metro home.  I think this actually means I ride MORE total miles because I do it almost every day and it extends the biking season.  I don’t like to ride in the dark or the twilight.  I work until 6pm or later and it takes around 1:20 to get home, so that means that if I need to ride home my biking season doesn’t start until April and is over in early September. The one-way trip buys at least another month on both sides of the season. I also admit that I am lazy about the ride home.  I used to do both ways, but I more often found good reasons not to use the bike.  I also used to get caught in afternoon thunder showers a lot.  Now I know if it is not raining when I take off in the morning, I am probably okay.  Besides, it is mostly up hill on the way home and often against the wind.  The Metro is a good choice.

I could ramble forever, so let me get to the bottom line. Every good exercise program must include both strength and aerobic training.   To be sustainable, it must be integrated into daily life and cannot be so hard that you will avoid doing it. That means that you sometimes have to compromise.  Sometimes it is good enough.   It is great to pursue excellence, but most of those people fall off the edge before they reach middle age.  It is also good to have something you can do cheaply and by yourself. It is hard to find any activity that is less expensive than running or walking.   You have to buy a new pair of shoes maybe once a year.   Biking is also cheap. I bought my bike in 1997 for around $700.   I have replaced a few tires and tubes and I had to replace a sprocket once. I expect to have the thing for several more years, so I figure it costs less than $100 a year.  If I figure in the gas and Metro fare saved, I bet I actually made money. 

The caption on one of my old running poster says it all about exercise in general, “the victory is not always to the swiftest or the contest to the strongest.  The winner is the one who keeps running.” 

August 23, 2009

Big Mac Index

Big Mac IndexWe are always trying to measure things and make comparisons.  Our measurements should be accurate but more important is that they are useful.  Sometimes we study things for the fun of it, but that is a luxury.   For practical professional business we should not bother to do research unless we can and are willing to use the resulting information to change our behaviors.

It is often true that large organizations do research that they don’t use. Sometimes it is because what it measures is just too big or impossible to influence.  We often prefer to be involved with the big things rather than those we can really do something about. Beyond that, something consultants would prefer not become generally accepted is that Some of the most useful research is really simple and often free.

The Economist publishes a “Big Mac Index”.     The idea is that Big Macs are sold similar all over the world and available pretty much worldwide.    It is not scientific but it is useful.  You can guess about how much it will cost you to visit the city and how much local currencies are overvalued or undervalued in relation to the U.S.

Now they have a variation. Instead of the cost, it shows how many minutes an average worker has to work to afford the big Mac in his city. It turns some of the relationships around.   America is the cheapest in terms of time spent to earn the Big Mac because Americans are well paid in relation to what they buy.  It takes an average American just over ten minutes to earn enough to buy a Big Mac.  Interestingly, Tokyo is second cheapest.  Everybody knows that things are really expensive in Japan, but the Japanese make a lot of money and Big Macs are relatively cheap.   

Take a look at the article.   You get a different idea when you just look at how much the Big Mac costs.  See the article about that here.

The whole idea of the Big Mac Index is based on purchasing power parity.   For those unfamiliar with the concept, it measures how much you can actually buy with a particular currency.    Supposedly, you should be able to buy the same things in each currency with the equivalent amount in another.   If 1 Euro = 1.40 dollars, in theory you should be able to buy $1.40 worth of stuff for one Euro.  In fact you cannot, which indicates that the Euro is overvalued compared to the dollar.    That is why it is expensive to travel in Europe and it explains why the Brits can usually save money (when you consider hotels, food etc) flying to Disney World in Orlando instead of crossing the much shorter distance to go to Euro Disney.

We created a “Banana Index” in Iraq, inspired by the Big Mac Index.  It was meant as a measure of security and progress rather than currency values, but it also had the virtues of being simple, inexpensive and useful.   I wrote a post about that and other forms of measurement we used.  

August 21, 2009

Ignorant and/or Stupid About the Facts

The health care debate has spawned an unusually large number of articles saying that they are “fact checking” or clearing up “myths.”  Reasonable people will come to similar reasonable conclusions if they have similar facts.   And you can take so much smug pleasure in trumping (thumping?) an opponent with THE facts. It leaves him speechless. Not anymore.  Facts just aren’t what they used to be.

The concept of “fact” is closely tied to having a recognized arbitrating authority. James Burke made an interesting BBC program about this concept and way back in 1985 and anticipated the problem we would have as the concept of fact dissipated.   Extrapolating from what he said, shareable facts were possible only with the widespread introduction of printing.   Before that you had to rely on personal knowledge, faith and a lot of interpretation, since hand copied books were full of mistakes and oral history changes with the needs of the circumstances.  Most people didn’t know very much and much of what they knew beyond their personal experience was superstition, hear-say or legend.  They weren’t stupid.  It is just that w/o the kinds of recording tools we use today it was simply impossible for them to master a lot of information beyond what they could see, hear, feel AND remember personally.

I grew up in an age of fact.  The early 1960s in the U.S. might well have been humanities apex at the rational/science/fact culture.  We had faith in science and the certainty it could and would provide, if not today or tomorrow, soon.  We had reference books that could prove the facts and scientists who continually stuffed more facts into them.    I have written about this subject before, so I am going over some of the same ground.  Look at the previous post if you want, but indulge me in this one.  

The bottom line is that facts are not the same as truth and the truthfulness of a fact depends almost entirely on context of reference.   This is provided by the social and cultural environment.  Back when I was a kid, almost every reasonably educated person shared a reasonably common context.    We used the same reference books, read the same newspapers and watched the same things on television.   This context is weakened.   On the other hand, the power of opinion is vastly strengthened by the proliferation of cable TV, Internet sites and just by the vast numbers of experts talking and writing about everything.   We are back in the world of interpretations.   We still long for the certainty that we can no longer achieve and we still try to trump (or thump) each other with our facts, w/o comprehending that they no longer are THE facts.  

