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September 30, 2009

Milwaukee Renassiance

Cousins Subs on N 3rd St in Milwaukee 

Chrissy & I went up to North 3rd Street.  This was the German part of the city and it still has some German restaurants and Usinger is still there making the world’s best liverwurst and second best (after Clements) bratwurst.  Despite that, we had lunch as Cousins Subs, which is another of my Milwaukee favorites.

Milwaukee City HallCousins is in an old building that used to be a glove and hat shop.   They even had fireproof gloves.  I think they were made with asbestos fiber, in the days when asbestos was not known to be so dangerous.   Their slogan was something like “Gloves to burn, and some that don’t.” 

You can see the City Hall building on left

The area just north of the river is nice and clean.  I remember when the the industrial sewage stench coming off the river mixed with the yeast stink from the breweries, the pungent fragrance of the tanneries and the sweeter aroma from Ambrosia Chocolate Factory. The Cream City Brick used to be black from the coal smoke.  I actually thought the bricks were naturally black, but most of Milwaukee is built with tan colored bricks, as has now been revealed.  Everything is different now.  The area no longer stinks and it is clean & fresh because all the industry is gone.   The knowledge of what was and is now is no more drains some of the celebration.   The new and improved surroundings are sterile in a couple senses of the word.

Renassiance bookshop in Milwaukee 

I was surprised that the Renaissance Book Shop was still in business.  It is a three story warehouse full of used books.  This is the kind of shop I used to love, but now the Internet has largely supplanted such places. Going into it today is like a magical mystery tour, but not something I really want to do often anymore.  It is fascinating to look at the piles of knowledge.   I was looking for a specific book, “The Epic of Man,” a book I had as a kid.  It takes mankind from the Stone Age through the early civilizations.  And I found it in a pile of books on the third floor.  It is not a great book, but I liked the pictures and wanted to get it out of a sense of nostalgia.  As l looked through the book that I have not seen for at least thirty years, I realized how many of my historical impressions were triggered by the pictures.   It really is true that first impressions are important.

Usinger's on Milwaukee River 

On the way back we stopped to look at the old man’s childhood home.  It used to be the third house from the corner and it used to be in the middle of a neighborhood of similar houses. (It is on 4th St, but my father's dog-tags say "Port" St.  The old man evidently didn't speak with a clear and crisp accent.)  Since his time, they widened the road at the side, knocking down two houses, and built the freeway across the street, so it is really different.  St Stanislaw, where my father went to school and his family went to church, is not just across the freeway in easy view.   The neighborhood is now dominated by a view of St Stan’s and the Allen Bradley clock.

Allen-Bradley clock tower in Milwaukee 

St Stanislaw Church South Side MilwaukeeThere used to be a natatorium nearby, but they are gone, no longer needed.  In the old days, many of the houses didn’t have showers or baths.  Natatoriums were public bathhouses, with showers and a pool.   Men and women had them on alternate days, but men always got Saturdays and they were closed on Sundays.  They were still around when I was a kid.  We used to go swimming at the natatorium on 10th and Hayes.  Old guys would still come in just to use the showers.  Now it is closed down and the building is torn down.  All the houses in Milwaukee now have bathtubs and showers.

Things have changed.

On the left is St Stanislaw Church.

Another relic of old Milwaukee is the iron water spring on Pryor Ave.  Some people think it is healthier and old people come to fill gallon jugs with the water.  The funny thing is that it is always old people doing it.  It was old people doing it when I was a kid and it is old people doing it now. Presumably, the old people of yore have shuffled off this mortal coil and they must have been replaced by others.  Is there some minimum age when you start to like this kind of thing?   Or maybe the water really does work and the old folks who drink it just live forever.  The water tastes like rust and it is always icy cold.  I always take a drink when I go by, but I don't think I would want to slook too much of it.  Below is the water.

Iron water spring on Pryor St in Milwaukee 

Below is Kinnikinnick River looking from 2nd St.  In the distance is Medusa Cement where my father worked for thirty-six years and where I worked for four summers.

Kinnikinnick River from 2nd St in Milwaukee 

September 29, 2009

Indian Mounds

Indian mounds at Hopewell site in Chillicothe, Ohio 

I first saw Indian mounds when I was in 4th grade.  We went up to Lizard Mound State Park on field trip.  It scared me for days.  They had one mound opened and inside was a skeleton mounded up.  In my childish way, I figured that skeleton would follow me since I desecrated the mound by looking at it.   A lot of movies have a plot sort of like that.   I think that is the basic premise of “Poltergeists”

Indian mounds at Hopewell site in Chillicothe, Ohio 

Now the mounds are no longer scary, just interesting, which is why I went to visit the Hopewell Mounds near Chillicothe, Ohio.   There was a whole mound building culture about 1500 years ago.   The mounds in Ohio were loosely affiliated with those in Wisconsin in that they had a trading network. 

I won’t go into too much detail about the mounds.  You can Google them.   The mound building stopped around 1500 years ago.  Nobody is sure why.   The leading theories have to do with climate change (it got cooler around that time) and maybe just the usual exhaustion and overpopulation.

Indian mounds at Hopewell site in Chillicothe, Ohio 

The mounds are now grass covered, but according to the notes the used to be covered with gravel, making them more like little pyramids.   Not all the mounds are burial mounds.  The whole complex has a earthen berm around it.

Expressway, drive through convenience store in Chillichote, Ohio 

Besides the mounds, there is not much in the town of Chillicothe.  It has the usual chain restaurants.    The town’s big industry is a paper mill.   One of the novelties was this expressway.   It is like a drive through Seven-Eleven.    There was a woman inside who brings the stuff right to your car as you drive through.  It looks like it was originally a car wash.

September 28, 2009

Car Ferry Across Lake Michigan

Sunrise on Lake Michigan from the car ferry 

I don’t save any time by crossing the Lake, but I lived all my childhood years next to Lake Michigan and was always curious about what was on the other side, so I signed up for the car ferry and I am sitting in the terminal waiting.   The Lake Express allows you to bypass Chicago and avoid driving clean around the southern tip of Lake Michigan.   That doesn’t matter as much to me, since I have to go way south anyway and going through Chicago on Sunday morning probably is not a big deal.   But as I wrote above, I want to cross the lake.

Muskegon breakwall 

The Ferry leaves at 6 am and goes from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Michigan in about two and a half hours.   The terminal is near the Coast Guard station.  It cost me $191 for the car and me.  I drove over with my sister a couple days ago and it is lucky that I did.  Thought the terminal was on the other side of the harbor at the edge of the Kinnikinnick River.  That is where the old car ferry landed.   It is better to make your mistakes and get lost in the light of day when you have no time pressure than to be driving around like crazy in the pre-dawn darkness.

Arrival in Muskegon 

I thought it might be hard to get a good spot on the deck to watch the sunrise, but I shared the place with only one other guy.  Most people stayed below where they read the paper, played cards or slept.  I suppose it is like an airplane ride to most customers. Some seemed to have been regulars.

Sand dunes along Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Mi 

Metaphors from Homer came to mind as I stood on the deck, sailing the wine-dark sea and rosy fingered dawn spread across the horizon.  The sunrise was like none I had seen on land.  I waited and then suddenly there was a red band laying on the horizon.   The sun came up fast after that and it was finished. 

Entrance to Muskegon harbor 

Muskegon looks like a vacation paradise.  There are big sand dunes, some covered with vegetation.   This side of the lake gets the prevailing winds and I suppose that over time that means much more sand is distributed on the far side.   You can see on the dunes the effects of natural succession.   Some dunes just have sand.  Grass comes in and holds them down, then after a few years if undisturbed cottonwood trees come in, then pines and finally hardwoods.   I wrote a little about natural succession in yesterday's post. 

September 27, 2009

Fire & Ice: Always Becoming; Never Being

Kettle-Moraine trail 

Climate change is not something we face only today. Warmer temperatures helped during the rise of the Roman Empire and cooler ones probably contributed to its downfall.  It was warm around the year 1000, when the Viking colonized Greenland and they were later wiped out by the advance of the Greenland ice. Interestingly, archeology in Greenland is now revealing Viking settlement patterns that were buried by ice for hundreds of years. Yes, it was as warm back then as it is now with our warmer temperatures.

North and west of Milwaukee are the kettle-moraines. This is where the last ice age stopped. The ice sheets dithered over the land here making sort of waves in the landscapes. Where glaciers stopped are moraines, long hill waves. An ancient glacial river, where sediment settled, is called an esker. These snake around like raised rivers across the farmlands. Where there was a depression in the glacier and dirt accumulated is called a drumlin. These are now round hills. Finally there are kettles, depressions carved by ice as the glacier retreated. What happened was that shards of ice got stuck in the ground, like glass in tar. When they melted they left holes. Some became lakes or marshes; others are just holes. 

Most lakes are the gift of the glaciers, which is why you find so many in Wisconsin and Minnesota and not so many farther south. Over time, all lakes fill in and unless glaciers, man or an earthquake makes a new one, there are no more little lakes. I used to really enjoy the study of this stuff. Natural succession occurs when a lake fills in and gradually, through a succession of plant communities, becomes a forest. This can take thousands of years, which is why the lakes are still here.

Kettle-moraine forest 

The ice retreated from Wisconsin only about 10,000 years ago and the last ice age is called the Wisconsin glaciation, since there is so much evidence of it in Wisconsin. Besides the kettle-moraines, the area around Lacrosse, where Chrissy is from, is called the driftless area because the glaciers did not cover it and leave glacial dirt, also called “drift.” It was like a hole in the ice, but it was much affected by the glaciers. As the glaciers melted, water raced down forming long narrow valleys called coolies. Grand Coolie in Washington State is a really big example of the phenomenon. It was formed when a giant ice dam broke and washed away pretty much everything in its path. The area of Western Wisconsin is clearly different from the East.  Rolling hill give way to a more ragged landscape.

I road my bike from Lacrosse to Milwaukee a couple of times and felt the geography. It is hard going, up and down, until you get past Reedsburg. Then you go down a long hill, which I understand is the Baraboo Ridge, and the peddling gets easier. There are hills, but they are not quite as steep or abrupt.

Anyway, talk about climate change! 10,000 years ago is not really that long in the great scheme of geologic time. The glaciers also created the Great Lakes and are formed the basis for that great fertile soil you find in the Upper Midwest. I suppose you could blame them for the poorer soils farther north, since that is where it was pushed from. All changes produce winners and losers.  Climate change is no different. All things considered, we are better off now than during the ice ages

Ice Age trail marker 

Ice Age Trail

The Ice Age trail follows the edge of the glaciers throughout Wisconsin. I went to the Waukesha part, the Latham district. Latham was a naturalist of the 19th Century. He was instrumental in founding the national weather service.

