« January 2010 | Main | March 2010 »

February 28, 2010

From Where You Sit

A person’s outlook often changes more based on the perceived future than on the present reality.   That has certainly been true for me ever since I found out about my assignment in Brazil and I think this is very good.   I have been much more aware of the consequences of our Washington actions and products on our posts overseas and on our ultimate audiences there.   It is very easy to get cosseted into the Washington mind-set.   But so much of what we do here never really gets out.   We meet with each other and discuss our own urgent issues.  We sometimes provide wonderful products and services that nobody can use. 

It is very easy to be sure you know how to do something when you know you won’t really have to do it. I was aware from my past experience in overseas public diplomacy.   But my future as a public affairs officer – where I will have to USE the kinds of things we talk about here in Washington – has focused my mind on the more pragmatic aspects.    

I don’t have much confidence in the “new media” as a disembodied force.   It has to be tied to programs, people, goals and content.  But it is so easy to seek the immediate gratification of reaching large numbers of people.   It is similar to video games in that way & it is no coincidence that gaming is one of the driving forces behind new media.   The games give you immediate feedback and seem to show immediate results.  But this can be true whether or not you are making legitimate progress.   You can easily have the experience of achieving an online goal and then wondering why you spent all that time to get there.    There is a good South Park episode on World of Warcraft.  Watch it to the end. 

The combination is the key. A live speaker program, along with Co.Nx, along with Facebook or other social media, announced on twitter, with a blog about the speaker’s journey, and followed by the posting of online materials, that would work. I would also add that we would need to prepare the ground by making contacts in advance and reinforce the results by keeping up and following up later. 

Public Diplomacy is not rocket science, but it does require a diligence and a holistic approach that is continued over time and adjusted to local realities and changing conditions.  This is simple to say, but really hard to implement.    It is much easier to shortcut with social media, claim you have reached thousands and have some kind of automated response follow-up.    The short term results look great, it probably looks better in the immediate term than the holistic approach which takes time to bear fruit.   That is the seductiveness of these kinds of short cuts.

Our system encourages the short term by demanding prompt reports.   We generally write up the report of an event the next day.   What information do we have at that time?  We can count numbers of participants and the reach of the immediate placement, but we have no idea whatsoever if anybody actually thought about the program or if it opened some minds.   And our reports never follow up because the next urgent report pushed all thoughtfulness aside.    And assessing public diplomacy requires thoughtfulness.   Much of what we accomplish is indirect.  A person not at the event might have heard from a friend and that provoked an important idea.  

And time is the major factor.  It takes time for an idea to develop and mature.   I wrote about how I was influenced by a public diplomacy contact twenty-five years ago.  No measuring system would ever catch that, yet it was lasting and profound.

I know that it is a tough balance especially because in the present, you live off the work others did before you.  In the future others will benefit from what you created.

February 27, 2010

Information on Energy

I am on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) e-mailing list.  It is the study and statistical section of the U.S. Department of Energy.   They also have a webpage that includes some informative summaries for reasonable well informed non-experts, along with links for further inquiry.   It is the place I usually start when I am trying to understand any energy related issue.

February 26, 2010

Understanding Radicals


If we want to understand radicals and counter their influence, we have to get beyond pedantic debates about words. That is one of the ideas I took away from a discussion with Ghaffar Hussein, a representative of the Quilliam Foundation, a UK think tank that studies radicalization and how to prevent it.

Not getting bogged down in terms is the first step in making progress. It is good to have common understandings of terms, but some terms are too loaded for a common agreement. Radical is one such word. And it is worse than mere misunderstanding. Some people use linguistics as an offensive weapon to prevent real discussion. Mr. Hussein says that when he gets into these kinds of word-bogs, he just describes the behaviors and tells the person to call it whatever he wants.

This pragmatic approach to distinctions reminded of the William James anecdote about the squirrel.

So readers can feel free to substitute what terms they want. I am going to use the words Mr. Hussein did to describe the concepts. BTW – I am using his talk as a starting off point and the basic ideas are his. However, I am riffing off them, not reporting, so I will take the position that the good ideas are probably his and the bad ones are more likely my extrapolations. I gave Mr. Hussein the URL for the blog and I hope that he writes in if I say anything too egregiously out there.

Islamism describes an ideology, not a faith, because the ties with traditional Islam are sometimes tenuous and superficial. Islamism wears the clothes of Islam, but its operative ideology is borrowed eclectically from European totalitarian “revolutionary socialism” philosophies of Marxism and fascism. (Baathists, of which Saddam Hussein was the most famous, freely and openly borrowed from both Hitler and Stalin.) These kinds of ideas appeal to committed radicals, who embrace violence as a tactic and are small in number but seek to use masses of people instrumentally to totally change societies. Lenin and Hitler provided roadmaps that they can use.

Like the earlier European models, they tap into a sense of grievance. Of course, grievance alone is not revolutionary. Everybody has grievances and some peoples have been horribly oppressed for centuries w/o doing much of anything about it. You need a grievance as a push, but ideology is the pull. Hitler used the real grievances in postwar Germany and combined them with bogus ones about Jews and others, but w/o some unifying ideology to make it operational, you would just have had a lot of people grumbling and/or they might have worked through their problems and come out at a better place. A radical ideology is truly the serpent in the garden. They don’t want problems solved or mitigated because the grievances are the ostensible justifications that animate their movements.

We talked a little about the profile of a radical. Although Marc Sageman wrote a good book profiling some of terrorists called Understanding Terror Networks, there isn’t one profile that fits them all.  And we should make the distinction between the activists and what we might call the foot soldiers. Most of those involved with radical organizations probably have not made a reasoned choice. In places like Pakistan or Afghanistan, many do to make a little money or they just drifted into it for circumstantial reasons. There are some correlations among activists, however, and perhaps some keys to motivation could be found there.

Sageman pointed out that most of the terrorists were not from the poorer parts of society. In fact, many were very well off. They also generally had not grown up in particularly religious households; they were not especially well-versed in the details of theology and many were not living very pious lifestyles. He suggested that some may even have got into being radicals as a result of a type of cognitive dissonance, since they are living a fairly non-pious lifestyle and they may see their radical behavior s a way of atoning. Many radical activists are well-educated in the secular way and most have hard science or engineering background. You can speculate as to why this would be true. Foreign students studying in Western universities often study science and engineering. It might just be that they are a subset of that. But it could also be that science tends to have specific rules, which appeals to someone who sees the world in yes/no form. They may think that this sort of thinking should also apply to human events, society and politics.

One question that has interested observers for years is why members of U.S. Muslim community seem so much less subject to radicalization than those in Europe. Some recent events might call this premise into question, but we can still address some of the differing factors.

One reason is the type of immigrant is very different. U.S. Muslim immigrants have tended to be professional and educated and enjoy a higher median household income than the average non-Muslim American. The Muslim community in America also contains a large number of Iranians who fled the Ayatollahs. They are less inclined to view radicalism with much enthusiasm given their intimate experience with it. In contrast, immigrants to Europe tended to be lower skill and lower income workers. When the first waves came in the 1960s, many intended to return home and did not integrate into the local societies. This group was leavened by more radical elements, who couldn’t safely practice their brand of Islam in their native countries. It created a volatile mix.

There is also the different nature of the host societies. The United States and Canada are countries of immigration. Immigrants can fairly easily adopt an American identity and find a place in the American mosaic. European countries were and still are to some extent more nation/ethic-states. Nobody has any trouble assuming a person can become American by choice and most Americans trace their own ancestry to an immigrant who did just that. It is harder to think of someone just choosing to become German, Italian or Danish, since there are lots of other things that go along with that designation. Mr. Hussein thinks that is changing, but it still hasn’t changed. Although he was born in the UK, he is still often considered an “immigrant” in Europe.

Another factor is the sheer size of the U.S. and Canada. Immigrants spread out over North America, while in more constrained European countries they tend to pool into homogenous communities.

There is also a generational phenomenon. The risky time is the second generation. The immigrant generation knows what their native country is like. While they might not be perfectly at home in their new country, they don’t harbor as many illusions about what they exchanged for what they left behind. The second generation has to search for identity in more ways. They may feel that they are in, but not of, their new home country but they also don’t have much experience with the old one. They may seek to find or create “roots” and so may be susceptible to radical ideas purporting to do that for them. This may be exacerbated by parents, especially fathers, who really don’t address their concerns.

While I have no close experience of this with Muslim immigrants, I remember the phenomenon with European immigrant fathers in Wisconsin and some of their kids around my age. I bet the general conversation is similar. “What are you complaining about? You’ve got it easy. When I was growing up back in ____ we …” The difference was there was no radical ideology to appeal my Polish/Irish/Italian playmates back in the 1960s. As we discussed above, everybody has grievances, but without the ideology to pull them along, nothing may come of them but grumbling.

We didn’t really talk about the “so what do we do?” question.  Read about this on the Quilliam Foundation webpage. I am not an expert on these things and never will be, but I found this a very interesting talk and thought I would write it down to share with others.

February 24, 2010

Various Things Around Washington


The snow is melting, but more is expected tomorrow to replace it.  It is hard to believe that within a month the flowers will be blooming.   The picture above is from March 23 of last year - a month from now.   I will appreciate spring more after this especially snowy and cold winter.


Above is a protest on 22nd St. outside the State Department. I think they are Eritreans. I was in a bit of a hurry so I just took the picture and kept on walking, so I don’t really know what was bothering them. About a hundred showed up to chant for passersby and a good time was had by all except the taxi drivers who were annoyed that the street was blocked.


Above are broken magnolia trees outside the Archives. The snow is hard on these sorts of southern trees and there are lots of broken branches & trees around here.  The snow weighs heavy on their leathery evergreen leaves. You can see why trees from colder climates would adapt strategies other than holding onto their broad leaves all winter.

February 23, 2010

Becoming a Good American

National_Capitol3_on_February_23_2010 at about 130 

Most private and all public universities were founded in part to help educate good citizens. They really aren’t doing a great job of it, if you assess what students learn about America’s government, business, institutions and society. Take this simple test. The questions are based on our citizenship exam. Lucky for most Americans that we were born here, because 71% of us probably couldn’t pass the test to become citizens.

College graduates do better than the general population (49% to 57%) but adjusting for demographic characteristics (income, age, region etc) college students get only 3.8% better over their four-year tenure & some big name universities managed to produce “negative knowledge.” Seniors at Cornell scored 4.95% lower than freshmen. Yale, Duke, Princeton, Rutgers & Berkeley also went negative. Harvard seniors scored best at 69.56%. Maybe it will stoke Yale-Harvard rivalries. Yale freshmen beat Harvard freshmen (68.94 to 63.59%), but after Yale’s loss and Harvard’s gain, Harvard won in the end.