I started with the health care debate because it is current, emotionally charged and an excellent case study of the matters of fact and interpretation.  The health care debate is mostly about interpretation because there currently is no bill to debate.  The tentative proposals are subject to interpretation and they are fluid, which is even more problematic. There is a lot of space to read between the lines and to add or subtract whole paragraphs.  But it seems like it should be a matter of fact, since there is so much written and discussed. 

But the would-be fact checkers are deluding themselves if they think they can trump debate with their interpretation, which they call fact. The details of the health care bill are not only unknown, they are also currently unknowable because they have yet to be hammered out.   Even in the world of certainty, something needs to have happened before it can have a fact associated with it.     It cannot be a fact that John Smith landed on Mars on April 1, 2020 and it cannot be a fact what is included or not in the health care bill. Neither has yet happened. That is WHY we have a debate.

We need an honest debate to lay out the parameters of what we want and what we find unacceptable. Let's not try to shut it down too soon. This is a big deal and everything should be on the table. I wish everybody would stop saying that the other side is ignorant, depraved, greedy or stupid.   In fact, we are ALL currently ignorant on the subject, since the details are not yet manifest. Put in health care terms, ignorance is a treatable condition.  Presumably we are not all stupid, which you really cannot cure.   

August 20, 2009

Sh*t Happens Provoking the Wrath of Khan

Reagan National Airport looking out the window toward the Potomac 

A famous Bollywood actor, a Mr. Khan, was stopped at an American airport for that extra search.   He claims it is because he has a Muslim name.   Read this absurd article and look at some of the comments.   If it doesn’t annoy you, you might indeed be deluded yourself.

Khan and I have some things in common.  I got that extra search at airports several times, so did Mariza and Espen (when he was only 12).  If airports are profiling, I am not sure why I come up so often.  Maybe it is my Midwestern accent or my blue eyes.  I suspect it is my baldness.  Bald men suffer terrible discrimination. I still cannot explain Espen or Mariza, however.

This whole profiling thing at airports is BS.  Airport personnel are extraordinarily careful NOT to do it.  In fact, they go too far, IMO, searching grandmothers in wheelchairs at the same rate they search healthy young men.  Yes, granny COULD be a bad one.  But you have to go with the probabilities. 

Speaking of probabilities, nobody has ever been able to show a statistical probability of being searched at an airport  based solely on race or ethnicity.  There are lots of suppositions and innuendo but no facts.  Of course, there are other factors that sometimes correlate, but as we all learn in Statistics 101, correlation is not causality.   In my case I think I was "profiled" because I traveled several times to particular areas of the world and I was often traveling on one-way tickets.   These things are uncommon enough to raise a little suspicion.  But who knows?

It is more likely that simple random chance is the cause.  Random chance will NOT spread out evenly.  In fact, if you find perfectly even results, you can be sure that random chance is NOT involved.  It is counter intuitive but true. 

If airport security stops me, two Irish students, a couple from Milwaukee returning from Polish-fest and Khan, who do you think is being “profiled”.  If you answered “none of the above” you are correct.   But will any journalists reporting on this know or care?   Indeed, it will look wrong.   But sometimes we have to accept looking wrong when doing the right thing. 

Consider the amusing case of Bob Dylan.  He evidently is a complete unknown to many in the younger generation and somebody called the cops because he seemed suspicious as he walked around a residential neighborhood.  Was he profiled? I suppose he was based on his behavior.   The reports didn't mention any other sort of profiling because it wouldn't make sense, so we just pass it off.  It doesn't make any more sense to claim profiling at the airport.

We are not energetic  enough in defending ourselves against these accusations. There, IMO, are three big reasons.  

Most serious is that we don’t want to “look wrong” or seem intolerant, so we accept a hypersensitivity to perceived slights as natural.  We preemptively apologize and feel guilty for the operation of random chance.

The second is related to privacy rules. Government offices often CANNOT defend themselves because their accusers have privacy rights. I remember the frustration of trying to explain denied visa cases.  As a press attaché I would get calls from journalists saying that someone had been treated unfairly at the Embassy and what was my comment.  Even if I knew the particular circumstance, the person was lying or there was a really good reason why he/she didn’t get a visa, all I could do was quote the general rules.  His privacy rights protected his dishonesty and our “no comment” was seen as an admission of guilt.  

But the biggest reason we don’t properly defend ourselves is a simple misunderstanding of random chance coupled with a human tendency at infer patterns even where they don’t exist.  Kids play the game of looking for faces or animal figures in clouds.  Seaching for patterns is hardwired into our thinking. If I randomly choose ten people, each will come up with a reason – good or bad – why he/she was “singled out.”   And he/she will believe it, but it won’t be true.   

The “shit happens” argument is often valid, but never sounds very convincing. The fictional pattern is usually more interesting.  More nefarious in our litigious society if you can impose a pattern, you might be able to hit the jackpot with some kind of payout. 

Profiling makes for a good story. It sells newspapers and books. It provides publicity for upcoming movies.   It allows people to at once pose as victims and vindicators as they “stick it to the man.”   Sometimes it is even true, but more often there are better but boring explanations.

Bigotry and Racism

As long as I am ranting about these things, let me just give another example. This is from a story in the NYT.  I have put in a blank space to give you a chance to picture the kind of person who would make such a comment.  Tell me if you think that is racist before you look at the article.  If you heard a neighbor disparaging an ethnic or national group in those terms, what would you call it? Would such a blanket condemnation of a whole group ever be justified?  

"You should know that we hate all ____. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you."

August 19, 2009

Hateful Weirdoes at the Cemetery Gates

I have never before encountered anything like it.   As I rode my bike out of Arlington, I noticed about fifty cops and a dozen protestors.  One protestor carried a sign that said, “God Bless IEDs.”  I couldn’t believe that she knew what IED were, so I stopped to ask her. She said something about an IED being a blessed device that killed soldiers.  When I told her that I had been in Iraq and people I knew had been killed or maimed by IEDs, she told me that was a good thing and that I must be a coward for coming home alive. It was an almost instant escalation with all the weirdoes yelling at me, calling me names and screaming that I was going against God’s plan. They didn't specify how.  