I feel very at home in the Kettle-Moraines. That was my first contact with natural communities. We went out here on field trips from school and when I could ride my bike far enough I made my own visits. The landscape meshed well with my childhood love of natural history. The soil on the terminal moraines tend to be rocky and gravel and not so good. Ironically, that is one of the reasons we have ice age parks. The soil was not good for farming, so the land reverted to state ownership when the owners just walked away or else sold it cheap.

Oak savannah, oak opening in S Wisconsin 

The natural cover in the Waukesha kettle-moraines is oak-savanna, locally called “oak openings.”  The trees are spread apart in a park-like setting.  The trees do not get very big because of the poverty of the soil, so a century old tree might be only thirty feet high, but they get very picturesque.   Until settlement, the oak savanna was maintained by fires, set naturally by lighting or more often set deliberately or accidentally by Native Americans. I wrote about that in a series of posts about fire in the woods.  Indians burned the land to improve hunting and once a fire started it could burn for a long time. Since there were no roads and few clearings to stop it, a fire burned until the next heavy rain. For a long time after the European settlement, we excluded fire from the landscape and a lot of brush has grown up.  According to signs I saw along the trails, the State of Wisconsin is trying to reestablish the “natural” or at least the pre-settlement ecosystems.   This means the judicial use of ecological fire.

I think I should say something about natural succession, since not everybody is as familiar with it.   Basically, there is a succession of natural communities that establish themselves on any piece of land. Each natural community creates conditions that allow the next stage to prosper while, ironically, creating conditions where its own continuation is disadvantaged. For example, pine trees fill in a field, but as they grow together they create shade where young pines cannot grow, but the sheltered forest and the improving soil is a good environment for maples, which come to replace pines. 

If you start with bare dirt, the first things that come in are weeds, then perennial grass and so on.   In a reasonably fertile piece of dirt in Eastern Wisconsin, you will get the weeds, perennial plants, box elders and ash and finally maples-beech-basswood if there is sufficient moisture and soil depth, otherwise oak-hickory.  But in some places you won’t really get forest at all.  Wisconsin has a lot of prairie ecosystems.  Of course, we really don’t know what the “natural” succession would be because no human has ever studied one. The Native Americans burned too, as above.  

Field in natural succession in S Wisconsin kettle-morine 

You can see above a field that might be in the process of becoming an open forest. When I studied natural succession, we talked about climax forests.  That was the ecosystem that supposedly was the ultimate goal. Once established, the climax forest would remain until disturbed by nature or man.  This implied permanence unjustified by the evidence.  We now have a more subtle understanding of ecology. There really is no “goal”. Everything is just becoming something else.

September 26, 2009


Milwaukee Museum old fashioned displays 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I went to the museum with my sister.  I have changed a lot, but stayed the same in key aspects.  The change I don’t like it the disappearance of the “Trip Through Time.”  You used to start with earth geology and go right through to the modern age.   I recall you could look in on cavemen drawing on the cave walls, see Roman house and a medieval counting house.  When you got through all history until about 1600, when you wandered over to  America and ultimately to the streets of old Milwaukee.  Yes, the impression you got at the Milwaukee Museum was that all human history culminated in Milwaukee of around 1900. 

Old tavern in Streets of Old Milwaukee 

The “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibits are still the same.  It is kind of a “Twilight Zone” moment to see the old lady on the rocking chair, an eternal look of bemused befuddlement on her face.   She sat there when I visited with my school class in sixth grade and there is a good chance she will abide on that porch long after I am gone.

The Museum is 125 years old this year and they featured the kind of exhibit you would have seen at that time.   I kind of like the old fashioned display.  The Victorians self-confidently stood astride the world and brought back pieces of their discoveries for others to see.  Their world-view – at least those who stocked useums - included a strong idea of progress and evolution.  They saw things in linear fashion.  Privative man advanced to become modern man.   Backward peoples and cultures were just earlier stages of the European civilization, which stood at the apex of history. 

The whole idea of progress was shaken by the carnage in the trenches of World War I and then virtually destroyed by the various horrors of the 20th Century. The wars and dictatorships corrupted human virtues like courage, duty and honor.  It was a tragedy, but we should not throw out the whole system.   The idea of linear progress has many flaws, but the judgment-free multicultural relativism that has generally replaced it is not a workable outlook in the long run.   A hierarchy of progress does not exist, but the sundry random, planned and pernicious aspects of societies worldwide are not all created equal. 

Some adaptations are better than others and that means that some cultures are better than others for particular situations.   Multiculturalism is dishonest conceptually.  Cultures are constantly changing and adapting.   Presumably, we should all borrow the most appropriate aspects of any culture we encounter and abandon those of our own that are no longer working out.    In a context of cultural contact, you won’t maintain multiple cultures, salad bowl style.  Rather the cultures will mix and merge creating something richer and fuller of options than any of the ingredients.  But the original cultures will atrophy.  They will not and should not be maintained, except in the museum sense, much like the unchanging and un-living old lady endlessly rocking on the porch in the streets of old Milwaukee.

September 25, 2009

Lions & Tigers & Bears - No Way

Cougar attacks mule deer at the Milwaukee Public Museum 

I spent a lot of time at the Milwaukee Museum as a kid.  It was a big part of my education and many of the images have stuck with me, so I was happy to see significant continuity in the exhibits.  The familiar animals stare out of their dioramas.  I went down to the museum with my sister and saw the old friends.

The one that stuck in my mind the most was the cougar, frozen in time about to jump on a couple of mule deer. When I hike in the west, in places where there is a resurgent cougar population, I think about that image and unfortunately cast myself in the role of the deer. The cougar is a stealth hunter. He is literally digging his claws on your back before you are aware of his presence. 

Cougars were once common throughout North America.  Our ancestors wisely drove them out to the lonely places of the continent and I am unenthusiastic about their return to settled areas.  I understand that there is an established population now in the Black Hills and sooner or later some fool will reintroduce them to the Appalachians, whence they will infiltrate into place where I walk.  I know they are beautiful and graceful, but I don’t favor any animal sharing the forest with me that can easily kill me and might have incentive to try. I don't believe, as some deep green environmentalists imply, that it would be ennobling for me to become "one with nature" by becoming big cat food and ultimately being converted to cougar sh*t. 

I am indeed a “speciesist” in this sense.  I want to stay at the apex of the food pyramid. Let big, dangerous cats stay in the North Cascades or other special ranges where we can be on the lookout for them.  It has been more than a century since any of their kind snarled their defiance in the Eastern Mountains. Good. Let's keep it that way.

I have no similar problem with wolves, BTW.  Little Red Riding Hood notwithstanding, they may be a threat to livestock, but just don’t attack people.  At least they have not done so in North America in our 400 years of reliable record-keeping.  The wolf has suffered mightily from bad public relations.  In Europe, where they lived in intimate contact with dispersed and technologically less sophisticated human populations I suppose they may have been a threat on occasion, but not here and now.

So to sum up in simple terms, IMO, MOST carnivores – wolves, coyotes, bobcats, lynx, fishers, martens, badgers and such like are good and should be encouraged on your land unless you have livestock or small pets that might be endangered.  Large bears and - especially - cougars are bad anywhere near where you want to live, hike or take a nap.

Gorilla exhibit at Milwaukee Museum 

Above is "Sambo".  He was a gorilla in the Milwaukee Zoo. He died back in 1959 (I think of lung disease) and soon appeared in the Museum as the "lowland gorilla". I never saw Sambo alive, but got to know him in the flesh, so to speak, later.  Below is "Sampson".   He was Sambo's zoo-mate (I think he might have been his brother), but lived a lot longer.  Sampson died in 1981 of a massive heart attack. He was evidently overweight.  I don't recall if he smoked or didn't exercise.  He was one of the most popular residents of the zoo, with a lot of mourning fans when he died.  Now he also stands in the museum. My own goal, BTW, is to become a museum exhibit someday. They can make a diorama with me as a character. 

sampson the gorilla in Milwaukee 


September 24, 2009

Chicago to Milwaukee

Fog in Chicago from the toll way 

In Chicago I stopped off to visit Bob McCarthy, the friend from Iraq, who is working with Marine reserve units in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois.  Bob made my stay in Iraq a lot more comfortable and rewarding.  We had lunch at a local Lebanese restaurant in the interesting transitional neighborhood near the Marine station.  There are Hispanic immigrants mixed with more recent arrivals from the Middle East, leavened with Hassidic Jews and some recent arrivals from Eastern Europe.  I think the waitress was Russian.  Only in America.

You can see in the picture below the twin moons in Chicago.  Bald is beautiful. Bob actually could grow hair if he wanted.  Interesting shirt.  Where do you even buy something like that?

John Matel and Bob McCarthy in Chicago 

Chicago is a lot like Milwaukee, only bigger, dirtier and more crowded.   It took a long time to get out of town because of the traffic jam and a lot of construction.  I don’t think this is anything unusual for Chicago.  You have to pay toll on Chicago area highways.  It cost me more than $5 to get through.  You would think that toll roads would be better maintained than the free variety, but you would be wrong.  I guess Chicago politics needs its patronage sources.   If you look at the picture I have included, you notice the sign “Half Day Road.”  It is very descriptive, since that is about as long as it takes to get out of Chicago.   I got clean across Ohio in the time it took to creep through a few dozen miles to get out of Chicago.

Half day Road in Chicago 

I finally got to Milwaukee in early evening.  I look forward to seeing family and doing the Milwaukee things.   That means walking around the old neighborhood, running on the trails in Grant and Warnimont and eating.  I have to go to Rocky Rococo, George Webb and Cousins Subs and I need my 1960s Schlitz beer and Rippin’ Good mint cookies.

A general shortage of mint chocolate has developed.  I have been having trouble finding ordinary mint chocolate and it has always been impossible to get the Rippin’ Good mint cookies outside Wisconsin.  The mint girl scout cookies are not really an adequate substitute.  

I don’t really like the Schlitz beer that much. I drink it out of homage to the old man.  This is supposed to be the original 1960s recipe.  The old man told me that Schlitz was good until the early 1970s, when they sped up the brewing process – replaced the braumeisters with chemists, according to the Old Man - and made it inconsistent. The old man changed to Pabst and soon Schlitz went out of business, acquired by Stroh’s.   The building where for almost a century they brewed the “beer that made Milwaukee famous” is now upscale condos.

September 23, 2009

Politics + Science = Perdition + Tyranny

Back off Man; I'm a Scientist ...