Read the rest of the report here. You can see the discussion of the reports at this link

Of course, there is some debate as to how much civic knowledge a citizen really needs. Our democracy relies on the wisdom of crowds. Each person has some bits of knowledge, which are presumably aggregated to produce a good result. It is not necessary for everybody to know what the Scopes trial was about, be able to name the three parts of the Federal government or even be able to name the countries who were our enemies in World War II, as long as some people know important things and we are generally wise enough to know when when know and when we don't. The problem that I see is that sometimes the ignorant also have very high self-esteem. Recalling the lines from Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worse are full of passionate intensity." Modern education may feed this.

There is an old saying that you are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts. Not everybody believes that anymore. Some people think it is important to teach critical thinking and not pay much attention to the facts. But if you don’t have any facts, what are you thinking critically about?

IMO the more you know about American history and institutions, the more you appreciate them. Thomas Jefferson believed that an educated citizenry was crucial to the working of democracy, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. Building good citizens was one of the founding justifications for the public school system.

I got one wrong on the test and I will advance the lame excuse that I wasn’t paying attention. But when I thought about the questions, a lot of what I learned I didn’t learn directly in school. Education doesn’t/shouldn’t stop when you graduate from college and college isn’t/shouldn’t be the only place you get education, especially civic education. I think we need to emphasize our heritage, for everybody in our lives every day, lest it slip away. Knowledge lives only in living people, not locked in books we never read. And the person who doesn’t read is really no better off than the person who can’t.

It is not all locked in the written word, however. One of the places I learned some of these facts is from television – yes television. Much of television is indeed crap, but there is a lot of good too. There is a very good PBS series called The American Experience. The episodes about FDR were on last week. He was an amazing man with an amazing education. He came from what is as close to an American ruling class as we can get, but it is true that we Americans don’t have a ruling class. They are us. We are our own “rulers” and so we have to train a new set of them each generation. We produced truly great generations of leadership. Let’s hope that we are not just living off and using up the capital that they created for us and let’s work to make sure that is not the case.

Maybe we should take citizenship a little more seriously.

February 21, 2010

Tysons Corner


Chrissy & I went to the movies at the AMC at Tysons Corner today.   We saw “From Paris with Love” with John Travolta. It was one of those action thrillers where you have to suspend belief in human behaviors and the normal rules of physics. It was worth going but not real good.   I wouldn’t recommend it if you have other things to do. There were just not good options, even with multiple cinemas. I wanted to see that Jeff Bridges movie, “Crazy Heart” but it wasn’t showing.


Cinema tickets are getting expensive.  It was $18 for two.  I am still a cheapskate and I remember when they were a lot cheaper, but the “theater experience” is worth it once in a while.  We got popcorn and soda too. Everything is big.


We rarely go to the Mall anymore. When the kids were little, we were more frequent customers.  It was a form of entertainment as well as shopping. We bought a lot of useless crap. Malls are better avoided when possible. You are tempted to buy stuff you can't really use and food you don’t want. 

Today I had real trouble resisting Cinnabon. They have a fan that wafts the scent out into the Mall.   The funny thing is that I don’t like Cinnabon that much. They are too sticky and not worth the trouble of eating them. Nevertheless, the scent is enticing and difficult to resist.

Tysons is the biggest city in Virginia.  It is really a massive complex of malls and offices.   They are building the Metro out to Tysons, which is a little ironic but also positive.  Tysons was the ultimate car center, but that is becoming unsustainable.

Rain Dancing

70+ year old Ford engine still pumping water from the Euphrates for irrigation in Iraq

Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but everybody expects you to do something. That is the time for the rain dance. Put on a good show, create a lot of sound & fury to keep people occupied so that they will keep you around long enough for things to improve, so you get credit. Politicians are master rain dancers, butt all of us have done a few. Sometimes you just have to be seen to be doing something.

I have been reading a book about real rain dances, called Floods, Famines and Emperors:  El Nino and the Fate of Civilizations.  The author talks about the various times when climate change caused civilizations to thrive and crash.   One chapter talks about the Pueblo of the Southwest.  (I think that is where the term “rain dance” comes from, BTW.)  Their population expanded during relatively wet times and then their populations starved and dispersed during when the same Medieval warm period that brought prosperity to Western Europe brought droughts to Southwestern North America that lasted decades or centuries.  Changes always bring winners and losers.

The author Brian Fagan says that a lot of early civilizations were based in part on the implication that priests and rulers could control the weather. Their activities to do this ranged from the merely wasteful to the downright gruesome.  A lot of complicated rituals and ceremonies were designed to do things like make the Nile flow or bring on the season rains.  The ancient Maya seem to have based their belief system on the need to capture, humiliate, torture and kill people from neighboring areas in order to sacrifice them and appease bloodthirsty gods who otherwise would bring drought and destruction.  They left some nice pyramids, but living through in those times must have been like being a minor character in a endless horror movie.   Unfortunately, these kinds of superstitions were the rule and not the exception in pre-scientific societies.

At our safe distance, we sometimes think of these superstitions in the benign fairy-tale sense of an enchanted forest full of fairies, elves etc. But think of how horrible it would be if you really believed it. The pre-scientific world must have been a frightening place. Everything you did could offend some spirit or nymph, so you needed to turn to shaman, witch or priest to protect you from capricious nature, which they (and you) attributed to benign or malevolent intelligence that had to be mollified.  

Some ritual had to be performed, but nobody was ever was sure if they worked.  Of course, they didn’t work but sometimes they might look like they did. If I do ceremonies to make it rain, and it eventually rains, I take credit.  A smart shaman probably had an intuitive sense of probability, so he did his rituals at times when things were moving in the right direction. You can see how the shaman might have added some value by his experience, on balance, however not. 

I suppose superstition is a step toward science. Alchemy led to some real discoveries about chemistry and physics. Astrology gave us some of the tools later needed by astronomers. 

Superstitions are an attempt to put some planning and order into an unpredictable world.   The problem is mostly based on mistaking correlation for causality, poor record keeping and the evidently natural human propensity to see patterns that don’t exist. Superstitions are a kind of distortion of reason, but they can be ostensibly reasonable.    

Of course, we still do rain dances too. The world is still an unpredictable place.

Anyway, I recommend Floods, Famines and Emperors. A lot of his ideas seemed very familiar, but I didn’t put it together until I started writing this that I had read one of his earlier books called The Long Summer.  It is still sitting on my bookshelf. These books help put the climate change debate in its historical perspective. We have been here before and maybe some perspective on how earlier climate changes affected earlier people may help us in the future.

February 20, 2010

Old Men Forget: Yet All Shall be Forgot


Above is the Vietnam Memorial.  There was a bunch of grade school kids visiting the place and I heard them talking. They have no personal connection with a war that ended a quarter century before they were born.  It is almost as remote to them as World War I was to me.  It is not their war, nor even their fathers'. Vietnam is something their grandfathers may have experienced. Funny how fast time moves and how the defining events of your life are just history now. 


Above is the MIA booth.  They sell mementos, medals and patches.  Below is snow removal near the Memorials.


Below is the path along the reflecting pool going toward the Washington Memorial


Pedestrians get no Respect


Above is the crowded subway car on the Orange Line. I usually get a seat, but lately they have the cars have been more crowded.  They are raising the price of fare by a dime, but will probably also still cut service. Below is the sidewalk on the way to the Metro stop.  They take care of the roads fairly well, but that means eight foot high banks of snow.


February 19, 2010

Washington Snow Cone


Washington is under more snow than any living person has seen and this has been the longest time ever when my running path were snow clogged.   But Washington is pretty in the snow, as the pictures show.  


It was warm and sunny today and the snow has the consistency of a snow cone.  It will take a few more warm days to melt it all off.


Above is the Lincoln Memorial.  Below Robert E. Lee's house and Arlington Cemetery from across the Potomac.


Below is the snow covered running path near the Vietnam Memorial



February 18, 2010

Equality v Fairness

The concepts of fairness and equality significantly overlap, but they are not the same. A recent study showed how people’s perception of fairness of equal outcomes varied depending on what rewards were being offered. It seems that most people think equality is fair up to a certain level; after that treating unequal contributions equally is unfair.

Modern philosopher John Rawls in his theory of a "hypothetical contract” argued we could imagine a fair society if we imagined a situation where all of our individual identities were temporarily unknown. What rules would we all set up if we didn’t know what role we were going to get to play? This kind of analysis is bound to produce equality and you can see this kind of thinking at work for SOME things.

The sun also shines on the wicked

People tend to believe in equal distribution when they believe rewards are random or unearned. That makes sense to me too. If you cannot make reasonable distinctions, your best course of action is to treat everybody equally. People are even more generous with things they don’t feel they earned. The best time to ask for a loan is after someone has come into an unexpected windfall. Do the thought experiment yourself. How different would be your response to a friend asking for ten of dollars if (1) you just found $100 on the ground or (2) you just spent 12 hours washing dishes to earn $100 (maybe $60 after taxes and fees)?

And think of how much more generous you could be if it wasn’t even yours. I remember as a child, friends would sometimes let friends skip in line … but almost always in BACK of them. No cost generosity can be appealing.

So people believe that fairness is pretty much the same as equality when rewards are random. They also tend to believe in minimums. Few people think it is morally wrong for a starving man to steal bread from someone who has more than enough. It is interesting to consider how the evaluation changes when one starving man steals bread from another starving man. Most of us believe in basic equality, i.e. some minimum level.

Outside games of chance, the world offers few examples of complete randomness.

After that, fairness and equality diverge and their fairness requires unequal treatment of unequal inputs. It is a very imperfect calculation. There is a lot of random chance involved and that makes judgment more difficult. And it was difficult already, since the amount contribution might be hard to see. The contribution of someone who thinks for a couple of minutes and then makes the effective move might be worth more than someone who struggles all day doing the wrong things.

We also come against the problem of previous expertise. There is the story about the man who locks himself out of his house. He calls the locksmith, who wisely quotes a price of $50 BEFORE solving the problem. After they agree, the locksmith takes out a little hammer, whacks the lock and it opens.

“Fifty dollars,” the man complains. “All you did was hit it once. I want an itemized bill.” The locksmith hands him a bill - “$.05 for whacking the lock; $49.95 for knowing how to whack the lock.”