When I asked what kind of horrible and vengeful god they worshipped, since I didn’t recognize the one they were talking about, they really went wild and threatened that he would strike me down. I noticed that they had started to tape the meeting (I may appear on the “Nutcase News tonight). 

I figured that they wanted a show, so I gave them one.  Doing my best channeling of Charlton Heston I theatrically spread my arms and challenged their false god to strike me down. I mentioned as a side comment that the true believers might want to stand back so as not to be collateral damage from the expected lightning bolt.  This didn’t amuse them very much.   They told me I was an “arrogant bastard” and that their god would indeed strike me down, only later. I guess he has been busy or just really lethargic, since he has not got around to me yet.  

I didn’t learn who these people were. They showed no desire to explain anything to anybody and fomenting hatred seemed to be their only goal. It worked.  I hate them and I know why there were so many cops around. Lacking the protection of the authorities, my guess is that these clowns - advocating the violent death of American military personnel while standing at the gates of Arlington Cemetery - would quickly get a beat down by decent folks.  I was sorely tempted to toss the first stone myself, but they probably would have enjoyed that too much. 

I am not a religious scholar but I am reasonably sure that if you go to hell, these are some of the people you will meet down there. It is amazing and frightening that such people exist.  I have seen lots of “peaceful” protestors, but never such that could be so appropriately labeled evil.   Maybe there still is some need for this striking down thing.   If I notice a thunderstorm forming over the Potomac I will assume their time of reckoning has arrived.

August 18, 2009

The People - United - Will Often be Shortsighted

Protest in Frankfurt Sept 2008

I got a taste of direct democracy when we lived in New Hampshire. Our little community still used septic tanks, which required regular maintenance and were leaking sewage into local waterways.  It made sense to connect them up to a larger municipal line.  After about five years, the change would pay for itself and after that it would yield consistent cost savings. 

The problem was the five-year payoff.  Some of the older or more mobile residents figured that they would not be around long enough to reap the benefits, which were far in the future but knew that they would be stuck with the upfront costs of the investments today.   So you get the picture right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.  Old Mr. Parker, wearing his simple red plaid shirt, stands up in the town hall meeting to oppose the plan.  Nobody wants to be rude to the old guy and – besides - he is right.  Very likely HIS costs will outweigh HIS benefits.  

The fact is that reaching consensus on many hot issues is almost impossible. That is why they are hot issues.  The frustrating part is that everybody is right from his own perspective. There are no villains. People have figured it out right.

We see this in all large scale reforms and many small ones.   The most recent big examples were the aborted attempts to reform Social Security a few years ago and the probably truncated health care proposals we see today. The dynamics of the situations and even many of the participants (many now opposing health care reform opposed SS reform) are the same.  In both cases, opponents had correctly figured out that the changes would probably leave them net losers. Everybody saw the need to reform in general but everyone could also find places they would suffer in the details of any real world proposal. 

We don’t think rationally about gains and losses.  A loss generally causes a lot more pain than the pleasure we get from a similar gain.  That is why most people would act quicker to avoid the loss of $100 than they would to take advantage of the opportunity to gain it.   From the accounting standpoint, the two are identical. In both cases the subject has $100 less than they would have.  But it sure doesn’t seem the same.   Researchers have consistently shown this happens even in very serious situations and even the semantics makes a difference. People are much more likely to accept the need for an operation that has a 95% success rate than they are one that has 5% failure.   This aspect of human nature plays into every debate about political changes.  It is always powerful and it is always irrational.

Frankly I don’t think it is possible to make sweeping changes that are at the same time effective and popular, which is why Social Security reform failed and why health care will probably not achieve its objectives. Unfortunately, I think the same goes for climate change. Current benefits must be perceived to be significantly higher than costs, especially costs in the future or the logical choice is stand pat.   It might also make sense just to be caution. 

When you think about it, most change is potentially harmful. I can think of very few changes that would make me immediately much healthier, for example, but lots of things could happen to make me worse off.

That is why I think you have to go with incremental, imperfect and differential change.  Change a few key things at a time and see how they evolve.   It is a kind of iterative change where you learn from each step and then incorporate the learning into your next move. It takes a longer time and it is not as exciting.  Probably most problematic is that it is hard for any politician to get credit.  But it tends to work better.

It is really hard to get all the people, or even most of them, to do the right thing all at once.  All serious change starts with a small group of innovators and then spreads more widely. The people – united – will often be shortsighted.  (BTW, you have to chant that like the old student protestors used to)  But they are pretty good at making good individual decisions about what really matters to them and these add up to a lot.  Maybe they are right to resist the big changes.  A variety of ideas is better than one big one.

August 17, 2009

Odds & Ends and a New Office

My New Office

My new office 

We made the move.  I am in my new office now.  It is smaller than my former office but much better because it has windows that have decent views.   Although construction of the new American Institute of Peace blocks my direct view, over my shoulder is the Memorial Bridge and the Potomac, as you can see in the picture above. 

The building is in a less convenient location than old SA 44, but I figure I will adapt. It has what I need, i.e. natural sunlight, showers & a refrigerator for my Coke Zero.

Below is the construction crane across the street.  Notice the airplane.  This is on the flight path, but we don't get much noise. 

Construction on U.S. Inst of Peace 

I have a few odds and ends postings. 

Ponderosa  Pine Smell

NPR had a good article about ponderosa pine.   Listen to it at this link.   I wrote an article a while back about the smell of ponderosa pines, among other things.  I didn’t know it was such an issue.  Everybody agrees that the smell is distinctive.

Chrissy and I are going out the Arizona in November and we can spend some time in the pines in the mountains there.