Should scientists be politically active? Individual scientists should participate in debates as citizens. They should bring their knowledge and expertise to every subject, just like others do. But “scientists” as a group should not be political animals because there is a big difference between “A” scientist and “THE” scientist.

... Dr Peter Venkman

What is a scientist anyway? Do you have to have a science degree? Is BS enough or do you need a PhD? Do you have to do experiments? What kind of science qualifies as science? Sociologists and psychologists sometimes call themselves scientists. Political scientists even have that name in their titles. Some historians thought they were scientists. The term is very elastic.

Western civilization is based on the scientific method

Anybody who uses the “scientific method” in his work or to draw conclusions could legitimately call himself a scientist, but that would make scientists out of a lot of business people, most engineers, many farmers and almost everybody who works with actuarial tables. There is a field called "scientific management." For that matter, all those body builders at Gold’s Gym are scientists, given their constant experimentation with their bodies and familiarity with chemicals. Successful modern farmers, builders & business people certainly approach their work scientifically? Everybody could be included sometimes and any definition that includes everybody is not a useful definition. This is not what most people have in mind.

Science and politics are methods to address different problems

But even when we exclude sociologist, body builders, engineers etc, we still have a problem and the problem is that science and politics are almost polar opposites. Science is iterative. It never comes to final conclusions. It tends to narrow inquiry and make scientists experts on narrow fields. Science doesn’t permit extrapolation. Extrapolation is what politics is all about. Politicians are rarely troubled when they are not sure of the precise truthfulness of their statements. Scientists MUST be.

Science provides options, not decisions

Probably the most important impediment to science in politics is the very nature of decision making. You cannot “let science decide” because decisions are exactly what science does NOT do. Science provides inputs into decisions. Science can give you a probability that if you do X you will sacrifice Y, but somebody has to decide on the relative values. Maybe X just doesn’t matter to you. Science cannot make that decision.

Think of a decision about a medical procedure. The doctor can use science to tell you that there is an 80% chance the operation will be a success, but a 70% chance you will be incapacitated by the procedure. On the other hand, if you do something less invasive, you have only a 50% chance of survival, but you can make a full recovery if you survive. You could come up with a complete breakdown of the odds, but you still have to decide, based on non-science values, what you want to do. One person might choose the greater risk of death for the greater health later. Others do the opposite Science cannot help. Once it gives you the options and odds, the job of science is done unless new information comes to light.

BTW - when we reach a near certainty, we no longer have decision making. We all agree that we will apply the rule of physics when flying in an airplane. No matter what anybody says about alternative reality, he doesn't believe it when it comes to that. Decisions are ONLY needed in areas of disagreement or uncertainty.

Science informs; it doesn’t decide

Most “scientists” understand this limitation. Those scientists who want to be political might not get it. They want to use science as a trump card, but it doesn’t work. Decisions are made based on values. Science is value neutral. Therefore science cannot decide.

20th Century tyranny was "science-based"

When science becomes political, it stops being science and starts to become tyranny. In fact, science works a lot like religion when mixed with politics. It invests too much "certainty" into a human political process. It might start off “good” but politics corrupts it, because politics is not science, but politicians - especially bad ones - like to use science, as they once used religion - as a weapon to pummel their opponents into silence.

Stalin and Hitler had scientists working for them. Marxist and Nazi systems were “science-based” in the minds of their creators. Nazi science was chillingly precise. There was "scientific racism" and the eugenics movement was firmly rooting in the science of the time. We now tend to call them “pseudo- scientists” but they were trained and passed scientific muster at the universities of their times. They were pseudo BECAUSE they were political, not because they were not trained as scientists.

I would also point to the case of Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber. W/o his work literally half the world population would probably go hungry. Some of his other inventions were less felicitous. He had the most impeccable scientific credentials, but his political judgment was perhaps not so good.

Leave the lying to the politicians

This broad political road that leads to perdition is posted and brightly blazed all the way. Scientist should stay on the steep and narrow trail to truth. Leave the lying to the politicians. That is what they are good at.

HWY 70, Holiday Inn & the Fall of World Communism

Fall leaves in Western Maryland on Sept 23 

It has been almost exactly twenty-five years since I drove on I-70, going the other way to take up my new job as an FSO.  We were living in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I had a very brief job as a market researcher at a firm called Microdatabasesystems (MDBS).  They made, as the name suggests, data base software.  Since I was the only guy in the marketing research department, I suppose I was the director.  Never trust titles. 

The firm had been founded by a couple of professors from Perdue.  They knew computers, but were not so strong on marketing.  I worked there a couple of weeks and learned the software only through the indulgence and kindness of the engineers who explained it so often.  Then the owners called me in and asked my opinion about their firm.  I was flattered and they were very nice and open.   I told them the truth.  That the software was wonderful in what it could do (for the time) but that it was too hard to use, maybe they should put in some menus or something.   One of the guys, very nicely but w/o attempting humor said, “If people are too dumb to use our product, perhaps they shouldn’t buy it.”  I am not sure of the exact words, but it was something close.  

I went back to my office and called the State Department. I had taken and passed the FSO tests, but they were doing a security check.   I asked when they would be done.   There was the usual pause while they looked up my stuff and then the woman told me that the security check was done and that I had been offered a job. I never saw the job offer.   It must have gone to my old address in Minneapolis. I was supposed to have responded by “yesterday.”  I asked for and got a one-day extension.   The next day I took the FS job and told my soon-to-be former employer that I was moving on.  I felt bad, but they were not that upset.  To my surprise, they asked me to stay as long as I could.   I don’t think I earned my salary, but if they wanted me to stay, I hung on for three more weeks.

So on a Friday, I finished work at MDBS and in the predawn darkness the next day got in the Toyota Corolla diesel (the first car I had ever owned) I had recently bought and headed down HWY 65-70.  Chrissy was still in Minneapolis finishing college, so I was alone.   The car didn’t have a radio.  Well, it had a radio but no antenna (don’t ask why) but it did have a tape player.  I had three tapes: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Linda Ronstadt’s County Songs and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  Beethoven was on when the sun came up over the hills in eastern Ohio.   Michael & Linda got me through the darkness until then. 

It was worse in the 1980s than now 

When we think back to 1984, it all seems so easy.  But back then things were not so clear.  We were just coming out of a really bad economic time (worse & longer unemployment than today. Look at the chart.) and the pundits were telling us we would soon sink into something even worse.  Internationally it looked like the Soviet Union would last forever and they often seemed to be winning the ideological war.  I wanted to fight world communism, which I hated ever since Prof Artajani (I am spelling the name wrong) made me read Marx and I found out what a fraud the old fool was.  I think the professor thought we would be impressed, but any good and true son of the real working class can tell right quick that Marx stinks on ice.   I am pleased to say that within five years that benighted system was largely defeated.   I don’t know why it took others so long. The rest is history.

Anyway, I am staying at a Holiday Inn in Springfield Ohio and thinking about those times.   It features a “Holidome.”  I know that is so 1970s, but those are the times I became an adult and as far as I am concerned the Holidome is the ultimate in class, so I am content.  Tomorrow I will have breakfast in the Holidome before I head out to Wisconsin.

Pictures: the one on top shows turning leaves in Garrett County Maryland.  Fall comes early in the hills and seems to be coming early this year. 

rest stop on Hwy 70 in Ohio 

Above is a rest stop in Ohio.  It is nice to have a rest stop.  Many in Virginia have been sold because of budget cuts. 

September 22, 2009

We're Cooked

Union Station in Washington from 8th Floor of Heritage Foundation on September 22, 2009 

I went to a discussion of the costs of cap & trade. There were experts from Brookings, CBO, EPA, Energy Information Agency, the National Black Chamber of Commerce & Heritage Foundation, so we got the full spectrum of analysis.  Lots of the assumptions were different and the ideology was contrasting, but they all came up with the same ballpark conclusions: cap & trade as it is now formulated in the House bill will cost a lot and probably will not work very well to control climate change.

As I have written many times before, I favor a broad carbon tax, which is why I could never run for office.   I support cap & trade BECAUSE it is a type of carbon tax, albeit a less efficient and possibly corrupt way to do it, but it looks like there is enough inefficiency in corruption in the House bill to question it.

One flaw in the bill is that it includes almost nothing about nuclear power.  In the long run, we will need to go with renewable power.  In the medium run, there is no way to achieve the needed carbon reductions w/o nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gas.  Many environmentalists stupidly reject nuclear power.    No form of power is w/o risks and costs, but if you believe that global warming is the existential threat some people say it is, doesn’t that almost certain risk of climate change trump the hypothetical risk of nuclear power?   Not one person has died in the whole history of nuclear power in the U.S.  Nobody was even seriously injured in the worst “disaster” in nuclear power history at Three Mile Island.

But a probably more serious problem is the phenomenal growth of emissions from developing countries such as China or India.  China is the world’s leading emitter of CO2 and their emissions are growing rapidly.   China adds the equivalent of two 500 megawatt coal fired plants EVERY WEEK.  In one year it adds the equivalent of the whole British power network and by 2030 China alone could emit as much CO2 as the whole world does today. In other words, if everybody else cut to zero, it wouldn’t matter.

Talk is cheap, BTW.  China has promised to cut emissions relative to GDP.  That is good.  But the U.S. has been cutting emissions relative to GDP since 1973 and in 2006, the U.S. was the only nation to cut emissions in absolute numbers during a time of economic growth. 

So my conclusion is that we are cooked.  We should think about adaptations to a warmer world.   And we should be working on alternatives AND building nuclear power stations.  Congress should go back to work and enact a true carbon tax that would get the government out of the business of picking winning and losing companies and technologies. Government has an abysmal record in doing this (consider the recent debacle re ethanol) and there is no reason to believe it has gotten any better. The current bill doesn’t inspire confidence. I like the idea of markets for environmental services in general. I was tentatively in favor of the climate bill. It has some good aspects, but it needs smarter leadership and some hard thinking.

BTW - the picture is Union Station from the window of Heritage Foundation, where the panel was held. 

September 21, 2009

Drop the Donut, Fatboy

Fat ass at Universal Studios 

Much of the growth in health care costs comes from lifestyle choices.   Being fat, not exercising, smoking, drinking too much taking drugs and lots of other choices make people sick or sicker.  The debate is whether or not lifestyle should affect health premiums. 

You get a familiar breakdown.  Believers in individual responsibility say that people should try harder.  Just say no to the donuts and yes to the walk.   Others respond that it is not their fault.  That some people cannot afford to eat right or don’t have the time to exercise. (IMO, if you can afford to be fat, you can afford not to be, since it tends to cost less not to eat as much.)