Those least able to make meaningful distinctions tend to favor equality of outcomes

It is no coincidence that the love of equality is most ardent among the young. They have not yet had much of a chance either to earn anything or see anybody else earn it. With experience comes a greater appreciation for fairness. Interestingly, the young tend to believe in economic equality, but can be ferociously unequal in other ways. The degree of social stratification among teenagers is something most adults never see. You can see what they think more about and what they know more about.

A modern society makes it harder to judge fairness too. In an agricultural society, everybody’s efforts were literally on view. Laziness or ineptitude would show up in a farmer’s crops. If there was bad luck, such as weather or unexpected bugs, everybody would be aware of that too. A man who worked hard only to have his crops destroyed by a hail storm clearly deserved help, the drunk that never bothered to plant at all, not so much.

Did the ants marginalize the grasshopper?

The old fable of the ants and the grasshopper appeals to an agricultural society. Retelling in our contemporary context often has the grasshopper saved by the generosity of strangers. I am sure there is a version that taxes the ants to pay for the grasshopper’s welfare and criticizes the narrow-minded, if hard working ants, for their insensitivity to grasshopper culture.

People are much more willing to tolerate suffering in themselves or others when choice is involved. Physically hard work is less common than it used to be, but people are willing to put themselves through grueling physical suffering in pursuit of sports. Nobody feels sorry for the Olympic Marathon runner, but imagine if someone was forced to go through that much agony to earn a daily living. The difference is choice

I liked (and still like) to drink beer and on some occasions have consumed enough to suffer severe “flu-like” symptoms the next day. Chrissy makes no attempt to mitigate my suffering and in fact boldly opens drapes and stomps around the house in the early morning (i.e. before 10 am) hours. Her behavior is very different if my flu-like symptoms are caused by actual flu. What causes the difference? Choice.

It is just plain cruel to punish someone if he has no choice and cannot change his behavior. On the other hand, if someone can choose, it makes sense not to protect him from the consequences of those choices. In fact, allowing someone to persist in error when he has the capacity to change is a morally questionable and cruel thing to do. Should you let a child walk into a fire because he is fascinated by the flame?

This is the moral hazard of insurance. Insurance is great to the extent that it spreads the risk of random events so that no individual is destroyed by bad luck. However, if individuals start to engage in riskier behaviors BECAUSE they can take advantage of others through insurance, you have a moral hazard as well as higher system-wide costs.

Free will or determinism

I think that current debates between liberals and conservatives often come down to the age-old debate about freedom and determinism. You can see it in the way they use language. Consider the case of the drunken farmer reference above. When asked why the fields went untended, a conservative might say something like, “He just wouldn’t stop drinking long enough to do the work,” while a liberal might say, “He was unable to stop drinking …” or even “He didn’t get the help he needed to stop drinking ….”

There has never been a definitive answer in the free will debate. The most nuanced approaches talk about free will exercised within the limits of constraints, but this just moves the discussion argue about the height of the walls of the constraints.

Somewhere between stimulus and response is a choice

A poor man might have fewer opportunities than a rich one, but how much is his behavior DETERMINED by his poverty and how much exercise of free will does he have? Nobody has complete freedom and nobody accomplishes anything completely on his own. But we are not animals. Somewhere between the stimulus and our response is a region of choice.

It is not always bad to start off or be economically less well off. For example, I am happy that I grew up in modest means. It has made my life easier in the respect that I didn’t have to “live up” to a high standard of the previous generation. Some of my richer friends have never escaped the shadow of their parents’ wealth, and it seems to fill them with anxiety and guilt. They might have really nice baggage, but maybe it is better not to have to carry it all.

The bottom line for me is that it is not unfair that some people are rich and others are poor. My own prejudice would be for some limits, so that we could relieve existential poverty and I believe that great wealth is morally corrupting, especially great unearned wealth. But that is just my prejudice.

I think there is a moral hazard in wealth redistribution. The test for me would be sustainability. If “society” can “invest” in you and there is a reasonable chance that this will help you become a productive and independent citizen who will someday make contributions (not only economic, also social, artistic etc.) in excess of the investment, it is the right thing to do. You have the choice not to play in this game, but others should have the reciprocal choice not to give to you. In other words, nobody should have the right to make demands w/o offering something in return.

Reciprocity is one of the basics of civilization

Most of us do not expect perfect reciprocity in every transaction, but you expect something. If you are generous to me today, you might never expect something back from me specifically to you, but you do expect that I will at least be grateful and/or be generous to someone else in the future.  Remember that movie “Pay it Forward”?

Freedom is more than another word for nothin' left to lose

We have choices. We often call the sum of our choices “freedom”. Sometimes people ask what freedom is good for and we might try to answer that it helps create wealth or that we can help the poor more etc. It does these things. Free countries tend to be richer, cleaner and generally more pleasant. But freedom is not the means to a goal. Freedom is the goal for which we are willing to sacrifice other things. If we created a perfectly “fair,” “just” or “equal” society at the cost of freedom, which includes the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail, we have accomplished nothing.

February 17, 2010

Empowering Posts

I was cleaning out my old files and I discovered this.  I wrote it last March, but it makes sense still.  In fact, it makes more sense to me now that I have experienced Washington's reach and as I anticipate going overseas again.  I post it in unedited (since March 27, 2009) form.

We inevitably have a Washington perspective when we live in Washington, but we have to work to get beyond it because it is more dangerous than ever.   The new media gives us tools that can reach anywhere in the world in seconds.  We can bypass gatekeepers and some of them deserve to be bypassed.  But we can also bypass friends.  I am thinking of our colleagues in posts overseas. 

It is temping to just get it done; pass that information; make that connection.   We CAN do it and in making a direct connection from Washington to the journalist or blogger in the field we undoubtedly improve the short term efficiency and effectiveness of our information operation.  But this short term success comes at the expense of damaging the system that makes us effective in the long run.

When you look at the whole system, you quickly realize that the main product of a public diplomacy operation is not information.   Information is nearly free in today’s interconnected world and there is very little that we can give anybody that they cannot get somewhere else.   If information is not the key, what is?  The answer is relationships.  We are working to build relationships of trust and reliance.   Our relationships are what makes our information stick and helps put it in the proper contexts.   Our relationships are the basis of our reputations.   The connections count.

From Washington we can build electronic relationships and a type of customer base, but at best we have a relationship akin to a book lovers’ relationship with Amazon.com.   It is not multifaceted and may not be robust enough to endure really hard challenges.   When Barnes & Noble offers a better price, I abandon Amazon. 

Most of the effective long-term relationship building is done on the local level, i.e. our posts.   We can help them from Washington by providing backup and materials.  We can help coordinate our programs among posts.

But we can also harm and uncut the post and we will probably do that with the best of intentions.  When we bypass the post and reach directly into their audience, we are weakening their ability to maintain their contact network.   The worst case scenario is when powerful Washington directly provides important local media outlets with information, interviews or editorials.   It makes the people at the post look ineffective in the eyes of the recipients.   They want to eliminate the middleman.

We can also do similar things with our electronic programming.  That is why we have to be especially careful to involve posts.  I don’t believe that there has been a problem so far.  In the case of a CO.NX program, for example, we get participants from all over, but we are careful to keep the posts in the loop.   It works like a cooperative and I am convinced that IIP programs to date have enhanced and expanded the reach of our posts overseas.  But as the new technologies and methods develop, this coordination may become more difficult. 

Web 2.0 presents lots of challenges of management, coordination, communications and control.  The spontaneity, inclusiveness and reach are strengths of the new methods but also its weaknesses.  We have made a very bad trade if we create a Washington-centric network of relationships at the expense of those based around out posts in the host countries.   We have to always be aware of what we are doing and sometimes choose to be “less effective” in a particular transaction in order to maintain and grow the effectiveness of our total system.

February 16, 2010

Listlessness & Going to the Dogs

I have not had much to write about.  The snow has held me down/in.    I have been reading a couple of good books.  The most interesting is called "Sonic Boom" by Gregg Easterbrook.  It has given me something to think about, but I have not thought it through yet.  

I feel a little responsible for the new "dog twitter" because it is made by Mattel, almost my name.  It seems that Mattel is going to sell a collar for your dog that allows the animal to twitter you. Read about it here.  

I miss the kids.   It is not that I see that that much when they are home, but I like them around.  Espen came home for the weekend last weekend; the now kept him at home for the rest of the week.  We were supposed to pick up Alex that weekend too.  The snow on last Friday stopped us, but we were able to pick him up for this weekend.  So we had both of the boys.   Too bad we didn’t have Mariza too.

As I said, we don’t really see much of the boys when they are home.  They tend to stay up late, go out with their friends and sleep much of the day. But we had a good lunch with them yesterday at Fuddruckers.  When I think back, I cannot think of anything specific, but I think that describes many good times.   It is just nice being together.

I drove Alex back to James Madison in Harrisonburg today. We dropped off Espen at George Mason on the way.  The trip back from Harrisonburg was lonely.  

I was in a bit of a hurry.  I wanted to get home before the new snow they were predicting and I had to get back by 3:50 to go to the dentist.   The good news I got today is that they can fix the problem.  The bad news is that toothache I mentioned requires a root canal, which I will get tomorrow.  It is not very painful any more, but it costs a lot.

I read a couple of interesting articles today about trees.   One talked about how trees are growing faster as a result of climate change.   Of course it is not all good.  Evidently less fog in California may do long term harm to the redwood forests.

February 13, 2010

National Climate Service

NOAA is establishing a National Climate Service, analogous to the National Weather Service. This is a good step for the very practical reason that it will facilitate planning and adapting to changes in climate. But it also carries with it the legendary pitfalls of prognostication.

You can listen to the NPR story about it at this link.

Weather predictions have become a lot more reliable in the last ten years. You can make reasonable plans based on hours of the day. For example, I was able to make drive across my state ahead of a blizzard because the weather service was able to accurately predict sun in the morning before the blizzard hit in the afternoon. Climate prediction is still not up to the scientific level of weather prediction, but it is getting better. We should soon be able to make reasonable predictions on the regional and sub-regional level.

This brings the obvious blessing that we can take advantage of changes and/or minimize losses. For example, as I have said on many occasions, it is positively insane to rebuild the below-sea-level parts of New Orleans. We should not extend subsidized flood or storm insurance to any new construction on low-lying coastal plains and we should encourage people to move to higher ground, even if that means building higher premiums into insurance policies and mortgages of those who won't.

BTW - we DO NOT have to mandate this, if we just refrain from getting governments to subsidize or require insurance or mortgages be available at "reasonable" rates. The market will sort out which places are too risky. If someone is willing to insure your house on a mud-slope, it is his business and yours. People can build if they want, but we should not become accomplices to stupidity. We might also plan to retire some crops or cropland and get read to move into others. Advanced plant breeding and biotechnology will be a great help here.