Primitive Climate Change

The Economist has an article about how early human agriculture set off the first round of human influenced  global warming.   Good thing too.   W/o that shot of CO2 and methane back around 7000 years ago we may have slipped back into the ice age.   I read about this a while back, how early agriculture may have diverted the return to ice age conditions, but there is evidently now even more evidence for it.   

Our early ancestors were small in numbers and primitive in technology, but they could be very active.  Because agriculture was so much less efficient back then, they had to slash and burn a lot of land to support their small bands and all that slashing and burning put lot of greenhouse gas in the air.  Soon after, they took up rice patty farming in some parts of the world, which is a big producer of methane, a more potent gas than CO2. 

August 13, 2009

Spare Change

Business is down for the guy looking for spare change outside the CVS Pharmacy.   He has been there a long time and people are used to him, so I don’t think it is because people have become less generous or less tolerant.   I think the new self-service check-out stations are to blame.  

It used to be that I went in to buy a coke or some potato chips and came out with a pocketful of change and it was almost natural just to dump it into his cup.   When I use the self-service stations, I always use my credit card.  It is just easier and faster, so very often I literally do not have any change, “spare” or otherwise.   Most stores and restaurants now make it easier to pay by card than with cash.   This works out well for me, since I get one monthly bill, but it is hard on the spare change guys.   They may soon have to find another profession … or start taking credit cards. 

It is funny how little changes in habits and technologies can have knock off effects you just don’t expect.   Since I am on the subject of the spare change guys, I think there is an interesting connection between them and containerization.  Let me explain. 

Medusa Cement, where I worked as a young man, was “served” by the longshoreman’s union.  I guess because we were on The Kinnikinnick River and near the Port of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan.   My father was a long-time member and a lot of the people I knew in my work life at that time worked on docks, drove trucks or bashed metal.   They were good, hard-working guys who gave a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. 

The easiest job was the "fireman" on the trains.  As I understood it, they used to need a fireman to shovel in coal.  When the railroad converted to diesel engines, firemen were no longer needed.  But they had a strong union and so they stayed on the job.  

Most of the jobs didn’t require much in the way of thinking, which was a good thing for some of our colleagues.  Many were smart, but with levels of education you just don't see much anymore.  One my father's friends was called “Sitzinone.”  That wasn’t his real name.   It came from the way he would say “that is six and one” when shooting craps.  (Seven is the key to success in that game and shooting craps was a big deal.)  He evidently could not count beyond seven but didn't need to.  He recognized the patterns on the dice and had an intuitive understanding of the odds. Another of my co-workers, Lester, couldn’t read, but he had a great memory and could usually recognize also patterns on work orders. He drove the folk lift and loaded trucks by following familiar patterns. It worked most of the time.  

Then there was Tom, who worked the twelve-hour shifts and then went off to deliver pizza for a place called Pepi’s on Mitchell Street. Tom didn’t wash much and never brushed his teeth.  He bragged that he hadn't bushed his teeth since he was discharged from the army after the Korean war. I doubted him, but he smiled broadly and convinced me.  I used to like Pepi’s pizza, but stopped eating it after I got to know Tom.

They used to say that work was the curse of the drinking class and unfortunately many  preferred to consume their daily bread, potatoes and rye in liquid form.   It was easy to slip down that road to perdition.  The bars near the factories opened at 6am for the early liquid breakfast.  (I used to go to a place called the Nautical Inn for lunch.  They had good greasy hamburgers and I would usually get a couple of beers to cut the dust of the afternoon shift.  I had to stop doing it when I got to like it too much.)

Nobody works harder than a drunk sweating off a bender and as long as it was possible to get good paying episodic work these guys could be productive, even admirable members of society. This changed with containerized cargoes and general automation.   

Not only did containerized cargo cut the total unskilled workforce, it also required the remaining workers to be more reliable. Since they operated heavy machines, also excluded were the hard-working boozers, who tended to shake a little too much, not a good thing when running a crane with containers hanging off. 

This change coincided with closing of the flop houses.  If you watch old movies or old “Twilight Zone” episodes, you see guys living in dumpy one-room apartments.  Many of them were not up to code, but they were cheap and could be rented on short-term basis.  In the 1960s, they began to urban “renew” these kinds of places out of existence. These dumps had few champions, but they had provided cheap housing.  When they were gone, some people were left w/o a place to gJohn Matel in front of Medusa Cemento.

So unskilled episodic jobs disappeared at about the same time the cheap, if substandard, housing was improved out of existence.   Worse yet, the economy started to decline after 1972 and the damage caused by the upheavals and social experiments of the 1960s started to become apparent. Things fell apart.

Anyway, little seemingly unrelated changes and decisions can have big unintended consequences. Above is me in front of the cement company where I used to work.

August 12, 2009

Anti-Isms & Bogus Assumptions

We fret a lot about anti-Americanism in my business.  And we watch every up and down blip in America’s image abroad.   But I have suffered a crisis of faith.  I no longer have faith that the GENERAL attitude U.S.  really matters very much and my years of weighing every permutation were as useful as charting waves on the surface of a lake.  I don’t believe the measures of the attitudes measure real attitudes, since they bounce around so widely and I don’t see that it translates much into any actual specific behaviors apart from gnashing of teeth and shouting. 

According to recent surveys, our national image was edging up before last year, but now it has surged, but it doesn’t seem to have changed what is happening in a practical sense. No surprise. Most people just do not act out of general beliefs, even if they really know what those beliefs are, itself a questionable assumption.  You also have to understand that people think about us a lot less than we think they do. Let me give you an example about others, which will take away some of the bias we might have from looking at ourselves.  