Let’s stipulate that we are not talking perfection.   Few people can be in top-shape for extended periods, even if we could define what top-shape means.  But most people can indeed eat reasonably well and exercise moderately.  If we could just bring the rate of obesity down to 1980 levels, we would be a lot better off.  This is not perfection.  It should be attainable by all or most.   It is also true that no matter what you do sometimes you will get sick, maybe seriously sick.  We need protection from that. Reasonable.

Another stipulation is that I hate the use of the passive voice in health care and the language of victimization.  When I hear someone say that he wasn’t “offered the opportunity” of a good lifestyle or – worse – when they say “it’s is not my fault” or “I was denied the chance,” I know I am talking to a loser.   

That is my prejudice.   Not everyone can be perfect but everyone can change their lifestyles to improve. 

So let’s strip down the debate.   We don’t have the personal responsibility crowd v the caring people.  What we really have is the incentive folks v the determinists.  If you believe that incentives can change behaviors, you tend to fall on the side of responsibility.  If you believe that large forces determine your behavior, you are a determinist.

A false moral argument is that we need to take care of each other and help to the “least fortunate among us” (another phrase I dislike). This argument is usually made with a cry in the voice and it is meant to stop debate. Don't let it. It is not really wrong, but it is incomplete.

I think we DO indeed have responsibilities to each other, but it should not be unconditional.  If you fall through the ice on a frozen lake, I should help pull you out.  But you should have shown reasonable care in not getting out on that lake and risking both our lives, and if you fall through too much, maybe we should let you make an ice cube of yourself.  We have a duty to help the sick and downtrodden, but if the sick and downtrodden have fallen into that position because of their foreseeable bad behavior, THEY have let down the team.  A person who becomes sick because of something like drug abuse, obesity or heavy smoking is probably more a perpetrator than a victim since he demands resources that could be used in better ways but for his misbehavior.

It is clear to me that big forces do determine many general directions.   But within those big directions, we have a lot of choice and we can and do respond to incentives.   Sometimes you have to “blame the victim” because the victim consistently puts himself in positions or places were bad things happen.  We do have to be judgmental and have the duty to stigmatize bad behavior and reward good behavior.  It does nobody any good to pretend that the obese person is a victim of society or that his/her behavior will not increase the chances of premature death and higher health care costs.

So we should all do our parts.  As in a good team, we don’t demand everybody make equal contributions, but we do demand that everybody do what they can.   There is no virtue in letting yourself become a victim through indolence, ignorance or lack of discipline.  Those people are stealing from those who get sick because of true bad luck or forces beyond their control.  

September 20, 2009

Trimming the Tree

John Matel trimming treeChrissy & I trimmed the branches in our trees today.  One of our neighbors lent us a 12-foot ladder so I could climb into the tree and get at the internal branches that were crossing and rubbing onto each other. 

All the zelkova trees around here have a problem of crossing and interfering branches.  I think that the reason is the way they sell them from nurseries.   They trim them up nicely and encourage branching so that they look good at the date of sale.  That means they are fuller than they would otherwise be.   As they grow, the branches expand into each other’s space.  Now this one is taken care of.   Sarah, the woman next door is now very happy.  She was worried re the branches hitting her house.

I was surprised how much I cut out and how little it seemed to change the tree.  That is the sign of a good pruning.  If the tree still looks natural after the work is done, the work has been done well.  Although I probably should have waited another month to prune, I think it will work out.  We are having an early fall this year and the fall pruning should make it grow really fast next spring at the ends of the branches and it is too late for the sucker branches to grow now, so it will be okay.

I am getting too old to climb around in the branches.  Chrissy held the ladder and passed up the tools. I was glad to have her.  It always worried me that the ladder would fall when I was high in the branches or – worse – when I was standing on the ladder.  Now my only worry was that branches and sawdust would land on Chrissy.

Tree at Johnson-Matel house in 2000We cut the branches up and loaded them into the truck - filled the whole bed. I am going down to the farm tomorrow and will dump them down there.  It is good to have a truck and good to have land. My plan is to drive really fast backwards and then slam on the breaks, releasing the branches onto the ground.  

On the left is the same tree nine years ago.  I trimmed off the lower branches, but you can see the future branch tangle. 


September 19, 2009

Good Polish Friends

Statue of Kosciszko in Milwaukee

I think it is more important to stand with your proven friend than try to curry favor with adversaries who have shown little inclination to cooperate in the past.  America has few friends as steadfast as Poland.   Polish support for our country goes back before the revolution, when Kosciuszko and Pulaski came to fight along with George Washington just because they loved liberty.  

Yet Poland was devoured by its neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia, and it remained an imprisoned nation for 123 years.  Rebirth came in 1918, at the end of World War I, but it was not an easy time.  About two decades later, Nazi armies invaded Poland from the west and the Soviets stabbed them in the back from the east. This happened on September 17, 1939. Remember that date. 

Although Poland was conquered again devoured, partitioned by the two extremes of revolutionary socialism, Poles fought back.   The Nazis lost more troops invading Poland than they did conquering France in the next year and the Poles never gave up. Great heroes like Jan Karski and Jan Nowak-JezioraƄski (I had the privilege of meeting both these heroes) warned Franklin Roosevelt about the holocaust and what the Nazis were doing in their conquered territories.  Although Poland was under the Nazi jackboot, Polish soldiers fought in all the allied armies.  Polish pilots were crucial during the Battle of Britain.  Poles served with Americans at Monte Casino and Arnhem.  They always took heavy casualties, fighting bravely and – frankly – being used more freely as cannon fodder. Had Polish soldiers been counted, they would have made up the fourth largest army in the Allied camp.

In September 1944, the Polish home army rose against the Nazi occupiers. Stalin halted his advance, hoping to allow the Nazis to kill off Polish patriots.  He thought it would slow him down for a couple of days.   The Poles held out for months. The Nazis completely destroyed Warsaw and murdered hundreds of thousands.  But the Red Army was halted on the Vistula long enough to lose the campaigning season. This had the unexpected effect of holding Stalin back, allowing American and British troops to advance to the Elbe. Had Stalin not slowed, he may have reached the Rhine, making the post war Soviet tyranny much more powerful and dangerous.

After World War II, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere and they suffered in that communist purgatory until 1989.   The iron curtain cracked in Poland. Solidarity pushed the communist to the wall and then the Poles elected a non-communist government. But they still didn’t feel secure in their new freedom. They wanted to have friends and allies. They became NATO allies in 1999 and proved their worth. Polish troops served in the Balkans and they fought and died along side us in Iraq.  They also agreed to support us with missile defense on their land. I suppose not everyone is as grateful to them as I am. Maybe some actually hold it against them.    It is a fault in our system that we sometimes identify America’s friends as connected with particular American leaders or their policies.

Remember that September 17, 1939 date? On September 17, 2009 we decided to pull out of an agreement to deploy missile defense in Poland.  

We made a big effort to help secure Central Europe. It was a success of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Security is as often about perceptions as it is about capabilities. If an adversary believes the cost of aggression will be great and he refrains from aggression you win w/o spending the blood and treasure needed to fight the real war. 

We sometimes think the age of aggression is over. The Poles have a more tragic history than we do and they are not as certain as some of us might be. 

As I wrote at the beginning, it is better to stand with proven friends. You cannot make friend with everybody.  Some people and some regimes are just playing a zero sum game with us. If we give; they take and ask for more.  They are “satisfied” only when they reach the limits of what they can grab. If you give you can be asked to give again. It is not impossible to reach agreements or to live together in peace and mutual respect. But that respect must be mutual. One-way respect is just for chumps.

I recommend a good article by Ron Asmus, one of President Clinton's smartest advisers in the Washington Post. 


September 18, 2009

America Still a Melting Pot

John Matel at Hispanic Awards Gala Sept 16, 2009Tim Receveur got tickets for the Hispanic Caucus Awards Gala and shared one with me.  He got them from a band IIP works with called Ozomatli.  Tim has been one of their biggest supporters.  They are a multicultural band, which goes well with our programs and very easy to work with, which makes our PAOs overseas happier.  Their music was very good.

President Obama was there and gave a speech.  It was mostly about health care, but he added a Latino twist.  Evidently a significant number of the uninsured are Latinos, especially if “undocumented workers” are included.  The President’s speech didn’t go into much detail, but he did repeat “todos somos Americanos” on several occasions, which was a crowd pleaser.  

Unfortunately, he went the other way as he left the building, so I didn’t get to shake his hand.   I was figuring that a close encounter might cure the minor arthritis in my left knee, but no such luck.

I had a good time, even if I didn’t get to meet the big man personally.  The night started off with a mariachi band.   I am fond of that music.   It has down-home sounds. The old man listened to a lot of country and western music and a lot of his cowboy music shared the southwest roots.   Marty Robbins, Gene Autry and the great Bob Wills all played on the familiar themes, often with Spanish speaking musicians or even lyrics.  Another familiar aspect was the recent immigrant vigor you could feel.   The American dream is still alive and people come from all around to take part in it.

Mariachi band at Hispanic Gala

Sonia Sotamayer was there, so were Marc Anthony and Jenifer Lopez. Soladad O'Brien won an award.  I always wondered re her unusual name combination.   Her mother is Cuban.  Her father is Irish-Australian.   In America they met and married.

President Obama at Hispanic Award Gala Sept 16

What I noticed was a lot of old fashioned assimilation.   It is not fashionable to call our country a melting pot anymore, but it is nevertheless.  The crowd was a lot like I remember immigrant families from Poland or Italy in Milwaukee. The older people maintain their ties of the home country.   The younger people have a second-hand connection but a lot less real feeling for the place.  And when they marry out of the community, the children don’t think much at all about ethnicity.  The difference in the Hispanic community had been that immigration renewed the ties constantly. This may be changing now, as birth rates are dropping in Mexico and Central America.  

Man with guitar The process is best illustrated by a simple statistic.   It was repeated a couple of times that Hispanics are America’s largest ethnic group, with something like 47 million. This is not entirely accurate.   Germans are the largest ethnic group in the U.S. 58 million Americans claimed German ancestry on the 1990 census, which is the last time I think they asked the question. This is significant because it is NOT significant, i.e. nobody really cares.  Germans have enriched America with their cultural contributions (decent beer, kindergarten, hot dogs & sauerkraut) and their hard work, but they are so thoroughly American now that it passes completely w/o notice.  When I mention it, people roll their eyes and discount it. They say that it doesn’t really count and they are right.  It made a big difference in 1909.  Who cares today?  The same will happen with Hispanics. At some point they may indeed become a quarter of the U.S. population, as the Germans were 100 years ago.  But nobody will really pay attention by the time that happens. This is America. Todos somos Americanos.  That is how we roll.