Climate change will create winners and losers. Having a reasonable idea of the shape of the changes will make it possible to reap more of the benefits and suffer fewer of the penalties. But think of the troubles along the way.

Somebody today owns valuable land near major ports or in the middle of today’s most productive agricultural land. On the other hand, somebody today owns near worthless land. These might change places. Think of the ports around Hudson Bay. How many of us can even name one? If you look at a globe instead of a flat map, you can see that Hudson Bay is more convenient to many parts of Europe or Asia than is Los Angeles or New Orleans. The problem until now has been ice. The place was locked up most of the year. If this changes, so does the shipping calculation.

Are the current owners of prime real estate and infrastructure going to welcome all the newcomers? Are they going to welcome a study that shows investors and government decision makers a future that makes their wealth creation machines redundant?

Woe to the GS-13 bureaucrat who issues the report proving that no more government aid should go to New Orleans’ 9th Ward. Imagine how much more this will be true of more crucial and expensive infrastructure owned by politically powerful people and interests.

I think the National Climate Service is an excellent and useful idea. It will help us adapt and prosper in the future. But I fear the daunting politics.

I remember talking to a guy from North Carolina during disastrous floods a few years ago. He told me that they had detailed maps that could accurately predict almost the exact shape of a flood, but they couldn’t use them because people objected when the places they wanted to build were shown to be in the middle of seasonal swamps. We have seen this kind of stupidity in New Orleans and continue to see it.

There is a whole genre of literature involved with someone getting a prediction of future events and being unable to do anything about it. Predictors are dismissed (e.g. Cassandra) or often the twist is that the very attempt to stop the predicted event is what brings on the tragedy (e.g. Oedipus Rex). Let’s hope that our prognostication works out better.   


Truck and snowbanks after the blizzard of February 2010 

I had a terrible toothache yesterday. I tried to get in to see the dentist, but the blizzard closed her down too.  So I used a lot of “Orajet” and took some pain-killer pills left over from when Alex had his wisdom teeth pulled. This sort of worked, but only if I hung my head over the back of my chair and left my mouth open. I have no idea why that worked, but it relieved the acute pain.

Today the pain is gone – mostly. I couldn’t explain why it started and I cannot explain why it went away. Misery is a mystery to me. I still plan to go to the dentist on Monday to preempt any recurrence. My teeth are rotten. I treated them poorly when I was young and now they are getting their revenge. It is not hereditary. The kids have excellent teeth and have never had even one cavity among them. Modern toothpaste and fluoride in the water has banished cavities. 

Life does get better, but you just don’t think about it. There was a TV commercial when I a kid.  It featured a kid who came back from the dentist bragging, “Look mom, no cavities.”  That kind of claim sold toothpaste in those days because not having cavities was so rare. Today it is different.  You don’t think about cavities when you don’t have any. It becomes normal.  

You don’t think of too much else when you have a bad toothache, but you forget about it as soon as it goes away. It is a blessing to forget pain but also an invitation to complacency. I was tempted to just let it go after the pain dissipated and that seems to be the pattern for life in general.We ignore what is not bothering us.

The picture above is the truck among the snow banks, snowing how high the snow has gotten. 

February 11, 2010

Crooked Lawyers

John_with_leather_coat. bought in 2003 from Jos A BanksI have been a plaintiff in at least three class-action lawsuits.  I got nothing from any of them and never really understood what the cases were about. The one I understood best involved a leather coat I bought from Jos A Banks. “My” lawyers said that I had been deceived by online advertising.  I didn’t feel aggrieved but they make it very hard to get out of the “class.” My lawyers won a pile of money, but their fees took it all, leaving nothing for us victims. 

These kinds of class action cases are shakedown. 

Unscrupulous lawyers cruise around looking for people they can call victims and corral into a class. Sometimes they even create victims if they cannot find any on the free range. The key is to tie the victims to a firm that has money.  The target firms know that they may have done nothing particularly wrong, but they also understand they really cannot win. It might cost more to fight to a righteous victory than to pay the extortion money requested by the pirate leaders … sorry lawyers and there is always the chance with the crap shoot that can come from going before a jury made up mostly of people who had nothing else to do and/or couldn’t think of a good excuse to avoid being there.

BTW – I have not served on a jury and have never even been called up. Where you live makes the difference. Where we live in Fairfax County, they have lots of voters and not too many perps.  Some places the balance is different and voters there get lots more jury opportunities.

Toyota in the shakedown zone

What brought this subject to mind was a program I saw today with a lawyer talking about his plans to shakedown (he didn’t use that word) Toyota. This just makes me sad. We owned a couple of Toyotas.  They were good cars and the company was a good company.  I think they still are.  Nothing is perfect and the demand for perfection usually gets you in big trouble. Toyota may be able to pass through this purgatory but the lawyers will make it that much harder.

That is because they will demonize Toyota in order to make more money. What has the average Toyota owner actually lost? Most have lost nothing. But if clever lawyers can figure out ways to corral enough of people into a class, they can figure out how to shakedown the company. The lawyer on TV was running the gambit that Toyota owners may have lost resale value, since the demand may have declined as Toyota’s reputation has declined and that Toyota should pay them off. The TV host scoffed a little and pointed out that this sum would be nearly impossible to figure out and would not be much money per person. 

Not to worry. If lawyers put all these people into a class, it will be possible to get enough money out of Toyota to pay their legal fees. Of course, the average owner will get less than nothing. Why less than nothing?  Because all these lawyers will distract a good company from making better cars.  Instead of innovation, they will start playing defense.

A few very simple things that can be done to reform this system

First is to force the class-action lawyers get individuals to take the affirmative step of opting into the class. In the three class actions I was part of, they never asked me if I wanted to be in. In fact, they make it very hard to get out once they have herded you into the corral. I would never have opted in. Lawyers know that, which is why they don’t want to give us the choice. The second thing is to make the loser pay the reasonable costs of the winner in any lawsuit. Some people say that we should also get rid of contingency fees (where lawyers get a piece of the action only if they win), but I think the loser-pays system would change the incentives and take care of this too. 

Loser-pays would embolden the victims to take on the lawyer shakedowns. As I mentioned above, sometimes individuals and firms settle because they know that the cost of a successful defense would still be more expensive than just paying off. This would remove that as an obstacle.  

Innovation is great in science and technology, bad in law

It is good to be innovative and entrepreneurial in most things. That is because innovations can create wealth for everybody involved. It is a positive sum proposition, a win-win. When two or more people make a trade, they all get more of what they want.  The law is an exception because it is zero or even negative sum. Law settles disputes.  For every winner, there is a loser and when you count in all the other costs less comes out of a legal case than goes in. And once the lawyers get involved, the warring parties will harden their positions because of the adversarial nature of our law and it is unlikely that they will come up with synergy that makes them both better off. 

Law is also not voluntary. If I buy something you are selling, presumably we both think we got a good deal, since neither could force the other to participate in the transition. Law is all about coercion. One of us would prefer not to take part in the transaction and we both hope to use the coercion of the state to force the other to do something he/she would not do under coercion-free conditions.

Law should be plodding, boring and predictable

Law should be predictable, even if it is plodding, because people have to be able count on it.  It should not change to radically or rapidly that most people cannot keep up with it. In a just society, everybody is reasonably sure when they are acting within the law and when they are not.   Justice suffers when laws are ambiguous. In fact, there is a rough way to recognize a good society by answering a couple of questions.  (1) You have done something you think is wrong.  How afraid are you of suffering proportional consequences?  If the answer is “a lot,” the society is reasonably just.  (2) You have been accused of a doing something you do not believe is a crime.  How afraid are you that you will suffer disproportional consequences?  If you are very afraid, the society is unjust.   To the extent that lawyers blur the lines, they create injustice.

Innovation and entrepreneurial behavior among lawyers tends to dampen those things in other parts of society. A lawfare assault on one frightens dozens and makes them less likely to try anything new. 

The coat was a good deal

BTW – the coat was really nice. You can see what it looks like now in the picture above.  I bought it online for $149 in 2003.  It is very comfortable.  Given our local weather, I wear it much of the year and it looks like it will last many more years to come. It was not possible that I could have been significantly harmed by anything Jos A Banks did, ergo the lawyers who did this to them and used people like me as an offensive weapon, were crooks. I pity the people at Toyota. They will be lawyered for years to come.

February 10, 2010

Snow - Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

We are off from work again today and the government will be closed again tomorrow. They say that we got more snow this year than any time in recorded history. This is less impressive when you recall that they have kept detailed weather records for only a little more than 100 years. Nevertheless, it is a lot of snow and it has been a cold season.


There is a real blizzard today and I can see why nobody should be driving. Espen tried to drive the truck to visit one of his nearby friends. He got stuck in our complex. Fortunately, Chrissy and I could walk over and dig/push him out. Yesterday, however, wasn’t bad until around 5pm. In fact, the main roads were perfectly clear.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, I drove down to the forestry conference in Keswick , near Charlottesville. It is a little more than a two hour drive.


I took a little different way than usual. I started down I66 to US29 as usual, but then I cut off on US15 through Culpepper and Orange. The drive takes you through a really beautiful countryside, full of horse farms and vineyards with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop.   James Madison’s estate is nearby and so is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The soil is good and the climate is moderate. You can see what it looks like covered in snow. It is even prettier in springtime.


February 09, 2010

Nature versus Nurture

The debate about whether heredity or environment is more important in shaping human behavior has been a hot topic for many years. The “blank slate” idea dominated thinking when I was on college and I remember being embarrassed by the castigation I got from one of my anthropology professors for suggesting that human events were influenced by genetics.  We have reached a more nuanced understanding, but books like “The Blank Slate”, by Stephen Pinker still cause controversy.   And suggesting innate differences among people can still get you in serious trouble in some places.  


The tree and genetic determinism

So let me talk about genetic determinism in trees. Presumably none of them will be insulted or feel that I have diminished their self esteem. Getting the best genetic stock and managing it for optimal results (nature & nurture) was a topic at the Forest Landowners’ conference on forest productivity that I attended.  They were going to hold it at the Virginia Department of Forestry in Charlottesville, but the snow knocked out the electricity, so they moved it to the Rivanna Volunteer Fire Department (above), where they have a big meeting room (below).


Both genetics and environment are important and they build on and affect each other.  The anger of my anthropology professor just showed that he was not qualified to teach the subject.  Unfortunately he was reflecting the mainstream scientific consensus of those times.