Let's put the shoes on the other feet.   Take a look at question # 20 and see what Americans think of various foreign countries.   Only 4% view China very favorably, but this is twice as much as the 2% who favor the Russians.   We like the Brits, but even they get only 41% very favorable, although if you add somewhat favorable you top 77% and only 4% are very unfavorable.    A majority of us even like the French (54% very or somewhat favorable).  So what does that mean to these countries?  Would you pay more for a computer made in France or UK (presuming you could find one) than you would for the Chinese-made model?   Would you favor a British over a Chinese job applicant for that reason alone?  I don’t think so.

You would base your judgment NOT on the GENERAL reputation, but rather on the SPECIFIC one you were considering.  Anything else would be ... stupid and bigoted.  Why should we assume that others would be that way toward us that we would find so odious in ourselves?  They say that all politics is local and so it is at least most public affairs.   Of course we know our reputation varies in the countries of the world, but also is variable in within every place, situation and individual based on specific circumstances. 

I remember seeing this paradoxical mix of emotions and reason in Iraq. The people said they wanted the U.S. to leave Iraq right away, but they wanted the Marines specifically guarding their homes to stay essentially forever. I think the wisdom on this is “Be careful what you wish for because you may get it.” That is why general sentiment often does not translate to concrete results.  People sometimes don't say what they believe and/or they question with their intellect what they know in their hearts. And sometimes they really just haven't thought it through.

I thought about all these things when I was reading this article.   We hear that the Chinese are moving money  all over the world and buying love in the developing world with their investments in infrastructure  and public works.   These investments often come with fewer strings attached (i.e. fewer demands for economic or human rights improvements) than similar investments from the U.S. or the EU. This makes the Chinese ostensibly more attractive partners to some sorts of governments and leaders who view democracy and humans rights with less enthusiasm.  We are exhorted to do something about this, although rarely specified is how, what or why.

But how’s it working for them, image wise? And what are the practical ramifications?  That’s hard to say about the image, but what you can do is count is the rising numbers of Chinese being attacked, targeted and even killed in places as disparate as Algeria and Zambia.  Ten years ago in Indonesia as many as 1500 Chinese were killed in race riots.   This stuff happens.  We just don’t read about it very much.   Both the Chinese investors and local authorities have some interests in not making a big deal about it.  Imagine if 1500 Americans were killed in anti-American riots.  It would be a big deal.   I bet we would pay attention and beat ourselves up with questions about “why do they hate us?” 

In places like Indonesia or Malaysia they have a long history of these sorts of ethnic tensions and periodic pogroms, but when you are talking about Algeria or Zambia you wouldn’t guess there were even enough Chinese around to provoke attacks.  Certainly they have not been around long enough to permit the development of deep-seated ethnic or national animosity. 

The evidence is that these troubles resulted from specific, local situations and events that got out of hand, not a general Chinese image problem that stretches from Algeria, through Zambia and Indonesia to Papua New Guinea and beyond. Properly addressing them would mean lots of local responses, none of them exactly the same. Causality regarding a practical overall image would probably run in the direction from the local to the general, not the other way around.   I think the wisdom on this is “watch you pennies and your dollars will look after themselves.”

So my faith in my profession is not gone, but I am zooming down more to ground level, maybe down to the dirt level.  Gone are the beliefs in sweeping transformations.    Sweeping rapid changes are ephemeral and episodic attention is probably pernicious.   What Aristotle said about anger (Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power, that is not easy.) also applies to public affairs.   You have to identify the specific issue and audience at the specific time and in a specific place. 

August 11, 2009

Practical + Theoretical = Useful New Stuff?

Franklin Statue at FSI 

I would like to bring together people for a conference including those who “do” public diplomacy using the new techniques and technologies such as augmented reality, social networking, text mining & mobile together along with those who develop and study those things in order to discuss practical applications.  

We need to discuss which technologies can be best used to deliver public diplomacy messages and that we and the larger public affairs community can use.  Integral to addressing these issues are our organizational and mission imperatives, which directly affect the extent of use and acceptance of new methods.  Not every new technology is useful for our work and not every useful technology can be used by us.

Subject clusters, along with notional times

8:30 – 9:00

Registration & seating

9 – 9:30

Introduction – new technologies and the new public diplomacy.    A discussion of what has worked so far and what is in the works for the next six months and beyond.

9:30-11:45 (with 15 minute break in middle)

The next big ideas - I envision a panel with an expert on each of these things giving a 15 minute explanation.  Following is a discussion among the panelists with questions from the floor.   We would ask what are the next big ideas and whether or not they are useful in public diplomacy. 

·         Augmented realty – what is it?  What does it do?  How might augmented reality augment public diplomacy?

·         Gaming platforms/virtual realities - what are they?  What is our public diplomacy experience in their use so far?   What are some future applications?  Will “holideck” functions come to dominate online collaboration?

·         Social networking systems - what are they?  What is our public diplomacy experience in their use so far?   What are some future applications?

·         “Old” new techniques (blogging, webpages, outreach) -- what are they?  What is our public diplomacy experience in their use so far?   What are some future applications?


Content – how much do messages matter?  Can a content neutral or content free social network long endure?   Is such a network worth cultivating?   How can it be used to further public diplomacy goals?  Where will content come from in a post-MSM world (this one is for the journalist and journalism professors)?  Can user-generated content replace professionally crafted material? 

12:45- 1:30



Putting it together – Panel session format as above

·         Integration/technological models – can one model encompass all/most forms of new technologies?   Can we understand the new technologies w/o an overall model or framework?  How can we determine the appropriate mix to use in various situations?

·         Integration/anthropological models – how do new techniques fit into and alter existing human networks & relationships, both inside and outside organizations?  

·         Integration/information management – can wikis function as information conduits and knowledge generators?  How will dispersed decision making change power structures and priority setting?   Can a series of tactical decisions become strategy?


Where do we go from here?  What is the future of public diplomacy?  Does public diplomacy need to be run by, or mostly run by, governments?  Can public diplomacy function successfully as only one voice among many? 

August 10, 2009

Is Viral Video Marketing Like Retirement Planning Based on Buying Lottery Tickets?