Anyway, it was an interesting event.   Everybody had to wear tuxedos.   This made for an elegant evening, but it presented an unexpected problem.    When everybody has a black tuxedo, you cannot tell who is the waiter.   When people come around with plates of food, you might just be stealing somebody’s snacks.

BTW – Tim’s wife April took the pictures, if you notice the better quality.  She does this professionally.  You can find her other work at this link.


September 15, 2009

New Geography

I found a really interesting webpage today called Newgeography.   It covers many of the things I am interested in, such as land use, agriculture, urbanism etc.   I spent the evening reading the articles.

September 14, 2009

Small Scale Beauty and Ugly

View from the front window 

I like to sit in my chair and look out the window.   This time of year, the sun comes in low at the edge of the house and paints the leaves of the plants and trees by the window.  The pictures don't do it justice.  I am not sure which I like best, now when everything is still green or a few weeks from now when the leaves on the bigger tree will be yellow and those of the Japanese maple will be crimson. 

The tree fills with birds in the evening this time of year.  They sing so loudly you cannot hear the TV if you leave the door open.  I like it, although they do crap all over.   We don't need to fertilize around that tree.  

Front Window in Merrifield VA Sept 13, 2009 

The picture below is parking under the freeway.   It is a brutal scene, but maybe so ugly that it is interesting.   I always kind of liked Chicago under those El Tracks, ugly, but gritty.   I think that is why I liked “The Blues Brothers,” because of Chicago.

Freeway near Capitol in Washington DC 

September 12, 2009

Tea Party in Washington

Tea party protest near U.S. Capitol on September 12, 2009 

Chrissy and I went down to watch the tea party protest today in Washington. I like to watch protests. I got in the habit when I lived in Madison.  The crowd filled the lawn from the Capitol down past 4th St. None of the anti-war marches were as big.

The demography was the interesting part.  I bet the median age was around forty or fifty and I thought about what I said in Revenge of the Geezers a couple days ago.  It has usually been hard to get a crowd of people over thirty-years-old to come out to protest. Most of the other protests I have seen are staffed by the young and unemployed. This protest was unusual in that included mostly people who probably actually pay taxes and I think it was largely organized online.  This might be the harbinger of political activism of the future.

Once you get a full time job and other responsibilities, you don’t have as much time or inclination to march, chant and protest.  This explains why youth has driven protest movements.  There is no mystery to it.  They have extra energy and time on their hands.  Beyond that, they are vaguely bored and a little bit resentful because they think others don’t pay enough attention to them.  As the older population becomes healthier and retirement stretches on for many more years, this is increasingly a description that applies to old people.

The other thing interesting about this crowd was its lack of professionalism. Most protests I have seen have their core of bused-in experienced protesters, with well constructed signs and organized chants. This one had almost all hand lettered signs.  There was very little unity among the messages. Most clearly didn’t like the President but most of the anger seemed directed at congress.  One of the most original signs had pictures of members of congress and said, “Don’t give your cash to these clunkers”

tea party protestors in Washington near reflecting pool at Grant Monument on September 12, 2009 

The crowd was very well behaved, but not very well organized. Most were probably first-time protesters and I got the feeling that many would be taking their children or grandchildren to see the monuments in Washington after they wandered off when the protesting was done.  Some brought lawn chairs.  If someone had fired up a grill, it would have seemed a lot like a July 4th picnic.  Of course we didn’t stay long.  Maybe it got more intense later, but I doubt it.

September 11, 2009


Flags on building in Roslyn VA on 9/11/2009 

People remember where they were on 9/11 (more on that below) but it is harder to remember how you felt and what you thought. At first it was just surprise and then anger.  I don’t remember exactly when we found out Osama bin Laden was behind it.  There was a lot of speculation before that.  It was considered racist to jump to the conclusion that it had been Middle Eastern terrorists, but I think most people jumped in that direction anyway. Go with the probabilities.

I wrote notes to myself that evening, so I have some documentary sources beyond fallible memory.  I wondered if this was going to be a big break with civilization, that would build to something catastrophic like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand let to World War. I understood that militarily all the countries of the Middle East combined could be defeated by a single American carrier group, but I also knew that would not be the type of conflict we faced.   Everybody thought the terrorists would hit again and there was talk about a new normal where it became routine to have terror attacks.

When I look back over the years since 9/11/2001, I am relieved. It was not nearly as bad as we feared.   We did a good job of countering the bad guys.   I know we feel a little guilty now because we treated some of bad guys harshly and nobody can say what would have happened had we been less aggressive, I have to say that we achieved a good result. I would err on the side of caution and if that means some terrorist are uncomfortable, that is just the way it is. In eight years they have been unable to hit us again.  It is not for lack of trying.  Terrorism is a disease that will never go away entirely, but it can be controlled with proper treatment.

When I think back to the crowds and how we felt on 9/11/2001, I bet anyone in the crowd would have happily held anyone responsible or even associated the attacks underwater for as long as it took to make them talk or drown them.  If fact, I bet a majority would have still held them under AFTER they talked.   Considered judgment from a position of safety is usually different from the decisions you make when you are in the fray, when your life or those of your loved ones seem in the balance, and I don’t think we really have the moral right to be too strict when judging methods unless we also can recreate the state of mind.  It is like telling someone that he used too big a caliber in stopping the attacking beast since a smaller one PROBABLY would have worked.   

But it is human nature to second guess and to want to hold someone accountable for producing a result that was not as good as it is possible to imagine.  I don’t hold with that.  IMO people should feel afraid to attack the United States; those who kill Americans should anticipate a lethal response.   And they should get it.    The 9/11 attacks came when the U.S. was ostensibly at peace.   We had just finished saving millions of Muslim lives in Kosovo. We had invaded no Middle Eastern countries.  In fact, we had liberated one (Kuwait) from a particularly brutal tyrant.  Al Qaeda had no reason to attack us, at least no reason a civilized human being would accept.  As I write, I feel the anger return even after years have passed, so let me move along before I post something too bloody minded.  

What I did on September 11

 I was in the middle of a seminar on websites at FSI (yes, even back then) when someone came into the room and said that there had been a terror attack in NYC.   We thought it was something like a suitcase in an airport, but we went out to the common area where CNN was on.   We saw the towers burning and then they just collapsed.   Somebody said that they could not have collapsed and it must just be the smoke hiding them, but it was a collapse.  By then the Pentagon had also been hit so they decided to evacuate FSI, since it also was a Federal facility.  They sent us home. I didn’t have a local home, since I was assigned to Warsaw and was on TDY in Washington from a conference.  My hotel was the Holiday Inn in Roslyn near the Potomac, so I started to walk in that direction.

People were all over the streets, mostly going the opposite direction.   Everyone was asking questions, but nobody knew any answers.   I was surprised how friendly and helpful people were. There was no shoving or fighting even though the crowds and traffic were massive. There was also no panic, which is surprising when I think about it.   When somebody would start to talk about a frightful thing, others would calm him down and say that we all just had to be calm.  It is a couple of miles from FSI to the Potomac, so I passed lots of people walking and standing on porches. Despite the tragedy, or maybe because of it, I felt a peaceful easy feeling of solidarity with my fellow Americans, even as we could hear and see all the emergency vehicles screaming toward the Pentagon.

The Holiday Inn was full of people from posts overseas, since that is where we all were staying. Some worried about paying for the unexpectedly long stay.  The Holiday Inn folks assured us that we could stay as long as we needed to.  Soon State Department guaranteed that our travel orders would be amended to account for any differences.  Those assurances were important. We all called our families to make sure they were okay and to tell them that we were fine. Actually, we tried to call.  The lines were jammed. I don’t remember when I finally got through.  Email worked, however.  I figured the my family, living in Poland, were among the safest people in the world anyway.

I walked over to the Key Bridge. You could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon. It was actually pretty against the clear blue sky. I thanked God for the brave Americans working to protect us, all those firefighters and police in New York, and those ordinary Americans who stood up to the terrorists on Flight 93 and probably saved much destruction and death in downtown Washington. 

I was stuck in DC until September 17.  If you see that Michael Moore movie where he makes a big deal about the bin Laden family getting out “early” on September 21,  know that he is full of crap (about that and everything else, BTW).  Flights to Europe resumed on or before September 17 because I was on one of them.  I had to go via Atlanta and Rome to Warsaw, but it wasn’t too hard. The planes were almost empty.  I got upgraded to business class and the seat next to me was empty. 

I got back home and back to work, sadder, a little less trusting and a lot more aware of being American in a world that seemed more dangerous.  

September 10, 2009

Pseudo-Experts Protect their Phony-Baloney Jobs

Arab Coke and Pepsi

It is hard to overestimate the value of precise, current information and the understanding of local conditions when talking about almost anything, but especially concerned with persuasion and public affairs. Remember that when hearing from experts who purport to know a lot about really big and widely dispersed cultures or countries.  Even Coca-Cola tastes different in different places. There is no such thing as a global brand.

I was reminded of that during an unpleasant conversation I had with a woman who implied that she spoke for or at least understood Muslims.  She didn’t really specify, but she left the strong impression that she was talking about ALL the Muslims. Last I heard, there were about a billion and a third of them. I don’t doubt that she had important insights, but it is clearly not possible for anybody to be an expert on that many people, living as they do in such diverse circumstances.   Nor is it possible to craft any message or campaign that will appeal to all of them. It is just stupid to lump a billion people together. Yet stupid is rampant. 

I goggled that transparently stupid phrase, “what do a billion Muslims really think” and to my chagrin found lots of people who claimed they could tell me the answer.  There is a whole book with that in the title, hundreds of articles, scores of opinion polls and lots of activity by think tanks. I guess I should not have been surprised.  It has long been a profitable racket for experts to set themselves up as spokespeople for large unknowable masses. I have met those who “speak for” the workers, the business owners, the blacks, the whites, the poor, the rich, the famous, the unknown ... I even met people who claim to speak for the animals, trees, rocks and for the earth itself.   I have even met people I did not know who claimed to speak for people like me. You just have to call them on this. 

One of the most important roles for a non-expert who is assigned to do something with experts is to keep them in their places.  This is hard, since they do indeed know more than you do in their area of expertise.  They can make you look silly for questioning them and most experts think their own field of endeavors is the most important or at least the indispensible link in the chain of effectiveness.   