Genetic improvement changed forestry

Genetic improvements have greatly changed forestry in the last fifty years. This is especially true for loblolly pines, the most commonly planted timber tree in the South, which are unusually adaptable. The “original” loblolly is a fast growing but often crooked and ugly tree. Genetic improvement can be very simple. You just choose the trees with the best characteristics and try to plant more of them.  We are now in the third generation of loblolly and the differences are remarkable.  

The new trees take thirty years to get as the original trees get to be in eighty.  They are also a lot straighter, more resistant to disease and have a better branching structure. You can achieve these goals in different ways. The easiest is the simple one I mentioned above.  Just gather the seeds from the best trees; grow them and repeat.   In this system the trees pollinate themselves, so there is randomness in this process.  A next step is to control pollination to ensure that the best fertilize the best. This is more labor intensive, since you have to put little bags on the trees to be sure that only the right pollen gets to the right flowers.  

Below are Virginia pines squashed by the snow.  Virginia pines are weedy trees and not much use. They don't live long and break easily.  I saw lots of broken Virginia pines along the road. 


Bring on the clones

The latest step is cloning. Let's explain a little about cloning in plants, lest we think about a “Caprica” scenario. Most gardeners have cloned plants.  You can clone a willow or a cottonwood just by shoving a stick into wet ground.  If you see a bunch of cottonwoods along a river, there is a good chance that they are all the same tree – genetically – as trees sprouted from roots or from sticks that lodged in the mud. I once inadvertently cloned a cottonwood when I used a freshly-cut cottonwood branch as a marking stick.  A couple days later it sprouted into a little tree. Pines are harder, but they can be done. The clones are all genetically identical, so they can be a good test for the nature v nurture question.

Good genetics can move the whole curve higher, but variation remains and good genetic are the most profitable deployed as other conditions improve.    Many of the costs associated with establishing and managing the stand of trees remain the same no matter what you plant.  If you are planning to expend a lot of energy and time on management and planning, you are well advised to spend a little more for genetically superior trees.  All trees will do better with better management, but the better trees will do better than the others. 

Improving conditions make good genes more important

In other words, the more you improve conditions and remove obstacles, the more import genetics becomes to the results and the greater the gap between the superior and the inferior trees.  It makes sense when you think in terms of potential.  It doesn’t make much difference if one tree has the genetic potential to grow  80 feet tall in twenty years while another can only grow 40, if limiting conditions prevent any of  the trees from growing more than 30 feet tall.

Limiting factors

So what are some of the limiting factors? The most obvious are climate, rainfall, soil and elevation.   These make a difference when choosing a site, but after that they are beyond our control.  But there are many limiting factors that we can control, including spacing among the trees, thinning schedules, rotation timing, competition control & fertilization.


Trees will grow faster and stronger if there is more space between them.  It is like thinning flowers in a garden. Everything else being equal, a similar amount of wood will grow on a given piece of ground no matter how thick or thin the trees are planted, but the health and quality will be very different.   If planted too thick, you will have lots of small, maybe worthless trees.   The optimal number of trees per acre is still debated among foresters.  

Some of it depends on your goal.  If you want to produce lots of pulp, you might want to plant thick.  If you are trying to grow saw timber, you need to plant thinner.  Another consideration is that if the trees are close enough together, they will sooner shade out competition and also shade out lower branches so that the trees will essentially prune themselves, leaving wood with fewer knots.


Thinning schedules are a type of spacing issue, but with additional considerations. Thinning does not have to be a random selection.  You can take out the inferior trees when you thin, so thinning both produces more space, more sun, water etc, but also leaves the better trees.

Controlling competition

Competition control is crucial. If you don’t control hardwoods, they will out-compete pines in most situations. Some hardwoods, such as gum and tulip trees just grow faster, but hardwoods also often have the advantage of an established root system, since they sprout from stumps or roots even after many years of being shaded out. Hardwoods can be controlled with physical methods, such as cutting, but the best way to control hardwoods these days is chemical.  

BasF makes a couple of products called “Chopper” and “Arsenal”. They kill most hardwoods but leave the pines. Unfortunately, they don’t work very well with herbaceous plants or with blackberries, which easily over top the little trees, but they still do a good job with the hardwood competition, which is the key.   

It is smart to spray with Chopper when you are establishing a pine stand. After that, you can go in with backpack sprayers.  The boys and I killed off a couple acres of invasive Ailanthus using hack and squirt (where you smack the stem with a machete and then squirt in some arsenal) and I still have to go after individuals constantly. The good thing for the landowner is that the prices of these chemical has plummeted, as they have gone off patent. IMO it is still good to buy the name brand because they support the product better and the name brand product is also fairly cheap.


Fertilization is still not much used in forestry but it can increase yields. Most forests in Virginia grow on bad soil, either naturally poor or depleted by bad farming practices of times past. (The key crops of Southern Virgina, cotton and tobacco, are hard on soils.)  If the soil is good, the land is usually devoted to row crops, which pay more than trees.  (An exception is recently converted tobacco land. When the government stopped supporting tobacco crops, many tobacco farmers left the business and the land has been planted in trees. These trees are only a few years old, but they seem to be growing well.) 

Deficient Virginia soils

Virginia forest soils are almost always deficient in phosphorus and nitrogen and trees grow a lot faster when they are provided with them. You have to give both, since just providing one or the other doesn’t do much good.  You can fertilize when the stand is established and or fertilize after 6-10 years. Until that time, there is usually enough P & N for the little trees.

I fertilized my CP property with biosolids in September 2008.  It seems to have given them a good jump. 

Anyway, those are some of the things I learned at the meeting. I have drifted a little from the nature versus nurture.  I think both are important.  We cannot choose between them, since it is nearly impossible  to know where the effects of one stop and the other start and they actually change each other by being in contact. As the trees show, equalizing or improving opportunity and conditions will make genetics more  - not less - important and will make inequality more - not less - acute.  The trees don’t care; people might.

February 08, 2010

Shiploads of Snow; Vibrant Spring Expected

Dulles Airport got 32 inches of snow, a record amount. Reagan-National only got 17 inches.  This is the 4th largest amount.  But it ain’t over. It is good to have Espen at home for the snow. He is a strong boy and actually shoveled us out w/o us even having to ask.

Espen digging out the driveway on February 7, 2010 

We didn’t have to go to work today. The government was closed. It will be closed again tomorrow.  They already announced it. I am betting that the government will be closed on Wednesday too.  We are supposed to get another foot of snow on Tuesday/Wednesday night. That will paralyze our Nation’s capital again. Below you can get an idea of the snowfall with the picture of our cross the street neighbor making a path.

Digging out from the blizzard of February 6, 2010 

We had around three feet of snow on the back deck. I was a little afraid that another foot of wet snow would cause a collapse, so I pushed most of it off. On the radio, they warned people not to overdo the snow cleanup and specifically not to push the snow off their own roofs. You should get a licensed contactor, they said. They featured some poor old woman who hired a kid to push the snow off her flat roof.  She seemed to have good sense and didn’t really take it seriously.  I suppose it is possible that somebody will fall off, but I think that risk is well worth it compared with the wimpy idea that you would have to get an officially sanctioned person to do that. Maybe we should bubble wrap ourselves before we go out. I don’t think they were talking about decks, but I felt offended anyway. I didn’t like the earnest way they seemed to care about my welfare.

Espen was stranded at home. They canceled classes at GMU today and tomorrow. We had planned to pick up Alex on Friday, but were snowed out. His classes were also canceled so he is hunkered down in the dorm, but he says he can get to the chow hall, which is open, so all is well.

I don’t recall if they ever shut down University of Wisconsin because of snow, although sometimes nobody was in class. I remember trudging to class through some very high snowdrifts. But the difference was distance.  We walked to school and those that drove didn’t have to drive that far.   Now they have to worry about a very wide metro area. Like all old guys, I think we were tougher back then.   I also remember walking across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis when it was 25 below – real temperature not that wind-chill dodge. It was several minutes before I could get my frozen glasses off my frozen eyebrows.

It is not nearly as cold here as it gets in Minnesota or Wisconsin but the snow piled all around is starting to make me feel at home. And it looks like it’s not going to let up for at least another week or two.  We are getting a real winter here.  Below is one of our meadows sleeping under the snow last week.  It is piled higher now. 


On the plus side there should be a lot of good soil moisture for my trees and clover and the cold weather will freeze out most of the southern pine beetles. Of course, none of my trees were infested before anyway. But I will really enjoy looking at the burst of green this spring in the wildlife pastures. The hard winter will produce a vibrant spring.


February 07, 2010

Overtaken by Events


We rarely solve big problems; we just go beyond them, usually by redefining our goals and priorities and often by employing knowledge and technologies that were unavailable when the problem was initially defined.  In other words, our vision of solutions for the future is often limited because those solutions have not been invented yet. We have a phase “overtaken by events” (OBE’D). It refers to facts, ideas or plans that are invalidated by subsequent events.  Most problems are not really solved; they are just OBE’D. 

Stuff happens sometimes for no reason we can understand

The future is uncertain by definition, but we have learned to manage risk.  Our increasing ability to identify and manage risk is one of the too often overlooked foundations of our complex modern civilization but we never eliminate it and there are many situations where there is so much uncertainty that we cannot even properly assess the risk, i.e. figure out the odds.  (I read a couple good books on this.  I recommend “the Black Swan” & “Against the Gods.”) This is what drives people crazy.   It seems counterintuitive to some, who seem to think that if we could solve our big problems if just worked hard enough and planned well enough.   We things go badly wrong, they look to blame someone.   Well, sometimes we just have uncertainty.  Shit happens in ways nobody could have reasonably predicted and sometimes in ways nobody could have predicted at all.

Not all of this is bad, however.  In fact it is mostly good.  There are upside and downside surprises but in the long run the upside surprises are more important.   Why?  Even if the ups and downs are distributed randomly, we can apply human intelligence to adapt to them.   Within broad parameters, the quality of our lives depends less on the good or bad luck we experience than on the responses we make to what comes along. We have to use an iterative approach that learns from experience and changes responses to changing circumstances.

Einstein was right when he said that we cannot solve problems with the same kind of  thinking that we used when we created them.  


O Fortuna velut Luna

The best system is not one that plans in detail for all the challenges but rather one that is robust enough to adapt to changing conditions and exploit opportunities, one that embraces the statistical nature of the future and takes advantage of it. We need more of a planning process than a precise plan.  We cannot anticipate all the events but we can have processes in place that can recover from setback to adapt to changes. I think of it like a tool box and portfolio.   In an uncertain world, you have to diversity and empower those closest to evolving events. This is how markets work, BTW.