DC Lottery adverts on August 10, 2009 

Marketing firms (and some of us) are trying to crack the viral video code. To the extent there is a solution, it is like buying lottery tickets. You cannot win if you don't play. If you buy a lot of tickets, you increase your chances by a little, but any system for picking the right combination of numbers is just superstition.  And the only way to guarantee a win at the lottery is not to play. 

But people win just enough to keep the suckers piling in the cash.  The winners always have a plausible story to tell.   They often report that they were sure they were going to win that day, or at least they had a feeling.   Many have some kind of lucky number system, some quite complicated.   If you look at a group of lottery winners you can indeed find (or create) patterns among them.    (This is “survivor bias.”   In any kind of random event, somebody is going to win.   It doesn’t mean anything, but people will impose reasons ex-post facto.   The winner may even write a book explaining his system.   People following his precepts will have the same chances the lucky winner had of winning before he won.)

Besides the usually urgent need in need of dental work & gym memberships, most lottery winners are regular players with some sort of system.  Statistically this makes sense.   Regular players buy more tickets so they have a greater chance of winning as a group and most of them develop some sort of system.   But the group odds often don’t make sense when reduced to the individual level.  The odds of winning the big jackpot are so small that the actual difference between a person who buys a thousand tickets and the person who buys only one doesn’t add up to much for any individual.

Anyway, the chances that you can create a video that goes viral are a lot like your chances of winning the lottery.  And the odds will only get worse as more people enter the contest.    Millions of people are trying to crack this code because it would mean millions of dollars to any individual or firm that figured it out. But if they did, others would quickly pile on and pull the odds of success back up to astronomical.   The system is reactive & self-correcting.

It gets worse.  Most successful viral videos are – in a word – dopey.   Let me make a few distinctions.  There are three types of viral videos.   The first results if you happen to be on the spot to get a video of something truly spectacular, such as a plane crash or meteor strike.  The second involves celebrities, who command attention because of their fame.  The video rides on them, not the other way around.   The third type is the miscellaneous or the manufactured, which is the only kind available to non-celebrities who don’t happen to be near a plane crash or meteor strike. 

If you are trying to manufacture the viral part, you increase your odds mostly by doing something silly, humiliating, prurient or shocking.    This is not something most individual or organizations want to do.  It might be better to remain unknown than to be known for your ability to pass gas to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. 

So let’s treat the great viral video quest the way a reasonable person treats the lottery.  We should do it because it is fun.  Almost everybody has bought a lottery ticket.  You are buying a little piece of a dream and it is a good thing.   But if you are spending too much, even neglecting other things & taking out loans or planning your retirement around your lottery winnings, you are unlikely to have a happy ending.

August 08, 2009

Final End of USIA

Old USIA building now empty 

The United States Information Agency (USIA) was absorbed by State Department in 1999.  I was there when they took down the USIA eagle and prosaically renamed the building State Annex 44 (SA 44).  There was and still is a palpable feeling of loss among some of my colleagues and I miss some parts of my old agency, but not much. By the time of the anschluss with State, there was not much left of USIA worth saving. USIA suffered truly horrible top-leadership through the 1990s and they wrecked the place.  We closed our libraries, shut branch posts, let our contact networks atrophy, laid off experienced FSNs and the director seemed actively hostile to hiring new public affairs officers; by 2000 there were only around half as many of us as there had been ten years before.  

Our fearless leaders were under a general impression that since we had won the Cold War we didn’t need relics like public affairs anymore. After 9/11/2001 we found we were wrong and suffered mightily from our compromised ability to communicate with foreign publics.  But all that is history.   

I think we are better off integrated into State Department. But I still remember with nostalgia and pride coming into the USIA almost a quarter century ago, so the final closing of our offices in the old USIA building makes me sad. We are moving out next week and my group is the last to go. It is finally finished.

Old USIA building clearing out 

Tim Receveur took a few pictures of the end of days at SA 44 and you can see them on this post. There is a kind of Twilight Zone feeling to the old place.  We will be moving to a new building across from the Harry Truman Building.  The offices are nicer, but the location is worse. SA 44 is in a great place. The Orange Line is nearby and you always get a seat on the way home since you board before the big crowds get on after Metro Center. Gold’s Gym is a few minute walk. We are near the Mall, as well as restaurants.  Our new building is near nothing. The State cafeteria is not very good and it is a little expensive for what you get. I will adapt. I just need to find a place to lock my bike and take a shower.  

USIA has been gone for ten years, now the building is recycled and all its denizens scattered and relocated. I guess that's all there is.  Move along. Nothing left to see. Only a vague rememberance of past glories.

August 06, 2009

Pathbreaking Green Government

The guy sitting next to me from the Post Office told me that he was in process of renewing the fleet of delivery trucks.   They were thinking about alternative fuels and maybe electricity.  This is where government can foster some real progress, by both leading by example and breaking a path for others to follow. 

Below is a marketplace at Clarendon Metro.  I got a flat tire on my way to work, so I locked up the bike and hopped on the Metro to get to work. This was in operation when I went to pick it up.  People were selling vegetables, bread & honey.

Marketplace at Clarendon Metro on August 5, 2009 

A problem with translating small time innovation to big time application is usually a kind of chicken and egg dilemma.   For example, you cannot deploy alternative fuel vehicles unless you have a network of alternative fuel stations to service them.   On the other hand, you don’t want to build a network of alternative fuel stations until there are enough vehicles to justify the expense of building them.   The government is big enough to do both at the same time.

This is the kind of infrastructure path breaking government should do.   It is always hard to be the first down the path.   After that it can be easy for others to follow.   Unfortunately, this is not a very interesting thing for politicians.   The path breaking function is just a slog and once it’s done everybody thinks it would have happened anyway.   The bureaucrat who authorized the spending looks like he wasted the government’s money, since he pays the money and those who follow ride almost for free.  Worse yet, it is hard for politicians to target the benefits to their own constituents or contributors.   Yet some still make the hard and right decision and they should be praised. 