But they do not know everything.  Developing real expertise is necessarily a narrowing process.   It is attractive to be THE expert and that means digging deep into something nobody knows, or maybe nobody cares, much about.  These kinds of experts may not have much grasp of the bigger picture, re how their part fits into the bigger whole.  They are so accustomed to intensifying the parts of their expertise that they forget to ask what their expertise is part of. The tricky tasks of the expert master is  to develop enough specific knowledge to ask the right questions,  enough humility to let the experts operate autonomously when appropriate and enough confidence and courage to stand up to them when necessary. Actually, a true subject matter expert rarely is a big problem for an experienced leader. They are like craftsmen, who do their job according to specifications. If you keep in mind that to a man with a hammer, every job looks like a nail, and you are sure that hammering is what you need, the main challenge is choosing the right people for the job in the first place.    

The problem people are the uber-experts, who extrapolate from what they legitimately know to claim all sorts of Gnostic knowledge that they claim to know but cannot explain to you because you can just never know it.  They tend to slither into places they don’t belong and develop a type of exclusive pseudo-expertise power that cows the timid, impresses the credulous and generally creates a pain in the rear for everybody else.  Anybody who claims to be an expert on Muslims w/o narrowing the category to something more specific is such an expert.   This goes for anybody who claims to represent any large group or have mastered any broad and complicated subject.  Little good can come from associating with them, apart from some passing entertainment value.  But the costs can be high in lost opportunities and misallocated resources.

Socrates warned us about people like that almost 2500 years ago. It is not a new predicament and it will not go away because it is too profitable for those doing it.  They struggle hard to protect their phony-baloney jobs and they are usually smart enough to put up a good fight.  The key to nullifying their power  is just to identify it for what it is and expose it to the light. Of course, that is easier said than done and sometimes even harder to explain to others.

September 08, 2009

Revenge of the Geezers

Odd looking cat in Rome

I am getting to that age where I get annoyed when I think we spend too much time thinking about the youth.   Don’t get me wrong.   My children are young and I used to be young myself.  would be younger if I could. Youth has definite advantages.   But society is changing in ways that are leading us away from the youth domination of the recent past, which – BTW – may well have been a historic anomaly. 

Let me focus on the one area (other than physical prowess) where youth is supposed to enjoy the greatest advantage: technology. 

A funny thing has happened on the way to complicated technology. As technology becomes more complicated inside, its use becomes more transparent and as it gets easier to use, more people easily use it.  You see this in the evolution of connectedness.  Early adapters were young, cutting edge and tech savvy.  Today the fastest growing user segment of Facebook is retired or close to it, those with the least familiarity with the newest technologies find them no more complicated than using a telephone. That’s progress.  If I asked you to picture an avid user of the new technology, I bet you would come up with someone young, maybe looking like that actor who plays the Mac on the PC v Mac commercial. But as I mentioned above, this is less and less true.   In fact, the most revolutionary aspect of the new media will be how it engages older people and brings or keeps them in the mainstream of society.   Older people have long excelled at sitting at home.  What does a guy with a computer do most of the time?  

Ironically, old people tend to resemble young people in a couple of important respects: many don’t have full time jobs and they have time on their hands.   Increasingly, that idle time is being invested online in both groups.

Labor force participation by ageI am not the first to say this, let me be among the most energetic in repeating that this age wave, supported by new technology is already happening.   You will see a continued diminution in the relative influence of the young.  IMO, marketers and politicians are insufficiently aware of this, despite obvious signals, and it is already biting them.  Take a look at this Pew Study from a couple days ago.  Let me hit the key quote, “According to one government estimate, 93% of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2006 to 2016 will be among workers ages 55 and older.”

Watch the news reports of those town hall meetings.   Almost everybody who attends - pro and con - is either a senior citizen or soon will be.   And if you dig a little deeper, you find that they were often energized, informed and brought there by new media techniques, such as Facebook and Twitter.  The same technologies that keep you in touch with your grandchildren and fishing buddies can be turned to political or business goals w/o significant modification.  Those with their eyes on the youth didn’t see this coming.

The new media has already spread widely and it will continue to do so.  Nobody can ever keep up with all the permutations of technology. You may not have to as use becomes simpler. The day of the geek is coming to the close as we greet the bright dawn geezer.      

The Downside of Gray Power

I am not entirely happy about the new geezer power, even though I am more closely aligned with the geezer than the geek segments of society.   The biggest challenge our country will face is the exponential growth of entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security.  Entitlements already take up 2/3 of the Federal budget, up from 1/3 a generation ago.  That means that all the military, roads, foreign aid, post office, science, national parks etc spend only take up half as much of the budget as entitlements.   At current trends, in around twenty-five entitlements will take up ALL of what we now spend in Federal dollars (and we already spend too much).

FDR was very clever when he set up Social Security.    He made the retirement age 65, when life expectancy in 1933 was only 63 and he sold it as a fund, when it actually is a giant pyramid scheme.   The system worked well when giant generation of baby-boomers was working to support the smaller generations of their parents.   But now the baby boom is hitting the old folks’ home like that lump in the snake.  My generation will have to accept relatively less from these sorts of government funds than our parents did.   Politically, this is going to be the hardest thing ever.

I hope my baby boom generation - the biggest, richest and most assertive generation in American history - uses its new media leveraged gray power wisely. We cannot take all we are "entitled" to; we have to leave something on the table for the next generation.  They are OUR children, after all.  They need to keep more of their money.  The trends look good for us to stay active.  We are healthier, sharper, more able and many are willing to work longer, as the figures I mentioned above indicate.  Maybe it is better if we work and save just a little bit more for ourselves, work a little longer and let the kids off the hook a bit.  Continuing to be productive is (or should be) the price of staying influential. 

Social Security has been a fantastic success and there has been a lot of progress in America.  Back when FDR created the program, most people worked at jobs requiring hard physical labor.  They were literally worn out after a life at work.  Most retired when they couldn't work anymore and shuffled off this mortal coil soon after.  Life has improved and so has liveliness of old age.  Yes, things have changed since the 1930s.

BTW - there is an interesting article about what might happen to assets as the baby boom retires at this link.   

BTW2 - people asked me about the cat in the picture above.  I just needed a picture and that is just a strange looking cat Alex and I saw in Rome.  We thought he looked a little like Hitler. 

September 06, 2009

Presidents/Politicians CANNOT Fix the Economy

Render onto Caesar ... but don't expect government to perform miracles.  You can't always get what you want, even if everybody votes for it.  No government has been able to repeal the principles of physics, the march of time or the law of supply and demand.

Roman forum taken in February 2002 when Alex and I visited

It doesn’t matter if it is President Obama, Bush, Carter or Reagan.   I am sick of hearing the question on the Sunday morning news programs, “How is President ___ going to fix the economy.”   It just doesn’t make sense to think that any political decisions can fine tune or even quickly move something as massive and diverse as the economy.   What politics can do is create conditions that ALLOW the people to create and maintain prosperity and this is always a very long term proposition, and when we are talking about long term, it might mean decades or even generations. 

Beyond the obvious fact that presidents simply lack the power to command most of the factors in the economy, and it is a good thing, BTW, think about the time it takes to do almost anything.  To make it simple, let’s just go with an example of something government actually does control.   The roads we drive on and over which our commerce flows were laid out decades or centuries ago.  The decisions on whether to expand or maintain them, or not, were made by thousands of local jurisdictions over many years.  Quick changes are just not possible.  If you need a road in a particular place where you don’t currently have one, the president’s decision makes no difference.  If President Obama had the power to order a road built and he gave that order today, how long before you could drive on it.  Besides buying the land, laying out the plans, bringing the resources, you would have to contend with the NIMBY opposition and scores of lawyers. At best, there can be a road in five or ten years. So why do you think he can "fix" the economy with things not even in government's legitimate control?

Yesterday I wrote a post mentioning a new process for hardening wood.   This small process could create new markets for sustainably grown softwoods and maybe go a great distance in curbing deforestation in tropical forests.   This small technology improvement might have a bigger positive effect on environmental protection, specifically CO2,  than all the government rules and posturing of the past year, which still have accomplished nothing. But most people have not heard of it.  If/when it starts to work, many people will falsely associate the improvements with that climate bill that disappointingly has so far gone nowhere in the Congress.  How many other things like this are running the economy? It reminds me of that old saying in medicine, "God cures; the doctor collects the fee." 

America is much more than its government and no government can keep up with the innovations and imaginations of the people.  I am not a no-government guy.  I work for government.  I love government.  Government has an indispensable role in creating conditions for prosperity. There can be no free market w/o the rule of law.  Government creates infrastructure and sets the tone for society.  Government's must have a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence and right to wage war.  Governments can produce fine monuments.  But everything belongs in its place and there are lots of things government cannot do.

What government cannot do is manage the particulars of economics or business.  Unfortunately, it is much more fun and politically profitable for politicians to wade into management and take credit for what is happening around them largely beyond their control, than it is to do the hard work needed to create the conditions for prosperity that will only pay off years in the future.   The incentive system is just all wrong.  

I think we have a profound pro-government bias built into our study of history and into our very understanding of how things work.  It is hard to get out of the intellectual trap of thinking that political leaders actually lead in all aspects of life because it is such an ancient formula.   A leader in a small tribe makes decisions that truly do affect the daily lives of their people.  The kings in the fairy tales do too.   In the old days political leaders were also economic leaders to a much greater extent than they are today.   The state was usually the big investor that handed out patents and monopolies necessary for anybody to do business.    This changed as economies got more and more complicated and the free market made it possible for most people to do business without day to day permission from the authorities, but our thinking is way behind the times. 

Today there are so many people making so many decisions that leaders can no longer understand, let alone command, the economy, but we are remain comfortable thinking that someone is responsible, both for good and bad effects. We like heroes and villains, and we imagine them if we cannot find them in real life.

Trajan's column in Rome.  Very impressive, but consider what it actually depicts

IMO, we should take inspiration from the Biblical verse – we should render onto Caesar (the government) that which is Caesar’s; render unto God that which is God and let the people themselves sand the free market take care of everything else.   

Everything has its proper role.

President's cannot fix the economy.  We wisely have not given them this power, which they clearly cannot handle and would lead to tyranny if they seriously tried. They can only create conditions that allow the people to make prosperity.  But they do have the power to mess things up if they over reach.  It is easier to wreck than to build, easier to promise than to deliver and easier to create the appearance of success in the short term that to create a sustainable prosperity. That is why we should be very careful what we ask of politicians, since they might try to give it to us or at least might try to make it look like they have.

September 05, 2009

Sustainable is Better than Natural

JohnsonMatel tree farm road showing five year old pine trees and wildlife opening 

We make a lot of distinctions w/o even thinking about it.  One of the most prevalent and potentially pernicious is the idea that some things are natural – almost sacred and untouchable – while others are profaned by human contact.  