This is a harder sell than the dishonest or self-deceptive statement that you have anticipated and planned for all the eventualities.  Most people crave certainty and they love those who claim to have it, even when they know or should know it is bogus comfort.   We make systematic errors in the direction of imposing patterns of certainty where none exist.  That is why we think clouds look like Snoopy or Albert Einstein.  There is even a five dollar word for it “apophenia”.

Anyway the simple advice is to find or create adaptive robust systems that can survive downside shocks and move quickly to exploit upside opportunities, all the time understanding that the Lady Fortune’s Wheel  never stops turning.  (BTW I am thinking of this in terms of Boethius, not Pat Sajack and Vanna White) It can pull you up and down and some big things can come up pretty fast.

Now you’re cooking with gas

Natural gas productionOne upside surprise that is a real game-changer is the recent technological advance that allows us to get natural gas from shale deposits. In the last couple of years, we have made available natural gas deposits with more than the energy potential of all the oil in Arabia. A solution that was unavailable and largely unforeseen five years ago will change all our lives … soon.  I wrote about this a couple of months ago as I drove through the Pennsylvanian coal – and now natural gas – country.

Natural gas is the perfect partner for wind energy, since gas plants can be turned on and off relatively easily.   Wind is very good when it is blowing but it can cut off quickly.   In other words, it is unreliable w/o backup.  Nature gas is the backup.  

Natural gas can help us squeeze oil out of our transportation network. According to the linked article, “the chief obstacle to developing a natural gas infrastructure capable of supplying service stations and highway rest stops is regulatory. If that is removed—and here we do need government action—we could expect to see trucks, buses, and cars running on natural gas in a relatively short period of time. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be considerable.”

This new energy future will not only help us free ourselves from the despots who control most of the world’s oil reserves (it seems like kind of a divine joke that most of the world’s easy to get oil is under such regimes) but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions w/o the draconian measures contemplated just a short time ago. Natural gas is cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal in terms of pollution and in terms of CO2.

So a problem that was intractable with the conditions and technology of 2005 could be party solved in ways that nobody really anticipated. But we have to use our intelligence to make an upside surprise into good fortune … before it is OBE’D or Fortune's wheel takes another turn. 

Bright American Future


The big Washington blizzard didn’t make AEI cancel the session on new American demographics and the discussion of “The Next 100 Million: America in 2050” with the author Joel Kotkin and a panel of experts chaired by Michael Barone.

Decline overdone

Experts have been saying that America is in decline since - even before - we became an independent nation. Kotkin acknowledges that someday these critics will be correct, but not today, and he paints an optimistic picture of our American future. America has a lot of advantages going into the next generation. It starts with demographics.

Americans still remember how to have kids; it is evidently no longer a universal skill

The U.S. is unique among developed country since we have a positive rate of natural increase. It is not very much above replacement level, but that is more than others, some of which are almost in free fall. America is also an anomaly in that in some of our suburbs wealthy, well-educated women sometimes have three or more kids. (I recall reading an article about the big families in affluent Loudon County next door to us.)  

We also still get millions of immigrants. That means that the America is growing older slower than other developed countries and the American labor force will continue to grow through 2050, while others suffer greater or lesser proportional decline in their productive populations relative to their dependent ones. The interesting thing about his data was that it also shows that the world's most populous country - China - will begin to suffer labor shortages (at least for skilled labor) very soon.  The Chinese labor force will start to decline as early as 2015 (yes, five years from now) as a result of their perhaps necessary but draconian one-child policy. (Long term predictions are always tough, but by 2050 the U.S. labor force is projected to rise by 42%; China’s will drop by 10% and Japan’s labor force will decline by an astonishing 44%).

More old people, fewer young workers 

This labor force decline will be accompanied by a big growth in the elderly dependent population, both in relative and absolute terms. The world has never experienced anything like this before and our lack of models will require adaptions we cannot fully anticipate. We are truly going where no human societies have gone before.

But America will suffer these declines later and less severely than most others. In addition, the U.S. has a very robust & adaptive economic system. National power is based on economic strength, innovation and demographic clout. Among the great nations of the last generation, only the U.S. will still have these elements in abundance in the next generation.

Managing genteel decline not the same as planning robust growth

This U.S. outlook contributes to disagreements with old allies. For example, the Europeans can also make demographic projections. They see that their populations will decline and their economies will grow much slower than ours. When your population will get smaller and your economy won’t grow much, you don’t worry very much about promising cuts in CO2. You need different policies if you are managing a genteel decline than when you are planning for robust growth.

The U.S. will change internally too. The growth of the last fifty years went mostly to the coasts.   The next fifty years will see a return to the heartland. Kotkin doesn’t say that all the little praire towns will be back, but space and affordable housing will draw people away from the coasts. He says that the whole idea of suburbs has become meaningless. There is more a blending of suburbs, cities and rural areas. Kotkin foresees what he calls an archipelago of villages. More people would be connected by new media in greener and less crowded communities. It sounds a lot like the Loudoun County communities mentioned in the article I linked above.

Today's ethnic & racial categories will not mean much in 2050

Much has been said about the changing ethnic composition of the U.S. population and in 2050 the white native born population is  projected to drop to around 50% of the labor force.  But how significant will this be? Kotkin pointed out how foreign the large immigration of Irish seemed in the 19th Century.  We just forget how different earlier waves of immigrants had been and how completely they have been integrated into our society. When my grandfather and his brother Felix came to the U.S., they spoke no English and probably had never seen an American before. There is probably no population on earth today that is so "foreign." 

The younger generation doesn't really care very much about race, with vast majorities in favor of interracial marriage, so by 2050 today's categories will be as meaningless as some of the national and religious distinctions made in our grandparents' childhoods. In other words, by 2050 nobody will care. 

Still some challenges and skills mismatched

The road to this bright happy future is not necessarily certain. We have a challenge of education, not so much college but technical. We might, in fact, be pushing too many kids into college when the more appropriate skills might be technical. Our community and technical colleges should be given a bigger role as providers of final or working degrees rather than way-stations to four-year colleges. Kotkin thinks it is just a problem of incentives. We reward careers in finance and law more than we do those who actually make useful things. If that changes, so will our career paths.

We have been able to import skilled labor, but that might be slowing. We have some competition now.  Places like Canada & Australia are also pleasant and welcoming like the U.S. They are also "countries of aspiration" and they drawing in some of the skilled immigrants.  There are also now more opportunities in many source countries, as people around the world reap the benefits of market liberalization reforms of past decades. Indian engineers, for example, now may have good opportunities at home.

The general pool of attractive potential immigrants is also shrinking, as birth rates drop even in those place that traditionally had very high rates of growth, such at Mexico and parts of Asia. A good example of what this pattern can look like comes from South Korea, which a couple decades ago sent millions of immigrants to the U.S. and now absorbs its own population growth, which is now much lower than that of the U.S. 

We need more Engineers & plumbers and fewer leaf blowers & Lawyers

We Americans screw ourselves, however. Canada or Australia favor the skills their countries need.  An immigrant with skills has a better chance of getting into those places. Our immigration policies give too little weight to the skills and education we can use in our economy. We are too "fair". We don’t need to import any more unskilled labor or even worse - people who don’t plan to labor at all.  We have the right to ask potential immigrants what they will contribute to our country. Besides the relatively small numbers of bona-fides refugees, we have no moral duty to admit anybody. As long as we will limit total numbers and we have a choice, we should choose the best and the brightest, not people we need to train before they can operate a leaf blower.

Unfortunately, unskilled labor can create its own demand.  My personal complaint is against leaf blowing. That is usually a job that just need not be done at all and if unskilled labor wasn’t so cheap maybe we wouldn’t do it very often. You can learn to use a leaf blower in about thirty seconds.  We don’t need more of those things. We are better off with people with useful skills. Some jobs - such as leaf blowing - are worth less than zero. I have discussed the value of doing nothing (with specific reference to leaf blowing) here & here.

Anyway, the AEI event gave me something to think about.  I will have to buy the book and read the details. I have to say – once again – that we are really lucky to have these kinds of events offered free or cheaply to anybody with the inclination to listen. 

February 06, 2010

Ronald Reagan's Birthday

http://johnsonmatel.com/2010/February/Ronald_Reagan.jpgToday is Ronald Reagan’s birthday and I was trying to decide whether he was the greatest president of the 20th Century. I decided that FDR edged him out, but only because Roosevelt lived in more interesting times. Both presidents presided over inflection points in American history and both responded well to circumstances they faced.

After a while all presidents belong simply to the American people. That is why I can put Reagan and Roosevelt in the same category. The fact that Reagan undid many of the things Roosevelt had wrought does not affect the analysis. Roosevelt did things appropriate for the 1930s & 1940s, things that helped make American prosperous for decades. But nothing lasts forever and even the most effective solutions ossify and break apart with time. By the 1980s the appropriate thing for Reagan to do was change them. Solutions must be appropriate to the circumstances.

By the end of the 1970s, most people could see something was wrong. Stagflation was sitting on the economy like a raven. The old nostrums no longer produced desirable results. Even Jimmy Carter recognized this. It was Carter who deregulated important industries such as trucking & airlines. (Carter also did a lot to deregulate the financial industry. While we may see that as unwise now, it was appropriate for the times.)

But in 1980, Americans wanted something new and better, true change not mere adjustment. This is where Reagan came in. He was an immensely popular president, who actually won a majority in the three man race in 1980 and was reelected with nearly 59% of the popular votes when he carried every state except Minnesota. His opponents did not (and still do not) understand him. To them he was just an amiable dunce.

Recent scholarship has enhanced Reagan's reputation as an independent thinker and debunked the disinformation of the time that Reagan was fed his lines, like the actor he had been. However, Reagan himself seemed comfortable with their assessments.

Like Roosevelt, whom Oliver Wendell Holmes described at a man with "second-class intellect" but a "first-class temperament.", letting others underestimate him allowed Reagan to disarms, cajole and co-opt all those smart guys who would rather be correct than right. Now that we have access to Reagan’s hand written notes we can see that his ideas were based on his extensive reading and experience. He was a one man think tank, but he understood that there is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit.

Ronald Reagan led a remarkable life. He was no child of privilege and his lifeguard job & diploma from Eureka College hardly impressed the elites. We can see the development of his character from his time as a New Deal Democrat, to the time when faced down communists in the Screen Actors' Guild (Reagan was the only president who had been a union leader), to his getting to know the country as spokesman for GE, to his political career and election as president.