One thing that might help is looking at the whole value chain and considering the longer term.   I wrote a post about the ecological value chain and there is a similar calculation possible for any sort of investment.   You learn in business 101 about break even analysis.   That just shows how much must be sold or how long it will take for an investment to pay off.   In a simple example, you might pay an extra $100 for a boiler that pays off in energy savings in two years.   It makes a lot of sense to think ahead and pay a little more now to get a bigger payoff later, but the future is always uncertain and our government budgets tend to be short term.  

 It takes a wise and unselfish manager to pay more today out of his budget for something that will pay off a little at a time for his successors.   Making the value chain more apparent helps it become more a part of decision making.   Managers need to think of things like energy usage more like long term investments that pay dividends rather than just overhead. 

I learned and thought about these things during a breakfast on “green government” sponsored by “Government Executive” magazine.    You learn a lot when you go to these things, not only from the speakers but also from the people you sit next to.   And you get to eat breakfast too.  Sweet.

August 05, 2009

Changing Priorities

Manassas battlefield scene in 1861 

Switzerland’s forests are taking over the countryside and they are abetted in their march up the mountain slopes by global warming.   It is strange to think of forests as a threat, but take a look at the article at this link.   A more nuanced view of nature makes sense to me and tracks with what I have learned over my lifetime.  It is not only Switzerland, BTW.  It happens in America too.  Above is the area around the Manassas battlefield, just outside Washington as it looked in 1861. It needed more trees then. Look at the bottom picture to see how it looks now.  

See the forest SYSTEM, not only the trees

When I was young, I thought that more trees were always better.  That kind of idea made good sense in 1968 because there seemed little chance there could ever be too many trees or too much land covered in forests.  Since then, I have learned to look at the total system.   I can now more clearly see the forest instead of just the trees and I can also understand that the forest is part of a larger system that includes forests, water, wildlife grassland, brush and even some bare sand & rocks … and people.    The most pleasant and productive systems are those that have a variety of different types and a lot of transition edges among them. Nature tends not to produce these sorts of places for very long.   

Solving one problem creates the next

Switzerland had developed a beautiful and ecologically sustainable land use that allowed for bountiful agricultural production as well as superbly managed forests.  Too many trees or forests that are too thick with trees threaten that sustainable balance.  You can have too much of a good thing.  BTW - take a look at the Swiss picture gallery.  It really is a nice place.
The seeds of this dilemma were planted more than 100 years ago. There was not much real forestry being practiced back then.  Instead there was the kind of denuding timber mining that is almost never now done anymore in rich developed countries but remains depressingly common in places w/o good regulator regimes and strong property rights. The bare slopes caused soil degradation, erosion and disastrous flooding, so back in 1876 the Swiss enacted a sensible law to prevent deforestation.  It worked.  That problem was solved.  And since yesterday’s solutions are often today’s problems, the results presented a new challenge.  

It goes up but never comes down 

Set in motion was a kind of ratchet.  In the normal course of things in an agricultural/forestry system, forests expand and are cleared.  Crop of pasture land might take the place of forest and forests might grow on lands previously occupied by crops or pasture.  If it becomes illegal to clear forests once they are established, the areas covered in trees inexorably expand at the expense of meadow and other uses.  Imagine how this happens.  A pasture is neglected for a few years allowing trees to fill in.  Now it is a young forest, which you cannot clear.  You don’t need this ratchet mechanism to produce similar results, BTW. Forests in the U.S. have also been expanding over former farm fields.  As agriculture became more efficient, less land was needed in meadow and field.  You can see this clearly in the eastern United States.  If you look at old pictures and compare them to what you see today, you notice that there are a lot more trees today than there were a century ago.  But the ratchet rules make it much harder to manage the land. 

Build on success

We really have to shift our paradigm. We are no longer the embattled preservationists we were a generation ago.  We won that battle. Now we have to be clever in land use and mange what we have preserved and what technology improvements have preserved for us.   The need to be good stewards of the land is as important as ever, but doing a good job requires a much more nuanced understanding of the overall ecology.   It will never end for us.  There is not finished state for the environment.  But it is time to move to the next stage. 

Below is what Manassas looks like now.  I like it better now.  The balance of forest in meadow is good, IMO.  Left alone, the trees, initially mostly tulip poplar, red maples and some cedars, would be around thirty feet high within fifteen years.  

Manassas battlefield in 2004 

Remembering that yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems, we have to assume the today’s solutions will be tomorrow’s problems.  That does not imply failure.  A good solution under particular circumstances is less useful when conditions change.  We just need to be smart. It never ends.  Perfection and final solutions are impossible, attempting to create them is undesirable and despite all this we manage to persist.  That is what makes life interesting.

August 04, 2009

The Four Ps of Marketing (and Public Diplomacy)

Jet stream in the sky above Balston 

I was talking to some marketing guys the other day who told me that we should market America like a brand.  We should listen to our customers and make sure we create products the market wants.   I understand this, but there are a few problems with this formulation, not least of which is that America is greater than any brand.  We are something special and we should not prim and trim ourselves to win ephemeral popularity. But that aside, government, especially the U.S. government has fewer "marketing" options.    

Marketers used to talk about the Four Ps: product, price, promotion and place.  Executives supposedly control those four things and can deploy them and rearrange them to maximize the attractiveness and sales of their products.    As a government “executive” I control none of those things. 

Our “product” the U.S. and its policies, is determined by forces way beyond our small ability to add or detract.  I don’t have the ability to alter it to suit changing or local conditions and probably would not want to.   Our product will not always be popular and sometimes very unpopular.  People engaged in actual armed conflict against us or our interests are probably signaling that they are not happy with the "product" on offer, which illustrates the other important difference in the product category.  A marketer never has to appeal to everybody while government is stuck with everybody in the marketing universe.  The private sector supports many options and people can choose.  If you don’t like Coke Zero, don’t drink it. Opting out of government is not so easy.