I think the goal should be sustainable, not “natural.”  Natural is a slippery, arbitrary and often arrogantly used term.   It is a chimera that assumes also that an environment that results from random chance and the interactions of non-human animals and plants is somehow qualitatively different than one with human influences.  This is just not true.   Some of the most productive, beautiful and sublime environments are the resulst of long term human interference and management.   They are not “natural” if that term implies human free.   But they are sustainable  

That is why I quibble with words like “recovery,” “damage” or "natural" used too freely when talking about human interactions with the environment. They can sometimes be appropriate, but they too often imply that something is broken and that we have identified a problem that we need to fix.   Some radical misanthropes who call themselves environmentalist actually believe that somehow the earth would be better off w/o humans.  Of course, this is a very short-sighted and ironically very human-based point of view.  

In fact, we would not want most human-influenced, human created, environments to revert to their pre-human state, even if that was possible and even if we could determine what non-human influence means, since there has not been such an environment in most of the world since the end of the last ice age or before.  The wonderful “natural” environments of pre-Columbian America were by no means natural, BTW.   They were created by Native American activities, especially fire, for example.  Humans have changed the environment ever since there have been humans.  Other animals have done so too, BTW.  It is the nature of all life.

Sustainable is clearly the better concept.  It provides a wide variety of choices and modulations of human influence. We will always have human influence as long as we are here, who cares after that, so why even talk about anything else?  So let’s go with sustainable, which is achievable and good, rather than some hypothetical “natural” state, which is – BTW –itself an artificial human philosophical creation.

(I have long contributed to the Nature Conservancy and I recommend everyone do it. What I like about the Nature Conservancy is its do something good perspective.   I like it that my money helps conserve and restore places to sustainable nature.   Read some of what they are doing for sustainable grasslands at this link.) 

I read a three articles today that touch on these concepts.  The first talks about how quickly ecosystems will revert to a sustainable “natural” state when humans move away.   The truth is that it takes a lot of human effort to PREVENT nature from obliterating the works of humans.  Some would argue that the new state is not “natural” and it is not pristine or natural in the purist or religious sense, but it is sustainable, which is what we should really care about.  

The next article talked about new environmentally friendly processes that can make softwoods as hard and resistant to the elements as tropical hardwoods.   This is important because we and do grow softwoods (such as pines) sustainably.  Tropical hardwoods tend to be essentially mined from rainforests, often illegally.   Replacing tropical hardwoods with sustainably grown temperate wood would go a long way to slow or even stop deforestation.   It seems almost too good to be true, but many really big changes pivot on small improvements in technologies and techniques.

The last article is about an unsustainable, well intentioned hubris. Spain has been subsidizing solar power, but it has proven unsustainable, i.e. it is not viable w/o subsidies; it doesn’t look like it soon will be viable w/o subsides and Spain can no longer afford to provide subsidies.  The whole worldwide market for solar is affected.

This is a good example of why governments should not try to favor specific technologies.  Solar does work, but not as well everywhere. The kinds of decisions must be made on local levels to allow the greater variety and localization.  The Spanish debacle might well have a desired effect, just not in Spain.  Prices are dropping because of the Spanish withdrawal. The lower prices will encourage adoption, maybe in places and applications where solar actually makes more sense.  

We should take the lesson for our own environmental legislation. The best regulation is one that gives people and firms incentives to use their intelligence and imagination to create innovations appropriate to their needs. General directions are better than detailed instructions. 

We humans are going to be on this earth for a long time to come. We are part of nature. We should not pretend we can separate ourselves.  Our task is to live sustainably on this planet. Trying to establish a pre or non-human perspective is just plain stupid. Human interventions can be good or they can be bad.  Sometimes plants and animals do better around human "footprints."

September 04, 2009

Found in Translation

St Peter in Byzantine mosaic from Chora Chuch in IstanbulMeaning often lost is translation but you can sometimes find even greater significance in different interpretations if you look hard enough. I have long been interested in Taoism (the philosophy not the religion) and have been fascinated by the great variety of translations of the words of Lao Tzu.  Some of them directly contradict the others, so I have given up on the “true meaning” and rather go with the meaning useful for me. In other words, I take inspiration rather than direction.

I was talking to a Chinese translator who told me that Lao Tzu was not nearly so mystical in Chinese.  The translations had enhanced the mystic feel and may have created some where none was implied.  Lao Tzu, he said, was actually a lot like “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”  Consider the old saying, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Here is my reformulation, “He who is present at the dawn will come to know the robustness of fortune on the path of ancient wisdom.” 

I still go with the ancient wisdom, but I understand that a lot might be what the translator put there and what I am reading into it. This is really a good thing.  We improve it and make it more applicable to our circumstances. That is why it is impossible for something written just a few years ago to be a “classic”.  

To be a classic, a work has to have been interpreted and reinterpreted by at least a couple of generations, each accreting its own perspective and wisdom.   In other words, the wisdom of Socrates or Lao Tzu wasn’t as potent when it was first bottled as it became after being properly aged and filtered by subsequent generations.

Philosophy & literature, like fine wine, good cheese or even decent beer, require time to ripen.

St Peter Byzantine Mosaic in Chora Church, Istanbul

Writing good literature in translation takes a good writer in the target language, since it is much more than just substituting words. Nobel-Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf” is probably better than the original in many ways and we cannot say how much of its beauty is from the original and how much from the poet’s skill.   We have our pick of translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the great philosophers of the world.

I don’t remember much of the classical Greek I once knew, but I do recall the many possible interpretations of even simple texts and that some things couldn’t be rendered elegantly into English.  The most common challenge was a kind of framing (µεν …. δε), which we translated as “on the one hand … on the other hand” but it didn’t really mean that in most cases.  It was just a kind of notice that a comparison was on the way.  Sometimes it was used ironically, i.e. in the sense of saying no comparison was possible.   If you translated it faithfully, you might create the false impression that a comparison was made when none was implied.   If you were merely inspired by the meaning, i.e. did not try to be too literal, you could be accused of putting too much of your own personality into the translation.   If you read Plato or Aristotle, the translations are full of decisions and compromises made by translators, so never tether yourself too closely to any particular turn of phrase. 

My job has often involved foreign languages, supervising translators and/or using translations.   I am not sure that most people are aware of the types of considerations I mention above.    More and more I am going with the inspirational rather than the literal idea.  I know the pitfalls.  Whenever you lard anything with your own judgment, you change it.  But every choice is a judgment.  Should we leave a literal translation that we think be interpreted incorrectly by the listeners or do we go with something that might change the meaning? 

I recall hearing about a Russian who complained that the translator got it wrong.   He asked the rhetorical question, “Can a hunchback change his hump?” which was translated as, “Can a leopard change his spots?” There is clearly a difference.   A hunchback, in spite of the nobility of the hunchback of Notre Dame and the lovable subsequent Disney character, is vaguely creepy and menacing and the condition is usually the result of an accident.   A leopard is sleek and wild and his spots are a natural condition.  We don’t have that hunchback metaphor is English but the translator should have stuck with the clumsier literal translation.

The best translated speech I ever heard was when President Clinton announced support for Polish NATO membership in Warsaw in 1997.   But Clinton’s speech was not really very good.  The Polish translation was much better and delivered better (with sequential translation) by Victor Lipinski, who had a knack for the dramatic perfectly tuned to Polish sentiments, which Clinton lacked as an outsider.   Even though English is my language and I understood all the words (something I cannot always do in Polish) I could appreciate that the Polish was better.  But then it had the advantage of being enhanced by the emotion and the symbolic lifting of generations of oppression by Czars, Nazis and Communists.  That meaning was FOUND in translation floating on the aspirations of millions of people.

BTW - If I may digress on a spectacular memory involving a beautiful translation, I still remember that day in Warsaw in July 1997.  It had been rainy and overcast with black clouds all day.  The sun came out as if on schedule when Presidents Clinton and Kwasniewski came out in front of the Royal Palace to make speeches.  As President Clinton (and Victor) reached the crescendo, promising that Poland would never again be conquered, they released thousands of red and white (Polish national flag colors) into the sky.  They rose into sunlight and danced against the ominous dark clouds now receding into eastern sky.  No special effects artist could have planned it better.

BTW 2 - The pictures above are St. Peter and St. Paul from the Church at Chora in Istanbul.  They actually require significant translation & explanation.  Although I am not expert enough to give the whole story, let me do the basics of what I remember the guide telling us.   The images of these two saints were more or less set in the first centuries AD and these two representations are typical.  Paul is balding and intellectual; Peter a big burly guy.  Since there are no contemporary pictures of the two men, the representations developed and scholars study how they changed over time as artists learned from each other.  They also draw on older, even pre-Christian models and the depictions are also dependent on the technology, i.e. mosaic used to create them. 

Notice the symbolism.  Peter is holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  The Popes in Rome made a big deal about being the successors of Peter and so the holders of the keys.  The Greek Church was less interested in that particular, but kept the same symbolism. From these mosaics and others around town, you can also see how the ethnic mix changed.  Presumably, the artist made portrayed people as he knew them around him. All of what is now Turkey was part of Greco-Roman-Christian world ethnically, linguistically and culturally.  To the extent that the native people living in Istanbul (then Constantinople) looked like Peter as depicted before the Turkish conquest, they were significantly different from the people living there today.  A guy looking like Peter might be mistaken for a German tourist in today's Istanbul, although Paul could probably pass unnoticed on the streets.  So in these mosaics, we see tracks of the changing religion, culure, ethnicity and interpretations of history.  There is a lot of meaning beyond the pretty pictures.

Anyway, these mosaics are true classics, since they incorporate ideas and personality of generations long past.  They need explanation.  We may never get the meaning "right" but we can find the meaning nevertheless.

September 03, 2009

New Media's Reach Exceeds It's Grasp

Measuring success in public affairs is hard because we don't control all, or even most of the key factors. Beyond that, we are essentially trying to measure a cascading set of conditional probabilities, each more fuzzy than the one before.  First we are trying to measure attitudes that nobody really understands.   Then we are asking where those attitudes come from.  After that we want to know the strength of the conviction and how attitude make practical differences.   Do they change behaviors or outcomes?    Complicating analysis is that effects may be significantly separated from the causes in both time and space and you have to account for the effects of temporary circumstances and random chance. 

You begin to see the problem?  All we really need to care about is what people do, but to explain that adequately, we have to consider all the things mentioned above.    

Does the Rooster Make the Sun Rise?