He was the right man for the times. Inflation raged at more than 13%. Unemployment reached more than 10% some months. The Soviet Union was on the march. Energy prices were spiking. The America we envision in our nightmares is what we actually experienced in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  (We still have not reached those levels of unemployment and we have essentially no inflation at all.)  Ronald Reagan's presidency marked a turning point for our country. It really was morning in America. He was a great man and a great American.

The photo, BTW, is Alex in 2003 with a life-sized statue of Ronald Reagan at the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City. 

February 05, 2010

Telecommuting and Snow Days

Snow in Provedence Park HOA

I gave my staff the option to telework today, anticipating the dreadful white monster said to be slouching toward us and expected to blanket Washington with 16-24 inches of wet snow by tomorrow morning. (The record snowfall in Washington is 28 inches, set in 1922.  If you want to follow the storm's progress the hashtag is #snowpocalypse.) I did that yesterday morning. Soon after, we got a notice telling us that telecommuting should be encouraged.  Good.  Now we got a further notice telling us that the government employees will get four hours early dismissal and this goes for teleworkers too. Not good. I know this is done in the spirit of fairness and of course we will comply with the directive.  I know that I will sound like a scrooge, but it really doesn’t make sense.

Presumably we are giving people four hours off so that they can flee the confines of Washington before they are frozen in place by the fierce winter storm. This is smart, especially around here where we are dependent on transportation systems that seem especially sensitive to weather.  But our telecommuting decision has already addressed that problem for those working from home.  They are already safely hunkered down in their warm cocoons and don’t need those four hours to come safely home.  If it were up to me, I would just let them work the full day.

I have long been a supporter of telecommuting and encourage it to the greatest extent possible. I fought to protect and extend telecommuting when I ran the IIP-Speaker office and have written in support. It is good for morale, the environment and productivity where appropriately employed. But telecommuting is one of those things precariously balanced on a slippery steep slope and it starts the downward slide to perdition when it transitions from being a mutually beneficial working arrangement to a type of defined right for an employee.

Social pressures weaken when employees are away from their bosses and colleagues. Working alone requires a lot more self-discipline than working where everybody can see you. There is significant temptation to use telecommuting as a type of semi-vacation day. That is why telecommuting is not for everybody and why it can never become a right.  A few people will abuse it and – sorry for the cliché – ruin it for everybody. Managers have to maintain an arbitrary power over telecommuting, i.e. we have to have the authority to call telecommuters at a moment’s notice and change or assign different work.  It is also important to specify that if telecommuters cannot do the work from home, they must make other arrangements.  In other words, you cannot claim equipment failure as an excuse. The telecommuter has MORE responsibility at home than he/she has at work.  Responsibility is a price of the freedom and flexibility of telework. 

I have a simple kind of karma rule for life. If things are not too big a difference, I call them equal.  My analogy is the vending machine. If I put my money in and the machine rips me off, I don’t complain.  On the other hand, if it gives me too much change, I don’t try to give it back.   It is just too much effort to care very much and if you care only in one direction, you are being dishonest.

Work and trust are similar two-way propositions. I don’t complain when co-workers take a little extra time at lunch and don’t expect complaints when people have to stay a little longer to finish work.  As a worker, I am actually in favor of leaving a little more on the table, i.e. I try to put a little more effort in than I think I “need” to. Since I assume that I overestimate my contribution (as we all do) this probably makes it objectively about fair. Most people are okay with that, but there are always a few bad apples who try to take as much as they can and give back little or nothing.

I learned these things from hard experience, BTW.  I will give one example. A few years ago, I couldn’t get in touch with one of my telecommuters for a couple of days. When I finally found him, he told me that his phone and computer had gone down and thought that was a good excuse.   When I asked him what he had done during those two days, he just repeated that he had been unable to work.   I think he was lying about the phone and computer, but that didn’t matter as much as the demonstratable result that he didn’t work for two days.  I made him take those two days as annual leave and took away his telecommuting privileges until he come guarantee that his equipment would work. 

There was much gnashing of teeth and some people thought that I was unfair and arbitrary. I would say it was indeed arbitrary, but it was very fair. I further believe that if managers ever lose the power to be arbitrary in this manner, that telecommuting is doomed to become something like those jobs in the old Chicago political machine, where people showed up for their city jobs only to collect their paychecks.

Returning to my original thought, there is no reason to give telecommuters four hours off. This would be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate why telecommuting is such a good thing. As I wrote in the original linked posting  telecommuting makes our organization more robust and less susceptible to the caprices of nature. We should revel in that, savor the success, not throw it away in a misguided show of magnanimity. It violates the social contract and just doesn’t make sense.   

February 04, 2010

Snowy Cracks in the Façade of Civilization

Bread sold out in anticipation of snow at Safeway in Vienna, VA  

This year has been especially cold and there has been more snow than usual. The snow in December filled and exceeded last year’s whole year averages. It looks like we are going to fill this year’s quota by the end of next week.

Northern Virginia does a good job of keeping the streets clear – too good, IMO.  The snow is supposed to start tomorrow morning, but the crews are out already “pre-treating” the roads with salt so that the initial snow falls will melt and there won’t be that crust when the plows go through.

Of course, Virginia has a kinder climate. The temperatures might drop below zero after a snowfall in Wisconsin or Minnesota.  This literally freezes in ice and snow. In Virginia you can be pretty sure that it will get fairly warm soon enough after even a heavy snowfall the warm sun will hit the road surface and melt off whatever the salt and plow missed.  

Nevertheless, the thought of snow fills Washingtonians with dread and makes them question their very survival.  I went to Safeway today for routine shopping. The place was packed and people were stocking up on necessities. One old guy scooped up a dozen packages of baloney.   Bread was gone.  As you can see in the picture, we managed temporarily to produce Soviet style conditions.

It is silly.In the worst case scenario the snow will tie us down for two days.Even then, the paralysis will not be complete. Who in our modern and prosperous society has a cupboard so bare that he cannot go for a day or two w/o shopping. You can actually go longer than that w/o eating at all and I have not seen many people these days who couldn't live off their fat for longer than that. 

Shopping bags 

The lines at the checkouts were long. I got into a line that was for the self-checkouts. I didn't want to use them because I had a fair amount but I also didn't want to get into another line, so I did my own.  It was a problem.  I use my own shopping bags. I got them ten years ago and they are still like new. They are much easier to pack and they are eco-friendly. As I recall they are made from recycled plastic from old bags. But they make life hard at the self checkout. The self checkout wants you to use their bags and gives you a hard time if you don't.  It also evidently weighs your purchases and when I put a new bag of my own on the scale, it thinks I am stealing something.  I felt sorry for the people behind me, but people were cheerful despite my ineptitude and the dread of snow. The clerk had to reset my counter a couple of times, but I got through.

Rumors, Conspiracy Stories & Disinformation

My colleague and friend Todd Leventhal has written a paper about conspiracy theories and disinformation, which I include at this link.  I recommend you read it.   Todd is one of the foremost experts in this field and unlike many who study it only academically; Todd has been in the trenches. 

I first became aware of Todd in the 1980s when I was assigned to Brazil.  Those were still Cold War years and despite – maybe because of – glasnost the KGB was particularly active in spreading lies and planting stories in media worldwide. I  had to address lots of Soviet disinformation in the my local media.  Todd’s information helped me smack down at least some of the silliness.  

Especially troubling and pervasive was the story cooked up by the by KGB that the U.S. had created the AIDS virus as a bioweapon. The story still resurfaces from time-to-time.   It was fairly easy to debunk, since there were so many inconsistencies in the time-lines and the biology involved, but most of those who pass along conspiracy theories are not very bright or they are malicious, so that facts have less impact on them than you might imagine.  Nevertheless debunking these things early and often limits their spread.  It is like pulling weeds in a garden. It is not much fun and you are never done, but you have to do it.

Read the paper.  Todd discusses why and how rumor spreads.   Of course, false information often proliferates in the same ways that accurate information does and we have to be self-aware enough to understand that much of what we believe at any one time is not accurate.  So just thinking about these things in the way Todd does is a useful therapy for the hubris that we self-designated smart guys (wise guys?) often suffer.  It is also useful to recall that false information often seems to make more sense than truth, since the lies can be modified to make a more coherent narrative.

There is a consistent human tendency to believe that big results must have had big causes. When a great leader is killed by a lone-gunman, we almost instinctively inflate the assassin to the size of his target.  This kind of mental matching is usually unwarranted and it is not harmless, since it elevates little villains to iconic status and helps make political violence more successful.

Anyway, I will pass along to Todd any comments you want to make.   It is worth reading his paper.

Talking to the Dead

Shadow in the snowI am listening to a great “Teaching Company” series on Western Literature.   (BTW – you never have to pay full price for these things.  They always go on sale.)  Western literature traditions are a little out of style these days, which is a shame because the great literature really does speak to us across the centuries.   A good education has to include some knowledge of the classics and nothing can become a classic until it has been well-known enough for a long enough time to influence thought and literature in a broad sense.   In other words, no matter how great something written a couple of years ago may be, it cannot have the power of older literature.   Maybe it is a future classic, but it is not a classic yet.

Literature extends influence beyond the grave

The guy giving the lectures explained that literature is a way of talking to the dead and getting an intergenerational perspective.  I was thinking about that as I drove down to the farm last weekend.   I was listening to “Infotopia,” by Cass Sunstein.   He was talking about markets, in the broad sense to include markets for attitudes and ideas and how they aggregate the opinions and attitudes of many minds.  Literature is like that.    He mentioned that the great economist Fredrick Hayek had contended that traditions are a type of market too and you have to be careful changing established relationships, since they are essentially long-term distilled experience, a record of how people adjusted and adapted to problems over the years.   Edmund Burke made a similar observation about morality.   I did too.  When I wrote my note Found in Translation I didn’t directly recall my literature professors or Hayek or Burke, but don’t doubt that is where the ideas originated.   One of the benefits of a liberal education is that you learn all these things and if they sink in early enough and deep enough you come to think of them as your own.   There not any really new ideas; just restatements of and new compilations. 


The funny thing is that those w/o the “useless” liberal education often believe they thought them up for the first time.   And they often get away with it.  Many best-selling authors and highly paid speakers recycle old stuff.  I suppose they sometimes do it consciously, other times not.    You tend to get the classics in the watered down version.  I remember reading the science fiction “Foundation Trilogy” by Isaac Asimov.  I recognized it back then as a allegory of the fall of the Roman Empire.  What I didn’t get at the time was how closely the second foundation tracked with Boethius on the consolation of philosophy. Asimov was an educated man, so I think he did it on purpose.   Generations of Sci-Fi fans have essentially read Boethius.    