How about price?  We don't have one.  We usually think of price as something that limits or stimulates demand, but its most important function is the information it conveys about relative scarcity and attractiveness of the product and its components.  People can easily lie to pollster and often deceive themselves, but when they have to put down the cash, they tend to reveal their true preferences.  Price is a better indicator than polling but we just don’t have that information and have to look to proxies and polls, which are always imperfect and usually behind the curve.

Place is determined by policies (above) and geography.  Conditions and adversaries often determine where we have to engage.  But we do have some flexibility in location.   We can choose to emphasize particular things in particular places.  Of course, we suffer significant leakage.    Information markets are not separate and we rarely have the luxury of being ignored by those not in the target audience.    We also have the problem of having actual enemies who refuse to stay in the places we would prefer of them.    In fact, a significant amount of overall governmental energy involves fixing some of these guys in place (often followed by neutralizing them, but that is not my department).

Promotion is what is left most for us and that is closest to what we do.  Of course, we are not unconstrained even here, but this is the area of greatest freedom of action. Public diplomacy could be included as a subset of national promotion.   

So we are essentially left with two of the four Ps (place & promotion) and not even in firm control of either of them.  Next time you hear somebody talk about the the American image as something that can be branded or marketed as a product, remind them of how real marketing works and the real marketing constraints.   Despite it all,  we still manage to produce some successes. It reminds me of the Samuel Johnson saying about a dog walking on two legs.  It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

August 03, 2009

Reopening My Favorite Passage

They closed the gates of Ft Meyer after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.   I didn’t know they were reopened.  Actually they are not open to through automobile traffic, but bikes can use the bike route that goes through Ft Meyer and Arlington Cemetery. 

Ft Meyer in Virginia on August 3, 2009 

Going this way saves me around ten minutes riding and it lets me avoid ten minutes worth of the least pleasant and most dangerous part of the ride.  To transit Ft Meyer, I need only show my government ID and be polite to the guards. As you can see in the picture above, Ft Meyer is nice to with well kept period architecture.  After riding along the quiet streets of the base, you come out into Arlington Cemetery and it is all downhill from there. 

I like the idea of going through and past all the monuments.   My ride now takes me through Arlington Cemetery, across Memorial Bridge, past the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and then down the Smithsonian Mall in sight of the Capitol.   I often stop to read the plaques and later look them up on the Internet.  The whole idea of a memorial is to remind visitors of the event or concept.   Daily exposure to history really does work, at least for me. 

Phil Kearny statue in Arlington Cemetary overlooking the Potomac and Washington 

A good example is the statue above.  It is Phil Kearny.  I knew about Ft Phil Kearny, which guarded to Bozman Trail in Wyoming.  The Bozman trail is essentially I-90 these days and we stopped off at the fort on one of our cross country trips.  But I never knew much of anything about its namesake.  After seeing the statue, I did a little reading.  Phil Kearny was a respected professional soldier and Union officer killed in the Battle of Chantilly, not long after uttering the ominous words, "The Rebel bullet that can kill me has not yet been molded."

August 02, 2009

Racism and Beer (& Brat) Consumption

Bratwursts on the grill 

Equality can sometimes debase into a type of leveling that is the enemy of real diversity of variety. That was clear in an article in the Washington Post on “The Racial Politics of Beer” decrying the fact that “American brewing was and largely remains a white man’s world.”   What a supremely stupid thing to worry about.   But it is even worse than ordinary stupid.  It betrays that leveling mindset that find discrimination and conspiracy in every human difference that makes life interesting and enjoyable.

None of us has the same culture as our parents, because culture is in a constant state of change, but we can see the persistence of habits & values.  It would be very surprising – and very bad – if everybody just reacted the same way to everything. The basis of true diversity is difference and when you get differences you get different results. Let me write that in a separate line.

The basis of true diversity is difference and when you get differences you get different results.

Let’s think about beer.   They say that the ancient Egyptians brewed a type of beer, but we are heirs to a beer culture that originated in Central Europe in the lands that used to be part of the Holy Roman Empire.  This includes Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands, along with parts of what is now Poland, France & Northern Italy.   The Germans even had a beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot.  The English and the Irish also have a significant beer culture, as do the Danes and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians.   It tapers off from that home area.  What do you notice about the people living in these places?  Now people drink beer all over, but they still don't always do it the same way or with equal enthusiasm.  Beyond that, many consumers of beer are not really part of the culture of beer.

Beer culture was not merely a matter of chance.    Beer is consumed in between the places where they can easily grow grapes for wine and where it is too cold and people consume hard booze.  Europe traditionally had essentially three zones from south to north and from west to east from wine to beer to vodka.   Water was not consumed much in pre-industrial days because it was so polluted and carried diseases.   People, even children, instead drank beer or wine, although the daily beer was a weaker version – small beer.

I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was a center for the American beer industry.  The other center was St Louis and there were significant smaller centers in Cincinnati and Western Pennsylvania.   What these places all have in common were lots of German immigrants. (I still drink beer.  I also eat bratwurst and liverwurst.  I guess that is just because I am priveleged.)

In the early part of the 19th Century, one of the criticisms against immigrants was in fact that they were beer drinking boozers.  Beer drinking was not always a cool thing to do.   It still is not.

If you analyzed beer drinking, I am sure you would find significant geographical differences.  I am sure you would also find big difference based on ethnicity.     Big deal.   These differences are based on different preferences.

If you look for them, you can find differences in everything.  This is the way everything is. If you believe racism exists everywhere, you can find it in all of life's variation and joy.  It is really true that people’s habitual view of the world is a confession of their own characters.  Maybe those who see crooks, racists, shirkers and idiots everywhere are just looking in the mirror.

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