It only gets worse. Public affairs can be a little like peeing in the Pacific Ocean saying it caused the rising tide and practitioners, me included, can sometimes strut like roosters taking credit for the sunrise.  In other words, we are not sure how the attitudes affected behavior, nor are we sure where those attitudes came from or the strength of conviction.  On top of that we are trying to figure out how our small input created a big output.  

Not that we are always merely mendacious when taking credit, BTW.  Public affairs is indeed all about leverage.   Very small input can often create monumental outputs using leverage of the public affairs environment as it pulls in outside resources.   Even this good thing, however, is just another problem for measurement.  The equation would look like this. 

Our input + lots of other resources we don't control + luck + time = output, which MAY grow into a useful outgrowth.   We cannot control most of the factors in this equation and often cannot even know what they are, so instead we measure the reach (not the effectiveness) of OUR own inputs. Let me illustrate with one of my usual examples, not surprisingly an oak tree 

Mighty Oaks From Tiny Acorns Grow - But a Bushel of Acorns is Not an Oak Forest

If I plant an acorn, it may grow into a mighty oak.  How much credit do I deserve?  Maybe a squirrel would have planted an acorn if I didn’t.  Maybe one would just grow by itself.  Besides that,  I didn’t make the acorn.  I didn’t create the soil.   I cannot control the rain nor can I anticipate every destructive storm nor control all the bugs.  The oak tree will grow according to its form and DNA.   I cannot demand that it become a pine tree. In fact there is little I can do expect remove obstacles to it becoming the best it can be.   But if you come back 100 years later, maybe some kid will say, “My grandfather planted that tree.” 

In public affairs we are not dealing with acorns.  Our analogous measure is reach.   We can get a reasonably good measure of the number of people who COULD have received our message.   It doesn’t mean they DID receive our message or that they paid any attention.   So reach is a problematic measure. 

Don't Count the Same Guys too Many Times

A look at Facebook shows examples of opportunity, challenge & problems associated with this kind of measurement. You might have a thousand friends or a big rock star might have a million fans.  But how much are they getting the messages?  We also habitually overestimate the connections.  If you have 100 Facebook friends and each of them has 100 friends, you do not have 100 x 100 or 10,000 friends because the sets overlap.  If your friends are also each other's friends you may have only 100 in total. Overlap is usually not 100% and the real number is probably more than just 100, but it is far less than 10,000.   

Reach is not a very useful measure, but we like it because it is a relatively easy number to find or estimate AND it tends to be the largest number we are can get, especially if we engage in some willful ignorance about human attention spans and math 101 concepts of overlapping sets, as above.    

Reach Exceeds Grasp

And reach is relatively easy to astro-turf, especially in the new media.  There is an interesting article talking about how you can BUY Facebook friends and fans for as little as $.076 and $.085 respectively.  What reach!  If you have big bucks you can reach the all the world in theory.  Who can you blame if your reach exceeds your grasp, if you have a million fans who cannot remember your name or hear your message? 

Hey, the numbers are good, even if they probably overlap and may represent meaningless relationships.  We might become a little suspicious if our extrapolated fan bases (i.e. our estimate of our own fans to the exponent of their fans & friends) exceeded the total population of the earth, but achieving that might take a couple of months anyway.   

I am not saying we should not rejoice at successful numbers, but let's not try to fool others and let's not fool ourselves.  Reach provides ONLY the opportunity to engage and engagement provides only the opportunity to communicate and communication provides only to opportunity to make a difference.  You need to start with the acorns, but that doesn't mean you automatically have a grove of big oak trees.

September 02, 2009

Continuous Improvement Makes Everything Look Bad Looking Back

Here we are again in the spasms of self-flagellation about how we treat (or mistreat) people who have planned and sometimes carried out the murder of many of our citizens. We worry that revelations about harsh tactics used to get information from some of them may have damaged our international reputation and there are calls for a full scale investigation to uncover and reveal additional details. As long as we do such things - the argument goes - we cannot hold the moral high ground nor expect cooperation from others.  The ends don't justify the means.  Actions speak louder than words. 

But actions must be framed and interpreted, and that requires words and analysis. Sometimes the reason something is done does make a difference and the some ends can justify some means. I believe we make a big error in framing our actions by demanding, and letting others demand, a measure of perfection not attainable among humans.   In those terrible times after 9/11, I think the U.S. showed amazing restraint, even after we captured soem of those who planned the attacks that killed thousands of Americans.  Under passionate circumstances, and even under normal ones, mistakes are made.   Humans overreact, over respond and overreach, and things done in the passion of one situation may seem stupid or even evil after those circumstances have passed. 

We go over and over our mistakes, often very publicly, and say that it is a sign of strength to do so.  We allow a successful program to be “ruined” by one mistake or even one insensitive action or even one remark that could be interpreted as insensitive. We may be acting honorably or we may be overlooking the fundamental nature of error and improvement. Maybe we are doing both.  

You have to refine and re-refine what you do to minimize the scope of errors and also - of you really want improvment - you have to minimize the finding of blame.  Even a very rigorous system cannot eliminate all error.  And we have an additional caveat. While this total quality approach is great for physical processes and assembly operations, it still doesn’t work as well in emotion or politically sodden human affairs and it especially doesn’t work when you have adversaries.  Focus on your errors gets to be like trying to understand a contact sport from only from one perspective.  Every contestant is going to make mistakes, get hurt and inflict pain.  If you fail to look at the whole picture, even the champion will look like the loser by those criteria taken in isolation.

We justifiably complain that we don’t live up to our own high standards.   But that is in the nature of complicated systems, especially human systems.  An after-action analysis will always find flaws.    Mistakes should be identified and corrected and then we need to move on, avoiding the twin errors of glossing over mistakes or being blinded by them.  Learning and improving only takes place in that middle ground between treating errors as terrible sins and ignoring them as inconsequential.

I want to be very careful to underscore that I am not advocating lowering our standards.   America should and does hold to the highest standards and we can only improve setting the bar higher than we can presently achieve.  But I think we open the door too far for criticism when we allow some of the nastiest despots and terrorist to assume the high ground of victimhood.  It is the old problem of moral equivalence.  A man who takes a pencil from his office and the one who embezzles a million dollars are both stealing from their employers. But they are not really the same.

Every judgment needs to include the “compared to what?” question. If we allow the frame to be a comparison to some theoretical perfection, we will always come up short. We can always imagine something better than we can achieve.  And ironically the more we work to improve - i.e. the higher the standards we set - the worse we look in relation to our own every rising goals.  The more postitive achievement you make, the worse everything else looks.

September 01, 2009

The World at War

StukasWorld War II began on this day seventy years ago when the Nazis invaded Poland.  The fate of Poland was actually set a few days before when Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide the country between them.  Communism and fascism are variations of the same totalitarian idea.  It really wasn’t as surprising that they could get together as it seemed at the time.  

But the roots of the war go back much deeper.  We can start with the Treaty of Versailles, which was really unworkable. But nothing is inevitable in history. Had the economies not stagnated and the depression not hit, maybe Germany could have worked out its problems.   

Another root of the war was Germany itself.   The constitution of the Wiemar Republic was a model of democracy in theory, but its proportional representation, among other things, made it unstable and allowed demagogues like Hitler to leverage power.

A world at war still was not inevitable. During the 1930s, craven politicians in the great democracies appeased Hitler.   They feared war so much that they made war more likely and made the devastation more terrible when it came.  The simple argument against appeasement is that you just cannot appease dictators.  They always demand more.  But there is a more deeper one that is implicit but sometimes overlooked.  Let’s use the Hitler example. 

He was “appeased” several times.  Each time it made him hungry for more AND gave him more power to demand more.   Germany could not have launched an aggressive war unless it secured its flanks.  Imagine if there had been no Anschluss with Austria. Could Hitler have counted on security there?  Or what is Czechoslovakia had remained intact?  Czechoslovakia had formidable industry and the Sudety Mountains provided defensible terrain. The great democracies just gave that away. First they gave away the mountains (the Sudetenland) in the ostensible name of minority rights.  Then they gave away the rest to buy peace.   In all these cases, Hitler not only eliminated a threat; he also absorbed the power and got stronger.

Polish cavalryThe Nazi Germany that launched the war in 1939 was a country on steroids.   It had gobbled up Austria and Czechoslovakia, secured Memel, rebuilt and remilitarized.

Critics say the democracies could not have gone to war with Germany earlier, but then they were forced to go to war with a more powerful Germany later, a Germany they had accepted and passively helped build.  Had they resisted earlier they would have faced a weaker Germany. Hitler might have backed down short of war and he might have fallen from power if prevented from expanding.  We judge the power muscular Germany of 1939 and forget that this monster was transformed from a weakling of only six years earlier with the collaboration of peace-loving leaders in the great democracies.   

History is the sum of choices.  It is not inevitable and it is not over.   We cannot do experiments.  We never know what would have happened in different situations.   Maybe if the British and French had acted early, maybe it would have meant war earlier, which they probably could have won easier, but then we would be talking about how their belligerence provoked a needless war of choice.  More likely,  their courage and resolve would have prevented or at least mitigated the conflict.

Hitler, Chamberlain et alWe Americans were largely out of the equation – by choice.  We thought we could just ignore the rest of the world and mind our own business.  We were not active appeasers, but we were certainly appeaser enablers. 

It has been seventy years since the war began and  sixty three years since it ended.  We like to gnash our teeth about how bad the world is today, but it is a lot better than it was back in 1939.  We have avoided another worldwide conflagration since that time. The depression did not return. The world became more prosperous, tolerant, democratic and connected.  

Maybe we did learn something from history and a post-war group of wise men build alliances like NATO and various institutions that preserved the peace, or at least prevented the big war, not through wishful thinking, such as espoused by the League of Nations, but through strength and sometimes blood.

The lesson that history teaches over and over is that peace does not preserve itself.   Peace is not the natural state of mankind and freedom has been rare thorough human history.   War cannot be banished from the earth.  It can be managed and controlled for long periods of time, but only if we recognize its reality and we are willing to pay the price.  Freedom can be enjoyed ultimately only by those strong and resolute enough to defend it. The price of liberty truly is eternal vigilance. This is not a pleasant thought, but it is one to keep in mind.

Other approaches are not as successful.  Experience shows that excessive search for peace ironically lead to war and those able to defend themselves often do not need to.  On July 24, 1929, the world outlawed war. This was the Kellogg-Briand Pact. It passed the U.S. Senate by a margin of 85-1. On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain declared that the Munich Treaty with Hitler was "peace for our time."  Less than a year later ... well it didn’t work out the way they hoped. 

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