BTW – I first came met Boethius way back in 1975. You can go through college w/o ever coming into contact with him at all, since he has largely "fallen out of the cannon."  I got to know him when studying Chaucer.  Boethius was a much bigger deal in the Middle Ages than he has been more recently and if you study the philosophy surrounding Chaucer's writings, you run into Boethius. I mostly forgot about him for the last ... oh thirty years. I was reminded of the details of his death by the audio program.  It was dreadful, but I guess it helped secure his position as a martyr.  After he fell afoul of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric and was executed by having wet leather straps wrapped around his head. The straps contracted as they dried and crushed his brain. It must have been very unpleasant and it is an example of man’s inhumanity to man. What kind of guy even thinks of that?  I mean really, was there a bunch of guys sitting around thinking of novel uses for wet leather straps and ones gets the eureka moment?   Well, hey, we can use these leather straps to wrap this guy’s head.

Old literature and new persuasion

I am thinking of “new” media and the arts of public diplomacy persuasion in my last couple of posts, since I am doing the FSI course on that subject, but I think this fits right in.   Consider the persistence of influence of great literature and how it is so useful to have a compete repertoire of literary images, motifs and metaphors.   After all, not only are they time-tested but they also lurk in the subconscious of our culture waiting to be revealed.  It is a good lesson in this ostensibly fast-changing world that some things move slowly but have profound influence and create sustainable structure and technologies of the mind.

And the delivery mechanism is very much new media. I get these lectures over the Internet and download them onto my I-pod.  This I-pod is smaller than a matchbox, yet can probalby hold a full college curriculm of courses and lectures, along with suplimentary texts. Sweet.  But how does that delivery method change how the classics are received and how about who receives them?  An old guy like me is unlikely to get them from a college professor standing in front of him.  The whole relationship to knowledge is changing.  That is new media.

Geographically Local and Dispersed Local Communities


Our communication goal is to reach targeted audiences with content and delivery methods appropriate for them. This often conforms well to what Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said about all politics being local and local has usually meant geographically local. Far reaching media made a dent on this localism long ago, but more recent developments have the potential to essentially erase localism in geography. However, it may be replaced by an even more homogenous localism of habits and ideas. 

Diasporas & international chattering classes

Supra-national groups have always played a disproportionate role in international politics.   Diaspora communities of Jews, Greeks, Chinese, Armenians and many others have often had more in common and identified more strongly with members of their diaspora communities in other countries than they did with the phyically closer people in their countries of residence. There has long also been an international chattering class, made up of intellectuals and expatriates who see themselves as part of a wider regional or world community. This has been going on for a long time and we have adapted well in many cases to reaching these groups. 

Local need not mean nearby

The new media has facilitated the creation of new “local” communities very much like diasporas or international intellectuals, but united by less abiding characteristics and more by sometimes transient common interests and socials media.  No matter how esoteric an interest, you can usually find among the billions of people in the world a sufficiently large number of likeminded people to form a community.

Let’s take the example of a surprising community.    “The Big Lebowski” was released in theaters in 1998 to a lukewarm response.   It barely broke even in the U.S. and had it been released a couple decades earlier, it would have fallen into the memory hole and been generally unavailable except on a few college campuses.  But in the Internet age nothing is unavailable and “The Big Lebowski” acquired a cult following.   Now there is a Lebowski community.  You can market to that community and you can reach them with particular phrases.   No geographically local community could sustain this, but a media local community clearly can.

If a nation is a group of people who have common experiences, believe common myths and share common stories, what does it mean if virtual communities supplant geographical ones?

Yeah, well. The Dude abides.

Geography has not become unimportant.   On the contrary, people are often sorting  themselves geographically based on their habits, lifestyle preferences and even their political beliefs.  Fairfax, County Virginia is separted from Montgomery County, Maryland by a about a hundred yards of river water.  The topograhy is similar.  They same sorts of plants grow in both places.  They are part of the same metro area. Median incomes diverge very little.  They have similar distributions of minority populations and the educational attainments of both populations are almost identical, yet people notice signficant differences in attitudes and behaviors and these factor into some home buying decisons.  But geography is no longer the destiny it was in the past.   There is another layer on top of the physical geography (although I bet Macs sell relatively better than PCs in Maryland than they do in Virginia.)  It is possible for someone to live in one place but have most of his friends and most of the things that influence him spread all over the world.   These are also local communities that we can identify and benefit from addressing.   

February 03, 2010

Re-defining the Human Space

My colleague Bill May made a good point during our recent talk at FSI about Edward R. Murrow’s fabled last three feet when he explained that his kids have virtual friends that they have never met in person and may never meet in person.  But they are still friends.  They still influence each other.  They have entered Edward R. Murrow’s three feet range but they have done so electronically.   

Putting the human space in context

Let’s update Murrow and maybe put his statement in context.   Of course, the social media didn’t exist in his time as it does today, so he was talking only about broadcast media when he said electronic media.  He was right back then and he is right today – if we talk about broadcasting.   

The three feet idea refers not to physical presence but to human engagement.   Engagement w/o physical presence was nearly impossible in Edward R. Murrow’s time; it has become easy to do today.  So we should modify the three-foot-theorem, but not abandon it.   And Murrow’s admonition about overestimating the reach of electronic media still applies.

You can't have a two-way relationship with a million friends ...

The key is engagement and engagement still requires human interaction.   I have previously written about the Dunbar number, which postulates that individual human beings cannot maintain meaningful contact with more than something like 150-250 people.  There just is not enough time in the day and we don’t have the cognitive power to do more.   Even if you could keep millions of relationships straight, the recipients might object.   Most people like to think that their friends care about them.   How much can a guy with a million friends care about any one of them?   There has to be some kind of sorting.

... but maybe machines can

There is a qualification, however. People are increasingly comfortable interfacing with machines and artificial intelligence.  For example, I feel I have a relationship with something like Amazon.com, even though I am certain that no human at Amazon.com knows my name or cares about me as a person. Amazon.com has a very good algorithm which figures out what I like by comparing my previous purchases to those of others. Google does a similar thing with search.   

Kids love their teddy-bears

They are just making comparisons and projections based on the past behavior and revealed preferences, but it sure seems like human intelligence. And just like the kid who personifies his teddy-bear, I have to admit that I have personified Amazon.com, Charles Schwab, the Nature Conservancy and many of the other organizations that play these kinds of personalization games with me. I like to think that there are humans behind all this, but I don’t think there are.   Or more correctly, the humans are also part of this personalization machine.  If I call an actual person at Charles Schwab, they are very friendly and they know a lot about me – BECAUSE of the relationship we both have with the algorithm.  This is not real human contact.

Does human interaction have to be with humans?

The implications are both comforting and frightening and public affairs professionals have to pick up both ends of this stick.  Some “human” transactions can indeed be put on autopilot and the interactions may actually improve.   I prefer to do my banking, travel arrangements and much of my shopping online and would rather interact with a computer database than with a person.   But that goes only for things I already understand. I still trust humans more when I am making unfamiliar decisions.  We need both.

The test of artificial intelligence is how long it takes before you know that there is not another human on the other side of your conversation.  As technology improves, it takes us longer to know and we care less when we find out.  The machine has an advantage over us: it never forgets.  That means it can recognize long-term trends and patterns we might miss in ourselves and others. They say that a good friend is someone who sometimes knows you better than you know yourself. Welcome to the new world.

February 02, 2010

Second Draft of History

cobra statues in Egypt 

If journalism is the first draft of history, some of the stuff that appears on the new media is like notes jotted on the back of a napkin.   How can anybody make sense of this cacophony of contradiction?   You can’t, actually.  Events don’t make sense until they are put into a narrative.   It is true that journalists usually get the first shot at constructing the narrative, but their perspective is limited because they don’t know how the story will end.    They usually don’t even have all the current parts and don’t understand the interrelationships.   But you have to start someplace.

The first ones to get the story out often have an advantage in shaping narratives because once you have heard a story with facts arranged in particular ways it is hard to see it any other way.   And sometimes the facts can be influenced by an information cascade, where each subsequent person is influenced  with the one before until everybody thinks everybody else agrees on a formulation that might not be true in detail and sometimes not even true in general.   That is why pressure groups and politicians are so enthusiastic about getting their talking points accepted early.

But it doesn’t end there.   Subsequent events often change the interpretation of earlier ones.   Time may be linear, where causes must precede effects, but memory is not and so perception is not and history is not.   Beyond that, truth matters and investigations and comparisons help find more truth (although I don’t think we ever arrive at THE truth, we can get closer if we work at it.)

So what is the second draft of history?  It traditionally consisted of memoirs & the results of academic seminars.  Henry Kissinger's "White House Years" or the various Bob Woodward books are other examples.  I think what we are seeing more and more today are television documentaries setting at least the intermediate narratives.   Programs like PBS Frontline are the obvious example, but lately more pervasive are the kinds of things you see on “History Channel” or “The Military Channel.”  These are often appreciated by specialists of those really interested in the facts in question, so they have greater staying power than things aimed at more general audiences.

I have been watching what I think is a rewrite of the Iraq war narrative.   The “first draft” featured U.S. troops suffering confused in a confusing environment in a war they couldn’t win.   The truer narrative that I see coming out in specialty publications and some military documentary programs is that the Iraq experience was difficult but ultimately successful counter insurgency campaign.  It doesn’t discount or overlook the mistakes, but accounts for them in context.  My guess is that MOST people still believe the old narrative, but most people really don't care that much.  The people who really care enough to find out are the ones that understand the revised one and ultimately, that revised narrative is the one that will stick after the ephemera is passed.

So in the end it is not only numbers or precedence that counts but also intensity of interest or maybe demonstrated accuracy and consistency with other contemporary and subsequent events. When we want to find out about past events, few of us go to old newspapers. We look for near contemporary analysis and this second draft of history becomes what we (a little loosely) call primary sources. And those sources shape the narrative ... usually.

Around 1274 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II fought a battle with the Hittites at Kadesh, which is in what is now Syria.  The Egyptians wrote the history and Ramses left an impressive monument to his victory.   It is the earliest example we know of an attempt to set a narrative.   Most historians don’t believe Ramses, but archeological evidence is inconclusive.   The Egyptians subsequently pulled back from the region.   So even more than 3000 years after the event, the precise narrative is still in dispute. The bottom line is that no matter who won that day, the Hittites got to keep the region.   Of course, you don’t find many Hittites around anymore.  There are still Egyptians, but they have little in common with the Ramses variety.  Astonishingly, some of us still care.

Hosting by Yahoo!